Monday, August 31, 2009

Tomatology & Wine

At the moment, the French are all excited about the "rentrée," the re-entry, as this time of year is known. Everyone's back from vacation and getting ready to go back to work and get the kids ready for school. The farmers, on the other hand, have been working all along, and will continue to do so as the crops continue to come in: no rentrée for them.

I haven't been posting pictures from the market for just this reason: it's all pretty much the same stuff these days. In fact, I didn't even go down on Saturday because I checked the stock on hand and decided I didn't really need anything. There's nothing worse than buying something great and having it decay before you can get to it, after all.

But I did get a pleasant surprise last Tuesday: I was looking to buy tomatoes, and there was one guy who's always a reliable source of them, so I was picking out my purchase when I noticed a stack of business cards. Eric Pedebas, they said, "Tomatologue." I stared at that for a minute and decided "tomatologist" would be the proper translation. The stand was manned by M. Pedebas and a young woman, and he was being berated by a woman who was picking up and putting down a number of yellow tomatoes, insisting that she only wanted genuine (variety), while he was trying to make sure she got them. She was being particularly unpleasant, so he asked her to wait while he rang me up.

When I got home, I checked out the URL on the business card. The site isn't the best-designed one I've ever seen (at least it doesn't have some elaborate Flash opening page), but it's packed with tomatoey goodness. The action is hidden from view: clicking the "Mes Tomates" link gets you a page with one link that doesn't work, but clicking "Les Plantes" will get you to a page with a link for "les variétés." That will get you to a page with no fewer than 62 types of tomatoes: cherry, cocktail, medium size (100g - 250g) and large (300g- over a kilogram!). Most of the varieties are described and their history, if known, is recounted -- and illustrated with luscious photographs -- if you click on the photo. He definitely knows his stuff, and his tomatoes are extraordinary: I had a salad the other night that was just lettuce and one of his "chocolate" tomatoes, and it was amazing.

Best of all, this guy is very local. I might even be able to get to his place on the bus. And there's definitely a story here. I'll be patronizing him at the market tomorrow, without a doubt.

* * *

The other agricultural story here is, of course, wine. The Languedoc-Roussillon is France's largest wine-growing area, and this is the time of year when the question begins to loom: what will the harvest be like? This is compounded by a summer that's been hotter than usual, with a couple of big rainstorms coming at odd times.

A wine newsletter I subscribe to has an item on this, headlined "Languedoc: the brutal heatwave accelerates the ripening." The harvest, it says, will be 10 to 12 days earlier than last year, something not seen since 2003. But the big question-mark is the chemistry of the grapes themselves. This left me totally baffled, so I wrote my wine expert, and here's what she had to say:

"Tough stuff. If the phenolic maturity's there, it's not so terrible...but acid's going out the door...lots of winemakers chewing on their nails i'm sure!

It's always a balance between sugars (hotter = more sugars produced = less acid in grapes = higher alcohol levels) and phenolic ripeness (the skins and seeds -- where you get your tannins and other flavors in a wine -- are ripe enough to have lost their bitter/green edge).

this article points out, sugars mature first then phenols follow -- which is why in hot hot years (or in general every year in the Languedoc), harvest times are a gamble. (Which is why the dudes with the vines in the hills are a bit happier than the dudes with vines on the plains. Altitude helps keep temps moderate; slows ripening and lets those phenols catch up with the pesky sugars.)

Harvest early, you get lots of sugars but not necessarily ripe phenols, resulting in a wine with potentially green edges BUT potentially manageable alco levels. Harvest late, you get waaay more sugars but ripe phenols but potentially a BOMB of a boozy wine that gives people headaches and reminds them why they hate California wines in the first place."
Old hands here remember 2003 as having had some excellent wines, though, and so I'm looking forward to tasting my first summer here when the winemakers release it, encased in glass.

* * *

Meanwhile, if you haven't read this lovely piece about eating in France by the great Roger Cohen in the New York Times today, spend a minute or two and do so. He's absolutely right.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Plantation And Restaurant

It's been a while since I've posted a picture of the plantation out on the balcony, but that's because, at the moment, I think we're preparing for a funeral.

Here's the overall picture. As you can see, the jalapeno on the left is doing okay, as is the serrano in the lower right, but what's up with the tomatillo? Granted, this is a very badly-lit photo, but here's the tomatillo closer up:

The leaves look like they've had all the chlorophyl sucked out of them, and are greasy and droopy. Further investigation showed tiny webs between the leaves, with tinier dots in them. Some kind of spiders or mites? Whatever, they're killing the plants, and I suspect it's too late to save them.

This morning, I noted the same webs on the jalapeno, but the leaves there seem healthier. The problem with both of the chile plants, though, is that leaves -- bright, shiny, deep green leaves -- is all they have. Are we ever going to see flowers there? I hope so. There should be nice enough weather through October, though, so there's still hope there. But too bad about the tomatillos: they sprung up so nicely and quickly that I was really hoping I'd be able to cook with some of their fruits.

If anyone out there has any suggestions, of course, I'm all ears.

UPDATE: As you can see by the comments, and if you're on Facebook you can see even more, dish soap in a weak solution sprayed on these beasts (spider mites) is supposed to control them. I've also been advised to replant the plants, which I'll do when/if they're a bit stronger, but it happened I was out of dish soap anyway and just picked up a sprayer for three bucks along with it. Then I went out onto the balcony and, I hope, committed some genocide. Or mitocide, anyway.

* * *

Meanwhile, after returning from the market on Saturday, I hit a wall. I cooked a pasta sauce with some fresh tomatoes I got there, but my creativity was waning. (So was my sense of taste: since I've gotten off the regime of many pills I started with and now just do a spray twice a day and one pill, I've been having episodes of loss of taste, and that happened Saturday and, as we'll see, Sunday nights).

Since my financial situation has improved somewhat I took a close look at the numbers and decided on a luxury: instead of cooking something Sunday night, I'd go eat out at an inexpensive restaurant. At the top of my list was Moroccan food. I've never had any, and there are a number of places around here which look promising. One I've had my eye on was Les Jardins de Marrakech, on the other side of the hill from me. I went to check that it's open on Sundays and, seeing that it was, and that it was cheap enough, I went back about 9pm.

Interestingly, it occupies a building where there's a shrine to St. Roch, and those plaques mentioning that the bench where he rested after returning to town was there. It's a heaving neighborhood, filled with students and gay guys out on the town, and most of what was around me was bars and restaurants and kebab stands. Like everyone else at all the other restaurants, I sat outside. It was a warm evening, and the street scene was going full tilt, so it seemed to be a good idea. I say "seemed to be": despite the narrow streets, there are people who drive them, so that if you're sitting curbside, you'll get the occasional car. The first one got as far as where I was sitting and had a change of heart and backed up. The second one cruised by very slowly and got through. The third one's driver stopped a Vietnamese woman and asked her to ask me to get out of the way. Since there was almost a foot between me and the car, I declined and waved the woman through. In fact, the only one that didn't seem to have much of an idea was a garbage truck, which managed to nudge my chair as it came through.

Service at Les Jardines was incredibly slow. They may have only one burner in the kitchen, given how slowly things came out to my fellow diners. I had a plate with some tiny potato cubes with parsley, a few chick peas, and three black olives on it deposited in front of me, and the somnolent waitress took my order. When the little pichet of rosé wine appeared, it was clear that my smell/taste was way diminished. (Although at least I didn't order the Moroccan rosé, which another diner did; I was astonished at its grey-pink color and hoped it didn't taste like it looked).

Eventually, my appetizer showed up. Briwate poulet was described as being filled with chicken, parsley, coriander and spices, but what I got was two deep-fried triangles a little over an inch on each side with some chicken inside. There may hae been parsley, coriander and spices, but I couldn't see anything other than chicken, and it also occurred to me that the triangles could have been taken out of the oil a few seconds earlier; they were pretty brown. There was a sort of desultory salad with it, and this meant that I got bread. And the bread, dense, white, and with a salty, crunchy crust slightly burned on the bottom, was darn good.

That course was cleared, and 40 minutes later out came my tagine. I'd ordered lamb tagine with olives and lemons, since I've been wanting to try Moroccan preserved lemons for some time. Now, if you're not familiar with the tagine, it's not just the dish, it's the thing it's cooked in, as the picture here shows. You assemble the ingredients in the bottom half, put the funnel-shaped top on and throw it in the oven, so it's kind of a baked stew. The dish put in front of me was bubbling so violently I had to wait several minutes before I dared taste it. Of course, I couldn't taste it, so it was all sort of a waste. On the other hand, there were notes I could detect -- my taste wasn't 100% gone -- and among them were sour (which I was getting from the wine) and salt (which I was getting from the bread), and I was getting nothing but grease from the tagine, which was a huge number of turnips, potatoes, and some carrots covering up two pieces of lamb, bone in. There were two tiny slivers of lemon, and not an olive to be seen.

The whole thing came to €25.50, which was what I wanted to spend, and yet I felt I'd just been served some watered-down version of Moroccan food for French people. There are certainly enough Moroccans around here that there must be a good Moroccan restaurant or two, and maybe my having selected one in the student ghetto meant I didn't get anything near what I would have gotten if I'd wanted to walk over to the Figuerolles district, where the Moroccans actually live.

On the other hand, if I wasn't going to be able to taste it anyway, at least the liberation of being able to go out for a meal for the first time in over three months felt good. The street scene was better than television, and getting out of the house, sitting there in the night air, and letting someone else do the cooking meant that I don't regret a minute of it. With any luck at all, I'll be able to do this more frequently in the near future, and with more luck, I should be able to taste what I'm eating.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Les Jours du Chien

I was wondering about this the other day: do the so-called "dog days" of summer have a date? A beginning and an end?

And the answer turns out to be, sort of. The "dog days" are supposed to be the time when the evening sky is dominated by Sirius, the dog star, which is what made me think that, like the turning of the Zodiac, it might be something that happens every year. And sure enough, it turns out to be right about now, this part of August when it seems like nothing at all is going to happen and the heat is enough to melt you if you step outside.

What made me actually want to post about this, though, is that a couple of days ago, I started reading my old Berlin blog from beginning to end, pen in hand, taking notes for a possible project. Yesterday, I got to exactly five years ago, the dog days of '04, arguably one of the lowest points in all my years of existence. I hadn't written an article in a year. I had no money and was about to lose my electricity. I was ten months behind in my rent. Just re-reading this, the old mood came over me. I was a wreck for the rest of the day. Things aren't quite that bad at the moment, but I am behind in my rent, not only for this apartment but for a storage locker back in Texas which only has a few more days before its contents wind up in a dumpster, and I don't have any current paying projects. As was the case back then, I'm owed money, and I have no idea where it is, except that I can prove it's not in any of my bank accounts.

One way that this situation is worse is that my landlord lives locally, and pays me visits, like he did just a few minutes ago. In Berlin, my landlord lived a couple of hundred miles away. One way that this situation is better is, well, I'm not in Berlin. In Berlin, the weather was proving oppressive, except then it was cold and rainy (in August? In August.) and here it's hot, muggy, and the evening breeze of a couple of weeks ago has stopped. Somehow, hot and muggy, while not pleasant, is more natural than having to go outside in mid-August wearing a Levi jacket to stay dry and warm.

But the cyclical nature of the situation was what got me depressed. As someone commented the other day, "Aren't you a little old to still be living like this?" I've been too old to live like this for, oh, to be generous, twenty years.

And then the New York Times had to go and print an article about a study which suggests that this kind of thing is physiological, too; that the stress situations like this impose on the brain cause it to imprint patterns that cause you to repeat the things that caused the situations to come into being. Which, in my case, is true: I keep writing articles for newspapers and magazines and doing other writing for hire and then I have no control over when -- or, in some cases, if -- I'll be paid. And, of course, when I contacted two of the folks who owe me, it turned out they were both on vacation. For how long, I have no idea.

Of course, the Times article also says that the rats in the study recovered after being put in unstressed environments. Not only did their behavior change, but their brains rewired. Thus, four weeks of stress was cured by four weeks of vacation.

Which is what I need right now. I do love this place (at least so far), but I haven't been out of Montpellier at all since I returned on April 1. If all goes well, I'm due to go to Barcelona in mid-September to pick up some friends who are flying in there from the States and bring them back here, and as I understand it, some driving trips out of town are on the agenda. But I also need a long-term vacation-ish option, a place of psychic refuge, somewhere, physical or psychological, where the stress of the rent, the bills, and the isolation is neutralized.

And until then, well, woof.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

When The Saint Goes Marching 'Round

He probably didn't exist, but if he did, dang it, he's ours. And like so many of us here in Montpellier, he was ahead of his time: he caught the Plague before it got to Europe.

St. Roch is the patron saint of Montpellier. The mythbusting Wikipedia article notwithstanding, the story goes that he was born here between 1348 and 1350, and went to the medical university, where he learned to be a doctor and hospitallier. He also got religion, and after getting his degree, although his father made him mayor of Montpellier (as he himself had been) on his deathbed, instead young Roch took off on a pilgrimage to Rome. In Italy he got involved in all sorts of good works, working in hospitals and living among monks. Unfortunately, he caught the Black Plague and the brothers, not wanting to catch it themselves, threw him out. He went to live in the woods, and a dog started showing up, bringing him food. Turned out the dog belonged to a local nobleman, who was so impressed with Roch's sanctity that he became his patron. Roch went on the road, doing good deeds, the dog hanging with him and curing his wound by licking it. Eventually he wound up in Montpellier, sat down on a bench whose location is still marked by a marble plaque, and was arrested by his cousin, who threw him in jail where he died five years later. If he existed at all.

At any rate, a large church was built to house his remains, although there's not much of him left, apparently. As you can see, the church is pretty barren of imagery: between the Wars of Religion and the Revolution, they pretty much stripped the churches in this city of all the statues and such, which gives them a pretty barren look. But Roch is stashed in there except for one day a week, his saint's day, which is today. According to the various posters around, this is a day to take St. Roch's example and take pity on our fellow man who has less than ourselves, and to generally deal with the afflicted.

Having misread the program (after Marie finally found it, that is: it wasn't easy), I went down to the church at 2:45 to watch the parade that would carry St. Roch around his old home town. I was a couple of hours too early, but instead I got to watch a really obnoxious and obstreperous beggar, who'd invaded the sanctuary, and was bellowing "M'sieu, m'dam, m'sieu" at everyone who was walking into the church while thrusting a paper cup at them, draw the attention of the police and a white-clad gentleman who I believe was a member of one of the societies around the cult of St. Roch and the official complainant. This set off a chain reaction with an elderly man whose face was so red I feared for him, who was sitting at the café immediately across the square from the church. I'm not sure what he was complaining about, but it seemed to have something do to with the price he was charged for his ice cream. In a nicely symmetrical series of events, the two cops, the beggar, and the white-clad dude got in the police car at the same time that the waiter from the café walked Mr. Angry back to his house. And the action hadn't even begun.

I went back at 5, after reading the instructions again, and there was a large crowd in the square. Clearly something was up.

I had thought the procession would leave from the front steps of the church, but instead, I saw motion down one of the side streets. Here comes the parade!

The shrine...

...and the reliquary with the bones of the saint, in a silver tube inside this rather tacky golden pagoda thing. These guys who carried it muttered "Roch" from time to time, under their breath, as if they were calming him. Hardly surprising: the place has changed a bit since he was walking around it himself. Even the old buildings he was being carried through are, for the most part, from a time well past his, since there was a terrible fire here during the Wars of Religion and nearly the entire center city dates from the 16th Century.

They walked down the street, various societies dedicated to the saint falling into line, the musicians now playing fifes with one hand, drums with the other, and, finally, a crowd of well-wishers taking up the end. I scooted across town and caught the procession coming up the rue St. Guilhem.

Then they turned and went down the hill and back to the church, where, as I'm writing this, they're distributing flowers to the crowd. The church closes at 7:30 if you have any business with Roch, who, as a patron saint of those afflicted with the Plague, is probably not doing a whole lot of business these days and is likely quite happy to see the diminishing and aging numbers of his fans (and their dogs) who come out on a hot summer afternoon to remember him.

And I wonder what the future holds for events like this. There were no young people to speak of, except for some Africans (one of the speakers at the church's afternoon program was a priest just back from Mali), hanging out at the parade, no young French couples with their kids showing them an old tradition (well, I say old, but this has only been going on for something like 350 years, which, as things like this go, isn't all that long), not much excitement or feeling that this was a ritual that was still binding a community. The Rochcentric organizations that marched only had a dozen or so members, and, again, they were older folk. As were the musicians.

I haven't been here long enough to say anything definitive about this, but now that I know what the deal is, I hope to be back next year for this and see how, and if, it's changed.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Midsummer Market and the Assumption

Okay, here's today's haul:

What's most impressive about this is that, including the two bottles of wine at €3.20 each, this is within a euro of my €10 limit. (The tomato in the green bag is from Tuesday and is part of the eggplant pizza I'm making tonight: only the stuff on the board and the wine is from today).

The thing is, there's such abundance now that they're practically giving stuff away. Or maybe it's because some of the vendors are starting to recognize me: they're there twice a week, and so am I. The melons, for instance, are from the mute farmer with the ancient balance scale. They were two for €1, so I picked one fairly ripe one and one non-ripe one, because I've noticed how they ripen at home, perfuming the kitchen ridiculously. He smiled, whipped out his knife, picked up a cut melon and cut me off a slice. I ate it and, unsurprisingly, it was great. So I reached in my pocket for a euro to pay him, and he came up with another melon. "Hey," I said, "I live alone. I can't eat this many." He made a mocking noise, took the euro and smiled. Fortunately, I ran into some folks I know a little later and they got the orphan melon.

Below them, there are onions and potatoes, not exactly seasonal vegetables, but the product of a sudden thought: why do I buy big bags of class 2 factory-farmed onions and potatoes at the Monoprix Inno when these people at the market are perfectly happy to sell you four or five at a time, direct from their farms' storage bins? Duh. And that way, neither of them will sprout because they've hung around too long.

Moving up from the center, to the right of the eggplant, there are a few flat peaches, or "flying saucer" peaches, as I've heard them called. Prof Dr Dr has been recommending I look out for them, and there they are. The one I had was extremely hard, not very ripe yet, but had the promise of extraordinary flavor, so I can let these guys ripen for a while. (Which is good: I can only eat so much fruit at a time). To their right, a few orange apricots. The one I had was mealy and almost without flavor. Maybe this isn't the right season, or maybe this isn't the place to get apricots. Anyway, not much good. The small green-and-red orbs below the peaches are Reine Claude plums, and they're all over the place (as are figs, which I can't quite figure out what to do with, but people are buying them by the multiple flat). They're juicy and sweet, but not much flavor beyond that. Maybe some of these fruits are better when cooked with, and I should look into that. Finally, a couple of tomatoes.

The wines are an experiment. The one on the left, Domaine de Malpuits, is from the same guy whose wine vinegar I've been enjoying these past few weeks. The one on the right, Domaine de l'Arnede, is a rosé made from Merlot, a grape you just don't see around here much. Both are classified as Vin de Pays, which means they don't use the traditional blend of grapes which allows them to be called Cotes de Languedoc, nothing more. I've seen bottles classified like that at exalted prices at the Wine Museum. What I'm expecting here is drinkability, nothing more. But the Merlot may still surprise me.

Anyway, eggplant pizza tonight, who knows what tomorrow. Because I made another mistake: I assumed stuff would be open today. And it's not.

It's the Feast of the Assumption. When I lived in Berlin, I thought I'd seen just about every weird Christian holiday celebrated as a national day off, but I was wrong: they're Protestants up there, and across Catholic Europe, from Spain to Austria (and, I assume, Bavaria and southern Germany), the convenient date the Virgin chose for her ascent to Heaven is a mid-summer day to slack. Of which I approve, but wish I'd had some foreknowledge because I'm out of coffee. The Monoprix on the corner is open, and I'm going to hike over to the Inno in hopes that Coffea, the place I get my good coffee beans (well, okay coffee beans; I still miss the Malongo boutique in the Berlin Galleries Lafayette, from which I could make my own mixture), is open.

But I assume nothing.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Ode To A Pizza

Here, just before being finished, is last night's dinner.

As some of you know, I've had a very odd ailment for the past few months. It was a bad winter for colds, and I caught a few. Things were pretty good after I got back from Texas in early April, though, but -- oh, no! -- one last one came and went. Except it didn't. Not entirely.

I often lose my sense of smell when I'm sick, which isn't surprising. What's odd is that, back when I smoked, I never caught an odd thing: the day before any respiratory ailment struck, cigarettes would taste really good. Then the next day I couldn't taste a thing. But since I've stopped, I don't get the warning. It doesn't do any good, anyway: when you have a cold, you have a cold.

Except when you don't. After the logy body, the stomach stuff, the occasional ear problem left, I still had a runny nose. And I was blowing my nose constantly; it never seemed to empty. And my sense of taste was gone. "Sinusitis," someone said. "An infection in your sinuses." I looked it up. There was a diagram of the sinuses. Only one of my nostrils was affected and I could see right where it was.

I lived with it for months. It was a drag.

Sometimes you fantasize: what if I lost one of my senses? But taste is never the one you fantasize. I have some experience with this: my father was profoundly deaf for a lot of my childhood due to tympanic sclerosis, a condition whereby his eardrum's membrane thickened. He wore a hearing aid, first a thing that was the dimensions of a pack of king-sized cigarettes which had tubes, and then, with the miracle of the transistor, a smaller one, and, finally, one that could be stuck in the earpiece of his glasses, and custom-fitted plugs in his ears. But my sister and I learned to talk loudly at the dinner table if we wanted him to hear us. And it couldn't have been comfortable wearing those plugs all the time.

Once I started writing about music, I began to wonder if this problem were hereditary (it's not), and then I went to see the Who and wondered if I was inducing something similar (I was, but I don't think there's much damage).

Then there are the fantasies about blindness. I really don't know how I'd cope with that, but chances are I won't have to. Of course, those are just chances: I have a friend who lives in a motorized wheelchair when she's not in bed, and she is a reminder that you're one fall, one accident, away from joining her, even if her condition was caused by a disease. There are a lot of people in chairs here in Montpellier, and I notice things like curb-cuts and steps. Chances are that, except when my friend and her husband come to visit next month, this is all knowledge I won't need. But you never know.

But taste! What a blow! And, although I had a great-aunt whose taste blew out after a childhood bout with rheumatic fever, it had never occurred to me that, after the cold left, I might not have my taste back. It had always come back before. And what more proof that there was a black cloud over my head: I move to France taste-buds stop working!

So here I was, going to the market, buying this amazing food, taking it home, and cooking it and feeling very, very lucky if the slightest hint of flavor snuck through, as it sometimes did. At noon, everything was fine: I could taste sandwiches, or fruit, or the wonderful concoctions the Lebanese guy downstairs makes. But sometime in the afternoon, the sensations would fade. I had a basil plant in the kitchen a lot of the time to use as a diagnositc aid: I'd walk past and pinch it, then smell my finger. I could almost articulate a percentage of remaining sensation out of that smell. By dinner-time, it would be gone.

This wasn't a terrible problem with my cooking, oddly enough. When you're trying to learn stuff, there's technique as well as flavor to consider. When I made that first ratatouille, I knew it wasn't very good because the bitterness of the burned eggplant came through. And pizza, the great discovery, the cheapest food on earth (seriously: you can make one for under two euros and most of that cost is the mozzarella cheese!), has many obstacles before you get to competence. I am not a natural baker because I don't consume sweets. Cakes, cookies, things like that, have never been of interest to me as a cook. I got slightly interested in bread, but then I moved to Germany, and what's the point of competing with that? In France, the bread is totally different, but equally stupid to try to equal: I can go down to the corner and come back with a €1.20 sourdough baguette with big holes in the crumb and a crackling crust that I could never duplicate in a million years. (Part of that, of course, is the oven they use, which mists water on the cooking bread, a facility that home stoves just don't have -- or want).

Pizza, though, is a bread with airs, and also a cornerstone of my childhood, thanks to the Albanese family in Eastchester, NY. Whatever else they were involved with, their pizzeria, which donated meals generously to the Cub Scouts and various church groups, was an outstanding Italian-American restaurant to grow up with. Imagine my surprise when I moved to Ohio to go to college and discovered what passed for the stuff out there: crackery crust, a "sauce" that was like diluted pizza, and...they cut it into squares! Aiee! Fortunately, after moving to California, after suffering with the kind of over-cheesy, fat-crusted mass American pizza for a while, I discovered the glories of Tommaso's, and the hospitality of the Crotti family. Better than Albanese's? Nope: different. Then my sister and brother-in-law moved to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, a part of the world where pizza -- dozens of styles -- is a cornerstone of the local cuisine, thanks to its becoming a staple of bars where miners put out of work by the coal mine fires went to drink their unemployment checks in the '20s. The church there became Arcaro & Genell, home of white pizza with broccoli, and, eventually, a lot more. In search of a pizza stone to do my own experimentation, I went to a restaurant supply store in the area that was exclusively devoted to pizza and got a peel and a stone about an inch thick. It died just before I left Berlin, just shattered, and the current half-incher I brought back from Texas this spring just barely does the job, but I was now on a mission.

My bible for pizza information has been The Pizza Book, a legendarily out-of-print compilation of recipes by a woman named Evelyne Slomon, whose advice I have taken very seriously, and from whose observations I have learned a lot. On the cover is a pizza studded with cherry tomatoes, decorated with whole basil leaves. When I moved here, that was approximately my goal. In the winter, sure, I made up a ketchup-consistency tomato sauce to attempt the kind of sauce Albanese's and the other New York places do (still perfecting that one), and I'd put some salame or something in there, but when spring and the fresh vegetables arrived, I was going to go for this new style. And I did, and I blogged it.

But I didn't taste it. I knew it was undersalted, and someone suggested I add anchovies, and I did. I wanted oil in there, and was reminded to put it on after it came out of the oven. I did that, too. I wrestled with the crust: often it was too wet, sometimes a hole would appear after I stretched it out. A lot of the time it was soggy in the middle, which was due to both too thin dough and sometimes not drying the fresh mozzarella enough. Also crowding the middle: pizza physics, folks. When the crust rises around the edge, it pushes stuff towards the center. If you don't have much there when you put it in the oven, it won't sog while it cooks. Somehow this seems counterintuitive.

And I wanted to taste it. Every week I'd hit the market and wonder what I'd bought. Sometimes I had some of it for lunch, and it was good. But dinner...I wanted to cook a good meal, relax with some good wine...I wanted my taste back. The frustration is almost impossible to communicate.

I was given a recommendation for an oto-naso-laryngologist, whose office just happens to be a few blocks up the hill from me by the Halles Castellanes. A week ago Monday I made an appointment and went to see him. He was just back from New York, and speaks English with a bizarre accent: East Coast, but...where? The answer is nowhere. I know other Europeans who are good with languages who have this same facility. A woman I know has a fine Tuscan accent which makes Tuscans wonder where she grew up. She grew up in Berlin.

The doctor took a look with some scary metal tools. He checked my throat. He took a thin fibre with a light in it and pushed it into my nose and watched on a screen. So did I. "That's the back of your eye there," he noted as the thing snaked its way through my skull. And there it was: a big, angry-looking, blown up blob of flesh. "A polyp," he said. "When it inflates -- it inflates and deflates during the course of the day -- it pinches the nerve that controls taste. When it deflates, it lets up on it, which is why you're okay at noon. Let's go in the next room and I'll write a prescription for some drugs. You'll taste again in 48 hours. And come back next week."

He was right and he was wrong. Most of the week taste faded at night, as usual. One night, I'd had a pre-dinner fade, but at 11, got an urgent e-mail which needed answering. As I was typing, I felt the veil lift: I could taste the fading remnants of my dinner. I could taste the glass of wine I'd been drinking. I stood up and took another hit of the wine. It was good! And, perversely, the next day I faded at about 2 in the afternoon.

Monday I went back. We took the amazing voyage up my nose again, and it looked better, if not fixed. "Look, you had this for a long time before you came in, so it's going to take a while to get it under control, but you can see it's much better than last time. I'm going to give you a new drug regime for this week, and then I want you to take another one for a month. Come back in mid-September for another checkup." I'm showing up at the pharmacy so much that any day I expect them to start calling me tu.

Monday I was still faded, but last night I knew something had changed. I was back from the market with a bunch of tomatoes, and there was a zucchini which needed attention. A sample packet of "fruity" olive oil caught my eye -- someone had handed them out at the market a few weeks ago, which, given the number of local producers who show there, I thought was a nice touch of chutzpah. I needed another diagnostic basil plant. Tomato and zucchini pizza!

I ran into Gerry and Shoko at the supermarket and talked for a while, but I was nervously fingering my basil plant and sniffing. Yup, still there. I went to buy coffee, and the clerk disappeared instead of ringing me up. Spending this much time in the air conditioning was scaring me. Outside, with the coffee, I fingered the plant again. Still good. I went home and did the dishes. I could smell the dish detergent. Methodically, I made the dough and set it to rise and spent the next hour trying to stay out of the kitchen. It was time to start assembling the toppings. I rinsed the two anchovies and split them and the smell of nutty fish rose to my nostrils. Anchovies have never smelled so good! I chopped some garlic. It was garlicky. This was going to hold until I had a pie!

I took the dough out of the fridge (it's much better if it's cold: thanks, Evelyne!) The layers went on. I was worried that the zucchini would ooze water, but Evelyne didn't seem to think so, and she's the pizza goddess. The coeur de boeuf tomato was just big enough. A quick dusting with oregano and into the oven. I whipped together the caesar dressing, hoping it wouldn't be out of balance from my not having been able to taste what I made for so long. (This is another journey, into mayonnaises, which I'll document when it's further along). Sitting in the living room/office, typing an e-mail to the Hungry In Berlin crew, I could smell the pizza. I hastily ended my note and sent it. The crust had a perfect color. A bit of the mozzarella was browned. I'd arrived just in time. (See the picture at the top).

I did the finishing, strewing it with a bit of chiffonaded basil, some Parmesan, and, lastly, some of the olive oil freebie. That was to test if my nose would pick that bit up, because that's where that ingredient does its work.

It didn't stay looking that good for long. As I cut it with the pizza wheel, I noted that the crust was firm all the way through. I could pick up a slice without it folding under. The first taste was magnificent. A bit of cheese, a bit of anchovy, the smell of the basil and the olive oil... The zucchini were a total revelation: baking made their flavor more intense, and they formed a green-tasting foil to the tomatoes (which weren't acid enough, so I'll use a different variety next time).

I was in a state of trance. I reached for the bottle of wine (2008 Domaine de Limbardie rosé, big fat black cherry nose consistent with its darker-than-usual color, goes to berries, but not up to the floral stuff, on the tongue, a perfect vegetable-pizza rosé, and an utter luck-out on my part) and poured a glass.

And as I ate the pizza, slowly, mindfully, I vowed that if I possibly could, I'd remember what I'd been through every time I sat down to eat, and that I would never take my sense of taste and smell for granted ever again.

Ain't gonna happen, probably, but it's something to live up to. I've still got half a week and another month of drugs, and there may well be some slippages. But it's 2pm, and not only has writing this made me ravenous, but I'm already looking forward to dinner.

Whatever that will be.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Midsummer Miettes

It being Tuesday, I went to the market, and realized something, which is that, it being August, there was nothing much there. Oh, I got the stuff I needed, which wasn't much (more tomatoes!), but the photos of huge tomatoes and piles of odd vegetables, which I'd lugged my camera down there for, didn't materialize because it was just business as usual. Which, fine, is what it's there for. But it's just not picturesque.

* * *

Memo to my mellow neighbors, who gather in large crowds to watch the two guys in American Indian costume (including a very impressive war bonnet) blow a flute and chant along with a CD of wispy, New-Agey music: these guys are Romanian. Yup, just like the fake "wedding bands" that blare brass at you while you're trying to catch a cappuccino at a Comédie café. I ran into them a couple of years ago -- not the same guys who are out there right now, but others running the same scam -- in Berlin on Unter den Linden. As I walked by, I heard them talking to each other during a break: Romanian.

Of course, most American Indian music would be utterly incomprehensible to most Europeans, as it is to most people in the United States. It lacks both melodic and harmonic content of the sort the European ear can catch, and seems extremely boring and repetitive. The New Age flute stuff is based on one artist's success with a great modification of one Arizona tribe's music, which he recorded for a small label just as the CD era was getting underway. Several generations down the pike, some guys with synthesizers in Romania are carrying on the grand tradition. Hey-ya-ho!

* * *

Another reason the market was slow today is the reason everything else in town is slow. Just like the fact that you can actually see guys in striped jerseys and berets carrying baguettes in France (not here, but you can see them elsewhere), this country closes for August, just like the stereotype. Which doesn't mean there's no one around: the town is packed, and everyone is carrying a Michelin Green Guide. The on-vacation thing crops up in the weirdest places: the fish market at the supermarket is on vacation for the month! Right when I was thinking about cooking some fish, too. And the little Asian market where I was going to score some green chiles until mine come in so I could make salsa: no dice, he's outta here til the 21st.

It's too hot to get too concerned about it, but the ritual-ness of it, the seeming commitment to stereotype, is a hoot.

* * *

Speaking of which, I need a favor. One of the people who was on vacation when I tried to find him yesterday is a guy who may or may not rent vans for transporting handicapped people. Some friends from the States are coming over in mid-September, and one of them is in a chair and needs to be lifted in and out of a van. I'll drive it, but she's still gotta ride in it.

They're arriving in Barcelona, and I'd really much rather score this vehicle there and return it there, so if anyone knows anything at all about accessability in Barcelona, let me know and I'll pass the word on. Meanwhile, I'm still scouting around here.

And speaking of stereotypes, this guy who's on vacation was found when I was at the nose doctor yesterday (he says I'm improving, but the regime's going to last another week, and then I get to take more pills for a month) and mentioned this briefly because he wanted me back in his office right around when my friends arrive. His solution was the obvious French one: he called the biggest pharmacy in town. After clarifying what we were after, we got the name of this guy who may or may not have what we want.

But yeah: the pharmacy. Center of all information. Why didn't I think of that?

* * *

A couple of weeks ago, I found I'd woken up in the middle of the night. Not sure why, it just happened. So I rousted myself up to hit the john, as long as I was awake, and as I walked down the hall from the bedroom, something very large ran at me, between my legs, and disappeared into the dark.

I went back to bed, half-asleep, thinking, oh, great, I have rats. There was some adrenaline to burn off from the shock (I yelled at it as it passed, I was so surprised), so as I lay there, I thought of ways to get rid of the rats. A cat meowed. Yeah, that was one way, but I didn't want a cat. I'm not a big fan of cats.

Then it meowed again, and I realized something. I got out of bed, went into the office/livingroom, and turned on the light. And there was a cat, perched in the window.

Which is odd, because I live on the second floor. The third floor, if you're an American. I'm a good 30 feet off the ground. Where in the hell did this cat come from? Seriously: flat stucco walls on this place. A couple of water pipes. And it was in the bathroom, where access is even tougher.

Anyway, I went for it and it jumped. I went back into the bedroom and opened the shutters. The cat was on the balcony, overlooking the drop. I walked over and very carefully picked it up, ready to drop it at the hint of a scratch. It let me do it, no problem. I walked into the living room and realized I had to open the front door. The cat started batting at me with its rear feet, but no claws. I dropped it, it jumped back into the window, then back to the balcony.

Okay, I can play. I opened the front door. Went back to the balcony, got the cat, got it as far as last time, and it started batting me again, but this time when I dropped it, as I knew it would, it ran out the door. No longer my problem.

Right. I see the cat every day now. It actually lives in the courtyard. There's a stone wall with a recess in it where it sleeps until the sun hits it. Then it prowls the warren of alleyways and back doors. I saw some of the violin-makers across the way feeding it kebab scraps, which I thought wasn't such a great idea. It hangs around. The violin-makers are on vacation. It's August.

It also has a friend. The lunkheads downstairs have a kitten that's growing. This explains the mostly-full catbox on their balcony, directly below mine. (It's a testament to French cat-litter technology that this doesn't reek, even when the noon sun in summer hits it). These days, the feral cat and the kitten play together in the courtyard a lot of the time.

But at night, it yowls. It walks around and yells. And this wakes me up when the lunkheads aren't partying. Today, it made so much noise that one of the neighbors erupted and started tossing water at it. Got the kitten, too, who was completely nonplussed by it. The cat is seriously skinny. I can't hear it now, and it's not in its recess, which is shaded. Maybe the water-tosser called animal control. Maybe the lunkheads won't have another party tonight and I can sleep the whole night through.

Maybe the cat realized it's August and is off on vacation.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


I'm back from the market, and I'm not terribly proud of myself. I left here with €30 in my pants and came back with €7 and change. That's not good: with the visits to the nose doctor and all, I'm biting the rent money too hard, and that's got to stop.

Not all of this is bad, of course: I was out of olive oil, so I knew that was €7.50 gone. One uses a lot of olive oil in the summer, making salad dressing and cooking eggplant and all. So that's an okay expense. But there was one huge mistake.

Here's today's haul. Very colorful, no? There's the olive oil, and in the lower right-hand corner some other expensive goodies: about €5 from a brand-new stand selling local stuff. That's a hunk of Cantal cheese and a kind of local pancetta, which goes into the pasta sauce I've got planned tonight, as do those tomatoes, which may be too fleshy to work in a sauce, but I've got a €3 kilo of them to play with, so we shall see. €2.50 for the mora des bois strawberries (since that's what they're called, and yes, I know they're not wild strawberries, but they're good), a euro's worth of garlic, and two more worth of very weird-looking organic eggplants. So: €20 down, including the olive oil.

See that melon and those three peaches? Look good, don't they? A Satanic €6.66. How did that happen? Stupidity, plain and simple. I became addicted to the STOSS peaches I bought on Tuesday (that stands for Stand Over The Sink, Stupid, a name which becomes very obvious once you chomp into one ) and was going to get some more. These smelled good, and I also wanted a melon. There were melons all over the place, and there was a stand with some Spanish-seeming guys running it where they were shoving pieces of peaches in your face on the end of long knives, so I tried one, checked the melons, and ordered up a melon and three peaches.

I should have just declined to pay and walked off, but I wasn't on top of my game. The guys downstairs are back, and they came in around 3 and started drinking and yelling again, as well as hauling some stuff around. I don't know what these guys do for a living, but I do know that they do this entirely too much and don't respond to requests to stop. The couple of times I've tried, their girlfriends go "Ssshhhhh!" and giggle, they quiet down for a while, more beer is drunk and they're back to playing bad hip-hop, yelling over it, and, finally, singing football songs. They partied on until 7am, and I managed to block some of the noise by closing the bedroom windows, turning the room into an oven once the sun came up further. but I was worried about a piece I had to write today (which seems to have come out okay, thanks to the tension and anxiety I kept foremost in my psyche til I could get back from the market and write it).

I'm an idiot. If one of my accounts receivable doesn't pay off this week, I'm screwed. I've been so happy to have my sense of smell and taste back (albeit intermittently: it was off last night, for some reason) that I've just let it get the better of me. I have to realize something: this stuff isn't going away, people do produce it and sell it for reasonable prices, I can say no. It's also true that I shouldn't be in a position where a small misstep like this threatens so much of my economic foundations, but how was I to know 45 years ago that I was entering a doomed profession?

(Incidentally, I got to go on the BBC and reminisce a bit about my early days yesterday, which you can hear by clicking the third music cue on this page).

The good news is that, what with the leftover White Rat, the two days' worth of sauce this evening's meal will provide, a nice traditional Sunday big breakfast with fried potatoes, eggs, and that amazing garlic saussicon sec from the last market, and some of the other stuff around the house, I won't need to spend a whole lot for a while, and may even skip the Tuesday market unless there's an obvious need.

Still: this event has scared and chastened me. I hate that it has, but without discipline, I'm not going to survive, and unless I do that, I can't do the work that will bring me to a level where a ten-buck mistake won't eat at my conscience.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

White Rat

So what else would any sane person do with a bunch of white eggplants except make ratatouille and call it White Rat?

Anyway, I was curious how these odd looking vegetables would cook. I mean, they just look freakish:

They look pretty weird diced up, too:

But once roasted, they lost their ivory tone, as I suspected they would:

I roasted them at a lower temperature (around 180C) and for less time (around 30 minutes) than I did last time, and they came out perfect.

Here's the rest of the stuff ready to get fried and boiled, although that tomato on the left was just too funky, so while stuff was cooking I headed up the hill to the Halles and got a few beefheart tomatoes, since I also didn't think I had enough.

And here it is cooking...

And the final product:

Which is okay, but needs acid of some sort, and I'm also thinking maybe just a tad more herbal life, so I'm thinking of stirring in some of that small-leaf Provençal basil I got just before I serve it, as well as some parsley. For the acid, for the first batch, I'm going to use the local wine vinegar, but I'm also thinking that the second time around (because this makes two big dinners) I'm going to add some home-pickled capers some people at the market sell.

Conclusion: visually, the white eggplant doesn't show up here. It'd be more visually compelling with the normal dark-purple kind. But then I couldn't call it White Rat!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Market, Aug. 4

Please direct your attention to the center of the photo, neglecting to notice how dirty the electric burners are at the moment, which must be a relic of last night's dinner. Thank you.

Okay, now that you've focused on the important stuff, ie, this haul from the market, which had just been in the house a few minutes when it was photographed, here's what I got today. Counterclockwise from the top left:

* Small-leaf basil. It's still going to be a while before the big-leaf stuff on the balcony starts coming in, and with the doctor yesterday promising me my sense of taste would be 100% restored in 48 hours, I grabbed another plant of this. Just as spicy as the last one, leaves a bit larger.
* White eggplant. Why? Because, um, it's white. I've never tried this before. I assume it's exactly like deep purple eggplant, but white. If not, I hope someone tells me before I decide to use it in the ratatouille that's on the docket for a bit later this week, thanks to hints from Chef George, The Best Recipe, and cranky old Elizabeth David.
* Perfect zucchini, for the same purpose.
* More tomates anciennes, because I've decided to make a pasta sauce with fresh tomatoes this week. This is only part of the haul, because I also need them for ratatouille and salad.
* Some rather funky green peppers, also for the ratatouille. They were the best I could find except for a whole bin of ones that looked like bell peppers but were the size of small apples. I wasn't sure about them (although they were labelled "sweet"), plus they were at one of the expensive organic stands. A lot of this stuff is organic, but the farmers just haven't bothered to apply for the label.
* Three peaches, ripe and ready to go. Will be diminished by one when I finish typing this entry: lunch-time, you know.
* Two of the curiously tasteless yellow fruit I bought last time. Sweet is the only taste they have, and the texture is, as I said last time, floury, gritty. Short of distilling a whole bunch of them into some kind of brandy, I can't think of what they'd be good for.
* And another big head of lettuce for the aforementioned salad.

I had a terrible eggplant experience last week, incidentally: I don't know whether I didn't salt-and-drain them enough, or they weren't ripe, or what the problem was, but they turned hard towards the skin during cooking, and were sour and bitter enough that even with my evening's lack of taste (my taste has been turning on about noon and turning off again about 8pm, another reason to keep a basil plant around), I didn't like them. Really hope these white ones don't do that, if the doc's right and I'm about to taste again (and given that I have 30 euros' worth of pills and sprays and whatnot, he'd better be right).

I should also dredge up John Thorne's pasta-with-zucchini recipe for Saturday's market expedition. They're almost giving those things away.

Time to pack the still-life up and get to work. Well, get to work after lunch, I mean.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Miettes of an August Weekend

I've just gotten back from the market with one of the most spectacularly unphotogenic loads ever, so pardon no picture with this. I'm going to have to take the camera down there, because some of the best-looking stuff is stuff I'm not going to buy. Tomatoes, in particular: the cumulative effect of seeing so many of them in one place, and in particular ones which are so huge that I guess all you could do with them is stuff and bake them, is only communicable by photo unless I bought a few dozen euros' worth and carted them home -- not a good idea.

I'm in love, though, with these ugly tomates anciennes (heirloom tomatoes) everyone's got. They've got spots and holes and dirt clinging to them, but once washed and pared slightly, they're amazing. The absolute redness of their interior is hard to describe. Blood doesn't get it; it's too dark. Ketchup, which is, after all, made from tomatoes, is also too dark. There's almost no seeds, either: the ultra-red flesh extends through most of the fruit.

The other things I got were the usual: a huge head of lettuce, six eggs, a melon, and some nectarines, which are pretty enough, but the one I just ate was flavorless and floury. Ah, well, the bag only set me back 40 cents, so if the rest of them are like that, it's a small loss. I also got another saucisson sec, the local equivalent of salame, because that last one, covered in herbes de Provence, was so good. This one's garlic; the lady gave me a slice of one made with bolets, or porcini mushrooms, but I couldn't taste any mushrooms in there. My guess is I'll be able to detect garlic. I'm headed back down on Tuesday, of course, and I'll take the camera, so stay tuned.

* * *

Summertime here, like everywhere else, sees a lot of road construction and infrastructure repair, and I've had to change some of my usual routes here and there because the sidewalks are suddenly not there, and walking into oncoming French drivers should only be attempted by incipient suicides.

To mark these construction sites off, they've used a number of portable, modular barriers, sometimes filled with sand to keep them in place. What I like, though, given the nature of how contracts to do this work happen the world around -- and I assume France is no exception here, either -- is the name of the company which makes these things, printed in large letters on each module: SCAM.

I bet!

* * *

Another thing about summer is t-shirts. There are the usual stupid attempts to mimic American vintage shirts, but I've started taking notes on particularly good ones. There was the girl I saw yesterday whose t-shirt said "Proud to be blonde," which I believe was on backwards. Then there was the fat guy with the curly hair who passed me wearing a shirt which said "We're not drunk, we're from Belgium," in English, but nonetheless invoking the French equivalent of the Polish joke. But my favorite so far is one which could use some proofreading, but which I'd like to see someone appropriate wearing in the U.S. In huge letters, it says IM MUSLIM DONT PANIK.

* * *

Finally, a word about French technology, which are, I admit, words one doesn't see together all that often. The supermarket near my house is owned by the huge Monoprix chain (although I'm not sure how God feels about that, since the sign on the front of the mall was hit by lightning and caught on fire a few weeks ago), and when I went there to buy toilet paper some months back, I was confronted with a four-pack labelled "Compact," and bearing the claim that the four rolls in the package equalled twelve rolls of normal toilet paper. A roll of this stuff is hard: if a full roll were aimed at your head, you'd feel it. And it just lasts and lasts: I am only on my second four-pack.

And on another visit to the store, I saw they had paper towels labelled the same way, although with these, two rolls only equal four normal ones. But, again, it's true. I have no idea how they do this, but they really do get lots more paper rolled onto a normal-sized roll.

I'll report on any other French technological advances I come upon, but please don't hold your breath.

* * *

Observant long-time readers will note that as of yesterday, a PayPal bug, referring to my current motto, the Willem deKooning quote, "I'm not poor; I'm just broke," has appeared here. I've posted it with some reluctance because that condition still obtains, and because I had one on my Berlin blog which, on rare but always fortuitous occasions, would yield a couple of much-needed dollars. I promise to take it down as soon as things change, as I hope they will: when regular employment, a book deal, or a win at the lottery (which is just as likely as the other two, actually, except that I have yet to play the lottery) renders my situation any better. The collapse of the ghost-writing deal has hit me harder than I expected, but my lawyer has just written a very scary letter to the gonif who thought he could work me for three months without paying me, and things are very slowly getting a bit better. Meanwhile, that button is connected to my French bank account, from which the phone and rent get paid. Here's to its swift disappearence! (Um, the button, I mean...)
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