Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Polenta Made Pretty.

    Along with lentils, rice, noodles in various forms and potatoes, polenta is one of the staples that fills out the carbohydrate part of the plate. Often I make up a batch, keep it on hand, and grill or fry it as needed to warm up the inside and crisp the outside.
    A couple of Sundays ago, we had lunch at Le Moulin in Rivel, and this was the starter that some of us went for. Wedge of blue cheese on greens, squiggle of balsamic, nothing too hard about that. But what I did like was the finger of polenta speckled with microscopic bits of black olive, and topped with cherry tomatoes. Think I might copy that one....

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

What a weekend of vide grenier-ing and exotic dancing!

    We were desolés that the friends from Vancouver who stayed with us for the latter part of the week before last had to leave on the Saturday afternoon, thereby missing the flood of attic-emptying that would find its way on to local stalls on Sunday (more of that later).
    So, we were all chuffed to see that the Lavelanet vide grenier was scheduled for Saturday, starting at 6 a.m. We didn't make it that early but we were there around 9 a.m. Not a huge number of participants as the day was grey and chilly. But we did find finds.
    A stack of very old documents covered all over in brown spidery writing were only available as "le lot"--and that was 100 euros. Vintage postcards, on the other hand, were a reasonable 50 centimes. Don't you love this flapper from 1922? Fur stole, feather in her hat, flagrantly red lips, come-hither eyes: she's got the lot.

 I also left with a tiny hand-embroidered pin-cushion...

....and a Princess Grace and Prince Rainier tea-cup. Having second thoughts about this one already...

    A further wealth of possibilities faced us on Sunday, starting right under our noses in Léran. The sun shone, stalls were laden and, rooting through a box of postcards, I chose these--details below each one.
Feel free to contribute guesses as to what's going on here. All I can tell you is that the card is addressed to a Monsieur Joseph Joulin who lived in Narbonne, and the message simply reads: "Paris. 4/2/1914" and a question mark.

This one's more for family consumption, but it was never sent to anyone. A stamp on the back advertises Maison Labau, a clothing store for "hommes et garçonnets", Isn't "garçonnet" a sweet word? It's old French for "a little boy."

I bought this one because of the vintage car and its occupants. 

Barcelona--in the old days. Apologies but I can't make out the date on the postmark.

Turin at night. This is almost my favourite one of the bunch because of its cinéma noir-ish feel.
  I also nabbed an enormous piece of red checked fabric, fibres unknown to me to the stall lady (who also sold me these postcards). A picnic blanket?
    Purchases went back to the house before we jumped in the car and drove to Manses, a little village just north of Mirepoix.
Books, DVDs and videocassettes, chinaware, glasses, a lamp, vases, pictures...
Lunch first. Hot dogs on  baguette, cheese on baguette or ham on baguette. And frites.

Inside the village hall, you could buy wine, pastis, beer, soft drinks or coffee.
    The buy of the day that had me jumping up and down was a copper watering can. I wasn't even going to bother to ask the price, reckoning it would be in the 40 to 50 euro range. Then, the man selling it told me I should buy it because it went with my outfit (only in France!), said the price was five euros (yes, yes) and threw in"un petit Jésus"(one of those tiny china models that hide in French Christmas cakes) for free.

    On my second trawl of the market,  I spotted a magnificent jug shaped like a bunch of grapes, two euros for this, another gift, and then a third one later of a pre-Euro-era Italian coin. I gave him a 100 baht coin from Thailand that had wiggled its way to the bottom of my handbag.
    Later, the same day: our homeward route took us through Mirepoix anyway so we parked on a side street, and walked into the square to watch a promised exhibit of South American dancing. I'd envisaged live musicians, frilly frocks and tight trousers. Got none of those but the shoes definitely made up for it.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Learning to Look at the Landscape.

    Our friend Adriaan Luijk occasionally leads walks through the local countryside. These aren't the usual kind of walks where you stride along clocking up the kilometres. What Adriaan does is really make you look at and analyze your surroundings. (Wander off for a while and read about the fascinating courses he leads: http://regarding-landscapes.com
    A couple of Sunday mornings ago, three of us drove to the village of Le Sautel (where we go every September to see the sheep brought down from the mountain--see"transhumance" for applicable posts). There we met up with Adriaan and a friend of his. The day was beyond glorious, the sky like blue porcelain, the sun beating down, fields thick with pink, purple and blue wild flowers, the air almost sparkling. 

    Our first stop was along a small track just beyond the village where we paused to look at a series of dry stone walls that run parallel down the hillside. Small shelters had been built at intervals. What were they used for? Sheep shelters? Were these open-ended pens for various flocks? Turns out, we learned from a local man, that they once housed lepers. 
    Another small digression. Doing some research, I found that the nearby spa town of Ax-les-Thermes originated in the 13th century when the Count of Foix developed its hot springs to give relief to returning crusaders afflicted with leprosy. If you soak your feet in free pool in the town centre, know that it's called Le Bassin des Ladres (the basin of the lepers).
    We got out our sketchbooks--and let me tell you, drawing an object really makes you look at it.

From there, we drove close to the village of Lieurac where Adriaan and Andie, his wife, live. (Andie is a natural dyer who sells the most beautiful yarns for hand-knitting and embroidery. www.renaissancedyeing.com ) A picnic lunch under a tree, more sketching, this time of the view opposite...

... and then a climb up into Lieurac itself with its church at one end and what was once a fort at the other. Set on a south-facing slope, the village blazed with poppies, roses and other flowers, all out earlier this year because of the long hot spell we're still experiencing.
    On the long hot trek back to Le Sautel, we stopped to look at wild orchids, and up at the sky where raptors circled. A man was ploughing so we think the birds were hanging around to snap up hapless field mice.
    What we brought home, beside memories, were sketches and, in my case, seed. As we walked through Lieurac, Andie pointed out what looked like a twiggy necklace of sparsely strung white pearls, seeds of what I'd learned that day is the Purple Gromwell plant. I pocketed some and am waiting for them to sprout.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Greed Times Two.

   I usually hate coming up with titles for these posts but this one was a simple case of every-picture-tells-a-story. 
Spotted outside a restaurant in Foix. I think, I think that "gourmand" was mis-translated as "greedy".
But, so help me, I still can't work out what a "
muffe" is. Feel free to contribute ideas in your comments. Oh, and I should point out that "gizzards"--usually from a duck, and confited--are really tasty. (Finally, "day dessert" is probably "dessert du jour")

The tenuous link between this and the first shot is that both feature duck. These were magrets that we bought at Lavelanet market and put on the barbecue that evening. Rosy and succulent, they're better than the best steak. Rounding out the plate: new potatoes with parsley, and salad elements. Increasingly lazy, I arrange radishes, lettuce leaves, sliced green onion etc on a large platter and let everyone assemble their own.


Monday, May 16, 2011

Monday Market Musings in Mirepoix.

    Let's hear it for "apt alliteration's artful aid". Anyway, just a few mental notes jotted down earlier today as we shopped.

1) Tourist season is starting up again. Check the number of cars parked in the hotel parking lot on the way in, the number of people carrying cameras but not shopping baskets, and the number of people not reading La Dépêche outside the café.

2)  The commune de Mirepoix will be one vast vegetable bed come summer to judge from the hundreds of seedlings being bought.

3) I would like a summer dress in the soft garnet, cream and sharp green colours of new garlic.
4) I wish I'd bought the flowery summer dress that I saw on the friperie (secondhand clothes) stall. It was the right size and cost two euros.
5) I must stop buying clothes at the friperie in Lavelanet as the lady there now not only knows me but knows my taste to the point that she shows me things she thinks I will like. She's usually right.
6) How come I got a chocolate almond in the saucer of my crème and Peter got a small biscuit?
7) How much I love La Presse in Mirepox for playing classical music so that you listen to Bach or Vivaldi while you leaf through the food magazines.
8) How happy it makes me that we park the car in Place Marcel Pagnol, a little square named after the man who created Jean de Florette. I wish I could say that the square was lined with cafés and shaded by plane trees but it's not. It's where we go to pay our various taxes.
9) How this same group stands in the same spot every week--and everyone cheerfully walks around them.

10) How you can buy live trout, artisanal beer and handmade leather sandals from this row of stalls

11) How I purposely detour around beside the cathedral so I can sniff the amazing smells that come from these colossal pans of poulet basquaise and paella. One morning, around 10 a.m., we were there with a friend who was visiting from Canada and the smell hit her so powerfully that she had to buy a serving of bouillabaisse right there and then, and eat it on the spot.

12) How clever it is for vendors to put all the vegetables that go into ratatouille all together.

Poppies, simply poppies.

   As well as baguettes and berets, one of the iconic images of France is the wild poppy. The coquelicot.

Most years, they're magnificent but this year is an all-singing, all-dancing spectacular. It could be the unceasing sunshine we've had, who knows. Great swathes of scarlet by the roadside, vivid red patches in an otherwise green field, they still take my breath away. We stopped to take a shot of these on the road from Mirepoix to Manses. I've had fantasies about seeding my garden with them but evidently coquelicots only grow really well in newly ploughed soil.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Look How the Edible Flowers are Doing:

      Three weeks separates these two shots. I can recognize nasturtiums and a coriander plant (which you can't see) but anything else will be a surprise. That weedy little plant at four o'clock is a seedling I tried to transplant. It's looking pretty sick at this point so maybe I'll leave everything in the planter and let them all fight it out.

A Choice of Delicious Desserts...

  One of the plusses of eating lunch at Saveurs des Couverts is that it's a patisserie. So when it comes time for dessert, guess what you get to do. Here's what we picked:


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Presentation is Everything.

   The other day, we had to make routine trips to the bank, the insurance agent and the optician. Lots of fun... What kept us sane was the prospect of lunch outdoors in Mirepoix. Don't you love reading menus? We wandered around the square seeing what was on the various menus du jour. A starter of duck rillettes and then a plat of beef with prunes, would have left us lying flat for days. Lunch looked lighter (or at least the start of it did) at  Saveurs de Couvert in the corner of the main square.
Can you make out the old houses in all the reflections? 

Anyway, this was the starter. When I saw tomato and mozzarella salad listed on the menu, I thought "same old" but this was much more imaginative than the usual discs-of-tomato-fresh-cheese-and-a sprinkle-of-torn-basil. Someone out back in the kitchen had peeled the tomato, halved and seeded it, then scooped out the inside and mixed it with little cubes of fresh cheese and a garlic-y basil vinaigrette. Those artistic smears are finely chopped tomato mixed with finely chopped almonds. But here's the inventive thing...

The tomato skin had been dried till it was crisp and used as decoration. Isn't that an idea worth stealing?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

An Impressionist look at the local landscape.

Do you think Monet and Manet looked at the landscape with their lens on its "macro" setting? That's how I created this Impressionist painting effect. 

     Earlier this week, our local walking group--the Lérandonneurs--met up outside the café, and stood there wondering if it was going to rain seriously or if the drizzle would just fade away. In the end, it did both. 
    First, we headed off on the road up past the chateau, then we made our way into the forest, pausing briefly so that a huge truck, laden with wood, could pass by. Huge truck = huge tyres = huge ruts = huge amounts of clay-ey mud from the rain which, by now, was falling down with enough vigour to make me wish I'd worn Peter's ancient Barbour instead of  a light fleece jacket. Trudge, trudge, slip, slide, walk up on the side of the bank and hang on to what you hope is a non-functioning electric fence.

    But rain stops and, soon the sun came out as on we trudged past fields of forgotten sunflowers, across the little bridge that crosses the river Touyre, and below the walls of the Château de Queille.

Dried sunflowers always remind me of shower-heads.

You'll find much better shots of the Château de Queille on its web site: http://www.queille.net/ 
    I don't think I've ever seen such a gorgeous abundance of wild flowers. Little wild orchids of various kinds, crisp white bachelors' buttons, yellow birdsfoot trefoil and buttercups, dark purple clover, blue speedwell, scarlet poppies, pretty pink wild roses and lots more that I don't know the names of. Anyone know what this little plant is called?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Anyone for a menage à trois with their coffee?

    Usually, when you order a coffee here (and ordering un café means an espresso) you can depend on a little treat arriving in your saucer. Sometimes it's a tiny biscuit, other times a chocolate-covered almond and often it's a simple square of plain, dark chocolate.

    Normally, I don't look twice at the wrapper (I'm that keen to get at the contents) but this one deserved a second glance--especially when I noticed there are three sets of legs under the table.

The lamb makes its final appearance

       This is not, repeat, not haute cuisine that I'm going to tell you about. Rather it's memories of a noodle dish I used to go crazy about in Vancouver. Dense with little nuggets of stir-fried lamb, fragrant with cumin, it was comfort food to tuck into on a rainy day.
       The sun has been shining most of the week but I was still curious to see if I could recreate the flavours. More to the point, I still had a hunk of cooked lamb sitting in the fridge. In case you've got the same, here's what you can do. Chop the lamb into little pieces and reheat it with its juices (I should have said earlier that having rich, flavourful cooking juices around makes all the difference). Add a teaspoon or more of toasted cumin seeds and red chili flakes to your taste. Then let the lamb burble away while you
 cook some linguine (or spaghetti). Drain it, mix with the lamb and top with lots of chopped green onion and fresh coriander. Delish. As I said, not haute cuisine but a good way of using up leftovers.