Showing posts with label France 6/18-7/12. Show all posts
Showing posts with label France 6/18-7/12. Show all posts

Friday, July 9, 2010

Le Tour de France

It took me a while to understand bicycle racing.  At first glance, it looks like a massive swarm of bikes (the peloton) moving at uniform speed in a pack, with a few stronger riders way out in front who will clearly win the race.  I wondered why those in the peloton seemed okay with letting the break-away riders win so easily.  Shouldn't they challenge them, chase them down, at least try to win?  When I first voiced these criticisms to my husband, a longtime bicycle racing fan, he began the long process of explaining the strategies of the sport to me.

Now I understand the racers are actually on teams.  The strongest riders are supported by their team members, and each team member is called upon to do the hardest work on the days the course requires his personal strengths.

Some racers are sprinters; they excel on the flat courses and can attain high speeds for long distances.  Other racers are climbers; they have the power to race at fast speeds up steep mountain grades.  And some, the elite in the sport, are masters of both terrains.  They are the racers who win the Tour de France.  Lance Armstrong is one of the greatest of all time from that elite group.

The first time I saw Lance Armstrong race was the Tour de France 1999.  Hubby was excited a race stage was passing so close to our house that year.  He told me we had to find a place to watch early, because the police close the road at least two hours before the racers are due to pass.  We brought a picnic basket and found a quiet stretch of country road, and settled in for the afternoon.  Eventually, people lined the road to watch, but this pic was taken early, when we'd first arrived.

Before the racers come through, they are preceded by an hour long parade convoy of "floats," each decorated for a different sponsor of the race.  They blare rocking dance music and throw product samples and candy to onlookers.  The ambiance becomes very festive as the floats pass, getting everyone excited for the racers to come.  It helps lengthen the event, too.  Once the racers arrive, they pass in a blur, racing at 50 kph and out of view in a flash.  (How much fun would it be to man one of those floats?  Spending a month traveling around France, ending each leg of the race in a different village where parties invariably pop up for all the non-athletes on the Tour.  If I were younger...)

Interestingly, 1999 was the first Tour de France Lance Armstrong had raced in since beating testicular cancer (and he would eventually win), and this day he was wearing the yellow jersey, signifying that he had the highest accumulated racing points.  In other words, he was winning.  It was easy to pick him out of the peloton, since he was dressed in yellow.  Making it easier still to spot him, he was sitting up in the saddle, drinking from an official Tour water bottle.  As he passed, he finished off the drink and tossed it to the side of the road.  I kid you not: it landed in the middle of our blanket!  

This is a page from our vacation scrapbook 2003.

Lance Armstrong won an unprecedented seven straight Tour de France titles from 1999 to 2005.  He retired from bicycle racing in July of 2005, but couldn't stay away from the sport.  He came out of retirement and competed in the 2009 Tour de France, finishing third -- an amazing feat for a man his age who hadn't been training during retirement.  And he's racing again this year.

I'd love to see him in the yellow jersey at the end of Tour de France 2010!

Me, (waiting for the 2000 Tour de France to pass) -- cheering on Lance!

Do you follow bicycle racing?  If you're interested in this year's 97th Tour de France, it begins on July 3rd and finishes on July 25th.  Information and routes of each stage are found HERE.  The best television station to watch the Tour is Versus.  Check them out HERE.

Leave me a comment and earn one entry in my Vive la France! Contest.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Testing, testing!

In 1997, after I'd been a French resident for one year, I was no longer eligible for auto insurance with my international driver's license.  If I wanted to maintain my covereage, I had to get my French driver's licence.

And I was nervous.

 Everyone had a story.  Failed attempts, outrageous amounts of money spent, conspiracy theories. From what I could understand, given my fledgling language proficiency, I was screwed.

There are two tests to pass in order to obtain your French driver's licence.  The first is a written test, called Le Code de la Route.  The second is the driving test, called Le Permis de Conduire.  To take both tests, you must be a student of l'auto école, or driving school.

The problems began when I enrolled.  The school's administrator wanted me to surrender my New York State driver's licence.  I politely refused.  So she said we'd have to consider me a new driver, in that case, and I wouldn't be able to drive for the next two years without being accompanied by a licensed driver.  Grrrr.  My husband took over the conversation at that point, much of which I couldn't follow, and in the end he convinced her that my fifteen years driving experience -- documented by the date on my NY licence -- should exempt me from the status of jeune conductrice.

I was required to attend twenty hours of classroom instruction at l'auto école.  During our sessions, the instructor taught us the rules of the road by projecting a series of images on a screen.  Each image was a photograph, shot out a windshield, from the vantage point of the driver.  Based on what we observed in the photo, we had to answer the question.  Incidentally, the actual written test was in this same format:  75 multiple choice questions, each based on photographs projected in the test gallery.  Test takers had thirty seconds to respond by pressing the button corresponding to their answer choice on a handheld voting device, before the next photograph/question was shown.

Here's an example.  Based on this photo, we can tell the driver is merging onto an auto-route (the car is doing 80 kph and accelerating, since the rpm needle is reaching 2.5).  There is a bifurcation (junction where two auto-routes [41 and 1] cross) coming up, as indicated by the large blue sign.  The engine is cool (gauge on the right) and the gas tank is three-quarters full (gauge on the left).  It isn't raining, so the maximum speed limit for this road is 130 kmp.  (If it were raining, the max speed would be 110.)

The test question could have been anything, but in just thirty seconds you would have to appraise all the clues in this photo and choose the correct answer, before the image changed.  If you missed more than 6 out of 75 questions, you failed.

Somehow, I was one of less that half that passed the day I took le code de la route.  I don't have any French friends, including my husband, who passed the first time they took it.

Next hurdle: the driving test.  The number of hours you must practice driving with an instructor before you're eligible to take the test depends on your level of expertise.  Since I'd been driving for a long time, I was only obligated to practice maneuvers with an instructor for a total of 8 hours.  Thank goodness, because they charged a lot per hour.  Of course, I was still nervous because although I'd been a licensed driver since I was sixteen, I'd only driven automatic cars.  The stick shift was a challenge, especially when attempting three point turns, parallel parking, and stopping and starting on hills.  (I love the message on this bumper:  Calages Fréquents -- Frequent Stalls.)

Nonetheless, I nailed the test and now have my French driver's licence for life.  That's right.  No expiration date, no need to renew or update (unless I change my name, etc.).  But guess how much it cost?

.......hold on to your hat......

When all was said and done, and I'd paid for driving school, driving lessons with the instructors, fees to take the tests, and photo for the licence, the cost was right around $500 USD.

Thank goodness I'll have it for life!

Leave me a comment and earn one entry in my Vive la France! Contest.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Time off, a la francaise

France is a modern country with bustling cities and market-cornering industries.  But, most of the country looks like this.  The beauty of aged architecture and cobblestoned roads, imbued with the sun's warmth and accented with sprays of kaleidoscopic flowers, surrounds you in France. It's no wonder the French scorn the hindrance of daily travail.

In the United States, we're a bit like worker ants.  In the name of achieving our professional goals, thriving in competitive industry climates, and supporting indulgent lifestyles, we've become slaves to our employment.  The French, as a society, refuse such madness.  For them, the abundance of life's pleasures should be celebrated and enjoyed in the company of friends and family.

When my husband and I moved to the US together in 2000, he was appalled to learn his new employer only provided five days of paid vacation.  In France, everyone gets one month off in the summer for vacation.  From the apprentice in the boulangerie to the gas station attendant to the editor-in-chief of Le Figaro, every employee has one month paid vacation in France.  (After eleven years with the same company, my husband now earns the maximum amount of vacation pay: three weeks per year.)

The French don't split up their vacation time.  In other words, you won't hear someone say, "I'll take two weeks off for Christmas, and then spend two weeks at the beach this summer."  The whole month is enjoyed at once, either in July or in August.  This means a couple things:

Whole towns empty out in the summer months.  Businesses close up shop and hang signs on their doors that read, "Be Back in August."  Life slows w-a-y down.  For this reason, all pressing matters should be resolved by mid-June or tabled until after September.

Local businesses like bread makers and pharmacies have to organize themselves.  If there are two pharmacies in a village, one will be closed for July and the other will be closed for August.

Three weekends out of the summer are consider "Black Driving Days."  The first weekend of July (which could be the last weekend of June, depending on how the dates fall) finds all those taking their vacations in July on the road.  And, the last weekend of August (or the first weekend of September) finds those on the road going home after their August vacations.  But the busiest weekend out on France's highways is the one when July ends and August begins.

Le Grand Croisement Annul, or the great yearly crossroads, happens as the July vacationers make their way home at the same time the August vacationers are heading out.  I have only traveled on the highways once during that weekend, and I was shocked at the masses of people.  I'm a city girl, used to traffic jams.  I'd never seen anything like that.  It took us twenty-four hours to make a five-hour trip.  The line of cars and campers crawled at no faster than fifteen miles per hour the whole time.  Eventually we needed to rest, but every rest stop parking lot was so full of parked vehicles and people stretched out on blankets and in pup-tents that only a narrow ribbon of asphalt was visible to drive from entrance to exit.  We had no option but to merge back into the creeping circulation, stomachs still empty and bladders still full.

There is actually a law in France making it illegal to work more than 35 hours per week.  Another law has been in legislation for years and may never pass, but its advocates hope to reduce the retirement age from 55 years to 50 years.

Like here in the States, the French celebrate one-day holidays throughout the year.  Their Labor Day, for example, corresponds with our Memorial Day, and their Memorial Day is observed on May 8th, the day they celebrate the end of World War II.  They also observe all the lesser known Catholic holidays like The Ascension, Good Friday, and All Soul's Day.  And like here in the States, most one-day holidays are observed on a Monday or Friday.

The French have a saying: faire le pont.  Literally translated, it means "make the bridge."  When the French say they're going to faire le pont, they mean they will add a day off, either before the one-day holiday or after, so that they bridge the days off with the weekend, thus enjoying four days off of work.  This practice is so much the norm that if someone says they aren't "making the bridge," people raise their eyebrows and ask why not.

I'm looking forward to the slow pace of French life.  It will be a welcomed change for me!

Leave me a comment and earn one entry in my Vive la France! Contest.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Where's the Beef--er, I mean, Chicken?

Culture shock rushes at you from unexpected angles when you live in a foreign country.  You may think living in France, for example, would be challenging due to the language barrier or the fact that people sit at the lunch table for two hours.  But one of the greatest differences between American life and French life I had to adjust to was the hours of operation of the grocery stores.

In the States, most larger towns have at least one twenty-four-hour-a-day grocery store.  If not, the local grocery store will most likely open before dawn's first light and close well after eleven in the evening.  Have a hankering for Ben and Jerry's before bedtime?  Don't worry, American grocery stores are happy to accommodate.

In France, however, grocery stores close at 8 p.m, Monday through Saturday.  And they remain closed all day Sunday.  If you are unaccustomed to this schedule or plan poorly, you may find yourself eating whatever you have in a can at the back of the cupboard, or dry cereal, until Monday morning.

One Saturday back in 1997 when two of my sisters were visiting me in Auch, we took a bus and spent the day sightseeing in Toulouse.  The last bus back would have us arriving at 8:30 in the evening, and I realized we'd need to hit the grocery store in Toulouse before boarding.

We rushed through a small store near the terminal, grabbing the ingredients for Poulet á la Crème.  With just minutes to spare, we clambered onto the bus with bulging bags of mushrooms, fresh thyme, crème fraiche, baguettes, and (I kid you not) a whole, raw chicken.

The forty-five minute ride home was jovial, and as luck would have it, the three of us were the last of the passengers to disembark in Auch.  Weary from a day in the sun and lots of unbridled laughter, we trudged down the last cobblestoned road to my apartment.

I pulled pots and pans from the cupboard as my sisters unloaded the bags.  

Natasha said, "Nick, where's the chicken?"

"Natalie has it," I answered, blowing a wisp of hair out of my eyes.

We both looked over at Natalie, whose eyebrows arched slightly higher than normal.  "Um, I thought one of you had it."

Apparently, we'd all made it off the bus except the chicken.  Hopefully, the bus driver found it before his next morning run.

My sisters didn't understand my dismay, until they brightly suggested we could just order take out.

"This is France," I groaned.  "The gastronomical epicenter of the world.  There is no take out."  I anticipated the next question and said, "No, not even pizza."

It was their last night in France, before taking the train to Paris the next morning to catch a flight out.  And we ate cold cereal and milk.  But I lit candles.  And it was France, for pete's sake!

Nicole, Natasha, and Natalie (1997)

Bonne Journée!

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Click here for full contest details.


Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Passe-moi du pain, s'il te plait.

If Food is a religion in France, then Bread is a church.

Bread is the most consumed staple food in France.  It is present at every meal, and it takes your cultural and culinary experiences to new heights.

The most recognizable form of French bread is the baguette, which is long and narrow, between 2-3' in length and 3-5" in thickness.  Actual French law dictates that the baguette de tradition française should contain only combinations of wheat flour, water, yeast and common salt.

In addition to the baguette, you find a slimmer version called a ficelle (string), and a wider version called a flûte.  There are round loaves called boules (which is "ball" in French) and rugby ball shaped loaves called bâtard (literally "bastard").  The list goes on from there, to include bread in the form of a ring, braided breads, and various other artisan breads.  And of course, let's not forget the coissants.  Flaky, light, buttery...and my favorite kind: croissant d'amande.

Breakfast in France often consists of baguette from the night before, sliced lengthwise and spread with butter and jam.  The tartine is then dipped in a frothy bowl of café au lait or chocolat.  For most French people, dipping day-old bread in a hot beverage is the only acceptable way to eat it.  For lunch and dinner, however, fresh-baked bread is a must.

Every morning, French people visit (usually on foot) their neighborhood boulangerie.  Enough bread is purchased for the main meals of the day, and for breakfast the next morning.  Buying bread was one of my favorite daily adventures when I lived in France.  The boulanger knew all his customers by name.  Locals took their time, chatting with him and each other, with no sense of urgency to move on to the next task of the day.  I felt embraced by the French on those outings!

In the United States, we serve our bread with butter.  Not so in France.  Instead of an accompaniment, bread is used as an utensil.  You tear a piece of your morsel and hold it in your free hand, using it to push food onto the prongs of your fork and sop up the silky sauces.  And you may not see this in restaurants, but at my in-laws' house you can tell when everyone is finished eating:  every plate has been wiped clean, every drop of sauce consumed along with the bread.

Throughout the day, people stop into the boulangerie for a cup of coffee and a light snack.

Many boulangeries are also patisseries -- where French pastries are sold.

My absolute favorites are the tartes de flan.  To die for!

And, 'cause I mentioned them earlier: Coissant d'amande -- YUM!

[For more of these amazing photos: Source and Source]

Leave me a comment and earn one entry in my Vive la France! Contest.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Potty Talk

When Culture Shock and Toilets Go Hand-in-Hand...

When I was a little girl, I cried if I had to go number two in a public restroom.  My mother would say, "Everybody has to 'go'; it's perfectly natural.  Even the pope poops."  I never found that comforting.  I'd end up holding it, preferring the comfort and privacy of home, a sentiment that stayed with me until I became a world traveler.  Since we all have to "go" (even the pope) every day, my earliest culture shock was faced in foreign bathrooms.

By the time I experienced French toilets, I'd been baptized by fire in Central Africa.  Nothing shocked me anymore about bathroom amenities.  I'd learned to do my business wherever I was directed, in whatever deplorable conditions I found when I got there.  You see for two years, I lived in a mud brick house with no running water.  And I used a pit latrine:

This is not my latrine -- in fact, this one is nicer than mine was!  Thank you to Peace Corps/Gambia volunteer Ian Haight for this picture.

Basically, you uncover the hole cut out of the cement floor, straddle it and squat, hoping everything lands in the three-meter (nine-feet) deep pit below.

Suffice it to say, I developed strong thigh muscles in the course of two years.  Unfortunately, my physical strength was superior to my language skills, and when I did arrive in France,  the first thing I learned was an important lesson in French vocabulary.

When you use your handy English/French dictionary to translate "Where is the bathroom?" literally into French, it becomes, "Où est la salle de bain?"  If you ask this in a French person's home, she will look perplexed but point the way.  You will find yourself in a small tiled room with a bathtub, possibly a shower, and a sink.  But no potty.

The correct way to ask for the bathroom in French is, "Où sont les toilettes?"  Or, "Où est le W.C.?"  The French think it's dirty to have a toilet in the same room where they bathe.  Makes sense...I guess.

Most modern French homes have what we'd consider "normal" toilets, as in the sort you sit upon and flush with the pull of a lever.  However, public toilets are another story.

Many restaurants, museums, and tourist sites, specifically in older buildings (which covers well over half the buildings in modern France), have Turkish toilets.  The first time an American lays eyes on one of these toilets, they generally loose the urge to "go."  After pit latrines in Africa, however, they seemed like modern conveniences to me:

Photo Source

The most important thing to remember about these toilets is to step back when you flush.  The mechanism is not visible in this photo, but connected to the pipe at the back of the toilet is an overhead tank.  You pull the cord to flush, sending water down the pipe and out the plastic flap at its base.  Often, the water pressure is surprisingly high, as is the risk of your legs and feet being splashed with diluted pee-pee.

Many large cities such as Paris and Marseilles have public toilets on their sidewalks.  Unlike American Port-a-Potties or Johnny-on-the-Spots, these free-standing stalls are self-contained bathrooms, complete with flush toilet and sink.

Photo Source
Photo Source

The cost to enter these public toilets is minimum, although I don't know exactly how much.  Four years ago, payment was under one euro.

The nice thing about these toilets is once you exit and the door clicks shut, it automatically self-sanitizes the interior.  The process takes a minute or two, so there is a wait if you're next in line.  But the inside will be clean-smelling and sanitized, albeit a bit wet.

Unfortunately, public restrooms are not plentiful on a grand scale.  When outside the big cities or driving the highways, the only way to get some relief is usually hauling up your skirt behind a bush on the side of the road.  Don't worry, it's a normal occurrence in France.  Even the pope does it when he's there...

Je vous souhaite une bonne journée! 

Leave me a comment and earn one entry in my Vive la France! Contest.
Click here for full contest details.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Á Votre Santé!

I've always been impressed by the average Frenchman's vast knowledge of French wines.  The names of wine producers, varieties of grapes, and which years were "good years" are as easily recited in France by the most common country folk, as Americans rattle off the names of their state's professional sports teams, what type of sport each plays (football, baseball, hockey, etc.), and their most celebrated championship years.  In the five years I lived in France, some of this knowledge was shared with me.  Here's an introduction to four of my favorite wines:

Different categories of French wine are named after the region from where they are produced.  Bordeaux wines, for example, are produced from grapes grown in the Bordeaux region near the Atlantic coast.  Champagne is produced in the Champagne region.  Did you know that a wine producer cannot call his product "champagne" if the grapes aren't grown in France's Champagne region?  They have to call it "sparkling white wine," even if the same variety of grape is used, but in another country.

Bordeaux wines are my personal favorites.  They are rich, full-bodied, and often feel "spicy" to the tongue.  More specifically, I love wines from the Médoc, Haute-Médoc, and Pomerol regions.

The Bordeaux region is divided into three subdivisions by the Gironde estuary and its tributaries, the Garonne and Dordogne rivers.  The blend of grapes, oceanic climate, and soil (blend of gravel, sand stone and clay) are vital to the success of Bordeaux wines.

The most celebrated of Bordeaux chateaux is (arguably) Chateau Margaux.  The grand cru of Chateau Margaux 1945 is considered by many as "the best wine of the century."  A quick Internet search today found bottles for sale ranging from $2500 - $3800 USD per bottle (source).  And the Chateau's website hails the 1900 vintage as one of the greatest wines they have ever tasted.  I found one bottle online retailing for $10,000!  (source). 

I lived for a short time in the Bourgogne Region of France, where wine we call Burgundy is produced.  In Bourgogne, "immense attention is paid to the area of origin, and in which of the region's 400 types of soil a wine's grapes are grown. As opposed to Bordeaux, where classifications are producer-driven and awarded to individual chateaux, Burgundy classifications are geographically-focused. A specific vineyard or region will bear a given classification, regardless of the wine's producer. This focus is reflected on the wine's labels where appellations are most prominent and producer's names often appear at the bottom in much smaller text." (Source)

Along the Rhône River, another wine region of France flourishes.  (See "Vallée du Rhône on the map of wine regions, above.)  In this rocky terrain grows grapes for the Côtes du Rhône wines.  (*waves* Hi Simon!) This region is subdivided into the Northern Rhône and Southern Rhône.  Of the southern region, my personal favorite is wine from Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

The stones (galets, or "pebbles") surrounding the vines retain heat during the day and release it at night, which can have an effect of hastening the ripening of grapes. The stones can also serve as a protective layer to help retain moisture in the soil during the dry summer months. (Source)

Every November, France waits with impatience for the introduction of the year's Beaujolais Nouveau.  Unlike most French wines that are aged for a number of years before they are sold, Beaujolais Nouveau is a purple-pink, lightweight wine intended for immediate consumption and should not be kept for longer than one year.  The method of production yields very little tannin, (the astringency from tannin causes a dry and puckery feeling in the mouth following the consumption of red wine), allowing a somewhat fruity characteristic to dominate the taste.  And, every vintage uses a different, new blend of grapes, so there is considerable hype surrounding the release of the new Beaujolais and its potential success.

"You can really smell the red fruits."
"Well I hope so.  You stuck your nose right in it!"

In case it hasn't become obvious, I prefer to drink red wines.  In addition to the wines I've mentioned and the many reds I didn't, France does produce several fine white wines, for those who enjoy it -- or who are offended by pairing red wine and fish (I'm not :D)  The main categories of French white wines are:

Chardonnay (Bourgogne Region)
Pinot Gris (Alsace Region.  Btw, Pinot Gris is the same grape in France as Pinot Grigio in Italy.)
Sauvignon Blanc (Bordeaux Region)
Voignier (Vallée du Rhône)
Riesling (Alsace Region)
Others (Including: Gewurztraminer, Marsanne/Roussanne, Semillon, Muscat)

Phew!  There's more than you ever wanted to know about French wines, right?  I'll leave you with this story:  Christian and I bought one bottle of Chateau Margaux vintage 1998 and one bottle vintage 2000 -- the years our children were born.  The bottles are quietly aging in a corner of la cave, or root cellar, at my in-laws' house.  We plan to open them at our children's weddings, to toast the beginnings of Cody's and Sidney's new lives.

A Votre Santé!

Leave me a comment and earn one entry in my Vive la France! Contest.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

~ French Market ~

Photo of market day in Aix en Provence (source)

Open-air markets are colorful Saturday morning events that spring up across France every weekend.  Local growers and village artisans converge as the sun rises on la place in the center of town.  They erect a city of bright canvas umbrellas to shade their tables covered with succulent fruits, crisp vegetables, fragrant cheeses, dried meats, fresh-cut flowers, and artwork ranging from sculpted wood to lace curtains and everything imaginable in-between.  A French market is the liveliest slice of heaven you'll find here on earth.

 The photo on the left is the only picture on this post I actually took myself.  This is the market in Cusset, the village where my in-laws live three kilometers outside Vichy.  Like many smaller communities that can't support a weekly market, this market is every first Saturday of the month.  It is a town event throughout the year, and even when the weather is very cold in winter, everyone turns out for a stroll around the market, to chat with neighbors and vendors, and to stock up la cave, or root cellar, with dried saucisson, vegetables, and wine. 
 The most wonderful aspect of the market is its jovial ambiance.  I never get the feeling there is serious competition between vendors, but they all seem to enjoy the game of shouting humorous slogans to attract the attention of passersby, hoping to make them laugh; and, if those appreciating the vendor's humor should wind up buying a bagful of vine-ripe tomatoes in the process, so be it.  And the most entertaining vendors invariably have the longest lines of customers.
The market is one of the best places to pick up souvenirs to bring back to the States.  The prices are reasonable for tablecloths depicting regional patterns and images, or beautifully crafted bowls and salad utensils carved from the wood of walnut and olive trees.  The quilter in me goes a bit crazy, picking up yards and yards of provincial French fabrics for a fraction of what they cost back home.

So if you're ever in France, be sure to visit a market on Saturday.  And if your travels keep you in Paris, you can find neighborhood markets on any day of the week.  I promise, it will be one of the highlights of your trip!

Leave me a comment and earn one entry in my Vive la France! Contest.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Bon Appetit!

Eating is a sacred pastime in France.  For real.  And with good reason:  French cuisine is indisputably, (as far as the French are concerned), the most delicious food on the planet.

My mother-in-law is a phenomenal cook, and I thrived under her tutelage in the early years of my marriage.  One of the things she taught me was always, always use fresh ingredients.  Here's a pic of Cody and Sidney helping her in her garden, where she goes each day with basket in hand to harvest the vegetables and herbs she'll use in her dishes that day:

 And this bottom pic is Sidney bringing in a basket of potatoes she and her grandfather had just pulled out of the earth.  Thirty minutes after this picture was taken, we were eating the most delicious French fries ever!

The French eat their meals in courses, which is a difficult custom to adapt to when you are used to eating family-style, American meals.  In fact, the first few meals I took in France were painful because I thought the first course WAS the meal.  I ate my fill.  And then another plate of food came out.  So I dug in...and then another was served...  My future in-laws were thrilled that I appreciated their food so much, and I didn't dare decline another serving.  I've since learned that you take just a spoonful of food at each course, so that by the end you have eaten the equivalent of a normal plateful of food.  Trust me though, I put on ten pounds before I had the whole thing figured out.

 The first course, called l'entrée is typically light fare, for example a plate of charcuterie: slices of cooked or cured jambon (ham), saucissons (dried sausage), and paté; or quiche, or soup (in the winter) or sliced cantaloupe drizzled with port wine (in the summer).  And wine, bien sûr.

The second course is la pièce de résistance, or the main dish.  It is meat (or chicken or fish), often served in the sauce it was cooked in and vegetables.  Many traditional French recipes are cooked "peasant-style," with all the ingredients in a large pot or dutch oven.  This is my favorite way to cook.  The key is the sear the meat in the pot to help it retain its flavorful juices, then remove the meat and déglasse the pan with white wine, scraping up the browned bits of meat stuck to the bottom.  Add the vegetables, herbs and stock, and let the pot cook over low heat for several hours.  There is simply no way to attain the depth of flavor the French have mastered without slow cooking!

The third course sometimes opens with a fresh, leafy green salad, but not always.  Whether or not salad is served, the cheese plate always goes around.  The French love their stinky cheese!  I was once at a dinner party with twenty people at one table.  Luckily, I was on my third glass of wine at the time.  The cheese was so pungent, I literally tried not to breathe through my nose.  My table neighbors couldn't stop raving, putting their noses as close to the plate as they could and inhaling deeply.  My nose wrinkles from the memory!

The dessert course is my favorite!  Although I'm a die-hard chocoholic, the fruit concoctions in France are fantastic.  My mother-in-law bakes a clarfoutis that is out of this world.  She starts out behind the garden, picking cherries off the tree.  Leaving the pits in, she dumps the rinsed cherries into a buttered baking dish and pours a homemade cake batter on top.  (She tried to teach me this recipe, but didn't know the exact measurements.  "Add some sugar..."  "How much sugar?"  "Oh, I don't know, a bowlful."  What?)

Last is the coffee course.  This was perhaps the hardest adjustment I've have to make over there.  I want my coffee with my dessert!  Oddly, the French don't believe the two go together.  It's the only issue I take with them -- Snaps to Americans for our dessert-and-coffee- combo genius!

Man, this post is making me hungry.... Hope I don't gain fifty pounds on vacation...!

Bon appétit! 

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