Tuesday, July 27, 2010

An Afternoon in the Cloisters

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   Ancient stones are one of the pleasures of living in France--and the carved variety don't come much more ancient than in Moissac.
   Here, swiping liberally from the guidebook, is a potted history. Sometime in the 7th century, an abbey was founded here. The present buildings are a few centuries younger.
    The cloister dates back to 1100 and is in amazing condition. We spent a couple of hours here just gazing, especially at the capitals, 76 of them--and each one different. Some show scenes from the bible, others are carved with animals, birds or plants. All would have been intended as inspiration for the monks as they slowly walked the length of each gallery. The other remarkable carvings are around the door of the abbey-church.. The wistful face is that of the prophet Jeremiah. The main carving is of Christ surrounded by the 24 elders. I really liked it that each of the elders was slightly different from his neighbours. Look at the angle of their heads and they way their legs and feet are positioned.
    Inside, the church is bright, its walls painted in warm, sunny colours.

The Joy of Chocolate

   The small boy who appears on the chocolate topping of a Lu biscuit is one of the best-known icons in French advertising.  With the good luck that followed us all weekend, we came upon an exhibit of work by its creator, Firmin Bouisset.
   Bouisset was born in Moissac and went to art school in Toulouse. As an affichiste (poster designer) he often used his children as models. In fact the petit garçon in the Lu advertisement is his son. Beguiling illustrations for schoolbooks, rather daring drawings, Bouisset's skills ranged far and wide. But he's identified most with chocolate... In fact, staff at the exhibit handed out Lu biscuit samples as we arrived. We got talking to the young guy in charge who, it turned out, is from Belesta--a town not far from here. As a fellow Ariègeois, he offered us more biscuits. 
    Outside in the sun, on the steps of the abbey-church, two little kids had set up their maison, threatening would-be intruders with very sloppy ice creams. Chocolate of course.

Moissac's Really Good Market

    No French market is bad but some are definitely better than others--and Moissac's is among the best. This is serious fruit-growing country so stalls groaned with peaches, nectarines and, as you can see, humungous figs, green outside, pink-purple within. I liked "Charlotte" and "Mona Lisa": aren't those delightful names for potato varieties?
     Cursing because, for once, we didn't have a carrybag with us, we bought some toffee-dark miel de forêt from a honey-man called Jean-Jacques Lacroix (I know this because his name is on the jar) and we couldn't resist a portion of boles de picolat, a southern dish of meatballs, potatoes and green olives. We ate it, with a lardon-studded baguette, sitting on stone steps while the church bells played a noon-time concert in honour of the feast-day of St. Jean de Compostela.

Mini-Break in Moissac

    The calendar for August is starting to look messy so, making the most of a free weekend, we set off for a couple of days in the town of Moissac, which lies north-west of Toulouse on the Tarn river.
    Taking the péage almost all the way, and stopping for a picnic (baguette, ham, nectarines, a large, lumpy, intensely-flavoured tomato I'd bought at Lavelanet market on Friday) we arrived in Moissac late afternoon. 
     We loved it for any number of reasons but here are a few that explain why we would go back in a heartbeat--especially in July. Starting with the top photo...
A chorister with flaming red hair. You see scads of redheads in France but this woman was the best yet. 
     Flowers everywhere you turned. Hanging baskets the size of VWs. Boxes of the biggest petunias I'd ever seen on the sides of the bridges.
    Black and white stones individually placed to make pavements prettier. 
     Beguiling architecture. Moissac suffered a serious flood in the 1930s so, mixed in with the tall traditional French houses are examples of more modern design like this marketplace.
   A river and a canal. 
   Ancient wooden doors opening into coold shady corridors that led to little studios housing painters, lute-makers and glass-blowers 
   A stupendous Sunday morning market (see separate post).
    Magnificent Romanesque carvings (again, see separate post)
    A lively main square filled with cafés, and streets lined with pinky-peach houses with chalky, sun-faded blue shutters. Moissac felt more like a town on the Mediterranean than one in the heart of the Tarn-et-Garonne.
    Pilgrims embarking on the next stage of their long walk to Santiago de Compostela (www.caminodesantiago.me.uk) Moissac is on one of the main routes. Add to that that July 25 is the feast day of St. Jean de Compostela, and that when that day is a Sunday, it's an especially holy year and you can see that this was a good weekend to be wandering around in Moissac.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Silent Movies in Chalabre.

    French departments have very clear-cut identities. Here, in the Ariège, our official number--09-- shows up on our license plates, in our postal code and is the name of our weekly free newspaper. In the Aude, our neighbouring department, the magic number is 11 (departments are organized in alphabetical order). Each department has its own edition of La Dépêche, the regional newspaper which is the go-to source for info on local fêtes and so on.    
    This explains why, because we live right on the border of the Ariège and the Aude, we often don't hear about what's happening five, let alone 50, kilometres, from where we live. It was pure dumb luck that we saw posters advertising silent movies in Chalabre, starting at 8:30 p.m.
     Being late didn't bother any of us as we all suspected that, this being France, events wouldn't get underway exactly on time--and that there would probably be speeches. When we arrived, a man on a ladder was straightening the screen and the speeches--or rather speech--hadn't even started. 
      Speech over, and a minor technical glitch solved by a member of the audience, the show got underway.
      The films were all by Georges Méliès, whose grandfather had a connection with Chalabre, the films dated back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. This wasn't exactly the era of computer-generated images so, given the primitive equipment then available, the special effects were outstanding. 
      You can watch several on YouTube. Each frame in the Loie Fuller film I've linked to was coloured by hand. (Historical side-note: Fuller was the dancer whose work inspired numerous art nouveau figurines.)
    This version has background music, which was probably how audiences would have viewed it over a century ago. We watched in silence. Then, at the end of the evening, we all carried our metal chairs to the end of the covered market and went home.

Tour de Force

    Someone told us that the last time the Tour de France passed through Léran was a hundred years ago in 1910 so I'm glad we were around to see it last Sunday. Signs had been up for days telling drivers which roads would be closed at what hours so anyone who wanted a streetside seat (we all brought our own) was settled in well before the cyclists showed up.
    The other reason for getting there early are the cadeaux--gifts that tour sponsors throw to the crowd. 
     Settled in on a corner, we were theoretically in a prime position to catch, grab, pick up or otherwise get our hands on the key-rings, bottles of chilled water, T-shirts, hats and other paraphernalia that came our way. 
    As you can see, the voitures are pretty damned impressive. It's not often you see a gargantuan four-pack of Panach´ (a low-alcohol shandy-like drink). Or a huge rubber duck. Or a trio of racehorses coming your way. Some of the sponsors made less of an effort, content to ride in an official car in air-conditioned comfort.
    Helicoptors hovered, motorbikes roared past, camera operators on the pillion... There we were, sizzling in the sun, part of what some French dignitary said recently is the world's largest sports event--and totally free to watch.
    Lunch in a friend's garden, and then back we went to wait for the riders.         Whizz, whizz. Gone. And soon, so were we, over to the café to watch the rest of the tour on TV.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Thanks, Jamie...

    Apart from one recent cloudy day, our spell of summer heat and sunniness just keeps going and going. From about 10 a.m. on, it's too hot to garden, too hot to do anything much outside beyond find a patch of shade, settle into one of our growing collection of vintage deckchairs and read or snooze or watch the butterflies and honeybees hovering around the lavender. I love thinking that the end result of a bee on an oregano flower will eventually find its way into a jar of honey. Worker bees indeed. 
    What we're eating are mostly salads. Salade Niçoise shows up about once every ten days.Also salade Lyonnaise--that's the one made with frisée, lardons, croutons and a poached egg. Adding cubes of potato or, even yummier, tiny new potatoes (or, as I'm doing today, haricots verts) makes it more of a meal. 
   Backtracking: a couple of years ago, I watched Jamie Oliver put together a summer dish of new potatoes, smoked salmon and horseradish cream that looked so incredible I knew I'd be making it someday. That day came last week. 
    I've got most of Oliver's books but my favourite, by far, is Jamie at Home which combines gardening, harvesting and cooking. This particular salad calls for new potatoes, smoked salmon, capers, dill or fennel fronds, crème fraîche and horseradish. I could probably find jars of horseradish in the "English aisle" at various local supermarkets but I didn't have any on hand so I simply left it out--and it was still brilliant. 
    Here's my adaptation with notes for future riffs. This is enough for two as a main course on a hot summer night. Maybe fresh drippy peaches afterwards. 

 Smoked Salmon and Potato Salad

1/2 pound new potatoes, all the same size or cut into same-sized chunks
2 tsp fresh lemon zest
2 Tbsps fresh lemon juice
2 tsp red wine vinegar
olive oil
1 Tbsp capers, drained
3 Tbsp crème fraîche (store-bought or home-made)
6 oz smoked salmom
1/4 cup snipped dill or fennel tops

Steam the potatoes and, while still warm, toss with a dressing you've made from the lemon zest, 1 Tbsp lemon juice, 3-4 Tbsp olive oil and the capers. Season to taste.

Mix the rest of the lemon juice with the crème fraîche. 

Arrange the slices of smoked salmon on a plate. Top with potatoes. Spoon the crème fraîche over the salmon and sprinkle the whole plate with chopped dill or fennel.

Salad riffs:

Add one or more of the following:
- Fine, thin haricots verts
- Just-cooked fresh peas
- Rings of thinly sliced red onion

As Julia would say: "Bon appétit!"

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Viva Espana!!!

   This is possibly the first sports report I've ever posted--but it won't be the last. Here in Léran we're all agog (well, as agog as anyone can get in this hot weather) at the thought of the Tour de France coming through our village this weekend.
   But last Sunday evening, everyone's mind was on football and the final of the World Cup. Spain versus Holland. Both teams had their supporters, the Dutch wearing orange, the Spanish with flags at the ready, and everyone congregating down at the café where Marek had, very sensibly--or we'd have been roasted alive indoors--moved the TV from the bar to the great outdoors. Thanks to him too for providing this shot.
    Anyway, Spain won, the Dutch supporters faded away into the night, and the Spanish got into their cars, hooted their horns, waved their flags and roared off to do a lap of honour around the village.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Verri-nice (horrible pun, ignore it)

   Backtracking to Paris for a moment, Galeries Lafayette is another of my all-time favourite stores. The fashion floors are jaw-dropping. Name your favourite designer and they're there. The food floor is died-and-gone-to-heaven time with seemingly hand-picked cherries, meat cut with surgical skill, a vast briny choice of oysters and every condiment you can think of, including the blackcurrent mustard that I bought. 
    Across Boulevard Haussman is Lafayette Maison, four floors of gorgeousness for your home. 
    I'd promised myself an extravagant scented candle and, after much sniffing and dithering, walked away with one called "fleurs blanches" made by Gilles Dewavrin--whom I will immediately Google to see if a real M'sieu de Wavrin exists. He does and, wasting a pleasant five minutes at his site, www.gillesdewavrin.net/en/home I can only say I wish Mac would come up with a scratch-and-sniff laptop. Turns out my chosen candle is a blend of lilies, roses, carnations and jasmine, and will burn for 40 hours.
    One floor down from the scented candles is the basement, filled with desirable kitchen stuff. Pots, pans, china, glasses--and little glasses. The restaurant tradition of starting dinner with an amuse has gone mainstream. I began my slide down the slippery slope with  a cookbook on verrines. Then, obviously, I had to buy a half dozen little glasses. A couple of evenings ago, I launched them on their glassy gourmet career. 
    Like most of the verrines, this is just simple assembly and, if you've done your prep ahead of time, it only takes a couple of minutes to put together. The recipe doesn't say you should assmble it at the last moment but I reckon that it might end up looking like a dog's breakfast if you put it together ahead of time. 
So, from the bottom up, we have: 
1) layer of black tapenade
2) first layer of fresh mozzarella
3) layer of combined chopped fresh and sundried tomatoes
4) second layer of mozarella
5) layer of pesto
6) second layer of tomato mixture

...and a basil leaf on top, plus a couple of grissini.  

P.S. I have a feeling that these little glasses will get used muchly for desserts. By the time you've made it through entrée, plat and cheese course, you really only want a few spoonfuls of sweetness. There's a certain lemon-and-white-chocolate mousse scribbled with dark chocolate that's calling my name...