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Shades of Paris, by Michelle Schwartzbauer

Shades of Paris, by Michelle Schwartzbauer

When the skies in Minnesota turn a particular shade of gray, I think of Paris. Today was just such a day, déjà vu all over again.

There’s usually drizzle or fog involved and the air is heavy and chill. I think of red wine, cozy restaurants, and the pungent smell of cigarettes always in the background. My memory embellishes and expands the internal sensory experience by throwing in the toasty aroma of roasting chestnuts. I smile and reminisce and wish I was there.

Gray skies are gloomy no matter where you are. I remember how tired I got of the damp when I lived in Paris for a year back in my college days. The slight chill of autumn deteriorated into winter’s clinging cold that penetrated to the bone. Fiscal responsibility kept the cozy restaurant experiences to an occasional outing, and the rest of the time it was the same old what’s-for-dinner question, chez Mary.

Those college days are long gone—now I have a village house in Provence that draws me back instead. It overlays those youthful memories with fresher, more realistic images—but none from this time of year. In winter, the house sits locked and still marked by an unlit door, one of several in our row of houses bound together in a solid façade fronting our tiny street.

While temperatures sometimes spike and the sun can shine on days that are precursors of spring, by mid-winter the gloom has seeped down from Paris to the south where our village nestles in the midst of harvested vineyards. The vines there wait skeletal and naked until warmer times dress them with sweet, jade-toned tendrils and our year-round residents stay burrowed in their small homes until the season passes from hiver to printemps.

Peter Mayle talks a bit in his books about the wicked mistral winds and just how cold it can get in Provence. Semi-mountainous, the Drôme Provençale is not an area that draws the European equivalent of snow birds. When lashed by rain and winds strong enough for witches to fly without a broomstick, our summer paradise can turn into the stuff reality T.V. is made of.

In the play Camelot, there’s a song whose refrain is “What do the simple folk do?” I, who have never wintered in my Provençal home, often wonder the same thing about the real inhabitants of our village. Without central heating in our house to warm the thick stone walls and tile floors that cling to the cold, I most likely won’t experience a winter there any time soon.

I know that many of the restaurants, the cozy refuges in my long ago memories of Paris, close up for the winter in our part of Provence. We are a tourist spot, a mecca in the summer months but abandoned in the short days leading to and from the winter solstice. I’m sure larger towns like Avignon still hum with life but we’re in the countryside. The local hotel is shuttered and closed; the summer residents like me are tucked in the cocoon of their homeland, comforted by the familiar, established rituals and patterns that help pass long evenings and nights until the grass grows greener and tempts us back once again.

I would hate to be a young teenager in Provence though the winter months. It’s hard enough for them when they can gather in clumps outside in fine weather. There’s not much action for the young even in the best of times and so, occasionally, the odor of marijuana drifts from the local boules court at night to mingle with the scent of lavender. The loud racket of motor bikes zooming like maniacal bumble bees sometimes shatters the peace of balmy summer evenings. With the cold, I can’t fathom what the young crowd does.

I can imagine a bit better what the working folks do to while away their evenings and weekends. Television satellite dishes sprout like warts from tiled roofs throughout our village. The two bars undoubtedly enjoy a thriving business while attendance at mass is already brisk in the earlier fall months. There’s the occasional festival, one for soup in the Rhône wine villages nearby, for example, and one for the white shelling beans called cocos in our own little village. For all ages, there’s the movie theater in the next town, which does a decent job of showing a couple of different movies each week. But that’s about it. Not quite the romantic idle described in A Year in Provence or Under the Tuscan Sun. It’s the kind of life that needs good friends, good books and a few hobbies—plus good food and wine to pass the hours in any satisfying way. The wine is no problem: the rest take time and effort as all good things do.

Whether my sometimes neighbors put forth that effort is something I’ve yet to discover fully. They can stroll to one of the bars or stop at any one of a multitude of vineyards for the wine. The ingredients for glorious meals are there for the gathering—but so are pre-made, instant packages of mediocre eating. There’s a good bookstore requiring about a 10-minute drive to the nearby town of Vaison-la-Romaine and the possibilities for companionship are all around, just a bonjour away. I know some of the year-round crowd get together for the 50-50 club where half the conversation passes in French and half in English and there are choral groups, bookbinding classes and volunteer opportunities to help form bonds.

Like so much of life, whether the hours pass in enjoyment or ennui depends on more than sunshine and atmosphere. Gray skies may cast a blanket over everything, but that blanket can be adjusted with a tug or two, providing a cozy cover to keep the warmth of daily life wrapped around us all.

RECIPE: Chicken Bouillabaisse by Mary Evans

When the weather turns colder, the posted menus in our northern part of Provence change from lighter fare to warming stews. Since the Mediterranean is more than a stone’s throw away, offering chicken bouillabaisse instead of fish is an economical compromise between Provençal tradition and easily procured ingredients.

6 servings

Chicken Bouillabaisse 

Ingredients: 

– 1 tablespoon olive oil
– 6 chicken thighs
– 6 chicken legs
– 2 medium fennel bulbs, cut in 1-inch chunks
– 1 large onion, cut in ½-inch wedges
– 1 tablespoon minced garlic
– 1 cup white wine
– ½ teaspoon crushed saffron threads
– One 28-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice
– 1 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth
– ¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
– 2 tablespoons Pernod
– 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
– 1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
– Croutons* (Croutes)

Rouille

Ingredients: 

– 3 large cloves garlic
– ½ teaspoon salt
– ¾ cup good-quality mayonnaise
– 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
– ½ teaspoon saffron threads, crumbled
– ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

Directions: 

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat; add the 1 tablespoon of olive oil. When hot, add the chicken, in batches, and sauté until golden brown on both sides, about 3 to 4 minutes per side.  Remove to a Dutch oven. Add the fennel and onion; sauté until beginning to soften, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic; sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Remove to the Dutch oven. Add the white wine to the skillet; bring to a simmer, scraping up any brown bits from the bottom of the skillet. Add the saffron; stir to dissolve. Pour into the Dutch oven; add the tomatoes, chicken broth, and pepper. Bring just to a boil over medium heat, about 7 to 10 minutes; reduce the heat to low. Simmer with the cover just slightly ajar until the chicken is tender and the thighs are no longer pink in the thickest portion when cut with a knife, about 1 hour. Stir in the Pernod. Garnish with the chopped parsley and basil. Serve ladled into shallow bowls with the rouille and croutons on the side.

For the rouille, mash the garlic and ½ teaspoon of salt together with the back of the tines of a fork on a cutting board to form a paste; scrape into a food processor. Add the mayonnaise; process while adding the 1/3 cup olive oil in a thin stream. Add the saffron and cayenne; process to combine. Refrigerate, covered, until ready to serve.

*To make the croutons, slice stale French bread in ½-inch thick slices. Arrange in a single layer on a shallow baking sheet; brush lightly with olive oil. Rub the surface of one side with a crushed clove of garlic. Toast in a 400°F oven for about 6 to 8 minutes, until crisp.

Truc: Traditional rouille is made with a raw egg yolk and olive oil, in much the same way as homemade mayonnaise. Because of food safety concerns over salmonella, I like to use commercially prepared mayonnaise as a base and add olive oil for a more authentic feel.

Mashing the garlic cloves with salt before incorporating them removes some of the raw garlic’s harshness.

Mary Evans compressed vert portMary Evans, founder of The Write Cook, bases her expertise on 30 years of experience. A former cooking school director and confirmed Francophile, she enjoys sharing her passion for food and France with others through teaching and travel. Mary’s credentials include a Diplôme d’Études from the Sorbonne in Paris and professional culinary studies at La Varenne and Lenôtre. Mary is a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and Les Dames d’Escoffier. She divides her time between Minneapolis and her home in the small French village of Mollans-sur-Ouvèze in Provence where she offers additional classes and tours. For more information, visit Mary’s website at www.thewritecook.com

You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, French Women Chefs: les mères lyonnaise, by French writer Laurence Haxaire who tells the stories of former house cooks of affluent families in Lyon who set up their own businesses after the French revolution in the 19th century. And later, when their reputation reached beyond the edge of Lyon, the most famous of them even welcomed such well-known people as General de Gaulle as a VIP at their table. 

Pain Perdu: Childhood love of French custard and bread, by Barbara Redmond who shares her discovery of pain perdu (French toast), from the boulangerie pâtisserie Calixte in Île St. Louis, Paris. Barbara experiences French toast as a favorite treat eaten in the gardens of Notre Dame in an air of whimsy and childhood delight. Recipe included for “original French toast,” made by Christophe Raoux of L’École de Cuisine d’Alain Ducasse for Mark Schatzker, ABC News explore

Boulangerie Poilâne: A toast to French Breads, by Barbara Redmond who shares her face-to-face encounter with a French baker during her visit to the 18th century ovens of Poilâne in Paris. Could she steal a pinch from the raw, soft-white boule in its proofing basket resting close by? The penetrating aromas of bread; strong, yeasty, and hot… Recipes included for Tartine Chocolat et Poivre (tartine of melted chocolate and black pepper) and La tartine For’bon (tartine of cheeses and ham) from Boulangerie Poilâne. 

French Onion Soup – a Paris meal to remember, by Michelle Hum who recalls the aroma of sweet caramelized onions, dry wine, and rich broth rising from the steam from her bowl. With the first taste—serendipity. Recipe included for Julia Child’s Soupe à l’oignon (French onion soup) from her cookbook, The Way to Cook

Text copyright ©2013 Mary Ellen Evans. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright © Michelle Schwartzbauer. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.
barbara@awomansparis.com

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