Friday, August 27, 2010

A Lesson in Antique Hunting

Summer in France means one thing: Antique Markets. Throughout the last few months here in France I have come to learn that not all antique markets are created equal. There is actually a hierarchy/levels of antique markets, each with a different name and different wares for sale.

As one would think, an actual “antique” market is in fact just that – the classic antique fair is filled with professional and specialist dealers selling beautiful curiosities of the past.

A Brocante is the French cross between an antiques fair and a flea market – usually held on sundays throughout the country during the summer months. Items at a Brocante are generally not yet considered to be in a good enough state to qualify as an antique, this can be for many reasons, such as the item being damaged or not fully restored.

What can you buy at a Brocante? Pretty much everything under the sun, as long as it's second hand. You'll find things for your kitchen, furniture, old books, games and music, hardware goods, art, tableware, delicate embroderies, collections of every kind, antique posters.

Summers in France also see the proliferation of Vide-Greniers, which literally means “empty attic”. Many villages will have vide greniers, these attic markets, are where people empty their attics, cellars and barns, and put everything on a stand and sell them. Its basically what people do once a year for spring cleaning, so there is usually a lot of junky things – clothes, old kids toys, etc.

Finally there are the Foire Aux Puces markets, which are somewhat similar to a Vide-Grenier, however, they are essentially a flea market selling all types of objects and can be found anywhere.

Some General Rules of Thumb:

1. Don't be surprised if the seller/dealer is more interested in a novel, cellphone conversation, onsite lunch or coffee break than in serving you. The French abolished their monarchy a long time ago, customers included

2. Speak as much french as you can, even if its just “Bonjour”. French etiquette dictates that its your job to say hello to the proprietor, not the other way around.

3. Every social transaction in France is an act of seduction. Don't be surprised to find you're the one doing the romancing. The French consider the act of buying the merchandise a privilege, not a right.

4. Most sellers/dealers work on a cash-only basis. Stands with credit card signs may reduce the price if you offer cash. If you have a french checkbook, many antique sellers and brocanteurs will let you pay in two or three installments, and many will deliver larger items and some will even ship internationally. In addition, most antique dealers and brocanteurs will give you a statement saying that an item is more than 100 years old, and thus exempt from customs duties, should anyone ask.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Vignobles du Bearn

Bearn AOC

South West France Wine Regions

Bearn Vineyards

Bearn Vineyards

Tannat Grape

Bearn is an appellation primarily known for its reds and roses, which account for the majority of its production. The wines produced here, as in most of the south west corner, are only produced in small quantities and are rarely found outside France.

The appellation uses and produces six varieties of red which include: Tannat (up to a maximum of 60% of the final blend), Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Fer, Manseng Noir and Courbu Noir. The last two varieties are nothing more than relics of the past and continue to be grown in a grape conservation. Like the wines of Bordeaux, the wines of the Bearn appelation are blends of these varieties, with Tannat, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc dominating. The reds made from these blends are aromatic and full bodied when the blend favours Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon, and tannic when the blend favours Tannat (hence the name).

Generally, red Bearn wines fill the nose with ripe berries and dark fruits of blackcurrant, raspberry, cherry and plum, with hints of menthol, spice, smoke and tobacco. Powerful, full-bodied and fleshy, these reds have impressive firm tannins which are nicely balanced with the intense fruit and spicy flavours. These reds should be enjoyed two to five years after bottling and are traditionally served with grilled, stewed or roasted meats and croute fleurie cheeses (cheeses with a white or golden mould).

Jurancon AOC

The Jurancon circuit I did. Really liked Chateau Jolys and Domaine Larredya.

Looking towards Domaine Larredya.

View of Clos Lapeyre.

Jurancon Sec

Larredya Wine Label

Jurancon, Dessert Wine

Tropical fruits, characteristic of Jurancon dessert wines

Nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees, Jurancon is a historic appellation known for its white wines. The grape varieties used here are Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng and Courbu. It produces two types of wine: Jurancon Sec, which is basically a dry white table wine. It isn't exactly a top drawer candidate for collecting, however, there are some fine dry Jurancons out there, but there are some lousy ones too, so its dangerous territory.

The second, more sought after, type of wine made is known simply as Jurancon and is quite a different story from its dry counterpart. This golden coloured sweet dessert wine is long lived, which means it will last for a long time and improve with age, and develops aromas and flavours of honey and crystallized tropical fruits such as pineapple, passionfruit and mango. It has a relatively high acidity, typical of the Gros and Petit Manseng varietals, which is needed to keep the wines from becoming too jammy and overly sweet.

The relative proximity to Bordeaux may explain the wine's similarity to Sauternes, the dessert wine of Bordeaux. A fine dessert Jurancon is like a Sauterne on a wildflower high – the wine is lush, sweet, and flowery with a wonderful undercurrent of prickliness. Enjoy this wine with a triple cream blue cheese and a crusty baguette.

Some noted Jurancon producers include Jolys, Domain de Bellegarde, Gaillot de Rousse, Bordenave, and Larredya.

Madiran AOC

Chateau Montus, Madiran

Bottle of Chateau Montus

Bottle of Chateau Boucasse

Madiran is a sanctuary for robust red wine whose main grape variety is Tannat. Which, like Bearn, makes up to 40-60% of the wine, and is supplemented/blended with Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Fer.

The wine is typically very concentrated, high tannin and traditionally requires several years of aging to be at its best. The style of really good Madiran is not unlike that of high-end Cabernet Sauvignon dominated Bordeaux wines. However, recently some of the younger generation of winemakers have been experimenting with, and producing, wines which are softer and more approachable in their youth, mirroring a similar tendancy in Bordeaux and elsewhere.

Typically dark purple in colour with an inky core, these bold, intense and richly concentrated wines have aromas and flavours of ripe blackerries, dark cherry, cassis, fennel, leather, earth and hints of clove, spice. Almost chewy, these wines stick to the palate, but also show finesse with firm but fine tannins. These wines have great aging potential.

The wine is traditionally served with duck confit, a perfect strong terroir based match. Duck confit, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is made from duck legs which have been salted and then cooked in duck fat. It's consequently, as you'd expect, both salty and fatty which sounds unappetising but the meat develops a wonderfully rich flavour and fall-apart-texture that makes it quite a delicacy. The effect of this saltiness and fattiness also has the effect of subduing the tannins in the Madiran wines, making them taste softer and more supple.

Some of the leading producers in Madiran include Chateau Bouscasse, Chateau Montus, Chateau Peyros Madrian, Laffont Madrian Cuvee Erigone.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

La Piperadere

A few days ago, August 15th to be exact, was the annual Fete du Piperadere – also known as the Tomato Sauce Festival – where more than twenty teams competed for the best pot of piperade and the “King of the Piperadere” trophy. Each team was given a box of set ingredients which they had to use, however, each team was allowed to add a few of their own special/secret ingredients in order to win the judges votes for the best pot of tomato sauce.

The cooking took place in a local green area and everyone was encouraged to go around and taste each team's pot of piperade. After the cooking was complete the teams, accompanied by marching bands, paraded through the town's main thouroughfare with their pots of piperade in hand into the town square where the winner was announced.

The remainder of the evening unfolded under a massive tent and culminated with a big dinner of, you guessed it, piperade – made in a giant pot and accompanied by local wine! Who would have thought that such a fuss could ever be made over tomato sauce? Nevertheless, it was a great festive day full of lots of local animation while bands playing into the night while everyone ate, sang and danced.

Hot Wheels

Well I'm happy to say that Dennis and I are the proud owners of a 1999, 78 horsepower, Citron Saxo. With a top speed of 120km/hr, its a far cry from the BMW back at home. Dennis was only home for four days so we were under the wire to find a car within the short time frame. We spent one day looking and 3 days of paper work. I'm sure I'm not the first to say that buying a car in France is no easy feet. Once we had decided on our chosen machine, the car then had to go through a “control technique” which is basically a series of tests run on the car to make sure everythign is functioning properly. The day we bought the car we had to make sure we had the 5 million pieces of paper work needed from us and our landlord – his passport and a bunch of other documents verifying that we are living in France. We spent the next day getting all the necessary papers for the insurance. The following day the car was ready to be picked up and guess what, more paperwork to be filled out, mostly by the Renault dealership we bought it from. We finally got out of there on the last day with our very own car at around 1:30pm – we had gotten there at 10:30am, just to give you an idea. When I asked the salesman why there was so much administrative paperwork to be done, he just shrugged his shoulders and smiled and said “C'est la France”. I guess making everything complicated is just how things are done here in this lovely country.

We probably could have found a bit better car for the same price if we would have bought privately, however, the advantages of buying from a dealership seemed to outweigh the other options. To begin with, there are lots of problems with fraud and stolen cars here in France, and secondly there is a boatload of paperwork that needs to accompany the car and be in exact order. If you were to get stopped by the police at one of there many road checks and something was missing or suspicious you would have a real and not so much fun problem on you hands. The dealership we bought from guaranteed the car for 3 months and the clutch for 6 months, so if anything should go wrong within that time frame the dealership will pay for the repairs. Also, they make sure that you have all the correct paperwork for the car – a good incentive nonetheless. Paying a litlle extra to avoid potential headachs from buying privately is definitely worth it. Regardless, this thing only has to last us for 8 more months. Fingers crossed.

Monday, August 9, 2010


View from the terrace.

L'Eglise St. Andre, 13th century.

Remnants of the infamous Bridge of Legend.

A while back I visited the lovely town of Sauveterre-de-Bearn, and simply forgot to write a little something about it on my blog. It's only a short distance from Salies, however, the main reason I went was to admire the view from the terrace of its 13th century chirch, l'Eglise St. Andre. The view is beautiful and looks over a bend in the river and the Bridge of Legend.

The bridge won its name from an event which took place in 1170 when the viscountess Sancie was accused of murdering her newly born and malformed son whilst her husband, Gaston V, was away. Note: Rumours of witchcraft were rife at this time.

Her brother, the King of Navarre, ordered that she be submitted to the judgement of God and thrown into the river, with her hands and feet firmly bound. She ended up surviving the incident and was thus declared innocent.

The town was originally built as a walled refuge during the tumultuous times of the Dark Ages and grew in importance as its legenday bridge was on one of the main routes to Spain – used by pilgrims on the way to Santiago de Compostela. From what I could see, not much remains of its once glorious fortifications, however, enough remains to spark the imagination of what this once important town must have looked like.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Favourite Things: O&Co.

During our visit to Geneva, we popped into a fabulous little shop after our gallery visit and lunch. It was called O&Co and is located in Old Town Geneva (although I believe there are several locations, none of which are in canada, of course).

They dub themselves the Mediterranean food merchant, as they cultivate and offer an extensive selection of olive oils and delicacies from across the Mediterranean. They have everything from everyday use olive oils, finishing olive oils, specialty olive oils, vinegars, tapenades and spreads, sauces and pasta, crackers, truffles, seasonings, kitchen accessories and skin care.

I particularly loved their specialty olive oils, with a range of delicous flavours from lemon, basil and bergamont, to mint, mandarin and chili pepper – just to name a few.

The staff were also happy to hand out free samples of their olive oils and vinegars on little ice cream spoons. My favourite was a combination of bergamont olive oil and white wine vinegar with honey and ginger. Delicious! It will be perfect drizzled over a summer salad , sushi, or as part of a seafood marinade. The possibilities for these two culinary delights are endless. This was of course the combo that I ended up purchasing, couldn't resist. However, a close second was the mint olive oil and apple vinegar combo. So hard to choose.