Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Summer is a moo-veable feast

As a child, I read the novel Heidi, about a little orphan girl who looked after the goats in the Swiss Alps with Peter, the goatherd, and Grandfather.  I also saw the movie, where Shirley Temple and her ringlets epitomized Switzerland for me until I discovered that’s where my ancestors came from... although I have absolutely not the slightest soupçon of a ringlet.
     All this to say that goats/sheep/cows in an Alpine pasture was just literature to me, a scene seen on the silver screen.
     And then I came to France.  The middle of it, to be more precise.

Transhumance is a word I learned in French.  It means taking one’s livestock back and forth between summer pastures in the hills and winter barns in valleys.  I didn’t think the word existed in English, which shows you how knowledgeable I wasn't about All Things Livestock-y.  So I looked it up and found this: “Transhumance is the seasonal movement of people with their livestock between fixed summer and winter pastures. In montane regions (vertical transhumance) it implies movement between higher pastures in summer and lower valleys in winter. Herders have a permanent home, typically in valleys. Only the herds travel, with the people necessary to tend them.”
An old photo of a shepherd on his stilts
     It was a concept I later saw with my own eyes.  But even before I’d experienced transhumance in action, I’d encountered it in the sub-titling phase of my translator/interpreter career.  Subtitles for the film-for-television version of a book called Jean de Chalosse, the life story of a fictional but archetypal shepherd, one of many.  Chalosse is a region of Gascony where one of the local mainstays is, or rather was, sheep.  In the winter, they were left to graze on the plains south of Bordeaux, and in the spring they set off for the Pyrenees, where they stayed until the autumn chill drove them back to the plains.  The shepherds cut a striking figure on their stilts (with a third equally long stick used as a walking stick and to form a tripod to rest on).  From that perch, they could see out over the sheep to the horizon, and easily keep up with their flock as it moved across the land.  All this was a part of France’s geography and history that I hadn’t known, and it fascinated me.
Salers cattle, with their recognizable color and horns
     Later I was to actually see the bovine version of this transhumance.  A friend took me on a trip to his native Auvergne, in the Massif Central, which is just exactly what it says:  a massive block of mountains in the center of France.  It was summer and we drove across mile upon mile upon kilometer of highland plains spotted with auburn Salers cattle... and not a person in sight.  Population is sparse up there, and it was almost like seeing the animals as they might have been before there were people to milk them.
Improvised herding of straying cattle
     When I returned to Auvergne on my own some time after that, it just happened to be in October, when the cattle are brought down from those highland pastures.  They’re herded along deserted roads and through small towns.  Tourists take photos; on-lookers help keep any strays on the straight-and-narrow by shouting and swinging their sweaters.  It’s quite a sight.
     All this reminded me of something I saw in Switzerland when I was very young, just after my father had traced the family back to the Bern region.  He drove us in a rented car over mile upon mile of backroads, to get a feeling for our roots.  In front of almost every dairy farm was a tall square - and open! - enclosure full of... well full of bullshit.  And cowshit as well.  All very fragrant, but rather perplexing to us asepticized Americans.  “Why don’t they put that in the back of the house where you can't see it?” my mother asked, not being Swiss at all.  We eventually found out that a pile of manure was a mark of wealth.  The bigger the pile, the more cattle you have, so the richer you are.  Some people buy Rolex Oyster watches, some amass cow patties.
     Now, years later, it’s spring again.  The noontime news is featuring a whole week of footage on cows being readied for their annual trek up the mountainside.  Today’s are in the Aubrac part of Auvergne, and the images show them being decked out in colorful flowers and wreaths and melodious bells for their trip through their native town, with the priest coming out to bless them as they pass his church.  It’s part of a fading past, but one that is still alive and well in certain regions:  the Massif Central, the Alps and even the Pyrenees.  Anywhere in France where there are pastures high up, filled with buttercups and tall grass swaying in the wind.  The cows won’t be back until October 13th, when people will hear their bells echoing down the road and run out to watch them pass one more time.

P.S.  Here's a short video about this phenomenon.  It's in French, but the pictures do the talking.  I love the way they have to go find them in a Jeep because they're just running around loose.  And that the calves are left to drink their mother's milk and not stuck in some fattening stalls.  The farmers brought up salt licks and check that the snow that fell overnight didn't create any problems.

Saturday, May 25, 2013


A bit of history.  Or mythology.  Depending on your beliefs.
     After the crucifixion of Christ, some of his disciples were banished..  Among them were Mary Salome and Mary Jacobe.  (And yes, I know they’re not seen technically as disciples, but they should be.)  They were put in a boat in Palestine, towed out into the Mediterranean, and cut loose, without sails or oars to steer by.
     Luckily for them, the currents and winds - and the Holy Spirit, if you’re a believer - carried them to a peninsula sticking out from the Camargue marshes of the Rhône River delta on France’s Mediterranean coast.   That was circa 48 A.D.
     Some people add Mary Magdalene to the passenger list, and she is said to have died in France, but she moved on after landing so I’m sticking with the story of the Two Marys, not three.  Besides, there are only two of them on the town’s coat of arms.
     Neither Mary is the important part of this story though.  That role falls to Sara, the Black Virgin.
     One version of the tale has Sara being the servant of of all three Marys and says she arrived on the ship with them.  Another says she was an Egyptian queen or abbess and was already there when the boat landed.  Both Marys and Sara are said to have remained in the region, and died there, which is why the town became called Saintes-Maries-de-la-Barque (St. Marys of the Boat) and much later Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (St. Marys of the Sea).
     Whichever version - if either - is true, Roma gypsy tradition says that the Gypsies were led out of Eastern Europe toward the ocean by a dark-skinned woman they identify as being Sara.  And so every year since the early 1800s, they have traveled from all over Europe to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer on May 24th to venerate her, their patron saint... and the other Marys as well.  (The feast of the Two Marys on the 25th has been going on since the Middle Ages.)
     On the 24th, Sara’s statue is draped in multiple mantles and taken out of the crypt of the fortress-like 12th c church where it swelters all year long amid votive candles.  The gypsies carry her through the streets, down to the Mediterranean and into the water.  The next day it’s the turn of the Marys and the boat that carried them to the French coast.
     Throughout the two days there is much clapping of hands and singing to guitars and violins, flashy flamenco dancing, drinking, eating and general merry-making until the early hours, or even beyond.  It all ends in a farewell ceremony and the gypsies disappear down the road, leaving the town to sleep until next year, safe among its pink flamingos, white horses and black bulls.

The town has known other events not saint-related.
- During the winter of 859-860, the coldest of the entire 9th century, Vikings camped here before resuming their marauding up the Rhône Valley as far north as Valence.  (Even way back then, southern France attracted Scandinavians like a magnet.)
Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries,
Vincent van Gogh
- In September of 869, it was the turn of the Sarrasins to raid the marshes of Camargue, taking the visiting bishop of Arles prisoner.  In return for the ransom handed over on the beach of Saint-Maries-de-la-Mer, they returned... his body. 
- In June of 1888, Vincent Van Gogh spent five days in the town.  His series of watercolors and drawings included seascapes, the village and the local fishing boats.

Note:  You can see Saint Sara’s procession in the film by Tony Gatlif, Latcho Drom (1993). 
Or you can watch a slide show here:

Confession: Although I’ve been to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, it wasn’t during the procession.  So these photos are not mine.  Maybe some day, but not this year.
The photo of the procession is by G. Vlassis.  The others, I don’t know.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

It's the Cheese, Gromit!

Back in my American childhood, cheese was either Swiss or Parmesan.  Occasionally Cheddar, an American one... and not a particularly sharp one at that.  Those were about all my largely Germanesque ancestors had passed down in their cheese genes.  (There was no such thing as “string cheese” back then, and I’m still not sure why there is now, other than to encourage calcium-needy children to eat cheese by turning it into a plaything.)
     So when I moved to France almost fresh out of college, a huge learning experience was awaiting me.
Roqueforts in back, goat cheeses in front
     Of course I had progressed over my misspent youth to include Blue cheese in my dairy diet... or even Bleu (as some producers called it if they wanted to charge more).  But when I tasted my first real roquefort, it was an eye-opener!  Creamy, slightly tangier and certainly more salty than any blue-veined cheese I’d ever had before.
     The tale behind “How Roquefort Came To Be” involves some random shepherd leaving his feckless ewe’s milk cheese behind in a cave in southwest France while he ran off after a lovely maiden.  Months later he passed by that way again, took refuge in that same cave and discovered his forgotten cheese had become veined with blue.  (At this point, a doctor might tell you that was nature’s version of penicillin:  penicillium roqueforti.)  Being hungry, he overcame his instinct for preservation, tasted it, and... voilà!  Whether true or not, that’s the story they've told in the region since the 11th century.  Maybe even before, but just not in writing.

Now that cheese has somewhat come into its own in certain American culinary circles, I’m being asked what goes into a Proper Cheese Board.  (It’s assumed I should know, after all these years in France.)
Left to right:  two roqueforts, bleu des Causse,
bleu d'Auvergne, forme d'Ambert
     Well, you always have to have One Blue.  And in France alone, there are several blue cheeses other than roquefort to choose from.  (Fifteen, if you trust Wikipedia.)  One is fourme d’Ambert, which is round, drier and from the central Auvergne mountains, but made from cow’s milk.   There are also many different ones called bleu, all of different hues and veined with more or less penicillin.  The most well-known are bleu d’Auvergne and bleu des Causses, both of which are less creamy than roquefort, which remains the only blue cheese made from ewe’s milk.
Morbier, from Franche-Comté
with ash in the middle
     How many other cheeses do you need for a Proper Cheese Board?  Opinions vary.  The minimum is three, and that’s usually all you’d be expected to ask to taste in a restaurant if you’re polite.  But as there are four general types of cheese - aged, soft, firm and blue - another correct answer could be four, one of each.
     So I decided to put it to a vote when I went to get my hair cut today.  I asked the hairdresser - and the three ladies waiting to be made beautiful.  All four women were in agreement:  five cheeses to a cheese board.  A blue cheese was a must, and a goat’s cheese.  Then a pâte molle, a pâte pressé.... and then any other one you like.
Camembert King Charles VII
     Pâte molle means “soft center” (like chocolates) and indicates that the cheese has not be cooked.  Usually these are the Stinky Cheeses:  brie, camembert, munster, pont l’évêque, livarot, reblochon, maroilles... but also some goat cheeses.   Pâte pressée means the cheese has been pressed to remove the whey (cantal, saint-nectaire, port-salut, valençay, morbier...), and then some with a pâte pressée are heat-treated in addition (emmenthal, comté, gruyère...).

So much for creating the cheese board.  Now for eating it.  The trick is to enjoy them from the mildest to the strongest, so that none is overpowered by its pongier relative.  And that’s where things get dicey.  Best to just learn as you go, or get some discerning Frenchman to steer you in the right direction.  It takes a long time, this learning process, but it’s a delicious one.

A few other details:
Basque cheese with piment d'espelette
     - Basques make mostly pressed cheeses, all with totally unpronounceable names:  askorria, ossau-iraty, idiazabal...  They’re often ewe’s cheese and mild tasting.  Good for beginners.  The Basques often serve them with a black cherry preserve, or with a powdering of the spicy paprika of the region, piment d’espelette.
     - If you’ve put your cheeses in the refrigerator, always, always get them out at least half an hour in advance.  For instance, when you start your meal.  Otherwise their flavor won’t come shining through.
     - You can serve a side salad at the same time as the cheese tray, provided it’s only a salad of lettuce and not a mixed salad.  And provided the salad dressing is just a vinaigrette.  The idea is to cleanse the palate a bit.
St. Nectaire, from Auvergne
     - You don’t have to scrape the crust off.  It’s all edible, although the crust is usually stronger in flavor than the rest of the cheese and eating it just may separate the men from the boys for the pongier varieties.  A true Frenchman rarely, if ever, removes the crust.  (Sometimes I’ll cut off the hard, dry corners though, especially if the cheese has been in my fridge for a few days.)
     - On the serving board, set out a different knife for each cheese, as mixing tastes is a strict Gallic no-no, at least while using the communal knives.  If the French authorities find out you’ve let a goat cheese intermingle with a brie or a roquefort, they may revoke your visa.
Clockwise from top:  forme d'Ambert, basque au piment d'espelette,
chèvre aux herbes, chèvre châtaigne, trou du cru, brie, emmenthal

Now that you know all this, I’d like to suggest you just go out and have fun with it.  I won’t report you to the Cheese Police.  I promise.  Besides, General de Gaulle himself lamented, “How can you rule a country with 258 different cheeses?”

Statue of De Gaulle outside the Grand Palais

P.S.  DeGaulle was well below the actual number of cheeses that exist.  If you think you know your cheese and want to test your knowledge, or just learn more, here’s an internet game for you:

Note: “Pongy” is an adjective I learned from my British friends, and I like the way it sounds.  It means “something that smells particularly pungent”, which pretty much covers some of the... er... riper cheeses I’ve met.
Even in this small shop of products from Auvergne,
there are a dozen or so cheeses of the region to choose from.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Saturday Morning in Montmartre

The favelas of Montmartre
It's 10 o'clock and I'm expected at Café Le Sancerre on the rue des Abbesses.  In bubble wrap is a print of a photo I took of Montmartre from the top of the Arc de Triomphe in 2010.  It's for the previous owners of my local charcuterie (deli).  After 12 years of loyal service, they've just sold and they're moving away.  This is my going-away present, my tribute to all those succulent roast chickens that have welcomed me back every time I've landed in this, my other home.
     "Oh, thank you so much.  It will be a nice remembrance for us, wherever we go," says Nathalie, with the typical two-cheeked kiss.
     Then, over a cup of something, come stories about their customers, including someone they only call Mémé, or Granny "We delivered lunch to her each day.  She could no longer come to the shop.  Now she is 93 and in a retirement home in the far suburbs.  We always send her a postcard when we travel."  And they never fail to remember her birthday.
Chickens roasting in front of my charcuterie
     Their daughter was only 2 when they set up shop on the rue des Abbesses.  I've seen her grow into a young lady, sometimes manning the cash register like her mom.  The new owners of the deli seem like nice people, although they appear to be counting more on tourist trade than the regulars - which, in my humble opinion, is a mistake.  Cold meats and salads are fine once in a while, but this is France and people want a warm meal at lunchtime.  So I suggest that they suggest the new owners should offer more than an either/or choice of hot dishes.
     "Can we have your address?", asks Nathalie.  I write it down, wondering whether I, too, will get a postcard.  More probably a photo of where they hang my photo in their new place.
     Now past the handshake stage thanks to my gift, we do the two-kiss au revoir and I walk away, sad that I won't see their smiling faces on my regular grocery run any more, or eat Christian's most excellent sausages.  ("Je fais l'andouille depuis 14 ans," he admitted to me once, a play on words that means "I've been making andouille sausage since I was 14", but "faire l'andouille" also means clowning around, and Christian Durand always has a notable twinkle in his eye.)
Just part of a mind-boggling selection
     Down the street is the wine shop.  This early in the day, it's deserted.
     "Bonjour, Madame Sandy.  Back already from Amérique?"
     And Manu guides me through the selection of a dozen bottles for my depleted wine cellar.  They'll be delivered this afternoon, for an additional 3€.  I've known this shop since it was opened (see Caves des Abbesses, Feb 22, 2013) and they've never steered me wrong.
     The sun is shining and the sky is blue.  So it's off to restock the garden.
     "Bonjour, Madame.  You are back?  Your garden is not happy, after this terrible winter we have been subjected to?"
     And the lovely Asian lady, who remembers I have a tree that casts a great shadow, suggests plants that might do well in my garden.  I leave with two potted herbs - basil and thyme - and a fuchsia to replace the one the "terrible winter" has killed, along with a campanula plus a bouquet of peonies to remind me of the ones I'll miss enjoying in my garden back in the States.
     Balancing all that, I head back up the hill and stop in at the mini-market.  I'll never be able to carry any more, so I stock up on things to reach the 60€ limit for deliveries.  The mini-cart is full but...
     "That will be 58.77, s'il vous plaît."  But they'll deliver anyway.  I take the two ingredients for my lunch, rearrange the pots of flowers and start off again uphill in the bright sunlight.  In a side street, I meet the man who delivers the groceries, coming in the opposite direction.
     "Bonjour, Madame.  You have groceries for me?" he inquires.  And I tell him I'll be in all afternoon, planting the flowers.  He looks them over and declares that "they will do nicely".
     The easiest climb back to the house is by the Southwest Slope, and it takes me past the news seller.
     "Bonjour, Madame Sandy.  You have come for your crossword?"  They know I always buy the International Herald Tribune on the week-end, as much for the Times Sunday Puzzle as for the news.  "How is the weather in your north country?" they ask.  "You have once again brought to us the sun back" they add, pointing up at the sky.  "And for this, we thank you."  It has become the legend that when Sandy arrives, the sun comes back from wherever it has been hiding.  So once again, my reputation is safe.
     "Yes," I reply, "but now it is up to you to keep it."
     When I open the gate to my garden, I see that the box of wine is already waiting on my doorstep.  In spite of my speed, the wine shop has been faster than I managed to be.
     I set the flowers in the garden for planting after lunch and put water on to boil for the Luncheon Pasta.  A bit of music while I'm cooking, I think.  Something perky, to go with the sunshine.  Maybe even something Brazilian (although I may be overdoing it there).  I look through my "discothèque".

     Suddenly the delivery man knocks at the door with my groceries.  I give him a tip and he's off, with a "Merci, Madame.  Au revoir."
     "You've forgotten your bag!" I call after him.
     "No, it is for you," he says over his shoulder.
     And a very fine bag it is:  bright colors and a sturdy fabric with woven fabric handles.  Ecofrance is stamped on the bottom, and it really is made in France, not in China.  I fold it up until my next trip to the flower shop. Or back to their grocery.  And it didn't cost me a centime.  Just a smile, I guess.

As I write this, the blue sky has gone and a light rain is falling on the newly-planted flowers.  With a sweater on, it's just warm enough to leave the door open and enjoy hearing the raindrops on the leaves of my guardian tree.  Life is good.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Another re-entry

Winter has been long.  On both sides of the Atlantic.
     In spite of Yarburg's famous lyrics - "April in Paris / chestnuts in blossom" - the chestnut trees in the French capital are just blossoming now, in mid-May, which is very late.  Today, somewhere in the south of France, where water is generally at a premium, two weeks worth of rain will fall in a 24-hour period.  Up north, the rivers are just easing back between their banks and the Zouave's feet are drying out on the Paris bridge he adorns (see Le Zouave du Pont d'Alma, Feb. 8, 2013).
     My garden has been devastated more than any other year in the seven years I've lived here.  One ceramic pot even burst in the freezing cold, my neighbor told me.  She has kindly planted seed in the garden and the window boxes, so nasturtiums are starting to pop out all over, but there's still lots of work to do.  The parsley and bay leaf made it through the cold, wet months, the forsythia too.  And last year's gift of lily-of-the-valley which I planted has actually come up.  In France, lily-of-the-valley (muguette) is a symbol of happiness, and I'm hoping it will ring in a whole new year without indoor water leaks or other expensive repairs.

Coming back to France is always a culinary delight.  The green grocer, with whom I've become quite friendly (thereby ensuring the special grapes or ripest melon), always has something delicious to cook up... or just eat raw.
     My visit today not only got me a warm welcome and a "Glad to see you back", but a 25% discount on the morels and a free head of lettuce.  That's in addition to what I bought.
     I couldn't help but be tempted by the gariguette strawberries, an early-blooming variety from southwest France.  Smaller than the regular sort fancied by my American visitors, pointy instead of round, they're far sweeter, and with a taste that I remember from my youth Stateside.  Today's American strawberries are huge but full of water, but these wonderful treasures have kept their strawberriness.  No sugar or cream needed, although some like them that way. Just a swish under the tap to clean off any dirt left from the berry patch and - pop - in the mouth.  (Only buy what you're going to eat that day and the next because they're fragile creatures.)
     I also gave in to the minuscule potatoes from Noirmoutier Island, called Bonnottes.  Said to have gone extinct, they were revived somehow (DNA?) by a local grower's association working with INRA, the French Agronomic Research Institute.  These tomatoes, also very tasty, are on the small side, so you see how tiny the potatoes are in comparison.  Some of them would fit in a thimble!  They're picked extra early, which is something my great-aunt in Pennsylvania used to do in her own vegetable garden.  I'd never tasted potatoes like hers anywhere else... until I tasted these.  Another fountain of youth, back to the days when things seemed somehow to have more flavor.  You just wash them off - maybe scrub them with a nailbrush to remove the dirt they grew in, because they're not pre-washed in bleach water here in France - and then cook them in butter and parsley... and maybe a hint of garlic, but then again, that might cover the taste.
     As for the tomatoes, just cut them up, sprinkle some basil over the top and a drizzle of excellent olive oil, salt and freshly ground pepper and you're in business.
     The last of the winter endive was still available so I bought some.  (To keep the small but free head of radicchio company.)  Just a few staples - onion, mushrooms, garlic - and I'm all set in the fruit-and-vegetable area.
     Now on to the cheese shop.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Recipe of the Month: Asperges au parmesan et morilles

French food snobs are always surprised when something gastronomical also exists in America.  When I tell them that morels - morilles - pop up all over Michigan, they don’t believe me at first.  They think I must be confusing them with something else, some other kind of mushroom, and I’m clearly mistaken.  Once I’ve described them as looking like mushrooms topped with wavy black hair piled high and tasting like paradise, they begrudgingly admit that it just might be possible that the Americans have morilles also.  The next question is always, “But what do you do with them?”
     Mushrooms are something quintessentially French.  Mushroom hunting on a week-end is a traditional family outing.  Even city dwellers head off to the forest to hunt them.  They have special baskets to put them in, and a special brush to clean them with.  But first the mushrooms must be taken to the pharmacie.
     Why to the pharmacist?  Because part of a pharmacist’s training is to know all the mushrooms, to be able to recognize which ones are poisonous and which aren’t.  In rural towns, the shop windows of pharmacies all display a colored photo of various types of mushrooms:  cèpes, girolles/chanterelles and trompettes de la mort which, contrary to their name of “trumpets of death”, are not deadly... although there is a very similar-looking one that is.  Which is why it’s good to have a pharmacist on hand.  That isn’t hard.  There’s at least one in every French town.  And it’s impossible to stand at any corner in Paris, look down all the streets and not spot a neon cross flashing green, the emblem over each and every pharmacie in France.

Asparagus was also a learning curve for me when I got to France.  It was the first time I’d ever seen white asparagus.  Since then, it’s made itself known in America as well, which is only fair because, in return, our green asparagus has become quite the rage in France.  And of course there’s the ultra-thin wild kind that looks somewhat like green wheat.
     This recipe - asparagus with parmesan and morels - is made with the normal kind of green asparagus, which is just now appearing fresh at green grocers all over.  A sure sign of spring.  I stole it from French Chef Frédéric Simonin.  It’s not time-consuming and will make your tastebuds blossom like the flowers in the garden, now that winter is finally over... we hope!

  • green asparagus (5 or 6 per person)
  • small morels (as many as your budget can afford)
  • 2 T butter
  • 2 shallots, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 c veal stock
  • 2 T heavy cream
  • parmesan, preferably shaved, otherwise grated
  • salt & fresh-ground pepper

- Trim the asparagus, removing any side leaves and tough bottoms.  Cook them for 4 minutes in boiling salted water.  Then plunge them into ice water to stop the cooking.  When they’ve cooled, shave back the very bottom inch to let the lighter color inside show.
- While the asparagus is boiling, wash the morels and dry them on some paper towels.  Cut off any hard ends, but as little as possible.
- Sauté some thinly sliced shallots in butter.  Add the morels and heat them through.  Add the veal stock (or chicken if you have none) and some freshly ground pepper.  Reduce by half, stirring from time to time (about 5 min).  Add the heavy cream and blend it in.
- While the sauce is reducing, sauté the asparagus in a butter/olive oil mix, just until it begins to color.
- Dress each plate by fanning out the asparagus, or even in a star formation, trimmed ends meeting.  Sprinkle the shaved parmesan over them.  Place some morels on top and between the asparagus spears.  Pour a bit of the veal/cream sauce on the asparagus tips and serve immediately.

Preparation time:  5 min
Cooking time:  15 min max

Serve with a white wine from the Jura or Alsace region.

NOTE:  I don’t put extra salt on the asparagus once it’s cooked because I find the stock and the parmesan add enough saltiness as it is.