Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Oysters and Foie Gras

Another Christmas in France, with another adopted family, this one the extended Bergeras clan in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques. Last year I was with the Chevrier family in the Maine-et-Loire, 350 miles to the north, but the menu was similar, as it is pretty much all across France for this meal: salty things to nibble on while drinking apéritifs, oysters, foie gras, a roasted bird, dessert, coffee, and plenty of wine throughout. Everyone seemed to enjoy the olives, and complemented the South-Bend-to-Southwest-France deviled quail eggs. I didn't go to the mass, which ran longer than expected, so we didn't get started until well after 9pm and it was getting close to midnight before we'd even finished the foie gras. The oysters were cool and fat and filled my mouth with their clean ocean flavor, and I thought of Mom and John swimming with the turtles and dolphins in Hawai'i. I spread my gluten-free toasted baguette slices with foie gras and fig jam and thought of Kate and Ben and Morgan and Leah, because three of the four of them would have enjoyed that dish, while the fourth would unfortunately have been reduced to eating the lettuce garnish on the plate. Sorry, Kate, but France isn't really the place for vegetarians at this point, especially at home. I only had a wing of one of the roasted guinea hens, but it was a large and meaty one, and I ate the well-cooked peas and carrots thinking of Ian, who would have added even more garlic to the pot, and of Corey, who might have been persuaded to go wild and join the only male grandchild present, a bottomless pit who I observed downing most of a sliced salami and at least a dozen oysters before tucking into the main courses. Missing my family, but grateful as always to the people who open their homes and their celebrations to include me. The cheese and salad came out around 1:30am, and I was strong and didn't touch the local sheep's-milk tomme, or the crumbly wedge of blue, or even (though I was sorely tempted) the two-inch-thick bûche de chèvre, alas. And then dessert, my maple-syrup-and-walnut tart, which was well received, and the sweet-potato pie which was not, but I was in total agreement with that because it didn't turn out very well. The sort of dessert where you say, "This tastes ... healthy." Which it is, other than the cookie/vegan butter crust, so the other half will be my breakfast for the next week, but I should have used less cinnamon and more sugar. A chocolate cake in the form of a Santa Claus gingerbread man, and coffee (or mint and verbena tisanes, which I chose - no way was I going to drink coffee at nearly 3am) and another bottle of champagne making the rounds, and then out into the warm darkness for the drive back to Agnos, and straight to bed. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good morning!

Monday, December 23, 2013

American Pie

Tomorrow night there will be two dozen or so people around the table for le Réveillon, the traditional feast on the night before Christmas. It'll be a late night, though not as late as it would be if we were really being traditional, and going to midnight mass before eating. Some of the family will be going to church around 7pm, and others will go on the 25th, and I may join one or the other group, especially if the mass is in Béarnais. But today it was all about the baking, as I wanted to (generously) pitch in with my share of food for the feast, and (selfishly) ensure that something there would be gluten-free, especially when it came to the appetizers and desserts. I made a sweet-potato pie with a crushed spéculoos crust; the cookies are a little like graham crackers, so I thought it would work. Unfortunately the oven was hotter than the temperature dial indicated, and the pie and crust got a bit burned, though I'm hoping it's the burnt-sugar sort of burned from the cookies, and not an inedible bitterness. I have no idea what it's going to taste like, but it smelled really good, mostly from the vanilla beans I was scraping into the filling. Christine, the woman from whom I'm renting a room in Gan, recently came back from her vacation in La Réunion with handfuls of beans, and gifted me with some. I don't often bake, so was glad to have an opportunity to use them right away.

I put vanilla in the walnut pie as well. This is a take on the pecan pie of my grandmother Farquhar's southern heritage, using local walnuts instead, and maple syrup imported from Canada, so it was still sort of French, right? The crust on this one was another experiment, using a buckwheat bread mix and vegan margarine and a little bit of sugar. It's very crumbly, but I tasted a broken bit and it's pretty good. No idea if it will hold together in the slicing, but oh well. The cooled pies are sitting on the table, and I'll take them over tomorrow when we go to open up the store for any last-minute clients in the morning.

In the afternoon, I'll pipe the filling into the egg halves for a French version of my grandmother McHugh's deviled eggs, always a part of family celebrations in Indiana. I decided to use quail eggs because they're more of an amuse-bouche size, and because I didn't know if regular eggs would be appealing. Deviled eggs aren't completely unknown in France, but I don't think I've seen them more than once in restaurants. Peeling four dozen hard-boiled quail eggs is a fiddly business, and a reminder of why I don't want to make a career out of being a caterer. Once in a while is fine, but there's a reason for line cooks and sous-chefs. Chives, cornichons, mustard, mayonnaise, and a little bit of salt; I'll take the rest of the chives and a half a lemon with me for last-minute seasoning.

My other offering is marinated dried olives, with garlic and paprika, lemon slices and thyme and oregano. I'll take a gluten-free baguette along in case there is anything interesting to smear on it, and of course it will come in handy to swipe clean my plate in between courses. Dinner will probably start around 9pm or even later, but I plan on drinking a cup of coffee after a very light lunch to help me stay awake ...

Marché de Noël: Aquitaine Version

The village of Oloron-Sainte-Marie had other Christmas markets and events in and around the park in the center of town this month, but I didn't get to any of them until yesterday, when Florence and I went to the "young agriculturists market" sponsored by the Syndicat Départemental des Jeunes Agriculteurs and highlighting some of the people in their 20s and 30s who have started or are continuing to produce cheese and wine, and pork and lamb and duck products, and bake bread and grow vegetables in nearby fields and communities. Florence and Frédéric had been invited to set up a booth, but it didn't fit into the week's schedule. But I think if they had been there, we would have sold a fair amount. Maybe next year. It was nice to be on the customer side of the booths, however, strolling around with a bottle of semi-sweet local white wine that Frédéric had purchased and tasting things and chatting to people. I ran into one of the professors from the school program and introduced him to Florence, and he said that he'll be teaching another economics class in the upcoming semester. Oh, joy. I thought that part of the program was over ...

Most of the goat cheeses I've seen here are the firm tommes or the soft bloomy-rinds, but this producer has branched out into a goat reblochon, which is a washed-rind type of cheese smeared with B. linens that gives it the orange crust and the whiffy smell, especially when cooked. They were selling toasts made with their raclette-style cheese or with this version of reblochon and that corner of the market was quite fragrant. I tasted a little bit of each and asked about the temperature they kept the milk at when adding the rennet, and the young man at the booth said that they set the curd at 32C/90F which is half again the temperature that Laetitia goes with for her tommes, and is the same temperature that the cheesemaker at the sheep dairy I was visiting last week uses. I'm going to write to Laetitia and pass that information on for her experimentation with new styles of goat cheese.

I also tasted a smidgen of greuil, the Basque/Béarnais version of whey cheese that is similar to the Italian ricotta or the Corsican brocciu, made by reheating the whey left over after cooking and draining the curd to make the aged cheeses, and skimming off the solids that float to the top. The solids are then drained in mesh bags to remove some of the extra liquid, though it stays quite creamy. There was a sheep's-milk version, but I happened to taste a cow's-milk one, and it was very rich. With that small taste plus the nibbles on two or three other cheeses yesterday afternoon, my total consumption of cheese couldn't have been more than a level half-teaspoon, if that, but even that's too much. I know, every time I try to taste cheese, this happens, and I say "never again" - until the next time. But this is ridiculous. And unfair. Why is it that I am so happy making cheese, when letting the merest crumb of it into my body makes me so unhappy?

There was a stand selling Jurançon wines, and one selling two other wines of this southwest region, the dry red Madiran and the sweet white Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, the latter of which we were drinking. I also had a small cup of spiced vin chaud; the local version is less cinnamon-spicy and more orange-peely than the hot wine I drank at the Christmas market in Tours last year. Also there were no roasted chestnuts to go with it, which was disappointing. There were deep-fried trout fritters, which would have been good with the hot wine, but they were made with wheat flour. Live trout were in a plastic pond ready to be fished for by excited children and sold in plastic bags, for eating, not for keeping like the goldfish you can win at similar events in the United States.

But there was duck! Duck breast marinated in paprika and onions and peppers, or duck hearts with garlic and herbs. I'd eaten a late breakfast at home, so I wasn't hungry, but I did have a piece of the duck breast that Florence ordered, and it was very good. I bought the last two packets of smoked trout from the live fish and fritter booth, and took a card for a possible later excursion for information and blogging purposes. The fish farm of Pédehourat was reopened in 2011 by 27-year-old Roman Veau after a 50-year-old previous fish farm closed due to lack of continuing family interest in that business, but what I find really interesting is that the fish farm was built on the ruins of a former hot springs spa that was razed by the German armies during WWII. I need to seriously look at my calendar because there are now more things that I want to see in this area than I have free days to see them, and then of course trying to sweet-talk people with cars into driving me to those places is also a scheduling consideration.

I bought a bar of fair trade organic dark chocolate from Saint-Domingue (a former French colony and now part of Haiti) from the bread stand, and while the others went over to the playground to let Florence's nephew run around a bit, I avoided all of the children swinging and went to watch children skating instead, at the small ice rink set up along one edge of the square. More and more people arrived at the market as it got on towards 4pm, and I watched them walking by, greeting each other with kisses, pushing strollers and leading sticky-faced children with cones of barbe à papa by the hand, clustering in front of the wine stands, and lining up for the traditional Christmas photo opp with Le Père Noël. Morgan asked unselfishly for peace and love and understanding this year, but if I could wish for one thing it would be a digestive system that is not troubled by anything, gluten or dairy or otherwise, because I miss being able to join in all of the culinary traditions around me. And how can I be a good cheesemaker if I can't taste the milk and the curd and the cheese? A small thing, perhaps, given all of the gifts and opportunities I already enjoy in my life, but still ... please?

Friday, December 20, 2013

Circling The Sun

2013: A sheep dairy in the Pyrénées

2012: A castle in the Loire Valley

2011: A rainforest in Hawai'i

2010: A geekfest in Portland

2009: An active volcano in Hawai'i

2008: A frozen pond in Portland

2007: A festive caroling party in Portland

2006: A family Christmas in Gresham

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Cornfields, Cows, Cats

Florence has said that I have Sundays off, so even though there was approximately a kiloton of sausage to make today - we only had time to do the salami yesterday afternoon - I stayed at home in Agnos and logged some billable hours. Or at least completed some work that I can bill for; it was all per-project-rate work today. The plan was that Flo would be able to finish up this morning and then come back in the afternoon, and we'd head to the Christmas fair at the public garden in Oloron-Sainte-Marie, so after I ate some lunch (pig's-head pâté mixed into some leftover lentils and tomato sauce to make a sort of chili français) I took a shower and then went out to sit in the sun and write Christmas cards. Yes, sun! In mid-December! It was about 20C/68F here today, with no wind (there usually isn't any wind in these valleys, for some reason), and it was marvelous. And I could look up and see the snow on the high hills at the edge of the plains, less of it now than last week, but still there.

It turned out that there was more work at the pig farm than expected, so I decided to take a walk instead. I wasn't sure where I was going to go, and hoped that I wouldn't get too lost in the maze of tiny roads that criss-cross every square metre of France, but the sun was still high and I set off up the driveway optimistically. And my optimism was repaid immediately, because two people in exercise gear and tennis shoes were walking briskly towards me as I reached the road, and I asked them where they liked to walk and how to get there. "Follow us!" the woman said. "We're doing a 5k circuit down to the next town and back."

Of course, since I was stopping every five minutes to take pictures, they quickly decided that it would be easier to give me directions. And so I did follow them, just rather far behind, through Agnos with its huge stone granges still attached to their farmhouses, though not many of them have cows inside any more. Many people convert the granges into extended housing, or use them for storage, or let them start falling to pieces. This house is a renovated farmhouse - you can still see the huge stone lintel holding up the beams over where the fireplace was, and the old iron door that used to open up into the bread oven. Florence has visions sometimes of repairing and renovating the two-story structure that connects the house to the barn and being able to rent out rooms to travelers, and there are a lot of similar gîtes and chambres d'hôtes in this area as farming is being replaced by tourism. There are still plenty of farms of many sizes here, though, and most of the valley floor is covered in cornfields that feed the cows and the pigs, and the geese and capons that have been fattened for the upcoming holiday feasting.

I was directed to go to the church in the center of Agnos, and then follow the road that leads to the right, past a field of cows and then off through the fields towards the town I can see from the house, whose name I didn't know until today. I thought that the man said "Jurançon" when he was describing the route, alternately agreeing with and contradicting his wife, which was a little worrying in terms of the validity of the directions, but it turns out that the town is called "Gurmençon." The two names are pronounced, to my American ear, almost identically. They're not the only similar-sounding village names in this area, either. Escout and Escou are just up the road, followed by Buzy and Buziet. Lasseube and Lasseubetat, Artiguelouve and Artigueloutan, Lons and Laruns and Laroin. Mailys and I were driving to one of the farm visits for a class a few weeks ago, halfway up the side of a valley to the north on a switchback road through a stone-walled village obviously built well before people used anything other than feet to get around, and I asked her how drivers in France coped before the GPS was invented. "They didn't," she laughed. And she was born here.

The helpful walking couple was always in sight, though they continued to increase their lead, until we got to the town, and then I lost track of them, but that was okay because there were road signs back to Agnos. Gurmençon is positively bustling when compared with Agnos, as there is a hairdresser and a hotel with a restaurant there, and possibly more businesses in the part of town going back up the N134 to Oloron. I checked out the menus posted in the restaurant window, and am considering walking back over there for lunch one day next week. I'm taking Wednesday and Thursday off to do some voice recording, and a midday walk would be a nice break. They advertise les spécialités gastronomiques et traditionnelles de nos grands-mères featuring trout (apparently the rivers around here are big draws for fishermen) and the vegetable soup garbure (though I have that every day at the farm) and of course duck in various forms. And local farmstead cheeses, which I would have to pass on, regretfully.

There's a dairy less than five minutes from the restaurant, in fact, which is probably where they get at least some of the cheese. I walked up to the store built onto the barn but they weren't open until 6pm, and it's all cow cheese at the Ferme de la Porte d'Aspe in any event. The cows are very friendly, however, and came up to nose at me over the fence, which leads me to believe that the people are probably quite friendly as well. I might try to contact them and arrange a visit to see their setup; they just started the cheesemaking side of the business in 2009, and I'm interested in their operation. And it's just down the road, so I don't need a GPS!

There are a lot of feral cats around here, as well as regular barn cats. Near the pig farm there's a whole troupe of them, I was told. They used to belong to a man a few houses down who kept dozens of them, but he had some problems with his lifestyle and health and is now in a supervised care facility, and his brother has not taken over the care of the animals, so they've scattered and started foraging in the surrounding fields. Dogs seem to be more popular as pets, at least as far as I've seen in France, with the cats relegated to the barns. But there are chickens everywhere.

The walking couple had pointed out another loop of road that leads up into the hills above Agnos and back down again, and I was tempted to make a figure eight, but the sun was sinking lower and I didn't want to get lost. Anyway, that gives me a new route to explore the next sunny Sunday. Instead, I came back to the house and made a salad of chopped oranges and hearts of palm in a garlicky dressing with balsamic vinegar and lemon juice and salt, which I found delicious but which Florence eyed dubiously, murmuring, "Original ...," which isn't exactly a compliment in French, as it translates as "unusual, odd" - especially when said in that tone of voice. I've saved her a spoonful, in case she wants to try it after she gets back from visiting her cousin this evening.

Time to clean the kitchen and go to bed - we need to get to the pig farm by 7:30am tomorrow to start melting fat in big copper kettles to make big jars of pork loin confit. À plus tard, mes amis!