Franco-American-Italiano

P1080351I’ve had culture shock many times, but this one took the gâteau.

A few years ago, a restaurant was built on the edge of a parking lot of a Carcassonne strip mall. It was intriguing, because the whole strip-mall restaurant thing is not very French. As it rose, it felt as if it were a mirage transported from the the middle of America.

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Even thought it looks like Kansas, I’m telling you, Toto, we really aren’t in Kansas anymore. 

Yet, it turned out to be an Italian restaurant. In France. My kid had bugged me from the building’s foundations being poured that we HAD to go. When I first stepped inside, I had a hard time to speak French. English came out. It was stronger than any logic, because the throng waiting to be seated all were chatting in French. But my brain was telling me I had stepped into suburban U.S.A. It was the oddest thing.

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No idea how the funky light effect happened.

Parking lot location: check.

Non-commital modern yet somewhat Mediterranean architecture: check.

Upbeat pop music: check.

Soaring ceilings: check.

Roaring decibels: check.

Open kitchen to give us the impression of authenticity: check.

Mob of people waiting to be seated: check.

Where were we? Was it really Carcassonne? It certainly wasn’t French. It certainly wasn’t Italian–it was Italian as imagined by Americans. Except that the chain IS French: Del Arte is part of Groupe LeDuff, which was founded by the now-multibillionaire Louis LeDuff in 1976.

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Helpful photo of la Cité on the back side for those who are completely disoriented.

Groupe LeDuff started with la Brioche Dorée (the Golden Brioche), and has added other chains, including Bruegger’s (the bagel chain), Timothy’s World Coffee, Mimi’s Cafe, La Madeleine, among others. Almost 2,000 restaurants, in 90 countries.

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The neighborhood. There are several more stores, but the strip is hard to capture in one shot.

The food was OK. Not great, yet far from terrible. As one often gets in parking-lot restaurants like Olive Garden and Applebee’s and Carrabba’s. And at the beginning, the whole concept was so unusual for here that it drew crowds. Concept aside, good–no, GREAT–food is easy to find here, along with authentic authenticity. I don’t want to slam Del Arte–it isn’t bad at all. Just meh.

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Obviously these were taken at an off-hour. Because the parking lot is full during meal times.

Recently, two Subway sandwich outlets also opened in Carcassonne, one in the center of town and the other in yet another of the strip malls that blight the periphery of town. I was following two couples of Americans down the main pedestrian street, overhearing them talk about lunch (it’s easy to overhear Americans, in part because I understand what they’re saying with zero effort and in part because of the volume of normal American speaking). I thought about telling them of a couple of options. I consider myself an ambassador for Carcassonne and want even strangers to have a good time here. Before I caught up to them, they swung into Subway.IMG_4320Subway is fine. I have eaten plenty of Subway sandwiches in the U.S. But why would a person go all the way to France and then eat the same thing as back home? It isn’t as if there’s a big risk of ordering something disgusting by mistake. Most French sandwiches involve some combination of ham, cheese or hard sausage, or else some sort of tuna salad, chicken salad or shrimp/fake crab salad. With lettuce and tomato. On awesome bread. What’s to fear? Eating local specialties is one of the key ways to explore local culture.

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A plain white shirt with a twist, at La Brune, an interesting boutique in the center of town.

The same thing is true with other shops. The world is becoming more and more similar. On the one hand, it’s kind of cool that tastes are shared by so many people. Can you hate somebody who wears the same jeans and T-shirts that you do? (I suppose so, but it does make people seem less foreign–and hence more relatable–than when each little region had its own traditional dress.) Now you can get the same clothes at Zara or H&M in Amsterdam as in Abu Dhabi, Astana or Austin. That’s great–if you see something new in a magazine or on Instagram, you can buy it easily, even if you don’t live in a fashion capital. On the other hand, the little boutiques with really cool, unique stuff are going under, unable to compete on price and unable to change stock as fast as the fast fashion giants. Fashion is supposed to be about expressing oneself, but it’s increasingly about following the herd.

 

It’s something to consider, whether you’re traveling or shopping and dining at home. Do you seek safety in the numbers? Or do you stand out from the herd?

 

 

 

 

 

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité

IMG_1845Happy Bastille Day!

Last night, our village was among those hosting a dinner and fireworks–done the night before the holiday because they can’t compete with the big fireworks tonight at la Cité of Carcassonne.

Here is the dinner menu: salad with gizzards; civet of duck (this civet isn’t the little animal but a kind of ragout made with lots of onions and pronounced see-VAY); bleu de coeur cheese; and apple pie. The Carnivore went, but I skipped it–too many calories and not enough vegetables.IMG_1796When it got dark, everybody went to the park of our château (almost every village has at least one château) to watch the fireworks. There is something charming about being in a crowd where you know 90% of the people. Children ran around freely; the park is their playground and they were excited by a place so familiar seen so unfamiliarly dark. IMG_1922When the fireworks started, more than a few of the little ones became hysterical. Fireworks are an acquired taste.

The crowd oohed and aahed in in unison, which added to the feeling of togetherness.

Compared with last year, the display was smaller and had some glitches. The park has an old stone bridge that used to go over the river until a flood changed its course. Sparklers hanging off the side give the impression of a waterfall of lights. Very pretty, especially with the elegant arch of the bridge. But the string came loose, and half of the waterfall turned into more of a puddle.

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This one looked like one of those deep space photos. And it was a very starry night.

After the big finale, we stood around chatting with friends as people slowly shuffled out. Suddenly another firework blasted off and lit up the sky. One of the technicians took off across the lawn, flashlight in hand, toward the launching area. A couple more strays went off. A small fire burned under the bridge. Technicians’ flashlights flickered back and forth near the rose garden. Clearly little villages have to make do with the farm league of fireworks.

Tonight, though, is the big leagues. For a week, you could feel the excitement mounting in town. There were more people around, adding to the energy. July brings the Festival of Carcassonne, with concerts, theater and dance. I went to a dance performance in the courtyard of the château of la Cité–a fabulous setting (la Cité isn’t a castle but a fortified city, with a château inside it that was the last resort). IMG_1872Tonight, the only concerts are free ones at Place Carnot, in the Bastide, or “new” town (dating from only 1260, but that’s how things roll around here). Guy Lacroux will play old-fashioned bal musette dance tunes on the accordion before the fireworks, and BRBB, for Béziers Rhythm & Blues Band, will play after.

At the same time, the reason for the holiday is a serious one. The fight for freedom, for equality, for fraternity and pitching in together for the common good. They aren’t easy principles to uphold, and sometimes what seems right can turn out wrong. But France does a pretty good job, and I’m grateful to live here.IMG_1903

Antiquing We Will Go

P1070958The brocante of Limoux, on the first Sunday of the month, holds plenty of treasures. (Alert: there’s one this weekend, on July 2.)

Paris, with its huge population, has the famous marchés aux puces, or flea markets, namely les Puces de Saint-Ouen, selling carefully curated antiques at carefully curated prices from stalls that have become fixed shops.P1070970In France profonde, the flea markets are called brocantes and may be single shops selling antiques and vintage items, or they may be itinerant gatherings of these kinds of professional vendors. These are a step up from the vide-grenier, which is like a group yard sale. Brocantes have better stuff, but vide-greniers are where you will find something amazing for a song, buried amid piles of cast-offs.

That said, brocantes here offer some amazing finds at bargain prices. Though you are free to negotiate the prices down further.P1070967Can you guess what the object above is? The Carnivore knew immediately, having been there, done that. Put your guesses in the comments.P1070968And what about the gold things above? I thought at first they were some kind of hook for handing a coat or something. But no, on turning them around, the shape wasn’t right. They’re about 10 inches high. There’s a little cup, but it’s very small. Maybe for visiting cards? Even the vendor didn’t know what they were. Just pretty. He wanted €50 for the pair, which seemed too high for something mysterious, even though I loved the faces. If you know what they are, do tell!P1070956We saw lots of rattan, which I have read is on trend. I’d rather buy it because it is beautiful, like those chairs at the top, and beautifully made, rather than because somebody declared rattan to be “in,” which means that cheaply made versions will be in stores everywhere.

I’m also a sucker for old portrait photos. Those girls look so sweet. I supposed they’ve died–you don’t throw out Grandma’s picture when she’s still around. My mom did genealogy research, very thoroughly I should add. My father referred to it as “your mother is busy digging up the dead.” Anyway, she managed to get photos of ancestors going back as far as photography was around. Not just direct linage, either, but all kinds of relatives. So it makes me a little sad to see these girls for sale.

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Speaking of girls, how about this toy stove?
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Other things are just not destined to be loved by anybody but the original owner.

There were lots of really nice pieces of furniture.P1070970P1070963P1070969After having hunted for decorations for our four fireplaces, they continue to catch my eye. I love these sphinxes.

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A lot more bosomy than the Giza version.

And some old space heaters…P1070961If you are in Carcassonne, I can arrange personalized brocante tours. You can contact me at taste.france (at) yahoo.com.

 

 

Languedoc in Condé Nast Traveler

79.Cité le soir2If you haven’t heard enough here about why you should visit Carcassonne, check out the lovely article about our region in Condé Nast Traveler.

Titled “Why Languedoc Is Like Nowhere Else in France,” you can see it here.

The gorgeous photos are by Oddur Thorisson, whom francophile blog readers probably know as the husband of Mimi Thorisson of Manger. (Because I don’t reproduce other people’s photos without permission, the photos here are my own.)footprintThe writer visits many of our favorites, from la Cité of Carcassonne, shown at the top, to the beach at Gruissan, above, the garrigue, below, and more. The article calls Languedoc the Tuscany of France, but I think of it as the “other” south of France–more low-key and  down to earth, less fashionable and flashy than Provence.4 view to carcaThe markets overflow with succulent local produce and products that end up in delicious dinners shared among friends and family or at restaurants. And the wine!

It is a pleasure to share the local secrets with you, especially the ones about savoir-vivre–the French art of living well.

Tangentially, check out this beautiful tapestry that some dear friends gave us. We put it in la Suite Barbès. It’s two meters (six feet) wide, which gives you an idea of how big the room is.tapisserie

French Laundry

P1070271There’s a divide between France and the U.S., and it has to do with how people take care of their clothes.

Let’s start with washing. Front-load washers have gained popularity in the U.S., but they have long been typical in Europe. They are easier on your clothes than top-load agitators, which really tear them up. However, washing times are longer. Mine has a 15-minute freshen-up cycle, but the shortest real wash cycle takes over an hour and the longest is three hours. That’s in part because the machines heat the water themselves, rather than take it from a hot-water heater.

The models sold here are getting bigger, but they are still a lot smaller than in the U.S. Our old washer held a maximum of four kilos–just under nine pounds. Our new one has a maximum capacity of twice that. According to Consumer Reports, capacities in the U.S. are as high as 28 pounds. (French vocabulary lesson: a laundry room is une buanderie, a laundromat is une laverie and the old-fashioned outdoor laundries are lavoirsDry cleaning is nettoyage à sec, and the place that does it is un pressing or une teinturerie.)

P1070742Another difference is drying. Plenty of people don’t even have electric dryers. I put towels in the dryer to keep them soft and fluffy but try to hang everything else outside–again, it’s better for your clothes, better for the environment and it’s free. Sheets definitely go outside. It makes them smell so good!

Related to that: walking around in the mornings, you see windows open, even in the dead of winter, and duvets hanging over the window sills to air out for at least 15 minutes. Bedrooms tend to be minimally heated (and back in the day weren’t heated at all), and we don’t have bitter temperatures, so it isn’t very wasteful.

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A lot going on here: the bed linens getting aired in the open windows in winter–you can see the photo was taken at Christmas time. The drying rack is set on the sidewalk to get the job done faster. Carcassonne is still the kind of small city where you can leave your stuff outside safely.

One reason my friends cite for avoiding dryers, besides making clothes last longer, is the cost of electricity. Looking at my bill, we pay between 6.38 centimes and 10.43 centimes (about 7 cents to 11 cents) per kWh before tax (which is 20%). The tariff varies by time of day, with heures creuses, or off-peak, discounted. I set the timers on the washing machine and dishwasher to run during off peak. Surprisingly, residential rates in the U.S. are higher–an average of 12.90 cents per kWh.

One reason many Americans I know do use dryers: to avoid ironing. Some don’t even own an iron or ironing board. When we briefly lived in the U.S., the Carnivore was delighted to discover a setting on our apartment’s dryer called “fluff,” which he adorably pronounced “floof” the first time. He was so excited about how things came out with only minor wrinkles.

By contrast, Europeans tend to be not just wrinkle-free but to have knife-edge creases. Even jeans get ironed. The Carnivore is very talented with a steam iron (see the ads below). Personally, I hate to iron but have been doing a lot of it lately, pressing the sheets for our rental apartments. We want them to be impeccable.

While I iron my own clothes, I don’t do my kid’s. Some of the local mothers would iron their children’s clothes even for toddlers–who wear things for about two minutes before getting dirty. An extremely scientific survey of my gym class showed most spend two to three hours a week ironing.

Ironing isn’t limited to France. I remember being impressed by the teen boys in Rome, perched on their Vespas, wearing immaculate white shirts with crisply creased sleeves. Nothing slovenly about them.

When I lived in Brussels, my apartment faced a lovely row of hidden gardens, “Rear Window” style. In a window across the way, a woman (housekeeper, I think), would iron for hours, including the tiniest flouncy baby dresses. And sheets and sheets and sheets.

Another time, I was at the big department store El Corte Inglès in Barcelona. The household appliance department was animated by many demonstrations. There was a woman carving candles. All kinds of shoppers, including families, watched her work. Some of the candles sported the typical curls, while others represented couples in a sexual act. This was something I never saw in the U.S.

And there was a guy ironing. This was no simple steam iron but what the French call a centre de repassage–an ironing center. A big water tank was fixed to the base of the ironing board “so you can iron all day!” my friend marveled. A dozen people–men and women–watched the demo intently.

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This baby goes for a cool €700.

Do you hang laundry outside? Do you iron? Do you pamper your clothing?

 

You Never Know What You’ll Find

artichokeAppearances can be deceptive. The Maison des Mémoires (House of Memories) is a haunting name for nicely restored building in the center of Carcassonne, mixing industrial modern touches with ancient stones. A sun-drenched interior courtyard shows beyond the reception desk.

Why I never entered is a mystery. I love this sort of thing. But la Maison des Memoires is modest, at least from the street, and when I passed, I was usually in a hurry on my way to something else.

I finally visited. And it was a treat. An unexpected discovery of unexpected discoveries. How’s that for meta?

The building, at 53 rue de Verdun (entry is free), was the home of Joë Bousquet, a poet and author who hobnobbed with the surrealists. They came to him because he was unable to get out. He was paralyzed by a bullet to the spine in World War I at the age of 21.

CHAMBRE JOË BOUSQUET Photo de Daniel Depoix
With paintings by his artist friends, who included many Surrealists. Copyright Centre Joë Bousquet/Daniel Depoix. Used with permission.

Bousquet mostly stayed in the dim of his upstairs room, where he smoked opium to cope with the pain. Opium became popular in France at the turn of the last century, as sailors and military brought it back with them from Indochina. It became so popular that smoking it was outlawed in 1908. But Bousquet’s father was a doctor, who had legal access, and his circle of artistic friends supplemented his supply.

Tangent discovered in researching this: France is the biggest legal producer of opium poppies rich in codeine (which is one of the six naturally occurring opium alkaloids; morphine is the most important one for medicine).

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Another view. He lived by the light of a reading lamp, and the world came to him here. Copyright Centre Joë Bousquet/Daniel Depoix. Used with permission.

The ground floor has a reception area (entry is free), and upstairs are two rooms for visiting exhibits–a series of photographs about immigration when I visited–and two more rooms about Bousquet, with photos and his books. At the end of a small hallway, you can look into Bousquet’s bedroom, kept as he left it, with the shutters closed.

The exhibit rooms are stunning, exhibits notwithstanding. When the building was renovated, gorgeous painted ceiling beams were revealed. They were restored but not brightened or altered. The first room is kept dark, so it was hard to photograph without flash.

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Ceilings in the first room, which date to 1570.

first ceiling 2The second room’s beams date to 1640 and are quite different. They would be stylish today. I would love them at home!second ceiling 2

second ceiling 1

second ceiling corner

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A matching square was on the opposite wall.

The rooms are arranged in the typical French disposition, with doors aligned for sight lines and air circulation. As you stand in the second room and look through the first to the hallway beyond, there’s a trompe d’oeil fresco that was discovered after a new staircase had been installed. The fresco was placed to give the impression of a pastoral view that continued on to the horizon.trompe d'oeilAnd then, get a load of this beauty below. This is no reflection on the Bousquet family, because Joë lived in two other houses on the same street before moving here. But sometimes you have to appreciate when decorators don’t do the “right” thing. Like when they slap something new right on top of the old stuff, instead of first removing the old.wallpaper full angleIn this case, the old stuff was Aubusson wallpaper, signed and dated: 1791. It originally had been a few feet away, at the end of a hallway, but was moved here, away from the window. Whoever had gotten sick of it so many years ago just left it there and covered it up.

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If this were in my house, I would put a really comfortable sofa facing it, and then stare at it all day.
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Border detail. You can make out the seam in the paper. Perfectly matched.

Another tangent: the tapestries that had made Aubusson (and Gobelins and Beauvais) famous fell out of fashion, in part because they weren’t needed for insulation as homes were better heated and in part because the French Revolution (1789-1799) put a big dent in their clientele. So they started making wallpaper, which was coming into fashion. In fact, the first definition of tapisser today in French is to hang wallpaper. I love etymological connections.

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Still chic, IMHO

Sadly for Bousquet, all these beauties had been hidden under plaster and discovered only during the renovation to create the museum. I can just imagine, having been there, done that: a bump against a wall sends a layer of plaster clattering down. In our case, we discovered not antique wallpaper but that the walls had been filled with straw. You never know what you will find.

After my second visit to la Maison des Memoires, I hit the library for some of Bousquet’s books. I wasn’t familiar with Bousquet, nor with his contemporaries, such as Andrew Gide and Paul Éluard. Another happy discovery. Here are a few passages translated:

The truth that we understand is but the image of that which inspires us.

You have presumed too much of the future and of luck. The time which should have brought you happiness is dead en route, and you fall again to the power of the shadows that follow you. But an unhoped-for rescue comes to you with your strengths, which you hadn’t imagined. Would you say that everything is lost because there’s only you to save yourself?

Don’t imitate reality, collaborate with it.

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A fragment of the past.

Meanwhile, a call for help from a reader: what exactly are these scissors used for? They are 6.5 inches or 16 cm long. I was thinking for sewing, though they’re longer than my pretty sewing scissors and the blades are different. What do you say?Scissors 1

Scissors 2

Send your answers in the comments. And merci mille fois!

When French Hunters Gather

P1070714All 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.

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Boars on the left, deer on the right.

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. P1070692“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.

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Here you can better see how a regular dipper was welded onto a long handle.
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The homemade rotisserie motor, electric powered, thanks to a very long extension cord.
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Boar.
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Boar juice.

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.

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Bring your own silverware, plates, glasses and napkins. Rings optional. This was a classy bunch. Opinel pocket knives, EXTREMELY sharp.
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Unsurprisingly, in a region of winegrowers, some prefer to come with their own, although a very good wine was included with the dinner.
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The pitcher is of the house wine. The small glass with a spoon holds salad dressing.

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.

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Some greenery under the gizzards and foie gras.

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.P1070701The boar was served with potatoes that had roasted in the juices of the meat, and sliced onions also cooked in the meat juices. OMG.P1070705The 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.

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Look at the size of that bone! They were all collected for the hunters’ dogs, which waited outside.

The trays were refilled with more sanglier. As if we weren’t all stuffed.

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Deer.

Next, they came around with the chevreuil. I passed, but the Carnivore was in heaven.

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In all that deer meat, just a small bone. Guess whose plate?

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.

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This was shared among about 8 people.

P1070717There 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.P1070695

 

The Hills Are Alive

P1070457Not 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. P1070468The 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.

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Quillan.
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You can make out Limoux in the distance; Quillan is just to the right. Carcassonne is beyond Limoux.

But rather than dwell again on hangry people wondering when they are going to eat, we will enjoy the views.

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There’s still snow higher up.

P1070491I 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. P1070455We 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.P1070469The 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: P1070480Even better, was the view going down:

 

P1070490And along the way:

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Babbling brook: check. Actually, this is the Rebenty river. Crystal clear.
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Cuteness: check. How’s this for a public library?
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Drinkable water: check. It’s rare to see a fountain like this that says the water IS potable.
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Laid-back vibe: check. This is IN THE ROAD. Clearly they don’t see many cars around here.

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.

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Marsa, in the Rebenty valley.

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.

French Ear Worms

21. JUNE 2012 - SEPTEMBRE 2012 - 457The 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.

01.AUGUST OMAHA OCTOBRE 11 - 016
And then everybody gets up to dance and sing along.

Other notables:

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:

Les Sardines

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.

 

Coq au Vin

6 closeup marinateChicken 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.

1 coq
Looking at us, unimpressed.

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.”

2 feet
I know the feet are a delicacy in some parts, but not here. Those feet really do look like the dinosaurs they are.

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.

3 cut upCoq 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)

4 in baking dish
Ready to marinate

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.

5 marinating
Marinating

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!

8 out of marinade
Dry the chicken pieces before browning.
9 veg out of marinade
Strain the vegetables. 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).

10 browningBrown 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.

7 hennessy
He didn’t shoot the flames!

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.

12 apero
Also, about a half an hour before serving, have an aperitif: blanquette de Limoux and hard sausage. It cracks me up that I found this shot in the middle of the series for this recipe. Priorities.

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.

13 done
The potatoes are to soak up all that delicious sauce.

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.

14 plated