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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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French Lessons

Oh how I wish the title for this post was original … but I couldn’t resist borrowing it from Peter Mayle, author of A Year In Provence.  He wrote French Lessons in 2001 to share stories from his time visiting small villages across France during their local food festivals.  He’s been privy to the inner workings of truffle hunting, the craziness of vineyard marathons that include regular stops for a glass of wine and many other food fantasies and celebrations.  I was glued to every page as you can imagine (on a side note, Mayle has written dozens of books on topics you wouldn’t expect … I’ll leave the research to you if you’re interested).

I’ve been keeping a record of the curious little lessons I have picked up over the last five weeks since we left Australia. Some are no surprise but still get me thinking … others are lessons I didn’t expect to pick up.

Here’s a (not so) quick summary:

* French people are not house proud the way we are.  They don’t spend a lot of money on decorative items or fancy furniture, and they’re not particularly worried about their gardens either.  They don’t often entertain friends at home – they’re more likely to go out to a restaurant or cafe.  And an “appo” or drink after work is more common than a full meal out with friends.

* The cafe culture we know and love in Australia is surprisingly not as entrenched in the French culture as you might expect.  It’s not easy to find a really good coffee – trust me I have tried – and not once have I seen anyone doing their work commute with a takeaway coffee in their hands.  The coffee is often filtered, not ground fresh and extracted, and I hate to say that on occasion, we have been served a café crème (flat white) that was microwaved to heat the milk!!!  A super quick summary of my usual coffees in France: un café is our equivalent of a short black (although often not as strong); une noisettte is a short black with a dollop of frothed milk – similar to our macchiato; lattes and flat whites both fall under the category of un café crème; and every time you order one of these is like playing Russian roulette.  Those who make coffee at home do so with a filtration machine.

* The French love their systems and paperwork.  They all agree it can be painful but “it’s good for the economy” – it creates jobs.  The social welfare here is very visible – plenty of offices in the main street that claim to be able to offer government assistance to anyone who needs it.  The mentality in general, is also that the community and, above all, the government should look after it’s people – it’s their responsibility.  One hilarious example of their love of systems for us, was when I enthusiastically volunteered my husband to help with school swimming lessons in May.  Thinking it would be as straight forward as it is in Australia, he agreed happily.  Then we received a note from the Directrice of the school explaining that he would need to drive half an hour one Monday night in February (still very cold weather in case you’re wondering) to a village pool nearby to take a test to ensure he was in fact a capable swimmer.  The external examiner would asses his swimming skills before reporting back to the Directrice on his verdict.  I’m glad my hubby can’t speak French very well at this stage – you can imagine his reaction.  It went something like this …. “I’m Strayan, I can swim!!”.

* An “Artisan” is someone to be respected for their trade.  It doesn’t matter if they are butchers, bakers, artists, jewellers or pottery experts, they are well respected for dedicating a big chunk of their productive life to one skill set or trade.  When you ask about a certain product or service and you hear the word “Artisan”, you should respond with the appropriate “oohs” and “ahhs” and sound suitably impressed.  Of course they deserve their accolades – this commitment to one trade is not something we see often in Australia.  And given the history France can boast, they often have generations of dedication to a trade to support their reputation.

* Une vie cachée est une vie heureuse.  I found this saying quite fascinating … told to me by a french person.  “A life hidden, is a happy life”.  This sums up a philosophy I am beginning to suspect is fairly typical around here.  People are not exactly transparent about their struggles or challenges.  They’re quite happy to talk about society in general in terms of what’s difficult, but vulnerability is not something that comes naturally to them.  It’s true this is probably also the case in Australia, and certainly I am a foreigner so I’m not going to be someone they open up to quickly.  But the people I have met have shared enough with me to help me understand that people keep their business private unless it’s absolutely necessary to share.  Food and politics are the most common topics of conversation, and everyone is encouraged to share their opinion on these.  Get them talking about food and you have a great conversation starter!

* To find the gold, you need to go looking for it!  The cold weather, coupled with the ancient buildings that almost always look “closed” means it’s difficult to see what’s really happening in a village unless you’re brave enough to peek in windows and open doors without knowing what you’ll find.  The most memorable encounters so far have been when, despite being outside my comfort zone, I dared to open doors to cafes, shops and wineries that looked closed up, only to find the heating is on, the lights are burning and there is a hive of activity inside!  I thought I would walk into a room where people stop and stare at the obvious foreigner who has stumbled into somewhere she shouldn’t be.  But it’s all been in my over active imagination.  Walk in like you own the place, or admit up front you’re an Australian tourist, and they’ll happily share their passions and pass on referrals to other places to explore.

* I was surprised by the number of English people in our part of the South of France – many of them have come here to retire.  I wondered if the French were sick of them “taking over” or if they all kept to themselves.  I have been pleasantly surprised to learn that many (but not all) English people who live here do speak the language quite well and have deliberately integrated amicably.   Historically, the French are grateful for the English who came in and bought up properties and kept village economies alive when the French couldn’t do it alone.  We have been so warmly welcomed – we could easily feel at home here.

And finally, this may sound overly simple, but a very wise woman once said that “people are people”.  And I’ve thought this more than once since being here these last five weeks.  A smile goes a long way, as it does anywhere in the world. Knowing the basic pleasantries of “Bonjour Madame”, “Merci Monsieur”, “S’il vous plait” and “Au Revoir Mesieurs Dames” is greatly appreciated by the French.  They delight in foreigners who speak their language well and are quick to compliment them.  I have bravely (perhaps a little naively) stepped out and extended an invitation to lunch at our villa, not knowing if a Sunday was the right day to do it, not knowing if the town Mayor would think me weird for inviting him despite having just met him and having never met his wife.  But I believe that when your heart is right and you express yourself through your true passion, there is no language barrier.  I am pleased to say that I received a very warm acceptance to my invitation (from the Mayor and another four families!) and I have thoroughly enjoyed preparing to receive our first lunch guests.  I have done a little research to make sure my menu is in line with the French culture but I also know that if I do something a little different or if everything doesn’t go quite according to plan, people are people, and my new friends will be patient with me and appreciate the sentiment more than the details.

I will finish with some pics from my morning at the Carcassonne markets … this is still my absolute favourite thing to do in France … wander through the markets, try the amazing produce that these passionate people grow, and practice my sing-song-y French pleasantries so that I can get to a point that they don’t even suspect I’m not a local :).

kalecheesecabbage flowers

Green Cabbages                               Artisan Fromageurs                                            Les Fleurs

applesmarkets_coldmarkets

Les pommes                                       Mad foodie in 2 degrees             Even the crates are gorgeous

oliveswitlofolives2

Les olives                                             Witlof is in season                        Markets are a way of life

A bientot mes amis,

kpx


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Lost in France

I just got home from being gloriously lost! On my way back from a neighboring village market, Madamoiselle GPS decided to take me on a picturesque version of the homeward trail. I was cursing that my good camera wasn’t with me because the sky was so blue despite the chilly temps. I could have stopped and taken phone photos but I was running late to pick up the kids from school for lunch.
I meandered through narrow roads only to turn the corner and be greeted with sweeping golden fields of a crop I must find out about – rye maybe? And then the next bend presented me with buildings from centuries ago – now used as farm barns or not used for anything at all other than to delight tourists like me who get lost on country roads. The landsacpe on the way to the market was silver.  Everything was coated in what looked like a fine spiders web, glistening from time to time. The sun only rises here at 8.45am so you can imagine it takes the countryside a little while to wake up when the sun is so lazy. But on this trip home, the colours have all changed to golds, greens, yellows and oranges – all offset beautifully by the bright blue sky.
Foggy trees
A foggy morning shot from last week
Accompanying me in the car was the rich smell of roast farm chicken I’d just bought and une baguette ancienne still warm from the boulangerie oven. This sensory overload is what gets me about France – the simple things in life are so rich here. Country living is one thing but in this corner of south-west France, they don’t know how good they’ve got it. I am looking forward to getting lost on that road again and I’ll take my camera so I can share it with you. I passed a tomato farmer too – I bet they’re amazing. We’ll go back together and taste them.
In my following posts I will back fill you on the journey so far and how we’ve come to settle in these last two weeks in our little piece of French country paradise.  But before I go, I’ll leave you with how I learned to make pasta carbonara like the french do.  So simple, but rich with flavour.  They use lardons which is essentially cubed bacon but in France, you buy the bacon meat in a slab from the butcher and cube it yourself (or you can buy it pre-cut from the supermarket but it kills the romance). The meat is smokey and cured and has a different texture from what we’re used to in Australia.  And it seems the French use lardons in as many dishes as they can!  I don’t blame them – it tastes divine.
mirepoix markets_cheese mirepoix markets
Country markets in Mirepoix
Les Pâtes à la Carbonara
Serves 4-5
Ingredients
500gms good quality bacon, cubed or diced (lardons)
200gms fresh Parmesan cheese, grated
1 egg yolk per person (save half the shell for presentation)
3/4 cup Creme Fraiche or pure cream
4 cloves garlic, crushed or finely diced
500gms fresh pasta
salt and pepper
extra virgin olive oil, cold pressed is best
Method
Get the water for the pasta boiling with a teaspoon of salt.  Add the pasta once boiling and cook accordingly.
Meanwhile, add a little olive oil to a hot pan and saute the garlic with the lardons for approximately 5 minutes.  Add the cream and turn down the heat a little.  Stir regularly and add salt and pepper to taste.  After 2 minutes, add half the Parmesan cheese and stir to combine.
Once the pasta is cooked and drained, add it to the pan with the cream sauce.  Stir to coat and serve immediately. Top with extra Parmesan cheese and complete your creation by serving the egg yolk in its shell on top.  The kids have a ball mixing this extra bit of sauce into the dish!
cabonara3cabonara
Bon Appetit!
A bientot, kpx


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Jet lag and French cliches

This is a risky post … I’ve gone beyond jetlag and have turned to blogging therapy to rid my brain of imagination overload!  After 36 hours of travel, we arrived in Toulouse.  But the beautiful and very welcome French cliches started well before that – in fact they started in Hong Kong as we boarded our flight to London.  The air host – he was a Frenchman (what do we call male hostess’ these days?), asked where we had traveled from and where we were headed.  When he found out we were connecting through to his home town, he burst into a passionate babble about where we should go to eat.  I couldn’t help but smile knowingly – he had no idea I’m a mad foodie and yet in typical French style, the first thought on his mind was restaurant recommendations – this is reason #26 on my list of why I love France!

Just as a side note – I’m pretty sure my blonde travelling companion has “gorgeous Australian gal” tattooed on her forehead.  She commented very innocently about how friendly the French are … I assured her that her presence helps with that.

So, armed with a handwritten list of six restaurants, we headed into town with two goals: stay awake until at least 6pm (it’s now 8.30pm!); and find a place to create a memory for lunch.  We nailed both.

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We ate at Au Bon Graillou above the Marches de Victor Hugo (Victor Hugo Markets). The decor was very traditional – certainly not modern and typically not fussy at all – they’re more concerned about the food. For a total of  14 euros each, we oohed and aaahhed our way through three courses and a glass of local red.  We both had a goats cheese salad for entree – it was confidently simple. The lettuce was uber fresh – crispy, crunchy rocket and buttery baby lettuce leaves dressed in a mouth-watering vinaigrette. Honestly I would have been happy with just a bowl of salad on its own.  But to show off, the chef had crowned this dish with slices of fromage de chèvre doux on toast topped with honey and ever so lightly grilled.  I’ve never experienced a texture like that before and we were both left speechless with how good it tasted.

Le Plat Principal was fresh cabillaud which I was sure must be some exotic French fish I’d never tasted before. But when I looked up the translation I was shocked to discover it was simply cod!  It was cooked to perfection in a buttery, herb sauce and was light enough to allow room for dessert … More cheese for me of course.

My companion ordered the very last piece of white chocolate, raspberry and pistachio tart. And I’m so glad she did because this literally left us gobsmacked. I ran out of adjectives in my French vocab to explain to the very enthusiastic waitress how impressed we were with this heavenly dessert.

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We left after paying way too much of a tip (I learned this later at the cheese shop) and went on to explore the town. We bought some berries, tomatoes, baguette, fromage and yogurt. The stores were like something out of a movie. The grocers asked us when we intended on eating everything so they could provide us with exactly the right instructions on how to store the food – they just REALLY care about presentation and ensuring we enjoy their produce in the very best possible way.  Quite charming.

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Day 1 has left us very impressed with Toulouse. Tomorrow we stop in at Carcassonne before heading further east to Bellegarde-du-Razes.

With grace and gusto,

kpx

Market Days

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What a privileged world we live in when I can sit in the middle of Brisbane’s largest farmers market on a sunny Saturday morning, drinking Black Sheep Coffee and listening to pipe music from Walisuma, a group of musicians who hail from South America, while my kids chew on buttery croissants from the French baker!  All this while I whip out my phone and start writing as I feel the inspiration come to me …

I’m looking around me and the first thing I notice is that people are literally stopping to smell the flowers.  They’re stopping to talk to friends, stopping to enjoy the music, the coffee, their kids, the fact that they have some time on their hands.

Markets are truly a melting pot of cultures where we are offered such an extensive array of goods.  From where I’m sitting I can see a local coffee roaster, a German smallgoods stall, a French baker, a Greek olive providore, a Maleny cheese maker, a Chinese fishmonger, and I’ve only just finished having an animated conversation with a Russian girl in the queue next to me about her year in Italy!  Such a small world we live in.

I’ve kept it simple today … I came home with these gorgeous late-season figs (best season in Australia is February-April). They are so divine on their own, that they need very little fussing over.  My favourite way to serve these is with a soft goats cheese and a drizzle of honey. Perfect for brunches, lunch or dessert.

figs_text

So being here got me thinking … in a future post, I will run my own little experiment. Have you ever wondered if shopping at the markets is really cheaper?  There’s no doubt the quality is better and produce is cheaper (I bought four figs for five dollars – you’d pay more like seven dollars retail), but can you avoid the supermarkets and still serve up creative meals on a budget?  I will do the hard work for you.  I’ll plan a menu for a week that includes 7 dinners, weekend lunches, kids school lunch boxes for during the week and I’ll compare the costs – markets vs supermarkets.  I hope you’re as curious as I am!

With grace and gusto,
kpx