09 November 2010

Fine Dining

Ok...first things first...yes, I confess to reading People magazine online.  We all have our vices and if a little fluff reading is the worst of mine, so be it!  Now that we have the shock and awe out of the way, on to more interesting matters...While reading a bit of that vice recently, I came across the following bit:

"Also there: Marion Cotillard, who shared a leisurely dinner – more than three hours! – outside with her friends."

It really spoke to me that the "journalist" wrote emphatically that Mademoiselle Cotillard dined leisurely MORE THAN THREE HOURS!!

To most Americans visiting France, this is one of the most culturally jarring habits they confront.  They cannot understand why - if there are tables in the restaurant that are empty - they are turned away with the explanation that the restaurant is complet. They start eating the tablecloth, the bread, the bread basket during the pauses between the courses. They boil when the wait staff disappears and seemingly must be chased down to get the check.   (I am not talking here about the pit stop to refuel in the midst of a busy day...the French have those just as much as we do...but that is what that sandwich shop is for!)

The French approach these meals completely differently than Americans do. In France, a meal with friends is like a private dinner party. You talk a lot...you drink some nice wine...you eat some really tasty food and you are there to enjoy your friends and the experience. The quality of the conversation is as important to the experience as the quality of the food and wine. You never look at your watch. There is no second seating. The table is your's until you deem to give it up.

The restaurant is the stage for your little party. The chef and the wait staff are there to provide the theater.  They consider their role as important as a director and actors in a play do and sometimes they are just as temperamental. They are not there for your every little whim. They do not introduce themselves to you. They do not interrupt your conversation or that huge bite that you just put in your mouth to inquire how you like your meal...they are just not that into you. They are mostly polite and they will most likely respond to all the adoration and applause that you want to throw their way. The waiter does expect you to politely listen to him deliver his lines as he presents your meal to you in detail. The sommelier expects your full attention as he offers the bottle for your tasting. When you are ready to leave, sometimes you have to chase them down to allow you to pay, but again, they are not focused on your need to leave or for that matter pay...they are self-absorbed and focused on their role at that moment.

So when in France, slow it down. Think how much we pay for that meal.  Shouldn't we slow it down and enjoy it?  Experience a meal or two as the French do and see it as culturally important as the museum or the tour that you take. Have a bit more patience with the staff...as long as your meal and experience were worth it. If you are in a hurry, make sure to let them know...they may or may not speed up the show for you...but if they don't, you will just have a French war story to elicit sympathy from your American friends back home.  Bon appétit!!

01 November 2010

More Pictures From the Party at Chateau Champlong

After party in Olivier's cave
Trish, Celia, Nancy and Debby in action
Pomme Caramélisée
The guys waiting to eat
Celia, Debbie and Mary enjoying a well earned glass of champagne
Trish, Mike and Celia à table
Cora, Trish, Celia and Mary wait to plate
Cora, Debbie and trish
Celia announces each course to the diners
Marc, calvados and drinking songs...oh la la la la!!

Thanks to Nancy from Bateau Libellule for these wonderful pictures!

Toussaints et Leclerc - The Perfect Storm

We made the grand mistake of going grocery shopping this morning - Toussaints (All Saints Day) at Leclerc.  Either it was due to everyone returning from vacation and needing groceries before tomorrow's back to work day or it was that Leclerc offered a coupon of 15 euros off every 80 euros purchased or all of the above.  Everyone had their carts loaded full!  It took us 40 minutes to get through the line to the cashier!!  Of course we not being anally frugal French people left our coupon in the other car.  The cashier asked us for our coupon and when I explained our predicament, she offered a sympathetic shake of her head.  That was a painful experience all around!

Halloween 2010

I totally forgot to buy Halloween candy this year!  I figured since it was a rainy Sunday and during a school vacation, I would be ok.  But promptly at 19h (7 pm), the doorbell rang!  We all panicked!!  What should we do?  Turn out the lights and run for the back of the house?  Answer and hope for the best?  Scream and run around the house like maniacs?  After choosing the latter for a minute or two, I settled on some really yucky candy that Nathan and Celia had rejected...licorice and candy flavors just unknown to Americans...maybe French kids were different!  There was a really scary skeleton, a cutely horrible witch and I'm not sure what the other kid was going for...They hungrily grabbed at the bowl of candy that I offered.  Then throwing out Happy Halloweens to everyone and they disappeared into the night. 

Not 15 minutes later, the exact same scene occurred again!!  What to do?  I had stupidly given ALL of our candy to those monsters!!  I yanked open the snack drawer and quickly rejected the meringues still left from Jeff and Janet's visit in July, the Melba toast languishing for eternity, the pistachios and slivered almonds that probably wouldn't go over too well...finally my eyes guided by some miraculous force lit upon the Pomme Potes...apple sauce in a really convenient portable little package that you almost drink like juice...  I grabbed the huge Costco sized box and ran for the front gate.  The monsters had refused to give up hope and were still there.  Maybe they had seen my frantic darting through the front kitchen window!  I apologized that there was no more candy and said I hoped the Pomme Potes would appease their monstrous need for sweets.  There was no grumbling, but only a Merci and Bon Soirée thrown over their shoulders as they commenced their assault on the dark house next door...Phew...another disaster avoided.  We feverishly served up the Sunday night roasted chicken and vegetables and fled to the back of the house to find asylum in front of some mindless TV leaving the front of the house dark and unguarded.  Not 20 minutes into the feeding frenzy, the doorbell rang again!  These French style monsters were relentless!  They did not care if the house was completely shuttered and dark!  They leaned on the doorbell even though Jazzy yelled at them to stop!!  We cowered in our chairs furtively looking at each other trying to decide whether we should confront the monsters once more or continue to tremble in fear.  The smell of the chicken decided for us!  Bon appétit and Happy Halloween!!

31 October 2010

La Grève!

   The strikes in France continue, but their severity has been lessened greatly by the start of the Toussaints (All Saints) vacation break.  These have been the most disruptive of the strikes since we arrived in 2005.  Their primary purpose was to register the general unhappiness of the French people at the idea of retiring at 62 instead of 60. 

   What most people outside of France do not realize is that in order to sweep the elections and beat his arch enemy Jacques Chirac, Francois Mitterrand ran on a platform of severely decreasing the retirement age.  He cut the retirement age to 60 from 65 after he swept into power at the head of a Socialist-Communist alliance in 1981 for the first of two terms that lasted until 1995.  Once a gift like that is given, it is sorely difficult to take it back!!

   The newspapers say more than 70% of the French support the strike, but it seems that there is a difference in their minds between supporting the idea or the right to strike versus the reason for the strike.  Most people that we have talked to realize that France must increase the age of retirement both to appease the budgetary problems as well as to compete with the Western world. I have to admit that if I were offered the opportunity to retire AND still receive most of my salary at 60 years young, I would jump at it and be pretty grumpy at having to give it up.

This chart pilfered from Wikipedia is really interesting as it shows that after 60 (currently) only 12% of the French population continues to work whereas in the US, 43% are still going strong.  It helps that the French enjoy a much higher monthly pension that is meant to replace the monthly salary and not to merely pay for the cable bill as in the US.

Country Early retirement age   Normal retirement age    Employed, 55–59   Employed, 60–64   Employed, 65–69   Employed, 70+
Austria 60 (57) 65 (60) 39% 7% 1% 0%
Belgium 60 65 45% 12% 1% 0%
Denmark none 65 77% 35% 9% 1%
France none 60* 51% 12% 1% 0%
Germany 65 67 64% 23% 3% 0%
Greece 57 65 51% 31% 8% 1%
Italy 57 65 (60) 34% 12% 1% 0%
Netherlands 60 65 53% 22% 3% 0%
Norway 62 67 ? ? ? ?
Spain 60 65 46% 22% 0% 0%
Sweden 61 65 78% 58% 5% 1%
Switzerland 63 (61), [58] 65 (64) 77% 46% 7% 2%
United Kingdom none 65 69% 40% 10% 2%
United States 62 66 66% 43% 20% 5%

Cooking Course at Chateau Champlong

Chateau Champlong
Galette de Trompette de la Mort

Saumon Mi-Cuit aux Aromates et Betterave en Aigre-Doux au Gingembre

Paleron de Veau Confit, Émulsion Blanquette, Galette de Trompette de la Mort

Tartelette Sable Breton, Mousseline Citron Vert et Pomme Gala Caramélisée, Sirop Citron Vert

Olivier, Véronique et Nathan

Nathan and Trish

Mike and C

The kitchen in Action!
While staying with Tom and Trish on their barge Elizabeth, Trish, C and I took a cooking course with Chef Olivier Boizet at the Chateau Champlong.  There were ten or twelve of us in the class...a mix of American, French and Dutch.  We arrived in the afternoon for the preparation of the ingredients and then he walked us through every step of a three course beautifully traditional French menu.  Watching Chef Olivier in action was poetry in motion.  He moved between the three courses with such ease and everything came ready all at the right time.  He taught us steps and recipes that although designed for his professional menu, could easily be translated to our use at home.  Tom. Nathan and Mike arrived at dinner time and we all shared a glass of champagne with Olivier's chestnut and calvados liquor and some really fine amuses-bouches.

The menu consisted of
Saumon Mi-cuit aux Aromates et Betterave en Aigre-doux au Gingembre
Paleron de Veau Confit, Émulsion Blanquette, Galette de Trompette de la Mort
Tartelette Sable Breton, Mousseline Citron Vert et Pomme Gala Caramélisee, Sirop Citron Vert

After much wine and laughter, we moved the party down into his wine cave for digestif and drinking songs and games until the late hours of the night.  It was one of those experiences that I will cherish for the rest of my life.  Chef Olivier was not only a really fine chef and teacher, but a very open and warm host.


24 September 2010

First day of school 2010-11

Fire in the Garrigue

The beautiful morning sky the night after the fire. 

The Canadairs that scoop up water at La Grande Motte and drop it on the fires of our area.

Just at the end of summer...still in the intense heat of August and during a period of a strong gusty wind, some fool decided to start a fire in the garrigue - the wilderness area all around us here in Languedoc.  The fire moved furiously fast and cut a long swath.  The air drops of water were effective, but as night fell, it was evident that the fire would take the night.  The night sky was a bright glowing orange and sleep was light and tinged with the fear of the wind changing direction.  It seemed like the fire was just a breath away, but it actually was a few towns away. 

Le Ranquet

Jazzy wandered in the pine trees

Oh this is so yummy!!
Another weekend in paradise!!  We recently stayed at Le Ranquet - a beautiful resort just near Anduze (the town famous for its urns and pottery).  It was an incredible weekend full of sunshine and FOOD!  The restaurant is a one star that is so well deserved! 
Another amuse bouche
The Cheese Tray!!

Foie gras three ways...heavenly delicious

Another amuse bouche...My bouche was thoroughly amused!!
Breakfast on the terrace