Friday, September 30, 2011

Tomato paste

The conversion goblin has struck again!

During the two hours it took me to get Lauris and myself ready and out of the house yesterday, I did once think “maybe I ought to convert those quantities,” but since it did take us two hours to get out of the apartment, I shrugged off the thought and we headed to the store.

I had popped over to google translate to find the French words for several of the spices and ingredients I needed, and found almost everything I had on my list. Still missing the baking soda and baking powder; I will have to ask one of my French friends what they are called, I believe the translations I wrote down may be literal.

The main goal was to pick up the ingredients for lasagna, and as I’ve made this particular recipe a few times before, I thought I would be able to get the correct quantities of everything between quick mental conversions and visual guess-timates.

1 pound = 16 ounces = ~ 450 grams

Maybe I should get a tattoo.

Fast forward to dinnertime, and to a lasagna that doesn’t hold a candle to the frozen ones that require 1/10th of the effort. I ended up with half the required ricotta and double the amount of tomato sauce. I didn’t even use all the tomato paste I came home with, but I think the problem lies in the lack of crushed tomatoes. Since I hadn’t translated “crushed” I went by pictures, and figured a large can with pictures of chunky looking tomatoes on the label would be it. Turns out, tomato paste comes in all shapes and sizes; the box I bought thinking it was tomato paste is in fact tomato paste but is in a tube, what I believed to be an unseasoned tomato sauce is tomato paste, and the “chunky tomato label can” was… tomato paste. And the labels all say something different!

Sorry honey, I won’t serve you tomato paste for dinner again… well, after tonight’s leftovers, that is.

Lauris is toad-ing a fine line at the Jardin Lecoq

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Buckeyes, horsechestnuts or chestnuts in the US, conkers in England, kastaņi in Latvija, châtaigne in France... Polished brown nuts wrapped in spiky green shells, the ones here in France aren’t edible, only collectible. We’ve had fun searching for them, sifting through the shells, leaves and grass. At first we only split open a few husks, and took home the pairs of glossy chestnuts nestled inside. Next time around we filled the little cupholders on the stroller with them, and left them behind on the way home, like a trail of breadcrumbs. Another batch made it all the way back to the kitchen, where they’ve joined the collection of bowls, plastic containers and spoons that have their place on a shelf at just the right height for a junior chef. While mom is washing dishes or preparing food, they get poured from one container into another, skidded across the floor, counted and recounted one by one from bowl to bin back to bowl again.

I’ll admit the last search was more for mom than for son. There aren’t many signs of autumn yet here in Clermont-Ferrand, only a slight drop in temperatures and shorter daylight hours signal the arrival of fall. The cyclamen on the dining room table brightens what otherwise could be dreary days, and now this bowl of silky chestnuts reminds me of the season I grew to love so much while living in Michigan. I’m still hoping for that crisp autumn air with the crackle of leaves underfoot, or maybe a few brightly colored yellow or red maples and hickories among the brown London planetrees, but for now I’ll settle for the silky smooth nuts hidden in the grass and husks like Easter eggs.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Happy autumnal equinox!

On Sunday we headed east towards Thiers in our search for fall color. I thought the Parc Naturel Régional Livradois-Forez was as good a place to start as any. It took us a bit to get everything packed and out of the house, but the weather was lovely, the roads clear of traffic, and in no time we were exiting the highway.

The Durolle river that flows through Thiers is what enabled the paper and knife industries to thrive in Thiers. The Durolle in turn flows into the Dore, a tributary of the Allier. Dore has a long history of paper mills as well, but it was the surrounding forests which drew us to the area. Our first stop was the Château d’Aulteribe, a castle rebuilt in the 19th century just west of Courpière. Although we didn’t enter the Château, we strolled the grounds and admired the lovely landscaping and enchanting property. Lauris spent quite some time collecting buckeyes and rocks while I snapped away with my camera. Although we didn’t find the fall color I was searching for, the carpet of cyclamens, the gardens and the fields provided a colorful landscape all the same.

We continued on through Courpière where during the summer months visitors can take the Livradois-Forez tourist train along the Dore valley. A side road took us to Sauviat, a village situated high above the Dore with some wonderful views. After winding our way back down to the valley we reached Olliergues, with an old 15th century bridge.

By this time Lauris had enough of the carseat and my stomach was rumbling, so we found a nice picnic area on the banks of the river for lunch. Still no fall color, but the mountain scenery was refreshing after a long week in the city. Another stop in Ambert allowed Lauris to spend some more energy and Roberts and I to quickly locate a geocache. A quaint little town with a history steeped in the paper industry, there were supposedly more than 300 mills in the area in the 16th century.

From Ambert we headed east, past old houses and paper mills, evidence of the industrial importance of the Lagat valley, the tributary we were now traveling along. At one point we turned north and wound our way over the mountains to the next tributary north, Valcivières, and on this trip we finally found the first of our fall color. The majority of hickories and maples had not started to turn, but here and there we could spot yellow among the green, and bright red apples, pīlādži (sumac) and flowers provided splashes of color in the landscape. There were magnificent views along this stretch of road, especially once we reached the Cirque de Valcivières, with little towns, fields and streams dotting the mountainside.

Our last stop was Col des Supeyres, the pass on the eastern edge of the Park at the elevation of 1,336m (4,481ft). Although trails crisscrossed the high pastures, we opted out and settled for another scenic viewpoint. With a sleeping Lauris in back and one tired mamma in front we decided to head home. Hopefully by next weekend there’ll be some more fall color for us to find.

Friday, September 23, 2011

1 week = 7 days = 168 hours = 10,080 minutes = 604,800 seconds

This week has been rough. Partly due to smaller things like the smell of paint in the dining/living areas from continued elevator installation, tumbles resulting in fat lips, colds and runny noses, however the main cause is a business trip; Roberts is in the US, so it’s been just the two of us all week.

My husband has always traveled on work-related trips, before there were three of us I sometimes even welcomed these little breaks in routine. No guilt over a frozen pizza for dinner, or an evening spent wrapped up on the couch with a book.

But with Lauris the situation is completely different; Roberts is my back-up, my 10 minutes peace in the evenings, my midnight (and sometimes 2am, 4am, 6am) riser, my “let’s order out for dinner” after an especially rough day, the one to reassure me that however difficult raising two children abroad sans family nearby may be, we will survive and our children will thrive. A week without him is daunting, no matter how many times I think to myself that women everywhere raise children alone and one week shouldn’t be such a disaster.

And we have survived, despite Wednesday night and the 4 hours spent trying to rock/walk/sing/shush Lauris to sleep, despite the extra loads of laundry caused by the “reorganization” of clothing Lauris deemed was necessary (reorganized straight into the dirty diaper pail), despite the shortened naps, shortened energy levels and shortened patience. Most evenings I have just left the mess, it can/will be dealt with eventually, and ignored the dishes until the next day as those too can wait. The days have been spent outside enjoying the beautiful weather (a.k.a. tiring Lauris out), meeting up with other moms, and stretching everyday chores such as a trip to the marché or pharmacy into hour-long adventures. (Who ever knew folding laundry could take three hours and elicit that many giggles?) The weekend was spent at the brocante and on a road-trip to Auchan supermarket. We came home with a bunch of little cactus plants to soothe the pain of the failure of my porch garden. Tuesday was market and park day, merci beaucoup to the mom that met me and listened to me release the pent up conversation that had been stewing since Saturday. Wednesday a playdate at another wonderful mother’s house that included much needed contact with grown-ups and a wonderful lunch. I almost didn’t survive Thursday, but here we are, already Friday and tomorrow he’ll be home.

Honey, jet lag or not, I hope you’re ready to spend the weekend with our son. Because I’m going to be a little busy regaining my sanity. (And please don't forget those dark chocolate mini-Reese's peanut butter cups...)

My moment of zen

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Saeimas vēlēšanas

For summary in English, please see below


17. septembrī notika Ārkārtas 11. Saeimas vēlēšanas. Pēdejā gadā ir bijusi nenormāli interesanta politika Latvijā: maijā Prezidents Valdis Zatlers ierosināja Saiemas atlaišanu.Viņu arī atvietoja ar Andri Bērziņu, bet vēlāk tauta atbalstija Zatlera ierosinājumu; 94,3% nobalsoja par Saeimas atlaišanu, un tā arī radās vajadzība šīm vēlēšanām. Mums tuvākais iecirknis bija Parīzē, četras stundas prom. Zinājām jau iepriekš, ka divu iemeslu dēļ nevarēsim tikt uz Parīzi šinī dienā, tamdēļ arī Roberts jau iepriekš izpētija kā pieteikties balsošanai par pastu. Pieprasijām no Belģijas vēstniecības (tuvākā vēstniecība kas piedāvāja pasta vēlēšanas materiālus) vajadzīgos dokumentus nosūtot iesniegumu balsošanai par pastu no ārvalstīm un mūsu Latvijas pases. Nedēļu vēlāk pienāca materiāli. 

Pirms vēlēšanām vairākas latviešu organizācijas un politiskās partijas organizēja kampāņas, mudināt ārvalsts latviešus uz vēlēšanām. Cik esmu lasījusi, ir kautkur starp 50,000 un 200,000 Latvijas valsts pilsoņu, kas dzīvo ārzemēs. Man vēl arvien ir divejādas domas par vēlēšanu. Esmu pilsone, un tamdēļ tā ir mana atbildība balsot, citādīgi kamdēļ kļuvu par pilsoni? Tomēr, nedzīvoju Latvijā un man nav sekas no valdības lēmumiem par veselības apdrošināšanu, skolām, ceļiem utt. Bet es atšķiros no daudziem ārzemēs-dzīvojošiem pilsoņiem ar to, ka ne es, ne mani vecāki nav dzīvojuši Latvijā. Es ļoti ceru, ka nesen izceļojušie latvieši izmanto šo iespēju balsot; tās ir balsis kuŗas gribētu lai dzird, tiem latviešiem kuŗi ir izvēlējušies atstāt Latviju dēļ iespējām ārzemēs.

2006. g. Čikagā
Beigās nobalsoju un nosūtiju vēstuli ar vēlēšanu materiāliem atpakaļ uz Belģiju. Kaut neesmu vēl nolēmusi vai man ir „tiesības” balsot, patlaban esmu nolēmusi tā; maniem vecvecākiem nebija iespēja balsot visus tos gadus kamēr Latvija bija okupēta, un man tagad ir pilsonība, kas saiet roku rokā ar atbildību balsot vēlēšanās. Labprāt gribētu dzirdēt citu arzemēs-dzīvojošu pilsoņu domas par šo tēmatu.
Sestdienas vēlēšanās balsoja apmēram 870,000 pilsoņi Latvijā un ārzemēs. Saskaņas centrs saņēma apmēram 29% no balsīm. Otrā vietā ierindojās Zatlera Reformu partija (21%), tad Vienotība (18,5%), Nacionālā apvienība „Visu Latvijai!” – „Tēvzemei un Brīvībai/LNNK” (13,6%) un Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība (12%). Saiemas sadala tad būs šāda; Saskaņas centram 34 vietas, Zatlera Reformu partijai 22, Vienotībai 19, Nacionālai apvienībai 13 un Zaļo un Zemnieku savienībai 12.

On September 17th Latvia had a Parliamentary election following the dissolution of the Saiema earlier this year. Then-President Valdis Zatlers suggested this dissolution back in May, and the Saiema elected Andris Bērziņš to the Presidency afterwards. Then the country headed to the polls, and 94.3% of voters voted to dissolve the Parliament, hence Saturday’s elections.

Our closest voting station was in Paris, and as we couldn’t make the trip we registered to vote by mail. I was torn over the feeling that although I have citizenship, whether I should vote; I do not live in Latvia, and although laws and regulations might influence me in terms of buying property, the day-to-day things like health care, schools, roads etc. don’t influence me. There are 200,000 citizens living outside of Latvia, and I would be interested to see more statistics on how many of those have recently emigrated, how many were born elsewhere, and how many voted.

I finally voted, with several points in mind. First, I am a citizen, and it is my duty to vote. Second, during 50 years of Soviet occupation my grandparents did not have the right to vote, it is for the sacrifices they made that I have the life I have today. Third, I might as well give up my citizenship if I don’t care to vote.
On Saturday about 870,000 citizens cast their ballots in Latvia and elsewhere, a record high since 1993 for votes cast outside of Latvia. The results were as follows; Harmony Centre received nearly 29% of the vote, followed by  Zatlers Reform Party with 21.5% of the vote. In third is Unity  with 18.5%, then the National Association with 13.6% and finally the Union of Greens and Farmers with a bit more than 12%. (The remaining parties did not receive enough votes to top the 5% threshold for inclusion in the Parliament.) The 100 seat Saiema will therefore have the following division of seats; Harmony Centre 34, Zatlers Reform Party 22, Unity 19, the National Association 13 and the Greens and Farmers 12.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Book release party

I’ll admit it, my Christmas present to my husband last year was an IOU. “But there were extenuating circumstances” I protest! We had just moved to France two months previous, and although I expected we’d have moved out of temporary housing at this point and all of our shipped belongings would be available, it turns out we didn’t have access to anything until May! This includes our hard drive, which had all the pictures and layout saved for the book that was supposed to be the best Christmas present ever.

The whole project started early last year after visiting his parents' house in Michigan and looking through his baby albums. I arranged to borrow the albums representing the first four years of his life, slowly started scanning in all the pictures, restored and photoshopped what I could, added names to the faces, and finally put it all into a book. After several recommendations I downloaded the software, and my verdict is that it is easy to use, has the option of designing your own pages, and offers fair prices (especially if you take advantage of their frequent sales and discounts).

The book was almost finished when the computer got packed up, and only in May was I able to pick up where I left off, and it was August before I finished. However, the book arrived looking exactly as I had imagined, and I decided to organize a book release party with a few of our friends to present this Christmas present to Roberts. Things didn’t go as planned, our friends had to cancel last minute and so the book release party turned into more of a “here you go, honey.” But I am still very proud of the way it turned out and happy that my husband has a piece of his childhood that he will be able to share with his children.

I would also like to note that I am now a published author J

PS. If you are interested in how the book looks, you can browse a few of the pages here.

Friday, September 16, 2011

21 weeks

Well, so much for having a January baby! I’ve been informed that the actual due date for the little carrot is not January 25th as I had calculated using the 40-week count, but instead is February 5th, 9 months from May 5th.  All this involves too much counting for my tired head. But I do have the echographie in hand that has pictures of this baby’s super long femur and age listed as 21 weeks, so there you go, we’re still on track. Maybe in France babies take 10 days longer to be born because of the August vacation and a frequent strike in July?

The doctor’s estimate on weight was 500 grams, which is 1.1 lbs. Phew. Must be those femurs!

Using a combination of English, French and hand waving we were able to ask the questions that have had me losing sleep over the last month, and the answers were straightforward and simple, something that was not the case in Greenville, SC. After the echographie the doctor took us on a tour of the delivery floor, showing us delivery rooms, waiting rooms and explaining the procedure, something that would be unheard of in the US – a doctor taking leisurely time to reassure a nervous mother.

I finally unpacked the box of maternity clothes that was hiding in the corner of the room and have been relaxing in the spacious sacks-they-call-shirts ever since. Energy levels are somewhat back, morning sickness is gone, and back pain is minimal. It must be a girl, causing this little trouble! Waiting for the other shoe to drop…

Have you checked the batteries of your smoke detector recently?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Puy des Goules

On Sunday, we woke up with the itch to enjoy fresh air and see a place we hadn’t yet been. With les volcans such a short distance away, we found a map that showed a good central parking area for several trails. We packed up the baby backpack and headed west. Puy de Dôme is perhaps the most famous of the puys, but this also guarantees a crowd on days with nice weather on the paved/gravel trail leading to the summit. The climb is also very strenuous; our last ascent there were three of us sharing Lauris’s weight and none of us was preggers. Therefore our destination was the parking area for Puy des Goules, a few puys north of Puy de Dôme. We had decided to have a look around the trailhead, see how long/difficult the various hikes were rated, and take it from there.

Lunch at the grotte

The parking area is just west of Orcines. Lots of parking, great picnic places, and there are well-marked trailheads for three different hikes (these trails also connect up to the longer trail networks). The circuit for Puy de Pariou was marked as a 3 hour, 6 km circuit (219 m elevation change), and with the slight chance of rain we opted instead for the 3 km (80 m elevation change) Grotte de Sarcoui hike. The route was the same for the summit hike for Puy des Goules, which left us the option of continuing on later.

After eating lunch at the grotte we decided to climb the additional 80 meters to the summit, and were rewarded with lovely views of the Chaîne des Puys, despite the clouds. This hike was described as 4km there and back and instructed to allow two hours to complete. It did take us a little longer because we stopped for lunch and a short break at the top and because the last half a kilometer is a doozy! On the other hand, the wide trail allowed for safe hiking pour moi, and the trails crisscrossing the crater at the summit were much more interesting than the summit trails of Puy de Dôme.

On the way down I wondered out loud how many puys there are in the chain, with the question of how many weekends it would take to climb them all. But maybe this is one project better left until after the baby is born.

I could have used a backpack carrier for my trip down...

Monday, September 12, 2011

20 Weeks

The big halfway point was passed last Wednesday. According to, s/he weighs about 10 ½ ounces now, is around 6 ½ inches long from head to bottom and about 10 inches from head to heel — the length of a banana. I love these fruit and produce comparisons. With Lauris I was threatened that if once the baby was born one of the nicknames (like kumquat, turnip or rutabaga) stuck, it would forever be my fault. Though I might be OK with week 23 (Mango)!

I think about ¼ of Clermont-Ferrand is pregnant. Our park visits of late have seemed more like pregnant-momma get-togethers, and there are at least five mothers in our neighborhood sporting serious bumps. Maybe I notice it more because I’m pregnant? The difference between these French moms and me? How in the world they stay so composed, energetic, well-groomed and skinny everywhere but their belly is beyond me. Can I hire someone to teach me how to wear this bump like an accessory?

The oddest thing for me about this pregnancy is the feeling that it’s the first time. I find myself asking Roberts about once a day “when I was pregnant with Lauris did I…” or “was it the same with Lauris?” Either it is true that all memories of difficulty fade after the child is born or I must truly have pregnancy-brain:  Every symptom, every milestone is brand new. With the first trimester morning sickness I swore that “if I had known it was going to be this bad…” but now remember how immobile I was with Lauris all the way through the second trimester. I felt the first kicks around week 17 and had the same “is it a kick or is it just gas” reaction I had as a first-timer (Roberts felt the first kick week 18). And most recently I find myself wondering how HUGE I am, although I should know that the bump I have now is nothing compared to how I’ll look in another twenty weeks.

But there are some major differences as well. While pregnant with Lauris I had physical therapy for back pain throughout the second half of the first trimester and the second trimester. I believe this could have had something to do with the three hour commute to work, but so far it’s been just the usual aches and pains that can be associated with weight gain and my ligaments stretching. Although I’ve gained a similar amount of weight and the bump is similar to the previous pregnancy, I’m still wearing mostly regular clothes, so it seems that the baby is sitting higher (Although that might change, because one is forecast to gain another pound each week from now on). And although my cravings are primarily for chocolate (same as before)(though I have been afflicted with these cravings for chocolate for a couple of decades), I’m also craving cereal and fruit. A healthy change from the chili-cheese fry cravings of 2009/2010. There are quite a few other little things that have me wondering if it might not be a girl…

2011 on the right

We’ve had an interesting time choosing a doctor and finding a hospital. After my Greenville experience I definitely had a different list of questions to ask the doctor about standard procedure, but we didn’t realize how high the first hurdle, of finding an English speaking doctor, would be. The doctor I’m currently seeing was recommended by several other expats as “speaks perfect English,” but in fact we’ve had a few communication difficulties, and I find myself unsure as to what my responsibilities are in the coming months.

I’ve also scared myself silly reading birth stories of other expat moms here in France, and keep having to go back to research to reassure myself. In fact, the C-section rate here in France is about 18%, compared to over 32% in the US and the infant mortality rate is lower as well (3.54 vs. 6.81/1,000 in the last 5 years, source here). Where in the US I was pressured to schedule a C-section starting weeks before my due date, I feel much better about my chances of having a natural birth here. In Greenville ultrasounds put the size of Lauris-in-my-stomach at about 12 pounds at 40 weeks. He was born a little under 9 lbs at 42 weeks, and this along with his length (almost 23 inches) leads me to believe that due-date calculations were off. Very understandable; the due date is calculated by measuring lengths of bones via ultrasound, and comparing to average baby bone lengths.

So enough to think about and research to keep me busy. I’m reassured that there is another English-speaking expat a few weeks farther along than me who has already had one child here, as well as several other friends that have recently had babies in Clermont-Ferrand that I can count on for help, advice, and a good laugh about the funny and not-so-funny things going on – like laboratories asking you to bring your own analysis samples from home... different, yes. 

Finally, for a giggle and curiosities sake, Madame Zaritska (a virtual clairvoyant) predicts my birth experience:
The day you deliver, outside will be cloudy. Your baby will arrive in the late afternoon. After a labor lasting approximately 30 hours, your child, a girl, will be born. Your baby will weigh 8 pounds, 1 ounce and will be 17 inches long. This child will have dark gray eyes and a little patch of red hair.”

Friday, September 9, 2011

On Eating in France – IV. The Dinner Party

We invited our guests on Monday for an evening dinner Friday, and had a confirmation by Wednesday. I had been forming a plan all week and was excited, yet a little nervous about the first foray into the francais dinner party world! With Lauris not allowing me excessive amounts of time for shopping, cleaning or preparation, I settled on a simple menu that would allow me to prepare most everything ahead of time. With all the effort that had gone into the making of the aukstā zupa, I decided to serve it as l'entrée. Initially I wanted to serve it in small cocktail glasses (borrowing from our experience at Le Compotoir des Saveurs) but after a search of available serving options settled on normal bowls. With the potato bounty gifted us by our friends in Chatenet, I decided that potato salad to accompany le plat principal was just the thing.

After delegating responsibility for the alcoholic purchases to Roberts, I headed out Wednesday to do some shopping. The goal was to pick up everything that could not be had at the local marché Thursday, or that needed to be bought fresh Friday. The apartment was looking surprisingly clean after all our travels of the past month, but I started with the cleaning and straightening up as well.

Thursday Lauris and I hit the Chamalieres marche for our fruit, cheese and herbs. While the produce at our neighborhood Carrefour is acceptable, everything available at the market has been dependably fresh and delicious. Then started the potato salad preparation, from an old family recipe. However, my plan for Friday was to incorporate the vitelotte potatoes from Chatenet. And if you aren’t familiar with this particular variety of heirloom potato, let me show you the following picture:

The plan was that if the salad could not deal with the minor change of potato-type and turned into a major disaster, then I would have another day to decide on alternatives. Luckily, the potatoes retained their color through boiling (perhaps it was even intensified), and a taste test showed no difference from my usual results.

On Friday we picked up the salmon and then bread from the boulangerie. I spent the morning making a deep dish peach pie from one of my tried-and-true pie recipes and cleaned house. Roberts arrived home for lunch bearing olives to accompany the nuts as snacks with the champagne, the one thing I had forgotten, and was home slightly earlier from work. I set the salmon to marinate, organized my serving dishes, washed wine and champagne glasses, and before we knew it, our guests had arrived.

All the work finished ahead of time paid off, as I was able to enjoy the conversation, enjoy my meal and worry about Lauris instead of spending the time in the kitchen. The food was mostly a success; I’m not sure how the pink-colored beet soup went over, the hesitation with the purple potato salad was redeemed after trial, but the salmon was perfect and second helpings were had. My tried-and-true peach pie never gelled (!) but tasted the same as always, and found takers for second servings as well. Instead of coffee I served tea, which definitely had me wondering if herbal tea can be served as we had no black tea in the house. As the children dropped off to sleep one by one and digestion took over, the evening came to a close. One of the best moments of the night came after the dishwasher was loaded, the food put away and all the other dishes brought to the kitchen: Roberts offered to stay and wash the remaining dishes and glasses, but I beat my compulsion for a spotless kitchen and said “it can keep until tomorrow” and we headed off to bed.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

On Eating in France – III. Le dîner!

One Friday night a friend’s daughter came over to babysit Lauris while we went out to a popular Clermont-Ferrand restaurant for our wedding anniversary dîner. Since the anniversary fell on a Monday and many restaurants are closed on Mondays, we waited until Friday for a dining experience on the town.

We chose Le Compotoir des Saveurs as our target restaurant. The restaurant is only open for dinner Thursday through Saturday, and the restaurant offers only menus of dinners – not a pick-and-choose of individual offerings. A quick look at the website promised “Herve and Gregory, who are always looking for new flavors, will welcome you and take you through a modern and refined cuisine, combining gastronomy and market products…” 

As it only opens at 7:45 pm, we stopped at a nearby brasserie for an aperitif. We sat at a table outside and watched the action on the small plaza as we sipped our drinks and nibbled on some crackers. (We rarely get to indulge in the café people-watching scene – with a small child it becomes child-watching! But if in France it is a must.) Soon we left for the restaurant, which turned out to be small, with seating on the first floor for only twenty-five. The tables were beautifully set, with a glass charger that looked more like a slice of agate than a plate, and colored glass-rests for the silverware. As we glanced at a menu we learned that there were few options, instead there is a menu for the night. Other than skipping courses we were in for the long haul, and that was just fine with these parents.

Our menu did not even allow choices of drink, as everything was preselected by the chefs. This was my first such dining experience, and I found it strangely relaxing not to have to make selections. Aperitifs soon arrived, a little more traditional than the wine and beer we enjoyed at the brasserie. Strawberry-flavored champagne with a raspberry floating in it set the theme for the dinner – light and airy.

Bread, of course. And out came l'entrée in small, round shot-glass dishes. It was a pea puree, served cold, and was surprisingly delicious considering the color. The theme continued with white foam over the top of the peas.

A glass of white wine was next, accompanying the fish course. On a bed of paella was fish with oysters, served in a cream sauce with more foam on top, once again in a cylindrical clear glass dish. I am not exactly sure of the type of fish and other ingredients, although Roberts’s French was good enough to catch the gist of what was said as the servers presented each course, we missed or misunderstood some details.

Once we had both finished our wine and enjoyed the fish course, the plat was brought out, accompanied by a glass of red wine. On one plate were three separate pieces of duck, each topped with a mix of steamed vegetables, a brown sauce, and topped with yet more foam. The duck was tender and delicious, and I silently thanked the chef that there was something on the menu that I would not have ordered myself but was a pleasant surprise.

There were two options for the cheese course, and we ordered one of each. The first option was three cheeses; bleu d’Auvergne, chevre and a ?. I had fromage frais served with a bowl of sugar, and both came with a cranberry sauce. The desert was perfect, light but delicious. A plate with two cylindrical glasses was placed before us; one had a chocolate mousse with a whipped cream topping, the other kiwi-pineapple fruit with a fruit sauce and another light, whipped topping. And last, but not least, a café with a small truffle on the saucer to top off the meal.

Of course our little angel behaved for the babysitter!

Monday, September 5, 2011

On Eating in France – II. Seven Courses

As of yet I had not worked up the nerve to host my own dinner party, partly because we were still in our temporary apartment and lacked necessary kitchen utensils for even the most basic cooking, partly because the first trimester of this pregnancy was not conducive to food and visitors, and partly because I was intimidated by the endless requirements and formalities of the traditional French dinner. As I do more research on courses and customs, I realize that most everything is flexible. Of course, our friends will not hold it against us if a course comes out of order, and part of the experience is the mixing of a few Latvian or American customs into the French. On the other hand, I would like stick to the French basics, after all it is part of the fun being here in France, learning the traditions and way of life.

The first French friends that invited us to dinner helped explain the French tradition of a gift for the host or hostess. Latvians bring flowers, and often a bottle, often of wine. It is the norm that no one comes empty-handed. Americans tend to either bring a dish or a bottle of wine, which is immediately opened by the hosts and served with dinner. Here in France, because the meal is thoroughly planned out (and along with the meal, the wines that accompany each course), a dish is never brought unless requested by the host, and a bottle of wine will be well-received but rarely opened, as it might not match the food served. Flowers are a safe bet, and are great for any occasion (hint, husband!).

Bread is present throughout the meal. It is viewed it as a symbol of hospitality and a meal would not be served without it. Wine is the classic beverage of choice for meals, and is of course available. If you desire water in restaurants, you must request une carafe d’eau; if you only ask for water you will probably be served sparkling mineral water as well as its bill.

During the first course in a French dinner, L’Apéritif, hosts invite guests into their living room and serve them light alcoholic drinks and small appetizers to stimulate their appetites for the meal ahead. Usually drinks are not served until all guests have arrived, however in some more casual instances l’apéritifs are served to make waiting for any latecomers more bearable. A glass of flavored champagne is typical, although many times if there is a theme to the diner, they will follow this theme. Once in the dining room, l'Entrée follows. These appetizers vary from cold to hot dishes, and can be simple or elaborate.

A fish course is sometimes served between the entrée and the main course in a French dinner, le plat principal, if the main course is meat. But it is not compulsory, and often the meal continues with le plat. This course includes either meat or fish, served with side dishes of salads, rice, or pasta. Wine is served throughout the meal – red wine to go with red meat and white wine to go with white meat or fish (this is a very general statement – the grapes, vintage years and experiences with the wines are often closely matched with the food served). Another variation comes with the salad course, which can either be a separate course at this stage of the dinner, or it may be served with le plat. Traditionally, simple greens tossed with vinaigrette are served as a means of cleansing the palate and aiding optimal digestion of the meal.

The next course, the cheese course, is very important. After the plat and salad courses a selection of cheeses is served, sometimes with fruit or nuts, sometimes only with baguette. I will add at this point that the bread is not cut into slices.  Instead, each guest will tear off pieces with their hands as they wish.

Finally, my favorite, the dessert! French desserts can be indulgent, rich, and beautifully decorated, or they can be a simple bowl of sorbet or glace (ice cream). To keep guests from feeling too full it is usually light and small. Mousse or little tarts are also popular.

Dessert is followed by le café. A typical café is served in a small demitasse, rather than a coffee mug. Often, a small chocolate or sweet biscuit accompanies the coffee on the saucer. Finally, le digestif, which signals the end of a French dinner: Guests are offered small doses of strong alcoholic beverages such as cognac, brandy, or whisky. This last course is also not always observed, but after some holidays it is still a custom to smoke cigars along with it.

My editor, hard at work

Friday, September 2, 2011

On Eating in France – I. Intro

One of my favorite things about France is the focus on food. I know many Americans who skip breakfast on a regular basis, and eat lunch on the go and then grab a fast microwave dinner. I have yet to meet a French person who would even consider skipping a meal, and since I love food (aka I’m pregnant), this suits me just fine. Eating is central to the daily routine, and it starts off in the morning with le petit déjeuner which can be croissants with jams and honey, or for those with a sweet tooth, pain de chocolate. Breakfast cereals are available on store shelves, but not as ubiquitous as in the USA. Still, whenever possible we spoil ourselves with fresh croissants from the boulangerie down the block.

I have written about the difficulties in eating lunch while traveling; in many areas everything shuts down from 1200 to 1400 for le dejeuner. If you arrive even five minutes late, be prepared to be told that food is not being served any longer. The next meal after lunch, especially for families with children, is le gouter. Lauris has one of these when he is at the halte garderie in the afternoons, and I have started to have one at home as well, because who can’t resist cheese on a fresh baguette in the afternoon. Plus, of course, I’m eating for two!

The French dîner is a multi-course affair and can have elaborate themes, decorations and settings. We have been lucky enough to be invited to friends’ homes for a traditional dinner as well as had the experience at a few nice restaurants. The thing about good friends is that they will explain the customs, provide an authentic experience, yet not be offended by a lapse in custom-knowledge on our part. When in the US, we often had friends over for dinner and integrated Latvian customs into American dinners, and my hope in Clermont-Ferrand is to stick with the French traditions, yet allow our Latvian-American roots to show through. Please enjoy my dinner-related blogs next week leading up to our very first dinner party here in the apartment!

The kitchen help taking a break

Vēlos novēlēt manam krustdēlam Imantam daudz laimes 8. dzimšanas dienā!!! Astoņi ir Roberta mīļākais numurs, un tā zinam, ka būs varens gads!!!
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