You may have noticed a bit of a trend in my recent posts: food.
Specifically, dessert. It seems that, during the holiday season (which lasts from early November through mid-February, or so I’m told), the French celebrate with few presents, making up for avoiding the commercial with the sweetness of their pastries. This was certainly no less true over the last few weeks!
I celebrated Christmas, three (!) weeks ago, with my wonderful friends in Parisot, a half hour’s drive outside of Toulouse. Christmas dinner was the main event there, spent with some of my hosts friends who own and work a cow farm nearby. What a dinner! Lasting over four hours (to properly degust each flavor), we enjoyed the SIX courses alongside wonderful company and conversation.
Foie gras (made by friends of the hosts)
Ris de veau (raised by the hosts, who own cows), dried cèpes, and mushrooms in a puff pastry
Chapon (chicken, also raised at home), which was stuffed with apple, chestnuts, and bourrage (traditional stuffing, naturally made primarily of sausage), with a side of homegrown mashed squash
Cheese (of course)
Bûche de Noël (complemented by eau de vie and homemade chocolates)
All accompanied with red or white wine or champagne – properly paired, of course…
In order to burn off a little of this scrumptious meal and to savor the very mild weather (after savoring the cuisine!), we strolled the countryside, just in time to view a stunning sunset.
The next day, I was invited on a trail ride through the region. I think I did alright, despite not being on a horse for almost 10 years. This (although I consider hiking to be a close second) is the way to experience the quite French countryside – the “true” France, according to its occupants. The combination of sights, smells, and sounds reassured me that I was truly in France, but everything strongly contrasted with the Parisian France that we all know and love. This is a purer, more intimate side of la belle France: one where neighbors welcome even an errant American into their home for a lavish Christmas dinner!
Before celebrating a New Years through champagne and excellent food (oysters and foie gras, bien sûr), I found myself flying high – quite literally! I saw France from a whole new angle, through the generosity of friends who take “head in the clouds” to heart more than most. Taking to the skies no fewer than five times in gliders, a tow-plane (the plane helps the glider to become airborne) , and a motor glider, I was privileged to see the French cities and countryside while riding the air currents. The ground was laid out in shades of green and beige, dotted by the rose-colored roofs that are so characteristic of southwestern France. I have a feeling that my B-17-piloting grandfather would be proud!
As my birthday always falls a week after Christmas, this is only one of two birthdays I have ever spent without my family (for the other, in 2013, I was on a plane headed to concerts in Texas). This made the day bittersweet, as I reveled in the reality of being in France while simultaneously feeling a bit homesick, for the first time.
My “Toulousain family,” made up of my housemates as well as Toulousain and international friends, made this one unforgettable and full of friendship and love. We made a wonderful meal and, kicking me out of the room for a good 10 minutes while they prepared… something… they surprised me with a wonderful German-style chocolate cake, complete with candles in whatever numbers they could find nearby. I think I’m looking pretty well, considering my age!
It is now the season of Epiphany, although it may be more properly titled the season of the Galettes des rois. Abandoning much of their normal pâtisserie fare, every pastry shop in the city sells these cakes, which are the rage of the month. They come in three main types: frangipane (flaky pastry filled with almond or apple filling), sablé galette (sweet biscuit-like cake), or, most typical of this area, gâteau des rois (brioche in the shape of a crown [in the sense that it is round with an empty circle in the middle] with candied fruit or sugar hidden inside). Baked into each galette is the fève [bean]. This used to be an actual bean but, these days, it is now usually a porcelain figurine of any number of styles (I have now collected a snowman and a little Chinese girl). Whoever gets the piece with the fève, wears the crown that comes with the cake. Apparently one can buy the cake without also taking the crown but, honestly, who would do that?!
Did I also mention that it’s orange season?
The rest of this month I have spent preparing for upcoming concerts, enjoying the mild weather, and generally loving the city. As I leave for Germany in fewer than 48 hours, I plan to saver southern France even more thoroughly than normal in the next day or so – attending a concert featuring Martha Argerich in between practice times in the fantastic instruments of the city, runs through these historic streets, and fantastic meals.
À bientôt – et bonne année à tous et à toutes !