Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Some of it is that they own their premises, some is that they're family run so little or no outside wages to pay and a lot of it is that they cook what's local, available & inexpensive. Still it seems quite a feat to me.
Some of these places are pretty basic in their decor and don't expect to get new cutlery with each course. I know one where the same glass serves for water, wine & coffee. Most cater for truck drivers, local workmen and locals like us. The odd tourist may be lucky enough to wander in & will be welcomed. Many make a larger effort at 'ambiance' and are nicely done. They all share good food. If the food isn't good they don't survive. And the price has to be right. One local place was doing great business lots of lunch time & Sunday lunch (you pay a bit extra on Sunday, but get even more food) customers; then he put up his price by 1 euro & quit including wine. His business halved in less than a week!
Here's what we got for our 11 euros. Vegetable soup with tagliatelle & Parmesan served family style; A large piece of pork rillette; braised pintade (guinea fowl) with seasoned rice; and a choice of desserts (I had apple pie). Nice sour dough French bread, wine, water & coffee came with the meal. Pas mal as we say. The time before we had a different soup; a salad with cheese & dry ham bits; cassoulete & dessert. All was well cooked & presented and the portions were reasonable.
I still don't quite know how they do it, but I'm not complaining. If you are contemplating a trip to France let me know & I'll give you some tips on how to find these places. Meanwhile, eat your heart out Parisians.
I do love France!
Sunday, November 19, 2006
I think that up North in the richer parts of France they have some very posh hunts; on horseback even with paid beaters and so forth. Not so in our impoverished region. The hunters are mainly local and I have a sneaking suspicion that they go out for motives other than hunting. i.e. to get away from the wife; to have a jolly good lunch with lots of booze; to talk politics with their buddies and, only incidentially, to shoot something. I do know that we don't take the dog walking in the woods on any afternoon when the hunts out.
In any case during the season Rupert wears his international orange coat & so do we. Seems to work as we haven't been shot yet. People have been though; one so far this year near us. The chasseurs shot a few of a friends chickens by mistake a while back. They were very apologetic & paid for them, but it hardly gave much confidence when they can't tell the difference between a chicken & a game bird! Our local hunt got so bad that the Mayor banned them for two years; its only this year that they're back.
We feel sorry for the hunting dogs. Every hunt has a pack. When not hunting they're kept in outside kennels & although they get their food & water they get nothing else & very little attention. There are also individual or pairs of hunting dogs kept by individuals. There was a pair close to us that were kept in such bad conditions that we & others in the village complained to the mayor who put a stop to it. The poor dogs also get lost or separated from the pack. We average 2-3 strays a year. We take them in & normally the owner turns up within a day or two. Or we put the word out at the village store. Its sad, but these hunters, who are mostly farmers, have a different attitude towards domestic animals.
A couple of weeks ago we passed a hunter as we were walking Rupert. We stopped & passed the time of day. Finally we said; "hows it going? Have you got anything today?' The reply sounded like; "pa core" ?? We went on our way, but kept puzzling over what "pa core" could possibly mean. It wasn't until a couple of days later that the penny dropped. He was saying "Not Yet" "Pas encore". Someday we'll figure out the local dialect; maybe!
I'm not sure the hunters here are better or worse than anywhere else. They certainly seem to have a different mentality and set of customs. Still, they've been hunting around here for a long time so far be it for an interloper like me to interfere.
I do, however, do my best to keep out of their way & to make sure they know that Rupert is a lage brown dog. Not a small deer?
Sunday, November 12, 2006
We have a nice family visit with the relatives; the ladies shop & Derek & I do some walking. Tea at the famous Betty's Tea Rooms in nearby Ilkely and a visit to a very upmarket farm shop called Wheaton's in Harrogate. Sunday and we're on our way home. Only two major traffic jams on the way down to Dover. Thankfully its Sunday! The tunnel is good again & we're back in France without showing a passport, dog or human.
We get lost trying to find our hotel! Its all the fault of the blessed 'deviations'; we're doing fine until we hit one & all of a sudden in the dark none of the signs point to anywhere we want to go. We call the hotel & the owner gives directions, sort of. We follow these & we're closer; we call again. As we arrive the hotel owner is standing at the gates to make sure we don't miss the hotel. This is service, we get a warm welcome & a very nice dinner.
An early breakfast & we're heading home, but priority #1 is a gas station. We're really low ( damned if I was going to buy any more of that expensive English stuff!), just try to find a station when you need one. In the nick of time a monster Carrefour appears; not only can we fill up its the cheapest in France. I feel vindicated. We now have a long, but uneventful trip home. The weather is good, the roads are clear we're glad to be back in France.
Some final thoughts:
- As a vacation this trip was good. We had fun, saw relatives, ate pretty well and had a super time in Scotland.
- We could never ever go back to England to live. Just too crowded; too hectic and too stressed out. Lovely people if they have the time to stop. Great to be speaking one's native language. Nice, but full, countryside. Nope; A nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there. Confirmed Anglophile that I am I never thought I'd hear myself saying that.
- How do they afford it? We found the prices of almost everything far more expensive than in France. Food. Gas. Housing. Everyday things all seem to be somewhat outrageous. I'm out of touch with Uk salaries, but they've got to be really high to live comfortably in an economy as expensive as this.
We didn't eat out as much as planned simply because we found all of the restaurants overpriced in our eyes. Even humble fish & chips for two seemed to be 12-15 Euros.
I just don't get it. Maybe it seems expensive because we're on a retirement income, but we're hardly poor.
- We also got an earful of medical system woes from virtully everyone we talked to. Medical care seemed to be either too slow or too expensive.
I've got to believe from a whole pile of evidence that the system works better in France. Important as you get older.
I hope you've enjoyed these musings. I enjoyed writing them. I still love England and the English. I'll go back again - on vacation!
Saturday, November 11, 2006
There is a Daube cook off going on over at eGullet so I've joined in by both posting this recipe in Recipe Gullet & on the cooking/ daube cookoff thread with pictures. For this blog I've expanded a bit as well as putting the pictures in.
This is a recipe for braised Lamb Shanks. According to everything I've read it really is a daube by definition. No matter, I don't want to get into the semantics. The basic technique is applied to many peasant dishes whether they be lamb, beef, pork or, more luxuriously, veal. The meat is cooked slowly in wine or wine & water or wine & stock. Beef, especially the tough cuts used for these peasant recipies, is frequently marinated in wine & herbs prior to cooking.
I'm also not going to get into what kind of pot to cook it in or whether oven or stovetop is better. As you will see I've just used a deep pot for this version. One of the secrets whichever vessel is used is to make sure that you don't lose liquid by evaporation during the slow cooking process. Thus, covering the pot/ crock/ casserole is essential. Lose as little liquid as possible until the final reduction.
Suffice it to say that if the dish is slowly & carefully cooked with love & respect it is going to be delicious. The rest is nuance. Don't try to hurry or get fancy with this dish. Simple peasant cooking; take your time & you can't go wrong.
|2—3||stalk of celery|
|5—8||cloves of garlic|
|Lots of fresh rosemary|
|Lots of fresh thyme.|
|A few bay leaves|
|Hearty red wine|
|Good lamb stock|
|Salt & pepper.|
1) Put a small amount of fat into your pot. (duck is best, but others will do. Although you want high heat for the browning be careful not to burn the fat.) Heat this up & then put the shanks in and brown turning frequently; moderate the heat to prevent burning.
2) Meanwhile be chopping up the Onion, carrot, celery mixture. (How finely you chop depends upon how you plan to finish the dish. More on this later, but the rough chop I've illustrated is for a "stew like" finished product. A much finer chop is used where the mirapoix (onion, carrot, celery mix) is to be strained or run through a food mill for a more classic finish.
3) Peel & roughly chop the garlic. Remember that the garlic will mellow with the long cooking so don't be shy.
4) When the shanks are nicely browned remove them from the pot & set aside. Put the vegetable mixture along with the garlic & bay leaves into the pot, turn down the heat to low, cover the pot & sweat the mixture for at least 20 minutes.(just enough heat to cause the veggies to cook. When the onions are translucent & the carrots soft you're there. DO NOT LET THE VEGGIES BROWN!)
5) Rub your rosemany & thyme as you strip the leaves from the stalks.
6) Put the lamb shanks back into the pot with the sweated veggies. Add the herbs. Add the wine & stock to just cover. (I like to use about 50% wine, 50% stock but try your own ratio. By hearty red wine I mean something like a Cahors in France or a Zifandel in the states. Cabernet works well. Nothing light.) Give everything a light seasoning.
7) Bring to the boil then back down to a simmer. Cover & simmer slowly for at least 3 hours. Check & stir occasionally. (This is where you can decide whether to cook in the oven or on the stovetop. If you have a stovetop burner you trust to keep a low simmer that's good. If not, you may be better off in the oven. It really depends upon your equipment & if the vessel you're using lends itself better to oven or stovetop.)
8) At the end of this first cooking take the shanks out & put them in the fridge separately from the vegetables & sauce.
9) Next day bring everything back up to room temperature having skimmed off any fat from the sauce. (there normaly won't be much if any if you are using lamb, beef will normally produce more fat. I'm not as concerned by fat as many so I'm not that meticulous about skimming. Let your own preference be your guide.)
Now its decision time. How to finish the dish as there are lots of variations.
A) My favorite 'classic' version. For this one I would have chopped the veggies much more finely. I would now add some crushed juniper berries (8-10 or so. I love juniper with either lamb or beef. Make sure the berries are well crushed to get their flovor.) and about 3 oz of tomato puree. Everything back into the pot for at least 2 hours covered. Adjust seasonings. Shanks out. Veggies & stock through a strainer or food mill then back into the pot for a final reduction. You shouldn't need to reduce very much. Add some dabs of butter just before serving to give a nice finish. Serve over potatoes, rice or other root vegetables.
B) An Italian, "osso bucco" slant. As in A, but no juniper. ( or, don't be shy & add the juniper anyway. It will further enrich the flavor.) Add oregano leaves & fennel seeds, the tomato puree & plus a can of italian plum tomatoes, drained. Cook as before except stir more often to crush the plum tomatoes. Serve over pasta, polenta or rice.
C) The 'stew' version. This is the one I've shown with roughly chopped veggies. I now, for the second cooking, add green lentils (about 4 oz per person) or white beans which have been soaked & pre-cooked. Everything together & cook for closer to 3 hours than 2. You can add turnips cut to eating sized chunks or a few parsnips for the last hour of cooking. Serve as is with crusty bread for sopping up the gravy.
There are about as many variations upon this basic recipe as there are cooks.
The important things are the slow cooking which for beef should be even slower than I've shown for lamb and the mirapoix to underpin the flavors.
Please try it. I'd love to hear of your results & your variations.
Thursday, November 09, 2006
Some background is necessary at this point before we arrive. We'll be staying at the Monachyle Mhor Hotel. This was started as a B&B on their sheep farm by our very good friends & neighbors Rob & Jean. It grew from B&B to hotel over the years and to a full restaurant as the quality of Jean's cooking became more widely known. By the time Rob & Jean decided to retire to France their son, Tom had taken over the kitchen. These days all three children are involved, Tom is the Chef, Dick runs the farm (plus a 'bistro chippery' in Calander) and Melony runs the hotel side (as well as constructing the wine list with Tom.) The hotel has expanded to 18 rooms, all very luxurious. Tom's cooking is getting more & more recognition. For example he was recently one of the 12 UK Chef's competing to cook for the Queen on National TV in the Uk. He's also been written up by the NY Times & other major newspapers. All in all this is serious cooking at a top class hotel. Over the past few years we've come to know all of the children having met them when they've come to visit Rob & Jean. We've had some memorable meals cooked by Tom & his Mom & have even been bold enough to cook for them. (Tom was kind!) So all in all we're looking forward to seeing them at home in Scotland for the first time.
As we head North from Sterling the countryside gets more & more beautiful. We pass Calander & drive along the loch on our left. It starting to get really spectacular now. We turn left & head for Balquhidder, Roy Roy's burial place, after 3-4 miles of 11/2 track road we carry on from Ballquhidder for another 4 miles on single track road to Monachyle Mhor. Driving up this glen is amazingly beautiful. The loch & the hills combine to make this a magical place. We arrive at this wonderful pink hotel set above the loch. It just looks pretty & welcoming even before you've parked your car!
In we go into a very warm welcome. We've met one of the girls at reception before back in France. She shows us to our luxurious room. Its sort of a demi-suite with couch & table flat screen TV coffee making equipment & a separate bedroom with queen sized bed beautifully dressed. Then there's the bathroom which L immediately falls in love with. Just super!
After unpacking we go for a walk up the glen. We're joined by Midnight the hotel's young black lab. She, we're told, goes walking with all guests. Rupert is in love & the dogs have a great time playing & exploring. The scenery continues to amaze.
We go into dinner. Nice table in a cozy nook. Great menu: amuse, entree, soup, plat, cheese then dessert. Tom comes in to greet us. (he's not cooking tonight) We have a good time trading family news, Melany comes in with new baby (only two weeks old), Dick shows up, Jim (Melany's husband) arrives. Then Brendon who is the sous chef, but is doing the cooking tonight pops in. (we've met him in France as well.) We feel so welcome and so much like family. Rarely does the company outshine the food with me, but this is one of those times even though the food is wonderful. Everybody comes & goes, we have a great time &amp; retire to bed well fed & happy.
Next morning we take another walk up the glen & get some really good pictures as the light is good & the mists are dissapating. The dogs have a ball. Then we're off for a drive that Rob has given us a hand drawn map for; Tom makes some corrections & loans us his mapbook.
Off we go down the glen, past Balquhidder & back to the main road. We drive north to Killian where we take pictures of the waterfalls. Just past we turn & head up another glen &amp;amp;amp; loch; this ones every bit as beautiful as Monachyle. Eventually we start to run out of road, what there is is more pothole than pavement. L's getting worried, so is Rupert, even my faith in Rob's directions is getting shaky. BUT, at the last moment & as promised there is a paved track to the right past the umpteenth cattle grid. We make out way up the mhor & through the sheep & as we do the views get more & more spectacular. As reach the top & admire the panorama we know we're in one of the most beautiful spots in the UK. We go on over & down to the next glen by the loch & eventually back to the road. We stop for a nice simple late lunch at a local hotel.
We're back to the hotel by 4:30 so we can have tea with Melony & the children. We have great time & are amazed at what they have done with what looks like nothing outside, but is really nicely done inside & has a great view across the loch. We have a needed rest & then join Melony, Jim & the baby (3 1/2 weeks old) for dinner. Another nice private nook. Tom's cooking tonight. We have a lime foan martini amuse, seared foie gras entree, a demi-tasse of leek soup, beef filet as the plat, cheese and a selection of desserts. Melony wants to show off her wine list so we have an Australian Chardonnay which is delicious, followed by a Dry Creek Zifandel in my honor followed by a superb Barolo. What a nice meal! Tom keeps popping in & out, Dick shows up again. We have great time & enjoy hearing about all of the plans these three have. What a great family!
We can't help but notice that all of the guests here at Monachyle Mhor are treated like friends; the attitude is wholly professional to the highest standards, yet relaxed & friendly at the same time. If you ever have the opportunity go!!
Next morning we say our goodbyes & are off. Tom gives us presents to take back for Rob & Jean, not to mention a 5 pound bag of the wonerful Italian coffe we've admired at the hotel. A truely memorable experience; We'll definitly be back.
Onto to Yorkshire & Linda's sisters house.
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
After our early morning foray to the beach the rest of the trip to the Uk was fine. We had checked out of the hotel the previous evening so went straight off to Calais & the tunnel. I must say that although expensive compared to the ferries the tunnel is slick. Fast & smooth, no problems.
We did have one little classic bureauocratic delay. When we went to the separate building to get the dog's passport, chip & shots checked it was 08:30. His worm treatment which had been signed off on at 09:00 the previous day ( has to be between 24 & 48 hours prior to travel.) We waited for the 30 minutes before the 'official' would sign off. If we treated terrorists the way we treat dogs seeking to enter the Uk they wouldn't stand a chance.
The trip over to Stroud was uneventful, a little nostalgia as we passed Newbury where we used to live, but we did really notice the heavy traffic. The roads were crowded! We had a nice visit & dinner with the kids & grandkids then the next morning set off for Wollerton in Shropshire where the cottage is. This was our half of a house swap. Patricia & family had spent two weeks at our place & now we were going to spend two weeks at 'The Pound' their 17th century cottage.
The drive up was pretty as we avoided the motorways & drove up via Ludlow & Shrewsbury. As we arrived at the cottage the owner's parents & the handyman were there getting the AGA going & making sure everything was ready. Very nice & we ended up with a dinner invitation for the next week. The cottage was lovely & was surrounded by a walled garden much to Rupert's delight. We also found that there was a disused railway line nearby so he could have leash free walks; lots of rabbits to chase as well!
Couldn't linger long as we had to shop. L's sister & family are coming for the weekend & we're hosting a birthday party for her. Off to Waitrose we go. Such a beautiful supermarket. High quality, huge selection, far more 'international' than our French Hypermarkets. Things do seem expensive though. We do our shopping, just for the weekend; not much wine as we've brought quite a lot from home. At the checkout we find that we've spent nearly 200 pounds! 300 Euros! Ouch! This is real sticker shock. Its at least 35-40% more expensive than France. We've bought nothing special.
Wow! Subsequent shopping over the next two weeks confirm that general food shopping is about 30% more expensive than France. Waitrose is more expensive than the other big chains, but their quality is closer to that in the French Hypermarkets. (In France we buy very little fresh produce from the Hypermarkets, its mostly from the local farmer's markets.) How do people afford this? We also notice the huge (comparitively) range of pre-prepared foods. And we notice that they get bought a lot. They seem even more expensive.
As we get into buying wine we discover that its roughly double in price compared to France. The selection is great with wine available from all over the world, but the prices suck. We'd have to change our drinking habits if we lived here. We now understand why so many English people take the day ferry trips to Calais to stock up.
Next I have to buy diesel fuel for the car. Another shock; diesel is not only more expensive than petrol its 40% more expensive than in France. This is awful; thank god we get nearly 50 MPG.
Finally, on the cost front we found that cafes & restaurants were considerably more expensive. The comparisons are hard to make, but in general we can get to decent multi-course lunch with wine in France for 15 Euros. We couldn't get a similar lunch for anything close to 10 pounds in England.
Having got the rant about prices out of the way I must say we're having a good time. Beautiful countryside, nice towns and lovely people. We drive into Wales to have lunch at a friend's who lives near Denbeigh, we have dinner with Patricia's parents & have a good time in general.
Now we're off to Scotland to stay in the glens! This turns out to be a highlight of our trip.
Next installment very soon.
Tuesday, November 07, 2006
When Linda woke me up with coffee (this is one of the small joys of retirement. She's an early riser by nature, I like to sleep in. She brings me coffe as payback for all those working years when I got up & made the coffee Monday through Friday.) she said that some of the electricity was off. A circuit breaker I thought so I got up & looked. No tripped breakers. Yet, some things worked, others didn't. Most serious was the main fridge/ freeezer being off. Yet the kitchen power points were fine. After a lot of trial & error I worked out that the things not working were all associated with one bank of circuit breakers, but none of them were tripped & resetting them didn't help. Time to call Electricity De France (EDF) as it doesn't look like this is a simple problem. Now you normally avoid calling EDF as like many big utility companies getting through is a nightmare. Doubly so when you're trying to do it in Franch & are hard of hearing as I am.
I've got a problem. I have to send a fax to my French bank. Now, this morning, but the computer & fax are part of what's not working. No problem, I go up the road to our friends. Turns out that they too have a funny electrical problem. Same as ours one bank of things doesn't work. Fortunately, their fax does work & I get my message off.
Back home & Jacques has arrived. We go over the problem together, same answer. He calls EDF. 35 minutes later EDF allow that we have a problem & its theirs. The fact that our friends have the same issue seems to tip the balance. EDF will work on it.
I go off to Caylus to mail a letter & get some bread for lunch (both bread shops & the post office in our village are closed on Monday.) The letter's fine, but both breadshops in Caylus are closed! They're normally open, but both have signs saying they're on holiday. Strange! They normally alternate, Hummmm.. I decide to go to Pulygarde, there's a good baker there who's normally open on Monday. Nope he's closed as well. Very strange. It's unhead of not to be able to buy bread in France. Sacre Bleu! What's the country coming to. I return home defeated. We manage lunch without bread.
About 4:00 that afternoon. The electricity goes off entirely. Then it comes back on, but with a different set of things not working. Finally it all comes on & shortly thereafter we get a call from EDF. "Is everything OK now?" Yes we say, but we're flabbergasted that they've called this is not normal EDF behavior. But, all's well that ends well. We still have no idea what was wrong or how you can lose just part of the electricity. It is & will remain a mystery.
I'm still worrying about the bread. Next morning the village bread shops are still closed, so are the ones in Caylus. We go up to the general store in the village to buy rubber gloves. (Another story, our drains are blocked) While I'm waiting outside in the car I notice a sign in the shop's window; "Depot de pain. 06/11 a 12/11 inclusif. Congres de Bouloungers" Ah Ha! All the breadshops are closed because they're off at their annual convention. Mystery solved!
Sometimes you get to the bottom of things other times you don't. Its never dull though.
Wednesday, November 01, 2006
Its a long way from Parisot to Calais; 935 kilometers roughly (about 600 miles). Fortunately its almost all autoroute. We cruise along at 130 kmph taking turns driving, the dog sleeps except when we make our fairly frequent 'rest' stops for him. (A comment why can't other countries have as many nice parklike rest stops along their autoroutes? France is terrific for this both the stops with gas & food & the stops with just restrooms & a place to streach your legs. Finding a place to stop so the poor dog can do his stuff is a hassle in the UK!) We pass through beautiful countryside, the Dordogne, Limosin, Cahors, hilly & green with cows, sheep & fields. As we approach Chateauroux the countryside begins to flatten and we see huge fields of grain. You begin to understand the rich agricultural heritage of France as you take these long drives.
We reach Paris. Fortunately, I know Paris fairly well & we have a good quick route through. Head for porte St Cloud via Orsay & Sevres, hit the peripherique & go West via porte Maillot then onto the A1 towards the airport. Piece of cake. Except, this time we missed our turn for the D104 which would take us over to the A16. Much wandering ensued, but 1 hour & numerous sets of directions from friendly locals got us to the autoroute.
We then had a nice run up the autoroute to our hotel which was named "The Auberge De La Dune" We'd chosen it because it looked very close the beaches & our plan was to give Rupert a good run in the moring before the tunnel & long trip. WRONG! It turned out to be at least 6 km to the nearest beach & that one had NO DOGS signs all over the place. He ran anyway as it was very early in the morning & nobody was around. We almost didn't get in the hotel to begin with. When she made the booking Linda had told the owner that our dog was a canishe royal (standard poodle). When we arrived Madame freaked out; she somehow hadn't realized the Ruperet is big! He weighs about 80 pounds. With some sweet talking we got in & were put into the handicapped room, not great, but Ok. The dinner was nice, not great, but perfectly acceptable.
On to England in the next installment.
We now have a second small vineyard that has been offered to us. This is a friend who has about another acre of grapes, unknown variety, and isn't interested in doing anything with them.
We're still working on details with Robert as it turns out the reason he was going to tear out his vines was that he has to pay extra taxes on the vineyard. Don't think the tax is much, but need do need to sort it out.
In the meantime while in England I bought a book on wine making. Also, this Sunday at Limogne market I ran into Sarah who with her husband David run a real winery, Merchien, that they have built up over the past few years. They're doing well, winning prizes and selling their vintages. Sg'e off ered free advice.
We've also found a local place to buy proper wine vines of most major varietals so be can improve our quality over time.
Coincidently I now read that someone is making a movie about an englishman's struggles to turn on inherited chateau into a vinyard or something like that anyway as I'm not 100% sure of the exact story line.
Anyway, so far so good. Thing seem to be coming to gether. I'll keep posting as we progress.