Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Pourquoi le poulet a-t-il traversé la route?

To get to the garlic and basil festival, naturally. Every July 26th, on the Feast Day of Saint Anne (the patron saint of joiners and cabinetmakers), local producers of garlic and basil, along with other vendors of fruits and vegetables and cheap clothes and bric-a-brac, fill the four streets around the Grand Marché in the center of town. Cafes set their tables and chairs up along the sidewalk, and you can buy freshly-made 100% buckwheat flour crêpes (as I did, with a slice of ham for a late breakfast) or andouillette au Vouvray, thin pork sausages simmered in wine with sliced onions then grilled. The fair has been going on since at least the late 18th century, though tradition has it that it started in the Middle Ages.

The tourteau fromager is a traditional bread of the Poitou-Charentes region of France, a little further down the Loire Valley from Tours. It's a sweet cheese bread made with flour and butter, soft white cheese (often chèvre; the capital of the region, Poitiers, is more or less ground central for goat cheese), and sugar. The upper crust of carbonized and caramelized sugar is part of the charm, I was told, but the bread stays very tender inside.

I bought a handful of garlic and a strand of shallots, and way too many green beans. I bought small fragrant melons that I have been eating for breakfast this week, and fresh tarragon and basil. I only found one booth where basil was being sold loose; most vendors were selling plants in pots. The vendor also had a box of some sort of herb from Madagascar whose name I didn't recognize or write down for later research, but he invited me to taste it. A sort of lemony-astringent flavor that made my tongue start tingling. "Dentists used to use this as a local anasthetic," the vendor said as I chewed. I was ready for an extraction at that point. "It's an interesting taste," I replied. "Well, you have to get used to it," he remarked. "But it's good for preventing scurvy."

I couldn't stay to find out more about herbal medicine or medieval dental surgery, as I had a chicken waiting for me at home.

A somewhat accusing look.What the hell is the bright red stuff?

I will admit that it is definitely possible to buy chicken here at the supermarché that's all nicely cleaned and cut up and wrapped in plastic without the head or feet included, but when I saw these chickens at the meat counter of the natural foods store, I had to buy one, just for the blogging. The butcher offered to clean and prepare it for me, but I explained that I needed to take photos to appall my friends back in the United States. It was all wrapped up in a black ribbon, which was nicely funereal, I thought. I won't be buying many chickens, though, because meat is not exactly cheap here, or at least not at the natural foods store. Monsieur here (ou peut-être "Madame") set me back about $20. I roasted it with garlic and tarragon, of course.

Délicieux.

Roast Chicken With Tarragon and Garlic

one chicken, with or without head
three heads of garlic, cloves separated but not peeled
three tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper
a dozen branches fresh tarragon

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Put the cleaned chicken in a roasting pan with the garlic. Pour the olive oil over, rubbing the oil into the chicken and tossing the garlic in the oil as well. Salt and pepper the chicken generously, and top with the tarragon branches. Cover the pan and roast for an hour and fifteen minutes (an hour and a half if your chicken is larger than this one, which was pretty small). Serve with fresh green beans, a dollop of Dijon mustard, and the roasted garlic cloves to squeeze on top.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Week One: 35°C

I live in Tours now, a city (including now-contiguous former outlying communities) of about 300,000 people, though I don't know if that number includes the students - of which I will soon be one - who attend classes on the various campuses of the Université François-Rabelais. I live on the Avenue Saint Vincent de Paul, which borders the Parc Grandmont, which is a small wooded area in which two of the campuses are located, the one for Science and Technology, and the one for Pharmacy. I hope to be taking classes there this fall on cheese science. "To take a class" in this case is translated as "assister à un cours" because I will not be taking the class for credit, just sitting in for my edification. Which is fine - frankly, that's much less pressure, especially when it involves esoteric vocabulary words. I won't know what classes I can attend until the last week of August, when the enrollment process opens up again. Contrary to what I assumed from the last of the long series of e-mails with the program secretary, I am not at this moment officially enrolled in either the diploma program or at the University itself, but I have been assured (again) that there won't be a problem doing so, once everyone gets back from summer vacation.

I'm not sure right now how to handle this blog conversion, you know. If you look at the first six posts on this blog, you'll see that they're entirely cheese- and/or goat-centered, because originally this was to be the "professional" blog of me, Elizabeth, author and world traveler and future cheese consultant. Or something like that. I haven't quite worked out the details. And the other blog was to be of me, Elizabeth, daughter and sister and friend who's also a world traveler and (I hope) an amusing, or at least not boring, raconteur on a variety of subjects. However, even my Gemini soul was having problems with this split in blogging personality, and especially with the split in style I thought I had to have. Approaching pedantic might be a good way of describing the first six posts, and also rather boring to write. Though Kate was more complimentary, saying that they were "like an encyclopedia, but super interesting."

That's not me. Encyclopedic, I hope, on certain topics, and super interesting when I can be, but (as former-and-future client [and always friend]) Pascoe would say, "my life is my business" and so my blog is my life is my business is my blog, and if this isn't as professional as I envisioned at the beginning, this is just the process of me finding my voice as a writer, right? Er ... well, we'll see how this goes.

Anyway, what started that particular digression was a sudden thought that perhaps there are or will be new readers to this blog, from the cheese community, who might wonder who I am and why I'm here. Since I don't want to rehash everything and bore the rest of you, here's a precis.

In this Year of the Dragon, my 48th on the planet (not counting former lives as an oak tree and mountain goat), I am putting into practice what I have saved and planned and worked for during the past seven years: living and traveling in France and unknown future locations around the world, supporting myself as a freelance writer, and learning as much as I can about cheese and cheesemakers and cheese traditions, with a particular focus on non-cow dairy products, even though I'm lactose-intolerant or something like that and can't eat any of what I am basing my potential career on, but this just feels right, so I'm going ahead with it, while remaining open to all the possibilities the universe might see fit to put in my path.

I politely refer you to my previous blogs for further detail. Or you can leave a message in the comments requesting more information.

It was hot the day I arrived in Tours, though not as hot as it was when I left Chicago. Then it got hotter, staying in the mid-90s for several days. I continually wiped my face and neck with one of Big Papa's handkerchiefs as I walked around town, and stopped frequently to drink water. The sun was blinding as it reflected off the white stone of the buildings. I went a little farther every day on the bus, exploring the old city on the banks of the Loire, and (with Sebastien's help, because he has a car) some of the outlying areas where the big box stores are. This isn't a quaint little village, though there are people carrying baguettes around, and outdoor cafes, and people arguing and gesticulating on the street in the true French style. Outside of the center of town, it's kind of like Beaverton, but with long streets of connected houses instead of individual house-plus-lawn arrangements. And the streets don't run parallel to anything, usually, so I carry a map with me everywhere, because turning the corner four times often results in ending up two blocks away from where you started. There's an Ikea and a Toys 'R' Us within walking distance of the apartment. Okay, it's a long walk, but still. I can walk into the center of town if I want, and if I have a spare 45 minutes, or I can take the bus that stops once an hour or so at the base of the apartment building.

I have accomplished a good bit here in this first week. I met with the director of a clinic specializing in mastectomy supplies, and she has referred me to a physical therapist and a doctor, and I have appointments with both of them on Wednesday. I met with an advisor at the University, who explained the whole registration/taking vs. getting credit for classes situation, and established communication with several people in the two campuses where I'll be studying. I have purchased a bus pass, and joined the pool that's a 20-minute walk away on the south bank of the River Cher. I have moved into my room in Seb's apartment, where I'm currently living alone as he's on vacation for a week in the Limousin region. The dog's at his parents' house, so it's just me and the two cats. I have joined a natural foods co-op that's halfway between the apartment and the center of town, and am delighted that they sell gluten-free baguettes that just need five minutes in the oven to be crusty and light and almost like the loaves everyone else carts home from the boulangeries, and I know when the man comes by the apartment complex in his van to sell handmade charcuterie and rillettes and the rabbit sausage I ate for lunch the other day with the last of the lentil salad I'd made on Wednesday. I love that "ordinary" lentils here are the "fancy" ones you find in the States. I love that the jars of cornichons come with nifty plastic things that you can use to pull up the pickles out of the brine towards the top. I love that the radishes are all "French Breakfast" and that Dijon mustard is not an import product.

I love that lemonade is always squeezed lemons, with water added to taste.

I went to a concert sponsored by a local early-music group, which featured a lutenist and a guitar player from (I think) Morocco. The performance was held at the Salle Ockeghem in the old Eglise Saint-Denis, a church built in the early 12th century. From the entrance to the salle, you can see the Tour Charlemagne and the dome of the Basilique Saint Martin.

I love that "old" here doesn't just mean "built before 1940."

But it was hot last week, as I mentioned. Sorbet is an excellent way to cool off, and Seb had recommended the selection at Tutti Gusti, on one of the main squares in old Tours, the Place Plumereau, so that's where I went. I found that litchi sorbet is amazing, and cassis (black currant) sorbet is just as wonderful as I remembered, but unfortunately they taste really weird when eaten together. So I ate them separately, watching the residents and tourists walk past, giggling at the occasional drops of water on my neck from the sparrow taking a bath in the tray of the flower pot on the first-storey window above my head, and marveling at the amazing fact that I am here living in France.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Clouds / Nuages

Why am I focused on cheese when I can't eat dairy? I will admit that when I got the nutritionist's report back in January I went into a three-month funk, wondering what the hell I was doing with this whole plan to live abroad - in France, specifically, home of excellent cheese and iconic baguettes (did I mention that I'm gluten-intolerant as well?) - and pursue a career that centers on studying and writing about cheese and cheesemakers, if I can't eat the cheese I see in the shops, or sample the cheese made by the artisans I visit, or taste the recipes I dream of making using their products, or test the flavor and quality of the cheeses I hope to help make. And then of course there was the whole "yes, you're accepted/no, sorry, you're not" rollercoaster around getting into the school program here in Tours. I'm still not officially registered but now that I'm here, and able to talk to people in person, things are easier to deal with, and I anticipate starting classes as scheduled in September. However, until everyone returns from their six-week summer vacation, I don't even know what classes those will be.

I'm not worried about taking classes in French, because I'm getting along fairly well in the language on a daily basis. I know that I still phrase things oddly from time to time, especially when I don't know the exact word I want. I use the subjunctive inappropriately and am only starting to learn the polite phrases that thread through every conversation and contact here. And I have fairly regular crises du vocabulaire when my mind goes blank and I can't think of even the simplest French word, which I have described to Sebastien (my new roommate) as "nuages" - a brain fog so thick that at times I can't find the word I want in English, much less French. I've referred to the floor as the ceiling and talked about being ashamed when I meant annoyed, and I have been told that my American accent is "charming." On the other hand, it's only been a week, and already I've had two conversations where the other people were surprised to find that I'm not French. I may not be up to speed such that I will be able to sit through a class in microbiology without a dictionary at hand, but I'm confident that in a month I will fit in almost seamlessly with the rest of the students.

I can hardly believe it's only been a week. I am so happy to be here.