French Underground Redux

IMG_1962What do you do when your vacation in the south of France is hit by rain? We locals were happy for the rain a couple of weeks ago–it had been too long and our gardens were wilting from thirst. But for vacationers, so many of the attractions involve outdoor activities–wandering around old villages, hiking through the countryside, exploring châteaux ruins.

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A couple of columns.
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An impressive column, millennia in the making.

With some recent visitors, we went underground. The mountains, like Emmental cheese, are full of holes. These holes were carved by water, not bacteria (in case you wondered how those holes got into the cheese–they’re bubbles formed by gases emitted by bacteria). IMG_1954IMG_1957IMG_1929

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Reflections

The Grotte de Limousis, just north of Carcassonne, is particularly pretty, and easy to walk through, making it appropriate for most ages (but not those in strollers or wheelchairs–there are some narrow spots and some steps). The series of caves are big and well-lit, so you don’t feel claustrophobic.IMG_1915

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A drapery or curtain formation.
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Bear scratches. In the first room. All the bones and bits of pottery were found in the first room–before torches nobody–not even bears–dared go farther.
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The ceiling looks like a Georgia O’Keefe painting, no?
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This also looks like abstract art.

The cave winds a kilometer underground through three “rooms.” The first is the Column Room, because of how many columns there are–columns where stalactites (the ones that hang down) and stalagmites (the ones that rise from the ground) grew together.

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A fine column.
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In another part of the cave, you can see the water lines, which is how the “ballroom” would have formed.

IMG_1941IMG_1940The ballroom got its name because the nearest village, Limousis, actually used it as a party room for the annual village dinner, held in October to close the grape harvest. The acoustics are amazing, and the floor is naturally flat, having formed when the room was half-filled by a lake. Limestone deposits crept across the lake’s surface like ice, then hardened. The water drained away, leaving the bottom hollow, hence the drum effect. The floor is as smooth as the surface of an icy lake–one unperturbed by wind or anything.

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The water in this “lake” rises as high as that stalagmite in the center, and dries completely in November.

There are two “lakes.” In one, the level of the water rises and falls. It never rises above the tallest stalagmite, with the highest level in summer–after all the rains of winter and spring have had time to filter down. By November it’s dry–the effect of our typically rain-free summers.IMG_1934 IMG_1931IMG_1932The other lake has a shower pouring into it. It’s green, which indicates it’s at least two meters (six feet) deep. Limpid water is the same temperature as the cave–14 Celsius, or 57 Fahrenheit–but the falling water is colder–8 Celsius or 46 Fahrenheit–too chilly to take a dip! The water is potable, but not too much–while it doesn’t contain bacteria or any living organisms due to the lack of light, it does contain lots of calcium, so you would get kidney stones.

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A big puddle of water, perfectly clear, the bottom like an eerie moonscape.
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Another puddle. Can you make out where the reflection is?

IMG_1926The final room–spoiler alert–contains a huge crystal of aragonite, four meters tall and 10 meters wide (13 feet tall and 32 feet wide). It grew thanks to perfect conditions that were undisturbed for millennia. It’s unusual, not only for its size but for the variety of shapes, from snowflake-like crystals to round bulbs. IMG_1950IMG_1953I’ve been to the Grotte de Limousis five or six times and it still takes my breath away. I never would have put it on a top 10 list until I actually went. Also a great respite on a hot summer day!IMG_1912

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What sculpture nature makes!

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Château de Rustiques

IMG_0514Driving through the French countryside, castles are as common as cows or crows. Turrets and towers pierce the treeline, no longer needed for spotting marauders arriving from afar. Sometimes you can see the full edifice, always a conglomeration of additions and wings added over centuries, different generations leaving their marks.IMG_0503Back in December, I made a detour out of Carcassonne to Rustiques, a little village I’d driven through before and decided would be worth a second look on such a sparkling winter day. This explains the vegetation, which has changed drastically to lush, lush green of spring.

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The old tower is on the left.

The château was closed, but it’s so big that you can still see a good deal of it. Here’s what I found out. Around the 5th century, barbarian invasions by the Visigoths, Sarrasins and Francs made the locals unite for safety on a high spot from which they could spot invaders. They went one better with a tower, the oldest part of the current château, which also served as a dungeon. The Rustiquois, as locals are called, corralled the seigneur’s house and other houses in a wall with just two entries and plenty of meurtrières, or those tall, skinny openings from which you shoot arrows. The wall didn’t last–the town grew and crime fell, so the wall came down.IMG_0533There’s a document from 1063 attesting to the existence of a castellum, or watch tower.

The leader of the Albigensian crusade, Simon de Montfort, granted the fiefdom of Rustiques to a family from the north, whose descendants still live in the château. That is quite a heritage!IMG_0523

So Many Questions

IMG_2594One of my favorite French authors is Marcel Proust. There is something about la Belle Époque (1871-1914) that’s so romantic, even though clearly life for even a well-to-do woman back then would have been horribly restricted. No yearning for that! Just look at Collette’s heroines and Coco Chanel’s chafing against social strictures.P1060666But there’s the gorgeous wedding-cake architecture, the fantastic Art Nouveau designs (like the ads of Mucha and the Paris Métro entrances of Guimard), the heyday of writers in Paris. The impressionists–Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Manet, Degas…. And the music–Erik Satie, Gabriel Fauré (this one makes me cry; I sang it once at a singalong in NYC. Nerdy thrills), Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel.IMG_0349 2Proust captures the Belle Époque beautifully in his seven-volume chef d’oeuvre, “À la recherche du temps perdu”–“In Search of Lost Time” (previously known as “Remembrances of Things Past”). Even if you’ve never read Proust, you probably know about dipping a madeleine into a cup of tea, which brings back memories, and all these recollections make up the novel. I admit to a weakness for parenthetical phrases, but Proust turns every sentence into a matryoshka doll of phrases within phrases, filling nearly an entire page. I would skim back to see: What was the subject again? And the verb? It was the very best bedtime reading, whisking me away to another time and space, and the sentences so intensely complex that my brain would explode and I would sleep. It took me three years to read the whole thing, a bit over 2,000 pages. In English. I cannot even imagine tracking those sentences in the original French.IMG_1605The Proust Questionnaire wasn’t written by the man himself, but he was such a big fan of this parlor game/personality test, which he first did as a teen, that his name became associated with it. Vanity Fair magazine posed the questionnaire to a series of celebrities. The wonderful newsletter BrainPickings featured David Bowie’s answers to VF. There’s a short version of the questionnaire by Bernard Pivot, the host of a TV show, “Bouillon de Culture,” an intellectual/literary prime-time talk show that ran for 20 years. So French.IMG_1604Many years ago, some friends and I held a salon. We all worked together, but our spouses didn’t. To keep our twice-a-month dinner parties from turning into work gripe sessions that would bore half (if not all) the table silly, we would pick a topic and a leader. We’d all read up on the (usually controversial) topic, and the leader would moderate the discussion and yank us back if it veered into boring tangents about work. It wasn’t as pretentious as it might sound. Just fun for a bunch of nerds.P1090124The Proust Questionnaire, even small bits of it, could serve as a similar device, a way to move past chatter and into deeper exploration of what matters. Research isn’t necessary, but introspection is. Here it is. Feel free, in the comments, to answer some of the questions.

1. What is your idea of perfect happiness?

2. What is your greatest fear?

3. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

4. What is the trait you most deplore in others?

5. Which living person do you most admire?

6. What is your greatest extravagance?

7. What is your current state of mind?

8. What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

9. On what occasion do you lie?

10. What do you most dislike about your appearance?

11. Which living person do you most despise?

12. What is the quality you most like in a man?

13. What is the quality you most like in a woman?

14. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

15. What or who is the greatest love of your life?

16. When and where were you happiest?

17. Which talent would you most like to have?

18. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

19. What do you consider your greatest achievement?

20. If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?

21. Where would you most like to live?

22. What is your most treasured possession?

23. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

24. What is your favorite occupation?

25. What is your most marked characteristic?

26. What do you most value in your friends?

27. Who are your favorite writers?

28. Who is your hero of fiction?

29. Which historical figure do you most identify with?

30. Who are your heroes in real life?

31. What are your favorite names?

32. What is it that you most dislike?

33. What is your greatest regret?

34. How would you like to die?

35. What is your motto?P1060662 2And if you want to wallow in Belle Époque beauty just before it’s crushed by war, check out the 1999 movie, “Le Temps Retrouvé” (Time Regained), in which Marcello Mazzarella plays the narrator/Proust; Catherine Deneuve plays the main character, Odette; Emmanuelle Béart plays Odette’s daughter, Gilberte (and OMG they look SO MUCH like mother and daughter! The eyes! The eyebrows!); Deneuve’s real daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, plays the narrator’s crush, Albertine; and John Malkovich plays the eccentric Baron de Charlus, aka “Mémé” (Granny!!!!).IMG_2596

Notre Dame

DSC_0643Last night, a little before 7 p.m., my kid rushed in and turned on the TV. “Notre-Dame is on fire!”

Sadly, the kid doesn’t really remember having visited Notre-Dame. Paris is a faraway universe from here in la France profonde. When will it be possible to again enter that huge, dark space that was designed to invoke awe and make one keenly aware of one’s place in the the world, which is that we are very, very small and insignificant. Specks of dust.

Many, many years ago, I was wandering around Paris on Christmas Eve. I crossed Île de la Cité, the original Lutèce where Paris was founded, and thought, hey, why not see whether there’s midnight Mass at Notre-Dame?

Yes, there was. It is very interesting to attend a religious service in another language. I spoke French but not nearly as well as now. As an ex-Catholic, I have had the Mass drilled into my brain. And it’s exactly the same in French, the same rhythms, the same pauses, the same rises and falls and intonations. DSC_0667It also was a special way to appreciate Notre-Dame, serving its original purpose and not for tourism. There was no line to get in. It was before 9/11, so there was no security check. Nobody was taking photos. They were singing Christmas carols.

When I went to Africa for the Peace Corps, I took with me three posters of Paris that had hung in my Midwestern apartment. One was of the back side of Notre-Dame, with its curved wall that houses ambulatory chapels, the flying buttresses, the lacy stonework, the delicate spire that is no more. I hung the posters on the corrugated iron sheets that made up my house.

The Square Jean-XXIII, from where my poster photo was taken against a pink sky, is a surprisingly quiet haven. Most tourists don’t think to walk all the way around the place, I guess. DSC_0659Last night, the TV showed the familiar shot of the back of Notre-Dame, but the roof was red, the spire broken off.

The roof beams were made from single oak trees–1,300 of them. Hewn by hand. Hauled in by carriages. Raised by human force. Built to last. They survived 850 years. The first stone was laid in 1163 by Pope Alexandre III. Work continued into the 14th century.

The design was made to awe, but facts like those also are awe-inspiring. They put our lives into perspective. What will we contribute that will survive and be treasured 850 years from now?

To read about the history of Notre-Dame, check out the cathedral’s own website. And here is a video of the jaw-dropping light show. If you have time, this is a special Mass. Oh, the acoustics! And if, like somebody I know, you like Gregorian chant, here is an amateur snippet from inside Notre Dame with some shots of the stained glass windows.DSC_0678

Under Marble Cliffs

falaiseWhen my kid was little, I would always accompany class field trips. It was such a great way to learn about the region, often in ways I never would have sought out myself (spelunking). One such trip was with a bunch of second- and third-graders to go rock climbing, which led to my discovery of a hidden haven, Notre Dame du Cros (literally, Our Lady of the Hole, or, more poetically, Valley).

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Gulp.

falaise 3I have mentioned that the French have other ideas about safety, as in, if you get hurt, it’s your own fault. So somehow rock climbing is a good idea for kids whose permanent front teeth have only just grown in. falaise 2Even crazier, to me, was the fact that one of the guides had been our guide exploring caves. A man of many outdoor sports. How does one get a job leading children through caves and up cliffs? And how does he not go crazy? He had unlimited patience. I knew and loved these kids but any time I spent an entire day with all of them I had to take a nap as soon as I got home. Their overflowing energy sapped mine.

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Do you see the climbing lines?

Despite the buzzing swarm of children, the area of Notre Dame du Cros is utterly peaceful. It’s over the hill from the village of Caunes-Minervois, and so tucked into the hills that you don’t hear anything but birds and the rustle of leaves. And occasionally an explosion from the marble quarry–maybe once in a day.

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Marble just lying around.
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A spring.

Legend has it that, around the 6th century, a shepherdess gave water from the spring there to her sick child (although another says it was the shepherdess herself who was ill), who was immediately cured. It became a pilgrimage destination. That led to chapels being built, with the current one dating to the 12th century, and renovated in the 15th and 16th centuries. Mass is said every morning–the chapel is considered part of the Caunes abbey. Stations of the cross are spread around the hillside.

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The old entrance; now the entrance is on the side to the right.
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Do you see three little chapels for the stations of the cross?
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Le Souc

There’s a flat plain next to a stream, named Le Souc, with picnic tables shaded by century-old platane trees. It’s a very popular spot on summer weekends, but manages to stay calm and peaceful–it’s what people come for.

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The former rectory.

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Spontaneous Connections

44.Maison BorDo you talk to strangers? Offer unsolicited advice or compliments? End up in a conversation with someone whose name you don’t even know?

Even though I consider myself shy, I like to help. When I see tourists scrutinizing a map or stoically walking, their luggage in tow, away from town, I stop and offer directions. This drives my family crazy. Overall, I love people, and I love crowds, but I was brought up not to impose myself, not to speak unless spoken to. So generally I observe and enjoy.

The other day at the market, I finished shopping before my carpool duties kicked in, so I stopped at a café. It was raining and my usual haunt, Le Carnot, was packed inside. Usually I sit outside, the better to catch the stream of friends passing by, who also tend to congregate at Le Carnot. The servers are efficient, friendly and easy on the eyes, so what’s not to like? However, I didn’t want to navigate my loaded shopping caddy through the packed café to search for an empty table in the back.

Maison Bor, across the square, looked less busy. A big awning sheltered the outdoor tables, but even one smoker is too many for me, so I went in. The server saw me coming and opened the door. I felt welcomed.

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Not nougats. But you’ll soon see the connection.

I parked my caddy next to another by a table full of nougats, the house specialty, and got a table near the back. More people came in. A couple to my left talked to a guy reading the newspaper to my right. An elaborately coiffed and made-up older woman came in and sat at the table right next to me. “Oh, my! It’s crowded,” she crooned as she unpeeled layers of coats, scarves and such. She set a plastic container on the table and opened it.

The couple got up to say hello, with double kisses all around, to another couple at a table farther away. The newspaper guy joined their conversation without getting up from his table. A woman came in, found all the tables occupied, and asked to join the table (for four) of the newspaper guy. I just sat and listened to it all. Somebody had gotten out of the hospital. Grandchildren were visiting this afternoon. The headlines in the paper. The awful weather.

The server came to take the order of the woman next to me. The first couple were back at their table and asked for the bill. The server said “€2.40,” and the woman of the couple said, “What? Not free?” To which the server replied, “Oh! It was free yesterday! But I didn’t see you yesterday!” Their joking was light, friendly banter. The server was a big, burly guy, in his late 30s maybe. I grew up thinking that being a waiter was something you did when you’re young or in between other things, but in France it’s as legitimate a career as anything else, and certainly servers are extremely professional. I like that. Work of any kind deserves respect–self-respect and respect from others.P1080699The woman next to me started talking to me about the weather. I said it was cold, but that where I was from it was worse. My brother had sent me a video of instantly freezing boiling water. The woman looked me over and said, “Ah, I thought I detected an accent! I LOVE American accents!” She went on to lament the state of U.S. politics and to mourn  Obama’s departure. This happens every single time somebody finds out I’m American.

The couple began to bundle up to head out. The guy with the newspaper teased them about overdoing it. The man of the couple said they were heading out into Siberia. (It was about 4 Celsius, or not quite 40 Fahrenheit, miserably cold for these parts, where it rarely freezes.) The newspaper guy replied that he had just read about the polar vortex (he called it la vague de froid–cold wave–I haven’t heard “polar vortex” used yet), with temperatures of minus 38 (turns out Celsius and Fahrenheit are the same at that point). He described the instantly frozen boiling water trick.

The woman next to me piped up, saying I was a native of true winters and that my brother had frozen boiling water. This led to an animated five-table-plus-server discussion of weather, culture, politics and food (I challenge you to talk to any French person without one of you bringing up food. Impossible).

The couple finally extricated themselves. I nursed my coffee a while longer, chatting with the woman next to me. She asked the server for a piece of lettuce, for her snails. That was what was in the plastic container! She tilted it so I could admire the snails. One had already escaped and was cruising across the table.

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With butter, garlic and parsley. They were in a huge skillet, about 3 feet in diameter. I passed.

I asked whether she was going to eat them. She was aghast. Bien sûr que non! They were mignon (cute) and she was going to give them a new lease on life in her small garden. I told her I had an surplus of snails in mine, no need to add. (I didn’t tell her that I put on rubber gloves after it rains and collect them for release into the prairie where they have plenty to eat and can leave my parsley alone. Yet no matter how often I do it, they are everywhere.)

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Not my yard! Where I exile snails.

She picked up the escapee and with perfect red fingernails held it about an inch from her nose. It stretched its head and feelers around, a bit like a baby that’s held up in front of its parent. She brought it toward her lips (which matched her nails) and gave it a kiss. “Si mignon!” (so cute!) she assured me.

We talked a while more about such banalities that I don’t even remember them, but I enjoyed the conversation. It was time to fetch the carpoolees, so I wished her and everybody else in the café a good day and headed into the rain. Carcassonne is a small town and I don’t doubt I’ll see Snail Lady again.

Feel free to share your tales of spontaneous connections.

French Frats

img_0728Liberté. Egalité. Fraternité. The motto of France. And another kind of fraternity–une confrérie–is more like a brotherhood, and in typical French logic, is a feminine noun. They started out being quasi-religious and charitable, but now are mostly based on promoting certain traditions, especially those having to do with gastronomy.

The confréries are a way for French foodies to indulge their gastronomic obsession along with their love of pomp and ceremony, tradition and regulation, seriousness and silliness. You name something to eat or drink and there’s a club devoted to it. They dress up in costumes and attend each other’s festivals. 

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See the little bunch of grapes on the hat?

The ones that really slay me are when they wear a cup around their necks. Be prepared!

There’s the Confrérie Gastronomique des Compagnons du Boudin Noir (the Gastronomic Brotherhood of the Friends of the Black Blood Sausage) and the Confrérie Gastronomique des Compagnons du Haricot de Soissons (the Gastronomic Brotherhood of the Friends of the Soissons Beans). There’s the Confrérie Gastronomique de l’Ordre de l’Echalote de Busnes (the Gastronomic Brotherhood of the Order of the Busnes Shallot) and the Chevaliers de la Poularde (Knights of the Hen). The Carnivore was in fact a member of la Confrérie du Taste-Cerise. Two groups are dedicated to cassoulet: the Academie Universelle du Cassoulet and the Grande Confrérie du Cassoulet. I wrote about the Academie here. And la Confrérie Los Trufaïres de Vilanova de Menerbès (that’s Occitan–the ancient language of this region–for the truffle brotherhood of Villeneuve Minvervois) here.

 

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Banners: la Grande Confrérie du Cassoulet de Castelnaudary, left, and la Mesnie des Chevaliers du Fitou (the house of the Knights of Fitou)

Belonging to a gastronomic brotherhood involves dressing up in medieval costumes and getting together to eat your chosen dish regularly, as well as helping to promote it and preserve its purity and traditions in France and around the world. It’s the Chamber of Commerce, with a big dose of bons vivants. You can see a parade of various groups at the Toques et Clochers festival I wrote about here; toques are the hats worn by chefs, while clochers are church bells. The festival raises money via food and drink to restore a church belfry each year.

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Her hair!

Anyway, French frats came to mind on Saturday, when, while buying locally grown cauliflower at the market, I was distracted by the dulcet tones of horns. How appropriate! Of course, I had to investigate. I didn’t figure the gilets jaunes had brought in a band.

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I love the range of ages of the musicians.
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Also, the guy in the crowd with a chic scarf that matches the ribbon for his medal.

By then, a men’s choir, le Choeur des Hommes des Corbières–a neighboring wine territory–had started singing. I can’t upload videos here, but you can see one on my Instagram. An elderly gentleman, wearing a long apron and a hat, poured little cups of wine for the crowd from a wooden cask hanging around his neck. It was 10 a.m.

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The cask! I love his hat. Also the beret in the top photo, as common as baseball caps here. Without irony.
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A giant wine bottle on a litter. A Melchior? It was about three feet tall.
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The maker of la Tour Boisée wine. I wrote about it here. This is one of the few wines from this small region, Minervois, that’s sold abroad. If you find it, buy it! (Personal recommendation–I get nothing from them!)

It was the feast of Saint Vincent, patron saint of winegrowers. So the national gastronomic club of Prosper Montagné (hometown boy, born in Carcassonne, inventor of the food truck, writer of the original Larousse Gastronomique, which is the bible of French cuisine) organizes a march past Montagné’s childhood home to the Church of St. Vincent (of COURSE a church in the center of Carcassonne is dedicated to St. Vincent!) for a blessing of the wine. Then they paraded through the central Place Carnot and on around the corner to a former church (they were about one per block back in the Middle Ages and now only a couple of bigger ones are still used) that now is a temple to bullfighting, headquarters of the Cercle Taurin. You can see the local TV coverage here.img_0754It was all wrapped up with a gastronomic dinner. Of course.

 

 

Grocery Shopping in France

p1090130One of the biggest differences between life in the U.S. and life in Europe is buying groceries. Don’t get me wrong–there are plenty of people who head to the hypermarché once a week and load up their shopping carts with everything from apples to zucchini, with socks and motor oil and kitchen appliances as well.

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Get your shopping cart in the parking lot. You’ll need a jeton (token) or a €1 coin, which helps guarantee you’ll put the cart back.

In fact, the hypermarket was not invented by Walmart  (first Supercenter in 1988) or Target (SuperTarget introduced in 1995). It was born in France, when Carrefour opened a combined supermarket-department store combo near Paris in 1963. Like many firsts in history, this one is disputed–GB, a Belgian chain, had opened three hypermarkets in 1961, calling them SuperBazar, which is kind of funny, because un bazar not only is a market but it’s slang for a mess or disorder (GB stood for Grand Bazar). However, Carrefour is the one with the last laugh, because it bought GB in 2000.

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You know you’re in the south of France when the covered walkway in the hypermarket parking lot has trellises of grape vines.

We also have food-only supermarkets that don’t take a week to walk across, and épiceries, or small grocery stores. And there are a whole range of specialized stores, such as the Thiriet and Picard chains for frozen foods.

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The little pig and lamb!

Many French still make separate trips to the fromagerie for cheese, the boucherie for meat, the poissonnerie for fish, the boulangerie for bread, the primeur for fresh produce.

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Get your fruits and vegetables here if you missed the market.
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Here in the south of France, it’s a chocolatine, or choco, not a pain au chocolat. Worth a separate trip.

Most towns and even larger villages have markets, along a street or in a square, usually two or three times a week. In tiny villages without an épicerie, itinerant vendors similar to food trucks arrive, one selling produce, another selling fish or cheese….it’s the moment for the little old ladies to get out and gossip. The mairie, or town hall, will make an announcement over loudspeakers set up through the village–the modern town crier–so nobody misses the vendors.

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At a roundabout, from left, vegetables, eggs, oysters, apples, and, by the red tent, oranges.

Farmers also set up stands at roundabouts, and not just in summer. Maybe it’s because the winters are mild–we are in the midst of a cold spell with highs in the low 40s and lows flirting with freezing. New England it isn’t. On offer: fresh eggs, fruits, vegetables, mussels and oysters, mushrooms, oranges from Spain sold by a poor Spanish fellow who lives in the truck until the load is sold and he can drive back….

The common thread is freshness. Everything is fresh, fresh, fresh.

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Endives at the market, still in their dirt.
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Fresh basil, sold in a pot. Of course.
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Escargots, alive, already jeûné–kept without food (up to 21 days) in order to clean out their intestines. Aren’t you glad you learned that?
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Fresh. Some work involved.
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At a village épicerie: green beans from the garden (picked by hand) and garden tomatoes. Obviously the photo was taken in summer.

Alas, one must go to the hypermarché from time to time for such necessities as laundry soap and toilet paper. Some surprises: The milk is UHT (ultra-high temperature, a treatment that allows it to be stored at room temperature until opened), so it isn’t in the refrigerated aisle and the biggest size is a liter, though you can buy packs of liters. Eggs aren’t washed so they aren’t refrigerated. There’s an entire aisle of emmental (like Swiss cheese, the French go-to cheese that’s on everything from crêpes to pizzas to croque-monsieurs). There are about three kinds of boxed cake mixes and no ready-made frosting. There are about a million kinds of yogurt. And butter. And cream. The industrial cookie aisle is called biscuits industriels–industrial cookies. It makes you think twice about taking anything off those shelves. Never fear–there’s usually a table with fresh-baked goods near the checkout.

Bring your own bags. And a €1 coin or token to unlock a shopping cart. It’s DIY–nobody will bag your stuff much less carry it to your car, and usually you have to weigh your produce yourself on a scale in the aisle that spits out a sticky ticket. Woe unto you if you have stood in line (because there are 36 checkouts but only three open) and haven’t weighed your carrots. You will spend more time standing in line to pay than you spent filling your cart because the people in front of you will inevitably huff and mutter about how slow the people in front of them are, and then they will play with their phones, and then, like the people before them, they will take their sweet time to carefully arrange their purchases in the carts after they’ve been passed through the scanner, and then, while the cashier is tapping her pen and everybody still in line tapping their feet in impatience, they will rummage through their purse to find their checkbook, because OMG what a surprise, they have to pay. Nobody ever fills out the check while standing in line. Nobody. And then they will empty their purse onto the conveyor belt in order to find their driver’s license for ID for the check. More people are paying with cards, but the French still love writing checks. More than once I have been in a checkout line that stretched all the way to the back of the store. Will the manager open more checkout lanes? Never. Unthinkable.

This is why the Carnivore goes to the hypermarket and I go to the outdoor market in the central square on Saturdays. Which would you choose?

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This?
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Or this?

 

 

 

Truffles Are Always a Good Idea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Heart of Pennautier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nice staircase up to the vineyards.

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

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