Saturday, June 25, 2011

Terrine de Boeuf en Gelée

    My French still isn't fluent enough to hold a deep conversation about politics or the finer points of rugby (but then, my English isn't either) but I can definitely read and follow recipes.
    This one had been drifting around the edges of my brain ever since the weather turned warm. High temperatures and the idea of a shimmery jellied dish sounds just what you need as a main course. Not too ethereal--although that's fine for a starter or dessert--but something with meat to it. In this case, beef.
    Just in time, I found the copy of Elle à Table that went missing some months ago. Like all the Elle magazine spin-offs, it's beautiful to look at, and the recipes are always exactly in lock-step with the season. Our unusually hot late spring has pushed everything forward by about three weeks so last year's July/August issue reflects everything you'll see in the markets right now.
    But back to the recipe for terrine de boeuf en gelée. This could be a lengthy post because what I want to do is take you through the ingredients, one by one. I'll put these in bold face, with notes underneath.

    1 kg de boeuf (paleron, gite, joue). These cuts are, respectively, chuck, topside and cheek--all good for braising. I bought mine yesterday at Lavelanet market from the butcher's van. In fact I bought close to a kilo and a half because it's reassuring to know there's enough beef in the freezer to make a daube for two.
   1 pied de veau. A calf's foot. The butcher told me he had none because there's no demand. I explained what it was for. He said couennes would do. To digress a bit--and there will likely be more than a few digressions in this post--couennes are strips of pork skin. Usually they come with the underlying layer of fat attached, and they are one of the elements that make cassoulet so rich and filling. I said to the butcher that couennes might be too fatty. He turned round, opened the door to the refrigerator and produced a handful of fatless couennes. No charge. "Un cadeau." These travelling butchers' vans are one of the joys of being in France. This butcher comes from St. Quentin, a village about 5 km from our house. Every Wednesday morning, another butcher parks his van at the end of the Impasse where we live. That's even closer. It is very, very pleasant on a brisk fall day to have quail stuffed with wild mushrooms and wrapped in bacon brought almost to your door.
    Yesterday, I also bought a length of sausage from the boeuf and couennes butcher. This is destined to go into the stuffing for a round little courgette that I'd bought earlier. Market shopping works like this. You buy something, quickly think what you're going to do with it and then pick up the meat or olives or other veggies you need. Every week I write a shopping list. Nine weeks out of ten, I never even look at it.
   2 carottes. That's easy. Carrots here are often so fresh that juice spurts if you snap one in half. They also turn moldy in a moment. I've discovered the way to keep them fresh is to peel and trim them, and store them covered in water in the fridge. Provided you change the water occasionally, they keep for weeks.
   1 bouquet garni (persil, thym, vert de poireau, céleri, laurier). Parsley (also bought at the market), some sprigs of thyme from the garden, some celery, a bay leaf that my friend Grace gave me. Actually she gave me a bagful. Everything wrapped in the green leaf of a leek and tied with string. A word about that string. A couple of years ago, I bought a roll of butcher's string, and a couple of balls of hemp string at a vide grenier. I have enough string to last several lifetimes.
   4 oignons frais et 1 gros oignon piqué d'un clou de girofle. Four green/spring onions and one big onion (the usual kind) stuck with a clove. The green onions are used later. French recipes don't necessarily list ingredients in the order they're used. And they're not always that precise about quantities.
I think there's a deeper understanding in France of how to cook. For instance, last week, the local supermarket  had a special on quarters of lamb. We bought a front quarter which, as far as I can make out, breaks down into a shoulder (with a bit of front leg attached), miscellaneous chops, some odds and ends that I think will do nicely in a curry or a tagine and a breast of lamb. No handy labels, no explanation, you obviously have to be able to identify, and know how to cook, each cut.
   2 gousses d'ail. Garlic cloves.
   1 petit piment frais. I forgot to buy this. But I did have some dried ones left from a bunch I bought in Lavelanet last summer.
   1 c. a soupe de gros sel de mer. A tablespoon of coarse sea salt.
   10 grains de poivre. Ten peppercorns.
   Persil plat. Flat-leaf parsley.
   1 c. a café de graines de coriandre. A teaspoon of coriander seeds.

Couennes. I used about half of these as I reckoned that would add up to about the same as one calf's foot. The dish can go three ways: A) It'll be perfect, B) It'll collapse all over the plates because the jelly isn't stiff enough to hold it together. C) It'll be so rigid that slices will bounce. Three guesses as to the outcome I'm hoping for.

Make it today, eat it tomorrow--which is what we'll do.

Vide grenier season again....

     Call me "Second-hand Rose". Very few items in our home came to us via the normal retail route. Almost everything here has a story behind it and, more often than not, that story began in a depot-vente (secondhand store) or vide-grenier (car boot sale, yard sale...).
    Recently, we drove to Dun to take in an art and crafts exhibition and, er, a vide-grenier. Slim pickings this time, as sometimes happens. Loads of kids' clothes, Barbie dolls, plastic whatevers, which is great for parents of little ones and, even if you're not, good to know that dear ole Barbie isn't going to end up, plastic legs akimbo, on the town dump. But on to objets that I do want:
    I've got the technique down by now. If I see something interesting, I never grab it with great shouts of joy. Better to sidle around it, looking at other objects, even asking the price of an elderly ash-tray that I have no interest in whatsoever. Then, almost offhandedly, I pick up object of my desire and see what the owner wants for it.
    She wanted eight euros for this little art nouveau jug. Hmmm. Don't need another jug (although "need" rarely has anything to do with what we buy at vide greniers) and eight euros is sort of at the tipping point. I walked back to the car, thinking about the jug, and picturing it holding pink roses. When I got to the car, I thought some more, and walked back to the stall. The stallholder immediately knew why I was there.
   "Eight euros," she said, "but you can have it for seven". Score.

Floral Notes from Paris.

     When I was growing up in Bury St. Edmunds, a favourite treat (as an under-five) was a visit to the Abbey Gardens to feed the ducks. Once you'd gone through the magnificent Abbey Gate, you followed a wide path between very formal flower beds. Flawlessly geometric, they were the absolute opposite of my parents' rambunctious herbaceous borders. These were gardens to be looked at, not played in, with "Please Keep Off the Grass" signs everywhere . The inspiration behind these were probably the formal gardens of France such as you see at Versailles.
      When we go to Paris, I'm always fascinated at what the gardeners have planted in the numerous public gardens. One day I'd like the meet the brains behind those in the enchanting little park just east of Notre-Dame cathedral. Scouting through the x thousand photos I've saved on iPhoto, I found these that I took a few years ago. Poppies, wallflowers and foxgloves wouldn't be the first combination you'd think of but it's enchantingly pretty.

   Here's what you'll see at the moment in the same gardens. Much more formal, minimalist even, with bamboo and white-painted branches used as decoration. It's still all constrained by tidy lawns and little fences but, behind those stand-offish exteriors it's time to have fun and break all the rules. Somewhere there's a doctoral thesis to be written on this.

      On to the next garden. Even though the Jardin des Plantes is right beside the Gare d'Austerlitz, the station we arrive at/leave from is we don't take the TGV, we've never been inside its gates. Possibly because we're always towing luggage. This time, I was determined to go there, so I metro-ed over to the main station, and made my way outside, just across from the Seine, and into the gardens.
      They are huuuumungous. To wander off for a moment, Paris is a glorious mix of intimate narrow streets and grand, colossal spaces. France's largest, the garden is a grand enormous space and then some, with a pathway that seemed to go on for miles.  Museums, a plant school,  a zoo, vast greenhouses, you could easily spend a day here. The National History Museum's web site calls the collections the "archives of the planet," possibly because they have over 60 million stones, bones, meteorites and plants. That's for next time.
      I only had a couple of hours so all I can give you is a little taste.
You walk and you walk and you walk and you walk. You're so close to the city but the only sounds you hear are birdsong and schoolchildren.

All plants are identified.

Four men went to mow....I think this scene has an Alice and Wonderland feel to it. You almost expect the Red Queen to appear suddenly.

Every French garden has a potager. The one here is quite small and tucked away in a corner.

If I ever grow raspberries, I'm going to train them like this rather than straight up. I'm sure they get more sun this way.

Really big greenhouses. Really large numbers of schoolchildren.

A demonstration meadow shows how beautiful wild flowers can be.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Parisian Style.

    Drink of your choice at your elbow, you can settle in at a sidewalk café for hours and just gaze at the people strolling by. A few observations, in no particular order, if you're planning to visit and want to fit in:
1) Anyone wearing running shoes meant for running is almost certainly not French. On the other hand, if the running shoes are silver or gold or otherwise metallic, or embellished with sparkles, or patterned with flowers, they were bought for style not function, which probably means the pieds in them are Parisian.
2) Aged denim and anything smart and black in almost any combination always look good.
3) Ballet shoes and ankle boots. No flip-flops, no heavy-duty hiking sandals. And, pleeeeeease, no sandals with socks (as seen on one gent who paired them with shorts and a tailored jacket).
4) A scarf, of course. What do you mean, it's 28 degrees?

Black sweater, white mini-skirt, ankle boots, Chanel-style shoulder bag, minimal makeup and unfussy hair. No prizes for guessing where she lives.

We'll Always Have Paris...

    To quote Humphrey Bogart. I really did mean to write while we were in Paris earlier this month but... hope these posts will make up for it.
    Anyway, this time, for our week-long stay, we made our home in a different quartier--Le Marais--just north of the Pompidou Centre. The apartment was on the first floor accessible by kindly (as in not too steep) stairs or an elevator so minuscule that the two of us and our luggage couldn't fit in at the same time.
    The apartment was tiny too with a kitchen the size of a shower stall. You could literally stand in the middle and cook or do the washing-up without moving. I think, in total, we lived in about 24 square meters, and that's not the smallest apartment I've seen advertised--that was around 130 square feet.
   We took the train there and back, abandoning the Renault at Pamiers station, catching the train to Toulouse, and then whooshing across a large chunk of France on the TGV. It always fascinates me how, travelling north, as the scenery flattens out, the rooftops do too, changing from russet-y tiles to slates. Gare Montparnasse is where you land and I'd sort of forgotten that it's a 30-minute hike underground to the Montparnasse Metro station. You would think they'd have had the decency to give them different names!
   Our major reason for heading off to Paris when we did were the various art exhibitions we wanted to see. In no particular order, we took in the giant Manet exhibit at the Musée d'Orsay, works by one of the Fauvists, Kees Van Dongen at the Musée d'Art Modene. Finally, we saw a fantastic exhibition at Le Grand Palais of drawings, lithographs, paintings and--Odilon Redon was a versatile chap--designs for carpets and upholstered chairs. I love the intense gaze of the young man in the Manet above (and the waiter looking on). Put that one on my Christmas lists and, if I were a squintillionaire, here are a couple of other works I would hang on my walls.
I just loved Van Dongen's great slabs of primary colours.

Odilon Redon's malevolent Smiling Spider. Isn't this wonderfully creepy? A companion drawing--"The Crying Spider"--is in a private collection but, sadly, wasn't included in the exhibition.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

And then we ate...(miscellaneous Céret food vignettes)

   To be honest, I initially called this post  "miscellaneous Céret food stuff" but doesn't "vignettes" sound un peu posher? What it boils down to are some food moments that didn't seem to fit in the cherry festival post.

Sunday, the town was even more packed than it had been on Saturday. Every single café was jammed.  We hung around eyeing groups who appeared to be finishing up their coffees but even giving them the evil eye didn't work--"move, you spawn of Satan"--we couldn't land a table anywhere. In the end we bought a ficelle from a boulangerie that, miracle of miracles, was still open, picked up this delicious little pear-shaped goat cheese at one of the street stalls and ate apricots that a vendor had given to Peter as a "cadeau" to make up for parking their van in front of the scene he was sketching. A couple of rousquilles for dessert.

Doughnut shaped, light and crumbly, these little cakes are a Catalan specialty....that's icing sugar on top and, you're right, they're sweet enough to make your teeth squeak.

Needless to say, the cherry variety was one of the first to sell out.

Both nights, we ate in this enchanting little square. The first night, we settled into the restaurant you can see just to the right of the fountain. One order of steak frites, one order of lamb chops frites.

Here's the same scene by day. Now you have to imagine live, light jazz as the background music.

Cherries in Céret

         And another mono-ingredient festival to add to your list. For years, we've been meaning to go to the annual fête des cerises in Céret, a small town just west of Perpignan. Problem is, it's the same weekend as the gypsy festival in the Camargue so a hard call but, because it was closer, the cherries won out this year.
      We took the scenic route there, a series of dramatic switchbacks across vineyards that eventually spun us into the edge of the town. Parking was going to be a challenge, we knew that,  so we grabbed the first space we saw, on a residential street, and set off for the Hotel Vidal, suitcase in tow.
Here's the hotel entrance. What you can't see is the colossal jasmine bush that climbs up beside you. The scent's enough to make you swoon.

     Cheerful noise from the street woke me the next morning as vendors set up their stalls and began to arrange their wares. We went out, had pains aux raisins and crèmes and, by the time we headed  back to the hotel to pack, the street was humming with action. Before we get into that, some background:
       Over the decades, many big name artists have lived in, or stayed in, Céret. Picasso, Dufy and Soutine were just some of the painters seduced by the Mediterranean light. Here are a couple of photos to give you an idea.

    The light is just plain lovely here. All southern French towns have plane trees casting shade in the summer. Most communities severely prune the trees but Céret lets them grow tall so, as well as welcome patches of shadow, you get dappled light on the creamy-yellow and pink façades of the houses. No wonder painters continue to flock here.
     See those musicians? This wasn't only a fête des cerises, it was a fête des bandas as well. Brass bands!

...and dance too with the famous Catalan sardana. 
     The hotel was already completely booked for Saturday night, so I'd found us a room at Poppy's B and B, which was literally just over the road. Their rooms were all full too when I rang but the owners suggested we stay in their adjacent apartment--two bedrooms with its own lounge, and we had the run of the entire place. An enormous breakfast, loaded bookshelves, delightful terrace, and warm people. Definitely recommended if you ever stay in Céret.

    And finally--ta-da!--the Cherry Festival:

     Fête des Cerises translates as "everything cherry"... Anything you could do with cherries, the cherry vendors did. This is a bottle of cherry beer, not the least bit sweet, and don't you love the label?
     Everywhere you looked, people were selling cherries.

All hail the cherry! Cherry banners hung between the treetops, and even decorated windows and doors. Although the reason for this is a little less celebratory.

    Flies are a real curse in the summer. We've tried every method of attack from the good, old-fashioned swatter, to  those nasty sticky rolls of paper that hang from the ceiling and attach themselves to the hair of tall people and, my personal favourite, "sunflowers of death"--little stickies impregnated with fly-killer that you stick on the window. Houses and small stores often have curtains at the entrance. Plain ones, patterned ones, and in Céret, ones with a bunch of cherries on them. We actually came across the store where you can order these. They're made of chain-link in different colours and you can order any design you like, including family photos. Have a look at the web site and you realize this company does far more than help keep the flies out.