Between batches of savory curry madeleines (better not frozen), I am pounding out this post. The process of cooking is taking longer than I expected because of mechanical difficulties. I have one madeleine mold, which I bought 20 years ago when I was living in Brussels and spending weekends in Paris and figuring that I’d be back in the U.S. in a year and wouldn’t it be cute to have something so quintessentially French? And then I more or less stayed and had easy access to excellent madeleines and I focused instead on making things I couldn’t get here–Mexican food–and never made madeleines until a couple of weeks ago.
I don’t see a point in buying another madeleine mold; as good as these curry-cheese madeleines are, I don’t expect to make them all the time, much less a double batch.
And since the madeleines stick ever so slightly, I have to wash the mold between batches. (I tried oil, butter, butter and flour, but the madeleines still cling to the supposedly nonstick mold.)It takes forever!
Do you ever have crises like that?
I don’t consider it a huge crisis. I wanted everything to be done today, and I still think it’s possible.
Meanwhile, some local color. The Carcassonne Christmas market officially opens tomorrow, though it has been set up for a while.
Here are some photos from last year.
Complete rundown of the party, recipes, photos and how-to coming Tuesday!!! Promise!
Signs of Christmas in Carcassonne have been sprouting faster than mushrooms after a rain. Lights have been strung on the pedestrian shopping street.
More lights went up on the central square, Place Carnot. The fountain of Neptune was swathed with fake snow, because on the day of the photo temps were in the low 60s Fahrenheit. No snow in these parts. It’s supposed to get cold next week, which is just as well for the big ice rink that will take up much of the square.
The chalets for the Christmas market were installed. The market runs from Dec. 6 to Jan. 7 this year. It’s lively all day but best at night, when the lights are on. In general, the folks around here stick to low-key decorations. I’ve seen more people put up lights, but not as much as in the U.S.
There are some interesting interpretations of Christmas trees.
Another sign of the season: the arrival of Graisse de Noël (Christmas fat), which is a cross between Cantal cheese and butter. OMG it is fantastic.
The municipal workers also have been busy removing the frost-sensitive flowers and replacing them with hardier varieties like pansies, cyclamen and chrysanthemums. Having grown up with snow, I am enchanted by the idea of planting winter flowers.
We hope to get a tree this weekend, if they’re available. We are throwing a big holiday party (more on that coming soon…menu and recipes), so the decorations will rise beyond the usual.
Have you decorated yet? Real tree or fake? Less is more or more is more?
When the time changes in autumn, the shift to earlier darkness always casts familiar landscapes into unfamiliar shadows. On the one hand, it feels suddenly subdued–no kids out playing. On the other hand, it feels unusually busy–what are all these people doing out so late? Even though it isn’t late at all.
As the emboldened night envelopes us, lights come on, making the outside seem even darker. Peeks of glowing interiors, through windows not yet curtained or shuttered, reveal tableaus of dinner tables set, cooks toiling, televisions strobing colors across living rooms. The homes look intimate and cozy, even those of the elderly residents who favor fluorescent lighting in their kitchens. Dinner smells dance through the streets. Colder nights demand dishes cooked long and slow. Comfort food. Soups, not salads.
We light these candles most evenings in winter. We also have candlelit dinners nearly every night. Little rituals to mark the seasons.
Carcassonne attracts visitors all year because the weather is mild even in winter. But the streets definitely are much quieter off season. It’s like looking at someone you know when they are lost in thought. Their features are familiar, but you cannot reach the churnings inside. They can seem like a different person than the one you know from conversations.
Place de Lattre de Tassigny, around the corner from our apartments. Like an outdoor living room.
Place Carnot, the central square, is like an old, chatty friend, and usually I visit on Saturday mornings for the market, when it’s in its bubbliest mood. I have rarely missed a Saturday market. Even when it’s pouring rain, I’ll go for the excuse of wearing my multicolored polka-dot rubber boots and getting out my multicolored striped umbrella (for someone who wears black most of the time, so much color is exceptional). The square bustles with people at a very civilized level all day, every day, and it turns into an outright party on Saturday mornings. A civilized garden party, not a frat party, with lots of kissing on both cheeks and café crèmes that segue into chardonnays. But as with any good party, more people attend than there are seats available, and even the stateliest Carcassonnais will dive for a table that frees up.So to be at Place Carnot very late, or very early, feels almost like intruding. The café tables and chairs are stacked and wrapped in tarps. There isn’t a sound but my own footsteps. The square is mine alone.It makes me think of other hushed moments. Snow does that. It slows everything down and muffles all sounds. Boots crunch on the snow, making that satisfying chewing sound. But cars get quiet, as if they’re driving over woolen blankets. There was something so cozy about being in the family station wagon, under a blanket in the back seat with my siblings. Warm but cold. The air so chill it made one’s nostrils pucker and cheeks prickle. But under the blanket, cocooned in a coat over sweaters over shirts over thermals, hands making fists to keep poor thumbs warm inside mittens inside pockets, we were toasty enough to fall asleep before traveling many blocks. I wonder whether my parents knew how safe and happy they made our childhood. For some reason this makes me think of the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song:
You, who are on the road Must have a code that you can live by And so, become yourself Because the past is just a goodbye
Teach your children well Their father’s hell did slowly go by And feed them on your dreams The one they pick’s the one you’ll know by
Don’t you ever ask them why If they told you, you would cry So just look at them and sigh And know they love you
And you (Can you hear?) of tender years (And do you care?) Can’t know the fears (And can you see?) that your elders grew by (We must be free) And so, please help (To teach your children) them with your youth (What you believe in) They seek the truth (Make a world) before they can die (That we can live in)
Teach your parents well Their children’s hell will slowly go by And feed them on your dreams The one they pick’s the one you’ll know by
Don’t you ever ask them why If they told you, you will cry So just look at them and sigh And know they love you
Last night, our village was among those hosting a dinner and fireworks–done the night before the holiday because they can’t compete with the big fireworks tonight at la Cité of Carcassonne.
Here is the dinner menu: salad with gizzards; civet of duck (this civet isn’t the little animal but a kind of ragout made with lots of onions and pronounced see-VAY); bleu de coeur cheese; and apple pie. The Carnivore went, but I skipped it–too many calories and not enough vegetables.When it got dark, everybody went to the park of our château (almost every village has at least one château) to watch the fireworks. There is something charming about being in a crowd where you know 90% of the people. Children ran around freely; the park is their playground and they were excited by a place so familiar seen so unfamiliarly dark. When the fireworks started, more than a few of the little ones became hysterical. Fireworks are an acquired taste.
The crowd oohed and aahed in in unison, which added to the feeling of togetherness.
Compared with last year, the display was smaller and had some glitches. The park has an old stone bridge that used to go over the river until a flood changed its course. Sparklers hanging off the side give the impression of a waterfall of lights. Very pretty, especially with the elegant arch of the bridge. But the string came loose, and half of the waterfall turned into more of a puddle.
This one looked like one of those deep space photos. And it was a very starry night.
After the big finale, we stood around chatting with friends as people slowly shuffled out. Suddenly another firework blasted off and lit up the sky. One of the technicians took off across the lawn, flashlight in hand, toward the launching area. A couple more strays went off. A small fire burned under the bridge. Technicians’ flashlights flickered back and forth near the rose garden. Clearly little villages have to make do with the farm league of fireworks.
Tonight, though, is the big leagues. For a week, you could feel the excitement mounting in town. There were more people around, adding to the energy. July brings the Festival of Carcassonne, with concerts, theater and dance. I went to a dance performance in the courtyard of the château of la Cité–a fabulous setting (la Cité isn’t a castle but a fortified city, with a château inside it that was the last resort). Tonight, the only concerts are free ones at Place Carnot, in the Bastide, or “new” town (dating from only 1260, but that’s how things roll around here). Guy Lacroux will play old-fashioned bal musette dance tunes on the accordion before the fireworks, and BRBB, for Béziers Rhythm & Blues Band, will play after.
At the same time, the reason for the holiday is a serious one. The fight for freedom, for equality, for fraternity and pitching in together for the common good. They aren’t easy principles to uphold, and sometimes what seems right can turn out wrong. But France does a pretty good job, and I’m grateful to live here.
If you haven’t heard enough here about why you should visit Carcassonne, check out the lovely article about our region in Condé Nast Traveler.
Titled “Why Languedoc Is Like Nowhere Else in France,” you can see it here.
The gorgeous photos are by Oddur Thorisson, whom francophile blog readers probably know as the husband of Mimi Thorisson of Manger. (Because I don’t reproduce other people’s photos without permission, the photos here are my own.)The writer visits many of our favorites, from la Cité of Carcassonne, shown at the top, to the beach at Gruissan, above, the garrigue, below, and more. The article calls Languedoc the Tuscany of France, but I think of it as the “other” south of France–more low-key and down to earth, less fashionable and flashy than Provence.The markets overflow with succulent local produce and products that end up in delicious dinners shared among friends and family or at restaurants. And the wine!
It is a pleasure to share the local secrets with you, especially the ones about savoir-vivre–the French art of living well.
Tangentially, check out this beautiful tapestry that some dear friends gave us. We put it in la Suite Barbès. It’s two meters (six feet) wide, which gives you an idea of how big the room is.
For reasons we don’t understand, the listings for our apartments in the heart of Carcassonne were completely messed up on AirBnB. We have openings!
The apartments date to the 17th century and have 13-foot ceilings, huge marble fireplaces with gorgeous high-relief decorations above them, and huge windows. They were renovated according to strict historical preservation rules and are furnished with antiques.
Appearances can be deceptive. The Maison des Mémoires (House of Memories) is a haunting name for nicely restored building in the center of Carcassonne, mixing industrial modern touches with ancient stones. A sun-drenched interior courtyard shows beyond the reception desk.
Why I never entered is a mystery. I love this sort of thing. But la Maison des Memoires is modest, at least from the street, and when I passed, I was usually in a hurry on my way to something else.
I finally visited. And it was a treat. An unexpected discovery of unexpected discoveries. How’s that for meta?
The building, at 53 rue de Verdun (entry is free), was the home of Joë Bousquet, a poet and author who hobnobbed with the surrealists. They came to him because he was unable to get out. He was paralyzed by a bullet to the spine in World War I at the age of 21.
Bousquet mostly stayed in the dim of his upstairs room, where he smoked opium to cope with the pain. Opium became popular in France at the turn of the last century, as sailors and military brought it back with them from Indochina. It became so popular that smoking it was outlawed in 1908. But Bousquet’s father was a doctor, who had legal access, and his circle of artistic friends supplemented his supply.
Tangent discovered in researching this: France is the biggest legal producer of opium poppies rich in codeine (which is one of the six naturally occurring opium alkaloids; morphine is the most important one for medicine).
The ground floor has a reception area (entry is free), and upstairs are two rooms for visiting exhibits–a series of photographs about immigration when I visited–and two more rooms about Bousquet, with photos and his books. At the end of a small hallway, you can look into Bousquet’s bedroom, kept as he left it, with the shutters closed.
The exhibit rooms are stunning, exhibits notwithstanding. When the building was renovated, gorgeous painted ceiling beams were revealed. They were restored but not brightened or altered. The first room is kept dark, so it was hard to photograph without flash.
The second room’s beams date to 1640 and are quite different. They would be stylish today. I would love them at home!
The rooms are arranged in the typical French disposition, with doors aligned for sight lines and air circulation. As you stand in the second room and look through the first to the hallway beyond, there’s a trompe d’oeil fresco that was discovered after a new staircase had been installed. The fresco was placed to give the impression of a pastoral view that continued on to the horizon.And then, get a load of this beauty below. This is no reflection on the Bousquet family, because Joë lived in two other houses on the same street before moving here. But sometimes you have to appreciate when decorators don’t do the “right” thing. Like when they slap something new right on top of the old stuff, instead of first removing the old.In this case, the old stuff was Aubusson wallpaper, signed and dated: 1791. It originally had been a few feet away, at the end of a hallway, but was moved here, away from the window. Whoever had gotten sick of it so many years ago just left it there and covered it up.
Another tangent: the tapestries that had made Aubusson (and Gobelins and Beauvais) famous fell out of fashion, in part because they weren’t needed for insulation as homes were better heated and in part because the French Revolution (1789-1799) put a big dent in their clientele. So they started making wallpaper, which was coming into fashion. In fact, the first definition of tapisser today in French is to hang wallpaper. I love etymological connections.
Sadly for Bousquet, all these beauties had been hidden under plaster and discovered only during the renovation to create the museum. I can just imagine, having been there, done that: a bump against a wall sends a layer of plaster clattering down. In our case, we discovered not antique wallpaper but that the walls had been filled with straw. You never know what you will find.
After my second visit to la Maison des Memoires, I hit the library for some of Bousquet’s books. I wasn’t familiar with Bousquet, nor with his contemporaries, such as Andrew Gide and Paul Éluard. Another happy discovery. Here are a few passages translated:
The truth that we understand is but the image of that which inspires us.
You have presumed too much of the future and of luck. The time which should have brought you happiness is dead en route, and you fall again to the power of the shadows that follow you. But an unhoped-for rescue comes to you with your strengths, which you hadn’t imagined. Would you say that everything is lost because there’s only you to save yourself?
Don’t imitate reality, collaborate with it.
Meanwhile, a call for help from a reader: what exactly are these scissors used for? They are 6.5 inches or 16 cm long. I was thinking for sewing, though they’re longer than my pretty sewing scissors and the blades are different. What do you say?
Send your answers in the comments. And merci mille fois!
Last week, the news was full of about how bad weather in Spain and Italy had hurt vegetable crops, sending prices skyrocketing.
I have to admit that I had picked up a few courgettes (zucchini) at the market and then dropped them as if stung by a bee when the vendor informed me the price was €7.50 a kilo. In summer, courgettes sell for €1 a kilo. My fault for wanting something out of season.
Because we live in an area where frost is rare and the ground doesn’t freeze in winter, fresh local produce is available year-round. But it means forgetting about zucchini and tomatoes.
At the Saturday market I gathered photos from my favorite maraîchers, or vendors, who also grow all their own produce. There’s plenty of variety, even in the dead of winter.
Take radishes. There are the red variety, like the first photo. But also black or blue.
What do you do with these giants? You can dice them up in a soup or slice or grate them to eat raw in a salad. Speaking of salad, there are many kinds of lettuce and such, including piles of single leaves of roquette (rocket or arugula), cresson (watercress), chicorée (chicory) frisée (curly endive) or escarole but not iceberg. No loss there.
I don’t count lettuce as a vegetable. It’s like a condiment, a nice thing to eat on the side, a crisp break between the main course and the cheese course, but you still need a vegetable, or you need to eat a truckload of lettuce. The Carnivore argues that a few tired* leaves of laitue are all you need, and that fish, poultry, eggs and dairy could possibly count as vegetables because they aren’t meat. Logical.
We even have kale in Carcassonne. Moving up in the world.
Kale may be new and trendy in France, but cabbage comes in many varieties and is cheap.
Did you know that calling somebody a cabbage is a term of endearment? Mon chou and p’tit chou are like saying “honey.” (Don’t call anybody miel in French!) The teacher’s pet is the chouchou. And a petit bout de chou is a small child.
Topinambour, or sunchoke, can substitute for potatoes, and are prepared the same way.
Alain and Juliette Fumanel‘s stand is another favorite. M. Fumanel is known to all as “Fufu,” and usually is in highly amusing conversation with his many friends and clients. And Mme. Fumanel is always very elegant. I go directly to their farm near Pont Rouge in summer for tomatoes and the other vegetables I put in my tomato sauce.
Check back on Friday for a special recipe using a purchase from the market: Swiss chard.
*Re “tired” lettuce: some people like to “fatigue” the salad by dressing it a few hours before the meal, so it isn’t as crisp. They actually do it on purpose.
It isn’t easy to find curtains that are four meters long (13 feet). Lined, traditionally pleated (no grommets or tabs for hanging). Made of elegant fabric. Custom is too costly; the only option was DIY.
I HATE to sew.
It’s right up there with gardening. Something I can do but would rather not. I just had an old filling replaced; I was happier getting my tooth drilled than I was trying to line up meter upon meter of slippery satin and taffeta.
It used to be nearly obligatory for girls to learn to sew. Proof: In the “Ramona” books by Beverly Cleary, Ramona’s mom is always making the kids’ clothes. In the 1970s, my mom made many of my clothes, and she taught me, with grandmas and aunts offering additional tutoring. I made clothes. Some rockin’ elephant-leg corduroy bell bottoms. With a zipper and everything.
But I refused to take home economics in high school, despite heavy pressure by my adviser. I was more interested in economics than in home economics. And still am.
So, curtains. I can at least sew a more-or-less-straight line, and that’s about as much as one needs to know for curtains.
Comptoir des Tisseurs, at 25, rue de la République, in the center of Carcassonne, has beautiful fabric and excellent advice. Turns out the address has been home to fabric-makers for generations. Fabric from France is a practical souvenir–take some home for pillow shams. Unbreakable, not too heavy, something to remind you every day of your trip. Perfect souvenir!
The living room of the front apartment got satin in a dark gray like the walls. The curtains had to be slim enough not to cover the beautiful boiserie and mirror on the wall between the windows.
The bedroom got taffeta of the same color. Made in France. I bought all that was left–the maker had gone out of business. I wanted these curtains to be fuller, plus I wanted heavier, black-out lining because it’s a bedroom and the shutters don’t cover the top squares of the windows (called impostes, they are fixed; the shutters cover only the parts of the windows that open).
To make the curtains as big as possible with the available fabric, I took a page from the informative window treatments post by Cote de Texas and did like the photo she shows by Suzanne Kasler, putting a contrasting band at the bottom: bordeaux taffeta from the same company.
The transition between the two required a woven ribbon, the search for which entailed visits to all of Carcassonne’s merceries, or notions shops. Let me tell you, they are hopping. Apparently some people like to sew.
DesignSponge provided clear instructions. How hard is it to sew a rectangle? (Answer: Very hard, if the rectangle is ginormous.)
The lining was the worst part. Just the bedroom required 22 meters (about 22 yards) of lining. Even when we managed to fold it in half (and it took all three of us to wrestle it to the ground), it was longer than our “great” room, going up the steps and into the library.
It was HEAVY–10 kilos (22 pounds) for the lining and six kilos (13 pounds) for the taffeta. So each panel weighs four kilos. Yanking all that through the sewing machine gave my left arm a workout. I’m surprised I don’t have a Popeye bicep.
What I do have is fingertips with more holes than a diabetic’s, and deep cuts from pulling thread.
And I screwed up.
Pleating tape is different here than in the DesignSponge example. It has two cords; you knot them on one side and pull on the other, then knot it. The system is similar to making ruffles.
Well, I sewed the tape on inside-out. I spotted this at the apartment, having already made the pleats. I had executed this stupidity on two panels. The four-kilo bedroom panels. Of course.
I had to take them home, undo the knots without losing the cords and retie them with most of the pleats eased out, rip off the tape, carefully push all the remaining pleats to one side so some tape was flat for sewing, sew the tape back on correctly up to the pleats, push them all to the sewn side and stitch the rest. Did you get that? Me either.
The curtains were so heavy we couldn’t open and shut them, even using a broomstick, which was far too short. The blackout lining worked very well–the room was plunged in darkness with the curtains hanging straight.
Next improvisation: find tiebacks. The effect wasn’t what I had in mind, with a straight band, but I think it is pretty anyway.
New upholstery (more sewing!) coming for the chairs, which are in good shape, just not what we want. Pale gray velvet with tone-on-tone paisley.
Another sewing adventure: a new cushion on the daybed. It’s a weird size, because everything in those days was handmade, including the mattress and box springs (francophiles can read a little about this in M.F.K. Fisher’s book “Long Ago in France” or here).
Of course, it wasn’t just a rectangle. That would be too straightforward. It has notches in the four corners. Just to ensure my hair goes gray. Like the walls.
One day, I will DIY lime the wood so it’s kind of white; the room has more dark wood than I want. Although the apartment is ready to rent, it may never be “done.” I suspect we will always find things to add, get tired of others, changes here and there. We have barely started on art for the walls. In the meantime, the daybed will make a good spot for watching TV or reading a book.
Three more sets of curtains still to go for the courtyard apartment.
Don’t look for the defects; their massive numbers will overwhelm you. I don’t sew as well as, say, an 8-year-old in Bangladesh. This is something I thought about a lot while sitting at my sewing machine. There are so many people–mostly women, too many too young–for whom sewing occupies much of their waking day, in a room not as nice as mine, with few breaks, no benefits, and paltry pay. They are glad for the employment, I know, and their exports have hugely reduced extreme poverty. But it does seem we and they should be able to have jobs and reasonably priced goods without having to resort to work forces that are barely a step above slave labor.
More updates about the renovation coming soon. If you’re interested in renting, let me know at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org!
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!