Village Life

P1060934The French countryside is studded with little gems of villages, often boldly at the crest of a hill, from where its church steeple and, likely, a fortress tower, bristles above the horizon. Others are nestled in valleys, nearly invisible until you get close.

In this part of the south of France, les anciens--the people of old–used the building materials at hand–namely large stones pulled from the fields. The stones provide great insulation and are surely one of the reasons people here continue to resist air conditioning. IMG_2694The roofs are covered with red terre cuite tiles, laid in overlapping waves, which usually (not always) are heavy enough to resist the high winds that tear through. Some are cemented down for good measure. Imagine the weight.

The buildings predate any zoning or urban planning. People added on here and there over generations, resulting in a crazy quilt of red roofs.P1060954The church is at the center of the village, its steeple often topped with a rooster, the Gallic coq.  The rooster was a religious symbol in medieval times and during the Revolution became a symbol of France. P1060933Many of the villages are so small they don’t have any baker or grocery store. The sole businesses are wineries, or the odd artisan like plumbers or electricians who work out of their homes. Some don’t even have a school. Parents drive their kids to school in bigger villages nearby on their way to work in town. Only the elderly are left in the villages during the day. P1070421Bigger villages have a grocery, a baker, a café, even a butcher and tabac, or smoke shop, which once were vital for such items as bus tokens, cards for making calls on public phones, stamps and other essentials that no longer are essential. Elderly villagers shuffle out for their daily baguettes while wearing their plaid flannel bedroom slippers. The bakery is also the place to get the most accurate weather forecast.P1060913The tiniest villages are served by itinerant vendors, who stop for a few hours a few days a week and provide a place for locals to not only buy necessities like fresh produce but also catch up on gossip. In one village, I passed a fishmonger truck, surrounded by a clutch of little old ladies in animated conversation.

The older residents perch on the benches under the ubiquitous platanes–plane trees. The ones who use canes cross their hands limply atop the handle, a little like Psy dancing in “Gangnam Style.”IMG_2690When my kid was in the last year or two of primary school in the village, I was informed that it was dishonorable to be escorted by one’s mother. Already, it was dishonorable to walk to school. Even kids who lived a couple of blocks away were driven by mothers who then drove straight back home. To be walked to the door by a parent was the worst.

So I bowed to this declaration of independence, and watched my kid disappear around the neighbor’s hedge. I felt pretty confident about safety in the maze of medieval lanes too small for cars, and completely confident that my kid would dutifully go straight to school. But I’m a worrywart, so I would slip out and do my best spy impersonation, tailing my kid while staying just out of sight. There was a spot along the former ramparts, where the street (more like a passage that would be a tight fit for a Smart car) stretched straight for the final block to school. I would crouch behind a parked car and watch until my kid was swallowed by the playground.P1070748This was endlessly amusing to the bench full of little old guys. Every day, they would be perched there, like so many swallows on an electric line. Sometimes, my kid would decide to run, and I would round the corner for my final vantage point and see nothing. My little birds would tip their caps and nod that my kid had passed as expected.

The little old ladies flock in the afternoons at the park, on a bench that in summer is shaded by an enormous magnolia tree and in winter is protected by a south-facing wall warmed by the sun. They bring knitting, and their fingers fly as fast as their tongues. But the main entertainment is the children. The lawn under the tree is a favorite place for mothers and nannies to get their very small charges outside while they enjoy some precious moments of adult conversation. The path’s gravel has been scooped, carried and dumped a few feet away by countless toddlers. Far more amusing than cat videos.P1070654The little old ladies and little old men used to go for walks, all together, around the vineyards. A pack of them would set off every afternoon–early morning in summer, of course. There was a high point where one could get a glimpse into our yard, and I would find them straining to see in. Foreigners in the village must have been so fascinating. I hope we lived up to expectations.

Over the years, the group dwindled in number. They probably had been together their entire lives. Many were related, varying degrees of cousins, otherwise by marriage. They now are too old to hike around the vineyards. They stay in the village. Several have died. Time marches on even when we no longer can.P1060955When someone dies in the village, a few strains of the “Lacrimosa” from Mozart’s Requiem Mass crackle over the public loudspeakers, and the mayor’s secretary announces the funeral services. Everybody stops what they’re doing, to hear whose name is announced, if they don’t already know.

Most of the time, though, the loudspeakers announce happier things, accompanied by happier music, usually Europop hits from the ’80s. The pizza truck will be at the square from 6 p.m. on. The football club is organizing a dinner; sign up at the bakery. The school is holding a loto. The secretary gives every announcement all the extra syllables and richly rolled R’s of the regional accent.

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An old wine press. Of course.

Today is a holiday, and the village is hushed beyond even Sunday standards. Although we have two more weeks of summer, August 15 signals the apex beyond which is a downward slide toward la rentrée–the re-entry, aka back to school, back to work, back to normal life.P1070739

 

You Say Tomato

P1080378And I say tomate. They are at the height of their glory here in France these days, and we are enjoying them in so many ways.

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The uglier the better.

A summer tomato bears no resemblance to the winter hothouse versions, which are nothing but ghosts of tomatoes, lacking flesh, with their watery insides dripping from mere skeletons of tomato-ness. A summer tomato is full and fleshy. It’s sweet and juicy and substantial enough to eat alone.

But we do like to gild the lily.

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That big yellow-orange one on the left is a “pineapple tomato.” The BEST. Those sweet potatoes got turned into sweet potato-sage gnocchi by our kid/chef. But that’s another story.

IMG_4376A little onion. A little garlic. A little olive oil. Some parsley. Or basil. Or thyme. A little breadcrumb crust to soak up the olive oil-enhanced juices. So many possibilities. It’s a good thing, because when tomatoes are in season, we eat them a couple of times a week. Same as with asparagus, or strawberries. In season or not at all. So make that season count. And do not refrigerate!

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These tomatoes have never seen a refrigerator. Straight from the garden.

I had promised a while back to include the recipe for Christine’s tomates provençales from our cooking lesson. Here it is, at last.P1080367

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Tomatoes and beans from a local garden. The beans are “hand-picked,” it says.

IMG_4375How many tomatoes you need depends on their size (and what else you’re serving). If you have big ones, you might want just half per person, or one per person. If you have small tomatoes, like the roma variety, you might want one or two per person. We are tomato gluttons, and we like having leftovers, so I figure on a big tomato per person or its equivalent in smaller ones.

Preheat the oven to 350 Fahrenheit (180 Celsius).P1080327Cut the tomatoes in half. Score them, sprinkle with a little salt, and turn them upside down to drain for 15 minutes or more. You can put them on a cooling rack or a flat strainer or just on paper towels. P1080322Chop up a big bunch of parsley. It makes no difference whether it’s flat or curly. Chop up two to eight garlic cloves, depending on how much you love garlic (there is no right or wrong in this recipe). The chopping is greatly aided by a food processor. Christine had a small one–a spice grinder–that she brought to the cooking class. I have only a knife and limited patience, so my parsley here is too big. You want it to be fine so that, when you mix it with the garlic and a generous half cup (15 cl) of olive oil, you end up with a green slurry. It’s good on lots of things–roasted carrots, chicken, potatoes… Persillade is to savory food as diamond studs are to accessories–it goes with almost anything.P1080331Place the tomatoes cut-side up in an oiled baking dish. Spoon the persillade over them and roast them for an hour. They should get caramelized but not hard or crusty.P1080335You also can cook them faster–20-30 minutes–in a hot oven (400 Fahrenheit/200 Celsius), but they don’t get as caramelized as the low and slow method. Also, the persillade risks browning too much (sometimes called “burning”). On the other hand, sometimes we don’t have an hour to get dinner on the table.

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Obviously, I did it the fast way here. 

Other tomato alternatives:P1080517

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This one was better caramelized…but I forgot to take a photo immediately. Why? Well, dinner was ready. Priorities. We ARE in France, after all.

I like to slice them, because it’s pretty, and I can tuck thinly sliced onions in between. Top with olive oil, or with breadcrumbs and olive oil, or with breadcrumbs and parsley and olive oil, or with persillade. You have options. This version benefits from low and slow because the sliced tomatoes aren’t drained, and the juices need time to evaporate.

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Breadcrumb + parsley + garlic version. Drizzle with olive oil.

Did you know that if you have burned something in a pot or pan, you can get it off easily by squirting a little ketchup on it? Just let it sit–overnight, maybe a couple of days. It will come off eventually! The acid in the ketchup works off the burned material without scrubbing (or scratching your pan). The wonders of tomatoes never cease.

Wild Fire

IMG_4340Last weekend, we had a picnic in the garrigue, that magical wild place of this part of southern France. It smells like wild thyme and dry pine, with some wild rosemary thrown in. It sings–the wind humming a soprano through the pines, to the beat of the cicadas.

I posted a couple of short videos on Instagram; I haven’t managed to upload them here, but there’s a link to IG at the bottom of the “About” page. We have lots of trees at home, and lots of cicadas, or cigales, but they can’t compare to the numbers–or decibels–in the garrigue.IMG_4353A few days after our picnic, the Carnivore informed me that the garrigue had been placed off limits because of the risk of fire. The garrigue isn’t one continuous place, but many, some connected, others mere islands where rocky soil has preserved the place for wilderness.

We have a wide choice of garrigues nearby. Some draw lots of people. We choose a spot that’s off a tiny road, which itself is off a back road. The entrance to the garrigue is really like an entrance. On one side, vineyards line up neatly. And on the other side of this “border,” woods and brush push up improbably through rugged rocks. We drove up a bit farther than usual, but without a high, four-wheel drive vehicle, it was impossible to go very far. The “road”–a pair of tracks, really–was too rough.

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“Road.”

Our preferred spot is at the crest of a hill, where the cooling breezes come through, and where the trees are tall and create a large oasis of shade, also cool. Our region avoided the worst of the “Lucifer” heat wave that hit farther east, but temperatures had climbed into the mid-90s, which we thought was quite hot enough thank you. The air had that hot-furnace feel that makes laundry dry in mere minutes on the line and tomato plants shrivel. Watering flowers has been banned for some time, and watering food plants is restricted to night hours.

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Picnic table. Simply sandwiches, nectarines, lots of water, a little wine.

Time to escape to the garrigue. However, the hill is big and the path is difficult–uneven slabs of rocks sprinkled with loose pebbles that are like walking on marbles–on an incline. Don’t go too fast. We hiked about 20 minutes to our spot. Along the way, I eyed dead pine trees with the uneasy knowledge that they were dangerous fuel if a fire were to break out. That strong wind, so welcome for cooling, would make a fire spread like….wildfire.IMG_4351Fires are a part of life around here. As in California, I guess. Or like tornados are in the Midwest of the U.S. About 10,000 people were evacuated two weeks ago from a huge fire near Bormes-les-Mimosas in the Var department in southeast France. And a terrible fire in Portugal killed 60 people, most of them trapped in their cars on a highway.P1050041So I look up anxiously every time I hear the buzz of the Canadair water bombers (the Canadair company disappeared in 1986 when it became part of Bombardier, but everybody around here calls the planes “Canadairs” the way Americans call paper tissues “Kleenex”). They fly in pairs, picking up water at the Bassin de Saint-Ferréol, a reservoir in the Black Mountains near Revel that was created to feed the Canal du Midi. The lower they pass above us, the closer the fire.P1050044P1080156I remember seeing the military planes streaking across the sky to and from the base near where I grew up, and being unsettled by the sonic booms that would follow. Those were the days of radiation signs above doors at school, the days of bomb drills and evil empires. My kid was quite upset one day toward the end of the last school year when they had a drill in case of an attack–barricade the doors, shut off phones. The world evolves, but not always for the better.

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Hotel view: La Cité and the Pyrénnées.

I visited a hotel in another garrigue. A lovely setting with magnificent views. On the edge of the property was what looked like a giant water balloon, about the size of the pool at the sporting complex–water for firefighters, should the need arise.

Rain in the summer is rare here, and welcome when it comes. In fact, today is cool and cloudy, and I’m energized to go running. But I won’t be accompanied by the song of the cigales, who fall silent when temperatures are too cool for their liking.

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Welcome change, as long as it’s short. The sun is expected to return this afternoon.

 

Puff Pastry and a Quiche

P1080206Pâte feuilletée, or puff pastry, sounds like such a challenge to make–all that rolling, all that butter. It turned out easier than I had thought and far more delicious than readymade pie crust. That is saying something, because store-bought pie crust in France is, honestly, fantastic.

I used the recipe from my 1933 cookbook, “Le Nouveau Livre de Cuisine,” by a so-called Blanche Caramel. I had previously read that you have to beat the cold butter with a rolling pin, and not just any rolling pin but the plain wooden dowel kind. While Blanche specifies using a wooden rolling pin, she says nothing about batting butter. She even says that “in winter, it’s necessary to soften the butter a little by putting it in a bowl warmed by bowling water.”

While I understand the science of it–the “lean” water-based dough is wrapped around cold butter and the air bubbles released during baking are what make this pastry puff–I also am intrigued by the fact that puff pastry predates refrigeration. Only 3% of French homes had frigos (fridges) in 1950. What did Blanche do? Are we depriving ourselves of fresh, preservative-free puff pastry because we are worried about not living up to cold butter standards?

Let me say: Do not be afraid!

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Heap of flour. Make a well. Add salt.

Some years ago, I toured the château of Guise (pronounced geez) in northern France and learned that in medieval times, people collected ice, stuck it in the deep cellars beneath the chateau, packed with straw for insulation, and used it to make sweet sorbets during following months. Here are my notes from that trip:

The underground tunnels were very effective at keeping things cool. People would put snow and ice in them and it would keep for several months into the spring, and they would eat fruit sorbets made from the ice. However, it didn’t occur to them to use ice to keep food cool and fresh. One thing they used to do, and our guide said she found a medieval recipe for this, was to take a fresh pheasant and bury it in manure with the head sticking out. When the beak came off gently, it was ready—the meat would be falling off the bones. You’d unearth it, clean off the maggots, and  cook it in lots of spices and wine to mask the fact that it was rotten. If people had such lousy teeth back then, they needed the meat falling off the bones so they could just gum it, since they evidently couldn’t chew.

Anyway….Blanche says the dough must rest in a cool place (“au frais”), and I did take that to mean my fridge.

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Add water little by little and knead by hand.

The ingredients are simplicity itself:

200 g (2 cups) flour

4 g (1 tsp) salt

100 g (3.5 oz. or 7/8 cup) water

200 g (a tad over 7 oz. or 7/8 cup) butter

The recipe starts with the flour on a pastry board–just as my grandma seemed to start all of her cooking, from homemade noodles and dumplings to massive batches of cookies. Come to think of it, my grandma was of Blanche’s era, a housewife in the 1930s.

Make a well in the heap of flour. Pour in the salt, and little by little add the water while kneading by hand. The dough will be smooth and soft.

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A soft ball of dough. Isn’t it amazing that the same ingredients behind pastry heaven can give you paste? Or can thicken a sauce? Or turn into Christmas ornaments?

Form it into a ball, cover with a tea towel and let it rest for an hour or two.P1080194Sprinkle the pastry board with flour and roll out the dough until it’s 1 cm (less than half an inch) thick. Slather it with all the butter.

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A cardiac-crushing thickness of butter.

Fold the dough in half, then half again, sealing the edges so the butter doesn’t escape.

P1080197Roll it out as long as possible without tearing. Fold it in thirds lengthwise and then again in thirds along the width. Let it rest (in a fridge if you have one) for 10 minutes. That’s called “one turn” of the dough.

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No need to worry about beauty at this point. Sprinkle butter squirts with flour to keep them from sticking to your rolling pin.

Roll out the dough again, fold it in quarters. Roll that out and fold it in thirds lengthwise then in thirds along the width. Let it rest (in the fridge!) for 10 minutes. That is the second turn of the dough.

Do another turn of the dough and your puff pastry is ready to use. I cut it in half and put it in two 9-inch pie pans.P1080201While it was resting, I prepared quiche innards:

6 eggs

2 cups milk or cream or sour cream or yogurt or a mix of any or all of them

minced onion

cheese

some leftover ham

any other leftovers in the fridge

The only thing I measure with quiche is the number of eggs. Three fills one 9-inch pie pan. I had enough crust for two, so I used six eggs. Quiche is a good place to use up egg whites or yolks left from some other recipe. P1080203Beat the eggs with a fork. Add the milk /cream/yogurt, which makes the quiche less dense and more fluffy. Add whatever else you want in your quiche. Don’t forget salt and pepper, and maybe some herbs if you feel like it.

Stab the bottom of the crust with a fork a few times. Pour in the quiche filling. Bake in a preheated oven at 190 degrees Celsius/375 degrees Fahrenheit. I considered pre-baking the crust and then went without and it was fine–no soggy bottom at all.

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Bon appétit!

 

Mediterranean Waves

gruissan 1The siren song of the beach beckons every summer, and we always succumb. Even though we aren’t beach lovers. The wind, the sand in everything, the traffic, the fear of sunburn. Summer wouldn’t be summer without at least an afternoon at the seaside. I grew up on that sea of grass known as the American prairie, about as far away as you can get from any sea or ocean. I was in my 20s before I saw the ocean. Now, I live a 45-minute drive from the Mediterranean. Close enough to go on short notice and come back to sleep in my own bed. Far enough that my life in July and August isn’t ruled by the traffic jams snaking to and from the beach.gruissan 5Our strip of the Mediterranean is lined with beaches, some quite famous: Cap d’Agde, for example, is known for its naturalist (i.e., nude) beach, so much so that if you say you’re going there people assume you are going to go naked, even though there are also parts of that beach for people whose limit on undressing stops at the tiny, strategically placed triangles of cloth known as bikinis and Speedos.

That said, at almost any beach you’ll find plenty of topless sunbathers. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Nobody bats an eye. However, very few of them are young nymphs with perky breasts, so don’t get your hopes up. On a recent trip, there were two topless sunbathers nearby. They must have been in their 70s, and their breasts dangled limply on either side of their torsos. My first reaction: “Sun cancer!” (I wear a high-necked, long-sleeved rash guard myself.) My second reaction: “Elles sont bien dans leur peau.” They are good in their skin, which is a French expression for being at ease with oneself. Though in this case, it works literally as well as figuratively.gruissan 6Starting at Montpellier, you have Palavas-les-Flots, upscale and reminiscent of the beach at Barcelona, with high-rises nearby. Beach time segues seamlessly into shopping and nightlife. And eating, though that goes without saying, no matter where you are in France.gruissan 4gruissan 3Next comes Sète, followed by Cap d’Agde (the city of Agde is inland). The beach by Béziers–the city itself is inland and on a hill–is Valras-Plage. Just south, Narbonne, likewise inland, has Narbonne-Plage and Gruissan. These are equidistant from us, but we prefer Gruissan, whose beach is a little wilder, lined with little wooden cottages on stilts, vs. the concrete high-rises of Narbonne-Plage.

Onward to the south come Port-la-Nouvelle, Leucate and le Barcarès, which are even more hard-core beach vacation destinations. And then you get to Perpignan and its beaches, such as Argelès, then down to Collioure, Banyuls and Port-Vendres. Then you hit Spain.gruissan 7gruissan 2Gruissan, shown in all the photos here, suits us for many reasons besides being nearby. The road to Narbonne-Plage climbs then descends through the Clape mountains, which are G.O.R.G.E.O.U.S. But if you are behind a camper or a bike, both of which are very common, you can’t pass them until you’re practically at the beach. The road to Gruissan isn’t as pretty, but it’s flatter and has a bike lane, keeping the traffic moving. gruissan 10Gruissan has high-rises, but only around the port, which is also where most of the restaurants and shops are located. The port is a bit far to walk from the beach (a good thing, insofar as you don’t see the high-rises when you’re on the beach). As the road to the beach passes by the port, we just stop the car on the way home and have dinner. The port area is very lively and fun in its own way, but there’s a quieter, quainter option: the ancient village of Gruissan. It circles around the ruins of a hilltop medieval château (protection from pirates–before pirates of the Caribbean, there were pirates of the Mediterranean). The charming, narrow streets have several good restaurants, especially for seafood. gruissan 11gruissan 13Our modus operandi is to go to the beach around 3 or 4 p.m. Usually the folks who had arrived early have left or are leaving, making it easy to find parking and a spot to spread out by the water. We avoid the peak hours for sun exposure, as well. gruissan 14gruissan 15Our “must-have” equipment has diminished over the years. We had a windbreak that I had bought when I lived in Belgium and did a beach trip to Ostende; we were freezing, and the windbreak made it a little more bearable. On that trip, I got a sunburn–on my hands only, because otherwise I was completely covered up, shivering. Here, we don’t have to worry about being cold, but it is windy. We upgraded to one of those pup tents, which are nice for shade (the wind often makes parasols fly away), keeping gear in one spot, privacy for changing, and a bigger angle of protection from the wind. gruissan 8gruissan 9Our gear also used to include many plastic buckets and shovels and molds and balls and lifesavers and waterwings and goggles and so on. Now, it’s just sun block, hats, anti-UV rash guards and lots of water in a cooler.

Beach tips: put your phone in a zip-lock plastic bag. Take a book or magazine if you want something to look at and keep your phone safe from the sand. Put your clean change of clothes in another zippered plastic bag to keep it sand-free. A straw bag to carry everything lets the sand fall out if you shake it vigorously before putting it in the car….

Any tips to add? What do you look for in a beach?

Back Roads in France

P1080442Voluptuous is the word for France in mid-summer. The vegetation spills generously, luxuriously, langorously over the countryside. It’s full of curves and twirls and flourishes. It smells good. It tastes good. P1080446I had something else ready to post today but changed my mind during my morning walk. This couldn’t wait. In fact, there are so many things to share, I will have to split them into a few posts. Come along; I’ll give you the pictures and play by play. If only I could also transmit the sounds and smells and flavors.

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Green figs, just as good as the purple kind.

I set out on a long walk before the sun rose to a point that makes physical exertion a bad idea. However, it took longer than planned because of repeated stops to pick fat, juicy blackberries and succulent figs growing wild. A generous breakfast. P1080455P1080434It’s a bit early for the fruit. Usually they hit their peak in mid-to-late August. Some of the figs are still small and hard, promises of sweet tomorrows.P1080437The grapes aren’t for picking. They aren’t growing wild, after all. I pass the vineyards of the ancient vigneron, who was bent in half but who kept working and who died about a year ago. His son now has all the work to do and is no spring chicken himself. He sells his wine to a cooperative, where quantity counts more than quality. Most of the small vineyards have switched methods, pruning back grape clusters to concentrate the flavor, favoring smaller but better production. The ancient vigneron’s son seems content to stick to the old ways. His vines sprawl and are laden with grapes.P1080435P1080458Even some wild cacti are bursting with fruit. The cacti seem to have migrated across the road from the garden of a retiree who cultivates many varieties of them. The ground here is clay and gets hard and hostile in the summer drought, but those plants that manage to take root also manage to thrive.P1080426P1080428Red seems to be the color of the moment. Red berries everywhere. Not always edible. At least not for humans. The birds enjoy them in their many varieties.P1080456

I stop to admire the solar farm. Do you see it?P1080463

I see it because I know where to look, and I only learned about it last summer; before I looked at that view and had no idea a solar farm was there. (Hint: it’s just left of the right electricity pole. It looks as if the hill is sloping to the left, but in fact, it’s straight and the gray part is solar panels.)P1080461

Can you see it now? It doesn’t mar the view as much as I had expected.P1080416

A tiny snake crosses my path. Much better than a big snake.P1080492

A field, once a vineyard but now fallow, is dotted with wildflowers.P1080460A mysterious gate to nowhere.P1080447

A lady filling a couple of bags with sand. For her houseplants, I suppose. It seems like a hard way to get sand. On the other hand, I admire it. Why drive 10 miles to town to buy a sand in sealed plastic bag when you can walk out and shovel up what you need for free?P1080495

The well-used barbecue of the boulodrome. Thursdays are pétanque night, and when the wind blows the right way at our house we hear the announcements of the winners, delivered with richly rolled R’s and an extra “ah” syllable at the end, typical of the regional accent. We also smell the sausages grilling. Every activity in France is accompanied by food. Even my gym class would eat gâteau du roi (king cake) and drink (alcoholic) cider around Jan. 6. Priorities: breaking bread beats burning calories.

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Red roofs and a green steeple.

Perhaps a picnic in the garrigue this weekend. How about you?

Franco-American-Italiano

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

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

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

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

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No idea how the funky light effect happened.

Parking lot location: check.

Non-commital modern yet somewhat Mediterranean architecture: check.

Upbeat pop music: check.

Soaring ceilings: check.

Roaring decibels: check.

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

Mob of people waiting to be seated: check.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

Onion Tart to Start

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

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

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

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

4 big onions, cut in half and sliced thinly

olive oil

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

Salt, pepper, 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

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

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

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

Ratatouille Niçoise

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

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

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

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

olive oil

3 onions, minced

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

3 zucchini, peeled and diced

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

1 green pepper, diced

1 red pepper, diced

1 yellow pepper, diced

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bon appétit!IMG_4306

 

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité

IMG_1845Happy Bastille Day!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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