Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmas in Mirepoix

     We plan our weeks around trips to our two favourite local markets and we're especially delighted when a visit from friends includes a Monday--and we can take them over to Mirepoix.
    Because last Monday was the day after Christmas, stalls were fewer than usual but there was still plenty going on, the cafés were filled with people warming up with crèmes or hot chocolate, and inside the cathedral...

    The sun is low in the sky at this time of year, low enough to shine through the stained glass and fling all those ruby reds, sapphires, greens, amethysts and other gum-drop colours on to the ancient stone. God's Christmas slide slow. The effect was quite magical.

Christmas Wrap-Up

       The carcass of the chapon is in the big green enamel pot burbling away into soup. The Brussels sprouts, parsnip purée, roast potatoes, stuffing--the chopped celery and onion mixed in with lots of leftover baguette plus sage, rosemary and thyme from the garden--and gravy are all gone, reheated for a last dinner with Karen and Rob, our friends who stayed here for Christmas. The last of the bûche de Noël went while we watched Love, Actually, an annual tradition guaranteed to leave you teary-eyed.

     Here we are getting into the spirit on Christmas morning with glasses of bubbly before we sat down to scrambled eggs and smoked salmon. 
      Brunch over, it was time to start peeling, chopping and mixing--and discovering "oh, ****, the chapon still has its head on." I hadn't thought to check but at least the innards were gone. What we needed was a chicken guillotine. Instead, Peter used our huge Asian cleaver. Stuffing into the bird. Bird into the oven. It all gradually came together. 
      More friends arrived at 3:30 p..m., the foie gras and more bubbly came out, and then the bird and all its trimmings. 

    Next came cheeses from Spain, and some considerable time later found Isabelle in the kitchen adding a little dusting of icing sugar to the individual desserts she'd made.

   In fact, she'd brought along two desserts. Even though we didn't think we could, we all managed a slice of her luscious chestnut-cream bûche de Noël

   Most friends left a bit after 11 p.m. and then the rest of us snuggled in to the sofas, threw another log on the fire, and caught the AbFab Christmas special on BBC. 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

...And it's almost Christmas....

    I'm not going to waffle on about the long silence between blog posts. Just know that my New Year's resolution is to post more often. It's late afternoon on Christmas Eve, there's a cup of tea at hand, a nap in the offing, friends coming for aperos at 6:30 p.m., a table booked at the café for an hour later--and all the ingredients for the Christmas feast in the fridge, or in the making.
    I'm in the middle of foie gras preparation. It's been deveined, sprinkled with salt, pepper and some of Alain's legendary eau de vie. This morning, I wrapped it into a roll, and wrapped it in plastic. Next, I'll wrap it in cloth, poach it for 90 seconds, chill it, and rewrap it even more tightly with a second layer of cloth. This is the "torchon" method as spelled out by Michael Ruhlman.
     Yesterday, we were on the road before 9 a.m. and at Lavelanet market soon after. What a magical drive there with thick mist covering the fields, and steaming away into invisibility as we watched.

   With the mist gone, the sky was as blue as heaven.
The town was bustling, everyone in a convivial mood as they went about collecting their Christmas orders. I'd ordered a chapon--a capon--from the butcher's so we picked that up first and took it back to the car after the moment of terror when the butcher ran his finger down the hand-written list of names and couldn't find mine...

A corner of the butcher's shop. Note the silver  Christmas candelabra on the counter, and the row of cups awarded to "best butcher..." on the top of the sausage display case. Carcasses hang behind the wooden doors to the left.
   Chapon out of the way, it was time to whizz down the length of the market to the halles--and my favourite produce stall.
    The family who run this have a farm about half an hour away. Everything they sell, they grow. Can you make out the bright pink and red stalks of the chard? We got through a few kilos of that at a meal with friends earlier this week.
    No chard needed today but Brussels sprouts, parsnips, parsley, carrots, leeks, shallots, onions and garlic...the bags were getting heavy by now. I walked back outside on this bitingly cold day, and spotted Peter queueing to buy oysters which, like foie gras, are traditional at Christmas.

    While he waits patiently, I want to tell you about the profusion of seafood at this time of year. Earlier this week, we drove over to Pamiers where, among other places, we trawled the Carrefour supermarket. As well as the usual fish counter, pretty impressive at any time of year, there were two huge displays of oysters in wooden boxes, and a central table covered in seaweed, and heaped with live lobsters, crabs, langoustines, mussels and clams. (Next to it was a cooler the size of a bus filled with foie gras in various forms: pale beige lobes, vacuum-packed to be prepared at home, tins of different dimensions, slices...a colossal amount.)
    The other essentials in the Christmas triumvirate are champagne and Sauternes (or some other sweet wine) to sip with your foie gras.
     A bûche de Noël --a Christmas log--is the traditional dessert. So what's it to be? The Black Forest version? The "white lady" kind with vanilla and chocolate? Or a Norwegian omelette which, for reasons unknown, is the French name for Baked Alaska. Our friend Isabelle is bringing dessert so I can't tell you what we'll be eating....
    Merry Christmas to all--and to all a good night.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Vide grenier find spotted on TV!!

   Sometime this past summer, we spent a wonderful morning at the annual mega-vide-grenier in Fanjeaux, a hilltop village midway between Léran and Carcassonne. The best stall of all was a lady selling all kinds of linens and I spent a happy time, along with other bargain-hunters, rummaging through a giant mountain of them, all priced at a euro.
   But my prize find was folded neatly on her table where things climbed to astronomical prices--like five euros. Age unknown, this pure linen night-dress has the most beautiful hand-crocheted yoke. Last night, I spotted its twin on the BBC series Downton Abbey worn by the rather dreary Lavinia (spoiler alert: she dies of Spanish flu). Now I can date my purchase to around 1919.


Foie gras season is upon us...

     In addition to knitting patterns, "before" and "after" home decor stories and a beauty column--"oups, une ride!": "Oops, a wrinkle"--the November issue of Modes & Travaux also promises to deliver (in the largest type on the cover) recipes for jams, terrines and foie gras.
    To be honest, there are only two recipes for foie gras inside, one simply coated in salt, the other for foie gras poché au vin rouge. And the ingredients for that are in the photo. One vacuum-packed foie gras and one bottle of Côtes-du-Rhône, as specified by the recipe. It didn't say to wrap the foie gras in cheesecloth but I thought it might be a good idea. Finding it was a different matter. I eventually ended up with a sac à jambon--a ham bag. You can buy these anywhere at this time of year, also entire legs of pork at ridiculously cheap prices. I'm tempted, I'm tempted....
    I turned the gauze sac into a designer ham bag by cutting off one end and wrapping it tightly around the foie gras.  That was after I'd denervé-d it by letting it come to room temperature, feeling around inside it for anything vein-y and pulling it out with my treasured Spencer-Wells artery forceps (an insanely useful kitchen tool when you really need to get a grip).
    Once it had been very, very gently poached, the foie gras was left in the wine overnight. Not a pretty sight and the next morning, it looked so thoroughly disgusting that I started thinking about what else I could serve as a first course that night.
    Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I fished the foie gras out of its winy bath, pressed it hard on to paper towels, and repeated the process until most of the wine had gone. Then I left the foie gras to firm up in the fridge. In the end, it was delicious. Baguette and/or pain d'épices, and fig jam went with it, and glasses of rich amber Loupiac. Then we had salmon with lentils and leeks, various cheeses and a lemon and chocolate mousse. Let me know if you'd like the recipes for either and I'll post them.

Prizes for guessing what this is...

  Desolé for the long silence and a quick catch-up since my last post. We arrived back from Paris late on the Wednesday and my sister and her family arrived on the Friday at lunchtime for a few days stay. In between then and now, one of the things we've been doing is readying the house for the cooler weather. Our downstairs has two doors and one large window at the front (two doors because we live in what was originally two houses). The goal this year is to find or make thick curtains that will add to the visual coziness and keep the cold out. We do have shutters on one door and the window but you have to open both to open and close them. A drafty job.
  The previous owner left net curtains behind but they're decorative rather than functional. What I'm leaning towards are velvet curtains lined with fleece (not sheep's fleece but that faux stuff used to make sportswear). That way, we should be super snug.
  The wood-burning stove throws off an astonishing amount of heat. We buy our wood by the stere, the equivalent of one cubic metre, and have it cut in 50 cm lengths--the width of the stove. The house came equipped with a central heating system but we try to use it just as a back-up, oil prices being what they are.
  Seasonal cooking really starts to make sense at this time of year. Cassoulet, duck, pork belly, daubes, all those dishes you really don't want to think about in the summer but love to eat once the temperature drops.
  Vide greniers (attic-emptyings) continue well into the chilly weather. Léran had its own the other weekend, and here's my prize find.
   If you've been to our house, you know that it features more than its fair share of chipped French enamel. Coffee-pots, candlesticks, things for hanging drying cloths on, but we didn't own one of these

 Aren't those little birds adorable?  I was delighted to pick this up for a mere five euros. Anyone like to guess what it is?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Two favourite restaurants in one day.

   At the beginning, a fortnight in Paris sounded like a lavish amount of time. Now, as we get ready to take the train south, we think it's not enough.
   Not that it was a "tick off the boxes" sort of thing, but we woke up yesterday to realize that, shock horror, we hadn't yet been to two of the restaurants we always eat at.
   I only took a few photos at both (and most of them were really bad for whatever reason--er, maybe the red wine) but I've posted about them before if you're curious. First, we had lunch at Le Reminet on the left bank, just across the Seine from the rear end of Notre Dame, up a little side street. Their three-course menu has crept up to...all of 14.50 euros since we were here in June. It's got to be one of the biggest bargains in Paris.
    Three courses, two choices in each. We both picked lentils with marinated salmon to start. The salmon is cru--raw--and its rich, fleshy texture works well with the mineral notes in the lentils, the sharpness of the vinaigrette and the pungency of the salad greens. A keeper. Peter had braised lamb with white beans to follow. I went for the daurade (bream), a good-sized fillet, perfectly cooked with a little timbale of buttery carrots and courgettes on the side. Cheese to finish, or fromage blanc with fruits rouges--black currants, blackberries and raspberries (should have been "fruits noirs").
    All sneaking looks at each other in the gilt-framed mirrors, Parisians crammed the tiny room, making the most of their two-hour lunch "hour," all of us having a marvellous time as we watched the umbrella-bearing less fortunate race by outside. When we left, the rain had stopped so we walked and walked, to start to build up the appetite we'd need for dinner.
    Robert et Louise is another one that's always on the list.

You go there for the steak, a great raw primal bloody hunk pulled out of the cooler just across from your table, flung on to the grill over the open wood fire and served, in my case, saignant. With it comes roasted potatoes and salad. With it you drink red wine. A bottle of Chateau Lastours Gaillac this time (and the last time we were there). Got seats at the communal table too!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Superbe moments in Paris....

      When I'm old and grey and full of sleep and sitting there, clutching a glass of red wine, these are the moment that I will flashback to in the brain file labelled "Paris, October 2011." In no particular order, no, I lie, the first one is definitely number one.
      1. Browsing through the second-hand books outside Shakespeare & Company and, as three American women walked past, hearing one of them say to the others as she looked up at the sign...oh joy, you couldn't make this up.... "So, is this is, like, where Shakespeare...wuz?"
     2. Ambling around the Marais on the last morning and suddenly finding myself in Place des Vosges. What an incredible place to live, I thought. How nice to have a little pied à terre here. Don't hold your breath. Apartments start at about one million euros--and that's for something quite modest.

   3. Discovering the extraordinary joy of window-shopping in Paris ("licking the windows" is what we say in French). I don't mean the undeniable pleasure of seeing famous names like Chanel, Hermès and basically everyone else who runs double-page ads in French Vogue, but the sheer shock value of what's in one window--and the next.
A bath with integral book-shelves. How clever is that?

 A shop selling reproductions of exquisite antique board games.
 A florist's. You just want to buy armloads of flowers here.
Feather-covered skulls. An exhibition, I think.

   4. The sheer, unbelievable cheekiness of Parisian parking. Given its dimensions, we reckoned that this tiny Smart car earned multiple points for simultaneously blocking two zebra crossings AND the wheelchair-accessible ramp to the sidewalk. Now that took skill.

Pre-Sunday lunch...

   "We'll bring dessert." Friends visiting from overseas had invited us to their rented apartment for Sunday lunch. Amazing as one of them had done the dreaded Vancouver to Paris flight the day before.
    Patisseries are everywhere in Paris but we wanted something special so, as one does, I Googled and found this article.  Blé Sucré was only three metro stops away so that's where we went.
    It was a gorgeous sunny day, just right for wandering into a little tree-filled square with a park and bandstand in the middle--and buying sweet things to eat. Word has got around about patissier Fabrice Le Bourdat and the queue for the pastries and bread stretched out on to the pavement.
     Here are two of the four we bought:
Tarte Tatin for one. Don't you just love that wee dot of gold leaf on the end of the apple's "stem"?

   Another single serving classic. This screamingly rich little treat is a miniature Mont Blanc,  completely covered in fine noodles of chestnut purée and adorned with a gold-dusted square of chocolate.
On the topic of chocolate, we left with our four little pastries, beautifully boxed, and a paper bag holding two supremely flaky and buttery pains au chocolat, which we ate at the corner café across from this one. A crossroads with cafés on three of its four corners, could it get any better? Well, yes, because, just down the street is one of the city's best street markets. On this bright Sunday morning, it was jammed solid with Parisians buying heirloom tomatoes, chanterelles...

   ....and any one of these three pork roasts. The mille feuille appears to be layered with cheese and ham, the prune version (which I'm definitely going to try) is self-explanatory. A la diable? Mustard is spread on the pork and then it's wrapped in caul fat.


Saturday, October 15, 2011

Three bottles of olive oil, three variations on salt and "where do you think they keep the non-stick spatula?"....

     Renting an apartment instead of staying in a hotel has lots and lots of advantages. If you've walked your feet off, you don't have to go out to dinner. If you've had an enormous three-hour lunch, same thing. If you find yourself sighing whenever you pass a market, you can go in and buy that hunk of duck pâté, or gloriously mature cheese, then pop in the next boulangerie you see for a fresh baguette, and take it all to your temporary home. So far, so good but more complicated if you want something other than takeout. You may have to stock up on the basics before you can start cooking--or even making a simple vinaigrette. Obviously, everyone who has stayed in the apartment we're in now has mixed their own salad dressing. Including the one we brought with us, we can choose from three different olive oils. For salt, there's sel de Guerande, sel de Camargue and the sel de mer you see everywhere in the blue container with the whale on it. We have three sources of pepper.
    In rented apartments, cooking is always an adventure as you discover what your kitchen is equipped with. Or not. Lateral thinking becomes the norm. No water pitcher? Use the thermos jug. No carafe for the coffee machine? Balance filter-lined funnel on the top of the thermos jug. And so on.
    A typical Parisian kitchen is so tiny that you can basically stand in one spot and reach fridge, sink and stove without moving. When I say stove, I mean two electric hot-plates and a microwave (the microwave, in our case, is outside the kitchen area, beside the piano). Where we're staying now is typical. The cooktop segues seamlessly into the draining board, and the only other work surface is the top of the waist-high fridge. But, while I wouldn't scream with joy at having to cook a traditional Christmas dinner here, I can produce a decent four-course lunch, as we proved today.
   Minuscule kitchens and tiny fridges mean that Parisians eat out a lot, and shop more often too. One lemon, not a bag of four. Six eggs not a dozen. Back and forth they trundle, towing their purchases in shopping bags on wheels. There's one here in the apartment but I left it behind this morning believing, foolishly, that a carrybag would be enough. Which is how I came back balancing one bulging carrybag, a bag holding a rotisserie chicken, another bag containing a big bunch of parsley, and two baguettes.
   Most of it was bought just up the street at the Marché des Enfants Rouges. Quite small and packed with unutterably tempting foods, it's the city's oldest market, built in 1615. To put it in perspective, this place had already been going for well over a century when the French revolution took place.
Off with their heads, or rather the ends of their stalks. Prep work in process. Here's a look at the main, what am I saying? the only work surface.
 Lardons crisped and draining (those little thingies at bottom right). Mushrooms, onions and garlic cooking in much too much butter.
  A dish towel doubles as table cloth. Parsley instead of flowers... Are we chic or what?

   The finished plate. The warm mushroom mixture piled on two slices of toasted baguette. A little salad on the side.
    And then we had the roasted chicken, accompanied by basmati rice and ratatouille. Impressed? I've got to be honest here. Both were frozen and came from an incredible French store called Picard that's so highly respected that the BBC recently devoted an entire half-hour Food Programme to it. There's one three streets away. I'd never been in Picard before so I had a quick look round there yesterday and was amazed, amazed, by the choice. (If you can read French, have a roam around ). Enough to say that Picard saved the day when we got to the main course.
    From then on it was easy-cheesy. A lovely, ripe, heart-shaped raw milk Neufchatel, followed by sections of pomegranate and "wife cookies," both of which I picked up yesterday at Tang Frères.

A mixed day--in the best sense of the word: Part 2

    What I really want to blog about is some of the other stuff we've been up to but (favourite French expression alert) tant pis, I've written myself into a corner by titling the previous post "Part 1."
    Refueled on Vietnamese sandwiches, Peter and I set off in different directions, him to sketch, me to visit the Musée de Carnavalet and to swing by the Petit Bateau store to replace the Petit Bateau black T-shirt that has vanished into some other dimension. P.S. I didn't buy one after all, as I know that damn T-shirt's somewhere back in Léran.

    Long shadows, back-lit hair...the low, mid-afternoon light turned every narrow street into something visually wonderful. Invariably slim, everyone out on the streets looked like a model. Speaking of which, the fashion buzzwords right now are black, jeans, boots, anything oatmeal-coloured, a scarf of course, and flashes of scarlet or orange.

  Glad I'd worn my jeans and black jacket for the umpteenth time, I sped over to the Musée de Carnavalet which, on my list of Paris museums, is definitely in the top three. For a start, it's free. It also feels friendlier than most museums. I'm thinking of the attendant who, seeing me preparing to take a photo through a partially opened window, opened it all the way. 
     Mind you, the views are delightful even when the windows are closed. Don't you love those pale gum-drop colours in the glass? What also makes this museum special is that its collection is housed in a couple of magnificent mansions linked by very formal gardens.

     Grand staircases, over-the-top murals, wrought iron banisters... I'd be happy to wander around here for hours because you really do get a feel for what like must have been like for the French aristocracy in past centuries. I especially like the patterned wood floors. You can imagine all kinds of naughtinesses in the night being betrayed by a sudden squeak.
   Think how these old shop signs must have looked when they hung out over the narrow streets of Paris.

    What's on display is a real mix. Models of Paris, detailed room settings, paintings, add this one to your list the next time you're in Paris.

Friday, October 14, 2011

A mixed day--in the best sense of the word: Part 1

   Feet killing me, hair needs a wash and we have a rendezvous with a friend at a bistro at 8 p.m. which means leaving here a half hour before. I know, I KNOW, it's only a couple of stops on the Metro but we do keep leaving by the wrong sortie, and not knowing which way to turn when we do emerge, mole-like, at ground level. One side of a boulevard looks very much like the other when you're on new ground.
   Anyway, today. I wanted to visit a certain shop over near the Halles so set off ten-ish with the understanding that I'd be back around 1:30 p.m., bearing lunch.
   Even dreary weather can't spoil being in Paris but it was rather wonderful to go out on the street and see blue skies.
 Don't know if you're familiar with the modern Halles--the godawful Forum des Halles shopping complex that moved into the area where the original, famous food market once stood. A massive reno is underway, and I can't work out if they're destroying the old one or building a new one. Maybe both.
   Old and new can live together happily. Here's proof just along the street where the late 16th/early 17th century church of St. Eustache is the backdrop to this modern sculpture.
   From there, I headed south to the Metro station that was the start of my journey to Porte d'Ivry in southern Paris. Who knew that that pink Metro line split up at some point and went in two different directions. I had a 50 percent chance of being right, but wasn't, so off I jumped, backtracked, eventually reached the correct station and emerged to find myself staring at modern Paris.

      I'd come here because this quartier is home to a huge Asian supermarket called Tang Frères. Stocked with rice wrappers, hoi sin sauce and other necessities that are hard to find in our part of France, I joined the queue at a little Vietnamese sandwich shop, and left with a warm bag that, as I rode home on the Metro, emitted petite gusts of spice and savouriness.
     And that was only the morning.