Friday, January 18, 2008

Notre Recherche d'Escargots

It was a dark and stormy August night....ok, so maybe it wasn't stormy, but it was dark! So dark in fact, that we huddled together carrying flashlights. As we tiptoed through Monsieur Gonfalone's jardin the excitement grew. Was it too early? Would we find them? If so, how many?
There had been a storm earlier in the day and the snails would likely be out en masse. They love the moisture and a good rain encourages them to move about and eat some fresh greens. I've enjoyed escargots all buttery and garlicky, in restaurants and there is something appealing to me about gathering them up, as fresh as can be, to recreate the French specialty in the kitchen of our gite.
Emily and I had a great time snail hunting during our two-week stay at the Gite de La Ferme De La Magdelaine. Although we found many, many snails each night, we did not capture and cook them. I have every intention of doing just that this spring and will write about the experience, now that I have been advised by some knowledgeable French gourmand that you can actually catch and eat these slimy suckers! My adviser told me to feed them lettuce for a day or so, and then purge them in salt water. He didn't know the specifics, so I went to Food Network, my trusty resource for all things edible and this is what I found:

If using fresh snails, follow the procedure below for cleaning and preparing the shells:
INGREDIENTS: 48 fresh snails in their shells; White vinegar; Salt; Dry white wine; 1 onion, coarsely chopped; 2 carrots, coarsely chopped; 1 stalk celery, coarsely chopped; 1 bouquet garni; 10 cloves garlic, mashed; Salt & Freshly ground black pepper

Allow snails to fast for at least 1 day. (I'm guessing this starts after you feed them on lettuce, for a day or two)
Rinse snails under cold running water and then transfer to a large bowl and cover with white vinegar and a handful of salt. Cover snails with a heavy plate to keep them submerged and allow them to purge for at least 3 hours. Rinse again under cold running water and clean thoroughly to remove all traces of mucous. Place snails in a small saucepan and cover with water. Boil for 10 minutes. Drain and remove snails from their shells. Transfer shells to another saucepan and cover with salted water and boil for at least 30 minutes. Remove shells from the water, clean thoroughly and let them dry completely before proceeding. Clean shelled snails again and remove the black part at the end of the tail. Place snails in a saucepan and cover with a mixture of half water and half dry white wine. Add onion, carrots, celery, bouquet garni, 10 cloves garlic, salt, and pepper. Partially cover saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer for 2 hours, or until tender, and allow snails to cool in cooking liquid. Drain snails (discard poaching liquid) and pat snails dry. Proceed with recipe as directed.

Now, here is a great recipe for escargots from this part of France:
5 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup chopped shallots
Salt and pepper
3 dozen fresh snails, purged and removed from the shell
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 cup dry white wine
4 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small pieces
1 cup aioli, recipe follows
1 cup fine dried bread crumbs
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
Loaf crusty French bread

In a large saute pan, over medium heat, add 2 tablespoons of the oil. When the oil is hot, add the shallots. Season with salt and pepper. Saute for 1 minute. Add the snails and garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Continue to saute for 1 minute. Add the wine and bring to a simmer. Cook for 10 minutes. Stir in the cold butter. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Remove the pan from the heat. Place the snails in the porcelain snail dishes. Spoon the liquid over each snail. Spoon a teaspoon of the aioli over each snail. In a small mixing bowl, combine the bread crumbs, parsley and remaining oil. Season with salt and pepper. Mix well. Sprinkle the bread crumb mixture over the aioli. Place the dishes on a baking dish and place on the top shelf of the oven. Broil for 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and cool slightly. Serve the snails with French Bread and wine.

Aioli: 4 cloves garlic
2 egg yolks
Pinch salt
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons good olive oil
Place the garlic in a large mortar and crush. Add the eggs and incorporate. Season with salt. Slowly stir in the oil, a little at a time, until all of the oil is incorporated and the mixture is like a thick mayonnaise. Yield: about 1 cup

Monday, January 14, 2008

Notre Voisin Italien

I'd like to introduce you to our Italian neighbor, Armando Perrone. He has lived in our village for more than twenty years and serves as a trusted guardian of most vacation homes in the area. Should you arrive in St. Roman without a place to stay, he is the man to see, as he carries the keys and can match you with an available house that fits your needs.

In addition to being a great superintendent and manager for the owners of our home, Armando also serves as general contractor for new construction under way at the southwest end of the village.

(More about Armado in the months ahead, so please come back soon!)

Friday, January 11, 2008

Notre Dîner Partagé

One day this week, while I was surfing the net, I had the good fortune to discover a great recipe for Tarte à la Tomate, through a link on Kristin Espinasse’s French Word a Day blog. (I am on the newsletter list for this entertaining and informative website.)

This recipe is so simple; I did a quick look around and discovered I already had all four ingredients; no trip to the marché would be necessary! As I commenced preparation, I thought, "This looks too good not to share." I quickly phoned my voisine down the rue and asked her to join us. “It’s going to be a simple dinner,” I said, “just a tomato pie, a green salad and a loaf of bread.” (Vin goes without saying when you live in France!)

Julie, a former actress on the BBC, said that the menu sounded perfect for her healthy eating New Year's resolution. I quickly washed the lettuce for the salad, set the table and my daughter popped the tarte into the oven. Twenty minutes later, Julie and I were sipping wine and sharing tales; the pie was out of the oven and the house smelled divine.

Throughout my adult life, I have loved to entertain. But looking back, there were many years I burdened myself with Martha Stewart heroics. When entertaining reaches that level, it just becomes too much work for a hostess to relax, unless of course, you’ve got a sizeable staff hanging out in the kitchen. As part of my effort to simplify my life and focus on the things that bring me pleasure, I am re-defining the way that I entertain.

With redefinition, mid-week, impromptu dinners become manageable; Guests enjoy family meals. More time is found for building friendships, as the visits tag to things that you are going to be doing anyway! I warned Julie that the house would not be clean and she insisted such was not important; she’s dropped by enough to be aware of what she was getting into. As it turned out, this dinner was such a breeze that, as the pie cooked, I had a few extra minutes to hide away the clutter and make a quick sweep of the floor before she arrived. And Emily had time to review her spelling words for the next day’s exam. We were prêt à manger!

In all, it was a wonderful evening and I am so grateful that I listened not to the voice in my head (you know the party-pooper) saying, “You don’t have enough time to put together a dinner…doing this is going to take away valuable writing time…it’s going to keep Emily from her homework.” That voice was wrong. Le voilà! I had my story. Yes, a few dishes lay in the sink, but I could wash them in the morning while I waited for the coffee to brew. As I turned out the lights, got into bed and closed my eyes, contentment sang me to sleep. Isn’t that what life is about?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Opération Brioche

What is brioche you might ask? Well, it is this wonderfully delicious, slightly sweet, soft, light yeast bread, formed into 6-8 rolls gathered to make a circle. It is great for breakfast, but some of us have been known to eat brioche morning, noon and night until our supply runs out!

Now that you know what brioche is, I bet you are really wondering how one could make an "operation" i.e. a campaign not unlike a military manoevre, out of a bunch of rolls. Well, that was what I wondered back in October, when I learned that the Président de l'Association des Parents des Élèves de l'École Jean Moulin had decided that I would be the one to "deploy" the brioche, the one responsible for the success of the Association's mission, because he and his family were going to the mountains during Opération Brioche! Should we all run for the hills I wondered?

(~more to come~)

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Notre Petite École Jean Moulin

As one might expect, enrollment of minor children into the French public school system is a requisite for being granted legal residence in this country. This was one of the wonderful benefits I looked forward to in planning our move to France: no longer would I be paying private school tuition for Emily's French emmersion education. Her former school, Denver International School had prepared her well for the transition. Before leaving, I made copies of all her report cards and made certain that they, and several of her most recent French workbooks (mathematiques, graphiques, dictee, etc.) were packed in the suitcase.

During our first week in Provence, while we waited for our house in St. Roman to be vacated, I visited with the Secretaire de la Mairie, Nathalie in preparation for Emily's enrollment. You see, the school would need a letter from the Maire that verified Emily was a resident of St. Roman. Nathalie said "Ne t'inquiète pas!" (Don't worry!) and she gave me the phone number for the Maitress so that I could arrange an advance meeting to go over Emily's abilities. She said that the teacher wanted to determine just how much French Emily knew coming in.

During the following week, I called the number at every opportunity, to no avail, as the first day of school rapidly approached! I had been told that Mme Cottin resided in an apartment above the school...couldn't she hear the phone ring?....was there no sense of urgency to prepare for the upcoming start? (OK, it's clear I was looking at this through American eyes!) On the morning before the first day of school, at last, she answered. Yes, she wanted to meet with us, but she would only be there until 11:30! I quickly scheduled our rendez-vous for 10:45. We gathered up all of Emily's books and documents and headed to the car.

Our meeting with Annette Cottin went quite well; I could see her visibly relax as she started to peruse Emily's work. Yes, the books were identical to the texts she uses and it was clear that Emily was an excellent student. I left her a copy of all four years of Emily's DIS reportcards (written in both French and English), from maternelle, petite section to grande section, CP (1st grade) and CE1 (2nd grade). Emily would enter CE2(3rd grade). She informed us that the school day would start at 9am and finish at 4:30, but the children go home for lunch from noon to 1:30. Furthermore, while the school week used to consist of only 4 days, with no classes whatsoever on Wednesdays, the Department Vaucluse was instituting a new schedule (quel dommage) which would require attendance every other Wednesday, for a half-day class, 9 to noon.

Ms. Cottin showed us the one-room school and told Emily she would be allowed to select one of the desks on the first day. Emily was facinated, as the wooden tops of the desks lift up for storage of the children's books and supplies. I was informed that the school expected enrollment of 11 students and that they ranged from 1st through 5th grade. There was one sheet of paper for me to fill out, with contact information (no releases or waivers to sign!) and I would need to purchase the nationally required student insurance (12-36 euros, depending upon the extent of coverage preferred) She handed me the vacation schedule, jotted down the class hours and a few items for us to purchase: 1 cahier de jour (day planner), 2 cahiers (4-ring binders) and a couple packets of dividers. C'etait tout!

Monday, January 7, 2008

Notre Petite Voiture Rouge

Just look at this little red car. Can you believe it is being driven by an American lawyer who used to drive a fully-loaded luxury Lexus SUV? No leather seats in this little car and no automatic DVD changer....actually no DVD player at all and the radio only works occasionally! But, it is paid-for and it runs. This car reminds me of the first car I bought in Boston. It was an ancient Volkswagen fastback with visible rust; advantages? I never had to worry about it being stolen and other drivers always gave me the right-of-way ~ they figured I had nothing to lose ~ a big advantage navigating the roadways in Boston!

Here in France this petite voiture rouge has huge advantage when I'm searching for a parking spot on market day ~ it will fit anywhere. Now that gas prices have climbed and the dollar has tumbled, I am especially glad that this little Citroën gets about 450 km per 25 litres! And when the tourists flood the streets in the summer, pas de problème. I'll have to post some photos of our "neighborhood" and you will understand the greatest advantage: I can navigate the streets of the vieux villages without fear of side-swiping the stone walls or taking out a camera toting tourist...I swear, some passages are only about five feet wide.

I'll tell you more about how I came to purchase this voiture in a later post.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Notre Queue Française

This morning, I read a humorous article written by John Philipp on His article, posted December 31st, is entitled Waiting in Line…a new approach and it deserves a read. The author suggests that those who are “waiting” in line are “linees” while those who can reframe the experience are “liners.” He supports his ideas with examples and experiments that readers can try out. So far, the article has generated more than 150 comments from the Gather community, including several which note the behavior of people in lines in Italy and Great Britain. The article and comments got me thinking about the interesting French line behavior I have observed since my arrival last August. As they illustrate, every culture has its peculiarities when it comes to lines. My story describes clear differences I’ve experienced as a “linee” in the US as contrasted with those in France. Here in Provence, the most common thread in line behavior that I have observed is the sense of community and relationship enjoyed by most folks in these small villages.

For example, one day this fall, I was standing in line, five people deep, at my bank in le grand village of Vaison La Romaine (the “big” town, pop ~ 5,000), waiting for the seul (only) teller that works behind the desk. Each time the buzzer rang and the clerk unlocked the door to admit yet another linee, all the French folks in line turned to greet the newcomer. Not wanting to appear rude or too conspicuously foreign, I too, turned on cue each time and greeted each client as they joined the back of the line. It was a Friday and the line grew at least eight deep as I neared the counter. As each satisfied customer departed, those of us remaining in line bid the lucky fellow good day on his way out!

This French bank line behavior casts a striking contrast to the behavior I have observed of those waiting at banks in America. First of all, I have never seen any line of American bank customers, in unison, turn to greet an arriving customer. Second, we Americans tend to be annoyed that the folks ahead of us may not be appropriately organized to expedite their turn at the counter and it is not out of happiness for them, but for ourselves advancing in the line, that we are thrilled to see those slowpokes move along and leave the bank! In addition, here in Provence, no matter how long you have waited, when your turn finally comes, it would be unthinkable to simply rush up to the counter and make your demand. It is anticipated that one will extend a greeting and pleasantries, no matter how brief, before moving to the business of the day. To do otherwise will certainly peg you as an American!

Moving on to the second occasion that comes to mind, I vividly recall joining a line at a gas station on the 31st of August. It was a Friday morning and I was in a hurry to get to Avignon to return my rental car before 10 a.m. in order to avoid an additional day of fees. I was scheduled to pick up the car that I had purchased and I had to be back to my village by noon to meet my daughter for lunch. I raced into the only gas station within 20 kilometers of my tiny village. After filling up, I literally trotted inside to pay. Ahead of me were three gentlemen, and the line was growing. It was early morning and presumably everyone needed to get on about his business. After the first customer paid his bill and turned to leave, the clerk, a grandmotherly woman, slowly came out from behind the counter and wrapped her arms around the next customer, a young man, greeted him warmly and gave him the requisite three bises (kisses mutually administered one at a time to alternating cheeks; You see, not one, or two, but no less than three of these kisses are expected in this part of France). She inquired about the health of the young man’s family, chatted for a moment and then returned to her station behind the register.

What amazed me was that no one else in line seemed impatient or showed any sort of concern that the clerk’s social life was holding up our service. After a moment of reflection, I said a silent prayer of thanks that I had chosen to move to a place where people took time for each other, but I also expressed my gratitude that (Thank God!) the clerk was not on kissing terms with any of the other “linees.” After all, I had only been in Provence for two weeks and it takes time to undo decades of Americanization…

Can you imagine the American reaction to a convenience store clerk who dared behave in the way of the French grandmother? Beyond the obvious displays of impatience that would have ensued, at least one waiting customers would likely have complained to management that the clerk was spending too much time on personal business. If the behavior persisted day after day, week after week, as it surely does at the station in Tulette, such a clerk in the U.S. would eventually be called in by a supervisor and told to stop fraternizing or face termination!

My most recent French line experience of note occurred on New Year’s Eve as I was driving through a tollbooth on the autoroute near Orange. I handed the attendant my Capital One Visa, normally a very quick process. Within seconds, she reached out to hand me back my card and my receipt, but paused to take another look at, not the signature side, but the FRONT side of the card. As the file de voitures (line of cars) behind me grew, she proceeded to explain to me that my Carte Bleue was très jolie, in fact, the most beautiful she had ever seen (and I imagine she has seen quite a few!). Clearly she felt no sense of stress or urgency to clear the line. You see, my card sports the famous Vincent van Gogh painting Starry Night, c.1889. I drove away feeling happy to have shared an interest in art with that young woman, even though no bises were exchanged and I will likely never see her again. Boy, am I pleased that I had the good fortune last year, to select an Impressionist painter's work to adorn my Visa card!

Can you believe that not one single French motorist tooted a horn as I sat there with my foot on the brake? It was New Year’s Eve for heaven’s sake and surely everyone had a party to attend. Furthermore, it was obvious that we were just chatting; she had handed me my receipt and the gate had been raised. I was free to depart, but I had not moved on. Nope, I’m fairly certain that, under the same circumstances, horns would have honked at most American tollbooths! In fact, I’ve experience impatient honking on more than one occasion when I dared to ask directions of a grumpy American tollbooth attendant after being given the green light…(b.t.w. I don’t recommend asking questions or taking time to chat at tollbooths in New York or Massachusetts!)

While my little village of about 200 people rarely experiences a queue (line) more than 2 people deep, and that, usually only at the Mairie (city hall) or maybe at the Salle de Fête (literally: party room, but more like an American community hall) on lôto (a game similar to bingo) night, I do find myself in lines when running my errands in neighboring villages. Now that four months have passed, I’m behaving less and less like an American as I take my place in these French queues. As a result, I’m feeling less stressed and more patient. Alors, si l’on qui attends (Thus, if the one who waits) can stop looking at her watch and focus on relationships, the lines in these villages become social opportunities! Very civilized, wouldn’t you say?

If you are in need of a five minute break, a moment to relax, then please click this link to enjoy the beautiful music video tribute to Vincent van Gogh, created by talented artist, Anthony DiFatta. I never tire of hearing Don McLean's song, Vincent, especially poignant accompanied by DiFatta's slide show of van Gogh's moving works. Learn more about van Gogh's tragic life.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Welcome to Notre Vie Quotidienne

Bienvenue! I invite and welcome you into our daily life in the tiny village of Saint Roman de Malegarde, situated in the hills of Provence. Over the coming month, I will be adding articles at a lightening pace, to bring you up to speed with all that has gone on since our arrival in mid-August 2007. There have been so many wonderful experiences to report, as well as challenges we have overcome. With four months behind us, our home is settled and our papers are in order. France has embraced us. My desk is clear and the writing has begun. I hope you will enjoy the adventure.