Archive for February 2008

Signs of Spring

February 25, 2008

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It’s hard to get used to having spring in February.    It’s too warm for a sweater some days, the heat is turned off more than on, the sidewalk cafés are starting to set their chairs outside more often, I managed to get a sunburn yesterday, and buds are everywhere,

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even in the unlikeliest places.

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I myself am not actually in the midst of all this blossoming, since I’m away in Burgundy for a week where spring is slower to arrive.  I’m right here, hoping that a miracle will occur and that I’ll become fluent in French in record time.  Or at least that I can reduce the number of silly and embarrassing mistakes that I make on a regular basis.  And that in between conjugating obscure verb forms and flipping dictionary pages I can learn how to prepare snails and other famous Burgundian foods.  And possibly that spring will come to Bourgogne while I’m there, letting me experience one of my favorite seasons twice.

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France Is Closed On Sunday

February 21, 2008

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It’s a wonderful thing to have a lunch invitation on a Sunday in France.  That’s because when you’re driving around the countryside on any given Sunday you have the impression that the entire population of this corner of France has been beamed up to some passing comet, so deserted is each and every town.  The streets are empty, the houses are shut up tight, and there’s not a restaurant or café open anywhere.  But now that we’ve been here a while we realize that while we’re wandering forlornly, looking for entertainment or sustenance,  everyone else is indoors, having Sunday lunch with as many of their family and friends as they can muster.

But this week we were among the lucky ones to be inside those closed doors, tucked away safely in the warmth of a Sunday meal.  “To get to our house just turn left at the sheep,” our hosts told us

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“then turn again at the horses.”  Although we do see horses from time to time, this is the first time we’ve seen sheep on the road right around here, so our visit was off to a great start before we even arrived.

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And when we did get there, cheerfully late from stopping to admire the neighing and neighboring animals, Spring had arrived just before us.

Already in good spirits, we soon had to ask ourselves: was there ever a cheerier sight than

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a properly dusty cellar filled to overflowing with well-chosen bottles?  The sight of the dust alone put me in a lovely state of anticipation, let me tell you.  Because where there’s dust in a cave there’s wine that’s been carefully selected and laid down for a long winter’s nap, wine that’s bound to be excellent.

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The rest of the house was impeccably dust-free, but equally inviting.  Sitting at this table, looking out at a misty February afternoon, it was hard to imagine a nicer way to spend the day.  A soup of Jerusalem artichoke, called here topinambour, set the tone for refined dining.

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The turbot season has begun, hence this delicious riff on a Gordon Ramsay dish: turbot and asparagus with asparagus and spinach sauce.  I could eat this all day, so green, so spring-like.

But no, because then we wouldn’t have been able to eat

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a lemon tart with raspberries and fresh cream.  Are you feeling sorry for us yet?  I thought not.

If this is what everyone else is doing whilst we drive around on Sundays, ouch.  Now we know what we’re missing, will we ever be able to go back to our nose-to-the-window wanderings?  Well, sure.  We don’t know enough people yet to be on the inside looking out every Sunday.  Plus, the reverse view, outsiders observing, orphans gazing wistfully, is very instructive. 

There’s a huge debate going on right now in France over Sunday store openings.  Some stores are starting to stay open, a lot of people are quite upset about it.  The main reasons cited: store employees need to be with their families on Sunday, the fabric of French society will unravel if families aren’t gathered around the table on Sunday afternoons.  Me, I’m for closed shops and big Sunday lunches en famille.  As one commentator put it “it’s so important to have one day a week that’s not about money.”

Fish Head Soup For The Soul

February 17, 2008

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Strange though it may seem, and personally I think it’s exceedingly strange, one of the two most common search terms that readers use to find my blog is “fish heads.”  The other, perhaps equally bizarre, is “scorpions and lavender.”  Now I ask you, is that what pops into your mind as the outstanding features of French Letters, fish heads and scorpions?  And yes, for those of you that have wondered, I do know what pops into some people’s minds when they think of French letters, but never mind that now.

So for all of you fish head fanciers, here’s a veritable fish head bonanza. 

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The big fish stand in the market yesterday had the makings of soupe de poisson, which is French for “fish head soup,” for only 3 Euros a kilo.  That’s because there were hardly any rockfish involved; when there are, the price goes up to 22 Euros a kilo. 

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The more-delicious rockfish are like the one prehistorically spiky little red guy in the front of this picture.  But his very solitude is what made my catch affordable, so I decided that the time had come to make soupe de poisson, and voilà.  After posing so fetchingly, these fish hopped obligingly into a giant pot where they boiled themselves into shreds.  After which I got to rub the resulting fish head slurry through a strainer, bones, fins, and all, in search of a moment of culinary ecstasy.

We won’t be eating the actual soup for a few days and it’s resting in a primal state in the freezer, awaiting some final enrichment and garnishes for an upcoming dinner party, so I can’t tell you yet whether it was all worth it.  It makes a dramatically huge mess, I can attest to that.

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And I can also affirm that even the big one that got away has to watch his back.  And that yep, I did cook the starfish too. 

And look here, more fish head soup!

Words Of Love So Soft And Tender

February 14, 2008

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Our local paper has been soliciting love messages for Valentine’s Day, and today they printed them for all the world to see.  Here’s a sweet sample, along with some Valentine sights from around town.  There’s not a lot of hoopla here, just enough.

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Nathalie: I was born in winter, you in mid-summer.  We met in the autumn, and ever since it’s been spring. 

Raymond: If each fruit is a flower that’s made love, then my Sylvie is the fruit of a love in full flower.

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Juliette: For six years our great secret has made my life new.  Our meetings have the heat of pepper and the sweetness of honey.

Alain: I was only a wild garden until you adopted me.  You came in to my life and tamed me.

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Jean: To continue to feel a tsunami of of passion for you, to have my heart beating wildly, my feelings as bright as ever…this is normal after more than fifty years together.

Gerard: I never forget Saint Valentin, nor his day.  However, I have forgotten his age.

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Jeanne: Flowers aren’t your thing, any more than presents are.  You’re a cold fifty-something who’s proud to be that way, convinced that I love you anyway.  And you’re right, I love you to death.  Don’t change anything.

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Abra: Light and dark, rain and shine, français et anglais, please always be mine.

Les Amandiers Fleurissent

February 11, 2008

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I’ve been hesitating, making sure it’s true, but yes, I think I can now safely report that spring has arrived.  I know this because all of a sudden the almond trees are in bloom everywhere I look, lending a gauzy pink glow to a country side that’s just beginning to come alive after the short winter.

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In honor of almond-flowering time, make yourself a beautiful fruit tart.  Line a tart pan with your favorite crust or puff pastry.  Bake the crust blind for 10-15 minutes, then cover that with some caramelized fruit.  This weekend I used reinette apples browned in butter with a little cassonade, which is the local brown sugar, and a good splash of Calvados.  But you could easily use pears at this time of year and it would be equally delicious.  Over the fruit and pastry pour a custard made by stirring together 1/3 cup crème fraîche, 1/4 cup sugar, 1/2 cup ground almonds, 1 egg, and a few drops of bitter almond oil or vanilla.  Bake until the crust is well browned and the custard puffs goldenly over the fruit.

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All hail the beautiful amandiers and their incomparable fruit.  Eat almonds every day and some say you’ll weigh less.  I can’t vouch for that myself, but I know that eating almonds everyday makes me happier, and I’m pretty sure that if you try this tart recipe you’ll be happier too.

Taking One For The Team

February 8, 2008

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Yesterday I attended my first bike race.  It lasted less than 45 seconds and only 27 other people joined us in watching about 100 young buff guys whiz through town in a blur.  I don’t actually see how anyone ever wins.  I mean, look how close those guys are to each other.  How would any one of them ever get from the back to the front in a pack like this?

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Knowing nothing, I’ve asked Shel to provide a more informed commentary to go with the pictures he took.  Me, I was just there for the eye candy.  Uh, Shel I mean.

Shel says …

 Bike racing is an odd combination of co-operation and competition.  You have to co-operate with your fellow competitors, riding shoulder to shoulder, sharing the burden of leading the pack so you can share the benefit of riding in the leader’s slipstream.  Then, at the very end of a long day, when the daggers come out and it’s every man for himself, you have to remember who shared the work with you and, perhaps, not beat your fellow competitor too badly, even if you can.

 The race that came through our little town was actually one day of a multi-day stage race, about 100 miles of racing.  It’s one of the early-season “classics” that, in former days, were races unto themselves, but which the modern media juggernaut has re-cast as some sort of tune-up for the Tour de France.  In truth, many of the teams that hope to be in the Tour use these early-season races to develop their teamwork, but the riders are also trying to win.  The big names won’t bother doing much this early in the year; they prefer to hang back and let the younger riders show themselves.

The pack in this race was over 150 riders, but, at racing speeds, the whole bunch came through in about 15 seconds.  The fact that the bunch was packed curb-to-curb shows that they weren’t going very fast; if they were really sailing, they would be pulled out into a long, thin line.

Two guys came through about three minutes ahead of the bunch, having broken away some miles down the road; this is one of them…

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… one of his teammates at the back of the pack was happy that his confrere was away up the road …

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And the food connection?  During the racing season, these guys are on a “see food” diet.  Anything they see, they eat.  They even have food passed up to them while riding.  The bike racer’s diet is long on carbohydrates and, perhaps, short on gastronomy, but if you ever worry that maybe that second desert was a bit much, just remember that the guy above probably eats 7,000 calories a day.

Mmm Mmm Lady Marmalade

February 4, 2008

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Our friend Kirsty is the one and only Lady Marmalade, no matter who Patti Labelle was really singing her catchy tune about.  She brought us the marmalade you see before you, and we fell madly in love.  With the marmalade, that is, although Kirsty’s very nice too.  It’s made from Seville oranges, caramelized to an incredible richness, and to prevent us from raiding her pantry and holding her hostage she gave me the recipe.

It takes a full two days to make, but I loved every minute of it.  I’ve never had my hands on a Seville orange before, and they’re a treat.  Sour as a lemon, but orangey as an orange.

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They make their way from Spain into the rest of Europe, although I’ve read that the largest part of the crop goes directly to England, home of Lord, Lady, and other assorted Marmalade Royalty folks.  The season is short, and so is life, so as soon as I got my hands on some I set out to make the delectable délice.   Sorry, I can’t resist bilingual redundancy any more than I can resist the marmalade itself.   And I’m proud to report that my confiture d’oranges amères succeeded brilliantly.

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We had a lot of terra cotta yogurt pots that I can never bring myself to throw away when the yogurt’s gone, and now they’re all filled with what I imagine will soon make me Lady Marmalade la Deuxième to a number of people upon whom I plan to bestow this marvel.

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Honestly, the stuff is edible art.  I’m planning to make another big batch this week, so we can wallow in its glory.

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In the meantime, we’re keeping our precious store under guard night and day.  Although unless you’re coming to visit I’m afraid that I won’t be able to offer you any of mine, if you have 3 pounds of Seville oranges and two free days, with the cute yogurt pots being optional, let me know and I’ll tell you how its made. 

And if you start hearing “voulez vous coucher avec moi ce soir” on an endless loop inside your head, don’t blame me.  Honest, it’s all about the marmalade.

p.s. You do know the song, right?  My musician husband said “Huh?” and swore he’d missed the entire sensation.