Sunday, December 19, 2010

La Soupe de Noel

     Right now, stores around here are groaning with food. I had a stack of supermarket flyers all ready to scan and post--but they've gone missing or, more likely, I've recycled them and they're in the giant bin up on the road to Aigues Vives next to the bottle bin to which we've contributed more than our fair share in the past couple of days (annual party not excessive personal drinking).
    But those seems to me that, when I lived on the other side of the Atlantic, turkeys featured and maybe hams. Here, I'd say 80 percent show foie gras and if it's not that, it's oysters or smoked salmon or scallops or champagne or any other luxury food or drink you'd care to name. Even Aldi (a bargain supermarket) has--or did last Thursday--the following impulse items next to the check-out:
1) Cans of foie gras
2) Packaged brioche slices (to spread the foie gras on)
3) Half bottles of Sauternes.
     Christmas is very much less commercial here. Where the money goes is on food.
     I didn't know about La Soupe de Noel but I did pick up the requisite cheese and recipe a week ago. Unfortunately, due to social craziness, the soup (layers of baguette, layers of cheese) never got made but the cheese was delicious.

What a difference a day makes.

Less than twenty-four little hours separate these two shots.

Sunday afternoon

Monday morning.

Mirepoix on a wintry afternoon....

We drove into Mirepoix the weekend before last for its Christmas market. The day was sharp and cold as a diamond but I've rarely seen this medieval town look more beautiful. It wasn't too crowded, and the winter light was low enough to spotlight the carvings under the arcade. Anyway, mes amis, some photo ops with extended captions.

A boulangerie that believes when it comes to Christmas decorations, more is more. The climbing Santa figure is very popular around here. 
Different varieties of honey, from the mountains, from wild flower meadows, from the forest. Don't their amber and gold colours make your want to spoon them out on to freshly made hot buttered toast?

I love this butcher's shop in the corner of the square. See those rotisserie chickens behind the sign?

Kids around here watch these instead of television. 

This sign hangs outside a store catering to pampered chiens et chats.

More sheep...

   Yes, my life is about a gazillion percent more rustic than it was a couple of years ago--and I wouldn't change it for the world. So often we find ourselves saying: "isn't it great that we live here?" My chic city friends are probably crossing their eyes...
   Anyway, I promised you more sheep--and more sheep are what you're going to get. I wish I'd had the camera with me the other day when we drove the back road over the hill to Intermarché and, as we came to the crest, saw--silhouetted against the smoky cut-out shape of the Pyrenees--a shepherd with his dogs and about two hundred sheep dotted on the slope below him.
   These sheep (if I haven't lost you by now) I chanced on when I was walking beside the river the other day. It's a nice chuckly little river, our Touyre (Occitan for "torrent") and, on this particular day, the shepherd was herding his flock along the footpath that runs beside it, letting them scamper down the bank for a drink en route.

    The white horse? It lives at the end of our impasse. If I go out on the balcony upstairs, and look to the right, this is what I see. A few chickens are usually clucking around near his feet.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Sheep May Safely Graze

   Bear with me but I have to find a link to an mp3 file or YouTube so you can play this while you read the post and gaze at the photos. Right, here you go...

Amazingly, about a squintillion videos exist of Bach's heart-stoppingly beautiful Sheep May Safely Graze. Many of them show sheep. For the purposes of this post, I have looked at more damned sheep in the last 15 minutes than you would believe. In the end I settled for a pianist so that you wouldn't be distracted from the real sheep, the Léran sheep, that, on Saturday morning appeared as a couple of friends and I strolled along the river bank on an utterly gorgeous autumn morning.
    Suddenly, ahead of us, we saw the local flock crossing the narrow foot-bridge and then, with the three-legged sheepdog urging them on, they headed for fresh fields and pastures new.

The Hunters' Feast.

    Every few months, we have a communal meal in the village, usually in the hall where, each Wednesday at 8 p.m., the choir meets for a rehearsal (and right now, we're in mega-rehearsal mode with a number of gigs upcoming).
    Last Saturday night, we had a hunters' feast. We borrowed a number of trophies including a wild boar's head, and three deer including one with an antler-span of close to a metre and, about 6:30 p.m., gathered together for aperos. A couple of kirs under our belts and we sat down to an enormous salade composée, and then the main course--le plat-- of a daube of sanglier (wild boar), and white beans.
   Sangliers can be enormous. I don't know the size of the one we ate but it had been shot around Belloc, a village a few kilometres from here. Gilberte, who is the village's chief cook at events like these, told me she'd marinated the meat for two days in red wine and herbs, then cooked it for four hours. She did that a few weeks ago, froze it, and then reheated it for four hours more. All I can say it was delicious, tender as anything, and deeply flavoured.
    Cheese came, then apple tarts. Red wine flowed, and then homemade eau de vie supplied by Jean-Marc, our former mayor. Choir members burst into song in Occitan and French. And then we went home.

Dishing out the daube.
Here's Gilberte on Sunday morning taking the trophies back.
    And on Sunday morning, we went back to help clean up the hall, arriving with empty ice cream containers and leaving with them filled with leftover daube and beans.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Back in Léran and a clean-up around the lake.

   I've written before about how a group of volunteers occasionally gets together to hack back an overgrown hiking trail or free up the tiny canal that once irrigated the chateau's vegetable garden. This time, the morning after we got back from Paris, we met up at 8:30 for coffee and croissants, and the distribution of black and yellow garbage bags.
   Maps were handed out and carloads of us set off to pick up any rubbish that had been left over the summer. Misty and golden, it was the most glorious of autumn mornings. Once we'd arrived at our designated area, we set off.

The water level is low at this time of year so you can see the stumps of the tress that were cut when this valley was deliberately flooded.
Finds included a tire, a wheel, two bras, one pair of knickers, a washing line (which suggested that the lingerie was less the product of lakeside orgies and more likely due to a gust or two), numerous bottle caps--Heineken mostly--wine bottles, beer bottles, and lots of paper towel and tissue half-buried in the woods. We didn't want to think about that too closely but were glad we'd all worn work gloves. But, given the hundreds and hundreds who come here each summer to camp or picnic, there was surprisingly little rubbish to get rid of.
   Back in Léran, we all met up at 12:30 for an apero, followed by a long lunch, the traditional conclusion to a clean-up operation--except that this time we shared a found bottle of wine, which we named "Chateau du Lac".

Shakespeare et cetera

   A visit to Paris always includes several hours in  Shakespeare & Company just across from Notre Dame. Most nights, an author or poet reads from their latest work. Afterwords (typo but it seems so apt, I'll leave it) wine is poured, books are signed, and once again, in a world of big box bookstores and,  I am so purely happy that a place like this still exists.
Isn't the side of a staircase a brilliant place to store books in otherwise unused space?

Too wet to sit down but not too wet to stand outside with a glass of wine.

   Here's what it felt like to be here on a recent cold, rainy November evening.

Les Parapluies de Paris

     The keen-eyed may have noticed a certain greyness to those shots near Notre Dame. I could go on but I won't but it did rain a lot, and the wind blew, and the gutters were filled with abandoned inside-out umbrellas that looked distressingly like dead bats. Forget all that. Instead, take a look at the most idealized version ever of a French downpour.

Steak frites and gésiers.

   Not together I should add. Beef and duck gizzards really don't seem happy partners. The steak I ate at a little bistro in hte Marais called Robert et Louise (which mon mari insists on referring to as "Thelma and Louise"). We reserved, as you should, because this place is hugely popular. I think they do two sittings, one at 7 p.m. and the one we were given at 9 p.m.

    The welcome and the room are both cosy, thanks to the owner who "tutoyer"s everyone in sight, and who seated us at a communal table with a couple of Australians, three gorgeous-looking French guys and three Sicilians,. As well as a strong sense of bonhomie, the room also glows from the blazing log fire at the end of the restaurant. I had steak--saignant, Peter had lamb chops, served on round, much-used wooden boards (like bread boards. Both came with a huge bowl of roasted potatoes, crunchy outside, soft inside, and a big bowl of glistening salad. A bottle of red, bread, conversation, what more do you need? is where to go for a look at the menu and wine list. By the way, if you're wondering why some prices are crossed out and reduced, that's because, some time ago, the French government reduced the TVA from 19.6 to 5.5 percent for restaurants. That way, restaurateurs could either afford to hire more staff, or to reduce menu prices, and thereby attract customers. Good idea or what?


    A couple of days later, we went back to Le Reminet, the restaurant we'd had such good meals at back in the summer. Again, we reserved. Oddly, because this place is literally a hop, skip and a jump from Notre Dame (but hidden on a side street), it's not overrun by out-of-towners but seems to be a favourite spot for Parisiens who know a deal when they see it (the weekday three-course lunchtime menu is 14 euros).
   I liked my starter a lot. A whole tomato, hollowed out, cooked till warm and soft but not squashy, stuffed with confited gésiers, magret (duck breast) and mushrooms. Peter had a sardine terrine, which I tasted and liked because it wasn't too "fishy" and had a definite peppery backnote. Both came with salads of small, perfectly formed greens. Mains were salmon for me, and a beef daube for 'im. Dessert was a standout: financiers (little, very obviously freshly-baked cakes) topped with a chocolate mousse so rich it was like eating a chocolate truffle.

   No food pix but a couple of shots to show you where Le Reminet is in relation to Notre Dame (the chalkboards are the common element).

The last time I saw Paris....

   ...was actually only ten days ago but, slaps on the wrist, I didn't get around to posting anything while we were there (and if you think this is somewhat after the fact, just you wait, "Enry 'Iggins, just you wait).
    So what would you rather have, a post of Proust-ian length, or a number of shorter stories? Tell you what, I'll begin at the beginning, plough on, and take a break when my fingers are tired or I need more coffee whichever comes first.
        Here goes... we'd planned to take the train on November 3, but the SNCF being on occasional strike, we thought it more sensible to go to Toulouse the night before so we wouldn't miss our TGV connection. TGV (train de grand vitesse, i.e. very fast train). And it really does travel at great vitesse, so fast in fact that  most of France passes in a blur, except when you pull into, and out of, Bordeaux, the only stop on the line. We'd provisioned ourselves with ham and cheese baguette sandwiches, bananas and biscuits so we didn't have to halt the food and drink trolley that occasionally trundles down the aisle.
    Early afternoon, we arrived in Paris at Gare Montparnasse, towed our bags to the metro station, and got off at St. Michel with its immediate view of Notre Dame and the Seine, surely one of the best ways to arrive in the city. 
   The apartment we'd rented on Ile St. Louis was tiny, alarmingly chic and had an incredibly stylish, but unfortunately plug-less, glass wash-basin. It also had an espresso maker but no chopping board. What it did have was peace and quiet, being at the rear of a courtyard, and an intoxicating aroma of butter as you crossed said courtyard thanks to the boulangerie right next door. 
     As well as croissants and other breakfast necessities, it sold excellent baguettes, little quiches and delectable pastries.

    Right across the street is a small supermarket. There is also a superb fromages store, a wine shop, a butcher's and several branches of Berthillon, the name in ice cream, all within half a minute's walk, as well as a truly lovely florist's. The florist apart, all are very expensive, as befits a neighbourhood where even a teeny-weeny apartment will set you back a half million euros. 
     Which brings us to food, and a couple of places to add to your list next time you're here.

Greens are good for you.

    At Friday's market in Lavelanet, I bought a huge bunch of radishes. These are the French long variety that always come with an enormous cockade of leaves attached. At the back of my mind, I know these greens are edible but I'd never got around to cooking them before.
    Radish greenery seems to turn yellow at alarming speed so, Friday afternoon, I chopped off the leaves, washed and dried them, and stored them in a plastic bag in the fridge.
   Last night, I cooked a couple of finely chopped cloves of garlic in some olive oil in a frying pan. Once they'd softened, I added the chopped greens, a smidgen of water and put on the lid. Like all greens, teh radish variety cooks down considerably. The whole bunch was just enough for the two of us, along with Puy lentils cooked with carrots, onions, garlic and a bay leaf, a length of saucisse de Toulouse from the butcher in Laroque d'Olmes (who will one day get a post all of his own) and grainy Dijon mustard.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Check Out This Blog--Even If You Don't Speak French.

    I must, I MUST, I really must start a list of the blogs I regularly visit (a vow that's right up there with I must post more regularly, I must clean my office, I must finish planting bulbs in the garden, and I must quickly track down an on-line supply of bluebell bulbs because I can't find any here in France and I have visions of drifts of wistful blue replacing the wilderness area come spring). 
    The reason I've held off a blog listing is because, as my old history teacher would say about some of my projects, it demonstrably "lacks focus". Cooking, crafts, clothes. travel, design, gardening, my blogosphere loves are all over the map--and I mean that quite literally. Browsing posts on a Malaysian, Thai or Chinese food blog is almost as good as being there. 
     One of the most luscious French blogs I've found is All recipes, all likely to make you drool. No excuses about not speaking French. If food is one of your passions, you can probably translate enough to work out what you'd need to do to recreate each dish.
     The most recent recette was for a baked potato stuffed with smoked salmon and topped with thick cream and a poached egg. (By the way, both these shots are from the blog.)  I love how the author has set the potato on coarse salt, and primped it up with a sprig of dill.
    The post before that reminded me once again of the huge role that luxury ingredients play in the run-up to Christmas. What you see on that salad plate is a mix of foie gras, scallops, girolles (wild mushrooms) and truffles. Yum.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Memories of Summer--An Extraordinary Garden

   First of all, apologies for not posting in such a long time. We had a busy but wonderful autumn with loads of friends staying, market visits, I know, excuses, excuses. Mea culpa. I promise to post more regularly and to kick off with a look back at some of the terrific events we enjoyed over the past few months.
   Certain events you mark down on the calendar so you'll be sure to go there next year. Le Jardin Extraordinaire is now on the list. Back in September, on a stinking hot Sunday, we drove to the village of Lieurac about 12 km away not really knowing what we'd find.
     So come with me and I'll tell you what was there.

  Following hand-painted signs, we took a side road and, even though it was only 10:30 in the morning, the car park--a meadow shaved down to pale prickly stuble--already had a good few vehicles lined up in rows We joined them and, knowing it was going to be a sizzler of a day, covered the windscreen with the sun-shield. A dusty track led towards a house but, long before we got there, we were drawn into a tunnel of green. Built of branches, the tunnels linked two domes and everything was covered in greenery. You didn't have to stoop to get through but you did have to move to avoid the enormous gourds that hung from the greenery. Long ones, round ones, dappled ones... Elsewhere blue-violet-flowered climbers twined around their supports.

It was quite magical walking along this dappled pathway completely
surrounded by vines.

I don't know what these are but aren't they spectacular?
     Between all this lush greenery, we could see a meadow outside so crammed with flowers, it looked like a Monet painting. Exiting the tunnel we found people giving back massages, kids dancing naked under a solar-powered shower, sculptures, paintings, and a pathway that led down beside a river that chuckled and sparkled in the sun. All in all, a glorious, sensual day.

Down by the river, these strange "creatures" hung from the trees. Gourds had been
hollowed out, planted with grass and then hung upside down.

River stones meticulously stacked.
Circles of stones in the river filled with green plants.

The river flowed around installations like these--dozens of bright sunflower heads
framed in stones.

This barbecue put was huge--maybe three metres or more at its widest.
Lots of folk had camped overnight and I suspect this had
been the site of a huge communal feast. Peter pointed out that, at night, the view
from a plane would have been of a huge glowing heart.

Kids could put on plays in a miniature theatre.

Some brands of yogurt come in these little glass pots which everyone saves and uses as
tea-light holders. Hundreds and hundreds had been attached to wires along the
pathways that led between the flower meadows and down beside the river.

The event is as much about art as it is about gardens.

For lunch you could have baguettes with ham and cheese, or salad, or Indian food
and--on this high thirties day, cold beers.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Free! Free! Free!

   This has been a bumper year for fruit. We don't have any trees of our own but neighbours and friends have been very generous with windfalls. The freezer is stacked with flat-packed plums, greengages and apple sauce. Our one little red currant bush produced an astonishing amount. And then there's all the free stuff quite literally lying around, free for the taking.
   Here's yesterday's haul. The walnuts came from a huge tree that hangs over the street opposite the school. Unless I'm quick, cars crunch the nuts into smithereens. The hazelnuts are from a piece of waste ground near our house, as are the quinces and windfall pears.
Can you make out the figs? I picked two kinds, the purple ones next to the place where we take our bags of rubbish, and the green ones from a tree hanging over the road on the way out of the village.
    Opposite, on another piece of waste ground, a plum tree has dropped kilos and kilos of purple fruit. It's all lying in the ditch waiting for me to go back with a bigger bag.