Cooking with Marie

We wrapped oysters in the lining of a cow's stomach.  We made grapefruit salt.  We learned the technique for mastering pate feuilletee inversee (inverted pate feuillettee).  We used a nifty gadget that peels, cores and slices an apple, and another that cores a pineapple. We prepared six different recipes, all entitled Millefeuillle  (literally "a thousand leaves" but used to mean numerous layers).  We used pineapple as a base in five different dishes.  And, we ate very, very well.

I've been to three cooking classes with Marie Lecoanet and planCook.3 to attend many more.  A cook extraordinare, Marie gives cooking lessons in her home in Forcalquier in northern Provence. She recently built an addition on to her home for a new kitchen with plenty of space for cooking classes. She also has a catering business. For anyone who likes to cook, the cooking sessions are fun, informative and delicious as we always eat the meals we prepare.

The students, between five and ten women and one male (Bernard), all know their way around the kitchen and attack each task with years of chopping and dicing experience behind them. These are serious cooks. No Hamburger Helper or Minute Rice in their pantries. Most are dedicated followers who have been chez Marie numerous times. They know where to find the utensils and pots and pans demanded by the different preparations.  They give one another advice. They discuss dishes they have tried at home. They share tips — the best place to buy fish, where to find the dry butter required for the inverted pate preparation, what kind of oil to use when making mayonnaise (peanut — not olive).

Helene was the mayonnaise master during a recent class — patiently adding drops of oil to egg yolks and whisking and whisking after each addition — a tedious procedure. "It's very fragile.  You have to be patient…I love it.  I love the color," she said as she concentrated on the yellow glob.  "She does it with a lot of love," added Marie.

Marie started giving lessons in cuisine about four years ago when her husband retired and the family (she has two teenage children)  moved from northeastern France to Provence. In her earlier life, she was a math teacher.  She spent 10 years teaching at a French high school in Los Angeles.  "I learned from Americans that you can change your profession.  Americans do it a lot, but not the French,"  she says.  She speaks with fondness of her years in California.  "I admire the enthusiasm and confidence of Americans." 

She gave up teaching and started taking cooking lessons.  "I always liked to cook," she says, "and I like to eat."   She took cooking courses for five years, mastering many of the preparations she now teaches her students.  Her cooking is basically French, but she does like to experiment with Asiatic cuisine and other ethnic specialties from time to time.  A future course will focus on Cuban recipes.

Cook.6  Among my favorite dishes is scallops with apples and grapefruit salt — exquisite.  The salt is made by blanching grapefruit zest, plunging the zest in cold water, then blanching it again in grapefruit juice, then drying the zest in the oven for 30 to 35 minutes, then mixing it with thyme and salt. It adds a distinctive and delectable flavor, and can be used in many creations.

Another winner was one of the millefeuille concoctions, this with smoked duck breast and duck foie gras.  Layers of sauteed apples are interspersed with slices of the duck in a ramequin, all doused with calvados then baked for five minutes, and finally topped with a round of spice bread/cake and foie gras.  To die for.

The after-cooking meals are a delight, beginning with the de rigueur aperitif (something alcoholic to drink accompanied by goodies we have prepared).  Marie's husband Michel joins us and serves the wine during the numerous courses.  Now that the weather has warmed, we dine outside on a deck overlooking a picturesque ravine.

While I love eating all these delicacies, and enjoy cooking with others, many of the labor-intensive, multi-step recipes are beyond me — and I am not a bad cook. I am not about to drive to Marseille (1 1/2 hours away) to buy the dry butter required to make the inverted pate dough. And why does it have to be inverted?  According to Marie, this procedure involving the butter enveloping the flour instead of the flour enveloping the butter results in a much lighter pastry. Never mind.  I'm quite happy with the wonderful millefeuille pastries you can find in any French bakery.

But cooking with Marie is an enjoyable experience and a delicious slice of life in Provence.  For more, see Marie's web site:  www.lesamisdelucullus.fr

Arles: Roman ruins and bullfights

The weekend supplement to La Provence newspaper recently advertised a special for readers: an overnight, breakfast and dinner for two offered at 24 different "hotels de charme" in France for 118 euros (about $155). A deal too good to pass up.  One of the hotels was in Arles, a delightful city I had been to several years ago.  This was a wonderful opportunity to return and introduce Bicycle Bob to Arles as he had not been with me on the previous trip.

We arrived a few days before Easter as the town was gearing up for its big festival or Feria — namely bullfights on Easter weekend. I made the mistake of attending a bullfight on my first trip, but more about that later. The city of 50,000 stretches between the arms of the Rhone River and is the gateway to the Camargue, a large area of flat, marshy lands where rice and wheat are grown, and horses and bulls are raised.  Flamingoes like to hang out in the swamps.

Arles was founded by Julius Caesar in 46 BC and is said to have the greatest number of Roman ruins after Rome.  We visited them all:  the Roman arena which can seat 12,000, who come to watch Arles1the bloody bullfights much as the Romans came to watch a bloodbath of Christians; the Roman theatre; the Constantine Baths, the Cryptoporticos of the Forum.  The latter are spooky underground galleries which formed the substructure of the Forum. We also took in the town's church of note, the Romanesque St. Trophime with an impressive cloister, and the outstanding  Arles Archeological Museum.  The latter has more than 1,300 pieces of antiquity — statues, sarcophagi, pottery, jewelry, etc. — all from the Arles area.  There are also 11 scale models recalling the town in its Roman heyday. Another museum we liked is the Museum Arlaten founded by the famous Provence poet, Frederic Mistral, with a collection of Provencal objects, costumes and a recreation of scenes of daily life, including the "great supper" on Christmas Eve.

My favorite Arles attraction is the Alyscamps, a long, leafy lane lined with the ruins of ancient sarcophagi.  The cemetery gained importance in the early Christian period with the burial of the martyr Saint Genest.  At the end of the lane is a 12th century Romanesque church.

It's easy to see why Van Gogh was inspired to paint the serenely melancholic Alyscamps.  That's not all the Dutch artist painted in Arles.  He came to the city in 1888 at the age of 35.  Here he discovered the light that had a profound impact on him and his work.  Within just a few months in Arles, he turned out some 200 paintings. Many of the Arles scenes he painted are commemorated with easels set up on the spot showing his depiction. It was also in Arles that Van Gogh cut off his ear.

As this was bullfight season, we took in an art exhibit devoted to the bull– colorful renditions of bull heads by a contemporary artist. Outside the arena we watched groups of school children being indoctrinated to the brutal bullfight culture.  Bull's heads made of cloth were mounted on the ends of bicycle wheels with long handles.  The "bulls" charged the children who waved red cloth mimicking bullfighters. And, we went to the Corrales, where some 30 creatures waited in large pens for a torturous death.

Arles2On my previous visit I felt I should see a bullfight. The night before the big event I had witnessed a pre-fight tradition — running of the bulls Arles style.  Huge trucks arrived on the main street with a cargo of young bulls.  The doors of the trucks were opened and the petrified animals were prodded down a ramp with long rods, then chased by "cowboys"' on horseback. The crowd, lots of teenagers, went wild, chasing the animals, grabbing their tails and trying to wrestle them to the ground. I took pity on the frightened, tormented animals, — beautiful, sleek, black specimens who should have been spared this sick form of entertainment.

The bullfight was far worse. I didn't last long, fleeing the horrific scene in tears.  The first poor beast was the victim of a very inept fighter who failed to end the creature's life.  The torture went on and on, the bull falling to the ground, then struggling to stand, then falling again. I was close enough to see the blood flowing from its wounds and mouth. The crowd jeered the bullfighter out of the ring, and someone came to put the bull out of its misery.  As upsetting as the gory scene were the reactions of the blood thirsty crowd. I had to escape.  Where is Brigitte Bardot?  She needs to get her troops to Arles.

As one would expect, restaurants in Arles feature taureau (bull) on the menu — steaks, stews. Our best meal, however, was not bull.  We enjoyed lunch at La Peniche (the barge), a restaurant I tracked down through Internet research.  One of the restaurant reviewers said you needed GPS to find it.  Even that would not have helped us.  We knew we were close as we walked along the river quay.   We even saw the restaurant mailbox, but no restaurant.  Finally a jogger pointed us to a boat tied up on the other side of a bridge.  When we arrived, the owner told us they had to move the boat the previous day due to reconstruction of the quay.

It was worth the extra steps.  I had pheasant with a porcini mushroom sauce while Bob chose salmon croustillant, pieces of salmon enveloped in won ton wrappers and deep fried.  Both delicious with high marks for presentation on trendy rectangular plates with artistic flourishes.  Bob's dessert — apple also enfolded in won ton wrappers and served with a to-die-for caramel mousse and homemade ice cream — was outstanding.  And, it was pleasant and soothing  to dine on a boat on the river.

Out hotel, Mas de la Chapelle, was another challenge to find, hidden in the hinterlands on a one-lane dirt road.  We loved it — a delightfully quirky place with several buildings surrounded by gardens, ponds, a swimming pool, statues and Grecian urn type flower pots.  The main building includes a chapel built by the knights of Malta, now the setting for a bizarre type of living room with seating groups of antique furniture, giant candelabra, a strange statue of the Virgin, religious paintings, even a grand piano.  Our room, Blanche (white), was spacious with a dramatic painting and drapery treatment over the  bed.  The window overlooked a pond full of happy, croaking frogs.   

If we go back to the area, we'd be sure to stay there again.  

Cats

If you don't like cats, stop reading. This entry is not for you.  I'm a passionate feline fancier.  Ever since I can remember, there has been a cat — or cats — in my life.  As a  child I preferred playing with my cat to dolls.  Now there are three cats in our household:  Buddy, an 8-year-old male, black with a white spot on his chest; Obama and Simba, 8-month old sisters, multicolored with longish hair and big, fluffy tails.  The "girls" were adopted from a shelter shortly after Obama's sensational victory, hence the name.  And, yes you can name females "Obama." Think Michelle, Sasha and Malia.

Obama and Simba replace Molly, a feisty black cat who sadly had to be put to sleep at the age of 17 1/2. First I got Obama, but I kept thinking about her sister back at the shelter. I served Bicycle Bob (a self-confessed dog person) a potent  Mai Tai. We need to rescue Obama's sister, I pleaded. He was in a jovial mood and agreed, although reluctantly. He denied it the next day.  By then it was too late. Simba soon joined us.

The "girls" look like twins and are hard to tell apart. It's been fun having two kittens.  They play Cats.2 together, sleep curled up together, wash one another, and tussle with each other.  Buddy miraculously has accepted them. He even gets in on play time, stealing their favorite mouse.

Buddy has his own story — another miracle.  I wrote the following years ago after his disappearance.  We still lived in Germany then.

BUDDY'S SAGA

My heart sank to my shoes.  I was panic-stricken.  Buddy, my precious baby, a 2-year-old black cat, leapt out of his carrier and vanished, a black streak disappearing down the street.  I had taken him to board at Sigrid Ruckaberle's Katzen Pension, or cat pension, some 60 miles from our home near Stuttgart. Before we got into her house, he bolted.  The door to the carrier must not have been properly locked.

Buddy, who was born in the wild, had been trapped and rescued when he was 3 months old,  but by then he was already vicious and petrified of humans.  Thanks to the tireless efforts of his savior, a veterinary assistant, he was tamed, but remained timid and fearful of strangers.  Not the kind of cat who would come if called or seek human company.  We had pampered him and kept him indoors.

And now he was out in the cruel world to fend for himself.  How could I find him? Would he try to make his way home?  That seemed an impossibility with many major highways to cross en route.  He would surely be hit by a car.

Sigrid, known as the "cat lady" because of her involvement with abandoned cats in the Stuttgart American military community, was also upset.  However, she assured me that Buddy would probably not wander far off and that she could trap him.  Other cat experts were less optimistic.  They said my chances of ever seeing him again were "next to nil."

I couldn't just give up.  We canceled our vacation.  For each of 10 days I faithfully drove back to the escape site and combed the area, calling him.  I knew he would never come to me, but I thought he might at least meow and I could find him.  I asked residents if they had seen him.  The answer was always "Nein."  I finally gave up, but remained plagued with anguish as I thought of my poor Buddy suffering. I'd stare at his photo and wonder if he was still alive.

Perhaps because of his troubled background and our painstaking efforts to calm his fears when he first came to us, Buddy was special.  Even Bicycle Bob, who had never been fond of cats, grew attached to Buddy who has an engaging habit of rolling over on his back whenever we come home, waiting for his belly to be petted.  Then he purrs, so loud Bob nicknamed him "Evinrude."  Cats.18

Back in her neighborhood, Sigrid put up signs, established feeding stations, and regularly set traps at night.  Her traps look like a long pet carrier, with an open door on one end and food at the other end.  When the animal enters to get the food, it steps on a lever that closes the door, trapping the animal inside without harming it.  The food would disappear, even though no animal was captured.

I  called Sigrid every day.  One day after he had been gone about a month, she said a man at the end of the street had seen Buddy.  She set a trap in his yard. I wasn't convinced it was Buddy as there are millions of black cats in this world.  And, if he had been near the trap, why hadn't he been caught?  I continued to worry — that Buddy would never be adopted by anyone since he would be petrified of people, that he would move on and eventually be hit by a car.  Friends told me not to worry.  Since Buddy was born in the wild, he was no doubt happy being a free spirit again, they said.

That kind of talk especially upsets Sigrid. "Homeless cats are subject to hunger, thirst, pain and sickness.  They lead a very dangerous life.  It's not wonderful for them.  It's hell," she says. 

This is why she did not give up on Buddy.  After seven weeks and a captured hedgehog, which she promptly released, she got him.  He came home bony, exhausted, thirsty and frightened.  For the first few days, he mainly slept, ate very little, but drank lots of water.  He obviously had not been having a terrific time as a wild cat.

"All it takes is patience," Sigrid says.  "I never gave up."

We're grateful she did not give up on Buddy who moved with us to Provence almost five years ago. He's a changed cat — now very sociable — even with his new "sisters."   And, I think Bicycle Bob is becoming a cat convert.  Sometimes I even catch him talking baby talk to the "girls."

If you'd like to read more about cats, check out this bolg: http://blog.seattlepi.com/catlady It's written by my friend Robin Jacobson, the "cat lady" of Karpathos, Greece, who has some 26 cats that she has rescued.

Swiss Adventure: Skiing and Feasting

The feasting outranked the skiing on our recent trip to the Swiss Alps. During our almost week-long visit we had only one day of glorious sunshine.  The rest of the time it was foggy, overcast with heavy gray clouds, even a bit of snow. After this winter of incredible snow falls with a meter and a half already on the ground, more was not needed. The clouds meant the mountains were no where to be seen.  And, my bad knee gave me problems which kept me off the slopes most of the time. However, thanks to our friend Ortrud, we ate very, very well.

Skiswiss3 Ortrud and her husband Kurt are German friends who have a home in a Provencal village not far from us.  They invited us to their Swiss "cabin" in Radons for winter fun. Radons, elevation 1,900 meters, is a tiny hamlet of no more than 20 houses. It is located in the Swiss canton (state) of Grisons in eastern Switzerland bordering Italy to the south and Austria to the north, about 40 kilometers from that jet set haven, St. Moritz.  In Grisons, they speak Rhaeto-Romanic, Switzerland's fourth official language after German, French and Italian.

The weathered wooden houses in Radons were built by farmers about 200 years ago. They came to the hamlet in summer months so their livestock could graze in the mountain pastures. Kurt and Ortrud's house is the only "new" structure, built some 40 years ago by Ortrud's father. Today there are about 50 inhabitants in Radons, but no one lives there year round.  All are Swiss, with the exception of Kurt and Ortrud, and many from Zurich who come for ski holidays  or summer vacation. There are also a few farmers whose cows still graze on the surrounding slopes in summer.

Getting to Radons and the cabin was a challenging adventure.  The one road leading to it is buried under snow in the winter.  There is a snow-trail from a parking lot at a ski lift about 15-snow mobile minutes from our friends' home.  We parked there, then loaded all our gear (lots as we had both downhill and cross country skis, boots, clothes and food supplies) onto the local "taxi," a trailer with eight open seats and a compartment for luggage pulled by a snow mobile.  It was a chilly ride through the woods to their house, the last in the village and atop a hill.  The taxi stopped at the bottom.  We had to lug all our stuff up the slope through deep snow. The access path had long been buried in white stuff. Reaching the top was tough enough.  Loaded down it was an athletic feat requiring stamina and coordination.  I am lacking in both departments and fell more than once, dropping my charges.

The cabin is cozy and inviting,  wood-paneled with three bedrooms upstairs and the kitchen, living and dining area on the first floor — all warmed by a wood-burning stove.  We celebrated our arrival and conquering the wicked hill with an aperitif of champagne, foie gras and bread with a white truffle spread.

The first day was the best with plenty of sunshine and spectacular views of the surrounding mountain peaks.  I joined Axel, Ortrud and Kurt's son who is a student in Sweden, and his girlfriend Carolina, both snowboarders, for a trek to the slopes. Those above Radons belong to the ski area Savognin.  Unfortunately the nearest lift is a lengthy jaunt from the cabin, but once there the skiing is excellent, mainly wide-open red runs accessed by chair lifts with no waiting lines.

The next day Bicycle Bob, who much prefers two wheels to two boards, joined me and Ortrud on the ski mountain, but the weather and visibility worsened during the day.  We took refuge in a mountain restaurant.  Another sunless day Bob and I got out the cross-country skis for a few runs around the prepared track which passes right at the bottom of the cabin.  We hiked on a snow trail yet another day. 

We didn't need sunshine to enjoy our evening feasts.  Ortrud is a cook extraordinaire.  She was a dietician in a hospital, then took a special course to become a chef and was the head of a hospital kitchen of 20 employees.  I loved helping her in the kitchen.  Unlike me who follows recipes, she cooks from instinct — a little of this, more of that — and dreams up tasty concoctions using the supplies on hand. There's the challenge.  There are no stores in Radons.  The closest shops are at the bottom of the mountain, the  snow taxi ride followed by a trip in a car, at least a half-hour and expensive.  A one-way trip in the taxi costs about $60. A less-expensive alternative is the Snowliner, a type of snow tractor with an indoor cabin which makes several roundtrips a day from the ski lift to Radons, cost about $8.50 one way. However, there's not much room for shopping supplies.

Ortrud fills up the freezer and attic store room with supplies during summer months when access is easier.  Still, much must be transported in winter. I was impressed with her culinary ingenuity. Spaghetti bolognaise, rack of lamb, steak, fish rolls, and reindeer filet were among the main courses we savored.

Axel brought the reindeer from Sweden.  2009_0111skiswiss0065   I helped with "surgery" on the raw meat.   All the tiny tendons must be delicately removed.  Ortrud browned it, then roasted it, and made an exquisite sauce with the meat scraps, chopped onion, grated ginger, cinnamon, pieces of tangerine, rosemary, salt, honey, Preiseelbeeren (German cranberry) sauce and red wine.  At the end she added fresh chanterelles.

After a first course of escargots with garlic butter, we relished the reindeer served with poached pears and cranberry sauce, red cabbage and dumplings.  I had brought brownies and lemon bars which made dessert for several evenings.  It was a three-star meal.

The men did their share in the kitchen, too.  Kurt was the "bread engineer," using a package mix to whip up different kinds of delicious breads.  My favorite was ciabatta.  After rolling out the flat dough, he smeared it with pesto, then rolled it. It was a fabulous midnight snack one evening, warm from the oven with red wine.

Bicycle Bob, also dubbed "Mr. Health Himself" by one of his daughter's former boyfriends, begins his day with a health melange of grains, yogurt and fresh fruit.  We brought an ample supply of fruit. He meticulously cuts up the fruit for an exquisite fruit salad, which not only served as a breakfast addition, but also filled in for desserts several nights — after the brownies and lemon bars had been consumed.

See photo gallery for more.

Cuisine Nicoise

Food for me is one of the highlights of travel.  I love to sample local specialties, discover new flavors and tastes.  Before we headed to Nice, I did some research on its cuisine and restaurants where we could try traditional dishes.  There's much more than salade nicoise although that was an entree at Chez Palmyre, a tiny restaurant in Vieux Nice I had read about.  There was nothing special about the food (good but basic), however the price (14 euros or $11 for four courses) and the ambience merit a visit.  It's a neighborhood kind of place where the diners, a total of 24, greet each other with the obligatory air kiss on each cheek.  Suzanne, the owner, takes orders, then shouts them to the cook back in the kitchen.  Chez Palmyre dates back to 1926 and has become a Nice institution.

As is La Merenda –another mini place with room for just 24 customers who sit on stools which would Nice.food2 be more at home in a kindergarten classroom.  The restaurant is mentioned in almost every article I had read about Nice.  The challenge is to get a table as La Merenda has no phone. You just show up early in the day and request a place for  later.  While waiting for our food, we struck up a conversation with the man at the next table, just centimeters away. Larry, a soon-to-be 50 New Yorker who just "came into some money," had quit his job and was traveling the world. He also has a blog:  www.intrepideaterreturns.blogspot.com

With a title like that, no wonder he ordered tripe as his main course. Bicycle Bob went with another signature Nice dish: stockfish.  The fish is soaked for five or six days in running water.  Its weight triples.  Then it is simmered with onions, tomatoes, garlic, black and green olives, bell peppers, olive oil and a few potatoes.  I tasted it — not for me.  I was happy with boudin, blood sausage served with a mashed potato/onion combination and applesauce.  All three of us began the meal with an entree of  stuffed sardines, truly excellent.  As Bicycle Bob doesn't consider a meal complete without dessert, he ordered lemon tart, another winner. 

We were guests of the Nice Tourist Office for lunch at L'Escalinada where we began a wonderful meal with La Ribambelle, the restaurant's combination entree plate with squid, octopus, grilled red pepper and beignets, airy, melt-in-your mouth fritters of eggplant and zucchini: a fabulous combination that was a meal in itself.  A large bowl of chick-pea salad was also placed on the table.  We learned that when Nice was part of Savoy (Italy),during much of the first half of the 19th century, it could not trade with France, so it looked to North Africa. Much of the Nice cuisine still has that influence.

The restaurant's menu listed some local favorites, such as Testicules de mouton panees (translation not required) and Merda de can ("dog shit" in the local dialect).  Not to worry, it's actually gnocchi with Swiss chard.  We played it safe.  I chose scampi for  my main course, while Bicycle Bob went with wild rouget (red mullet).  We were both more than satisfied.

We dined at yet another restaurant specializing in cuisine Nicoise, Lou Balico.  L'omlette de poutrine is considered a local delicacy.  I had to try it.  We had seen poutrine at the market — miniscule, silvery fish caught only in February and March. The omelet was delicate and light, but a bit on the fishy side.  Bicycle Bob opted for rabbit with a tapenade sauce.

"You know, I'm not really thrilled with this traditional food," he remarked after this meal.  So, for our last adventure in Nice dining, we went to La Zucca Magica, (the magic pumpkin), a vegetarian restaurant run by Italians.  We're not vegetarians, but it was our favorite.  It's also a favorite of Mark Bittman, the New York Times food writer.

The decor is pumpkins and gourds and squash — hanging from the ceiling, on the tables and window sills, depicted in paintings and photos on the walls.  It's dimly lit with flickering candles, cozy and inviting.  There is no menu.  You take a seat, order some wine, and food starts arriving — five different dishes, one after another.

We started with a pesto, cheese and artichoke creation that was heavenly.  Then soup, a blend of spinach and ricotta with a hint of nutmeg, followed by a "pumpkin sandwich,"  a cheese and pumpkin Nicefood.14 concotion.  The main course was a pasta dish combining black olives, mozzarella and pumpkin.  Topping it all off we savored apple and pumpkin strudel with cinnamon ice cream. Bicycle Bob, who is a pumpkin freak, was in his glory, and I'd easily convert to vegetarianism if every meal could be like this.  We'll go back next time we're in Nice.

And, then we'd also like to try Keisuke Matsushima, a Michelin one-star restaurant run by a 31-year-old Japanese chef of the same name specializing in "Japanice" cuisine.   It's highly recommended.  If the dollar holds its course, we may be able to afford it.

Last but not least on the Nice food scene is socca, a giant crepe made with chick-pea flour, cooked on a wood-burning stove on a sheet of tin-plated copper.  There are numerous places in the alleys of Nice's old town where customers wait in line for a paper plate of the pancake which is chopped into bite-size pieces.  The legendary place for socca is Chez Theresa in the market where the lovely Theresa is more than happy to pose for photos.