August 26, 2014

Yes, We Have No Bread

As summer winds down, it's the beginning of a difficult two week stretch. While many people are trying to squeeze out the final joys before school starts on September 2, we are staying local in Burgundy. It seems, however, that we will be largely without quality bread. A few days ago, I was buying our daily loaf from preferred bakery number 1. Taped on the glass door was a sign saying the bakery would be closed for two weeks for annual vacation starting August 25. These people work hard, rising before the sun to make baguettes that go for around a dollar a piece. They deserve some time off. I would just go to preferred bakery number 2.

No bread
Alas! When I stopped in over the weekend, they too had a sign: closed for annual vacation starting August 25! I chatted with the owner, snapping a picture of the sign and explaining that, as an American, this is highly unusual. U.S. small business people usually hire a small team of people, enough to ensure that the store stays open year-round. Here, hiring is so expensive that many boutiques, bakeries, garages, and other small businesses are one or two person operations. When vacation time comes, the business just closes down. 

Really, no bread
Recently, a Frenchman asked me what differences I noticed the most between France and home. (David Sedaris answered this question at a reading in Boston by saying, "Boy, you really have television everywhere here." By contrast, I am yet to find a café or restaurant in rural France with a TV.) I explained that in the U.S., as long as there is the hope of a customer with money in his pocket, stores and businesses are generally open. In small towns and big cities, it is a safe bet that a store is open at least six days a week from 10-6, if not longer. If you need batteries or baking soda, toilet paper or tile cleaner, you can generally find it at a 24 hour convenience store within a fifteen minute drive of your home. 

Don't let your car break down for these two weeks.
Here, by contrast, it is better to expect something to be closed instead of open. Everything is closed Sunday and most things are shuttered Monday as well. Nothing opens before 10. Between noon and 2:30 every day, rural France is closed for lunch. After 7:00pm, if you need a cup of milk, some dish soap, or kitty litter, you are out of luck. Life is closed until the following morning, provided that morning is not Sunday, Monday, summer, the holidays, a Catholic holy day, or a full moon.

Want a good library book? Not in August. Closed.
The bank closed the day after a national holiday so the employees could have an extra long weekend. The local garage turned the lights off for two weeks. On Monday afternoons in the summer, be advised that the post office will not be open. A jewelery store in Beaune was closed until mid-October "for health reasons." The mechanic from whom I bought a used car has been on "congé" every time I email him a question about the car. The artisan jam store on the main place in Arnay-le-Duc is only open on Saturdays, sitting dark six days a week. If you need to talk to your insurance agent, don't attempt it Monday afternoon. They're closed. Don't lose your credit card at lunch! The bank is only open for walk-in traffic in the mornings; in the afternoon, you have to have an appointment.

Closed. Period.
These closures and vacations are engrained in French life, in French law, and in the French spirit. Yet, every French person seems to agree that it is absurd that businesses in downtown Dijon and Beaune, the largest commercial centers in the area, are closed from 12-2, when all the workers have time to shop. The tension between tradition and modernity is real, and the country is clearly struggling with its old habits and the pressures of a new, global economy. While they figure it out, I think I'll have a long lunch.

August 20, 2014

Les mûres derrière le mur sont mûres!

Mûre is blackberry. Mur is wall. Mûre is ripe. Confusing? Yes. But, in this case, delicious. Late summer in Côte d'Or is the time to pick and eat a ton of blackberries. They are EVERYWHERE. Ubiquitous. Omnipresent. Pervasive. And best of all? They are FREE. 

Some for today, some for tomorrow

Just walk down any road where there are Charolais cattle (read: every road) and you will find blackberries in the hedges that the French farmers use instead of fences. I learned from one of my friends here that any land that is not marked "privé" is land you can go on. His only cautions were: 1. If you open a cattle gate, close it. 2. If you see a bull with balls hanging down between his legs, avoid that field. And 3. Try to avoid mothers with their calves, as they can get testy. So you don't really even need a road, and since the farmers here roate the cows frequently, it is easy to find a spot with an open gate (no bulls!) to go check out for you haul. 

Charolais cattle in front of a hedge

We went up the road half a mile to a dead-end dirt path to let the boys run wild while we picked. There are definitely a lot of prickers and some plants that sting if you touch them, but the payoff is worth it. Blackberries on cereal, on French toast (which these people, of course, only eat for dessert), in yogurt, in pies, as a snack, and, when you have little ones, as a bribe to try -- for God's sake just to TRY -- the carrot soup.

Best part about blackberry picking

August 16, 2014

Quelle andouille

Our friend the Internet says “Andouille is an insult in French, designating an imbecile.” But it is also a food. The 42nd version of the Andouille et Cornichons festival took place in Bèze on August 15, 2014. Part of the joy of traveling or living in France is to expand your gastronomic horizons, so culinary curiosity demanded a visit. And, after all, half of the festival was dedicated to little pickles…how dangerous could the andouille part of it be?

Festival goers dig in
Bèze, a town of a few hundred people, holds the distinction of being one of the most beautiful 700 villages of France. The flowers were stunning as was the center of the village, where cafés spilled out in front of the town hall and stone bridges crossed clear, crisp water flowing in the river below. The festival was at the Parc de la Source, where the river Bèze finds its source. After paying the 2 euro entry fee, we were greeted by carnival rides, food stands, and a bunch of Middle Ages tents, where people in period costume were playing instruments, pouring undefined liquids into earthenware cups, and offering games for kids and adults, including crossbow shooting ranges and rope tosses.

Old school
The juxtaposition of old and new seemed especially appropriate given that the gastronomic items featured were certainly inventions that came from necessity. Let’s imagine a world without pigs but everything else is the same. Think about it: supermarkets bulging with beef steaks, lamb chops, chicken breasts, quail, duck, and many other beasts; fresh kiwis, mangoes, raspberries, broccoli, lettuces, bean sprouts; dried and fresh pastas; yogurt, cheese, milk, ice cream; salmon, swordfish, cod, oysters, skate, scallops, and shrimp; olives, salad bars, lentils; jellied cranberry sauce, Pringles, matzo ball mix, walnut oil…Would you, today, if you discovered pig for the first time, make it a priority to focus your efforts on the stomach and intestines, cleaning and rinsing them forever, before stuffing the large intestine with the cut up remaining bits, then cook the resulting white, gelatinous tube, tied at both ends with red string, in a flavorful court bouillon broth, and serve it with white beans?

No. You. Would. Not.

Loser eats andouille
But, back in the day, food was a treasure, and you ate the whole animal. The result, in this case, is a sausage that, when cooking, makes the countryside stink.

As I waited in line to get my meal, I thought that the Frenchman in front of me was emanating a particularly strong odor, a not unusual occurrence. (Personally, I am down to about 2 showers a week from my daily American washing). But he drifted away to buy some tickets for wine, and the wind was up a bit…this was clearly andouille smell.

Underneath, there was unquestionably some herbs, some wine, and some seasonings that make most meals pleasurable. But make no mistake: the smell invaded and enveloped the scene, an olfactory cloud of guts.

I got my tray, which included some pâté de campagne, carrots, couscous, cheese, and dessert. But the main plate contained a bunch of white beans and an ominous and large pork intestine stuffed with pork intestines, pig stomach, and other such delights.

My wife couldn’t even look at it. I cut a bite, said, “Here goes,” and popped it into my mouth. In simplest terms, it tasted like it smelled. Chewing was an effort, swallowing a scary thought. For the next bite, I bathed it in mustard and speared a cornichon. No luck making this delicious. It was funky, it had chewy bits, it had an incredibly animalistic character to it.

The main attractions
My oldest pointed at my plate, said, “Ça, c’est l’andouille,” and asked for a bite. Boom. Down the hatch, no questions asked, “c’est bon.” Kids are amazing creatures.

He had one more bite and I had about four. Over half the sausage was gone, and I considered it a success. At the next table over, a woman was saying, “Oh, it’s very good, isn’t it?” to her neighbor. Her face fell a fraction as she contemplated her neighbor’s plate, and she said, “Oh. You got the chicken. Well, l’andouille, c’est spéciale.” It is special, just not special like diamonds or birthdays.

Later, the man serving the meat used the same word to describe it, and added that now the challenge was “keeping it in the stomach.” When a Frenchman says that eating something -- anything -- is a challenge, you are in rarified air.

Off with his head!
Over the next couple of hours, there were medieval shows for the public, including startlingly real combats inside a rope circle, a mock trial including an almost-beheading, and a fire breather, whose explosive efforts were not dissimilar from the chaos in the belly of the assembled public.

He may have just "enjoyed" a bite of andouille
As we were traveling with our two children under four, we left after 4 hours, before we could see the crowning of Mister Cornichon (who had to spear and eat as many cornichons as possible in an allotted time), and Madame Andouille, who had to eat a portion of the sausage with her hands behind her back. Not surprisingly, when we left, the emcee was still imploring the audience for females to sign up to compete in the latter competition. Two hours after sign ups had opened, there were still no takers. I don't know if French women get fat, but I do know they're not stupid.

"A what and cornichons festival?"
What: Fête de l’andouille et cornichons
Where: Bèze, Côte d’Or, Burgundy
When: August 15

How Much: 2 euro entry; lunch was 13 euros for chicken or andouille, (normal) sausages were 2 euro each

August 12, 2014

Chocolate Store

In Pommard, justly famous for its wines, there is a different type of stop for the gourmet traveler. Right in the center of town, Michel and Beatrice Dessolins own and operate a boutique chocolate store. 

Behind a glass wall, you can watch all the chocolates being handmade: ganaches, pralines, or tablettes, as well as ice creams, pâte de fruits, and macarons. Visitors come for chocolate simple and complicated, ordinary and extraordinary. 

With a little advance planning and a few euros, Michel and Beatrice will prepare a chocolate grand crus tasting for guests: little squares of cocoa from Venezuela, Madagascar, Ghana, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, or Peru.

You will also find the grappe des grand crus de Pommard, little chocolate balls filled with pan d’épices, cassis, pêche de vigne, pistachio, truffle, strawberry, or apricot.

Situated above an old wine cellar, the mix of terroir and chocolate is hard not to love. 

What: Chocolate store
Where: Pommard, Côte d’Or, Burgundy
When: Open daily
How Much: Prices from about 5 euros/100g

August 11, 2014

Old School Terrines

I have been exceptionally fortunate to be taken under the wing of André and Jacqueline here in Burgundy. André invited me to speak to the Rotary Club about my work here, they took me out for tête de veau et grenouilles, André and I went snail hunting together, and they both guided me through the massacre and preparation of the gastropods. The other day, I got a call at 10:00am from André saying they were making terrines from the wild boar and roe deer he had hunted in the fall. Would I like to come watch and learn?

The barded terrine

I arrived at 3:00pm and André microwaved me some coffee. After whisking away my empty cup, he offered me a digestif, which I politely declined (though the bottle of cognac on the counter had a certain allure).

André informed me that Jacqueline was the chef, that I was a guest in the kitchen. I realized I would not be getting my hands dirty, which seemed ok to me.

They took two big terrines of boar out of the fridge that they had prepped earlier. 

André took to cutting decorative shapes of pig fat to place on top while Jacuqeline stuffed hazelnuts into the impressive mass of ground meat, herbs, spices, and, of course, wine. (It made a noisy suction sound.) She placed a bay leaf on top and layered some caul (a white fatty, net-like membrane that holds a pig’s guts together) over it all. Boar terrine done.

Marinating deer
Next, a giant bowl of marinated deer meat came out. There were onions, shallots, parsley, bay leaves, and juniper berries mingling with hunks of meat, all of it thoroughly doused in red wine.
The choice bits
As André cut up pieces of pig meat (“that’s too lean, André! The deer is already lean, it needs lots of fat so it stays moist!”), Jacqueline got out the grinder. The machine made an incredible racket, and the two of them alternated dropping meat, pig fat, parsley, and shallots into the grinder (not the onions!). Once all the meat was in a bowl that my one year old could use as a bathtub, Jacqueline added an egg, salt, pepper, and other seasonings and began mixing it with her hands while André regaled me with stories of the hunt. (It was clear that this was her show. He talked about it being “beaucoup de travail,” but his hands stayed remarkably clean.)

Pork fat=flavor and moisture

Once fully mixed, she piled it into a terrine dish lined with pork fat, stopping about halfway up the sides to layer hazelnuts and choice reserved pieces of the deer, an aesthetic and gastronomic choice, before topping it off with more of the ground mixture.

Choice bits on top of ground meat
Another bay leaf and a layer of caul and she pronounced it ready for the oven, where it would cook for a couple of hours in low heat before chilling in the refrigerator for ten days, when they would share it with their family and friends on the occasion of their golden 50th wedding anniversary. 

I am hoping I might get some leftovers.
Covered in caul
The finished product, pre-cooking, amidst the raw materials needed for success