Sunday, October 30, 2011

We Interrupt This Blog For A Commercial

Now available from the Amazon Kindle Store in the U.S., France, Germany, and the U.K., a couple of long short stories I wrote some years back, which were long enough that I knew no magazine would ever publish them. The Kindle format turns out to be the ideal way to do this, though: I get to keep the copyright, and, if I ever get a book's worth, I can always publish a whole book, whether electronically or actually -- or, preferably, both.

This is priced a buck less than my last Kindle publication, and you get twice as much reading satisfaction for your money. Tell all your friends and remember that important holidays, like Ike Turner's birthday, All Souls Day, and St. Nicholas' Day (Netherlands and Germany) are coming up, all superb opportunities for giving gifts!

The guy on the cover, I hardly need to remind anyone, is Walter "Buddy Boy" Hawkins, who was probably from Arkansas, palled around with Charlie Patton, and recorded "Voice Throwing Blues," the only known blues record featuring ventriloquism.

Finally, I'd like to thank everyone who's been buying from the widgets over there in the margin. I actually got a check for ten dollars and change from Amazon the other day, which I assumed was for my Kindle thing, but it turned out to be from folks who've been buying books from the widget. Here's the thing; if you click through this blog and then go on to buy something else, I still get a tiny bit of what you spent, so if you're about to buy a Maserati or a refrigerator or something from Amazon, do start your journey here. Until my agent sells my book, these Kindle publications and the Amazon money from this blog are an important revenue stream here at Château Broke Not Poor.

And I did get another check from the Kindle, too, which felt good: this is the first time I've ever gotten royalties for something I've written, thanks to the economics of music-book writing over the years, which has all been work-for-hire.

So put a couple of logs on the fire, pour yourself a snifter of fine Scotch, and have the dog fetch the Kindle so you can curl up with Two Blues Stories. You'll be glad you did!

Friday, October 21, 2011

St. Chinian and the Middle of Nowhere

As good ideas around here so often do, this one started with a bottle of wine. Specifically, the one we got at the restaurant last week for E's birthday. He'd noted over the meal that he felt like taking another drive, and I was fine with that and said I'd look at the map and see what ideas came to me. He wanted to go to the Cirque de Navacelles, a drive which I don't think I want to do again too soon, because those twisting roads can cause havoc with my stomach when I'm not doing the driving. Also, I'd already been there. Hunkering down with a map over the weekend, I had another idea. I'd looked at the website for the wine we'd had, Les Eminades, and noticed that the winery was in Cébazan, and that was on a good road on the way to St. Chinian. I only knew St. Chinian as a wine appellation, but I also knew it had to be a town as well. Why not go check out some of this huge wine-producing area and see what it looked like, since we were already familiar with Pic St. Loup, the Terrasses de Larzac, and St. Saturnin? Anyway, beyond St. Chinian, the road split, and we could head back via a different route, which also included the villages of Roquebrun and Olarges, which Gerry had recommended from his cycling adventures. E was all for it, so we decided to get an earlier start than we usually do and head out at 12:30.

An hour later, we'd passed Béziers, gotten off on the Béziers West exit, and started off into the hills. Grapes were everywhere, which made sense: the 19th century saw the explosion of the Languedoc wine business, as a direct Béziers-to-Paris train made it possible to send gigantic quantities of not-so-hot, strong red wine to the capital in 24 hours, making wine cheaper than ever before up there. Farmers and négotiants made out like bandits until the whole thing collapsed in 1907 with the army out quelling riots in Narbonne, Béziers, and finally a huge demonstration right here in Montpellier. These towns showed evidence of this in their architecture, and had we gone off the main route, I bet we would have seen more ostentation and possibly decaying old chateaux from the boom-times. Instead, we saw some new ones, and some old ones that had been nicely fixed up. As the day progressed, it became obvious that tour buses were no strangers to this road.

We landed in Cébazan at 1:30, puzzled. E had hit Google Maps for a route to the winery -- his plan was to "buy a six-pack" of the wine we'd had at the restaurant -- and there we were, already in town, the "rue des Vins" noted on the download having failed to appear. We parked in what looked like the parking lot of the Cave Cooperative so we could ask them where it was, but it turned out to be the old CC, the new one being next door, and all shiny with steel and glass. And locks: it would be lunch for another half hour. We jumped back in the car and backtracked, finally deciding that it would be off the road leading south to Cruzy. Then we landed in Cruzy, with none of the well-marked winemakers along the way having been the ones we were looking for. We turned around and went back to the main road. I suggested that we take a turn just before downtown Cébazan to investigate the Abbey of Fontcaude, which was listed as being 11th century, but E didn't take to that, so I suggested that we just drive on to St. Chinian and find a good wine-store which could well have it.

Just out of Cébazan, it became apparent that we'd reached the top of a hill and were about to get hit with a view. And that's just what happened. We pulled over next to a monument to some Resistance fighters who'd been killed there and I hiked back up the hill a few feet to grab a shot of the valley we were about to enter.

There was also a huge sign in French, German, and English which clearly lays out the main growing areas in the vicinity and the soil types of each and how that affects the resultant product. Nothing about the history of the area at all. But who needs history when you have wine?

Of course, we didn't have wine yet, so we wound our way down into the valley, noting that there were big signs for wine-stores along the way. Yup, those tourists again. And boy, was I glad it was out of season. So all of a sudden, we found ourselves in St. Chinian, and parked in a park shaded by plane trees. It was hard to figure what to do next, but I just thought we should hike a little ways up the road we'd just come in on and look at what appeared to be a good wine store. Finding the wine we were looking for among the bottles in the window was a nice piece of luck.

It wasn't a good wine store. It was a remarkable one, the Espace Vin St. Chinian. As you can see on this page of their website, they've got 250 square meters offering heaven only knows how many wines, the vast majority of which are St. Chinian (that's them against the far wall, taking a right turn at the back wall) but with a very well-thought-out selection of other fine Languedoc wines, and the obligatory small selection of €100+ wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux. The woman who greeted us knew her stuff, and when E picked up two bottles of the wine we hadn't found over the mountain, and I grabbed two bottles of Mas de la Serrane's Clos des Immortelles, I asked her to suggest a third wine for the rest of the "six pack" (actually a "case" in France is six bottles), and she suggested a third wine, a Pétale Pourpre from the Domaine Pin des Marguerites in nearby Berlou which had the schist, red sandstone, terroir to contrast with the limestone terroir of the Les Eminades. Sold. We got outside, laid the precious cargo in the trunk of the car, and noticed how early it was: "It's so close!" E said with evident surprise. But it is: just because the landscape's so different from where we live doesn't mean it's another planet.

We walked around St. Chinian, but it's really nothing much to look at. There was a weird sculpture or something above a door

but the only building of note was city hall, which has a very well-stocked tourist info center worth checking out on it's right-hand side as you face it.

But with a glance at the map, it appeared Roquebrun and Olargues were both easy enough to get to, so we took off towards the former, going through acre after acre of vineyards bearing names we'd just seen in the wine shop, some of which I recognized from previous encounters at the table. In fact, we missed the main turnoff to Roquebrun, and took a back route that went up and down a mountain, and when we were too high for grapes to grow, it was worth remarking on. But soon enough we pulled into Roquebrun, one of those villages that hangs on a mountain.

And which actually looks like this.

What is most notable about the place is that it's also got rocks that look like buildings. This seems to be a feature of the local mountains, many of which sprout similar formations.

About half-way up to the tower, which we didn't even attempt to get near (not to mention the admission-only garden up there), there's a church, which was nice, but locked. (The garden is all about the local micro-climate, which doesn't cool off much in winter, so a xeriscape exhibition of plants thrives there for those who want to climb up the hill. For those who don't, there's the local wine, which is apparently fantastic, part of the St. Chinian appellation.)

When we got up there, we decided to head back down the hill. There was a nice view, and someone was burning off some vines by the side of the Orb River.

It was no problem getting to Olargues, either: it was just up the road. It was a fortified city, and much earlier we'd passed a sign on the road informing us we were in Cathar country. Roquebrun didn't have the signs of a fortified village, nor did the church appear that way. Olargues, though, might have been, but I'm not sure. The entrance to the old town is guarded by a double gate in the wall (the construction sign is modern; you'd think I'd learn how to use the damn zoom on the camera, wouldn't you?), through which a stout piece of wood could be slammed to deter invaders.

The big attraction here, too, is a tower, but a different sort than the one in Roquebrun. You reach it via an enclosed staircase which sends you up through the middle of the old village

and then you hike a bit up the hill and are confronted with this:

Which consists of this ruined bell-tower

sitting in the middle of a bunch of rubble which extends over a lot of the hilltop, which has breathtaking views of the Espinouse Mountains.

This whole area is referred to as le castrum, with castrum being a Latin word for a fortification. Nothing I've been able to find points to a Cathar connection, but I'm still not sure what the whole thing is about and the museum half-way up the covered stairway was closed, so I'll either have to go back or find a reference that makes some sense about the place. Anyway, that gated thing in the first picture is locked tight, and looking through the gate just heightens the mystery of what it is. It looks like a chapel, but has a legend on it I couldn't quite make out which seems to say it's a tomb.

That's what it looks like through the gate, anyway.

It was getting late, and we were a ways from home, so we headed back to the car and prepared to leave. Didn't happen. E has a peculiar habit of keeping the car key loose, and putting it on the seat before he sits down to drive. Which isn't a problem unless the key hits the upholstery and bounces by chance into the space between the seat and the stick shift assembly. He's a fully-qualified engineer with a doctorate and everything, and between the two of us it took us 30 minutes of pulling the driver's seat back and forth and sticking hands in where we couldn't see what we were doing and finally I spied part of the key emerging from underneath the track the seat slides on and managed to retrieve it.

The drive home started off beautiful, with all the mountains stretching into the distance, but we missed a time-saving turnoff in Bédarieux, the first of a series of seriously ugly towns we came upon, and thus climbed over a bunch of hills to Lunel and finally Lodève before we chould head down to the freeway back to Montpellier. The odometer showed we'd gone 260 km during the trip, which is a bit much, but right up until the end, when that stretch of nasty industrial towns started, it was gorgeous the whole way.

The moral? There's nothing wrong with drinking and driving, provided you do one one day, and the other the other day. The label on a bottle of wine had provided us with a fine adventure.

Oh, and the kicker: the lady at the wine shop in St. Chinian told us how to get to the Eminades winery. That road leading to the old abbey? You turn up there and there's a sign near the graveyard. Oops!

OLARGUES UPDATE: E wasn't happy with our lack of information about Olargues, and did some research the next day. It turns out that most of the original settlement was on the hilltop and it was a fortifed village whose main group of structures dated back to Romanesque times, but that in the 16th Century, Louis XIII was becoming concerned with the amount of power the individual nobles had, so he ordered all the communities like the castrum of Olargues to be razed. Even that didn't stop them, so after the Duke of Montmorency, governor of the Languedoc, proved to be too much of a pain, he was beheaded and, eventually, all the governors had to live at court in Versailles and not among the people they governed.

The other thing he researched was something I'd forgotten (probably because I didn't take a picture of it), which was there was a bright red railroad bridge running across the road into town which, a sign informed us, had been built by Gustave Eiffel. It's now part of a hiking trail, as nearly as I can figure out, but it dates from 1889. There's also another bridge which I think we would have driven into town on if we hadn't come from another direction, yet another Pont du Diable, from the 11th century or thereabouts, whose connection to Satan I can't seem to find.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Slapstick and Sumptuousness

I think yesterday must have set a record for ridiculous contrasts.

First, there was the latest salvo in the ridiculous war against the telecom I got rid of last summer, when it became evident that they had lied to me from the very start of my contract wtih them. Remember the name, folks: Not free. Very French. Out of the blue, in July of this year, I got an e-mail from a collection service saying that they were coming after me for the debt of €540 I owed these frauds. Seeing as how I had formally cut off the contract and returned their equipment a year previously, this made very little sense to me. I wrote the collection agency (in French) and asked them just what this bill was all about. I have never gotten a response, but I have gotten three letters warning me that they will soon turn the case over to a judge and then bailiffs will come. French customer service at its best. There must be some agency somewhere which protects people against this, but I have no idea what it is.

Anyway, I tossed the letter into a pile and went on with my day. Around 3, I was sitting at my desk with the windows open and I smelled smoke. Was the tram station on fire again? I walked out onto my balcony to see if I could figure out what direction it was coming from, but once out there, I couldn't smell it.

Now, I don't know if I've mentioned my upstairs neighbor, Madame Merde. She's quite young, and has two kids, one a boy about 6, and the other an infant, maybe a year old. I guess the father is a teenager-looking kid I see her with, although I don't know if he lives there or not. She's gotten her name by the fact that her way of dealing with just about every situation is to yell, and the last word in the sentence is just about always "merde." She's quite eloquent with it, although her accent precludes my understanding most of what she says. She also yells "arrête!" and "Dépèche-toi!" at the older kid a lot ("stop" and "hurry up," for you Americans). I'd like to pretend she's more colorful than she is, but she is distinctly unfriendly, and has never thanked me when I've helped her carry the baby vehicle up the stairs. She also has the habit of flapping her bedding out the window every morning and flicking her cigarette ashes out the window, too. I've got more ashes on my desk than I did when I smoked.

So I'm sitting at the desk, having already had to close the window once because she was apparently scrubbing the windowsill and water was splashing me. And the smoke came on again. And again I went to see what was happening and heard her yelling something out the window real loud. She was yelling at the violin-makers across the courtyard, and they were answering her. Suddenly, I saw some ash -- going up. Aha! I went back into the bedroom and onto the balcony and saw what was happening. People in our building can't access the courtyard, which has a couple of staircases coming off of it. Directly below me is one that's become filled with trash, largely thrown out the window by Mme. Merde's oldest kid, but some dating from the era of Les Lunkheads. She had flipped a lit cigarette out the window and it had started a fire. Big surprise, but she wanted the violin-makers to put it out. She snarled at them, disappeared from the window, and came back with a saucepan with water in it, which she dumped out without looking at what she was doing. It missed half the fire. I remembered that I had a mineral-water bottle out on the balcony that dated from when I thought I could actually grow something there, and so I grabbed it and -- hey! -- it still had water in it. I uncapped it, stepped over to the end of the balcony, and within seconds, I had put out the rest of the blaze. The violin-makers were walking over to the fire with a large bowl filled with water, and suddenly Mme. Merde unleashed a second pan of water -- right on my head. The violin-makers cracked up, and I don't blame them. I looked up at Mme. Merde, and she said "Attention, monsieur" and disappeared from the window. What a charmer.

So there was nothing else to do but to change my clothes. But I was going to do that anyway, just not at that moment. Because there was more going on.

* * *

Monday I'd hiked all over the centre ville with J, scouting restaurants because it was E's birthday and she wanted to take us all out to dinner. I gave a pretty good tour if I do say so myself, and she took notes with a little camera so she could do further research at home. A couple of days later, she said "Let's go to Le Pastis. I've made reservations for 8. And let's get a drink beforehand." I was delighted: the place is inconspicuously nestled in the Ste. Anne district, probably the part of town I most would like to move to, and the menu, which I've checked from time to time, looked amazing. It was one of those situations where the menu is affordable, but the wine list was another matter entirely. I swore I'd get there some day, however.

Thus, after changing into dry clothes, I awaited their ring on my doorbell at 7. I had an idea of a place to have a drink, and boy, did I hit the jackpot with that! I don't go to bars -- my financial situation doesn't allow it, obviously -- but I do observe the city, and there was an old street just off the Rue Foch where there seemed to be a couple of bars. Three, in fact, meaning it's probably not a place I'd want to live too near. One seemed less populated than the others, though, so we went in. There, we were presented with a wine list -- it was a wine bar! No wonder the clientele looked older than the usual binge-drinking student crowd! And lordy, what a wine-list! And one reason it wasn't so heavily populated was that half the tables were reserved, it being Friday night. No matter: there was indeed a table for us, and we sat down.

One problem I've found with wine-bars here is that there are very few by-the-glass choices. Not here. It turns out that E has spent most of his life drinking white wine, and knows nothing about reds. Well, he's landed in the place where a post-doctoral eductation on the subject is possible, and this looked like a great classroom. He got a Pic St. Loup (I forgot to take notes, dammit) and I got a Terrasses de Larzac, and, as I'd figured, his was big, fruity, and complex, and mine was more austere, mineral, and the fruit was way back in the taste. A better example of terroir is hard to imagine: we'd driven to both regions, so he knew what it looked like out there, and now he was seeing what the difference made to the taste of the wine.

The place filled up quickly after we got there, so we were right at the perfect moment. Plates of tapas came out of nowhere to various tables, and I regretted not having read that part of the menu, but they looked good. A huge dog ran around with the grace of a ballet dancer, not disrupting anyone. Clearly it was his place, and for me, it's a place to go back to again. Soon. You're welcome to join me.

Oh: it's called L'atelier, and I'll dispense with my usual listing because all the info is right there on the website.

* * *

It was just a few blocks to dinner, and when we got to Le Pastis at five minutes to eight, we were practically the only people there. This changed very rapidly. If we had reservations for eight, I guess most people reserved for 8:15 -- or, come to think of it, there is the famous quart d'heure montpellierian. No question: they were ready for us. I'd already read the menu and had decided that as long as someone else was paying, I'd just order all of it. It really was that tempting. (Note: the link there leads to whatever today's menu is. What's up there as I post is what we had to choose from last night. What you'll see depends on whether you go there today or months later.)

Fortunately, we all had different stuff, and the extremely helpful waitress also helped me make a good choice for the wine. It wasn't on the list: the one I'd settled on was sold out, but she suggested instead another St. Chinian (since I decided that that terroir would be an excellent half-way point between the two we'd already had), a Les Eminades Cebenna from 2010. It was pretty huge, but still had loads of sunshine, subtle fruit, a little tannin, and less of a mineral presence that the Terrasses de Larzac, but just enough so that it wasn't too smooth. E, with his limited experience with red wines, says he finds a lot of them "scratchy," which is a wonderful word for badly-made wine: it scratches your throat on the way down. There was no scratchiness tonight.

J didn't have an appetizer, but E had a ballotin of chicken, stuffed with foie gras and artichoke heart. It's definitely one of those don't-try-this-at-home dishes, where you debone a chicken and then stuff it with whatever you're stuffing it with. There are those who say it's easy, but I'll get mine here, thanks. My starter was less successful: an "ingot" of tomatoes in a jelly of espalette pepper, with a little ball of avocado ice-cream next to it. I had a memory of a weird bar in New Orleans I'd been taken to ages ago by Bunny Matthews, where people gambled on horse-racing slots downstairs and upstairs a couple of gay Brazilians made odd, great food, where I'd last had avocado ice cream. But the espalette was nowhere to be tasted and the tomatoes themselves were only vaguely there. I guess I made a mistake, and it was too late in the season for the tomatoes, but there's no excuse for the espalette, which is right in season, although the ice cream was lovely and subtle. Too bad: I should have had the grilled sardines stuffed with pesto.

J definitely won the main-course race with four huge scallops, crusted with persillade (parsley and garlic, finely minced) sitting in a celery bouillon on red lentils. E came in second with a hunk o' hake sitting in a horseradish sauce, accompanied by an odd construction in which beets were peeled very thin and stacked with slices of conté cheese, which I bet tasted great if you like beets, which I empatically do not. I had a couple of pieces of local lamb, which were just delicious, but the advertised sauce "fortified wtih garlic" wasn't much in evidence, and the "lead-shot and preserved squash" turned out to be some small potatoes -- very richly flavored -- and, um, zucchini. The other two dishes at the table proved these folks can cook extremely inventively and skillfully, and like I said, mine was fine, but just not as creative as I was hoping. We all got little glass jars filled with steamed seasonal vegetables -- cauliflower, romanesco, red carrots -- which were very nice. The reason J hadn't had an appetizer was so she could get dessert, which turned out to be figs and violets on shortbread and a rosemary-honey ice cream. Dang.

Le Pastis is a major find, and clearly not for everyday eating (well, not until I sell the movie rights to this blog or win the lottery or something), and I would like to thank E for having a birthday so we could discover it -- and to urge him to have another soon!

Again, details of opening (they do lunch, too, and their by-the-glass wine selection is superb) and all can be found on the opening page of their website, so just click and discover.

Oh, and sorry, no photos: J's camera wasn't up to it, and I wasn't about to lug my big black monster to the table. Go experience it in person: technology's nice, but you still can't upload those odors!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Texas For Breakfast

Being broke, but not poor, means that there are some exotic things that you have to give up. And living overseas means that no matter how much money you have, you're likely to have to do that anyway. But one of my favorite things has always been breakfast tacos, something I discovered in Texas during my very first visit (at the famous La Reyna Bakery on S. 1st in Austin, which used to be in the little frame house on the northeast corner of Mary instead of on the northwest corner where the behemoth its success has turned it into stands today) and have pursued every time I've gone back.

And, of course, learned to make at home. When I lived in California, it was easy: potatoes, eggs, flour tortillas, salsa. The flour tortillas got fresher and the salsa got better after I moved to Texas. And then I wound up in Berlin. For a while, there was a Mexican restaurant near me owned by friends, where I could buy a few uncooked flour tortillas, but that didn't last long: it was deemed too hard for the kitchen to deal with. And then I made a discovery: I could make my own. It was easy.

What wasn't easy, though, was getting salsa. Unbelievably enough, my neighborhood supermarket carried Pace Picante Sauce for a while, even the hot variety. They got wise to that: the Germans aren't big on stuff with flavor, so it vanished. Then, on special occasions, I'd get Paul Newman salsa, which was incredibly expensive. And, in the days when you were allowed to carry glass jars on airplanes (ask your parents, kids), I'd return from trips to Texas with a jar or two of something good, and visitors from Texas would also be asked to bring some with them. Then I moved to France, and the salsa problem got worse. The French like flavor, but only specific kinds of flavors, and salsa ain't one of 'em. (Amazingly, Doritos sells a hot salsa that's almost good -- certainly better than all the Old El Paso crap -- but it doesn't really make the cut except in extremis.) Then I made another discovery: I could make salsa, too. Better than Paul Newman. And better than Pace.

I made this discovery through a care package a couple of Texans who were then living in London sent, which package included a copy of Robb Walsh's Tex-Mex Cookbook. I knew Robb in Austin; he took over my cooking column after I left, and now he's a star of Texas foodways. But, I'm sorry to say, I'm not going to print his recipe here. Nope: you're going to have to buy the book, because I'm very sensitive to copyright issues and authors needing to make a living, and if you'd ever met Robb you'd see how emaciated and hungry he looks all the time, so I'm not going to take food out of his mouth and the mouths of his children -- especially when I can put it in my own by urging you to buy a copy of the Tex-Mex Cookbook off of that gizmo over in the right-hand column (the one headed "My Cookbooks"), which not only pays Robb royalties, but deposits a dime or so in the fund Amazon's keeping for me from purchases people make from this blog. And if you need a Ferrari or a washing machine or something (does Amazon sell Ferraris yet?), buy it while you're buying the cookbook, because the click-through also pays me and I get a piece of that action, too.

People in France should be aware that there are two ingredients in Robb's recipe which are unavailable here, once again, as with the powdered rosemary in the pastafazool recipe, because they're below French standards of edibility: dried onion and dried garlic. Horrid stuff which I don't use anywhere else, but boy, the salsa doesn't taste right without them. Seriously. You can get them in Germany, natch. Also: that vinegar you use to de-scale your coffee-maker? You'll need some of that.

Anyway, where were we? Ah: you've made the salsa, and you've done it the day before, because you have to let it rest overnight. I toss in a bunch of chopped cliantro to make it even better, and I recommend that, if you can't find jalapenos (and you can't in France), you just use the largest green chiles you can find at your neighborhood "Asia" grocery.

Okay. Now, with the salsa made, it's time for breakfast. This is so simple I can do it before I even make coffee. I also do it before I take my shower, and here's why:

You need, for six big torillas:

1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2-3 tablespoons lard (preferred) or vegetable shortening
1/4 cup water, more or less.

I use a food processor for this, but it's not essential unless you're as smazed as I am in the morning. Whizz those dry ingredients together, then add the fat. When it's integrated, add the water, and soon the mixture will tighten up into a ball. You want slick, but not sticking to your fingers. If it's falling apart, add more water, tiny bit by tiny bit. If it's too gooey, add tiny bits of flour. You'll soon figure out when it's just right after you make it a few times. Then you take the ball and stick it in a plastic bag and seal it tightly and let it rest for at leas a half-hour -- an hour is better. That's when you take your shower and all.

Keep your flour out and handy; you'll need it.

The next thing is to get a big potato (or several small ones, duh) and cut it into 1/4" cubes.

Heat some oil -- about 1/4 cup, minimum, in a non-stick pan (this is important for later) and fry these cubes until they're golden brown all over. This will take about 20 minutes if done right. Don't worry about how much oil you're using: you'll recycle it in your own special potato-oil can and use it over and over. Well, until it goes bad, which you'll know when you heat it and it doesn't smell too good. Oh, and turn the oven onto low. Anyway. Next, break three eggs, like these beauties I get from the guy at the market, and scramble 'em with some milk.

The Tony Chachere's Creole Seasoning is to sprinkle on the fried potato cubes once they're drained of oil, but you can just use salt or your favorite seasoning mix or make some out of powdered chipotle and other good things. You do want some salt in there, though. So: drain and season the potatoes, then toss in your eggs and watch them set -- it won't take long.

Plate them and stick the plate in the oven. Put your pan back on the heat and raise the heat a little.

Now grab a rolling pin, and the fun begins. Dust some flour on your cutting board, open up your dough, and twist off a little ping-pong-ball-sized hunk and roll it into a sphere.

Then, take your sphere and put it into your flour and shake so it gets covered with flour.

Plop it down in the flour on the board, flatten it gently with your hands...

And roll it out as thin as you can. I flip it with each pass of the rolling pin, and apply pressure from the center of the tortilla-in-making so that the edges are good and thin, too.

Then put it on your (non oiled) nonstick pan and pay attention. As you may be able to figure out from this exclusive Blur-O-Vision photo, bubbles will appear after a little while. It's your signal to flip the tortilla.

(I discovered that the smaller that photo is, the better it looks). Anyway, now you flip:

You only toast that other side very briefly, or you'll wind up with something like matzoh (albeit matzoh made with lard). You then put it someplace that'll keep it warm without heating it. I use aluminum foil, but some of you may have specialty tortilla warmers you bought on the border and never knew what to do with.

Texans will know what to do now, but here's an illustrated guide for those who've never tried this astonishing delicacy. Here, all your ingredients are in place: salsa, eggs, tortilla.

First, stick some eggs on the tortilla, leaving a good margin around the edges.

Knock some salsa on there...

Now, the part I couldn't photograph because it requires two hands and I was also scared of drooling on the camera: you turn a flap up from the bottom of the tortilla, folding it over the eggs. Then you make right and left "wings" from the other two margins, roll it up and stick the fourth quadrant of the breakfast taco in your mouth.

For absolute authenticity a la La Reyna, you need small cans of orange juice poured over ice (I could never figure that one out) and pretty lousy coffee.

Most Tex-Mex restaurants also feature bacon and egg, sausage and egg, (Mexican) chorizo and egg, bean and egg, and other breakfast tacos. These flour tortillas can also be used in other border delights, like carnitas (which some friends made in Berlin: no problem finding pork there!) or chicken-and-avocado tacos... But there is no reason to pay some huge international food conglomerate €3.99 for eight flour tortillas made with god knows what additives, which'll go bad the minute you open them if you don't use them immediately, when you can make your own for about €0.35.

You can also use the salsa, heated, for huevos rancheros, with a dusting of sharp cheese. But the tragic truth is, genuine corn tortillas are pretty much unobtainable by consumers in Europe: the supermarket may offer something called corn tortillas, but they don't look right, and no wonder: they're 75% wheat flour with some corn flour added for coloring. So yet another thing to smuggle back from Texas or ask your visiting friends to bring over. They freeze just great for about six months, although they eventually absorb too much water and get funky after that.

So bon appetit, y'all!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Frustrations of Aniane

E has relatives visiting this week, and in preparation, I helped him devise a day-trip from Montpellier that'd wow them. It's the one I, ideally, use on my visitors when we can get our hands on a car. He'd already done bits of it, but for the record, it goes like this:

Drive to Sommières, then take the road that leads to St. Martin-de-Londres. This takes you between Pic St. Loup and l'Hortus, and makes your visitors' eyes pop out. If you've left at the right time, and depending on how hungry you are, you can break in St. Martin for either a tasty snack from the excellent bakery there in the square, or a pizza -- also quite good -- from the place serving food. Sit out under the trees, enjoy the fountain/horse trough, and afterwards climb up the hill to check out the tiny Romanesque church. Back into the car, and head to St. Guilhem-le-Désert, either by via the road to Caisse and thence to the D4, or down the D32, better maintained, but less scenic, to Aniane, but not going into town and turning towards St. Guilhem via the signs there. Ideally, you do St. Guilhem via the visitors' center at the Pont du Diable, which, during high season, provides a little shuttle bus to get you there and back, and also has trilingual displays about the area's history, terroir, and ecosystems. When you've done that, get back in the car, drive to Aniane, take a wine-tasting at the local cave cooperative to get a sense of the amazing terroir of the Terrasses de Larzac, and maybe visit a winery or two. There's a great wine map of the area available at the Pont du Diable visitors' center. Then you drive back to Montpellier for a fine dinner. At the end of the evening, your visitors say "Okay, now I know why you like it here." So that's my routine. Or my ideal routine; I've never done the whole thing.

Last time we tried this, it was a Monday, and we got distracted after St. Martin, which was okay, but this week, E really needed to see the big sights, so we decided to head straight to St. Guilhelm and really do the place. Even I hadn't done this, because six years ago when I was there it was high tourist season, and the Big Attraction, the UNESCO-listed Abbey of Gellone, was holding church services. The nerve! So this time we decided to do it on a Tuesday, so that we could be sure that everything would be open. Sounded like a plan.

It got off to a rocky start. My first royalties from my Kindle article (you have bought a copy, haven't you?) were due in, plus someone had deposited another small check in my account which was supposed to clear that morning. I set off to the market in a jaunty mood, figuring to buy some nice stuff, then meet E at 1:30 for the trip. I got to the cash machine and it said I didn't have a cent. I stormed back down the hill, and sure enough, the check hadn't cleared and the Amazon dough hadn't shown up. Well, at least I had the trip to look forward to.

And it was a good day for one, even if we did get mildly lost getting out of town (I swear, one thing Montpellier is is drivers' hell) and onto the wrong road. No problem: instead of heading due north, like we wanted to, we were going west, and just got off the highway at Aniane and grabbed the road north instead of going into town. We got to the Pont du Diable, and I realized that the parking lot there was deserted, so I suggested we press on to St. Guilhem. As the road rose above the Hérault River, I noticed crumbling stone towers, which, I later learned, were the ruins of mills. We parked the car (note for tourists: do not park at the canoing place -- the rates are exorbitant -- but either drive straight on, or, better, turn left towards a parking lot that has actual shade. Rates in both are the same, neither will have space in high season, so use the shuttle) and walked into town.

St. Guilhem-le-Désert has one of those Plus Beau Villages de France signs as you drive in, and for those of you who don't speak French, that means "fully equipped to separate tourists from their money." You got your glass-blower, your potteries, your local honey-dealers, your ice cream shop, your knights-of-old shop for the boys, your doll shop for the girls, and your obvious ripoff lunch joints offering a "Menu Médievale" that should, by rights, be a hunk of meat and some bread, but isn't. It's also got your ready-for-photographing shots, like this one:

That's a thistle there on the door, something you see a lot in this village, for reasons I'm not entirely clear on. You not only see the real thing, like here, but it's also carved out of stone, painted on souvenir pottery, and the like. 

We walked uphill, and I began to wonder where the dang Abbey was. It seemed to me the last time I'd been here it was right in my face, and although we'd seen its backside, I didn't see a way in. 

A narrow street, though, announced that it led to the plaza, and once we got there, I realized that six years ago, when I'd been here last, we'd parked in the shaded lot and had been right there. The Abbey does, in fact, face onto the main square, where people were eating lunch, and some intrepid butcher had set up his trailer and was selling meat, cheese, and charcuterie to the locals.

I must say that, for all the historical importance of this place, its interior isn't so interesting. That said, the story is quite something. Guilhem (William in Occitan) was a friend of Charlemagne's, and when he decided to set up a monastery in the middle of nowhere and make it a major stop on the pilgrim road to Compostella, Charlemagne helped him out by giving him a chunk of the True Cross to use as a magnet for the pilgrims. He apparently had quite a good community going there, and was buried (and sanctified) in due time. The place did well enough that four or five centuries after Guilhem's death, they knocked down a lot of the old church and built the one you see today, with a nice big cloister for the monks to walk around and plant medicinal herbs in the center of so they could use them on sick pilgrims. 

I wasn't actually focusing so much on the cloister here as I was on two of the other attractions of St. Guilhem. If you look at that mountain off there in the distance more closely, you'll see two ruins. The one to the right, which is just to the left of part of the monastery's roof, is called the Giant's Castle, and was used as a place the people of the village could go in case of attack. It's way the hell up the mountain, about 30 minutes by arduous foot journey. But above that is the remains of a structure, a ruin known as the little windows (les fenestrettes). I have no idea what this was, but I do know that recruiting the labor to build these two buildings couldn't have been easy. It got mighty hot in the summer then, as now, and those two things are way the hell up there. 

The cloister is a reconstructed ruin: most of it is, improbably, in New York and is one of the cloisters around which the Metropolitan Museum's famed branch museum The Cloisters is arranged. This guy must've been astonished when George Grey Barnard walked in and opened his wallet to buy it. 

At any rate, there just isn't much to see except for the crypt, which has remains of the original 9th century church, and a museum just off the cloister, from which I was shooed because despite the signs, it costs €2.50 to see and that was currently beyond my means. Didn't look like there was much in there anyway. 

We took a turn around the square, and then headed back down the hill to the car. Our next stop was the Pont du Diable, the bridge made to connect the abbey in Aniane with the one we'd just seen, so that the pilgrims could stop in both places and spend money. Oh, and do religious stuff, too, of course. The legend from which the bridge gets its name is that the monks worked on the bridge all day and then woke up the next morning to see all their work undone. St. Guilhem, of course, knew what was going on: the Devil was trying to keep the faithful from doing their thing. So he had a meeting with ol' Satan (and, if you think about it, this brings up all kinds of questions, but anyway...) and got him to agree to a deal: Old Nick would let the monks finish the bridge, and then he could have the first soul which crossed it. The monks finished the job, the Devil awaited his payment, and St. Guilhem took a dog, slapped it on the rump, and sent it across. Happy ending for dog-lovers: Satan was so unhappy that he'd been outwitted that he jumped off the bridge. 

Nowadays, it's a major swimming hole, and you can walk across the old bridge or drive across the new one, and there's some village you can walk to where they -- surprise! -- make pottery. Betcha they also blow glass. 

Anyway, it was past 4 by the time we'd admired the bridge and the visitors' center, so it was time to press on to Aniane to investigate the wine scene. I'd seen a wine shop on our way out of town, and I was also curious about the local olives, since I've been buying olive oil from there ever since I've lived here, and it's cheap and wonderful. In fact, I just bought some today, and noted that it's had its name changed from La Colombe to Le Jardin de Saint-Benoît. Benoît, or Benedict, was Guilhem's chief competitor in the region in days gone by, but Aniane doesn't rely on him for tourism. Instead, it seems to be an agricultural hub, with the wine and olive buisnesses front and center. We followed a sign to the olive factory (I'd thought -- and still do -- that there's a retail outlet/tourist trap called L'Olivier, but we didn't find it and I thought this was it) and wound up nearly colliding with a semi-truck being loaded with enough olive oil to last me at least six months. The courtyard was filled with black plastic barrels of olives, but this was an industrial site -- the one that produces the oil I use, though -- and not for visits.  Okay, on to the wine. We managed to find a place to park, walked over to the wine shop, and it was closed...on Tuesday! Arrrggggh! Looked like some good stuff in there, too. (Note: it's open on Monday, and also Sunday morning until 1pm). We then went to the cave cooperative and looked around, but the tasting room was much smaller than I remembered from six years ago, and since we were both broke, we decided against doing a dégustation. There weren't as many wines on offer as last time, either. 

By now I was obsessed. I wanted to figure out something about this place! We wandered around the tiny, winding streets of the village, which looked nice enough, although very disorienting because the streets were so narrow and the buildings were so close together and the main square seemed to be outside the village proper. I'd seen a sign, though, and it was still fairly early: we were near Mas de la Serrane, my favorite winery in this region (that I've discovered so far). I wanted to see it. This turned out to be on the road to St. Martin, conveniently enough, so we drove out of Aniane, onto this road, and soon we were bumping up a long driveway. 

This ended at a farm building, overlooking the fields from which some of the greatest wine I've ever drunk was ripening in the late afternoon sunshine. 

There were grapes just growing underfoot. 

And there was a cellar, an actual bunker dug into the hillside, where there were tastings available. All we had to do was ring the bell. The sign said that English and German both were spoken. But...

"We don't have any money to buy the wine if we like it," E reminded me. And he was right. "We can come back!" I thought for a minute about a day that would have started with me buying fresh food at the market and ended with my buying a nice bottle of my favorite wine right at the winery. This was not that day. 

We got back in the car, drove to St. Martin, and soon enough we were crawling back into Montpellier. I checked my bank account right away, and of course all the money had cleared. 

Just a warning, Aniane: I'll be back. 
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