Monday, December 29, 2008

Olive Oil, Airstreams, Gaston and Les Girls.

A half hour drive from Léran is a winding road that eventually ends at Belpayre, the hilltop farm owned by our friends Perry and Coline. Dotted around the main house are big silvery Airstream trailers. Take a look at them at and guaranteed you'll want to rent one for a bit of retro camping. With its view of the countryside and the Pyrenees, the hot tub alone is worth the trip. 

Right now, in the field used for summertime cricket matches, Gaston and his 14 ewes are doing whatever it is that sheep do. Unlike most sheep, this flock is mostly dark brown and black with their tails left undocked. 

One of the reasons for our visit was to get our hands on some of the olive oil that comes from Perry and Coline's land in southern Spain. We tasted, and left with two litres, bright green, cloudy and so full of flavour we keep pouring saucers-ful to dip chunks of baguette into. 

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Christmas Feast

Our good friends John and Lee-anne had invited us for a lunch that started a bit after 1 p.m. and saw us wandering home through the village about nine hours later. There was a walk in there somewhere and a spirited carol session around the piano so it's not as debauched as it sounds....quite. 

We began with hot sausage rolls, then moved to the dining table for oysters, followed by foie gras. After that, we got into serious eating. There was a chapon--a capon, a castrated rooster if you want to be technical--and sage-onion-and-apple dressing. Kate made a marvellous dish of Brussels sprouts braised with lardons and white wine. Lee-anne roasted pork stuffed with prunes, tender enough to cut with a fork, and made broccoli au gratin. Leeks, carrots, potatoes parboiled and roasted while, like an actor between gigs, the bird was resting...two ovens-worth of food in all. 

Sometime later, we ate dessert, a fruit cake but made with chocolate which made it the best, moistest fruit cake I'd ever tasted. 

Champagne, blanquette, white wine, red wine and, for the men, a concluding shot or two of single malt. Friendship, memorable food and wine, singing and laughter. It doesn't get any better than that.  

Christmas Morning.

No stockings this year. We either left them behind in Vancouver or they're in one of the innumerable boxes still waiting to be unpacked. 

We also left it a little late--late on Christmas Eve in fact--to buy a Christmas tree. "Desolée," they said at Bricomarché. All gone. So we roamed around the outdoor section, currently filled with heather, pansies and dispirited-looking plants left over from the summer and eventually bought a very small tree, about a foot high, in a pot. Once we'd adorned it with a single string of lights and our littlest decorations, it looked very sweet.

Christmas morning dawned bright and frosty. Down at the boulangerie, the mood was cheerful. The other madame there pointing out that this was not a good day for a swim in the lake. Croissants and pains aux raisins were another break with tradition but we knew we were in for a feast of Rabelaisian proportions later in the day.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Last Market Before Christmas

A cold, crisp and sunny Monday morning for the final trip to Mirepoix before Christmas. Most people had decorated their stalls. Purple tinsel for the olive, nut, and anchovy sellers. Holly sprigs for the madame who sells antiques. Some folk had set up a festive table behind their vegetable stall, dressed up as Santas and were indulging in a bit of Noël cheer.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Photo Ops on the Cote d'Azur

Gazing out at the Mediterranean has been an almost full-time occupation during the time we've been here. 

The first one to raise the volets roulants in the morning shouts out what kind of a day it is. So far, they've all been flawless. We've also had some major visual moments. Dawns and sunsets are reliably gorgeous, pink, gold, purple and turquoise in varying proportions, but the other evening, nature (that should be with a cap "N") really went nuts.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Off to Monte Carlo.

Because it's only half an hour along the coast, we went to Monaco for the day, taking the coastal road that swooped around glittering bays and down through seaside communities. The last time I was in Monaco was when I was in my teens. The parking hasn't got any better although we eventually did luck into a tiny spot right across from the port. 

Jammed tightly together, high-rises clamber up above the harbour. The extravagant white boats in the port are just as tightly packed. We followed a pathway along the water passing a large number of boats registered in other recognized tax havens, got lost in a tunnel, and finally found the famous Monte Carlo casino which is far more glamorous outside than in, a masterpiece of baroque over-the-topness. I can't vouch for the interior. We didn't venture beyond the lobby as the casino authorities charge 10 euros a person to go any further. 

Right now, the little park in front is all ready for New Year's Eve, its grass decorated with strings of small blue lights, and colossal silver globes reflecting the casino.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Crimson Cherries and Fat Pigs

Right now, the stalls at the daily market in the old section of Nice are loaded up with sweet treats for Christmas.  Glacé fruits glow as though they have lights inside them--clementines, lemons and long green stalks of angelica. Elsewhere are confections of nuts and nougat. The petals of violets and roses are candied. 

Best of all are the little sweets made of marzipan. Treated like a sublime modelling clay, the fruits and objets made of almond paste are so exquisite you can't imagine actually biting into one of them.

The amazingly realistic cherries pictured here are the same size as real ones, and no two are the same. The pigs are about the length of your thumb. 

I watched a woman assemble a small box of marzipan fruits, then add a little bag of crystallized violets. Maybe she'll give them as gifts or take them to her family's as a treat to hand round after the Christmas feast.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

In a word...Nice.

A bit over six hours on the péage, signs flashing by--Carcassonne, Narbonne, Montpellier, Aix-en-Provence, Cannes--and, around 6 p.m., we roared down into Nice. There was a little problem tracking down the keys to our friend Graham's apartment but nothing too serious. And then, there we were with a shimmering wrap-around view of the Promenade des Anglais and the Baie des Anges in front of us, glittering by night and a grand sight to wake up to.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Day in Toulouse

It's been a few weeks since I've been in the big city so today Kate and I took the train to Toulouse. First stop, a little retail therapy at Galeries Lafayette where we sniffed lavender-scented candles, fondled cashmere blankets and looked with longing at twinkling modern versions of classic chandeliers. 

It was bitingly cold today and all the small kids out on field trips were so heavily bundled up that the smallest ones could hardly stand up. 

Rows of wooden chalets had transformed the main square into an Alpine village. We cupped our hands around plastic glasses of spicy vin chaud as we wandered around. Because he looked so exactly like the drawing of him, we photographed this foie gras seller. 

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Léran Choir Makes its Debut

Four weeks of weekly rehearsal and the choir was ready for its first performance. Choirmaster Alan Simmons had done a stupendous job of making a random group of singers sound, if not dazzlingly professional, at least in tune. 

At 7:30 on Saturday night, we had our final run through in the usual rehearsal hall. Then, abandoning our coats, we hurried through the cold night to the café. Eventually brought to order (and drinks orders temporarily suspended) we launched into our six carols, some French, some English before ending with choir + audience renditions of "Oh come, all ye faithful" and other popular Christmas songs. 

Making Duck Confit

I'd I'd be curious to know how many people still preserve fat ducks for the winter months now that every butcher makes it in-house and every supermarket sells it in cans (including one I fantasize about that hold a dozen legs). 

A few weeks ago, in the Mirepoix depot-vente (bric-a-brac consignment store) I picked up one of the traditional tall, narrow terracotta pots used to hold duck confit. The going rate for these is five euros and there are plenty around. At the same time,  fat, pale duck legs seemed to be everywhere, along with fat duck wings, fat duck necks, and fat duck carcasses, all by-products of foie gras farming. 

I bought three seriously overweight legs at the butcher's stall in the halles in Lavelanet on Friday, salted them overnight, and simmered them gently on Saturday. All the recipes I've read say that the legs must be covered in fat. Even though I've been banking it in the fridge ever since we got back here at the start of November, there still wasn't enough. Little stashes had accumulated at the rear of the fridge so I added those, then scooped the top layer off a half-emptied can of confit. It was rather like being a kid again, and feeling down the sides of the sofa and inside coat pocket for enough spare change to buy a bus ticket. 

The shots, in order, are of the duck end of the butcher's stall, the legs at the salting stage, and the fat at the still liquid point with the duck, now in its pot, completely immersed in it. 

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Serious Walk.

For a variety of reasons--being in  another country had been one of them--we had yet to join the Léran Walkers' group on their monthly rambles around the countryside. But no excuses for missing the walk last Wednesday. For one thing, we were here. For another, there was a lunch at the café afterwards.

We all met up at the café, then drove to the nearby village of Ste. Colombe sur L'Hers where we met up near the church. I didn't do a head-count but there was over a dozen of us including Kate newly arrived off a flight from Vancouver. 

The first section was a deceptively gently climb up a long slope that took us into a forest. We emerged at the edge of a field planted with dark green kale growing in the densest heaviest mud I've ever encountered. The map at the top of this post shows the hardest part of the walk which took us along the side of the field and down a steep slope to a farm and the village of Rivel. That white stuff blowing across the shot of the farm is indeed snow. We also encountered small spiteful pellets of hail and, later, sunshine. 

Pink-cheeked, tired and glowing with achievement, we arrived back at the café for a lengthy lunch. If you can't read the menu on the table, we were welcomed with mulled wine, the perfect thing to cup frozen hands around. Next came bowls of sweet potato soup. The plat principal was roasted free-range chicken with sage-and-onion stuffing, broccoli, cauliflower mash, sautéed Brussels sprouts and roasted carrots. Marek and Shirley own the café. Dessert was Shirley's stupendously good lemon tarte with crème fraîche. After that, it was a simple case of coffee, mince pies, home and naps. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Winter Vegetables and Caldo Vermelho

As usual, on Monday, I made a beeline for a certain produce stall at Mirepoix market. It only sells locally grown vegetables but, more to the point, here's where you can snap up the unusual. It's the only source I know of for parsnips, for instance. I've seen bunches of cilantro there too. Monday, the selection included yellow turnips, green cauliflowers, huge black and crimson radishes and vividly coloured chard.

The chard I bought was so darkly red, it verged on black. Its stems were a mix of deep gold and scarlet, like the kind of sunset you see on vintage Hawaiian postcards.

Back home, I sautéed a chopped onion and a garlic clove in olive oil, then added three potatoes cut into small cubes and enough water to cover them. While the mixture was coming to the boil, I cubed an end of chorizo, added that and simmered everything for 15 minutes. Next I mashed some of the potato against the sides of the pot to thicken the soup. Finally, in went shredded chard--leaves and stems--which I left to cook for another seven or eight minutes.

In Portugal, where it's the national soup, this is called caldo verde but this version was a deep warming red, so the name caldo vermelho (vermilion) seems more appropriate.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Our first Noël in France.

Three weeks to go and Christmas food is now starting to show up in the shops. 

But not a plum pudding in sight.

Instead, following a tradition that started in Provence, French people go through 13 desserts after their Christmas Eve dinner, before they go to midnight mass. The number represents Christ and his 12 apostles. 

Not quite as intimidating as it sounds as you can see from this shot of a pre-packed 13-dessert tray at SuperU. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Another Use for Duck Fat

Everywhere is swimming in duck at the moment. This is the big foie gras season. Fat livers make fat ducks which means lots of duck fat. This is one of my favourite ways to get my daily allowance. You find these confited chicken livers in the cooler at the supermarket. Usually, I make a big salad of frisée and chopped onion with a fairly acerbic dressing, then crisp and warm the chicken livers in the fry pan to put on top of the salad at the last moment. Nice with fried potatoes too and I'm playing around with the idea of cooking them with chopped onion, garlic and herbs and whizzing them into a paté