The rambling vagabond is in California, more specifically visiting family in Marin county – across the bay from San Francisco. First morning after arrival this week, the first stop was – guess what- the weekly Marin farmers’ market. Of course, new fuzzy almonds caught my eye as well as snappy sorrel and a vast variety of fresh greens. Producers in the Central Valley lined up succulent strawberries along with perfectly ripe Haas avacadoes - oranges, lemons and even some delicate little kumquats. The on-going salad season will be more fun as we mix it all up! More along the way…
With March slipping past, days growing lighter and longer…and primroses sprinkled across the Dordogne’s river banks, it might be safe to say that spring has come to southwest France. More signs of the long-awaited season found in the market on Thursday morning included the first asparagus and new garlic, the shoots thinned from rows cultivated for the summer harvest. Hungry for a touch of green on this Easter Sunday, the vagabond wondered: why not try a non-traditional pairing with tender green asparagus? Usually the partners are hollandaise sauce, or a light lemony vinaigrette, but for a heftier treat: chop up a couple of garlic shoots, mix with salt and chopped parsley and lemon as for a gremolata. With this ready ahead of time, it is a meal-in-minutes.
So, heat up the skillet, melt a little butter and pop in the asparagus, pushing them around as they brown a bit and squeeze a lemons to hear it sizzle…and take a whiff of spring!
Photos and more market notes up next….
When a basket of tiny speckled quail eggs is set before me, I first marvel at their random spots and freckles – then wonder: what can we do with these little gems? This season of frequent omelettes and meatless meals is ready for a bit of variety, so bring on the quail eggs! Their delicacy and subtle flavor is to be taken into account, too….not for omelettes, but to be appreciated as a garnish for salads and soups. This morning at the Thursday market, I spoke with Jacqueline, the vender of eggs and poultry. When I suggested topping a hearty salad of warm potatoes or a velouté of pumpkin soup with them, she added: “Oh, and I’ve had them on top of a tartiflette!” Well, why not? I mused. But considering that tartiflette, a classic and filling specialty of eastern France, is a favorite of hikers and loggers in the mountains, I’m wondering how quail eggs are enjoyed in other regions. In Provence, the vagabond has seen them on appetizer platters paired with cherry tomatoes and anchovies. And in other regions…?
And let’s welcome springtime!
Whether you are in a sunny clime or skiing in the mountains, the vagabond wishes all a hearty, happy and healthy New Year. May your days be bright, with moments to savor and memories in the making. Yesterday, on a long walk along the steely-surfaced gloss of the Dordogne river, I was musing on what the confusing, challenging year 2012 brought in terms of good. Hopefully the positive forces will prevail in the new year. Wishing you all the very best!
Sunday morning’s market in Antony, on the RER metro line just south of Paris, is a hubub of a hundred vendors selling everything from foods to flowers, tablecloths to corsets and sewing items, and a good range of cooking tools….a one-stop shopping op! Changes noted in the passing (can it be twenty?!) years since the vagabond first rambled through this busy market include the new, swooping rooftops and enclosed sides to shield all from winds. It took four years to construct the enclosure with scooped roofs, designed by Nantes’ architects ARS/Rocheteau & Saillard. Other changes include more ethnic food vendors, giving shoppers a broad choice of flavors for their Sunday repas. Amidst a great array of greens, the vagabond noted chard and bok choy for a quick stir-fry, radishes, onions and salads of all sorts, and of course, cheese from all over the map.
Think about a starter of girolles, mushrooms with herbs, a squeeze of lemon, a touch of butter…and succulent pork to roast or braise, as well as beans to shell while waiting for autumn’s morning fog to lift.
Onions galore caught my eye along with herbs wrapped and ready for a stew.
And then, think about dessert while chatting with the amiable vendors of Lebanese pastries. Oooo, so tempting….pistachio-honey cakes, as well as variations on the almond theme.
Then it’s time to trot home with my sister-in-law to stir up a rich, autumn Sunday lunch and catch up on family news.
Getting there: Antony lies on the RER line south of Paris, a short walk to the city center down Rue du Marché. Market days are Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday mornings, from 7:30 to 13:30. An early round of the stalls is suggested on Sunday to avoid heavy stroller traffic.
Bilingual markets are always fun….following signage in both French and Basque, the puzzling, ancient language, adds spice to shopping in the St.Jean de Luz market hall. And if it’s spice that you are after, this is the place to be. Amid the aromas of fresh peppers, firm mountain cheeses and hams on a recent Tuesday, the town market hall was bustling. I can’t imagine trying to shop on Friday when it is even busier.
At one end of the hall, the fish market is clearly the popular spot to buy fresh fish – silvery and pink – and specialties such as little calmary (chipirons) from Atlantic waters.
By mid-morning, a quick coffee stop is routine for the vendors in between surges of customers.
If the afternoon skies clear, consider a trip to La Rhune, the Basque mystical mountain, where a small-gauge railway runs to the top. Panoramas of the Pyrénées to the east, the Atlantic coast looking west and north, are worth the trip in the little open-sided train.
But the fascinating town of Ciboure is a short walk across the bridge, so why not take in the bay from a bistrot terrace for supper?
So, when the sirens of the sea air call – the vagabond heads for St.Jean-de-Luz, two hours south of Bordeaux by train, to take in both mountain and seaside ambiance. Thinking – fast forward – when lamb, spring greens and sardines will be on menus, I’m already dreaming of exploring these harbor scenes when spring breezes blow in from the sea.
Apple Fair alert: Saturday, 21 October, the Hendaye Fête de la Pomme will draw Basque producers of fruit, cider, and all sorts of regional artisanal products, so if you will be on the Basque coast…put it on your list, and get there early! This is an especially interesting fair for serious cider enthusiasts – some of the best ciders in France will be available.
Coming up: Paris market notes, peppers, and more fish!
When it comes to sauces, Alain Ducasse knows what he is up to. So, when September’s tomatoes are at their flavor peak, he tweaks the classic French vinaigrette to create a rosy tomato variation. This version leaves out his roquette and sage flowers, which don’t grow in my window sill garden….but snipped, fresh thyme, rosemary – or of course (!) basil – add zip.
1 ripe, medium tomato, skinned and chopped, then pressed through a small sieve into a bowl: to yield 6 or 7 Tablespoons.
2 t./10 ml sherry vinegar
1 T. + 1 t./20ml best olive oil
pinch of sea salt and freshly ground white pepper
7 basil leaves
Whisk the vinegar and oil – adding it in a fine stream – together and add s. & p. Gradually stir/whisk in the pulpy tomato juice, just enough (may take 5 or 7 Tablespoons ) until it emulsifies into a thick dressing. Mince 3 of the basil leaves and stir them into the vinaigrette, and use the rest for garnishing the salad or fish or ……….whatever you wish: this is such a versatile, saucy dressing! Slices of yellow, orange and green tomatoes, poached or grilled salmon, whole or sliced new potatoes alongside – all are perked up with this savory vinaigrette.
This Tomato Vinaigrette was inspired by an article on Ducasse in the Sunday SudOuest magazine, to be served with sliced tomato salad and fresh (brebis) sheep’s milk cheese.
When the onions, courgettes and tomatoes all roll in at the same time as new garlic, eggplant and sharp little peppers…. we’re spoiled for choice. The Mediterranean and new world beauties fit into such a long culinary tradition, but does the world need another recipe for Gazpacho, Ratatouille or Piperade? (Of course we do!) But just for a change of pace to cool us off and to brighten palates, this Mousse aux Tomates serves as an apéro verrine - a supper starter. August and September’s flavorful tomatoes are the key: slice up a tomato and taste it before taking the time (one day in advance, or an early morning start on the day it will be served) to whip up this delicate mousse.
The recipe caught my eye earlier this summer in the July- August 2012 issue of the French SAVEURS magazine. It has any number of herbal variations, and could also be made with golden (or green zebra?!) tomatoes and layered in the glasses. A simple Cigare au Parmesan was suggested to add a crunchy textural contrast – or one could use apératif-size sesame or emmenthal bread sticks. Allow about 3 hours to chill before serving 4 .
Mousse de tomate/Tomato Mousse
1 leaf of gelatin, soaked in cold water while prepping the tomatoes:
3 medium-large ripe and fragrant tomatoes, plunged into boiling water for 20 seconds, then refresh in cold water and remove the skin & stems. Cut them in 3, remove seeds and crush the tomatoes roughly.
2 plump shallots, peeled, trimmed and finely chopped…”melt” them in a saucepan over medium heat in 2 T. olive oil for 3 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes, a pinch each of sugar & salt, a twist of pepper. Let this all cook over moderate heat for 12 to 15 minutes.
Take it off the heat and stir in the softened (squeeze the water out) gelatine, blending all with a wand mixer til it is a purée consistency (or more roughly if you want some chunks in your mousse). When this is cool…
Whip 15 cl/2/3 cup medium-thick cream into peaks, then gently fold in the well-cooled tomato pulp mixture. Pour it into 4 simple glasses and place in the fridge to chill for about 3 hours.
To serve, decorate with 6 to 8 cherry tomatoes, halved, and pop a little, crisp sesame or cheese bread stick into each glass. If you have some in the garden, snipped fresh basil is a fragrant touch, too. Now all you need are teaspoons – to enjoy this tomato mousse on the porch, deck or patio before a Labor Day grilled supper! And take a deep breath, savoring these late summer moments…
As a confirmed beachcomber, the vagabond has a mania for shells, sea glass and bits of sea-sculpted driftwood, whenever and wherever the water tickles her toes. Long black stones smoothed by waves on the Ligurian coast, cockle and mussel shells collected on Atlantic beaches, all wind up in an Aalto dish (with Baltic waters in mind). Whatever the season, this small shell collection refreshes me, pulls me back to beaches many miles away. And with those memories of moments wading at low tide, tumble in the aromas and flavors of the land, the season. So, with a nod to Ligurian beach strolls and the month of August, watch for a trio of tomato tips and recipes…bonnes vacances!
Wildflowers are in the frame: a June jaunt through the heart-stopping panoramas of the Tarn rends me (nearly) speechless ! Roll down the windows: wild honeysuckle scents the air from roadside nests among white roses, while lavender scabiosas nod in poppy-dotted pastures. This sweeping land of grain fields, orchards and wooded hills lies north of the Toulouse basin and south of the mountainous Aveyron region. My head was on a swivel all the way from Montauban to Albi. Roads follow ridges overlooking hazily lit landscapes edged in wild poppies: Renoir might feel right at home.
On a distant hillside, an entire field of poppies
Seen from a distance, Albi rises above a bend in the Tarn river, its towers, rooftops and steeples of rose brick glowing in the mid-day sun. Inhabited since the Bronze Age, this strategic point gave early dwellers an over-view of herds as animals migrated. Later, it was the site of a modest Roman encampment called Albiga. But by the early Middle Ages, as Albi’s commerce and trade grew in importance, a toll bridge was built across the Tarn in 1040. This Vieux Pont is still in use, having survived more than a millenia! One arrives in the center of Albi, where most of the old streets lead to the imposing fortified church of Sainte-Cécile. Complex tracerie of stone carvings on the elaborate entry of the brick church, dedicated to the patron saint of music, just begins to prepare the visitor for the explosion of pattern and décor in the southen gothic style interior.
Near its formidable brick walls, the fortified bishops’ château, the Palais de Berbie was built in 1282 – pre-dating the Palais des Papes in Avignon. Looking out across the parterre gardens from one of this museum’s windows, one marvels at the longevity of Albi’s architectural wonders. Today, the Palais is devoted to the works of native son, Toulouse Lautrec, housing France’s largest publicly held collection: 1000 of the artist’s works.
For over a century, from 1450 to 1560, economic expansion grew with the region’s cultivation and commercial activity in blue dyes - an era referred to as the “woad boom”. One plant, Isalia Tinctoria was the key ingredient in indelibleblue dyes called “pastels”. This time of prosperity enriched the city with fine Renaissance residences – evident today in the quarter around the market hall.
Albi’s covered market has recently undergone an extensive renovation. Although this halle is similar in style to many built in the early twentieth century Ballard fashion, it is unique in its triangular plan. The renovation involved excavation under the structure to construct two levels for vendors and services, and a 250 place parking area. Saturday morning is the time to see this marché tarnaise in action, when in addition to interior stalls, vendors fill the surrounding street with regional products and the season’s freshest produce. From local sausages, cheeses, apricots and apples to sweet round loaves of fouace or dunk-in-your-wine échaudés, there is something for every taste…..salty or sugary.
Taking a last stroll around the back streets near the covered market, one finds not only some enticing restaurants – but a little jewel of a museum, recently opened in a fine old house.
La Musée de la Mode reveals a private collection of mint-condition costumes from the 19th through the 20th century, all set off in a dramatic, well designed installation. This discovery, as well as more gastronomic enticements, leads the vagabond to plan an autumn visit to lively Albi, the Tarn’s pink brick capitol.