Archive for March 2008

Let Them Eat Cake

March 29, 2008

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We’ve been on a cake splurge lately, what with Easter, and more recently the advent of cake-appreciating visitors.   These Easter pastries were almost too beautiful to eat, although after taking about 100 photographs of them I was ready to bite each of their little heads off.  Sometimes the most beautiful things are the hardest to photograph.

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This cake was not only photogenic and posed politely, it was especially fun to eat, covered with its little pop-in-the-mouth chocolate balls and a crunchy meringue surprise snuggled into the cake layers.

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Although this cake is admittedly quite eye-catching, I hope you noticed the wine label. The cake was very good, the wine was even better, but the label was best of all.

Just a fluffy little post to brighten up your weekend with visions of sugar and spice and the magical things they do together in France.

Going To Pot

March 27, 2008

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Have I ever mentioned that I’m obsessed with pottery?  Honest, I could attend a chocolate fair without even taking a bite, but take me to a pottery fair at your own risk.

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If you’d followed me around, and around, and around again at the Uzès pottery fair this weekend your feet would have needed a good soak too.

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I do tend to lean toward practical pots,

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ones I can take into the kitchen,

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or leave on the counter.  But I’m also drawn to impractical beauty.

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Even some pots that are nominally practical seem to be too beautiful for kitchen use,

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and I just can’t imagine putting them to use for something as pedestrian as a Brussels sprout gratin.

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Some of it reminded me of pottery from the U.S.,

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a lot was clearly Japanese-influenced,

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and even North Africa was present.

There’s hardly anything more down-to-earth than pottery, but I have to say that being surrounded by clay and people who like to get their hands dirty with it made for a heavenly way to spend Easter.

Fish Head Fascination

March 24, 2008

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As I mentioned here, an amazing number of my readers are fascinated with fish heads.  Why this should be true I do not know, but their attraction to the foremost parts of fish is rubbing off on me.

Since we’re having guests from Seattle this week, I thought I’d make a nice soupe au poisson to welcome them.  It’s soothing, goes well with jet lag, and is very typical of the area.  The fish lady gave me a different assortment today, including the water bug-thingies pictured above.  The market was so crowded that  I totally forgot to ask her what they’re called.  Does anyone recognise them?

Walking home after fighting our way through the Easter weekend market crowd it suddenly struck me: one of our guests is deathly allergic to fish.  Merde, alors, there I was on the sidewalk with 3 kilos of assorted fish and water bugs and no one to feed them to.  Do you happen to be free for dinner tonight?

In the end I put them in the pot, and will soon begin the truly arduous work of putting all those fish solids through the three successive layers of the food mill, from whence it’ll go into the freezer to await a more propitious moment for serving.  Let it never be said that I threatened the life of a fish-allergic friend or let the life of a water bug go to waste.

If you’re inclined to follow me down the fish head highway, this is the basic recipe the fish lady gave me.

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The thing I do a bit differently is to add a little fennel to the vegetables in the beginning and a splash of pastis to the finished soup.  If I want it a little richer I beat a couple of egg yolks with a spoonful or two of crème fraîche and stir that in at the last minute.  To do as the locals do, serve the soup in a flat bowl with a flotilla of rouille-covered croutons and a handful of grated cheese, preferably a Comté.  Yes, I know that the Italians say never to mix fish and cheese, but try this, it’s very good.

And honestly, don’t you think fish heads are beautiful?

Why Are The French So….Nice?

March 21, 2008

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I’m not going to claim that the reason people here are so nice has anything to do with artichokes.  Unless it’s to say that these violet artichokes are beautiful, and the French appreciate beautiful food at least as much as I do, and once that mutual interest is established, niceness ensues.

Here’s what I mean.  Remember when I made that Seville orange marmalade?  Well, I took a jar of it to the fruit vendor who’d sold me the oranges, just to thank him for having such nice fruit.  And then the other day he tucked into my basket

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the first strawberries of the spring, to thank me back.

And there was the time when, after I’d remarked on how expensive tulips are here compared to in the States, my favorite florist added half a dozen to my order, on the house.  So naturally I took him a jar of marmalade too, to thank him.  And then last week he ran out of his shop when he saw me across the street to hand me

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one perfect rose, to thank me for thanking him.  And really, those are just a couple of examples for which I happen to have pictures.  The system of give and take is very intricate here, and I’m sure I’m only beginning to understand it.  But sharing something wonderful with someone you appreciate seems to be one of the keys to how it all works.

I’m making some vin d’orange now, and some of it will certainly find its way into the fruit and flower guys’ hands.  And some will go to Alice to thank her for the extra vegetables she often adds to my bag, and maybe some to our garagiste to thank him for the time recently when he came out to the house to jump start the dead battery but wouldn’t take a centime for his time.  Although probably he thought we didn’t owe him anything because he still remembered the bottle of good whiskey we’d given him to take on his annual vacation.

See how it’s never ending?  I thank you and you thank me so I re-thank you and you re-thank me back and so on it goes, hopefully forever.  It’s a kind of niceness that I never tire of, and it’s very, very French. 

Sending Flowers

March 19, 2008

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Just when I needed them, France sent me flowers.  It’s an early, fragile spring this year.

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The cherry tree is covering itself cautiously with blossoms, opening just a few at a time lest wind destroy the crop.  I’ve heard that this tree produces wonderful fruit, and I’m hoping that this will be a good year for cherries.  It’s poignant, because the palm tree next to it, like all the palm trees in our yard and many of the palms in the south of France, is dying from a noxious infestation of grubs.

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Sometimes a flower is just a flower, just beauty, just something that stops you in your tracks with its extravagant impracticality.

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My favorites are the flowers that remind me of the fruit to come, and in the process remind me of how to live: before we can have fruit, flowers must fall.

Drink To Me Only

March 16, 2008

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As I mentioned here, we left ViniSud with a wine importer in tow.  You can meet him here, Michel from Vinotas Selections, who just happens to import some excellent wines that are made very near to us.  Lucky us, being able to visit the wineries with him. 

Although things have been considerably modernized since the days this little beauty was in use, Jean-Marie Popelin is still making wine à l’ancienne, the good old-fashioned way

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at the first winery we visited.  Château Haut-Musiel is a very small producer in Domazan whose wines are all hand made.  There’s no actual château involved, more of a shed in fact, but thanks to the spirit and the care with which they’re made, the wines are worthy of the name.

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The reds are a treat, quirky, interesting, and the rosé is outrageously good, one of the freshest and brightest I’ve tasted here.  This was my first time to do barrel tasting

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and it was really an education for me to taste wines before their bottling and to try to imagine how they’d evolve over the next months or years.  After we tasted Jean-Marie poured the wine back into the barrels.  It’s going to ferment anyway, you know.

Later we headed to Château de Montfaucon where Rudolphe and Mari de Pins are making beautiful wines at the foot of an imposing château.

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Rodolphe is a thinking person’s winemaker; the art and science he brings to his wines is starting to get a lot of attention, and after tasting his wines and hearing how they’re made I can really see why.

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Mari, a transplanted Finn, offers tastings and sells wines from the counter at the winery.

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Their reds, whites, and rosé are all utterly delicious. 

By the end of the day I’d acquired quite a few bottles from the two wineries, and it’s going to be a distinct pleasure to pour them throughout the summer.  You can find a few of these wines in the U.S., and if you see some, grab it.  And then drink it in the spirit in which it was made, with passion, intelligence, and a reverence for all that wine brings to the table.

The Fruit Of The Vine

March 13, 2008

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I haven’t been talking about wine a lot recently, I suppose because I’ve been too busy drinking it.

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Have you ever been in a room with literally thousands of bottles of wine and the opportunity to taste each and every one?  I got to do that recently, and it’s an experience.  And if there’s just one thing I learned there it’s to spit, spit, spit.

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ViniSud was a three day wine expo with over 1700 wineries showing their wines.  It was for professionals only, no tourists guzzling free wine, but since I’m taking a wine tasting class my teacher got a few of us in for an afternoon.  It was everything you might imagine

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starting with wine barrel art in the entryway,

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people tasting, scoring, and spitting everywhere you looked,

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beautiful displays,

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beautiful and serious people, a surprising number of them really young,

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and deals being made that will determine what we’ll all be drinking this year.  This is Big Wine, a huge show that happens every two years, with about 35,000 professional visitors from all over the world.  The wines on display, and for sale if you’re willing to pop for several thousand bottles, were mostly French, but also from Spain, Italy, and other surprising Mediterranean countries like Tunisia and Lebanon.  I have to admit to having tasted only the French stuff, but if I’d had more time and more stamina I’d have been dying to find out what kind of wine they’re making on Cyprus these days.

Wine tasting is actually hard work.  I know you’re laughing, but really, some of it is terrible but you don’t know that until it’s already in your mouth, and then you have to get rid of the taste and move on to the next one.  Even if you spit religiously some small bit is absorbed by your tongue, or your gums, or someplace sneaky inside your mouth, and so it’s easy to get a little spinny.  And then sometimes a wine is so good that you just want to stay at that stand and drink a glass of everything they have to offer, but no, you have to move on and someone has to drive home.

As thrilling as it all was, one of the best parts was that we got to bring a wine importer home with us, and the next day he took us for a completely different sort of wine experience, Micro Wine.  Stay tuned.

Talking Tripe

March 10, 2008

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Don’t you think that tripe is beautiful?  I never much appreciated it before coming to France, but look how pristine and sculptural it is.  Cooked, it’s even more appetizing to contemplate.

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Of course, this was the best of homemade tripe, lovingly photographed by Klary Koopmans and cooked by the two of us, together with a couple of pig’s feet.  Then there’s this.

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The taboo tripe.  The tripe we fear.  The tripe of whose very existence most of us are blissfully unaware.  Canned tripe.  Yes indeedy, there is canned tripe, and I’ve got a pretty good collection right in my kitchen.  Lacking anyone with whom to cook and eat tripe this week, I did what any solitary French tripe fancier might do: I resorted to the hard stuff.  Tripe in tins.  The very idea makes one shiver.

But which can to crack?  There’s à la Catalane, cooked, according to the label, with beef feet, white wine, carrots, onions, and cornichon pickles – the can suggests serving this with steamed potatoes or a zucchini flan, accompanied by a Provencal rosé.  There’s mode Bretonne, looking pretty unadorned with only onions, butter, and vinegar, also suggested to go with steamed potatoes, but this time with a glass of cider on the side.  Then there’s Provencale style, prepared with tomatoes and onions, as well as thyme, basil, and parsley – this one would like to be served with vegetable ravioli or a confit of tomatoes with some broccoli and a glass of Coteaux d’Aix.  And the famous, or infamous à la mode de Caen, made with beef feet, white wine, and carrots, and presented with the serving suggestion of Dauphin potatoes or baked caramelized apples and a glass of Gewurztraminer or cider.  Tripe with baked apples.  There’s a thought.

Having no better dinner plan, I think I’ll open them all and have a taste-off.  The fact that I have no potatoes, zucchini, apples, ravioli, or any of the suggested wines in the house might be a problem.  I do have broccoli and cider, but somehow, they both sound weird with tripe.  Also, I think something a little stronger than cider might be called for when supping on four sorts of tripe.  Ok, off to the kitchen!

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A quick spin through the oven et voilà!  Would you believe that these are all edible, some even good?  It’s true.  Contrary to my expectations, canned tripe is not at all bad.  From the bottom left we have the Bretonne, my favorite, with a buttery smooth mellowness that reminded me of a good beef stew.  Moving clockwise, the Catalane was pretty good, with a nice edge of acidity from the cornichons, the tartness leaving it not as rich as the Bretonne.  Then the Provencale, my least favorite.  Despite the promise of herbs, I found the flavor to be pretty insipid.  Not actively bad, mind you, but not interesting to eat.  And then the à la mode de Caen.  This one had me gagging as it came out of the can, with its super large chunks of tripe all encased in clear jelly.  You get the picture.  Warm, the flavor was delicious, very natural and pure tasting.  But the texture defeated me, those huge chunks were just too visceral.

Although past experience has shown that Beppo is interested in tripe

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I couldn’t get him to touch the canned stuff.  So probably I’ll get a can of Bretonne style tripe to keep in the cupboard for tripe emergencies, and I won’t have to worry about sharing with Beppo.  And of course you’re imagining that I don’t have to worry about sharing with Shel, but I’ll let you in on a secret.  Just the other night in Lyon Shel was seen eating tripe, cold, in mayonnaise.  Imagine that.

What Is It About Lyon?

March 9, 2008

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It’s considered to be the center of French gastronomy.  It’s got two rivers running through it.  It’s full of beautiful old buildings, charming neighborhoods, and an excellent public transportation system.

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Nah, just kidding.  There’s a metro, a tram, and buses galore, but honestly, don’t you wish you had a cute little Smart Car of your own to park just any old where?

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I know it’s heresy, but I think I’d rather live in Lyon than in Paris.  Despite the fact that not one of the life-sized and life-like folks in this picture is really alive, personally I find Lyon to be a much more livable and real  place than its famous sister.

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Maybe it’s because our most recent visit coincided with the arrival of springtime.

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Maybe it was the profusion of lovely food everywhere we looked.

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Or maybe it was the cheese.  When we go to Lyon we bring home cheese.  Quite a lot of cheese, much of it ripe and smelling super-cheesy.  I’m sure that our TGV companions are smiling slightly and thinking ahead to their own suppers as the sexy smell of ripe raw milk cheese wafts through the speeding train.

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And then there’s the fact that Shel’s doctor in Lyon looks like a super model (sorry guys, no picture of her) and takes super good care of him.  And that Lyon is a supremely walkable city, allowing one to work up an appetite that needs no apologies.  And that tripe is on every menu in town, which is a big plus in my view.  It’s hard to be too uppity when eating tripe.  You can still take yourself seriously, but in a good way, knowing that you are joining the rest of the city in its efforts to systematically recycle the interior parts of cows.

We’ll be going to Lyon once a month and I’ll take the camera along again, and although I’m pretty sure that the gorgeous doctor will not be making an appearance on this page, you can always hope.   There’s bound to be more cheese though, if that’s any consolation.

Farewell To Burgundy

March 5, 2008

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Tomorrow we’re off to Lyon for a couple of days, if we don’t blow away first.  Last night and all day today we’ve been fighting winds of over 100 kilometers per hour.  Since normally we walk everywhere, and since, abnormally, the car wouldn’t start today, we’ve been right out there getting way too familiar with the kind of wind I’ve heretofore only seen on TV news coverage of some hurricane.  It’s the kind of wind that blows the hair right off your head, gets sand in your throat, and keeps you awake at night wondering whether the house will still be standing in the morning.  But like the endearing face above, we’re here and planning to stay that way, a bit battered, still hanging in there. 

And I’m noticing that I still have a lot of beautiful pictures of Burgundy to show you, or rather, a lot of pictures of the beauty of Burgundy.  To my amazement, not even one has anything to do with wine.  Food, yes.

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An Epoisse-lovers best dream.  I did eat there, and no, there is no such thing as too much Epoisses.

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Tiny mignardises at Bernard Loiseau.  I feel really lucky to have been able to eat there too, and if you’re ever in the neighborhood, treat yourself to their excellent menu and service.

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Lovely window squash.  These I didn’t eat, except with my eyes.

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Stone walls were everywhere,

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and spring was thinking about springing, but not yet ready to make the commitment. 

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Then, to my surprise, a chapel commemorating the commitment Americans made to saving France during the first World War.

I want to go back to Burgundy, all green and gorgeous, if only for the wine.  And the snails, since not one snail crossed my path or my plate this trip, and that’s just not right.  So much France, so little time.


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