now blogging at www.katesplates.com.au


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Summer Lovin’

I had a short break from posting until yesterday (I have been busy doing other things like writing a book – I feel like this could be a life-long task – and setting up my new blog domain.  But more on that later …).  I dug this out from the start of our summer holidays – hard to believe that was four weeks ago now!!

So where are we in the world?  At the moment, we are in Sanary-sur-mer, a little seaside village on the Mediterranean between Marseille and Nice.  I only discovered this little gem because an Australian friend of mine married a local eight years ago and we were forced (it was hard) to come visit for a week and take part in the wedding celebrations.
port 3 port 1

So I’ve been here three times now – I keep coming back.  There’s a certain comfort in knowing what you can expect from a place when you have your family in tow.  This seemed like the perfect first stop on our eight week summer holiday throughout France, Italy and Switzerland, because it is small enough to walk around, big enough to be spoilt for choice with restaurants and pretty enough to entice you down to the harbour for their glorious, ultra-long twilights and enchanting nocturnal markets.  I am yet again gobsmacked by the French’s ability to put so much effort into detail purely for the joy of aesthetics.  Joie de vivre is alive and well here!
port 2 fish market

Apart from a drastic change in temperature (the French are calling this heatwave a canicule, but in reality it’s low-mid 30s – weather we should be used to as native Brisbanites), we have had a major change of scenery.  After six months of living in a six-bedroom villa in country South-West France, I must admit I found the first couple of days in our 4 x 6m cabin in a camping ground a bit of a shock!  I won’t even go into detail about the “disposable sheets”!  Yes that’s a real thing.

We left the Villa with a car so full I had to sacrifice taking my market trolley with us.  For those of you who know how much I love the atmosphere of fresh food markets, you know how hard this would have been for me!  So it took me a couple of days to “organise” a spot for everything so that our 2 week stay would be comfortable and that everything could be found relatively easily.   But given how full the car was (I’m talking the kids and front seat passenger with their knees up to their chest to make room for bags at their feet!) it didn’t take us long to notice how the French deal with this problem.  Small cars are the go around here (ours is half the size we had in Australia) and so in holiday season they whip out their coffre de toit.  In English perhaps we call it a rooftop storage pod?  It gives you an extra 400L or so of storage … and so we are onto it.  We will leave this place with a coffre on our roof and happier kids – which is paramount when you are doing a 5 or 6 hour drive in a day!

Thermie came with us of course – this is a luxury when you are glamping, and when you have no oven!  Let’s just say it’s been an opportunity to think differently about meals given my space and appliance restrictions.  I am a self-confessed food snob and so I have a lot of trouble spending 50 euros on a meal out for the family which typically includes loads of trans fats and very little nutrition.  Don’t get me wrong, I am no skinny Minnie health freak over here in the land of cheese, bread and wine, but I just can’t feed my family this rubbish – and spend so much on it! – only to see the effects of poor nutrition on my kids.  Did I mention we’re in a 4x6m space for 2 weeks?  Hyperactive, cranky kids are not fun to hang out with.  Feeding them right is critical.
market f&v 3 market f&v 5 market f&v 2

market f&v 7 market f&v 6 rose

So meals have included lots of fresh cut ham and salads  – I’ve found investing in a good quality mango vinegar and olive oil makes the kids LOVE any salad.  The seasonal fruits at the moment (figs, apricots, peaches, raspberries and cherries) make for super tasty and quick desserts (together with 70% dark chocolate which is only 1.20 euro here!!) and of course the luscious cheeses can be added to any meal.  Goats cheese on salad, blue cheese on bread or a brie with olives for a snack is almost too easy.  But I have created a couple of soup recipes that the kids enjoy, which is super easy to do in the Thermie in a tiny cupboard-sized kitchen and is the easiest way to ingest a load of vegies.  Given it’s winter in Australia, I figured these might come in handy for you too!!
market f&v 4

Creamy Sweet Potato Soup (TM31)

This recipe uses a Thermomix but can be easily adapted to your blender or food processor.
Ingredients:
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1 leek, white part only, sliced
2 large carrots, peeled, sliced
3 cloves garlic
2 tsp cumin
2 tbsp creme fraiche
500gms water
2 tbsp homemade stock paste
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tbsp butter
Handful of parsley, finely chopped
Blitz the leek and garlic on speed 7 for 3 seconds. Add butter and sauté for 2 minutes on speed 1 at 100 degrees.
Add remaining vegetables, reserving the parsley, and process for 10 sec on speed 6 until finely diced. Add water, stock, salt and pepper and cumin and cook for 20 minutes on speed 1 at 100 degrees.
Once cooked, add parsley, creme fraiche and remaining cumin (to taste – I like lots) and blend on speed 9 for up to a minute until your desired consistency is reached. My kids prefer it smooth.
Serve with a dollop of creme fraiche and crusty bread. Freezes well for a quick meal solution.
***
Spending plenty of time around the pool to keep cool has also been a wonderful opportunity to do some serious people watching.  I keep looking for common traits in the French so as to understand them better.  There are certainly plenty of gorgeous bikini clad bodies and perfectly bronzed bare breasts (yes we had to fill our kids in on that one) but there’s also your fair share of tummy rolls, dimply bums and wobbly cellulite.  And I think it’s beautiful!  I don’t know if it’s just me, but I feel like the women here in my age group (30-40) are much less concerned about what they look like in swimwear.  They’re not reaching for their sarong to cover up the second they get out of the pool.  They’ll happily toddle around the pool area with their beautiful bouncy bodies on show for all.  There’s an air of confidence about them.  There’s a feeling of body acceptance and healthy body image mentality that I don’t think I’ve seen at home.  I love it!  I feel right at home with my wobbly bits and have felt a new freedom to just “hang out” so to speak.
home back bandol wine

Tonight, we’ve booked somewhere a bit special for dinner.  The kids have had a day sleep and we are pumped to celebrate Bastille Day in style!  We’ll be joining the thousands on the Port for fireworks at 10.30pm!

For your next night in, give this soup recipe a try – super easy and packed with 5+ vegies.  And if you can, don’t forget to add a French brie … and maybe a glass of French red!

With grace and gusto,

Kpx

P.S Quick tip: Dan Murphy’s in Australia sells French red wine from the Corbiere region … we highly recommend it!  Great price and even better taste.  Enjoy!

P.S.S I didn’t get back to talking about the new domain … I am changing the name of my blog to Kate’s Plates.  It’s more work than I first thought (of course) but sometime in the next few months I hope, this will be my new writing home.  It’s easier to remember, reflects what I’m writing about and is a nice nod to my passion for vintage French plates.  Stay tuned!  But don’t hold your breath … I don’t want to be responsible for anyone passing out J

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Global Village

She was nine years old.  Her teacher was asking the class about their ethnicity and nationality.  She remembers hearing big words like “Caucasian” and wondering if she was one of them.  She grew anxious as the teacher made her way through each student, asking them “What is your Ethnicity?”  This moment in time could have been her earliest memory of feeling confused about her identity and where she belonged.  But instead, the teacher labelled her “the perfect child of the future”.  I wonder if the teacher knew the seed of pride she had planted in a little girl’s heart? This was the story Dewi-Ann told me as she recounted her incredibly international childhood.

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Before I go on, you should know how to pronounce this pretty name properly.  I called her Dew-ee-Ann for a bit, then I moved on to Dev-ee-Ann before she very graciously corrected me in her perfectly posh English accent.  Dave-ee-Ann is her name.  Cute huh?  She’s the first Dave-ee-Ann I’ve ever met, and I think she is rather interesting.  So much so that I wanted to tell you her story.

Born to a Dutch botanist father and a Malaysian mother who were living in Thailand at the time, Dewi-Ann spent the first seven years of her life in Indonesia where she attended an American International school.  Following this, they lived in Holland for two years before moving to Rome.  Dewi-Ann lived in Rome until she was sixteen.  This is where she feels she grew up.  Can you imagine her language repertoire?  She speaks English, Italian, Dutch and French and I wouldn’t mind betting she has a basic knowledge of Malay to add to this impressive selection.

Dewi-Ann and I met mainly because we both speak English!  One of the unexpected bonuses of living in the South of France, has been the expat community we have found ourselves enjoying.  My husband has taken up playing his long-forgotten love of soccer.   The local village team is half English, half French and I am helping him to translate the weekly emails he receives with instructions on where and who they’re playing.  I get a giggle every week when for every email he receives with details about the actual game, there are six more with details on who’s bringing what for the team meal that happens after each game.  The meal starts at about 10.30pm … I still don’t know how these guys get up and go to work each Friday after such a late night!  But I love the community spirit and importance placed on creating a time to eat together … very French indeed.

Together with her husband Will and their three children Amy, 10, Tom, 9 and Mary, 6 (plus her two eldest Dylan and Pia who pop over regularly), Dewi-Ann took the plunge six months ago and moved from England, which had been home for her since 1985.  As an Aussie, I’m jealous of their short trip across the channel to such a land as this!

Now with an upbringing like hers, you’d think this move would have been no big deal for her – in fact I figured she’d been in Will’s ear about it for years.  Not quite.  It was in fact Will who suggested the move at first.  After some changes in his accounting career he suggested that this adventure could be just the thing for their family.  Dewi-Ann was quite happy to start looking at property to buy in France – who wouldn’t be?  They’d holidayed here plenty of times before.  But she admits it took quite a while longer before she had truly internalised the fact that they were moving to France to live.

As I sit under her huge platane tree, so typical of this area in the South of France, I take the time to admire the gardens, trees, vines and ancient looking pots and statues that all have more history than I do.  But what I’m most drawn to are the crisp white shutters and crawling green ivy that accent this 130 year old farmhouse that soars above us.  It was a twenty month process from the time Dewi-Ann first laid eyes on Domaine Codaїgues to when they actually moved in.
front of house shutters pots
garen urn front step urn bathroom window external

Domaine Codaїgues means “le Mas des eaux” … farmhouse of water.  It refers to the abundance of rain water that runs down the hill from their village of Montréal into the surrounding fields.  Although the original farmland surrounding Codaїgues was sold off by previous owners in the late 1970s, the house remains on eight acres of established gardens dotted with century-old farm machinery to decorate the aptly named “park” that is Dewi-Ann’s front yard.  The original concrete slab of the barn declares 1885 as the year it was laid and together with a huge garage, it bookends a building that could comfortably house three families.  Dewi-Ann, Will and their family are living in one end of the farmhouse with five bedrooms in use.  Add to this a workshop, horse stables, two lounge rooms, a sitting room, a kitchen with the original fireplace, three bathrooms and a grand entry foyer complete with a marble and wrought iron staircase and a feature stain-glass window, and you have an impressive home indeed.  I can’t help noticing there is also a hallway closed off with four more rooms that aren’t currently in use and an enormous attic that can be found through a “secret” door … I’m guessing they are on the future “to do” list.

house 4 sign
 barn firewood farm machinery

main foyer internal stairs bathroom window

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IMG_5770 barnstairs  IMG_5769
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It would be easy to get overwhelmed by the task at hand and although Dewi-Ann first thought five years would see their renovation project completed, after six months of slipping into a slow-paced French life at Codaїgues, she feels no sense of urgency, preferring to take the time to respect the history of the place and repair it accordingly.  It’s almost as if Domaine Codaїgues and her new owners need time to get to know and understand one another before they walk together into the future.

Although Will has started renovating the two-storey, four bedroom residence adjacent to their living quarters, they have other projects that will be done in time including the barn, three-bedroom chalet, installing a pool and building a pool house from the existing structure that was once an orangerie.  The original owner, Madame Vidal, had this built to honour her son who died in WW1.  The gardener was charged with growing flowers in the orangerie all year round to ensure his grave was always decorated with fresh flowers.

future gite pool house
There are other stories that Domaine Codaїgues has been witness to.  Monsieur Laquire’s wedding took place in the park in 1971.  He was the son of the owners at the time.  There are remnants of the white foot bridge where he and his bride would have had their photo taken.  The two 60m3 grain stores and idle farm machinery in the barn hints at the productivity that once went on at Domaine Codaїgues.    Despite the charm of rusted machinery and aging stone walls, the new life in the chicken coup and fruit tree orchard brings hope for what Domaine Codaїgues will once again become.

creek bridge IMG_5689
grain store secret door2 IMG_5668

Dewi-Ann admits that during their first, very cold winter where she wore beanies and gloves inside the house, she may have had one or two moments where she questioned her sanity.  But as she sits in the Spring sunshine with her happy, soon-to-be-bilingual kids and the two beloved family dogs squabbling at her feet, she admits she feels it’s a real privilege to be on a journey such as this.

family shot 3 top level IMG_5671

Apart from having a really cool name – one you could never forget – Dewi-Ann is someone who finds herself “at home” not so much in places and things, but in family, good friends and meeting interesting people along the journey of life.  She’s happier meeting new people and swapping stories in a foreign land than she is in a shopping mall.  She would rather spend a day entertaining under her platane tree overlooking the sprawling eight acre grounds of her new home than racing around the city trying to impress people.  But what I think she doesn’t realise is how this love for the simple things in life, the way she makes people take a big deep breath and just relax around her, is really impressive.  She doesn’t need to try very hard at all.

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I ask her if she thinks she’ll have itchy feet again – or if this is it for her.  As she finishes her cup of tea, she can’t hide her smile and doesn’t hesitate … “of course I’ll get itchy feet again … there’s lots to do in this lifetime.”


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Local Characters

It would be easy for me to commit to writing a series of short posts on the people I have met around here in these last months.  Many characters … many stories.  Maybe I will park the idea until we have left.  For now, I am busy practicing the art of running a B&B, cooking for crowds, planning itineraries around local festivals and trawling brocante shops (think half way between bric-a-brac and antiques).  It’s been fun!

But I can’t resist pausing in and among all this clamor, to tell you about Bruno, whom I met properly this afternoon. I first came across him briefly over the weekend when our party of seven decided to pull over on the way home to have a peek in his brocante store just ten minutes from our villa.  I’ve been meaning to stop there ever since we moved here in January. I wasn’t expecting much – many older people in the area have average bric-a-brac shops to keep them going in retirement.  So you can imagine my elation when I stepped inside Bruno’s artfully renovated house, the ground level of which showcased beautifully his passion for brocante.  My excitement was very short lived, however, as twin #2 decided she desperately needed the toilet … at home.  Don’t you love it when that happens?  My well-trained eye had already spied a cake stand that I could imagine using back home, so I asked Monsieur to put it aside for me, promising to return the next day he was open.

So today’s experience was much calmer.  I went alone and I had no deadline.  Bruno remembered me and in sing-songy French, he fetched the cake stand and matching plates and complimented me on my choice – such a charmer.  The store was empty so I took the opportunity to chat to him.  It turned out his English was very good so the following half hour flowed in polite and animated “Frenglish”.  He bought and renovated his house twenty years ago and he travels quite regularly, visiting the other houses he owns in Toulouse, Nice and Perpignan … as you do.  He has lived in New Caledonia before and therefore worked with Australians.  My curiosity got the better of me and I had to ask him what he thought of “us”.  I think he was pretty accurate.  He used many adjectives – the French always do – but summarized his monologue with “direct, but authentic”.  I think that’s a pretty good wrap, don’t you?

What I hadn’t seen on my previous fleeting visit was his display of floristry and aromatic herbs.  In the middle of all the crockery, glassware, silverware and linen from bygone eras, the freshness and recency of this greenery worked perfectly to create an ambiance I didn’t want to leave.  I’d have been in trouble if I had a house of my own to take the plants back to.  Dommage for Bruno, I ended up with the cake stand, six matching plates (pictured below) and a couple of gorgeous old books.  One is the Michelin Guide from 1951 (the only other one I own is from 2012 – will be fun to compare!) and the other is a recipe book called “La Cuisine Familiale” written by Paul Bouillard in 1932, five years before he died at the age of 63. Included in his 1500+ recipes, I found one for “flour soup”.  The ingredients list is short.  I imagine this kept many families going during WWII and throughout many long, cold winters.

The bonus Bruno gave me was a little tip on posting French books home to Australia.  There is such a law in France that falls under what’s called “Francophonie”.  It effectively means that postage is cheaper when sending French books out of the country because “it is good for France”.  Good for tourism?  Good for national morale?  Who knows.  It will be good for my bank account.  Thankyou Bruno!

I will leave you with the photos he let me take of his quaint little store … it really was a treat to step back in time in Bruno’s well laid-out, clean and thoughtfully categorised store.  I’ll be checking back in before I leave!  Should I take orders?

With grace and gusto,

kpx

sign glassware
bike basil crockery

crockery green cookware books
lillies flowers
art silverware 2 books
cakestand spines


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Life’s a picnic

We must take adventures to know where we truly belong.  I am a bit of a control freak, I admit, so my way around “adventures” with three kids, is to pack a great picnic to take with us … at least lunch will be predictable!  Since moving to France nearly four months ago (eek time flies!), our way around EVERYTHING being closed on Saturday afternoons and Sundays is to jump in the car and drive somewhere new.  It’s backfired once or twice, believe me.  In the middle of winter, we once drove forty minutes to greet the pouring rain in a ghost town with nowhere to take cover.  So the picnic happened in the car, right after I lost the coin toss and had to make a (very cold and wet!) dash to the boulangerie at one minute before noon.  The kids thought it was great … hubby was not so impressed and spent the next few days picking breadcrumbs out of the upholstery.

But mostly, we’ve had beautiful picnics – in front of World Heritage Listed chateaux and cités, by gushing rivers and trickling streams in tiny towns that look like they’ve almost been forgotten about, and by shiny lakes with looming mountains in the background and a smattering of nearly naked trees struggling to show off their early-Spring leaves in maroon, burnt orange and bright yellows.  We even picnicked in the courtyard of an old library-turned apartment building in a country village once, which was perfected by the smiling young mademoiselle who swished by offering “Bon appetit!” as she disappeared inside.

I feel like I may have perfected the art of packing a picnic into one bag and being able to walk out the door with three kids and a hubby in fifteen minutes flat.  I’ve learned there are two rules to make it work.  The first rule is to keep it simple. It’s not at all like hosting lunch at home.  The second rule is that people don’t eat as much as they would at the table.  The kids are more interested in the playground or their surroundings, so you can pack far less, and top them up later with an ice cream as a treat or an afternoon tea when you get home.  (As a side issue, the French really don’t do morning tea – just coffee – but they are big on their gôuter – afternoon tea).

The easiest picnic I’ve packed was when I had leftovers from my poached chicken and beetroot salad from the night before.  It filled a large Tupperware container, and it’s an all-in-one meal.  I threw in some plastic bowls and some vintage cutlery I had bought the day before for only five euros (it’s always nice to have real cutlery – real crockery is way too hard) and the bulk was done. I always have baking in the freezer and cheese in the fridge (several in fact) so they get popped in the bag with some mandarins, a baguette bought on the way, and you’re a superstar mum and caterer.  If you want to really create a memory, it’s lovely to include a bottle of bubbles and some plastic flutes.  Discard all the plasticware before you leave and it makes for a quick getaway and a no-mess cleanup.

For colder weather, prepare in advance by having soup already made in the freezer.  Take it out the night before (ha! who am I kidding … a whole day and a night before in the European winter …) and store it hot in a Thermos.  A mug of soup finished with cheese and baguette – and perhaps some olives? – is very satisfying, packs neatly and fills up tummies.

The only other trick I have used is to make up a homemade dip (usually hommus or garlic and herb dip in fromage blanc) and transport it in a jar with a screw top lid.  Cut up a stack of carrots, zucchinis, cucumber, capsicum – whatever you have on hand – into batons and you’ve got a speedy, nutritious snack.  Throw in some cured ham, don’t forget the cheese and baguette and everyone’s happy.

Being away from “home” and living a much slower paced life has allowed me to really fall in love with the simple things you notice when you get good at doing the picnic thing … nature has so much to offer, a foreign culture always has a surprise or two waiting and quality time with your nearest and dearest can turn into amazing memories when you create a reason to huddle around a rug or a weather-beaten picnic table.  Deadlines are non-existent and conversation flows easily.  Picnics are food for your tummy and food for your soul.
vineyards cows
We are always rewarded with beautiful views when we get out into the country …
and we always meet some interesting characters 🙂
puivert lake donkeys chateau maroon leaves puivert playground
On the way to Puivert Lake, we had to stop and photograph this chateau,
home to a herd of donkeys.

picnic2 cutlery vintage
Keep it simple stupid!  But there’s always room for vintage cutlery …
especially when it was only €5!

sam soccer sun
Picnics mean time to hang out with the kids …
and play around with quirky photos!

Bon appetit!

With grace and gusto,

kpx


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French women “get” fat

Kudos to Mireille Giuliano for writing a global best selling book based mainly on her opinion and personal experience. French Women Don’t Get Fat is a clever representation of how a French woman’s philosophy of food and eating keeps her trim.  It amuses me because Giuliano is french opinion personified, but I agree with her that above all, the pleasure of eating and tasting food is the most important thing.

This book and my time in France so far, has convinced me that French women “get” fat.  They understand it.  They get plenty of natural fats in their diet from the likes of duck meat, foie gras, cheese, nuts and fish.  They eat in moderation the bad fats in their glorious pastries.  When I first arrived, I couldn’t understand how they could resist the incredible displays they undoubtedly walk past everyday.  It’s very hard to avoid a peek in the windows in our local town’s four patisseries – let alone the many other boulangeries!  But after three months, I have arrived at a place where “too much ice cream” keeps me from over indulging.  Don’t get me wrong, when we entertain, we make sure we show off our local “specialties of the region” (a favourite marketing term over here) but day to day, feeling strong, healthy and bien dans ma peau (good in my skin) is more important.

I am here to tell you that the myth that “all french women are skinny and gorgeous” is simply not true.  What is true, is that I could count on one hand the number of obese people I have seen in France.  I’ve travelled to many cities in France including Lyon, Bordeaux, Grenoble, Paris, Montpellier, Nice and Narbonne, and I definitely noticed the lack of very overweight people that I had become accustomed to seeing back home in Australia.  Weird huh?

Another truth: you can sit in the main square of any town and several stunning, slim, typically french young things will walk past and you’ll marvel at their perfect red lipstick, the way their scarf matches effortlessly with their tailored look and their shoes and handbag … and their little dog.  Yes it’s mind boggling sometimes, but I simply put that down to sheer population.  France can fit inside Queensland itself and has triple the population of Australia, so of course there will be a concentration of these coquettes, right?

But let’s get back on topic … the point is that overall, French people are healthier than we are and I think Guiliano hints at the main reason why: they have a much healthier relationship with real food.  They avoid fast foods because they have so many other wonderful options.  Their rich history of gastronomie has left them with a plethora of cafes and restaurants in every city (even our local village has over eight places in which to dine, just in the main square) and a bounty of fresh fruits, vegetables and proteins are available at local farmers markets every week.  And here’s the thing: it’s all very affordable.  The French social welfare system even provides “lunch cheques” for some low income earners which is literally a voucher they can redeem for a meal at a cafe.

So I shall join Guiliano and the general French population in enjoying my healthy fats in the magret du canard and Roquefort cheese.  But I will keep my head about savouring their fresh fruit and vegetables everyday and occasionally relishing a sweet pastry.
Here’s a few pics of the food and sights we’ve been enjoying lately …
A day out in Carcassonne … markets followed by a picnic with the castle as the backdrop and the river as the view in front of us.
carcassonne markets picnic 3
carcassonne bridge canal du midi
Charcuterie platters in Limoux and Bordeaux … all in the name of research 😉
charcuterie bordeaux charcuterie jambon
Plenty of home cooked goodness at the Villa …
villa home dinner oysters
A recent trip to Bordeaux left us drooling … and not only for their beautiful red wines …
winery raspberry tartsbrunch
Castelnaudry is the best place to enjoy Cassoulet, a specialty dish of the region … duck, pork sausage and beans. Done right, it’s lovely.
cassoulet
A sublime lunch enjoyed at La Domaine Gayda, one of our many local wineries.  Foie gras three ways, snapper cooked to perfection, Apple Profiteroles and coffee with madeleines by the fire …
snapper gayda coffee fire
Bon appetit!
With grace and gusto, kpx


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Let’s Meat in Lyon

Our little pocket of the South of France has really shown us how quickly the seasons can change around here.  A week ago, we only just made it out of our road, through snow as deep as my five year old is tall and temperatures below zero. And this afternoon, the day after coming home from our road trip, we sat outside in the sunshine and enjoyed wearing only two layers (not our usual five) in a toasty 13 degrees.

We took advantage of the kid’s school holidays and drove to Grenoble to stay with a friend.  Five years ago when I started to welcome au pairs into our home in Australia to help me cope with three children under two years of age, I never knew the depth of friendships we were creating, and how well these girls (and a guy in there too!) would get to know and love our family.  What a treat it has been to continue our wonderful connection with some of these young ladies in their home country. We were invited to spend a few nights in a small town called Voreppe, just out of Grenoble and an hour south of Lyon.  It cemented for me two things: I much prefer to spend time in smaller villages and towns than larger cities; and you can’t pay for the experience you get when you are hosted in a family’s home and are gifted the opportunity to see how a real French family lives, day to day.

Voreppe

We were well and truly spoilt for space, comfort, good food and wonderful conversation, despite the challenges of a language barrier. Our friends really went all out to show us their “specialties of the region”.  So much so that we ended up having a joke at each meal time about how if something is a “specialty of the region”, it must be eaten, no matter how much fat or sugar is involved. We happily agreed to share in the specialty of the region for January – a croissant consistency pastry that was laced with praline walnuts. The kids thought it was Christmas when this was served for breakfast!  And as there is a specialty patisserie product for each month (brilliant marketing or respected tradition??) we also had to sample February’s bugnes. These are sweet, crunchy pastry layers that taste like they’ve been deep fried – but in a good way – and dusted with icing sugar.  They’re delicious and delicate and indulgent and leave me feeling like the French have a secret I don’t know about or an iron will that keeps them thin.  Incredible how they resist these temptations.  I’m sure there is a gene in a French person’s DNA that doubles their rate of metabolism – it just doesn’t make sense.

The best dishes were the traditional French dinners they cooked that included Roti de Veau aux Chanterelles (Roasted Veal with Chanterelle Mushrooms in a Cream Sauce – best bit about this dish was that the mushrooms were hand picked from the forest and dehydrated at home!), Pommes de Terres Dauphinoises (Potatoes Dauphinois), Boeuf aux Carottes (Slow Cooked Beef and Carrot Casserole) and a dish I’d never seen or heard of before called Quenelles. The best way I can describe these are a cross between gnocchi and cannelloni or boiled bread dough and pasta – they soak up whatever you cook with them and in our case, it was a simple and very tasty tomato and olive sauce.  Interestingly, when we ordered these a few days later in Lyon, they were made from fish and had a consistency similar to tofu.  So I’m left thinking there are at least a couple of versions.  Both were yum.

Veau de chanterelles
tomates
dauphinois

What struck me most is the simplicity of how the French eat.  You even see it on their restaurant menus.  As an example, Boeuf aux Carrottes.  Beef with carrots.  No apology, no fancy dress-ups, just humble food served with love. What the untrained palette may not realise however, is that the dish is slow cooked, sometimes over two days.  And most French people have been taught the art of saveur (flavour) so that a generous amount of garlic is used, the right herbs are added at the right time, and they are never shy with salt and pepper (I rarely need to season food after it’s served).  And of course with each main meal we are first offered a salad and before dessert, a plate of heavenly cheeses.  I swear I will never tire of tasting new cheeses. Charles de Gaulle once said that “a country with over 350 kinds of cheese is ungovernable”.  Well, I’m afraid I don’t need to worry too much about the government here as it will probably never effect me directly.  So until such a time, I will push on in pursuit of those 350 kinds of cheeses, and be grateful for each morcel.
fromage assiette

Speaking of cheese, we went on our friend’s recommendation and took a day trip to Annecy, an hour and a half from Voreppe.  It’s in the Savoie department and is the home of the original cheese fondue.  I’d seen it on the map before and knew it was close to the Swiss border, but other than that, I was grateful for someone else to play tour guide and show us around.  What an unexpected delight! It’s by far the prettiest city I have seen in France so far and the most unique given it borders France’s third largest lake and juts up against the mountains, giving us ample opportunities to take some breathtaking, postcard-worthy photos.  The architecture reminded me of Switzerland and the canals through the old town reminded me of Venice, but it was the cheese fondue we ate for lunch that reminded me of being a kid again!  I had a great time, swirling various charcuterie cuts, fresh rye bread and pickles through the thick, gooey cheese, that was both sweet and creamy all at once.  I had to fight off the kids to ensure my fill.  That meal will be one we remember, punctuated by how cold it was outside despite the brilliant blue sky and sunshine, and how warm and cozy it was inside the Savoyard restaurant.  A brilliant day.
annecy 4 annecy 3
annecy annecy 2
fondue

After Voreppe and Grenoble, we ventured in to Lyon.  It reminded me of braving Paris by car a little. It is a very densely populated city, although this was only apparent to us by buildings and cars, not necessarily people.  Lyon is France’s “second city” or the “city between two rivers”.  The waters of the Rhone and Saone mucked up my usual stellar navigation.  We stayed in the Croix Rousse district which was probably just as well.  It sits very high up on a hill overlooking the city – breathtaking views on a clear day – and meant we could squeeze plenty of high intensity training into our days of eating. Histroically, the area was famous for it’s artisan silk weavers.  Les Pentes are the famous stairs that take you from the city centre to the top of the hill in twenty minutes depending on your fitness levels.  Driving would probably take just as long once you deal with the horrors of parking, zigzag turns and miniature roads that spit you out at one end only to confuse you with endless one way streets as your next option!
les pentes lyon

I read up on Lyon before we arrived – I am always keen to find out what the food specialties are of each region.  One thing France does well, is clearly define which regions own the origin of certain products.  And from all the reading I did, the theme I picked up was meat, meat, meat.  This quote from an article in The Guardian summed it up perfectly: “In a dining establishment in Lyon, you can eat pig fat fried in pig fat, a pig’s brain dressed in a porky vinaigrette, a salad made with creamy pig lard, a chicken cooked inside a sealed pig’s bladder, a pig’s digestive tract filled up with pig’s blood and cooked like a custard, nuggets of a pig’s belly mixed with cold vinegary lentils, a piggy intestine blown up like a balloon and stuffed thickly with a handful of piggy intestines, and a sausage roasted in a brioche (an elevated version of a “pig in a blanket”).”  The only thing I would add to this is pig trotters, which appeared on more than one menu I read.

I am indeed a meat lover, but the Lyonnaises takes it one step further. I must applaud them for owning the “head to trotter” philosophy and not wasting any beast’s innards, but I wasn’t in the right stomach-space to go forth and sample all these local delicacies.  Mike managed an andouillette one night (a sausage made from pork intestines) and enjoyed it – I did taste the very rich dish and didn’t mind it, but I did prefer my simple chicken and mushroom dish.

The charcuterie is a different story altogether – we sampled some sensational rosette salami and brought more home – it didn’t last a day. And for the first time since arriving in France, we walked Vieux Lyon (the old town) holding Nutella crepes, which are an institution anywhere in France. It wasn’t quite as romantic as I’d envisaged with three kids faces resembling those of “vegemite kids” gone wrong, but the washing was worth the memory.

After all this meat, we came back to our villa and all I wanted to do was cook vegetables.  I went a little overboard (as I do, occasionally) and ended up with a twelve veggie casserole – thirteen if you count the herbs. Not very French at all – I’m sure they would think it far too complicated.  But it tasted great, the kids ate it happily, and it lasted two nights.  And it had twelve vegetables in it – did I mention that?  It’s not pretty so forgive the lack of images, but it tastes good, which is most important.  Here’s my “recipe” … hopefully this will inspire you to make your own creation using the veggies your family loves. I’m calling this dish my anti-Lyon casserole.  No apologies 🙂

Vegetable Casserole

Ingredients – serves 10-12 people

1 bulb garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 large red onion, sliced
1 leek, sliced
5 carrotts, peeled and cut into large chunks
1/2 bunch celery, leaves removed, sliced
1 eggplant, diced
1/2 cabbage or kale, sliced thin
1 large zuccini (or 2 small). diced
10 button or cup mushrooms, peeled and quartered
4 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1 head of broccoli, cut into florets
2 x 400g cans of whole tomatoes and juice from 1 can
1 bunch parsley
300gms lardons or diced bacon
1 cup of water
3 tbsp vegetable stock
1/2 cup red wine
30gms butter
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3/4 cup grated cheese – cheddar, emmental or parmesan
1/2 cup flaked almonds
1/3 cup milk
salt and pepper

Method

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees and prep all your vegetables.  Start with the sweet potatoes, and get them on to boil. Once they’re very soft, add the milk, a tablespoon of butter and a pinch or two of salt before mashing.  Set aside.

Heat a large frypan with the remaining butter and oil and saute the leeks, onions, garlic and bacon for five minutes. Once softened, add the carrots, celery and mushrooms to cook for 5-10 minutes before adding the red wine.  Allow to simmer vigorously until the alcohol has evaporated and the liquid has thickened slightly.

At this point, I transfer the vegetables to a larger cooking pot to accommodate the remaining ingredients. Combine all remaining ingredients except the broccolli (these need to be gently steamed separately) and add the stock and water.  Stir to ensure all ingredients are coated and lower the temperature to a medium level.  Cook for 20 minutes until the carrots are just starting to soften.  Stir regularly and add extra water if needed.

Once cooked, transfer to a large baking or lasagne dish and top with the mashed sweet potato.  Smooth the mash over the top to create a “crust”.  Sprinkle with the grated cheese and flaked almonds and cook until the top is golden – approximately 30 minutes.  Serve with steamed broccoli florets.

Bon appetit!

With grace and gusto,

kpx


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Dinner and a Show

I accidentally just made a great salad.  It was an accident because it includes lentils which I usually avoid.  The bottom line is that I’m about to serve duck for dinner with a side of lentil salad … I’m sure I’ll come up with a more creative name for it by the time I’ve finished writing this post but that’s what we shall call it for now.  So what’s the show you ask? A series of SMS messages coming at me every minute or so from my husband who is currently sitting at the Limoux piscine (piscine = pool: I use the French translation because it’s his favourite french word).  He very gallantly volunteered to help with swimming lessons for the kids school in May.  His help was gratefully received … and then they sent a note home.

“Please report to the Limoux municipal pool on a cold Monday night in February so that we can check if you actually can swim.  We will be the judge of your swimming capabilities.  Please don’t wear boardies – we want to see what you really look like under those winter coats.  Wear DTs (as us Aussie’s know them) or tighty whities.  And what we’re not telling you is that we will first make you sit through a lecture on what we will actually be teaching the kids – because it’s very important that you know all this three months out from the actual lessons.  On a Monday night.  In the cold.  Thirty minutes from home.  Oh and by the way, the lecture will be all in French so you won’t understand a word.  But it is polite to sit through it all with an impressed look on your face, and nod occasionally to show your interest.  Thankyou so much for your help – we really appreciate it.  We couldn’t do swimming lessons without the valuable help from parents like you.”

So, as you can tell, I may be inflating this story just a little, but the officialdom around ten swimming lessons in a country school for no more than 27 students is slightly amusing.  One thing is for sure, I will not be nervous about my children participating … I think their safety needs will be well-covered.

Allow me to double back to the type of swimwear that parents were asked to wear … just in case you missed it.  If a good-looking Aussie guy walks into the pool trying to wear boardies, he will be forbidden to swim.  This is what we had heard, so I decided to double check with our go-to man here in our little village, Monsieur le Mairie.  He answered me in French and said “yes that is correct, you need to wear tight swimming costumes, although a lengthier short is allowed, so long as it is tight.  And he must also wear a rubber duckie around his waste.”  He said this to me with a straight face so it took me a second to appreciate that he too found the requirements a little stringent.  Nevertheless, it meant hubby had to take a trip to town to invest in some tight togs so he didn’t offend.  Let it be known that I did not assist him on this particular shopping trip.

All photographic evidence that I tried to collect of his black and fluro pink (yep, that’s what he bought) swimming shorts has been destroyed.  Hubby has a background in security so there’s no way he was going to let those photos slip through his grasp.  I’m not sure why he felt he needed fluro pink shorts, but all I got by way of explanation was “they looked red in the store … they were definitely red when I bought them” from a very grave looking face indeed.

So imagine the show I enjoyed when he proceeded to keep me updated on the whole hilarious night via SMS while it was actually happening.  His french is improving so he picked up a phrase here and there.  They covered a policy that was created in 1937 and is still effective today.  Really?? They drew stick figures so all the parents could understand what the swimmers would be taught.  And they explained that any “helper” on their mobile phone WHILST in the pool would not be covered by insurance should anything happen to a child on their watch.  Gee I’m glad that was covered – now it’s clear.

So back to dinner … duck is very popular here in France.  And they’re huge!  I don’t really want to know why they’re so huge; all I know is that they taste amazing and it is by far my favourite meat dish here.  I’ve been practicing cooking duck breast quite a bit since we arrived so now I think I have it just right.  Here’s my recipe for duck breast and lentil salad.  If I just change it to French, I have my exotic title: Magret du Canard aux Lentilles.  Perfect!

magret du canard

Magret du Canard Aux Lentilles

Ingredients – serves 4-5

2 large duck breasts (or 4 small)
1-2 tbsp orange blossom honey
1 cup green lentils
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 cup slivered almonds
50gms fresh rocket
1 sweet potato, peeled and cut into 2cm cubes
2 tbsp coconut oil
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp red or white wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

Method

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees, fan forced.  Put a large saucepan on to boil with the lentils and 2 cups of water.  As soon as the water boils, turn down the temperature to facilitate a gentle simmer for a further 20 minutes.  Add the cumin to flavour the water.

As the oven is heating up, put the slivered almonds in to brown for 5 minutes and cube the sweet potato.  Once the almonds are brown and fragrant, roast the sweet potato cubes for about 30 minutes with coconut oil, salt and pepper.

Prepare the duck breast by drying it in a paper towel.  Rub salt into the fat and turn a large frying pan on high heat. Cook the duck breast fat side down to render the fat for about 5 minutes.  It should be a lovely golden colour. Remove from the pan and place on an oven tray, fat side up.  Drizzle the honey over the fat and place in the oven to finish for about 15 minutes.  Turn the oven down to 180 degrees as you put the duck in.  Keep the duck fat left in the pan for tomorrow night’s roast potatoes!

Meanwhile, add salt to the lentil water just as it’s finishing, and drain.  Add to a bowl with the rocket and almonds. Add the sweet potato once it’s cooked and caramelised.  Dress the warm lentil salad with olive oil and vinegar, salt and pepper to taste.  Toss and serve.

The duck breast should be a dark pink to pale brown colour.  Slice diagonally and plate on top of the lentils.  Bon appetit!

With grace and gusto, kpx