French Takeout

meat-in-sauceTakeout 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.

butcher-display
Above and below, some of the goodies at Pettenuzzo, a boucherie at 30 rue Barbès in the Bastide of Carcassonne. There’s aways a line, which usually is a good sign! Front row: taboulé, salad of pork hocks, potato gratin, hachis parmentier de canard, which is ground meat (duck here, usually hamburger, like a sloppy joe) with mashed potatoes on top and melted cheese.
butcher-display-2
Front row, from left: pork blanquette (cooked in a white sauce), tongue in sauce, rabbit in mustard, veal sauté, beef cheeks.
crepes-au-jambon
If the other options are too exotic, how about some ham-filled crêpes?

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.

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Left, scallops in cream; middle, zucchini gratin; right, tartiflette–a kind of French cheesy potatoes, with onions and bacon included (as if cheesy potatoes couldn’t get any better!).
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Marinade of shrimp and scallops…
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Sausages, pâtés and cassoulets ready to reheat. The two photos above, this one and the one below are from Les Mexicots, 27 rue du Dr. Albert Tomey, in the Bastide of Carcassonne–next to les Halles–which specializes in poultry but also has, well, everything.

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.

couscous-stand-1
A line for homemade couscous at the Carcassonne market. The veggies are below, left, and the semoule, right.

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!

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Paella is almost gone. He starts making it early in the morning right there at the market.
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Also from M. Paella: calamaris Catalan style, chicken in wine, and a stew of bull meat (also cooked in wine).

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.

tarte-oignon
At les Halles: an onion tart, cheese soufflées, carrot balls and roast chicken….below, two kinds of salad of “muzzle”–pork snout.
langue-de-boeuf
More at les Halles: beef tongue.

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.

 

ris-de-veau
Ris de veau, or sweetbreads, in a sauce of morel mushrooms. The Carnivore’s favorite food is ris de veau, though in a white sauce. Almost gone, only two lumps left….

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!

 

 

 

 

Before/After: Pantry to Sauna

sauna-exteriorWe had dilemma with the pantry of our 17th century apartments. As in, what are we going to do with this space?

painted-cellier
During. The tomettes had been covered with linoleum.

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.

cellier-before
Before: a dark hole.

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.

cracked-paint
Horrors

So we put in a sauna.

interior
Perfect for two.

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.

Home Remedy

savonThe French pharmacy is legendary for its trove of affordable beauty treatments. The French droguerie may 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.

baking-soda
Baking soda…not to be found in the sugar/flour aisle.

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.

exteriorI 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.

sprayThey 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.

shelvesThe clothing dyes, as well as medicines, originally were the base of the drogueries’ trade.

dyes

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.

 

Spirits of Carcassonne

michelinCabanel 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.

herbs
The herbs, spices and plant extracts that go into micheline.

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.

byrrh
Byrrh (wine plus plants like cinchona bark); Bonal (a chartreuse with gentian and cinchona); Ambassadeur (a wine-based apéritif flavored with orange); Cap Corse (similar to cartagène) and DuBonnet (an aromatised wine-based apéritif).

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.)

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?

The shop is full of cool old stuff, like the first phone they had–still with the same phone number, and many old photos.

caisseI 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.

frontCabanel is located at 72 allée d’Iéna, just south (uphill) of the Bastide. Don’t miss it!

horse
In the courtyard.
cour
More cool stuff in the courtyard.

Crème de la Crème

chantillyHow 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).

epaisse
Left to right, whole thick cream, light thick cream and very light thick cream

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.

3-kinds
Full-fat liquid cream. The one on the left is in a UHT package; the others are to be kept refrigerated.

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.

starsIs 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.

milk
UHT milk

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

sucre-vanille
Vanille sugar. Liquid extract is hard to find.

Lastours

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View from the belvedere

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.

672.Lastours7Looking 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.

661.Lastours3The 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.

657.Lastours1But 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.

671.Lastours6The 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).

685.Lastours12Those 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.684.Lastours11For 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.

658.Lastours2You 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.

St. Jacques d’Albas

tastingAmong 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.

chapel
The 11th century chapel on the property. The St. Jacques in the name indicates this was a stopover on the pilgrimage to St. Jacques de Compostelle, or Santiago de Compostela, in Spain.

chapel-towerThe 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.

grapes-2vineyardWine 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.

two-bottles

grapesHowever, 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.

tower
A restored windmill that’s now a gîte.

stepsChâteau St. Jacques d’Albas also holds jazz and classical concerts in its large reception room. Some include dinner interludes; all include tastings.

concert-room
The concert room, which has a beautiful 19th century Steinway piano, with the wine-tasting room behind.
tapestry
A tapestry in the concert room.

Château St. Jacques d’Albas is outside the village of Laure-Minervois, about 16 kilometers from Carcassonne.

gate

Quaint Provence

archesWe recently took a weekend trip to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Actually it was for business, which is just icing on the cake–such a hardship!

courtyard-1

fountainA three-hour drive from Carcassonne, Provence is just far enough that we don’t tend to go there much and close enough that we really ought to get out and explore it more. We’ll share our discoveries in a few posts.

coiffeur

plant-wallThe town is relentlessly quaint. Everything has been restored to just the right amount of neatness with patina, neither too rustic and falling apart nor too new and shiny. The small nut of the historic center is mostly car-free, and it’s remarkably calming to sit at a café terrace and hear the swish of leaves in the breeze and not a low hum of engines.

carved-building

courtyard-2St. Rémy has only about 10,000 inhabitants, and probably even more tourists. And why not–such a cute town, with beautiful boutiques and chic restaurants nestled in stately Renaissance buildings. It’s very upscale–everybody is dressed just so, and Sotheby’s and Christies real estate offices face off across the boulevard encircling the center.

small-street

little-street-acWe only scratched the surface and hope to get back. September was a good time to visit–it was bustling but not as crowded as it would get at the height of summer. We had a hard time finding an apartment and ended up in a very nice, basic hotel (l’Amandière) despite booking three weeks before.

old-shutter

house-blue-shutters

antique-shop

Tomatoes!

tomatoesSeptember is when the market is full of big, ugly tomatoes. The best kind. The inside is solid flesh. They have flavors, each variety contributing a different perfume.

tomato-slicesSeptember is also when the weather cools down so that indoor cooking again becomes possible. We don’t have air conditioning nor do we want it. But when it’s 95 degrees outside and 75 inside because of careful juggling of shutters and opening of windows at night, you don’t want to mess up your hard-won coolness. With day temperatures in the upper 70s and nights in the 60s, the stove can be used again.

chez-fufu-outside
“Sale of garden plants” says the sign. The door on the left leads to a garage full of crates of vegetables.

The abundance of tomatoes at the season’s lowest prices (about €1 per kilo) coincides with ideal conditions for cooking. We have a number of gardens where fresh produce is sold out of a barn or hangar daily—no need to wait for the market. This is sometimes a good option, but then, we don’t go to the market just for vegetables but also for the social aspect.

However, the market involves a long walk back to the car, dragging the shopping cart. If 10 kg of tomatoes were in the cart, they’d be sauce before arriving at the car. So for the large quantities we head to the garden source.

chez-fufu-inside
Chez Fufu, the vegetable gardener. Get a load of that fireplace!

Once you have homemade tomato sauce, the industrial version tastes strangely…industrial. I haven’t canned—you need to maintain a certain level of acidity to prevent botulism, and my resistance to following instructions makes me leery of risking food poisoning. Instead, I put the sauce in zipper bags and freeze them.

freezer
Just part of Batch No. 1, millesime 2016.

Also, I put a lot more than tomatoes in my sauce. It’s an opportunity to toss in extra nutrients from other vegetables. So besides lots of onions and garlic, I add carrots, red peppers, beets, butternut squash—whatever’s on offer at the garden. Squash and beets make the sauce sweet without added sugar.

An aside here about stoves. We had gas but a few years ago got rid of our propane tank and switched to induction. What a dream! The first time we used it, to make pasta, we turned it on and off like kids, amazed at how it went from not boiling to a rolling boil to not boiling in a second.

cristel
Cristel cookware, made in France.

I raved about it to French friends, who informed me they had induction for years. Count on the French to be on top of the best cooking technology. Induction is as quick and versatile as gas, but with advantages: it works via magnets, so anything nonmagnetic on the stovetop doesn’t heat up, even if the stove is turned on.

I did have to replace my nonmagnetic copper pans with new ones. They are Cristel, a French brand, whose ads say “buy once for life.” There’s a removable handle so they stack very compactly, yet the lips for the handle are big enough that I often don’t even need the longer handle. An excellent investment.

washedHere’s a recipe of sorts:

10 kg of tomatoes (about 22 pounds). Go for real ones: UGLY. Not the perfect, tasteless hybrids that are raised on chemicals.

thyme
thyme

4 onions

10 cloves of garlic

A nice handful of fresh herbs (I cut some from my garden: mostly thyme that I rip off the stems, but also parsley, basil and oregano).

4 red peppers

4 carrots

1 butternut squash

1-2 big beets

choppedCut out the core of the tomatoes and chop them roughly. Some people peel them but that is just too much work!

Chop up everything else into about half-inch pieces. You want them to cook through.

Brown the onion and garlic in a tiny big of olive oil. Then dump everything else into a gigantic pot (I have to use two), cover and bring to a boil. I don’t add water—the tomatoes will let out plenty of liquid.

simmering-sauce
Simmering

Reduce the heat to a simmer. This is where induction shines. You can put a pot on at the lowest temperature to simmer and it won’t burn on the bottom. Love it. Stir a few times per hour.

cooked-down
Reduced by half. Almost no liquid left, which makes a nice, thick sauce.

Let it cook for several hours, until the volume has reduced by at least half. Cook longer if you like thicker sauce.

blenderUse an immersion blender to purée it, or else let it cool completely before running it in batches through the blender or food processor. Anyway, you need the sauce to be cool before it goes into the freezer.

spooning-in-bagTo put it in bags: put your bag in a plastic container that’s about the right size. This will keep the bag from flopping over as you’re trying to fill it. Use a measuring cup to ladle the sauce so you have an idea of how much is in each bag. Ideally, enough for a dinner.

tomato-coeur-de-boeuf

Suggestions/comments/other recipes welcome!

For the Love of Painting

birds
By Hugues Tisseyre

There’s a charming little gallery on rue de Verdun, the main drag of la Bastide in Carcassonne. Formerly a church, it hosts a diverse range of exhibits.

 

church-steeple

The doors were open, so we popped in.

church-doorThe paintings made me think a little of Chagall, but also of Cézanne, but then another was a little more Pissarro, and a few had hints of Picasso. But I’m no an art expert. Just a museum nut.

carnaval-blueThere were quite a few dedicated to the Carnival of Limoux, a town just south of Carcassonne. And several around tauromachie, or bull-fighting, which happens in Carcassonne and several other towns around the south of France.

seatedWe were delighted to discover that the man tending the desk was the painter himself. He explained that he indeed admired all those artists, and learned how to paint, as many artists do, by copying their great works before establishing his own style.

But he can explain himself:

painter-message

For the love of painting

Because the hand of the painter is the eye of his heart, the extension of his soul, because the hairs of his brush are the thread that connects the spirit to the material, Hugues Tisseyre paints, he paints his Carnival and all the things he loves.

The Carnival of Limoux, mystical and lyrical, which goes farther than anecdote, farther than the figurative, is the instant magnified by the play of the human comedy deliberately consenting and not submissive to the truth of the mask and its possibilities of transformation of the obvious fatality.

Painting in fact must not progress except in the mind of the senses.

crowd-phantom

He said he was from Limoux and always loved its Carnival, the world’s longest. Here are his thoughts on that:

carnaval-messageThe carnival festival has behind it a long history, which we perceive through texts.

Often a drawing, a painting, an engraving suffices to explain all that to us.

Modern history since 1945 to today marks its limits. Carnival thus ferments, resists, transforms itself according to society’s solicitations. It shows all its capacity for dialogue, renewal, ironic rejection, refual, to reserve the identity which defines a common man’s living culture.

This festival which fascinates and questions is indeed the place that holds the imaginary, memory and writing.

minerveI asked about a huge painting on the ground. “The city of Minerve,” he said. Minerve is one of the most beautiful villages of France–an official designation!–about 45 kilometers northeast of Carcassonne.

I almost fainted when he walked right onto the painting.

hugues

“Oh, it’s very tough,” he said. “If you only knew how many layers of paint there are.”

He explained that one day he got hold of a big roll of moquette, or carpet, and thought the nap would make an interesting base for painting. And the price was right. Though that very nap ate up his brushes, which in turn cost a fortune, he added.

Unfortunately, Minerve was out of our budget. Perhaps one day.taureau