30 November 2007

Mexican cooking on a gray day

Beef marinating in just a thin coating of pureed chipotle peppers

The weather has been gray and drizzly, which is normal for this time of year. To put some spice into our otherwise dreary existence, we thought some Mexican food might be in order. Armed with a couple of Rick Bayless cookbooks and the provisions I bought at the « El Mercadito » grocery in my North Carolina home town last month, we are making tacos this morning.

Chipotle peppers — smoked and surprisingly hot
(je veux dire très piquants)

One of the most important ingredients is a can of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. Others are fresh tomatoes (available at the supermarché, for what they are worth), garlic, onions, beef, and of course corn tortillas. Walt is making those, using masa harina that I also brought back from the N.C.

Pan-roasting tomatoes and garlic to make
a salsa using hot, smoky chipotle peppers

I made a salsa and a pot of black beans that I seasoned with onions, garlic, duck fat (!), chopped cayenne peppers, tomato purée, and a couple of tablespoons of smoked paprika. The Bayless recipe called for bacon, and French lardons fumés would have been perfect, but I didn't have any in the fridge. So I used the duck fat instead. I have quarts of that, literally.

Black beans cooked slowly in water with no seasoning or salt,
then spiced up when they are tender and ready to eat

The beef I got at SuperU is a cut called macreuse (€7,50/kg on special). It looks like flank steak. I plan to sear it quickly in a hot skillet, let it rest for a few minutes under foil so the heat spreads through the meat but it remains rare. That's called carne asada, I think. Then I'll cut it across the grain into strips to put on the tacos along with some pan-roasted onion slices. Well, that's what Rick Bayless says to do, and who am I to argue. Maybe I'll have some more pictures later.

29 November 2007

The firemen pay a visit

No, we didn't set the house on fire. Every year at holiday time, the local fire department sends out a small delegation of its sapeurs-pompiers to sell calendars from door to door. You feel pretty much required to buy one. It's a fund-raising campaign, and you wouldn't want to be seen as a Scrooge.

The Saint-Aignan fire department sends
its best wishes for the new year.

This year the fire brigade delegation came to the house in mid-November, which seems very early to me. Buying calendars is something I usually associate with Christmastime. I guess the firemen are trying to beat the others to the punch.

Une voiture de pompiers

Who are the others? Our factrice (letter carrier) and some representatives of the local sports association will make their rounds soon too, if past years are any guide. We'll end up with three or four calendars showing all the Catholic saints' days for 2008.

Here's a calendar you can look for your saint's day on.
Click the image to enlarge it.

28 November 2007

Wintertime shapes and colors

On a morning when everything is frosted over and the sky
is a leaden gray, the trees look absolutely skeletal.

The overall impression is one of no color. Or maybe just
the palest of green, a memory of warmer seasons.

Then you see the apples. Last summer's excess. And they
are downright electric against the silvery background.

The vines are haggard and bony-looking, but the apples
look alive, brilliant. Unnatural.

You'd think the little roe deer would come and feast on them.

26 November 2007

Of bread and water

The French Wikipedia's article on bread includes a chart that shows the drop in the amount of bread consumed by the French every day. According to 1999 INSEE figures, in 1900 the average amount of bread consumed daily was 900 grams, or about 32 oz. (2 lbs). By 1925, that figure had already dropped to 325 grams (11.5 oz). It has dropped steadily since then and has been down as low as 150 grams (5.3 oz) a day in recent years.

Here's something that's good with bread and wine: cabbage
steamed and then braised in the oven with carrots, smoked
thick-sliced bacon (poitrine fumée), chunks of salt-cured pork
(palette de porc demi-sel), juniper berries, and bay leaves

To tell you the truth, Walt and I have a hard time finishing one 200-gram baguette every day. Or maybe it's 250 grams. But that still puts us under the average, and we love bread and eat, I think, a lot of it. It's hard to imagine eating 900 grams of bread in one 24-hour period. People must not have had much else to eat. Or was the bread just that much better back then?

I still wish I could find some information about the price of bread over the last few decades. The price of a baguette was set by the French government until 1978, but since then has been uncontrolled. How much did the price of a baguette go up when the euro was adopted?

* * * * * * * *

Meanwhile, we have yellow water running from our taps these days. This happened once while I was in North Carolina. Walt turned on the tap one day and there was no water. After checking for problems in the house and outdoors (a burst hose, for example), he realized it was the water company doing work on the lines.

Yesterday morning about 9:00, I turned on the kitchen faucet and ... nothing! Not a drop or a drip. There was a truck out back and a team of guys were working on the sewer hookup for some of our neighbors. I went out and talked to one of them and he said their work wasn't the reason for the water cut.

I made shrimp and grits again. I couldn't find okra,
and I had to use shrimp I bought cooked and frozen.
I put in mushrooms, some shrimp broth and cream,
and some garlic. It wasn't as good as the version
with okra that I made in N.C., but it wasn't bad.

He had seen the Compagnie des Eaux truck and a fire truck down at the bottom of the road. They were purging the bouches d'incendie, the fire hydrants. That must be the reason you have no water, he said.

When I got back home, the water was back on. Tant mieux ! Walt decided to get in the shower, and at the crucial moment when he was covered in soap lather from head to toe, suddenly the tap went dry again. Luckily, after just about a minute it came back on again, at least enough for him to get rinsed off.

At that point, I figured a phone call was in order. I called the number listed in our little village handbook, published by the mairie. It's a number beginning with 06, which means it's a cell phone. A man answered and I told him where I live and said the water was cut off. Did he know why?

Yes, we are cleaning out the fire hydrants, he said. And you will have yellow water for a couple of days now. Is it drinkable? I asked him. He was evasive. Don't you warn people? I asked, trying to be as polite as I could. Do you think we'll have water by noon so that we can cook our lunch?

His answer: we put up signs about the water outages in all the commerces in the village last week, and we even put some up on telephone poles up and down the main road. What could I say without sounding like somebody who loves to complain?

It's just another example of how you have to re-learn patience every day when you live in a small town out in the country in France. People don't get worked up about such things. I guess I need to go out and buy some water.

In fact, I guess that will teach me to get out more. I go to the village so seldom. Once in a while I go to the post office, and then I go down there to get my hair cut every couple of months. Otherwise, Saint-Aignan, with the pharmacy, the Saturday-morning farmers' market, and several supermarkets is no farther for me than the little village center. When I do go out, I head that way.

Thirty-four thousand bread-bakers in France

French bread

34,000 is the number I found on Wikipedia, which quotes figures from the French National Institute of Bread and Pastry Bakers — that was the number of artisan bread-bakers in business in France in 2004. That's almost as many boulangers as there are mayors of towns and villages in France (nearly 37,000). Every village has a mayor, but many no longer have a real boulanger.

The baguette brought by the bread lady this morning

Of course, most towns of any size at all have several bakeries. Saint-Aignan has four, I believe. It had five until about a year ago, when one closed up shop and the owner sold the building it was in. As often happens, that building, right on the market square in the center of town, was bought by some British people who are in the process of remodeling it.

This is a baguette ordinaire, non-moulée, which is cooked
directly on the floor of the stone oven and not in a metal
pan. It has a harder, crisper bottom crust that we like.

All the supermarkets sell bread, and I would almost have thought that most people get their daily bread from Intermarché, SuperU, or Champion. The figures say, however, that 70% of the bread consumed in France comes from artisan bakers' shops, boulangeries. An artisan boulanger is a baker who selects the raw materials, kneads the dough (almost always by machine, I'm sure), oversees the rising (or fermentation) process as well as the shaping of the loaves, and bakes the bread on the premises where it is sold. By law, at no time can any of the products that go into the making of the bread be frozen.

The mie or crumb of the delivered baguette — perfect, I think

I wonder what happens to all the bread that doesn't get bought in a day. The boulanger doesn't sell day-old bread, or I've never seen one that does. There must be a whole distributon network in France for stale bread. Maybe it gets fed to animals. Or maybe it is sold to the people who make and market dried breadcrumbs or prepared foods that use them as an ingredient.

The bread lady in November 2004,
when we first started getting deliveries

By the way, the price of wheat in France has gone up through the roof over the past few weeks and months. I heard somebody say on the radio the other day that the cost of the wheat used in bread represents only three percent of the retail price. I assume that most of the price of a baguette is attrbutable to labor and energy costs.

The pictures from 2004 are kind of blurry — tant pis

The price we pay for a baguette delivered to our door by Roselyne, however, has increased by only two cents, from €0.76 to $0.78. We pay a €0.03 delivery fee for each loaf we buy. A standard butter croissant costs €0.75. At the Robert boulangerie yesterday morning, I paid €0.80 for each of the two baguettes I bought.

Me and the bread lady, Roselyne, in November 2004

Does anybody remember what a baguette cost in French francs before the euro was adopted as legal tender in France in January 2002? The current average price across France, I heard on the radio, is €0.80, or 5.25 FF. I find it hard to believe a baguette cost more than five francs in 2001.

I was convinced I had already posted pictures of the bread lady on this blog, but I searched and didn't find any. I hope Mary B., who requested a picture, is reading my post this morning. Here's a link to one that Walt published last year (and here's a link to the whole topic). Notice that Roselyne now has some advertising on the side of her LWV (little white van) that wasn't there in 2004.

25 November 2007

The perfect baguette?

It's interesting that people know what a good baguette "should taste like." We obviously carry around an abstraction in our head and tastebuds, because every baker's baguette is different. And in reality, people don't agree at all about what constitutes a good baguette.

Today's bread — I got it from the boulangerie Robert
in Noyers-sur-Cher.
The shorter one is a baguette
de tradition
and the longer one is called
a flûte (200 g), but I'd just call it a baguette.
In fact I just asked for a baguette and that's what I got.

We like the baguettes that come from the bakery in our village and that Roselyne delivers to our door five times a week. Our neighbors across the street, however, find that bread trop sec — too dry. They often buy bread at the Champion supermarket, which, I agree, has a pretty good bakery. But the Champion bread doesn't compare to our village baker's version, IMO.

Robert's flûte, showing the mie, or crumb.
I just ate some with butter and confiture. The crust is light
and crunchy, and the white part is tender and tasty.

Most people seem to think the bread made at the boulangerie-in-the-vineyard is very good, but at least one person I know thinks the crust on those baguettes is too hard. The last one we got had a very elastic mie (the crumb, or the white part). It was a little too elastic for me, in fact.

Did I mention the difference between a baguette moulée (l.)
and a baguette ordinaire (r.)? You can see it in the picture.

Moulée means the baguette is cooked on a metal
plaque or tray. Ordinaire or non-moulée means it is
cooked directly on the stone floor of the oven.

One of our best bakeries for pastries, everybody seems to agree, is Robert in Noyers-sur-Cher. I like the bread M. Robert makes too, but more than once I've heard local people say it's not worth going to Robert's for bread. They don't like it.

The flûte, ready to be made into a tartine

Each boulangerie's baguette is distinctively different from the others'. I guess that's what's good and interesting about French bread. Unlike industrial fast food, where uniformity is the rule, baguettes differ from one another just enough that you can take pleasure in trying to find the best one, hoping that one day you will taste perfection.

24 November 2007

Baking baguettes in America

My topic about going to the boulangerie up in the vineyard started a string of comments about attempts to make French bread in the United States. I've personally tasted the bread made by CHM in California and by Evelyn in Alabama. Both are excellent, I think. The bread CHM made was not in the shape of a baguette, but it was tasty toasted and eaten with butter and jam. Evelyn's baguettes were crispy and delicious.

Most American recipes for bread call for adding sugar or honey, or both, to the dough. Why is that? Is it because the yeast available in the U.S. needs that sugar boost? Is it because American flour needs the boost to rise and produce a good baguette? Or is it just because Americans have such a sweet tooth? I don't know.

CHM recommended SAF yeast as the best yeast to buy and referenced the company's U.S. web site. On that site, there's a recipe for making a nice baguette de pain. Here are the ingredients:
Makes one loaf.

1 (¼ oz. pkg.) or 2¼ tsp SAF Perfect Rise Yeast
1 tsp sugar
¼ cup water (110º-115ºF)
3¾ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 cup cold water
1 tsp cornmeal (for dusting the baking surface)
For the instructions, go to this SAF web page. Notice that the recipe includes sugar. Is that just for American tastes?

On SAF's French web site, there is no recipe for making baguettes. But there are two recipes for pizza dough, and neither one calls for sugar or honey. Why is that?

Evelyn has succeeded in making good baguettes at home in Alabama. Another successful American baker is Chris from California. Walt and I met her and her husband last year when they were spending a few days in a gîte near Montrichard, just 10 miles from Saint-Aignan. To read about Chris in California's bread-baking adventures, look here and here on her blog.

The King Arthur Flour recipe for baguettes that Chris has used contains no sugar or honey, just flour, yeast, salt, and water.

Does anybody know why most American bread recipes call for sugar and honey, while the standard French ones don't? Is there some technical reason? Or is it just a matter of taste?

Even Julia Child, in her book The Way to Cook, points out that the standard French bread dough is made with flour, yeast, salt, and water. And then on the next page, in her recipe for making French bread, she includes ¼ teaspoon of sugar!

23 November 2007

Le vignoble retrouvé

I'm still recovering from a cold I caught on the North Carolina Outer Banks, where it was windy and wet. But yesterday was nice and I took Callie out into the vineyard for a walk in the afternoon. It was the first time I'd been out there for an afternoon walk since mid-September, I think.

Un noyer — a walnut tree

Today the weather is chilly and rainy. Dreary. I haven't been out. But yesterday's sky was fantastic, and I'm glad I was able to see and photograph it.

La Renaudière in autumn

Callie enjoyed the walk too, especially because there were big puddles left over from the overnight rainfall we had. She splashed and dashed and got soaking wet.

A wet Callie headed back toward the house up the dirt road

As I walked back home I could see it raining in the distance, probably over toward Montrichard and Amboise. Then I saw a truncated rainbow. I suppose that was my welcome back.

A rainbow over the Renaudie vineyards
Click the pictures to enlarge them.

22 November 2007

A Wednesday bread run

What's the first thing you do when you get back to Saint-Aignan after a long absence? And you are struggling with jet lag? You make a big pot of vegetable soup and you get some good French bread to have with it.

For me, the first full day back happened to be a Wednesday. What's the significance? No bread lady! The boulangerie in our village is closed on Wednesdays, so Roselyne takes the day off. I looked in the freezer. No bread except the sliced sandwich kind. But at least I found some frozen chicken broth. Out of the freezer and the refrigerator, I gathered together lots of vegetables: lentils, celery, carrots, onions, green peas, and some plain cooked spaghetti.

A boulangerie I noticed in Nemours
on the way home from the airport Tuesday

What choices did I have for bread? There are three or four boulangeries in Saint-Aignan, and there are two or three over in Noyers. All make good bread fresh daily. But the best bakery, in the opinion of many locals, is the boulangerie up in the vineyards, on the little road that links Saint-Aignan to the village called Céré-la-Ronde. The boulanger there cooks his baguettes, boules, croissants, and pains au chocolat in a wood-fired oven.

So at 11:00, with soup bubbling on the stove, I fired up the old Peugeot and headed out. The sun was shining. It had rained quite a bit the night before, making the dirt road through the vineyard a muddy mess. I knew, because I had walked out there with Callie earlier in the morning. That would normally be the shortest route from our house to the boulangerie-in-the-vineyard, which is in a place called Le Chêne du Renard (the Fox's Oak).

A boulangerie in the village called
La Ferté-Beauharnais, in Sologne

To avoid the mud holes, I had to go around. Down our paved road to the route départementale, turn right, and then make another quick right up the narrow rue de la Chotinière, past several new houses, some still not finished, and then a dozen or so older houses, and finally the old farm with caves carved into a cliff where equipment and supplies are stored. Into the woods for a few hundred yards, and then out into the vineyards.

Two or three turns later, I arrive at the Chêne du Renard. One customer was leaving as I arrived, and another was sitting in her Mercedes talking on a cell phone. She went in to buy her bread just as I was coming back out.

The boulangerie at Le Chêne du Renard near Saint-Aignan

The woman who sells bread knows me but only vaguely; since we have bread delivered five days a week, we don't get up there as often as we would otherwise. Everything looked and smelled really good, as you would expect, but the thing that stood out was a fougasse, a.k.a. a focaccia, a long flat bread adorned with lardons of smoked pork and covered with melted Gruyère cheese. Wouldn't some of that be good with a big bowl of vegetable soup?

Well, yes, it would. I took a slightly different route home, down the rue des Bas-Bonneaux to the edge of our village past several old farms and a dozen or more houses. Back to the route départementale, past the garage and a couple of B&Bs (chambres d'hôtes) to the rue de la Renaudière. Soup was on. The fougasse was delicious. I'm sorry I didn't take a picture of it.

Emblem representing the door of an old bread oven
on the wall of the boulangerie at Le Chêne du Renard

This story doesn't have a punch line or any great significance. It just tries to describe a little bit of what life is like here. No stop lights, no shopping centers, narrow roads through vineyards, no traffic. I passed one or two cars on my four-mile round trip. The landscape looks wintry — there were several really cold mornings last week, Walt told me, and most of the leaves are off the vines and the trees — but the sun was shining low in the sky.

Today is Thanksgiving. That's not a holiday in France, and we are probably the only people for miles around who are even aware of the American celebration. Today I'm ready for more substantial food, and we are going to cook a piece of boneless leg of lamb with some flageolet beans. It's our Frenchified Thanksgiving dinner. But don't worry — Walt is making a pumpkin pie. We'll have a turkey (or a capon) at Christmas.

21 November 2007

Back in Saint-Aignan...

...and the sun is shining. Walt had a taste of winter while I was away. I had a taste of summer while I was on the North Carolina coast. It has warmed up here in Saint-Aignan now: the low this morning was just 50ºF/10ºC. What is most striking to me is how muted and soft the light is here after the dazzling sunlight of N.C. reflected off all that blue water there.

Both my flights were late on Monday. The one from New Bern to Atlanta left 45 minutes behind schedule. However, we were only about 15 minutes late getting into Atlanta. That tells you how much the airlines pad their schedules so that they won't have to report high late-arrival statistics to the government, I guess.

Delta Airlines jets at the Atlanta airport

The flight from Atlanta to Paris left about 40 minutes late and arrived about 40 minutes late. then we sat waiting on the taxiway for half an hour waiting for a gate to become available. Several people sitting near me were grumbling as they realized they had missed their connecting flights.

Artwork in the Atlanta airport

On our approach to Charles de Gaulle airport, we broke though the cloud layer just as we flew across the northern part of the Paris metro area. I had an aisle seat in the center section of the plane, but out a window across the the way the first thing I saw was the clump of skyscrapers at La Défense.

Then there was the Eiffel Tower, and the Tour Montparnasse. As we descended toward the runway at CDG, I could see the autoroutes that lead from Paris out to the airport and on northward. They were a solid stream of headlights in one direction, and a solid stream of red taillights in the other. Traffic was just barely moving. I thought of Walt and Callie sitting in the car off in the distance and figured I would have a long wait for them at the airport.

Back in France: a street in Nemours

My bags were the among the first 10 that came down the chute and onto the conveyor belt at baggage claim. I hauled them off the belt and onto a cart and was on my way. Then, for the first time ever, I believe, I was actually called over my two young French customs agents who wanted to know if I had anything to declare to the Douanes. And I've come through customs in France at least 30 times in my life.

No, I said, nothing. I had to search for my passport, which I had stuffed into my computer bag after I had shown it at passport control a few minutes earlier. The customs agents, a young man and a young woman, were surprised that I spoke French but had a U.S. passport. The young man wanted to inspect my bags.

The Hôtel de Ville in Nemours and the canal behind it

He opened my carry-on, which was full of cellophane bags of dried hot red peppers I had bought at the Mexican grocery store in Morehead City. There were also two 50-count spindles of recordable DVDs and other odd items in there. Then he wanted to look at the big green canvas bag that I had stuffed to the gills with other items I had purchased during my three-week stay.

In the green bag, I had put all the bulkiest and heaviest things I had to bring back: a 5-lb. bag of masa harina, two 2-lb. bags of yellow cornmeal, two good-sized bottles of Listerine, three small cans of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, and a big ziploc that I had filled with several hundred Rolaids tablets.

Fall flowers in Nemours

The agent's first comment was, why this is all food! I said yes, these were food products that I couldn't find out in the French countryside. He asked where I lived, but he had never heard of Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher. When he pulled out the Rolaids, his colleague said something like: What's that, ecstacy? I laughed and said they were antacid tablets. They are huge and must be hard to swallow, she said. No, you eat them like candy, I told her. She thought that was funny.

Meanwhile, she had pulled my new laptop computer out of my shoulder bag and was admiring it. All she asked me, however, was how much I paid for it. $500, I told her, and she rolled her eyes. I guess that sounded like a much lower price than she would have paid for such a machine in France.

Callie was quiet, almost sullen, in the car during the ride to
and from the airport. When we got to Nemours and took her
out for a short walk, though, she came to me and jumped
up, wrapping her paws around my arm, to greet me. She
looked away from the camera when I snapped her picture.

The only other question she asked me was whether any of the items I was imported were destined to stay in France. Before I could answer, the other agent reminded her that I had said I lived in France and had shown them my Carte de Séjour. She looked embarrassed. Then they decided to let me go.

There was no way to re-pack the green canvas bag and zip it up again. We tried, and I finally said that we were going to break the zipper if we kept trying. As I said, the bag was really stuffed to the gills. "Somebody is coming to pick me up and drive me back to Saint-Aignan," I said. The open bag wouldn't matter. "Oh, you are not taking the train?" the young man asked me. "The train!" I exclaimed. "But they are all on strike!" Then he looked embarrassed.

Walt arrived not more than five minutes after I exited from the French customs checkpoint and we drove on home. We found roads farther out from the city (the A-104 to Melun, and then on to Fontainebleau) where traffic was flowing freely. We stopped and had lunch in Nemours. It rained some. Callie stayed huddled down on the back seat, on her towel. We arrived in Saint-Aignan at 4:00 p.m.

07 November 2007

In North Carolina

I'm spending this week and next in North Carolina, on the coast. I'm blogging at this address. Check it out.

I'll fly back to France on November 19, arriving in Saint-Aignan on November 20, transit unions permitting. You'll find me blogging back here at Living the Life... starting about November 21.

A bientôt...

03 November 2007

« Isn't it beautiful? »

At the airport in Paris last Saturday, I met a woman who was traveling with a teenage girl. We were all waiting for hotel shuttles, and when those two Americans and I got on the same one I spoke to them. They were from Oregon, and the trip to Paris was the woman's present to her granddaughter for her 16th birthday.

The grandmother, who was about my age, said she had taken a trip to Paris 35 years ago when she was much younger and had loved it. She had probably built her wonderful, youthful Paris experience up in her mind, and I could tell she was disappointed with her three-day Paris visit this time. The city was busy and noisy, in her view, and crowded. "I think Paris has become the Los Angeles of Europe," she told me. It's hard for me to understand that comparison, since Paris is such a perfectly walkable city, but that's what she said.

Seen at the train station in Blois

At some point -- we were on the shuttle for 45 minutes -- the woman pulled out a thick pad of carefully folded-up pink toilet paper to use some as a tissue. She had obviously taken it from their hotel bathroom. She asked her granddaughter if she needed any. The granddaughter declined the offer, looking slightly embarrassed.

"Isn't this pink toilet paper pretty?" the older woman said to the younger woman. "I remember the first time I came to Paris, they had toilet paper of different colors in all the different bathrooms. It was so beautiful!"

I'm mostly posting on my East Coast travels blog these days.