Franco-American-Italiano

P1080351I’ve had culture shock many times, but this one took the gâteau.

A few years ago, a restaurant was built on the edge of a parking lot of a Carcassonne strip mall. It was intriguing, because the whole strip-mall restaurant thing is not very French. As it rose, it felt as if it were a mirage transported from the the middle of America.

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Even thought it looks like Kansas, I’m telling you, Toto, we really aren’t in Kansas anymore. 

Yet, it turned out to be an Italian restaurant. In France. My kid had bugged me from the building’s foundations being poured that we HAD to go. When I first stepped inside, I had a hard time to speak French. English came out. It was stronger than any logic, because the throng waiting to be seated all were chatting in French. But my brain was telling me I had stepped into suburban U.S.A. It was the oddest thing.

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No idea how the funky light effect happened.

Parking lot location: check.

Non-commital modern yet somewhat Mediterranean architecture: check.

Upbeat pop music: check.

Soaring ceilings: check.

Roaring decibels: check.

Open kitchen to give us the impression of authenticity: check.

Mob of people waiting to be seated: check.

Where were we? Was it really Carcassonne? It certainly wasn’t French. It certainly wasn’t Italian–it was Italian as imagined by Americans. Except that the chain IS French: Del Arte is part of Groupe LeDuff, which was founded by the now-multibillionaire Louis LeDuff in 1976.

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Helpful photo of la Cité on the back side for those who are completely disoriented.

Groupe LeDuff started with la Brioche Dorée (the Golden Brioche), and has added other chains, including Bruegger’s (the bagel chain), Timothy’s World Coffee, Mimi’s Cafe, La Madeleine, among others. Almost 2,000 restaurants, in 90 countries.

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The neighborhood. There are several more stores, but the strip is hard to capture in one shot.

The food was OK. Not great, yet far from terrible. As one often gets in parking-lot restaurants like Olive Garden and Applebee’s and Carrabba’s. And at the beginning, the whole concept was so unusual for here that it drew crowds. Concept aside, good–no, GREAT–food is easy to find here, along with authentic authenticity. I don’t want to slam Del Arte–it isn’t bad at all. Just meh.

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Obviously these were taken at an off-hour. Because the parking lot is full during meal times.

Recently, two Subway sandwich outlets also opened in Carcassonne, one in the center of town and the other in yet another of the strip malls that blight the periphery of town. I was following two couples of Americans down the main pedestrian street, overhearing them talk about lunch (it’s easy to overhear Americans, in part because I understand what they’re saying with zero effort and in part because of the volume of normal American speaking). I thought about telling them of a couple of options. I consider myself an ambassador for Carcassonne and want even strangers to have a good time here. Before I caught up to them, they swung into Subway.IMG_4320Subway is fine. I have eaten plenty of Subway sandwiches in the U.S. But why would a person go all the way to France and then eat the same thing as back home? It isn’t as if there’s a big risk of ordering something disgusting by mistake. Most French sandwiches involve some combination of ham, cheese or hard sausage, or else some sort of tuna salad, chicken salad or shrimp/fake crab salad. With lettuce and tomato. On awesome bread. What’s to fear? Eating local specialties is one of the key ways to explore local culture.

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A plain white shirt with a twist, at La Brune, an interesting boutique in the center of town.

The same thing is true with other shops. The world is becoming more and more similar. On the one hand, it’s kind of cool that tastes are shared by so many people. Can you hate somebody who wears the same jeans and T-shirts that you do? (I suppose so, but it does make people seem less foreign–and hence more relatable–than when each little region had its own traditional dress.) Now you can get the same clothes at Zara or H&M in Amsterdam as in Abu Dhabi, Astana or Austin. That’s great–if you see something new in a magazine or on Instagram, you can buy it easily, even if you don’t live in a fashion capital. On the other hand, the little boutiques with really cool, unique stuff are going under, unable to compete on price and unable to change stock as fast as the fast fashion giants. Fashion is supposed to be about expressing oneself, but it’s increasingly about following the herd.

 

It’s something to consider, whether you’re traveling or shopping and dining at home. Do you seek safety in the numbers? Or do you stand out from the herd?

 

 

 

 

 

Onion Tart to Start

20170623_193749A very simple tarte à l’oignon is a great starter for a dinner party–it’s good hot or at room temperature, so you can pop it out of the oven or make it ahead.

I routinely make a couple of different savory tarte tatins–a French kind of upside-down pie. A favorite that I often serve as a starter, is tomato tarte tatin.

For our cooking class, my cuistot-par-excellence Christine suggested her onion tart as the entrée (starter in French). It’s flavorful and rich, but not so rich that you can’t eat the main course. Perfect.P1080320Christine’s Onion Tart

1 flaky pie crust (you can make your own–recipe from Blanche Caramel coming soon–but the ready-made version here is really good. It even has its own sheet of parchment paper.)

4 big onions, cut in half and sliced thinly

olive oil

1 1/3 cups (33 cl) crème fraîche semi-épaisse, or half-thick sour cream. Does such a thing exist outside France, with its gazillion kinds of crème fraîche? You can mix sour cream with liquid cream, or just use sour cream. When I remade the tart, I had bought thick cream by mistake. The tart turned out great anyway.

Salt, pepper, 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 360 degrees Fahrenheit (180 Celsius).P1080326Heat the olive oil in a heavy pan and cook the onions on high heat, stirring constantly so they don’t stick or burn. It should take only a couple of minutes for them to soften up.

Mix the onions with the other ingredients in a mixing bowl.P1080339Spread the pie crust on its parchment paper in a tart pan. You can use a pie pan, but it will be smaller and deeper, and the portions will seem smaller.P1080336Stab the pie crust a few times with a fork. Spread the onion mixture onto the crust. Fold the edges toward the middle if necessary (Christine’s tart pan was bigger than mine and didn’t need folding).P1080341P1080343Bake for 25-30 minutes. Serve hot or at room temp.

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This is one I made later; the top photo is Christine’s, with no fold on the crust.

Ratatouille Niçoise

IMG_3947A classic dish of the south of France is ratatouille niçoise. It’s summer on a plate. It’s also a great dish for entertaining because it’s even better the second day, so it’s ideal to make ahead. Nice gets credit for its creation but it’s a dish common to all of Occitanie, the broad swath of southern France.

My friend Christine put it on the menu for our cooking class, along with grilled thyme lamb chops, which I’ll also include here.IMG_3891Remember, for a same-day dinner, we made the desserts first, starting with the crème catalan, then the baba au rhum. Once the baba was cooling, we tackled the ratatouille, or rata, as the French like to say. It’s very French to cut off words to two syllables: Coca-Cola becomes Coca (not Coke); McDonald’s is known as “MacDo”; spaghetti bolognaise is called “bolo”; Carcassonne is called “Carca”….

Even first names get shortened to two syllables (often one syllable repeated twice) to form a nickname: Laurence is Lolo; Louis is Loulou; Alphonse is Fonfon; Georges or Joseph becomes Jojo; Julien is Juju. Now that I think about it, all those are male names. Though I know a Brigitte who goes by Bibi. Female names often get -ou at the end: Michelle becomes Michou (sounds like mishoo); Giselle is Gisou. And there are another range of nicknames that also use the repeated two-syllable style: uncle (officially it’s oncle, but familiarly it’s tonton); I know a Tintin… But there are exceptions: a son (fils) may be affectionally referred to as fiston. Aunt (tante) becomes tatie. Grandmother (grand-mère) is more likely called mamie.IMG_3911Back to the rata.

Here’s what you need (easy to remember, it’s 3 of everything):

olive oil

3 onions, minced

3 small eggplants, (large) dice. Purple ones should be peeled; white ones have a thinner, milder skin that can be left on.

3 zucchini, peeled and diced

3 tomatoes, peeled (blanche first) and cut into large chunks

1 green pepper, diced

1 red pepper, diced

1 yellow pepper, diced

salt, pepper, thyme, and a bay leaf or two

Cover the bottom of a large, heavy pan with a coat of olive oil. Cook the onions over medium heat, stirring often, until they soften.

Add the eggplant, and continue to stir until it softens.IMG_3918Add the zucchini. Then the peppers. Then the tomato and spices.

Let it cook until everything has softened up. Don’t put on the lid or you will end up with a lot of juice.

Serve hot, cold or lukewarm.IMG_3912What I like about rata is that there are no mistakes (unless you really burn it or you overcook the vegetables into mush–one of the Carnivore’s sharpest insults for a mix of overcooked food is “ratatouille”) and lots of room for variation.

To reduce the juice, I like to cook everything quickly and separately over high heat, so the outsides of the zucchini and eggplants, especially, brown, but the vegetables aren’t too cooked. They get added in turn to a mixing bowl and then heated together before serving. Or not heated. I learned, while writing this, that cooking the vegetables separately is the method that the French bible of cuisine, Larousse Gastronomique, suggests, though it says to cook the mix about 20 minutes in the oven. Putting the dish in the oven is a good way to avoid scorching the bottom, but I’d rather just keep it stovetop and not heat up the kitchen.IMG_3915I rarely peel vegetables–out of laziness and also for the added nutrition. I also add plenty of garlic–three or four cloves. Sometimes I use herbes de provence, a mix of thyme, marjoram, rosemary, basil and savory, which we tend to put into almost everything. Other times, I use fresh herbs from the garden–thyme, rosemary, basil.  IMG_4312Rata is a good way to eat the rainbow. Consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables gives you different nutrients, since the colors are linked to different disease-fighting chemicals, called phytochemicals.

Another plus for ratatouille: leftovers are great, and you can even put it on pasta or rice for a vegetarian meal.

We served it with provençale tomatoes (recipe coming soon) and thyme lamb chops.IMG_4302For the lamb chops:

Cut off the egregious hunks of fat. They will just cause your grill to flame up.

Brush both sides with a little olive oil so the thyme sticks to the chops and so the chops don’t stick to the grill. Sprinkle with thyme, salt and pepper on both sides.

Cook to taste on your grill. The Carnivore swears by wood charcoal, but we won’t get judgy if you use gas.

Bon appétit!IMG_4306

 

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité

IMG_1845Happy Bastille Day!

Last night, our village was among those hosting a dinner and fireworks–done the night before the holiday because they can’t compete with the big fireworks tonight at la Cité of Carcassonne.

Here is the dinner menu: salad with gizzards; civet of duck (this civet isn’t the little animal but a kind of ragout made with lots of onions and pronounced see-VAY); bleu de coeur cheese; and apple pie. The Carnivore went, but I skipped it–too many calories and not enough vegetables.IMG_1796When it got dark, everybody went to the park of our château (almost every village has at least one château) to watch the fireworks. There is something charming about being in a crowd where you know 90% of the people. Children ran around freely; the park is their playground and they were excited by a place so familiar seen so unfamiliarly dark. IMG_1922When the fireworks started, more than a few of the little ones became hysterical. Fireworks are an acquired taste.

The crowd oohed and aahed in in unison, which added to the feeling of togetherness.

Compared with last year, the display was smaller and had some glitches. The park has an old stone bridge that used to go over the river until a flood changed its course. Sparklers hanging off the side give the impression of a waterfall of lights. Very pretty, especially with the elegant arch of the bridge. But the string came loose, and half of the waterfall turned into more of a puddle.

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This one looked like one of those deep space photos. And it was a very starry night.

After the big finale, we stood around chatting with friends as people slowly shuffled out. Suddenly another firework blasted off and lit up the sky. One of the technicians took off across the lawn, flashlight in hand, toward the launching area. A couple more strays went off. A small fire burned under the bridge. Technicians’ flashlights flickered back and forth near the rose garden. Clearly little villages have to make do with the farm league of fireworks.

Tonight, though, is the big leagues. For a week, you could feel the excitement mounting in town. There were more people around, adding to the energy. July brings the Festival of Carcassonne, with concerts, theater and dance. I went to a dance performance in the courtyard of the château of la Cité–a fabulous setting (la Cité isn’t a castle but a fortified city, with a château inside it that was the last resort). IMG_1872Tonight, the only concerts are free ones at Place Carnot, in the Bastide, or “new” town (dating from only 1260, but that’s how things roll around here). Guy Lacroux will play old-fashioned bal musette dance tunes on the accordion before the fireworks, and BRBB, for Béziers Rhythm & Blues Band, will play after.

At the same time, the reason for the holiday is a serious one. The fight for freedom, for equality, for fraternity and pitching in together for the common good. They aren’t easy principles to uphold, and sometimes what seems right can turn out wrong. But France does a pretty good job, and I’m grateful to live here.IMG_1903

Purple, With a Red Hat

P1070396It can be stressful to land in a new place, all your possessions on your back, trying to figure out directions in a strange language. So I am not making fun of the strapping young things who parade about town, jaws slack in amazement and arms tight around their backpacks, which they wear in the front.

At the same time, to take measure of a place, look at the locals. In New York, I learned to keep my bag tucked tightly under my arm, with no loose strap that could be yanked away. I learned not to make eye contact. (Though once I did, by accident. It was years ago. I reading the paper and enjoying a coffee at a sidewalk table of a small café in New York’s Soho. I sensed somebody standing in front of me so I lowered the newspaper and looked up, expecting to see the waiter. Instead, I saw a disheveled man, probably crazy and homeless. “You have to help me save Nadine from the Communist Party!” he exhorted. I was sunk–I had made eye contact and he had spoken directly to me. I flashed him a big, friendly smile and answered, “Si fahamu.”  He repeated his plea for Nadine, and I repeated, in Swahili, that I didn’t understand. He made a face that said, “this chick is crazy,” shrugged his shoulders, and sauntered off down the street.)

In Carcassonne, I see little kids, 7 or 8 years old, walking home from school unaccompanied. They aren’t everywhere, to be sure. Most kids get picked up by parents in cars, in the same horrible, car-choked scene you find in the U.S. Those who walk generally are accompanied by an adult. But I still see kids running around, including in the center of town, on errands (up the street and a few minutes later back down but carrying a baguette), riding skateboards or bikes. I like it. It feels alive and normal.

Did I let my own kid walk alone to school? Yes and no. My kid spared no words in French or English about the injustice of the forced march, PLUS from the EDGE of the village, whereas ALL THE OTHER KIDS got dropped off by their parents in CARS. We even would pass a woman (grandmother? nanny?) who would battle to get a squirmy little girl into the car for half a block. Yes. She drove half a block to school, and spent more time fighting to get the girl into the car than she did driving. Also, as I recall, it was far enough to go by car but not far enough to put the kid into a car seat with a seatbelt.

The walks to school required, at age 3, half an hour (for six blocks) in order to examine every rock, leaf and bug along the way, without stress and with time for maximum wonder. By fourth grade, the commute took three minutes, max. One day, my kid declared the end of our hand-in-hand promenades to and from school. The end of waiting by the exit with the other parents at noon and the end of the day. The declaration of independence. I was in a quandary. I wanted my kid to be independent, like the older boys who tore past us on their bikes and whom I regularly spied down in the river, fishing or exploring or whatever. Normal kids. I wanted that.

At the same time, I wanted to know without a doubt that my kid had entered the school. I couldn’t go back to work without 100% assurance. Knowing that the school probably would call after a while was no solace. In that time, where would my kid be? So, I did what any mother would do: espionage.

My kid would set off, meeting up with a pair from across the street, and off they would head to school, about six blocks away. I had insisted on a route that involved medieval streets too small for cars. Still, I waited until they had advanced down the main street, before stealing out, leaning into hedges to hide, peeking around corners. P1070393In our village, the little old ladies walk, and the little old men sit. Specifically, they sit under the plane trees in the center of the village, a vantage point that keeps them on top of what a large percentage of the population is up to. The people who live farther out, the newcomers in the lotissements, or subdivisions, are of no interest anyway.

I would glide up alongside a wall, where, crouching, I could peer unseen through the windows of parked cars all the way to the school. This was highly amusing to the old geezers, perched on a bench like so many swallows. They would nod and gesture and indicate that I could go home, that all was well. And I knew it was. Little villages are full of protectors.

In town, I see lots of little old ladies out for their commissions–their purchases of whatever they need to make the day’s meals. I deem them “old” if they use a cane or a walker; some who may have more years but who are still in good shape get categorized as just “older,” as in older than most of the folks around but not yet “old.” A teenager also is “older” than grade school kids. Everything is relative.

These little old ladies seem quite at ease, in sharp contrast with the young backpackers. They hold their canes in one hand while their boxy handbags dangle loosely from the other. I admire them for negotiating the curbs, the uneven sidewalks, the steps that are inevitable in a place that was designed in 1260. In my opinion, they always have right of way in the crush of human traffic of the market. From what I have observed, I am not alone in my thinking, although there are always some people who seem outraged to find that there are OTHER PEOPLE shopping at the market. As if!

I think of my mom, who from age 60 or so only left her house by car. Not that there were any shops in walking distance in her neighborhood. For that, Carcassonne is walkable like New York, but a lot cheaper, without the lines for everything and with much better weather.

When we were looking at properties to buy, I walked around one neighborhood in hopes of spotting details that would connect houses with places I had seen in real estate ads online. And it always was possible that I would stumble on a hand-written sign offering sale by owner. Plus, I never need much of an excuse to go walking around town.P1070386It was a sunny day, but in winter there were few people out. I spied a tiny woman working her way down the sidewalk using two canes. I figured she lived close by and probably knew everything about the quartier, so I sidled alongside her and started to chat.

She was charming. She had lived there all her life. She had fallen in her home and had just gotten out of rehab; she was out walking to get back in shape. She was 98. We ambled down the sidewalk and she told me about life. I didn’t get any real estate tips, but I had a wonderful time.

I wish I had listened more to the stories from my own mother, who died a couple of years ago at age 90. She sometimes would start to tell me about something, and I would get annoyed, because I had heard a lot of the stories many times before. Too late, I also realized she felt, tasted, smelled the memories as vividly as if they were yesterday. I was recently discussing something with my kid, and later, thinking about it and about my own experiences, I was back in the school gymnasium and could practically smell its special (hated) smell. Surely my mom wanted to connect me to such memories of her own, to share them, relive them but not alone. A Proustian journey, proffering a taste of the madeleine.

I think of my grandmothers. One was an enigma, stiff and proper. The other was completely the opposite–emotional, fierce, proud, unconditionally loving. But although I often prodded her to tell me about her childhood in Europe, she never talked about it much. Nor about anything else. What was it like to immigrate? What was school like? How did she meet my grandfather? (At a dance; he was a good dancer.) How did she, someone who loved loved loved children, have only two, and a decade apart? I suspect problems, miscarriages, maybe even illness, whether of a baby lost and never spoken of again, or herself. Although to my knowledge she was always as strong as an ox. When she was 85 and still living alone in her house, I spied big buckets of ice in her “back room”–a room with windows on two sides where she and her brood of grandchildren would sleep in summer, to get good cross-breezes, and where all those windows’ sills were lined with plants. She carried the buckets up a steep flight of stairs from the drainpipe where she caught rain or melting snow–what her flowers preferred. And one day, sitting at her kitchen table, she complained that it was going to rain because she hurt there, and she raised her leg as effortlessly as a ballerina, knee straight, as high as her head, and pointed to her ankle. I told her she had nothing to worry about. Until she was nearly 100 and rarely recognized us anymore, her hair was dyed black and she put rouge on her cheeks.

A few weeks ago, I stopped to photograph a handsomely renovated building just off the central square, Place Carnot. A passing woman looked at me, looked at the building, then stepped out of the brilliant sunshine to better admire the façade herself.P1070374“If you hadn’t been taking a picture, I wouldn’t have noticed,” she told me. “It’s beautiful.”

“Lots of buildings are getting new façades these days,” I answered, and pointed to a few other examples.

That led to nearly an hour of chatting on the street corner about everything under the sun.

I finally asked her how old she was.

“84, but that’s according to my birthday. Sometimes I feel like I’m 70; sometimes like I’m 90. Today, I feel 70,” she said.

I assured her that I had her pegged at 70. It was true. She was wearing a fluttery green top, very appropriate for the warm day, with dressy pants. Her jewelry quotient was typically française–neither too much nor too timid. She wore makeup, expertly applied, again neither too much nor timid. Her hair was dyed a slightly unnatural Lucille Ball red,  and was cut in layers, neither completely straight nor curly. Did she style it or set it? Maybe. That’s typically française–maybe they made an effort or maybe not. Basically she was an older version of Jeanne Damas. No cane, no walker.

Then, she pointed to her shoes. Cork-soled high-heeled platform sandals! I am far, far younger than 84 and do Pilates and run, and I would not dare to walk on the crooked, slippery sidewalks of Carcassonne in platform shoes. I would be in the emergency room so fast.

I wanted to give her a high five, but instead, I told her I wanted to be just like her and we hugged. She said, “Today, I felt like I was 90, but I told myself I needed to get out. I said to myself that if I didn’t make an effort, soon I wouldn’t be able to make an effort.”

She added: “Il faut lutter.” You have to fight.

This is what I love about where I live: little kids run out to buy baguettes, 84-year-olds strut their stuff in platform heels, and even older ones push their walkers, with their handbags swinging and they will be all right.P1070866The title refers to the poem by the British poet Jenny Joseph (born in 1932; I hope she is rocking some purple these days, but maybe she is just “older” and not yet “old”).

Warning

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me,
And I shall spend my pension
on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals,
and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I am tired,
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells,
And run my stick along the public railings,
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens,
And learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat,
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go,
Or only bread and pickle for a week,
And hoard pens and pencils and beer mats
and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry,
And pay our rent and not swear in the street,
And set a good example for the children.
We will have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practise a little now?
So people who know me
are not too shocked and surprised,
When suddenly I am old
and start to wear purple!

Also, check out this wonderful book about people finding love late in life. In French, but an easy read. Written with great sensitivity: “Le Coeur n’as pas de rides” by Marina Rozenman. (This is not sponsored!)

 

Baba au Rhum vs. Savarin

IMG_3968I have a new life goal: to have a dessert named after me.

In the meantime, here is the tale of the foodie of all foodies and a dessert recipe whose richness and delicate flavors will make your dinner guests swoon. It’s the next installment in our series on the cooking class my friend Christine did for guests of our vacation apartments.

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin was such a gourmande that he not only has a dessert named after him but a cheese as well. Even better, it’s an especially rich version of Brie (75% fat!!!), a soft cheese with a soft, white rind. My mouth is watering just typing this. It previously was called Délice des gourmets (Gourmets’ delight) before being renamed after the king of gourmets. (Note to self: get into cheese, too?)

Brillat-Savarin officially was a lawyer and politician, but he is best known as a food writer. This is no small feat, considering he was politicking (small-town mayor) during the French Revolution. Things soured, as they tend to during revolutions, and with a bounty on his head Brillat-Savarin fled to Switzerland, then the Netherlands, then the U.S.

Exceptionally for a refugee from war, he still managed to eat well and to write about it. His masterpiece, “Physiologie du Goût, ou Méditations de Gastronomie Transcendante; ouvrage théorique, historique et à l’ordre du jour, dédié aux Gastronomes parisiens, par un Professeur, membre de plusiers sociétés littéraires et savantes.” Translation: “Physiology of Taste, or Meditations on Transcendantal Gastronomy; a work that is theoretical, historical and on the agenda, dedicated to Parisian gastronomes by a professor and member of numerous literary and wise societies.”IMG_3956I want to be a member of numerous literary and wise societies, especially those that seriously discuss cheese and dessert and that meditate on transcendental gastronomy.

Renowned francophile-California foodie M.F.K. Fisher translated Physiology of Taste to English, and she doesn’t let many chapters of her own memoirs go by without raving about the genius of Brillat-Savarin. However, despite M.F.K.’s voluptuous praise of him, until I started to write this I wasn’t sure what Brillat-Savarin had accomplished, just that it was great.

Brillat-Savarin set out to deliver a scientific analysis of food, eating and pleasure. However, his most famous quotes are more sociological, still current considering he died in 1826, and very tweetable:

Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.

To invite people to dine with us is to make ourselves responsible for their well-being as long as they are under our roofs.

The fate of a nation depends on the way that they eat.

The science which feeds men is worth at least as much as the one which teaches how to kill them.

The way in which meals are enjoyed is very important to the happiness of life.

Animals feed themselves; men eat; but only wise men know the art of eating.

Those who have been too long at their labor, who have drunk too long at the cup of voluptuousness, who feel they have become temporarily inhumane, who are tormented by their families, who find life sad and love ephemeral……they should all eat chocolate and they will be comforted.IMG_3964I totally understand why M.F.K. Fisher named him one of the two or three men she couldn’t live without (though to be clear, he died almost a century before she was born).

Before we get to the dessert, let’s dig into the metaphorical meat of the recipe. As the Brillat-Savarin cheese is a kind of Brie, so, too, the savarin dessert is a kind of baba, which is a kind of babka. (Cue the Seinfeld scene with Jerry and Elaine in the bakery, intending to buy a chocolate babka but ending up with a lesser babka in cinnamon). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xasrVIZQ4AE

Babka is a kind of Polish yeast cake or brioche (hah! the circle comes back around to France! and hah again for my unintentional pun, because the savarin/baba bakes in a circular form), introduced to France by Stanislaus I, who had been king of Poland until he was exiled to France in 1709. Yet another refugee.

Stan was pretty tight with the French. He married off his daughter to Louis XV and regained the Polish throne in 1733 thanks to French help. He was deposed again in 1736, this time by the Russians. Some things never change.IMG_3972Stanislaw headed back to France and had a good gig as Duke of Lorraine until he died. At some point, the story goes, he brought along a babka for the road. It was a little dry, so he—more likely his chef—added a little booze to soften it up. As one does.

The boozy babka became a baba. This is understandable, as “baba” rolls off the tongue more smoothly without that K, and everything rolls off the tongue when alcohol is added. However, Larousse Gastronomique, authored by Carcassonne native Prosper Montagné, says that Stanislaw named the dessert after his favorite character in “1001 Arabian Nights”–Ali Baba. The baba contained raisins or dried fruits, was soaked in a liqueury syrup and topped with patisserie cream (like vanilla pudding but better) or whipped cream.

The savarin, invented by a pair of Parisian pâtissiers in 1844, ditched the dried fruits, a move I totally approve of, and gave the dessert its wreath shape (it used to be a long cylinder). So really, the recipe I’m going to share is technically for a savarin, rather than a baba, though in restaurants, the two are interchangeable (that is to say, if you see baba au rhum on a dessert menu, you can order it without fear of confrontation with dried fruit). IMG_3969Although I adore saying “baba,” now that I have learned more about Brillat-Savarin, beyond M.F.K. Fisher’s gushings in her memoirs, I like giving him the credit, even though, as far as I can tell, he appreciated food strictly from a consumption point of view and didn’t cook himself.

However, the best part about cooking is that you can make things exactly the way you like them. For example, with whipped cream and without dried fruit. As my (and undoubtedly your) mother always said, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”

This is a great dessert for entertaining because (1) you make it ahead (the better for it to drink up its booze–you even can make it without the booze if that’s important to you–but making ahead is always key to successful entertaining) (2) anything with lots of whipped cream looks awesome (3) you certainly can make individual babas but when you make one big dessert that is cut into servings, the gourmands sometimes get a chance for seconds. And that is always nice.P1080268Baba au Rhum aka Savarin

120 g (1 cup) flour

50 g (a big half stick or 1/4 cup) butter

150 g (3/4 cup) granulated sugar

1 package (11 g = 2 big teaspoons) baking powder (yes, not yeast. but it turns out great)

3 tablespoons whole milk

3 eggs, separated

1/4 liter (1 cup) water

1/4 liter (1 cup) cane sugar syrup (you can use corn syrup; here, corn syrup is nearly impossible to find, but cane sugar syrup is in the cocktails aisle)

10 cl (7 tablespoons) rum

25 cl (1 cup) heavy cream (fleurette)

couple of tablespoons of granulated sugar

Preheat the oven to 180 Celsius (350 Fahrenheit).

Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until the mixture is very white.

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ONE DIRECTION

Mix the flour and baking powder.

Warm the milk and melt the butter. Add to the egg/sugar mix. Add that to the flour mixture.IMG_3958Beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks (in French, this is beautifully expressed as beating them into snow). Fold them delicately into the batter. GENTLY STIR IN ONE DIRECTION! Chef Christine insisted on this!

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Like snow.

Pour the batter into a buttered crown/wreath-shaped mold (a bundt pan will do).

Don’t overdo the butter on the mold, or the batter will make bubbles.

Bake for 25 minutes. When it’s done (a toothpick or knife comes out clean), let the cake COOL IN THE MOLD.

You must let the baba cool before adding the syrup!

Make the syrup:IMG_3973Mix the water, cane sugar syrup and rum and bring to a boil. Pour the WARM syrup evenly over the baba. It will stand on top; don’t worry—it will soak in after a couple of hours.

Just before serving:

Make the whipped cream by beating the cream and sugar (sugar to taste). If you use a stand mixer, check often lest you end up with sweet butter (voice of experience). IMG_3978Turn the baba onto a plate. Either fill the hole or frost the baba with the whipped cream. Serve with optional extra rum (to taste).IMG_3965

In the French Kitchen

IMG_3828One of the highlights of last week was a cooking class for guests at one of our vacation apartments in Carcassonne. The teacher was my dear friend and excellent cook, Christine.

The idea sprang from an article some years ago in in a French magazine. The hilarious columnist often conducted various tests, and one of my favorites was one that asked whether a man could cook as well as a woman. She chose a well-known professional chef to get the answer.

The rules of the game were that the chef had to do what any French woman does daily: cook a well-balanced family meal of starter, main course and dessert. And he had a limited time to do it—because most French women work, they spend an average of just 36 minutes cooking a week night meal.

That meal turned out OK, although the chef managed to make a fool of himself (not least by turning over vegetable prep to a sous-chef, who was banished by the columnist on the argument that French home cooks don’t have such a luxury).IMG_3812In this spirit, I wanted to offer classes on French cuisine, not from a chef’s perspective, but from the experience of truly great home cooks. My role is translator and dishwasher. I understand that non-French speakers might be tempted by cooking classes offered in English, but they often are given by non-French cooks. What’s the point of that?

Christine is almost a sterotypical française. She is always, always chic. Even when she’s gardening, she dresses with flair. It’s ingrained. Her makeup is always tasteful, her shoulder-length blonde hair often swept up in a twist. She’s a grandmother, but in the style of Catherine Deneuve, whose younger self she resembles quite a bit.

And when she cooks, those of us invited to her table swoon.IMG_3829Our menu was for a dinner party, more elaborate than a weeknight meal, but with plenty of things that can be done ahead so the host/hostess can be devoted to the guests and enjoy the actual moment of the dinner.

Here’s the menu:

Hors-d’oeuvre: toasts with choice of foie gras, green or black tapenade and eggplant caviar.

Entrée (starter): onion tart

Main dish: grilled lamb chops, roasted tomatoes with persillade and ratatouille niçoise

Cheese course

Dessert: crème catalan and baba au rhum (Christine often serves two or three desserts. Miam!)

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Egg yolks with sugar for the crème catalan. The leftover whites went into quiche a few days later and the egg shells into the garden to ward off snails.

Everything but the toasts and meat could be done ahead, either entirely or partly. In fact, some things, like ratatouille, actually are better the second day.

The weather was unusually hot and sticky. It often gets hot here, but such humidity is rare. It’s one reason why we sent the meat outside to the grill.

We’ll examine the dishes in separate posts. If you’re cooking the same day as serving, as we did, here’s the order for preparation:

First the crème catalan, which is similar to crème brulée. Reason: it needs to chill for a few hours before getting its sugar crust.

Second: the baba au rhum. Reason: it needs time to drink up the rum syrup.

Third: the tart. Reason: the oven was still hot from the baba. And the tart is good cold. Also, it’s better to cook oniony/garlicky dishes AFTER the dessert, not before!IMG_3867Fourth: the tomatoes: Reason: While the tart was cooking, the tomatoes were degorged. By the time the tart was done, we turned over the tomatoes, added the persillade and popped them in the oven.

Fifth: the ratatouille.

Last: the lamb chops.

Here’s the first recipe: for Crème catalane:

3 cups (75 cl) whole milk

6 egg yolks

2/3 cup (150 g) white sugar

1 lemon

1 stick of cinnamon

2 heaping tablespoons cornstarch

1/3 cup (75 g) brown sugar

Wash and dry the lemon, then grate half the peel.

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Milk, lemon zest and cinnamon bark.

In a saucepan, put the milk, the cinnamon stick and the grated peel. Bring it to a boil, then turn off the heat, cover and let the mixture infuse for 5-10 minutes before removing the cinnamon and zest (she poured it through a sieve).

In a mixing bowl, beat the yolks with 2/3 cup of sugar for about half a minute. Add the corn starch little by little. Thin the paste with the warm milk.IMG_3856Pour the mixture into a clean saucepan. (Tip from Christine: if you use the same saucepan, the milk sticking to the sides will burn). Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon (Another tip from Christine: make sure you’re using a spoon that doesn’t smell like garlic—keep one of your wooden spoons for desserts only.) Let the mixture thicken so it covers the spoon—if you swipe your finger, the line shouldn’t disappear. It takes about seven minutes to thicken.

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Strain before cooking to thicken.

Pour the thickened mixture into ramekins and refrigerate for at least two hours. Again, make sure there isn’t anything that smells strongly in the fridge, or the crème will absorb it.IMG_3877Just before serving, sprinkle with brown sugar. Christine has wonderful old-fashioned irons that are just the size of the ramekins—you set the irons in the coals and then press them on the sugar to make a crust. Otherwise, you can put the ramekins under a broiler for a minute or two.IMG_3880

Next up: Baba au rhum.

Antiquing We Will Go

P1070958The brocante of Limoux, on the first Sunday of the month, holds plenty of treasures. (Alert: there’s one this weekend, on July 2.)

Paris, with its huge population, has the famous marchés aux puces, or flea markets, namely les Puces de Saint-Ouen, selling carefully curated antiques at carefully curated prices from stalls that have become fixed shops.P1070970In France profonde, the flea markets are called brocantes and may be single shops selling antiques and vintage items, or they may be itinerant gatherings of these kinds of professional vendors. These are a step up from the vide-grenier, which is like a group yard sale. Brocantes have better stuff, but vide-greniers are where you will find something amazing for a song, buried amid piles of cast-offs.

That said, brocantes here offer some amazing finds at bargain prices. Though you are free to negotiate the prices down further.P1070967Can you guess what the object above is? The Carnivore knew immediately, having been there, done that. Put your guesses in the comments.P1070968And what about the gold things above? I thought at first they were some kind of hook for handing a coat or something. But no, on turning them around, the shape wasn’t right. They’re about 10 inches high. There’s a little cup, but it’s very small. Maybe for visiting cards? Even the vendor didn’t know what they were. Just pretty. He wanted €50 for the pair, which seemed too high for something mysterious, even though I loved the faces. If you know what they are, do tell!P1070956We saw lots of rattan, which I have read is on trend. I’d rather buy it because it is beautiful, like those chairs at the top, and beautifully made, rather than because somebody declared rattan to be “in,” which means that cheaply made versions will be in stores everywhere.

I’m also a sucker for old portrait photos. Those girls look so sweet. I supposed they’ve died–you don’t throw out Grandma’s picture when she’s still around. My mom did genealogy research, very thoroughly I should add. My father referred to it as “your mother is busy digging up the dead.” Anyway, she managed to get photos of ancestors going back as far as photography was around. Not just direct linage, either, but all kinds of relatives. So it makes me a little sad to see these girls for sale.

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Speaking of girls, how about this toy stove?
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Other things are just not destined to be loved by anybody but the original owner.

There were lots of really nice pieces of furniture.P1070970P1070963P1070969After having hunted for decorations for our four fireplaces, they continue to catch my eye. I love these sphinxes.

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A lot more bosomy than the Giza version.

And some old space heaters…P1070961If you are in Carcassonne, I can arrange personalized brocante tours. You can contact me at taste.france (at) yahoo.com.

 

 

Happy or Content?

P1080017Which do you aim for: contentment or happiness? No, they aren’t the same thing, even though happy is content in French. Happiness is bonheur, while contentment is contentement.

Contentment is the long-term satisfaction or deep fulfillment that comes from the cumulation of good times, good relationships. Happiness is the sugar high of buying something new, getting promoted, winning. It’s fun, it’s exciting, but it doesn’t sustain.

So much of our lives are geared toward the attainment of happiness, probably because it’s more immediate and it feels darn good. But contentment is what counts.sunset 2Children are probably the best example of this. It seems they are a source of unending demands and pressures—starting with 4 a.m. feedings and diaper changes, evolving and expanding to learning to drive, then university expenses and so on. Petit enfant, petit soucis. Grand enfant, grand soucis. (Small child, small worries. Big child, big worries.) Research shows parents are less happy than people who are childless.

But children enrich our lives immeasurably. When this tiny person comes into the world, we think we have never loved anyone so much. And yet that love keeps growing and growing.sunset 5Of course being a parent isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. I have nothing but respect for anybody who decides they don’t want to have kids. The conscious choice is so much better than those who have kids because they just happened or had them because of social pressure, and then they don’t take care of them.

We can get contentment in other ways—from other family ties, from work, from friends, from faith, from activities like gardening or sports. Contentment requires an effort over time, and that effort might be disagreeable but the results are worth it.sunset 3Happiness, by contrast, is a quick fix. Amazon Prime. Want it, get it. Now.

Not to knock that, but no amount of shopping or partying or whatever will fill an empty soul.

Life in France is particularly suited to prioritize contentment over happiness. Shops close in the evenings and on Sundays and holidays—no 24/7 here. Retail therapy takes a back seat to family time.chateau rooftopsBusinesses around here also tend to offer a two-hour lunch break. Meals, in fact, are sacred, a time for conversation and sharing. There is nothing I love more than having a dinner with friends, regardless what is on the table (though that is consistently amazing). At mealtimes, everything else stops.

The absence of air conditioning is another exercise in contentment over happiness. It can feel so good to walk out of the heat and into a cold room. But once you cool down, you need a sweater. Not in France. We slowly adapt to the heat, take the time to walk a little more slowly, choose the shade. And after a while, the high temps actually feel comfortable. Didn’t we wait all winter for these warm days? (It helps that we have cool nights and low humidity.) It’s easier to get out and enjoy the summer when your body is used to the heat.sunset 1Maybe I’m already getting old and crotchety, but I am losing my taste for thrills. The curtains in our apartments were a huge pain (in every sense of huge) to make, but I doubt I would admire them as much now if I had just ordered them online. The antique furnishings that were found from so many sources and brought back to life. It would have been easier to just buy reproductions, or to do the all-modern-in-an-old-building look that’s so popular. But the hard way is so much more satisfying and unique.pyrennees 2From my open window, I hear my friend Merle singing (merle is French for blackbird, so I call him that, though he is operatic and not very country at all), and the cigales thrumming. I smell the grass and the freshly cut wheat from a nearby field. Later I will read the latest installment of the novel my kid is writing and marvel at how these ideas came together and wonder where this vocabulary was picked up (in a good way—it isn’t naughty at all; instead, some of the turns of phrases are bowl me over with their artfulness). I will hang laundry to dry in the breeze and smell fresh in a way no fabric softener can replicate. I will make a pie crust for tonight’s quiche. I will do work that I love. These things give life sweetness and meaning. Nothing thrilling, but all deeply satisfying.sunset 4

Turrets and Towers

P1070625A château wouldn’t be a château without some towers and turrets. Once I started looking, I found them everywhere, and not just on châteaux.

 

Turrets are little towers that start on an upper floor, usually tacked onto a corner. Towers go all the way to the ground. Turrets offered a good vantage point for archers defending their castle.P1070483

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Crenellated wall, to boot!

Today turrets are just charming, except on McMansions (I saw a great example–which is to say it was abominable–in a subdivision in Béziers, but my shots didn’t turn out). Yes, there are McMansions in France. Even subdivisions, which are called lotissements.

It’s quite popular among McMansions here to stick a tower, for the master bedroom and bath, in the middle of an otherwise banal suburban house. P1070593beziers river

 

 

P1060556Happily, there are plenty of real châteaux all over the place, as well as more modest buildings that have odd towers tacked on. Why are those OK while the ones on McMansions are tacky? Maybe it’s snobbism, but it seems like the McMansions are just trying too hard to be special, and failing miserably. Kind of like wearing a sequined T-shirt with sweatpants–the sequins aren’t enough to make it dressy. And with clothes or houses, outer appearances can be good or bad but it’s what’s inside that really counts.P1070403P1060674P1060618

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The shape of that window! Like a sleepy eye. You can tell I’ve been collecting these photos for some time. It’s very green and hot here now.

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P1070623It still takes my breath away to go down some ordinary street here in Carcassonne and catch a glimpse of la Cité:P1060621P1060639