Archive for the ‘French Summer 2007’ Category

Last summer when Monsieur and I found ourselves at the Saturday market in Sarlat-le-Canéda, we were tempted into buying some delicious foie gras at one of the many stalls selling duck produce. The foie gras is long gone, but the preserve jars in which it was sold are still with me. Time and time again, Monsieur has threatened to throw them out, but as I love collecting jars as airtight containers for herbs and other kitchen condiments, I’ve insisted they stay, knowing I would find a use for them.

Earlier this year, I joined Monsieur in Paris for a long weekend and while he was at meetings (le pauvre), I walked across to the 7th, to ogle the contents of épicerie windows and boulangeries and boutiques and leather goods shops. For lunch, I stopped at Tribeca on rue Cler and ordered a tomato and mozzarella salad. Well. Be still my heart. The salad may have been Italian in creation but it was toute French in its inspired presentation, arriving in a chilled preserve jar, set on a plate with fresh green leaves and dressing!

Recently, the foie gras jars once again came close to being thrown out by Monsieur, so to prove their worth to him, I did my best to replicate the salad I’d so enjoyed that day in the 7th. Here’s how to make it:

Start with a basil leaf covered by a slice of fresh mozzarella in the base of the jar and lightly season the cheese. Push a slice of beef tomato on top, followed by a couple of slices of avocado. Add another slice of mozzarella, another of tomato, a last slice of mozzarella and a basil leaf on top. Lightly season each layer as you go. Depending on the size of the preserve jar and the thickness of your slices, you may find there is room for more layers. Then drizzle your preferred dressing over the top. This will slowly leak down to the lower layers. At Tribeca, the dressing was laced with basil, which was delicious, but you could also use a vinaigrette or simple oil and lemon juice.

Once the jar is closed, the salad will keep for 1-2 days if refrigerated, and because the jar is airtight, the avocado won’t discolour. It’s an ideal starter that can be made well in advance of guests arriving, leaving time for last minute fussing over the main. It’s also an attractive way of serving food, with the red, white and green layers visible through the glass. Once properly chilled, the jar can be upturned to allow a perfect tower of tomato, mozzarella and avocado to sit on the plate, if you don’t want to eat straight from the jar.

Merci beaucoup, Tribeca chefs, for teaching me a new way to present this salad…

Now, be good readers and try this at home. Then drop me a line to say how you get on. Bon appetit!

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Monsieur and I love kayaking, which is called canoë-kayak in French (pronounced CAN-OO-AY kayak). Why the French feel the need to use both words, I really don’t know. Anyway, apart from our common enjoyment of this boating experience, each time Monsieur and I set off in a kayak we leave the concept of togetherness on the shore. Monsieur paddles one way, I paddle another. We have the same destination in mind but very different approaches on how to get there. In order to save our relationship, we’ve decided never, jamais, to share a kayak again.

To better illustrate the point, at a family event in France last year, we took to the water on a deeper and faster river than we’re accustomed to. Monsieur’s extended family milled around on the banks, watching with interest as we fought a very strong current (and each other). By the time we got out of the boat I had stung my hand on stinging nettle, something had bitten me hard on the back THROUGH the lifejacket and I had a massive scratch on one shoulder which would take at least ten days to stop oozing luscious infection. (Monsieur was blessedly unscathed.) All this because Monsieur plus the current plus me equalled a number of dramatic crashes into trees and the riverbank. When we finally made it out of the water, we were fit to kill one another but worse was yet to come. “Thank you both for such fascinating drama,” laughed an uncle with one eyebrow raised in bemusement, or was that disappointment in our canoe conduct. We blushed in shame. Apparently we’d been yelling quite a lot and I could only be grateful that we’d yelled in English so as not to alarm the natives more. Not only was I anglo-saxone, a label already laden with unflattering stereotypes, but it was now obvious that I was unattractively hot-headed and loud; not exactly the way I wanted to impress Monsieur’s relatives.  

Monsieur and I have now attempted to cooperate in a boat three times. Three times it has been the bittersweet mix of wonderful fun, incredible scenery and vivid fantasies of 101 things you can do with a paddle that could be construed as ‘bodily harm with intent’. Seriously, such thoughts are enough to make CSI’s Gil Grissom wince. But leaving the negative aside for a moment, Monsieur and I have discovered a wonderful way to explore the French river system.

Our first foray into canoë-kayak was on the Célé, a river that runs through Cahors of the black wine and Figeac of the Champollion museum. We were arguing after a mere few minutes. I was in the front of the boat and could see that we were about to go over a four-foot rocky fall, so stuck out my oar and stopped us at the adjacent bank. Monsieur initially couldn’t see what all the panic was about, so he was quite annoyed with me. “Go on, we’ll be fine!” he shouted, “No we won’t! We’ll wreck the boat. It’s dangerous!” I yelled back. Eventually, we agreed to get out of the boat and walk it down to the river below. Then Monsieur saw the drop that had seen me scream so loud I’d scared the birds out of the trees above us. “Ah, now I see what you mean,” he said. “You’re right. This is really dangerous!”

That didn’t ruin our day, however. We’d chosen to do a three-hour trip, measured by bridges. There were five and once we had passed under the fifth, we’d be near the landing at the camping ground where we’d hired the boat. That was to be our destination. It was a beautiful afternoon on the river. A family of ducks swam in front of us and whenever we got too close for their quacky comfort, they’d fly on ahead until we caught them up. We could see cows grazing in fields as we paddled on by and baby beavers splashed about us as they built their dams, of which there were many, one being so huge that it was a testament to the local beaver brigade’s work ethic.

At one point, we tried to paddle across the trunk of a tree that had fallen across the river and into the water. There was a lot of bottom bumping as we tried to dislodge the kayak from where it had settled, mid-trunk, but eventually we made it. At another, we reached a picturesque old water mill, with working wheel, but there was once more a tricky drop so we got out and carried the boat to a spot where we could relaunch safely.

We didn’t see another soul on the river that day. It was calm (apart from the occasional disturbance from our temperamental selves) and so untouched that it was easy to forget that such a thing as a car existed. The trees reached across the water, from one bank to the other, dappling the light from above as they formed a protective layer around the river. It was pure magic and, all things considered, we didn’t crash that much. But the day wasn’t over yet.

We passed the fifth bridge, following instructions to head for the bank on our right. “It’s signposted,” the boat man had said, but we found no sign, just cows and there really wasn’t a sensible spot at which to land. Before we knew it we’d gone past the camping ground, the caravans and the tents, and dropped down a little fall with a rush. The water was moving fast here so there was no hope of doubling back and for a long time we couldn’t find anywhere to stop. The banks were all too high. Then it went dark as clouds zoomed together out of nowhere, eclipsing the blue sky we’d enjoyed for the past few hours. Rain tumbled down so Monsieur and I decided, together, that enough was enough. This fortunately coincided with the appearance of a bank that was sufficiently low at which to get ourselves out of the water. With the rain had come a sudden drop in temperature so not only were we drenched, but blue with the cold.

Luckily, there was civilisation near this particular bank, in the form of the place where we’d lunched that day and where you eat a plate of frites if, like me, you don’t like their choice of steak, steak or steak. (I have to add that they were very good frites). As a redeeming act, the owner allowed us to use his phone to contact the man who’d hired us the boats so he could collect us with his trailer, which he did, bumping us along the road to the camping ground where we’d left the car. With chattering teeth we drove back to the little hotel and were unbelievably grateful for steaming hot showers.

So that was the first attempt of Monsieur and Epic to co-exist on the water. It wasn’t the worst but it certainly wasn’t the most straightforward. As for our adventure on the Dordogne last year, well, that’s another story.

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The alarm went off in the dark. Usually, getting up pre-dawn means one of two things: illness or an early flight. Today was a case of the latter, but not in the normal sense. We left the hotel just as a hint of breaking sun highlighted the river mist, following the trusty Michelin map to a field just below Rocamadour, one of France’s most visited pilgrimage sites. By now, the town hewn so creatively out of a cliff was tinged the soft rose of dawn. It was breathtaking. However, my breath was about to be taken away by something quite different: a hot air balloon ride.

Neither Monsieur nor I had ever been in a hot air balloon before, so the whole routine was new to us. Once at the rendezvous point of a dewy field we introduced ourselves to a balloon crew already unpacking their trailer. A shiver of doubt trickled down my spine as the pilot explained that our crew was not yet here and he would be teaching his two companions how to fly today. Oh joy. Would they use L plates? I wondered. Already nervous, the idea of floating around at great heights in a basket near learner pilots was becoming less and less attractive.

Our crew drove into the field and we went to say hello. There were two of them: the pilot and an assistant who would follow us in their jeep. The basket was unloaded, looking a lot smaller than I’d anticipated, then a large nylon kit bag was opened to expose the balloon. At this point it was surely too small to inflate into something large enough to carry us across the Dordogne skies. Once unfolded, however, with a gas canister pointed into it, the mass of green fabric filled up to full size.

All too soon it was time for take off. We climbed aboard. With Monsieur, the pilot, the gas canisters and me, there wasn’t much room to move. A piece of advice: never get into a balloon with anyone you don’t trust, or, for that matter, with someone you don’t like very much as you may be tempted to help them over the side. It would be all too easy.

Amusingly, the pilot gave us safety instructions prior to lift off, similar to what you see on a plane. “If you need to hold onto something, use the frame or the rope handles on the basket,” he told us, “and please do not touch the knobs on the gas canisters.” I prayed I wouldn’t knock into one accidentally. Did I mention how little room there was? “In case we bump into a cliff,” (a cliff? we could bump into a cliff, he said?) duck down inside the basket and hold onto the handles.” The pilot smiled. “But that hardly ever happens.” Not exactly reassuring when we’re stood right next to quite a large cliff of historic importance. We could end up taking out some unsuspecting tourists if we weren’t careful. Perhaps a whole bus-load. But wait, there’s more. “In the case of an emergency landing, duck down inside the basket and roll with it, and keep away from the flame.” Well, that part is obvious. I thought of my mother and started to pray.

The Learners took off at about the same time as us, so we travelled in tandem. Our basket bumped up off the ground and hovered. A surge of gas and we rose a bit. And hovered again. This happened a few times until we just floated, quite still, at a level with Rocamadour. This was a comfortable height, with a pleasant view of the valley and town. Perhaps we could just stay here for a few minutes and go back down? A couple of dogs below were already beginning to resemble small insects in quite an unnerving way.

My wish wasn’t granted. The gas surged again and up we rose heavenwards, gradually losing sight of Rocamadour. Soon we were above the clouds, floating across a fluffy white carpet with an unnerving expanse of blue sky all around our tiny little basket. Yet another unwanted thought popped into my head: can planes see balloons on radar? I certainly hoped so. Thank heavens we weren’t near any major airports.

After a while, I stopped praying and managed to take some photos. The vista of the unspoilt Dordogne landscape was stunning. It was easy to imagine cavemen running around down there shaking their clubs on the way to do some cave painting. Then we drifted across luscious farmland. At one crop of outbuildings a choir of barking started as the rush of our flame alerted some dogs to our balloon. We couldn’t see them, but clearly they didn’t like the sound of us. The barking faded as we passed farmhouse after farmhouse with fresh blue rectangles of swimming pool, a churchyard and lots of outbuildings and barns, all resembling those little plastic farm toys that come with a pair of ducks, some cows, a sheep or two and a hen house..

The pilot picked up his walkie talkie at intervals to identify landmarks as we flew over them, so that Monsieur Ground Staff knew how to follow us. Finally, just as I was beginning to really relax into the ride, he said “see you at Jean’s farm,” clicked the walkie talkie back into his belt and began our descent into the friendly Farmer Jean’s back field. I grabbed hold of the frame with one hand and the nearest rope handle with the other, gritting my teeth as I prepared to roll with the basket in case of a landing issue. Proving that Epicurus is quite sound in suggesting we find a way to live without fear, we bumped across the grass a little bit and stopped perfectly easily, making all my nerves and doubts seem rather ridiculous.

Climbing out of the basket, we were greeted by Farmer Jean’s Border Collie as Farmer Jean himself ambled out to shake hands with our pilot. Then Monsieur Ground Staff joined us, trailer in tow, as we waited for the balloon to deflate.

I stood back, absorbing the early morning light and the view of our Learner friends dropping into a nearby field, quietly mulling the concept that a lot of adventure can be had before 8.30 in the morning when I noticed the cobwebs. In the long field-grass there were cobwebs everywhere, beautiful in their symmetry and sparkling with dew. As I searched for a spider to match one of these webs, something tickled my face. It felt like hair so I reached up to brush it away, finding instead a spider walking across my hand. It must have taken a long walk up my jeans and over my fleece onto my face without stirring any attention. Looking like an anorexic daddy-long-legs, I gently put it back on the grass before watching the men pack away the balloon into the trailer. Already the trip had taken on a surreal quality.

Once back in the field of departure, the pilot filled out our flight certificates, justly earned, might I add, and bade us farewell. We felt it rude not to visit Rocamadour so off we went to breakfast at Le Beau Site, looking down on the field we’d just left. As we sat with our coffee, we watched the town wake up, shop shutters cranking open, tour buses arriving and discharging their passengers. Yet just before things became too crowded or touristic, we were able to leave, still pondering the morning’s adventures as we drove off to explore more of rural France.

It would seem my prayers worked. I had survived the balloon ride and would see my mother again. But would I go on a similar trip in the future? Almost definitely, yes.

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