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.

Scraping By With French Cheese

scraping-1What beats cheese?

bubbling-cheese
See it start to bubble?

Melted cheese. And it isn’t even fondue!

table-setWe don’t have a food processor but we do have a special apparatus for melting a giant half-wheel of cheese. This specialty, called a raclettedates to the Middle Ages, when shepherds set half of their round of cheese on a sone and turned the cut face toward the fire so it would get all bubbly and yummy. They would scrape off the melted part, and melt the next bit. They ate the melted cheese with bread, potatoes and dried meats.

scraping-3

scraping-2Today, we have a large heating coil, similar to a toaster, that beams down on the cheese. You can lower the heating element as the cheese grows smaller. The cheese itself can be pulled out and tilted, for easier scraping. Raclette comes from racler, to scrape.

cheese-in-wrappingMore common today are round appliances with little drawers (check this out: 117 choices here!). Supermarkets sell the particular cow’s milk cheese pre-sliced that’s just the right size. The heating element also heats the top, where you can cook little sausages, in what’s known as a pierrade. We also have a pierrade, but it’s a real slab of slate stone that you put a Sterno flame under, like back in the Stone Age. But that’s for another time. For one thing, it takes up most of the table. And so does the half-round of cheese. So chez nous, it’s raclette or pierrade, but not both.

We do the charcuterie.

charcuterieWe do the potatoes, going for little ones called grenailles (named after lead shot because of their size, about like a thumb). Managed to get a photo of a couple of leftovers.

grenailles
Grenailles aren’t new potatoes, but the little ones that grow between big, normal ones.

We do the bread. Duh. We also do a big green salad with a simple shallot vinaigrette.

cheesecakeFor dessert, we stayed with the cheese theme and had triple-chocolate cheesecake. Inspiration and recipe from French Country Cottage. However, we’d all eaten so much cheese, that the next time I will go for a lighter dessert. This one is perfect for a midafternoon snack, especially if dinner will be late, or a followup to a lighter meal.

A raclette has a nice rhythm to it, because you have pauses while waiting for the cheese to melt. The plates of cheese and all the trimmings are passed around and around, so it’s pretty convivial and relaxed.

The wine also contributes.

Years ago, the Carnivore belonged to a civic group whose winter fundraiser was a raclette. Imagine a banquet hall with a couple of these monster melters on each table of 20 or so. A very elegant, massive cheese-scraping dinner.

barrage-lakeSpeaking of convivial, the next day was gorgeous and just demanded a Sunday promenade. The entire village seemed to have the same idea. Everybody wanted to see what damage the river had done (not much–see below. Some neatly plowed gardens got a new layer of mud dumped on them. The jogging path through the woods is mostly gone. But honestly, those things belong in a flood plain, because they’re easily righted).

rocks-left-by-flood
This was not the path. It was full of brush before, and impassable.
jogging-path
This used to be the path; it went right through that wall of washed-up debris.

The most striking thing to me was the number of multigenerational groups out walking. Three generations strolling, time and again. There also were kids out alone, because we live in a time warp where kids play unsupervised, and elderly villagers, some alone and a few couples. Some parents with kids. But over and over I saw knots of five to seven people, from kids to grandparents, including aunts and uncles and cousins. And the kids included teens. How many teens do you know who go for a walk with their parents and grandparents?

The various groups would stop and chat as they crossed paths. Discussing how high the water had gotten. How it was nothing compared to ’99. Some reminiscing about the travails of that time. Then they continued on their ways.

I think about the neighborhood where I grew up, the one where my parents moved to later, where my siblings live, where friends live, and I cannot remember seeing as many people out for a walk (not a jog, solo or with a buddy, but a stroll), especially these multi-generational, extended family groups. It was like Halloween, but in broad daylight, without costumes or candy.

The French even have multiple terms for it. Se promener is to take a walk, either for exercise or distraction, while marcher is to walk (kind of the generic brand). Randonner is more hardcore, a hike. The loveliest is flâner, to walk without a goal, just for the pleasure of it.

At one garden, owned by an elderly couple, four cars were parked, taking up most of the road, but it didn’t matter because the river flows over the road there (passage à gue), and crossing wasn’t yet possible. Maybe 20 people were there, all ages, picking out stones deposited by the torrent. Clearly the extended family mobilized to help out. They weren’t grim about it. Everybody seemed to be having great fun.

barrage-waterfall
The barrage had water flowing over the entire width for a day or so, I’m told.

I felt such affection for these neighbors, who themselves have such affection and respect for each other. J’aime la France.

 

Before/After: The Bedroom

The bedroom of the front apartment underwent a major transformation. For one thing, it had been chopped into two bedrooms, and we turned it back into one. You can relive the demolition here.

Bedroom wall gone huge room
Notice how the little wall had gone right up around the moldings!

It wasn’t easy–all the debris had to be carried out bucket by bucket.

bed
After

We ended up with a space that’s 35 square meters–more than 375 square feet. For a bedroom. It’s almost a ballroom.

The historic preservation folks asked us to keep the jib door, but it’s sealed, with sound insulation and shelves on the other side. The door to the right used to lead to a hallway, which opened to the space with the furnace and hot-water heater, and the toilet was off of that. We closed it off and put a toilet in the hallway.

img_1573-copy
Before: a hall
wc-1-after
After: a powder room.

The view to the street shows how each former room had a window. Sorry about the backlight.

32-chambre-1-actuelle-vue-rue-copy
Before
br-toward-windows
After. The door on the left is the bathroom.

I’ve made pale gray slipcovers for the chairs. The fabric is lovely soft velvet with a tone-on-tone paisley pattern.

br-angle-to-door
That door goes to the living room.

The bigger space is more suited to the gorgeous fireplace.

fireplace-vertical

fireplace-boiserie
A closeup of the boiserie
fireplace-detail
Detail on the mantel
kneeler
The kneeler found a home

The bed is full of special details. For one thing, we went with a queen-size organic mattress made in Mazamet. So it is a bit bigger than the antique headboard.

bed-lights-on

bed-detail

The sconces were another antique find.

sconce-detail

Even the sheets are antique. What young bride-to-be embroidered them for her trousseau? And then put them away, because they are like new.

sheet-initials

sheet-detail

Whenever possible, we chose Made in France.

made-in-france

We look forward to welcoming visitors with an authentic French experience in an amazing setting.

Our apartments can be found on Abritel/Homeaway/VRBO: the front here and the back here or on AirBnb, with the front apartment here and the back here.

Pillows of Swiss Chard Bliss

final-productHere’s the promised recipe for a neglected winter vegetable: Swiss chard, or blettes. Recipes usually treat this vitamin-rich vegetable like spinach, and that’s fine, too.

But you can take advantage of the large leaves to do something special. And of course, cream and cheese make everything delicious, right?

shopping
What I bought. The blettes are between the lettuce and the sweet potatoes.

This is a recipe I found in a French decorating magazine before Pinterest. That means I have it ripped out and stuck in a file folder. And too bad for the magazine, because it didn’t print its name on each page, so how am I to know which of the 20 magazines I bought a decade ago was the one with this recipe?

 

blettes-washedBeing a loosey-goosey gourmet, about the only thing my version has in common with the original is the idea of Swiss chard as a wrapper for a cheesy custard filling.

This is very, VERY easy but it gets lots of points for presentation. It’s a great idea for a dinner where you want to impress. Plus you can make it ahead and pop it into the oven at the last minute. And you’ll seem so cool, being somebody who actually knows how to cook with Swiss chard. And you even know the French name is blettes (pronounced blett–can it get any easier?).

other-ingredientsSwiss Chard Pillows of Bliss

a bunch of Swiss chard

one onion, diced

one egg

20 cl (a cup) of heavy cream (whatever–our village grocery didn’t have heavy cream so we took the whole cream, and I am sure it would work with low-fat cream or even milk. Just get something from the milk family.)

a cup (about 80 g) of grated hard cheese like parmesan or gruyère

a cup (about 80 g) of nuts. The magazine says pine nuts. Around here pine nuts cost so much that they are kept behind the cash register. So we went with chopped almonds.

1 tsp of oregano (not fresh because it was raining cats and dogs–see below)

salt and pepper

olive oil

chives, fresh and nice and long. Ideally. For tying up your little packages. But if you don’t have chives, don’t worry!

Preheat the oven to 120 C (250 Fahrenheit)…unless you are making ahead to serve later….it doesn’t usually take long to get an oven to just 250 F.

stem-and-onion-cookingFirst, you chop the stems off the Swiss chard and dice them like the onion. Heat a skillet with a little olive oil (enough to cover the bottom) and get them started to brown softly over medium-low heat. Sprinkle with oregano, salt and pepper. Stir, then put a on lid so they don’t dry out and keep cooking them slowly so they soften.

blanching-blettesBlanche the leaves by plunging them into a pot of boiling water for a few minutes. This will make them pliable for rolling. You want them to be flexible but still bright green. When they are ready, remove them and pour cold water on them. Then spread them out so you can stuff them.

 

blanched-and-stretchedBeat the egg and the cream in a little bowl. Pour this into the onion/stem mixture. Turn off the heat. Stir in the nuts and the cheese. You don’t need for the mixture to cook; just get it mixed.

sauce

Prepare a cookie sheet with a silicon liner or parchment paper. Put a spoon of the onion/stem/cream mixture on a leaf and then fold it up like a burrito. My blettes were on the small side, so I used the smallest leaves as wings, and wrapped the bigger ones around that and they held. No waste. If you have chives, use them like ribbon to tie up your packets.

ready-for-ovenSet them on the cookie sheet and brush with a little olive oil (I used my finger; it only takes a couple of drops).

Cook them for about 15 minutes, just enough to get warm and so the filling sets.

Vegetables aside, we had quite a week. Late Saturday, I think, it started to rain. The pace stepped up on Sunday, with lots of wind for drama. By Monday, it was pouring rain and the wind was howling and our electricity was out more than it was on.

flooding-right
Our house is just to the right of this!
view-right-after
Same view two days later. And normally, this would be “oooh! the river is high!”

A little nervous, I inspected the river next to our house, but it was unimpressive despite the downpour.

 

But Monday night, some meteorological firetruck parked in the skies above our village and let loose with water cannons. I didn’t sleep for the racket. The next day, I got a message that a package had arrived in Carcassonne. Fine–we set off to pick it up. Pulling out of our driveway, we were shocked to come almost nose to nose with the river. THIS river, that was bone dry in August. Most of the time, “river” is an exaggeration, because it’s about ankle-deep and two feet wide.

flooding-bridge
Even with the water level down now, this shot makes me woozy.
bridge-after
Two days later

We headed to town, gasping at the water everywhere. We got our package, headed back home and found that the river had risen even further. “We’re leaving,” I said. And within half an hour we had packed up clothes and food to take to our apartments in Carcassonne, which were high and dry and with electricity and running water–in taps only.

 

Our village had been hit hard by floods in 1999, and everybody still talks about it. I had no desire to live through such an event with our kid. Even if our house is high enough to have escaped the 1999 flood, it was tiresome to be without electricity.

view-to-park
To me, this is the worst shot. Beyond the trees is a big park that turned into a lake. Huge.
park-after
Same view two days later. The poor ducks who usually nest at the bend on the right must be refugees now.

Amazingly, in Carcassonne, it wasn’t even raining. The parking lots along the Aude river, which is a real river, much bigger than the usual trickle next to our house, sometimes flood but they were dry and in no danger.

 

Today, the sun was out, the weather was warm and we had the windows open. And the river was way down. I haven’t been to the park or to my usual jogging route to see the effects, but I suppose they will be temporary. A big drink.

 

Signs of Spring

pink-bloomsLast week was the Chandeleur, or Candelmas, yet another pagan tradition co-opted by religion. While the U.S. has Groundhog Day on Feb. 2, the French celebrate that day by making food. Of course. Specifically crêpes.

88-crepes
Many are missing because they were eaten as soon as the sugar got sprinkled on top.

The reason for crêpes is either that they are round like the sun and Feb. 2 is when the days start getting noticeably longer, or that they are round like coins. If you can flip your crêpe (some say it must be the first one–which is always the hardest–some say any of them but you have to be holding a coin in the other hand), you will be prosperous for the year.

I had planned to post this last week, but I was too busy stuffing my mouth with the first sugar I’ve eaten since Christmas. The Carnivore is the Crêpe Master and he doesn’t flip them, so too bad for us. His mother’s recipe is at the bottom.

Spring does, however, seem to be tapping its foot and pushing winter a bit from behind to get it to step out of the way already or at least move faster. (Do you also hate it when the person behind you in line keeps bumping you or touching you, as if you are holding up the line, when, in fact, there are other people ahead of you? Do they think that they can perhaps annoy you so much that you just leave and let them move up one spot in the queue? Answer: NO. Or perhaps they think that nobody else is feeling the pain of standing in line the way they are?)

Anyway, spring. I looked at temperatures this year vs. last, and January was colder, probably because of that cold spell a few weeks ago. But still, I photographed these irises in bloom on Jan. 30. Irises in January???

irises-1And this camellia bush is ready to bust out. I shot it last year in April here.

rhododendronI keep seeing flowers everywhere, and not just the primroses, cyclamens, pansies and decorative cabbages that towns and villages and homeowners plant for winter. (I do love living in a place where one plants flowers for winter.) The wild almonds are starting to flower.

When we bought our house 15 years ago, every field was a vineyard, as far as the eye could see. It seemed like a good idea–vines send roots deep into the ground and resist the summer droughts, and those roots help hold the soil when the rain beats down in torrents.

bare-trees-and-greenThe vines are many decades old, and it’s easy to think it’s always been like this. But I was reading about life years ago, when most of the population worked the land and grew their own food. It was inefficient, and hunger was a big driver of the French Revolution. Farmers grew a bit of everything–some vineyards, yes, but also wheat, oats, flax, olives, barley and hay. It was far from being a monoculture. As farms got bigger and needed fewer workers, they specialized in one thing or another.

fields-distanceToday, under a program to reduce the quantity of wine produced in order to shore up prices, many vineyards have been uprooted and turned over to other crops, like wheat, sunflowers, beans, sorghum and rape. Since the end of January, some have started to peep above the soil and turn everything green, even as the trees remain bare.

Do you see signs of spring yet?

field

The Carnivore’s Mother’s Crêpes

750 grams flour (6 cups)

1 liter whole milk (4 1/4 cups)

2 tablespoons white sugar

6 eggs

1 tablespoon olive oil

a pinch of salt

butter for cooking

Beat the eggs, milk and oil until well mixed. Add the flour, sugar and salt. Mix well. It should be runny, not like pancake batter.

Melt a pat of butter in a shallow skillet. Pour about half a cup of batter into the skillet and rotate to spread the batter evenly. Keep a close eye and turn when it’s brown–with a spatula or, if you’re daring, flip. Cook the other side just enough so it isn’t sticky.

If you want to be a gourmande, sprinkle with sugar right away and keep your stack covered so they stay hot.

Melt another pat of butter before pouring in the next round of batter.

Best eaten warm, but they will keep, covered, for several days. If you haven’t consumed them all before. This recipe serves a crowd (30 crêpes? Something like that).

 

Before/After: Kitchen

kitchen-straight-afterAnother reveal in the front apartment: the kitchen.

The apartment is really half of a gigantic apartment that was very impractical–it was a maze and each room could be accessed only by passing through another room. So one had to pass through bedrooms in order to get to the bathroom. Not great if the person in that bedroom wants to sleep.

We split the apartment into two still-large apartments (about 80 square meters or 860 square feet each). But that meant we had to create a kitchen for the front apartment. Our options were limited by historic preservation rules.

The only place to put it was in the entry. We removed a closet and closed off the door to the other apartment. We discovered that the flimsy 3-cm wall of the closet was supporting the “harnais” above. That required bringing in a beam to hold it up.

 

kitchen-straight-before
Before, taken from the same spot as the top photo. That far door is now closed off, the closet on the right is gone and a kitchen is in.

 

kitchen-after-wharnais
After…the door to the harnais, where horses’ harnesses once were kept, had been hidden by wallpaper.

The original tomettes had been covered with vinyl.

10-entree-1-sol-copy
The horror!
11-entree-1-sol-raccord-entre-lino-et-tomettes-dans-placard-copy
Unadulturated tomettes in the closet. Would they be like that under the vinyl? YES!

We loved this bookcase and decided to use it for open shelving to make it easier for renters to find what they need.

entry-bookcase
After
entry-bookcase-wall-before
Before
toward-salon-before
Before…toward the living room.
toward-salon-after
After

The kitchen is small but efficient. The two windows face the stairwell, which is lit by a skylight. To keep the space from feeling dark, we installed three sconces in the kitchen, in addition to the two in the enty and the overhead pendant light.

The apartment is now listed on AirBnB, HomeAway/Abritel and VBRO.

entry-straight-before
Before…facing the opposite direction (you can see the “hallway” next to the closet in the reflection of the mirror). Check out the locks! (The tall door had warped.)

 

entry-straight-after
After…a silk carpet on restored tomettes. The locks replaced by a three-point system and the door fixed.
entry-mirror
Lots of crystal pampilles on the new sconces.