31 December, 2009

Cheese Puffs gone French.

I'm thinking I cannot the only one to have both well-loved guests on the way to cheer the new year in, and a debilitating cold/flu whatever firmly lodged in the area of my sinuses, throat, nose, etc. It had to happen sometime, but why now? No, really not so good timing, given that my cooking drive has taken a bit of a nosedive as a result of my continuous coughing and hacking. And what am I doing writing at 12:15 in the morning, the intelligent reader asks. Waiting for the (imported) Nyquil to kick in, replies the soon-to-be hostess. Duh.
I had decided on an easy crowd-pleaser (the cheese puffs, or gougères, in the title), but discovered my pastry bag is AWOL. In my house, if you can't find something, there is a very good chance it is In Storage. Problem is, Storage is in a different country. So if you do have your pastry bag (or can track one down), but lack ideas for something delicious and easy to make for New Year's Eve (or any other pretext), then by all means, take over where I have had to leave off.

Gougères are delicious finger food from the region of Burgundy, the kind of savory pastry snack that makes people forget their manners and all but two-fist the crispy little treats while hulking protectively over the serving tray. These hollow little balls go excellently with a glass of Champagne. And as long as you follow the instructions carefully, they're quite easy to make.

There are excellent, simple recipes online. I like that FXcuisine features clear, step-by-step photos (the photo above is from their recipe), while Food and Wine offers Alain Ducasse's version. Who better to stump for this French delicacy? I still think the standard Gruyère cheese makes for the tastiest gougères, but at Baking Obsession, Vera has chosen a less conventional path. It does look delicious. Let me know if you try it out.

In the meantime, I will stumble to bed now. The Nyquil has kicked in, and the rasping, consumptive-sounding cough is being replaced by jaw-breaking yawns and slightly blurred vision. (Hey, it's party central already.)

Thank you for reading this far; Happy New Year to you, with good cheer--and good health.

29 December, 2009

Is it too late to share this with you?

45,000 christmas lights, computer-controlled and powered by wind. American ingenuity goes festive.

28 December, 2009

The fatted liver.

One of my (many and manifold) weaknesses is an everlasting willingness to be seduced by foie gras. And in France, this is definitely the season for either duck or goose foie gras. I am lucky enough to know someone who makes his own foie gras from geese and ducks raised on kitchen peelings and whatever they find in his field. But supermarkets across France are stocked with this delicacy (in a range of diferent levels of quality and price). Beyond France, foie gras is considered a food of the elite as it is after all a luxury dish, but within France, at Christmas and New Year, it is a fixed, nearly standard feature on the table of the average Joe.

Outside of France, there has been momentum, off and on, to ban foie gras. Indeed, it is banned in some countries altogether, such as Turkey and Israel. You may perhaps remember the two year ban in Chicago. As Alex Koppelman of Salon.com rather acerbically writes:

It's undoubtedly true that some farms use inhumane methods, like caging the birds in tiny, individual cages that cause them pain and distress, but when foie gras is produced the right way (the way Hudson Valley does it, for instance) it's simply not torture. It's just a process through which humans take advantage of the duck's natural biology, which is very well suited to the kind of force-feeding involved in producing these fatty livers.
If you oppose foie gras, even if the only thing you've ever done about it is to make a dinner companion feel guilty, and you still eat conventionally raised meat, you're a raging hypocrite and a silly one at that. The eggs you ate for breakfast, the cheese that came on top, and the bacon on the side, all of it is produced using methods more torturous than the ones employed on a good foie gras farm. Animals on a typical farm these days are confined in spaces so small they can't turn around, much less do any of the things they'd normally do in nature. And in order to keep them at least somewhat healthy and functional despite those conditions, which tend to make them stressed and unhappy, their bodies are altered to keep them from harming themselves and their fellow animals -- chickens have their beaks trimmed, pigs and cows get their tails docked.
If you would like to find out more about this, you might be interested in the new Mark Caro book "TheFoie Gras Wars: How a 5,000-Year-Old Delicacy Inspired the World's Fiercest Food Fight." (Mark Caro is the columnist whose article resulted in the Chicago ban).

Enough of the world, back to the kitchen. If you know and appreciate the stuff, and can get your hands on some nice foie gras, I urge you to try this terrine, which I adapted from an Elle à Table recipe I scrounged up the day before a big dinner. Here's why: it is made well in advance, is so easy and relatively fast to prepare, looks impressive and tastes even better. The fruit harmonizes (yes, harmonizes!) with the foie gras to perfection. The only disadvantage I can think of, assuming you like foie gras and have no allergy to nuts, is that it's never inexpensive. The only special equipment you'll need is a terrine dish (about 12 cm in length should do); this is a glazed baking dish with straight sides.

Terrine de Foie Gras aux Fruits Secs/Fruit-Studded Foie Gras Terrine

Serves six.

250 g foie gras mi-cuit (i.e. not raw, but rather ready to serve)
4 dried figs, (the hard stem bit cut and discarded) chopped
1 tablespoon cranberries (or raisins)
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts (or pistachios)
20 g butter
2 tablespoons Banyuls, sherry or Champagne vinegar
2 tablespoons white Port, or Pineau de Charentes, or a dessert wine such as Sauternes
a pinch or two of Cayenne pepper
fresh ground pepper and salt to taste

Place a large piece of plastic wrap into the terrine dish; this will allow you to easily remove the terrine for slicing later. Break or cut the foie gras roughly into pieces, place in a mixing bowl. Melt the butter in a pan over medium heat, add the chopped dried fruit and nuts and stir. Add the vinegar, stir again, then add the Port and cayenne pepper. The kitchen will suddenly reek of vinegar fumes. Don't despair. Grind pepper into the pan and add a light sprinkle of salt.

Once the vinegar and Port have evaporated leaving only the butter, remove the pan from the heat. This should take about five minutes. Allow the fruit mixture to cool a bit before adding it to the foie gras in the mixing bowl. Gently mix the two, then pile the combination into the terrine dish, pressing down to push out any air pockets underneath. Completely cover the top with the plastic wrap and allow to rest, refrigerated, for at least one night.

When ready to serve, pull the ends of the plastic wrap gently to dislodge then remove the terrine from its dish. Slice with a knife that has been previously warmed in hot water. Serve with toasted French bread slices and a spoonful of thick, vanillla-scented fig conserves.

23 December, 2009

A house in the mist.

At fourteen or fifteen, unable to sleep at two in the morning, I crept into the family den (lined with genuine laminated wood) and switched on the television, promptly losing myself in the 1954 film adaptation of the Broadway musical Brigadoon.
For a couple of days now, I have been Cyd Charisse, in spirit if nothing else. Okay, I'm speaking fairly loosely here. Gene Kelly was AWOL, there was only this house instead of a musically gifted village, and not a kilt to be found, but it hardly seemed possible for the day to go by any slower, nor fog to be any denser. The fog was palpable, it was the cat that padded up and wrapped itself around the farmhouse (remember that poem?). Only this cat never left.
Nearly simultaneously, there have been hundreds of passengers stuck on a Eurostar train under the English Channel and thousands of stranded would-be passengers in London and Paris, almost all of whom deeply desired to go home for the holidays. I was also stuck--but already at home. Granted, there are worse things (such as the aforementioned train mess) but this house has been completely cut off from anything resembling civilization, or even the landscape familiar to me, with no visibility past one or two meters.

The only weapon I chose to wield against the resulting (mild) case of cabin fever was to read about food. Then to cook. A lot. There are now four types of Christmas cookies (including a new one: lemon-glazed persimmon bars); my go-to rosemary and garlic marinade for a leg of lamb; candied clementines, incandescent and nearly translucent; the best-ever crèmes renversées (what the world outside of France calls a crème caramel); an ivory-hued cream of parsnip soup; a winter salad sprinkled generously with crumbled chestnuts and my neighbor's very fresh goat cheese. My waistline will bear the brunt of this isolation, but boy the house smells divine. No doubt Cyd would shake her perfectly coiffed, chiseled head at the sight of my kitchen...

I do hope we'll get lucky with a bit of milder weather tomorrow, as I really must rejoin civilization in last-minute gift-hunting at the local marchés de noel . It is, after all, nearly Christmas. Dear reader, I wish you and yours warm fingers and toes, a kitchen full of good smells (and someone to help clean up), a big glass with tiny bubbles, and an enduring sense of peace. Oh, and not too much fog.

19 December, 2009

Staying warm, part deux.

There is always debris involved in the act of creation, and wine-making is no exception. White wine grapes are generally crushed and pressed to extract the liquid, leaving behind a greenish-brownish mass of skin, seeds and pulp. Red wine grapes are usually crushed and the liquid allowed to drain freely, leaving behind a blackish mess of solids, which also include traces of yeast cells and alcohol.
Wine-makers are thus left with substantive solids, which English cider makers long ago dubbed pomace. With this, they make pomace brandy, or what the Italians call grappa and the French call Marc. (In the photo, the three bottles on the left contain grappa, including the more well-known Alexander at the very end.) Parenthetically, if you want to say the 'm' word out loud and impress others by sounding French-ish, drop that 'c' at the end.

Wine-makers engage in their own sort of recycling in a number of ways. They use the leftovers--including the dregs, or sediment found in the bottom of the fermentation vessel. From this, they extract what is sold in powder form as cream of tartar (used to stabilize and add volume to beaten egg whites, to improve the texture of baked goods, for polishing brass and copper, and removing tough stains from your clothes and bathtub...). They also spread the dregs in the vineyard, returning nitrogen and other organic nutrients to the soil. But most notably--at least in my mind--they make that clear, robust brandy. Because what a pity to see any bit of what has so carefully been grown go to waste, right?So the Marc is simply a very earthy response to the challenge of making something out of that "nothing", and what resulted was a kind of moonshine that served as a fairly spine-straightening kick in the pants, a buffer against harsh winters and intensive labor.

The Marc has acquired some finesse and distanced itself to a degree from its fiery, peasant origins. Most Marc in France comes from either the region of Champagne (much of which is distilled in steam heated vats at Jean Goyard, after which the highly aromatic Marc is aged by individual champagne houses) or Burgundy. There are a variety of different stills and distillation processes found across the country, but Burgundian Marcs are oak-aged, and tend to be quite rich--or ample. Alsace is, to a smaller degree, also known for its Marcs (far right in the photo), as is the Jura (just left of the center bottle). There is no real difference between Marc and grappa, other than country of origin. Since Nonino's hugely marketed, transformative shift toward single varietal grappas in the early 70s, however, grappa has gone very high end, with gorgeous packaging that often costs more than the beverage within. Grappa has gained a certain cachet, especially in the US, its biggest export market, a chicness that Marc still lacks.

Marc is drunk as a digestif, taken after dinner to ease digestion, perhaps with an espresso or a good cigar for the aficionados. It is not, however, for the faint of heart. With an alcohol content ranging from 40% to 45%, conservative sipping, with extended pauses for conversation, is key to remaining upright. My favorite (so far) is the beautiful, supple vanilla and spice-scented Marc de Banyuls that I brought back from the marvelously rough-hewn (French Catalan) Cote Vermeille. This one is made from Grenache noir, gris and Carignan grape pomace.

Wind up your courage, give this brandy a try. As for me, my companionable little glass is now empty, which brings this entry to a close.

(With thanks to Charlene, for asking about it.)

14 December, 2009

Staying warm.

It has shifted from this......and this... ..to these. This all happened in a matter of moments, or so it seems. Spoiled with an endlessly balmy November, we rolled blithely into blackest December. Boy, do I ever resent the guy who came up with Daylight Savings Time for robbing me of those last rays of light. All the radiators have been flicked up a notch to accomodate the drop in temperature. Will we have a white Christmas? It would be atypical for the Languedoc these past few winters. But stock up anyway on the few aromatic ingredients for vin chaud, or mulled wine. For when you're snowed in, or when you just want to pretend that you are.

Vin Chaud (French Mulled Wine)

Serves one to four people, depending on the degree of thirst.

one bottle of Beaujolais red wine
zest of 2 oranges
zest of one lemon
4 cinnamon sticks
6 whole pods of cardamom, split open
6 whole cloves
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/3 cup of currant liqueur (Cassis de Dijon), or Cognac and 3 tablespoons of sugar

Combine the wine and all the spices in a saucepan, heat until simmering, and allow to bubble very slightly for about half an hour. Take at least three deep breaths of the gorgeous perfumes wafting through your house. Add the Cassis de Dijon, or sweetened Cognac, simmer for another five minutes, strain and serve.

Sip and dream of picture-postcard Christmas markets in the Alsace, where the snow lingers a bit longer.

09 December, 2009


Remember when you were little and first tried to reach the bottom of the pool, fighting the buoyancy of your own body and above all that mad desire to suck in air? In the countryside, without a television or a newspaper subscription, suddenly losing your internet connection can feel similar. Amazing how I can even imagine associating computer time to something as vital as breathing, but there you go. You get used to access, and hurry-it-up, both of which I have lacked for the past few days. This, while such interesting little moments were happening, between the (tidal) waves of holiday rush (visits, preparations for visits, more visits, trimming the tree, making wreaths, making merry). I guess the lead up to Christmas doesn't differ that much whether I live in Amsterdam, Washington, D.C., or the boonies of France. (It isn't really the boonies here, but it can feel like it when one is sans internet connection.)

I thought of you, dear reader, when I was driving past broad swathes of grapevines and noticing they'd finally shifted from pure autumn gold to the reddish brown, leafless haze of winter. But at that very same instant--I swear on a stack of Bibles taller than me--the title song of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma! musical came on the radio:
...Flowers in the prairie where the june bugs zoom,
Plen'y of heart and plen'y of hope.
Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain
And the wavin' wheat can sure smell sweet
When the wind comes right behind the rain...

Enough to send a girl into some rather odd daydreams.

30 November, 2009

Golden mountain again in view.

It's that time of year again, actually has been since mid-September, and I have been meaning to write about it. Cheese, I mean. Not just any cheese, but the Vacherin Mont d'Or, of haut Doubs, in the Franche Comté, a region far to the mideast, bordering on Switzerland.
This seasonal, raw milk cheese is named after the highest peak in the area, and is said to have been a favorite of Louis XV. The most famous cheese from the Franche Comté, unsurprisingly is the superlative Comté. The Mont d'Or, its lesser known relative, was developed as a way to make small rounds of cheese in autumn from the depleted quantities of milk produced by the Franche Comté Montbéliarde breed cows. A single 35 kilo (80 lb.) round of Comté cheese will require both a long, labor-intensive maturing period and some 530 liters of milk (the daily production of perhaps 30 cows). A single one-kilo round of Mont d'Or, however, is ready in just 21 days and requires only 7 liters of milk.

During its relatively short maturing period, or l'affinage, a Mont d'Or cheese, once solidified, is wrapped with a thin length of spruce pine, and allowed to rest upon a length of pine in the cave. The wood will lend an inimitable resinous element in the maturing process, as the cheese is regularly "washed" with brine (a solution of salt and water), in order to develop the rind your spoon will later cut into. Finally, toward the end of the aging process, the pine-belted cheese will be placed in a round pine box that is ever so slightly too small. This will ensure the characteristic buckling of the rind that you look for in a fully aged Mont d'Or.

A well-aged Mont d'Or will have a mouth-filling richness that might bring to mind a particularly flavorful and melty Brie, a suppleness and long-lasting aromas of mushroom, balsam and sometimes potatoes (which is why the fondue version is so prefect drizzled atop baked or hash-browned potatoes). I usually buy it in the smallest round, which fits in my cupped palms and is about half a kilo. The larger size I reserve for a winter crowd, when a rib-sticking fondue is called for; I bake it directly in the humid wooden box, adding a bit of white wine to make what's known as a boîte chaude, or hot box. Another one of those instances when the expression, once translated, somehow disappoints.
Extensive travel is generally not well-tolerated by any fine cheese, and the Mont d'Or does seem to get more delicious the closer to its home that you can sample it--that certainly applies within France as well. But you can get a pretty delicious idea by staying away from supermarkets and sampling some at your local fromagiste-affineur if he is well-versed in his craft. 'Tis the season, grab your spoon!

Update: one of my kind readers pointed me in the direction of blogger Chez Loulou who highlights favorite cheeses (with some great shots) in her Fete de Fromage. Do check it out if you go weak in the knees for cheese.

23 November, 2009

The scent of dirty hands.

I'm a follower of football and other sports, but only in the sense that I pay attention when it becomes too big to ignore. Like when the French won the World Cup in 1998--what untrammeled joy!--and now. Thierry Henry is central today, as he was then, but for a different reason. This time around, it was his hand, as captain of the team, that blatantly nudged the ball along and pushed an under-performing France into the 2010 finals, pushing out the Irish. What empty words can he offer all his underage, football-playing fans? According to Henry, his behavior is the referee's responsibility: "Il y a main, mais je ne suis pas l'arbitre." (There was a hand, but I am not the referee.) There is a lot of money leaning on that hand of Henry's. According to the regional paper Le Midi Libre (which also published the cartoon above), 120 million euros go to TF1 to air the World Cup 2010; more than 20 million euros in sponsorship for the French soccer federation; not including a separate 42.6 million euro Nike contract; the employment of an estimated 14,000 people...and the brash coach the French love to hate, their own Raymond Domenech, receives 862,000 euros as a bonus for getting the team into the finals, and here's what he has to say:

"I do not understand why we are being portrayed as the guilty party. I didn't see it (the handball) at the time. After I watched it back, I can see it is a mistake by the referee. To me this is the game and not cheating. I do not understand why we are being asked to apologize.''

Just days after Henry's Helping Hand, we were all treated to a hastily convened conference in Germany where it was announced that profound and widespread corruption marked professional football leagues, from the minor to the Champions and European, with some 200 fixed matches in 2009 alone.

But it isn't just soccer or sports alone:

- from Jacques Bouille, the mayor of lush Cote d'Azur village St. Cyprien who committed suicide in his cell as he faced serious corruption/embezzlement charges (including but not limited to money laundering, bribery and abuse of public office, aggravated diversion of millions in public funds for personal gain, and forgery), to his deputy and chief of finance, Pierre Fontveille, who lasted just nine days as replacement mayor before being charged with a raft of his own corruption charges and placed in custody;

- from Dominique de Villepin's ongoing, less than clear Clearstream Affair (a.k.a. the French Watergate), in which he has been charged as having falsely accused then-presidential rival Nicolas Sarkozy of having paid bribes for a sale of warships to Taiwan, to the former president, formerly august Jacques Chirac, around whom swirl the endless will-they-or-won't-they-charge-him-with-corruption questions (he is accused of having falsified contracts to funnel millions of euros to political associates and friends while he was mayor of Paris);

- not to mention Charles Pasqua, who was interior minister under President Jacques Chirac, and was just sentenced to a year in prison, (with a further two years suspended) for arms-trafficking to the Angolan government in the 1990s.

The dirty hands seem to be everywhere in French politics as well.

In French business, more of the same: in 2007, former joint CEO of EADS (the aerospace corporation) Noël Forgeard was accused of insider trading (to the tune of 2.5 million euros profit for himself and 4.2 million for his children), and after having made 10,000 employees redundant after bad results, earned 8.5 million euros--for leaving the company. There's the 3.2 million euro payoff for the outgoing boss of car parts supplier Valeo VOLF.PA as it all the while benefits from state backing and prepares to cut 5,000 jobs. And there's Jérôme Kerviel, worthy of his own Wikipedia entry:

...(born January 11, 1977) Kerviel is a French trader who has been charged in theJanuary 2008 Société Générale trading loss incident, resulting in losses valued at approximately €4.9 billion. Société Générale characterises Kerviel as a rogue trader and claims Kerviel worked these trades alone, and without its authorization. Kerviel, in turn, told investigators that such practices are widespread and that getting a profit makes the hierarchy turn a blind eye.

Not to mention the parlous state of state subsidized business, where cartels and rule-bending are often par for the course. With table sugar, for example, you watch a small handful of French companies received 128.5 million euros of tax-supported funds. They are only part of a larger European sugar industry picture.

In such a bureaucratic society, with so many different ways to divert state money, the regular Joes also often find it acceptable, indeed normal, to play fast and loose with their own numbers in declaring taxes and benefits.

Where does one pin the responsibility, on the political elite? The business leaders? Our sports heroes? Society at large? How does one begin to effect change? Sometimes it's enough to wax nostalgic for some old-fashioned, high-minded Anglo-Saxon Protestant rectitude (but without the side-orders of hypocrisy and condescension that usually come with it).

20 November, 2009

The Beaujolais Nouveau has arrived!

Here is some of what I passed this misty morning, on the way to the soulless but well-stocked DIY megamart. It has been a busy time around here (she says aplogetically, thinking of the week's lapse in blogging). Among other home improvement activities, we have partly papered one of the bedrooms--but this is paper with an Arts and Crafts pedigree, mind you: a brick-red abstract 1860s Morris print (designed by Mr. Morris for his own turreted, medievalish Red House outside London, where the dreamy Pre-Raphaelites would later cluster). Another bedroom is now partly covered in a dove-grey paper from The Little Greene, which is based upon an old Parasol Pine kimono print. There is clearly Orientalism in the rendering, but the Parasol Pine is ubiquitous in the Mediterranean countries, and is also in my garden. Having wallpaper feels a bit shocking, as the house is a rambling old country home, the type known here as a mas. (And you pronounce that 's' at the end of the word.) Up to now, the walls have always been a blinding, lime-washed white. Think of a holiday home in Greece or Tunisia. That kind of thick-walled whiteness. Now I am going a little crazy with color, perhaps to pre-emptively reduce the deadening effect of the long winter season. I am thinking about winter and cold, but autumn has so far been uncommonly mild, so I can still enjoy the saturated hues of the leaves, mostly on most of the trees. I'm even warmer than usual at the moment, as I have just returned from a festive village tasting of the Beaujolais Nouveau. It was, as always, officially released on the third thursday of November, which was yesterday. This is mere weeks after being bottled. Consisting exclusively of Gamay grape production (from just north of Lyon), it's a wine that must be drunk while young--that is, well within a year of being bottled.

Frankly, while some of the Beaujolais Nouveau can be fun to drink, I think the whole enterprise of the annual launch to be a well-organized, hugely successful marketing coup more than anything else. Posters pop up in bars and restaurants seemingly everywhere--"Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!"--and an infinite numbers of tasting occasions come up across France and the rest of the world. It is estimated that some 65 million bottles (most of them from négociant M.DuBoeuf's cave) are emptied over this weekend. That's half of the Beaujolais region's annual production! Keep in mind the Nouveau is the most inferior wine the underrated Beaujolais region has to offer, which counts the exquisite Margaux, Morgon, Fleurie and Julienas among its apellations, or AOP.

Even deeply hardened cynics like me will show up to a tasting however, if only to rub shoulders with my neighbors, gossip and join in on the culinary potluck. Unfortunately, I drank a bit much of the plonk (when in Rome, etc., etc.) and managed to forget my platter (upon which I had brought my near-famous caramelized walnut tart). Maybe the lotto tickets I bought while at the party--to support a local stock-car racing club--will pan out and I'll get a new platter.

12 November, 2009

11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Nearly everyone is off work on November 11th, known as Armistice Day in France, the date at which in 1918, World War I finally came to an end. In the bloody process, some eight million people lost their lives, and six million were injured. Hard to visualize now, so it remains all the more important that across the country yesterday, wreaths and flowers were laid at the commerative monuments found in every village and town. In Paris, the President traditionally lays a wreath at the Monument to the Unknown Soldier, at the Arche de Triomphe. This year, however, Nicolas Sarkozy was joined by Angela Merkel, the first time a German head of state jointly celebrated the end of WWI. In the process, we stop to remember the veterans of all war. The photo below is of a German officer in the Netherlands in 1941. It was on the cover of the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant's annual war memorial issue (which comes out in October).
And the final word goes to Ronald E. Brown, who served in the U.S. Army, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) Vietnam 1969-70, and Fort Hood, Texas, 1968-69. He submitted to the International Herald Tribune's Home Fires Blog the following poem (author unknown):

Politicians talk about the need of it,
Old men boast about the glory of it,
And the soldiers just want to go home.

In keeping with looking backward and the colder evenings, I'd like to offer you a bit of classic French culinary succor. Nothing remotely haute about this, and it is perhaps a dish for the weekend: while there is only about half an hour's worth of preparation, there is a good amount of (unmonitored) cooking time. It is a succulent recipe for veal and mushroom stew, with an ivory sauce whose hue is the reason for the name 'blanquette'. This recipe dates at least back to the mid-seventeenth century kitchens of the redoubtable and lovely Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV's official mistress. Her chef, Vincent de la Chapelle, included it in his treatise Le Cuisinier Moderne. She is featured below, in a quintessentially rococo portrait by François Boucher.
Unless you happen to be a Marquise who has yet to set foot in her own kitchen, the making of a blanquette de veau is dead simple, as time does the (tenderizing and mellowing) work. As this simmers, the aroma alone will qualify you as the Bocuse of the house. You will need a cocotte, which is a braising dish with a heavy lid. Yes, it's an expensive investment upfront, but so worth it in the long run (of which I also wrote about here). This recipe can also be made using other meats, such as pork, lamb, or even chicken, although I have never strayed from the original version. This comforting stew is terrific paired with a nice St. Joseph red, like the one produced by the Coursodon brothers in the Côtes du Rhône. Start your shopping list for tomorrow, you won't regret it...
Blanquette de Veau/[White] Veal and Mushroom Stew

Serves 6 to 8.

800 g shoulder of veal, roughly chopped into 1 1/2 inch cubes
1 kg breast of veal, roughly chopped into 1 1/2 inch cubes
300 g portobello, crimini, or white button mushrooms, sliced
3 carrots, cut in four pieces
1 rib of celery, halved
2 medium onions, peeled
2 whole cloves
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon celery seed
2 cubes of powdered chicken bouillon
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup dry white wine
2 egg yolks
1/2 smaller lemon
2 tablespoons oil
60 g butter
25 cl thick crème fraîche

Stud each onion with a clove. Heat the oil and half the butter in the cocotte over high. Sprinkle the chopped veal with the two tablespoons of flour, toss in the hot pan and allow to brown on all sides. Add the whole onions, carrots, celery, celery seed and bay leaf. Crumble the bouillon cubes, add salt and fresh-ground pepper generously. Pour over all this the white wine, and just enough water to cover the meat. Cover with a heavy lid and allow to simmer (i.e. a few bubbles at a time) on low to medium-low heat for one and a half hours.

In a separate pan, brown the mushrooms in the remaining butter over medium heat until they release their liquid. Set aside. After the veal has cooked for the allotted time, remove the pieces of meat and set aside in aluminum foil to keep warm. Turn the heat up and reduce the cooking broth by half. This should take about five minutes on a high boil.

Meanwhile, in a bowl, beat the egg yolks with the juice from the 1/2 lemon and the crème fraîche. I use an electric mixer for speed. Once the broth has been reduced, strain the liquid (discarding the onion, carrot and celery bits) and return to the now reduced heat. Stir in the egg mixture, meat and mushrooms. Do not allow the final stew to boil. Taste and add salt and fresh-ground pepper as necessary. Serve hot over a fluffy long grain rice, such as basmati.

10 November, 2009

Un peu de nostalgie.

This little reverie was put together by Marco Aslan, from footage taken in France, with a couple of images from Sao Paolo and New York City. The music is by Sigur Ros. To be enjoyed near a crackling fire, with a cup of [insert name of your favorite hot beverage here]. Failing those options, five minutes of quiet attention will do nicely; just remember to click twice on the play icon and give it a bit of time to upload before clicking once again.

09 November, 2009

Phoenix, rising from the pumpkins.

"Pumpkin pie, if rightly made, is a thing of beauty and a joy - while it lasts.....Pies that cut a little less firm than a pine board, and those that run round your plate are alike to be avoided. Two inches deep is better than the thin plasters one sometimes sees, that look for all the world like pumpkin flap-jacks. The expressive phrase, 'too thin', must have come from these lean parodies on pumpkin pie. With pastry light, tender, and not too rich, and a generous filling of smooth spiced sweetness - a little 'trembly' as to consistency, and delicately brown on top - a perfect pumpkin pie, eaten before the life has gone out of it, is one of the real additions made by American cookery to the good things of the world." --The House Mother
I found this quote while trawling online in an attempt to make myself feel better: I made pumpkin pie this weekend, and it Really Did Not Go Over Well. Imagine children saying no to dessert. Imagine whole, starving armies turning their backs...okay, well that part didn't happen, but it kind of felt like it did. Who refuses pumpkin pie? Having lived so long outside of the United States, my Thanksgiving habits have admittedly withered somewhat: I hadn't actually made any since leaving the US. Faced with small mountain of different types of pumpkin and squash, however, I decided I would make the Turkey Day standard I'd always loved as a child. I dug up my old starter red and white plaid-covered Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, figuring I would go for the tried and true. The thing is, pumpkin doesn't come thick, pureed and in cans here, I don't keep evaporated milk on hand, and I forgot that pumpkin pie needs a day in the fridge for the spices and texture to "take"...so I fed it to them warm from the oven. It was mushy, and really Wasn't Sweet Enough. Eyes were averted. The next day, I assured everyone that it was vastly improved and actually not bad. No one was convinced, however, and by myself, I have been working on it daily, slice by spicy slice. (I added fresh ground cardamom. They just don't know what they're missing.)

I'm not giving up. I just need to find a good pie recipe for freshly roasted pumpkin. You wouldn't happen to know one, would you? There's an awful lot of pumpkin outside...

I'll share a pumpkin/squash recipe that is a guaranteed autumn hit--I swear!--as easy to prepare as it is to devour. It is a recipe I've taken and adapted from an old issue of Food and Wine magazine, dating somewhere back in the dimly remembered eighties. It is another soup, but unlike the butternut squash soup I posted about earlier, it isn't pureed to a velvety smoothness. Instead this one is speckled with ham and julienned sage and its full flavor is heightened by cooked chunks of tart apple. This the kind of soup you offer to people who think they don't like pumpkin soup. Don't bother if they also don't like sage; it's a lost cause at that point, and they may want to consider professional help. If you live somewhere where you can get pumpkin in a can, then you can very successfully substitute that.

When you know you're going to be puttering around the house a bit, split a pumpkin or squash, remove the seeds and fiber with a spoon, place the halves facedown on a baking paper- or foil-covered large roasting pan (better than a baking sheet, actually, because it will retain whatever liquid seeps forth) and bake at 180C-200C for at least an hour, or an hour and a half. Go do other stuff. Once it is really nice and tender--not firm (the skin will look shiny and papery and maybe even a bit collapsed), scoop the flesh out with a spoon and mash it up (or puree) so that there are no more fibers. And ta-da. Put any extra pumpkin in the fridge for whatever later comes to mind; your soup's more than halfway there.

Soupe au Potiron et Sauge/Pumpkin Soup with Sage

Serves 4

1 tablespoon butter
2 onions, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 rib celery, chopped
1/2 tart apple (like Granny Smith), peeled and chopped into 1/2 inch dice
2 cups of pumpkin or squash puree, roasted and mashed, or from a can
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons fresh, thinly sliced sage, or 1 tablespoon dried (but not stale and odorless!)
1 bay leaf
3 1/2 cups water
3 cups chicken stock
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
500 g ham, finely chopped into 1/4 inch dice

Melt the butter in a large pot. Add the onion, carrot, celery and apple and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally until the onion is translucent. This should take about 10 minutes. Then stir in all the remaining ingredients EXCEPT the ham and simmer, half-covered, for 15 minutes. Add the ham and simmer uncovered another 5 minutes, until the carrots are nicely tender. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. Serve soon and hot to wild, sustained applause. But don't forget to remove that bay leaf first.

03 November, 2009

Just a little more dreaming of Paris.

While I do go on about life in the countryside, I'm actually at my happiest when I am able periodically take in the ebullient city as well. Best of both worlds, yadda yadda. Here are some more snaps from my latest visit to Paris. I was able to catch the Louvre's Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto show, which features some 85 canvases (a few gems by Battista Franco as well). Many of the tableaux are of breath-taking scale and refinement, and all are from Venice in the late 1500s. They will be exhibited until January 4, 2010; I strongly recommend buying tickets in advance, unless you enjoy excessive queuing; you won't have to specify the day or time you want to come, so your plans remain flexible.
Hey, it's important to remain flexible, as you never know when you will happen upon a lovely Left Bank street filled with quirky shop windows at which you simply must linger. Or when you might stumble upon an open-air organic market filled with the best of the season, like these pristine cèpes (referred to as eekhoorntjesbrood, or 'squirrel bread', by the Dutch, porcini by the Italians, and boletus edulis in Latin). How lovely to see that virginal interior laid bare, especially since my last foray into cèpes-buying resulted in a butcher's block full of just-sliced mushrooms--heavily infested with squirmy white larvae as it turned out. The additional protein made for a gross-out face, muffled curses and last-minute improvisation. From now on I will ask them to first slice open these nutty, "meaty" tasting fungi. Any eye-rolling notwithstanding, it's worth it; these mushrooms aren't given away.

Flexibility in Paris is also highly practical simply given the number of cafes, terraces and patisseries, and the high probability of a sweet tooth combined with sore feet. Even though she has become disturbingly omnipresent the last few years (now to be found in Tokyo, Dublin, Geneva, London--and at Charles de Gaulle airport, for crying out loud), Ladurée remains the 150-some year old grande doyenne of the patisseries, chiefly for the must-do tea-room (even if you only peep through the window at the rococo interior). You go to her, above all, for her divine macarons, which are essentially little sandwiches composed of two almond meringue cookies between which there is a creamy ganache filling. Let's not forget that circa the 1880s Ladurée actually developed the intensely airy and flavorfully filled permutation of the macaron we know today (which is a completely different entity from the also delicious but dense Anglo-Saxon coconut macaroon). Given Ladurée's 150-some years in existence, Pierre Herme has to aim for wild audacity in flavor combinations for his versions to compete. And he doesn't always succeed, I am told.

Leaving room for the unexpected means being able to slow down and have a chat, perhaps as I did, with this artisan sign-painter, standing by his palette on wheels. And they say Parisians are cold. As with any world city, there are dreadful inequities and the accumulated weight of small, everyday outrages. In any season, however, she remains a grand city.

02 November, 2009

Mozart redux and other citified stuff.

What is there to do in Paris on any given evening, besides eating as well as a god might and paying as lavishly as a king can? There's Mozart, for one. I'm not referring to the airy, refined sort of work one might listen to at the Palais Garnier, also known as l'Opéra de Paris. Anything there is sold out months in advance, well beyond my normal capacity for planning.
For Mozart in full technicolor version 2009, you take the Métro line 12 to the Palais des Sports, a much more modest Palais that clings to the edge of the Péripherique (Paris' beltway/ringroad, a highway that circles the sprawling city). There, surrounded by the mostly very young (read: pre-adolescents and teenagers), you'll find yourself carried away on a frothy, occasionally bombastic, musical tale of Mozart the composer. Do not expect much in the way of historical accuracy or his own indelible, influential music. Imagine instead a show that inhabits the space between the 1980s hit Rock Me Amadeus of German group Falco (don't pretend you don't remember; for a refresher, pop into YouTube) and Tom Hulce's prancing, bravura performance in the film Amadeus.
The musical's audience anticipated many of the songs performed, and flipped on their cameras for their favorite parts which, while anthropologically mildly interesting, was somewhat horrifying, as occasionally, the darkness was lit by a veritable sea of small glowing rectangles. They were busy recording instead of experiencing...Judging by the applause and raising of cameras, the darker musical performance of the actor portraying Salieri, the Viennese rival to Mozart, was actually somewhat favored over the lead of the eponymous show. He did seem to display somewhat greater range and vocal fortitude (and he is performing in the video above). All in all, a few catchy numbers and a fun evening. It is now being performed in Paris but will also be touring the rest of the country; for more information click here.
As for other ongoing shows, the Musée du Luxembourg, just off the charming Place St. Sulpice, is exhibiting Tiffany (the glassware, not the jewelry beloved of Audrey Hepburn). American artisan, yes, but well-respected by the French, and executed with more virtuosity than I had previously realized. The small but interesting show runs through January 2010.Doesn't that sound a decade or so away? It isn't.
But the best show of all isn't going anywhere: the endless, endlessly changing Parisian array of small shop-windows, streets, galleries and squares are just made for extensive exploring, and you can easily break from the milling hordes of tourists by taking a side-street or two--or better yet a bike.Even the locals are resorting to them (in the form of the sturdy-looking low-cost, pay as you go Velib') in greater and greater numbers, as navigating the city by car becomes ever more wearisome.

If the thought of all this walking, riding and exploring makes you hungry (or am I the only one?), I have a excellent antidote to weighty bistro food: authentically bright, fresh Italian. At lunch hour, head to moderately-priced Alfredo Positano located at 9, rue Guisarde (just off Place St. Sulpice again) where you'll find yourself in the lively company of more than a few Italians with their kids, and well-heeled local suits (the Sénat is on the other side of the St. Sulpice church). The restaurant bustles, the staff is animated and jovial. There are a lot of regulars. I was in heaven, between the steak-like slices of porcini mushrooms and generous shavings of Elba white truffle, both of which are now in season. Heaven!They also serve pizzas with great toppings and fabulous crunch here, if that's what you're craving, but for a near-religious experience, order a simple caprese salad with bufala mozzarella, underpinned with peppery arugula--and a side order of unforgettable (really, I swear) foccacia. You don't go for the decor, you go for the buzz, and the sway of spoken Italian. You go, above all, for the food. And then it's out the door, back to all things Parisian.

29 October, 2009

Bonjour de Paris.

Say you have a few days of perfect fall weather, some time off, a little bit of money to burn. And a ticket to Paris (by train, plane, whatever). Where do you set down your bag? There's a strong argument to be made for the quieter bits of the Latin Quarter/Left Bank, specifically in the sixth arondissement, or district, around the ample charms of the intimate Place Saint Sulpice neighborhood. There, you will find the 24-room boutique Hotel Recamier, which just opened in July after a sumptuous renovation led by Jean-Louis Deniot. (Book through one of the online agencies for the best rates, as I did.)
The hotel is across from the St. Sulpice church, which is perpetually undergoing renovation (it seems) but manages to maintain its serene grace even with partial scaffolding and a big yellow crane. Beyond the notoriety brought on by Dan Brown's rather liberally innaccurate Da Vinci Code thriller (and the fact that the Marquis de Sade was baptized there...), the church features a lovely fountain in front and serves as a local meeting point. In the morning, the street cleaners stride with purpose and seeming good cheer, sweeping up stray leaves and litter. The professionals clutch their dose of expresse and the paper, and resignedly wait for the bus. True to pre-conceived notions, the women inevitably wear immaculate heels. Lovers twine hands and hair and doze in the slanting afternoon sun, and teenaged boys start up lively ad-hoc street soccer in the early evenings. Those of us with time and patience queue just up the street for Pierre Hermé's remarkable macarons. It really doesn't matter what time you come--even twenty minutes before the shop opens. There's always a queue. Believe me.Bring that copy of War and Peace you always meant to finish. And get an extra box for me, because for once I just couldn't be bothered, and instead set off to explore the rest of Paris, sans Pierre Hermé. I know, I know, his pastries qualify him as one of the leading lights of French cuisine, and I do regret not waiting. But Paris was calling.
The painter Marc Chagall was invited to design his own edition of Vogue magazine in 1977. He opened the issue with a poem of his own:

Je marche sur ton âme, sur ton ventre, je bois le restant de tes années, j'ai avalé ta lune, le rêve de ton innocence, pour devenir ton ange et te proteger à nouveau.

I step on your soul, on your belly, I drink the rest of your years, I've swallowed your moon, the dream of your innocence, to become your angel and to protect you once again.

I am fairly certain he was describing what Paris can do to you.


The December 2009 issue of the French edition of Elle Decoration has a six page piece on the Hotel Recamier, pretty pictures galore.

24 October, 2009

Forgotten fruit.

I'm leaving for Paris, and depositing the tykes with their French "grandparents"--great old friends of ours--in the Burgundy region. They live in the countryside as well, but their rain-soaked rural reality is a far cry from that of the Cevennes. Accordingly, I have put together an autumn basket for them, with some of my favorite cevenol products, like a bottle of sun-drenched red from Domaine de Familongue, near Aniane, a bottle of floral yet dry Ambrussum white from St. Christol, and a doux Muscat de Lunel, or dessert wine. I tucked in a local rosemary honey and a mountain floral honey. From my own pantry and garden, there is a jar of summer tomatoes preserved in olive oil, halved, herbed (and colorful as all get out) nestled beside a jam of vanilla and black currant, and one with tart, green-gold Reine Claude plums (greengage) and toasted walnuts. From the farmer's market and neighbors, I added some seasonal finds: small butternut squash; big, fat chestnuts just begging to be roasted; and coing.Coing, pronounced with a silent 'g', and known in the Anglo-Saxon world as quince, has a long history that stretches to the four corners of the world. We somehow seem to have unjustifiably neglected it in these fast-paced modern times. Luckily, you can still find it in the outdoor markets across southern france. Fresh from the tree, it is covered with a down that wipes away at your touch. It is heavy, turning to a deep yellow when ripe, and looks to be an oddly-shaped somewhere between an apple and a pear. Bursting with vitamin C, it cannot be quickly eaten out of the hand however, as it is quite hard, requiring instead long cooking or roasting. In fact, if roasted with sugar long enough, it will blush a charming pink or even deep crimson (depending on the variety). I chop it into largish chunks to roast with butternut squash, adding a touch of sweetening quince jelly to make an easy and delicious compote.I'm happy to add the recipe if you are interested...but for now I still have to pack; the open road and glittering lights of the big city are calling.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia, whose article on quince is worthy reading (I attached a link to it above).

18 October, 2009

100 euros per kilo.

That's what the butcher, M. Challier, would have needed to charge me in order to cover his expenses. At my raised eyebrow, he explained that his daughter had swerved his car off into a night-dark ravine to (unsuccessfully) avoid the sanglier which now augmented his display. His daughter is fine, aside from the shock. But the wild boar was less fortunate; the impact was hard enough that the wounded animal remained lying in the road. The butcher came, rescued his daughter, and dispatched the dying animal. M.Challier is a fine abatteur, that is, a butcher who cuts his own meats from whole carcasses. He is one of the last to do so in the region; he just isn't often called upon to cut up a boar.

The Cevennes abound in wild boar, and the hunters turn out in force to meet these animals, with dogs and perhaps a bottle of wine to keep warm. Although I have never heard of anyone hurt by a boar, they still scare me, with their impressive tusks, occasionally loud foraging or disputes, and body weight. My antediluvian neighbor shot one that weighed 120 kgs. I'm not sure which I dislike more, the baying dogs and rifle shots, or my garden plowed over by boar searching for larvae in the irrigated bits. Regardless of my opinion, hunting remains sacrosanct in France: while in the Netherlands, where I used to live, there is a political party for animals, France has its own political party for hunters, called Chasse Peche Nature Traditions (CPNT). If ever the two should meet...

At any rate, I made a daube de sanglier, or wild boar stew, but with a difference: dark chocolate was involved. I'm afraid the photo doesn't much inspire, but in its defense, few meat-based stews photograph well. I included it anyway, because I personally like to see what somebody suggests I try cooking.* The velvety stew is rich, full of mouth-smacking, long-simmered flavors.

If you are game to try something just a bit different, give this simple (if not speedy) recipe a swing. It is adapted from an older French cookbook I found aux puces, or the local flea market. Please note that you'll need about four hours to marinade the meat, then around one hour and fifteen minutes cooking time, during which you will be only actively cooking for twenty minutes.

*I'm trying to include the photo, but seem to have run into unexpected technical issues.

Sanglier au chocolat et au pignons (Wild Boar Stew with Chocolate and Pinenuts)

Serves six.

about 1 liter red wine vinegar (for marinade)
1 kg wild boar, chopped in chunks
1 tablespoon butter
1 onion, chopped
250 g tomato puree
20 cl dry white wine
salt and pepper

75 g dark chocolate (70% or more)
5 tablespoons of red wine vinegar (or banyuls vinegar)
40 g cedrat confit, or candied lemon peel, chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
75 g pinenuts, toasted

Place the meat in a glass or ceramic bowl, add red-wine vinegar just to cover the meat, stir and allow to rest 4 hours.

In a large, heavy pot or cocotte, melt the butter, and after its begins to foam, add the chopped onion. Once the onion is somewhat transparent, remove the meat from the marinade, shaking off the excess liquid, and add to the pot. Salt and pepper generously, give a quick stir, then cover. Allow to simmer undisturbed on medium-low heat for 30 minutes (it shouldn't boil, just gentle bubbles). Please note that the cooking vinegar will temporarily make for a disarmingly odd smell. Hang in there.

Stir in the tomato puree and white wine, cover and continue to cook for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the 5 tablespoons vinegar, broken-up chocolate, chopped lemon peel, sugar and cinnamon in a small saucepan. Continue stirring over medium low heat until sugar and chocolate are fully melted and well-combined. Place this sauce in a food processor and process until smooth. Add this sauce to the simmering meat and continue cooking for 15 to 20 minutes, to allow the flavors to mellow. Adjust seasoning if necessary; a bit of salt may help balance the sweetness.

Serve hot, sprinkled with the pinenuts and with mashed potatoes on the side.

13 October, 2009

Plumb children.

The plumber slash electrician came by today to resolve an issue with the radiators, as helpful as he ever has been in all the time I have known him. I still have some trouble understanding him, because he has such an impenetrably thick accent--when he talks it sounds like a dialect unto itself. I remember how diligently I avoided any telephone conversation with him in the early years, as there was simply no way for me to make out most of what was being said. You can only say "sorry?" so many times before one or both of you looks the real fool.

From the beginning, he would regularly show up for repairs with one of his sons in tow. It took me a good while to figure out he had two, because they are identical twins. They were then six or seven years old, the most adorable little boys you could imagine. Now they are fifteen, as charming but a lot taller than me--which isn't saying necessarily that much. They are taller than their father--which isn't saying that much more.

Anyway, I was surprised to see his son Vincent today, during school hours. Vincent was at my house because he's decided to go for the bac pro, or vocational baccalauréat. This means that during his apprenticeship period, he will go to school for two weeks, then apprentice for two weeks, until he has accumulated sixteen weeks worth of on-the-job training. He is going to take over the family business, and the bac pro option will leave open the possibility for advanced training, putting him somewhere between a skilled, degreed worker and a qualified technician. Suddenly this fifteen year old is sawing away at my radiator pipes, and I find myself offering him a cup of coffee, and all but "vouvoyer"-ing him (vous being reserved for his father, whereas he was naturally always tu). People are slower to move to the more familiar and intimate tu in the mountainous province, also as a matter of respect. I beg some locals to tutoyer me, but they keep forgetting. It's that ingrained. Vincent would never tutoyer me.

I think in the meantime he has more important issues at hand, what with juggling school and on-the-job training--the boy cannot even drive a car yet. The bac pro, around since 1987, was developed to meet a market need and to avoid dead-ending those few young who still aim for the skilled trades. On the face of it, innovative enough.
Only in this country, however, can you find kids in the Guérande going for their bac ostréicole practical training, which translates to oystering and the culture thereof.

12 October, 2009

Cà phê sữa đá--with a French accent.

I adore the smell of a good cup (or bowl) of coffee, and there is enough of that penetrating aroma wafting around the 72,000+ cafés here in France. I am not alone in my passion; it is said that coffee is the second most consumed beverage in the world, after water.

In France, the first ever coffee shop was opened in Marseille in 1671. The following year, an Armenian opened Paris' own first coffee shop. As the scale of French colonial production increased, the prices dropped, and so by the 1750s, the elite, fashionable coffee had overtaken soup as the morning meal of choice. The addiction had spread to the masses.

French coffee tends to be more potent, without being burned like at some international coffee chains...ahem. Due to bean choice, it is considered a touch less fragrant than the Italian brew, considered peerless by so many in the know. The French, unlike the Italians, have historically used robusta or robusta blends, and the robusta bean is far stronger (to the point of a certain bitterness); in the past, they have been known to add chicory. The French also borrowed from the Middle Eastern tradition of rather heavily roasting beans. Therein lies some of the distinctiveness of the French coffee tradition. Not all the tradition is without shadow, as the roaring demand for coffee in France and the rest of Europe was long met by slave labor in faraway, tropical countries. Today, in France as well as in other Western European countries and the United States, quality fair-trade coffee is available, helping to mitigate market fluctuation and speculation in often poor coffee-producing countries, where the work of coffee cultivation continues to be uncertain.

Beyond the satiating traditional bowl of hot milk-laced café au lait (which, in the province, is often conflated with a café crème, which should technically contain hot cream), my all-around favorite way to enjoy coffee in France is the noisette, which is an expresse with a rich touch of cream. It is a nut-brown ambrosia, in a very small cup. Parenthetically, the French expresse is not really the same as a proper Italian expresso: the first, while strong, is made with more water.

The robusta bean was brought to Vietnam by the French in the 1800s and is still cultivated there today, along with arabica and others types of beans. Most fortunately for food-lovers everywhere, the Vietnamese have a culinary gift for elevating simple ingredients to unexpected heights. They did so once again with the humble robusta: they made the Cà phê sữa đá, or iced coffee. The word is pronounced 'ca-fé sue-ah-dah', roughly speaking, and is the drink to linger over with friends on an unseasonably hot Indian summer afternoon.

As you might make out in the photo below, taken in Vietnam last year after a particularly satisfying lunch, the Vietnamese use handy individual metal filters that are placed directly on top of the glass in which the iced coffee will be served. These filters are found at your local Asian/Vietnamese grocery for less than 2 euros, or online. They are essentially French presses in concept, requiring a medium-coarse grind and no paper filter.

A generous couple tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk are dolloped over the ice in the glass, and the filter, filled with coffee and boiling water, is placed over the glass. A couple minutes later, and voilà! You have a decadent drink that doubles as dessert. Of course, using aforementioned ice cubes and condensed milk, you can also make your own tasty iced coffee using a double shot of expresso rather than the traditional filtered coffee...

If you just don't want to make your own and you are lucky enough to find yourself in Paris--if not, say, Hanoi--then you have a plethora of restaurant choices at which to enjoy an iced coffee of your own. Please note that Vietnamese cuisine goes far beyond fast-food style fare. Of the many Vietnamese who immigrated to Paris, some have opened some very good restaurants, ranging from refined/upscale to downhome and delicious. Even Catherine Deneuve has her favorite haunt. (Photo courtesy of filmkrant.nl). I'll be hanging out at some of these restaurants myself in a couple of weeks, a perspiring glass of iced coffee in hand...

07 October, 2009

Passing in a small village.

I've just returned from a communal dinner at the village down the way. At the invitation of our recently bereaved older neighbor, we gathered to celebrate the life of her husband. Accent on celebrate, she underlined. There were perhaps eighty to ninety of us pulled up to refectory tables placed end to end in the deepening night. Our newly widowed neighbor had found a traditional band for the evening, and the champagne and wines were uncorked. We reminisced about our neighbor and friend. The mother and daughters who run and own the tiny supermarket had red eyes and noses. My heart and stomach seemed to be somewhere in my ankles. How would anyone ever be able to eat after this sad beginning? Everyone had brought food, mind you; the side tables groaned under the weight of our good will. My concern about our collective loss of appetite proved utterly groundless. I took my plate and dished up. What is it about death and eating?

The character of villages can vary enormously. Whether it is in the south or north, in the mountains or on the coast has a real impact on human relations. Here we are spread out upon the rolling land just enough so that we (generally) don't step upon one another's toes (as long as you don't involve the subject of hunting). The population density is such that people have recognizable identities, and histories that are wound into the warp and weft of the communal life. We took some time to remember our friend, we took some time to enjoy one another's presence. The flush-faced children chased one another from the dregs of the afternoon far into the school night. It may continue to sprinkle tomorrow--if we want to gather wild mushrooms this year we'll need the humidity.
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