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.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Scrabble Sorrows

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So anyone that knows me well (or has ever played board/card games with me) knows that I am very competitive and absolutely hate to lose. This side of me probably comes from my perfectionism and wanting to be good at everything I do, and from the most major sin I possess...pride. I know I shouldn't have so much pride, but I do and that is reflected in really wanting to win when I play Scrabble.

Unfortunately for me, Matt happens to be a very good Scrabble player. He's been playing for a very long time, and I'm assuming taking lots of language classes doesn't hurt. I feel like I am constantly cursed with being around good scrabble players. When I was younger I would occasionally try to play with my Mom and Grandma and would always get frustrated by how good they were. They have been playing together for many many years, and know most if not all of the 2 and 3 letter words by now.

Well to get to the point, Matt brought a travel Scrabble board with him, and we have been playing at least once a week since we arrived here. In all our games I have only managed to win once. And Matt won't even let me have satisfaction in that by noting that unlike our other games it was a 3 person game, with his friend Joe.
The next game we had after I won Matt bet me two euros that he could beat me by 100 points. I thought there was no way I could lose that bet even if I lost the game. Sadly I was wrong and lost by something like 150 points. It was very sad. Here's me after that loss:

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So now I have resigned myself to losing every time we play, even though I still try very hard. In the process I am hopefully learning more about the game, and improving my playing skills. I've looked up the 2 letter words online and that you might be interested in some of the acceptable 2 letter words:
AA- lava
OE- a whirlwind
ZA- pizza
MM- I don't know what it means but apparently its acceptable
KI- vital force in chinese thought
UT- a note of scale

Friday, November 9, 2007

Lyon Part II

Well its been a week since we were in Lyon. So I suppose I should get around to posting my pictures from our travels there.

The first day we arrived in the afternoon and spent our time checking out the Roman Ruins in the city, which were built in 15 B.C. It was pretty neat to walk around in 2,000 year old ruins. There were two roman amphitheaters, roads, columns and a few old building walls. You can see from the tree leaves that its definitely beginning to look like fall.

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Here's the one picture I have of Matt in Lyon. I must have caught him in a distracted contemplative mood. Somehow I managed to not get a single picture of myself the whole 4 days!

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Up on the hill from Vieux Lyon (Old Lyon) in the Fourviere where our hostel was located we were in easy walking distance of the Roman Ruins and this new Cathedral, the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourviere built in the 1880's. We had a nice view down into the Presqu'ile, or the section of town that lies between the two rivers that flow through town, the Saone and the Rhone. In the city view you can see the Place Bellecour, which is the largest clear square in Europe. In the center of the square is a statue of King Louis the 14th.

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The second day we did a lot of walking around the city. It happened to be All Saints Day, a national holiday, so almost everything was closed. But having a shut-down city makes for nice photo opportunities. Here's some of the city:

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One of the parts of Lyon I enjoyed the most was just wandering the streets and finding random staircases and traboules, or covered walkways. The traboules were thought to originally have been created as part of Lyons silk trade as means to transport silk from looms to storage rooms without being damaged by weather. The were used by the Resistance in World War II as escape routes and for information gathering.


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On the third day we went to the Cathedral St. Jean and saw some wonderful stained glass and a 14th Century Astronomical Clock with automatons. The Cathedral was finished in 1476, but was built on the ruins of a 6th Century church. We happened to visit when the afternoon light was streaming through the windows and it was quite beautiful.

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I really enjoyed seeing Lyon at night. Cities always somehow seem more elegant at night, all lit up. And Lyon with its restaurant scene seemed to have a more energetic and interesting atmosphere at night.

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Monday, November 5, 2007

Dessert First!

Matt and I just returned from a 4 day trip to Lyon and had an interesting time there. We both took so many great photos, and theres so much I should show you, however the highlights of the trip for me all involved chocolate, marzipan, and a nice dinner out, so I have to start with: Dessert!

Lyon is known as France's "second city" even though it has the third largest population in France. It is also known as the culinary capital of France. Thus there were major reasons for me to want to visit.

The first culinary location we visited in Lyon was Bernachon, one of the best chocolatiers in the world. Matt and I tried two different kinds of chocolate and were simply blown away. Matt had been a little skeptical at my desire to visit all sorts of pastry shops but when he walked into Bernachon and smelled the chocolate in the air, I think he was converted. Bernachon actually roasts their own chocolate, which is extremely rare. It would be the equivalent of a bakery milling their own flour. One of the chocolates we tried was a pistachio/praline filled dark chocolate almond truffle. It was one of the best chocolates I've ever eaten, and I immediately wanted to go back and buy more. They also had a fantastic display of pastries and cakes that we didn't partake in but I really wish I could go back right now and buy something every day. It was that good!

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Our next stop was Voisin to check out the coussins of Lyon. Coussins are famous marzipan candies, which are as far as I know have been made only in Lyon since 1897. They are definetely some of the most interesting candies I've ever tried. Shaped like little teal pillows they have a soft chocolate center covered by marzipan. They were a little odd at first but I became addicted very quickly.

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Even though we were on a tight budget, I still insisted that we go out for one nice meal in Lyon. I mean it is the culinary capital of France after all. We did a lot of research and ended up at a place called Le Layon. I was very impressed by their menu and was finally able to order duck in France and had: Magret de canard au jus parfumé à la coriandre. It was absolutely amazing and I was completely happy eating it. Matt had a satisfactory salmon for dinner, but he definetely got the better of the two desserts. I settled on the standard creme brulee because not much else looked good, but Matt had a fabulous and interesting nut cake in a berry sauce which I was very impressed with. It was an enjoyable night out for me.

I sadly must admit that Matt was far less thrilled by Lyon's culinary traditions than I was. As a vegetarian and even one adapting to eat fish while in France is was hard to find meals he could eat in Lyon. One thing I've realized since being here is that the the French love their meat: ham, veal, steak. And in Lyon the emphasis on traditional food meant a lot of things like gizzards, pig snouts, foie gras, etc which even make me squeamish, so I can't imagine what the thought of them does to Matt. It really is hard for a vegetarian to get by here. Especially at more upscale or even mid-scale restaurants they simply do not have vegetarian options the way we do in the U.S.

Quite a few of our meals we ended up eating in Kebab shops, i.e. France's version of fast food, because it was one of the few places Matt can find a vegetarian meal. Kebab is essentially warm fresh pita bread filled with fries, lettuce and usually some sort of meat, though in Matt's case eggs or cheese. Its very good for a cheap fast meal.

We decided to cook in the hostel a few of the nights there, something which usually isn't too hard, but this time resulted in the worst meal of both my and Matt's life. It all started out very simply and just went so so wrong. All we had planned was some pasta and a salad. The salad was fine, the pasta was not. We had bought a package of fresh ravioles, essentially very tiny raviolis and a jar of pasta sauce. It seemed simple enough. After waiting for something like 45 minutes for our water to heat up (the burner kept getting turned off) our water was finally boiling and Matt put in the pasta. Unfortunately he did not notice until a few minutes later that the package said to only boil the ravioles for 30 seconds-1 minute. Thus we ended up with slimy slippery pasta. No horrible in and of itself, but somehow the combination of that with some of the worst pasta sauce I have ever tasted resulted in the worst meal of our lives. Matt's exact quote was "vile doesn't even begin to describe how bad that was". It's been a long time since I've had a meal that I couldn't even bear to finish. It was not a happy night and we both went to sleep hungry,queasy, and greatly looking forward to going home to cook for ourselves in our own kitchen again.

So sadly our culinary adventures in Lyon ended on a very sad note. However in general we've eaten very well in France, and I enjoyed a great deal (especially the pastry) that we found in Lyon. I highly recommend Bernachon chocolates if you ever get a chance to try them!