PICTURE THE scene: it's dark, the tramontane's howling (that's the Languedoc equivalent of the Provençal mistral, the freezing, mind-numbing north wind that screeches down from the massif central), anyone with any
PICTURE THE scene: it's dark, the tramontane's howling (that's the Languedoc equivalent of the Provençal mistral, the freezing, mind-numbing north wind that screeches down from the massif central), anyone with any sense is cosied in by the fireside, blizzard can't be far off, scurrying whirligigs of leaves swirl past, branches crack and twigs snap in the neighbouring woods, lean wolves howl hungrily (no, not really, I made that bit up) - and what am I doing?
I'm trying to light the barbecue.
It's an ordinary charcoal one, with a spherical body and lid, mounted on a trolley. I bought it several years ago, to replace our previous Weber barbecue which blew away one night (see above) in a storm. It was priced at Intermarché, our local supermarket, at 200 euros, then about £150. I didn't do anything about it, but when a couple of months later, well into the summer, it was reduced to 160 euros I went for it. The following spring exactly the same model was displayed at 80 euros, then about £60. Made in China, of course, probably by a company called whatever the Mandarin is for ha ha, suckers.
Actually, the problem the other night wasn't so much lighting the barbecue as trying to keep the ferocious tramontane draught at a level where the charcoal didn't become white hot and melt the grill. In fact the fire got hot very quickly, the steak was done - by torchlight - to a turn in no time and I was able to douse the glowing charcoal with the garden hose I always keep handy when barbecuing.
The question is, of course, what was I doing outside on a midwinter night barbecuing steak?
TOWARDS THE end of last spring Josephine made an appointment to see a Montpellier acupuncturist who had been recommended by a friend as being a bit of a miracle worker. Josephine had been complaining for a long time about several conditions not unusual in someone who won't see 25 again, back pain, indifferent circulation, 'heavy' legs, some digestive discomfort, you get the picture. The acupuncturist, fully accredited and working within the French national health system, listened carefully, stuck his needles in all the right places and recommended a complementary diet, which he personalised for her.
(Popular wisdom in the UK and USA suggests that they don't need diets in France, because French food is low on fats and therefore the French (and particularly Frenchwomen) are naturally slim. This is rubbish. The French consume enormous amounts of fats. Think of all those cheeses, for one thing. And the butter-rich croissants and pains au chocolat. Then there's all the charcuterie, all those varieties of sausage and cured meats that you can't start a meal without. Then there's pure 100% fat like foie gras. What they don't eat a lot of is sugar.)
The acupuncturist's régime included features of some classic diets, Atkins, Hay, Mayo Clinic, Scarsdale and so on. But the main thrust of the diet was to dictate combinations of certain foods at each meal which avoided conflict in the digestive system, and Josephine and the acupuncturist (whom I'm tempted - quite unjustly, because he's very good - to call Dr Acula, 'acula' being dog-Latin for a little needle) very cleverly adapted it to include what's available locally. Mediterraneanised it, if you like.
There are basic rules. No alcohol. No snacking. All vegetables and salads may be seasoned with olive oil. Lean meat only. Tea and coffee without milk. Eat as much as you like of what you're allowed. Thereafter the diet unfolds on a fortnightly basis, and here's a short random sample:
Breakfast (every morning): Grapefruit - hard-boiled egg or ham - 0% fat cottage cheese - slice of brown bread - black coffee.
Friday - Midday: as much fruit salad as you like, slice of brown bread.
Evening: steak, celery, cucumber, tomatoes, black tea
Saturday - Midday: cold chicken, tomatoes, grapefruit, uncooked vegetables e.g. sliced carrot, celery, broccoli heads, lamb's lettuce, rocket
Evening: steak, cucumber, red pepper, courgette, radishes, tomatoes, black tea.
Sunday - Midday: 2 hard-boiled eggs, spinach, tomatoes, uncooked vegetables
Evening: large steak, salad.
Every evening Josephine starts her meal with a vegetable soup of her own concoction, a simmered broth of cabbage, broccoli, lettuce, spinach, chard, endive, leeks, you name it, to which she adds herbs, spices and salt.
She's been at it for several months now, and I can't remember recording a greater success story in ten years'-worth of Campbell's Diary. She's lost a lot of weight, and all those problems mentioned above have simply disappeared. She sleeps soundly. She's found energies she thought she'd lost. Stamina, too. She's anxious that in focussing on the diet I shouldn't forget the acupuncture, because the two go together, so here he is again: Bravo, Dr Acula! But nor must I forget Josephine's will-power: no wine, no cheese, practically no dairy products, very little starch, no confectionery, no sugars apart from naturally occurring ones like fructose.
She's now reached a base from which she can exercise a bit more freedom, the occasional glass of wine or mince pie, without any ill effect. However, rather like the distaste for tobacco some people get after they've given up smoking, she's says she's lost interest in any of the banned things, except maybe a little cheese now and again.
SO I expect it's clear now why I've put steak in bold type up there with the diet menu. Steak three nights running! This where the barbecue comes into its own, winter and summer, night or day, rain or shine, snow or gale. Josephine sometimes asks, very kindly, if I feel her diet has undesirable knock-on effects on what I eat. Not at all, I reply. I'm very fond of steak, but we certainly wouldn't be eating it several times a week if it wasn't for Dr Acula. It's an ill wind . . .even when that wind's the tramontane howling about your ears.