Thursday, April 13, 2017

Pudding vs Dessert

“I’ll bring a pudding”, Victoria offered.

“Hmmmm pudding is a bit odd to bring to a potluck,” I thought to myself, “but what the heck. I wonder if she’ll bring chocolate or vanilla.”

The evening arrived and Victoria showed up with a lavishly frosted chocolate cake. I was a bit flummoxed, but Tom (Mr Sugar) didn’t miss a beat, “Yummmm,, but, Victoria, Susan said you were bringing pudding?”

“I did, and here it is.” she paused and then laughed, “You were expecting me to bring a pudding pudding. I hope I haven’t disappointed.”

We had just experienced the beginning of many classic British American lost in translation.

For our British friends a pudding is any ole’ dessert. And as you know, for us pudding is the custard type dessert one eats when they are young or sick. Delicious, but not the first thing to come to mind when one thinks of a dessert. The chocolate cake was much more like it.

Recently I had a long weekend in England. About an hour after setting foot on that great big island, I started to notice something. Every other shop window was either full of scones and muffins or the most extraordinary cakes I had ever seen. There were puddings everywhere and not a custard to be seen.

Now-a-days I live in the land of elegant, sophisticated French pastries, but no one had prepared me for the happy, cheeky array of puddings that were going to be on display as I wandered the streets of merry olde England. 

Here are some photos of a few of the puddings I spied. And yes, I did finally break down and sample a slice of Victoria Sponge Cake - it was perfection. Well almost, because to me perfection is a scone with strawberry jam and clotted cream - and I had 2 of those.

The word dessert has it’s French pitfall as well. If an American pronounces dessert as they would say it back home a French person will wonder why they are talking about the desert - a strange topic of conversation at the end of a meal. I guess if one is lost in translation it would be less of a surprise to get pudding than a bowl of sand for the longed for dessert.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Crazy Like a Fox

About 3 weeks ago the crazy man arrived with something that created a ripple of excitement for foodies at the Brantome market. Not only were his fellow vendors pleased to see his wares, but so were the old timers and curious tourists.
A great thing about farmer’s markets is the unexpected treasures that randomly appear. That treasure might be the first strawberries of the season, or a beautiful provencal table cloth, but it also might be something that is not for sale. The crazy man and his stand are a two-for-one treasure.

This old guy is infamous on the market circuit. He arrives well after the rest of us have set up our stands. The weekly vendors groan when his car clanks into view. Nobody wants this crazy ole coot setting up shop next to them. Never-the-less he manages to wiggle into any space that has been carefully left in between two stands. He elbows in with his wooden trestles and all of his stuff. Then ever so slowly he unloads his car -- somehow he always manages to do what no one else can, which is to park nearby.

First to appear out of the trunk of the car is whatever fresh produce he has brought. Some fragile delicacy of the season. Then the less perishable items appear, beautiful braids of garlic, bouquets of onions, and sacks of potatoes. Next, jars and tins of duck products dribble out and are stacked up on the table. Confit de Canard, foie gras du canard, paté de canard. The writing on the labels is runny and the tin cans have rusty looking edges. I think those cans and jars have been in and out of his car more times than I care to count. Finally some random regional wines are lined up here and there where the trestles don’t wobble. There’s no telling if it’s good or bad wine, but if you are willing to gamble you could find a gem for a couple of euros. Everything at Crazy Man’s is cheap. 

He finishes arranging all his stuff just about the time the rest of us are thinking about packing up for the day. He doesn’t seem to notice the late hour as he gears up for his sales. He calls out to folks as they pass by. “Fresh strawberries. Homemade cassoulet.” He has a heavily accented sing song voice. If there are no passersby he talks to himself.  Or if he can engage us he talks to his working neighbors. 

He’s turned up next to me enough times now that I have been able to observe who likes him and who doesn’t. I kind of like him (he calls me Madame), but probably because I can only understand about a third of everything he says. That’s just as well because his conversation seems to be a stream of consciousness about things like his old girlfriends, how the scene has changed on the markets, Trump and the French political campaign, car wrecks, and on and on. He is polite enough, or busy savvy enough, to stop talking when someone starts to linger at my booth or when he has a customer. Well, at least he stops talking to me - unsuspecting customers might be there for a good 10 minutes if they don’t figure out how to break the conversation and shove their payment at him.
For the past few weeks he’s been the one with the food treasure of the season. The first thing out of the rickety ole trunk has been crates of ghosty endive. Not endive in plastic bags. Not endive stacked up beside other salads. This is endive arriving directly from it’s pitch black growing places and is presented as it should be, standing like toy soldiers in the crate and soil that it is still growing in. The only other time you will be so close to how your food is grown is at a pick-your-own farm. 

His crates of endive catches the eye of all passersby. It takes a moment for shoppers to register why they are intrigued by this display. Anyone that knows fresh endive is drawn in immediately and the curious are drawn in by curiosity. Folks calculate how many they want, place their order and Crazy Man pulls out his just so pocket knife and carefully cuts the bouquet of translucent leave off the root. Without hurrying he peels off the bruised bottom leaves.
Old timers are thrilled to see him. They know the endive will be sweet and crispy. They pull there grandchildren over to look at how the plants are growing and make them stand still to watch how the vendor cuts and trims each bullet-shaped jewel. “See, this is how your food is really grown. It isn’t grown in plastic bags.” I can overhear folks debating if they will eat the endive raw in a salad or if they prefer them braised or sautéed. A few folks bought last week and had braised endive, today with our summer-like weather they will have a refreshing endive salad. Often their next stop is to the vendor next to me where they can pick up a bottle of walnut oil. I’m sure there will soon be a baguette sticking out of their market basket. I can picture their simple, elegant lunch on a sunny patio.
Just after noon I’ll pack it in for the day. Crazy Man will still be there until goodness knows when.  When I leave all of his endive will be gone and a few folks will have been talked into trying out some of his other items. By the time he does leave there’ll be less for him to pack up and there will be a jangle in his pockets.  He’s clearly crazy, but crazy like a fox if you ask me.

Thursday, March 9, 2017


Apparently this is Soup Week.  In one magazine I encountered an article on the health benefits of soup. Another, Cote Paris,  did a 6 page spread on beautiful bowls of soup. In addition, there were radio programs with people calling in their favorite soup recipe, a special shelf at the library dedicated to soup cookbooks, and folks exchanging ideas for soups at the corner grocery.  But I know that this isn’t Soup Week.  Soup craving is just another sign of the slow ending of winter.

Our end of winter weather is capricious, a few teases of sunshine and warmth, but days mostly tending to grey, cold, and rainy. Our brains yearn for comfort and our bodies crave minerals and vitamins. 

What better way to remedy the situation than to cook up a big batch of soup. I’ve taken to trying out a new recipe every week. Sometimes the decision is made by what’s available at the market. Sometimes we crave something a little spicy or exotic after too much “French” food. Sometimes I’m just too intrigued by a name to not try it out: London Particular, Cullen Skink, Krupnik, Toyga Corbasi, Cania de Galinha. Often it is the same ingredients with just one or two change ups of spices. But somehow they do present differences in ethnic flavor.
Here is my favorite discovery from this winter’s tryouts.  It’s not the healthiest, nor the most beautiful unless you sprinkle it with a few edible flowers, but it is the most sublime.

(**I learned the hard way that it should be served right away. The blue cheese turns into a pushy flavor bully if made ahead of time.)

Pear-Blue Cheese Soup 
(from Soup Night  Recipes for Creating Community, by Maggie Stuckey A great cookbook and an inspiration for connecting with one’s neighborhood.)

2 tbsp canola oil
1 medium onion
4 pears, peeled, cored and chopped
3 cups vegetable broth
6 ounces blue cheese, such as Roquefort or Gorgonzola, crumbled
1/2 tsp paprika
Juice of 1/2 lemon (About 1 1/2 tbsp)
Salt and pepper
Chopped roasted pistachio nuts, for garnish

1 Heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until softened, about 2 minutes. Add the pears and broth. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
2 Add the cheese, paprika, and lemon juice, season with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer until the cheese is melted: taste and adjust seasonings as needed.
3 Transfer the soup to a blender (careful, it’s hot) - or better yet use a stick blender. Purée until smooth.
4 Return the soup to the pot and reheat gently until hot enough to serve. Garnish each serving with chopped pistachios.

Here’s another recipe that I can’t resist giving you. It is from a lovely book “L’Art de Vivre au Fil des Jours”. (The Art of Living from Day to Day) by Victoire de Montesquiou.

Her soup for the month of March is Potage of Stinging Nettle. Yes, stinging nettles, the very same wicked plant I have avoided since falling up to my elbows in a patch of it at the age of 6. Let me just tell you I have avoided it like the plague -until I moved to France. Here in the countryside they are obsessed with it’s nutritional powers - another blog in the wings……

Stinging Nettle Soup (recette d’Arton)

preparation time 10 minutes - cooking time 30 minutes
for 6 people

- a large bouquet of stinging nettle gathered wearing gloves (young sprigs)
- 2 potatoes
30 grams of butter
1.5 liters of water
100 grams cream fraîche
a pinch of salt and pepper

Supposedly the nettle loses it’s sting three hours after it is picked.  Right.  Who’s going to give up the gloves to test that? 

Wash the stinging nettle and cut into morsels. Peel the potatoes and cut into small cubes. Melt the butter in a large pot. Add potatoes and stinging nettle and stir for 5 minutes. When the leaves start to wilt cover with water. Add salt and pepper. Simmer for 30 minutes. Blend until smooth. (careful it’s hot.) Reheat at low heat and add cream fraîche. Still without letting the soup boil. Serve right away.

You can accompany the soup with croutons or bacon crumbles.
Here are 2 Blogs that you might like to check out - of course they all had soup recipes recently, too.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Handsomely Beautiful, Exceptionally Foolhardy

This is the tale of three handsomely beautiful and exceptionally foolhardy Frenchies.  A trio that were to be the first kayakers to descend the Green and Colorado Rivers. 900 wild and wooly miles of water between Green River, Wyoming and Lee’s Ferry, Arizona.

It all started in 1938, when a young adventurer, Bernard de Colmont, returning from Central America to France, fell in love with the southwest of the United States. As soon as he saw the waters of the mighty Colorado and her majestic canyon he wanted to experience and conquer that wildness. Crossing the Atlantic by steamship gave him plenty of time to think through how the project might be accomplished.

He figured that all previous descents had been made with traditional wooden river rafts that inevitably shattered at some point on the monstrous rocks strewn in the raging river. He decided to try a different strategy. He would make the trip in kayaks, reasoning that their greater maneuverability would make it easier to avoid rocks.  As soon as he arrived home he started construction of three kayaks with rounded hulls instead of the typical rectangular form of the day. He based his design on traditional Inuit kayaks he had seen on his travels. The idea was that the shape would be more agile and replacements and repairs could be made more easily. This proved true as at one point when Bernard’s kayak was damaged. He was able to repair it with found wood in the bottom of the canyon.

Bernard easily convinced his new bride, Geneviève de Colmont, to join him on this adventure. Now they just had to find a third member. A telegraph was sent to an affable, competent, hiking friend, Antoine de Seynes. 

“I am organizing an expedition to Colorado, would you like to be the third member?” 

Antoine had to get out an atlas to look up where Colorado was. With no hesitation he said, “Yes.” He was 28 years old, graduated from Agricultural School, running the family farm, and regretting giving up his dream of going into Oceanography. 

The three spent just 15 days in training on the local Ariège River, which has rapids that ripple more than they roar. Then the threesome was off.  Paris to Le Havre, Le Havre to New York where they bought a used Lincoln. They drove cross country arriving in Wyoming on November 4th.  They asked for official permission to make the descent and were told they would have to leave a $10,000 deposit - the amount required for the inevitable rescue of these three crazy kids. Having spent all their money on travels and supplies they could not come up with this large sum. They set up camp along the Green River anyway and started to prepare in secret. Somehow a journalist got wind of their plans and published an article in the local paper. The day of their departure found the banks of the river crowded with onlookers. Some there to wave goodbye, some trying to dissuade these foolhardy foreigners, and some just there out of curiosity.

These young explorers were well equipped for the time. They had the latest in technical fabrics, helmets, water tight sacks that would also float, and Geneviève had a special water-resistant watch called a ‘powder case watch’. Most important of all were the kayaks, incredibly light, easy to take apart and covered in a waterproofed fabric shell. 

The three novice kayakers were off. Sixty days and 900 miles down the Green River to the intersection of the Colorado. They had to stop here as winter had become too bitter. Along the way they filmed each step of the voyage, from preparation, to rest stops, evenings in camp, and a lot of the descent - all on 16 and 35 mm color film- a rare thing for that time. They also used 8 mm black and white film, took copious amounts of photos, and each kept a journal of the journey. Unfortunately, only Antoine’s journal is known to still exist.

Their expedition was an enormous success. There were articles in many magazines and Geneviève was even on the cover of Marie-Claire. The men gave several conferences on the project. But their the world slid into the Nazi invasion, occupation, and then recuperation. There were more important things to concentrate on. Bernard continued to write for outdoor activities and Antoine continued kayaking, exploring the rivers of France.

In 1944 Antoine was helping in the Resistance. Two young men passing through France wanted to make their way to the Allies in North Africa. Antoine gave them his kayak from the Colorado expedition. The young men were picked up by the Spanish. However, their daring crossing set an example for the Allied parachutist units. Antoine’s kayak is now displayed at the National Center of Commando Training.

Now you ask, how did this story get dug up 75 years later…?

Fifteen years ago a historian from the University of Salt Lake City contacted Antoine’s son asking for more information on the trio. The American, Ian McCluskey, had fallen under the spell of this story after discovering a historical marker on the Green River at the launching of his own descent. Ian and a crew came to visit Antoine’s son and were handed over photos, the journal, and Antoine’s 8 mm film. Along with Antoine’s childhood memories of his father’s tales. 

Ian’s quest led to a full length film retracing the journey. 

Check out this site for more information:

**My information comes from an article in the SudOuest Saturday Magazine. Some information was a bit vague and I may have misinterpreted a few things. Still it makes a good story and maybe you’ll find a way to see the movie to get the straight story. I’ve ordered it to watch when I’m home visiting family. Dad will love it after years of taking us canoeing on the not so wild rivers of Virginia. Maybe we’ll even get out some of his old films of our adventures - he still has the projector!

Friday, January 27, 2017

Bordeaux Rooflines

Every now and then I get a jones for a little more action than the small village of Bourdeilles (“bor-day”) has to offer and I’ll head over to the big city of Bordeaux (“bor-doe”).

How quickly the scenery changes from rolling farm fields, to flat vineyards, then abruptly to a city skyline in the sort-of short two-hour drive to Bordeaux.
My toots to Bordeaux are intermixed with shopping, people watching at cafes, and wandering. 

It’s hard to say which is more alluring, the beautiful shop windows or the city folks dressed up to the nines. Trying to blend in, I’ve dressed my best, but somehow I still manage to feel like the country cousin from the sticks. Maybe it’s my practical, all-weather foot wear that gives me away.

For the first part of the day I’ll leisurely wander around window shopping. I love the french expression for this: “faire du leche-vitrine” which translates to “lick the shop windows”. After awhile my tongue is dried up and my feet are quietly saying “give us a break”.  Selecting a cozy cafe I’ll take a pause to recharge. But it’s only so long that I can sit in the cafe watching the beautiful people passing by. Soon I start getting ideas that maybe instead of just licking the windows I better go back out and cross a few thresholds. These beautiful people are sporting a new fashion statement that I wouldn’t mind copying. The problem is that because I am in ever-so-elegant Bordeaux, this must have will surely break the bank and will make me look like a city slicker back in Bourdeilles.
 So before heading back out on the streets I place my wallet in one pocket and my camera in the other. Sort of like a cowboy with her double holster. I’ve proven to have a pretty quick draw with the wallet so I keep it on my left side to slow down my action. My camera, loaded and ready, is in the right pocket. 

Time now for some aimless wandering. I am lured to turn left or right by glimpses of architectural elements. I’ve said the big city of Bordeaux, but actually it isn’t all that big. Population 250,000. The city center is on the UNESCO World Heritage List as “an outstanding urban and architectural ensemble” of the 18th century. Paris might be bigger and grander, but Bordeaux comes in second for the highest number of preserved historical buildings in any city in France.

Today the low angle of the winter sun highlights the mixed architectural elements of the city’s rooflines. It seems extravagant that so much time and money was put into elaborate details almost out of sight and often in shadow.

I love how passersby stop to see what I am taking a photo of. Their gaze follows the angle of my camera to see what the heck I could have spied.  I’m glad I give them a reason to pause and  observe the art show passing above our heads.

The city’s rooflines are a mix of plain and elaborate. Some rooflines are proof of a clearly rich builder. Other rooflines were clearly built by folks whose means were modest, but whose ambitions were grand. I want to see them all. 

My feet may be tired, but maybe even worse is the crook in my neck. I wander the city for hours, or until my feet and legs can go no further. Even my country walking shoes are no match for the miles covered on hard pavement. However I pass up a ride on the city bus. I want to continue to pursue the beauties of Bordeaux between the city center and the apartment where I am staying. It would kill me to be on the bus and see some beautiful facade pass by in the blink of an eye. Better to suffer tired and weary feet than fall to frustrated curiosity. Now is the time to soak it all in before heading back to where I belong, the small village of the country cousin with ugly shoes.