26 October 2005

Cooking a duck

If you read much of this blog, you will soon understand that one of the reasons I love living in France is the food. I love to cook. Having a wide variety of high-quality products available at low prices is a thrill. Preparing them in different ways is a pleasure.

The other day one of the local supermarkets (Intermarché) advertised a special on canettes -- young ducks. I went and bought two. A few days before I had seen a cooking show on TV where the chef explained what sounded like a fairly easy way to cook a whole duck without having duck fat splattering all over the kitchen (especially inside the oven).

Here's what you do. You need about 5 quarts of chicken broth or vegetable broth or a combination of the two. Put the whole duck into the cold broth and set it on the stove. Add some white wine, bay leaves, a carrot or two, an onion or two, some parsley stems, some black peppercorns, and maybe a few allspice berries. Along with whatever else you want to use to flavor the broth and the duck, and that you can strain out of the broth when you finish.

Let the broth come up to a boil with the duck in it, and let is cook for 90 minutes or even two hours, just at a simmer. When the duck is done, carefully lift it out of the broth and set it on a wire rack over a pan or dish. Let it drain and dry thoroughly, for an hour or more.

Meanwhile, peel and cut into chunks some potatoes, turnips, carrots, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, or whatever vegetables you like. Cook them until they are just done in some of the duck broth.

The final step is to brush or massage the poached duck with oil or fat (duck fat is best, of course). Preheat the oven to 400ºF (200ºC). Put the duck in a roasting pan and put the cooked vegetables all around it. Pour a cup or so of the duck broth into the pan. Put the pan in the hot oven for 15 minutes or more to let the duck turn golden brown and to give the vegetables a light crust. Keep an eye on it -- everything is already cooked and when it looks good it's ready to eat.

Carve up the duck, serve up the vege-
tables, and enjoy.

You can do the same thing with a turkey, a capon, or a chicken. The meat will moist and well-cooked, and the bird will look beautiful.

23 October 2005

Gelée de coings

That's quince jelly. Our friend Josette (the woman we bought our house from) brought me a dozen or so quinces the other day. Somebody had given them to her, and she said she didn't have the strength in her wrists and hands to cut them up. Quinces look like large, misshapen pears, and they are very hard and hard to work with.

I had made quince jelly last year -- our neighbors across the street have a couple of trees and have invited us to take as many as we want -- and I had pretty much decided not to make any this year. It's very good, but I had a couple of jars left.

But here was a windfall of quinces, and I hated to throw them away. Anyway, last year's jelly didn't thicken enough, so it runs off the toast -- it's more like honey. This year I cooked it longer and it really jelled. I made three quarts (about 10 jars).

What you do is hack up the quinces -- peel, core, seeds and all -- and simmer the pieces in just enough water to cover them. When they are very tender and starting to fall apart, you scoop them out into a sieve. Cheesecloth in a strainer or colander is good -- if you use a kitchen towel instead of cheesecloth, be warned that your towel will be permanently discolored (I speak from experience). Let them drain. Don't press them, or not much, because you want the jelly to be clear.

When the quince chunks finish dripping, you can throw them away. Strain all the liquid and measure it. Add a kilogram of sugar for each litre of liquid (I had three litres). In U.S. terms that's 2 lbs. of sugar per quart of liquid. Then boil that until it's jelly (225ºF if you have a thermometer). The whole operation takes several hours, if not half a day. It is worth it.

21 October 2005

Fall gardening chores

Today I screwed up my courage and went out to the vegetable garden. I had brought in the half-dozen winter squash and the half-dozen pumpkins we had grown in one of our garden plots this season. Now it was time to pull out the plants and till up the soil.

The picture here shows some of the late harvest -- winter squash, zucchini, red and green bell peppers, tomatoes, and black-eyed peas. We've been getting tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants since July. And we had a lot of haricots verts and haricots jaunes (wax beans) back in July and August. The beans were finished a while back.

The winter squash turned out really nice this year, and the pumpkins too. We have been enjoying pureed squash as a vegetable with our meals, and also pumpkin pies. We plan to make pumpkin soup -- or you could call it butternut squash soup if you wanted.

But back to gardening. It rained yesterday, and I was afraid the ground might be too wet and heavy (there's a lot of clay in the soil) for the tiller. But I got it out anyway, and got it started. It turned out fine and I was able to till the plot without too much trouble.

Here's the result of the tilling. The garden plots are 4 metres square (that's about 13' by 13'). While I was tilling, I looked out ahead of the rototiller and saw a big brown frog squirming on the ground. At first I thought I might have run over it with the tiller, but I don't think I did. I think it had buried itself in the soft earth and the noise of the tiller had scared it out. It was just extracting itself from its buried position when I noticed it. I picked it up and put in down in a patch of parsley in the herb garden, which I wasn't planning to run the tiller over. So it has survived. I've found smaller brown frogs in the garden in the past, when I've been working the soil.

Meanwhile, we've been working on trimming our bay laurel hedge. It's more than 100 yards long, surrounding our property on three sides, so it's no trivial task. In 2003 and 2004, we hired a guy to do it for us, but we've decided that's kind of expensive and, besides, what else do we have to do? So we went out and bought an electric hedge-trimmer and a long, long extension cord. We've been working on it for a few days now. Here are a couple of pictures.

We will be saving $400 or so by doing this work ourselves. And our collection of power tools for the garden grows constantly: lawn mower, rototiller, weed-eater, chainsaw, hedge-clipper...

Tu? Vous? Or both?

Watching Laurent Ruquier's TV show on France 2 a couple of nights ago. One of the chroniqueurs, Pierre Bénichou, answering his co-chroniqueur Elsa Fayère in mock anger, said: "D'abord, ne me tutoyez pas en public !" ("Don't say tu to me in public!") So they say tu to each other in private, but vous to each other on the TV show. All the chroniqueurs and Laurent Ruquier say vous to each other during the show. That's probably just for the show, and probably doesn't apply offstage, where they say tu to each other.

With one exception: Claude Sarraute, a retired journalist at Le Monde, says tu to almost everybody. She is over 80 years old, and she says she now uses the tu form with anyone younger than she is.

Here in Saint-Aignan, it seems like nearly everybody says tu to everybody else.

In 2003 when we met J.-L., who is 6 or 7 years younger than I am, he said tu to me immediately. His friend G., a woman 20 years older than I am, told him to stop using tu with everybody he meets. I told them that in this case I preferred tu instead of vous.

A few weeks later, we were with at our neighbors' house (M., 70-year-old woman, and B., 75-year-old man) having lunch with them and the woman we bought our house from, J., who is 77. Somehow the subject of whether we should use the tu or vous forms with each other came up. Up to that moment, we were all addressing each other as vous, the polite form. M. looked at J., a friend since the early 1980s, and said, "But J., I don't think I could ever use the tu form with you." J. looked crestfallen. But that was the end of that. She clearly wanted to be addressed as tu.

M. then looked at me and said: "Ken, I don't know if I can permit myself to say tu to you." I didn't really know what to make of that, but I encouraged her to try. Then we started addressing each other as tu and have continued to do so for the past 2 years. She had no problem saying tu to Walt, she said. He is 25 years her junior.

A few days later, I had occasion to call J. on the telephone. I began the telephone conversation by reminding her that we had agreed to say tu to each other, and told her that that was my intention. She seemed pleased, and we have been on the tu basis ever since. Remember, she is more than 20 years older than I am.

Through G., we have become acquainted with S., a woman who was born in the U.S. to a French mother and an American father. She has lived in France since she was six years old, so to us she seems perfectly French. Her spoken French is perfect. But all the French people describe her as an American. S. has stated at least twice, during parties where she and I have been guests, that she doesn't say tu to anybody.

At one event in July 2005, J.-L. (who obviously prefers tu) was talking to S. She used the vous form in speaking to him. He said, S., you can use the tu form with me -- and he used the tu form with her to say this. She again replied that she doesn't use the tu form with anybody.

We have had daily bread delivery for about a year now. The woman who delivers the bread is a very friendly, talkative person who must be in her 40s. She and I dance back and forth. She calls me monsieur, which to me is very formal, and sometimes she uses vous when she speaks to me. Other days, she uses tu when she talks to me. I try to use tu with her, but sometimes it feels awkward, and I slip back into the vous form.

Use of tu and vous is one of the things I find the most interesting about the French language. Most other European languages have an equivalent pronoun distinction, and English used to (you vs. thee and thou). One of the most interesting aspects is the transitional moment when you go from using the polite vous form with a person to the more intimate tu form, when it happens, how it happens, and what it means to a relationship. More later...

20 October 2005

The new and improved Ed store

A couple of days ago I drove over to the Ed store in St-Aignan to buy milk. I was on my way home after doing some other errands. Ed sells milk at the best price and in the best cartons -- the cartons have a neat little plastic spout that you can close to keep the milk fresh-tasting in the refrigerator.

It's sterilized skim milk (which is available at all the French grocery stores) so you can keep the cartons for weeks or even months on the shelf in the pantry before you open them. You don't have to run out to buy milk every few days. Once you open a carton, you keep it in the refrigerator just like fresh milk. The best thing is that the milk tastes good. I buy a six-pack (six litres) for 2.82 euros -- that's about fifty cents a quart.

Well, Ed was closed for remodeling and there were trucks and cars filling the parking lot. I'd never seen so many cars and trucks there before. In fact, there were never more than 3 or 4 cars in the lot when I went there.

Workers were swarming all over the front of the store. I couldn't tell what they were doing, and I had the impression there were actually customers shopping in the store. But there was a big handwritten sign on the front window saying Fermeture pour travaux (closed during construction). So I just drove on out of the parking lot and returned home.

Of course that meant I had to go back to the store a day or two later, because I was running out of milk. I don't see any point in buying milk anywhere else -- the cartons are a pain (you have to cut them open with scissors, they don't reseal, and they are so flimsy that when you pick a fairly full one up you inevitably end up squeezing it just enough so that milk spurts out of the top). Besides, the price is higher.

So I drove back to Ed yesterday after a trip to Oisly to buy some wine in boxes. More about that part later.

Now officially Ed stands for Europa discount, but I think of it as Epicerie discount or "discount groceries." Apparently it's pronounced euh-day, not ehd like the first name. It's a big chain, and it sells basic food products -- nothing fancy, everything at good prices, and in an austere environment. It's sort of like CostCo, but in miniature. Ed and some other chains have built a reputation for their hard-discount (that's the French term!) strategy. For a long time, it seems, many right-thinking people refused to shop there because it wasn't considered chic to do so. The assumption, I guess, was that the products couldn't be good because the prices were too low -- and why would you want people to know you were that economy-minded?

Well, I'm not proud, and I went to shop at the new Ed store in St-Aignan when it first opened last year just to see what it was like and what was available. There I found the milk I like, and I also found a product called fromage à tartiner that is the closest thing to Philadephia cream cheese I've ever found in France. Ed also sells a raw-milk Cantal cheese that Walt and I think is very good. Just for those three products, it's worth a trip to Ed once in a while. Not to mention the 40-eurocent loaves of sandwich bread, good for toast.

Imagine my surprise yesterday when I did my milk run chez Ed and again found the parking lot packed with cars. There were also some trucks, and there were people working around the front door of the store. There was a different hand-written sign in the front window announcing Ouverture 11h30. I was glad I hadn't gone there earlier in the morning -- the place had just opened. Judging from all the cars and all the people shopping, it must have been advertised as a grand opening.

I found a parking space out back and walked around the building to the front entrance. Wow, I thought, new checkstands, and about six of them instead of the three there were before. I walked through the front door and lo and behold I found myself confronted with a greatly expanded produce section. Huge, with nice bins of fruits and vegetables. I ended up buying turnips, carrots, potatoes, and lettuce. The whole store was bigger, with wider aisles, more refrigerated cabinets for cheeses, packages of ham and pâté, yoghurt, butter, cream, and on and on. I got my milk and cream cheese and some sliced ham.

The funny thing is that the outside of the building didn't seem any bigger. It's one of those corrugated steel, warehouse-looking buildings. I guess they expanded the public space into what was private storage space.

The last time I went to the doctor's I had picked up a news magazine in the waiting room and noticed an article about the hard-discount grocery chains like Ed. It seems it has become chic to shop in discount grocery stores in Paris and elsewhere. People have realized that the basic products they sell are of good quality. I guess that's what has happened to our Ed store here in St-Aignan. It's been successful and has grown. I think it is going to become my shopping venue of choice now. Life is good.