29 April, 2009

Anise subject to write about.

People love their Pimpinella Anisum. Well, actually they either love it or hate it. They have done one or the other, it is recorded, since at least 1500 BC. Anise assumes many forms today. From the north to the south of Europe, people make anise-based infusions (herbal tea) to alleviate their cold and flu symptoms.

The French feature it in three well-known aperitif drinks: anisette, pastis and absinthe. They also happily consume it in candy form (the whole grain being coated with a sweet, flavored coating), and have been doing so since at least the 1500s (AD), notably in charming ye-olde-style oval tins under the name Anis de Flavigny. There are ten flavors, including violet, orange flower, rose, mint, ginger, mandarine...
The Italians like their anice as well. I have fond memories of eating pizzelle, those delicate, usually anise-scented waffle cookies originally from the Abruzzo. And if you go to an Indian restaurant in London (I mention London because boy, can you feast on Indian there), you'll likely enjoy a curry that is dosed with anise. On the way out, you'll grab a small handful of a seed mixture, chiefly composed of anise. Helps with the breath, and digestion.
When my Dutch friends visited this past weekend, they came bearing gifts, which included muisjes, or "little mice"(in Dutch, the 'j' is pronounced like a 'y'). Ah, the memories of my near-decade in Amsterdam...You see, muisjes are Holland's hat in the anise ring. One of them anyway, as there is also anise-infused steamed milk, as well as the ubiquitous little December pepernoten cookies, come to think of it.

Also candy-coated, muisjes are even smaller than the anis de Flavigny, and are eaten sprinkled on buttered rusks (basically thicker, airier melba toast rounds). They come in mixes of white and blue, and white and pink, as they are what proud new Dutch parents unfailingly offer to their visitors. I remember the only variation to the cast-iron tradition, which was when the future Queen of the Netherlands, little Catherina-Amalia, was born in 2003: all the supermarkets then carried orange-colored muisjes (orange being the royal color), so we could all celebrate. In the case of my own children, I became rather addicted and kept eating muisjes for a good year after the celebrations had been concluded. Ahem.Why little mice, you ask? Because anise seed often still has a little stem attached, even after being coated with the candy layer--so they kind of resemble little mice; mice also represent fertility. Go figure.

Why anise, you ask? Aside from there being something inexplicably scrumptious about the combination of some quality butter, the crunch of the bread, the sweet snap and pop of the muisjes themselves and their fragrant anise release...where was I going with this? Ah, yes--why. Because anise is said to help with milk production for a nursing mother. And it chases away evil spirits.

Why an entire entry about anise? Um, I suppose I needed a pretext to photograph and write about muisjes.

28 April, 2009

A guest photographer.

Some people show off photos they've taken of their kids. I'm going to show off photos my kid took. These are what I found when I downloaded what was in my camera. And yes, I'll let you know when my daughter starts a photo-blog of her own...

She asked me what kind of bee that was, with his fuzzy golden jacket, working among the rosemary blossoms. I didn't know; do you? I get the last shot, though: this is what my eight-year-old photographer gathered from the field. Purple and white clover, Queen Anne's lace, and sage. And other blossoms I can't identify. The flowers are sitting on the kitchen table now, while I rifle through my cookbooks for a spring dessert that measures up to her bouquet. It's too early for strawberries (from my garden anyway--the supermarket's been full of the Spanish ones for some time now). How about a delicate, rosemary-infused crème brûlée? Something to lure both bees and people into the kitchen...Thank you, Clotilde Dusoulier! You can also find the recipe online, in her website's recipe archives. Just click on her name...

20 April, 2009

The coast, done differently.

Take the A9 southward toward Spain sometime. Trust me on this.

On the tollway, Montpellier--the capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon region--is rather quickly followed by Narbonne, a sleepy spread of a city. The magnificent (unfinished) thirteenth century cathedral rises out of the small city like a surfacing dream. You could stop for a stretch and wander, but I'd save myself for a real break just down the highway in Perpignan. Dining choices abound in Perpignan, but look for someplace charming in the old center, such as cosy, old-school Les Antiquaires on Place Desprès. The food and the quartier, or neighborhood, won't disappoint.At Perpignan, you forsake the highway and its views of the mighty Pyrenées mountains for the little D914, still winding southward. Take a deep breath (because now the holiday really begins). You are entering true Catalan territory, French-speaking still, but with a distinctly Spanish-inflected style. Along this bit of road, you are taken to the vertiginous edge of the Vermilion Coast, but then here even the vineyards are tucked into the very sea-edge (as in the photo below), and if you're anything like me, you come for the open spaces, dramatic views--and wine. Apparently others come for the nude beaches.
And yes, there is also the art; Fauvist painters like Matisse and Derain spent time on the Côte Vermeille, drawing inspiration from the windswept, craggy seashore, old watchtowers and fishing boats moored in the port-villages. But in travel as in life, sometimes one must choose. Wine versus art, hmm...For this trip, the calculus was for the more portable, and potable, wine.
A basic, very short primer about this relatively little-known wine region. Banyuls and Collioure wines were at their most well-known in the Middle Ages, when they were the tipple of choice in the Aragonese court, having been introduced and developed by the Knights of Templar. After that, they were slowly forgotten; this amnesia continued well into the twentieth century. Wine connoisseurs suggest this has slowly been changing. You wouldn't know it to see the area, however, which in terms of wine-making and tourism seems to be the land that time almost forgot. A good thing, actually, for those of us lucky enough to visit, as the locals seem unfailingly warm and chatty.
The vines of the region grow in very schistic (read: rocky) soil, a thin layer often atop a solid rock bed, located anywhere from next to the Mediterranean to 15 kms inland. They grow on absurdly steep terraces which mean all work must still done by hand. These terraces are kept in place by hand-made dry rock walls, which put end to end, it is said, would measure over 6ooo kms, about the length of the Great Wall of China. As if all this isn't extreme enough, the vines are submitted to very demanding weather: a very hot, dry climate, with no rain six months of the year, then a flash rainfall, often right in the middle of the autumn harvest, which can make or break wine quality. The rainstorms, while relatively rare, are so devastating that laborers have had to build deep, narrow dry-stone gullies that angle across the terraces. The actual yield from all this is very low compared to other wine regions, which of course has a real impact on the character of the wine.
The principal difference between the wines of Banyuls and Collioure is of how they are made: most Banyuls, whether red, rose or white, are unfortified (no sugar added) sweet wines, while Collioure are dry wines, whether red, rose or white. In the case of Banyuls, alcohol is added to stop fermentation. But another essential distinction is rancio, which is what Banyuls often have in spades. Described as the taste of "nutty, oxidized fruit" (thank you, Rosemary George), this is a result of exposing the barrels, as pictured below, or glass bonbonnes (sitting on the first-floor roof pictured above) to the extreme weather variation--outdoors, rather than in the constant, humid cool of a cave. For a startlingly long time.If you are interested in grape varieties, Grenache Noir is the principal one used, blended with Grenache Gris and Blanc for Banyuls, and Syrah and Mourvedre for Collioure.
The finished Banyuls product (which has by then also spent a bit of time barreled in a cave, as pictured above) can be exquisite, like the most refined of ports or sherries. The variation in Banyuls character is astonishing; some go well with a good summer melon and ham, many seduce best when paired with chocolate, others match a strong cheese, like Roquefort, beautifully. Cigar aficionados swear it is meant to be enjoyed with a good smoke. But most French Banyuls drinkers still choose it as an aperitif.
If you are willing to heed my advice, then go one step further: in addition to visiting some domaines themselves, visit Cave St. Jacques in low-key Banyuls-sur-Mer. I know, the exterior of the shop is a bit twee, but the inside is a well-chosen treasure trove of independent Banyuls and Collioure vignerons. Ditto for Vin d'Auteur in Collioure. Although the Cellier des Templiers is despair-inducingly large-scale in comparison to the independents (it is part of the principal regional cooperative), its wines do remain consistent people-pleasers, and a visit to their well-oiled operation is worth it--as long as you go in the off-season, when real people talk to you, as opposed to your rather bovinely watching a video. All tastings considered, this trip's winner has to be Domaine de Vial-Magnères; I went home with two cartonsful. If you're really interested, ask me--and I'll send you some notes on individual wines... I also went home with a bagful of these local artichokes (and fresh peas, and asparagus) from the Sunday market in Collioure. So I guess I did bring home some art after all--the kind best enjoyed with a mustardy, shalloty vinaigrette.

15 April, 2009


This will be on Versailles-based, French-born and bred Phoenix's fifth album.

I'm afraid there isn't an actual video yet, but perhaps they'll have something after the album is released in May. In the meantime, you can download this song for free at their site, and check out another fun song here. This time, there is a video, and it features some cool shots of French places--recognize any? Oh, please don't forget to click on the little HQ for the sharpest image.

One last question: what drink do you pour when this sound's coming out of the speakers? An anisette or a Kir Royale?

14 April, 2009

Sur le pont...

I just returned from a lovely Easter reunion in Avignon. Yes, the same city as in the song...

Detail from the massive gothic fortress, Palais des Papes.

It's already late, a full day of (more) gardening awaits, so here's a quick bit of what I saw and enjoyed of the Provencal city, former home to Popes and current home to some great restaurants (La Fourchette, Piedoie and L'Essentiel spring to mind, but there are many others) and patissiers (for your own benefit and happiness: please drop in on Puyricard for their renowned calissons, among other treats, if you possibly can).

Clotheswise, if you aren't yet among the converted, try Du Pareil au Meme (DPAM) for kid's clothes only; they have a small shop, very centrally located on Avenue de la Republique in Avignon--think fun, clever and above all inexpensive. Also consider Petit Bateau--soft, soft cotton clothes (for kids and their harried mothers).

Now think of the following as a rough, visual poem to this charming old city. Try deep breathing if you find yourself thinking about the taggers who gleefully deface both newer and older buildings.

Oh, and one last tip: as with so many places in the south of France, you'll love it most in the shoulder season--spring and autumn (avoid the mistral).

The popes spent nearly a century in Avignon; I guess they liked it too.

11 April, 2009


Tarte au citron.

After a rich dessert and the closing infusion of chamomile, there is the walk "in the moonlight" (insert Patsy Cline riff here). I never understood what light could be at night--and the intense appeal of such a walk--until I came to the Cevennes mountains.
Where you live fundamentally shapes your notions about darkness. I still remember the utter blackness of a general power outage in Kinshasa, where when all the lights went out you were truly, completely unable to see; you couldn't even see the fingers you held right in front of your face. And the only sound was the swishing, scissoring sound of the palm tree fronds. I remember wondering whether my hand really was there or not. That was the only place where I ever encountered such complete, disquieting night, and this only on cloudy nights with power outage.

Where I live now there are no streetlights and I'm a good distance from any suggestion of light pollution caused by hamlet, village or city. Nights remain shockingly bright here, however. Everything casts its own clear, bright shadow. This is, of course, most pronounced when there is a full moon, as now. By the light of the full moon I can sit in my windowsill and read a book (please don't tell my eye doctor).

I leave my shutters open at night, so the moon casts its blue light onto the tiles of my bedroom floor. Six glowing parallelograms, one for each windowpane. This is another giveaway that I am not French: every single French person I know, city dweller or not, religiously closes their shutters at night; it is as much a night-time ritual as brushing one's teeth. They then find themselves in a darkness not far removed from my childhood Kinshasa nights. The French do have science on their side: people are said to have a better quality of sleep the less light there is, as light is a powerful stimulant (whether we consciously realize it or not).

But I can't bring myself to close the shutters. I like the impression of heightened awareness brought on by the blue-hued moonlight. You only have to take a walk once in such a light to understand. Preferably after a generous snowfall, and on a full stomach.

Perhaps it helps to be a confirmed "night-owl", but I don't think so.

Update: Would you like the recipe of above-mentioned rich dessert? This recipe was given to me by a friend; let me know how it turns out for you.

The recipe is awfully wordy, but I'm describing everything so that this could even be your "oh my god first time ever from scratch" tart. And yes, making the crust is worth the palaver, because it comes out nicely shortbread-ish. The filling takes all of a minute to put together. The only truly hard bit is remembering to get enough lemons and eggs...

Lemon Tart/Tarte au Citron

Make the pastry first, as it needs to rest in the refrigerator for an hour before being placed in the pan, which should be 23-26 cm wide.


125 g butter, softened and chopped roughly (about 1 stick)
125 g superfine sugar
250 g fine/cake flour
pinch of salt
finely grated zest of 1 organic lemon (no white pith)
2 eggs and 1 yolk

Toss chopped up butter and sugar into a bowl. Use a wooden spoon to mix the two together, smashing up the larger bits of butter. Once the sugar is fairly well incorporated into the butter, add all the remaining ingredients, except for the eggs. Combine using your hands, rubbing your fingers together and trying for a somewhat homogenous mixture. Now add the eggs, one at a time, and again with your hands, gently work the mixture until it becomes dough-like. Don't give up, just a few minutes more! If you need to, add a bit of flour if it seems too wet, or a few drops of cold water if it seems too crumbly. Flatten the dough into a disk (the flatter and rounder the easier it is later), wrap in plastic and allow to rest.

Preheat the oven to 350 F/180 C. Once it has had its nap, roll the dough out on a floured surface, pinching together the bits that start cracking. The dough'll need to be a good 5-6 cm larger than the tart pan you want to use. Gently loosen the dough from the rolling surface, sliding a very thin spatula or knife between the dough and the counter. You can partly roll it onto the rolling pin to make lifting it into the pan easier. Fit it evenly into the pan, pressing out any air bubbles. The tart needs to be half-baked, blind, which means filling the crust-filled pan with waxed paper or foil, then filling the paper/foil to the brim with dry beans, rice or other pie weights, which will keep the dough from rising. Slide this filled pan into the preheated oven and bake for about 15 minutes, or until the edges brown a bit. Take it out, remove the foil and beans, and put the crust back in the oven for just long enough to allow the crust to dry out without excessively browning or rising. Remove from the oven once again.


180 g superfine sugar
juice of 3 organic lemons
finely grated zest of 2 organic lemons (no white pith)
300 ml cream
4 eggs and 2/3 yolks (depending on how lavish you feel like being)

Whisk the sugar, lemon juice, zest and cream together in a bowl, dissolving the sugar. Add the eggs, whisking after each addition. Position the half-baked crust safely near the oven, and pour the very liquid filling into it. Open the oven door and very, very gently slide the wobbly tart in. Bake for about 25 to 35 minutes (depends on your oven). Mine was a bit browner than I would have liked, but I was distracted by the kids, who were decorating their Easter eggs. Once it seems lightly set (i.e. no longer so liquid) when you gently move the pan, take it out of the oven.

I served it at room temperature (but it can also be chilled), with a glass of Banyuls Ravaner, a fairly dry dessert wine from the coast, near the Spanish border.

03 April, 2009

Friday morning market.

I was distracted while selecting my salads this morning.

Kierkegaard's voice kept running through my head (craggy and precise and somehow northern-inflected, according to my brain which apparently could suddenly understand Danish): life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. Unquote. It is not always the easiest equilibrium to maintain, both forward- and backward-looking. And then you have to remember to exhale.

Sometimes it is easier to have an animated conversation with my erudite, fourth--and last--generation butcher (the Friday one, because I split my carnivorous loyalties). We talked about the contemporary art scene today, which is what one can do when the butcher's son owns one of the most prestigious contemporary art galleries in Paris (check out Pierre Alain Challier's eponymous space the next time you find yourself in the ville de lumière). I managed to be aware, throughout our chat, of the delicate tones of classical music coming out of the little stereo tucked next to the refrigerated cabinet.

When that was over, I distracted myself from my Kierkegaard distraction by scrutinizing the trout, who must be at least dimly aware of the sorry state of their affairs as they swim the length of the truck/aquarium. The concave man who brings them to market then kills them has a bowl hair-cut straight from the Middle Ages.

All this happened while getting provisions for the weekend. Maybe I shouldn't have begun with that noisette at the corner cafe.

02 April, 2009

What you take back with you.

I went to a yoga seminar*, and all I brought back was some awareness, a measure of serenity and a Dysentery Yellow telephone. I did yoga, day and night (...), and broke bread with some good friends, so I've no photos. But I'll post a view from up the road instead, just a few minutes walk from where I am sitting right now. About the phone. It really is that color (the secondhand shop gets credit for the dysentery description), from the 50s, and requires no electricity. Handy thing for when you have a power outage; we had another one last week. Back to basics.

While I was gone, nothing stopped (oddly enough): Spring is bursting out all over in an excess of passion. I'm celebrating being back home by having a cup of tea, made with a sprig of fresh lemon verbena from the garden and a smidge of dark, thick pine honey from my beekeeper neighbor. Lemon verbena, or aloysia triphylla, is a native of Chile and Peru, but can grow happily in lots of conditions. It is such a great plant to have, whether in a pot or in the ground, where it can reach rather massive proportions. It has loads of culinary uses beyond tea (the dried leaves retain their scent a very long time), but just infusing it--dried or fresh--comes pretty high on my list. With its strong lemony scent, it manages to be both relaxing and uplifting. It's a good anti-coffee, for when you feel like a break from the caffeine. Wander into your local nursery, and leave with one of these spiky-leaved, pale green plants. They're generous.

*The seminar was given by Judith, whose Living with Yoga makes for a great read. Seeing her in person is even better (she teaches internationally). At the seminar: "The ability to be ambivalent is a sign of health." Hmm. If so, I'm rolling in the good stuff. City energy or country space? Coffee or lemon verbena? The fortunate manage to get a taste of both.
Related Posts with Thumbnails