Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Why Walnuts are a Cracking Good Idea

  I'm sitting here in the kitchen with a pot of chicken soup for lunch simmering on the stove. It's nippy outside, drizzling, and most of the delicate annual plants have withered and flopped because of the frost we had the night before last. Pleasant to be here in the warm, and think about walnuts.
   Walnuts--or noix as they're known here--hang in a bag in the storeroom, and fill the bottom layer of the hanging vegetable rack in the kitchen. Some were a present from friends lucky enough to have a walnut tree in their garden. Others, the ones still in their black, fleshy skin, I've picked up from the street that runs along by the presbytery.
    I crack a jarful at a time, and keep them in a drawer beside the matching Bonne Maman jars of raisins and currants.
    Dismantling yet another batch this morning, made me think about what useful little things they are.
    They go into salads of spinach, clementine segments and avocado chunks.
    And salads of beetroot and goat cheese.
     I add them, in fairly small morceaux, to tinned tuna tarted up with celery and preserved lemon, both finely chopped, and loosened with mayonnaise. Spread it thickly in a split baguette or scoop it over lettuce leaves. Lunch.
     Walnuts boost the nut content in the granola that goes over the morning yogurt and fruit.
     They love to get together with raw endives especially with goat cheese crumbled over.
     And I haven't even got to the sweet stuff....yet.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Flashback Thursdays: Bastille Day Fireworks in Paris

   July found us in Paris for a week that included the 14th. Let's see if I can do this in suitably sized and coloured type:

A very, very big event all over France--and especially in Paris.
   We'd have had to be up at first light to find a space on the Champs Elysées to watch the big parade. Instead we went over to the Marais and watched a fly-past from the terrace of a friend's apartment.
   Traditionally, the day winds up with what is said to be a mind-blowing fireworks display. We rode a bus along the Seine, hoping it would drop us off near the Eiffel Tower. It didn't. All traffic was stopped at a certain point. so we joined the steadily thickening crowd.
   This was as close as we wanted to get, knowing that getting away afterwards would be a massive scrum. We stood around, sat on convenient walls, and ate French fries. Barring the informal sale of bottles of wine and beer, it was a booze-free event.
    Around 11 p.m. the Eiffel Tower's lights went out, and massive chrysanthemum-like fireworks lit up the sky. Bang, bang. Flash, flash. Twinkle twinkle. Bangbangbangbangbang. Sparkle sparkle. That's the thing with fireworks, one picture--especially a moving one--is definitely worth a thousand words.

     When it all ended, we joined the massive crowd making its way back along beside the river. Finding a bus or taxi was impossible and the Metro didn't bear thinking about. So we walked and walked and walked, stopping at 1 a.m. for savagely overpriced, but very welcome. mugs of hot chocolate.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

3-minute meals: 2) Omelette, tomato salad, baguette

   One of the hanging racks in our kitchen with one of the most used items second from the right. An omelette pan. It's heavy, beautifully balanced and I bought it for about 11 euros in De Hillerin in Paris several years ago.
    It is only ever used for omelettes so it's built up a slippery surface than means omelettes slide around like a five-year-old on a patch of ice.
    Three eggs each, because we were hungry, no salt and pepper added because we like to add our own. Cheese broken into pieces (faster than grating). Parsley chopped with scissors (faster than a knife). A salad of tomatoes with a sprig of basil for decoration and a drizzle of olive oil. A baguette ready to cut. Butter should be here too, a piece about the size of a small walnut for each omelette.
     Melt it over medium-high heat until it starts to brown but before that, watch some YouTube videos to see how easy the process is. I know I'm copping out here but it really is a case of one moving picture is worth several hundred words.
    Taking photos while making an omelette is impossible so take it on trust that each one took well under a minute to get from this to the table.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Flashback Thursdays: David Hockney and the Flower Puppy

    Doesn't that sound like the title of kids' book? It's art, actually. Art with a capital "A".
    While it was bookended by the twin delights of San Sebastián and--a post is in the works--St. Jean de Luz, the main reason for our trip to the Basque country was to visit Bilbao, specifically the Guggenheim Museum. We could have gone any time. We went in June because of the massive David Hockney exhibit on there.
     Designed by Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim's eye-popping architecture is enough of a draw in itself. Saying that the museum has given this town a new lease on life is no exaggeration. Pre-Guggenheim, it was a not-too-glamourous port on the Bay of Biscay but, since 1997, when the museum opened, literally millions have come to gaze at it.
    It's exceptionally gazeworthy too, curvaceous, gleaming, sheathed in titanium, it looks like some colossal metallic flower.

   Around the museum are water features, walkways--and this astounding sculpture called Maman--a mother spider around 10 metres high. Bet that gives little kids nightmares.

Far friendlier, and even taller, American artist .Jeff Koons's "Puppy" stands in the forecourt of the museum.
Completely covered with flowers, it's watered by an internal system.
 Inside the Guggenheim, the sense of lightness and space is phenomenal.
Everything is on a colossal scale, including these works by David Hockney. He used traditional methods for the works in this room, but elsewhere his "paintings" had been done on an iPad.
     Best to let him tell you about them himself.
     We spent the whole of Saturday afternoon there and all of Sunday, often having rooms completely to ourselves. Before we leave Bilbao, a plug for the museum restaurant....
  ...where we had a terrific breakfast of tortilla, bread filled with scrambled egg and chorizo.
 Back there for lunch, I began with fresh sardines on a bed of...can't remember but it was good.
 Pork, but what pork. I think it had been roasted, then sliced then packed with its juices into a pan, then cut into oblongs and seared on all sides to create a deeply flavoured crust. Pumpkin purée was a good match.

Raspberry ice cream on a thick cream with cubes of licorice jelly. Delicious from start to finish even if the chef did go overboard with the edible smears.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Cause for celebration--our new village market.

   Back in June our boulangerie suddenly closed, which meant no more baguettes, croissants, little quiches, patisserie and other daily essentials. A new boulanger hasn't come forward and our nearest source of supply is Laroque d'Olmes, 5 km away. It's been tough.
   Many French villages are too small to have their own boulangerie. What usually happens is that a travelling bread truck comes around, parks in the village square, toots its horn and all the ladies line up for their daily bread, having a good chat in the process. Another bread source could be somewhere else in the village--an épicerie or a café for instance--is named the dépot de pain.
    When we first bought a house in Léran back in 2001, the village had its boulangerie, a village store that sold everything from very good cheeses to very warm slippers, and a butcher that was hardly ever open.
    These days, we rely on the trucks that, at specific days and times, visit the village each week. The butcher's truck for instance stops at the end of our Impasse so that necessary fare like duck confit, and bacon-wrapped quail stuffed with wild mushrooms or sausage are only a 30-second walk away. Reason enough in itself to live in France.
    Anyway, there was massive rejoicing in our house a week or two ago when a leaflet showed up in the post-box announcing "Les Halles de Léran". Our very own village market! Now firmly installed on the front of the fridge, the leaflet lists, day by day, who is setting up shop in the covered space across from the bar that was once the home of the fire station.

Tuesday to Sunday: Baguettes, croissants, pains au chocolat and pains aux raisins, plus a couple of tables, and a coffee machine. And sacks of potatoes.
Tuesdays: Locally made cheeses, yogurt and fromage frais. You can order farm-raised chickens and ducks too for pick up the following week.

    Tuesdays...Here's Christine, the vegetable lady, who also sells her gorgeously fresh produce at Lavelanet on Fridays and Mirepoix on Mondays. She used to set up a stall outside our post office one day a week. I'm not sure if you can make out some of what she's selling but, besides carrots (pale yellow and deep red varieties as well as the usual), haricots verts and truly superb heirloom tomatoes, today you could buy Jerusalem artichokes and black radishes. She brings in clementines from Spain and grapes from Italy too.
     Wednesdays, it's just the boulangerie and "café". Thursdays, it's the turn of a butcher, and someone selling plats cuisinés--takeout basically. Plats again on Friday. Definitely worth a look as I hear that last Friday's was paella. Saturday, a grower is bringing in potatoes from the Pays du Sault between here and the Pyrenees, and Sunday, it's just the boulangerie.
      Look to the left of Christine's stalls and you can make out stacks of bags. Pet food, available every day the market is open. Everyone in the village, including les chats and les chiens, is delighted.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Never-Ending Packet of Lentils.

    Here's a fact to bring out next time conversation grinds to a halt: Did you know that--even in France-- many "French" lentils actually hail from Canada? Mostly from Saskatchewan. "French green" is simply a type of lentil, like "Spanish brown." If you want to buy authentic French lentils in France, you have to look for the AOC ones from Le Puy-en-Velay (the original Puy lentils). In fact, in the EU, you mustn't call a lentil a "Puy' lentil unless it actually comes from there. They're said to taste better because the volcanic soil around there adds mineral-ly flavours.
    Seeing that the town of Le Puy is only about six hours drive from here, you'd think they'd cost less than those that had been transported across the Atlantic, but no.
    The real thing was going for more than 2 euros for 500 g the last time I checked whereas 84 centimes got me this, the same amount of SuperU's own house brand. Mea culpa for the large carbon footprint--I didn't realize they were Canadian until I read the small print on the packet. (All I can say in compensation is that everything else in the meal was local--some of it from our garden.)

    The recipe said to use the entire 500 g to feed four people. First I made a mirepoix of chopped onions, carrots, celery and lardons, then added the lentils and water, and simmered everything together for about half an hour. Starch and veg in one dish. Always useful. For seasoning, I threw in sprigs of thyme and a bay leaf, salt, pepper and a few drips of olive oil at the end. If anyone wants the complete recipe, let me know. The rest of the plates were filled with Toulouse sausage and braised leeks.
     Lentilles (the word also means contact lenses) are enormously filling. The next night, I reheated some of the leftovers as little cushions for fried salmon steaks. We still had a long way to go. A couple of lunchtimes later, I scooped out some lentils from a quantity that seemed to be replenishing itself during the night, threw in some chicken stock, added a fistful or two of shredded spinach towards the end of the cooking time and let everything burble together until I could whizz the mixture into a thickish potage. Croutons on top. We did not lack for carbs that day. Later, the same week, another bowl of soup, the lentils left whole this time but with some leftover tinned corn and small chunks of spicy chorizo added.
    Are you keeping count? By now, we'd got ten servings out of that one packet. Now, add two more. The lentils made their final appearance in one of those meals that uses up all the little bits and pieces in plastic containers in the fridge the night before you go to a market. This time, there were were just enough to toss with olive oil and a spritz of lemon juice to serve at room temperature as a side salad.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Flashback Thursdays: More Good Eats in St. Sebastián

    Even though we'd gobbled up several hefty pintxos earlier and sat down to a full-blown dinner the night before on Spanish time--around midnight--we still woke up, if not starving, definitely aching for that first cup of coffee. And whatever else we happened to come upon...
  What a brilliant idea, I mean, really, how bright to set out a buffet on top of the bar. As we stood there, the chef brought out other types of crisp little bread rolls filled with all sorts of breakfast-y fillings.
    I went for scrambled eggs and chorizo, the egg moist so that some of it, along with the spicy chorizo juices soaked into the bread roll. That and a good cup of coffee set us up for more ambling around the city.
    Mid-morning, against our wills, we were sucked into this wonderful pastry shop.

    Two pastries (and more coffee) found their way to our little marble-topped table.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Weekend in Provence

  Not far from the city of Toulon, about an hour west of Nice,  a group of French ladies meets up every week to improve their English. Long story short, some of us here in Léran had them and, in some cases, their husbands here to stay with us for a weekend in March. Entente cordiale in action. A terrific opportunity for all of us to get to grips with the others' language.
   Now it was our turn.
    Setting off around 9:30 a.m., three carloads of us English speakers met up for a seafood lunch in Sète, a port town famed for its moules and oysters.
   My entrée--soupe de poissons with its classic accompaniments of toasted baguette, rouille (a fiery mayonnaise) and grated cheese. Perfumed with anis, the soup is made from tiny fish cooked together and pushed through a sieve. I've never been sure if there's a right way and wrong way to eat it but what I do is smear rouille on the toasts, sprinkle with cheese and float these little "boats" on the soup. Moules frites for the main course of course...
    Our meeting-place was an ancient olive grove..
 ...where our French hosts were waiting ready to pour tea or rosé and hand us small bouquets of lavender.
    Serious eating began a couple of hours later. Those two platters of fresh vegetables are for dipping in anchoïade--a Provençal spread that's heaven for serious anchovy-lovers.
    A pot-luck dinner out on the terrace...
  Here's Annick who, with her husband Jean-Claude, hosted us for the weekend.
    And here they are dancing under an olive tree.
Mandolin, accordion and guitar music took us into the wee hours.
 The view we woke up to the following morning. Only five hours from where we live but a dramatically different landscape. Olives, almonds and pomegranates all flourish locally.
 Off we set for a picnic at the beach. October, and our group had it to themselves.
 It was warm enough to sunbathe or swim. A perfect place for snoozing, skipping stones across the water, paddling...
    That evening we got together for dinner at a little restaurant called Le Pagnol, named I imagine after Marcel Pagnol (who wrote Jean de Florette, Manon des Sources, and practically every other book you've heard of that's set in Provence).
    Jean-Claude gave me his recipe for aioli--the garlicky "butter" of Provence. "How many cloves do you use?" I asked him. "Le maximum," he replied.
    We'd said our goodbyes to Jean-Claude the night before. He was off hiking early on Sunday morning. Annick drove us down the hill for un petit tour of their little village of Solliès-Toucas.
    Judging from this old postcard, it hasn't changed much over the years. Here's how it was back in the day...
   And here's what it looks like now.
   Off into the hills to fill our pockets with wild thyme (much stronger than any I'd smelled before) and these juniper berries. Annick says she adds them to her daubes. I'll do that this winter, their fragrance bringing back memories of that bright Sunday morning in Provence.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

3-minute meals. 1) Choir night pasta.

   Sometime around when the church bells ring--somewhat tinnily--the angelus, we open a bottle of wine and enjoy an apero. Then I get on with making supper. Normally, it's a leisurely process and we usually end up eating around 8:30 p.m.
    But not on Wednesday nights between now and next summer. Wednesday evenings means choir practice. Wednesday evenings means that, by 8 p.m., we need to be in the Salle des Tilleuls (one of Léran's communal halls), music in hand, voices primed, ready to sing.
   On Wednesdays, we eat at 7:15 p.m.
   For most of us, pasta is the default meal when we're in a rush, but it does take at least ten minutes to bring your penne from hard to al dente. And that's after the water comes to a boil.
   My life changed... Hang on a minute, I think we need capital letters here... My Life Changed When I Discovered Pasta made in Treziers.
   Treziers is a small village of about 100 inhabitants some 9 km from here, situated on a crest with stunning views of the Pyrenees. It has no boulangerie but it does have a square with a fountain at its centre, and a mechanic who mends Mercedes.
    And it also has someone who makes organic pasta.
   I've been buying this since I first saw it in SuperU a few years ago. It costs about two euros for 500 grams. Going off on a tangent for a moment, supermarkets in France are invariably staunch supporters of local producers. That's why you find charcuterie made near Lavelanet, chive and nettle vinegars, and confit of onions from close to Mirepoix, and so on.
   Lately my favourite pasta has been sharing shelf-space with other locals but, for a long time, it had an entire end-aisle display in the big SuperU in Mirepoix. I can't even begin to imagine a North American or UK supermarket doing that. Normally this prime location where you're forced to slow down your cart as you round the end of the aisle is sold at a premium. Hence, megaliths of junk food from multinational companies are what you usually find there.
    Patricia Corsini makes spirals, tagliatelle and a couple of other varieties. All of her pasta is organic--that little green and white "AB" sign means "agriculture biologique"--and everything else you want to know is on the packet. That includes the cooking time (which I'm charmed to see someone has changed by hand from "3 mn." to "2-3 mn").
     Ignore these instructions at your peril. It'll turn into a big doughy blob and serve you right. This pasta really does cook that quickly so you have to hover over the pan, tongs in hand, fishing out a tagliatelle or a spiral as you come to the end of the cooking time.
     Meanwhile you heat up some bottled pesto, or frozen if you had the foresight to stash it away this summer. Chez nous, this week's sauce was half a jar of bought red pesto mixed with the remains of the tetrapack of tomato-and-oregano pizza sauce we used the other evening.
     Other times, I chop fresh tomatoes, tear up a fresh mozzarella, slurp olive oil over it and add lots of torn basil leaves.
     Lemon rind, a bit of lemon juice, olive oil and grated Parmesan is another almost-instant sauce.
Drain the pasta, toss with your sauce of choice and, in all cases, strew on plenty of coarsely chopped parsley to make the plate look pretty.
    Maybe not three minutes from start to finish but the fastest way I know to get supper on the table.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Flashback Thursdays: Weddings and Pintxos Bars in St. Sebastián.

   Back in early June, we headed off for a mini-break in the Basque country with our next-door neighbours and good friends, Bea and David. Saying au revoir to Léran in the morning, we drove north to the péage, sped across the narrowest part of France and arrived in St. Sebastián on the Atlantic coast of Spain late afternoon. Our pénsion was in the old quarter and, even early on a Friday night, the joint was jumping, bars open--and opening for what would be a long night.
    We were in Spain and 7 p.m. was ridiculously early to eat. Instead, we ambled around the narrow streets, emerging on to the seafront.

     Serious surfing goes on here. Wandering back to the large plaza outside the town hall, we were met by an odd mix of surfers in shiny black wetsuits and fashionably-dressed couples. Friday night is obviously wedding night in St. Sebastián. Family, friends and traditional dancers welcomed the just-weds as they exited the town hall. New sets of brides and bridesmaids sat in cars, waiting for their turn. Vivid colours, bare brown shoulders, the women guests were gorgeously dressed on this warm summer night, though how some managed to negotiate the cobblestones in their sky-high heels is beyond me. I also don't know why I didn't take photos...
    Here's the town hall the morning after. Not quite the same. Try to imagine this area buzzing with happy people.

   We hung around long enough to watch the sun go down, then drifted back into the town for a pintxos crawl. Pronounced "pinch-oss", these are the Basque version of tapas. 
   Open doors revealed bars heaped with platters and plates of different kinds. You simply pick up a plate and help yourself. One cookery book I saw listed over 500 variations.

 Shavings of salty ham on a slice of pungent goat cheese with a little salad and sweet red pepper underneath.
 Smoked salmon topped with very finely chopped onion. I imagine that graphic swizzle is reduced balsamic. It usually is.
 Fresh anchovies with lemon and tomato. And remember these are just three from a vast selection and from one of many, many pintxos bars.
  We hit four in total, with a big glass of gutsy Rioja wine at each and, then, close to midnight, went and had dinner. Or so they tell me.