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a budding boulanger

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Sean's bread

Sean’s bread

Cher Marianne,

Bonne Année. Nice to hear you have adjusted to life in southern California.  Writing from Toronto in January, I can’t imagine California is tough to love. We have had a cold, icy winter and being Canadian, love to complain about the weather. A horrendous ice storm knocked out power to 750,000 people in late December, many of whom, remained without heat or electricity for Christmas. We lost an enormous amount of the city’s tree canopy and the clean up is expected to cost $100 million. It has been consistently close to -20c here the last two weeks.

But I want to hear more about the ocean. I imagine the sound of the waves are an antidote to the stress of busy life. I certainly feel that way about the mountains. I just heard that Steamboat Springs has had six feet of snow in the last few weeks — I think it’s time to unsubscribe from Rocky Mountain snow reports. Nature can be a little harder to access in the urban sprawl of Toronto. Because we have spent a lot of time skiing in recent years we haven’t done much skating. But skating is very accessible here and free. Because it is consistently cold enough, Toronto has 52 outdoor skating rinks in operation from November to March.  When I was young, Friday nights meant going to the outdoor rink with your friends, skating in circles under the floodlights, noses red, cheeks pink and coins in our pocket to buy a watery hot chocolate from the vending machine. I remember the feeling of freedom and fun, skating to the music, waiting for one of the boys to steal your hat. To me one of the best Canadian-winter experiences is pond skating. The ice is bumpier but there is nothing like it, skating in a forest when the snow is falling on a dark night. Yes, the winter is long and cold here in Toronto… too long to wait it out inside.

On the upside, our time indoors has become much more delicious as Sean has become a dedicated boulanger. He began baking bread in Denver but things vastly improved in October when I went to San Francisco to visit friends. He had asked me to bring home a recipe, if I came across any great bread. Luckily, my friend Barb, knew exactly the bakery: Tartine. Their loaves come out of the oven at 5:00 pm each day. An hour later, all that remains are the dustings of cornmeal where they sat. The bread is a rustic country style, with a very dark, crunchy crust and a tender slightly sour taste. I came home raving and faster than a loaf can rise, Sean had started reading blogs  and watching videos by Chad Robertson, the baker-owner of Tartine. It turns out he and his wife Elizabeth travelled, trained and cooked in France. Of course they did. First In Provence and then in the Bauges Alpes in the Savoie. When they returned to the U.S. Chad had a vision for the kind of bread he wanted to bake. He called it bread with soul, using old techniques that had gone by the wayside in modern commercial baking. The dough is created with wild yeast and rises very slowly. He says in his book that until the 1930’s natural leaven was widely used by French bakers, in bread, croissants and brioche. But once commercial yeast became available the use of natural leaven declined. You might know more about that.

Chad has posted many how-to videos online so Sean watched and read what he could and set to it. I was wondering: How exactly does he catch these wild yeast? Some sort of sticky traps? It turns out the wild yeast are in the air and on your hands.  By combining the correct proportions of water and flour the yeast magically do the rest. The starter must be kept at room temperature and fed twice a day for several weeks until it matures and is thriving. It sounds simple but Sean’s first six attempts failed. They would start out well, bubbling with life and beginning to smell interesting, but then, somewhere between days one and five, the bubbles would disappear leaving behind a lifeless, grey paste. Finally, on his seventh attempt, success. I am so proud he stuck with it, I surely would have given up. Her name is Septa-Jenny, and she is almost three months old. It does feel as though we’ve added an odd pet to the family. She has a strangely compelling smell, like apple cider, and is a bit of a commitment. She can live in the fridge, suspended at 3 degrees indefinitely, but when it is time to bake bread she must be brought out to warm up and be fed twice a day. (I joke that at least we don’t need to start a college fund for her.) When he travels, which is often lately, the feeding is left to me and my oldest son, who at 13 and quite handy in the kitchen. I will admit it can be nerve-wracking. Septa-Jenny’s water and rye flour “food” must be measured precisely, using a food scale. But, the bread really is worth the trouble. It keeps for a week (a benefit of the natural leaven) and makes delicious toast. The theory is that bread made this way is more nutritious and much easier to digest, so wheat bellies be damned.  I wish I could send you one of his loaves. I wonder if it would remind you of bread you might eat in Paris. Instead, you have one more reason to visit San Francisco. In the meantime, have you found a good boulangerie in L.A.?

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form over function?

Good morning!

Long time no write. Environment here is so different, I need to adjust. I am writing to you from a coffee place right on the beach in Southern California. From my chair, I can see the sea and I have to say it’s quite beautiful. We had rain all day yesterday, for the first time in two months, and the colors are all different today, like everything has received an extra amount of deep in color. Rain has sort of cleaned all elements, from the leaves to the sky. No snow, but sand and bare landscape on the hills, that’s my new environment. Just as in Colorado, there are very green and well maintained lawns even in this scenery where cactus are so present.

Talking about lawns! One of my new friends here is writing from time to time in the local newspaper. He spent a few days in Paris last spring, and felt he had to write about it in the newspaper. Paris is always trendy to talk about as you know, but his subject was about not being able to walk on the lawn in parks in the city of lights. I did not read his article at the time, but as I invited him and his family for dinner, he thought he would talk about it and maybe get some first hand explanation from a Parisian… Well… I was truly sincerely sorry he and his sons were not able to play soccer in the Luxembourg. We were in our home in Laguna Beach. The same morning I spent an hour at a yoga class in a public park, on the lawn indeed. My son had been playing football with his dad on the field in another public park next to our home. Around them were certainly people riding a bike, playing baseball or lacrosse, babies’ first steps, people having a picnic… All this happening on these amazing fields of lawn.

So our friend was complaining to us, about that incident when he had to obey to a woman in a grey uniform and go off the lawn in Paris. While he was looking for understanding, I looked at my husband and realized we were having the same thoughts. Indeed, it made sense to us that you were not able to walk on any lawn in Paris… or in any public park in France actually! We were raised knowing that you don’t walk on the lawn unless it’s clearly indicated you can. And I believe it is the same in the “Château de Versailles” gardens.

Again the same old story about different habits and customs I guess. And you can see I am not taking sides here. But then if I wanted to be fair, you understand I had to find out why it is forbidden to walk on the lawns in the Luxembourg Gardens! My investigation took me to an article in the Los Angeles Times back in 1997 where the journalist actually found a reason in the fact that “Parisians don’t have a lot of respect for nature, there would be trash everywhere”. Apparently the subject keeps minds busy especially in California!

Then It took me to the Trinity College in Cambridge, where walking on the grass seems not allowed to the Junior Members of the College in specific areas. But then for a reason: “The highly regarded right to walk on the grass in the college courts is exclusive to Fellows of the college and their guests. Scholars do however have the right to walk on Scholar’s Lawn, but only in full academic dress.” This is about privileges. Another fun fact was about this German woman who flew to Sydney and was greeted by a sign. “Please walk on the grass, it read. You know you’re not in Germany anymore when you read that!” she laughed recalling.

Ok, so walking on the grass seems against the law elsewhere than just Paris. Phew! I feel a little relieved. Back to Paris anyway. The wife of the apprentice journalist gave me a hint without knowing it. She listened to her husband telling the story. She didn’t seem too much involved in this outrage, but she is a really kind woman and she didn’t want to leave him either alone with it. So she said: “They can change the lawn overnight!” But I found out that Luxembourg Gardens staff has a tradition of flowers gardening and excellence in botanic. Replacing sod rolls overnight might not be an option for those perfectionists. When asked the “walking on the lawn” question, the administration has the same answer for decades: areas with lawn are tiny surfaces, and the soil is fragile”. My friend from Laguna Beach calls it the French tendency to favor “form over function”. I sincerely don’t know what to think about this. I perfectly understand and feel that both situations make sense… I do! Up to some point, I actually think that the function of the lawn in Luxembourg gardens IS the form! And it doesn’t’ shock me at all. Sorry if this question of “gazon” took me so long to tell and was a bit boring for you.

By the way, I want to go to Vermont from the day I discovered that the good cheeses I can easily find in the US are actually made in Vermont. Your letter just gave me some more reasons to think about making that journey soon. First time I hear about CSA and I will be looking for one in the area today! I am sure it exists in France, I used to have delivered every week a basket of various in-season vegetables and fruits and I did the same in Denver. But maybe it is not as well structured as CSA?

French would be too busy taking care of their lawn? For viewing pleasure of course.

french ducks in vermont

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Dear Marianne,

It is a great coincidence that you mention gougères in your last letter as I just made them. At my monthly book group we each contribute something to the dinner, ideally a food with some connection to the book. Last month we read Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, a writer from Vancouver. The story of young jazz musicians is set in Paris and Berlin in the late 1930’s. I wanted to bring something to have before dinner and got an idea from my father-in-law, David. At a recent dinner he served Lillet, a French apéritif. It seems to have a long tradition and I am curious if it is still popular in France and how you would drink it. At book club we had it very cold, over ice with a slice of orange. A quick search turned up gougères as the perfect hors d’oeuvre to accompany the Lillet. I am glad I did not attempt them in Denver because here, at 240 feet above sea level, they baked into perfect billowy puffs with a crunchy exterior and soft cheesy centre. I used gruyere but will try your suggested comté next time.  I am no expert with pâte à choux pastry so if I can pull these off, anyone can (Denverites excepted).

Our recent trip to Vermont was lots of fun. It was great to be on the road, as we were so often in Colorado.  Life seemed comfortably slow in the Green Mountains and every town has a simple whitewashed church with a tall steeple, quintessential New England. It strikes me as one of those places you leave when you are young, wanting to see something of the world, but eventually return to when you realize life here is about as good as it gets.

There are many things about Vermont that you would appreciate. Like France, it is very pastoral and a long history of dairy farming means fantastic cheeses. Those roots have lead to a growing agritourism industry and slow food movement.

Spring was making a soggy debut as we arrived and our first days were wet and dreary, perfect for hiding out in warm sugar shacks and sipping maple syrup from little cups.  Winter pushed back though and we enjoyed some fresh snow on the slopes; just enough to remind us of an average ski day in Colorado.

Although we went to ski we wanted to experience the flavour of Vermont and so visited Applecheek Farm in Hyde, about an hour from Stowe. Farmer John took us on a tour and the kids retrieved eggs from the hen house and met some friendly cows and aloof emus. Like many Vermont farms Applecheek is diversifying.

I wrote last time about the ubiquity of French food and even in a sleepy corner of Vermont found this to be true. Farmer John is expanding the types of fowl produced and is now raising French muscovy ducks which he says have a wonderful flavour. They also yield a lot of meat which has 50% less fat than the American Muscovy Duck. Like French women, French ducks know how to stay slim!

Applecheek also supplies local restaurants and Vermonters can buy a farm share through their CSA: Community Supported Agriculture. Are you familiar with CSA’s? You pay a flat fee to the farm and are given a weekly share of whatever they harvest. We participated in Colorado, through Grant Family Farms in Wellington, an hour and a bit north of Denver. It was fantastic including everything from wildflowers to cherry wine. We are looking for a farm to connect with here in Ontario. Do Parisians participate in farm shares in the same way?

The drive back from Vermont was long but Radiolab podcasts kept us going (one of our favourite ways to pass time on the road) and we did stop in Quebec for some poutine. No scandalous pastagate moments to share.  The staff at the little diner appreciated us trying to speak French and were very sweet with my youngest son, speaking English to him when he did not understand. I like what you said about languages being a chance. It felt lucky to sit in this simple place on a Sunday afternoon with local families speaking French all around, us a part of their world for one meal.

jambon-beurre

Chère amie,

No mustard in the “jambon-beurre”, just good baguette, good ham and good butter! As for your carrots, it looks simple, but of course its simplicity is complicated. Sophisticated? The baguette must be perfectly baked, the crust being crispy but not too much to prevent hurting the mouth, the crumb being light but not too much… The ham shall be not too thin and not too thick; and butter applied in thin plates preferably to be spread (butter form Echiré would be a must). At least to my taste…

I realize these simple sandwich considerations could easily illustrate the common belief that French people are hardly ever happy, while having so many reasons to be!

Altitude does make a difference in my cooking habits: I had to give up trying to bake gougères in Denver. These are made of choux pastry with Comté cheese and we serve them in Burgundy for aperitif. As any choux pastry, the dough has to rise while being baked. In Denver I could never make this happen… Once I brought to a friend’s party my flat gougères and people were kind enough to find them delicious. I was truly desperate. But there are more important things in life, ha ha… (am I slowly getting rid of this French attitude?)

About poutine… I guess you have to find out why poutine means mess then! It reminds me of another delicate dish… Creuse is a French Department in the center of France where it is said there are more cows than humans. I had the chance to live there for a few years and get my driving license, enjoying having to endure the one and only traffic light in Guéret, the main city. Actually learning to drive in such a quiet area made me good: I ever had a driving accident until now and knock on wood! Back to food: each Tuesday on the menu of the local cafeteria is the regional renowned dish: “Le fondu creusois”, French fries covered with a Camembert perfectly melted and warm. Do you think you would like to taste that? It’s really good, but you have to be hungry.

And then you want me to give my opinion on the Pastagate…

Isn’t “pasta” the Italian word for the French “pâtes”? And you wrote that the crime took place in an Italian restaurant? Finding Italian words on the menu of an Italian restaurant seems quite logical to me, even though in English the word used to designate the french “pâtes” was taken from the Italian language… Then all the responsibility has to be assigned to the English speaking people, who were not able to invent a proper word to designate this staple food of traditional Italian cuisine. Of course I am kidding.

I have the memory of a “Cabane à sucre” dinner around Montreal. We were expecting something great, enjoying a very warmhearted time, sharing this big table and our dinner with people we didn’t know minutes before. This is what happened, for most of it. But the Pastagate hit us and this wasn’t pleasant. On our left side was a charming French speaking family, so happy to find people coming from France visiting. Until they realized we were also having a conversation with our right side neighbors, English speakers. All those people were living in Montreal, but didn’t seem to want to share anything together.

That made us really sad. My opinion is that languages are a chance, and I am really determined to be a French ambassador wherever I go, whatever I do.  Understanding and being able to speak and read in another language is the key to a new world, and people should catch that opportunity every time they can.

Let me tell you about the decisions we took. I am not saying we are doing everything right, but at least we put our thinking caps on.

We decided, living in the United States of America, that we should speak French and only French at home, to prevent our kids from losing it. We decided to put an extra rule: avoid blending English and French in any case. I consider blending to be the worst, and the most difficult to avoid: you use only French words, but you employ them with the other language logic. For example: “I take an exam” would become litteraly in French “Je prends un examen” when it should be “Je passe un examen”… It’s the favorite mistake my 16 years old daughter makes. Another example I heard sounds a lot worst to French ears… A young teenager from Quebec we received once at home, after a dinner at the restaurant, exclaimed “Ch’uis pleine !” for “I’m full”. In French we would say that about a pregnant cow. We laughed of course, but it shows the importance to avoid it.

Each of us tries, from time to time, to break these rules… But we correct each other as well. It is not only about the language, but also about our family culture. It makes sense when I explain that we are lucky to access to a new culture while living in the US. But if we lose ours, then it wouldn’t be worth it: we would end with half of two cultures. This mathematical vision of things is helpful: 1 + 0.5 equals more than 0.5 x 2.

I understand why Quebec has to legalize on this subject. In fact Quebec is trying to do with Quebecers what we French parents, try to do at home while living in Colorado. I confirm the need to establish rules if you want it to happen. I confirm also that it requires a never-ending wise vigilance…

poutine and pastagate

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Dear Marianne,

I expect you are in Paris by now, eating your simple ham sandwich. Avec Dijon? Or would it no longer be ‘simple’? I am happy you can be there with your father.

I laughed at your last post and the thought of Erna the nanny, bringing Italian water to France to recreate the bean soup. Regarding altitude, do you find it challenging to bake at 5280 feet? Sean learned to bake bread in Denver and I think he has had to change his method in Toronto, which is almost at sea level, so a mile lower than Denver.

This idea that food belongs to a place got me thinking about what foods belong to Canada. We asked ourselves that question when planning our goodbye party last June. We wanted to serve something from home, besides the ‘rye ‘n ginger’, Canadian rye whisky mixed with gingerale. You were at the party, did you try the butter tarts? They are extremely popular here and found in bakeries all over Ontario. A small pastry shell is baked with a filling of butter, sugar, syrup and egg. Butter tart lovers have strong opinions about the perfect tart: Should the filling be runny or thick (correct answer is runny) and with raisins or nuts (correct answer is neither).

In fact, the butter tart is one of the few foods entirely of Canadian origin. We are completely different from France in that respect. Where you have a cuisine entirely your own, ours is a product of the waves of immigrants who have arrived throughout the last 150 years. I imagine that many people, including my own Hungarian grandparents, came with very little but did bring some well-loved recipes, cherished reminders of home. As a result, Toronto is an incredible food city. My neighbourhood, High Park, was home to mostly eastern Europeans starting around 1910 and there are still delis where you hear more Polish than English and can buy fresh pierogies and sauerkraut scooped from a giant tub in the fridge.

Another native food is that culinary masterpiece known as Poutine: french fries covered with gravy and Quebec-style cheese curd. The dish did originate in Quebec but is popular throughout Canada and catching on in the U.S. (it is on the menu at the restaurant Euclid Hall, in Denver.) In Toronto our favourite is Smoke’s Poutinerie where you order your gravy-cheese fries further smothered, choosing from a menagerie of toppings such as pulled pork, Indian butter chicken or peppercorn gravy with sautéed mushrooms and caramelized onions. I was curious about the word poutine. This explanation, from Wikipedia, says the dish was invented in Warwick, Quebec by a man who exclaimed while making it, “ça va faire une maudite poutine!” (it will make a damn mess!)

Quebec was in the national news last week. The story, dubbed ‘Pastagate’ by the media, is funny on the surface but highlights an ongoing debate about language in Quebec. How to preserve French in a province that lies within a mostly English speaking country? Although the rest of Canada is bilingual, Quebec’s official language is French alone which means businesses and restaurants must use French on all their visible signs and menus. To enforce this, language inspectors patrol restaurants to examine small details such as ‘EXIT’ signs which must read ‘SORTIE’.

When the owner of a small Italian restaurant in Montreal was fined for using English words on his menu including the word ‘pasta’ instead of the French ‘pâtes’, the story got a lot of attention. There has been a backlash from both English and French-speaking Quebecers who say this is unreasonable. Hence, ‘Pastagate’. Quebec’s provincial government says it will review its inspection process. After all, there are some things it is difficult to translate or foods like sushi, which have no French translation. However, the government there is pushing for even stricter language laws overall. I am curious about your reaction, as a French person living in an English world.

We leave for Vermont on Sunday and will stay in Quebec for one night en route. We will report back on ‘Pastagate’.

altitude

Did you know my husband was raised by an Italian nanny?

And why would I talk about Erna? Because I had with her the best conversation about food, and because your lovely carrot’s story brings it back to my memory. Erna was born in Piedmont, Northern Italy, where she came back from time to time to see her family. At several occasions, she brought to France all the ingredients for a Piedmontese white beans soup. But at home in Lorraine, she was never able to cook the same exact soup she enjoyed so much in her native village. Once she even brought back some water…. When she came to the conclusion that she maybe needed to bring back some air, and manage to cook at the exact same altitude, and maybe also bring back the stove, she resigned. She was very serious about this, and I think her theory was quite interesting.

Beyond the need of simplicity in ingredients you underline, I am also convinced that food -and wine- belong to a place. I totally appreciate having eggs and green bell peppers cooked together for a brunch in Colorado, when I don’t think I would like it in France. Actually I rarely eat cheese in Denver, although there are some very good ones available.

I need to come back to France next week. My dad is at the hospital and I want to be near him. I guess my next letter will be from Paris! I’ll be very attentive to my first thoughts, will count smiles, and will tell you about simple and great food… I guess when arriving around midday, the first thing I will do is buy ham, butter and a baguette, and have a very simple sandwich.

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the loire valley and gastro-nesia

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Dear Marianne,

I have been considering your question, about whether you are ‘overreacting’ to your longing for French food. Based on my limited dining experiences in France my answer is ‘non et no’.

Sean and I went to France to celebrate a special birthday a few years ago and stayed in the Loire Valley at an old water mill turned small, country hotel. The resident chef was from the Périgord region and I will always remember tasting his sautéed carrots. They were so remarkably delicious it entirely changed my view of carrots. I asked Chef Pascal how they were prepared. He paused for a moment, his dark eyes turning serious and then he said, “simple”. As he spoke he made a quick outward gesture with his hands which I interpreted as: Less is more, don’t mess around. (The French word, simple, is spelled the same as the English one but I think his use of it meant ‘with simplicity’ rather than ‘it is easy’.) When asked to further explain he added, “avec du beurre et l’ail,” with some butter and garlic. Again the hand gesture to emphasize the point. With simplicity.

So I understand and yet I don’t. Is it really that simple? You start with really fresh ingredients, snip a few herbs from the terra cotta pot on the way in the door, grab a pound of butter and toss some sel du mer over your left shoulder for luck.  The trick, Pascal confided, is to let the water evaporate leaving the carrots to brown and carmelize in the pan. And so, we have tried to replicate those perfect French carrots and Sean does quite a nice job of them now. And yet, they are not Chef Pascal’s carrots.  So what I don’t understand… is there something the French keep from the rest of us? Secret ingredients passed from one generation to the next like heirloom silver. A certain flourish with the sauté pan taught to four-year olds standing at the stove on wood stools? Or am I now overreacting. When you travel somewhere as wonderful as France, there is a tendency to romanticize the best parts and forget the rest. I know every meal can’t have been perfect, but the ones that fell short have been forgotten. Call it gastro-nesia: an ability to remember only the most delicious moments.

And I agree with you that perspective plays a large part in how we experience things. I never noticed that French people don’t smile on the Metro. Probably because it’s the same in Toronto; big city living, everybody’s in a hurry.  It is interesting that you have a new appreciation for how fashionable Parisians are. Toronto is not Paris but it is cosmopolitan compared to Denver. People in Denver have that “outdoor chic” look down; dressed like, at any moment, you might run into a friend who says, “Hey, I’m heading to Estes Park for some snowshoeing, come along” or “It’s a beautiful day, let’s go hike a fourteener.”*

Toronto got bigger and busier while we were gone, and I think we got smaller. It’s fun to be out in the city, feeling the energy and admiring the fashionable. I do still enjoy that. But the truth is, Denver sent me the other way and I think I’m now happiest when I’m dressed for adventure. Speaking of adventure, when we moved back to Canada we promised ourselves we would continue to take road trips, which we really enjoyed while living in the U.S. west. Next up is Stowe, Vermont, a return to the mountains. Any road trips on your horizon?

A Bientot.

*A “fourteener” is Colorado slang for one of the state’s 53 mountains that are over 14,000 feet high

le moulin

la cuisine

 

the perfect french carrot

keep it simple