28 February 2008

Catherine's Bridal Shower

We hosted a bridal shower for my colleague and friend Catherine recently. She is getting married the first week of April in the Reunion Islands where she is from.
The concept of a shower - whether a baby or bridal - is a totally foreign concept to Europeans...it is truly an American tradition. Normally there is only a type of Bachelor/Bachelorette party. The friends of the bride or groom take them out for a full day of frolicking and nonsense. Usually the whole group dresses up in wierd and silly outfits and the bride or groom is made to do some pranks. We have seen where the groom had to do a sort of scavenger hunt at retail stores begging for items...we saw one groom that had to get strange women to allow him to weigh them...another gave kisses for booze change...there is a lot of very public humiliation involved! It all looks quite tame and fun!
Since Catherine is very reserved and proper, we decided to spare her...or perhaps save such wildness for her close friends...and threw her an American type shower. We made it a surprise and she and her fiancee Patrick were VERY surprised. It was a really fun night and nice to be able to give them a celebration here in France before they are off to the Reunion Islands.
Congatulations and best wishes Catherine and Patrick!!

10 February 2008


Yesterday we spent the morning shopping at the wonderful Sommieres market. As always, it was fabulous. There were the most amazing artichokes...the size of melons and all purple and deep green, but we passed on those in favor of the squash for a hearty potage (thick soup) and huge leaves of spinach dark green and perfect for a saute with mushrooms and lardons (smoky bits of bacon). Of course we hit our favorite bakery there. All of the breads and pastries are baked over a smoky wood fire which leaves behind just a hint of the wood flavor as well as a crunchy crust and an incredibly soft interior.

After sharing a lunch of dried sausages, olives, salad and a wonderful selection of cheese, my friend Melanie kidnapped me for an afternoon at the newest women's hamam in Montpellier. This was a bit scary for me as a first timer. I had a stereotypical vision in my head of the Turkish baths of the cinema filled with hairy fat men...yuck! A hamam is actually the name of the steam room at the baths that Muslims use for purification. Melanie -who is from Guadalupe - has been going to the hamam since she was young. Muslim women go weekly to do this purification process. There is a separate section for the men and the women, but the one we went to was just for women. It was not part of a mosque as is normal, but a private commercial hamam.

Melanie said this hamam took almost a year to complete. It is owned by three French women who love Morocco and the hamams there. It is a beautiful and peaceful place. The front is a tea room for women only and is decorated with low benches covered with pillows and square low poufs to sit on.

Once you go through the door to the actual hamam, you enter a dark and quiet staircase lined with candles and quiet music drifting up the curved staircase. It is dimly lit and tiled with golden shimmery tiles or painted in deep purples and browns that reflect the lights and candles. You are handed over to a woman who leads you through the rituals of the hamam that you have choosen.

You sit in a warm steam room for about half an hour to sweat out all of the impurities. Then you are covered from head to toe with a blackish soap...turning you into a slippery fish. You sit again in the steam room for a bit. Then you are rinsed off and scrubbed energetically with a louffa leaving you on the brink of pain, but feeling like a newborn baby...all pink and soft. Then oils smelling incredibly of orange blossom or rose water are rubbed into every bit of your skin from your toes to your face. At this point, you either go back into the steam room to let the oils steep or you rest on the stone table like a pink pig too tired to move...like me! After a little dodo (nap), you are rinsed off and the final step is a dousing with a bucket of water heaved at you from behind over your head. Now you are pure and clean and ready for a peaceful and thorough massage with this oil that leaves your skin so incredibly soft and smooth.

The day was ended with the typical tea of North Africa steeped with fresh mint. It was an amazing and relaxing afternoon...and a newfound indulgence that will be repeated! We are already planning our next escape. To imagine that Muslims go to the hamam weekly creates jealousy in me! You feel so refreshed and peaceful after a few hours of sweating and scrubbing and massage. I had this deep seeded feeling that such indulgences were pratically sinful, but I have seen the light and are a new woman!! Melanie laughs at me and just asks when I would like to accompany her again!

01 February 2008


Tomorrow is Chandeleur here in France. It is crepes and Nutella 24 hours straight. Seriously, even the publicity from the grocery store devotes a whopping 4 pages to all of the ingredients and toppings and machines to make crepes. (And really exciting ones...eggs, flour, jelly, nutella...wow!!) It is a perfect example of one of the many French rituals that involves food.

The Catholic holiday of Candlemas, on 2 February, is a feast to commemorate the purification of the Virgin Mary and the presentation of baby Jesus. In France, this holiday is called la Chandeleur, Fête de la Lumière, or crêpe day. But even Nathan and Celia's French teacher had to look up the history of the ritual. She only knew it as the Time-to-Eat-Crepes day!

There are all kinds of French proverbs and sayings for Chandeleur; here are just a few. Note the similarities to the Groundhog Day predictions made in the US and Canada:

À la Chandeleur, l'hiver cesse ou reprend vigueur

On Candlemas, winter ends or strengthens

À la Chandeleur, le jour croît de deux heures

On Candlemas, the day grows by two hours

Chandeleur couverte, quarante jours de perte

Candlemas covered (in snow), forty days lost

Rosée à la Chandeleur, hiver à sa dernière heure

Dew on Candlemas, winter at its final hour

Here is Celia's favorite crepe recipe. We just feasted on them tonight!! The batter saves well in the refrigerator to enjoy again and again. It may take a time or two to master the art of crepe making, but don't give up...it is well worth it! Celia prefers to spread Nutella from edge to the very edge. Me, I like just a shake of sugar and cinnamon. Warm from the stove they are such a treat.

Chandeleur Crepes

1 1/2 cups whole milk

3 large eggs

3 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon salt

Scant 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1/2 cup brandy

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup all-purpose flour

Additional butter for cooking

Additional sugar or clear jelly such as apple or apricot for serving
Special equipment: Iron skillet or crêpe pan

Flexible metal or plastic spatula

In a blender, combine milk and eggs. Mix on medium-high speed until foamy, about 10 seconds. Turn blender to low speed and remove feed top. With blender going, add sugar and salt. Replace feed top and blend on high speed for a few seconds, then turn blender back to low. In the same manner, add butter, brandy, and vanilla, replacing feed top and blending for several seconds after each addition. Turn blender off. Add flour all at once and blend until just combined.
Place crêpe pan over moderately high heat. With flexible spatula, spread a tiny amount of butter in pan (an alternative method is to brush the pan with melted butter using a pastry brush) and heat until butter just begins to smoke. Pour 1/4 to 1/3 cup batter into the pan. As you pour, quickly tilt the pan in all directions to spread a thin layer of batter across the bottom. Pour in just enough batter to cover the pan.
Cook crêpe over moderately high heat until bubbles just begin to form on the exposed surface, about one to two minutes. Lift up the edge to check the cooking process — if the crêpe starts to burn before it is cooked through, turn down the heat. If it is not nicely browned after two minutes, turn up the heat.
When underside of crêpe is browned, flip and cook another minute or less, until other side is browned. Remove from pan and keep warm in the oven, loosely covered with foil.
Grease pan with a very small amount of butter and repeat process. Continue until all batter is used, stacking cooked crêpes on a plate in the oven. To serve, sprinkle each crêpe with sugar or spread with jelly and fold or roll up.

Note: Making the batter for these crêpes is relatively easy, but cooking them can be laborious. Once you have a gotten a feel for the procedure (you will probably have to tinker with the heat and cooking time, since every pan behaves slightly differently), you can save time by using two pans at once. Stagger the process so you are pouring the batter into one pan while a crêpe is cooking in the other. This way, you will be able to closely attend to both but will finish in half the time.

Joyeux Chandeleur!!