Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Village life - The repas

The next generation!

This little girl is growing up speaking French, Occitan and English. She will understand the Internet and the world in a way we never will. I hope she and the world will be better for it!

Last Sunday we went to a repas at our local salle des fetes. In this part of France the repas which is a shared communal meal is very popular and is a great means of getting the village together. This particular one was in aid of the church restoration in the nearby hamlet of Neiuvialle. 15 Euros for the meal including aperitif, wine and coffee.
I've written up the contents of the meal with pictures and posted it on eGullet. (you can see it by clicking HERE) I've made my opinion about taking pictures of food in public places clear elsewhere. I'm against it, but I couldn't resist doing this one as an antidote to those who get too serious about the whole thing. Its food that's all to be enjoyed.
But what I did really enjoy was taki
ng pictures of my local friends & neighbors. I've alway thought that for some reason that I don't pretend to understand that France produces some of the most interesting faces in the world. What follows is a selection of the mostly older people of our village. I think they're wonderful.

I'll start with this one of our Mayor. Jean-Claude is a very good Mayor, but a bit shy. Local rumor says he won't run again next year as he wants to be able to spend more time on his hobbies.

Wonderful people who have made we foreigners welcome in their midst. Friendly, curious, content and fully aware of how to enjoy life in all of its simplicity.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Oven dried tomatoes - tis the season!

Tomatoes everywhere! From friends at the market everywhere you look. We love the huge misshapen local varieties which taste delicious, but they're only available for a few weeks. Thinking of that & thinking of how to preserve summer I came up with the idea of drying my own tomatoes. Hardly original.

Sun dried tomatoes have become over the years almost a cliche, but when done properly they are still delicious and can remind one of summer whenever eaten. My problem has been in finding really good ones. Occasionally our market would have packets from Italy that weren't bad. Most of the time, however they were either too hard & chewy and resisted all efforts at re- hydration or were so soft that they just fall apart. So I decided that I couldn't do worse if I tried to dry tomatoes myself.

Before doing anything else I searched the net for recipes, tips, tricks & experiences. As you can imagine there was a ton of information. It seemed to boil down to three major techniques: Real sun drying; dehydrating; and oven drying. There were lots of variations within each technique. I don't own a dehydrator so I ruled that technique out. Sun drying was tempting as it is the original technique and we were having nice hot sunny weather, but having read about making drying racks and muslin/cheesecloth covers; bringing the fruit in & out during the day/night my inherent laziness kicked in. So, oven drying it was to be.

In oven drying tomatoes there seemed to be two schools of thought. Proper drying and slow roasting. Proper drying takes place at very low (110- 140 F) temperatures over a long period of time with the oven door propped open to let the moisture out. It is supposed to yield a fully dry leathery tomato. Slow roasting takes place at a higher temperature (220- 250 F) over a shorter period and is supposed to yield soft tomatoes that are slightly chewy. Having read all I could find I decided that I'd do it my own way. This was a compromise between proper drying and slow roasting. I wanted full chewyness (not sure that's a word?), but not leather either. I also wanted to add some herbs & garlic to my dried tomatoes.

Here's what I did:

  1. I bought 20 plum (Roma variety) tomatoes.
  2. Let them sit out on the counter to ripen for several days. (They'll never get there in the fridge. They may rot, but they won't ripen.)
  3. When ripe I cut them in half length ways, scraped out the seeds and cut out the vein.
  4. I very lightly oiled a cookie sheet and turned the oven to 110C (about 225F).
  5. Placed the tomato halves cut side up on the cookie tray(s) and gave each one a small pinch of Herbs de Provence and then an even smaller pinch of dried garlic grains. (do not use fresh garlic as it can promote bacteria later on.)
  6. I put a light grinding of salt & pepper over all of them and put them in the oven.

Timing was the unknown. Slow roasting was supposed to take 2-3 hours. Proper drying 8-10 hours. I monitored my tomatoes about every half hours after the first 4 hours. I did some turning and swapping of shelves to get even cooking. In my case I judged the tomatoes to be ready after about 6 1/2 hours. They were soft, but chewy just as I had hoped. I suspect that the timing will very from batch to batch dependent upon ripeness, temperature and other factors.

As they were cooling Linda came in and pinched one, pronounced it delicious, pinched another one and disappeared before I could grab her.

I sterilized a jar and packed the tomatoes into it as tightly as I could using a wooden spoon. I then filled the jar with olive oil; just until the tomatoes were fully covered. Then wanting to be sure there would be no spoilage I put the jar in the fridge.

A few days later we had friends over & I served the tomatoes cut in half ,with a basil leaf on top & placed upon a toasted round of French bread. They were a rousing success. The flavour & texture turned out as I'd hoped they would.

Now the hard part. Repeat the recipe and achieve the same results.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Duck Experience

Yesterday we had a tour and lunch at a local duck farm/ processing place.

What a great experience! We were there at the invitation of our friends Annabel & Donald. They have organized a large group of their American friends into coming to France for a few days. They call it the "French Experience" and have laid on lots of great sightseeing, eating and examples of things French. everybody is having a great time & seeing France in a way few tourists get to.

We along with some other 'locals' were invited to join the party for the Duck Experience. This took place in Monteils a village not far away. M. Delmas the proprietor is a real character to begin with & he delights in doing the tour & the hosting. We saw the whole operation from chicks, to feeding, to XXX. Then we went through the plant where the ducks are turned into magret, foie gras, pate, rillettes and a whole plethora of duck products. Next we were given aperitifs (a very nice local wine & pruneau concoction) and tastes of the various products that were on sale.

We then went upstairs to a very large dining hall for our lunch. There were 31 of us in "the French Experience" party. We were seated at a very long table. Across the room was an even longer table filled with French guests. The festivities opened with one of the French ladies making a nice short speech about how nice it was to see an American group enjoying France. She was given a nice hand and many glasses were raised in salute. Our first course was a delicious vegetable soup served family style with crusty bread. (I should mention that jugs of red & rose wine and water were present all along the table. When any of them was empty you just got up & refilled it from the appropriate cask.) This was followed by salad Averyonaise which is lettuce, vinaigrette, walnuts and duck gesiers. There were also bits of pate in it. Absolutely delicious! The main course was pan fried potatoes with garlic & herbs (sauteed in duck fat, naturally) and duck breast (Maigret) with a foie gras stuffing. Very nice indeed. Dessert was two kinds of open faced tart; prune & fig. M. Delmas came around serving eau de vie out of a hideous duck shaped flagon.

Fortified with food & wine the speeches and singing started. Songs were traded with the French doing one then the Americans doing another. Normally, the French seem better at this as they seem to know more of the words, but this American crowd held their own very well. Their were speeches praising D-day and there were speeches praising Lafayette. Many toasts were raised & there was even a bit of dancing. Finally everybody went home feeling very good and convinced more than even that the entente cordial is alive, well and living happily in rural France.

Vive La France! Vive La Annabel & Donald! What a great thing to do for your friends.

Monday, September 03, 2007

A tale of three Restaurants

This is a short tale about three restaurants two of my friends & I ate at last Thursday & Friday. To me it sort of shows part of the joy of living and eating in France. The occasion was one of the overnight hiking trips that we take. We being a floating group of friends, all at least in our 60's and all of whom like to walk and eat well. We try for interesting walks, a decent place to stay & above all - a good restaurant.
This trip were were staying in Calvinet in the Southern Cantal. The hotel/restaurant was Beausejour. Maitre Peusch is a master chef. Anywhere where the meal price is nearly the same as the room price usually offers a pretty good dinner! Anyway, off we went, a bit late due to Michaels encounter the evening before with a bad mushroom from his garden, but that's another tale.
The countryside is beautiful in that part of Cantal & we quickly worked out a circular walk which turned out to be very nice. By the time we did the circuit it was nearly 1:00PM and time for lunch. Not wanting a big lunch & not wanting to eat where we were having dinner we headed for Cassaniouze which was the nearest village of any size. Sure enough we found a small hotel/cafe which was full of locals. We asked for a table for three & Madame quickly checked with the kitchen & allowed that there was food. We were sat down & asked what kind of wine we wanted. Red vin ordinaire we said. We got a 1 litre bottle which later turned out to cost 4 euros. No menu, but food started coming. First a salad with numerous slices of home cured pork sausage, then a platter of braised beef with its juice and aligot. So much we couldn't eat it all. Then a platter with 4-5 kinds of cheese was placed upon the table. Finally, believe it, plastic packaged creme caramel desserts. All for 13 Euros. About as classic a French village lunch as you could hope for. Not the least bit fancy, but plentiful, cooked well and nourishing.

Ok, another walk after taking a close look at a simply stunning working chateau then to our hotel. We checked in arranged dinner and decided to go for a drive. We went up to Marcoles which is a pretty bastide town. Back for a shower & clean up and then down to dinner. We decided to have the Menu Evasion, a sort of tasting menu at 60 Euros a head. To be honest it was a disappointment. Perhaps our standards are too high? The soup course (Cold leek with foam & dried truffle) was good. The fish (crispy langoustines over salad) was also good. The next course (foie gras with waffles & a ? white sauce) was innovative, but let down by so so foie gras. The centerpiece pigeon course was a disaster! The pigeon was completely drowned by a very dark, strong highly reduced sauce, Yuck! Cheese was a nice Blue de Auverne which had been split & coated with a fig compote. I would have preferred to have the compote on the side so I has a choice as to whether or not to eat it. Desserts were lackluster. All in all not as good as expected for this price & pretension.
The next morning we took a glorious walk up a stream then a 450 meter hill above the river Lot. Fantastic views along the ridge & then down to the river. We arrived in Viellevie in time for lunch. A real find this place. We sat on a beautiful wisteria covered patio overlooking the river & pool. I had the plat de jour (10.50 Euros) which was comfit de poule served with vegetables and a baked potato followed by a choice of cheese or dessert. I had the cheese selection. The chicken & veggies were great as was the cheese selection. Donald had a omelet with cepes and a large salad. (14.50 Euro) He choose the dessert which was an apricot clafoutis. Michael had a full menu; Langustines & salad followed by lamb chops & kidneys with veggie, cheese and a very complicated fruit dessert. All was nicely presented and very well cooked. A real find & unexpected.

Hard to tell why I love France isn't it?