September 2006 archives

When Good Fruitcakes Go Bad

I keep a pretty clean house.

I bath regularly.

So I wondered why there were so many little flies buzzing around me?

Up until a few weeks ago, I never had a problem with insects, save for the nightly attacks of mosquitoes (the bane of Parisian summers). So I was wondered why I had so many little visitors flitting about my kitchen.

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Every year I make fruitcakes, and last year was no exception. I spend hours candying orange and grapefruit peel as well as making spicy, candied ginger, which I chop up into toothsome nuggets. I make a buttery batter packed full of brilliant-green Sicilian pistachios, and use my precious stash of rich, crunchy Macadamia nuts sent to me by friends in Hawaii.

Then batter gets divided into molds of various sizes and baked in anticipation of holiday gift-giving. (Note to future recipients: The size determines how much I feel indebted to you…so plan your gift-giving accordingly.)

Once-cooled, I soak the cakes with a heady pour of Cognac, then wrap them neatly in French linen, known as étamine. Then faithfully, each month, I brush the gauzy wrap with a fresh dose of Cognac, re-wrap them, then revisit them monthly to repeat the process.

Last week, I did my ritualistic unveiling of my lovely fruitcakes to give them their regular dose of Cognac.

As I pulled back the wrapping, something felt oddly unfamiliar, and an uneasy sense of dread spread over me. The cakes didn’t feel solid.

Nor did they even feel like cakes.

Well, words can’t really describe what I was feeling, so I’ll simply share…

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Oh la vâche!, as we say.

This was perhaps the most horrible thing I’d seen in a long, long time.
Flies buzzed, hovered and swooped around the almost-unrecognizable bricks of cake, frothy mold seeped and fizzed from every pore, and little wriggly…well…since you may be eating while you read this, I’ll stop there, but you get the message (and hopefully share my pain.)

I’m certain le canicule, the heatwave of July, was responsible. It heated everything up, including my cakes, and turned them into a messy mayhem of mold and mouches (flies).

I made a beeline for the elevator to the garbage area on the ground floor of my building, praying the elevator wouldn’t stop to let someone else on. If it had, I don’t know how I would have explained what happened. Or the stink. Luckily I arrived tout seule, and with semi-regret, flung the whole she-bang in la poubelle, slammed down the lid, and beat a hasty retreat.

Merde!

Plum Tuckered

Today I learned something.

I learned how to check the statistics on this site.

I can learn what other sites lead people here, and how many people visit here each day.

I can also see what keywords people are using to find the site.

You would think it might be something like, say, ‘Chocolate‘ or ‘Paris‘.

Or perhaps it’d be something broader, like ‘Recipe‘ or ‘Baking‘.

But you know what?

The Number #1, Top Search Words that are used to find this site are…

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‘Tucker Carlson’

So for all you fans looking for Tucker Carlson…welcome!

…to both of you.

Fleur de Sel

There’s been a lot of discussion about what is the best salt in the world. There’s lots of opinions, tastings, and scientific studies floating around.

But I’m here to tell you, my absolute favorite salt is Fleur de sel de Guérande. I think there’s no finer salt available anywhere.

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When I was invited to visit the salt marshes and learn to rake the highly-prized, precious crystals of fleur de sel, I decided that the Guérande, in Brittany, would make the perfect place to begin my August vacation. Brittany is a rugged part of France that faces the Atlantic and is unspoiled by tourists. The coastline is gorgeous: large rock formations are piled everywhere, giving one many opportunities to ascend the boulders and enjoy the magnificent views in all directions. The ocean was a bit too cold for me to swim in, but Bretons have no trouble diving right in.

(Trust me, it’s freezing cold, which meant no swimming at the beach for me…especially the naturist beaches!)

But there’s also lots of buckwheat crêpes and sparkling apple cider to keep your spirits up as well, just in case you get stuck in one of the rainstorms, as I often did. And although the Guérande lies in the south of the region, and in spite of Breton flags everywhere, I was curiously told by the locals that the Guérande was actually part of the Loire-Atlantique, not Brittany.
Like the numbered roadway signs that lead to nowhere (locals told us not to follow the signs since they’re wrong), and in spite of the magnificent Michelin maps, driving in France provides its fair-share of frustrations.

Still, we managed to make it, and by the time we arrived I was ready to throttle someone. Yet looking out over the marshes did indeed have a calming effect—perhaps they can build a salt marsh in Paris, visible from my apartment?

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Le Marais Salant of the Guérande.

These are the salt marshes of the Guérande, les œillets.
They’re so prominent, that they’re visible on the Michelin maps of France, although when I got home and tried to look on Google maps, viewing the region was prohibited. Perhaps there’s a military installation nearby, since it’s on the coast. The exceptional salt from the Guérande is justifiably famous since it tastes like no other salt in the world. Although the words ‘fleur de sel’ have been bantered around and used as marketing tools for many salts being promoted (nowadays you find salts labeled as such from Portugal, Italy, and elsewhere) nowhere else on earth does the salt have the same fine flavor and delicate crystals of Fleur de Sel de Guérande.

Continue Reading Fleur de Sel…

Blog Day 2006: The Morning After

Yesterday was Blog Day 2006, which I’m a bit late for.
But here are my choices for 5 food blogs that were either newly created in 2006, or at least new to me this year, that I always enjoy:

Check ‘em out!

(Oh, and in the Miss Congeniality category, Acme Instant Food and, of course, Megnut, as well.)

By The Hair of My…

I recently got this message from someone asking…

“It would be a great help to me if you would be so kind as to just note down some of the problems, bureaucratic and otherwise, you encountered while procuring visas, papers, lodgings, etc.”

Since I don’t have the enormous bandwidth to describe the entire process, nor the urge to re-visit those repressed memories, the very short answer is that the French certainly don’t make it easy to get (or renew) a visa. I guess that’s understandable since so many wholly undesirable people, like me, want to live here. But what I don’t understand is why they don’t make it easier to figure out.
So being a good, responsible person, to that young lady out there, since you asked, here’s some answers your questions:

My first clue that something was a tad amiss was when I was starting the process back in San Francisco, while a friend in Boston was doing the same. Comparing notes, we realized the list of documents requested on the French Consulate of San Francisco’s web site was different from the list of documents requested on the French Consulate of Boston’s web site. When I went into the San Francisco consulate to ask, with both pages printed out (I learned that early on), and pointed out the bizarre discrepancy, the fellow behind the counter snidely replied, “Well, where do you live? In San Francisco…or Boston?”
When I pointed out that that would be like telling someone from Lyon that in order to get a US visa, they would need different documents from someone in Paris, he simply shrugged, and I handed over my dossier and went back home to wait.

The most important thing to realize is that there are two iron-clad rules that you’ll come up against:
One, is that the system is not designed for efficiency, but to employ as many people are possible.
And two, just because it’s someone’s job to help you, that doesn’t mean they have to. Or want to. They’re under no obligation. So you need to get them on your side using whatever means necessary.

(And if anyone out there wants to get rich really quick, open a photocopy shop in France, since everything needs to be copied in quadriplicate. And invariably no matter how prepared you are, they come up with something completely out-of-the-blue.
“You didn’t bring your mother’s sixth-grade report card!? Mais oui, but of course you need that! And we need 5 copies too…oh, and all notarized within the past 30 days…from the town she was born in.”)

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An answer to the part of her question asking about “any problems I encountered procuring lodging”: This was my apartment, the week I arrived Paris.

When I finally did get the paperwork granting me permission to come to France, I foolishly listened to them at the consulate and assumed that having gone dredging up every scrap of paper from my past, I was in free-and-clear. Not so fast, cowboy. Upon arriving in France, I was told, I needed to go to the police station and pick up the ‘real’ visa. But what’s this official looking piece of paper I’ve waited 6 months to get? Oh, just permission to actually apply for a visa.

Okay.

I was not quite a free man in Paris. So once back in town, I head to my local police station. They know nothing, and send me to the main police station in my neighborhood. They know nothing either (This is about the time I started using the phrase, “Welcome to France”, and repeating it over and over and over.) I finally discover that I need to go to this stifling, little dingy office out in the middle of nowhere, where I wait in a long, non-moving line for an hour to make an appointment at the main Préfécture de Police, only to be told that the one piece of paper that I don’t have in my dossier (I forgot what it was, but it was something rather obscure), so I need so I’ll need to come back. Incidentally the Préfécture de Police is located just around the corner from the Conciergerie, where Marie Antoinette and other less-fortunate souls, waited for the dreaded end to come. As you sit and wait in the crowded, hot room, hoping that if you sit in the last available seat, you won’t be next to someone who doesn’t have access to a weekly shower. And you wait until your name gets called. And you wait.
And wait. And wait. And…
You begin to feel as if you’re about to meet a similar fate as poor Marie.

(Did you know the last time the guillotine was used was in 1975?)

To make a long story short, and to preserve bandwidth, I eventually got my visa, which I need to be renew yearly, and for the most part, everyone I had to deal with (except in San Francisco) was rather pleasant and helpful. (Must be the chocolate I brought them.)
You need to start the process about 8 month before its annual expiration date, so I’ve simply to re-start the process when I go pick up my visa. If anything, at least I am efficient. So today I come home, and there’s an official letter from the government telling me they want the last 12 statements from my bank in the US translated into French (um…Can’t you just look at the dollar amounts? Isn’t that what you’re looking for?) Trying to explain what bank ‘interest’ is to a French person always draws wide-eyed stares, since the idea of your bank actually doing something for you is a rather unusual concept. And trying to explain why there’s ads on your bank statement draws more curious stares.

Welcome to America, I suppose.

So re-armed and re-ready, I head back to the Préfécture de Police to hand over my freshly-translated documents, where they tell me I have to wait a few more months, although my visa’s set to expire at the end of this one. So I need to get a prolongation…at another bureau…way on the other side of Paris. Of course.

Then I need to come back. And do it all again.

Exhausted, I eventually made it back home where I decided that perhaps I should treat myself a glass of something with a high percentage of alcohol, polish off the box of chocolate-covered caramels that I was saving for a special occasion from Le Roux, and look at my picture of Frederick. And since I had the Cognac out, I decided to preserve the few kilos of Mirabelle plums I got at the market yesterday.

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In August and September, the yellow Mirabelle plums abound in big bins at the markets. These tiny plums are small, roughly the size of a French bureaucrats petit boule, and are grown in various regions around France, but especially in the Lorraine, where the best ones are grown, and locals use them to make everything from tartes and jams to crystal-clear eau-de-vie. They’re small and sweet, the perfect size for preserving. Using Judy Rodger’s recipe in The Zuni Café Cookbook for inspiration, I began by rinsing and sterilizing my jars with boiling water.

But in case you’re a stupid boy like me, I don’t recommend making anything involving sticky, searing-hot liquid while wearing only a pair of shorts. As I swirled around the hot water and sugar in the jars, one with a faulty lid began spraying boiling-hot water in a grand arc across the kitchen, and me, eradicating a good amount of the hair from my stomach (couldn’t it take some of the fat instead?), leaving a red welt roughly in the shape of Corsica.

Luckily I live in Paris and there’s no less than five pharmacies within one block, and picked up the best minor burn remedy on the planet: Biogaze, which everyone should have in their medicine cabinet. (Buy some on your next visit if you don’t live here.) After I explained to the wide-eyed pharmacist how I narrowly escaped the world’s first Parisian Bikini Wax, I returned home, patched up my rosy tummy, and continued my project using the sterilized jars, happy that I didn’t sterilize myself at the same time.

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Depending on how many small plums you have, for each pound (450g) of plums, dissolve 3/4 cups (150g) of sugar in 3-4 tablespoons hot water in a 1-quart (1 liter) preserving jar with a well-fitting lid, (or dress more appropriately that I did.) Pour two scant cups of decent, but not outrageously expensive brandy or Cognac the plums. Secure the lid and tilt the jar to mix everything together.

Unlike my stomach, Judy recommends using fruit that’s unblemished, and gives recipes and tips for other fruits including cherries, red currants, figs, and raisins too.

(LATE-BREAKING TIP: 3 days later I noticed the plums floating at the top, not submerged in liquor, were discoloring, so I removed them and slashed each one with a paring knife, hoping that would help them get saturated. Seems to have worked.

LATER-BREAKING TIP: another 2 days later, I noticed the tops of the plums were still floating above the liquor-line, so I drained ‘em and made jam. I replaced them with sour cherries, and am waiting…)

Store the jar in a cool place for a few weeks, then refrigerate. There’s no indication how long they’ll keep, but I hope mine will be ready-and-waiting for me on the day that I finally get my visa renewed.

Hopefully the hair on my stomach should just about returning by then as well.

Three Perfect Days in Paris

In this month’s Hemispheres, the magazine of United Airlines, I was their guest author for their popular series, Three Perfect Days, where I share some of my favorite tips for three perfect days of travel, sightseeing, and…of course, eating.

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If you’re flying on United Airlines this month, be sure to pick up a copy.
The article is also online at the Hemispheres web site, and will be archived there as well.