Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Beach & Béziers

Real good news: after a year off, E & J have fired up their jalopy and are travelling again -- and inviting me along. Or maybe they've been doing it all along and not inviting me, for all I know, but on Sunday we motored off to Valras-Plage. I sort of knew this would be fun, because there's nothing like a French seaside resort in the middle of the winter -- seriously! There's nothing like one in season, either, but boy, do you not want to be there then. 

The reason for visiting was a restaurant they'd discovered where they wanted to have lunch, and afterwards, we'd head up to Béziers to the Musée Bitteroise. I'd visited that city three years ago, around the start of this blog, and written some of it up, and figured this would be as good a chance as any to take another look at the place. 

The restaurant was called Le Phare (the lighthouse), and was one of about four facing the beach, any one of which, I bet, is pretty good. Le Phare certainly was: the menu was filled with choices on both sides (it's on an unwieldy piece of board, for some reason), and I have to cop to having chosen somewhat lamely. Of course, this was Sunday, when I normally have a big breakfast, which I was still digesting, otherwise I would have had two courses, and maybe made a more imaginative choice than the "trio" of cuttlefish and squid. The three comes from calling larger critters "sépias" and smaller ones "seiches," and then there were "calamares." They were prepared à la plancha, dry-griddled, and perfectly seared and cooked without getting rubbery. As usual, there wasn't much in the way of side-dishes: three spoonfuls of purées, one of which, broccoli, wasn't very good because to get broccoli soft enough to purée, you have to overcook it to the point where the sulfurous taste comes out. E & J each had a slice of some kind of white fish, slathered with a sauce based on crustaceans, and it was magnificent. It being Sunday, all of the open restaurants in town were jammed, but not so jammed that you couldn't find a seat. All around us, people were getting scrumptious-looking dishes delivered to their places. We're already talking about coming back. 

Le Phare, 4, Boulevard Jean Moulin, 34350 Valras-Plage. Open for lunch and dinner all year long. Phone: +33 (0)4 67 37 38 38. 

If you click on that photo, you can see the beach reflected in Le Phare's windows. You can also see that it's on the ground floor of one of the horrid 1960s beach developments that Charles de Gaulle encouraged once malaria was eradicated at the Languedoc beaches and they became safe for tourism, which tended to head to the beaches of Spain or Italy, whichever was closest. Of course, in these instant towns, the building boom was created by people who never gave a thought to whether or not the buildings would last 50 years, let alone 20, and it's real easy to get a place to live in these beach towns because the housing is falling apart. They're cheap, too, for seaside housing, and there's a reason. But there are also a lot of students living in the ones nearest me, like Carnon-Plage and Palavas-les-Flots, and commuting into Montpellier via bus. 

The beach itself, though, isn't very interesting, and the stiff wind blowing was cold. Still, there were a few people out on it, and I bet that was as deserted as it gets. After all, it's Béziers' beach, and that's a good-sized little city, so it's where the Bitterois, as the people of Béziers are called, go to eat seafood on a Sunday and promenade around. 

We promenaded back to the car and, after a little getting lost, during which we saw the entirety of Valras-Plage, we drove up the hill and into Béziers, and right into a parking lot. That was easy! But then, everybody else was at the beach or at home. I tried to call my three-year-old memory of how to get around into play, and it almost worked. We got as far as the theater, which had been a place where the mutinying soldiers had hung out in 1907, housed some Belgian refugees during World War II, and is also a major hub for what passes for downtown Béziers. It was 3, and the museum closes at 6 on Sundays, so we didn't want to dally. We turned down a street alongside one of Béziers' numerous Hausmannesque buildings, which went up in a frenzy when the locals got very rich because the city had become the railhead for shipping wine north to Paris. Today, they look both clapped-out and somehow beautiful. (The best one we saw I couldn't photograph because we were moving in the car, but there's a wonderful brown stone place all abandoned-looking on one side of the new Polygone shopping mall. My guess is that it won't be there much longer, so if you're in the area, check it out). 

The historical center of Béziers is even more confusing than Montpellier's, because it doesn't have as many open spaces, but we managed to find the covered market (which is actually quite lovely, and I should have snapped it) and the Madeleine, the church where the Inquisition, hot on the trail of the heretical Cathars, burned 7000 people alive -- or so they tell you. Anyone who looks at the church, though, knows that you couldn't fit 7000 newborn infants stacked up to its ceiling. Wandering along, we found ourselves in the shadow of the Cathedral, in the neighborhood known as Petite Jérusalem because it was, historically, the Jewish neighborhood, and from there it was a quick ramble down to the old barracks building in which the Musée Bitteroise is housed. 

Last time I'd had to rush through it because I risked missing my train. This time we only had a couple of hours, but it turned out to be enough, although there were still loads of signs explaining things to read. As I said last time, this is one of the best municipal museums anywhere, and you really get a sense of the city's and the region's history. Among the helpful documentation is a lot of debunking of myths, starting with the 7000 roasted Bitterois in the Madeleine. The museum notes that the population of the city was only 10,000 at the time, and a figure of less than 2000 is probably more accurate, although the army of the Inquisition, always ready to promote its efficiency while giving the impression that there was lots more work to do, sent figures of 20,000 to 100,000 back to Rome. And yes, this was the instance when the abbott commanding the Inquisition's army said "Kill them all; God will know his own." 

Walking through the museum, I got reacquainted with Béziers' patron saint, St. Aphrodite, who had his head cut off by the Romans, but walked back to his church with it in his hands. 

And I also found a model of one of the giant wine casks used on the railroad to take cheap red wine from Languedoc up to Paris, although it wasn't nearly as big as I remembered. (I also remember the image I saw as being on a postcard, so maybe there actually was a bigger cask). 

It's half again as tall as a man, and that's a lot of wine, but not what I remembered. This part of the museum also gives an excellent account of the wine riots of 1907, when the bubble burst, prices to the growers plummeted, and things got so bad that the army had to be called in to Narbonne, where they shot a couple of people dead. One regiment was so horrified that they mutinied and headed off to Béziers, where they hung out, drinking wine (surprise!) and, eventually, being disciplined by being stationed in southern Tunisia, which sounds bad until you realize that they missed the entire First World War by being there. This, and another couple of myths about 1907, are dispelled by another of the excellent signs. And there's also this gorgeous ad, which shows that Béziers hasn't changed much since the early 20th century, although I don't think you can get this brandy any more. 

The sun was going down as we took the back road back to Montpellier, and as we drove alongside the Bassin du Thau, with its row after row of ostroculture frames, we passed dozens of tiny sheds burning neon to advertise their oysters. And as much as I admire a lot of the food around here, I have to say this: Bouzigues oysters are dull. I'd make fried oysters out of them, or a good old hangtown fry, but on the half-shell they're lacking in flavor. There might be a better time of year to get them than the ones I've sampled them in, but I'm just not sold on them. Too bad; they're easy enough to get. 

It was a great trip, a kind of hors-d'oeuvre for the big trip I'll start a week from this coming Sunday, which will take in Barcelona, Brooklyn, Austin, and...well, I haven't planned the second half yet. I'll be photographing and blogging the whole way, though, so keep checking in!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Dirty Carrots: Theory and Practice

I'd seen them occasionally in the markets here. Once, during the year when I wasn't tasting anything, I even bought some carrottes de Paris at the covered market up the hill, fascinated by the fact that they were about an inch across, but also an inch long. I have no idea what they tasted like, though.

Nor do I know why I bought my first bag of dirty carrots down at the outdoor market. Boredom with winter's limited supply of vegetables? Maybe. Or maybe I was just fascinated by the name, which I thought was a mistake. Not that they weren't dirty: sand clung to them. It's just that other stands labelled them carrottes sablées, sandy carrots, which was more accurate, and this one had omitted the b and, thus, rendered them "salted carrots" instead. But then I saw others that actually said "carrottes sales," or dirty carrots.

I don't even remember what I used them in the first time. I took them home and scrubbed the crap out of them, resulting in quite a mud-puddle in the sink, then peeled them and cut them up. They were astounding. They were the carrotiest carrots I'd ever had. What on earth?

And now that it's winter again and there isn't much to get at the market, I've been picking them up again. Not too long ago, I made a huge minestrone in which they starred. Or, rather, in which they starred the first time around. By the time I got around to the next plastic tub of leftovers, the carrots in the soup were so sweet that encountering them was like finding a bit of candy surrounded by vegetables in a sweet broth. It was just on the edge of being unpleasant, but the balance was still just right (and, now that I'm thinking of it, the very mild acidity of olive oil poured into the soup might have tilted the balance back just right: I'll file this thought away for next time).

Naturally, I became curious: why were these so far superior to other carrots, because, well, it wasn't the dirt, which I obviouslly wasn't eating. But if you look at them, there are a couple of clues.

First off, look at the tops. There's nothing to see. Most carrots sold in the market come with a healthy bunch of greens which the vendors obligingly cut off and trash (although I've heard that they make brilliant tempura). These just have withered, browned stubs of vegetation. They also have spidery roots coming from them. These carrots have stayed in the ground longer than the others. But why?

A home gardener I contacted offered an explanation: there was a theory that leaving carrots in the ground for a freeze made them much sweeter. And you can see this, almost, in the picture: obviously the greenery up top would get hit with the freeze. Any nutrition in the form of sugar would go to the root, the orange part, and get stored there. (This could also apply to beets, but I happen to hate beets with an almost uncontrollable passion, so I'm not going to find out.) Once dug up, the carrots would hold a long time in cold storage, too, I think. Left in the field forever, though, they'd just rot: the freeze would pretty much take care of their re-sprouting, I assume.

I have no idea if carrots treated this way are available in the U.S., but if you grow them at home, this might be a worthy experiment. Meanwhile, I had plans for this batch here. I've discovered that not all beef sold in France can double as chewing gum. The secret is to go to a butcher, not the supermarket. Thus, the first time I made a classic beef stew with carrots here, I had several meals worth of unpleasant eating, although the taste was fine. This is even something of a tradition, if James Beard is to be believed. A friend of a friend recently sent me his memoir, Delights and Prejudices, in which he recounts his shock at finally making it to Paris and discovering that all the beef, especially the steak, was tough because the cattle were raised so very little fat got into the meat. But butchers and supermarkets tend to differ in this, and I accidentally got some stewing beef a couple of years ago at a butcher near the market and although it was a whole euro per kilo more expensive, that's what I do for stew beef on the rare wintry occasion of making beef stew.

The one I make is from one of the few French cookbooks in my house (surprisingly, I don't have anything by Julia Child here), Michael Roberts' Parisian Home Cooking, and it's not Julia's two-day boeuf bourgignon spectacular (which I also want to make some day), but a simple deal of onions, carrots, a bouquet garni of parsley, thyme, and peppercorns, and, of course, the beef, stewed in a whole lot of white wine. Served on a bed of buttered, parsleyed egg noodles, it's a great winter dish. Here are some leftovers which I heated last night.

It was way too much, especially since, for balance, I made a salad of bitter winter greens, diced pear, toasted walnuts, and cubed Roquefort (Carles, made by one of the few families that ages their cheese entirely within the caves of the village of Roquefort) with a vinaigrette made out of walnut vinegar, mustard, some herbes de Provence, and olive oil.

I ate too much, I admit, and once you start dealing with a kilo of beef and some Carles Roquefort, you're out of broke-but-poor cooking -- only just at French prices, totally at American prices, I'm afraid. And then I had the temerity to pair it with a Mas de la Serranne Clos des Immortelles 2010, whose complexity perfectly complimented the simplicity of the rest of the meal. That's also beyond the broke-but-poor barrier at €10 or so, but this was a long-delayed New Year's feast I'd dreamed up before my taste went on the blink over the holidays. I don't eat like this every day, promise.

At any rate, I have some dirty carrots left over and since they mesh so well with beef, I think I'll haul out one of my favorite Chinese dishes next, the one I call Beef with Sexy Vegetables, because the title Irene Kuo uses in her great cookbook is Beef with Spicy Vegetables, which doesn't quite communicate its magnificence.

Then again, maybe it's time to start experimenting with tagines...

UPDATE: According to commenters on Facebook, carrots will eventually turn woody if left in the ground, but will grow more greens, even though they're inedible by the time they come up. Everyone seems to think it's at least partially due to the variety of carrot. Someone noted eating them in India, where, obviously, frost pays no part, and that reminded me that, because I don't eat sweets, I forgot to mention carrot halwah, a Persian-inspired north Indian dish.
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