Truffles Are Always a Good Idea

img_0685Of all the mushrooms, nay, of all the ingredients, that impart a deep, complex flavor to foods, truffles reign. They magically multiply flavor, while adding a mysterious earthiness that’s almost addictive. And the perfume! It’s like a walk in the forest after the rain, but with a seductive muskiness as well.

33.truffe
At the markets here in Aude, the truffles are inspected. I wrote about them here.

Maybe because they’re rare, expensive and have a short season, truffles don’t often appear on lists of umami ingredients. (Umami is the Japanese term for the fifth taste, after sweet, salty, sour and bitter, which some people scoff doesn’t exist, but obviously I don’t agree with them.) This list does mention truffles, far below dried shiitake mushrooms, so consider them a substitute if you want to make these recipes and can’t get your hands on a truffle. Having grown up with rubbery canned, I hated all mushrooms for years, but I eventually learned to love fresh mushrooms and correctly cooked ones. And, minced and mixed and nearly invisible, they can add a sophisticated je ne sais quoi to recipes.

42.truffes talairan3
At the Talairan truffle market, preparing a tasting of steak tartare au couteau (prepared by mincing, not grinding, the meat), topped with truffle shavings.

41.truffes talairan2 2A little, golf-ball-size truffle goes a long way. We got one just before Christmas and used it on oeufs brouillés, risotto and, for the Carnivore, magret de canard–duck breast–in brandy sauce with truffles and mushrooms. It adorned our meals for over a week. Not bad for a €30 splurge (the price this year was €1,000 a kilogram, down from €1,200 three years ago!)

img_0633
Truffle #1, from Moussoulens. Truffle #2, with another recipe, coming soon.
img_0614
Duck breast getting flambéed. Tip: the sauce needs to be very hot, and the brandy needs to have a high proof. The Soberano that he used was only 35 proof, and he had to try again with stronger stuff. It gives flavor without the bite of alcohol, which burns off. Video here.
img_0627
Don’t think for a minute that recent vegetarian converts had duck!. Our kid made sautéed (but not flambéed) tofu in a Sriracha sauce. No truffles.

Just as the movie stars on the red carpet wear dresses that don’t hide the borrowed diamonds that are dripping from their necks, so, too, dishes that work best with truffles are ones that let the black diamonds, as they’re called, shine. Mild things–eggs, rice, potatoes, polenta…Usually the truffle market includes a huge iron pan–really huge, like three feet across–of brouillade, or oeufs brouillés, kind of like scrambled eggs. Very easy. For extra truffle flavor, put the eggs (in shell) and the truffle in a tightly sealed container–the eggs will absorb the perfume of the truffle.

An omelette, which is fine for one, maybe two, but not great in the face of a crowd. With a brouillade you can cook all the eggs at once. Drop them into a bowl or directly into a cold skillet with butter. Do not beat them! How many? Well, how many does each person want to eat? Two? Three? Dump them all in at once.img_0676Set the heat to low, very low, and break up the eggs gently with a spatula. Keep stirring IN ONE DIRECTION. If there is one thing to remember about French cooking, it’s that you must always stir in one direction–for cakes, for chocolate mousse, for whatever. A little salt and pepper. Keep stirring over low heat. It takes forever, like risotto. The traditional way to make brouillade is over a bain marie, or double boiler, which takes even longer, so don’t complain.img_0680If you have a truffle, then, before you get started, melt some butter. I made this several times, and (unintentionally) browning the butter was even better. Turn off the heat. Drop in some slivers of truffle and let it infuse while you cook the eggs. Don’t cook the truffle.img_0679When the eggs start to “take” or come together, they’re done. They aren’t drippy/snotty (such eggs are called baveux in French–drooling), nor are they fluffy or dry. Similar to risotto, they are creamy, yet there’s no cream.img_0682Then stir in the truffle-infused butter.img_0683Serve immediately with more truffle on top.img_0684Fresh local truffles are one of the more convincing reasons to travel here in winter. Yes, there are summer truffles, but the tuber melanosporum is far more pungent. Are you team truffle?

Advertisements

In the Heart of Pennautier

img_0365Around Christmas, making a detour around the gilets jaunes, I passed through the charming village of Pennautier and pulled over. I have you to thank. In the past, I would have craned to peek down the interior streets but I wouldn’t have stopped. Now, I park and get out my camera.img_0369 Pennautier is a stone’s throw from Carcassonne. Prehistoric tools have been found, but it didn’t take off until the Romans came along around 100 B.C.  and put up some fortified agricultural buildings. In 508, King Clovis the First gave the territory to one of his lieutenants and called it Pech Auter, which means High Old Warrior. On a rocky hill with a river nearby, the village was fortified by walls that were torn down in 1591 probably because the village was a refuge for Protestants, according to the mairie.img_0370img_0383It doesn’t look like the heart of the village has changed much over the centuries. It’s a maze of narrow streets, improbably full of cars parked as close as possible to one wall, because there’s barely room for anybody to pass.img_0387img_0379img_0377

img_0378
1728

It was late on a Saturday and raining when I stopped. I saw quite a few people walking briskly, then realized they were going to church.

img_0375
Notice the hand rail. Yes, it’s steep. No sidewalk.

img_0376img_0371img_0368Unfortunately, the château was closed. The top photo shows just one end of it; you’re missing the broad front. It’s called the Versailles of Languedoc! Huge! It was built in 1620 by Bernard Reich de Pennautier. You have to watch the video clip on the château’s site, especially the bed that was a gift of King Louis XIII when he visited in 1622.img_0389img_0390In 1670, the son, Pierre-Louis de Pennautier, took over and added on.  He hired Louis Le Vau, who was the architect of Versailles, to design the wings, and Andre Le Nôtre, who did the gardens at Versailles, to design those at Pennautier. Starchitects of the 1600s.img_0359 2img_0367img_0363 2

img_0355 2
The tower is across the street from the château and used to be its pigeon coop.

The whole place was redone in 2009 and now has 24 double and twin rooms, but you have to book a minimum of four bedrooms or two suites.

img_0366
Nice staircase up to the vineyards.

Did I mention they make wine, still today? Good stuff.

The château is on my to-do list for the next Journées du Patrimoine.img_0382img_0391

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sprouting in Winter

p1100124Eating fresh greens can be a challenge in winter, especially if you favor locally grown produce. Around here, even lettuce survives because we rarely get frost and almost never a hard freeze. But if you are in harsher climes and want to add some fresh crunch plus vitamins to your salads, consider growing sprouts.

Back in the hippy dippy days of the ’70s, my mom experimented with growing sprouts. The contraption was environmentally awful plastic and the process was way too complicated. I think it was for soybean sprouts, which were extremely exotic at the time. I think we did it once, maybe twice. Then it joined the yogurt maker and other good intentions in the basement.p1100091My all-natural sister-in-law presented me a sprout kit over a year ago, and it has gotten a good workout, especially in winter. It’s from Nature et Découvertes, and has a pleasing design–an elegant glass container with a metal mesh insert. That’s all. p1100087All it takes is a single teaspoon of alfalfa seeds (called luzerne in French). You can use other seeds as well–red cabbage, radish, cilantro…high in vitamins!p1100093You soak the seeds for half an hour in a cup of cold water.p1100096Then spread them over the mesh so they’re in a single layer.p1100103Fill the glass bowl with water up to the mesh.

Wait. You have to change the water every day until you’ve eaten all your sprouts.p1100120It takes only a couple of days to have a crop. We pull out what we need to add to salads or garnish a plate, and the rest keeps growing. We eat the whole thing, but some people cut off the roots.p1100062The process didn’t work so well in summer–it gets too hot and the water goes bad too quickly. But in summer there are so many other fresh things to eat.

I love having a microgarden of microgreens growing on my countertop. They make me smile. However, where did this word “microgreens” come from? What was wrong with “sprouts”?

I like knowing that no chemicals are used. Plus they’re about as fresh as you can get.

Have you grown sprouts? How do you keep your cooking fresh in winter? Do you have any tales of trends from decades ago that are back?p1100126

Winter in France Profonde

img_0347The wind has been howling for what seems like weeks. The temperature has tumbled into the low single digits Celsius (mid-30s Fahrenheit). The gray sky is so low it seems to lie like an uncomfortable blanket on the rooftops.

img_0333
The Pyrénées.

Even though I have cabin fever I don’t venture out. I put on a coat, with the hood on, to open and close the shutters. The wind often tears them out of my hand and they clack hard against the house. Good thing it’s solid.img_0287I am fighting another kind of fever–the kind that accompanies achy joints and a throat made sore from sleeping with one’s mouth open because of congested sinuses. I’m not sick but I feel like I’ve been on the verge of it since forever. Low energy. The village exercise classes start up again this week after the holiday break, but I can’t go because we have a dinner invitation. I’m almost grateful for the excuse. Usually I would choose exercise over eating. This feeling, like a heavy blanket similar to those heavy gray clouds, weighs down. It stifles my brain.

img_0279
Again the Pyrénées on the horizon.

I look over the rolling hills of this “plain” where we live, and they are at once similar to the plains where I grew up, and yet so different. No snow, though we might get a few flakes (but tomatoes are still growing in the garden and one of the roses bush has a beautiful red blossom). The sky this morning looked like snow. The early light was wan orange, the color of the vitamin C tablets I’ve been sucking on. It wasn’t like a blazing sunrise; it was uniform, the same pale orange all over. Rather beautiful, actually. Almost like the woozy grayish yellow the sky turns before a tornado. This isn’t tornado territory nor season, though.

img_0344
Do you see the ribbon of white, mostly on the left and all the way at the edge of the right? Fog along the Aude river.

img_0345The plains here are green in winter and brown in summer. The winter wheat is pushing up. The weeds between the rows of grapevines are living it up. I see solitary winegrowers bent over the vines, pruning them. The line is stark between where they’ve pruned and the wild tangles yet to do. I don’t envy them. I don’t think it’s possible to wear enough layers to stay warm out there, unprotected from the wind. In some places, such grueling work is done by machines, but not here. Doing it by hand gives better quality. I am grateful for these people for whom quality still counts.p1050813One day between the holidays, when it was quite a bit warmer (over 10 C, or in the low 50s F), I took a walk. Checked on our sometimes unruly river. Checked on the village. There are always folks out walking. Some walk in groups, probably the same friends since they were toddlers. Little old ladies trek to the village cemetery, sometimes a couple of times a day. Over the years, I watch their hair go white as they stop trying to keep up with dye jobs, their little dogs slow down then disappear, canes appear. They sometimes stop me to tell me they’ve seen my kid out in the village and my, what a grownup now and I remember when….img_0466img_0472img_0471On a couple of weekends, I made detours on back roads to avoid the gilet jaune protests. I saw some pretty things, like the boat on the canal in the top photo. And these locks.img_0351I also walked around a few cute villages, but I have to gather some stories or history or something to go with the photos of them. Another day, when it was gray but not cold, I walked over to la Cité. It looks like a movie set in the winter–few people, the stones very medieval moody.

img_0299
Verdant for January, no? This is the moat of the castle inside la Cité. No water–it’s on a hilltop.

img_0328img_0330From Pont Vieux at the bottom of la Cité, you get another view of the Pyrénées. Can you spy the people strolling along the river? There’s parkland on both sides, with the prettiest paths that go really far.

img_0286
I was amused by the ducks and then…
img_0284
A bunch of pigeons flew over. 

I want to cook up another bunch of comforting chili, but I think we will have eggs tonight. The Carnivore bought a truffle at the market in Mousselens, and when you have a truffle, you eat it with every meal until it’s gone. It goes best with mild foods that don’t compete for your attention. It deserves the starring role. Eggs, risotto and potatoes all work well. More on that next time.

img_4537
There are bright days in between!

Are you avoiding cabin fever and fever fever? Are you a winter person or just hunkering down and enduring it?p1060504

Finger Food Feast

IMG_0453Last weekend, we had a bunch of friends over for a little party. Too many people to put around a table, but it’s fun to get everybody together and not just in summer, when there’s plenty of space outside.

IMG_0421
It only looks like a lot of glasses.

We kept it smaller than the Fête de la Lumière last year, inviting about 20 people. The menu was similar but hey, we can’t rest on our laurels! Make new friends but keep the old…and that goes for recipes, too.Screen Shot 2019-01-02 at 9.41.26 PMAs usual, I made a spreadsheet. This is so helpful for making a shopping list. I duplicated last year’s, and just deleted or added dishes as needed. So the big work is the first time, and then you just have to tweak.

IMG_0441
Chili…so delicious!

This time, the big course was vegetarian chili. I used Jamie Oliver’s recipe and it was a hit. I did not, however, roast the sweet potatoes. Are you kidding? Everybody knows chili is better on Day 2, so I made it the day before. I feared the sweet potatoes would be cooked to mush even if they went in raw. I doubled the recipe, and while we had leftovers, there wasn’t all that much extra–lunch for me and the kid for just two days after. The French famously dislike spicy food, and this wasn’t spicy at all; we had a bottle of Tabasco on the side for those who were adventurous.IMG_0450We served the chili with cornbread (3/4 cup butter; 2 eggs, 1.5 cups buttermilk mixed/ 1 cup cornmeal, 3/4 cup white flour, 1/4 tsp baking powder; 1/2 tsp baking soda, 1/2 tsp salt; one can (a little more than a cup) of corn. Mix the dry, mix the wet, mix the two together. Bake at 400F/200C for about 25 minutes–check halfway in and turn if one side is browning faster than the other). Big hit.

IMG_0455
Deviled eggs, aka oeufs mimosa, and Thai chicken wings.
IMG_0445
The Thai drumsticks…something a little offbeat is always welcome. 

As usual, there were deviled eggs, Thai chicken wings and drumsticks (baked in the oven at 400F/200C the day before, then reheated in batches) with peanut sauce, crudités with ranch dressing, and homemade hummus (1 big can of chickpeas, about 400 g, rinsed; one clove of garlic, some (maybe 1/4 cup?) olive oil, tahini (about 1/4 cup) and lemon juice to thin it out). The difference between homemade hummus and store-bought is night and day, and homemade is so easy.IMG_0439To go with the hummus, the kid made (at the last minute!) some rosemary cheese sablés. Kind of this recipe, but without the olives, which the kid hates, and instead with fresh rosemary from the garden. Doubled the recipe and they disappeared. They mostly were eaten plain, but they were available for the hummus, as were baguettes from the bakery.

IMG_0444
Mystery meatballs. Mystery as in no recipe, just made on the fly.

I wanted to recreate the meatballs I made last year, which were a big hit, but I realized the recipe I had saved I didn’t use last time; I think I made something vaguely Italian. This time I had hoisin sauce, but I made up the recipe on the fly: ground pork, LOTS of fresh minced onion, a couple of eggs, some breadcrumbs to stick. The onion is essential for moist, tasty meatballs that don’t get hard. I baked the meatballs in the oven and didn’t even need to turn them. Bake them on a cookie sheet at 400F/200C only until they’re just cooked, then put them into a glass dish for reheating; they’ll brown up more.  A hot oven is good for cooking them fast without drying them out.

IMG_0420
Meatballs and chicken, ready to be warmed in the oven.

Half the table was given over to charcuterie, per the Carnivore. The cheese assortment was barely touched in light of the rest of the bounty.IMG_0418Rather than cheese, people skipped straight to dessert: chocolate crinkle cookies, a nut sheet cake (cut into squares) and, of course, Christmas cookies. Our friend brought his grandma’s famous chocolate mousse. Quelle délice! And, when everybody could eat no more but didn’t want to leave, the clementines were passed around.

We do like to use real plates and silverware. It’s easier to hold, feels fancier and, after so many years with the same dishes, is more economical and environmental.IMG_0424I didn’t dress up, but I do have a fun dress that I got during the soldes a while back. It’s silk, so it’s light enough to wear in summer; it has sleeves, so it’s OK for winter. It’s so, so simple, yet…IMG_0427Do you see the pattern?IMG_0430Yes, tiny Eiffel towers and gold stars in a black sky of stars. So appropriate.

One of my favorite hostess gifts that people brought was this box of savory toast spreads. We already tested a couple of them and they are delicious. Bio, too (organic). IMG_0474I think I covered all the recipes, but if you have questions, let me know! Lots of good stuff, with big impact with little effort or budget.

Best Wishes for 2019

IMG_2916Which doors will you open in 2019? Which ones will you close? Which of either will be by choice or driven by circumstances?IMG_0475January 1 is just another day, yet it’s a marker that we can choose to use. Even before calendars, humans marked the solstices and equinoxes. I am sure they made plans, too–“this season I’m going to find a new hunting ground” or “this time I’m going to plant more rice.” The first step in making a change is planning.IMG_2161Planning isn’t everything. A dear loved one used to make plans and lists, sometimes in great detail. But nothing ever happened. Tomorrow is another day, until our tomorrows run out. I think she was shackled by a fear of failure–if you dare to do something, it might not turn out, but if you just plan, it stays full of shiny potential.IMG_0650 2What are your goals for 2019? Where do you want to be? I love reading and hearing about what others do–it’s motivating, as if we’re all pulling, not so much together as at the same time.IMG_0477 2

My goals include going back to my favorite Pilates class even though it’s expensive because it did so much good for my back; improving my French, especially grammar, and, within that, especially verb conjugations, namely nailing conditionnel/imparfait, which are not at all the same thing but whose endings are devilishly identical (couldn’t they have come up with a different set of endings instead of reusing them?). Speaking of French, I found a new podcast that I really like: “Spla$h,” by a pair of French economics professors (in French), who do an excellent job of explaining some economic questions–not so much in a supply/demand/M2 way but in terms of “how did we end up with this situation?” For example, they did an excellent job of explaining the ire over tolls on the autoroutes and why those highways have tolls to begin with. IMG_0476 2I also want to write every day, not for the blog or for work, but just for myself. And to spend less time keeping up with the news, which only upsets me. On the other hand, I want to subscribe to another news publication (the New Yorker?) because I like getting news from multiple sources, and I want to support legitimate journalists. It isn’t a contradiction–I want to stop having a heart attack every time I get an email alert about some breaking news (in fact, maybe I should just unsubscribe from those), yet be well-informed about the news with context. chateau doorThe biggest change I made in 2018 was to be far more conscious of the environment. I always considered myself an environmentalist (one sibling called me a tree hugger), but I only started composting early last year. Before I heard this, I didn’t think about how nylon in clothing was going to last forever, except for the parts that break down into toxic microbeads of plastic and foul the soil or water. I did think about how bad meat is, yet I ate it regularly anyway; now I’m about 90% vegetarian. I want to continue to ramp it up, to consume more thoughtfully and to consume less overall.IMG_0479 2If you want some tips or motivation for achieving your goals, check out these excellent episodes from the podcast Hidden Brain: on habits and on resolutions and, from Freakonomics, on tricks to boost your willpower (like “temptation bundling”!!!).

Which doors are in store for you in 2019?P1100773

Party Prep

IMG_0311Christmas was just yesterday but I am so over it already. It was lovely and quiet and cozy, but even though our celebration was low-key, I feel like I’m coming off a sugar high from the saccharine consumerism everywhere. It permeates the air. It’s like second-hand smoke.

Don’t get me wrong–I love the decorations, the carols, the food. We joined the no-gift movement, so there was no pressure for shopping. We spent Christmas afternoon baking cookies. For Christmas dinner (on Christmas Eve), we ate favorite dishes–ris de veau  (veal sweetbread–the thalmus to be specific) in a mushroom cream sauce for the Carnivore and tofu turkey loaf with risotto for me and our kid. The Carnivore even flambéed his ris de veau. Cut no corners.

After dinner on Christmas Eve, we watched “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” AND the Charlie Brown Christmas special. Childrens’ shows were so classy in the 1960s, with jazz on the soundtracks. Even the Grinch song has a jazzy feel.

IMG_7727
A mocha bûche de noël…from a bakery. Very good!

We are gearing up for a little party on Friday with our neighbors–about 18 people, so too many for a sit-down dinner. Instead, we are hosting an apéritif dinatoire, or appetizer buffet, as we did last year for the Fête de la Lumière, which came and went earlier this month without us getting our act together.

IMG_0300
Count on a wine region to work the local specialty into holiday decorations.

In fact, today I must get the chicken wings in their marinade and make a few dishes. I can do the crudités and the ranch dressing while our kid decorates the cookies that we made yesterday. Thinking about buffets I have known and loved, I realize that while cheesy potatoes or green bean casserole are delicious, they aren’t in the French style. For one thing, it’s hard to eat with a knife and fork from a plate perched on your lap. So almost everything in our buffet is cold (except the wings and meatballs) and made in single servings that are easy to pick up and eat with one’s fingers.

IMG_0292
The reindeer lights just above the fake cacti made me smile.

The plates are dessert size, which is easier to hold with one hand. They’re real china, not plastic, and have gotten a lot of use in the 20 years I’ve had them. We noticed a happy side effect–the small plates mean people get up to serve themselves again from the buffet. And they often sit down in a different spot, which encourages mingling. Only the eldest member of our gang stayed in one seat for the entire evening; everybody else played a kind of musical chairs.

I’ll try to get some photos and will share recipes next week, because it’s unlikely I’ll post on Friday.

IMG_7642
The Carcassonne Christmas market and produce market hip by jowl on Saturday.

How was your Christmas? Do you also feel overwhelmed by the consumerism?

 

 

 

Christmas in Carcassonne

IMG_0238Signs of Christmas everywhere. Windows decorated, especially at the bakeries and chocolate shops. The shop above, Bimas, is renowned in Carcassonne, a veritable art gallery of cakes and chocolates. Eye candy for the mouth. P1060388The bûches de noël range from traditional to more modern, like the ones above. P1060329And graisse de noël–Christmas fat!–has appeared in the cheese shops. Graisse de noël is a cross between Cantal cheese and butter. Very rich, very good.IMG_0249IMG_0250Shops are decorated, mostly low-key, with wreaths and garlands, but some, like the florist above, are in full-on holiday mode.

IMG_2955
Minimalist, yet somehow cozy.
P1060410
The bane of crafty pallets has arrived.

The skating rink is trying to stay frozen as temperatures climb into the mid-teens Celsius (flirting with 60 Fahrenheit). The Christmas market and holiday amusement park fill with people in the evenings when the lights go on. Square Gambetta’s plane trees twinkle with lights. I like its tree.IMG_0242I was surprised to see flowers blooming in the square. Roses and whatever these plants are. The leaves look like bamboo, but what are those pink flowers?IMG_0247IMG_0245People tend to do low-key decorations on their homes, too. A few lights, some wreaths. An occasional Santa hanging from a window or balcony.IMG_0014Even little villages decorate. I like the variety of church steeples outlined in lights.

IMG_0218
You know you’re in France when there’s a château in the background.

IMG_0220Of course, la Cité needs no decoration. It was particularly moody on a foggy morning last week.IMG_0232The sunrises and sunsets lately have been stunning. This photo is as-is, no editing. Kind of like this post, which is a verbal potluck.IMG_0224Merry Christmas and happy holidays to you. May all your sunrises be beautiful and bright.

A Bridge Too Far

220.Viaduc de Millau2Gluttons for punishment, my kid and I headed to Montpellier on Sunday to visit a retailer not found in Carcassonne nor even in Toulouse. While shops in France usually are closed on Sundays, they open on the three or four Sundays before Christmas. Add to that the fact that only semi-trucks carrying refrigerated goods are allowed on the autoroutes, and Sunday seemed ideal.

From the start, things went wrong. I stopped to buy gas and put air in the tires before getting on the autoroute. The station had been flooded in October, and I hadn’t been back for a while, what with the roads out and detours. Turned out it was closed for renovations. No other gas stations before the autoroute, but, hey, no problem, the tank was almost full; my itsy bitsy car needs only about a half a tank to make the 300-kilometer roundtrip.

We would park at the shopping mall with said retailer, then take the tram to the city center, to avoid having to drive all over the place. I finally got a phone with a GPS, so I  didn’t need to write out the directions from Mappy. Such luxury.

We sang Christmas carols and admired the moody, haunting countryside on the way. It looked almost like shan shui paintings at the Musée Cernuschi in Paris. The light rain swathed a gray veil over the winter greenery. So different from summer’s parched brown palette, with its sharply defined shadows captured by Cézanne.

218.Viaduc de Millau
Le Viaduc de Millau, the world’s tallest bridge, taller than the Eiffel Tower. It’s on the A75, which is toll-free except for crossing the bridge, which is about €10 for cars.

After we joined the A9 autoroute northbound, warning signs appeared: car on the side of the road. Then, A75 (a different autoroute) obligatory exit. I wasn’t sure what that meant. That the folks going on the A75, which starts around Béziers and heads to Paris, had to take a certain exit? We continued.

We came to realize that it meant the A9 was closed and all traffic was being detoured to the A75. No problem, I thought. We have a GPS!

We followed the other cars, winding around to the tollbooths. All but three were closed, so the lines were long. And they were swarming with gilets jaunes, or yellow vests. They made a big show of “guiding” cars through the piles of tires and pallets that were burning. The tarmac was a mess, having melted and been churned up by previous fires. Gendarmes stood, bouncing from one foot to another to keep warm in the drizzle, but not interfering. A huge tree in the center of the roundabout after the tollbooths was uprooted.

Why?

I’ve read unflattering comparisons between the gilets jaunes and the women’s march in Washington and Black Lives Matter protests. But the women’s march and BLM didn’t set things on fire or uproot trees. There might be bad actors attracted to any demonstration, ready for an excuse to wreak havoc. The folks at the autoroute exits didn’t seem like the casseurs who made a mess in Paris, even though it doesn’t seem like the casseurs were the ones who devastated the tollbooths. The yellow vests seemed intent on getting even with somebody, anybody, for attempts to wean them off their cars, which were parked on the side of the road and festooned with yellow–mostly SUVs. They made a big show of being gentil, kindly directing the traffic mess that they had created.

There’s an argument that the autoroutes were constructed with tax money, and so they should be free. The protesters don’t like that there’s a toll, and that it’s collected by a private company that maintains the autoroute (and also sends out vans to accident sites and cars that have broken down on the side of the road, etc.). For the most part, the autoroutes in France are as smooth as a baby’s bottom, and the speed limit is 130 kilometers an hour–80 mph. The argument is that the toll is higher than needed for maintenance, and anyway there shouldn’t be a toll at all. (For about 90 kilometers on Sunday, I paid €7.80; to cross France north-south costs about €60 in tolls.)

Of course, the militant drivers would not like it if the autoroutes were more crowded than they already are. Sometimes in summer, the A9, which hugs the Mediterranean coast from Spain up to Nîmes, before plunging into the center of France, is a long parking lot of cars from all over Europe, full of vacationers hoping to get to the beach before their cars overheat. Periodic suggestions for surge pricing further enrage people, though I’d be the first to drive at a weird time to have less traffic AND pay less. But having different prices is seen as undemocratic. The protesters have also destroyed roadside radars–every single one we passed was knocked down–because they ruin the fun of speeding.

222.Viaduc de Millau4
Millau, which we managed not to see. This is from a different day.

Our brilliant (not) GPS (actually we used two–Waze and Maps–with identical results) advised us to go on, then had us double back at the first roundabout. “We’ll probably get on in the other direction,” my kid surmised. Nope. Cars were getting off the autoroute, but roaring fires kept anybody from getting on in any direction.

We finally got away again. We ignored the GPS and followed the signs to Agde, planning to take back roads up to Montpellier. But eventually it wasn’t so clear where to go. We listened to the GPS. Bad idea. We turned this way and that and ended up on another divided highway (with no way to make a U-turn) when we passed the same Cactus Park we’d seen half an hour earlier. Indeed, soon we were back at the burning barricades of the roundabout from hell.

My kid informed the GPS yet again that the autoroute was blocked (feedback is how they know about problems) and we tried yet again to find a detour. We went through some charming little towns, but you get no photos because my kid said it wouldn’t be fair to show them in the rain when they must be even prettier in the sun.

We eventually did make it to Montpellier, 2.5 hours late. The mall was a bust. It was just like any mall you would find in the U.S. except it was open to the sky. This usually would be a plus, but we were there on one of the few days a year of rain. Just nine days before Christmas, a few people hurried by. There were no lines for the changing rooms.

We ditched the idea of taking the tram to the city center and decided to just get home. Looking over the routes suggested by the GPS, we chose the detour on the A75, which hooked up with the A9 at a point beyond the disastrous barricades we’d encountered earlier.

We soon were climbing through hills on the outskirts of Montpellier. Disconcertingly, the signs told us we were going toward Millau (not on our way) and Clermont-Ferrand, which is just about in the center of France and much more of a detour than we’d bargained for. My car started beeping that we were almost out of gas, but we didn’t see a single service station.

225.Viaduc de Millau7
 The view from the viaduct. Gorgeous, even in the rain.

The scenery was gorgeous, though, a different kind of rugged than what we were used to. And the church steeples were a different shape. It’s funny how you notice regional traits, like the way cousins might have the same nose.

My kid asked the GPS to take us to a gas station. That worked out well, and we got a pannetone as a gift (from Italian gas chain Agip).

The GPS led us back to the A9, with promises of Narbonne and home. This entry, too, had a long line of cars being filtered by yellow vests, and fires burning and destruction all around. A few minutes later, the skies opened and it poured as if to set sail to Noah’s ark. Good, I thought, that will send the yellow vests home. But on arrival at Carcassonne, they were huddled under the roof of the toll station, collecting the toll tickets, as if giving us a present for having destroyed the barriers and letting us pass for free. I handed mine over, but as I pulled away I yelled expletives at them, horrifying my kid. But it made me feel better.

 

Holiday Musings

IMG_0209One of the challenges of living in the south of France is that until two days ago, we’ve been in sweater weather, or even in shirt sleeves, and are shocked that it’s December already. We put up our Christmas tree, a mini edition that originally was for our kid’s room, back when that sort of thing was terribly exciting. It doesn’t have room for all the decorations we’ve accumulated. So we stuck to the sentimental ones only.

IMG_0206
I have two sets of crocheted snowflakes–one from each grandmother.

We lit all the candles, and our kid chose a Christmas playlist from Spotify. We were able to sing along to almost every song. I could name the singers of the old ones after just a few notes, whereas our kid knew the more current performers. (I didn’t know Beyoncé did Silent Night! I love it, of course, but Andy Williams is forever the king of Christmas to me.) This process of singing, unwrapping and hanging is one of my favorite moments of the year, more so than Christmas itself. We’re unwrapping dear old decorations, some of them a little worse for the wear, others handmade by loved ones no longer among us. It lacks the excitement of unwrapping a present–we already know what’s in each box, nestled in tissue paper. The friendly ghosts of Christmas past.

IMG_0200
Yes, that’s a Snoopy ornament. Am hoping to get our kid to watch the Charlie Brown Christmas special. One is never too old for that!

IMG_0194Are you making Christmas cookies? I am on the fence. It’s a lot of work and a lot of high-fat, high-sugar temptation, but people around here don’t do Christmas cookies and seem genuinely thrilled to get a box of them. Plus it’s another excuse to put on Christmas carols and sing with my kid while we putter away. Cookie baking deserves musical accompaniment.IMG_0198IMG_0207Speaking of high-sugar temptations in pretty boxes, take a look at these Ladurée macarons from a friend. They tasted as sublime as they look. If you can’t get to Ladurée, you can make your own–it isn’t hard.

IMG_7442
Thank you, M.!
IMG_7441
The box itself is almost as pretty as what’s inside.

Meanwhile, Carcassonne’s Christmas market is full of people sharing aperitifs and oysters, or mulled wine and aligot, while energetic youth chase each other around the ice rink. Between high temperatures and rain, it’s hard to keep the ice frozen.

IMG_0214
Poor Neptune–the white statue–is bare-bottomed.

What is your favorite Christmas carol? Mine is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I just found the sheet music, which my mother had bought when the song came out, in 1944. Instead of records, she would buy the sheet music. I’m going to work on playing it.

Are you ready for the holidays? IMG_7584