Peak Zucchini

P1080147September is the season for zucchini–courgettes in French. There are so many kinds, and so many ways to prepare them.

In the raw: Zucchini and chickpea salad

I’ve eaten zoodles (zucchini noodles) all my life. My grandma used to make a wonderful creamy tomato soup with zucchini noodles. No spiralizer for Grandma. She was all about the knife, the wooden spoon and the arm muscles, though I think she did have a mandoline. P1040187Following in her footsteps, use a mandoline to make fettuccini of 3-4 medium-size courgettes, about 6-8 inches long. (Grandma grew everything in her garden to size XXL, but you’d do well to avoid baseball-bat zucchini, with their big seeds.) Salt and let sit a while in a colander to soften them up and become more noodle-like. Rinse and pat off some of the water with a paper towel.

In a large bowl, mix the zoodles with a drained 15 oz. can of chickpeas (you can cook up a batch from dried, but that requires planning, whereas this recipe is quick and dirty), some chopped fresh herbs (parsley, mint, basil–your choice), a swirl of olive oil, a splotch of red-wine vinegar and some pepper. Because the zoodles were salted, taste before adding any more.

I’m usually of the opinion that more is more when it comes to salads, and I tend to include anything and everything that’s in the fridge. But I left this salad simple and it was delicious, the zucchini and chickpeas both being mild and not in combat for dominant flavor. I’ve also done it with halved cherry tomatoes, which add color.zucchini 2 kindsLes courgettes sont cuites

(Actually, the saying is “les carottes sont cuites”–meaning “all is lost” or “the jig is up.” I saw many dubious explanations for the origin of this phrase–dubious, because if one can’t spell correctly in a piece about etymology, well, les carottes sont cuites. Fortunately, the book Légumes d’hier et d’aujourd’hui–Vegetables of yesterday and today–says it’s because in a mix of root vegetables, carrots are the last to be done.)zucchini yellow roundThe first time I ever had French food was in a fancy restaurant in the Midwestern city where I grew up. I was still in high school, being high-falutin’ going there. I remember the white-washed brick walls, which were SO radical in the ’70s, the simple black furniture, and the zucchini. Considering I could peer through the windows and see that interior regularly over the years, I suspect that ALL I really remember about that meal is the zucchini. Simple matchsticks of zucchini, sautéed in butter. Nothing haute about it, but you need to use good butter (NOT margarine). The zucchini caramelize in the browned butter and then melt in your mouth.P1080742Here you have it:

Cut some small zucchini into matchsticks. You want smallish ones so they aren’t full of seeds. Count on at least one per person–they melt down. You can peel them, but that (1) has less nutrition, (2) is more work and (3) is wasteful (a future post is coming on a French cookbook about using peelings and scraps). The easiest way to make matchsticks is to first cut coins and then make little stacks of the coins and cut them into slivers.

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Know what this smells like? HEAVEN.

Brown a tablespoon or two of butter in a skillet. If your skillet is big and you have a lot of  zucchini, add more. When the bubbles subside, add the zucchini and stir. It should be hot  enough that the zucchini brown without getting mushy. Almost seared. That’s it. A little salt and pepper. A perfect side to any main.P1080750Yes, you can vary this by sautéeing minced garlic or onions before adding the zucchini. And you can add fresh or dried herbs, whether oregano, basil, parsley or rosemary. But sometimes, the simple version is a revelation, especially when the brown butter makes the zucchini sing.

May I add that the great Prosper Montagné, native of Carcassonne and author of the original Larousse Gastronomique, has a similar recipe in his book Les Delices de la Table that I translate here as closely as possible to word-for-word: cut three peeled zucchini into coins not too thin. Salt them and sauté in a skillet with butter. Let them brown well. Sprinkle with chopped parsley. Serve in a vegetable bowl (légumier).*

He goes on to note: Habitually, one sweats them by lightly sprinkling with salt, and one dredges the courgettes, as well as eggplant, in flour before sautéing them. We discourage this system. Zucchini and eggplant sautéed in oil or butter cook perfectly put into the skillet as they are. zucchini normalFar be it from me to argue. By the way, for those first chilly days of fall, check out this great zucchini soup recipe.

*Do you notice that there’s exactly one measurement in his recipe, and it’s three zucchini? But of indeterminate size. All the old recipes are like this!

 

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Journées de Voyeurism

IMG_4749During the second weekend of September, France opens the doors on many buildings that normally are off-limits, in honor of les Journées de Patrimoine, or Heritage Days. It is the perfect opportunity for the curious/nosy/antique-lovers to eyeball  how the French really live and work.

For example, I found my dream office, pictured above and below.IMG_4754Don’t you agree it meets all the criteria? Awesome chandelier? Check. Amazing drapes on French doors that open to Juliette balconies? Check. High ceilings and moldings? Check. Mega mirrors, gilt? Check. Silver candlesticks (in case the lights go out, probably)? Check. Herringbone floors with carpets? Check.IMG_4751Gigantic Aubusson tapestry that coordinates with the Empire (?? feel free to correct me) seating.

Sigh. I could be very productive in an office like this. It’s at the Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie, in the hôtel de Murat, an 18th century building. It was built by the family of a local judge, but the proprietors fled in 1792 during the Revolution and the property was confiscated. IMG_4767That includes their amazing library and its 13,206 books. In addition to the classics in French, Greek and Latin, there also are precious manuscripts dating back to the 14th century.

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The smell of a library is a heavenly perfume.
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View toward a courtyard. Perfect.

 

 

Check out the jib door covered with fake books!

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Today it’s a meeting room. With a very functional, not-of-the-époque folding table…and the typical French ingenuity for electrical wiring (look in the fireplace). IMG_4762

But that mantle! And the mantle clock!

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They don’t make ’em like they used to.

The stairwell was a work of art.

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Molding on the stairwell ceiling.
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All the right curves.
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Had I known that acorn was just screwed on I would have come prepared. Note: Phillips screwdriver.
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A modern, but not too, light fixture. I like the one in the office better.

We also visited the Palais de Justice. I didn’t get a shot of the biggest of the three courtrooms because a mock trial was under way. I got lost in the back and forth of the trial–dogs biting cows, a fight, a broken phone….my kid informed me afterward that the witnesses kept changing their stories. No wonder I was confused. The audience was full of nonchalantly chic French parents with their mostly teenage kids, everyone riveted by the proceedings. I have never seen such a concentration of good haircuts. IMG_4727

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Nice ceilings.
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Fancy above, but simplicity below.
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Marianne in another courtroom.
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One of three holding cells in the basement. Only two were empty; the third was full of books and document boxes! Our guide was a judge, who wore a simple black outfit with a fabulously vivid long jacket.

We also popped into the Musée des Beaux Arts. Most museums are free during the Heritage Days. I prefer to focus on the buildings that aren’t usually open to the public, rather than just avoiding a museum entry fee. Plus, we’ve been to the museum before. But we were walking in front of it, so we went inside.

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The plate on the back of a massive fireplace in the museum entrance.
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A pineapple this time! And a straight screw.
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These doors have seen better days. I love that they haven’t been fixed up, painted, or, worst of all, replaced.
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THAT’S a hinge worthy of the name.

The museum was actually purpose-built, in 1836. It isn’t huge and it doesn’t have big-name artists. I find that’s a plus–no crowds jostling for a photo of a painting (I understand wanting to get close to examine, but why a photo? just buy one at the gift shop!) or a selfie with a sculpture. People actually look at all the works, rather than passing over the “nobodies” in search of the Famous Artists. The benefits of Carcassonne–small and civilized.

Tell us your stories about les Journées du Patrimoine! Last year’s visit is here.

 

Strange Sightings

P1070266Have you ever lost your pants? Or a sock? Or a sweater? I am not talking about in wayward airbound baggage, nor in the laundry, but, say on a path in the woods, or a country road?

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Sock. Can’t blame the dryer.

Me either.

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More disturbing: underwear. I didn’t touch it!

Yet, I constantly come across articles of clothing that do not appear to have been tossed away on purpose. Is this some secret French fetish?

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A DIFFERENT pair of pants, far from the pair at the top of the post.

What were the owners of these items thinking?

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Remains of a sweater (striped).

Maybe it’s best not to know.

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I thought this was a tea towel, but then spied buttons. A top?

These pieces were seen over a couple of weeks over a five-ish kilometer radius, each item alone.

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Why?
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How do they change the channel now?

Not just clothes, either. Can somebody tell me why one would take a TV remote on a small road through vineyards, and then leave it there?

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Not clothing but still WTF: a paint can? bucket? Not on any road or path.

Speculation about the stories behind these items is encouraged in the comments.

Desire to Inspire

SONY DSCDesire to Inspire, one of my favorite blogs, featured our apartments! We are so excited to be part of such a collection of gorgeous interiors and exteriors. Desire to Inspire lives up to its name. All the pretty things. A cornucopia of eye candy. Beautiful homes and work spaces from around the world.SONY DSCThey even did two posts. They chose our best photos, of course, so click over to see them. The back apartment, aka L’ancienne Tannerie on Airbnb, is here. The front apartment, aka La Suite Barbès on Airbnb, is here.

Here are some other shots, professionally done by Paul Catoir, who runs Clic Clac photography in Charleroi, Belgium.

We’ll start with L’ancienne Tannerie.

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Yes, we ate the delicious pastries after the photo session.
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The ceilings are so high it’s hard to include the chandeliers. And the crystal one in this room is so pretty. Desire to Inspire used a great shot with the chandelier, mirror and the moldings.

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Back apt living mantle
Mantle detail.

On to my favorite room, the kitchen.

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We ate all that stuff, too. Yes, before the pastries.

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Every single renter has been crazy about the bathroom. Again, more shots on Desire to Inspire.SONY DSC

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The sauna.

The bedroom is exceptionally quiet and stays cool in the summer, thanks to all those two-foot-thick stone walls.SONY DSC

There’s also a small bedroom with a twin bed. It’s much cuter in person.SONY DSCSONY DSC

Now let’s cross the landing to la Suite Barbès. SONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSC

The shot above is from the entry-slash-kitchen.

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The space above the kitchen is the “harnais,” which was used back in the day to store horse harnesses. Now it’s furniture limbo.
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Opposite direction.

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The bedroom is gigantic–35 square meters, or 376 square feet. You can see the before and after here.SONY DSCSONY DSCSONY DSC

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I love that mirror in the bathroom. And that pedestal sink. And the tile. 

And in the bathroom, another huge shower:SONY DSC

Check out Desire to Inspire on Instagram, too. We’re also on Instagram (although I’m mostly a weekend poster).

We have just gotten started renting out the apartments, and all the visitors have been so nice. It has turned out to be really fun to welcome people from around the world, and to give them a place to stay that is unmistakably French.

And the real reason to visit Carcassonne:

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La Cité from Pont Vieux

Another Adorable French Village

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Is there no end to the prettiness? Let’s wander through the overwhelming charms of Bize-Minervois, a village of about a thousand people in the Aude department of the south of France.

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People tasting coffee (we don’t just have wine here; there’s locally roasted coffee!) in the courtyard of the former royal fabric factory, today home to gîtes.

The excuse for checking out Bize (which delightfully sounds like la bise, or the French custom of greeting by kissing on each cheek, though some do more than two–going up to three or four kisses, and starting on left or right depending on how far north) was “Tastes en Minervois,” a mix of gastronomy and wine, with some art and music thrown in for spice.IMG_4389The areas around the wine-tastings had plenty of people, but otherwise, the tiny village mostly let one see its true colors. (We were badly organized and arrived after the food had been served.)IMG_4609IMG_4395IMG_4604

For example, beautiful doors.

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This one makes me think of the huge lengths of fabric of the village’s past as a textile center.
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Fit for a Hobbit.

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A foulerie was a place for pressing textiles. The snake theme is thanks to the Carndinal de Bonzi, who was archbishop of nearby Narbonne in 1673 and who originally hailed from Milan (I know, you’re saying, oh, of course! The symbol of Milan-based Alfa Romeo cars is a snake eating a person).

The windows weren’t so shabby either.IMG_4593IMG_4576IMG_4658

There was cuteness and postcard-picturesqueness at every turn.IMG_4399IMG_4406IMG_4407IMG_4581IMG_4655

The town nestles, warily, next to the Cesse river, which usually is tiny but which, as you can see by its bed, can get a little crazy.IMG_4637

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Local swimming hole

That reminds me of a riddle: what can run but never walks, what has a mouth but never talks, what has a bed but does not sleep, what has a head but never weeps?

A river.IMG_4585

The town of Bize went all-out decorating. There were numerous spots to kick back and taste wine or food. The one above had “furniture” made from tires. And the décor was street signs. I thought the sign, affaissement was hilarious–it sounds like afessement, which isn’t a word but if it were it would mean to lay your butt down (fesse is buttock); affaissement is what happens when a pile of something like sand or rocks kind of slumps down. And slumping down seems to be the same outcome as afessement. I ran it by some native French speakers, who thought it was pretty funny, but the Carnivore informed me that it was completely wrong because the French don’t go for puns like that. I’m not so sure.

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Mandatory pallet furniture.

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But as lively as the festivities were, the best parts of Bize were the tiny lanes, the quirky old buildings, the clearly sleepy ambiance.

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No fear of traffic. But what happens if the fridge goes out and you need a new one delivered?

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Note the parking spot outlined in white (big enough for a Smart), and the yellow no-parking line…as if! I bet if a car is parked in that spot, it’s no easy thing to get around that curve. Anyway, a car? Here? Maybe every few days.

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The planters for the climbing vines!
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Undoubtedly a fine institution.

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That wasn’t all. On the way I kept pulling over to bark at my photographer/offspring to take pictures of various beautiful things. Even though all the villages around here have similar levels of cuteness, it’s foreign enough to me despite all the years of living here that I go ga-ga over it every time. Tant mieux.

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Mailhac, on the way to Bize. You see? Where does it stop, all this picturesqueness?

Little Treasures

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You could call it shopping the closet. We bought much of the furniture along with the apartments we renovated in Carcassonne. And in closets and cupboards there have been lovely finds.

The embroidered screen now stands in front of a fireplace. It’s really exquisite. I suppose it was handmade–everything was, even just a couple of generations ago.

The wooden bowl, below, is big and heavy and certainly hand-carved. So much of the furniture has a grape motif. Appropriate for the region!carved-bowl

And this funny dish, shaped like a shell, very light, and painted by hand. What would such a dish have been used for? P1080589There’s a souffler for a fireplace.souffler

And this delicate lamp.lamp

We also found lots of books, mostly old school books of several generations. School back in the day must have been awfully rigorous. The pages of the history book below are half-consumed by footnotes. Enough to make the biggest history buff’s eyes glaze over.P1080591

Which is probably what led to notes like the ones below.

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Not the initials of any members of the family as far as I know. The 4 probably refers to the grade, the equivalent of 8th grade in the U.S.
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Greek to me….doodles tucked in the book.

There were books for all ages. How about this one: P1080596

The title translates as “While Laughing: Reading Without Tears.” One would hope so! It’s from 1930 and does away with the “old analytical method” in favor of the new “global method.” As illustrated below:P1080597

I’m not sure it accomplished its goals. It’s not exactly a laugh a minute. And how confusing to have to learn letters as printed and in cursive at the same time as trying to figure out the code of what they say.

Another book has vocabulary for items I don’t even recognize. What ARE those clippers? P1080598

However, it gives some great pronunciation points. Here, you have a list showing which “o” sounds are alike. It’s similar to a book I had in a French class back in the day, “Exercises in French Phonics,” by Francis W. Nachtmann. Excellent book, although pronunciation can’t be learned by books alone. It helps to also have a native speaker around to say the words correctly and then to point out how one has failed miserably to repeat them.

We also found another trove of old newspapers. It seems madame (or monsieur? their kids would have been pretty young) was thrilled by the Apollo 11’s moon landing on July 24, 1969. The papers show the extent to which it was big news, even in France profonde.P1080603P1080602P1080601P1080607

Ted Kennedy’s woes also warranted saving for posterity.P1080606

I was intrigued by a note about the weather. Perpignan had a record high of 36.9 Celsius, which comes to 98.4 Fahrenheit, while Carcassonne was at 33.2 Celsius, or 91.8 Fahrenheit. The all-time record for Carcassonne was during the 2003 heat wave, with 41.9 Celsius, or 107.42. That is definitely hot, and shows that the records are getting higher. Usually the average high temperature in summer is 28.6 Celsius, or 83.5 Fahrenheit–very pleasant.P1080605The finds reminded me of the book “A Paris Apartment” by Michelle Gable“A Paris Apartment” by Michelle Gable, which was based on the real story of a Parisian apartment that was left untouched for 70 years. Another book, in French, titled “Madeleine Project,” by Clara Beaudoux, is the true story of the author trying to figure out the life of the previous owner of the Parisian apartment she has bought–full of stuff.

We have found many small traces of the previous residents, some too personal too show. A torn bit of a photo. An electricity bill from 30 years ago. A Mary medal pinned to a mattress. I know the family endured tragedies, but I don’t know the details. In cleaning out a storage room, amid all manner of sports equipment, we found a wrapped present, itself wrapped up in sheets and stuffed into a box of clothes. I think it was too painful for them to go deal with, and too hard to let go. Even I was overwhelmed by emotion, their grief was so evident, despite decades of being shut away.

But I hope their trip to Nice was a happy one.

Wine Harvest

P1080694Today may be Sept. 1, but Monday is la rentrée–the great return to school, to work, to routine. For winemakers around this part of the south of France, the end of summer comes with le vendange, or grape harvest, and they are hard at it.P1080487At night, a welcome cool breeze slips through the open windows, along with the low growl of harvesting machines already toiling as early as three a.m. Wayward grapes stain the sidewalks and streets of the village. P1080474Within the time we’ve lived here, the harvest has gone from being all-hands-on-deck to being something that happens in our peripheral vision. The fête du village is always Aug. 15, a last fling before grindingly long days of harvesting. The village gym class didn’t start until after the vendange, because nobody had time for exercise when the vineyards were in full swing. Eventually, only two gym-goers were working with wine.

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This photo and the one just above were taken a while ago; these are all dark purple now.

French wine is celebrated for its quality, and rightly so. Sure, you can find some bad stuff, but that’s the exception, not the rule. The AOCs–appellation d’origine côntrolée, a kind of certificate of quality linked to geographic location–are a very safe bet. Each AOC has strict rules about what winemakers can and can’t do with their wines, including which cépages, or varietals, they can include.

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Can you spot the lonely vigneron tending the wires? Obviously from earlier this year.

Lots of people overlook the AOCs because they require some memory work. AOCs generally are blends of varietals, and the wines that are trendy tend to be monocépage, or single varietal, like Chardonnay or Cabernet sauvignon or Pinot noir. One AOC that’s monocépage is Burgundy, with Pinot noir for red and Chardonnay for white. As far as marketing, it’s easier to sell a Cab or a Syrah/Shiraz than a Minervois that’s predominantly one or the other, with some other varietals mixed in. That mix is the special cocktail, the individualism. When I was in the U.S., most wine stores offered only a few, well-known French options, and the shopkeepers would explain that AOCs were just too complicated for customers.

P1080704Let me tell you, nothing is easier.

Look at the bottle. If it has high shoulders, it’s in the style of Bordeaux, which are mostly Merlot and Cabernet sauvignon for reds. These are fuller, bolder wines. A local favorite for this style in Minervois is Domaine la Tour Boisée (which also produces wines, like 1905, in the Burgundy style).

P1080705If the bottle has sloping shoulders, it’s in the style of Burgundy, even if it doesn’t contain pinot noir. That means soft, complex wines. One of our favorite wineries is Château St. Jacques d’Albas, which uses a lot of Syrah in its red Minervois wines.

Around Carcassonne, one finds several AOCs: Minervois, Cabardès, Malpère, with Corbière and Limoux a bit farther. Minervois, Cabardès and Malpère are some of the smallest AOCs in France, made up mostly of very small, family wineries.

And so when things go badly, we see the long faces.

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Hit by frost.

Our winters are mild, and temperatures only occasionally drop below freezing at night. But this spring, frost struck low-lying areas a few times as late as April, devastating the vines just as the fruit was budding out.

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Big gaps.

A large field where some optimistic winegrower had planted new vines early in the spring turned into rows of shriveled dreams. Some plots that belonged to the ancient vigneron, who died about a year ago, were hit and tumbled into abandon. I suppose his son, no spring chicken himself, gave up on them.P1080476

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Lost cause.

Another plot nearby was completely dead and eventually torn up and plowed over. I met a worker pulling out the stakes that had held the wires for training the vines, and he said they would plant again later. Maybe.P1070939The piles of souches, or stumps,  look like heaps of bones, a cemetery of hope.P1080473The harvest this year is two weeks early because of the hot summer, but the output is expected to be 30% to 40% lower than last year. The wine is expected to be of excellent quality, however. So keep an eye out for Minervois 2017 (though in the meantime you would do well with 2016 and 2015 and 2014….)P1070946

Peppers in Paradise

P1080654Our kid has always eaten red peppers as if they were potato chips. Never refuse a kid who wants vegetables. (I guess potato chips are technically vegetables, but you know what I mean.)

While plain, raw peppers are crunchy and juicy and tasty, cooked peppers make for a colorful side dish. And this recipe, from Patricia Wells’ cookbook “Vegetable Harvest,” is a winner for entertaining because it can be made ahead and served hot or at room temperature. As Wells points out, leftovers are good as a sauce on pasta or polenta. They also freeze well, so don’t hesitate to make a lot.P1080653Red Peppers, Tomatoes, Onions, Cumin and Espelette Pepper, from “Vegetable Harvest” by Patricia Wells

2 tablespoons whole cumin seeds

4 red bell peppers (or a mix with yellow and orange–as long as they are the sweet kind)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

2 medium onions, peeled, halved, and thinly sliced (I used an enormous red onion, which is pretty)

1 teaspoon ground piment d’Espelette (substitutes: dried Anaheim chilies, ground mild chili pepper or paprika)

2 pounds tomatoes, cored and cubed but not peeled P1080648Toast the cumin in a small, dry skillet, shaking regularly because they can scorch quickly. About two minutes. Transfer to a plate to cool.P1080649Cut the cleaned peppers quarters and then into 1/8-inch-thick slices. P1080652Heat the olive oil in a large skillet and add the onions, cumin, piment d’Espelette and salt.  Cover and let it sweat over low heat for three to four minutes.

Add the peppers and tomatoes and cook, covered, over low heat until the peppers are soft and tender, about 30 minutes. I’ve made this recipe a lot, and I’ve reduced the tomatoes a little and cooked the peppers with the onions so they soften before adding the tomatoes toward the end. It makes the result a little less juicy/soupy.

By the way, I love, love, love this cookbook. I’ve made many of its recipes, and they are delicious but not difficult. And they all have a French flair.

 

Who Needs Whole Foods?

standWhy go to an air-conditioned supermarket when you can buy most of what you need from local producers under the shade of plane trees, and stop for a coffee or apéritif with friends at a café terrace afterward?

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Prunes are plums in French.

The Saturday morning market is the high point of my week. It’s a sensory cornucopia. It’s practical. It’s social. It’s the heart of la belle vie française. It’s part of the French savoir-vivre–knowing how to live. Because making your errands enjoyable, social moments of beauty and pleasure is the way to live the good life simply.beans

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Directly from the producer to the consumer, the sign says.

Many–not all–of the stands are local producers. That means the person who grew the food is standing there selling it to you. They increasingly are going bio, or organic, but it involves lots of paperwork that some don’t want to deal with. As a friend told me when I first arrived in Carcassonne, most of the people in the region are way too cheap to use a drop more fertilizer or pesticide than they absolutely have to and will go without whenever possible. So I don’t sweat the bio label and just stick to the locals.

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Garlic!

Although I might have a list of things I need, it’s short–along the lines of don’t forget garlic. Instead, the best way to shop the market is to listen to the market. It will tell you what’s in season.

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Earlier this summer, cherries. No more.
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Apricots arrive, overlapping with cherries and still around.
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Then come peaches and nectarines (white and yellow. We like the yellow ones). They’re still tasty and plentiful, therefore it’s still summer.

The other tip is to go early, which I often am guilty of not doing. You get the best choice, it’s less crowded, and it’s important not to hurry. Take the time to assess the produce, and also to assess the protocol of each stand. Some serve you and get riled if you touch anything. These usually have lines, and cutting will bring the wrath of the regulars down upon you. Others are a jostling jungle requiring you to reach between arms and torsos to get at the pile of produce and then to get the attention of the vendor to weigh it and to pay.

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Figs. So delicate. To avoid smashing them, just buy and shove directly into mouth.
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Figues longues d’août–long August figs

First, walk around the entire market. It’s the best way to gauge what is bountiful at the moment. The vendors usually align prices, but you might see that one has particularly good-looking beans, or another has a bumper crop of zucchini for a bargain.spices bagsspices cinnamonIf you say hello and smile, and if the stand isn’t too busy, the vendor will likely start up a conversation, or join in one if you initiate. That’s where magic happens, where you get a family recipe or a really good idea for dinner or a restaurant recommendation–sometimes from the vendor but sometimes from other market-goers picking out their produce next to you. And if the vendor likes you, you’ll be rewarded with a bunch of parsley as a gift, or an extra onion, or some such.

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Goat versions of popular cheeses. Note the two-month-old tomme on the right; there are different ages, all marked.

Many stands offer samples–taste the melon, the ham, the hard sausage, the cheese. A good way to discover. It’s how I learned that ugly flat peaches are amazing.

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Charlottes. Because there are MANY kinds of strawberries, all different.
currants
Currants from M. Fraise
blueberries
And blueberries from Ariège

I have a rollerbag for my purchases; they’re just too heavy to carry in baskets, and the car is parked blocks away. I start at the strawberry stand, because sometimes they sell out before the market ends at noon. Being a regular has its advantages–Bernard, the vendor, will hold my strawberries for me while I do my other shopping.

melon close
From Marseillette, a cute village near Carcassonne that had a big etang, or shallow lake. The water was drained in 1851 to reduce mosquitoes, and the land is particularly rich for farming rice and fruit.
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“Diablo” melons from Spain. I passed.

Next I try to buy the heavy stuff, like carrots and melons, that can withstand having the other produce piled on top. Then the fruit like nectarines and peaches, which are heavy but risk bruising. Then light but sturdy things like peppers or lettuce. Finally, the delicate items, with the tomatoes and then the strawberries on top. It means I ricochet around the market like a pinball, rather than circling it. Drives the Carnivore nuts.

potatoes
They taste like they’ve already been buttered.
onions
Still dirty. Good sign.
zucchini with flower
Hard-to-find, ephemeral zucchini blooms.
peas
Sweet peas…earlier this summer.

The other thing to appreciate at the market is the variety. Half a dozen kinds of artichokes. And zucchini. And tomatoes. And eggplant. Sometimes it’s aesthetic, but often there are real taste differences, and the vendor will explain if you ask. White eggplant, I recently learned, is milder and less bitter than the dark purple kind. And don’t get me started on the differences among varieties of tomatoes. Or strawberries.peppers many kindspeppers hot

eggplant 4 kinds
Four kinds here, almost black, paler purple, striped and white! Plus another below.

eggplant japanesePrices at the French market tend to be lower than at the supermarket; the farmers’ markets I’ve been to in the U.S. have often been a lot more expensive than the local supermarkets. The market produce isn’t as uniform, and it might still sport dirt or bugs from the field, but to me those are qualities, not faults. They are proof that it was grown without a lot of chemical intervention.

flowers
Potted and cut flowers
lavender
Lavender and wheat bouquets
escargots
Snails, 100 for €10, already starved for seven days in order to eliminate any toxins from their systems. Ready to cook, in other words.

When I first shopped at an outdoor market, in Africa, I learned to use my senses to pick produce. How does it feel? Firm? Soft? Unripely hard? How does it smell? The strawberry stand is smelled before it’s seen. As it should be. The best way to pick a pineapple (admittedly not grown locally) is to sniff it. I have no idea how to choose produce that’s wrapped–hidden–in plastic.

confit tomatoes
Sun-dried tomatoes
confit hibiscus
Candied hibiscus
confit kumquat
Candied kumquats

Every town and many villages have markets, and the days will be posted someplace in town (for example, signs saying no parking on X days for market). They’re always in the morning; you snooze, you lose (OK, some tourist spots have night markets. But forget about afternoon). Carcassonne’s central square, Place Carnot, has a small market on Tuesdays, a bigger one on Thursdays and the big blowout on Saturdays. It’s not just for fruits, vegetables, ham and cheese; there’s an indoor meat/cheese/fish market two blocks away, and a housewares/clothes market two blocks further. See you there.

charcut ham
Ham…just as well it’s wrapped up. But tastings are available.
charcut
Artisinal hard sausages

 

Charmingly Bookish Montolieu

IMG_4529Books, art, old buildings. In the south of France. The village of Montolieu, just 15 kilometers (nine miles) from Carcassonne, is intellectual AND adorable.IMG_4528Montolieu bills itself le village du livre (the village of books), with 17 bookstores for under 800 residents. Plus art galleries. Plus very cute cafés and restaurants. All nestled among tiny, car-free lanes and crooked stone houses. With jaw-dropping views.

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We arrived too late for lunch and too early for dinner… Note the lady sitting outside and reading at the end of the street.

Enough said. Let’s go for an afternoon stroll.P1080629

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For a little coolness, visit the basement. Everything for €2 (books).
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Local resident.

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A table in the middle of a street. Why not? Note the curtain on the door at the right (to keep out flies and mosquitos), and the clothesline along the wall. And the straightness of the walls, as witnessed by the rain spouts.

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Two-way street, barely big enough for one car.
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Public toilets, with poetry.

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A vending machine for organic vegetables. On the wall to the left of it is a pile of books. There were books sitting around everywhere.

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And finally, the views, over the Dure river. The village is in the Black Mountains, atop a hill that allowed for fortification (but was invaded by Vandals and Visigoths nonetheless). It was a stronghold of the Cathar religion, and later a center for textile manufacturing.

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Vertiginous terraced gardens overlooking….
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The Dure river.

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These folks also have a view. I wouldn’t want to have to fix those roofs.
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At the lookout point, a table with books for those who manage to take their eyes off the scenery.

I have lots more photos and will put some on Instagram, so check there, too. I’ll have to go back to visit the Manufacture Royale (royal factory, for textiles) and the book museum. A very worthy day trip from Carcassonne!P1080610