26 May, 2010

Burgundy break.

There's nothing finer than a little rest and relaxation with some good friends. Top down, radio tuned to something Cuban-ish, I've just breezed in from a long weekend due north of Beaune, the endlessly charming little capital of Burgundy wine, smack dab in the pastoral Côte d’Or. In the time we had together, there was a lot of talking going on. Some low-speed swaying in a hammock. Even a moment of badminton, in the thinnest summer blouse hauled out of the back of the closet. But mostly, I was eating (with lunch winding down at 4.30 pm et cetera). There may have been some drinking of wine going on. In my own garden I always putter. Nod if you know what I mean. I can't help myself; there's always something. But in someone else's finely-manicured, sun-soaked garden, well, strain was not the order of the day.We didn't solve all the world's problems, but we did catch up on all the news closer to home. We swapped recipes. And visiting them reminded me of how much there is to do in Burgundy. Yes, there is wine. If you go, definitely treat yourself to the 60 kilometer long Route des Grands Crus, which wanders in and out of about forty of the most renowned wine villages of the fabled region--Puligny-Montrachet, Pommard, Volnay, Meursault, Nuits-Saint-Georges, and so on, from Dijon to Santenay. Beyond the tipple, Dijon and Beaune themselves are well worth visiting (outside of the high season!) And there is the twelfth century Cistercian Abbey de Fontenay, which I still haven't managed to visit though I really do want to see it, and its gardens. There are also heaps of gorgeous chateaux well worth a wander. I didn't do any of that, didn't actually do anything really touristic, although I did manage a visit to the rather sedate city of Gray (pictures to be posted next time, I think). I did have time to think about Burgundy and its exquisite pleasures--both the ephemeral and the ageless ones--as the weather kindly allowed for extensive lingering over glasses. One late night, after cheeses and Burgundy reds, I tried eau-de-vie de gentiane. This? Not for the faint-hearted. The roots of the flowering yellow gentian are laboriously ripped from the earth, cleaned and finely sliced; it takes 16 kilos of roots and rhizomes to make a single liter of eau-de-vie. These plant bits are fermented in oak barrels, and the resulting clear, powerfully scented liquid weighs in at about 55% alcohol, and can easily run to 75 euros per 3/4 liter bottle. Your head spins once you get a decent whiff of the radically earthy, pungent drink, considered a healthful after-dinner digestif. Take the smallest of sips the very first time. Give your head and senses time to adjust. You'll either be wildly for it or against it. No fence-sitting here. I've no photo, because I forgot to take one, but even if I had you'd be no more the wiser, as I drank an artisanal (read: illegally home-distilled) one--high-quality, with no added sugar--but no label either. If only blogs had a scratch and sniff application, then perhaps you'd have an idea. But yellow gentian is also in the French apéritif Suze, so if you've ever tasted that, you've a notion of what I was imbibing. (Yellow gentian's also one of the 56 herbs found in Jägermeister, but comparisons to that 70 proof, heavy metal hangover-in-a-bottle are probably neither alluring nor accurate...I mean, yikes.)

20 May, 2010


I've been going to the same beekeeper, Meger & Galibert, for the better part of a decade now, this even though it's not at all down the road, unlike say, my bee-keeping neighbor. In fact, there are probably a dozen different beekeepers operating closer by, and while I do try other artisanal honeys, I keep coming back to my favorite. My Parisian friends, whom I will be meeting up with in a sleepy Burgundy village over the weekend, asked that I pick up their favorite honey--from my favorite beekeeper. Before leaving the house, I remembered to slip my camera in my basket, so that you can come along for the ride.I remember one of the first times I came calling for some honey. The honey sales are in a barn right next to the house. This tiny, old lady came out of the kitchen pulling on her little sweater after I'd yanked at their bell (this was before they started posting their opening hours). I was appalled, as I suddenly realized it was siesta time, and I had most likely woken her. As we chatted, she mentioned she was feeling a bit tired, so I swiftly apologized for disturbing her, and she laughed at me, waving a dismissive, wrinkled hand: "Now don't you mind, I've been up since 4 am, getting the honey ready for the [outdoor] market. I'll have plenty of time to nap when I'm dead."Honey has been flowing in this family's veins for three generations. From the matriarch on down, everyone takes a tiny amount of royal bee jelly daily, slid under the tongue before breakfast, said to be good for immunity and energy. They're certainly all as spry as can be. The only time I've ever seen M.Meger down is when he talked about the heavy losses in his and fellow beekeepers' bee populations and the on-going global bee crisis.
The back of the truck.
Judging by the number of cups, medals and certificates lining the walls of the shop, I am not alone in my passion for their honey. They offer a dozen different kinds ranging from the palest, creamy AOC lavender of Provence honey and crystallized rosemary honey, to the far darker chestnut honey, metcalfa (or honeydew), and heather and the darkest of all, the pine honey and Corbières. They also sell their own pollen, beeswax, and certified (award-winning), highly potent royal bee jelly.
Scraping off the beeswax seal.
Many people make a real fetish of Provencal lavender honey, and theirs truly is stand-out: a pure, highly aromatic lavender honey. Having said this, I prefer the fuller-tasting rosemary, and their Provencal blend of lavender and wildflowers.
Once this extractor starts spinning, the honey will run down the inside walls.
My own real fetish? The darker the better, whether a blend or a single varietal. Some of the honeys approach molasses in appearance and taste, others have a distinct mineral or herbal overlay. Generally speaking, the darker the honey, the less sweet and more complex the taste.
There it comes out of the extractor...ready to eat!
Being self-respecting French beekeepers un peu tendence (just a bit in step with the trends), they also sell a honey-based, organic line of beauty products, made in Provence. I can vouch for the hand cream, as effective as they come, quickly absorbed by my parched hands without any greasy feeling.
This is a heather and thyme blend.
But you can also make your own beauty products, for a fraction of the price, and not too much trouble. The U.S. Honey Board features some great-sounding "recipes" online for those who'd like to have that spa feeling at home. I'm partial to the recipe for lip balm, "Honey-Kissed", but if someone were to whip up a batch of Lavender-Honey Milk Bath for me, I don't believe I'd say no.

While one of my favorite cooking techniques is braising lamb with honey, I add it to a salad dressing of Roquefort, a touch of homemade mayonnaise, lemon juice, and a drizzle of olive oil. Honey also goes in countless desserts: across baked fruit, or over a puff pastry apple and ginger tart, in ice cream or in dainty orange tea cakes, even in whipped cream. Simplest and perhaps best of all, slathered on a slice of really good bread, with a slash of butter. I always have at least two different types of honey at the ready. Because you never know.
This is what I went home with.
The beekeepers Meger & Galibert can be found at the Ganges outdoor market on Fridays and at the Sommières market on Saturdays. They also ship within France and overseas...(tel: +33(0)4 66 80 12 96, email: rucher.garrigues.gardoises@wanadoo.fr)

17 May, 2010

'Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?'

The sun

Have you ever seen
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon

and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone—
and how it slides again

out of the blackness,
every morning,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower

streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance—
and have you ever felt for anything
such wild love—
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
or have you too
turned from this world—

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?

- Mary Oliver

p.s.: by the roadside, red poppies, known here as coquelicots, after the sound of a rooster's crowing, as it resembles a coxcomb, bobbing and swaying in the high grass.

Eat your flowers.

If I could, I'd plant en entire mountain full of the kinds of flowers and grasses butterflies love. An entire country. As it is, I have a good number of bushes and flowers they enjoy, and they are drawn to them time and again, first as caterpillars (which is why I leave them and the ladybug larvae patches of stinging nettles, all-they-can-eat dandelions and the like) and finally, starting in this season, as butterflies. Many of the butterflies also greatly covet the cherries, but they leave the irises to me and the bees. As for bees, I hope to collect some honey this year, not from the wild bees, but from a couple of colonies my apiarist neighbor has kindly placed in the orchard and the garden. Signs look promising so far, and at least some of that honey will be derived from these irises, a number of which come from Cayeux.Based in the Loiret, highly reputable Cayeux (the -x is silent) has been in business for four generations--over 100 years. In my garden, their irises--any iris--are extremely easy flowers to grow and ever so generous, requiring only a just-in-time sprinkle of organic (iron-based) anti-slug pellets to keep the strappy leaves from becoming uglified lace.
These flowers make visiting so inviting, how can a pollinator insect possibly resist?They look like Frank Gehry's notion of a faerie dance hall.
Even before they open, there are intimations of something spectacular; the only down side to these flowers is that you can't eat them. You can, however, eat primroses, lavender, red poppies, roses, daylilies, marigold, nasturtium, violets, pansies, lilac, elderflowers, borage, and a whole host of flowers from common herbs, like sage, mint, and perhaps most commonly, chive. Only requirement: ensuring the blossoms you choose haven't been exposed to pesticides or other things you wouldn't want in your body. (The now week-old chicks can confirm the edibility of flowers...)
For roses and other larger flowers, remember to remove the bitter white bit at the base of the petal. Don't expect too much taste from flowers, they're mostly there for color and charm. The herbal flowers usually taste a like more delicate version of the herb's leaves, with the exception of chive flowers, which are so powerful whole that they can taste like a raw onion. I learned this the hard way. Each chive blossom needs to be separated into lots of little flowerlets before being sprinkled into an omelet for delicious effect (none of the chives made it past the winter freeze, so I have no photos to share). I add a sprig of lavender to my lemonade, and it makes its way into a host of desserts, like ice cream. Violets and lilac are lovely atop cakes when sugared (and they keep for a good while, too.) Lilacs are another one of the flowers that does have a lot of flavor.
In the photo above, a salad is simply dressed with balsamic vinegar and olive oil in the bowl given to me by my favorite butcher, a Moroccan, when I left Amsterdam. Scattered across the greens is an overly generous amount of blue borage, pale purple sage, red poppy, one purple sweet pea and a bit of yellow zinnia. I would have added primroses from the field, but it was getting late...and it was time to eat.

11 May, 2010

Stormy weather.

Spring in France means smooth-skinned asparagus stalks of sharpest green, but also the more subtle white, and the rose and pale purple too. If I happen to find chopstick thin asparagus, I'll eat them raw with swirl of garlic-laced olive oil and a splash of lemon. I prefer to boil or steam medium-sized asparagus (snapping off the ends at least an inch and peeling first) until crisp-tender, about ten minutes. After biting one to be sure they're done, I'll dunk them in an ice bath to stop the cooking then dry them gently in a clean dishtowel. Finally, the kitchen fireworks. I'll toss them in a creamy cloud of intensely tarragon-inflected wowness--and yes, that's a technical word, used only in cases of outrageous, call-your-best-friend-and-crow deliciousness.
Whipped crème fraîche is what gives this dressing its signature unctuous yet light texture, and regular sour cream just makes for a sorry substitute. Making your own crème fraîche is child's play (and cheap!), as seen in this video demonstration by John Mitzewich.

If you eat your asparagus (or other vegetables) this way I promise spring will be in your heart--even with an ominously dark rainstorm on the evening horizon. (Note: the actual prepared dish--which I ate while staring out the open window--was devoured before I thought to point the camera at my plate instead of the sky. Head in the clouds, you know...)
Sauce a l'estragon (Tarragon & Crème Fraîche Dressing)

Makes enough sauce for four to six servings.

3 tablespoons crème fraîche
1 1/2 tablespoon mayonnaise
1 teaspoon dijon mustard (flavored with tarragon, if possible)
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh tarragon (1/2 tablespoon if you must use dried tarragon)
1-2 teaspoons fresh lime or lemon juice
finely chopped zest of one lime or lemon
salt and freshly ground pepper

In a bowl, whip the crème fraîche lightly with a small whisk or fork. Add remaining ingredients, mixing well. Taste and adjust flavors according to degree of pungency desired. Toss with steamed and cooled asparagus.

You will be missed, dear Lena (1917-2010).

10 May, 2010

Singing in the rain.

My shoulders and pant legs were dark with rain. A rivulet of water ran alongside my nose and puddled in the hollow of my clavicle. We were all soaked, even though we attempted to simultaneously huddle under drippy umbrellas and balance damp sheet music. The pouring rain seemed a small discomfort given what we were gathered to commemorate: the victory of the Allied forces and the capitulation of Nazi Germany on the 8th of May, 1945. The local village choir, made up of some thirty people, including me, takes part every year, singing songs of liberation and remembrance while wreaths are laid by the young at the monument to the war dead. The combatants anciens are present and in full regalia, as are the solemnly speechifying mayor and the smartly dressed members of the local Gendarmerie Nationale (which are roughly speaking a cross between full-time National Guard and military police). They are joined by locals who come to remember relatives lost to the fight and to pay homage to the families of the village who, at significant personal risk, hid Jews from the Germans.
I guess I shouldn't have been surprised by the amount of pain, and sometimes anger, in the music I was singing, but having never experienced war in my own homeland, the strong feelings did unarm me. The steady, bone-chilling rain, the deeply wrinkled and ravined faces of the old fighters, the absolute stillness and attention of the crowd--all made for a somber morning.
This feeling was alleviated by some time spent in the green, green chicken & rabbit run, where I made the discovery of the first chick of spring, a yellow, cheeping puffball tucked under mama's wing (Domino, the proud mother, is in the photo below; baby photos to follow, natch). Two other eggs were cracked, in one you could see the head of the wet chicklet and you could hear cheeping from inside three eggs. In the middle of all the chick excitement, the new boy rabbit bounced around in the high grass determinedly followed by Shadow, the original rabbit, who remains hopeful that the new rabbit is of the female persuasion. Unless Shadow is homosexual...
Ah, me. Life goes on.

07 May, 2010

Dreaming of Phở.

I miss a lot of things about Paris, the revolving art shows, the endless window-shopping of every kind from arcane bookshops to perfumeries to galleries (what the French call lèche-vitrine, or window licking). I miss Ladurée's rococo tea room and I miss the grand boulevards (Haussmann was right, in the end). But lately, I find myself very much missing a restaurant that, from the street, is utterly forgettable but for the queue of people waiting to get in, from 9 am to 11 pm.

Just off the Place d'Italie, you quickly stumble into the Parisian rendition of Chinatown, and here, near a busy thoroughfare, you find Pho Banh Cuon 14. Many believe it serves Paris' best Vietnamese beef noodle soup. The very French actress (Indochine, etc.) Catherine Deneuve proclaimed it a favorite, with good reason. The beef broth is transcendent, as any good pho broth is--complex with star anise, cloves, and ginger, translucid and skimmed of all oil. In the broth, a swarm of white rice noodles and very thin slices of rare beef (or beef meatballs, or tripe...pretty nearly any combination of things you'd want from a cow is possible). Beside the bowl, a plate dangerously heaped with basil and other herbs, mung bean sprouts, lime quarters, a dollop of hoisin sauce. All this and some chili sauce (Sriracha style) go into the piping hot bowl.

Really though, before you dash out the door, book the flight, or hail the cab, you may need to adjust your expectations: zero atmosphere here, the waiters are fast, business-like and smiley friendliness is just not done (Asian no-nonsense in full gear). This might even be considered a bit of a dive in the City of Light. People come for the soup (and the banh cuon, which in France are referred to as raviolis vietnamiens). Yes, there are one or two other things on the menu, but people come to slurp Pho, maybe they even gobble some raviolis, and suck down some Vietnamese iced coffee. They pay, they leave. There's a line of people waiting with hungry eyes, and after sitting cheek to jowl, sometimes even on stools, eh, lingering, what's that?

Phở is for all intents and purposes the national dish of Vietnam. It is ubiquitous from Hanoi in the north, where it originated, to Saigon in the southern delta, where it was refined. The Vietnamese diaspora, with its largest population clustered in the United States, has introduced it there and in Canada with great success. There are far fewer Vietnamese in France, but they number at least 250,000--and many of these immigrants seem to own excellent restaurants in Paris, Lyon, Marseille...there's just nothing authentic remotely close to my home.

Logically enough, I could make this dish at home. I'd have to travel an hour to get the ingredients, but I could do it. If I were to make it, I'd follow the excellent recipe at Wandering Chopsticks. As you can see by her photos and description, this is a dish that takes serious time and patience. These days I'm short on both of those, so I'm left writing about this magnificently filling soup that is as nourishing to the soul as it is to the body.
Go to Pho Banh Cuon 14 if you find yourself in Paris. Do it in my name, then tell me about it. I'll live vicariously through your food adventure. Deal?
Restaurant Pho Banh Cuon 14
129 avenue de Choisy, 13th arrondissement
(Metro: Tolbiac)

Some good online resources for Pho and things Vietnamese and edible:
- Loving Pho is a truly encyclopedic site for all things pho-related.
- A new monthly food blogging event, called Delicious Vietnam, started by Melbourne-based A Food Lover's Journey and Arizona/Southern California's Ravenous Couple.
- Acclaimed author Andrea Nguyen's blog Viet World Kitchen is a trustworthy and comprehensive guide for those who are ready to get their hands dirty at the chopping board.

03 May, 2010

In·sh'al·lah, or divinity in the Provence.

Time keeps slipping by. More friends are on their way and summer is hot on their heels, so I headed to the Provence to preemptively top up the farmhouse inventory with some well-made (yet definitely easy on the wallet) wine. Outside of Avignon, former home to the Popes, there is Chateauneuf du Pape about which I've written earlier. A wine town par excellence (where I lunched at the sunny Mule du Pape across from the fountain in the photo below), it was the former drinks supplier to the aforementioned Popes. Not too far north of Chateauneuf du Pape, there is the village of Violes, one of the named Côtes du Rhône Villages, known for its AOC Plan de Dieu, or Plan of God.
The forty-four hectares of ground known as God's Plan around Violes (apparently linguistically evolved from God's Plain, a moniker first applied in the Middle Ages) only produce red wine. The wine is made with fixed percentages of the following varietals: Grenache 68%, Syrah 19 %, Mourvèdre 5%, Cinsault 5%, and Carignan 3%. The terroir is thick with creamy-white craggy rocks--to an average depth of 13 meters--and has a (fixed) low average return of 35 hectoliters per hectare. A Plan de Dieu has a deep red hue and a subtle nose. No "fruit bomb" by any means, it is easy on the tannin, well-rounded, with a velvety fullness that is nicely nuanced rather than being sun-baked.
I enjoy the wines of Violes' small-scale Domaine de l'Espigouette (as does the vinicultural Guide Hachette, where its name regularly appears and which in 2008 gave it two stars--Robert Parker's a committed fan too, for what it's worth). In fact, a lot of people seem to like the easygoing, well-balanced l'Espigouette wines: upon chatting with the owner Bernard Latour, I discovered both Harrod's and Selfridge's carry his wines in the UK (see the caricature below). Domaine de L'Espigouette wines have been produced by the gregarious Latour and his son over the last thirty years--and before then by Bernard's father. The Latours produce a very drinkable Plan de Dieu, a solid Côtes du Rhône, and a Vacqueyras, which is the most sophisticated (and most expensive by far) of the trio at 9 euros. You can contact M. Latour at espigouette@aol.com if you are interested. But oy. What to serve with an almighty Plan of God? Have you ever tried confit de canard? This is a divinely luscious specialty of Southwest France which has become such a standard it's available vacuum-packed or canned across France--across much of Europe for that matter. To make it yourself, allow duck legs to macerate in dry, heavy salt rub for 24 hours. Rinse off all the salt, pat the legs dry. Cook them over an extremely low flame for two hours, fully submerged in gently melted duck fat with a fistful of thyme and rosemary. Doesn't sound magnificent? If you aren't feeling compelled, it may be because you've never tasted the result: a profoundly flavorful, head-shaking gorgeousness. And the fat's all culled, drained off, discarded. The first time you taste this, I'm fairly certain the planets will realign for you. The main challenge is placing a leg whole on the plate, the meat's that tender. At the local market, confit de canard just waits for me to toss it into my shopping basket for unexpected drop-ins or must-keep-gardening-can't-be-bothered-to-really-cook evenings. It is worth hunting around your area, I promise. In the US, they can be ordered from D'Artagnan for an anything-but-frugal feast. For people looking for close to the same result with much less effort and cost, I trolled the ether and came up with this at Simply Recipes and this at City Cooks. And why not savor this heavenly dish with a side of well-roasted rosemary potatoes and a generous glassful of a southerly Côtes du Rhône Villages--such as Plan de Dieu.
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