27 March, 2011

Oldie but goodie.

Along with spring come the showers.

Today's rain is a break from the end-of-winter pruning I'd left until almost too late, the first, easy weeding, the carrying out of the potted plants that wintered in the little glass greenhouse.  We lolled over a terrace lunch yesterday, time itself gone elastic in the overbright sun.  

This type of weather, where everyone and the dog simply linger, reminds me how I've always liked to make meals that provide a maximum of flavor with a minimum of effort--all the better to enjoy that aforementioned lingering.   With that in mind, I once again made the first properly 'fancy' dessert I ever learned.  Over the years, I've varied and added to the spices in this recipe for novelty, reduced the sweetness, served it in single portions and as one whole tart.  The ingredient list is blissfully short, but it is a dish that can't help but impress.  Fully ripe bananas, a smidge of cold butter, a touch of (preferably not stale) spices and a jaunty marmalade for complexity--all come together for a dish that is significantly greater than the sum of its parts.  Having preheated the stove, I assemble the tart before serving the cheese course. Preparation takes perhaps five minutes. Maximum. The only potential splurge is the ready-made puff pastry, or pâte feuilletée upon which all those ingredients rest (though here a puff pastry crust's just under 2.50 euros, give or take).  Of course you could make your own puff pastry, but in those earlier days I never would have.  Now, I just don't make the time, given the general quality of store-bought puff pastry, the gardening, and the rest of the things life brings.
Tarte fine à la banane (Banana Tart)

1 round of (pre-made) puff pastry, or  pâte feuilletée*
3 fully ripe bananas, sliced diagonally
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 scant teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 scant teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 scant teaspoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon cold butter, cut into bits

3 tablespoons citrus marmalade (lemon/lime, or orange)**

Preheat oven to 200C/400F.
Place the rolled out dough on a baking sheet lined with baking paper (aka parchment). Arrange the banana slices casually on the round, leaving a wide margin for the crust's edge. In a small bowl combine the sugar and spices.  Using your fingers, sprinkle the mixture evenly over the bananas. Dot the bananas evenly with the bits of butter and slide the tart into the preheated oven.  Tart should bake for about 30 minutes, or until the pastry is nicely browned.

While the tart is baking, in a small saucepan melt the marmalade, stirring occasionally, remove any bits of citrus zest. Remove tart from the oven, brush the tops of the banana slices with marmalade, and serve.
* In France,  pâte feuilletée Trésor de Grand Mère HERTA is widely available and reliably good.  Outside of France, try to find a product made with butter if you can.
** If using storebought marmalade: in France, you can find Rose's Lemon & Lime Marmalade, which is nice; in Holland, I used Tiptree/Wilkin & Sons, which I prefer. 

22 March, 2011

Vernal color.

Across the little valley from our house, this hillside doesn't exactly jump up and down and bugle Spring now, does it?  The early morning air's still crisp here, and the evenings no warmer for that enormous perigee moon we got to admire over the weekend. (Did you know we'll have to wait another 20-some years for another one like it?)
And yet, and yet.  That pale yellow in the foreground is actually brand-spanking new.  Closer to hand, the signs are everywhere.  Our Marans hen Blackie ended her dead-of-winter break from egg-laying yesterday with a pointy flourish.
The neighbor's ewes, fatly, exuberantly pregnant, are clearly enjoying the spate of bright and mild weather.  Another week or so and they'll be nuzzling knock-kneed sheeplets.
The goats have just had their babies (you can still see the remnant umbilical cord hanging from the one baby's belly).  My own babies got their turn at feeding; perhaps only in France does a runty goat kid get fed from a wine bottle...
My kids have been only too pleased to throw caution--and their coats--to the wind.  The garden is doing much the same. In the little orchard, one of the apple trees is already a-flutter with a million white blossoms. The lone, untamed forsythia, grape hyacinths, primroses, rosemary, and daffodils are open wide to the bright days and returning birds.  There's even a ground-hugging, pale blue haze in the fields, where the wild oregano and thyme're in full song. And this, here below, is the flowering quince--in bud a couple of weeks ago--now gone mad with color.    
Meanwhile, as clear as a bell tolling and in far more sustained tones, the violets have been signaling an end to winter's worst.  You can see thickly massed clusters of them across the fields and under the skeletal trees.  With two willing children and an open-ended Sunday morning (after the dew's dried and before high noon, to capture the most of their fugitive scent) you can pick and pick these little beauties--and still have more left to admire.  NB: I'm no expert, but I believe these are common wild violets, as opposed to sweet violets, which have a more floral fragrance.
If you can pick three full cups worth of these, you can make a delicately scented flower jelly with the wildest, most jewelly of colors.  Forget any unfortunate experience with violet-flavored food or drink you may have had. Almost without a doubt those were made using over-the-top synthetic violet flavoring.  Food--or kirs--flavored with real essence of violet shouldn't taste like you've eaten Grandma's guest soap.  Real violet tastes of something more primal, green, a something fleeting that somehow manages to linger evocatively on the tongue. 
As of this weekend, I've discovered that over a mascarpone-slathered slice of brioche toast, there's nothing finer than a dollop of this particular jelly. (In this season, anyway. Come summer, my vote's for little wild strawberries...) But whether you have it over a scone, a baguette, or challah bread, deepen the ethereal violet fragrance by drinking a violet-scented tea. I brought back a black tea from the Cha Yuan teashop in Lyon.  It is flavored with violets, roses, orange blossoms, and a touch of caramel, they named it 'Composition of the Sky' and it is Really Very Good.
After you or your children (yay, child labor!) have painstakingly gathered all those de-stemmed blossoms, you'll be a bit disappointed to watch them collapse to less than half their space under the steaming hot water.  Fret not, seal the pot: they give and give as they're steeped. By morning there's a murky, midnight blue water to be strained from the exhausted clump of flowers.
This liquid is blended with pectin and boiled just enough to ensure proper jelling--the flavor is too easily cooked away.  (I'd actually wanted to try this with a no-cook pectin, only I couldn't find any at my little supermarket.)  Likewise, go easy on lemon or citric acid, unless you want lemon jelly with a touch of violet. 

I'll admit, this is slightly finicky work, but you're repaid in spades: in the pan, that murky color magically changes with the addition of lemon/citric acid to something so splendid the sight alone makes it all worthwhile. 

And you, you get to taste the first jelly of spring. 
Gelée de violettes (Violet Jelly)

Makes about 4 small jars.

4 cups untreated, cleaned violet flowers, bitter stems removed
3 cups water
40 g pectin (I used Alsa Vitpris, a dry, no-sugar, pectin/citric acid blend*)
4 cups sugar
coffee filter

Heap violets in a mason jar. Bring 3 cups of water to a boil and pour over the flowers. Close the jar tightly and allow to steep at room temperature overnight or at least 10 hours.

The following day, sterilize four or five (to be safe) smaller glass jars and their lids in boiling water for ten to fifteen minutes in a large pasta pot.   Remove the pots and lids using tongs and allow them to dry upside-down on a fresh paper towel.

Strain infusion using a coffee filter (or a very fine strainer). Resist the impulse to press down on the violets, as this results in a cloudy jelly. In a very large saucepan, combine the violet infusion and pectin until very nearly dissolved.  Bring this mixture to a full boil. Add the 4 cups sugar. Stir and bring once again to a full rolling boil for one minute--not a second under, not too many over.  Undercooking will result in a runny jelly, while overcooking will destroy the delicate flavor of the violets.

Remove pan from heat. Thoroughly skim off the foam. Ladle jelly into the hot, sterile jars. Close lids tightly, turn upside-down and allow to cool fully at room temperature.

* If your pectin contains no citric acid, you'll need to add your own to help the jelly "set": a squeezed half-lemon should do.

14 March, 2011

Finding your way home.

Sometimes four chickens, a rabbit, two goldfish and a Weimaraner named Dakar aren't enough.
Years ago, I made a decision to pack up and move far away from pretty much everyone I knew.  It wasn't that astonishing, in some ways I was just following in the footsteps of my wandering parents.  As a child, I spent a good deal of time moving, back before fax machines--let alone the Internet--even existed, when mobile phones were closer to science fiction than reality.  Seems Neolithic now: I remember letters tooks weeks to reach their destinations, and phone calls (at least from where we were in Africa) were ridiculously expensive.  I think somebody in the family had to die, or a gasoline explosion had to happen--in our own back yard--for us to use the telephone to call back to the US.  So my parents were by necessity (and eventually habit) less connected to family than I can be today.
Mistletoe, found in Burgundy and further north, taking over a tree. 
Bless whoever came up with Skype; what a windfall for us nomadic types! I’m especially glad for my kids, who would otherwise see their American grandparents far too rarely. And while technology goes a long way, it doesn't go quite the distance for young'uns. Luckily, they are able to see their Dutch grandmother more often, usually every couple of months, but still. I can't get enough of that interaction between the old and the young.

It helps so much to have a few good friends, both for me and the kids; here in France, two people have really made a particular difference. Older friends, they have taken on the role of Mamie and Papie to the kids.  They lavish them with attention, and have really become the French grandparents my two didn’t realize they had.  They live in Bourgogne, and treat any time we come to visit as a virtually uninterrupted feast from our arrival to the last frantic waves goodbye.  Mamie’s food is always unpretentious, flavorful and filling.
One of the dishes we adore (especially with a cracking fresh green salad) is this thin version of a Franche-Comté classic, the tarte au Comté.  The tart is made with what is one of the most popular cheeses in France.  As Papie grew up in a cheese shop, he could describe to the kids in great detail the arduously physical process of making Comté.  A wheel of Comté tips the scales at about 40 kilos and is about 50 cm in diameter, and 5 cm high.  It takes about 500 liters of raw milk to make one single wheel of Comté.  The milk can only come from montbéliarde or simmental française cows who have one hectare of fresh mountain pasture per animal.   

Despite all the work involved (or maybe because of), this is a cheese often enjoyed prepared in dishes well beyond the cheese platter.  One of these days, for example, I will definitely get around to making a certain Soufflé au Comté I've bookmarked.  Until then, it's Mamie's tart for us all, big and small. 
Tarte au Comté (Savory Comté Cheese Tart)

Serves 8 as a starter.

pâte brisée crust, rolled out and refrigerated*
3 eggs
2 cups (250 g) Comté cheese, grated
1 cup (25 cl) thick crème fraîche**
1/3 cup (10 cl) milk
freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat oven to 400F/200C.

Fit the crust into a pizza pan: as the filling is on the thin side, you don't need much height on the sides.  Refrigerate until ready for use.

Beat the eggs in a bowl, and add the grated Comté, and crème fraîche. Season with salt and a generous pinch or so of fresh-ground pepper and nutmeg.  Pour the topping onto the crust and bake until lightly browned, about 45 minutes.

* There are a lot of versions of pâte brisée out there, but here's a good  tutorial, and here's another recipe I also like, for a very manageable crust.
** I know, I know, this isn't diet food.  Moderation in everything, people, including portion sizes! If you can't easily find crème fraîche where you live, you can easily make your own.

10 March, 2011

It's pretty much all about the food.

I'm home again, with a (borrowed) camera full of fine, city memories, of the kinds of spaces and things you just don't stumble upon in the countryside.  Sure, we have cheese, just not so many bloomin' kinds, and certainly not a Glendal Porter from Ireland, made using, you guessed it, porter beer, and looking more like a marble imitation of a cheese wedge than the real, flavorsome thing.  (I can confirm, it is seriously tasty, albeit a distinctly different, sweeter kind of Cheddar.)
I've been to Lyon before, actually more than once.  It's one of those places within fairly easy reach of my back 'o' beyond home, and some of my favorite people make Lyon their home.  So when I can get a TGV ticket for less than twenty euros, it's hard to resist.      
As this part of France is in the middle of spring break, the city was full of children, big and small, which both livened up and softened the street life a notch.
The weather was superb, further contributing to general friendliness and ease. Thus, despite my clingy cold virus, I wrapped well, headed out and mingled.
This is the public, neighborhood school my friend's daughter attends.
Here's a detail of the cast iron door, including mail slot.  With such a grand old exterior, you can't help but imagine that wonderful kinds of learning take place inside...
I ranged further afield this visit.  In the Croix-Rousse, a neighborhood up on a plateau overlooking the rest of Lyon, you can find some very large-scale murals, like the one below (more than 1200 square meters) called the mur des canuts, or wall of the silk workers.  In the 19th century, heyday of textiles, the Lyon canuts were clustered in the Croix-Rousse, then a separate village boasting a population of about 40,000 master workers by mid-century.  Lyon was the first industrialized city of France, and the 120,000 plus workers struggled--with eighteen hour workdays--until the canuts finally revolted, which eventually led to ground-breaking changes. 

Their working conditions are a pretty far cry from today's legally imposed 35 workhours per week.
There are a number of museums where I could have learned much more about the history of the textile industry, but my heart wasn't in it.  The sunlight was far too alluring and being outside just felt too good. 
Beyond those old churches, the city parks, the squares, there is all that (absolutely vital!) window-shopping to be done.  The French call that faire du lèche-vitrines; literally, to do some window-licking.
In what is dubbed the gastronomic capital of France, you really do find yourself licking your chops, at the very least: all those delicacies, so artfully placed on display...
I spent some time exploring the 6th arrondissement, and boy do I have an address for you: le 126, rue de Sèze.  Go to Le 126 for lunch or dinner if you possibly can. Yes, that's a firm but friendly order. 

After  working in some of the better kitchens under lauded chefs (le Bec, Gagnaire and the like), Mathieu Rostaing-Tayard went rogue: started a small place of his own, with a kitchen he describes as "big enough to turn around in"--under three square meters--where he turns out seasonal dishes that are high on daring taste pairings and big in both portion and flavor.   
My lentil soup starter had fat slivers of foie gras, crunchy baby shrimp--and raw red onion.  The main course was slow-braised veal on a bed of toasted spelt with both sweet braised and raw shaved fennel, as well as a defining anchovy butter, which gave the comfort dish real zing.  Dessert was a very pink blood orange sorbet over pistachio cakelets and warm, gently honeyed, candied carrot, all judiciously sprinkled with the tiniest bits of orange rind and something else unindentifiable but certifiably delicious.  All this for a bare twenty euros.  Thinking back to those tastes and textures, it's a certain steal.  The wine list looked good and is praised by the august Gault-Millau, among others.  I avoided alcohol, as I was (am!) still under the influence of that damnably persistent cold.
That's the chef there, on the left.  Yes, Mathieu's as fresh as he looks: 27.  I hope my surprise didn't show overmuch when I met him. If you're up to practicing your French and having a giggle, you can watch him online, at 23--eons ago!--transforming the fairly random contents of a generic twenty-something's kitchen cupboard (kid's cocoa cereal, candy bar, pickles...) into a pretty intriguing three course meal.
Smoked salmon in dill on left, roe pouches on right.
The meal I had at le 126 only stoked my already-strong intent to visit the Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse, in the 3rd arrondissement. Going to the Halles could be described as a pilgrimage to a culinary temple...Open from Tuesday to Sunday, this covered market really does have the very best of the best.  Absolutely impossible not to gawk as you wander among the 60-some sellers.  Three Michelin star-wielding Paul Bocuse must be pleased with his haute namesake.
In fact, I was slow to put this piece together because I'd taken far too many pretty pictures of food (finished and unfinished) at the Halles.  And it was so hard to reject all those images of dazzling foods.
For example, at the Halles there's a shop called Ciao Ciao that specializes in Italian delicacies.  Logical enough.  But we're talking the most spectacular selection I have ever seen in France.  Real burata cheeses, one truffled, a half-dozen pecorino sheep cheeses, one having been cured and wrapped in hay, and well, if I go on any more I'll end up posting some of those photos too, and that might be a bit much on the photo front. So.
These cheeses here? Just a minuscule fraction of the choices on display.
Parenthetically, if you find yourself in Lyon anywhere between the first of January and Mardi Gras, you shouldn't forego a taste of fried bugnes.  There are two kinds, the moelleuses (tender) and the craquantes (crispy).  My money's definitely on the craquantes, shown below. 
If you want something special and hands-on, culinarily speaking, consider treating yourself to a cooking class at the Halles with another Michelin-starred chef, Philippe Lechat.
Among other dishes, we made briefly-baked scallops with hazelnut butter caps in a pumpkin emulsion drizzled with taste-making, cold-pressed pistachio oil.  I brought some of that amazing oil home with me; impossible not to.
Dessert was diced, caramelized apple with toasted gingerbread croutons and coconut espuma (foam), topped with a glaze of pan-reduced vinaigre de miel, or honey vinegar.  Complicated, overblown descriptions, maybe.  Simply delicious, definitely.  Of course we ate what we made...During the process, he volunteered cooking tricks of the trade, and taste combinations for across the seasons, using the techniques we'd learned.  All of this was in French, bien sûr.   
I don't know how Lyon would feel as a non-French-speaking visitor to Lyon. I imagine that as anywhere else, knowing the language does go a long way toward enhancing a visit.  But even if French doesn't roll off your tongue, there's certainly enough to see, taste, touch and smell. And beyond the food, Lyon remains a fun, accessible city, with an excellent public transport system that keeps everything human-scale. 
As for having such incredible, rich foods within easy reach and still staying svelte the way French women seem to, well, I have a little theory.
In Old Lyon, so many of the buildings are historical monuments, where lifts can't be installed.  The residents, like my girlfriend, climb flights and flights of ancient stairs, with all their groceries, their babies, their briefcases and their XXL Louis Vuitton satchels.  Every single day of the week, at least twice daily.
It's the built-in, original Stairmastaire.  Have mercy, was I ever footsore at the end of each day.  Happy, but footsore.

01 March, 2011

Why I'm not here.

I place nearly all the blame on Banff.  
(Photo: World Tourism Place)
More than a decade ago, I was here.  And yes, I can confirm, it really is that absurdly beautiful.  My boyfriend, who would eventually become my husband, had been invited, and I got to tag along.  It was winter, which meant skiing.  Did I mind?  Nooo. Could I ski?  Sure, I mean, the basics.  A little. (Not too much chance of that living in Africa, I neglected to add.)  It was just the four of us, and since the Canadians and my boyfriend were experienced skiers, it was tactfully suggested that I take a refresher course to begin with.  And off they went to the black diamonds, whatever those were.

Since I could ski, the basics, a little, the ski instructor evaluating my apparently killer moves on the bunny slope decided to promote me to the class above beginner.  My weakly bleated protests--but I'm happy here!--were cheerfully ignored.  You'll be fine!  So off we non-beginners went, up the mountain, past the bunny slope beginners. And up, still higher, on the swaying chairlift.  I looked down happily at the tops of the pine trees, the glinting snow, the tracks left by the wild animals.  I tried to be in the moment.  Then I tried to remember the poster that showed how to get off the lift.  I asked the person sitting next to me.  Her advice and my will proved lacking: I got off but it was by no means the standard exit, unless you call eating snow standard.  Once standing/sliding on my skis again, I took one look downhill, and my stomach lurched ominously.   Most of my internal organs went off to hide in my new, extra-thick socks. 

The chairlift had dropped us off at a heinously precipitous point, where the well-worn, very narrow trail hugs the mountain until it finally widens out again--and swoops downward.  I only made it through that narrow part by staring very, very hard to my left at the rising mountain, and practicing some hard-core denial.  I can testify fear of heights can appear quite suddenly at any age.   

The group ski instructor had gone ahead, impossibly far down, and we were to join him.  No one was ready for it. Everyone was so polite. After you. No, please, after you! Finally there were three.  And then there was just me. 

I simply could not move forward.  The instructor waved at me.  I waved back, limply.  It was too far to yell, so finally he left to follow the rest of the class, and I was on my own.  I hoisted my legs up to get those mile-long skis pointed in the right direction (the chairlift! home! my bed!).  However, the right direction included passing that steep drop-off.  My entire body locked up with the first glance.  Preternaturally vivid images of me defying the laws of nature, flying out into the air, and returning in a half-circle to hit the mountain-splat! ran in a continuous mental loop.  I finally got moving by taking off the skis, so that I wasn't sliding anymore, and was thus more firmly attached to the ground.  I crept back, whispered to the raised eyebrows of the lift operator that I needed to get down the hill, on his machine, without wearing skis.  He had to stop the chairs for me, and then I got to have my ride of shame, with all the good folks going up the hill on the chairlift rubbernecking at the sunglasses-wearing fool going down the hill on the chairlift. Holding her skis.

When I finally got down to where I was to meet the others, my legs shook. For an hour.  But I had time to recover, and when they finally swooshed toward me in a blaze of flying snow and adrenaline and breathlessly said, How'd it go?  I chirped, Fine! Good!  Once in the privacy of our room, I melted into a quivering, snotty-nosed mess.  Buzz-kill, even if we did have a corner fireplace, little carved moose on the mantel and radiant heating under the slate floors.
(Photo: Discover Holidays CA)
We later had drinks here, at the Fairmount, very posh, and I was all chatty to avoid the more obvious questions.  And really, Banff is full of charm, with some surprisingly top-shelf Japanese restaurants to boot (they get a good number of Japanese tourists). 

I hear the skiing's wonderful.

It hasn't gotten any better for me since then, though not for lack of trying.  [Insert various images of me struggling downhill here].  This is why I'm on my own and packing.  My fearless children and husband are off skiing, and I get to have some me time.
Okay, add a few years on the girl (not that many!), subtract the hotel (I'm apartment-sitting), eliminate the petit café avec le beau gosse (husband might not be impressed), and change the city.

I'm taking the train to Lyon. 
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