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!