A gluten for pain and other banalities


I prepared this post last week. Today, we are in shock. Crazies again. In a little, old-fashioned supermarket. In a town where little old ladies walk around with a cane in one hand and their handbags dangling from the other. The picture of safe.

I will certainly have something to say about it later. I am glad I gave blood again this morning.

Back to the previously scheduled post:

Our local bakery is awful. Shocking, but true. For years, we went to a bakery in the next village, tucked away on a barely one-way street (I say “barely” because it was practically a tunnel, lined by houses that were erected when traffic was exclusively on foot, whose walls are well-scraped by passing vehicles). The oven was wood-fired, and the baker’s wife would wear big mitts to bring out hot pain de campagne. The baker was crowded with people waiting to buy it—you snooze, you lose. While waiting (in a huddle, never in a line), they discussed the weather, and their forecasts were 100% accurate. This is not surprising in a crowd of winegrowers and other farmers and gardeners. Stooped pensioners showed up wearing their plaid flannel bedroom slippers. In winter, the heat from the oven and the people would steam the windows on the bakery, and, when I got my lumpy loaf, holding it with my sleeves because it was still too hot to handle, it would steam up the windows of my car.

All the bread here, except for the last photo, is from Noez, an institution in Carcassonne, with a location near our vacation rentals in the city center and another on the edge of town.

Sometimes the Carnivore and I would eat the entire loaf while it was still hot enough to melt the butter, which we applied copiously. But our beloved bakers got tired of the early mornings six days a week and sold the bakery. The young guy who bought the place had his own ideas about things, and the bread wasn’t as good. He went out of business after two years.P1050823We tried other bakeries, but the problem with village bakeries is that you show up early, yet are informed that the hunters have passed by even earlier and have bought everything but a couple of éclairs, which aren’t very good for sandwiches. Or that the baker had a party the night before and is running late and so come back in an hour.P1020578Good French bread is a revelation, but disappointing bread is practically criminal.

Though most of my friends are cook-at-home-from-scratch experts, they don’t make bread. Restaurants might pride themselves on their elaborate patisseries for dessert, but they won’t make their own bread. For bread, one goes to the boulangerie. Every day.

I had noticed this French habit long before I heard of the four banal—the banal oven, which probably played a role.

What does the word “banal” have to do with ovens? Or “banalities”? Did you know these words are related to bread?P1080764According to the French Federation of Baking Enterprises, around 50 B.C., the Romans introduced (unleavened) bread to France, having adopted it from the Greeks.

Keep in mind that people cooked over a fire, and it isn’t all that easy to translate into an oven. I did it when I lived in Africa: I made an “oven” out of a very large covered pot that I lined with pebbles, and into which I placed a smaller pot that held the bread. Necessity is the mother of invention. It was delicious, BTW. P1020577Some people put ovens into the walls near the kitchen fireplace. Except that all these fires, including candles and lamps for light, meant that houses were burning down rather frequently. With houses sandwiched against each other, one person’s faulty chimney could quickly destroy an entire village. I saw a communal oven, with loaves waiting their turn, in Timbuktu, where not only is it safer to have a communal oven, but you wouldn’t want any extra heat in the kitchen, and wood is so scarce that it makes sense not to use fuel for individual ovens.P1080767So the seigneurs—lords—started building separate ovens for bread, and charging the locals to use them; meanwhile they banned home ovens.

Un ban in French originally meant a public proclamation—for example les bans de mariage, the official pronouncement of a wedding engagement. As official proclamations tended to come from the lords of the château, and as lords tended to proclaim what locals could NOT do more than what was permitted, the word “ban” assumed more of its current connotation of “forbid.”P1020580Imagine you’re living in your medieval village, you’ve made your bread, you’ve marked it with a B (seriously, everybody had to mark their bread to keep the loaves from being mixed up) and now you have to schlep over to the lord’s oven—le four banal—to throw it in the oven (for a fee). Plus, you had to bring a log to add to the fire. You might have to wait your turn. Other villagers will be there, waiting for their bread to come out. Of course, you all chat—about the weather (some things never change) and little things that happened. You see each other all the time and there’s little news to share nor is there time for delving into intellectual discussions. And thus, the word “banal” acquires its connotation of that which is idle, trivial, common or boring. Le four banal is where banalités—banalities—or fees for use of the oven (usually in kind, not in money) are exchanged.  P1020579And so you have the very bad pun of my title. I am not the only one to riff on glutton/gluten. And pain is not pain but bread, and rhymes not with rain but with hand, if you left off the nd. Kind of. Listen here. (My best title pun, if I may say so, was this one.)P1020581Keep in mind that until quite recently, all bread was whole-wheat bread and quite healthy. It wasn’t even salted until the 18th century, when the tax was lifted on on salt, which is related to the word salary, but that’s another monopoly and another story.

The job of baker originally started as le tamisier—the one who makes or sells sifters. Around 1200, King Philippe Auguste let the tamisiers build their own ovens, and around 1250—close to the same time the “new” city of Carcassonne was built—Saint-Louis ended the seigneurs’ rights to oven fees in cities, but these ovens continued for a few more centuries out in the countryside. The bakers joined together to control the supply of flour and bread, and it was forbidden to bake one’s bread at home.P1080768According to the FEB, it was in 1665 that a Parisian baker added some beer yeast into a light bread, making it taste better and producing a lighter bread. This was very controversial, and the medical faculty in Paris and the government itself came out against using beer yeast. However, taste won the day, because consumers demanded yeasty bread, and the ban was lifted in 1670.P1020536Around the same time, in the 17th century, bread in a long form started to appear in Paris: le baguette, which literally means “little stick.” Baguette also refers to chopsticks, an orchestra director’s baton, and, in the case of la baguette magique, a magic wand. This symbol of France didn’t take off outside the cities until the 20th century, according to the Center for Research and Study of Bakery and Its Companions. Maybe that’s why the lumpy roundish loaf is called pain de campagne.P1020538Very important advice: when you order a baguette in France, be sure to ask for “baguette tradition,” with a slight sour-dough taste and a chewy interior beneath a golden, bumpy crust. Do not save a couple of centimes by getting the plain old baguette, with a uniform crust and inside that resembles the foam in a mattress and that will be as hard as a rock in a couple of hours.

According to the Balladur Decree of 1993 (another decree! another bread ban!), the pain de tradition français may contain only these ingredients: wheat flour, potable water, salt and yeast, although it also can have small amounts of flour of broad beans, soybeans or wheat malt. It means that all the goodness of a baguette depends on the quality of the flour and the expertise of the baker.

Supermarket bread section. You’re supposed to use the plastic sachet to take out the bread.

The patron saint of bakers is Saint Honoré, whose feast day is May 16 (saints’ feast days are announced on TV daily with the weather report). Mark your calendar and celebrate accordingly.


Spring’s Eternal

P1090730It seems as if spring has been giving us a slow tease for a month already. Finally, it’s official.

There’s always a line…until they sell out, which is fast.

To me, it’s officially spring when the asparagus stands appear at the market. That was a few weeks ago. Asparagus trucked in from Spain doesn’t count. I like it picked no longer than the day before. The thing about living in France is that you get full license to be a snob about food. It comes with the carte de séjour.P1090603The wild almond trees are the first to flower. A group of women from the village used to go for walks through the vineyards from early June to mid-July–when the evenings stay light until quite late. They would point out plants on the side of the road, and somebody always had a jam they made from it, or a way to cook it, and inevitably there was a recipe to make an alcoholic beverage, whether sweet, savory, bitter, you name it. Booze was definitely the biggest category. P1090719With my eyes opened to the cornucopia just sitting out there, I picked up some almonds. I got them home, and cracked them open and tasted one. Disgusting. Strongly like marzipan but way more bitter. I went online to read about whether they had to be toasted or treated to improve the taste, and discovered that they are extremely poisonous! They’re full of cyanide! It only takes 10 or so to make you deathly ill. Though I can’t imagine anybody being able to eat 10. Blech. Anyway, it taught me the dangers of wild foraging.P1090596P1090598The buds and burgeons on bare branches start to open into actual foliage, creating a vaguely green scrim around the roadside bushes. One of these days, as if a switch were flipped, everything will be filled out.P1090606The vineyards take longer to reawake. The vignerons are laboring to trim the vines before their sap begins to flow again. Painstaking. Back-breaking. Wish them good health when you sip your next glass.P1090726P1090724The Pyrénées are still covered with snow, and up to 50 cm (20 inches) was forecast for today! Yesterday was T-shirt weather, but by 4 p.m., the storm rolled in and sent the temperatures dropping. Today feels like winter, not spring, though we didn’t get snow. Higher up, though, they did. The ski slopes are only an hour or two away by car/bus, and the local ski club has outings until the end of March.

I never tire of this view.P1070276P1090670Interesting things show up.

What is this spiky plant with  red flower?
I didn’t have a heart attack only because I didn’t want to end up lying next to this (une coulevre, I think, but I wasn’t getting close enough to check–I zoomed for the photo).

The flora here includes many plants that never lose their leaves, keeping the countryside surprisingly green even in winter. All these photos were taken in the past two weeks.P1090689P1090594And, of course, the dreamy clouds.P1090728




IMG_5906Living in France has changed my cooking and eating habits. Sure, the French have amazing packaged, ready-to-eat foods lining the aisles of the hypermarchés. And somebody is buying all that stuff–according to the Ministry of Agriculture, the French in 2010 (latest figures) spent 53 minutes a day preparing meals, vs. 71 minutes a day in 1986, while le snacking (seriously, they used that term) increased almost 11% between 2014 and 2015.

Our kid has remarked on the predominance of ready-made dishes at friends’ homes. Admittedly, it’s challenging to whip up a meal from scratch in under half an hour. Challenging but not impossible. It requires planning, and if your bandwidth is taken up by things like work, then maybe home cooking is a thought too much.

On the other hand, cooking from scratch doesn’t always take that much more time than using prepared packages. Cakes and moelleux au chocolat (aka brownies) are a prime example. And cooking from scratch is cheaper and healthier.P1090709Years ago, I took a guided hiking tour in Morocco with Nouvelles Frontières. I was the only non-French person. Our equipment and food traveled separately from us, on donkey-back, with tents set up and meals ready when we’d arrive at the next campsite. We sat cross-legged in a circle on the ground, and the cook would serve up the first course, always soup. We’d pass the bowls around until everyone had one, then would taste. One day I was at the far end, and got my bowl of soup first. I did what I’d seen the others do each day: I drew in a long breath over my bowl, then reflected aloud, “Quelles épices?”(which spices), which drew much laughter. The composition of every dish was the launching point of every dinnertime conversation, branching out from minute analysis of the spices to the ingredients and methods of preparation, and sometimes spinning into arguments about which region of France had the best butter or whether one region’s salt was superior to another’s. I had never heard so much intense discussion and debate about food. Every. Single. Day.

I loved it.

Our kid has absorbed this French obsession about food and is a talented and opinionated cook, declaring the other day, “When I have my own place, I’ll know I’ve succeeded if nothing I buy has labels.” Think about it–vegetables from farmers; cheese from cheesemongers or cheesemakers; bread from the baker; meat from the butcher, trimmed before your eyes; fish with the head still on from the fishmonger (OK, I will skip that one. I can’t eat anything that looks at me). We already mostly eat that way, except the fancy cheese is a special treat, not a regular habit. Even milk can come without packaging.

He grows what he sells (this was from early fall–no tomatoes yet!).

Much of our produce comes from local farmers, but we do buy some imports–oranges, pineapples, off-season vegetables….I just read that the U.S. imports 53% of fresh fruit and 31% of fresh vegetables. The figures for France are similar: 40% of fruits and vegetables are imported, notably produce that doesn’t grow here, such as bananas and avocados. However, the French article notes that domestic production has dropped. I do wonder about that, with all the housing developments and shopping centers taking over prime farmland. Once paved over, it will produce food no more.

Last Saturday’s market loot shoot: Kiwi does grow here. That’s spinach in the top right, with the roots still on. And apologies for the tomatoes–they were for hamburgers. Thank goodness for imports, sometimes.


How do you feather your nest?

P1080573Home. The word itself is soothing. All soft H, long O, humming M, even the silence of the E.

Houses are built but homes are made.

I have seen some pretty spartan living quarters, but they always included decoration, even if it was pages and pictures from old newspapers and magazines, wildflowers in a used tin can. Usually, there is something personal. A memento. A photo, a souvenir from a happy moment in the past, a relic of a loved one.P1080571Homes are gathered. Some might say collected or curated, but that involves an aesthetic that doesn’t necessarily include raw emotion. It’s why, to me, the best interiors are those that are layered by years of life experiences, not the latest trends clicked and ordered and delivered same day.

There is a magical quality to the minimalist and modern Roche Bobois aesthetic. Epuré– streamlined–is the term. One imagines that the resident of such pared-down perfection could have an entire wardrobe of white clothes and that they never would be wrinkled or stained, and no paper would ever arrive from officialdom to cause one to tear one’s hair out and spend several days trying to get the situation resolved. Because such houses have no place for papers that represent unresolved problems. All surfaces are void. All problems are null. It is a seductive proposition.P1080584But I don’t believe it for a minute. And while I like a modern space every now and then, the way I like vinegar–a bright, bracing contrast to more comforting, comfortable things–a little goes a long way. Too much, and all you get is sour emptiness. No heart. No past. No memories. No love.

I’m very sentimental. As I type this, I’m wearing a sweater that belonged to my mother, even though there’s a huge rip on the sleeve. I have other sweaters, but this one was hers.  It will have to be far more shredded before I part with it. (Fair warning to my husband.)P1080581Every piece of art in our house has a story. Sometimes the story is that I, or my husband, or both of us were someplace and the picture or carving captured that place, that moment, and we wanted to keep it with us forever. None of it is valuable in a collector’s monetary sense, but all of it is beloved–not so much the items themselves but the moments they represent and the people we were then. Sometimes the story comes from having been was passed down. Especially the photos. The exuberant smiles on my siblings’ then-young faces. What a mess we made our home, four forces of nature with far too much energy to be contained by the walls and roof of a mere house. The smallest thing can transport me there, across the ocean, across the decades, so much so that I am startled to find myself here, now, when I snap out of my reverie. I am not sad to be here. I want to go hug my kid and kiss my husband and jump for joy for being so lucky. That doesn’t negate the yearning to also throw an arm around the buzzcut boy in the photo. P1080586A home is feathered not only with things but with rituals and sounds and scents. My mother’s constant classical music. My dad’s snores from down the hall that let me know he was home safe from work. Roast beef on Sundays whose smell permeated the house when we came back from church. We have different rituals, but they still tie us to each other, like a shared safety net. As Rick says in Casablanca, “We’ll always have Paris.”



En Forme

P1090667For about a year and a half I’ve been wearing a wrist-based monitor and I love it. I work from home, and since our kid started going to school by bus in town and I no longer walk to and from school four times a day (coming home for a two-hour lunch…yes, it’s the south of France), I can easily get consumed by my screen and barely budge for hours.

My monitor tells me how many steps I’ve taken, how many calories I’ve burned, more or less, how many hours I’ve slept and how well, and my heart rate. For a while, I filled out the online form with everything I ate, but that was too tedious, so I just look at the total that I’ve burned. It is sometimes depressingly low.

Fishing and walking along the Canal du Midi

My monitor is like a Mary Poppins on my wrist, seeing all and nudging me to be my better self.  I can see when I’ve been at my desk too long and whether I slouched through a run or whether I actually went all-out, based on the heart-rate stats. The overall effects are in the resting heart rate, which are comfortingly low. I am a type-A overachiever, and I love nothing better than to best myself.

I can see how I slept–not just how I thought I slept, but actually how many minutes I was tossing and turning and how much time was in the Alzheimer-fighting deep sleep zone. I can look back at factors like how late I ate, or whether I had wine with dinner, or how late my last coffee was, to try to tweak my sleep for the better, and to see how it turns out.

Mountain biking through the vineyards

I realize that all of the numbers are broad generalities, because a wrist-based sensor isn’t the same as the precision of a laboratory. But it gives me an idea and keeps me from being overly optimistic. A reality check. A kick in the pants.

I am not into selling stuff, and so I haven’t mentioned the name of my monitor, but it’s one of the popular ones. The first one fell to pieces (and I was furious) but was still under guarantee so I have a newish one that seems to be of sturdier design. There are many options. A friend has a phone app that counts steps. Whatever works. Sometimes we need somebody/something to tell us, hey, do better! Other people who have tested multiple brands are better positioned to make a recommendation.P1090609Another interesting, and free, test is the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s World Fitness Level Calculator. It asks lots of questions (like maximum heart rate and resting heart rate) that are easier to answer with one of these wrist fitness monitors, but it also asks lots of lifestyle questions, like whether you’ve ever smoked, and your waist circumference. At the end, it gives you your fitness age. My fitness age is less than my chronological age, despite the fact that my best sport is reading (I have never successfully caught a ball). It’s probably because I do exercise pretty much every day, figuring that being able to run up steps and carry stuff and act like the much-younger parents of my kid’s friends is well worth a daily half-hour of misery. I also go to Pilates once a week, to add to the suffering, but that is so worth it for correcting back problems.

As for the French take on this stuff, almost all my French friends do some kind of exercise. One swims (outside!), even when I think it’s insanely cold. Another does Pilates and aquagym. Several go to the village exercise class, which I did for years. Some do yoga. Another does yoga and walks for an hour a day. I had always read that French women don’t work out or do anything that involves sweat, but pretty much everybody I know actually does work out in one way or another. A group of retired villagers goes for a walk around the vineyards every day–early in summer; midday in winter. Their ranks have dwindled over the years and is down to four feisty old ladies. They stop at the cemetery on their way home.

I even found some stats: 64% of French people over age 15 do some kind of sports at least once a week. The most common activity is walking for leisure, with 42% of people doing it. The sport most people do the most frequently is “utilitarian” walking–i.e., commuting on foot. It probably helps keep obesity levels to around 15.3% in France, compared with 38.2% in the car-centric U.S. Another source said 48% of the French walk or run.IMG_5802There are gyms and associations for every imaginable sport, from fencing to flamenco to football. Crazily, to join a gym or sport club, you have to go to the doctor for a medical certificate that says you’re healthy enough to do the sport. The city of Carcassonne just launched a program to get people in not-great health (people with chronic illness, cancer, obesity, diabetes, Parkinsons, hypertension, arthritis, or kidney or respiratory problems) to do sports in a supervised way–you get a prescription from your doctor and can go to a sports center for €50 per six months for locals. Which is quite a bargain. The sports include rowing, kayaking (in a pool), swimming, walking, nordic walking, climbing (indoors), archery, stretching, tennis, muscle-building, exercise, balance, yoga and cardio training.

If you can motivate yourself to exercise alone, you’ll save money–running doesn’t cost anything except for shoes. I was on the track team for one year in high school, at the behest of some friends, and came in last in every event I tried. I once ran a 10K and came in second-to-last, nosing out a guy twice my age. Despite my lack of aptitude, running appeals because it’s cheap, time-flexible and efficient. I’ve been doing high-intensity intervals–30 seconds of walking, 20 seconds of jogging and 10 seconds of sprinting. Last fall, during a sprint, I asked myself whether I was really at my max and tried to go faster. I ended up splat on the ground with two skinned knees. On the other hand, I can take stairs two at a time without getting winded, so it’s worth it.P1090690What do you do to stay in shape?


Highway to Hell

P1070978Gigantic pickup trucks have sprouted like mushrooms on French roads. Until recently, the only pickups were some museum pieces–ancient Peugeots, their rust barely holding them together, usually slumped to one side, the way many of us end up late in life.

06.MARCH 12 - 65 2
A Peugeot 404. Classic.
04.JANUARY 12 - 1
Talk about rugged…typical “camionettes” used by artisans and winegrowers below:


A camionette in the vineyards.

Considering that French streets are about four feet wide and parking spots are the size of a kitchen sink (and underground parking garages have ceilings so low you have to commando-crawl out of them), the new generation of pickups on steroids are more often found outside cities.

Example of a wall in the center of town that has taken a beating. The streets, laid out around 1260, are barely wide enough for a small car to pass a small parked car. The sidewalks are similarly skimpy.
The lump on the right is called a “chasse-roue” or wheel-chaser.

Check out this pickup description, on a car site: “the arrogance and exaggerated size of U.S. monsters…” And on the Parisien: “In the city, where its outsize build that isn’t always easy, attracts disapproving and inquisitive looks, proof that the big 4×4 still has the image of a polluter.” And on another car site: “If some consider them retrograde…” and later calls them “mastadons.”

XXXL vehicle in M parking space.
Can’t fit into a parking space? Use the sidewalk.

The main reason for this sudden love of gashogs? Taxes! You didn’t think it was because they are practical (not) or beautiful (absolutely not)?

For some reason, France decided that big SUVs weren’t ecological and slapped an €8,000 malus (penalty) on them, causing sales to drop. And for some reason, France decided that pickups are utilitarian vehicles and so their pollution is OK, regardless of their emissions.

On top of that, they qualify for one of Europe’s favorite tax dodges: company cars. Companies not only don’t have to pay taxes on company cars but they also get to deduct 100% of the TVA (taxe sur la valeur ajoutée, or value-added tax–a special kind of sales tax, kind of, which is 20% on fuel) on diesel.

My car would fit in that wheel well.

During the summer, a traveling monster truck show passed through. In French, they’re called monster trucks, but monster sounds like mahn-STAIR. Stunt vehicles are cascaders.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯P1070194



Who knew!

Homemade Macarons

P1090640Macarons are the chic French treat so lusted after these days, especially the ones from Parisian tea salon Ladurée.

You will be happy to learn that they aren’t that hard to make at home. I won’t claim they’re easy; one recipe rated the difficulty as “delicate.” But I’ve made more complicated and more “delicate” recipes than macarons. The recipe itself is simple; this post focuses on the little tricks–astuces–that are key to success.P1090632I have recipes for vanilla and chocolate macarons here. All the credit goes to the recipe makers: Béa LG for the vanilla macarons and the excellent French cooking site 750g for the chocolate macarons. I’m just providing translation services.

I highly recommend watching Béa LG’s video. Even if you don’t speak French, she shows the process very clearly, especially the macaronage, which is the term for the delicate (there you go!) mixing of the meringue with the almond powder/sugar mix, to make the appareil, a word that usually means apparatus, but in this setting means the base for the macaron shells.P1090625Even though I’ve lived in francophone countries for two decades and speak French fluently, I still discover new terms. I was confused when I saw recipes listing a maryse among the utensils needed (Béa LG also refers to a maryse). I know several women named Maryse–to me it’s a woman’s name, not a thing for stirring. Turns out, Marie-Louise was the brand of a rubber spatula, and people blurred it into maryse. Other adorable French terms for spatula include lèche-tout (lick it all) and lèche-plat (lick the plate). Also: une spatule.

Similarly, I know that serrer means to squeeze, tighten or bring close together, though serrer la main means to shake hands and if the GPS orders me serrer à droite, I have to keep to the right. Un café bien serré is a strong coffee. A sauce is serré when it has thickened (makes sense–it comes together). Une serre is a greenhouse and has nothing to do with the verb. But what in the world is serrer les blancs d’oeufs avec le sucre??? Tighten–or squeeze–the egg whites with sugar? (To add to the delightful terms, beaten egg whites are blancs d’oeufs en neige–snowy egg whites.) Turns out, it means to firm up the egg whites with sugar. When the whites become fluffy, you add the sugar, bit by bit, continuing to beat until they’re stiff.

Such is life in another language. You know a word, you use it many times in a day, and then it surprises you with a hidden meaning in a context where you can’t figure out what is going on.

Back to the recipe. Lots of photos here to explain. Vanilla up first.

Béa LG’s vanilla macarons

For the shells:

125g (1 1/3 cups) almond powder/flour

125g (1 cup) powdered sugar

100g granulated sugar, very fine (about half  cup)

100g egg whites (about 3); separated in two bowls: 80g and 20g (20g is about half a white)

For the ganache filling:

150g (5.25 oz.) white chocolate, broken into small pieces

300 ml (1 1/4 cups or 4 fluid oz.) heavy cream

1 vanilla bean

(She also calls for vanilla extract and honey but I thought that was overkill.)

You can see the elegance of the recipe: 125 g each of the dry mix, and 100 g each for the meringue. It’s also so useful to weigh the egg whites, because you don’t have to worry about big or little eggs. Baking is chemistry–turning a liquid into a solid–and unlike, say, a salad or stir-fry, the measurements must be exact. Similarly, you’ll get better results weighing than by using cups, which measure volume. Most electronic kitchen scales have a button to switch between ounces and grams.

Sift! Do you see those lumps? That was after blending. They must go.
Big difference, eh? Very fine, completely homogenous.

Blend the almond powder and powdered sugar. This is important! Then, sift it–also important! Don’t skip these steps. (In the video, she calls it passer au chinoisun chinois is a strainer, aka passoire; a sifter is une tamise, and to sift is tamiser.)

An impeccably clean bowl is essential for stiff peaks.

Beat the 80g of egg whites (important: your bowl must be perfectly clean, without a trace of oil). Also, egg whites beat into meringue better on sunny days. I made the chocolate ones on a day of pouring rain, and I see the difference (doesn’t affect the taste, happily). When they are fluffy, add the sugar one spoonful at a time. (My only criticism of the video is that she says she adds spoonful by spoonful, but doesn’t say or show what. Well, I’m here to tell you it’s sugar.) This method is called a meringue française, as opposed to a meringue italienne, which uses a hot syrup. You can find recipes using that method, but I don’t have a candy thermometer, so I go for what’s simple.

The meringue will make a beak.

The meringue is ready when it forms stiff peaks. Hold up the beater and look for the bec–beak.

Mix the meringue with the almond/powdered sugar. The macaronage begins.

Combine the meringue and almond mix by stirring gently in one direction. Scoop all the way to the bottom of the bowl and lift as much of the contents as possible, and turn it. Do this until it’s all mixed and is loose enough to run off the spatula a bit. This is the macaronage. Watch the video! What wrist technique!IMG_4587

Much smoother, but not yet there.

Beat the remaining 20g of egg white until it’s frothy. Add a little to the batter and continue to stir in one direction. Notice how it smooths out and gets glossy. When you lift a spatula/maryse of batter, it will run off in a pretty ribbon that’s smooth and supple but not liquid.

Froth up the remaining half an egg white. These little things change everything.

Another tip from Béa LG: cut through the batter with the spatula. It should form a line. The halves should start to move back together (if not, you need to add more of the frothy egg white), but very slowly.

The batter (appareil) forms ribbons and a cut through it slowly reforms.

Put the batter into a pastry bag with a large tip. (More French: pastry bag is poche à douille, which literally is “cartridge pocket,” but the cartridges can mean for guns, too.) I prefer to use zip-lock bags: Reinforce one corner with 4-6 pieces of tape. Fill the bag. Close tightly. Snip off the corner. This isn’t for decorating, after all (though they work for that, too–reinforce more and cut zigzags into the tip). Brilliant technique for filling a pastry bag in the video (at 5:16).

My unconventional pastry bag method involves tape.


No fuss, no muss.

IMG_4615Distribute the batter on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper or a silicone mat. You can buy silicone mats with circles for macarons, but they are not necessary. The batter will spread, so don’t make them too close. You can make any size you like. The first time, we made gigantic ones. Then small. Then medium. They all turned out.IMG_4631Don’t worry about tips sticking up; they will smooth out. IMG_4628Hold each sheet a few inches above the counter and let it drop. This releases air bubbles. Let the uncooked macarons rest for a good hour (to get a crust–croûter). They should lose some of their sheen.

You can see popped air bubbles after the sheets were dropped. They will disappear.
Bubbles gone! Pointy tips gone!

Preheat the oven to  145 Celsius (290 Fahrenheit). Bake the macarons, one sheet at a time in the middle of the oven, for 12-14 minutes for small ones–bigger macarons will take longer. Silicone mats take longer than parchment paper. Open the oven door halfway through the baking to let out steam. If the macarons crack or brown, turn down the oven.

The first sheet had cracks, so I lowered the oven.

Let the macarons cool before removing them. Carefully peel them off with your fingers; don’t use a spatula.

Make the ganache. Don’t do this ahead or it will get hard. It only takes a minute anyway. I make ganache all the time, and parted ways with Béa LG, who melted the chocolate in a double-boiler on the video for the ganache. (This brings up another funny French term: a stainless steel bowl with a rounded bottom is called a cul de poule–a hen’s butt. Do you see how one’s head can spin when reading a recipe: “put the hen’s butt over a saucepan of boiling water…”)IMG_4644Put the cream in a saucepan (she put in only 75 g to heat; I did all of it). Scrape the inside of the vanilla bean into the cream. Drop the bean into the cream to infuse even more flavor. Boil the cream. It doesn’t have to boil hard–as soon as you see a bubble, shut off the heat and drop in the chocolate. Stir so it melts. If you didn’t put in all the cream, do it now. Stir well and let it cool. Remove the vanilla bean.

Beat the ganache with a mixer until it’s fluffy. Keep an eye on it, because overbeating will turn the cream into butter. Some ganache recipes even call for butter. P1090622Put the ganache into a pastry bag (or another reinforced zip-lock bag) and squeeze generous dollops onto half the macaron shells. Top with the other shells.P1090636If you prefer chocolate, here’s the recipe for “My First Macarons” from 750g. I doubled it and show the doubled proportions. It made 18 medium macarons (about 2.5 inches in diameter).

Chocolate macarons


190g (2 cups) almond powder/flour

310g (2.5 cups) powdered sugar

30g (1/4 cup) unsweetened cocoa powder

150g egg whites (about 4)

100 g granulated sugar (about 1/2 cup)


100g (3.5 oz.) dark chocolate, broken into small bits

100ml (5/12 cup–between 1/3 and 1/2 cup–3.38 fluid oz.) heavy cream

It’s the same as the vanilla recipe: blend the almond powder with the powdered sugar. Sift the mix with the cocoa powder.

Beat the egg whites (this recipe didn’t hold any on the side and turned out fine), adding the granulated sugar bit by bit until you get stiff peaks.

Do the macaronage, gently mixing the chocolate/almond mix with the meringue.P1090644Put into a pastry bag and squeeze onto baking sheets covered with parchment paper or silicone mats.

Tap the baking sheets. Let the macarons dry out for an hour (the recipe says just 30 minutes, but longer is better). Bake at 145 Celsius/290 Fahrenheit for 12/14 minutes for small macarons, longer for bigger ones. Turn halfway through to let steam out of the oven. (750g says 150 Celsius for 20 minutes, but that was too long. Better safe than sorry.)

Let cool before removing from the baking sheet.P1090655Make the ganache:

Boil the cream; as soon as it starts to boil, shut off the heat and stir in the chocolate until it’s melted. Let it cool. 750g says you can garnish the macarons like this, but I beat the ganache a little to make it fluffier, and even so found it a little runny. It’s a question of aesthetics, because the ingredients don’t change. P1090659Macarons are not nearly as hard or mysterious as I’d feared and certainly impressive to serve. Let me know if you try them!

Tips for Solo Travel

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI keep seeing pieces about solo travel, and I am a little flummoxed. I never considered that there was any problem with traveling alone. Before meeting the Carnivore, I traveled all over the world solo, and my approach evolved over the years. You shouldn’t let solo status stop you from seeing the world. Travel opens minds, brings a deeper understanding of what’s going on in the world, adds a finish of sophistication.

289.City of Carcassonne at night
La Cité of Carcassonne. A song says, “You shouldn’t die without having seen Carcassonne.”

—Start small. Do a weekend away by yourself. Or join a tour. I went hiking in the Atlas mountains in Morocco with Nouvelles Frontières; the others joked that while for them it was adventure travel for me it was an intensive language course. In fact, my French improved by leaps and bounds during 10 days of being the only non-native French speaker. I made a bunch of new friends, too. And it was an experience I wouldn’t have had otherwise—hiking in a remote area of a foreign country is not something I would have done without some kind of group.

La Grosse Pomme, dream destination of nearly every French person I meet (exotic depends on where you’re coming from). They worry whether it’s safe enough.

—Be happy. I went to a nice restaurant in the Calvados region of France, looking forward to an amazing meal. I was met with dismay by the host, who finally conceded to give me a small table next to the kitchen door. I had a book to keep me company and just kept a smile on my face. But the book was set aside and my smile turned to moans of pleasure as I ate. By the time I had finished, the entire staff was around the table, telling me about the preparation of the dishes, the history, the seasonings…..My swooning reaction (more discreet than Sally’s, but still) made them forgive me for being a single woman. For good measure, for the good of all single women diners to come after me, I tipped generously.

—Don’t let the jerks spoil your trip. On the other hand, I was turned away from nearly empty restaurants in Thessaloniki and Copenhagen. It wasn’t because I hadn’t reserved—in each case, a couple came along, admitted to not having reservations and was seated immediately (as I said, the restaurants weren’t busy). I didn’t argue; I decided such a restaurant wasn’t worthy of my business. Then I told everybody I knew. Don’t expect slights, but when they come along, don’t let them ruin your experience.

—Luxuriate at lunch. In general, if I wanted to eat at a nice restaurant, it would go at lunch, when one doesn’t get funny looks for eating alone, and have something small and informal for dinner. This tactic also is good for a budget–lunch menus tend to be better deals than dinner ones–and better health-wise, too.

Barcelona’s Park Guell.

—Be safe. Wear a cross-body bag. It keeps your hands free, is hard to grab, and unlike a backpack keeps your stuff in front of you. Only once in my multiple decades of travel to multiple dozens of countries have I had a problem of any kind. I was walking to my hotel in Barcelona, my Furla bag on top of my wheeled suitcase, and a guy ran by, grabbing the bag. I saw my weekend away flash before my eyes: hours at the consulat replacing my passport. So I held on. He dragged me down the street, in broad daylight, me screaming, people doing nothing but staring. My Furla didn’t break, and he finally let go. My lesson: carry my passport and credit card in a pouch inside my clothes and never again have a bag in my hand.

I’ve hitchhiked in Africa (probably not a good idea but once I was taken home by some American missionaries, given a hot bath–a huge treat since I didn’t have running water–and fed Rice Krispie bars while watching “Little House on the Prairie” with their kids), taken the subway late at night in New York and walked from the Left Bank to Montmartre in Paris when the Métro had closed and I couldn’t find a cab. Cars stopped to offer me a ride, but I’d say I had only one block to go and thanks but no thanks. I see little old ladies walking around Carcassonne with a cane in one hand and their handbags dangling from the other and feel quite safe indeed.

No explanation needed.

—Don’t imagine that the couples around you are happy, especially in Paris. How many teary fights have I witnessed in the City of Light! But the worst was at the Picasso museum. I noticed a woman entranced before a painting. She didn’t move, except for her eyes, which seemed to devour the work. People swarmed past her, snapping selfies with the painting (somebody was looking at it, plus it was big, so it must be one worth photographing) and moving on to the next thing almost without stopping. Then a guy came into the gallery and barked at her. “There you are! I looked all over for you. You’re STILL here? Come on, we’ve got to go.” She winced and tore herself away. And I thought how grateful I was to be there on my own. Sartre might have been a little tough when he said “hell is other people,” but you have to admit that sometimes it’s better to be alone than to be with certain folks.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA—Consider the local culture. Travel in some countries is pretty easy because the cultures are similar. France and the U.S., for example, have many differences, but on a scale of 1-200 (there are about that many in the world today), they would be lumped fairly close together. If you go to countries that are more different, the difference usually is in the average wealth of the people. You might not consider yourself rich at home, but in some countries, you are wealthy beyond their hopes and dreams. No, people aren’t going to want to rob you. No, you shouldn’t give handouts, even to children, out of guilt (though if the poverty touches you, find an organization that you can donation to). I guess you could, but having lived in Africa, my friends found such handouts at once demeaning, too small (why did this foreigner give me a pencil?), and confusing—should they ask for them? Should they refuse? With kids, it just teaches them to beg from foreigners. The charity GiveDirectly is interesting. A great podcast about it here.

—Put a ring on it. A brass one will do (wash the green off your finger at night). If you are in a poor country, it is just logical that certain guys see you and say “Green Card!” They are going to give it their best shot because why not! It isn’t about you. It is about them wanting to escape poverty. So you give them a tall tale about how you are traveling with your husband who got food poisoning and is back at the hotel puking and you just had to get out for an hour before going back to him. It isn’t personal. You just want to be left alone and saying that is NOT going to make any green card hopeful give up. A story is so much kinder and more effective than saying “there is no way on earth that you and I would ever get together.” A husband, even an imaginary one, is an argument they can’t beat.

France’s Mediterranean coast. To me, palm trees = exotic vacation.

—Consider a guide. When I was in Morocco (different time than hiking), I was besieged by guides. A pack of them would follow me all day (not unlike the green card seekers). Rather than wear myself out rebuffing them all day long, I impulsively hired the youngest would-be guide, who looked to be about 8 years old. I gave him my best stern schoolmarm speech about how we were going where I wanted, and so we did. He was delightful company, in fact, and the other guides gave him knowing nods of respect when we’d pass. I had total peace….and control. It cost a pittance. I didn’t even barter the price he asked. Best money I ever spent.

—Mingle with the locals, not just with other tourists. I once took an overnight train from Nairobi to Mombasa. In the sleeper car were two other women, both Kenyans. Let me tell you, it was the greatest time. We drank Tusker beer and talked and talked and talked. This insight into their lives would never have happened if I were traveling (A) with a guy or (B) even with another woman. With a guy, we wouldn’t have been put in the same car. And with another woman as a travel partner, we would have talked between ourselves and the Kenyan in the third bunk likely would have been too shy to join in. The fact that I was alone let them feel free to unload what they really thought…about life, love, politics, everything. This is what travel is all about–understanding the world.21. JUNE 2012 - SEPTEMBRE 2012 - 163Anything to add?


Vintage Signs

P1070809Like ghostly apparitions, advertisements from an earlier age whisper hints about the past lives of buildings and places.

There was a bakery here before?

Rue Trivalle, Carcassonne

A cured-meat shop down the street? I love the specificity. Not just a butcher, but charcuterie–sausage, ham, cold cuts and such.


This one was near the charcutier. A rival? Salaisons are salted foods, mostly ham and such. Wholesale and retail, it says. Felix B. was called the nice (gentil) something. I wonder what!


This little place was an auto garage? It’s true that cars were smaller back then. The buildings on these streets are very old–13th century mostly–very narrow, with low ceilings. But if you’re a mechanic, you find a way to make your business.

Rue Trivalle, Carcassonne

Again, the specificity: wines for Catholic Mass. The second line most likely read vins de dessert–dessert wines–because Banyuls wines are very sweet.

Banyuls on the coast

This one is no advertisement, but a warning: With the Legion or against France. From World War II. Reminders of war are never far away in Europe.


Hints that life was different then.

08.MAY 12 - 02
Peyriac-Minervois. A ruche is a beehive. Midi means noon but it also means the region of the south–where it’s always noon. It was a small grocery store.

No online shopping. If you wanted something, you went to the specialist.

Limoux. Fabric and clothes.
Also in Limoux, Marius Long made casquettes, sold retail at the price of wholesale. Thanks to Midi Hideaways for the casquette (cap) tip.
Another clothing shop, which still exists, in the center of Carcassonne.

When we were hunting for an investment property, among the eight-dozen-plus places I saw was a magnificent ruin (at a modest price, but requiring a large fortune to restore to habitability) that included an atelier. The seller’s father had been a sign painter around the era of many of these signs. The workshop was a hoarder’s bazaar, but there were so many interesting remnants of signs. Sign painting was a real profession then.

A Swiss apèritif. In Carcassonne.

Occasionally there also are hints of the boom times, from the Belle Epoque or during the 1920s, when advertisements and store signs were more elaborate. This gorgeous mosaic, which glimmers gold in the sun, is signed by the ceramists Gentil and Bourdet (who also did quite a few Paris Métro stations) and adorns what originally was a butcher shop–hence the cow’s head. The surrounding arch is marble from the nearby village of Caunes-Minervois. Today, the address, on the main street in the center of Carcassonne, houses a real estate office, still in the same family.

Rue du Verdun, Carcassonne

The top photo is outside the halles (indoor market) in the center of Carcassonne, on rue Chartran. A droguerie is like a pharmacy for your home. Gazaniol was the family name of the owner.

Are you also a sucker for anything old?

Midwinter Madness

P1090535The south of France is anything but a hardship post. As winters go, they’re the green pistes, compared with the black ones elsewhere. In fact, spring started sprouting more than a week ago. (The mimosas are exploding, as in the top photo.)P1090325The days are getting longer and milder. The air smells doux, in all the French senses of the word: sweet, soft, mild, gentle… It’s intoxicating, making you want to fill your lungs again and again. It’s been mild enough that we can open the windows and let the perfume in the house (in addition to the daily airing that all good French people perform every morning, kind of the opposite of hygge). Snow is an hour away, if we want it, in abundance.P1090521P1090520

The bees are buzzing, the butterlies are fluttering. The weeds are invading.P1090461P1090463

The majestic plane trees are still bare. They look like tortured sculptures, though the trunks of some remind me of the trunks of elephants. P1090530P1090532P1090542

The trees in the woods don’t yet have leaves, but greenery persists throughout winter here.P1090502P1090526The river is robust, neither threatening nor dry. P1090551P1090509The baby grass is so tender. I just wanted to stay and stroke it (I did partake for a few minutes, but resisted the urge to take off my shoes and feel it between my toes, too).P1090501P1090565Secret worlds come to life.

Welcome, spring.P1090517

Please check out Daily Plate of Crazy, who also has musings today on midwinter madness.