Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Small Dogs and Snails

    A rousing chorus of the Marseillaise and three resounding cheers. Vide-grenier season is back, the time when people empty their attics and sell what they find. This past Sunday we drove to one we'd seen advertised at Les Pujols, a small village that normally we speed through en route to Pamiers. 
   Truth to tell it wasn't the best of vide-greniers, being long on plastic toys, children's clothes and souvenir swizzle sticks but I did come upon a--well, I thought it would do very nicely as a laundry basket, especially at five euros. I could just picture myself piling it up with newly washed monogrammed linen sheets to hang out to dry in the garden. The woman selling it agreed but added I could also use it for "un petit chien" which makes me suspect that it wasn't actually meant for laundry. When rain started to patter down, it also functioned nicely as a hat. 
    Almost all these events offer food and drink in some shape or form. This time it was snails. A smiling couple stirred vast quantities of escargots simply cooked with parsley and garlic, and others prepared with tomatoes, Catalan style.

The First Lunch in the Garden

    Oh it was a glorious warm sunshiny day on Monday, warm enough to take the bistro table and chairs out on to the lawn, and load up the tray with lunch. Baguette, pâté, salad. 
  The recent showers followed by sun followed by showers followed by sun--you get the picture--have meant everything grows as you watch. Especially dandelions as you can see. 
    Wandering off on a sidetrack. I'm a devoted fan of Marie Claire Idées, a magazine crammed with crafts, decorating and food ideas. Recently I picked up an hors-série--a special issue--devoted to La folie des fleurs! Flowers on walls, flowers on frocks, flowers on hand-embroidered tablecloths that would take you a million years to hand-embroider, you get the idea. But also, flowers in food. A cake speckled with begonia blossoms. A salad of quail eggs and dandelions. And also, take another look at our lawn, a golden, glinting gelée de fleurs de pissenlit. Now wouldn't that look delectable spread on the breakfast slice of toasted baguette, I thought. 
    Dandelion flowers, green apples, sugar. The recipe looked easy enough. But I wasn't quite sure exactly how much 550 grams of dandelion flowers added up to. So I went and picked a few and weighed them. Six flowers equal three grams. Do the math. 

Friday, March 19, 2010

They're not weeds, they're salad.

   Around this time last year, I got into the habit of picking the young green pissenlit leaves, washing them well, and dressing them with vinaigrette. A couple of days ago, as I was weeding, I found some tidy little roots of bittercress. Any of you reading this with especially keen eyes will notice another green in the mix. The last of an enormous head of frisée that I bought at the market last week. 
   At the market today, I noticed these dandelion leaves for sale, as thin and pale as consumptive Victorian maidens. "Pass," I though, "I've got far more robust ones at home."

Monday, March 15, 2010

Lentils and more lentils

   In winter weather, your--or anyway my--body needs carbs. Steamed potatoes mashed with lashings of butter and crème fraîche. Pasta with pesto. Haricots blancs cooked with loads of garlic and tossed with plenty of finely chopped parsley. (Scissored parsley, to be honest. I strip the leaves into a coffee mug and snip away.)
   Recently, during this unseasonably chilly weather, we've been gorging on lentils, making a dark, earthy bed of them for a coil of grilled saucisses with red or green cabbage on the side. We also like them with pan-fried salmon. Hot olive oil in a non-stick pan, salmon in skin-side down, lid on, leave for eight minutes--and that's it
   So, lentils. Rather than faffing around with small quantities, I generally empty the entire 500 gram packet into the pan which means leftovers to reheat a day or so later, and soup the day after that. For the master batch, I simmer the lentils for 20 minutes, then add cubed carrot, potato and onion, minced garlic and whatever herbs are around--bay leaf and thyme usually--and simmer for 15 or 20 minutes more. 
   All you do to make soup is water down the leftovers (or you could use chicken or vegetable stock if you happen to have any festering in the fridge) and blitz with a hand-held blender. 
I'll be honest. Beautiful, it isn't but, as you can see, lentil soup looks very pretty once you tart it up with lardons, croutons and parsley.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Sudden Blast of Winter and Signs of Spring

   Europe has had an insane winter. The weekend before last, the snow began falling and didn't stop until about 20 cm had settled. Forget any thoughts of gardening. It was time to close the shutters and light our wood-burning stove which throws off an astonishing amount of heat. 
    Until the past few days, temperatures have been too frigid for all that snow to melt. Small white patches still dot ditches and shady areas. 
    But despite this recent wintry weather, we've been able to buy bunches of screamingly yellow mimosa at Lavelanet and Mirepoix markets and locally-grown roquette too (with walnuts and a walnut-oil-based dressing, yum). Our own garden has already produced enough tiny roquette leaves, mâche, dandelion leaves and bittercress for several salads. 
    And temperatures are forecast to be in the high teens by the end of the week.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Carnival Time in Limoux

    Friends from Canada and elsewhere in France have been staying with us recently. Good reasons to head over the hills past the vines that make all that lovely blanquette and into Limoux. There, this time of the year, every weekend is carnival weekend. 
     Some weeks are better than others. A recent Saturday was a standout with costumed revelers from all over Europe. Each group enters the square, performs their particular ritual or dance, then winds into the back streets, back into the square and into the different cafes. 
   Kids get into the act too. Little girls dress up in fairy and princess costumes--usually pink. Boys don masks, like this petit garcon riding the merry-go-round.
    This is an old, old festival. The spookiest group were these men dressed in sheepskins. The man wearing the two sheep made them "kiss" occasionally. Kernels of corn were thrown. Bunches of wild greens hung from some of the costumes. Can you spell "ancient fertility rite"?

The Thailand and Laos Report. Episode 7: Koh Chang

    Hard-packed white sand dotted with chunks of coral, a turquoise sea that darkened to indigo on the horizon, palm trees, icy beers, salads of pomelo, shrimp and mint--and nights in a small bamboo hut built out over a lagoon. It was a tough five days, I tell you. 

The Thailand and Laos Report. Episode 6: Luang Prabang

   All I know is that we want to go back to this enchanted town that's part French Colonial architecture, part gilded temples, and part absorbing food and textiles markets. Our guesthouse was on a street that, as dusk approached, became filled with red tents. Inside sat ladies selling the most beautiful hand-woven silk scarves and shawls. Some sold traditional Hmong earrings and neck-pieces. Others, parasols and lanterns. 
   We wandered narrow laneways lined with bougainvillea bushes, watched a working elephant trundle along the main street and got up before dawn to see the people of Luang Prabang give sticky rice to the Buddhist monks.
   The food here is similar to Thai cuisine in its freshness and use of herbs and chilies. Several times we ate river fish, whole, stuffed with lemongrass and herbs, and simply grilled. We made our way through dozens and dozens of tiny bananas that were as yellow inside as good egg yolks. And while a great deal of Beer Lao was consumed, we didn't have the courage to taste some of the "special" drinks for sale at the market.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Thailand and Laos Report. Episode 5: Two days on the Mekong

    At 6:30 one morning in Chiang Rai (that's Rai not Mai), a minibus picked us up and drove us to a border town where we boarded a narrow skiff that took us across the Mekong to Laos--or rather the Laotian border post. 
    We did rather lose confidence when the border guards started reading our carefully filled-in forms upside down and then sorted passports into colour-coded piles. Eventually we were through with an impressive hologram visa attached, on to another bus and down to the river bank where we slithered down a sandy slope, crossed a bouncy narrow plank and climbed on to the longboat that would transport us to Luang Prabang. 
    Tasseled curtains swinging in a gentle breeze, we headed east past breathtaking rock formations. Stops at tiny communities of bamboo huts brought kids aboard with plastic crates of soft drinks and crisps. Chickens in bamboo cages were loaded on to the boat's roof. In the stern, a group of ladies cooked themselves a meal over a little gas-ring and hung their laundry out to dry in the river breeze. 
    We stopped overnight at Pak Beng, a village whose prime purpose is to feed and house boat travellers, and equip them with more soft drinks and crisps for the day ahead. At its end, we motored into Luang Prabang where us, and everyone else set off in little buses and tuk-tuks to find their guesthouses.

The Thailand and Laos Report. Episode 4: the Buddhist funeral

     The parade I came on one morning was odd: some men marching along were in uniform, some not, and all carried ornamental objects or seats on poles, like topless sedan chairs. 
    I followed them through the gates of a temple where the parade disbanded. Then, wandering around to behind the temple--a jaw-dropping moment, I tell you--I saw a massive, glittering edifice. Long story short, the 91-year-old head monk of the province had died and this was his ceremonial pyre. An enormous bird, magnificently decorated with thousands and thousands of pieces of metallic paper in green, red, silver, blue and gold. it glittered and shone in the sunshine like something out of an ancient myth. Nearby, men climbed bamboo scaffolding to paint and embellish a vast elephant's head.
   Of course, we came back the next day. By now the elephant's head was almost complete and gardeners were planting lemon yellow chrysanthemums, purple petunias and orange marigolds around the base of the bird. 
   It was getting near lunch time. Spotting some food stalls at the rear of the temple compound, we ambled over. A man stopped us. "Go and eat free food," he said, explaining that to gain "merit," Buddhists make and donate dishes for occasions like these. 
   That Friday, and over the weekend (the funeral was a four-day affair) we ate fried chicken with sticky rice (a Chiang Mai specialty), a little boat shaped from a banana leaf filled with a herby ground pork, pork meatballs in a sweetish sauce, omelettes with chili sauce, fried rice, pad Thai made in a wok the size of a satellite dish, and ice cream. We drank sweet, red-brown Thai tea, tamarind juice and strong coffee sweetened with condensed milk. 
   Sunday, the monk's golden coffin was brought to the temple and carried up the steep bamboo ramp to its final resting place. On Monday, untold numbers crowded into the temple grounds. Dignitaries made speeches. There was music, ornate and traditional dance, a stand-up comedian, an appearance by a princess, a slow shuffle forward as the immense crowd brought lotus blossoms, incense and other offerings to the base of the "bird."
   Darkness fell. A full moon climbed into the night sky. Fireworks blazed along the 15th century chedi (conical monument) and high over the pyre. And, finally, the peak of it burst into flames and blazed into the night sky.

The Thailand and Laos Report. Episode 3: On to Chiang Mai

   We took the overnight train to Chiang Mai. Sitting up. All the sleepers had long been booked because of the holiday. Staff brought a meal to our seats at 8 p.m. and the lights went out at nine. 
   We arrived in Chiang Mai to cooler, fresher air,  a relief after the pressure cooker of Bangkok. It was good to be back in this old city with its moat and fountains. Now a regular stop on the "banana pancake trail," Chiang Mai has changed in the five years since we were there--it now has a Starbuck's, grrr--but our favourite guesthouse still has its funky teak houses and cabinets of curiosities in the indoor/outdoor eating area. 
   While Peter drew and painted, I haunted the enormous riverside market, falling hard for cellophane packets of deep-fried peanuts tossed with lime leaves and chili flakes. Northern Thai food is a cuisine in itself with sausage a mainstay, flecked with herbs, and sold individually or as fat coils. We learned to make local curries, and I can now transform red onions into lilies, and tomatoes into roses, all thanks to a one-day cooking course we took. 
   We returned to the glamorous Huan Soontaree restaurant, set on the river and owned by a well-known singer who still performs there at weekends. A not entirely effective mosquito coil burned next to the table as we ate a dish of roasted sour minced pork, a grilled serpent-head fish stuffed with herbs, a salad of Chiang Mai sausage and cashew nuts so spicy that I could feel my lips puffing up as I ate it, steamed vegetables, and rice. Even at an upmarket restaurant like this, food is still a bargain by western standards. Our entire meal with three large Singha beers (which we drank exclusively while in Thailand) came to 880 baht (roughly 20 euros, or $30 Canadian). 
   Huan Soontaree is a fair distance from the city. Our tuk-tuk driver returned to pick us up around 10 p.m. It's a moment, I tell you, rocketing along a major highway on a Saturday night in a tuk-tuk and suddenly seeing a lineup of gorgeous ladyboys on the sidewalk.  
   Somewhere else we liked a lot was a restaurant called Huen Phen. Joe, our cooking instructor told us about it so we set off one night, walking and walking along a long, increasingly dimly-lit road until we came to it. Worth the trip to discover this warren of funkily furnished little rooms and beautifully cooked food. Have you seen a more elegant presentation that that cone of banana leaf filled with sticky rice?
   One of our favourite eating spots was hidden away at the back of a small travel agency. Noi's Garden was where I first discovered kao soi, and instantly became so addicted that I've already tried to recreate it in France. As you can see in the pic, kao soi is a yellow curry noodle soup with prawns or chicken garnished with deep-friend noodles and served with pickled cabbage, chilis and lime. 
   We returned for a khuntake dinner, a number of dishes that are a good introduction to northern Thai cooking. This one included a young chili dip, spicy tomato sauce (another dip), northern Thai curry with pork, a complex spicy minced pork salad with herbs, various steamed and raw vegetables, deep fried chicken--hugely popular here--a couple of other dishes, and bananas in coconut milk to finish. 

The Thailand and Laos Report. Episode 2: Big Golden Buddha

    Bangkok traffic is absolutely insane, a wild tangle of cars, trucks, buses, motorbikes and tuktuks. On one trip out to the airport (33 km which costs about 6 euros/$10 Canadian) our cab took 15 minutes to crawl one kilometre. 
     The fastest way around the city is via the clean, modern and icily air-conditioned Skytrain. A slower, more atmospheric means of transport are the boats that motor along the Chao Phraya river. 
     Disembark at the stop for Wat Pho and you can join the queue to see the Reclining Buddha. It's a memorable moment when you first sight that serene and beautiful head and realize that the serene and beautiful feet are 46 metres away. Gold leaf covers it entirely while the soles of the feet are decorated with 108 images inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

The Thailand and Laos Report. Episode 1: In the pink in Bangkok

   It's been three weeks since we flew back to France and I really don't have any solid excuses for not posting before now. Except...there were 2,000 photos to go through, an entire 100-page notebook, and a big stack of leaflets and guidebooks. So, finally, here we go. If you live in a cool climate, put on shorts and flip-flops, pretend it's 35 degrees, humid and so noisy that you have to SHOUT AT EACH OTHER all the time. Click your ruby slippers and you're in Bangkok. 
   Except they'd more likely be pink ones. As I said in the previous post, this city has the most dee-vine taxis. When they're not bright Barbie pink, they're incandescent orange or vivid green. It definitely cheers up a streetscape that doesn't need much cheering up anyway what with the inventive sculpture, informal "markets" selling two-dollar T-shirts and food carts galore.
   Gazing, eating and shopping wasn't all we did.