Archive for March 2011

Avignon, Chapeau

March 30, 2011

In French, when you want to say congratulations to someone, you often say chapeau, which is literally the word for hat.  As if tipping your hat to the honoree, all the while bare-headed and economizing on words. Chapeau.

Katherine and I were wandering the streets of Avignon in search of lunch, something surprisingly hard to find in Avignon, when we happened on the most fabulous hat store, stuffed to the brim with the sort of hats I’d love to wear, but which would necessitate a whole new wardrobe and an entirely different lifestyle.

Katherine though, being Dutch, has an occasion that demands a new hat every year: the celebration of the Queen’s birthday.  She happens to look gorgeous in hats, and I had a blast watching her try them on until she found just the right one.  I tried a few myself, furtively, concluding each time that I’d need a hair cut for this one, a slinky sheath for that one, perhaps a whole new face for some of them.

It’s actually easier to find a great hat than a decent lunch in Avignon. For some reason that I have never understood, we always have a hard time eating there, with the notable exceptions of the times we’ve eaten in super high style at A Deux Pas, or had a flamenco meal at the Opéra Café. And no, we didn’t resort to eating at the Rapido Resto, but I don’t even want to mention where we did eat, lest someone take it as a recommendation.  If I ever find a good lunch spot right in central Avignon, I’ll be sure to let you know.

What Avignon is great for is architecture. Here’s the Opera House itself,

and here’s the City Hall, with a banner advocating the liberation of two French journalists, held in Afghanistan now for almost two years.

There’s the starkly forbidding Palais des Papes, which has brooded over French religious life since the 14th century,

the more inviting archaeology museum,

and the building that houses the office de tourisme.

Even an average shopping street in Avignon is good to look at,

as are its denizens.

It’s a lovely town as long as you’re not in need of a good lunch.  Avignon, chapeau for those in search of beauty, pas de chapeau for the hungry.

And now, we’re off for a few days in the Haute Savoie, in Annecy.  I’m excited about the prospect of all the cheese and some special mountain wines that you can’t find down here in the south, and about driving through a part of France that we barely know.  It may still be cool up there, so get out your mittens and come along.

Borrowed Cuisine

March 26, 2011

This past week we’ve had our beloved friends Katherine and Bert down visiting us from Holland, and one night we had their friends Annick and Christian over for dinner. I made three sensational dishes, and not one of them was my own. Sometimes borrowing is best.

This is the Major Asparagus Moment here in the south of France, when the markets are spilling over with fat stalks of Provencal asparagus.  Most people eat it pretty much every day in this far-too-short season, and after a while you need some new inspiration.  I found it, as I so often do, in a recipe of Paula Wolfert’s that has you roast the asparagus in parchment for 2 hours before drizzling it with a creamy caper sauce. This produces some of the most exemplary asparagus I’ve ever eaten, and I urge you to try it as soon as you have fresh local asparagus in your kitchen.  I used the recipe found here, although I did use a lot more tarragon than is called for.

After the asparagus I served one of the most tantalizing veal dishes I’ve ever come across.  Although it looks fairly brown and unprepossessing, our French guests commented “why do you even need to go to a restaurant if you can have this at home?” which I think about sums up how wonderful it is. If you make it, be sure to get a full kilo of veal bones for the sauce, which when drastically reduced is good enough to eat all by itself. The recipe is here, and although it takes a while to put together, it’s well worth your time. It’s a very special dish, and as an added bonus it can be made entirely ahead of time.

For dessert I topped slices of Dutch spice cake with poached pears and apples in a heady, spicy syrup. I didn’t have enough of the tiny Martin Sec pears, so after the pears were poached I simmered some apple slices in the same syrup, and then served them together, with a bowl of crème fraîche to pass. I didn’t taste this myself, but people were making some of the most ecstatic noises that have ever greeted a dessert I’ve served, so I think it’s fair to say this one is a guaranteed winner.  David Lebovitz’s recipe for poached pears is here, and if you can get your hands on some spice cake, or a light gingerbread, serve it with the fruit and bask in the compliments.

So there was a gorgeous meal that I compiled and executed, although scarcely a bite of it was my original idea. It was fun to make, fun to serve, fun to eat, and I’m happy to be able to profit from the brilliant ideas of others. Sometimes originality is over-rated.

Just Chard, Not Chardonnay

March 19, 2011

Today I came home from the market with five stalks of chard, enough for a small army.  Here we get the most gigantic chard I’ve ever imagined, huge leaves with stalks the size of your arm, and they’re tender and sweet as can be.  I really missed this chard when we were back in the U.S., there’s nothing comparable there, although I don’t know why that should be. Perhaps I’ll try to sneak some seeds of this prehistoric-looking vegetable home with me. But in the meantime

the leaves start to wilt fast. Mine are currently reposing in a huge sink full of cold water so they don’t dehydrate, while I decide what to do with them. But in an effort to help you appreciate the chard you can get, and should get, because it’s so good for you and so full of greenness, here’s an excellent Morrocan-influenced recipe that’s easy to make and goes with just about everything. Because it’s a bit spicy, it’s especially nice with blander dishes like chicken or pasta.  In fact, you can stir this chard into some cooked and drained farfalle or penne and call it a pasta sauce.

Chard with Garlic, Cumin, and Paprika

adapted from a recipe by Deborah Madison

12 cups of chopped chard leaves and stems, keep leaves separate from stems once chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup chopped Italian parsley
1 cup chopped cilantro
2 teaspoons pimenton, or use regular paprika
2 teaspoons ground cumin
3 tablespoons olive oil
salt to taste

Separate the chard stems from the leaves  and chop them separately

Heat the olive oil and sauté the chard stems slowly with a pinch of salt until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the pimenton, garlic, and cumin and stir to combine, sauté until fragrant. Add the parsley, cilantro, and chard leaves, plus a little splash of water.  Stir, then cover tightly and cook over low heat. Remove lid from time to time and stir, adding a little more water if necessary. When the chard leaves are wilted and tender your chard is good to go.  Salt to taste.

Rain Swells The Buds

March 15, 2011

When we left this house a year ago, our cherry tree looked like it didn’t have another year left to live. Shel was in pretty much the same shape at the time, and so I count it as semi-miraculous that both he and the cerisier are full of new life. It’s been raining heavily for several days straight here, and the tree is clearly reveling in the unaccustomed moisture. As for us, the countless tears we shed over the past year have only nourished our love, and now we’re getting rained on as well, which can’t hurt. Our rain isn’t radioactive though, as far as we know

It was a very hard winter here, and my beloved bougainvillea, which climbed up to the second story last year, wrapping the house in brilliant fuchsia flowers, has been reduced to a few sticks. It’s still alive though, and I’m hoping to see it bloom once again. Illness is like that too, stripping us of our color and flamboyance, but not of our will to live, even amidst the rubble. But we’re not huddled in the dark, without food or water, wondering if our children are being poisoned by the air they breathe.

Somehow hope shines through, at least here in our home. There may be only one flower in the garden, but it’s doing all it can to brighten a dark day. Although I don’t think there are any flowers in Japan now; it’s supposed to snow tonight, and not the sweet snow of cherry blossoms drifting.

You can always try to start over, rebuild, re-pot, although you can never get back what you have lost. A home, a family, a town, a life, a country, when they’re gone, they’re gone for good. I hold Shel’s hand more tightly now.

The two of us stand strong, rooted in the debris of the past year and surrounded by the beginnings of the year to come. But we’re only two, and we count for little.  Tens of thousands couldn’t keep their feet on the ground, millions are surrounded by debris, without new beginnings in sight. There’s only one Japan in the world.  May it live.

C’est Bon La Gourmandise

March 10, 2011

There’s just no good way to say it in English, the word gourmandise. On the one hand it means greed or gluttony, on the other it means, as the picture indicates, a love of or even lust for food, quite separate from the refined gourmet experience. It’s an appreciation of the sinfully delicious, a desire for more, a wallowing in the wonderment of all that tastes good. But really, who could accuse those cherubic kids of sin?

The kids came into the house today wrapped around these lovely pastry shells, which I had ordered in order to make bouchées à la reine au poisson. I’d never made it before, or actually even eaten it, but it popped into my head as the right thing to serve lunch guests on a warm and sunny afternoon in early spring. Some scallops with their coral, a handful of shrimp, filets of salmon, monkfish, and sea bass, a pile of diced shallots, another of shiitakes, butter and cream. Lots of cream I must say, and all stuffed into those crisp shells. That last part would qualify as gourmandise, except that since I don’t eat flour and couldn’t bind the fish with the usual sauce Béchamel, the cream was the necessary binder to make the whole thing luscious. Plus I was planning to eat my share from a non-pastry bowl. No sin there, in my book.

A starter of the first asparagus from Provence, with slivers of smoked pork fillet and a salad of mâche, watercress, and radish, guaranteed virtue, even the walnut oil dressing drizzled over it all. Every single element healthy and fresh, yet somehow, being very good, perhaps better than a salad needs to be, it does qualify as a salade gourmande.

I confess that I don’t know exactly where you cross the line into gourmandise. I’m an unapologetic eater, and see no reason for anything I eat to be less than delicious. I’ve been called a gourmande a few times, but I don’t take it as a synonym for a greedy glutton. I just assume that my love of good food shows.

The French are funny about food, they have complexes, just like Americans do. In the six days that we’ve been back, four French people have remarked that I’ve lost weight.  Not very much, really, but they noticed it right away and felt free to comment on it. The French do love food, but are generally strict with themselves about it. If I ask the butcher for a steak for two people, I’ll be given 5 ounces, or less, per person. But almost every French meal ends in a dessert, however small and simple.

The fact of having lunched on that salad, plus the bouchée, plus this pear and caramel mousse cake, absolutely qualifies as gourmandise. I didn’t have the cake, but I claim no special virtue there, because if I could have I would have, in a hot French minute. A French woman might have had a little fruit, or more likely, a cup of herbal tea to aid in the digestion of a semi-sinful meal.

Gourmandise is also known as a péché mignon, normally translated as a weakness. A péché is a sin, that part is clear. But mignon? Mignon means cute, sweet, adorable. Mignon is what you’d call those kids on the plain brown paper wrapper. Gourmandise is the sin we love and relish, and I for one feel no remorse. C’est bon la gourmandise.

France Drops In

March 8, 2011

I forget to get dressed.  For me, as an American, when I’m home I feel safe from appraisal and critique, thus I slop around the house, usually bra-less, in sweats. Shel waits to do the dishes until the mood strikes him, although it’s always at least once a day. As far as I know, this is a normal American approach to life. If someone wants to see us, they call, we fix a time, we rush around and get all tidied up, and no one’s the wiser.

In France, however, it’s absolutely normal to drop in unannounced. It’s not considered to be rude at all, because every French person is properly dressed by a decent hour, and the house is always ready to receive visitors. I’m sure that’s a generalization, and there must be some French people who are as carefree and messy as we, but I have to say that I don’t know anyone like that.

For better and for worse, our house is behind a wall and a gate. Visitors must be buzzed in to enter, which is also absolutely normal here. All of this, I’m sure, is left over from the times when the south of France was invaded on a pretty much continuous basis, leading people to feel insecure if they’re not behind walls.  When a French friend visited us in the States she was shocked to see how open everything was, not a fence in sight, doors left unlocked. Impensable, unthinkable, to a French person, from this part of the country at least.

Fortunately, Shel is a lot less embarrassed than I am to be caught bra-less, since that’s his natural attire, which leads to silliness like my hastily dashing upstairs before he buzzes in the unexpected visitor so that I can get properly dressed before anyone catches me in my customarily disheveled state. If the house is a mess, well, he’s the first person the visitor sees, so he’s the one to make the excuses, leaving me to descend like the Queen and offer tea, seemingly oblivious to such minor details.

But today Shel wasn’t feeling well, and went to take a nap, and (perhaps I’m finally learning) I stayed decently dressed after my morning’s shopping, for no reason at all.  And boy did I feel smug when the electrician dropped by to make some repairs. It was actually kind of satisfying, to feel ready for anything, even a discussion of burned-out transformers and missing light sockets, in a crisp white shirt.

I’m not promising to become more French in this regard, but I’m considering it. We have friends coming over tomorrow, and the next day, so it’s a sure thing I’ll be dressed.  If you’re inclined to drop in, that would be the time.

Back In The Land

March 6, 2011

Marie met us at the gate, bearing keys, and essentials like coffee, sugar, and jam for the morning. There was really no way to hug her enough, without it getting ridiculous. Katherine and Bert sent flowers from Holland, saying “Welcome Home.” Dorindo and Thierry delivered them, with countless hugs and kisses.

Our next door neighbor Jean-Claude walked us through his new house, almost finished now. Madame Amblard, on the other side, had tears in her eyes when she saw that we were back. We walked into town and did some shopping, glad that nothing at all seems to have changed during the year we were away.

Maryse came to dinner and brought a special bottle of wine, her childhood favorite.

She and Shel had tarte aux pommes for dessert,

now that we’re back in the land where the baker is proud enough to sign his name to his work. We talked until midnight, when not another word of our terribly unaccustomed French could be coaxed from our tongues. All that was just during our first 30 hours here.

We fell into bed, not knowing what time zone to call home, but deeply weary and grateful for our cozy bed. We woke up early this morning, and lo and behold, the dream was still coming true.

And We’re Off

March 2, 2011

Tomorrow we’re going back to France, a thing I won’t truly fathom until we land in Paris. We dreamed the impossible dream, and now it’s coming true, against all the odds. Génial ! Wonderful! Fantastique !

We’re limiting ourselves to one suitcase each, which turns out to be easier than I’d thought it would be.  We each get 50 pounds, but amazingly both of our bags are a bit underweight.  I suddenly realized “hey, I wear the same pair of jeans almost every single day here at home, why do I need more than that in France?”  Well, actually I do need more, but not that much more. We already know that where we’re going is very casual, and usually warm.  We won’t be dressing up, and we have a washer and dryer.  And, drum roll, there are stores in France!  If we need something we can buy it.  I don’t have to take shampoo and toothpaste and band aids and all the paraphernalia that filled our five gigantic suitcases the first time we moved to France, because now I know exactly where to find everything, how to live on the local economy. It’s a great feeling, liberating.

Today as I was out doing errands I was thinking about how to explain something in French, something technical to do with a bottle of wine I’m taking over, and when a woman held a door open for me I automatically said “Merci, Madame.” I think I’m ready to be there, well-worn jeans, rusty French and all. When next we chat, I’ll be here:

My computer sits right inside that lower window, the one opening onto the balcony. See you there.