Uncorked in Portugal

Cork oakIt is surely the world’s most reassuring sound. Whether eased from its niche with a gentle sigh or resoundingly and explosively popped, there is no other sound so associated with happiness than the uncorking of a wine bottle.

I speak from a certain, ahem, experience. No neophyte with the corkscrew, I am rather familiar with le bouchon as it’s called in French. It wasn’t always so. It’s taken years of nightly uncorking with my trusty tire-bouchon to master this skill. Now, I pop like a pro: 30 seconds max, zero to glass.

Imagine my surprise and delight in discovering that I was holidaying in the world capital of cork. Portugal. Who knew?

Let me explain that neither husband nor I are history buffs. Sure, he knows his world politics and has a much more precise mental geography of what happened when than I. But when we travel, we do not visit historical sites with anything more than a passing interest. I enjoy some of the stories but retain none of the details. Dates, names….I can always google it. More than once we’ve been shamed to admit that we visited a place without seeing (nay, noticing!) its world famous castle with the UNESCO heritage moat.

Instead, we like to wander around like free spirits and get a sense of a place, a feeling. This time in Sintra, near Lisbon, we decided to explore the area with the aid of e-bikes, and a guide to make sure we didn’t get lost. I’d never felt the need for such aids before, but heck, there were a lot of hills. And for once, I thought we could enjoy a holiday without arguing over which way to go. It was a brilliant plan.

Our guide showed us around the park and surroundings, stopping at key points to give us snippets of information about its various castles but without forcing us to take into too much detail. When he saw how interested we were in the subject, he told us all about the cork tree.

Cork treeThe cork oak is a wonderful thing. In Portugal, the bark is harvested every nine years. It is literally peeled away from the tree trunk, upon which the cork farmer paints the last number of the year in which it was harvested. Then, it regenerates before being harvested again. It is native to Portugal and a few other places but not that many. Oh well, if you want more detail you can always Wiki it.

Cork is used for many things. I love how light and airy it is, yet so strong. It makes a great coaster and is also used for flooring. I even bought a pair of cork sandals. Extremely comfortable and only a little nerdy looking. Mostly, though, it is used as a stopper for wine.

Wine producers have been using synthetic corks increasingly of late, so I had thought cork was an endangered species. But apparently it is a matter of cost. Now I make it a policy to prefer wines with the real thing and although it is hard to know before you open it, those that are ‘mise en bouteille à la propriété’ or bottled by the wine grower are more likely to use real cork.

For years, I have been troubled by one question: what to do with all the leftover corks? It seemed a shame to throw them away but there is no recycling program for cork. Last year, however, I discovered they make a wonderful natural fire starter, Soak them in rubbing alcohol* for a day or two then put a couple in with your kindling and voilà! Une belle flambée!

*Do be careful, though, that stuff is highly inflammable.

Have you ever been to Portugal? Any thoughts on the wonders of cork?

 

 

 

Grimentz and grumbles

IMG_3089After my one-woman tribute to the 80s on the ski slopes last winter, I swore that this year I would get new gear. If only to keep up with my husband who is fully outfitted in the latest high-tech layers, skis and boots, including a set of seal skins for going uphill. I didn’t make it to new skis but did manage to get a new pair of boots, the most challenging part of the whole operation.

Let’s just say I have a rather substantial calf. A pair of gams that call up images not of limbs so much as tree trunks, or, as one (obviously former) suitor once said: “Your leg looks like something that should be put on a spit and rotated.”

Getting a ski boot I can actually do up without cutting off all the circulation in my lower extremities is a challenge. After terrorizing two salespeople and trying on at least six different models, I finally thought we had a good fit in a Salomon. Last weekend it was time to put them to the test.

Now that the spring is upon us, the Alps offer my kind of fair-weather skiing. We decided to make a weekend of it on the Swiss side, more picturesque and less crowded than France. On Friday night we headed for Grimentz, a cute little village in the Valais region of Switzerland where I’d been once before for a work event.

The trouble began the next morning when I tried to do up the boots. Either my calves had expanded in the weeks since we left the store or the altitude was playing tricks with my brain. We somehow managed to do them up but I was feeling pins and needles by the time we got to the télécabine.

The view from the top

The view from the top

My husband instructed me to wait while he got the ski passes. He has this habit of taking charge whenever we get near a mountain. He then directed me to the gondola lift and up, up, up we went – a full twenty-minute ride to the top. What the–? I tried to catch my breath as we got off the lift but the air was a little thin. This was not what I’d had in mind. I studied the map of ski runs. Where were all the blues? And the restaurant? Hubby looked at the map and pointed out that we were on the other side of the resort, its highest point. Seemed there had been two possible ways up and we had taken the wrong one. A few choice words were exchanged but I’ll spare you having to pardon my French. I admired the view while he did a few red and black runs. We took the next cable car down.

By the time we got down to the nice blue slopes it was almost lunch time. We got in a few runs before heading for a sunny spot on a terrace where, a sausage and a large beer later, I began to enjoy myself.

The boots were still a bit tight but at least I could feel my feet. We skied several runs and enjoyed the afternoon.

IMG_3092The best part of the weekend was being in Grimentz. It is a picturesque mountain village built almost entirely out of wood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fire hydrant

Which probably explains why there’s a fire hydrant on every corner.

 

Unlike the French, who so often let their ski resorts turn into concrete monstrosities, this place is nothing but old wood and cobbled streets. Lots of good places to eat, too, and the Valaisans make great wine and cheese.

 

 

 

Stay tuned for more adventures next winter!

 

100 things to enjoy in France

Le champagne

For my 100th post on this blog about life in France, I’ve decided to share 100 things to eat, drink and simply enjoy in my adopted land. Some are personal favorites, others classics of French cuisine that everyone should try at least once.

Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. Le pain au chocolat. Don’t be misled by the name – there is no bread, just delightfully dark squishy chocolate tucked into a croissant-style bun.
  2. Le pain aux raisins. Still no bread, but a twist: the pastry spirals around in a circle interlaced with custard and raisins, sometimes sprinkled with sugar.
  3. Le croissant au beurre. Be sure you get the kind ‘au beurre’ if you want the 100% butter kind (rather than other fat). Wonderful with…
  4. La confiture. Jam. Nothing like a bit of Bonne Maman on your croissant.
  5. Le beurre. Doux (unsalted) or demi-sel (lightly salted). They don’t often serve it with bread in France, but sometimes eat it with cheese to soften the too-strong taste.
  6. Un petit noir. An espresso. Also known here as ‘un express’.
  7. Le chocolat. Perfect accompaniment to le petit noir. The French are not chocolate snobs as long as it’s dark.
  8. La baguette. The classic, crusty staple of French life (which changed mine)
  9. Le pain au levain. Sourdough. My favorite bread.
  10. Les profiteroles. Choux pastry filled with ice cream, topped with chocolate sauce and whipped cream. Holds a special place in my heart as it was my late mom’s favorite dessert.
  11. Les macarons. These double-decker meringue sandwiches have become so trendy you can get them everywhere. Ladurée is the most famous.
  12. La tarte au citron. A tangy dessert favorite of mine. With or sans méringue.
  13. La méringue. Okay, so it’s nothing but egg whites and sugar. These chewy clouds make a wonderful base for a fruity dessert.
  14. Le saucisson sec. A dry cured or smoked sausage, of which there are hundreds of kinds in this country. I like it with peppercorns or pistachio. Sliced on a wooden board and served with your favorite apéro.
  15. Le foie gras. You’re free to give this a miss if you can’t abide the idea of force feeding geese but France is the place to sample goose or duck liver pâté. Wonderful with brioche bread, onion chutney and a sweeter white wine.
  16. Le pâté. A nice slab of pâté (my favorite is la crème forestière) with pickles on a good bread makes a great sandwich.
  17. La saucisse de Toulouse. A thick pork sausage named for the southern city from which it originates and traditionally used in cassoulet.
  18. Le steak frites. The classic French bistro dish. Make sure you order your steak ‘bleu’ if you want it very rare and ‘à point’ if you prefer medium rare. Lovely with…
  19. La moutarde de Dijon. Smooth or grainy. Is there any other kind?
  20. La choucroute. An excellent dish from the German-influenced Alsace region featuring sauerkraut, potatoes and multiple cuts of fresh and smoked pork.
  21. Une andouillette. A sausage made of tripe. Not for the faint of heart. My husband loves this dish, but for me the sauce is the best part.
  22. Un MacDo. Just because you can have a beer with your burger while people-watching on Les Champs Elysées.
  23. Le sandwich. Because baguette. ‘Nuff said.
  24. Un pan bagnat. Basically a Niçoise salad on a round bun (tuna, eggs, tomatoes, lettuce). One of the healthier items to take out at the bakery.
  25. Une crêpe. To be eaten at the buvette in the park on a chilly fall afternoon. Dripping with chocolate sauce.
  26. Un beignet. Oddly, I’ve only ever seen the French eat sugar donuts at the beach.
  27. Une tarte tatin. An upside-down tarte of caramelized apples. Enjoy warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
  28. Un demi. My standard order of draft beer (25 cl). Unless I’m thirsty, in which case it’s une pression (half a liter).
  29. Le gigot d’agneau. French leg of lamb. Studded with garlic cloves, sprinkled with coarse salt and rosemary, roasted for Sunday lunch.
  30. Les cornichons. Pickles. Thick or thin but never sweet.
  31. Le camembert. The stinkiest of French cheeses. The most authentic has the ‘AOP’ label, is made from raw milk, ‘moulé à la louche’ and from Normandie.
  32. La vache qui rit. Okay, it’s processed cheese but the laughing cow has the fun factor. It was a favorite of my daughter’s and a staple of our household when the kids were small.
  33. Le Boursin. Le pain, le vin, le Boursin. With pepper please.
  34. La cervelle de canuts. A Lyonnaise spreadable specialty of creamy cheese, garlic and chives, served with slabs of pain de campagne (country bread).
  35. Le Saint Félicien. A delicate cow’s milk cheese from the Rhône-Alpes region that runs off the plate and lands on your bread like magic.
  36. Le Saint Marcellin. The St. Felicien’s feisty little brother.
  37. Le Saint Agur. My favorite French blue. Creamier than roquefort but with just enough tang.
  38. Le jambon de Paris. Your basic cooked ham. The foundation meat for many a sandwich, croque, quiche, etc.
  39. Le jambon de Bayonne. An air-dried salted ham that takes its name from the city in southwest France.
  40. La tartiflette. A potato gratin made with Reblochon cheese and lardons. Loaded with calories to fill you up if you’re skiing – and even if you’re not!
  41. Un vin chaud. Mulled or hot wine, spicy and red. Not my absolute favorite thing but pretty damn good in the cold.
  42. La pizza. Who said pizza was Italian? Thin-crusted and richly topped, often with an egg, and available just about everywhere in France (but don’t expect delivery unless you’re in a big city).
  43. Le rouge. The only beverage that perfectly accompanies every meal (except breakfast.)
  44. Les rattes. Tiny, firm-fleshed potatoes with papery skin. Amazing with butter, parsley and garlic (but what isn’t?)
  45. Les blettes. Also known as bettes. Apologies but we had to talk green vegetables at some point. Similar to Swiss chard, the white ‘cotes’ are lovely and nutty and often enjoyed au gratin in France.
  46. Les cardons. Another odd veggie considered as something of a delicacy. Looks like celery, tastes like artichoke and often eaten in white sauce around Christmas.
  47. Les salsifis. The weirdest vegetable I have ever eaten. A white root served in a white sauce. Must confess I just don’t get what all the fuss is about!
  48. Les champignons. So many mushrooms, so little time: button mushrooms or champignons de Paris, cepes, morilles
  49. Les pralines. Sugar-coated nuts. What’s not to like?
  50. La mousse au chocolat. So good. Only 3 ingredients!
  51. L’île flottante. A.k.a oeufs à la neige (eggs in snow). An island of egg whites floating on a lake of custard. There’s a poem in there somewhere…
  52. Le croque monsieur / madame. Or the Dead Guy as my brother calls it. The classic melt. Madame has an egg on top.
  53. La soupe au choux. Cabbage soup. Also the name of a popular detox diet and a comedy classic film with Louis de Funès.
  54. La crême brulée. My all-time favorite dessert (next to cheesecake, which is decidedly not French). Thick vanilla custard with a burnt sugar top.
  55. La crême caramel. The classic custard dessert with a soft caramel top.
  56. La crème de marron. A sweet chestnut purée topping or ingredient for desserts. Lovely with yogurt or fromage blanc.
  57. Les marrons glacés. Iced chestnuts. My son loves these. You need a sweet tooth.
  58. Une glace. The best place to enjoy an ice cream in France? At the cinema, bien sûr!
  59. La buche de Noël. The traditional Yule log, with a great many gourmet twists – glacé, café, chataigne….
  60. Le trou Normand. A pause in the middle of a meal to relax and enjoy with a drop of…
  61. Le Calvados. Apple brandy, the Normandy digestif par excellence.
  62. La barbe à papa. My husband hates this stuff. Candy floss, spun sugar, white or pink. Transforms your children into sticky monsters at the park.
  63. Un oeuf en gelée. Why not? They look so pretty in that gelatin, and the egg will be cooked to ‘mollet’ perfection (the yoke a tad runny)
  64. Une omelette. Ain’t eggs wonderful? Especially when cooked to perfection on an omelet pan with globs of runny cheese inside.
  65. Des épinards à la crème. Talk about a spoon full of sugar! The French can add cream to anything and it will be delicious. Personally, I prefer my spinach with a knob of butter, salt, shallots and pine nuts.
  66. Un citron pressé. Freshly squeezed lemon juice, served in a tall glass with plenty of ice and sugar. Surely the healthiest option while sitting on a café terrace watching the world go by?
  67. Un flan. Imagine a slice of sweet, crustless egg pie. So good it’s trembling. The perfect treat for…
  68. Le goûter. A.k.a le quatre heures. The after-school snack is very important in French culture because the evening meal is never served before 8 pm, and the kids have very long school days. I know many fully grown French men and women who have never outgrown their goûter.
  69. Une quiche. Okay we all know Lorraine, but what about her variants? With goat’s cheese and sun-dried tomatoes, or spinach and ricotta.
  70. L’apéro. Cocktail hour à la française. Drink, eat, be merry!
  71. Le caramel au beurre salé. This is a drug to me. No translation required.
  72. Le pied de porc. Pig’s trotters. It’s said that nothing in the pig goes to waste. Here’s proof.
  73. Le lapin. Eat Peter Rabbit, you say? Forget the Easter bunny. If you like white meat, you’ll love it.
  74. Le magret de canard. Duck breast, a dark meat readily available in most French supermarkets and easy to prepare (although you need a fan). Makes a nice change from beef.
  75. La tête de veau. Calf’s brain. Okay, I have to confess I’ve never eaten this one. But it is a classic of French cuisine, and your butcher will debone and roll it for you. Go ahead, I dare you! Often eaten with Gribiche, a sauce of hard-cooked eggs, mustard and pickles, as is…
  76. Le tablier des sapeurs. Another tripe specialty from Lyon. Basically they throw nothing away.
  77. Une salade Lyonnaise. A safe option in Lyon for the less adventurous. Bacon and eggs on a salad.
  78. Une salade Niçoise. Tuna, hard boiled eggs, green beans, tomatoes, potatoes. Anchovies optional. Oh, and a few salad leaves if you insist!
  79. Une salade au chevre chaud. Melt goat’s cheese on toast under the broiler and serve on salad leaves. Presto!
  80. Le petit salé. Salted pork. Often served with…
  81. Les lentilles à la crème. Sure, add bacon and cream to anything and it’ll taste good!
  82. Les asperges blanches. The French prefer the big fat white asparagus, which they often eat lukewarm with a cream sauce like Gribiche.
  83. La pissaladière. A pizza variant from Nice. Onions, olives, garlic, anchovies.
  84. La tarte au myrtilles. You cannot get fresh blueberries easily in France. They’re expensive and often moldy. The best bet is preserves, which are wonderful served in a buttery pie shell.
  85. Un kébab. The kebab is popular French street food, although most of the meat comes from Germany.
  86. Un couscous. Given the large North African population in France, it’s not surprising that this dish has a lot of fans. Traditionally prepared with merguez (spicy beef sausages), lamb, chicken, steamed veg, chick peas and mounds of soft semolina. Gorgeous.
  87. Un verre de blanc. You see people at the markets and food halls sipping white wine quite early in the morning. Why wait for l’apéro?
  88. La poule de Bresse. The chicken with a pedigree from Bresse, in eastern France. The ‘artistocrat of modern poultry’, it has blue legs, if not blue blood.
  89. Une tisane / infusion. A herbal tea traditionally consumed in the evening, on a cold day or anytime one feels the need for a healthy infusion. Chamomile for relaxation, verbena, mint and fennel for digestion, red vine for circulation – whatever ails you, there’s a tisane for it. Medicinal herbs also sold in pharmacies.
  90. Un gratin de courge. Let’s face it – anything mixed with cheese and broiled is good. For some reason, the French are big fans of squash done this way. The secret ingredient: nutmeg.
  91. Les moules frites. Another French bistro classic. I do love mussels, especially the garlicky broth – but they are rather a lot of work to eat.
  92. Les huitres. Okay, this another cheat as I don’t eat these either (how many have you counted so far?). But those who love oysters swear by them. With lemon, shallots and a glass of white wine.
  93. La tartare de boeuf. One of my husband’s favorite dishes. Only to be ordered in restaurants where you can be absolutely sure of the freshness of the meat. They put a raw egg on top, just in case you weren’t already worried about salmonella.
  94. La blanquette de veau. As its name suggests, a white dish with a fine sauce. Neither the veal nor the onions are browned. Served with rice.
  95. La raie au beurre noire. Skate fish in a black butter sauce with capers. I love the texture of this fish.
  96. Les cuisses de grenouille. My final cheat. Everyone who’s eaten them swears by frogs’ legs, and they are readily available in Lyon by the banks of the Saône river. One of these days…
  97. Les quenelles. Another specialty of Lyon, la quenelle is a sort of dumpling made of eggs and fish, poached in white sauce until it swells, then browned under the broiler.
  98. Un kir. My default aperitif when neither beer nor champagne are on offer. White wine blushed with any kind of crême liqueur – cassis, mûre, raspberry, peach. Don’t waste good wine on it. Unless you have it with champagne, in which case it is a kir royale.
  99. Une flute. A salty, sometimes cheesy snack stick to go with…
  100. Le champagne. There are no rules with champagne in France – you can drink it before, during or after. A fitting conclusion to a special meal – and this list. Santé!

I’ve probably missed a few…what are your favorite French treats?

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.