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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Vive le pique-nique!



Throughout France, whether you venture out to myriad restaurants—a number of which are Michelin-recommended no matter how tiny or out of the way the village might be—or simply make your way to the local charcuterie or traiteur for the classic ingredients of the French pique-nique: baguette, cheese, meat, salad, fruit, water and wine—a meal, whether it's fancy or rustic, can be paradise for the gourmand.


Everywhere you look the French partake of their picnics, with tables dotting the countryside from motorway rest stops to waterside respites or alpine getaways. Motorists often beep and wave to wish you bon appétit as they pass by your spread, arguably nostalgic or envious. As a foodie, I have yet to become jaded at the wonderful opportunities for a marvelous meal here, and picnicking has become a regular part of my life of late. Vive le pique-nique!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Canine Challenges

Mid-June is a really lovely season to be in France--fiery poppies fill the fields; the cherry trees droop with the weight of their fruit; the weekly markets groan beneath the volume of so much fresh produce, not to mention myriad cheeses, breads and meats; and sailboats dot the lakes everywhere you look.

Just over two weeks ago, Tilly and I set off for Lake Annecy in the French Alps, along with her brother, Finlay, and my friend Innis. Here we’ve spent two weeks in Veyrier-du-lac in a lakeside house taking care of two other Coton du Tulear dogs, Sky and Chip, for whom I’ve housesat before.

The excitement began before we’d even left, when we realized to our dismay that Tilly appeared to be entering her first season, her first heat cycle. Not only is Finlay, her brother, not yet neutered but neither is Chip, the other male dog we’d be living with for 16 days. Not to mention that our dogs have the backseat to themselves during these long drives!

The vet shook her head ruefully. No, there was nothing to do but keep them separated or risk Tilly, who’s too young to get safely pregnant anyway, getting ‘caught’ by one of them. And since Finlay is her brother, the genetic complications only make things riskier. The vet assured us, were it to happen, that if my sweet, innocent Tilly turns out to be Tilly the Tramp in disguise, it would be soon enough when we return that we could give her the canine equivalent of the morning-after abortion pill, a series of two injections, each 24 hours apart, with, she assured us, no side effects. Despite my misgivings, we set the appointment for the day after we would return.

Two rather stressful weeks have passed with Tilly donned in little black elastic sanitary pants. Chip has hounded her every possible chance, with us shooing him away constantly, and Tilly showed no interest in rejecting his amorous advances—that is, until the one brief moment our vigilance wavered and he caught her under the table, hidden beneath the tablecloth. Tilly shrieked and squealed like a piglet as we shot up out of our chairs and raced to attempt a rescue. Alas, too late. Any hesitation Innis and I have had about neutering our dogs and giving Tilly the shots vanished in that moment.

We’ve spent an exhausting few days now trying to isolate them, each of us taking a pair of dogs and walking in opposite directions because Chip’s been single-minded in his pursuit of his Juliet. But things are quieting down now, just in time for the next leg of our road trip, a leisurely two-day jaunt into Italy, where we’ll spend five days with new friends (former housesit clients) relaxing and exploring. I suspect that, although at this writing they’re completely without bath and toilet facilities due to a renovation project, that will prove far less vexing than frantic, barking, randy dogs. Time will tell.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

French Huilerie for Gourmet Nut Oils

Not long ago, I headed out to Availles-en-Chatellerault to pay a second visit to a huilerie that presses the most delicious oils of walnut (huile de noix) and hazelnut (huile de noisette). The first time I'd been there was during harvest season and we waited and watched as a series of farmers brought in their nut harvests and had them individually crushed, ground, fried and pressed.

The old-fashioned stone wheel circled endlessly round and round the platform like a work-worn donkey resigned to its fate, while the nuts ground down to a fine paste. From there, the red-faced workers, wiping sweat from their brows with kerchiefs stuffed in pockets, shoveled the dark paste on to its next home on ancient stoves, where it was fried, dark and rich, to the color of cocoa. You could taste the nuts on your tongue with every breath. Our mouths watered.

From there, it was a short distance to the hydraulic presses where we watched as the oil, as dark and rich as maple syrup, dripped out. My mind was mentally clicking through my recipe file, thinking of all the wonderful ways I could use these treasures in my kitchen. Steamed haricots vert topped with crushed hazelnuts and a drizzle of hazelnut oil, mashed potatoes and garlic with a drizzle of oil instead of butter, pasta with walnut sauce, salads galore...the list went on and on.

As we made our choices of what size and style bottles to purchase, I thumbed through their brochure and spotted a tasty-looking recipe for a walnut salad with shrimp and scallops to add to my repertoire.

On this, my second visit, it was late spring instead of autumn, so the machines were eerily silent, the factory immaculate. I was led to the back room where I made my choices, walnut oil refills for both my friend and me, and a special gift-style bottle with pourer. This particular huilerie has been operating now for 200 years, and, the owner proudly told me, will celebrate its bicentennial this November with a huge fête. I must remember to make my reservation.

The gift bottle I bought is intended as a hostess gift for friends in Italy. Two weeks ago, my friend and I, both our dogs in tow, began a month-long sojourn: 2-1/2 weeks in Veyrier-du-lac on Lake Annecy in the French Alps, followed by 5 days in Cessole in northern Italy, and then a final week in Provence at the height of lavender season. It seemed appropriate then, on the night of our departure, that I make us a supper of that very walnut salad recipe with scallops and shrimp.  C'était délicieux!