Arriver un pépin

vendanges-1000

We are in the midst of grape harvesting in our region at the moment, les vendanges. You can see the people with their trucks and machines along the little country roads, and there are signs warning you to be wary.

I am more than happy to oblige. It seems that this vital activity is always on the verge of a crisis – whether from hail or poor weather conditions, pests or other pépins.

Which brings me to the inspiration for this post. The seed that is found inside the grape, along with other fruits like apples, is called le pépin. For reasons that I have not been able to elucidate, this tiny seed or pip is associated with trouble.

To encounter un pépin means to run into a problem of some sort along the way. Readers of this blog will have gathered by now that such things occur not infrequently in France. So although I do not know the etymology of the expression, I can easily imagine how the pip could be associated with trouble and strife.

Eating fruit, for example. Personally, I would much rather drink grapes than eat them. But for those who are amorous of the grape itself, running into pips can be problematic. Do you spit them out? And then there’s wine making. Perhaps the grape seeds themselves are not good for the wine? Something to do with the tannins?

On the other hand, I have recently learned that grape seed oil is a healthful choice for cooking as it has a relatively high smoke point, is full of antioxidants and promotes good cholesterol. And according to this source, you should chew and swallow the seeds as they are healthy for you.

My dear late mother was a source of many wonderful things, not the least of which were her expressions. “She gives me the pip” was one of my favourites.

Pépin le Bref was also the name of a king, the father of Charlemagne. I am useless with history, however, and will leave further explorations of his rather fascinating name to those more qualified.

Will 2016 be a good year? It is hard to say. The summer was slow to start but hot and dry for a good long while. In any case, we’ll find out before long. The first young wines will be out in November.

Until then, may you stay clear of les pépins!

 

 

Arrête la tutute!

Rose-Baby-Shower-sucette-boisson-Tags-Charms-verre-à-vin-marqueurs-Wedding-Party-décorations-couleurs-personnalisées.jpg_640x640In familiar French ‘la tutute’ means a baby’s pacifier – a dummy or soother for you Brits – also known as a tétine, sucette or tototte. In the parlance of my belle-famille, however, it was always used as a snide reference to drinking.

“Arrête la tutute!” my beau-père said with a laugh one day when he saw me with a beer. There is something oddly shocking in France about women drinking beer so perhaps it was only half in jest. I had heard this term used before, always with the gesture of thumb towards mouth, implying excessive consumption of spirits.

Usually ‘la tutute’ is used to jokingly describe a family member who over imbibes at parties. (“Il y va la tutute!”) We all have one in the family. In our case it was my late aunt, who famously was in her cups at our wedding in Paris. Husband’s family also had a few members who tended to over-indulge. As much as drinking is part of the culture in France, and wine is de rigueur at any social event, it is badly viewed when consumed in excess. It is not done to get visibly drunk or even tipsy, unless perhaps on New Year’s eve.

I suppose the connection with the pacifier is apt. Drinking soothes the soul and pacifies nerves in most social situations. Freeing us from our inhibitions to let loose and have fun.

The secret, as with most things we enjoy, is moderation. How much is too much? And why can’t we all have an alarm bell in our brains to tell us when we are one drink over the line?

I enjoy drinking and it is not easy for me to imagine a nice meal without at least a glass of wine. But when the NHS recently announced its updated guidelines for alcohol consumption, I decided it was time to moderate my consumption. That did not mean an entirely dry January or anything quite so radical. But I am keeping a closer eye on the units – recommended to be no more than 14 per week for both women and men – and trying to enjoy a few days a week with nothing more dizzying than sparkling water.

How about you?

L’apéro: Favorite summer sips

Pastis on the deckL’apéro, short for apéritif, is not a drink, it’s a happening. In fact, it’s something of a sport in France: around here they call it ‘apérobic’. It can be performed at least daily, anywhere and at any time, individually, in small or large groups.

I’m not much of a one for cocktails or fancy mixed drinks. Mostly I eschew the sweet in favor of the dry, the bitter and the acidic. Thankfully there are always several of those options at hand in France. And summer is the perfect time to enjoy a nice cool one by the beach, at the bar or here on my own deck.

Pastis – de Marseille, bien sûr – is not for everyone. But it is the summer drink par excellence of the south of France. If you’re up for its liquorish flavor, here’s how to enjoy it:

Pour a small amount (according to your taste – I like the equivalent of a couple of shots) over lots of ice. Watch it turn from clear yellow to milky white. Sweat a moment or two along with the glass. Then add water, very cold, to make a refreshing long drink. Enjoy with salted nuts of your choice. Santé!

I enjoy the one but cannot drink two. It’s just too rich. And the aniseed flavor is a novelty that (for me) wears thin all too quickly. Oddly enough, pastis has the reputation in France of being the hard-core drinker’s drink. The one that the men guzzle in all those hole-in-the-wall bars that we women hardly dare to enter.

Citron pressé
Citron pressé

If I should occasionally feel the need to whet my whistle while resting my liver, I might order a citron pressé. This is, quite literally, a fresh squeezed lemon juice (not to be confused with ‘limonade’, a soft drink). It will be served in a tall glass with lots of ice, several packets of sugar on the side and a long spoon for stirring. I don’t mind it straight but a bit of sugar helps the citrusy medicine go down even better.

I remember when I first discovered rosé wine in France. It was a revelation: a wine between red and white that offered a little of each. Then I went back to Canada and tried to find it there. Those were the days when Mateus was the only rosé anybody had ever heard of – sweet, sickly lighter fluid. People believed that rosé was blended from white and red (which does sometimes happen but is not allowed in France).

Rosé-Cotes_de_Provence_
Rosé, Côtes de Provence

Now, of course, all that has changed. Rosé has become the summer wine of choice and is available just about everywhere. There are hundreds of choices and this recent article gives a good overview. The latest trend is palest-of-pale rosé, a grey-orange-pink in color. Personally I still prefer the fuller bodied rosés, the Tavels and the Costières de Nîmes.

The French drink rosé all year long but especially in the summer, when it goes so well with just about everything enjoyed outdoors.

Let’s not forget my favorite summer brew. La bière. I would not be a Canadian if I didn’t enjoy beer in the summer. Also in the spring, fall and winter. French beers may not be the world’s best but most bars have them on tap.

Bière, of Corse!
Bière, of Corse!

To order a draft beer or ‘une pression’ in France, you ask for ‘un demi’ (half a pint). Draft beer on a summer day. Does it get any better than this?

How about you? What’s your favorite summer drink?

Bella and the VIPs

bella04Meet Bella. This bovine beauty was the mascot of this year’s Paris International Agricultural Show.

Aside from good looks, she and I have a few things in common. She comes from the Rhône-Alpes region of France, although a little further south in La Savoie. She’s one of a sturdy breed of cows – Tarantaise – not the biggest but among the most hardy. Adaptable, she’s known for keeping the grassy slopes of the Alps trimmed in summer which helps prevent avalanches in winter. And which also produces some of its best-known cheeses: Beaufort, Tomme, Reblochon, Abondance…

(I’m going to stop the analogy here – although I’ve been called a cow, I’ve never stopped an avalanche and don’t produce anything but words!)

But I’m sure that Bella, along with the hundreds of other animaux de la basse-cour – farm animals – who found themselves in Porte de Versailles over the past two weeks, felt like a fish out of water. I know I did when I arrived in Paris. The lights! The crowds! The rude waiters!

Le Salon de l’Agriculture International, as it’s now called, is an annual celebration of food. And of what the French call ‘terroir,’ meaning the ability of a specific place to produce a specific product. Saucisse de Toulouse, quenelle de Lyon, jambon de Paris: it took me awhile to understand the importance of terroir. Surely a sausage is sausage, no matter where it’s produced? Mais non! The Appellation d’Origine Contrôléé is a gauge of quality when it comes to the designated origin of French produce.

Terroir, in a nutshell, explains the philosophy of French gastronomy. It is why wines are named after their regions rather than their grapes. It is why a cheese called a Saint-Marcellin (a creamy, raw-milk cheese so fragile it has to be contained in a little cup) can only be produced there.  Or a poule de Bresse, a specific breed of chicken with its own label, can only be raised in that region.

And It’s what makes it so much fun to discover France. Because as you travel around the country, you will stumble upon all those magical places that produce the wonderful products…like Roquefort (ah, it’s a town, not just a cheese?). Champagne (a whole region for producing the bubbly?). Just about every bled (slang for town) has its own culinary claim to fame in France.

The small town I lived in for years in the Côteaux du Lyonnais was known for a kind of peach I bet you’ve never even heard of: la pèche de vigne (vine peach). A much deeper red in the color of its flesh, it’s the peach equivalent of a blood orange and makes a velvety juice like no other.  Every year the whole town celebrates this fruit at the Fête de la peche de vigne.

And all of these wonders are celebrated each year at the Paris International Agriculture Show. Along with the hundreds of different breeds of pigs, cows, chickens….and since it became ‘international’ a few years back, produce from Italy and other European countries.

I’ve never made it to the show myself, but every year the media regales us with stories from the salon and les coulisses (behind the scenes). Politicians petting farm animals is the French version of kissing babies. Here’s Hollande in action.

The organizers even made their own version of the ‘Happy’ video featuring the VIPs – Very Important Paysans (with a cameo appearance from the French Minister of Agriculture).

It is what we call ‘un grand moment de la culture française.’ And one year, I’ll go. Although, like Bella, I’ll probably need several weeks to recover.

Check out David Lebovitz’s blog for a true foodie tour of the show.

Le Beaujolais nouveau est arrivé!

Every year on the third Thursday in November, corks can be heard popping around the world to herald the advent of the newborn baby Beaujolais.

Raise your glasses, mesdames et messieurs, le Beaujolais nouveau est arrivé!

Ironically, the country where the fewest guests actually show up to the party is France. The whole Beaujolais Nouveau fever has never really caught on here, outside of the Beaujolais wine-growing region itself.

Apparently the party is the biggest in Japan, which gets the most bottles and special permission to start the festivities several hours ahead.

I’ve always been a sucker for a good marketing coup, and Beaujolais Nouveau is a great example. I love the excitement around the opening of the first bottle, which can legally only happen at 12:01 a.m. on B-Day. I like the fun and festivities of ringing in a young, upstart wine that’s served chilled and not to be taken seriously. One of my most sour grapes is wine snobbery.

But the French are resistant to marketing and all things commercial. They are also not fans of young wines in general or Beaujolais in particular. The Gamay grape is too lightweight for the French palate, which shows a marked preference for the fuller-bodied Bordeaux. They tend to prefer a mature wine which has fait ses preuves – or stood the test of time.

And the fact is that Beaujolais is not the only wine to be born on this day. A whole host of vins nouveaux or vins primeurs (young wines) from regions all over France will be released around the same time (not to be confused with the wines en primeur, a whole other deal where buyers invest in wine futures or the nouveaux crus before their value is officially defined).

For the past few years the marketing minds behind Beaujolais Nouveau have been trying to reposition it as a highly fashionable affair going shoulder to shoulder with French haute couture. Personally I believe this is a mistake as it goes against the very grain of the light-hearted nouveaux wines and tries to give it a serious air.

This year marks the first time a Mademoiselle Beaujolais Nouveau has been crowned and will participate in Thursday’s events. Young (21), pretty and wearing a ruby red robe, she will be the personification of Beaujolais Nouveau itself.

Here’s hoping it’s a good year – and if not, a good party. Tchin!