Friday, December 21, 2007

Snow in Coux!

So for whatever reason, I'm not really in a mood to write much. However I did want to post some pictures of a hike Matt and I took to the next town over called Coux. It's has a very adorable downtown that looks like its straight out of a movie. The town is tightly packed together and has all kinds of neat passageways and arches.

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We hiked in the hills above Coux and went to see the grottes, or caves. The caves have been around for a very long time and were fortified sometime in the last couple hundred years. I believe they were used at hideouts at one point. They are tucked away in the mountains and would be good hiding spots.

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When we were up in the hills it started to snow and made a very pretty scene. Sadly the snow didn't stick much and didn't stick at all back at our house. It has been cold enough to snow all week, getting well below freezing. However, there hasn't been enough moisture in the air.

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Matt,being a mid-westerner loves the snow and was very happy to see some. Getting that little bit was almost cruel, because it made us hope even more for some real snow. Oh well, it might happen. I always hope for a white Christmas even if its completely unrealistic!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Rodgers Family Christmas Traditions

My friend Lisa wrote a wonderful blog a few weeks back about her Christmas traditions and considering the fact that I love Christmas so much I thought this was a wonderful idea. I think part of the reason I love Christmas is that I love tradition. Doing the same little fun things every year just makes me happy. I continue to insist that Christmas is a magical holiday even if certain people around me insist that it is overly commercialized and goes on for entirely too long. I don't care. I just choose to celebrate the way that makes me happy and ignore all the rest.

So without further ado here are the Rodgers Family Christmas Traditions and reasons why I love Christmas:

1. Presents
At this point in my life I care much less about receiving presents than wrapping them. In my family wrapping presents is kind of like creating works of art. This is all due to my dad who has truly raised the bar as to what makes a beautifully wrapped present. First off, it is an unstated rule that no two presents under our family tree can be wrapped in the same paper. This is entirely possible because of the fact that my dad has an enormous store of wrapping paper (we're talking about hundreds upon hundreds of rolls of paper here). Secondly, lining up the design of the wrapping with the box, creasing corners, and making a nice looking box are all essential. If you really want to go all out, special presents can be adorned with decorations such as flat ornaments superglued on (stars, bells, snowflakes, santas,etc), cutout Christmas cards (such as doves on a sold background) or ribbons and bows. I love the challenge every year of creating beautiful presents. Sometimes on Christmas day we don't even want to open presents because they just make the room look so beautiful!


2. Present Clues
So one unique thing my family does is write clues on all of our present tags. I'm not really sure where this tradition started, but I love it. It makes all of your presents like a puzzle. Plus thinking up clues is also fun. There is a challenge in finding an appropriate clue that doesn't completely give away what the gift is. The best clues have you completely flummoxed for weeks and then when you open the gift you're like Oh duh that was obvious!
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3. Decorating the Tree/House

As a kid I always enjoyed helping to decorate the tree with ornaments and put up our decorations all around the house. We of course at this point have many boxes more ornaments then could ever fit on one tree, so my parents now have to pick out their favorites every year. Some of the ornaments that always have to go up include our 12 days of Christmas silver bells, my and Susannes baby ornaments, ornaments from my parents travels all around the world, snow flakes and stars we get every year from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection, beautiful blown glass ornaments, an angel made out of Mt. St. Helens Ash, ornaments from my Dad's mom, and a crepe paper wedding bell from my parents wedding (which was 5 days before Christmas some 30 something years ago). And of course plenty of cute Hallmark santas and animals.

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4. Christmas Cooking/Eating/Baking
We always do a lot of cooking around Christmas but only have a few steadfast traditions. One is making homemade Orange Juliuses on Christmas Eve. This stems from the fact that we usually get boxes of wonderfully sweet oranges from Bakersfield from Shuperts orchard, just a few blocks from my grandma's house. There is nothing like homemade Orange Juliuses and no oranges that quite compare to Bakersfield oranges. We also have a longstanding tradition of making Christmas cookies every year... though we've been slipping in recent year. We had fantastic cookie cutter collection including a very detailed Santa and detailed angel that my Dad would decorate.

A more recent tradition when my sister and I are both home is to make Chicken Chimichangas. I think the recipe came from either Sunset or Bon Appetit from the 70's but its a great recipe. However its one of those recipes that none of us really want to make alone, so with 3 of us in the kitchen it usually works out well. It involves boiling chicken, making a tortilla dough, creating a chicken filling, wrapping and then frying. It's amazingly good and I'm sad I won't be doing it this year.

5. Extended Family Gatherings in Bakersfield
Every year when I was little, after our Christmas in Ridgecrest we would head over to my Grandmas in Bakersfield and meet up with my Mom's side of the Aunt Debby, Uncle Mark, cousins Matt, Stacey and Danni, Uncle Earle and my Grandma Barrall. There were many great things about these gatherings, but the best was that sometime after Christmas we would all go out to eat at a Chinese restaurant called Yen Ching. I know this sounds like a weird family tradition, but I loved it. The restaurant would usually put us in its private back room, and we would get a huge spread of food, including dishes such as crispy duck and prawns that we wouldn't normally get any other time. I have very fond memories of those meals, and I'm very sad that Yen Ching closed a few years ago. It was probably the best Chinese food I've ever had. I'm also sad that as all of us cousins get older its pretty much impossible to all gather at my grandmas anymore. What with jobs, marriages, and children added to the mix, its hard to keep every tradition going.

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6. Toys R Us
So this isn't so much of a tradition anymore, but when we were kids my Uncle Earle used to give all his nieces and nephews the best present ever. He would take us to Toys R Us give us a 10 or 20 dollar spending limit and let us pick out whatever we wanted as our Christmas present. As a kid this was truly the most awesome thing ever. Our other Toys R Us tradition was a little kids (6-10) our parents would take Susanne and I separately to Toys R Us to pick out presents for each other. This tradition one year resulted in us buying the exact same present for each other!( a bright pink stuffed my little pony with blue hair if you're curious). Fond memories.

7. Christmas Movies!

Then of course no Christmas is complete without watching Christmas movies. Some of my favorite Christmas movies are also probably some of the cheesiest worst movies every made, but I'm still attached to them from watching them as a kid. For example you have The Night They Saved Christmas. Set in the 80's this is about a family of kids who to save Santa Claus and North Pole City from being blown up by dynamite and oil drilling done in North Pole by their fathers oil company. My other favorites are National Lampoons Christmas Vacation, Miracle on 34th Street, All I Want for Christmas and The Gathering. It's hard to be unhappy after watching a Christmas Movie.

Anyway, I'm a little sad I won't be getting to do participate in most of these traditions this year, but I guess I can live with a one year hiatus. Matt and I will still going to try to make Christmas cookies and figure out some sort of interesting Christmas dinner. And then we get a great treat on Dec 27th of a visit from my friends Reed and Regina. So while it won't be a traditional Christmas, it should still be lots of fun.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Food Blog!

Food is something I consider to be a highly important element to my life. I don't just eat for nourishment I eat also for the enjoyment of eating. Last year one of the assignments Matt gave his French students was to write an essay on whether they "eat to live or live to eat". I definitely fall into the category of living to eat.

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So coming to France I was expecting to be blown away by the food. And in some respects I have been amazed. The vast amount of patisseries and chocolate shops truly demonstrate that the French see pastry as an art that should be appreciated. Likewise the ever present boulangeries that all seem to have cheap wonderful bread is another wonder.

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I also love the fact that so many different kinds of cheeses are available here. I have tried so many different kinds of cheese in the past two months that I don't even know where to start. I'm especially enjoying blue cheeses, which a year ago I never would have thought I would enjoy. Roquefort is my clear favorite, and I also love Fourme d'Ambert which is a creamy mild blue cheese (so good!). I'm also enjoying cantal, various goat cheeses, gruyere,and comte. It's amazing the variety that can be found here at relatively inexpensive prices. One of my complaints about cheese other than cheddar in the U.S. is that it is so expensive,that is feels like you are splurging to buy any kind of decent cheese.

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One thing I appreciate about France is that good bread, wine and cheese are considered necessities and are often given government subsidies to remain cheap. Consider the fact that I can get a baguette for 55 centimes-1 euro depending on the size!

So I was stating earlier that I was expecting to be blown away by French cuisine, and despite what I just stated, in many respects I haven't been. Here's a few reasons why:

1.The French love Meat. Every kind of meat, especially ham. Their cuisine is highly meat centric, and while I am not a vegetarian, I definetly lean in that direction and the over emphasis on red meat especially I find a bit disturbing. For example in the weekly grocery store advertisements we receive, the first 4 pages are huge pictures of all kinds of meat. In the grocery store there is an entire aisle comprised solely of sliced ham and lardons. When dining out vegetarian options are extremely rare.

2. There seems to be an unwillingness to branch out and explore the cuisines of different cultures. In the U.S. I am used to being able to find a variety of ingredients from Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Thai, Spanish, Indian and various other cuisines, even in the most basic grocery store. Here Mexican and Asian foods are considered more of a specialty and are all rather expensive. There are even boxed taco kits you can buy, but they cost the equivalent of about 8 dollars. Tofu, which you could find in great quantities for say $1 in the U.S., costs 4-5 dollars here for a very small box. I think the U.S. because it is an immigrant nation has adapted and grown in a way to be inclusive of world cuisines. France is a very insulated nation, and despite its growing Muslim/North African/Middle Eastern population is very insistent on keeping its longstanding traditions.

When going out to eat the cuisine other than traditional French that you see in the largest quantities is Italian. There are pizza places everywhere! In fact in our little town there are probably more pizza places than actual French restaurants. We were lucky to have a Chinese restuarant in town and were amazed to find that it was actually really good.

3. The inability to find certain key ingredients. This relates to number 2. I in some ways find the French narrow minded in what they are willing to eat. I suppose all cultures do this to some degree. For example some foods that in the US are seen as basic the French find appalling. The biggest example is peanut butter. While you can find peanut butter here it is extremely expensive, and the French just find it odd. You will not find any kind of peanut butter flavored candies (i.e. Peanut butter cups or butterfingers). Matt LOVES peanut butter so this is a bit of a tragedy for him.

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Another example is whole wheat/grain bread or sandwich bread. It is very hard to find any good bread here that has much nutrition. While I love baguettes and all the fresh bread, it really doesn't have a great deal of nutritional value. You can find pain cereal (bread with grains) at boulangeries but it is pretty much impossible to find sandwich bread other than a gross looking "American sandwich bread" that looks like white wonder bread. Matt and I tried to explain to Matt's advisor Yvonne that it is possible to have good tasting packaged sandwich bread, and she just didn't believe us. Back in Portland I became addicted to a bread called Dave's Killer Bread that was expensive but chock full of grains and so so good! I love baguettes but sometimes I just want a sandwich or some whole grain toast!

The inability to find cheddar cheese, mozzarella or parmesan (especially when Italy is so close) is a bit unfathomable. I mean they put emmental (swiss) cheese on their pizza! Yuck!

Well I suppose I'm starting to sound a little whiny so I should stop. I love a lot of what I've eaten here so far, but sometimes I just want more options of what I can make for dinner and the appreciation of other cuisines beyond French. I don't mean to say that I dislike French cuisine, I like many elements of what I've experienced here, but I also appreciate the openness and variety that can be found at home.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Getting out of town...

Due to various reasons Matt and I haven't left Privas in awhile. Between the transportation strike, and wanting to conserve our money we haven't really been anywhere since we went to Lyon 3 weeks ago. So this past weekend we decided to take a little trip to one of the nearby towns Le Pouzin, and do a hike on the cliffs above the Rhone river.

Le Pouzin is actually quite close to Privas... maybe 10 miles but when you don't have a car everything seems far away. In addition, its pretty much impossible to walk/hike to nearby towns because the highways/roads are very narrowly cut into the ravines and mountains making it impossible to walk along them. So far we haven't managed to find any backroads to even get us to the next town over Coux, which is less than 3 miles away.

So we dragged ourselves out of bed early on Sunday and got ourselves to Le Pouzin around 9 a.m. It was quite fortunate that we got up early becuase we were treated to a beautiful view of the Ouveze river, and an old roman bridge which goes over it cloaked in fog. This provided many great pictures:

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As we were searching for our trail we walked to the other side of river and got some nice pictures of the bridge as the sun came out:

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I should note that we really did have to search for our trail. The French system of trails is quite different than in the U.S. They don't have such things as trail parking lots or trailheads and trails usually wander through town, through peoples back yards,and through peoples property. To find the trail you have to keep a lookout for yellow and white marked rocks/telephone poles, trees. Sometimes the trail goes off in random directions and its almost like your on a weird treasure hunt for the yellow and white signs.

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We finally found our trail after getting lost a few times, and hiked up a steep incline. We got high up above the city and were treated to a beautiful view of the fog covering the Rhone. The hike was nice up until the point where we started hearing the jingle of bells and saw a hunter. Remember how I said French trails often go through private property? Well this trail, which I might add is advertised by the local tourist offices, runs right through the Le Pouzin local hunting club lands. We initially thought it was just a sole hunter, but quickly discovered about 10 hunters with what seemed like 20 dogs roaming all through our hike. Lets just say these conditions made us a little paranoid and somewhat hampered our ability to enjoy the surroundings. Luckily we made it down without getting shot and or losing the path.

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As we returned to Le Pouzin we were looking forward to some French fast food (Kebab). Kebab shops (middle eastern food) are usually about the only food places open on Sundays. On Sundays in France almost all restaurants, shops and markets are closed. So looking forward to a nice hot lunch, we discovered that the shop in Le Pouzin was closed, for that day only.

Then we discovered that both due to the fact that it was Sunday and a new transportation schedule was posted because of the strike we would have to wait at least 2 hours and possibly as long as 5 hours to get back to Privas, only 10 miles away! Luckily the buses were running on a normal Sunday schedule again and it only took two hours.

So to put it mildly, we had quite an interesting day away from Privas. Next week I think we're going to try and explore Aubenas, a town in the opposite direction.

Friday, November 23, 2007

A French Thanksgiving

So having Thanksgiving in France didn't end up being all that different from having Thanksgiving in the U.S. Though there was a definite lack of turkey, pumpkin pie,cranberry sauce, football and sadly family,we still managed to have a huge meal and stuff ourselves to the brim. I haven't really felt too homesick since moving here, but I definitely felt a little wistful yesterday to not be preparing a turkey in my grandma's tiny kitchen, or making pies with my mom. Thanksgiving truly is my favorite holiday ( I mean its all about food, family, and tradition, three things I love)and it felt weird not being home for it.

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However, I can say that after last year, where I was voluntarily in charge of a meal for about 14 friends it was a relief to be cooking for 3 people and not be in charge of turkey roasting. Even if I had wanted to roast a whole turkey it would have been very hard to find one here. However since Matt's vegetarian we opted for a menu of roasted butternut squash with chestnut stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy and green beans. It's also impossible to find canned pumpkin here, so I opted for an apple pear pie.

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Matt was dismayed that he had to work Thanksgiving morning (it's obviously not a holiday here) but I was content to have the kitchen to myself to start baking my pies. So I started my pie and watched the downpouring of rain from the kitchen window. Now that the leaves have disappeared from the trees. We have a nice view of the river 50 feet from our appartement. Since its hard to find vegetable shortening here, I made an all butter crust. I found a great recipe and I've decided I'm never using shortening in my crusts again. I've used this recipe a few times and have never had a problem rolling it out.In addition, I made some fantastic cinnamon sugar butter cookies with the leftover dough. It's something my mom always used to do with pie dough. I just re-roll the scrap dough spread with melted butter, sprinkle on cinnamon and sugar, roll up, cut into sections and you have a tasty cookie. They were so good I want to make them all on their own, even without a pie!

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I have had an interesting time baking in our ill-equipped kitchen. We don't want to buy too much kitchen equipment because we won't be here for long, so I ended up rolling out my pie dough with a long canister of salt.I felt quite silly but it was effective.

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The rest of the day was spent preparing the stuffing, prepping food and oddly enough spending 2 whole hours of our afternoon with an energy auditor who was sent to inspect our house by the rental agency. In one of the more bizarre events to ever occur on a Thanksgiving in my life, we got to sit around while this odd Frenchman took measurements of our apartment and told us how inefficient our apartment was. Of course we have not control over what kind of insulation they put in the walls,or the fact that there is an empty barn next door, or that they inexplicably located all of the wall heaters under windows! Really we just live in an old building and we loose heat easily! Anyway a visit that I thought would take 10-20 minutes took 2 hours of our day, and it was all quite bizarre.

He finally left and I was able to make dinner which turned out wonderfully.I made Matt be my sous chef which was fun. I was most pleased with the Chestnut Stuffing. I had only made homemade stuffing once in my life and it was a bit of a disaster, so I was a little scared of attempting stuffing without a box of Stovetop. However it was a great success,and I'm sharing the recipe because I think everyone should try it next year. So tasty!

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Though we only had one dinner guest, it was still nice to have company and use our proper dining table, instead of our kitchen table. Matt's friend and fellow Language Assistant, Fiona an Irish woman, came from about 30 miles away in the pouring rain to celebrate her first Thanksgiving with us. She brought us these lovely flowers and entertained us with her stories about travelling all over the world.

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Dinner was great,dessert was great,and all in all it was an entertaining and interesting day. This ended up being quite the long blog, but I guess I just can't resist talking about food. Here's the fabulous chestnut stuffing recipe that everyone should make next year:

Chestnut Stuffing
1 lb chestnuts
1 cup butter
1 cup minced onions
1 cup celery
2 tsps. Herbs de Provence (thyme,rosemary,marjoram mix)
1 cube vegetable bouillon
salt and pepper to taste
1 loaf day old french bread cubed
2 eggs
1/3 cup milk

1.Cut slits in chestnuts and boil in a medium saucepan for 25 minutes. Drain peel and chop.
2. Melt butter in saucepan and saute onions,celery, herbs, and vegetable bouillon. Add salt and pepper to taste. When onions are translucent add in chopped chestnuts.
3. Pour butter mixture over cubed bread and coat thoroughly.
4. Beat the egg and milk mixture and drizzle over bread.
5. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 35-45 minutes until top is crunchy.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Some Views of Privas

I've been meaning for awhile to sift through the hundreds of pictures I've taken of our town and put a few up, and now I'm finally getting around to it.

Privas is a town of about 15,000-20,000 people and is the Prefecture for the region known as the Ardeche. Being the prefecture is akin to being the capital city for the region, and means there are a lot of administrative/bureacratic offices here. The Ardeche is one of the more rural areas of France and is known for its physical beauty. If I was internet savy I'd find a map to put up here, but alas this link will have to do:

Privas is set in an area full of ravines, rivers, and hills. Here are some wide views of town:

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There are several large bridges in town,and the two above are on the North side of town and lead to the village of Le Petit Tournon, which is the small assemblage of houses across the river you see in the photo. We live on the South side of town directly between the two bridges at this edge of town. Privas is kind of centered between two ravines, and in fact this whole region is known for this type of environment.

Here's another view of town from the North end:
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Now for a few landmarks around town. The most significant are the Trois Croix, or 3 crosses which sit on a mountain overlooking Privas. It's a short hike up to them and they are quite pretty when lit up at night.

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This church tower, is probably the second most identifiable feature in town. Sadly it belongs to the mental institution and is closed off to the public. Still the bell tower looks pretty from far away.

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There are many hidden staircases in town, and this is one that Matt and our friend Joe were hiking up to reach the Trois Croix:

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Some colorful and old buildings:
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Another identifiable feature of town are the many billboards and refrences to Chataigniers or Chestnuts. There is a major chestnut manufacturing company just outside of town, and apparently they having been making chestnut cream, and chestnut ice-cream for over a hundred years. As I've posted in earlier blogs chestnuts are kind of a big deal here.

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Well after putting up the chestnut man, I just couldn't leave out this photo. I know baguettes aren't exactly specific to Privas, but they are specific to France. Walk down the street in any French town on any given day and probably at least 25-50% of the people you see will be carrying a baguette. I can't even begin to tell you how wonderful it is to be able to buy cheap crusty fresh bread every day.

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Finally two pictures from some walks on the south end of town. It's very pretty and pastoral at this end. A little flatter than the north side. When we go for walks we see cows, donkeys, sheep and farmhouse cats.

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Well that certainly isn't all there is to see, but I suppose its a decent review of it, for anyone that was curious what this place really looks like.
Au Revoir until next time.