Truth and Fries

IMG_6422I am an unabashed francophile, but sometimes the credit for things thought of as French belongs farther north. 

The singer Jacques Brel? Belgian. Hergé, creator of Tintin? Belgian. Basketball player and ex of Eva Longoria, Tony Parker? Belgian. Jazz musician Django Reinhardt? Belgian. Audrey Hepburn and Diane von Furstenburg? Belgian. Martin Margiela? Belgian.

French fries? Belgian. Though there’s of course a dispute about that. All I will say is that, regardless of their origin, fries and chocolates are better in Belgium. 

Actually, potatoes and chocolate both came from the Americas (Peru and Mexico, respectively) and aren’t native to Europe at all. Back in the 1700s, potatoes were considered hog feed and in fact banned from being grown in France because they were thought to cause leprosy. A French scientist named Antoine-Augustin Parmentier promoted potatoes, and they took off when they saved France from famine during a bad wheat harvest. 

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Initial cooking. Scary!

The wily Parmentier (who also was one of the first to get sugar from sugar beets and who ran a smallpox vaccination campaign for Napoleon) made potatoes desirable by posting armed guards at his garden. There’s nothing like making something hard to get to make people want it. Parmentier told his guards to accept bribes from people wanting potatoes. The guards disappeared at night so people could steal potatoes. 

If you see a dish with “parmentier” in the name, it has potatoes. Hachis parmentier is ground beef topped with mashed potatoes, similar to moussaka or cottage pie. Saumon parmentier is salmon topped with thin rounds of potatoes (layers alternated with cream).

Back to fries. When I first moved to Brussels and was looking for a place to rent, I learned that apartments came either fully furnished or so unfurnished that they didn’t have stoves, refrigerators or light fixtures. However, I visited a couple of apartments that had BUILT-IN deep fryers in the kitchen counters!!!! As if a stove is optional, but you can’t live without a fryer.

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Take them out when they make noise when shaken. Let them rest until the temperature of the fryer rises.

My husband is Belgian (and loves Brussels sprouts…and Belgian endive) and is genetically disposed to making some amazing fries. I have never deep-fried anything in my life, so I cede that territory to him. One day, we were eating dinner (steak tartare with fries) and the cooling fryer was grumbling loudly nearby in the open kitchen. And then it exploded. Grease went all over the stove hood, the stove, the floor, the ceiling, the walls, the sofa on the other side of the counter in our open-plan space. Total mess. It only reinforced my worst fryer fears.

Happily for me, he’s the expert. Here are some of his secrets to delicious fries.

Use beef fat; he likes the brand “Blanc de Boeuf.” It isn’t sold in France, so we smuggle it back from Belgium. Good luck with that part. However, it’s the most important thing, what keeps fries crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, without becoming soggy, which happens with oil.blanc-de-boeufYou can use frozen fries, but to get that crispy/moelleux (tender) combo, get thin ones. My expert likes allumettes, or matchsticks. Buy small packages so you don’t have leftovers—open packages in the freezer tend to collect ice and that will splatter in the fat, no matter how tightly you’ve sealed the package. Don’t waste money on fancy brands. Potatoes are potatoes….although we have friends who cut up fresh potatoes from their garden for their fries—that is another level of yum. Be aware that there are different varieties of fresh potatoes, with some marked for frites, some for the oven, some for boiling/steaming, some for rissoler (skillet frying like hash browns)… They have names like bintje (how Belgian is that one, and the kind for fries), charlotte, agata, franceline, manon, nicola, ratte, corne de gatte…it IS curious how many have female names!

Heat the fryer to 150 C (300 F). Plunge the fries in the fryer basket into the fat. Cook until, when you lift the basket and shake it, the fries make noise.

At that point, take the basket out (your fryer should have a way for the basket to perch above the fat, so the grease from the fries drips off and back into the fryer). 

Turn the fryer temperature up to 170 C (340 F). During this time, the fries get a rest. This is the second-most important tip after the beef fat.

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The second rest.

 When the fryer hits the right temperature, plunge the fries into the fat again for about two minutes—until they’re as golden or dark brown as you like them. Then let the fries drip/rest again before turning them into a bowl for serving, with a little salt.

The Belgians also love sauces with their fries. At the roadside friteries, which are somewhat but not always bigger than foodtrucks, the list of sauces is bigger than the main menu (which may include sandwich kebabs or the cholesterol bomb mitraillette (machine gun), which has fries IN THE SANDWICH). Here are some: mayonnaise; ketchup; cocktail (a mix of mayo and ketchup, often with whisky if homemade); tartare (mayo with herbs and pickles); andalouse (my favorite—mayo base with tomato, spices, garlic, shallots, red peppers and hot peppers); américaine (onions, tomatoes, white wine, cognac, cayenne and butter); samouraï (mayo, ketcup and harissa); pickles (cauliflower (!!!), pickles and pickled onions, honey, white vinegar, spices, mustard, ginger, curcuma and sugar); Brasil (tomato sauce with pineapple and spices). 

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A mitraillette. There is a baguette, meat, and other goodies under the heap of fries.

At a friterie, your fries will be served in a paper cone, the sauce dumped on top, served with a little fork. Check out the pack-of-fries handbag, with its own little red fork, from Delvaux, the Belgian luxury-goods company (a Belgian Hermès, you could say). Don’t miss the so Belgian, so surrealist little film. Of course, the frite bag is named for Namur, said to be where frites were invented.IMG_6421

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The Sharing Tightrope

032.Entrance of La CiteI get Banksy. And Elena Ferrante. And Daft Punk. And George Sand.

When I started this blog, I wanted needed to write about my observations of French life, the things I had been chronicling in regular emails to my parents since moving here. I started the blog when they died, like so many long-married couples, within weeks of each other. I never intended to sell anything, and I still don’t, other than our AirBnB apartments in the center of town. Hence, I kept the spotlight on France. I don’t show myself or, especially, my family and friends. They might not mind one story or photo but they might mind another, and it’s a line I don’t want to cross. I want to share the humanity of our lives without destroying their privacy. They aren’t online influencers, nor am I. We’re just quiet people, leading quiet lives. To be an open book on the Internet, it’s best to remain an enigma. Unless one is a Kardashian.

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The château of la Cité (because la Cité is a city with a castle in it). No photos here of Oliver and Lina because I was in the moment with them, enjoying their company and not focusing on getting shots.

That said, I have met in person a number of readers who have passed through our beautiful region. It’s always a delight, because they are so enthusiastic about France. I am amazed at how so many people online are truly wonderful people. No, I must correct that: having traveled around the world and having lived in four countries, I can say unequivocally that the vast majority of people are truly wonderful people. It is not amazing at all that people who read about food, history, antiques and travel would be agreeable. 153.Basilique saint NazaireReaders have shared such funny and heartfelt stories of their own in the comments. They have generously offered advice. And support.

The past week, we have enjoyed the company of Oliver and Lina Gee of the Earful Tower podcast. They are even cuter in person than they sound on the air. I found their podcast from another wonderful blog, French Girl in Seattle. A virtuous circle of francophile references.560.La Cité1We watched them do a live video tour of la Cité, and I was impressed by the amount of research Oliver had done. They are brimming with curiosity and enthusiasm about France. I enjoy it much more than the folks who complain about French quirks, which often aren’t quirks at all. They are either individuals being individual or the storyteller is the one really at fault. When our plumber doesn’t completely tighten something, we see it as a quirk of our plumber (and the Carnivore just goes around tightening everything after the plumber is done) and not of French plumbers. I can’t speak to French red tape, because I haven’t encountered any. My carte de séjour was a breeze, so was the driver’s license, so was enrolling our kid in school. Everyone we have encountered in bureaucracy has been very professional and efficient, except one time.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen we first bought our house here, we opened a bank account at the post office and set up automatic payments for utilities, etc. We were still living in Belgium at the time. We came back to prepare plans for the renovation (all the contractors were very professional, by the way, no tales of woe to share there), and discovered we had no water. We contacted the water utility and learned it was shut off for lack of payment. We ended up at the post office, where we found out the clerk had a question about something and was afraid to call us long-distance and also claimed he didn’t know our address. If anybody knows addresses it’s the post office. Anyway, the money we had deposited was blocked during this saga, no bills had been paid and the post office (more precisely the clerk who took care of banking in the village post office) hadn’t informed us of anything. We promptly took our money to a different bank (which the post office claimed was impossible, they couldn’t possibly accommodate a withdrawal over €400, but they managed. Again, I don’t consider this a French thing but an inept clerk thing–he undoubtedly wanted to hide his screw-up from his supervisors).Stairs to tower of la citeAnyway, back to Oliver and Lina. I will write about each of them individually (Lina designs her own line of shoes!), but in the meantime, get yourself over to the Earful Tower or to iTunes or Stitcher or Spotify or however you get your podcasts and sign up. They usually are based in Paris, but since they got married this summer (so cute!) they are traveling on a little red scooter (so cute!) in a heart-shaped route around France (so cute!). Carcassonne is the bottom point of the heart, exactly on the line that divides France between east and west.alley in la citeThe Earful Tower is full of stories about French culture, history and language. I love it and usually listen to each episode twice, because they are packed with details.

Picking Wine

P1080475At night, a welcome cool breeze slips through the open windows, along with the low growl of grape harvesting machines already toiling as early as three a.m. Wayward grapes stain the sidewalks and streets of the village. spilled-grapesWithin the time we’ve lived here, the harvest has gone from being all-hands-on-deck to being something that happens in our peripheral vision. The fête du village is always Aug. 15, a last fling before grindingly long days of harvesting. The village gym class didn’t start until after the vendange, because nobody had time for exercise when the vineyards were in full swing. Eventually, only two gym-goers were working with wine.P1080437

French wine is celebrated for its quality, and rightly so. Sure, you can find some bad stuff, but that’s the exception, not the rule. The AOCs–appellation d’origine côntrolée, a kind of certificate of quality linked to geographic location–are a very safe bet. Each AOC has strict rules about what winemakers can and can’t do with their wines, including which cépages, or varietals, they can include.machine-caunesLots of people overlook the AOCs because they require some memory work. AOCs generally are blends of varietals, and the wines that are trendy tend to be monocépage, or single varietal, like Chardonnay or Cabernet sauvignon or Pinot noir. One AOC that’s monocépage is Burgundy, with Pinot noir for red and Chardonnay for white. As far as marketing, it’s easier to sell a Cab or a Syrah/Shiraz than a Minervois that’s predominantly one or the other, with some other varietals mixed in. That mix is the special cocktail, the individualism. When I was in the U.S., most wine stores offered only a few, well-known French options, and the shopkeepers would explain that AOCs were just too complicated for customers.grapesLet me tell you, nothing is easier.

Look at the bottle. If it has high shoulders, it’s in the style of Bordeaux, which are mostly Merlot and Cabernet sauvignon for reds. These are fuller, bolder wines. A local favorite for this style in Minervois is Domaine la Tour Boisée (which also produces wines, like 1905, in the Burgundy style).P1080704If the bottle has sloping shoulders, it’s in the style of Burgundy, even if it doesn’t contain pinot noir. That means soft, complex wines. One of our favorite wineries is Château St. Jacques d’Albas, which uses a lot of Syrah in its red Minervois wines.P1080705Around Carcassonne, one finds several AOCs: Minervois, Cabardès, Malpère, with Corbière and Limoux a bit farther. Minervois, Cabardès and Malpère are some of the smallest AOCs in France, made up mostly of very small, family wineries.amid-vines-villalierBefore the vendange, taking grapes is theft, but after, the left-behind fruit is fair game. (Beware of the vendange tardive, or late harvest–those aren’t for taking either! The grapes are left on the vine until they start to dry out, to make dessert wine. It’s pretty easy to tell when a vineyard has been harvested–no big bunches are left).  Though it’s mostly the sangliers, or wild boars, that snarf up the last grapes.hand-picked-1

Big Words in French

P1090157Before we get started with today’s post, an exciting announcement: Francophile podcaster Oliver Gee of the Earful Tower and his wife, the lovely Lina, are in Carcassonne. The newlyweds are making a heart-shaped tour of France for their honeymoon. Look forward to an episode from Cathar country. Oliver not only does podcasts but has a blog and does videos about life and cool things to do in France. Check them all out!

Back to today’s rambling. When the French say something is a gros mot, they don’t mean it’s a big word. They mean it’s a swear word or a vulgar term. This is something I was taught not by any French class or tutor but by my kid, who, in preschool, suddenly learned to be an arbiter of what was and wasn’t appropriate talk for polite society.

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Keeping with my penchant for absolutely random photos when I don’t have something relevant, today you get doors of Toulouse.

This post is to save you from innocently saying the wrong thing. Or maybe you don’t care, and this post will give you more ammunition for swearing in French.P1090138Speaking of not caring, when somebody asks you, “do you want an apple or an orange?” and you think either is equally good, you say, “I don’t care” or “It doesn’t matter.” If your inflection is polite, it sounds perfectly nice—as in, “I’ll take the one that’s most convenient for you to give me.” P1090198In French, there are different ways to say it: 

Ça m’est égal: it’s the same to me. Most polite.

N’importe: not important (doesn’t matter). Also polite.

Je m’en fiche: I don’t care. Less polite. It means really that you don’t care, and no matter how sweetly you say it, you are implying that the question is below you.

Je m’en fou: I don’t care but in an impolite way. A kid would be in trouble for saying it at school.P1090193In my early days in Brussels, having picked up some phrases from the general public without any context or nuances, I once brightly told a shopkeeper “je m’en fou,” intending to convey, “do whatever is easiest for you; I’m good either way.” I got a raised eyebrow (but nothing more), and the shopkeeper undoubtedly took it as proof Americans are rude, when it was proof I was ignorant. It wasn’t until much later that I learned my faux pas.P1090182I know some English speakers who say merde as a polite alternative to saying shit, since it just sounds better. Well, the choice of polite French speakers is mince, which means skinny. As in, “Oh, mince, I spilled my wine.” Another alternative is mercredi, or Wednesday, pronounced meeeeerrrrrrrr-credi!P1090186Knowing about mince and mercredi, I was quite charmed when I first heard the Carnivore, quite annoyed at something, mutter “singe!”  How adorable, I thought, he says “monkey” when he’s mad. Later I learned that it was saint-dieu, not singe. Very gros mot.P1090178A favorite gros mot in the south of France is putain, which means prostitute. But it isn’t restricted to swearing; instead folks say it where some English-speakers might use the F-word, which is to say, as a noun, verb, adjective, adverb or just exclamation point (challenge: use putain as a preposition! as an article!). Extreme anger might be expressed with putain de merde. Watch this subtitled standup act by Patrick Bosso, who explains how to speak like a Marseillais (somebody from Marseille). It’s absolutely truffled with gros mots.P1090176Polite alternatives include purée (same word in English) and punaise, which are either bedbugs or thumbtacks, depending on the context. However, they only work as exclamations. Other polite exclamations: zut! flûte! 

Ça me fait chier and ça m’emmerde mean to annoy intensely, although literally both translate to “that makes me defecate.” Polite alternative: ça m’enerve, or that annoys me. Also ça m’agace, ça me gonfle (that blows me up) and oh, so many others.P1090174Americans sometimes say “shut up!” to mean “I don’t doubt you’re telling the truth but what you’re saying is shocking.” The archaic term (from the last century…you know, the 20th century) is “No way!”  Example: someone observes, “Beyoncé’s ex-drummer claims she does witchcraft,” and draws the response: “Shut up!”P1090164The French don’t do that. Ferme ta guele (sometimes just ta guele), or shut your mouth, but only animals have une guele; humans have une bouche. Very rude.

Tais-toi, or shut up, is neutral, though rather than command an adult (how well do you take being told “be quiet”?), it’s better to say chut, pronounced like “shoot,” which means  shush.

Casse-toi, barre-toi and va t’en all are ways to tell someone to “get lost,” though there are far more colorful choices. A milder alternative is laissez-moi tranquil, or leave me be. P1090159This just scratches the surface; the vocabulary of French gros mots is vast and rich. In fact, there are entire dictionaries dedicated to the topic, including “Dictionnaire des Gros Mots” by Marc Lemonier and “Gros Mots” by Gilles Guilleron.

Did you ever innocently utter a gros mot out of ignorance? A rite of passage for all learners of a new language…

Tarte au Citron with Blackberries

IMG_6386Late summer brings two wonderful treats: figs and wild blackberries. Both grow in profusion along roadsides and among the brush on the edges of fields and vineyards. One day I realized my hourlong walk had taken almost twice as long because I kept stopping to pick goodies. mures 3P1080453Picking blackberries is a zen task. Despite the thorns, I enjoy it. The berries are like glistening gems, plump with juice. Usually some birds venture near but not too near, enjoying the biggest berries that are high beyond my reach. The air smells sweet from the dried pines all around and is sweetened further by the overripe fruit that has fallen and is returning to earth.mures 7mures 6Even sweeter are the blackberries. They have no tang to them at all, the way raspberries do. Just straight sweetness. Almost too much. That’s why I like to pair them with a nice, tart lemon tart.

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Seen at a vide grenier

mures 1Tarte au citron is one of those classic French bistro offerings and couldn’t be easier to make. Sure, you can put meringue on top, but if you have wild blackberries, the colors contrast as perfectly as the flavors. I think other very sweet, not too drippy fruits would work, too, like blueberries. Maybe even figs, though I haven’t tried that. Be daring. The worst that can happen is that you won’t do that combination again. But I bet you will make tarte au citron again and again.IMG_6409Of course, you can always use a premade pie crust. If you have a choice, most tarte au citron recipes recommend pâte brisée, a shortcrust dough, rather than pâte feuillétée, which is the flaky kind…unless you’re crazy about flaky piecrust, in which case, you should do as you like. Far be it from me to look down on somebody’s crust preferences.

I made a nutty crust that was not too sweet. IMG_63591/2 cup (57 g) chopped nuts (walnuts, pinenuts, almonds–whatever you have. Not peanuts, though)

1 3/4 cup (220 g) flour

12 tablespoons (170 g) of butter, softened but not melted

1/2 cup (57 g) powdered sugar

1 egg

Grind the nuts finely (I used almond powder left over from macarons).

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My pastry board, a gift from a great uncle who was a carpenter, made for me when I was born. Now that is a special baby present. The marble rolling pin also was a gift, from my best friend’s mom. It has traveled.

Beat the butter and powdered sugar until fluffy. Add the egg. When it’s integrated, add the flour, and don’t go crazy about getting it completely mixed in. Then stir in the nuts, just enough that you can gather the dough away from the bowl. Divide it in half. Wrap each half (I flatten them so they are easier to roll out later) in plastic film. One half can go in the freezer for another day. The other one needs to chill for an hour or two.IMG_6378When it’s ready, preheat the oven to 400 F (200 C). Roll out the dough, set it in a 9 1/2-inch pie pan, and cover it with parchment paper, then with pie weights. Back for 20 minutes, then remove the pie weights and paper and bake for five more minutes so the bottom gets dry and a little brown. Let it cool.

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Before baking. A spoon makes a nice design.

For the custard:

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I forgot to include the cornstarch in the photo.

4 eggs

3/4 cup (170 g) granulated sugar

2-3 lemons

1/2 cup (120 ml) heavy cream (I was out this time, and as it was a Sunday and nothing was open, I substituted coconut milk, which worked great)

1 teaspoon cornstarch

2 cups blackberries (about the size of a liter of ice cream, which is the container I used when picking)

Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C).

IMG_6363Grate the lemons. Then squeeze the juice. You should get about 2/3 cup, maybe a bit shy (about 150 ml).

In a small bowl, add the cornstarch. Then work in the lemon juice, little by little, so the cornstarch dissolves without lumps.

In a medium bowl, beat the eggs. Add the sugar, then the lemon juice, grated peel and cream. Pour into the piecrust.

Turn the oven down to 325 F (160 C). Bake for about 25 minutes (check before), until the custard has set (shake it a little to see whether it jiggles).

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The divot was a lemon pip that I had missed earlier.

Let it cool a bit, then press the blackberries into the custard. IMG_6392

Mirepoix, in the South of France

IMG_1701Mirepoix can conjure up two very different things. A mirepoix is a mix of diced carrots, celery and onions that serves as a base for a number of dishes.  And the charming, medieval town of Mirepoix, about a 45-minute, very beautiful drive south of Carcassonne.IMG_4172IMG_4170Mondays are the day to see Mirepoix–market day. This is convenient, since so many towns, Carcassonne included, have markets on Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday. If you were busy on Saturday, you can catch up in Mirepoix on Monday. (Just forget about shopping anywhere on Sundays.) Mirepoix has another market day on Thursdays, but Monday is the one to see.

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Quite a difference from winter!

The heart of Mirepoix is its central square, lined with half-timbered houses with arcades that offer shade or shelter, depending on the season. It once was a fortified town, the halfway point between Carcassonne and Foix. It sprang up in the 10th century and became a holdout for the Cathars, which led to its being captured during the last crusade (the real one, the Albigensian Crusade) in 1209 just after Carcassonne. The town was wiped out again in 1289, when a terrible flood destroyed it. The locals rebuilt, but on the other side of the river. The area once was in a forest; today a big oak at the entry to the town, classified as a historic monument in 1945, is all that’s left–the other trees went into those half-timbered houses.

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The fortifications.

Mirepoix also has some great antique shops and brocantes.

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Sign of summer.

In the summer, it draws throngs–of course. Nobody makes a trip to see a mediocre town. But in winter, you can have the place to yourself.IMG_4173

 

Piñata Cake

IMG_0289There are different ways to impress guests. You can serve the most refined and perfectly prepared dishes. Or, if you’re entertaining 8-year-olds, you can make a piñata cake. Cake AND candy! Two great tastes that taste great together. A guaranteed hit that will first make jaws drop and then mouths open.

I established a reputation in my little village here in the deepest, most lost depths of France profonde as somebody who made very strange gâteaux, but they were mostly good.

There was the carrot cake, at one of our earliest gatherings. A July 4 cookout, and we invited everybody we knew at the time. I had made a bunch of desserts, including a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, sheet-cake format, decorated with strawberries and blueberries to make an American flag.

I was about to cut it, but a friend said, “Oh, wait, I have to show everybody first!” As she carried it around, she called out to me, “What kind of cake is it?” When I said carrot, she just about dropped the thing. Her face was the picture of shock. And horror. But, being incredibly gracious, she recovered, and turned the conversation to the frosting. Answering that it was made with cheese didn’t help the situation.

The other desserts got eaten in short order, but the carrot cake sat untouched until finally one guest, who hadn’t paid attention to this exchange, took a piece. The others watched warily, and when his face lit up with pleasure, they all had to try this strange carrot cake with cheese on top. It disappeared in minutes.

Just FYI, these days a very branché (literally “plugged in”–hip) café in Carcassonne serves not only carrot cake but also cheesecake and many kinds of cupcakes. And is always crowded.

However, to my knowledge, at least in these parts, to get hold of a piñata cake, you have to DIY or see me. And I am about to spill my secrets.IMG_0279Now, a piñata made of papier mâche (pronounced pap-ee-ay mash, not paper mashay) is extremely uncommon around here. There is no going to Wal-Mart or Target, where you can get a wide selection of Mexican piñatas made in China. In fact, in deepest France, piñatas were quite unknown, even though Dora l’Exploratrice was a hit in a certain demographic on TV.

I made a piñata for the class, and was very proud of myself. It was the image of a popular cartoon character. I was completely unprepared for the reaction: horror. I had brought a tee-ball bat that a dear American uncle had given my kid, wanting my child to have all the benefits of American heritage, even while living in France. However, this uncle was quite aware that my husband is gifted at hitting balls with his feet or his head but not with his hands and that I am a complete and utter ZERO when it comes to anything round. Just forget it. I can’t throw and I can’t catch. (I can’t run or swim or …. well, you get the picture. Not coach material.)

So the piñata full candy and crayons and erasers (hey, not TOO much sugar!) was suspended from a stately plane tree in the school courtyard, but the kids were utterly horrified at the idea of beating a beloved visage into oblivion.

I should have known better. A few years earlier, I had done a Winnie the Pooh theme for a birthday cake and was very proud of my artistry…until it came time to cut the cake, and the children bawled like mad because I had desecrated Winnie. No, dear reader, if you have to cut it, make it something banal.

Of course, and I really should have seen this coming, with the piñata, it was Lord of the Flies. As soon as one child slugged it, then the others tasted blood and were all in.

Things went somewhat better with the cake. However, I warn you that while the first slice or two is utterly impressive, after that the architecture of the thing falls apart and you have a cake/frosting/candy mess. But by then the little devils are so hyped up they don’t even notice.

IMG_0286Piñata Cake

OK so here we can get into the whole French-vs.-U.S. (or wherever) supermarket supplies. You cannot find confetti cake mix in France. Forget it. In fact, they don’t sell cake mix at all. You can find a mix for flan, for macarons, for fondant (or moelleux–NOT THE SAME) au chocolat, but not for cake/gâteau. That’s because cake mix is a huge rip-off, and the French, being skin-flints in the most admirable way, refuse to buy it. Flour, sugar, leavening, salt…for crying out loud! Plus they have to add a bunch of chemical preservatives (OK, if you’re prudish avert your eyes, because “preservatives” in French means condoms (like for birth control, not like the French town) and the stuff that adds shelf life is called “conservateurs.”) It takes all of one minute to actually measure the dry ingredients, and even with a mix you have to add all the liquid ones.

So back to the recipe. You make a yellow (or white) cake. Chocolate would hide the confetti aspect.

2.5 cups white flour

2 tsp baking powder

a pinch of salt

1 cup butter

2 cups granulated sugar

4-5 eggs, separated (4 if big; 5 if not)

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 cup milk

1 cup sprinkles (or more!)

Preheat the oven to 350 Fahrenheit (180 C).

Sift the dry ingredients.

Beat the butter until it gets white and fluffy. Add the sugar, then the egg yolks and vanilla.

Beat the whites until they’re stiff.

Mix the butter into the dry ingredients. Stir in about a third of the milk, then another third, and another.

When the batter is well-mixed, carefully integrate the egg whites, stirring in ONE DIRECTION. This is the same advice as for Mousse au Chocolat and Baba au Rhum. Consistency. At the last minute, add the all-important sprinkles.

You need two identical Pyrex bowls, about 6.5 inches (17 cms) in diameter. Butter them and pour in the batter. Bake for about 20 minutes (but check after 15!).

Let it cool. Before you turn out the two halves, scoop out the insides of the cakes. Make sure you have at least 2 inches (5 cms) of cake all the way around, or else it will collapse.

Make the frosting. I just did classic buttercream–equal parts butter and powdered sugar, with a dash of vanilla. Later, I added food coloring.

I used something like M&Ms, which at that time you couldn’t find in France but now they’re everywhere. Nothing too soft or sugary or else it will dissolve with the humidity of the cake. In fact, let the cake get completely cool before assembling. Don’t make more than a day in advance.IMG_0275Put the bottom half of the piñata cake on the serving dish. Then pour the candy into the hollowed-out hole in the bottom half of the cake, carefully creating a talus hill above. Without disturbing the candy, apply some frosting around the flat lip of the bottom half of the cake. Delicately set the top half of the cake on it.

Frost the whole thing. As you can see, I’ve done this more than once. The smooth frosting was much easier than the little stars.

The last bit of advice: Don’t stress about it. Years later, my kid remembers only that I made birthday cakes from scratch (spatula licking was involved), vs. other kids whose parents picked up something random at the supermarket. It really is the thought that counts.

 

Bella Ciao

P1080529As I write this, a Euro-electro cover of the Italian folk song “Bella Ciao” is blasting into my window from a boisterous gathering. Sound travels easily in the countryside.

If you don’t know this song, listen here (not the techno version).tree and rocksYears and years ago, an eternity really, when my kid was a little round sausage of yumminess and naïvété, the (first grade?) class learned the song “Bella Ciao” for the year-end show. They always learned something that would bring great applause from all the grandparents in the audience, and there was something adorable about these little tykes belting out hits from half a century earlier.

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Once again, random photos. This time from a search for a brocante where the Carnivore and I got lost in the countryside.

Thus I’ve known Bella Ciao for a while. Obviously it was an Italian song, so I didn’t understand the lyrics (unlike another song my kid learned in school even earlier: “Si Tu Vas à Rio”–“If you go to Rio….don’t forget to go up yonder, to a little village, hidden under wild flowers, on the side of a hill….” a song about reminiscences and good old times, which is kind of hilarious coming out of the mouths of four-year-olds).P1050713Several years later, my kid was studying World War II, and “Bella Ciao” came up again in the context of families deciding whether to weather the terrible fascist political climate or to flee, to become refugees. The song’s origins were the women of the Po river valley who weeded the rice paddies and who suffered terribly. (How did a song about suffering women manage to be sung by so many men?) (Italian and English lyrics here)P1020416Later (although one article said the partisans came first, in 1919, and the rice weeders came after World War II), it was adopted as an anti-fascist anthem, and then as a pro-communist song. These kinds of liaisons are difficult, because you can be very anti-fascist and also downright cold to communism–the original idea might have been nice but in reality communism was a huge con job and an economic and social failure. Yet, in binary, black-and-white situations, you don’t get to be anti-communist AND anti-fascist, because those get lumped as one and the same. So either you have to choose to be anti-fascist and just ignore the communist part or you shrug and walk away from everything altogether. In some parts of southern France, communists haven’t gotten the memo about its demise. There also are plenty of refugees or descendants thereof from Franco’s Spain, so there’s a strong anti-fascist streak as well (a Spanish cover of the song was censored in Spain in 1969…Franco died in 1975, for those of you who don’t remember Chevy Chase on SNL’s Weekend Update). “Bella Ciao” became the hymn of labor strikes in the 1960s and then crossed the Atlantic in service of the government of Salvador Allende in Chile, which, you might recall, ended badly, thanks to the CIA.

P1050710“Bella Ciao” has been in my head lately because it was a theme of the hugely popular Spanish series (picked up on Netflix) “La Casa del Papel”–“Money Heist” in English. What an interesting series! I didn’t see all of it, but it was fascinating, with the corrupt victims, the good-hearted villains, the messed-up police….nothing rote, everything complicated. AlloCiné compared it to “Ocean’s Eleven,” but it was free of smugness and made you question everything. Maybe it was an intellectual “Ocean’s Eleven.” It also was devoid of fashion, yet had such indelible looks. The red jumpsuits! The Salvador Dali masks!chateau rooftopsIn looking around for who in the world did the electro version I was hearing, I discovered that “Bella Ciao” is in a renaissance as it were, thanks to “La Casa del Papel,” which made it hip again.  French-Congolese rapper Maître Gims did a version with lots of la, la, la (which translates as la, la, la, whether Italian to French or French to English). French DJ Jean Roch (I do NOT approve of that silky green jacket. Nor of the backup dancers) and American electro house musician Steve Aoki also did it. And French-Spanish singer Manu Chao, though he was before the current craze. In fact, his family fled Franco’s Spain, which is how he was born in France.P1070751Have you heard Bella Ciao before?P1080530

 

Play it again, Sam

IMG_4634Casablanca is such a contrast between modernity and history, between rich and poor, between beauty and ugliness. It’s an assault on the senses, yet it feels mostly benign, not menacing.

14.Vue balcon
The view from our AirBnB. In the very center, greenery is scarce, but the city lives up to its name: white house.

Earlier I posted about our visit and about the restaurants we went to. This time, we’re just going to tool around town, observing life, how it’s the same yet different.

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Just beyond the warren of streets in the center, palm-lined boulevards carry lots of cars.
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I love the reflection of the palms on the glass façade and the plants on the terrace near the roof. It could be any southern city, right?
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More integrated greenery. Note the grill at the top–for cutting the sun.
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Cacti on this roof. The overhangs are so smart–the windows stay shaded from direct sunlight.
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Note the open windows on the blue-green glass building. I kept looking at Casablanca’s weather during the summer. Highs around 79, thanks to cooling sea breezes. Very pleasant. No need for A/C.

One foggy morning we went to the huge Mosque Hassan II, the fifth largest in the world. Walking back, we sought out some other sights.

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Closed for renovations.

The Casablanca Cathedral, also shown in the top photo, is an Art Deco gem. It opened in 1930. It’s no longer a church but is used for cultural events. I’m a sucker for Art Deco.

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The lacy cutouts reflect the local architectural styles. It doesn’t look out of place at all.

Casablanca has a shiny new tram, which was decked out in honor of the national World Cup team. The tram was clean, quick, comfortable and cheap (about 70 cents a ride).58.Tram équipe du MarocI’m so conflicted over trams and metros. On the one hand, they tend to be viewed as better than buses, and in Casablanca the buses were rickety and packed to the gills. However, they require a huge investment, and they’re stuck in place, whereas buses use existing streets that serve other vehicles and it’s easy to change bus routes.

The Casablanca tramway has two lines. The second line is 17 kilometers (10 miles), cost €262 million and serves nine districts with a total population of over 1 million people. While it’s a lower-carbon alternative to the fume-belching buses, I think you could buy a lot of new, even electric, buses for €262 million.

51.Petit taxi
Red for local rides.
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Lots of taxis!

Taxis are another way to get around, and amazingly cheap. The petits taxis are red and are for trips within the city only. If you want to go farther, say to the airport, you need a grand taxi. These are usually white. Either way, you get a white-knuckle ride.

26.Parking cyclomoteurs
Two-wheel parking lot.
16.Livreur
We saw lots of these three-wheeled delivery vehicles. This one had to be pushed over the bump to cross the tram line–it couldn’t quite make it with the engine alone!
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Delicious pineapple.

There also were some donkey carts and human-pulled carts, like the pineapple vendor above. Can you imagine a life of pushing your pineapples, probably quite far, because Casablanca is relatively expensive and you probably would have to live on the edges of the city. You navigate your precious cargo to a spot in the center of the city, where passersby have jobs that allow them the luxury of spending a few dirhams on a whim, like for a wedge of juicy pineapple. If you don’t sell, your pineapples will rot. You have no cushion, no salary. Just income from what you manage to sell, trying to survive another day. Nobody grows up thinking, “boy, I hope I can sell pineapples by the slice one day. What a life that would be!” No, it’s what you do when all else fails.

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The Grand Theatre of Casablanca, aka CasArts.

Down the street but a world away, the Grand Theatre of Casablanca is taking shape. Designed by French architect Christian de Portzamparc, the theater is supposed to resemble a medina, with fluid lines, and many alleyway-like entries that will provide natural ventilation, shade and places for people to relax. The entrance will double as an outdoor soundstage.

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The theater is directly across from the fountain that dominates Square Mohammed V.

I really couldn’t get over the palm trees. And the bougainvillea.40.Palmiers1P1100386

18.Bananiers
Bananas too.

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56.Bière casablanca
Even palms on the beer!!!
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This house was like a lot of “inner” Casablanca–undoubtedly beautiful at one time, but no longer kept up.

I still have more photos to share of this fascinating place.34.Plage4

 

 

 

 

 

Life in a French Village

P1100281Yesterday was la rentrée des classes–back to school–though it’s the official end of summer for those without kids, as well. The cars on the roads seem more purposeful, if not exactly rushed. Folks in these parts don’t rush very often.P1100276Although the end of summer and the return to routine marks the passage of time, in the little villages of the south of France, time seems to stand still. Time feels less linear and more like accretion, layers upon layers, with the old still there, forever.P1100274Welcome to the village of Trausse, on the edge of the Black Mountains, not far from Carcassonne. Host of a cherry festival in May and home year-round to excellent Minervois wine. As you can see, it’s bustling.P1100265

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The beating industrial heart of Trausse….wine, of course.

In that way of small villages, life is both intensely private and lived in public. P1100270

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Note there are TWO chairs sitting in the street. The better to see you with, my dear.

P1100258There are old stones, remnants of an illustrious past. In the late 1700s, there were more than 800 residents; today there are about 500.

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The Tour de Trencavel dates to the 12th century. It was a watchtower on the periphery of Carcassonne. The Trencavels pretty much ruled the region back then.
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Only in a village like Trausse is this not extraordinary but just normal.
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The church, like the tower, keeps the Christmas lights up all year because it’s nuts to climb up there to put them up, take them down, put them up, take them down.

Nothing is straight. If the walls in the photo above look like they’re leaning in toward the street, well, yes, they are.

People come and go, but the stones remain, sometimes putting up with modernization, like electricity.P1100242

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Do you see the loudspeaker on the right? That’s for public announcements, like the fishmonger’s truck has arrived, or a vide grenier is scheduled, or so-and-so has died.

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Note the doorbell.

Although fetching water was probably a moment for gossip and camaraderie, I doubt folks regret having indoor plumbing. Somebody told me my village got plumbing in the 1970s!

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Do you see the scowling face in the middle, saying “turn off the tap!”

P1100273Trausse is overshadowed by its neighbor, Caunes-Minervois, which is undeniably adorable and which attracts many tourists. I heard that J.K. Rowling recently spent time in Caunes. But that might just be bragging. In any case, Caunes is a good place for somebody like her to be incognito, just another British lady renting a holiday home. P1100278

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Even the mudscraper is cute. Notice the different materials–stones, concrete, red bricks.
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Faded, but it says “Bike Exit”–often garage doors have “sortie véhicule” to indicate that you’ll be in trouble if you park in front. I found this to be charmingly cheeky.

There are so many cute villages here–I’m hard-pressed to think of any that don’t have at least a picturesque ancient center, even the ones surrounded by ugly subdivisions. It’s easy to skip the subdivisions and stick to the quaint old streets, where elderly residents sit in the shade unperturbed, cats nap in the middle of the road, and time meanders gently.P1100267