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.

02 October, 2009

Late dinner.

My guests are coming late tonight, which means they will miss the slow burn of our sunset, but will be all the hungrier for it. I have already made a tart of roasted shallots and pelardon (the local goat cheese) and now the butternut squash has been split, seeded and is roasting in the oven. Along with three heads of garlic, tightly wrapped in foil (no oil added). You can see in the photo below that I'm using pink garlic, or l'ail rose de Lautrec, from the Midi-Pyrénées, which now has its own AOC designation.

Have you ever tasted roasted garlic? If not, you should try it. Seriously, you really should, as in before-you-die try it. Whenever you find yourself using the oven for an hour or more, tuck in an extra foil-wrapped head of garlic (I cut off the tops of the cloves first). This simple gesture of roasting makes it the far more nuanced, elegant and milder cousin to garlic in the raw. So while I plan to use some of the ail confit in tonight's soup, the rest, creamy and beige, gets squeezed out of the papery clove casings, into a glass jar, topped with olive oil to cover, and slipped into the fridge. I use it in sauces, salad dressings, marinades, soups, dips, on toast...As long as you use a clean spoon when serving from the jar, and top as necessary with more olive oil, the roasted garlic keeps indefinitely. (I haven't ever had to actually test this statement because mine has the tendency to be...devoured). But coming back to the butternut. Mmm, what's not to love? As far as squashes go, it looks rather modest--on the outside. But the inside is a color-saturated revelation. Furthermore, it is a dream to cook (I always roast it, cut side down, so that I never have to bother with hacking off the skin while it's still raw), it has a natural sweetness that is only enhanced with roasting. It goes into soups, stews (as chunks), muffins and cakes. It's a nutritional powerhouse to boot, bursting with vitamins A and C, and minerals such as magnesium and potassium, and fiber. Even the seeds are delicious, rinsed and baked in the oven. I'm nearly as passionate about butternut as I am about sweet potatoes. For the love of Mike, don't get me started on sweet potatoes.
But squash is for fall or even winter, no? At least that's the association I always make. Going to the open air market does teach you a few things, like what's really in season when, and butternut is a case in point. I have seen this squash in the stalls for a month now, from well before the autumnal equinox. And for a late evening meal, even in indian summer/early fall, nothing will leave you more satisfied. At least that's what I hoping for tonight.

Note: if you have more time than I did (or are more organized than I was), make the soup a day in advance, to give it time to mellow and deepen in flavor.

Velouté à la courge (Butternut Squash Soup)

1 smallish butternut squash, halved lengthwise and seeded
3 cloves roasted garlic
2 large mild and sweet onions, chopped
3 cups rich chicken broth
1/4 cup dry white wine
ground nutmeg
ground cardamom
ground paprika
fresh ground pepper

Preheat oven 180 C. Split the squash down the middle, seed with a spoon, and place it, cut sides down, on a baking sheet. Roast (along with that head of garlic!) for an hour.

Meanwhile, roughly chop the onion and saute over medium heat with some olive oil, until the onion has given up some of its liquid and volume and translucent. Sightly browned is good, if you have a few more minutes. Splash the white wine over the onions, allow to cook briefly, then add the broth. Add the spices, a generous couple of pinches of each.

Remove the squash from the oven and allow to cool. You should be able to easily peel away the now-brittle skin of the squash. Add the squash and the contents of three roast garlic cloves to the soup. Allow to simmer for 20 minutes, tasting and adding spices as you go. Don't be shy with flavor, and add 1/4 teaspoon of salt or so as well if you find the taste somewhat uninspiring. Add the soup to the food processor in two batches, but do so carefully, as there will be a good amount of steam. This will serve four to six people, depending on appetites.

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