Saturday, December 27, 2008

The last post! I've moved

I've done it! Moved this blog. I got tired of the limitations of this software and created my own website.

Go to:   www.frenchfoodfocus.com.

I've moved most of the 2008 posts over and will move most of the others over time. Bear with me as I do that and add what I hope will be some interesting new features to the website.

As allways I'd love to hear what you think.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A plethora of markets

Why is it that this year we have Christmas markets running out of our ears?

There are at least five being held in nearby villages & hamlet's. In fact Linda is going to one in Caylus this afternoon. It seems to me that they are breeding like rabbits. Used to be just a year or two ago that there was only one Christmas Market in a nearby village; that was at Puylagarde.

Now there have always been Christmas markets in the larger towns and cities. The Christmas Market in the main square of Toulouse (Capital) is truly spectacular and the Cahors Christmas market is great. You could go on down the line from there, but there weren't many in the small villages. Not enough traffic one would have thought.

Perhaps its the economy; everybody out trying to make a few Euros? I strongly suspect that its mainly the same traders going from village to village selling the same stuff. Certainly my quick look at Caylus Christmas market this morning didn't reveal any truly local vendors.

Anyway, more power to them, they're very colorful and, hopefully, people will find something they like and the vendors will make a few Euros to help their Christmas budgets.

I did buy something at market on Thursday. This was at the seasonal market which is an off shoot of the main Villefranche de Rouergue market. Here in the 'halle' they sell only dead birds (chickens, ducks & geese mainly) and fois gras. This is the real deal straight from farmer to you.
Rob & I were checking out prices for next week when we'll probably buy our ducks & fois gras for Christmas. One of the larger vendors must have had a 100 pounds of fresh raw fois gras for sale, amazing! I've never seen that much fois gras in one place before.

I won't mention prices as I don't want to make those of you who don't live in the French country side to get too jealous. I will say, however, that Rob & couldn't resist buying 2 cuisse de canard each (a cuisse is the leg & thigh together). They were 2 Euros each and each one weights close to a kilo. These were big ducks believe me.

I'll cook them with lots of shallots & green olives very slowly in a covered frying pan on the stove top. Absolutely tender & delicious. I'll try to take some pictures as I do it.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Their hearts are in the right place





These are pictures of what pass for Christmas decorations in our village. I don't think they'll win any prizes, but they are sincere. Its just that you have to know who did them.

They're done every year on his own initiative and, I expect, at his own expense by our village cleaner. This is the guy who sweeps the streets, cleans the public toilets, plants & weeds the public flower beds and so forth. Its not much of a job and I'm sure it doesn't pay much, but he's very happy to do it and to have a place in village life.

One sees him most days if you pass through the village; a cigarette in his mouth working away. He's fiercly proud and protective of the village. I remember when we first moved here & he was in charge of the village dump. You had to prove that you lived in the village to use the dump, normally by showing an electric bill. It took several times before he admitted that he knew us and let us in without showing our bill. Cranky is probably the best word to describe him.

Ok, so, so what? The point is that here in this small village they have found employment for this man. You see he's somewhat retarded. Not too the point of being institutionalized (although in some places he would be), but certainly enough to be normally unemployable. Not here though; here a place is made for him and the village looks after him. They do it gently, kindly and allow him his dignity. 

So, nobody complains about his Christmas decorations. We praise him and them, we take a secret pride in them and when we see them we feel just a little bit better about ourselves for being part of a kind society.


























I'm not sure if this system of kindness is true in the multitude of villages in France. I do know that in one of our neighboring villages the same sort of thing is true. There too the menial village jobs are done by those handicapped in some way. I suspect that at least to some degree it is a part of village life all over the country.

The French are, it seems to, me a kind people. Not in an ostentatious way, but in a collective unobtrusive manner. This weekend we have the Telethon to raise money for charity. This is a BIG deal and takes place all over France. Millions are raised. In our village it will be held in our Salle des Fetes and will be well attended.
Outside the shops the collections have started; a can of food, a packet of cookies, whatever. What's interesting is that the collectors are genuinely volunteers, young people & old, but obviously people giving of their time. You see no "commercial" collecting.

I remember that I found this approach a bit different when we first moved to France. After all the French do not make such a big deal out of the Holidays as do we Americans and the British for that matter; they're far more low key. My French friends gently pointed out that nobody anywhere in France would go hungry over this season. The general population would make sure that they didn't.

Yet another reason why we live here.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Deja Vue all over again.

Still catching up. Here goes.
We had not one, but two Thanksgivings this year. For reasons explained in an earlier post we had our first Thanksgiving on last Thursday, the 20th. For that one we had 12 people and the menu was very traditional. Here are a few pictures:
 (mainly during the prep stage as later I was too busy serving & eating to take pictures.)





































So the menu was: Curried pumpkin soup with curry croutons followed by roast turkey ( I deconstruct my turkey by cutting out the backbone, taking off & deboning the legs then cooking them separately. Last year's Thanks giving post goes into great detail on this technique) with a sage & forcemeat stuffing, lots of vegetables and a gravy made from the turkey stock. Friends brought us fresh cranberries so we had a wonderful, but simple cranberry sauce.We then had the cheese course you can see pictured above. 
(bursin,brique de vache, cantal-entre-doux, cratin, chaurce and blue de pays). 

Desserts were a carrot cake that I made & a delicious cranberry & mincemeat pie by Linda.

Between our wine & some superb stuff brought by our guests we had some great wine. 14 bottles of it in fact!

A good time was had bt all. The French maybe don't quite understand the holiday, but they certainly relate to the occasion and the food.


Yesterday we celebrated our second Thanksgiving. Just 6 of us. Linda's sister & her husband and a pair of English friends who live locally part time.

Pictures:


The world's best potato chips. Made in Spain, hand made. Yummy!
































The menu was simple, but different this time. We like the curried pumpkin soup so much that we had it again. The main course, however, was Beef Wellington. Friends from the states had brought us a whole filet of beef. So, as you can see abouve Linda did the whole Wellington bit: fois gras, sauteed mushrooms, madeira sauce and a puff pastry case. It was absolutely superb! The beef was excellent and perfectly cooked. Nice & rare in the middle bits as I like it, but closer to medium at the ends for others. We had sweet potatoes, brussel sprouts and broad beans as vegetables.

Dessert was as below. A simple chocolate mousse. Sinful, but delectable.

I think I like the idea of two Thanksgivings you get to see more friends & family that way. I hope your Thanksgiving was as joyful as ours!













Thursday, November 27, 2008

Stuck!

Got a bit of catching up to do as I've been busy. But I'll start with what happened yesterday.

It started simply enough. I went off yesterday morning to drive down to Carcassonne to pick up my brother & sister-in-law from the airport. Its a 2 hour drive, but they can fly into Carcassonne very cheaply on Ryanair. So there I was trundling down the Autoroute trying to understand some kind of intellectual debate on the 'Culture" station & only half succeeding. (Very intellectual that station with high flauting French & tenses I hardly know exist). All was well.

Then I arrived at the payage entering Toulouse. I always go through the lane where you pay with your French debit card; its quicker than going through one of the cash lanes & I don't use the Autoroute enough to justify one of the autopay systems. I'm constantly amazed that the French banking system can handle these tiny transactions; the toll is like $3.00, but it does and doesn't cost me anything. Anyway, this time the machine didn't like my card. I tried again, still didn't like it. A message came up saying "Your card is unreadable, try again of use a different card" So I blew on the card, rubbed to on my sleeve and tried again. It worked this time so off I went not thinking much about it.

I drove around Toulouse and picked up a new ticket as I left. Had a nice unevertful drive down the Autoroute to the CArcassonne exit. I was right on time to hit the airport just as the flight arrived. Put my card into the reader & it didn't work, tried again, still no luck, tried the blowing & wiping trice, that didn't help either. Tried more times, nope. The same 'illisable' message kept coming up. In desperation I pushed the red help button. (By now a couple of cars were behind me so I couldn't even back out. Needless to say they were getting impatient. I put my emergency blinkers on to indicate trouble.) The red button phone was answered. I told him the the mechine wouldn't read my card. I thought that somebody would come to help out, but no such luck. I started trying all the cards in my wallet. USA cash card. Nope! British cash card. No such luck! I even tried my carte Vital (French helth card) No Joy!
Finally I remembered my American Master card that I rarely use. Success!!! It worked!! I was through.

Got to the airport in time & picked up my relatives & headed home. Called Linda to say they had been on time & that we were on our way. She asked me to stop & pick up a couple of things from the store. OK. No problems at the payage with my mastercard. By now I've had a chance to look at my French debit card & to see that there's a large scratch on the magnetic stripe; no doubt this is why it won't read.

By the time we got to Montauban I was very low on gas. This was expected as I'd planned to stop for gas on the way home. Problem is that I like to buy my gas at the big Hyper markets since they're at least 10 cents a liter cheaper than anywhere else. BUT, they only take cash &, you guessed it, debit cards. Not to worry, we'll stop at the big Leclerc, do our bit of shopping and get cash from the machine there. I did have a 20 Euro note & some change; enough for the bit of shopping, but not enough for much gas.

As we drove into the Leclerc parking lot the range indicator on my car was reading 7 miles left. We're just about running on fumes, but we're OK. We go into the store and head straight for the cash machine. There it is - spead out all over the floor with a technician working on its innards. We'll get no cash here for a while. I think about for a bit & remember that there's a branch of my bank about a mile down the road. So we do our shopping & head there. Luckily I spot a cash machine that's even closer. It likes my American cash card & condesends to give me real cash money. Back to Leclerc & their cheap gas (1.05 Euro per liter. Only about $4.50 a gallon. & you think you're badly off. )

Fill the car & head home. No more drama's occur thank goodness.

My first action upon arriving home was to call my French bank and ask them to send me a new card. Think I'll deal in cash a bit more from now on. This cashless society works great -- most of the time!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Disappionted - so far that is

So far Its been a disappointing year; for mushrooms that is. I love mushrooms and look forward every year to the fall crops.

First come the ceps. I've never had much luck finding them, but no matter its fun to buy them from the old boys who only turn up at market when they have ceps (or sometimes truffles) to sell. Their prices are good and they're fun to talk to if you can get past the accents. This year, however, to was too dry for too long & there weren't many ceps about. Only a few & those at silly prices. I do love my ceps, but not at 23 Euros per kilo! There were even some at a commercial stall from Belorous! A long way & they were pretty tired looking. Unfortunately, its dried ceps only this year.

Next come the field mushrooms or I should say usually next come the field mushrooms. Not this year. The only ones I've seen were last Friday when I played golf. There were lots on the course. I didn't pick any as I thought it wouldn't be quite right. (It would have been more rewarding than my golf which was even more terrible than usual that day) Beside I know where there are quite a few fields that support field mushrooms including our very own field. This year, however, so far no luck. Still its not too late so I live in hope.

To console myself I'm going to make roast chicken with mushroom & tarragon sauce. You might want to try it as its easy to do & quite delicious. Here's what you do.

  • Buy some chicken pieces. I like to use the leg/thight piece (cuisse in French), but you can use just legs, just thighs or even breasts if you want to spend more money.

  • Pre heat an oven to 180-190 degrees Centigrade. Put the chicken pieces in a roasting pan and season them with salt, pepper, garlic granules (or garlic salt, but if so don't use any regular salt) and herbs de Province. Be generous with the garlic & herbs.

  • Roast until nicely done, but not dried out. This should take 45 minutes to one hour. Its a good idea to start the chicken pieces with their skin side down, then turn them over about half way through cooking. A little basting won't go amiss either as it will help crisp up the skin.

  • While the roasting is going on slice up some regular commercial white mushrooms & if you have them rehydrate some dried wild  mushrooms. (ceps are great as are morilles) After 15 minutes squeeze out most of the water from the dried mushrooms..

  • Take the chicken out of the oven when done & set aside to rest. Immediately put all of the mushrooms in the roasting pan & place the roasting pan ove high heat. Stir the mushrooms well to coat with the pan juices. Then stir frequently until the mushrooms are just barely cooked. They'll turn color & get a bit soft, but hold their shape. DO NOT COOK UNTIL THE MUSHROOMS GIVE UP THEIR WATER!!

  • Pour a generous amount of full cream into the roasting pan & mix well with the mushrooms. Cook quickly to slightly reduce the cream (by quickly I mean no more than 3-4 minutes). Now add a small handfull of fresh tarrogon & stir. (be careful as tarragon is quite strong & will overpower the other flavors if you use too much. If in doubt add a bit at a time & taste until you're happy that the tarrogan flavor is there, but not over powering.)

  • Plate up the chicken pieces and pour the sauce over. Serve with your choice of vegetables.
This simple dish is very satisfying, looks good and tastes delicious.

If only I can find some field mushrooms the sauce would be even better! I'll keeo looking, believe me.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Village life - ain't it great

More village events this Sunday. This time it was the formal opening of our new village library.

Sorry, Its no longer just a library its a media center. Or at least that's how I translate Mediatheque! You can judge for yourself on its website. Which is http://mediatheq.fr/culture.ht. This was done by Michell our local guru.

 Note that we have an English section in the library with over 400 books. Also note that the libraries of several of the local villages cooperate by sharing their book lists so you can check out a book from any of them & return it to any other. Neat huh?

As they always seem to do the local builders did a great job in renovating the building. It was pretty derilect before they started, but now is very modern inside with class & meeting rooms as well as the library. Outside its very much in keeping with the village style. Located just behind the school & Marie its very convienent.

You may remember that the one English canidate for the town council didn't quite make it in the election. Well, she's now running the library! And I'd say off to a great start (even though she upset the incumber 'librarian' who oversaw the little old library in the Marie, but that's local politics isn't it) what with an English section, computer classes going and so much demand that there are two set of English classes going for the children with lots of adults wanting in as well. This could well turn out to be a real special resource for our village.

It was great to see somewhere between 50-75 people turn out for the opening. The usual suspects made speeches, The Mayor, a politician from the Department and, of course, the new head of the library. (very nervous, but she made a good speech in French!) We had a specially written peom and a reading from a local author. (he reads beautifully!)

That's what I like about village life. Nothing dramatic, but everyone pretty much pulling together to make things better. The apero wasn't bad either.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

New beginings?

I don't normally get into politics on this blog, but at this historic moment I can't resist. I promise not to make a habit of it. Also, I'll try not to offend anybody. First a bit of history.

I was in the US Air Force stationed outside of Madrid when John Kennedy was elected. I can still remember the hope and excitment he generated. I can still remember, and yes still cry, when he made his 'ich bin ein berliner" speech. I still remember as does anyone over a cetain age where I was when he was assinated. In my case I was on an airplane on my way back home to the states when our pilot announced the news. Welcome home!! To this day I can't remember the trip from New York on to my parents home in California. I can still remember my shock to discover how many Americans did not like John Kennedy. You see, he was idolized by Europeans and non-Americans around the world. I just couldn't believe it. 

I quickly found out how polarized our country was politically. There was or seemed to be no middle ground. You were either against the war & a left wing hippy or you were for it and a member in good standing of the John Birch Society. There was no room for a balanced political attitude. Or at least that's how it seemed to me. I didn't want to bring my daughters up in such an atmosphere and was lucky enough to move back to Europe where I stayed for 15 years.

My point is that it seems to me that in many ways we have a parallel situation today. The politics of polarization are back. The middle ground seems to have eroded away. People seem anchored into their positions. There are a lot of 'true believers' out there - on both sides. George Bush will leave a terrible legacy that will probably take years to overcome.

Now, Barak Obama seems genuine when he talks about change and about bringing people together. I wish him luck and goodwill; he will need both to unite the country. If, that is, its even possible. What I fervently wish is that he can capitalize upon the unprecedented goodwill he has with people around the world.

This is where I see a real opportunity. Like John Kennedy he has the opportunity to change the world for the better. Kennedy never realized his promise because his life was cut short. Obama assuming that he survives (I hate to say that, but assination is a real threat in my eyes) has a similar opportunity. The world is hoping for a better day; it is hoping that Barak Obama can lead the changes necessary and hoping that America can be in practice what it promises in theory.

I won't presume to tell him what to do. Some things are obvious. Close the horrible prison, get out of Iraq as gracefully as possible, leave Afganistan to the Afganistanis, stop Iran & North Korea's nuculear ambitions. Those things are obvious even though not easy. For the rest he will need to try to persuade Europe to step up to its responsibilities (for too long they have tried to have it both ways.), practice some tough love with Mr. Putin, encourage the Chinese to take on a wider positive role in the world (probably only they can really bring North Korea to heel), stop most of the ridiculous positions past policy has had in the Western hemisphere (its long past time that Cuba was treated like a neighbor.) and do whatever is possible to bring Africa into the modern world politicially. (tough one I know). Its a huge agenda, but most of it can mainly be accomplished by just sticking to what's made him so popular in the first place. A clear message for change, for inclusion, for a degree of humility on America's part and constant & clear communication which will abet the goodwill he has accumulated.

Barak Obama, like John Kennedy before him, has the gift of gab. He is a suberb orator, his words have the power to move people. I hope he will use that gift wisely.

That's my political post. I'll probably do no more. As an American abroad I have high hopes that with our new President we can once again begin to become a positive example. I'm heartily sick of having to apologise for my country.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Order Early!

Ignoring the election until later I did something essesntial today. I ordered our Thanksgiving Turkey. 

Now, you may think its a bit early, but here in France its not. You see the French like turkey, but as they don't celebrate Thanksgiving (unless that is they happen to be friends of ours. Our Thanksgiving dinner has become a minor tradition amongst our friends. La fete de Bonne Merci Donnee sort of) all of the butchers & super markets and turkey growers aim to have turkey's ready by Christmas. Thus, you won't see turkey anywhere except in flocks running around the local turkey growers plots in November.

For the past several years we were OK because our wine making friends Sarah & Dave's children raised turkeys amongst the vines in order to raise some holiday spending money. We could rely on them to feed up an 'early bird' so to speak. This year, however, Sarah said she couldn't find anywhere to buy the turkey chicks & besides a fox had moved into their vinyards. So no turkey, not even a chicken left!

Back to the drawing board. Fortunately, there exists in Villefranche a specialist shop, Au Fin Bec. They do nothing but birds. I went in today and was able to persuade Madam that I really did need a turkey on the 18th of November. After many mumbles about how it might not be ready and might be a bit small & scrawny she agreed to have it ready the monring of the 18th. I'm sure it will be delicious as the turkeys here really are very good.

Why the 18th you may be asking? Surely Thanksgiving is on the 27th this year. You are absolutely right, but this year we're celebrating a week early on the 20th & I wanted a couples of days leeway on the turkey. We're celebrating early because some dear friends have sold their house (just managing to sell a house at all is cause for celebration!) and are over closing the deal that week. As they won't be here for Thanksgiving on the proper day we decided to have an early celebration as a way to gather all of their local friends together for a proper send off. Since they are the only other 'local' Americans the rest of our friends aren't the least bit peturbed that we're a week early. So long as I serve my notorious four legged turkey and make carrot cake they're happy.

But that's another story. The turkey appears elsewhere on the blog  I think.

So - if you are in France order early. If you're back in the states think of us on the 20th!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Boss is Away!

The Boss is away and an old man's fancy turns to..... food! Linda is off in England visiting her sister this week so I've taken the opportunity to make a dish that she doesn't like, but that I love.

Namely Choucroute. This famous dish from the Alsace region of France has been one of my favorites every since I first had it many years ago at Brasserie Lipp. I won't pretend that my version is 100% authentic, but it is delicious and very easy to make if you have access to a decent charcouterie (or a good deli will do nicely)


Here's a shot of the bag everything I purchased came in, plus some Chef's lubricant.

As you can see the price came to 6.87 Euros. I'm not used to shopping for one so these ingredients made enough choucroute for two hungry people.







Here's everything unpacked. Namely:


  • Uncooked sauerkraut.
    Cooked will do, but either type must be fresh.

  • Hot dogs. The old fashioned kind.

  • Good quality smoked bacon.

  • Garlic sausage, smoked if possible.

  • Coriander seeds & Juniper berries.



Some smoked porks chops can substitute for the sausage (or be in addition to). Here I can use lardons instead of sliced bacon, but I prefer to have the slab bacon cut to order as it has a stronger flovour.

In any case rinse the sauerkraut then squeeze out as much water as 
possible using your hands. Repeat this three times.

Then, first cut up your bacon into lardon sized slices and mix it well into the sauerkraut. Place it into an over proof casserole that has a tight fitting lid.






Next cut up your sausage.





Then grind the coriander seeds & juniper berries up in a mortar & pestle as seen below.






                                                                            


















Now sprinkle the herb mixture over the sauerkraut. Then arrange the frankfurters & sausage slices over the sauerkraut mixture.

Add enough dry white wine to just come to the top of the pressed down sauerkraut. Reisling is traditional, but any fruty dry white will do. I used a light chardonnay because that's what I happened to have available.



                                                                                                                                                                       
Put the lid on making sure its tight. If too loose make a little paste with flour & water to seal or place a sheet of parchment paper over the top to seal.   

Bake at about 250 degrees F for at least 2 hours, longer won't hurt.








Here's the finished product. The traditional side dish is boiled potatoes, but I find the much too heavy so I don't serve choucroute with anything, anything that is except THE most critical ingredient of all!

LOTS OF GOOD DIJON MUSTARD!!

Lots of good white wine goes without saying although this is a dish that works well with a good beer. A 'brun' here in France is wonderful with it.





                           If you've never had this dish try it! Then let me know what you think.






Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Don't try to mimic the locals

I always find it amusing when foriegners try to be 'local'. That is they try to mimic the dress, mannerisms and customs of the local populance. This happens a lot with ex-pats who come to France seeking to 'blend into the coutryside' and 'be like the French'. Now I think its great for we foriegners to try and fit into the local society. Obviously we should dress and act appropriately and we certainly should respect the local customs. 

No, its the mimicing part and the part where things get carried too far that amuses me. Lets face it if I live to be a hundred I'll never be French. I might fake it with non-French people, but a French person will spot me as a phony instantly. ( when I travelled a lot I used to play a game as I sat around various airports. Spot the nationality! I got to almost a 90% success rate at doing it without even hearing the person in question speak. Shoes were the best giveaway.) Somehow we never quite get it just right no matter how hard we try.  Does it matter? No, I don't think so. Most French people find foriegners fascinating; if you speak passable French so much the better otherwise trying out their English is fun too.

Where is this heading? Well, I have in mind a recent example to do with cooking. An American blogger of note recently did a piece on trying to make Aligot. Nothing much wrong with that except.... hardly anybody makes their own Aligot any more. (Aligot by the way is a local dish from the Auverne consisting of mashed potatoes, garlic, milk butter and , here's the key, a special cheese made only in the region) Its the very devil to make as its hard to get exactly the right cheese outside (unfortunately, this person didn't.) a very limited area (unfortunately this person lives in the wrong area to get the cheese) and, here's the really hard part, the seemingly endless stirring is very hard work. So much so that its considered a man's job. I've seen it made by our locals for a 'repas' and even took a turn at stirring, but it really is hard work.

So what everybody, almost, does is to buy their Aligot at market where there will normally be a specialist Aligot maker selling the stuff. Either that or the local will only have Aligot when out to a restaurant. Or if really desperate you can actually buy Aligot at the supermarket to heat up when you get home.

Well, unfortunanetly this person's Aligot failed. She could having been much more native if she's just gone out & bought some. (Although I'm not sure they sell it at market in her part of France)This person, however, is determined to be LOCAL!! Unfornately she usually just misses the boat    or the cheese in this case.

Or & here's a 'local' tip. You can turn a 'failed' Aligot into a " Truffade" by adding a few lardons, flattening it into a thick pancake & frying it in a bit of pork fat. 

Thursday, October 09, 2008

New Twist on an old favorite

I've always loved Prawns Bordelaise. Lovely prawns with a garlic & lemon sauce. Ymmmy! So, I decided to make them a couple of weeks ago having found some nice peeled prawns at market at a good price.

Now, I don't know about you, but I get confused amongst prawns, shrimp, scampi, gambas and so forth as to which is which. We seem to call them one thing in the states & another thing in England. Anyway in this case what I'm calling prawns would weigh in at about a 50-60 count. Fairly good sized.

Back to the recipe. As I looked in the fridge to get my prawns out I noticed that I had a nice bunch of mushrooms. Just ordinary cultivated mushrooms. (the French call them Champigons de Paris). Inspiration struck! Why not use them, so I did and the result was delicious.

Here's what you do:

  1. Peel your prawns if not already peeled. Cut you mushrooms into slices at a right angle to the direction that they grow. (trim off any bits, but save & use the stems); make the slices fairly thick, say about 1/8th inch thick. Chop some garlic up finely. Cut a lemon in half ready to squeeze.
  2. In an appropriately sized frying pan put in a good sized knob of butter. When it has melted & starts to foam dump in your mushrooms & garlic all at once. Toss continually until the mushrooms are just barely cooked. (you may have to add more butter). You do NOT want the mushrooms to give up thrir water!
  3. Add the prawns and cook just until pink or if the prawns are pre-cooked just until they're hot.
  4. Squeeze in the lemon juice to taste.
  5. Artisticly arrange the mushroom slices & prawns over a bed of greens, your choice of type of greens (I use manch or baby spinach leaves)
  6. Meanwhile quickly melt some more butter, add lemon juice & pour over the whole plate as a sauce.
That's it! It turns out that the mushroom/ prawn combination really worked well. The flavours compliment each other. I wouldn't use stronger falvoured mushrooms (wild mushrooms for instance) as they might overpower the prawns. As a bonus the colours look really nice on the plate.

Try it; you'll like it. Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

I've been busy!

Sorry & all that. I haven't been around for nearly a month, I'm suprised that anybody bothers to look at the blog, but grateful that you do.

It has been hectic! A succession of three sets of visitors the last of whom left yesterday. The first set was a couple we haven't seen in years. They're newly minted Americans having become citizens just last year after living in the states for over 20 years. (origionally they're British) They were here ten days & said they had a great time even though they left with a touch of Francois's revenge and a ten hour flight back to California. Just goes to show how different set of bugs can get you if you're not used to them; none of the rest of us got it.

The second lot were friends from England, Northerners to be exact. They are a great couple & great guests. Tony & I took turns cooking & played golf whist the ladies did a bit of shooping. Copious amounts of wine evaporated somehow. We'll be seeing them again when we visit their new Florida house in January. Should be a lot of fun & a lot of golf.

Last, but not least we're my brother & sister-in-law. We always enjoy them as they're family & easy to get along with. We'll see a lot of them now that they've both retired. Derek & I played several rounds of golf as well as watching the Ryder Cup. The sisters did what sisters always do, they talked & shopped. Plenty to talk about as our neice, their daughter, is getting married here next June.

During all of this there was, naturally, lots of cooking going on. Many old favorites pus a couple of new inventions. I'll post about the new inventions over the next few days. Suffice it to say that we ate well both at home, at friends and at our favorite restaurant.

That's it for now. Promise to get back into the blog now that life has calmed down.

Wish we could spread our visitors out more, but they all guessed September would be good and it was. Spectacular weather all month. Its changed now and fall is upon us. Whoopee! Michael & I will go scrounging - apples, walnuts, hazelnuts, mushrooms (if we get some rain), figs and pears. Its a tough life in the country.

Friday, August 29, 2008

I love a bargain

As posted over on eGullet we went to our favorite restaurant for lunch this week. It was delicious and a terrific bargain. I didn't go into detail in my post, but can here.

As an aside, ever notice how some bloggers make a point of linking virtually every post they do on eGullet to their blog. Not content with mentioning in their signature they stick in links. Some of these are pretty contrived. The self promotion sort of makes me uncomfortable.

Anyway, the favorite restaurant (Le Vieux Pont in Belcastel) has a 27 Euro three course set menu for lunch on weekdays. (The main menu is 51 or 43 Euros depending upon whether you have just a fish or meat course or whether you have both.) But what they do is to include all the little extras that come with the more expensive menus. In effect we ended up with 7 courses as follows:

Amuse One. A board with two miniture pancakes on sticks (one was with fois gras & the other smoked ham) plus a little pot containing a veretable puree with herbs over minced shallots & a touch of horseradish.

Amuse Two. Mashed avacodo (almost a guacamole) over tabulla.

Our Entree. A flaky pastry disc covered with flaked steamed cod topped by roasted tomato with basil & chives. Very delicate & very good.

Our Plat. Traverse de porc (meaty pork spare ribs) that had been confited with soya & sweet herbs. In a seperate bowl were rice noodles with julliened vegatables; these mixed well with the porc. Strong flavours, but very good.

Cheese. A generous wedge of local goat's cheese cut to your wish at table with a sprinkling of fresh walnuts.

Pre - dessert. Macaroons with chocolate & orange and a chewy toffee loaded with pistachio nuts.

Dessert. Fruit salad with finely minced fruits & in the center a crisp sugar biscuit roll filled with passion fruit. Light & wonderful. By far the best "fruit salad" I've ever had.

Post - dessert. Lemon granita with basil & cream.

All beautifully presented and served with charm. (in this restaurant everyone works to satisfy their guests. Each member of staff does whatever is necessary to make thing run smoothly. Even the co-owner/ Maitre d'hotel is not above clearing courses if needed.)

For wine we had a delicious Cotes de Roulission at 21 Euros. Well, actually we had 2 bottles.

What a deal is all I can say. The ambiance is every bit as good as the food & the prices.

So for those who spurn Michelin starred places, I say just keep trying. There are other places that equal Le Vieux Pont. The trick is in finding them.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Guess I'm just an old grouch

Some of you reading this may have been following the discussion on eGullet about taking photographs in restaurants. If so, you'll know that I'm firmly against it. Never the less I have been willing to at least listen to arguments from the opposing sides, but reluctantly I've begun to come to the conclusion that we're dealing with a much more serious issue underlying this issue.

As I read the posts from the photographers I can only come to the conclusion that most of them seem to be of a mind set that says me... me...me !! I will do what I want, when I want to & where I want to and to hell with the rest of the world. There seems to be lip service at best to considering anything others might feel. No, I'll do what I want. The world is waiting for my artistic interpretation of the food I eat!

I find this unfortunate and having met many of these people find them unfortunate. No manners! Few morals! Little sensitivity! I could go on, but why bother. They love themselves to the exclusion of anyone else.

As my title says maybe I'm just an old grouch, but I do have a few manners and I do take the feeling of my fellows into account and I do wonder if the me.. me.. me attitude might have had anything to do with causing the financial chaos that's finally easing a bit. Certainly, there was little but immediate short term gain & fat bonuses in that whole fiasco.

Enough! I rarely let myself get carried away on this blog, but these photographic idiots pushed me a bit too far.

Sorry.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Here come the Plums !!

Its that time of year again; the plums are ripe. More specifically the WILD plums are ripe. These grow in the hedgerows around our field and throughout our local countryside.

The plums taste good and make for wonderful pies,
jams & jellies, BUT to most of our locals the plums have a far more important use. THEY MAKE THE BEST EAU DE VIE! This French moonshine is a delight to drink if one exercises care. The alcoholic content is way up there. I found out the hard way a few years back. I was foolish enough to try tasting the Eau de Vie of several local home distillers, all in one evening! As I rarely drink anything stronger than wine this stuff really went to my head. Never again!

So, to make Eau de Vie you collect the
plums this time of year. It is important that you don't collect them until they fall to the ground. While still on the tree they're too green & don't have adequate sugar content. Having collected your plums you put them in a closed container and leave them there for the next 5 to 6 months. They will naturally ferment just as grapes do. You need a lot of plums since 10 liters of plums will only produce one liter of Eau de Vie.

In February you take your plum slurry to a local or more likely a traveling distiller. The making of Eau de Vie is closely regulated (although the law is flouted pretty widely. Kentucky & Tennessee have nothing on rural Fr
ance when it comes to moonshiners.) You can, legally, make up to a liter for personal consumption without a license.

We have friends who inherited an Eau de Vie license when they bought their house. They could although they never did produce up to 100 liters so long as they paid their taxes on it.

In most cases you go to the distiller with not only your plums, but with your own wood for the fire, your own bottles and your own corks. He will build a fire to boil your plum juice and distill it with his equipment. Just like making brandy. He charges a fee and off you go. Our main local guy comes to a hamlet called Causvielle every February.

You now age your Eau de Vie for as long as you like. The
longer the better. I've had some that is over 20 years old. It gets very smooth, but no less lethal at that age.




The above is a label I did for my friends who have the Eau de Vie license. Its a bit of fun, but the '1736' stone in the center is authentic. Its a picture of an actual stone embedded in one of their walls.


So that's what is done with plums in deepest France. A lot more fun than jams or jellies I think.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Tour de France - yet again

We watched the start of a stage of the Tour De France for the fifth year in a row. This year the closest start to us was in Figeac. (Every year thr route of the Tour changes, but as we're in the SW we always seem to get a stage or two pretty nearby. Last year was Cahors, the year before Albi & so on.)
Figeac is about 35 minutes away normally, but since the tour was going to use the normal main road, the road was closed. Being local we knew how to get around this. We headed up & crossed the river at Cajarc and drove along the North bank. We were able to cruise straight into Figeac and were lucky enough to find a French parking place (A French parking place is one that isn't really a parking place, but doesn't block the road or someone's drive so you get away with it. See earlier post for a treatise on French parking.) just by the main car park. From there it was a short walk across the bridge to the promenade where the caravan was just starting to pass by.
The caravan is a whole parade of decorated cars & floats done up by the Tour's sponsors. Lots of loud music & pretty girls. Also, lots of free samples thrown into the crowd. Everything from hats to pins to candy to bottled water to I can't remember what else. The children go wild & scramble for the goodies. Its great fun and to be honest more exciting than the riders themselves.
Eventually here come the riders. At this stage they're just starting so the race really isn't on and they're going relatively slowly. Its a good chance to see them all up close. As they leave the town they take off and start really racing. The Figeac start was neat because the riders have to climb a steep hill immediately. Anyway off they went.
We went to a riverside cafe/hotel & had a beer. Very nice, but they didn't serve food. A good lunch after the start has become a Tour De France tradition so is important to us. This year we hadn't booked anything in advance. So, we asked at the cafe for a recommendation. They said we should try the 'Le Cuisine de la Marche'. Its just across the river behind the church they said. Off we went.
It was easy to find although on a very small street. A good looking menu if a bit more expensive than the norm so we went in. The place was very nicely decorated with well set up tables widely placed. Can we get lunch we asked? Do you have a reservation they asked? No we said. Ok they said would you like the table by the window? Yes, that looks great. When we sat down Rob was intrigued by the unusual way the napkins were folded. (Rob's children still run the restaurant that he & Jean started in Scotland) So much so that when the waitress came with the menus he asked for and got a demonstration on napkin folding.
My starter was a dish of escargots served with finely julienned vegetables all encased in a choux pastry shell. The sauce was very lightly creamed to allow the escargot flavors to come through. A nice dish & well presented. The plat was roast cannette. This duck was served on a large plate surrounded by beautifully done seasonal vegetables and with a smaller shallow bowl in the center. This bowl captured the duck juices and was lined with sauteed potatoes. The duck itself was very tender and there were three generous slice of magret plus a cuisse. Delicious! I had a nice cheese platter for dessert. Others had a dessert with three sorbets in small pots, each over a different compot. This was accompanied by two kinds of cake, one chocolate & one spicy. It was pronounced to be superb. It certainly looked superb.
Wine was a nice 2002 local Cahor.
Amazingly we were the ONLY customers! We kept expecting the place to fill up given the crowds on the streets, but nobody ever came. We asked Madame, the joint owner, about this & she said that Tour De France spectators in general were too cheap to pay for a good meal. She also said the they had a full house for dinner the previous evening as the sponsors & team members were not so cheap.
This echos past experience, but we still are amazed that quality restaurants should be empty with such a large crowd.
Anyway, we had a great time and will do it again next year. I need to add to my collection of Tour De France hats & T-shirts!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

More local politics

I've talked before about the change in our local town council. In general things seem to be going well, but as normal for small towns politics are getting a bit messy.

First, however, a follow up on the 'fete des mais' I now find out that doing the fete & putting up the maypole is a tradition whenever there is a new Mayor elected. How this ceremony got from being a festival honoring the Earth Goddess to one celebrating the election of a new Mayor is still a mystery. I'm researching as are several French friends. The second part of what happens is that the losing Mayor & Councilors have a tattered coat put up outside their homes. After talking this through with local friends we've determined that its the French equivilent of "losing your shirt"! They didn't do it in Parisot, but did down in Penne where a friend lives. The losing Mayor was not amused.
Another story that's now emereged. In Ginals, a neighboring parish, the locals held a meeting to talk about whether there should be a new Mayor & Council. The incumbent Mayor (age 86) showed up & forecefully said; "I am the Mayor! You can't have a new one!" The citizens were so outraged that they organized & made sure he didn't get elected again. They did put up a shirt for him.

Anyway the local politics. Parisot is just finishing renovating a building to be our new local library. It looks as if its going to be very nice. There has been a small library in the Marie for many years. It was looked after by Madame X, the local Doctors wife. Now with the new coucil ther's a plan to have an English section of the new library. A local & very politically connected English woman (she was a losing canidate for the council) was asked to organize the English section. Well apparantly she's been so overbearing that she's upset the incumbent librarian to the point where she loked up the library, threw the keys down on the Mayor's desk & resigned.
This has upset all the locals AND started to give the English who live locally a bad name. Truth be told this woman isn't even very popular within the foriegn community, but that's hard to get over, politely, to everyone. C'est le guerre. Linda came up to
Madame X at a recent repas to say hello and got the whole story very emotionally. WE and other French friends are working to try to defuse the situation. It will be intersting to see what his honor the Major does about it.

Other new initiatives are going well. The Friday market is a real success with a few more stalls now. The Engish classes for the 3 to 5 years olds are going well. And everybody is gearin up for Festilac, our big blow out with fireworks at the end of the month.

More from the heart of France later.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

July 4th - again, but a bit diffrerent

I've been reading other expat's blogs about doing 4th of July celebrations so I guess I should mention what we did this year.
Most people seem to try to do 'American' cooking; key lime pie, chocolate cake, ribs, BBQ & the like. The French seem to appreciate it, but it gets a bit boring after a while. There's a write up somewhere here in this blog about what our friends did in past years. Burgers, hot dogs (not appreciated.) & so forth. In that case the locals didn't quite get it about what the 4th was so it ended up being the D-day party.
Anyway, this year I decided that a more challenging meal and very Californian (I did grow up there) would be to do a Mexican meal. The challenge was to get the ingredients; cooking the meal was relatively easy. This was new territory for our French friends as well as most of our other friends. We were only 14 people so the crowd was smaller than usual. Of those only 4 of us were Americans; the rest a mix of Brits & French.
We started with a cold melon soup. This from a Mexican recipe in Diana Kennedy's book. Very good it was & very easy to make. Fortunately, nice sweet melons are in full season now and they substituted nicely for the Cantaloupes called for. The rest (Potatoes, milk and eggs) was easily found.
This was followed by guacamole with salad on the side. The salad was from Mary's garden picked that morning so was fresh & delicious. The avocados were easy, I just had to buy in advance so they could ripen up. Making up the herb mixture only required a bit of tweaking. (cumin, coriander, paprika, mace, oregano, S&P. All dried) to get right, but was Ok. Fortunately I have a good market source of fresh cilantro and was lucky enough to find some nice hot little red chilies. (don't know the variety). The rest was easy. AND! Our local Casino store is actually stocking Tortilla chips. Whoopee! It was a very good guacamole if I do say so myself.
Next we did do- it-yourself tostadas. Most of the toppings were easy. We used Greek yogurt instead of sour cream which I cannot find in France. I made my own salsa. Shredded cheese is easy to get if you are OK with Emmental. Tomatoes & lettuce are easy. I made my own refried beans from red beans that I'd cooked the night before. We decided to make these beef as opposed to chicken or pork tostadas so I fried up good quality ground beef with onion & green pepper plus pretty much the same herb mix you'd use for Chile. It worked well. Some searching allowed us to come up with pre-made flour tortillas. These turned out OK although I would have preferred a larger diameter.
We demonstrated how to fry a tortilla then smear it with refried beans, a topping of the beef then down the line with tomatoes, lettuce, yogurt, cheese & lots of salsa. Everyone had fun doing it and the tostadas were not bad at all. The refried beans I think caused the most comment as they were good & nobody other than the Yanks had had them before.
We finished off with fried bananas & ice cream which while not too Mexican went well with the scheme of things.
All in all a fun meal. I do think, however, that we may have confused some of our French guests. They now think Mexican food is typical American food. That's OK as in some ways it is in the same sense as are the European dished that we've made our own.
I'll have to start thinking about something new for next year. In the meantime this Sunday evening we're going to our local village repas to celebrate July 14th. The French independence day. Alway a good do with some fireworks afterwards.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Lamb - up close & personal

I had a new experience this last week. Watching the lamb I was buying from a live critter running around his field to a cut up carcass ready to go in my freezer. Here's the story.

My friend Rob who's a semi-retired farmer (I don't think farmers ever fully retire, certainly Rob won't) asked if I wanted to buy a lamb as he was going to slaughter one of his. I said I'd have half since I don't currently have freezer space for more. I also got to thinking that carnivore that I am I've hardly ever seen the whole process through from live animal onwards. ( I quit hunting deer many a year ago.) So I asked Rob if I could be there as he did everything. No problem says Rob.

Rob was a good choice to watch as not only has he been a sheep farmer (he still has 2,000 acres in Scotland that one of his son's runs) he is also a Master butcher who had his own shop. Thus he really knows what he's doing. Currently he only has half a dozen sheep since that's all Jean, his wife, will allow. So I was in good hands.

The weather cooled down last Monday so Rob called & I went over in the early evening. He had penned up the three lambs and grabbed & brought out the one that was to be killed. Rob admits that even though he's been a farmer & butcher for many years he still has to psych himself up to do the actual killing. (Note I deliberately didn't take any pictures as this is a family friendly blog. At least so far.) A quick plunge with a very sharp knife and the jugular vein was cut. Brain death was virtually instantaneous as the blood supply was cut off. It took longer for the rest of the body to shut down, but there seemed to be no pain.

That was the hard part for me and I think for Rob as well. Next came the skinning. (I asked, but apparently there is little market these days for lamb pelts.) Rob carefully cut the skin around the ankle bone leaving a strip which he cut down towards the foot. This became a 'handle' for later. The foot as then cut off at the ankle. This was done for each leg and then the skin inside each leg as cut up to the body and peeled off. At this point we hung the lamb up using a stick pushed between the bone & tendon of the rear leg above the ankle. Thus the lamb was hanging head down. Rob then very carefully cut the skin up the belly from the rear to the neck. He started separating the skin from the body by pulling with one hand while pushing inside with his other hand clenched into a fist. This continued until the skin on the legs could be peeled back (at about this point Rob carefully cut around the anal area.) after which the skin on the back side was peeled off fairly easily. At the end all the skin & pelt came of including that on the head.

We now had a bare carcass. The innards were held in by a membrane. Rob carefully cut the membrane as I positioned a wheelbarrow underneath. Everything including the anal area came out cleanly & together. Most was cut out leaving only the heart, liver, pancreas and kidneys still attached.

Finished! I was amazed at how little blood there was other than at the beginning. We now hung the lamb in Rob's barn, high up, to fully drain. After a few hours it was moved inside to a cool place to hang for two days.

Two days later, this Wednesday, I went to watch Rob cut up the lamb. I'm always fascinated by how easy professional make doing things look and this was no exception. Rob started by cutting off the breast at both sides. He then cut through the neck to detach the head. Rob then cut (sawed) straight down the backbone as in this case we were dividing the lamb in two. Next off came the hind leg (which we're eating this Sunday) This I asked Rob to bone and to cut off the shank. Next came the shoulder which we cut into two pieces since a whole shoulder is too much meat for just Linda & I. We then cut 2 four rib racks and a couple of dinners worth of the remaining ribs. Rob rolled & tied the breast and cut out the nice neck pieces. I took home some of the liver & one kidney which we had for dinner that evening. Delicious!

The dressed whole lamb by the way weighed 15.8 kilos. (35.2 pounds approx.) Rob sold it to me for 10 Euros per kilo which is a very good price hereabouts.

All in all I'm glad I watched the whole thing. I learned a lot. I doubt that I'll ever kill & dress my own meat, but I learned a lot about cutting up the carcass and how to maximize the usable meat.

I'm not going to have any qualms about eating this lamb at all. I think he'll be even more delicious than if he were anonymous.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Fete des Mais - Part 2














Having planted our Maypole we all decamped to out local lake. This was in aid of planting a tree, introducing the full new council and, this being France, having a meal and a bit to drink.



Here's the whole council. And here's our very happy new Mayor!




After mercifully short speeches the beer & wine started flowing and the conversations really got going. This was a great chance to bring ourselves up to date with many local friends, get the latest gossip and socialize in general. I for instance ran into friends whose 13 year old son is getting into tennis, but has nobody to play with. I'll probably regret volunteering, but we start next Friday. Can my ego stand getting walloped by a teenager? Probably yes & the exercise will do me good.





After a few goutte's (drops) we all trooped off to the tables under the trees for the repas. In addition to wine we had a buffet selection of several salads, slices of roast pork, pizza slices, cornichons, bread, cheese and fouace (a local kind of cake). It was pretty nice spread all in all.

I'm not going to try to describe the rest of the day, but I will leave you with some pictures of our wonderful friends & neighbors in the village. A bientot!


















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A good time was had by all. By the way that's Madam Le Mayor taking the video.

People are great!