Sunday, April 3, 2011

Au Revoir la Belle France

The movers arrive in one week, Gilles is away, and once he returns he still has to make a trip to Geneva to sign his new contract. Nothing like leaving things to the last minute! Meanwhile, Xavier and I have been visiting our old haunts and saying our good byes. We've delivered ice wine or maple syrup to our tailor, traiteur, pizza guy, and wine ladies. In doing so, it's made us realize how much this place has come to feel like home. How much our frequent visits to the marche, pizzeria, wine shop, etc have become just as much of a social visit as a running-of-errands visit.

To make the pending departure even more challenging, Mother Nature has been treating us to an unusually dry and hot Spring. It's as though she is saying "how dare you leave Southern France?! You'll miss this weather in the North!". And the fact that we refer to the Netherlands as 'The North' just shows how accustomed we have become to our current lifestyle. We've already been feasting on local strawberries and asparagus. But does that make up for the fact that we'll miss the melons, courgettes, peaches, etc? Pretty sure we won't be buying our meat from the actual farmer anymore. Or have a boulangerie on every corner. Sigh. Those tulips better be worth it!

It's always hard to say good bye, but we are really excited to start our next adventure in The Hague. In a few years, we may be having an equally hard time saying good bye to our bikes, fresh flowers, and our neighbourhood herring street vendor. And who knows...if we stick with this life long enough, maybe we'll end up back in Pau some day. So maybe we'll not say "au revoir", but "a bientot".

PS. In case you are wondering about the picture, the name of the little town we actually live in is Idron. Pau is the bigger, adjoining city.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Cow Down the Road

A short walk from our home, in the parking lot of the boulangerie and traiteur, is a big green milk machine. It's filled frequently with unpasteurized, untreated cow's milk from a local farm. It's quite an advanced system: the milk is stirred in it's chilled holding container to guarantee even fat distribution. The temperature is digitally displayed on the outside. It sells glass and plastic bottles. You can buy either 500 mls or 1 liter of milk, for 0,50 euro or 1 euro, respectively. When you are ready to fill your bottle, you place it in a drawer with a glass door that locks when in use. The bottle gets filled, the door unlocks, then the drawer is washed down with a javex solution before another bottle can be filled.

The green machine displays pictures of the cows that provide the milk, and descriptions of the novel collection process: the cows themselves decide when they want to be milked. Apparently, when they feel like being relieved of milk, the cow walks over to an automatic milker, stands in the stall while the machine does its thing, then walks away when finished.

We have only recently started buying milk from the machine, usually on weekends when we feel like a treat. It's safe to drink for 24 hours from the time of purchase, or several days if boiled. It's creamy, tasty, and likely filled with lots of good things that are removed by the pasteurization and homogenization processes.

The sale of unpasteurized milk is very illegal in Canada, so it's interesting that we can simply walk down the street and fill our bottles. It seems to be quite popular, as there is usually someone buying milk when we are there. In fact, over the holidays we were denied a bottle of the good stuff as the lady in front of us drained the machine dry with her four bottles.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Another Christmas in Pau

Our fourth Christmas in Pau, and for the fourth time we were lucky to have family join us for the holidays. My parents were with us for almost three weeks, and my sister and her boyfriend came down from England for five days. We had beautiful weather, which allowed for some warm lunches in the backyard, and sunny strolls both downtown and at the beach. The weather wasn't very 'Christmas-y', but it's hard to complain when you're basking in the sun on a warm afternoon!

It was a very fun Christmas with a fourteen month old. Xavier didn't quite understand the opening of gifts part, but sure enjoyed pulling the ornaments off the tree, playing with his new toys, and having many more people to play with and spoil him with attention. I am sure he found it quite boring last Thursday when Gilles returned to work and the last of our guests left.

You're probably wondering what's the deal with the picture of the sandwich. My parents ordered a chicken sandwich from a take-out stand at the beach. They assumed fries came on the side, but to all our amazement, when the sandwich arrived the fries were inside the bread, along with the other ingredients. Funny, eh?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Snowy Paris

We spent the week before Christmas in Paris with my parents. It was our third pre-Christmas trip to the city of lights, but the first time we had considerable snow. It's a wonderful time of year to be in Paris, but the snow made it extra festive. And fortunately, we only experienced minor flight delays, which considering the large number of cancellations during that time made for a real Festivus miracle.

The Christmas window displays at the famous Parisian stores are worth battling the crowds to get a glimpse of them. This year's theme at Galeries Lafayette was famous musicals, and Xavier was enthralled by the lights and moving teddy bears and dolls. This year my favourite window display was at Hermes, featuring our favourite macarons maker, Pierre Hermes' beautiful creations in the form of decorated Christmas trees.

Tuareg Gilles

Before Christmas, Gilles spent a couple of working on a well situated in the Sahara desert in Algeria. He had been in Algeria previously, but spent his time in a village. This time he was transported to seemingly the middle of nowhere. The photos of the drive through the desert to location are quite amazing. It's incredible that the drivers can find their way, with no real roads, and the endless sand making everything look the same. But without navigation aids, they always manage to arrive at their destination.

There were sandstorms his first few days there, so one of the locals provided him with a traditional headscarf to protect his face from the blowing sand. The pictures he took of himself are quite tragic-he looks like a sad hostage. But thankfully there were no such kidnapping incidents, and he returned home safe, with a kilo of dates, and in time for Christmas.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Baguettes are Yummy!

Without me knowing it, Xavier pulled a baguette out of the grocery bag this morning. I caught him walking around the house, chowing down on the still warm loaf. He's well on his way to being a true frenchman!

Birthday Boy

We celebrated Xavier's first birthday this week. We turned the weekly anglophone playgroup into a birthday party, and all his little english speaking friends spoiled him with gifts. We gave him the ceremonial first piece of cake, in this case it was a cupcake, and he managed to smear it into a wet paste. I am not sure any made it into his mouth, but he had a great time regardless. We had fun too-Monday night, we celebrated his birthday with Champagne, and reflected on the past year.

Speaking of reflection, this is my 100th post!! It will be interesting to see how many more posts I get in before we have to pack up and move away.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Culinary Jackpot

Gilles took part in his second vendanges (grape harvest) yesterday. It was the first pick of the grapes that go into making the dry Jurancon wine from our region. In a few weeks they will pick the grapes for the sweet Jurancon. After the picking was done, the group gathered for a snack and some wine. Gilles and one of the vineyard owners decided to skip out on the food and wine, and go foraging in the adjacent forest for cepes.

First, a little background on cepes. The Fall is mushroom season, and the French love to go foraging for mushrooms in their free time. The king of all mushrooms is the cepe. You are likely more familiar with the Italian variety called porcini, which are essentially the same thing, although would be a bit different because of terroir. Cepes do not travel well, and must be eaten soon after picked. They are not successfully cultivated, so must be found in the wild. Once the season begins, some people take holidays to go on a cepe hunt, selling their finds to restauranteurs and shops. Cepes are very expensive, and a fruitful forager stands to make a lot of money.

Cepes are found under acorn, chestnut, and beech trees. Apparently, the cepes found under beech trees have an even superior flavour an already sumptious fungus. Our region is well-known for cepes, and the most popular French way of eating them is cepes a la bordelaise (cepes made in the way from Bordeaux): simply sauteed in oil with garlic and parsley added at the end.

As you can see from the photos, Gilles and his co-forager were successful, each finding one cepe. When they returned to the group, everyone was shocked at their find, and started cheering. Several of the men instantly dropped their drinks, and headed out on their own search. Gilles was ecstatic-he wanted to call everyone that would appreciate his find, and share the news with them.

Gilles returned home with both of the large cepes, and now we have to figure out what to go with them. I am not concerned about the cooking, but the cleaning. They have bugs crawling in and out of their caps, and the spongy underside is a little intimidating with pieces of leaves and branches sticking out of it. But the collective enthusiasm of a nation of millions tells me it must be worth it. We shall see tonight.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Weekend in Provence (Fourth Visit!)

Oh, how we love Provence. We spent three days there last weekend, and fell in love with it all over again. The region is very fertile, and each period of the year offers different products in season at the colorful markets, and different sights and scents as you drive around the region. In the Fall, the olive trees are brimming with olives and the grapes are just ready to be picked. I bought a bag of the first of this year's fresh olives. They are not stored in a brine, so are fresh and buttery rather than salty. A real treat from the region. We noticed for the first time pomegranates and kiwis on their trees-the region can grow almost anything.

Provence is home to perhaps Gilles' favourite wine area: the reds from the lower Cotes du Rhone (Gigondas, Vacqueyras, etc). We lucked out, and were there during les vendanges, or the grape harvest. There were people picking grapes in the vineyards, and small tractors pulling trailers overflowing with grapes. The morning we left, we visited the wine cooperative of Rasteau, and at the production facility there was a back-up of tractors overflowing into the road, all full of beautiful, juicy grapes.

Our bed and breakfast was nestled between a vineyard and an apricot orchard. Gilles and Xavier took a stroll through the vineyard, and Xavier sampled grapes right from the vines. They were sweet, with not a hint of sour, likely the grenache grape which is the workhorse for the red wines of the region.

Southern France also boasts some of the best Roman sites anywhere. This time we made the trek to a 2,000 year old bridge called Pont Julien. This amazing structure remained a car bridge until 2005! Now Pont Julien is enjoyed by pedestrians and bikers, and Xavier who crawled over and under his first Roman site.

Knowing this will be our last visit to Provence for quite some time, we returned home with four cases of wine, three liters of olive oil, and many other regional goodies.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Sundays in the Country

We have been filling our weekends with French country experiences since our return from Canada. I suspect it's partly because we know our days here are numbered, so want to fill them with the best of what the region has to offer. The weather has been spectacular, and we have enjoyed driving through small French villages and the lush, green pastures that lead up to the Pyrenees mountains.

Last Sunday we headed deep into Basque Country to pick up some pork. We have purchased customized pork packages from this family before with our friends, and this time it was our turn to make the trek to the farm. They raise an ancient breed of pig that is unique to the area. It is mostly black, and has huge ears that hang in its face. They roam freely, and this time of year they munch on the acorns and chestnuts that fall from the trees. They are fairly active, so don't grow very large, but do have a very high fat content, making it ideal for making cured legs with. It leads to a product less like a prosciutto, and more like a good jamon iberico/pata negra-if you are lucky enough to have tried this Spanish delicacy, then you know what the fuss is about. Anyway, this time we filled our freezer with fresh cuts, sausages, and the best boudin we have ever tasted. The pork is delicious, and well worth the two hour drive to pick it up.

We were given a tour of the beautiful and ancient farm. The farmhouse is almost as rustic today as it was 250 years ago. We were welcomed in for coffee, and it was humbling to imagine such a simple life. But the young gentleman that runs the farm loves the life, and is so passionate about his animals and land. This is not factory produced meat, and you just know that the product he sells benefits from the love and attention that he devotes to it.

Yesterday we attended a festival in a small village closer to home. The highlight of the weekend's festivities was a sheep herding competition. There were several thousand people in attendance to see which shepherd and dog would prove to be the best herding team. The shepherd stood in one spot, and directed his dog to herd the sheep through gates and around a huge field, often just by whistling. It was very fun to watch!

Next weekend, Provence to stock up on fresh olives, olive oil, and wine.