I see articles about la belle vie française all over the Internet. Most of them promise that if you just buy the 10 products they suggest, then you, too, will have a beautiful life, full of stylish clothes, high ceilings and herringbone floors, well-behaved children and delicious home-cooked meals.
They are lying to you.
The secret ingredient can’t be bought in a store, not even on Amazon.
What the French have is time. And they generally choose to spend it making their lives beautiful. They benefit from a 35-hour workweek and a minimum wage that’s enough to actually live on (largely thanks to other government aid) so they don’t have to work multiple jobs.
Even so, lots of French will tell you they need more time. It’s like money. It’s rare anybody says they have too much. The French are a bit like the folks who earn half a million a year and consider themselves middle class because they see so many millionaires and billionaires with so much more.
Plus, the French are no slouches when it comes to complaining. Even what’s right could be better.
And why not. One shouldn’t rest on one’s laurels.
Here’s why time—and what you do with it—is the special sauce that makes life beautiful.
—Home cooking takes time. There’s shopping, prepping, cooking, preparing the table, eating. It requires planning and forethought. Parisians might shop every day. Out here en province, they tend to hit the supermarket every week to stock up, but also to buy at the open-air markets, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, oops. There also are plenty of roadside stands and little produce-only shops called primeurs, for fresh produce on non-market days.
Cooking meals takes time. Many jobs in France start later and end later, making dinner time later as well.
—Relationships take time. Those long lunches are for camaraderie, whether with co-workers or friends you meet up with. Restaurants have decent lunch specials, and some employers give cheques repas—meal tickets. Maybe once or twice a week, folks hit the gym during lunch (it really fills up at noon), but that’s also an opportunity to socialize. Even shopping is social—the market is lined with cafés where people greet their friends and stop for a coffee or glass of wine.
—Families take time. (See home cooking.) Meals aren’t the only thing, but they are the excuse for a lot. Sundays are dedicated to a big, multigenerational family meal. There might be outings, to a vide grenier (a kind of mass garage sale) or biking or hiking and picking mushrooms in fall or asparagus in spring in the woods or visiting one of the many village festivals.
You can tell the value system by what professions do work on Sundays: bakers, florists (so you can take a bouquet when you go to the in-laws for Sunday dinner), restaurants. Basically it’s about eating. Everything else can wait.
I found it hard to adjust to strict hours for everything after living in the city that never sleeps. Most shops open at 10, and even the supermarkets don’t open until 9. Smaller shops close between noon and 2 p.m. Many people still go home for lunch. Everything is closed on Sunday. Run out of milk on Saturday night and you’re out of luck until Monday morning. There are a few stores starting to open on Sunday mornings, but they are the exceptions.
At the same time, people are clearly lucky to have an incredible level of stability in their lives, thanks to this inflexible schedule. Work hours are written in stone, often 9 or 10 a.m. until noon and 2 p.m. until 6 or 7 p.m., for a 35-hour workweek. No scheduling software that dictates at the last minute that you’ll work late tonight and early tomorrow. Dinner time is dinner time. Nothing is open late, nobody works late. They go home to their families.
Autumn can be such an endearing time of year. Outdoor activities no longer soak a person in sweat just at the thought. Chilly nights with cuddling under blankets. The return to routine early-to-bed-early-to-rise after summer’s excesses. The smells of earth and leaves and the first fires lit in fireplaces. The colors changing on the trees, across the vineyards. Short-term art, as if Christo teamed with Rothko for a grand-scale work of intense color.The leaves here turn color, especially on the grape vines, which can take on riotous shades of red and orange and gold. Mostly in unison, by varietal, except for the stray syrah that wandered into a crowd of cabernet.The trees’ leaves also change color before falling. But many of the hills are covered with pines that stay green. They aren’t the Christmas tree shapes but pins parasols–umbrella pines–that have branchless trunks giving way to rounded, clumpy tops that look like the clouds drawn by kindergartners. The spiky broom plants stay green, and laurel keeps its leaves. With rain, the grass grows back. Winter is a relatively green season here.Sometimes the stars are shining brightly when I wake, but by the time the Kid gets out the door a gray film has descended, thickening by the minute.
Minutes later, a text from a teen on a bus: “Go look outside. It’s magic.”Fog turns the Kodachrome-colored fall into a shades-of-gray enigma. I venture out. It’s so thick I can barely see my hand before my face. The familiar road is suddenly mysterious. It could go anywhere like this, to places unknown. I almost hesitate to even keep walking, as if I might end up in a parallel world and be unable to get home.As the sun begins to rise, the fog, too, starts to lift.Not uniformly, but leaving behind remnants. Clouds on the ground, here and there.When the sun climbs triumphant above the hills, the colors return to their saturated selves. A metaphor for my autumn moods. Longing/loving. Inside/outside. Retrospective/energized. Thinking a lot about loved ones who died, but busy on behalf of those living. Bittersweet.
It kind of reminds me of the Carl Sandburg poem, “Arithmetic.” Yes, my favorite poem is about math.
Arithmetic is where the answer is right and everything is nice and you can look out of the window and see the blue sky — or the answer is wrong and you have to start all over and try again and see how it comes out this time.Except the autumn funk isn’t so much about not getting the answer right as about wishing the goods things–the good people–could last forever. This time is good. Let’s just stay like this forever.
Doesn’t work that way. The leaves will fall from the branches. New ones will replace them later.My cousin asked whether the leaves change color here. I meant to answer, and then never got around to it. Because I didn’t want to just say “yes, they do.” Here it is, with my apologies for being late.
Nestled in the foothills of the Black Mountains, Caunes-Minervois is a storybook French village, with cobbled streets too narrow for cars, one beautiful door after another, stone walls adorned with climbing roses and ivy.It also has lots of life. Although it doesn’t even have 2,000 residents, it has EIGHT restaurants! They are really good, too. The Hôtel d’Alibert, for example, is beautiful and delicious. The Cantine de la Curé (the priest’s canteen–it’s across from the abbey) has tapas in a garden. La Mangeoire (manger, as in away in a) and la Marberie (the marble works–Caunes is known for its quarry for red marble) have lovely interiors as well as shady terraces. In the summer, outdoor classical concerts on Fridays animate the lovely garden behind the abbey. In winter, jazz concerts in the abbey’s caveau, or wine cellar, take advantage of the great acoustics.The monastery was the heart of the ancient village, although it was inhabited since neolithic times, and later had a Roman villa. The abbey was started in the 8th century, when the town was becoming rich. You can visit the church, sumptuously decorated with local marble, and go under the altar to the crypt. There’s a cloister, and a small museum of archaeological finds.
Mostly, though, it’s a pleasure just to stroll around Caunes. Some of the streets turn into stairs, and most in the center of the village are just too narrow for cars to pass. Which means the soundtrack for your walk is the wind and birds.
There are some beautiful homes, not just from medieval times but also Renaissance, including Hôtel d’Alibert. Most of the Renaissance buildings are near the mairie, or town hall.
The doors range from majestically imposing to extremely small. I saved most of them for another post just on doors.
Near the abbey is an old lavoir, or communal laundry, which still gets used.
Its location on a hill offers views across the plain that extends to the Pyrénées. Gorgeous.
And the views of the roofs are wonderful, too.
Charm is everywhere.
Though it’s not without its challenges.
I hope you enjoyed Caunes-Minervois. If you ever see wine from here, buy it (there are several wineries). You won’t be disappointed.
Caunes is a great daytrip from Carcassonne. I haven’t finished with it, either. We will go out of town the next time, plus I have to visit the marble quarry, since our kitchen counters came from it.
Since the rentrée, the vide-grenier season has been in high gear. The mass garage sales are the excuse to visit a new village, to people-watch and above all, to find one-of-a-kind items for a song.This stand had an impressive collection of Ricard items. Ricard is a brand of pastis, an anise-flavored apéritif that’s very popular around here. It is clear and barely yellow but turns cloudy when water is added, and thus gets called un jaune–a yellow. Ricard brilliantly played on the name. The glasses have a line to show how much pastis to pour. I can only guess that the tray, with holders for the glasses and bottle, is designed to set down at the boulodrôme during pétanque.
The professionals have the greatest concentrations of good stuff, but at higher prices. Look at this collection of antique night clothes.The pants have a completely open crotch. Interesting. I would guess something to do with using a chamber pot in the dark but I could be wrong.I love the embroidery. Even when it’s just small initials.The képi blanc is the hat of the French Foreign Legion. It reminds me of the Colette story. Ageist double standards.
Another had old knives in a very scratched plexiglass case. Can you make out some of the elaborate decorations on the handles and even the blades?
I do wonder about who would collect figurines of pin-up girls. Actually, I don’t wonder at all. Ick.The regular folks getting rid of stuff from grandma’s attic are where you find the best gems. Look at that silver inkwell.
And how about a mantle clock with a cherub on top?
There also are plenty of less-antique offerings. Bowling, anyone?
The thrill of the hunt is what the vide-grenier is all about.
If you do something stupid, it’s your problem. The French are big on personal responsibility when it comes to safety.
I was walking along a path around a nearby manmade lake, Lac de la Cavayère. A lovely place, set amid rugged hills of pine forest, with beaches and water sports clustered at one end so the other end remains quiet and wild. And I came across the sign below. Careful: Hold children by the hand.In order to get all the way around, the path had to traverse the dam that created the lake. It was plenty wide—about five feet—with as much grass sloping off on either side. It looked as if the lake side was filled in so if one fell, it was into shallow water, at least at first. But on the other side, there was an almost sheer drop to the valley below. No rails. Just a sign.
This is typical. In France, there exist things that are dangerous, and they either are so obvious that you should just act appropriately, or, in the rare cases of nanny state rearing its head, are noted with signs. In the U.S., the least danger would have to be remedied lest somebody do what they clearly shouldn’t and sue anyway. In France, danger is accepted as a natural part of the world, and it’s on you to deal with it.In the U.S., for example, I was surprised to see seat belts in grocery shopping carts and on horses of a carousel. No such thing in France. In fact, parents are asked to keep off the carousel, except to hold very small kids. If your kids can climb onto the horses, they can ride around the carousel on their own.
The hike to Lastours, a spectacular group of four medieval Cathar châteaux, is on a rugged footpath that winds around a mountain. There are a couple of spots with railings, mostly in wider places where people are apt to stop for a photo and where they can pass each other. Rocks poke out of the ground and pose tripping hazards. A fall could send a person tumbling quite far through the brush.
Watch your step.
The castles are lit at night for a sound and light show. It isn’t easy to wire lighting on a rocky mountain. The wiring, in fact, just snakes up, crossing the path here and there. Code? What code?
Never mind the ponies; everybody is watching the people dangling from the trees.
We went to a gastronomic fair recently. Tastings of artisanal foods and wine. Boring for kids. So there were pony rides for the little ones and zip lines through the trees for the big ones. Of course.
Tree climbing and zip lines are popular here. At the lake mentioned above, there’s an outfit called Accrobranche (accrocher means to hook onto, and branche is branch) where folks of all ages can zip through the trees. There’s even a line across the lake. You get measured if you’re a kid (the courses you can take depend on height for hooking the safety line), pay, get your equipment and five minutes of training, then zip away. There isn’t any “we aren’t liable for your stupidity” contract. It IS completely safe, as long as you follow the directions.
How many times did my jaw drop when my kid came home with news of a school outing. When I was in school, we visited the art museum. Once we went to a local macaroni factory. We did not go spelunking. Nor did we do rock climbing. Nor swimming in the sea. Nor skiing.
That reminds me of when our kid was about four. We went to a ski resort for sledding. It rarely snows in Carcassonne, and even then it isn’t deep and doesn’t last long enough for sledding. But the Pyrénées are a short drive away. Near the café and the beginner piste, there was a designated spot for sledding. It had a gentle slope that flattened out to a broad plateau to ensure the sleds would slow and then stop on their own. The plateau dropped off to the end of a bustling ski piste, with no barriers between them.
Our kid had a wonderful time. We got a workout. Our kid sledded down and we waited at the bottom to haul the kid-heavy sled back up for another round. But our kid was too little and too inexperienced to understand steering. Instead of slowing to a stop on the plateau where we stood, the sled veered to one side, went off the plateau and down the steep slope, picking up speed and crossing the busy ski piste, luckily not hitting anybody. We tried to run after our screaming kid, but the packed snow was slick—bad for running in boots, while making the sled even faster. Our kid was caught in a snow fence, just barely, but enough to get knocked off the sled, terrified but unhurt. The sled went under the net and flew on down to the bottom of the mountain, stopped by a tree. It took the Carnivore half an hour to go down to get it. That was the end of sledding for a while. All of us were pretty shaken.
This was many years ago. I suspect our kid wasn’t the first to inadvertently steer off the sledding area and into the piste. Years later, our kid took ski lessons, and we’ve returned to this resort for practice. The sledding area is still just there in the open.
More kids in trees.
With such a laissez-faire attitude about danger, it’s surprising that every person, young or old, who signs up for sports has to have a certificat médical from a doctor, attesting that one can do physical activity. Even yoga. Even ballroom dancing. Even adults—if you join a gym, you need a certificat médical, with a new one every year. From what I’ve seen, the people who go to the gym aren’t the ones whose fitness needs to be certified.
The Citroën 2CV–pronounced deux chevaux, or two horse, after the engine–is the model that most screams “French.” While Detroit was churning out land yachts in the postwar years, Citroën came up with the modest 2CV as an economy model in 1948. They were in production for 40 years. Is that classic or what?
Citroën, are you listening? Bring it back, but electric!
The 2CV might be barebones and simple, for easy maintenance and low gas consumption, it has tons of style.
That curved top, that rolls back for a sunroof! It was designed so people could transport big items, letting them stick out vertically. Practicality plus style–so French. Those round headlights, with visors like eyelids!Those voluptuous fenders and fender skirts!I think my favorites, besides all red, are the two-tone paint jobs that accentuate the curves.If Citroën gets the good sense to bring it back, I hope they don’t do like the VW Beetle and the Mini Cooper and make it too big and blown out, like somebody puffed out by steroids. Keep it small and simple. With flair.If you want to see the 2CV in all its cinematic glory, here are a few films:
Brigitte Bardot drives one very badly in “La Bride sur le Cou” (The Bridle on the Neck–it’s an expression that means doing whatever one wants).In “Eat, Pray, Love,” Julia Roberts’ friends drop her off in Rome in a two-tone 2CV.
In “Red 2,” Mary-Louise Parker drives, with John Malkovich nervously riding shotgun, in a car chase in Paris against a Porsche.
To show how poor the madly-in-love couple (Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson) is in “Indecent Proposal,” they drive an old 2CV.
There are some great moves in this old French movie, “Le Tracassin.” I have witnessed the drive-on-the-sidewalk move in Paris.
The names of French pastries and desserts don’t often give a clue as to their ingredients. When I first moved to Europe, to Brussels, I was flummoxed by menus offering delicacies I didn’t know. One of my early lessons with my French tutor was going over the carte des desserts at a café. Here are a few of the less obvious desserts and pastries. The strawberry tarts above are pretty obvious. Most people can guess that a fondant au chocolat is going to be a molten chocolate cake. But a Saint-Honoré? Read on.
I apologize for not having photos of all these. I am trying to avoid sugar, so I snap shots while in the bread line, and the offerings change constantly. I’ll do more of these, if you like, as I collect examples.
Baba au Rhum: A light brioche soaked in a rum syrup and topped with whipped cream. Also called a Savarin. See the recipe here.
Biscuit: A false friend, a French biscuit (bis-cuit means cooked twice) isn’t savory like the anglophone kind but instead a sweet cookie. Beware: tremper son biscuit means having sexual intercourse. I got caught out on this one when explaining my tiramisu recipe at one of my first dinners with the Carnivore’s family. I said, “you dip the cookie”–trempez le biscuit–“in the coffee and amaretto.” A cousin chortled, which was all it took for the entire table to erupt in laughter. “You were saying?” somebody finally managed to squeak out. I resumed, “you dip the cookie…” more laughter, even harder. They got clueless me to repeat it several times, each time sending them into paroxyms of laughter, before somebody took mercy and explained why it was so hilarious.Boudoir: Known to English speakers as lady fingers, these dry cookies also are called biscuits de Reims, after the capital of Champagne. Boudoir means a lady’s elegant but very small private salon (not bedroom! and that word is related to bouder, which is to pout or sulk). The name was chosen by the famous 19th century royal patissier Marie-Antoine Carême (his last name means Lent, which I find hilarious for somebody devoted to desserts), who adapted a recipe from the Medicis for a sturdier cookie that could be dipped in champagne. The reason is either because he was winking at the dangerous liaisons going on or that, like the lady in her boudoir, the cookie is elegant and rounded, and one’s lips round as they envelope it. Erotic either way, especially compared to the old name, biscuit à la cuillère—spoon cookies, because you lay the dough on the baking sheet and turn the cookies using a spoon (but most people use pastry bags). Use boudoirs in tiramisu (see above) or charlotte. Or dip your biscuit in champagne.
Charlotte: a creamy dessert in a mold that’s lined with langues de chat or boudoirs. Carême (him again) took the original version—plum compote enveloped by toasted, buttered bread—and lined his mold with biscuits à la cuillère with Bavarian cheese flavored with fruit. There also are vegetable versions. Charlotte aux fraises, besides being delicious, is the French name for the cartoon character Strawberry Shortcake, though the two desserts have only strawberries in common.
Croquembouche: the name means crunches in your mouth. This is a mountain of little cream puffs that have been covered with caramelized sugar so they stick to each other and also crunch when you bite them. A favorite for weddings. It also can be made with macarons.
Dame Blanche/Dame Noir: Chocolate sundae. The white lady is with vanilla ice cream; the black lady is with chocolate ice cream. Always with whipped cream on top.
Divorcé: Yup, divorced. This involves two cream puffs, one stuffed with chocolate cream, the other with mocha. Each is topped with a fondant in the same flavor as its filling and stuck together with butter cream frosting. Similar to a religieuse, but with two flavors, and side by side. Hence the divorce.
Éclair: Most people know éclairs, the long choux pastry filled with pastry cream and topped with icing. However, did you know the name means lightning? The delicacy was known as pain à la duchesse before 1850. Câreme—yes, him again—decided to improve marketing of the fingerlike treat by calling it éclair, or lightning, because that’s how fast you’ll eat it.Financiers: a little sponge cake/cookie usually rectangular (though in the 17th century they were oval), made with finely chopped almonds or almond powder. They were made by nuns of the Visitadines order in Nancy to use up the egg whites left after the yolks went to make paint; it was a ruse because they weren’t allowed to eat meat. In 1890, the pâtissier Lasne made the cookies more popular. His shop was near the stock market and the delicacies were a favorite with brokers because they didn’t dirty their fingers (as if!). Lasne decided to change the shape to little rectangles that represent gold ingots. They’re nice with coffee.
Fondant or Moelleux? Fondant means melting, whereas moelleux means soft. A fondant is like an almost flour-less brownie. A moelleux is a soft, moist cake. If chocolate, it’s like a typical brownie, with more flour. A mi-cuit or coulant is not cooked all the way through (mi-cuit is half-cooked), so the middle is runny–coulant.
Fondant au chocolat
Langue de Chat: flatter and softer than a boudoir, often served with ice cream.
Lunettes de Romans: regional specialty of Romans-sur-Isère: oval butter cookie, with scalloped edges, in two layers, with two round holes in the top layer filled with jam. While lunettes are glasses, the cookie looks more like Venetian carnival mask.Madeleine: little sponge cake/cookies that look like sea-shell-shaped financiers but the recipe is quite different—they use whole eggs, baking powder and orange-flower flavoring. A popular primary school goûter, or afternoon snack. Proust famously dipped this biscuit in his tea, which brought back the flood of memories that constitute À la recherche du temps perdu, or In Search of Lost Time, previously known as Remembrances of Things Past.
Mendiant: The name means beggar, and includes some religious orders whose members were to live only from charity. It’s a dry cake (the recipe started with stale bread!) topped with almonds, dried figs, raisins and other nuts. The name is due to the colors of the toppings, which are in the browns, like friars’ robes. You’re likely to see them cookie size, with a coating of chocolate enclosing the cookie base and a layer of chopped nuts and fruits, then topped with whole nuts and fruits.
From left: Succès, Merveilleux (chocolate), Mocha, Baba, almond and vanilla tarts, strawberry tart, strawberry éclair.
Merveilleux: Like a macaron but with whipped cream in the middle, and covered with whipped cream. From Belgium.
Napoléon: a mille-feuille, or thousand sheet/leaf. That’s an exaggeration, because it’s three layers of puff pastry, with pastry cream between them, with a white icing decorated with chocolate stripes or marbling. The name possibly comes from the emperor, who took a liking to while warring against Russia in 1812 (he lost), though some posit it was named Napoleon by Russians savoring their sweet victory. Or it might have been an Italian treat (since everybody seems to have had similar layering ideas) known as gâteau napolitaine, for Naples, and just got mispronounced (see pâte à choux). Tip: turn it on its side to eat it. That way you can cut through the layers without making all the cream squeeze out the sides.
Opéra: a layered chocolate-mocha cake, with a base of biscuit Joconde, which is made from beaten egg whites with almond powder, soaked with Grand Marnier or coffee, covered with a layer of ganache (chocolate and cream) and mocha butter cream, then repeated and iced with chocolate. Supposedly it was named in honor of the dancers from the Opéra Garnier in Paris, who would visit the shop of its creator, Cyriaque Gavillon, to eat it. I don’t believe that for one minute.
Paris-Brest: A donut-shaped—or wheel-shaped—choux pastry, cut in half horizontally and stuffed with praline-flavored butter cream, with sliced almonds and powdered sugar on top. It was created in 1920 by Louis Durand in honor of the Paris-Brest-Paris bicycle race.
From left, strawberry tart, strawberry éclair, Paris-Brest, Napoléon aka mille-feuille, éclair.
Pâte à choux: This means, literally, cabbage dough, though you probably call it cream puff pastry. It seems the original name was pâte à chaud (hot dough) because it gets dried out with heat then rehydrated with eggs. The result is a pastry that puffs up without yeast or baking powder. However, it isn’t clear that chaud became choux as a result of people talking with their mouths full of it. It was invented in 1540 in Italy to make cakes shaped like women’s breasts. In the 18th century, another pâtissier used the dough to make cabbage-shaped buns and the name was changed. Or not. Savory versions include gougères (post to come). Sweet versions are all over this post.
Profiteroles: Speaking of pâte à choux, profiteroles are a decadent assembly of several cream puffs, often filled with ice cream, and topped with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Kind of a cream puff Dame Blanche.
Punitions: butter cookies. so named by famous baker Lionel Poilâne’s great grandmother as a joke (it means punishments).
Religieuse: Two cream puffs, one larger than the other, stacked snowman-style and glued with butter cream frosting. The filling is pastry cream, usually chocolate or mocha. Each puff is topped with fondant, with a dollop of butter cream on top like a button. The two balls (which are basically éclairs in the round) are supposed to represent a head and a body, and the icing is supposed to remind one of religious robes. Though the treat was created in 1865 by the Parisian café Frascati, the name didn’t appear in the dictionary until 1904 and its origins are murky. One thing is clear: the religieuse is heavenly.
Savarin: a lot like a baba, above.Saint-Honoré: another more-is-more dessert involving cream puffs. This one involves a base of puff pastry, upon which sit a ring of cream puffs that have been dipped in caramel (the better to stick) and whipped cream or crème chiboust, which is pastry cream that’s been lightened with egg whites (meringue, basically). Saint Honoré is the patron saint of bakers and pastry chefs. He died on May 16, 600. His miracles: when he was little he told his baby sitter he wanted to become a priest. She answered, “And you’ll be bishop when my baking paddle sprouts leaves.” Which it did. Flowers, even. Honoré became not only a priest but bishop of Amiens at a young age. He didn’t want to be named bishop, but a shaft of heavenly light shone on him and a mysterious oil was drizzled on his head from above in a divine sign. Another time, during a Mass, the hand of God appeared to give him a communion host. In 1202, a Parisian baker gave up a parcel of land for a chapel in honor of Honoré, in the faubourg, or suburb, that took on the holy man’s name. The construction of the chapel inspired the millers, flour merchants and bakers of the area to adopt Honoré as their patron saint. The suburb was consumed by Paris, but a street there still carries the name and is now the epicenter of the fashion industry.Succès: meringue on top of crème mousseline praliné (pastry cream with extra butter, praline–sugared almond–flavor) on top of a crispy almond cookie, covered with almonds. Like a merveilleux, but praline.
If archaeology is your thing, a great day trip from Carcassonne is to Tautavel, for three reasons:
There’s a fabulous musuem dedicated to l’Homme de Tautavel, who lived 450,000 years ago.
The scenery is gorgeous.
The region’s wines are yummy.
Tautavel man, a Homo erectus, was discovered in 1971 in a cave, along with 149 other human remains. He was about 20 years old and 1.6 meters (5 feet, 3 inches) tall. Sorry I don’t have photos! I hate taking photos inside museums. Click on the links to see the museum’s site.
Tautavel man hadn’t yet domesticated fire, but was a very good hunter. The prey was typically horse, deer, wild sheep, and bison but also included rhinos, lions and panthers, as well as smaller animals.
You can visit the cave as part of a guided group between April and August. Two museums, the Musée de Tautavel and the Musée des Premiers Habitants de l’Europe, display the site’s finds and illustrate prehistoric life. The dioramas are very realistic and not corny at all. Explanations are in several languages. Tip: the museums are closed at lunch, between noon and 2:30 p.m. Tickets, €8 adults/€4 kids, are €1 apiece cheaper if bought in advance online and are good for both museums.
There are demonstrations of how to light a fire using flint and by rubbing two sticks together, and how to use prehistoric weapons, such as a propulseur (not easy—I tried it). In mid-April, the museum hosts the Prehistoric Arms Firing Championship!
I accompanied a school trip, so we went by bus, taking the autoroute to near Perpignan (the exit, sortie 41, is well-marked for Tautavel man), then leaving the coastal plain to wind through low hills—I suppose they count as the foothills of the Pyrénées—with rugged, white rock outcroppings, plenty of garrigue and lush vineyards. The drive is about 1.5 hours, but the countryside and charming little villages make it seem like less. There’s a lot to look at.Speaking of vineyards, the region is near Fitou and has good wines. Here is a link to the local producers.
Poor M. Homme de Tautavel, living in a wine region before the advent of wine.
September is the season for zucchini–courgettes in French. There are so many kinds, and so many ways to prepare them.
In the raw: Zucchini and chickpea salad
I’ve eaten zoodles (zucchini noodles) all my life. My grandma used to make a wonderful creamy tomato soup with zucchini noodles. No spiralizer for Grandma. She was all about the knife, the wooden spoon and the arm muscles, though I think she did have a mandoline. Following in her footsteps, use a mandoline to make fettuccini of 3-4 medium-size courgettes, about 6-8 inches long. (Grandma grew everything in her garden to size XXL, but you’d do well to avoid baseball-bat zucchini, with their big seeds.) Salt and let sit a while in a colander to soften them up and become more noodle-like. Rinse and pat off some of the water with a paper towel.
In a large bowl, mix the zoodles with a drained 15 oz. can of chickpeas (you can cook up a batch from dried, but that requires planning, whereas this recipe is quick and dirty), some chopped fresh herbs (parsley, mint, basil–your choice), a swirl of olive oil, a splotch of red-wine vinegar and some pepper. Because the zoodles were salted, taste before adding any more.
I’m usually of the opinion that more is more when it comes to salads, and I tend to include anything and everything that’s in the fridge. But I left this salad simple and it was delicious, the zucchini and chickpeas both being mild and not in combat for dominant flavor. I’ve also done it with halved cherry tomatoes, which add color.Les courgettes sont cuites
(Actually, the saying is “les carottes sont cuites”–meaning “all is lost” or “the jig is up.” I saw many dubious explanations for the origin of this phrase–dubious, because if one can’t spell correctly in a piece about etymology, well, lescarottes sont cuites. Fortunately, the book Légumes d’hier et d’aujourd’hui–Vegetables of yesterday and today–says it’s because in a mix of root vegetables, carrots are the last to be done.)The first time I ever had French food was in a fancy restaurant in the Midwestern city where I grew up. I was still in high school, being high-falutin’ going there. I remember the white-washed brick walls, which were SO radical in the ’70s, the simple black furniture, and the zucchini. Considering I could peer through the windows and see that interior regularly over the years, I suspect that ALL I really remember about that meal is the zucchini. Simple matchsticks of zucchini, sautéed in butter. Nothing haute about it, but you need to use good butter (NOT margarine). The zucchini caramelize in the browned butter and then melt in your mouth.Here you have it:
Cut some small zucchini into matchsticks. You want smallish ones so they aren’t full of seeds. Count on at least one per person–they melt down. You can peel them, but that (1) has less nutrition, (2) is more work and (3) is wasteful (a future post is coming on a French cookbook about using peelings and scraps). The easiest way to make matchsticks is to first cut coins and then make little stacks of the coins and cut them into slivers.
Brown a tablespoon or two of butter in a skillet. If your skillet is big and you have a lot of zucchini, add more. When the bubbles subside, add the zucchini and stir. It should be hot enough that the zucchini brown without getting mushy. Almost seared. That’s it. A little salt and pepper. A perfect side to any main.Yes, you can vary this by sautéeing minced garlic or onions before adding the zucchini. And you can add fresh or dried herbs, whether oregano, basil, parsley or rosemary. But sometimes, the simple version is a revelation, especially when the brown butter makes the zucchini sing.
May I add that the great Prosper Montagné, native of Carcassonne and author of the original Larousse Gastronomique, has a similar recipe in his book Les Delices de la Table that I translate here as closely as possible to word-for-word: cut three peeled zucchini into coins not too thin. Salt them and sauté in a skillet with butter. Let them brown well. Sprinkle with chopped parsley. Serve in a vegetable bowl (légumier).*
He goes on to note: Habitually, one sweats them by lightly sprinkling with salt, and one dredges the courgettes, as well as eggplant, in flour before sautéing them. We discourage this system. Zucchini and eggplant sautéed in oil or butter cook perfectly put into the skillet as they are. Far be it from me to argue. By the way, for those first chilly days of fall, check out this great zucchini soup recipe.
*Do you notice that there’s exactly one measurement in his recipe, and it’s three zucchini? But of indeterminate size. All the old recipes are like this!
During the second weekend of September, France opens the doors on many buildings that normally are off-limits, in honor of les Journées de Patrimoine, or Heritage Days. It is the perfect opportunity for the curious/nosy/antique-lovers to eyeball how the French really live and work.
For example, I found my dream office, pictured above and below.Don’t you agree it meets all the criteria? Awesome chandelier? Check. Amazing drapes on French doors that open to Juliette balconies? Check. High ceilings and moldings? Check. Mega mirrors, gilt? Check. Silver candlesticks (in case the lights go out, probably)? Check. Herringbone floors with carpets? Check.Gigantic Aubusson tapestry that coordinates with the Empire (?? feel free to correct me) seating.
Sigh. I could be very productive in an office like this. It’s at the Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie, in the hôtel de Murat, an 18th century building. It was built by the family of a local judge, but the proprietors fled in 1792 during the Revolution and the property was confiscated. That includes their amazing library and its 13,206 books. In addition to the classics in French, Greek and Latin, there also are precious manuscripts dating back to the 14th century.
The smell of a library is a heavenly perfume.
Check out the jib door covered with fake books!
Today it’s a meeting room. With a very functional, not-of-the-époque folding table…and the typical French ingenuity for electrical wiring (look in the fireplace).
But that mantle! And the mantle clock!
They don’t make ’em like they used to.
The stairwell was a work of art.
We also visited the Palais de Justice. I didn’t get a shot of the biggest of the three courtrooms because a mock trial was under way. I got lost in the back and forth of the trial–dogs biting cows, a fight, a broken phone….my kid informed me afterward that the witnesses kept changing their stories. No wonder I was confused. The audience was full of nonchalantly chic French parents with their mostly teenage kids, everyone riveted by the proceedings. I have never seen such a concentration of good haircuts.
We also popped into the Musée des Beaux Arts. Most museums are free during the Heritage Days. I prefer to focus on the buildings that aren’t usually open to the public, rather than just avoiding a museum entry fee. Plus, we’ve been to the museum before. But we were walking in front of it, so we went inside.
The plate on the back of a massive fireplace in the museum entrance.
The museum was actually purpose-built, in 1836. It isn’t huge and it doesn’t have big-name artists. I find that’s a plus–no crowds jostling for a photo of a painting (I understand wanting to get close to examine, but why a photo? just buy one at the gift shop!) or a selfie with a sculpture. People actually look at all the works, rather than passing over the “nobodies” in search of the Famous Artists. The benefits of Carcassonne–small and civilized.
Tell us your stories about les Journées du Patrimoine! Last year’s visit is here.