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.
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