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.