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!