Going to the Butcher in France

A French town without a baker – can you imagine such a thing? Everyone would move away!

A butcher is almost as important to French village life. The butcher will sell the usual roasts and chops and chickens, as well as a variety of prepared foods. These really help when you are hosting a dinner party or are too busy to cook.

My wife Val and I live part of the year in St.-Rémy-de-Provence, a charming town between Arles and Avignon. We love going to our favorite butcher shop, a place that has been serving the good people of St.-Rémy for decades.

It is run by a husband and wife who take great care in the quality of their products and service. When you order a piece of meat, the butcher will ask you how you plan to prepare it. Then he will slice off any extra fat, trim around the bone and cut it into the size you want.

If you want hamburger, he will take a piece of beef, run it through his grinder and form it for you. Burger by burger.

Our butcher offers many things fait maison (home made) like patés, ratatouille, stuffed vegetables, salamis, and at least four kinds of sausage. The butcher’s wife dishes out the prepared items and runs the register while the butcher handles all the cutting.

Photo by Jusben at Morguefile.com

We love shopping there because the butcher takes the time to chat with every customer – waiting in line is kind of a free French lesson. How is the family? Are your bunions bothering you? How will you prepare the stew? For how many people? Do you salt your food? Here’s what my doctor says about salting food. Let me tell you, your husband puts too much salt on his food (then the butcher’s wife adds in that all husbands salt their food too much.)

It’s like watching a French sitcom.

Sometimes the phone rings and the butcher answers it – it’s usually an order for a big meal. This leads to a long discussion between the person on the phone and the butcher and his wife. How many people do they need to feed? What spices will they use? Should they pick it up at 11:00? No, maybe 12:00. No, 11:00 would be better. Okay, they’ll come at 12:00.

Once we went to the butcher to get a gigot d’agneau (leg of lamb.) We were having some friends over and figured a gigot would be easy to make in advance and would feed a large group.

We explained what we wanted. For how many people, the butcher asked. Ah, the gigot in my case is not large enough for your dinner for ten, he said.

So off he went to the back to get a larger one. He appeared two minutes later, not with a larger leg but carrying the entire back half of a lamb. Oh, my. But at least the wool had been removed.

This doesn’t happen where we live in California.

The butcher turned on his electric saw and in a couple of minutes the lamb was cut in half, feet removed, trimmed of excess fat, deboned, and tied with string.

Then came the cooking discussion. How were we preparing it? Our marinade and roasting met with his approval, but under no circumstances were we to use a temperature higher than 180 degrees Celsius. The butcher looked at us gravely to make sure we understood this important point.

And did we want the bones he had just removed? We should place them next to the lamb, cover them with some olive oil and butter, and add a full head of garlic, herbes de Provence, and salt. It would make a nice jus for the meat. This kind of advice is common in France.

If you are in a hurry, don’t go to a French butcher because you’ll be there for at least a half an hour. But if you do, the food will be delicious and the floorshow can’t be beat.

Gluten-Free meets Gastronomy

How many great gluten-free restaurants are there?  I mean, really great?

The answer is…not very many.

And how many have won a coveted Michelin star?

That’s easy – just one.  L’Auberge la Fenière in Provence is not only one of the world’s great restaurants, it recently became totally gluten free.  And, oh my, is the food delicious.

You can read more about it here.

 

Secrets of St.-Rémy: Best Fruits and Vegetables

One of the glories of Provence is the fresh produce. And in St.-Rémy, the best place to get it is at the Wednesday market. Every week, dozens of vendors set up shop throughout the charming town center, selling fruits, vegetables, olives, cheeses, lavender – you name it. It is one of the best markets in Provence and a lot of fun.

But what about the other six days of the week? Where do the St.-Rémois shop?

Here’s their secret – Le Jardin des Alpilles at 8 Avenue Frédéric Mistral. It’s an unassuming place but the produce can’t be beat, with much of it coming from local farmers. And it’s open seven days a week!

We went there today and here’s some of what we found.

If you are staying in a place where you can cook, or if you just want some succulent fruit to enjoy during the day, it’s a great place to stock up.

And what’s better than a picnic in Provence? You can get everything you need here – breads, cheeses, olives, snacks and a nice selection of local wines.

For those of you on the other side of the Alpillles, there is a sister store in Maussane-les-Alpilles with an equally great selection.

Bon appetit!

For more information: http://tinyurl.com/m6bdech

Cheesy Lessons

Photo by MaxStraeten at Morguefile.com

The Good Life France is a great blog about all things French. They also do a quarterly magazine – check out the current issue for my article on what I’ve learned about French cheese (page 88.)  You can also enter your name to win a copy of my book (page 86.)

You can check out the magazine here

My First Cheese Course

Ladies first! But be careful who you trust.

epoisses

My wife Val and I had just moved to Switzerland, to the French-speaking canton of Neuchâtel. Switzerland is a beautiful and civilized country, but it was still a shock – new jobs, new language, new customs. Who knew that you had to buy special “weasel insurance” for your car? Yes, when you parked your car outdoors in the winter, weasels would climb under your hood to stay warm. And chew through your wires while they were at it.

After a month of settling into our jobs, we were pleased to see a long weekend coming up. “Let’s go somewhere!” we said to each other. “How about Burgundy?”

Burgundy was only a three-hour drive away, so off we went to visit the fabled vineyards and wineries. And why not try some fine dining while we were at it? After all, we had been subsisting mostly on frozen meals from the local Migros so far.

We booked a table at Le Cep, a famous restaurant in Beaune, which boasted a Michelin star. The meal started at 8pm and would go until almost midnight. Course after course of wonderful food arrived. We were stuffed! But then they wheeled out the cheese cart.

This was our first experience with a cheese course and Le Cep’s cart was the biggest we have ever seen, before or since. It looked like an aircraft carrier, topped with dozens of different cheeses. Without labels, of course.

The waiter indicated that we should choose what we would like. We were flummoxed, as our knowledge of cheese was very limited back then. Monterey Jack, Cheddar and Parmesan pretty much covered it.

Luckily for me, the lady always chooses first in France. I would let Val sort it out and follow her lead.

Val, always clever, explained that we were new to this game and would the waiter please recommend a nice selection? Which he kindly did, choosing seven different cheeses and making a circle of them around the edge of her plate. He told Val that she should start with number one and work her way around to number seven.

I asked for the same selection and soon we were munching happily away. The cheeses were delicious! The first was a mild chevre and the others got progressively fuller-bodied.

Val eats faster than I do and she was the first to taste cheese number seven. She smiled with pleasure and said, “Oh, this is good. Take a big bite!”

I should have known better.

Have you ever eaten Époisses? It’s a cheese from Burgundy and incredibly strong. It’s usually described as “pungent” – now there’s a word! It sears the inside of your mouth so that you can’t taste anything else afterwords.

Yes, cheese number seven was an Époisses. This is definitely not something you take a big bite of.

I love Époisses now but let’s just say it’s an acquired taste. And I had not yet acquired it. So as I took a gigantic bite and started chewing, my eyes began watering and I urgently looked for a way to spit it out.

But here we were in Le Cep, an elegant Michelin-starred restaurant and that’s just not done. So I wiped my eyes and kept chewing while Val covered her mouth and tried not to giggle too loudly.

I survived that episode and we laugh about it today. And I got my revenge when we went to a wine tasting a few weeks later. But that’s another story.

Read more at www.keithvansickle.com

The Power of Cheese to Sway French Elections

runny-cheeseElections are different in France.

A few years ago my wife and I were there during the election for seats in the European Parliament. About a dozen political parties had slates of candidates running.

A few days before the election, the conservative party had a televised rally to fire up the troops and get out the vote. We decided to watch it, figuring it would give us insight into the important political issues of the day. Plus it would be good for our French.

Most of the speeches were boring, with the usual applause lines. There were shout-outs to dignitaries in the audience, potshots at the competition, promises to lead France boldly into the future. The crowd clapped politely but there wasn’t a lot of real enthusiasm.

Then things got exciting.

The final speaker was wrapping up his speech and wanted to go out on a high note. “We will work together with the European Union on initiatives like the electric car,” he thundered, “but we will defend ourselves against those bureaucrats in Brussels when it comes to important French interests like”…(dramatic pause)…”RAW MILK CHEESE!”

Suddenly, the crowd went wild, cheering and stamping their feet, throwing things in the air. It was like Charles de Gaulle had just liberated Paris from the Nazis or something.

My wife turned to me. “Did he really say raw milk cheese?” she asked. “That’s crazy!”

The next day we asked some French friends about this. It’s true, they said, and they were outraged. They explained that there was a move afoot to force cheese makers across Europe to pasteurize their milk. “This will make the cheese tasteless!” they cried. “Tasteless food – the English must be behind it! “

Sometimes it is in the most unlikely places that you find what really moves French hearts.

A few days later the results came in and the conservative party was the big winner. They far outperformed the pre-election polls.

Never underestimate the power of cheese.