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Let’s face it. St. Valentine’s Day is not the most aesthetic of holidays. Pink, red, AND purple? Unnecessary.
It is interesting to note that there are several Saint Valentine’s, most of whom were martyrs for the Catholic faith. The one who’s considered the original – who supposedly died on February 14th – well we know nothing about him except his name and the day he was torn to bits by lions or whatever.
It wasn’t until the tradition of courtly love appeared on the scene of the late middle ages, originating in southwestern France, that people began to associate St. Valentine with romance; for reasons completely unknown to me. I do however know a little bit about the troubadours of medieval France. They’re music is and was entirely enchanting. At least for medieval buffs like me. Here’s a taste:
I’m doing my medieval music professor proud.
Somehow, these lovely songs and the idea of striving for unattainable perfection in love got lost in perfume, candlelight dinners, and Hallmark. And being groped by greasy men. This could be a past-time for me here in France, if I wasn’t already married. Thank god for the husband.
But, all is forgiven. All is forgiven because of the chocolate.
And the best chocolate I’ve ever tasted is from la Chocolaterie de Puyricard.
Named after the tiny village where it is made, these beauties are hand-crafted, artisan chocolates. Puyricard (pronounced pu-ree-car) is located just northwest of Aix-en-Provence, one of my favorite cities in Provence. The factory, if you can call it that, is a tiny organization, made up 40 people, many of them family where chocolate is tradition and life.
They are recognizable in France by their elegant yellow facades, which despite being bright yellow with brown lettering, really are – as I said – elegant. Inside is an atmosphere dedicated to the beauty of the chocolate. Lavenders, browns, yellows, colors that accents the dark and milk chocolates (Puyricard very rarely works with white) that are placed like works of art around the shop.
And I happen to pass by one everyday on my way to work.
The women inside are smartly dressed and know every flavor in the store. They know the essences, the subtleties, the liquors. They will give you a taste if you can’t make up your mind and need a bit of persuasion. And they wrap everything into a beautiful package that always matches the season.
Even if it is Valentine’s themed – I can’t hate this.
Their most famous, and one of my favorites is their palet d’or and palet d’argent. Two truffles of dark chocolate with a ganache of dark chocolate and Tahitian vanilla bean inside. On the outside, hand placed are small leaves of silver and gold. For show, of course, but there is something beautiful and so inviting about the glint of the metal on the silky chocolate surface.
This year, I have a new love, that I sampled in their store. A dark chocolate square truffle with a simple, unadorned smooth outer shell. Inside is dark chocolate ganache peppered literally with black pepper and a hint of mint. It is a very understated taste, discernible only if you take the time to taste it slowly and let the flavors melt on your tongue. But if you do – every millimeter of this tiny square is worth it.
Puyricard isn’t cheap. A box of 250 grams – about 20-25 chocolates is 21Euros. Keep in mind however that these are hand-made chocolates, I’ve seen it with my own eyes – you can visit the factory. They use only the finest ingredients, the purest cacao, and there are NO PRESERVATIVES. So if you happen to be in the United States and decide to splurge and order some, they will Fed-Ex your chocolates to you in order that they arrive as fresh as possible.
Or you can come to Provence and visit the factory yourself. This is the only photo I have of my visit. I don’t know why I only have half the building. It’s a pretty half.
Another beauty to their truffle collection is their lichee ganache. Dark chocolate outside, milk chocolate interior infused with a strong lichee liquor. Graceful and so smooth, a perfect fruity taste mixed with the most delicate of milk chocolates. I was impressed as I wasn’t sure how lichee would go with the taste of chocolate, but I had to try their new flavor.
A truly amazing chocolaterie, the three others that are on the same street as the Puyricard in Toulon, simply can’t hold a candle to the perfect caress of this soft, flavorful chocolate as it melts on the tongue.
Next time you want to treat yourself, check out their website. Even if you don’t order anything, their chocolates are a feast for the eyes alone.
There’s a stereotype about couples who have their first baby. Their house becomes a “baby zone.” Baby toys, baby food, baby medicine, baby blankets, baby paraphernalia everywhere. That hasn’t happened to our house. But it has turned into a cat zone. My desk is piled high with prescription cat food and medicine, cat toys are everywhere, two food bowls, back stocks of litter and food piled in the corner. Cats on the bed, cats on the couch, cats on the table. I found a cat in the garbage area under the sink this morning while making pizza.
Ok, so we have two cats, not twenty, but in an apartment of 45 square-meters that’s enough to turn it into a cat-zone.
Dumpling is doing well. She has an infection in her mouth and is on antibiotics, but she’s eating (very) well and seems to have gained a bit of weight. She likes to sleep with us at night and is very curious about what we are doing, and especially what I’m cooking. She needs to learn some manners though as she has a few bad habits such as scratching on everything and climbing everywhere.
Pistou is recovering. In fact, he seems to want to play with her, but she doesn’t seem to understand the game. There’s been a lot of nose touching and sniffing and there’s still apprehension, but things are looking promising. We still aren’t sure if we will keep Dumpling once her fostering period is up, it depends a multitude of things, but at least for now she’s settling in and we’ll be able to turn her into a friendly, sweet cat that can be in a multitude of homes.
Did you hear about the Costa Concordia? Last October the husband and I took our honeymoon on that boat, cruising to Savonna, Naples, Palermo, Tunis, Palma, and Barcelona. We had a big suit and balcony and loved every second. I also saw it docked in the harbor of la Seyne every so often, when it was too windy to dock in Marseille, bringing back happy memories. So it was sad for us to see this huge ship leaning on its side, half submerged in the sea.
I felt like singing Nearer my God to Thee but then I remembered I’m not religious and this isn’t the Titanic.
Anyway, today was rather productive. I got up early and started an apple pie before going out for an eight mile run around the harbor where there were no cruise ships docked today.
My fruit bowl is overflowing again and my smoothie drinking can’t keep up with it. So pie it was. Plus I’ve never made a pie before.
That’s right! This is my first apple pie EVER.
Dumpling isn’t allowed outside to go play yet.
The novel was going badly for a time, but I believe that it has picked up again. I managed 2000 words in 90 minutes and got somewhere with the story. That’s progress. Redoing the outline for the end was the best idea I’ve ever had concerning writing and I always hate to outline. When it’s done, I’m having a party. BTW: Do you live in Argentina? Or did you once live in Argentina? If so I need you.
After working on the novel I needed a break so I made granola. But that’s an entry for another day.
And I promise I’ll stop talking about my cats.
Also, if you’re wondering about the lack of a top on my pie, it’s not something that is often done in France. Pies have no crusty tops. And one thing at a time. I’ll do a top next time around.
I’m reeling. I’m enjoying this week of relative calm knowing that next week begins madness. And beginning my National Novel Writing Month preparation.
I won’t have as much time to cook as I’d like to. The husband and I already made a run to chez Picard surgelé so that we could have frozen meals to eat on nights and days that we just can’t bare to cook. Except for a few cooking and restaurant plans I have for October and November there won’t be many updates.
So today, I made you something that actually took time and preparation and I had to pay attention to.
The Bordelais Cannelé. (pronounced can-nel-AY)
According to this website, by a man obsessed, the cannelé has a fascinating history. The little pastry was invented in the 18th century by a convent of nuns in Bordeaux. The whites of egg were used by the monks of a neighboring monastery to make their wine, and they gave the yolk of the egg to the nuns, because they didn’t want to waste it.
But what were the nuns going to do with a bunch of egg yellows? Apparently, they came up with this recipe – which they baked and baked and baked and gave to the poor.
The cannelé has also been called “dressed up crepe batter.” Only you can decide.
I first had these at a place called Pat’s. Sorry, Pat, but your cannelés suck. They were rubbery, dry and tasteless. After going to Bordeaux (see this entry) I discovered that while the cannelé was definitely supposed to have some bounce, it was anything but tasteless and dry.
Next up? The husband’s step-mother gave me a book of dessert recipes from the TV show Un Dîner Presque Parfaît and lo! the cannelé was present. All I needed now was a mold, ingredients and time. Which the husband and a student cancellation provided.
To make 12 Cannelé Bordelais:
- 2 egg yolks
- 50 grams of butter
- 50cl of milk, divided
- 25cl of rum
- 150 grams of all purpose flour
- 250 grams of white powdered sugar
- one vanilla pod (it’s called a gousse de vanille in French and I don’t know the translation)
Use this online conversion if you don’t have the right measuring tools.
In a small casserole, bring 2/3 of the milk and all of the butter to a boil. In the meantime put the rest of the milk and the egg yolks in a bowl. When the milk and butter are boiling add them to the cold milk and eggs and mix. Let it cool down to room temperature.
Add your rum, your vanilla grains, and sugar.
Pour the flour into a sifter and sift the flour directly into the bowl with one hand, starting to mix the dough with a fork with the other.
The batter will be a liquid, lumpy, unappetizing thing.
Once all the flour has been added switch to an electric mixer and start mixing until its as smooth as possible. Mix it on a low speed, then high, then low again. Go slowly. Love your batter. Sing to it. There will still be lumps.
That’s where care and patience comes in. Find something in your house with tiny holes. A strainer of sorts. I used my tea pot’s strainer because it’s all I have.
Pour your batter in and let the liquid pour into another bowl, while the lumps remain inside the strainer. You’ll have to mix and scrape the batter away from the strainer’s walls often. It’s gooey.
Once that’s done and there are definitely no more lumps left – seriously no lumps! – let the batter rest in the refrigerator for at least two hours. Some recommend 24 hours.
Heat up your stove to 200°C. Butter up your cannelé molds.
OK. Don’t use muffin tins. Don’t. They are too big. You need tiny muffin tins for this. In France, they sell special cannelé molds obviously, however, if you’re craving these, not in France and in a bind, find the smallest mold you can, otherwise they won’t cook properly.
Fill your molds up to about 2/3 – ¾ of the way. Put them in the oven and set the timer for 20 minutes.
At the end of 20 minutes rotate the mold and lower the heat to 160°C. Bake for another 30 minutes.
Cannelés really are like souped up crepes. They have a crisp outside with a spongy, bouncy center that is moist and so good right out of the oven. The rum, though it may seem like a lot in the recipe is not overpowering. The alcohol adds a bit of sauciness to the pastry, something more than your typical sugar butter vanilla combination and makes it the perfect afternoon or post dinner treat. Serve warm. Serve with coffee.
Those were some lucky poor.
Wish me luck with NaNoWriMo!
A Word To the Wise: Cannelé do not keep for very long. A day or two at most. Eat them warm! Eat them fresh!
I am waiting at the train station. It’s a cloudy day, almost cold if it wasn’t for the humidity. I sit on the odd, concrete stairs that separate the queue from the station building, and take out of my purse a small slice of something wonderful.
It is my personal belief that all train stations should have a boulangerie somewhere within sight and walking distance. But in my limited knowledge of les gares de Provence I only know of even a smaller number that fill this requirement.
So I planned ahead. This half-eaten fruit-crumble pastry is from the bakery across the street from my apartment.
I probably shouldn’t be eating it. It’s loaded with calories, but as there’s fruit – blueberries most likely – inside, I try to pretend it’s a healthy breakfast.
I’ve arrived an hour early for my train. So by the time I’m done waiting in line to buy my ticket, listening to the life stories of two obstinate women trying to get to god-only-knows-where in two months, I have 40 minutes to spend savoring my pastry. (One of them was still arguing at her teller window after I was done paying for my passage)
First I break my pastry in half, telling myself that I’ll only eat one part now and save the rest for later, or maybe give it to some hungry person. Yeah, right.
I like to pick off the “crumble parts” first. Those round things that are about the width of my thumb. They are buttery, soft and have the texture of crumbs someone smashed together into a ball, and if that doesn’t sound good to you, you don’t know the guilty pleasure of scraping together the last of a birthday cake or the bottom of a brownie pan – and I pity you.
After, I eat the butter, browned crust, which leaves me with a soft, fruity cake to munch on, piece by piece. I don’t miss a crumb. I cup one hand under my chin to catch any breakage. I lick my fingers clean. It’s not a sweet cake – only mildly sweet with butter and tart fruit. The crust is all butter and flower and just a little bit flaky. The inside is not cake. On top are the baked berries whose juices have infused the dough. It’s almost paste-like and it would be a pleasure to chew even if I had the worst toothache in the world – it’s that soft.
I’m in heaven.
The station is not too crowded this morning. A little strange, given that the day before – a Thursday – it was packed. Do people take trains on Thursdays but not on Fridays here? There’s one guy sitting on the concrete steps a little ways down from me. Another on the chairs across from me. I keep my legs tightly pressed together, to catch crumbs, but also because I’m wearing a very short skirt.
I begin to eat the next portion of my pastry. And then remember – I should take a photo. The other waiting passengers watch as I pull out my camera and take a photograph of the half-eaten cake that I’ve been savoring for the past 15 minutes.
It’s hard not to scarf this thing down. Which is why I was scribbling these notes in my journal while I was eating. When it’s over, I press the unforgotten crumbs into my thumb and lick them off. I gather up my box and paper and throw it away.
I spot a small, golden crumb on my exposed toes and for a moment I consider giving myself one last little taste. But thankfully, my love of food stops at my feet and I’m able to restrain myself.
Thursday is the husband’s 30th birthday. You could ask why I wanted to make him a huge lunch almost one week before his day of birth – but do you want to?
Actually, it was a good day to cook. Not to hot. Windy. Cloudy. A mild spring day, which would be a mild summer day if you live anywhere outside of Provence.
Lunch was much debated by moi. I considered beef, I considered pork, I considered buying a whole rabbit and taking it apart (because I love rabbit, but they are sold whole – head, organs, feet, claws etc). In the end I decided on lamb. Souris d’agneau to be precise which is lamb shank in English, but souris sounds so much nicer so we’ll stick to that.
I’ve never cooked lamb, it’s normally the husband who cooks the red meat, and I had to make an occasion out of it. And out of the husband’s birthday, but food first. The menu was as follows:
Radish, Zucchini, Carrots with an artichoke, cream and herb dip, served with jambon de parme (ham from Parme, Italy).
Souris d’agneau with a pesto crust and tomate provençal
Cheese: St. Felicine and Tomme de montagne
Wine: Chateauneuf Domain de Rampart 2000, red of course!
- artichoke hearts
- crème legère or sour cream
- 1 basil leaf
- 1 clove of garlic
- a bit of thyme
- a bit of rosemary
- a bit of sage
- salt and pepper
- lemon juice
Put it in a food processor and blender. Chill. Voila! Granted it wasn’t your typical creamy vegetable dip, but it was great with the vegetables and bread.
- Basil leaves
- olive oil
- Pine nuts or walnuts – when you remember to buy them.
Blend the dry ingredients. When they make a coarse paste slowly add the olive oil and blend some more adding salt and pepper. Chill.
This was my first time making lamb. I found a recipe online that said if you cover the lamb with something there’s no need to brown it first in a pan. The husband was skeptical, but said to try it anyway.
We went to our favorite butcher the evening before and ordered our souris. Originally, we ordered two, but when we arrived at 9:30 this morning the butcher said “Well, today they were kind of small, so do you want three?” Like the husband was going to say no. We bought 3.
I took them out and put them in the pan feeling nervous:
I covered them in the pesto. Green meat!
And cooked them at 400 °C or 200 °F for 1 hour.
Along side the lamb, I made provincial tomatoes: tomates provençals. This is basically tomato covered with bread crumbs, herbs like rosemary, parsley, thyme, garlic and olive oil and baked in the oven for 20-30 minutes.
Bread crumbs bought in the store are high in calories and full of stuff, like salt and disgusting chemicals, that are completely unnecessary. I make my own bread crumbs – or chapelure – whenever I need them. It’s simple:
- Take some bread, slice it thin
- Put it in the oven to toast for 15 – 20 minutes – low temperature.
- Once it’s pretty dry and toasted, put it in a blender with the herbs of your choice.
I used coeur de boeuf tomatoes. They have some other name in English but I don’t know what it is, but these are huge tomatoes that are not perfectly round, and have ridges. They’re great for stuffing or in salads. I wanted two round tomatoes for our tomates provençal but I couldn’t find any big enough so I went with the coeur de boeuf from my favorite produce vendor at the market.
Cut the tomatoes in half. Cover with a bit of parmesan, then the bread crumbs. A bit of olive oil. Bake for 20 – 30 minutes at 200 °C.
The beauty of the lamb and the tomatoes was that they cooked at the same temperature, so I started the lamb and then put in the tomatoes about 30 minutes after and let them cook together.
Upon tasting the lamb my husband said he was proud of me. I used to be a vegetarian and had to give it up upon moving to France – there’s just no way to go out to eat here – unless you live in Paris. But I always shied away from actually cooking read meat.
These souris d’agneau came out perfect.
First, don’t worry about the pesto burning. It might seem worry-some but it’s not. It creates a nice crust around the lamb and holds the moisture inside the meat, so that when you cut into it, it’s tender, moist and yummy. The pesto, even though it was crisp, was actually still tasty and a bit sweet – probably because of the garlic.
The tomatoes were soft and melty and made me happy. I love vegetables.
St. Felicien and Tomme de montagne are two of my husband’s favorite cheeses. The St. Felicine is known as a creamy cheese with a very sharp bite to it. With the red Chateauneuf it was amazing.
Tomme is a much firmer cheese. The kind you see in the really thick brown or black rinds. It had a milder taste, and is a perfect end to the meal.
Oh Chateauneuf. I’ll die drinking this wine. Really.
No, really. I love it. The grenache grapes – I don’t know what it is – they’re amazing. This 2000 had a lovely acidic, berry taste to it. Different from many older wines. It wasn’t the best thing to have with all the garlic, but with the cheese – OMG. And at 14.5% 11 years ago, it was pushing 15.5 – 16% alcohol, which meant that by the time the cheese course was done, the husband and I were sous-table – or very drunk.
A friend of mine stopped by for wine and chat – which was a nice interlude because I could walk down to the port and walk off some of the wine. When we had returned the sun was out and the afternoon was getting warm. We sat on the balcony, had a glass of reisling and then it was time for dessert to be served.
Chosen from our favorite patisserie: A little marzapan pig with chocolate inside, coffee and meringue pastry and a millefeuille. They were sweet and rich and full of cream and butter and other things that make me want to run another 10 kilometers.
At that has been my day. Filled with food and wine and some social activity. Now you can do the dishes while I take a nap.
Within two blocks from my apartment are 3 different bakeries. Even in the 21st century it is still very common in France for people to buy their daily bread from the local bakery. Baguettes are always popular, always fresh. French nutritionists, contrary to American diet fads, recommend the equivalent of 1 baguette per day for women and 1 1/2 baguette (or it’s equivalent) for men. That’s 2 feet of white, crusty, thick bread everyday and everyday, I see men and women leaving the bakeries with 2, 3 or even an arm load of baguettes for a day’s portion. Baguettes usually last no more than two days before they become so rock hard they could be used as a weapon.
The husband and I don’t go much for baguettes, we often get our carbs through pasta, rice, potatoes, pate feuilletée. Instead of baguettes we go for the pain cereal, a wheat bread with oats and grains baked in. It comes in a smaller portions and lasts a tad longer. Anyway, the hygienically wrapped, bleached-white, preservative filled bread is a rarity in France.
But what to eat when it’s in the morning, when you’re on the run, when you want something to fill you up and don’t want to have to carry two feet of bread around with you all day?
My personal favorite is the pain raisin. Traditionally this is like the American cinnamon roll without the frosting. Crusty like a croissant on the outside, in the center of the swirl is a rich, fresh cream, with raisins dotting the bread throughout. The cream isn’t too sweet, it’s not sour, and it has a yellow-off-whitish look to it that is simply inviting.
Nowadays, many bakeries have begun to skip the thick layer of cream and instead have a softer sweet bread dotted with raisins, a strange almost bread-like crust along with the trademark swirl. “Blech!” I say to them. If I wanted a brioche, I’d order a brioche.
However, there is a tiny little bakery right off the northwest corner Place Liberté in Toulon. Across from L’Etoile de l’Inde, this little bakery was once owned by an elderly man and his wife, and they’ve recently re-done the place and now (I believe) it’s being run by their children. (I’ll put up a better photo when there aren’t patrons eating right out front.)
They don’t bake much, but what they do bake is top notch. Their pain raisin are always creamy, crunchy on the outside, soft and light in the middle, with just enough raisins so that you can pretend you’re eating healthy while getting your sugar ration for the morning.
I stopped in there today on the way to work, not usually hungry in the mornings, I couldn’t resist when I saw the two lonesome pastries sitting in their window cases, waiting to be picked up by a girl who can’t help herself when it comes to the smell of baking sweet breads. It was delightful, it was filling and it was gone within the 10 minute walk to work.
I almost debated another indulgence from the bakery next to my office – for comparison purposes of course – but then reminded myself that their pain raisin – while soft and light – just doesn’t have that creaminess that is traditional to the pastry and such a rare find.