September 2015: Je suis revenue à la France!

September in France is similar to May in terms of weather (iffy) and crowds (relatively thin), but the produce in the market is now grown a few miles away instead of Israel or Morocco. Right now I’m in Pujols, a medieval hilltop village in SW France near Villeneuve-sur-Lot, where the fig trees are LOADED with the sweetest juiciest fruits.

figs

And the garden is overloaded with so many yummy tomatoes we had to make sauce before they spoiled.

Tomatoes from the garden

Yesterday we were doing errands in Villeneuve and got sucked in by a couple of vendors in the market. My favorite come-on was this guy who had an adorable piglet in his cart. At first I thought he might be selling sausage, but on second thought realized that no one who saw the piglet would want to eat sausage. So what was he selling?

P1000249

Fancy herbal cough drops with honey.  Hilarious.

Villeneuve is an interesting town. Medieval center with mix of old and new. But as big box type stores are built just outside city center, many commercial spaces in the center are becoming vacant. 21st century tattoo parlor is still co-existing with the 13th century building it’s in, however.

IMG_1148

Much as I love France, and the French language, it may be years before I’m ready for prime time here. I understand about 50% of what people say, and I think they understand about 50% when I speak to them. These are dangerous percentages. Case in point:

This afternoon I went to the SNCF ticket office to buy my train ticket from Dole to Paris on the 29th. I had looked it up on the web and saw lots of options, several non-stop. But the ticket agent kept telling me there were only two trains a day, and on both there was a change at St Malo. Seemed weird, because I thought St Malo was out on the Atlantic coast, but she insisted that was the way to go.

“Vous avez dit Dol, oui?” (You said Dol, yes?)
“Oui, Dole.”  (Yes, Dole.)
“Dol?”  (Dol?)
“Dole!”  (Dole!)
“Ahhhh, Dole dans le Jura!, pas la Bretagne!” (The Dole in the Jura, not in Brittany)
It was my mediocre prononciation, something like “Daul”, which is how the town in Brittany is pronounced. Dole in the Jura sounds more like “Dohleu”.  That ticket would have been an expensive non-refundable mistake, and I’d not have realized it till I got to the station the 29th.

A country home near the French Alps

French mountain farmhouseLara and her two brothers were raised in a home that was built in 1836 to shelter both cows and people. In the foothills of the French Alps, this was the customary style back then.

The design was practical and ecological. The stone walls on the ground floor are about a foot thick to moderate the temperature inside. Windows were on the south and west sides of the building to capture the sun, while the chilly north side had none. On the north the house butts right up to the road, which was convenient for loading hay into the upper story.

French farmhouse on the road

Here’s the best part. The family in those days lived on the sunny south side of the ground floor, and in the winter the cows slept on the north side – their body warmth spreading to the family on the other side of the partition.

When Sylvie and Philippe bought the property about 25 years ago it was scarcely habitable. Renovations to convert it into a home for a modern family took a couple of years, but now it’s got all the necessities, plus a gorgeous view over the valley to the mountains beyond.

alpine view1

alpine view2

Because the nearby autoroute makes Geneva an easy commute, the villages around Boisinges have become increasingly popular and pricey for home-buyers. What I especially appreciate is that many of the homes are conversions of these charming barn-houses from more than a hundred years ago. Nothing goes to waste here.

french mountain farmhouse2
And here’s one still used as live/farm space (tractors, not cows).
working french farmhouse

There are still cows on the hillsides up the road. Also a gravel run for petanque (a game like boules, not an animal!)
Home petanque court

Company dinners, French style

Fruit dessertMy French in-laws are a sociable bunch. While I was in Malange the family either hosted a dinner for, or were hosted by others about twice a week. And these were Serious Meals, course after course, lasting between four and five hours. I kid you not.

Françoise lays a beautiful table with white damask, and immense napkins that were her mother’s. (She also launders and irons them all afterwards..)

Happy diner sporting enormous heirloom damask napkin

Happy diner sporting enormous heirloom damask napkin

She handles the cooking tasks with practiced ease, making much of it ahead of time. The apertif (what we call hors d’oeuvres) is often cheesy little cream puffs (gougères) or puff pastry around a slice of anchovy – she makes a bunch at a time and freezes them till needed. It accompanies the household favorite party starter, champagne.

champagne“À table,” she announces, after about an hour of quaffing. She usually seats the men at one end of the table, and the women at the other, figuring that each gender would prefer to talk amongst themselves. And they do, but conversations also criss-cross the table from end to end, at least three simultaneously. To a non-native the sounds are completely indecipherable, and there is never a lull.

And of course there is wine. We’re just around the corner from Burgundy, and the Jura region also has its specialties. My favorite was this Chablis (Premier Cru). It tastes nothing like the flavorless drink you find on the supermarket shelves in the US.

chablis

First we have a fish dish. Then awhile later a meat dish – sometimes with a vegetable but usually not. Then comes the salad (Boston lettuce from the garden). Then a selection of regional cheeses, which I wish weren’t so fabulous, because I was already stuffed at fish. Then dessert (maybe her lemon tart or gorgeous fruit salad). Then espresso with a little piece of chocolate. Then perhaps some kirsch-soaked cherries.

Cheese plate

Françoise is on a diet (“mon regime”) and says she wishes she didn’t have to serve so much, but “they expect it; they’re gourmands,” she says of each guest group. “I wouldn’t want to serve less than they do for us…”

The company has always been kind and they try to keep me in the loop of the conversation, but for an introvert like me it’s exhausting to sit still that long and try to look alert. At the last such dinner, Françoise noticed my glazed eyes and released me after the salad.

By way of contrast, back in Boisinges with Sylvie and Philippe (see Cast of Characters page if you’re confused – Françoise and Régis are Sylvie’s parents), dinner parties are much simpler. Wine or beer with crackers to gather. Then salad. Then the main course. Then dessert. Usually no cheese, though it is often a part of family lunches or dinners. I could be in the US.

Philippe is a good cook and often does the dinner, as Sylvie works till 8 at the hospital. Sylvie is very health conscious and the simplicity of the family eating style reflects it. My last night in France Philippe cooked and we were joined by two of his buddies from Morbier, the Jura town of his youth.

Philippe makes salad

Philippe makes salad

He made a “filet mignon” (which here is actually pork tenderloin, not beef) in puff paste with ham, cheese and onions. WOW. The rest of the meal was simple: a salad of tomatoes and kiwi, and for dessert, strawberries with a sabayon sauce I made.

Recipe for pork tenderloin en croute

Recipe for pork tenderloin en croute

Sylvie says she believes her parents’ elaborate entertainment style is a reflection of their generation and the way that the people in the countryside live. However, don’t think for a minute that farmers in rural France have rustic taste. Oh no. They know their wines, their cheeses, their fancy cuts of meat, their herbs, fruits and vegetables better than we do, and they appreciate it all. A lot of the food they eat they have raised in their capacious gardens.

My only regret this trip is that most of the produce they grow isn’t yet ready to eat. I will have to return in a couple of months, don’t you think?

 

European culinary toys

Coffe maker or duck?

Coffe maker or duck?

Are electric cooking gadgets a French thing, a European thing (many of the designs are German), or just a thing with a few French families I’ve encountered?

Francoise has quite a collection, and they all get used. Not counting the electric tea kettle, coffee maker, crockpot and (non-electric, but super techie) pressure cooker, which most homes have, she also has and uses a 12-pot SEB yoghurt maker (yaourtiere) because the family eats it every day.

I think her favorite is this dream of a late-night TV infomercial gizmo, the Thermomix, which is basically a super duper blender on a timer that also cooks, kneads dough, you name it, which she uses every day. Next to it is her electric veggie steamer. She likes her veggies much more cooked than I do, and this certainly can do that.

Thermomix and veggie steamer

Thermomix and veggie steamer

I only saw her use the individualized crepe skillet once, and it’s pretty cool, not to mention how delicious the crepes were…

Crepemaker

For me the most fun was accompanying her and her friend Brigitte to a gadget outlet store to see if they had a decent electric plancha on sale. (It’s a grill). Here are some of the things we perused, and didn’t buy:

Plancha?

Plancha?

Meat grinder?

Meat grinder?

I could go on and on. There was much to consider. I’ll close with the kind of steam iron popular here, which has a vast well for a continuous supply of water, because the French still iron everything.
steam iron

France is sooo clean!

Switzerland has long had a well-deserved reputation for clean and tidy. But in recent years France has moved right up along side Switzerland in that department, but without the uptightness.

In the last four years I have spent a total of three months in France, thanks to my expanded French family and friends. I’ve walked all over Paris and taken countless rides on the Métro. I’ve been to the cities of Bordeaux, Bayonne, Dijon, Lyon, Dole, Carcassone, Besançon, and driven endless miles in the countryside and through tiny villages in many parts of this spectacular country.

I could count on my fingers the pieces of litter I’ve seen in all that time. Here’s one of my ten sightings, and it’s an American soft drink can…

Coca cola litterThe villages are pristine. Shopkeepers and homeowners are out on the sidewalks every morning with a broom. Street gutters are swept, roadside verges mowed.

Mowed vergeSwept gutterPots and old troughs are filled with bright flowers. No dog poop. Residents are justifiably proud of their towns and cities.

French dog poop bagsPujols flowersBack in Vancouver, WA my best friend and I would fill a large garbage bag every time we took a walk through our former neighborhood (and it is a nice neighborhood with regular trash and recycling pickups). What’s the matter with us?

European Union elections

The election for representatives to the EU took place over the last four days and results came out last night.

Recently in the villages I’ve been seeing posters for the various candidates (all in one central place set up to display them on placards — no ugly yard signs mushrooming everywhere), and occasionally a small truck would drive thru town blasting some sort of reason to vote for this or that candidate (unpleasant noise). Here is a sampling:

French election poster

Election poster aElection poster bUnemployment among the young is very high here, though the age group 25-54 is doing much better, job-wise, than their peers in the US. Those with jobs resent that many without are collecting unemployment benefits for years, out of the paychecks of the employed. The French unemployment system is way way looser than in the US, and decidedly needs reform.

To the dismay of many French people, the extreme right party Front National (Marine le Pen) gained a lot of seats in the EU parliament. They’re the ones who would like to do away with the EU and go back to France for France, tighten borders against immigration, etc. The more moderate and left-er parties (at least six of them) still hold a majority, but the extent to which the right has gained strength in Europe in the last few years is troubling.

Voter turnout has dropped in the last ten years from 76% to 66%, which is NOT good. My French family tells me that the whole concept of the EU is hard to explain to the average guy, and when you don’t understand, you either don’t vote or you vote NO.

The baguette lives on

former boulangerie - CarcassoneOnce upon a time, every little village in France had a boulangerie (bakery), and usually a boucherie (butcher shop) and café as well. Today, a huge percentage of them have disappeared, thanks to the rise of the supermarket and more women in the workplace. Now perhaps only one in four villages has a boulangerie. Here’s the closest one to Malange, a couple of villages away. Note Françoise’s special baguette bag.

Boulangerie

The love of a fresh love of bread every day is as strong as ever, though. So the French and their bakers have been rethinking bread distribution.

Most solutions involve the boulanger making deliveries. He can drop off baskets of baguettes to a pain dépôt–a village gathering spot (a tabac, a cafe) where locals can pick up the bread they ordered earlier.

Depot de pain

Or he can deliver door to door. Here in Malange you leave a note for him. He collects money at the end of the week.

baguette order-1
baguette order-2

The third option, new, about which I saw a brief spot on international CNN yesterday, is bread vending machines. The bread manufacturer (is he still a boulanger??) fills it with partially baked loaves and when you deposit your euro coin, the machine heats up and gives the loaf a 30-second toasting, et Voilà! your baguette.

This makes me sad.