Before/After: Bathroom

WC 2Our vacation rental apartments are a collection of used-to-bes. The bathroom in the courtyard apartment (which we’ve named L’ancienne Tannerie, because the courtyard used to be a tannery) used to be a laundry room.

Sink must go 1
It must weigh a ton

One of the earlier demolition moves was to extract that gigantic concrete sink. We kept the niche in the wall. That corner now is the shower, with two shower heads. I tried both and can’t pick a favorite.shower with nicheThe door in the before shots leads to a circular staircase in another building on the courtyard. We sealed it off, and smoothed out the curve, because that deep corner gathered scary things.

buanderie
Before.
towels
After.

I had a hard time getting decent photos. This room is crazy bright, even with a glaze over the windows. The inside of the window frame is black. The Carnivore, our painter and the other workers lamented such a bad decision, but I got the last laugh because it looks great.

toward 3rd door
Before.
looking in door
Same view, after. No more door. The sauna is directly behind me. I love a towel warmer.

This room got the black and white cabochon floor that I had wanted for the big kitchen. The walls have metro tiles, which are beveled subway tiles, like in the Paris Metro. I had asked at the tile store about “subway” tiles and was told crisply that surely I was looking for “metro” tiles. Ahem.

The bathroom is next to the sauna. Of course.

sink and mirror and light
I love the Venetian mirror.

On the other side of the sauna, but reached by a different door, is the powder room, in its original place but with a different door (it used to be reached via the closet for the furnace and hot water heater. Yes, that had to change).Toilette 1The former doorway’s arch became home to the sink, with the toilet now across from it (next to where the sink originally was). The floor has the same tile as the wall. I was nervous that it would be too much, but the floorspace is small and it looks nicely seamless.

WC2 from door
After.

While we have been obsessed with finding antiques for the apartments, here it feels so clean that everything is brand spanking new. Well, except for the Venetian mirrors. And the little marble-topped cupboard for toiletries in the bathroom. New and old.

The apartments are available for rent on AirBnB: l’Ancienne Tannerie here and the front apartment here.

The Hills Are Alive

P1070457Not the Alps. The Pyrénées. Not the highest peaks, but magnificent nonetheless.

We were on the treasure hunt that is de Ferme en Ferme (Farm to Farm), covering some of the same ground as last year. We carefully examined the map in order to hit our favorites (À la Petite Ferme for hard sausage, Campserdou for raw milk) but also to check out some new ones. P1070468The thing about the mountains is that already it takes a while to get there, and then it takes forever to go from one place to another. Plus, the day of de Ferme en Ferme, narrow mountain roads that rarely see a vehicle suddenly have hundreds of cars.

P1070471
Quillan.
P1070472
You can make out Limoux in the distance; Quillan is just to the right. Carcassonne is beyond Limoux.

But rather than dwell again on hangry people wondering when they are going to eat, we will enjoy the views.

P1070476
There’s still snow higher up.

P1070491I couldn’t get over the vivid contrasts in greens, depending on which kinds of trees dominated a part of the forest. And those forests are dense and dark.

I wish I could also share the sweet smells of pine, grass, earth. And the sounds of so many birds. And the cacophony of crickets. It’s been forever since I’ve heard crickets. P1070455We crossed a high plateau and had to turn at the town of Espezel. I looked it up and the population was 209 in 2008; it was 407 in 1962. Says a lot about opportunities in the middle of nowhere. A man, wearing a big black beret without the slightest trace of irony, was about to enter a cute little bar/restaurant. Espezel might be losing residents but it’s gaining visitors who come for hiking. We pulled up quickly to ask the man for directions. They get lax about signs in the middle of nowhere.P1070469The man told us the way to the road we wanted–not a sign anywhere–and we were on our way. However, my co-pilot kept panicking at all the signs that said the col–mountain pass–was blocked. Still snow? Don’t worry, I said, Ferme en Ferme wouldn’t send hundreds of people on a blocked road.

I was right that the road wasn’t blocked. But I was wrong about the road. The instructions got us to the T-intersection as we had requested, but then instead of turning left, we turned right (again, not well marked). I thought we were on our way to Galinagues, and the map showed some impressive zigzags. But in fact, we were winding up the Rebenty river to Fajolle, where one could visit a fishery (not the Carnivore’s cup of tea).

I don’t regret the detour a bit. First of all, get a load of this: P1070480Even better, was the view going down:

 

P1070490And along the way:

P1070489
Babbling brook: check. Actually, this is the Rebenty river. Crystal clear.
P1070486
Cuteness: check. How’s this for a public library?
P1070485
Drinkable water: check. It’s rare to see a fountain like this that says the water IS potable.
P1070484
Laid-back vibe: check. This is IN THE ROAD. Clearly they don’t see many cars around here.

The village of Fajolle counts 14 residents, most of whom seemed to be out for a hike together, with the loners preferring to fish from the road. No sidewalks, shoulders, rails. Just a low curb. Back in the day (1793), Fajolle had 365 people. Imagine. They probably didn’t get out much, if ever. And in winter, they were really stuck. There are six-foot poles that mark the roadside for when it snows. Skiing is not far away.

P1070494
Marsa, in the Rebenty valley.

We did make it to Galinagues. We bought a bunch of goat cheese of different ages (and therefore harder or creamier). Leaving, we were counseled to follow the valley of the Rebenty back to Quillan. It was lovely. Truly a corner of France to explore again.

Provençal Soupe au Pistou

P1070514Seasonal produce is a moving target in spring. At first, there’s little difference with winter, except for the asparagus. But then other treats start to appear: fava, peas.

The weather is unstable, too. It can be warm enough for a dip in the pool in March, but the heat kicks on during the Ice Saints in May. P1070537Those rainy days are perfect for soup, especially a soup that celebrates the lively new flavors of the season: soupe au pistou. It was on a dark and chilly day that I decided we needed soup, one that used the big bunch of basil I’d bought–the first of the season.

There is no “recipe” for pistou. There are a few key ingredients that make it pistou and not, say, minestrone or bouillabaise or bisque. Any pistou soup needs pistou–a mix of basil, olive oil and garlic, like pesto without the nuts. And beans. And pasta. After that, you can add what’s in season at that moment. Because pistou soup is garden soup.P1070502I recently heard an excellent interview with the cookbook author Julia Turshen, who says she “never, ever follows recipes.” Her new book, “Small Victories,” aims to get people more at ease with cooking from scratch and reassuring them that they don’t have to follow recipes to the letter.

So here is one recipe for soupe au pistou. You can add/subtract depending on your tastes and what you find at the market.

Soupe au Pistou

First the pistou: 

A huge bunch of basil—imagine the leaves pressed into balls the size of each fist.

1 clove of garlic (I often imitate Guy Fieri and up the amount, but when I used two it got complaints for being too strong)

3-4 tablespoons olive oil

The soup (all the vegetables are diced into bite size):

1 onion (but if you have leftover greens of leeks, this is a good place to use them)

2-3 carrots

2 tomatoes (we used canned because it’s too early for garden tomatoes)

A large can of white beans (the cans here are 400 g, or 14 oz.)

1-2 zucchini

1 cup peas (frozen are OK)

1 cup green beans (frozen are OK—it’s what I used. Lazy, I didn’t cut them up and regretted it)

1/2 cup elbow macaroni, called coquillettes

salt and pepper

olive oil for cooking

Also worth considering: 

turnips

parsnips

cocos (broad, flat beans very popular here)

potatoes

fresh fava beans

snow peas

thyme or herbes de Provence

Possible changes/substitutions:

You can start with dried beans, of course. We tend not to plan far enough ahead and are grateful for cans.

You can use a mix of beans—white, red, striped, whatever.

You can leave out the pasta; the beans are hearty enough

In a Dutch oven, sauté the onion/leek in enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pot. Throw in the other vegetables, the beans (if you are using dried beans, cook them ahead), then add enough water to cover everything. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. You can make it ahead to this point and heat it up later. Remember to stir in the pasta so it has long enough to cook, but not so long that it disintegrates; check the cooking time on the package.

While the soup simmers, make the pistou. Traditionalists use a mortar and pestle to turn it into a pungent green slurry. I tried that, chopping the leaves down first, but mine was too minuscule; I tried a bigger bowl but that wasn’t better. I transferred it all to a blender, which wasn’t much of an improvement. I don’t have a food processor; that might have worked. But who cares? The basil and garlic were reduced enough to make a kind of paste anyway.      P1070510On the side, I sliced a baguette and topped it with grated Parmesan (fresh–not the powder in a can!). Two minutes under the broiler, and voilà. It probably seemed balanced because we had left out the pasta. Pasta + beans + bread seems like overkill. But to each his own.P1070516

Béziers in the South of France

P1070594After a full morning of antiquing recently at the grand déballage in Pézenas, we needed sustenance. It was well past noon when we left, and the Carnivore was even more peckish than me, and starting to panic. Remember, the French eat at prescribed times. If you hesitate, you lose.

One restaurant after another in Pézenas had set up special outdoor grills and other equipment to feed a crowd, and crowds were waiting to be fed. This does not bode well for good food at a good price. We headed out–it was the Carnivore’s idea, after he rejected my suggestion of a slice of pizza from a food truck, where a long line waited.

P1070609
A door in Béziers. This is how we felt before lunch.

So we drove away from Pézenas. Soon we were in the middle of countryside, not a resto for miles. The Carnivore became agitated. The clock was ticking on the French lunch time. Soon we would be out of luck.

“Go to Béziers,” I commanded, figuring it was a fairly big town, simultaneously close enough to arrive in time and far enough from the antiquing throngs, plus on our way home. “Where exactly?” he asked testily, clearly fearful of a wild goose chase that would end with no goose, or duck or anything else to eat. “I don’t know,” I snapped back, hangry. “Centre ville.

P1070597This was on May 7, election day in France. The day that Macron and LePen faced off. And Béziers has a far-right mayor.

We wound our way to centre ville–downtown, and looked for a parking spot. Even with the elections, we figured a Sunday wouldn’t be difficult for parking. But 99.99% of downtown Béziers is torn up, with no parking anywhere. (Don’t even suggest one of the many underground parking garages; one must pay for those, and the French–and Belgians, ahem, our driver–would rather risk being towed from a quasi-illegal spot than to shell out €2 for a legit one). We went farther and farther. We passed a pretty square where lucky people were eating lunch.

Lunch! Hurry!

P1070595
The doors! The garland! And another garland above the French doors to the balcony above!

We went down, down, down a steep street, each descent in altitude also descending in gentrification. The square up above was chic, with every building pristinely restored. On the same street, far lower, several shops were open, catering to a clientele for whom Sunday is just another weekday. A barber ran an electric razor over a man’s skull like a lawnmower on a big back yard. A couple of impeccably clean butcher shops with shining white floors made the Carnivore want to pick up some lamb and merguez to take home. “It would taste a lot better than what you get at leClerc,” he said.

He squeezed the Peugeot into a tiny spot on a 45-degree incline, with two centimeters of space in front and behind the car. If you don’t want to pay, you had better be expert at parallel parking.

At a café on the corner, tables outside were filled exclusively with men. It was a big day for them, as France decided whether to shut the door on–or worse, kick out–their community. In Béziers, those issues run hotter than in some other places (the mayor has said there are too many kebab shops in the city center, among other things).

P1070599We hiked up the hill to that pretty square. Lunch was still on. We secured a table under the pink parasols at le Millefeuille on rue de la Rotisserie (yes, Rotisserie Street) on Place Gabriel Péri. We sat next to a table of Poles. Some Brits were on the other side. Tourist season is under way.

P1070601
The building on the right is the city hall.

A small blonde boy, maybe 7 or 8 years old, went by, unaccompanied except by his fluffly little dog on a leash. An old lady with a cane tapped toward the mairie, or city hall, across the street, presumably to cast her ballot. A car swung into one of the rare parking spots the instant it was freed, and a bourgeois couple of pensioners, both in suits, hers with a skirt and chunky heels, emerged and walked hand in hand down a side street, her bag swinging carefree on its long strap. Several women with veils and long robes passed, each alone, pushing strollers. For all its famous déliquanceBéziers felt like a pretty safe, laid-back place. Unless one is threatened by diversity itself.

Our food was excellent. The Carnivore went for the menu at €12,90: an entrée (starter) of a charcuterie plate, which included not only a lot of hard sausages but also a nice salad and some fresh pleurote mushrooms, grilled zucchini and sweet red pepper; then he had an entrecôte steak with potatoes and more salad, and a dessert of fresh strawberries with whipped cream. Very correct. That price usually gets you a starter plus main dish or main dish plus dessert. To get all three, and so well-garnished, was unusual. I didn’t want any of the menu options (steak, duck or one other thing that I forget because it didn’t tempt me), so I ordered steak tartare (€13.90). It came with all the special ingredients arrayed like a painter’s palette, so I could include what I wanted (which was everything). And home-made fries. I also consumed the Carnivore’s unwanted salad, surprise. A very lovely lunch, at a very reasonable price. Plus charming service and a beautiful place to sit.

P1070600
No point in showing the Carnivore’s big but boring steak.

We walked around a little before heading back to the car. A young woman was sketching a building on the square; it was beautiful. As I photographed it, she told us not to miss the lions on another building nearby.

I took pictures of several other places–lots of pretty Belle Epoche architecture in Béziers–and was surveying my next target when an older man asked whether we needed directions. He was tall, wearing a white shirt buttoned all the way up but without a tie, a V-neck cardigan over that, and a suit. He was in his 70s–maybe older but in good shape–and had bushy eyebrows and a nice smile. He held a large notebook or folder in the crook of his arm. We explained that no, we weren’t lost, just appreciating the sights.

P1070602
Detail of the building the young woman was sketching. More work than drawing International Style architecture.
P1070605
One of the lions.

He talked with us as I snapped photos. As we moved on, he came along, still chattering, about how long he’d lived there, the weather, the architecture. He seemed lonely, in need of company. I wondered, is he hanging around to talk because he doesn’t want to go home? What is his life like? At his age, is he a widower with nobody to go home to? Or a care-giver, perhaps of a wife who no longer can provide company? I thought about the movie “Amour.” I wanted to invite him to dinner, but Carcassonne is a good 45 minutes from Béziers, kind of far for a meal.

We eventually parted ways as he stayed on the big street, Avenue Alphonse Mas, and we branched off on the narrow canyons of ruelles, or tiny streets, that wove away at crazy angles.

Eventually, we returned to the avenue, and there he was, standing on a corner, talking on his phone. We smiled at him and took pictures. When he had finished his call, he came over to us again. “Are you interested in buying property?” he asked. I said that I was always “interested” but not “able” in a budgetary sense. I’m fully guilty of divulging in real-estate porn.

P1070610
For sale. 100 fireplaces. No, I didn’t ask the price.

“Ah,” he sighed. “It’s too bad. I know some good ones.” He pointed up at the building next to us. “This one. Two buildings. There were two sisters; each had one. One sister died–she was 88–and the other sister was going to sell and move. Then she died, too. She was 92. She counted all the fireplaces, and there were more than 100! There are at least 21 apartments. The buildings start up there”–he pointed halfway up the block on the avenue–“to over there”–he pointed down the intersecting side street. I wondered about “au moins 21 appartements”–so maybe there are 22? Maybe some could be combined or split? Why say 21 and not 20? Too many questions. I just nodded and said I could only dream of being able to renovate such a place. Which is true.

P1070607Off the avenue, the buildings were very different, in various states of decay. It could be pretty in that Italian way, or it could just be urban decay. Right now, it was on the fine line between the two.

Our elderly friend took off down a different street. We descended toward the car. A number of people were enjoying the sunny weather on their balconies. A man smoked beneath a gorgeous, gorgeous bas-relief garland of flowers, leaning on an amazing Art Nouveau railing. A couple played with a toddler. A woman hung laundry. They were from three cultures. Why not, I thought. All enjoy the same sun.

P1070611
I love all the balcony railings. It could be beautiful.

Béziers has a bloody history. In 1209, it was the first stop of the Abigensian Crusade, when the ironically named Pope Innocent III decided to eradicate the Cathars. It’s thought there were about 200 Cathar parfaits, or holy people, living among the 15,000-20,000 Catholic residents. Supposedly one of the crusaders asked how to know which inhabitants were Catholic or Cathar. The commander, the Abbot of Cîteaux, said “Kill them all–God will know his own.” And they did. Upon hearing the news, the crusaders’ subsequent targets, including Carcassonne, fell without a fight.

P1070615The Cathedral of Saint-Nazaire burned down during the siege. A few years later, work began on a new edifice on the same site, which today rises high on a hill above the Orb river, dominating the town.

P1070613Driving out of town, my heart warmed further for Béziers. A family was holding a gathering in the cool shade of a grange/garage, several long tables covered with white cloths under the arched doors open to the street, children ricocheting everywhere. At a bus stop, two elderly men sat on the far ends of a bench but leaned their skull caps toward each other as they conversed animatedly. Pretty details embellished even humble, downtrodden buildings.

More photos on my Instagram!

 

 

Antique Mania in Pézenas

champagneSunday was the grand déballage–the big unwrapping, a term used in connection with antiques–in Pézenas.

Pézenas is a beautiful town in the hills of the Herault department, a bit beyond Béziers. We have been numerous times to visit its bounty of 50-some antique shops. Many are open on Sunday and offer a rare something to do for those of us who don’t have the usual obligations with extended family on that day. Twice a year, Pézenas holds a big brocante faire, with about 150 antiques dealers, who set up stalls along about a mile around the ring of the historic old city center.

shop cafe
Vintage shop in front, café-restaurant in back.
courtyard shop 2
A gate leads to a lush courtyard serving several shops, including this one and the one below.

courtyard shop 1It was a lot of fun, on many levels. We had specific things in mind to buy and tried to ignore everything else, no matter how enticing. (It is very hard to stop looking at furniture when you’ve been hunting for so long, but now there’s no more room!) Still, we couldn’t help but be distracted by pretty or quirky things from time to time.

pharma tool
A tool used by pharmacists to seal caps on bottles.
lettuce baskets
Lettuce baskets, which I recognized thanks to Corey Amaro’s blog.
sharpener
A sharpening tool with its wooden holder that would hang on a wall.
bed
Detail of a bed frame.

The top photo shows a crystal egg, called a cave à champagne. A glass or mirrored tray inside holds the champagne flutes around a hole for the bottle, which descends into ice below. The whole thing looks like it requires nerves of steel and no partaking of the champagne by the server to ensure a steady hand. We saw several, including in dark blue. Très cher.

pipe

fountainWe heard English (of both the British and North American varieties), Spanish, German, Dutch, Flemish and Italian, as well as plenty of French–with different regional accents.

phones

scalesWe didn’t find what we wanted and came away with just a framed picture. However, we completely enjoyed browsing. There were many objects, and many collections of such objects, that we rarely see at the vide-greniers, which are often the first stop on an antique’s journey to a second life.

jesusangels

shower
Plumbing with panache.

That’s what makes antiques a challenge and so satisfying–you can’t just walk into someplace or order online and get just what you want, the first try. You have to look and look, and wait and keep looking some more. You have to play a long game. Here, where vines take six years to produce grapes worthy of turning into wine but then produce for 40 or 70 years, the long game is in the DNA. Rushing to buy almost-good-enough is throwing money away. Patience and persistence make the find all the sweeter.

cellist
Along the route, all kinds of music, from jazz to classical.

 

Before/After: Bedroom in l’ancienne Tannerie

Bed afterThis is a difficult room to photograph. It used to be a den, with four doors. Now it’s a bedroom, with two doors.

It looks out at the interior stairway, with a light well. That makes it a bit dark, which  usually is a good thing for a bedroom. It also is very quiet and stays exceptionally cool in summer–nice when there’s no air conditioning (the historic preservation authorities frown on air conditioning units sullying the exteriors of buildings).

Toward doors before
Before, with doors galore.

I liked the old wallpaper, but it was in bad shape, and anyway rewiring made lots of holes in the walls. The floor was covered with vinyl, and we had no idea what we would find underneath.

Bureau actuel sol
Before: mustard vinyl. You can see the transition to the kitchen in the top left.
removing vinyl
The joy of ripping it out. Actually the joy was when it was done, certainly not during.

First, the floor: we ripped up the vinyl and found tomettes. But in what condition? We didn’t know until all the glue and gunk had been removed by our tomette expert. The verdict: the middle of the room was a ruin, but the tomettes around the perimeters were OK.

uncovered tomettes
What we found. Good or bad news?

However, we had the same situation in the kitchen. We decided to save the kitchen by cannibalizing the bedroom: all the serviceable bedroom tomettes were used to replace broken ones in the kitchen. Not a single one to spare.

We favored the kitchen, with its big, beautiful fireplace, over this room, which, as the Bâtiments de France architect put it was “without historical significance,” lacking boiseries, a fireplace or other embellishments. A quiet room, sleepy for sleeping.

Bed after shows floor
New floors that work nicely with the carpet.

I dreamed of putting in herringbone parquet, but that was far beyond our budget. Instead, we found long tiles that look like a plank wood floor. The weathered design has a blue/gray tinge that goes perfectly with the blue silk oriental carpets we had chosen.

niche before
Velour curtains: gone. Scary wiring: replaced. Niche: still there.

The niche was preserved, in all its lopsided glory (including the slanting base, which limits what can go in it). A very odd brass and copper urn took the place of honor.

Niche in progress
WHY lopsided?
vase
It’s as if ancient Greeks had created a mash-up of Jules Verne’s submarine and a golf trophy.

The doors in the corner led to the other apartment: on the left, to the bedroom and on the right to the entry. They have been closed off with sound insulation and drywall. Some books and knickknacks adorn the shelves, but we wanted to leave empty space for guests to stash their bags or set out their things without creating clutter.

Another door, used by us only, goes to the closet with the furnace and water heater. And the fourth door leads to the big kitchen.

wardrobe
That door on the left leads to the kitchen.

You might recognize the Art Deco bed and matching wardrobe from the blue-flowered bedroom that now is the salon of this apartment (husband points out that a living room combines sitting and dining areas; a salon is for sitting only). We enlarged the bed frame to queen size, topped by a bio (organic) mattress from a local maker in Mazamet.

toward niche before
The windows before.
window during
During: freshly painted.

The windows have interior shutters, and I made a single curtain (it opens to one side because of the niche) with white-on-white damask fabric. Everything is as white as can be.

Toward niche corner after
After.

We are still hunting for art for the walls. Some things must not be rushed.

 

Faces of France

tlsOne of the nicest things about this blog is that it has reopened my eyes. I have gotten used to living in the south of France; it has been good to look around me with fresh eyes as I think about stories to tell.

And I see eyes looking back.

balcony
Venus? The entire grand house this lady rules, facing Square Gambetta, is decorated with seashell motifs.

The Bastide, or the “new” town (having been built in 1260, vs. la Cité, which is far older), is truffled with these decorations. I suspect that back in the day of la Cité, only the aristocracy and church had the means for anything beyond the slimmest basics of life. Styles and tastes change, but also, by the time of la Bastide, trade was booming and Carcassonne was a center for textiles, wine and cereals. The buildings show it, with flourishes and sometimes elaborate decorations.

And faces.

museum
Was he the architect? There is so much to decipher here. How many people walk by without looking up?
carca
On the same building. I see a globe, a telescope, books, what else? Clues and explanations welcome in the comments!

Who were they? Did real people sit as models? Or were they sculpted from paintings, books, memories?

college
Above the entrance to a junior high school. How would you like to greet him every morning before class? At least he seems fairly benevolent. Despite the facial hair.

Some are in unlikely places, more modest embellishments than the grand busts atop grand buildings.

verdun
He’s only about 18 inches tall. I feel his pain.
red door lady
A tiny lady above a red door.
railing
They don’t make railings like they used to.
jesus
A niche above a nondescript door on a nondescript house.
white face
Carved in wood, somehow surviving the elements, above the doors to a grange or barn near la Cimetière Saint-Michel (with great views of la Cité).

Toulouse also has many wonderful faces hiding in plain sight. The series below live on the back side of the Capitole, home to the city hall and municipal theater.

Capitole 3
Cosette, is that you? She gives me a chill–what was her story?
Capitole 4
I love his hat! Panache. The word means plume, but has the connotation of flamboyance.
Capitole 2
This one, by contrast, seems to have a bat atop his helmet. Look at how his mouth is a little lopsided, as if he’s mulling over a question or biting the inside of his cheek.
Capitole 1
He seems to know more than he’s telling.
Capitole 5
The most haunting of all, to me. Why were her eyes closed? So vulnerable.

Which do you like best?

 

 

Before/After: Salon

trumeau closeupThis room faces a pretty courtyard full of flowers. It has evolved as we worked on it, and I’m so glad we didn’t rush. Plus, I procrastinated on sewing the curtains and only just finished them.We have two vacation rental apartments, both extremely elegant and spacious, yet they couldn’t be more different. The front apartment faces south, with balconies over the street. It has some of the most elaborate boiseries, or carved high-relief decorations, of Carcassonne.

courtyard
The view from the back apartment.

The back apartment faces north, with the hidden courtyard, and somehow feels more intimate, despite having large rooms and ceilings just as soaring as the front.

 

The apartments started as one huge, unpractical labyrinth (who wants to wind through a couple of other people’s bedrooms to get to the bathroom?). We sealed the connecting doors with sound insulation and drywall to create two separate apartments, which had separate entrances anyway.

salon toward piano before
Before. The curtains hide glass French doors that lead to a separate entrance. Note the linoleum floor in that entry.

That is why this room used to be a bedroom.

The previous owner’s wallpaper aside, it has always felt like a blue room to me. The front apartment feels red, but this room feels blue. Does this happen to you, where a room seems to tell you what IT wants? And it’s up to you to find the right pieces to carry out the room’s vision of itself?

tomettes before
Tomettes before, with paint.

The tomettes were stripped to their original state. Painting tomettes was fashionable, the restorer explained, because often houses had many different kinds, from different makers in different periods, with different colors,  even in the same room.

tomettes during
Removing the paint.
salon painted not furnished
Old paint off the floors; new paint on the walls. Didn’t our painter, Jacques, do a great job on the chimney?

Because it faces north, we chose a bright white for the walls, and gray for the trim–the reverse of the other apartment. I like that the boiserie doves are white while the chimney is a contrasting dove gray (it’s true!).

 

birdsWe bought most of the furniture with the apartment, but the family kept some things, including the mirror that was here. But look at that trumeau mirror the Carnivore found. We were going to touch it up, but friend Ali advised leaving it alone, and I’m glad we listened to her. It’s perfectly imperfect. A place that’s 400 years old shouldn’t be too glossy, even if it’s grand.

mantle before
Before.
mirror and fireplace
After. I just scored some cool decorations for the mantle. Later!

The furniture went through several iterations. We had the daybed in here with the greenish gold armchairs. They were true to the cool blue feel and went very well with the silk carpets the Carnivore scored (he is a genius at shopping, especially for antiques), but I wasn’t happy with two carpets side by side, as gorgeous as they were, and identical, to boot. They were still a bit too small. We separated them for use elsewhere and moved that furniture to the front living room. This is what happens when you furnish with antiques: you discover something, then find something else. It takes time, not like walking into a store and getting everything at once. I am very happy about giving these beautiful, high-quality pieces a new life.

During
First try. The mirror was too small and is now in the front apartment’s entry.

 

toward kitchen with carpet
After. New (but old) carpet that’s much bigger. The door leads to the big kitchen, my favorite room of all.

We found a bigger carpet, mostly cream tones, with a little blue-green and touches of salmon. And the salmon chairs, which had been in the front, worked here, despite not being blue. They actually are the exact same color as the tomettes. This wasn’t on purpose–they were upholstered before the tomettes were restored, when the floor was a dark red. Happy luck.

 

 

toward piano after
After. Same view as the shot above with the bed.

We managed to find a Louis XVI-style sofabed–not easy! I’m not a fan of sofabeds, but we wanted to give the option for more people; the front apartment is for two people max. The sofa (which has a matching armchair) has a dark teal-blue stripe. The curtains are a paler shade of the same color. They turned out great–out of all the curtains I made (for five very tall rooms), they were the least anguished.

 

toward kitchen door
The armoire with the faces in silhouette was refitted to hang clothes.

The coffee table was hand-carved in Lamu, Kenya, by an artisan I first met in 1985. He was still in the same place when I was back in 2001. I bought a chair from him, and also wanted a coffee table. He didn’t have one but, not wanting to miss a sale, got one from his house to sell to me. Trust me, I gave him a good price. In our house, that table felt too small, but here, with the imposing sofa, it feels just right, and it’s easy to move if the sofa needs to turn into a bed.

 

Behind the sofa, the piano moved in from the other apartment’s entry. I hope to get it tuned, if that’s even still possible. A painting, strong on blues, by my mother will go above the piano as soon as it’s framed. We are looking for other little gems to decorate as well. I think it will never be “finished,” but will always be evolving based on our discoveries.

toward tv
After. The tapestry is of Carcassonne, a handmade reproduction of an historic one.

If you look closely, you’ll see how we repurposed furniture. The armoire originally was in the kitchen; husband cleverly installed rods for hanging clothes; it also holds pillows and extra blankets for the sofabed.

The lyre-back chair was originally in this room (you can just make it out in the shot with the bed), and now accompanies a little desk.deskThe pièce de la résistance, though, is the chandelier. Not only is it dripping with crystals (called pampilles), it is gigantic. The room is so large and the ceiling so high that you don’t realize just how huge it is.chandelierWe bought it via the French version of craigslist, driving at night into the foothills of the Pyrénées to a house on the edge of a little village without cellphone reception. Yes, it totally felt like a horror movie. But the sellers were lovely and their house was beautiful. It was more like an oversize cottage, rustic, with low, beamed ceilings, and its new owners said their old chandelier didn’t work at all–it was too big and anybody kind of tall would bump their head on it. We barely squeezed it into the car. The Carnivore had spotted the ad only about an hour after it was posted, and we were there about two hours later to buy it, otherwise it surely would have been snapped up by an antiquaire and resold for many times more.

entry before with door
Before.

This entry is fairly small: just a coatrack in there. Previously it had been used as a closet. In the first before photo, you can see the linoleum that had covered the tomettes. There’s another small bedroom off the entry; I’ll show it later.

 

entry
After. You can see the reflection of the salon’s chandelier in the top pane of the French door. There’s a small montgolfier chandelier in the entry, but I had to lie down to get a shot and it really didn’t capture it well. You need to see it in person.

The apartment is for rent via AirBnB or VRBO (which is the same as Homeaway and Abritel). Or contact us at booking.carcassonne@gmail.com.

(The front apartment can be found here on AirBnB or here on VRBO.)

window
Admiring those curtains one more time. They even were straight. Not bragging–just RELIEVED. All the curtains are DONE.

Walk in the French Countryside

wisteria cepie 2The leaves are all out on the trees now, though some of the flowering trees are still dressed as if going to a ball. And the temperatures have been so warm that the poppies are multiplying before our eyes. Soon entire fields will be red.

wisteria cepie
Wisteria everywhere.

So here are some shots of spring before they are too outdated.

treehouse
A treehouse for watching birds.

The treehouse above is now completely hidden by leaves. It’s quite a setup. I’ve seen a ladder going up to it, but usually the ladder is gone. I’ve never seen a kid around it, and I think it was intended for birdwatching only. It belongs to an elderly (but spry) guy and has many “keep out” signs.

white horse
This was such a dreamy surprise between the trees.
orchard 2
An orchard that from the distance looks like a field of cotton candy.
garden bridges
That isn’t a moat, but…

The culverts along French country roads can be extremely deep. I suppose it’s to handle the runoff when it rains, because around here, a feeble sprinkle is rare–when it rains, it pours.

You can see the little garden sheds. Nothing flimsy about them. They are made of concrete blocks. That makes for a cool getaway in the summer.

garden bridge gate
Gated property.

I would never have the nerve to drive over one of these. Near my parents’ home was a bridge that had rails on the sides, but big openings showing the enormous brown river very far below. I felt sick every time we went over it and I would drive out of my way to a newer bridge with concrete sides that hid the river. Farther south, there is an even older bridge that’s only one lane wide over this major river and you feel as if you are flying instead of driving over the river. I do not find that exciting.

pyrenees
Ah, the Pyrénées.

The weather here has been remarkable. Cloudless days, full view of the mountains. No need for a sweater during the day. The saying is “en avril, ne te découvre pas d’un fil; en mai fais ce qu’il te plaît” — in April, don’t take off even a thread, but in May do as you please.

faucet
I want one!

Isn’t this the coolest faucet? It was on a public fountain in a village. In a lot of places, such a beauty would have been stolen, but here it’s par for the course. I love these little touches. It could have been a plain faucet, but instead it’s a little piece of art.

bridge
See that sky? The trees are full of leaves now.

This little village, with the old Renault (a 3 or 4; not sure), is just so typical, with its line of plane trees and its red tile roofs. Not a soul stirring, either. A few cats and dogs too busy napping to even look up.

chateau
Surprise.

I love the way châteaux peek between trees in the countryside. You can drive along, and suddenly, hey, what’s that in that copse? Why it’s a château. I never get tired of finding them, and love when we venture beyond our usual routes so I can scour the horizon for châteaux.

Segways in TLS
For something completely different.

Finally, this one goes with nothing, but I found it so startling I just had to share it. Yes, châteaux are normal, but Segways are not. This troupe? flock? pack? of Segways zipped by on an otherwise pedestrian street in Toulouse when we were there back during the soldes. Are group Segway outings a thing elsewhere?

 

Red Meat

2 slabs of meatFew things are as French as steak tartare. Raw ground beef. With a few additions.

On one of my early trips to Paris, I ordered steak tartare from some stately bistro. I barely remember now, but… There were flowers. Everybody was older than me. It felt very formal and grown up. There were different levels in the restaurant–not floors but groups of tables that were reached by stairs, which had brass handrails. It was the ’80s, and brass was very classy.

I had decided to be daring and get steak tartare even though I had grown up with extra-well-done meat. Some people drive fast for thrills; I did gastronomy.

Cutting the meat
Ah, but my dear butcher (who chews out people who annoy him! Kind of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi, but for meat) will trim off absolutely every bit of white, using frighteningly sharp knives.

The waiter was dressed in black dress pants, a black vest, a perfectly pressed white shirt (the crease on his sleeve was so crisp it looked as if it could draw blood if you ran a finger along it) and an immaculate white apron. He was around my father’s age at the time–50s–with gray hair. That was surprising because I had never seen anybody older than 30 waiting tables.

He wheeled over a cart with a large stainless steel bowl and showed me a lump of ground beef in the bottom. Then he asked me which garnitures I wanted: onions? chives? or was it shallots? capers? parsley? Tabasco? Worcestershire sauce? There were other possibilities, I’m sure–it was difficult to decide. I asked as politely as I could for a little of everything. How to say no to onions in favor of chives, or vice versa? It all sounded good.

inside fridge
Our dinner was hanging out in here.

The thing about being young and eager and excited is that you can ask what would ordinarily be a slightly impolite request, but it’s taken as what it is: enthusiasm, not greed. The waiter flicked a bit of everything into the mix, added a raw egg yolk, then vigorously mixed it all with a fork. He then coaxed it onto a plate and formed it with a few quick gestures, making a little volcanic crater, where he deposited another egg yolk.

With perfect timing, another waiter arrived with a hot serving of crispy fries.

fridge closed
Exterior view of the fridge. I ADORE the fact that it hasn’t changed in generations. And immaculately clean.

It was heaven. The texture, the flavors. I loved it. I didn’t eat meat very often. When on one of our early dates, the Carnivore asked me whether I was vegetarian, I answered no–to me that’s like asking whether I’d walked on the moon or whether I was pregnant–there’s no “kind-of” answer. It’s straight yes/no. I ate meat at least five or six times in the previous year, therefore, I wasn’t a vegetarian, much less a vegan (I can never give up cheese). I’m not against vegetarian or vegan diets, but I am just too lazy and I do like meat…a few times a year.

In fact, when I was living in Belgium, I would head to the brasserie across the street from our office for a steak tartare when I felt the oppressive damp dragging me into a cold. A nice big shot of protein to get back on track! Meat for medicinal purposes only. Seriously, I lived on salads and chocolate and cheese otherwise. OK, mostly chocolate.

Grinding
Ground before my eyes. No “pink slime” here.

In Belgium, they have another version, called steak américain, which unknowing Americans continually order only to send it back to be cooked. Steak américain is similar to steak tartare as both are RAW, but with a dollop of mayonnaise (because: Belgium) and even more seasonings. Go into any butcher shop or grocery store there and you will find raw beef seasoned in a huge variety of ways. Heaven.

Steak américain around here means a ground beef patty, fried, served without a bun, but with fries and possibly a green salad. Just so you know!

We are picky about where we have steak tartare. It’s the French version of sushi–raw and risky. There are restaurants we trust. But in general, we DIY, going to our butcher when we start jonesing for some raw meat. It’s pricey (I think I paid €16 for 700+ grams for the three of us), but we don’t splurge often. Go big or go home. (An aside: It is typically French to say “MY butcher.” Who has “my butcher” at a big supermarket? They don’t even cut up the meat in those places anymore. It arrives sealed in plastic.)

If you have a butcher you trust, then go for it!

All ready
The main ingredient.

Steak Tartare

I browsed a few dozen recipes to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. Us? Onions, capers (on the side because our kid doesn’t like them), Worcestershire, Tabasco, egg yolks. That’s it. Keep in mind that you can do whatever the heck you want here. Tons of Tabasco and no Worcestershire? No problem! Capers? Schmapers if they aren’t your thing. Consider this like a pizza menu, where these are the  usual possibilities and you can take them or leave them. There is no right or wrong….except for the base of raw ground beef. (I’ve even had Thai-seasoned tartare.) You can add whatever you like, in whatever quantities you like. The French are rarely so accommodating, so profitez-en (enjoy).

Freshly ground or finely minced very lean steak. Count on 125 grams (4.4 oz.) or more per person, depending on appetite. (The American Heart Association says 2-3 oz. cooked is a serving size. This is raw, so you get to have more.)

one egg yolk for three people plus any extra egg yolks as desired for decoration

A teaspoon of:

–Dijon mustard (sorry, not in ours)

–Worcestershire sauce

additions
Simplicity. The green stuff is a fresh onion (like a scallion) from the market.

A tablespoon of:

–minced onion OR

–minced shallots OR

–chopped fresh chives

–chopped fresh parsley

–capers

–some say ketchup (your call, remember). Also olive oil, but that seems to me like gilding the lily.

Plus a little salt and pepper, and a few drops of Tabasco…or many drops. Your call!

Mash it all together. Refrigerate. Can be done a few hours ahead.

Prepare a green salad (lettuce, vinaigrette).

Prepare French fries.

Just before the fries are ready, get the salad and tartare on the table. If you want to get fancy, plate the tartare and stick an egg yolk on top of each mound of meat.

Voilà!

done
The Carnivore insisted that the fork marks made it prettier.

Another time we will  get the Carnivore to divulge the secrets of how to make perfect Belgian French fries. Warning: It’s not vegan!