Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Finally enjoying some summer weather (and another gastronomy weekend)

Everyone is complaining about the miserable weather we had to date.  Sun was few and far between.  Then last week, while I had to clean to house before Nina & Damien arrive for the weekend, we had lovely hot sunny weather.  On Friday the temp went up to 35°+ - but I didn't complain, although I wished I could rather be outside than sweating inside getting everything ready.  The hot humid weather was interrupted by rain during the day, twice. But by the time JL arrived with N&D, we've decided the sun is back, we can take the chance to try out the new weber, that still had to be assembled. Alas, by the time JL&D finished doing that, the rain came down in full force and we had to put a chicken in the oven. Followed by a blueberry tart I've made for the first time, so easy and delicious (especially with the cream on top).
Blueberry tart:
1 sheet of puff pastry
3 eggs
3 tablespoons of castor sugar
200 ml cream (and more to serve - for that I've used a spray bottle of cream, easy and delicious)
1kg fresh blueberries (I've managed to find wild ones in the shop)
Butter the tart mould, fit it with the puff pastry and then with the blueberries. Beat the eggs with the sugar and fold the cream into the mixture. Pour it over the berries and bake for 25 min at 220°C.  Let it cool down a bit. Serve with more cream. Enjoy! (enough for 8 people, otherwise for 4, and you eat the leftovers the next day!)

Saturday the weather was not as hot, nor as sunny, but at least not too cold.  I've cooked my first rabbit, as it is JL's job to normally cook the 'poor little'.  And the result was not bad, even though I've realised at the beginning that I didn't have 2 of the ingredients. So here is my version (for those who might be lucky to find rabbit in a shop in SA):
Rabbit in red wine:
3 leeks
250g pork belly, cut into thin slices
1 rabbit, cut into 6 pieces
375 ml red wine
375 ml chicken stock
1 bouquet garni (if from a bottle, as you can buy it in a spice bottle in France, take about 3)
1 clove garlic, crushed
salt & pepper
Heat some olive oil in a pot and sauté the leeks until soft. Add the pork belly and fry until browned. While doing this fry the rabbit in another pan (unless if your pot is huge, then you add it to the fried pork belly & leeks) and add to the pot.  Add the wine and simmer for a short while.  Add the stock, bouquet garni, garlic, salt & pepper.  Simmer for about 1.5 h. Remove the rabbit from the pot and cover with aluminium to keep warm.  Reduce the stock until it is thick, then reintroduce the rabbit pieces to reheat.  Serve with potatoes. Bon appetit!

That was followed by another first time recipe, peaches cooked in a white wine syrup and served with roquefort cheese and montbazillac, a sweet white wine. An unusual combination, but pretty to serve and sure delicious to eat too!
375ml dry white wine
250g castor sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla flavour
6 peaches
roquefort cheese
Combine the wine & sugar in a pot and when it gently starts to boil, add the vanilla flavour.  Once the sugar has dissolved add the peaches (in one layer).  - Keep the skins of the peaches on, as it gives the syrup a lovely pink colour.  Simmer the peaches until they are soft (turn them around to ensure that they cook all around).  Remove the peaches and put them in the fridge.  Continue boiling the wine & sugar until it is a syrup. Remove the peaches from the fridge and peel them (the skins come of easily). Place each peach on a plate with 2 thin slices of roquefort and spoon some of the syrup over the peach and the cheese.

Then, happy days, yesterday we could celebrate summer! Doing a barbeque while enjoying an apéritif outside. And I had to try out the Christmas gift that the children gave us, a recipe book and little glasses and plates for apéritif! I'll give you both recipes, as both have ingredients that you'll easily find in SA.
The one I'll rather use as a starter in the future, as it is a bit too big for an apéritif:
1/2 onion
75g beef mince
10 g pine nuts
tablespoon of chopped italian parsley
4 green olives
1 egg
puff pastry
Cut the onion in small pieces and fry in oil. Add the mince, salt & pepper and fry for a few min. Add the pine nuts and remove from the heat, leaving it to cool down slightly.  Add the parsley (keeping the stems).  Cut the olives in small pieces and add to the meat mix.  Boil the egg and cut into 4.
In France the frozen pastry is always in a circle, unlike in SA where it is rectangular. Hence I've cut the circle in 4 and did a little basket, tying the pastry together with the parsley stem (not working well, I have to admit). But the original idea (suitable for the SA shape) is to cut the pastry in rectangulars, then put the mix onto it, add the 1/4 egg and roll it , tying the ends with the parsley stems, making it look like a sweety.  Bake it in the oven at 190°C for 12 min. (serves 4)
The other one, very good on toasted bread (see photo above), although it is also good with fish/seafood:
3 tomatoes
 shallot (if difficult to find in SA, try a red onion, but only 1/4)
juice of 1/4 lemon
1 tablespoon of black olives, pips removed
1 handful of basil leaves
Cut a small cross in each tomato, then pour boiling water over the tomatoes and leave for about 1 min (not too long, as tomatoes become a bit mushy). It should then be easy to peel of the skins. Cut the tomatoes in small pieces (removing the pips and juice). Cut the shallot in small pieces, as well as the olives.  Roll the basil leaves together and cut them in pieces. Mix all in a bowl, add the lemon juice, salt & pepper to taste and keep cold until you need it.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

More on village life

Another first last Saturday - my first wedding in France! A young girl who used to worked with JL on research projects and also studied at the same engineering school and also a Parisian got married to a champagne guy from Verzenay.  We were fortunate to be invited to the church and what they call, the wine in honour.  In France you can invite friends, colleagues, all the people you would like to invite but is not close enough to be invited to the reception, to the church and the wine in honour afterwards, which comprise champagne and some small snacks, in our case, brioche, salty bread and the famous rose biscuit from Reims.  Knowing there's not much parking at the church, we've decided to walk from our house, as it is not far. Punishment to me who is not use to wearing high heels anymore! 
The process is a bit different from our weddings.  A group of the family walks in at the beginning and afterwards the bride with her dad.  I don't think the Parisians who attended the wedding realised the parking problem we have in our village and a number of people were quite late for the wedding.  And the seats in the church were by far not enough, so a group ended up standing in the back.
The church is in the main street. At the end of the service we went outside, no little girls with confetti or rose leaves to throw.  Even though the main street comprises two lanes, some people parked in the street and the rest of the main street were blocked by all the guests who gathered outside of the church.  Eventually a big car decided he is no longer waiting for this, and started steering his way through the people pressing them against the parked cars, followed by other cars which have piled up behind.  I was fearing someone's toes will be squashed int he process, but by the time we left, all was fine.  I was shaking my head, this is village life in France.  You have a wedding and the main street is impossible for traffic!
the bride's car in the champagne valley (this is what you'll see in the vineyards while they are working):

We left to Mailly where the wine of honour was served.  The bottles were from the bridegroom's house with the labels having their names and date on it.  It was held at the same co-op where I have parked in May during the gastronomy fête and in the corner of the big open hall (under roof) were a little orchestra playing jazz music while guests were queuing to congratulate the couple and waiters were walking up and down to refill the champagne glasses.

The next day we had the first proper summer day and decided we have to profit of the good weather.  Fortunately JL grilled a chicken in the oven the previous evening, so the leftovers were perfect for a picnic, together with half a bottle of SA red wine we still had.  We've packed the picnic bag and off we went for a walk in the forest, following small tracks not used by many people. In fact, we've met no other people. After all the rains we've had it was very muddy, but eventually we found a small open sunny spot in the forest where we could enjoy our picnic.

The barley was ready to be harvested and with the good weather arriving at last, the farmers moved quickly during the week to get their crop off the land.  You could hear the harvesting machines during the day and even in the evenings, even though we are surrounded by the vineyards and the crops are all in the valley below.  And you dust the house today to find everything covered in a layer of dusty sand by tomorrow!

As in SA, works take place during the big holidays, which have commenced recently.  First our main road to Mailly was closed for works, now it is the road to Verzy.  With all the rain that we've had there are much more work in the vineyards (spraying against pests and cutting the branches to keep them tidy) - which results in more traffic on the small village roads (in addition to numerous tourists getting lost in small village roads).  The combination with the works in the road results in traffic jams that I can at times hardly enter our house!  The streets are so narrow, that you have to wait for others to pass before you can move and by then you cannot enter, as there are other cars who want to pass - a nightmare, fortunately my reverse parking is not bad (as that is the best way to access our driveway!).

Finding a place for holiday on short notice is another story.  One realises there are just so much more people than in SA when you try to find a place and it fills up while you are investigating whether it is a good place or not.  Finally I decided to throw in the towel, we can stay at home for all that I care.  Fortunately with JL insisting that we look for a place not far from Fouras, we've managed to find a place in Ile d'Oleron, a great place to cycle and for him to enjoy oysters! I hope we'll have good weather though...

This morning we went exploring the Côte de Blanc (the region that mainly grows chardonnay to make champagne, on the other side of the Montagne) with Nina and Damien who arrived last night from Paris to visit us for the weekend.  And once again I had to admit, we live in a beautiful region and there are still so many places around us to explore!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Old fortifications in Ardenne

The previous post was so long, I had to split our Ardenne experiences into two posts!
The North West of Ardenne is an important border since the era of the Gauls.  It was very strategic during an insecure and instable political era, hence today it is an important heritage of fortifications.
While N&H were traveling in Prague, my mom and I headed towards this region to explore Rocroi, a village fortified in the shape of a star.

 The beautiful green campagne road passes farms with grazing cattle and forests and we were ooh-ing and aah-ing all the way.  Unfortunately, as the road is one of the roads leading to Belgium (2.5km north of Rocroi), and going through the forest areas, there were many heavy trucks with wood on the road.  But the beautiful surroundings made up for that.
Rocroi (Roche du Roy - or in English: Rock of the King, briefly renamed during the Revolution to Roc-Libre, Free Rock) played an important role in the history of France.  King François I (the one who also built Chambord I wrote about, and many other places, and let Leonardo de Vinci came from Italy to live in Amboise) chose Rocroi as important (inaccessible) defense to protect the kingdom and instructed the fortification of the village.  Later Vauban, famous designer of many fortifications in France, spent three years in Rocroi, and created a double line of protection, wanting to have 26 fortications (including some churches) along the border, of which Rocroi formed part. Today you can follow the different marked tourist routes to explore these fortifications (or what is left of some).
Considered as one of the ten biggest military victories in the history of France is the Battle of Rocroi, on 19 May 1643, during the Thirty Years War.  Spain was very powerful during this period and occupied Belgium and the Netherlands at that stage.  The Spanish commenced an attack on France and chose to go via Rocroy.  After an intense battle at Rocroy, the Spanish had to retreat after a major loss. This was an important victory to Louis de Bourbon, future Prince of Condé, and one of a few major battefield defeats over Spain in more than a century, especially a defeat over one of their most famous units. 
 Even though Spain did manage to occupy Rocroi 10 years later in 1653, it was returned to France during the signing of the peace treaty, the Peace of the Pyrennees.
We didn't visit the Museum dedicated to this famous battle, but were walking through the village, disappointed that it seems a bit neglected and not much going on and not much information on display.  There was a bitterly cold wind blowing and we haven't dressed warm enough for the day (despite being a beautiful region, they don't often have beautiful weather...) and were happy to find a restaurant where we could sit inside and enjoy a wonderful traditional French meal. 
Above: the town square
Below: an old passage (you don't need a map for the village - impossible to get lost!)
The fortification (it was after lunch, fortunately the weather improved by then)

At 2pm, like in the rest of France, places opened after the long lunch break, and we could fetch some brochures on the region as we have decided we would like to see other places in the vicinity, but were a bit unprepared, as we didn't expect to spend such a short time in Rocroy.  Escaping the cold by sitting in the car glancing through a handful of brochures and checking the distances on the GPS, we've settled for the Château de Montcornet.
Along the road (us still ooh-ing and aah-ing for the beautiful surroundings) we've passed people hiking, forests, more farms.  It is just one of those regions where, if you have beautiful weather (which we had by then), you can have an awesome time.
The château de Montcornet is one of the biggest medieval fortifications in the Ardenne.  At the end of the 10th-c the archbishops of Reims and the earls of Champagne wanted to secure this region against invasions from the Germanics.

The château changed hands over the centuries.  In 1303 the then owners built a chapel next to the château, the chapelle Sainte Marie Madeleine (recently restored). 
In 1446 the château was purchased by Antoine de Croy, a soldier and diplomat, who transformed the castle to suit artillery and iron balls.  Other owners to follow were Charles de Gonzague, a descendant of Richelieu and other marquis and dukes.  Today the castle hosts a museum, but unfortunately it was closed on the day that we have visited.
One can do an 1 hour walk around the castle - but considering the up and downhills it will comprise, we've used the excuse of not having enough time!

The village is beautiful, the wide clean tidy streets, neat stone houses, the gardeners were busy working the village gardens, you have a beautiful view from the castle.  Worth a visit!
Above: an arty creation of the castle in a garden
Below: a pretty guest house
Above: the beautiful view from the castle
Below: on the way back we first tried a small road but after a few nerve wrecking moments we've decided to join the bigger road asap. At one stage I had to stop for road works and I've managed to capture the beautiful surroundings from the car!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Exploring the Ardenne region

Even though there are some French who are a bit snobbish towards the Ardenne, and even though it is not on the main tourist routes of France, it is really a beautiful region.  And except for numerous hikers you'll meet along the way, it is a pleasure to escape from the over 'touristy' areas.  Once you're in it and start exploring it, you realise there are far more to the Ardenne than just its natural beauty.  It is also steep in history.
We've done two trips to the Ardenne when having our visitors during May/June.  First via Sedan towards the Ardenne region of Belgium (Bouillon and Rochehaut which I have already covered in a post during last year) and then returning via Charleville-Mézières.
On the way to Sedan you pass the Woinic, the biggest wild pig in the world and an important symbol of the Ardenne where you will find saucisson made from wild pig on a regular basis (very good!).
The Woinic, along the highway and difficult to miss, is almost 10 m high, 14 m long and 5 m wide and weighs 50 t!  The sculptor Eric Sléziak designed and created the Woinic, starting on 1 January 1983 and 120 000 hours of work and 11 years later, completed his task on 11 December 1993.
The Woinic started its 55 km journey from the sculptor's workshop in Bogny-sur-Meuse on 4 August 2008 and reached its destination on 8 August 2008, written 08-08-08, the day of the century for the Ardenne people. I need to explain.  In France each department has a number. That number is used in numerous documentation, the postal code (the first 2 nrs in a postal code in France indicates which department the village is in), the car registration, etc.  And the number for the Ardenne is 08!

From there it wasn't far to Sedan with the largest fortified medieval castle in Europe, covering 35 000 m2 with its 7 storeys (and its walls thicker than 7 m!).  Sedan has observed much in history.  During the religious wars in France the Protestants were welcomed in Sedan where they contributed to its wealth.  Napolean III was captured in Sedan in 1870 in the Franco-Prussion war, the Germans occupied the castle for four years during WWI.  From Jan 1917 - Nov 1918 the castle was a place of extermination where thousands of civil French and Belgiums were condemned to hard labour, where they have met their death, for their acts of resistance.  180 000 people were send to camps in Germany and in the invaded Sedan 30 000 were killed as a result of 8 000 bombs.  And during WWII, the Germans first invaded Belgium from where they crossed the Meuse River and won the Second Battle of Sedan (12-15 May 1940).  By doing so they have not only bypassed the French fortification system, the Maginot Line, but it also enable them to entrap the Allied Forces that were advancing east into Belgium.

Each year during May Sedan hosts a medieval fête during which period (a weekend) the area around the château is fenced off and once inside, you can explore the numerous stands, shows, walk through people dressed in old fashioned clothes, visit little 'camps' where you can buy something to drink or eat.  For my mom, who had been there last year, it was quite a contrast to visit it this year again, but not during the fête.  From a complete buzz and squeezing your way through crowds, to silence, not much life around the castle.
Inside the courtyard of the castle where you'll find a hotel and a restaurant
From Sedan it was on towards Belgium to visit Bouillon's castle and have lunch at Rochehaut, where the weather started to change.
I'm not a beer drinker, but if there's one beer I do drink, it's the one of Rochehaut. So my friends had to taste it as well!
With the weather changing and having to be at the station in the evening to fetch JL, we've decided to return to France and visit Charleville-Mézières on the way back.  In 1966 the communities of Charleville and Mézières, with smaller communities in the vicinity, were all joined into one town.
The Romans built a road from Reims to Cologne, building a city in the bend of the Meuse river.  This city was destroyed by fire in the 10th-c, at which stage Mézières already existed not far from there.  In Mézières the church of the Notre-Dame was constructed from 1499-1601 and it was here that king Charles IX got married to Elisabeth of Austria in 1571.
In 1521 the cavalier Bayard defended Mézières against the imperial troops of Charles of Habsburg.  This battle had an important consequence for the development of the town, as its importance in the royal defence was acknowledged and it became a town enclosed by an important defense system.  Sadly Mézières was heavily bombarded during the last two days of WWI and 50% of the town was destroyed.

In 1606 Charles de Gonzague decided to construct Charleville.  (He was a French-Italien and duke of Rethel, also in the Ardenne, as well as Mantua in Italy, another place worth a visit.)  The site was chosen at a bend of the Meuse, on the site of the old Roman city.  One of the aims while constructing the new town was to rival Sedan, which became a Protestant stronghold.  Architect Clément II Métezeau, brother of the architect who designed Place des Vosges in Paris, was instructed to design Charleville's la Place Ducale, which reminds one of Place des Vosges.
Having coffee on the square
The ideal car to drive in France...
The statue of Charles de Gonzague
Wandering the pedestrian area of the town
Charleville-Mézières is also know for its international puppet show and Arthur Rimbaud, French poet who was born in Charleville in 1854.  The Rimbaud museum is hosted in an old mill.  To my surprise I got to know more about this child genius who wrote his first poems at the age of 15 and became a traveller and explorer (and suspicious dealer) in Africa in a book I am currently reading: Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux (good book to read).  The book covers his travel from Cairo to Cape Town and in the walled city of Harar he writes about Rimbaud who lived there, not wanting people to know who he was or where he comes from.  Until a French explorer saw his name and told his boss who Arthur Rimbaud is. Now I'll have to go back to visit the museum!
Above & below: the museum in the old mill
Above: houseboats along the Meuse
Below: a park bordering the river and the museum