Archive for September 2009

Le Temps Des Cathédrales

September 29, 2009

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Stop!  Turn on your speakers.  This post has a soundtrack.  Click here.  Thank me later.

We’re off to Bordeaux overnight, and I wanted to leave you with a little eye (and ear) candy, in this case the utterly magnificent, stupefying, impossibly beautiful cathedral at Albi.  Should you wish to do more than gaze and listen in awe, you can learn more about the cathedral here.

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Quite something, isn’t it?

From Here You Can See Perfection

September 28, 2009

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You love France and all things French, right?  So I’ll bet that you’ve read Michael Sanders’ From Here You Can’t See Paris, the story of the year he spent in the kitchen of La Récréation, watching a young couple committed to serving great food struggle to create a restaurant in a tiny town that’s hard to even find on the map.

Shel and I both loved the book when we read it a few years ago, but never for a moment did we imagine that we’d one day find ourselves dining there.  So when we realized that it was not too far from our current temporary home, it was pretty much a done deal that we’d go there tout de suite.  But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

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To get there from Saint Antonin we drove north to Cahors, home of the famous and ancient vin noir, or black wine, and also home of Léon Gambetta.  Just about every town in France has a Boulevard Gambetta, but Cahors also has a statue of its native son, a rabble-rousing statesman of the mid 19th century.

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Cahors is also home to a covered market with an excellent fromagerie. The selection here was the best I’ve seen anywhere this side of Lyon, so of course we had to buy some local cheeses

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as well as some of this beautiful butter.

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We did manage to resist the offer of a foie gras sandwich with a free glass of wine, although it was tough.  Foie gras is as common as baguette here,  and we had better plans for our lunch.

The first part of those plans involved driving for another half an hour into the absolutely most remote corner of France that we’ve seen thus far.  Tiny one lane roads through forests with nary a car in sight, which is a very good thing given the size of the roads, lead us finally to the minuscule hamlet of Les Arques, and to La Récréation.

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After parking our trunkful of cheese in a shady spot, we were greeted by the vivacious and charming Noëlle Ratier, wife of chef Jacques Ratier.  She’s the public face of the restaurant, and we watched in awe as she moved from table to table, lingering with each guest, making each one feel like the guest of honor.

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The pretty dining room was empty, because we all wanted to be outside on one of the last perfectly warm days of the season.

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Since I was interested in vin noir Madame Ratier  deftly helped me choose a half bottle, as well as selections from the menu to complement the wine.

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We sat on the sun-splashed terrace under a 68 year old wisteria and started with a light bright tomato bisque that tasted of the last days of summer.

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A terrine of foie gras followed for me

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and fillets of rouget on a bed of artichoke hearts for Shel.  This dish, and the artichokes in particular, were what made me realize that our lunch was in the hands of a maître saucier, a sauce-making genius of a chef.  I’d go back to La Récréation just for those artichokes, and I might be tempted to sell my soul for the recipe.

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Next I had a ballotine of poultry with girolles, a savory golden mushroom

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while Shel had quail with foie gras and a sweet grape sauce that was far and away the best quail I’ve ever tasted.

Following the tiny and perfectly creamy cabecou that we both had as a mini cheese course

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Shel had this gorgeous tarte tatin with a caramel crème anglaise and I had an eau de vie of plums that sent me searching for a bottle to bring home.  So there you have it, a brilliant 5 course lunch for 33 Euros a person, served in a lovely setting by a friendly and super-competent staff, which has got to be one of the most incredible deals in France.

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After lunch we strolled through the town to the other attraction, the Zadkine Museum, which is absolutely worth visiting.

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It defies understanding how such an admittedly lovely but minute village, which boasts a population of 181 people, could house two such major attractions.  And nothing else, mind you, neither butcher nor baker, not a grocery store, not a hardware store, nothing else at all, in the middle of what really does appear to be nowhere.

As we strolled we talked a lot about what life would be like, so far off the beaten path. But you know what?  I kind of have the feeling that if you can see La Récréation, you really don’t need to see Paris.

The French Underground

September 25, 2009

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In French, when you’re drifting, not quite all there, and someone catches you at it, you say “O pardon, j’étais dans les nuages.”  Sorry, I was in the clouds.  Because usually when we drift, it’s up and away, we’re not normally thinking of what lies down there right beneath our little pink sneakers.

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The upper crust is all we normally know of our planet, and we think of it as solid.  So when we saw signs for the Grotte du Bosc, I was immediately drawn to seeing what might be underneath it all.  Alas, when I called about a visit, I learned that the season was nearly over, only groups could be accepted, and the two of us didn’t count as a group.  Expecting nothing, I asked that if a group should happen to schedule a visit in the few days remaining before the grottoes went to bed for the winter, we be allowed to join them.  And lo and behold, a a day or two later the phone rang.

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It was Monsieur Pierre Régi, who with his wife Michele owns what we were soon to discover, the fabulous grottoes underlying the tiny hamlet of Bosc.  I’d never really considered that a person might own a grotto, but M. Régi’s father discovered the grottoes in 1936, and the family eventually developed and now displays its treasures proudly.

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We didn’t know it when he called, but we were being invited to join a small class of deaf students as they explored another nearly soundless world 70 feet below the surface of their daily lives.  The kids were very excited by it all, and so were we.

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The caverns were narrow, damp, steep, slippery, and utterly majestic.

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We slithered our way through passages so narrow that some of us had to turn sideways,

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clambered down steps so precipitous that even M. Régi, who went ahead to explain what we were seeing, looked as small as one of the kids next to the rock formations at the bottom.

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A long-ago bear had found its way down into the river that formed the grottoes, but not out again, which thrilled the kids, who were getting the story through an amazing assortment of amplifying  headgear and some signing by their teachers.

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I think the adults were more thrilled by this column, formed from the fusion of a stalactite and a stalagmite, but looking for all the world as if it had been carved in Roman times.

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M. Régi explained that the area is undoubtedly riddled with such extravagant displays of beauty, destined to remain unseen, which I find mind boggling.

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I’m just grateful that this one has come to light, and that we got to share it with a group of giggling kids who have their own deep, dark places to navigate on their way to finding their personal bit of solid ground.

For The Love Of Fruit

September 23, 2009

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I dream of fruit.  I long for fruit.  I admire fruit wherever I find it, whether in its natural or transformed state.  This is actually a sweet winter squash, although I might not have believed it had I not seen

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the transformation taking place before my eyes, the other day at the Moissac festival of fruits and vegetables.  Maybe I need to learn to love fruit as an object of art, instead of thinking of it as something to eat.

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This watermelon is actually not begging to be eaten, because who could bear to spoil its perfectly carved symmetry?  Not to mention the fact that watermelon is said to be one of the very worst fruits for diabetics, full of sugar that goes straight to your blood and stays there.

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Even the fruit that is just normally beautiful calls out to me.  I don’t answer, but it calls.  Some diabetics say they can eat half an apple, if they eat it with peanut butter or cheese, but I personally could eat that whole box of Reine Claudes, one of my favorite plums.  I could, but I don’t.  I don’t eat even one.

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But as Frank Zappa famously wrote “Call any vegetable, call it by name… and the chances are good the vegetable will respond to you.”  And so I called the radish.  These were exceptionally vigorous and virile radishes, longer than my hand and twice as pink.  And I wanted to do right by them, plus it was a chilly evening when a warm vegetable responded better to my dinner plan than any salad could.  So into the pot with them, et voilà, Butter Braised Radishes.

This isn’t an original idea, as variations of it are to be found all over the Internet as a low carb favorite substitute for potatoes.  I wouldn’t say the resemblance is close, as the radish retains a slightly peppery freshness that a potato just can’t achieve.  But it’s a delicious dish, one I’ll be making again soon and so should you.  It’s not fruit, it’ll never be fruit, but it’s one of the next best things.

Butter Braised Radishes

1-2 large bunches of radishes
a large chunk of good butter
salt and pepper

Trim and clean the radishes, saving the greens to toss into a soup, where they’ll really surprise you with their pleasant flavor.  Cut radishes into large chunks, as you would with potatoes if you were making home fries.

Melt the butter in a heavy pan, one wide enough to hold the radishes all in one layer.  You really need a decent amount of butter, so don’t hesitate to add more than you think is prudent.  You’re not going to eat all that butter anyway.

Add the radishes to the melted butter, salt and pepper them, and reduce the heat to medium low.  Allow the radishes to braise in the butter until they are tender and golden brown on all sides, about 20 minutes.

Serve them with love, and I’m pretty sure that those radishes will respond to you.

Old World Order

September 20, 2009

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What the heck was this baby bald eagle doing at the Abbaye de Belleperche yesterday?  Same thing we were, watching demonstrations of falconry and medieval music and dancing.  He was only six months old and still an unruly but huge infant, my next shot was of his wing brushing my camera.  There’s no shot of me hurriedly jumping backward into the mud to escape the mighty span of his feathers, but trust me, I jumped.  It’s ironic to come from Washington, home to thousands of bald eagles, all the way to France in order to be brushed by an eagle’s wing, but life is like that.  How he himself got here I’d really like to know.

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It was a great day for seeing the half-wild birds, who evidently didn’t mind the rain as much as we did.

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I hadn’t realized before that owls were also part of the falconer’s armament, but here’s a little beauty, not biting the hand that feeds her.  It was amazing how the birds would fly to nearby rooftops, always returning for that little scrap of meat held tight in the glove.  They work for food, just like the rest of us,

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even though they don’t always look happy about it.  Hmm, there could be another parallel there, depending on how much you like your job and how well you eat.

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Now here are some guys who clearly love their job, a kind of combined minstrel/troubadour/commedia del arte troupe.  They sang, they played,

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they juggled,

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one of them even made a blond joke about me when I couldn’t answer a question he posed to the audience.  I didn’t even know they had blond jokes in France!

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There was even an herbalist under the vaulted roof providing instruction about how various plants were used medicinally in medieval times.  I was tempted to ask him how they treated diabetes back then, but he was always surrounded by a crowd of curious rain-avoiders.

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The French have a passion for their history, and I’m starting to understand that myself.  When you look at the faces of people around here, you see the same faces that you’ll find in old paintings.

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They have a connection with their past that we Americans can never have, not only because we’re such a young country, but also because we’re the land of Continuous Improvement, of change for its own sake.  Nonetheless, an American eagle caused a sensation here, for his size, and savage beauty. ” A new world bird” is how he was introduced, but I’m not drawing any conclusions from that about a new world order.  France, in all its historic glory, is definitely here to stay.

A Cat May Look At A King

September 15, 2009

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Newly restored to us after many catless months, Beppo and Zazou have blended seamlessly into their new environment and spend endless hours gazing out the window.  The fact that this is a second story window doesn’t seem to bother them a bit, although since it’s the very window out of which we look as we sit at our computers, it tends to panic us a little. They look but a mouse click away from falling to their doom, but of course, they don’t fall, because they’re cats.

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Zazou is particularly fearless, and skips lightly up to the roof outside the second story, where she’s perfectly color coordinated with the roof tiles.  From that roof she can see the buildings across the garden from us

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unless she decides, futile though it may be, to try to look out our bedroom window.

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This is what we see in the early morning, but the view is forbidden to cats, because it’s the only window in the house that has no sill at all, and it’s on the third floor.  Those are chalk cliffs in the background, not that cats give a rat sandwich about that, but they have an austere beauty that doesn’t lose its charm with the passing of the days.

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If we could see just a little further, about 6 kilometers down the road to Penne, we’d see the remains of this chateau, thought to have been constructed in the year 545.  It’s an instant antidote for feeling old, just thinking about something that’s been around since 545.  This breaks my previous record for being in the presence of oldness, which was at this part of the monastery at Flavigny that was built about 200 years later.

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Penne is also home to this beautiful house with which I fell immediately in love.  Although it’s not for sale I covet it anyway, and it has a wonderful garden for cats.  Perhaps some day we’ll live there, one never knows.

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But for now Beppo and Zazou are content with their own garden

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and with jumping in and out their own little cat door in the kitchen window a hundred times a day.  And of course, when they tire of studying antiquities from high and low

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there’s always the time-honored pursuit, a favorite of all cats worldwide.  To nap, perchance to dream, and although a cat may dream of a king, I rather imagine they’re dreaming of being free cats again, after spending many months at kitty camp.  Free, at home with the ones they love, well fed and groomed, it’s a royal life for a cat.

The Grapes of Gaillac

September 13, 2009

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Loin de l’oeil (or len de l’el), mauzac, duras, braucol (or fer servadou), ondenc, the names of the grapes that make up the excellent wines of Gaillac sing an unfamiliar song.  Sure, they use syrah and sauvignon blanc and muscadelle, but it’s the old grapes, and their ancient names, that really capture the imagination.  In a world where all too often one bottle of cabernet tastes just like another, no matter which hemisphere it was made in, the wines of Gaillac stand apart.  They’re interesting, different, delicious.

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If you’re making a Gaillac wine tour, a great place to start is at the Maison des Vins, where they offer free tastings of the wines made by over 100 wineries in the region.  It’s there that I learned that most of the Gaillac grapes, including those that went into some of the wines that we really enjoyed, are mechanically harvested.  This surprised me a lot, since I tend to have a bias toward wines made from hand-harvested fruit.

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Grapes that are mechanically harvested are roughed up in the process, which can cause them to start fermenting while they’re still in the truck on the way to the winery.  Also they can’t be carefully sorted for ripeness by the harvester, and a certain amount of detritus enters the crusher along with the fruit.  Although mechanical harvesting is done for economic reasons, allowing for a greater yield and a lower price per bottle, hand harvesting generally produces a higher quality finished product.

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Here stems and leaves pop out of the other side of the crusher after mechanical harvesting.

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The other end of the spectrum is a place like Domaine Plageoles, where every step in the wine making process is done by hand and whose wines reflect that care and attention to detail.  I fell in love with their Duras, for all of their wines are monocepage, made from a single grape variety, and managed to snag a few of the hard to come by bottles to bring home.

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Don’t leave the Maison des Vins without stepping into the cathedral next door, the most beautiful one I’ve seen in this region.

And then, all that tasting is going to make you hungry, right?

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It’s a short walk to La Table du Sommelier, where not only can they really cook, but they do it for an amazingly low price, and they’ll recommend and serve the perfect wines to accompany your meal.

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For only 13 Euros, a weekday lunch menu, I had this delicious duck salad and

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this medley of bass and fresh cod in a fennel and butter sauce.  It was not only a brilliant meal, eaten on their shady terrace, but we walked out of there lugging several cases of the wines they introduced us to, which made it a really wonderful find.

This is a part of France where you can eat and drink really well, which I’m busy doing myself, and which I recommend to you, if you’re looking for an out of the way corner where la vie est douce.

A Medieval Feast

September 11, 2009

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In this part of France, the Midi-Quercy, the medieval lives on and is only a stone’s throw from any door.  At Cordes-sur-Ciel, a wax museum brings the daily routines of 1439 back to lifelike clarity.

We’ve been taking the occasion of a visit from our Dutch friends Bert and Katherine to spread ourselves out over the countryside, seeing as much as possible and playing all day long.  On this day

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Bert and Shel got on the BMW and took off for an all-day boys-only moto-madness tour of the countryside

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while Katherine and I took the car and meandered much more sedately up to Cordes-sur-Ciel.  Known for it’s super-saturation of tourists, we found it calm and nearly empty on a weekday in September.  Also renowned as a shopper’s paradise, we managed not to buy anything more than a post card, although we were both sorely tempted by the gorgeous garments hand made by Lisa Minard, some of the most creative and beautiful pieces I’ve ever seen.  If you’re going to Cordes, bring your checkbook and plan to be bowled over by her little shop.

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And speaking of feminine beauty, the wax museum offers plenty, placing a special emphasis on the role of women in the middle class of the middle ages, namely to ensure the future of the family by producing as many children as was humanly possible

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and to keep them fed and clothed.

Cordes has another interesting museum, where everything on display is made entirely of sugar.  I went in expecting to see a lot of candy and pastry decorations, but instead

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we founds dozens of glass-encased sugar sculptures ranging from representations of the practical

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to the thematic

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to the purely fantastical.  Each case was brightly lit, to make the sugar sparkle and shine, and thus very hard to photograph, but you get the idea.  Dream up something, anything at all, and make it completely out of sugar, just because you can.

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All in all, Cordes is a lovely little town, perched high above the surrounding fields and farms, all cobbled streets, ancient stone houses

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and gorgeous views, like this one from our lunch table where we refreshed ourselves with salade de gésiers et confit de canard and some excellent rosé from nearby Gaillac.  That salad is a signature dish around here, crisp greens topped with warm slices of confit of duck gizzards and bits of duck meat, and I’ve been having it at every opportunity.

I wouldn’t want to live there, as it’s one of the steepest towns I’ve ever seen, where you huff and puff your way up, slip and slide your way down, and it’s reportedly quite dead in the winter.  but I have to admit that

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sweet houses like this one, with the typically beautiful brickwork of the Languedoc

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and this beautifully enclosed garden, once part of a convent, are captivating.  I’m planning to go back soon, ostensibly to show it to Shel, but I’ll be sure to get him to bring his checkbook.

Living History

September 7, 2009

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Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val is a slow-moving town with its feet deep in the past.  Founded in the 9th century deep in a stony gorge on the Aveyron river, it’s belonged to the Romans, to the English, to the French, to the Catholics, and to the Protestants, in a relentless cycle of conquest and upheaval.  The fact that it’s now a sleepy little place with a generous summer infusion of tourists is probably responsible for the annual pageantry that is the town’s medieval festival.  By happy accident, the town remembered its former travails and glory on our second night here, reminding us that we are a truly insignificant fraction of its long list of foreign invaders.

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When we saw the signs for a medieval festival we didn’t know what to expect, but we went along for the ride since this will be our home for the next five weeks, and we wanted to feel a part of its history.  In the event costumed marchers gathered, torches were lit, and hundreds of us followed the torchlight procession through the narrow streets of the ancient town

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stopping in front of important buildings to listen to talks about their significance in history.  Luckily we had read about it in advance, since we could neither hear nor understand most of what was said, public address systems being no better in France than they are anywhere else.

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I couldn’t help but notice that lots of little boys were dressed up, but there were almost no little girls in costume.  I hope that has nothing to do with the forgotten role of women in much of our past, but I fear otherwise.

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After the torchlight parade, the party really got started, with fire juggling

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a band playing and singing rollicking Occitan music

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and the whole town square filled with dancers of all ages.  A bevy of volunteers urged endless cups of hippocras, a sweet and spicy red wine concoction, on the merrymakers along with bites of medieval sweet breads called fouace and massepain.

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Finally, after midnight, we followed a path of light home to our little house that is several hundred years old, and fell into our blissfully modern bed.  History and progress both have their places, and I think it’s a particular genius of the French to keep them closely tied, side by side in daily life, reminding us that here and now is a good time to be alive, but there and then are what made us who we are today.

More Cheese Please

September 5, 2009

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A couple of nights ago we found ourselves doing what the French do with such aplomb, sitting outside on a warm evening, eating and drinking oh so well.  As you might remember, I’ve been agonizing over how a low carb life would be compatible with eating out in France, and this was the first true test.

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We were seated in the close company of pigeons at a great little place called Le Grillardin. I normally am not fond of Montpellier, which has the most hellish traffic I’ve ever seen and is not very pretty into the bargain, but for this place I’d gladly make an exception (so long as someone else is driving me there).

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My dinner got off to a lovely start with this warm pig’s feet salad.  Pig’s feet are one of those things that are almost always better when someone else makes them, because the deboning and extraction of the tiny morsels of meat is something I’d rather leave to professionals.  I love a good kitchen project, but boning pigs feet is right up there with making homemade blood sausage on my list of tasks to avoid.  Been there, tried that, now worship those who do it for a living.

After the salad I chose a main course called Roasted Raw Milk Camembert with Saucisse de Morteau and new potatoes.  Naturally, the potatoes were problematic.   In my experience French waiters aren’t big on substitutions, since every plate is balanced in the kitchen and changing one element might throw the whole thing off.  However, when I asked for green vegetables instead of a creamy potato gratin, our server relented.

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And here’s what he brought me.  Right, a whole Camembert, all melty and bubbling, with a side of sausage, salad, and beans.  I’d really ordered it because of my devotion to Saucisse de Morteau, one of the best cooked sausages in France.  I’d imagined a wedge of Camembert on the side, not a whole cheese served with a spoon.  Of course, when presented with such an opportunity, what would any sensible person do?  Eating cheese with a spoon right from the box sounds either decadent or tacky, depending on your perspective.  In my case, not stopping to consult my arteries, I dove right in, a headlong plunge into a low carb dream of warm meltingness.  But even I, a cheesehead from the get go, couldn’t polish the whole thing off.

I tried, believe me, I tried.  I only surrendered when I realized that a shot of Calvados would cut through it all in a most delightful way, and thus was I saved from having to report that contrary to expectations one person can eat an entire Camembert and live to dine another day.

Pigs feet, Saucisse de Morteau, Calvados, and most of all, Camembert.  Yes, I’m beginning to think that a low carb life in France is possible, although it will take a few more great meals like that one to convince me completely.  When it comes to the low carb life in France, there are many options, but in the end, the cheese stands alone.