Archive for October 2007

Having Your Cake

October 25, 2007


Last night we had some Dutch friends over for dinner, along with our American friends.  Trying to make a French dinner for this international gathering, I’d planned cassoulet, with a foie gras starter, a rich winter dinner for one of the first cool evenings so far.  As luck would have it, as many menu malfunctions ensued as if we’d had Janet Jackson in the kitchen!

We started out by by not having time to really devote ourselves to making the cassoulet, a dish which demands time and tenderness in order to rise above the gloppy and stodgy possibilities that surround it.  Realizing this, I switched the plan for the main course to a dish that sounded really good:  oxtails braised with chestnuts and Toulouse sausage.  When the butcher wasn’t sure he’d be able to get an oxtail, I failed to make another menu plan, having blind faith in his powers.  Alas, the oxtail was not to be.  Hurriedly, on the morning of the party,  we changed plans again, this time going for stuffed rabbit papillotes with Picholine olives.


Then, when I opened the mi-cuit foie gras, it tasted off, sourish, truly icky.  No effort to improve it had any effect at all, so 20 Euros worth of foie gras went into the trash and a new starter course sprang to life.  If you’ve ever thrown out a lobe of foie gras, you know how I felt about it.  And if you haven’t, take my advice and try to avoid the experience. 

An amuse of celery root and apple purée topped with onion marmalade, followed by super-garlicky aillade on chestnut bread toasts with a little salad on the side was my solution, and not too coincidentally was what I could whip up with what was in the fridge.


And then there was a series of cheeses served with quince paste and quince chutney that I’d made from my neighbor’s quinces, followed by the glorious cake that lured you into reading this post in the first place.  And with it all, a really surprising, entirely white, wine flight.  

Before the dinner I went into a local wine shop and described my menu in minute detail, and the wine merchant chose the wines for me.  And he was amazingly right on, especially given the fact that the wine he chose for the foie went wonderfully with aillade.  I’m not sure whether to tell him that I totally changed the menu, but I’ll certainly tell him that his wine choices were super, just as I’ll tell the butcher’s wife that her rabbit recipe, given to me in a hurry and without benefit of pen or paper, turned out to be really fabulous.

That’s a thing I love about France, the generosity of those who care about food when it comes to sharing their knowledge.  The dinner was excellent, and I owe a lot of people for that, including the flower guy down the street who agreed to make me an arrangement that was largely edible, albeit not terribly fashionable.

And now we’re off in the morning for the Basque country, and the piment d’Espelette festival.  I’m so excited!

Keep The Home Fires Burning

October 23, 2007


Fall is here, and the chauffagiste hasn’t yet come to return our monster boiler to its heating function.  Thus this beautiful fire, the first of the season.  Several people have asked me to post pictures of the inside of the house, so here’s a little peep-show. 

On the mantel we have


this interesting set that we bought at a bric-a-brac, which is a French national pastime, for 5 Euros.  We haven’t used it yet, but if you guess what it’s for you can drop over for a drink any time.

In the kitchen you’ll find


this rose du Tarn garlic.  I know you know what that’s for, so I’ll just tell you that it’s fresh and hot and we’ve been eating a lot of it.

And here’s the spirit of the house.


When we first arrived I thought I’d take him down, since he’s hanging in the dining room and seemed a bit much to look at during every meal.  But he’s growing on me, along with other eccentricities of French life, and now I think of him as a reminder that no matter how we change and rearrange things, it’s a true French household of the south and we’re only its guests.

A Toast to the Romans

October 20, 2007


I’ve asked so many people here if they were Italian that it’s almost embarrassing.  The southern French accent of the Midi sounds Italianate to me, the dark looks and bravado of the people seem Italian, there’s pizza and pasta everywhere, and I finally know why.  It’s not a news flash, but the Romans were here first.

We have friends visiting from California, and they’re are on the path of antiquities.  Together we’ve walked a small part of the remains of the Roman aqueduct that has its most eloquent expression at the Pont du Gard, which is practically in our back yard.  Roman feet stepped here, Roman hands made this, and they made it to last forever.  And it has, despite the fact that it hasn’t carried water since its near-demise in the 6th century.  Now restored and treasured, it stands as a reminder that doing things right the first time has its own rewards, but continued success often lies in the hands of those that follow after.

 Tonight we’re going to a wine pairing dinner and I’m planning to lift a glass to those who believed in the future and left us proof of their conviction.  Their water ran through lead pipes, their wine was poured into lead glasses, and thus they are no longer with us.  And another glass, or several glasses since it’s a multi-course dinner, to those who found themselves between then and now, and spent their short lives bridging the gap of the centuries.

We’ve gotten the lead out of our lives, and we’re making wine on the same rocky soil the Romans planted, but I wonder what we are creating that will last 2000 years.  Will anyone stand on a bright day by clean flowing water and offer a toast to our lives and times?  Will the future thank us as we thank our past? 

Champion de Saucisson

October 17, 2007


Yes, it’s a sausage.  The most unusual sausage I’ve ever tasted. I’m guessing that you’ve never eaten anything like it.

Gilbert Soulier in St. Jean de Maruejols is a master butcher and sausage maker, so naturally I dubbed him the champion de saucisson, champion of sausage makers.  He’s won medals for many of his sausages and patés, including his paté aux châtaignes, saucisson pur porc, jambon sec, saucisson sec d’agneau, coppa, porc aux noisettes, and toro de combat.  

Toro de combat? Right, that’s a fighting bull.    And the sausage pictured above is in fact a sausage made shortly after one particular bull lost his last fight.  More about that later, but let me just reassure you by saying that no, the sausage you see above is not any particular part of the bull.  Just in case you were worrying.

The patés we bought from Monsieur Soulier, one made with chestnuts, one with cèpes or porcini mushrooms, were perfectly balanced and dreamy to eat.  They’re sturdy enough to be satisfying on first bite, then they melt gently as they warm in your mouth.  The chestnut sausage and honey sausage were supple and tasted of the sweetest, freshest pork you can imagine.


A close look at this pile of sausages reveals sausages made with goat cheese, some made with hazelnuts, and then there were the heaps of off-camera sausages, as well as pots of confits and preserved meats, patés, and rillettes.  You can see why we’re already planning a trip back, this time to lay in supplies for a cassoulet.  In the States I’d be making the confits and sausages for a cassoulet myself, but here there’s no temptation to do it the hard way as it’s much more pleasant to pay a visit to Monsieur Soulier.

Now, about that toro de combat sausage.  We took it as a hostess gift to our neighbor, who promptly sliced it and offered it to us.  Ulp.  There was no way to avoid trying it  without looking like a total weenie.  A cautious sniff yielded an aroma of leather, something deeply pungent and organic.  One might almost think of saddles, boots, and men sweating as they ran from the bull, if one were given to such flights of fancy.  The meat was very red, way too red, in fact.  The muscle fibers were clearly apparent, fighting muscles that they were. 

Eventually I did eat a slice, with a reluctant fascination.  You probably think I’m going to say “tasted like beef” but no, it didn’t.  It tasted like raw power, and men’s ambitions, and fear.  It wasn’t exactly like food, more like medicine or an incantation.  One slice was enough to last a lifetime.


The sign says: don’t leave town without tasting our products.  And indeed, I’ll never drive that road again without stopping for a taste of something exceptional.  It’s just that saucisson de toro de combat, well, no thank you.  Some things just aren’t meant to be eaten.

A Cat May Look at a Castle

October 15, 2007


Today I took Beppo to the vet for the second of his French vaccinations, which include typhus, an unknown cat disease where Beppo comes from.  I mentioned to her that Beppo eats all the time here, stuffing himself with duck and rabbit, petit pois and carrots and green beans, trout and salmon.  He’s gained about a kilo since we’ve been here, going from a picky eater cat to a real gourmand.  For some reason, she wasn’t at all worried.  A cat that eats well is a French cat at heart.  If he loves his lapin, his canard, well, he’s just comme il faut.  Did she suggest he go on a diet?  Did she even weigh him?  Mais non!


Would anyone dream of suggesting that this cat get out of the middle of the street, quit blocking the view of the castle that humans might like to have?  You guessed it.  The French love animals with an impressive devotion that fits right into our lifestyle.  Today Shel had a salad made of leftover roast chicken, and Beppo had the skin.  When I marinated rouget, Beppo had a few chunks of his own.  At home he had absolutely no interest in human food, nor would I have thought to give him any.  But here, where dogs attend luncheons in Michelin starred restaurants, pets reign supreme.  This attitude is rubbing off on Beppo, even if he did bring in a whopping big rat the other morning.  Perhaps rats are some sort of delicacy to a cat, but he didn’t take a bite.  He was waiting for rabbit with liver and green beans.  I kid you not.

Allez, Allez, Allez les Bleus!

October 14, 2007


It may not have come to your attention, but France played England in the Rugby World Cup semi-finals last night.  If there was anything else happening in France at the time, it probably isn’t worth mentioning; 84% of the people in France were watching the match, and so were we.  France’s blue team went down to a hard loss, in the sense of hard that means you fly through the air and land flat on your face, only to find that six huge burly guys are immediately piled on top of you, and there are almost as many medics as players on the field.

We had decided to go watch the match in a bar downtown, where we’d heard they would be showing it even though they don’t normally have a TV.  This is the kind of bar cafe where a few people are usually sitting outside at tables at 10:00 in the morning with a beer, contemplating the day.  We figured that this would be the most French place we could be, under the circumstances, and were expecting a rather crusty crowd.

We arrived early to be sure we had a table.  Very early, in fact, owing to some confusion about 24 hour time.  The bar wasn’t serving any food, but we were spared a trip to the Rapido Pizz by the bakery across the street, which was just closing but where we were able to scrounge the last piece of the day’s pizza and a kebab tartine, a sort of melty open-faced sandwich of meat and cheese.  Back in the bar we captured a table in front of the large sheet of butcher paper on the wall, destined to be an impromptu screen.  I had a pichet of red wine to last me through the evening, on tap and served very cool, which is probably just as well. 

A real screen having somehow been found and hung, the bar filled to capacity.  There were quite a few little kids, a dog in a blue France tee shirt as well as other dogs dressed au naturel, a table of about 20 high school kids, some couples, a few smiling old guys, and a small contingent of rough-looking young guys.  A couple of the latter bunch were apparently drunk and obnoxious, but the bartenders looked unhappy to have them, and sometime during the evening they disappeared, after a few pummeling sounds from the back of the room that we never positively identified.  That’s just who was inside, not to mention the crowd of people that packed the outside tables for a glimpse of the game.  As far as I could tell there were no other foreigners.  We did get quizzed a couple of times to be sure we weren’t English and rooting for the wrong team, but this was an evening when Americans were a welcome curiosity, and we did our best to act the part.

Here’s what I saw: a couple of teenagers standing to sing La Marseillaise and not camping it up, latecomers being exceptionally polite about not sitting in front of anyone whose view of the screen might be blocked, very little drinking (although a few of the teenagers did have beer, which surprised me) and much less smoking that I expected.  Here’s what I heard: the crowd clapped when the English team sang God Save the Queen, clapped for those who’d played well as they left the field to be replaced, and didn’t boo or hiss when the Brits scored points.   The Blues were ahead for a good while, and the excitement in the room was palpable.  When France lost, everybody got up quietly and went home. 

I’d wanted to see a win, to feel the collective joy and pride I’m sure would have filled the little room and spilled onto the street.  But in the face of defeat, I was amazed at how well people took it.  Whether it was due to resignation, since this is exactly what happend in the 2003 semi-finals, or just to inherent good manners, we heard no ranting, cursing, bottle smashing, or anything of that ilk.  I did hear the guy next to me mutter merde, but that was my husband.

For us it was a privileged glimpse into the inner life of our town, one we normally wouldn’t get as newly-arrived outsiders.  The town acquitted itself well, I must say, kids, dogs, and all.  And some day we really will go to the Rapido Pizz, just so we can say we did.

Someone To Watch Over Me

October 12, 2007


France is a stern mistress.  She shakes me out and folds me up again, her own way.  Sheets must be ironed here, in a country where a handshake means goodbye.  One day I can speak clearly and with passion, the next day I ask a woman about a kitten and she thinks I want to buy a chateau.   

My American manners force me to beg for lessons in politeness all day long, from the pool guy, the house cleaner, the grocery clerk, the bakery girl.  And if forget to ask, I get the lessons anyway.  Grammar corrections are freely available too, from the flight attendant, the barista, the bookseller.  I welcome all this strangeness, but I could use a guardian spirit to whisper in my ear at opportune moments.

Today in Barjac, where this lady watches over the town, my fruit salad mocked me


in startling contrast to the beautiful gravity of the cheeses in the market.


On the road home, a former Gendarmerie was for sale, huge, imposing, and crumbling.  There might be a dungeon in the basement, but someone will probably buy it and turn it into a B&B.


As we were leaving Barjac we came across a group of women, standing outside around a wok full of oil.  They were frying up pastries for the senior center.  When I said they smelled good one lady shooed us away, saying “you’re too young!”  “That won’t last long” I replied. 

Laughing and wagging her finger,  she admonished me to profit from my time while I have it.   And so I should.  I’ll take her for my spirit guide for a time, a stranger who paused in her day to give me a lesson I keep needing to learn and learn again.  Make your time worthwhile, profit from what life brings you, find the lessons where you can.  What you think is Mickey Mouse might just be fruit salad.  And a chateau might turn out to be a kitten.  It’s a complex country.

Find Some Fish To Fry

October 11, 2007


I’m having a last fling with summer.  It’s inching into autumn here, squash, chestnuts, pork, duck, and all of those richer delights will soon be on our table.  But it’s still warm, sunny, picnic weather,  and although the tomatoes are starting to look pretty sad, I’m not ready to give up on cool foods eaten barefoot outdoors in the shade of the awning.

Here’s something delicious to do with fish.  Get some nice small ones; boneless is better.  For this picnic it was filets of rouget, a delicious and very red little fish translated as red mullet, but I’ve also recently done this with fresh sardines.  Toss the fish in flour, salt, and pepper, and fry them until they’re crisp and golden.  Make a marinade of half wine, half vinegar, and reduce this by half.  For the rouget I used a rosé, so as to make them even redder, but a white wine is probably more normal.  For one pound of fish you’ll need about a cup of wine and a cup of vinegar.  When the marinade is reduced, add the fresh herbs of your choice, pour the hot liquid over the crispy fish, and let it all cool.  Try not to eat it all up right away, because this is best after a day or two of rest in the fridge. 

For spicing up the rouget I used lots of fresh ginger slices, when I made this with sardines I used a big bunch of fresh mint.  Use whatever sounds good and it will be.  Then, assemble your picnic, and serve it with plenty of the same wine you used in the marinade.  Bon appétit.

Cheap and Nasty

October 10, 2007


Just for fun, and of course for the sake of science, I decided to test the proposition that decent wine can be had in France for practically no money at all.  Now, to be fair, I’ll admit that I’ve been drinking lots of very nice wine for 5 Euros or less, which is under $7 US.  That’s already very good, but I felt like testing the limits.

So here we have two bottles of wine that I purchased for less than 1 Euro per bottle, which translates to about $1.25  a bottle.  Really, you’d think just the glass and the cork would cost more than that, not to mention picking the fruit and doing something to it to get it into the bottle.  As you may have noted, I’m not claiming that any actual grapes were involved in the process, or that any actual vinification occurred, only that something red went into those bottles, traveled to the market, and sat on the shelf.  And you know what that means.  Someone is actually buying this wine, or else the store wouldn’t be stocking it, right?

I showed these to our neighbor who wrinkled his nose and said “this is going to be the worst wine in the whole world.”  Let me say that with this pronouncement he demonstrated a grave paucity of imagination. 


If you ever have an incipient ant infestation on your terrace and want to get rid of the critters tout de suite, I recommend using an 89 centimes bottle of wine.  

Or, if it’s been a long time since you had the pleasure of spewing out the entire contents of your mouth all over the undeserving grass, and you want to give it a go, look for these.  Swallowing’s overrated, anyway.

Comment Ça Marche?

October 8, 2007


Knowing how things work is the secret to a happy life.  I can say this categorically, having tested the proposition numerous times over the past couple of days.  Try these examples on for size, and perhaps you’ll find a number of them to be too tight, as we did.

Our friends said they were 4-5 hours from us, and sent us the directions.  After 7 hours on the road we arrived near midnight, having missed several important turns, not to mention dinner.  How did that work?  Pretty well, because they have excellent manners, fed us a delicious cold supper, and didn’t chastise us for keeping them up half the night.  But why did it work like that?  Because they drive 120 kph, the actual speed limit, while we are much more timid on narrow back roads in the pitch dark. 

We did try to call them to say we were en retard, not to mention feeling retarded about having lost our way, but unbeknownst to them their brand new phone service gave us the hands-down world’s rudest message.  A charmingly bright automated voice said “votre correspondant ne désire pas recevoir votre message, au revoir” and hung up.  Comment ça marche?  My correspondant doesn’t wish to receive my message?  Just my message wasn’t desired, my desperate middle of the night lost on the road message, or any message at all?  There was no way to find out, because the damned thing hung up without even ringing the house.  That worked badly, needless to say.

After a lovely visit we stopped for lunch on the way home in the scenic and touristical town of Millau, about 1:00.  We went to a restaurant described in guidebooks as “an institution.”  We weren’t well dressed, being on the road, but the hostess agreed to seat us.  The bustling restaurant turned pin-droppingly silent as we walked to our table.  Wow, that’s some feeling.  After a 15 minute wait we realized that people were being served very slowly, made our apologies to the hostess, and left to find a quicker meal.  I imagine the place was abuzz over that turn of events, but we weren’t there to hear it so we didn’t really care.  We arrived at the little kebab joint nearby, only to find that because it was after 1:30 we couldn’t be served.  How all that works is that you need to be dressed nicely on a Saturday afternoon, and be in your seat before 1:30.  I think we knew that once, but somehow thought we’d be able to manage.  A little meal of indifferent bakery goods on the park bench was the result of having to re-learn that lesson.

Then we were once again in danger of being late and needed to make a call from a phone booth, but didn’t have the number with us.  We stopped two passers-by to ask how to call for information.  The first, a teenager, said he had no clue and finally convinced me that this was true in more ways than one.  The second, an older lady, said that we could get a number at the Post Office if it were open, but since it wasn’t, there would be no way to get a phone number one didn’t know.  WTF?  Comment ça marche?  The whole United States would grind to a halt without 411, wouldn’t it?

Not to rant relentlessly, but you know what I mean?  It’s the flip side of having a bakery right next door for a warm morning croissant.  At home we know how to get things done, control the flow of events more or less to our satisfaction.  Here sometimes it seems that we might as well put bags over our heads and run naked through the streets as if we had been badly brought up.  Which, by French standards and with regard to comment ça marche, I suppose we were.

But to end on a sweeter note, how about this beautiful plum tart our friend baked for us?


Now there’s something we understood, and we definitely knew what to do with it.  As I said, knowing how things work is the secret to a happy life!