Saturday, 25 April 2015
For a start, I would have presumed that this sort of event would be by invitation only – after all, the reputation that truffles have in Australia is that you only ever eat them at exclusive restaurants, paying through the nose for them and then barely discerning them in your dish other than, well, through the nose.
But no – in Noyers-sur-Serein, where we were staying - we saw the discreet little advertisements at the walled entrance to the town announcing that there would be pedestrian-only access on Sunday during the festival. We were curious and put it on our long list of things to do for the week which also included visiting caves with drawings from 35000 years ago, roman sites where Vercingetorix (Asterix readers you’ll recognise him) and Julius Caesar fought and unsurprisingly where Roman organisation won out over French passion, an abbey built in the 1100s by Saint Bernard and of course vineyards in their thousands.
Most markets start at the crack of dawn but curiously this one had a 10.00 am starting time listed. Punctuality has never been this family’s forte but, as we had other things to do in the day, we happened to be there on time and for the start of proceedings – luckily.
Anticipation gave way to disappointment as we wandered around the very small market with empty trestle tables. Wine, jewellery and local produce were on sale, truffle plants were for purchase (I had no idea that you could buy such a thing presuming that it was just a naturally occurring mushroom-like phenomena and that the critical component was your capacity to train your pig, or your dog, to find them) and there were some very expensive chocolates made with truffles available – but no truffles.
I consoled myself by buying a hand-made ring – pretty, sparkly pink glass - and taste testing the local Burgundy. The children went for the macaroons. So absorbed were we with the choice between peach, lemon, raspberry, vanilla and chocolate that we nearly missed the announcement that the count-down to the official truffle selling would begin at 10.30am. Like the Biblical wedding feast at Cana the empty trestles had magically become laden and as the lids were lifted on the black nuggets the air became thick with the earthy smell. Barricades, which had been erected around the stalls, were now 5 or 6 deep with people. I felt the nervous excitement within me building and watched and waited to see what would happen, as had become my standard practice in new situations.
Trois, deux, un, partez! - and the mostly middle-aged men and women surged through the gates and towards the 20 m long sales area. I watched aghast as 2 kgs of the black gold, at 350 euros (nearly AUS $500) per kg was ordered, paid for in cash, carefully placed in a paper bag and held up protectively by my nearest purchaser as he rescinded his spot in the queue. I was keen to give it a go but knew that I only had 25 euros in my pocket and wasn't at all sure that I wouldn’t embarrass myself by ordering black gold that I couldn’t pay for. I chose a couple of kind-looking truffle sellers before stepping up and admitting to them that it was my first truffle market. With my hand hovering over their tray of nuggets, I was told that the small were just as good as the big and was invited to smell the truffles to see for myself. Of course, I could have done like I do with wine tasting and followed their advice and nodded knowingly but decided to just smile and place my chosen ones onto the scales. With the first weighed truffle registering 10 euros I knew that I could afford two. I was given a recipe sheet, instructions for storing the truffles, an encouraging "bonne dégustation" and it was my turn to emerge triumphantly from the crowd with my paper bag aloft.
Thanks to my more-culinarily-competent-than-me husband we sat down to a dinner that night of duck with truffle sauce and baked endive purchased later in the day at the market in Chablis along with a glass of ... Chablis. Another ordinary day in France filled with yet more extraordinary sensations.
Monday, 13 April 2015
Charles De Gaulle, French General and politician who led the Free French during the Second World War and was also the architect of the fifth republic and French President from 1959-1969 famously said “Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays où il existe 258 variétés de fromage?” or “How can one lead a country where there are 258 varieties of cheese?” Surely he could have just said “How can one lead a country made up of Frenchmen?" But no, that would have been disrespectful of the personality differences, passion and that little ‘je ne sais quoi’ which mysteriously defines a typical Frenchman. How clever to make the Gallic chest swell with pride at his culinary achievement and his individualism. Yes, you can hear De Gaulle’s compatriots thinking, we do have a lot of cheeses, yes it is probable that we might be the world cheese masters, how clever are we? distracting them from the veiled message that they were just an unruly lot who were hard to control.
It works even to this day. If ever I feel a conversation flagging or progressing into dangerous territory, linguistic or otherwise, I casually throw in what I had for dinner, or lunch, or breakfast last week. It doesn’t matter, as long as it is about food we digress happily out of more-trying-vocabulary quarters and potentially disharmonious sentiments.
On holidays recently in Bourgogne we visited a market. A little market in an out-of-the-way village with a lovely castle, which is open for visits, a main street and not much else. But even small villages have the right to hold a market. It wasn’t busy, unlike the Saturday morning affairs in Annecy where the pleasure of strolling and becoming intimate with the stallholders is reduced to elbowing your way to the stall, queuing for long periods of time and then making your transaction as quickly as possible so as not to annoy those queuing behind you. In fact, quite the opposite, it was almost intimidatingly empty. It was the sort of place where you felt obliged to buy from every stallholder just to show no favouritism. After purchasing vegetables from two different sellers, fresh goats cheeses from the goats cheese lady, bread from the baker and regretfully nodding at the cheap and nasty toy seller we found ourselves in front of a second cheesemaker.
I explained to him that we were not from the region so asked whether he would be kind enough to recommend a couple of local cheeses. He pointed to a strong rind-washed, oozing Epoisses, a soft, slightly denser in the middle Chaource, and then presented the Délice de Bourgogne, otherwise known as the Crémeux. It has a fat content of 76% he added and I stopped in the middle of my “yes, we’ll have that one,” reply only to quickly regather my momentum and say ”yes, we’ll have a thin slice of that one please.” But, was it delicious? Worth every calorie and re-ordered as soon as we spotted some more at the next market.
Later that day the children were discussing cheese. My oldest daughter dared make the outlandish statement that she could name fifty French cheeses. I laughed and went to the computer as she was beginning her list and typed favourite Australian cheeses into my Internet search engine. It was time to laugh again when amongst the esoteric cheese conversations recorded, some jokester had written “I’m really enjoying Dick Smith’s Cheese Spread.” There is no doubt that Australia has cheese of quality but the comment did remind me that before arriving in France my children’s attempts to name cheeses would probably have stopped after three. Let me give it a go – Coon, Tasty and ‘green cheese’. The last was my oldest daughter’s favourite when she could barely walk. She would ask it of her granny when spending the night at her house. It didn’t refer to my mother’s Scottish background and her ‘waste not want not’ approach to food but rather the green wrapping of the aged cheddar that my mother preferred. My children also used to happily munch on individually wrapped cheese slices. I have never seen them in France, and don’t really want to. I can’t even imagine the look of stupefaction I would receive from my children’s friends if ever I did find them and served them up.
My daughter had to admit defeat after thirty-one cheeses. I was impressed. Sure we had been living in France for a couple of years but it only took a couple of months of French living before the children’s tastes and appreciation for food started changing. I vividly recall my daughter running back to me through yet another market, grabbing me by the arm and pulling me back to where she had come from. “You have to taste this cheese,” she said. She had, I did and a great slab was purchased. It was a Beaufort d’été, made from the summer milk of the cows in the pastures around Beaufort. To this day, despite all the competitors for her number one cheese ranking it has not been replaced.
I also smilingly reflect on the afternoon that I observed my three children from a discreet distance. They had a cheese platter in front of them. As they were making up their sandwiches for lunch they discussed the merits of each cheese. The taste and texture were seriously debated and small slices were shaved off to check and re-check on their taste preference. My son was equally as happy participating in the discussion and he had only just turned six. Is it any wonder that this country produces great food and great chefs?
Thursday, 22 January 2015
It was a Sunday afternoon and we were out and about grimly determined to embrace our new life. We hadn’t yet moved into the house that was to replace our temporary cottage but we wanted to show the children where it was. So, we drove to the end of the lake, admired the bright yellow of the external walls of what was to be home, wondered momentarily at the décor inside and then set off into the nearby village of Faverges, where we stumbled upon their annual vide-greniers. We had a lovely time learning about how these open-air trash and treasure markets work and ended up with a few books and DVDs for the children plus a schoolbag and a cheap pair of rollerblades for my daughter. They were to be the most expensive bargain of the trip.
We hurried home to try them out and within the space of a few giggles and near misses night had fallen as had my daughter. Unaware of how major the pain was we gave her some Panadol, which we had very cleverly thought to bring from Australia, and popped her into bed. The next morning her white face clearly showed that she was still in pain and so I sent her off to school. No, I am not mean and nasty and in my defense I did not know that her wrist was broken plus I was plain scared of whether I would be capable of working out how to help her. As soon as I could I spoke with the lady who owned our cottage and got her advice regarding which doctor to see. I rang, made an appointment and went and picked my daughter up from school an hour later.
The whole experience was tough. We had no idea where the medical centre was and when we arrived at the stated address we found what looked like a block of flats. We hesitated and then figured out that the correct procedure was to press on the entry button to alert the secretaries to one's arrival and then to go in and up the stairs to the correct floor. It was poorly signposted and I presume that they were in the middle of renovations as when we pushed open the hallway door we found a couple of trestle tables and a few people standing around. Nothing looked familiar or at all like an Australian medical centre. I explained that I had telephoned for an appointment and without undue welcome or attention was told to go and wait in another room.
There were other people waiting on the plastic bucket seats but the room that we were sent to was small and otherwise bare. When one’s senses are working overtime, as mine were, I’m sure that you notice things differently. I found myself fixating on a small roughly inch high piece of wood sticking vertically up from the floor, running the full perimeter of the room excluding doorways which was set at about two inches out from the wall. It didn’t make any sense to me but after several minutes of deep concentration it occurred to me that it was to stop the waiting patients' chairs from banging into the wall. I was debating internally whether it would be more aesthetically pleasing to have horizontal marks on the wall from the backs of the chairs or the ugly wooden strip on the floor, when we were called.
After hearing our story but before examining my daughter the doctor confirmed that her wrist would be broken. “It always is, when children are involved, “ he remarked and sent us off to have an X-ray and to buy the bandages necessary for him to make her cast. Off we set on foot to wander around more apartment type buildings with my daughter holding onto her wrist supported by the rough sling that my husband had made for her. At the X-ray stop I was asked if I had a 'carte vitale'. I had no idea what that was but knew that I didn’t have one, so "Non, Madame," I replied, wondering if that would mean immediate ineligibility for treatment. Fortunately not. It just meant that we had to pay the full amount of the consultation up-front. Broken bone confirmed, off to the pharmacy. More hassles there as our credit card was refused. I had enough cash on me but it didn’t stop the chemist ringing me the next day to ask me to come in and make another credit card payment on the basis that the first one had been refused and that I had not paid. “No, incorrect. I have paid,” I said very firmly.
Back at the doctor’s we waited some more before it was our turn again. Cast in place and gathering up our things to go and pay the receptionist as we would have done in Australia, the doctor stopped us and let us know that we needed to pay him directly. Beyond surprise we fished around for notes and coins, watched him put them in the top drawer of his desk before filling out a form for us to present to a health fund if we had one. He then ushered us out of the building via an exit that was not the entrance. We drove home, gave my daughter some more Panadol and, desperately needing de-brief time my husband and I asked her if she was up to going back to school. “Of course.” What child does not want to show off a plaster cast. She came home with signatures and cute little French expressions all over her arm, outwardly happy with her increased notoriety. I felt relieved and depressed in equal doses. Relieved that we had made it through our first major incident and depressed at how hard and different it had been. Little did I know that that would be the start of many more difficult moments including many more hours spent in doctor’s waiting rooms.