Archive for September 2008

French Hospital Food

September 27, 2008

Imagine that you’re in a French hospital.  Now imagine that you’ve already had one relatively small surgery and will be having two more operations within the next few days.  Imagine you’re in a lot of pain, you’re scared,  and you don’t understand much of what the nurses and doctors say to you.  Imagine that you haven’t been allowed to eat or drink for four or five days, and that you’re facing another week of nothing by mouth.  Imagine how much you’d like to have a glass of cool water.

Now imagine you’re Shel.  Good imagination. 

See you when we get through all this.  Have something good to eat on Shel’s behalf.  Have a glass of wine on mine.  If you’re the praying sort, do that too.

Cuisine à L’Ancienne

September 25, 2008

I love making dishes that have gone out of fashion, either because they’re too much work, require hard-to-find ingredients, or both.  Here, in Confiture de Pastèque, or watermelon jam, we have both.

We tasted a mysterious treat last summer while staying at a chambre d’hôte in Provence.  Spread on toast and with a flavor that was evocative but indefinable, our hostess said it was made from pastèque, watermelon, that it was very old-fashioned, and that only her mother-in-law still made it.  But the jam was a greeny-gold color, not what I normally associate with watermelon.  Returning home, I asked a local vegetable guy if I could use watermelon to make jam.  He said “Oh no, Madame, not pastèque, you need a citre.”  “What’s a citre?”  “A type of pastèque, only for jam, not for eating.  Wait until September.” 

And so I did.  While waiting I tried to figure out whether citre had a name in English.  It’s citrullus lanatus in Latin, and it’s called gigerine in Provencale, but that’s as far as I got.  If anyone knows, please do tell!

The moment I saw this weird melon down at the bottom of the fruit display, I knew it had to be a citre.  When I asked the vegetable guy whether it were red inside, he hesitated quite a long time before saying “Well, I don’t think so, I think it’s more white, but honestly, I haven’t seen the inside of one since my grandfather used to cut them open.”   So, full of excitement and anticipation, I lugged it home, where  Beppo thought it warranted a good looking-over as well.

The citre was much harder to cut open than one would imagine.  It had a hard rind like a winter squash, was full of pebble-hard seeds, and was juicy and sticky.  I kept having to rinse the knife and my hands, and honestly, it took me about 40 minutes to get the thing diced and seeded.  And as you see, it’s sort of white, sort of green.  Not much like a watermelon, a long-lost cousin at best.

The recipe for confiture de pastèque, which also mentioned that a citre could be used, calls for adding either orange or lemon.  Since I had a citre, and lemon is citron in French, I decided that my jam had to be citre-citron, if only for the delicious alliteration.  My recipe called for mixing the diced fruit with sugar and leaving that to macerate over night, then cooking it “for a very long time, at least an hour and a half.”  In the end it cooked almost twice that long before achieving the syrupy greeny-goldness I remembered from that summer toast.

And yes, it has that same haunting flavor.  Reminiscent of cucumber, honeydew melon, and watermelon, but in the end none of the above.  It’s the taste of mystery, but I find an almost greater enjoyment in the fact that it’s something of a lost fruit, that making jam of it is something of a lost art, and that nonetheless, we’ll be having it for breakfast.

* if you’d like the recipe, it’s below in the Comments section

**comme vous êtes nombreux a y venir chercher la recette, elle se trouve en dessous, parmi les commentaires.

A Friend Indeed

September 22, 2008

Way back at the end of January I wrote A Friend In Need.  And it’s taken all of that time for Zazou to find her way into our life, but now here she is, in all of her funny-faced, crooked-tail glory.  I’ve been waiting to unveil her, waiting to be sure that Beppo agrees with our choice.  But now that she’s been here for 48 hours, I think she’s ours.

She’s only 7 weeks old, perhaps a bit young to be suddenly surrounded by strangers.  She likes to eat right from my fingers (or maybe that’s just because she’s a chef’s cat, given to us by a restauranteur) and she’s very interested in Beppo, even when he’s trying to have a peaceful nap.

She’s also majorly full of mischief

and has a tail-pouncing fetish.  Beppo has a very beautiful tail which Zazou evidently finds irresistable

but if she can’t get to his tail she’ll pounce any available part.

Beppo has been known to box her ears lightly under these circumstances, but all in all it looks to us like a happy cat family in the making.

Beppo, I’m sorry it took us so long to find you a friend, but I think this is going to be true love, the kind worth waiting for.  Just keep your tail tucked in and your heart open, and ça va aller, ça va très bien aller.

One Step Back

September 21, 2008

Even after spending a week in the sunny south, Bretagne is still on my mind.  There’s just one more thing I want to tell you about, before we let that trip slip into the pleasant past, and that’s the Île de Bréhat.  It’s a step back in time, maybe even two or three steps, and although we only spent one night there I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.

If you’re lucky (as we were) you’ll pull into the harbor at high tide (as we did) and you’ll be staying at the Hotel Bellevue (as we were) just steps from the dock.  If not, you’re in for a trek, since no cars are allowed on the island and there are several other places to dock as well as stay, none of them especially convenient for the luggage-loaded.  Fortunately we had brought a very minimal amount of stuff on the 2 kilometer trip over from, as it’s called here, “the Continent,” since on our way back we ended up having quite a hike.

Although Bréhat is advertised as a vehicle-free place, there are actually rather a lot of tractors to haul stuff all around the island, and the city office has a couple of mini-vans.  But personal vehicles are banned, and thus everyone either bikes or walks everywhere, which makes it a lot like Amsterdam, in a miniscule sort of way.

When we awoke in the morning and took advantage of the splendid view from our room, we got to watch the thrice-weekly supply ship offloading everything the island needs to survive, and taking away what it needs to get rid of.  This turned out to be quite a lengthy process, as we’ll see later.  After a very good breakfast, marred only by the fact that we had to beg the staff to turn down the Björk sound track, which was admittedly less horrible that the post-apocalyptic Björk-compatible sounds that had accompanied our dinner the night before, but still didn’t favor digestion, we set off to visit the island. 

It’s a lush and flowery place, Bréhat, basking in the after-summer relative silence and the sun.  I was especially interested in the glassworks, since glass is my favorite art medium.  Plus, I think it’s the only not-strictly-tourism related commerce on the island.

If you’ve ever been in an American glass studio, you’ll see right away that this is not it.  Check it out: no protective clothing, no goggles, no gloves, and in the case of one guy, not even any shoes.

What they do have is highly skilled (buff and bare) young guys turning out some really beautiful work, some individual, but a lot of it production-level.  If you want to have, for example, all hand made glass doorknobs or cupboard door pulls,

here’s where you might want to get them.

I could have stayed far longer, admiring the glass and trying to find something that would fit in my suitcase, but you know what they say about time and the tide?

Well, this is what they mean.  It looks like a huge foul-up, but as you can see here

the supply ship was in good company.  It’s actually a parking strategy.  The island gets two really high and two really low tides a day, and if your ship can’t take being run aground you’d better dock her elsewhere.  In order to get off the island we had to walk all the way around the end of the point you see here, and then keep walking a good ways after that, back to deep water.

Here’s where we came to appreciate the fact that every single thing one brings on or off the island has to be transported somehow, including radiators

and the end-of-summer vegetables that outnumbered the island’s available diners and had to travel to the Continent for consumption.

It’s a special place, and I recommend that as soon as you get a chance, you go to the Île de Bréhat, bring your walking shoes, get a room with a bay window at the Hotel Bellevue, and if Björk isn’t your tasse de thé, be sure to bring your own soundtrack.

Playing Catsup

September 18, 2008

As we all know, eating exotic foods is one of the best parts of travel.  But for the less-travelled rat, eating mashed potatoes from a friendly fingertip is as good as a vacation, and much more of a sure thing.

Not counting mashed potatoes, I always find it hard to eat enough vegetables when traveling.  It’s so much easier to just have pastry and coffee.

Although when on vacation one always takes risks,  you can now profit from my mistake.  If you’re in Bretagne and on a quest for kouign aman, don’t shop at Kouignette.  It’s a chain, something I didn’t realize until it was too late, and although their little treats look beautiful, they’re laden with sugar beyond belief.  I never thought I’d throw away kouign aman, but there’s always a first time.

On the other hand, if you’re anywhere near the Mont Saint Michel, try to spend a night at the charming Au Château du Mont Dol, where the food is impeccable and inventive, the house is lovely, and the welcome is warm and relaxed.  Sitting around the table with a group of contented French, German, Dutch, and Belgian diners was a highlight of our trip. 

Sometimes, though, all you want is a taste of home.  A giant can of pickled jalapenos, untasted but well-imagined, captured Shel’s attention in Amsterdam.

They probably would have been delicious with this beautiful smoked fish, but alas, it was not to be.  We made up for it later, though.

Lest you think that the tug of home would be weak and distant were one continuously surrounded by the delights of Dutch and French cuisine, have a peek here to see the meal that dare not speak its name on French Letters.

I hope you’ll still respect me in the morning.

Signs Of The Times

September 16, 2008

We’re home now, luggage strewn willy-nilly, heaps of socks begging to be washed, and lots of pictures and thoughts from our travels still to be shared.  So, if you don’t mind,  we’ll have a couple of wrap-up, round-up type days, before I return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

One thing that always catches my fancy when travelling is funny signs.  For example, I know that some people would go to great lengths to avoid eating andouille with its post-intestinal funk factor, but really, this sign does seem to be going a little too far.

Then there’s this adorable one, which says “dogs aren’t allowed in the church unless they’re held in your arms.”

When you consider that the church in question looks like this

and houses an original 14th century sculpture that looks like this, it’s hard to imagine that dogs would really feel at home there, even cradled in one’s arms.  But then, it’s France, where dogs like to go everywhere with their people.

Then there’s this Vietnam-era sign, which says “You’re a man, so go to Indochina to defend liberty, and you’ll become a chef.”  No, not really.  It means become a leader, but I like the chef idea better.

I love this one, which at first glance seems to mean “this is the end of boiled croissants” but actually just shows how a town with the innocent-sounding Breton name of Kroashent-Bouilhed came to be translated into something in French that makes you think of unspeakable acts commited with pastry.  Even if that’s not an exact translation.

In fact, for those of you who have never seen the Breton language, as I hadn’t before this trip, here’s a little side-by-side translation for you to contemplate, an explanation of the system of beautiful foot bridges spanning the river in Quimper.

Here’s a sign explaining how the entire Kerouac family of America, presumably including Jack Himself, has its roots right here in Huelgoät, which of course isn’t funny but is more of an “oh, wow” sort of thing.

And for a real “oh, wow” here’s a teeny, tiny sign too small to read, on an adorable little stone gnome house set right in a river.  Put on your reading glasses, get closer to the screen, and what does it say?  Toilettes.  Right, so take that, you folks who say one can never find a public toilet in France!

It’s A Hard Rock Life

September 13, 2008

“I am a rock,

I am an island.”

“Like a rolling stone,

like a complete unknown.”

“Rock me, baby,

rock me all night long.”

“Rock of ages,

cleft for me.”

“Gonna rock around the clock tonight,

rock rock rock ’til broad daylight,

gonna rock, gonna rock,

around the clock tonight.”

In A Maritime Mood

September 11, 2008

I’ll show you my sardine if you’ll show me yours.

I’m sure it’s a sign of weirdness, but most of the souvenirs we’ve bought have been of a sardinical nature.  Cans of sardines packed in all sorts of exotic spices and sauces are everywhere here, and right now a substantial number of them are occupying the trunk of our little rented Fiat.  If it weren’t for the fact that it’s raining yet again and the trunk of said Fiat is rather far away I’d be showing you my treasure, but that time will surely come, as we’ll be eating them for ages once we get them safely home. 

A couple of days ago we went to the wonderful fishing museum in Concarneau, where we got to clamber around on this decommissioned fishing boat and imagine the hard life of a fisherman.  I especially sympathised with the hard life of a fishing boat’s cook

who had to do all of his cooking, sardines or otherwise, in this tiny cubby

and serve his special Catch of the Day in this little dining area.

Then yesterday in Douarnenez we went to the boat museum, full of well-curated treasures like this Portuguese fishing boat, which is certainly a lot more beautiful than is strictly necessary

and this sleek and shiny racing boat, which is no prettier than she should be.  I’d wanted to go to Douarnenez specifically because it’s the legendary home of the best kouign aman in Bretagne, but alas, as it happened, instead I lunched on the most infuriating little floor-wipe of a so-called sardine galette, and fumed about it all afternoon as we sloshed cross-country to Perros-Guirec.  Where, hallelujah,

a nice piece of fresh cod landed on my plate, in a sauce Bordelaise with more of that andouille de Guéméné, which I’m really coming to love.  Although a mere sniff of mine inspired my little sardine to say “That’s an acquired taste and I definitely haven’t acquired it yet.”

The fact that this plate was followed by a delightful dessert of almond pudding with red fruits and fresh cherry sorbet didn’t hurt a bit either.

Here’s the view out the window as I type, and it looks likely to be another grey, drippy, boat-filled day.  Not that I’m complaining, you understand.

Bon Appétit, Bretagne!

September 9, 2008

Bretagne is the land of plenty, seafood-wise.  Just take this plate.  In addition to the whole crab, the oysters, the langoustines, the bigorneaux snails and the shrimp, under this pile of treats, undiscovered by the camera, lies a heap of the larger snails called bulots, and clams.  And this was served to me and me alone, as a main course, although I must say that I’ve had amost as much set in front of me as an entrée, just to whet my appetite before some soon-to-be-unappreciated main course.

But all of the Big Food doesn’t come from the ocean.  Having heard people rhapsodize about what some describe as the Breton national dish, kig ha farz, I just had to give it a try.  With Shel as my partner in gluttony, we dined tonight in Quimper on this stupefying dish.

It all started innocently enough with a huge bowl of the broth that the rest of the dish, a variant of pot au feu, was cooked in.

Then things got out of hand when we were offered pork shanks, beef slices, pork belly, cabbage, carrots, sweetened semolina dumpling, buckwheat crumbles, and a sauce of onions and butter

on a huge family-sized platter.  Actually, this is what remained on the platter after we were too stuffed to take another bite.  Impressive, non?  The fact that I got locked in the restaurant bathroom after dinner seemed only fitting punishment for my over-ingestion.

On a more reasonable scale, for lunch one day in Auray, the best galette of my life to date, made with andouille de Guéméné, cheese, apples, and mustard.  Pig intestine sausage buckwheat pancake may not sound that appealing in English, but believe me, if you’re ever offered one, take it quick.  It’s a funky and heavenly combination and I’d happily have another one right this minute, if I weren’t still in a kig ha farz coma.

Or, take this luscious Portuguese salt cod and mushrooms with a port and cream sauce that I had in Vannes, while Shel had

the Portuguese version of steak, ham, and eggs

and we shared a creamy and delicate dessert.  But please, don’t get the idea that all we’re doing is eating. There’s also drinking!

The hauntingly delicious Breton honey aperitif called chouchen,

and the ubiquitous and curiously versatile cider, which seems to go with just about everything.

Tums, anyone?

The Mystery And The Magic

September 7, 2008

What were our Neolithic ancestors thinking, 6000 years ago, when they stood stones on end all over Europe?  It’s hard not to wonder. 

I’ve almost become used to living among Roman ruins, which are so eloquent in their longlasting beauty.  We know, because they wrote about it, what the Romans were thinking as they constructed their extensive roads and waterworks and splendid mosaic floors.  But these menhirs are absolutely mute.  We don’t know what they mean, and they won’t tell.  We don’t know who carved them or why, how they moved countless thousands of tons of stone by hand, what they thought about the world they lived in, or what they ate for lunch.  They’re gone forever, having disappeared into eternal silence, leaving only their stones behind.

Someone, back in prehistory, carved these symbols into a huge stone, which may or may not have been worshipped for 2000 years as a fertility symbol, depending on which archaeologist you believe.  Or a symbol of power, or simply a marker for a gravesite that was in constant use for two millenia.  We’ll never know, although we’ll probably always puzzle over it and construct hypotheses in an attempt to bring coherence to their legacy, because otherwise those long ago hands will have worked in vain.

Today sheep graze among les alignements, the lines of silent stones that stretch for kilometers around Carnac and Locmariaquer on Bretagne’s Gulf of Morbihan.

Today a modern megalith looms over the ancient ones,

although not too far away, in the forest of Broceliande, Merlin the magician, Merlin l’Enchanteur, is said to have been buried under these stones, although he is also said to have been imprisoned in a tree.

Bretagne, land of magic and mystery, where once the Celts did roam, followed some 1400 years thereafter by Benjamin Franklin.

A lot’s happened here.