23 October, 2010

Westward bound.

 This was my last view of the French coast today.
Despite the pale-shade-of-'68 révolution convulsing significant parts of France, I was able to make it out of the country without incident (if you don't count the oddly aggressive X-ray security person I ran into at Charles de Gaulle airport).
As the sun set over New York, I looked out the window, and the first thing I saw was a baseball diamond.   The French teenagers in the seats behind me were incandescent with a (contagious) glee.  There was the Etats-Unis, indeed.  I mentally agreed with them wholeheartedly when they said the week is going to fly by...The plane banked, turning into the black, and I then saw the enormous full moon, casting its endlessly long shadow across the rumpled, wrinkled dark sea.  It really was magic. 

And I can't wait to get out and walking...

18 October, 2010

Just the headlines and some real pie comfort.

Autumn and I are continuing to get reacquainted.  The bite of cold in the fingers, the ears.  The feel of a friend's frigid cheek, mid-kiss, at the outdoor market.  The critical eyeing of the mushrooms on display and tut-tutting over the cost.  In short, the usual.  Except this is France, and today, here's what we're facing:

Revolutionary woes: French airports face major strike disruption Tuesday
Half of all flights to and from Paris Orly airport and 30 percent of flights at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle and other French airports will be cancelled Tuesday due to strikes, aviation officials said. The civil aviation authority DGAC said it had ordered airlines to reduce their traffic after unions called the day of strikes, with the airport stoppage set to last 24 hours. Tuesday will be the seventh day of nationwide protests in two months against a government reform that will raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.
© 2010 AFP

But that's not all: France activates fuel supply crisis cell
France activated Monday an emergency government crisis cell charged with maintaining fuel supplies amid a strike that has shut down refineries and blocked storage depots, the interior ministry said. Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux decided to "activate from today the inter-ministerial crisis centre in order to assure the continuity of petroleum supplies," a statement said. Petrol distribution bodies UIP and UFIP said separately that pumps were starting to run out, with the UIP estimating that 1,500 out of 4,000 major service stations were affected. Most of France's oil refineries shut down production last week as part of a nationwide movement against plans to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, and protests escalated Monday with truck drivers blocking access to depots.
© 2010 AFP

In practical terms: More than 1,000 French petrol stations run dry
Around 1,500 petrol stations located on the forecourts of French supermarkets had run out of fuel Monday amid strikes against pension reform, their industry association told AFP. Around 4,500 of France's 12,500 filling stations are attached to shopping centres, and they are the country's busiest, supplying 60 percent of the fuel used by French motorists. "Twenty to 25 percent of our distribution capacity is either stopped or in trouble," said Alexandre de Benoist, a senior official with Union of Independent Petroleum Importers, which represents the sector. He said that some regions, in particular Brittany and western France, were in a "very worrying" situation because fuel distribution stations were either on strike or blockaded by strikers from other sites. "There are at least 1,500 stations that have run out of at least one fuel product or are totally dry," he added.
© 2010 AFP

If you can't get enough of the hullabaloo, there's this: French truckers block roads as anti-reform protests escalate, and oh, yes, this: Go-slow protests hit French roads.  This all means far too many schools are on strike, as well as post offices, oh, the list of government-related strikers goes on.  As of today, here in the Gard, people are suddenly limited to 20 euros of gas at a time, thanks to those charming strikers. Living here, you learn to go with the flow, only my challenge is this: I am supposed to fly (on strike-prone Air France, boo hiss!) to New York City (oh yes!) this particular week, when all things transportation-related are a bit, well, hairy.  Wish me luck.  I have a few days yet.  This may all calm down by, say, Friday. 
Hmm. Much closer to the home front, my neighbors have finished their grape harvest some time ago.  The unmarked trail from kitchen door to forest is lightly carpeted with leaves. We've gathered the walnuts from under the big tree (well, what the squirrels left behind anyway).  It's an opportune time for some fine autumn comfort, using some of those walnuts in an easy-as-pie riff of a Bon Appétit recipe (October 2001).   This comfort comes dense, whole nuts bound only by cream and honey, contained within a gorgeous shortbread crust.  There's no complicated palaver with eggs. It's just the kind of thing you need to throw together and eat as the days grow colder.  It's maybe even just the ticket for a paralyzing national strike.
Tarte aux fruits secs et miel (Honeyed Autumn Nut Tart)
For the crust:
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, cut into smallish pieces
1 142 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
 OR 1 refrigerated, prepared pâte sablée/pâte brisée crust

For the filling:
3/4 cup whipping cream

1/2 cup (packed) brown sugar
1/2 cup darkest possible honey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon rum
1/2 teaspoon blend of ground cloves and cardamom
2 1/2 cups coarsely chopped toasted nuts (can be a blend of cashews, walnuts, pinenuts or really, any other nuts)
1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 180C (350F).  Pulse butter, flour, brown sugar, and salt in a food processor until small lumps form. Press onto bottoms and up sides of small (about 9 inches) tart pan. If using a ready-made crust, transfer the crust to a tart pan, fold in any overhang to form double-thick sides, and place in freezer while preparing filling. 
Whisk cream, honey, sugar, vanilla, rum and spices in heavy, large saucepan. Add nuts. Simmer over medium heat until mixture is bubbling and darkens slightly, stirring until sugar dissolves, about 3 minutes. Spread filling evenly in crust. Spinkle salt evenly over tart. Bake until filling is deep golden brown (watch closely for signs of burned nuts, so much less yummy) and crust is golden, about 25 minutes. Cool completely before serving. Can be baked in advance. Cover and store at room temperature.

11 October, 2010

Any given saturday.

There are no morning cartoons on Saturdays here.
They exist in France, bien sûr, but not at our house, because for that you'd need a television.  So, after the early morning daddy/daughter/dog walk, the young ones go with their father to the bakery, some five minutes away in the village.  After that, the paper, a croissant and coffee for daddy at the cafe.  The kids get green tea or chocolat chaud. I get to sleep in a bit longer.
Only now, in mushroom time, I don't. Instead, the five year old buccaneer stays home with me, because he loves to 'hunt for treasure'. Penknife, camera and basket in hand, he and I step out into the field and forest sparkling with dew, heavy with the scent of the blooming oregano, to seek out our treasure, like the perfectly purple fungus below.  (I think it's a lactaire amethyste, or amethyst deceiver.)
Since it's just the two of us 'experts' we harvest only the local basics I'm comfortable with, like rosé des prés (in English they're just a plain-Jane-but-tasty field mushrooms), chanterelles/girolles, trompettes de la mortcèpes--and if we're crazy lucky--l'oronge
The unknown mushrooms in these photos were admired, and left alone.  They are really only the pretext, anyway. 
We are as much there for the dappled sunlight, the discovery of any number of potential, seductively mossy picnic spots, and any particularly well-formed dead branches (to use as swords, obviously).  
Sometimes we find a clutch of chanterelles, other times a wild boar mudbath, with the tree trunks all around it covered in mud up to my eyeballs.  That's when I start Talking Really Loudly.  (Did I ever tell you my neighbor shot a boar that weighed 120 kilos?  You should have seen the tusks.)
Other times it's the flowers we stop to admire. The little one's at the ideal height to best enjoy all these things. He orders me, repeatedly, to take pictures of  'all the beauty'. So I do. Sometimes I'm laughing too much (goodbye, blurred shot of tiny, electric green acorns).
We look for the spiders who made such airy, deadly traps in the broom.  No luck.
No matter: this past hunt, we had luck enough to fill the saucepan.  After leaving my co-conspirator with his father, I spent my usual two hours singing in the choir (we're now rehearsing Yugoslavian drinking songs and Mozart's ecco quel fiero istante). Boy, was I ready for lunch, and the mushrooms were soon ready after a thorough brushing.
Threw in some golden tomatoes I put up a while ago, a smidge of salt and white ground pepper...
...some spaghetti al dente and we were good to go.  Bon ap', as the young'uns say.
With the 600-odd new books just in at the library, after lunch I put in some extra time there organizing.  I came across this gem, which I had to share with you.
Here's a peak inside.  Inside a pimped van, early 70s, opium den style.  How about that?  Tell me you have one, just like it.
In between raindrops, the colors are up in the village as well, if less Dance of the Seven Veils-ish. 
On the way home, the ripening fruit of an olive tree mingles with a yellow firethorn. 
Note to the dearest little pirate: I'm doing my best to take pictures of all the beauty.

03 October, 2010

The emperor's choice.

Some days, there is just no sun to be seen. Autumn is advancing on cat's paws. The pyracantha/firethorn seems pleased, heavy with its burden of color and fruit (fit only for birds). The young liquidambar (sweetgum) I planted was the first to don red, a pop of verve in the wan day. And so yes, we all know there are elements of beauty present in every season, but these are perhaps a bit more valued just now for their fleeting nature. Also now, with varying degrees of subtlety and regularity, we're all off to the forests, to tease forth semi-hidden mycological treasure. Beauty of another breed. You can tell foraging is going on by the number of hastily abandoned cars alongside country roads here. I'm the rawest of novices at this business, but I go too, armed--with a basket, a penknife--and a person in the know.  Who could tell you, for instance, that the mushrooms below are definitely delicious black trumpets.
Mushroom hunting verges on the French cult activity of fall, even for the resolutely citified. If you do find someone willing to show you some of their favorite places, they are indeed fond of you; no one is exactly advertising the mushroom-laden spots...Luckily for newbies like myself, each and every pharmacist in France is trained to identify all the good, bad and the in-between of the mushroom world. So if you're even slightly uncertain, you simply head to any pharmacy for a (free) consult.Beyond the extraordinary truffle, in a league of its own, I've always reserved my biggest passion for cèpes, also known as porcini, and am far from the only person to feel this way in France. So I was rather surprised to find there's a rarer, fairer beauty held in even higher esteem in mushroom-mad France: the amanita caesarea. This mushroom isn't to be found in North America, though some call lookalike relatives such as Amanita hemibapha and Amanita jacksonii American Ceasar's Mushrooms. In France, the original amanite des césars, or l'oronge, maintains a near-mythic status, in part due to its relative rarity, in part its delectable taste. As implied by its name, the Roman emperors held it in the same esteem. Absent in the north of France, it tends to be found in the backcountry of the Mediterranean... where I live. And oh, is it ever a sight to see, emerging slightly, palely orange, out of a layer of beige forest detritus, not unlike a sunrise. Or maybe you manage to see an immature one: the white of the "egg", gleaming white in the undergrowth. If you cut open the egg, you see the yet "unborn" perfectly formed mushroom, waiting to burst out (this is why the Italians call it ovoli). Its exquisite, delicate flavor is so prized that, while recipes abound, aficionados recommend simply eating it raw with a bit of salt and olive oil. If it must be made into something, they recommend it sliced, raw, into salad. I'll admit I'm tempted by a briefly baked stuffed version, however. The amanita family is generally quite toxic (read: forager beware!). This particular amanita does distinguish itself from its hot-headed and deadly cousins: while the inside is white, the gills and trunk are outwardly clearly yellow. I don't think any of my images do its true beauty justice, and of course I forget to bring the camera while foraging...The finest image I have seen in situ is actually on Wikipedia.
Mushroom hunting is a win-win kind of activity: you may find no mushrooms, but you've still spent an hour or two foraging in a sweet-smelling forest--it doesn't get much more primal.

It seems the madness for mushrooms is catching. (Why did it take me so long to get on the fungus foraging bandwagon? Fear. Not trusting my own capacity to learn how to pick out the good from the dangerous. Those scary anecdotes of people who died, or nearly died, because they just had to eat this or that particular mushroom...Caution is good, but it is best when calibrated. Because there really is nothing quite like savoring something utterly wild, and wild-tasting, that you tracked down, all by yourself. Plus, in the case of mushrooms, there's no blood involved.)

For those of you who do dare, here's a German recipe for amanite des césars/keiserling from the 16th century (with thanks to Anahita):

Nim{b} Keiserling/ welche Schwäem{m} man gemeiniglich füer die aller besten helt/
wasch sie auss/ pfeffers vnd saltzs/
leg sie auff ein Rosst/ brat vnd begeuss sie mit Butter/
vnd gib es warm auff ein Tisch/
besträew es mit Pfeffer vnd mit Saltz/
so seind sie gut vnd wolgeschmack.

Take Keiserling/ which Mushrooms one generally holds [keeps] best of all/
wash them off/ pepper and salt [them]/
lay them on a Grill/ roast and baste them with Butter/
and give [i.e. serve] them warm on a Plate/
strew them with Pepper and with Salt/
thus are they good and well-tasting.
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