Archive for the ‘france’ Category

Mapping the heart : kissing and counting   Leave a comment

Lac D’Indifference

Mademoiselle de Scudéry’s allegorical Carte du Tendre, is a map of human emotions, upon which she plotted the Lac d’Indifference, Mer d’Inimitié, and many villages including Grand Cœur, Probité, Générosité, Respect, Exactitude and Bonté, in her 17th.c. novel Clélie.

Lac d’Indiference

This is Jacky Bowring’s allegorical addition to that map. Her own site is to be found to the west of here, under Passages, in my links. Her posts are moving and affecting.

Tonight – New Year’s Eve – there are those who feel indifferent to the whole show; while others will feel differently, and may need to know how to kiss correctly when meeting. Here is a map for those who care about Kissing and Counting :

kissing mapof france

How many kisses? Per cheek, per person, per day . . .

There should be a small white patch down there in the bottom left corner : that would represent the utter indifference that our French vigneron friends, Charles and Isabelle, feel about the whole ‘kissy french thing’. They, in common with Parisiens, quite like the way we Anglo-Irish just stand around gormlessly saying ‘ uh, hi . . .’


Posted December 31, 2007 by Richard Williams in books, france

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Parsnips are evil   2 comments

The train of thought has just pulled in to a station called Non Sequitur.
Out steps – a parsnip. Alone on the platform, and looking round anxiously for a context.


Well – I am able to provide it with one, but that’s all this lonely stranger is going to find in France. It will not be greeted by eager cooks or consumers. It’s not out of favour. It’s not out of season. It’s an unter-vegetable – fit only for ruminants of the most unthinking kind. And what was once deemed suitable only for cattle, can never grace the plate of a proper Frenchman élévé dans la tradition.

I’ll probably never get to the bottom of this tradition – it all seems tangled up with the transition from feudalism towards the emergence of the Nation State: it’s the need for all these newly-constructed ‘countries’ to assert their difference.
It involves Louis X1V – ‘le Roi Soleil’ – and the influence of his sumptuous & sophisticated court on all the other little tuppeny-ha’penny countries of Europe. And of course the Academie Française – its thoughtpolice – declaring what is, and is not proper & correct.
An example of its influence: spices. It declared that the strong spices that mediaeval Europe used to enliven its meat (and mask its gamey taste) were unfit for France: henceforth only herbs were acceptable in proper cuisine. The fact that France had lost control of the Spice Route, first to the Portuguese then to the navies of Holland, and later England – was dismissed as irrelevant . . . Naturellement the idea that France’s eating habits (and spending budget) could be held ransom to these uncouth foreigners, was insupportable.
It is worth noting that the dominant theme in English cooking is the use of spices for their own sake, especially in pursuit of effects that combine the sour and the sweet. The records of spice consumption, from the time of the amalgamation of the ‘Sopers Lane Pepperers’ and the ‘Cheap Spicers’ in 1345, shows a binge lasting nearly a millenium. [National dish of England? Chicken Tikka Massala. Somehow shameful? Not in the least : utterly traditional. Spices R Us !]

Pardonnez-moi. We must go back and save the puzzled parsnip on the platform – the whole point of this post. When asked for some panais at the supermarket, the manager had to be called: Non – never heard of it. Other people remembered some such thing – like a carrot? but bigger? and sweeter? and white, you say? C’est possible . . .
Our Larousse Chambers Advanced French-English dictionary is silent on the word panais – no entry at all. But says this for parsnip: ‘panais – légume courante dans l’alimentation britannique’ (‘an everyday vegetable of the British food-trade’) So – they have a tradition de cuisine  while we just eat off the back of trucks?
French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David has just one entry: ‘Used in very small quantities as a flavouring in pot au feu.’

We finally tracked some down on a small market stall in Carcassonne last Christmas. An elderly farmer had grown them as a curiosity: he thought they might be mediaeval, but – hélas – he could not tell us how they should be cooked …

Now. At a dinner party given by an eminent medical man living in our village, we enjoyed classic cuisine du terroir (aka cuisine de grande-mère) and learnt that he could not abide curries. Moreover: curries, and anything sucré-salé (sweet&sour) was an abomination, and that no shelf-space should be given to spices in a right-thinking cook’s kitchen: they could only spoil the palette, and ruin a dish. This was a fairly young, fairly cultured modern Frenchman, who will never savour the joys of a parsnip, quartered and tossed in an emulsion of olive oil and shoyu, and roasted ’til meltingly caramelised. And most emphatically not steamed parsnips, mashed with butter and roast cumin seeds, with the Christmas turkey. ‘ Ah, non: Quel horreur!’

Posted December 23, 2007 by Richard Williams in food & drink, france

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cows and carp – eros and thanatos   Leave a comment

When Alice B. Toklas met Gertrude Stein, she heard bells ring. They went on to have one of the happiest marriages of the 20th century. They agreed that a life worth living should include plenty of food and the company of artists and writers. For the 39 years that followed their first meeting, that is the life they lived.toklas1.jpg

Such bands of steel are forged by sex, and Gertrude wrote a great deal about the delights of it with Alice. Gertrude’s work included many private references to her love for Alice – “my delicious dish, my little wife” – as well as many references to cows, which Steinian scholars have suggested are orgasms, given that, according to Gertrude,” cows are between legs” and are given to wives:

I am fondest of all of lifting belly
Lifting belly is in bed
And the bed has been made comfortable
Lifting belly
So high
And aiming.
Exactly and making a cow come out.

Gertrude, who was the genius, stayed up all night writing her strange, lovely prose; while Alice, the mistress of the house, woke early to supervise the servants, collected recipes and typed Gertrude’s manuscripts.
While Gertrude proffered sex in prose, Alice prepared suggestive dishes. In the ‘Alice B. Toklas Cookbook’, she writes, “In the menu, there should be a climax and a culmination. Come to it gently. One will suffice.”
Later in the book we come to : Murder In The Kitchen
‘ Cookbooks have always intrigued and seduced me, the way crime and murder stories did Gertrude Stein. And so it is in the kitchen. Murder and sudden death seem as unnatural there as they should be anywhere else. They can’t, they can never become acceptable facts. Food is far too pleasant to combine with horror. All the same, facts, even distasteful facts, must be accepted and we shall see how, before any story of cooking begins, crime is inevitable. That is why cooking is not an entirely agreeable pastime. There is too much that must happen in advance of the actual cooking.
The only way to cook is to cook, and for me it suddenly became a disagreeable necessity to have to do it when war came and Occupation followed. It was then, that I learned to cook seriously. It was at this time, that murder in the kitchen began.
The first victim was a lively carp brought to the kitchen in a covered basket from which nothing could escape. The fish man who sold me the carp said he had no time to kill, scale or clean it. It wasn’t difficult to know which was the most repellent. So quickly to the murder and have it over with. A heavy sharp knife came to my mind as the classic, the perfect choice, so I carefully, deliberately found the base of its vertebral column and plunged the knife in it. Horror of horrors. The carp was dead, killed, assassinated, murdered in the first, second and third degree. Limp, I fell into a chair, with my hands still unwashed reached for a cigarette, lighted it, and waited for the police to come to take me into custody. After another cigarette my courage returned and I went to prepare poor Mr Carp for the table. I scraped off the scales, cut off the fins, cut open the underside and emptied out a great deal of what I did not care to look at, and put it aside while I prepared . . .
Carp Stuffed With Chestnuts
For a 3-lb. carp, chop a medium-sized onion and cook it gently in 3 tablespoons butter. Add a 2-inch slice of bread cut into small cubes which have previously been soaked in dry, white wine and squeezed dry, 1 tablespoon chopped parsley, 2 chopped shallots, 1 clove pressed garlic, 1 teaspoon salt,1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, 3/4 teaspoon powdered mace, the same laurel (bay) and of tyme and 12 peeled chestnuts.
Stuff the cavity and head of the fish, carefully snare with skewers, tie the head so that nothing will escape while cooking. Put aside for at least a couple hours. Put 2 cups dry white wine into an earthenware dish, place the fish in the dish, salt to taste. Cook in the oven for 20 minutes at 375 . Baste, and cover the fish with a thick coating of very fine cracker crumbs, dot with 3 tablespoons melted butter and cook for 20 minutes more. Serves 4. The head of a carp is enormous. Many continentals consider it the most delectable morsel. ‘


. . . and would Madame prefer camel, or wolf ?   1 comment

At this time of the year many French supermarkets offer a choice of ready-prepared menus, for the host who lacks the time (or the confidence) to cook the all-important Christmas Eve feast.

take-away xmas meals

During the winter of 1870 Paris was beseiged for 130 days. (The damned Prussians this time.)
While other foods may have run out, their reserves of gastronomic panache still permitted some extraordinary menus. On Christmas Day (99th. Day of Siege) a top restaurant excelled itself with this offering, which should be filed under Necessity/Invention :-

siege of Paris menu

You may need some help with the vocabulary. Or you might simply want to turn away at this point.
tête d’âne farcie =
stuffed donkey’s head, ours = bear, chameau = camel chevreuil = deer, loup = wolf
un chat flanqué de rats is indeed a cat on a bed of rats. And while you won’t want any help with antilope or kangourou, you may feel the need for a seltzer, or counselling.

I was delighted to find that, a week or so later, the American ambassador was gracious enough to accept the invitation to this fine feast:


‘The whole of the animals and birds of the Jardin Acclimitation were bought by an English butcher of the Faubourg St. Honoré just before the siege, and were all sold by him during the siege at the rate of 25 francs per pound. He is said to have realised a very large fortune by the transaction.’
O ! Perfidious shopkeepers of Albion !

Posted December 19, 2007 by Richard Williams in food & drink, france

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La Liste, or How to be a Good Communist   Leave a comment

France : 36 565 communes
Allemagne : 14 727 communes
Italie : 8 070 communes
Espagne : 8 027 communes
Gde-Bretagne : 522 communes

Il y a 31 927 villages de moins de 2 000 habitants en France. Ils rassemblent environ 15 millions d’habitants. ( 25 % de la population ).

Très petits villages………………….. 3 911 ( 0 à 99 hab. )

Petits villages………………………. 17 124 ( 100 à 499 hab. )

Villages moyens…………………….. 6 759 ( 500 à 999 hab. )

Gros villages…………………………. 4 133 ( 1000 à 1999 hab. )

The municipal elections are approaching – next March every commune in France will be asked to vote for its Mayor for the next 6-year term. Political machinations are afoot. The first salvoe in The Battle for Moux was launched this week in the local paper :-

la liste

We invited Charles & Isabelle round for supper the other night, to get an update on the state-of-readiness of the New Opposition – of which Charles is l’eminence grise. He is well aware that this is, to outsiders, merely a storm in a teacup – our village containing just 500 souls – but it is his teacup and he is about to stir it up. He has also been made aware – through contact with a German who has settled near here – that France is ridiculed elsewhere in Europe for having so many communes : that it makes modern-day governance too smale-scale, too diverse, too cumbersome. And that it puts too much local power in one person’s hands. Our village has had the same gang running it for 12 years – they have grown accustomed to their places at the table ; the populace has become fatalistic about who will run their affairs – and those who would like to see change are anxious about repercussions (or as Charles puts it : represailles – reprisals).

So, when Charles asked me to join La Liste – they need a quorum of 15 – as Minister of Foreign Affairs, or Northern Emissary, I cravenly declined the honour, feeling that we are too exposed as ressortissants to any ill-will that this challenge must inevitably provoke. What little I can do, I shall : my first contribution will be to set up a campaign website, probably a blog, where people can respond/comment/criticise in complete anonymity.

For those interested in the villages of France, Gilbert Delbrayelle has this informative site : Les Sentiers de la Memoire.

oh, what did we offer our French friends to eat? It was lapin a la creme de moutarde a l’ancienne et aux eschalottes, with pommes de terre et celerie-rave parmentier, and green beans. Who? – oh, me with Mary as sous-chef. The praise was genuine and unstinted . . . and all directed at Mary. [ They cannot or will not accept that an English  can do anything other than boil food to bits].

Posted December 15, 2007 by Richard Williams in france, village life

Wind, salt, love and madness   Leave a comment

The weather has been praeternaturally dry for a long while, and there’s been more outside activity (than internal). Now at last we’re getting some rain to go with the winds : gusts of 100 kph means more time at the keyboard.
O we have winds here – and they have names. L’ Autan blanc and l’ Autan noir (one dry, one wet blowing up from Spain); le Nord; le Grec; le Marin (a mild, damp and depressing wind from the Med), le Ponant (from the west); and lastly our predominant wind (that used to blow for 230 days a year, went away this summer but has now been with us for over a month) la Tramontane – in occitan: lo tramontanto alto (N.N-W), lo tramontano basso (W.N-W). It’s related to le Mistral – born out in the Atlantic, becoming ungovernable youngsters in the Bay of Biscay, then wild teenagers rampaging down the Rhone valley or in our case, over the last mountains of the Massif and down the plain to Narbonne. Here it has a local name, le Cers. Say it hard, with a growl, with a hiss: Serrsss! The summer windsurfers love it – but out there today les p’tits vignerons pruning their vines are swaddled like Inuits. It’s bending the trees and driving me indoors.
But what’s all this got to do with the price of fish? Very little at all.
Except I saw the following flight of fancy on the label attached to a pretty (pretty expensive) embossed glass tub of sea-salt at the supermarché today.

I have been wilfully literal in my translation :-

The Tramontane wind, predominant element of the Aude coast, influences our culture and our passions. It is its force which in summer overwhelms (makes fecund??) the expanses of water over our salt pans.
Come the dawn, when as if by magic the tempest abates, a salt is born – so light it is reluctant to sink.
The Flakes of Salt of the the Aude Country, fruit of the duality of the winds, will bewitch your palate with its typical flavours, for the greatest benefit to your health.

And what has this collage got to do with the price of chips, you may ask:-

Well – Gruissan is where the salt is born. It’s a pretty little old village with a pretty large and ugly salt works, and a pretty amazing collection of fisherman’s chalets-on-stilts that stand clear of the sea when it’s running high up the beach. And it’s where a pretty steamy film was made back in the mid-80’s that got quite a cult following in Europe. It’s a passionate-but-doomed love affair between Betty, a waitress and Zorg her writer boyfriend (the torrid Béatrice Dalle & the tortured Jean-Hugues Anglade). It doesn’t end well. It’s how the French like it.
It’s still hot after all these years – and is in fact called ’37°2 le matin’ or (99 F. in the morning) – the English version : Betty Blue.

Posted December 9, 2007 by Richard Williams in france

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