Summer Truffles

on breadOne of the saving graces of winter is tuber melanosporum: the black truffles that perfume dishes from December to February.

There’s another variety, called tuber aestivum, or the summer truffle, which is whiter and has a more subtle taste.

Barriere
Philippe Barrière

A couple of years ago, Philippe Barrière opened his Atélier de la Truffe on rue Trivalle, the street just below la Cité. He long was the person who inspected each and every truffle sold at the markets in Aude. As I mentioned before, the truffle trade has long been an under-the-table affair, with unknowledgeable buyers sometimes paying fortunes for nothing more than rocks. In Aude, by contrast, all the truffles sold at the markets are inspected.

Interior
A few tables inside, as well as seats at the bar. More tables outside in front and back. A bounty of good wines.

So M. Barrière knows his stuff, and we and a bunch of our friends decided to spend a summer evening enjoying his expertise.

sel
A tip from the master: a sprinkle of salt heightens the truffle flavor. It worked! Gruissan is not far from here, on the Mediterranean, and has sea salt production.

Truffles are costly, so we limited ourselves to having an apéritif chez Barrière and then moving to a main course in the Bastide. First, we went for foie gras with truffles on toast.

foie gras
There’s foie gras under each row. He wasn’t stingy with the truffles!

I am not a foie gras fan, but I must admit it was beyond succulent. When the slates were set on the table, the scent of truffle from the generous portions was intoxicating.

wineWe had a lovely bottle from Borie de Maurel in la Livinière part of Minervois. If you ever see a wine from la Livinière, you can bet it is good.

chevreThen we had truffled chèvre, again delicious, though the foie gras was better. It’s like poor Aly Raisman. She is an amazing gymnast, better than everybody at the Olympics….except for Simone Biles, who got the gold. (Raisman won silver.) The chèvre was amazing…except that the foie gras was even more amazing.

menuHere’s a quick translation of the menu (truffled plates):

Smashed summer truffle on toast

Shirred eggs with summer truffle

Potatoes with summer truffle

Goat cheese with summer truffle

Beef carpaccio with summer truffle

Foie gras and summer truffle (notice the “and”–it means they’re sliced on top and not grated and mixed in like the others)

Fish carpaccio (he said it was tuna), with foie gras, summer truffle

Homemade summer truffle ice cream

bread basket
Do you see what the bread basket is made of?

We’ll be back….

grattou
Truffle tools: a scraper for €60; €70 if it folds.

 

 

They’ve Got Balls

who's closestThere are two sports of importance and obsession in the south of France: rugby and pétanque. I haven’t gotten into rugby but it’s hard not to immediately love pétanque.

balls lined up 2For one thing, it’s sedate. Players toss steel balls, not too fast, and then leisurely amble over to see the result. The Carnivore even has a magnet on a string to not have to actually bend over and pick up his balls–so important to avoid spilling one’s p’tit jaune. Mostly it involves standing around. The biggest effort is probably climbing the six steps to the buvette for refreshments.

standing throw
The Standing pitch

So it’s a game for all ages and all abilities. Kind of like horseshoes, but even more universal, because you don’t even need a stake. Just a flat area, best without grass.

squat
The Full-Squat pitch

You rarely hear more than the clackety clack of the balls during pétanque. Nobody yells “Oui!” or “Yes!” Enthusiasm is expressed through a lifting of eyebrows, or, at the extreme, a smile. Very French.

half squat
The Half-Squat pitch

Here’s how it works: There’s a little wooden ball called the cochonnet (little pig) that’s tossed into the playing area, or terrain. If you’re playing singles, each player has three balls; for doubles each has two balls. You stand in a little circle and toss your ball as close as possible to the cochonnet. For all the rules, see here.

balls lined upA friend who helps run the local boulodrome explained that there are two kinds of pétanque: lyonnais and provençal. Lyonnais involves running or something, he said, shaking his head as if such a thing were lamentable. Provençal is the calmer version.

boardStill, the players exhibit many techniques for tossing their balls. Some stand, some squat, and some are crouched in between.

There’s an official license and everything for playing in tournaments. It costs about €22 and involves a photo and a medical certificate. Then you become a card-carrying pétanque player. Official is official.

prizesThe benefits are multiple. There’s insurance (!!!) and of course the prizes. For example, a recent tournament awarded various levels two magrets de canard plus two bottles of wine; two chickens and two bottles of wine; two bottles of Ricard plus two bottles of wine; and the top prize was six magrets and two bottles of wine. Sense a theme?

The Carnivore had a license one year and happily set off at 9:30 one evening to the boulodrome, his little bag of balls in hand. He came home many hours later as excited as a kid: he and his partner had won the gros lot, and he had a bunch of meat to put in the freezer.

boules on ground
What you need: steel balls, a cochonnet (this one is nicely visible), a measuring tape and a magnet on a string for picking up your balls.

In 2010, Karl Lagerfield unveiled his cruise collection in Saint-Tropez, including, in his fashion, an old-time game of pétanque with special Chanel boules.

While you might not have time to get a license during a vacation (proper bureaucracy can’t be rushed), you are certainly welcome to use the boulodromes you’ll find in any town or village across the south of France. It’s the perfect sport for a hot summer night.

distant shot windup

Ghost River

river stonesThe summers in the south of France are hot and dry. It means no sticky humidity. No mosquitos.

By hot, I mean mid-80s to mid-90s Fahrenheit, sometimes dancing around 100. Nights usually are cool, in the 60s. Yesterday, the high was 34 C (93 F) and the low 13.5 (56 F). It’s why we don’t have air conditioning. Just gorgeous summer weather.

More stonesBut the last rain that was more than a trace was 4.4 mm (0.17 inch) on Aug. 4. It’s about one-tenth the usual total for August.

riverThis river has dried up. It’s hard to believe that a few years before we moved here it flooded houses in the village up to the upstairs floor.

Now, the little rapids look like ghosts. Will we be haunted by what we’ve done to the Earth?

 

close rapidsAt the beginning of the summer, I couldn’t even see the blocks to cross the passage à gué.

passage a gueFarther downstream, underground springs revive the river to a trickle. Enough for some ducks, who set up housekeeping at the same spot every year.

ducksThe marin has kept the Pyrénées in crystal clear focus. Not a cloud in the sky. Usually the easterly marin brings rain. Thunderstorms are forecast for Monday. Fingers crossed.

 

Ducks in a Row

sliced done
Magrets de canard

It’s still too hot to cook. The temperatures have settled into the upper 80s/low 90s for highs, and mid-60s for lows. Clear blue skies, no humidity. Pretty fabulous, but with no air conditioning it’s grilling weather.

in pkgOne of the Carnivore’s favorite food groups is duck. But we had a near catastrophe trying to grill duck the first time. Duck breasts have a thick layer of fat on one side. Usually, you score the fat and it melts into the skillet. (This is considered a good thing.) On the grill, however, the fat caused huge flames. A guest suggested catching the drippings with foil. The foil quickly filled up, and we were faced with trying to get a flimsy pool of boiling grease off the fire.

whole underside
Duck breasts all in a row
whole fat
Fat side

The Carnivore very much liked the idea of grilling duck and was determined to make it work. He started trimming off the fat. Not all of it–it’s there for flavor after all–but just enough to avoid flames. This is the result:

raw trimmed

whole done
And cooked

In the decade since he adopted this method, it has worked very well. He likes his duck cooked rosé–medium. And usually serves it with honey. Very easy, very French.

honeyWe also had ratatouille niçoise. While the traditional way is to cook the vegetables slowly for a long time, I like to cook them separately, very quickly, then mix and serve. Ratatouille works fine at room temperature, if you want to make it ahead.

ratatouilleRatatouille niçoise

1 eggplant, in half-inch cubes

1 onion, halved and sliced very thin

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 red peppers (or one red, one green), diced or sliced

2-3 big tomatoes, in inch cubes

3 small zucchini, in half-inch cubes

herbes de provence, salt, pepper, olive oil

Salt the eggplant and put it in a strainer.

In a nice, big frying pan or even a le Creuset style Dutch oven, sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil, until they become transparent. Add the peppers and let them cook until a little soft. Throw in the tomatoes and a tablespoon or so of herbes de provence.

Set aside those veggies in a big bowl. Add more olive oil to the pan and sauté the zucchini. I do it pretty fast, just so it gets brown on most sides. Add to the veggie bowl.

Rinse the eggplant then squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Add more olive oil to the pan and sauté the eggplant, again until most sides get brown. Put all the veggies back into the pan. Stir, so the tomato juices deglaze the bottom of the pan. I like to cook off the juice as much as possible, but it kind of depends on the tomatoes. Some are awfully juicy!

I don’t add salt and pepper until the end, because sometimes the eggplant retains more or less salt.

rata closeLeftovers freeze very nicely for later. With added tomato sauce, it also makes a nice pasta sauce.

 

 

Sunny South of France

view garrigueBefore the cassoulet dinner, there was a 2.5-hour hike in the garrigue. (1) It’s a good idea to burn off some calories before indulging in cassoulet. (2) It’s a good idea to hike in the garrigue with a guide who knows all the paths well.

Our guide, M., grew up in the village. M. could be retired but works at the maternelle, or preschool, as an assistant, mostly wiping little ones’ butts and noses. Once I was having a hard time fixing something, and my kid, then under M.’s charge on weekdays, informed me, “You should ask M. She can fix anything.” Another time, I got a cut, and my kid said, “M. can fix it. She’s a doctor.” Which she isn’t. However, my kid is right that M. is superwoman.

dry rapids
What would be rapids in a stream bed, completely dry.

The randonnée, or hike, drew only three people, plus M. She considered the possibilities, then asked whether we’d be interested in seeing something whose name I didn’t catch but it involved something volcanic. I said sure.

bridgeWe quickly left the road to walk along little tracks along a trickle of a river. I’ve walked along there, but on the road, without ever spying this path. How is this possible?

We soon came to a clearing where the trickle traversed a rock basin: “la gourde de la dame,” or the lady’s gourd or water jug. M. informed us that the lady of the local château would come here to bathe, and that usually the basin was fed by a spring. However, this August, it’s too hot and dry and water levels are extremely low.

gourde de la dame
La gourde de la dame

M. and another hiker, also a native of the village, talked about old times, like when they had races through the garrigue for gym class. They also said they had washed at our house, which used to be a municipal shower before the town got running water in individual homes in the mid-1960s. The showers operated only on Saturday–the whole village came once a week.

We came to the barrage, or dam, built by the château’s owner to provide irrigation. Usually the water is much higher. A few boys were fishing.

Barrage
The very old dam
barrage water
The water behind the dam

We went up and down hills, but mostly up. M. is part of the VTT club, or all-terrain bikes. They also do hiking, and M. leads groups twice a week. She also maintains the paths, many of which are barely visible, especially if you step to the side a bit. Rocks and trees are painted with indicators.

path
A path

Finally, M. announced we were nearly at the top. We climbed a steep bit, turned around and saw:

solar panels 1
Clean energy: solar in the foreground, wind on the mountaintop.

“Voilà, les photo-volcaniques!” M. exclaimed. I had to be careful not to fall on the ground laughing. After all, M. knows a million things. If we both were stuck in the wilderness, she would be able to survive. Not me. I respect that knowledge. She can be forgiven for a malaprop like photo-volcanique instead of photovoltaic.

solar panels 3

The panels were impressive in their quantity. The site previously had housed some windmills, but they were of an earlier generation and the owners, a Spanish company, had removed them. I had no idea they’d been replaced by solar panels. You could see the windmills from la Cité, but you can’t see the solar panels until you’re right next to them.

solar panels 2
Almost like rows of grapevines

From the hilltop, we had amazing views. To the north, la Montagne Noire, the Black Mountains. Including a gold mine that’s been closed for over a decade, having gained notoriety as the most polluted site in France.

salsigne
The mine pit

It’s really so sad. The place is so bucolic. We didn’t hear anything, not a single motor. Just birds, wind and of course cigales.

ruin
A ruin nestled in the mountains

viewview 2

view 3

And to the south, Carcassonne and the Pyrénées in the distance.

view cite
Can you make out la Cité of Carcassonne? Look for towers, right in the middle of the photo.

It will be a while before I venture into the garrigue again. M. warned us that hunting season started Aug. 15 for sanglier, or boar. She urged us to wear fluorescent vests and orange caps and to make plenty of noise. I’ll just wait until hunting season ends Feb. 28.

Communal Cassoulet

cassoulet
Note the crust! It isn’t bread crumbs.

Our village had its annual fête recently. We didn’t participate much–karaoke night and disco night aren’t our thing. But we were drawn to the cassoulet dinner.

Tables and chairs for 200-ish were set up in the shade of ancient platane trees next to the river. It was a scorching day, but between the shade and the breeze, we were comfortable. It was a bring-your-own-dishes affair, as usual. Open to anybody who bought tickets in advance, €18 per person, less for kids.

setting upThe aperitif took place as usual, same place, same routine as the earlier post. The starter was a green salad topped with duck gizzards.

Then came the cassoulet, brought in from a local caterer. One bowl served three people: a big piece of duck, two pieces of sausage and lots of couenne, or pork rind. Nobody went hungry.

One woman preferred drinking to eating, guzzling rosé straight from the pitcher. She danced on the tables, but eventually fell and was hauled home. There’s one in every crowd.

cassoulet bowl
The ducks on the bowl made me laugh.

It was followed by cheese, as if that could ever be in question. Then ice cream from La Belle Aude, which is made in Carcassonne. The factory used to make milk, ice cream, yogurt and other products for name brands. But then it was bought out by a big British-German company, which closed the factory, with the loss of 123 jobs.

glaceThe workers were upset, because the new company had promised to upgrade the factory, then decided not to. The workers, with local government support, bought the factory and started turning out La Belle Aude (Beautiful Aude–Aude is the name of the department of which Carcassonne is the equivalent of county seat).

2cv
Somebody arrived in a beautifully restored Citroën 2CV. 

 

Port de Trèbes

portContinuing our staycation, we decided to eat out at the best place for fish in the region: La Poissonnerie Moderne de Trèbes.

Trèbes is a pleasant town nestled up against the east side of Carcassonne. Though it’s 70 kms from the coast, it’s a port … on the Canal du Midi.

poissonnerie moderneThe fish, however, comes from the sea. The Belgian of the household knows his moules-frites, and gives the highest honors to Martine of la Poissonnerie Moderne. It’s a fish shop that has a restaurant only in the summer, with tables facing the port.

vignes de bacchusIt isn’t alone: neighbors are les Vignes de Bacchus and a very good pizzeria, Trattoria Napoli.

Meanwhile, tables on the boats faced the restaurant scene.

boats resto tablesA constant stream of people drifted by, adding to the holiday atmosphere.

street

singer
French hits from the ’80s

A guy on a recumbent bike seemed outraged by the pedestrians. He didn’t make eye contact with anybody, just huffing and glaring at some point far ahead when the throng hindered his progress. I think he needed a glass of wine.

bikeThe moules-frites were deemed delicious. We also had a starter of pickled seafood, then salmon and tuna. Five stars.

moules

eating moules
To look like a pro mussels eater, use an empty shell as tweezers to pull out the mussel. 

Trèbes was holding its Marché Nocturne at the end of the port, so we meandered that way in search of dessert.

The market was small, mostly wine tastings, local food specialties, handmade jewelry and brightly colored plastic toys. No dessert. We were too full anyway.

If it seems as if there’s always some event going on, that’s because there IS always some event going on. More to come!

 

 

 

 

 

Paradise in the Middle of Nowhere

20 view southThe garrigue is a magical place. We try to picnic there at least every summer, which really shouldn’t be a big deal, because it’s a 20-minute walk outta town. Yet, it’s another world.

12 sky pine cones17 view northThe garrigue is a wilderness. It has trees, but isn’t really a forest like in the north. In some places, there’s just low bush that reminds me of the African savannah. Apparently, there was a vast Mediterranean forest that from time to time was degraded, often by fire, and the garrigue is what grew up afterward. The ground is so rocky that it escaped farming or development and stayed wild.

18 rock
The road

The garrigue has the most divine perfume. A mix of dry pine needles, hot dusty rock, thyme, rosemary and wildflowers. I would love to bottle it and spritz it around my house.

19 cigale
A cigale! It stopped rubbing its wings when we approached…like “nothing to see here, move along!”

The garrigue also has an enchanting song. The wind whistles and hums through the pines. The birds sing. But they’re all just backup for the lead singers, the cigales, that scratch out their steady beat. (Here’s a link with recordings of cigales.)

Cigales are cicadas, but their song here isn’t at all like the one that lulled me to sleep in the Midwest of the U.S. It’s as if they speak different languages.

19 pines sunWe decided to go to a spot accessed by the far end of the village. Since we had a cooler of food and other stuff, we took the car and parked at the entrance to the garrigue. It’s almost formal. The road goes up past vineyards, then forks, one side continuing to more vineyards and the other turning rocky and forbidding. We advanced to a shady spot and parked.

We aren’t experts on the garrigue, and it’s huge, so we are careful to stick to the main path. We continued on foot, looking for just the right picnic spot with lots of cushiony pine needles and not too many rocks or sprouting bushes.

3 bikes
Three bikes. The only people we saw the entire afternoon. And no motor sounds or other human presence.

Our picnic consisted of a classy “empty the fridge” assortment of sandwiches, followed by cheese (duh!) and nectarines for dessert. Nothing tastes as good as a picnic, especially one in the garrigue, where the scent of herbs is so strong you can taste them.

A post-prandial siesta followed. Not so much sleeping as being still and absorbing. Pure heaven.

13 sun
The view when lying on the blanket in the garrigue.

A visit to the garrigue is a special moment in this part of the south of France. For a happy trip:

2 paths

5 brush–no fires! They’re strictly forbidden because the place is a tinderbox. The region gets a lot of wildfires, often started by something as small as a cigarette tossed out a car window. It’s usually very windy, which makes fire all the more dangerous, and in summer  the few streams are bone dry.

4 view to carca
Carcassonne in the distance, with the Pyrénées beyond.

 

 

Pizza on the Grill

dressed
Somebody doesn’t like anchovies…

It’s hot here. Of course, it isn’t the heat but the humidity, and usually we have no humidity. But for a couple of days over the weekend, the wind changed to the east–marin–and left us gasping for air.

The question of “what’s for dinner?” became reduced to “what wouldn’t be too hot to make?”

SliceOne of our favorite fallbacks is pizza. But it’s out of the question to crank an oven to the maximum heat when it’s so stifling. So we did it on the grill.

We have been up to these antics since the turn of the century. But we got lulled into complacency with delicious pizzas just down the street in summer. Unfortunately, those aren’t available this year, so we were motivated to try the grill again.

Pizza(s) on the grill (serves 4):

1 cup warm water

1 package yeast

a pinch of sugar

2 3/4 cups flour

1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 tsp salt

couple of tablespoons of herbes de provence, or at least oregano

tomato paste (a can about 3 inches tall–142 ml or about 5 fl. oz.)

garlic–minced

toppings for your pizza

cheese

Dissolve a pinch of sugar into a cup of warm water. Sprinkle the yeast on top, then swirl so it also dissolves. Let it sit until a nice layer of foam forms.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, stir the flour with the salt and herbs. Then drizzle in the olive oil and stir it into relatively fine bits. Add the foamy warm water/yeast. Knead with your hands for a while (oil your hands with olive oil before to keep the dough from sticking). If it’s too soft, add a little more flour. I start low and add rather than end up with a hard brick of dough.

Hold the dough in one hand and drizzle more olive oil into the bowl with the other. Again with one hand, smear the oil around the bowl and drop the dough back in. Cover with a clean dish towel and leave in a warm spot, preferably in the sun, for about an hour. The longer the better.

Now make some pizza sauce: tomato paste (dilute with about 1/2 can of water), garlic, more herbs. Assemble little bowls of what you want to top your pizza. We did diced red peppers, sliced Serrano ham, sautéed onions and anchovies. Maybe we go overboard, I don’t know.

Also slices of mozzarella cheese, and, because we’re in France, grated emmental. The sous-chef likes thick slices of cheese, but if you slice thinner, it will melt better.

ingredients
Ingredients carried out to the grill on a tray, covered with the most practical net to keep flies off. Clockwise from top left: caramelized onions, Serrano ham, mozzarella, red peppers, anchovies, sauce. Emmental in the bag.

Prepare the grill. Not a big fire, but you want it to last for a few pizzas, unless your grill is big enough to cook more at the same time.

roll doughWhen the dough has about doubled, divide it into two, three or four parts, depending on whether you want to do individual ones or share. We share because then everybody eats at the same time.

Roll out each ball on a floured surface. We have a wooden pizza paddle, which makes the transfer to the grill a lot easier. This is the moment of truth, where you might botch it. If the dough lands in a blog, it’s impossible to pick up from the hot grill. Take your time and slide the dough in the direction of the grill rods rather than perpendicular to them.

grilling
This is the hardest part. You see we didn’t get it perfectly flat. Yes, that’s a crown on the iron plate on the back of the grill.

Let the crust brown a little–not too much because you’re also going to cook the other side. Another moment of truth–it sometimes browns fast, so watch closely.

brown doughThen remove the crust, turn it over, and spread your sauce on the browned side. Garnish and return to the grill. If you have a cover, all the better because your cheese on top will melt. We have an enclosed grill with no door, so it mostly melted.

 

Watch the bottom more than the top, because that’s what risks burning. Pull it off and serve. While one is cooking, prepare the next. We planned for three smaller pizzas but in the end did two larger ones.

doneBon appetit!

 

The Circus Comes to Town

entryIt was a big day in the little village. Two sets of visitors showed up.

On one side of the street, an itinerant mattress vendor. All in all, a quiet stay.

On the other side of the street, a circus. It was a big one for our town. There’s a very small family circus that comes through in the spring, with just a couple of animals, and even the small kids of the family perform as clowns. The very young audience members love it because such little clowns aren’t scary and in their very protected lives they cannot imagine doing such outrageous things as performing.

I don’t know how these circuses survive, because they draw only a couple dozen spectators. Tickets for this one were €5 for children and €10 for adults, but the smaller circuses charge less. Can they even buy gas to get to the next town, let alone feed themselves and their animals?

setting up
Setting up

We went to the circus during the magical years, even though the entire situation made me want to be an ostrich to not see how poor the performers were. Little ones see only the spectacle. Their eyes sparkle though the finery is faded and fake. Lucky them.

This circus had a bigger menagerie than some.

animals 1

camel

llama
I kind of laugh over the vineyard in the background. Like, is it possible to get a shot without grape vines around here? No!

There was even a lion. I wasn’t going to the show, but I did pop by to see what state the lion was in. A male, with a big mane. That was all that was big about him. His ribs showed. He continued to sleep as I snapped. A family in a rickety rusty-white camionette pulled up. I guess the kids were in the back (probably without seats, and thus without seatbelts). They oohed and aahed over the lion.

lion“Is he big?” asked the children, around 6 and 8 years old.

“He’s enormous,” the mother said.

“One of the biggest I’ve ever seen,” the father assured them.

They happily moved on to examine the other animals.

I was glad that this family, who seemed as poor as the circus clan, were having an exciting morning. But I was sad they didn’t know that lions should look like this:

Lionesses
Ladies lunching at Maasai Mara. You could hear the bones crack.

Anyway, for two days, the circus blasted music from early in the morning until their show started at 6 p.m. In another indication of their budget constraints, they had only a few, very dated songs. “Nuit de Folie” and “Gonna Fly Now” aka the theme song from the first “Rocky” movie played on repeat.

They were quiet at night, so whatever. Unfortunately, the wind was marin–which meant that the overripe odors of barnyard mixed with zoo wafted into the village.

They stayed six days. I dropped coins into the metal donation box for animal feed in front of the lion’s cage. They clanked in a way that made it clear there weren’t other coins in there. I don’t see how these folks earn a living with two shows in six days. Obviously that is just one of the many reasons I’m not in the circus business. Though some would argue…

circus signWhat do you think? Little circuses are wonderful and quaint or an ambulatory PETA case?