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.

Saint Nicolas, my how you’ve changed!

December 8th, 2009
Gingerbread or chocolate, still Santa

Gingerbread or chocolate, still Santa

Oh, jolly old St. Nick  – the emblematic figure has gone through many transformations.  St. Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors, school children, and pawn brokers is honored with December feasts and festivals across northern Europe. Long before he began sliding down chimneys on Christmas Eve, St. Nicholas (spellings also evolve) was a bearded saint who left treats in childrens’ shoes on December sixth.  Last weekend, folks in the French city of  Nancy were nibbling on gingerbread figures of St. Nicolas as they celebrated with their annual festival and parades.  But it was in the Versailles market that a chocolatier’s display caught my eye, the first time I had ever seen the saintly figure side-by-side with more rotund Santas.  So here they are, the bearded men, all rolling their eyes, back again for our gift-giving season. Maybe they know whether we’ve been naughty or nice?

Daubos Chocolatier is in Versailles market hall, and the shop in Versailles’ Saint Louis district is jam-packed with temptations, worth a stop. For their Chocolate Crème Brulée recipe (in French), see recipes on #

The Thanksgiving salad toss

November 23rd, 2009

As turkey day approaches, put a few new salad ideas on the list….all the shopping, chopping, roasting, saucing and baking takes time and planning, but what about the salad? For the vagabond, a simple and savory salad offers a refreshing pause between the turkey, roast beef, pork or pheasant and the oncoming pies – a natural palate-cleanser. For special holiday meals, a salad need not be dull during a greens season of  ruby radiccio, ivory endive, fennel and curly green frisée. Talk color, talk about Trevisa and Chioggia, two towns in eastern Italy where winter lettuce is a market draw.

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Our local growers bring the round, firm Chioggia variety to November markets. Best after the first frost, Trevisa radiccio is elongated with deep red veins and a tangy, slight bitterness in the bite. Radiccios add snap to a tossed salad, color when shredded and stirred into a risotto, and perk up appetites as a grilled and oil-drizzled first course.  For a dramatic dish on the holiday table, mix them with chunks of white Belgian endive dressed with a classic, herbed vinaigrette.

Winter salads, toss as you please

Winter salads, toss as you please

Recipe: MC, our “Maître de Salade”, does a basic vinaigrette – whisked together in a minute:  2 tablespoons sherry vinegar, 1 teaspoon (or tablespoon if you wish!) French Dijon mustard, a pinch of salt, then whisk in 3 tablespoons of your best olive oil. Mix it up an hour ahead, let the flavors mellow and re-stir before tossing the salad. Variations on this theme run from adding peeled and deveined shrimp, a little dill or thyme and some pomegranate seeds to shredded Belgian endive, or add strips of cooked beets (add a pinch of sugar, ginger and black pepper to the dressing) and arugula leaves for diverse textures. Bring on the winter greens, whether before or after the turkey – that is your call.

Pairing a season with Corbières

November 16th, 2009
Gate to Fontfroide Abbey cloisters

Gate to Fontfroide Abbey cloisters

Grapes are everywhere in the Corbières – not only rippling up and down hillsides, but carved into the culture, the consciousness of the Midi, the windy and dry Languedoc – Roussillon.  Across much of this land along the French Mediterranean coast and inland from Narbonne, the soil is  so poor that a hillside can resemble a rocky riverbed.  Grapevines and olive trees are  tolerant of these stark conditions, in fact the Roussillon wines and oils hold a true concentration of terroir.  When a friend asked what terroir was all about, I summed it up:  the land, soil, site/exposure to sun, proximity to seas or rivers, even altitude.  On a recent sundown walk  between rows of old, twisted grape vines we had a clear picture of this tortuous terroir.  The grape varieties, cépages for Corbières are sun loving grenache (a major component for spicy notes and color), syrah or shiraz (to add acidity and tannins, and for depth), late-harvested carignan (for rich, earthy tones – used more in Fitou wines) and on the lowest slopes to thrive in morning fog, mourvedre vines (condense the dark berry notes in Corbières, enhances structure as the wine matures).  We admired the hillsides – each cépage turns a different tone of bronze in autumn – and between the rows I noticed footprints of wild boar.  The sanglier, though tasty in a pâté or ragout, have become many a vigneron’s headache as they root out new vines and trample through the vineyards. No wonder hunters are welcome in these hills!

So this is Corbières season:  game is hung to cure for civets de lièvre et de sanglier (long marinated and slowly simmered stews of hare and wild boar), and mushroom sacks bulge as hunters return from their foraging. All of the ingredients that perfectly match the full-bodied wines of Corbières come to the table in these chilly, appetite-generating weeks of late autumn. A savory list of pork pâtés and duck terrines, grilled herbed lamb or pork ribs call for wines that are,  in a word, robust.

Two reds for an autumn fête

Two reds for an autumn fête

After recent tastings in the Roussillon, the vagabond is impressed by wines made by  two women in the Boutenac area west of Narbonne. The sprawling Corbières region covers so many microclimates and styles of wine-making, I found it most reasonable to narrow a little wine shopping down to one area. First, the supple reds and glowing rosés made by Marie-Hélène Bacave near St. André de Roquelongue are examples of  how an independent winemaker pursues her own wine style. For two years since her husband passed away, she has been determined to continue making wine of high quality.  Taking us into her chais, where the wine rested in three huge stainless vats, her eyes sparkled with enthusiasm about the mourvedre grape:  “…many of my colleagues don’t want to be bothered with this variety, as it can be fussy with weather and a bit difficult to bring to vendange…it not only adds backbone as the wine matures, but makes the Corbières blend sing of blackberry and dark fruit”.  Her aromatic, deep garnet Cru Corbières Boutnac 2005 Crépuscule sings of her persistence in creating a stylish, supple red at  Château St-Jean de la Gineste. On a lighter note, we sampled her lovely Rosée de la St. Jean, a blend that stars the mourvedre grape for color and fruity aromas. This will be the pour for a poached chicken or lightly seasoned rabbit on our Thanksgiving table.

 A glowing rosé from the Corbières

A glowing rosé from the Corbières

In the same area near Montseret, midway between the Abbey of Fontfroide and Lagrasse, we found Jacqueline Bories at Château Ollieux Romanis, another dedicated independent vigneronne. More widely distributed across southern France, her Ollieux Romanis Cuvée Florence 2000 is a melody of ripe fruit, supple tannins and long finish, a perfect wine with an autumn daube, a roast pheasant, or canard aux olives – and keep a lichette in your glass to enjoy with a firm brebis cheese from the Pyrénées.

Tell us about your favorite Corbières, and food matches that  you enjoy!

Watch for the vagabond’s mid-month Food&Wine matchmaking series…and more on wines for the holidays/les fêtes de fin d’année coming up.

Visit Sauternes vineyards: Food Journeys of a Lifetime takes you there

November 10th, 2009

This week on November 11th, the wineries of Sauternes and Barsac graciously open their doors to visitors.  Each year, the first weekend in November is on the vagabond’s agenda:  this time around, the 11th has been added to November 7th and 8th.  It is an ideal time to visit the thumb-shaped strip of vineyards south of Bordeaux as the late harvest of sweet grapes is underway. Weeks of thick autumn fog have encouraged the development of botrytis cinerea, an essential fungal phenomenon condensing sweetness in each hand-picked grape. To find the region south of Bordeaux, trace the Garonne river to Barsac, which lies at the top of  the thumb, then follow the Ciron river south. Sauternes vineyards flank the river as it flows to the town of Sauternes at the base of the vignoble. But if a trip to the Bordeaux region isn’t in the picture for you this week, flip through the pages of National Geographic Books’ Food Journeys of a Lifetime to find my entry on French dessert wines, from Sauternes to Monbazillac.  To order this deliciously illustrated book, go to:

http://shop.nationalgeograhic.com tap: new books

For more on Sauternes’ special micro-climate and its elegant wines – both sweet and dry, visit:

www.sauternes-barsac.com , tap English, then Wine & Cuisine for a wealth of information on the grape varieties, pairing with food, and storage tips.

Color – November markets brighten grey days

November 6th, 2009
Squash & cabbage families reign in November

Squash & cabbage families reign in November

Beyond the mounds of yellows, deep violets and pink tints of Toussaint chrysanthemums, the Bergerac market never fails to brighten the first Saturday in November – always a foggy grey, often drizzly day.  Heaps of bright squash and pumpkin are ready for slicing into wedges.  Red, pale green and curly dark Savoy cabbage weigh in for soups and casseroles. What about roots?  Grab the fringy tops of carrots, just-dug beetroot, purple-shouldered turnip globes, fennel bulbs to be gratinéed, or fill a sack with oval red Rosamonde potatoes. Delicate chanterelle mushrooms may still be around, but the meatier cèpes (boletus) are found in many markets now.

Select mushrooms - or chestnuts of your choice

Select mushrooms - or chestnuts of your choice

Then, look for perfect, local persimmons – the glow-in-the-dark orange fruit visible on the farthest market stalls, or reach for rosy pomegranates packed in straw to cushion their journey to market. Whether the vagabond is in Brive or Bergerac, these nut growing regions never fail to supply wonderful breads for a simple market day lunch of salad (often endive with a mustard vinaigrette), nutbread and fresh cheese.

Artisanal breads, a market must

Artisanal breads, a market must

But what’s colorful about a loaf of nutbread?  Just roll a round of chèvre cheese in pomegranate seeds, slip a slab of it onto your slice of nutty bread – not only colorful…. but juicy!

Simply chèvre & glossy pomegranate seeds

Simply chèvre & glossy pomegranate seeds

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

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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

New crop almonds, ready for munching

October 14th, 2009

If I were in Barcelona today, I would make a bee-line to Casa Gispert for a treat:  Spain’s new crop almonds are in! Just six weeks ago, the oval nuts were being shaken off trees, then dried before delivery to processors. But in spite of weeks under the driers’ whirring fans, the crunchy texture still holds a hint of milky flavor that we tasted in summer’s green almonds.

Imagine the clatter and din of the almond harvest as tractors fitted with a gripper-shaker in an upside-down blue canvas catch all harvesting umbrella. The umbrella opens, a gripper grasps the almond trunk, umbrella closes and in a few seconds of vibration, all almonds have dropped into the umbrella.  After each third tree is shaken, the umbrella is unloaded and the blue canvas moves through the finca orchard in record time. Not days, but hours are now all it takes to harvest the almond crop – a far cry from the past when crews spent weeks tapping the highest branches with long sticks.  When all the marcona almonds are in, makers of sweet Spanish turron (a type of nougat made with honey) have first selection of the finest nuts for making tons of  the traditional Christmas confection.  Sweets lovers, take note:  December will be the time to do some turron gift-shopping, at Casa Gispert, Delinostrum or your favorite source of Spanish products.

To glimpse just a minute or two of the almond harvest in Spain,  turn to a very clearly photographed video posted October 14, 2009 on:

http://midwesttomidlands.blogspot.com

Physalis?

October 8th, 2009

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We called it a ground cherry, and grew it in the  sandy Minnesota soil of our vegetable garden when I was about ten.  Much more fun to pick than the green beans, the little paper husks could be pinched open to let the glow-in-the-dark orange fruit pop into my mouth.  Mom would make a light syrup and preserve them to perk up winter meals, as a simple sauce for dessert (sometimes over butter-pecan ice cream), or as a special Sunday jam. The ping of jar caps sealing was a sound of the season.  Now, every time the decorative physalis, as festive as a Chinese lantern, is plated on a restaurant dessert tray of chocolate cake or apricot mousse, I recall our harvests just before frost.  Recently I was tickled to find a tray of this globe-trotting native of Peru (Physalis peruviana in botanic terms) on a vendor’s stall in the Rouffignac Sunday market.  Our local Périgord markets seem to offer more interesting ingredients every year, and the physalis’ long season – one hundred days to maturity – is well suited to this temperate growing zone. The sprawling, handsome plant in the Solanaceae family is related to a tomatillo.  So, why not make a sweet physalis salsa to pair with a smooth panna cotta?  Or, why not stir them into an apple crumble for both color and a sweet-sharp edge? Maybe a few will find their way onto a cheese platter, but to be honest….they are so good just popped out of the husk, savored on the spot. Maybe it’s time to think about a physalis row in next year’s potager.

Planning a potager for 2010? See www.realseeds.co-uk/physalis.html for more on planting them at home – as local as your own back yard.

Stunned…

October 6th, 2009

Gourmet, the standard-setter for all good things culinary/travel/hot ingredients and inside dining tips, will publish a final issue in November.  It hurts to think about the great team packing up this week, just as the glowing candy-apple red October issue slides through mail slots around the world.  Mine came today.  Sad, stunned, and angry – as many readers are, I am sure – to lose this magazine that we have come to depend on for food and travel insights. Ruth Reichl and her competent team have innovated and kept my old favorite (read: twenty years of issues to devour each month) up to date in both content and style. In the New York Times article today about three Conde Nast magazines closing, it appeared to be a clinical, not emotional decision: all about the bottom line. That’s it now, no mercy.  Let me cool down before tapping another word.

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