Last week, the news was full of about how bad weather in Spain and Italy had hurt vegetable crops, sending prices skyrocketing.
I have to admit that I had picked up a few courgettes (zucchini) at the market and then dropped them as if stung by a bee when the vendor informed me the price was €7.50 a kilo. In summer, courgettes sell for €1 a kilo. My fault for wanting something out of season.
Because we live in an area where frost is rare and the ground doesn’t freeze in winter, fresh local produce is available year-round. But it means forgetting about zucchini and tomatoes.
At the Saturday market I gathered photos from my favorite maraîchers, or vendors, who also grow all their own produce. There’s plenty of variety, even in the dead of winter.
Take radishes. There are the red variety, like the first photo. But also black or blue.
What do you do with these giants? You can dice them up in a soup or slice or grate them to eat raw in a salad. Speaking of salad, there are many kinds of lettuce and such, including piles of single leaves of roquette (rocket or arugula), cresson (watercress), chicorée (chicory) frisée (curly endive) or escarole but not iceberg. No loss there.
I don’t count lettuce as a vegetable. It’s like a condiment, a nice thing to eat on the side, a crisp break between the main course and the cheese course, but you still need a vegetable, or you need to eat a truckload of lettuce. The Carnivore argues that a few tired* leaves of laitue are all you need, and that fish, poultry, eggs and dairy could possibly count as vegetables because they aren’t meat. Logical.
We even have kale in Carcassonne. Moving up in the world.
Kale may be new and trendy in France, but cabbage comes in many varieties and is cheap.
Did you know that calling somebody a cabbage is a term of endearment? Mon chou and p’tit chou are like saying “honey.” (Don’t call anybody miel in French!) The teacher’s pet is the chouchou. And a petit bout de chou is a small child.
Topinambour, or sunchoke, can substitute for potatoes, and are prepared the same way.
Alain and Juliette Fumanel‘s stand is another favorite. M. Fumanel is known to all as “Fufu,” and usually is in highly amusing conversation with his many friends and clients. And Mme. Fumanel is always very elegant. I go directly to their farm near Pont Rouge in summer for tomatoes and the other vegetables I put in my tomato sauce.
Check back on Friday for a special recipe using a purchase from the market: Swiss chard.
*Re “tired” lettuce: some people like to “fatigue” the salad by dressing it a few hours before the meal, so it isn’t as crisp. They actually do it on purpose.
The south of France has a long tradition of bull fighting, with ferias taking place in several cities and villages from spring to fall.
Azille, a village of just over 1,000 inhabitants about 35 kilometers from Carcassonne, holds a feria around the May 1 holiday–this year it’s scheduled for April 30-May 1–with a second one planned for July 21-23.
Some of the ferias turn into drunken bacchanals as evening arrives. The machismo and surplus of testosterone seems to bring out the worst in young men still high on having chased bulls in the morning. Arles, Bézier and Nîmes all hold huge ferias in their Roman arenas.
But Azille’s feria is more of a family affair, with lots of rides and games for small children. And the village is very pretty and worth a visit on its own.
The big excitement, besides the bullfights themselves (and I can’t bring myself to see those), is the running of the bulls from one end of town over to the stadium where the bullfights are held.
The crowd mills between stands for food, drink and games, the smell of grilled meat wafting through the air. Singers and flamenco dancers entertain from a side stage.
The excitement builds as people are shooed from the main street to take cover behind large grills hooked together on either side. You don’t want to be too close to the grill, because the bars are wide enough for a horn to pass through. Anyway, most people have climbed up on the tables in order to see.
A few foolhardy boys and men older boys remain inside the barred zone, waiting to prove their masculinity by pulling a bull’s tail.
A band of riders on horseback wait for each bull to be released from a truck. The poor animal usually comes out rather dazed, a condition only exacerbated by the yelling crowds on either side. There’s only one place to go–down the big empty street, and so off it goes, pell-mell.
The horses are guided around the bull to keep it on track. The bull often turns tail, sending the young males fleeing for cover. It would be boring if the bulls simply trotted down to the stadium, right?
As each bull is delivered to the arena to await in ignorant bliss the corrida later that day, the horses head back for the next release. They really are the stars of the show, with their utter calm in the midst of chaos.
Last fall, a court in Spain overturned a bullfighting ban in the Catalonia region of Spain, just over the border from France. Anti-corrida petitions and graffiti spring up regularly in France, but the custom still holds.
The French really do win at lifestyle. One of the essentials of the good life in France is that they work to live, not live to work.
This is possible in no small part thanks to the minimum wage, or salaire mimimum interprofessionel de croissance, aka the SMIC (pronounced smeek. The French LOVE abbreviations.).
It is possible to live on the minimum wage here. Granted, it would be difficult in big cities where rents are high. But here in the rural south of France, it’s hard to find jobs that pay much more than the SMIC. And everybody I know is doing just fine anyway.
For 2017, the SMIC is €9.76 an hour or €1,480.27 a month (that comes to €17,763.24 a year, but I’m not sure whether it would be more because people generally are paid a 13th month of salary in order to be able to go on vacation). The workweek is 35 hours.
Looking at 2015 figures from the OECD that compare a bunch of countries using a constant exchange rate, France was at $10.90 an hour vs. $7.20 for the U.S.
The OECD also looks at how countries’ minimum wages compare to average wages of full-time workers. So 1 would mean that everybody earns minimum wage while the closer you get to zero the worse off minimum-wage earners are compared to everybody else. For France, folks earning the SMIC are at 0.62 of the median wage (which the OECD says is more accurate than the mean wage), while in the U.S., minimum wage earners are at 0.36 of the median wage.
In other words, there are rich and poor in France, but the poor are less miserable and the rich not as extravagantly wealthy as in the U.S. (If this post seems simplistic, it’s because it is a blog post, not a book. For the book, check out “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by French economist Thomas Piketty.)
The way to measure this is called the Gini index, with zero being absolute inequality (a few rich have everything and everybody else is destitute) to 1 being absolute equality (no rich, no poor, everybody gets the same thing). Obviously neither extreme is good—one is pretty much slavery and the other gives no incentives. You want some incentives but nothing crazy. In Chile and Mexico, the indexes for 2014 (latest year) are 0.465 and 0.459, respectively. Both countries have rich elites and large poor populations.
The Gini index for France is 0.294. For the U.S., it’s 0.394. Switzerland is at 0.295, almost the same as France, which shows that low inequality doesn’t mean poverty for all. In fact, the poverty rate in France is 8%, in Switzerland is 8.6% and in the U.S. is 17.5%.
There are a lot of reasons why life in France is good. Socialized medicine is a major factor. Workers pay about 8% and employers kick in about 13% more–so folks with big salaries pay more than folks earning the SMIC; the rates aren’t set according to your health. You don’t lose your health insurance if you lose your job because coverage is universal. In addition, low-income families get help, with public preschool starting at age two (that’s a benefit for rich and poor families), benefits for children and subsidies for nannies/daycare.
France is a lot more like how the U.S. was in the 1950s (a period of low inequality), with white-collar and blue-collar workers living in the same neighborhood in similar (modest) homes. (The average new home size in France is 1,206 square feet, vs. 2,164 square feet in the U.S.)
This makes sense when you start looking at salaries in France for professions that pay more than the SMIC.
I was quite surprised when the manager of my bank branch divulged that she makes €1,800 a month—€21,600 a year. But that’s more than a first-year school teacher, at €1,616 a month (€19392 a year) before taxes (it rises to €3431—€41,172—after 30 years of service). Firemen make €2,311 a month (€27,732 a year) on average.
Nurses start out the same as teachers and max out at €47,710, while general practice doctors earned €72,500 to €83,120 a year in 2011. Among specialists, radiologists are the best paid, at €186,250 to €212,980 a year.
Are you choking on your coffee?
There are two big reasons for doctors’ low pay compared to U.S. doctors (an average of $223,175 a year for internal medicine): malpractice isn’t like in the U.S. and they have no giant loans to pay off from med school.
My doctor lives in a house a tad bigger than the French average, maybe 1800 square feet, on a street with teachers, nurses, bus drivers, plumbers, acccountants, electricians and lots of retail workers. She has a nicer car and goes on cooler vacations than other people I know around here–and she totally deserves it–but she doesn’t live in a luxe bubble.
When I moved here, my new acquaintances told me I would be able to find a job easily because of being bilingual. The supermarkets would be sure to snatch me up, they said, to help deal with tourists and British expats who don’t speak French. I thought, there is no way I am going to be a checkout clerk at a supermarket. I have a master’s degree.
After living among people who are retail clerks, restaurant workers and other professions, I see things differently. I still don’t want to work in a supermarket. But I had lived in a circle of intellectuals and Type A overachievers who work hard and succeed, yes, but who always got straight A’s. Now I know lots of people who work hard and who never in their lives got an A or even a B, no matter how hard they tried. Unlike in the U.S., they aren’t punished for it.
I have a friend here who was thrilled when she was hired at McDonald’s. To me, McDonald’s is a good job for high school students. Here, high school students don’t work, certainly not after school. Their job is school, and it’s a full-time job. And here, a job at McDonald’s might be harder than, say, selling dresses, but it’s still a decent job. My friend proudly showed up at school pick-up while wearing her uniform, so all the other parents could see where she worked. Contrast that with a U.S. chieftain of fast food—NOT McDonald’s, which raised its U.S. wages—who said he hires “the best of the worst.”
Obviously we need incentives for people to do jobs that require training, higher education or a lot of stress. Making a mistake on the job has different ramifications and different stress for a doctor versus a janitor and they need to be paid accordingly. Nobody would spend years studying and then hours bent over a microscope to try to find a cure for cancer if they were going to make the same thing as if they had a job that required no education or dedication. There are jobs that aren’t about clocking in and then switching off when you clock out, and nobody would do them if they paid the SMIC.
But we still need people to wait tables, pick up garbage, clean houses, and sell us stuff in stores. If they do it all day every day, shouldn’t they be able to make a living? In France, they can.
These workers do their jobs, do them well (the professionalism of French waiters is legendary), and go home to their families. In France, they are able to pay their bills as long as they live comfortable but modest lives, which really is all they want. Because they work to live, they don’t live to work.
What matters to them is a good meal with family and friends. With dessert.
Takeout isn’t a thing in France, at least not in the New York-millions-of-menus-under-the-door sense.
Aside from pizza and Chinese food, and of course McDonald’s, restaurants don’t usually do dishes à emporter–to take away.
The French have their own forms of takeout. You just have to know where to look.
This can be especially useful if you’re renting an apartment for your vacation and you have a kitchen at your disposal. After all, it can get to be a bit much–for the budget and the waistline–to eat all one’s meals in restaurants. Not to mention that doggy bags aren’t done in France. You can’t just eat half and take the rest home for the next day.
The top place for takeout is la boucherie, or the butcher. France still has lots of small butcher shops, which often have homemade dishes on offer as well as raw meat. I counted 24 mom-and-pop boucheries in the yellow pages for Carcassonne. And if the butcher has volaille–poultry–there’s a good chance they also sell roasted chickens.
Similarly, un traiteur, or caterer, might have dishes to go, though some only do banquets. You’ll immediately see by looking in the window whether takeout is a possibility.
The supermarket usually has a wide selection of prepared dishes as well as salads. Not a salad bar kind of salads–no lettuce is involved–but grated carrots with a white vinaigrette, grated celery root, taboulé, etc. In fact, I’ve never seen a deli-style salad bar in France, though maybe they exist in bigger cities.
The outdoor markets have stands, more akin to food trucks without the truck, selling prepared dishes from couscous to paella to Chinese dishes to traditional French specialities like cassoulet and aligot–yet another form of cheesy potatoes. There are trucks whose sides open up to show rows of rotisserie chickens, with the grease dripping onto a bed of potatoes at the bottom. Good enough to make you cry!
Food trucks make the rounds, especially of villages and roundabouts, selling pizzas, quiches, crêpes, and sometimes other things. One that used to come to our village had specialties of Sète, a town on the coast.
You can get a jar of homemade cassoulet from a market vendor or, at the butcher or the indoor market, called les Halles, a bowl of homemade cassoulet big enough for three or four people, ready to pop into the oven.
The day I decided to shoot at les Halles, I arrived late–around 11:30–and many of the offerings were nearly sold out. Proof they were good!
We had dilemma with the pantry of our 17th century apartments. As in, what are we going to do with this space?
It was too big to ignore. But a vacation rental, especially one with plenty of kitchen cupboards, doesn’t need a pantry, called a cellier in French.
The municipal and national landmarks experts suggested making it a bathroom, because it was in the former service hallway that we’re allowed to change as we like. But the low ceiling and lack of a window would have been unpleasant as a bathroom.
So we put in a sauna.
Why not, right? It was just the right size. An ugly, awkward hole became a little spa. We tried it out on our most recent stay. It heats up in just a few minutes. There’s a timer so it automatically shuts off–a nice safety feature. We don’t want somebody passing out and getting cooked (you’re supposed to drink a lot of water before and after). The lights are cool blue. There are even speakers and a jack to plug in your phone for music (see the cord, below on the left?).
It’s right next to the bathroom, for a cold shower afterward. A before/after coming on that soon–we finally found the right light fixture.
The French pharmacy is legendary for its trove of affordable beauty treatments. The French drogueriemay sound like a drugstore, but it’s a pharmacy for the home.
The advice is what makes it special. Sure, there are mom and pop hardware stores in the U.S. and elsewhere where the owners know every detail about every product they sell, and they are more than happy to take the time to teach you.
But more and more, consumers go to gigantic retailers that sell everything for a few pennies less, and where the minimum-wage employees have zero training about what they’re selling. Yet for a few centimes more, the droguerie offers invaluable advice with your purchase.
Most of the stuff in the droguerie can’t be transported on a plane in your suitcase. A few products–savon de Marseille, pierre d’argent–are safe, though.
I went into a Carcassonne Caoutchouc, a droguerie in Carcassonne (caoutchouc means rubber) recently to find a solution (in more than one sense of the word) after a young visitor had an accident on our sofa. I spent half an hour going over various products with the vendor. Ammonia was good, and I was given detailed directions as to how to use it. An organic spray was new–expensive but made in France, in Toulouse. I bought both. The spray worked great, by the way.
They also sell …. everything. Hardware, though it isn’t a hardware store, called a quincaillerie–one of the most musical French words, in my opinion, all the more wonderful for its unglamorous meaning. Pots and pans. Oilcloth by the meter. Bead curtains to keep flies out of the house. Tools. Bug spray. Shopping caddies. A rainbow of dyes for clothes.
The clothing dyes, as well as medicines, originally were the base of the drogueries’ trade.
It’s the sort of place you’re apt to pass by, especially if you’re a tourist. But inside, you just might find something more useful to take home than another souvenir T-shirt.
Cabanel is a cathedral of alcoholic beverages. This Carcassonne institution not only sells everything imaginable from around the world, but also makes its own spirits. Founded in 1868 by Joseph Cabanel, it’s been in the same Belle Epoque building since 1905, making it not just a shop but practically a museum, or a step back in time.
Its signature product is micheline, which supposedly dates to the fourth century as a potion for eternal youth. Like other spirits, it originally was for medicinal purposes, and contains lemon balm, nutmeg, cardamon and many other spices. A framed box shows the different ingredients.
Other specialities of the house include Kina, an apéritif made of plants, including the cinchona bark, which is the source of quinine, and spices. Cabanel also makes Or-Kina (gold Kina), crème de noix (walnut liqueur) and Carcasso (walnut wine) among others. Today, they’re distilled on the premises by Jean-Marc Gazel. Another regional specialty is cartagène, a vin de liqueur, or wine of liqueur, drunk as as an apéritif. (Below, hover over the pictures for the explanation.)
Carcasso, a walnut apéritif.
Rigolo…the name means funny. It’s a vermouth.
Syrups, from left: mint, grenadine and lemon.
Dolin is a vermouth from Chambéry, France.
Mint cream liqueur.
This is a boutique to spend time in. The counter stands in the middle of the shop, as was the custom at the turn of the last century. A glass window separating the shop from the office has an opening marked “Caisse/Reseignements“–cashier and information.
The owners are more than happy to explain the different alcohols and liqueurs, from the ingredients to the history. It was fascinating. Did you know that alcohol comes from the Arabic word “al kohl,” or the metallic powder used to darken eyelids and provide relief from the sun?
A fountain in the corner.
The shop is full of cool old stuff, like the first phone they had–still with the same phone number, and many old photos.
I apologize for the rotten quality of the photos. I went in on a dark, rainy day and didn’t use a flash. Plus I can’t see a darn thing with or without glasses, much less in the gloom, much less on a little screen. My bad. I took the outside shots on a better day.
Cabanel is located at 72 allée d’Iéna, just south (uphill) of the Bastide. Don’t miss it!
How do you say “whipping cream” or “heavy cream” in French?
I had tried with crème fraîche épaisse, but that didn’t work. I forget what the recipe was, but my cream didn’t rise no matter how hard I whipped. In fact, we ended up with butter (and it was delicious).
Crème fraîche épaisse (thick fresh cream)is similar to sour cream, though not quite as sour. And it comes in full fat–entière–or light–légère. Sometimes even lighter than light. Usually it’s in a tub, but we recently saw it in these soft packages.
Then there’s crème fraîche liquide (liquid fresh cream), but it can have a wide variety of fat content, even when it’s entière. The one for whipping is labeled fleurette.
I cannot believe it took me this long to discover but there is actually a star system for crème fraîche.
Is it good for a sauce in a poêle (saucepan), or is it better in the four (oven)? Or for chantilly (whipped cream)? Four stars for whipped cream–bingo.
The dairy products section of a French supermarket is vast. There’s an entire aisle for yogurt, and sometimes two for cheese. Milk, however, tends to be sold in UHT (ultra-high temperature) packages that don’t need to be refrigerated. Crème fraîche also is available in UHT packages. The fresh crème fraîche section usually is near the butter.
There’s a sweet song about whipped cream that’s usually sung as a round (canon in French). While anglophone kids grow up singing “row, row, row the boat,” French kids sing an ode to whipped cream. That kind of sums things up. Here’s an adorable video of three teachers trying to herd cats direct a choir of little ones. Maybe you can detect the melody.
Battez la crème, Battez la crème, Battez la crème, Battez la crème De la crème fraîche que l’on fouette gaiement Parfum vanille, un peu de sucre blanc On l’aime à la folie, la crème chantilly
Beat the cream, beat the cream, beat the cream, beat the cream Some fresh cream that we whip gaily Vanilla flavor, a little white sugar We love it crazily, the whipped cream
The châteaux of Lastours are among the Cathar castles the closest to Carcassonne. The site consists of four ruined châteaux, perched on hills in the Montagne Noire, or Black Mountains.
Looking at the steep, rocky terrain, you wonder how they picked this spot to live. Life must have been rough, with good views. The Orbiel river runs at the bottom of the valley, providing an occasional flat and fertile spot for gardens.
The visit starts in a former textile factory, with a great archaeological exhibition—the site has been inhabited since the Bronze Age.
The climb winds around the hill, which makes it longer but safer than trying to go straight up. Still, it’s challenging. Not handicapped accessible or stroller accessible or even out-of-shape accessible.
But the vistas are fabulous. On a clear day, you can see all the way across the Aude plain to the Pyrénnées. Lastours has only one road, which just goes further into the mountains and thus isn’t heavily traveled. As you climb, you don’t hear cars but birds and the wind whistling through the low brush. You also pass through a mostly open cave, which tends to be unbelievably exciting for kids.
The four castles that make up Lastours (which is Occitan for “the towers”) are perched close together on a ridge, so once you’ve climbed, you’re good.
My fireman brother was fascinated (not in a good way) by the spotlight wiring, bundled haphazardly and running right across the trail for everybody to step on, and the guardrails (as in, lack thereof).
Those who can’t hike can get a bird’s eye view from an even higher spot on a hill across the valley, where a belevedere is set up with benches for an evening sound and light show. Entry is included in your châteaux ticket, or reduced if you just hit the belvedere.For a village of under 200 people, Lastours punches above its weight gastronomically. Le Puits du Trésor has a Michelin star, thanks to Jean-Marc Boyer, who is a real sweetie besides being a great chef. The restaurant is situated in the same factory as the entry to the châteaux and is open for lunch and dinner. Boyer also has a less-expensive bistro, Auberge du Diable au Thym (Thyme Devil’s Inn) next to the restaurant, with a terrace next to the fast and clear Orbiel.
A five-minute walk away, still next to the river, there’s a little bakery with homemade ice cream and tables in a little garden. And at least one shop sells local products, meaning local FOOD products.
You can’t get out of Lastours without eating, I’m telling you.
You need a car to get to Lastours. Maybe a Tour de France biker would take on the steep road (no shoulders, no guardrails). Anyway, follow the signs for parking. Do not think you’ll find something closer. You’ll end up driving through town and then you’ll have to keep going until you find a spot wide enough to turn around. The town is vertical, with the road at the bottom next to the river, and there isn’t room for a sidewalk let alone parking, aside from the little parking lot.
Among the excellent wineries in the Minervois region, the Château St. Jacques d’Albas stands out for having a setting as beautiful as its wines are delicious.
The owner, Graham Nutter, left a career in finance in London in 2001 to buy the property and meticulously restore both the buildings and the vineyards. He switched production from quantity-driven for the local cooperative to high-quality organic techniques.
Wine bottles have two dominant shapes: high shoulders indicate wines from Bordeaux or other wines that resemble the Bordeaux sensibility vs. sloping shoulders for wines from Burgundy and similar wines. Château St. Jacques d’Albas is one of the few wineries in Minervois to use bottles with sloping shoulders.
However, whereas Burgundy wines are of a single variety–pinot noir–in order to carry the Minervois AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) wines must be a mix of certain grapes.
Château St. Jacques d’Albas also holds jazz and classical concerts in its large reception room. Some include dinner interludes; all include tastings.
Château St. Jacques d’Albas is outside the village of Laure-Minervois, about 16 kilometers from Carcassonne.