February 8, 2016

Gifts à la française

NDLR: Pour mes lecteurs français, rendez-vous mercredi pour la vie politique américaine part 2.

Although there are days when I pine for city life (no take-out Chinese in two years!), there are many wonderful surprises and treats when living in the country. Recently, I have been taking my boys on a lot of walks where we identify as many animals as we can along our path. (If they would ever be quiet, they would surely hear about a dozen more than we actually note.) Naturally, horse poop (full of hay!), cat feces, cow dung, dog logs, deer droppings, and white and gray splotches of avian refuse are the biggest and most obvious hits. But we also spot empty snail shells, white herons, magpies, Charolais cattle, hawks, earthworms, spiders, flies, and ladybugs. Thanks to a library book about wild boar, we learned to look at the barbed wire fence for signs of their long, thick black hairs caught in the barbs. Foxes and cats use the same trails, leaving little bunches of their fur behind as well. It is, simply, a lot of free fun, without any worries about traffic.

Of course, country living isn't just for kids. On a recent weekend, we got the full rural treatment. On Saturday evening, we were invited to friends' house for dinner. We dined on a few dozen escargots that our host had collected in the summer months. Bathed in garlic-parsley butter, they were delicious. He told me that, back in the day, he and his brother ate three dozen each; on this night, I stopped somewhere in the mid-twenties. 

Roasted venison that our host and his hunting buddies had shot followed, accompanied by potato pancakes and a sweet and thick sauce that left all of us licking our lips and asking for more. Cheese and a sabayon with strawberries and raspberries concluded our feast. It was the type of meal that you cannot really buy anywhere; you have to live near the source for it to work. (Think about that for a minute: when is the last time you had a meal that no one else could have prepared, that wasn't for sale anywhere?)

Sunday afternoon found us at a different couple's house for an afternoon of gaufres, or waffles. This is one of many national traditions here, a Sunday afternoon of waffles with friends and family. We covered the gaufres in strawberry jam from their garden, white sugar, or blackberry jam from berries harvested during the summer months in Burgundy. While the five children played and whooped and burned off as much sugar adrenaline as possible, the adults talked, seated around a table, for several hours. It was très français. I enjoyed explaining that "waffle" is also a verb in English (my French host said that made sense, given that we cook both sides of the gaufre. I had never thought about it like that.) and that Americans eat waffles for breakfast with maple syrup or even with fried chicken. This was met with, "Ah bon?", which is code for, "They are a strange people, these Americans."

As the afternoon wound down and we prepared to leave, my host was quickly stuffing a giant handful of dried black trumpet mushrooms (called "trumpets of death" in French) into an old jelly jar. He said they liked to eat them with filet mignon, using the soaking juice of the mushrooms to enrich the sauce. He gets them from a friend who loves to gather mushrooms. 

He still had a generosity itch that needed scratching, so he asked if we liked lard, or smoked bacon. 

Um, duh. 

He ducked into the fridge and pulled out a big chunk of it, sliced me a portion that would feed the Brady Bunch for a month, and asked me to smell it. "It comes from the Jura, one region to our east. We have a friend who goes every week, and he brings us back lard and comté. Speaking of which, do you want some cheese?" Out came a wedge that could hold open a barn door in a storm. He cut off a huge piece for us as we discussed why the best regional products always stay in their regions. This cheese and this bacon came from a little more than an hour away, but we all agreed that you couldn't find anything approaching their quality here in Burgundy. (Of course, Burgundy has got its own specialties, so this is not a complaint.)

Over the past week, the kids demolished the comté, and the lard has popped into omelets, a quiche, a boeuf bourguignon, a soup, and a salad. We still have a lot left. What a great gift.

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