Sunday, December 16, 2012

Christmas at the Château de Cangé

I went to another Christmas market this afternoon, this one in Saint-Avertin, formerly a separate village and now one of the conglomeration of suburbs around Tours. On a ridge above the Cher is the park and estates of the Château de Cangé, originally the site of a castle built in the 13th century which was both occupied and renovated over the next 750 years before mostly burning down in 1978. The commune of Saint-Avertin is trying to repair the main building but there doesn't appear to be a lot of money; however, repairs to the outbuilding (which weren't as damaged in the fire) are going more smoothly, and they're turning the complex into an event center, media library, and community space. The booths for the Christmas fair were set up along what I believe used to be the stables, and there was definitely a wider variety of goods on offer, and of much better quality, than at the Montjoyeux affair, and all mostly handmade. There were people selling pottery and leather goods, lots of jewelry and crafty things that had been sewn or knit or embroidered, and stalls selling cold-pressed organic sunflower oil and local honey and jams. Seb and his inamorato Tristan and I looked at every booth and went into every outbuilding, and took advantage of some of the food for sale as well, vin chaud for me and an Irish coffee for the boys, and a paper cornet of hot roasted chestnuts to share around.

The breed of chicken called "Géline de Touraine" (also known as "The Black Lady") is a heritage breed specific to this region, which after its heyday in the 1920s fell prey to mass production, as was the case in many areas in Europe and North America. But in the 1980s local farmers started focusing on bringing the breed back into prominence, and they're looking to get AOC certification for this variety of meat bird, which is supposed to have an excellent flavor.

Another local specialty is the fouée, a flat bread cooked in a wood-burning oven so that it puffs up and becomes hollow, then is stuffed with a variety of fillings. In other words, pita bread. Seb firmly maintained that it wasn't pita bread, because pita bread is flat when you buy it in packets in the store. I said no, pita bread puffs up when it's cooked and then flattens as it cools, just like this bread. But, he said, this bread has been traditional to the region since the 10th century. Well, I replied, the history of pita bread in the Middle East goes back at least that far. He wasn't convinced. But here's a bit of interesting history I just picked up from the mighty Google, the opening paragraph of an article by Kees Versteegh titled The Arab Presence in France and Switzerland in the 10th Century:

During the entire 10th century the history of the South of France was dominated by large groups of Arabs, who controlled the whole area of the French and the Swiss Alps from a vantage point at the coast near Saint-Tropez.

I rest my case.

One of the larger indoor areas was festooned with garlands and crammed with tables selling artwork and jewelry and pottery chickens and laser-carved decorated goose eggs, with a half a dozen small tables surrounded by chairs in the middle for people who wanted to get something to eat. There were casse-croutes of ham and butter on lengths of baguette, beer and cider, and a long table with several large flat crêpe pans where people were busily smearing wheat-flour and buckwheat batter over the hot surfaces before filling them with chocolate chips or ham and cheese.

Or you could order oysters, which Seb and I did; Tristan stuck with the ham and cheese. For four euros I got six oysters, plus some bread and butter which I gave to Seb, and a glass of local muscadet. The oysters were not as firm and fresh as the one I tasted at the Christmas market in downtown Tours a few weeks ago, but they were tasty enough, especially when topped with some lemon juice and red wine vinegar. I'm looking forward to the oyster feast next Sunday evening - at least I assume we'll be eating them on Sunday, but I don't know - when I arrive at Seb's family home in Saumur with 80 fresh oysters. Seb assured me that his father is a dab hand at opening oysters, which is good because I really didn't want to try the freezer/microwave trick. Or slash my hand with a knife. I have had enough exposure to the French medical system for 2012, thanks much.

I bought a small decorated clay pebble infused with mosquito-repelling essential oils (mint, citronella) not because I'm bothered with them right now, but because I hope to be less bothered with them this summer, and I still have a bottle of citronella oil from my feeble attempts to keep the damn things out of my bedroom this past July and August. And I bought a grey-swirled pottery bowl because we never have enough bowls in this house. I like a nice large bowl for my pastas and casseroles and salads because I tend to eat in bed while working on the computer, and bowls are much easier to deal with than plates in that situation. The potter assured me it would go in the microwave, and while I was waiting for Tristan and Seb to catch up - they'd stopped to buy sardine pita pockets (okay, okay, des fouées farcis aux sardines) - I chatted with her about the things she made, and where she got her clays and glazes (in the Bourgogne region to the east of here, from someone who travels around buying them elsewhere, because she doesn't have time for the travel, and the local clays are really only suitable for faïence or roof tiles, she said). The rain and wind picked up as we were leaving, though there were still more people arriving, and I hope the potter sold more of her lovely bowls, and that the hot chestnuts and wine didn't run out, and that everyone enjoyed a nice afternoon at the Christmas fair, as I did.

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