Archive for the ‘france’ Tag

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.

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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. ‘

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Interesting vintages   Leave a comment

I found this the other day, and took it up to our vigneron friends in the village. I expected it to be vinegar – but with a hard wax seal around the cork, Charles was hopeful. It was bliss. Delicate nectar – smooth with a faint sweet/sour finish.
It simply says on the ‘etiquette‘ Tokay, and vin de pays de l’Aude. Tokay is known as a sweet white wine from Hungary‘s Tokay region, which is made primarily from the Furmint grape, in a similar style to Sauternes. Wineries make Tokaji with semi-dry grapes that have had ‘noble rot’ take hold. The grapes in this state are called Aszu. Charles had never heard of this stuff having been made in the region – but Monsieur de Longueval had a reputation for eccentricity.

The house had stood empy for 30 years when we bought it in 1999 – so we reckoned it was 40 years old. They came from the cellars which extend the fullsize of the house. There are four ‘tonneaux’ or ‘foudres’ on each side. They contained over 2000 litres each, and must have been constructed in situ, when the Maison de Maitre was built in 1863 – as the doorways are too low & narrow.

Next is a 1943 vintage. Charles had heard of similar finds – usually bricked into walls. What better place for la résistance to hide its ammunition – in this case, rifle bullets – than in among the Boss’s wine?
The German army did in fact occupy the village – and spent many an evening enjoying Pierre de Longueval’s hospitality.

However two young maquisards from the village were shot in reprisal for an ambush, in the last days of the war.

German reprisals

Maid in France   Leave a comment

I was first sent to France as a swotty, snotty and spotty teenager for a month chez les Docteurs Barritault. It was a rambling mansion in a two-centime village on the banks of the Loire. Madame la Docteure would give Cook her daily intructions on what to buy at market, and we were summoned à table by a gong. It was la France profonde : lateness was deplored, conversation was in French, hands were rested on either side of the plate (not in the lap) and meals took hours.
Madame B had a little bell at hand, while Monsieur B had a small hill of pills to be washed down with ceremony and a sip of watered wine. Meals usually started with a small plate – never small enough for me – of something cold and slimey. Something preserved in aspic-jelly, to delight or to horrify depending on one’s age and nationality. Usually something unidentifiable (how can one country grow so many unidentifiable things?) Or occasionally something familiar (why did they do that? I could have eaten that egg!)
When all hands were finally correctly at rest, the bell tinkled and la bonne arrived to clear and set the table again for the next course. The plates got bigger but the portions remained the same size: a large expanse of porcelain with a grouping of unknown vegetable-matter alone in the middle. A sauce dish was passed around sufficiently slowly and with such appreciative commentary that the tepidity of the dish was assured by the time it reached les jeunes at the bottom of the table. The sauce was not optional – it was central.
The bell, the maid, the wait, la conversation – and then the next set of dishes. It might perhaps be another vegetable, all all alone – or it might be straight to the meat or fish. Just that – in its sauce. There might be one potato. Or more likely an elaborate confection of them – au gratin, à la dauphinoise – requiring the bell the maid the waiting. And the waiting itself was obligatoire (essentielle!) for correct digestion. As were the various wines – always watered for the young. Not out of mercy for us who loathed these sourly poisonous potions – but as a safe entry-level to the adult world of the connoisseur. Was there then a salad course? I don’t remember. There was certainly a cheese course. Inevitably. There are as many French cheeses as days in the year, and I must have sniffed them all. It seemed then an elaborate and fiendish memory-game: how not to end up choosing that particular (those very many particular) cheese that made one want to pucker in revulsion and spit out the window.
Bell.Maid.Wait. Contented gastronomic silence among all adults save Monsieur whose pills had either not been numerous enough, or strong enough, to quell his rumblings abdominal. Apprehensive silence down our end (no whispering at table, s’il vous plait. We had politely slogged thus far: would the last course be heaven or hell?
At last – pudding. Only the French don’t do puddings. Not the splodgy, stodgy comforting heap that we know and love and regret eating too much of. This, au contraire, is le dessert. It was ‘afters’ raised to its lightest, to its highest pinnacle: it was a work of sugary eggy art. But not art as I knew it. It had strange fruits and liqueurish syrups often hidden below a billow of mousse, or within a pillow of pastry. Complete with a sickly sweet wine – to ‘try’ – alongside.
I learnt to tolerate French food. I learnt to appreciate the alcohol that lurked in the wine. I got a tan and the spots disappeared. I discovered that my stammer receeded when faced with the need to be funny and charming to French girls, girls who thought nothing of changing out of wet costumes on the river beach, a barely modest few paces away. I resolved to live in France one day.

Posted December 9, 2007 by Richard Williams in personal

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The bells of Moux   Leave a comment

The bells sound three times a day: at 7am to signal the start of the working day – at noon to tell the vineyard workers that it was time for lunch – and again at pm to let us all know the working day is over, and that quiet should reign.

The concept is simple and effective – I no longer wear a watch – but is unique among the villages around. The carillon however is quite complex – try it yourself.

Moux bell tower

Next are the same three church bells, ringing the carillon known in French as ‘le glas’ The knell rang out this week for Huguette Durand, ‘vieille-fille’ or spinster of 86 on an extaordinarily dark, still evening. Or the lens cap was left on.

‘Ask not for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.’

Click to hear Le Glas

Posted December 8, 2007 by Richard Williams in village history

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The train arrives in Moux   Leave a comment


Vendangeuses – Paul Sibra. Text J. Lebrau ‘Ceux du Languedoc’ 1946

Moux looks north out over the valley between two ranges of mountains : the Montagnes Noires which are the last slopes of the great raised upland of France’s Massif Central – and the Corbières range which run south until they form the foothills of the Pyrenées.

I’m giving this geography to explain why the village has at various times in its history offered lodging to kings and queens of France, and a pope, at its inn. The valley is the only route possible for transport. Road and motorway, river and Canal – all had to squeeze past Moux.
Moux is situated on the voie Aquitaine (or voie Royale) – a comfortable day’s ride exactly halfway between Carcassonne (mediaeval centre of the wool-trade) and the erstwhile Roman port of Narbonne. Thus it was that during a relatively peaceful period in the Wars of Religion – between 1563 and 1567 – Catherine de Médicis undertook a voyage in Languedoc at the end of 1564 – start of 1565. The cortège was impressive: the queenmother was accompagned not only by the young king Charles IX (13 years old), but also by the future kings François II and Henri III, Marguerite de Valois, (the future queen Margot) plus Ronsard, official poet of the court. ‘Tout cet équipage passa donc la nuit à Moux, le 11 janvier 1565.’
That was quite enough excitement for one century. Eighty years later the village gave the next VIP a warm welcome. In October 1632 Louis XIII passed the night at Mous (Moux). During the night a fire – started possibly by enemies – threatened the chambers where he lay sleeping. The king, his daughters and the queen, were all forced to run from the building at midnight, and take shelter with a neighbour.
Then in December of 1664 experts working for Pierre Paul Riquet, Baron de Bonrepos, stayed in Moux while surveying possible routes for the Canal du Midi, to link Bordeaux on the west coast to Narbonne on the Mediterranean. Their study found however that there was too great a rise to overcome here, and the channel was cut a few kilometers away. The whole project nearly bankrupted the visionary Baron, who died shortly before the canal opened, in 1681. It remains a masterpiece of construction, has needed very few repairs in 250 years – and is rightly a World Heritage site.
Next along comes the Pope. On February 2nd 1814 Pope Pious VII passed one night at Moux. ‘ Qu’on se figure un vieillard de 72 ans, d’une taille élevée, un peu courbé, le teint pâle, mais animé d’un regard le plus doux, par la physionomie la plus vénérable.’
‘ Picture then an old man of 72, tall but slightly stooped, with a pale complexion – enlivened however by the most gentle expression, in the most venerable of faces. (my own rather creaky translation). He had been encountered, on his way to Moux, by the Innkeeper – who hadn’t recognised him.
It was the arrival of the Voie Ferrée that had the greatest effect on the village. The line linking Bordeaux and Marseille was the brainchild of two brothers: Emile and Isaac Pereire. The inauguration took place on 22 April 1857 of the line joining ‘ l’Océan à la Méditerranée’ – with the brothers travelling from opposite directions to shake hands. Fortunately not at Moux – there might well have been a head-on crash.
Jean Lebrau, one of our village’s many poets, wrote in Images de Moux: ‘Sur la page d’un vieux dictionnaire, mon grand père avait consigné en une ronde impressionnante (set down, in impressive script) : “La locomotive est passée à Moux pour la première fois le 18 fèvrier de l’année 1857 à 9 heures du matin et à 3 heures de demie du soir”.’


Moux station 1900

All over europe Steam was driving the industrial revolution, powering factories, conveying goods and people to cities and ports. This train would make the fortunes of some farmers : traditional crops such as olives (Moux was one of the major suppliers of plants for export to South America), wheat, mulberries and lucerne, were progressively abandonned in favour of vines. By 1900 small farmers had become rich – rich ones, millionaires.

And the sons and daughters of the rich were sent out from their little villages to boarding-schools in nearby towns. Thus we would find, on Sunday afternoons on the platform at Moux : Jean Lebrau, sensitive schoolboy poet and Claire Escourrou, whose mother had just died, waiting together for the train that would take them away to their schools in Carcassonne.

Trains don’t stop here anymore.

Posted December 8, 2007 by Richard Williams in village history

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Alcohol and History   Leave a comment

Since I started on this research into the families of those who lived in the Big House, I’ve unearthed a great deal – often stuff I wasn’t even looking for. And I’ve discovered one underlying principle: alcohol and research go together most effectively. Particularly in France. Especially in this village. Specifically with me.
I visit la Mairie quite frequently these days : the secretary – subject to the approval of Monsieur Le Maire who somewhat resembles a benign Joe Stalin with a reputation for being un animal for ‘pastis’ (no surer way to curry favour than to offer him some unusual bottle of aniseed-flavoured booze) – has given me the run of the archives: boxes of photos and yet more postcards from before WW1 plus dozens of leather-bound registers of Births, Marriages & Deaths, known collectively as Etat Civil : the civil status of each citizen.
So when I am not here …

… I am out visiting some elder of the village who has tales to tell.
Now if the arrangement is for, say, 11am I arrive with a notebook and an expectation of un p’tit café. Three hours later I’ve just about managed to keep pace with his ‘petit peu plus de whiskee’ and have covered several pages with illegible scrawl that will take hours to decypher.
But the thing is – or are – the tangents. The way one is led down them. The way the way back becomes harder and harder to find. The way one stops caring about french grammar or pronunciation or vocabulary – or where we had got to in the reminiscence.
Meeting an old fellow who loves his history and his ‘aperitifs‘ is wonderful – we are both gambolling wildly down the byeways of time and memory: he, delighted to be given an opportunity to revisit – me enthralled at the immediacy of all this new information.
The trick is to keep writing – as you drink, as you ramble. And never mind the spelling. There’s time enough to be sober.

And as I heard one neighbour say of another – with such utter absence of sentimentality I mistook it for malice – as her coffin was being slid into the family vault : ‘Elle ne parle plus.’