Sunday, September 27, 2009

A PERE-LACHAISE FOR PETS

It's touching and worth visiting at least once: the animal version of the famous Père-Lachaise cemetery.

Located on a charming reattached island in the Seine at Asnières, a Paris suburb, it's one of the world's first pet cemeteries in modern times. Like Père-Lachaise, which is a veritable outdoor museum of 19th century mausoleums,  le cimetière animalier d'Asnières is filled with extravagantly sculpted tombs and effigies of loved ones. Except here the loved ones are pets of every kind, including a lion and a race horse. 

The most famous animal buried here is the original Rin-Tin-Tin, which brings to mind Oscar Wilde's quip that "when good Americans die, they go to Paris. . ."


Established in 1899 at the insistence of feminist, journalist and animal lover Marguerite Durand, the cemetery, classified as a historic monument, has a magnificent Art Nouveau entry designed by the celebrated architect Eugène Petit.



Don't miss the cats: a local association tends to the care and feeding of a sizable population of stray cats that have taken up residence in the cemetery. A shelter has been built just for them.

 
4 pont de Clichy
92600 Asnièress-sur-Seine

Hours: Closed Mondays. March 16 thru Oct 15,  10 a.m. - 6 p.m.;
Oct 16 thru March 15, 10 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.


Restaurant recommendation of trusted friends: Le Van Gogh.  Named in homage to the artist and opened the year of his death, the restaurant is situated on the banks of the Seine, at one of  Van Gogh's favorite vantage points for painting landscapes. Fresh fish and seafood. Port Van Gogh at Pont de Clichy. http://www.levangogh.com

Text & photos ©2009 P.B. Lecron


Friday, September 25, 2009

ON A DIFFERENT WAVELENGTH

When I first set up house with my new French husband in the north of France years ago, I told him we needed a microwave oven. Being neither chauvinist nor particularly epicurean, he agreed. 

But in a home appliance store where we went to purchase one, along with a new video camera, the salesman talked my husband out of it. At the time microwaves were relatively new on the French market. "You don't want one of those," he said. "My wife has one and never uses it." Then he lead Jacques off to the camera department.

We did buy a microwave the following week, but in different store where the salesman was less personable...


To microwave artichokes: 

I had always boiled artichokes, but discovered how wonderful they are microwaved. Quick and easy, microwaving artichokes gives them a fool-proof perfect and savory texture.

Cut off stems and top third of the artichokes. Pull off small lower leaves around base. Trim leave points with kitchen scissors.  Rub artichokes well with a lemon half; place in a microwave dish having about an inch and a half of water. Squeeze the rest of the lemon juice into the water and cover with plastic wrap. Cook from 5 to 10 minutes depending on the strength of the microwave and number of artichokes. Artichokes are done when leaves can be pulled out easily and bottoms are tender.

After cooking, remove artichokes from water. If desired, scoop out the prickly choke before serving by first pulling out tender center cone of leaves, then scrape the choke out with a spoon. May be served hot, warm or cold with a sauce, be it simple and sinful melted butter, a vinaigrette or Hollandaise sauce.


Text & photo ©2009 P.B. Lecron




Thursday, September 24, 2009

PUT YOUR LITTLE FOOT: CROSSING FRENCH STREETS

Saint-Omer, the first pretty city after port-entry to France via Calais, is a training ground for freshly arrived tourists from England who haven't yet mastered the art of crossing French streets.



We used to live near Saint-Omer, where I did most of my shopping and a number of good deeds rescuing English people stranded at pedestrian crosswalks. 

They would stand expectantly on the edge of the sidewalk waiting for each passing car to stop, then look confused and bewildered as indifferent drivers whizzed by. Their challenge was not simply breaking the English habit of looking right, left, then right again before crossing (the rest of the world looks left, right, left), but learning how the French traverse their rues.



French driving laws require cars to stop for pedestrians once they are "regularly engaged" in crossing the street. What that means is  not explicitly set out in the French code, but my driving instructor  explained to me that in general drivers here don't stop for a pedestrian until after he has placed a foot onto the street, and not before. If a pedestrian remains standing on the curb or sidewalk, even at a marked crosswalk, then drivers are neither obliged to stop to allow him to cross, nor likely to.



A caveat: The French Code also requires that pedestrians take into account the distance and speed of vehicles before crossing a street, and not to dart out into traffic, even if drivers are obliged to yield to pedestrians "regularly engaged" in crossing. Mind your toes.



Text & photo ©2009 P.B. Lecron

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

ONOMATOPOEIA FOR DOGGIE

Toutou--French for doggie--conjures up familiarity, fluff and affection.    


What do 8.6 million French toutous really want?  Probably what any other dog does: food, water, affection and to be on the other side of the door.


Back in 2005 when the craze for buying luxury goods for dogs was peaking in France,  I wrote a humorous magazine article about it saying that "dogs here have always enjoyed conspicuous pampering--especially in restaurants, where it really counts." The other day when I mentioned that favorite line to my friend, a kicky Parisian architect and man-about-town, he remarked he had been seeing fewer and fewer dogs going out for dinner.


Wondering exactly what the French legislation is on dogs in restaurants, we consulted a highly reliable source, the Fondation 30 Million Amis. The bottom line is that a restaurant owner has complete discretion in deciding whether to admit dogs, and he is not required to post any sign prohibiting them. (This leaves plenty of room for exception-making.) Dogs in a café or restaurant, however, must be securely held on a leash, and if they cause any damage, the dog owner is responsible.


 Le Littré, the authoritative classic of French dictionaries, says parenthetically that toutou is onomatopoetic, and in the language of children, dog. What do you think? Does toutou imitate the sound of that which it signifies?





 
The above text contains excerpts from an article I wrote, Dressing Médor,  originally published in France Today Magazine, Nov 2005.
www.francetoday.com
www.30millionsdamis.fr
Interested in Samoyeds?  Go to  http://ofcrystalsabaka.chiens-de-france.com

Text & photos ©2009  P.B. Lecron

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

ALL CURLED UP: LE BIGOUDI

My favorite French word, bigoudi, is a very likely sounding name for a hair roller. (The i's are pronounced like long e's.)

I even know a French family who nicknamed its grandmother  Bigoudette because she spent so much time with her hair in a mise en plis, or set in curlers.


At home, too, we called our own tender-headed and tantrum-throwing toddler who would hardly let us touch his hair, Le Bigoudi I was dumb-founded at the check-out stand in a French supermarket one day when a young clerk admiring my little boy's anglaises or boucles  (curly locks), naively asked me if I rolled his hair. "No," I said, and glibly gave her my down-pat, all-purpose explanation,"He's French."


Dictum:  Cheveux frisés, aimé. Curly hair, well-loved.




Text & photos ©2009 P.B. Lecron

Saturday, September 19, 2009

TAKE IT FROM THE MARTHA STEWART OF THE MIDDLE AGES by P.B. Lecron

Why have a bread machine in France when you can buy fresh bread on nearly every corner?

The bread machine I bought years ago from a French TV shopping program has been sitting idle and taking up cabinet space for so long that I think of it more as a disabled and mopey R2D2 than a kitchen appliance.  I was on the verge of giving it to a charity until I visited a French friend who had just bought one.


My friend, a Hildegarde von Bingen-nick, was not only making her own bread, but growing her own cereal grain to have milled for flour. On her country property she had planted a field of épeautre, or spelt wheat, an ancient grain strongly recommended by Hildegarde, a 12th century German benedictine abbess, a sort of a wise and spiritual Martha Stewart of the Middle Ages.

A hardy and nourishing favorite of the Gauls, épeautre was eventually abandoned because its thick and heavy husk made hulling and whitening more expensive than modern wheat.


But times are changing and people are rediscovering this naturally disease resistant cereal that tolerates arid and poor soils, cold weather, and never needs fertilizers or pesticides. It's high in carbohydrates and has proteins, but low in gluten and more easily tolerated by those with wheat allergies. It makes a pale, coarse, nutty- and slightly sweet-tasting bread. Queen of health food cereals,  farine d'épeautre (spelt wheat flour)  is increasingly available in French supermarkets.


For an environmentally sustainable & correct loaf of fresh bread from your kitchen:      



Pour into your bread machine the following ingredients, at room temperature, in this order:
250 g (1 cup) water
1 teaspoon of natural sea salt
450 g (3 cups) épeautre (spelt wheat) flour
1 1/2  teaspoon active dried yeast
Program for whole bread and select medium crust. After baking, remove and let cool one hour before slicing.

Who was Hildegarde?
Hildegarde von Bingen (1098-1179), although never canonized, is often referred to as a saint. Besides being a mystic, composer, herbalist, author, philosopher, naturalist, linguist and abbess, she wrote recipes and gave advice on how to eat and live well.


Text & photos ©2009 P.B. Lecron

Friday, September 18, 2009

LET YOURSELF GO . . . BARGING



THE COMPANY 
YOU MIGHT KEEP

It was intermission at the New York Met where French opera singer Natalie Dessay had just been belting out her best in the comic opera, La Fille du Régiment. Adages like "it's a small world," "birds of a feather flock together," and "you can never get enough of a good thing" really hit home when I realized that standing behind us in the cocktail line was a couple who, like myself, had just returned from a hotel barging trip in France. On my trip I had been invited as a guest journalist, so I was keen on knowing what they had to say about barging. Instead, they were the ones who pumped me for information-- they were so eager to go on another cruise-- and I found myself scribbling the Go Barging fleet address on their program.





Just to step aboard a vintage 1930's Dutch cargo barge like the one I cruised on, the Impressionniste, refurbished and converted to a hotel barge in 1995, is a thrill.  Living on one of them for a week while gliding through the easy-to-fall-in-love with French countryside is near nirvana.






It's definitely not "roughing it." Candlelight dinners, healthy breakfasts and mouth-watering noontime buffets punctuate the days filled with morning visits to towns and villages, then afternoon river and canal cruising. These quaint, floating four-star boutique hotels with well-trained bi-lingual crews who never miss a cue, cater typically to English-speaking tourists. They feature every convenience and then some, not to mention a perpetually changing nec plus ultra: calming sights and sounds of French country water living.  As I wrote in a France Today Magazine article, this kind of barging can never be more taxing than deciding which shoes to wear, the comfortable ones or the not-so-comfortable ones.







Travel log


By the second day of the Impressionniste cruise through the Carmargue rice lands along the Rhône we began to lose track of time. The morning spent strolling Pézenas streets and studying the city's noble 17th century architecture, then devouring the plump world-famous Bouzigues oysters on the half-shell we had had for lunch while crossing the Basin de Thau, a large salt water lagoon with immense oyster and mussel farms, seemed ions away-- though only the day before.
Our itinerary was relaxed and at the same time full. We roamed around historic sites like the Tour de Constance, a 13th century lighthouse that had once guided Crusaders into port at Aigue Mortes and admired the expanse of pastel tiled rooftops from the town's ramparts. We moored along a thin strip of bank parallel to the Mediterranean, and walked over to collect seashells and driftwood on a wild beach, a contrast to the hustle and bustle of the colorful port of Sète we had just left behind.























 We pet circus animals before their early evening performance in an old-world basket weaving village where we sipped our afternoon coffee. In Arles, we window-shopped to our hearts' content while exploring Van Gogh's old haunts, and stood reverent before the town's Roman ruins and arena. We trooped through the pope's palace in Avignon and combed the city known as the "Other Rome" before we headed back to the barge for the cook's bouquet final, the Captain's dinner. And after that feast, the first mate stupefied us with a card trick we're still trying to figure out.





With choice sight-seeing activities, ever-changing countryside and all the comfy places to stretch out on the barge inside and out, there was never a sense of confinement or crowding. Many wonder about how interpersonal relations are among the passengers on a hotel barge. They can matter in the decision to go on a cruise. Some want to "know before they go" and reserve the entire barge with friends or family, to eliminate the element of surprise of whose company they'll keep during the voyage.  Others count on making new and interesting friends, and just go. Either way, it's a safe bet for an enchanting voyage like no other.








The Impressionniste is now cruising the Burgundy Canal. 
www.gobarging.com

For a trendy and smart magazine about France: www.francetoday.com
Text & photos ©2009 P.B. Lecron

Thursday, September 17, 2009

THE ARTICHOKE NEXT DOOR

We shared our landing with a French lawyer, or avocat, which incidentally, in French is the same word for avocado. One day when I was startled by a noise, my four-year old said, "Don't worry, maman, it's only the artichoke next door."

What do the French mean when they say someone has a coeur d'artichaut or artichoke heart?

My best sources tell me that a person with a coeur d'artichaut is someone who falls easily and often in love,  just as one pulls off leaves of an artichoke as one eats it. The expression comes from a 19th century proverb, "Coeur d'artichaut, une feuille pour tout le monde." He who has the heart of an artichoke has a leaf for everyone. 


photo & text ©2009 P.B.Lecron


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

RECIPE FOR A HYPOCRITE


Courts 'n cocktails

When my friend, a kicky Parisian architect, and I heard on the news yesterday that a court had suspended a controversial restoration and renovation of the Hotel Lambert on the Ile Saint-Louis, we decided to celebrate.


My friend had been among the first to sign the petition to defend the elegant 17th century hôtel particulier (private mansion) against certain renovations that had been authorized this past June by the former Minister of Culture. Architects and historians maintain that the new owner's proposed excavation for an underground parking in the courtyard and the installation of an elevator and bath rooms would weaken the structure and denature this exceptionally beautiful, classified historic monument.


The Hotel Lambert, situated on the point of the Ile Saint-Louis, has long been a symbol of French refinement and culture, one where figures such as Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, George Sand and Frederic Chopin once lived and worked.


For our impromptu cocktail celebration we made a really simple but tasty drink, one my friend and a well-known French decorator (whose name I also decline to drop) say they invented and dubbed a Hypocrite.


Was it really a new cocktail?  What they did was simply disguise or hide their whiskey with chilled pink grapefruit juice, which of course gave reason to the name.


Text and photo ©2009 P.B. Lecron

BEGUILINGLY VINTAGE

Looking for easy-to-pack antique collectables on your trip to France? 

If you're hooked on vintage textiles and headed toward Carcassonne you'll want to stop by an antique shop specializing in 19th century linen and lace camisoles and undershirts. The antique dealer, Henriette-Faye-Nunez, told me her best clients are Americans, who, she said were très friand  for the Napoleon III era undergarments.  (Friand is a fun French word to use; it means partial to, fond of; a friandise is a treat or bonbon.)








Antiquités Henriette-Faye-Nunez, 4 place du Château, Cité de Carcassonne.






As beguiling as the embroidered vintage linens, the bust of Dame Carcas, a Sarrasin princess, charms visitors at the main entrance to the double-walled medieval city, a World Heritage site with 52 towers and barbicans.


Legend has it that Dame Carcas saved her people by ruse, putting an end to the five-year siege led by Charlemagne against the Arab  occupation of the fortified city.  After years of battles, the princess posted straw dummies on the towers to create the impression she still had troops. With very little to feed the city, she ordered that the last pig in the fortress be force-fed with what was left of the grain, then tossed from a tower. When it landed at the feet of Charlemagne's men, Charlemagne is said to have abandoned the siege, reasoning that the Sarrasins must still have food if they could afford to throw out a fattened pig.









Text and photos ©2009 P.B. Lecron

Monday, September 14, 2009

INDIAN SUMMER BARGE CRUISE ON THE CANAL DU MIDI

Along the Route de Silence      

Like a slow waltz on an empty dance floor, our late October cruise was the last of the season.  Sightseeing onshore in the mornings, we'd spend a week of afternoons barging at no more than five miles per hour between Carcassonne and Béziers.  We'd glide through an Impressionist's dream:  the Cathédrale d'Arbres, an endless canopy of arching branches.  We'd wind through Corbières and Minervois vineyards, sampling wines and cheeses along the way.



We'd ride bikes on towpaths and catch wafts of fermenting grapes; we'd scramble to the deck to see 300-year old bridges over the canal reflected perfectly in the water, then duck our heads as we passed under them.  Envious of the crew's familiarity with this grande dame of canals, we'd wonder what it be like to chuck it all and beg for a job aboard.



We'd buy pottery and bottles of wine, then curse ourselves lugging them home, only to be glad we did. At dusk we'd watch workers at the mill unload crates of handpicked olives at the end of a long day and learn how experts taste olive oil: hold the nose, swirl a half-teaspoon of oil all around the mouth for 10 seconds, then with tongue touching the palate, suck in air and swallow.



We'd gorge ourselves on Bouzigues oysters--some of the best in the world--and wash down a week's worth of gourmet meals with 30 of the best local wines.  We'd visit markets, villages and ruins and thrill at the panoramic view of the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean from the heights of the Oppidium d'Ensérune.  We'd be mesmerized passing through oval, stoned staircase locks and be curious of the lockkeepers.







Like the UNESCO committee when it listed the canal as a world heritage site in 1996, we'd be awed by the ingenious 17th century hydraulic system and the art of the canal structures. "One of the most remarkable feats of civil engineering in modern times," the committee reported, noting that the care given to its design and the way it blends with its surroundings "turned a technical achievement into a work of art."

 


Why so slow?
Three hundred years ago barges and boats were tugged by horses and men as they walked along the chemins d'halage, or towpaths on the banks. Today, speed is limited to no more than five miles per hour on the Canal du Midi because rotation of propellors any faster than that would create strong eddies, stirring up and damaging the banks.
  
Making the impossible possible
A grandiose project realized under the reign of  Louis XIV, the 150 mile-long and 33 feet-wide marvel links the Mediterranean to the Atlantic by connecting the port of Sète to the Garonne River, which flows from Toulouse to  Bordeaux. The idea to dig a canal to bypass the Straits of Gibraltar had been studied centuries before by the Romans, then again by French rulers: Charlemagne, François I, Henri IV and Louis XIII. The idea was always abandonned as being too difficult, too costly or even impossible.






It was a stubborn and wealthy native of Béziers, Pierre-Paul Ricquet, who made it happen. Thanks to his inventiveness and knowledge of the local geography, he solved the problem of how to provide a permanent water supply to feed a rising summit canal: channel and capture springs from the Montagne Noire. He was able to convince Colbert, the king's finance minister, that it was indeed possible, and in 1666 Ricquet was authorized to proceed. It would be the largest construction project of the Grand Siècle. Ricquet shared 40 % of the costs, in exchange for concessions on the canal. He spent the rest of his life and fortune realizing the 14-year enterprise. His motto: "The work must be finished or die at the task." And he did die at the task, only months before the canal was opened.





Tourism to the rescue
For 200 years the Canal du Midi teemed with barges loaded with wheat and wine. After falling far behind in the 19th and 20th century transportation race, the canal was menaced with closure in the 1970's. Some had even proposed to fill it in and transform it into a highway. A generation of expat mariniers came to the rescue and brought new life and a new vocation to the canal: pleasure boating and hotel barging. Though most of the canal is too narrow and too shallow for today's big barges, it's become a haven for smaller crafts, vintage boats and flatboats built to size.  



What's hot 
and what's cool
The Canal du Midi cuts across the Languedoc, a countryside rich with mountain landscapes and 2000 years of history; it's the oldest and largest winegrowing region in France. Like the canal, the Languedoc wine industry is enjoying a renaissance. Regional wines are the rising stars in the wine world thanks to progress in thermoregulation of vats, better management of local varieties like the omnipresent Carignan, and the introduction of more noble cépages: syrah, mourvèdre, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and grenache. Quality-driven Languedoc reds are what's hot in France today. The shaded Canal du Midi with a Mediterranean sea breeze is what's cool.




Don't miss the boat! Check out these favorite sites for an Indian summer holiday you'll never forget:
www.bargeclairdelune.com
www.gobarging.com

Text and photos ©2009 P.B.Lecron

Thursday, September 10, 2009

FIVE EASY PIECES

Summertime recipes that can boost your culinary reputation.


Prelude: Melon au Pineau des Charentes. A warm evening's first course par excellence, it's more of a question of knowing to do it than how to. Scoop out seeds and filament from Cavaillon melon or cantaloupe halves. Pour a puddle of Pineau des Charentes into the center of each half and chill in the refrigerator for one hour. Give each guest a melon half and a spoon. Porto, the traditional choice for this treatment is increasingly replaced by the more elegant Pineau des Charentes, a sublime liqueur born from a 16th century accident. A French winegrower mistakenly poured unfermented grape juice into a cask of Cognac and left it to age. This sweet, fruity apéritif exists in blanc, rosé and vieux blanc, any of which can be used.


Variation on a theme: Melon au Proscuitto. Serve melon quarters with paper thin slices of proscuitto, preferably San Daniel, and drink the Pineau des Charentes from glasses...don't forget the fork and knife. In a pinch? Substitute jambon de Bayonne.





Impromptu: Artichauts à la crème. Easier than it sounds. Open a jar of baby artichoke hearts preserved in oil and drain well. In a small salad bowl combine 1/2 cup light cream and 1 tablespoon each of fresh, minced chives and chervil. Gently turn in artichokes, and keep refrigerated. Just before serving, garnish sparingly with snippets of chives and chervil leaves. Can substitute parsley for chervil.





Ad lib:  Salade du jardinier. Tomato wedges, thinly sliced onion rings, green pepper strips and cucumber rounds look sumptuous in this no-lettuce salad. Simply douse a bowlful of these fresh veggies with wine- or apple-cider vinegar and oil, using a proportion of 1 tablespoon vinegar to 3 tablespoons oil. Please no factory dressings. 





Three-part invention: Poivrons grillés. Three may be a crowd but not for this trio of roasted red, green and yellow bell peppers. If you can't take advantage of dying barbeque embers to roast them, then turn broiler on. Cut peppers in half-lenghwise, remove stem, membrane and seeds. On a baking sheet lined wih aluminum foil, place pieces skin-side up. Gently push them down, making cuts if necessary to flatten. Brush with olive oil. Place 3 to 4 inches under heating coils. With oven door slightly ajar, roast until pepper skins are blistered to slightly charred, 10 to 15 minutes. Keep an eye on them; red peppers have a higher sugar content and char more quickly than others. They also have a sweeter and more smokey aroma. (Some prefer to char pepper skins until black, although tasty, the pepper flesh looks dingy.) As they become done, transfer pieces to a tightly covered container--a bowl with plastic wrap will do--so that the sealed in warmth can loosen the pepper skin. 


Let cool for 15 minutes, then scrape and lift off skin with a kitchen knife. Do not rinse. Slice in uniform strips, or ir desired in small squares. In a salad bowl, lightly drizzle the peppers with your finest olive oil and a couple of squirts of fresh lemon juice. Especially flavorful the day after.

If barbequing, place oiled, whole peppers on grill over whitened coals, turning to roast evenly. Place in a covered container and let cool. Remove stem, seeds and membrane. Proceed as above.



©2009P.B.Lecron; photos by P.B.Lecron

EVERYBODY'S GETTING INTO JULIA'S ACT



Julia Child was not the only foreign wife who, newly landed in France, didn't know how to cook. I didn't either. A gaping difference between her and myself is that my husband didn't send me to cooking school. He was French.


During that period when I was truly learning to cook, and not just making spaghetti or pancakes, Jacques would bring home some of the most surprisingly delicious canned goods to tide himself over. The superior quality of many industrially prepared foods in France never ceased to amaze me, then and even years after of plowing through pages of Julia Child's and Simone Beck's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volumes I and II.



A favorite off-the-shelf lentil preparation, and one that is as wide-spread in France as Campbell's Pork and Beans is in the States--but oh so much better, is William Saurin's Petit Salé à l'Auvergnate. Why, it's so good that I've tried to make it from scratch myself. A classic. Recipe follows.





 A LENTIL WITH A PEDIGREE  by P.B. Lecron


What sets the green lentil of Puy apart from its more humble cousins--the brown, the red, the blond varieties?


Grown on the same volcanic soils for more than 2000 years in the Auvergne region of France's Massif Central mountain range, the compact and shiny dark-green beauty of a seed, the lentille verte du Puy, is so revered that the French have given it a special title of nobility.


That's the highly-prized "A.O.C." label, an acronym for "appellation d'origine controllée." It's proof that a particular agricultural product specific to a region meets strict standards of quality, origin and conditioning. The much sought after label is not just a seal of approval, it's a governmental guarantee that a traditional food product--typical to a region and identified as such--is authentic, or simply put, the real McCoy.


In 1996 the green lentil of Puy became the first legume to enter the closed and prestigious circle of A.O.C. label bearers, which until then had been the exclusive reserve of French wines and cheeses. 


So what sets this little darling of French cooks apart from the other varieties? This lentil with a pedigree has deeper flavor than its humble cousins; and it retains its shape and color when cooked, making it ideal for salads. Unlike more common lentils, it has a creamy rather than grainy texture.


Regional growers attribute its unique characteristics to the local air, soil and sun on the more than 8,000 red-dirt acres where it's produced. This illustrates the meaning of what the French call "terroir," a not so easily translated word for the notion that the particular growing conditions coupled with man's know-how, affect the taste and quality of a product. Cultivated at altitudes from 2,300 to 3,600 feet, the lentil plants' exposition to cold, heat and hydric stress accelerate the seeds' maturation process--conditions that give these lentils their characteristically small size, fine texture and flavor.


RECIPES



Le Petit Salé aux Lentilles


The most well-known Auvergne regional lentil recipe is a hearty meal in itself and popular throughout France, so much so that you can buy excellent canned preparations of it in the supermarkets. But it's so easy, why not try making it yourself?



Place in a large pot and cover with water: dried lentils of Puy, lightly salted pork loin, ham hocks, sliced sausage, chopped carrots and celery, a couple of onions picked with two or three cloves, a bay leaf, a sprig of sage and a few peppercorns. As with many family recipes, the proportions depend on the cook's judgment and what's on hand. Simmer for 35 minutes.


Lentil & Caper Salad


Light eaters and vegetarians can enjoy this easy-to-fix salad that can also be used as an amuse-gueule or mise-en-bouche when served in tiny portions on a dainty plate or in  verrines (small glasses used to serve appetizers to be eaten with a miniature spoon) just before a meal's first course.


Simmer 1 cup of dried green lentils of Puy 25-30 minutes in water, then drain and rinse with cold water.  In a salad bowl combine lentils with 3 tablespoons each of chopped chives and scallions and 1/3 cup of drained capers.  Add a stream of olive oil, freshly squeezed lemon juice and salt to taste. Gently toss. Makes four large servings.

Text & photos ©2009P.B.Lecron

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

WELL-SEASONED


A kicky, pepper-loving Parisian architect got this spice blend from a client's French cook, who created it for him on the spur of the moment during the kitchen remodeling...
 
Mix equal parts of black peppercorns, anis star-points and whole cloves. Grind in a spice mill to season grilled meats and fish or gratineed dishes. In a pinch, you can use a pepper mill like I do. 




A word about mills:  Since the 19th century, Peugeot has been and still is the reference for kitchen grinding mechanisms.  I surprised myself one day, when to make the point of how disgruntled I was because my brand new Peugeot couldn't be driven for weeks due to a delay to replace a defective part, I told a home-office commercial representative that, henceforth, I would not consider buying even a Peugeot pepper mill. That was easy to say because I already had one...

Tis the season:  Fill a spice mill-- preferably transparent so you can see what's in it--with this blend for a do-it-yourself gourmet specialty gift.

©2009 P.B.Lecron; photo by P.B. Lecron

THE LAST BITE by P.B. Lecron

When porno-chic ads for luxury goods, at first reserved for the pages of high-fashion magazines, began spilling over into French streets a few years ago, many wondered just how far the ads would and could go. School boys squirmed, teenagers smirked and tired mothers sometimes wilted at the sight of them.

Created  in-house by trend-setting haute couture names, and of the highest professional and aesthetic quality, the porno-chic ads were often veritable works of art depicting all sorts of nuanced tabous. But when the eyebrow-raising ad trend took hold and trickled down to commonplace, bas de gamme product lines, the obvious happened.  The fashion industry made an about face and headed off into a more well-behaved direction.

At the tail-end of the trend, signaling that what-was-hot-is-not, was an ad that I don't think I'll ever be able to forget...


From a distance it looked like any other non-descript fastfood ad, which even here in France, we had become accustomed to see. But as I approached the neighborhood bus stop publicity panel, it became clear that this was the strangest advertisement for a hamburger I had ever seen on either side of the Atlantic.

The ad for Quick, a major European-owned fastfood chain heavily implanted in France, featured a photo of its latest burger and read in big block letters: "Votre estomac aussi a le droit d'avoir un orgasme."  Translated: "Your stomach also has the right to have an orgasm." Would that be an unsettling rumble of indigestion?

I couldn't help but wonder what kind of ambience reigned during the brainstorming session that produced this ad.  Did this give new meaning to "fastfood?"  In France, of all places, how could a lowly hamburger--albeit it embellished with bacon--make such an unlikely incursion into the realm of sensual gastronomy?

By necessity, food ads have to make a direct appeal to primary instincts, but this one seemed overly inclusive even for the toga party crowd.  While it's fatal for an advertisement to go unnoticed, the shock-value metaphor used here felt more like an unappealing collision of biological functions rather than a ringing of the appetite alarm.

I don't mean to be a killjoy, but while the younger rebel set might have gobbled up this brazen burger ad, it must have been hard-to-swallow for the unsuspecting mother who happened along with an inquisitive eight-year-old who plied her with the inevitable question.

What's she supposed to say, ask your father?

I asked my guitar-strumming, skateboarding, Franco-American hybrid teenagers what they thought about this ad, and they both replied, "Bof," which in French roughly means, "Big deal."

My very French fourteen-year-old did comment that the hamburger ad went too far, but not for the reasons I would have expected. His complaint was about the ad's hyperbole and gave me eye-opening evidence of his budding epicurism.

"It's not as though that burger chain were a Michelin three-star restaurant," he reasoned. A logic which presupposes that some meals here do merit the metaphor...

©2004P.B.Lecron

Sunday, September 6, 2009

FANCY, FRENCH & CRUNCHY

The Rolls Royce of Olives . . . 


When we heard that the Lucques, a rare variety of olives, is called the Rolls Royce of table olives, we felt driven to say that we had eaten one of those.


We didn't have any trouble spotting this posh, bright green olive with its odd crescent shape. Grown only in the Hérault Department in the  Languedoc-Roussillon region of the south of France, you can find it easily enough in local markets and gourmet shops.  Because of its odd shape it's sold unpitted, which only enhances its smooth hazlenut flavor. The Lucques olives primeurs or olives nouvelles are at their very best when first made ready to eat, without preservatives.


Mild and crunchy, the Lucques is handpicked green from mid-August through October as a table olive. But when left to ripen until black, it's harvested in November with wooden combs and nets, then sent to the mill to be pressed into a golden and mellow oil, one that according to ancient folklore, contains a "drop of eternity."

©2009P.B.Lecron; photo by P.B.Lecron

Saturday, September 5, 2009

IT'S HARD TO GET A TABLE by P.B.Lecron

At first we glowed with satisfaction when we saw an impressive write-up about our favorite hideaway Italian restaurant in a trendy Parisian magazine. Reading it, we could almost taste the sun-ripened tomatoes and smell the fresh basil. The appreciative review confirmed that yes, we did have good addresses and, yes, we were among those-who-know.

Then it dawned on us that the favorable publicity might attract more customers than our cozy restaurant could handle.  Look what happened to Peter Mayle, that English writer who gave away all of his best addresses in the books he wrote about French Provence, only to see his favorite haunts be invaded by swarms of English tourists picking lavender and looking for goat cheese. He finally had to pack his bags and leave the south of France.

Nobody in his right mind wants to see his favorite eating spot become so popular that he has trouble getting a table. Eating out was one of our greatest shared pleasures, and with our health problems an Italian Mediterranean menu was just what the doctor ordered--for both of us. My husband and I both had cancer.

My husband's cancer had been diagnosed back in the United States on a visit home. His American doctors gave him a prognosis of no better than six months without effective treatment. Once back in France, his French doctors almost made it a point of national pride to keep him alive, which they did for a long time.

Midway through his seven-year remission, my cancer was diagnosed. It was an easy case with early detection,  rapid treatment and a good prognosis. Our doctors were not the most expensive, nor did they work in the swankiest clinics, but we felt they were the best we could have found. With medical visits multiplied by two, we saw so much of our shared physicians that we began to feel, well, clubbish about them.

Then one day when we heard a rumor that a highly-publicized celebrity had consulted our doctors, we suddenly felt like we did when we saw that restaurant review. Although if we glowed this time, it would have been more likely from radiation than from satisfaction.

Would this mean that our already-overworked doctors had been "discovered" and would become overnight sensations? Would they be in so much demand that we would have trouble getting comfortable seats in the waiting room, let alone appointments for our turns to climb up onto the examining table?

"Well, there goes the waiting room," I lamented.

The more we thought about it, the more we fretted. But by the grace of another affliction from which we both suffered--we were terminal wags--our qualms were soothed by a dose of humor. Maybe we'd do our elbow-rubbing and knee-knocking at one and the same place.

So the next time you have to sit in the hallway outside a full waiting room, you can tell this joke: "Why is a good doctor like a good restaurant? ... It's hard to get a table!"

©2004P.B.Lecron
This article originally appeared in Coping with Cancer Magazine, Nov-Dec 2004. 

Antipasto at home 
This quick and easy antipasto inspired from our Italian hideaway looks gourmet, but without the fuss. A colorful showy one-dish supper, you can prepare it ahead of time and keep it chilled in the fridge.
Light and delicious, you can play with the proportions depending on your appetite and diet.

All you need are:

Several slices of thinly sliced mortadella
3 or 4 sliced tomatoes
Buffalo mozzarella cheese, sliced in wedges
Fine green beans, fresh or frozen, cooked tender-crisp and cooled
One lemon, cut in half
Virgin olive oil
Fresh basil
Herbal salt
Italian breadsticks (or equivalent)


Prepare each plate individually by alternating the cheese and tomato slices, arranged next to the green beans and mortadella--either rolled or loosely folded over itself. Add a lemon half to give tang and color. Just before serving, drizzle with a fine stream of olive oil and sprinkle lightly with snipped basil. May be seasoned with herbal salt and accompanied by Italian breadsticks.


©2009P.B.Lecron


 

Friday, September 4, 2009

INDOORS, OUTDOORS

     "Maybe she's having an affair," teased a friend of my French husband after listening to him complain that I had been unusually edgy the past few weeks.
     "What?" I gasped when Jacques came home and repeated his friend's bantering. I was on my hands and knees sponging a spot on the carpet with white vinegar.
     "Affair? I'm not having an affair," I barked as I looked up at him. "How could I?" I began to blot the spot with paper towels and muttered, "I spend all of my time cleaning puppy stains..."



We lived in French Flanders, and although it rained alot, our rugs indoors were beginning to feel as soggy as the ground outdoors. After two months of trying, we hadn't managed to housebreak our Cavalier King Charles puppy. And she was already five-months old.

Not only were our oriental rugs getting soaked, but our beds were being regularly doused with puppy urine. We had named her Marie-Charlotte, but behind her back we called her Pissenlit, a French play on words for the diuretic weed we know as dandelion. I had expected to deal with floor accidents, but I had never counted on having to wash sheets, blankets and bedspreads almost daily on account of a puppy.

Marie-Charlotte slept in the kitchen, but she usually had her morning accidents after a groggy family member would let her out into the rest of the house before I could see to it that she go outside. But even after a trip outdoors, once back indoors she would streak to one of our beds, leap up onto it, and let herself go--again. She especially liked doing this in the kids' rooms. Whether it was excitement urination brought on by greeting the children in the morning or simply marking, it had become a habit.

Those familiar with French domestic life will know that the situation was only made worse by the limited load capacity of European washing machines. They hold about half of what the standard-size American washer does. Most of the bulky, washable bed coverings would fit only into a commercial machine; I had to take that laundry out to do after three or four back-aching experiences heaving heavy wet comforters out of the bathtub.


This sort of domestic misery especially loves company and I found solace commiserating with a Spanish neighbor, another mother whose children also had a new puppy. Her complaint was that her French husband insisted that their puppy sleep with them to keep it quiet at night. At least I didn't have nocturnal whimpering and crowding to contend with.

Never before had I needed expert advice for housebreaking pets or housebreaking children. All had been so easy and natural, like the day when our 18-month-old son, in a hallmark moment of autonomy, dropped his diaper and took aim into the kitten's litterbox. Fascinated, our kitten, Apple, watched on, then gingerly climbed into the box and buried the puddle before scampering off with his tail high in the air.

Three years later when we introduced the puppy into what had been the cat's pristeen environment, Apple was the only one of us who didn't experience unconditional love-at-first sight for Marie-Charlotte. I say unconditional because the way she reeked she needed that kind of love.

Although she hadn't come from a puppy mill, she smelled as though she had. The seller, a backyard breeder, had a working livestock farm complete with cows, horses, ducks, chickens and a pair of vigilant Dobermans. An old dirt-floor chicken house served as the whelping area in which the puppies, although in good health and out of the way of geese and dangerous farm machinery, had spent their young lives.

At home and three baths later, Marie-Charlotte was almost rid of her pungent past. But you couldn't tell it by the cat. He made that abundantly clear by breaking into a trot anytime he entered an area that her passage had perfumed.

As the difficulties with housebreaking continued, I realized that Marie-Charlotte had never learned the difference between indoors and outdoors. She and her siblings had eaten and slept too near to where they eliminated. That explained why she did the unthinkable and wet the doggy cushion on which she slept. An unheard of practice, said our veterinarian, except in cases where puppies are forced to perform all of their biological functions in one confined space.

We needed to break this pattern and to substitute a better behavior. But teaching our puppy to unlearn her bad habit first meant policing some of our own. We reinforced supervision of both puppy and children, limited access to bedrooms and removed the water bowl after 9 p.m. I made myself wake up at 5 a.m., well before the rest of the family, to let Marie-Charlotte outdoors first, and to control traffic in the house.

But housebreaking headway didn't really come until we discovered a made-to-order replacement behavior for her. We noticed that anytime we threw a tennis ball in the yard, Marie-Charlotte would run after it, then squat and urinate. We routinely played this game, repeatedly throwing the ball to make sure she had emptied her bladder before returning indoors. She loved it and so did we.

We were no longer house training, but play training. Our Pissenlit had become Pavlov--after the pyschologist famous for his experiments conditionning dogs. From this game, combined with reinforcing voice commands, she eventually learned to urinate on command, without the tennis ball. The accidents stopped, I quit chanting chill-out mantras, and even the cat began to feel better.

From then on Marie-Charlotte could be seen in the best hotels and restaurants like any other dog in France. And being small, she could even visit the American Library in Paris, which used to include in its set of rules the endearing admonition and Americanization of the French habit of making exceptions, "No big dogs."

©2009P.B.Lecron; photos by P.B. Lecron
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BREADBOARD ECONOMY

Photo by award winning art photographer Paco Weaving,  Paris.
I know a full-grown and sexy French man--trust me not all of them are--who once complained to me that he had spent his childhood eating stale baguettes. We were sitting on a pebbled terrace at a hotel-restaurant lost in parasol-piney hills not far from Draguignan, in the south of France, when he revealed to me this despairing exaggeration.
"The irony," he said, "was that my mother bought fresh baguettes every day, no matter what."
He paused, swirled the rosé around in his glass, and held it up to look at its color. A  waiter appeared and set down a basket of baguette croutons and a small bowl of black olive tapenade on the round wrought-iron garden table. I tossed my hair back. We were sitting under a mulberry tree whose summer leaves looked as though they needed a dusting that only a good rain could give.


"You see," he went on, "One day the family didn't finish a couple of baguettes."
 I spread some tapenade on the toasted slice of baguette and looked up into the branches as I bit in. I felt seduced.
 "And so?"
"We were obliged to finish the older baguette before we could eat the fresh. So the fresh baguettes she would buy on Tuesday, we wouldn't eat until Wednesday, because on Tuesday we would be eating the baguettes she had bought on Monday. It would go on and on like that for weeks at a time!"
"Why didn't she just cut up the old baguettes and make croutons?" I asked as I tilted the bread basket in his direction.
"She didn't cook. She only knew how to shop."
"Poor darling. Have some tapenade."



Don't toss that baguette!

That baguettes dry out and harden so quickly is the ransom we pay their goodness. They have to be eaten fresh, and are best consumed within a fews hours of baking. But don't get rash and toss out what's left of yesterday's half-eaten, stale baguette. Saw it into thin slices and toast on a baking sheet in a low-heat oven for 5 minutes, or until slightly golden. Let cool to avoid condensation and place in an air-tight container. Use later for canapés or as croutons in onion soup.

Be smart and toast the slices when pre-heating the oven for another dish. You can save the breadcrumbs, too. Crush finely, and use as chapelure to dust over foods to be gratinéed, or to bread fish and meats.

Slices of baguette, either fresh or grilled, spread with Mediterranean black-olive and caper tapenade is a classic south of France hors-d'oeuvre. Its name comes from tapeno which means caper in the Provençal dialect of southern France. Every family has its own tapenade recipe, varying proportions and ingredients according to preferences. Some add thyme, bay leaf, rosemary or pepper; some add dijon mustard. One variant is to mix in tuna fish and to append its name with niçoise.

Some even temper it with cognac. Tapenade is also made with green olives, but the best is with Kalamata black olives. Don't be afraid to experiment with other varieties, after all, the recipe only takes five minutes to prepare.

TAPENADE RECIPE
1 cup pitted, Kalamata black olives or other richly flavored Mediterranean variety
3 tablespoons capers, drained
1/4 cup anchovy filets
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 cup fine olive oil
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Places olives, capers, anchovies and garlic in a food processor and mix until finely minced. Gradually add olive oil in a stream while continuing to mix until thick and smooth. It should not be reduced to a purée, tapenade should be thick and shiny. Add lemon juice and mix. Let rest a few hours before serving, store in the refrigerator. Serve on slices of baguette with a rosé wine, or use as an accompaniment to grilled fish. Keeps two weeks.
©2009 P.B.Lecron