Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Château Cransac

Remember that affordable wine I mentioned last time? It's called Fronton, and it's a favorite of mine. What makes this wine different from some of the others that grow in the area is the grape: négrette, or Pinot Saint-Georges I believe it's called in English. Originally from Cyprus, this dark-skinned variety has been adapted for cultivation in southwestern France for quite some time now. It has a very distinct flavor -think red fruit and spice. But since it can be somewhat of an acquired taste, a négrette blend will usually be more pleasing to the tastebuds.

The area is full of signs pointing to various vineyards proposing wine tastings and vente en direct, also known as the possibility of buying bottles directly from the property. Sign me up! I've had more than enough disappointment taking my chances on 4-5 euro bottles from Carrefour. See ya later supermarket sludge, I've got the good stuff.

On a whim we followed the signs to Château Cransac; Monsieur J and I had already tasted some of their wines in Toulouse and I think we secretly wanted more. We went inside and were promptly offered a tasting by a young saleslady who couldn't have been nicer. We tried three reds and somehow left with 20 bottles -ooops. Then again, the price was oh-so-right.

The good news is that the same can be true for you too. For my Richmond readers, J. Emerson carries an excellent bottle of Fronton that comes in at right under $10 a bottle; I believe they've added a rosé in addition to the traditional red. Fronton isn't very well known, even in France, which means you can usually find some good value bottles. And since it's a wine that pairs well with grilled meats, go ahead and try a glass the next time you grill out. The flavor alone may make you think you're in France, but it's so much cheaper than buying a plane ticket!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A walk in the Tarn

Few people have ever heard of the Tarn, a corner of southwestern France that borders Toulouse. In addition to producing some great budget-friendly wines (more to come on that soon!), there are plenty of villages worth visiting and there's good hiking to be had too. Now that I think about it, "hiking" may be a bit of an exaggeration. Hiking is what we do in the Pyrénées; this was more of an extended stroll through the countryside.

Supposedly we were only 45 minutes away from Toulouse and yet I felt as if we'd teleported to someplace infinitely farther away. Move over motorcycles, noisy neighbors and early morning garbage pick up; it's time to make way for fresh air, wildflowers, weeds and rusting farm equipment.

We parked the car in Villemur-sur-Tarn and set off on foot from la Place du souvenir. Our destination: la Croix de Peyre. Once you reach this landmark, three possible routes are possible depending on how much time you plan to spend. I think we turned left at the cross, but I was more distracted by the beautiful surroundings and general sense of calm.

dandelions and buttercups

lilacs everywhere

fence and flowering redbud

little blue guys

thistle and clover

curious farm things

inviting garden gate

Did I mention how good it feels to take a break from city living?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Strawberries, a sure sign of spring.

After a long winter of carrots, turnips, leeks and apples, I am beyond relieved to be seeing new produce items at the market these days. I couldn't take it anymore! Asparagus, artichokes, peas and strawberries are now front and center, silently beckoning their way into my shopping basket.

While I initially resisted the season's first strawberries (over-priced, under-ripe varieties from Spain), I now readily give in to gariguettes, agathe and mara des bois. Consider them the strawberry equivalent of heirloom tomatoes, it's a fair comparison. They may be small, but they are oh so sweet and deliver a super concentrated flavor.

Last night I was inspired to try an impromptu dessert: a not quite strawberry shortcake. There is no recipe; the oven is not involved; basic assembly is all that's required.

1. Crumble two butter cookies into the bottom of each ramekin. I used galettes St Michel, but Pepperidge Farm chessmen or even those ring-shaped butter cookies like we used to get for snack at Sunday school would do the trick.

2. Cover the cookie crumbs with a heaping spoonful of that plain Greek yogurt everyone's so crazy about these days.

3. Add fresh cut strawberries over the top. If your strawberries aren't especially sweet, you might consider sprinkling them with a little sugar to balance things out.

As you can see, there wasn't much left... Vive le printemps!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

In search of okra.

I'd been wanting to make a version of this gumbo for quite a while now; however, one gumbo essential was missing: okra. I've never seen it here. The French are so fond of their own food that it can be a real challenge to find foreign ingredients. You would die laughing if you saw what passes for the "international aisle" at my grocery store. It's pretty pathetic.

Since I can't get what I need at Carrefour, all the more reason to go on ethnic food expeditions in the St Cyprien neighborhood. Within walking distance of the apartment (and the city center) are lots of little boutiques advertising exotic products from Africa and the Caribbean, hair products and phone cards.

I'd seen the signs, but the odor of dried fish that emanates from these places had kept me out, until recently. Too bad there's no scratch-and-sniff function with the internet so I could recreate that for you... But if you can get past the stench, these boutiques carry not just okra but sweet potatoes, whole peanuts, black beans and black eyed peas. Jackpot!

Before I could set foot in one of these stores, I had to figure out how to say okra. Have you ever tried to describe okra in a foreign langauge to someone who's never eaten it before? I wouldn't recommend it.

Monsieur J
put on his listening face, as I rambled on about some UFO vegetable that "kind of looks like a jalapeno except it's not spicy. It's fuzzy on the outside and has a slimy texture to it and goes in gumbo. Did you ever eat gumbo when you were in Louisiana?"

He had no idea what I was talking about. Oh well, it comes with the territory.

If you're ever in Toulouse for more than just a day or two, consider crossing le pont neuf and venturing over to the other side of the Garonne. It's a great way to get a feel for every day living and yet there's still a fair amount to see and do. Between the various ethnic markets, the main covered market, the jardin Raymond VI and the musée des Abattoirs, you could easily make a morning of it!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A few of my favorite things.

Toulouse has great markets but the Sunday market at St Aubin is probably my favorite. Whether you're looking for local produce, smelly cheese, socks, ceramic cookware, flowers, live chickens and rabbits, empanadas, olives, mattresses, jewelry, wine, spices or buttons, St Aubin is the place to be.

The mix of people is equally as eclectic, drawing parents with strollers, hippies, the elderly and the homeless alike. As the weather starts to warm up, there tends to be live music and what the French would describe as a general bonne ambiance. There's even a grandfatherly type who plays his violin and lets the children join in on drums and xylophones and whatever else they can find. It's enough to make you appreciate that the local supermarkets are closed on Sunday; there's just no comparison!

But since every day can't be Sunday, I'm off to our nearest neighborhood market at St Cyprien in search of trout, asparagus, new potatoes and the makings for fruit salad. I'll have to post about this little gem sometime soon, as it has its own appeal!

Thursday, April 8, 2010


My father-in-law once asked me if I cook French meals or American ones. Good question. I'm pretty sure I told him that I cooked all sorts of things, which is a. true and b. probably code for "American."

It's the truth, I love making things like pasta, fajitas, chicken pot pie, brunswick stew, big salads, sesame noodles, etc...

But at the same time, it's not like I don't know how to cook French food, because I do, or at least I think I do. And I know we eat it, because we live here afterall. But maybe it's time to expand my repertoire?

With plenty of time on my hands, I've made it a point to start reading Ginette Mathiot's classic: Je sais cuisiner. The cookbook came out in English earlier this year, under the title I know how to cook, though I've heard it doesn't hold quite the same appeal as the original and that the conversions can be a tad confusing.

Now don't panic, I'm not going to start some Julie and Julia spinoff. I have no desire to attempt a lot of the recipes: stuffed veal heart, anyone? Non merci. But there's a lot to be learned about cooking methods, balancing menus and preparing inexpensive meals -not to mention that the book has opened my eyes to recipes and ingredients I never knew existed.

So far I've mastered the crêpe recipe, first things first.

Next up? I'm thinking something with peas, artichokes, or asparagus.

Spring has sprung!