Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Summery Find at the Depot-Vente

On our very long list of "things we need" are classic French folding bistro chairs. I've been hankering after ones that are a bit battered, their paint faded by the sun. 

Depot-ventes, as I may have mentioned before, are where French people take their unwanted goods. You can find anything. At different times, I've seen grand pianos, a motorcycle made entirely of wood and a mummy case. At least two-thirds of the furnishings in our current house are depot-vente finds.

I think the gods are smiling at the moment. Saturday, I picked up a splendid old wood box with a hinged lid, a very handsome basket and a large biscuit tin for a total of 10.50 euros. When the gods are smiling, you keep going... However, Saturday, our favourite depot-vente in Mirepoix had shut its gates because of the power cut and Monday, when we passed by, it was just on noon. Lunch-time. Today, we were lucky.

Here's what we found outside near the large flower-pots, stone sinks and other outdoor necessities. Attractively banged-up and repainted at least four times, this little chair is only one of the three we bought, the fourth really was too beaten up even for our shabby chic taste. Total bill for the trio: 24 euros.

Some months from now, I can picture us sitting under the apricot tree sipping chilled rosé to the murmur of bees and the scent of lavender. 

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Great Storm, the Power Cut, and a Sunday Afternoon Walk

A severe tempest swept through our region on Saturday. Driving to and from Pamiers, we saw branches blown down and felt the wind swaying the car from side to side. Arriving back in Léran, we discovered the electricity was off. For how long, nobody knew--or could find out. Phones, both landlines and cels, weren't working either and nor, of course, was the Internet.

While it was still light, we dug out the box of candles. That night we visited friends for dinner. Their stove is electric. Ours is gas-powered so early on in the evening, Peter and John made a quick trip back to our house to pop the seafood pies in the oven. 

The village was completely dark when we drove home but the sky! The sky was ablaze with stars, inky blue velvet spangled with a myriad of tiny silver sequins. All very romantic but not so much fun trying to get ready for bed. 

Sunday morning. I automatically flicked on the bedside light which didn't work. By now the mairie had a hand-written sign in the window saying that the power cut could last several days.

Mid-afternoon we went for a walk and these shots are some of the things we saw.  

At the top is, I'm pretty sure, a mobile still which is parked down by the river. I mean to go back and see what could be made into potent eau de vie at this time of year. 

The photo below is of the path beside the river with the chateau on the left, and the very turbid and right now, very high, river Touyre on the right.The dense, round birds' nest-y looking things in the trees are mistletoe which grows rampantly around here. 

After that comes a close-up of mistletoe, followed by sheep grazing in the grounds of the chateau.

The Crescendo Cafeteria

Not all lunches here are in quaint little bistros. Saturday found us at the nearest shopping mall just outside Pamiers in search of exciting purchases like large envelopes and pricing the pipe we need to connect the new wood-burning stove to the chimney. 

What Le Centre Pyreval also has is a Crescendo, one of a chain of cafeterias. But apart from the fact that you serve yourself, this is nothing like the North American version. 

At various stations, you can have steak frites cooked to order, specify which of the four or five plats du jour you want dished up from big roasting platters and daube pots, or, as we did, go for the pasta of the day. 

Saturday's was carbonara, the ingredients--lardons, eggs, cream--all mise-en-place-d, just waiting for our order. The final touch was the option of having an egg cracked and the yolk deposited whole on your pasta to enrich an already rich sauce. 

Apart from that, a central station lets you help yourself to soup, quiche, a bewildering array of salads, cheeses and desserts which invariably include fromage blanc with fruit purée, iles flotantes, and crème caramel. The raspberry tarte is what lured us on Saturday. 

You can also buy half or whole bottles of wine, or serve yourself to a carafe of vin de table. Glasses of sangria wait for you beside the cash desk. Beyond it is a table loaded with bottles of vinegars and oils--hazelnut, walnut, olive--so you can mix your own dressing. As I said, not like a North American cafeteria one little bit.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Curses on the Canners of Confit de Canard

Another duck slaughtering season is upon us. Champion, my new favourite supermarket, has devoted an entire four-page flyer to the many variations on duck now on sale. The front cover features foie gras...
   We stopped in there today to pick up a couple of cans of duck confit. But here's the thing. The label promises 4/5 legs and there is no way of knowing what you'll get. (A short digression on French can openers. Mostly, they don't work. Ours can handle cans of tomatoes but was useless at tackling the deep metallic top of a hefty can of confit. So we borrowed a better one from a neighbour.) 
   I've no idea at what temperature duck fat sets solid but it was solid when I slid a knife around the inside of the can and turned the contents out on to a plate. With most of the fat scraped off, I turned the large lump of intimately conjoined duck legs into the big non-stick pan and drained off the fat as it melted, cursing softly when I realize there were four duck legs this time and five of us for lunch. the fridge was another can with one duck leg remaining. I can't remember how it came to be there. Maybe there were four of us for lunch one time and the confit can really delivered? Herby fried potatoes and a green salad if you want to know the rest of the meal. 

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Micro-greens from the garden.

Today, I picked our first homegrown salad. A small one, admittedly, bulked out with some arugula I bought yesterday at the market in Lavelanet. The frilly leaves are frisée, the last-but-one head that resulted from some seedlings I planted back in November. The other leaves are bitter cress which I found growing under the rosemary bush. A small, tufted plant, its leaves have a mustard-y taste. Like many of the other wild things around here, I identified it from the invaluable Eyewitness Handbook to Herbs. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Evading security guards at Galeries Lafayette

Who knows why this iconic French department store is so uptight about people taking photos in its food department. It's not as though you're going to go home and recreate a ten-foot counter of foie gras in your living room. Oh well. Nobody stopped me making notes so I can tell you that, were you to find yourself locked up somewhere for several weeks, there are worse places. 

Fashionable patisseries all have their own little area. Dalloyau was displaying the Faubourg, a cake covered with dark chocolate decorated with "meteors" of copper dust, and "Echiquier", an oblong cake like a demi-chessboard with two kings remaining--both molded in chocolate. Poilâne breads, tiny macaroons in fin de siècle flavours like thé bergamote and violette: I was tempted to spend a couple of hours just munching my way around. 

Last time I was here, a security guard told me off sternly when I brought out my camera. This time I waited until I was leaving--and still got caught. At least you can see what the Dalloyau stall looks like.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Back in Paris for a few days...

Paris is only a couple of hours, if that, from Toulouse if you fly but, after totalling the time needed to take the train from Pamiers, the shuttle bus to the airport, the check-in time, the flight, the transfer from airport to city centre and metro to near my hotel, I opted for the SNCF instead. The National Society of the Iron Way--loose translation--is slow travel but easier on the nerves. By 7 p.m. last night, I was wandering through the tunnels under the Gare d'Austerlitz in search of the metro. 

The hotel I'm staying in is bohemian life personified with ornate and very old wallpaper, a precipitous wood staircase and a tiny lobby furnished with crimson-velvet-covered chairs. I'm on the third floor and this is the view when I lean out over the little balcony. Yes, really. No "zoom"used  on the camera. This is what I see--and I still can't get used to it.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Just call us the bridge and tunnel people.

No bridges now I come to think of it but part of this morning's walk along the disused railway line did take us through a tunnel. A very elegant piece of engineering, it had a dank, damp atmosphere and look that reminded me of the sewers of Vienna in the movie, The Third Man.

The lower shot is, of course...wait for it...proof that there's always light at the end of the tunnel.

The Léran walkers' group reconvenes.

No, it's not always hot and sunny in the south of France. This week, like much of Europe, we've been hit by a savagely cold blast from Siberia. The end result: a few centimetres of snow and sub-zero temperatures even by day. Not that little things like that would stop us going for an 8 km  walk. Besides, by this morning, the weather was starting to warm up.

As usual, we all met up at the café for coffee, then climbed into cars and drove the few km to the village of Belloc. 

Apart from a few slide-y spots on downhill bits, our route over the next couple of hours was relatively easy. Rain fell. The temperature climbed. Sweaters came off. 

A section of the walk followed the old railway line, now defunct. All over France, former railway officials' house have been turned into homes which still bear the name of the station--Camon in this case--and in this case, a clock. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A Last Look at Christmas

And you thought Santa's only way into your home was via the chimney? Not in France. Although clues--no sack, no toys--suggests that maybe this is his exit route. This time of year, exterior-ly mounted Santas on ladders are everywhere. Also the occasional Santa on a swing. I still haven't worked out what that's all about.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Frugal Eating: The Basic Quiche

Occasionally we end up with a plastic container filled with odds and ends of cheese. Eventually they grow moldy and we chuck them out. Not in this Year of Creative Culinary Frugality. 

I think I've mentioned before my enthusiasm for the pre-made pastry shells you can buy here which you simply unroll and pat into a pie tin. I went on-line and found a bog-simple recipe for quiche. 

So...pastry into the pan. A thinly sliced onion on the bottom, slices of leftover cheese--local brebis, Morbier with its layer of black ash and a couple of others on top, then a crumbling of Bleu d'Ariège, the regional variant on Roquefort. Next I whisked three eggs with a cup and a half of a mix of leftover cream and milk. A dusting of nutmeg and fresh ground pepper and it all went into the pan. 

Meanwhile, I'd cranked the oven up to its hottest (about 425 degrees). The quiche went in for 15 minutes, then had 25 minutes longer at 350 degrees. Very good given the little effort involved. 

I'm thinking this is a good catch-all formula for using up dollops of crème fraîche, little bits of chorizo and leftover vegetables. One thing's for sure: we always have leftover cheese.

A Quick Look in the Garden

Sunny and warm today--almost warm enough to eat lunch outside. I was curious to see what's still growing on this third day of the New Year. Here's what I found. A scattering of pale yellow and purple primroses are in bloom but that's about it for flowers. The parsley is thick and lush, ditto the mint so I'm thinking lamb tagine and tabouleh sometime soon. 

The hollyhocks are well established. The forsythia bush is in bud. A few rain-sodden rosebuds are still on the bushes (I've noticed our neighbours have pruned theirs to knee-high).

The new crop of nettles is, excuse the accidental poetry, in fine fettle. This year, I plan to make nettle soup, nettle quiches and nettle soufflés until we run out of nettles--unlikely. Our neighbour has an enviable patch of chickweed for salads. None in our garden but there is a small rosette-like plant that looks edible. I tasted a leaf and it has a peppery flavour.