15 November 2018

La Venise verte

One of the main villages in the area called La Venise verte, "green Venice," goes by the name of Maillezais [my-yuh-ZAY]. It's an old place. Over the course of the 11th century, starting in around the year 1000, a great abbeywas built here and became a cathedral in the 1300s. It's now in ruins, a victim of the 16th century Wars of Religion between Protestants and Catholics; abandonment by the Pope in the 17th century in favor of a new cathedral in La Rochelle; and sale to a man who exploited it as a stone quarry from the time of the 1789 French Revolution and well into the 19th century.

La Venise verte is more officially called Le Marais poitevin — the Poitou Marshlands (wetlands, swamp). It's just outside the city of Niort, and not far east of the big town of Fontenay-le-Comte, in the Vendée département of western France. The marsh was drained over the course of the 11th century, and rivers were channeled. The canals nowadays are a tourist attraction. Maillezais is one of the major "ports" in La Venise verte.

You can rent barques (flat-bottom boats) and paddle or pole them around on the canals through the marshes. Or you can ride in a boat with a tour guide who serves as the batelier (boatman) and learn about the history, geography, and wildlife of the area.

14 November 2018

Pumpkin (winter squash) brioche

Brioche is not exactly bread and it's not exactly cake. It's brioche, and it's made with flour, yeast. eggs, butter, and just a little bit of sugar and salt. I think of it as a very soft, light, and rich cake-like bread. In this case, pureed winter squash pulp (butternut or pumpkin, for example — in our case, potimarron) is added to the dough, along with small pinches of cinnamon and nutmeg.

French recipes for breads and cakes specify quantities by weight in grams, so they are hard to make without a kitchen scale. I've done my best to give equivalents in American teaspoons, tablespoons, and (8 fl. oz.) cups. For comparison, here's a recipe for plain brioche. It calls for more butter, milk, and eggs than go into the pumpkin brioche, because the moist squash pulp replaces some of those liquid ingredients. As with all bread recipes, you can carefully add a little extra flour if the dough seems too wet and sticky, or a little extra liquid like milk, cream, or water if it seems too dry.

Pumpkin Brioche

2 fl. oz. lukewarm milk
20 g fresh cake yeast (¾ oz., or 2½ tsp. dry active yeast)
4 cups flour (500 g)
1¼ cups cooked, pureed pumpkin or squash pulp (300 g)
6 Tbsp. sugar (80 g)
1 tsp. salt
4 Tbsp. softened butter (80 g)
2 eggs, beaten
1 pinch or grating of nutmeg (more to taste)
1 pinch cinnamon (more to taste)

Dissolve the yeast in the lukewarm milk to proof it (wait for it to bubble and foam).

Make a very smooth puree of winter squash or pumpkin pulp. One way to do this is to roast a fresh winter squash or pumpkin in the oven and then scoop out the soft pulp and puree it until it’s a very smooth paste. Another way is to dice up the raw squash or pumpkin, cook it in a steamer pot, and then mash and puree it. When the squash puree has cooled down, put it in a mixing bowl (use a stand mixer if you have one) and add the beaten eggs, the salt, the sugar, and the spices.

Add the flour and mix it into the squash puree (use the dough hook of the stand mixer). Knead it for 10 minutes. Add the softened butter until it is completely incorporated into the dough, which should form a ball and pull away from the sides of the mixing bowl.

Cover the mixing bowl and let the dough rise in a warm place rise for 60 to 90 minutes, until it has doubled in volume.

Take the risen dough out of the mixing bowl and put it on a floured work surface. Sprinkle a little flour over it and punch it down. Cut the dough into 8 equal pieces and shape each piece into a ball. Put the balls of dough into a loaf pan (see photo.) Set the pan in a warm place and let the dough rise for another 30 minutes. Meanwhile, pre-heat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC).

Brush the brioche dough with an egg yolk beaten with a teaspoon of milk. Cook the brioche in the pre-heated oven for 30 to 40 minutes, until it is golden brown. Test it with a skewer to make sure it’s cooked all the way through. Let it cool to room temperature before slicing or breaking off pieces and serving it. Slices are good lightly toasted.

Credit where credit is due: we found this pumpkin brioche recipe on a web site called La Cuisine de Jackie. And Walt made the brioche — I just took pictures.

13 November 2018

Le franglais à Niort

What a difference a day can make. When we walked around the small city of Niort on October 26 — just a little more than 2 weeks ago — I remember that the morning was chilly and gray. Rain was moving in. It was the end of meteorological, if not astronomical, summer. Since then, we've had a lot of rainfall — 41 millimeters (1.6 inches). It's not yet cold here, however. We've had just one frosty morning that I can remember.

The weather had been dry and sunny nearly every day for 4, even 5, months. That Friday morning in Niort, I remember saying to Walt that I was cold. It was time to go home. Back to the gîte, first, because we needed to heat up some food for lunch and then spend the afternoon getting packed up for the drive back to Saint-Aignan. In the photo above, that's Walt with Tasha on the leash, getting some cash out of an ATM (un distributeur de billets de banque) in Niort. Tasha seems very interested in what he's doing. Maybe she thinks the machine dispenses something good to eat.

French towns are very gray when the weather is dismal. Window shutters and storefronts provide striking splashes of color on such days. Here are three splashes of bold reds that I photographed in Niort that morning. I have a hard time understanding the point of the Franglais name of the women's clothing shop above. It has some English in it, which makes it exotic and cool in France today, I think. Or maybe just funny.

And here's another shop with a Franglais name. French people who don't really speak English understand the expression "too much" — too much c'est too much, you'll hear people say. That's so much cooler than trop c'est trop, don't you think? But it's hard to understand what Tattoo Much might actually mean. Tattoo in French is tatouage [tah-too-ahzh].

"Sex shop" is another English expression that people in France understand, whether or not they speak any English. If you look up "sex shop" in the English-French dictionary, the translation you get is sex-shop. It's as if sex shops, which can also be called boutiques érotiques, are an invention of and import from what the French call le monde anglo-saxon. We think of the French being focused on érotisme and sexualité, while they seem to think we brought all that to France. You have to wonder why the X on the shop's sign is a wooden cross.

12 November 2018

Tian de courge, et pintade au tourne-broche

On Saturday, Walt went to the open-air market in "downtown" Saint-Aignan and bought a pintade — a guinea hen — for our Sunday dinner. Yesterday we roasted it in the oven using the stove's rotisserie feature. As a side dish (or maybe it was the main dish) he made a recipe from Richard Olney's Provence: The Beautiful Cookbook — a Tian de courge, or winter squash gratin. The recipe is below.

A tian is a Provençal gratin dish, and I thought this one was amazingly good. It's made with pureed winter squash — ours was a potimarron that grew in our garden, but butternut or even pumpkin pulp would be good — and with leeks cooked in olive oil, eggs, cream, parmesan cheese, and a grating of nutmeg. The leeks especially, but also the parmesan and nutmeg, add a lot of flavor and make the squash puree really delicious. The topping is grated parmesan and panko (Japanese breadcrumbs).

Walt modified the recipe slightly, because he started by roasting the squash in the oven and then mashing and whipping the squash pulp into a smooth puree, instead of cutting the raw squash into chunks and cooking them down in a pan with the leeks. You can do it either way. We had some julienned and steamed collard greens as a garnish.

The pintade came out really good too. I put sage (we have a plant out back), parsley (growing in pots on the terrace), a dried cayenne pepper, some allspice berries and black peppercorns, a shallot, and two garlic cloves in the cavity. The bird cooked on the spit, turning over a pan of water so that it steamed and roasted at the same time, keeping the meat moist. We ate half of it...

11 November 2018

Le 11 novembre

Today, November 11, 2018, is the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice of Compiègne that ended the Great War, also known as the First World War. The Allies had managed to outlast Germany. More than 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians were left dead.

Nearly every town and village in France has monuments to the military personnel who died in the Great War. This one is in the little town of Vouvant in the Vendée.

It stands in front of the village hall (la mairie) and across the road from the village church. Nearly 1.5 million members of the French military forces were killed during the war and another 2 million were injured, many gravely.

About 900,000 British military personnel also lost their lives. U.S. losses included nearly 120,000 members of the military. Tens or hundreds of thousands of civilians in many countries, including France and Germany, were killed. It took Europe many decades to recover from such losses. Lest we forget...