Friday, November 30, 2007

Gastronomic Adventures

Part of our excitement in moving to France was the opportunity to experience food and drink in (arguably) the most gastronomic country in the world. The French take food, wine, and other drink very seriously. Gilles once started a lengthy debate over the lunch table when he asked his colleagues their opinion on Nouveau Beaujolais. The French have a long list of delicacies that are banned or frowned upon in many other countries either because of health or cruelty-to-animals concerns. This list includes many delicious items such as foie gras, unpasteurized cheeses, capon, and veal, all of which the French would never consider giving up. Even if they do not prepare food, the average French person is incredibly knowledgeable about what they put into their mouths. This education begins at a very early age with children planting herb gardens at school, and tasting wine at supper. It is a vastly different mentality than we are accustomed to, but one we are enjoying.

Gilles and I have jumped into the French food scene headfirst. When the opportunity to try something new comes up, we generally greet it with open arms. We have enjoyed most things, including yesterday when I tried something that I unexpectedly enjoyed. That is until I found out what it truly was. The old adage, ‘ignorance is bliss’ applies here. Before I get into the details, I’ll list some of our other culinary firsts. As for some of the above listed banned/unethical items, we are firm supporters. We have enjoyed foie gras, unpasteurized cheeses, and veal prior to living in France. Gilles says he is happy to finally find people who enjoy baby cow as much as he does. If that statement makes you wince, perhaps you should stop reading now. Our firsts have been frogs’ legs (they do not taste like chicken), pigeon (surprisingly, a yummy, mild red meat), and duck heart. No problems there. Now to yesterday….

I went to one of our favourite restaurants, Le Berry, with a friend for lunch. She is Canadian, and returning to Calgary in July after having lived in Pau for two years. She said that she could not leave France without having tried steak tartare. Le Berry is reputed to make very good quality tartare, so she new it would be the best place to try it. You may recall from a previous posting what this dish is: ground meat mixed with various spices and served raw. At the time I likened it to a package of hamburger meat overturned onto a plate. Upon closer inspection, it does not look quite so unappetizing. She was enjoying it, so I gave it a try. I was shocked at how tasty it was. It had a light, almost fluffy texture. It certainly did not feel as though I was eating raw hamburger meat. It was seasoned nicely with chives, salt, pepper, capers, and worcestershire sauce. I was quite proud of myself so trying, and liking it. I decided I would order it again so that Gilles could try it. Ahappy ending, right?

Last night I was recalling my experience to Gilles on the telephone (he is in Gabon, West Africa). Earlier in the week he discussed steak tartare with a colleague who often enjoys the dish at Le Berry. He discovered an interesting piece of information that he decided to withhold from me until after I had tried the dish. That is that the dish is traditionally not made with ground beef, as I had assumed. It is made with horsemeat. Yes, horsemeat. His colleague claims that that is how it is still made at Le Berry. Huh….

Until recently I did not know that people actually eat horsemeat. Then I read in my France travel book that ‘chevaliers’ still exist. That is, a butcher that sells horsemeat. I have seen this meat at the local market, but still did not really believe that people buy it. But now, I have unknowingly eaten it! It does not change the fact that the dish was tasty. Would I order it again? I don’t know. I am still trying to work out what I think about yesterday’s experience. I do know that it will not stop me from being adventurous with my culinary choices in the future.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Worst Cookies Ever

Today I got up the courage to bake cookies. I will admit that I was quite nervous; the ingredients I purchased are not what I am used to, and my oven contains only a top burner, not exactly a baker’s dream. But despite these challenges, I thought I was ready. I scoured the grocery stores and finally found brown sugar that looks and feels like brown sugar, icing sugar (albeit vanilla flavoured and in a small container for dusting on confectionaries), and baking soda. I started off with a recipe for chocolate chip cookies: nothing gets easier and it does not require too many substitutions for things that I cannot find here. I needed to vary only the fats. They do not have baking margarine here, so I used all butter instead of half butter and half margarine. No big deal, right? Except I have my doubts about the butter here. While it tastes wonderful, it is not creamy, hence is hard to work into a batter.

Nerveless, I was ready to give it a try. I whipped the sugars into the butter with all my might. The large, moist eggs went in well. So did the dry ingredients. Next, stir in the chocolate pieces (no chocolate chips in France). The batter tasted yummy…so far so good. I chilled the batter and had my baking stone up to oven temperature. These two key steps ‘always’ ensure nice, plump cookies. But as soon as I spooned the first bit of batter onto the pan, I knew things were not looking good. The butter seemed to melt and run immediately out of the batter. I threw the cookies into the oven before they melted too much. They did not do much better in the oven. Each piece of batter melted into the others, forming flat rounds. The edges started to brown significantly, so I removed the pan from the oven. The outsides were certainly cooked, but the tops were raw. And not the chewy, good cookie raw: a melted butter raw. But looks are only one thing. Taste is most important. Unfortunately, they do not taste much better than they look. Overly buttery, and my number one pet peeve of bad cookies: I could taste the baking soda. Yuck!

So what do I try next? Muffins, a cake, pizza dough. Something has to work, right?

Monday, November 19, 2007

Strange Medicine

This weekend we made our first official pharmacy visit. I have been understandably intrigued by French pharmacies. The storefront always has a neon sign in the shape of a green cross making them impossible to miss. When I peer inside it looks nothing like a North American drugstore. They are very small. The only things on display in front of the counter are expensive beauty products, specialty toothpastes, homeopathic products, and a selection of infant supplies. There is no sign of vitamins, antacids, pain relievers, cough and cold products, or all the other things we associate with a pharmacy. And despite a closer look inside, including an interaction with a pharmacist, I now have more questions than answers.

The reason we needed drugs is an upcoming visit to Gabon for Gilles. He had an appointment with the Total physician who gave him numerous vaccinations and prescribed several anti-malaria products. Malaria, spread by a type of mosquito found in most African countries, is a dangerous disease that can be prevented with medications and obviously avoidance of being bitten. For the latter, he was prescribed two products containing a high concentration of DEET, one for skin and one for clothes.

Off we went to the closest pharmacy with two prescriptions in hand. One contained orders for the two DEET products and Malarone, an oral anti-malarial medication. The other contained an order for the Hepatitis B vaccination that Gilles will bring to the Total medical office for injection. We approached the pharmacist, provided her with the prescriptions, and off she went to the back to gather the products. This gave me time to peruse the shelves and admire the beauty products. When the pharmacist returned, she handed the products over and totaled the cost. Now I apologize if this next part bores my non-pharmacist friend, but what I am about to say should seem odd to anyone who has ever had a medication dispensed to them. The pharmacist did NOT ask Gilles any questions. She did not need to know his name, address, telephone number or if he has any allergies. Nothing was entered into a computer. She handed him two boxes of Malarone without putting a label on it. There were no instructions for use given. And she handed the prescriptions back to us when she was done! I was shocked! It is not as though she dispensed something most people know how to take, like Tylenol or Advil. And documentation is such a vital part of safety in the medical field. If she later realized she made a mistake, she would have no way of contacting us. It’s a good thing Gilles has his own private pharmacist!

I don’t want to be too hard on French pharmacists. Obviously the medical system is vastly different here than in Canada, and I have yet to see what their true role is. It is likely a very important role, as their University programme is longer than the Canadian programme. Or maybe it just takes that long to be able to properly recommend beauty products and toothpastes…just kidding, of course!

Friday, November 16, 2007

An Emotional Journey

Gilles and I just completed a two-day session designed to give expats the tools necessary to live and work successfully in France. We learned many valuable things, including what to expect along the emotional journey of living in a foreign country. It is not an uphill learning curve; there will be several ups and downs along the way. Apparantly, my banking frustrations were a result of "convenience shock". This low typically occurs within a couple of months of arriving in the new country. It's when one loses patience with things, or conveniences that are easy in one's own country, yet seem so complex in the new home. Funny thing is, after my venting-of-frustrations post, I received three letters providing my confidential code! Needless to say, I now know my number!

After the convenience shock is the adaptation stage. I suspect we are here now. We are feeling more settled in our house, enjoy shopping at the market on weekends, are experimenting with French food at home, and are generally enjoying life. Life will not always be so rosy, as the low of "cultural fatigue" comes next. Trying so hard to adapt and fit-in will ultimately lead to fatigue. This is when one begins to feel homesick. When will this time come for us? Time will tell. Then comes the long stage of involvement, followed by thriving. However, before one can thrive there is another low called "culture shock". The facilitator did not go into much detail about this low-point, but it was accompanied by a scary symbol on the graph. Thus, I am not looking forward to the culture shock stage.

One other important lesson that we learned was how to properly do the bise. This is the name given to the common practice of "kissing" someone on both cheeks when greeting them. I had many questions about how to do this, and turns out I have made many faux-pas in the past. Firstly, there is no touching with the hands unless one is doing the bise with a close friend. I usually touch the arm or shoulder of the other person, kind of as a way to anchor myself. Wrong! This is getting too much into their private space. Secondly, do touch cheek to cheek. I assumed I was supposed to kiss the air beside the cheek. Wrong again! Lips do not touch the cheek. Thankfully, I am not guilty of making this mistake. People usually kiss twice, starting with the right side. But, for no seemingly good reason, some people kiss three or four times, and may start from the left. Our facilitator assured us we will never, ever get it right, so just follow the lead of the French person. Unfortunately, this is usually easier said than done!

Friday, November 9, 2007

St Emilion

Last weekend, we spent a lovely few days in the quaint town of St Emilion. It is perhaps one of the nicest little towns we have visited. St Emilion is one of the renowned regions within the Bordeaux winemaking region. The ground around the town is composed largely of limestone. This makes excellent caves for making and storing their wines.

St Emilion is about a two and a half hour drive from Pau. As soon as we entered the Bordeaux region, the vines began and seemed to stretch on forever. The vines here are so immaculately groomed that they are all the same height. It is quite an incredible sight when you look down a vineyard.

The tiny town is very well equipped to entertain the tourist in search of wine. The tourist office arranges wine classes and has updated information of which Chateaux’ are giving tours. A Chateaux is essentially what the vineyard is called. They may or may not actually have a chateau on the property. It is said there are over 7000 Chateaux in the Bordeaux region! We were fortunate to visit three Chateaux while there.

While in Calgary we took a French wine class. While we enjoyed the tastings, I am not sure we understood the complex nomenclature used to classify French wines any better than before the class. There are regions within regions, each of which has their own classifications. But last weekend, we started to understand. At least we have a good grasp on the wines from St Emilion, which helps understand Bordeaux wines in general.

We learned many things from each Chateau we visited. It is always a pleasure to see how passionate the vintners are toward their profession and their wines. The last gentleman we visited was at least 70 years old. He spent over two hours with us explaining each step in the winemaking process in incredible depth. He walked us through an extensive tasting process, that included lighting a candle and spitting the first mouthful. One would pay a lot of money to attend a tasting class in a big city. We simply bought two bottles of wine.

We left St Emilion with over a dozen bottles of wine and bad colds. I guess the latter is to be expected after spending a day in damp caves!

Thursday, November 8, 2007


Last Wednesday we moved into our new home. Things went smoothly, with a couple of exceptions. We were promised a separate washer and dryer because we have the space in our garage. Despite this, we received a combination washer and dryer. These were designed for small spaces: one small machine does both the washing and drying. The problem is it takes over four hours for a cycle, and the drying capability is questionable. Our relocation coordinator promised to get us a separate washer, which we are still waiting for. In the meantime, I visit the laundromat when the laundry basket overflows. The second mix-up was with our bed. The mattress sizes are classified by size. We were told we would be given a 160 cm bed, which is slightly larger than a North American queen mattress. When we stepped into oour room, it was clear that the bed was much smaller than a queen. Thankfully, I had already bought sheets for a 160 cm bed. This guilted our coordinator into getting a new bed rushed over. Of course during the discussion she sighed heavily and used a few "oh la las!".

It was like Christmas morning going through the boxes that were shipped with the moving company. I think we packed quite appropriately, but there are a few things that we would have done differently. Gilles would have shipped our hangers, since the ones here don't quite meet his standards. I would have brought baking powder, since it is not available here. Also, I did not bring my measuring cups. Everything is measured by weight here, which is fine if using a European cookbook. All my recipes are North American, so require things to be measured in cups and teaspoons and tablespoons. Actually, I don't think many people bake at home here. The baking section in the hypermarche (ie grocery store) is tiny. No chocolate chips. I haven't seen brown sugar or icing sugar. Oh la la! And why would the typical French person bake? There is a bakery on every street corner with warm, straight from the oven bread and any dessert one could ever want. I don't even think my oven is big enough to bake a large loaf of bread. Speaking of oven size: Mom and Dad...if you are expecting a turkey for Christmas supper you had better stay home. There is no way a bird that large will fit in my oven!

We are settling in well. Saturday we are taking a trip to the IKEA in Toulouse. Why does every move require a trip to IKEA? Stay tuned for photos of our Baby Benz bogged down by IKEA boxes. I just know we will be coming home with something strapped to the roof!