Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Earpieces and farting nuns -- it's Mardi Gras, French style

Considering the huge Mardi Gras celebration that usually takes place in the States in la Nouvelle-Orléans, you might expect there to be a big celebration here in France too. But if Aix is at all indicative of the rest of the country, you'd be wrong.

However, it should come as no surprise (since this is France) that even if the culmination of the week-long jours charnels marked by Mardi Gras is no longer really observed, there are still traditional food items to be eaten in celebration of the day. It should also come as no surprise (since I am writing this blog) that I will tell you about them.

A couple weeks ago bugnes, oreillettes and pets de nonne started appearing in pâtisseries around Aix. (Before I go any further, I should say that whether bugne is just another word for beignet is up for heated, or at least animated, discussion and also that there's a significant amount of variability in what gets called an oreillette. What is common to all three of these pastries is that they involve the frying of some kind of dough, broadly construed.) The custom of making and eating these treats comes from the custom of celebrating and general excess that preceded the fasting period of Carême, or Lent, as well as the practical tradition of using up all the stores of butter, oil, eggs, sugar, etc. that you wouldn't be using so much during the next 40 days of fasting.

Bugne is just, according to one of the women in the bakery where I buy my bread, a provençal variant of beignet or "fritter"/ "doughnut". According to her colleague, bugnes have to be sort of triangular in shape (like the ones they have at the bakery and the ones on this website ... scroll down half way) and beignet can be any shape at all (and even filled). In any case, the available bugnes were fried in peanut oil, so I didn't get any of those.

Instead we got an oreillette and a couple of pets de nonne.

The oreillette, which in non-culinary contexts translates as something to do with the ear -- an earphone or something like a clip-on earing -- is the one that's on top (the one that there's just one of!). Sadly, I don't know the origin of calling these pastries oreillette. This version of the oreillette is the yeasted-dough version. For every recipe you find for this kind, there's another recipe for the thin, crispy, fried cookie-like version. However, the thin ones I've seen at various pâtisseries around Aix since we got here and the yeasted ones I've only seen more recently.

It's just a little crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside and it wouldn't be sweet at all, if not for the powdered sugar. It tastes not unlike New Mexican fry-bread. We liked it, but the real favorite were the irreverently named, but sublimely delicious pets de nonne, or "nun's farts".

If that looks like choux pastry, that's because it is! It's a two-bite, fried, orange-flower (unfilled) cream puff that has been dusted in superfine sugar. Choux pastry never tasted so good! If I'd known how good they were, I'd have been eating them every day for the past two weeks.

As for how the pastry got its colorful name, one theory is that the current name is a corruption of the real name, paix de nonne. According to this theory, they were given the name when the nun who invented them gave the recipe to a neighboring, enemy convent and thus assured the paix, or "peace". Alternatively, they may actually be named after a nun who had gas at an inopportune moment. This story goes that the nuns at Marmoutier Abbey in Tours were busying themselves with meal preparations for the feast day of St. Martin (and the Archbishop's blessing of the relic of the St. Martin's cape) when a noviciate farted loudly and, embarrased in front of all the other sisters, let a spoonfull of choux pastry fall into a vat of hot fat.

If all embarrassing moments could result in such deliciousness!

So that's Mardi Gras old-world French style -- no beads, no parades, no debauchery, but really good things to eat.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

If you can't stand the stink, stay out of the Boulette

This is the first in a series of cheese posts that have been a long time coming. I was trying to take a break from strictly food posts, but as a result, all the cheese, glorious cheese we've been eating has been neglected. And that's just sad because they're so good.

However, if there were ever a cheese that would not be endorsed as glorious by the (US) National Dairy Board, this might be it. It's the antithesis of every image presented in that commercial and of every scent and taste evoked by that commercial.

Here it is ...

It looks a little alarming. It smells more than a little alarming. But it actually tastes really good. (Ok, I admit right now that I like durian, but hear me out because this has much broader appeal than durian ... or at least somewhat broader appeal ... I think?)

Boulette d'Avesnes is a very old cheese from the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region near the border with Belgium. According to the website of the city of Avesnes-sur-Helpe, whence this stinky little delicacy comes, the cheese dates back to 1760 or so. At that time, it was made from buttermilk (and was the result of thrift) but since the early part of the last century, it's been made from the fromage blanc of Maroilles (another delicious cheese for another post).

So a little background here: fromage blanc is the first stage in some cheese making in which milk + rennet = coagulation. The solids are fromage blanc. (I'm pretty sure that you can also get fromage blanc via coagulation with lactic fermentation, but I'm no expert and in any case the fromage blanc of Maroilles is made with rennet.)

When the fromage blanc de Maroilles isn't up to snuff for one reason or another, when it's accidentée, the solids get mashed up with parsley, tarragon, salt and pepper (and sometimes ground cloves), and formed into the boulette.

They're then aged for two to three months, during which time they're brushed with beer and finally, they're coated with paprika (or annatto).

So what is it like?

Well, the boulette are sold upright with a molded plastic cap covering the cheese that snaps onto that black base you see in the photos. The fromager wraps the encased cheese in paper and gives it to you to take home. When you get home and unwrap the paper, the smell you couldn't smell in the cheese store (because all the other cheeses were masking it) fills the air. And when you take off that plastic cap ...

If I told you exactly what it smelled like with the most accurate description I know, family members would be offended and shocked that I would say such a thing and all of you would wonder what in the world would possess me (and James -- he ate it too!) to put something in my mouth that smelled like this does. But along with the smell that says "This thing shouldn't be eaten", there is the smell of cheese. Plus, you bought it at the cheese shop, so it probably is cheese and not something else.

The texture is something like feta, boursin and ricotta all rolled into one. It's sort of firm and compact, but sort of spreadable (with a lot of pressure on the knife), but a little crumbly.

The flavor is really good. It tastes strong and pungent like Maroilles, but with herbs (and salt -- it is quite salty). The tarragon gives it a really pleasant anise-y sweetness, which, coupled with the paprika, sort of tricks you into tasting cinnamon.

It tastes great with Belgian beer and is also good alongside a pear.

But, let's just say that this is an outside cheese and even though I'd gladly eat it again, I probably won't buy one again.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

First signs of spring?

After years of living in Chicago, the weather here in southern France is pretty much a dream come true. Sure, when it rained this fall, it poured (which wasn't pleasant before the roof got fixed), but the locals say that so much rain was abnormal. And it has been cold this winter -- cold enough that we wear long underwear, you do need a winter coat, gloves and scarf, and you'd be a lot happier with a hat when the Mistral blows. But it's not like what we're used to putting up with.

I really don't want to jinx things and I know what Punxsutawney Phil said just a couple of weeks ago, and as soon as I type this sentence I'm going to knock on wood just in case, but it looks like it may almost be spring here in Aix.

We went on a randonnée, or walk/hike, in the area around Aix yesterday and we saw this little crocus peeping up through the mulch. So is it spring? Well, I don't know. It's only mid-February, but it was in the upper-40s, there were birds chirping, it smelled like spring and the sun was warm.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Chez le boucher

***Warning: there is a link to a graphic picture of a cut up chicken in this post, with a warning closer to the link so you can avoid it if you like***

One thing I really love about being here is going to the butcher to get our meat. With the exception of the Halal vegetarian, boneless, skinless chicken breasts I buy at the grocery store (because they're the cheapest around and really good), I buy all our meat at the butcher around the corner. It can be a little confusing, for a couple of reasons: first, I'm still learning about different cuts of meat (e.g., the difference between shoulder cuts: picnic or butt?), and second, animals are butchered differently here -- so the cuts that I only sort of know anyway don't all exist in France. Lucky for me, the people in the butcher shop don't seem to mind answering my questions so I can ask what different cuts of meat are used for, or I can tell them what I'm making and ask for a recommendation.

What's really great is that once you've chosen your beast, they'll then cut your meat however you want it. So those skin-on, deboned whole chicken legs that I wanted to buy in Chicago and couldn't? Unlike Chicago, where (as the butchers at several butcher counters told me) butchers aren't allowed to debone chicken for you and maybe can't even do it for you if you pre-order, those chicken legs are no problem here. And that caul fat that I would have had to special order? At any butcher shop, any day of the week (except Sundays, and some afternoons when they're closed). Unlucky for me, now I don't have an oven, but if I did ...

However, even though you can ask about the difference between un poulet (better for roasting) and une poule (better for boiling or cooking in stews), and you can get that fowl cut up into as many serving pieces as you like, there are still some surprises.

Here's that link I was talking about. You are hereby forewarned!

Yes, that was the head and those were the lungs. No other organs though. I didn't include those pieces in the stew, and the dish turned out to be quite tasty anyway.

Later, when I got a rabbit, the butcher offered me the head. I declined, but when I got home and unwrapped my rabbit, I saw that I had been given the liver, kidneys, heart and lungs.

So meat is not for the squeamish here, or maybe it is -- after all, you don't have to get your hands dirty and cut it up yourself (except that you have to, for example, trim the kidneys away from the saddle of the rabbit).

While going to the butcher shop is far from slaughtering an animal, you get a better idea of where the meat you eat comes from.