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Some of our happiest moments in winter have been spent in our little kitchen in France.
Our old stone house in an unassuming Charentais town five hours south of Paris is on an ancient street so small that it is officially called a ruelle. For 13 years, it has served as an off-season base for travel and a joy in our lives.
The whole building would fit into a wing of our house in New England — too small for visitors, cramped for more than two guests at dinner and perfect for us.
The kitchen is the center of our lives here — a 12- by 14-foot haven, white with touches of cream, often filled with the colors of our winter forays — oranges gathered from Spain, compact Brussel sprouts from nearby Niort, a Camembert from one of the last raw milk makers in the eponymous town, lemons from Menton and artichokes from Italy.
Food is one of things that lured us here from the coast of Maine where, but for lobster straight from the dock, tasty ingredients are hard to come by in winter.
There’s nothing more appetizing at mid-morning in France than a stroll through a real outdoor market with a panier destined to be filled with vegetables still clinging to bits of the land from which they were drawn. Carrots turn bright with a washing. Leeks smell of terroir — that definable taste of the land in which they set root.
The marché is where dinner begins with reverence for the pleasures of dishes now passing from the menus — pot au feu, blanquette de veau, coq au vin and boeuf Bourguignon.
It takes time more than skill to make these slow cooking dishes in the traditional way.
I love the preparation; Peter loves the result.
Pot au feu is to France as the boiled dinner is to New England — the perfect wintertime meal. The ingredients — beef, carrots, onions, cabbage, potatoes and turnip are almost exactly the same. One cooks everything together in water; the other assembles its flavors. The result bears no comparison. Pot au feu wins hands down.
The French cook needs no written recipe for a dish that is simply meat simmered for hours with onion and carrots browned in butter, a bouquet garni of thyme, parsley, leek and bay leaf and a really good stock until the meat breaks apart at the touch and flavor permeates every bite. My recipe cards overflow with advice, my bookshelves with scribbled translations tucked between pages. Yet, I return regularly to a recipe tried and true in “The Cooking of Provincial France”, from the Time-Life “Foods of the World” series edited by the legendary M.F.K Fisher, whose “How to Cook a Wolf,” “Two Towns in Provence,” and The Art of Eating,” amongst others, make one hungry for life and good things to eat.
As the pot simmers, there’s time to plan the next trip and open the IHT, that venerable newspaper once known to ex-pats and travelers as “The Trib.” It is as much of a fixture in little kitchen as the light over the white Parson’s table on which it unfolds. A decade ago, our blue uniformed La Poste man would ride his yellow bicycle along the ruelle, dip into his rucksack and slip that day’s banded paper through the mail slot in time for breakfast. Now, yesterday’s paper comes around noon in a plastic sack and we’ve already read most of it on the internet. No matter, it’s still fun to share the crossword across the table, chiding each other over premature entries and working out the trickier clues.
By evening, the vegetables have given their all, the broth is ready to strain and the meats are tender to cut. The baguette has been acquired from the boulangerie. The wine has been set to breathe and a few crossword clues have been left to be solved after the scramble over the remaining crumbs of a tarte citron. Of such rituals fine days are made.
© 2010 Jean and Peter Richards
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