Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Quel gros canard!

The last couple of weeks of my sabbatical were busy ones. (I am home now and writing this from the comfort of my kitchen table-- more about that soon!) I was counting the days until I would see my family again but racing against the clock to fit in as much as I could before leaving Provence and France. Chef Érick knew he still had a lot to teach me about cooking and one day came home with the biggest duck I have ever seen. Admittedly, I do not have a lot of experience with ducks other than watching Daffy Duck on Looney Tunes most Saturday mornings of my young life and eating quite a bit of it in June while in southwest France with the Arles 6. Professor Rich and I went to a farm where duck and geese are force fed- gavage- while near Sarlat in June. He, as a biology professor and turkey specialist, was curious and I was his chauffeur and translator. I had also vowed to myself upon receiving the sabbatical and arriving in France that I would not pass up an adventure during my six month stay. We did not witness the actual process, but we did listen to the owner explain how the ducks and geese are cared for and fed, all very ethically, of course, according to him. I am no one to judge and let's just say that visiting the farm has not kept me from eating duck or pâté de fois gras. The birds are fed a mixture of ground corn and oil through a tube for a period of about 15 days until their liver is the proper size, ideally around 750 grams. We were told that the birds basically will do this to themselves before migrating-- well, they don't force the food down their own throats obviously, but they will eat enough to sustain themselves during the long flight. After they are slaughtered, all parts are used and consumed. The French are not wasteful. Listening to the monsieur talk about the process reminded me of watching my grandmother on her farm. No part of an animal was ever wasted. That is why I am still curious about those pig ears that I saw in the market one day...
So, the day came when I arrived in the kitchen to find M. Canard on the steel work table in the kitchen in Arles. I declined Chef Érick's offer to chop off his head. He did so and then went to work with a sharp knife. The first thing was to remove the liver. We got out the scale so that we could weigh the "parts" as we removed them. The liver weighed one kilo or 2.2 pounds. We put that aside and went too work on the breasts. By this time I had lost all sense of trepidation and was ready with my knife, too. We carved out the breasts and they weighed 500 grams (about one pound) each. Érick salted them and put them aside. He cures them with salt. I chopped off the feet and we set aside the legs. (I would love to have them right now for the cassoulet I plan to make soon...) We saved every part of this duck. The neck and feet were to be used for stock. As I said, nothing goes to waste.
I brought home two breasts and some of the liver. My suitcase did indeed make it through customs with truffles and duck! Sorry, Rich, no drama at the airport! I do appreciate the fact that you and Pat were ready to come rescue me should I be detained at customs for "illegal substances," but I made it through. One suitcase arrived at RDU held together with tape. I think it must have been opened and the agent didn't want to even bother to try to zip it back up. The other one, the one with the truffles and duck, didn't seem to have been opened, thank goodness. Chef Érick has become quite adept at packing foodstuffs for the journey to the U.S. He packaged Dorette's saucisson (all 7 of them!) this summer. He has made numerous trips to the States for cooking demonstrations and has made it through customs each and every time. Vacuum-sealing is essential!
I am including a recipe for cassoulet that my mom found in a recent edition of Guideposts. She read the article about it and knew it would interest me. The woman called it the French version of pork and beans. Gross understatement if ever there was one. I did eat cassoulet while visiting the city of Carcassonne the week before I left. We ate in a café, supposedly the oldest one within the walled city. This dish of "pork and beans" was just right on a chilly, rainy day, with a glass of local red wine and freshly baked bread. A nice dinner for a cold January day. It is well worth the time it takes to prepare! Rosie and her husband ate it in a French restaurant in Brooklyn and then worked for quite a long time to find the right recipe. As she says in the article ..."even though it does take time and patience to prepare cassoulet, I discovered that the dish isn't as complicated as I first thought. I think of it as the best pork and beans you've ever tasted-- rich and garlicky and herbaceous, with a crust that crackles when you dig your fork in. It's not health food- that's for sure. It's country food. Soul food, even. French-style."
I love that! We Americans are not the food Barbarians the French think us to be! At least not those of us who would spend practically an entire day on one of their best-loved dishes for winter! Now, where can I find those confit duck legs here in Durham??

(thanks to Rosie Schaap and Guideposts January 2009)

4 cups of Tarbais or other small white beans, such as great Northern
4 fresh ham hocks, about 1 lb. each
3 large onions, peeled and quartered
6 sprigs thyme
Freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp. duck fat (can be ordered from D'Artagnan, dartagnan.com)
4 links unseasoned fresh pork sausage, cut into 2-in. pieces
1 large head garlic, separated into cloves and peeled
4 whole confit duck legs (can be ordered from D'Artagnan)
1/4 tsp. nutmeg

Topping: (optional, in my opinion; the cassoulet in Carcassonne did not have it)
1 cup bread crumbs (made from dried out bread)
1 Tbsp. fresh parsley, minced
1 garlic clove, minced

Rinse beans thoroughly, pick through and discard stones, set aside.
Place ham hocks in a large pot. Add 2 onions, thyme, and salt and pepper. Cover with water and bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, for 2 1/2 hours. Remove from heat, allow to cool 15 minutes then drain ham hocks, discarding onion and thyme. Cut meat from each hock into 2 pieces, fat and skin, and set meat aside.
Empty water from large pot. Add beans and enough water to cover by 1/2 inch (about 8 cups) and season with salt. Bring to a simmer then reduce to low and cook until bean are tender, about 45 minutes. Adjust salt, if necessary, then set beans aside to cool. Reserve cooking liquid.
Heat duck fat in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add sausages and cook, turning to brown on all sides, for about 10 minutes. Place garlic, remaining onion and 1/2 cup water in a blender and purée until smooth. Add garlic paste to sausages and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook, turning sausages occasionally, for 10 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350F. Using a slotted spoon, transfer about half the beans to a heavy, wide-mouthed, 6-quart pot, about 4 inches high. Assemble cassoulet in layers: Place meat from ham hocks on top of beans and cover with sausages and garlic paste. Divide duck into 8 pieces by separating drumsticks from thighs. Arrange duck on sausages then spoon in remaining beans. Season with nutmeg and add just enough reserved bean cooking liquid to cover beans (about 3 cups). Reserve remaining liquid. Bake cassoulet uncovered until it comes to a simmer and crust begins to form, about 1 hour. If cassoulet appears dry, break top layer by gently pushing it down with the back of a spoon, allowing a new layer of beans to rise to the surface. Add just enough bean liquid to moisten the beans.
Remove cassoulet from oven. Allow to cool completely, then cover and refrigerate overnight.
Prepare topping: Mix bread crumbs, parsley, garlic and a good pinch of salt.
Remove cassoulet from the refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature for at least 45 minutes. Preheat oven to 350F. Bake for 1 hour. When cassoulet begins to simmer, break crust and add enough warm water to just cover the beans (about 1 cup). Reduce heat to 250F, add bread-crumb topping and bake, breaking crust and adding water as needed, for 3 hours. Remove cassoulet from oven and allow to rest for 15-20 minutes. Serve cassoulet from the pot, breaking the crust at the table. Serves 8.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Black Diamonds

Yesterday I fell in love with a man, his dog and a mountain. After last Friday's truffle market in Carpentras, Chef Érick and I were invited to have lunch with René, pictured above, and Françoise, his wife, at their home in Isle sur la Sorgue in the Vaucluse. René called on Tuesday of this week to confirm that we were coming. He asked me if I am afraid of walking in the mountains. He did not know he was talking to a mountain girl. And then he told me not to wear my high heels. Since I do not own any, that would be easy enough. He also reminded me that we needed to get there early. So, I dressed warmly, lacing up my tennis shoes, and we set out around 10:00 am. Isle sur la Sorgue is about an hour's drive from Arles. We drove through fog for about 30 minutes and after it lifted, we could see Mont Ventoux in the distance, covered with snow.
When we arrived in the town well-known for its antique shops, Érick pulled off to the side of the road to phone René because he was unsure of how to find his house. René gave him directions and said he would come find us on his bicycle if we got lost. We set out again and, sure enough, at the turn to his neighborhood, there sat René on his vélo. We followed him home. We were greeted by the barking of Sonny, his white lab. Françoise had prepared a feast for us. We ate shrimp, paté de fois gras and smoked salmon on toast and radishes as appetizers. Then Françoise made omelets with truffles for the next course. René brought out a bottle of red Côtes du Ventoux wine and uncorked it. The omelets were followed by endives baked with ham and cheese with truffles sprinkled inside. Lunch conversation consisted of René telling me about his teaching days at the nearby high school and Érick instructing Françoise on the proper way to prepare truffles. He told her that truffles should not be cooked. They should be added to a dish after it has been cooked. Heating them causes them to lose their flavor. Françoise seemed very grateful for the advice. We had cheese, a little dish of ice cream and coffee before setting out on our adventure. Françoise elected not to go (probably because she had so many dishes to wash...) and she lent me her boots. René loaded Sonny into the truck and off we went.
I really had no idea what to expect. I did have a vague recollection of oak trees and roots after reading Peter Mayle's books. We parked by the side of the road and found a little path up the mountain where René owns property and where he does his hunting. I followed behind René and Sonny, keeping a bit of distance between us so as not to distract her. I learned to walk in the grass or on the moss, not on the dirt path. Lesson #1: leave no tracks for others to see. Lesson #2: whisper so that your voice doesn't carry. Others are probably around, hunting for truffles, too, poaching most likely. It is still a bit early in the truffle-hunting season and I had been warned not to expect too much. So, it was a pleasant surprise when Sonny started digging about 10 minutes into our walk. As soon as she begins to dig, René hurries over and scoots her out of the way. She has no interest in eating the truffle, however. I had read about hunting with pigs, but pigs like to eat the truffles. We did see lots of places where wild boar, sangliers, had beat us to the treasure. Once René finds the diamant noir, or black diamond as they are known in France, he rewards Sonny with several dog treats from the little bag he keeps in his pocket. He tells her what a great dog she is and pets her. It is obvious that he loves her dearly and she is fiercely loyal to him. She decided that she kind of liked me, but I think it was because I was wearing Françoise's boots, to be truthful.
René then checks out his treasure, smelling it and carefully rubbing some of the dirt away in order to see if it is a good one. He can tell immediately if it is too wet or too dry. If so, it will not fetch much at the market. There are stories of fake smell being added to the truffles, lead pellets being inserted into them to make them weigh more, poachers who steal from the property owners, and so on. This seems to be a business based on trust, however, and René is a man of his word. He taught high school for about 30 years and loved it. He has hunted truffles for over 40 years. He took great pleasure in showing me how he goes about it. I am deeply grateful to him for the lesson.
We spent about two hours following Sonny's nose and a little path up the mountain. René remembers where he has had success in the past and guides the dog towards those places. She, however, is guided by her nose and her knowledge that a treat awaits her should she find a truffle. We came out of the woods with 11 truffles of various sizes. René even let me dig one up. He carries a small screwdriver in his pocket for this purpose. He places his truffles in a small white plastic sack. His jacket has lots of pockets to hold all the tools of his trade.
At first glance, I thought his René's mountain resembled the Appalachian Mountains, my home. However, once we started climbing up the path, I realized there was not very much resemblance at all. Snail shells are scattered everywhere. A wall made of stones winds up the mountain, built from the flat rocks that are found everywhere. Small stones huts, bories, are hidden away, built long ago by shepherds as shelters while they tended their flocks of sheep. I ventured into one of them, admittedly not very far as it was very dark and I am not too fond of spiders, even French ones. The oak trees are not large ones, as I had expected. They are small and different from any I have ever seen.
All in all, it was one of the best days of my life. René is a master storyteller and continued to tell me stories after we returned to his house. He pulled out his scales, a basic set, nothing fancy or digital for the truffle hunters here in the Vaucluse, and weighed the week's findings, coming to almost a kilo or 2.2 pounds. He gave me two small ones. I just ate one of them grated on top of fresh pasta. To really get a taste of a fresh truffle, take a small piece of bread, dip it in olive oil, grate the truffle on top and sprinkle it with coarse sea salt. Heavenly. In one week's time, I have become addicted to truffles. I just had dinner and am already thinking about tomorrow's lunch. I plan to make an omelet from the fresh eggs we just bought, add some cheese while it is cooking and then grate my last truffle on top. I only have nine days to savor as much of Provence as possible, after all!

Here is the dish we made last week, after the market in Carpentras. This recipe is courtesy of Madeleine Vedel.
Bon appétit!

Fresh Pasta with Walnut Sauce and Truffles (or Mushrooms)

Pâtes Fraîches aux Champignons Sauvage avec un Sauce aux Noix –
Fresh Wild Mushroom Pasta with Walnut Sauce

This is rightly a recipe for the fall, but it can be made all year round with a stash of dried mushrooms. The walnut sauce is a classic preparation that dates back to the time of the Etruscans. Walnuts are particularly present in the Cévennes, the hills of the Gard in Languedoc, just an hour or so from Arles. Fresh pasta is really quite easy to make. Anyone who’s made bread a few times, can easily start making pasta. From start to finish, this recipe can be on the table in an hour after a bit of practice.

Ingredients for the Pasta :

If served as a main course, one egg per person, if served as a side dish, then one egg per 2 people.

One cup (100-150g) flour to one whole egg.
Pinch of salt
Dried mushrooms ground to a powder – 1/4 cup to 4 cups of flour (30g to 450g) if you are not using truffles

For the Sauce :

300 grams of walnuts (this is about 2 cups chopped walnuts)
2 garlic cloves (good sized)
1/2 cup of olive oil (120ml)– not too bitter, extra-virgin cold pressed.
Salt to taste
A few fresh mint leaves (optional, or another herb you like…)
Grated cheese – we like a young sheep tome, or pecorino. A mild parmesan is fine, too.

For the pasta:

On a smooth work surface, such as a large counter space or marble slab, pile your flour in a well, in the middle of the well put your mushroom powder and your pinch of salt and your eggs. With your hands, gradually incorporate as much flour as the eggs are thirsty. If there is a bit of flour left over, you can add a tablespoon or so of water, as needed. You need to work the dough for at least 10 minutes, kneading it and stretching it, till it is smooth to the touch. Put aside covered to rest for 30 minutes.

Either with a pasta machine or by hand, continue rolling and folding the pasta dough. With the machine I pass a portion of the dough through, fold it in three and pass it again, always on the largest setting. I continue this at least 7 times, if not more, till the dough is very smooth and elastic and does not seem brittle and cracks stop appearing. When the dough is ready, then you can either roll out by hand, turning the dough in every direction, gradually increasing its elasticity and thinning it out, the pros use a bit of gravity letting the dough hang off the counter as then roll. Or, alternatively, use the pasta machine and gradually reduce the size of the setting to the desired thickness.

When the dough is the thickness you desire, cut it as you please, in large long noodles, in triangles, in thinner spaghetti lengths… to your preference. Lay the prepared pasta on floured cloths, - you can layer these - and let dry till you are ready to put them into the salted boiling water.

For the sauce :

In a mortar and pestle, grind your garlic cloves and walnuts to a fine paste, add the olive oil as you work to make it easier to form the paste, if you are adding the mint leaves, do so now, and salt to taste.

When your pasta is done, save some of the pasta water to add to the walnut sauce to lengthen it and thicken it. Toss the pasta with the walnut sauce, grate the cheese on top, and serve. If you are using truffles, grate them on top of the pasta, sauce and cheese.

Have fresh bread ready in order to wipe your plate clean so that you do not waste one bit of the sauce or truffles!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

How do I bring it all home?

This photo is of the port of Cassis, a little town on the coast. We went there this week for lunch. I had seafood pasta, Erick had monkfish. We drank a nice half bottle of Cassis white wine and watched the water. It was a chilly, sunny day. I did indeed take pictures of my food, but they are not nearly as beautiful as this one. The cliff in the background, Cap Canaille, is the highest one in France, about 400 meters or 1200 feet. I filled my pocket with smooth stones from the beach.
Earlier in the day we went to Aubagne, the birthplace of writer Marcel Pagnol (if you've never seen "My Father's Glory" and "My Mother's Castle" you should rent them just for the scenery, although the autobiographical story of his childhood is wonderful, too). The town is famous for its santons or crèche figures. The folks of Provence put together amazing manger scenes for Christmas. They include figurines representing people from their villages- the baker, the fishermen, the shepherd, the school teacher, etc. Lots of animals are also added. We saw the crèche at the Abbaye de Frigolet that even included a monk manning the distillery (they make a wonderful apératif liqueur) and imbibing of his own product! His nose is red and his glass is held high in a salute! What a great sense of humor those monks must have.
After Aubagne, we drove to the nearby small port town of Cassis, pictured above.
My lament about bringing "it" all home in the title of today's post does not only apply to packing my two suitcases, although I have no idea how I will manage that task next week. It is mostly my desire to bring home all of the special parts of Provence. I bought a beautifully decorated tin full of herbes de provence at the Arles Christmas market. I wish that I could fill it up with the sights, smells and sounds of Provence. I'd add sea salt, garlic, olive oil and sun-ripened tomatoes to the herbes, the basics of Provençal cuisine. Claudine's goat cheese, the one that is about 10 days old, would have to find a spot. I'd toss in some lavender and sunflowers, as well as the little white flowers that are now growing by the roadside and among the now sleeping vines. The ones that smell like honey. I'd add the smell of the hot August sun as it beats down on the fields of hay growing between Arles and Tarascon. The December sunset with its band of bright orange that fades to almost red before it meets the horizon would have to be a part of my collection, as would the night sky reflected in the Rhône river in the exact spot where Vincent painted it during his time here. The ever present humming of the cicadas in summer as they cling unseen to trees would be my favorite sound. A bottle of red Côtes du Rhône and a white from Cassis would go in. I'd add Virgil's café in the Place du Forum on a hot summer evening with the regular crowd discussing what to have for dinner as a kir, pastis, pression, or sirop de pêche is sipped after work. With that in the box, I'd be able to sit quietly, listening to the conversations around me and watching people pass by. I could see the women in their high-heeled sandals and sundresses, tourists with cameras slung around their necks, and the statue of Fréderic Mistral in the distance. The box is magic, of course, so all of these things will fit nicely in there. I could place it on my kitchen counter when I return in less than two weeks and take the lid off every now and then just to reassure myself that I was really here and Provence was my life for six months.
As I write at this very minute, I am listening to Blake Shelton sing "Home." "I feel just like I'm living someone else's life...." "Another winter day has come and gone away in even Paris and Rome, and I want to go home, let me go home..." (Michael Bublé does a nice job with the song, too!) So, oui, even as I already miss what has become my home-away-from-home, I feel the strong pull of my real home in Durham, my family and my friends.
I still have more adventures, though. René, the truffle hunter, called this morning and asked me if I am afraid to walk around in the mountains. I tried not to shout NON, pas du tout! into the phone. And I had to laugh when he told me not to wear my (non-existent) high heels. We also have a trip to Carcassonne, a walled city to the west of Arles, planned for next week. Érick's son, Jonas, turns 7 this weekend so we will celebrate. How do you put candles in Nutella filled crêpes, his favorite treat, I wonder?

My recipe below is one we made for lunch yesterday. So simple and so good.
Bon appétit!

Spinach and Seafood (Les Épinards et les Fruits de mer)

Take a large bunch of fresh spinach and wash it really well. Remove the larger stems and tear it into smaller pieces. Fry it in olive oil, a handful at a time. This only takes about 3-4 minutes in a hot pan. It is a good idea to cover the pan after adding the spinach so that the steam will help with the cooking. Turn it once with tongs. Remove to a baking dish. After the spinach is cooked, use the pan to heat your favorite seafood. We put in some mussels, tellines (small shellfish found at the edge of the water buried in the sand),and palourdes (I do not know if they are available in NC-- Note:  I now know that these are clams in English!). You could use shrimp. After adding the seafood, we stirred in a bit more olive oil. Salt isn't necessary here because the seafood is already quite salty. A nice fresh baguette and a white or rosé wine completes the feast.

The same seafood would be wonderful on top of freshly cooked pasta, bien sûr.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Friends and Thanksgiving

There were no French pilgrims, therefore there is no French Thanksgiving. However, I had my own personal American pilgrims come to visit me for the holiday! Betty Goolsby, formerly of Durham and a member of the Arles 6, arrived on Tuesday with Tom, Alex and David. We spent four wonderful days together exploring some nearby spots, eating and sampling lots of great wine. Betty came to Arles with me in 2006 for a Mini-Gourmand week and we also spent 10 days together this past June in the Dordogne, Bordeaux and Paris. Tom and Alex had been to France before, never to Provence, though, and it was David's first trip to France. I feel fairly certain that it will not be his last! Especially after he enrolls in French lessons in DC and learns how to really say "The heat isn't working" instead of "The shoes have no choice." No kidding. "Les chaussures n'ont pas le choix" came out of his mouth at a bistrot in St. Rémy where we had lunch. Tom and I just looked at each other wondering if we had heard correctly and then we burst out laughing, after asking him to please explain. Tom and Alex speak French very well, having lived for in Belgium and Switzerland as exchange students. David studied it in high school and is fearless about using what he remembers and what he picks up. However, I am getting ahead of myself. I must start at the beginning and tell about our adventures.
They arrived in Arles while Chef Érick and I were exploring Mont St. Victoire near Aix en Provence. They spent the afternoon seeing the Pont du Gard and getting lost and driving on the narrowest streets they could find in Arles. When we returned, we got them settled into the rooms of their choice in the B&B-- Betty chose the green room, her room from 2006, Alex and David choose the yellow room and Tom opted for the top room, the pilot's cabin or wood room, as I call it. We had dinner together and rested up for the next day.
On Wednesday morning we went to the Arles outdoor market to find vegetables for our Thanksgiving feast. I chose a lovely bright orange potimarron or squash for my Tian de potimarron (recipe follows) and Betty and the guys chose root vegetables to roast. After market, we returned to the house to have lunch. Un déjeuner simple which is never really simple here. We had our after lunch coffee and set off for Chateauneuf-du-Pape, in hopes of finding the infamous Jean-Baptiste of roadkill fame behind the tasting bar. We were not disappointed! He first gave us a quick tour of the on-going excavation of the cave where they continue to find ruins dating back to the Romans. Then the fun began. We tasted two whites, five reds and ended with a sweet wine, Esprit d'Henri, named in honor of one of the wine makers who recently passed away (or disparu, disappeared as the French say). Every time I taste wine I learn something new. Jean-Baptiste showed us the difference in color between a "young" wine (brighter red/pink) and one ready to drink (orange/brown tones). Even I could taste the difference. Figuring out the smells and individual tastes in a glass of wine is not my forte, shall we say. We all know now that Tom goes for the wet hay, tobacco, wet baseball glove smells in his glass. To each his own, n'est-ce pas? We returned to Arles after taking photos of Mont Ventoux covered in snow and the Rhône river bathed in muted afternoon sunlight. We made a stop at a chocolate/wine shop on the way out of town. Who could pass by a shop offering both of those treats? No one in that rented Volvo grand camion 4x4. Everyone pitched in to make dinner that evening and we ate around the family table since it was warmer on that side of the house. The mistral wind had arrived and it was quite chilly outside. Alex made margaritas (we found citrons verts or limes at Monoprix finally) and salsa from the fresh tomatoes bought at the market and onions from the Onion Festival in the Cévennes we went to last month. We had couscous, full of vegetables, chickpeas, lamb and sausages. Alex had chosen a red Chateauneuf to accompany it during our visit to Cave du Vergers.
On Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, we strolled around Arles, looking in the windows of the shops, returning home for an early lunch. We decided to head to Mas des Barres in the afternoon to taste olive oil. I figured that the olive oil pressing was over and that I had missed it all. I was so thrilled to find out that I was wrong. Finally I was able to see those nice shiny machines hard at work. This is an amazing year for olives. Mas des Barres has already pressed four times the olives they pressed last year. I learned that they usually press until mid-December, but they stopped this weekend because they are out of space to store any more oil. We watched the olives being washed, pressed, ground into paste, the oil, water and paste being separated and the oil pumped into the containers. The owner grabbed my hand and led me to the small steel vat where the oil was being held until being pumped into the containers. He dipped my finger into the fresh oil and asked me to taste it. Oh my gosh! Their oil is spicy and truly delicious. In 2004 it was voted the best in the world. It is not a cooking oil-- far too good for that. It is for salads, pasta, dipping, and adding to dishes after they have been cooked (before serving pot-au-feu, a beef stew, add a little to the plate, then add the stew). We wandered among the olive trees for a bit, visited the shop to buy oil and olive soaps before bidding good-bye to the owners and getting back into the Volvo. We decided to do a bit more sightseeing in the Alpilles, the name of the mountain range where Mas des Barres is located. The area is also well-known for its bauxite, the mineral used to make aluminum. It gets its name from Les Baux, a medieval town perched high on a nearby mountain. Bauxite is red and, oui, I have a good sized piece of it to bring home. I have always had a thing for rocks. Growing up in Spruce Pine, the Mineral City, and working in a rock shop in the summer while I was in high school, I learned a bit about rocks, gems and minerals. We returned home in time to get our chapon, a 6 pound rooster, in the oven. Betty stuffed him with onions and garlic. The guys arranged the vegetables in a tian, keeping the beets separate in their own little tian in the center of the larger one. I prepared my potimarron. Assisting in the kitchen during the cooking lessons is not at all the same thing as preparing the dishes myself. I need more practice, truthfully, but my tian turned out well. For dessert, Alex and David made fried pastry in the shape of butterflies and Alex meticulously stuffed them with tiny pieces of fruit. We drank champagne, Duval-Leroy, as we cooked and a bottle of white Chateauneuf to accompany our chapon, once again thanks to Alex. We went around the table telling what we were thankful for this year. I have so much that I really did not know where to start. Durham Academy, for giving me these six months to explore the things I am most passionate about, France and food, my family and closest friends for understanding my desire to be here, Érick for his infinite patience with my French and kitchen skills and for sharing his Provence with me, friends who flew across the ocean during my time here to see me (in oder of appearance: Pat, Joan, Yolanda, Rich and Betty (the Arles 6), Coleman, Lilly, Martha, Monette, Steve, Betty (again!), Tom, Alex and David). A wonderful Thanksgiving!
On Friday morning, we all got up early, drank a quick cup of coffee and headed out in the rain to Carpentras, a town about an hour's drive from Arles. Carpentras hosts a truffle market each Friday morning from mid-December to mid-March. No, friends, not the little chocolates, but the dirty, smelly little gems that grow at the base of trees and are hunted with a pig or a dog. I had never even tasted one and had only read about the markets and their mystery. We arrived before the market opened, so we headed to a café across the street to have coffee. The café was filled with men in berets, caps and toboggans carrying bags of various shapes and sizes. A woman was holding court near the door, surrounded by men, scribbling in her notebook. Quite a few small plastic sacks were passing hands. We decided that she was the Queen of Truffles at this market. When the rain subsided, the action moved outside. We drank our coffee, I took a few discreet photos and we left to head across the street to the official market . A chef was setting up a little gas stove in order to prepare scrambled eggs flavored with truffles, for the tourists, as the fellow in charge explained to me. It is so that we can taste them before buying. For 10 euros, I got a cup of the brouillade truffée, a piece of fresh bread and a glass of red Côtes du Ventoux wine. Scrambled eggs at 9:00 am are for tourists only-- the French do not eat eggs in the morning. We watched as a long line assembled in front of steps leading into a room that was guarded by a policeman. A whistle blew a few minutes later and the wholesale portion of the market began. Only permit holders were allowed in that room. Chef Érick's truffle-hunting friend René arrived and he and I were allowed in the room at the end of the sale. It is early in the season and the truffles are not at their best, according to Érick and René. However, they were still fetching between 200-400 euros per kilo (2.2 lbs = 1 kilo, $1.30 = 1 euro, you do the math!). In mid-February when they are at their best, good ones will cost at least 800 euros per kilo. There was a lot of sniffing going on amid the mystery of it all. The transactions taking place outside of the market are all legal, for those who do not want to deal with wholesalers. One reported scandal, however, involves spraying the less than good truffles with something that makes them smell more fragrant. Tricheurs! I promise to report more about truffles later since Érick and I have been invited to René's home on Thursday of next week. I have my fingers crossed, hoping for a hunt! Érick did buy a few truffles from one of the gentlemen. They were in little mustard jars with tops. I got to carry them home in my purse. After truffles, we drove to St. Rémy de Provence for chocolate at Joël Durand's shop and lunch. Betty and I visited Florame for essential oils while Tom got his hair cut. Alex supervised Tom and David supervised them both. A small dog supposedly supervised the whole thing. The guys suspected that le petit chien had highlights in his fur... Lunch was at the Bistrot des Alpilles. Betty and I had la soupe au potimarron, an excellent choice. David was the most adventurous-- he ordered pieds et paquets, feet and intestines wrapped up, tied with a string and served in a little cast iron pot with vegetables. He loved it. I have yet to try that delicacy. After lunch, we went back to Arles because Betty and I wanted to go to the Arles Christmas market. There were 150 different booths set up, selling mostly food products. Chocolates, candied fruits, sausages, wines, olive oils, salt, Camargue rice, hams, cheeses, pastries, cookies and breads, just to a name a few. There were also quilts, jewelry, paintings, books, pottery and clothing offered. We looked at everything then sat down to have a pastry and cup of tea before walking back to the house. By the time we left the sun had set and the Christmas lights of Arles had come on. We took the route through the middle of town so that we could see it all. At home I always get very frustrated when Christmas decorations to up even before Halloween. I do not like to mix my holidays. However, I am grateful that the decorations are up here. I have two weeks to enjoy them before I go home to North Carolina. When Betty and I arrived back at the house, the men were all busy in the kitchen preparing homemade pasta. It had been decided that would go best with the truffles purchased earlier in the day. We had moules marinières, mussels, first, then the pasta. We made a sauce for the pasta out of ground walnuts, garlic and olive oil. Those three ingredients were made into a paste and then water from the cooked pasta was added to it to make a creamy sauce. We spooned the sauce onto our pasta then grated truffles on top. The taste was heavenly, nutty and spicy. I even grated truffles on my brie cheese later. I seriously doubt I will be buying any of them when I return home, so I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to eat as much as I wanted! (I did eat the leftover pasta and sauce for lunch on Saturday with more truffles, I have to confess.) We drank a red Pic St. Loup wine with the pasta and truffles. What a marriage of flavors. Dinner lasted until about 10:30 pm, as we spent plenty of time talking about our adventures together.
Saturday morning, after a breakfast of pain au chocolat from Le Blanc bakery in Arles and fougasse from the Fassy bakery in Maillane, Betty and I strolled around the open air market. Then it was time to get back to give her enough time to pack her bags for their return to Paris and the trip home.
As I sit writing this on Sunday evening, they are already back in Indianapolis, Betty's new home, Alexandria for Alex and David and Durham for Tom. I want them to know that I enjoyed every minute of our time together and hope to see them all again soon. Watch out for elephants, David, since you did not buy the elephant hunting gun... I hope they were able to glimpse the magic of this place and that the food and wine lived up to their expectations. Betty, Yolanda and I will be there as soon as we can! We will need to start planning for the 2010 trip!

Here's my Thanksgiving recipe.
Bon appétit!

Tian de Potimarron (Baked Squash)

The squash, the pumpkin, and all its varieties are an import from the New World. But this fall vegetable has been around Provence for at least 200 years. The most popular preparations are either in soup/potage or as a gratin or tian. In Provence, there are now many different squash available on the market. The most abundant is the potiron which most resembles a pumpkin, but has a slightly more watery flesh. This grows to quite large proportions and the vegetable sellers sell it by the kilo, in large slices. More rare, but much more flavorful with a meatier flesh, is the potimarron. It can be either orange or green skinned, and is 6-10 inches in diameter, and quite dense.


1/2 cup olive oil
3 slices of bacon cut in 1/4 inch (1cm) short strips
2 onions minced
One 1 1/2 kilo (3 pound) squash peeled, sliced and cut into 3/4 inch (4 cm) cubes
2 bay leaves
2 garlic cloves crushed and minced
Nutmeg, freshly grated, if possible
Salt and pepper, as needed
3 tablespoons of honey (you can use a strongly flavored honey like chestnut, or a milder one, depending on availability and your preference)

In a large frying pan, pour in enough olive oil to cover the bottom, reserving the rest for later. Turn your flame up to medium high, and add the bacon bits and onions. Sauté until the onions are sweated and the bacon cooked. Add the squash and the remaining oil, and sauté over a medium flame, allowing them to lightly brown, for 10-15 minutes. They should start to become tender.

Remove the squash from the flame, fold in the bay leaves, the minced garlic, and nutmeg. Salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to a baking dish/tian/gratin dish and place in the oven at 400F or 200C. Let bake for 30 minutes, or till tender. When just about done, drizzle the honey over the top, return to the oven and bake for another 10 minutes or until the honey caramelizes.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


After finishing our last Mini-Gourmand course of the season on November 2, I headed north. The train system in France is the best way to travel. My first train took me from Arles to Nîmes, a short trip. I changed trains, taking the TGV, train à grande vitesse, the fastest train in the world, to Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport, north of Paris. My friend, Ghislaine, picked me up there and I have now been at her house for a week. She and I have been friends since 1991 when we became penpals. She teaches middle school English at Collège Anne-Marie Javouhey in Senlis. We began an exchange program between AMJ and Durham Academy Middle School in 1992. The exchange hasn't taken place since 2001, but next year we will reinstate it. We firmly believe that our students need to have the chance to use their language skills and living, even for a week, with a host family is a wonderful experience. I also have a meeting with a teacher at Lycée St. Vincent, the Catholic high school in Senlis. The teacher there wants to meet me because she hopes to set up an exchange program with our upper school. How exciting! I know several students in Durham who will be thrilled because they have asked me repeatedly to find families for them to visit.
When I first arrived in Montépilloy, the village where Ghislaine lives, she was still on vacation. French students always have a 10 day vacation around November1, Le Toussaint. She made arrangements for us to go to Reims and the Champagne region, a two hour drive from her house. We headed out mid-morning, Monday, November 3. Neither of us have a great sense of direction, but we managed to easily find centre ville and the cathedral. I don't think she realized that having me as her navigator and map reader is a serious handicap. I can get lost anywhere. We found a great little hotel with a view of the cathedral, checked in and then set out to explore. First things first, though, and we were hungry. Usually the best way to find a good café or restaurant is to look for the most crowded one. That is how we found Le Gaulois, situated on the corner of a pedestrian street (there is great shopping in Reims- even a nice Galeries Lafayette). We settled in, ordered the quiche maison and a half bottle of rosé. The service was fast, the quiche hot and served with a lettuce and tomato salad on the side. We were proud of ourselves for finding such a great spot. The waiters were nice looking, too, always a bonus!
The cathedral of Reims was the scene of the baptism of Clovis, the first Christian king of France. He was quite a warrior and pretty savage according to the history books. His wife was a very devout Catholic, but could not convert him for years. However, when his child became sick, he promised his wife and the God that he had shunned all of life that if his child survived he would convert. So, on Christmas day in 496, Clovis was baptized by the man who would later be named a saint, Rémi. Joan of Arc came to Reims on July 17, 1429 for the coronation of Charles VII.
Now, to be completely truthful, we really came to Reims to taste champagne! So now it was time to visit a get down to business. We visited the tourist office near the cathedral and found out that a reservation is needed at most of the places that allow visitors. The only one where a reservation was not needed was Taittinger, so we got in the car, armed with our map and headed in what we believed was the right direction. Reims is installing a tramway and there are a lot of one-way streets, so that, plus our nonexistent sense of direction, can only mean one thing... we got lost. But, in doing so, we all of a sudden found ourselves in the very middle of the vineyards of Champagne! Everything around us was golden- the leaves of the vines, the trees in the forests surrounding the vineyards, the afternoon sunlight. It was stunning. We could see a windmill on a hilltop in the distance and headed towards that. The windmill is now owned by Mumm, but they were not giving tours. After stopping to take photos and walk alongside the vines, sampling some of the grapes left from harvest, we got back in the car, in search of an open cave, more than ready for our first lesson in the making of champagne. We found Canard-Duchaîne and were there in time for the final tour of the day. We were the only ones and the young woman was very welcoming. The soil of Champagne is very chalky, perfect for the three grapes used to make champagne, chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. Underneath the region are kilometers and kilometers of tunnels, dating back to Roman times, now used to store the millions of bottles of champagne made by the 300 + champagne houses in the region. The temperature in the tunnels is perfect for keeping the wine cool until it is ready to consume. Under French law, sparkling wine cannot be called champagne unless it is made in this region with grapes grown there. At the end of our tour, we were offered a glass of their champagne and we chose Charles VII Grande Cuvée Blanc de Blancs. This champagne is 100% chardonnay grapes. It is recommended as an apératif or to accompany light meals. It was divine.
Night falls before 6:00 pm at this time of year in France and it was almost dark by the time we pulled out of the parking lot so we decided to head back to our hotel. We got back much quicker, finding and following signs back to the center of town and the cathedral. We wandered around, looking in shops and stopping at Monoprix for a few essentials before deciding to head back to our lunch restaurant for dinner. This time I had a salade de chèvre chaud, warm goat cheese on toast on a very generous bed of lettuce and other vegetables. Another great choice.
On Tuesday, we were determined to find Taittinger and Veuve Clicquot champage houses. We easily found Taittinger this time. The receptionist called Veuve Clicquot, practically across the street, to make an afternoon reservation there for us. Taittinger is very well known in France. I had heard of it but never tasted it. For this tour, we were joined by a young couple, but once again it was a very personalized experience. I can only imagine the crowds of tourists in the summer and am pleased we visited in November. Once again, the weather gods were with us- sunny and warm. We were led through the cellars, shown all the various sizes of bottles (there are 10), and we were able to actually watch two men working. Here's the short version-- the grapes are harvested and pressed very soon afterwards. The juice of all three grapes is clear, even if the skin is dark, what we call red and the French call black. Red and rosé wines get their color because the juice is kept in contact with the skin for a certain period of time. The grapes from each vineyard a champagne house uses is kept separate until blending time. The terroir or all elements present in a vineyard give the wine different tastes and characteristics. The juice is placed in stainless steel tanks for the first fermentation. The winemaker blends the juices to create the taste his house is known for and for the particular blends. The wine is then bottled, using a plastic cap instead of a real cork. Yeast and sugar are added at this time to cause the second fermentation (here come the bubbles!). The bottles are turned, no longer manually, though, so that at the end of the process they are standing upside down. When they are ready and the yeast and sugar have done all they can do, there is sediment in the bottle. The sediment settles into the neck of the bottle, the bottle is dipped into water so cold that it freezes the sediment, the bottle is quickly uncorked, the wine is topped off with a mixture of wine and sugar (the amount of sugar added at this time will determine if the champagne is brut, sec or demi-sec, from driest to sweetest). The bottle is recorked, this time with a real cork, and it goes back down into the cellar to age. Some rest only a few months before being consumed, some age for several years. We got to watch the uncorking, topping off and recorking process. How cool. We were then taken to the tasting room, a glass poured for us to enjoy. On the walls were invitations to various state dinners featuring Taittinger champagne. If you had been invited to the luncheon offered by Nicolas Sarkosy on Tuesday, September 9, 2008 in honor of the Ukraine, you would've been served Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 1998 vintage.
Our last visit took us to Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin. I already know this champagne thanks to my traveling buddy and friend Betty Goolsby. I will never forget the bottle she, Yolanda Litton and I shared in a little café on Rue Cler one summer night in 2006. Betty has excellent taste! Veuve is the French word for widow and the champagne is named this because the Widow Clicquot took over the business in 1805 at the age of 27 after the death of her husband. Her maiden name was Ponsardin. The family no longer owns the business. It was sold to L.V.M.H., Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton Group, in 1987. Veuve Clicquot champagne is aged for 30 months, twice the legal requirement of 15 months for non-vintage champagnes and a minimum of five years rather than the required three for vintage wines. I was impressed by the fact that the great houses of champagne work together. They are all concerned about the quality of champagne produced in their region and they work fiercely to protect it. As we drank our glass of Veuve Clicquot, I attempted to explain the American voting system to the (once again- handsome) Frenchman who led our tour. This isn't easy to explain in English and even more difficult in French, of course. I wish that I had a bottle of champagne for each time I've been asked about the election since I arrived in June. I would have a very impressive collection!
Champagne became the preferred drink of the royal court in France in the 18th century. Madame de Pompadour, mistress to King Louis XV, said that champagne is "the only one that keeps a woman beautiful after drinking."
I head to Paris for a week in just a few days. More about my adventures there next time!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Au revoir, Provence

But I am only saying good-bye for three weeks. Tomorrow morning, November 2, I am taking the TGV and heading to northern France to visit my very good friend Ghislaine Mauduit in Montépilloy. Ghislaine and I have been friends for nearly 20 years. She teaches English in a Catholic middle school in Senlis. French schools are on vacation now due to Le Toussaint, All Saints' Day, today, November 1. Ghislaine is on break until next Friday and she has planned two days in the Champagne region in France for us. If you know me well, you know that I do love good champagne. I am sure we will have fun visiting a few cellars and tasting their sparkling "stars", as Dom Perignon reportedly said when he drank champagne for the first time. Bless him for discovering the process!
The photo above was taken on a recent outing to the Pont du Gard with clients. It was cold and windy that day. We had been to visit Véronique in Le Cailar to watch her make her beautiful pottery. We decided to take a detour on the way home, with Cindy, Jan and Susan in tow, to see this amazing Roman aqueduct.
I do not have much time for this posting since I haven't quite finished cramming too much into my suitcase so that I will be ready to go by 7:15 am tomorrow. When I am back and have time, I promise to write about the two cooking stages we just finished to end the 2008 season. I promise to fill you in on Jan, the most amazing woman who broke her arm upon arrival at Charles de Gaulle airport (and come to find out, 4 ribs were also broken in the fall), Cindy, her friend and taskmaster par excellence, Susan from Florida to whom I had the privilege of introducing the fabulous music of Moussu T and lei Jovents (sorry, Ken!), Jackie and Fred from LA (I promise to visit if only just to meet Toby the vegetable-eating dog) and the Helton family from British Columbia. Mom and Dad have taken 4 months off from work in order to make history come alive for their 12 year old twins. How awesome is that? The kids go to a French immersion school and are having a great time seeing real history. They ate dessert with us the past two nights. We ate like kings and queens this week, by the way. Wonderful comfort food, perfect for cold, rainy evenings. I have discovered that the sun does not shine ALL the time here. But fall here is beautiful, too. The B&B will now close at least through the end of December and maybe permanently. I hope not, though.
I will also be able to spend an entire week in Paris. I've booked a little hotel in the Rue Cler district and look forward to visiting a couple of museums I've never been to. There is a huge Picasso exhibit going on at the Grand Palais I hope to see. More news about the Paris trip in the next blog, too. It is going to be a great week in the City of Lights in more ways than one, I am quite sure! Rarely a dull moment with me here in France, that's for sure.
I also promise to post a list of books I have read about France, French life, French cooking, etc. Several people have asked and I will follow through, I promise!
But for now, au revoir et à bientôt!
Teresa, The Sabbatical Chef

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Chickens, hay and sunshine

I think chickens are interesting creatures, in spite of the crazy ones my Grandma Bell had in Spruce Pine. We lived in the town limits so I am not sure it was quite legal to have them in the first place, but, well, we are talking about Spruce Pine. The rooster who chose to live under the window of my room and crow anytime except in the mornings was another story. I hated that rooster and he knew it. Chef Érick and I went to get milk a couple of days ago and I just happened to have my camera handy. There were some varieties (I have no idea if this is the appropriate word or not, my apologies) of chickens I had never seen before and that made it even more interesting. I imagine the farmer was wondering who the American woman was taking pictures of his chickens.
I did learn that there is hay grown near Arles that is AOC hay. Usually you think of wine, cheese and olive oil having an AOC or appellation d'origine contrôlée. This is to protect the producers of a particular product in a specific region. The system was instituted in France in 1935 for wine. For instance, a winemaker with a Chateauneuf-du-Pape AOC has to follow certain rules and regulations in his vineyard and submit his wine for yearly tastings to see if it fits the code. This particular hay, according to Chef Érick, is fed to race horses because it has been proven to make them stronger and faster. It is harvested three times a year, most recently in late September. It is a heavenly smell. I wish someone who invent a camera that would record smells at the same time as the picture.
As a kid, I remember having discussions with my sister about which of the five senses was most important. That always led to the ultimate question "Would you rather be blind or deaf?" Smell never was never given a second thought. I guess we figured anyone could live without that. Smell, however, is a very powerful sense. It is why at breakfast I am very often asked what we had for dinner the night before! Smells from the kitchen drift right up the staircase to the bed and breakfast rooms. If we had a restaurant here, that would be a great marketing ploy.
Our most recent adventure was to head to Marseille for the day to see an art exhibit at La Vieille Charité. It is an exhibit of Van Gogh and Monticelli paintings. My love for Vincent is one of the reasons I came to Arles in the summer of 2005 to take a cooking class. I thought if I could combine cooking, eating and seeing the places where Vincent found his most acclaimed inspiration it would be a wonderful vacation. I had read the book Lust for Life and discovered that Vincent was not just some crazy painter. This exhibit has 18 of his paintings, most of which I had never seen. Some are from private collections. Monticelli was one of Van Gogh's idols and he was from Marseille. I loved the exhibit.
It was a beautiful, sunny day and we had lunch in an outside café facing the Mediterranean Sea. The food was very so-so. My taste buds have had four months of rigorous training now and I could tell that the sauce for my rice and tiny calamari, pistes, was from a can. Chef Érick just shook his head. His fish had been frozen and his sauce was the same as mine. We discussed how that dish could have been a masterpiece. My suggestion was to use rice from the Camargue. I will leave the sauce and spices up to the real chef!
Tomorrow evening we begin a Gourmand Week with three American clients. We are grateful that there are people who can still afford to travel and have chosen to come here. On a positive note, though, the dollar is doing better than it has in a while compared to the euro, approximately $1.37 = 1 euro at the moment. I look forward to this week and the shorter Mini-Gourmand course that will follow Oct. 28-Nov. 2. We will take our clients to a vineyard to taste wine at Domaine Jean David in Séguret. This is one of Provence's most beautiful villages. It is also well-known for its pottery. We will visit Claudine and her 48 goats (only 2 boucs or billy goats...) to see how she makes her chèvre cheese and sample some. We will shop at the Saturday market, buying ingredients for our evening cooking classes and meals. Another visit will be to a wonderful potter in Le Cailar. I even plan to make some purchases to take home with me. (I'll figure out how to get them home later!) We use the plates, cups, bowls and pitchers from Le Cailar to set our breakfast table. If the ladies are up for it, we will go on a hike one morning to collect herbs and maybe some mushrooms. We will also go to Les Baux for a projection of images about the life and work of Van Gogh from his time here in Arles until his death in Auvers-sur-Oise. Near there is Mas des Barres, a family-run olive oil producing facility. A can of their AOC oil will be one more item for my suitcase in December. We take a picnic lunch with us, weather-permitting, to enjoy together along the way each day. I look forward to learning new recipes for fall and winter during the classes.
I went to see the movie Entre Les Murs, the story of a class of 8th graders in a school in the Paris suburbs. It won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival this past May. It is about a French teacher (he is French and he teaches French) and his class. The real teacher and students from the real school are the actors. I could not follow all the dialogue- they simply speak too fast and the students use a lot of slang. I have to admit that I look forward to the sub-titled version when it comes out. I look forward to discussing it with my friend, Ghislaine, who teaches English is a Catholic middle school in Senlis. I am going up to visit her November 2.
Life continues to be good here in Arles and Provence. I miss autumn in North Carolina -- blue skies, leaves in bright reds and oranges, Duke football losing yet another game, basketball practices gearing up, and looking forward to Duke, Guilford College and Durham Academy games. I am glad not to be in the U.S. right now to hear the last minute mud-slinging among politicians (I do honestly believe that if Obama wins the election that France will declare a national holiday- the whole world wants to know if we have the guts to accept change on the level he is offering- I sure hope we do...) and to hear all the gloom and doom about the stock market. Greed generally doesn't always result in a happy ending.
Ok, enough of my opinions. Time for a recipe!! At the risk of hurting that cute little chickens feelings, I will leave you with the recipe for Poulet Apicius. Apicius was a well-known gourmand back in Roman times. He left behind quite a few writings about his meals and favorite recipes. Blogging back in the day!

Poulet Apicius - Honey Chicken Roman Style

Serves 6
Preparation time: 20 minutes; cooking time: 45 minutes
Preheat the oven to 400F/200C


One good quality chicken, organic, if possible

For the sauce (half to cover the chicken, half to serve at the table)

1/2 tsp cumin grains
1/2 tsp caraway seeds
1/2 tsp anise seeds
Seeds of 2 pods of cardamom
2 tsp Dijon mustard with seeds
4 tsp honey
2 tsp fish sauce
3 tsp chopped celery leaf
2 tsp wine vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
Water for the baking dish

Either break up the chicken into parts or split it down the middle lengthwise and spread it out in the baking dish. This will reduce the baking time.

With a mortar and pestle, grind the cumin and caraway seeds until they form a rough powder; add the mustard, honey, fish sauce, celery leaf and vinegar; mix well. Drizzle the olive oil in the bottom of the pan. Place the chicken in a baking dish, topside down. With a spoon and brush, cover the chicken with the sauce. Pour about a cup of water in the bottom of the dish and place in the oven to bake for 45 minutes. If you wish, add small new potatoes, carrots, onions and garlic to the baking dish before placing it in the oven. Serve with a spoonful of the extra sauce on the side.

Bon appétit!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Sheep, lambs and wool

I started to post this blog with a lovely photo of sheep grazing in a field just outside the city limits of Arles. I spotted them when we were driving back from our latest wine-buying excursion to Pic St. Loup. I took their photo from the window of the van. But I changed my mind since today's recipe will involve mouton, or sheep. Some people get a little queasy when they see the cute little critters looking so peaceful and serene and then think about eating them. I do not fall into that category. Martha, my best buddy, will not eat fish that still have eyes. Rick Steves, guru of guide books, also has a French phrase book. I spent one evening laughing out loud at some of his entries. Here's what Martha would need: Rien avec des yeux. And good old Rick, bless his heart, even gives you a guide to pronunciation: ree-an ah-vehk dayz yuh. (I have to admit that I made a game out of covering up the French and English and trying to figure out what on earth the phrases were. Strange, I know, but funny as heck for a French teacher.) Another expression in his book is Il est mort depuis longtemps? eel ay mor duh-pwee lohn-tahn? How long has this been dead? Personally, I have never asked that question when dining out. At the market, though, the vendors make a point of letting you know when your meat, poultry or fish stopped breathing. Chickens are sold with some feathers remaining, the feet intact or the head still attached. I have heard shoppers discuss time of death before buying a pig's head or feet. At any rate, I opted instead to publish the photo I took of today's recipe.
I have also taken up knitting again. It's been a while since I made cute little sweaters for my son, Jake, who is almost 21. I found a shop that sells patterns and yarn and am in the process of knitting a pullover for myself. Just another reason to love those sheep grazing out in the field!
It has been a busy couple of weeks around here. We shopped, cooked and ate with a group of Brazilians one Saturday. They were fantastic. Fitting 18 of us around the table was not easy. I spent most of my time getting up and down to serve, fetch and clear. Finally, I just gave up and stayed in the kitchen until needed! Madeleine Vedel's cousin, Kenchy, and his new bride, Melinda (NOT Melissa- or did I get it backwards? Names are not my forte...) spent their honeymoon, voyage de noces, with us. We were hired for a day by Dr. Rose McKenney, a geology professor from Washington state. We took her to visit Claudine, the goat cheese maker, to St. Rémy de Provence to sample (and buy, bien sûr) chocolate made by Joël Durand and to Chateauneuf-du-Pape to sample wine. It rained all day and we were pretty soggy by the time we returned to Arles. Thankfully, Rose's philosophy matches mine- you can't do a thing about the weather so you might as well have fun anyway. White Chateauneuf-du-Pape is divine, by the way. You can't buy it in the states because they don't make enough of it and try to keep it for themselves. You can order it online and have it shipped to you, though. I've given the link to Cave du Verger, in case you are tempted. We also cooked with Rose, preparing a duck and leek dish, a nice, warm treat on a chilly, rainy evening.
By this time, after 4 months in Provence working with Chef Érick, I should be ready for anything when he asks me if I want to go for a walk. I should know by now that Tu veux faire un tour? Or tu veux faire une promenade? can mean a simple walk in town to make the rounds and say hello to everyone or it can mean a drive to the beach in Marseille, an hour away. I should also know to ask specifically where we are going before closing the door to the house. However, I was caught off guard once again this week. Our work was done for the day, lunch was over and the dishes were washed. I took my shower and dressed in my usual jeans, but I put on my suede clogs, my favorite shoes, instead of my usual Nikes and pulled out a nice warm sweater because it was a bit chilly. So, I thought I was ready for a walk in town. Instead we headed for the parking lot and the van. Chef Érick asked if I had been to the town of Fontvieille, about 10 km away. I answered no, the we had only driven through it on the way to other places. I was still thinking we were going for a walk through the little town to see the old fountain it was named for. Wrong again. He had decided that we should go look for champignons or mushrooms in the forest since it had just rained. Now, I do love stomping through the woods. I am a mountain girl and spent many Sundays playing in the woods on my grandmother's farm with my cousins. And I am not a high-maintenance woman, the kind I try to warn my sons against. But I was wearing my new suede clogs. Oh well, nothing to do about it once we had pulled off the highway and into a gravel parking spot. We were a stone's throw from Alphonse Daudet's windmill, if you have ever read his work. It wasn't very muddy, after all, and there was a well-worn dirt road that we could follow. We left the road and looked for mushrooms but found none as it is still a bit too early in the season. We did find a lot of olive trees and we picked some (the first time I've done that!) to take back with us to make olives cassés, literally broken olives, called this because you gently break them open before soaking them. We also found wild thyme and picked some to bring back to the kitchen. At one point, I looked down at the ground and saw fresh animal tracks. I thought that they were deer tracks at first. Chef Érick informed me, very nonchalantly, I might add, that they were left by a sanglier or wild boar. Seeing a sanglier had been a goal of mine for years, much like my desire to see a real moose when we made a family car trip to Quebec a few years back. We saw the yellow warning signs by the side of the road, but I never did see a moose other than the huge statue of one outside an ice cream shop in Maine. Last summer, I did see a whole family of wild boar crossing the highway in front of the car on a trip through the Camargue. We were returning from the beach late one evening, saw them ahead and stopped so that they could pass. I was quite thrilled. I was not thrilled, however, to see fresh traces or tracks while in the woods. I, also very nonchalantly, I thought, asked if wild boars are vegetarians. I was proud that I phrased the question that way, just seeming eager for knowledge. Chef Érick chuckled and told me that they are-- they eat the mushrooms we were looking for, truffles when they are in season, and all the other wonderful things growing in the wild. I must admit that I was happy to get back in the van without encountering one on the dirt path.
As we pulled back on to the road, he asked me if I had seen the Roman aqueduct in Fontvieille. No, I answered, I have only been to see the Pont du Gard, a huge one about an hour's drive away. So, we pulled off the side of the road one more time, a few kilometers away, and I was dazed once again by the traces the Romans left behind. This one was used to transport water to Arles but also to provide the power for a mill to grind wheat. I sat on the rocks for a while wondering about the manpower it must have taken to build this, as well as the engineering skills needed to figure it out in the first place.
The final adventure of the past week took me to Les Gorges de l'Ardèche. It was breathtaking and a little scary for someone who doesn't like edges. It's not heights I am afraid of, rather falling off the edge of something. In this case, driving off the road into the gorge at least 120 meters below. Apparently, in the 60's someone did just that by driving too fast around a curve. It was Linville Gorge on a much grander scale. We drove all the way from one end to the other, arriving at a cave or grotte just in time to be told it was 2 minutes too late to visit, the final tour of the day had just left. Oh well. Too many stops for photos, I guess. We decided to head a little farther up the road to Vallon-Pont-d'Arc to visit an exposition about La Grotte Chauvet. It was discovered in 1994 by three spelunkers and is the oldest masterpiece of prehistoric art, dating back at least 35,000 years. The cave itself is closed in order to conserve it, as is Lascaux in southwest France. This time, we were informed that we were 5 minutes too late. To ease our disappointment, we walked through the little village and found a café. Luckily, we were not too late to have a glass of wine!
I have made a new friend, Isabelle, who is also helping me with my conversational French. She and I went to the cinéma yesterday to see Woody Allen's new film that takes place in Barcelona. It has been dubbed into French and I could understand most of it. Tonight I plan to go see Entre Les Murs, a film about a teacher and his middle school class in the suburbs of Paris. It won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May, making it the first French film to win the equivalent of the Academy Award in several years. I am quite certain that I will not understand a lot of the dialogue in this movie. The language spoken by teenagers is quite different from my textbook French. However, I look forward to seeing it.

Now that the weather is cooler, it is time for stews and soups. Carbonade de Mouton has already become one of my favorite dishes. This is one of the first dishes I plan to make for my family when I get home in December. Enjoy this with a nice, bold red wine, pasta and lots of good, fresh bread to soak up the juice! After serving, just before taking a bite, salt it with coarse sea salt to really bring out the flavors.

Carbonade de Mouton

A wonderful fall stew which originally used mutton (grown sheep) and is now done with lamb. This is a dish often served to the mariners of the Rhone as they passed through Arles, working the barges up the Rhone to Lyon.

For 6

Preparation time : 30 minutes ; cooking time : 2-3 hours


One kilo leg or shoulder of lamb (2.2 lbs)
3 tablespoons olive oil (enough to cover the bottom of the pot)
2 slices bacon chopped in small pieces
One onion, quartered
2 tomatoes, quartered
2 carrots, cut in bite size pieces
1 large turnip, quartered
Heart of celery, quartered and chopped coarsely
3 cups dry white wine
300 grams dry white beans (10 oz) (soaked in water overnight)
100 grams of black olives (4 oz)
3 bay leaves
A pinch of nutmeg
3 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped
Water to cover
Coarse sea salt, to taste

Cut meat into large cubes, (or alternatively ask the butcher to do this for you).

In a large deep dish frying pan, heat the olive oil, add the bits of bacon and onion and stir till lightly browned, add the meat and brown quickly over a high flame till caramelized. Add the tomatoes, the carrots, the turnip, the celery heart, the white beans, the garlic, the olives, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Pour in the white wine. At this point, you can continue cooking the stew in the deep dish pan, or transfer it to a tian or clay pot that can go in the oven. It is best cooked over a flame. Cover with water and cook either over a low flame for 2 hours, or in the oven at 180C/375F for the same length of time.

Bon appétit!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Fall in Provence

Oui, fall has arrived in Arles. We even turned on the heat in the house last night. Mornings and evenings are chilly, but there is still plenty of sunshine and brilliant blue skies. I have packed away the summer dresses and shorts in one of my suitcases. Jeans, long-sleeves, sweatshirts and socks are now part of my wardrobe. Fall has always been my favorite time of year, however, so I love it. I am well aware, though, that the first time a strong, cold Mistral wind from the north blows through here, I will wish for summer again! At least that's what everyone keeps telling me. I have my gloves, scarves and wool coat-- I think I am ready.
I've settled back into my French routine since my return from Italy. Breakfast, laundry, cleaning rooms, if necessary, washing dishes. Gilles has fussed at me, saying I lost my French accent while in Italy speaking English all the time with my friends. He considers that a major setback to the progress I was making! I have actually found someone to work with me once or twice a week. Her name is Isabelle and she is a speech therapist. She speaks beautifully without a distinguishable accent from any region in France. We will begin working one or two evenings a week. She also speaks English and Italian.
We've had a few individual cooking lessons. Stews and soups are a part of the menu now. I look forward to learning new recipes. The vegetables at the market are changing. Root vegetables, carrots, turnips, potatoes and onions, are taking the place of zucchini, eggplant and tomatoes. There are two cooking weeks coming up. The first one, October 17-24, is the Fall Classic Gourmand Week. We will take our clients to visit a family run olive oil business with an AOC of Les Baux, a potter in Le Cailar (I have to figure out how to get some of her things home with me!), an organic winemaker in Séguret, an incredibly beautiful village, a goat cheese maker who has 50 goats that must be milked every morning and evening and new cheese is made daily, to a family run bakery in a nearby village to watch them make baguettes, croissants, la pissaladière and other goodies, and to the market here in Arles to buy the ingredients for our meals. We will leave the B&B each morning after breakfast, taking a picnic with us for our lunch. Chef Vedel's picnics feature quiche, salads, cheeses, saucisson (dried sausage made from bull, wild boar, pork, donkey, etc.), just to mention a few of the things we will pack in the picnic baskets. One of the days will be a hike to look for mushrooms and herbs. Rosemary, thyme, bay leaves and other herbs are found growing in the wild here. During this week, the clients will prepare over 20 different recipes, all using fresh ingredients found in Provence. The second week, October 28-November 2, is a shorter version of the first week. The clients are only with us for 5 days, instead of 7.
This week we took two "field trips," as I call our outings. The first one was to Abbayé de Saint Michel de Frigolet, a nearby abbey. It was very serene, without many visitors on that particular day. The abbey is celebrating its 150th birthday this year. The church there is amazing because it is still painted on the inside. Many Gothic cathedrals and churches were painted inside, but the paint has faded in most of them. This one has been restored and repainted in blue, red and gold tones. We walked around the grounds and collected some berries for one of Chef Vedel's experiments. (I tell him the kitchen looks like a science lab...) If you have ever read the comic book series Astérix, then you will know who Getafix or Panoramix is-- the Druid who brews up the magic potion that gives Astérix his super strength. I call Chef Vedel that sometimes. The monks at Frigolet make a liqueur called La Liqueur des Prémontrés, using the famous and old recipe of Père Gaucher. It is made with natural extracts from plants. It is a very nice apératif.
I took today's photo on our second outing. We went back to Pic St. Loup to buy wine for the upcoming stages de cuisine. This area is about an hour's drive from Arles, towards the Cévennes Mountains. These mountains remind me of the Blue Ridge Mountains, making me feel both right at home and homesick at the same time. All along the way to the winery, we passed vineyards on both sides of the road. The grapes used to make white and rosé wines have already been harvested and pressed. The red grapes are beginning to be cut now. The grape leaves are changing colors, some to red, some to yellow. We found some good reds in Corconne at the cave coopérative. I have added their website under my links section.
The other adventure this week was to clean out the back refrigerator. Oh, mon Dieu. One of my worst subjects in school was science. I am more of an English, history, foreign language, art kind of student. My apologies to Barb Kanoy, one of my dearest friends and the 7th grade science teacher at Durham Academy. I admire this woman for many reasons, but she has the gift of actually making kids like science experiments. Quite a talent! Anyway, the back refrigerator WAS a science experiment! That is where a lot of leftovers accumulate. Chef Vedel just does not throw anything out that he thinks he will use in a few days. Well, some of this stuff was well past its prime and even he recognized that fact. We threw quite a bit out and washed up all the dishes and containers. There are three refrigerators here. The one that holds the cheese needs to be tackled next... Maybe next week. I don't think I could handle two in one week.
I have to pass on the latest book I read. My BFF Martha brought it to me for my birthday. It is the story of an American woman who loses her job and decides to spend her savings and take a course at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. I loved it! She has a great sense of humor and includes some of her favorite recipes, not Cordon Bleu ones, however. I imagine that is a huge no-no. The book is "The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry" by Kathleen Flinn. A fellow French teacher emailed me and suggested it and Martha found it for me. I am now reading a biography of Julia Child that I found here at the house. I read "Julie and Julia" by Julie Powell a few months back. This is another great read written by a woman who hates her job and, for excitement, decides to cook her way through Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." She gives herself a year to do this . She started with a blog and turned it into a book. (I wish!) I myself have never attempted a Julia Child recipe, let alone the entire cookbook. I have always been far too intimidated. Maybe I will be more courageous after I return home. A movie is being made of that book starring Meryl Streep, I think. I've added a link to Julie's blog, too.
A few nights ago, we had Didier, Monique, Gilles, Philippe and Yvonne over for dinner. Didier had asked several times about Chef Vedel's recipe for Fricôt des Barques. This dish was a favorite of sailors on the Rhône River, docking their boats in Arles and coming to a local inn for a hot meal. It is another true Provençale dish, good on a chilly evening. Gilles brought a couple of bottles of Merlot from Languedoc and we also opened a bottle of Saint Henri from Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I made brownies for dessert and Monique is now my friend for life! I know how much she loves chocolate, so that gave me a good excuse to make an American treat. The quality of the dark chocolate here is incredible. Add to that farm fresh eggs and organic flour and the result is trop bon, too good, as Chef Vedel's 6 year old son Jonas says frequently about his dad's cooking!
Gilles actually asked me how many kilos I've gained since I got to France in June. Now, most men would know never to ask such a question, right? I, like 99% of the women I know in the U.S. and France, am quite sensitive about my weight. I lied about how much I weighed through two pregnancies-- well, I didn't actually lie about, I just refused to tell my husband how much I'd gained. That is until it was time for Grant to be born. Things were moving along very quickly by the time we got to the hospital and the nurse did not have time to weigh me. She just simply asked me how much I weighed with Steve right there in the room. Shaving a few pounds (is 20 a few?) off the real number didn't occur to me since I was focused on breathing and not screaming, so Steve found out the truth. He was smart enough not to comment! Anyway, I was quite happy to report to Gilles that I have actually lost a little weight and my jeans still fit! So there, one and all. It is quite possible to eat very well and not gain weight. No fast food, no sodas, no eating in between meals and dessert, including homemade brownies, only once in a while.
I leave you with the recipe for Fricôt des Barques.

Fricôt des Barques - Mixture for the Barges

For 5 persons : Preparation time : 15 minutes ; cooking time : at least 3 hours

1 kg (2.2 lbs) boned rear leg beef shank (I've been told that you may have to special order this from a butcher as it is not a common cut outside of France- I don't know. I haven't made this in the US yet!)
3 onions
3 Tbsp capers
6 salted anchovy filets, carefully deboned
2 garlic cloves
One bouquet of parsley
3 bay leaves
Fresh ground pepper
3 Tbsp olive oil

1. After removing the excess fat, slice the meat into 1/4” (1/2 centimeter) thick slices.

2. Prepare the savory mixture by mincing the onions, the anchovy filets, the garlic cloves, the parsley, the capers and crumbling the bay leaves. Mix all this together in a bowl.

3. Take a heavy crock pot or enamel covered cast iron pot or well-seasoned dutch oven and pour the olive oil on the bottom. Place a couple pieces of the fat you removed in the center of the dish, just in case it heats unevenly, what will burn will be the fat, not the meat. Then, lay the meat slices, one layer thick, on the bottom of the pot to cover it, spoon on some of the savory mixture to cover; add pepper; repeat, the last layer being the savory mixture.

4. Put the pot on a high flame, bring to a simmer (2-5 minutes), turn down the flame and let cook for 3 hours, checking to be sure that the lid does not let steam escape as this is the basis for your sauce. If the pot lid is not a tight seal, you will need to add some water (a cup or so) during the cooking time, if it seals well, no water should be necessary.

To accompany this dish : shell pasta with a little olive oil, steamed broccoli and carrots. Should there be any left-overs, this dish both freezes and re-heats very well.

Bon appétit!

Monday, September 22, 2008

A Very Spoiled Woman

I have arrived back in Arles safe and sound from a wonderful week in Italy with my two buddies, Martha and Monette. I flew to Rome on September 10 to meet their flight from the US. I spent several hours in the airport waiting for them to arrive and had a little corner table in an all night coffee shop all to myself. I managed to read, write a letter, file and polish my nails (washing dishes and cleaning toilets has done nothing for my manicure, needless to say), and watch countless airport employees throw back little cups of espresso coffee while standing at the counter.
Martha and Monette arrived on time and the reunion involved a lot of laughing and crying. I was assured that I do indeed still have English-speaking friends who would travel several thousand miles to visit me in a country where none of us speak the language. I had thought about that fact a little bit prior to heading from the Marseille airport to London Gatwick to Rome but not enough to be worried. Afterall, I speak French, Martha studied Spanish and Monette is just plain old fearless about asking for anything she needs or wants in English. Martha went to Durham Academy Middle School the day before she left for a crash course in Italian from Daniela Harrell, a colleague, very dear friend and the only Italian I know. No problem, we thought.
We did manage just fine, even throwing in grazie, ciao, buon giorno, buena sera, and prego as often as possible. Luckily for us, most everyone we met spoke English. We did eat in a restaurant close to Trevi Fountain one night, coming in wet from pouring down rain, where the owner was a bit grumpy and spoke no English. He could've been saying anything at all to us, but we chose to believe he was complimenting us on our lovely rain-soaked Nikes and umbrellas! Even though he charged us 4.50 euros for the bread he served us, we managed to laugh. Not our finest choice of restaurants during the week, but it was late and we were hungry. Most of the time we relied on Rick Steves' recommendations (along with thousands of other Americans- if he ever goes public, buy stock) and he was very helpful, although his maps were a bit hard to follow in Florence.
I quickly realized that I have become a very spoiled woman - une femme très gâtée- in the three months that I have been living in Arles. You see, I have had to make no decisions about food. No meal planning, no shopping except to accompany Chef Érick to the market and help carry the purchases, and no cooking except in my assistant capacity. Whenever he asks me if I am hungry- Tu as faim, Teresa? On mange?- he already knows what the answer will be. Bien sûr. Of course, I am hungry and we should eat. He just laughs now and usually already has his head in the refrigerator or is rummaging through the vegetable basket to see what the possibilities are. In Italy, I was on my own. Well, Martha and Monette were there, too, of course, but they also a bit weary of food decisions. Between the three of us we have seven boys, ages 25-15.
So, while in Italy we had to actually chose the restaurants ourselves. Imagine. One night in Rome at our hotel near the Spanish Steps, we decided to go up to the rooftop bar, have a couple of glasses of wine and watch the sunset. "Moustachio" waited on us and told us all about his city. He has lived there all his life and loves Rome. Everything was magnifico or fantastico in his world that night. He brought lovely glasses of pinot grigio for Martha and Monette and chianti for me. He also brought little bowls of olives, nuts and chips. Voilà, girls, dinner is served! Not terribly nutritional, but absolutely wonderful as the setting sun changed the colors of the rooftops and church domes in the city of Rome. Thank goodness Martha was using reward points to pay for the hotel since we spent a handsome amount for those glasses of wine and olives! It was well worth it.
The best meal of the trip, in my opinion, was at the San Donato winery. We took a day trip from Florence to San Gimignano and Siena, with a stop at the winery for lunch. Lunch was laid out on long tables and consisted of various hams and cheeses, salads, lovely little white and red onions, and bread soaked in the olive oil also made on the premises. Dessert was almond cookies, cantucci, dipped in Vin Santo del Chianti, a sweet wine made there, also. Holy Wine of Chianti. The owner served his white and red wines to accompany our meal. I do believe our group would have stayed there all day if we could have! We met a couple from California on their honeymoon, two very nice guys from Austin, Texas, and three other couples from the US. We ran into almost all of them again the next day at the train station as we were heading to Monterosso in Cinque Terre.
It was my first trip to Italy. Highlights of the trip-- seeing David at the Accademia, the Trevi Fountain at night (I did not jump in), the sheer size of the Duomo in Florence, hiking between the five villages in Cinque Terre, coloring my hair in Florence at the hotel while Martha and Monette practiced pilates (I swear it looked orange under the lights in the bathroom of the Hotel California- oh, yes, that was the real name, luckily, my hair is NOT orange and we were able to check out), sitting on the beach at sunset in Monterosso, the homemade pesto from the little shop in Monterosso, the 10 hour train trip back to Arles, even though we were sold the wrong tickets in Italy and had an hour's delay in Nice while they found a working locomotive, and almost missing the stop in Arles because we were all fast asleep. It was, afterall, 12:30 am and way past our bedtimes!
I am happy to be back in Arles and am once again being fed very well. Lunch today was grilled tuna steaks with a fresh tomato and caper sauce followed by delicious goat cheese, chèvre. Fall has arrived. The leaves on the chestnut trees are changing colors. The sky is a beautiful shade of blue that we usually only have in October in North Carolina. It was 12 C or 54 F this morning when I woke up. I already miss Martha and Monette- the world's best traveling buddies. We often looked at each and remarked that there was no where on earth we'd rather be than just where we were at that exact moment in time. In addition to being a very spoiled woman, I am a very lucky one!
While I was in Italy, Chef Érick was hard at work with a week of Hiking and Feasting with three women, two Americans and one Canadian. I did make it back for one night and this is the dessert we made.

Fresh Ricotta/Brousse Cheese Cake

500 grams or 17 oz. of fresh ricotta or brousse (do not use skim)
1/2 cup lavender honey
1/2 cup sugar
3 eggs
the zest and juice of one lemon (3 Tbsp juice)
the zest of one orange, if desired

In a mixer or with a wooden spoon, blend the honey into the ricotta, then add the sugar. Add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Then add the juice and zest.

Pour into a lightly greased spring- form pan and bake at 175C or 350F for 45 minutes or until just about set, with the center still a bit wobbly. A bit of light browning along the edges is fine.

Remove from the oven and place in the refrigerator to cool and set.

Bon appétit!