Friday, May 23, 2014

Txotx!

Today was the last day of classes, but instead of sitting inside, we all piled into a bus and went to Spain to visit Sagardoetxa, a Basque cider distillery and museum just over the border at Astigarraga, and then back across into France for lunch at another Basque cider distillery. At the museum we got a brief tour of the verger pédagogique; they do cultivate apples there, trimming and grafting and harvesting and everything, but since it's just a demonstration orchard most of the apples come from elsewhere in Spain, or from Normandy in France, which also has a long history of cider-making. The cider in this region is smooth but sharp, less fruity and more acid than the cidre de Normandie. The tour guide explained that since the slopes the orchards are generally planted on in this area are very steep, they can't use machines, so the apples are (or were traditionally, at least) harvested by hand after they fall from the trees, using a short stick with a sharp right-angled hook on the end called a kizkia. You swing the kizkia down gently onto the apple on the ground to snag it, and then tap the wooden handle on the side of the woven wooden basket so that it drops in. Or if you're like some of the more enthusiastic students, you whack the apple so hard it explodes and then you try to scoop it up into the basket. Whatever works.

Once harvested, it doesn't really matter if the apple has exploded, because the next step is to crush it roughly. In the past, they would use wooden mallets to smash the apples in a large wooden trough. Today, the apples are stored before cidering, so exploded apples aren't any good, and the broken and rotten ones are sorted out before they're shoveled into the crusher. It's important, the guide said, to avoid crushing the seeds, because that will make the cider bitter. The wrong kind of bitter, that is: the Basque cider makers combine bitter, acid, and sweet apples in the percentages that work for them. I don't remember the exact numbers, but it's mainly the bitter and acid ones that predominate.

Inside the museum itself is a model of a cider house, which is traditionally built up against the side of an orchard slope. The apples are dumped in through a large door at ground level (to the slope) to cover the floor of the top story, which has a small opening in it that leads down to the crusher. This model shows an ox-driven crusher, which we got to see in action when the guide pressed the activation button. The ox goes around in a circle with a pole attached to its foot (or some part - maybe not the foot as it would be really inconvenient to walk, I would think) which turns another pole which turns the wheel that turns the grinder that crushes the apples. The crushed apples then get shoveled onto the wooden press on top of piles of hay that act as a sieve to catch the solids, and the juice runs down to the barrel below.

Camilla's parents in England have a similar setup (hay and all) in one of their barns and used to make their own cider every year, though I don't know if they still do. The Devon hard cider, called "scrumpy," is also acid and bitter but thicker, if that makes sense. The "rough" scrumpy is particularly harsh and is definitely an acquired taste. This Basque cider is too, but like most alcohol once you get the first glass down the rest is smooth sailing. At least until you fall over.

I wasn't taking notes, so I don't have a complete recollection of all of the information we were given in the guide's Spanish-accented French, but I seem to remember that she said around fifty or sixty different apple varieties are grown and used in the region. Once the tour was over outside and in the museum, she took us into the tasting room, and explained the tradition of txotx and how to properly get served with and drink cider. In a traditional cider house, a small hole is hammered into the barrel and then stopped up with a small thin plug that she said is called the txotx, or "toothpick." When you want to get a drink, you remove the plug and hold your glass under the stream. Not too close, mind - the trick is to hold it down near the ground and let the cider hit the side of the glass to aerate it, then draw it up slowly towards the barrel for a count of five or six. This doesn't leave much in the glass - just a few fingers of cider - but you're supposed to drink it straight down, because the bubbles and the flavor fade after it's been sitting out for ten or fifteen minutes. Or even five minutes, as the barrel-minder at the restaurant said, quaffing his portion.

The traditional dishes served at a cidrerie (or sagarnotega if you speak Basque) are grilled beef ribs with potatoes and peppers, with Basque sheep's cheese for dessert, and as much cider as you care to drink. Or at least as much as you're allowed to drink, since it's only "poured" when the barrel-minder shouts "TXOTX!" and anyone who wants more cider gets up from their table and walks over to whatever barrel is being opened. Txopinondo offers several menu options, each starting with a selection of pintxos (tapas) which this afternoon included warmed mini chorizo sausages which were okay, and a tortilla, a Spanish frittata with sliced potatoes and salt cod and herbs that was incredible. I could have made my entire meal out of that. I've often thought of trying to make something with salt cod - you could buy it at Pastaworks in Portland, though it wasn't cheap, and here it's everywhere and cheap - but the whole two-or-three-days-of-desalting-changing-the-water-frequently thing has always seemed to be not worth it. Well, it's worth it. Instead of the beef ribs, I opted for the grilled duck breast, and although I got a fairly well-cooked piece faintly flavored with beef, it was quite tasty. The potato accompaniment took the form of generic fries, which I mostly passed on, and the peppers were just jarred roasted Spanish peppers, but they were good, and since no one else wanted them (there were just small piles of them on the platter, more a garnish than a side dish) I ate all of them I could find.

Dessert was a slice of Basque sheep's-milk cheese, one of the thousands of variations on the pâte pressée cuite rounds you find everywhere here, though I was informed by one of the other students who lives in the Béarn region on the other side of Oloron (at Rebenacq, not far from where I was living last year in Gan) and whose brothers make this cheese, that the Béarnais version is non cuite; the cut curd isn't heated up during the brassage stage when it's stirred to release more whey. I allowed myself a small square, topped with some of the local pâte de pommes, a nice variation on the also traditional quince paste. Baskets of unshelled walnuts were passed as well, and the popping of nutcrackers up and down the table almost drowned out the conversation from our table and the long table where another large group was sitting and eating.

Some of the students were singing on the way back as we drove through the winding foothills towards Hasparren, where we'd picked up the bus, and then we spent a few minutes presenting our program secretary with a gift of a small potted olive tree, a pink sparkly scarf, and a new handbag, which she now needs as she set her own bag down in a large puddle on the front steps of the school when we all posed for a final group photograph. Maybe it was the cider (okay, it was probably the cider) but I was feeling just a little sorry that classes are done. Bises and e-mail addresses having been exchanged, Hadji (the other "foreign" student, though since he's from Mayotte, one of the overseas French territories, not as foreign as I) got into the back seat of Cyril's car, I got into the front, and we drove back towards Oloron and Pau. It was a good way to end the year, and some good memories to balance out the more difficult times.

Zure osagarriari!

Friday, May 16, 2014

Tedio o inquietud de los cónyuges al cumplir siete años de casados

"Hey, did you ever try dunking a potato chip in champagne? It's real crazy!"

"Lately you've begun to imagine in Cinemascope... with stereophonic sound."

"I have lots of other things, but I have no imagination."

"When it gets hot like this, you know what I do? I keep my undies in the icebox!"

"It sort of cools the ankles, doesn't it?"

Quotes from "The Seven Year Itch" (1955) that probably violate all sorts of copyright law. Photograph that made me think of the movie taken while trying to get out of Pamplona via a very confusing set of roundabouts that were generally either under construction or not clearly traffic-signaled, or both.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Jaca, Spain

I know there's more to Jaca than what I saw out the car window as we drove into town (after fueling up with slightly-cheaper Spanish gasoline outside the town), and what I glimpsed on a brief walk through the section of town around the cathedral. We stopped in Jaca for lunch - an excellent lunch - but not sightseeing; Pamplona was the day's tourist destination for us. My impression of the town, based on the neighborhoods surrounding the center and the older-but-healthy people taking brisk walks through them is that this is a place where you might go to retire. The weather's good, the Candanchú ski resort is close by, there are lots of hiking trails in the area, and a medieval town to explore. There appeared to be a good number of clinics and hospitals and other medical facilities, and it's a very walkable place with a decent public transportation system. And good food. And of course it's a stopping point for pilgrims who have crossed the mountains from France via the Somport Pass, and plan on doing their westward journey to Compostela on the Spanish side.

What part of the lands on either side of the Pyrénées hasn't, at some point, been under Roman occupation, disputed over by various local lords, or caught up in the larger conflicts between tribes and nations that kept this area in flux for centuries? I feel sometimes that I'm saying the same thing every time I start to describe a new place I've visited. What is now Jaca is no exception, with the added interest of having been part of the caliphates under the Muslims who arrived from northern Africa. The armies of the caliphate also occasionally crossed the mountain passes, and in the 8th century made it all the way up to Tours before they were beaten back to the south. When I was living there last year and researching cheese, I found that one of the legends behind the name of the traditional log-shaped goat cheese made in that area, the Sainte-Maure de Touraine, is that the "Maure" comes from the word "Moor" and that the invading armies, as well as their supply lines, introduced goats to the area, thus starting the tradition of making goat cheese. Most people consider this merely a legend, however.

When I proposed this road trip to Florence initially, I suggested going as far as Zaragoza, a larger town that has what looks to be a lovely cathedral. Zaragoza was the capital of the caliphate (or emirate) of Cordoba up until the 11th century. That would have made too long a trip for the two days we had, so we stopped our southern trek at Jaca, where around 915CE Galindo Aznárez II, Count of Aragón, rebuilt an old Roman fortress where local forces could be based and marshaled against the Muslim armies to the south. A century later, this walled town became the capital of the first Kingdom of Aragón, ruled by the bastard brother of the King of Navarre to the west; from what I'm gleaning off a handful of websites, Ramiro I was a bastard in more than one sense, first fighting against the emirate (which was embroiled in its own conflict that would eventually break it up into smaller independent caliphates) with the Navarrese forces, and then using the Muslim armies to try to get more territory for himself by pushing the border with Navarre. Ramiro I had a bastard son himself, Sancho Ramirez, or Sancho V, who took over Jaca and the kingdom in 1064 (nine centuries - nine centuries - before I was born; I can never get over my amazement at the sheer weight of history that surrounds me). The kingdoms of Navarre and Aragón were united in 1094 under Peter I, the son (by an actual wife this time) of Sancho V and therefore also related to the King of Navarre. Peter I was instrumental in the Reconquista, an effort that started with Charlemagne and continued for nearly 800 years as the Christian-ruled kingdoms, supported by the popes, tried to, and eventually succeeded in, driving the Muslim caliphates further south and then out of Spain entirely. As the Kingdom of Aragón moved south, the capital moved with it, from Jaca to Huesca and then eventually Zarazoga after its (re)conquest.

The fortress in the center of town played no part in all that, having been built around 1600. Known as Castillo de San Pedro de Jaca and also Ciudadela de Jaca (the Castle of Saint Peter and the Citadel of Jaca), it was commissioned by Phillip II of Spain, this time to protect against armies from the north instead of the south, as the territorial wars between France and Spain continued. There's a museum inside, but it was closed that Sunday, so instead we walked around a bit on the grassy walls bordering the moat. A herd of deer live in the moat, and there is a "Museum of Miniatures" inside that apparently contains the world's largest collection of toy soldiers. It was a lovely afternoon, and there were many people out enjoying a Sunday post-lunch stroll, or lounging on the grass.

There is another museum inside the cathedral that I would have liked to see, the Museo Diocesano de Jaca. It's said to have a very nice collection of medieval religious art, collected from monasteries and churches in the region and dating from the 11th to the 14th centuries. More art is in the open air at the monastery of San Juan de la Peña not far from Jaca, a place I didn't know about until I was looking up information on the cathedral after we got back. The monastery is built into and under a huge cliff face, and besides being another important stop on the Compostela trail, it's apparently where the Roman Catholic liturgical tradition was first introduced in Spain. There had been a monastery at the site earlier (8th or 9th century) and the site was rebuilt and rededicated by Sancho V in the 11th century as the spiritual center of the Kingdom of Aragón. He also commissioned the cathedral; the Romanesque outer building was completed almost a hundred years later, but in the 15th century the interior was redone in the Gothic style, chapels were rebuilt in the 17th century, and then they went all Baroque in the 18th century. All of the renovations were to the inside, though, so the outside still has its imposing solidity.

There was a mass going on when we stepped inside, so I couldn't wander around gawking and taking pictures. But it's yet another place I'd like to spend some more time, because the carved and painted walls are definitely gawk-worthy.

I'm definitely not a "religious" person and don't go to church regularly (or at all, really). I miss the Sundays at St. Stephen's because I enjoyed singing and making music for my own and other peoples' enjoyment, and I appreciated the thoughtful and often inspiring talks given every week. But I don't feel moved to participate in mass or worship or whatever you want to call it. I don't really believe. Oh, I've had my atheist-in-the-trenches moments, for sure, and being raised as part of a church-attending family has left me with attitudes and habits that I wouldn't even try to break, especially since some of them are good. However, though I don't feel moved to participate in religious services, I do enjoy being in cathedrals, both when they're empty and when they're full of people. I like the energy of all the people who do believe swirling around full of emotion and hope and the heavy comforting weight of tradition and the lightness of spirit I feel when I leave afterwards.

Maybe there is some part of me that does believe, after all.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Looking Brighter

Just a quick update to counterbalance my previous less than enthusiastic post about being back in school here at Etcharry; while I still haven't done my project paper, we've been given a good bit of free time - most afternoons - to work on this, and I found out another student hasn't started their paper either, so I don't feel like I'm the lone slacker. I still don't understand French tax law and am finding it very, very difficult to keep numbers and concepts in my head from one day to the next, so the final exam we'll have on this next week should be ... interesting. On the other hand, I got high-ish marks (15/20) on two other exams from the last session, and a 16/20 on the marketing exam from the first months at Montardon. And wonder of wonders, a 10/20 - the minimum to pass - on the second economics exam. It's odd, because I thought I understood the first class fairly well, and wrote about 7 or 8 pages for the exam, and got 9 points; with this one, not only was I out of my head on codeine, he asked us to explain a concept that I didn't get at all, so it was essentially three pages or less (I honestly don't remember, I was that spaced out) of me talking about why I didn't get it at all. This gives me a bit of a margin for my project paper score, which will be counted in with the exams.

The student I was to be sharing a room with for a few days decided to not stay in the dorms, so I have my private room all week, and just finished rearranging the furniture to suit my needs, putting the two small tables together to make a larger desk and workspace, and pushing the beds out of the way so I could plug in the computer. The only outlet in the room is behind where they put one of the beds, and the frame covers it entirely. The last time we were here it was hot and sunny, and the heaters in the bedrooms were going full blast with no way to turn them down, which is one of the reasons why I had the windows open at night, and why I came back covered with mosquito bites. I have bug spray with me this time, but the windows are staying closed for now, because it's barely 50F out there right now - and so of course all of the heaters have been shut off, with no way to turn them on. Also they've been spreading manure on the fields across the road, so it's quite fragrant outdoors.

All this to say that I'm starting the week with optimism and determination, and successfully kept myself from getting angry this morning at the constant, constant chatter that slows our classes down so much, which I hope means I can keep my temper all week long. And now ... to the project paper!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Two Weeks

Two weeks left in the school program but they are turning out to be the hardest, due to my lack of interest in French tax law and my personal project, which I have (un)successfully put off until the very last minute. I think I'm going to be barely scraping by on grades (one half of the point total) although I'm fairly confident I'll get better than a "good enough" on my rapport de stage that's due in June (the other half of the point total). Just two more weeks. I can do this. And then ... I can go do something else for a while. I'm looking forward to that, though I'll miss working with Florence and her family. I'll be here in southwest France through the end of July, and then I'm on the road again, across (technically under [yikes!]) La Manche to England and Scotland.

But I can't talk about that now, because I need to stay focused on the present and all that I have to do to finish up on the 10-plus side of the grade sheets, produce a reasonable facsimile of a personal project paper, and not lose my temper for a final time with the students who talk in class constantly. Two weeks.

*yawn*

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Traffic Jam In Agnos

Outside the butchery at Oloron-Saint-Pée there are daily (sometimes twice daily) sheep commutes from field to field that tie up traffic for a few minutes; there's the herd that goes by under the supervision of the man in his 50s on a bicycle, with the help of a dog who knows his business and keeps the sheep moving along briskly towards the fields by the river. And then there's the smaller herd of sheep that tend to wander wherever they like, including into the yard by the shop, nibbling on bushes and flowers and grass, yelled at by the man in his 90s who also rides a bike, and who is not helped at all by the dog who believes that the most important thing is to bark at the bike pedals instead of the sheep.

Lately in Agnos the cows have been moving back and forth, and on the days I'm working at home I'll occasionally look out the glass doors to the patio to see a wide-eyed cow on the front lawn before she's chased back into the road by the man in his 70s, who has to get off his bicycle to round up the herd members who decide that Florence's cherry tree or the freshly-plowed corn fields are more interesting than wherever their final destination is. I'm going to miss living here, though England has its share of free-ranging farm animals as well. I love visiting cities like Paris and London but I think I'm a farm girl at heart - must be my Indiana origins.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Two Meals In Spain

After an hour's travel by car almost due south from Oloron-Sainte-Marie - or several weeks on foot if you're a pilgrim on the Compostela trail - you'll find the Spanish town of Jaca. At some point a generation or two ago a man from Oloron moved to Jaca and opened Restaurante Biarritz, where Florence and Michaëla and I ate lunch on Sunday. While both France and Spain use the euro, you certainly don't have to use as many euros to eat out in Spain, at least in my limited experience, and Florence affirmed that it's not unknown for people to cross the border just for dinner.

The restaurant was prepared for international visitors, and we were handed the French menu by a fairly bilingual waiter, who then brought us a free starter of foie gras. I wrapped my share in the decorative lettuce accents instead of spreading it on the toast points provided. I chose the 12-euro menu option and the other two splurged on the 25-euro choices which included truffled sausages and shrimp, but I was very happy with what I'd ordered: a salad of lettuce hearts topped with tuna and anchovies, and bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar to splash them with; a braised lamb shank with roasted potatoes; and sliced melon (not quite in season yet, but it was still good). Florence had the gâteau Russe, the recipe for which may have also traveled south from the bakery in Oloron.
Both the 12-euro and 25-euro options were quite generous in portions, though I had no problems finishing everything (it was well after 1pm by that point, so breakfast had long since worn off). Ideally, you'd take the traditional three-hour Sunday lunch to do justice to them, but we had miles to go before we ate again, so after a quick stroll on the grounds of the Castle of San Pedro (more on that in another post), we headed east.

One of the things about Spain that both attracts and dismays me is the tradition of a ir de tapas, spending a few hours before dinner (which the Spanish apparently eat even later than the French, which amazes me) wandering from bar to bar with friends, having drinks and eating savory snacky things. It attracts me because hello, what's not to like about drinking and grazing and enjoying good conversation, but I am dismayed by the number of traditional tapas that involve bread and/or cheese. Although my knowledge of these small dishes is of course limited to what I've read about in articles and cookbooks, and probably if I went bar-hopping I'd find that there are lots of things I could eat. It was about 6pm by the time we finished wandering around Pamplona - fortunately the tourist office was open, even though it was a Sunday, so we had a map - and the bars were just starting to open, setting out their small plate selections in tempting displays.

None of us were hungry at that point, so I didn't suggest that we sample any of the many places we walked by, but now I'm very interested in making a return trip, to Pamplona or Bilbao or Barcelona, to have the tapas experience. Although it seems like going out for dim sum, in that you'd want to have at least three or four people in the group, so you could taste a little bit of many, many different selections. And if I were with friends, I wouldn't have to stand there talking to myself to satisfy the conversation requirement.

I'd pass on the cronuts, however, even if they're just like mother used to make.

We ended up in one of the many café/bar/restaurants that line the four sides of the Plaza del Castillo in the center of the old section of town and sat enjoying the sun. There were a lot of children running around, some in what looked like church clothes, with small boys in short-pant suits of blue or grey, and girls in long white lace dresses, which didn't stop them from playing soccer and tag. I watched a waiter on the next terrace over pour a woman a gin and tonic that was more than half gin, with a squeeze of lime to make it healthy. A tall man who looked to be in his thirties, and possibly from Scandinavia, walked by smiling and holding a guidebook open to a map of the city; I almost asked him if he wanted to hit some of the tapas bars with me, as he seemed like he was looking for congenial company and conversation. Not that my company wasn't congenial! But I identified with the lone traveler, even though when I'm traveling by myself I hesitate to approach people and start conversations. That's something I'd like to work on, as I look forward to starting my travels again.

We ate dinner back in France, at the home of Florence's friend Magda, who served us olives and mussels with wine for our tapas hour, at the very Spanish (and French) hour of 9pm or so. After dinner I fell asleep listening to the crackle of the wood-burning stove.
And then the next morning it was on the road again, and back into Spain for lunch - a late lunch again, this time towards 2pm, after our unscheduled side trip to Bayonne. We ate at the restaurant above the supermarket at the outlet-store/low-priced-Spanish-goods shopping plaza at Arnéguy, just over the border. Like the restaurant at Jaca, these people were prepared for French citizens making the day trip to stock up on cheap(er) food and wine and cigarettes, and the menus and waiters were bilingual at least. I decided that since I was in Spain, I'd go for the Spanish choices on the menu, and ate jambon de Serrano as my starter. "Is it better than my ham?" asked Florence. Hard to say - it definitely was milder, with a nutty flavor. The Bergeras hams are aged at least a year, and usually more like 18 months, before they're sliced and sold, so they have a more assertive YOU ARE EATING HAM NOW flavor. Which is quite good, but intense.

I continued with a serving of the restaurant's house paella, with mussels and shrimp and chicken parts (including the neck). Once again the portions were more than sufficient, and a bargain at 14 euro. I had a bit of tangerine sorbet for dessert with the last of the wine, but had to leave the lemon sorbet which I think was actually gelato, from its mouthfeel and cough-inducing creaminess. Damn these food sensitivities anyway.

Then down to the supermarket to look for the olive-oil-fried potato chips I found in Canfranc. Which I didn't find in this supermarket, though I could have bought canned mussels or octopus or squid or mackerel or sardines in all sorts of different sauces. I bought a bag of chips fried in an olive-oil and sunflower-oil blend, and some Spanish sparkling wine, and a jar of supersized capers that I think I'll add to the boxes of tomato sauce that have been sitting in the cupboard for a month or two now. I need to start using things up, now that there are only two months (!) left to my stay here. All good things come to an end - but my list of things I want to experience in the future just keeps growing. Onward to the next food adventure!