Archive for October 2008

Giving A Fig

October 31, 2008


Another day, another festival.  That’s one of the things we love the most about France, there’s always a party somewhere, and we’re always invited.  In this case, it was the fig festival in the old medieval town of Vézénobres, a beautiful showcase for one of my favorite fruits.

There were figs in forms I’d never before imagined.

These beautiful little candies in the shape of figs looked too beautiful to eat, and at 1 Euro per piece, you can join me in imagining how good they must have tasted, because we’ll never know.

Ditto, or idem, as you say in French, for these utterly gorgeous tarts.  The fact that I wasn’t even tempted to buy these ultra-attractive treats must mean that I wasn’t actually there for the figs.  As it turned out, what I really wanted was

to see artisans selling their wares,

some of which looked a lot better than they tasted.  Really, I bought a cookie here because the cookies looked like they might have come from a much earlier time and the guy looked like he needed a customer.  The dry mouthful made me think that the “earlier time” might have been a baking date several days prior to the festival, as opposed to the ancient recipe I’d imagined, but I didn’t…  You were waiting for me to say that I didn’t give a fig, right?  The thing is, we were there because people did give a fig, even if it wasn’t about figs per se.

They cared enough to get dressed up

even though our friend Alain, always impeccably turned out, looks like he might have a touch of robe envy.

They cared enough to dance and make music in the streets.

And yes, some of it was really and truly about the figs.  But in general I think the day was about the French love of color and pageantry and dressing up and getting together to have a great time in a beautiful setting, and whenever possible, making something to eat or drink be the star attraction.  It’s pretty hard to argue with that as a lifestyle. 

Coming from a Puritan land, as we do, we’ve had to get over the feeling that we ought to be doing something productive, or meaningful, whatever that means.  But I’m here to say that we’re pretty nearly over it now, and we can hardly think of a nicer way to spend the day than traipsing around an ancient place with friends and friendly strangers, all of us in the mood to celebrate.  Something.  Anything.

And in case there aren’t enough fig recipes in your life, here’s one of my all-time favorite things to make with dried figs Fig and Walnut Tapenade with Goat Cheese.  Getting a little dressed up when you serve it doesn’t hurt either.

Anti-Virus Eggplant

October 28, 2008

Here’s a quick patch for your winter woes.  The next time you find yourself in the midst of a cold rainy day, knocked for half a loop by some stray virus and in need of sustenance, let me recommend my lunch today.  I couldn’t decide whether I felt too terrible to cook, or too terrible not to.  Naturally, cooking won out, aided by my discovery, in the recesses of the fridge, of two perfect roasted eggplants that I’d had the foresight to prepare some days ago, and then promptly forgot about.

Eggplant is a most forgiving vegetable, and having a roasted eggplant in the fridge is an open invitation to something delicious.  And with garlic being the firewall of the vegetable kingdom, I’d even go so far as to say that having two small, sweet, last of the season pre-roasted eggplants in the fridge and a heap of pungent new garlic on the counter is a cure for pretty much any bug.   Here’s all you need to do:

Anti-Virus Eggplant

2 small fresh eggplants
2 T butter
4 large cloves garlic
2 T double concentrated tomato paste (from a tube)

Preheat the oven to 400°F/200°C.  Set the whole, unpeeled eggplants on a baking tray and roast them until they’re soft and collapsed-looking, 30-45 minutes, depending on your eggplants.  Next you can either let them cool until you can handle them, or put them in the fridge and finish the dish another day, possibly after you’ve caught the first winter cold that’s going around.

Peel the eggplants, scoop out the insides, and discard the skins.  Cut the eggplant into large bite-sized chunks, as it’s going to shrink and smoosh as you cook it further.   Peel and roughly chop the garlic.  Melt the butter in a sauté pan and add the eggplant and garlic.  Sauté, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant is golden and the garlic is tender, about 8-10 minutes.  Add the tomato paste and stir until the paste is evenly distributed throughout the eggplant and has also browned a bit.  Season with salt and pepper to taste. 

I served this over quinoa scented with ras el hanout, with some sinus-clearing harissa on the side, but you can feel free to eat it according to the state of your pantry, with pasta, as part of a composed salad, or even as a sandwich spread.  And honestly, I think butter is better here than olive oil, just in case you were thinking of substituting.  But I know how you are.  If you feel that you absolutely must change something about this recipe, add more garlic!

Bunny Day, It’s A Bonne Idée

October 25, 2008

What’s a Bunny Day, if not a Festival to celebrate the Glory of the Rabbit in Gastronomy and Nature?  What’s a bonne idée?  A good idea.  What’s the connection?  They’re pronounced the same way.  So now, the next time you’re in a meeting and you think saying “good idea” would be too prosaic, you can say Bunny Day.  And, of course, having a day devoted to bunnies in all their glory is also a very good idea.

The seal above belongs to the Order of the Knights of the Burrow, the Brotherhood of the Burrow and the Hutch.

This is delightfully serious business, as our friends Christian and Alice can attest.  Serious, as in they organized a day that included a rabbit show and sale, a rabbit cooking contest, and a community rabbit meal for several hundred people.  Delightful, as in I want to join the Brotherhood myself just so I too can have a hat with ears, like Alice.

I really don’t know what I should do first, show you the glorious bunny gastronomy, or the little beauties themselves.  Just remember that the bunnies you are about to see are not the bunnies on the plate.  These are really special bunnies, sold to breeders of ancient bunnydom, and as pets.  There’s no use even thinking about eating these bunnies, they’re much too beautiful.

We’re talking about bunnies like the Chamois de Thuringe,

the Argenté de Champagne,

the Fauve de Bourgogne,

the Géant Papillon Français,

and the Nain Russe.  These are but a few examples of bunny pulchritude, as seen in nature. 

Then we pass, inevitably, to the gastronomic angle, in the form of a competition for mostly apprentice chefs to create rabbit dishes to be served cold.  These were judged strictly, according to seasoning, originality of presentation, appropriateness of garnishes, excellence of sauces, and so on.  I know all this because, ta da, I was invited to be on the panel of chefs.  Real French chefs, that is, to whom the presence of an “American journalist” was an unexpected turn of events; I had a blast in any case, even if my credentials as a chef were suspect.  There were 15 different dishes to taste and evaluate, and wine to help the process along, of course, since all of this took place before lunch, namely, at 10:30 in the morning.  Let me just say that if you have to eat rabbit early in the morning, a little wine doesn’t hurt, and more is better.

This dish, one of my favorites, was actually submitted by an amateur.  I thought it held up really well against the more cheffy preparations like

this little marvel.

This dish taught me the expression “plus beau que bon” or looks better than it tastes.

There were apprentice chef-type excesses like this riot of color,

and this morbid little number.  I thought this one was kind of interesting to look at, but the French chefs were gagging and tutting over it from the get go.

They really tended to prefer the most classic preparations, like this terrine, which was an education in itself. My high marks for one delicious dish that was full of ginger and mustard seeds and reminded me of a rabbit in the wide open spaces earned me a rather contemptuous nose twitch from the chef sitting next to me.  That’s ok, I too can twitch my nose with the best of the bunnies, but why bother?

There were bunnies paraded through the streets,

lots of gorgeous guys in costume,

our friend Chantal who walked 20 kilometers to pay homage to all things rabbit,

and even bunny wine, of which we all had rather a lot.  It was, all day long, totally a Bonne Idée!

Down The Rabbit Hole

October 22, 2008

Shel’s voice has been fading away all day long, but we tried to take full advantage of yesterday.  In a triumph of the mundane over the romantic, that has unfortunately included utterances like “have you paid the bills yet?”, “the shower drain is stopped up again,” and “is there enough gas in the car to get to the train station?”  Because tomorrow we’re off to Lyon to see the cancer doctors, to find out what our options are.  We know it’s going to be a life-changing visit, but we don’t know in what ways.  Outside the wind is whipping, there’s been thunder and lightning, and all I really want to do is put my head under the covers and suck my thumb.  And I don’t even suck my thumb.  But you know what I mean.

Speaking of life-changing visits, today was the final home nurse visit from Shel’s last hospitalization.  At first twice a day, then once, then three times a week, a nurse came to the house to give injections, draw blood, and change bandages.  The bill for two weeks worth of in-home TLC?  90 Euros, about $125.  Kind of makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

Keep warm, speak kindly to the ones you love, and suck your thumb for me.

Losing And Finding The Way

October 21, 2008

One day it occurs to you that your baby hasn’t sat in your lap for months, is now in fact nearly a teenager, and will never be yours in quite that way again.  If you’d only been able to see the future more clearly, you’d have made it last and last, that one momentous and final time.

For the past week Shel hasn’t been able to speak, only to whisper.  When he first feared losing his voice to cancer, about 14 years ago, he sat up all night singing and playing the guitar, recording his clear sweet baritone for posterity.  Inevitably, no one now knows where that tape is, and neither of us remembers his voice as it once was.  But when he started whispering, I found that I couldn’t even remember with perfect clarity the voice he had last week.  I never imagined that I wouldn’t hear it again, didn’t know what I’d be missing, one fine, silent day.

One morning you wake up and something excruciatingly precious to you is gone forever.  You can say “c’est la vie” all you want, but you know you’re lying.

But although leaves have been falling all around us, this one heart-leaf has hung on, right outside our bedroom window, even through yesterday’s storm.  Shel was on the road in that storm, on the way to Montpellier for a band rehearsal, his last before whatever is to come next, surgically speaking.  He doesn’t sing with the band, just plays a virtuoso bass, so a whisper would suffice.  Barry came to get him, so he didn’t have to drive.  I stayed home and started writing about loss.

But today Shel returned from Montpellier speaking in a beautiful, clear voice.  This morning Barry took him to see Sylvie, who put her hand on his throat.  Twice.  And then, he could talk again.  No way.  Pas possible.  Way.

They Love Us, They Love Us Not

October 19, 2008

One of my favorite Sunday morning guilty pleasures is reading the Version Femina that comes in our newspaper, the Midi Libre.  It’s guilt-inducing because a lot of it is about how to match your eyebrows to the season’s hottest colors, what super-models eat between lettuce leaves, how much some really sexy young actor loves to change his baby’s diapers, and that sort of universal pap that women are supposed to adore.  And I do.  Because I can read entire articles and understand every word, and because it proves to me that French women aren’t really born knowing how to be the way they are, they have to read up on it every Sunday like the rest of us.

But today, oh wow, see that headline?  “Do We Or Do We Not Love The USA?”  Ok!  Now finally we get to find out whether the Freedom Fries debacle and the cruel dumping of French wine left a lasting impression.  At least, that’s what I hoped. The reality of the article is that the people surveyed were mainly responding to a multiple choice list, which tells us a lot about the person who made up the list, as well as something about the respondents.

For example, here’s the list of places the survey creator thought might be the most iconically American.  No translation needed here, and not many surprises, unless it’s that Mississippi and Key West made the list while San Francisco, Chicago, and Seattle didn’t.  And the Maison Blanche, the White House, is apparently the stand-in for Washington, which is understandable given the way news is reported here.

This little sidebar makes the point that although it’s been almost twenty years since French television showed the TV series Dallas, for 46% of the people surveyed, the show is still the incarnation of Americana.  I have to admit that, although I myself have never seen Dallas, I do find this factlet surprising.  A nation of filthy rich cowboy blonde sexpot oil baron sleazeball scandal-mongers, is that us?  Or have I got it wrong?  Remember, I’m the one who never watched Dallas, unlike, evidently, a gazillion French people.

Now here on the left we see a reflection of a curious facet of French life.  In France, it’s the film directors that get the attention and publicity, before the actors.  So while we see that Steven Spielberg is properly appreciated in France, it also comes to light that, for some reason that escapes me, Woody Allen appeals to audiences here.  Last night we happened to see his latest, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which we thought was generally pretty terrible as movies go, although it was apparently appreciated by the mostly-French audience with whom we shared the theater.  To which I can only say “Ah, bon,” which is a polite French way to say “go figure.”

And on the right, the Brand Wars.  No surprise that Coke and McDonalds are on top, but Harley Davidson?  There’s Google and Apple but no Microsoft, Intel, or IBM.  Take that, geeks of America!  And how did Ray Ban even get on the list? 

Here, though, we get to the heart of things.  This is the part where no answers were suggested, where respondents spoke freely when answering the question “What is the first word that comes to your mind when you think about the US?”  La grandeur et la puissance.  Its size, and its power.  Those are really two different things, of course, but I think that by combining them people mean to speak of the country’s large and mighty aspect, as opposed to the “country so big it takes five whole days to drive across” aspect.  And then, New York, which seems fair since I think Paris would be at the top of most of our lists if we were answering the same question about France.  And then, Monsieur Bush.  Here I’ll just heave a parenthetical sigh and say that every French person I know is rooting vigorously for Obama.

It’s heartening to see that fast food is dead last on the list, although it’s only one percentage point behind the war in Iraq, imperialism, the dollar, and the 9/11 attacks.  And it’s also heartening that, if you look at the fine print in the very first picture, you’ll see that 62% of the people who participated in this survey like the US.  62 % yes, 38% no, and there’s not even the electoral vote to consider.  Folks, I think we can declare a winner here. 

So please, say thank you by going out and buying a bottle of nice French wine.  The economy’s in rough shape over here too, and the winemakers need your support.  And since the economy over there’s no better, a good bottle of wine is just what the doctor ordered.

Any Port In A Storm

October 16, 2008

You know how you can be walking down the street, heading for home, thinking about what to make for supper, minding your own sweet business, when suddenly you get run over by a herd of zebras?   Ok, you’re right, there aren’t too many zebras in France.  And there’s not much about this story that’s particular to France, except in the sense that people everywhere get ill and suffer and struggle.  Even in France, the land of wine and cheese and socialized medicine.

Maybe trains make a more apt metaphor.  France is justly famous for its speeding trains, and while no one plans to get hit by one, people do.  They’re big, they’re fast, they come at you out of nowhere, and its no use thinking that you can see every one coming.  Every railroad crossing here has a sign that says “Un train peut en cacher un autre.”  The train you see coming may conceal another train, the one you can’t see until it’s too late. 

While Shel’s been in the hospital getting taken apart and put back together for one thing and another, it turns out that the cancer he’s been fighting for fourteen years has been growing alarmingly.  It’s pretty scary this time, and I have to admit it: we’re scared.  We have a week to wait and wonder and worry and wish things were different, and although the time will pass in any case, we have to fill it somehow.

Whenever possible, Beppo naps luxuriously.  Cats are supposed to sleep about twenty hours a day, and there are days when we wish we could too.

Zazou gets herself up the tallest trees in the garden and then sometimes mews in terror.  But more often, after a lot of crashing and claw-gnashing, she lands on her feet.  We hope we will too.

France or no France, gastronomic mecca or not, Shel’s been asking for an astounding assortment of meals: hot dogs, cheeseburgers, barbecue.  Food from long ago and faraway, when life seemed safer.  I make it for him as best I can, but me, I’m trying to keep my cool by eating as many fruits and vegetables as possible.

We’re each coping in our own way, although Zazou has it the easiest, since this exact life is all she knows.  The rest of us remember a brighter time, and hope to see another.