I know it’s nearly spring when….

….daffodils and blossoms start to appear, when the days grow just a little longer and the clothes a little thinner, and  when I see dandelion leaves being sold at the market. The plant is known as ‘pissenlit’ in French which means ‘urinate/piss in bed’ ….due to its diuretic properties!

DSC_1726

Dandelion leaves topped with fried lardon – and it’s rendered oil with a dash of added vinegar- and a poached egg.

I got excited when I saw dandelion being sold here in Challans (on the west coast of France) because it is more common to see it at the market on the northern or eastern borders and it’s generally only available for a few weeks of the year. The resulting dandelion salad that I made took me back in time and place to the town of Moiron – near Grenoble – where a lovely French girl named Annelise first made it for me about 17-18 years ago. I remember that she added walnut oil to her dressing (the walnuts from that region are famous across the country) but I didn’t have any left…….it was still very yummy.

I probably could and should just eat my ‘lawn’ (which indeed has more weeds than grass) but there are a few types of dandelion and those growing in my yard do not seem as fine as those being sold. If you do plan on trying to collect your own, apparently it is best to pick  the plants before they flower and to find those that are growing in shade – because they are whiter, more tender and have a better flavor than tough old green leaves.

Bon appetit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Dr Seuss.

Theodor Seuss Geisel  (March 2, 1904 – September 24, 1991) was an American writer and illustrator best known for authoring popular children’s books under the pen name Dr. Seuss

It is a shame that the author of several of the most popular children’s books of all time cannot be fully appreciated in any other language other than English. Whilst I’ve read a pretty decent translation of The Cat In The Hat in French (Le Chat Chapeaute), the genius rhythm and rhyme of his stories simply can’t be captured.

As a child I knew a few of his books and thought they had quite a bit of craziness about them….but more recently -upon reading some previously unfamiliar titles to my children – I discovered something beyond the eccentric and weird-looking characters of his stories … and that was his messages about attitudes and actions that we might consider encouraging in our lives for perhaps a ‘smoother, more mindful ride’.

image

Here’s an interesting lesson from Dr Seuss about perseverance: he was rejected twenty-seven times before his first book was published.

 

I recognized my-self in a few pages of Oh The Places You’ll Go – (this was the last book published when Geisel was aged 86 – one year before he passed away): ‘I’m sorry to say so but, sadly it’s true that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you. You can get all hung up in a prickle-ly perch. And your gang will fly on. You’ll be left in a Lurch. You’ll come down from the Lurch with an unpleasant bump. And the chances are, then, that you’ll be in a Slump. And when you’re in a Slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.’

There are a few reasons why I’m feeling in a ‘slump’ (many related to our impending move and husband staying in Toulouse on week-days) but one of the biggest is that…. every little thing makes me think of my mum – who passed away nearly a year ago now: whether it’s hearing classical music, looking at photos, seeing things that mum gave me, reading the personal inscriptions handwritten in the kid’s books, coming across anything related to horticulture, baking bread, following a particular recipe, hearing the words ‘mum’ or ‘grandma’, seeing my mother-in-law, anything related to hospitals and medical treatment, seeing calligraphy/pastel/oil/watercolor artworks,  admiring her beautifully made and much-loved doll’s clothes, lying in bed…..the list is endless.

I long for the day when all of these little things conjure up beautiful happy memories, but for the moment all they seem to do is trigger a great sense of loss and emptiness.

And I think of Dad – who has been so courageous these past 12 months. Fortunately he is always there at the end of the line for a welcome chat.

My sister said that a good compass for our lives would be to ask ourselves regularly ‘What would Hazel/mum do?’…..In this situation?…..She would go ahead and un-slump herself! Which is ……well………… at least my intention.

‘….be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act.‘ (Oh The Places You’ll Go)

 

 

Even more on French food.

galetteDo French people eat croissants every morning? …Drink coffee all day; Drink wine at each meal; Eat baguettes every day? The answer is most likely ‘no not really’

But one thing they certainly do is to eat a Galette des Rois every 6th of  January! (and nowadays, practically any other time during the month of January). It celebrates the arrival of the Three Wise Men in Bethlehem. It is composed of puff pastry with a small porcelain charm, the ‘fève’, hidden inside the filling of  almonds, butter, eggs and sugar (although other flavors such as apple are available). There is the tradition of crowning the one who finds the fève (the ‘king’ or ‘roi’) with a paper crown. Despite enjoying this cake as much as the British Christmas pudding (which is not that much at all) I eat some anyway to join in the festivities and in hope of being the king/queen.

My daughter decided that she’d like one as her birthday cake which was fun. The treasure hunt clues that I mentioned my last post went down well and the group of friends were able to find the treasure (the birthday cake) in the oven.

And without even having the time to recover from the gluttony of December and January, It is time to eat crêpes on February 2nd – and all through the Mardi Gras season. The date marks when Jesus was presented at the temple in Jerusalem and is known  as ‘La Chandeleur’. About 2 weeks ago I started to notice supermarkets displaying flour, uht milk (so common here), eggs, jam, and Nutella and so I knew that the Chandeleur was coming.chandeleur-crepes

Just while we’re on the topic of crepes, in France savory crepes (not to be confused with ‘crepes’) are known as ‘galettes’ (not to be confused with ‘galettes des rois’) and are made of buckwheat flour and served with a variety of fillings, the most common being ham, egg and cheese such as in this photo.1450612326_thumb_recette-e16680-galette-jambon-oeuf-fromage_4615437448

There is also another thing that most French people eat whilst dining out and that is whatever is on the ‘fixed menu‘ (known as ‘le menu’. The menu, as we anglo-saxons know it, is called ‘la carte’). All restaurants/bistros offer fixed menus at very attractive prices. Here is the menu that we discovered last month for €15.40  at a lovely restaurant in Nantes:

An entree of rare tuna, beets and lambs lettuce, a main course of sea bream with courgettes and carrots and a dessert (… the least inspired dish of the meal which I find is often the case in this country).  That’s what I call amazing value for money! And the children’s menu – at a little more than €8.00 – offered fish or a homemade burger served with jerusalem artichoke puree and then a chocolate lava cake or some homemade ice-cream or sorbet for dessert. Yum!

fullsizerender

Bonjour 2017…where will it take us?

 

fullsizerender-3

This cartoon sums up how I’m feeling as we start the new year – ‘My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane’.

So instead of ruminating ….my intention here is to write about something obscure: Rebuses. Rebus = a kind of word puzzle which uses pictures to represent words or parts of words. Perhaps they are used as often in Australia as they are here…but I don’t think so.

Children in France are usually very familiar with the concept of rebuses (and other word puzzles….I repeat what I’ve written in the past – May 2016 for example – that the nuts and bolts of language are an extremely important part of the French culture). Rebuses make regular appearances in school lessons, in books and magazines and next week-end, they will show up in my daughter’s 9th birthday party treasure hunt.

dsc_1594

One of the rebus clues that the kids will have to solve in order to find the next clue:  r+oeufs+f+riz+jeux+rat+heure = refrigerateur (refrigerator)

French words lend themselves very well to creating rebuses such as this one above  (which uses pictures to represent each syllable) because the last sound in words is often not pronounced…so that a number of very different words end up sounding exactly the same (such as ‘vers’ – towards, ‘verre’ – glass, and ‘vert’ – green). And also perhaps because French is a syllable-timed language (a language whose syllables take approximately equal amounts of time to pronounce). That being said, I didn’t even try to make my own rebuses but rather I cheated and used this web-site to create the clues for the words that I wanted to represent. Out of curiosity I tried an equivalent site for English words and it generated such obscure puzzles for words that I doubt many adults (let alone 9-year-olds) would be able to decipher them. English phrases (which exploit whole words instead of syllables) rather than single words lend themselves better to rebuses. Here is a picture of one in English:

rebus

can+you+see+well

 

 

 

dsc_1582

 

Look out! Big changes ahead…..(again).

My husband organized a nice vacation in a converted wind mill in Brittany for a few days between Christmas and New Year. He was able to ‘recharge his batteries’ which is just what he needed before heading off to Toulouse to start his new job in his own company (yes, he ‘received’ his Christmas wish!). Toulouse is about a 5-6 hour-drive south from where we are currently living. He plans to come back most weekends and then at the end of the school-year (in July) the kids and I will join him…..providing we find housing and schooling.

More about this to come as we discover the south of France.

Intense….

dsc_1534

The month-long intensive English training ‘gig’ has come to an end. It was indeed very intense but I think everyone (including myself) learned a great deal. My lovely trainees presented me with a basket of yummy local goodies on the last day…..I think I must have mentioned my interest in food at some stage!?

In my experience, many French folk think that they have the poorest English skills in Europe. There are probably many factors contributing to this belief (fact?). In any case, teaching English here needs to include a big dose of psychology, along with humor, role plays…..and a little grammar.

dsc_1520dsc_1512
I attended my ‘Ceremonie de Naturalisation’ where I, and 30 or so others, sang the French national anthem (or at least moved our lips) , shook hands with the local Prefet*, received documents regarding what it means to be a French citizen (which included -somewhat belatedly –  the words to the national anthem), and toasted the occasion with a glass of champagne. It was a really nice event which balanced ceremony with conviviality .

However, in the very same week that I was officially welcomed into French society, I saw these flyers posted on cars parked in our town as I walked to the local market:img_8318img_8319img_8317

Following what seems to be a world-wide trend, many people seem to be looking for scapegoats or to be wishing they could go back to ‘the good old days’ rather than looking for solutions for the future. This is a concern as there will be the French presidential elections in April next year.

At least I’ll be able to vote this time!

Meanwhile my dad was whisked into hospital to investigate blood clots on the lung. The tests took a week but did not reveal the cause. The doctors were able to find treatment to reduce the symptoms.

He is feeling better and I send a big THANK YOU to friends and family for their support. The bad news is that long haul aeroplane travel will no longer be an option for him…..which puts an end to our plans to have him visit here in France 😦

*’The prefect (prefet) is somewhat of an odd entity: standing between central and local government, their official role is to ensure local branches of state services function properly and they represent the state and ministers.’ 
‘Often spotted in their official uniforms at opening ceremonies, commemorations and other important events, prefects are public figures but there is a lot more to them than meets the eye. Besides running what amounts to their own business with between 300 and 1,000 staff, the prefects have three main missions: to work with the police and the gendarmerie coordinating security issues; to manage the local branches of state services and their contacts with local government; and to work with different local bodies and companies to support the economy and pass on information on local affairs’.

‘Today, their role is to act on behalf of the government, defend the national interest in their area and implement the government’s policies, free of political pressure’: http://www.connexionfrance.com/prefet-france-what-do-they-do-10662-news-article.html  

More on French food

For the first time since I began this blog I missed posting for a whole month! Why? I think that it is probably due to a number of factors: La Rentree (the back to school routine and with that the extracurricular activities etc… ), the sadness of saying goodbye to Summer (and with it warm weather, long days, stone fruit!), the arrival of a work project that I’ve been given by a local training company (trying to build a full-time, month-long English training course from scratch and without materials), missing Shanghai wonton soup and lots of other stuff (blah blah blah) and then finally, feeling the full weight of mum not being around anymore. I miss her so much. And so, in her memory, I dedicate this post to French food which she enjoyed so much. This might also encourage dad to come across to visit and to eat!

‘The passion for food is one of the most lovable, enjoyable aspects of France. Culinary failures are not treated lightly in this country, not turned into jokes, no more than a barbecue without beer would amuse Australians’. (Almost French, Sarah Turnbull)

It is true, that food is as common a topic of conversation here as the weather is in Britain.

In France ‘Dinner parties are the main way of entertaining … follow the French example and serve entree, main, salad, cheese and dessert’ (Sarah Turnbull)

While it is true that dinner parties are popular and often follow a predictable, and delectable order – entree, main, salad, cheese and dessert – there seems to be a little more flexibility these days:  It is not uncommon to skip the cheese and/salad dishes, or to invite people  ‘chez-soi’ for an ‘aperitif dinatoire’ – which is basically a collection of ‘mise en bouche’ (finger foods) eaten around the coffee table and accompanied by champagne and wine. This is quite a change from the past and perhaps reflects a generation who wants to spend less time in the kitchen or who wants less washing up, or to go to bed earlier…or simply who wants to spend time with friends in a more casual setting.

There are often little ‘toasts’ served (toasted bread topped with smoked salmon, tapenade, tomato salsa….), ‘cakes’ (savory loaves cooked in log-tins baked with eggs, cheese, flour and choice of vegetables/fish/ham ),   but by far the most popular offering at the moment are ‘verrines’: small glasses  filled with ingredients such as pureed beetroot, avocado mousse, tuna…..etc.  Interestingly, dips (which are ever so popular in Australia) haven’t really taken off here…yet.83bbb16b8e76386f76b4a97bdae5c193apericube

 

 

And then there are the infamous ‘apericubes’ that have apparently been around for over 50-years  . Each little cube is individually wrapped and there is a riddle written on the inside of the wrapper (which are good conversations starters!). I’m not exactly sure what is inside the wrappers. It is supposed to be some kind of cheese, but it can be stored out of the fridge! It’s not exactly high quality fare, but it seems to be an institution. There are even special editions released during the year to celebrate football events, the olympics etc. The one pictured above is a special edition for autumn and includes flavors such as mushroom, pumpkin and cumin, and walnut and blue cheese.

2639615c9163ec95b8553e72021e3762Dessert at such a ‘dinner’ is optional, but might include a home-made seasonal fruit tart, ice-cream, apple crumble (very ‘a la mode’ at the moment) or a pretty dessert from one of the local patisseries.

IMG_7090Like the schools in China, the school canteen offers students a complete hot meal, but unlike China it offers a dessert in addition to the entree and main course. The week’s menu is systematically posted in front of the school gate at the start of the week for parent-scrutiny and to avoid repetition of dishes on the dinner table at home. One Tuesday earlier in the year for example (see menu), my kids ate an entree of beetroot with cheese sauce, spicy beef with bulgur and vegetables followed by a choice of chocolate mousse or a pear for dessert.

There is more and more interest by the canteen in sourcing the products locally and in including a number of organic ingredients.

The children sit around small tables of 6-8 students and serve themselves from a collective dish – which I think is a wonderful means of sharing, discussing and generally enjoying their meal! They have time to eat because the lunch break is 1h30mins long.

That’s quite a change from the warm squashed sandwiches and bruised fruit eaten at my school desk as quickly as possible before going out to play – which is what I recall from my school days.

The school canteen menu on offer is much better than what is offered to children in restaurants – which is typically minced beef with french fries, or chicken nuggets with fries or a toasted cheese sandwich (‘croque monsieur’) followed by ice-cream. The latter is what the kids chose to eat last weekend in a restaurant located right on the beach in Brittany while we enjoyed plump fish in a creamy pumpkin emulsion with tender seasonal vegetables topped with crispy bacon. It is more common than not to find such quality dishes being served in the most unassuming establishments for very reasonable prices – much cheaper, for example, than in Australia.

We enjoyed our fish dish in the company of our friend Delphine whom we hadn’t seen since her visit to us in England eight years before. Thanks Delphine. And thanks mum for giving me an unquenchable interest in food 🙂

img_0712-4

img_8213

 

 

Back from Central France (Auvergne)

France really is a great country to explore. I’m constantly enchanted by the landscape and gastronomy when-ever we venture out and about.

DSC_1398We recently spent a wonderful fortnight in the center of France (the least populated region of the country). One of the highlights was meeting-up with our friends Claire and Fabien (and children) with whom we forged memorable moments during our time together in California. In 2012 they returned to northern-France to live but have since bought a beautiful stone holiday house right in the middle of the Cheylade valley. We spent a lovely time in the present moment but also reminisced and were conscious and grateful for what our passage on the west-coast of the USA did in opening up our minds to other possibilities. From my discussions with expatriates, it seems to be very common for a particular city/country to resonate especially deeply with them for one reason or another.

Another highlight was our yabby (fresh-water crustacean) excursion. I recalled my father’s description of catching them in Australia as a young lad using some meat tied to the end of a piece of string… and it worked a charm. Thanks to Dad we caught over thirty of them. The homemade garlicky mayonnaise saved them from being tasteless. Before and After photos below:

This region of France is punctuated with a range of long-time dormant volcanos.

DSC_1444

Climbing the Puy Mary with spectacular views from the summit. ‘Puy’ is the local term for volcanic hill.

The delicious wild raspberries, strawberries and blueberries lining the walking paths helped the kids finally reach our walking destination but slowed down the pace considerably.

 

DSC_1240And I was once again enthralled by the production of Saint Nectaire cheese. We had already visited a St Nectaire producer over a decade ago, but since that time I have experimented in the kitchen myself with microbes in the kitchen with water and milk kefir, kombucha (in a previous post), yogurt, sourdough bread and fermented vegetable productions (with mixed results) and so have a much greater appreciation of the process involved. In addition, I recently read ‘Cooked’- by one of my favorite authors Michael Pollan (in which he dedicates over 20 pages describing this very cheese!) and now I am all the more enthusiastic about what he calls ‘real food’. We saw the cows being milked, followed by the still-warm milk being turned directly into curds and whey, the curds being placed into moulds and salted and then the ageing of the cheeses in volcanic rock caves (which takes 4-6 weeks…one could easily imagine that it would take longer than that to develop the distinctive grey mould ). And to finish, some tasting and buying of the delicious resulting product.

DSC_1372

Goats cheese from another farm: from left to right: fresh, semi-aged, and vintage

To paraphrase Mr Pollan ‘The world becomes more wonderful as soon as we are reminded of the relationships behind a food product: a web of relationships between people, between ourselves and all the other species on which we still depend. Eating and drinking implicate us in the natural world in ways that the industrial economy, with its long and illegible supply chains, would have us forget’. I am sure that is why I found the visit to this farm in the town of Saint Nectaire (and the goat farm we explored) so wonderful: there was no supply chain; no messing with nature via pasteurization etc …just cow/goat to cheese. That’s probably why making my own fermented food also gives me a buzz.

DSC_1338

And as every part of France has it’s own special dish/es, we had to try that of Cantal (a department of Auvergne region). It is called ‘truffade’: potatoes, Cantal cheese and garlic, traditionally served with cured ham and salad. It resembles very much the dishes of other mountainous regions of France such as the ‘tartiflette’ from the Savoie (potato, Reblochon cheese, onions, lardon),  and ‘aligot’ from from the Aveyron (potato and Laguiole cheese) …which we have already happily taste-tested in the past.

Since our return we were thrilled to see our ‘old’ Grenoble-friends Inge and Benoit whom we hadn’t seen for eight years, followed by a reunion with Shanghai-friends Emanuela and Benjamin (who were passing through) and various summer encounters with some of Sebastien’s old school friends and his family. We also made numerous local outings (such as walking and canoeing in the local marsh lands, trips to the beach and blackberry picking) . Our little six year-old even caught an aeroplane by himself to go and spend a week with one of his friends from Shanghai -who is now living in the south of France. He was so proud of himself and (atleast immediately upon his return) very grateful to come back home to his family.

DSC_1484

Its back to school next week ! After an enjoyable, if not long, eight weeks of school vacation.