Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Raw Truth About Living in the South of France

Posts have been somewhat sparse of late because, to be honest, once you've seen one French big box building store, you've seen them all. And this past week, we've seen them all.
   Our nearest, all of five minutes away, is Bricomarché which shares an enormous car park (and ownership) with the Intermarché supermarket. In theory, this is very useful. In practice, it usually means parking twice. We've spent many hours in Bricomarché over the years searching, often fruitlessly, for electric and plumbing bits we don't even know the name of in English. 
  Half an hour away is Mr. Bricolage which is larger but otherwise is easily confused with Bricomarché. An hour away, on the outskirts of Carcassonne, is Brico Depot which claims to have the lowest prices around. Wednesday, we spent a couple of hours there plus the extra time needed to wait for someone from Leclerc (another supermarket chain) to release us from the employee car park into which we'd inadvertently driven.
  Meanwhile, back in Léran, we have five floors to finish and six rooms to paint. Some facts. French paint is expensive. The term "monocouche" (one coat) on the label is about as honest as the name of the small chain of supermarkets called "8 à Huit" (eight till eight) which shut up shop all day Sundays and, naturally, close every other day for a two hour lunch. We've finally tracked down a paint that isn't too prohibitively expensive and will probably do the job in two coats--or even fewer. We dipped our toes in the water with a half-litre tin and will now return for a giant vat of "blanc cassé" (broken white).
  Wednesday we spent six hours in Ikea...

Friday, April 24, 2009

A for asparagus, B for bake sale

Asparagus is now in season, green or white, sold in various qualities. We brought home a half kilo of the white variety which is now sitting on the counter waiting to be cooked and eaten with a dish of gratinéed shrimp-filled crèpes. 

For whatever reason--a warm sunny day, maybe?-- Lavelanet's market was jammed by the time we got there around 9:30 a.m. this morning.  Our first stop is often les halles which is where you find local producers. One old lady I often buy from was today selling cabbages and big bunches of lilac. You could buy wine, meat, baguettes, even bunches of cilantro (seldom seen around here) and you could pick up a homemade cake or pie from this bunch of kids who were raising funds for a school trip. We came home with some small Moroccan pastries drenched in honey.

Anchovies and olives

Hmm, salt. Not great for you in vast quantities but so good in things like anchovies and olives. Usually we have a bottle of anchovies on the go and olives are always kicking around in the fridge. Both got used in the pissaladière I made the other night. 
   It hardly needs a recipe. All you do is unroll some pastry into a pie tin (and, once again, let me put in a good word for the ready-to-roll pastry I can buy here). On top of that goes a thick layer of onions that have been cooked and cooked and cooked for ages over low heat so they become brown, soft, sweet and unctuous. A latticework of anchovy fillets on top, olives where they join and it all goes into the oven for half an hour at mark 7. We ate it with the last of the tabbouleh left over from dinner the other night. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Back home in France: the art exhibit.

We hardly had time to unpack before we were into preparations for the art exhibit held last weekend. An international event, it featured painters from France, the UK, Holland and Canada. Peter's job was to hang his paintings. Mine was to come up with a Canadian dish that could be served at the Friday night vernissage. Salmon mousse? I ended up using a mix of frozen, canned and smoked--and coping with French gelatin which is sold in thin translucent sheets rather than the granulated kind I'm used to. Most recipes call for cream cheese which I have yet to see here. The Silver Palate recipe, which I found on-line, relies on whipped cream instead. Fine by me. I also liked the zing you get from adding fresh lemon juice.
   Enough about food. The site for the exhibit was the Galérie de Léran, the village's arts centre run by our friends Andy and Amanda. Go to for a bit more about their amazing house and the courses they offer.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The first vide-grenier of the season.

Lord knows what time the stall-holders arrived but, by 9 a.m. on Sunday, the main street of the village was lined with stalls all loaded with the usual amazingly mixed bag of stuff that shows up at this kind of event. 
Some of the odder offerings, largely because they were right beside each other, were a cage alive with white mice (a euro each or six for the price of five) and a wall hanging of Princess Diana. You could also buy organic eggs or a ten-euro lunch.

I didn't buy any of these but I did come home with three soup bowls, a very pretty brooch, only slightly chipped and easily fixable, and an old tin to hold something or other. But the prize find was a book published in 1911 in Paris and printed on thick creamy stock with that slightly ragged edge that reveals the use of a paper knife. It's a small art course that tells you how to draw and colour the stylized designs of the time.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Far Too Short a Time in Dublin

By the time we'd checked our luggage and caught the bus into the city, it was late afternoon in Dublin. We got off near Temple Bar, looked at the river Liffey and went in search of lunch. Ryanair may be know for some things but good food isn't one of them. 

Afterwards, we ambled around the narrow streets of Temple Bar, poked our heads into bookshops, took a look at Trinity College and eventually found Oscar Wilde's house. Sadly, you can't go inside it but it didn't take much imagination to image him stepping out on that graceful balcony. 

Later, we stopped at a big boisterous pub for a huge dinner and a watch of the soccer game on TV along with the rest of the crowd. It was dark when we left to catch the bus back to the airport after much too brief a visit. 

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Sausages, Banoffee Pie and Murphy's

Probably 60 percent of the photos I took over Easter weekend showed people sitting around a table. 
Breakfast first. I've always considered the English one as the benchmark but it' s a feeble effort compared to a full Irish breakfast. There's bacon and eggs of course, but also sausages, black pudding and potato farls which are a kind of cake. That's Gerry cooking the bangers in the Aga and Valerie making a large vat of soup for lunch. 

To nourish the work crew (that's a couple of them--new friends for us--chopping vegetables at the table) we also had Banoffee Pie. 

A new dish for us but go on the Internet and you'll find all the info you need to make it. This version began with a crumb crust base. On top of that went sliced bananas. Then the toffee layer. Simplicity itself. All you do is bang an unopened can of condensed milk into a pot of boiling water for three or four hours, let it cool and open it. (You definitely don't need to empty the condensed milk out or faff around with a bain-marie as one pernickety web recipe would have you do.) So toffee on top of the bananas and then, the icing on the cake, so to speak, a thick layer of whipped cream. Let me tell you, Irish cream is so thick that it's almost butter. See how it looks in that pavlova. 

The groaning table shows some of the dishes we made for the big party on Sunday night. The star elements were a beef stew and a sliced ham plus lots and lots of salads and side dishes. Then came the pavlovas and Gerry's apple pies which, not too sweet and dense with fruit, were probably the best we'd ever tasted.

Wine played a role in all this but, oddly, not Guinness. In this part of Ireland, it's a "foreign" drink. What you order is a pint of Murphy's which is what we did when we went to the village of Baltimore for the afternoon.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Easter in Ireland

A  good few days since I posted. It's been a busy time which really began when I opened my e-mail one morning to find a note from a long-lost cousin inviting us to her and her husband's ruby wedding anniversary party. South of Cork. It took us two seconds to say yes. 
   All it took was a flight from Carcassonne to Dublin, a few hours hanging around (eased by a pint of Guinness) and a commuter hop to Cork where Valerie and her daughter Wendy met us. She and I had Skyped so we did at least know what the other looked like. Necessary as we were in our teens when we last met. 
   She and Gerry live at the end of a winding road four miles from the coast and the Fastnet lighthouse (if you've ever listened to UK shipping forecasts, there's a familiar name for you). 
Their farmhouse is large, pleasurably rambling and its heart is the kitchen which has a large Aga and a very large table. 
   Saturday they showed us around the nearby countryside, vivid green and dotted with cows and gorgeous Georgian houses. I became besotted with the colours that people paint their homes in this part of Ireland. This shot of some shops in Skibbereen is typical.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Karaoke, Paris and a truly catchy song...does it get any better

The Léran choir meets every Wednesday evening at 8 p.m. We've already got Mozart, Vivaldi and Byrd under our belts not to mention several well-known French songs. Our first appearance was back in December: a carol concert at the café but obviously our fame has spread. We already have a couple of dates booked this summer including one at the weekly Marché Gourmand where we'll definitely sing one song guaranteed to have everyone linking their arms and joining in. Last night we started work on it. 

Just for fun, I did a search for Joe Dassin's Champs-Elysées on YouTube. As I wait for the soup to heat for lunch (smoked pork hocks, white beans, leeks etc) I took a look at a few of them.You can watch Joe live, photos with a sound-track or lyrics only. The best version in terms of words plus pictures plus the chance to sing along is definitely this one. 

Watch at your peril. This is one of those songs that, once heard, stays in your head forever. 

Getting our hands on a composter: Part 9

It's actually been in residence for quite a while now, beside the bamboo patch (of which more later) and just behind the two vegetable beds that I've dug. 
So, to continue. We brought the composter home in its flat-pack cardboard box, unpacked it so we could gaze at it, propped its pieces against the kitchen sink and promptly forgot about it. 
Some days later, we decided to assemble it by which time the bottoms of the four side sections had bent a little. Much sweat and an hour later, we had it finished, ready to install in the garden. 
First sacrifice into its gaping maw were several bags of partially (in some cases, quite considerably and smell-ily ) decomposed fruit and vegetable peelings which I'd been stockpiling for several weeks. 
The bamboo to the left of the composter is shockingly high and dense and we thought it was dead, until we asked a friend who knows about these things. Evidently it's the deciduous type which not only casts off its brown in spring but also sprouts new growth which shoots up at the rate of several centimetres a week. Meanwhile, all last year's brown and dried leaves fall to the ground. One simple movement and they're in the composter. A green layer, a brown layer, and so it goes...
I nearly forgot. One strange thing is that, to date, nobody has asked is to pay for the composter. 

Friday, April 3, 2009

Opportunities at the market.

Markets in France offer scads more than fruit and veggies. A sample of what you could have bought if you'd joined us in Lavelanet this morning.
Small tractors and large mowers--you can always get those. I've never worked out how you're supposed to get them home. Do you ride them and join all the other agricultural vehicles we see around here?

Next, takeout food. Here's the rotisserie man skewering a number of chickens. He also sells, depending on his mood, ham, pork, rabbit and quail. The pan on the left holds paella which is sold by the portion with each portion containing precisely the same amount of chicken, prawns and squid.

Elsewhere you can buy churros--we're very close to Spain--or couscous because we have lots of North African people living locally. Pizzas, I almost forgot those with a wealth of different toppings. Chinese food--nems is French for spring roll. Mussels cooked in cream. Usually a daube smelling so good you could dive right into it. If you don't want to cook, this market makes it easy.

Moving along, you can outfit yourself and your family head to toe at the market (I hoped the bra man would be there so I could take a photo but he wasn't). Current French fashion moves down to market level remarkably quickly. Here's one of the shoe stalls. These are fairly granny-ish in style but elsewhere I could have bought cute wedge 40s style sandals and smart black boots--plastic so only 10 euros. The other bargain to be had today were black jeans and blousons for three euros each. 

Beside the shoe stall, you can see the first of the new broad beans. White and green asparagus is also showing up. No fruit as yet but there are still loads of local apples around.