Goats (and Sheep) Do Roam

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last weekend we went to Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival. Before any of you make any smart-alecky comments like, “Why???”, or, “Is there something I don’t know about you?”, let me explain.

No, I am not interested in animal husbandry, nor do I have a secret sheep shearing hobby. Simply put, animals are one more participant in the farmers’ market experience, usually as the donor of wool, meat, milk, or eggs. Someone we don’t usually get to meet.

Besides, they are terribly cute, sometimes to the point of grotesqueness:

The Festival, one of the biggest of its kind in the US, is not just about the sheep to shawl contests, showcasing hundreds of breeds, or working sheep dog demonstrations (which are pretty cool, by the way).

It is also about fantastic locally produced food, be it lamb, goat milk products, or sheep’s milk cheeses. A large variety of local farmstead meats and meat products were available for purchase, or immediate consumption (tasty lamb burgers, barbecued lamb ribs, grilled lamb, 100% lamb hot dogs, kabobs, etc.).

my homemade version of Provencal lamb shoulder, about to be slow-roasted with ramps, thyme, zest, lavender, peppercorns, EVOO, and red wine

Besides the a la carte options, one could buy tickets to the Shepherd’s Feast, which is a full-blown lamb-eating bacchanalia…

 

drool-worthy French chevre…sigh

Besides the meats, I was suitably impressed by the artisanal raw sheep’s milk aged cheeses from Shepherds Manor Creamery that reminded me of simple Pecorinos. But for me personally, the real stars of the show were goat cheeses from Caprikorn Farms, as after being in France, I am desperate for fresh goat milk products. The chevre was made earlier that week, and was still quite goaty, even though it was made with pasteurized milk. The 60-day raw milk goat Gouda was delectable, as well. I ended up with a nice supply of both, and left the festival to enjoy them in the privacy of my own home.

Reminiscing about France, the first thing I put together was a vegetarian-friendly version of salade lyonnaise, with warm herbed fresh goat cheese discs instead of lardons:

My mock lyonnaise shows off the striking indigo frisee, paired with cage-free local poached eggs, the aforementioned goat cheese, and a simple vinaigrette dressing.

The next appetizer appeared in the form of grilled baby zucchini from the farmers’ market stuffed with fresh chevre:

It was followed by more goodies from the market: goat butter, French breakfast radishes, Persian cukes, fleur de sel de Camargue, cornichons, chives, rosemary boule, and raw milk goat Gouda:

 

And finally, a rustic salad of roasted new potatoes, raw milk 60-day goat Gouda, chives, roasted ramps, and cornichons:

Everything was washed down with a fantastic little-known white from a pioneering wine region in eastern Languedoc called Larzac (classified vin de pays de L’Herault) : 2010 Domaine du Pas d’Escalette Les Clapas. It is an amazingly complex, fresh, and elegant field blend with great limestony minerality.

Thank you, goats and sheep, for a lovely lunch!

Cezanne, St. Jacques, and Saint-Pierre

Let’s straighten this out from the very beginning: only one of these is (was) a human being. “Coquilles St. Jacques” is the French for “scallops”, and “Saint-Pierre” is a super-delicious Mediterranean fish known over here as John Dory. The question is: what could possibly bring all of them together? And the answer is, Aix-en-Provence.

 

Aix was the largest (and also most vibrant and youngest) city we visited on our trip to Provence, and I am certain everyone who has been there has a special memory of their own. It is many things to many people, but in my mind it will always be squarely associated with Cezanne, and with most exquisitely prepared fish straight from the market.

one of the many symbols of Provence (and a distant cousin of Two Pigs) in Place Richelme, – location of Aix farmers’ market

Aix is the town where Cezanne was born, where he worked, and died; and therefore, one of the million things for a tourist to do there is to follow in Cezanne’s footsteps. One can visit his last studio (Atelier Cezanne), where everything is painstakingly preserved as at the time of his death, and then walk 1,800 meters up le Chemin des Lauves on the hilltop overlooking Aix. Views from Terrain des Peintres (Painters’ Terrain) are both amazing and familiar, as those are the landscapes that inspired Cezanne around his beloved mountain Sainte-Victoire (the motif of almost 50 of his paintings and watercolors). See if you recognize any of them:


Ok, it is time to get back to Mssrs St. Jacques and Saint-Pierre…

I think we all have had serendipitous perfect dining experiences (or at least, we all have dreamed of having one), where we take a chance on an unresearched restaurant in an unfamiliar town, and this dark horse of a restaurant turns out to be the best meal of our trip… After gazing at Mont St. Victoire for a good while, we started getting peckish, but the descent back into town made us arrive at the planned lunch location at the tail end of the Lunch Period. To make the long story short, they did not have a table for us. By the way, the French offer one quite a short lunch-eating opportunity, – typically between 12-2, or even 12-1:30.


The back-up plan option was unavailable as well, and we went to a place I knew virtually nothing about (not something I like to do on eating trips in Europe!). It turned out, Le Formal (which took pity on us and gave us the last available table) was located in a former cellar space with abstract paintings and vaulted ceiling:

Since it was lunch, and we had been snacking, we went with the 26 euros 3-course option (rather than the 7- or the 9-course option). The restaurant had a well-chosen wine list (always a big plus!), but also delicious by-the-glass selections, such as Chateau de Triennes (a minerally and satisfying Chard), Domaine de la Realtiere Cuvee Cante Gau, or Maison Delas Viognier. After visiting Provence, I am still amazed at how top-notch restaurants have the guts and conviction to serve exclusively (or primarily) wines from the region.

In a true “Farm to Table” manner, it was deja vu all over again at Le Formal!

Among many choices, we noted the spectacular scallops (Coquilles St. Jacques) we had just admired in the marketplace a few hours ago, now served with passion fruit mousse, or with fois gras and wilted arugula. It was also my first time trying John Dory, easily the most tender, sweet and delicate fish I have ever had.

Le Formal was truly sophisticated without being too fussy or pretentious. I think it is fair to say it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable eating experiences in Provence (and overall on the trip). Later I found out that the chef, Jean Luc Formal (who, incidentally, made a point to shake our hands on the way out of the restaurant as if we were regulars), uses some of the techniques and equipment invented by the chef at El Bulli. We certainly found our meal to be flawlessly executed, and a fantastic value to boot. And Aix – to be a new source of inspiration, both gastronomic and aesthetic.

Julia Child’s Legacy: Magic in the Kitchen

One of Julia's favorites: tender escargots bobbing in garlicky butter!

I. These chickens are “so chickeny!!!”

Just before we went on our Paris and Provence trip, I started reading “My Life in France” by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the book, it is a collection of stories recounting in detail the culinary experiences Julia and her husband enjoyed while living in France. I found it rather curious that I was about the same age as Julia when she first moved to France (in her late 30’s); and as I was following along, involuntarily I found myself comparing my reactions to hers. To my disappointment, next to her spontaneous, excited, persevering, restless, enterprising, and always joyous “virtual” personality, my enthusiasm for gastronomy seemed flat.

Granted, my French experience was not nearly as eye-opening as for her. I was a seasoned traveler with several prior visits to France under my belt, well versed in the high art of Food (yes, in France cooking is regarded as a combination of national sport and high art):

a thing of French beauty at L'Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel in Arles

Yet, I could not help but envy her giddiness, her falling in love with la belle France, her first morsel of perfection (sole meuniere)…

II.  “Anyone can cook in the French manner anywhere with the right instruction.”

It is absolutely astounding how devoted Julia Child was to the rules of “la cuisine francaise”. She and her fellow “gourmettes” believed in a scholarly approach, with a strong emphasis on skill and technique. Quite different from “fast and effortless cooking” marketing scheme so ubiquitous nowadays…

I am a queen of culinary shortcuts and cheating. I am not a cookbook/recipe person, and usually reserve precision for my financial analyses. As a result, the simplest dishes (such as a perfect omelet) terrify me. But, not unlike Holly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, I could totally whip up a “roasted pheasant stuffed with pomegranates and persimmons”.

My favorite tricks: truffles, butter, scallops...LOTS of room for error!

And so, after reading the book I was inspired to challenge myself, and to attempt the so-called “flat French omelet”. The proper way.

I watched a couple of Julia Child’s original TV episodes, and learned the following:

  1. It is all in the wrist (and I don’t mean the whipping up of the eggs, as she simply used chopsticks to blend the yolk and the white). I am talking about the perfect motion of rigorously moving the eggs up and down the sides of the pan during the 20 seconds it takes to make a perfect omelet. Also, it helps to have the right pan (here goes my disdain for gadgets).
  2. Have no fear. You have to have the confidence to crank up the heat to HIGH.

Making this beautiful omelet took SEVERAL tries; that was a true lesson in humility. But for a perfectionist, such as Julia Child, nothing less would do. My fourth simple flat French omelet (omelette nature) turned out glorious, – silky, airy, moist, and rich. It was almost like magic: it tasted as if it were full of luxurious ingredients, like whipped cream.

And yet, it only contained two eggs, salt, pepper and water…

I felt that it could only be improved upon by a morel cream sauce because takeaway number three is:

III. Keep oneself open to creative exploration, because “the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite – toujours bon appétit!”

omelette aux morilles

A Weeknight Provençal Getaway

In order to balance out the rigors of credit analysis, I felt like a little getaway was in order on a Wednesday night. No, we are not travelling AGAIN, don’t worry :-). I just wanted to recreate a little piece of Provence in my own home. Nothing fancy, just honest rustic food.

French are big on apero (aperitifs). They don’t like rushing into anything, especially not a meal. The first question from your waiter is ALWAYS what aperitif you would like. Armed with a kir, a pastis or something else that suits your fancy, you can leisurely ponder the menu and the wine list.

I want a kir, dammit!

On a side note, your language proficiency in France is always judged by your confidence. The French always know what they want, and make drink ordering decisions quickly and confidently. Hesitation is interpreted as inability to understand the question, or speak the language altogether. That was a steep learning curve for me who likes to hum and haw :-)

A kir is easy to make and to like; it is a sparkler or white wine topped off with crème de cassis (a blackcurrant liqueur). Now you can relax, while munching on pain complet and pain aux cereales with goat butter (I LOVE the 89 cent Harvest, olive, and whole wheat rolls at WholeFoods, they are pretty awesome!) 

A little asparagus with homemade hollandaise for Jeff, and au pistou for me (think pesto, but sans pinenuts, – a Provencal specialty). Speaking of hollandaise, I used one of Julia Child’s recipes who describes this sauce as being “well within the capabilities of an 8-year-old child.” Granted, this is the easy, shortcut version made in a blender, – MY kind of French cooking!

It takes a whopping 1 minute to make, and it is error-proof, unlike numerous other versions that have a strong tendency to curdle . 3 yolks, salt, pepper, 1 tbs lemon juice. Beat for 2 seconds on high, and without turning off the blender, slowly pour in hot melted butter (1 stick). Drizzle over asparagus blanched for a minute and a half. Et voila!

I have a new secret weapon – European-style goat butter! It was perfect for making a little sauce for my monkfish (lotte). Take a tablespoon of goat butter, salt, pepper, a few strands of saffron pre-soaked in hot water, a dash of nanami togarashi (a fantastic Japanese pepper and spice blend which I love as much as the goat butter) and a squeeze of lemon. Baste the fillet with the butter mixture, place a few spring onions in the baking dish, and roast in the oven at 400F for about 15 min, depending on the thickness of the fillet (mine was plump!).

To serve, arrange on a bed of primeurs (first spring vegetables), and drizzle with a bit more jus (a simpler version of what we had at the wonderful restaurant L’Oustalet in Gigondas). I used little carrots, sugar peas, spring onions, and asparagus which I had blanched for a couple of minutes, and then quickly tossed with a bit of pistou. By the way, if you do not feel like getting out a mortar and a pestle on a weeknight, you can often find decent fresh versions of that at a local organic foods store.

Jeff’s vegetarian ways prompted me to do one more classic: pommes persillade. Persil is parsley, so once again, we are looking at a mixture that is olive oil, garlic, vinegar, and herb-based (with possible additions of Parmesan, anchovies, chili flakes, and zest). Here is my quick version: parboil slices of potato for 7 minutes, cube and toss with a persillade spiked with chili flakes. Saute for another 5 minutes or so in olive oil (the South is olive oil country!), give it a lemon squeeze, and serve immediately.  Bon Appetit!

A little piece of sheep’s milk cheese from the Pyrenees pushed us right over the edge, almost into the arms of Morpheus, and a nice long postprandial walk was certainly in order… just like in Provence!

Food Porn: A 2-Michelin Star Restaurant L’Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel

Sometimes there is just nothing like eye candy… but rest assured it was as delicious and complex as it was beautiful.

And also inventive, fun, whimsical, and lighthearted… Enjoy!

 

 

“Creations” tasting menu at L’Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel.

April 7, 2012 in Arles, France (in no particular order). For French (and food&wine) buffs, here is the file with the line-up, including the wine pairings:

The Man Himself

 

 

Day 1: Butter, Bells, and Stolen Glass

We arrived in Paris on Sunday morning, at the very cold and quiet hour of 8am. First things first, and after dropping off the luggage at the hotel, we headed to Eric Kayser’s shop for breakfast. Even though the concept of the best Parisian baguette is heavily debated, and there are annual contests to that effect, Eric Kayser is considered by many to be the best artisanal baker in Paris. Proximity to his shop, as well as two markets, three artisanal cheese shops, etc, and several parks to eat those goodies in, is just one reason to stay in the Latin quarter (5th arrondissement). We already knew coffee in France was going to be unexciting, so our main focus of the breakfast was on the pastries and bread. Traditionally the French just have a croissant (or possibly pain au chocolat, brioche, etc.), or tartine (slice of a baguette with butter and jam). A tartine or any pastry at Eric Kayser is a very luxurious experience, although the weak, milky coffee did little to wake us up. But, since we were not planning on doing any differential equations that morning, we felt like we were off to a good start!

Sunday was a market day at Place Monge, and quite gingerly, we started getting our bearings for market shopping. We had a long first day of eating ahead of us, so there was no reason to get greedy. I drooled over the fresh spring peas, purple artichokes, radishes, sausages, oysters…but stopped myself, and only bought one basil-specked fresh and very, very goaty cheese. We also picked up a small rustic olive bread (fougasse), and had breakfast number 2 in a sunny spot nearby.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Paris started waking up slowly after the debaucheries of Saturday night, we were making our way down the narrow, windy streets of St. Germain du Pres neighborhood, on our way to Musee D’Orsay. Upon arrival, we saw lines that we eyeballed to be a 2 hour wait just to get in. I did know about the fabulous Degas Nudes exhibition, however, I misjudged the effect of the free entry to the museum on the first Sunday of the month. We thought we would come back another day, and instead went for a long preprandial walk on the Right Bank, passing by what was easily a 4-hour line to get into the Louvre for free. We had been to the Louvre, and instead went to Mariage Freres, arguably the best tea purveyer and shop in the world. No pictures were allowed, so please feel free to visit their website: http://www.mariagefreres.com/

We walked through the upstairs Tea Museum, and afterwards picked up a blue tea from Formosa for us (a tea category that is tricky to find in this country), and a couple of special requests from my mother who had been anxious to try the famous Mariage Freres stuff.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our lunch plans involved true Breton galettes (buckwheat crepes) at the Breizh café in the Marais. We arrived early, and were lucky to snag an outside table, even though we did not make a reservation (a major faux pas, but I was duly apologetic). They have a long, long list of organic artisanal ciders, so we settled on a bottle of a very dry and perfumy Francois Sehedic cider, traditionally served in a bowl, with our crepe complet au jambon cru de Savoie (filled with nutty, melted gruyère and topped with an egg and top-quality ham). For dessert, we chose a simple crepe with sugar and Bordier butter.

A word about Jean-Yves Bordier, an artisanal butter maker from Brittany who over the years has developed a cult-like following.  To achieve the quality of his butter, Bordier uses very traditional techniques and the best possible cream from select herds of Holstein and Norman cows that graze in pastures not far from Rennes, in Brittany. In an interview with France Magazine he said that the last part of the process (the slow, careful kneading) takes the wonderful butter “to a new level of suppleness that industrial butter makers cannot afford to achieve”.

Our next stop took us to La Chocolaterie de Jacques Genin. Monsieur Genin is an incredible pastry chef, chocolatier and food stylist who is responsible for inspiring a new culinary obsession: caramels. His phenomenally luscious caramels made nightly cost 100 euros a kilo (which comes out to about 1 euro per caramel), and come in nature flavor (“plain”, or sea salt butter-flavored), and a variety of infusions, such as mango, ginger, etc.

 

 

 

 

 

In case you are curious about all the chocolate bells, the French happen to believe that on Easter, the chocolate is brought not by a bunny, but by a big bell that flies in from Rome (which I first found out from my favorite David Sedaris story Jesus Shaves a few years back. Here is a link to this hilarious and short piece, in case you are curious: http://scottduncan.free.fr/blog/jesus_shaves.pdf

Groggy from all the butter and caramels, we took a quick nap, and woke up in the late afternoon, at the perfect time to skip the lines and casually walk into the wonderfully quirky Centre Pompidou, a great modern art museum conveniently located on our way to dinner:

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is important to note that few good restaurants are open on Sundays, therefore you have to manage your experience through careful planning. Prior to leaving for France, I had scored a reservation at Le Verre Vole (The Stolen Glass), a wonderful tiny wine bar (cave a manger) in the Marais, with a small, hand-picked selection of bio (organic) wines and a delicious menu.

We shared an amazing spring vegetable salad, and each had an entree (mine was a wonderfully comforting boudin noir).

 

 

 

 

The aromatic and food-friendly Cote-Rotie from Domaine Jean-Michel Stephan perfectly guided us from course to course. A country-style apple tart brought our first day in Paris to a satisfying close…

France: Sweet and Savory Memories

This afternoon we returned from the whirlwind of our Provencal and Parisian travels, but in even in my post-travel delirium, I could not wait to start sharing at least a few of the visceral reactions and memories from the trip.

I am glad to be back, but am also wistful because we easily took to the life of indolence, of daily hiking, Provencal market visits, and copious, fantastic FOOD and WINE. I will miss the fantastic raw milk (unpasteurized) goat cheeses so fresh you practically have to eat them with a spoon. I am sad that my pee will very soon stop smelling funny from all the early spring green and white asparagus I have eaten (which happens to be a Provencal specialty).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our experiences ranged from the defining food-porn moments at 2-Michelin star restaurants (Le Cinq in Paris, and L’Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel in Arles), to very humble, simple pleasures of a butter-drenched artisanal croissant dunked in café crème first thing in the morning,

 

to roasted potatoes basted in the drippings from the spit-roasted chickens at the marketplace, to a perfect Nicoise salad and a pitcher of white wine served on a sunlit terrace overlooking the mountains after a nice, long hike.

 

 

Among others, our hikes/walks included the incredible Colorado Provencal, with its surreal colors of ochre deposits and quarries, the beautiful landscapes that inspired Cezanne and other painters in Aix-en-Provence, “winelist” walks in Gigondas and Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and the joyous spring walk across the Luberon valley, from the picture-perfect village of Bonnieux to Lacoste, right up to the castle of Marquis de Sade…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over the next month, I invite you to follow along a series of stories and pictures, in order to see that wonderful world through our eyes in more detail. Allons-y!

Bonjour, Paris! Bonjour, Provence!

…and Avignon, Bonnieux, Arles, Aix-en-Provence, Roussillon, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Sablet, Lourmarin, Bioux, Saignon, Gigondas, Lacoste, St. Remy, Gordes, Les Baux, Goult, Lioux, Silvergue, and L’isle sur la Sorgue.

 

 

Spring air

intoxicates one quickly

through the pastis.

 

Young artichoke

reminded us to seek joy

with open stomachs.

 

(this is my “Haiku Friday”, – a tribute to The Blissful Adventurer who is much more adept at poetry than I am:-))

Anyway, this is just to say The Two Pigs are giddy with anticipation, and are about to step into a fairy-tale that is Provence in April.

We cook and travel low-tech, so there will NOT be any updates on the road for the next two weeks. I won’t be bringing along IPhones, laptops, or IPads; only the appetite. After all, I am a pig, not a bird; pigs don’t tweet :-).

The hope is that the extra lag time will result in more thoughtful posts, as I will have had a chance to internalize our culinary experiences.

So, in just a few hours, we will be hopping on a plane to Paris, and our sidekick (The 3rd Pig) will stay at home and guard my blogging laptop:

À bientôt (Till later),

CDM