Archive for October 2013

Frappé De Plein Fouet

October 27, 2013

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The expression être frappé de plein fouet means, a bit more politely, to have the crap beaten out of you, and that’s pretty much how the French are feeling these days. Sometimes, for some people, it’s all negative. In addition to the couples that have split up since we were last here, we’ve been to several parties lately where someone was in a deep depression, either medicated beyond speech, complaining sans cesse, endlessly,

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or even bursting into tears in the middle of a meal. When we left France in 2012, they were talking about la crise, a global description of national debt, unemployment, deep cuts in social programs, and all the misery that entails. but we really weren’t seeing it much, down here in the rural south.

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But a lot of things have changed since then, and now we see the effects of la crise everywhere we look. People are stressé, and there’s a lot of anger at the government, which, to cut it a bit of slack, has the quasi-implacable force of the European Union to answer to for its every action, most of which involve imposing additional hardships on the French people in order to reduce the national debt in accordance with EU norms.

IMG_8253People are feeling it deeply, terrified about being affected by the widespread layoffs that are still sweeping France, groaning under the weight of ever-increasing taxes and ever-reducing social services, awash in waves of illegal immigrants with nowhere safe to go, afraid that they won’t be able to afford to retire, afraid their kids won’t be able to find a job, here where 25% of people under the age of 25 are unemployed.

Also, it’s been raining, pouring, hailing, thundering, and of course that doesn’t help either, although good weather is not going to change the fundamental facts. Each message that we receive from friends at home contains some variant of “hope you’re having a wonderful time in France.” Well, we are, and we aren’t. It’s hard to see our friends suffer, and to see a country we love so weighed down by la crise. When it hit the U.S., when the housing bubble burst and all the disaster that accompanied it, we avoided it because were here, where life was still very sweet, even though our French  life is in one of the poorest regions of France. But now it’s all around us, beating the crap out of pretty much everyone we know.

In one way we feel privileged to be able to understand enough of what’s going on around us to really grasp what the French are going through. In another way, naturally, we’d like to have our fairy tale life back. I wish I knew how to beat la crise de plein fouet myself, but alas, I don’t have a better solution than anyone else, and besides, we’re leaving in two weeks. For the first time ever, we’re kind of looking forward to that. It’s so sad.

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Olive Time

October 23, 2013

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This used to be Zazou’s favorite tree, the olive tree out by the pool. She’d climb in, choose a special olive, and carry it home in her mouth where she’d bat is around before hiding it under a chair with her pet scorpion and her pet lizards.

This is the time of year when all the olive mills advertise in the paper, “come one, come all, bring your olives to be pressed and depart with your own olive oil!” The catch is that you have to have a minimum of a hundred kilos before they’ll press them, and I doubt that we have more than two kilos on our little tree. If we were going to be here longer I might try brining them myself, although since this part of France is awash in excellent olives it seems silly, just as baking your own bread here is pretty much a fool’s errand.

But we’re not going to be here much longer, only another 2 1/2 weeks, even though we’ve just barely arrived. If Shel didn’t have another scan awaiting him in mid-November we might stay a bit longer, arriving home, say, with Santa on Christmas Eve. But the last scan wasn’t great, and so the next one is important. That’s the thing about living with cancer, there’s always a scorpion under the chair, and while you can do a lot, you don’t always get to do as much as you’d like to.

We wish Zazou were here to pick olives. We wish we had enough olives to press. We wish we had the time to brine our own. We wish we could stay longer. But we’re not spending all of our time wishing and whining, because then, the scorpion under the chair would be winning. So now it’s out into the afternoon for my daily French lesson, while Shel goes down to to get coffee from the guy who roasts his beans over a wood fire. And he’s taking him a bar of chocolate because….well..that’s another story for another day. Eat an olive and think of us.

What French Men Don’t Do

October 18, 2013

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The other day was the annual Foire de Saint Firmin, not the sort of fair where there’s entertainment and junk food, but a fair where a wandering band of itinerant merchants set up shop for a day in a town to ply their wares. In days of yore before everyone had a car and every town was within driving distance of at least a supermarché, if not, as in our case, the truly gigantic hypermarché, these fairs were lifesavers for rural France. You could, and to some extent you still can, buy everything from socks to winter jackets to hams for the cold season at a Foire de Saint Firmin. But this year I noticed that there were few shoppers, and that the vendors had plenty of time to chat with me.

For example, the two ladies selling these rose-covered boots. I wouldn’t have bought them even if they’d had my size, but they were cute, and unlike anything else at the fair, so I stopped to look, parking my dilapidated six year-old blue wheeled shopping caddy by a tree near their stand.

Me: Wow, those boots are cute, too bad you don’t have my size.
Them: Oh, we probably do, what size do you take?
Them (after hearing my size): Oh no, of course we don’t have anything that big. And by the way, have you noticed that your caddy is looking really terrible. It’s not at all pretty. You definitely need a new one.
Me: I like my old caddy, it still works great after all these years, even though you’re right, it looks terrible.

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Them: No, you really need a caddy like this, so pretty, so practical.
Me (to myself): Holy crap, it’s 89 Euros, a $100 shopping caddy trimmed with roses, the most impractical thing ever! How can I get out of this gracefully?
Me (to them): Uh, well, it’s often my husband who does the shopping, don’t you think he would look kind of weird with a rose-covered shopping caddy?
Them: Your husband goes shopping with a caddy?
Me (crossing fingers surreptitiously): Sure, he often does.
Them (exchanging looks of utter disbelief): Ha ha, well in that case, ha ha ha, your old caddy is better. But how about these great gloves for washing dishes?

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Me (to myself): Rose-rimmed rubber gloves? Are you sure those are for washing dishes???
Me (to them): Well, you’re not going to believe me, but…
Them (interrupting): What, now you’re going to tell us that you don’t do dishes?
Me (utterly truthfully): Actually, my husband does all the dishes.

At which point, practically doubled up in gales of laughter, one of the ladies put on a glove and held it up defiantly, saying

Them: I think your husband would look great in these gloves!

So Shel, how about it?

La Fête De La Charette

October 16, 2013

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A charette is a cart, in the old days usually two-wheeled and pulled by handles. But in this case, because it would be sort of silly to hold an entire festival in honor of of a two-wheeled pull-cart, it’s the cart that brings the grapes in from the vineyards, to be blessed, then crushed, then made into wine. And in the little town of Montfrin, they really know how to hold a fête de la charette.

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The morning began with a super parade, and believe me when I tell you that this little girl, with her tiny charette in which she pulled a small chicken, was the hit of the day. I’ve never heard so much oohing and aahing in France before.

More predictably, but still wonderfully, there were:

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school children,

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IMG_8103couples looking as old as the hills, and lots and lots of animals.

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IMG_8124Right, these guys are herding geese, and as I heard one lady say

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Faire défiler les oies, c’est pas évident.” Getting geese to parade, nicely and in formation, not an easy task. As you can see, a lot of sticks were involved, but no one hit the geese, they just kept them kind of caged in.

IMG_8141 After the parade there was a Mass in Provençale, even though Montfrin isn’t really in Provence. Actually, the costumes were Provençale too, I guess because we’re so close to Provence here and the line is somewhat arbitrary. We didn’t attend the Mass, but we were waiting outside the church

IMG_8159when the wine that had been blessed was carried out. These two look like they’re making off with it, but I think it was served later in the day. There was such a huge crowd around the apéritif table that we decided to sit calmly in a café nearby and pay for our wine, unblessed though it was.

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From our café seats we watched people have a large communal lunch, the highlight of which was sausages cooked in moût de raisin, which is the grape must and detritus left after crushing the grapes. The sausages looked intriguing, but since the rest of the meal consisted of a huge boiled potato and a boiled carrot, all plunked on a paper plate, we decided that watching was probably more fun than eating.

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And there was plenty to watch, including a long and very pretty dance program.

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IMG_8203Finally, there was a brocante, which is a sort of second hand market, where we again looked at but did not buy all sorts of cool things.

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And if “look but don’t touch” is seeming like it was the watchword of the day, witness these really cute guys

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who, you guessed it, got exactly that same treatment. It was a beautiful day in Montfrin, a tiny town that we’d never before had reason to visit, and will now always remember fondly.

Au Four Froid

October 14, 2013

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The French have a cooking technique that I have never encountered in the U.S., which is to place a meat to be roasted into a cold oven. This little coquelet, (with an egg next to it for size comparison), for example, goes into a cold oven which is then turned to 400° and left alone for 50 minutes, when it’s done to perfection. You can’t get a coquelet, which is a baby rooster, in the U.S. as far as I know, but there’s no reason this wouldn’t work with a chicken or even a guinea hen.

The French believe, and I’m starting to be convinced myself, that all poultry and white meats,

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like this melon de veau, veal stuffed with a delicious sausage mixture, should be started in a cold oven. They say that this helps keep the meat juicy and tender, because it doesn’t suffer a thermal shock on entering the oven. They also say that this technique permits the fat in the meat to melt gently as the temperature rises, and that the meat generally benefits from a slow-cooked start, with a hot blast at the end. The coquelet and the melon de veau definitely prove this point, and I’m curious to know what you think if you try this technique with a chicken or a guinea hen. I’ll tell you how I do the coquelet, and you can adapt it to the size of the bird you’re using. For reference, a coquelet feeds two people, so it’s about half the size of a chicken, and about twice the size of a guinea hen. Please do try this and report back – I’m very curious to know whether this French magic trick works in other countries!

Coquelet au Four Froid

1 coquelet (for 2 people)
olive oil
salt and pepper
thyme

Rub a baking dish with olive oil. Place a large pinch of thyme inside the bird. Rub the coquelet with olive oil, then salt and pepper it generously. Place it in the oiled dish, place the dish in a cold oven, then turn the oven to 400°F/200°C. Roast for 50 minutes. When done, cut the coquelet in half with shears and serve.

I’ve been serving them with a sauté of trompettes de la mort (black trumpet mushrooms) and a purée of celery root, which, altogether, makes a luscious combination. A light red like a Gamay suits this dish well.

Edible Beauty

October 8, 2013

IMG_8055Sometimes food is almost too beautiful to eat. Almost, although honestly I don’t remember ever letting any food go to waste because I was intimidated by its beauty.

These eggs, for example, almost chocolate in color, are from a Poule de Marans, raised by our friends Alice and Christian, who love to raise and show exotic birds of all sorts. The eggs, however lovely, taste exactly like good eggs should, without a hint of the exotic.

The eggplant, l’aubergine rayée, or striped eggplant, idem, which is how the French often say “it’s the same thing.” Unbearably lovely in the bowl, just ordinarily delicious on the plate.

Beautiful food does, however, inspire me to cook beautifully. Before we left to return to France a couple of people asked me what I was looking forward to eating once we got here. My first thought was veal, the second was tripe. But what have we really been eating? Duck, three times duck in one week, which is some kind of record for us. The best of them all was a riff on Paula Wolfert’s duck breast with a sauce of cèpes (which are called porcini in English, even though that’s Italian) and a cèpe and white mushroom flan. It wasn’t in the least beautiful, unless a sort of symphony of browns appeals to you, but the combination of duck and cèpes results in a hauntingly wild and foresty thing that’s pretty irresistible.

And then tonight we had an abbreviated choucroute, which might be the homeliest dish in France. But the flavors of saucisse de Morteau and saucisse de Montbéliard, two requisite ingredients around here, are so compelling that you easily forgive them their unprepossessing appearance.

But tomorrow is Wednesday, which means that there will be impeccably fresh fish in the market, and I’m thinking of something prettier and lighter. Unless, of course, I get seduced by some tripe, which I find to be inexplicably beautiful, in its own way.

The Power Of A Kiss

October 2, 2013

IMG_8052Being kissed all day, isn’t that everyone’s dream? When we first arrived back in France we were dazed and exhausted, and I was quite revoltingly ill from something I’d eaten during the 21 hour voyage from one home to another. I languished in bed our entire first day here, forcing Shel to revive his French at a much-faster-than-anticipated rate. But yesterday I was able to emerge into the world and take stock of our old-new life.

The cherry tree had been badly pruned and was bleeding sap, albeit beautifully. The sun shone warmly, and I was able to swim, although the water was startlingly cold. Refreshing and revivifying as that was, the real lifesaver was being kissed up one side and down the other. Folks we haven’t seen in almost two years greeted us with enthusiastic kisses everywhere we went, and were especially appreciative to see Shel looking well, since most of them had never expected to see him again at all.

So even though I still feel disoriented walking in the street, those bisous are anchoring me securely. Six sweet kisses at the green grocer’s, six at the butcher’s plus a hand kiss, fifteen or twenty from other friends, and that in just the same number of hours it took us to travel between worlds. Plus, I know that in just 22 minutes I’ll get another three.  It makes me feel like Sleeping Beauty, and like I’m coming back to life.