January 26, 2015

Saint Vincent Take Two

As the police officer walked away from me I said, "I'll see you later, Monsieur le Gendarme." 

He gave a hearty laugh and I told him not to worry, I had taken the train to the 71st Saint Vincent Tournante festival. This year's version of the celebration of the patron saint of winemakers was held in Vougeout and Gilly-les-Citeaux, the former known for, well, one of the most famous wines in Burgundy, and the latter for being next to the former. 

We had been to the 70th version of the event last year in Saint Aubin and 365 days in Burgundy had taught us an important lesson: LEAVE THE KIDS AT HOME WHEN YOU GO TO A WINE FESTIVAL. We hired a babysitter, put on eight layers of clothing, drove to Beaune, ditched the car, and got on the 11:33 train to Vougeout. As the mass of humanity boarded, one girl already in the train said, "What's going on? I take this train every Saturday and I've never seen so many people." Burgundy wine festivals will do that.

Upon arriving, we purchased our pack de dégustation, which included a commemorative glass and its carrier, a map, and seven tickets for different tastings. Our first stop was for a grand cru red, made exclusively from Pinot noir grapes. The local winemakers had pooled their supply for this unique event, creating an assemblage of different grand cru wines that would only be available for this weekend. On Monday, it would be impossible to find this particular wine ever again. The man pouring it gestured to the falling snow and said, "Try to warm it up with your hands."

The weather had made this the opposite of the ideal tasting conditions. Instead of a controlled environment, the wind was bitingly brisk, and all the wines were served al fresco, far from their optimal temperatures. The air was crowded with odors competing for the wine's aromas: roasting hams, cigarette smoke, melted cheese, French fries, and more than enough BO to go around. We cupped our glasses in our hands, trying to warm it, but the effort was wasted. It was like defrosting a snowy windshield with your breath. And yet, that first wine...well it was magic.

January 21, 2015

Lunch, Church, and Politics on Sunday

One of the rules we follow here is to spend time with French people every chance we get. If you think about it, that is a wild departure from our American lives. We never said, "Jeez, I really need to see some Americans today!" when we lived in the Land of the Free.

On Sunday, I found myself in a trifecta of French situations: hunting cabin for lunch, 15th Century church for a concert, small town meeting with the mayor for the annual galette des rois.

This was not my first time in a French hunting situation.

The cabin, where there is one rule: no guns, dogs, or women allowed inside
I had been invited for both the hunt and the lunch, primarily for the latter. As one of my friends here had described this type of deer and wild boar hunting, "You don't talk, you don't move, you don't smoke, you don't fart." As I would be armed with only a camera, this sounded like something I could pass on this time, so I just went for lunch to the cabin.

I had stopped by my friend's house at 11:30 to pick up the lunch. I know what you're thinking: Perhaps a basket of sandwiches and some chocolate chip cookies? Maybe a pot of chili and a few brownies? Surely a dozen men would appreciate a bowl of pasta salad and some snickerdoodles, right?


January 19, 2015

Revenge of the Cows

In addition to being delicious, the Charolais cattle featured in Friday's post are apparently big fans of this site...and obviously, they weren't too happy with my conclusion. 

My wife and I took advantage of one of the few times when we are kid-free to enjoy a lunch out on the town together. After a nice meal of vegetable soup (her) and rutabaga, goat cheese, honey tart (me) followed by a main dish of Charolais beef in a vinegar wine sauce (maybe our dining choice determined what was to happen next...), I decided to show my wife a forest trail that I was eager to walk down with her and the boys. I drove to the spot and pulled off onto the grass on a mild slope so we could walk down the path a ways. This attempt to remove the car from the "main" road was the least necessary courtesy in the history of driving. For the next 40 minutes, not one car passed.

Our little walk concluded, we climbed back in the car. I eased 'er into first gear and...we slipped a little ways down the slope. I gunned it harder, tried reversing, and then turned off the engine.

Mud bath. 

My wife took over the driving and I began pushing, convinced that we would succeed. We were less than two feet from pavement! We rocked it back and forth, but it was stuck. I tried slipping some wet cardboard we had found on the road under the tires, but no go.

January 16, 2015

It Rains Here. A Lot.

When we arrived here a year ago, it rained part or all of every day for 60 days. We knew not a soul, both our kids were frequently sick with gastro, ear infections, conjunctivitis, or fever, and we had no knowledge of what to do with two kids under 4 when it rains. It was a trying two months. 

This winter is shaping up to be more of the same. Oftentimes, in a cruel tease, a pink sunrise and a fiery orange sunset will serve as brief parentheses for an otherwise wet day. Burgundians say that the typical winter here is cold but bright, usually with some snow. Now that we are in mid-January, however, I am becoming increasingly skeptical of these claims, especially because it was 60 degrees on Tuesday. 

Regardless, we've come a long way. We have memorized the hours at three different libraries and no longer curse when we arrive to find them exceptionnellement fermées. My wife discovered a ludothèque, a sort of toy-brary, where the children can run and romp among a sea of games, puzzles, and, thank heavens, trains. Grandparents have furnished us with buckets of Legos. While a rainy day is far from a welcome sight, it is no longer a surprise, and we manage our way through the day with relative ease.

Throughout, we have Charolais cattle, those who provide the region's beef, as our steady witnesses to the moisture. The photo above shows the view from the boys' bedroom. Each morning, I hold the baby in my arms and say, "It looks like some of your friends are there! Do you want to say hello?" And he will scream "Moooo!" at these hulking beasts. The cows tend not to return the greeting. The more it rains, the closer they huddle together, trying to get a snitch off an ever-dwindling bail of hay. During a stretch of dry, clear weather, these animals are beautiful white jewels on the Burgundy landscape, dotting green pastures like gigantic cotton balls. When it rains, they turn to mud. Slop covers their hindquarters, their faces, their underbellies, and, as you can see, their shins. 

If self-doubt and existential bewilderment are the emotions dominating my day, their melancholy lowing rattles the windows, a universal cry of misery and confusion. But if optimism and excitement have thwarted those negative thoughts, I confess that their sounds make me think just one thing:

Better you than me, guys.

January 14, 2015

A Tale of Two Lunches

No photos at lunch, so here is Benoît on the hunt
 The email from my friend Benoît was succinct: 

"Are you available to have lunch with a winemaker, a former manager of a wine shop, and me in Pommard at 11:30?"

Rule number 1 in France is "Always say yes," so away I went. Like some pseudo-clandestine black-ops caper, we were to meet in front of the church. "It will be simplest."

At the arranged time, my host awaited. His winemaker friend, a burly gentleman in his 50s sporting jeans and a thick sweater approached, quickly followed a debonair, grey-haired Frenchman in glasses with a scarf neatly wrapped around his neck, tucked into the top of his leather jacket. We chatted for 20 minutes, telling snippets of our life stories, before getting back into our cars to go to the domaine, or headquarters, to begin tasting the nectars of Pommard and Monthelie. We would start by tasting the 2014 vintage, which was harvested in September, before heading to his home for a casse croûte, or snack, while tasting older, bottled wines. 

In a cuverie that dated from 1945, the winemaker removed the plug from five or six oak barrels. He dipped his glass wine thief, a magic tasting wand, into the barrels and extracted several centiliters of wine, which he distributed into our glasses. Imagine four men in a windowless cave drinking wine on a Thursday morning. That's pretty much how we behaved. More than once I was admonished, "What happens in the intimacy of the cave stays in the cave." Vegas, French-style. 

January 9, 2015


The radio announced that the flu and -- worse -- la gastro had reached "epidemic" levels in France this season. 

Now, no one should downplay the flu. It's evil business. People die. 

But la gastro, or gastrointestinal distress in all of its forms, is an assault on all that the French hold dear. When your insides turn to liquid, when nothing stays down, when it comes out both ends, it is, in simplest terms, la catastrophe. ONE CANNOT EAT!

La Gastro is ubiquitous. Everyone I know has had it in the year since I have been here. It is so common that everyone talks about it. Openly. 

Me: Bonjour, ça va?

Interlocutor: Better now that my gastro has passed. I had a horrible two days! But, (big smile) my wife has it now!

Me: (to myself) I was just being polite. I have never seen you before and I have no idea what your name is.

Could the prevalence of la gastro be linked to the waiters who hold the tines of the forks when placing them on your table? Might there be a slight chance that the man who cuts cured meats with the same knife all day long and proffers them to passersby in between his two ungloved fingers hasn't washed since he last urinated? Is it possible that the French, who never throw anything away, sometimes let their kitchen sponges flower before using them to wipe down a plate with cold water? (I recently witnessed a host collect eight forks from the table only to realize that we still needed them. She quickly scrubbed 'em down and redistributed them around the table. The French are such geniuses. How could she have possibly remembered whose fork was whose? Wait a minute...) Any chance the butcher who uses the same knife to cut poultry, beef, lamb, and charcuterie would be the cause? Certainly the lack of hand driers or paper towels in café bathrooms has nothing to do with it.

Regardless, it is everywhere. Like a rising hurricane tide, it jumps sand bags. The wildfires in your guts snicker at backfiring or retardants. No matter how much seismic vibration control you employ, that skyscraper in your belly is coming down and out. Schools are tornadoes of malaise, with kids leaving school in different pants than those in which they arrived, surely a sign of either clumsy footing (our son's case...damn puddles) or la gastro.

Pork Fair
Another possibility occurred when I read an advertising flier from the supermarket today. This week is the "Pork Fair" at ATAC, and the French are ready to celebrate the pig. Every last inch of it. This is of course not uncommon. 

But the vividness of their commitment to nose-to-tail eating does continue to impress. Whereas stores at home tend to make you whisper across the butcher counter for some of the nasty bits ("Psst. Over here. Do you have any veal bones? What about chicken backs? You're not hiding any sweetbreads back there, are you?"), here they are front and center. Poor former President Jacques Chirac commented once that he really liked tête de veau, or veal's head, and found himself staring at a plate of the gelatinous meat on every official visit from that point on. Pig brains are packed in plastic tubs in groups of four right next to the pork tenderloin. Little old ladies who look like they probably eat birdseed can frequently be overheard ordering two pounds of liver, thick slices of head cheese, blood sausages, some tripe, and breaded pig's feet, the same way an American woman might order half a pound of low-fat Cheddar cheese, thinly sliced.

Head (no tongue), heart (2), whole liver, tail, foot, and kidneys...for under 75 cents a pound
While there is no scientific proof that I have to offer, one does wonder if pictures of pig's heads, hearts, feet, kidneys, liver, and tails might play some small role in the current national epidemic. It's just a risk we'll have to take...

January 7, 2015

Parsleyed Ham, Part 2

After my wonderful experience with Jacky, learning his secrets about how to make the local specialty jambon persillé, I decided to make my own batch. After purchasing a 1.5 kilo hunk of pork shoulder, I went to the master's house so he could "pump" it with his pink salt mixture. The butcher had given me more couenne, the outer layer of fat on a ham, than I could possibly use for my small batch, and Jacky was all too happy to take it off my hands. I thought this was a good trade for his "pumping." He opened his fridge to store the fat. Inside the refrigerator were several trays covered in animal feet. "Pieds de mouton," he told me. Lamb's feet. Sixty-seven of them. He was going to cook them for friends the following week. I asked him how he prepared them. He looked at me and said, "Just like a calf's foot. Couldn't be easier."

Oh. Um, pause, uh...I'm American. I don't have a whole lot of experience cooking calves' feet. Laughing, he told me he would boil them in a court bouillon for a long time, low and slow.

Back home, the ham was remarkably easy, and I enjoyed making the house smell like cooking pig for several hours. I spiced and doctored, put the couenne through the blender just like he had showed me to make a slurry of fat ("it gives it amazing texture and richness"), and had two good sized containers ready for the holidays. 

Fork tender

Our family kept and enjoyed one, and, in a wave of whatthehellyouonlyliveonce courage, I brought the other to a couple who had been exceptionally kind to me over the previous year. 

On January 2, I ran into the wife in the grocery store. We exchanged new year's greetings, pecked each other's cheeks, and made small talk. As the conversation wound down, her eyes lit up for a second and she said, "Oh, le jambon persillé était très bon. We ate a portion of it here in Arnay and I brought the rest to my relatives over the new year. They loved it."

After some memorable dances with "spéciale," this was positive news. A little cloud lifted my feet off the ground. I told her I was glad they had enjoyed it, and turned to continue my shopping. Her voice called me back. "Personnellement," she started, her face betraying a little concern, "for my own taste, it wasn't salted enough."

Thump thump as my feet returned to earth. "Oh, well, OK. Noted," said I. She approached me, looking me right in the eyes, saying, "Non? You didn't remark the same thing?"

I tried to focus on the positive, thanked her for her initial compliment, muttered something like "I'll think about that next time," and wished her a good day. I had just been Franked: Thanked by the French.

January 6, 2015

New Year, New Rules

Naturally, as the calendar turned to a new year, France decided to make some changes. The local newspaper had a full page with minuscule text describing the myriad adjustments, realignments, and regulations that not a single French person was clamoring for.

The nationally mandated sales period has changed from five weeks to six, once in winter and once in summer. The two "floating" weeks of sales in French stores have been eliminated. (Pause for a second and imagine Washington, DC mandating the exact periods a store could offer discounts on their wares. Offering things at a reduced price outside of these times is against federal law here.)

Since the first of January, stamps have had a record price increase. Gas prices have gone up. Hotel taxes jumped. Train and metro tickets cost more, and don't think taxis are all of a sudden more attractive as a result...their fares have increased by 1%. BPA is banned from all food containers. Something called the RSA went up .9%...no idea if that's good or bad. Employers will get an extra 1000 euros for hiring an apprentice. Salaried employees are now required to participate in ongoing training every two years, as well as when workers return from parental leave. Having a first baby in 2015? Only six months of leave instead of a year. For the second kid, one parent will now only have two years off, instead of three, and the second parent only one year. The "birth premium" is now only paid when the baby is born, not during the 7th month of pregnancy. People making over 1 million euros a year will no longer have to pay a 75% tax rate (though it doesn't say what the new rate is...). Vision and hearing licenses have gone up. The lowest paid civil servants, category C, will get five index points. For Arrco, contributions are up from 7.63% to 7.75% (20.13% to 20.25% for non-management category 2), and 20.43% to 20.55 for l'Agirc. For businesses who revenues do not pass 3.25 million euros, no need to pay the corporate solidarity contribution any longer.

I confess that a lot of the changes are incomprehensible. Not because of a language barrier, but because of the French Infatuation With Acronyms That No Foreigner Understands (FIWATNFU): The CCE, TICGN, CSPE, TCFE, TCL, DIF, PAJE, CPF, ASPA, PTZ, CIDD, RGE, ex-CUB, QP, ZUS...and, of course, that flagship acronym that every high school French student learns, the CUCS. (Still wondering? Why it's the "contrats urbains de cohésion sociales, or the urban contract of social cohesion of course!)

The good news? Minimum wage is up .8%, to a whopping 9.61 euros an hour.