Archive for September 2007

Coup de Coeur

September 30, 2007

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Un coup de coeur is a slightly slangy way to describe a favorite, a top pick, if you’re a French person.  But to my ear it’s something a little different, a little more.  The word coup has literally hundreds of uses, but to hear it as I do, consider that un coup de foudre is a bolt of lightning, donner un coup de main is to lend a helping hand.  So when I think of coup de coeur I think of something special that strikes my heart.  And last night that something special was Chef Didier Mariani and his tiny restaurant A 2 Pas du Potager, in the lovely old city of Avignon.

The name means “two steps from the kitchen garden” and indeed the restaurant grows nearly all of the vegetables and fruits it serves.  What Chef Mariani puts on your table comes straight from the soil to your plate, after a quick spin through the one-man restaurant kitchen.  So yes, it’s as fresh as food can be, and impeccably prepared, and inventive, and above all delicious.  And the wine cellar promises countless delights, if the gorgeous bottle of Château Pas du Cerf Cuvée Marlise is any indication.  But that’s not what I remember most.

Long after the flavors of the sweet and salty olive macaron, the magical warm foie gras served with an eggplant “sand” that combines with the foie to form a startling cream on the tongue, and the irresistable crusty rolls made in house from an apple-based natural starter, have left my lips, it’s Chef Mariani himself that I’ll remember.  Even the fact that he prepared for us, on no notice, a gorgeous dessert tasting menu because we had a pastry chef in our party isn’t the main thing I’ll remember.  Rather it’s that he’s everyone’s dream of a true French chef, changing his menu monthly to showcase the bounty of his garden throughout the seasons, making every single thing from scratch, bringing the food to your table himself and explaining each element of the dish, and smiling at the end of the evening with the pleasure of having made his diners happy.

The warmth of the small room, holding no more than 15-20 diners a night, reflects the spirit of Chef Mariani and his wife Andrea, who is the sole and splendid front of the house staff.  If your best friend were a French chef, this is how it would feel to go to his house.  His love of beautiful food tenderly prepared and artfully presented couldn’t shine any clearer if the chef put each bite to your lips with his own fingertips.  I actually think he’d like to do that, but since he works alone in his kitchen he just doesn’t have the time.

If I’ve ever been in a restaurant where I felt so cared for, so convinced that my dining pleasure was all that mattered, it must have been in a dream.  You’ve dreamed that dream too, I imagine.  A chef in pristine whites smiles, whispers in your ear, slips food in front of you that begs to be remembered, pours wine that makes you forget other wines you’ve drunk before, and at the end of the evening tells you he’ll be glad to do all of this for you again any time, as soon as you wish.  Remember that dream?

And if the dream is not enough and you want to see more pictures of the dinner, click here

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Cool Jazz, Hot Air

September 29, 2007

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This morning we awoke to the mysterious sound of gas whooshing.  Running to the balcony outside our bedroom we saw a small parade of hot air balloons proceeding over town, completely unexpected.  This is the sort of thing that would normally be announced in the local paper the day before, along with the story about an 11 year old girl and a 94 year old grandma doing parachute jumping and the announcements for garage sales in nearby villages. 

One day I’ll read to you from the paper, since although it’s not great on news of the world (is there even a world out there?) you can certainly keep up with the events in even the tiniest of villages: births, marriages, and once, a little story about how a village had not forgotten to honor the sacrifice of a soldier killed in battle 90 years ago.  So the unannounced arrival of the balloons was a little thrill, and I imagine that many faces in town were smilingly turned skyward, just as ours were. 

We saw nothing but smiles last night when we went to a benefit jazz concert in the town’s multipurpose room.   We were delighted to find that we were probably the only foreigners in the place, and the cheerful crowd sat together at long tables chatting, drinking and eating slices of homemade cakes.  The very good jazz band urged dancing and a dozen older couples complied, making the women look tender and the men proud to be holding a smiling woman, however clumsily.  One man of about 60 danced in bright red shorts with a yellow sweater tossed over his shoulders, his grey-clad partner a sober dove in his arms.  A slightly younger couple, he darker-skinned and with an accent I couldn’t identify, danced a tight, expert little cha-cha together to a complicated tune, unabashedly the only ones on the dance floor.  A younger woman at our table bopped lightly in her chair, casting quick glances at her companion as if she knew there was no point in trying to get him on his feet.  He occupied himself with a paper plate of potato chips and a little bowl of peanuts, not the dancing type.

And me, another woman with a non-dancing companion, I had a glass of the worst wine in the world.  Friends, you’ve probably never seen me leave a glass unfinished, but take note.  There is wine so terrible that it’s not swallowable, and it’s in France.  Think about that, while we go to market and try to find a way not to buy fish.

It’s All In Your Head

September 27, 2007

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I finally decided to break down and buy some poultry, which is hideously expensive here.  A pintade, or guinea hen, caught my eye with her blue face and long eyelashes.  I’m not accustomed to poultry having eyelashes, but I asked the market vendor if one added the head to soup, or why it was included, tucked under the bird’s wing in a truly touching way. 

“Just for presentation” he replied, “but if you’re making soup I’ll give you a carcass I have here.”  He didn’t mention that the extra carcass would also have a head, leaving me with two heads to spare and not a thought in either of them.  So he gave me two heads and I thanked him very much and carted them home, but while my heart smiled at the thought of a gift my head fretted over the reality.  Those eyelashes really got to me.

Yesterday I asked our neighbor Jean-Claude about the gift of sardines that I mentioned a few days ago, and he said “you don’t buy fish from that guy, do you?”  He went on to say that even though the fish guy is his  pal he would never buy fish from him because its freshness is worse than suspect.  Although personally I’ve never had any issues with the fish, I’m thinking that I should trust Jean-Claude on this one.  The tales he told would curl every hair on your head, mine already being curly beyond further revision.  And worse, the six mackerel in the fridge, heads still on, are reproaching me from downstairs even now.  Will I overcome my doubts and use them wisely, or toss them, heads and all?

Jean-Claude also brought me a bag of quinces from his tree when I said I like to make quince paste every autumn.  Wow, what a nice favor, a huge pile of quinces grown just over the wall from here.  We did get into a small argument about the best way to make quince paste but hey, we can have these differences between neighbors and life can still be peachy, right?

You know how when you’re in a foreign country at first it all seems impossibly strange?  And then after a while you start to think “hey, they’re just like us.”  And then as time passes and you know more about how things really work you start to realize that a 7 year old kid not only speaks the language better than you do but is way more clued in to all the subtle nuances of everyday life than you’ll be for some years to come.  And following that realization you can either sit at the bar, head in hands, downing endless shots of the local tranquilizer, or you can start cooking.

In my case it was a bit of both, but the cooking is a better subject for public consumption.  The pintade was delicious when roasted like a chicken, which it very nearly is.  I served it with a gratin made according to the directions of the guy who sold me the main ingredient.  He was a very young man who spent 5 minutes explaining to me how best to cook my 1 Euro purchase of a small potimarron.  Although it’s usually translated as pumpkin, it’s really more what we’d call a winter squash, kind of like a kuri squash.  He had me peel and slice it thinly, set in a gratin dish with an equal amount of thin slices of potatoes, then cover it with cream beaten with a couple of eggs.  I added a good handful of shallots and a thick dusting of grated Comté, and it was luscious.  Normally Shel wouldn’t eat a pumpkin to save his life, but he loved this gratin.  Try it yourself, it’s a major treat for cool weather.

The quinces were more problematic.  Usually I bake them whole before peeling, but Jean-Claude had insisted they should be peeled and cut up first.  I soon saw why, as each one contained either a small animal like an ant or a centipede, or the remains of animal incursions.  After way too much cutting and peeling I produced a pot of chutney with quince, ginger, hot pepper, and shallots cooked in some cidre du Normandie as well as a vinegar made from that same cider and cassonade, the delicious raw golden sugar.

But what shall I say to Jean-Claude about the quince paste I promised to make, and why I’m probably going to make it from somebody else’s quinces, some anonymous fruit that I’ll have to pay for but will be critter-free?  What shall I say to the fish guy about why I’m suddently not buying his fish anymore?  What shall I say to the mackerel who gave their fishy lives only to face a possible fling in the trash?  Those gift horses are talking back inside my head.

At least I used both pintade carcasses to make this soup for lunch on the first cool day of the month.

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And I did use the necks, which meant that I had to decapitate them.  I know what you’re thinking so I’ll just come out and say it.  No, the eyelashes, the pale blue eyelids, the once and forever brainless heads, did not find their way into my soup.

  And just now Shel came in saying he’d brought me a gift.  Oh dear.

The Best Food In Paris

September 25, 2007

Yesterday morning we got up in the dark, awakened by mosquitoes before the alarm, breakfasted on day-before bakery treats, and headed out for our first trip to Paris.  On the 7:02 train out of Nîmes most everyone slept all the way, perhaps because the bar car was closed and there was no coffee to be had.   Famed for on-time travel, our TGV arrived in Paris some 12 minutes late, causing us a minor panic. 

We had to take three Metro trains and a bus to get to our appointment at a pretty famous medical center, which to protect its reputation shall go unnamed here.  Just email me if you want to blackmail them with the sordid details.  All of these transfers, plus the fact that it was raining as we walked to the bus, plus the fact that the medical center is surrounded by a construction project of vast proportions that very effectively camouflages the front door, caused us to arrive 15 minutes late.  We were stricken with remorse and apologized profusely.

Michael Moore, if you are reading this, please drop me a note!  We signed in and got a dossier.  Uhm, do I need to remind you that this all took place in French?  We took that to another window, handed it over, and waited in a packed waiting room.  Finally we sat with a nice woman, whose computer was down, as she tried to create the data base entry that would allow us to proceed.  She collected a blank, signed check from us.  Ulp.  Then she sent us to the lab for blood work, where we waited.  Once in the vampire seat they couldn’t draw any blood because now the computers were back up and our dossier wasn’t in there because, oops, I had missed this detail the first time around, all the computers in the entire medical center had been down for an hour.  Back to the nice lady who walked us over to the lab where she and the lab ladies proceeded to have a small yelling match.  Nice lady lost and we went back to her office where she had to re-enter all the information.  Back to the lab.  Ok, this time the blood draw and un petit pipi specimen went off fine.

Notice that I’m not mentioning food.  Or coffee.  By then it was about 1:15, our appointment having been for 11:00.  We took the dossier up to the clinic and waited.  At 1:45 we asked if we might go for lunch if the wait was going to be much longer.  A long series of exasperations ensued, including profuse apologies from the person who had forgotten to tell us that it would be ok to go to lunch, a small freak out fit on the part of the good doctor’s secretary when, about 3:00, I mentioned that we were still waiting and she thought we had already been seen and that the doctor had left for the day, and so on.  As we waited I mentally planned this post to be about hospital food.  I’d noticed coq au vin on the cafeteria menu as we walked past, and it was sounding better all the time.  But that was not to be, and we finally saw the doctor at 3:45, stomachs growling, lips parched.  They did have water dispensers everywhere, but sadly, no water was in them.

Then we rushed down to the pharmacy, then back to get our bill, then to another window to get the blank check filled in.  The good news is that it was only 110 Euros for a doctor visit, a ton of blood work, and a four hour wait.  By then we had less than one hour to get back in time to catch our train home, so we put ourselves in the hands of a champion taxi driver, who laughed as I yelped “Je ferme les yeux!”  And in fact I did close my eyes and kept them closed most of the way, except for opening them occasionally to make sure we were still alive, and to see if there was any food in sight.

Heroically, he got us to the station with 25 minutes to spare, allowing us to stop at a kiosk in the station and collect as much food and drink as we could decently cart on board.  And thus it is that I can report that the best food in Paris yesterday, in fact the only food in Paris, was a tuna baguette, a coconut flan, and a bottle of San Pellegrino, all for 8, 10 Euros and devoured aboard the high speed train exactly 12 hours after breakfast.

So, all of you who were imagining us at Hermé yesterday nibbling daintily at perfect pastries, read this and sigh.  Although really, a train station coconut flan is not to be underestimated, given the right circumstances.  Oh, and sorry for teasing you with that bottle of wine.  That was all in my imagination.

Il n’y a pas de poison dans les poissons

September 23, 2007

There’s no poison in fish.  That  sounds so simple in English, but I remember the phrase as the first big error I made on a French test, ever so many years ago.  Never mind how many years ago.

And even today, I’m finding the whole business of French fish baffling.  These fresh sardines were pressed upon me, practically forced upon me, and for free.  The fish guy, Monsieur le poissonnier, is either taking me under his wing or trying to get me to quit shopping at his stand forever.  In his southern-accented French that I can barely follow, he insists that I need twice as much fish as I think I need.  Every time.  And the stuff is expensive too, about $14-18 a pound, just like it would be at home.  But this time, close to the end of the market, he gave me a big discount, 7 Euros per kilo of discount on loup de mer, which is about $5 a pound in discount on a really delicious fish.   And then in addition he piled this mass of sardines into a bag and made me adopt them.  What can it all mean?

For me it meant learning to clean sardines.  For me it meant thinking of Fish Head Pie, aka Stargazy Pie, where the fish heads are all pointed up toward the heavens.  My fish heads were less inspired, landing willy-nilly in Beppo’s dish.

 

Let me report that while Beppo enjoys raw sardine fillets, he utterly disdains fish heads.  Perhaps he would have enjoyed them in a pie, but in their natural state of decapitation, non, merci.

And then I had to do something with the sardines.  And that something turned out to be this delicious recipe for Sardines Napolitano which I chose because I had a bunch of fresh mint in the fridge. 

Here’s my translation.  Crispy fried sardine pieces marinated in a wine and vinegar reduction with lots of fresh mint, on a salad with mint, tomatoes, and a few bits of hot pepper for good measure.  Ok, that was definitely worth all the mess and soucis with the fish cleaning.  I might even pay for them next time.

You can read more about my fish head fascination right here.

Just An Ordinary Life

September 22, 2007

Sometimes all we do is eat, in this case petits farçis. which is vegetables that I stuffed with a ready-made pork stuffing that I bought at the truly excellent butcher shop here,

drink coffee in cafés with French guys who smoke and dogs who are remarkably well-behaved,

visit Roman ruins like regular tourists,

and nap in the heat of the afternoon.

And sometimes we do more.  But not today.

Faites l’Amour, Pas la Cuisine!

September 20, 2007

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Tonight as I was trying to follow the rapid-fire news on TV, a commercial shocked me by exhorting us to make love rather than cook.  Ok, it’s France, so of course making love is a national topic of interest, but telling us not to cook?  Sacre bleu!

I’m quite sure that the folks at La Bastide de Mamette weren’t watching TV.  When we had lunch there today, the only guests in their tiny 12 seat restaurant, they were cooking and taking care of us like it was the only thing in the world they wanted to do.  I’ll show you what they did for us, strangers who showed up without reservations.  We didn’t pick or choose but ate what they had to offer.  A multi-course meal with wine is 30 Euros a person, and this is what we got.

A house-made apéritif, a mix of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay infused with figs and orange blossoms, came with some special olives from Cannes marinated with basil and thyme.  Then a bottle of a slightly chilled and refreshingly balanced red wine called Feuille de Garance, made nearby from hand harvested grapes, 

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and this tantalizing

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crisp puff pastry with a warm pelardon, a locally made goat cheese drizzled with honey and thyme and scattered with fresh grapes.  Roasted grapes with warm cheese, please try that at home.  Next,

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rosy slices of duck breast cooked on lavender, served with a cream of lavender flowers and a liqueur of violets, plus lightly cinnamoned beignets of zucchini and some gorgeous thyme-sautéed mushrooms.  There was cheese afterwards, Banon wrapped in chestnut leaves, a perfect slice of Roquefort (which in France tastes unbelievably better than it does after crossing the ocean) and a gentle sheep cheese.  And last

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a caramelized creamy banana pudding and a very good espresso.  Now aren’t you glad they were cooking instead of making love?  We certainly were!  We were seen out by their reception cat

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and after a sweet walk around the beautiful little town of Euzet les Bains, we headed home.  We were there in under 20 minutes, which means that it will only take 20 minutes to go back.  Every time we go back.  You see where this is headed?  They’ll never have time to make love at all if their other clients appreciate them as much as we do.