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.