Archive for November 2009

And There Was Light

November 29, 2009

When was the last time you attended a light show?  You can dig out your old love beads right now, because have I ever got one for you!

We just got home from  a light-filled weekend in Geneva, where not only was there an exhibition of Light and Trees, but I was entranced by the light everywhere we went.  Like this breathtakingly radiant water bottle, now and forever my best memory of what was otherwise an exasperating lunch.

We didn’t go to Geneva specifically for the lights, in fact we stumbled upon them by accident.  Out walking on our first night there, we noticed that there were quite a lot of unusual trees, changing colors every few seconds.

We watched them in amazement, although it wasn’t until the next day that we discovered that there was a treelight expo, just in time for our visit.

And then, driving past the Jardin Anglais park on our second night we screeched to a halt and jumped out to wander in this wonderland.

Here you can almost see Shel inspecting a mysterious installation that looked different from every angle of approach.

This is where the kids were hanging out, plastering themselves against the huge balls of light and posing for pictures.

We ourselves spent the most time here, in front of this complex arrangement of trees, strobes, and mirrors.

And then the next morning at the market in Ferney-Voltaire, even this arrangement of pots of acacia honey seemed to be participating in the lightfest.

I have lots more to say about Geneva, but for now I’ll just leave you in the beauty of the light.  And don’t hesitate to decorate a tree of your own, if the mood strikes you.

Old Number Eights

November 26, 2009

Today’s post is brought to you by Guest Blogger Shel, who is sharing his favorite Thanksgiving treat for the first time in print.  As he tells the story…

Rich’s department store was a downtown Atlanta institution from Reconstruction until it closed in 1991, and during most of its history its top-floor Magnolia Room restaurant could be counted upon to provide excellent food and a spot for the weary shopper to rest both foot and wallet.

All-in-all, it was the downtown refuge for the fur and pearl set, its never-changing menu a reliable guide to light salads for the ladies and heartier fare for their escorts.

From early Hoover until mid-Eisenhower, one of the most popular selections on the numbered menu had been an open-faced sandwich on rye, made up of turkey, ham, bacon, cheese, lettuce and garnishes, the whole topped off with an appealing sauce.

Then, they changed the menu, and number eight became something else.  Those customers for whom the sight of a green-uniformed Magnolia Room waitress brought forth a Pavlovian “Number eight and a cup of coffee, please,” were rewarded with something entirely different.

From the brouhaha that ensued, you’d have thought they’d changed the currency.

Within a month, each of the newly-printed, plastic-coated Magnolia Room menus bore a small, type-written sticker across the bottom of the sandwich page; it said, simply, “Yes, we have Old Number Eights.” Thus was a legend born.

In my parents’ house, “Old Number Eights” were synonymous with “Thanksgiving leftovers,” yet the phrase does no justice to the panoply of delights with which one was confronted should one have been so fortunate as to be invited to the parental manse the Friday after Thanksgiving. Rather than assemble the sandwiches, Mother put out the ingredients,buffet style, and each guest was encouraged to build his own, and build them we did.

To make the traditional Rich’s Old Number Eight, start with the Louis dressing:

 1/2 cup Heinz Chili Sauce
 1/2 cup home-made yellow mayonnaise

Combine in a serving bowl and blend with a fork until smooth. You may add a teaspoon or so of finely grated onion for a little extra zip, and you may use commercial mayonnaise instead of home-made if you add a little lemon juice to the mixture.  Don’t use anything but genuine Heinz Chili Sauce (UPC code 131120); this is one place where kitchen improvisation will not be crowned with success.

One cup of the dressing should be enough for four sandwiches, but do not be suprised if your guests ask for more.

For each Old Number Eight, you will need

Two slices of American or Jewish rye bread
Several slices of tender turkey breast meat
Enough julienned ham strips to add a little flavor
Swiss cheese slices sufficient to cover most of both slices of bread
Two or three strips of crisp, cooked bacon
A hard-cooked egg, quartered
Two or three tomato wedges
A few olives
Some shredded (sliced, not torn) lettuce
The aforementioned Louis dressing

Toast the bread very lightly, really just enough to warm it, spread a little of the dressing on it and place both slices flat on a dinner plate. Cover with the turkey slices, the swiss cheese, the ham, and the bacon. Add a little dressing here and there if you think it needs it. Top with the lettuce and more dressing.  Garnish with the tomato wedges, the quartered egg, and the olives. 

The classic version is an open-face sandwich, and a knife and fork are required.  If you’re laying this out as a buffet, add a selection of sliced breads, provide the eggs and tomatoes sliced as well as quartered, and double the amount of dressing available.

The method of preparing the turkey doesn’t seem to matter much, as long as you use a real turkey, not one of those slimy, chopped-and-formed “deli” horrors; you need the nice, even, almost flakey slices of breast meat that only come from a real bird perfectly cooked yesterday. My mother invariably oven-roasts her birds, my ex-wife boiled hers, and Abra and I prefer to smoke ours.

Of course, when you put out the ingredients buffet-style, and each person gets to build his own, the variations multiply; I don’t think any two people in our family end up with the same combination.  I particularly like:

Untoasted rye bread (but since there’s no real rye bread in France, I’ll take it any way I can get it)
Swiss cheese
Sliced turkey
Bacon strips
Shredded lettuce
Louis dressing

In fact, I like this particular combination so much that I have been known to smoke a turkey breast for the express purpose of creating turkey leftovers from which to make it.

The ingredients and combinations may change, at least in my family, but an invitation to have “Old Number Eights” always gets my attention.

Thanksgiving Sorghum Walnut Tart

November 23, 2009

We’re not actually having Thanksgiving this year, that’s fact number one.  Fact number two is that I hauled a jar of sorghum syrup back to France with me in my already overweight luggage.  Heaven only knows what I was thinking.  I could pretend that I was planning ahead for Thanksgiving, but honestly, it was just a fit of madness that made me do it.  And fact number three is that even though Shel bravely insists that he’ll be fine without a proper Thanksgiving dinner so long as he can have Old Number Eights, a peculiar sort of turkey sandwich to which he’s inexplicably attached, I feel guilty to be depriving him of Thanksgiving treats just because I can’t eat them myself.

So since we had English guests this weekend, and since I had the sorghum,  I thought I’d make a sorghum  pecan pie, something so typically American that I was sure they wouldn’t have had it before.  But given that the entire rest of the meal was straight-down-the-line Southwest French,

including a wonderful Catalan lamb cassoulet, I bent tradition a bit and made it a sorghum walnut tart.  Walnut tart is very southwest of France, and sorghum pie goo is an Only in America sort of thing; thus was born a Franco-American Thanksgiving treat.  I didn’t actually taste it myself, but judging by how rapidly it disappeared, and the number of times per day that Shel’s been into the leftover bits, it was a big success.

Here, you can have my piece.

I used this crust recipe, one of my favorites because all you have to do is press it into the pan.  In this case I doubled the recipe and pressed it into a 10″ springform pan.  I used this recipe for  the pie, except that I substituted 2 cups of freshly shelled and toasted walnuts for the pecans.  It’s dead easy to make, and keeps well on the counter overnight, making it a perfect Thanksgiving make-ahead.  If you’d like to give a slight French flair to your feast, but not enough to scare the relatives, this pie is for you.  And please, have an extra bite for me.

A French Candlelight Dinner

November 21, 2009

Let me just start by stating the obvious: French cooking is all about the stock.  I’ve made stock for years, but now, cooking mainly French dishes, I’ve always got chicken bones or duck bones in my fridge, along with scraps of fennel and celery leaves.  And so when I decided I needed a dish that would be really and truly impressive for a special dinner guest, I settled on Paula Wolfert’s Duck Leg and Sweetbread Ragout, from the Cooking of Southwest France.  And of course, I started by making the stock.

Basically you make two separate ragouts, one with duck legs and white wine, the other

with sweetbreads in a vermouth and Port sauce.  This was my first time working with sweetbreads, and I have to admit that they are intimidating when raw.  But since I love to eat them when somebody else does the cooking, I figured that it was time to overcome my nervousness and dive in.  And believe me, it was oh so worth it.  Once you have the two ragouts made you put them together and reduce the combined sauce until it’s heaven on a spoon.  And believe me, I’m not exaggerating.  This is a stunningly delicious dish

which I strongly suggest you serve by candlelight, since beauty is not its strong point. Here I served it with Quercy-style roasted potatoes from the same book, and braised endive, whose bitter notes cut perfectly through the richness of the ragout while admittedly leaving something to be desired in the color contrast department.  If you don’t have the book, the recipe is here and I recommend that as soon as possible you set aside an entire day to play in the kitchen and prepare this amazing dish.  And don’t be afraid of sweetbreads, they’ll soon be your new favorite ingredient.

As a first course I served another candlelight special,  small portions of fresh cod on a bed of melted fennel and leeks, with a fennel pollen cream sauce.  I chose this because I wanted to mystify our guest, a former restaurateur, with the haunting and elusive flavor of fennel pollen.  And indeed, he couldn’t guess what it was at all, and was almost as blown away by this dish as he was by the ragout.  Almost, but not quite, because that ragout is Really Something.

And then of course there was cheese, which was also dessert for me, and which looks good in any sort of light,

but for the guys I made a lovely chestnut tart.  Even though the dough was sticky and hard to roll out, I had fun putting it all together with my fingertips.  Want to try it at home?  The recipe is below.

It’s not super gorgeous either, making it a perfect candidate for candlelight.  I have a new appreciation for candle-lit suppers after this one, because in the warm, dim light no one thought for a moment about the fact that the food was nearly all brown, and somewhat dowdy.

The tart takes a couple of special ingredients: cream of chestnut spread

and chestnut liqueur.  I think you can find both of these in specialty stores just about anywhere, but if you have trouble with the liqueur, you can use Frangelico or brandy.  Oh yes, and don’t forget to add candles to your shopping list!

Chestnut Fluff Tart*

For the pastry:
250 gms/8.5 oz flour
25 gms/1 oz sugar
large pinch of salt
125 gms/4.5 oz unsalted butter
1 egg yolk (save white for later)
5 cl/1.5 T water

For the filling:
500 gm/18 oz chestnut cream
3 egg yolks
2 cl/2 tsp chestnut liqueur
200 gm/8 oz cream, whipped to soft peaks
6 egg whites, beaten to soft peaks

Make the pastry by putting the flour, sugar, and salt on a pastry board or the countertop and mixing together with your fingertips.  Work in the egg yolk and the butter very lightly, with just the tips of your fingers. Sprinkle with the water, adding a tiny bit more if necessary,  and work the dough lightly into a ball.  Flatten the ball, wrap in plastic, and chill for 15-20 minutes.  Roll out the dough between two sheets of plastic wrap or parchment paper and fit into a tart pan.

Preheat oven to 200°C/400°F.  Make the filling by placing the chestnut cream in a bowl and stirring in the egg yolks and chestnut liqueur until the mixture is light and smooth.  Whip the cream and fold it in gently.  Beat the egg whites and fold them in gently.

Fill the tart shell and bake for approximately 30 minutes, until the filling is set in the middle but not overbaked.  When the top of the filling first begins to brown, reduce the oven temperature to 180°C/350°F and continue baking until done.  The tart can be served warm or at room temperature, and a little whipped cream on the side wouldn’t hurt.

*This recipe comes to you courtesy of Restaurant Le Panoramic, Ozon

Hand Made In The Ardèche

November 18, 2009

It’s a hard rock life in the Ardèche, always has been, always will be. 

But whereas now it’s an underpopulated and underappreciated little corner of France, at one time it was the bustling hub of the silk trade.  It was to the Ardèche that silk cocoons, raised in the nearby Cévennes, came to be spun, before being shipped off to Lyon to be woven, and silk kept a lot of people employed.

In vast spinning factories like this one the local populace toiled to transform the silk. 

Here’s where they passed their days, behind this stone wall, far below street level, where the stream turned the wheels that powered the machines. The windows you see here were not for the workers, but rather for the offices and the home of the owners of the mill.   The workers were underground, down a long flight of perilously steep stairs. 

Today a very old man has planted a vegetable garden on what used to be the roof over the now-silent factory, bringing the place back to a sort of life.

Inside the factory, thin strands of silk were spun on these wheels, doubled, and quadrupled into strong thread

that was twisted into 100 gram skeins for shipping.  It was women’s work, mainly, and this factory in Marcols-les-Eaux once employed abut 28 local women.

Actually they weren’t women, they were girls, girls as young as 12 years old.  And each one had a little booklet, stating that she had been examined by a doctor and was fit to work.  A livret de travail des enfants, a book of child labor.

Here we see that Louise Nancy Vergnes, born on August 13, 1896, went to work in the spinning factory on June 20, 1909.  You do the math.  She, and all the girls, worked twelve hours a day, six days a week and slept in unheated dormitories that have now mostly been turned into B&Bs like the pretty one you see above.  We stayed there, and it was  absolutely frigid, in November.  I don’t even want to imagine what it must have been like in January, after working for twelve hours on one’s feet in a similarly unheated mill.  A little girl, working for a living until she married, after which her life probably did not get any easier.

When the factory was shut down in the the 1960’s they left all of the official notices pinned to the bulletin boards, and so we know that, at a time when men were preparing to walk on the moon, the silk workers were only being paid 1 franc 48 centimes per hour, the equivalent of about 20 cents per hour in today’s money. 

A hard rock life for sure, in a place where the name of the street outside the factory is carved in stone, but the names of those who spent their youth there are fading from the paper.  A girl’s life.

Good Intentions Gone Astray

November 14, 2009

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Vaison La Romaine.  They call it that because it was a Roman town, now the site of some of the most important Roman ruins in the area.  We went there with every intention of visiting them, learning abut the history of the place, steeping in the ancient atmosphere.  Instead, food and wine captured our attention and, ruins be damned, we were forced, forced I say, to leave them for another day.

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Driving there we were surrounded by brilliant vines that reached to every horizon.  Unfortunately, when there are vines as far as the eye can see

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there’s likely to be huge wine production.  And huge wine production is, let us say, usually not the best.  Here in Suze-La-Rousse wine is being made in 80,000 litre tanks that dwarf our car.  I actually didn’t have the nerve to taste the wine here, but I think I’m safe is assuming that it’s not something you’d normally want to drink.  Even in France there’s plenty of wine that’s cheap and nasty, and this is sure to be in that category.

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But as a saving grace, the moment we arrived in Vaison we happened to park in front of this phenomenal cheese shop.  Madame Déal, whose shop it is, is a Meilleur Ouvrier de France, one of the best workers in her field in France. The Meilleur Ouvrier designation is very prestigious, and those awarded it wear a special collar with their work clothes, every day for life.  If you get a product or service from a Meilleur Ouvrier, it’s sure to be excellent.

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And indeed, the cheeses I bought from her were among the best I’ve ever had, good enough to have me thinking about making that 80 kilometer drive again just to stock up on cheese.

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But the thing that really derailed our good intentions was the fact that, unbeknownst to us, Vaison had chosen that very day to have a huge food and wine expo, with tastes and samples of almost everything.

I felt kind of guilty about it, since I knew I wouldn’t be buying, but I took the opportunity to taste some very nice Châteauneuf-du-Pape, something that’s normally outside my budget.  The foie gras folks weren’t giving out samples, but we bought a bit anyway, for the holidays.

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Shel didn’t feel at all guilty tasting from this stand, a small coffee roaster, because he fully intended to buy several bags of coffee.  For some reason there’s no good coffee in our town, and we got quite hooked during our time in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val on having a coffee roaster in the weekly market.  These guys did very nice coffee, and invited us to visit their shop in Avignon, which we might just do the next time we feel like driving for 45 minutes to stock up on coffee.

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There was all sorts of charcuterie and sausages

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and the knives to cut them with.

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There was a chocolate sculpting contest going on, and this carniverous-looking plant was made entirely of chocolate.

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There was beautiful dried fruit that looked like it had come straight from the orchard,

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and smoked black cod that had come from Alaska, although it must have been by some very circuitous route, because do you see that price?  At today’s exchange rate, that 109 Euros per kilo is $74 per pound!   The lady at the stand asked me if I were taking a picture because of the price, and when I admitted that was really my motivtion, she said “well, I can certainly understand that!”  Needless to say, they weren’t giving out any free samples either.

I do still feel a bit guilty about having missed those ruins though., and I’m sure we’ll be going back to see them in the near future.  The fact that we’re fresh out of cheese has nothing to do with it!

A Day For The Dead

November 11, 2009

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Once again a crowd gathered to hear the names of the dead read aloud. For 81 years the town has remembered those who died in the First World War, known here as la Grande Guerre, the great war.  It was great only in the sense of enormous, in that 1,400,000 French citizens lost their lives, one tenth of the French population at the time.  The annual ceremony is very moving, and I can’t possibly describe it any better than I did here.

But this year it had a special meaning for us, because we learned yesterday that we have lost a friend.  He wasn’t a soldier, except in the battle against depression, and he took his own life.

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The flags were at half-mast today for those that loved and lost, and I like to think they also marked the passing of Francis.  Ending one’s own life still shocks me to the core, although a startling number of people do commit suicide in France, at a rate 40% higher than in the US.  Twenty five workers at France Telecom alone have killed themselves in the past 18 months, citing the meaninglessness and isolation of their work, and the erosion of solidarity on the job.

The first time we ourselves were touched by suicide here in France I wrote this piece about it. In a way I wish I hadn’t written it then, so that I could have written it for Francis.

Because we knew Francis.  He’d eaten at our table and we at his.  We’d watched him make our friend Marie smile and laugh and relax into a woman we hadn’t seen before, a woman who knew she was loved.  He was a hero to us, even though he wasn’t a soldier, because of the way he made Marie smile.  I’m so afraid I’ll never see that smile again; the pain in her eyes now is something terrible to behold.

I searched the Internet in vain for a picture of him, for stories of his life, for even a mere mention of his name.  But, and this stabbed me to the quick, all I could find was the announcement of his death.  He lived a simple life, an ordinary life, and for only 50 short years.  His name isn’t on any monument, the single ceremony to observe his death is already over.

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When they read out the names of the departed, those we’ll miss forever, in solemn alphabetical order, I wish they’d finished with Villesseche, Francis, so that his name would rest part of the history of this place and time.  But since they didn’t, I will.