Saturday, December 27, 2014

Recipe of the Month: Gratin d'endive

Here in Paris it’s usually not as cold as in many parts of the U.S.  This has always amazed me, because on the map Paris is at the same latitude as Labrador, Canada. And yet the temperature rarely drops below freezing for long and snow is rare, thanks to the Gulf Stream which crosses the Atlantic and flows into the English Channel. That makes the climate milder.  On my first trip across the Channel to England, I was amazed to see the grass was still green at Christmas!
       Nevertheless, it rains a lot and the sun hides most of the winter.  That can chill you to the bone.  So winter often means “comfort food”, at least in the north of France.
       And yet... with all the excesses of the holiday season, and anxious to lose those added pounds you picked up (more the ladies than the gentlemen, but still...), I’ve chosen a winter dish that is low in calories as well as being inexpensive.  What more could you ask for, post-Santa?

P.S.  On a culinary note, although the word "endive" exists in both French and English, the French endive used in this recipe is generally called Belgian endive in English.  (Have I lost you yet?)  It's a member of the chicory family.  In fact, in the U.K. it is commonly called chicory when you find it on the markets.  The Dutch appropriately call it witloof  (or witlof), which means white leaf, perhaps as they don't want to be caught up in the attribution of a nationality to it.  After all, French fries are actually Belgian, so...

  • 8 endives
  • 1/4 of a stick of butter
  • 3 T of flour
  • ½ t salt
  • pinch of nutmeg
  • pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 1 to 1 1/4 c milk
  • 1/4 c grated parmesan
  • 6 to 8 thin slices of prosciutto or other dry-cured ham
  • 2 T of shavings of Emmenthal or Comté cheese 
  • 1½ t freshly ground pepper

- Preheat the oven to 375°F.
 - Wash the endives.  The white base of the endive is what makes it bitter, so you want to cut off just that part.  Take too much off and the endive will fall apart.
 - Melt the butter over low heat so that it doesn’t color.  As soon as it starts to bubble, take the pan off the burner and whisk in the flour, salt, nutmeg and Cayenne pepper.  Stir until it thickens.
 - Put the saucepan back on the burner and slowly pour in the milk, whisking constantly.  (Whole milk preferably, or else 2%, but NOT skimmed, as it could make the taste too “thin”.)  Turn the burner way down and continue to stir until there are no lumps.  Let simmer for 15 minutes, stirring regularly.  It’s done when it’s thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
 - Add in the parmesan and continue to simmer for 2 or 3 minutes until the cheese melts into the mixture.  Give it one last stir to make sure the cheese is evenly distributed, then take it off the burner.
 - Butter the bottom and sides of an attractive deep baking dish big enough to hold all eight endives in one layer.  (An attractive one so it can go directly onto the table.)  Arrange the endives in the dish and drape the ham over them.  (Another way is to wrap each endive in a slice of ham, provided the slices are large enough or the endives skinny enough.)  Pour the sauce over the top and add a few little dabs of butter on top.  Then sprinkle the cheese shavings evenly over the whole thing.
 - Put the dish into the oven for 25-30 minutes until the top becomes lightly browned.  Check that the endives are tender by sticking them with a knife.
 - Grind some fresh pepper over the top and serve in its dish while it’s piping hot.

If you want to enjoy a glass of wine with this, try a crisp white wine, such as a côtes du jura or a riesling.

Obviously this dish will be much more delicious if you work from scratch, grating the nutmeg and parmesan yourself and using the more expensive types of ham.  But you can also make it with packaged sliced cooked ham and pre-grated Parmesan if you’re strapped for time and short on cash. It’s still a very tasty all-in-one meal that children just may like if you tell them it’s basically cheese and ham.  With the endive being white, they may not even notice it's a vegetable.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Out & About - Events - The Bar at Buena Vista

It’s October 1962.  John Fitzgerald Kennedy is President and I’m a junior in high school.  The Cuban missile crisis is rampant and we are all glued to our TV sets until the moment when the Russian cruiser with the nuclear missiles destined for Cuba does a U-turn and heads home.  The Brink of Destruction has been avoided.
     Now it’s December 2014.  Barack Hussein Obama is President and I’m an aging expatriate in Paris, where I’ve, by now, spent half my life.  And the Palais des Congrès is featuring The Bar at Buena Vista, starring some of the survivors of Cuban music shipwrecked by Castro’s Revolution in 1959.
     These are not the musicians from the Buena Vista Social Club album and film, but Toby Gough, the Scotsman who leads this troupe and acts as narrator, has banded together 17 of their talented compatriots to carry proudly the flag of Cuban music.  As Toby explains, it’s all built around the Cuban barman from the actual BVSC who introduced him to these legends.
     First out is The Black Prince, Capullo, aged 77.  Then, resplendent in red, comes Luis Chacon Mendive, aka Aspirina because his voice cures all ills, even at age 88.  After that a piano medley by maestro Guillermo Rubalcaba Gonzales, 84.  He starts with Guantanamera, followed by La Vie en Rose - it’s a French crowd after all - then on to El Cumanchero with a burning bongo solo, and finishing with Hernando’s Hideaway.  A little something for everyone.
Ignacio Mazacote Carrillo
     There’s also the dancer Eric Turro Martinez, called the Cyclone because of his ability to spin like a top all around the stage and around his partners, and who somehow manages to dance with three women at once.   Ignacio Mazacote Carrillo continues to sing with a strong voice at 82, his hips still swaying in spite of a cane that he tosses away in his last number.  Oldest at 92, but still with an unwavering voice, is Reynaldo Creagh.  And last, but not least, honneur aux dames:  Cuban diva Siomara Avilla Valdes, whose age is somewhere in the 70s.  In the middle of her song she dances with a young man from the front row who holds his own and they end up with some Dirty Dancing, Cuba-style.
     Following on rumba, mambo, cha-cha and son comes a tribute to Afro-jazz - and especially to Chano and Dizzy - as the amazing Elpidio Chapotin Delgado on trumpet breaks into a hot Cuban version of My Funny Valentine that would make Gillespie himself nod and smile.
     After an hour and a half followed by almost another full hour after the intermission, the audience is on their feet and dancing, me included. Ending with the classic Chan-Chan as an encore - and before their second show in only a few hours -  these octagenarians and nonagerians could teach the youngsters a thing or two.   It’s sad that they had to spend decades shining shoes, washing dishes, rolling cigars or working at the dry cleaners.  But it’s wonderful that their voices are still strong and they’re spending the last years of their lives traveling first class and bowing to a standing ovation.

If you want more information on the show, or to see a video-amalgam of the acts, click on

Monday, December 1, 2014

Recipe of the Month: Mousse au chocolat

Joyeux Noël!
      Christmas in France is a family affair, and the big meal is served Christmas Eve, after Midnight Mass.  Or it used to be.  Nowadays it’s often served, as in America, on Christmas Day after the presents are opened.  The traditional dessert is a bûche, for which there are many different recipes, all of which are complicated to make.
     Christmas also means marrons glacés (candied chestnuts), each one individually wrapped in shiny gold foil.  But above all, it means chocolates.
     Some of my favorite memories are of hours spent watching pastry chef Bernard Bertheau make them himself in the basement of his shop in Montmartre. It was cramped by modern standards, and a lot of the equipment dated back to his start in the trade sometime shortly after World War II.  But it was brightly lit and spotlessly clean... and toasty warm.  I would pick my way down the narrow, winding stairs and hear him moan “Oh non, l’Américaine!”... with a big smile on his face.  Monsieur Bertheau loved to tease and he adored anyone who shared his passion for pastry and chocolates.
     I never failed to be amazed by the speed and sureness of his movements, and by how he always knew when the melted chocolate was too cold to work.  He’d pop the large stainless steel bowl back in his huge pastry oven for just a few seconds, pull it out, stir vigorously, drop in almonds or candied orange peel, then take them out one at a time, stuck on his fork (making that trademark three lines on the chocolate coating) and leave them to cool on the marble work surface.  He was proud of his handiwork, and I think he enjoyed “catching” me pop one into my mouth.  I’ve never tasted chocolate so good!
     One day Monsieur Bertheau retired and sold the shop.  I inherited some of his vintage chocolate molds, but so far I haven’t screwed up my courage to try them.  His act is just too hard to follow.  I’ve visited him and his wife in their home in their native Loire region.  Since the shop closed seventeen years ago, he hasn’t made a pastry or a chocolate.  But then I guess he made enough of them in his fifty-year career to last a lifetime.
     Still, I wish he would.
     And invite me.

There are as many recipes for mousse au chocolat as there are cooks.  Light and fluffy with milk chocolate, heavy and creamy with dark chocolate... With or without liqueur. And everyone likes their own best.
   This is Monsieur Bertheau’s version, which is easy and fast to make.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

  • 200 g (7 oz) of baking chocolate, broken into pieces
  • 30 g (1/4 stick or 2 T) of butter, cut into small pieces
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 1/4 c of liqueur such as cognac or Grand Marnier (optional)
  • 50 g (1 3/4 oz or 1/5 c) sugar

-  Select a 2-quart stainless steel bowl and a saucepan large enough so that the bowl fits snugly on top.  Pour boiling water into the saucepan and set the bowl on top of it.  Keep the water at a simmer.
- Add the chocolate and butter to the bowl.  Continue stirring until well blended, then remove the bowl from the pan.
- Add the sugar to the egg yolks and mix with a wooden spoon until they are frothy.
- Mix the egg yolk/sugar mixture (and optional liqueur) into the chocolate, and stir until thoroughly blended.
- Place the bowl briefly in the refrigerator until the mixture is slightly cooler than lukewarm.  If it becomes too chilled, it will harden, so don’t let it get too cold.
- Beat the egg whites until they are stiff.
- Fold the whites into the chocolate mixture until it’s all the same chocolate-ness in color.  Do not beat or stir them or the egg whites will “fall”.
- Spoon the mousse into 4 ramekins.  You can decorate it with a sprinkling of chocolate shavings, almond slices, cinnamon, mint sprig, or anything else your imagination whispers in your ear.
- Chill briefly until ready to serve.

P.S.  This is a good recipe for lactose intolerant people, as there is neither milk nor cream, only butter, which could, I suppose, be replaced by a non-dairy substitute, although I think Monsieur Bertheau would be chagrined.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Out & About: Le pari de l'impressionnisme

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?  That’s one of the questions we had to discuss in college - Philosophy 101. 
     Likewise, if an artist paints and no one is around to admire his (or her) artwork, is it still beautiful?  Or on a more basic level, how will the artist eat?
Paul Durand-Ruel,
by Renoir (1910)
     In art, the gallery owner is a vital link. And for Impressionism, that gallery owner was Paul Durand-Ruel.  He was born into the art world, taking over the family business in Paris.  But during the Franco-Prussian War he had to flee to London, where he met up with a group of French painters who were also in exile. They included Daubigny, Monet and Pissarro.  Which is why his first Impressionist show was held in London in 1872 ... and he never looked back after that.
     Although he returned to Paris once it was again safe, his genius for promoting the school of art he loved so much was to perceive that its success would lie across the Atlantic among American art lovers, who not only admired the artworks but bought them.  It also saved him from bankruptcy.  He opened a gallery in New York, which his two sons ran alternately in six-month stints.  Many of today’s Impressionist collections in the major American museums passed through the hands of Durand-Ruel.

As the Musée du Luxembourg is a tight fit, I let the week-end go by before sallying out.  Unfortunately, I forget some people are taking a long week-end.  (Tuesday is Nov. 11, the end of World War I.  Big deal here in Europe.)  “Usually,” the ticket seller tells me, “Monday is calm, but...” Then he waves his arm at the milling crowd.
     The first room is always the most crowded.  People are anxious to see it all.  Moving slowly, listening to their audioguide.  What’s more, the first room also has the smaller documents, so there’s more to peruse.  With the lighting low, documents are hard to read, so I skim over that part.  There’s enough to see on the walls.  First off is Renoir, and his portraits of the Durand-Ruel family:  the elderly Paul on the left as you enter, the young sons along the other wall.  The most interesting thing for me in this first room were the doors to the Durand-Ruels’ living room... painted by Monet. In each of the panels is a floral motif:  vases with tall flowers in the long top panels, branches of lemons and oranges on the lesser bottom panels, and close-ups of flowers on the small horizontal ones in the middle.
The Sheep Fold, Millet
     The following room gives an idea of the pre-Impressionist art world.  Delacroix, Corot, a piece with pumpkins by Courbet that’s just right for this Hallowe’en-Thanksgiving season, Millet’s The Sheep Fold that sold for more than any other painting of its time... Works by all of these artists were revealed to the public by Paul Durand-Ruel.  But when his path crossed that of the Impressionists, the art dealer’s had an epiphany.
     Impressionism was to become his specialty, as demonstrated in the rest of the museum, a series of interlocking rooms just chock-a-block with masterpieces.  There are a few portraits by Manet and also a historic painting of a sea battle off Cherbourg where a Yankee ship sinks a gun-running Confederate ship; all part of the blockade but happening far from American shores.  I find Manet the most classical of the Impressionists and he’s not one of my favorites.
Mlle Lala, Degas
     Degas, on the other hand is and there are a few by him - horse racing scenes and ballet of course, the artist’s two favorite subjects... plus a surprising Mademoiselle Lala au cirque Fernando, much larger than his other works.  The lighting on Mlle. Lala hanging from a rope by her teeth is amazingly luminescent, as befits a circus.
     There’s a waterscape by Boudin, the father of Impressionism and mentor to the young Monet.  Sisley is here - landscapes with his ever-present water leitmotiv. Cézanne as well, easing us out of Impressionism and into something new, his Le Moulin sur la Couleuvre vers Pontoise looking almost Cubist.
Femme à sa toilette, Morisot
     The ladies are also represented.  There are two paintings by Berthe Morisot:  a landscape from Washington’s National Gallery of Art and, from the Art Institute of Chicago, the diaphanous Femme à sa toilette, all mirrors, soft fabrics and gentle light.  (The lady may be getting ready to go out, but somehow I feel she’s just come home after a long night at the Opéra, something about the tired pose of her hand getting ready to let down her hair.)  There are even two canvases by the American Mary Cassatt:  a portrait of Durand-Ruel’s daughter from a private collection and The Child’s Bath, again from the Art Institute of Chicago, an intimate moment between mother and child, so sharply detailed it looks like an etching in color.
     But Pissarro - Durand-Ruet’s first Impressionist purchase - and Renoir and Monet were clearly his favorites and are most represented here.  I admit I’m not a big fan of Renoir; I find his women are far too pink.  But seeing three of his dancing couples side by side by side is quite striking. They’re placed just before the exit, on a wall all to themselves, for maximum effect.  All three were painted the same year: 1883.  Two come from the Musée d’Orsay but the third - Danse à Bougival - is on loan from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.  In it, Suzanne Valadon dances with a bearded gentleman in a straw hat.  It’s also Suzanne Valadon who posed for Danse à la campagne, but the bearded man here is much darker and more elegantly dressed.  Valadon lived right around the corner from my atelier-apartment in Montmartre, so I enjoy discovering the face of her youth.  She would have been only 18 in these paintings, and already an artist in her own right, but not yet the mother of Maurice Utrillo.
Eglise de Varengeville, Monet
     The Monets were the most interesting. Renoir pretty much always remained Renoir, a type-casting of the artist world.  But Monet morphed, especially in his Varengeville works.  In Eglise de Varengeville his style looks a bit like Van Gogh, the cliffs rendered in thick, slashing strokes, the clouds fluffy blurs.  Yet nearby his Pointe de douaniers, Varengeville is somewhat pointilliste.  Two entirely different styles.  As with Renoir’s dancers, the museum has juxtaposed three poplar canvases by Monet, one from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the second from London’s Tate Gallery and the last from Philadelphia’s Museum of Art.  It’s wonderful to see them reunited here.
Vue de Saint-Mammès, Sisley
     If I had to pick a favorite of the 80 canvases, it would have to be Sisley’s Vue de Saint-Mammès, on loan from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art.  All the different lighting effects - in the sky, in the water - the houses and their reflections so strikingly rendered - the opposition in texture between the reeds and the water they grow out of... It’s just perfection.
     In order to pull off a show of this kind, there must have been a lot of correspondence flitting back and forth between the leading museums of the world:  London, Berlin, Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, not to mention the private collections.  I wonder how many years this was in the making!

As I said, the Musée du Luxembourg museum is small and can be very crowded, although they try to limit the number of visitors inside at any one time.  So it’s better to go on an “off-day” rather than the week-end.  And perhaps book an entrance time beforehand, on-line.  But this is an exhibit not to be missed if you are a lover of Impressionism.
     And if you feel you’ve been especially good and patient, you might want to reward yourself with a pastry at the shop just outside the entrance.  It’s the annex of the famous Angelina’s on the rue de Rivoli across from the Tuileries Garden.

Paul Durand-Ruel:
Le pari de l'impressionisme

Musée du Luxembourg
19 r de Vaugirard; 6è
Métro Luxembourg or Rennes

Oct 9, 2014 - Feb 8, 2015
10-7 T-Th / 9-8 Sat & Sun / 10-10 M & F

12 & 7.50 €

For a video of the show (in French), click on La galerie France 5 -

Saturday, November 8, 2014

On the Road: Fin de Siècle Museum, Brussels

Paris has the Musée d’Orsay.  Now Brussels has the Musée Fin de Siècle.
     With my train arriving from Leuven hours before my lunch with a friend, I had time to spare.  And uphill from the Central Station lies a whole complex of museums, the Royal Museums of the Fine Arts of Belgium.  As part of the “redeployment” of their collections, they had the excellent idea of creating a museum for René Magritte in June of 2009. Then only a year and a half ago they created a “turn of the century” museum.  And it covers the artistic period dear to my heart:  the Impressionist years.
     Whether this decision was to attract some of the funds that flow from the swarms of art lovers who flood the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, or whether it was just the brainchild of the curator, it was brilliant.  I decided to give it a peek... and surfaced (literally) well over two hours later.

You enter at ground level, “ground” being at the top of the hill overlooking the old sector of Brussels.  And it’s all downhill from there.  Again, literally.

     After you buy your ticket, you pass through a majestic hall, which reminded me of the Detroit Institute of Arts hall, minus Diego Rivera’s frescos.   On one side stands a marble statue of a very shapely naked man with a sword.  Across from him, a painting of a class full of young girls in white frocks and bonnets who, at that time, had probably never even seen their father with his shirt off.  It’s an interesting juxtaposition.
     Then you go down a level, where you’re obligated to leave your goodies in a locker.  Ladies, be warned that even my oversized purse was persona non grata, although I saw no artwork in the museum actually small enough to fit in it, should I have decided to try to steal it.  They do allow cameras though, and the taking of photos (without flash) which isn’t the case for all museums any more especially those with well-stocked museum shops.
     After that you go down another level, and that’s where the art trip through time begins.

Generally speaking, the art is displayed in chronological order.  The lower the floor, the deeper into Impressionism you are.  On the first level down is an oil-on-wood masterpiece by Henri Leys called Churchgoers.  His sketch of a nattily-dressed couple headed off to church on a Sunday morning is rich in color, in spite of being incomplete.  It marks the start of the transition into Realism by this Romantically-trained Belgian artist.
Ixelles, Rainy Morning
     The next painting that caught my fancy was a jump back slightly in time, to John Constable and his Sky Study:  Brighton Beach.  Here were the very beginnings of what would become Impressionism by the time Guillaume Vogels painted his oil canvas of Ixelles, Rainy Morning just a few feet farther down the wall.  The “impression” of rain and gloom made you want to turn your collar up and open your umbrella.

Trees beside the Lys - Emile Claus
     And then the clouds part and the blue skies come out and I was walking along the banks of the Lys River with Emile Claus almost at the turn of the century.  In Trees Beside the Lys, the rosy sun - whether at dawn or dusk - lights up row upon row of tall trees, the whole picture reflected in water the same color as the sky.  It was all quite misty and ethereal.

     Two more paintings stood out for me, both colorful but in totally different palettes and in different styles.  The first was Edouard Vuillard’s Two Schoolchildren.  They seem to be hiding behind some trees, looking at the elegant ladies passing by as we look at them from outside the frame.  One seems to be pointing and whispering something to the other.  I wished I could have heard him.  The second painting was very busy where Vuillard’s had been almost secretive.  Full of bursts of bright orange and long Algerian robes, slashed by sharp shadows, Henri Evenepoel captured the heat of Algeria in his Orange Market at Blida.  You could almost feel the dust and smell the citrus in the air, and see hints of what
would come later with Fauvism, long after Evenepoel died at only 27.

     At the very lowest level (-8!), there were the most recent paintings in the collection. One was a group of strange faces by Emile Fabry.  Most of the women are staring at something one of them is holding; it looks like colorful flowers.  Others are staring straight out of the painting, at us, the viewers.  All of them show no emotion at all, which I found strange in view of the title - The Offering - but perhaps that’s normal for Symbolism.  Another Symbolist painting nearby was of a different style:  something like a cross between Gauguin for the background scene and Puvis de Chavannes (of Paris Panthéon fresco fame) for the hallucinatory Virgin with Child in the foreground.  It was painted by Gustave van die Woestyne and is called Sunday Afternoon for some reason - although that might explain the Virgin - and the farmers are not working but just admiring their pigs.  In spite of the flatness of the image, perspective is indicated by the size of objects and by the spacing of the lines of the hedge and also the fence.  It was quite fascinating.
   That final level also has a collection of furniture and house decorations that would make a fan of Art Nouveau swoon.  A fireplace facade by Jean-Désiré Müller, a desk by Joseph Boverle... and the fantastic Gillion Crowet Collection with bronzes by Mucha, silverware by Follot, glass by Gallé and much more.  It just goes on and on.  A feast for the eyes.  And provides a three-dimensional break from the two dimensions of all those photographs and paintings.

In talking with one of the guards at the end of my visit, I learned that there is yet another level to this museum, but one not open to the public.  On that final level he said there was a grating under which you could see and hear a river flowing below.  In other words, you - and the museum - have traveled down through the entire hill, to its base and the underground stream that probably empties into the city's only river, the Zenne (unless it's already part of it), or into the Charlevoix Canal.
     Given how many levels there are, you’ll be happy to know that there’s an elevator you can take back up to the exit-and-shop level at the end of your visit... and it even has seats in it.  It appears there’s also a café and a brasserie, but I didn’t see either.  Of course I’d spent far more time than I’d planned admiring the art collection and I was running late so I really didn’t look very hard.  They’re probably near the gift shop.
     This museum has a lot to offer, so plan enough time to enjoy it fully. It’s roomy and quiet.  And the lighting is remarkable, which is a good thing because the darkness in these bowels of the earth could make the atmosphere feel almost claustrophobic at times.  You would be doing yourself a great service to visit the Brussels sister of the Orsay Museum in Paris.  Belgian artists often seem to be the poor cousins in the art world. So even if you think you know all about Impressionism, you’ll find artists here you perhaps didn’t know.

Musée de Fin de Siècle

3 Rue de la Régence
1000 Brussels
Ph: +32 (0)2 508 32 11


Open Tuesday - Sunday 10 - 5

The Offering - Emile Fabry

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Recipe of the month: Soupe de potiron auvergnate

Once again it’s the Season of the Pumpkin:  Hallowe’en and Thanksgiving.
     In America, “pumpkin...” is almost always followed by “...pie”.  But in France it’s not so much a sweet as a savory, used mainly for soups, and more recently in purée form as a side dish for roasted meats (as are carrots, turnips and celeriac).  The ones you want to use for baking or cooking are smaller and sweeter than jack-o’lantern pumpkins, and are called pie pumpkins, or sugar pumpkins, or sugar pie pumpkins.
     This recipe comes from Auvergne, a region in the Massif Central where volcanos - now extinct - once towered above the primal waters that covered most of the Earth.  It is a handsome land in the summer, covered with vegetation made lush by the ancient lava flows, a land where russet cows graze freely.  But in winter, with temperatures often the lowest in all of France, it becomes a hard place to scratch out a living, yet still strikingly beautiful with its robust houses of dark basalt walls and lauze stone roofs standing out against the snow.  It is traditionally a poor region, where people survived on lentils, cabbage, chestnuts and pumpkin.  Chef Roland Durand grew up on a farm in the Auvergne, one of seven children, and learned to cook with his mother.  Which may be why he loves these simple country recipes, the recettes de terroir.
     So here’s his seasonal soup for that pumpkin you didn’t use for a jack-o’lantern.  It’s more a meal than a soup, thanks to its bread and melted cheese, the Auvergne version of the internationally-known French onion soup.  Perfect for chilly evenings, it’s guaranteed to be filling.  And served in its shell, it’s sure to be a conversation stopper.
Poilane-type bread

  • 1 pie pumpkin, about the size of a basketball
  • 4-6 slices of Cantal cheese
  • 4-6 slices of Poilane bread 
  • 2/3 to 1 qt of milk, cream or half-and-half
  • freshly ground pepper

- Preheat the oven to 375°F.
- Cut off the top of the pumpkin, saving the cap to use as a lid.  Scrape out the seeds and coarse fibers.
- Place the pumpkin in a rimmed baking dish and fill the inside with alternating layers of cheese and  bread.  Pour the milk/cream over the bread and cheese, filling the pumpkin to the top.  Add freshly ground pepper to taste.  (Cantal cheese is naturally very salty.)  Replace the cap on the pumpkin.
- Bake for 60 minutes.
- Serve by cutting the “bread/cheese melt” into sections and pouring the liquid over it.

Feeds four.
Accompany with a hearty red, such as a cahors.

This is an easy recipe to make in France.  In the United States, you can replace the Cantal cheese with a very mild Cheddar.  The Poilane bread can be replaced with any sturdy whole-wheat bread, provided it’s dry enough; or else you can leave the bread out overnight so it dries a bit.  And yes, this is a perfect recycling dish for bread that’s going stale (but not moldy!).

The town of Salers, in Auvergne - basalt walls and lauze roofs

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Recipe of the month: Lapin à la moutarde

All right.  I know I’m going to lose a lot of you here, but bear with me.  This month’s recipe is lapin à la moutarde, otherwise known as rabbit with mustard.
     To most Americans, the idea of eating a bunny, a poor little Peter Rabbit, or a Thumper, is just too much to bear.  My father was a hunter, so I grew up eating rabbit, pheasant and even squirrel (which does indeed have a nutty taste).  Wild rabbit, on the other hand, has a fines herbes taste, especially in France where the wild lapin de garenne of Provence thrives on the thyme and rosemary growing wild everywhere.  Unless you get your rabbit from a hunter, though, the rabbit you’ll find at the market is the farm-grown variety and far less “gamey”.  It tastes a bit like chicken.  (Well, turkey actually.)
     You may also be relieved to know that it’s a lean meat.  Low in fat and cholesterol, high in protein, raised without hormones, usually containing no stimulants, additives or preservatives.  And it’s easily digested, which is why the American Heart Foundation and the American Medical Association recommend it for people on special diets.  Have I got your attention now?
     One of the ingredients for this dish, crème fraîche, is something sold everywhere in France but seldom found on the shelves of American supermarkets, although you can usually find it in specialty stores.  Sour cream is too sour and may curdle when cooked.  Heavy cream is too thin.  And neither gives the same result.  One solution is to heat (not boil) one cup of heavy cream and then mix it with 1 teaspoon of buttermilk and let it stand at room temperature until the mixture thickens (6 hours or more, depending on the room temperature).   Don’t worry about it going bad; this is how yoghurt is made.   But once it thickens, you have to refrigerate it and then you can keep for up to a week.  Hint:  the rest of the buttermilk can be used for a wonderfully rich chocolate cake.  Second hint:  if you did find crème fraîche and didn’t use all of it, you’ll be happy to know that crème fraîche, unlike sour cream, can be beaten into whipped cream.
     So if you’ve gotten over your aversion cooking up one of those cute little critters, give this a try.  It’s a hearty meal for those increasingly nippy autumn days.

Rosemary growing wild in the garrigue of southern France

  • a 3-lb rabbit, cut in pieces
  • 3 T butter
  • 1 T peanut oil
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 3 minced shallots
  • 2 branches of fresh rosemary
  • 4 T Dijon mustard
  • 2 T crème fraîche 
  • 2 egg yolks
  • juice of ½ lemon

- Brown the rabbit pieces evenly in the oil and butter over fairly high heat.  (You can play around with the proportion of oil and butter to suit your tastes and diet, but using some butter will give a better flavor and the oil keeps the butter from going brown.)
- Lower the heat and add the rosemary, shallots, salt and pepper.  Simmer covered for about 30 minutes or until the meat is tender, adding a bit of liquid chicken stock or cognac if it goes dry before it’s cooked.
- Remove the rosemary.  Blend the Dijon mustard with the crème fraîche, egg yolks and lemon juice.  Mix well and pour over the rabbit.
- Simmer over very low heat for about 10 minutes, or until the sauce thickens slightly.

Serves 4.
Accompany with rice or boiled potatoes to make the most of the sauce.

You can see it’s an easy recipe:  only 5-10 minutes of preparation for 40 minutes cooking.  You can make it even easier by eliminating the egg yolk and lemon juice, but I think it has more layers of flavor this way.  Or you could make it more rustic by using a bit of moutarde à l’ancienne (with the mustard seed in it):  3 T Dijon to 1 T ancienne.  And don’t worry about it being too strong because cooking the mustard removes a lot of the “bite”.

Recommended wine:  a red burgundy (Savigny-les-Beaune) or a dry chablis if you prefer a white wine

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Saga of the Seagulls

After two different ferries from Weymouth to Saint Malo via the islands of Guernsey and Jersey, a trip requiring the greater part of daylight, I arrive back in France just in time to miss the last train out... to anywhere.  So I’m booked into the hotel right across from the station, poised for an early train in the morning to get back to Paris.
     Having had a dinner of fish ‘n’ chips with mushy peas on the last ferry, I’m ripe for a shower and then bed.  The hot water feels good but I can’t help but wonder what all the seagull noise is about.  I mean, we’re on the ocean, okay, I got that.  But this is industrial strength gull-ness.  They seem to be circling the hotel.
     I lie down in bed to watch something on TV when all of the sudden I see a shadow run past on the terrace just outside my open French door (pun not intended).  As I’m four flights up - and naked (remember the shower?) - that seems both incredible and unsettling.  So I slip into something comfortable and go look outside.
     Except for a gull perched on the roof one flight up, keeping an eye on me.  So I go back inside and lie back down on the bed.
     After about five minutes, I catch a glimpse of something scurrying by again on the terrace.  I rush over just in time to see a little ball of grey feathers scurry back past and disappear around the divider between my room and the room next door.
     In spite of the seagull, who has flown down from the roof and is now perched on the railing next door, I peek around the divider to discover... that the ball of feathers is a baby seagull.  The adult is obviously the mother or father, and is quite distraught that I’m anywhere near her/his fluffy progeny.
     Obviously, this baby has fallen out of a nest up on the roof.  Or failed to get any farther in its first flight than one story down.  And now has no way of getting back to the nest.
     A man in the building next door is also watching.  He can’t see the baby from where he is, but complains about all the noise.  He tells me it’s been going on for two days already.  I tell him about the baby gull, and he says “that would explain it”, then goes back to the World Cup on TV.

I decide that it’ll be hard to sleep with all this going on, and I’m severely in need of sleep.  Also that there’s no way the baby is going to learn to fly to safety before it starves to death.
     So I go downstairs to the front desk to report that there’s a baby seagull on the terrace and it needs to be rescued.
     The night clerk, who was so welcoming when I arrived, looks at me as if I’ve sprouted a second head.  He asks me if it’s a mouette or a goéland*.  Not knowing the difference (there really isn’t any), I tell him it’s too little to tell but that the parent bird has grey wings and a yellow beak, if that helps.
     After a moment’s hesitation, he asks me what he should do about it.  I give the standard answer, which any cat owner living near trees knows well: “You could call the firemen.”
     He does.  And they tell him they don’t do seagulls.  That he should call a veterinarian.  And they give him a number.
     The night clerk gets an answering machine that tells him to call the vétérinaire de garde, the vet who’s “it” during off-hours (and we’re Sunday night!).  When he gets the vétérinaire de garde, she tells him she doesn’t do seagulls and to call the police.  And promptly hangs up.
     Although neither of us believes that the police in a port city on a Sunday night - and during the World Cup to boot - will come to rescue a baby seagull, he calls nonetheless.  And I chicken out, slipping into the elevator as he explains about the rooftop nest and the baby and the... The elevator doors close and soon I’m back in my bed.
The hotel across from the train station

About a quarter of an hour later, someone knocks at my door.
     I throw my Comfortables back on and open the door, to find... a very large policeman.
     “Where’s the seagull?” he asks, curtly.
     I usher him to the terrace, where there is neither seagull on the railing nor grey ball of feathers in sight.
     “It runs back and forth between the terraces of the rooms,” I apologize.
     He turns without a word and leaves the room, joining his two burly colleagues left in the hall.  I guess seagulls are not usually part of his job profile.
     Minutes later I hear a lot of gull cries and raised voices. And see flashlight beams, given that the sun has set since all this started.  I peek around the divider to see police posted on the farthest terrace... and the ball of grey feathers headed my way, until it sees me.  I put the chair by the opening, to discourage it, and decide it’s best I just watch my program and leave the police to it.

After about 15 minutes, everything seems to settle down.  Being curious by nature, I head back down to the front desk.
     Only to learn that there was not one baby but two.  The police have “arrested” them.  And released them in the lot behind the restaurant.  Impossible to see them in the dark, so I commend the night clerk for finding a solution, say I hope he doesn’t hate me for all the disturbance and go back to bed.

The next morning, over breakfast, I watch the two babies drink from a puddle outside and scurry back and forth, this time on firm ground. The parents are still perched up on the heights, keeping a watchful eye.  Where they stay until I check out.
     That’s the end of my story.  So you’ll just have to write your own dénouement.  I know I have.

* Goéland is the French approximation for the Breton dialect’s “gwelan”, which means to cry (as in weeping).  The Bretons felt that seagulls were crying.  Mouette comes from the word “mawe”, plus the diminutive -ette, its origin being from Normandy, the province next to Brittany.  It again describes the mewing sound the gulls make.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Les voyages forment la jeunesse

The French have a saying:  Les voyages forment la jeunesse.  It means that traveling broadens the mind.  The saying limits it to youth.  But I wouldn’t be so categorical.
     During my last stay in France, I took several trips.  Several voyages.
TGV Paris-Rennes
     On the first one, I took a train from Paris to Saint Malo, to visit old friends.  As I never travel without something to read, I was fishing out my book-of-the-moment when the gentleman in the seat next to me spotted the title and said “Good choice”.
     As he hadn’t spoken to me before that, beyond a nod of the head upon sitting down, I was a bit surprised.  It turns out he was a professor and liked the author, Daniel Pennac.  “He’s quite poetic in a very modern way,” he critiqued.
     That led into a lively and fascinating conversation about literature, politics, economics, travel... which eventually disturbed the grumpy lady sitting in front of us who must have thought train cars should be like holy chapels:  silent as a tomb.  She rose up from her seat, turned toward us and commanded us in a chilled voice to stop bothering everyone, although she was the only one who seemed even to have noticed our conversation.  We looked at each other, amazed.  Then we both shrugged in unison and I plunged back into my book, he into his newspaper.
     We whispered softly on and off after that but it wasn’t the same.  When the train reached Rennes we both got off.  He knew I was going on to St. Malo and wished me a good crossing and a lovely week-end.  “I hope we meet again,” he said and walked off toward the exit as I crossed the platform to my other train.
     He was a lovely man and I should have gotten his address.

Sailing out of St. Malo
The next nice person I met worked on the ferry I took over to England. Well, on one of the ferries, the second one, from the island of Jersey to Weymouth via Guernsey.  My assigned seat was near his travel assistance post and I asked him a few questions.  After Guernsey things got quiet and his answers got longer until he was asking me questions.  He was very helpful and quite friendly and I learned a lot about ferry services.
Condor Ferries
     For instance, that the ferry used to go directly from Weymouth to St. Malo, but as the crew turns right around and heads back, that made for 18-hour days.  So now they just do part of the route and their days only total 10 hours.  Or that the ferry boats used to break down more often because they were always running and it wore out the engines.  Or that the hydrofoils were taken out of service because they were fast, yes, but they could only handle foot passengers and not cars.  Plus much, much more.
     When 48 hours later I boarded the return ferry, my assigned seat was again in the same general area:  near the restaurant and the information center.  And when the staff showed up, the head steward was that same jovial man.  So we had another fact-filled crossing to Jersey, which made the 3+ hour trip go much faster.
     He wished me well as I walked off toward the gangplank, then waved as I headed for Ferry 4 of the week-end.  He’d told me he liked his job.  And it showed.

Roissy Charles-de-Gaulle Airport
But trains and ferries are all relatively short ordeals compared to transatlantic flights.
     As I sat in the “holding area” for my flight back to the States, the quiet lady next to me asked me something and we started a conversation that lasted for the entire hour of the plane’s delay.  She was a schoolteacher from Tunisia and she was traveling to Texas to visit her daughter doing a PhD there.  She hadn’t seen her for two years and was looking forward to it.  Her flight to Paris had left at dawn so she’d been up since 4 am and still had a full day’s travel ahead of her.  She was worried our delay would cause her to miss her connection in Detroit, but when I looked at her reservation it wasn’t leaving until 8 pm local time.  I assured her that a three-hour layover in Detroit was more than enough time.
Terminal 2E
   She told me it was her birthday and I wished her many happy returns, adding that it was a strange way to spend a birthday.  We passed the time talking about our children and jobs, places we’d visited and others we’d like to see.
   A bit later she mentioned how the Tunisian revolution has changed her country.  And changed teaching.  When I asked her how, she said that, like most of the population, her high school students seemed to feel that their new-found democracy meant doing only what they wanted.  She lamented that it was difficult, if not impossible, to teach them and even harder to discipline them. Many students talked back and did their homework only if they wanted.  If they got bad grades, their parents appeared, demanding the grades be changed.  On the other hand, if she asked the parents to come in, most of the time they refused but complained to the principal about the inconvenience, whether they came or not.  “Parents come in two sorts,” she explained.  “Either they were important in the old regime and now are surly because they no longer have privileges.  Or they are now important and throw it in your face.”  And yet she seemed very calm about it all, though with a layer of sadness.  Her husband is also a professor and they’re both eagerly awaiting their retirement in a few years.  Too many years.  I told her American teachers sometimes had the exact same problems.
Paris from the sky:  (left to right) Tour Montparnasse,
Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower
     She was a pretty lady, with her black hair, sad eyes and warm smile.  But she suffered from Parkinson’s, albeit mild, and so she was traveling with assistance in the form of a wheelchair to the plane.  I asked if I might board with her to carry her purse and small bag so that she would have both hands free to negotiate the aisle to her seat.  As I walked further back to mine, I told a flight attendant that the lady in 18-J was having a birthday and she said she’d find something special for her.  Later on in the flight, I went forward to see how she was doing.  She told me how nice Air France was because somehow they’d noticed it was her birthday and had presented her with a trousse de toilette, one of those toiletries kits they give out in first class.  She was so pleased I didn’t have the heart to tell her I had tipped them off.
     When we arrived in Detroit, I waved good-bye to her as I passed and wished her well for the rest of her flight.  I’m sure her daughter was happy to see her when she finally arrived in Texas.

Versailles, from the plane
The last person who made my travels pleasant was my seatmate on that flight.  The next best thing to having an empty seat next to you on a transatlantic flight is having a pleasant person inflicted upon you. My seatmate was a very tall but trim Dutchman who proved to have just the right blend of chattiness and privacy.  What’s more, he got up from his aisle seat often enough so I didn’t have to climb over him.
     He was an engineer on cruise liners and met his American girlfriend on one of those ships.  Now she’d packed it in, but he hadn’t.  He was coming over to meet her family and as they were going through Ann Arbor, her alma mater, he offered me a ride home.  After a day touring the campus, they were going up to Traverse City, where her family lived.  I suggested she take him to Sleeping Bear Dunes.  “She has it all mapped out,” he said, not without a bit of fatigue to add to the trepidation of meeting her family.
     What time we didn’t spend watching movies, we spent discussing different parts of the world.  I told him about holding the steamship France up for 20 minutes off the Statue of Liberty.  He told me about some of his cruises - the fjords, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean.  The conversation flowed easily and I hope he has now been vetted and accepted by The Family.  I’d be curious to know where the two of them end up.

All of those trips were made far more bearable by the company I unexpectedly kept.  So you see, les voyages forment la jeunesse, even when you’re no longer young in years but only in mentality. France, Tunisia, Holland... we’re all just people looking to get from Point A to Point B as pleasantly and painlessly as possible.

N.B.  All the photos are mine, even the aerial ones.  So if you see a nut with a window seat and a camera, say hello.  That will be me.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Recipe of the Month: Moules Marinières

Summer’s over and September is here, the first of the months with an “r” ... Yes, that’s for oysters, but it holds true for any shellfish.  Eating oysters only in months with an “r” in them is an idea left over from the days of poor refrigeration, when you could take your life in your hands by eating something capable of spoiling so drastically in such a short time when temperatures soar.  Muscles are great on a hot summer day at the beach, but mussels... not so much.
     (I'm told it's also a question of the months without an "r" being the months when oysters and other shellfish procreate... such as their procreation is.)
     Mention moules and people tend to think Belgium.  But mussels are actually a favorite dish all along the French coast and even far inland, where the Léon de Bruxelles franchise offers Parisian diners a wonderful alternative to other fast food joints.  AND the mussels even come with fries!
     There are many moules recipes.  The Belgians cook theirs with onion, white wine and celery.  For moules à la crème, add rich thick crème fraîche to the broth, or even curry!  One recipe I discovered years ago in a little guinguette on the Seine River downstream from Paris was moules catalanes, from the Barcelona coast, and it called for a lot of finely chopped garlic, a dash of tabasco and a bit of tomato paste in addition to the white wine.  But moules marinières is what you find the most often in France.  And it’s dead easy.
     Mussels seem to be sold by the pound in America.  Count about 1 to 1½ pound per person, which isn’t too much if you consider that the shell is the heaviest part of the mussel.  On the coast you may find them sold by the quart; one quart usually weighs 1 1/4 pound.
     You don’t need to add salt to this recipe because mussels are salt-water shellfish and they come by their salt naturally.
     When the moules are served, pick a small mussel shell to use as pinchers to eat the rest.  You won’t burn your fingers in the hot broth and everyone will think you’re a real pro.

  • 6 pounds of mussels
  • ½ c minced shallot
  • 2 c dry white wine
  • 6 large sprigs of parsley
  • 3 T butter
  • freshly ground pepper
  • minced parsley to decorate

First and foremost, if you find any shells that are open, prick the mussel inside with a sharp knife.  If the mussel is still alive, the shell will close; if it doesn’t move, it’s dead and you need to throw it out.  Seriously.
     Most mussels now come cleaned, but if not, simply scrub them with a vegetable or nail brush to remove any dirt.  If there are any barnacles on the shell just scrape them off with a knife, along with any seaweed “beard”.  Usually just rinsing the mussels well in cold water and rubbing them against each other is enough to clean them.  You may get a tiny bit of sand at the bottom of the broth once the mussels are cooked, but you can strain that off.  Some American cookbooks tell you to soak the mussels so they open and lose their sand, but then you lose that saltwater taste.  They won’t lose that much sand anyway, and any sand that is left you can strain off from the broth once they’re cooked.

- Mince the shallots.
- Put the cleaned mussels in a large pot with the white wine to create some steam.
- Add the shallots and the sprigs of parsley.
- Cover tightly and cook over high heat for about 5 minutes, shaking frequently without opening the pot so that all the mussels steam open.
- Put the cooked mussels in a large serving bowl, strain the broth, stir in the butter, and pour it over the mussels.
- Sprinkle with some chopped parsley and freshly ground pepper.
- Serve with French fries on the side - or some other type of potatoes.  Provide a large side bowl for the empty shells and a soup spoon for the delicious broth.  And some good hot French bread for dunking.

Serves 6.

Goes perfectly with a dry Grave or a Muscadet, but my personal favorite is a Pouilly-Fumé.  All whites, of course.