Thursday, June 24, 2010

To Market to Market

Today our quite little country town was transformed into a hussling and bussling center. It was market day! The streets in the center of town were shut down and filled with just about every kind of vendor you could think of. There were the sausage vendors, the cheese vendors, the fish vendors, the flower vendors, the olive vendors, the fruit and veggie vendors, the foie gras and confit vendors, the wine vendors... The list goes on and on with each one offering delicious and hard to resist samples of their products, I had no choice but to try a little of everything. I ended up walking away with several juicy goodies, lots of fruit and veggies, goat's cheese (no idea what kind, as there were so many), baguette, charchuterie and of course flowers (couldn't resist). The merchant I bought my cheese from also sold sausages and was nice enough to throw in a bunch of odds and ends for Rypien, he was so happy. I also stopped at the butcher for some dog bones so I think the little guy is set for the next few days.

I love market days, certainly one of my favourite parts about living in France. They're always so colourful and lively and packed with people. One thing I have noticed about the French as a result of these markets is that they tend to be rather pushy – they're constantly jostling and budging in front of you in check-out line-ups (kinda annoying). This behaviour is also true of their road/driving antics, as no one seems to like to let people merge or switch lanes here in France. This isn't exactly a huge hinderance, just a simple observation. I actually don't really mind all that much cause I'm usually having so much fun just being there. All part of the experience.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Piment d'Espelette: France's Home Grown Hot Pepper

Today is officially the first day of summer and to celebrate I ventured down to the beautiful town of Espelette in south-west France. This town is world famous for its piment, a homegrown hot red chili pepper, those grown in the region even have an Appellation d'Origine Controlee to vouch for their authenticity. Once I arrived in the town, I headed straight for the nearest pepper shop to find out more about this great french culinary delight. I was handed a clip board and question sheet and was told to venture out into the pepper field to find the answers to all the 20 questions. It took me a few laps around the field but I eventually filled them all in. Here are a few things I learned...

Espelette peppers are harvested over the course of ten weeks, starting in mid-August. They are hand-picked and hand-sorted, before being strung together into the famous cordes consisting of 20 peppers per string and on each string is written the week of harvest. The cords are then hung outside to dry on many of the houses and shops in the village during summer. Once on the string, Espelette peppers can be used immediately while they are still fresh, or at every subsequent stage of dryness, turning from bright red and smooth-skinned to dark crimson and shrivelled. When dry, they can begin to make their way into a delicious variety of condiments -- powder, jelly, jam, paste, seasoning salt etc – all incredibly delicious as I found out from the sampling component which followed the questionaire exercise.

When I moved to France I never expected that french cuisine would have anything to teach my palate about spice and heat. I would describe the Espelette pepper as having a fruity prickly flavour and an understated bite. This newly discovered fragrant piment will now be a staple in my spice pantry as it can add colour, flavour and sass to just about any dish. Can't wait to go back in October for the annual Fete aux Piments!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Flights of Fancy: Les Produits Regionaux

French cuisine is characterized by its extreme diversity and is considered to be one of the world's most refined and elegant styles of cooking in the world. Each region of France seems to have its own distinctive specialty, the north-east tends to use loads of butter and cream, while the south-east values plenty of fresh herbs and olive oil.

The south-west corner of France seems to be the archetypal french farming area, green and wooded and relatively flat, until you hit the Pyrenees. A rich agricultural region, producing some of the world's most famous wines and some of its prized gourmet delicacies – a veritable feast of a region for food enthusiasts.

Although certain areas within the south-west corner have their own signature foodstuffs, for example Bayonne is of course known for its ham and chocolate while Espelette is famous for its chili peppers; the general rule of thumb down here is that its all about the birds.

Fat ducks and geese tend to make their way into two very famous french delights: confit and foie gras. Confit is certainly a huge favourite and consists of meat cooked and preserved in its own fat. While foie gras, probably one of the most controversial foods among animal activists, is made from goose liver. This fattened liver is produced by using a traditional technique known as “gavage”, which entails force-feeding ducks and geese in an attempt to fatten them up.

Basically, it helps to be a carnivore around here, with geese, ducks, salted ham and beef all featuring prominently. Other popular dishes include sweet and sour stew made with rabbit and agen prunes; and cassoulet, which is also basically a thick stew made with white haricot beans, local dried sausages ana a choice of duck, pork or mutton with liberal amounts of goose fat.

Vegetarians need not despair! All is not lost for vegetarians though, at least for rich ones, because Perigord truffles are world famous, and a fresh truffle omelette is said to be the best way to bring out their earthy yet delicate flavour. Another fabulous choice is goat's cheese, a regional specialty often served grilled (chevre chaud) with a salad. You can also get preserved goat's cheese flavoured with herbs – delicious!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Windy Walk

Normally I hate the wind and I mean HATE the wind - its bad for my hair. I swear everytime it starts getting windy out an irrational rush of anger fills my body, much like repeatedly dropping my keys. I'm not really sure where this hatred for wind came from, but I'm guessing its probably the result of years spent living in Victoria, on Vancouver Island.

However, today was an exception. After a solid two weeks of non-stop rain and floods the wind was a welcomed change, at least somewhat. Although it was not a sunny day by any means, still cloudy and drizzly, at least I didn't have the habitual puddles in my shoes and doused pant bottoms. I absolutely hate the feeling of wearing wet jeans, almost as much as I hate wind. Nevertheless, since the skies fnially decided to let up, I figured today was as good a day as any to break from the house and head out for a walk. We went for a big stroll around the salt water lake in Hossegor, I think it took us about an hour and a half from start to finish.

Best day ever for Rypien, he was so happy and excited to finally be spending some quality time outside. Running around in circles on the sand, jumping in and out of the water, swimming, playing with sticks and chasing birds. A woman we passed on our walk even stopped to say how funny and silly he was to watch, I guess she must have seen him racing around on the beach and pouncing on sticks. It was a good day. And as luck would have it, as soon as we made it home it started to rain again. Praying for sunshine in the very near future.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Guggenheim, Bilbao, Spain

Anish Kapoor
Tall Tree and the Eye, 2009
Stainless steel and carbon steel
14 x 6 m
Installation: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 2010

Anish Kapoor
Tall Tree and the Eye, 2009, Detail
Stainless steel and carbon steel
14 x 6 m
Installation: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 2010

Jeff Koons
Tulips, 2006
High chrome content stainless steel

Richard Serra
The Matter of Time, 2005
Weathering Steel
Overall dimensions variable

Anish Kapoor
Greyman Cries, Shaman Dies, Billowing Smoke, Beauty Evoked, 2008-09
Cement, 48 parts
Overall dimensions variable
Installation: Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2009
Photo: Erika Ede © FMGB Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, 2010

Anish Kapoor
Shooting into the Corner, 2008-09
Mixed media
Dimensions variable
MAK - Austrian Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Art, Vienna
Installation: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 2010
Photo: Erika Ede © FMGB Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, 2010

Yesterday I visited the Guggenheim Bilbao, designed by the great canadian-american architect Frank Gehry. Its an incredible work of art in itself, and the current installations that are housed in it are congruent with the atmosphere that such a modern museum creates. The current exhibitions include Henri Rousseau, Robert Rauschenberg: Gluts at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Selections from the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Collection, Anish Kapoor and Richard Serra's The Matter of Time.

Although each installation was stunning and provoking in its own right, my favourite exhibit was that dedicated to the works encompassing the 30 year career of Anish Kapoor, the Guggenheim Bilbao's first large-scale solo exhibition of the artist.

Installed throughout the museum's second floor, the exhibition presents a series of visual and psychological experiences that draw you into the artist's search for a poetic sculptural language. His sculptures are made from a range of highly reflective or tactile materials such as pure powdered pigment, cement, wax and stainless steel.

For me, the highlight of the exhibit was Kapoor's Shooting into the Corner, (2008-09), which presents a canon, triggered by an attendant, that shoots enormous wedges of red wax across the gallery space over the course of the exhibit, transforming the museum into a site of violent explosion and dramatic accumulations.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Chocolate Blitz in Biarritz

Since the rain won't let up here I thought I would indulge my sweet tooth in a trip to the Planète Chocolat in Biarritz (bikini be damned!). The visit began with a short video about where and how chocolate is produced (all in french of course), followed by a tour which takes visitors on a journey through appetising galleries and displays devoted to chocolate molds, sculptures, vintage packaging and the tools and machines from around the world and through the eras. The end of the visit culminated in my favourite part: the sampling. Be sure to try the cup of rich hot cocoa!

And of course the tour ends by being spit out into the museum shop, where you can buy the house chocolate bars, cocoa and bonbons. I decided to skip the museum shop and head for the local chocolatiers. I didn't have to go far until I ran into two of southern France's premier chocolatiers. Henriet with its signature pretty blue colour and traditional decor just so happened to be situated right across the street from the dark, sleek and contemporary Maison Adam, which made for an easy comparison and sampling! Result: Both divine!

Dadio of the Patio

My dad wanted to know what kind of bbq we were using here in France. Why? I have no idea. Must be a man thing. Above is a picture of our state of the art bbq, coals only, no gas. I know its not exactly a broil king but it does the trick. This might also say something about europeans and bbqing, or lack there of - I don't think they do much of it here. Anyways dad, this one's for you...

Monday, June 14, 2010

Guilty Pleasure

Have seen every episode. Graphic, witty and funny. Not for the faint hearted! Based on the series of books by an anonymous high-class London call girl known as Belle du Jour (named after Luis Bunuel's famous film). The real Belle revealed her true identity late last year, she's a research scientist. In the series, Belle deals with a large array of call gril problems from safety, to keeping her professional life separate from her private life, to the many trials and tribulations of picky customers. The show manages to stay fresh, however, by portraying a smart woman who likes what she does, rather than being forced into it by the woes of life.

Linge Basque

It seems no matter where I go in the south of France I always run into one of these stores...

Basque linen or “Linge Basque”, with its tradition dating back to the mists of time, is - judging from all the stores - much sought after both by the lucky people living in the area and the tourists that flock here every summer.

Until a few years ago, the traditional Basque linen had always been dominated by a limited and natural colour palate of green, red, cream, ivory, putty, off-white and taupe. The traditional design elements of Basque linen has either been the presentation of the Basque cross or the seven lines/stripes which are meant to represent the seven Basque provinces – 3 French and 4 Spanish. But by popular demand for a change, professional designers have created new patterns with bold colours and a more modern flair.

Indulging in Basque linen might feel like a modern-day luxury. Especially when you’re piling up a stack of, say, deliciously heavy tablecloths and napkins, fluffy sandstone-coloured towels and bathrobes, or brightly coloured place mats and aprons. But its really not. Basque linen was originally used as blankets to keep flies off cattle. And it wasn't until much later that it came to represent high grade family possessions - a family's social status was often indicated by the width of the stripes.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

When the Cat's Away...

I splurged yesterday when I happened upon an amazing perfumerie in Biarritz. A beautiful shop whose shelves were filled to the top with nothing but exquisite French perfume, all on display in the most feminine and delicately designed glass bottles. I fell particularly in love with the perfumes of Annick Goutal, and decided upon the fragrance Ce Soir ou Jamais. It is an astonishingly beautiful turkish rose fragrance with notes of violet, jasmine, hibiscous and ambrette seed. It's soft, luscious, velvety and basically smells like you've just walked into a dewy rose garden. The lady who was helping me said it was the perfume of Goutal's life and took her over ten years to complete. Love!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Hike Through the Pyrenees

Another cloudy and rainy day.... We seem to be having quite a few these kinds of days lately, certainly not the kind of weather that makes me want to throw on my bikini and sunscreen and head for the beach. No matter, Rypien and I decided to head for the Pyrenees for a brilliant afternoon of great hiking and stunning vistas.
Located in southern France, the Pyrenees stretch from the Atlantic ocean to the Mediterranean sea. In between one can expect to find snow-topped peaks and lush valleys packed with mountain villages, history and culture.
Conveying the true awe of the Pyrenees Mountains with mere words is difficult. I could describe them as amazing, stirring, awesome, fascinating, stunning, incredible, astounding, marvelous, stupendous, astonishing, striking and stratospheric but I would still fall 30 adjectives shy of doing them justice. Either way, you'll just have to believe me when I tell you that they are truely captivating.