Monday, July 25, 2011

Time-Tripping Back to Paris: Part 1:

  How long has it been since we last went to the Sunday morning flea market in Pamiers? Must be months. The sun came out yesterday morning, so we drove over, downed café crèmes and had a leisurely browse around the stalls. Did I really need an Yves St. Laurent olive green cape? If I did, I could have nabbed one for 25 euros. As always, the folks who profit most at flea markets and vide-greniers are parents of small kids. If I had a euro for every Barbie doll or action figure, I'd be rich. This time, nothing caught my fancy. Even the DVD stall failed to deliver. But it wasn't all weeping and moaning as we left because, tucked in my purse, were two small but wonderful finds.
     The story of the items I uncovered in a box under a stall has its beginnings in the hands of a local man--"very cultured" said the lady who sold them to me for two euros. Whoever he was, he obviously hung on to programs from shows he saw. They ended up in an attic somewhere and, from there, had made their way to a flea market stall
      I've always been a huge fan of American-born chanteuse Josephine Baker who had a heart as big as her international reputation. Here she is dancing her bananas off (or nearly) around 1927....

   Three years after she filmed this, she appeared in a show at the Casino de Paris along with "400 artistes, Girls et Boys". Paris qui Remue was billed as a "super spectacle." This revue had it all. Towering feather head-dresses (and we'll come to more of those later in this post), magnificent toe-tapping dance routines, glamour galore and Baker belting out one of her most famous songs:

     It all happened back in 1930 and one of my discoveries in Pamiers was this little promotional pamphlet. Here's its front cover:

Completely unfolded, it displays the show's highlights.

     As famous around that time as Josephine Baker--the two were fierce rivals--was French star Mistinguett who was born with the somewhat bourgeois name of Jeanne Bourgeois. Her stage name came from a friend who wrote a song called "Miss Tinguette."
      In 1920 (see how we're sliding further and further back in time) Mistinguett starred in a revue, also at the Casino de Paris. Its name was.....dim the lights, raise the curtain....Parikiri!!!

      This little program--my second flea market find--details the 42 scenes starting with "Un roof-garden à New-York" and including "The Magic Stairs Case." I couldn't find any footage from the show but you can bet that the costumes were jaw-droppingly magnificent.
      Allegedly the first performer to do that 'watch me walk down the staircase' routine, Mistinguett once wore a feathered head-dress so spectacularly tall that, when she took her last curtain call, the plumes stretched right out over the orchestra pit and touched the audience in the front row. Check out the costume she's wearing in this clip and that's not hard to picture. I just love how she sparkles in every sense of the word.

Mistinguett - Oui je suis de Paris par le-pere-de-colombe

  More French vintage trivia: Also appearing with Mistinguett in Parikiri was a dapper young boulevardier called Maurice Chevalier, her lover for many years.
   Finally, my favourite quote from her: "A kiss can be a comma, a question mark, or an exclamation point.  That's basic spelling that every woman ought to know."
   Expect longer, and more frequent, posts as rain continues to sweep across Europe and the temperature stays in the unseasonal mid-teens.

The Monday morning routine.

    Not saying that the occasional supermarket pork chop doesn't find its way into our fridge but most weeks we try to do almost all of our meat and veg shopping at the markets in Lavalenet and Mirepoix, the two small towns that are each about a 15-minute drive from our village. Lavelanet's is on Fridays--and it's by far the better one in terms of the number and variety of producers, and general mood of joie de vivre. Mirepoix's on a Monday is still good but its historical setting does mean that, summertime especially, it's rife with visitors who are there to gaze not rummage through the courgettes and aubergines.
     Never easy any time, finding a place to park the car can be horrendous in July and August. We do have a secret spot where we can usually guarantee success but it's a five-minute walk from the market stalls. Most Mondays, Peter drops me off just beyond the post office so I can make a start on shopping. But before I stroll into the square, I cross the road and go in here.
Here's the boulangerie where I get out of the car with my basket, back-up plastic bag, and list. We usually arrange to meet about 20 minutes later in the presse. That way, if either of us is late, the waiting one can browse through the new issue of Cuisine Actuelle and Paris-Match.

Those multicoloured thingies on the middle and upper shelves are pears, apples, mice and Sponge-Bob Square Pants (!!) made of marzipan. Approaching nirvana...

...with a brief stop to gaze at these.

Almost there. The pains aux raisins are on the top shelf on the right--and there are only two left, but that doesn't matter.

I should have put a euro coin beside this so you could see its colossal size. It's easily big enough for the two of us. The best part is the sugary, buttery, raisin-laden middle.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Celebrating Bastille Day in the Garden...

     Promise I'll do a major post sometime soon to show you all the corners of our garden.  In the meantime, let's celebrate today, Bastille Day, with red, white and blue flowers.
    Top to bottom, the reds are a nasturtium (in the edible flowers container), a hanging geranium, a normal geranium, and a scarlet runner bean flower.
Whites are cosmos, roses and feverfew, blues some pansies that have hung on and on and on, and borage that self-seeds itself everywhere.


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Dinner at the Chateau.

    Our wedding anniversary a few weeks ago was a June day as gloriously sunny as it was the day we were married. A fine excuse to go out to dinner.
    The Abbaye-Chateau in Camon is only about 10 minutes away but, although we'd met the owners (and I'd written a story about them) we'd never eaten there. Now was as good a time as any to do it. 
    Camon is a storybook village, set in a green bowl of countryside and ancient beyond belief with some of its original stone walls still intact., quite literally "one of the most beautiful villages in France."
     You can read all about the Abbaye-Chateau at

The stunning entrance hall is tiled in every shade of russet, rust and tawny brown.

    Dinner is un menu--no decisions, and personally, I love it when I have to do is sit there and be brought plate after plate of delicious things.
     We began with drinks on the terrace, a special cocktail. Guess the mystery ingredient and the drink's on the house, owner Peter Lawton told us. I did actually guess it but then thought "nah..."
     Into the main courtyard for dinner where tables were set up on the edge of a lawn. Somewhere buried in the clutter on my desk is the menu....aaah, found it.
The first course--a light but substantial salad of quail, peeled white grapes and walnuts.

Gazpacho and a croute spread with tapenade.

I wanted to show you the table which manages, like the abbey itself, to be a comfortable blend of casual and formal. Isn't that simple wreath of ivy round the candle holder an effective idea?

Filet de rascasse, salicorne et sauce poivron rouge. I could easily have eaten two of these. I forgot to photograph the next course: lamb, with creamed spinach, ratte potatoes, and a caper and shallot sauce. Chef Tom Sleigh works with what he finds locally and in season. His style is unfussy (it's that same mix of casual and formal). He simply picks the best ingredients he can and lets them do the talking. 
Three desserts. A tarte au citron, pear poached in red wine and pear ice cream. 

Time to go home.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Mainstays of Summer

   Summertime and the living should be as easy as you can make it. All the more time to spend out in the garden. Who wants to slave away for hours in the kitchen on a hot day?  Me neither.
   By mainstays, I mean dead-simple, tasty dishes that get along comfortably with others, or exist happily on their own. Like the best kind of people, in fact.
   Stop reading here if I've written about the tortilla before. My mind is foggy partly because of the gorgeous 27 degree heat out there and partly due to the glass of chilled muscadet I'm rapidly downing.
   When I say "tortilla," don't even think of the Mexican variety. This is the Spanish version, more of a hefty fat omelette like the one I first tasted getting off a train in Barcelona, starving, and finding tortilla served in a split baguette (or whatever the Spanish is for baguette). Crusty bread full of golden-y goodness. I've made tortilla so often now that I can do it from memory. It's definitely not fancy but it has two enormous things in its favour:
  Firstly, you don't need to make a special trip to the shops. You've almost certainly got all the ingredients on hand (which makes it useful when aperos turn into supper, or someone shows up unexpectedly).
  Secondly, it's good straight from the pan, at room temperature, or the next day. Even, as we discovered this lunchtime, sliced and jammed in a split baguette along with grainy mustard, ham, lettuce and tomato.
   You start by slicing one pound of potatoes about 1 cm thick (and I know I'm mixing weights and measures. Sooooorry). Boil them for five minutes and drain.
    During that five minutes, gently soften a sliced onion and several cloves of sliced garlic in a quarter cup of olive oil, in a non-stick frying pan over medium heat.
    Add your potatoes, as well as a generous handful of chopped parsley. Press everything down with a spatula.
    Finally add six eggs beaten together with a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of pepper.
    Cover the pan, turn the heat to medium-low and let the tortilla cook for 20 minutes.
    Serve it in wedges with salads and bread, or cut in cubes, a tooth-pick in each, for an apero snack. This is the tortilla at its most basic. Little cubes of ham or chorizo, chopped green onion, snippets of sun-dried tomato, feel free to improvise.
    I love my tortillas. One of those around and pulling drinks, supper or a light dinner together takes minutes. (Real minutes too, not the TV food show ten-minions-have-been-chopping-away-for-half-an-hour-kind-of-"quick-dish"). As you can see from the photo below, it's not really a "wow" visual moment although it does have an honest, rustic look that I rather like.

    On to the next mainstay.
    You can buy black, pungent tapenade everywhere in France but personally I find it far more satisfying to go through all the little plastic containers in the fridge containing a dozen olives each, and the one with the few remaining anchovies in it, and make something that--like the tortilla--equals more than the sum of its parts.
    Recipes are everywhere. Just Google. But basically olives, anchovies (or not, if you're vegetarian), capers, garlic and olive oil get whizzed together in a food processor, and that's it.  One night recently, we'd run out of fresh bread and the boulangerie was inexplicably shut, so I sliced stale baguette, brushed it lightly with olive oil, toasted it under the grill, turned it, added more olive oil and repeated the process. Then I spread the wee toasts with tapenade. Delish. We had it with grilled something or other.
All the tapenade ingredients together at last. 

    Third and last mainstay. Well, last one for today.  For this, you just have to have ripe tomatoes, fresh basil and a fresh mozzarella around. Slice tomatoes and cheese, arrange in a pretty circle, one red, one white, one red, one white, drizzle with olive oil, and tear up basil leaves to sprinkle over the top.
    Bon appétit. And do let me know if you'd like me to blog more ways to make your summer eating easy.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Terrine de Boeuf en Gelée: Part Deux

   Thought you might like to see some "before" and "after" shots of last Sunday's supper. Here are all the all the ingredients I used in the beef terrine (I hadn't noticed till now that the veg look like a fat little stomach with orange legs).

And, ta-da!-- here it is, all cooked in its tin. I didn't even try to turn it out. Just as well as the end result was a little "looser" than I wanted. Next time, I'll use all the couennes (or a calf's foot). I'd also add more seasoning. It was tasty but could have used a bit more flavour. Wandering off, the cold remains were delicious, and the very last bits and pieces, and all the leftover stock have now been simmered and simmered with a tin of tomatoes to make what should be a damn delicious pasta sauce.
   Back to the beef in its first appearance. I cooked fried potatoes to go with it, boiled earlier so it was simply a matter of heating some olive oil and popping them in the pan. Salad of course and this one came completely from the garden. The mustardy zip of the nasturtium and roquette leaves worked well with the beef.
Another "before" shot. Here's what those nasturtium and borage plants looked like not that long ago.