Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Winter Menus

After a solid week of sunshine, I was starting to get back into the game. Well, to be honest – it required that week of sunshine, a whole lot of undeserved kindness from Bill and snuggles from the girls, and a few really long “exercise is good for you” forced marches. I walked along in that full, beautiful sun at the grim pace of a grouchy girl trying her darndest to turn herself into someone a little more pleasant.

My plan also required the serious comfort of friends, dogs, and food -- including a number of shaved, grated, intense-smelling tuber melanosporum that a golden retriever named Goya found in the roots of oak trees in Jessica and Gerard’s back yard. You wouldn’t think that a fungus could do so much for simple comfort food like stuffing and scrambled eggs. But then, you’d be wrong.

I also had some birthday cake, (served at a different meal than were the truffles.) For some happy reason, my life seems to be populated with people whose birthdays sit here on the friendly cusp of Capricorn and Aquarius. And, lucky us, we had two of them come to visit just last week.

First, Zaro and Gareth came by for a night on their way to Italy for six weeks. They’ve lived in the south of France a lot longer than we have, and they realized long ago that while spring, summer, and fall here pretty much can’t be beat, winter ain’t really much to write home about, unless perhaps you’re Inuit who hates snow. They bought a Peugeot with some extra room in the trunk, packed up Clementine and Spot in the backseat, and set off for Italy, via Aups. We were their first hosts, before they lit out to visit Nice, Cinque Terre, and eventually Vatican City, to see what Michelangelo has been up to these last few centuries.

To celebrate barely-Aquarian Zaro’s birthday, we decided that a big heavy French winter meal would probably beat the whole clown-and-balloons routine. So we roasted chicken the way Abigail likes it best, in olive oil pressed just over the hill and a whole bunch of dried herbs de Provence. Alongside we served roasted squash and a creamy, mushroomy risotto that I invented for my mom and dad and can now cook from memory.

Bill’s not crazy about mushrooms, so I save this recipe for when company comes, so that their enjoyment can drown out his vague displeasure. When it comes to cooking – like writing -- know your audience. Or at least stack the deck with guests (or readers) you know might like what’s being served up hot.

We had chocolate for dessert, a light cinnamony cake out of The Joy of Cooking enrobed in a super-heavy, super-dark, super-sweet and super-thick glaze that might as well have been chocolate siding. Somewhat at a loss for how to decorate it, I got the idea to cut out a paper stencil of a great big Z, stuck it on the cake, and then powder the top with confectioner’s sugar. I pulled the paper away, et Voila! We had no real birthday candles, but stuck a big huge regular one on the top. At least she could make one really heavy-duty wish for the year ahead.

But the best part of the meal was – as is often the case – the company. We told stories about our recent travels to places far from France, we caught up on the friends we hold dearly in common, and we all took turns patting Clem and Spot as they brushed up against our legs under the table. Bill built a roaring fire in the fireplace, and we all lolled on the sofas for awhile before we got too tired to move.

As Bill’s paternal grandmother, or my own, might have said, even when there was no seafood served, “It was a Real Nice Clambake.”

A few days later, Paris Jessica and Nick came down on the train for another food-heavy visit, also nicely leavened with their dogs, Winnie and Graham. By the time Jess and Nick arrived, we were already four days into a pretty astonishingly sunny stretch. I’m fondest of Aups when it is sunny. This is when I am fondest, really, of the planet itself. Fickle, heartless woman am I, expecting so much sunshine, and so ungrateful for the rain. I was glad to be able to show Aups off at its sunny best to our visitors – as though Provence is something for which I am responsible, or can take credit. Since Nick and Jess were escaping a cold and gloomy Parisian winter, I was glad we had something to offer, aside from whatever vegetables we could scrounge in the winter-sad Marché.

Winnie turned 35 (in dog years) on Wednesday, then it was Nick’s birthday on Thursday, the day after Zaro’s.  While I did quickly consider turning the Z stencil on its side to make him an N cake, sloth got the better of me, and I just made a big pot of vegetable soup instead. We had big plans for Saturday dinner, involving a partial reprise of the Thanksgiving spread that had been so successful, so it didn’t seem like a good idea to fire all the big guns right away. Plus, Jess is such a great baker, it seemed criminal to sully our plates with my second best.

(True confessions time: my penchant for throwing in a little bit of this and a little bit of that – damn the measuring cups and actual called-for ingredients – has served me pretty well as a budding cook. However, baking requires a rather more precise touch, and frankly I don’t think I have the patience to measure things all that often. I do my best – and that over-heavy chocolate frosting/siding really wasn’t half bad – but really I should stick to meat, potatoes, veggies and butter-laden cream sauces with improvised seasonings.)

Nick, a fairly regular reader of my formerly-regular blog, had been duly impressed by my account of the truffle-laden chestnut stuffed goose we served for Thanksgiving this November. In his honor, we requisitioned another large dead bird in his honor, which Gerard and Jess killed, plucked, cleaned, and delivered to our door in a big steel pan, with two black truffles and a pot of goose fat on the side.

There was some concern about this goose, as it had been killed (or at least stopped in its tracks) with a bullet, the location of which could not be determined. Jess called to instruct us to eat it carefully, as either biting down on or swallowing a lead shot would be deeply unpleasant. Apparently, Gerard had shot the one goose, and another one, several meters away, had also fallen down dead. There were a number of theories about how the second goose had perished (A ricocheting bullet? Heart attack from the surprise?) but while a bullet could be found in neither one, there was no denying the body count. Our request for a dead goose to cook had actually resulted in collateral damages.

We spent most of Saturday planning, preparing, chopping, cooking and then finally eating a roast goose feast. Nick found pumpkins, fennel, and ginger at the marché, and Jess found pears. He turned his ingredients into a remarkably smooth, savory and creamy soup, and whipped up a killer gratin Dauphinoise for good measure. Jessica found a pear cake recipe on her magic iphone, then topped it with a gooey pear-and-sugar glaze that I would have eaten on cardboard had it been offered to me that way.

For my part, I mentally juggled the Joy of Cooking Roast Goose recipe (giblet gravy, stuffing, and roast bird) with a recipe I found online for chestnut and truffle stuffing. The stuffing included a huge variety of kinds of decadence (pork sausage, foie gras, chunks of toasted white bread, and crumbled-up chestnuts from a can.) It took way longer than I wanted it to take, but the end result was incredible. Nick sliced and diced up one of the black truffles, and we mixed it in with all the other yummies.

I yanked all the organs that had been stashed in the goosie’s midsection and tossed them (except for the liver, which we saved for the gravy) into a pot with some red wine, vegetables, and a little water. We boiled this, along with the horrible-looking long neck, for hours and hours to make a dark, flavorful stock. I re-filled the empty goose with the stuffing mix, and we stuck it in the oven to roast for a few hours.

This was, of course, the time to crack open one of the several great bottles of wine that Nick had brought us on the train. Both a sommelier and a caveiste (words I find myself unable to precisely define) Nick knows his way around vintages and varietals. He decanted an old, bold red that was far too special to just slurp with a meal, then everybody but me tried a really great sparkling wine (oddly enough, champagne seems to make me even crankier than does January.)

We all had a glass or two. Then, once the cake was out of the oven, and the bird was in, Jessica, Bill, and I then pulled a fast one on Nick, taking off for a walk in the sunshine and leaving him in the house with two kids, the lazier of the two dogs, and a slowly roasting goose in the oven, in need of frequent basting. As soon as we left, Abigail tormented him into making some deviled eggs (Nick didn’t need too much convincing, as he wanted to try making them with some of the truffles we hadn’t yet used.) By now, we had dirtied pretty much every dish, pan, and knife in the kitchen. We had used measuring cups and spoons and scales of every persuasion, from ounces to grams to micromilliunits. I hadn’t served a real meal for hours, so by the time dinner was served, we were all ravenous. And – despite the wine we had been drinking – still thirsty.

There was no bullet to be found. But the meal killed us anyway, and once again, we poured ourselves into bed, having eaten and enjoyed our way through another wintery menu. The only remotely light food on the menu – a spinach salad with vinagrette-soaked beets – remained largely uneaten, while we all gorged on creamy soup and heavy giblet gravy and the fatty bounty of a bird designed by evolution to float and keep itself warm in cold water. Jessica’s pear cake – baked with her usual precision, with help from the timer function on the iphone – was perfect, as usual. It managed to combine light and heavy in a way that evoked all the best that “comfort food” has to offer.

I slept just as soundly as that second dead goose. Only I was a whole lot warmer.

After all that heavy cooking, I assumed we had already eaten the main meal of the weekend. However, Aups – and Jessica and Gerard -- had a rather impressive trick up their sleeves for Sunday. We did not exactly jump out of bed on Sunday morning, but eventually got our acts together enough to roll down the hill into town. Saturday had been the marché, but Sunday was to be the Fete des Truffes here in Aups.

I assumed that this would be the usual smalltown Var event: a few scattered card tables, lavender soap for sale, and a lot of the usual suspects meandering around the town square, frowning at one another. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised to see a crowd that nearly rivaled the throngs of midsummer. There were little knots of tourists for the first time in months. The crazy Varoise accordion-playing cat man even showed up, (his cat sits perched on his neck as he plays, attached to him by a leash connected to his own neck. The only explanation we can come up with to account for this bizarre and unpleasant situation masquerading as entertainment is that the poor cat has been drugged.)

For the Fete, the central square in front of the Mairie was full of local truffle farmers, wine merchants, and jam ladies hawking their wares. There were card tables, certainly, but most were covered much more convincingly than usual. There were lots and lots of little stacked piles of black truffles, and truffles boxed up with eggs so that the eggs could soak up their scent through their shells. The air smelled like a mushroomy version of heaven. Every time the air wafted his way, Bill would inhale obscenely deeply and sort of groan. For a guy who hates mushrooms, he sure loves truffles.

Also on sale were scrawny-looking oak trees – chenes – which under the right (or perhaps wrong) conditions become the unhappy hosts for the fungal malady that results in truffles. Apparently, when you are looking for truffles – with your dog or your pig or your close attention to particular sorts of flies – the best place to look is under the scrawniest and most pathetic looking oaks. Truffles are a sort of athlete’s foot for the roots of trees, but with more dire effects for the trees. Apparently, you can buy scrawny oaks at this festival, plant them, dig up a fortune years later, and sell them at your own fabric-covered card table.

It was so crowded that it was actually hard to move around and see everything. Yet another real nice clambake, but this time with fungus, and a whole lot more French people gathered in one place than you usually see in these parts in the middle of winter.

When we first were researching where we should live in France, I came across a photo of “villagers” in Aups wearing “traditional dress,” doing a sort of square dance sort of thing. The women had white caps and mismatched floral dresses with long aprons. The men were bareheaded, with white shirts open at the neck. They looked very picturesque, and should have been my first clue that I was actually moving to a foreign country, not just to the part of Cobble Hill with all those bistros.

No such “villagers” have presented themselves to us since we arrived. I assumed that perhaps the native dress patterns had shifted away from peasant chic. Now, the women all seemed to wear boots, skin-tight leggings, and butt-hugger sweaters with a fussy jacket and a sour frown. The men tend to look a little more jovial, but significantly less fashionable – an enormous and bright-colored wool sweater tucked into filthy cargo pants.

But there they suddenly were at the Truffle Fest: those traditional villagers from the photo. But now I recognized them all: the women who buy their bread and meat early, walking alongside the men who sit by the Church. The boy who comes tearing out of school at 11:30, heading at a full run into town, and the girl who quickly befriended, then just as quickly dumped Grace as a friend. Looking all 19th century French.

The whole group was being led by some older gentlemen playing penny whistles with one hand and beating a very somber tattoo on a drum with the other. They moved slowly, marching in gendered pairs, with the kids up in front and the grandparents in back. My generation seemed entirely absent from the procession, which was probably a good idea. Nothing says “I’m 40 and miserable about it” like a headscarf and a full-length calico skirt.

After awhile, the kids in the group started to dance, a joyless kind of shuffle done to no discernable rhythm whatsoever. I had a hard time with the idea that those “traditional” villagers in the photo were these people I now sort of knew. I guess I liked the dancing villagers a lot less when I actually knew who they were – when I and my poor children had been regularly stared down by them on my little lonely ambles through the town. Perhaps the tourists in town enjoyed the dance more than I did. But as somebody who lives here, I’ve seen just how little fun the more upstanding, traditionally-dressing citizens of the town seem to allow themselves – or the rest of us.

Which was why, once we had had our fill of all that nice truffle-y air and the traditional frowny dance, I was so excited to get in the car and drive up to Jess and Gerard’s mountaintop. I've learned where the fun is had, and it's rarely at the Mairie. The very idea of introducing Paris Jessica to Aups Jessica just seemed exciting in itself: would the two namesake language savants, so crucial to keeping me sane and happy here in France, simply combust into antimatter once they came into contact? But moreso, I knew that more food (and more good wine) would await us there. It always does.

This time, we ate lots and lots of truffles. Truffles in scrambled eggs, and shaved on toast, and then more scrambled eggs on top of that. Truffles on top of rabbit, cooked in a rich and heavy cream sauce. Even truffles layered into a melty, creamy big round of cheese. There were no truffles in the dessert, just almond flour and lots of oranges. Which by then was likely a good thing. I can't quite imagine truffles improving cake.

After lunch, Gerard took us out to show us where all this bounty came from. Goya, the retriever, loped along close by his side, encouraged by the smell of sausage in his right-hand pocket. She knew her job, and knew she would be rewarded for doing it well. She sniffed along the ground, encouraged on by his kind, gentle tone. “Cherche. Cherche, Goya,” he intoned, serious and certain, but quieter and calmer than his usual jovial voice. We walked around by the scrubby, rattier-looking oaks with their tiny leaves. They were almost like miniatures of the oaks back home – leaves that would have been bigger than my palm on the oaks I knew at home were just an inch or two long.

It was cold outside, and the air was clear and sweet. After not too long, Goya stopped and pawed the ground. Gerard knelt down with a pickaxe and dug up some earth so that she could root around a little more. She stuck her nose deep in the ground, snorting and snuffling against the red dirt. She pawed a little more, then Gerard pulled up a handful of dirt for us to smell, too. It was redolent of the truffle buried just six inches or so under the surface. He found the truffle, about the size of a horse chestnut, and tossed it up to Bill. Goya got a bite of sausage.

She kept going, even once she had had her fill of sausage. She found truffle after truffle buried in the earth, even under rocks sometimes. It might take Gerard some time to dig it out, but there was a truffle there, every time. Smaller ones than he was hoping to find, but then it has been cold. And really enormous ones – like that first one we tried back in the early winter – aren’t so easy to come by.

The sky started to fill up with those puffy clouds that foretell snow. We went back inside for more wine, enough so that I couldn’t follow the conversation as well as I wanted to. I let it flow away from me with the rest of the afternoon light.

1 comment:

  1. That is one beautiful photograph. The serenity it conveys cannot be overstated. I hope it illustrates a glimpse of the comfort you are finding in gazing off into the distance and letting life line itself up parallel to and regardless of you. It's a good one.