Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Stroll to the Lake

  Léran is a terrific village to live in and one of the things we love here is having a lake within walking distance. Maybe a kilometre away? I've never measured the distance and besides, the stroll along a country road is the kind where you're continually pausing to look at, this time of year, sunflowers and butterflies. 
   It may look real but Montbel is actually an artificial lake constructed to stop the flooding that used to wreak havoc on this area. At the end of a hot, dry summer the water level drops so you can see the stumps of the trees that once grew in this valley.
  Sand is trucked in to our local "beach". On Tuesday, around lunchtime, a family was unpacking a picnic. First items out of the hamper: a baguette and a can of foie gras. It's inspired us to roast a chicken sometime soon for our own lakeside meal. 
   What you see in the photo is only one small part of Montbel which extends further than the eye can see. The tour du lac, a trail we've taken only once, measures 16 km.
   Across the water are dark, cool forests and the peaks of the Pyrenees. Around you, trees provide a nice bit of shade on a mid-30s day. A restaurant overlooks the lake, a good spot for a cold beer if you've forgotten to bring your own.
   Power boats are forbidden so the only sound from the turquoise water is the occasional "plop" as a fisherman casts his line in the hopes of landing a fat trout.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A Tale of Two Taxes

   The recession has hit the entire western world. One result of everyone watching their cents, pennies and euros more carefully has been a serious impact on the restaurant industry. Gordon Ramsay must be swearing even more than usual at what's happened to his empire. 
   Here's how two countries are handling the situation.
   July 1, 2009. the French government slashed the TVA--taxe sur la valeur ajoutée--for bars and restaurants to encourage us to eat out just as much, or more, than we're doing now and to create jobs for chefs, waiters and all the other folks in the industry. Formerly 19.6 percent, the tax has been slashed to 5.5 percent. A sign I spotted outside a bistro in Mirepoix on Monday spells out the effect this has on your wallet. Not a vast amount, granted, but arguably enough to swing the decision from "let's go home and make a salad" to "why don't we stay here and have lunch."
  Meanwhile, back in our former home, British Columbia, Canada, the government just announced a new "harmonized sales tax" (actually that "h" stands for "higher") that either means diners will pay more or already hard-hit restaurants will earn less. The new tax takes effect1 July, 2010,  exactly one year after the French one came into effect. What delicious irony. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Opportunistic Salads

Here's how today's lunch came together (tinned mackerel, cheese and a drippy melon played roles too). 
   The yellow courgette plant produced another fat one, seemingly overnight. The roquette plants are still pushing up leaves. A couple of days ago, one of the UK papers that I read on-line inspired me with a whole hundred yummy-sounding, simple and seasonal recipes, the kind that assume that what you'd rather be doing is lying in a hammock. Read them all at and you'll come upon one for a courgette salad which adds up to greatly more than the sum of its parts. I tinkered with it a bit. No Parmesan around so I ignored that and I also used lemon juice instead of vinegar in the dressing but, honestly, what a bright, little dish--especially served on a bottle-green plate.
   Next up is ye olde cooked peppers and garlic cloves in olive oil. No recipe for this. Just cut neatish strips of as many red and yellow peppers as you have. Add more garlic cloves than you think decent and simmer the lot until tender in plenty of olive oil. Eat at room temperature. Keep leftovers to top pasta or toasted baguette. Speaking of which... 
    Odd lengths of loaf have been accumulating in the corner of the counter where I keep bread. Using the olive oil left from the peppers, I made croutons. About half an hour before lunch, I chopped four tomatoes, threw in slightly less than that amount of croutons, chopped a couple of anchovies quite finely, threw in some basil and dressed the lot with oil and balsamic. 
   I love, love sparky, colourful food like this on a summer day when--pause to check the thermometer--it's 29 degrees outside.

Easy Supper for a Steamy Night

Two constants on the menu during this spell of gorgeously hot weather are grilled meats and vegetables and quartered lemons to squeeze over them. 
    A few nights ago, we barbecued about 400 gm of pork that we'd bought at Lavelanet market. I can't remember the name of the cut but it was not one we knew. Long-fibred so we sliced it across the grain. 
    The other components were eggplant that I'd grilled a day or so before, drizzled with olive oil and topped with chopped parsley. The made-up dish of the night was tarted-up couscous. A digression. I am completely in love with couscous. Boil some water, mix in an equal amount of couscous, turn off the heat, cover the pot, leave ten minutes, fluff with a fork, and dress with lemon juice and olive oil. Normally I turn it into tabbouleh with the addition of chopped tomatoes, cucumber, onion, parsley and mint. Oh, yes, and tinily cubed preserved lemon which really wakes up those flavours. This time I added finely chopped dried apricot, pine nuts, grated lemon zest and lots and lots of torn mint and parsley. The roquette, chive and tomato salad came from the garden. Bread and wine. Melon for dessert. A perfect meal for a hot summer night.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sunday Morning Walk

Doing the morning run to the boulangerie via the fast route takes me past the church and the old mairie. Baguette bought, I often come home along the river bank. Join me..
   Top left are some of the houses that back on the river. Built centuries ago, most are no more than 10 feet wide.
   Just over the bridge is this sign pointing to the riverside trail. "A/R" means aller-retour--a round trip.
   The path ambles along with the chateau meadow--and the chateau--on our right and the river--and a green sea of nettles on our left. 
    Léran still has a few derelict buildings around. Here's one. 
    Now we're at the small foot-bridge that brings us back to the main part of the village. Here's the footbridge itself and the green, bosky view when we look to the right.
    Five minutes from now and we can down with coffee and croissants.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Tonight's harvest

A few thoughts on vegetable gardening as this year's small plot starts to produce. 
1) Nobody needs more than one cucumber plant.
2) Everyone needs lots and lots of tomato plants.
3) Roquette (arugula) produces and produces and produces. 
4) Everything that say about squash plants is true.

A few things I've learned that I'll put into practice next year beginning with cucumbers. These grow brilliantly up vertical supports. I have one plant growing up a tripod and another that has reached the top of its support and is now starting to wind its way along a wire to another support. 

Next year, I really must remember to label my heirloom tomato plants. Cherry tomatoes are easy to identify but I can't be sure if the other four (of a total of six) are meant to be green, yellow or dark crimson.

I solemnly swear to plant more roquette as soon as the temperature cools a little--maybe in September. 

I wish I'd planted more cougette varieties. All we seem to have are long yellow ones.

This little dish of goodies in the photo will make a salad together with lardons, croutons, little steamed potatoes and a poached egg. Right now, melons are so lusciously ripe that the juice trickles down over your hands and on to your wrists. We have just such a melon for dessert.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

An Unprecedented Haul at the Vide Grenier

Last year's flea market in Chalabre was vast, enormous--but, we didn't arrive till late in the day and we left without buying anything. This time, we set the alarm, gulped down some yogurt and nectarines, and were there by 8:30 a.m. Even that early on a Sunday morning, parking was a challenge. But, oh, it was worth it. Six hours later (but that included lunch) we left, laden with finds. 
   Shop these events regularly and you develop a list. On ours this morning were more baskets for bread, more water glasses and more big preserving jars to hold dried beans, raisins and the like. Not only did we almost immediately find a bread basket like the ones we already have but soon after the water glasses showed up too. No luck with preserving jars but I know I can pick them up any time at the depot-vente. 
   The list contains sensible, necessary things. The rest of what we bought today falls into the "impulse item" category. 
   Here's just some of it. Top to bottom: 
   Against a background of a copy of one of the "Lady with the Unicorn" tapestries (which cost a massive three euros) is a hard-bound blank-paged book published as a souvenir of the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889--the year the Eiffel Tower was finished. Its first few pages are filled with mathematical equations but most of the pages are blank. All, due to age, are brown at the edges as though they've been dipped in coffee.         I'm not sure how much you can make out of the four postcards. The top one, of the chateau here in Léran, is addressed to a Mademoiselle Alphonsine (now there's a name) Rousset, and has a 1939 postmark. Just below that is an image of Aigues-Mortes on the edge of the Camargue. This was sent to a Monsieur Gabon. I can't make out the date. 
    No messages on the next one down which shows Le Palais de la Jetée in Nice. A little research revealed that the Germans dismantled this during World War 11 because it was in the way of their gunfire. Finally, we have a vue générale of Toulon. Written in 1927, a long message in red ink and the tiniest. neatest hand-writing crams its reverse side. I'll need a magnifying glass to translate it. What an astounding amount of history condensed into a few pieces of ephemera.
   The next photo is of a small hand-made mat, partly crocheted, partly embroidered and completely non-functional thanks to its three-dimensional crocheted grapes. 
   The most expensive find of the day was the ten euros I paid for this art deco (or deco-esque) wooden carving of an Egyptian deity.  There's talk of attaching this to the newel post at the bottom of the stairs--but only talk at this point. 
   The last find was the pierrot lamp which we bought just as we were making our way back to the car. To judge from its switch, it's quite old. I think it will find a home in our spare bedroom. And I think the bulb needs to be replaced by something moon-like.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

2009 Could Be a Very Good Year....

   Wishful thinking that, as well as knitting sweaters straight off the sheep, (see "Gaston" posts but don't hold your breath) we'll one day pick our own grapes. So far we haven't been successful. Likely due to our lack of care and attention, they usually shrivel up or split before they're large enough to gather. 
    This harvest could be the exception. We planted this vine in 2001 and 2009 promises to be its most productive harvest ever. P.S. Perhaps a little late after the fact, I've just checked the Red Cardinal's needs on-line. Turns out it's "high maintenance". Maybe I should give it a manicure, a designer bag and hair extensions.

Cement for the Terrace

     Our little Renault Clio can handle a reasonable load (a shelf system comes to mind although admittedly tied on with kilometres of string) but when we need heavy building materials, we call Romera, a huge shop in Lavelanet that sells timber, bricks, pipes, paint and everything else you need to construct a house or, in our case, a terrace. And Romera delivers!  It still strikes me as a minor miracle that you can make a phone call and the following morning, an enormous truck drives up the impasse. 
    This time it brought two ginormous 1000 kg containers of sand (the monster yellow cubes in front of the house). The invoice lists these as "big bag sable". Piled up beside them are bags of cement from Spain. Check out that packaging. We all noticed that the constructionista may be wearing a crop top and cleavage but she also has safety helmet and goggles. 

Choir Practice Pasta

Every Wednesday at 8 p.m., sopranos, altos, tenors and basses meet up for an hour and a half. Do the math and you realize this means an early supper. In this house, it's usually last-minute too. Sometimes we hastily put together bread, cheese and a tomato. Once in a rare while, I'm organized enough to bake a quiche or tarte in the afternoon. 
    This dish is a godsend because (as I proved last night) I can transform myself from garden slot to choral goddess and have supper on the table in a bit over half an hour. 
    All you need is spaghetti, or whatever ever smallish or narrowish pasta you have, and the classic salad called insalata Caprese--salad Capri-style. This Italian flag-coloured combination of ripe tomatoes, fresh basil and fresh mozzarella is ridiculously easy to make--and, I've found, doubles as a lovely, light and summery sauce for pasta. 
   Instead of slicing the tomatoes and fresh cheese, cut them in small cubes, then throw in lots of torn basil and a slosh of olive oil. Maybe a grind or three of black pepper? I assemble the lot in a big serving bowl to cut down on dishes. You can do all this while the pasta is cooking. Then, simply drain the pasta and toss it with the tomato-etc. mix. It's also tasty at room temperature and leftovers work as salad the next day.
   Just remember to put a big pot of water on to boil before you climb in the shower.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Return of the Night Market

Sorry, sorry. Grovel, grovel. I've really been remiss about posting this week. My excuse: with guests due later this month and from then on through October, we're working very hard on the house,  continuing to paint walls and stain floors, discovering that drilling into stone walls to install curtain rods takes time and unpacking boxes that we packed over a year ago. That last job is genuinely fun. It's like Christmas. You feel the package, make a few guesses-- "the small table that used to be behind the sofa?"--then unwrap it. So far, everything has survived its trans-Atlantic journey although we have yet to find where the moving men hid the pendulum for the wall clock. 
    Meanwhile, excavations are underway on the terrace but I'll save that till I have shots to go with it. For those who can't wait: The apricot tree is no more because, as it is rumoured to do each year, it produced four apricots which plummeted to the ground and were eaten by snails before we could get to them. The small formal hedges are no more, although their component parts are in a sort of way-station on the eastern border (which makes them sound like Soviet era refugees). 
    So.... flashback to last Friday. The first Friday of July, ergo the village's first night market of the season. Flags and shields had gone up on the plane trees a few days before. By Friday evening, the main street was blocked off, tables and benches set up. By 8 p.m., it was packed. Stalls sold food. Mexican food. Asian food. Magret of duck, frites and that lethal mixture of equal parts garlic and parsley called persillade. There were moules. There were snails. There were little Camemberts to cook whole over the charcoal barbecue which is also where you take the steak or fat chops or sturdy saucisses you buy from the butcher's van (which also sold chocolate mousse). 
    The owner of the boulangerie was there, so we could buy baguettes for general plate-wiping and food-accompanying and to dip in the unctuous melted Camembert.  Sylvie from the post office was there too making the most of a captive and well-fuelled (at four euros a bottle) audience to sell bundles of pre-stamped envelopes with pictures of Léran and last year's night market on them. And this little citrus-yellow Citroen was there looking particularly photogenic.