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Thursday, March 27, 2014

French Travel Tales: Marche Dimanche. Part Three.

Inspired by a beautiful trip in the Fall of 2011 to Poudenas, a beloved and petit village in the rustique Southwest of France. Won't you come along, this summer and fall, for Twelve Days in Paris and Gascony. 

(Read Part One. and Part Two. )

Part Three. Fromage.

After we stored most of our market goodies, with the exception of Alice’s milk, in the car, we returned to find as perfect a lunch as possible in the Café du Marche, under the Oasis umbrella. The church bells that had rung 12 times, gave way to a troupe of youngsters playing soccer, as we sat across from what we learned was the Presbytere, the huge Catholic Church in Mezin. Time tolled along with our forks in our Salade de Chevre Chaud, a grande salade with warm goat cheese croutons.

Later in the afternoon, as we enjoyed the beautiful light, Jen and Erick and I departed the pool at the Moulin to get changed, as Alice was chomping at the bit to search high and low for the Honey Farm.

Peasants, Selling Their Bread Before It Was Even Baked.  

The Dining Room and the Broad Picture Window Overlooking the Pond.
We carefully backed out of the space in front of the Moulin. Cars and trucks whizzing by were not at all concerned. We set off, the sun lowering itself languidly in the sky, the 4 o’clock light bringing a magical cast to the day.  

We traveled west in the direction of Sos. Looking for hills and pine trees. We first passed a number of barren already harvested fields, and fields that were out and out burning, that exuded a wonderful smoky aroma that I associated with my very first visit to Gascony in the fall of 1995. Indeed a whole field appeared to be smoking.

Pine trees would stand out and be easy to spot. There wasn’t a hill yet that lay unseen.

Finding the honey farm would be a piece of cake, but in French this saying about counting your luck beforehand was akin to selling your bread before it was baked.  Unbaked bread, then and now, was called levain, the mother, or the sourdough starter and selling it would have been expressly forbidden by the Guild back in the day.

We reviewed the directions from the Bee-man. Apiary-dude. Honey Monsieur.

We joked that he sure had collected Alice’s honey.

Where did he say again, Alice?

By the pine tree on a hill? Overlooking a valley? How many pines? Before or after the hill?

Exasperated Alice directed us off the main road, as much out of frustration as anything.

We sang, and we might have cavorted, too.

Didn’t legions of pilgrims find other ways and follow their nose at the same time too? While we didn’t want to sell our bread before it was baked, we did want to push the unbaked loaf into the fire, and get it baked so we could enjoy it!  Something was bound to happen as we drove past a field on fire to find the honey farm.

How many honey farms could there be, we reasoned. We actually saw quite a few “Abielle” and “Miel” signs. We followed one past another burning area and turned at three lonesome pines down a dirt and bumpy road strewn with rocks til it meandered back – back – and back some more. We passed a grove of pear trees. With bees swarming around.

“Miel!” Alice cried.
“Alice, abielle and miel are not the same thing. “
We dared pull into what appeared to be a driveway. The house had open windows and an open front door. Bees again seemed everywhere.

Before we could assess whether this even approached the idea of a good idea, Alice bolted out of the car. At pretty much the same time a German Shepherd appeared on the porch. We rolled the windows up and shouted for Alice to return post haste. Or at least right away.

She stooped to pet the German Shepherd who wagged his tail. It’s easy to discern the sex of dogs in France. No question about this fellow. Alice knocked on the door frame. Amazingly enough Alice disappeared inside the house, calling out Abielle in the same voice she had said Ferme at the market. Meanwhile back in the car, we set about making up a story and offered explanations that might give her friends at home comfort upon hearing of Alice’s reluctant demise at the honey farm outside of Poudenas. Those who knew Alice and her friendliness, gregariousness and unthwarted disposition wouldn’t find it much of a stretch to learn that she had gone to the big milky way in the sky traipsing after Miel.  

It was no more than an eternity and certainly not longer than five minutes later that Alice’s presence returned and walked out of the door, towards the car. Mr German Shepherd waited on the porch and seemed sad to see his dinner leaving so soon. Alice’s voice kept insisting this was the place.

“But no beekeeper. Where could he be?” She stood with her hands on her hips.
“With his honey,” we joked.
“Let me look around a little more.”
“Alice, get in please.”

On the way out to the main road we stopped at the grove of fruit trees and tumbled out of the car to pick a few pears. We hurried with as much pluck as we could muster back to the car, when the bees got too curious about just who was absconding with their dear fruit.

Dinner was pressing upon our return, and Erick decided to not roast the duck whole but remove the breast and bone out the legs and stuff them.
Time Carrying a Load of  Cabbage

We took our time as in the kitchen and in between, Erick had browned the carcass, leg bones, onions, garlic, thyme and deglazed with the grapes squeezed from the vine growing in front of Café Galerie, (it’s okay we were invited to pick them..) across the street - then a bit of wine, salt and pepper as it reduced, reduced, and reduced….

Just as I knew my chances of mentioning the bells were getting smaller and smaller.

Jen sat an appetizer platter of thin-sliced zucchini, olive oil, salt and pepper on the table in front of the millpond. Ducks unaware of our dinner roasting and cooking in the kitchen, swam across the pond that reflected the stone 

bridge and more cars traveling up to Fources, the round bastide we might see tomorrow on our way to market in Auch.

Next it was my turn at the stove, and I ask you, was it so bad? I admit I had not yet completely left our America dining habits behind. At that time it seemed perfectly natural to combine such beautiful sliced tomatoes with onions caramelized and crispified in duck fat. One ingredient cooked and the other raw and unadulterated.

Then at last, came dinner.
The tart au Gasconne we had purchased in Mezin.
A pile of caramelized turnips and our pilfered pears.
And in the center - the stuffed duck legs surrounded by the seared magret, sliced and almost rare.  

For dessert, we lit the candles.
And Not One Minute Later, Darkness

I set out a firm brebis, a cheese made from goat and sheep milk, and added, “May this honey satisfy the spirits who rang the 27 bells this morning.”  I put the jar of chestnut honey on the table.

“The what?”

“27 bells, don't tell me you didn’t hear them?” I opened the jar, and passed the honey to Jen. The aroma was like the one that surrounded the pear trees. Flowery but deeper, more distant. If that makes any sense. 

“No…..” Jen said. “But I’d love to.”

“I’ll get you up when they start – if they start again..”

“That’s ok..” Erick and Alice said almost together. Alice sliced off a wedge of the tower of cheese with her fingers and dragged it through the drizzled honey on her plate.

A Most Beautiful Fromage

“Oh, and do you think someone else staying here, too?” I said as nonchalantly as  I could. 

“I can’t imagine …You mean upstairs?” Alice offered.

“No..there’s not..” Erick was quite firm. He never liked ghost stories.

The Hungry Spirits of the Moulin..

“Is there a third floor? That would be where the spirits live,” Jen said, jumping into the idea with both feet.

“I suppose I should just let it bee.. Get it..Bee.” But no one else laughed.

Because at that very moment the candles blew out and our reflections appeared in the picture window. Outside it was completely black, and dark as well. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Cook With Me: Fastnachts Are Not Just a Doughnut


In Pennsylvania Dutch Country, Fat Tuesday is Shrove Tuesday, better known as Fastnacht Day. Fastnacts are the heavier Northern cousine to the beignet, made with mashed potatoes and are the best when fried in lard, so the idea of feasting on fried baked goods to use up the “fat” in the house, is the same as it is for Mardi Gras. And even though Fastnacht Day has received less publicity than New Orlean’s parades and uh, so called festivities, the Pa. Dutch are racing each other to get out of, instead of into, bed.

But people of the world; fastnachts are “weigh” better than beignets. Fastnachts are fantastic, stupendous, and amazing. Fastnachts are under appreciated and can turn you into a fanatic.

Fastnachts are not just a doughnut. Come on! Fastnachts begin with supper. And potatoes. Can you say the same about beignets? I didn't think so.

Nana at Christmas, with my brother, Jeremy, 1973.

Nana at Christmas, 1982.

You see the dough needs potato and potato water to help them rise. Potato water has its own growing spirit in it for the yeast to take hold and grow.

During the day I watched Nana in the kitchen and smelled the potatoes cooking. We would have parsley potatoes, no doubt, with ham for supper. As I say, Nana was totally enrapt with the kitchen and I was always in there, anticipating, helping, waiting for Nana to show me the next step for fastnachts, or anything. But inevitably I would miss the magical big moment, and not see her work the dough. Probably because I was eating potatoes and ham. Then I would get sent off to bed. Sent to bed yes, but I would not be sleeping. Not the night before fried fastnacht morning. No, no. 

I know I was probably underfoot much of the time in the kitchen. Nana was patient but had a lot on her mind. As I look back, Nana was always cooking and so she must have made a plan. A plan to keep me busy too. By shopping! By the time I was 11 or 12  I was going to the Ciotti market and bringing Nana (mostly) everything she needed for cooking. She gave me money to buy from the huckster that passed by on Fourth Street. I was doing all the shopping for our little family. And I loved it. 

But back to fastnachts. On the night before fastnachts Nana crept in my bedroom and put the huge crockery bowl of dough to rise on the table by my supposed sleeping self, the fragrance of the sweet yeast and potato-ey buttery dough was unbearable. How could i be expected to sleep through that? I would wait till she left and then get up quietly, barely breathing, to lift the linen tea towel and sneak my fingers under the dough to pinch off little balls, (no, they were not little. that’s my devilish side telling a straight out lie) from under the big ball of dough and thinking I was so clever to do that. I would rise as the dough did repeatedly throughout the night. I can tell you the dreams in me then were huge; floating out as dreams are wont to do, snagging all kind of vistas and lands and I think, these nights of rising dough, the smells and the dreams, the sound of the heater - the shadows of Nana's coming and going - lit a poor little match girl/bread girl image in me that never left. 

Another part of the story behind the dough and the heater was that as a young young girl, they tell me I was quite frail. I know. Hard to fathom. And they gave me the front bedroom because it had the largest register. Isn’t it funny? Register is the word for heater. They thought this gave me the best chance to thrive.  And I did, on fastnacht dough.

Nana crept back in a little before dawn. She would ever so quietly snap the window shade and raise it up. Five am, I’m guessing. That’s when the bowl would disappear and in the kitchen I could smell the oil heating in her big deep fat fryer. She would be singing and rolling the dough. Cut it into squares. I would roll over and stare out the window. Then when I heard the door open to our neighbor Joe Hodgekins, coming over for coffee, I went to the kitchen.   

The poor soul to arise last on Fastnacht Day is called the fastnact and must remain as the chore-doer all day for everyone in the house.  My brother was the perpetual fastnact as I always woke early to enjoy the the first delicious fastnachts, dripping with turkey syrup. But Jeremy never had to do a single chore. As the only boy he was revered. 

So folks, make no fun of a fastancht,  just eat them.

Both of these recipes come from Nana’s files. The fastnact recipe can easily be cut in half. Neither listed a frying temperature or timing. It was normal to make dozens of everything and refer to the amounts of ingredients in such quantifiable measures as “the size of an egg or a walnut” and then admonished with, “Ach! Don’t be a dum-kopf, chust like Aunt Effie made.” I feel fortunate to have learned the basics from Nana. But since you might not have, fry them at 375 degrees and 3 minutes per side for each the fastnacts and the fritters. Enjoy.

Pennsylvania Dutch Fastnachts

The process isn’t difficult , just a bit time-consuming, but broken down into steps it’s as easy as pie, I mean, as doughnuts.

Makes a 5-6 dozen, large doughnuts

2 cups mashed potatoes
4 cups potato water
4 cups granulated sugar
5 scant T yeast
½ cup warm potato water
14 –16 cups flour
1 ½ cups butter (they used to use shortening, margerine or lard)
6 eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons salt

Mix the potatoes, sugar, and potato water. Add butter and cool. Gradually add the beaten eggs. Add yeast dissolved in warm potato water. Gradually add flour and mix well with a wooden spoon. When that becomes impossible turn the dough out on a large floured surface, and knead in enough remaining flour to make a non-sticky
pliable dough. Think of the texture as being similar to an earlobe. Place dough in a very large greased bowl or allow to sit on counter, covered with a linen tee-towel. Punch dough down after it has doubled in size. 2-3 hours. Let rise again for 2 hours, punch down and roll out ½ inch thick. Cut into rectangles, about 3 by 3 inches.  Place on floured baking sheets and let rise on the back of the stove or in another warm place for 20-30  minutes. Fry in oil at 375 degrees, okay you can use canola or vegetable oil instead of lard. Fry till a medium brown or about 3 minutes per side. It works well to use a bamboo skimmer to turn them, but if that is unavailable wooden chopsticks or a wooden spoon will do as well.

Apple Fritters

Nana used to refer to these as snowballs. Was it because they were dredged in powdered sugar? Or because it was usually snowing outside on Fastnacht Day when my brother Jeremy and I threw the round fritters at each other while eating?

2 cups flour
1 T. baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 tsp. salt
¼ cup sugar
2 eggs
1 cup plus 1 T. milk
3 cups chopped apples

Place all the ingredients, except the eggs and milk, in a large bowl. Blend the egg and the milk, then stir into dry ingredients. Use a #10 ice-cream scoop to slip into hot fat, 375 degrees, or barring that, use a tablespoon.

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