Monday, May 28, 2012

Eating Our Way Through France

Is food really a better quality here? Is it really fresher, cleaner, greener, healthier, more flavorful, more satisfying? Or is it just that we are on vacation, moving at a slower pace, living more in the moment, enjoying everything more and eating more mindfully?
Plentiful shellfish is so fresh, sweet and tastes of the sea

Visiting the open air markets and conversing with the vendors is a travel experience in itself. My French is so intolerable, they all immediately lapse int their best Frenglish... we get lots of laughs, and I always end up with a packet of something that will titillate my taste buds, put 2 more inches on my girth, but will be so memorable I'll be able to share stories about it for years to come.
Trout almondine with terrines of courgette and carrot
Cases overflowing with luscious cheeses, goat, sheep, oh, and of course cow. Soft bries, Camembert's, mar bier, cheese of the region, as the walnut of the Perigeux, and the basque sheep's milk cheese in the south. The charcuterie, smoked, fresh sausages, dried sausages of duck, pork and even fish!

We have cooked part of the time, and eaten out on a regular basis. When sightseeing, it is easy to fall into the easy pattern of the long, leisurely 2 hour French lunch. Everything stops at 12:30 when the shops and markets close, and restaurant tables fill up. Sandwich boards on the sidewalk advertise the plats du jour, or the menu specials. Prix fixe menus are the norm all over France, and offer the best value for the money. For a fixed price, nominally between 12 and 20 Euros, one gets a choice of appetizers, main course and dessert. Regional wines by the carafe are also offered at nominal prices, and always complement the meal.
A salad nicoise Dordogne style
I'd love to think that French women don't get fat because  all this food, laced with buttery sauces and accompanied by the best bread on the planet does not expand the waistline, but there must be another reason. I suspect it is because they do not eat croissants for every breakfast, enjoy buerre blanc drizzled over every piece of fish, and do not finish every meal with mousse chocolate. What I do know, is that portions are smaller, food is beautifully prepared and presented, and so wonderfully satisfying, that less truly is more. Sitting with a friend and taking two hours to enjoy lunch, or 3 hours for dinner is nearly unheard of where I live. The pace is relaxed and unhurried, people expect to enjoy their meals, do not eat in their cars or while walking down the street. Children leave school and go home for lunch, and shops while closed during lunch, reopen about 2:30 or 3:00 and stay open til about 7:00PM.

We will be home in a few days. I so hope we'll be able to bring a small bit of the flavor of this amazing flavorful country with us, and retain a little bit of the structured, unhurried lifestyle. I guess the only problem is that we don't have a boulangerie down on the corner!


Thursday, May 17, 2012

Once Upon A Time

Once upon a time there were kings and queens and knights and ladies, and princes and princesses and Joan of Arc. There were kingdoms and serfdom's and Castles... Oh My!
Amboise in the Loire Valley built in the 15th and 16 Century and is the burial site of Leonardo daVinci
The Loire Valley, about a 2 hour drive from Paris boasts the largest number of Renaissance Chateaux in a concentrated area on earth. The area has such historical significance, it is designated  a world heritage site by UNESCO. Some of the buildings are so large, it is hard to grasp the immensity of them, and when wandering inside, it is easy to imagine the great halls and corridors and drawing rooms filled with royalty.

The entry court at Amboise
We visited about a half dozen chateaux during our week in the Loire, and each exhibits it's own personality as it also holds it's own place in history. Most of the chateau are  minimally furnished, some well known for their art collections, some for their tapestries, some for their famous inhabitants, and some for the sheer beauty of their architecture, and gardens.

Flower arrangements at Amboise and Chenonceau were breathtaking and creative.
 Historical names and dates and battles have always eluded me, and I can't remember the names of architectural elements, either. My personal enjoyment of the amazing structures is through the sheer joy of experiencing the beauty and magnitude of them,, and trying to imagine how the commoner would have felt, scraping a meager existence from the land, whilst observing, or in fact participating in the building of these opulent monoliths.
My favorite, Chenanceau,  “Château des Dames” was built in 1513 by Katherine Briçonnet, and successively embellished by Diane de Poitiers then Catherine de Medici. Chenonceau was protected from the hardship of the revolution by Madame Dupin. The events surrounding these ladies opportunities to exhibit this power and authority in the 16th century reads like a soap opera.

Travel is best experienced with good friends, and our trip has been superb. We met Rick and Judi and Dan at our most wonderful gite "La Roderie" near Tours, France, on May 5. Enjoying two cars, we are able  spread out and go different directions, according to interest. British expats Sylvia and Len joined us mid week, so one day 4 of us headed out to Villandry. Now THERE is a Chateau of notice!
The gardens of Villandry deserve a posting all their own!

I'll make note here that this would make a marvelous field trip for our garden club! There was the series of Love gardens, the herb garden, the poteger, espaliered apples and pears, flowers, a sun garden, an amazing maze, and a wonderful little garden shop! The icing on the cake? A little cafe on the terasse which served vegetables from the garden, comfits made from the fruits, salads with fresh cut lettuces!
A 6" poppy in the Villandry Sun Garden

So, once upon a time I dreamt of visiting buildings that rose from the earth a thousand years ago, of knights and ladies and princesses in castle towers.... and last week, I wandered into the past and expanded my understanding of kings and queens, and crowns and kingdoms..... and of Joan of Arc! 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Quietest Corner of France

Imagine a place of soft, rolling hills. A patchwork of fields  planted in glowing golden rape seed, some emerald green with spring wheat, others bark brown waiting for the new seeded sunflowers to sprout. And then there are the grapes. Acre upon acre of neat vineyards interspersed between the flatter fields, planted with perfectly manicured grapevines, pale spring green leaves reaching for the sun.

Imagine little towns with ancient church spires, bells that peal for 5 minutes at noon each day, to remind everyone that noon is here, that the market and shops will close and everyone will scurry home for lunch with their families, or meet friends in the local bistro or restaurant for a leisurely mid day visit and meal.

  Imagine not hearing ambulances, freeway traffic or  air traffic. We see the occasional contrail, and today a couple of low flying jets buzzed the rooftops, but the general silence is noticeable. We hear frogs, and birds, and the skies are a brilliant clear blue. Oh, and then of course there are tractors, and hedge cutters, their buzzing and whirring off in the distance, but of course only between 8AM and noon, 2 PM and 5PM. So very civilised.

Life moves so slowly here, and the culture is so carefully guarded, there is no trash along the roadsides, and the roofs are covered with tiles that have survived for centuries. When old tiles break, they are replaced by new ones that are identical in style, and the only way one can tell the difference between old and new is the color and  lack of lichen growth.

Towns host the centers of commerce, and are surrounded by villages and hamlets. Some villages have small shops and services, but hamlets are just little groups of houses. Our friends live near the village of Semoussac in the hamlet of La Roudrie, which sits right on top of a hill, surrounded by the most lovely hills and fields imaginable.
Our friends live in the cluster of buildings at top left of the picture

Today we went to the nearby town of Montendre and browsed the lovely market. Stalls filled with succulent sea foods, meats, flowers, vegetables, plants, clothing, notions and fabric, were so enticing and inviting. 
Head cheese anyone?
Life in the Charente-Maritime region of France is quiet, ordered, predictable and pleasant. The people here seem to follow the same traditions that have existed here for generations, and whether it will continue remains to be seen. The social structure seems to work, and if there is an undercurrent of discontent among the young and a quest for change, it certainly doesn't seem obvious on the surface, in this most quiet corner of France.