You are not going to want to read this post on an empty stomach !
23.10.2014 - 30.10.2014 11 °C
This week, France is celebrating Toussaint, All Saint’s Day. It’s a universal holiday week for schools, and later in the week (the 1st of November) comes the national holiday that everyone celebrates. So far I have managed to have a pretty packed break.
Saturday night was a pendaison de crémaillère (housewarming party; literally “hanging of the soup pot”) of an adult classmate who just finished the process of moving to Besançon. It turned out to be very interesting, because there were seven of us from the CLA, and the rest of the party was the friends and family of my classmate’s French wife. It was also a potluck, so I got to taste some delicious Chinese as well as French dishes. (In keeping with the international theme – and in the interest of time and kitchen resources – I decided on a Kammerer family favorite, gurkensalat. This is a super yummy and simple German recipe: cucumbers and onions marinated in vinegar and dill.) Unfortunately, it wasn’t super popular; it didn’t really go well with the fancy French cheeses and potato dishes or the Chinese dumplings… But it was a really fun (and long – I got back at about 2:30am) party. I got to hang out with some classmates that I hadn’t really had the occasion to yet, as well as chat with a few very nice and patient French people.
Bright and early the next morning – 6:00 – I left Besançon for a little town in the south of France – Forcalquier – in the Provence region. Théo’s grandparents very generously opened their home to me (and Théo, his cousin, and his friend) for five days, and this time, not surprisingly, turned out to be the deepest French immersion I think I have experienced yet! It was great because I got to be a fly on the wall and listen to (and understand a portion of) some rapid-fire French, which does not happen at the CLA. (But I do think that my comprehension – and vocabulary – improved a bit over the course of my stay.) Unfortunately, in retrospect I regret having been a bit too quiet, letting my fear of making mistakes or saying the wrong thing get in the way of conversing freely.
Forcalquier was absolutely beautiful. We were in the mountains, and the trees were starting to change colors. This is the place of those iconic photos of columnar coniferous trees against a background of golden fields. We arrived at lunchtime on Sunday, and quickly sat down to a massive Sunday lunch. (This side of Théo’s family is Italian, and his Mamie is an incredible cook. We started with a pizza with a carmelized onion sauce, black olives, and anchovies. Next came heaps of spaghetti with a tomato and meat sauce, followed by bread, cheese and green salad. After this was a cake (we were also celebrating Théo’s cousin’s birthday) with lemon preserves inside and fresh lemon slices on top (we didn’t eat the fresh lemon bits, but the juices had permeated into the cake), and it was SO good. Finally, we finished off the meal (I think it was about two and a half hours later) with a coffee course.
To aid in our digestion, we spend the next part of the afternoon in a game of backyard soccer, during which I thoroughly embarrassed myself. Soccer is one thing at which I am absolutely hopeless.
But as you can see, it was fun! After soccer, we decided to play cards, so I learned the French versions of Rummy and Up the River, Down the River. Some things were very similar, and others were very different (including the deck: aces function generally the same way, but they are actually ones, and obviously the face cards are different – “R” for roi, “D” for dame, and “V” for valet). Also, there is a different deck, the tarot deck, which is used for certain games, like the Up the River, Down the River variant.
After our lunch of champions, dinner was relatively light, but equally delicious. Fresh bread, an charcuterie tray, olive tapenade, a plate of incredible cheeses (comté, Muenster, Roquefort, camembert, etc.). For dessert, we had a basket of fruit and a roll of yummy nutty nougat.
Monday breakfast was another new experience. I had a big bowl of coffee for dipping toast with a variety of spreads (honey, butter, and apricot and currant confitures).
After breakfast, we headed out for a day trip to Marseille (the second largest city in France, about an hour away). Almost everyone had already been to Marseille at least once, and we spent most of the day wandering around the old port area.
We also went up to the Bonne Mère, an old church that dates back to the city’s early history. It was my first time inside a Byzantine church, and it was incredible.
At dinner on Monday, I had my first occasion to taste (homemade) foie gras. I had no idea what to expect, and it was delicious! We had it with toast and fig and onion confitures. I also learned that there is an unspoken rule in the Accogli house against the spreading of foie gras, which was brought to light when Théo’s friend Marc started spreading his and the table erupted in cries of good-natured indignation…. Our next course was an eggy, quiche-y bread that was green with fresh parsley and had little pieces of ham throughout, accompanied by a green salad. Dessert was a yellow cake roll filled with Nutella. Mmmmmm!!!
Tuesday was another day of exploration, but this time we stayed in the neighborhood of Forcalquier. There is a beautiful little citadel/chapel with a lovely view of the town and the countryside. Forcalquier is such a charming little town that there must be a calendar somewhere that features its buildings and surrounding countryside.
We took a break from our explorations for another formidable lunch, starting with a fried pie of spaghetti, tomato, meat, and egg. The main course was a delicious vegetable moussaka (made mostly from their garden) and beef steaks for all of the guys and soy steaks for Lucia and me, because she knew that I am not accustomed to a lot of meat. This was followed by bread and salad. Next, I got to experience the tradition of serving a little ball of fruit sorbet with strong alcohol, which I learned is typically only served partway through big holiday meals in order to aid in digestion. (But I think vacation-mode resulted in a few little extravagancies…). So we had our little sorbets and because I missed part of the initial explanation and assumed that that was our dessert, I grabbed all of the dessert spoons and joined everyone in the kitchen. But I soon learned that we were following through on the full tradition and the reason that everyone had gone to the kitchen was to watch Lucia whip up some homemade strawberry Italian ice cream. Oh my goodness. I thought that we were livin’ the life in Omaha with our little ice cream maker, but I was wrong!
After lunch came the first stage of the culture-sharing experience of the trip. I had asked before we left what I could bring as a gift for my hosts, and Théo said that I should just bring an American recipe and teach them how to make it. So, its being the end of October and all, I decided that the only choice that I really had was to make a pumpkin pie. I brought our family recipe and translated it, managing to delegate most of the work to Théo and Marc.
Then we headed back out for more exploration, this time to an area outside of town that has really interesting rock formations. We were there right around sunset, and it was beautiful.
Dinner Tuesday was friselle, a southern Italian tradition. A “worker’s meal” it historically consists of a special double-baked dry bread soaked in water and broken into pieces, then a tomato squeezed and cut up on top, all sprinkled with olive oil. But it has evolved a bit; we had all of those base components, but added olives, capers, marinated eggplant, salt, and oregano. It was sooo good – I am going to have to try to find a recipe for the bread! We ate our friselle with a delicious Italian red wine, then followed it up with a cheese course. Then came the pie…. I think that everyone enjoyed it; if not, they did a good job hiding it! (A couple people took seconds, which is always a good sign!) As amazing as my international food journey has been so far, it was nice to have such a well-loved Nebraska autumn staple halfway around the world.
Wednesday was another day of activity – all six of us went on a hike through some nearby lavender country. It isn’t in season anymore, but the fall trees made up for the bare fields. We came across two or three different sites of old sheperds' dwellings constructed with a traditional technique that uses no kind of mortar, so every stone is chosen carefully to fit perfectly in place. Every once in a while along the path were mounds of stones, and each hiker who passes adds to the pile. We stopped for a sandwich picnic in a clearing next to one of these. On our way back, we encountered a herd of donkeys who really enjoyed our attention!
In the evening, some friends of our hosts came over for dinner, which was hands down – sorry, Eva – the best risotto (mushroom) I have ever tasted. Their friends had just returned from an extended trip to the US, so it was fun to talk to them a little bit about that (they had been in San Francisco and New York City). Then, true to form, came the salad, bread, and cheese, followed by little assorted desserts like saffron meringues and chocolate covered almonds.
We left this morning, and it was quite difficult to say goodbye. The nature of the trip, the house, personalities, and even a little bit the physical appearances of my hosts reminded me of a trip to visit my own grandparents in Sioux City. I have been so lucky so far in these past two months to have met so many generous, supportive, and hospitable people. One thing is sure – I will not be forgetting this fall break any time soon!