Friday, March 7, 2008

My Weekly Exercise and Le Mistral

We have this "wind" in Provence, known as le mistral. My friend Kay, the mom of Rainer, a student in Emily's second grade class last year at DIS, kindly tried to warn me about it. They had lived in Toulouse for several years when Rainer was a baby. "Oh, Kay...," I thought, "I can deal with wind; after all, it is known to gust so strongly in the foothills of Denver, that occasionally an SUV gets knocked over!" Little did I know what lay in store with le mistral, (specifically, a cold gale-force wind, with gusts up to 100 kts, that can endure, unrelenting for as much as 65 hours, only to continue for several more 65 hour stretches, after an occasion, and all too brief, middle-of-the-night break.)

More than a wind, le mistral is a giant bully that once awakened, just won't stop pushing and shoving. If I were ever asked to give the one reason not to move here, my answer would not be the incessant challenges of dealing with French bureaucracy or the closed society of village life, nor the lack of shops or modern conveniences, and not the high cost of essentials such as books, gas, clothing, food, media and electronics. No, my answer would unquestionably be: le mistral.

I tell you about the mistral today because it has been blowing fiercely all week and the weather forecast gives no hope of immediate relief. Normally, when the wind is blowing, I head over to the piscine in St. Paul de Trois Châteaux and get my thrice-weekly endorphin boost through thirty minutes of intense swimming. Unfortunately, that was not a choice available to me because the pool is closed all week for annual cleaning! Beyond the lack of access to the pool, I had hoped to gather pictures along my run route that winds through the vineyards on a small farm road that runs parallel to the river from St. Roman de Malegarde in the direction of Cairanne, so that I could show you the wild white sweet alyssum growing abundantly, en mass throughout the vineyards. Thus, after too many days without exercise, I donned my running clothes. Against my better judgment, I headed out the door and into the wind. Hey, I once ran during a snowstorm in Boston; this shouldn't be so bad; after all, the sun was shining!

According to AccuWeather, the temperature had been -2°C (29°F) overnight and by 1pm, had risen to 5°C (41°F), but the "RealFeel" with the wind was -1°C (31°F) The first sensation of cold and wind took my breath away. After I got beyond the stone houses in the haut village, I had the benefit of sun shining on one side of my body, while cold wind pelted the shaded side. Not so bad I thought; the sunny side was actually quite warm. It created an interesting contrast of sensations on my skin. During normal (non-windy) runs, the scent of the delicate white blooms is just like the sweet alyssum that for decades I planted in my flower boxes, rich like honey. However, when I reached the flat terrain that lines the vineyards, the wind was so cold and gusting so hard that I could not perceive any smells whatsoever. I focused on remaining debout.

Upon nearing the halfway point, I stopped to snap some photos of the wild French sweet alyssum. The mistral was shaking the field with such force that the flowers were a white blur between the grapevines. Only the thick old vines stood still. I had not realized how cold my hands had gotten within my gloves; it was difficult to make the lens adjustments and push the shutter so I had to temporarily remove the gloves. As I focused the camera for a close-up, I realized that the wind was keeping the flowers from their normal, vertical stance. I crouched and waited for a break in the gust. Suddenly a moment of calm arrived; I snapped a couple of photos and then was nearly knocked off my feet when the hammering resumed.

With my hands practically numb from exposure while taking the pictures, it was time for me to head back as quickly as possible. I rounded the corner, turned away from Cairanne and began the trek toward St. Roman. Suddenly I was facing the full force of the mistral head-on. I had not realized what I would be up against on the route home. I was picking up my legs and thrusting them in front of me with all my might, but it was as if I was not moving. After thirty minutes of this, I had covered less than 50% of the return trip. My thighs ached and my skin was numb. Why on earth had I ventured out in this wind? Head down, I inched forward, muscles burning from the strain. It was as though my whole body was being pushed back.

At last, I made it to the house. A run that normally takes me 30 minutes, 35-40 if I stop to take photos, took nearly three times as long! Now I understand why the houses here are built of stone. As in the children’s tale of the three pigs, there really is a wind who, like the wolf, can blow a lesser house to the ground, and it is known as le mistral. When my hands warmed up I checked AccuWeather: Winds from the north were no less than 17 mph and the steady gusts were upwards of 42 mph. The temperature had warmed to 9°C (49°F) but the “RealFeel” was °C (39°F). I was very happy to be back inside our heated home. Though my muscles were sore for several days, the experience was invigorating; I had my endorphins, my photos and my story!

“Behind the Mistral is the beauty of Provence. Its fierceness blows away clouds and grime and doubt, leaving colors the depth of dreams and a freshness that can come only after the Mistral's scouring...Provence needs the Mistral or it ceases to be the Provence of my dreams. I need the Mistral to cut through those dreams to truth - beauty comes after the wind.” Kamiah A. Walker

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Poule au Riz, Part II

A couple of days ago I told you about the memorable Sunday lunch we enjoyed at the home of our neighbors, Odile and Armando Perrone. As promised, I have scanned Odile's recette for cooking the elderly hen. Remember that most French family recipes are "au pif" so, follow your gut where the instructions or measures may be vague. If you do try Odile's Poule au Riz, you will have a tender chicken with delicious sauce that is great on the rice as well as the slices of hen. Let me know how yours turns out.

This recipe serves 6 to 8 people.


1 Hen (not a young one)

2 carrots

1 onion, with 3 whole cloves stuck in it

1 bouquet garni (thyme and bay leaves)

250 grams rice

salt & pepper

for the sauce:

2 soupspoons of potato starch

1/2 glass cold water

1/4 glass of boullion (taken from cooked chicken's pot)

1/2 juice of a lemon

2 soupspoons of capers

salt & pepper

Put 2 liters of boiling water into a large stockpot. Add carrots, onion with cloves inserted, bouquet garni and salt. Plunge the hen into the boiling water and and cook at least two hours, maybe more, until tender.

In the mean time, rinse the rice and let it drain. When the hen is done, season with pepper, remove it and keep it warm; cook the rice.

To make the sauce, in a small bowl, put the 2 soupspoons of potato starch; add the 1/2/ glass of cold water and mix well. Remove the 1/4 glass of hot bouillon from the chicken pot and add to the sauce. Mix very well. Add the lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste.

Serve a slice of chicken accompanied by the rice and the sauce.

Enjoy with a smooth French white wine.

Bon Appetit!

Monday, March 3, 2008

Notre Poule au Riz

In past posts, I've frequently mentioned my Italian voisin, Armando. It was with Armando and his family that we traveled to Italie and spent a whirlwind weekend on the gorgeous Italian coast the day after my birthday. I also mentioned the Perrones in the story about our Sunday promenade in February.

During the six months we have lived here, we have had a number of great meals at the Perrone home. Usually, we arrive to find both Armando and Odile in the kitchen. However, our most memorable meal to date was the Poule au Riz we enjoyed one recent Sunday, prepared solely by Odile. She is a very soft-spoken and kind woman. She dropped by earlier in the week to invite us to dinner and she asked me if I thought Emily would be “ok” with a vrai French poule dinner. People frequently ask me what Emily will eat in advance of dinners at their homes, so I thought nothing of it. Of course, Emily loves chicken.

Sunday arrived and we headed over at noon. The aroma in the house was heavenly. Odile explained that the key to the dinner was going to the nearby hen farm and asking for an old hen. A young hen won’t do for this recipe. The flavor and ultimate results will not be the same. An old hen will stand up to the two hours or so that the meal cooks.

She lifted the poule out of the pot and I managed to keep my mouth closed as it dawned on me why she had come by earlier in the week to see whether I thought it would bother Emily to have the meal. The old hen we were having for lunch still had her head, beak and legs attached. I’m glad she was old; I hope she had lived a good life. We found it fascinating, not at all disturbing. I have to say, it gave me a respect for the meal that I have not previously felt. I believe that we need to regain connection with the food we eat. Life in this small country village is giving us that connection. I am grateful for this opportunity.

The meal was memorable not only for the poule, but also for the wonderful sauce Odile prepared. She explained that although it had a lemon flavor, it was not a true béchamel, but was made in a lighter fashion, without crème. I am going to post the recipe, but because the notes she gave me are all in French, that post will occur at another time, as I have a couple of things I may have to discuss with Odile. I recall that clous de girofle does not have anything to do with nails, but refers to whole cloves and that fècule is starch, but I can’t remember, as I write this, what Odile meant by fècule de p-de-t.

You may rest assured that any time I see “ c à s” in a French recette I have come to understand that it means you need a soupspoon full of the ingredient, while “c à café” does not mean add a spoonful of coffee, but instead, use a coffee spoon to measure an ingredient! The way the French write their recipes is rather charming. Thus, I‘ve decided the best solution will be to scan and post her hand-written recipe with this story. Ahhh, it's coming back to me; p-de-t; of course, pomme de terre; use potato starch for the sauce! Rest assured, the translation will be worth the wait.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Opération Brioches, Part II

Back on January 10th, I posted an article entitled Opération Brioche and I promised that there would be more to this story. Unfortunately, back in October when the story took place, I was not in “Blog Mode” and I did not have the foresight to take photos of the 60 brioches stacked in my car and my kitchen. Nor did I take photos of the Opération Brioches events. Since the January 10th post, I have been searching for photos of brioches to accompany this post.

Having at last come across some fitting brioches and having scanned the official Opération Brioches brochure, I give you Opération Brioches, Part II, followed by a little “brioches photo tour” I have gathered over the course of the past several weeks. (And you thought I was just loafing all this time…;)

As you may recall from the original post, a brioche is a delicious, slightly sweet, soft, light yeast bread, formed into 6-8 rolls gathered in a circle. As I discovered during my brioche photo quest, it comes in many varieties. But the type used in Opération Brioches is the basic, simple, unfrosted variety that looks more like a cluster of dinner rolls than a frosted Danish.

The Opération Brioches brochure explains that this event was about raising funds for “mentally handicapped” children. I use the word “handicapped” in this article, knowing that it is not a politically correct word in America. However, it is the word used in France! As it turns out, the Opération Brioches event occurs every October through all of the schools, nationwide, in conjunction with radio advertising and a telethon to raise funds for France’s “mentally handicapped” individuals.

But, back to the story of my microcosmic experience with Opération Brioches, as an étrangère and newcomer to this tiny French village. At the time that Christophe de Carpentrie, Président de l'Association des Parents des Élèves de l'École Jean Moulin, told me (he did not “ask”) that I would be in charge of our village version of Opération Brioches, I was absolutely clueless. I knew it was a fundraiser, but I did not understand the purpose and I had no idea how it was to be implemented. My immediate reaction was overwhelm. I envisioned making calls (in French) to boulangeries, asking them to donate brioches and then figuring out an appropriate price, creating signage, etc. As a former Brownie Girl Scout leader of a “super seller” troop, I could certainly handle such a manœuvre in English, in America, but in French and in France? I had no comprehension of the cultural expectations.

When Christophe explained that the brioches would be available at the mairie in Vaison la Romaine, I told him he would have to go with me to pick them up. So he did. While he loaded the brioches into the vehicle, I ran over to my bank and got change. Upon gathering the brioches that Thursday afternoon, I began to understand. This was to be a three-day event, starting Friday and taking place throughout France; Each association could decide when and where, over the course of the three days they would sell their allotted brioches. The allotment and price were predetermined and all brioches would be sold for 5 euros apiece. The fundraiser was something that takes place every year; people throughout France were anticipating the purchase of these brioches.

Last year our village school sold 50 brioches; I was determined we would sell our entire allotment this year. So I did my part; I bought three and Emily and I discovered just how delicious they were; we had finished all three by Monday morning. Emily and I called upon our neighbors and alerted them to the sale; we had pre-orders for a dozen brioches. I was told to go to Chez Claudette to ask the proprietor to have our brioches on hand at her restaurant during her lunch rush. She packs the place at noon, day in and day out; surely there we could make early progress with our sale. So on Friday morning, I went by; Claudette agreed and I left with her, our sales permit and two boxes containing 20 brioches. She sold an additional thirteen.

Next would come the Friday afternoon, after-school party for the eleven élèves at Emily's school. I set up a table on the school patio with drinks (sirop for the water, and fruit juice) and brioches for all the children to eat, along with chunks of chocolate (how French!). I unloaded the remaining 40 or so packages of brioches. After serving the children and filling family orders, we had about 15 packages remaining to be sold. Several mothers and a cluster of children set out to show me how the sale was to be completed. We went around to village houses, in a somewhat haphazard way, stopping primarily at the homes of their friends. Within two hours and as darkness arrived, we had sold all the brioches. Mission accomplished!

During all of this, I thought there was tension in the air. Later, I learned that the mothers had been up in arms over a number of issues. First, they could not believe that I left boxes of brioches at Claudette’s restaurant. It had never been done that way in their village; surely I should have stayed there at the restaurant, selling and collecting. They said that Claudette did not have authority to sell the brioches. But, when I showed them the permits I had received from the mairie and I explained that Claudette had one of the permits on hand, posted at her restaurant the entire time she was selling, they reluctantly acknowledged that, yes it could be done that way. In fact, so long as Claudette was willing, it was a much more efficient way to get the sales! Whew!

Next, the mothers were upset that I was in charge of the money. With 60 brioches sold, at 5 euros each, I had amassed, with everyone’s assistance, a sum of 300 euros (equivalent to $450 US dollars). Certainly, I had handled more than ten times that amount with Girl Scout cookie sales, but I was an étrangère and they had no reason to trust me. It was Friday night and I would be unable to unload the money on anyone or make the bank deposit until the following week. Christine, mother of Gaëtan had been treasurer the prior year; she knew the ropes; she offered to drive me to Vaison to take care of the deposit on Tuesday afternoon. And so it went. On Tuesday, all the money was double-checked and turned over at the mairie in Vaison. Double whew!

But they were still upset…the bottom line was that they felt Christophe, le Président, should never have turned the matter over to me. It was not just that I was an étrangère; apparently there has been a long-standing quarrel among the parents. I’ve tried to get to the bottom of the dispute, but each time I get close, it seems to shift. I have heard that the mothers do not like the way he treats them; he gives a lot of orders, but appears to do little himself. I asked if this is a man vs. woman sort of problem; the moms said maybe...

From my understanding of village life, another component in the discord may be that the de Carpentries are “outsiders.” While they are French, they are not from around here; they are from a far-away village in northern France. The family bought land and moved here about three years ago. They have built a house on the land and appear to be planning to stay and raise their children in this village. In some ways, I think they would be better off as true étrangers from a foreign country; the villagers seem much more accepting and forgiving of our blunders than they may ever be toward their fellow Frenchman. Maybe my speculation is naïve.

Either way, there seems to be an active campaign against Christophe, while the women have sympathy for his wife, Anne-Catherine I’m trying to discern whether he has earned the negative rapport. This conflict is just beneath the surface of every event undertaken by l'Association des Parents des Élèves de l'École Jean Moulin. It will take more encounters with this group and a lot more analysis to reach a point of understanding those interpersonal dynamics. Wouldn’t it seem that in a village of only 250 people, with a student body of only eleven children, representing ten families, the adults could manage to get along? Unfortunately, this is not the case.

In addition to the unexpected detour through the underbelly of the parents’ association, Opération Brioches gave me a first hand look at the intertwining of school, associations, charity and government in France; we had to go to the mairie (city hall) in Vaison la Romaine to pick up our allotted brioches. It would be to this same bureau I would return the following week to hand over the funds we accumulated through the sale of the brioches. The parents association was expected to participate in this national fundraiser and yet, no funds were accumulated for our school. This is so different from the way we do things in the United States. Fascinating!

Now, for the little brioche photo tour, first, I present to you the photo most recently taken. I had been standing at the bakery counter of the E. Leclerk in Bolène, waiting for a clerk to wrap and mark my baguettes for more than five minutes. No clerk was to be found. My eyes drifted to the pastry case and voilà! At last I had found the perfect brioche for my story! I snapped a couple of flash photos, and wouldn't you know it, a clerk came running up. "Madame, you are not allowed to take photos! For security, no photos are allowed!" Geeze, a photo of a brioche might put the whole grocery chain at risk...I hope you appreciate that I came close to arrest to bring you this photo. Judge for yourself just how threatening it may be to France's security.

While the brioches we sold during Opération Brioches were in a plain round aluminum tin and looked much more commercial, like a package of dinner rolls you might find in the U.S., they had the same delicious taste as the one above.

This next brioche is one I found, again at E. Leclerk, just before Mardi Gras. These are the "King's Cakes" that have a little treasure to be hidden in a piece to be found by a child.

This is a Swiss brioche, and I must say that Emily and I loved it. It comes closest to a frosted Danish.

I leave you with this lovely "Broche de Paris" which I must confess, by our standards, had the least appealing flavor of all. If only it had tasted as good as it looked...this was the only one we tossed in the poubelle after one slice!