Out and about in Paris region markets

November 25th, 2012

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.

Greens for all…

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.

Inspired to roast a shoulder of milk-fed pork with apples and onions – and de-glaze the pan with a splash of Calvados?

Onions galore caught my eye along with herbs wrapped and ready for a stew.

Scallions and onions to add color to a braise

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.

This calls for a palate-cleansing bunch of sweet-tart grapes…. from Italy or southern France.

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.

Food vendors inside, tabletop textiles and clothing outside.. one-stop shopping in Antony!

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.

Road trips to dream about…

November 4th, 2010

Dream drives was my working title for National Geographic Society’s latest book, the fifth illustrated tome in their 500 series. The vagabond has been commissioned to write destinations for them all, and it is true:  Drives of a Lifetime, 500 of the World’s Most Spectacular Trips packs in far-flung dream circuits for motoring in all corners of the globe.  Recently released, this comprehensive book covers a dizzying selection of dream trips in eight chapters.  Some cover the world’s back roads and popular local circuits, while others illustrate well known highways.  Australia’s Great Ocean Road, a twelve hour loop tour, is one of the “Ultimate Road Trip” features – a longer text found in each chapter.  Mountain lovers will be thrilled with diverse destinations, from Alaska’s Yukon Golden Circle to a Madrid Mountain Drive.

The vagabond's favorite trail through the Barolo & Barbaresco vineyards

A map illustrates every destination, as sea and shore, river and canyon, village byways, and urban excursions themes all fuel the reader’s wanderlust. The Driving Through History chapter includes a stunning range of trips, from a pre-Columbian trail in Mexico to Puglia’s olive groves on the heel  of Italy’s boot.  Although most trips are for four wheels, some could be adapted to two (or even to a dune buggy in Peru!).  And at last, ramble from Kentucky’s Boubon Trail and on through the Langhe valley’s vineyards in the Piedmont as the Gourmet Road Trips chapter wraps up this tantalyzing collection of road trip adventures.  Don’t miss the vagabond’s favorite 10 European Food Drives, as well as the U.S.  10 Wayside Bounty drives to enjoy regional specialties in season, from blueberries in Rhode Island, pumpkins and chocolate in Pennsylvania to late winter citrus harvest in Arizona’s roadside stalls.  It all leaves the reader hungry for more luscious images and succinct, spirited text…maybe the next in the series will be 600 journeys!

Gifting idea for active or armchair travelers on you list: order through the National Geographic Society site,  www.nationalgeographic.com/books or at your local independent book store.

Heads up, pickle fans !

October 6th, 2010

Beets, onion slices and spices...

If you *love* pickles and happen to be in New York this month, devote a day to all manner of brined veg: The International Pickle Festival brings connoisseurs of condiments together on a busy intersection in the Lower East Side. Before I get to the pickle recipe, here are the details: Sunday, October 17th is the day to circle, from 11 to 4:30 (don’t dilly-dally, or it will all be over), between Orchard and Ludlow – extending onto Broome Street, follow your nose. Besides garlic infused Polish dill pickles, you’ll sample pickles from Asia (kimchi salsa anyone?) to savory French and Italian brined specialties. Chopped, sliced, in chunks or pickles on a stick – this is the place to explore the realm of pickles, a culinary subculture unto itself. Bring a bag, buy a few bottles to spice up chilly autumn week ends. Not just for fun, but (as you will learn there) pickles are good for you – after all, it seems that Cleopatra believed in pickles as one of her beauty secrets. Artisans such as Brooklyn Brine bring their best, and watch for Wong’s Thunder Pickles. This, the 10th annual Pickle Day, is sponsored by the New York Food Museum (visit their Pickle Wing sometime), Umani Food, and New York City Greenmarkets. Bring the kids for a day of tastings, music, demonstrations and book signings on the Lower East Side – a culinary crossroads of the world (of pickles).

For more, check: www.lowereastsideny.com

Recipe #1, an old favorite:  Beet Pickles

Pickling is about conserving flavor in times of plenty, when we all know less plentiful times lie just around the corner. That goes for color as well, so begin with ruby red beets.  Boil the beets until just tender*, peel and quarter them and pack in hot jars. You will need:

1 quart beets, cooked peeled and quartered or cut in slices (no not overcook or use pre-cooked beets: result will be flabby pickles)

3/4 cup light brown sugar + 1 tsp. kosher salt

1 cup cider vinegar + 1/2 cup spring water

1 tsp. toasted  cumin seeds + 12 cloves + cinnamon stick + 6 whole allspice (optional)

Bring the liquids, sugar and spices to a boil, pour over the beets in hot jars and seal with sterilized lids. Great with a winter lunch of cold roast pork or poached fish – and a must with pork sausages.

Recipe #2: Mixed vegetable pickles – two ways

Cauliflorets, onions and peppers...

There are more ways to pickle a cucumber (or most any vegetable) than I imagined:  raw in a brine, raw in hot jars with hot vinegar, cooked for a few minutes in vinegar or soaked in vodka. To pickle in brine, I checked Michael Ruhlman’s essential guide, Ratio, for advice. This is the classic tried and true crock method, soaking (all parts submerged) vegetables in a brine of 2  1/2 cups/20 oz. spring water with 2 tablespoons/1 oz. coarse salt. Dissolve the salt in the water in a non-reactive pan over high heat, stir it, turn off the heat and let it cool. This basic brine, poured over a jar or crock of sliced carrots, onions, peppers, wax beans, cucumbers (and dill heads) or a mix of whatever is heaped in the market, will produce crisp and tangy pickles in a week or two. Use compatible herbs, such as tarragon or dill and garlic if you wish.  Be sure to put a plate (with a stone or brick) to weigh it down and cover the top with cling-film. Then they are ready for the table or to be bottled.

For a recent batch of cooked cauliflower pickles, a basic ratio of 2 cups sugar to 1 quart vinegar got me started on a series of pickle-packing sessions. First, while the cauliflower and onions refresh in an ice bath for 2 hours, get out the pans, bottles, tongs and heat the vinegar mixture. This works well for a mix of golden peppers, carrots, and red onions – whatever you have in quantity. Heat water in a large soup pot and when boiling, submerge jars – wait to scald the lids until just before sealing the jars. You will need tongs, a long-handled ladle and a large soup spoon, and a cloth placed on the countertop next to the stove or cook-top.

1 quart/900 ml. white wine vinegar

2 cups/225 g.  sugar

1/4 cup/43 g. coarse (Kosher) salt

2  T. whole mustard seeds

1 T. whole celery seed + 1 tsp. ground turmeric

Heat the above ingredients in a large pot, bring to a boil, then add the following vegetables (cut them up smaller for smaller jars, chunky for larger jars):

1 large head cauliflower, broken into small florets (refreshed in an ice bath for 2 hours)

1 large yellow bell pepper, trimmed & cut in strips

2 medium red onions, peeled and sliced in vertical strips

3 medium carrots/270 g. peeled and sliced into thick coins

slivers of hot chili pepper, 1 or 2 for each pot (if desired)

Drain the iced vegetables well and plunge them into the bubbling vinegar mixture, lower heat to a simmer to cook for 8 minutes, then reduce heat to minimum as you scoop the pickled veg into sterile jars.  Wipe the rims of each jar before putting a hot cap on, twist tightly and set on the kitchen towel to cool; place another towel over all jars as they cool overnight. This makes about 5 pints or 6 large jam jars. When cool, store in a dark, chilly place.  If concerned about keeping the pickles for many months, after capping, plunge them back into the pot of hot water to process for about 10 minutes.  This recipe is inspired by a recipe on CDkitchen.

Variation by color: Keep the carrot coins separate, pickle the cauliflower mix first, then cook the carrots & 1 more red onion for 6 minutes in the remaining vinegar bath before bottling (add a few allspice berries or cloves to each jar).

Note: Ratio, by Michael Ruhlman (published in 2009 by Scribner) is an essential resource when puzzled about a process or basic proportion of ingredients.  Good for advice on anything from cream puffs to, well….pickles.

Out and about in Helsinki’s markets

September 5th, 2010

Shopping fun for all ages

When it comes to markets, late summer in Helsinki is always a delight, a revelation.  Last week the vagabond relished revisiting favorite open markets and two of Helsinki’s three market halls.  Days were still warm, breezes kept the air fresh in the broad, central Kauppatori market, bursting with colors of the season.  Sunflowers by the bucketful, just-picked blueberries and chantarelle mushrooms tempted shoppers toting birch baskets and large canvas satchels. All this with a back drop of yachts, ferries and cruise ships moored in this sea-side city’s many marinas.  Look around, for if you have no basket or bag, there are plenty to choose from in vendor’s stalls.

Brooms, baskets and brushes....

The orange tents of the harbor market draw crowds of both local and visiting shoppers, but the vagabond’s favorite hall is Hakaniemihalli in the Kallio district. Hop on a tram #6 at the central train station or take the Metro, which brings you to the center of the open marketplace.

New potatoes, ripe tomatoes and heaps of dill

Every morning until about 13:00/1 o’clock, vendors tend their open or sheltered stalls loaded with everything from potatoes to pastries. In fact, a pulla (a round or cinnamon swirl bun) and coffee is a treat at one of the temporary coffee stalls on a sunny day. But a pause outside is just one option, as there are six places for coffee or lunch inside the brick hall.

A light lunch of shrimp sandwich loaf?

Since 1914, Hakaniemihalli has drawn shoppers from beyond this working class neighborhood to shops on two floors. Thirty-eight food vendors on the first floor range from fresh meats, cheeses, fish and spices to organic vegetables and specialty coffees and teas.  One little niche in this hall is a detour near the east door, harboring only bread and pastry stalls – the perfect place to orient oneself to Finnish breads, both traditional variations on rye and today’s trends to herb, oil and seed-flavored breads.

Round rye, oval wheat loaves - buy bread by the chunk

If you can only choose one pastry, early September is the time for anything dripping with delectable blueberries.

Too large? Small tarts are an option if you are in a rush

Upstairs, twenty-eight shops offer wooden tools, second hand books, table-top collectibles, fabrics and yarns.

Yarns for sox, knitwear to go

Merimekko’s space tempts shoppers with shirts, hats, pillows – both classic and current styles.

Classic Finnish design, fresh prints

What else can we add to our shopping bag…some fungus from the forest?  Finnish kantarelli/chantarelle mushrooms are not as abundant this year after an unusually hot summer, so some vendors bring in mushrooms from other countries such as Estonia.  To be assured of  “local” mushrooms, look for the tag:  Suomalainen to be sure.  For the simplest pleasures on a summer evening, fresh chantarelles sautéed in Finnish butter on a slab of salmon from the Finnish Gulf – well, from the vagabond’s point of view from a balcony overlooking a harbor – life on Nordic shores doesn’t get much better than this.

Kantarelli, a universal favorite

Chef’s Suggestions:  Note in the September 11/12 Weekend Financial Times, page 4, Hans Välimäki (chef at Chez Dominique, with 2 Michelin stars) agrees with the vagabond that the Hakaniemi Market is “Helsinki’s best food market”.

For more on markets and market halls in Helsinki, see: www.visithelsinki.fi

Market on the Bay, San Francisco style

June 12th, 2010

A familiar, favorite ferry boat ride recently delivered the vagabond to the Saturday market at San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza.  As the Larkspur ferry from Marin hummed across the brilliant, fogless bay, I reviewed past trips on this boat.  Its course always heads straight toward the clock tower in the foreground of  ‘Frisco’s impressive city skyline.  Every week, 25,000 shoppers converge on this space on the port to buy dewy fresh seasonal vegetables and an increasing variety of artisanal products.  Saturday, from 8:00 to 2:00 the produce vendors by the port and on the Embarcadero Street side are on hand – whatever the weather. Tuesday and Thursday, from 10 to 2:00 they are set up in front of the Ferry building.  And inside?  Well, whether you are after mushrooms, looking for cheese, bread and wine (the triumvirate in good supply) or sniffing around for fine chocolate and Italian gelato, the indoor shops have it all.  Since  my visit to this gastronome’s wonderland a year ago, what changes might be found?

Changes begin with more emphasis on "Farm Fresh"

The long Ferry building, designed as an efficient transit terminal in 1898, stood empty for over fifty years before interest in both reviving the neighborhood and restoring the building brought it back to life early in the twenty-first century.  Fresh, quality foods are featured inside and out. Inside, the Hog Island Oyster Bar offers a tasting – at $1.50 per oyster – and the Cowgirl Creamery is still going strong with its dizzying selection of local and imported cheeses.  Their stall in the portside  marketplace is a satellite of the huge central position inside.

Chèvre from Sonoma, Gouda or Cheddar...?

The diversity of shops is still boggling, though I found some empty, papered spaces where merchants had closed their doors.  At Boulette’s Larder, we had hoped to have breakfast, but found that was only possible from 8:00 to 10:30, Monday through Friday.  Next round, I will plan to come early to sample their Canelé de Bordeaux – only a dozen are made each day.  But a taste of Anna’s Daughter’s Rye Bread would draw me back as well after a sample and conversation with a Danish woman as she cheerfully passed around a plate of crisped rye.  This, too, is on the Boulette’s Larder menu.  At the other end of the building is the Asian restaurant, The Slanted Door, where people begin their wait for a table before noon.  In between these two very different eateries, all sorts of libations – from tea to fruity wines – tempt Saturday shoppers.

Wine? Tuscan olive oil? More temptations...

My shoulder bag was heavier after this foray, so we hopped on a bus up Market Street toward Union Square.  The brilliant light of a June day flooded the cafés lining the square, where relaxation was the theme song  (no steel drums, no guitars this time around). But the vagabond was thinking of coffee, real coffee in an uncharted, non-hyped neighborhood café.  Voilà:  Caffè Amici, off the beaten path, with Italian pastries and dense, fragrant espresso from Seattle’s Caffè Umbria roasters was a short walk from the busy square.

Market Street's mix of styles

We strolled along Market Street toward the landmark clock tower, to wait for the afternoon ferry.  After a cooling pause at Ciao Bella Gelato, there was time for a last stop at the Book Passage. Not one but three books leaped off the shelf into my bag…. if I were a San Francisco resident this would be a weekly ritual.  And IF we had another week, on Thursday June 17th at 10:00, the vagabond would be there for a book signing of his vividly honest Medium Raw, by Anthony Bourdain.  But the ferry was at port and we boarded with the afternoon crowd.  Lingering at the back of the boat, I watched the clock tower slipping away and projected the next trip to Ferry Market, wondering if  Happy Girl Kitchens will still be there with their pickles and jams, marvels in a bottle. I hope that the Hodo Soy Beanery with healthful soy products will continue to find a good clientele at the Ferry Market.  And the sprout-seller, and the young, enthusiastic almonds vendor – will you all be there next year?  I do hope so!

A skyline worth a thousand words

Details to be found at:  www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com and www.cuesa.org, as well as www.bouletteslarder.com. For coffee in the Financial District, tiny Caffè Amici is at the corner of Montgomery and Bush.

Go Cooking: Lucca, Tuscany

January 13th, 2010

I wasn’t really looking for a cooking school when the phone rang yesterday, but after a conversation with one of the directors of Flavours Holidays, the seed of an idea was planted. Now that Flavours have added painting class holidays and pilates weeks, their range of appealing themes has expanded. In fact, painting with well known artist, Penelope Anstice in Sicily tempts the Vagabond to dream of being there. But the core of their well organized programs lies in Tuscany, enticingly near Lucca to be specific, where cooking classes roll with the spring and summer season’s market-fresh produce. That means learning to make not only ravioli filled with Tuscan greens and Pisan pine nuts, but stuffed zucchini blossoms as well – after a round in the market to find the ingredients; very Tuscan, very local.  So, if you are searching among the confusing lists of on-site cooking classes in Italy,  narrow down your options for a culinary getaway quickly.  For details about Flavours, run by an experienced team, see:  www.flavoursholidays.co.uk and www.flavoursofitaly.blogspot.com

Your vacation plans might focus on hiking, diving, fishing or…why not cooking?  Next month’s Go Cooking will be in the Périgord and a wine school in Puglia…stay tuned.

Versailles market, overflowing with tasty treasures!

December 12th, 2009

Vagabond Gourmand – Versailles Market
Click on lamp post to view Versailles market gallery

Versailles in winter is truly overflowing with treasures, royal and otherwise.  It’s just a ten minute ride on the Transilienne train from Paris Montparnasse (lowest level) station. A bus from Versailles “Chantiers” station takes you to Notre Dame market, its square framed by a halle on each corner.  On a recent Friday, we were plunged into a hubub of activity:  vendors of cheese, fruit and flowers, salt and sausages fill the marketplace center, an intersection traversed by buses and bicycles dodging shoppers.  From clementines to fancy terrines, there are more upscale victuals to the square foot than any market I have ever seen. The vagabond was astonished by the cheeses alone, stall after richly appointed stall of fromages from across France and beyond.  Hankering for a wedge of gorgonzola , mimolette or spiced gouda, herbed chèvre from Provence, or curls of parmigiano-reggiano? This is your hunting ground.  Inside the halls, fish from all waters, glistening eyes a sign they are fresh today, are spread in a seemingly endless array. Sole, rouget or barbet/red mullet, rosy rascasse/red scorpion fish, and even slabs of dried morue/cod appeal to a variety of shoppers. With over thirty permanent stalls inside the halls open daily, and seventy vendors outside on Tuesdays and Saturdays, Versailles draws Ile-de-France shoppers to the best selection west of Paris.

And when it is time for a short break, step up to a plate of oysters and a glass of Muscadet – the only on-the-spot eating option I noted in Versailles halls. In the mood for something salty? Greek olives, capers, all sorts of pickled veg are ready to be scooped up. Almond-studded cornes de gazelle, among many honey-glazed Middle Eastern sweets tempted the vagabond during this market romp. Of course the market answers gift-shoppers’ quandries, too:  a little oval salt cellar with a wooden scoop, colorful packets of sugar-dusted fruit paste tied with a ribbon, even a chocolate Santa Claus will win up in someone’s stocking.

Vagabond Gourmand – Versailles Market Try just a slice, or buy an entire terrine for a “festive first”
All of these market aromas and visual delights can trigger appetites, so shoppers need not look beyond the halls’ periphery – take a few steps and you are sitting in the sun with a coffee or a tall Belgian beer. We joined the locals at a corner café bar, the Franco-Belge on rue du Baillage for hearty traditional fare. When the vagabond tucked into a mound of choux-farci, she thought it would easily serve four…an hour later, the waiter removed the empty plate. Markets do stimulate appetites!  After lunch, a stroll through eighteenth century ruelles of the Bailliage antique dealers’ quarter led past fifty shops filled with everything from arm chair frames (which Louis ?…. don’t ask) to lamps, statuettes and paintings. In fact, this first visit to Versailles was an appetizer, with a follow-up planned for April…to find signs of spring in the Potager du Roi.

Getting to Versailles: Trains to Versailles Rive Droit station run regularly from Gare St.Lazare and take about 30 minutes (closest to center). From Gare Montparnasse, it takes about 10 minutes, but is a 20 minute walk from Gare Versailles Chantier on the outskirts.  Or take the RER from St.Michel metro stop or Quai d’Orsay stop, about a 40 minute ride to V. Rive Gauche stop.

Inside tips: Tempted to linger for more than one day, especially when the Versailles center for Baroque music has a full concert schedule? Watch the concert listings on www.versailles-tourisme.com . Even on a slim budget, Versailles for a weekend is a treat:  Hôtel Cheval Rouge faces the market place, and has 38 reasonably priced rooms (less than 90 Euros for a double room) – simple, and recently renovated.  Located near the Rive Droit station for trains from Paris, it is five minutes’ walk to the château and gardens. Visit: www.chevalrouge.fr.st for map and information in English.  Or, rent a car in Versailles for a few days and venture another 10 kilometers on the route to Dreux to stay in a dreamy B&B, www.clos-saint-nicolas.com.  For 90 Euros a double room is yours, with breakfast in the conservatory….and do visit the Grand Marnier distillery in the village of Neauphle-le-Château. The 1810 mansion has just three guest rooms, so reserve in advance for a remarkable base to explore the historic region.

Rolling through the Roussillon

November 2nd, 2009
Russet vines in the Roussillon

Russet vines in the Roussillon

The sun was riding low on the horizon when we reached Montséret in the Roussillon, where a sundown hike through brassy and burnished russets of late October grape vines capped off a full first day on the road. We couldn’t have ordered better weather for an autumn whirl through Corbières country, a wine region of astonishing variety of climate and altitude. Historically, the Languedoc-Roussillon stretches from the Spanish border south of Collioure and Banyuls, curving along the Mediterranean coast to the mouth of the Rhône river in Provence.  Now the vineyards of this rugged region, planted over 700,000 acres (2,800square meters) of land, produce more than a third of French wines. And although the range of wines runs heavily to robust reds, there are remarkable rosés and crisp whites to be tasted as well.  For color and dramatic vistas, the Roussillon gets the vagabond’s vote for a late autumn escapade.

Fontfroide Abbey entry gate

Fontfroide Abbey entry gate

Historic sites are a major draw to this region of southern France, and our focus for the trip was the Abbey of Fontfroide, west of Narbonne. Oddly enough, we arrived just in time for a leisurely lunch – not unusual timing when the vagabond is on the road – before an hour’s tour of this other-worldly place. The Cistercian abbey was built in 1145 AD on the site of an earlier Benedictine abbey, hidden in a deep valley.  Within  its seemingly tranquil walls, a murder occurred that launched the Albigensian crusade, persecuting Cathar believers for over thirty years.  Silhouettes of ruined Cathar castles punctuate today’s Roussillon landscape; it all began at Fontfroide.*

La Table de Fontfroide

La Table de Fontfroide

The Table of Fontfroide, a restaurant housed in what was once the monks’ storage and stables, offers a range of meals, from light snacks to substantial lunches.  We were hungry and opted for the appealing and well priced (under 25 Euro) menu du jour.  With a glass of deep garnet-toned Corbières, I savored a meaty pintade (guinea fowl) thigh set on a bed of the chef’s spicy ratatouille: perfect partners.  During lunch, we were entertained by a haughty peacock just outside the window, apparently interested in what was on our plates.  In medieval times, the powerful bishops of Fontfroide would have dined on peacocks!

Pintade à la ratatouille

Pintade à la ratatouille


Notes on pairing Corbières wines to follow.

*The vagabond recommends The Rebel Princess, a novel by Judith K. Healey, set in this region in the 13th century. Recently released by HarperCollins (U.S. & Canada), read more about the gripping story on: www.therebelprincessanovel.com

Limousin markets…on the apple trail

September 11th, 2009

Vagabond gourmand
Click on an apple to enter photo gallery

When it’s apple season in the Limousin, a new range of reds appears on market-day palettes.  And on a recent weekend jaunt into la France profunde south of Limoges, apples of all tints and tones were just one discovery. We drove uphill from Bergerac, north through Périgord vert and truffle country around Sorges, then into Thiviers, the “foie gras capital” of the southwest (as signs proclaimed), before cruising past a sign of welcome into the Haute Vienne département. Still green country, but open rolling pastures dotted with lazy herds of russet cattle distinguish the Limousin landscape. Sheep snooze in shady meadow hedgerows. Solid fieldstone houses with shiny slate roofs replace the gentle curves of Périgord tiled rooftops and apple orchards replace the Dordogne’s walnut groves. Our first stop, the Friday market in Chalus, was winding down as noon approached but fruit vendors, chèvre cheese makers, and a vendor of plant sets for the next round in local potagers (vegetable gardens) seemed most popular.  Chalus’ medieval tower rises at the edge of this small town, a place that (with mixed interpretations) is said to mark the demise of Richard the Lionhearted – felled by an arrow shot from that tower. As I walked the old lanes around the tower, did I hear echoes of clanging armor and battle cries across the open fields?  No, but with an active imagination that wouldn’t be difficult.  The vagabond was eager to continue along the apple trail, and to note signs announcing Le pays de la châtaigne, chestnut country.  Now the plot thickens. Beef, veal, and lamb abound, apple trees are plentiful, and I begin to imagine an ample chestnut harvest. The verdant Limousin appears to be a pays de cocagne, a land of plenty!

apple basics

Apple & onion basics: nutmeg & white pepper

Back on the hill, foggy, damp autumn mornings call for applesauce with toasted brioche, then about lunchtime the beet salad is perked up with green granny smith apples – but the apples won’t stop with lunchtime: magret de canard is best (personal opinion) with caramelized reinette apples and slices of sweet Cévennes onion.  Is there no stopping this versatile fruit?  Nope.  As quick as you can say pomme, there are slices for snacks and, given a handful of minutes, a simple French apple & almond cake is whipped up.  Asked what to do with an apple (but don’t ask William Tell!), the simplest solutions seem best.  Memories of my Danish grandmother making Aebblekaka (not a cake, but layers of applesauce and buttery breadcrumbs) roll in when aromas of applesauce fill our kitchen.

While my search for her recipe continues, I will just  serve up a variation on Magret de canard aux pommes, which adapts to larger numbers very nicely.  This is for two:  Take one breast of fattened duck, trimmed and the fat layer scored with a sharp knife, and sear it on the fat side in a hot cast iron skillet for a few minutes to render fat and slightly brown it. Remove this to a warm plate, pour off all but 1/4 cup of fat, and add 1 peeled sharp-flavored apple sliced lengthwise. Let this brown in the pan, sprinkle with a little brown sugar and sea salt, turning gently to let all sides caramelize. Add a spoonful of duck fat when needed; push this to one side and add 1 trimmed and finely sliced sweet onion (such as a Vidalia), stir it around and as it turns transparent add freshly ground white pepper, grated nutmeg, minced ginger root and another spoonful of brown sugar. Stir, let it melt down and add 2 tablespoons of dry vermouth (or red wine to moisten and add color) to avoid scorching. When golden and transparent, shift this to a warm, covered dish and return the magret to the hot skillet, to sear the lean side. After 5 minutes, add the onion-apple mixture to the pan heaped on the magret and cook until it is done to your liking: very pink for just a few more minutes, or another 8 – 10 minutes cooked through.  Serve on warmed plates, thinly sliced on the diagonal, garnished with the apples and onions. A side of brown rice or steamed brussel sprouts would be good with the magret, and for sipping? A youngish red wine, a 2004 Prémières Côtes de Bordeaux would be good company – at the very end of a foggy fall day.

Up soon:  More on markets, Grandmother’s applecake, and a simple apple charlotte; making fresh cheese is taking awhile….

Préfou: new garlic & Charente butter

August 21st, 2009

Did the vagabond expect to munch on divine garlic bread in western France?  No, but why not – then again, the egg-rich Brioche Vendéen bread is so much better known.  The cuisine of the Poitou Charente and Vendée regions seldom is given more than passing mention in guidebooks.  Usually it is the stuffed vegetables of the Poitou, the slick and mellow Charente butter, or matelote (eels cooked in wine with herbs – don’t ask), mojette beans, and melon cubes dripping with Pineau des Charentes that make up a short list of  regional specialties.  References to préfou are rare, even on menus posted outside cafés; no recipes are found on the net or in old, reliable cookbooks.  But there they were, a few crisp strips of garlic-soaked toast on my Salade Maraîchier plate in the charming Charente village of Arçais.  So very good, so easy to replicate, it seemed.  Back in my kitchen on the hill, the urge to try making a batch of préfou was too hard to resist.

In days gone by, before baking many loaves in the four à pain, a lump of dough was pinched off, patted flat and popped into the oven to test the temperature.  Préfour (four is oven in French) then would be pre-baking, as my best guess at the etymology for préfou. In the lower Vendée, along the Charente border, the custom was to rub the warm bread with a clove of  garlic and spread it with freshly churned butter. A glass of the crisp, local white wine or a sip of eau de vie would go down nicely with this humble treat, as one could imagine.


A wedge of fresh butter, plump garlic, and bread ready for préfou!

The bread for the simple garlic and butter-soaked wonder begins with a basic  fougasse dough (for this batch, I used 500 ml/2 cups potato water seasoned with a bay leaf, 450 g./4 cups bread flour (spoon flour into cup, tap and level), a pinch of salt and 1/2 tsp. dry yeast, and oiled hands to shape the dough – use directions in the (12 June 2009) fougasse post – and let it rise overnight).  Instead of an oval or leaf, shape it in a rectangle on a baking sheet and slit at 2 inch intervals, making the préfou fingers easier to separate after baking. The above proportions make enough dough for 1 préfou and 1 small loaf of bread. You may need more flour, depending on the humidity of the day and type of flour used. Sprinkle fine cornmeal under the  préfou and a little over the top. Heat the oven to 220°c./425°f., place the pans in the oven and spray with spritzes of water, then turn the heat down to 200°c/400°f. and bake for 12 minutes.  The following day, slice the préfou horizontally, separate the fingers of bread, spread each piece with a mixture of crushed, juicy new garlic mixed with soft butter, and put the fingers back together. Wrap in foil, and at this point, let it rest for a couple of hours or overnight, then heat it in a warm oven (or over the coals of a grill) to melt the butter. Clearly, this is best made ahead of time. Tradition says:  serve with apéritifs. But préfou goes well with a green salad or cold soup on blisteringly hot summer days.  After my  first encounter with préfou, I anticipate serving it as a garlicky side with a dish of mojettes jambon …..as the season turns – and September, the moment for shelling mojettes, is just around the corner.

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