Thursday, November 27, 2008

Meat and Potatoes for Lunch

At Casino stores here, you can buy frozen potatoes. Whoop-de-doo. Except that these are pre-sliced and mixed with duck fat, plus lots of chopped parsley and garlic. All you do is tip them into a non-stick pan and toss them around for 15 minutes.

Seven of us squashed around the table for lunch today. One dog dozed under it. Another, a two-month-old puppy slept soundly, apart from the occasional attack of hiccups, on the rug in front of the fireplace.

With the potatoes, we had chunks of saucisse fraîche and dark lusty boudin (blood sausage)-- both from the butcher in Chalabre-- browned in the frypan. Lots of bread and a salad of frisée, radicchio and the last oakleaf lettuce from the garden set us all up for a good afternoon's work.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Millas in Lavelanet

Millas--or milla as it's sometimes spelled is an Ariègeois specialty. A mixture of cornmeal and water, it's abit like polenta. This morning, we drove into Lavelanet for a gardeners' vide grenier. The few stalls looked lonely inside the huge halles but we did buy an old fork, some vintage Christmas cards and some plants. At the entrance, a couple was stirring a huge copper pot of millas to be served later, cut in slabs and sprinkled with sugar. 

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Nice Little Lunch in Carcassonne

We had errands to do in Carcassonne on Wednesday. A meeting with the bank. A wander around the aptly named Géant hypermarché. And, of course, lunch. 

Last year around this time, on a blustery day, we had a memorable plat du jour at a little bistro called Café Florian on Place Carnot in the old town. I can still taste that duck confit with tagliatelle mixed with wild mushrooms and garlic cream sauce. So we went back and managed to nail one of the few remaining tables. 

Picture crimson walls, tables crowded together and a rush of people on their two-hour lunch break. Everyone there seemed to be ordering the nine-euro plat du jour so we did too. Onglet--hangar steak--with a shallot sauce, an excellent sweet potato soufflé sort of thing, a spoonful of ratatouille and, at each corner, a petite cluster of mâche. That, a quarter litre of red and coffees set us up for the afternoon.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Clearing the Trail (and the Lunch that Followed)

Periodically, a group of volunteers goes out into the countryside and clears an overgrown walking/riding trail. A bit after 8:30 on Sunday morning, a group of us of various ages met up at the Salle Catalpa. Coffee and croissants first (of course) and then we drove just outside the village to where an old trail had grown over and needed reopening. 

Saws, axes, secateurs and clippers were all put to use on this golden November day. We chopped through brambles, dug up weeds, sawed through branches so that the trail would be clear not just for hikers but for riders too. At one point, we came around a corner and came on a view of the Pyrenees that left us all breathless. Snowy peaks, blue sky: every travel writing cliché in the book.

Then, we drove back to the Salle Catalpa for lunch. We began with anchovies on baguette and a chequerboard of black and red fish roes on bread plus plastic glasses of muscat. Next, along with big pottery jugs of rosé and rouge, came a salad of smoked salmon mousse (the mousse layered with slices of salmon) and a radicchio salad. The main course was hachis parmentier, the French version of shepherd's pie, but made with duck confit. Cheese next. Then a wicked chocolate tarte with crème anglaise followed by coffee. Then home. And a nap. 

The View from the Supermarket Parking Lot

Even though I cheated by using the "zoom" on my camera, this is still a staggering view of chateau Montségur, the last stronghold of the Cathars. Shot, as the title says, from the very unatmospheric parking lot shared by Intermarché and Bricomarché.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Bare Naked Plane Trees

During our five-week absence, the tree-cutters visited the village and did their biennial pruning of the trees. Hard to imagine that these bizarre, alien-like creatures will ever sprout any green ever again.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Snow on the Pyrenees and Finds at the Market

Low temperatures mean snow on the mountains. On this crystal-clear morning, the contrast was extraordinary between the razor-sharp Pyrenees and the soft Harris tweed colours of the fields and forests. 

In the halles at Lavelanet market, local producers now sell lots of winter crops. I found these utterly gorgeous cabbages, parsnips--which you don't often see in France--and two baskets of medlars which I've never seen for sale anywhere before. In hindsight I should have bought them, so I could let them ripen from now till Christmas. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

La Poste

Not only do we have a boulangerie and an épicerie (little grocery store) in the village, Léran is also lucky enough to have its own post office. Meet Sylvie, who runs it. She always has a bowl of candies on the counter for her customers and also a small decoration that reflects the season. This is the first sign of Christmas that I've seen in the village. 


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Brocante in Mirepoix

Quelle contrast in the weather. Yesterday was warm enough for us to eat baguette and tomatoes (strewn with the last of the basil) in the garden. Today, we woke to sombre grey skies. Not a problem as we were off to Mirepoix to search for a dining table large enough to seat eight. 

The square was filled with people selling plants, onion sets and fruit trees. The arcades were lined with brocanteurs. 

Stalls displayed old kitchen utensils: molds for madeleines; moulis for making soups and purées; this box of heavy iron weight for measuring out meat, flour and vegetables.

As always, at these antiques sales, I was struck by the big snowy heaps of monogrammed linens. Many would have been embroidered as part of a trousseau, then stored away for decades, never used, when the 1914-1918 war destroyed so many of the young male population of France. Something to think about on this day of remembrance. 

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Back in France: the general store.

It's good to be back in France after the usual umpteen hours of travelling made worse this time by a train strike. Geraniums are still in bloom, daylight hours a little longer here and temperatures by day--well, at least today--a balmy 15 degrees.

Errands to do included a trip to Lavelanet to buy warm and waterproof footwear, easily found at Gamm Vert. Gardening store? Hardware store? Food store? I don't know anywhere else you could buy vegetable seeds, olive trees, flowering plants, big copper pans for jam-making, rings for bulls' noses, clippers for docking lambs' tails, aprons, cookbooks, fleece vests, and--of course--warm and waterproof footwear. 

Then there's the food and wine. Gamm Vert is strong on supporting local producers. Here you can buy wines, honey, preserves, sausages, hams, apples, potatoes, cheeses, fresh eggs (which you select individually from a large basket) and a variety of vinegars made about 20 minutes from where we live. Lavender, nettle and chive are just three possibilities. 

I'll probably blog more on nettles at some future date. The ancienne house we've bought has a jungle of a garden thick with nettles. A sign of good soil says the present owner.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Dim Sum at Sun Sui Wah

We've missed this while we've been in France and dim sum really isn't something you can duplicate at home--even if I could lay my hands on all the ingredients.

Thanks to its enormous Asian population, Vancouver boasts dozens of spots where you can sit down in a huge dining room and pick and choose from the various dim sum carts wheeled to your table. 

Sun Sui Wah used to do this but not any more. Now it's a menu, an order form--and tick off the boxes according to how many portions you went. While I miss the surprise when the servers used to lift the lids off the little bamboo steamers to show what they were offering, what not comes to the table is definitely fresher and hotter. 

Six dishes did us nicely. The spring rolls were way better than the usual. That bowl of pale stuff is congee--rice gruel, much nicer than it sounds. This version had little dried fish and peanuts in it, and came with a little bowl of deep fried wonton skins and sliced green onion to sprinkle over the top.

Deep fried squid is always a must, as are shrimp dumplings which are larger than normal at Sun Sui Wah. We wandered outside our usual order with bean curd with oyster sauce which  turned out to be filled with ground pork. Making up the half dozen dishes were sticky rice balls. Other places, the sticky rice is wrapped inside a single black-green leaf instead of the smaller versions served here. As servers brought each dish to the table, they crossed off each item on the order by denting it with a fingernail. 

This is always a busy place. As we left, the queue extended down both side of the staircase.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Colourful Hand-Made Remedies for a Grey Day.

Unquestionably the most interesting shopping area in the city, Granville Island is run with great intelligence which means no big box stores or chains but dozens and dozens of artists, craftspeople and shops you won't see anywhere else.

That basket of yarn is in a store that was new to me this visit (it opened around the time we left for France). The offspring of my all-time favourite shop, Maiwa, it's piled high with utterly gorgeous yarns. I fondled, and of course I bought. But to return to the mother store. If I was limited to a single clothing source for the rest of my life, this is the place I'd pick. A stop at will show you why. And for any textiles enthusiasts out there, check out those podcasts.

Colour shot #2: I snapped these eye-rocking shoes and boots outside a little shop that specializes in things from Turkey. 

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Saturday on the Wet Coast

Postcards of Vancouver invariably show the city set against a dazzlingly blue sky. Not at this time of year when, to paraphrase Northwest Pacific writer Tom Robbins, the sky sits on the landscape like a wet cloth on a salad. 

Still, there is an elegiac, minor key, quality about the grey landscape that fits the mood of the season. Random spots fell as we walked along beside the water to Granville Island. Joggers, dog-walkers, amblers were out in abundance. You don't allow rain to cramp your style if you live here.