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!

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