Friday, February 28, 2014

Down on the farm...

Honestly, you can forget about Paris, or Bordeaux, Marseilles, or any other large city here. At its heart, France has always been, and will always be, an agricultural country. From the alpine slopes of the Savoie region to the oyster beds of Brittany, the soul of the nation lies in the production of the highest quality foods. The cities are just here to provide a place for us to savor and enjoy this wonderful food.

Nowhere has this been more evident than during the past nine days when the farm has come to Paris in the form of the annual Salon International l'Agriculture, held in the sprawling pavilions of the Porte de Versailles. Originally launched in 1870, following the traditions of country fairs, it has been at the Porte de Versailles since 1925, selecting and honoring the best French local products and breeding livestock.

 Over 700,000 people are expected to attend this year, and we were glad to be numbered among them!

Seven species of animals participate in the competition: cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, horses, donkeys, and dogs, totalling more than 4000 animals in all!

We made our way to the first pavilion, where we were greeted by this jolly roving group of Basque troubadours, singing their hearts out in a warm welcome.

Stepping inside, we were so taken aback at the crush of people that it took us a minute or two to figure out how to navigate through them and reach the pens where the animals were. Once we did, though, it was one amazing sight after another.

From adorable, snuggling lambs and their mamas... some serious horns...

...lots of merino sheep -- all I could see here were skeins of beautiful wool!... the scrutiny given to each animal as they are judged for lineage and genetic excellence.

Adjacent to the animal stalls and show rings were stalls promoting products made from the animals -- here rows of toasty looking sheepskin slippers...

...very pretty cutlery, made from horn...

...and let's not forget the most direct product, the meat itself -- rack of lamb, anyone?!

Leaving the sheep, we found ourselves in serious goat territory, brown goats, white goats...
...and of course where you have goats, you will also have goat cheese - my favorite!

 On we went, oohing and aahing at this curl of jolly, chubby piglets...

...and these more somnolent juveniles.

Maybe because the pigs were all sleeping, their judging ring ("ring porcins") was taken over by a serious contest, sponsored by MAF which is the Association of Charcutiers and Traiteurs. These young chefs (mostly men, just two women) were required to prepare:  "Un Lapin" (a rabbit), deboned and stuffed with plums and dried fruits, then rolled and cooked like a "ballotine", a Terrine de Paté de Campagne with mushrooms, and any other items in the world of charcuterie that they chose. They also had to include a model of either the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe.

Here's what the young man nearest us had prepared. The stuffed rabbit is on the left, the paté on the right and then a tray of delectable canapés and a row of what looked like ice cream cones stuffed with some creamy substance. We felt sure he would win!

However, after the judges conferred, they chose a 16 year old as the winner, the youngest to ever win. He received his red white and blue grosgrain ribbon and medallion that makes him an official member of this group. The young man near us looked so disconsolate. It reminded me of the heartbreak in that documentary Kings of Pastry.

Just when we thought we had seen everything in this pavilion, we found ourselves in the bovine section and face to face with Bella, the mascot of the whole fair. A beautiful, tawny color, she is a Tarantaise cow from the Haute-Savoie. These are a small-size breed very much at home in alpine settings amongst the eidelweiss. Here, they produce milk that in turn produces Beaufort and Tomme de Savoie cheeses.

I really love the Tomme cheeses, made from raw skim milk and with a subtle nutty flavor.

Another fairly small alpine cow is the Vosgienne, from the Vosges mountains in Alsace. They are great milkers, long lived and we can say thank to them for the distinct German Muenster cheese.

The big guys were these Salers breed, heavy duty, no nonsense, with serious horns. You can often find them in Normandy, specially on stud farms, because their grazing keeps nasty bugs out of the grass and therefore keeps the mares and their young foals healthy.

On we went, from the large to the tiny! The next pavilion included hatching chicks, and one small child who was mesmerized as the egg nearest her began to crack and open up.

It also included some handsome roosters like this Rhode Island Red...

...and this striking black and white one...

...and my favorite, the puffy, chubby Buff Orpington!

Yet another pavilion was devoted to food products. Here, a general agricultural competition awards prizes for food and wines in some 23 categories. This Basque stall of sausages and hams just took our breath away...

...until we got to this Foie Gras display, that is, next to which...

...this stand of Sauterne wines would, of course, be the perfect accompaniment! Anyone hungry yet...?
If so, you could line up and "eat local" as the sign suggests, served out of this adorable Citroën truckette.

Matthew opted for a dish of choucroute and a tall glass of beer from Alsace, before we went over to the equine pavilion!

Here, we admired handsome leather saddles and bridles...

...fragrant soap made from Asses milk...

...and we both loved this poster so much, Matthew bought some of the magic leather balsam for his briefcase and shoes!

By the time we found the actual horses, there wasn't much action going on in their ring, so we wandered through the stalls and really admired this Boulonnais horse. A handsome pure-bred cart horse, they were used to pull fishing boats along the canals, worked in the fields, and transported commercial products from town to town. Today, they are still considered a work horse, are harnessed to haul wood, etc.,  but can also be found in team competitions, or even pleasure riding.

Our final stop was to say "bonjour" to this cute donkey from Normandy, with her little furry bangs and the distinctive cross on her back.

I have to admit that by now, we were on our knees (you probably are as well, if you've read through this!) -- we had spent over 7 hours wandering around the fair, sampling foods, buying little bits and bobs of this and that. And still we didn't see everything! Ah well, there's always next year. Right now, we're ready for a glass of this St. Emilion Bordeaux, just one of over 16,000 wines entered into competition at the fair.   Salut!

À bientôt!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Le Chocolat!

The word "chocolate" is almost as synonymous with the word Paris as the word "amour" is -- there are chocolate shops everywhere you look, and creamy, whipped "chocolat chaud" is the favorite "gouter" of most youngsters here . We have four chocolate shops just on our little rue Montorgeuil: Jeff de Bruges, À la Mère de Famille (founded in 1791), l'Atelier du Chocolat, and Charles Chocolatier with its elegant facade and smart blue awning.

They each offer endless variations on the basic ingredient, enough to delight and satisfy every palate!

Not too surprisingly, there is also a Chocolate Museum in Paris, Le Musée Gourmand du Chocolat, tucked away on Boulevard Bonne Nouvelle, just up the street from us.  We recently paid a visit, and learned a whole lot about the 4000 year old history of chocolate from the Olmec civilization to the present day.

I'm sure I've seen botanical prints of the cocoa plant, with its delicate flowers and giant fruits.

But I'd certainly never seen inside a cocoa seed, never knew the beans run down the centre so neatly! Its Latin name used to be "amygdala pecunaria" up until 1737, when Linnaeus gave it the scientific name Theobroma cacao, which means "food of the gods" in Greek!

Even under its old name, the cocoa plant was already considered worthy of sanctity, as this Guatamalan Cocoa Goddess from about 300 AD attests.

Not only was the cocoa bean worshipped, it was also highly valued by the Maya as currency: you could buy a rabbit for 10 cocoa beans, a healthy slave for 100. Heavily guarded porters transported the beans throughout Mesoamerica.

It took some effort to grind the beans into powder using a metate, always adding ground hot peppers, and then hot water. The name "chocolate" is thought to come from the Nahuatl language and their word "cacahuatl". During Mayan and Aztec time, it was a hot and spicy drink. The Aztecs also colored it red and mixed it with blood as an offering to the gods.

If the idea of a highly spiced hot chocolate drink appeals, maybe you want to try out this recipe. I know a certain member of our family who would just love it (hint, his family is from the Yucatan!)

After the arrival of Cortés in Mexico, hot spicy cocoa became the favorite drink of the Spaniards living and fighting there. Before long, goblets were fashioned from the husks of the cocoa fruit, some of them beautifully decorated with silver.

It wasn't until 1528 that Cortés took a shipment of cocoa beans back to Spain, along with a secret recipe that, for the first time, included sugar as well as pepper pods. It took until 1580, though, for the first chocolate shop to open in Spain. Only then were there regular deliveries of cocoa beans. Even so, Spain virtually held the monopoly on the product, jealously guarding it within its boundaries.

Eventually, through royal marriages and changing frontiers, the gates were open, and the drinking of chocolate spread fast throughout Europe. When Anne of Austria (the daughter of Philippe III of Spain) married Louis XIII in 1615 and moved to France, she brought her maid, her "molina", who was an expert at preparing this new chocolate drink. It didn't take long for exquisite containers to flood the Courts and private homes, like these silver chocolate servers, some with swizzle sticks poking through the lid. By twirling these "molinillos", you could create a layer of chocolate foam on top!

 These pretty porcelain bits would have graced many an 18th century parlor.

Artists of the period, documented the new craze, like Jean-Etienne Liotard and his La Belle Chocolatière" from 1743.

As all chocolate lovers know, there are many curative properties in the cacao bean as well as great pleasure! In the 1800s, for example, headaches, chest colds, and digestive problems could be helped by mixing one third cocoa, one third sugar and one third magnesia. For serious fatigue, chocolate was mixed in with raw meat, and cocoa butter was used as an ointment to treat burns and wounds.

It wasn't until the 19th century that an emulsification process was developed to create the "modern" solid chocolate bar. Suddenly, all those pretty china "bonbonnières" that had previously held hard candy, were now jammed with chocolates!

 Other delicate containers included these gorgeous painted glass chocolate boxes.

Molds in all sizes and shapes appeared. I rather liked this giant Santa, imagining its centre being filled with creamy dark chocolate!

It didn't take long for mass production to produce brand names and advertisements that still exist today.

 In the basement of the museum, a young chef gave a demonstration of how liquid chocolate is poured into molds, with all but a thin layer removed. The remaining thin layer spends fifteen minutes in the refrigerator to harden, before a caramel filling is piped into each mold. Back in the fridge for another fifteen minutes. A final topping is added, chilled once more, and a superb soft-centered, mouth-watering goodie emerges:

By now, I was ready to do some serious chocolate sampling. With my usual great good fortune, I had been invited to join some members of the American Women's Group, Paris to a hot chocolate tasting at Le Bristol, the super-posh hotel on rue Fauberg-St.-Honoré, recently famous as the Midnight in Paris hotel.

Here, in the elegant Tea Room, with its pretty pink marble columns and bedecked with beautiful bouquets of fresh flowers, nine of us gathered to sample what the menu described as a recipe full of "l'onctuousité et la puissance d'un chocolat Grand Cru Pur Caraïbe".

I trust your mouths are watering at the sight of this unctuous, powerful liquid! Ours certainly were, and it did not disappoint.


Vive le chocolat!

À bientôt!