All winter long, the hunters end their Sunday morning sorties with coffee at the community hall, dead beasts strapped to the hoods of their vehicles parked outside. In spring, they return, this time to eat.
On the menu: sanglier (wild boar) and chevreuil (roe deer, a small breed, 25-70 pounds). Of course, the Carnivore wanted to go.
Early in the morning, under the bridge next to the community hall, a fire was started with pieds de vigne (stumps of grape vines). A huge rotisserie (clearly jury-rigged) started turning, two sangliers and one chevreuil. Like many of the diners, I went down the river bank to take pictures of the skewered hulks. A knot of retirees with well-endowed abdomens discussed the scene, as the head cook used a huge dipper (also jury-rigged) to collect the drippings and pour them over the turning meat. “Mmmmm,” one groaned with pleasure. “Ça, c’est bon.” (That’s good.)
“Oui,” moaned another, adding a bit plaintively, “Pour le cholestérol aussi.” (For the cholesterol, too.)
“Bah, j’ai déjà fait un infarc,” says yet another. (Oh, I already had a heart attack.)
“Moi, deux.” (I had two.)
Then they went into details about how many arteries and stents and hospitals and I had to flee before my appetite was ruined.
The apéritif started as usual, outside under the porch of the community hall. A long table with pitchers of white and rosé wine, and bottles of Ricard. Don’t even think about any other brand of pastis around here. Although nobody orders a Ricard or even a pastis. They say “un jaune”–a yellow–because the alcohol oxidizes with water and turns a milky yellow.
The hunters’ gathering was different from others we have attended. Besides the extreme paucity of women and absence of children (just one boy), the demographic was decidedly older, heavier and had many more smokers. It didn’t seem that they didn’t care; instead it seemed that they DID care, especially about giving a big middle finger to rules and “shoulds” about healthy eating and moderation. On the other hand, I never saw so many people for whom the first description would be “jolly.” The cooks, especially. Big guys, their sagging, faded T-shirts stained with smoke and sweat, beaming with pride, their nonstop chuckles occasionally bubbling up into raucous belly laughs. Just recalling them makes me smile.
Anyway, they know how to cook. The first course was a salad, topped with walnuts, warm duck gizzards and a slice of foie gras. Then, after a leisurely pause, came trays groaning with sanglier. It was so heavy, our tray bent and landed on the table (without damage). There was a huge tray for every 10 people or so.The boar was served with potatoes that had roasted in the juices of the meat, and sliced onions also cooked in the meat juices. OMG.The meat itself was perfectly seasoned. With what? The cooks played coy (not just with me; a woman at the next table also tried, unsuccessfully, to wheedle the secret out of them). This led to a big discussion of what each diner detected: mustard, thyme, harissa….and of course the cloves of garlic stuck into the meat all over.
The trays were refilled with more sanglier. As if we weren’t all stuffed.
Next, they came around with the chevreuil. I passed, but the Carnivore was in heaven.
This was followed, in its sweet time, by cheese–a wedge of brie and a chunk of roquefort. The dessert was crème brulée. Then coffee.
There were three huge trays of meat left over. The meal, which started around 1:30, after the apéro, wound up around 5:30. We were all invited to come back for dinner at 8, though most of our fellow diners planned to go home and nap and to skip dinner altogether. We could hear them continue with Part II well into the night.
Oh, and the price? €13 per person, drinks included.
As with the Easter omelette and the fêtes du village, you can get in on these communal dinners. Just look at the notices at the local grocery stores and bakeries, which usually are also where you buy tickets. You need to bring your own cutlery, plates, glasses and napkins.
Not the Alps. The Pyrénées. Not the highest peaks, but magnificent nonetheless.
We were on the treasure hunt that is de Ferme en Ferme (Farm to Farm), covering some of the same ground as last year. We carefully examined the map in order to hit our favorites (À la Petite Ferme for hard sausage, Campserdou for raw milk) but also to check out some new ones. The thing about the mountains is that already it takes a while to get there, and then it takes forever to go from one place to another. Plus, the day of de Ferme en Ferme, narrow mountain roads that rarely see a vehicle suddenly have hundreds of cars.
But rather than dwell again on hangry people wondering when they are going to eat, we will enjoy the views.
I couldn’t get over the vivid contrasts in greens, depending on which kinds of trees dominated a part of the forest. And those forests are dense and dark.
I wish I could also share the sweet smells of pine, grass, earth. And the sounds of so many birds. And the cacophony of crickets. It’s been forever since I’ve heard crickets. We crossed a high plateau and had to turn at the town of Espezel. I looked it up and the population was 209 in 2008; it was 407 in 1962. Says a lot about opportunities in the middle of nowhere. A man, wearing a big black beret without the slightest trace of irony, was about to enter a cute little bar/restaurant. Espezel might be losing residents but it’s gaining visitors who come for hiking. We pulled up quickly to ask the man for directions. They get lax about signs in the middle of nowhere.The man told us the way to the road we wanted–not a sign anywhere–and we were on our way. However, my co-pilot kept panicking at all the signs that said the col–mountain pass–was blocked. Still snow? Don’t worry, I said, Ferme en Ferme wouldn’t send hundreds of people on a blocked road.
I was right that the road wasn’t blocked. But I was wrong about the road. The instructions got us to the T-intersection as we had requested, but then instead of turning left, we turned right (again, not well marked). I thought we were on our way to Galinagues, and the map showed some impressive zigzags. But in fact, we were winding up the Rebenty river to Fajolle, where one could visit a fishery (not the Carnivore’s cup of tea).
I don’t regret the detour a bit. First of all, get a load of this: Even better, was the view going down:
And along the way:
The village of Fajolle counts 14 residents, most of whom seemed to be out for a hike together, with the loners preferring to fish from the road. No sidewalks, shoulders, rails. Just a low curb. Back in the day (1793), Fajolle had 365 people. Imagine. They probably didn’t get out much, if ever. And in winter, they were really stuck. There are six-foot poles that mark the roadside for when it snows. Skiing is not far away.
We did make it to Galinagues. We bought a bunch of goat cheese of different ages (and therefore harder or creamier). Leaving, we were counseled to follow the valley of the Rebenty back to Quillan. It was lovely. Truly a corner of France to explore again.
The inescapable French Party Playlist. These beloved oldies are played at every wedding reception, every dance after communal dinners, every karaoke night, every campsite, every gym class.
Once planted in your brain, they encrust themselves, popping up with the rhythm of anything that randomly happens during the day, any quotidien turn of phrase that’s been woven into their lyrics. Because that’s what kind of songs they are. If many are from the disco era, well, just remember that “discotèque” is a French word.
This is not to say these songs are bad, even though I personally dislike most of them, finding them too corny, too syrupy, too….whatever. A separate post will wax lyrical about some great French songs. There are plenty of idiotic disco and saccharine songs in every language (“Disco Duck” or “Muskrat Love” anybody?) These songs aren’t even “bad.” They are more along the lines of “Knock Three Times,” “Sugar, Sugar,” “Mack the Knife” or “Shake Your Booty”–songs that were real hits, but long ago. They’re the auditory equivalent of an old Polaroid, the colors faded, the fashions so strange. Did people dress like that? Did people listen to this?
If you ever are at a gathering and these anachronistic tunes blare out and the crowd goes nuts, now you will know why. These songs don’t dredge up warm memories for you and me. They are not in our répertoire of party tunes. They’re like a secret handshake, a password to get into the French club, and we’re not in on it (yet! you will be if you listen to them!). They’ve been copied and covered and parodied and used in films, TV shows, advertisements. We have no context, no past with them. We hear them as one-offs, as corny old songs that make crowds wild. We wonder what is going on. Especially when people born a couple of decades after these songs were hits shamelessly, loudly sing along to lyrics we can’t quite make out.
In French, a hit song is called a “tube.” These songs were tubes long ago. They have easy lyrics, which often involve “la la la la la la, la-la-la-la.” It’s good news for you if you want to join in the karaoke. Otherwise, just join the conga line. (Click on the titles to go to the YouTube video of each tube.)
Nuit de Folie by Debut de Soirée (the group’s name means Start of the Evening, and the title is Crazy Night). It topped the French charts for two months in the summer of 1988. Key lyrics: “Et tu chantes chantes chantes ce refrain qui te plait/ Et tu tapes tapes tapes c’est ta façon d’aimer.” Translation: And you sing, sing, sing this refrain that you like/and you hit, hit, hit, it’s your way to show love. ?!?!?!
Macumba by Jean-Pierre Mader. For a song that never got higher than the French No. 3 in 1984, and that for only a week, Macumba has surprising staying power, perhaps because the beat is just right for doing sit-ups. I get a stomach ache every time I hear it. Key lyrics: “Oh Macumba, Macumba, Elle danse tous les soirs/ Pour des marins largués/ Qui cherchent la bagarre, Oh Macumba.” The sorry tale of an illegal immigrant trying to make ends meet by working in the bars of a port: she dances every night/ for left-behind sailors/who are looking for a fight. I’m not 100% sure about my translation because larguer can also mean unleashed, abandoned, dumped (romantically).
Born to Be Alive by Patrick Hernandez. According to Wikipedia: It became a “worldwide smash hit” in 1979 and reached No. 1 on the U.S. Disco chart. Did you ever hear of it? Me either, until I moved to France. It was first conceived as a hard rock song! Key lyrics (it’s in English): “You see we’re born, born, born to be alive (born to be alive)/ You see we’re born, born, born to be alive (born to be alive).”
Les Lacs du Connemara by Michel Sardou. This 1981 throbbing cri du coeur about Scotland in iambic meter is Sardou’s greatest hit. Always on the playlist for late in a soirée bien arrosée, it lends itself to full-throated belting. It’s a favorite at parties of university students. Key lyrics: “Terre brulée au vent/des landes de pierre/autour des lacs/c’est pour les vivants/un peu d’enfer/le Connemara”: Land burned by the wind/lands of stones/for the living it’s/a bit of hell/the Connemara. Franco-schadenfreude for the Scots?
Les Champs Elysée by Joe Dassin. Another seeming flash in the pan with staying power: It spent two weeks at No. 1 in France in 1969. The song has a typically lilting French melody of the era, even though it originally was written in English by some British musicians (and titled “Waterloo Road,” which makes it even more ironic—the French don’t wax nostalgic about Waterloo). Dassin got the last laugh because his version lives on as an ode to the famous Parisian street. It seems like just the kind of simple, sweet tune to accompany a little soft-shoe routine. Key lyrics: Aux Champs-Elysées/ Aux Champs-Elysées/ Au soleil, sous la pluie,/ A midi ou à minuit/ Il y a tout ce que vous voulez aux Champs-Elysées. Translation: The Champs-Elysées/ the Champs-Elysées/ in the sun, in the rain/ at noon or at midnight/ there’s everything you want at the Champs-Elysées.
In a similar vein, Pour un Flirt Avec Toi (For a flirt with you…I’d do anything) by Michel Delpech has the same kind of nostalgic melody, with even easier lyrics: la la la la la la la-la-la la la ….” Can’t beat that!
Gray-haired party boy Patrick Sébastien one-ups Delpech with La Fiesta, whose lyrics include not only “la la la la” but also “fou fou fou” (crazy crazy crazy) and “dingue dingue dingue” (crazy crazy crazy). Total party stuff! You’re also likely to run into his Ah Si Tu Pouvais Fermer ta Gueule (“Ah, If You Could Shut Up,” but it’s the impolite way to say shut up, so use with care), aimed at politicians, among other suggestions. Sébastien specializes in the snarky singalong genre.
Johnny Hallyday started off as an Elvis impersonator, then outlived his muse. He beats another much-married septugenarian by one wife—he has had four (and married and divorced one of them twice). He didn’t limit himself to Elvis. His hits include “Viens Danser le Twist” (set to the Chubby Checker tune), “Le Pénitencier” (set to “The House of the Rising Sun”) and “Da Dou Ron Ron” (set to the Crystals tune). He still has an enthusiastic, increasingly geriatric fan base. Hallyday, along with Eddy Mitchell and Jacques Dutronc, known collectively as “les Vieilles Canailles” (the Old Rascals–a French version of the Rat Pack) will wind up their concert tour at this year’s Festival of Carcassonne, appearing July 5.
Michel Polnareff has become a meme thanks to his curly platinum shag hairdo and big white-framed glasses, rather than for his songs. He wrote the soundtrack for “Lipstick,” which starred Margaux Hemingway. You should know his photo from his peak if you want to understand sight gags in advertisements.
Corde à Sauter by Moussier Tombola. This one is from 2011–not an oldie! His smile is infectious, as is his energy. You will want to jump rope right along with him. The song is played at 1,000 decibels at all those indoor kid centers where children climb walls and go down inflated slides. Learn the choreography! More fun than the Macarena.
Even though Patrick Sébastien makes me queasy with his slighty sleazy, snickering jokes, he does have a party song that I find funny, maybe because it pokes fun at the entire party-song genre:
Pour faire une chanson facile, facile, (to make a song easy, easy) Faut d’abord des paroles débiles, débiles, (You must first make the lyrics stupid, stupid) Une petite mélodie qui te prend bien la tête, (a little melody that gets in your head) Et une chorégraphie pour bien faire la fête, (and a choreography that’s good for partying) Dans celle là, on se rassemble, à 5, ou 6, ou 7 (in that, we get together, 5, or 6 or 7 of us) Et on se colle tous ensemble, en chantant à tue tête. (and we stick all together and sing our heads off) Ha ! Qu’est-ce qu’on est serré, au fond de cette boite,* (Ha! Aren’t we squished together, in the bottom of this can) Chantent les sardines, chantent les sardines, (sing the sardines, sing the sardines) Ha ! Qu’est-ce qu’on est serré, au fond de cette boite, (Ha! Aren’t we squished together, in the bottom of this can) Chantent les sardines entre l’huile et les aromates. (sing the sardines between the oil and the herbs) Bien sûr, que c’est vraiment facile, facile, (of course, it’s truly easy, easy) C’est même complètement débile, débile, (it’s even completely stupid, stupid) C’est pas fait pour penser, c’est fait pour faire la fête, (it’s not made for thinking, it’s made for partying) C’est fait pour se toucher, se frotter les arêtes, ** (It’s made for touching, for rubbing the bones) Alors on se rassemble, à 5, ou 6, ou 7, (and so we get together, 5, or 6 or 7 of us) Et puis on saute ensemble en chantant à tue tête, (and then we jump together and sing our heads off) Ha ! Qu’est-ce qu’on est serré, au fond de cette boite, (Ha! Aren’t we squished together, in the bottom of this can) Chantent les sardines, chantent les sardines, (sing the sardines, sing the sardines) Ha ! Qu’est-ce qu’on est serré, au fond de cette boite, (Ha! Aren’t we squished together, in the bottom of this can) Chantent les sardines entre l’huile et les aromates. (sing the sardines between the oil and the herbs) Et puis,… pour respirer un p’tit peu, on s’écarte en se tenant la main, (and then…to breathe a little bit, we spread apart and hold hands) Et puis, … pour être encore plus heureux, (and then… to be even happier) On fait là, là, là, en chantant mon refrain ! (we go la, la, la, singing my refrain) Là, là, et les mains en l’air, là, là ! (la, la and hands in the air, la la)
Là, là, là, là, là, là, là, là, là, là, là, là, là, là, là, ……..
Any to add?
*This is a pun: a boite is a box or a tin can, but it also is a night club.
**another pun, you figure it out; prepubescent humor.
Chicken cooked in wine is a classic French dish, one that isn’t difficult but that’s so delicious and easy to prepare ahead that it works very well for entertaining.
We have already shifted into grilling season, but our kid went to a loto (like bingo night) and won. In typical French fashion, the prize was 90% edible–a good farm chicken, a big artisanal hard sausage and a pot of paté–along with some baubles and a gift certificate for a manicure.
So coq au vin went on the menu stat.
The Carnivore generally disdains feathered food, except for duck, goose, pheasant, pigeons, guinea hen….hmmm. I guess he does likes volaille, as the category is called, but he does NOT like chicken, calling it “cardboard.” Unless it was farm-raised, not industrial, and has “flavor.”
He took charge of dissecting the beast. In fact, he took charge of the entire meal, including photographing the process for you. He is as excited about spreading French savoir vivre as I am.
Coq au Vin
1 chicken (about 3 kg/6 or 7 lbs.), cut into pieces
1 bottle of full-bodied red wine
250 g (9 oz.) lardons (like cubes of bacon; you could do bacon and crumble it)
250 g (9 oz.) Paris mushrooms (like button mushrooms), sliced
1 onion, chopped
2 carrots, cut into rounds
2 cloves of garlic
2 tablespoons of herbes de Provence
1 tablespoon of whole peppercorns
50 cl (2 cups) beef broth
5 cl (3-4 tablespoons–oh, just go for 4) cognac
a couple of tablespoons of olive oil
a big tablespoon of flour
salt, pepper to taste
(2 medium potatoes per person, to serve on the side)
The day before, place the chicken pieces in a non-reactive dish (glass is good). Add the onion and carrots, then pour the wine over so the pieces are covered. Sprinkle on the herbs and the peppercorns. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
About three hours before you want to eat, take out the chicken pieces and dry them (wet meat won’t brown). Strain the vegetables from the marinade. Keep the marinade!
Heat the oil in a large pot (we have a mega le Creuset that is so heavy I can barely lift it, but it’s wonderful for cooking).
Brown the pieces of meat on all sides and set aside. Then add the vegetables and let them brown for about five minutes. Then sprinkle the flour over them and stir so they’re well-coated. This will thicken the sauce.
Put the chicken back in the pot, along with the garlic (crushed).
Warm the cognac, then light it to flambé and pour over the vegetables. (It wouldn’t be French if you didn’t flambé!)
Pour in the marinade and the beef broth. Bring to a boil then cover and let it simmer for 2 1/2 hours. Check the flavor and add salt/pepper to taste.
About half an hour before serving, prepare the potatoes (peel if you like, but we don’t–the skin has vitamins and it’s less work–win-win) and quarter them. Place them in a big pot and fill with cold water to cover them. Cover and crank up the heat to boil. If you add the salt after the water boils, it will make less of a stain on the bottom of your pot. Cook the potatoes about 20 minutes; check doneness with a fork.
While the potatoes are going, about 25 minutes before serving, brown the lardons/bacon and add the mushrooms to brown in the bacon fat for about 7-8 minutes. Add them to the coq au vin, so they can mix with the flavors for a good 15 minutes.
Sparkling French wine, good food, church. The perfect combo, right?
Every April since 1990, the Toques et Clochers festival raises money for the restoration of a church bell tower around Limoux, in the south of France. A clocher is a bell, and a toque is the tall white hat worn by chefs. The festival is sponsored by the Sieur d’Arques cooperative of Limoux, purveyor of blanquette de Limoux and crémant de Limoux.
Blanquette de Limoux goes back to 1531, when the monks at the nearby Abbey of Saint-Hilaire made the first sparkling wine (supported by documents dating to 1544). Supposedly, Dom Pérignon was one of them, before he was transferred to Champagne in the north; however, like a lot of legends, this one is off because Dom Pérignon was born a century later.
More about blanquette de Limoux and Saint-Hilaire another time. Today, let’s go to the party.
The festival has grown over the years, but the villages haven’t. It no longer is possible to park nearby (you can forget about parking in the villages even when there isn’t a festival because the streets are tiny). All cars are directed to Limoux, and festival-goers go through security before being channeled through a sports hall to buy their glasses (now in plastic) and tokens for tastings, as well as other merchandise. The line was surprisingly quick. Then we went through security again to get onto one of the shuttle buses to Cépie, this year’s village. Cépie was completely closed off except for one point, where we went through security again. The French weren’t messing around. Gendarmes were everywhere, and all the roads to the village were blocked with concrete barriers.
A note here: backpacks were not allowed. This has long been common practice in museums, and a good thing, too, because nobody wants to get whacked by somebody’s backpack when the person wearing it turns around. It seems that backpacks are being rejected elsewhere, so remember to pack a cross-body bag for your travels.
Not only did the organizers think to have event-specific tokens (no refunds), but they even put them on lanyards. You also could buy a cord with a holder for your glass. No wondering where you set it down or which one is yours. They also sold T-shirts, bandanas, aprons and straw hats.
It was packed. Cépie covers just over six square kilometers and has a population of 665 when everybody is home. This weekend, a record 45,000 people packed in for Toques et Clochers. The weather was heavenly and the setting was gorgeous, with the peaks of the Pyrénées peeking above the rooftops.
We arrived just in time for the parade of church replicas. Each village whose belltower has been restored had a replica, often carried atop a wine barrel or wheeled along on a wine barrel by costumed villagers. I loved the variety of epochs for the costumes and the contemporary interpretations.
There were several bands, marching and later on stages around the village (which is so small, the music all mixed together a bit–strains of jazz on the left, country on the right). Drums seem to be a big thing. There was a kids’ corps, a women’s corps, a mixed corps…. Miss Cépie led a throng of small and smaller children, who were dressed (decorated?) as flowers and sunshine. Awww!
The whole village seemed to have taken up the cause. Houses were spiffed up and decorated, mostly with recycled materials–plastic bottles and corks were turned into flowers, insects, even furniture.
We wandered up and down the little lanes, sticking to the shade. Not everybody was prudent; lots of winter white skin was broiled to a painful red by late afternoon. It was a sea of humanity–or at least a good-sized lake. In French, the term is la foule, and when candidates plunge in to shake hands (and there were many local politicos present!), ilsprennent un bain de foule–they take a crowd bath. The Carnivore wasn’t careful and as he tried to scratch his head found his hand grabbed by some ballot-seeker.
Despite the ubiquity of alcohol, the relative youth of the attendees and the tight quarters, the afternoon was extremely good-natured and well-mannered. The organizers had wisely switched to all-plastic, from the glasses to the bottles of wine, and had provided lots of trash points, so there was little litter despite the intense concentration of humanity.
The “toques” part was well-represented, with purveyors of gastronomic goodies, such as bio, or organic, veal burgers, specialty macarons, seafood, cheeses, and lots and lots of duck and foie gras.
Before catching the shuttle bus back to the parking lots, the gendarmes helpfully had a table set up for people to voluntarily test whether they were sober enough to drive.
We avoided that problem by inviting friends to come with us to fill up our car, and then I was the designated driver–water only–called the capitain de la soirée in France and “Bob” in Belgium. I remember driving around Brussels and seeing the electronic signs that usually warn of traffic jams reading “Avec Bob au volant, les fêtes se passent en sécurité” or something like that. I was perplexed. I knew that voler means to fly or to steal (yup!), so volant should mean flying or stealing–the present participle. “With Bob stealing…???” Main non! I just hadn’t acquired an adequate automotive vocabulary–un volant is a steering wheel–flying/stealing/steering…of COURSE. So the slogan was “With Bob (designated driver) behind the wheel, the holidays are safe.” A good idea in any language.
Few things are as French as steak tartare. Raw ground beef. With a few additions.
On one of my early trips to Paris, I ordered steak tartare from some stately bistro. I barely remember now, but… There were flowers. Everybody was older than me. It felt very formal and grown up. There were different levels in the restaurant–not floors but groups of tables that were reached by stairs, which had brass handrails. It was the ’80s, and brass was very classy.
I had decided to be daring and get steak tartare even though I had grown up with extra-well-done meat. Some people drive fast for thrills; I did gastronomy.
The waiter was dressed in black dress pants, a black vest, a perfectly pressed white shirt (the crease on his sleeve was so crisp it looked as if it could draw blood if you ran a finger along it) and an immaculate white apron. He was around my father’s age at the time–50s–with gray hair. That was surprising because I had never seen anybody older than 30 waiting tables.
He wheeled over a cart with a large stainless steel bowl and showed me a lump of ground beef in the bottom. Then he asked me which garnitures I wanted: onions? chives? or was it shallots? capers? parsley? Tabasco? Worcestershire sauce? There were other possibilities, I’m sure–it was difficult to decide. I asked as politely as I could for a little of everything. How to say no to onions in favor of chives, or vice versa? It all sounded good.
The thing about being young and eager and excited is that you can ask what would ordinarily be a slightly impolite request, but it’s taken as what it is: enthusiasm, not greed. The waiter flicked a bit of everything into the mix, added a raw egg yolk, then vigorously mixed it all with a fork. He then coaxed it onto a plate and formed it with a few quick gestures, making a little volcanic crater, where he deposited another egg yolk.
With perfect timing, another waiter arrived with a hot serving of crispy fries.
It was heaven. The texture, the flavors. I loved it. I didn’t eat meat very often. When on one of our early dates, the Carnivore asked me whether I was vegetarian, I answered no–to me that’s like asking whether I’d walked on the moon or whether I was pregnant–there’s no “kind-of” answer. It’s straight yes/no. I ate meat at least five or six times in the previous year, therefore, I wasn’t a vegetarian, much less a vegan (I can never give up cheese). I’m not against vegetarian or vegan diets, but I am just too lazy and I do like meat…a few times a year.
In fact, when I was living in Belgium, I would head to the brasserie across the street from our office for a steak tartare when I felt the oppressive damp dragging me into a cold. A nice big shot of protein to get back on track! Meat for medicinal purposes only. Seriously, I lived on salads and chocolate and cheese otherwise. OK, mostly chocolate.
In Belgium, they have another version, called steak américain, which unknowing Americans continually order only to send it back to be cooked. Steak américain is similar to steak tartare as both are RAW, but with a dollop of mayonnaise (because: Belgium) and even more seasonings. Go into any butcher shop or grocery store there and you will find raw beef seasoned in a huge variety of ways. Heaven.
Steak américain around here means a ground beef patty, fried, served without a bun, but with fries and possibly a green salad. Just so you know!
We are picky about where we have steak tartare. It’s the French version of sushi–raw and risky. There are restaurants we trust. But in general, we DIY, going to our butcher when we start jonesing for some raw meat. It’s pricey (I think I paid €16 for 700+ grams for the three of us), but we don’t splurge often. Go big or go home. (An aside: It is typically French to say “MY butcher.” Who has “my butcher” at a big supermarket? They don’t even cut up the meat in those places anymore. It arrives sealed in plastic.)
If you have a butcher you trust, then go for it!
I browsed a few dozen recipes to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. Us? Onions, capers (on the side because our kid doesn’t like them), Worcestershire, Tabasco, egg yolks. That’s it. Keep in mind that you can do whatever the heck you want here. Tons of Tabasco and no Worcestershire? No problem! Capers? Schmapers if they aren’t your thing. Consider this like a pizza menu, where these are the usual possibilities and you can take them or leave them. There is no right or wrong….except for the base of raw ground beef. (I’ve even had Thai-seasoned tartare.) You can add whatever you like, in whatever quantities you like. The French are rarely so accommodating, so profitez-en (enjoy).
Freshly ground or finely minced very lean steak. Count on 125 grams (4.4 oz.) or more per person, depending on appetite. (The American Heart Association says 2-3 oz. cooked is a serving size. This is raw, so you get to have more.)
one egg yolk for three people plus any extra egg yolks as desired for decoration
A teaspoon of:
–Dijon mustard (sorry, not in ours)
A tablespoon of:
–minced onion OR
–minced shallots OR
–chopped fresh chives
–chopped fresh parsley
–some say ketchup (your call, remember). Also olive oil, but that seems to me like gilding the lily.
Plus a little salt and pepper, and a few drops of Tabasco…or many drops. Your call!
Mash it all together. Refrigerate. Can be done a few hours ahead.
Prepare a green salad (lettuce, vinaigrette).
Prepare French fries.
Just before the fries are ready, get the salad and tartare on the table. If you want to get fancy, plate the tartare and stick an egg yolk on top of each mound of meat.
Another time we will get the Carnivore to divulge the secrets of how to make perfect Belgian French fries. Warning: It’s not vegan!
Have you ever seen a photo of the stereotypical French market basket without some leeks poking out? Of course not, because they are ALWAYS in the basket.
Yet I never ate leeks until I moved to Europe. This isn’t surprising: In this list of most-consumed vegetables in the U.S., leeks don’t even appear, yet turnip greens and mustard greens do.
In contrast, leeks turn up at No. 11 on the list of most popular veggies in France, beating out peas, cauliflower, asparagus and artichokes, among other surprises.
Maybe it’s because of the so-called magic leek soup that supposedly keeps French women thin?
Or because in a chunk of France, leeks grow all year? Whatever the reason, the answer is the French love leeks, or poireaux. Not to be confused with poires (pears) or poivrons (sweet peppers). We even get wild leeks around here, like the regular ones but the size of a pencil.
Here’s how to overcome your fear of leeks. Call it entry-level leeks. Easy beyond all the “easy” recipes I linked here (1) because I’m giving it to you in English and (2) because it’s THAT easy, yet SO good. Sometimes simple and elegant are just right.
Leeks Braised in Wine
One leek per person (more if you’re daring. I like two, myself)
A hunk of butter (at least a tablespoon; more is better and you might need more)
2 glasses of dry (of COURSE) white wine
salt and pepper
Leeks generally are sold whole, a good two feet long. Only the white part is considered edible. Cut your leeks at the boundary between white and green. Peel off and throw away any brown/icky leaves/layers.
Cut off the roots, but not too close. You want that button at the bottom that holds all the rings together.
Cut the white part in half lengthwise.
Cut the green part into small rings about a half an inch wide.
Fill the sink with cold water and put all the leeks in there to soak a few minutes. Then carefully bend the white lengths so you can see between the layers and rub out any dirt or sand. Rinse each piece and set cut side down to drain.
Vigorously swish around the little green rings. The green part is what sticks out of the ground, so it’s more likely to have dirt clinging. When the rings are clean, rinse and let drain.
I put the rings into a plastic bag and use them in soup. In this case, they went into a couscous a few days later. Usually the green part is tough, so you want to use it in a soup that will cook a long time, so it gets nice and soft. Waste not.
Pour two glasses of white wine. Sip one.
Over medium heat, melt the butter in a skillet that has a cover. When it has turned a little brown and isn’t bubbling any more, place the white leek lengths cut side down in the skillet. Put on the cover and have another sip of wine.
Keep a close eye, because this all depends on your stove and your skillet. Using tongs, check for when the leeks have browned. Turn them over, pour in the other glass of wine, turn the heat to low, sprinkle with salt and pepper and put the lid back on.
Leisurely finish drinking your glass of wine. Perhaps think about the other dishes you are serving with the leeks, or, if you are dedicating yourself to this noble vegetable and have delegated the other dishes to a sous-chef, crack the whip on the sous-chef.
Check the leeks occasionally; if they seem dry, turn down the heat some more and add butter.
When you have finished your aperitif of white wine (10-15 minutes), you may serve the leeks. They should be melt-in-your-mouth tender, yet not mushy.
The weather is fine and spring cleaning is under way. Time to purge with a vide grenier (empty the attic), a kind of communal garage sale.
While some purge, others acquire. One man’s junk is another’s gold.
Antique shops and brocantes (lower-end antique shops) are fun to visit, but the real bargains are to be had at the vide grenier, where gems are truffled among masses of consumer mistakes, but prices for the two are about the same.
Guess that didn’t work out
We scored a pair of bronze candlesticks that had been converted into lamps…and must be rewired completely. But the holes have been drilled, which is the hardest part.
Did you know that a wooden shoe is a sabot, worn by the working class, probably because they are nearly indestructible? And that saboter at first meant to bungle or be clumsy or noisy, because it’s hard to be elegant in wooden clogs. Then sabotage, or the act of saboter, came to mean deliberately introducing errors in one’s work or destroying industrial machinery. According to my Larousse dictionary.
More than antiques are on offer.
But old stuff rules. Maybe because it was built to last.
History can be cruel. One is great enough to be commemorated in a bust, only to end up in a red plastic bin at a mass yard sale.
But the best part is the attention paid to lunch. While numerous stands hawk grilled sausage sandwiches, crêpes and churros, most vendors come well-equipped.
Lunch is served at a table, with a tablecloth, real dishes and silverware, wine served in wine glasses, everybody seated on real chairs. Just because it’s a picnic doesn’t mean one must be uncomfortable.
We saw one table–a sturdy round one, covered by a neatly ironed tablecloth–that seated eight, and they were enjoying their lunch fully. It was fine to inquire about prices of their wares, but wait a minute while the seller swallows.
This joie de vivre is irrepressible in the French. Being reminded of it, at stall after stall, was the best gem I took away from the vide grenier.
We don’t have a food processor but we do have a special apparatus for melting a giant half-wheel of cheese. This specialty, called a raclette, dates to the Middle Ages, when shepherds set half of their round of cheese on a sone and turned the cut face toward the fire so it would get all bubbly and yummy. They would scrape off the melted part, and melt the next bit. They ate the melted cheese with bread, potatoes and dried meats.
Today, we have a large heating coil, similar to a toaster, that beams down on the cheese. You can lower the heating element as the cheese grows smaller. The cheese itself can be pulled out and tilted, for easier scraping. Raclette comes from racler, to scrape.
More common today are round appliances with little drawers (check this out: 117 choices here!). Supermarkets sell the particular cow’s milk cheese pre-sliced that’s just the right size. The heating element also heats the top, where you can cook little sausages, in what’s known as a pierrade. We also have a pierrade, but it’s a real slab of slate stone that you put a Sterno flame under, like back in the Stone Age. But that’s for another time. For one thing, it takes up most of the table. And so does the half-round of cheese. So chez nous, it’s raclette or pierrade, but not both.
We do the charcuterie.
We do the potatoes, going for little ones called grenailles (named after lead shot because of their size, about like a thumb). Managed to get a photo of a couple of leftovers.
We do the bread. Duh. We also do a big green salad with a simple shallot vinaigrette.
For dessert, we stayed with the cheese theme and had triple-chocolate cheesecake. Inspiration and recipe from French Country Cottage. However, we’d all eaten so much cheese, that the next time I will go for a lighter dessert. This one is perfect for a midafternoon snack, especially if dinner will be late, or a followup to a lighter meal.
A raclette has a nice rhythm to it, because you have pauses while waiting for the cheese to melt. The plates of cheese and all the trimmings are passed around and around, so it’s pretty convivial and relaxed.
The wine also contributes.
Years ago, the Carnivore belonged to a civic group whose winter fundraiser was a raclette. Imagine a banquet hall with a couple of these monster melters on each table of 20 or so. A very elegant, massive cheese-scraping dinner.
Speaking of convivial, the next day was gorgeous and just demanded a Sunday promenade. The entire village seemed to have the same idea. Everybody wanted to see what damage the river had done (not much–see below. Some neatly plowed gardens got a new layer of mud dumped on them. The jogging path through the woods is mostly gone. But honestly, those things belong in a flood plain, because they’re easily righted).
The most striking thing to me was the number of multigenerational groups out walking. Three generations strolling, time and again. There also were kids out alone, because we live in a time warp where kids play unsupervised, and elderly villagers, some alone and a few couples. Some parents with kids. But over and over I saw knots of five to seven people, from kids to grandparents, including aunts and uncles and cousins. And the kids included teens. How many teens do you know who go for a walk with their parents and grandparents?
The various groups would stop and chat as they crossed paths. Discussing how high the water had gotten. How it was nothing compared to ’99. Some reminiscing about the travails of that time. Then they continued on their ways.
I think about the neighborhood where I grew up, the one where my parents moved to later, where my siblings live, where friends live, and I cannot remember seeing as many people out for a walk (not a jog, solo or with a buddy, but a stroll), especially these multi-generational, extended family groups. It was like Halloween, but in broad daylight, without costumes or candy.
The French even have multiple terms for it. Se promener is to take a walk, either for exercise or distraction, while marcher is to walk (kind of the generic brand). Randonner is more hardcore, a hike. The loveliest is flâner, to walk without a goal, just for the pleasure of it.
At one garden, owned by an elderly couple, four cars were parked, taking up most of the road, but it didn’t matter because the river flows over the road there (passage à gue), and crossing wasn’t yet possible. Maybe 20 people were there, all ages, picking out stones deposited by the torrent. Clearly the extended family mobilized to help out. They weren’t grim about it. Everybody seemed to be having great fun.
I felt such affection for these neighbors, who themselves have such affection and respect for each other. J’aime la France.
Here’s the promised recipe for a neglected winter vegetable: Swiss chard, or blettes. Recipes usually treat this vitamin-rich vegetable like spinach, and that’s fine, too.
But you can take advantage of the large leaves to do something special. And of course, cream and cheese make everything delicious, right?
This is a recipe I found in a French decorating magazine before Pinterest. That means I have it ripped out and stuck in a file folder. And too bad for the magazine, because it didn’t print its name on each page, so how am I to know which of the 20 magazines I bought a decade ago was the one with this recipe?
Being a loosey-goosey gourmet, about the only thing my version has in common with the original is the idea of Swiss chard as a wrapper for a cheesy custard filling.
This is very, VERY easy but it gets lots of points for presentation. It’s a great idea for a dinner where you want to impress. Plus you can make it ahead and pop it into the oven at the last minute. And you’ll seem so cool, being somebody who actually knows how to cook with Swiss chard. And you even know the French name is blettes (pronounced blett–can it get any easier?).
Swiss Chard Pillows of Bliss
a bunch of Swiss chard
one onion, diced
20 cl (a cup) of heavy cream (whatever–our village grocery didn’t have heavy cream so we took the whole cream, and I am sure it would work with low-fat cream or even milk. Just get something from the milk family.)
a cup (about 80 g) of grated hard cheese like parmesan or gruyère
a cup (about 80 g) of nuts. The magazine says pine nuts. Around here pine nuts cost so much that they are kept behind the cash register. So we went with chopped almonds.
1 tsp of oregano (not fresh because it was raining cats and dogs–see below)
salt and pepper
chives, fresh and nice and long. Ideally. For tying up your little packages. But if you don’t have chives, don’t worry!
Preheat the oven to 120 C (250 Fahrenheit)…unless you are making ahead to serve later….it doesn’t usually take long to get an oven to just 250 F.
First, you chop the stems off the Swiss chard and dice them like the onion. Heat a skillet with a little olive oil (enough to cover the bottom) and get them started to brown softly over medium-low heat. Sprinkle with oregano, salt and pepper. Stir, then put a on lid so they don’t dry out and keep cooking them slowly so they soften.
Blanche the leaves by plunging them into a pot of boiling water for a few minutes. This will make them pliable for rolling. You want them to be flexible but still bright green. When they are ready, remove them and pour cold water on them. Then spread them out so you can stuff them.
Beat the egg and the cream in a little bowl. Pour this into the onion/stem mixture. Turn off the heat. Stir in the nuts and the cheese. You don’t need for the mixture to cook; just get it mixed.
Prepare a cookie sheet with a silicon liner or parchment paper. Put a spoon of the onion/stem/cream mixture on a leaf and then fold it up like a burrito. My blettes were on the small side, so I used the smallest leaves as wings, and wrapped the bigger ones around that and they held. No waste. If you have chives, use them like ribbon to tie up your packets.
Set them on the cookie sheet and brush with a little olive oil (I used my finger; it only takes a couple of drops).
Cook them for about 15 minutes, just enough to get warm and so the filling sets.
Vegetables aside, we had quite a week. Late Saturday, I think, it started to rain. The pace stepped up on Sunday, with lots of wind for drama. By Monday, it was pouring rain and the wind was howling and our electricity was out more than it was on.
A little nervous, I inspected the river next to our house, but it was unimpressive despite the downpour.
But Monday night, some meteorological firetruck parked in the skies above our village and let loose with water cannons. I didn’t sleep for the racket. The next day, I got a message that a package had arrived in Carcassonne. Fine–we set off to pick it up. Pulling out of our driveway, we were shocked to come almost nose to nose with the river. THIS river, that was bone dry in August. Most of the time, “river” is an exaggeration, because it’s about ankle-deep and two feet wide.
We headed to town, gasping at the water everywhere. We got our package, headed back home and found that the river had risen even further. “We’re leaving,” I said. And within half an hour we had packed up clothes and food to take to our apartments in Carcassonne, which were high and dry and with electricity and running water–in taps only.
Our village had been hit hard by floods in 1999, and everybody still talks about it. I had no desire to live through such an event with our kid. Even if our house is high enough to have escaped the 1999 flood, it was tiresome to be without electricity.
Amazingly, in Carcassonne, it wasn’t even raining. The parking lots along the Aude river, which is a real river, much bigger than the usual trickle next to our house, sometimes flood but they were dry and in no danger.
Today, the sun was out, the weather was warm and we had the windows open. And the river was way down. I haven’t been to the park or to my usual jogging route to see the effects, but I suppose they will be temporary. A big drink.