Archive for December 2007

French Toast

December 31, 2007

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I love looking back, now that the winter solstice is behind us and the days are getting longer again.  This amazing year is nearly done, and I can see the new one stretching ahead, vivid and bright with anticipation. 

So with that in mind, I propose a toast to

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the beauty of our earth

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and all those who work to preserve it.

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To those who brighten our lives in unexpected ways and places.

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Another glass for those who spend their days offering hospitality,

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and loving service,

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creating edible art,

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harvesting the fruit of the vine,

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and to those who keep life bubbling along with wit and vision. 

A toast from my whole heart to a guy who’s willing to go grocery shopping with me anytime, anywhere,

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even when that’s during a snowstorm in the south of France.

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And one more to our dreams for the new year.  You know what they are.

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I plan to walk right in, sit right down, and have a glass with you.  Thank you for sharing this precious year with me.

La Boqueria de Barcelona

December 27, 2007

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We’d heard in advance that you can get anything you want at La Boqueria, and we learned on the spot that you can also get a few things you might not want. 

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We went in the late morning of Christmas Eve day, in time to see all of Barcelona arrive to stock up for their Christmas dinners, as well as for the Catalan holiday of Sant Esteve on the 26th.  It was a madhouse to rival any madhouse I’ve ever seen.  It was also a treasure trove of beautiful food, although it’s a good thing we really weren’t prepared to buy anything, since approaching most of the stalls was out of the question.

The fish vendors were the most swamped, and it’s only courtesy of a zoom lense that you can get any idea of how busy it was.

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The fish were flying out of the stalls, along with mountains of briny-smelling shellfish

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and heaps of dried cod.

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You don’t find a lot of chile in Spanish food, which is perhaps why the chile seller is in hiding here, but for a true chile afficionado these were glorious.  There were whole rows of stalls piled with fruits and vegetables, including plenty of these calçotadas, which can be charred on the grill and dipped in romesco sauce for an excellent appetizer.

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There was candy,

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pizza made to order,

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foods for Francophiles with a sense of humor,

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and even a stand ready to fulfill the, um, needs of vegetarians.

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And for the shopped-out, or those fortifying themselves for another foray into the stalls, there was beer flowing freely and seafood grilling a la plancha. This is supposed to be one of the nicest places in the market for a fresh bite of something and a canya, or beer on tap, but we couldn’t get close enough to verify this tip for ourselves.

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I can’t wait to go back on a calmer day to check out my first impression, which is that it would be worth moving to Barcelona just to be able to shop here every day.  Moving to Barcelona probably wouldn’t make me feel any better about lambs’ heads than I do now, but you never know.

Bon Nadal!

December 25, 2007

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Another bright and sunny day in Barcelona, a city so wonderful that we talk of learning Catalan and moving here.  It looks like the bus strike is over until the new year, the street sweepers have already been out on this Christmas morning, and we’re about to spend the day walking on the architecture trail.  Virtually everything is supposed to be closed, but we’ll see about that.

Meanwhile, here are a few scenes of how Barcelona prepares for Christmas.

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The Christmas market did a huge business in creche fixings.  Some of the stuff is so beautiful it almost made me want to have a creche.

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Being an almost-tropical Christmas zone, the flowers on the street made it clear that we’re not in Kansas anymore.

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Here’s another sure sign that the winds have blown us to another kingdom.

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Disturbing, eh?  But it’s a splendid town, warm and friendly, casual, joyful, and we’re feeling the same.  And so we’re off into the day in search of coffee, adventure, and beauty.  Have a beautiful day yourself, whether the sun is shining or not, and whatever Santa is wearing wherever you are.

Noël, Noël, Noël, Sing We Noël!

December 21, 2007

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No, we’re not going to the Notre Dame for Christmas, although it’s looking gorgeous here, all decked out in baubles and bows.  We’ve been wondering what a real French Christmas would feel like, and I imagine that the Notre Dame midnight mass is the most French you can get, when it comes to Christmas.  But we won’t be there, and this won’t be the year that Père Nöel will leave us a truffle in the toe of our sock.

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Nor will we be at home, even though a chocolate A from Amsterdam invites me to stay in my slippers puttering in the kitchen, nibbling in alphabetic ecstasy as I cook a Christmas feast.  Today at the butcher shop there were the most amazing things for Christmas, terrines of pheasant and goose , rabbit paté en croute, galantines of guinea hen and duck, tartlets of foie gras as well as whole fresh foie gras selling for 75 Euros a kilo, and even more.  I should have taken notes, but all I did was buy a fat moulard duck breast and a small slice of pheasant terrine for dinner tonight, because we won’t be here for the holiday.

Instead we’ll be trying to say Bon Nadal y Feli Ani Nou!  Any guesses?  Right, Barcelona, where Catalan is the language, cava is the drink, and a lot of the really hot restaurants are closed for Christmas.  However, I have no doubt that we’ll have a splendid time.  We’ll be taking a small, slow train down the coast from Montpellier, and the scenery is said to be lovely.  Ok, it is supposed to be raining the whole weekend, but forecasts are often wrong.  We’ll be there for the final day of the Barcelona Christmas market on Sunday, and I can’t wait to see how it differs from a French market.  If I can post from there, I will, but if not, we’ll be back in a few days, leaving plenty of time to get ready for a real French Réveillon de Saint Sylvestre celebration to ring in the nouvel an.

So au revoir, bonnes fêtes, Joyeux Noël, Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and see you soon.  May this year bring you the best holiday ever, and please, since eggnog is an unheard of treat here, have an extra cup for me.

She Walks In Beauty

December 19, 2007

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There’s no food today, just beauty.  I hope you won’t mind.  A simple walk through town is so engrossing right now that it totally trumps food, for me.    I’ve been saying that I should just walk around with my camera for an hour, and today was bright, clear, and not too freezing, so I did.  Come on, let’s go for a stroll.

Walking down our street into town puts us instantly in the right mood.

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Most of the shops are decorated in the homiest and least commercial way I’ve ever seen,

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and you never know who you’ll see in the street.

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The florist’s shops are my favorite.

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There, doesn’t that put you in the right spirit for the holidays ahead?

A French Christmas Market

December 16, 2007

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The very first thing I bought at my first French Christmas market was this mistletoe, called gui in French.  It’s the freshest I’ve ever seen, with plump glistening berries that make you want to pucker right up.  I carried it through the market over my head, in case it got crushed, and wondered whether I’d get any extra kisses.  But no, all I got was smiles, which was, in fact and counter to one’s romantic fantasies,  probably better than being kissed by the average French stranger.

Being France, there was a lot of foie gras for sale

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and even escargots.

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For entertainment there were costumed dancers twirling sedately,

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a potter demonstrating a wheel that he turned with a stick,

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pony rides for the kids,

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and a strolling minstrel Santa band.

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On the way home we stopped by the temporary ice rink that just opened for Christmas.

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Heaps of kids were piled on the ice with a mad dash of other kids trying not to fall on top of them.  Or maybe they were actually trying to pile on, as if it were rugby on ice.  A French kid normally won’t meet a stranger’s eye on the street, but each and every kid, at they slammed into the end of the rink where we were standing, flashed a triumphantly pink-cheeked grin, as if to say “Hey, I’m out in the freezing cold having the best possible time, and when I finally fall on my last heap of the day, I’ll probably be having escargots for supper.  Don’t you wish you were me?”

Let It Snow

December 14, 2007

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Although the year is wrapping up, it has come to my attention that the presents are not.  In fact, it’s still hard to imagine that Christmas is almost upon us.  With the clear, sunny days we’ve been having I’ve been puttering along in a little dream of autumn, scarcely realizing that it’s time to change gears.

So when yesterday I heard that it might snow, I took it as a sign to get into a holiday frame of mind.  They’ve since changed the forecast to more sunny skies, but I’m trying to stay Christmasey at heart.  The fact that this year it will be just the two of us makes it mysterious, since we’ve never spent the holidays away from family and friends.   Shall I decorate the house a bit?  Bake a buche de Nöel?  Tie a red ribbon around Beppo?

So far I haven’t been homesick, caught up as I am in all that’s new here.  But Christmas is nostalgic by nature and I wonder whether it will get to me.   I need to find out what French people are cooking in this season, in addition to foie gras, and get into the kitchen.  When I tire of cooking I’ll put on my mittens, go out and buy a few gifts, and come home to drink a vin chaud by the fire.  Want to have a glass with me?

 Vin Chaud

  • 1 bottle red wine, a syrah or beaujolais
  • 1/2 cup cassis
  • 1/2 cup raw sugar, or a bit more to taste
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 star anise
  • 3 cloves
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground ginger
  • seeds of 1 pod of cardamom
  • peel of 1/2 lemon, yellow part only
  • peel of 1/2 orange, orange part only

Combine all ingredients in a stainless steel saucepan and warm gently to a bare simmer.  Remove from heat and allow to steep at room temperature for 2-3 hours.  Strain and reheat to just below a boil.  Serve hot.

You can vary the spices to taste.  You can also squeeze the juice of the orange into the wine for a fruitier drink, or substitute cognac or rum for the cassis.

Eau de Vie

December 10, 2007

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People ask what I miss from home, and more and more the answer is: water.  Living here in a dry land where grapes and olives thrive, the absence of water is everywhere.  I feel it keenly, and in the most basic ways.  There just isn’t enough moisturizer in town to replenish the bodily fluids I’ve lost since we came here.  Today I went down to this water, the river Gardon, catching it just after it had flowed through the Pont du Gard.  It looked like a long-lost friend.  The water of life.

Here in France you need to be prepared to bag your own groceries, and we have one large shopping bag that has “l’eau a besoin de l’homme pour vivre” printed on it.  “Water needs man to live.”  Think about it.  People talk about climate change all the time here, and it’s in the newspaper almost daily.  Thirst is a hot topic in this agricultural region, where a pitcher of water appears on your table almost as soon as you are seated in a restaurant.  And if it doesn’t, there’s no need to ever buy expensive bottled water here in the hot, dry south.  A simple “une carafe d’eau, s’il vous plait” will always be met with understanding.

But to see water running, crashing, or pooling placidly, that’s harder to find.  I haven’t seen the ocean since we’ve been here, and I can feel the car keys burning a hole in my pocket.  It’s a fire that no carafe d’eau can assuage.  A visit to the seashore is in our future.

But for today, it’ll be a visit to the enormous supermarket, and then into the kitchen with our friend from Amsterdam.  She and I are blogging about our time cooking together here today.  Pour yourself a glass of something and join us.

Privacy, Please

December 7, 2007

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Hello?  Bonjour!  Are you landing right on our house for some special reason?  Has Père Nöel taken up balloon travel and the early delivery of holiday gifts?

Normally the French are very privacy conscious and even avert their eyes from the goings-on in a neighbor’s yard, but in this case I thought we might be about to have some unexpected guests.  In the event, they waved cheerfully, as if there’d never been any danger of my needing to run for the fire extinguisher, and lumbered along their low, slow path.

Being a foreigner, I’m obsessed with opportunities to look into real French life.  Usually I show you the windows that reveal glimpses of a French day.  But today I’m thinking about how every window is set in a wall.  Every glimpse in reveals my vantage point as an outsider.

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Whether guarded by lions

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or fiercely clinging roots,

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tantalizing me with flowers, or

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showing me who’s who when it comes to standing the test of time, these walls remind me of who I am.  An upstart New Worlder with little history of her own.  A person from a culture where letting it all hang out is viewed as a good thing.  A visitor from a world where most of the walls are invisible.

Les Bébés Français Mangent-Ils Bien?

December 4, 2007

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Since we already know that French cats eat well, I thought I’d see how French babies eat, just for comparison.  A quick and fascinating stroll through the supermarket ensued.  And here we have baby Couscous, baby Paella, baby Chicken and Vegetables à la Basquaise, baby Pasta with Ratatouille and Veal, and baby Brioche-Flavored Cereal with Milk.  Almost makes you want to be a French baby, doesn’t it?

Of course, it’s not a fair comparison, since I’ve never actually tasted Beppo’s duck with green olive cat food, nor his rabbit with baby carrots.  And no, I’m not going to, just in case you were wondering.  But I did taste all this baby stuff, out of curiosity and a blind faith in French cuisine.  Here’s a word for you to add to your French vocabulary: beurk!  That’s French for yuck.

Maybe it’s all about the expectations.  I don’t have any American baby food to compare it to, and if I did it would probably be double beurk, but this stuff really let me down.  The “couscous” was pleasant, in a Campbell’s tomato soup kind of way, not at all spicy or North African tasting, but edible.  But the “paella,” even though the nose had the barest whiff of saffron and seafood, had a fairly nasty aftertaste and a gluey texture.  The “ratatouille” had no nose at all, although you could actually taste the vegetables, and it was rather starchy and pasty on the palate.  The chicken “Basquaise” had a beefy nose, although it was nominally chicken, and while it didn’t remotely taste Basque, it wasn’t terrible except for a lingering graininess.  The brioche-flavored cereal, now that wasn’t awful.  Sweet and yeasty, I could imagine that even a French cat would happily lap it up.

I didn’t pay any attention to the nutritional content, and I’m fairly sure that this stuff is at least reasonably good for babies, but it’s hard to see how a person who starts out eating it is ever going to turn into a discerning eater.  And in my limited experience, French kids are discerning eaters.

Ok, yes I do see teens on the street after school with giant bags of potato chips, probably flavored with roasted chicken and thyme, but still chips.  By the way, those are possibly the most delicious chips on the planet.  They taste like actual food.  But they’re still chips.

Lingering on a street corner not too long ago I overheard a mother talking with her daughter, who looked about ten or eleven.  As they walked past me the mother was saying that they’d be having pasta for dinner and the daughter was asking how the pasta would be prepared.  She looked approving when the answer was “in a tomato sauce,” and I’m sure I looked as astonished as I felt just to hear a young kid thoughtfully inquire about the preparation of the evening meal.

Much more astonishing was the answer of a nine year old whom  I asked “qu’est-ce qu’on fait pour le Nöel?” Partly it’s the fault of the French language.  What I meant was “what do you do for Christmas?”  But the same question also means “what do you make for Christmas” and so, instead of telling me that you put up a tree, put the presents underneath, and so on, she told me “we make foie gras with a jelly glaze, and maybe a duck with truffles” and went on to rapturously describe  a whole list of gourmet foods.  I was so astounded by what I was hearing that I actually forgot to remember the details of the menu.  At the very end she said shyly “and sometimes I get presents.”

It’s highly unlikely that she was ever fed paella purée from a jar.