25 July, 2010

Seaside color.

Hello again! I'm still shaking the sand out of the beach bag, as my family got together for some sun and fun in Cassis. Here's some of what I saw... Tablecloths for sale, swaying in the breeze.
Beans at the market. I should have gotten some...
Colorful bracelets for the summer.
Linen blouse with pretty details.
Breakfast options.
Better than television: watching the action on the square.
A secluded cove, where you can see the native Aleppo pines growing directly out of the limestone rock.
Moroccan pottery.
Mediterannean multi-tasking: hop off your scooter, grab a bite to eat, peel off your shirt and people-watch while you catch some rays.
Local olives.
Some good-looking fig jam. I should have picked some of that up too, come to think of it.
Coeur de boeuf (heart of beef) tomatoes.
The first golden plums I've seen. (I'm already stockpiling jars because I'm going to have a serious bumper crop of Reine-Claudes--greengages--this year).
Keeping it down-home and local.
I ate at Nino's, a family culinary institution right in the port which has been serving meals without interruption since 1962.
Anise-infused pastis is the drink on the coast. I love the notion, the reality is more of an acquired taste. Little old hat-wearing men sit around drinking it.
Cassis is a charming little port village, with more than its share of restaurants.
Color, and laundry, everywhere.
The Mediterannean unfortunately doesn't have the fish stocks it used to; most of the boats in the port are for pleasure.
Not too far off, there are also some camp sites tucked under very large, airy pines, where some of these sun-burned vacationers head off to in the evenings.The calanques are every bit as beautiful as in these postcards. If you find yourself in Cassis, you musn't miss them.
There are shade-giving platanes (plane/sycamore trees) with their distinctive 'camouflage' bark in every village, and Cassis is no exception.
Street jazz. Young and talented.
The sun is so bright, you tan even under a rented parasol.
I could have put up so many more photos...Oleander everywhere, in all the hues from whites and peaches to reds, fuschia bougainvillea draped over walls, blue plumbago in full bloom.
I mightily enjoyed some eggplant caviar at a beach restaurant. Inspired, I'll be whipping this up after I've stocked up at the farmer's market tomorrow; we've got a full house, and I enjoy keeping tasty, make-in-advance spreads and finger foods within arm's reach. If you've never had this before, do give it a whirl. It's just the ticket with a glass of white wine in the late afternoon...I like this version (there are many out there), by Hubert Keller.

Caviar aux Aubergines (Eggplant Caviar)

Serves about four. Can easily be doubled or tripled.

1 large eggplant, halved lengthwise
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small baguette, thinly sliced (1/4 inch thick)
1 medium red bell pepper, diced
1 small onion, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 large tomato--peeled, seeded and cut into1/8 -inch dice
3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons minced chives
2 tablespoons minced fresh basil

Preheat the oven to 180C°. Brush the cut sides of the eggplant with 1 teaspoon of the olive oil. Set the eggplant, cut sides down, on a baking sheet and roast for about 1 hour, or until tender and collapsed. Let cool. Arrange the bread slices on another baking sheet and brush lightly with olive oil. Bake for about 8 minutes, or until golden and crisp.

Heat 1 teaspoon of the olive oil in a nonstick skillet. Add the red pepper, onion and garlic and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened but not browned, about 6 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and let cool.

Using a spoon, scrape the eggplant flesh from the skin; discard the skin. Finely chop the flesh and add the eggplant to the sautéed vegetables. Stir in the tomato, 2 teaspoons of lemon juice and the remaining 1 teaspoon oil. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more lemon juice if necessary; refrigerate until slightly chilled. Stir the chives and basil into the eggplant caviar and serve with the toasted slices of bread.

(The eggplant can be refrigerated for up to 1 day; store the croutons at room temperature. Let the caviar stand at room temperature for 20 minutes before serving.)

22 July, 2010

Trains and tea.

Sometimes in the summer you can be convinced to do slightly offbeat things. In my case, it's often simply about building a solid foundation of memories for my children. And who's going to let a little soot get in the way of such a grand project? Enter a little steam engine. The real deal, huffing and puffing its way for the last hundred years through the Cevenol mountains.Today, it serves to schlep children and their slightly (okay, seriously) overheated parents from one village to another, with a stop at the lovely Bambouseraie just outside of Anduze. Tuesday's final destination was the organic farmer's market in St. Jean du Gard, where I was able to pick up my favoritest blueberry tart, which features no filling beyond deeply flavorful, tiny wild blueberries and a substantive, none-too-sweet shortbread-style crust. Summer heaven in a mouthful! (I ate it before I thought of my camera.)If you can ignore the smoke that periodically blankets the open carriages, you're in for some beautiful scenery as well.After the mini train trip, a dip in the saltwater pool to bring the body temperature down to acceptable levels (it was 37C, or about 99F, when we stumbled off the train). Then we were off to welcome our neighbor's brand-new baby. This is Annabelle, the first-ever offspring of attentive Roxanne, in whose belly she spent a placid 13 months. She is softer than you can imagine but what else would you expect: she's raised on luscious, healthful donkey milk; Cleopatra used to bathe in the stuff, and to this day it is a well-regarded and pricy beauty product. We humans'd apparently be nutritionally better off drinking donkey milk rather than cow milk or even goat milk, but as the average donkey only produces about 25 liters per year, this isn't a very viable option. Annabelle has these crazy, waggily expressive, oversized rabbit ears, and she loves to nuzzle. I am in love. Ears going in all directions, she suddenly hurtles off and then crashes to a halt, shocked by the slippery appearance of her shadow. To recover from our exertions [insert sardonically raised eyebrow here], we head for home, where I gather some chamomile I've stumbled across in the field. On the beauty line front, blondes can brew up a strong batch (using the blossoms only) and use it as a cool rinse to brighten and hydrate their hair. It's also considered by some to be effective in treating minor skin conditions, such as acne. Chamomile has been traditionally used for centuries to soothe minor digestive troubles and sore throats, as well as to promote relaxation and sleep (safe for even toddlers, though I understand it is not advised for pregnant women).At my house, a handful of fresh or dried blossoms are simply tossed into a pitcher, along with a couple of bruised handfuls of lemon balm (which grows exuberantly as a weed in my garden), and maybe even some mint (also all over the place). I pour boiling water over the lot, add a smidgen of honey to taste. Okay, a bit more than a smidgen. The brew's ready to be strained and drunk after about a three minute steep. It's a delicious way to hydrate and ease yourself into the night.

17 July, 2010

Here I am.

We persist in living like tourists: rather than closing our shutters to the day's indomitable heat as do the pragmatic locals, we keep them flung open to the light. I don't want to even imagine living in a perpertually darkened house, so I don't, but the price is paid at night. Accordingly, I have been spending my nights out on the terrace under a light blanket and an endless host of stars, my face bathed in the gentle cooling breeze. This is far more pleasant than the confining, close air in the house. Being on the terrace also means drowning in the frog chorus. I have isolated five different calls, among which one that bleats like a robotic sheep, one that sounds like a duck, one that sounds like a squeaky swing. It's raucous out there. And then of course the rooster starts up with the first lightening of the sky.

All the structure that binds the rest of the year is released. No set anything, not even bedtimes, not even for the littlest. Night swimming happens, as do ambling conversations into the deep night with old friends. I have been watching the thousand shades of green temper into something more average as the grasses dry. The lettuce have bolted, and the tomato plants demand their share of the water hose. The cigales begin screeching their two-note chant as soon as the day's heat sets in. The blackcurrants are tucked in cellared jars, ripening in their alcohol baths to beome something finer than one has a right to expect. The liqueur will be ready in a few months. The cherries have been amazingly prolific and sweet this year, but now there are only the dark remains, drying on the ground, attended to by clouds of butterflies, who rise and fall in undulating waves as we walk by.

In this sustained chaleur, fragrant mint and ginger-inflected iced green tea is the order of the day. That and a trusty sweaty glass (or two) of gin and tonic. Hydration is a good, good thing, especially if you are to make a trek into the village to celebrate France's independence.

On the eve of Independence Day, once night falls, there is the pétanque competition, and the band tunes up.
There is the repas dansant, table after table set up in the village square to accomodate families, dogs, conversation and eating in the caressing night air. The wine and beer flow (which help explain why the celebrations happen on the 13th: recovering people sleep in on Bastille Day, except in, say, Paris).The children gather for the retraite aux flambeaux, a parade lit by paper torches the children wield at the end of bamboo canes. Imagine a river of bobbing, rainbow-colored lights, wending its way through the narrow village streets. The parade finishes at the soccer field, and the late arrivals make it just in time for the fireworks. Vive la France!

01 July, 2010

Bloggus Interruptus.

After walking around for several days flagellating myself and suffering from regular bouts of Phantom Camera Syndrome--as in '...must take picture, oh wait, arrrgh...'*--I've plunged my pale and trembling hand into my wallet and withdrawn the credit card.

Actually, my hands are less than pale, and the fingertips are stained a boozy red from picking a heaped bucket of dark cherries. The berries are now in the kitchen, and I'd take a picture, but, well, if you've read the previous post (and you have, haven't you?), you would know this is not currently within the realm of possibility. So I'm mulling over what to do with this huge pile of cherries, knowing there's simply loads more to pick tomorrow--and I don't have a cherry pitter. Dorie Greenspan loves hers, you know, and I just really believe I also need one, for a couple of weeks every year anyway. The lack of this tool is why I don't make cherry jam or cherry pie, and why I do make [a way lot of] cherry clafoutis.

The camera's been ordered, but will take some time to arrive. I won't be sitting on my hands waiting though: the last day of school is tomorrow, and nearly as soon as the final bell has rung, I'll be welcoming the first friends to our house for the official start to endless summer. My version of it, at least.

All this to say that I'm hanging up the sign "Closed for Business" until mid-July anyway, which is a couple of weeks from now. Time enough for eventual delivery delays, for fresh ideas of places to explore, recipes to try, and for doing a whole lot of nothing much with some of my favorite people.

In the meantime, do check out some of my favorite blogs. I'll be reading them as well in the lull just before bed calls, when the frog orchestra out back begins its nightly cycle of love songs for the sleepless and amphibian.

Y'all come back now, y'hear?

*Not to diminish the pain of those suffering from Phantom Limb Syndrome or any number of other, you know, actual problems.
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