City Daily Photo- Me!

pont du gard- me

City Daily Photo‘s June theme is ME.  I found this out by looking at Virginia Jones’ Paris Through My Lens blogpost. This photo of ME was taken by a student during our 2017 school trip to France. We spent a week in Paris and then headed south on the TGV to Avignon. It was a gorgeous day so, on the way to Arles where we were going to spend a couple of days before returning home, we stopped at the Pont du Gard. We all put our toes in the water and spent a couple of hours lounging about like lizards, sunning ourselves in the March sunshine.

PduG

I first visited the Pont du Gard in 1987, the first time I took students to France. I have been back several times since then, with friends, with clients when I worked with Chef Érick in Arles, with students. It is an amazing place. One of my favorites places in the world.

How about a Tomato Tart today? Dreaming of Provence in the summer makes me think of it. This recipe is from Recipes from Provence, René Husson, Éditions Fleurines, 2006. The dedication says:

  For those who love Provence … C’est moi! Definitely ME!

Tomato Tart  Tarto à la poumo d’amour

Pie crust (make your own or buy one that you roll out)

500 grams (1 pound) tomatoes

200 grams (10 ounces) slices of swiss/gruyère cheese

100 grams (1 cup) grated cheese

1 sprig of thyme

bread crumbs

Dijon-style mustard

olive oil

salt, pepper

Peel, seed and slice the tomatoes in rounds. (I don’t do this… I just slice them!)

Put the pie crust in a pie pan and spread a nice layer of mustard on the bottom.

Lay the cheese slices on top, then cover with the tomato rounds, salt and pepper.

Sprinkle with the grated cheese and the crumbled thyme.

Drizzle all over with olive oil.

Place in a hot oven for 40 minutes. (Not much direction here… other recipes I have used call for 20-25 minutes at 400˚F- until crust is golden brown and tomatoes have started to shrivel.)

Here are three older posts on my Blogspot blog with recipes for tomato tart/pie–

#1  #2  #3

Bon appétit, mes amies et mes amis! Enjoy this beautiful Saturday! Bake something good for someone. Or just for yourself. Do you have a favorite photo of yourself? Does it bring back a happy memory? I hope so!

The devil is in the details

bull3

I often say “In my next life…” usually finished with “I am going to be an artist.” Because I sure am not one in this life. I have accepted that. It’s okay. Really it is. I failed trees in middle school. So, Wine and Design is just right for me. I have several creations upstairs, a few that I have gifted to relatives, one hanging in my classroom. It’s a step above paint-by-number and I enjoy it. But I have no illusions about my very limited abilities. The bull is my latest creation.  My first one also happens to be the same bull, just different colors. Son #1 has it.

While in Paris this last time, I looked at the paintings in the Musée d’Orsay in a bit more detail. At one time, there were no photos allowed in the museum but, as the story goes, the Minister of Culture paid a visit a couple of years ago and pulled out her smartphone and started snapping away. So, if they couldn’t control the Minister, they gave up and now the rest of us may photograph our favorite works of art sans flash, bien sûr. I had a long conversation with one of the museum guards about it- really more of lecture, but what the heck. It was a conversation in French and I always regard those as learning experiences.

So, enough of my tales and how about some up close and personal views of some of my favorite paintings?

These two are actually from Versailles. Legs and wigs?

Vincent Van Gogh, my favorite, as my readers and students already know–

vincent sig

table

Ahhhhh. All is well with my soul when I see Vincent up close.

Renoir–

Monet

sails

camille

Cézanne

mtsv

Sisley

sisley

I decided to take a little pause-café with a beautiful view of Sacré-Coeur– (“cake” is very popular in France, either savory or sweet but it has to be baked in a loaf pan to be called that; otherwise it is a gâteau)

cake et café MO

MO cafe

SC

I hope that your soul is feeling better and that these paintings helped.

Now for my latest baking adventure. Attempt #1 at chèvre crème brûlée.

I started with two basic recipes, the actual crème brûlée from Marmiton, a French recipe website I really like, and the onion confit from Honest Cooking. I will still probably tweak it a bit, but I thought it turned out well. Niece agreed. The Ex-Ex hasn’t tried it yet. I baked it in ramekins, but the portions should have been smaller. I think that the Parisian café baked it in the perfect dish- not as deep would be better. And if you have a kitchen blowtorch, use it. Much better than the broiler. Next time! If anyone has any suggestions, please send them!

Crème brûlée au chèvre frais avec les oignons confits

To make the onion jam:

Makes about 1-1/2 cups

2 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced (about 3 cups)- for this recipe, I should have chopped them

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

Add butter and olive oil to a large skillet and heat over low flame. Add onions and salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and translucent, about 20 minutes. If onions begin to dry out, add a tablespoon of water.

Add sugar, stir to dissolve, and add vinegar. Continue cooking over low heat, stirring occasionally, until onions are pasty and caramelized, about 20 minutes. At this point, you could add some herbes de Provence perhaps?

Onion confit can be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to one week.

For the Crème brûlée

4-6 servings

130 g of fresh goat cheese

150 g of heavy cream

2 egg yolks

Pepper

Salt

Butter for dishes

Preheat oven to 140˚C (about 300˚F). Butter the ramekins and place them in the refrigerator to chill for at least 10 minutes.

Mix all of the ingredients together for 30 seconds. After that, I stirred in about a cup of the onion jam.

Fill the dishes to about 3 cm thick. I put a bit more of the onion jam on top.

Place in a water bath of boiling water.

Bake 30-40 minutes, keeping an eye on them.

Let them sit for a half hour before serving. I sprinkled them with turbinado sugar and then put them under the broiler heated to high. This is where the blow torch would have been better.

Bon appétit! Keep looking for the beauty in all of the little details. Maybe the devil is in the details for the artists trying to get it just right, but I think the effects are heavenly.

126,662 steps/ 55.1 miles

These New Balance cross trainers were made for walking…

shoes

And that’s just what they did. For six full days in Paris. Wednesday with Ghislaine (21,017 steps, 9.3 miles). It’s no wonder that I have a sore muscle (or something) around my left ankle. No blisters, though, I am happy to report. One sore toenail, but Tom at Posh Nails will fix that. TMI? Probably! I did use the métro sometimes. It was a bit frustrating that the Châtelet station is closed right now and that messed me up while trying to get to the Ritz to have a drink with friends in Bar Hemingway. It would have been faster to walk from my hotel, I think.

It’s a good thing I walked so much because I ate exceptionally well on this trip. Bertrand of My Private Paris made a couple of recommendations and I found a café on Rue Saint Dominique that I’ve wanted to try for a couple of years (it deserves its own blogpost). And ACIS treated us to two great meals, one being the apéritif dînatoire at the Pullman Hotel from the last post and the other, our farewell dinner at Lapérouse, on the Quai des Grands Augustins. Not a place I would go on my own ($$$$) but what a thrill.

From the Mercier champagne to begin–

To the coffee and little coconut and jellied fruit bites to end.

end

And in between?

Appetizers served on the ground floor of the restaurant, with champagne.

appetizer

I love the spoon. There were also gougères. And probably other delicious little bites. I always find myself talking too much to taste everything. Quelle surprise. I found Bill who shares my love of Van Gogh. Kristi and Angela and I had a great chat. Jeremy won for best tie (Starry Night). Scott and Cindy and I became fast friends and spent time together on the food tour and at Bar Hemingway, along with Kristi and Angela. Janel, my roommate. Luis from Texas (who shared his Angelina Mont Blanc with us at the hotel afterwards- yes, we ate more). Amber and Eric. Pamela and Phil. Kathy from Nebraska. Laurie and Sean. Jeannie, Morgan, Caroline Ann from ACIS U.S. offices. Claire, Isabelle, and Bouchara from the Paris office. Bertrand.

We were then ushered into a big room upstairs for dinner.

At first, my tablemates and I were a bit confused–

soup base

This was served in a rather large bowl. Hmmm. Some new fad in the starter courses, I wondered? But the handsome young man (pictured above first serving champagne) cautioned us to wait because the dish wasn’t finished. And sure enough, in just a few minutes, another waiter came to add to the bowl. Voilà! Velouté d’asperges. Cream of asparagus soup. Very, very good.

soup

The main course was duck. Le canard. I am very fond of duck.

duck

With sweet potato purée.

Dessert was a first for me. Soufflé. Oui, seriously. I’ve never eaten one nor tried to make one. Until this one. Caramel. Served with sorbet.

sorbet

Heavenly. Fluffy. Airy. Cloud bites of caramel air.

souffle

It was a lovely, delicious evening, as always with ACIS. They treat their teachers like royalty.

Some random photos. If you read about the history of this place, you may be a bit shocked but amused as well, I think. There are lots of little rooms and I wasn’t brave enough to poke my head into many of them. Rumor has it that George Clooney has been spotted here. I wouldn’t doubt it.

I really hope to find a tried and true recipe for soufflé. Cindy from California is, from what I heard on the trip, quite a baker, and has promised to send a recipe when she returns home. She and Scott extended their stay until Saturday. They are even luckier than I am.

Bon appétit! I hope that you enjoyed my eating adventure. I think that I need to get out a map of Paris and highlight as many streets as I can that I walked on. Before I forget and my ankle heals! And before the student adventure in March. Eat something good with someone you love! Or eat solo. Or make new friends! Be adventurous!

City Daily Photo

llama

Virginia Kelser Jones is a photographer and Paris lover. We are Facebook friends, although by looking often at her photos, I feel as if I know her and that we have shared several meals and glasses of champagne in la Ville Lumière. I decided to enter one of mine at City Daily Photo after I saw the one she entered. I saw this llama at The Divine Llama Winery on a recent trip to Mt. Airy, North Carolina. I love these critters and I thought the light was magnifique.

Enjoy this divine llama!

Bon appétit!

Snow Day 2018

So, I want everyone to know that I just got up off the sofa, out from under this amazing blanket (a late Christmas gift from an 8th grade girlie and her mom), put on my clogs, and braved the cold- 24˚F- to take a couple of photos for you. I am brave like that. Teaching the kiddos yesterday, after a two-week break, was exhausting. Hahaha

I love this holly-type bush/tree just outside my door.

 

The Ex-Ex is already out driving around in it. He went to check the roads so he can tell his coaches that their will be no coaching going on today. He also went to fetch my computer charging cord because I didn’t believe it would really snow and left it on my desk. He likes to put the Jeep in 4-wheel drive and go exploring. Pas moi.

You can see his foot prints.

He did ask me to sweep the steps clear of snow if the spirit moves me. Hey, I did get up early and take a shower and put on my favorite sweatpants. I am not a total bum. And those steps might get swept in a bit. On ne sait jamais.

I have stuff to do right here on this sofa. Write this blog. Listen to some music while I type away. Right now, my very talented friend James Green is playing Dan Fogelberg’s Same Old Lang Syne on his saxophone. I have a thing for sad songs and this is one of my favorites. Listen. James has his own YouTube channel in case you want to hear more.

And then if you want to listen to Dan sing it, here you go.

I also need to grade some pen pal letters that my students wrote before the break. I am going to hand deliver them to Mme M next week. I will indeed tuck them inside my suitcase and take them across the ocean. Oui, off to Paris next week. Just a tiny bit excited.

For three glorious days, I will be a guest of ACIS, spend some time with other teachers, wander the streets of the City of Light with Betrand, my tour manager and our tour guide next week. Then I will have three more glorious days solo. I have some trip scouting to do for the March student trip. A few places to check out in advance. I buy postcards of places and works of art that the kiddos will see to hand out to them so that they can prepare short presentations they will share with their fellow travelers during the trip. Last year, Bertrand and I came up with the idea of asking each of them to photograph their favorite work of art in the Musée d’Orsay (yes, you can now take photos in there without a long lecture from a guard). We also asked them to be prepared to tell us the name, artist and why the piece “spoke” to them. Later that day, we sat on steps near the École Militaire, if memory serves me correct, and everyone, including the adults, took turns. Definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me.

What else do I need to do today? Finish a project for Seth and Luke at Bull City Burger and Brewery. A table and “curtain” for beer-tastings. I am their resident seamstress.

I am currently reading a biography of Hadley Richardson, the first Mrs. Ernest Hemingway. It is Paris Without End: The True Story of Hemingway’s First Wife by Gioia Diliberto. (It’s on Amazon Kindle for $1.99 today. I get nothing from Amazon for posting that, BTW. I have a Kindle app on my iPad and read a lot that way.) Sofa-reading under the new blanket seems like a nice way to spend some time on a cold day. I enjoyed The Paris Wife by Paula McLain a couple of years ago and decided to read more about Hadley.

Sister-in-Law sent photos a week or so ago of French onion soup that she made in her crockpot. Needless to say, I have been craving it since. (Dare I ask the Ex-Ex to stop at the grocery store on his way home to pick up onions and beef stock?? I usually have both but the cupboards are a bit bare right now.)

 

S-in-L and I also discussed the recipe when we were together during New Year’s. This is one of my very favorite dishes. It is also probably the first thing I will eat when I hit the streets of Paris. Last year, I found a café near my hotel and ate a bowl of soup, sipped a glass of Côtes-du-Rhône, and watched a man delicately devour un hamburger-frites with a knife and fork. I wish that I could have videoed that feat. Hamburgers are the rage in Paris. I hear that there is also a hamburger food truck roaming around.

Anyway, revenons à notre soupe. Sister-in-Law is very clever and has her favorite recipes in Evernote and sent it to me. I use Evernote for my class assignments. It is so easy and user friendly. Using for recipes would mean that I could easily bring up a recipe on my phone while at the grocery store. Smart, right?  Here you go.

How to make French Onion Soup in the slow cooker
from the Kitchn.

I haven’t tried it, but S-in-L and her husband raved about it. She cut the recipe in two since there are only two of them.

Serves 6 to 8

What You Need

Ingredients

  • pounds yellow onions, peeled, sliced, and cut into quarter-moons
  • tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • tablespoons olive oil
  • teaspoons kosher salt, plus more as needed
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 10 cups reduced-sodium beef broth
  • tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • tablespoons brandy (optional)
  • To Serve
  • 4 to 6 toasted baguette slices per bowl
  • 1/3 cup grated Gruyère cheese per bowl (1 1/3 to 2 cups total)
  • Chopped shallot or fresh onion (optional)
  • Equipment
  • Cutting board and chef’s knife
  • 5-quart or larger slow cooker
  • Wooden spoon
  • Oven-safe soup bowls
  • Rimmed baking sheet

Instructions

  1. Season the onions. Place the onions in a 5-quart or larger slow cooker. Stir in the butter, oil, salt, and a generous amount of pepper.
  2. Cook on LOW for 12 hours. Cover and cook on the LOW setting overnight until the onions should be dark golden-brown and soft, 12 hours or overnight.
  3. Add the broth and vinegar. Stir in the broth and vinegar.
  4. Cook for LOW 6 to 8 hours. Cover and continue cooking on the LOW setting for 6 to 8 hours. This is flexible; as long as your slow cooker holds moisture well (wrap a towel over the lid if quite a lot of steam escapes), you can cook the soup for hours. Longer cooking will only intensify the flavors. Taste and season with more salt and pepper if needed, and stir in the brandy if using.
  5. Portion the soup into oven-safe bowls. Arrange a rack in the upper third of the oven and heat to 350°F. Ladle the soup and onions into oven-safe soup bowls and place the bowls on a rimmed baking sheet.
  6. Top with toast and shredded cheese. Top each bowl with a slice of toast and a generous quantity of shredded Gruyère cheese, about 1/3 cup per bowl.
  7. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes. Bake until the cheese is completely melted, 20 to 30 minutes.
  8. Broil for 2 to 3 minutes. Turn the oven to broil. Broil until the cheese is bubbling and browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool for a few minutes. Serve with chopped fresh shallot or onion if desired.

Recipe Notes

Adjusting Consistency & Thickness: When I have made this, the soup has always been just the right consistency. But if yours seems a little thin or watery, you can quickly finish it off on the stovetop by simmering gently in a saucepan for 15 minutes or until the broth has reduced a little.

Bon appétit and Happy Snow Day to all! Stay warm and toasty. Eat something tasty. Listen to some music. Read a good book.

Entre les Bras update

An article written by Adam Nossiter for the New York Times partially republished in this morning’s Durham Herald-Sun immediately caught my attention. It is about French chef Jérôme Brochot, owner of Le France in Montceau-les-Mines, giving up his Michelin star.

This is practically unheard of. Those stars, however, drive up prices and bring a lot of pressure. It is very difficult and very expensive to maintain the stars and add more. Halfway through the article, Sébastien Bras’ name jumped out at me. My Sébastien Bras? I thought. Yes, indeed. Last fall, Sébastien, with his father Michel’s blessing, asked Michelin to remove his three stars. I googled and found this from the New York Times.

In 2013, I was asked to review a documentary film Entre les Bras (Step Up to the Plate is the English title), for The French Review, a publication of the American Association of Teachers of French. It is an excellent film. I actually know someone, a parent of one of my former students, who has eaten at Bras’ restaurant. That’s as close as I get in the grand scheme of degrees of separation to Michel and Sébastien. I did eventually send them a copy of the article and I received a very nice thank you note.

While googling Sébastien and Michel, I also found these videos of them preparing their signature dish Gargouillou.

After watching the film several times and reading all I could find about them in order to write my review, I felt as if I knew Michel and Sébastien. I got rather attached to them actually. I hope that Sébastien is happy and has found joy in cooking again. I still hope to visit Laguiole someday and meet les Bras. It’s on my to-do list.

Here’s my review of Entre les Bras. If you enjoy documentaries and food, this film is a great way to spend an hour and a half.

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Last year, I was asked to write about Entre les Bras for the French Review, the official publication of the American Association of Teachers of French (AATF).  The editor of the film section of the Review, Dr. Michèle Bissière, lives and teaches in North Carolina and is active in our chapter of the AATF.   She attended a presentation I made about my sabbatical or about cooking with my students.  Not sure which.  Anyway, she sent me a copy of the documentary, asked me to watch it, and write a review.  Wow.   Documentaries about French food and chefs are right up my alley after falling in love with Jacquy Pfeiffer in Kings of Pastry.  Durham, NC hosted the North American preview of the film as part of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival  and I wrote a review about it for our local newspaper.  Jacquy and his wife were in the audience, no less.

I watched Entre les Bras (Step Up To The Plate is its English title) several times and set about writing and daydreaming about actually eating there.  I am not sure that dream will ever come true, but I started thinking about it again after recently reading Ann Mah’s book Mastering the Art of French Eating.  Journalist Ann actually went to the Aveyron départment of France and interviewed Sébastien Bras.  And Papa Michel came in while she was talking to his son.

I realized that I haven’t posted my review.  I had grand plans to send it to Michel and Sébastien after it was published last spring, but either common sense got the better of me or I’ve been too shy to do so.  Silly me.  I need to mail it off with a fan letter.  Pourquoi pas?

Read the review and if you are in the mood for beautiful views of la France profonde, cows, and a glimpse into the life of a Michelin star chef, rent the film.

The parents of one of my 8th grade students have actually been to the restaurant in Laguiole…  Sigh.

Lacoste, Paul, réal.  Entre les Bras (Step Up To The Plate).  Michel Bras, Sébastien Bras. Cinéma Guild, 2012.

I recently read the story of Bernard Loiseau, a chef who committed suicide in 2003 at the age of 52, after rumors that his restaurant might lose one of its three Michelin stars.  Remembering that tragic story and considering that we have elevated chefs to rock star status in the United States, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from a documentary about a three-star Michelin chef.  Would Michel Bras be a temperamental egomaniac?  Would he spend his time berating the wait staff in his restaurant or slamming pots and pans?   Or would he be riddled with self-doubt?  Or worse yet, would he have no confidence whatsoever in his son and heir-apparent, Sébastien, and belittle him?

Bras, père et fils, have a restaurant and hotel in Laguiole, in the Aveyron department in southern France, built on a hill with a breathtaking view of the valley below. Michel Bras is undoubtedly a perfectionist, as the viewer quickly finds out by watching him choose vegetables, herbs, and flowers for the restaurant.  His ties to the land where he has spent his entire life seem to be as deep as his family ties.  Michel is a slight, serious man, a runner, with round wire-rimmed glasses who looks more like a university professor than a chef.  He is, however, quite an entrepreneur and has built an empire based upon his expertise in the kitchen.

Food is the Bras family business.  Michel’s mother ran a restaurant and he followed her, taking over and earning Michelin stars.  He decided to build his current showpiece several years ago, secure in the knowledge that Sébastien would stay with him in the endeavor.  The premise of the movie is that Michel is ready to retire and hand over the reins to Séba, as he calls his son. I expected the movie to be mostly about Michel, but I found myself just as engrossed in the emotions of Sébastien and the idea of family duty.  There never seemed to be a question of what his life’s work would be. The photos of him at a very young age in a chef’s coat and toque made for him by his grandmother foreshadow his destiny. But is it easier to start from scratch as Michel did or to inherit an empire and try to stay on top?

Entre les Bras is divided into seasons, a fitting and logical setting for a movie about food and life.  The story comes full circle, in the course of a year, from spring to spring, watching four generations of family interact with one another around food.  Sébastien works on his own signature dishes, telling his own story, built on the time spent with his grandparents on their farm.  One touching scene shows Sébastien alone in the kitchen creating a dessert that he later calls his own chemin, or pathway, using elements from his childhood: bread (his dad), milk skin and chocolate (his mom), and blackberry jam and Laguiole cheese (his grandmother).  He seems truly at peace with the completion of this dish.  He must find his own way.  He knows this and his dad knows this.

The changing of the guard occurs as the viewer watches Michel take down his photos and mementos from the office bulletin board and put away his notebooks filled with recipes and drawings. Sébastien’s notebooks and a final scene of Alban, Sébastien’s son, cooking in the kitchen with his grandfather, wearing a miniature chef’s coat and toque, replace them.  Michel’s work isn’t finished yet.

From one of the first scenes, showing the plating of Michel Bras’ signature dish, Gargouillou, to the beauty of the Aubrac sunrises and sunsets, this is a stunningly beautiful and poignant story of the humans behind the creation of legendary food.

Resource:

www.bras.fr

Teresa Engebretsen

Durham Academy

Bon appétit, les Bras!

Searching for a recipe, I found Michel’s Coulant au chocolat. Have you ever eaten a molten lava cake aka fondant au chocolat aka moelleux au chocolat? Well, mon dieu bon dieu, I just discovered that Michel INVENTED it. I have attempted it several times, but mine never seems to coule… to flow. I even found a video produced by FR2, a French TV station, about French desserts that features Michel and his dessert. It’s in French and the photos are amazing. If you don’t like chocolate, don’t bother!

 

There are a lot of recipes out there for this amazing treat. Here’s the one I will try next. Maybe this afternoon? When I need a break from grading exams? Should La Table de Claire be on my Paris to-do list?  Well, malheureusement, that won’t be possible. It is fermé– permanently closed- now.

Fondant au chocolat recipe from La Table de Claire

From Complete France

With black-and-white floor tiles, a Formica bar, modern light fixtures and a sunny terrace, this is the little bistro everyone dreams of having around the corner. La Table de Claire in the 11th arrondissement made its name thanks to the ‘chef d’un soir’ nights, in which amateur chefs would take over the restaurant. Chef Claire Seban has moved on to other projects, but the current chef/owner, Lofti Sioud, continues to serve a spontaneous cuisine inspired 
by his travels and by seasonal produce. Because so many customers had a soft spot for Claire’s fondant au chocolat, it often appears on the menu.

Serves 8.

• 220g dark chocolate, the best you can afford

• 200g butter

• 100g white sugar

• 5 eggs

• 1 level tbsp flour

• A little butter for the mould

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C.

2. In a heavy saucepan, melt the dark chocolate and butter together over a low heat. Add the sugar and stir to dissolve. Let the mixture cool to lukewarm and add the eggs one by one. Finally, fold in the flour.

3. Pour the batter into eight buttered ring moulds placed on 
a baking sheet, or eight buttered shallow dishes (crème brûlée dishes would work well). Bake for eight minutes.

4. Serve warm or at room temperature with a scoop of vanilla or caramel ice cream.

Bon appétit, mes amis, near and far. As 2017 comes to a close, I wish you all happiness and good eatin’, surrounded by loved ones. I will be with my in-laws, celebrating my belle-mère’s birthday.

 

Black diamonds

This is a trip back in time. Back to December 4, 2008, to be exact. I am not sure why I woke up thinking about this adventure while I was on sabbatical. Coincidence? Who knows. But what I do know is that once I pulled up this blog entry, I was transported back to the woods on a chilly day, two Frenchmen, a dog and me. Unfortunately for me, I haven’t had a truffle since I came home in 2008. Big sigh…

Enjoy. Bon appétit! Merci, René, Sonny et Érick. Je vous aime.

Yesterday I fell in love with a man, his dog and a mountain. After last Friday’s truffle market in Carpentras, Chef Érick and I were invited to have lunch with René, pictured above, and Françoise, his wife, at their home in Isle sur la Sorgue in the Vaucluse. René called on Tuesday of this week to confirm that we were coming. He asked me if I am afraid of walking in the mountains. He did not know he was talking to a mountain girl. And then he told me not to wear my high heels. Since I do not own any, that would be easy enough. He also reminded me that we needed to get there early. So, I dressed warmly, lacing up my tennis shoes, and we set out around 10:00 am. Isle sur la Sorgue is about an hour’s drive from Arles. We drove through fog for about 30 minutes and after it lifted, we could see Mont Ventoux in the distance, covered with snow.

When we arrived in the town well-known for its antique shops, Érick pulled off to the side of the road to phone René because he was unsure of how to find his house. René gave him directions and said he would come find us on his bicycle if we got lost. We set out again and, sure enough, at the turn to his neighborhood, there sat René on his vélo. We followed him home. We were greeted by the barking of Sonny, his white lab. Françoise had prepared a feast for us. We ate shrimp, paté de fois gras and smoked salmon on toast and radishes as appetizers. Then Françoise made omelets with truffles for the next course. René brought out a bottle of red Côtes du Ventoux wine and uncorked it. The omelets were followed by endives baked with ham and cheese with truffles sprinkled inside. Lunch conversation consisted of René telling me about his teaching days at the nearby high school and Érick instructing Françoise on the proper way to prepare truffles. He told her that truffles should not be cooked. They should be added to a dish after it has been cooked. Heating them causes them to lose their flavor. Françoise seemed very grateful for the advice. We had cheese, a little dish of ice cream and coffee before setting out on our adventure. Françoise elected not to go (probably because she had so many dishes to wash…) and she lent me her boots. René loaded Sonny into the truck and off we went.

I really had no idea what to expect. I did have a vague recollection of oak trees and roots after reading Peter Mayle’s books. We parked by the side of the road and found a little path up the mountain where René owns property and where he does his hunting. I followed behind René and Sonny, keeping a bit of distance between us so as not to distract her. I learned to walk in the grass or on the moss, not on the dirt path. Lesson #1: leave no tracks for others to see. Lesson #2: whisper so that your voice doesn’t carry. Others are probably around, hunting for truffles, too, poaching most likely. It is still a bit early in the truffle-hunting season and I had been warned not to expect too much. So, it was a pleasant surprise when Sonny started digging about 10 minutes into our walk. As soon as she begins to dig, René hurries over and scoots her out of the way. She has no interest in eating the truffle, however. I had read about hunting with pigs, but pigs like to eat the truffles. We did see lots of places where wild boar, sangliers, had beat us to the treasure. Once René finds the diamant noir, or black diamond as they are known in France, he rewards Sonny with several dog treats from the little bag he keeps in his pocket. He tells her what a great dog she is and pets her. It is obvious that he loves her dearly and she is fiercely loyal to him. She decided that she kind of liked me, but I think it was because I was wearing Françoise’s boots, to be truthful.

René then checks out his treasure, smelling it and carefully rubbing some of the dirt away in order to see if it is a good one. He can tell immediately if it is too wet or too dry. If so, it will not fetch much at the market. There are stories of fake smell being added to the truffles, lead pellets being inserted into them to make them weigh more, poachers who steal from the property owners, and so on. This seems to be a business based on trust, however, and René is a man of his word. He taught high school for about 30 years and loved it. He has hunted truffles for over 40 years. He took great pleasure in showing me how he goes about it. I am deeply grateful to him for the lesson.

We spent about two hours following Sonny’s nose and a little path up the mountain. René remembers where he has had success in the past and guides the dog towards those places. She, however, is guided by her nose and her knowledge that a treat awaits her should she find a truffle. We came out of the woods with 11 truffles of various sizes. René even let me dig one up. He carries a small screwdriver in his pocket for this purpose. He places his truffles in a small white plastic sack. His jacket has lots of pockets to hold all the tools of his trade.

At first glance, I thought his René’s mountain resembled the Appalachian Mountains, my home. However, once we started climbing up the path, I realized there was not very much resemblance at all. Snail shells are scattered everywhere. A wall made of stones winds up the mountain, built from the flat rocks that are found everywhere. Small stones huts, bories, are hidden away, built long ago by shepherds as shelters while they tended their flocks of sheep. I ventured into one of them, admittedly not very far as it was very dark and I am not too fond of spiders, even French ones. The oak trees are not large ones, as I had expected. They are small and different from any I have ever seen.

All in all, it was one of the best days of my life. René is a master storyteller and continued to tell me stories after we returned to his house. He pulled out his scales, a basic set, nothing fancy or digital for the truffle hunters here in the Vaucluse, and weighed the week’s findings, coming to almost a kilo or 2.2 pounds. He gave me two small ones. I just ate one of them grated on top of fresh pasta. To really get a taste of a fresh truffle, take a small piece of bread, dip it in olive oil, grate the truffle on top and sprinkle it with coarse sea salt. Heavenly. In one week’s time, I have become addicted to truffles. I just had dinner and am already thinking about tomorrow’s lunch. I plan to make an omelet from the fresh eggs we just bought, add some cheese while it is cooking and then grate my last truffle on top. I only have nine days to savor as much of Provence as possible, after all!

Here is the dish we made last week, after the market in Carpentras. This recipe is courtesy of Madeleine Vedel.

Bon appétit!

Fresh Pasta with Walnut Sauce and Truffles (or Mushrooms)

Pâtes Fraîches aux Champignons Sauvage avec un Sauce aux Noix –

Fresh Wild Mushroom Pasta with Walnut Sauce

This is rightly a recipe for the fall, but it can be made all year round with a stash of dried mushrooms.  The walnut sauce is a classic preparation that dates back to the time of the Etruscans. Walnuts are particularly present in the Cévennes, the hills of the Gard in Languedoc, just an hour or so from Arles. Fresh pasta is really quite easy to make. Anyone who’s made bread a few times, can easily start making pasta. From start to finish, this recipe can be on the table in an hour after a bit of practice.

Ingredients for the Pasta :

If served as a main course, one egg per person, if served as a side dish, then one egg per 2 people.

One cup (100-150g) flour to one whole egg.

Pinch of salt

Dried mushrooms ground to a powder – 1/4 cup to 4 cups of flour (30g to 450g) if you are not using truffles

For the Sauce :

300 grams of walnuts (this is about 2 cups chopped walnuts)

2 garlic cloves (good sized)

1/2 cup of olive oil (120ml)– not too bitter, extra-virgin cold pressed.

Salt to taste

A few fresh mint leaves (optional, or another herb you like…)

Grated cheese – we like a young sheep tome, or pecorino. A mild parmesan is fine, too.

For the pasta:

On a smooth work surface, such as a large counter space or marble slab, pile your flour in a well, in the middle of the well put your mushroom powder and your pinch of salt and your eggs. With your hands, gradually incorporate as much flour as the eggs are thirsty. If there is a bit of flour left over, you can add a tablespoon or so of water, as needed. You need to work the dough for at least 10 minutes, kneading it and stretching it, till it is smooth to the touch. Put aside covered to rest for 30 minutes.

Either with a pasta machine or by hand, continue rolling and folding the pasta dough. With the machine I pass a portion of the dough through, fold it in three and pass it again, always on the largest setting. I continue this at least 7 times, if not more, till the dough is very smooth and elastic and does not seem brittle and cracks stop appearing. When the dough is ready, then you can either roll out by hand, turning the dough in every direction, gradually increasing its elasticity and thinning it out, the pros use a bit of gravity letting the dough hang off the counter as then roll. Or, alternatively, use the pasta machine and gradually reduce the size of the setting to the desired thickness.

When the dough is the thickness you desire, cut it as you please, in large long noodles, in triangles, in thinner spaghetti lengths… to your preference. Lay the prepared pasta on floured cloths, – you can layer these – and let dry till you are ready to put them into the salted boiling water.

For the sauce :

In a mortar and pestle, grind your garlic cloves and walnuts to a fine paste, add the olive oil as you work to make it easier to form the paste, if you are adding the mint leaves, do so now, and salt to taste.

When your pasta is done, save some of the pasta water to add to the walnut sauce to lengthen it and thicken it. Toss the pasta with the walnut sauce, grate the cheese on top, and serve. If you are using truffles, grate them on top of the pasta, sauce and cheese.

Have fresh bread ready in order to wipe your plate clean so that you do not waste one bit of the sauce or truffles!

My friend, The Geezer

I read this book several years ago and fell in love with it. When I pitched my own (still unfinished) book to Algonquin, I was asked if I had read French Dirt. Oui. A couple of times. Little did I know that a few years later I would be introduced to Richard Goodman through a mutual friend, Jo Maeder, albeit by email. Richard is a seriously talented writer. A recent post on his blog has proven his way with words once again. He is a poet. Paris on a rainy day. My dream at the moment. And when you are finished reading this, open a bottle of red. Start a fire. Curl up under a soft blanket. And fire up Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. You deserve a trip to Paris. We all do.

Merci, Richard.  Bon appétit!

Paris in bad weather

“Then there was the bad weather,” begins Ernest Hemingway’s memoir of living in Paris in the twenties, A Moveable Feast. “It would come in one day when the fall was over. We would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe. The leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus in the terminal….”

I’m not dumb.  Start with Hemingway.

Hemingway knew exactly what he was doing when he began his poem to Paris with a cold, rainy, windswept day. He knew that bad weather brings out the lyrical in Paris and in the visitor, too. It summons up feelings of regret, loss, sadness—and in the case of the first pangs of winter—intimations of mortality. The stuff of poetry. And of keen memories. The soul aches in a kind of unappeasable ecstasy of melancholy. Anyone who has not passed a chill, rainy day in Paris will have an incomplete vision of the city, and of him- or herself in it.

Great photographers like André Kertész understood how splendid Paris looks awash in gray and painted with rain. His book, J’aime Paris, shot entirely in black and white over the course of forty years, draws heavily on foul weather. I don’t know of anyone, with the possible exceptions of Atget and Cartier-Bresson, who has come closer to capturing the soul of Paris with a camera. The viewer will remember many of these photographs—even if he or she can’t name the photographer—because they have become part of the Parisian landscape in our minds’ eyes. That solitary man, his coat windblown as he walks toward wet cobblestones; the statue of Henry IV on horseback reflected in a puddle fringed by—yes—those sodden leaves. Kertész’s Paris sends a nostalgic chill through our bodies.

On one memorable trip to Paris, it rained. When it didn’t rain, it threatened to. This was in October, so leaves were starting to fall from trees, and that added a sense of forlornness to my visit. Each morning, I stepped out from my hotel on the Left Bank just off the Boulevard St. Germain into a dull gray morning. The sky hung low, the color of graphite, and it seemed just as heavy. The air was cool and dense.

But I wasn’t disappointed. After a shot of bitter espresso, I was ready to go. That week in October I set myself the goal of following the flow of the Seine, walking from one end of Paris to the other. I had bad weather as my companion, and a good one it was, too. I walked along the quays and over the bridges in a soft drizzle. The colossal bronze figures that hang off the side of the Pont Mirabeau were wet and streaming. The Eiffel Tower lost its summit in the fog. The cars and autobuses made hissing noises as they flowed by on wet pavement. The Seine was flecked with pellets of rain. The dark, varnished houseboats, so long a fixture on the river, had their lights shining invitingly out of pilothouses. The facade of Notre Dame in the gloom sent a medieval shudder through me. None of this I would have seen in the sunlight.

 

Then there is the matter of food.

There may be no Parisian experience as gratifying as walking out of the rain or cold into a welcoming, warm bistro. There is the taking off of the heavy wet coat and hat and then the sitting down to one of the meals the French seemed to have created expressly for days such as this: pot-au-feu or cassoulet or choucroute.

I remember one rainy day on this trip in particular. I walked in out of the wet, sat down and ordered the house specialty, pot-au-feu. For those unfamiliar with this poem, do not seek enlightenment in the dictionary. It will tell you that pot-au-feu is “a dish of boiled meat and vegetables, the broth of which is usually served separately.” This sounds like British cooking, not French, and the dictionary should be sued for libel. My spirits rose as the large smoking bowl was brought to my table along with bread and wine. I let the broth rise up to my face, the concentrated beauty of France. Then I took that first large spoonful into my mouth. The savory meat and vegetables and intense broth traveled to my belly. I was restored.

I sat and ate in the bistro and watched the people hurry by outside bent against the weather. I heard the tat, tat, tat of the rain as it beat against the bistro glass. The trees on the street were skeletal and looked defenseless. Where had I seen this before? In what book of photographs about Paris? I looked around inside and saw others like myself being braced by a meal such as mine and by the warmth of the room. The sounds of conversation and of crockery softly rattling filled the air. Efficient waiters flowed by, distinguished men with long white aprons, working elegantly. Delicious food was being brought out of the kitchen, and I watched as it was put in front of expectant diners. Every so often the front door would open, and a new refugee would enter, shuddering, with umbrella and dripping coat, a dramatic reminder that outside was no cinema.

I finished my meal slowly. I had left almost all vestiges of cold behind. My waiter took the plates away. Then he brought me a small, potent espresso. I lingered over it, savoring each drop. I looked outside. It would be good to stay here a bit longer.

I got up to go. Paris—gloomy, darkly beautiful Paris—was waiting.

Your Loving Vincent

When I first read about Loving Vincent, I was afraid that it would not come to Durham, NC. My fears were confirmed when I started seeing lists of cities where it would be playing on the film’s website and Facebook page. No Durham. The closest city listed was Fayetteville. Arles Lucy and I were ready to plan a road trip. Then, about a month ago, I saw that it would indeed come to our lovely downtown Carolina Theatre. I have now seen the movie twice, once with the Ex-Ex and once with my crew of girlfriends who have been to France with me. It is playing in Durham for an extra week so I may see it a third time. It IS that good, mes amis. If you have read my previous posts about Vincent (April 2014, May 2010, May 2010, November 2011) then you already know that I love him very much. Maybe a bit obsessively.

A team of 125 artists spent 6 years bringing Vincent’s paintings to life in 65,000 frames. The film is completely animated, with the scenes based on his paintings in color and the flashbacks to scenes of his life in black and white. The story comes to life as Armand Roulin, son of Postman Joseph Roulin of Arles, travels from Arles to Paris to give a letter to Theo, Vincent’s brother, a year after Vincent’s death. The letter had been found when Vincent’s landlord in Arles was cleaning out Vincent’s rooms in the Yellow House. However, upon finding Père Tanguy, Armand discovers that Theo died only six months after his brother. By this time, Armand wants to learn more about the last six weeks of Vincent’s life.

Vincent was a prolific letter writer. According to Mark Roskill in The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, 670 of the letters Vincent wrote to Theo have survived to present day. The letters were gathered, transcribed and edited by Theo’s widow, Vincent’s sister-in-law, so that they could be published. The first batch of them was published only three years after Vincent’s death, in 1893. Johanna “Jo” van Gogh-Bonger spent years bringing the letters to light and was also instrumental in Vincent’s rise to fame as an artist. She inherited around 200 of his paintings upon the death of Theo and was seemingly relentless in her push to have Vincent’s talent recognized. Merci, madame.

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has put together a touching tribute to Vincent and Theo. The museum’s website is very well done. Someday, I hope to visit it in person. In Noord Brabants Museum in Den Bosch (an hour from Amsterdam), there is an exhibit about Loving Vincent that will run until January 28, 2018. Paintings from the movie are on display. I believe that they will then be sold.

Without giving too much away in case you haven’t seen the film yet, let’s just say that the final scene with Roulin and his son is my favorite. Vincent was shot on July 27, my birthday. One scene in the movie revealed that July 27, 1890 was a Sunday. July 27, 1958 was also a Sunday. Perhaps my love for Vincent is fate.

image description
CBS This Morning recently paid tribute to the film.
This clip from Dr. Who pays hommage to Vincent and allows him to hear praise for his work while standing in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
It is written that Vincent did not eat well or very much. He gave away most of what he had during his stint as a missionary. One of his early paintings, The Potato Eaters, 1885, is dark and somber. He often forgot to eat, I imagine, as he painted for hours on end. According to Biography.com:
Vincent van Gogh completed more than 2,100 works, consisting of 860 oil paintings and more than 1,300 watercolors, drawings and sketches. Several of his paintings now rank among the most expensive in the world; “Irises” sold for a record $53.9 million, and his “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” sold for $82.5 million.
Over the course of 10 years, van Gogh created more than 43 self-portraits as both paintings and drawings. “I am looking for a deeper likeness than that obtained by a photographer,” he wrote to his sister. “People say, and I am willing to believe it, that it is hard to know yourself. But it is not easy to paint yourself, either. The portraits painted by Rembrandt are more than a view of nature, they are more like a revelation,” he later wrote to his brother. The works are now displayed in museums around the world, including in Washington, D.C., Paris, New York and Amsterdam.
vincent's eyes
Some believe that Wheatfield with Crows, July 1890, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, was Vincent’s last painting. I’ve walked through that field on the way to Vincent’s grave in Auvers-sur-Oise.
wheatfield
No story of mine about Vincent would be complete with this one, Starry Night over the Rhône, painted in Arles, September 1888, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
starry rhone
What would Vincent eat? Here is a recipe I hope that he would have liked. Potato soup was a staple in the Bell-Gillespie household when I was growing up. There is nothing fancy about it, but it is delicious.
Leek and Potato Soup
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large onion, chopped (or 1-2 more leeks, if you prefer)
2 garlic cloves, split, germ removed and thinly sliced
(I also add 2 stalks of celery, chopped)
Salt and freshly ground white pepper (black pepper is fine)
3 leeks, white and light green parts only, split lengthwise, washed, and thinly sliced
2 large Idaho (russet) potatoes (I doubled this- Dorie calls for only one potato), peeled and cubed
6 thyme sprigs
2 sage leaves
4 cups chicken broth (or water but the broth gives it a richer taste)
3 cups whole milk
Optional toppings:
Minced parsley, sage, tarragon or marjoram, or a combination
Snipped fresh chives
Grated Parmesan, Gruyère or cheddar cheese
Croutons
Crispy bacon, crumbled
Corn kernels
Truffle oil
Melt the butter in a Dutch oven or soup pot over low heat. Add the onion and garlic and stir until they are coated with butter, season with salt and pepper, cover and cook for about 10 minutes, until the onion is soft but not colored.
Add the remaining ingredients, along with a little more salt, increase the heat, and bring to a boil. As soon as the soup bubbles, turn the heat to low, mostly cover the pot, and simmer gently for 30-40 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft. Taste the soup and season generously with salt and pepper.
You can ladle the soup into warmed bowls and serve as is, mash the vegetables lightly with the  back of a spoon, or puree the soup through a food mill or with a blender (regular or immersion), or a food processor. (I leave mine with the potatoes in chunks.) If desired, garnish with the toppings of your choice.
You could also chill it and turn it into Vichyssoise, a fancy name for cold potato soup, which was invented in 1917 by French chef Louis Diat who ran the kitchens at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York City, according to Dorie.
Bon appétit and thank you, BreakThru Films, Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman and all the artists who re-created Vincent’s paintings. Thank you as well to all of my friends and students who have been to Paris and Arles with me and who have paid tribute to Vincent with me. In Vincent’s words:
Love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is done well.
Je t’aime, Vincent.