Before/After: Salon

trumeau closeupThis room faces a pretty courtyard full of flowers. It has evolved as we worked on it, and I’m so glad we didn’t rush. Plus, I procrastinated on sewing the curtains and only just finished them.We have two vacation rental apartments, both extremely elegant and spacious, yet they couldn’t be more different. The front apartment faces south, with balconies over the street. It has some of the most elaborate boiseries, or carved high-relief decorations, of Carcassonne.

courtyard
The view from the back apartment.

The back apartment faces north, with the hidden courtyard, and somehow feels more intimate, despite having large rooms and ceilings just as soaring as the front.

 

The apartments started as one huge, unpractical labyrinth (who wants to wind through a couple of other people’s bedrooms to get to the bathroom?). We sealed the connecting doors with sound insulation and drywall to create two separate apartments, which had separate entrances anyway.

salon toward piano before
Before. The curtains hide glass French doors that lead to a separate entrance. Note the linoleum floor in that entry.

That is why this room used to be a bedroom.

The previous owner’s wallpaper aside, it has always felt like a blue room to me. The front apartment feels red, but this room feels blue. Does this happen to you, where a room seems to tell you what IT wants? And it’s up to you to find the right pieces to carry out the room’s vision of itself?

tomettes before
Tomettes before, with paint.

The tomettes were stripped to their original state. Painting tomettes was fashionable, the restorer explained, because often houses had many different kinds, from different makers in different periods, with different colors,  even in the same room.

tomettes during
Removing the paint.
salon painted not furnished
Old paint off the floors; new paint on the walls. Didn’t our painter, Jacques, do a great job on the chimney?

Because it faces north, we chose a bright white for the walls, and gray for the trim–the reverse of the other apartment. I like that the boiserie doves are white while the chimney is a contrasting dove gray (it’s true!).

 

birdsWe bought most of the furniture with the apartment, but the family kept some things, including the mirror that was here. But look at that trumeau mirror the Carnivore found. We were going to touch it up, but friend Ali advised leaving it alone, and I’m glad we listened to her. It’s perfectly imperfect. A place that’s 400 years old shouldn’t be too glossy, even if it’s grand.

mantle before
Before.
mirror and fireplace
After. I just scored some cool decorations for the mantle. Later!

The furniture went through several iterations. We had the daybed in here with the greenish gold armchairs. They were true to the cool blue feel and went very well with the silk carpets the Carnivore scored (he is a genius at shopping, especially for antiques), but I wasn’t happy with two carpets side by side, as gorgeous as they were, and identical, to boot. They were still a bit too small. We separated them for use elsewhere and moved that furniture to the front living room. This is what happens when you furnish with antiques: you discover something, then find something else. It takes time, not like walking into a store and getting everything at once. I am very happy about giving these beautiful, high-quality pieces a new life.

During
First try. The mirror was too small and is now in the front apartment’s entry. 

 

toward kitchen with carpet
After. New (but old) carpet that’s much bigger. The door leads to the big kitchen, my favorite room of all.

We found a bigger carpet, mostly cream tones, with a little blue-green and touches of salmon. And the salmon chairs, which had been in the front, worked here, despite not being blue. They actually are the exact same color as the tomettes. This wasn’t on purpose–they were upholstered before the tomettes were restored, when the floor was a dark red. Happy luck.

 

 

toward piano after
After. Same view as the shot above with the bed.

We managed to find a Louis XVI-style sofabed–not easy! I’m not a fan of sofabeds, but we wanted to give the option for more people; the front apartment is for two people max. The sofa (which has a matching armchair) has a dark teal-blue stripe. The curtains are a paler shade of the same color. They turned out great–out of all the curtains I made (for five very tall rooms), they were the least anguished.

 

toward kitchen door
The armoire with the faces in silhouette was refitted to hang clothes.

The coffee table was hand-carved in Lamu, Kenya, by an artisan I first met in 1985. He was still in the same place when I was back in 2001. I bought a chair from him, and also wanted a coffee table. He didn’t have one but, not wanting to miss a sale, got one from his house to sell to me. Trust me, I gave him a good price. In our house, that table felt too small, but here, with the imposing sofa, it feels just right, and it’s easy to move if the sofa needs to turn into a bed.

 

Behind the sofa, the piano moved in from the other apartment’s entry. I hope to get it tuned, if that’s even still possible. A painting, strong on blues, by my mother will go above the piano as soon as it’s framed. We are looking for other little gems to decorate as well. I think it will never be “finished,” but will always be evolving based on our discoveries.

toward tv
After. The tapestry is of Carcassonne, a handmade reproduction of an historic one.

If you look closely, you’ll see how we repurposed furniture. The armoire originally was in the kitchen; husband cleverly installed rods for hanging clothes; it also holds pillows and extra blankets for the sofabed.

The lyre-back chair was originally in this room (you can just make it out in the shot with the bed), and now accompanies a little desk.deskThe pièce de la résistance, though, is the chandelier. Not only is it dripping with crystals (called pampilles), it is gigantic. The room is so large and the ceiling so high that you don’t realize just how huge it is.chandelierWe bought it via the French version of craigslist, driving at night into the foothills of the Pyrénées to a house on the edge of a little village without cellphone reception. Yes, it totally felt like a horror movie. But the sellers were lovely and their house was beautiful. It was more like an oversize cottage, rustic, with low, beamed ceilings, and its new owners said their old chandelier didn’t work at all–it was too big and anybody kind of tall would bump their head on it. We barely squeezed it into the car. The Carnivore had spotted the ad only about an hour after it was posted, and we were there about two hours later to buy it, otherwise it surely would have been snapped up by an antiquaire and resold for many times more.

entry before with door
Before.

This entry is fairly small: just a coatrack in there. Previously it had been used as a closet. In the first before photo, you can see the linoleum that had covered the tomettes. There’s another small bedroom off the entry; I’ll show it later.

 

entry
After. You can see the reflection of the salon’s chandelier in the top pane of the French door. There’s a small montgolfier chandelier in the entry, but I had to lie down to get a shot and it really didn’t capture it well. You need to see it in person.

The apartment is for rent via AirBnB or VRBO (which is the same as Homeaway and Abritel). Or contact us at booking.carcassonne@gmail.com.

(The front apartment can be found here on AirBnB or here on VRBO.)

window
Admiring those curtains one more time. They even were straight. Not bragging–just RELIEVED. All the curtains are DONE.

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

Cheers for a Good Cause

packed streetSparkling 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.

pitcher blanquette
Clever pitchers of bubbly

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.

pouring a glassMore about blanquette de Limoux and Saint-Hilaire another time. Today, let’s go to the party.

Cepie clocher close
The fetching clocher of Cépie, also in the top photo.
church interior
Inside the church. Less is more, except for chandeliers. So French. What worries me are the metal supports going across the church. It dates to the early 1500s.

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.

crossbody bags
Cross-body bags! Remember! I see five here.

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.

creative glass holder
A brilliant example of French innovation: A very chic cross-body bag becomes a double glass holder. And I like her shirt, too–great details.
glass on string 2
But had madame above bought the glass holder, she would have been even better equipped, like monsieur (who was from NEW YORK!!!!).
pitchers in pockets
More innovation: stick your pitcher …. well, anyway. Her tattoo (or other?) says, “First Bubbles,” kind of like first class.
glass on a cord
Pitcher, glass hanging, glass going to the lips. Not judging!
pitcher in pocket
Misspent youth.

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.

prices tasting
Jeton = token. TTC = tout taxe compris (taxes included).  Cordon de 6 jetons = a string with 6 tokens. Dégustation = a tasting (a glass; they were generous); bouteille = bottle.
prices merchandise
Cordon = cord; porte verre = glass holder; canotier = wide-brimmed straw hat (like the Renoir painting); tablier = apron. You can figure out the rest, right?
jetons
Tokens on lanyards. If you don’t drink them, you have a souvenir. Win-win.

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.

crowd
C.R.O.W.D.E.D. But not disagreeable. Surprisingly (well, not really surprisingly, but very) civilized.
Pyrennees view
The Pyrénées: close enough for skiing at will, far enough that we have much better weather!

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.

Malras
The church of Malras (pop. 349).
St Polycarpe
The church of Saint Polycarpe, named after the bishop of Smyrna (aka Izmir, Turkey), who was burned at the stake, but didn’t die, so they had to stab him to death. Pop. 167. I was thinking polycarpe? lots of carp? Why one should google everything.
Magrie
Magrie, pop. 514. They are wearing canotiers!
Loupia
Loupia, pop. 219.
Limoux
Limoux, a comparative metropolis with a population of 9,781. It is a very pretty town, with an awesome brocante the first Sunday of the month. And home to the Sieurs d’Arques.
La Digne d'Amont
La Digne d’Amont, pop. 288. The poor guy in front was losing his Star Wars foil neck scarf, but clearly cares not. The hanging pendants are little cups, typical of the various gastronomic/oenological brotherhoods of various foods and drinks.

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!

crowd before parade
Before the parade.
young drummers
Young drummers…
drummers from behind w lightbulbs
Seen from the back. I wasn’t able to get a clear answer on the light-bulb theme, but light bulbs were all over.
odawa drummers
Adult drummers of the Odawa troupe, very serious, well-decorated, though the drums seemed to be a little phallic.
Odawa big pants
Many of them followed the leader and wore outrageously wide-legged pants, gathered at the ankle. Just sayin’, if you see it later, you can say you saw it here first.

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.

Tocques in tree
Toques in a tree!
courtyard decor
Quite a few courtyards were done up like this, with dummies drinking and random giant insects flying above. Note the ubiquitous wine barrel…even the flowers are in cases of wine.
bouchon furniture
A little relaxation spot in what would otherwise be a bus stop. Everything covered with corks.
bouchons
That took patience.
grape decor
Many clusters of grapes, though the main grape varieties are all white: mauzac, chenin blanc and chardonnay.
maypole
A maypole. Everything is early this year!
grape costume
A group of locals dressed for the occasion. Note the beret. Lots of berets were worn, completely without irony.
grape costume drinks wine
Check out Dionysus on the left. Quite sure he was a local and not driving home.
118 218
These two guys are a matryoshka-doll kind of French in-joke. They are a parody of a parody of Starsky and Hutch, who appear in TV commercials for one of the telephone information lines (like 411 in the U.S.). If you want to blow your mind, google 118 218 and watch the videos. Every French resident can sing the 118 218 jingle. I will be hearing it all night in my head for having written this.

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!),  ils prennent 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.

packed vertical street
Granted, the street on the right isn’t for cars but still, what do these people do in the winter?

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.

band by cemetery
Musical entertainment, with the cemetery as a backdrop.
old couple
An event for all ages. I know I’m in a safe space when there are old people (OK, considerably older than me) out and about.

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.

magret sandwich
Sandwich of magret de canard (duck breast).
hams
Hams roasting, and dripping onto onions.
hams menu
Sandwich with ham cooked on a spit with its “little” onions for about $5; a container of homemade fries for €3… CB acceptée = carte bancaire = credit/debit cards accepted.
seafood
Seafood stand: pulpe (little octopus); oysters; fries; fries + mussels; mussels.
frites graisse de canard
Magret = duck breast. Frites graisse de canard = fries cooked in duck fat.
foie gras poele aux pommes
Fois gras fried with potatoes; cold cuts; cheese. I had a cheese plate and it was lovely, with six kinds of cheese.
bio burger
Organic veal burgers. We had some; they were OK. Honestly, veal isn’t fatty enough to grill, though they were VERY rare.
sausage
Sausage and sauerkraut (saucisse et choux-croute).

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.

two glasses
Not all French are reasonable, though I have to give him credit for still being vertical. After he gets through those tokens, not so sure….plus TWO glasses?!?!?!

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.

Cepie clocher 3
One more shot of Cépie.

 

 

 

 

Red Meat

2 slabs of meatFew 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.

Cutting the meat
Ah, but my dear butcher (who chews out people who annoy him! Kind of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi, but for meat) will trim off absolutely every bit of white, using frighteningly sharp knives.

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.

inside fridge
Our dinner was hanging out in here.

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.

fridge closed
Exterior view of the fridge. I ADORE the fact that it hasn’t changed in generations. And immaculately clean.

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.

Grinding
Ground before my eyes. No “pink slime” here.

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!

All ready
The main ingredient.

Steak Tartare

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)

–Worcestershire sauce

additions
Simplicity. The green stuff is a fresh onion (like a scallion) from the market.

A tablespoon of:

–minced onion OR

–minced shallots OR

–chopped fresh chives

–chopped fresh parsley

–capers

–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.

Voilà!

done
The Carnivore insisted that the fork marks made it prettier.

Another time we will  get the Carnivore to divulge the secrets of how to make perfect Belgian French fries. Warning: It’s not vegan!

 

 

 

 

 

Time to Wine

looking down hillThe vines are almost all pruned now. The pieds de vigne, or woody parts, stand in perfect rows like so many well-behaved students at assembly. Or sentries, silent, brooding. With a little lower-back pain.

bent and held up with crutchThe vines are old, sometimes 30, even 70 years old. Wine takes time.

The one above reminds me of an old vigneron, or winegrower, who was similarly bent over. He drove a rickety old tractor that putt-putted down the street to his vines. It was a Lamborghini, something that never failed to make me chuckle.

My kid and I always smiled and waved to him as we headed to school and he passed on his way to work. We probably also said bonjour, which I doubt he ever heard over the racket of the Lamborghini’s finely tuned engine. He always brightened and waved back. He seemed amused by children, a good thing for somebody who lives next door to a preschool.

I was amazed that he kept working. He must have been around 90. Years later, somebody told me that he was a mean guy that nobody liked. I felt terrible for him. How did he get such a reputation? Was it deserved? Or was it a label slapped on by somebody for one falling out and then became part of village lore? He seemed sweet to me. And his tiny tractor, with some yellow paint still clinging to its sides, was cause for great excitement for a preschooler.

rows toward vlrzlAfter a good frost but before the first buds on the vines, the vignerons are out pruning (tailler) the vines. It’s usually a solitary job. A beat-up car or camionette parked in an odd place (OMG, what is that car doing there? was there an accident?) is the first clue that somewhere in the expanse of row upon row, a bent figure will be clipping away.

In the years since our kid graduated from the village school to upper grades in town, I no longer get out morning, noon and evening, and I miss out on local news. There are three main sources of information: the knot of parents waiting outside the school doors; the local commerce–bakery and grocery store, mostly; and a loudspeaker system by which the mairie broadcasts announcements. These are preceded by very badly recorded clips of music, usually some pop song that was popular 15-20 years ago and just as often in English as in French, then the announcement, read by one of the mayor’s secretaries with a lavishly thick local accent. More music, the announcement one more time in case you missed it, then more music and out.

However, sometimes the snippet of music is the “Kyrie” from Mozart’s Requiem mass. And then you listen for who died. I knew most of the old people by sight, not name, smiling and waving on four-times-daily school commutes (9 a.m., noon, 2 p.m., 5 p.m.). When our kid declared independence, meaning going to school alone, I had to agree yet I was so worried that I would creep behind, working to keep up while staying far enough back not to be seen. There are some benches near a fountain, under the platane trees, where several old men gather to watch the world go by. My kid would greet them, a high point–well, four points–in their day, often the only person to go by.  And these papis would smile and assure me, as I peeked around the last corner from which I could see all the way to the school down an ancient street too small for cars,  that everything was fine and I could go home. Our little secret.

I missed the announcement of the old vigneron’s passing. I realized I hadn’t seen his tractor in a while, nor did I see him tending his vineyards. Finally I asked someone and learned he had died a few months earlier. I think of him every time I pass one patch, where I often saw him, bent like the vines he was pruning. Sometimes I wave anyway.

vine in the skyI wonder whether the vignerons talk to their vines, which seem so much like individuals, with personalities. I would ask, but I suspect they would look at me like “this American really IS crazy.”

tangle near bgnlPlenty of people talk to their plants. My grandma had a way with African violets. One day, she confided that her secret was that she talked to them. She pulled me into her sun porch, where African violets lined the window sills, to demonstrate: “If you don’t bloom, you’re going out!” she barked at the plants. Bloom they did. Tough love.

The trimmed branches are called sarments, good to add to a barbecue fire for flavor. The word “sarment” often figures in restaurant names.

gnarlyIn 2008, the European Union launched a program to reduce a glut of wine and keep prices from crashing by reducing EU vineyard area by 94,000 hectares a year. Kind of like OPEC for wine. People love to complain about the EU, but united we stand, divided we fall. Without an overall plan, everybody would have said, let the other guy tear up his vineyards. And they all would have suffered as prices fell further. Overall, vineyards in the EU shrank 24% between 2008 and 2015.

ripple effect
Ripple effect. Isn’t it amazing that creeping green shoots can harden into such shapes?

It wasn’t the first time vines have been uprooted. In 92 A.D., the Roman emperor forbade planting new vines in Languedoc and ordered half the vineyards to be destroyed, because French wine was giving Italian wine too much competition.

Since last year, vines have been allowed to be planted once again.

modern dancers
These make me think of modern dancers.

Did you know that 85% of French households say they bought wine for their own consumption during the year, but just over half drink only a once or twice a week; only 16% of the French drink wine daily or almost daily. The average price of a bottle of wine in France is €6.33. And most of it is good stuff, even when it’s cheap.

against skyUpdate: I wrote this a few days ago, and the very next day, leaves popped out on the vines. If they made a noise, the countryside would sound like a popcorn machine right now. They seem to open right before your eyes. I’ll try to get out and Instagram some later today. The leaves have a “just woke up and blinking in the sunshine” air about them.

 

 

 

 

Restaurants in France

place carnotFrom what I’ve read, for some people even an IRS audit would be less stressful than ordering a meal from a French waiter.

Yet one of the Top Things to Do While Traveling in France is eating. It doesn’t have to be stressful. Here’s how.

menu chinese russian 2First of all, get the restaurant right. If you go to the big place right on the waterfront or whatever the main tourist draw of your destination is, then you can almost be sure that it isn’t going to be good, and the waiters aren’t going to care. This is true worldwide.

trilingualBut if you’re in France, it’s doubly a crime, because France is a place where you can have absolutely heavenly food, from the finest of haute cuisine to humble yet delicious dives. Bad food is practically criminal here.

The French diner uses the power of the purse to punish restaurants for bad cooking, or to help them succeed for good cooking. That is, away from the most obvious tourist spots, where the restaurants don’t have to care about the French diner. In order to get the best of French cuisine, you have to eat where the French do.

Things to look for:

Multilingual menus–they are often a clue to a high level of tourist trade.

lemon tart relieved
Lemon tart relieved with flavor of citrus fruits!!!!
home sauce
Home sauce? They mean homemade.

This is not a fail safe measure. Even for establishments without personal translators, it takes minimal effort to get the job done online. (Sometimes with comic results; however, bad translations don’t mean bad food–they mean bad translators.) So on the one hand, let’s give restaurants credit for being welcoming to tourists by providing translations, since it really shouldn’t be a big deal.

menu chinese russian
English, German, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Russian? Looks like not everything translates.

On the other hand, the tough judges aren’t the tourists but the locals. You want to eat where they do. And if a restaurant is good enough, it will have so much business with the locals that it won’t need the tourists. This is the ideal restaurant. Reservation cards on tables are one hint that a place is good. Locals don’t walk in; they reserve.

Let’s say you’re walking around, looking for a place to eat. How can you tell whether a restaurant will be satisfying? One tip: look for chalk.

l'endroitPre-printed menus, like translations in many languages, aren’t a huge effort or expense anymore. But they can (as in sometimes) indicate that the menu doesn’t change with seasons. And that the menu is too big. There’s a risk they’re out of this and that, especially if you’re not traveling in high season, or you’re going to be served pre-cooked or industrial stuff, not freshly homemade.

Instead, look for a chalkboard with the day’s menu written in chalk. That means it changes, possibly daily.

felix
It takes practice to decipher French handwriting style.

A small menu means the chef pays attention to each dish and each ingredient.

Another key to your dining satisfaction is to know that an entrée is a starter/appetizer (not the main course). Entrée means entry, after all. The main dish may be called a plat (plate, or dish) or else you’ll just see viandes/poissons (meats/fish) in a separate category. I have noticed more vegetarian choices lately, but that’s a new trend. Even salads tend to have meat. Salade gourmande usually includes foie gras, gizzards and slices of dried duck breast. Just so you know. Usually these kinds of big salads are considered a meal and aren’t in any “prix fixe” or set-price menu. A “salade composée” is just a lot of ingredients laid on a bed of lettuce, not tossed. The French are not big on tossing. They like each item to be distinct. Just so you aren’t surprised.

small menu 2
*For the day’s special, see the blackboard.

Often, the menu will have separate dishes in their separate categories–five or six starters, then five or six main courses–and then a variety of “menu” choices, where you can get a good deal. It might be choose among entrées, plats, desserts for one price. Or it could be entrée + plat or plat + dessert for one price, and entrée + plat + dessert for another price.

le 104Cheese, at least a nice wedge or round with a bit of bread, usually is included in a menu. Sometimes also a small pitcher of wine, especially at lunch.

Seriously. This IS France!

On to the waiters. They are professionals. The tension is not really about them and their alleged rudeness but about diners’ expectations. What French diners expect from waiters is not at all what Americans expect.

The French waiter is not supposed to be your friend. He (and it very often is a man) is supposed to serve you. This is not rude; he’s supposed to leave you alone. He will not tell you his name; he may describe the day’s specials, but not to the extent that is fashionable in the U.S. He won’t stop by to see whether everything is OK.

Freaks
Clearly this menu changes often.

But if your water pitcher is low, it probably will be whisked off the table and refilled without you asking. If you drop your napkin, a new one will appear next to your plate as if by magic. The French waiter is not a participant in your meal but an invisible guardian angel ensuring that your meal goes flawlessly.

This continues right up to the end. Because in France, especially outside big cities like Paris, your table is yours and yours only for the entire evening. You can reserve for 8, but if you show up at 7:45, they won’t say it isn’t ready yet. If you show up at 8:30, you won’t be scolded and then rushed through your meal, because another party is scheduled to take over the table at 10.

artichaut 3 languages
In English and Spanish, too. The steak tartare with Thai seasonings is delicious, BTW.

Since the French love to linger at the table, there will be a pause between courses. This is expected; the service isn’t slow because the French don’t want their dishes to arrive one right after the other. When diners finish eating, their plates stay on the table until everybody in their party has finished, so that the slow eaters don’t feel pressure to rush. And, if they don’t see anything awry at your table, the waiters won’t come unless called. This is because you have every right to stay at the table and yak with your friends until the restaurant closes, without being pressured to continue to order drinks or coffees or whatever. So when you do want to leave and pay, you have to get their attention. The easiest way is to start to leave; they’ll come quickly with the check.

I have been to restaurants in France with visitors, and they have judged the service as bad, because it didn’t meet their American expectations: the waiter didn’t chat, the waiter ignored the table (though we never needed him), dirty dishes weren’t whisked away upon the last bite, the check took forever to arrive.

carnot 2The other thing is if you order something that’s not “done.” Two possibilities might ensue: First, in France and much of Europe, the customer is not always right. Sometimes the customer is sadly mistaken (not the same as wrong). Take the menu above; the last item is veal sweetbreads with a morel cream sauce and risotto. But the waiter might have seen several non-francophone diners confronted with ris when they were expecting riz, having misread the menu. And he might try to see whether you know that ris isn’t rice, even though it’s pronounced exactly the same way as riz. And you might easily take it as the waiter being rude.

Or the waiter just can’t comprehend what you want. On a family trip to Italy years ago, my brothers routinely ordered coffee with their meals. Coffee lovers, they couldn’t wait to taste a vaunted Italian venti. The waiters would nod, “sì, sì, signore,” but the coffee wouldn’t come, despite frequent pleas by my brothers. The waiters would reply something in Italian that probably meant “we didn’t forget your coffee.” Eventually, the toddlers in the group had enough of sitting still and we would rush to get the check and leave before tantrums began. And my brothers never got their coffee. Because in Italy, nobody drinks coffee with dinner; it’s for after dessert. (They finally went to a café expressly to have an espresso. “There was a little cup, about the size of a thimble,” one brother recounted. “The bottom of it was barely covered with some brown foam. But I tell, you, it was enough!”)

encornetsWhen we lived in New York, the Carnivore suffered grievously every time we went out to eat. It was the same problem of clashing expectations, but in reverse. Why are these waiters telling us their names? Look, here they come again! Can’t they leave us in peace? Why do they bring the main dish so quickly? They don’t give us a minute to breathe! They give us the check before we’ve even had coffee!

He would send the main course back and tell them to wait until he had finished with the appetizer (or worse, the aperitif). And he would completely lose it when we would be told we needed to finish up and get out because the next party was waiting for our table. Once, he hadn’t finished the appetizer when the main course arrived, and the waitress grabbed the appetizer plate as he was still stabbing food with his fork. He pointed out that he hadn’t finished, so she just dumped the remaining food onto the main course dish.

But what do you expect? In New York, waiters are actors or singers or some flavor of Future-Successes for whom waiting tables is unworthy of their Greatness. They play the obsequious role only up to a point, then rebel as soon as it looks like they might not get a maximum tip. In France, waiting tables is an honorable métier, paid a living wage (with health coverage and retirement, of course), worth doing for an entire career.

menu citeAlso, forget about the 20% tips over here. Usually service is included, but one is polite to leave a little extra–10% would be generous.

So those French waiters aren’t ignoring you. They will know if you drop your fork before it even hits the floor and will slip you a new one before you think to ask. Their job is to work magically, without you noticing. They aren’t being slow or inefficient; they are letting you take your time.

It’s all a matter of perspective. Bon appétit!

Spring and School in France

cherry tree to danceAs part of the U.S. gets hit by snowstorms and Australians start thinking about winter, here’s a ray of hope: some pretty spring pictures. Since there isn’t much to say about them beyond their captions, today you get completely random pictures while I write about a topic for which I don’t have photos: the quirks (at least in my eyes) of French elementary school.

In France, universities appeared before primary schools: The University of Paris opened in 1160 and the one of the world’s first medical schools opened in 1181 down the road from us in Montpellier. It wasn’t until 1698 that Louis XIV ordered French children to attend school until they were 14.

old buildings
Already getting green

I won’t write about secondary education until I have the value of hindsight. But for the lower grades here are things that blew my mind.

orchard blooms 1
Taking this photo, I sensed somebody behind me and turned around to see:

horsesThey start young–two years old, as long as they are potty trained (propre–clean). It’s preschool, with an emphasis on learning to be civilized, and it’s free. And it’s all day. I thought, how dreadful, but my kid could not wait to get in there, and loved being there all day. As one mother told me, “They get to do all the messy things you don’t want them doing at home” like painting and playing with clay.

The government tries to have a preschool and primary school in each village, close to home. For small villages, that means combined classes. In our village, each classroom held two grades. In tiny villages, a single teacher might hold down the fort with kids ages two to 11, like Laura Ingalls Wilder.

chatonsIn our village, about half the kids go home for lunch, and the lunch break is two hours long. That means kids get out of school around 5 p.m., which seems so late. But it’s good for working parents; their kids can eat at the cafeteria. Before and after class, there is also government-subsidized and -organized daycare, often in the school building or an adjacent one (no transportation issues). Tariffs for the parents’ share are based on hours spent in daycare, family income and number of kids, and range from €5 to €13 a day around here.

They learn more than manners at the maternelle, or preschool. Our kid’s teacher in grand section (five-year-olds, like kindergarten), or GS, had the kids make a “passport” and they spent the year filling it in with different countries: they learned about counting and colors and the alphabet via a trip around the world. They were read stories from different countries, cooked and tasted foreign foods, sang songs from other countries, built huts…it was wonderful. One day when we were in Carcassonne, our kid, still in GS, spied a black man and got all excited. “Do you think he’s from Africa? Which country? There’s Cameroon. And Congo. And Senegal. And Côte d’Ivoire. And a lot of others. I wonder whether he likes winter here. And the food….” On and on it went. Not fear of “the other” but interest, curiosity and excitement. (Our little village isn’t exactly diverse.)

white blooms
Snowy white blossoms

The grades are not 1, 2, 3, etc. There are, in typical French fashion, a bunch of acronyms instead: The two-year-olds are in TPS for très petite section (very small section), followed by PS, or petite section, then MS, or moyenne section (medium section), and GS. How wonderful to be grand–big–when you are just five years old.

It gets more confusing as you climb through the grades. First grade is CP, for cours préparatoire. This is where they learn to read. Second and third grades are CE1 and CE2, for cours élémentaire 1 and 2, the idea being that the second round is a revision and deepening of the first. Fourth and fifth grades are CM1 and CM2, for cours moyen 1 and 2.  Then they go off to middle school, called collège, where sixth grade is sixième–6thbut seventh grade is cinquième–5th–and so on through lycée, or high school. All these mental gymnastics now can’t help but ward off dementia in my old age.

ducksHere’s what really shocked me: already in maternelle, they went on overnight–TWO straight nights–field trips. The first one was to the beach (I thought: are the teachers out of their minds? A pack of preschoolers by open water??? Not to mention keeping them slathered with sun block and hats on). The next year they went sledding in the mountains.

In CP and a few other years, they went cross-country skiing, also in the Pyrénées. (This sounds illogical, but there is no snow here unless you go up in altitude; around Carcassonne, this winter’s snow arrived between 7 and 8 a.m. two Saturdays ago; by 8:30 it had melted.)

like snow
A vineyard enveloped not in snow but weeds. Pretty anyway!

In CE1 or CE2, I forget now, they went rock climbing, with ropes and helmets and everything. In CM1 or CM2, they went spelunking, not just to the pretty cave that has nice paths for tourist visits but also to caves that are wild and unlit (everybody had a helmet with a lamp), where a false step in a dark corner could send one plummeting in a gaping hole to the middle of the Earth. And no cell phone service.

All I can say is that when I was in elementary school, one year we went to the natural history museum and another we went to a pasta factory. There was none of this adventure stuff, and no overnights.

pruning vines
Pruning the grape vines. They stopped and blew me kisses when I stopped taking photos.

As PTA member/room mother, I got to accompany many of my kid’s class outings. The last night would usually involve a boum–a loud dance party–and the kids would get to stay up late. By design!

On the cross-country ski trip, we stayed in a dormitory, girls on one floor, boys on the other. Dinner was in a big cafeteria. I figured we parents would have to keep an eye on things. Far from it! The kids were at their own tables, and the cafeteria ladies set out big dishes at each table; the kids were expected to serve each other–no help from the cafeteria ladies nor the parents. This should not have been so surprising; it’s how the school cafeteria operates. The parents, meanwhile, were at a separate table on the far side of the room (not in peace because two classes of kids–about 50 in all–create a deafening noise even when well-behaved), furnished with carafes of wine. The meal, just like at school or at any restaurant, had a starter, main course, cheese, dessert, and for the adults, coffee–I forgot the exact menu, because it’s been years.

pyrenees
Can you make out the snow-covered Pyrénées?
field with rows
The same field as above (different angle), a few days later, already growing.

Unforgettable, though, was when one of the dads took a sip of the wine, grimaced, and left. He returned with a jerry can of his own wine; he’s a winegrower and never leaves home without a supply of reliably good stuff, I guess. I could not imagine this scenario playing out in the U.S., not even in Napa Valley.

Is it just that the school I attended was bare bones and that such activities were wild and crazy back in the ’60s and ’70s? Do all schools have field trips like this nowadays? I suspect that the French, and perhaps other Europeans, are far more laissez-faire about letting their kids experiment with independence. They don’t do helicopter parenting; it’s more like autopilot, taking control only when there’s a crisis. It seems to work OK.

 

 

 

Written in Stone

crossAfter living here for so long, I forget which things I found different about France. Maybe it’s because I’ve been a francophile since my first Madeline book.

The culture shock has been urban vs. rural rather than Anglo-Saxon vs. French. We arrived from New York City to a village of 700 next to Carcassonne, which itself is no metropolis at 45,000 (not counting the 2 million tourists each year).

I found it hard to adjust to strict hours for everything After living in the city that never sleeps. The stores open at 10, and even the supermarkets don’t open until 8:30 and close at 8 p.m. Smaller shops close between noon and 2 p.m. Many people still go home for lunch. Everything is closed on Sunday. Run out of milk on Saturday night and you’re out of luck until Monday morning. In bigger cities, there are more options.

1663At the same time, people are clearly lucky to have an incredible level of stability in their lives, thanks to this inflexible schedule. Work hours are written in stone, often 9 or 10 a.m. until noon and 2 p.m. until 6 or 7 p.m., for a 35-hour workweek. No scheduling software that dictates at the last minute that you’ll work late tonight and early tomorrow. Dinner time is dinner time. Nothing is open, hardly anybody works late. They go home to their families.

Sundays are dedicated to a big, multigenerational family meal. There might be outings, to a vide grenier (a kind of mass garage sale) or biking or hiking and picking mushrooms or wild asparagus in the woods or visiting one of the many village festivals.

You can tell the value system by what professions DO work on Sundays: bakers, florists (so you can take a bouquet when you go to the in-laws’ house for Sunday dinner), restaurants. Basically it’s about eating. Everything else can wait. And what is eating but an occasion to share a pleasure with friends and family?

1662I would like to say all this shows the French aren’t into mindless consumerism, but they have succumbed as much as anybody else. There are solderies selling the same cheap, cheaply made junk you find in the aisles of big-box stores elsewhere. The only difference is that homes here are smaller than in the U.S., which generally puts a cap on how much stuff can fit.

While I consider myself a city person, I have to admit there are some lovely qualities about French village life. There’s a softness to the people here. A niceness. Yes, I said it: French people are nice. Also a slowness, because why stress? There’s plenty of time. It’s definitely life in the slow lane.

Maybe I settled easily into my adopted country because its values appeal to me. Family first. Good public schools. Good health care for everybody. Clean environment. The system works pretty well and things are in pretty good shape. Competence and professionalism are rampant. When frustrations arise, they usually stem not from ineptness on the part of a bureaucrat or shopkeeper or customer service representative but from that person’s unbudging adherence to some set of rules that might make sense some or even most of the time but that allow for no exceptions. This becomes less surprising when you look at how French verbs are conjugated: there are general rules, and then not so much exceptions but ever-more-specific subsets of rules. No one-offs. The rules are written in stone.

RF
RF = République Française

This Gallic certitude, this ability–even penchant–to say non, is inextricable from the French savoir vivre, knowing how to live well. Some rules of French life:

  1. Everything should be made as beautiful as possible. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but aesthetics count, whether it’s how you dress or how you serve dinner or turning down the lights in the evening and lighting a candle for ambience.
  2. Take your time. The French won’t be rushed (maybe behind the wheel, but that’s a different story). Stop for a drink at a café with friends. Linger at dinner. Do your beauty routine.
  3. Smell the roses, literally. Use your senses to pull pleasure from every opportunity. The French are particularly strong in the taste department, but not limited to that.

museumOf course these things can be done anywhere. If you want to feel French this weekend, then put together a good meal of honest food–it doesn’t have to be fancy but it shouldn’t be heavily processed–and share it with some people you care about. Set a pretty table. Take your time to enjoy it all. Voilà!

 

 

 

So French: Leeks

marketHave 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.

While the French use them all over the place, from the “French Women Don’t Get Fat” soup to potato-leek soup to leek-and-whatever quiche and leek-and-whatever omelettes and leeks with vinaigrette and leeks gratin, I had them once in a restaurant here in France without any fuss, really just leeks, and they were awesome.

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

whites and greensLeeks 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.

cut in halfFill 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.

greens cutI 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.

cooking 1Over 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.

cooking 2Keep 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.

add wineCheck 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.

Bon appétit!

 

 

Treasure Hunt

grain-sacksThe 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.

dog-sculpture
I know a few people who would love that dog.

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.

instant-thaw

Guess that didn’t work out

fireplace-back
Cast-iron plaque for the back of a fireplace. Weighs a ton.

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.

lace
A lace-making kit, a horn, a can opener. Of course.
plate-picking-fruit
A sweet dessert plate
plate-lovers
And a racier version

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.

wooden-shoe

More than antiques are on offer.

lapins
The sign is for rabbits for sale
ear-hat
Cute hats

But old stuff rules. Maybe because it was built to last.

copper
A collection of copper
bust
WHO IS THIS GUY? It looks a little like Charles de Gaulle, but not quite.

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.

clock
The clock is called a comtoise, usually found in kitchens.

 

bagatelle
Old books, including many plays.

There’s entertainment.

kore-percus
You could call it rhythm and blues

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.

lunch-2
Lunch break

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.

lunch
Note the proper wine glasses filled with red.

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.