28 April, 2010

First flights.

The robin-egg blue sky reminds me. Late last spring, I found a bird in the courtyard, wobbling and flailing across the stones. Already in the preceding days, I'd found three different baby birds who'd tumbled to their deaths from their nests; at least this one was still alive. (Bird mamas have a tough decision to make: high enough to keep the chicks from the predators--or low enough to avoid fatal crashes. It's fly from the get-go or die.) For some types of birds, there's at least an entertaining practice period, when they spend a few days alternating between unsteady swoops through the courtyard, and resting in a sort of discreet way, behind a flower pot or on a low rafter.
After a breathless call to my friend the local bird expert, I knew to calm this apparently uninjured bird by placing him under an overturned pot for some dark and quiet. After he'd rested, I caught the non-flying fellow. Following my bird-loving friend's succinct advice, I took the birdlet to the terrace, and, heart in mouth, I threw him into the sky. He flew. Every cell in my body was cheering him on, and I squinted after him until he was a speck in the blue, until finally there was nothing but the memory of the scissoring wings in my hands.
This was before I acquired chickens. These days I candle eggs. In the pitch black of night, you take a bright flashlight out to the chicken house, where the broody hen's in a sort of chicken daze, all but cross-eyed with weariness sitting night and day on her eggs because she is absolutely compelled to. You slip an egg out from under her warm breast, you cup your hand around the egg, and you hold it against the light.
Remember the red semi-translucent glow your fingers would make when you held them up in front of a candle or a flashlight? (Was I the only one who tried to see through her fingers?) Candling eggs is like that. All those pin-prick holes in the egg--the ones the chick-to-be uses to breathe--they shine like stars in a pink firmament. You're staring into a glowing universe, condensed to the size of your palm, only you aren't seeking constellations, but rather the faint webwork of blood veins, which confirm that life is under construction, that this particular egg has indeed been fertilized.
Life is busting out all over, beyond the chicken house too. The neighbor's lambs are freshly born and capering, there's a tan calf resting in the clover of a nearby field, the woodpecker must be feeding a family (judging by the all-day percussion), the cuckoo is back and cuckooing, the swallows are chortling, the bumblebees are careening drunkenly from one source of nectar to the next. The frog mating chorus is in full nightly swing, augmented by the periodic sleepy whoot of the owls, while the fuzzy bats (no bigger than a tablespoon each) that live behind my window shutters have forsaken hibernation to resume their circular dining cruises through the deep, cool air.

25 April, 2010

Turning Japanese.

Remember that song by The Vapors? Turning Japanese, I think I'm turning Japanese/I really think so--oh, admit it, it rings a bell--circa 1980. I've got it on a damaged cassette mix that I can't quite bring myself to throw away. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so does it make this gone and disappeared band feel better that Liz Phair featured it on an album, and that even Coldplay covered it (at least once)? A hit single seems so much more ephemeral than, say, a tree.
I just went to an exposition of Japanese maples at the 150 year old Bambouseraie d'Anduze. A privately held 34 hectare botanical garden, it is aptly named as its collection includes over 300 types of bamboo. Black ones, striped ones, purple ones, yellow ones, minute ones that form a spiky lawn, massive ones that reach 25 meters, in short, all kinds of bamboo. There's also the largest magnolia tree in Europe, sequoias, on-going often breath-taking natural art installations, an aquatic garden (note: April is too early in the season to see much in the way of the normally sensational water lily collection), a large Japanese garden, a labyrinth made of living bamboo, etc., etc. All this irrigated with five kilometers worth of elegant, narrow water canals.
At first blush years ago, it seemed so odd that I'd keep coming across stands of bamboo in the Cevennes. I mean, it's the south of France, not southeast Asia, right? But for the very wealthiest some two hundred years ago, having a collection of exotic trees (sequoias brought in by ship from California, bamboo from China) was not only a trend but a way of flaunting a very particular status. On the larger properties in the Cevennes, you can still come across some extraordinary specimens. As my neighbor says: we don't plant trees for ourselves, we plant them for our grandchildren.In the shorter term, we're getting near-summer weather here: the swallows are back in the eaves of the roof, and I've broken out the ice cream maker. First came the house standard, coconut ice cream. Then this custardy, ultra-decadent version of green tea ice cream by chef Yoshi Katsumura. A sunny afternoon with a friend's a pretty fine excuse to enjoy matcha...but nearly any moment'll do, really.

Glace au thé vert/抹茶アイスクリーム (Green Tea Ice Cream)

1 liter whole milk
15 g powdered Japanese green tea, or matcha
12 egg yolks*
400 g sugar
1 cup heavy cream

Bring milk just to the boil. Remove from heat, add green tea and allow to infuse. In a separate bowl, beat egg yolks and sugar together until they form a pale yellow ribbon. Combine egg mixture and milk, then strain into a saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat and remove just before the mixture reaches a boil; cool completely over ice water. Beat heavy cream until frothy. Pour into egg mixture and mix well. Process in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer's instructions. Mmm...

*This is not a typo. Save the egg whites to make meringue cookies, which go well with this ice cream, or a cup of green tea.

22 April, 2010

Mediteranean jewel: Barcelona.

Barcelona, perched on the sparkling Mediterranean, is an effervescent sprawl of a city--and the sixth most visited in all of Europe. Small wonder, given its nine World Heritage Sites (as designated and protected by UNESCO), 45+ museums (among which the Picasso Museum), the Port Vell (refurbished for the 1992 Olympics), 4 1/2 kilometers of beaches, and a Gothic Quarter in which you can get wonderfully lost--in turn losing all the other visitors, who numbered 6 1/2 million in 2009 alone...Plus Barcelona averages 330 sunny days per year, according to the Chamber of Commerce. How's that for a bit of vitamin D? (The sun-infused drink above is a sangria made with cava, the Catalan version of Champagne.)

The city is exuberant and bright as its weather, irreverently mixing the very old (Roman, medieval, and so on), the very new, and everything in between. It is the only place I know of where you can see a cathedral under construction.Gaudí's esthetically and technically astonishing Sagrada Familia is expected to be completed in 2030 and really is worth the wait in line (detail of exterior above and part of interior below). There is much more to Barcelona's architecture than Gaudí's fluid, complex structures and modernisme (Catalan Art Nouveau), but you cannot fully grasp the city without experiencing those two essential elements. From the Gràcia district, where I was staying in airy rented apartment, I was within easy reach of some his more famous works, such as the Casa Milà, shown just above. But I was also even closer to the Mercat de l'Abaceria Central...one of the neighborhood food halls. The prospect of still undiscovered delicacies (emu eggs, cod in all its elegant permutations, fish smaller than my pinkie) got me out of bed--at a most bright and early hour--to join diminutive Catalan grandmothers pulling plaid carts on wheels in their common search for the culinary great and good. Having no wheeled cart of my own, I had a hard time balancing my steadily increasing load of purchases and my camera...While the deservedly famous Boqueria market is indeed a high-toned feast for the senses, its location on the Rambla means it is thick with camera-toting onlookers; you can find quality, variety, and actual room to move in the other food halls scattered across Barcelona. The city has posted a handy list and map online of all Barcelona's municipal markets/food halls. Also in my neighborhood was Sureny, a fuss-free but good tapas restaurant (on Plaça de la Revolució 17). Their unhibited, fusiony combinations are sometimes a bit odd, but when they work, it's better than fine. Veal sirloin tataki, tandoori and tosu-zu sauce was an eye-opener (I'll spare you the shamefully underexposed image--the wine was rather nice too!)

The night I ate at Sureny also happened to be the night Barcelona beat Madrid two-nil, on Madrid's home field. This resulted in a night--and morning--full of randomly set fireworks and booming crackers, rousing song, honking cars and wanton flag-waving. Sleep, what's that? El clàssic (the century-old, fullbore Barça-Madrid football rivalry) at its best--by Barcelona standards anyway. Seems Barcelona's star is on the rise...

14 April, 2010

The mash note, delayed by volcano.

Say you have a houseful of friends visiting just as you return from Barcelona. Say a volcano explodes some 2700 kilometers away, and brings about the "most severe disruption to airtraffic in peacetime" (NYT).

Say your friends are stranded, the house is ever so full of life. Do you write, or do you enjoy the extra time you have together? As you may have noticed, what I didn't do was write. But Barcelona has a way of lingering in the mind. To put my biases on the table: I really like Madrid, but I love Barcelona. Impossible to remain indifferent to this port city, crammed as it is with things to see, taste and hear. Barcelona (population 1.6 million) sits at a beautiful midpoint between the grandeur of Paris and the vitality of New York, all the while remaining accessible and (most often) sun-drenched. You can spend a week here and merely skim the surface--it's that big and engaging a city.
Barcelona is the capital of the province of Catalunya, which is very much part of Spain and very much its own province, with language, culture and foods quite distinct from Madrid and the rest of Spain. In this way, Barcelona brings to mind the French dichotomy between the independent-minded port city of Marseille and Paris. Imagine wide, endlessly long avenues just meant for ambling and little neighborhoods with crooked alleyways designed to confuse. This is Barcelona. Beaches, sailboats, boys and surfboards in April. This is also Barcelona. I'd write more, but it's happy hour here in France, there are still some slices of chorizo and lomo de jabugo left, and my friends are waiting on the sun-drenched terrace...

07 April, 2010

In between things.

Engaged in some après-winter preemptive weeding and pruning of the strawberry plants, raspberry canes, currant and blackberry bushes, so I'm already anticipating the summer harvests. With a little help, I candied the violets gathered from the now vividly green meadow, so I'm anticipating the cake or two that'll be decorated with these sparkly little flowers.I've an ear infection, I'm sore and I absolutely have to see my doctor tomorrow, but none of that matters, because I'm off to Barcelona, and I'm gleefully anticipating all that means. You know, evening promenades, citrus sangria made with cava, tapas galore--god forbid before ten p.m.; gothic little streets in Gaudí's city, with buildings emerging whole from some wild utopian dream of what a structure might be; and the catalan language, so full of x's that flummox those of us silly enough to imagine it remotely resembles Spanish. Yes, that Barcelona. As I'll have no internet access, let me leave you something that will serve very well one of these cool-ish spring evenings.

(While I may well return bearing advice for crema catalana,) I offer you today a crème caramel. The workhorse of the French bistro, the ubiquitous dessert (actually usually called a crème renversée au caramel in France) gets a Vietnamese lift in this deeply rich, oh-so-smooth version made with coconut milk. I found this easy little gem in Corinne Trang's delightfully comprehensive, pan-Asian Essentials of Asian Cuisine. My only modification was to reduce maple syrup rather than making a caramel sauce. It's a snap to make and so rewarding, please do try it, and let me know what you think.

I'll be back in a week, at which point I'll also post a photo. It's just the kind of dessert that is always set upon and devoured before it occurs to me that I should perhaps track down my camera.

Crème caramel au noix de coco (Coconut Crème Caramel)

Serves four.

1/2 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1 cup unsweetened coconut milk
1/2 cup milk

Reduce the maple syrup by about half in a saucepan over medium heat. The syrup should actively bubble and the reduction take 5-8 minutes, with no stirring necessary. Remove from the heat and divide the thickened syrup among four custard dishes or other oven-proof 1/2 cup recipients. Tilt the dishes to evenly coat the bottom and partly up the sides.

Preheat oven to 140C/275F. Meanwhile, whisk 1/4 cup sugar and the eggs until well-combined. Add the coconut milk and cow's milk, and continue to whisk until smooth and the sugar is completely dissolved. Divide the mixture among the custard dishes. Make a bain-marie (water bath) by filling a larger baking dish halfway with water. Place the four dishes in it and bake until the custards have set, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to come to room temperature still in the water-filled baking dish.

Once cooled, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 12 hours, preferably 24 or more, as it sets less firmly than a standard custard. To serve, loosen the edges gently with a knife and turn out onto plates, so that the maple caramel is on top. Serve well-chilled.

05 April, 2010

Sunday kind of fun, side of muffins.

What do you do on an Easter sunday after the eggs have been rolled out of their hiding places, the smoked trout tart and chopstick-slim asparagus in lime/caper vinaigrette consumed, the blood orange and cardamom upside-down cake--au David Lebovitz--demolished, the treacle-thick coffee downed? You head to the annual Jeux de Mômes--or Tykes' Games.

Picture if you will, at the village school, some forty low-tech games of skill for kids of every age--Mikado for giants, hay-pitching, a wandering comedy and music-making duo on wheels, an obstacle course hung with little bells, coordination games made of hand-cut wood, and decorations in primary colors. The canvas set up behind the raging tug'o'war (above) was made earlier in the day by hurling (real) eggs that had been filled with paint; the resulting "fireworks" bloomed on the canvas and a screaming good time was had by all. Imagine kids pedaling like lunatics to nowhere, their leg power making a paper arrow swing over an old map--a metaphorical Tour de France. The photos I took are by no means prize-winners, but in the general hilarity I'm frankly surprised they turned out at all; I hope you get a feeling for the bubbling merriment. There was cheering and a helping push or two for the soapbox derby.Then there was a rollicking five-instrument band making folk music in French and the deep dialect of the region. The kids held sway for the first hour, twirling and stomping, swinging and parading, shining eyes and flush-faced to a one, from the three year olds to the fifteen year olds.
Of course, a kid needs some victuals in the course of all this excitement. As did many other parents, I brought a few liters of crêpe batter for the buvette, or food/drink tent. I also brought these muffins. Like the photos, they aren't beauty contest finalists. They won't make you want to eat your screen, either--if you've never had them before. Fine-textured and light, infused through and through with inviting clove, banana and a touch of citrus, they're a simple riff on the classic banana bread, rendered more toothsome with just a bit of whole wheat flour. They're what my nine year old wants to make (yes, that easy and quick...), when sunshine and exertions call for something that'll make you feel good.

Muffins à la banane et clou de girofle (Banana Clove Muffins)

Makes about 16 muffins.

1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 whole wheat flour
2/3 (scant) cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup smushed ripe bananas (squeezing them in your fist is messy but effective)
1/3 cup room-temperature butter, chopped or olive oil
2 tablespoons bottled orange or multifruit juice (it's thicker than fresh squeezed)
between 1/4 and 1/2 teaspoon ground clove
2 tablespoons finely minced orange zest (no bitter white pith)
2 large eggs

optional: 1/4 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger, or nuts, or apple

Preheat oven to 350F/180C. Lightly grease two 8-cup regular-sized muffin pans.

Combine all ingredients except eggs and the optional addition in a large bowl. Beat on low speed until flours are blended, then add eggs and mix at highest speed for a couple of minutes. Stir in the addition, if desired.

Fill greased muffin cups half full and bake 30 to 35 minutes, or until a toothpick, placed in the center of a muffin, comes out clean. Allow to cool at least ten minutes before removing. Should be stored in an airtight container, where they will keep for three days, although they've never stayed around that long in my kitchen.

02 April, 2010

Two wheels on the tarmac.

I haven’t always lived in France. I was in the American Midwest for a time, in Madison, Wisconsin, up the road a bit from Chicago. If you didn't know it, Madison is one of the most bicycle friendly cities in the United States, brimming with bike lanes and locals who boast some serious equipment.

After that I moved to Amsterdam, considered by many to be the most bicycle friendly city in the whole world. In [pancake flat] Amsterdam, practically half the inhabitants have a bike--and not a helmet between them. The Dutch can do anything on a bike, from what I've seen. I remember watching a man in formal wear, leaving the multi-story bikepark by Central Station, ferrying a full-size Christmas tree on his bike. Biking’s just what you do in the Netherlands, like breathing, three-kiss greetings--le-e-eft, right, left--and avoiding turds on the pavement.
Now I live in the Cevennes, and the Tour de France all but passes outside my gate. This is at least part of the reason there are adventure bikers on the roads three out of the four seasons. People come from far away to kill--I mean test--themselves on these steep mountain roads. It is only logical to assume that I am a committed cycler as well.

But: I don’t know how to ride a bike; never learned. No deprived childhood, there was simply a lot of moving, from Sierra Leone to (the country formerly known as) Zaïre to South Africa, and so on. By the time I reached Amsterdam, it had dawned on me what I’d been missing, but I was no longer willing to take risks given the small child (followed by another) surgically attached to my hip. Amsterdam is a congested city, and the bicycling is not for the faint of heart, even if you do see impeccably coiffed, elderly ladies tooling around—and yes, Queen Beatrix and family have been known to bike too. (Very old photo courtesy of insideroyalty.) Here in France, in the grueling smackdown that is summer, I do not understand the bikers. I mean, I truly do not comprehend. Where are these weekend warriors going in the hottest part of the day, when all the locals are most sensibly asleep? Is there a fantastically good restaurant I don't know about? The bikers wear lurid Lycra. And just looking at their helmets makes my scalp itch. These people do not smile, because they are in full, sweat-soaked suffering. I am somewhat surprised I haven’t yet come across one of the 50-something guys (on a holiday from his desk) in mid-heart attack.

But I do understand the bikers in gentle spring. Roads here wend and wind, and are narrow, only just meant for two-way traffic—and occasionally not even that. They wiggle, shudder across plains then sprint uphill toward the mountains. In spring, the roads pass vineyards, where the closed, black fists of the vines rise out of a cloud of tiny canary-yellow wildflowers. A biker has time to watch the sheepdogs work a mob of sedate sheep, bells a-ringling, just behind a low stone wall spattered with lichen. A biker may even slow down to watch the pair of eagles riding the air currents above my house. And only in spring can a biker eye a line of still unadorned poplar, standing sentry over the gentle swale of an electric-green meadow, cycle up the way just a smidge further, and watch the sunny, half-asleep plain reveal itself below, wide as all get-out. I may just need to find an old bike after all. Think I'll pour another glass of mint lemonade and consider the matter a bit more.
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