La foire! Market day!

These are Charolais cows who live near us, curiously checking out my little dog. Though these guys weren’t actually at the “foire” that day, I suspect they eventually will be.

I absolutely love market days in little French villages.  The market day for our town happened last Tuesday, and I was not disappointed.  Our town is the center for the raising and selling of the Charolais cow, and thus this was no ordinary market.  In fact, it only happens once a month, and thus is considered a “foire” and not just a “marche.”  I had no idea there was a difference.

French markets are a cacophony of sights, sounds, and smells.  The chicken-roasting guy is one of my favorite market staples- you can buy a whole rotisserie-roasted chicken (for MUCH cheaper than you can buy the same chicken, uncooked, from the butcher!) with potatoes that have been roasted down below all the turning chickens- delicious, and smells heavenly.  There is usually a spice stand, with bulk spices that are fresher, and cheaper, than you will get at the store.  They also typically have things you won’t find elsewhere, like the tikka masala spice I bought.  I’m not entirely sure what to do with it, but I couldn’t resist.  Of course there are fresh vegetables, and the local bakeries are open and doing a brisk business.  And always a few butchers are on hand- I found one who promised that he could get me a whole turkey for American Thanksgiving!  I will solidify those arrangements next week at St Honore les Bains’ market day, which is a town about 10 kilometers away that has a weekly market, and I’m excited to have this taken care of.

One of my absolute, hands-down, all-time favorites of market day is the olive stand.  Usually, the olive stand is selling not only olives, but braids of garlic and onions and dried fruit of all kinds as well.  But it’s the olives that pull me in.  First of all, they look so beautiful, gleaming there like little jewels!  I was pretty serious this market day about food acquisition, so I didn’t bring my camera…  but trust me, it’s a visual treat.  And smells amazing.  And tastes…  yes, usually the olive guy will proudly let you sample his wares.  I tried and then purchased some tangy, fat black olives in oil seasoned with herbs de provence- I’m planning to make a “gardianne,” which is sort of like a beef bourguignon, which is to say it’s a beef stew made with wine.  The version of the recipe that I have came from a book by Lydie Marshall called “A Passion for My Provence ”   I discovered her cookbook last year when we were in France in a town called Nyons, where she is from.  If you like French cooking minus the metric conversions, this one is terrific.  Nothing too fussy, but everything I’ve tried has been fantastic.  Her version of a gardianne uses only a cup of red wine (my beef bourguignon recipe calls for an entire bottle!), a lot of garlic, and then, the finishing touch- a handful of briny olives tossed in at the end of cooking.  Here’s another link to the actual recipe… trust me, it’s good  And so is the cookbook.

The cheese stands are also a favorite of mine at these markets.  Be prepared to wait your turn, because they are everyone else’s favorite as well.  But patience paid off for me- I found, in addition to the usual French cheese stands, a Dutch lady selling some incredible Dutch cheeses.  My kids love cheese, especially my son, and he insisted that we take home some of the goat Gouda that was being sampled at the stand.  I picked up another that was packed with cumin, and a little ball of chevre for my daughter since she loves it so much.

Of course, there are also the requisite clothing stands, and the table linen stands, and the stands selling various and sundry stuff.  And always the sock stands.  The underwear stand amuses me a bit.  I’d prefer to buy my undies indoors, thank you.  But they must do a good business, because there are always underwear stands.  You can buy inexpensive and often trendy clothing at these markets- I’ve gotten great scarves in the past!  But mostly, I stick to food.

And by the way, back to those white cows which our town is “the” place for:  what made our town’s “foire” special was that these lovely cows were on display.  I didn’t entirely understand what was going on, but I can tell you that the cows (who actually appeared to be young males) had been washed and brushed and fluffed, and some guy was calling out something over a loudspeaker- I’m betting they were for sale.  Yep, that is my completely inexpert guess.  The fact that is was market day helped me to reach this conclusion.

Be warned:  it’s easy to drop a lot of cash at these markets because you are so caught up in the swirl of delicious potential all around you, even without buying an entire cow.

Oh, the wonderful things that this place holds!!

We’re not in Kansas anymore.

Doesn’t our chicken look amazing? Only 3 hours before, his head and feathers were still on. I just can’t think about that for very long.

Sometimes, in France, I can sort of imagine that things aren’t that different from home, really.  But then, an experience comes along that reminds me of how very, very different life here is.  My trip to the butcher shop this afternoon was one such occasion.

Of course, the very fact that I was making a trip to the butcher shop should have tipped me off to the fact that life here is different.  I don’t even know where a butcher shop is in Atlanta, outside of the ones at Whole Foods or the Dekalb Farmers’ Market.  But yes, here in this tiny little not-quite-town there is a butcher shop.  There are also two bakeries in this little place.  But anyway, there I was at the butcher shop, looking for a chicken to roast for the evening meal.  I spied a chicken through the glass, requested it, and the butcher picked it up.  It was at that moment that I realized that it still had its head and feet intact.  The thoughts that went through my head at that point were, “Oh dear.  Do I have to remove that myself?” But those thoughts were quickly silenced as the butcher laid the chicken out on his block, head full of feathers and all, and with a resounding whack removed the head and then each foot.  Thank goodness.  The next thought that went through my head was, “I hope he keeps those.”  I’m really not squeamish.  I’m just American, and accustomed to my meat coming tidily prepared for me to cook.  But, not to worry- the butcher spent the next couple of minutes prepping the chicken for me (again, thank goodness), finishing by tying it nicely up with string so it would roast well. Not even any stuff inside to remove!

Oh, the relief.

So off I went with my chicken, trying to appear as though he had done exactly as I expected (of COURSE I didn’t think he’d leave on the head!).  I think I played it pretty cool.  Next stop:  bakery.  Nothing potentially disgusting there.  Whew.  However, they were out of baguettes, forcing experimentation.  Thus, pain de campagne  it was, which turned out to be sort of like a whole wheat baguette- delicious.  I think I just might get that more often- it was that good!   A couple of chausson aux pommes, which are an amazing little puff pastry thing filled with apples, and which we were forced to buy a few days ago when they were out of pain au chocolat.  Necessity is indeed the mother of invention.

Back at home, the kids and I rubbed the chicken with a little butter, stuffed a little fresh thyme from the herb garden into it (or at least as well as I could inside the very neatly tied up chicken), and put it into the oven to roast for a few hours.  I still haven’t really figured out that crazy oven and its metric temperatures, so I have to just watch carefully.  Vegetables were added in to roast alongside the chicken.  Then came the good part:  the sauce.  I absolutely love making sauces- it’s the “art” part of cooking, to me.  My trusty 8-year-old sous chef helped me mince onions and garlic to saute in butter and olive oil, plus more thyme from the garden.  The sous chef sliced up some mushrooms to add once the onions and garlic were nicely browned, and we cooked those down for a few minutes.  Next, we deglazed the pan with about a quarter of a bottle of white wine, and reduced that down by half.  Salt and pepper, a little juice from the chicken roasting pan, and then a little fond du poulet, another incredible thing you can buy at the grocery store here.  The best thing I can compare this stuff to is demi-glace, made from chicken- I don’t even know how you’d do that- but it’s like the essence of chicken and adding this stuff to any sauce makes you look like a pro, trust me.  Salt, pepper, and then, at last, some cream…  Served on top of roasted chicken, potatoes, and carrots.  The only thing I forgot to do was add a leek to the roasting pan- next time, perhaps.

My sous-chef.

My 8-year-old sous chef decided we needed garlic bread, which he made himself out of minced garlic in olive oil on our pain de campagne.  A stroke of genius, I must say.  And tomorrow, the leftovers will become a chicken pot pie, topped with the puff pastry I bought at the grocery story and with more of that white wine sauce we concocted.

And then, after that, a lovely chicken stock and soup!  I always feel so thrifty when I get a chicken to roast.

But I’m still glad the butcher didn’t hand me the head and feet.  I’m not that thrifty.

The Vikings are coming!

The basilica at Vezelay.

Okay, so not really.  Actually, they have already come, spent a week, and then went home.  And we had a wonderful time with these dear friends from Norway.  My husband met Harry back when they were both young pilots, trying to get flight time.  When my husband was hired to fly sailplanes out of a small airport in Atlanta, Harry was already there.  They quickly became friends, and from what I hear, they had a terrific time together doing the crazy things that 20-something year old single guys do in their free time.  Harry lived in the States for several years while accumulating flight time, and when he returned to Norway,  he met Anna.  Now they have two boys that are close in age to our children.  And they’ve become my friends now, too.  A few years ago, we spent two weeks at their home in Norway, which was an incredible experience for us.  It was nice to be able to repay their hospitality this past week.

We had a fun week together.  The Norwegians like their big, substantial breakfasts, so after a couple of days of the French style croissant and coffee thing which I lean towards, Harry pretty much pushed me out of the way and pulled out the smorgasbord.  We began our days with a HUGE breakfast, with baguettes (we were managing to somehow put away five of these huge loaves of bread per day), croissants, jam, this amazing gourmet butter that I accidentally bought but will continue buying, sausages, ham, eggs, fruit, and coffee.  The only problem with doing this is that by the time we were finished with our giant breakfast, the French were beginning to shut down the world for their own sacred ritual:  lunch.  Which meant that we were hanging around, waiting for things to open back up, pretty much every day.  We passed the time by packing a picnic lunch and finding a spot outdoors near whatever it was that we were visiting for the day, and this system worked pretty well for us.  We managed to do and see quite a lot, while remaining well-nourished at the same time.

It was their first time in France- the language barrier doesn’t only inhibit Americans, apparently, and they’d never felt comfortable traveling here before.   Thus, they were thrilled to go around the countryside with me able to do the talking for them.  We toured the sacred Basilique de Marie Madeleine at Vezelay,,_V%C3%A9zelaythe , which is the starting point for one of the pilgrimages of the Compostella.  We also were able to see the Fontaines Salees, which are ancient springs that people have used as healing waters or for sacred rituals or just for bathing in for a very long time- the Romans, the Celts, and ancient people as well- possibly as far back as 2300 BC.  There is an old pump where you can taste the water coming from the earth, and it has a peculiar mineral taste but is also very salty, hence the name, which means “Salty Fountains.”

Les Fontaines Salees

A nearby chateau was also a favorite.  Silly me, I’d always imagined that most chateaux were found in the Loire Valley, but there are some beautiful ones dotting the countryside here as well.  The one we visited is called Chateau Bazoche

As far as homeschooling goes, the week was pretty much a loss.  Unless you count the amazing amounts of history they actually got to see and touch and walk around in, or the exposure to not only French but copious amounts of Norwegian… or the cultural exposure of being around our friends and their different ways of doing things.. or the VERY different way the French look at life…  Or the market that we happened across on our way to Vezelay where we sampled different foods and saw various birds (soon to be dinner) for sale.  Hmmm, maybe not such a loss after all.  Learning sure can be fun!

Chateau Bazoche, with running children.

Le dejeuner.

I love being in France.  I love the food, the scenery, the language, the history, and the architecture, which is what’s left visible of whatever history has happened in a place.  But the food is right up there at the top of the list.  Even just grocery shopping can be a pleasure, and then cooking up the good things you’ve brought home is a joy as well.  Several nights ago, I cooked thin cutlets of turkey quickly in olive oil with salt, pepper, and a sprinkling of thyme.  The kids and I each took a turn pounding them flat before cooking with a potato masher because that is all we had, and sometimes one must improvise.  It worked very well- they were thin, tender, and delicious.  The next day, which was beautiful and sunny, by the way, we ate lunch ate on the patio of our house.  I took the leftover turkey cutlets, sliced them up, and put them on top of a salad of butter lettuce with a little chevre and some sliced fresh fruit- pear, plum, and the most beautiful grapes I’ve ever seen.  I cut up yesterday’s baguette, drenched it in garlicky olive oil and baked it for some crunchy croutons (the kids’ favorite part), boiled a couple of eggs, and voila.  Simple, but wonderful.  And it was so pretty that I couldn’t resist taking a picture:  lunch, at home, in France.  Or at least our home for the fall.

Homemade kefir.

I started writing this blog thinking I’d be writing a lot about homeschooling and our adventures, but, silly me, I started it in the summer when we’re not DOING homeschool.  Or, should I say, when life gets to be the school instead of our set curricula.  Which is just as important.  Plus, we’re saving up for our big adventure this fall, so we haven’t really been on any adventures lately either.  So, instead I end up writing about one of my favorite things instead.  And that of course is food.

I try to keep my family living as natural a lifestyle as possible, without being too extreme about anything.  Extreme is not my style.  But, there are perhaps some odd things that I do, or at least they may appear that way to others.  One of those things is making homemade kefir.  If you were to look in my pantry right now, you would see a jar of what appears to be lumpy milk.  It’s not.  It’s fermenting milk.  Big difference.  Sounds delicious, right?

Actually, it is delicious.  It’s a bit of an acquired tasted, I admit.  It can be pretty tart, which I happen to like, as I’ve always liked plain yogurt.  Sometimes I let it sit in the pantry too long and it gets too tart even for me .  The fermenting time, you see,  seems to depend on the temperature around it.  In the winter, it takes longer to be ready, while in the summer it goes much quicker.  The dogs get the too-tart batches, and they love it.  But, when I get it right (which is most of the time- it’s pretty much a no-brainer), it’s tangy and thick, and chock full of B vitamins and probiotics.  I’ve read that there are 11 different beneficial bacteria, and billions of them per tablespoon.  You can sweeten it up or use it as a base for smoothies, which is the only way I can get my kids drinking it.  My homemade kefir is the reason I make the weekly trek to buy our milk straight from the farmer- delicious, rich stuff from Jersey cows that is unbelievably good just on its own.  And by the way, here’s a terrific website on how to make kefir,  just in case your interest is piqued:  Trust me, it isn’t hard.  If you’ve made homemade yogurt before, you worked too hard.  Kefir is MUCH simpler.

And these cultures are pretty unbelievable.  They grow like crazy, and I end up begging people to take mason jars filled with it to try for themselves.  It’s not that I intend to be a kefir evangelist- I just can’t bear to throw away the yummy  and nutritious goodness that they provide.

So, anybody want some kefir grains?  I just happen to have a few billion.

Summer food. Part II.

So, this is my basket, partially emptied, after yesterday’s farmers’ market and then a stop at my community garden space for tomatoes and herbs.  I know I’ve said it before, but I really, really love summer food.  I go a little overboard on vegetables this time of year.  But how could I possibly help it?  Look at that stuff- gorgeous AND tasty!

And there’s something about buying food at the farmers’ market.  First of all, I’ve been going for so long that I know lots of the people there and thus it’s a good opportunity to chat.  Sometimes the kids tag along, and when they come we also bring Annie, the dachshund, which means that lots of people have to stop and pet her and tell her how cute she is.  She loves that.  But really, I prefer to go alone.  That sort of entourage just slows me down, and when you’re talking about fresh figs and eggs straight from the farm, you can’t afford to mess around.   Also, when I go to the market I get to pull out my trusty basket with the leather handles that I dragged back from France 13 years ago, which I bought in order to better shop at the farmers’ markets there.  You can see I’ve been obsessed with buying fresh food, straight from the folks who grew it, even before I became enamored with Barbara Kingsolver and her book on eating local, or with Michael Pollan or Alice Waters.  Even before I knew the politics or the environmental impact or the importance of local or organic, well, I’ve just loved good food.

And so this week, for the shocking sum of $23.00, we have not just good but amazing food.  Two heads of crispy romaine and a few gorgeous zucchinis, blueberries, herbs, Anaheim peppers (to roast for spinach enchiladas!), corn, and little purple potatoes.  I felt industrious after my morning in the fresh air, and came home and put the blueberries up into preserves already (though we ate plenty as well).  I wish I knew how to can beyond that, but I don’t yet.

I did not, however, buy eggplant, even though it looked lovely.  That’s because I’ve managed to grow more eggplant than I know what to do with.  I’m running out of new and interesting ways to cook it, and, I can’t believe I’m saying this:  I’m getting a little tired of eggplant.

Funny how the story of this family so often comes back around to what we’re eating…

Peach pie!

I’ve been cooking gluten-free for my kids for 3 years now.  I’ve gotten really good at it, and really, nobody around here has missed it.  Mostly.  I just can’t do gluten free pastry.  I know it’s possible.  One of my favorite blogs says so.  Apparently it isn’t possible for me.  But we went to a party this week, and I took a pie.  It gave me an excuse to dust off my favorite pie crust recipe, and I must say, it is an awesome recipe.  I made a blackberry pie for the party, and then had two crusts left over, so this is what I made today.  It’s funny how proud of myself I am about making a pie!   I don’t even know if it tastes good (though I’m pretty sure it does- I tasted a few peaches as I was cutting them up and they were delicious) but it sure looks nice.  In my Emile Henri pie dish I bought in France 12 years ago…  Good thing my kids don’t really like pie, so they’re not missing out!

And, this is a recipe I can share because I didn’t get it from a  magazine or a book.  I got this one from a dear friend many years ago, and she is no longer with us.  It’s called “Never-Fail Pie Crust, and in my experience, you really can’t mess it up.  So, in her honor, perfect pastry for all!!

4 cups flour

2 t salt

1 T sugar

1 3/4 cups shortening (the non-hydrogenated stuff works just fine)

1/2 cup water

1 T vinegar

1 large egg

Mix flour, salt, and sugar.  Cut in shortening, mix well.  Mix water, vinegar, and egg with a whisk and add to the other ingredients.  Mix well.  This makes 4 crusts and keeps well in the refrigerator (I’ve even frozen the extras).

That’s it.  Remember not to overwork it, ever, because you will develop the gluten and have a rock hard pastry.  I think you could in fact fail if you did that;)  As for what to put inside, well, anything goes.  Just bake it at 350 for an hour, and for best results, cover the edges with aluminum foil to keep them from browning too quickly.  And everyone will be so impressed with your pastry chef abilities!

Bon appetit!