28 February, 2009

The Presqu'Ile Short List (2009).

Pretty pretentious-sounding title to this entry, don't you think? In my defense, the list is short, and I did limit my wandering to the Presqu'Ile of Lyon, that spit of land squished between the Saone and Rhone Rivers which makes up the 2eme arondissement...

To whit, some of my favorites:

- L'Atelier des Chefs.
What better way to get to know oh-so-gastronomic Lyon than by spending an hour or two with a personable, professional chef? How about if you learn to make a wonderful lunch then get to enjoy it on the spot, for just 17 euros? The space is airy and pristine, with a connected shop for cooking essentials (or that is what I told myself--essential! Vital to my well-being!)...There are several classes every day, and the cooking studio is centrally located.

There are of course also other cooking classes to be found at local restaurants at a range of levels; contact the tourism bureau ahead of time for information and booking. But I had fun here.
I had an engaging and tasty chocolate session with chef Stephane Ranieri, pictured below. Also pictured, orangettes in the making, and a bucket of pure chocolate (actually bitter bits of the pod) and next to one of pure cocoa butter (from inside the pod).

- Cha Yuan.
Tea-lovers unite! Or at least get thee to a nearby Cha Yuan. I visited the original tea boutique, an esthetically pleasing hideaway in the Ainay neighborhood, but there are actually eight other tea-houses under this name across France. The inflection is primarily Asian, specifically Chinese and Japanese, but the teas available for drinking sur place and for enjoying at home come from all four corners of the planet. There is a gentle emphasis on tea education, ritual and quality. Rare green teas are available, as well as white, yellow and black teas, and many flavored ones too. Find an excuse to duck in: rain, need for quiet--whatever works for you.

- Giraudet.
The Maison Giraudet is ninety-eight years old, but it has a fresh, revamped face, and offers some highly original soups, both sweet and savory. To be clear, however, I went there for the quenelles upon which their reputation is based.The choice changes regularly, and here too, you can take part in cooking courses. I walked out with truffled quenelles and crawfish-flavored ones, after enjoying a bowl of soup, but there are also less traditional ones on offer, like seaweed quenelles, and black ones--dyed with squid ink. The dumplings are sold fresh, keep for several days, and freeze well. Incidentally, I learned that you can saute quenelles, serving them as sliced amuses, or appetizers.
- Richard Seve.
His (very) little, very black shop in the 2eme has won yet another fan. He is a patissier who specializes in chocolate, and has a very good reputation for his macarons, which are essentially tiny pieces of heaven. To be slightly more specific, they are meringue-style cookies that are scented, split and filled with a more intense version of that flavor; it seems any flavor under the sun is possible. If you cannot get to Paris (or London, or Geneva, or Tokyo) to splurge on a pastel-hued box of these airy delights from Laduree, or to-the-minute-trendy macarons from Pierre Herme, then this is a very good address to settle for.

In Lyon, it could be argued that Sebastien Bouillet has an even better reputation for macarons--but there are only so many pastry shops I can duck into in a week. As with many of these success stories, you can find Mr. Seve at other locations as well, and his tarte a la praline is another remarkable, in demand treat. Its appearance, as you can see below, is a bit startling.The one non-sweet thing he produces are some very well-received savory macarons to be served as un-traditional, show-stopping appetizers; he is credited with having innovated the concept.

- Les Bains de l'Opera.
After all the hard work of eating, looking, and more eating, a girl's got to relax--isn't that one of the most essential parts of a successful holiday? Here's a good address, recommended by my Lyonnais friends. I can attest that they offer a whole range of services beyond excellent variations on the hammam experience.

Oh, and I almost forgot:

- Chantal Plasse.
This is a good purveyor of cheeses and "meat products" (what a dry expression--quite unworthy of what it describes), but the stand-out item for me, certainly among their traditional Lyonnais offerings, is the truly exemplary, multiple award-winning, cervelas pistache. This is a pork sausage (essentially a saucisson chaud) generously seeded with pistachios, that needs only to be simmered for a half-hour. It has a sweetness and fullness of flavor that make it (and a well-made saucisse de Morteau) my favorite warm sausage. Also handles freezing quite well. In the 2eme, you can find these in the supermarket section of the Monoprix (!) Bring one or three home, if you can at all swing it. Swing buying them, I meant, not the sausages themseves.

I spent a memorable seven days in Lyon. I never got a parking ticket. I never figured out my friends' computer; I never forgot their generosity. Knee-deep in the general decadence, availability, refinement and contradictions of the city, having temporarily stuffed someone else's freezer with my little treasures, I was ready to come home when I saw the basketed pale green shoots outside the florist. Spring is coming--and I'd miss it in the city.

26 February, 2009

In Lugdunum's shadow.

Yes, Interpol--the crime fighting group not the rock group--is based in Lyon.
Lyon has the best soccer team in the country (sorry, Marseille fans, truth hurts sometimes).
The Lyonnais brothers Lumiere invented cinema there in 1865--thanks for that Auguste and Louis.
From the late 15th century, Lyon was truly the financial center of France. By the 19th century, Lyon also became an industrial powerhouse thanks to its significant silk trade.

And the food and wine are pretty good.

Scratch a bit at its surface, however, and you'll find that Lyon has quite the Roman past; you can get a good taste of it at the superb Musee de Civilisation Gallo-Romaine. The museum structure and exhibition layout are well-done and interesting in themselves, but you'll have to take my word for it: once inside the museum, which is built into the hill, I wasn't even allowed to take a picture of the very large, completely un-Roman, un-old skylight; grmph. The mosaics on display are extraordinary, there are some surprising testaments to Roman ingeniousness, and you get a multidimensional sense of what daily life was like. The sheer amount of Roman things that have been excavated or just plain found in Lyon is pretty eye-popping. A Lyonnais friend quipped that you can't scoop up two teaspoons of dirt without hitting something Roman. This is problematic as building projects or renovations can be delayed for years by the state as archeologists sift for treasure, but what they find as a result can be breath-taking.

It is well worth the hike up the Fourviere hill to get to the museum and amphitheatre (France's oldest--and still being used), though unless you are training for a very uphill marathon, take the funicular, which will bring you most of the way up there. In my own defense, I was wearing heels. Because that's just what you do when you come from la campagne, and you want to imbibe city life--you trade the sensible shoes for the neither sensible nor particularly comfortable (for 6 hours of walking anyway) ones. That way, you're a city person again. With lots of blisters.

I digress.
While there has been a presence in the area since the neolithic period, Lyon really came into its own under Roman rule. It became known as Lugdunum, which was a latinization of the Gaulish name Lugodunon--neither exactly rolls off the tongue. (Thank goodness "Lugdunum" evolved to "Lyon" by the Middle Ages). Founded in 43 BC, the city would remain one of the most important in Europe for three centuries.

Lugdunum was the intersecting point for four major Roman thoroughfares : south to Italy, north to the Rhine (hence a base for expansion into Germany), northwest to the English Channel, and west to the Aquitaine. It became the capital city and administrative center of Roman Gaul. Four principal (and very-well engineered) aqueducts fed the city's fountains, public baths, and wealthy homes. An impressive degree and range of trade made Lugdunum one of the most cosmopolitan cities of Gaul, with Italians, Greeks, and immigrants from the oriental provinces of Asia Minor and Syria-Palestine among its numbers.

Lugdunum began its decline in the second century, with an epic struggle for imperial succession. It was claimed by a contemporary that 300,000 men were involved in the battle, and the city was plundered or at least severely damaged by the battle. Even then, war wasn't good, nor particularly effective. Historical and archeological evidence indicates that Lugdunum never fully recovered from the devastation of this battle.
Needless to say, I didn't remember all this bird's eye view information from my three hour visit, by the end of which I was feeling pretty Roman-ed out (and footsore). What remained was the intimate detail revealed, the sense of pageantry, the codified ritual. Thank you for the rest, museum guide book and Wikipedia. (Now that's something the Romans didn't come up with).
You can find out more at Lyon's official website: http://www.lyon.fr/vdl/sections/en/

23 February, 2009

Because it's Bocuse.

Well, it really was an excellent week.

Technologically speaking less so, as the day after I arrived Internet Explorer stopped functioning on my friends' computer. I may have exhaled when I should have inhaled--whatever the reason I remained computerless for the rest of the week. (And yes, there are loads of Wi-Fi zones across Lyon, but to use them you need a laptop, which of course I didn't have. Apparently regular internet cafes are so fifteen minutes ago.) This is why I am writing this ensconced in my own study, with our now distinctly larger chicken tucked in between my neck and shoulder, murmuring in her melodious new, adolescent voice.

To smooth my ruffled blogger feathers, I had decided to indulge in the fundamentals, culinarily speaking. In Lyon, comfort food is easy to find. Just go to a decent, not too touristy bouchon. The city keeps a short list of the real thing. (Seriously; that sort of thing is no joke in France, and even less so in Lyon.) Specific to the city and originating in the sixteenth century, the bouchon is said to be named after the bits of straw that were gathered and hung from the restaurant sign to indicate that one's horse could be fed and watered as well. It is really about a particular cosiness in size and spirit, and a menu that limits itself, more or less, to the food classics of the area.

I inaugurated my research into comfort (ahem) at friendly, competent Le Mercière. The daily special terrine de canard maison (house-made duck terrine, see photo below) did not disappoint, studded with pistachios and slivers of foie gras. After this substantial starter came the ubiquitous salade Lyonnaise, dressed with croutons, very large chewy bits of bacon, an assertive, mustard-laced vinaigrette and a poached egg. To my surprise, un-asked for flambeed crepes suzette also came to my table, on the house as they were celebrating the fete de chandeleur all of February. After that, there was just room for a noisette (an expresso with a touch of hot milk) and a bit of one of the local chocolates, Valrhona. Smile.(Le Mercière: 56, rue Mercière; tel: 047.837.6735)Dinner was a slight affair after such a lunch, and this was to be the trend for most of the week; lunch as my main meal.

Next lunch break was at Le Nord. Not an officially recognized, authentic bouchon, but one of the Lyonnais Paul Bocuse's brasseries. Bocuse, you know, for whom the Bocuse d'Or, the Lyon-based world chef championship, is named. The three Michelin star guy whose work resulted in the term nouvelle cuisine. Granted, there is nothing nouvelle to be found in any of his four relaxed (read: bowing to the mass market) brasseries, which showcase regional specialties. But it is as close I will personally get to an imperial bouche-ful of Bocuse. Refinement is to be expected, given the relatively arch prices (also to be expected from a national institution?)

At first blush Le Nord is notable for having an authentic sense of well-cared for age; it is in fact over a century old, and was where Bocuse worked as a teenager. Perhaps this is why he bought it. First to my table came a saucisson chaud baked in brioche, with a nice play between salt and sweet.Then I tasted a really very fine quenelle, which is what happens when a Lyonnais decides to make a dumpling. It comes out as the lightest souffle-esque concoction, most traditionally perfumed with pike--though there are innumerable other flavors on offer in Lyon. Here they kept it classic, serving a Nantua sauce (crayfish, butter, tomato...) on the side. That quenelle made everything that accompanied it sing, even the Basmati rice.I was so affected by the quenelle that I nearly forgot to snap a photo of my apple tarte tatin dessert, with its salted caramel sauce, (a disappointing crust) and vanilla bean creme glace. Talk about apple pie and ice cream! Coffee felt bracing, even cleansing, after all this wintry decadence. (Brasserie le Nord: 18, rue Neuve; tel: 047.210.6969) I felt restored--and yes, comforted--able to continue in my mission of getting to know Lyon.

13 February, 2009

A change of venue.

My three year old and I have headed north for a ski-free holiday.

I am hunched over someone else's computer, typing this out at the pace of an escargot. Ha. The letters, as well as everything else on a French keyboard, are set up in a completely different order, the logic of which is, to me, less than clear. It took me fifteen minutes to figure out how to produce the @ sign. I am typing this out as evidence of my devotion to you, my generous, unreasonably loyal reader. Perhaps also because I am a persistent old night owl (maybe old belonged in quotation marks, just for anyone who innocently stumbles onto this monologue and is unfamiliar with my habit of drastically overstating certain details).

As I was trying to say, after what seemed an interminable wait, we finally got radiantly clear skies in our part of the world, so we left them for the poor visibility and high excitement of The City. We have a week in the 69002--or deuxiéme arrondissement--of oldest Lyon. This, thanks to lovely friends, who suggested I come stay in their high-ceilinged, gracious and spacious apartment, while they develop their tans and capacity for caipirinhas. No doubt they assumed I would politely refuse. My reaction was more along the lines of Oui, oui, Joseph Guy!

It's ski holiday, and I am a hard-core non-skier. But who wants to be left behind at the farm while practically everyone else is shussing their way down the slopes?

My friends' tip: upon arriving in their quartier, get a spot on the dead-end, cobble stone streetlet leading up to the church of St. Martin d'Ainay, which is near their apartment building, because that very brief stretch of street is, according to them, the only place left in the whole area with unlimited, free parking. Might this be because the sober Romanesque and Benedictine church from the twelfth century is Lyon's oldest? Or is it because the young Blandina's remains are claimed to be buried here, after she had the anything-but-bland fate in 177 of being thrown to the lions in the Lyon amphitheater, who refused to eat her, so then she was killed anyway, her bones burned, thrown into the river, and finally saved by Christians who found the bones washed up further downstream? Dunno why; it's another minor unsolved French mystery to add to my growing list. At any rate, the odds of getting a non-payant spot, in the mixed-residential city center seemed, well, let's just say I didn't see it happening. But it did happen--I got a perfectly respectable, entirely legal spot. Flush with this novel achievement, I stepped out of my yellow Kangoo, just as the bells started tolling. For me. Well, that's what it seemed like to Max and I. We stared up with delight at the imposing, dramatically uplit façade of the building and sighed with pleasure at the deep, reverberating sounds.

It's an omen. This is going to be an excellent week. And that car isn't budging.

11 February, 2009

The Weather & Chicken Update.

All the shiny-leaved trees, like the magnolia outside the gate, are glowing in the light; this morning suggests stunning days to come and promises that winter's expiration date is well in sight. It's the kind of weather just made for walking a Weimaraner, with a few scudding clouds and just enough of a wind to raise the pulse. On the gallus gallus front, life continues, but our feathered friend has reached the awkward stage. She's still small, fitting easily and happily on my shoulder even as I type this, but her down is being replaced by incipient pin feathers and outright bald bits. She'll be embarassed that I posted these photos, no doubt.The Weimaraner, lover of walks and radiators, has remained just as adoringly fascinated as ever in the smallest movements of his fluffy housemate. I keep busy ensuring that the chicken doesn't suffer a dog-imposed fate similar to that of Mike, the headless miracle.

Trivia-loving Americans may remember the story of the plucky (ah, forgive me) little fellow who was destined for the pot but instead found himself touring the US to sell-out audiences, after undergoing scientific scrutiny and authentification. Mike the headless chicken survived for 18 months thanks to a well-timed blood clot. That and the fact that the axe-wielder, one Lloyd Olsen, missed the jugular vein, just enough of the brain stem and one ear. Mike has his own Wikipedia entry as well as his own day upon which he is annually feted by his hometown of Fruita, Colorado (if you want to join in as well, find the exciting details at http://www.miketheheadlesschicken.org/, which also shared the photo of Mike with his head by his feet, below).

How do I segue into my favorite sage and chicken liver pate recipe? Perhaps that belongs in another entry. Postscript: animal rights groups insisted on regular visits with Mike, but Mike gained an additional 6 pounds after losing his head and continued to behave the ways chickens with heads do, so whatever protest remained fell on deaf ears.

09 February, 2009

Ode to a bread (the continuing saga).

Today it was brioche. Perhaps I should explain. The kids are home from school this week, as it is winter break. For the kids, that is. And "my" baker.

The baker I go to for breads (usually sologno, a delicious, free-form multi-grain, and tradition, a crunchy, old fashioned baguette with a great, hole-y texture) is closed for two entire weeks. He's off to the real sun and sand. For two weeks. After a moment of feeling a bit shocked and abandoned--I mean, he's always open!--I started baking. And baking.

Yesterday it was pains au lait for the children's afternoon snack. And yes, I had some too, but just to keep the kids company, you understand. Pain au lait is essentially a rich, slightly sweetened white bread made with milk, a brioche without the egg. The day before, it was banana clafoutis, which deserves an entry--perhaps even a site--of its own.
Before you write me off as some sort of obscure country culinary diva (see photo above), I want to emphasize that these particular recipes are easy, and definitely a pleasure. Not a realistic weekday project if you have a conventional 9 to 5 job perhaps, but perfect for relaxing and spoiling yourself and anyone else you choose to include on a lazy sunday.

Take the classic brioche. There is something primordial and right about kneading brioche dough. It is so elastic, far better than the play-dough of your childhood--even after you'd warmed it up in your little fist. Brioche dough lives under your hand, it responds and changes, your hands feel their intimate way through the process (does it feel ready yet?). It is redolent of butter, eggs, milk and yeast; the perfume will fully impregnate your hands. It is not messy, the way many doughs can be. And does it ever rise.

Have I tempted you yet? Because the best part--the eating--is still to come: the fine crumb, still meltingly oven-warm; the golden yellow inside, whose hue matches the taste; the thin brown shining crust, that holds it all in.

(adapted off the back of the bag of Francine brand flour)

  • 350g of white flour
  • 175 ml of milk
  • 2 packets of active dry yeast
  • 1 tsp of salt
  • 3 Tbsp of sugar
  • 1 egg, plus
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 100g of butter, cut into small pieces and brought to room temperature
Pour the milk, egg and one egg yolk in a saucepan and allow to warm on the stove at the lowest temperature. In the meantime, mix the flour, sugar and salt together in a large bowl. Make a pit in the center and add the two packets of yeast. Once the milk and eggs are lukewarm, pour slowly into the bowl while stirring to combine. Add the butter and stir for about 5 minutes, so that it combines. Flouring your hands, further knead by hand for a few minutes until all ingredients seem well-incorporated, and the dough is supple and fairly smooth; this is the only slightly messy bit. Cover and allow to rest 15 minutes. While the dough is resting and you are tidying up, preheat the oven at its lowest possible temperature for 5 minutes then turn off, keeping door closed.

On a clean, floured counter, make a ball with the dough, and knead it for a few minutes. Finding your own rhythm, press into it with the heel of your hand, then turn the dough slightly and repeat. If you have a brioche-type mold (see my mold in the photo above), butter it and place the smooth ball in to rest. If not, divide the ball into four even, smaller balls, and place side by side in a medium to large sized, buttered loaf pan. Either way, cover loosely with a clean kitchen towel and place in the preheated oven (which is now off), close the door and let it rest one and a half hours.

Putter around the house. Dig out an old CD or two. Call a friend you haven't heard from in too long. Write me a comment.

After it has rested, remove the now-swollen brioche, and preheat the oven 180 degrees celcius (or 350 fahrenheit). In the meantime, gently, gently paint the crust with the remaining yolk. Once the oven is ready, pop in the pale brioche and allow it to bake 25 minutes (well, that is what the flour company recommends, my oven needs 35 minutes or so) or until the crust is nicely browned.

04 February, 2009

The scent of baking bread.

There is more than one way to seduce. I sometimes do it with flour and water.

Please banish any notion of toil. This is laughably simple to make though it may seem, at first blush, to be complicated due to the lengthy, precise instructions...If you have never baked bread before, yes indeed, this is the recipe to try.
No-Knead Farmhouse Bread

(as adapted from recipes to be found at http://www.recipezaar.com/)

If you would like to serve this fresh from your oven to go with dinner, begin the night before, at 9.30 pm, give or take. You will need the following:
  • 3 cups of white bread flour, or all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon of instant, active dry yeast, or 1/4 cube of fresh compressed yeast
  • 1/2 teaspoon of sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt
  • 415 ml of water

  • A cast-iron pot or pan with a lid
Lightly grease a large mixing bowl. Add the dry ingredients and combine well (crumbling the compressed yeast up into fine bits, if you are going that way). Add the water, mixing until smooth. Cover with plastic wrap (grease it in case the wet dough rises very high) and at least three kitchen towels.

Allow this to rest a full 18 hours. This brings you into the following afternoon, after returning home from your labors.

Using a floured, flexible spatula, scrape the swollen, bubbly dough from the edges of the bowl and fold it over into the center, pressing slightly down. The dough will meekly, if messily, collapse. Cover it with the plastic wrap and towels, and again set it aside for 2 hours.

1 1/2 hours after you've put it to rest that second time, preheat your oven 220C (450F) and put the empty cast-iron pan in. When the dough's two-hour slumber is up, carefully take out the very hot pan. Grease the bottom and sides with some butter. Holding the bowl over the pot, scrape all the still wet and sticky dough evenly into the pot. The dough will sizzle a bit upon contact with the hot butter. Shake the pot a bit to even it out further, clap the lid on and pop it in the oven. Bake, lid on, for half an hour. Remove the lid and continue baking until it's a beautiful golden brown. This can take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes.

Your eyes will go wide at the texture of crust and crumb. Your self-esteem will rise, much as the dough did. You will start making plans for next time, when you'll add a handful of seeds or grains or grated cheese or nuts or herbs or dried fruits (chopped figs go so very nicely with the cheese course...) And you'll delight everyone with the heady scent and taste of your own, homemade bread.

Crêpes for Candlemas.

In a country that tries so assiduously to be laïque, or secular, where you cannot wear small religious insignia to school, the old Catholic ways, even if watered down, recede rather slowly. Take the feast of Candlemas, or la Chandeleur. Held forty days after Christmas, this is the celebration of the presentation of Jesus at the temple; then again, for others, it's all about Mary, and her purification. At any rate, blessing is involved, in this case, of beeswax candles, which confer auspicious events in the new year--if the candle can be carried home without the flame going out. While the holiday has an accepted Catholic timeline going back to the 300s A.D., there are a number of Roman, and later Celtic, elements that were incorporated into the occasion. Some insist that this day had far less to do with baby Jesus, and centered more around celebrating light, winter's end (amen!) and efforts to ensure a good harvest. Over time, superstitions also took their place, as evidenced by this British saying for example:

"If Candlemas Day is clear and bright,
winter will have another bite.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
winter is gone and will not come again."

In the US, the superstitions were liberally reinterpreted, becoming Groundhog Day. Seriously.

Lacking groundhogs of their own, the French turned to culinary ritual, as is their wont, taking the lead from Gelasius I, who was pope in the late 400s. In addition to introducing the benediction of the candles (hence Candle Mass), he fed the hungry pilgrims gathering in processions around Rome a galette, the heavier precursor of the dainty crêpe.

Thus, here in France dessert crêpes reign on the Chandeleur evening of February second. Specifically, after 8 pm. If one can flip a crêpe in the pan while holding a gold coin in the other hand, well, prosperity in the coming year is all but assured.

Whatever the true, entire story of la Chandeleur may be, it makes kids big and small happy, mine included. I made a gateau de crêpes aux pommes, using a recipe from the February edition of Cuisine et Vins. Caramelized apples, almonds and Calvados-soaked raisins were tucked between delicate layers of crêpe. We all agreed the result was delicious, and my never having found a gold coin to clutch was forgotten in the haze of post-prandial bliss.

01 February, 2009

A sunday of fog and rain.

A day of steaming hot mugs of almond-scented milk, piano practice, and not much else.

White Winter Hymnal by the ever harmonious Fleet Foxes. (Find out more about them at www.subpop.com/artists/fleet_foxes).
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