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Frenchie and la Bretagne

21 Feb

Diving into old photos from our last trip in Bretagne (Brittany) brought warm and sunny delightful summer memories of the French northwestern peninsula where I used to spend half of my summers as a child.

Rugged, historical, windswept, mystical – the most perfect place to spend a summer.

Driving the 240 miles (390 km) between the fainted noise of the school bell announcing the beginning of the summer season and our family house in Brittany used to be torture.

I don’t recommend French summer traffic jams.

But as soon as Rennes was far behind us, the western country was finally ours for an entire month.

And with dreamy names like Carnac, Pont-Aven, Quimper, Loctudy, Bénodet, or Lesconil flashing on the road signs as we were swiftly driving by, I could already feel the ocean and the waves wash over my feet.

Brittany – Land of the Sea – Land of Legends.

The summer schedule was pretty simple and always strictly observed.

Sleep in. Play in the garden. Read Treasure Island just one more time. Maybe work on some Summer Activity/Study Book – the dear cahier de vacances. Hiding it so no one could study was also part of the schedule at times.

A trip to the fishing port before lunch to buy fish or langoustines (scampi).

Lunch in the shade outside.

Waiting to digest – yes, this was part of the schedule too. The French have this wonderful crazy rule that kids should not swim or play in the water right after lunch.

Ç’est dangereux !

A 2-hour rule is imposed on all kids and teens. Past 15, the rules could be bent. Maybe digesting in the water wasn’t dangerous for 16 year olds, or so it seemed.

And then, an entire afternoon spent on the beach.

Red buckets, green shovels, colorful beach towels and clear plastic sandals, we were on our merry way walking through the small city.

Turn left past the stone manor, on the way to the abbey, through the sandy path, next to the lighthouse – that’s the best spot.

The blue beach umbrella firmly driven into the sand.

The rocks always hid treasures under the soft green algae where tiny crabs and periwinkles – bigorneaux – were hoping kids wouldn’t find them.

Secretly laughing at all of us, the seagulls were eyeing the crêpes we had brought for a tiny goûter break while enumerating the fascinating adventures we had just witnessed on the beach pier with shiny mica flakes still stuck on our fingers.

The last bite of the crêpe always proved to be a bit sandy and crunchy.

Adults liked to tease and tell grand tales of magical forests and druidic rites, strong heroes and tempting enchanteresses, dragons and forgotten cities, and the Knights of the  Round Table.

Tales of the supernatural both fascinating and mystical.

The raging sea, turbulent wind and  blinding rain made for cautionary tales of the treacherous coastline.

But the romantic heritage of the Breton lifestyle and scenery is hypnotic like the noise of pebbles on sandless beaches skittering on the ocean.

Despite eating crêpes on the beach, one of my favorite treat was to walk to the boulangerie to buy a far breton.

A slice of far breton – a delicious custardy pastry with prunes.

Like a boat on her beam-ends at low tide, slouching and lounging on a sunny bench to devour the entire package carefully prepared and taped by the boulangère.

The tall tiny pyramid of pink paper with a sturdy square base tied up with brown ribbon to open delicately until the first sight of a prune inside the package.

And that golden-brown crust!

The recipe I am giving you here is for a spiced far breton - served in individual bowls. You can always make a bigger one in a regular baking dish to slice up.

I also like to cook them in silicone baking molds to eat them on-the-go and transport them for a picnic, for example.

My spiced version – which is non traditional – also adds raisins in the mix with cloves, cardamom, lemon and orange flavors.

Easy to make and easier to eat!

I miss spending time in Brittany.

The white and blue houses.

The orange and pink bright colorful spots of flowers.

The French sailor’s striped shirts.

The elegance of Quimper.

The historic port of Concarneau.

The sand dunes of Fouesnant.

The waterside walks of Pont-Aven.

The house in Loctudy.

And the windy granite cliffs of the Pointe du Raz, where it is fun to pretend you can fly by extending the arms as the wind blow through coats and hoods.

La mer tourne

autour de ses noms

la baie, le cap

le sillon

la presqu’île, la ria, le marais

et forment un paysage

Saint-Michel, Fréhel

Talbert

Crozon, Etel, Guérande

qui confirment un pays

où la mer tourne autour de la terre

sous la lumière du soleil”

La terre tourne – poem by Yvon Le Men

Spiced Far Breton

2 Tbsp (30 g) butter

3.5 oz (100 g) of pitted dried plums, sliced lengthwise

0.8 oz (25 g) of raisins

zest and juice of 1 orange

1 lemon

1/2 teaspoon of ground cloves

11 cardamom pods, crushed

3/4 cup (150 g) of sugar

1 cinnamon stick

2 Tbsp spiced rum (I use the MA locally made Diabolique rum)

3 eggs

pinch of salt

2 teaspoon of vanilla extract

1 cup (25 cl) milk

4 Tbsp of spelt flour

1/2 teaspoon of guar gum

pinch of ground cinnamon

Lightly butter small individual bowls with 1 Tbsp of butter. I use bowls with a 3.5 in. (9 cm) diameter and 2 in. (5 cm) high.

You can also use silicone baking molds – pour less dough than for individual bowls.

Place them on a baking sheet and preheat the oven to 425 °F (220 °C).

Prepare the dried plums and raisins first. Make sure to let them marinate overnight. If pressed for time, at least marinate for 2 hours.

In a small sauce pan, bring to a boil the orange juice and juice of half the lemon.

Add the ground cloves, crushed cardamom pods, 1/4 cup (50 g) of the sugar, the orange and lemon zests, the cinnamon stick and the rum to the sauce pan.

Mix well and let simmer for 4 minutes.

Discard the 11 crushed cardamom pods and pour the liquid/syrup over the sliced plums and raisins in a small bowl. Make sure they are covered.

Set aside overnight.

When you are ready to make the far breton, remove the cinnamon stick and zests from the bowl with the prunes and raisins. Drain them but keep the syrup.

In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs with the rest of the sugar (1/2 cup or 100 g) until smooth.

Add the pinch of salt, vanilla extract and milk. Whisk well.

Sift the flour and guar gum over the bowl. Gently incorporate the flour to the dough.

If you prefer a spicier taste, use the marinating syrup and add 1 Tbsp to the dough. Otherwise, discard the syrup.

Place prunes and raisins at the bottom of the lightly buttered individual bowls. Pour the dough over and fill the bowls 3/4 full.

Add a pinch of ground cinnamon on top of every bowl.

Bake for 25-27 minutes (less time if you’re using smaller silicone baking molds).

Set aside and let cool at room temperature. Sprinkle each far breton with tiny pieces of butter for a more authentic taste. Divide the last Tbsp of butter among all bowls. Let the butter melt and serve.

Frenchie and les Fêtes – New Year

12 Jan

Sunny and warm in Le Mans. Cold and brisk in Paris upon arrival.

A mere 55-minute fast TGV train ride later transported into the bustling busy heart of the capital.

It’s like I haven’t left. Same bearings. Just that easy.

How the weather can be drastically different 130 miles (210 km) apart remains a mystery.

Goodbye Christmassy Le Mans. Bonjour New Year à Paris !

Grandma’s welcoming cosy apartment hasn’t changed. Sorry, it has.

With the winter coat still on and heavy bags in my cold and swollen hands, a careful inspection of the new installed modern windows is inevitable.

And the couch has been firmed up too. We do need to sit down to christen it.

One by one, the fresh exciting new additions of the comfortably decorated home are pointed out so I am briefed and caught up on all things current.

Regarde, c’est nouveau aussi, ça !

Nouveau or old, the place is full of memories and in my eyes a time capsule filled with visions of a past not to be forgotten – even with new windows!

Why don’t you replace this framed painting? You realize it’s been on the wall for 25 years. Here, there’s this new frame you have in the closet just dying to be hung and seen. Just sayin’.

And just like that – out with the old and on with the nouveau. The faded painting was swiftly replaced.

That’s what France is all about – a charming delightful shuffle of different eras and genres.

Just like in the post about New York City, discovering new places and neighborhoods in Paris is a favorite hobby of mine par excellence.

Loosing oneself in unknown territories, taking an uncertain turn only to end up somewhere familiar and suddenly guffawing I didn’t realize this was here!

It’s the magic of Paris. Big city, big crowds, quiet corners and silent escapes with photo opportunities at each foot step. Even when lost, familiar reference points pop unexpectedly.

The pleasure of the unexpected.

This year, my wandering mind was set to explore the areas of le Parc Montsouris (14th), la Butte aux Cailles (13th), Passy (16th) and… the list is quite long and there won’t be enough time.

La campagne à Paris (20th) and le Canal St Martin (10th) will just have to wait.

Finding different itineraries emanating provincial resonances in the heart of the city. J’adore !

A celebratory mood was floating in the air. The family was boiling with excitement.

Christmas, New Year, oui ! But also birthdays to celebrate. Gran turning 80 and Dad 53.

Just the special occasion needed to dress to the nines and dine at fancy brand new restaurant Cobéa.

Black, white and gray shaded, Cobéa served a delicate innovative tasting menu. Impressed is not the right adjective to describe the experience.

Amazed, possibly. Astonishingly and deliciously prestigious would be more appropriate.

An exceptional night to remember.

Spending time in Paris is also a way to uncover and hunt for new food places.

A morning visit to Au Petit Versailles du Marais bakery, which a dear friend recently renovated and reopened a month ago proved to be a perfect Parisian breakfast stop.

Belle Époque ceiling, tiles and mirrors. A sunny illuminated corner. Delicious breads and pastries. A restful nook for a French breakfast experience.

Americans should enjoy this spot for it provides several tables, which is a rarity in a Paris bakery.

If you happen to walk by the St Paul subway stop on line 1 and venture up to the corner of rue Tiron and rue Miron (4th), you’ll find this gem.

The early hours of the morning will brighten your day as the sun rises on your fresh and crispy pain au chocolat.

A visual pleasure.

Another day, another bakery visit.

I. Can’t. Stop.

Sébastien Gaudard opened a month ago as well on chic rue des Martyrs (9th).

Clean and refined surfaces for a bright crisp pâtisserie shop.

Uncluttered atmosphere.

The sophistication of the splendid pastries made the visit that much more exquisite.

Especially when I left with a rich chocolate tart and a mini buttery kouglof crossed with a pain aux raisins.

Meanwhile, the outdoor plentiful Christmas markets are in full swing.

Food, fabrics, Christmas gifts – it’s a gastronomic Tour de France where regional specialties collide in one spot.

A cup of mulled wine in one hand. A Nutella almond crêpe in the other. The markets swarm with crowds looking to get a taste of something they’ve never heard of before.

The Alsacian and Corsican booths are always the busiest.

But the enormous gooey cheesy tartiflette spread displayed in a giant pan at the Savoie corner attracts the biggest gatherings and gasps.

Contrasting with this country vibe, the sparkling and fully decorated shiny Grands Magasins next door provide an elegant getaway from the rustic markets.

Everybody knows that gazing at the department stores’ windows is a must-do when in Paris for les Fêtes.

On December 31, the city magically emptied itself. Subways, shops and streets.

Alone in St Germain. And alone again at Châtelet.

An end-of-year special treat while last-minute food shopping out and about.

A quest for the impromptu while consciously making lists in my head about the New Year’s Day feast menu striding along the streets.

Foie gras, duck confit, Corsican bean ragoût, mandarin-chocolate bûche – we’re all set.

A final purchase. Bon réveillon Monsieur ! Small storekeepers and customers alike glow with a joyful glee at the idea of a festive evening spent with friends or family.

At home, the apéritif and petits fours already await.

Midnight in Paris. A balmy 55 degree (13 C) night. 2012 is ahead of us.

Crowds dancing at the St Michel fountain.

Men and women kissing and hugging each other as they curve their walk to follow the winding Seine.

Champagne bottles heard popping on the 3rd floor of 25 rue du Temple.

Music playing throughout the streets between Odéon and le Champ de Mars.

And after a copious New Year’s Eve dinner with friends, a gentle 2-mile stroll with coats wide open and no scarf to admire the city at night was the best way to start a new year.

The warmest since 1883 or so they say.

And the first meal of 2012?

Delightfully prepared with love and care.

Abundantly colorful, rustic and tasty.

A simple yet stunning time spent around a cheerful table.

The wines kept for 15 years in the cellar made a [too-brief] appearance on the table.

In all honesty, they disappeared too quickly.

2012 was celebrated the entire day until dessert, coffee and 50-year old liquors and brandies were poured. Even then there was still room to ingest more.

Good wishes and steady health. A prosperous new year ahead.

Recurring thanks and wishes flying out of everyone’s mouths.

And as all good things come to an end, the trip nearing completion with a myriad of Paris memories thronging, we’ll remember while closing the 2011 window to widespread espèrance – hope – and optimism in the new year.

Bonne Année à tous.

Frenchie and les Fêtes – Christmas

10 Jan

I’ll be home for Christmas.

Jazzy Christmas songs playing in the background while packing the suitcase. Unfocused. So many things to bring and think about.

Swanky Christmas parties were going full swing in Boston. France was waiting for me at the end of the tunnel.

But not before a quick hop to Milwaukee, WI to celebrate the Holidays with friendly faces and midwestern friends.

And from there, time seemed to have granted my wish to fly as fast as possible while I put my suitcase down in front of a familiar French door, pressing on the doorbell and waiting impatiently for someone to come and open it.

Enfin arrivé !

A cold frosty December morning but a warm house. The yellow light piercing through the windows is soft, peaceful and inviting.

For days now the white-walled bedroom has been carefully prepared for my arrival.

As I place my bags next to the hot radiator, I can’t help but notice the welcoming French sun already warming the garden and the twinkling grass all around. The white shiny frost will melt fast enough that we can probably leave the windows and doors wide opened this afternoon.

It’s cold in the morning but unusually warm by mi-day.

Ce n’est pas normal en décembre.

A quick lunch is in order though. Something easy, something small.

We have 3 soups ready in the fridge.

We can make a tri-colored soup bowl.

Mais oui, une tri-soupe.

Saucissons – oui !

Let’s peel some potatoes and cook them in the fireplace.

And I’m sure the fish guy next door has some pollock for us.

Look at this dark wild blackberry home-made jam, it will pair royally with the tart we made.

As I said, effortlessly easy and small.

Il y a du fromage aussi !

Jet lag now digested, it was time to decorate the Christmas tree. Une tradition.

The dusty boxes and old suitcases full of Christmas decorations were brought up from the cool cellar next to the wine arousing amazement and joy in the bright eyes of young and old alike.

Colorful shiny tinsel writhing on the floor, old familiar ornaments slowly climbing the tree with small and big hands placing them carefully on the aromatic spiky green branches.

As kids, my brother and I used to split ornaments according to our favorites so we would only hang the ones we each liked.

Needless to say, I had already coveted some of his ornaments. But then I started to wonder if I would still be able to get away with stealing and hanging 2 or 3 from his pile of ornaments like I used to do.

Ironically, my mum proactively interjects – les garçons, no fighting!

Embracing the old with the new, we deliberately settle for treating ourselves with different flavors during the Christmas Eve dinner – called le Réveillon.

No particular liking in keeping with the traditional oysters, foie gras, roasted capon and chestnuts, potatoes, apple compote and Christmas dessert (bûche).

Our feast would include trout mousse spread, savory petits fours and foie gras. And this was not even the appetizer!

All night long, the table witnessed a parade of courses and dishes – tasty oysters, a velvety watercress soup, a citrusy prawn curry with pineapple, a plentiful cheese tray, a spectacular pyramid of French macarons, a Christmas fruit salad with ginger and black peppercorns and other delicious dishes and variations of traditional well-known recipes.

Pouring another glass of Champagne, reaching for yet another macaron and pretending the night is still young, we discerned signs of fatigue through the joyful promise of staying up all night.

And then came Christmas morning.

I can’t tell you why it’s difficult for me to sleep on Christmas morning. I try and try again to stay quietly in bed but to no avail.

And right by my side, as the sun caresses the chair I can barely see from the bed with its first morning rays, all I can think of is Christmas breakfast.

Waiting for everyone to awake in order to open presents is a growing harrowing pain that shouldn’t be described.

Everyone’s polished and shiny shoes were delicately placed under the glistening tree since the night before – waiting for Santa. They are now filled and stuffed with presents. Presents all around them.

Yes, stockings in the U.S. and shoes in France. But not your everyday casual shoes. Non, non ! Your best dressed shoes are required. And they should be clean and sparkling – don’t want to offense Santa!

It’s an unusual Christmas morning.

It’s warm. Really warm.

We could almost eat outside!

And we do!

Amidst the scattered pieces of noisy wrapping papers and bright-colored strings, we managed to play in the pleasantly floodlit garden, say Joyeux Noël to farm animals and frugally eat a casual lunch-snack outside.

A warm woolen sweater and a thick scarf are sufficient. The winter coats can stay locked inside.

Even the ladybugs joined us!

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without an afternoon family activity.

When the entire city shuts down and celebrations stretch through the day, a walk in the old city of Le Mans would prove to be the perfect Christmas outing for everyone.

The oldest buildings date from the 14th century but most are from the 15th and 16th centuries.

I’ve walked these streets a million times but always take a detour to go back, admire and recapture the dramatic feeling of times past with elegant, iconic quaint scenery.

Winding and undulating, the streets of le vieux Mans are uniquely well-preserved.

And that’s what les Fêtes (The Holidays) are in France – probably a lot more subdued and modest than in the U.S.

But above all, a time spent with family around a beautifully decorated tree and table where food, quality time and laughter take a center stage.

Next stop: Paris – coming soon!

A special thank you to BostInno for placing a special order of Holiday cocktails before Christmas and publishing the article.

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