cakes, prose, woes -- the photos, food & thoughts of a french-speaking seattle-native in brazil

In the end, you're just happy you were there—with your eyes open—and lived to see it. -AB
In the end, you're just happy you were there—with your eyes open—and lived to see it.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Michael Lives In Normandy

In the Old Testament, the Archangel Michael is personified the battle cry for war, the field commander of God's divine army both on Earth and in heaven. As such it should be quite clear as to how he wound up the patron saint of French chivalry as well as the guiding muse of northern fish mongers and mariners. And I thought he lived in Paris.

The French hold an affinity for Saint Michel, an observation easily garnered from the myriad namesakes, monuments, and tributes to the angel strewn throughout the city of Paris. The melding of Michael's embodiment as war lord and chivalrous saint is psychologically fitting for the nation of France, as historically the French pride a chivalrous society married to a curt vulgarity and violence as a history. Patronizingly classified the 'loser' by critics and charlatans throughout the Western world, France's misfortunes in the first and second World Wars have cast a shadow over the nation's musketeering past. Wimp appears an unfitting and illogical epithet for a nation whose streets have run with the blood of countless massacres and wars including Centuries of religious crusades including the thirteenth century massacre of the Albigensians, the infamous Bartholomew's Day Massacre of the Huguenots in 1572, the Reign of Terror during the Revolution, the Napoleonic wars, the 1842 Revolution, the Franco Prussian War, etc. The Marseillaise has bean battered and beaten over the years for its severity in content, though has survived. Imagine the reaction if at the opening of a Yankees game the call to arms rang through the loudspeakers soliciting for the watering of crops with the impure blood of the enemy instead of the twilights last gleaming? Exactly. The French eat with poise, wear colorful scarves, and hold a certain set of manners...yet to stick a crowd of English among the down trodden rugby fans at Hotel de Ville would ensure a bountiful crop season...high in iron.Somewhere between war patron and chivalric icon Michael became a seaman, a guiding beacon for mariners on France's Normandy and Brittany coast. Le Mont Saint Michel, the floating fortress and abbey built for the archangel strattles the boundary between Normandy and Brittany on the sandy coast. The medieval town is made island only with the changing maritime tides; a geographical phenomenon contrasted by the grazing hoards of shorn sheep at the villages base. In retirement Michel runs a a died yarn facility, as well as a dairy farm that produces the finest Camembert in the north of France. To watch the setting sun behind Michel's abbey clears all doubt as to why he prefers such a countryside palace to his Fountain and batiments in Paris, there truly is no better place in this world than the sea.

An hour or so east and I find myself in the Bretagne region of France, in the small fishing port of Cancale. Oysters. Lovely barrages of oyster fields as far as the eye can see. Not surprising then to discover Cancale to be the oyster capital of Brittany. Regretfully we left Cancale and her early morning oyster shuckers for our journey to Brittany's Saint Malo. Regret was quick to fade as the walled city of Saint Malo appeared perched in the distance on the coast of the English chanel; a castle and marina linked to the middle ages, the city of the Corsair pirates provided a day of fantasy and exploration that yet again propelled me into the frame of shock and awe at how simple yet joyous life can actually be.

Scaling the fortress walls of the city, strolling through the cobbled streets, peering through shop windows and dozens upon dozens of seafood eateries, and simply sitting on the quay dangling limbs over the sparkling channel water is a day in Brittany. Michael chose well when he stationed in France; a chivalrous and proud nation quick to temper, yet simultaneously mellowed by the sea in bearing. Oysters and angels--perhaps Mike will someday sublet.

A bientôt

Monday, October 15, 2007

Guinness, Grass, & Father Ted

Wandering through Dublin and Galway
James Joyce remarked of his country, "If Ireland is to become a new Ireland, she must first become European." Mr. Joyce, we meet yet again, but this time around I find myself no longer cursing the day of your birth. James let us forget and forgive, I did tape those pages back into Ulysses afterall.

One month in France. Time to leave. Never did I imagine this to be possible--to weekend (verb) in Ireland. By no accounts may I accredit here a spur of the moment adventure, this trip had been in the books since day one. The occasion: the birthday party of a dear friend--not just a friend, but that friend, the one you consider family, and (depending on your outlook) have either been blessed or lucked with friendship. Me: damn lucky. K's 21st birthday, In Galway, Ireland, the land of Pubs. A nice little escape from the hustle and bustle of the Paris city life--understatement. For a country only an hours flight north, Ireland could not be more different from Paris, nor could it be more homey, comforting, and familiar. Paris is exhausting for a foreigner: big, fast, French--its own world in which one is a pin prick attempting to navigate and blend. Ireland: Gray, tepid, small, messy hair, tawdry sweaters, and English.

Undoubtedly a statement to offend many an Irish--but I finally felt at home. Joyce said Ireland must first become European, I trust him now. Ireland is not European at all--and is worthy, I now admit, of being time-capsuled in eight hundred pages of stream of conscious.

The previous noted travel woes of this author would have any cognitive reader questioning her solo attempt at crossing a border via 5 different modes of transport. And right you are for questioning--wrong metro stop, wrong bus, missed exit on Luas...but the difference? I predicted these, scheduled them into the time table if you will. Once in Dublin I was to take a shuttle bus to Heuston train station, not surprising I found myself on the wrong bus. I informed the bus driver if I had actually boarded the right bus, the cosmos would have torn apart. I scheduled this in: I had 5 hours in Dublin to roam in the footsteps of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, so the above the ground tram car the driver took me to was more than what I could have hoped for, until i missed my stop distracted by a brawl between the conductor and a ticket-less youth. Unphased--walk to the station from the next stop. Dublin is brilliant. My four hours walking along the quay of the Liffey River, switchbacking the myriad bridges, the Guinness factory, pubs, Ireland's national museum, pubs, people, the James Joyce House where the story The Dead (in Dubliners) took place, and more pubs. Though brief, Dublin was breathtaking, a preview for my next visit and a n inspiration to finally attempt a second round Ulysses, for the bastard did say, "The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works." Teatime Joyce. Teatime.

Dublin and Glaway are on opposite coasts of the country latitudinally, therefore I may claim that I crossed the nation of Ireland by train. What lays in between the country's two largest cities: grass. Fields upon fields of austere cornea-burning green pastures spattered by herds of grazing sheep. Irish sweaters are scarves are not cliche, for there absolutely are more resident sheep than people. The sheer beauty of endless fields, small farmhouses, dotty stone fences, and overcast skies left me with an esoteric nostalgia for home, family, and friends. Arrival in picturesque Galway was one for the films: K and J were waiting for me on the platform, waving and beaming like an old married couple. Stations and airports are notorious abodes for tears, hugs, and laughs either commencing or ending a separation.

Dinner was already simmering on the stove; a chicken curry, rice, and homemade naan bread (K is an exceptional chef and baker, we have very similar interests). After dinner: Irish Pub, my first Irish Pub, and therefore my first Guinness in an Irish Pub. Make that first sips of Guinness, for as an acquired taste, it is not one I have 'acquired' yet.

Galway lies on the sea, a welcome sight for this Seattle born. The salty air, swift breeze, seagulls, and humid air were yet more bolsters for that ol' nostalgia. Peaceful, happy, and friendly is the definition of Galway with its winding streets, packed shopping allies, Guinness, Guinness, and Guinness, beached boats, and 24-hour super store centers. Not, a city. No, not a city, but rather a home.K's birthday commenced with (my standard) two hour breakfast. In Ireland: porridge, fruit, and two teapots of liquid love. English television is a perk, though the television hours were spent on Father Ted, a beloved BBC program of mine I feared I would never again find, though there it was, in neat DVD format...was I indeed meant for Ireland? Presents from France: wine, scarf, chocolates, and yes, a baguette. All things French minus the beret. Presents in tow we headed to Salt Hill, a sandy point where one can gaze out to sea while the rocky Atlantic waves crash into the ancient stone walls below. Evening was passed in bowls of potato soup, cider, chocolate cake, and more Father Ted. Not the raucous 21 many an American immortalizes, no something much better.

Irish coffee, cards, tea, Ted, and warm mist. My weekend in Galway rescued this drowning foreigner from this brilliant, yet exhausting Charybdis of a city, depositing me in welcome arms that recreated home far from home. Appreciate the second half of "family and friends" for more likely than not, your friends will invariably become family to you. Ireland now for me represents all of this; an escape home from Paris. The weekend was spent traipsing down memory lane, while yet experiencing a completely new life. The new and old melange; somehow life is built with enough room to keep everything while adding tenfold. The ride from Galway to Shannon to catch my flight home dug up Joyce's words yet again, "Every life is many days, day after day we walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves." Pick up the tome again he's telling me.

One may find here the saccharine tone tiresome to follow. Well, Ireland gave me a new phrase for response: feck off!

A bientôt

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Madeleines D'Automne

Cinnamon Madeleines de Commercy

The toaster oven has been tamed, I am now the master. So I say unto it: spit forth the pretty little cake iconic of France, the simple yet sophisticated treat known as the madeleine. If you, the reader, have been following my charades in the foyer kitchen stocked with non-savvy and archaic appliances, then you understand my tart gayness at finally--and successfully-- manning the oven. Toaster. Not, an oven. Madeleines for an October in Paris, and to honor les éspices de la saison--cinnamon, as I am lacking in cloves and cardamom. After losing myself in an early morning run from Luxembourg to Montparnase, to the Tour Eiffel, and then home, I was inspired by the mini-city tour to re-attempt the classic French cake--and it was not at all a coincidence that I needed a birthday cake for a darling upstairs.

The madeleine is a traditional cake originating from the small village Commercy, in northeastern France. There are varying versions of the tale outlining their creation, but most agree they are named for Madeleine Paulmier, an 18th century chef for the father-in-law of Louis XV. Paulmiers use of shells as cake molds is the defining characteristic that denotes a madeleine from any other butter cake, for a madeleine is not a madeleine unless in the shape of a shell of St Jacques. A sponge or pound cake is all the cake is. No more no less. Though, there are myriad ways to dress it, spices, perfumes, chocolate, seeds, nuts, what one does with a sponge one can do to the little madeleine.

The plan this time, varied slightly from the last. This time, measurement would be taken more seriously, and the oven watched on par to a vulture eying an interstate. The measurements: a jam jar. The jar read 370g--my measuring cup. The oven this time, not foolish enough to attempt 220 degrees, was set at a low 200. Success. The resident black lab of the foyer, Reglieuse, wholeheartedly beamed in approval of the sweet cinnamony perfume that filled the halls, indicating through the sharpest of the senses the presence of autumn and the impending holiday season.

Cinnamon Madeleines:
  • 3 eggs
  • 140g sugar
  • 150g flour
  • 1 packet baking soda
  • 125g softened butter
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • extra sugar for dusting
Whisk together the sugar and eggs until frothy, add flour, soda, cinnamon. Mix. Add softened (not melted) butter. Butter or spray madeleine pans, fill shells 3/4 full. Baking times will vary as I used a toaster oven. Just watch them closely. Once removed from pans, pat shell side in course sugar.

The madeleines were fitting for a birthday in France, though a bittersweet celebration away from friends and family. If a recipe or an attempt is a failure, do not let it win. Attack it, prove to it you are the chef, not the cook, the chef. And while pitted against an oven, a sack of white powder, or a lump of lard, it is you who has the upper hand. Hopefully. Failure is rewarding, for success proves your ability to manipulate food, to bend it, and to make it your own.

A bientôt

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Breakfast Gratuit au Foyer Mignard:

Apricot Rooster Verrine
I will begin with this--food in Paris is expensive. I am not inferring that I go out to a restaurant or sandwicherie everyday (wait, I do, you see I have meal tickets to a few places around the city) but for the other meals of the day it is cash, and I love spending cash as much as I don't. More or less. I would rather buy a plane ticket, or train ticket, or a box of baking soda. I can squeeze by dinner minimally, but breakfast--I will never give up my breakfast. Breakfast is the most rewarding, enjoyable, and relaxing meal of the day--never should it take less than an hour, two if you have the poise to yank your bum out of bed early enough. That, I believe, is a link i share with the people of France, one that I brought with me.

For the French, to skip breakfast--as so many Americans do--is unthinkable. Not only (one) is it relatively stupid to think you can jump start your brain for a long day in 5 seconds with a quick cup of instant coffee paste, but (two) come afternoon the stomach and brain are churning with such unbearable hunger that the sausage sandwich and eclaire you just gorged down in under three minutes went straight through without any enjoyment, taste, thought, or a pause in the day, which in respect is what lunch is after all. If you are going to eat because you are starving you may as well purchase a cheep bag processed meat and a jar of peanut butter (Nutella for us Europeans. hehe) They will fill the stomach, provide protein to restart the brain, and they will not waste a cooks time preparing you something you won't think twice about while pounding it down. Now if I were a chef, and not just a wanna be writer, this is how I would see it: if you don't have the time to eat my food, go away. Go eat a snack and come back when you have the time.

This is the way of France, it explains why meals take so long, why there is an aperatif, multiple courses, and coffee or desert at the end, and why the food is quality. The patiserrie boulangerie on the corner is for the quick morsel in between meals, or so I have observed. One does not sit in a boulangerie for breakfast, but rather at a cafe or bistro where an hour long coffee, tea, and jam can be passed in recovery from or reminiscent of dreams just awoken fom only moments prior. For me my breakfast is this.

At the foyer I call home, breakfast is the one meal provided. It is the meal of France, and as such is the classic Fresh bag of baguettes delivered each morning, jam of many selections, butter, jus d'orange, pommes, dried corn flakes, tea, and coffee. Charming and quaint, the quint essential of the start to a perfect Parisian morning. But I don't eat wheat. Unfortunate as it is my one free meal of the day. I'm the one who empties the fridge of the apples, before the year is through I know there will a mutiny and siege on my quarters once I am discovered. However, I enjoy breakfast none the less. My petite dejuener is this: tea or coffee--a multiple tasse or perhaps both--yogurt or fromage blanc, apples, itunes, my food blogs, online clothing boutiques, or my current novel. Though that free meal is quite luring. Cornflakes you say. I find these tasteless bits a waste of chewing energy while I am in Paris, but they can be manipulated I have discovered, under a barrage of quizzical and disapproving glances from fellow inhabitants of the Foyer I enjoy my cornflakes as a verrine, seeing as I am in France--appropriate, and it will be called Apricot Rooster Verrine.

French Jam is quite good--despite my prejudice and snobbery against the non-home canned types--I justify the act (to myself) as being a product of food quality production standards that greatly vary from those of the United States. The apricot preserves are a treat unto that of pure pleasure. But, jam on a spoon is a bit dotty. Therefore, my verrine: jam, topped by cornflakes, drizzled in warm milk, then fromage blanc,a little pinch of cinnamon, and topped by mint leaves or diced apples for garnish. Yes, garnish--as Tony says: You need zero talent to garnish food, so why not do it? Just add a sprig of fresh herb and you'll be halfway to making that fuzzy little Emeril your bitch. Exactly.

By now you will have theorized down the connection of apricot rooster to that of the cornflake mascot, mr. rooster--if he carries a name I have forgotten. Verrines are without a doubt the most tactile maneuver in making something out of nothing. Do not take this as a recipe, because it is not. It is merely playing with what you have. What is next, you wonder, well there are the little butter cubes...perhaps origami from their wrappings. Play around with your usuals, dress your yogurt, garnish your may discover a sleeping treat yet to be discovered, and above all, eat your breakfast.

A bientôt

Monday, October 1, 2007

To Faire Les Vendanges

I find myself here, in France, repeatedly experiencing that surreal yet fleeting sensation of being joyously content merely to be alive and occupy a coordinate position on this planet. La joie de la vie is the phrase I suppose. Or perhaps its just the wine.

Yes, we learned this lesson from all the hats out there, the new and old, Goerthe, Thoreau, Frost, Russel Crow, etc. But I risk here the most pretentious of boons, that of cottony dramatics steeped in other worldly prose to the extent of possible Hallmark employment, but there is something about the French country that is undervalued by the limitations of human language, English or French for that matter. Beautiful, breathtaking, comfortable...damn all fall short and denote cliche. Suffice it to say I love Paris, but there is something in the fields and air out there that seems to whisper to me a confirming ticket of belonging.

Though only a day trip on a sleepy September Sunday, my first trip south to the French countryside--to Château de Nitray just east of Tours--was a joy on par with the train ride and Spanish chicklets. A lesson on wine making: to faire les vendanges at Château Nitray, to cut grapes, taste wine, feast, dance, taste more wine, get lost in the woods on ancient bicycles, and just witness life being lived for the sake of ever present laugh lines is one of those times. En effet, pardon, I have finally become a wine fille, and not just the whites anymore, no my friends, I have tasted the grapes on the vines.

Nearly three hours south of Paris lies Château de Nitray, a vineyard and production facility of wine since the middle XVe century, though the chateau was constructed in the mid XIIIe century. Nitray's architecture is one of the most distinct in Touraine, characteristically Italian and decorated on the exterior with Boticelli shells, the Château is a typical, though quite modest and petite, batiment of the Loire Valley. The history of Nitray is a facile tale of changing masters and marriages up until the twentieth century when the chateau's long corridors were forced to quarter German soldiers during World War II, stalling the chateau's wine production until 1955. The festivities offered by the chateau today include romping through the vines with sheers and bagged feet, wine tasting, a lunch banquet, and dancing. Though the majority of party goers exceeded the jeunesse age of sixty, the time had by all surpassed a disco night club on every level. On arrival one is greeted by the patrons of Nitray--two red faced men who clearly dine with wine from dawn til dusk singing, laughing, l'anglais horrible, and laden with wine, cheese, bread, and meat. Once snacked, the caravan moved to the fields for harvest, a surreal treat of sun and seedy grapes. Ah mon dieu.

Toilsome labors harbor burgeoning appetites, and the dejeuner proffered nothing less expected of traditional French country: our vegetarian friends, you sadly save no place for existence. Rouge with lunch lunch of roasted chicken and potato gratin, salad of Nicoise, cold meats, patte, assorted fromage of chevre, brie, and roquefort, tarte au pomme, un cafe, et plus encore du vin. The accordion humming, the laughing voices rising with digestion and consumption, the petite Jack Russel Terrier on my lap finishing my plate (this is France) and then the dancing. Everyone dances in France. A spiraling conga style line formed of the elderly French, the middling Czechs, and we the American girls. Twirling and dotting about a game of handkerchiefs and bisous (cheek kisses) the afternoon slipped by in a surreal geriatric perspective of cloudy happiness, life as it should be, in the moment and without worry of table spills, missing shoes, the dog under the chair, or disheveled hair, just pleasure and laughter. C'est tout.

We were offered to gouter a Sauvignon blanc, Cabernet, and Rose--the tasters tripartite. I am traditionally partial to whites, I order the Chardonnay at every bar and cafe fearful of the sour rouge. A miracle though has passed at Château de Nitray that has brought forth the taste for reds. Now I can enjoy France, I muse as I peddle a rickety bicycle through the silent and ancient chestnut woods of the vineyard, the Jack Russel tearing alongside me. There is a feeling of home in those woods, in the vines, in the rosy cheeks of the comte as he waves aurevoir in the evening sun, there is much more to France than Paris. Though the city has merely been dusted in my two weeks thus far, the country towns and villages appear to be tapping on the doors of weekends to come. Aside from the wine and dried figs, this country has so many people, and dogs to meet.

It is difficult to relay, but the moments don't seem to leave you. If you are ever fortunate enough to stand in a dusty courtyard and are handed a roasted date wrapped in bacon, don't hesitate, you will regret it for the rest of your life. Take it, savor it, and then remember to sip slowly so as not to spill, for le petit chien has had enough to drink for one day.

A bientôt