Friday, January 25, 2008

Offal - Awful?

A few things I've read recently and a trip to the hyper market today got me thinking about offal and how in the states it seems to be increasingly unpopular, the same is true in England as well. Yet it seems as popular as ever here in France. Maybe its an Anglo-Saxon thing?
I'm old enough to remember that my Mother (who was not much of a cook) used to cook offal. We had liver, beef heart, & kidneys that I can remember. I also remember that pickled pigs feet which came in a big glass jar were a real treat. I still like all of those things.
In France everything is used it seems. And many of the offal items are not exactly cheap either; they're certainly not virtually given away, if you can find them, as they are in the states & England. There is a huge variety of 'bits & pieces' that one can buy. I'm going to go through as many as I can remember with some purely personal comment upon my like & dislikes.

LIVER. I like liver; especially calves liver. It needs to be gently cooked and the traditional bacon & onions do go well.
KIDNEY. Again a thing I like. I'm lucky enough to be married to a Northern English woman who knows how to make steak & kidney pie to die for. Her suet dumplings to go with it a equally heavenly.
TESTICLES. Can't think of a more honest name & I hate the euphemisms. In any case I'm pretty neutral about them. I'll eat them if presented, but I'd probably never order them in a restaurant. Too many other things I like better.
TRIPE. As far as I'm concerned there's nothing much to like or dislike about tripe. It doesn't have much taste or character as far as I can tell. I do, however, like some of the dishes that its put in. Its one of local local specialties here and they do some nice dishes.
STOMACH. Otherwise known as haggis in the English speaking world. It very much depends upon how the haggis is made. I've had awful & I've had divine.
TÈTE DE VEAU. Yummy! A favorite dish. Rarely bad & usually delicious.
HEADCHEESE. Another euphemism, but I love it anyway. I am especially fond of the French version studded with chopped up little cornichons. I've also had a form of rillettes made wholly from bits of a pigs head. That was pretty nice too.
TROTTERS. Pied de porc in French. As I mentioned above I like them pickled. Most of the other ways I've had them are Ok, but pretty tasteless in my opinion. I did have some which had been marinated, pounded flat & roasted which were wonderful. This was at a restaurant in Madrid & I've never seen them done this way again.
PIGS EARS. The French love these, but I've never seen the attraction. Again, fairly tasteless in my opinion. Now then when we used buy baked pigs ears for our dog sthat was different story. They loved them!
QUEUE. Pigs tail, another thing the French seem to love. I can't say that it has much taste, but it does seem to add a certain nice consistency to the dishes where its used.
PATES, TERRINE'S & MOUSSES. Most tend to use offal of some sort even if its only liver. Anyway there are few that I don't like. Its great fun here to go into the charcuterie and have choice of 8-10 or more to choose from. Love it!
FRITTONS. I don't know just how local these are, but they are a type of pate made with various bits & pieces including types of offal. I've seen them made from duck, veal and pig. Some taste pretty good others are a bit off putting.
Around here there is another type of fritton as well. This is a duck's carcass (the breasts, legs & thighs have been removed.) which has been slowly cooked in duck fat so the meat that left has been turned into comfit. I only know of one place to buy them already done, but you can buy the raw carcasses fairly easily. Probably not really offal, but sort of in the same vein. Its an interesting alternative to using the carcass for making stock.
STUFFING. Most forcemeat stuffings are all the better for having the bird's offal included as are gravy's.

What have I missed? Don't know, but if anybody wants to remind me feel free.

Bottom line is that overall I like offal more than not. We'd have a poorer diet & cuisine without it. So...

Vive la France! for keeping it going.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

THE ham - its been a long wait

There he is the whole ham. Notice how beautifully he's wrapped? Sort of ugly isn't he, but having waited a year for him he's beautiful to me and to my friend Andrew. The ham is the result of our adventure last year of joining in with French friends to butcher a whole pig. Well, actually it turned out to be two pigs as there were quite a few of us. (I've written up the whole adventure earlier in this blog.).
Because it was the first time for Andrew & I we sort of wimped out and decided that we would share half a pig between us. We had a great time during the whole process and both ended up with lots of several kinds of sausage and several kinds of pate. These were easy to divide up. For the ham we had to wait for it to cure. Local lore says that takes one year; who are we to argue. (The cure by the way is a simple salt cure not much else.) So the ham was finally ready a week or so ago & our friend Jacques brought it over for us. We now had the problem of how to divide the ham in two - equitably!
After considerable thought it was our friend Robert who came to our rescue. Rob is a retired farmer/ jockey/ butcher. He reckoned that he had a way to cut up the ham so the ended up in four pieces that could be equitably shared. This sounded better than sawing it down the middle which was the best the Andrew & I had come up with so we agreed to let Robert have a go.

Rob started by cutting off the hock.

As you can see the ham has a really nice color and is tender & moist.
Of course we had a taste. It is great! Wonderful flavor, not too salty. I think our French experts we were working with knew what they were doing. Its for sure we didn't.

Next Rob cut out what he called the 'chine'. It the smaller piece in the middle of the picture. Apparently this is a different set of muscles .

Now came the cut cut where Rob took out the leg bone and then cut the ham into two large pieces. These were the Topside and the Silver side. (if I got it right the Silver side is the inside of the pig's leg and the Topside is the outside of the leg.)

The piece in the center of the picture is the topside (or at least I think it is. We'd been drinking wine as we watched Rob so I wasn't paying as close attention to what he was doing as I should have.)

In any case it was now time to divide up as we had four pieces of ham plus a bone.

I asked Andrew to choose first as I'd dragooned him into the whole thing to begin with.

Here's what he chose. The chine & the Topside.

I got the silver side, the hock and the bone. We're both happy.

The whole thing has been a great experience. We'll probably do it again next month.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The frugal shopper - French style

I recently read about buying foie gras here in France now that its on sale after the holidays. That's good advice because it really is much cheaper than normal. Still foie gras is expensive even at half price. That got me to thinking about frugal shopping for food here. Eat well, but save money. Its possible if one sticks to seasonal items, has a freezer and learns the ropes. In other words learn to food shop the way the French housewives do. They are in a word - frugal.

Now, when it comes to the big holiday meals the French don't count the cost. They buy whatever they want at whatever the cost. Foie gras at full price, oysters, expensive cuts of meat, cheeses, pâtisserie desserts, chocolate, the lot. But in everyday cooking they tend to be frugal. They follow the seasons, they use the markets and they prepare slow cooked meals with inexpensive ingredients.

Here are few of the things I've learned from them:

A freezer is necessary so the one can take full advantage of the sales. Especially the meat sales.

Meats: Follow the sales for sure. Beef & veal is always pretty expensive; even when on sale. Lamb is normally expensive, but does go on sale. For example I'm going to buy a couple of half lambs today at 5.30 euro per KG. (a little under $4.00/lb.). Pork is of very high quality here and is inexpensive. When on sale its really cheap. Belly pork for $1.50/lb for example. The pork sausage (de Toulouse) is both wonderful and moderately priced.
Birds range in price. There is cheap battery chicken, but a proper free range bird is relatively expensive ($7-8.00/lb) When available fresh duck leg/thighs are very cheap. Breasts are normally not cheap at $8-9.00/lb. Turkey breasts & leg/thighs are cheap. Recently our local supermarket has been selling quail from Spain at a very low price.

Vegetables: The first rule is to buy from the market whenever possible. The produce will be cheaper in most cases and fresher. Winter is difficult as the imported stuff is relatively expensive & the quality not that great. Leeks are a real staple here being local. Cauliflower and broccoli are also good. Onions, shallots and potatoes stay inexpensive. Most other veggies start to get expensive.
Given what's available we have adopted the French custom of having lots of soups. A staple here are the various kinds of squash & pumpkin which make for great soups as, of course, do the leeks.

Fruit: Apples are the best bet here as there a lots of local varieties (my favorite stand at Villfranche market always has at least ten types available + great cider!) Oranges & Clementine's come in from Spain with good quality & price. Pears are good. Pretty much everything else suffers.

Cheese: There's not too much seasonal price variation, but there is a lot of 'quality' variation. For example; plain old brie vs. brie de meux vs. raw milk brie. The price difference is about 3X per pound. Or take the range from Cantal to Salers. Here price about doubles from $6.00/lb to about $14.00/lb as you go from Cantal-jeaune to cantal- entre doux to cantal- vieux to Laguiole to Salers. All the same cheese family, but a huge difference in price. There's also a large variation in price amongst the range of blue cheeses. Then there is in addition a huge range of 'manufactured' or 'commercial' cheeses. (sort of the French equivalent of Velveeta) These are cheap & some are actually edible.

Charcuterie: The range is so large that its hard to make comparisons. Certainly the pre-prepared dishes are expensive in general although things like celeris rave & carrot salad are cheap & good. Pates range from very expensive to pretty cheap depending upon ingredients. Rillets tend to be a great buy as are fritons. One could totally eat from the charcuterie, but it would be expensive.

General food stuff: Basics are reasonable and there's not a lot of variation. We find most ready meal type packaged goods in the freezer or on the shelves to be pretty awful. See my comments about the Uk equivalents. Jams, jellies, chocolate, snacks and so forth are abundant & cheap.

We've been out of the states too long to make comparisons, but we do find things cheaper here than in England.

Overall though we find it fun to be frugal. Shopping & eating like the French is no hardship; we enjoy it. We still revert to & enjoy eating occasional American or English meals, but by & large we're becoming more & more 'French"

Friday, January 11, 2008

A better mousetrap?

We've been having a plague of mice this winter. Living in the country as we do we expect to get the occasional mouse in the house especially in the winter. Normally we get two or three between November and March.
This year its been over twenty! I'm catching nearly one a day. Our neighbors all seem to have the same problem. For whatever reason (global warming? Carbon emissions? ) the mouse population seems to have exploded. I'm even catching them in one of the spare bedrooms which isn't used at all and has absolutely no source of food for a mouse. I've been around outside and blocked up every conceivable place where I think a mouse might get in. No luck. The little devils are so small that they can squeeze in just about anywhere.

Up to a few days ago I was using conventional mouse traps. You know, the wooden ones with a spring, a wire arrangement and a little platform for the bait. I was using two, one under the kitchen sink & one over in the spare bedroom. The bait was a bit of cheese or, this being France, a small piece of pate. As mentioned this was working pretty well, but I did have a number of misses where they got the bait, but didn't get trapped and there were days when I forgot to reset that trap(s).
The other day mouse droppings turned up in the linen room so Linda asked if I'd get more traps as it didn't seem that two were enough. So while we were in Villefranche I dropped into Pole Vert. (Now, you have to get you 'Verts' straight in France as there
is Pole Vert and there is Point Vert. Both national chains. Pole Vert is a post of farmer's hardware store. An amazing mixture of stuff for the farmer, everything from clothes to machinery to pipes to horsey stuff to mouse traps. Point Vert on the other hand is a combination of garden stuff plus general hardware. Everything from plants to fertilizer to pipe fittings to wine to clothes to, yes, mouse traps. Whatever, both seem to do pretty well & are fun to wander around being pretty good for one's vocabulary of farming & garden items. Not as much fun as the quincaillerie though.)

Sure enough Pole Vert had a stock of the classic mouse traps. So I picked up a couple, but there right next to the checkout counter was a display of SUPER CAT!

I've read a saying somewhere to the effect that "build a better mouse trap and the world will beat a path to your door." I don't know who said that, but it has always stuck in my mind. Well It seems that somebody has built a better mouse trap!

Here it is the Super Cat mouse trap. This is the picture of it closed. They come two to the pack and cost about 4 bucks. The promise is that they're easy to use, safe, effective and require no baiting.

Naturally, I had
to buy a two pack to try out.

So, when we got home the first thing I did was to read the directions. (being a BSEE I do stupid thing like reading directions)

So simple that even I could understand them. Push down the lever and remove the cap on the bait platform.

Once a mouse is caught just push down the lever again to drop the corpse into the garbage. Your trap is the automatically reset.

Couldn't be simpler.

So I set both traps and placed them. As a test I also set my old conventional trap next to the Super Cat under the kitchen sink.

Super Cat worked! I caught three mice in a row. AND the mice preferred. if that's the word, Super Cat to the old fashioned trap.

In fact after a few days of this I'm not catching mice any more. I think Super Cat has cleaned them all out.

Thus, it looks as if somebody has actually invented a better mouse trap. I was intrigued and noticed that there was an Internet address on the packaging ( so I had a look. Turns out that this company makes a number of interesting products including 'humane' version of the mouse trap. They've just introduced a trap for voles & moles which I'm trying to buy as the moles are chewing up our lawn and, so far, traps, noise makers and bombs (yes, really!) haven't done the job.

All I have to do is find somebody in France who stocks the mole trap.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Local politics - the same the world over?

We went up to the village hall yesterday at lunch time for the village New Years celebration put on by the Marie. About half the village attended. (our whole commune has 450 adults plus children) We had mulled wine, orange juice, crisps, olives and galette. (The village can't afford the 'galette des Roi' that's traditional in homes.) A good time was had by all.

It was nice to be greeted warmly by so many of our neighbors. Beaucoup de bise were exchanged. These are kisses on the cheek; more friendly that a simple handshake and a sign of acceptance. Everyone wishing everyone a happy new year. Nice party.

I couldn't, however, not notice that the real politics are starting. We have our local elections coming up for the Mayor and the town council. (All 14 of them. Seems a lot, but then again why not.)

The current Mayor was working the room like a pro. He even tried out his English on us! He's running for election to be Mayor for the first time in his own right. He became Mayor this time when his predecessor retired; he was the Deputy Mayor so automatically stepped up.

Running against him is the owner of the local pharmacy. He's younger, but an outsider having only been living in the village for a couple of years.

So to start with we have the incumbent who has been living in the village for many years running against the new comer from outside. (The villagers say; "he's a Parisian." Now I don't know if he really comes from Paris, but they call most French outsiders Parisians just as they call all foreigners "les Anglais" whether or not they come from the UK.) The old guard versus the new. Add to that the fact that the Mayor is a staunch Socialist and the challenger a fan of Sarkozy and you have nice left right split. This is a pretty conservative area so being of the right is not necessarily a bad thing.

The challengers accuse the Mayor of being stogy and do nothing. They want the village to be more dynamic. Issues are things like why hasn't the Mayor sorted out the cafe situation? (The local cafe is closed because the license holder (unfortunately a drunk) is banned from opening due to poor hygiene in the cafe. The owner would like to reopen, but can't get the license off the holder.) Why can't the local shop be combined with the Post Office to the benefit of both? The Mayor is also accused of being uncommunicative preferring to do things then inform people. And so it goes. Why was a house out of character allowed to be built in the village?

The incumbents say that the 'newcomers' just want to stir up trouble; that all they have are pipe dreams and what do they know about the 'real' village anyway. "We have a nice village let's keep it that way. Don't rock the boat."

Now in these elections there can be an open slate or a closed one. In the open slate its each person who's standing is voted for individually. One votes for up to 15 people (including the Mayor's position.) In a closed slate one votes for a selection of candidates as a block. That is if its a full slate one can only give it all 15 votes. The Mayor has opted for a closed slate. (remember he's a Socialist and party oriented), but he only has 9 people on his slate. The challengers are still gathering potential names, but... They already have two 'foreigners' signed up. Both British! Will the true locals accept them? The rest of the open slate so far tends to be the younger people of the village.

This is getting interesting. I'll keep you posted as the campaigns progress.

I expect that anyone reading this who lives or has ever lived in a small town will find all of this familiar. Politics are politics methinks.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Food Shopping The UK vs. France

One of the things about being a 'foodie' is that one can't resist food shopping. So, although I didn't do much cooking during our recent trip to the Uk I did go food shopping several times with both my daughter-in-law and my sister-in-law. Both are pretty good cooks and like to experiment. We had a lot of fun going around the big supermarkets, mainly Waitrose who seem to be the upmarket supermarket of choice in England. I must say that their stores are very well laid out and that the checkout system is superb. (you could pick up your own scanner & log things in as you put them into your cart. Then, if you used the store's card you could check yourself out. An honor system of sorts, but pretty neat if you're in a hurry.)

Here are my impressions of what I saw as the major differences in shopping in a Uk as opposed to a French supermarket.
  • Ethnic foods. No comparison. The Uk markets have a very wide range of cuisine, everything from Indian to Thai to Japanese to American to, yes, French. Our average French market has a pretty poor selection of anything that isn't French.
  • Preprepared foods. Again no competition; the UK markets are stuffed with preprepared everything and the quality looked pretty good. Expensive though and I prefer to cook from my own raw ingredients.
  • Meat. Trade offs. The beef looked better and was cheaper. Lamb was about the same in price & apparent quality. France won hands down when it came to pork. The precut sections were similar except that in France there is a lot of 'offal' on offer. The 'bespoke' butcher section in France had a much wider selection of meats available. Overall I think I prefer the French market.
  • Vegetables. The French markets are far superior. Not quite as wide a range of specialty items, but much better quality. AND the French prices are far lower. (this doesn't include the outdoor markets which in France are better yet. Can't say about the English outdoor markets as I didn't have a chance to try one.)
  • General stuff. On basics the markets are pretty much equal. The English have far more snacks, nibbles and so forth. The French have a lot more non food items being more Hypermarketish in style. No big deal here.
  • Wine. The English have range. Wines from all over the world. The French have price. Overall they're at least 40% cheaper on an like for like basis as is possible to work out. For example: I can buy a perfectly nice drinkable bottle of red wine in France for about $3.00. An equivalent in England would cost $5.50 and that would be on sale. I did like the range in England, but at the same time I've found that as one buys wines from the various regions of France one gets almost as much variation in style, taste & terroir as one gets from around the rest of the world.
Ideally one would combine the best of both countries into one perfect supermarket. It would a dream to shop in, but would probably go broke. We've chosen France and are happy we have. Although the lack of ethnic things is frustrating at times I can go to the Herb Lady at market and get pretty much any condiment I want. In England the charcuterie & fromagerie departments are only a pale imitation of the real thing.
Bottom line comes down to price. Overall I think our food bill in France is about 20% cheaper than it would be in England. That's not counting wine. If we were to buy lots of preprepared stuff in either country then our bill would go way up.

Moral? Live in France, cook from scratch and drink lots of wine.

England? Its a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there!

Friday, January 04, 2008

Back Home again

Here we are back home in France. Well, actually we've been home a few days since we wanted to attend a New Year's eve bash at our friend's chateau. This we did & had a great time; the party pooper was Rupert who made it clear that he wanted to go home to his bed about 1:00AM.
The journey home from England was traumatic. All the first part was fine and our hotel in Neufchapel-en-Bray was good as was the dinner they served. We started off the next morning (Sunday) and got as far as a freeway services area just North of Orleans. We stopped there and when we tried to go the car key refused to work. It just would not turn! Its one of these fancy electronic keys. Thinking it might be the batteries I did manage to find some, but that didn't help. No way to get in touch with a Mercedes dealer on Sunday. Eventually we called our friend Jacques. He agreed to go to our house, get our spare key & bring it to us. FIVE hours of driving!! Each way! Fortunately the spare key worked. We finally got home after midnight. If ever there was a true friend Jacques is the one!

Weight wise I didn't do too badly over the Holidays. Back to 195 pounds so only a 3 pound gain. I'll work to get that off and then go for the rest of the weight I'd like to lose.

Not much cooking over the Holiday period. I did do a deconstructed turkey for Christmas day. (we went over to our relatives neighbors for Christmas lunch. The turkey, rib roast, all the trimmings, cheese and superb homemade Christmas pudding flambe! Super meal, very traditional.) I also, by request, did a vegetarian main course for my niece. (sauteed red onions; baby corn, mange tout & carrots; brie, double cream, herbs de province and a puff pastry top. all done in layers. She seemed to like it.)

Lots to talk about so there will be a few posts to come. Also I got a number of cookbooks to play with Jamie Oliver's latest "Cooking at Home"; "The French Laundry Cookbook" and 4 individual recipe books from Larousse Gastronomic. (this is in addition to the monster main addition which I already had) Plenty of food for thought so to speak. Recipes to follow.

Slow roasted belly pork tonight; Yummy!

PS: My ham from last year's pig has arrived. Its huge. I'll post pictures.