Night Owl

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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.

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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.

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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.36.Carca by night6So 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.33.Carca by night3It 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. P1090058For 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

For my mom, whom I miss every day.IMG_1486

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A magical, shining castle competing with the stars.
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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?

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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.

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Our house is just to the right of this!
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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.

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Even with the water level down now, this shot makes me woozy.
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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.

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To me, this is the worst shot. Beyond the trees is a big park that turned into a lake. Huge.
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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.

 

Eating Seasonal Produce: Winter

radis-rougeLast week, the news was full of about how bad weather in Spain and Italy had hurt vegetable crops, sending prices skyrocketing.

cauliflower
Look at those beautiful caulifower.

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.

cauliflower-spiky
The Romanesco variety of cauliflower. Note the dirt! Good sign!

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.

maraicher
Always my first stop: Serge Claret, who farms near Montreal, a very pretty village west of Carcassonne.

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.

rutabaga-navet-dor
Rutabagas, top; “ball of gold” turnips, bottom.
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Regular turnips. Great in soup (or couscous!)

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.

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Laitue. Don’t be surprised to find a slug or two inside, because it wasn’t doused with pesticides.
chene
Salade feuille de chêne–oak leaf lettuce.
mache
Mâche, or lamb’s lettuce.

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.

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Carrots. With or without the green tops.
carrots-yellow
Carrots of other colors.
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Panaïs or parsips, here in purple, but often white as well.

 

We even have kale in Carcassonne. Moving up in the world.

kale
Muriel Vayre has a truck farm along the Aude river, below la Cité. You can buy directly from her at the farm, as well.

Kale may be new and trendy in France, but cabbage comes in many varieties and is cheap.

chou-vert
These guys are ginormous.

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.

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Chou rave, aka kohlrabi.
celeri-rabe
Celeri rave, or celeriac, is a favorite of school menus, grated as a salad similar to coleslaw with a mayo-style dressing called remoulade. These beasts serve a crowd.

topinambour

Topinambour, or sunchoke, can substitute for potatoes, and are prepared the same way.

betterave-roasted
Betteraves, or beets, are sold raw or roasted, like here, and also come in many colors.

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.

fufu
“Fufu” is wearing the cap.

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.

Hygge? Non, Merci

p1060468If you follow French news, you’ve probably heard we have a cold snap across the Hexagone. It hasn’t been this cold in five years.

The photo above was taken yesterday. Early-morning temperatures had plunged to minus 7 Celsius (19 degrees Fahrenheit), but by mid-afternoon, they were around 4 C (39 F), with a brilliant blue sky and tons of sun. Perfect for drying laundry on the line.

Not hygge at all.

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January roses: Not hygge.
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More flowers. Not hygge, either.

Hygge is the global rage at the moment: the Danish concept of coziness, cuddling, candles and close friends that is credited with making the Danes the world’s happiest people.

Aside from comfort food with loved ones–de rigueur for the French–the south of France is un-hygge. Everything is geared toward good weather, not winter. The steep slope of some driveways around here made me realize that the residents knew nothing of driving out on ice or of shoveling knee-deep snow.

I wonder whether I’m the only one around here who used to drive from October to April with a snow shovel and a bag of sand in my trunk (sand to improve traction and also to sprinkle under the tires, should I get stuck and find them spinning).

We get a few flakes here almost every winter, but they  rarely survive 24 hours. Should we miss the snow, we need to drive only two and a half or three hours to the Pyrénées ski stations, or even Andorra. In my opinion, that’s the perfect distance for snow.

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Fountain sprays in January: Hygge? Nope.

I knew I was in the right place when I saw Carcassonne in winter. Bubbling fountains. Flowers in gardens. Café terraces bustling in the dead of winter. Hygge is having your coffee inside, with candles or a fireplace. Sipping your coffee in the sun at a table on the terrace, even though it’s chilly, and watching the people pass, is not hygge at all.

The brightest, sunniest days bring the coldest nights. It’s a small price to pay. Though the architecture-geared-toward-good-weather, paired with the two-foot-thick stone walls in older houses, means pipes often get run outside buildings, and when it does get really cold, like five years ago, they rupture left and right. In fact, at our kid’s school in the village, and now at upper grades in Carcassonne, the restrooms are outside. Not pleasant but further proof that it just doesn’t get very cold.

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Poolside palms. Hygge fail.

Meanwhile, it’s been fun watching the Carcassonnais going about their business as if they suddenly were in Siberia (which is where this cold front is said to have originated, always mentioned darkly on the weather report. No love lost for Russia in this country). Bundled to the max–emmitouflé–which, I guess is pretty hygge after all.

 

Crazy Legs

red

Another fashion news flash from the south of France: colored tights are a thing.

The first pair I noticed, in the fall, were purple. Not a dark aubergine that subtly rejects the banality of black. They were a shocking violet, a Prince-ly purple. The wearer also had on other purple accents. Committed to the color.

Soon colored tights were everywhere. Fuschia. Yellow. Orange. Big florals against black backgrounds, kind of like a Dutch golden age still life.

Granted, tights mean skirts and neither are suitable for serious cold. Until last weekend the weather has been warm enough for coats left unbuttoned. Even so, everybody–men and women, young and older–wears long, thick scarves wound several times around their necks, so they look like whiplash victims. The silhouette is similar to Elizabethan neck ruffs:

Back to tights. Mostly they are solid, vibrant colors.

green-tightsSometimes there are designs.

writingstripedI also saw, but failed to photograph, tights the color of raw chicken breasts, with a rose vine motif up the side that looked for all the world like a long tattoo. And two-tone tights with black from the foot to just above the knee, then pale peach, so they looked like stockings attached to garters–even with a little fake bow as if they were tied on. Proof that not all French women have great taste.

And then these two ladies, dressed up with style all their own. I particularly liked the green beret with the fur coat.

Fog Filter

red-treeBetween the days of hard blue skies, sometimes we awake to discover that the fog has crept in on little cat feet.

Unable to see the rooftops from the window. Unable to see the road up the hill. Unable to see even across the yard. Thick. Dark white. Quiet.

from-hilltopWhen it had lifted enough not to be treacherous to venture out on foot–the roads have no shoulders, and I didn’t want a passing car to send me into a ditch–I was enchanted by the “fog filter” on the countryside.

north-from-hilltopIt’s funny to see how things turn green in winter. The wheat fields are becoming emerald carpets. The grass and weeds between the rows of vines, left to hold the topsoil in place, are lush.

windmillThe pine trees that can become kindling for wild fires in summer are now verdant, as if razzing the deciduous plants whose finery is gone until spring.

bare-vinesSome of the vines have leaves left, but others are bare. Wintry. The wine growers are busy trimming while the weather is mild.

boar-track

Others are out in the vines, too. The other day we were stopped on a main road for a boar hunt that was passing through. I’ve never seen a boar, but I hear there are too many.

red-seeds

Even on a fog-filter day, there are bursts of color. On this side of the hill, only the sound of the wind in the pines and the songs of birds. On the other side, the cars on the departmental road create a constant thrum. Electric vehicles can’t get here fast enough.

And finally, the fog lifts, and we see the majesty of the mountains. Is that still France? Or is it Spain? Or Andorra? In Nepal, the guest house had the Himalayan peaks traced on the window, with names pointing to crest. You stooped until you lined up the mountain view with the correct outlines and figured out which one was Mount Everest. Because they others weren’t high enough to worry about.

mountains

Though I’m mildly curious about which peak is which, I don’t want to let a focus on superlatives like “highest” take away their collective magnificence.

Happy holidays to all. We are taking a break until after the New Year, as the French do, in order to focus on friends and family at hand.

Thursday in town

Place Carnot
The fountain at Place Carnot

 

Usually I’m chained to my desk and don’t get into town on weekdays. But when I do, I love it. We had an important mission: ordering tile for the apartment. We went to Ferrand, which did our kitchen when we moved here, and which has a gorgeous showroom.

Since we were in town, we popped by to check on the renovation. The electricians were hard at work. The place is getting completely rewired, a huge task that involves piercing 2-foot-thick stone walls and then covering it all up.

Le Carnot
Le Carnot….one of the many cafés on the square

Then we went next door to Place Carnot for a coffee. It was another gray but mild day, and the terraces were full of people.

There’s a small market on Tuesdays, a slightly bigger one on Thursdays and the major one on Saturdays. Because how can you expect something to be fresh if you shop only once a week?

pont rouge maraichers
These guys have great vegetables they grow themselves

The contrast with the other day at la Cité was sharp. La Cité was very, very quiet (which I find wonderful, actually). La Bastide, or the lower town, was calmer than on Saturdays, but still lively.  Carcassonne is a small city, so the level of activity is never very high. There’s a gentleness and intimacy to the encounters you see. Many of the locals — les Carcassonais de souches — are relatives or went to school together, like in any small town. And it’s fun to watch the local matrons picking up their weekday produce, while holding small dogs on the leash and wearing short fur coats despite temps in the low 50s.

thursday market
Even in winter, it’s nicer to buy produce here