Window on Europe

P1050851There’s a lot to love about Europe. Not just the food, the history, the culture, the architecture, the countrysides, the windows (with a few favorites chosen today to accompany the text). A big part of what makes life here so good is thanks to the European Union. Photos of pretty windows aside, this isn’t the usual light fare yet everything is relevant to most people’s lives–like protecting you against bank fees and phone companies. What’s not to like?IMG_5618A favorite pastime seems to be making fun of silly legislation passed by the European Parliament. But that is often unfair, and sometimes the supposed laws aren’t even for real (get your news from mainstream media!). Take, for example, the Great Olive Oil Affair. The EU wanted to make olive oil labels easier to read and to ban restaurants from serving olive oil in refillable containers … because restaurants were refilling with lower-quality oil. In fact, the olive-oil producing countries were in favor of the ban, yet it was cited as a reason to vote for Brexit, because the Leavers wanted the right to be cheated by restaurants. P1050993In fact, everybody but Emmanuel Macron loves to bash the EU. It reminds me of the Monty Python skit about  “what have the Romans ever done for us.”

Lest anybody think otherwise, I wrote most of this ages ago, and it’s absolutely not intended to troll the U.K. for Brexit. While we all whine about how things need to be better (and lord help us if we get self-satisfied and give up on improving!), we don’t appreciate enough how far we’ve come. Think of this as a pre-Thanksgiving post.P1060197Aside from the big things, like peace, and the ability to travel and trade easily, here are a few ways the EU has improved life:

—Probably the biggest thing has been the reduction of poverty and modernization of southern Europe. Spain, for example, wisely used its generous handouts from the EU to build top-notch infrastructure like high-speed trains. My taxes make Spain better? YES!!!IMG_5219—Since 2006, the EU has banned the use of antibiotics in animal feed to fatten livestock. More than a decade later, the U.S. banned certain antibiotics for fattening livestock. While it isn’t 100% proven, some scientists theorize that the obesity epidemic is linked at least to some extent to people consuming so much meat that contains antibiotics. However, the bigger threat is from antibiotic resistance.P1050167—The EU eliminated mobile phone roaming fees within the EU with a “roam like at home” rule. So I can use my basic (yet with unlimited calls) plan of €2 a month even when I’m in another EU country and not get hit with surcharges.

–The “Universal Service Directive” (those EU bureaucrats kill it with sexy names for their laws, don’t you think?) lets you change mobile phone companies but keep your number–and they have one day to switch you over. It encourages competition by making it very easy to switch operators.

—It required the same bank fees for payments, transfers and ATMs within the EU as domestically. No surcharges if you use your bank card at a shop or ATM while traveling.IMG_5129The euro reined in prices. Inflation in France was 24% between 2001 and 2011, compared with 68% between 1981 and 1991. Regarding the years chosen: in 1992, the Maastricht Treaty laid the foundations for the euro. That led to 199, when a single currency in fact, but not name or physical currency, began, because the exchange rates among the first euro members were locked in. The actual euro coins and notes appeared Jan. 1, 2002. (If you click on the link, the headline reads: L’euro fait flamber les prix depuis dix ans? Que nenni! Which means: The euro made prices skyrocket over the past 10 years? Not at all!) And let’s not forget how nice it is to travel around Europe without changing money–that also saved money because each time people or businesses exchanged currencies, they paid a commission.IMG_2694—In particular, prices fell for electronics and home appliances, largely because of cheap imports. And those were possible in part because the EU set standards for member countries (except the U.K. and Ireland), which previously had slightly different plugs, the better to protect domestic producers. IMG_5078All in all, life in the EU is good. Life expectancy has soared to 81 years today from 69 in 1960. Carbon dioxide emissions have fallen from a high of 10 metric tons per capita to 6.7. Those regulations have improved air and water quality, and thus life in general. IMG_4593Things aren’t perfect here, and there are plenty of ways the system could get better. But overall, the EU is a great example of how the government is indeed the solution, not the problem.IMG_3499

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South of France Fashion

P1100781 2What to wear? If the photos of Parisian fashions seem too crazy, take some cues from the more laid-back south of France. On some outings to Toulouse and Montpellier, a few trends were evident.

While I usually use only my own photos, it was next to impossible. Either I photograph or I shop. As I was with a very chic friend who wanted to shop, there was a limit to how much I could stop for photos, especially since I have an ancient point-and-shoot camera whose shutter works when it decides to. (New phone with decent camera on order!)

However, please note in the top photo, taken in Montpellier, the color. An orange coat, a red coat, and a woman in a bright yellow coat with yellow tights.

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I’m disappointed I didn’t get her two-tone shoes–black and beige.

I did stop a woman at the market. I was with the same friend, who told me, “THAT’S how you should dress,” pointing to an extremely elegant woman buying vegetables. She really was stunning. I went up and asked to take her picture. She demurred, then agreed as long as I cropped off her face. I showed her the photo afterward to make sure she was OK with it.

We got to talking, and it turned out she was 82!!!! I would have guessed 60-something, and maybe less from farther away. She walked like a dancer, with perfect posture. Tall, slim, with a great haircut and just-right makeup–enough to not look faded, not so much as to look painted. I have seen her from time to time since, and she is unfailingly elegant.

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I liked the pink shoes. Her socks matched her sweater. I wouldn’t have thought to pair pink with this burnt-orange/brown.

As I don’t always have time to talk for 15 minutes for every photo, I sometimes snap from behind, to get the idea of the outfit without someone’s face. But too often people cross in front, and it’s hard to focus….

So I took some photos from a few popular retailers that one sees around French cities. I link to their sites as a thank you for using the photos. I don’t get anything from it and they aren’t advertising. Any advertisers you see here are thrown in automatically by WordPress to make up for me using the free version and I don’t get anything from them nor even know who they are.

We must admit a picture is sometimes worth a thousand words. So here are the main trends I saw:

The fanny pack as bandolier.

bershka big sweater
Here.

Mostly spotted on men, but I did see it on a few women. It was far more common in Montpellier, where everybody seems to be under age 25, than in Toulouse. I have seen it only once in Carcassonne, which someone once described to me as “une ville mémère”–granny town. In Montpellier, I saw a woman whose fanny pack/bandolier had a metal chain strap like a Chanel bag. Go figure.

Bershka fanny pack
Similar metal strap. Here.

Tucked in.

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With not-incredibly-tight jeans. Cut off the doo-dads. Here.

Untucked is over. Men and women alike wore their tops tucked in–all the way around. Not the fake tucked-in-front, out-in-back move. That is so 2015, Jenna Lyons.

Bershka paperbag sweater
Here. That paperbag-waist.

Again and again I saw young women with enormous, chunky sweaters tucked into their trousers or jeans. The sweaters weren’t cropped–that would have been a boxy shape on top. The trend was to create billows of material just above the waist.

Bershka silhouette
Loose jeans. But with the sweater tucked all around. Here.

My fashionable friend explained that it was about the silhouette–you can’t have a big top and looser bottoms without defining the waist, otherwise it just looks sloppy.

High waists are back.

bershka paperbag
Corduroy is everywhere, too. Pants, skirts, jackets. It’s the ’70s! This is the infamous “carrot” cut, with a very voluminous tucked top. Like Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally.”

I have heard this routinely ever since waistlines started to descend in the late 1990s. It seems to be true this time. Those big sweaters are tucked into high-waist pants or jeans, and cinched tightly with belts. Self-belts that match trousers are OK, but with jeans you need a brown leather belt that’s way too long and you loop the extra end around artfully.

Also, the jeans can be oversize mom/boyfriend cut, preferably large enough to create a paperbag effect when you cinch that belt.

You don’t have to wear jeans.

jennyfer 2
Here.

Lots of very young women and teens were wearing pinstripe and plaid (glen or tattersall) trousers. If the pants had wide legs, they were cropped. Otherwise, the “carrot” shape with tapered ankles was common.

(No idea why this photo is so small!)

 

The ugly shoe has arrived.

bershka bandolier jeans shoes
This hits so many trends (minus the oversize sweater): loose jeans, bandolier fanny pack–in CORDUROY–and ugly shoes. Here.

However, the uglier the shoe, the prettier the person, otherwise it backfires (which we also saw). That rules out ugly shoes for me.

Wool coats.

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Also: smooth hair. Neither straightened nor “beach waves” nor messy. Very pretty hair–like Ariana Grande’s but shorter.

Lots of camel, with men and women alike wearing a very simple, classic beltless model. Also bathrobe versions in gray and olive green.

Have you seen any of these trends where you live? Would you wear them?

Also: check out this great video from Oui in France of what goes on in a French bakery. Good thing we can’t smell it. I would eat all the bread.

French Doors

metal trivalleI realized I have three folders of door photos, and they are getting out of hand. Let’s meander through one folder, which ranges from Carcassonne to Montolieu to Caunes-Minervois to Cépie, which are all quaint little villages around Carcassonne.

The top photo is technically a gate. But so gorgeous! look at how the scrolls in the stone match the scrolls in the ironwork. And the bits of “lace” hanging from the gutter.green trivalleThis one might be a gate to an inner courtyard or just a garage door. Who knows! Good luck driving up over that curb.IMG_4732A hidden courtyard elsewhere in town that I spied before the huge doors closed automatically. I love how old French buildings keep so many secrets.P1080833Perfectly imperfect.la citeAnother gate. But the colors!red trivallecepie 1856P1070824 2Why do the women’s faces on doors and buildings usually look unhappy? The men usually look stern or fierce, but the women look like their patience is being tried.P1080849Note the fish knocker. And the date: 1746.gateP1080842P1080824I wonder whether the shutters and door started out the same shade and the shutters faded more because of more exposure to the sun, or whether the homeowners intentionally chose different shades.montolieu blueThe little pot! Notice how almost no threshhold is straight.P1080845montolieu grayP1070875P1080534P1080843This door doesn’t even come up to my shoulder, and I’m short. For a while, it led to an underground bar, called “Le Trou Dans le Mur”–the Hole in the Wall. It was gorgeous, with a high vaulted ceiling and stone walls and a deep well that they had artfully lit. It was no easy feat to crawl through the hole and then descend the steep stairs. Too bad it closed.P1080820Arches+ivy+old stones = French charm.

Which is your favorite?

A World of Finger Food

P1100529So many cultures have snacks or appetizers that involve stuffing wrapped with pastry or something similar. Greece has kreatopetes. India has samosas. East Africa has its own take on samosas, with spicy ground meat. South America and Spain have empanadas. Asian cuisines have various kinds of egg rolls and spring rolls. And Morocco has briouates–envelopes.

We had them a few times in Casablanca, but the best were at the home of friends, who baked, rather than fried, them. (Actually everything we ate there was heavenly.) When we got home, I had to try to make them myself.

I made both chicken and beef fillings, because the Carnivore considers chicken unworthy. While I gave these Moroccan spices, it’s clear from the international list at the top that you can make them however you like. With holidays coming up, it’s nice to have some easy-yet-impressive appetizers or snacks that you can make ahead.

You can fold the briouates into triangles or roll them like fat cigars. I did triangles. I used “brick,” which is easier to work with than phyllo/filo (you don’t have to worry about it drying out in seconds), but not quite as light. Although I linked to a recipe for making brick, I bought it ready-made–it’s easy to find here.

I used chicken thighs because all the meat gets pulled off the bone and minced up after cooking. Cooking with the bones adds flavor. I didn’t go so far as to cook with the skin, though. P1100524Chicken Briouates

500 g/1lb. chicken thighs, skin removed if you prefer

1 large onion, minced

3-5 garlic cloves, minced

a handful of pine nuts (if you can afford them!) or slivered almonds

1 carrot, grated–this is my determination to add vegetables to everything, not at all traditional

1 teaspoon ras el hanout (easy to find in stores here but you can make it yourself, too)

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 package feuilles de brick

1/4 cup melted butter (you might use more, but melt it a little at a time)

Olive oil

Salt, pepper

2 eggs

Drizzle some olive oil in a Dutch oven or deep skillet–just enough to cover the bottom. Brown the chicken. Add the onions and garlic. When the onions start to get translucent, add the spices and carrots and stir to mix well. Add a good cup of water. Cover tightly with a lid and let it simmer until the chicken falls apart easily with a fork. If there’s still a lot of liquid, take out the chicken (see below) and cook the remaining mixture uncovered, stirring often so it doesn’t scorch.

Remove the chicken to let it cool so you can pull the meat from the bones. If pieces of chicken are large, tear them up or set them aside to chop up. Return the chicken to the onion mix in the skillet, and stir in the eggs. Cook it over low heat for a couple of minutes, just to set the egg a little. Let all that cool.

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Tastes better than it looks. No wonder it’s a filling!

Heat up the oven to 180 C/350 F.

Using scissors, cut the rounds of brick according to the size you prefer–if you want big briouates, you can go with half. I cut each brick into four strips (about 7.5 cm/3 inches) to make dainty briouates.

Have a baking sheet ready (I use silicone mats for easier cleanup; you can put parchment paper, but I don’t think briouates pose a sticky cleanup mess). You also need a clean space for folding–I used a cutting board. And you need the melted butter and a pastry brush.

To fold, you have several videos: This one, or this one, or this one that has interesting music. They all do it differently. The first one folds the half-rounds of brick lenthwise to make a strip. The others cut the brick into strips. I did strips because doubling over a half-round seemed like way too much crust.

Swipe each strip with butter–not much, just enough to make them crisp up in the oven. Deposit a spoonful of filling at one end of the strip, leaving about a centimeter/quarter-inch flap at the end. Fold over to make a triangle; as you continue (anybody who was a scout will recognize that it’s like folding a flag), the flap will tuck in. Make sure you push the filling all the way to the tip of the triangle; you can add more filling if needed. When you get to the end of the strip, fold the excess or cut it into a triangle (like the first video) and tuck it inside. In some videos, they glue the ends with a dab of flour/water mix. But I didn’t find that necessary.

You can bake these fairly close together because they don’t expand. They will be brown and crispy in 15-20 minutes. About 10 minutes in, turn them over.

P1100527To make them ahead, make sure you don’t overdo the browning in the first place. They are best reheated in the oven for 5-10 minutes–it keeps them from getting soggy. While the folding takes time, it isn’t difficult. As recipes go, briouates are a sure-fire success.

Fall Back in the South of France

gold against blue skyThis weekend, the U.S. and Canada switch back to standard time. Europe did it last weekend, “falling back” to gain an hour. The education ministry wisely times school vacations around the fall and spring time changes so kids have a chance to adjust. It’s harder in spring–getting up an hour earlier is misery.

The fact that North America and Europe don’t change time on the same dates further complicates things. In the fall, the difference between Central European Time and Eastern Time shrinks to five hours, instead of six, for one week. But in spring, that difference grows to seven hours instead of six for a week, which, at my former employer, we called “Hell Week.”winding pathNobody likes the early darkness of winter. In fact, a survey in the EU found 84% of people wanted to quit changing between daylight saving and standard time. The EU is considering staying on daylight saving time permanently with the next switch, in spring. That could be tricky for the U.K., which is supposed to leave the EU in March 2019.

In any case, all 28 EU members and the EU parliament would have to approve the change, which has yet to be formally proposed.

crazy striped plant
What is this crazy Dr. Seuss plant with a striped stem and feathery greens?

Did you know that Benjamin Franklin came up with Daylight Saving Time, in order to shift schedules so people would have more active time with natural light. What good is all that sunshine at 4 a.m. when it could be better enjoyed at 8 p.m.? Daylight Saving Time is supposed to save energy by taking advantage of natural light, but I also read that the savings is exaggerated.

On the other hand, I think of places like Belgium, where a dim dawn breaks around 8:30 or 9 in December and is extinguished around 4:30 p.m., with penumbra in between. Keeping Daylight Saving Time year-round would mean sunrise close to 10 a.m. and sunset around 5:30 p.m. I would not want to be a kid in school in the dark for two hours. Or a teacher trying to get the attention of a room full of kids when outside the windows it looks like bedtime.

yellow leaf road
The yellow-leaf road

When I lived in Africa, I was close enough to the Equator that sometimes water went down the drain in my sink clockwise and sometimes counter-clockwise. (It goes down clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and counter-clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere.) I had no running water–well, I had to run with a bucket from either an outdoor spigot shared by a bunch of houses or from the stream at the bottom of the hill I lived on. But it was nice to have a sink anyway.

The sun rose almost precisely at 7 a.m. and set almost precisely at 7 p.m. In fact, 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. also were referred to as one o’clock, because it was the first hour of either daytime or nighttime. Very logical. However, when arranging a time to meet somebody, you always had to be sure you were talking about the same system or you would be six hours off.leaning treeOn the equinox, I excused myself from the class I was teaching to step outside and, indeed, in the blazing sunshine, my shadow was directly under me, almost like no shadow at all. On the solstices, the most the days’ length would change was about 15 minutes.

Sunrise and sunset were abrupt, too. At 6:45 p.m. you could be walking home in blazing sunshine and at 7:10 p.m. you would be in darkness so black you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. I remember a trip back to my old home with a colleague. We had gone to see a mission that helped kids with polio. At least that’s what they did in the 1980s. The Polish nuns informed us, oh, my, polio is gone and that now they helped kids born crippled by birth defects (the kids were educated, taught trades and, every year, some Italian doctors would fly in to operate on those who would benefit from it). I tell you, the news made me cry. There IS progress in the world and vaccines DO work.line of treesAnyway, we had to walk 30-45 minutes back to the town, and then another 15 minutes to the hotel, which was at the edge of a private wildlife reserve WITH LIONS. I kept telling my friend to hurry up. She was sweating in the heat and telling me not to worry, that we had plenty of time. Eventually a pickup rumbled by on the dirt track. I wildly waved for it to stop, and they gave us a lift–we were in the back, which was full of sheep. They dropped us off in the town and we set off for the hotel, my friend clucking at me that it was still plenty light and I was panicking about nothing. We were about five minutes from the hotel when the sun set as starkly as a light switching off. We weren’t eaten, and that was the last of her questioning my warnings.

The nice part about early evenings is the excuse to get out candles. We had a few days of cold last week, and the air smelled of wood fires from fireplaces. The leaves are starting to change, though the tomato plants are still producing and we’re supposed to get balmy temperatures in the upper teens Celsius (upper 60s Fahrenheit) this weekend. T-shirt weather clashes with the first Christmas decorations being hung in Carcassonne and Christmas stuff in stores.

river
The same stream that flooded a couple of weeks ago.

Do you like the switch from Daylight Saving Time? Are you eager for Christmas?

Back to Black

dyeHave you ever dyed anything to revive or change its color? I’ve done it a couple of times and am mostly pleased with the results.

The first time was last summer. We had gotten out the summer tables and chairs. The seat cushions are nice and thick, with a sturdy cotton cover. But the bright sun had faded their color to a ghost of the original deep blue. Rather than throw away and replace two dozen identical cushions (we often entertain a crowd in the summer), I tried dyeing them.

cache cache before
Before.
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After. Control on the right: a new top.

It worked like a charm. The only hitch was that I didn’t find enough boxes of dye at one store, and the competing supermarket had the same brand but in a different size. Sigh. So they didn’t all get the same amount of dye. You can tell if you hold them side by side in the sun, otherwise the difference is negligible.

Emboldened by this, I decided to do all my black clothes that were no longer a rich noir. A number of items were in perfectly good shape–no pilling or stains or tears–but they just looked faded. My inner environmentalist cringed at tossing them, yet my inner fashionista felt they weren’t up to snuff.

before 1
Before.
P1080031
After. It looks better than the photo would indicate because of the shine. It is hard to photograph black!

I followed the dye directions carefully. They called for washing the clothes on a long cotton cycle with hot water. Some planning is required–I made sure to have a couple of loads of dirty dark clothes to do afterward. It would be risky to run a load of whites after doing a black dye job.

The more clothes you put in a load, the less dye they get. I sorted them by how faded they were, and put the worst cases in the smallest load. I had three loads.

tank before close
Before. Bleach stains! Worn while cleaning.
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After. It’s the one on the left; the right is the control.

First you wash the clothes with the dye, then you do the long cycle again, with a little detergent, to take out excess dye. I did all the dye cycles, then all the rinse cycles.

Result: mostly good but not perfect. Everything came out noticeably blacker. A couple of bleach stains became almost imperceptible, but didn’t completely disappear. The cotton pieces were more faded than the synthetics to begin with, but the cotton absorbed the dye better.

silk before
Before.
P1070789
After.

An article about throwaway fashion says Americans throw away 80 pounds of clothes per person per year, double the amount 20 years ago.

When our clothes are beyond hope, I cut them up into rags for cleaning. Eventually they will end up in a landfill, but after having had many lives. And they often replace paper towels.

I have to admit I hadn’t shopped for dye before, but I was surprised that when I was looking at the section in the supermarket, there were other shoppers doing the same. What are the chances of that? I guess it’s way more mainstream than I had imagined. After all, the drogueries had their origins in peddling textile dye. And the word for dry cleaner, teinturier, comes from the word teindre, or to dye, which makes me think it’s all part of just taking care of one’s clothes.

Have you dyed clothes? How did it go?

 

Recipe? Schmecipe.

IMG_6527Do you follow recipes to the letter? Not me. I consider recipes to be general guidance, less GPS and more “head kind of north.”

I fearlessly replace ingredients willy nilly, depending on what’s at hand. Part of this is because I live a 20-minute drive from the nearest supermarket (which is closed from 8 p.m. Saturday until 9 a.m. Monday), and my village grocery has excellent fruits, vegetables and cheeses, but not a huge selection of anything else (with even shorter opening hours). Forget about corn tortillas, curry powder or whole-wheat flour.

This post is intended to empower you as a cook. One of the best things you can do for yourself, health-wise and probably otherwise (budget, for example), is to cook your own meals. It’s the only way to know what you are putting in your body. Ideally, it would consist of single-word ingredients, or close to it.

Here’s what we did under less-than-ideal conditions. We recently had some visitors over for short-notice dinner. The plans were solidified late Saturday night for Sunday. That meant no shopping. Increasingly there are supermarkets here open on Sunday mornings, and one nearby town has a Sunday produce market, so if push came to shove, we could run out and buy what we needed. But I wasn’t in a position that weekend to drive around the region.P1080346Here’s the menu: Christine’s onion tart (thank goodness for UHT cream!) for the starter; lemon chicken, reminiscent of a dish I had by luck in Nîmes, when the Carnivore and I were driving down to our then-new place near Carcassonne, and we stopped for lunch amid complete havoc in Nîmes, which was in the middle of a feria. We parked where we could and found a tiny bar, every inch stacked to the ceiling with cases of wine, except for two tables. A crusty-looking local was at one table, and we grabbed the other. There were two choices on the “menu,” which was verbal only; the Carnivore of course went for the red meat and I chose poulet au citron, which was divine.

This is of course typical in France, where you can bumble into a situation where everything weighs against eating well, yet you have a meal you dream about 15+ years later. Oh, and it was cheap.

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Before cooking

So, lemon chicken, which I kind of but not really followed a mix of three or four online recipes. With locally grown rice from Marseillette. And roasted tomatoes. Because…tomatoes! If I had thought it through better, I would have made a green vegetable, because it would have been a larger palette of colors.

I looked at our larder and was sorely disappointed by the cheese. Our village grocery, as I said, has an amazing selection of cheese, all the more so for a place serving such a tiny population. (Kudos to the good taste of my neighbors, the grocery’s clients.) However, they were closed for the weekend. Rather than serve the decent wedge of a single cheese (skimpy) or a plate of a bunch of already-hacked-into cheeses (tacky), I assembled the ingredients for a cheese soufflé. Super easy, and it would bake during the meal.

My private chef kid made individual ramekins of crème au chocolat. As I recall, the reason we didn’t make moelleux au chocolat or something like that was that we didn’t have enough eggs, what with the soufflé. Crème au chocolat is basically ganache–chocolate and cream.P1090022We prepared everything in advance and I just had the soufflé to throw together while our guests had an apéro.

Back to the non-recipe. At the Saturday market, I saw some very perky blettes, or Swiss chard, and thought about the little pillows of bliss whose recipe I shared here. However, at least one family member can’t have nuts. Already in the version I had shared, I had replaced very pricey (no, outrageously expensive) pinenuts with almonds. Now I was going to substitute big time.

A whopping 66.66% of the members of our family are beyond horrified by the recent U.N. report on climate change. These family members had already been leaning toward less meat, if not all the way toward meatless. The report made these family members even more committed to reducing waste and to eating less meat, because at least 33.33% of those family members are likely to live far beyond 2030.IMG_6518So I decided to put the vegetables at the center of the plate by replacing the nuts with white beans. I didn’t have any gruyère or parmesan and just used emmental, which is the go-to cheese of the French, put on everything, including pizza. Some supermarkets have an entire aisle just for emmental in all its forms. I also replaced the cream with coconut milk. In fact, it might be easier to say what I didn’t replace: Swiss chard and onions. Oh, and an egg to bind.

The Swiss chard was sold by the bunch, and I got 8 stems for €1.50. It was a lot. So I used two eggs, not one. And I opened a bigger package of UHT coconut milk instead of the cream, but then I didn’t use it all. And I didn’t measure the grated cheese–I just took a couple of handfuls.

Why tell you this? Because unless you are baking a cake or or something, YOU CAN DO WHAT YOU WANT. Baking is special–it’s chemistry, it’s magical, it’s alchemy. You’re turning a liquid into a solid. That is absolutely amazing, don’t you think? But you have to get the proportions just so or you’ll be disappointed.

Everything else is more forgiving, and you shouldn’t sweat the details. It’s always good to do a recipe more or less by the letter the first time, but as you cook, you get less worried about the details, and more interested by the ideas of the flavors. It’s liberating.

One of our recent AirBnB guests told me about a tiny new restaurant in Carcassonne, La Table de la Bastide. She raved about it. “The chef is so creative,” she said. “There was a mix of strawberries with olives! And the olives had a hint of licorice!” That does sound creative. I am not sure whether I would love this particular dish, but I appreciate the exploration of flavors. And  you, too, have the right, as someone who eats probably three times a day, to explore flavors. Why not? The worst that happens? You don’t make it again.

I will tell you how I made my white bean Swiss chard pillows of bliss, but I must confess something else. I saw the bound bunches of Swiss chard at Saturday’s market, at the stand of a family who grow everything themselves. Once, years ago, I asked them for some vegetable, I don’t even remember what, and the mother of the clan verbally slapped me upside the head, saying, “That is NOT in season!” Rather than deter me, it made me all the more loyal to their stand.

P1090065I had seen Swiss chard lately around the market, but it was a little tired and didn’t inspire me. This Swiss chard was very perky, so crisp I could almost hear it snapping as I walked past. It called to me. So I bought it, dreaming of pillows of bliss.

At home, I found plenty of bug holes. And I was happy. In fact, I rejoice in bug holes, because they are proof that this wonderful family of vegetable farmers doesn’t spray with insecticides. They don’t claim to be bio–organic–which requires a huge amount of paperwork, and when the French complain that something is a lot of paperwork, look out. But, like so many local growers–like so many locals–they are cheapskates who aren’t going to spend money (on bio certification or on insecticides) unless they absolutely have to. A few bugs? So what!

On the other hand, when I dipped the elephant-ear leaves into boiling water, they tended to tear apart where there were holes. So my little bundles of bliss were a bit smaller than I had expected.

I don’t care. I am glad to eat smaller bundles of bliss if it means they are chemical-free. I’ll just eat more of them.

Oh, another thing I didn’t have was chives for tying them up. Nice if you have chives, but if you don’t it really doesn’t matter.

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The Carnivore gets five stars for presentation. Sorry for the low light but CANDLES.

May I add that just after I wrote this (in advance OF COURSE), we experienced high water and invited over some neighbors whose yard and basement had been flooded. They had spent the night of hellish rain hauling their stuff out of the basement and dropping in into the kitchen. I stopped by to see how they were and discovered the situation, so insisted they not have to cook but come for dinner. But what to serve? Totally last minute! Well, we had some animal flesh (the Carnivore is always ready with that), and a beautiful starter of pâté en croute that we had on hand and that the Carnivore arranged, MORE roasted tomatoes (because until there are no more tomatoes, we have a stock!) and … LEFTOVERS. Yes, we had the leftover white-bean-replacement pillows of bliss that I had made the day before. If that isn’t reason to raise your leftovers game, I don’t know…

Meatless Main Dish Pillows of Bliss

a bunch of Swiss chard (this bunch was pretty big)

two onions, diced

two eggs

20 cl (a cup) of heavy cream or, as I did, coconut milk, because WHY NOT

a cup (about 80 g) of grated hard cheese like parmesan or gruyère

two cups (about 800 g total; 500 g (about half a pound) drained) of white beans. I used a can (lazy! or, actually, impetuous and not planning enough ahead to soak and cook dry beans)

1 tsp of oregano

salt and pepper

olive oil

Optional: chives, fresh and nice and long. Ideally. For tying up your little packages. But if you don’t have chives, don’t worry!

Preheat the oven to 120 C (250 Fahrenheit).IMG_6515Chop the stems off the Swiss chard and dice them like the onion. Heat a skillet with a little olive oil (enough to cover the bottom) and get them started to brown softly over medium-low heat. Sprinkle with oregano, salt and pepper. Stir, then put a on lid so they don’t dry out and keep cooking them slowly so they soften.

Blanche the leaves by plunging them into a pot of boiling water for a few minutes. This will make them pliable for rolling. You want them to be flexible but still bright green. When they are ready, remove them and dunk them in cold water. Then spread them out so you can stuff them.

IMG_6514Guess what? When I did this, I forgot to dunk the leaves in cold water and everything was fine anyway. I just set the soggy blobs on a tea towel until I could stuff them.

Beat the egg and the coconut milk/cream/whatever in a little bowl. Pour this into the onion/stem mixture. Turn off the heat. Stir in the beans and the cheese. You don’t need for the mixture to cook; just get it mixed. It sets in the oven.

Prepare a cookie sheet with a silicon liner or parchment paper. Put a spoon of the onion/stem/cream mixture on a leaf and then fold it up like a burrito.

IMG_6521Set them on the cookie sheet and brush with a little olive oil (I used my finger; it only takes a couple of drops).

Cook them for about 15 minutes, just enough to get warm and so the filling sets.

IMG_6531If you follow a recipe to the letter, it probably will turn out pretty good. But even if you miss a step or two, or substitute ingredients, it probably will turn out pretty good, as long as you aren’t baking, in which case Follow the Directions to the Letter. But for those of us just trying to get something nutritious and not too boring on the table, break loose and don’t worry if you don’t have everything or if you forget a step. Your diners probably won’t know unless you tell them. What happens in the kitchen stays in the kitchen.

 

 

 

Too Little, Too Much

21. JUNE 2012 - SEPTEMBRE 2012 - 239We have had a taste of the old days lately. No Internet, no telephone, only rarely mobile service. The first day or two the lights kept going out. But at least we had lights, and potable water. And we were above all grateful for what we didn’t have: water and mud in our house.

We have watched news reports of hurricane after hurricane hitting the U.S. What is strange is to have one hit us here, in the south of France, not even near the ocean, though not all that far from the Mediterranean.

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High
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Already lower.
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Same spot before the rain. The “river” went up to a duck’s knees.
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And the river bed was a place to play.

We were spared the worst of the winds. Tropical Storm Leslie marched over Portugal where it was the biggest to hit since 1842. It then very unusually skirted the south side of the Pyrénées over to the big, warm bathtub of the Mediterranean, where it picked up more moisture and veered north and inland. And then it cozied up to the south side of the Black Mountains and stayed put for a whole night, dumping the equivalent of six months of rain in a few hours.

It was clear that the storm was extraordinary. It can rain very hard here, even if not often. In fact, we had been suffering a drought, with a little rain in July, and almost none in August and September. The ground had been like concrete until a week earlier, when we got some rain and everybody was so happy. It’s a good thing it did rain then, softening up the ground, because otherwise the deluge that followed would have run off even harder.

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High.
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Lower.
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More typically, it’s way, way down there.

Even with the shutters closed, we could hear the river rumbling, like a nonstop fleet of trucks speeding by. It shook the house. The wind helped the rain finagle its way up under the roof tiles, so we had drips everywhere. That’s why, when our neighbors called around 5 a.m., we were up—we were placing buckets and plastic boxes and whatever we could find to catch the leaks. 

Our village was devastated by a flood in 1999, along with most of the villages in this region. Our neighbors’ house was nearly carried away by the river. “River” seems an exaggeration for what’s usually a 2-inch-deep trickle that dries up completely in some spots only to reappear a ways downstream. On Sunday night, it was a raging river, stretching far beyond its banks and tearing down everything in its way.

Our neighbors moved their cars to our yard, which is significantly higher, and then got their animals. Anybody who knows me knows that I will cross the street to avoid dogs, even ones fenced in yards or held on leashes. I prefer to have zero contact with any animals—live and let live, I wouldn’t hurt them but I don’t want to touch them or let them touch or sniff or lick me. So it was a big deal that a couple of dogs took up refuge in our glassed-in porch. Plus a cat in a cat carrier. It is proof of how much I love my neighbors.

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Not at all normal.

On Sunday night Monday morning, our neighbors waded through water almost to their knees as the river licked at their yard, trying once again to devour it all. The river was unrecognizable, stretching far beyond anything I had ever seen in 15 years. We arrived after the 1999 disaster, but as long as I have lived here everyone has had stories to tell. Weeks without plumbing or electricity. Everyone being sick of being dirty and cold. Mud everywhere. The army shoveling it out and distributing water. Neighbors helping neighbors.

By dawn, the rain was relenting a bit and our kid woke up, panicked about having missed the school bus, not noticing the highly unusual event of us having breakfast with the neighbors. School was canceled for three days. 

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The water had already receded a lot at this point.

In our village, it was like a snow day. A few very old houses right next to the river had their ground floors flooded, and some cars parked in front of them were smashed up by the current. The river rose so quickly, and during the night, that people who slept soundly (like our kid) had no idea what was happening, and if they did it was too dangerous to go move a car at that point. 

By dawn, the water had already barreled downstream to torment some other villages. The level was still high, the racket deafening, but it was far lower than hours before, and just kept dropping. Villagers came out to survey the damage, to be shocked at where the water went, to compare it to the high water of two years ago and the Big Flood of 1999. Everyone walked in the middle of the main street, because roads in and out were impassable and there was no traffic. We saw everybody, it seemed. I think I got (and gave) a record number of bises for an hour. 

Our kid lamented that it took a disaster to get people out to stroll about and greet each other. As the days went on and the roads remained closed, except for one circuitous and damanged route that quickly became clogged with cars, our doorbell rang regularly with various friends popping by to say hello. “I like when people come by like that,” our kid said.

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There are lots of uprooted trees.

P1100747Our kid has such a tender heart. We had organized a bunch of stuff for a vide grenier, and our kid went through everything, looking for clothes to donate. We loaded up the car and took it all to Trèbes, which was hit hard. 

The drive there was through utter devastation. It was mostly vineyards, so it will rebound. The harvest was over. The winegrowers will trim the vines and pull out the rubbish and replace the uprooted plants. But so much rubbish! Branches and entire trees, but also anything that was sitting in low-lying yards, or even that was put away in garden sheds that got washed way, their contents scattered far and wide. Much of the plain was still a lake of muddy water. It will recover.

Some won’t recover, though. At last count, 14 people died. Not a peaceful way to go. On our way to Trèbes, we saw piles of soggy personal effects, set out at the curb to be hauled away. We saw houses filled waist-deep with mud. The parking lot of the Trèbes arena is a mountain of debris.

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Just two weeks ago, it was completely dry.

The president, Emmanuel Macron, visited Monday. Our kid snorted in disgust at the news, but I said he’s damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t. If he comes, he will be criticized for using a tragedy for publicity, for wasting taxpayer money on the trip, which requires helicopters, bodyguards, teams of assistants. On the other hand, if he doesn’t come, he will be criticized for not caring, for not raising the tragedy high enough on the agenda; he also will risk hearing about the state of things filtered by ministers and assistants who perhaps have other priorities and agendas. 

Have you lived through a devastating storm? How long did it take for life to return to normal? 

Single Payer FAQs in France

P1100672I’ve been reading news about “Medicare for all.” For people outside the U.S., it’s a no-brainer. Of course everybody gets health care. Of course the cost isn’t based on how healthy you are. Of course it’s affordable. Of course you choose your doctor.

I can only really tell you about the French system, which, in nearly 15 years of experience, has been excellent.

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Helicopter landing at the hospital. Courage to whoever was inside.

Who qualifies?

All French residents get a Carte Vitale, a green chip card with your French social security number (kids under age 16 are on the card of one of their parents). The card itself doesn’t cost anything. Coverage is obligatory. If you are a tourist, however, you aren’t covered and have to pay out of pocket or get your insurance to pay. But the bill won’t be anything like what you’d confront in the U.S.

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Emergency room waiting area. Efficient. Carcassonne’s hospital is fairly new.

Who pays?

Everybody. The government insurance covers 77% of health expenses. A further 14% is covered by complementary insurance and almost 9% covered by individuals (co-pay, if you like, but not for everything; it’s mostly for glasses and dental work). The government funding comes from employer and employee payroll taxes (50%), income taxes (35%), taxes on tobacco, alcohol, the pharmaceutical industry and voluntary health insurance companies (13%) and state subsidies (2%).

I was talking to someone in the U.S. who was turned off by single payer, saying that he didn’t want to pay in for lazy people who don’t work. Of course, there are some freeloaders in France, but the cost of keeping them healthy is nothing compared to the taxes evaded by the rich using offshore shell companies. They are the real freeloaders. But psychologically, humans pick on those with less status than us and turn a blind eye to those with more.

Also in France, there’s a list of 30 health conditions that are 100% covered–hospitalization, treatment, doctor visits, medication, etc. These include diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, incapacitating stroke, cystic fibrosis, HIV, malignant cancer, etc.  A friend had a kidney transplant–something stressful enough, and at least she didn’t have to worry about the cost.

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Where emergency patients get wheeled in on gurneys for triage. Not fancy.

What is this complementary insurance?

Complementary insurance covers all or most of the fees not covered by the government program. It’s voluntary and paid individually. It’s private mutual insurance, meaning it’s nonprofit. Patients lose if profits win. The average in 2017 was €688 per person annually or about €57.33 a month.

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Patient room. The screens are for TV and Internet; you have to buy time.

How high are the taxes?

Employers pay 13% of salary for health care, maternity, disability and death insurance. Self-employed people making under €43,705 a year pay between 1.5% to 6.5%; over that you pay 6.5%.

In the U.S., the average worker contributions are $1,213 a year for a single person and $5,714 for a family. Worker premiums have gone up about 75% over the last 10 years, vs. about 48% for the employer share. About 80% of workers’ employers pay at least half the premium for both single and family coverage. The average cost of insurance for employers is $6,435, with a $6,000 deductible. (Excuse me, I just fainted at that deductible.)

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Other view of a room. The brown column is a closet.

How does it work?

If you’re sick, you call your doctor. Around here, we sometimes can get in the same day, sometimes not. If it’s urgent, one of the other doctors in the group will take us. We don’t have many emergencies, so we usually make appointments for a week or two in advance for routine checkups. Our long-time doctor moved away, so we shopped around for a new one, trying a few recommended by different friends before settling on someone we liked a lot. The idea of in-network or out-of-network doesn’t exist because there’s just one network. While people are free to shop for a doctor when thinking about switching, the French system does require picking a primary-care doctor to limit abuse, such as how much people can shop for somebody to write them a prescription they might not need.

If you have to go to the hospital, there are no surprise bills from out-of-network doctors you never met or who worked on you when you were unconscious. Some doctors can demand a surcharge, but it’s usually in the tens of euros.

How is it different from the U.S.?

Everything is less fancy. This might be in part because we are in the sticks and not in Paris, but I saw the same thing in Brussels. It’s all nice, but not luxe. One hospital in my hometown had a grand granite entry with a grand piano, carpeting in the halls, sofas and armchairs in the rooms. Here, the hospital is brand-new, heavy on the linoleum, only one hard plastic chair per patient room.

However, granite (or carpeted–EEEWWW) floors don’t make anybody better. All that matters is that the place can be kept clean and that it’s arranged in a functional manner.

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Vintage formica table in one room. Must have come from the old hospital. Or even the hospital before. Waste not.

The doctors’ offices are pretty simple, too. Always nice, but never fancy. One thing that I found unusual was that the office and examining table are in the same room. You go in, sit at the desk across from the doctor, then get undressed (no paper gowns), get examined, get dressed, your Carte Vitale is read, you pay your €25 and leave. No little exam rooms in a line where a nurse charges in for your vitals, then the doctor comes by for two minutes and disappears. I told one doctor about this, and how the little exam rooms would save a lot of the doctor’s time by not waiting for patients to undress/dress, and she was horrified. Especially with the elderly, she said, it’s important to observe how patients move as they’re dressing. She saw the U.S. system as penny-wise, pound-foolish.

French health care is of very high quality despite being lower cost. France has 3.2 doctors per 1,000 people, fewer than some European countries but more than the U.S., which has 2.5 per 1,000.  Maternal deaths per 100,000 live births dropped  to 8 in 2015 from 15 in 1990, whereas in the U.S. they rose to 14 from 12 in the same years. Check out this article about dying mothers. Life expectancy at birth is 82.4 in France, among the highest in the world, compared to 78.6 in the U.S. Infant mortality is 3.7 per 1,000 live births, vs. 5.9 in the U.S.

In addition, a number of preventive campaigns aim to keep costs down by catching problems early, including free mammograms every two years after age 50, as well as free tests for colorectal cancer.

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In the lobby, a piano. Not grand. Nor is the lobby.

Isn’t it weird having the government decide what’s covered?

Well, somebody has to do it, and it’s probably better that it’s decided by society at large rather than by your employer, non? Most people don’t realize that larger companies self-insure–in fact 60% of U.S. workers covered by their employers are literally covered by their employers through self insurance. It’s called captive insurance, and it’s a way of using the risk of employee health costs or death benefits (which would be low risk if you have healthy employees) as a hedge against other corporate risks. The company sets aside a pool of money as its own insurance. It contracts with an actual insurance company to administer claims. The employer can decide what to cover or not, although the Affordable Care Act set some standards on that.

That means employers have an interest in whether you’re healthy. A few years ago, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong announced to employees that he was cutting employees’ retirement benefits because of self-insurance payouts for two “distressed” babies.

With single payer like in France, employers help pay in, but risks are spread across the entire country. There are no questions about pre-existing conditions, because participation in the system is obligatory.

While there are certainly cases of people abusing the system (I know a couple who would go for a weeklong “cure” for “arthritis” every year at a spa), for the most part nobody gets surgery for the heck of it, nobody has chemotherapy just because they can get it for free. Health care is one of those things you want to not have to need. It shouldn’t be available only to those who can afford it, certainly not in developed countries.P1100679

A French Hamlet

IMG_6484Hamlet as in tinier than a village. Not Hamlet as in Shakespeare.

A little wide spot in the road that I’ve driven by without stopping. A church steeple beckoned. I pulled over.IMG_6482The hamlet of Grèzes was founded in 778 by Charlemagne after defeating the local Visigoths. Charlemagne founded un prieuré, or a priory, at Grazanis, which became Grèzes, now a bedroom community of Carcassonne. The priory had five or six monks of the order of St. Benoît, a hospital, a dispensary and a school. It sounds downright bustling. Charlemagne established a number of abbeys across the region, including Saint Hilaire (birthplace of bubbly wine!!! YES, not Champagne…more on that later), Caunes, Saint Polycarpe, Lagrasse, Saint Papoul. He wanted to re-instill Catholicism across the land. This was well before Catharism took hold in the region and led to the last Crusade, against the Cathars, in the early 1200s, when Carcassonne surrendered rather than face the slaughter that happened at Béziers.IMG_6486The other high point came in March 1579, when Catherine de Medici visited Grèzes during a five-day stay in Carcassonne with her son, Charles IX. She gave two chandeliers that light the choir. The church was closed when I passed, but having learned of this must-see décor I will go back! It dates to the XIII century, but has had many additions, renovations and restorations. It had only one bell until 1952, when two more were added.IMG_6489I saw more cats than people.

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This is Grand Rue, or Main Street. I love how the lady walked over to her neighbor’s open window and just started talking.

All the streets were two-way but barely big enough for one car.

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Old-timey street lamps with energy-efficient LED lights. So French!
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Those are some amazing phoenix palm trees!

A pretty drève leads out of town. So many of these have been cut down because of the blight killing the platanes, or plane trees.IMG_6491The Black Mountains are visible in the distance, beyond the rolling wheat and hay fields and vineyards.IMG_6492

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Vineyards in the foreground, barely visible.

And Carcassonne’s airport is very close.

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I thought the tires were going to part my hair.

Somehow, even places that are little more than a wide spot in the road manage to be charming here. I promise to report back on Catherine de Medici’s taste in light fixtures.