Friday, 29 July 2011

Paris, Prehistory and Parties

Six weeks is almost up, and in two days (15/07/11) we leave our little gite, take possession of our boat and head off to the upper Nivernais for ten days. We've cruised the lower Nivernais, the Borgogne and the Canal du Midi at other times but are looking forward to this canal, reputedly one of the most beautiful.

There's so much to see and do around here that we'll be sad to leave, though - especially now that we've got to know some of the locals.

Last week Russ had work in Dortmund, Germany, so we spent three days in the Ruhr valley then stopped in Paris on the way back to stay over the weekend for a meeting on Tuesday at the OECD - or OEDC, as it's known here. It was a great chance to reacquaint ourselves with Paris.  One thing I wanted to do was go to La Rue Poncelet, well known for its street food market. This isn't huge, but it's packed with absolutely wonderful food beautifully presented, and well worth a visit.

Just a peek at a cheese bar

You can't be in Paris on a Sunday and not go to Notre Dame to see the cathedral, no matter how many times you've seen it before, and to hear those voices!

And you know how the old joke goes - every New Zealander is born with the genetic imprint of every other New Zealander and can't go anywhere in the world without meeting someone they know, or someone who knows/is related to somebody they know? Sure enough, we met an old friend from Hamilton,  Shelley, at the  L'Orangerie . . .We're great fans of the impressionists, especially Monet, and Renoir too  - Musee D'Orsay was a must see . .

Strolling down the Champs d'Elysee in the sun.. .

Some places we'd visited before, as well as a few we hadn't  - the Conciergerie, where Marie Antoinette and others during the "reign of  terror' were incarcerated before being guillotined by the revolutionaries...

Sainte-Chapelle, built by Louis 1X to house the relics of the Passion of Christ, most notably the Crown of Thorns - the stained glass windows tell the story of mankind from Genesis to Christ's resurrection and are breathtaking. . .

And, last for us but not least, a visit to the Du Pere Lachaise cemetery, not really something I'd prioritised, but it's quite compelling and impressive, the tombstones and vaults from other eras among the trees that dominate the 43 hectare site. We found Oscar Wilde's resting place and admired his memorial stone covered with lipstick kisses and surrounded with fresh flowers. There were fresh flowers, too at Edith Piaf's, and in the end we wished we'd had more time to explore - not for any gratuitous impulses, but just that it's such a peaceful and pretty place, and so interesting.

After our return to la Cour Barree, we attended an al fresco, seven course dinner complete with pianist. Adam and Claire helped in the organisation, but it was hosted by Brigitte and Lucien who like to 'introduce people to each other'. They live in a nearby village, Arcy-Sur-Cure, and the dinner was Spanish/Latin American themed.  Brigitte is a trained chef and together they operate a bed and breakfast - highly recommended!

Brigitte & Lucien

To our surprise, many of the sixty who attended were ex-pats, mainly British who now live in France and many of whom run B and B's or own gites.  And would you believe, another New Zealand couple from Alexandra?

Another great night with music, food, laughter and dancing.

Ninety seven year old Tessa, when the dancing started

Tessa and Lucien

At one point Tessa (a local) was taken off to bed by her daughter in law, but she escaped and came back to the party - just look at that face! I'm so sad that my camera didn't flash just when I wanted to capture this, but if you look closely you'll see why I can't resist posting it.

We also visited Roman ruins at Escolives, and a very large prehistoric cave (grotto) at Arcy -Sur-Cure, complete with rock drawings of mammoths. As long as Russ gets a good run at his work from, say, 9am - 3 pm, we can take a couple of hours to explore in the late afternoon. There's still the evenings to work when he needs to. 

Market day at Toucy was a cooler day, but it's an excellent market

We also invited Louis and his family to a 'return' dinner at our gite -  Louis, Claudine and the twins - Celine and Marie. It really wasn't up to Claudine's standard, but in my defence I don't have much equipment at the gite, not to feed 10 people, in any case. Claire and Adam and their two boys came too. I think the salmon went down well, though, and they really seemed to enjoy my foccacia bread as both Claudine and Claire asked for the recipe.

Claudine insisted on providing more wonderful dessserts - a chocolate mousse and sour cherry clafouti - you just can't outdo their generosity, it seems.

Twins - Celine & Marie
Louis had to borrow Russ's bike and ride back across the bridge to milk the goat after the main course - but this time, he arrived back with the milk as a gift for us, still warm - delicious!

A couple of days later, Louis took us to visit his brother's cave (cellar). He's an excellent vintner but doesn't sell his wine- which is all chardonnay (chablis) apart from some liqueur and schnapps - and he doesn't grow the grapes. The juice is given to him by neighbours, and he makes the wine for himself, family and friends - and very good wine it is! We sat in their garden for several hours in the afternoon as the sun sank, much longer than we had anticipated, talking and laughing as the odd neighbour dropped in or walked across the newly baled paddocks to join us. We felt particularly blessed; Russ announced that his new ambition in life is to retire and make wine. . . and I suspect he may not be joking.

Celine drove us back, and once again we were surprised - Claudine insisted on our staying to eat with the family, and once again it was delicious - slow cooked beef, leeks, turnips, potatoes and carrots followed by cheeses and then cherry clafouti and creme caramel. At this rate we'll be lucky to be able to fit in the plane when it's time to go home!

We have been walking in the early mornings, though, and have found some great tracks up into the hills around the village, through cherry orchards, wheat fields and sunflowers.

Tomorrow (14th July) is Bastille day, and the whole of France will be celebrating; roadsides have been mown and all the parks have gussied up in preparation. In La Cour Barree, the village is invited to pay 10 Euros for a paella lunch and something to drink in the central park, and we're hoping to go. We may get to the fireworks in Auxerre tonight, too, despite knowing the town will be really crowded.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

'Ellice St Galley Kitchen', the vagaries of pastry, and icecream

Shortly after the 'Vegetarian Kitchen' was released, I received an email from a young woman who explained that she isn't vegetarian herself, but believes most of us should eat less meat. She wanted to extend her vegetarian repertoire as well as 'be better' at vegetarian cooking,  had  recently seen the dvd of the film  Julie & Julia, found my book, and was asking if I would mind her blogging her progress while cooking her way through all 180 recipes!

Needless to say, I was very flattered ( no, I don't regard myself as another Julia Child!), and  thought it would be really interesting for me to 'watch' someone objectively using my recipes. I'm able to access her comments about methods, flavours and difficulties along the way, kind of look over her shoulder as she works her way through the book, and she's assured me she'll be honest! (I can take it).

I know a bit more about her now, and am impressed; this is not a young woman with time on her hands; she has a very busy professional life with long hours, a partner, does voluntary fundraising work, plays music and puts time into keeping fit among other things - in short, one of those high achieving, hard working young women we all admire.

So, the  Ellice St Galley Kitchen blog has been up and running for a couple of months now and  Christy, despite at times struggling to find the suggested size or type of pan, dish or utensil in what I gather is a rather limited kitchen, is doggedly working her way through the book.  It's fascinating for me to read about what she's making, what she's learning and how she's coping along the way.

I did have a minor panic attack, however, when she posted that she hadn't been able to make the Tuscan Tart pastry work, that it had crumbled and refused to stay together, even when she added a little more water - Quelle horreur!  I've made it many times, could there possibly be a misprint I didn't pick up? An omission?

Anyway, I made a batch of the pastry and it behaved well, thank goodness - after which I decided to turn it into the base of a flan; I rolled it out to fit a 25cm, lightly sprayed flan dish; then layered roasted and seasoned vegetable slices (courgette, eggplant, capsicum) into it, interspered with torn basil leaves, dabs of soft goat's cheese and a few slices of buffalo mozarella - you could of course use other cheeses if you want, such as a creamy feta, perhaps, and slices of fresh mozzarella.  Then I topped it with a couple of seasoned eggs whisked together, before baking it at 210 C for  40- 50 minutes. Turn the oven down after 30 minutes if it's browning too fast - very yum. 

Christy had commented that she was late home the night she made the pastry, and she'd had a really busy day so was tired and distracted. I've had disappointing results with pastry and cakes/biscuits when I've been feeling like that, too, so am hoping she'll give it another shot.
Humidity is another thing to factor in with pastries and breads, too, though now that it's winter in Wellington that's not such a likely culprit as the need for a good sleep. . .

I know this isn't the same thing, but wanting to know why something didn't work reminds me of my early days as a columnist in the 80's, when I was new to writing and not quite so particular about exact measurements. I had published the recipe for a very simple but delicious coffee and white rum icecream - (the revised recipe for this is in the new book, incidentally, as it's a family favourite). A reader wrote in, explaining that she'd tried this icecream, her husband loved the flavour but it wouldn't set as it should.  I phoned, and we went through everything we could think of, from how stiffly she'd beaten the cream to what kind of beater she'd used. Then we got to talking through the steps and suddenly the penny dropped. I'd specified using a capful of rum, she'd read it as a cupful!

No wonder her husband loved it. . .

(Click here to take a look at Christy's blog)

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Hospitality Borgogne Style

28/06/11 There's been a lot said about French indifference or even rudeness to tourists in the past, but personally we've found that this is rare these days, and probably no more than in any other country.  Certainly in rural France we've been impressed by the kindness, courtesy and helpfulness of locals wherever we've stayed.  We did suspect that basing ourselves in one place would be a different experience than, as we've done in the past, staying for a week then moving on, and this is proving to be the case. We're at the end of our third week here now, and greetings from the locals are really warm instead of merely polite, Madame at the boulangerie cheerfully anticipates what we want, and was delighted when I extravagantly - and genuinely- praised her cakes and pastries.

One highlight has been an invitation from our landlords to a shared village meal at the park. This happens once a year, and originally was a celebration of survival and salute to solidarity after a devastating flood some years ago. It's a tradition that's remained - everyone is invited and brings something to eat and drink, tables and chairs are set out, and lights are strung up. It's still daylight  until 11 pm here at the moment, but this particular night has the reputation of carrying on til the wee small hours.

We had a great night; all the locals made a point of introducing themselves and made sure we didn't feel left out. Those who had learnt some English at school struggled valiantly to make conversation and we struggled valiantly back, with our very terrible French pronunciation. But over the course of the evening, communication became easier, we started to 'hear' the words and are sure that as the evening progressed, our new friends were understanding us a lot better - even English words, as long as we pronounced them with a French accent! I do hope that wasn't just imagination and the wine(?) Actually there's probably some truth in it, as there are so many common root words in the two languages, but pronunciation is vital. I don't know how many times I've known the right word, but it's getting those rrr's up from the back of the throat that really counts - then the puzzled looks disappear.

A little shy to start with , but the end of the evening was much more jovial
We left at midnight after a wonderful night and much talk and laughter, shortly after some fabulous home made raspberry liqueur appeared. Feeling a little seedy the next morning was a small price to pay. 
Most French women seem to be good cooks, and proud of it. There was a lot of interest in my being a food writer, and several women insisted I try their dishes during the course of the evening - more walking required!  One of them, Francoise, is acknowledged as one of the best cooks in the area, and has offered to show me how to make a traditional Burgundian specialty, gougere - despite not speaking any English. She brought them along as a delicious contribution to the starters, and at the end of the evening, she also produced the best tiramisu I've ever tasted. I'm so looking forward to her cooking lesson, and Claire has offered to come along and translate.

On top of all this, we met a local man on our early morning walk who spoke virtually no English, but was really keen to 'talk', and before long insisted we come for an aperitif at his house a couple of days later. Claudine, his wife, speaks a little English from learning at school. Louis served up a local specialty, cassis (blackcurrant liqueur) with Aligote, a locally produced white wine, and we managed to learn quite a lot about each other despite the language difficulty.  Over the course of the conversation the subject of food came up of course, and they were delighted when I assured them I enjoyed French food very much. By the time we said 'au voir',  we'd been invited back the following night when their daughters would be at home, and Claudine said she would cook traditional Burgundian food for us. Louis gave us a big, proud grin.

Between that aperitif and the dinner, we'd biked the ten minutes  to Escolives, a neighbouring village, where a very good cremant (a champagne style white wine) is produced.

Entrance to the cave (cellar) at Escolives
Almost every village has a cave, and this one is part of a collective that supplies a larger local one at Bailly, which is very interesting. It's huge, cut into the limestone cliffs above the village, and was used to hide planes during the war. Originally, limestone blocks from it were used to help build Paris.

I can't help myself, I've got to explain about this meal. . .

Louis had said not to bring anything to the dinner, but we thought a bottle of good cremant would be appreciated, and we started with that and Claudine's gougeres. Their delightful daughters, Celine and Marie, are both students in Paris and speak English quite confidently.

Claudine with daughter Marie
We weren't quite sure, however, if we'd misunderstood; possibly we'd been invited to a drink and something to eat pre- dinner, not dinner, as there was a large plateful of gougere (choux pastry balls with cheese) and of course we had several each. But, we were then each presented with a plate of young leeks which included the green leaves, chopped, sauteed and served at room temperature; the two halves of a hard boiled egg sat on top of the leeks, accompanied by a  lovely herbed vinaigrette, and a long slim slice of meat completed the visual balance of the plate. This turned out to be slow cooked tongue, I think casseroled, and slices of bread were passed around (as always). Ah, we thought, this is the main course - light but delicious, and quite adequate after the gougere. All the vegetables came from their home garden, we were told proudly, and Claudine strongly believes in eating organic produce as much as possible. Like most of the villagers, they grow most of what they eat.

Well, we were wrong about the leeks being the main course - that turned out to be the most deliciously tender slices of meat, covered and roasted at a low temperature for four - five hours with a little white wine and subtley flavoured with herbs. Now you know I prefer not to eat meat, but in this situation I try, and I have to say this was beautifully cooked and delicious - goat, they told us, a bit worried that we would be disturbed by this, served with a light gravy and whole small potatoes, peeled and boiled.

By this time we wishing we hadn't had so many gougere. . .

Suddenly, Louis jumped up, announcing it was time to milk the goat, Dali (after Salvatore I presume), a very pretty girl who provides the family with at least a litre of milk at each milking, all they need to drink as well as make cheeses and desserts.

Louis milking Dali


Milking Dali in the middle of the meal was not only an interesting surprise, but very timely, as it gave a little time for some of the food to settle!

When we sat down again, voila! Three cheeses to choose from, two of them home made goat's cheese and a superb Normandy camembert, with organic bread  - all great, but we're struggling now, big time. Did I say that each course was served with either chardonnay or pinot noir from the vineyards of either Louis's brother or nephew?

Celine and Marie then tell us that Claudine has made not one, non, but two! desserts, and we must try a slice of each.Ohhhh. . . .

They were both superb

Creme caramel

Creme caramel, made with goat's milk (which, by the way, when fresh is not strongly flavoured at all), flavoured with vanilla and

Custard tart, with cream and raspberries from the garden
We had no room for coffee or tea at this point and were thinking about staggering home across the bridge to our gite when Louis, bless him, brought out his home-made brandied cherries!  I had to try them - I just had to - but Russ decided that any more food or drink would be a danger to his health.

We had been hoping to find a good ferme auberge (a farm restaurant that has a set menu and you have to book), as we had in Provence last time we were in France; but there doesn't seem to be any around here. We've stopped looking, though, as the meal with Louis and Claudine would make any meal from a ferme auberge or most restaurants, for that matter, seem a poor second.

Oh my goodness, we've invited them to us for dinner - what am I going to give them????

Most of all, we're overwhelmed by their generosity and hospitality -a chance meeting that turned out to be one of those experiences you never forget.

Claudine, chef cuisiniere, and co-host Louis