If you follow French news, you’ve probably heard we have a cold snap across the Hexagone. It hasn’t been this cold in five years.
The photo above was taken yesterday. Early-morning temperatures had plunged to minus 7 Celsius (19 degrees Fahrenheit), but by mid-afternoon, they were around 4 C (39 F), with a brilliant blue sky and tons of sun. Perfect for drying laundry on the line.
Hygge is the global rage at the moment: the Danish concept of coziness, cuddling, candles and close friends that is credited with making the Danes the world’s happiest people.
Aside from comfort food with loved ones–de rigueur for the French–the south of France is un-hygge. Everything is geared toward good weather, not winter. The steep slope of some driveways around here made me realize that the residents knew nothing of driving out on ice or of shoveling knee-deep snow.
I wonder whether I’m the only one around here who used to drive from October to April with a snow shovel and a bag of sand in my trunk (sand to improve traction and also to sprinkle under the tires, should I get stuck and find them spinning).
We get a few flakes here almost every winter, but they rarely survive 24 hours. Should we miss the snow, we need to drive only two and a half or three hours to the Pyrénées ski stations, or even Andorra. In my opinion, that’s the perfect distance for snow.
I knew I was in the right place when I saw Carcassonne in winter. Bubbling fountains. Flowers in gardens. Café terraces bustling in the dead of winter. Hygge is having your coffee inside, with candles or a fireplace. Sipping your coffee in the sun at a table on the terrace, even though it’s chilly, and watching the people pass, is not hygge at all.
The brightest, sunniest days bring the coldest nights. It’s a small price to pay. Though the architecture-geared-toward-good-weather, paired with the two-foot-thick stone walls in older houses, means pipes often get run outside buildings, and when it does get really cold, like five years ago, they rupture left and right. In fact, at our kid’s school in the village, and now at upper grades in Carcassonne, the restrooms are outside. Not pleasant but further proof that it just doesn’t get very cold.
Meanwhile, it’s been fun watching the Carcassonnais going about their business as if they suddenly were in Siberia (which is where this cold front is said to have originated, always mentioned darkly on the weather report. No love lost for Russia in this country). Bundled to the max–emmitouflé–which, I guess is pretty hygge after all.
Here is an easy, high-impact dessert that you can make ahead. Pineapple confit in honey and vanilla, served with refreshing vanilla mascarpone.
It comes from the book “Verrines Toute Fraîches!” by José Maréchal. Verrines are small, transparent glass bowls, usually with straight sides like an Old Fashioned glass, not very big, and used to serve layered appetizers or desserts. They’ve been a big fad in France for several years.
I’ve made the recipe many times in the years since I was given this book, and I have tweaked it considerably: I cut the honey and sugar in half, doubled the mascarpone and reduced the egg (more egg makes the mascarpone looser). I like the contrast of the sweet pineapple with the less-sweet mascarpone; if you want your mascarpone sweeter, you can easily add sugar. Here is my version:
Pineapple Mascarpone Parfait (serves 6-8)
1 fresh pineapple
1 tablespoon honey
1 vanilla bean
500 grams (about 16 ounces) mascarpone
3 egg yolks
2 packets of sucre vanillé (you can substitute 16 grams, or 4 teaspoons, of white sugar plus two teaspoons of vanilla extract)
Cut the pineapple into small chunks; I prefer half an inch but my sous-chef tends to go for inch cubes. Make sure to remove the eyes.
In a skillet with a cover, warm the honey then add the pineapple and vanilla bean. Cover and cook it slowly over medium-low heat. Stir often. Keep an eye for when the liquid starts to disappear and the pineapple turns a nice brown. It can take a good hour. You want the liquid to cook out of the pineapple so the dessert isn’t watery. Let it cool.
Meanwhile, stir together the mascarpone, sugar/vanilla and egg yolks.
Serve in old-fashioned or brandy glasses (brandy glasses are harder to eat from), layering some pineapple at the bottom, then the mascarpone, then more pineapple. Chill until serving. If you’re making it ahead (a day or even several hours), keep the mascarpone covered so it doesn’t dry out.
Another fashion news flash from the south of France: colored tights are a thing.
The first pair I noticed, in the fall, were purple. Not a dark aubergine that subtly rejects the banality of black. They were a shocking violet, a Prince-ly purple. The wearer also had on other purple accents. Committed to the color.
Soon colored tights were everywhere. Fuschia. Yellow. Orange. Big florals against black backgrounds, kind of like a Dutch golden age still life.
Granted, tights mean skirts and neither are suitable for serious cold. Until last weekend the weather has been warm enough for coats left unbuttoned. Even so, everybody–men and women, young and older–wears long, thick scarves wound several times around their necks, so they look like whiplash victims. The silhouette is similar to Elizabethan neck ruffs:
by Unknown artist, oil on panel, circa 1575
Back to tights. Mostly they are solid, vibrant colors.
Sometimes there are designs.
I also saw, but failed to photograph, tights the color of raw chicken breasts, with a rose vine motif up the side that looked for all the world like a long tattoo. And two-tone tights with black from the foot to just above the knee, then pale peach, so they looked like stockings attached to garters–even with a little fake bow as if they were tied on. Proof that not all French women have great taste.
And then these two ladies, dressed up with style all their own. I particularly liked the green beret with the fur coat.
Most people think of fondue as bread dipped in hot cheese, or fruit into chocolate. But fondue bourguignonne involves cooking cubes of meat in hot oil.
The name indicates it’s a specialty of Burgundy, and those guys know gastronomy. But it’s typically French as well in the total lack of concern about a pot of hot oil on a table (and I’ve been at fondues where the table was less than stable), with a cord running between somebody’s legs and across the room, and nobody seems the least concerned that someone might trip and send boiling oil into the laps of half the diners. And the oil–vegetable oil like rapeseed–must be very hot, or else the meat doesn’t get a nice brown crust and instead comes out gray and soggy.
They are equally unconcerned about splatters. When the pot starts to thrum and gurgle, I am ready to head for the next room with a phone in hand so I can call the fire department and ambulance quickly. In Belgium 911 is 100, but in France, there’s no centralized number–you have to call fire (18) and ambulance (15) separately. Just another reason to take precautions! Also, I make sure I know where the baking soda is.
A few months ago, after the Carnivore had cooked fries, we had a hot fat incident. Fries are the Carnivore’s domain. I have never in my life cooked them, partly out of terror of deep fryers, partly out of respect for my arteries. But the Carnivore is Belgian, and Belgians are the originators of French fries. I think all 11.2 million of them carry a chip on their collective shoulder over the fact that the French got credit for fries. It’s possibly the only thing the Wallons and Flamands agree on. When I moved to Brussels many eons ago, I actually saw, during my hunt for an apartment, many kitchens with BUILT-IN FRYERS. No stove, no fridge, no dishwasher–those must be supplied by the renter–but never fear, the fryer is as integrated in the apartment as the furnace or toilet.
So the Carnivore was in charge of fries, cooking them per Belgian regulations, with blanc de boeuf, or pure white beef fat, smuggled back from his homeland. The French cook fries in oil, which sends the Carnivore into paroxysms of horror. He cooks them in cow fat to almost done, then lets them rest for two or three minutes so the grease drips out, then cooks them again to brown. The result, I must admit, is excellent. Crisp on the outside, tender on the inside. I consider fries a waste of calories that could be better spent on chocolate, but I will eat his.
We were blissfully stuffing our arteries faces when the fryer (turned off) started making strange noises. Now, our house is nothing like our rental apartments. It’s small and not grand at all and used to be the village showers, which means there was no kitchen. We stuck an open kitchen in a corner of the living room/dining room, which means it’s one of those oft-despised “great rooms,” despite its proportions being somewhat south of great.
Thanks to the layout, we were extremely aware that something was going on with the fryer, yet a reassuring distance from it. Suddenly, POW! It exploded. Grease everywhere. The wall, the ceiling, the sofa whose back butts up against the kitchen counter–a not-so-great side effect of a great room is that cooking disasters have nothing to keep them from spilling into the living room. The kitchen floor was a patinoire of blanc de boeuf.
The mess was cleaned up, and we laid off frites for a while. The incident only reinforced my conviction that anything more than a tablespoon of oil/grease at a time is a deadly enterprise.
The Carnivore’s mother, however, was known for her fondue bourguigonne, which she served at all family gatherings. This is a little like being known for one’s way with heating up frozen pizza or one’s skill at calling for takeout. With fondue bourguigonne, the host goes to the butcher to buy meat and then heats up the oil. It’s up to the diners to cook their cubes of meat themselves.
Mother-in-law passed away a few years ago, but the tradition continues: we have fondue bourguignon every year at Christmas time. It’s considered a light interlude between the Gargantuan orgies of Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, not to mention all the visits to friends and relatives in between. “Light”: cubes of beef (or chicken, because I’m nearly a vegetarian but one can’t put water-laden vegetables in fondue bourguignonne, so chicken is almost the same thing, or so goes the logic), cooked in oil and served with cold rice mixed with parsley and cream, maybe a green salad, possibly fries (yes, fries and rice, which don’t add up to fried rice) and certainly a huge array of sauces, most notably cocktail sauce (ingredients: bourbon, mayonnaise and ketchup, with proportions in that order).
Sauces are another typically Belgian thing. The French mostly content themselves with mayonnaise or tartar sauce, and sometimes, if they want to put on American airs, ketchup. But the Belgians have aïoli, Andalouse (my favorite–spicy), barbecue, béarnaise, curry, Hawaiian, Samouraï, and more (yeah, aïoli is from the south of France, but you don’t see it on the menu with fries here). There are little stands everywhere devoted to frites, the way you see ice cream trucks or taco trucks in the U.S. Except these aren’t trucks. They might be storefronts or they might be makeshift shacks on the edge of a parking lot, the smell of grease wafting down the street. Friteries seem exempt from food and building inspection. The menu of sauces is longer than the menu of dishes, which usually consist of fries, fries or mitraillette–literally a machine gun, but in this case a long sandwich with kebab meat, a liter of sauce and FRIES INSIDE THE BAGUETTE! A heart attack on a plate wrapping paper.
We had fondue bourguignon twice this holiday season. There was one mega-splatter, but luckily it hit only the empty chair of a niece who had gotten up to get something from the kitchen.
So if you have good health and home insurance, bad cooking skills and a penchant for danger, try fondue bourguigonne. Served with wine, of course!
First, I was remiss in not wishing everyone a happy new year, and above all, good health–meilleurs voeux pour 2017, surtout la santé. It’s the first thing everybody says here at the moment, even strangers.
This kitchen is possibly my favorite room in our renovation. It’s huge. It has plenty of counter space, plenty of storage, seating and a fireplace big enough to stand in.
We didn’t get to buy all the cool copper pans, but as we installed an induction stovetop, they wouldn’t have worked anyway. Let me just say again that induction is the greatest!
We took a leaf out of the table–it’s already big with one–and changed out the benches for chairs. Benches are useful for squeezing in crowds but they are never comfortable. Pointless in a two-bedroom apartment.
I loved the idea of black and white checkerboard–damier in French–but what was there was nasty, cracked linoleum. Replacing it with tile or stone wasn’t historically accurate enough, especially since we found the original tomettes under the linoleum.
Some of the hardest work came from things that are unseen, namely completely rewiring the place. We LOVE our electrician. And our painter. Here are links to the work along the way: changing the windows (the one with wind blowing is the kitchen) and the sink.
I think this is the only vacation rental in Carcassonne–and possibly beyond–with such a nice kitchen. It’s perfect for somebody who wants to go to the market and cook, and we plan to arrange cooking lessons as well. The other apartment is even grander but has a small but complete kitchen. Updated photos of it coming soon.
The apartments will be listed soon–we’re just finalizing the official paperwork. Hope you’ll come!
We just got back from seeing the Carnivore’s family in Belgium for the holidays. A white-knuckle drive through a whiteout segued into fog and finally the southern sun. I must admit that we had good weather during our stay until it was time to hit the road. But the northern sun was as satisfying as watered-down coffee. Didn’t even need sunglasses.
So we’re going to revel in some fair-weather shots from our trip to Provence last fall. Saint-Rémy de Provence has a marvel of Roman ruins just south of town. The archeological site of Glanum wasn’t discovered until about a 100 years ago, leaving it buried for 17 centuries.
Glanum was first inhabited by Gauls around the 7th or 6th century B.C. The Greeks arrived in the 2nd and 1st century B.C. and started building. The Romans colonized it next, around 63 B.C. It fell into ruin around 260 A.D. after the Alemannic invasions of Germanic people, and the inhabitants moved to present-day Saint-Rémy.
For an archaeology nut/wannabe, it’s paradise. We were the first to arrive on a Sunday morning and had the place to ourselves for over an hour. The best way to pretend to be Indiana Jones.
The main street is perched over drains the length of Glanum. The slight slope ensures good drainage.
Gutters handle run-off from houses and public buildings as well.
And there were interesting drains. Those Romans had plumbing nailed.
What must the market have been like? Probably not much different from those today–stalls, maybe some produce spread on the ground. It was majestically outlined by Doric columns. Nice touch. You can see one of the columns below. It’s the one on the far left. I was more taken with the “house with antae,” which is in the center of the photo.
The antae are the columns with Corinthian capitals. The rooms of the house surrounded an enclosed courtyard with a pool. I approve.
All those stones, covered with lichen. What was life like then? Pretty tough, don’t you think? In spite of the plumbing.
So many carvings. Of people and places long gone. Did their monuments to themselves make them happy?
Twin Corinthian temples were “dedicated to the cult of the Emperor’s family,” according to the site’s brochure. An exquisite decoration, like a butterfly’s wing, is on top of one, which was partially rebuilt to give us an idea of what it was like.
The photo below shows one of the wine-smoking rooms. Who knew? Smoking helped preserve the wine. Pre-bottle-and-cork technology.
I always think, when I’m in a museum or a place like this, that there’s such an abundance of fabulous stuff, and everybody is so busy gawking at the headline items like the temple above, that they practically walk past wonders like those below:
If this were in my garden, it would be admired every single day, not passed by on the way to something more impressive. Here it’s another rock in a rock pile. Injustice, really.
Outside of Glanum, just across the road (where cars and bikes come screaming down the hill and don’t stop for the crosswalk–beware!), are two more Roman wonders, called “les Antiques.”
Above, the Mausoleum, or Cenotaph of the Julii, from 30-20 B.C. It’s unusual for having a rectangular base with a round top. The base is elaborately carved.
Right next to it is the Triumphal Arch, showing Caesar’s conquest of the Gauls. Way to rub salt in the wound, eh?
Also, right next to Glanum is Saint-Paul de Mausole, the psychiatric hospital where Vincent Van Gogh spent a year. We didn’t have time to visit on this trip. Gotta go back!
Between the days of hard blue skies, sometimes we awake to discover that the fog has crept in on little cat feet.
Unable to see the rooftops from the window. Unable to see the road up the hill. Unable to see even across the yard. Thick. Dark white. Quiet.
When it had lifted enough not to be treacherous to venture out on foot–the roads have no shoulders, and I didn’t want a passing car to send me into a ditch–I was enchanted by the “fog filter” on the countryside.
It’s funny to see how things turn green in winter. The wheat fields are becoming emerald carpets. The grass and weeds between the rows of vines, left to hold the topsoil in place, are lush.
The pine trees that can become kindling for wild fires in summer are now verdant, as if razzing the deciduous plants whose finery is gone until spring.
Some of the vines have leaves left, but others are bare. Wintry. The wine growers are busy trimming while the weather is mild.
Others are out in the vines, too. The other day we were stopped on a main road for a boar hunt that was passing through. I’ve never seen a boar, but I hear there are too many.
Even on a fog-filter day, there are bursts of color. On this side of the hill, only the sound of the wind in the pines and the songs of birds. On the other side, the cars on the departmental road create a constant thrum. Electric vehicles can’t get here fast enough.
And finally, the fog lifts, and we see the majesty of the mountains. Is that still France? Or is it Spain? Or Andorra? In Nepal, the guest house had the Himalayan peaks traced on the window, with names pointing to crest. You stooped until you lined up the mountain view with the correct outlines and figured out which one was Mount Everest. Because they others weren’t high enough to worry about.
Though I’m mildly curious about which peak is which, I don’t want to let a focus on superlatives like “highest” take away their collective magnificence.
Happy holidays to all. We are taking a break until after the New Year, as the French do, in order to focus on friends and family at hand.
The French saying, occupe-toi de tes oignons means “mind your own business.” This post takes the literal translation: “take care of your onions.” It’s a recipe for real French onion soup.
At my evening gym class in the village, a regular topic of conversation is food (are you surprised?), specifically, “what’s for dinner?” And the answer, especially in winter, tends to be “soupe.”
In olden times in France, and still in Belgium, Switzerland and Canada, supper is “le souper.” You can’t miss that it contains the word “soupe.” It’s probably related to the adage: Manger comme un roi le matin, comme un prince le midi et comme un pauvre le soir–Eat like a king in the morning, like a prince at noon and like a pauper in the evening. Paupers got soup.
In France, it’s more common to call dinner “le dîner,” even when soup is the main course. (Souper tends to be reserved for a really late-night meal, say post-theater.)
Many of my friends go on a soup “cure” after an excessive weekend. With the holidays coming, a cure will be needed, though this soup is anything but “lite.”
A friend of ours shared his recipe for delicious onion soup. He protested that it wasn’t a recipe at all. Everything is measured “à vue de nez,” or intuitively/approximately, also often expressed as “au pif” or by the nose.
Onion soup for a crowd (about 8 servings)
About half a stale baguette, in 3/4 inch slices. “Not too much because it gets big”
Beaucoup (about 6 cups sliced) onions. It doesn’t matter what kind the onions are. Just slice them thinly. You need a lot because, contrary to the bread, the onions shrink.
Beaucoup (about 200 grams! 7 oz.) of butter. He would have put more but that’s what was left of the stick. He originally had less, but he dropped in the rest of the stick as soon as his wife stepped away. Don’t tell!
Flour–about two tablespoons
Beaucoup (about a pound) of grated emmental or gruyère cheese
Melt the butter. Stir in the onions and cook until they get a little brown, or at least rosy. Keep stirring so they don’t burn. You’ll see the volume decrease. Don’t cover.
When they’re a light brown, sprinkle 2 tablespoons of flour over them, one spoon at a time, and work it in. Keep stirring. Let the flour brown a little so the soup gets a nice color.
Add water bit by bit. This is flexible, but he put in about 5 or 6 liters (about 5 quarts), stirring all the time.
Add salt (three pinches from a pot) and pepper (freshly ground from a mill). Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and let it simmer about 30 minutes.
While it’s simmering, toast the bread (he put it on a tray under the broiler). You want it nice and brown, so the soup has a good color. Then heat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit or 200 degrees Celsius.
Arrange the bread in a large ovenproof dish. Put down one layer, sprinkle grated cheese over it, then another layer, more cheese, etc. Don’t over fill with bread! There was sort of a pyramid of bread, with empty space around the edges of the dish.
When the onions have cooked their half hour on the stovetop, spoon them onto the bread. Then pour in the broth. Don’t overfill or it will boil over and make a mess of your oven.
Sprinkle more cheese on top.
Bake for about 30 minutes. Serve hot with fresh bread.
He said that in his native Normandy, he grew up with onion soup made with milk, but since milk was expensive (it was just after the war) they couldn’t afford to use it for a crowd. I will have to try it with milk, but with real farm milk, not UHT pasteurized homogenized stuff.
As pretty as the lights and decorations are in town, I kind of like these decorations by nature, all taken on a walk in my village.
It can be hard to be an expat at Christmas, even after so many years. Some French traditions are nice–the relatively muted consumerism (it’s still there, but on a scale of 1 to 10, I give France a 7 vs. the U.S.’s 11), the Christmas markets with their quaint chalets and elegant snacks (champagne and oysters), the way everything shuts down between Christmas and New Year so people can have time off with their families.
What do I miss? Baking Christmas cookies. We baked many thousands of them last year and the year before (during which my handheld mixer died and I made a zillion batches by hand because: fridge full of butter and eggs). This year? Meh. Christmas cookies are not a thing in France. Friends here were flummoxed by the boxes of cookies we delivered, almost to the point of being embarrassed: “But we don’t exchange gifts!” “It isn’t a ‘gift’–it’s cookies.”
Anyway, we ate too much dough during the process and worked too hard at Pilates since then, so, not this year. Maybe next year.
A teeny tiny part of me misses the cold and snow. Just an itsy bitsy bit. Not much. An hour would do. (It’s 62 Fahrenheit as I write this.) The way the cold pinches your nostrils and stings your cheeks. The scrunching crunch of footsteps on snow. The clean smell. The absolute hush that envelopes the world when new snow falls.
I miss Christmas carols. Sure, Christmas music plays in some shops, but groups of carolers going house to house doesn’t seem to be a thing. It’s the singing part that’s fun, noses in the air and mouths open like Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang (a must-watch!). Belting. Glo-oooo-o-oooo-oooo-oria!
Speaking of belting, I miss going to Handel’s Messiah and singing the Hallelujah chorus. Also, seeing Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet. Both are very American traditions.
Most of all, I miss my family. After a rough 2015, we didn’t get to travel back this year. Decorations are nice, but family is what Christmas is all about.
The bathroom in the front apartment is done. Above, you can get full appreciation of the 1970s wallpaper. It looks a lot like the wallpaper that was in my parents’ Midwestern kitchen. That probably says something, but I don’t know what.
Obviously the apartment had been renovated many times over its 400 years, but it still feels old and historic. We wanted the bathroom to feel new and old at the same time.
The bathroom had a number of oddities. It was in what originally was a service hall because nobody had bathrooms when the place was built in the early 1600s. The very interesting blog The Seventeenth Century Lady gives an idea of the period’s hygiene, or lack thereof.
Our hall-cum-bathroom has a strange pipe ascending to the roof from who knows where below. The first floor is a shop, currently empty.
According to an old floor plan, there had been a bathtub, but it was replaced with a shower recently, and we kept that. It is huge. The room is bathed in light from a (frosted) window that rises more than 11 feet. Natural light is so important in a bathroom.
A new false ceiling over the shower takes care of that weird pipe as well as new ventilation and flush spotlights. The rest of the room has a four-meter (13-foot) ceiling.
We included a washing machine, because nobody wants to go to a laundromat on their vacation and this was about the only place we could fit it.
We hunted high and low all over southern France for the sconces and the mirror. The sink, too. It’s hard to find something that isn’t completely modern. But that antique Venetian mirror makes me swoon.
Right next to the bathroom is a separate loo. We used the same tiles but put them on the floor. The sink, with a marble-topped cabinet, came from a farmhouse, with a matching mirror. How do people photograph mirrors without being in the picture?
Almost everything in the apartments–aside from the appliances and kitchens–is antique, bought at estate sales or brocantes, or else bought with the apartment. We looked at some new replicas of old styles but were disappointed by the combination of low quality and high price.