Friday, June 12, 2009

Some travel tips

Once a trip is over, as ours is now, it is normal to reflect and offer suggestions for future travelers. What follows will be familiar to seasoned vacationers, but may still serve as helpful reminders for people planning trips to France.

Everyone entering the post office in our village was greeted by a sign reading patientez, s.v.p. “Be patient, please.” This could be the guiding slogan for life in France. Americans, an especially impatient group, have to adjust. Restaurants expect people to appreciate how good food takes time to prepare. Clerks in stores tend to be friendly and helpful, spending lots of time with people who have questions. This means that those in line simply need to learn how to wait and, well, patientez.

The restaurant staff will not bring a bill until it is asked for. L’addition, s’il vous plaît the key phrase.

French restaurants should provide ample free water. Une carafe d’eau is the phrase for this service. Fancier restaurants may prefer customers to buy bottled water, but they too, should courteously provide a carafe.

As far as wine, most restaurants will offer an inexpensive pitcher, typically in 25, 50 and 100 centiliter sizes. Look for pichet on the menu or ask. Some restaurants may not have a pichet but will bring a house selected, inexpensive bottled wine. In and around Lyon or in Lyon and Beaujolais-style restaurants, the house wine is served in a 46 centiliter pot.

In a new, unknown situation, we tend to look for restaurants that have a notice announcing their selection by Le Guide Routard 2009. Routard is a dependable source for a good quality/price combination. Its selections are classified according to cost. This means that a Routard insignia on a really low-priced place will not offer the same quality as the insignia on a higher priced establishment. Check the menu before deciding.

Restaurants with large menus are often tourist traps.

ATM/Credit cards
France has loads of ATM’s. This is the best way to get cash. Check with your bank to make sure the card works abroad. Typically, cards with Visa or MasterCard logos offer no problem. If the trip will last long, make sure to check the card’s expiration date. Always bring a backup (either an additional copy of the same card or a second, different card). The magnetic tape on the back of my card seems to have worn out near the end of our time in France.

France is also well wired for credit cards. French cards have an imbedded chip and waitstaff may be puzzled about the need to swipe American cards. They may also not know that sometimes a quicker swipe or a swipe in the reverse direction will do the trick. Some inexpensive restaurants do not take cards.

While there is no problem in hotels and most restaurants, there are places where the American card does not work. The Paris Metro system is one of them. We have also found that the card readers at self-serve gas stations do not take American cards. If there is a clerk, typically that person will have a machine on which the card works. It is the reader on the gas pump itself that does not seem to accept American cards. Several years ago, American cards would also not work on the toll booths of the highway system.

Highways are very good, but expensive. Sometimes the toll is collected by a machine, so carrying plenty of change and small denomination bills is a good idea. At toll booths, avoid the lanes that have only a big yellow “T.” This is for people with electronic passes. Look rather for lanes that have either a green arrow alone or a green arrow along with the “T.”
Many hotels now offer WiFi as a matter of course. The only thing to recall is that WiFi accessibility as touted on a hotel's web site need not mean "free" WiFi. Look for sites that actually say “Free WiFi” (WiFi Gratuit), not just "WiFi." In some hotels the WiFi is only operative in the lobby and on the lower floors.

Duty Free
Picking up some perfume or wine at a duty free shop before boarding the return flight is common practice. The package will be sealed and can be brought aboard the plane for the France-US flight. Once in the U.S., people with connecting flights have to store the liquids in their checked bags. This can be done when they are picked up at customs and prior to depositing them for the next flight. People who buy duty-free liquids should be sure they will have room for them in their checked luggage.

Bon voyage and thanks for reading Casually Provence.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Wine Cooperative Feasting

Potato chips, pretzels, a band named Mas Cantes singing “Proud Mary,” “Superstition” and other American songs—where are we? Why in Provence, of course. More specifically, in a small village. Most specifically, at the local cave coopérative. When are we? The Saturday of Ascension weekend. France is a place that has mostly given up on religion. It is nonetheless protective of religious holidays. Since Ascension always falls on a Thursday, this gives workers the opportunity to faire le pont as they call it, make a bridge from the holiday to the weekend by taking Friday off.

For the wine producers in the Vaucluse, Ascension weekend is time for the Festival of Vine and Wine, Fête de la Vigne et du Vin, now in its 15th year. Each cellar organizes its own events. Some transform their parking lots into a showplace for classic cars, others sponsor hikes through the vineyards, yard sales, markets featuring local fruits and vegetables, talks, Bocci tournaments (called boules or petanque here), even the preparation of a giant truffle pizza.

Our local wine cooperative offered dune buggy rides though the vineyards, an exposition of viticultural equipment, displays of vines, a vendor selling cherries just now ripening, and a dinner (preceded by the potato chips and pretzels appetizers, serenaded by the group with the Latino name).

The whole event was low-key. Official opening time for appetizers and dinner was 6 p.m. Having spent long enough in the area to be acquainted with local time consciousness, we did not arrive until 7:00. By that hour there were people milling about the table where before-dinner wine was served. The wine cellar’s parking lot was divided into two areas. One was for the display of equipment used in the vines. The other had long tables set up for the dinner.

Around 8:00, the women who staff the cellar began distributing plates of food, an assiete provençale, salamis, paté, and a prosciutto-style dried meat accompanied by lettuce, cornichons, olives and a roll. The official notice had stated that the price of dinner would include one glass of wine to accompany the main plate, one to accompany the cheese course, and one with dessert. This being France, the one glass rule was ignored. Instead, bottles were placed on the tables and people just helped themselves. On our table were rosés and whites. The easy-going style of the evening meant that, though our table had plenty of wine, no one ever got around to bringing us a bottle of either a red or the sweet wine that was to go with the strawberries and whipped cream dessert.
Seated on one side of us was a Swiss cyclist. Scraping together bits of French, German and English we managed a passable conversation. He makes an annual pilgimmage to climb Mt. Ventoux, does social work near Zurich, and, after dinner, was driving all the way back, a 7 or 8 hour trip. Needless to say, he had only one glass of wine.

On the other side was an actual vinter, a member of the cooperative, someone who was a second generation grape cultivator. He explained how the cooperative helps small owners like himself. It provides not only up-to-date facilities, but also hires experts who help produce the vintages. These advantages are expensive and would be prohibitive without the sharing of costs among cooperative members.

Wine cooperatives are a product of the early 20th century. The 19th century had ended on a difficult note. There was overproduction and a subsequent drop in prices. Most significantly there was phylloxera, an aphid that kills plants at their roots. It had crossed the Atlantic with American vines that had adapted to its presence. Not so French vines. About ½ of France’s vineyards were devastated. The solution was finally to plant American rootstocks. They had the advantage of resistance to phylloxera. They also had a major disadvantage. Their grapes produced bad wine. The compromise solution: graft French grape varietals onto the American rootstocks.

Cooperatives helped small growers survive the difficulties at the turn of the previous century. Today’s challenge is not biologic, but economic, a much more competitive international environment. Just as cooperatives made a difference at the beginning of the 20th century, so they hope to do so in the early 21st. They make it at least possible that our neighbor’s fondest hope will be realized: seeing his grandchildren tend the same vines his own father did.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

looking for lavatories

“Stay hydrated.” This is typical advice given to travellers. In the U.S., land of plentiful drinking fountains, the advice is easy to follow. Here in France, things get a little iffier. France has loads of wonderful fountains. Its artists like Marcel Duchamp sometimes display an ordinary object (see above) and call it "fountain." What finds no place in the landscape is the drinking fountain. What to do? Help the local economy by spending money, i.e. buy bottles of water. They don’t have to be Evian or Vittel. Store brands do just as well.

So now rule 1, stay hydrated, can be followed, if at a cost. Then comes an adjunct to the rule: water in/ water out. This poses a significant challenge. Where oh where to find a public restroom in this country? People visiting France often comment about how the locals must have well-disciplined bladders. Public rest rooms are hard to come by. Clean public rest rooms equipped with toilet paper, even harder.

Some locales are better than others. Passengers on trains find accessible toilets. Major rest areas on the toll-supported highway system are equipped with ample, clean facilities. Customers in large malls are also well served by central public restrooms. Major department stores offer the same, although these are often difficult to find. All of the above are usually free of charge. Railway stations are another good bet for a clean toilets, but charge a fee.

So, with all these opportunities, what’s the problem? Well, tourists do not spend most of their time on trains, on the highways, in malls or railway stations. They find themselves in cities or villages and here things get more challenging. The situation is such that someone is actually selling a pamphlet entitled Paris Pause-Pipi Guide. It identifies the location of public toilets. Without such a guide, or even with it, if one is at quite a distance from the nearest point of relief, the only option is to head for a café and, once again, help out the economy. Two cups of coffee might go for 4 to 6 euros, ($5.60 to $8.40), but will bring with them the privilege of using the café’s toilet. A cheaper option might be to pop into a McDonald’s or its French equivalent Quick. If in an urban area, it will almost always be necessary to ask for the access code to unlock the passage to the rest room.

It used to be easier, at least for men. When I first visited Paris in the 1960s, the city’s streets were dotted with quaint metal structures known as vespasiennes. In less formal parlance, this was a “pissoir.” They were simple: a place to urinate. They were public: right there on the sidewalk; public also in that one’s face and legs were visible. Their strange official name derives from the Roman emperor Vespasius who came up with the idea of levying a tax to support publicly placed bodily relief stations.
Even when vespasians were prevalent, they did nothing to help women. Their replacement, friendly to both sexes, is the sanisette. Sanisettes are strange looking, concrete, oval contraptions. Some are free, some require payment. The inside is mechanically cleaned after each usage. Buying a special guide to their locations is not really necessary. A website run by the Paris mayor’s office provides a list.

The sanisette’s stainless steel efficiency may not be aesthetically satisfying, but it does provide a predictable environment. This is not always the case in cafés at which one has dropped 5 or more dollars. A still prevalent surprise: the “natural way toilet,” better known as the “turkish toilet.” This is essentially a porcelain base in the floor. It has two places for feet and a hole for discharge. As its “natural way” name indicates, we are here brought back to the ways of our far-distant, pre flush-toilet relatives who were adept at the squat-and-go-in-the-woods way of doing things. Except for those who find this nostalgic, the toilette à la turque is an annoyance. It is made all the more so since cafés do not announce ahead of time what will greet the customer who opens the rest room door.

Such surprises are sort of the stock in trade of going abroad. In fact the French rest room search validates two truisms about travel: 1. Why go if it’s not at all different from home? 2. Expect to help the local economy in unexpected ways (water bottle purchase, backup toilet paper, coffee costs in café).

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

offal eating

“If it’s innards I’ll eat it.” There may be something grammatically off in that phrase but it captures my culinary slogan while in France. “Innards” may also be off a bit, since I mean to include feet, ears, and cheeks as well as other unusual edibles. The official English word is “offal.” It signifies whatever is to be discarded when an animal is butchered.

Dishes featuring offal, “variety meats” in the accepted euphemism, were prominent in traditional cuisines. They tended to fall into disfavor with prosperity, quick and easy meals, and a desire to leave peasant roots behind. Then came the 2008 economic downturn. According to statistics released by the French National Confederation of Tripe Suppliers (yes, there is such an organization and “tripe” is shorthand for all “variety meats”), consumption of tripe and tripe products was up by 15% last fall. “There’s a real future in offal, right now” is how the director of the Center for Meat Information put it.

The English-speaking world had a champion of variety meats well before the economic crisis. His name is Fergus Henderson. He specializes in cooking cuts normally rejected by high-end establishments. His London restaurant continues to be one of gastronomy’s most popular spots (among the more famous customers: Madonna and Cate Blanchett ). His outlook is explained in a book aptly titled The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating. One newspaper critic, offering his highest praise, said of Henderson’s cooking “There's a clear line back to the farmyard.”

Well, the farmyard is where it all begins so why disguise it? My own “if it’s innards I’ll eat it” attitude seeks to support such straightforward gastronomy. During our five month stay we have mostly eaten in, but I have been able to indulge my “variety meats” taste somewhat. Some highlights:

One real challenge and the test of a true offal fan is something called andouillette. It’s essentially a strong-smelling sausage stuffed with bits of chopped pig intestine. In nearby Avignon, there is a small restaurant whose owner spent time in San Diego. She, in a dual language pun, calls her place Épice and Love. The andouillette there was delightful. At least I thought so. Admittedly, it's not to everyone's taste.

In a one star restaurant I ordered, as an appetizer, something which even finicky eaters would love (not knowing its source, at least). It is ris de veau, “sweetbreads.” This is calf’s thymus. It comes pan-seared to perfection with a light sauce. Cutting into it reveals a smooth, white texture. If andouillette is for the seasoned innard eater, sweetbreads offers an excellent introduction for the novice. In the Riviera town of St. Raphael, one of the daily lunch specials was tripes niçoises. The tripe are cooked in a sauce which includes tomatoes, white wine, garlic and a bouquet garni. Who could resist?

Sometimes, the appetizer salad includes innards. In the village where we have been staying, one restaurant’s salads features warm chicken livers.

A famous innard dish, which I savored in an Avignon restaurant, is foie gras. This liver preparation is well-liked even by offal avoiders. So much so, that it almost doesn’t really count.

Kidneys definitely count, especially served with a Dijon mustard sauce. An Alsatian chef in the village of Cabris perched above Grasse, overlooking the Mediterranean, did the dish proud.

With time running out, there are some treats still on my agenda. One is salade de gésiers, featuring slices of warm gizzard as the key ingredient. High on my list is an all time favorite, blood sausage. Because of the Cajun influence, we in the U.S. know it by its French name, boudin. Boudin noir served with applesauce and mashed potatoes represents one classic combination. At the end of the month we will be in Paris and I plan to head for Chez Paul, on rue Buttes-aux-Cailles where this combination is especially well prepared. There is also a restaurant here in the village that serves a Provençal specialty, pieds et paquets. The pieds are indeed feet, those of lambs. The paquets are little “packages” whose main ingredient is tripe. Their shape resembles a sort of small stuffed pepper and they are held together by string. With some luck, I’ll get good boudin and pieds et paquets before flying back to the U.S. I doubt that any restaurant back in Albany New York will feature them on the menu.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

American Relativism, French Formalism

A recent book by a French sociologist begins with contrasting anecdotes. The first is a report by a Frenchman visiting the U.S. “Those people eat like animals” is his judgment. Why? Just look at them lined up at the cafeteria counters like pigs at the trough. Some of them are even wearing hats. They eat what they want, down it quickly, then leave. Others, horror of horrors, eat while sitting at their desks.

The second anecdote involves an American visiting France. “Those people eat like animals” is his judgment. Why? They have fixed feeding hours. It’s like they have to wait for their keepers to bring out the food. Everything is highly regimented, not only when to eat, but the order of courses, the limited options, even what wine goes with what food.

Two visitors, two anecdotes, two stereotypes? Well, stereotypes exist and the two anecdotes do touch on different dominating patterns in each country. Americans lean heavily in the direction of relativism. There are no general rules to be followed. “It’s up to the individual” along with “the customer is always right” are widespread slogans. For the French, formalism is more dominant. Certain forms of behavior just are better than others. Good and bad are decidedly not “up to the individual.” These depend on certain patterns rooted in nature and approved by tradition.

Over the years we have faced situations in which we, the customers, were definitely not always right. One involved a Parisian restaurant specializing in the north African specialty couscous. The waiter took our order, couscous with chicken. For beverage, it being a hot summer day, I asked him for beer. Well, I might as well have insulted his mother. He immediately went into a harangue about how the beer/couscous combination was unthinkable. O.k., having once heard about the white-wine-with-chicken rule, I changed my order. Once again an unbelieving, appalled waiter. Non, non, non, pas de vin blanc avec le couscous! Fortunately for me, regrouping was simplified by the situation being a sort of multiple choice exercise. I settled on the only remaining option: red wine. Ah, good selection, said the waiter.

About a decade later, we were living in Lyon and friends came to see us. They had a taste for Italian food. We ordered, and, as is our American habit, asked for some parmesan cheese. Pause. Steely look in the eyes. Unlike the Parisian waiter, this one was evidently having an internal struggle about whether to let loose or not. Finally, he could not help himself. Did we not know how much effort the chef put into getting just the right blend of flavors? Were we so insensitive as to insult the chef by smothering the tastes he had worked so hard to prepare?

Another occasion occurred in a wine store. This was not a fancy place. It was, in fact, a chain. The location was Strasbourg. The season was Christmas. Strasbourg has a lovely and famous Christmas market set up all around the Cathedral. Many stalls sell mulled wine. Since our hotel was equipped with a kitchenette, we decided to make some vin chaud ourselves. To the store clerk’s question about how he could help, I said we were looking for a bottle that would serve as the base for mulled wine. The result was almost another “you have just insulted my mother” moment. “Monsieur, we do not sell such a product here.” Every bottle in his store was meant to be savored for itself. Wine to be adulterated with sugar and spices had no place in an enterprise like his. He could have thought to himself “these are some dumb customers, but, what the heck, they want to spend some money so I will gladly take it.” Instead, formalism ruled. Pride in produce easily outweighed his desire to make another sale.

The most recent of these anecdotes is almost a decade old. Things are changing. Old-style formalism is more and more rare. One sign: ketchup is now widely available as a condiment to be slathered over food. Another sign: at a restaurant several months ago we were seated next to someone who runs a school preparing individuals for work in the hotel and restaurant trade. He told us that his students are imbued with the slogan Le client est roi, “the customer is king,” or, as American relativism would have it, “the customer is always right.”

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Chewing, Obesity, Time at Table

Minutes Daily Spent at Table Horace Fletcher was once a household name. After all, he championed scientific eating and drew a large following. A new century, the twentieth, had just dawned. One key to proper eating was simple chewing. But the chewing fostered by Fletcher was not simple. Right eating demanded that food be liquefied. This could mean hundreds of chews for one mouthful. Not surprisingly he was called the “great masticator.” “Fletcherizing” became all the rage. The novelist Henry James and the industrialist John D. Rockefeller were adepts. Like most food fads, especially ones pushed to a silly extreme (or ones that require special exertion), Fletcherizing eventually faded.

A recent book here in France has, however, re-emphasized Fletcher’s central theme. It’s actually the second book in five years to do so. An earlier, briefer one, Mastiquer C’est la Santé (Masticating is Health), appeared in 2004. The latest book, published on May 7, is called Le Régime mastication (The Mastication Diet). It doesn’t have the fervor of Fletcher’s proselytizing, nor does it insist on chewing until all intake has turned to liquid. It simply emphasizes, based on studies, how careful chewing of food is natural, necessary, and beneficial. Three benefits are highlighted. (1) Quick eating means overeating, a combination avoided by ample mastication. (2) Stomach upsets and bloating are minimized. (3) The digestive tract works more optimally with well-chewed food. All this seems evident enough. What concers the author is the way a lazy chewing fashion has led to the predominance of “soft” food. Certainly at the college where I teach, some students can eat cereal for every meal of the day. Since “soft” is a vague term, there is room for discussion about what counts. The author, for example, classes hamburgers as belonging to the soft food category.

For those who eat quickly without much chewing, another recent food story offered help. One day before Le Régime mastication’s release, a new dietary aid arrived on the French market. The product, called “Alli,” is an anti-obesity pill. Its uniqueness is availability without prescription. The French love medications of all sorts, but it remains to be seen whether this one will be a hit. First of all, the target audience is genuinely obese individuals (body mass index of 28 or higher). Second, it is no magic bullet. For weight loss success, pill intake has to be accompanied by a low-calorie, low-fat diet. Third, the pill works by limiting the absorption of fat, which, being rid by natural means, may necessitate an increased frequency of visits to the restroom. Finally, although available without prescription, the pill will not simply be displayed in a pharmacy showroom. In order to ensure that proper advice is dispensed along with the pill, customers will have to ask the pharmacist for their supply.

“Alli” has been available in the U.S. for several years and has achieved success there. One reason for its popularity may be the level of obesity. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, about one third of the American population has a body mass index of 30 or more. France’s rate is about 1/3 lower. This is so, even though, according to another recent food story, the French spend more time at table than do people in other countries. Anchoring the other extreme, spending the least time at table, is North America’s triad of nations. Citizens in those countries dedicate only about one hour a day to meals. Americans, it turns out, actually spend the most time of this group. Mexicans and Canadians hurry through their eating episodes more quickly. The French take about twice that amount of time to get in their three squares.

Some newspaper headlines misleadingly claimed that what the survey revealed was that the French ate more than people in other countries. But time at table and intake of food are not necessarily proportional. Sociable, leisurely, relaxed eating creates wide expanses of time. Wide expanses of time, in turn, encourage plenty of conversation, pauses between courses, and, almost as an unconscious by-product, ample chewing. There is no need to make a fetish of Fletcherizing. One important result, indicated by comparative levels of obesity: the quantity of food ingested is probably lower than in those countries whose citizens gulp down their softer edibles.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Italian France

Countries often like to tell their history as if it involves a pure line of descendance from some prized ancestral group. Nos ancêtres les Gaulois (our ancestors the Gauls) is how French history books used to begin, even the history books used in African colonies. Such a story of pure origins typically covers over the more mottled, mixed and blended conjuntion of peoples and events that really shaped a country.
Lately, we have come to realize that much of what France prizes as part of its heritage has Italian roots. Take perfume. The city of Grasse, not far from Nice, was once the perfume capital of the world. On a visit there we learned that the town was originally a center for tanning, where hides were transformed into leather. One problem: the leather, given its source, was often accompanied by an unpleasant odor. Then came the Italian connection. Caterina Maria Romula di Lorenzo de’ Medici was her name. She is better known as Catherine de Medici, wife of French king Henry II. She may have brought the practice of scenting leather with oils distilled from flowers. At least that is how one version tells it. The other version has someone in Grasse come up with the idea of perfuming gloves and then presenting a pair to Caterina/Catherine. Once she adopted the practice, it became all the rage, and the French perfume industry took off. Caterina also played a key role in another area in which the French take pride, gastronomy. Leaving cultured Florence for Paris was kind of a bummer for a good looking, wealthy, well-connected young woman. Not wanting to suffer too much in her exile, she brought chefs with her to Paris. The Italian Renaissance, in one of its dimensions, had transformed cooking to new levels of refinement.

It will come as no surprise that Avignon, the nearest big city to our village, owes much of its historical success and architecture to Italians. Exactly 700 years ago the first pope arrived to set down new roots. Having a pope around meant that rich and powerful (Italian) cardinals would soon be arriving, injecting wealth, economic prosperity and architectural novelties into the area. More surprising was what we learned on a visit to Lyon last week. 16th century Lyon was a thriving place. Why? Italians of course. Italian merchants and traders made of it an international business center famous for its commercial fairs.

A lesser known city that is a favorite of ours is the Mediterranean port of Sète. The city is dominated by a mountain in the center, criss-crossed with canals, and bordered by a lovely beach. As a working port it has not yet been transformed totally into a tourist enclave. Its earlier name Cetia indicates the area’s Italian heritage. The city’s local gustatory specialty is called a tielle. Typically when we hear “local specialty” we run the other way. Local specialities stay local because their tastes do not travel well. The tielle is an exception. It’s kind of a pot pie, made with octopus. A key ingredient, here comes the Italian influence, is tomato sauce. Really, it is good, a lot better than I am making it sound.

Several key personalities in France also were initially Italian. In the late 60s a singer and movie actor sort symbolized French artists who combined their talents with political activism. His name was Ivo Livi. He gained fame as Yves Montand. Today, the French first lady is Italian-born Carla Bruni. Most prominent of all is an individual known everywhere. He came to life as the child of parents named Carlo and Letizia. He had an older brother named Giuseppe. His birth name: Napoleone di Buonaparte.