Archive for November 2011

Oh So Cute In Colmar

November 27, 2011

Colmar generally looks like a post card, at least the part of it where we’re staying, which is called La Petite Venise, Little Venice, because of its canals. We came for the first days of the annual Christmas markets, thinking we’d escape the madding crowds. Boy was that ever wrong.

Right outside our front door is the Children’s Market, a hotbed of strollers and googly-eyed kids wanting to go on the pony roller coaster ride. In addition to the hot wine, vin chaud, that’s on every street corner, this market also features hot apple juice for the little ones, and a fair selection of toys. It’s a madhouse. But once through our front door, and out the back one

we’re on a huge private deck overlooking the canal, home to a pair of swans that appreciate bretzels, the local form of pretzels. I know this personally, as I was feeding them a bretzel when Shel snapped this picture. The splendid deck will be featured again later, as our kind landlords had told us that boats full of children would be singing right under our window as soon as it got dark, which indeed they were, as you shall see and hear.

But first we went shopping, which is, after all, what one does at Christmas markets. Shel needed breakfast food

and I wanted something interesting to drink.

Shel got a spiffy new hat, in which I think he looks adorable.

I really wanted one of these stork hats, but the one size fits most didn’t actually fit me. But later I was glad I hadn’t bought anything for myself because I felt justified in buying

a ravishing new jacket, in which I feel particularly chic.

And then, as night began to fall, Shel (who’s frileux, always cold) watched out the window

while I went out onto the aforementioned fabulous deck, and we were treated to a lovely musical moment

as boatloads of little boys drifted down the canal,

lined up in front of our apartment, and sang, ever so sweetly.

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Thankful

November 24, 2011

Although we already had our French Thanksgiving on Sunday, today we had a sort of Belgian Thanksgiving with our dear friends Henk and Grete. They made us a beautiful raclette lunch that lasted until after 7:00 at night, thanks to a rousing games of boules, accompanied by half a bottle of good cognac to protect us against the shivers. It’s the south of France, but it’s cool when the sun goes down. Just like little kids we didn’t want to go in, and so kept playing until we were a bit blue around the lips and ears, but happy, oh so happy.

And so, we had turkey and all the trimmings when it wasn’t yet actually Thanksgiving in America, and we had raclette when it was. And it was all wonderful, because it was all about gathering around the table with those we love. And when I say love, although our love for those with whom we celebrated the day: Nadine and Jean-François, Dorindo and Thierry, Alice and Christian, Maryse and Noémie, Henk and Grete, doesn’t represent all the love in our life, we were so thankful to be with them all, even though we weren’t with you. And we hope that you’re surrounded by love too, and great food, and if you’re playing boules out there in the shivery twilight, I hope you have a great bottle of cognac to cheer you on, and I hope you’re not too competitive, because someone’s bound to knock your balls out of place, and that’s just the way it is.

And if you’re as lucky as I am, you’ll discover that what used to be just a nondescript bush in the yard actually grows pomegranates, or at least, one pomegranate, which is a lot more than I expected, since as far as I was previously concerned, it was just something to be pruned and raked up after, with no nutritive or even decorative potential whatsoever.

There’s always something to be thankful for, and I’ve got way more than my fair share. I hope you do too.

Thanksgiving Improv

November 19, 2011

Tomorrow will be our Thanksgiving, since all of our guests are working on just-a-normal Thursday, when the rest of you will be celebrating. It’s a jet-lag kind of thing. This means that I’m tearing my hair out before you are, although possibly not for the same reasons. Judging by the cute little Martha-esque carrot garnish I made for the salads, all is going well on this, my third day in the kitchen. But if you could see my dining table, which according to Martha should be set with gleaming silver by now but is instead papered with printed-out recipes covered with scribbles, you’d think otherwise.

Why all the scribbling? Because, oh what was I thinking? I knew we’d be here for Thanksgiving, and still I didn’t bring any measuring cups or spoons with me. Normally when in France I just cook with French recipes, so there’s no problem. But Thanksgiving requires American recipes, like the cornbread for the stuffing, measured in American units. However, since there’s no actual cornmeal (sub fine polenta) and no actual buttermilk (sub an Arab fermented milk) it’s a kluge at best, so why worry about eyeballing a teaspoon of baking powder? Oh wait, I forgot to bring baking powder too, so I used levure chimique, which is sort of like baking powder except that it’s different but I don’t actually know how, nor how much to sub for the American stuff. Close eyes, open the little envelope, dump it in.  Hold breath to see if the cornbread will rise.

Anyway the cornbread gets all crumbled up in the stuffing, so nobody’s likely to complain about the texture. However, the biscuits might be another story, but if they don’t rise properly, Shel will run next door to the bakery and no one will complain about that either, because they’ll never know. Nobody’s likely to complain at all, in fact, because whereas in years past we’ve had Thanksgiving guests that were a mix of French friends  and other ex-pat friends, this year we invited all French people, only one of whom has ever had Thanksgiving before.

Paradoxically, for me it can’t be Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie and pickled peaches. I don’t eat either one anymore, since I don’t eat carbs, but if I don’t make them and serve them, it’s just not Thanksgiving. Only thing is, there’s no pumpkin here. I used courge muscade, and I’m hoping it’ll work out. A piece weighing over a kilo amazingly reduced to just this small jar of purée, enough for one pie. The pickled peaches posed no problems, and I’m expecting them to be as big a hit as they were in 2008 when we had our Rock and Roll Thanksgiving; you can find the recipe here.

At least shallots are the same the whole world round, so I can make my roasted shallot vinaigrette en toute tranquilité, easily and peacefully, without hair loss. It’s a perfect Thanksgiving salad dressing, and you can find the recipe here. We have a splendid turkey this year, although after our last French Thanksgiving, when we thought we might never come back, I shipped home the roasting pan, stock pot, and platter I had acquired here. Thus, no poaching or brining the turkey this year, giving me an excuse to try dry brining for the first time, and heaven help me if it doesn’t work. Roasting the bird right on the oven rack and serving it on a disposable platter? Just one of those things.

The pies seem pretty normal, except for the fact that they’re actually tarts. Pie pans don’t exist here, hence the flatter shape. Plus, heaven help me again, because the butter and flour are different enough here to make a real textural difference, and because I can buy all-butter tart crust in the store, and basically because I have enough other worries, I didn’t make the crusts. (Lucy, I can hear you tsk-tsking all the way from Lyon) It’s utter heresy, and the end result doesn’t look American, but hey, they won’t know, and since I don’t eat pie, by that point in the evening I probably won’t care.

So think of us tomorrow, as we’re trying to explain the meaning of Thanksgiving, and who the Pilgrims were, and what happened to the Indians, and why the turkey has to be so huge (since the French aren’t big on leftovers), and why every American family eats basically all of these same foods all heaped together on the same plate at the same time, the rich, sweet, tart, and savory mix that is the essential Thanksgiving plate. I’m counting on the food speaking for itself, measured or not. And come Thursday I’ll be thinking of all of you, thanking you for being part of my life.

No Chef Is An Island

November 9, 2011

Sometimes the thing you most look forward to turns out to be the biggest disappointment. As I explained here, our ultimate destination on this trip was the Ile d’Oléron, and the restaurant called Le Grand Large, which is housed in a hotel of the same name.

It’s a very beautiful hotel, and we were given a lovely room

with a view out across the restaurant to the Atlantic.

An enticing path led from the hotel down to the beautiful beach,

and we didn’t hesitate to get right in the mood.

The sand was soft and golden,

and despite an amount of litter that was shocking to our Pacific Northwest sensibilities

the place was breathtakingly lovely. I remember now that I said to Shel “I’m so happy!”

Reluctantly we tore ourselves away from the beach to go in and dress up for dinner. We’d seen the gorgeous food on TV, the chef had said he’d cook in accordance with my dietary restrictions, and I was vibrating with anticipation. An hour later I was vibrating with fury, and I still haven’t entirely recovered.

I’d sent the chef, David Boyer, an excruciatingly detailed list of what I can and cannot eat, what any American restaurant would recognize as a strict low carb diet. They’d said he’d be glad accommodate me. So why was the amuse bouche based on carrots, after I’d said no carrots? Why was my first course a tartare of fish and green apples, after I’d said no fruit? And why was my main course fish on a bed of quinoa, after I’d said no starch? In an hour-long argument with the hotel manager, because the chef himself could not be bothered to apologize, I learned that a) he had apparently forgotten, and b) he was very tired, both physically and mentally, as it was the end of the season and they’d be closing in just six days, and c) they had a document that said diabetics can eat all those things, so my list of what I do and do not eat was not relevant. It was the most infuriating thing I’ve experienced since I became diabetic, and there was nothing to be done about it. We’d traveled 900 kilometres to eat at that restaurant because they’d said they would be glad to have me, and they’d totally blown it off.

In America I’m pretty sure that the chef would have come to the table, said something along the lines of “I am so terribly sorry, there was some miscommunication, let me make it up to you by giving you a fabulous dinner tomorrow” and although I would have been disappointed, he would have made it right. In this case, not only did none of that happen, but they still charged me 50 Euros for the dinner (about $70) and suggested that we eat in some other restaurant the following night.

So no, I do not suggest that you trek to the Ile d’Oléron to worship at the shrine of a chef that can’t be bothered. Instead, if you find yourself there, eat at Le Saint Pierre, as we did the second night, where you can really enjoy yourself, be treated like an honored guest, and eat whatever you like.

Or go to almost any good seafood place and eat mouclade, the local preparation of mussels in a cream sauce with just a touch of curry. It’s utterly delicious.

If you go, as we did, back to the continent from the island, you can go to Marennes, famous for its oysters and its low tides. Boats there  are made specially to be beached, but I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the sight

.

What we did in Marennes, and I definitely recommend that you do too if you get the chance, was to visit La Cité de l’Huitre, Oyster City. It’s kind of an oyster theme park, but the very best kind, full of opportunities to learn all about the life cycle of the oyster, and the history and techniques of local oyster cultivation.

We were able to have a guided visit with Yann, an ostreiculteur whose grandfather and father were also oyster farmers. Once again there were tons of kids on the visit, and Yann did a great job of getting them involved in his demonstrations. The French are really big on taking their kids to learn about all kinds of artisanal activities and food production, and we’re always struck by how seriously the kids take it, and how generally well-behaved they are. The visit ended cleverly, with a lesson on how to safely open oysters, and a tasting.  The catch?  Each adult got an oyster knife and two oysters; if you could open them you got to eat them. Luckily, Shel could open them but wouldn’t eat an oyster if his life depended on it, so I got to eat them all. Kind of like the visit to Cognac where he did the driving and I did the drinking. Not that I’m complaining!

That night we crossed back over the 3 kilometre long bridge to the Ile d’Oléron for a bittersweet end to our stay. I don’t think I’ve ever been so psyched about doing something, only to have it end so badly. We did manage to have an excellent time in spite of it all, but it was tough. Next time you’re in France, try to go somewhere where they’ll care about you. That would be almost anywhere but Le Grand Large.

La Part Des Anges

November 5, 2011

The Angels’ Share, La Part Des Anges, that’s what they call those elusive vapors that are constantly escaping from the production of cognac, and which feed a black mold that covers all buildings where cognac is aging. It’s a dead giveaway to deliciousness, even if it does make the town of Cognac look rather drab.

There’s really nothing in Cognac except, you guessed it, cognac, and cognac houses, which are everywhere you look. We were there on a Saturday when most were closed, including the larger producers like Rémy Martin and Hennessy, so we went on a guided tour of the Baron Otard facility.

The visitable part of Otard is housed in the chateau where King François Ier, or Francis I, was born in 1494. It’s a lovely old place,

and remained his home until he died in 1547. He was a friend of Leonardo da Vinci

who designed this vaulted chamber for him, with ogives in the form of a Y instead of the more common X shape. The guide told us this, as I can’t claim to know one ogive from another. Baron Otard bought the chateau in 1795, expressly for the purpose of making cognac there, and is credited with having saved the property from destruction during the French Revolution.

English prisoners were also stockpiled there during the French and Indian War for Canada, and they left their marks behind, rather neatly.

While visiting Otard we learned all sorts of useful and arcane little tidbits,

like the fact that because the cellars are infested with tiny wood-eating bugs, the oak barrels are rimmed with bands of the lighter chestnut wood, which work like sacrificial anodes, the bugs evidently preferring them to the oak itself.

Spiders are also encouraged to inhabit the cellars, because their main diet is those wood-eating bugs. It’s a whole ecosystem down there.

The visit ended with a tasting, although since it was before lunch I didn’t indulge much. Actually I spent a lot of time watching parents lifting their really small children up to sniff the different glasses, but they all moved faster than my camera as the parents were anxious to get their own noses in there. French kids do seem to be really interested in cognac, however.

The shop is at the very end of the visit, but the stuff is really high end, starting at around 145 Euros a bottle. We didn’t get to taste from this 3200 Euro bottle, but I’m guessing it’s pretty special.

To clear our heads of those insidious vapors we walked around a bit in search of lunch. This is the prettiest building we saw, much of Cognac being rather uninspired. However, we did find a very nice restaurant, La Table d’Olivier, and since Cognac is reputed to be a culinary wasteland, it’s worth going there if you find yourself in town and in need of sustenance.

Then, for a complete change of pace, we drove to the little hamlet of Chaniers to visit the very small production facility of Clos de Nancrevant. A pocket-sized family-run business, Monsieur and Madame Quéré-Jelineau are the current generation of producers, making cognac, Pineau des Charentes, and Charentais wine. When we arrived Madame mentioned that her husband was “in the cuve” which I first took to be a translation error on my part, since normally spirits are in the cuve, not people.

But in the cuve he was, and he popped out faster that I could snap a good picture of him. I think the vapors were slowing down my shutter finger that day, or anyway that’s my excuse. Distillation was to start the next day and he was scrubbing out the cuve in preparation.

They have a beautiful alembic for their distillation, and Madame explained to us that Charentais craftsmen are in demand all over the world for their expertise in both alembic and barrel making.

Somehow kids and cognac just seem to go together.

Our visit was bisected by the arrival of a customer wanting her plastic jugs filled up with wine. It seems a shame to me to put wine in plastic, but many people in France do buy wine this way, as it’s a lot cheaper than the bottled stuff.

Clos de Nancrevant also bottles sparkling rosé and white grape juice, which made Shel very happy, since as far as he’s concerned, the angels can have all of his share of cognac. Which means, as you might imagine, more for me, and that I’m lucky enough to always have a designated driver, just in case I don’t really leave the angels their fair share.

A Dark Day In Hell

November 2, 2011

On June 10, 1944, time stopped in the small town of Oradour-sur-Glane, not far from Limoges. You can go there today and everything in the old village will look just as it did on that day, except that no one lives there anymore. Early in that day, that 10th of June, 642 people were in the village, going about their daily business of sewing, baking, farming, learning the alphabet, making babies, tending the sick; by the end of the day no one lived there, nor ever would again.

On June 11 no little girls skipped into this school yard, braids flying, carrying their homework in blue satchels.

A little boy did not come searching for his lost bike, his father did not yell at him for leaving it outside yet again.

The baker’s ovens were empty, there was no one to eat the bread. No one strolled through town with a baguette under her arm.

No one came to eat the dinners that had been prepared, the good Limousin beef, the vegetables of early summer.

Cars in the garage for repairs went from bad to worse.

The dentist wasn’t able to see any of her patients, all appointments were cancelled.

The seamstress never finished that wedding dress.

Because on that day members of a Panzer division came to town and did what the Nazis were infamous for doing: they rounded up every person in town at gunpoint, 642 men, women, and children, and divided them into groups. The 247 women and 205 children were sent to the church. The 190 men were separated into six groups, then machine-gunned, many in the legs, then heaped with wood and straw. Their bodies were burned, many still living.

The women and children waited in this church, listening to the screams of the men. They waited while the Nazis built a fire and tossed canisters of asphyxiating gas into it, which exploded into the church. Hand grenades were tossed in for good measure.

One woman managed to survive, which is how we know that next came piles of wood and straw.

The bullet holes still remain, so some of the women and children must have been mercifully shot.

Anyone left living faced flames so hot that the bell melted and fell from the steeple.

The French government has preserved this site to remind us, and it’s true that once you’ve visited you’re not likely to ever forget. June 10th is Shel’s and my wedding anniversary. From here on out we’ll have a lot more to remember when that day rolls around.