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my bread and butter

20 Feb

Le pain.  No, it isn’t pain—in French, pain is la douleur. Le pain is bread, the staff of life in the country of the boulangerie and the pâtisserie, of flour and moulin (mill), of warm yeasty havens on biting winter mornings.

This particular loaf was bought at the marché this morning.  I snagged it from a popular stall after shuffling along after a line of scarf-swaddled matrons  carting their chariots, the little market-going trolleys ubiquitous in France.   Pain au levain de noisettes.  Sourdough hazelnut bread.  Even the name is intriguing, in both languages — not overly sweet, textured with the symmetry of ‘pain’ and ‘levain,’ then again in ‘sourdough.’  And the whistling pleasure of the ‘noizzz,’ just before the ‘ettes’ snaps the thing to a close.

The taste weighs subtly on the tongue, harboring just enough hazel sweetness to balance out  the rough smokiness of the feu au bois that it was baked in.  The dense interior is porous, shining and taut.  Yet the body of it yields, like leaves under your feet.  The crust is thin and dark, crispy, like the sunbaked crust of the earth.  The roasted hazelnuts even cast shadows on the crust.

Following the advice of another blogger, I also picked up a slab of real beurre cru, raw (read unpasteurized, baby) butter, from a fromagerie, to attain complete harmonization.

France has a national standard for its signature bread, la baguette.  I jumped on wikipedia after noticing what looked like the title to a legislative bill on the side of my baguette bag.  Since 1993, une baguette à la tradition française may only contain the following four ingredients if it wants to merit its own name:  flour, water, yeast, salt.  Don’t worry:  plenty of other breads, including many baguettes, contain lots  of other additives, colors and numbers.  But that a “traditional” no-nonsense French baguette even exists, is testament enough to the French fondness for simplicity, even underneath all the other complications of French life.

Bread — so important that it too has been centralized, à la française.  From one French friend in Lyon:  “There must always be bread on the table.  Otherwise, something is missing—I can’t say what exactly.  Without bread, I leave hungry, even if I’ve eaten.”

Oh mon pain, je t’aime.

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La cuisine inconnue

8 Jan

My other new year’s resolution is to write more, including more frequent posts to this blog.  So while news may not be seen every single day on Casser des Oeufs, it will certainly come along more often than once a week.  There is a whole wonderful lot to experience and write about in France and too little time to digest and write it all.

Post-holiday winter is a tough time of the year, and copious amounts of good, heavy food are one of my methods for getting through it in one whole, unfrostbitten piece.  The French understand the importance of eating seasonally, and evidence of this is found in full delicious splendor at the marché.  Once the leaves fell about mid-November, strange tubular, whiskery and warty vegetables began to surface at the Saint Jean marché on Wednesday and Saturday mornings.  Well, maybe they just seemed strange to me because they were until recently nowhere to be found on my culinary radar.  But even in France, some vegetables really are classified as légumes anciens or légumes oubliés.  “Forgotten vegetables”…how’s that for an experimental theatre piece title?

A few delicacies to be found in the root cellars of history:  betteraves, like giant beets, slightly more bitter and a deep purple-crimson, sold either raw or cooked, the latter ready to be sliced up and tossed in a salad with goat cheese and walnuts.  You can also steam and eat the leaves, just like with beets.

Mâche looks like a character out of a Dr. Seuss book.   A winter green that tastes much richer and sweeter than lettuce or spinach, it can be eaten raw in a salad or steamed and served with regional seafood, like oysters or les noix de Saint-Jacques.

I’ve also been gulping down roasted panais, which look like stringy pallid-yellow carrots but taste like sweet potatoes.  You can put these in stews, salads, or just grill them with a splash of olive oil and salt and pepper.

You can still find tomatoes and lettuce in the dead of winter from some vendors.  But if I see even a splash of juicy red in a vendor’s stall, I generally amble off casually, politely in the other direction; chances are if they still have tomatoes after Christmas, the rest of their produce may also have suspect origins.  At least, that’s how I figure it so I can have an excuse to narrow down the choice of vendors, which even in Saint Jean is impressively vast.  Plus, my tastebuds have evolved to the point where a garden salad in February tastes slimy and musty, not at all a winter comfort food.   Or maybe my tastebuds have devolved — food in France is better, but worlds simpler than what I usually eat.  There’s less filler in everything, though you can of course find processed foods all over this country, it doesn’t cost you a lithe vegetarian’s arm and leg to buy fresh, healthy food.

And finally, one of my favorite hibernation delicacies:  la soupe à l’oignon.  It’s known as French onion soup elsewhere, but in France, why would you call it French?  I indulged over Christmas in an exquisite, particularly creamy bowl in Briançon high in the Hautes-Alpes with my friend E ; it was literally sending quivers of pleasure up and down my spine.  Since then, I have been trying to scare up my own perfect incarnation of this ambrosia  at home.  It’s temptingly simple to make — butter, onions, flour, milk, white wine, toasted baguette and cheese (I like emmenthal and sheep’s cheese) — but, I am coming to learn, is also an exercise in balance and intuition.