Archive for May 2011


May 29, 2011

As the ugly duckling becomes a swan, so must we all change and grow. Tomorrow we start our journey back to America, although we’re already planning to come back to France in the autumn, to stay for a good long while, Shel’s health permitting. We don’t know the details yet, and will spend the summer working them out, but this has slowly become home to us.

Then for some unknown reason I’ve also decided to let my hair be grey if it wants to, and I’m sure that I’m going to look and feel more duckling than swan during the process. It’s an important life change, and I’m planning to pay close attention to it.

Just thinking about how to live in France as a grey-haired woman makes me a bit weary, and I realize that French Letters has been going for nearly four years without a break. I’ve decided to give myself the time to make it through those changes, which I think will mean that you won’t see much of me here this summer, although I may not be able to resist the urge to share recipes from time to time. So have a great summer yourself, and I hope to see you on the other side.

Summer Rapture

May 24, 2011

Although we normally live rather quietly, for seven out of the last ten days we’ve either had guests, sometimes two sets of guests in a single day, or been guests ourselves. And the coming week promises to be more of the same, invitations every single day. I love having guests, and I love being invited, but today, I confess that I’m glorying in having no invitations at all. It’s about 90° outside and the pool is perfect. That’s all it takes to make my day.

Even though I’ve been swimming for a week already, I’m still getting used to using my shoulder again. And the water’s been pretty chilly, until a couple of days ago. But now I can swim with a certain amount of ease, and the water’s perfect. I’ve already been swimming twice today and it’s not even mid-afternoon. More laps are in my future, and I’m in my own sort of rapture, which doesn’t in the least involve leaving this beautiful planet.

I’ve discovered a nest of baby birds that I can watch while I’m swimming. The parent birds cleverly built their nest in an old bird cage which hangs in the pool cabana, and as I approach their end of the pool I can see three little heads bobbing up and down inside the cage. The parents fly in and out with tidbits and I marvel at their devotion. The babies will have to climb out of the cage before they can attempt to fly, and I wonder if they’ll give it a try before we leave here, in only a few days.

I also wonder about other important things, like whether a Pastis or a glass of rosé goes better with swimming, which, of course, is something that can only be determined by experimentation. I wonder why I pay to have my hair colored brown, when the fierce sun of the south turns it to blond in a matter of days. We’re waiting for the electrician and I wonder whether he’ll catch me nude and dripping wet, and whether I should offer him a swim when he arrives. We have enough electrical problems here that we almost know him, but not quite. Still, it’s very hot, he must need a swim too.

It’s amazing to discover that thinking about things like that can take up a whole day, in between the swimming. Having a perfectly private pool all to myself on a really hot day is my idea of bliss, and having nothing serious to think about or do, on the same day, is the real rapture. La vie est belle, there’s just no other way to say it.

The Golden Apple

May 22, 2011

Only one more week and we’ll be leaving France again. This time it seems that our bite of the apple has been way too small, so sweet, so quickly swallowed. We’re already planning and scheming: how quickly can we get back here, how long can we stay, what’s the best way to get Beppo and Zazou here because we can’t stand to be without them again, what to leave here and where to leave it, all the minutiae that overtakes us every time we bridge the wide gap between our French life and our American one.

We’re starting to realize that this is serious.  The minute we get here we never want to leave. The minute we return to the US we start thinking about how to get back to France. Neither one of us would say that France is perfect, or that we understand everything about the country, the language, or the culture, far from it, in fact. But undeniably we flourish here, it’s where we’re the happiest, where we have the most fun, where the golden apple is within reach.

What started out as a lark has turned into a life.

The Breath Of Chocolate

May 18, 2011

I know I’ve given you the impression that Belgium is all beer, all the time, and I need to rectify that. As a person who eats nothing sweet, walking through the center of Bruges practically made me faint. The air itself is sweet, everywhere you go it smells of chocolate, and waffles. The sugary fragrances get in your hair, under your skin, and follow you home.

I’d never have known where to draw the line, but fortunately French Letters reader Nico, a native of Bruges, sent me to Depla chocolates, whence the enticing walnuts shown above, as well as dozens of exotic flavors. For 9 Euros I could get a box of 15 pieces, and I could choose each one individually, lemongrass, tiramisu, advocaat, milk chocolate caramel, nougat, pear liqueur, marzipan, and I really can’t remember what. I could and I did choose, and choose again. The shop lady apparently appreciated my discriminating and lingering selection of each and every piece, and offered me a chocolate to eat as I walked. When I told her that I can’t eat candy she whistled sympathetically, and tied a red ribbon around the gift boxes I’d purchased. If you get to Bruges, take Nico’s advice and go to Depla, it’s a wonderland for chocolate lovers.

All of the chocolate shop windows were pretty and tempting,

and it would have been easy to fill an entire suitcase with their wares.

Between the eye candy and the ambient sucrosity, I could feel my blood sugar rising just window shopping.

And it’s not like chocolate’s the only game in town, as other shops specialized in marzipan,


and even cupcakes. The hardest thing to find was vegetables. We walked all over town, never seeing anything like a fruit and vegetable shop. At the vast Saturday market we actually had to ask where the vegetables were.

We needed a break from the unbearable sweetness of Bruges! But we loved it anyway, sugared out though we were by our ramblings, and we slept sweetly every night, while visions of broccoli danced in our heads.

A Perfect Ex-Pat Cheeseburger

May 14, 2011

Every so often, like most Americans living abroad, I get an intense craving for a real cheeseburger. But the so-called hamburger buns that you can buy here aren’t right, there’s no dill pickle relish, and even the beef, tasty though it is, is way too lean to make a really juicy burger. Ex-pat friends one and all, I have solved these problems for you. Break out the grill, because with these recipes a fabulous burger is in your future.

Let’s start with the beef. American beef for burgers is typically about 16% fat, whereas in France beef looks like barely 3%.  So go to your butcher and ask to have beef fat ground in with your meat. I asked for bourguinon, which has at least a little fat, ground with 15% by weight pure beef fat, et voila, a burger that tastes exactly right and has the juicy texture we expect. The butcher looked slightly horrified, but he gave me the fat for free, because otherwise they just throw it away.

Next we tackle the pickle relish. On the spur of the moment I created a very respectable version and it took all of two minutes to put together. I dumped half of a medium-sized jar of Maille cornichons, together with the little pickled onions that come in the jar, into the food processor. I added about two tablespoons of fresh dill, a teaspoon of sugar, and a little splash of the cornichon juice from the jar, whizzed it a few times, and was amazed to find out how authentic it tasted.

And last, but definitely not least, come the buns. I have developed two recipes for hamburger buns using French ingredients: one with what  I think of as the exact sweet taste and fluffy texture of a great American bun, and one that’s a little less sweet and a little sturdier, which I think of as the French version, a bun that satisfies American tastes without shocking any French taste buds at the table. Here you see the buns rising in the garden on a hot day, where they puffed their way into beauty in a trice.

Our friend Marie came to dinner, bringing her two adorable sons Nicolas and Alexandre, and these lovely fishy dishes for apéritif.

After this great start, we set the table with coleslaw, potato salad, green bean salad, dill relish, slices of sweet onion and tomato, lettuce leaves, and of course, catsup. Then ensued a hugely dramatic grilling production involving a mound of very dry cherry twigs that send flames shooting skyward and kept me dancing around the grill trying not to go up in flames myself while tossing sliced Cheddar through the conflagration in the general direction of the sputtering burgers, after which Nicolas pronounced reverently “this is the first time I’ve ever had a real American meal. It’s very, very good.” And it was.

Perfect Ex-Pat Hamburger Buns

Since you’re only going to be making this if you’re in France, I’ll give you the recipe in French, which is how I wrote it originally. Apologies in advance for any French errors. And I’m giving you the version francisé, because I assume you’ll want to serve this to French friends. If you want a translation, or the ultra-American version which also includes type 45 flour for softness and additional sugar, just leave a note in the Comments section and I’ll be glad to oblige.

750 gms farine, type 55
15 gms sel
90 gms sucre en poudre
45 gms beurre doux, ramolli
30 gms levure fraîche du boulanger
36 centilitres lait entier
1 1/2 oeufs, légèrement battus
1 jaune d’oeuf, délayé dans 3 cuilleres à soupe de l’eau
2 cuilleres à soupe de graines de sesame

Légèrement  chauffez le lait et émiettez la levure dedans. Laissez rester et dissoudre cet appareil pendant 5 minutes.

Dans un saladier, mélangez avec les doigts: la farine, le beurre, le sucre, et le sel. Battez les oeufs à la fourchette dans un bol.

Verser le lait et les oeufs dans le saladier et malaxez bien jusqu’a ce que la pâte soit formée. Sur le plan de travail, petrissez bien la pâte, sans rajouter de farine supplementaire. La pâte sera un peu molle et collante. Laissez lever, filmé, dans un saladier préalablement beurré pendant 45 minutes.

Divisez la pâte en douze portions. Boulez-les, mettez du papier de cuisson sur le plaque à four, et placez les boules là-dessus, bien séparées. Filmez le tout et laissez-le encore lever pendant 30 minutes.

Préchauffez le four à 190°. Badigeonnez les petits pains avec le jaune d’oeuf délayée dans l’eau, et saupoudrez-les avec les graines de sésame. Enfournez-les pendant 20 minutes, pas plus, pour qu’ils restent tendre.

Can You Be An Atheist In Belgium?

May 11, 2011

So there we were, a merry band of non-believers, in a country where holy wars raged relentlessly for centuries. We wanted to see everything that was beautiful, and old, and naturally that led us into church after church. Many of the most beautiful forbid the taking of photographs, but many don’t. Here’s some of what we saw, and you’d have to be a total blockhead not to be moved by it, which, I’m glad to say, we weren’t.

Although this is a Michelangelo, I didn’t find it as stunning as lots of the anonymous work we saw.

The strangest experience took place here, in the Basilica of the Holy Blood in Bruges. Its claim to fame is a relic supposedly containing the blood of Jesus, wiped on a cloth and saved, lo these 2011 years.  I’ll let you decide about that.

The place was undeniably powerful, gorgeous, solemn, and before I knew it

there went Eric and Shel, climbing up to touch the relic. Since they did it, and weren’t instantly flamed to a crisp for being infidels, I thought I might as well see for myself what it was all about. I put my hand on the sparkly glass and said a little prayer for Shel, and while I wouldn’t call it a religious experience, I did really feel strongly about that tiny moment in time. Later we all agreed, somewhat sheepishly, that we’d toss a coin in a wishing well for Shel’s health, or have our cards read, and that really, it was the intention that mattered, not the vehicle.

But however you feel about churches, there’s no denying the beauty that has been created in their service. We had a whopping dose of it, and now we’re back to our churchless existence, none the worse for wear. Possibly even a bit better.

When In Belgium, Drink Beer!

May 8, 2011

I can’t drink beer, because it’s a veritable carb bomb, but luckily Eric can and does. Therefore he got to drink the beer, and I got to have tiny sips of some really special brews. Normally I only miss beer on the hottest of hot days, but that was before I tasted some of these Belgian beers, which are super delicious, and different from any I’ve had before. I think I could miss these any old time.

Of the ones I tasted, my favorite was this Forestinne, which tastes of pine in a totally delightful way. It also has an adorable label and glass, for indeed, in Belgium, every single beer has its own glass, and is served in that glass and only that glass.

For example, Eric discovered on the very last day that his favorite so far was this Satan Red, whereas until that moment it was the Brugse Zot that he’s shown drinking up above.

If I’d taken a picture of every beer he drank I’d have run clean out of pixels, but suffice it to say that he drank deeply and often of Belgium’s best.

We went twice to Cambrinus in Bruges, where they serve 400 different beers and good food as well. The good food is important, because eating out in Bruges can be really expensive. If you happen to find yourself at Cambrinus at lunchtime, we proved today that three people can make a lunch of the “cold snack plate” pictured here, along with copious liquid refreshment of their choice, and escape with a bill under 30 Euros, a real bargain.

This beautiful old beer pump is at Café Vlissinghe, Bruges’ oldest pub, established in 1515. We didn’t eat there, but it’s a charming place for a drink, and I appreciated the way they served my jenever correctly, filling the glass up and just over the brim.

We also went on a fascinating tour of De Halve Maan brewery, the last remaining one in Bruges, and a real beauty. This was a serious tour, involving climbing lots of ladders up into the attic storage spaces,

and poking our heads into all the corners of the old production facility,

learning some of the secrets that make Belgian beer so unique.

The view from the brewery’s roof is one of Bruges’ best, unless of course

you prefer the sight of shop after shop, windows artfully arranged, selling nothing but beer.  I’ll leave that up to you.

The Silly Side Of Belgium

May 5, 2011

We’ve been seeing lots of cathedrals, and sure, you’ll be seeing them too, maybe in the next post. But there’s been a silly side to this trip, and the above chocolate creations really typify it all. I’m not saying that I bought those chocolate breasts, and I’m not saying that Shel bought them, but I’m not saying that Eric didn’t buy them either.  Know what I mean?

Did you know that Bruges has a french fry museum? Frites are a major food group here, every dish comes with them, so it only stands to reason that there would be a potato museum, and that we’d flock to it like the fry-gobbling lemmings we are.

A potato mobile composed of dozens of colorful varieties,

a mobile frites stand where we all got to take a turn behind the counter,

or an ad for something that’s indispensable for every household: a machine that makes 5 kilos of frites per minute, I don’t know which is sillier, but they’re all pretty adorable in my book. You might have heard that Belgians are surly, and yes, we have met a few that are, and I was even nearly prepared to personally ensure the demise of one, but silliness must surely be in the national character as well.

Witness this silly fashion statement (unless it was actually one of the surly ones, ready to enforce his disdain for the rest of us),

or witness the three pounds of pork and cheese we were given as a “snack” before dinner. It was so silly that we couldn’t resist eating most of it all up, so maybe we’re already becoming Belgian after just a few days.

But lest we forget who we are and where we come from, we tripped over this car with Washington plates, from the Seattle area even, right in the center of Bruges. With all the cool Euro cars available here, how silly is that?

Bruges Canal Tour

May 3, 2011

I love boat tours of a city. The perspective you get, looking at everything from a duck’s point of view, is marvelous. Here’s a little photo tour through Bruges, on a warm and sunny day in May, the canals thick with boats, the typically fantastic architecture framed by an impeccably blue sky.

Our own boat was mercifully underfilled, and included a well-behaved but disinterested visitor who didn’t even bark at the flotillas of waterfowl we passed. So now, just imagine yourself as a peaceful Brugeois duck, paddling lazily, wishing the tourists would get out of the way, looking around and up from water level, and I’ll show you your life.

Not bad, eh, the life of a duck? Thirsty yet? We were too, and so we went off to a pub that serves 400 different beers, chosen from a wooden-bound menu that weighs several pounds.  But that’s another story.