31 December 2010

Oysters to finish the year

Tomorrow's date will be 1/1/11. Let's hope it's a singular year.

We just came back from the market in Saint-Aignan, where we went to buy some oysters for our New Year's Eve dinner. Oysters and then a big escarole (scarole in French) salad with some lardons (chunks of smoked bacon), croûtons (cut from a baguette), and garlicky vinaigrette dressing will be our food for the day — plus some rice pudding that I made day before yesterday.

The church in Saint-Aignan on New Year's Eve 2010

Yesterday I bought some Muscadet wine to go with the oysters. It's a very dry white wine from the area down at the mouth of the Loire River, and it's the quintessential shellfish wine. It's not expensive either — about 3 € a bottle. With the oysters and Muscadet, we eat slices of rye bread spread with butter.

Rice pudding with a caramel sauce —
Gâteau de riz au caramel

And with the oysters, we like to have what is called a mignonnette sauce — that's a shallot diced up into a little wine vinegar, with lots of black pepper. A few drops of the vinegar-shallot sauce on each oyster does the trick.

Three kinds of oysters: "flat" at the top; "open sea" on
the right; and salt-pond fattened on the left.

We got three kinds of oysters: 18 Fines de Claires, which are oysters that are fattened up in salt ponds along the coast for a couple of months before they are taken to market; 12 "flat" oysters, which are the original French species, now not so plentiful as they used to be; and 3 pleine mer ("open sea" or wild, I guess) oysters, which the market vendor gave us as a bonus — they're a present for the person assigned the task of opening the the other oysters, she said.

I'll have more to say about the oysters after we've tasted them. I'm not sure we've ever bought the flat oysters before.

Un beau plateau de fruits de mer

Our New Year's Eve meal is very simple. Just look at the plateau de fruits de mer — shellfish platter — that I enjoyed at a friend's house in Normandy a few years ago. We could get the same thing here, but for the two of us it would be overkill.

The cheese stand at the market in Saint-Aignan

The market was small and not crowded. Only the essential merchants were there. One sells all kinds of seafood and fish. Another had oysters only. Two or three were selling produce. One had nice breads and brioches. And finally, the regular cheese vendor was there, with a great selection of cheeses from all over France.

30 December 2010

Buying and stacking wood

We received a delivery of firewood yesterday. With all the cold weather we were having, it didn't seem like a bad idea to have some extra wood to burn — even though we thought we might already have enough to last us through a "normal" winter.

We didn't initiate the transaction, however. Friends did. She's French (Parisian) and he's English. They live in the old part of Saint-Aignan, and they have a couple of fireplaces in their house. Problem is, they don't have any outdoor space where they can store large quantities of wood. We told them they could store it at our house, and went 50-50 with them on the purchase of 7 stères. That's 7 cubic meters, or about 2 cords.

A hazy sunrise this morning

She made contact with a wood seller over on the south side of Saint-Aignan — found him through an ad in one of those free advertising papers — and arranged for delivery on December 29. We held our breath and crossed our fingers that it wouldn't rain really hard that day, or snow. As it turned out, the weather yesterday was almost sunny and the temperature was mild for late December: 7ºC — nearly 45ºF.

She called the seller on Tuesday to confirm everything. Then she called me and said there was no need to call him too « parce qu'il vous connâit. » He knows us? Yes, she said, he has delivered wood to you before, so he doesn't need directions. Oh, then it's Jean-Claude? Yes. Jean-Claude helps our across-the-street neighbors to maintain their property — trimming hedges, clearing undergrowth in wooded areas, and cutting down dead trees. We've been acquainted with him for 5 or 6 years.

Our hamlet at sunrise today

Jean-Claude showed up shortly before 2:00 yesterday. That was the agreed-upon time. Our friends arrived shortly thereafter, and so did Jean-Claude's son-in-law on his tractor, pulling a trailer containing the two cords of meter-long oak logs. The idea was that the sellers would just dump the wood in our front driveway, or courtyard, or whatever you'd call it, and the buyers would move it to a prepared spot and stack it neatly.

Dumping the wood in the driveway required backing the trailer in through the front gate, which is not all that wide. On his first attempt, Jean-Claude's son-in-law misjudged the distance to the gate post on the right and proceeded to neatly shear off the cast-iron bell we had mounted on the post. It was our "cat bell" and Walt just last summer painted it black so that it resembled Bertie.

The cat bell is irreparably damaged, we think.

Merde. That was all I could say. And c'est pas grave. What could we do? Maybe the shop where we found the bell in 2004 will still have them in stock. Or something similar. We need a bell out there. There's also an electric one, but there's a bad contact somewhere in the wiring and it's hard get it to ring. Besides, the button is hard for people to find. The cat bell was a lot handier.

Anyway, the wood got dumped, Jean-Claude got paid (320 € for the 7 stères of oak), and our friends and we got busy moving the logs and stacking them up against the north wall of the house, under the balcony. Since our friends had been nice enough to being along a helper, a local man who works with and for them, there were five pairs of hands to do the work.

We debated whether we should set up a "log brigade" — like an old-fashioned bucket brigade to move water. Our friend said it would be « une bonne méthode de translation ligneuse ». We finally decided we weren't organized, disciplined, or coordinated enough to do that, so we just tackled the work by brute force. Each of us would grab a log or two, move it or them to where the pile was, and try not to bump into each other in the traffic muddle that ensued.

The new woodpile — two cords of oak logs

Callie the Collie just sat out in the yard and watched us with an amused look on her face. On pourrait dire qu'elle se fendait un peu la gueule... Too bad she's not capable of splitting logs as well as she can "split her gueule."

In an hour the work was done. We retired to the living room to celebrate, qui with a glass of wine, qui with a cup of tea, as they say in French. It was a job well done, on a day made to order for outside activity.

29 December 2010

France in 1970 – old letters

Five years ago when my mother sold her house, I learned that she had kept all the letters I wrote to her over the years, starting in 1970. We used to write a lot. All of us, I mean. MA also had packets of letters I had received from friends I went to college and spent time in France with. The letters were in boxes in the attic and garage, and I didn't know it. Or had forgotten.

I found one this morning that describes my trip to Paris on Saturday, March 21, 1970. I took the train from Marseille to Paris with an American from Nantucket who was friends with a fellow student of mine in Aix. We left Marseille at 10 p.m. and spent the night on a train, in a compartment with three French guys, two Englishwomen, and an Englishman. With us, that made eight in the compartment, so it was crowded.

Letters to the parental units from 1970

Two of the French guys — brothers about my age — were traveling with what I described as "a cute little kitten," and sometime during the night the kitten peed all over my pants leg. I was really fresh, as you can imagine, when we arrived in Paris at 7 a.m. that Sunday morning. I had turned 21 years old just a few weeks earlier.

Recently, remembering back, one of the things I've been wondering about that two-week trip to Paris so long ago is how I afforded it. Well, the answer is in the letter. We arrived in Paris early in the morning and all the passengers from our train compartment went off in different directions, including the American from Nantucket. He was going to Amsterdam. I headed for the Latin Quarter. I wrote this in my letter to my parents:
Found a hotel within an hour, for 15 F a day (including breakfast) [Fifteen French francs were worth less than $3.00 U.S. at that time.] Small single room, creaky floor, very clean. Shower costs 2.50 F extra. Slept until 1:30 p.m., took métro to Place de la Concorde and strolled up the champs-Elysées to the Arche [sic] de Triomphe. Went to a movie after dinner and then to hotel and bed.
So that's how I afforded it. Less than $3.00 a night for room and breakfast, and there were plenty of Paris restaurants where I could have a full meal for 5 FF — less than a dollar.

I found this sticker in with my old letters.
"I lost my heart to Paris," it says (more or less).

Before going, I had written in a letter that all the other American students I knew were "spreading out all over Europe, from Greece to Scotland," for the two week spring holiday. Not me:
I figure I'll buy a round trip ticket to Paris for $40 and stay there until I get tired of it. Then if I run out of money I'll be guaranteed passage back to Aix when I do.... I figure I'll have $10 a day, even after train fare, and that should be plenty. Europe on $5 a Day lists hundreds of hotels in Paris where single rooms cost $2 – $3 a day, so that should be no problem.
One more paragraph from a letter I wrote a few days after my 21st birthday:
Sunday we took a bus excursion to Nîmes. Six of us Americans and about 20 old (over 60) French people. Kathy, a girl from Duke, got sick and threw up, so the bus driver had to clean up. Plus, every time we stopped they had to wait for us to get back on the bus. Old people get tired and don't want to stop and see as much. The bus driver got lost twice and had to ask directions from old men working in the fields alongside the roads.
My parents were in their early 40s at that time, so I could talk to them about "old people" without risking any offense or hurt feelings! I'll be 62 in a few months, and I can attest that my observations as a 21-year-old were spot on.

Most of my letters from back then include at least one
paragraph like this one. I was an accomplished beggar!

I still looking at letters to see if I wrote anything about going to Les Halles in Paris during that trip.

28 December 2010

More than you want to know about...

Yesterday I wrote about Les Halles in Paris. I was inspired to do so by an article that Walt found and in which the writer seemed to misstate the relationship between, and history of, the old central Paris marketplace and the newer, ex-urban market complex in the suburb of Rungis that replaced it.

I've often wondered where the term « halles » came from. Did it come into being in the 19th century, when the architect Baltard designed and oversaw the building of the market pavilions, or halls, in the area now known as Les Halles? Was it a recent linguistic borrowing from English, with its word "hall"?

After all, the word « hall » exists in French, borrowed presumably from English, which got it from German. It was borrowed fairly late, I think, and is pronounced [OL] or [AWL] and is used in the expressions hall de gare (lobby, concourse) or hall d'entrée (entry hall, lobby, foyer), for example. It doesn't mean "corridor" which is couloir.

The title page of the old dictionary I found on the web here.

So I've been reading about the word halles. The term is much older than the 19th century, and it probably came from German. French, after all, is half German and half Latin in origin, with a lot of English thrown in over the past several decades and generations. The Franks were Germans.

One quote I found dates from the time of French King Philippe Auguste, who was a contemporary of Richard the Lionhearted — the two men were born just two years apart in the 1150s. A writer of the time wrote about « Duas magnas domos, quas vulgus halas vocat... » in which merchandise was sold. That's "two big buildings, which the people call halls," I think. The term halles or its older equivalent was used currently in the late 12th century, which is when the central market place that came to be known as Les Halles was originally set up (between 1110 and 1180).

Voilà. Some have tried to find a Latin root for the term halle, but one etymologist says (and I translate): "I don't see how one can doubt that the word halles comes from the German word hall, signifying a covered space, a house, a portico, a palace, and exactly what we call une halle in French. There is no need to search for any other derivation."

This is a sample of the text I've been trying to read.

The singular form halle is really not used much any more, except historically, as when it is the name of a specific building, or in the name of some of today's stores (La Halle au Chaussures, for example). There's a beautiful old halle in the town of Bracieux, near Chambord, and another in Montrésor, not far south of Saint-Aignan, near Loches. I also remember such a covered marketplace in the town of Luynes, just west of Tours on the Loire, from a trip last summer.

In Tours, the central market, which is really just a single market pavilion, is called Les Halles. It's a newer building, but maybe it replaced two or three old market halls, hence the name in the plural. In Paris, the central city market came to be called Les Halles as well, and there of course there were many market halls or pavilions, so the plural made sense.

One of the main things to know about the word halle is that the initial H is what is called an « H aspiré ». The French H is never "aspirated" in the way the English H is, however. The aspirated French H simply prevents any kind of elision of preceding articles or any liaisons of the final consonants of preceding words.

In other words, Les Halles is pronounced [lay-AHL] and not *[lay-ZAHL]. And it's la halle [la-AHL], not *l'halle in writing and in pronunciation. That's the most important thing to know about the word if you are learning French. If you're going to the covered marketplace or to the Paris district called Les Halles, vous allez aux halles [voo-zah-ley-oh-AHL], not [oh-ZAHL]. There will be a test tomorrow.

The aspirated H of halles and other French words (le hangar, la Hollande, la haie, la honte, le hall, and so on) is a good sign that those words are derived or were borrowed from German or Germanic languages like English and Dutch, in which the H is physically, not just virtually, aspirated. That confirms the etymologist's statement. Latin words that begin with an H, like l'homme (from Latin homo, hominem) don't have the same kind of H, just a vestigial or historical H.

This is the kind of stuff I'm interested in, along with food and cooking.

27 December 2010

Frigid France, then and now

We are living through the coldest December in France in the past 40 years, they are saying on the morning news show. We've had beautiful sunshine for two days now, but the price has been temperatures below freezing. I mean in the daytime. Early in the morning, it's like an icebox outside.

Forty years! The first time I came to France was 41 years ago. We landed in Paris on about December 30, 1969. I don't remember what the weather was like, but I do remember the atmosphere and the food. Already the food. I was 20 years old, and I had been learning French for seven years in North Carolina. (Don't laugh — I was lucky to have had excellent teachers, including several at college who were nationally and internationally respected.)

Foie gras et tranches de pain d'épices grillées à Noël

Anyway, I spent a semester in Aix-en-Provence during the first half of 1970. I do remember the weather there. It was much colder than I had thought it would be. I was coming from a very mild climate. The winds, that famous Mistral, roared and roared. The place where I lived — I rented a room from a family — was a long uphill walk from central Aix, where my classes were held, and I remember a few times having to trudge up the hill soaking wet because it was raining so hard.

I also remember that it snowed. It might have been in February or March. That really surprised me. A cold wind howled. The mild, sunny South of France. Ha!

Cutting cornpone into cubes to make stuffing for the turkey

At spring break, I went to spend two weeks in Paris. Other students headed for Spain, Greece, or Scandinavia. I just wanted to be in Paris. I stayed at a hotel at the place Maubert in the Latin Quarter — a hotel that went out of business several decades ago. It was definitely not what they call, in France, un palace.

And it snowed. I distinctly remember going to Versailles one day and walking around in the park at the château for hours in the snow. It was beautiful, of course, but my feet were wet and cold.

Foies de volaille — chicken or turkey livers — for the stuffing too

Back then, you could have what I considered an amazing meal in a restaurant in the Latin Quarter — nothing fancy by French standards, of course — for a dollar or two (5 to 10 francs). That was good for me, because I hardly ever had more than a dollar or two to my name. (I wonder how much that room at the Hôtel Pierwige cost?)

Yesterday, Walt read an article about the big wholesale food market in Rungis, south of Paris. The writer kind of got things mixed up and said that the Rungis market has existed for nearly a thousand years. The article said the Rungis market used to be located in central Paris in a district called Les Halles.

Oh well. The truth is that the market at Les Halles ("The Market Halls") existed from at least 1180 until about 1970. Then, because the narrow streets of central Paris were becoming too congested with trucks and cars, and because developers and politicians wanted to clean the area up and build something more profitable there, the whole market was transferred out to the suburbs.

Cooking chair à saucisses — sausage meat — for the stuffing too

Anyway, I remember going to Les Halles in 1970. I remember taking the metro over there and coming up out of the underground station to an amazing scene of confusion and hubbub. It was dark — it might have been snowing that day too. The memory is dark too. Demolition of the market pavillions had started in late 1969, but the market was still going.

It was too much for a 20-year-old from North Carolina. I couldn't make heads or tails of the place, and it was, frankly, kind of scary. Too real, and somehow threatening. I didn't stay long. I got back on the metro and went back to the Latin Quarter, with all of the other 20-year-olds. I'm sorry now that I didn't explore more.

I lived at Les Halles for three years at the end of the '70s and '80s. By then, it was a gigantic construction zone. It wasn't scary — at least not most of the time. The rue Montorgueil, today a kind of hip street full of cafés and restaurants and fancy food shops, had kept the atmosphere of the old Les Halles market to a great extent. It hadn't yet been pedestrianized and prettied up. Mornings, year-round, rain or shine or cold or hot, little old ladies wheeled wooden carts with wagon wheels out of the old courtyards and warehouses and sold vegetables, fruits, and other products to shoppers. It was something out of Victor Hugo, Flaubert, or Maupassant.

I was lucky to be able to get to know it, to buy food there in the shops and market stalls, and to learn a lot about cooking from merchants and French home cooks that I knew back then. One home cook was a woman who was in her late 70s then, the grandmother of a friend. She cooked lunch for us every Sunday for three years, teaching me what the traditional French dishes and meals were like. Another was the charcutière in a shop on the rue Montorgueil, who would patiently and thoroughly explain to me how to cook the products I bought from her.

A slice of that foie gras on a slice of the pain d'épices
(a kind of gingerbread but not too sweet)

The coldest winter I remember in Paris was 1978-79. The pipes froze in the little apartment I lived in just a few steps off the rue Montorgueil. I was on the top floor, so there wasn't much to keep the heat in. And the only heat in the place was a little electric radiator on wheels that you could roll around from room to room. There were only two rooms (350 sq. ft.) so it wasn't hard to move the radiator and keep it close by. The streets outside were icy and slippery. It was not something we were used to — the winters from 1970 to 1978 had been very mild in Paris and in Normandy.

Cold weather, good food. The dark days of December, the warmth and color of a little French kitchen. Time spent at the table, eating and talking. That's France for me.

26 December 2010

Turkey... oh no, not turkey again!

I think the turkey we cooked yesterday was only the second we've cooked — roasted — since we moved to France in the summer of 2003. We always have lamb at Thanksgiving, first of all. And in other years, for Christmas dinner we've cooked either a capon, a poularde, a pintade (guinea fowl), a duck, or a goose. (A poularde is a young hen chicken especially fattened for eating before it has ever ever laid an egg.)

Okay, I know you have probably eaten turkey more often than that, and you probably ate more turkey than you meant too yesterday. And now you have to eat leftovers for a few days. A lot of people say the leftovers are a lot better than the turkey you eat on Christmas Day itself, so buck up. I'm going to go ahead and post about turkey, despite it all.

A roasted turkey breast and some sprouts for Christmas 2010

The two turkeys we've roasted and eaten in France have been birds we ordered from the butcher's, in 2003, and from the poultry vendor at the market, this year. They do have turkeys at the supermarket — I saw some at Intermarché when we were over there last week. But the nice-looking ones (dinde fermière — farm-raised) were more expensive than the one we got at the market, and the less expensive ones were not very appetizing (I'm sure they are battery-raised beasts).

The turkey cut up for different cooking methods

We were able to get a 3.5-kilogram turkey at the market. That's probably impossibly small by U.S. turkey standards — less than 8 lb. Still, that's a lot more bird than I want to cook at one time for the two of us. Leftovers are good, but not that good. So what we do is cut the legs and thighs off the bird and cook them separately. The back and neck go into a pot of water to boil so that we have stock for making gravy and stuffing. Then we pick the meat off those pieces to feed to the cat and dog.

Ready for the oven, with the wings pinned to the breast

What we roast for our dinner is the breast, including the wings. We set it on a pile of stuffing — rice, wheat bread, or cornbread with onions, garlic, sausage meat, giblets, and other ingredients — and roast it that way. The cooking juices from the breast seep down into the stuffing. Give the Franco-American chef Jacques Pépin credit for this idea.

Cornbread stuffing with chicken livers, sausage meat,
celery, onions, green pepper, garlic, and thyme

Yesterday, by the way, I got the turkey breast all ready and put it into the oven when I remembered that I had neglected to cut out the wishbone to make carving easier. But when it was done, I found that the poultry vendor had already removed it, as part of what he does to prepare the bird for the oven. That was nice.

The turkey breast as it comes out of the oven

With the legs, thighs, and some of the turkey giblets (the heart and the gizzard) I'm making confit de dinde this morning. That's the turkey parts cooked very slowly for several hours in enough duck fat to cover them. The meat will get tender and succulent and will be good with beans or green vegetables with some good sausages.

25 December 2010

Preparing Christmas Dinner

Walt wrote this morning about our trip to the market in Montrichard yesterday. It was cold and it was snowing big flakes, but there was really no snow on the ground. There were fewer vendors than usual, but there were plenty of shoppers.

The only places where we had to wait in line were the poultry vendor's and the boulangerie. Walt did one and I did the other. At the poultry vendor's, it took longer than it would have if both the vendor's scales hadn't decided to crash while I was waiting.

Here's the Christmas Eve fondue with Auvergne cheeses.

They are electonic scales, the kind where you enter the price per kilogram and set the product on the scale to weigh it and calculate the price. The people staffing the stand were lost without them, and there was quite a bit of resetting, watching the scales go through their reboot processes and self tests, and, I have to say, quite a bit of grumbling and cursing too.

The vendor we buy poultry from is the Société Malbran-Clément,
with its processing facility in the village of Pouillé
between Saint-Aignan and Montrichard.

Finally one scale started working again so things could start moving forward. The woman in line behind me looked at me and said: « Je pense que ça va être gratuit aujourd'hui. » — I think it's going to be free today. I told her: « Oui, mais c'est Noël, après tout ! » — Yes, but after all, it is Christmas!"

Here's the turkey, freshly butchered and prepared for roasting.

Along with the turkey — 3.5 kilos for about 25 euros — I bought a pound of fresh chicken livers to put in the stuffing (cornbread, sausage meat, livers, onions, celery, and green pepper). Despite the cursing of the scales, everybody was in a cheerful mood. The people we buy poultry from are local, do their own processing and prepping, and have very fine products.

Duck foie gras — it's the whole liver
cooked with wine and seasonings.

The other thing we're having for our Christmas dinner, besides turkey, cornbread stuffing (which is not French but which I love), Brussels sprouts, and pommes dauphinoises, is some foie gras. That's the liver of a fattened duck or goose.

This liver is cooked with a little Jurançon wine
from down near the Pyrénées.

Ours is duck liver foie gras. They sell tons of it here at Christmastime, and I'm sure France must be the country in the world where the most foie gras is consumed. We'll have it as an appetizer before the turkey and trimmings. We'll spread it on toasted pain d'épices, a kind of ginger bread or spice bread made with honey and spices.

Pain d'épices, a French specialty

That might sound strange — duck liver on ginger bread — but that's what you have with foie gras: something sweet. Not cloyingly sweet, but sweetish. It can be figs, or prunes, or other fruit, raw or cooked. It can be the pain d'épices. Or it can be a sweet white wine like Sauternes, Montbazillac, Vouvray, or Alsatian Gewürtztraminer.

Okay, I have to go prepare the turkey and stuffing for the oven now. We trimmed up the Brussels sprouts and cooked some potatoes for the pommes dauphines yesterday, so we got a head start. I cooked cornbread — cornpone, actually — day before yesterday so that it would have time to dry out some. And I made the cornpone using some duck fat rather than butter, because I thought that would go well in the stuffing.

24 December 2010

Fondue with two Auvergne cheeses

For the past 10 or 12 years, Walt and I have been making a nice hot cheese fondue every year on Christmas Eve. Usually it's a fondue of "Swiss" or Alpine cheeses, including Comté, Gruyère, and Emmenthal. The other ingredients are white wine, nutmeg, black pepper, and kirsch (cherry brandy). A little cornstarch binds it all together so that the melted cheese doesn't separate into curds and liquid.

Today's cheese fondue will be an Auvergne variation on the Savoie/Switzerland theme. The Auvergne is a mountainous region in the center of France, south of Saint-Aignan and west of the Alps. The mountains there aren't nearly as high as the Alps, but a lot of them are very ancient extinct volcanoes. The winters in the Auvergne are cold and snowy — as is winter all over France this year. In September 2009, we spent a few days with friends in the part of the Auvergne called the Cantal and enjoyed the scenery, the people, and the cheese.

Two cheeses from the Auvergne region of France

Our 2010 fondue will be made with two Auvergne cheeses called Cantal and Saint-Nectaire. Cantal is a cheddar-like cheese that melts very smoothly and is slightly nutty-tasting. The Larousse book Les Fromages describes Cantal as demi-dur — semi-hard — it's an "uncooked" cheese. It can be made with pasteurized or raw (unpasteurized) milk. I did a series of posts on our visit to a dairy farm in the Cantal last year.

Cantal Entre-Deux is a medium-aged cheese
(in-between Cantal Jeune and Cantal Vieux)

Saint-Nectaire is an smoother, creamier cheese than Cantal. The Larousse Fromages book classifies it as demi-ferme — semi-firm — and it's also uncooked. (Swiss-style cheeses are "cooked" — the milk is heated during the cheese-making process.) Saint-Nectaire is made in a village of that name in the center of the Auvergne and the surrounding countryside. Its flavor is described as "delicate, with hints of hazelnut." Some Saint-Nectaires are made with raw milk, and others with pasteurized milk.

A wedge of Saint-Nectaire cheese

The main difference, technically, between Cantal and Saint-Nectaire is that the Cantal milk curds are cut and pressed twice during the cheese-making process, and the Saint-Nectaire curds just once. Otherwise, the two are made with the same milk in the same region, Cantal being just south of the Saint-Nectaire production area.

I see the label now says AOP rather than AOC.
New European labeling standards...

According to the Larousse cheese book, Cantal may well be the oldest existing French cheese, dating back 2000 years and mentioned in Roman texts. Saint-Nectaire cheese-making dates back about 1000 years, and it became well-known across France when it was presented at King Louis XIV's table in the 17th century.

Cantal and Saint-Nectaire are both AOC (or AOP) cheeses.

Both cheeses have the Appellation d'Origine Contôlée (or Protégée) label, or AOC/AOP. That means that to be called either Cantal or Saint-Nectaire, a cheese must be made according to strict standards that specify where the milk comes from (where the cows graze, and what on) and how the cheese-making process is carried out. You should be able to find them in America and other countries outside France. They should look and smell fresh when you buy them.

Here's a recipe for an Auvergne-style cheese fondue. The general rule for fondue is that you want between a third and a half pound of (whatever) cheese per person. This recipe is for four:
500 g of Cantal cheese (a generous pound)
300 g of Saint-Nectaire cheese (a generous half-pound)
1 or 2 cloves of garlic
1 baguette of good French bread
50 cl of dry white wine (2 cups or 16 fl. oz.)
a pinch of nutmeg
1 tsp. of cornstarch
2 or 3 tablespoons of kirsch (clear cherry brandy)
a pinch or more of black pepper, to taste

Peel the garlic clove(s) and cut them in half. Rub them around in the fondue pot to give the fondue a hint of their flavor. (If you want, you can press the cloves and add them directly to the fondue.)

Cut the rinds off the the cheeses. Cut all the cheese into thin strips, or grate it. Also cut the French bread into small cubes so that each piece has some crust on it (it will be easier to keep on the forks that way). Mix the cornstarch into the kirsch (cold) in a small bowl or glass to make a slurry.

Pour the wine into the fondue pot and start heating it up on a burner on the strove. Gradually add the cheese. Season with pepper and nutmeg. Keep the heat low and stir the cheese mixture constantly with a wooden spoon. As soon as it starts to reach the boiling point, give the cornstarch slurry a stir and pour it in. Continue stirring and cooking the fondue for three or four more minutes.

The fondue should be smooth and fairly liquid. If it seems too thin, add a little more cornstarch dissolved in kirsch or white wine. If it's very thick, heat up a little more white wine and gradually mix it in.

Set the fondue pot on the table on a heat source and give each person some bread cubes and a fondue fork to spear them with. Dip each bread cube into the melted cheese and enjoy. Follow up the fondue with a big green salad dressed in tart vinaigrette.

We are off to the market in Montrichard, 10 miles downriver from our village, to pick up our Christmas turkey. It's not snowing (yet) but the roads are supposedly icy, so we'll see how it goes. At least I have new tires! Merry Christmas Eve to all.

23 December 2010

Easy tuna tomato sauce

Raining again this morning, but at least it's not snow. We're hoping the rain won't become snow tomorrow either, because that's our big market day. We have to drive over to Montrichard (10 miles west) to pick up the turkey and buy some sprouts or other green vegetable.

A few days ago I saw a TV chef (Eric Léautey on French CuisineTV) making some pasta sauces. The one that attracted me, both because it seems unusual and it reminds me of a recipe I used to make in Paris back in the 1970s, was a sauce tomate au thon to be served with pasta. It's a great dish for a gray winter day.

I get really hungry just looking at this photo.
It even looks kind of Christmas-y.

Years ago, I had a recipe out a long-gone book (where did that book go, anyway, and which one was it?) that was called Tuna Provençal. Or Provençale. In the book it was in English, I'm sure. It used canned tuna, tomatoes, onions, garlic, olive oil, and herbs like thyme and rosemary. I think I remember it being served with rice.

That's exactly the sauce Eric Léautey made on his show the other day. I didn't get his recipe and haven't yet found it on the www.cuisine.tv web site. I found similar recipes on other web sites, however, and they are all very similar to each other.

The olives are optional, really, but so good if you like them.

One advantage of a recipe like this is that it is so fast to prepare. It's ready in 10 or 15 minutes, about the amount of time it takes to cook the pasta. Here's the recipe:
Sauce tomate au thon

3 cups of tomato purée or sauce
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, trimmed and diced
2 cloves garlic, chopped or crushed
1 Tbsp. dried thyme
(some fresh basil and rosemary if available)
salt and black pepper to taste
½ tsp. cayenne pepper (or a squirt of harissa)
15 or 20 olives, green or black, pitted or not
1 or 2 small tins of tuna, flaked

Sauté the onion and green pepper together in olive oil. Add the tomato purée or sauce (and adjust the quantity). Stir in the parsley, salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper. Add the tuna (about 200 grams or 6 oz.) and finally the olives. As soon as it's heated through and starting to simmer, it's ready.

If you use tuna packed in olive oil, use that olive oil to make the sauce. If you use tuna packed in water, put some of the tuna water into the sauce (but taste it for saltiness first). The better the tuna, the better the sauce, of course. Same goes for the tomato sauce or puree. Of course canned tomatoes could be very good, and fresh tomatoes, in season, even better. La sauce tomate au thon is more an idea than a recipe, really.

22 December 2010

Birthday no. 29

Not 29 years old, Walt — far from it. Yesterday was the 29th time we've made his traditional birthday dinner together. The first time, December 21 in 1982, was before we started living together. We had just come back from spending a year in Paris, where we met.

I've told the story before, here. And I've given a recipe for steak au poivre before too, here.

We drank Touraine sparkling wine and made the sauce
with Armagnac, black pepper, and cream.

Yesterday was new-tires day. Since we only have one car, and since there is little if any convenient public transit to get us home from the garage, we took the car in at 9 a.m. and waited three hours for it to be serviced. Oil change, new tires, and all that. It was rainy but not too cold.

The garage is across the river in Noyers-sur-Cher. It's in what passes for a shopping center here: a zone d'activités commerciales (or ZAC). It is not a mall. Besides the garage, two contrôle technique centers, and a Citroën dealership, however, there's a supermarket (Intermarché), a hardware/DIY store (Bricomarché), a café/self-service restaurant, and a store called Facile that sells housewares, hardware, curtains, and other sundries.

Having three hours to spend over there was the perfect opportunity to do something we don't do very often: shop. We fortified ourselves by walking the few hundred meters (say two long blocks) from the tire place to the café and sitting down to drink a big cup of black coffee — un double express — and eat a croissant. We don't go to cafés much any more, and it was almost like being on vacation or in Paris. While we sat and sipped, we browsed through the Intermarché Christmas flyer to see what the store specials were. We needed to buy a couple of steaks and some other things.

Deux pavés de rumsteak

Then we went and browsed around the Bricomarché store until 10:00, when Facile opened. We looked at closet door hardware (thinking more powerful magnets might be in order for the closet doors in the loft). We looked for what Simon calls "goo" — mousse expansive — but didn't find any. We looked at dog toys for Callie. We looked at lamps and saw two we liked. In short, we killed a half an hour.

We went to Facile and wandered around for about 45 minutes, but finally didn't buy anything except a couple of inexpensive dog toys. We looked at light bulbs (Europe is changing over to fluorescent from incandescent bulbs now and we need to buy some). We looked at curtains. We looked a candles. We spent time examining all the items on sale in the kitchenware department. It was fun.

These days, I'm enjoying making frites using fresh potatoes
of the Charlotte variety, which are widely available here.

Then we went grocery shopping at Intermarché. There wasn't much of a line at the butcher counter. We told the man we wanted a couple of steaks cut from the piece called the rumsteak. The butcher there had told us years ago that rumsteack is the best cut for steak au poivre — it's tender and lean, and can be cut thick so you can cook it rare.

The butcher grabbed his knife and cut off two steaks, but they were too thin. I asked Walt if they looked okay to him and I could tell he didn't think so. The butcher looked at us and waited. Finally, I said: "Today's my friend's birthday, so he's choosing. We need thicker steaks." He looked at us and said: "Do you two speak the same language?" Yes, I said, we're Americans. But we live here.

« Vous êtes en famille, n'est-ce pas? », he said as he cut the thicker steaks. Yes, I said. I think he was asking whether we live together. I told him we'd been living here for more than seven years now. He finished cutting the steaks and I apologized for not taking the first two he had cut. No problem, he said with a smile. It was all very pleasant, with no tension or discomfort. The steaks cost just less than 10 euros.

The sauce could have been a nicer color,
but everything was delicious.

We then went back to Bricomarché and bought the two lamps we liked. We hadn't found any nicer lamps at Facile, and we've been looking for lamps for the guest bedroom a while now. We walked back over to the garage with all our purchases and got the car back, with its new tires and fresh oil.

It was a nice morning, and we had a great birthday dinner of steak au poivre, frites, and salade verte. With a bottle of local Touraine bubbly and then some good local Gamay red wine. Here's a link to Walt's post today, in which he explains how we prepared and cooked the steaks.

21 December 2010

Fouées = pita bread

After posting yesterday on the topic of fouées de Touraine, the local flatbread, I went on Google and searched for recipes for pita bread. Result: it seems to me that they are the same thing, at least as far as the present-day incarnation of the fouée seems to go. The recipes for the two breads that I found were essentially the same.

Fouées ready to be flattened and go into the oven...

Ours were good (credit to Walt). All I did was find and print out the recipes I found on line. Oh, and then watch and take some pictures while he was making them. By the way, here's a link to a pita bread recipe that is pretty much the same as the fouée de Touraine recipe we used. As far as I know, they don't sell packaged pita bread in the Saint-Aignan area supermarkets.

...and freshly out, brushed with olive oil

To go with the fouées, I cooked some « pois du Cap », which would mean "Capetown peas" or, in my brand of English, big Lima beans. We also had a purée of chick peas and potatoes (leftovers), a couple of thin slices of ham panned in butter, and a good green salad.

Pois du Cap — Capetown peas or what I call big Lima beans

It was a good lunch for a winter day. Winter, by the way, is arriving much warmer than late autumn has been here in Saint-Aignan. Our high temperature today was at least 25 degrees F (13 degrees C) higher than it was just two or three days ago.

Ham (jambon de Paris)

In other words, we are having a nice thaw. This while Paris, Normandy, and Picardy are suffering under a heavy snowfall. England too. The airports in Paris, London, and Brussels are chaotic, with many canceled flights and many would-be fliers sleeping on chairs and floors in airport waiting areas. I'm glad I don't have to go anywhere this week.

Prendre l'avion en décembre — quelle mauvaise idée !

Today is Walt's birthday. Wish him a Happy.

20 December 2010

Les fouées de Touraine

Focus, meaning "fire" or "fireplace" in Latin, is at the root of the French and English terms "foyer" — in French, foyer [fwah-YAY] is one word for "home" — the place where the family lives and cooks and eats together. The fireplace is the center of the home, its focus.

The same word has given French and Italian a string of words for bread. The best known term in America is the Italian one, focaccia. In French, as a result of progressive phonetic erosion over the centuries, the word evolved into terms like fougasse [fou-GAHSS], fouasse or fouace [FWAHSS], and finally fouée [FWAY]. Focaccia or fouées are flatbreads that were traditionally cooked on the hearth or in the hot ashes of a fire.

According to the Wikipedia article on focaccia, in Italy "by far the most typical focaccia is simply baked dough topped with olive oil and a simple herb like rosemary or sage, and salted with coarse salt." The versions we are more familiar with are large flatbreads resembling pizzas, topped with melted cheese, herbs, olives, and meats.

The Touraine fouace or fouée is a little flatbread in the style of those simpler Italian focaccia breads. It's a specialty of the Touraine and Anjou regions along the Loire River, and it has a long history in French cooking and bread-making. The fouée dates back to the Middle Ages, at least. The great Touraine writer François Rabelais — born ca. 1490 in the Chinon region — mentions fouées in his satirical novels Pantagruel and Gargantua.

Thanks to the blog
Ô Miam Miam de Soso
for this picture.

The fouée is alive and well in Touraine. For example, there's a restaurant in the historic quarter of the city of Tours that serves a menu made up of freshly baked, hot-out-of-the-oven fouées along with bowls of white beans, pots of the traditional shredded pork spread called rillettes, and ramekins of the little pickled gherkins called cornichons. The restaurant advertises that it will serve you fouées à volonté — all you can eat — with your meal.

The restaurant is called Comme AutreFouée and it's located in the Place Plumereau area. The name is a play on words because « autrefois » in French means "other times" — the past, the olden days. Walt and I have had lunch there and the food is very good, typically Touraine-style, and served with a bottle of local Chinon or Bourgueil wine.

In the Saint-Aignan area, the bread bakery out in the vineyard up behind our house (Le Chêne du Renard) makes very popular flatbreads that the baker calls fougasses, topped with smoked pork lardons and melted Comté or Gruyère cheese. Actually, goat cheese would be a more authentic Touraine topping, because the only cheeses made in this region are made with goat's milk. Cow's milk cheeses have to be "imported" from Normandy, Burgundy, or the Alps.

The Touraine-style fouée is a kind of pocket bread, like a pita bread. You could call it a galette in French. You can split the little round fouées open and fill them with cooked vegetables or meats. In Touraine white beans and pork rillettes are the traditional fillings. Remember, when fouées were everyday fare in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, there were no tomatoes or potatoes in Europe. Those came later, from the Americas.

This nice
thanks to

There is a small husband & wife business in the area that specializes in catering fouée breads for parties and other events. Véronique and Willy will come to your place with their portable bread oven, which they say they have invented and patented, and cook up fouées for your crowd. They can put 50 of the little breads at a time into the oven, so it doesn't take long to feed everybody. Here's their web site, called Fouées à domicile.

Here's a French blog with a recipe and a picture. And here's another that has step-by-step instructions and photos.

I'm writing about fouées because we're going to make some for lunch. I'll have pictures later. With our snowy, icy weather on Friday and Saturday, the bread lady — la porteuse de pain — hasn't made it up the hill with our daily baguette since last Thursday. We need to fend for ourselves. Sometimes in these situations we make cornbread or Southern biscuits, but today we are having a more traditional Touraine bread.

19 December 2010

Courants d'air

First I fell in the stairway and sprained my ankle. Then the good weather went south and we had, first, a long period of steady rain, and now a long period of repeated snowfalls and freezing temperatures. Then my glasses broke — both pairs. To top it off, the car unexpectedly flunked its biannual inspection because the front tires were found to be too worn.

The loft space
is still a work in

And now, here's an update on our upstairs room, the one we had finished from scratch last spring and summer. First of all, let me say that I love it. We both do. It's comfortable, spacious, nice-looking, light, and convenient. I was not sure I would like the floor — pine boards — but I do. The wooden staircase is handsome and solid. The heat works great, and the expensive radiators are attractive and efficient.

So much for the positives. There have to be some problems, right? Well, there are, and the major one is our own fault. We first noticed it in November, when the weather was blustery and damp. When we have strong winds here in the Loire Valley, they almost always come from the west, so that's the side of our house that takes the brunt of the weather.

The west side of the upstairs room includes a long, low closet — the entire length of the room, which is 11 meters, or about 35 feet. There are four doors that give access to the closet space. We have some shelving units in there for storage, and we figure we can use the rest of the storage space for all kinds of things, from boxes of books, old 35 mm slides, clothes, electric fans, the vacuum cleaner, and on an on.

The railing
around the

The closet doors are held shut by some of those puny magnet closures that aren't very powerful. The inside of the closet is unfinished. It's plasterboard (sheetrock) and the seams and joints in the wall are not sealed. Why not? Because when Jacques the contractor asked us whether we wanted the plasterboard inside the closets taped and 'mudded', we said: "No, don't bother. Nobody will ever see in there anyway."

That was the mistake we made. In November, on one particularly windy day, all of a sudden the four closet doors on that side of the room all blew open! A strong draft was coming into the room through the joints in the plasterboard inside the closets. It was strong enough to defeat the little magnetic door closures. The 20 cm of insulation behind the plasterboard was not enough to keep the draft out.

At first it seemed funny. Like we had ghosts, with doors suddenly popping open. It wasn't really cold outside, so the draft blowing into the room wasn't cold either. Being up here wasn't exactly like sitting in a wind tunnel — but we knew we had a problem. I called Jacques and a few days later he came over to talk about it. He told us two things. These two, if I understood correctly: He said he'd send a crew over to seal the joints and seams inside the closets. He asked if that would involve moving a lot of stuff, and we told him no, not at this point.

Here you can see two of the closet doors that kept blowing open.

He also told us that his entreprise has filed for bankruptcy. In other words, I assumed, he was ready to retire, to get out of the building contractor business. I may have misunderstood what he was saying. We waited for the crew (two young guys) to show up, but they never did. Days passed. It started snowing. The roads were icy. The weather was cold.

But there was no wind. Therefore no draft blew into the upstairs room. We waited patiently, and I considered calling Jacques again but never did it. The crew probably wouldn't have come out in the bad weather to do a free repair anyway. If there still was a crew. And I assume that there would have been no charge for the work. Anyway, as long as there was no wind, there was no problem.

And then two or three nights ago a strong weather front blew through Saint-Aignan from the northwest, bringing strong winds and a mix of rain and snow. The closet doors in the loft blew open again and, worst of all, the temperature in the room rapidly fell from about 19 to 14ºC. At 19ºC (about 66ºF), I'm comfortable. But 14ºC is only 57 in farenheit. That's chilly when you are sitting still.

So for the last two days Walt has been insulating the closets using putty and, as necessary, pieces of cloth that he sticks into the wallboard joints where they are too wide to make puttying practical. And it's working. It was very windy last night and again this morning — another front is moving in off the North Atlantic this weekend, bringing rain this time around Saint-Aignan but snow just north of us in Brittany, Normandy, and the Paris region. However, we're not feeling any draft. The temperature in the room is staying steady.

There's still some calfeutrage to do (calfeutrage = "draftproofing" according to the French - English dictionary). We will gradually find all the places where cold air is seeping in and get them filled, one way or another.

The old windows
are fine but will
need to be painted
and re-caulked.

A piece of good news: the two previously existing windows up here in the loft seem fine. They're not drafty at all, despite the fact that they are probably more than 40 years old. Now that we know that the old windows are keepers, we'll take them down next summer to paint the frames and put some fresh caulking around the panes of glass.