You can see so much art for free in France–in all of Europe. Just walk into a church, the bigger the better, and amazing works will be in front of your nose, usually without crowds and almost always in wonderful silence. Aside from the really major attractions, like Notre Dame de Paris before the fire, you can wander in without lines. Sometimes there’s even mood music.You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the work for its quality. Back in the day, the Catholic church was a major benefactor of the arts. Maybe benefactor isn’t the right word–it was a major consumer/commissioner/purchaser/collector. Churches are chockfull of sculptures and paintings, and the buildings themselves are wonders of design.This is part two of my day trip to Narbonne. (Part one is here.) We’re going to explore le Cathedrale de Saint-Just et Saint-Pasteur, which is part of the same cluster of buildings as the city hall/former archbishops’ palace.
First, the name. Just and Pasteur were two Christian brothers who were martyred near Madrid around the year 304 (A.D., obviously) under the Diocletianic Persecution. The Roman Emperor Diocletian rescinded Christians’ rights and required them to make sacrifices to the Roman gods. Just and Pasteur, 12 and 9 years old, refused. There are multiple versions of their grisly deaths.
Pope Clément IV (born Gui Foucois but known as Guy le Gros–Fat Guy) decided in 1268 to build a fancy new cathedral in Narbonne, where he had previously been archbishop. Emphasis on the word fancy. The cathedral was started in 1272 in a gothic style. Only the choir was finished, around 1330. Remember that the vicious crusade against the Cathar heretics ran through the area in 1209, from the sacking of Béziers just north of Narbonne, to the surrender of Carcassonne just to the west; Narbonne, between them, was the headquarters of the Catholic forces. The bishop of Narbonne had been fairly tolerant of the Cathars, which led to him being fired in 1211. The crusade was lucrative for the church, which grabbed the land of dispossessed lords who had been linked to the Cathars. This led to the construction of a bunch of churches in the region, including the cathedral.
The cathedral and the archbishops’ palace were built like fortifications, perhaps because they abutted the city wall. In fact, finishing the cathedral would have possibly required tearing down part of the wall, which might have been a factor in it not getting finished. The other reasons it wasn’t completed were the plague and economic decline of the city.
What they accomplished shows how ambitious the plans were. It’s still one of the tallest churches in France. But back to art.
There are tapestries and paintings and frescoes.
There’s a strong preoccupation with the afterlife. It was the cudgel raised over the the people, to keep them in line. Obey now or else you’ll be sorry later.
In good gothic style, the exterior is studded with gargoyles, impressively expressive.The stained glass windows offer more tableaux. I failed to zoom in, happy to just appreciate the play of light and color.Almost every surface is decorated.Doors upon doors upon doors.The cathedral and its archbishops’ palace rise above the plain like some kind of shipwreck, or an island, even a mountain. Not discreet in the least. Bold, daring. Declaring “yeah, we’re here. What about it?”
Are you a beach bum? I’m way more interested in history and culture than sun and sand, but Narbonne, on the Mediterranean coast, has both. Just half an hour’s drive from Carcassonne, Narbonne’s history has been closely linked with Carcassonne’s, but it’s even older, at least as a modern city.
Around 120 B.C., the Romans showed up, forming the first Roman colony in the land of the Gauls, dubbed Narbo Martius. They built la Voie Domitienne–aka la Via Domitia, or the Domitian Way–to link Rome with the Iberian Peninsula, roughly where the A9 autoroute goes today. It was named after Cneus Domitius Ahenobarbus, a Roman general who oversaw its construction, although some called it la Voie Héraclénne, after Heracles, the strongman demigod who supposedly did the work. Eventually, the Romans built more roads, including the Via Aquitania that cut across southern France to the Atlantic, more or less along the A61 autoroute.
Roman stuff is all over town, despite the fact that the Barbarians (literal Barbarians, not figurative ones) tried to destroy everything. A square still respects the outlines of the Roman forum, and a couple of columns from two centuries ago stand there. Other bits of columns show up here and there, and of course recycling was big back in the day; some Roman rocks (we know because they’re carved) ended up in a later city wall.
It’s easier to find “new” architecture, like from the 1200s. I love a place where “old” is 2,000 years old, and “new” is just 800 years old.The stunner is le Palais des Archevêques (the Bishops’ Palace), which is an accretion of a couple of centuries’ of styles. Le Vieux Palais (the Old Palace) dates to the Romans in the 5th century and butts up to the cathedral; le Palais Neuf (the New Palace) is across from it, started in the 14th century as a fortress in a gothic style. It’s flanked by two towers: the 42-meter-tall donjon, built from 1295 to 1306, and the smaller Saint Martial tower. The city hall, as well as museums of art and archeology, are housed in the Bishops’ Palace since the place was renovated in 1845 by Eugène Viollet le Duc at age 24 and without an architecture degree. Viollet le Duc went on to renovate Notre Dame and la Cité of Carcassonne, among other important sites.
The Aude river passes through Narbonne passes near the palais on its way to the Mediterranean. The city has done an impressive job of making parks along it. The historic center is closed to vehicles, which is great for walking. Cafés spill out into the medieval streets. On the other side of the Aude, les Halles, or the covered market, is a pretty Belle Epoque building that bustles in the mornings only. Look for the café where former rugby stars call out orders to the nearby butcher, who throws the requested cuts of meat through the air (wrapped in paper).
You also can visit the home of Charles Trenet, the crooner from the 1930s to the 1950s, probably best known for the song “La Mer.” You probably know the cover by Frank Sinatra or Bobby Darin, translated as “Beyond the Sea.”
Getting to the beach from Narbonne is a little tricky if you don’t have a car, in which case it’s about 10 or 15 minutes’ drive. By bike, you have to go up, then down, the Clape “mountains” (very steep hills). Plenty of folks do it, but it’s very steep, there are no shoulders, and lots of campers, which take up every bit of the lane. Also, it runs through a pine forest that smells amazing but that has fire warnings every few feet. Or you can go to Gruissan, which goes around the Clape, with a wider road. Alternatively, you can take the No. 4 bus. Personally, we prefer Gruissan.Last time I was there, we ate at le Bouchon Gourmand, on Quai Valière, because with a name like that! Two of us had mussels, which were correct (the French sense of “correct” is good quality and quantity for the price). And one friend had something I don’t remember now but it wasn’t worth taking a photo. It was partly our own fault–we went on a Monday, when most of les Halles is closed (including the rugby restaurant with flying meat).
More Narbonne on Friday–insane details from the unfinished cathedral of Narbonne, which rises like a beached ship from the oh-so-flat plains.
L’apéritif is sacred in France. That means it comes with all kinds of rituals and even special equipment, though that’s not what counts. You can have a fine apéro, as the French like to shorten it to, with just a glass of wine. The ritual can be done by anybody.
The first and most important ingredient is people. You thought I’d say alcohol, but no. Even if you’re having a soft drink, you can enjoy apéritif hour. It’s a moment of socializing with friends, family, even strangers. The connections and conversation, regardless of whether they’re lubricated with alcohol, are what count.
Around here, there are two times for apéritifs: the typical one, around 6 p.m., for before-dinner drinks. And similarly around 11 a.m., for before-lunch drinks. I find that to guarantee an unproductive afternoon, so instead I raise a cup of coffee to toast friends I bump into at the Saturday market.
Indeed, the cafés around the market buzz with activity, and many of the coffee cups get replaced by stemmed glasses of wine as noon approaches. Cafés put tables (chairs optional) or wine barrels into the streets that are closed for the market. It’s a big party, and some are so packed, despite the extra street space, that you can barely wiggle past. Feel free to strike up conversation with anybody. It’s all friendly, especially at noon.
A few set up tables serving appetizers, called zakouskis. Zakouskis are part of the ritual. Don’t drink on an empty stomach! Olives and nuts are popular. Pretzels, chips, all that jazz. Charcuterie, or hard sausages, though cheese usually is reserved for after dinner except for little cubes, sprinkled with herbs or celery salt. Also smaller nibbles, which can be elaborate, like tapas, or even become a meal, in which case it’s an apéritif dînatoire.
For drinks, you have the standards: wine (red, white and rosé), sparkling wine, white wine or sparkling wine with a dash of cassis liqueur for a kir or kir royale (if sparkling), the apéro of Dijon.
Around here, anise-flavored pastis is popular, called un jaune–a yellow–because the clear, golden pastis oxidizes and becomes a cloudy yellow when ice and water are added. It’s a drink with lots of equipment–special glasses with a line showing how far to pour the pastis; water pitchers and ice buckets. The Ricard brand is so popular that many people just ask for a Ricard, if they don’t say “p’tit jaune.”
Among cocktails, le petit ponch, also shortened to ti-ponch, has rum, lime and cane syrup with origins in France’s tropical colonies.
Oysters are also popular, with a glass of white wine. Not so much in summer….
Apéritif comes from the Latin word aperire, to open. They had a medicinal origin, with the concoctions of herbs for laxative effect, cited in the 13th century. (See some here.) But in modern times (since the mid-1700s), an apéritif is intended to open your stomach, to make you hungry.
Will you be raising a glass with friends this weekend?
The opening act is the rooster, starting so far before dawn that the sky, while not black, is navy blue, a velvety background to the dazzling morning stars. Then comes Merle, who often perches on the neighbor’s television antenna. At this hour, he seems not so much to sing as to deliver either a monologue or newscast. Merle is a merle, a blackbird, and I’ve gotten to know him well over the past couple of years.
Merle is gregarious, even with our neighbor, whose big heart finds room for any stray and who currently has six or seven cats and twin bulldogs, named Hermione and Hubert. Merle also sings to the neighbor, who looks like Catherine Deneuve did 15 years ago, so I get a bit jealous, but she admitted she leaves him food. But so do I! With no cats to dodge!
Merle does spend a lot of time with me. He hops around in the grass, always about six feet away, while I hang laundry on the line. If I turn around or step toward him, he skitters into the bushes, as if I can’t see the fat black bird behind the leaves, especially since he makes a ruckus in the mulch. Merle, get your act together, or the cats will get you!
When we dine in the pergola, he comes to a branch just above it, violating his six-foot rule, serenading our dinner. At sunset, he perches on the peak of the roof and sings his lungs out. Sometimes it’s a complex aria, full of emotional highs and lows. Operatic. Sometimes it sounds more like speech.
I keep reading about how smart so many animals are. Elephants for sure. Dolphins. Octopus. I heard an interview with a scientist about how even plants may communicate. Just because we can’t decipher it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
While filling a watering can, I watched a procession of ants along a wall. Traffic was heavy in on direction, the ants staying in line as if on a highway whose stripes I couldn’t see. Occasional ants made the return trip, and they bumped heads with every single ant they passed. Obviously they were communicating something. Yes, scientists will throw pheromones at you, but I think reduces what they do to something biological and not intellectual.
The other day, my kid made naan. Best eaten hot, so we left cleanup for after dinner. Ants beat us to it. I was fascinated. Several ants cooperate to haul away a fleck of dough. They tugged one way, then one would go around to the other side to help there. Maybe they use pheromones, but they aren’t stupidly sniffing (actually they don’t smell; their antennas pick up the chemical) and following.
Imagine ants looking at a computer and saying, “Humans use this to communicate, but it’s all ones and zeroes. Can’t be very important.”
Scientists also think trees talk (a different one here). They not only communicate but share nutrients and water and protect their young. One interview I heard hypothesized that other living beings are on different time scales and different frequencies that we just can’t detect. A tree might live hundreds of years, and the communication might be so stretched out that we observe nothing. A fly lives months, and might be so fast that we detect nothing.
We are so human-centered that we don’t pay any attention to anything else. We tear up forests for agriculture, and tear up agriculture for houses and shopping centers. More and more and more consumption, most of which we don’t even consume; it goes through our hands momentarily before moving to a landfill.
And when ants or bees or other bugs bother us, we annihilate them with chemicals. My thinking on this has changed drastically in the past few years. Maybe I was late to the game. But it seems we have a long way to go.
The roosters that live in the shade of the woods along the riverside wake me long before dawn. They are joined by the caws of another bird, something big and wild. Do herons make noise? I don’t know a heron from an egret or anything else that’s big, with long legs and lives near water. But they are neighbors.
I slip through the darkness to the living room to open the windows and welcome in the cool night air. It’s in the mid-60s Fahrenheit, but it feels icy and delicious. When I put on my glasses, I can see the stars, so many stars. But since I glide through the house in the dark, glasses are of no use and I don’t bother with them. I know where the furniture is, where the window handles are, how many stairs and how big they are. The familiarity is comforting.My kid got a summer job, detassling corn, of all things. I grew up in the Midwest, and most people I know detassled corn in the summer. One of my siblings back home almost choked from laughing when told the news. In French it’s called castration, which is what it is, but somehow more brutal to say. The fields are a long drive away; my kid and several friends joined up to carpool, or co-voiturage. I drop my kid off at the meeting point, or take my turn driving over the rolling hills, as vineyards give way to vast fields of wheat, sunflowers and corn as we head west. There are few cars on the road at such an early hour. The kids are groggy and silent. I feel like we’re flying through paintings by Monet or Jules Breton.
The sun still hasn’t peeked above the horizon when I’m en route home, but it’s light, the world wrapped in a pale pastel veil. One morning, fog unfurled across low-lying fields, stretching luxuriantly like a cat.
The colors of the sky grow more vivid, all purples, oranges and yellows. Then the sun appears, nearly blinding me as I drive straight toward it, the road a ribbon unspooling across the patchwork of golds and greens. The whole world now is golden, the delicate paleness has vanished. Within minutes, the gold, too, is gone and the sun, alone in a deep blue sky, nary a cloud in sight, delivers its frank, sharp rays that divide the landscape into stark overexposure or inky shade. I am home before the sun has climbed high enough to hit the east side of the house. I quickly close the shutters to keep the interiors a cave-like cool. Even though the heat wave is past and we have perfect summer weather, we don’t have air conditioning and use old-fashioned methods to keep the house comfortable. My friend, Merle, serenades me. He boldly follows, keeping a two-arms’-length distance, never more nor less. Merle is the blackbird who lives here with his wife (merle is French for blackbird, and a good name for an excellent singer). He’ll get his own post when I manage to get a flattering photo of him. He comes close, but not close enough for my phone’s camera.Maybe it’s that Europe is so far north–Carcassonne is about 43 degrees north, like Yankton, South Dakota; Niagara Falls; Pocatello, Idaho; Vladivostok, Russia. Summer days are longer than what I grew up with, though not as crazy as in Belgium or even farther north, like Scandinavia. Appreciating the dawn requires getting up really early, made all the harder by the fact that it’s still light at 9:30 or 10 p.m. And those evenings are yummy, too, as the day’s warmth fades but not so much that the cicadas stop singing. Bats swoop back and forth, dining on insects, almost in time with the cicadas’ metronome.
Some friends came for dinner with the foster children they care for. Kindergarten and first grade, brother and sister. As night fell, we reclined on the chaises longues to look for shooting stars. The boy asked to hold my hand. Then he had a better idea. Wouldn’t it be more comfortable, he said, if he were on the same chaise as me? He snuggled into the crook of my arm. His sister, jealous, claimed the other side. We scanned the skies, but the boy was a little afraid of shooting stars. He told me about monsters. Did I believe in them? No, I told him, you don’t need to worry about monsters. He said sometimes he believed in them, sometimes not. I listened to his five-year-old ideas about the world and hoped he would remember this moment of magic, the stars dancing, the night birds in concert with the cicadas, the light blanket of a summer night’s warmth enveloping us.
Even though back in the day, people didn’t eat much meat–it was too expensive, and only for special occasions–they did tend to put a little into everything. A cassoulet was mostly beans, with a sausage and pieces of pork and/or duck thrown in for flavor, not the current equation of a duck leg plus sausage plus pork per person. I figured it shouldn’t be too hard to re-adapt classic dishes using only vegetables.
This kind of cooking doesn’t require a recipe. It’s about process, which works whether you are cooking for two or 20. If you put in two onions instead of one, it will still be delicious. It isn’t like baking, where if you put in two eggs instead of one it might not turn out.
In the final installment of vegetarian dinner party recipes, we feature the main dish: a daube of eggplant and chickpeas. I considered including mushrooms, but then didn’t. You certainly can; you even can replace the eggplant with mushrooms completely. I chose eggplant because it acts a lot like meat (mushrooms do the same). There are good-sized pieces (I went for inch cubes). The mouth feel is similar to well-cooked meat. It’s filling. It plays well with other ingredients. The chickpeas were for protein, though in light of the eggs and cheese in the other dishes, we weren’t going to be short in that department.
A daube is a kind of stew, but the liquid is not as thick as stews you might know. It’s also not as liquid, more of a sauce than a soup. It’s great for entertaining because it cooks low and slow for a long time. It simmers away independently while you attend to other things. And if guests are late or the apéritifs last longer than you expected, no problem–it isn’t something that has to go into and come out of the oven on time and be served immediately. It can wait another 10, 20, 30 minutes. It can wait an hour. A daube lets your dinner party follow its own schedule, follow its own heart.
For some reason, calling something la daube is an insult, to mean bad quality. According to le Figaro, the word daube dates to the 16th century, coming from the Italian word dobba, or marinate. Then some folks around Lyon used the term to speak of rotten fruits and meat, and thus it became an insult. So unfair!Daube aux Aubergines et Pois Chiches (Eggplant and Chickpea Stew)
2 medium eggplants (one per two guests), cut into inch cubes
8 oz. (250 g) chickpeas (I used canned; if you use dry chickpeas, you need to cook them first), drained
1 medium onion, chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, crushed
5 oz. (140 g) can of tomato paste
1 cup red wine
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon herbes de Provence (thyme, rosemary, oregano…)
Generously salt the eggplant cubes and place in a colander. Let them sit and sweat for about an hour, then rinse quickly and squeeze the liquid out with your hands.
In a heavy pot with a tight lid, warm the olive oil over medium-low heat, then add the onion. Cover so the onion sweats but doesn’t brown/burn. Add the garlic. When the onion is transparent, turn up the heat a little and add the eggplant, letting it brown a bit, so you get that carmelized umami.
Add the wine and tomato paste, stirring well to mix them. Raise the heat so it starts to boil, then turn down the heat to as low as possible. Stir in the chickpeas and cover the pot. I separated the parsley leaves from the stems, reserving the leaves for garnish and chopping the stems, which I also stirred into the stew. Let it simmer (mijoter) for at least 45 minutes. Stir from time to time, letting the liquid on the lid fall back into the pot. That’s a good time to check the seasonings and add salt and pepper if needed. If the daube seems dry, add water (or wine). Taste a piece of eggplant–it should feel cooked, but you don’t want it to cook to the point of turning into mush. If you’re making it in the morning, you can turn it off and warm it up later.
One way to do a slow-cooking dish like this, besides in a slow cooker or a crockpot, is to put it in the oven. Make sure the lid is tight, and you don’t have to stir at all. Because I made this during the heat wave, I avoided the oven.
Serve with rice. Polenta works, too. Even potatoes. Something to soak up the sauce.
Here’s an easy vegetable recipe that’s perfect for summer and pretty enough to garner oohs and aahs from dinner guests. You can serve it as a starter, but I liked it as a side to a vegetarian daube that was the main. I wanted a side dish that was structured, so the non-meat-eaters wouldn’t have a plate full of lumpy mush. Of course the vegetarian daube had vegetables but it’s nice to have variety on the plate. And it was an appealing addition for the guests who had steak.
Terrines are classic in French cuisine. Often they’re made with meat or fish. You can have a terrine of foie gras, but that isn’t the same as pâté of foie gras–a terrine is made of pieces layered into a deep, rectangular dish of the same name, and baked, whereas pâté is smooth–a paste. (If you see a circumflex, the hat symbol like this: ˆthen insert an “s” after the letter wearing the hat and you’ll probably recognize the word in English. Examples include forêt/forest), hôpital/hospital, rôti/roast. But the circumflex gets used for other things, too, such as differentiating when a word is spelled the same but means something completely different like sur (on) vs. sûr (sure/certain).)
In this case, the terrine might not be officially a terrine because I didn’t bake it. On the other hand, some of the fish terrines are made cold. Who cares, right? Restaurants are making ever-greater leaps of imagination in the naming of their dishes so that it’s hard to guess what will show up. I got the idea from things I’ve eaten and photos online and combined the parts I liked while omitting the things I didn’t. For example, one recipe called for frozen peas, but it’s summer and I have a bounty of fresh vegetables at my fingertips, so I used fresh zucchini. Don’t worry about the proportions too much–it will turn out fine with a little more carrot or a little less ricotta. Just make sure you really cook the vegetables you choose, otherwise you’ll have a hard time getting a pretty, clean slice.
The only hitch is that it really needs to be made the day before so it can set. But that’s usually a plus when entertaining, isn’t it?Vegetable Terrine
2-3 carrots, cut into small pieces
2 zucchini, cut into small pieces
3 red peppers (or red, yellow, green), WHOLE!
A bunch of fresh basil or other herbs, chopped finely
1 packet of unflavored gelatin (about 8 grams)
1 cup (25 cl) crème fraîche or half and half cream
400-ish grams (about 1 2/3 cups) ricotta (I had a 500g tub and used some of it for the tarte soleil and carrot rillettes in my earlier post)
Roast the peppers. The easiest way is to put them whole on the grill–they are easier to turn and it’s easier to roast the curvy parts. You also can do it under a broiler. When the skin is charred all over, put the peppers in a paper or plastic bag to cool. When they are cool enough to handle, cut them in half from stem to bottom to remove the seeds. Remove the skins.
Line a loaf pan with plastic film. Leave plenty of overlap so that you have enough to fold over the top. Push the film down into the corners. You want it to really follow the pan or your terrine will have a weirdly shaped top.
Cut the carrots into small pieces. Cook in boiling water until they’re soft. Lift them out with a slotted spoon, and put into a bowl to cool. Keep the cooking water. Drop the zucchini into the same water and cook until soft. Strain and put into a separate bowl.
In a small bowl, put about 1/2 cup of water, then sprinkle the gelatin on top. Let it sit while you mash the carrots and the zucchini separately with a fork or potato masher. It’s very easy and not worth the cleanup of a blender or food processor. Season each with salt and pepper.
In another bowl, mix the ricotta with the herbs. Season with salt and pepper.
Heat the cream. Add the dissolved gelatin and stir. Then split the cream mixture three ways–into the carrots, the zucchini and the ricotta.
You have some options here. I saw a gorgeous photo of a terrine with a glistening red top of pepper, but I think that next time I’ll cut strips and make a design of diagonal stripes. In any case, set down your terrine top in the bottom of the loaf pan. If you use entire halves of pepper, squeeze them close together so you don’t end up with gaps.
Then pour in the layer of ricotta, then the layer of carrot, then the layer of zucchini. I did it like that for maximum color contrast, not to have the orange carrot next to the red pepper. You can get fancy and, for example, have extra carrots that you cut in half lengthwise and cook until they’re very tender. Just lay them down lengthwise in the dish and pour the mixture over them and they’ll show up very pretty when you cut it open. If you have extra pepper you can make another layer with that. Fold the plastic film back over the top and refrigerate for at least six hours. When it’s time to serve, peel back the film and place a plate or tray over the loaf pan, then flip the entire thing, remove the pan and peel off the plastic film. I wouldn’t try to lift it out and turn it over.
My terrine pan is enormous: 11″x7″ (28x18cm). In the future I will do it with a smaller loaf pan, 9″x5″ (23x13cm) so that the layers will be thicker and prettier.
This is one of those high-impact, pretty dishes that’s easy to make. You can get creative, with different vegetables and pieces of vegetables that make designs when cut. Why not!!
I write this from the dark hole of my office, the large, east-facing window covered by a black-out shade that helps enormously to reduce the greenhouse effect. The heat wave, or canicule, has ended in our region, but it’s still 27 C (80 F) in my office.
All of Europe has been in the furnace this week. We’ve been spared the worst of it. We got to 31 C (88 F) yesterday, though our own thermometer showed 98 F. It was hotter in Paris, which set a record of 42.6 C (108.7 F) and in London, with a record 36.9 C (98.4 F). In normally cool and rainy Belgium (when I was moving there, a colleague told me not to bother packing short-sleeved shirts because I wouldn’t need them), fields were so hot and dry they caught fire.
In France, the Mediterranean basin was relatively spared. Between the last heat wave at the end of June and this one, the weather has been delightful. Warm days with highs around 30 C (85 F) and cool nights with lows around 16 C (60 F). Really perfect summer weather, with clear blue skies and the thrumming of the cidadas (check out my Instagram for a video). The south of France is called the Midi, which doesn’t refer to the middle but to noon–it’s the region where it’s always noon, or warm. As such, it’s designed for heat, with narrow streets that get shade from buildings, and buildings constructed like caves, with stone walls two feet thick. Even our house, built after WWII, has two-foot-thick stone walls.
The rest of the house is less gloomy, with shutters closed on the east but open on the west. For now. When the sun crosses over, I’ll shut the shutters on the west and open the ones on the east. I shut the windows around 9 to keep the cool air in and the hot air out. Even with all the windows open, the house never cools down quite as much as outside. Like 95% of Europeans, we don’t have air conditioning, and I’m glad. Yesterday, I sat outside to soak up the cool morning air. It was 24 C (75 F), and I was cold. That is the benefit of not having air conditioning. You get used to the heat. But only up to a point. It’s hard to put up with long stretches higher than body temperature.
My parents had a whole-house fan in the ceiling of the hallway at the center of the house. It was hidden by shutters that would clack open when the fan was turned on. The fan sucked in air from every window. It was heavenly. When we were little, we had only a window air conditioner, in the living room. Heat spells were party time. Usually we were sent to bed on time, I think by 8 p.m., because that’s when the “family” shows were over and the “adult” shows came on. But during heat spells, my dad spread out a feather bed, handmade by my grandma from down plucked from geese my dad had hunted (and eaten). My siblings and I staked our claims, angling for a good view of the TV. My dad would eat ice cream straight out of the box, and so would we, jousting with our spoons to mine a good vein of chocolate ripple or whatever, while watching TV shows our mother usually prohibited because of violence: “Mission Impossible,” “The Six Million Dollar Man,” “Mash,” “The Rockford Files”….The nuclear reactor near Toulouse had to be shut down because the river that provides cooling water was too hot. Meanwhile, France set a record for electricity consumption yesterday. Imagine how much more it would have been with widespread air conditioning. There have to be other ways to deal with the heat, to keep things from getting worse. To me, air conditioning is the equivalent of Thneedville, the comfortable but completely artificial town in Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax,” where people move once they’ve destroyed the rest of the environment.
What kind of world are we bequeathing to our kids? A real living hell? I’m not a fan of Vice, but check out this article.
This week has been too hot to do anything physical. It was too hot to do anything mental. I couldn’t work anyway–my computer overheated and shut down. My kid and I binge-watched TV shows, waiting for the respite of evening, when the pool would be in the shade for a cool soak. We ate almost nothing. Fruit and yogurt. No cooking. Nothing was appealing, certainly nothing hot.
Some people don’t get a choice about taking it easy. Workers were chopping down enormous platanes, or plane trees, hundreds of years old but infected with a fungus. Garbage trucks circulated, relieving us of our overconsumption. The baker turned out loaf after fresh loaf. I remembered the workers in Lamu, unloading bags of cement by hand in a kind of bucket brigade from dhows at the dock, shimmering with sweat in the heat and humidity, unable to drink because it was Ramadan. But they never slowed their pace.
After receiving numerous appeals to give blood, I realized I needed to act quickly because I had a dentist appointment–there’s a waiting period after dental work, which had fouled me up previously. I had a checkup on Thursday. I called the donor office and they gave me a 12:30 appointment on Wednesday. No problem, I thought. My car and the hospital have A/C. And it was fine … until I walked out into the parking lot and felt like I got hit by a frying pan. Je suis tombée dans les pommes–I fell into the apples, which is the poetic French way of saying I passed out. Eventually I recovered but was more or less wiped out for the rest of the day. I felt as droopy and wilted as my hydrangeas.
The hydrangeas are out of luck. We aren’t under watering restictions that some other departements face, but I’m only watering the fruits and vegetables. I try to remember to catch water from washing fruits and vegetables, or cooking pasta (the extent of turning on the stove these days), to give to the flowers. When I lived in Africa and had no running water, every drop was precious. I’d catch my “shower” water (my shower was me pouring cupfuls on myself) for washing clothes, and then that water would be poured on trees. It is shameful that we have designed our buildings–our lives–to pour purified water down the drain.
We are supposed to get rain today and tomorrow. We’ve had day after day of perfectly blue skies, so the change is welcome. It’s hard to believe we could have a drought after the deadly deluge in October. Extreme drought, extreme floods. Welcome to the new normal. Not just here, but everywhere.
How are you dealing with heat where you are? Has it gotten worse?
We had a little get-together last weekend, and I wanted to share some dishes with you. But first, some exciting news: We’re featured on Distant Francophile, on the “Franco-Files” audio interviews. Janelle, the Distant Francophile herself, visits France regularly and writes a great blog about French style, travel tips, culture and more. I was very flattered to be included. We talked a lot about buying property in France and renovating it.
On to the dinner: Everything was made ahead, no last-minute slaving in a hot kitchen. Like most people in France, even in the south of France, we don’t have air conditioning. But the evenings are cool and the climate is dry enough that we don’t battle bugs. It’s ideal for using our outdoor dining room, a pergola surrounded by stone walls.
Our neighbors and our kid are vegetarian; I am 99.5% vegetarian, too. When I was dating the Carnivore, he asked me, warily, whether I was vegetarian. In my mind, either you are or you aren’t, like being pregnant, or being an art thief. There’s no, “it depends.” Thus, having a hamburger once a year and steak tartare maybe twice a year, plus a chicken a couple of times, and fish, too, made me anything but vegetarian, even if the total came to once or twice a month. Certainly not once or twice a day, which is the Carnivore’s case. So I have been a huge disappointment in the meat department, especially because he doesn’t count chicken or fish as meat.
Anyway, my plan was to have a complete vegetarian meal, and he would grill ridiculously gigantic steaks for the meat-eaters. I wasn’t interested in the usual vegetarian option of making a menu and just leaving out the meat for the vegetarians–“let them eat potatoes.” I wanted to flip that and make a vegetarian menu and just add meat for the carnivores.
For starters, we had crudités with ranch dip (huge hit in France); oeufs mimosa (deviled eggs); and hard sausages.
The entrées were tarte soleil with zucchini and tomato, carrot rillettes and a clafoutis with cherry tomatoes. Une tarte soleil is just a tart with the crust cut to look like a sun. Very pretty. And while clafoutis is typically a dessert, this was a savory version with cheese.
The main course was a daube, or thick stew, of eggplant and chickpeas, served with potatoes–same as for the steak eaters. And there was a vegetable terrine on the side. I wanted the vegetable side dish to be cold, pretty, and something I could serve as a piece, not by the spoonful. It was an esthetic choice. I didn’t want the vegetarian plates to be just splotches of undefined stuff.
You never know the secrets people will spill after a few glasses of wine. The secrets cascade, too. One person divulges something, and, receiving nothing but empathy and caring from those gathered, someone else is emboldened to share something as well. One friend described being taken from his hard-working but impoverished single mother and shipped to a convent, where the nuns were cruel (this was a common theme in the friends’ stories). This guy is the sweetest, calmest, gentlest person. So many people who have had bad childhoods turn out with their kindness broken. It’s beaten out of them. But not him. And it all made me think of how the scars of separation never heal, even seven decades later. He described the scene of being taken from his mother in minute detail. Children belong with their parents. I have several friends who are foster parents, and some of the cases are heartbreaking proof that at times children are not safe with their parents. But then there are cases of cruel bureaucracy–back in the day it was against single mothers; today it is, in some places, against parents with brown skin fleeing violence that has its roots in the very country they’re fleeing to–their hoped-for safe haven created and fed the dangers in their homelands that caused them to run.Another friend is from Normandy. That I always knew, and I always knew his age. But what I failed to put together before is that he was born in 1941. Think of what was going on in Normandy in the 1940s–some of the worst of World War II. He said his earliest memories were the planes buzzing overhead and the German trucks trundling past the house. Can you even imagine raising children smack in the middle of war? But if you can’t escape…. And of course, the problems didn’t end with V-E Day. Communities were destroyed, food was rationed, malnutrition was rampant. Our kid listened, eyes wide, to his very unusual childhood memories. Talk about making history come to life. It’s too bad elders aren’t tapped in a better way as a resource for teaching.
There are titillating secrets, too. I heard about one villager, known as TinTin, who apparently quite the womanizer when he was young. To get even, his wife had an affair with one of his buddies…and got pregnant. As the son grew, he looked exactly like the buddy; it’s true he doesn’t look a bit like TinTin. I used to think he was always mad, and steered clear–our kids were in school together. But now I wonder whether his expression was of sadness, of probably knowing the story of his birth, even though TinTin raised him as his own. And I never would have guessed Mme. TinTin was the scheming, nasty person described; I knew her only as the very prim and proper lady, whom I would greet as she meticulously swept her front step.
Back to the recipes!
1 premade flaky pie crust (pâte feuillété…you can get a bunch of different kinds here).
2-3 tablespoons of soft cheese: cream cheese, ricotta, Boursin. Just so it spreads.
summer vegetables, sliced very thin. I used two zucchini and a tomato. I peeled the zucchini, cut rounds, then cut the rounds in half.
2 tablespoons of olive oil
Preheat the oven to 360F/180C. Spread out the pie crust on a large cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Mine were too small, so I turned one over. The crust extended past the edge a little but didn’t slump.Put a bowl about 5-6 inches (12-13 cms) in diameter in the middle of the crust. Smear the cheese on the pie crust around the bowl. Then arrange the vegetables. I made two rings, facing opposite directions.Remove the bowl and cut the pie crust in the center as shown below. Fold back the dough over the vegetables. Brush with olive oil and bake until the crust is brown. Delicious at room temperature.
Rillettes are made from meat or fish, cooked very, very slowly in their own fat until they fall apart into shreds. The vegetarian version gets its name because the carrots fall to shreds and you can spread the stuff on bread, but that’s where the similarities end.
2 carrots, peeled and cut into rounds
3 oz. or about 1/3 cup (75g) soft cheese like cream cheese, ricotta, St. Môret….I used cream cheese for both this and the tarte soleil, since the tarte requires so little.
Boil the carrots until they’re soft. Drain. Use a fork to smash them roughly into chunks. You don’t want purée.
When cool, mix the carrots with the cheese; salt and pepper to taste. You can jazz it up with spices–cumin is good.
Spread on baguettes or toast.
Usually clafoutis is a dessert, made with cherries. The batter is similar to the batter for crêpes, but instead of individual, thin pancakes, you pour it all into a pan.
1 cup/120 g flour
1 cup/25 cl milk
2 oz/50g parmesan, finely grated (please don’t use the ready-made stuff!)
30-50 cherry tomatoes (small ones are better, but you need more of them)
Butter for the baking dish
Preheat the oven to 360F/180C. Beat the eggs. Add the flour, then thin out the mixture with the milk so you don’t get lumps. Add the parmesan. Let it rest 20-30 minutes.
Butter and flour a 9×12-inch baking dish. Pour in the batter. Then drop in the tomatoes here and there. Sprinkle with thyme and peppercorns. Bake for 25-30 minutes. Then you can set the oven to broil for a minute to make the top browner, if you like.
Serve at room temperature.
I didn’t have enough tomatoes from our garden, and the tomatoes I found at the market were pretty large, with the result that they produced a lot of juice.. Look for the smallest size you can. A mix of colors is pretty.
You can do this other ways: instead of parmesan, try mozzarella (you’ll want to add some salt to the batter; note that this version doesn’t have any because parmesan is pretty salty).
Little French villages are special in a general way, with their beautiful stone houses and flowers and fountains, and they each have something unique, too. Recently, one of the little villages around here put on the most astonishing performance. Young mixed with old and creativity flowed in a way that almost brought tears to my eyes.
It was a moving performance in all senses of the term. Yes, there were emotional moments, but the scenes were scattered around the village, and the spectators walked from one to another. It started at the football (soccer) field. A couple of children kicked a ball, then a flood of kids invaded the field, all while music played on loudspeakers. Then referees–adults–ran in and kicked the ball just to each other as the kids surged from one to another of the refs. A loud boom send the players all to the ground. Sirens started, and some guys dressed in white ran onto the field with a stretcher. They loaded up one of the refs, who seemed to have a ball under his shirt. Then the kids all ran off and the audience moved on…not having the slightest clue.
We climbed one of those passageways you find in old villages, made by and for pedestrians centuries ago. Dancers writhed against the walls. Then we came out at a space where a grange or garage or house had been torn down, leaving a gap like a lost tooth in the otherwise complete row of attached stone houses. It was set up like an operating room.The ref was on the table. The surgeon shouted orders. “Pump!” And the ambulanciers loudly worked a bicycle foot pump. “Pump! Pump! Pump!” the surgeon shouted, and the guys, the surgeon and the nurse all jumped up and down. “Knife!” the surgeon yelled. The nurse grabbed two–a butcher cleaver and machete, holding them in the air. “That one!” the surgeon yelled, pointing at the machete. It got more and more hysterical. Finally they delivered the ball, which was tossed to a waiting soccer kid, who led us to the next scene.In the middle of a street, a bunch of residents, wearing long work cloaks that blue-collar workers used to wear here (one of my kid’s teachers, an older guy, would don a cloak while teaching). They were in a huddle and scooted up and down and back and forth along the street as small children ran to a wall and picked off messages that were tacked there, handing the messages to people in the audience.
We migrated up the street, where a big pot of artificial flowers was in front of a house. A very tiny, very ancient lady stood in the doorway, laughing that so many people were behaving so strangely in this little village. Children came and plucked the flowers, handing some to her and some to the audience. Across the street, somebody’s legs dangled and kicked out of an upper-story window. As we climbed the narrow street, sweet notes of a cello slipped out of an acoustically lovely old stone garage, played by a very handsome young man, maybe late teens or early 20s. Everybody held their breath as he let the music float out to embrace us. It was magical.Around the corner, some people wearing rain coats and hats were seated in a line of chairs, reading the newspaper, as if they were on a train. They took turns reading random headlines out loud, like some kind of Dada poetry slam.
Adding to the train impression was a big white sheet stretched across the street (which was only barely wide enough for a person to lie down in cross-wise). Some bright lights blared at us from behind the sheet, almost like a train coming through a tunnel. We advanced to the sheet, and then music started. Dancers were behind the sheet, casting shadows on it. It got silly and funny and was all improvised. We moved to a village square, where some older residents and young girls playing cards around a big table. They were clearly cheating, getting more and more outrageous. The girls crawled under the table and walked on top of it, throwing cards. All this was to music. Finally the cards got more maniacally tossed in the air, a boom rang out and we were off to the next thing.
The nurse and surgeon were back, this time with an improvised tale that was completely nonsensical, with lots of double-entendres and puns that would be way too complicated to explain in translation. Between the slapstick and the coy jokes, young and old were cracking up. Under the trees in a cool spot by the park, a young woman perched on a stool. She exuded calm and poise. She had two instruments, a large drum filled with pebbles, and a finger harp. She asked us to close our eyes, and she took us to the sea. She spoke about the beauty of the sea, the importance of the sea, while the waves swirled audibly around us. She added a few notes from the harp, which seemed to me to be in my ears what the sun does when it glints off the water. Again, everyone held their breath. Mesmerized.
In the park, a final scene brought all the cast, starting with dancers who scampered among the trees. An adult in a rabbit costume walked a tightrope stretched between two trees. Every talent had a place! The football players arrived, and finally everybody took a bow. Two food trucks were in the park, and tables were set up for the shared moment to continue.
Have you ever seen such a thing? I was so impressed by the wide variety of people who participated and the many talents of such a little village. If anything, it was a bit like Dr. Seuss’s Whoville, and after this special night, the village’s heart got even bigger.
I don’t have the kind of WordPress account to allow for videos, so I’ll try to put some clips on Instagram. A couple of the acts I have only videos of–the cellist and the wave-maker.