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!

Louis, Louis, Louis, Louis

arm on sofaOne of those serendipitous moments happened recently as I wiped down a new old sofa and otherwise puttered in the apartment that overlooks the courtyard.

In order to not lose my mind–actually to lose myself inside my mind–while doing uninteresting or unpleasant tasks, I listen to podcasts. No amount of mindfulness is going to make me all zen about mopping the floor or sorting laundry or running (or sewing!). I want to get the job done with minimal pain, and the best analgesic is one that makes me think about something else, the more esoteric, the better. Sometimes I do not want to focus on what I am doing. At all.

canape top 2The first to entertain me was Lauren Bastide, with the most wonderful, we’re-there-in-the-room conversation with Amandine Gay (“La Poudre“).  I was riveted by pieces about the new movie “Tower” and the decline of Lancaster, Pennsylvania (both on “Fresh Air,” which has the greatest interviewer ever, Terry Gross). I discovered Lady Lamb (thanks to “On Point”). People talked about medical mysteries (TED Radio Hour). But then I had no more podcasts left in my feed.

So I switched to the NPR One app, which is like a slot machine for podcasts, except that you never lose. They themselves call it Pandora for public radio–more PG-rated than a slot machine. First I got the founders of Kate Spade talking about how they got started (on “How I Built This“)–a logical progression because both Ted Radio Hour and How I Built This are hosted by Guy Raz, who has the most unbelievable name ever. Then the app decided I needed to hear a show I was unfamiliar with, called “Stuff You Missed in History Class.” WTF? HOW DID THEY KNOW????

I was mostly an A+ student, but I have no idea how  I pulled it off in history (my only non-A’s were in gym class–C. “She never makes trouble” was the only nice thing the gym teacher found to say about me, year after year. Yes, I saw my old report cards not long ago). Those dates…they just wouldn’t adhere to my brain cells, even though I am a math lover and have no trouble memorizing zip codes and country dialing codes. foot on sofaHowever, it didn’t work with history. And it’s too bad, because I have come to love history, though I still don’t remember the dates. I treat dates in history the way I treat recipes–approximations are good enough. Freudian analysis would probably figure it out, but that would take too much time and effort. And anyway, all I really care about are the stories.

The history podcast was about another momentous women’s march–on Versailles! And there I was, on my knees, rubbing an ammonia solution into a Louis XVI sofa to strip it of all traces of its very charming former owner. Louis XVI! The one getting marched on in that very podcast!

Sofa sideAn aside here to discuss the fine lady who was getting rid of her sofa. She was suffering from back pain and was going for an operation any day now, though that didn’t stop her from grabbing the coffee table and rolling up the carpet in front of the sofa–the Carnivore and I were going nuts trying to stop her but she was as quick as butter on a hot skillet. She stood about to my shoulder, which, considering I’m short, is nothing. I bet she didn’t weigh 40 kilos. A wisp of a woman.

As the Carnivore manipulated our neighbor’s camionette (a kind of enclosed pickup that’s very common in France) into her driveway, I chatted with Madame about life. The conversation quickly turned to death. She explained that she was keeping one of the armchairs that matched the sofa because it had been her mother’s, who had lived with her before dying. She then segued to her husband, who died suddenly, in his sleep, not long ago (which might have been a few years, I wasn’t sure). Trying to comfort her, I told her that my parents had died recently, relatively quickly, and in light of what I’d seen, I think the quicker the better. I am not alone in this. When I was leaving my post as a teacher in Africa, my students collected messages for me, and one sweet student wished me “a happy family, a happy life and a quick death!”

sconceMadame grasped my arm and said, “Chut!” (Shush!) But then she went on anyway, and we talked about how a slow death does prepare the survivors for the idea that the loved one would be no longer, while a quick death is probably nicer for the person dying but a shock for the family.

This lady was selling some things in her finely furnished (“j’étais décoratrice!”) little house in order to move in with or near to her daughter, who had married an Italian and had followed him to Milan (she contorted her small, thin face at this, as if she had bitten into a spoiled fruit). First an operation on her back in France, then a new life in Italy. I felt sorry for her, abandoning all the stuff that reminded her of happier times–for some people, stuff is an end unto itself, a way to achieve some kind of status, but for others it is a totem of people or memories of happy times, and, though I knew her but for less than an hour, I think that, even if years ago she was in the former category, she now was in the latter). Plus, the weather in Milan is pretty crappy,  compared with Aude.

canape armBack to the furniture. The sofa is, obviously, a reproduction of Louis XVI. He’s better known as the husband of Marie Antoinette. I say “obviously” because it’s a sofa-bed, a technology that came somewhat later than the late 1700s. Madame said she bought it in Revel, which is a hub for marquetry and fine furniture making. Considering how heavy it is, I believe her.

Louis XVI came after 15 other Louis (Louises?), the first of whom appeared in 814 A.D. The first Louis had a tough act to follow: Charlemagne. There were LOTS of other kings before the first Louis (who was known as both “the pious” AND “the debonaire”!!!!! How did he manage that?), but they had names like Chilperic and Childeric and Chlothar and Dagobert. (You should know that in some places–like Belgium–a dagobert is not unlike a Dagwood sandwich, giving the mitraillet a run for the money.)

The later Louis (Louises?) became known for their interior décors. We won’t spend time on the earliest ones. Louis II, aka “the stutterer”!! Too bad he didn’t see “The King’s Speech.” There also were Louis the Fat (they really weren’t politically correct in those times) and Louis the Young and Louis the Lion and St. Louis (the IX–9th–who built the “new” town of Carcassonne around 1260).  Then Louis X, aka the Quarreler; Louis XI, aka “the prudent, the cunning, the universal spider.” Sorry, but that one is The Best!!! Being Prudent, Cunning AND a Universal Spider? OMG. What a MAN! Or was he a superhero? But that was from 1461-1483. They don’t make them like they used to. Or maybe they do, except for the prudent part, and we are like flies stuck in a trap.

Louis XII was the “father of the people,” followed by a number of other-named monarchs, including Henri II, whose style was much-copied later.

canape topLouis XIII (13th), aka “the Just,” was in the first half of the 1600s. We know that our apartments existed in 1624, though they might have been there earlier. (I will try to get to the bottom of this one day.) His style is known for lots of twists (torsades) and straight lines, which seems like a contradiction, eh?

Louis XIV was known as Louis the Great or the Sun King. Hard to beat that (though his great-grandson, Louis XV–“the Beloved”–seems to have). Fourteen ruled from 1643-1715 and built Versailles. Think glam.

And then we get to Louis XVI (we’re up to 16 here–seize in French, pronounced “says”), the “restorer of French liberty,” who ruled from 1774 to 1792. Note those dates! What happened just two years after 1774? Hmmm! An era of foment all over the place.

marquetry
Marquetry

Having read “A Tale of Two Cities” (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Sidney Carton: “It’s a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Did you, too, have to memorize that in high school?) and Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” (“It is nothing to die. It is frightful not to live.”), I had an impression of the French Revolution as having been a bloody affair directed by perhaps well-meaning but vicious people like Madame Lafarge, JavertRousseau and Robespierre and that the revolution was at full swing from the moment the people stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789, until the day Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette lost their heads on the guillotine in 1792. But in fact, the revolution started earlier and the king hung on for several years. Talks happened, spiced up by marches, including by nasty women.

Among the problems at the time, as “What You Missed in History Class” explains for us, were bad harvests, government deficits, over-taxation and illiquidity. It boiled down to the masses starving.

You must listen to the podcast to get all the details, but basically, people were fed up with not being fed. Call it a minimum wage issue. The podcasters express doubts that Louis XVI was actually evil incarnate or even just callous but instead suspect that he was way over his head and incompetent. In any case, a revolution was born.

Despite all that bad blood, Louis XVI’s style remains much-coveted today. OK, coveted among people who think that IKEA is great if you are 20 years old and on a small budget but then you should buy furniture that will last more than three years, and that proves it by having lasted already more than 100. Coveted by people who do not want to sit on backless benches at dinner. Who do not think that plastic chairs, even Eames, are chic or comfortable.

But how to keep your Louis, Louis, Louis, Louis straight? (And Louis is pronounced like Louie, not Lewis.) First of all, FirstDibs has a great explainer of the different Louis (Louises?). If you are just starting out, start here. Another great resource is the Metropolitan Museum of Art with essays on French chairs and 18th century French furniture more generally.

As the Louvre explains (and they should know), you have Louis XIV and the Regency from 1660-1725, then Rococo from 1725-1755, then classicism and the reign of Louis XVI from 1755-1790.

When I lived in Brussels and Paris was much closer than from where I am now in the deepest corner of rural France (which actually used to be Spain), I always partook of Les Journées de Patrimoine, in which many buildings of historical significance are opened to the public. Sometimes they are museums that drop their usual ticket charges, but the best are government or private buildings that otherwise are strictly off-limits. Once, I toured the Banc de France–like the Federal Reserve, especially because I visited before the euro–and was in a group of very well-dressed, impeccably coiffed, middle-aged Parisians. The kind of people known as bourgeois, or if younger as BCBGbon chic, bon genre. I saw a couple, in nearly matching tweed suits (her in a skirt, him in trousers whose crease up until that moment had been razor-sharp), on their hands and knees looking at the underbelly of an antique gilded demi-lune console. It’s true there were amazing antiques in every direction, with computers and papers plonked on top.

toilet paper holder
Fit for a throne

The Carnivore is very sensitive about Louis (Louises?), and is partial to No. 16. He searched high and low for a toilet-paper holder that was in the style of Louis XVI. Even though according to this, toilet paper didn’t get cheap enough for the masses until much later. Far more impressive is the history given by ToiletPaperWorld, which mingles Stephen Crane, money and defecation. “French royalty used lace.” No wonder there was a revolution! (The delicacy of the terms the sites uses is an impressive exercise in euphemisms.)

I have seen references around the Internet to “Louis chairs,” to which I think, WHICH Louis? This alone should qualify me for French citizenship. But which Louis matters only if you’re paying top euro for what’s supposed to be the real thing, in which case, you had better know better. For everything else, “Louis” means something sorta French-antique-looking, probably Louis XVI.

All the same, I have seen how the French teach their young to know their Louis (Louises?). From the time our kid was in the equivalent of second grade, the whole memorize-your-kings thing started. Which is probably why, on a different tour during les Journées de Patrimoine, the docent told us the story of a beautifully painted stucco ceiling in the Marais of Paris, and several of the tour-goers objected vociferously to the dates and kings cited. I was dumbstruck to be in the middle of a heated argument about something that had happened 400 years earlier. At the same time, I was full of admiration, because I absolutely cannot remember such dates.

As for serendipity, what is one of the most beautiful and joyful words in the English language (in French, it’s “happy luck,” not nearly as fun a word as serendipity), algorithms and artificial intelligence are snatching it away from us. Serendipity is opening a newspaper and happening to spy something interesting and relevant. Serendipity is walking into a shop and finding just what you need on sale. Serendipity is running into a friend you haven’t seen in ages someplace unexpected (I once bumped into an old dance buddy from NY in the line for the opera in Rome). Now our news is filtered based on what we like, we shop online for things that are pushed to us, and we know where everybody we’ve ever met is at any moment.

Some of my greatest “aha” moments have been when I have read or listened to things that on the surface didn’t interest me in the least. But they were in publications or on programs that I knew did good work, so I gave them my time. And I was rarely disappointed. I never would have sought out “Stuff You Missed in History Class.” But it came to me, with a story that touched exactly on what I was doing.

Serendipity rules.

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!

 

 

Pont du Gard

pdg-closerThe Pont du Gard is everything and more. Although it isn’t a bridge (pont) at all, but an aqueduct built by the Romans to carry water to the city of Nîmes from a spring near Uzès.

from-above
View from the belvedere

The Romans turned something practical into a work of art that has lasted for nearly 2,000 years, even if long ago it stopped channeling water in the 6th century. In fact, it had an afterlife as a tollgate in the Middle Ages, and from the 1700s until it became a museum, it was a road bridge.

pdg-entire-width
The path toward the pont
img_3270
You can just make out the three rows of arches

The pont has three levels of arches–making it the highest Roman structure–across 360 meters (almost 1,200 feet), to cross the Gardon River. The pont is part of an aqueduct system that’s 50 kilometers (31 miles) long and is so perfectly calculated that water flows only thanks to gravity the entire way, even though it descends only 12 meters over its entire length. How do you say “hydraulic engineer” in Latin?

footholds
The stones sticking out served as ladders.
footholds-2
When this was built, there was no reassuring flat platform around. I would not have wanted to work on this project.

The entire system took 10 to 15 years to build, and the pont itself took less than five (and there are 19 other, smaller bridges). History doesn’t tell us whether there were cost overruns, but it seems there weren’t many delays, especially for something so huge built by hand. How do you say “project manager” in Latin?

archNîmes at the time was a booming city, and the local spring wasn’t able to keep up with its fast-growing population. The Romans were picky about where they got their water–they liked to go to the source (pun intended), in this case the spring, or group of springs connected to an underground aquifer, called the Fountain of Eure, near Uzès. That they went so far and actually thought it would be a good idea to carry the water all the way to Nîmes is pretty amazing. How do you say “geological engineer” in Latin?

river-long-viewThe setting is gorgeous. Driving through rolling hills, you get to the gorge carved into the soft sandstone hills by the river. The Pont du Gard is even more amazing for having withstood 19 centuries of fast and furious rain-swelled river without damage.

When we visited, last fall, the river was low and slow, with quite a few bathers.

river
The spot in the upper left is a swimmer.

Thick forest covers the hills. You can hike up to a belvedere, or lookout, above the pont. The path is steep and rough–natural–and not suitable for strollers or canes. However, the parking lots are reasonably near the entrance (there’s one on each bank of the river) and the lanes to the bridge are smooth and mostly flat; there’s a wide walkway alongside the bridge, too. Lots of bikes were there (good and bad–too many expected the throngs of pedestrians to jump out of their way).

forest

Above, some awesomely old olive trees. Below, the plaque says: “This aqueduct built by the Romans to conduct to Nîmes the waters of the Fontaine of Eure repared by the states of Languedoc in 1702 was consolidated and restored in 1855 by the orders of the Emperor Napoleon III and by the care of the minister of state”…then the name of the architects, which I can’t quite make out except of Ch. Laisne.

inscription

And of course, graffiti is nothing new:

graffiti-1843

When the euro notes were designed, the idea was to use images of architectural elements common across Europe without copying any single structure. The idea was unity and common culture, beyond historical personalities or past conflicts. But the back of the €5 note looks suspiciously familiar.

banknote5euroThe Pont du Gard is about a two-hour drive from Carcassonne.

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.