Friday, April 30, 2010

Today is my there!

If you read my blog with any regularity, you've probably surmised (okay, you've been hit over the head with it) that I love birthdays. I can't help it...I just love them. On my birthday, I want to wear a crown and have someone hold a parade in my honor. I want to be surprised and delighted all day and go to sleep happy to have another year. And I love presents. YES I DO!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Let the Games Begin

I sent out a challenge last week. In Search Of...A Great Piece of Meat. I have since gotten many responses as comments and by email and have started to dig into the great mystery of how to find good meat and how to actually prepare it on the grill. This little "contest" has two parts. The first is just to find the meat. Not an easy task, and several people who have lived here in France much longer than I, seem to think this may not be possible. I'm trying to prove them wrong. 

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Make My Day

There are just some things that make me so damned happy....and usually it’s the little things.

This morning I got up early to write this column but ran to the boulangerie to get some bread first. I was starving and needed fortification.  I was handed a fresh, crisp baguette, still so hot that it almost burned my fingers. As I walked home with this hot-piece-of-heaven in my hands, imagining how the Bretone butter would melt so easily over it and how my homemade fig jam would taste slathered over all that goodness, I realized that this just-moments-fresh baguette had just made my day. A silly, little, warm baguette!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Take Time to Smell the. …Fish Guts

This Monday Memory wasn't actually written exactly a year ago at this time but since I'm been been beating the markets to death recently, I thought I would publish this one. I'm no longer in the throes of moving woes and my visitor season doesn't begin until May 11, with my first arrival. But the sentiment still holds true... often I forget to take the time.

Tonight I am once again sitting on the Place Richelme writing my weekly newspaper column. Since I first arrived here, this has been my choice place to write. I love to watch the day turn to night and take in the constant action of the square. It’s like nothing we have in Eau Claire, Wisconsin or even in Minneapolis. It has it’s own heartbeat; a life of it’s own, that I seem to feed on.

It is a cool evening, still t-shirt weather but cooler than normal. The everyday bustle of the square is a feast for my eyes and ears.  I’m watching an old woman with flaming red hair try to manage her 3 tiny dogs as well as a man in an automated wheelchair trying to maneuver through the crowd and over the cobblestones (I don’t know how he manages in a city of hills, steps and no elevators).  I have been so busy lately, with visitors and moving, that I've forgotten to take the time to watch and listen, and I didn’t realize that until just this minute.

Every single day here on the Place Richelme, in the very early morning before my eyes have even adjusted to daylight,  white vans arrive from the nearby countryside. The vans wander in like a band of white druids gathering for a mysterious ceremony. This particular square has a food and fish market every day but there are several other markets here that offer antiques, books, flowers, clothing and artisanal items. But all proceed in the same fashion. It’s a choreographed ballet and all the dancers know their roles by heart.

The vendors climb out of their vans and begin to unload their wares, their tables, their kitchens, their scales, their coolers...whatever is that they need to display, sell, or prepare their goods. They set up, assemble, lay out, and prepare for another day. Soon after, the people of the city with shopping baskets in tow, begin to arrive for their own ceremony.  They purchase sausage, roasted meat, cheese, vegetables, honey, lavender, olives and tapenades, spices, and fish of all kinds.  They are the old and the young, children and dogs, tourists and residents. Every single day they congregate at this market.

There is market protocol, which I am quickly learning. For instance, don't scoop up the cherries with the little shovel provided.  Apparently, it's just there for decoration. If you attempt this maneuver, the proprietors will shout, slap their foreheads, look at each other in exaggerated disbelief, wag their fingers and shake their heads. Protocol demands that you apologize profusely, in French, and then buy a lot of cherries. Never try to pay with a 50 Euro bill, always say Bonjour, Merci, Au Revoir and Bonne Journée and if you can manage a little chit-chat in French, go for it!  You are a hero if you bring your own shopping bag and if you go on a rainy day, be prepared to lose an eye from the innumerable and dangerous points on all the shoppers’ umbrellas.

Around 1 o’clock the market draws to a close. The remainders of the day are packed in crates, booths are disassembled and reloaded, garbage is deposited on the ground, and the white vans slowly wander back, one by one, to wherever they came from.

Then come our men in blue and yellow. These are the guys that clean and wash our streets....daily.  They pick up all the garbage, the boxes, the old vegetables, the fish guts, the cigarette butts, and, yes, the dog poop. They sweep the square with these weird implements that look like old-fashioned twig brooms but they are actually made out of  green plastic. Then they begin with the hoses, washing the square so it is pristine and looks as if the market never happened.  The smell of fish, however, remains a little longer.

While they are still working, you begin to hear a rumble coming from all the streets around the square. From all directions come men pushing trolleys filled with tables, grand and colorful umbrellas, and if the weather is cool, tall heaters. These items are stored wherever a restaurateur can find storage space so they may be pushing the carts a long way. As the cleaners wash away the market, the waiters begin setting up tables.... 50 or 60 or 70 tables. They set up the tables, the umbrellas, and the chairs. They set out ashtrays, and menus and hang the chalkboards with today's menu on the trees.

And soon, new people arrive to fill the tables. They are full all day! It makes me wonder when people work here. Lunch is a 2-hour affair; dinner is late but can take 3 or 4 hours. There is, of course, afternoon coffee and wine, the after work coffee or apero, and the evening pre-club dinners and gatherings.

During the summer months, as the sun sets, a bar is set up near the tables, and music plays. The buildings surrounding the square act as an amplifier and it is so noisy, mostly from the din of conversation, that you can’t even hear a telephone call. But it’s not a cacophony…it’s actually quite pleasant. That is, if you’re not one of the unfortunate souls with an apartment on the square who needs to get up early for work! People are everywhere, eating and drinking and conversing; a sea of black and white (heaven forbid you should wear color) and candles. As a special treat, summer Sunday nights on the square are Tango night. It's magic to wander through the mass of dressed-up, high-heel wearing dancers as they glide (okay the word "glide" is a stretch for some of them but's dark!)  through the candle-light shadows under the night sky. 

As the evening draws to a close around 2 am, the waiters begin disassembling the day’s equipment, load it back onto the trolleys they have retrieved and they rumble their way back to wherever they came from. It’s exhausting to think that all of these people do this every single day, but this dance is the lifeblood of the square and nobody seems to think twice about it.

As the tables disappear, the groups of people, mostly under 30, stand up to leave. The kisses begin and after everyone has kissed (once on each cheek) everyone they’ve spoken to, or even looked at during the evening, they wander off, either to return home or to continue their evening at one of the all-night clubs.

As an American, who formerly often did not even take the time to sit down and eat, let alone meander through a market on a regular basis, this is an education. And one of the most pleasurable fields of study I have ever gone through. Everyday I must remember to take the time to enjoy.... to converse.... to watch, and to attempt to make my crabby waiter smile. I'm not sure how this class will look on a resume but I'm trying to take it very seriously.


Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Marché...of all the other good stuff to eat

I've been in a funk this past week and have not felt like writing or exploring or doing much of anything. I'm not sure if I've yet dug myself out.  Nevertheless, this morning I made sure to go to the market for today's photos. I was on my way home to post them...I really was....I had all good intentions! However, I got waylaid by a little jam session at Hubelot, my neighborhood coffee shop/bar/internet cafe/now music venue! So today I'm a wee bit late posting.
When I grow up I'll try to be more responsible!

Today I want to give you a glimpse of all the other great stuff to enjoy at our daily markets. True, the fruits and vegetables are more colorful, but I can really find almost anything I need at our outdoor markets here in Aix en Provence

Who doesn't need candied fruit or salted anchovies, anyway?

In fact, the selection is endless....from bread...

to fresh eggs.

Dried meat...

fresh meat....(yes I'm afraid that is sheep's brains!)

and....NO MEAT! 
I've really got to get out of this slump and get up earlier.

We've got olives for the beginning of the meal..

and cheese for the finish.

You can even buy the meal and skip the cooking!
Like this glorious seafood paella...

and this mouthwatering roasted chicken with potatoes.
Say FROMAGE, Monsieur!

Baked goods...both sweet and savory

And artisanal products like the local honey...

and the home made nougat made from the local honey.
(which I really don't love...mostly because I don't like the word nougat!)
 This young man was kind enough to tell me all about it. All I managed to glean from the conversation is that it is a candy made with 60% honey, sugar, egg whites and nuts or dried fruit. But after all that, I really felt I had to buy some! That will teach me to keep asking questions!

Next weekend is the big, city Vide Grenier (giant thrift sale). I can't wait. Mostly because I've got to stay away from the food markets until my jeans fit a bit more comfortably!

Bon Week-end!


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

In Search of...A Great Piece of Meat

After yesterday's post about my dismal failure making a steak and my inability to find a good piece of meat here in the south of France, I've decided to launch a new project. Sort of like Leonard Nimoy's old series...In Search Of  minus all the paranormal stuff.

But this needs to be a collaborative effort. First things first. Find the best cut of meat...okay, the best cut I can afford. From my readers in France, I need your help. Where do you buy it, what do you ask for, how do you cook it? I just know it's out there somewhere! Anybody who can aid me in this search is invited over for dinner on the terrace accompanied by a lovely bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape.

My followers in other countries...please give me your tips on how to make a Great Steak on the barbeque grill. Share with me some insight on how to achieve perfection...or close. Do you use spices, or oil, or is it all in the cooking technique?  What kind of coals do I need? Who do you know that makes an exquisite steak....I need names and email addresses! Anyone with great suggestions is also invited over for dinner under the midnight blue sky of Aix en Provence...complete with a thorough tour of my lovely city.

And so the quest begins. I'm serious here! Please join me...In Search Of...A Great Piece of Meat. If we do this right, maybe we'll get picked up by the A&E network!


Monday, April 19, 2010

The Secret's Out

Normally on Mondays, I post an article from this same time last year. Last year at this time, however, I was galavanting across France and Switzerland with my sister and eventually my Mom and took some time off from writing. there! Today we shall live in the present.
I can’t believe I’m going to say this…. I really don’t want to say this…. it pains me to type this sentence on my keyboard…you’ve heard it here first…. and you’ll never hear it again.

I miss my ex-husband.


Now let me qualify that statement. You really must let me explain!

That guy knew how to make a steak. Oh yeah! I have never eaten a steak… anywhere… that was as delicious as the steaks he would occasionally make on the grill. Garlicky and buttery and full of flavor, tender and thick and moist…and PERFECT!

If you say a word to him I’ll have to kill you. Because really, other than that, I don’t miss a thing.

Last night, I fired up my little green BBQ grill and took a stab at preparing this precious slab of animal protein. I knew it wasn’t going to be perfect because I really haven’t been able to find a great piece of meat around here (as in steak!). The French seem to think their meat is good, but I haven’t found it. In fact, a few moments ago the caretaker of my building promised to take me to a good boucherie where he says I can find better meat than I've seen at the grocery stores. But after my battle with le bifteck last night, I’m reluctant to waste the money.

When I was young, I spent a couple of years as a trail cook in Northern British Columbia, where I actually learned to cook. In fact, I got the job because I told them I knew how to cook! In reality, I didn’t have a clue and there was nothing they could do about it once they had shipped me high up into the mountains, except bear with me as I learned to bake bread in a tin stove, bannock over a fire, cut hunks of meat off very large carcasses hanging from trees, and prepare all manner of entrails to perfection. In my cooking repertoire, I now have mountain sheep brains and eggs, elk testicles, deer tongue flavored with cloves and sliced thin for sandwiches, stuffed moose heart, and liver countless animals, fried tender with onion.  To be sure, these cowboys were always so hungry, I’m sure it wouldn’t have mattered if I prepared all these delicacies in bleach…they were always willing to eat it (except for my first attempt at bread which they used as a doorstop for the cabin!) I wasn’t. That’s when I became a peanut butter addict. And I never had a well-cut, big-old beefsteak to lovingly nurse to perfection.

When I was a student I didn’t have the chance to practice either. No money. My staple diet then was potatoes and if I had enough tip money that week, I would buy something delicious like cheese or sour cream to transform my spuds into a special treat. Another favorite was canned spinach (4 cans for a dollar), garnished with a hard-boiled egg. I still love that!  But a steak? Never!

When I was a wife, I avoided cooking beef. It’s not that I didn’t want to cook it. It’s just that the ex-pectorant did it so much better. And he was willing. He would spend hours at it and I was able to do other things much more interesting.

Last night it was my turn. All I can say is, that was the worst piece of shoe leather I have ever eaten…or tried to eat. What am I doing wrong? It didn’t help that the meat was all of ½ inch thick but I can’t blame the steak. I know it was the technician. I tried to remember watching the ex-pec as he went through his preparations but apparently my memory is hazy…more likely I just never paid attention.

I will give myself one last shot. I mean really, I’ve got a grill, which is the best thing ever. And Americans are simply expected to know how to cook a steak. I’m letting my country down! I’m a bad ambassador!

I truly hope that my ex-pec taught his sons to make a proper steak. It would be a shame for such a fine art form to be lost forever. And a real shame for me because one day, when I’m visiting the boys and doing something interesting like playing with their babies in the sandbox, afterwards I want to be served a glorious, grilled, buttery, garlic- infused hunk of meat. And then I will never, ever have to say “I miss my ex-husband” again.


Saturday, April 17, 2010

Natural Color

market day aix en provence

I had a plan this morning. Certain things that I wanted to highlight for this Saturday's trip to the market. But as is my perpetual habit, with anything remotely pertaining to "a plan" changed. Immediately. Because today, I was completely bowled over by the COLOR of it all...

market day aix en provence color/></a><span class=
market day aix en provence color

I sometimes laugh at the term "natural colors" What does that mean, anyway? What about the color of sky and sea...

morning light...

new growth and late blooms..

the warmth of the sun...

and the calm of afternoon shadows...

colors that dance on your tongue....and make your feet dance...

not to sound sappy...or Michael Jacksony or anything...
but really...the colors of the world.

The beautiful light of Provence has returned. And with it, it brought today's festival of color. 
Color as "natural" as brown and beige. 

And in keeping with today's accidental, unplanned theme...and as is necessary for any good fête...
I accidentally bought a new pair of shoes! Don't you just hate it when that happens?



Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Cuckoo’s Nest

I'm nesting roost is considerably smaller than it used to be but I’m nesting nevertheless. Spring is doing it’s best to arrive. And each year, when it appears, so does some inherent, primitive genetic memory that drives me to these sorts of activities. And what are the two things one must do in the spring? The answer is obvious. On rainy days, the basement and the linen closets get cleaned. On nice days, the garden is prepared for the glories of summer. 

Last weekend it rained so I tackled the basement. This was an epic task at my home in Wisconsin. Mostly because I am a walking, living, breathing antonym to the word “neat”. And also because my basement was like many Midwestern basements...big. Cleaning my “basement” now, in my little 400-year-old apartment in France, involves lifting up the bamboo rug in my kitchen, removing the piece of plywood that is the “basement ceiling”, climbing into the 3x3x3 foot hole in the floor that constitutes my cellar and emptying it of several years worth of somebody elses's dried up paint, a few terra cotta pots and several moth eaten rugs. That’s it! C’est tout! All I really needed to do was find was a little space to stash a suitcase or two since I have no closets (thus there is no need to clean them). Mission accomplished in less than 1 hour. Whew, that was exhausting…this calls for a glass of wine and a little relaxation! 

As much as I love living in the heart of the city, it does have it's drawbacks, the most dire is the lack of green space. I'm accustomed to a yard. You know what I’m talking about! Big enough to handle a neighborhood touch football match or a game of fetch with the dog. And though I don't miss mowing or raking, I miss getting my hands dirty in the soil, the smell of worms after a rain, watching tiny shoots grow into a lush community of green, firing up the barbeque and the smell of the roasting meat, and lounging with a cup of coffee or glass of wine (this wine thing seems to be a pattern) and surveying my kingdom. 

My "kingdom" these days is a 9x9 terrace overlooking a terracotta-tinted canopy of rooftops, with chimney and TV antenna emergents scattered about. Not my former empire, but I've decided to establish rule nonetheless. So Saturday, with all my extra time after cleaning the basement, I went to the store and bought a few more pots, soil, plants and a big umbrella to protect me from the unrelenting summer sun. As has always been my habit when it comes to gardening, I went overboard. But really, how bad can that be aside from an unplanned dent in my wallet!

I spent the next day removing all the old wires and lines that crisscrossed my terrace, planting, rearranging, trying to follow the parasol assembly directions in French and generally having a wonderful time. And it took one, itty bitty portion of an afternoon. I can now sit on my terrace, wine in hand (oops….this may be a problem!)  and when the sun actually shines (it’s been a rotten spring), it releases the heady scent of jasmine, rosemary, thyme, lavender, basil and mint. In a few short months my tomatoes will be begging me to eat them.

The pièce de résistance is my little green barbeque grill. It’s kind of a useless thing actually. It doesn’t even have any ventilation (I have to provide that with my lungs) but I have managed to cook some kebabs and a couple of hamburgers. And it was cheap. But it’s the jewel in my “garden” and makes it feel like home. Last night, I lit some candles, put my feet up, and purred.

Now that everything’s ready, it’s time to have a party to celebrate all that is spring. It’s to be an American party complete with beer, Johnsonville Brats (yes, I actually found some), hamburgers, ketchup, potato salad and chips, with a little dip made with Velveeta cheese thrown in for true authenticity (my friend just received some in a package from the states). The guests will be both American and French but we all generally speak in French.  One American friend responded to the invitation by saying, “It’s an American BBQ…let’s make a rule that EVERYONE has to speak English, and let’s drink beers and enjoy watching them squirm with the language challenges for a change”!

That made me laugh but I know it won’t go that way. We will speak French and I’ll be the one squirming as usual. And if it rains, we won’t have the option of playing pool in the basement. But everyone can gather under the umbrella in shifts and watch me, the human bellows, try to keep the fire going! All in all, it sounds like a delightful evening and a worthy inauguration of spring, don’t you think? And I deserve it after all this strenuous work!

Bon Printemps!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Driving With My Sister

It was a year ago today that my sister came to visit me here in France. I wrote this article after she returned home to Minnesota. This Monday Flashback is for her...I miss her so much.

My childhood memories are sporadic at best. I vividly remember vignettes but not all the details of my little life. I recall my dad, sitting me down on a stump next to the frozen river and insisting, I thought, cruelly, that he tighten my skates until my ankles hurt. My mind has held on to a particular re-occurring nightmare that involved a giant wolf, dressed all in green just like Robin Hood, who would chase me up some Cathedral steps, through the church and out the other side (please don't even try to interpret this). I remember hiding under a neighbor’s car, watching the giant boots walk by of a man I was sure was "Stranger Danger" and being so afraid. And I have a memory of a summer trip to Virginia with my mother.