Monday, December 17, 2018

Compare and contrast « Ob-la-di » with « Ob-la-da-blah-blah-blah»

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Every year we come to France, I am struck by the differences between our countries. We have been doing this transcontinental shuffle for ten years (!) now but the contrasts are still striking.

There are the givens of geography: Provence is much sunnier than Michigan. Even though our village is at a latitude comparable to Traverse City, MI, the weather is much milder. I have read that Global Warming will negatively affect the Gulf Stream and Europe will lose the warming effects that the Gulf Stream brings but at the moment, the warm winds continue to make the Provence climate feel like South Carolina.

Another thing that strikes me each trip is that Americans are heavier than French people. When one thinks about the differences in cuisine, one might conclude that the French ought to be heavier given all of the wonderful sauces and cheeses added to foods (not to mention all of the wonderful French pastries and, of course, wine). I am guessing that the biggest difference is that snacking in France is at a minimum. One does not find a rack of candy bars at the check-out lanes of the grocery stores in France.

Relatedly, the French dress better. In general, they have not adopted American ultra-casual styles. For instance, one rarely sees people in sweats at a store or an event. Many French people wear sport shoes as we do in the US but they are most often not white. French women are especially aware of fashion trends and seem to buy the latest styles. In terms of fashions, France is the land of scarves. Women and men wear scarves in every season but in winter the scarves are as long as a person is tall and though a scarf often looks like the person threw it on, it has been wound and knotted with careful attention.

Another striking difference is that Americans are louder. At a restaurant or at a café, the noise level is lower than in the states. Ellen and I were at a bistro for lunch one day and a woman at another table laughed out loud – so loudly that people turned to see where the noise was coming from. When we go out to eat, you can usually identify the Americans in the restaurant by the decibels emanating from their table. I also think that the French have a different intonation in their voices. You don’t have to hear the words to know that the person is speaking French.

There is much less litter in France. I don’t know whether that is due to an awareness of the environment or the fact that cities and villages still hire street sweepers whose job it is to keep the streets litter free. The downside to street sweepers is that French sidewalks are often booby-trapped with dog-do. (The attitude among many French dog owners is that since the street sweeper is paid with my taxes to clean the streets, it is not my responsibility to do his job. The attitude is slowly changing.)

The French smoke a lot! Leaving the airport terminal as we arrived, we had to walk through a veil of cigarette smoke from people standing outside of the terminal. Smoking is much more pervasive than in the states. You cannot smoke in enclosed spaces in France but all of the cafés have an outdoor smoking section and even on cold days, people sit outside all bundled up in order to have a cigarette with their glass of wine or cup of coffee.

Our lives go on and the differences between France and America increase or diminish over time. The only constant is change.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Random observations

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It has been very chilly here. The daytime temperature going only as high as 50° is bad enough but when the Mistral is blowing it is downright cold. We walked up to the old town yesterday and the wind was a literal slap in the face. (I understand that the word literal no longer means only literally. It can also mean figuratively.)  It was supposed to warm up before Easter but the wind continues to keep the temperatures cold…

Many of the shops do not heat the interior or if they are heated, they set the temperature very low. Several stores leave the entry door open even when the outside temperature is around 45° F. The clerks work while wearing big sweaters or coats and scarves. Customers don’t seem to mind.

More than a year ago, a dear friend sent me the Food Section of the New York Times. The section was titled: “The New Essentials of French Cooking” by Melissa Clark and includes 10 recipes. Since receiving the section, I have been going through the recipes to learn them. So far, I have been successful in making Coq au Vin, Cassoulet, Sole Meunière, Omelet, Ratatouille, Quiche and Steak. I have yet to try Tajine, Pommes Anna and Soufflé. I think my favorites so far are Cassoulet and Sole Meunière though I love making/eating Ratatouille and what’s not to like about a recipe that calls for marinating chicken with a bottle of wine? I would never have predicted that Tajine would be on the list but the author says that this dish of North African origins is so good it has found its way into French cooking. (I agree with her: it is quite good.)

It has been fun learning new recipes. My kitchen skills are still fairly minimal – I don’t have the creativity of our friend Dan or my high school friend who writes the food blog Yo Jo, What’s for Dinner but I enjoy shopping and then cooking. Plus, now I have more than six recipes so we no longer have to eat the same recipe twice in one week.

It is supposedly spring here though the temperatures belie the fact. But, one can now find asparagus and strawberries in the market. The early asparagus is expensive but the price drops every week until the end of the asparagus season. The strawberries are so sweet, one cannot imagine how nature packs so much sweetness into the berries. Soon, the vendors will start selling the softball-sized melons that are grown about 50 km south of here.

Related to the strawberries – and other foods as well – the location at which the produce is grown is important in France. Somewhat like Americans who buy salmon and choose the salmon based on its source. In Provence, the best strawberries come from Carpentras – a city about 25 km from here. The best melons come from Cavaillon. If you like mussels, the best mussels come from Brittany – moules de Bouchot. The best lentils come from Le Puy-en-Velay. And then there are the cheeses – all of which have a geographic origin. French gruyere for instance is called Comté and comes from the Franche-Comté region in eastern France. Grocery stores must post the country of origin for fruits, vegetables, honey and meat.

We have had a rush of visitors: our next door neighbor from Lansing, a long-time friend and colleague of Ellen with her friend. It has been fun – it is always fun – to show people why we like Provence as much as we do. On the clear days, the sky is a brilliant blue and the limestone in the mountains seems to glisten. And, of course, limestone contributes to creating the wonderful wines of Provence – les Côtes du Rhône – which have become my favorite wines.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

St. Valentine’s Day Dinner Chez Entre Amis

We decided to celebrate Valentine’s Day by going out for dinner. We went to a new restaurant in the middle of town that is quickly becoming a favorite of ours: Entre Amis (Between Friends). We have eaten well there twice since our return in December and the last time we were there we learned that the chef was a woman – fairly uncommon in this area. In fact, Entre Amis is the only restaurant that I can think of that has a female chef.

The restaurant was offering a special Valentine’s Day menu that looked inviting. (Every time there is duck on the menu, I say the menu looks inviting.) The meal started with an “amuse bouche” of black olive tapenade on toasts. Their tapenade is very strongly garlic-flavored. I love it! The “amuse bouche” was followed by a “P’tite Pomme d’Amour” which was not an apple at all but instead a fat cherry tomato dipped in toffee and then rolled in crumbled nuts.

The Entrée was « Gravlax de Cabillaud agrémenté d’un Duo de Betterave et d’une Tuile aux herbes ». Raw cod served with tiny pickled beet tips and herb crisps. The seasoning was very delicate but savory. The herb crisps were like thin baked pesto crisps and were an attractive addition.

Question: Do you eat crisps with your fingers or with a fork? The French seem to know how to handle every food item without touching it with their fingers. – I used my fingers.

The Plat: « Magret de Canard aux saveurs Provençales et son Foie Gras accompagnés d’un Mélange Gourmand. » The main course was a duck breast with seasonings from Provence, foie gras served on a bed of couscous with vegetables. Again the flavors were perfect. The couscous was prepared with lemon zest and minced vegetables. The foie gras was warmed. (I prefer it cold.) The server said that the chef prefers to serve the duck breast “rose” (pink). It was delicious.

The dessert was: « Guimauve parfumé à la Noix de Coco et son Coeur Passion sur un Croquant de Spéculos » round marshmallows coated with coconut and served on a spice biscuit. This was a fun and light dessert.

Question: Why do the French (and the English) provide only a spoon for eating dessert? I have trouble picking things up with a spoon when a fork would work better.

The evening ended with a glass of Floraison de champagne – a tiny glass of champagne in which they had placed a litchi making for a perfumed drink to end the evening.

I had chosen a Domaine Martin 2015 Plan de Dieu red wine which is a mostly Grenache (60%) Rhone blend. It went well with the duck breast.

I hope your Valentine’s Day was as much fun (and as flavorful) as ours.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Stepping Out

Add to Google Reader or HomepageNow that we are back in France, it is clear what I miss most about France when we are away: steps, baguettes and local groceries. (The list could go on for several more pages, but these three come to mind first.)

Baguettes and local groceries are related to steps. Each morning, I walk to get a baguette. Then I walk to the local groceries and do the grocery shopping for the day and later I may need to make an extra trip for something that I forgot. At the end of most days, I have accumulated more than 10,000 steps just doing errands.

When in Lansing, I have to drive to a grocery. I used to walk to the City Market but all of the produce vendors have closed their booths. I now go to the City Market only for cheese. There are no small grocery vendors in Lansing though there are three within the center of Vaison la Romaine. I had hoped that the people who are buying lofts and condos in downtown Lansing might have created a demand for a local grocery but it has not happened yet… Maybe the recently passed legislation, introduced by Lansing Representative Andy Schorr, to bring groceries to urban food deserts will provide the incentive to establish local groceries or maybe Andy Schorr becoming mayor will bring a renewal of downtown Lansing commerce. We will see.

Grocery stores located beyond walking distance are an inconvenience but I can still get in my car and drive to one of the big box stores in Lansing. Finding a bakery that sells baguettes, on the other hand, is impossible. (People may object to my statement that there are no baguettes in Lansing by pointing out that almost every grocery sells a loaf of bread they call “baguettes”. They are all correct. But, I am talking about real, crusty baguettes, not the soft as white bread versions that most stores offer.) It seems that real baguettes have a freshness timer in them. If you don’t eat all of your baguette in one day, it turns hard. All you can do is use a plastic bag to keep the baguette soft or break up the hard left-over piece and make bread crumbs. Our while-in-Lansing solution is to buy frozen baguettes and bake them at home. The frozen baguettes are an acceptable substitute but far from the crunchy joys of a freshly baked baguette!

I guess that I have just become a proponent of “shop local, buy local”. I appreciate that I can walk that philosophy while I am in France – and am waiting for the day when it will be true in Lansing.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

La Feria de Paques in Arles

Add to Google Reader or HomepageWe went with American friends to Arles for «La Feria de Paques» (Easter Festival). Ellen read that the festival draws 500,000 people to Arles! There is music, paella, bullfights and wine. We chose to go on Saturday which is also the regular «market day» for the city.

Our visitors said that they wanted to go to the bullfights in the arena in Arles. We would have avoided the event because the idea of watching a bullfight has never made it to my bucket list. Our visitors had learned that there were two types of bullfights: the traditional gory spectacle and the non-killing performances. Our friends had heard that the newer style of bullfighting was where the matador pulled flowers from a flower crown that the bull wore.

We had a great lunch at one of our favorite restaurants (Hotel Voltaire) and then made our way toward the place where they were having the non-carnage bull fights. (There were no bulls killed in this arena.) In this small arena, we watched a half dozen or so junior/apprentice matadors honing their skills in the arena. These young men (ages 15-20) were very confident and very thin. So thin that a bull would have had a difficult time in finding one of them as its target. Despite their body type, they were valiant and aggressive facing the animal charging at them. There was one instance where the bull succeeded in pulling the matador’s cape from his hands and then the bull started to chase the matador who showed that he was not only capable at using his cape, he was fast on his feet and climbed the arena wall before the bull could get close.

The bullfights we watched were more like bull teases. There was little to compare them to the bullfights that Hemingway described in The Sun Also Rises. One must still admire the courage and confidence of the young men as they stood in the path of a charging bull.

I like the city of Arles. The arena is a major attraction, but for me, it is the city where Van Gogh painted «Café Terrace at Night,» «Garden of the Hospital in Arles» and of course «Starry Nights». (I have been singing/humming Don McClain’s «Starry Nights» ever since we were in Arles.) After the bullfights, we took our friends to the place where Van Gogh painted «Starry Nights» and then we walked back to the place where we had parked the car.

The route I chose took us past the Roman-built arena in the center of Arles. BIG MISTAKE choosing this route! We were walking away from the arena as the rest of the people were heading to the arena for the 4:30 bullfights - all 500,000 of them (or so it seemed). I told Ellen to let me lead the way because I look old and people would clear a path for me. (wrong!) The crowds were so thick that people could not step to the side. We slowly made our way past the arena, over the hill and back to the car.

We left Arles to drive back to Vaison. Curiously, the GPS took us past Nimes; the other city in France that has a Roman-built arena and still uses it for bullfights (les Corridas).

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Rally round Spring

Add to Google Reader or HomepageAh, the early signs of spring: the almond trees are blooming, asparagus is on sale at the market, the streets are filled with Rally cars. (?)

Last weekend was the annual auto rally. It happens at the beginning of March every year in Vaison la Romaine. People and their cars start arriving around noon on Friday and by Friday evening, the upper parking lot and the field are filled with trailers and tents and tarps on which mechanics lie or sit and work on making the last adjustments to the cars.

I recently read a nice description of road rallies in the book Fatal Pursuit by Martin Walker (the recent addition to the Bruno French Chief of Police series.) I enjoyed walking around the cars and listening to the teams talk but If you are interested in car rallies, I refer you to Fatal Pursuit or some other source.

A sure sign of spring is when the produce sellers start selling asparagus at the market. Last Tuesday, there were three or four stalls that had asparagus. The first asparagus is extremely expensive: 11€ a kilo (about $6.00 per pound). As spring progresses, the price will drop to the point where the price will match the Michigan asparagus price at the height of the season; about a dollar a pound.

Soon the asparagus will be affordable and we can start making spring vegetable risotto, asparagus soup, etc... Asparagus might be a vegetable that is difficult to pair with wine but I love it just the same.

As spring asserts its presence, we will soon be able to get delicious strawberries from Carpentras and small (about the size of a softball) melons from Cavaillon. La vie est bonne. Life is good.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Robert Burns Night

Add to Google Reader or HomepageFair fa' your honest, sonsie face, 
Great chieftain o the puddin'-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye worthy o' a grace
As lang's my arm. 

Ye Pow'rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies:
But, if ye wish her gratefu prayer,
Gie her a Haggis

(First and last stanza. Address to a Haggis. by Robert Burns)

I can say in all honesty that there are two things that I would never have imagined doing during our days in France: attending a Robert Burns birthday celebration and eating haggis. Last week we did both and had a wonderful time!

There was a certain serendipity to the event. We happened to run into UK friends while shopping last week. We talked for a while and then provided them with our phone numbers. Before we got home, we had a message inviting us to join them for dinner. When we called to confirm that we would love to have dinner with them, the hosts clarified that it was for a Robert Burns night - January 25 to celebrate the birthday of the Scottish poet - and that in addition to the traditional agenda of the evening, we would be eating haggis. So, a new opportunity. . .

Our hosts had decorated their house in a Scottish theme. They even had found “Robbie Burns” napkins to complement the appetizer. I had put on my most representative plaid shirt and we headed out of our village, traversing time and geography to reach the moors of Scotland. People arrived wearing Scottish plaids and tam o’ shanters. There were no bagpipes to greet us but our host plays the piano and played "The Skye Boat song" as we moved to the dining room.

The evening included poems between the meal courses and a lot of wine, though the traditional Scotch was also offered for a toast. Though not everyone drank it, a Burns Night would hardly be complete without it.

And then there was the haggis... It was served as the Robert Burns poem Address to a Haggis was read. I purposely did not look up the description of how haggis is made. I had a recollection of ingredients that left me not interested in ever trying it. I was wrong! It was very tasty and I did not have to ruin my Robbie Burns napkin by hiding my haggis in it.

As our (Ellen’s) contribution to the evening, Ellen had researched the links between Scotland and the USA. She found that Burns had had a strong influence on our own President Lincoln as well as many other Americans during his time. She talked about how President Lincoln had enjoyed Robert Burns’ poetry and how the two men had had similar philosophies of social equality and nonjudgmental tolerance. Lincoln had recited Burns poems from the time he was a teenager and these poems influenced the cadence that Lincoln used in his public speaking. It was a gratifying discovery, especially in these times when presidential rhetoric has changed so much.

The evening ended with all of us singing "Auld Lang Syne" (another Burns poem).

Là breith sona dhuit, Robbie. (happy birthday, Robbie)