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...I'm actually going to produce a blog post. And since I'm in France, and since France is about food, mainly, I've decided to blog about cooking in France for the next few weeks. Our gite (holiday house) has an exceedingly modestly equipped kitchen, but it is a kitchen. It all works, except for the rather ancient electric stove, which quits working if you make the mistake of boiling water in the electric kettle at the same time as heating the oven and running a burner. (That's easily enough mended by a short visit to the fuse box, though.) We've been here a week now, and I've been collecting some photos and thoughts, so I herewith launch my French Food Blog. (Put it this way, it is not only more fun than working, but possibly more useful than the sudoku puzzles that I've become addicted to. I'm proud to say that I can do them in French. Let's see, I need an un, a quatre, and a neuf...)
Well, since everything is several days behind the actual event anyhow, I'll begin with the crise de fois - actually, just a crisis, not one of the liver. It was the infamous "Foreigner Forgets About The Local Customs" crisis. Actually, there have already been two of these. The first, and minor, one was that I got thrown out of the grocery store last Tuesday at 12:15, as all the grocery stores close for lunch then - for 2 hours! They don't just cram down a sandwich around here, I can tell you that! But the more serious crisis was on Sunday morning, when I remembered that the stores aren't open. At all. All day. Except the boulangeries, of course, but only until noon. So we could get bread and pastries, but not much else. (That may not sound all that bad, but we do have minimum standards of protein intake.) Now at home that wouldn't be a crisis at all, unless we were out of milk for tea. We could probably live for a month out of the pantry and freezer, and this past semester was so busy that sometimes we practically did that. But here in France, with no car, the contents of the kitchen are what I've managed to haul home from the grocery store, which is more than a kilometer away. (How about that, I'm already speaking metric!) And since each day's shopping last week also had to include things like shampoo and toilet paper, then there isn't much excess stored up. Here, in fact, is an inventory of what was in the cupboard:
Photo 1 – lots of jam, old bread, and herb teas – not too much help so far…
Photo #2 – this is a bit more promising. A box of rice – “semi-complet” – meaning it doesn’t taste as good as regular rice, but you can feel better about yourself; flour, sugar, cornstarch, vanilla powder (custard making stuff is one of the first things one has to acquire wherever you are, if you are married to an Englishman). Bottom shelf – Himalayan pink salt – I don’t know that it tastes any different, but it comes with an adorable tiny wooden salt spoon, and who could pass that up? Pepper mill, cinnamon, whole nutmegs (a tiny grater comes in the jar,) large bag of herbes de provence (can’t live without that), olive oil, bouillon de poule (that’s chicken stock to you,) and a pot of mixed spices for paella that turns out to be mostly salt and tumeric – a bit of a disappointment.
In the next photo, the bowls contain onions, garlic, a small melon, and apples, with a basil plant handy. That’s balsamic vinegar to the right. Standing at the back is my best acquisition so far, a cheap set of Japanese knives – and I do mean cheap, 8 euros for the pair. Unfortunately the kitchen is not kitted out with good knives, so I always have to buy one or two when I get here.
This photo has, I think, a kind of lovely pathos to it. This is the contents of our fridge as of Sunday morning. There are 2 small pots of yogurt, a bottle of lemon juice, a small bowl of leftover ratatouille, and a box of olives. In the drawer is part of a head of lettuce and a rather old yellow pepper. In the door is milk, butter, half of a small goat cheese, a box of eggs, and a bottle of water. Oh, I think there is part of a bottle of hard cider as well. In the freezer is the piece de resistance, a pint of black current sorbet.
And finally, when hope seemed at its lowest ebb, Tony’s wonderful colleague Natalie showed up with these two partial wheels of farm Munster. It is a specialty of the Vosges, where she hails from, and her brother had brought them that day. For those of you unfamiliar with farm Munster, there are various stages in which you can get it. The fresh stage (which is what the one wrapped in the green paper is) is white and rather crumbly, and is reminiscent of Wensleydale. Don’t mention that to the French, though. It has a definite cheese smell, but isn’t too powerful. The next stage is the one in the red wrapper – aged for a few months. It is still white and crumbly in the center, but the outside has an unhealthy reddish coating that is a bit slimy. Around the white crumbly center it is getting soft and gooey. It smells like old gym socks – the sort that a son-in-law who shall remain nameless left in a hockey bag for a year or so, and were well ripened by the time we cleaned out the bag and found them. The final stage has, I believe, a black wrapper. At this point it has aged for about six months. The outside is an even more unhealthy shade of orange-red, and the inside is soft through. The smell is one more usually associated with something dead. Dead for a considerable period of time. Even in an airtight plastic box, it perfumes your refrigerator, and from thence your kitchen, in an unmistakable fashion. The taste? To die for. It is heavenly. Natalie’s brother, however, apparently declined to travel several hours in a hot car with this particular stage of cheese. So we had to be content with the cheeses shown. And content we were. Dinner was suddenly elevated from something rather prosaic to a feast.
So what did I make with all of this? I could have made an omelet, of course, but since they are the only thing Tony knows how to cook, I don’t care much for them, as I tend to associate them with being too sick to cook myself. What I actually did was to sautée a handful of rice (there aren’t any measuring cups in the gite kitchen either) in garlic, olive oil, onions, and a spoonful of paella spices, throw in a bouillon cube, and cook it until the rice was (not quite) soft. I then spread it in a casserole dish and covered it with the leftover ratatouille. This went into the oven for about 20 minutes, just until it got hot. I took a picture, but frankly it looked rather like one of those old postcards of a delicious dinner at Denny’s, where everything is basically brown, so I gave it a miss.
Next we had a salad, with lettuce, yellow pepper, fresh basil, and a bit of roasted beet (forgot to mention that in the fridge) dressed with the balsamic vinegar and olive oil.
Next, the cheese board:
There was also a loaf of artisanal bread of a rather wonderful sort, also donated by Natalie.
Finally, dessert – I halved the melon, filled the centers with sorbet, and inserted a Nairn’s Stem Ginger oatcake, thoughtfully imported from Britain by yours truly the previous week.
How did it all taste? Well, the rice thingy was really not too bad – I’ve definitely paid for worse at decent restaurants. I’m not jotting the info down in a little book, however – it was definitely an occasional meal. The salad was delicious. The lettuce that I get at the Covered Market in Metz is so tender and good. I promise a picture of the next whole lettuce I buy – they are minor works of art. Actually, I’ll take some pictures of the market itself too. There is a fishmonger, a couple of cheese stalls, miles of fruits and vegetables, and just when you thought things couldn’t get any better, the Soup Nazi right in the middle. Actually, though, he’s really nice. And the soup is delicious. But back to the meal – the cheese board was wonderful, of course, and the dessert got mixed reviews. The sorbet was fantastic, but it is really too early for melons, so it didn’t have that lush flavor that one expects. That is the only problem with coming this early – we usually come in mid-June – there isn’t much in the way of really nice fruit. The Nairn’s Stem Ginger Biscuits are, of course, beyond reproach. It is just as well that it is difficult to get them in the US…
Finally, a satisfied customer: