Saturday, September 28, 2013

Saturday Promenade: Gan to Bosdarros

And back again, of course. I think I walked about 7 kilometres, half of them fairly steeply up, but it felt good to walk. It rained this morning, and thunderstorms are forecast for the evening, but it wasn't too humid even at midday when I set out. I decided to walk at noon, partly because I'd spent most of the morning working at the computer, and partly because I knew that everyone else would be à table so there would be fewer cars on the road. I set out from Place de la Quillere and turned left and south on the Route d'Ossau.

Left again on the Chemin du Merce right after the big supermarket, Super U, at the edge of town, and over the Neez, one of the many small rivers/large streams that come down from the foothills of the Pyrénées; this one gets its start near Sévignacq-Meyracq. It flows by the house where I'm living, too, between this plot of land and the Marbrerie du Neez, where they've been quarrying and cutting stone (marble and granite, traditionally) for over a century. At this end of town, or rather on the way out of town, it goes by cornfields.

The corn goes to feed the cows, mostly, though I expect there are people feeding corn to their geese and ducks and chickens, too. For all that this is an area famous for its sheep's-milk cheese, I haven't seen any sheep around here yet. But I think they're probably all in pastures much higher up. Although I did go higher up it was through more wooded areas; maybe there were pastures on the other side of the ridge.

Left again on the Chemin de Benacq and the start of the climb up the ridge. I was glad of the trees, because the sun was hot when it came out from between the clouds. There were birds singing but not as many or as varied as along the Loire, where there were always songbirds. Here it seems to be mostly pigeons and crows (and vultures) with sparrows and suchlike, but I haven't heard anything that matches the long warbling melodies I enjoyed farther north. I'd say that all the birds have migrated south for the winter, but I am south. Maybe they kept going over the Spanish border. That's a little too far for me to walk, at least until I get back into shape.

No pastures, but vineyards between the cornfields and the woods. I don't know if they've harvested the grapes yet for the sweet or dry Jurançon wines made in this region. There's a winemaker not too far away - I passed the sign lower down for the domaine even before I got into the cornfields - and I will be contacting them to see if they would be interested in some free labor after the first of the year. I'm looking forward to working in the meat industry this fall, but I'd like to also see what goes into winemaking.

There are a few houses scattered along the road, most of them looking fairly new. One family was enjoying a lunch of something that smelled really, really good, and I could hear the clinking of silverware on plates from every house I passed, and bits of conversation.

By the time I got to the sign marking the official edge of the village of Bosdarros, I was hot and tired, and I could see that it would require even more climbing to get up and over the top of the ridge to the center of town. And that the center of town was probably downslope on the other side, which would mean that I'd have to climb up again to go back home. I decided that the official edge was good enough for today, and that making it all the way into Bosdarros would be a goal for a future walk. There's a way to loop back around across the top of the ridgeline back to the north end of Gan, too, but it involves walking along a stretch of narrow winding road that Christine says is fairly unsafe for pedestrians and cars, and that people tend to drive really fast around the corners. That doesn't sound very appealing, but there might be hiking paths that avoid the worst of it.

There is a hiking path to Bosdarros that I'll probably take next time. I didn't see the sign until I was on my way back at the bottom of the hill. Apparently this is the shorter but steeper way to go, and I'll give it a try on some other sunny day.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Des Régions de Fromage

The last section of recipes in La Cuisine de Monsieur Momo is a mix of things that traditionally end dinner, whether that's a savory cheese dish or a sweet dessert. There's also a list of cheeses by region in France and other countries, giving the names and the dates that they're best eaten. I've made a note of those to add to my pile of cheese papers, thinking that possibly it will be useful if and when I finally do something cheese-related here in France. I'm particularly interested in seeing if any of the cheeses that were listed back in 1930 have disappeared off the culinary scene, because it would be fun to try and track them down and see when and why they stopped being made. A million projects, but neither a million months nor a million dollars to accomplish them.

Since the savories all had cheese and the sweets all used flour, I didn't make any of them, though the more devoted bakers might find it worth while to do some gluten- and dairy-free substitutions. There's the recipe for pets de nonnes, or "nun's farts," which are deep-fried balls of sweetened puff pastry flavored with citrus, and another recipe from the same convent of Notre-Dame du Verdelais in the Gironde, for "the serpent of the convent," using essentially the same dough for a baked spiral decorated with almond scales and currant eyes.

Other random recipes at the end of the book were more alcoholic, including one in which you steep a pound of garlic in a litre of port wine for twenty days, a remedy for chronic bronchitis (or at least the kind that's caught by close proximity to other people). And there are four fake recipes at the end: for grilled locusts as eaten by John the Baptist; for holy saints roasted alive according to ancient tradition; for "Cauliflower With Shit, warmly dedicated to Frédéric Masson of the Académie française" (who is also described as a "nodophage" which would be [something]-eater, but I can't figure out what) which only says, "Choose the biggest cauliflower of all ..."; and the final recipe, titled "? ? ?" which says, "Mysterious. We will never know what it is. God only revealed the knowledge of this to his prophet, who didn't say anything about it. This recipe will therefore always remain unknown to the rest of us mortals."

I tasted a few of the sheep cheeses at the Shepherd's Festival last weekend, finishing up (after a long day of selling charcuterie and taking pictures and trying to stay out of the hot hot sun) with a largish wedge of what might have been a mixed sheep- and cow's-milk cheese, because, whether it was due to the size of the sample (slightly more than one ounce, I think) or the type of milk, or something else entirely, like the lactose powder used to help cure the dried sausages I was both selling and nibbling on that weekend, my digestive system was completely shot to hell, and I spent two days this week regretting whatever it was I'd done or eaten that caused it. I know, I keep trying to deny the dairy-freeness of my life now, but it's so hard here in France sometimes, surrounded by all of the fresh and aged goodness. My mouth waters just thinking about cheese. And let's not even start on the clouds of wonderful aromas that I walk through almost every day passing by one of the several bakeries in town. And yet there are so many things I love about living in France that it's worth it, in the end.

On Monday I'll meet with the program secretaries and the other students to complete the registration process and find out whether I've been sponsored by the regional agricultural counsel and will be getting money every month in return for the weeks of work I'll be doing making sausage from September to June, or whether I'll be doing all the work for free. I hope it's the former. I hope I get to make cheese someday soon again. And I hope to someday give up hoping that I can eat cheese again as well ...

Friday, September 20, 2013

La Garburade (21st International Competition)

Huge pots of water simmered on portable gas burners, and potatoes, cabbage, leeks, onions, and carrots were on every table, being peeled and sliced and chopped. Other than those basic ingredients, however, each team had its own secrets, a particular way of making the traditional soup called garbure that's a specialty of this region. I saw the local broad white shelling beans called haricots tarbais on some tables, precooked in big bags or preserved in quart jars. A few teams were pulling out smoked hams, while others had vacuum-packed pork shoulder waiting to go in. I didn't see any duck confit, which is traditional, but that's something that gets added towards the end, and I was at the festival in the morning, about an hour after the preparations started.

Zucchini and chanterelles are not traditional, and when I mentioned I'd seen them on one of the tables, I got shocked looks from the locals I was talking to. "That must be a team from somewhere else," they said, and seemed relieved when I suggested that perhaps those were just decorative elements. There have been non-Aquitaine teams competing before, particularly from the Midi-Pyrénées region just to the west, where this soup is also a traditional mountain peasant/herder dish. According to the website and the newspaper writeups, there have been teams from Corsica in the past (same lifestyle, same soup?) and once a team even came all the way from Argentina. Mostly, though, it's local Gascon pride shining from every face, along with a ready admission that "International" is a rather silly way of referring to a competition based on a strictly regional dish. But they do it anyway, and since I come from a country that holds a non-global "World Series" every year, who am I to complain?

You sauté the onions and leeks in duck fat first, plus the carrots, and then add them to simmering water along with the smoked ham and the beans. After a few hours you add the potatoes and cabbage and the duck confit if you're using it. The meats were historically for the special days, holidays and festivals, but day to day soup consumption involved just the vegetables. Garlic is a popular addition, and a splash of good red wine into the individual bowls.

Or you can just drink the wine. Soup-making is hard work.

There was a fairly good crowd at the festival, though fewer than there would have been if it hadn't been absolutely pouring rain earlier that morning. I found a video of the event you might enjoy - I enjoyed watching it, especially since I didn't stay for the judging and banquet. The weather was still not so nice and if I had stayed for the judging I would have gotten home on the train after dark, and the banquet didn't even start until 9pm.

I did spend a while walking through the booths and talking with some of the vendors, and I explored the town of Oloron-Sainte-Marie, at least until it started raining again. Part of the vendor area was devoted to traditional crafts and techniques, with a knife sharpener using a foot-powered wheel, a set of women carding wool with a foot-powered contraption that rocked the wool over a set of sharp hooks, and others knitting things out of the wool. Commemorative soup plates (assiettes creuses) and wooden napkin rings were on offer, and there were vendors selling regional cheeses and wines and honey, and piment d'Espelette from Bayonne over on the coast. After the opening ceremonies were over, the blue-robed and red-caped judges walked around the booths as well, followed by groups of singers and local newspaper reporters.

I did some networking while I was there, talking to winemakers and cheesemakers, getting names and looking for connections and places to work. And I found examples of some of the foods I've been researching for my next project, branching out from cheese into regional specialties, like this pastis, a rich butter cake flavored with orange flower water. "Pastis" is the Gascon word for "cake" - it's not the same things as the anise liqueur pastis from Marseille; in the Provençal dialect, the word means "mixture." I didn't buy any of the gâteau Basque because although it's often made with almond flour, there's also wheat flour involved. There were two versions for sale, one filled with black cherry jam and the other with an almond cream. Instead, I bought turón Basque that was made gluten-free with only almond flour, honey, and whole candied oranges - very very sweet, but very good. And rather expensive. The couple running the booth also had round brownie-like things that were made of chocolate and chestnut flour, and I wish I'd bought a few of those as well.

There were several singing acts, some in traditional dress singing in béarnais and others, like the special guest star Michel Etcheverry, singing in French. I heard a song about the Gascon beret, which almost every man was wearing, and another that I think was titled "Mon Jurançon." I'm living in the middle of the Jurançon wine region, and hope to work with and/or visit some of the local producers this year.

In half an hour I leave for another regional festival, so I wanted to get this post written to make room for the next one. I wanted to go to the Salt Festival at Salies de Béarn last weekend but couldn't find an inexpensive way to get there; maybe next year I'll get to see the salt-barrel races and hear the Sunday mass in the local dialect. There's a Corn Festival coming up in a few weeks, as well as a Cheese Festival in Laruns just 30 kilometres due south of here. I don't think I'll make it to Làas to wander through the corn maze, but I'm hoping to get a ride to Laruns for the cheese. Whatever I see, I'll be taking pictures, and they'll eventually get posted. I really, really need to work out how to make some money out of this, though - I'm going to start running out of hours in the day. I am incredibly happy with the opportunities I have to be here and going to these events, but I need to hook into an income stream that pays me to do it. Until then, I'll take my payment in memories, because I know that I'll enjoy looking back at this post some day, remembering the sound of the accordion.

La vertat qu'ei com la garbura, si la vòs bona e sabrosa, que la cau saber adobar.

"Truth is like soup - for it to taste the best, you need to adjust the seasonings a little."

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

On the Road to Pau

Back before the GPS, when those newfangled cars were just setting out from Paris on mostly-unpaved roads to explore the sights and restaurants of the countryside (i.e. anything not Paris), the Michelin brothers created their first automobile travel guides, listing places to stay, roadside bistros worth the journey, ways to fix your own flat tire, and names of mechanics who could help you if you got into worse trouble. According to the Michelin website, there were only 600 mechanics in France in 1900 - although since they also say there were only about 3,000 cars at the time, that's a pretty good ratio. In looking through some googled images of pages from that original guide, there don't seem to be many real directions given to get between towns - no dulcet tones coming from the small device clamped to your dashboard calmly stating that you need to turn right in 1.7 kilometres, or even more calmly recalculating and patiently getting you back on track. Although after some of our circuits and backtracks in May, I think even the GPS lady was getting a little short-tempered with me.

Instead, there were panneaux put up around the country starting in 1910 or so, at useful turnings leading into towns, or at crossroads in the country showing where and how far away those towns were. Since even a modern map of French roads looks as if it marks the trails of a million inebriated ants, any direction would have been helpful.

But back before les frères Michelin, way back as a matter of fact, it was carriages that carried people to the château in Pau to mark the birth of Henri III de Navarre, who became Henri IV, "Good King Henry" of the many mistresses and apocryphal originator of the "chicken in every pot" quote which, as with so many things the United States likes to proudly claim were born in its democratic cradle, actually come from the singes capitulards mangeurs de fromage over here. Though I have to admit that until I got here, I assumed from my general American education that it was an original phrase when used by the Republican Party and Herbert Hoover in 1928 (and oh, how far the Republican Party has fallen from its beneficent goals since that day!) instead of one that the agriculturally-minded Henri IV is credited with: "Si Dieu me donne encore de la vie je ferai qu’il n’y aura point de laboureur en mon Royaume qui n’ait moyen d’avoir une poule dans son pot." Another more verifiable story is that Henri's father rubbed the newborn's lips with a clove of garlic and some of the local Jurançon wine, and this explains in part his intense interest in getting France's farming communities back after 40-some years of religious wars that only ended when he converted to Catholicism just to get everyone to shut up and stop fighting.

Henri IV didn't end up spending much time in Pau between his birth in 1553 and his assassination in Paris, in 1610. He had married Marie de' Medici just ten years earlier, and she took over as regent for their son Louis XIII until Louis banished her in 1617; her marriage, reign, banishment, and later reconciliation were the basis for a series of immense paintings by Peter Paul Rubens that we admired at the Louvre earlier this year.

The château was actually built in the 11th century, and some of the furnishings date back to the early 1400s. I didn't go inside when I walked around that area of town a week or two ago, but I plan on going back, maybe after my next scheduled visit to the prefecture officials to plead for my new visa and shower them with paperwork. I did finally get the official "welcome to the program" letter on Monday, which (though the secretary had asked for, and I had provided, in August, my new address here) made the thousand-kilometre round trip through the postal system up from Montardon (the suburb of Pau where the school is) to Tours and then back again before traveling the 20 kilometres to this house. But never mind, it arrived, and in time for me to check the box that says yes YES I am still planning on enrolling, sheesh, how many times do I have to tell you, and to send it back, this afternoon, with another cover letter outlining the many reasons why I am a wonderful person and a hard worker who really needs and deserves the 600-euro monthly supplement (though I didn't state it that baldly) and look, French competency level C1! And I've already spent a day cutting the crunchy bits off of pig hearts!

Since it's September, there aren't as many tourists around; everyone has settled back to their routines after la rentrée, except for people like me whose school programs don't start until the end of the month, and all the other people who were enjoying a leisurely lunch in one of the cafés along the Place Royale, where the tables are set out under the trees on either side of the grassy promenade, and pigeons land on the wooden boards piled with baguettes waiting to be sliced to peck up the breadcrumbs, making me - just for a minute - glad that I don't eat gluten.

There are more places to walk below the château, which is built on a rather steep outcropping; the gardens are designed to be viewed from the balconies and terraces above, laid out in the Italian Renaissance style, with many plantings commemorating Marguerite d’Angoulème and Henri II de Navarre, Henri IV's grandparents.

Henri IV was not only King of Navarre, but also of Béarn, and these two regions along with Aragon and Bigorre straddled today's French-Spanish border to form their own royal realm. The traditional arms of the Béarn area have two cows on them, possibly due to the influence of the turn-of-the-millennium (the one separating BCE and CE, that is) Celtic peoples known as the Vaccaei who lived in Northern Spain, and who were linked to herding and wheat-farming, although one of the sites I'm googling through (you learn so many interesting [and potentially useless, but still interesting] things when blogging like this) claims that they were actually a set of warrior clans, and the name came from vacos, an old Celtic word for "killer." On the other hand there's a Béarnais authority that says the French word for cow, vache, traces its roots back to these tribes, so perhaps they were cow-herders as much as, or instead of, soldiers. Whatever the origin, the people in Béarn are proud of their cows, and you see them on many flags and banners.

Another thing the people around here are proud of is their vulture population, as I mentioned in my last post. There must have been a healthy bunch of the birds back at the end of the 19th century when Jean-Théodore Lanne, a local artist and sculptor, made this monument to grace a fountain at Place Saint-Louis de Gonzague in one of the older areas of downtown Pau. I must admit it's a refreshing change from the usual nobleman-on-horseback one generally sees (or the tipsy merbabies and busty women commonly decorating fountains in Paris), if a bit grim.

From the terrace off the Boulevard des Pyrénées, between the shaded lawn of the Place Royale and the white-stoned building where the royal baby was born, you can look out to the south where the vultures live, over the rock-solid but previously politically fluid border between two countries, populated by a people who still retain their local customs and language, the béarnais dialect of the ancient langue d'oc, or occitan, and their pride in their history.

"Je ne tiens mon pays de Béarn que de Dieu et de mon épée." - Gaston Fébus in 1347, defying both French and English kings

"Je donne la France au Béarn, et non le Béarn à la France." - Henri IV in 1589, uniting the realm with the rest of the country