Pillows of Swiss Chard Bliss

final-productHere’s the promised recipe for a neglected winter vegetable: Swiss chard, or blettes. Recipes usually treat this vitamin-rich vegetable like spinach, and that’s fine, too.

But you can take advantage of the large leaves to do something special. And of course, cream and cheese make everything delicious, right?

shopping
What I bought. The blettes are between the lettuce and the sweet potatoes.

This is a recipe I found in a French decorating magazine before Pinterest. That means I have it ripped out and stuck in a file folder. And too bad for the magazine, because it didn’t print its name on each page, so how am I to know which of the 20 magazines I bought a decade ago was the one with this recipe?

 

blettes-washedBeing a loosey-goosey gourmet, about the only thing my version has in common with the original is the idea of Swiss chard as a wrapper for a cheesy custard filling.

This is very, VERY easy but it gets lots of points for presentation. It’s a great idea for a dinner where you want to impress. Plus you can make it ahead and pop it into the oven at the last minute. And you’ll seem so cool, being somebody who actually knows how to cook with Swiss chard. And you even know the French name is blettes (pronounced blett–can it get any easier?).

other-ingredientsSwiss Chard Pillows of Bliss

a bunch of Swiss chard

one onion, diced

one egg

20 cl (a cup) of heavy cream (whatever–our village grocery didn’t have heavy cream so we took the whole cream, and I am sure it would work with low-fat cream or even milk. Just get something from the milk family.)

a cup (about 80 g) of grated hard cheese like parmesan or gruyère

a cup (about 80 g) of nuts. The magazine says pine nuts. Around here pine nuts cost so much that they are kept behind the cash register. So we went with chopped almonds.

1 tsp of oregano (not fresh because it was raining cats and dogs–see below)

salt and pepper

olive oil

chives, fresh and nice and long. Ideally. For tying up your little packages. But if you don’t have chives, don’t worry!

Preheat the oven to 120 C (250 Fahrenheit)…unless you are making ahead to serve later….it doesn’t usually take long to get an oven to just 250 F.

stem-and-onion-cookingFirst, you chop the stems off the Swiss chard and dice them like the onion. Heat a skillet with a little olive oil (enough to cover the bottom) and get them started to brown softly over medium-low heat. Sprinkle with oregano, salt and pepper. Stir, then put a on lid so they don’t dry out and keep cooking them slowly so they soften.

blanching-blettesBlanche the leaves by plunging them into a pot of boiling water for a few minutes. This will make them pliable for rolling. You want them to be flexible but still bright green. When they are ready, remove them and pour cold water on them. Then spread them out so you can stuff them.

 

blanched-and-stretchedBeat the egg and the cream in a little bowl. Pour this into the onion/stem mixture. Turn off the heat. Stir in the nuts and the cheese. You don’t need for the mixture to cook; just get it mixed.

sauce

Prepare a cookie sheet with a silicon liner or parchment paper. Put a spoon of the onion/stem/cream mixture on a leaf and then fold it up like a burrito. My blettes were on the small side, so I used the smallest leaves as wings, and wrapped the bigger ones around that and they held. No waste. If you have chives, use them like ribbon to tie up your packets.

ready-for-ovenSet them on the cookie sheet and brush with a little olive oil (I used my finger; it only takes a couple of drops).

Cook them for about 15 minutes, just enough to get warm and so the filling sets.

Vegetables aside, we had quite a week. Late Saturday, I think, it started to rain. The pace stepped up on Sunday, with lots of wind for drama. By Monday, it was pouring rain and the wind was howling and our electricity was out more than it was on.

flooding-right
Our house is just to the right of this!
view-right-after
Same view two days later. And normally, this would be “oooh! the river is high!”

A little nervous, I inspected the river next to our house, but it was unimpressive despite the downpour.

 

But Monday night, some meteorological firetruck parked in the skies above our village and let loose with water cannons. I didn’t sleep for the racket. The next day, I got a message that a package had arrived in Carcassonne. Fine–we set off to pick it up. Pulling out of our driveway, we were shocked to come almost nose to nose with the river. THIS river, that was bone dry in August. Most of the time, “river” is an exaggeration, because it’s about ankle-deep and two feet wide.

flooding-bridge
Even with the water level down now, this shot makes me woozy.
bridge-after
Two days later

We headed to town, gasping at the water everywhere. We got our package, headed back home and found that the river had risen even further. “We’re leaving,” I said. And within half an hour we had packed up clothes and food to take to our apartments in Carcassonne, which were high and dry and with electricity and running water–in taps only.

 

Our village had been hit hard by floods in 1999, and everybody still talks about it. I had no desire to live through such an event with our kid. Even if our house is high enough to have escaped the 1999 flood, it was tiresome to be without electricity.

view-to-park
To me, this is the worst shot. Beyond the trees is a big park that turned into a lake. Huge.
park-after
Same view two days later. The poor ducks who usually nest at the bend on the right must be refugees now.

Amazingly, in Carcassonne, it wasn’t even raining. The parking lots along the Aude river, which is a real river, much bigger than the usual trickle next to our house, sometimes flood but they were dry and in no danger.

 

Today, the sun was out, the weather was warm and we had the windows open. And the river was way down. I haven’t been to the park or to my usual jogging route to see the effects, but I suppose they will be temporary. A big drink.

 

Big Drink

cloudy-skies-1It rained. At last.

puddleActually, it rained a few weeks ago, a nice, long soak that allayed the fears of many who saw ground hardened like concrete by drought, which, in the past, has led to flash floods when rain falls at last but too fast.

cloudy-skies-2But then more weeks passed without a drop. The garden sagged. Finally, when the wine harvest was done, it rained again. A nice, long soak.

wet-leavesDon’t you love the smell of rain? The smell before it even starts? The smell during? I was in the house with most of the windows shut, but I got a whiff and knew it had begun.

drop-on-palmI had to go out and walk amid the drops. It was primeval. We need rain.

dry-grass
Our back yard, before the rain. At least we don’t have to mow.

We even had thunder and lightning for drama! Just so we could feel like we had a REAL thunderstorm and not some namby-pamby “shower.”

from-roofEven so, the sun came out. That’s how thing roll here. When we lived in Belgium, the sun would be shining bright but you still needed to take an umbrella because it was likely to rain at some point during the day. Here, even when the rain is dashing down, sometimes you need sunglasses because part of the sky will be clear. I’ve driven with the windshield wipers going full tilt AND with sunglasses on against glaring sunshine at the same time.

see-rain-afar
I love seeing it come down in the distance. 

see-rain-afar-zoomSurprisingly I didn’t see a rainbow, despite the combination of rain and sun. I guess it wasn’t the right angle.

white-cloudsNo pot of gold. But afterward, there were diamonds everywhere.

rain-drops-on-genet

Bikes and Old Stones

under-arches

Biking isn’t always easy in the French countryside. The departmental roads are narrow, with no shoulders and ditches right up to the tarmac edge. Except when platane trees are there.

under-ivy

The small streets of old towns and villages were made for horse-drawn carts, not gas-guzzling 4x4s that take up two parking places. Bike lanes? Rare. But they are catching on. It’s odd it has taken so long, when bikes seem so quintessentially French.

two-bikes

Do you bike in France? What has your experience been?

Wine Harvest

grapes-3The vendange, or grape harvest, is in full swing. Well before dawn, I hear the big harvesters rumble down the road to the vineyards. As I write, the hum of a harvester drifts through my open window.

machine-caunesThe hot, dry summer means this year’s harvest is small but good. When rain threatens at vendange time, the winemakers work around the clock to bring in the grapes before the precipitation dilutes their sugar content, or makes the vineyards too muddy to traverse, or, worst of all, brings hail that ruins the crop. This year’s clear blue skies have spared the vines of such problems.

Life around here still revolves around the vendange even though it no longer requires all hands on deck. For example, the village gym classes don’t begin until late September because traditionally too many participants had to work all day in the vineyards, harvesting grapes. These days, much of the harvest is done by giant machines that, when they roll through a little village, seem like contraptions out of horror movies, with their rows of teeth.

machine-villalier

amid-vines-villalier

tractor
Hauling off a load of future wine

Hand harvesting is back-breaking work. The grapes are just at a level where you have to bend over constantly. It was women’s work, while men collected the buckets of grapes and carried them to a wagon. It was a time for the locals without vineyards to earn a little extra money, though often they were paid in wine. I looked at help-wanted ads to see what seasonal workers earn now; it seems to be €9.67 an hour, which is minimum wage. With many easier ways for the French to earn the SMIC,  it isn’t surprising that the seasonal workers are mostly from Eastern Europe, Spain or Portugal. The New York Times had an article last week about volunteer tourists helping the harvest.

cite-vendange
Do you see the towers of la Cité to the left of the electricity pole?

The Domaine Fontaine Grande on the outskirts of Carcassonne is one that harvests by hand. A dozen workers quickly filled bucket after bucket, their secateurs, or clippers, snipping the generous bunches neatly. As fast as they went (most of my photos were blurs), they barely seemed to make headway in the vast vineyard.

It’s hard to miss the vendange. Traces of grapes on the roads. The heady scent of already-fermenting fruit drifting out from the cuves.

spilled-grapesBefore 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.

climbing-ladder-1
The buckets of hand-picked grapes are collected into these bigger baskets….
climbing-ladder-2
Then dumped into the wagon.

Soon the 2016 millesime will be developing in the giant wine vats, and the leaves on the vines will change to brilliant hues of red, orange and yellow before falling off for winter.

vineyards
Minervois vineyards–a great alternative to pricier bordeaux and burgundy.

Animal House

lizard-closeupThe animals we encounter in France are different from those I’ve dealt with in the U.S.

My parents lived in a mid-size city of about half a million people. With a wooded park nearby, deer often ambled onto a vacant lot one house over. Even some very big bucks.  Raccoons were a constant challenge. And the opossums! Squirrels were taken for granted.

peto-and-costume
As exotic as it gets

Here, on the edge of a little village that’s on the outskirts of a little city of 50,000, I see far less wildlife. Occasionally a fox or pheasant or quail. The hunting club gathers at the community center on Sunday mornings, with wild boars strapped to the hoods of their vehicles. We got all excited recently with a sighting of a single squirrel in the park. And a nest of hatchlings, below left, and a poor injured bird, right, had us cooing.

Around the house, the birds that woke us early in the spring seem to have fled the drought; with rain this week, we’re hoping they come back. In winter, we crumble up any leftover bread to sprinkle on the grass. In the mornings when I open the shutters, they are lined up atop the wall, looking at me, as if to say, “So? What’s taking you so long? How about some crumbs?”

mesangeA family of mésanges, or titmouse/chickadees, had nested amid the rafters of our  entry for years and were none too pleased when we enclosed it. They would click and cluck at us, keeping a distance of about a meter wherever we went in the yard, simultaneously fearless and wary.

Bats come out in the evenings. Sometimes when closing the west shutters against the approaching afternoon sun, I would disturb bats that had taken refuge against the cool  wall behind the shutters. They are such little balls of fur when they sleep.

gecko-2Mostly, though, have lizards galore. They occasionally get inside the house and panic. We try to get them back out without hurting them. Our kid has a knack for picking them up, which is amazing because they are so skittish and lightning fast.

lizard-in-handFor a while we had a huge lizard–at least a foot long–in a pile of rocks. It was great entertainment to watch the lizard peek out, then tear across the grass into the oleander along the wall, then reappear, twig in mouth, to streak back to the rock pile. We haven’t seen this lizard for some time, which is too bad. We’ve been told that a lizard like that in a garden ensures no vipers will take up residence.

Just as the appearance of the geckos is a sign of spring, we’ll know it’s winter when they stay hidden away.

What animals live near you?

 

 

La Tour Boisée

wood caisseLa rentrée–the re-entry, to work, school and regular life after summer vacation–coincides with le vendange–the grape harvest. France has many famous wines, but also many smaller ones that aren’t as well known but often just as good.

bottlesMinervois is a small region just northeast of Carcassonne, with mostly family-run wineries. It’s one of the oldest wine-growing regions in France: around 6 B.C., the Greeks brought grape vines here.

tour
La tour boisée

We recently joined friends new to the region for a tasting at one of our favorite wineries, Domaine de la Tour Boisée, in Laure-Minervois. The domaine is a family operation headed by Jean-Louis Poudou, producing 14 reds, whites and rosés, on 84 hectares (about 207 acres). It recently took on the bio, or organic, label.

Poudou
Jean-Louis Poudou

Here, wine-making takes its time. We once went to a tasting in the U.S. where the vines were but three years old and the winemaker bragged about “aging on wood.” When we asked where he got his barrels–which are a big expense–he sniffed that he didn’t use barrels but wood chips in metal tanks. His wine was beyond awful.

cour
Pallets of bottles, ready for the next year’s vintage.

By contrast, at la Tour Boisée, the vines of carignan, a variety that’s typical of the Minervois, are 60 years old, and those of alicante, a Spanish grape, are 80 years old. There’s a special wine, called 1905, that mixes 23 varieties planted on a plot in the village in 1905. It’s VERY good.

And the Marie-Claude wine of syrah, grenache and carignan is aged at least a year in oak barrels. Real ones. An investment in time and materials.

aubrevoire
An abreuvoir, or watering trough

While choosing a wine is a personal affair, la Tour Boisée’s large selection caters to many tastes. What I want to focus on is the ritual of a tasting.

pouring

First, there was a discussion about our preferences. Our group of five adults leaned toward reds (though I’m a big fan of their chardonnay). Frédérique, the owner’s daughter (who has a wine named after her! Isn’t that sweet?), led us through seven wines. Small amounts were poured into stemmed glasses, swirled and sniffed. The wines’ legs were examined–the legs are the traces of wine that flow back to the bottom of the glass after you’ve swirled. Mouthfuls of wine were swished around, breathed through, and mostly swallowed. The drivers took advantage of the crachoir, or spitoon.

tastedWe spent two hours tasting and talking and learning. Then we filled the trunks of the cars with cases of wine. A big difference with the U.S.: it’s pretty much unheard-of to charge for wine tasting, but it’s considered bad form not to buy at least a case. Of course, if you don’t like the wine, you’re under no obligation.

Olive oil
We also got olive oil. The domaine has over 1,000 olive trees.

We didn’t leave without walking around the property. The namesake tower was part of the village’s ramparts.

tour 2

stairs down
Stairs to a secret walled garden. And the reason for the gate….
goat
…is a goat.
lower arch
Instagrammable cuteness everywhere you look

I don’t do sponsored posts, and this is no exception. We just are fans. Many of the Minervois wineries are too small to export their wines, but la Tour Boisée can be found in the U.S., including at Astor Wines in Manhattan.

under olivier

 

 

 

 

 

They’ve Got Balls

who's closestThere are two sports of importance and obsession in the south of France: rugby and pétanque. I haven’t gotten into rugby but it’s hard not to immediately love pétanque.

balls lined up 2For one thing, it’s sedate. Players toss steel balls, not too fast, and then leisurely amble over to see the result. The Carnivore even has a magnet on a string to not have to actually bend over and pick up his balls–so important to avoid spilling one’s p’tit jaune. Mostly it involves standing around. The biggest effort is probably climbing the six steps to the buvette for refreshments.

standing throw
The Standing pitch

So it’s a game for all ages and all abilities. Kind of like horseshoes, but even more universal, because you don’t even need a stake. Just a flat area, best without grass.

squat
The Full-Squat pitch

You rarely hear more than the clackety clack of the balls during pétanque. Nobody yells “Oui!” or “Yes!” Enthusiasm is expressed through a lifting of eyebrows, or, at the extreme, a smile. Very French.

half squat
The Half-Squat pitch

Here’s how it works: There’s a little wooden ball called the cochonnet (little pig) that’s tossed into the playing area, or terrain. If you’re playing singles, each player has three balls; for doubles each has two balls. You stand in a little circle and toss your ball as close as possible to the cochonnet. For all the rules, see here.

balls lined upA friend who helps run the local boulodrome explained that there are two kinds of pétanque: lyonnais and provençal. Lyonnais involves running or something, he said, shaking his head as if such a thing were lamentable. Provençal is the calmer version.

boardStill, the players exhibit many techniques for tossing their balls. Some stand, some squat, and some are crouched in between.

There’s an official license and everything for playing in tournaments. It costs about €22 and involves a photo and a medical certificate. Then you become a card-carrying pétanque player. Official is official.

prizesThe benefits are multiple. There’s insurance (!!!) and of course the prizes. For example, a recent tournament awarded various levels two magrets de canard plus two bottles of wine; two chickens and two bottles of wine; two bottles of Ricard plus two bottles of wine; and the top prize was six magrets and two bottles of wine. Sense a theme?

The Carnivore had a license one year and happily set off at 9:30 one evening to the boulodrome, his little bag of balls in hand. He came home many hours later as excited as a kid: he and his partner had won the gros lot, and he had a bunch of meat to put in the freezer.

boules on ground
What you need: steel balls, a cochonnet (this one is nicely visible), a measuring tape and a magnet on a string for picking up your balls.

In 2010, Karl Lagerfield unveiled his cruise collection in Saint-Tropez, including, in his fashion, an old-time game of pétanque with special Chanel boules.

While you might not have time to get a license during a vacation (proper bureaucracy can’t be rushed), you are certainly welcome to use the boulodromes you’ll find in any town or village across the south of France. It’s the perfect sport for a hot summer night.

distant shot windup

Communal Cassoulet

cassoulet
Note the crust! It isn’t bread crumbs.

Our village had its annual fête recently. We didn’t participate much–karaoke night and disco night aren’t our thing. But we were drawn to the cassoulet dinner.

Tables and chairs for 200-ish were set up in the shade of ancient platane trees next to the river. It was a scorching day, but between the shade and the breeze, we were comfortable. It was a bring-your-own-dishes affair, as usual. Open to anybody who bought tickets in advance, €18 per person, less for kids.

setting upThe aperitif took place as usual, same place, same routine as the earlier post. The starter was a green salad topped with duck gizzards.

Then came the cassoulet, brought in from a local caterer. One bowl served three people: a big piece of duck, two pieces of sausage and lots of couenne, or pork rind. Nobody went hungry.

One woman preferred drinking to eating, guzzling rosé straight from the pitcher. She danced on the tables, but eventually fell and was hauled home. There’s one in every crowd.

cassoulet bowl
The ducks on the bowl made me laugh.

It was followed by cheese, as if that could ever be in question. Then ice cream from La Belle Aude, which is made in Carcassonne. The factory used to make milk, ice cream, yogurt and other products for name brands. But then it was bought out by a big British-German company, which closed the factory, with the loss of 123 jobs.

glaceThe workers were upset, because the new company had promised to upgrade the factory, then decided not to. The workers, with local government support, bought the factory and started turning out La Belle Aude (Beautiful Aude–Aude is the name of the department of which Carcassonne is the equivalent of county seat).

2cv
Somebody arrived in a beautifully restored Citroën 2CV. 

 

The Circus Comes to Town

entryIt was a big day in the little village. Two sets of visitors showed up.

On one side of the street, an itinerant mattress vendor. All in all, a quiet stay.

On the other side of the street, a circus. It was a big one for our town. There’s a very small family circus that comes through in the spring, with just a couple of animals, and even the small kids of the family perform as clowns. The very young audience members love it because such little clowns aren’t scary and in their very protected lives they cannot imagine doing such outrageous things as performing.

I don’t know how these circuses survive, because they draw only a couple dozen spectators. Tickets for this one were €5 for children and €10 for adults, but the smaller circuses charge less. Can they even buy gas to get to the next town, let alone feed themselves and their animals?

setting up
Setting up

We went to the circus during the magical years, even though the entire situation made me want to be an ostrich to not see how poor the performers were. Little ones see only the spectacle. Their eyes sparkle though the finery is faded and fake. Lucky them.

This circus had a bigger menagerie than some.

animals 1

camel

llama
I kind of laugh over the vineyard in the background. Like, is it possible to get a shot without grape vines around here? No!

There was even a lion. I wasn’t going to the show, but I did pop by to see what state the lion was in. A male, with a big mane. That was all that was big about him. His ribs showed. He continued to sleep as I snapped. A family in a rickety rusty-white camionette pulled up. I guess the kids were in the back (probably without seats, and thus without seatbelts). They oohed and aahed over the lion.

lion“Is he big?” asked the children, around 6 and 8 years old.

“He’s enormous,” the mother said.

“One of the biggest I’ve ever seen,” the father assured them.

They happily moved on to examine the other animals.

I was glad that this family, who seemed as poor as the circus clan, were having an exciting morning. But I was sad they didn’t know that lions should look like this:

Lionesses
Ladies lunching at Maasai Mara. You could hear the bones crack.

Anyway, for two days, the circus blasted music from early in the morning until their show started at 6 p.m. In another indication of their budget constraints, they had only a few, very dated songs. “Nuit de Folie” and “Gonna Fly Now” aka the theme song from the first “Rocky” movie played on repeat.

They were quiet at night, so whatever. Unfortunately, the wind was marin–which meant that the overripe odors of barnyard mixed with zoo wafted into the village.

They stayed six days. I dropped coins into the metal donation box for animal feed in front of the lion’s cage. They clanked in a way that made it clear there weren’t other coins in there. I don’t see how these folks earn a living with two shows in six days. Obviously that is just one of the many reasons I’m not in the circus business. Though some would argue…

circus signWhat do you think? Little circuses are wonderful and quaint or an ambulatory PETA case?

Middle Age Spread

glovesThe medieval fête at the Camping de Moulin de Sainte Anne capped off with a dinner, as fêtes in France tend to do.

tables
The slate slabs were roof tiles. I bought some myself at a vide-grenier for use on the grill.

The tables were laid with pottery, slate slabs, knives and wooden spoons. The wine glasses were recycled yogurt pots. You know how Pinterest is full of DIYs for Ball jars? Same thing here, but with yogurt pots, in glass or terra cotta. Yogurt of the brand la Fermière (the farmwife) comes in them.

As we enjoyed an apéritif of spiced wine, the actors and band set up.

arranging skins
Must place the skins just so.

There was a witch hunt, a sword fight, a king crowned and much more.

reading decree
Declaring the hunt for the witch
sword fight
Swashbuckling
knight
Mingling
behind palm
Backstage

As for the food, we started with a tranchoir, a large round of bread, topped with slices of ham, pâté and smoked duck breast, along with a salad, for which we had no forks because those weren’t common until later. (Quizz: when did the Middle Ages end? Answer at end.)

entreeThe actors, who were part of the Echansons du Carcassès club, also served the dishes, which were carried out on a litter.

entree prep

waitresses
The multitalented members of the Echansons du Carcassès. The “witch” is far left.

Next, we had bowls of fèves, or fava beans, with grilled sausages. It doesn’t look like much, but it was delicious and hearty. One tour guide, at the Château de Guise in the north, described the cuisine of the time in detail. For example, a bird like a turkey would be killed, put in a pot with spices, buried with the head sticking out and left to sit. When the beak fell off, it was “done.” No. Thank. You. More medieval dishes here and here.

Wine also was served. Duh.

saucisse feves

Finally, we had a vanilla cream, like panna cotta. It arrived on a litter with a château replica whose towers were aflame. Nice touch of drama.

dessert castleAs night fell, the band struck up. The Artemuses ladies danced, stories were interspersed between songs and much merriment ensued.

band 1As the last song ended, the skies unleashed a much-needed downpour. Perfect timing.

dancing princess
This princess could not sit still when the music was playing. And she was a good dancer.

These kinds of gatherings are open to anybody. This goes for other kinds of events as well. If you see a poster, you can attend (and don’t forget to look for the line about “apporter vos couverts” telling you to bring your own plates and silverware. If it isn’t indicated, it’s probably provided). Best to call the number on the poster to reserve. The price usually is very reasonable. This dinner cost €20 per person. Bon appétit!

If you miss a medieval fête, you can get a medieval meal at La Rôtisserie restaurant in the Château de Villeroute-Termenès, about 50 minutes east of Carcassonne.

Answer: usually Columbus’s discovery of America in 1492 is considered the end of the medieval period and the start of the Renaissance, though, like much of history, that’s up for argument.