Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Autumn in Paris

Monday we took the train from Pamiers to Toulouse, and then from Toulouse to Paris. The apartment we're rented is on Ile St. Louis and overlooks the Seine. It's the tall narrow one on the extreme right.

Even though it's on the second floor (and remember, the second floor is the third floor in North American parlance) it's still 62 steps. Winding, curving, steep, well-polished stairs lead to the front door which opens into a 27 square metre apartment. About 280 square feet in non-metric. It's a small space but the owners have done a clever job with white furniture, mirrors and see-through chairs of making it look far larger than it is. 

From the window we can see the dome of the Pantheon and, if we lean out over the tiny balcony and risk plummeting on to the road below, a small vertical sliver of Notre Dame. Across the bridge that's directly in front of us is, what we've come to realize, the Tour d'Argent, the oldest restaurant in Paris.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Fête de la Noisette -- the "mosh pit" dance

Over the years, we've attended four or five hazelnut festival lunches so, by now, we know the routine. There's the waving-your-paper-napkin-in-the-air song, the waving-your-hands-in-the-air song, the various initiation ceremonies and, yes, fully fledged members of the confrérie do dress up as hazelnuts. Perhaps most spectacular of all, there's the "mosh pit" dance--I don't know what else to call it. 

At some point in the afternoon, a number of people sit on the floor, legs spread, in a long row. Then those who want to, or those whom sufficient wine has convinced it would be a good idea, line up and, one by one, hurl themselves face forward over the line. 

Standing either side, others take hold of the hurlee's arms and legs and gently ferry him (or her) above the line of floorbound participants who hold up their arms to speed the hurlee's passage. 

This year, Peter did it for the first time. 

Fête de la Noisette -- stalls and exhibits

The hazelnut festival isn't just an enormous Sunday lunch, it's also a chance for local producers, growers and everyone else concerned with food to get together. 

One stall sold round, crunch-crusted country loaves, as well as others made with hazelnuts. Elsewhere you could fill your basket with homemade jams, local honey in every colour from a pale, clear yellow to a thick, opaque gold, foie gras, confit de canard, wines and the local liqueur called Hypocras (said to be based on a medieval recipe). Imprinted with the Cathar cross, this cake was new to me. 

The charts of human innards were part of a display showing what an old-time school looked like in this region. Wood desks, complete with ink-wells, had names and initials carved into them. On the wall was a chart showing what happened if you abused your body with too much fatty food and alcohol. Ahem. 

Fête de la Noisette--the lunch

The annual lunch that celebrates the hazelnut is one of the high points of September. As communal meals go, this is a record-breaker in terms of size of crowd, and amount of food and wine consumed.

This year 320 people sat down in les halles in Lavelanet and 50 more had to be turned away. As always, the first course was a large slice of foie gras, this year served with pain d'épices and a fig confit. Wine flowed. The young man at the top of this post came around the tables offering seconds. Seconds of foie gras...aren't those words to haunt your dreams?

Next, volunteers deposited cassoulets on the table. As is traditional, we all lined up outside to get servings of meat off the grill, pork this year. Wine continued to flow. After that came cheese and finally dessert. Replacing the usual hazelnut based tarte was a multi-layer cake served, as is traditional, with bottles of blanquette de Limoux and hazelnut liqueur. That's my good friend, Corinne Barthez, serving coffee. 

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Cassoulet night

Earlier this week, I volunteered to make a cassoulet for the final farewell dinner before friends go home, and Peter and I take the train to Paris. 

Make that two cassoulets because there were ten of us. 

Thursday, I soaked a kilo of white beans and Friday morning I cooked them with parsley and thyme from the garden. Then, after lunch, I got serious. First I chopped two carrots, two onions, two celery sticks and six garlic cloves, not coarsely, not finely but somewhere in between. After I'd sautéed these in olive oil for a few minutes, I threw in two or three chopped tomatoes (one large and two small). Once everything had softened slightly, I mixed the veggies with the beans. These all fitted in the big copper pot--just. 

Leek leaves went around bay leaves, thyme and parsley, and were tied into two tidy little bundles with the string from the enormous roll--butcher's string I think--that I bought at last Sunday's vide grenier. I buried these in the beans, added chunks of semi-sel pork belly, chicken stock and water, and cooked it all for about two hours until the "soupiness" disappeared but there was still lots of juice. 

Pale sausages and flabby duck skin aren't favourites with anyone. I cut a big coil of saucisse fraîche into manageable lengths and browned them in the frying pan. Friends Wes and Antonya had contributed three big jars of duck confit. I fished the legs out of their yellowy fat (oh yes, I saved it) and browned the legs in the oven which also got rid of excess fat which I also poured into the big glass jar. 

Now, it was time to put it all together using the copper pot and the large pottery cassole. A layer of sausages on the bottom, then the bean mixture, a shake of salt and pepper, and repeat. Finally, I semi-submerged the duck confit chunks. 

Our oven couldn't hold it all so we carefully put the two pots on planks of wood in the rear of the Clio and drove them over to the gîte that would be the site of the evening's revelry. The oven there would only accommodate one pot so the second went across the impasse into the kitchen at the Impasse du Temple, the B and B where some friends were staying. We sprinkled dried bread crumbs on both cassoulets. An hour or so later, dark gold, crispy and bubbling, they came out of the oven and went on the table. See photo of the two cassoulets, empty plates and expectant expressions.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Late Blooming Sunflower

Several weeks ago, just to the left of a rose bush, I noticed a small seedling that looked as if it might be a sunflower so we left it alone and it grew and grew. At the weekend we got our first glimpse of its bright yellow petals and today, it's in full bloom. 

Meanwhile, around the village, the fields are crowded with brown, dry and drooping sunflowers waiting to be harvested and made into oil--including this field just across from the chateau de Léran.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Note re the transhumance posts of which there are four.

I have tried and tried but I can't make these appear in the right order. So here's what you have to do: scroll down to Part 1, then scroll upwards to Part 2 and so on until you arrive back here at the beginning with your reward--another sheep picture. But this time in close-up.

The Transhumance: Part 4 --the "blood and gold" majorettes

As I've written before, drum majorette troupes are a big thing in the Ariège. Today's group is called the "sang et or"--blood and gold. No, we're not sure why either. But you can see how they reflect the name in their costumes, and--whatever their name--they were terrific. First they paraded through the vide grenier. Then they lined the road, raising their batons to create a welcoming arch for the sheep. Finally, they provided a magnificent performance midway through lunch. Majorettes, by they way, is a misnomer. There's also a male version--majorets? 

Do note the sheep in the background. 

The Transhumance: Part 3--All Singing, All Dancing...

All lunches like this have a star entertainer. Today's was Sylvain avec son orgue de barbarie. He'd welcomed everyone into the village for the event and you had to have a soul of iron not to get goose bumps when you hear someone playing "Under the Bridges of Paris with you" or "sous les ponts de Paris" as we say locally. 

Once we had all sat down for lunch, Sylvain climbed up on stage with his orgue de barbarie and played throughout the meal. He put his heart and soul into every song, and his sweat. When he took off that rather attractive cap, his hair was pasted on to his forehead like strands of black licorice. 

At any meal like this, there are songs you sing along with without actually knowing the words. One woman there knew words to all kinds of songs and, when someone took the microphone over to her, dazzled us all with her truly remarkable voice.

Late in  the afternoon, people started dancing... and then someone pulled back the sides of the tent--we all blinked in the sudden deluge of sunshine--and we had a display by the local majorettes. 

Who really deserve their own post. 

The Transhumance: Part 2--A Long Lunch

Slid under windshield wipers at recent local markets, the leaflets promoting the transhumance listed a 15 euro lamb lunch to which we were asked to bring our own plates, cutlery and wine glasses, collectively known as couverts.

We forgot all of them. 

But, when there's a huge vide grenier in progress, you buy what you need. One friend scored an entire set of Laguiole cutlery for 10 euros. I found four gold-decorated plates for two. Someone else picked up five blanquette glasses. 

Inside a huge tent, tables were already set with paper cloths. Random sheep decorations hung from the ceiling. Outside, barely visible through the smoke, men manned charcoal barbecues in a manly way, flipping a dozen lamb chops at a time.

But first came a plate of charcuterie (see picture) including the nutty, chewy, ruby-coloured ham. Then, around came a big bowl of parslied potatoes speckled with large chunks of garlic and the first of the platters of grilled lamb. We got through several, all of it good, cooked medium-rare. Next came wedges of cheese and, finally, profiteroles and coffee. 

One thing we love about these long communal meals is how everyone is included. Little kids, teens, young couples, middle-aged people, old people, really old people, no one is marginalized as they might be in some countries. That, to me, is what community is all about.

Volunteers, usually older ladies, do all the work--and they do a splendid job, moving speedily back and forth bringing fresh baskets of bread, more bowls of potatoes, another platter of lamb chops and yet another carafe of wine.

Because wine was involved too, and lots of singing and dancing.

See next post.  

The Transhumance:Part 1--Exactly What Is a Transhumance?

Just too much happened yesterday to cover in one single post so I'm going to break it up into a number of sections. Probably three, maybe more. 

Background stuff first. In Latin, "trans" translates as "across" and "humus" means ground. In farming terms, it means moving your herds and flocks to higher pastures in summer and bringing them back to the valley in fall. A mere agricultural exercise? You must be joking. Like about everything else around here, the biannual transhumance is just another excuse for a long communal meal. 

Most of the transhumances we've read about started very early, very far away and involved (said friends who had been to one) a very long hike to keep up with the animals. This transhumance was local, about 15 minutes drive away in the village of Le Sautel and basically involved meeting and greeting the sheep as they were driven through the street. 

Some hapless drivers didn't realize what was going on and had to sit in their cars while the sheep milled around them. From the road, they (the sheep) were then driven through a gate into a meadow where they waited while everyone went off and had lunch. 

We probably could have climbed halfway up a Pyrenee and met them coming down but we were distracted by a vide grenier where we were able to buy the plates we had forgotten to bring. 

See Part Two.

Friday, September 19, 2008

First Harvest

Arriving here the second week of July meant that the first few days were devoted to weeding rather than planting. My good friend Lee-anne, a long-time Léran resident, had planted tomatoes and basil for me. Tomato, basil and fresh mozzarella salad have been a default lunch on several occasions recently. 

A few weeks ago, I bought a six-pack of oak leaf lettuce plants at Mirepoix market and stuck them in at the end of the garden between the hollyhocks and the lavender. (I also have frisée growing but I'm guessing it won't be ready for about a month). 

Tonight, we were off to dinner with friends and I'd volunteered to provide the first course, a tomato, thyme and goat cheese tart.  Here's how that salad basket of garden produce ended up a few hours later. Now all I need is a goat.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Day at the Seaside

So off we all set at 9 a.m. after tucking into croissants, pains aux chocolat and coffee. Six of us, two cars and a GPS soon named "Betsy-Jane" (BJ for short). She had, we decided, grown up in Wisconsin and had spent one semester of her college year in Paris. Which had done little for her French pronunciation. "Avenue Charles D. Gall" was pretty good although "Barceloney" ran a close second.

Guided by BJ. our aim was to go and have lunch by the Mediterranean in Port Vendres. The roughly two-hour drive is a show-stopper. It begins with rolling sheep-dotted meadows, evolves into mountains, includes a limestone chasm so narrow that rocks hang over the road, and ends with a broad vine-filled valley. The cloudy day made the Cathar castles, perched unimaginably high on solid rock, look very gothic. 

Port Vendres, on the other hand, looked busy and bustling as an active Mediterranean port should. We watched a little tug shove and push the colossal "Lady Rosemary" into whatever the marine term is for "parking space," as we sauntered along the quayside in search of lunch. 

I neglected to note the name of the restaurant but it's the first one you come to after you've passed the big heaps of fishing nets (in case you're wondering what that crimson/pale pink tangle with what-looks-like-a-yellow-necklace is all about). Like any decent French restaurant, this one offered an all-in three-courser at lunchtime (see menu) as well as eau de robinet (tap water) served in bikini-clad bottles.

Between us we ordered just about everything on the menu, including the grilled sardines pictured here, pictured possibly twice: if you're seeing two sardine shots, it's not some artsy attempt at design but my inability to wrestle the blogspot program into submission. Anyhoo... We never did figure out the ingredients in that savagely green squiggle alongside the plate(s) of sardines. The salad dressing was a vicious purple-pink too. All we could surmise was that someone in the kitchen had a rather too lavish hand with the food colouring. Mind you, one of our party brought up an interesting point. Collioure (just up the coast and the postcard-y shot at the start of this post) is, after all, the birthplace of the unquestionably colourful Fauvist art movement. Maybe this was some kind of culinary hommage.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Lace and Roses

Whenever someone comes to this part of the world for the first time, we take them to Camon. Officially one of France's most beautiful villages, it's straight out of a story-book. Ancient stone walls, a spectacular abbey-chateau (now a charming hotel) a rose bush beside every front door, this is what the deep south of France is supposed to look like.

We ambled around within (and outside) the stone walls and along the narrow back streets. Cats dozed on windowsills. The sun shone. And, making the most of the last of the summer weather, someone had washed their lace curtains. 

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Rainy Day Cassoulet in Carcassonne

Wearing warm sweaters, jackets and resolute expressions, we headed for Carcassonne. Normally it's under an hour's drive but today we swerved and braked hard when we came on a vast vide grenier in Montréal. Too chilly to do this one serious justice but we did come away with an impressive pair of fire irons for five euros. 

By the time we had parked the car, crossed the moat, and were in the cité (the famous walled part of Carcassonne), it was lunch time. Too cold to eat under the plane trees unfortunately but just right for a three-course Sunday lunch at La Maison de Blanquette. 

This is an off-shoot of the original "Maison" in Limoux and, as there, it's a strong supporter of the Sieur d'Arques winery. You get a glass of blanquette while you mull over what you're going to eat and a half-bottle of wine per person included in an already reasonable 14 euro tab. Two went for goat's cheese salad, two for toast spread with a garlic-and-anchovy purée. Three cassoulets, two steak frites. Iles flottantes and clafoutis to finish before we rumbled off, warm and fed to roam around the city.

God, it must have been bleak work patrolling those walls except for the rare moments of fun when you threw boiling oil on invaders down the purpose-designed chutes. No guard-rails anywhere so I suspect falling to one's death was only one of the job hazards. That and avoiding the humungous boulders hurled by giant catapults located outside the city walls. 

The carbo-laden lunch meant we only needed a light frittata for supper.

Friday, September 12, 2008

A Chicken on the Table

A huge haul at Lavelanet market this morning. Here's a small chicken from the rotisserie man across from the church. As the birds revolve, their fat drips into a trough underneath which is packed with neat slices of potato. We bought both,  put together a quick salad and that, plus some more of the rapidly disappearing kilo of Brie was lunch.

At the market this morning, everyone seemed in a giving mood. When I bought three lettuces, the lady selling them threw in a handful of parsley (which often happens), then said, hmm, but these lettuces are small--and added a couple more. The butcher gave us a deal on the duck confit that we bought for dinner tonight (more friends have arrived from Vancouver). Finally, when Alma purchased a bottle of home-made sparkling apple juice, the grower who had made it looked over the rest of his stock and picked out a particularly nice pear for her. 

An Hour on the Hips.

Seeing the abundance of rose hips in the hedges the other day got me thinking about the rose hip syrup my granny used to make. So, this afternoon, plunder in our hearts and plastic bags in our pockets, Alma and I set off on the same walk. Here's what we came back with.

The big question is: do I make syrup, tea or jelly?

Either way, it'll be good for us. I recently read that 30 rose hips contain as much vitamin C as 40 oranges.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Joy of Ripe Cheese:

Our friend, Alma, has been staying with us, hence the paucity of new posts. One of her house gifts was this utterly delectable Brie--one whole kilo. "Bought from Gilles [surname unknown], the fromage guy." She ordered it at the market, a friend of hers picked it up in Fontainebleu and she transported it all the way to Léran. This cheese is as good as it looks with a powdery skin like an elderly marquise. By its second night on the dining table, its blonde satiny insides were oozing like lava.