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Our Tour de France

Goat cheeses

The French often say, “There’s no need to leave France – we have everything here!” While it’s easy to brush it off as chauvinism, it’s true — for a country that could fit inside of Texas, there is a huge diversity of climates and terrains in one, single country. You can find everything in l’hexagone, from the windy shores of Brittany (where we’ve huddled around the fireplace, wearing sweaters in Augusts of yore), to the sunny south, where beaches are clogged with tourists and the few locals that choose to stay in town, to bask in the abundant sun of the Mediterranean.

The Lot

After living in France for a while, I sometimes get the feeling that the country never gets a break on the summer weather. While it can be gorgeous, we were told that the day after we left Paris, the weather turned grey and cool. And while we had some nice days during our two weeks of travel, we hit quite a bit of uncooperative weather ourselves, that always seemed to be creeping up on us.

France

Being from San Francisco, I never look at forecasts and simply plan for everything. And anything. (And you’ll see that in spite of my best efforts with photo editing software, I was unable to add in sunshine to the shots.)

gazpacho

Since we were mostly éponging (sponging) off friends, by staying with them as we traveled, I had to brush up on my morning small-talk skills. I’m hopelessly terrible at responding to enthusiastic greetings of “Good morning!!” or “Hi! How did you sleep?” first thing in the morning.

Boucherie

It doesn’t help that Romain is so talkative first thing in the morning that I often check his back, to see if I can take the batteries out. I need at least thirty minutes, minimum, to adjust to the new day – preferably without any commentary.

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Corsica

Corsica

I finally got to Corsica. I’d heard so much about it. But somehow, I’d never made it there. Corsica is a large island off the Mediterranean coast of France, which has had a rather back-and-forth relationship with France. But the short story is that it was back under French rule in 1796, where it’s firmly (although to some, precariously) remained.

Corsica

Its most famous resident was – and still is – Napoléon Bonaparte. And the airport in Ajaccio, where we flew into from Paris is named after him. since he was born there.

Corsica

Our friend who we were rendez-vous-ing with was arriving in the early evening, so we had some time to stroll around the city. We started at the excellent Musée Fesch, named for the uncle of Napoléon, who was a collector of Italian art. The current exhibition featured classic paintings, paired with recent work by Andres Serrano, an artist most famous for submerging a crucifix in pipi.

Corsica

The photograph of that was the only work in the museum that was protected by Plexiglas and there was an interesting few paragraphs that accompanied it, offering a little explanation, ending with “typical American culture….politically correct.”

When I arrived in France, my second French teacher asked me, “Why are Americans so politically correct?” It’s been over a decade and I’m still not sure I have an answer. (Or, being from San Francisco, know why that is even a question.) But a reader noted that there was an attack on the photo in France as well. So even if it’s not typique, I guess I should be glad to know we share the title, at times, for being PC. Or whatever you want to call it when it comes to religious icons. However perhaps in this case, it’s best to leave the “P” out of it.

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Le Servan

Le Servan Paris chocolate caramel tart

I’m not always in agreement with those that say dining out in Paris is expensive. For example, last week I found myself with a rare moment of free time at lunch, and I pinged a neighbor, who unfortunately replied that he was out of town, like the rest of Paris in the summer. So I decided to go to Le Servan by myself, a restaurant I’d been hearing a lot about. And since it’s “hot”, I figured lunch would be the perfect time to go. And I was right. Although it filled after I got there, I managed to get there during the “sweet spot”, and grab a stool at the counter, where I had a terrific lunch for €23, all by my lonesome.

If you think about it, that’s three courses of food made with fresh ingredients, prepared by a highly competent staff. The price includes tax and tip, which in the states, would mean that about one-third of that total would be earmarked for those extras, and the meal itself would cost roughly €15. Yikes. Of course, one often adds a glass of wine – I had a nice Vouvray for €6 – so my meal deal clocked in at €29. But either way, I can’t imagine getting a meal like I had in, say…New York, London, or San Francisco. Because I liked it so much, I went back the next day with Romain.

aargh

Unfortunately the next day didn’t start off very well. Like, at all. But as Gloria Gaynor famously said — or sang — “I will survive.” (Although she didn’t sing it in French.) But good food, and wine, heals a lot – although not all – and it was nice to get a particularly bad taste from the morning affairs out of our mouths.

Two glasses of surprisingly inky rosé from the Loire did the trick. They were deeply colored, with the slightly maderized (sherry-like) taste that one often finds in natural wines, which have been left to their own devices.

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Hyères, Provence

Hyères, Provence (France)

I had no sooner returned from Sicily, then I unpacked my suitcase, re-packed my suitcase, and headed back out, to Provence. Even though I’d just returned from a ten-day trip, my other half was doing a project in the city I went along for the ride because, 1) Who wants to be sitting in a hot apartment, alone, in the summer, when you could be by the sea? And 2) The icy rosé of the south was calling. (And drinking alone raises other issues.) So I went.

Our hotel was very basic, but I loved the bathroom colors, holdovers from France in the 70s, or perhaps the 80s? Or someone was exceptionally good at recreating vintage French bathroom fixtures and colors. As I was happily lathering myself up after the humid train ride, I kept thinking that I’ve finally mastered the French curtainless hotel shower, and gotten it down.

Hyères, Provence (France)

Except when it was time to stop soaping up one side, and move to the other. And I realized that it’s that switch that I’ve yet to master; the moment when you need to swap the soap-holding hand with the hand holding the pommeau de douche (nozzle head), and a fountain-like spray of water breaks loose all over the bathroom. I’m not sure how one does it, especially when there is no holder for the shower nozzle. But I guess that’s why they load hotel rooms up with towels.

Hyères, Provence (France)

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Le week-end à la campagne

Meaux - Paris

The first true weekend of spring just happened here. Well, there may have been some nice days when I was gone, but the weather was fairly glorious the last few days. And being a holiday weekend in France, off we went to the countryside (campagne), enjoying the clear blue skies.

painting

Drive just about an hour from Paris, the air clears and you just want to roll down the car windows and take a deep breath. (Well, it’s a little more refreshing once you’ve exited the autoroute.) There are trees, wild grasses, fields of wheat, oats, rows of barley, sugar beets and colza growing, and flowers, wild and otherwise.

rose

We did the trip not just to clear out our heads, but to help clean out an old country house, rifling through what remained, before toasting a few glasses for the final farewell. It was wistful and bittersweet. But changes are often unavoidable, and each is un passage.

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Some Thoughts on French Cuisine

France Map

French cuisine is, once again, a popular topic of discussion these days. Actually, anything controversial about France seems to foster a lot of heated debates. On one side are the folks decrying French-bashing, complaining that the French are unfairly picked on. Then there are the others who eat up books about how superior the French are, because they are better at parenting, they miraculously stay thin, they don’t have plastic surgery, everyone enjoys months of vacations, and Paris is a magical place where love, fashion, and fine food, flourish on the cobbled streets of the city. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between and, like any where, there is the great, the ordinary, and a bit of the not-so-good. I want to play the referee but there’s usually a bit of truth in most compliments and criticisms, and the reality is more complicated.

French cuisine gets its share of praise and criticism, some deserved, some not. One truth I’ve learned after living here for over a decade is that people really like to eat. The outdoor markets are crowded, lines snake out the door at bakeries, and cafés and restaurants are packed – even on Tuesday evenings – in spite of la crise (the economic crisis).

But what is French cuisine? Traditionally, cuisine du potager (cooking from the garden) or cuisine du marché (cooking from the daily market) were the foundations of French cuisine. Cuisine du potager was born out of economic and common sense; you cooked and ate what was closest to where you lived. Part of it was out of necessity (there was no Chinese garlic or avocados from Peru way-back-when), but mostly because the food was either free, picked from your own garden, or grown nearby. So you were always eating seasonally and locally. In France, you were cooking and eating local products; fresh cream, butter, and cheeses made in your region, peas from your garden, eggs from the neighbor’s chicken coop, and bread from the village bakery.

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Caillebotte

Caillebotte restaurant

I never feel the need to be the first person to hit the latest hotspots. For one thing, I worked in restaurants and I know that the first few weeks (or in some cases, months) can be tough and it takes time to sort everything out. True, they are open to the public and serving meals, but since I’m just a regular diner, and not a food critic, I think it’s better to wait and let everything fall into place. Another reason, which happens too frequently, is the throng of people who go to a hyped new place. I’ve been disappointed by places I’ve read and heard a lot about, only to find that they don’t live up to the buildup. (Which has me scratching my head, because so many people are talking them up.) I figure the good places will still be open months and months later, and the bad ones will beat a hasty retreat.

Since I don’t have my ear to the ground, I hadn’t heard about Caillebotte. But I had heard of Pantruche, which has been around a while and is known for the quality of its food. And since a friend who loves to eat was in town, I thought it time to consult the little list I keep of places I’m eager to visit. At the end of the list was Caillebotte, which was at the end because it was the most recent addition, suggested to me by my friend Zeva, who runs Yelp in France.

Caillebotte restaurant

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Salon de l’Agriculture

Salon de l'Agriculture in Paris

Every year, beginning in mid-February, thousands of farmers, wine makers, cheese makers, sausage makers, and an arks’-worth of animals, makes it way to Paris for the annual Salon de l’Agriculture. The salon began in 1870 in a country that was, and still is, justly fond of its agriculture, which is celebrated on tables, in steaming cauldrons, on picnic blankets, in restaurants, and ready-to-slice on cutting boards, all across France.

Paris Salon de l'Agriculture in Paris

The best of France converges on Paris and last year, there were nearly three-quarters of a million visitors, filling up the massive, grand halls of the Porte des Versailles, on the edge of Paris.

Paris Salon de l'Agriculture in Paris

There are exhibitors from twenty-two countries in addition to France, as well as foods from tropical French regions. And four thousand animals are trucked to Paris from the provinces to bring the taste – and smell(!) – of the country, to Paris.

Paris Salon de l'Agriculture in Paris

Like many agriculture fairs, there are competitions, too, honoring everything from the liveliest livestock to the best wines in France. But to me, it’s really an astounding place to enjoy the best of France in one hectic visit. However, it’s impossible to see it all in one day unless you have the stamina of one of those massive bulls in the pens, or the men who stir (and stir and stir and stir) the giant pots of cheese and potatoes.

Paris Salon de l'Agriculture in Paris

 

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