France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

May 3, 2010

Les Eyzies Law and Order

Well, after a week in which the dead chicken sat on a stake in Mr. Malraux’s cornfield waiting for the fox that had killed it and its sister chicken and two roosters to return and get snapped up by one of the five traps that encircled it, the long arm of the Law finally caught up with it.

On returning today from the little Monday market in the village, where I’d scored six bottles of Bergerac from the last millenium for 15 Euros, directly from the producer Marie-Rose, to impress my Parisian potes with, I saw Mr. Malraux’s mobilette not at his house but above the house at the other end of the path, and him standing below in the garden doing nothing. Approaching our end of the road, I waved at what looked by the tell-tale walking stick like a tourist emerging from the plain leading to the cornfield. Two minutes later he startled me by appearing at my door, whereupon I saw the “police’ insignia on his tan uniform.

“Ca va?” he asked, looking into my eyes as if something wasn’t. “Do you know who put the chicken there?” “Mr. Malraux put it there to trap the fox that killed most of his chickens.” “Is that his house?” the officer asked, pointing across the path. “Does he ride a mobilette?” “Oui!” “Si non, ca va?” I made mundane comments about our six-month winter of discontent here in the south of France, which does not seem to want to end, and this or perhaps my stumbling French (my level depends on who I’m talking to; Mr. Malraux, tres bien; a beautiful fille or the long arm of the law, barely understandable).

I quickly divined that Mr. Malraux must have spotted the policeman as he drove up to his house, figured out it was about the dead chicken that had been sitting in his dead cornfield for a week, and kept on driving, and was now hiding out.

The officer patiently waited, emerging from his yellow four-wheel-drive occasionally to take photos with a camera on a tri-pod, and not just in the direction of the dead chicken.

After about an hour, Mr. Malraux surfaced, in the company of another officer — they were neither gendarmes nor the police national, but forest rangers.

All three quickly marched down the path by our house to the cornfield, where, after one fetched a stick from the riverside, they sprung all five traps, gathering them up but leaving the chicken.

From my post behind the curtained bathroom window, Mr. Malraux did not seem unduly alarmed, but continued to bavard with the rangers, until he bid them, “Allez au revoir!”

I quickly ran over and knocked on his door to get the scoop, above all to find out if he was in trouble. “Not me, because I didn’t put the traps there! The guy who put the traps may be.” Essentially, it wasn’t leaving a dead chicken to roast in a cornfield for a week that was interdit, nor even using it to set a trap for the fox, but the type of traps (which to me had seemed antiques), which is why they had confiscated them. Above all, Mr. Malraux was upset that he’d lost two good traps, which he uses mostly for rats. “It seems to me that you’re the victim here,” I told him. “And they said they’re not going to help me trap the fox!” he added. Yet another way in which France version 2010, with its infinite interdictions, doesn’t seem to be working for the little guy, above all the beleaguered farmer which just last week, the fish and agriculture minister was giving lip service to sympathizing with. A fox had killed four of the five fowl that were all that remained to Mr. Malraux after a lifetime of farming, and which help supplement his social security by providing a few eggs he can sell. Before he gets any more chickens to supplement the one that’s left, he needs to trap that fox. And yet the long arm of the Law is more concerned with the form of trap than with Mr. Malraux’s livelihood.

I thought maybe the fox trap man Michel might feel betrayed that Mr. Malraux had apparently ratted on him, but no, he was back at 6 this evening, rushing down the larger cornfield next door where one of the four remaining farmers in Les Eyzies was turning the earth with his tractor. He held a little bucket and Mr. Malraux trailed him. Thinking it must have some rapport with the fox — the fox traps prohibited, were they now looking for smaller bait? — I braved the wind and rushed out and over the wet turned soil to ask what it was about.

“We’re looking for worms!” Michel said. “Large ones!” The fox trapper was going fishing. I joined in as they continued to traipse down the edge of every new gully Frank the farmer unearthed. “You’re the only one that’s working!” Michel thanked me as I tossed a palm-full of wet creatures into the bucket. “Oui,” said I, “mais c’est degoutant (disgusting)!”

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April 28, 2010

The burka that covers the wheat-fields

Yesterday thousands of farmers from all over the country descended on the Place de Nation in Paris in a desperate call to save their profession, in particular that of wheat cultivators, who spend more to produce than they earn. In general, agriculture minister Bruno le Mer said, farmers earn 15 percent of what most workers make. Considering the essential and enduring place of farmers in the life of the country, you’d think that the government might have stopped everything to listen to them. But no, the cabinet had been convened by prime minister Francois Fillon to discuss a more pressing problem, a law to ban the burka, which afffects at most 2,000 women (as opposed to wife beating, which affects 250,000), and which became a priority for the right-wing government after it lost the recent regional elections, in large part because extreme right voters abandoned it for the National Front. (Whose leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, is now saying he doesn’t necessarily favor a law banning the burka, because it doesn’t get at the heart of the problem.) So obsessed is the government with distracting the French from their ‘end of the month’ problems with this red herring, the interior minister jumped on the case of a woman who filed a complaint after she was stopped for driving with a burka by threatening to take away her husband’s citizenship because, he says, the man has four wives. (The husband says that like any good Frenchman, he has one wife and three mistresses. “Since when do we take away someone’s citizenship because they have mistresses?”)

As is often the case, my retired farmer neighbor, Mr. Malraux, has a simple explanation for the disparity between earnings and costs today’s farmers face: the tractors, and the gas they consume. While he used them in the latter part of his career, for most of it he propelled his farm machines — antique devices now lined up in front of his shed presiding over the path below — with cows or horses.

PS: Meanwhile, out in the cornfield — that of Mr. Malraux — it’s Day III and the one remaining live chicken is still there, as is the dead one lashed to the stake to trap the fox. We’re expecting 90 degrees today, Farenheit — ca va commence a pu.

April 25, 2010

Cock-a-doodle done

When we last left Mr. Malraux, my neighbor the retired farmer, he was planning to set a trap for the fox that had killed one of his two roosters and absconded with two of his three chickens, probably to nourish his fox puppies, using the carcass of the late rooster as bait. He abandoned that plan because, he told me, “I might accidentally trap a cat.” As the remaining coq-au-vin loitered on his porch last evening seeking morsels — even trying to enter the house — we considered whether maybe it was better to kill this one while we could still cook ‘im up as coq-au-vin a la vin blanc (better, according to M. Malraux), because if the fox came back, it would be too late. Coq-au-vin — the remaining rooster, I mean — had avoided his usual meandering around the ‘hood all day, until, unusually late for him — after 8 p.m. — his cry alerted me that he’d strayed over to my side of the path. I menaced him lightly with the bamboo cane to keep him away, and he went down the road in the other direction.

M. Malraux had told me to yell if the fox came back; the death cry of the other rooster had woken me up at 1 the previous night, while M. Malraux had slept through it. (The cry had been followed by what seemed to me more than one chicken clucking, which is why I’d been surprised that that the next morning only one chicken and rooster remained.)

I did better; as this was Saturday night, I stayed up until 2:30 in the morning watching Law & Order Special Victims Unit (maybe they should start a new one for roosters?) and Law & Order. No rooster cry or fox prowling could be heard. I even opened the window before going to bed; nothing.

And nothing to wake me up the next morning. The remaining rooster hadn’t got going until 7:30 the previous morning, so when I hadn’t heard anything by 7:30 I wasn’t alarmed. But as time went on, it was pretty clear that the fox had returned and killed the remaining rooster and chicken. Also a bad sign was that the carcass of the dead rooster M. Malraux had left at the opening to his shed was gone. Sure enough, around 9 a.m. I spotted M. Malraux from the window — looking very pissed and evidently looking for the fox, with his rifle strapped to his shoulder.

He was actually looking for a rat (a real rat I mean), he explained to me when I hurried across the road to get the latest. As for the rooster and chicken, he pointed to the shed, where two fresh carcasses were stacked up next to one of the tractors; apparently the fox had taken the one he’d left the day before and left two new chicken cadavres. “Now I have nothing!” the farmer said, more perturbed than usual, as I made sure to stay on the good side of his rifle. (The deaths of the other rooster and two chickens, while upsetting, had not crashed the threshold of the “what can you do?” shrug.)

When the fox trapper, who we’ll call Pierre, arrived in his small blue ’60s compact station wagon, he immediately set to work figuring out the best terrain to set the trap. Putting it right before the tractor shed — where the chickens and roosters actually lived — was out of the question because of all the people that pass by with their dogs, let alone the cats. So he decided to put it in the middle of M. Malraux’s corn field, which is on my side of the path and by the Vezere river. M. Malraux found a stake, which Pierre cracked was “certainly large enough!,” then they drove down to the river, me following on foot. The dead rooster or chicken (I can no longer tell them apart) he posted there looks like those corpses that you see bound to stakes in bad Cowboy and Indian or war movies as a warning to others. (“Roosters! Show your ass ’round these parts and you’ll meet the same fate!”) Around the stake Pierre placed five rusted traps, panting heavily as he opened and braced the jaws. Then he gently placed dead corn stalk morsels on each one, then covered them with dirt. Basically, there’s no way that fox can get to that dead rooster without getting trapped. For my part, I reminded Mr. Malraux that if he wanted the fox to bite, he should probably hide the other dead chicken.

While they were finishing, Mr. Malraux’s best pote Jacques showed up for his morning visit and eau de vie session. I hailed him. This probably makes me sound more important than I was, which was just a by-stander or witness with occasional wisecracks… But around here, it’s understood that any event — my tearing and burning down the dead walnut tree with my bare hands to open up the view and stop the annual bee sejour, for instance — is open to spectators.

And maybe that’s all I am here; when we all got back to the path, Mr. Malraux, Pierre, and Jacques went into Mr. Malraux’s to boire un coupe; I did not feel like I was in the coupe; one more threshold I can’t cross.

But my role as witness wasn’t terminated. Back home, out the bathroom window I saw what looked very much like the silhouette of a chicken on the path right across from Mr. Malraux’s. I ran over. “Mr. Malraux, Mr. Malraux! Vient voir!” It turned out I was not mistaken in believing I heard more than one chicken clucking after the first night’s carnage. One of the two chickens we’d assumed the fox had carted away to feed to his/her little ones that night had apparently just been hiding for two days. “Now at least you can have eggs,” I told M. Malraux, who was clearly happy all his remaining animal stock was not lost. “One a day!” said Pierre. “That’s all you need.”

I was relieved for M. Malraux. Earlier I’d told him, “You’ll be without an animal for the first time in your life!” A farmer with no animals; how’s that for an existential crisis? Later today, France Enter radio interviewed a man (in the Dordogne, as it happened) whose farmer father had committed suicide after 40 years in the metier because he just couldn’t keep up with the bank bills. Apparently, in the Dordogne (my department) more people die every day from suicide than traffic accidents. M. Malraux is retired so supposedly has a pension or social security, but still, I was worried. Indeed, given that he like me complained about one of the roosters always trying to attack him from behind, and pointed out that they weren’t really good for anything (you don’t need them to make eggs), I think if he held on to those roosters, it was because they have always been a fundamental part of his identity, even if he doesn’t need to be woken up before dawn any more.

As for me, it makes me feel guilty to give in too much to feeling relieved that I’ll no longer have to put up with that horrible rooster cry. And I can’t help wonder if the explanation for coq-au-vin’s crossing the path last evening at such an unusually late hour to my side was that it was his way of saying goodbye.

April 24, 2010

RIP, coq au vin

I was thinking of calling this one ‘cock-a-doodle-dead’ or even “I had a little red rooster,” but when you actually live in the country across the path from two roosters, and find yourself asking, “I fled the sound of 7 a.m. jack-hammers for the sound of 5 a.m., 6 a.m., 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 11 a.m., noon, 1, 3 p.m., 4 p.m., and 6 p.m. rooster crowing, sometimes in stereo?” the cock-a-doodle-doo of roosters is nothing to cackle about. And as my subtly referring to his roosters as coq-au-vin has not yet convinced my neighbor, a retired farmer we’ll call Mr. Malraux, to reduce his rooster roster, I have to confess that as anguishing was the cry which awoke me at 1 a.m. this morning, I found myself hoping it was the rooster, not one of the chickens, that had met his death this night.

When I opened the storm windows (I know, it’s not even winter, but I close them to try to reduce the rooster noise) this a.m. and looked across the road, I was initially disappointed, as the thing lying on its back with two claws frozen in the air in clawing position was all light brown with no red to be seen, thus, I thought, one of the three chickens as opposed to one of the two roosters. It’s head seemed to be missing. The chicken was on the incline under the grand walnut tree leading from the farmer’s shed, tractor garage, and chicken coop to the path/road. Above it next to the shed and below strewn for about 20 yards along the path was a detretious of brown and white feathers. I waited until 7:45 to gingerly knock on the farmer’s door, but he was still asleep. Finally at 9 I moseyed over and,hearing him open the storm doors, announced, “Mr. Malraux?” “Oui?” “J’ai du mauvaise nouvelles.”

When he opened the door, I said, “I think you were right about the fox, come and see.” He too remarked the trail of feathers above and on the road, and, seeing the bird, turned it over. “It’s the rooster. The mean one.” According to Mr. Malraux, this rooster was wont to attack him without provocation from behind, to the point where he carried around a baton whenever he went near him. Then he held it up to me. “Do you want to pluck it?” “No merci, but can we still make coq au vin out of it?” I kept insisting it must have been a fox, but he pointed out, “If it was a fox, it would eat it or take it with him,” and not leave it there. He also dismissed the possibility of another creature, whose name I couldn’t make out, but which is black and white and the size of a small dog. “It usually bites the head off… It must have been a dog.” Then he started looking around for the three chickens. I could have sworn that after that terrible cry, I’d heard the chickens chucking as normal, as if slightly perturbed, then silence. In the end, though, he found only one chicken and the remaining rooster. (Which, fingers crossed, must be the one that sleeps in as he didn’t get going until 7:30.)

A couple drove up, the male half of which Mr. Malraux later explained to me is a retired sgt. of the gendarmes. “Fox,” he concluded. I tried to console Mr. Malraux by reminding him he’d been planning on buying some new ones as the chickens weren’t laying anyway, but he said he could at least have eaten them. I think I finally convinced him — by the fact of the disappeared two chickens who must now by fox baby food — that it could have been a fox. Tonight he’ll be laying a trap, hanging poor dead coq-au-vin as bait.

“Well, can we at least eat the fox?” I said. “Ca se mange pas,” he answered. “There was one particularly muscular guy that caught one and tried to eat it, but it was inedible.” The remaining coq au vin is laying low…

March 24, 2010

Mache it up or, tonight I picked my dinner

I used to worry how I would ever adjust to the food downgrade if I had to move back to the United States from France, especially to New York. (California does a little bit better on healthy food that’s also affordable, especially vegetables.) The New York super-markets especially are, well, just gross. And the most reliable vegetables I found, apart from the Union Square and occasionally Tompkins Square farmer’s markets, were from a Balkan immigrant guy with a great sense of humor who sold fruits and vegetables on the corner of 14th and Fifth.

But now that I live here in the country, in the Dordogne department of SW France, and for social and work reasons am looking to move back to Paris. I’m starting to ponder how I’ll ever make the adjustment from the French country-side to the French city-side. There’s just no comparison. Sure, you can find beautiful vegetables and fancy meat in the markets, but not often at popular (or people’s) prices, particularly when it comes to ‘gourmet’ vegetables and meat. (The French Arab market at Barbes, and others, have cheap prices, but it sometimes reflects the quality.)

This reflection is all brought on by not just the pissenlit (dandelion and its crispy leaves, great in salads and cooked like spinach for omelets and pasta, yum!) being in bloom, but being joined by its more delicate and refined and easier to pick mache. This late afternoon as I headed to the path behind the horse and donkey farm to gather some pissenlit for tonight (the period in which pissenlit is good is very short, so you eat a lot of it while you can), I crossed Mr. Marty, my retired farmer neighbor, and Madeline, Bernard’s mother in law, at Mr. Marty’s vines, where Madeline was already at work picking some. I joined them and shortly she picked up something else, which she said was also delicious: mache. I’d had this in Paris but it looked nothing like this. In Paris, where it’s not always cheap unless it’s on sale, it’s usually dark green, hard, and in cellophane-enveloped little cartons. This stuff, though, is light green and feather-light and unlike pissenlit, you don’t need a knife to cut it at its fierce roots. I made my way down the vines and found several little patches, picking it with the lightest of tugs of the hand. It kind of looks like baby spinach — little bunches, dense at the middle as if about to flower. I also picked a ton of pissenlit. Yesterday I washed my pissenlit at the source (or spring) across the train tracks up the field from the house and man — what a difference in taste (from washing it in tap water). But tonight I looked at the clock and it was perilously close to train time, so instead I walked back to the other source (yes, we have two, since Bernard unearthed the old source at the tracks where he used to gather water as a kid 40-some years ago) and filled up a few bottles with the stuff to wash the pissenlit here, scattering a reunion of frogs along the way.

Speaking of which, better start washing the pissenlit now (7 p.m.) if I’m to have the mache and spinach all washed for salad and pasta in time for Plus Belle la Vie, my (and 6 million French people’s) nightly Marseille-based soap opera.

C’est plus belle le cuisine en province, n’est pas? — surtout quand c’est gratuit!

January 4, 2010

The Stranger

50 years ago today, Albert Camus, 46, journalist, novelist, playwright, and Resistance hero, died — or, as the French say, ‘disappeared’ — in what Paris Match called “a banal highway accident.” And yet Camus, a bi-cultural symbol of hope and unity in fractious times that pitted the country of his birth, Algeria, against that of his blood, France, is more present than ever in today’s France and Europe. Not because president Nicolas Sarkozy wants to move him to the Pantheon, where repose the great men (and one great woman, Marie Curie) of France, but because, in an apparent attempt to change the subject, ahead of regional elections, from fear of daily survival to fear of the Other, Sarkozy, himself the son of immigrants, has launched a nationwide ‘debate’ on ‘national identity.’ At a time when neighboring Switzerland has just voted to ban the Muslim minaret, perhaps we should be thinking not of where Camus’s remains rest but of what remains of his personal example, that of someone whose final battle was to reconcile his two cultures. Coming from the United States and growing up in San Francisco, I see not the danger of the Other, but the beauty of the mosaic; how the base culture — which I treasure, it’s why I’m here — is not threatened, but enhanced by the ‘foreign’ or ‘strange’ cultures it assimilates. (In the French original, Camus’s novel “The Stranger” — in which the protagonist is ostracized not for killing an Arab but for not crying at his mother’s funeral — is called “L’etranger,” which also means “the foreigner.”) Take the example of the pumpkin flan I served my French guests for Thanksgiving-Christmas-Chanuka dinner the other night.

After eight+ years in France, I’ve given up on having a traditional Thanksgiving dinner on Thanksgiving. The first year was fine. Taking advantage of the fact that the butcher on the corner of my street in the 13eme district of Paris always displayed birds complete with their feathers in his window, I decided to buy a turkey with feathers for the first time in my life. “Can you pluck him?” I asked, or rather mimed — I hadn’t been here long, and my French was feeble — “But then give me the feathers afterwards?” I wanted to use them as a centerpiece. After burning one pecan pie in the strange French oven, before I started the turkey I returned to the butcher’s with a napkin on which I’d drawn pictures of the two dials on my oven, one with weird symbols, the others with numbers, and asked him to indicate the proper settings for the turkey. The turkey came out great, as did the second pecan pie, but of all the items I served, the hit of the party was the candied yams covered with pineapples and roasted marshmellows, a recipe of my late dear friend, Annette Clark. (Ironically, I had trouble getting around the concept this time, as the only marshmellows I could find were muti-colored. Melted green glop on top of your sweet potatoes, or yams, does not exactly make them appetizing.)

For this year’s Thanksgiving-Chanuka-Noel party, I’d initially been planning to serve raclettes. This is kind of like fondue, but better. Instead of sitting around a fondue pot in which the fondue gradually turns into glop over the course of a long evening, with raclettes, you make your individual serving whenever you’re ready for it: Each person has a little pan, which fits neatly into a slot under the burning coil, on top of which is a hot surface to keep the potatoes warm. (The raclette apparatus has slots for 6 – 8 pans, so the dining is communal and convivial.)Onto the pan you place your slice of raclette cheese, ideally over a thin slice of raw ham or other meat, until it melts, then you pour it over your potatoes. Raclette describes both the cheese and the device with which, back in the day, and perhaps still today up in the Alps or Savoie where the dish originated, you peeled off the slices after melting a big wedge of cheese over a fire. For raclette to be good, though, it really has to come from the mountains — and not from the shelves of a super-market, where the concept ‘raclette’ is usually taken to mean simply ‘it melts’ and does not promise the cheese in question will taste like anything, let alone its crust. (The first time I bought raclette at my favorite Parisian fromagerie — on the rue Montorgueil, where it came in three flavors, smoked, natural, and pepper — when I asked the cheeseman if it was okay to eat the crust, he cheesily answered, “As long as you have a toilet nearby.” In fact, with raclette as with rebluchon — another melting mountain cheese, the basis for tartiflette — it’s the crust that gives the taste.)

But getting back to my Thanksgiving-Chanukah-Noel party: My plans to make use of my raclette set were foiled by my inability to find any kind of really authentic raclette cheese throughout my county of the Dordogne here in southwest France, which is more known for pre-historical caves and cave paintings and for duck products than cow cheese. (Goat and sheep’s cheese are another story.)

This is the point at which the Thanksgiving party melded into the annual Chanuka-Noel party, as I still had half of a sack of potatoes left and voila, latkes!

For the aperitif I served fresh pissenlit which I’d picked that morning — dandelion leaves to you, bub — and made up like a spinach dip, as well as tartines of fresh walnuts (the paths are paved with them here) and melted blue next-to-Savoy/Alpes cheese. (I mentioned real raclette is impossible to find here. In fact, up to about three weeks ago the Savoy cheese market around here was a bit of a racket. The stands that popped up at area outdoor markets sold the cow cheese for up to 50 Euros a kilogram. Well, apparently this was such a scandal that the t.v. news did a segment on it, which was seen by a big cow cheese maker in the Savoy, who sent his brother here to sell his specialty at reasonable prices. The blue was on sale for 4.90 a kilo. The tome de Savoy injected with penicillin was also cheap, at 8.90. Unfortunately, the one exception was the… raclette! Fairly priced at $10/kilo but with a taste just like monterey jack. “It’s from Italy,” the brother told me.)

Getting back to my aperitifs: Amazingly enough, even though it was the one thing I thought my guests wouldn’t like, as it came out tasting bitter — I told them it was an experiment and I wouldn’t be offended if they didn’t like it — the pissenlit dip was a hit. (Later, one of the guests, learning that I’d picked the pissenlit from the hill between his house and the road, said his dog droopy loved pissenlit and that’s probably the reason it was bitter.) For the apero part of the apero — the drink — I made vin chaud or mulled wine. (A couple of cloves, peel of tangerines and then their juice, lots of sugar, cinnamon, and wine — which can be cheap wine, in my case 1.50 a bottle plus some leftover cheap beaujolais nouveau.) To keep it hot — as I was serving in the upstairs bedroom/salon, where the fire is, and not the cold kitchen/dining room downstairs — I hit upon the idea of plugging in the raclette set and using it effectively as a hot plate, putting the pot of wine where the potatoes usually were. (When my guests said they smelled something burning, I explained that it was just old embedded raclette cheese.)

Before serving the latkes — we’d moved downstairs to the kitchen — I explained why the Jews cooked them on Chanuka: Besieged in their temple, the Jews only had a bit of oil with which they had to keep their lamps going for eight days while they waited for re-enforcements. Miraculously, the bit of oil lasted for eight days. Then I ladled the batter into much more than a bit of oil.

While my neighbors from the north Marie-Jeanne and Christian — young retirees from Lille — had promised to bring a cake for desert, in the market that morning a few freshly cut slices of potiron — like pumpkin — caught my eye. Then I spotted the condensed milk prominently displayed across from the check-out aisle. Pumpkin pie! As my oven isn’t deep enough for pies, I instead poured the filling (to the pumpkin and condensed milk — I used a medium-sized can, with enough left over for my 20-something Siamese — I added two eggs and some freshly grated nutmeg) into individual ceramic custard pots with birds on the bottom, that neatly fit into their own rack that neatly fits into the oven. Towards the end I gave each a freshly cracked walnut morsel.

I was a bit disappointed when no one ate my dessert, instead preferring to go for seconds of the bakery-bought raspberry cake. I even thought I might have committed a faux pas, in making a second desert when Christian and Marie-Jeanne had said they would bring a cake. Mostly to mollify me, Christian asked if he could take one of the custard pots home with him to eat later.

When I went by their place up the hill this morning after picking fresh pissenlit (or, as the French joke, piss en lit/piss in bed), Marie-Jeanne handed me the pot and said she was glad I’d come by as the custard was fantastic and she had to have the recipe to serve tonight to guests. “We’re from the north, so this is all new to us,” she said, showing me various orange, yellow, and orange-green squashes and pumpkins a guy brings by for her once a week.

A native French person had not just complemented my cooking — of something from my culture — but asked for the recipe. I gave it to her, stranger no more — at least for a day.

October 22, 2009

Sour Grapes: Time to stop my whining and start making wine

Much as I’m hankering to be back in a city and resume my search (I almost wrote ‘cherche’; thinking in French, translating into English) for la femme de ma vie, I’m at least conscience that for many Americans (and even some French city denizens) the idea of a guy living in a medieval stone house in the south of France surrounded by green pastures, 100 yards from a river, and looking up at magnificent limestone cliffs dotted with pre-historic caves trying to get out of there might seem a bit *fou.* And I hate not living in the present. So, where I can, I try to take advantage of what’s unique and and typique in my experience, be it that of living in the country, living in the country in France, living among (to a degree) paysans, living in duck country, or other unique aspects of this milieu. (Never been much on pre-history, so that I’m writing you 300 yards from the first cro-mag discoveries, made back in 1860 when they were building the railroad bridge that crosses the river, is wasted on me.)

Saturday night, it was the hunting. Not me hunting — I cringe even hearing the rifle fire resound off the cliffs, or, worse, seeing a hunter toting a rifle over his shoulders in my backyard — but the booty of my pal Stephan’s hunting. The crisp autumnal day was already heading towards perfect. I’d been bugging Bernard to bring his electric saw over and cut up the long branch I’d extracted from the petit woods in the ‘yard.’ (More than a yard, really a field, and which used to house a roof tile factory, ergo the terra cotta fragments that encrust the soil, and the name of my ‘hood, le Tuilerie, not to be confused with one of my favorite endroits in Paris, le jardin des Tuileries.) Of course, being Bernard, after he’d swiftly disposed of the branch on the terrace, he insisted we tramp down to the woods and cut up some more wood. After Bernard had reduced about a dozen branches into logs, he commanded me, “Now clear them out!” In the process, I spotted what looked like a sort of lever peering out of the ground. Removing some of the dirt around it, I found a small semi-oval steering wheel. When I yanked at the lever, they separated. Feeling around the ground, I discerned what seemed like the rusted carcass of some sort of metal apparatus — perhaps a mill for grinding up corn? It turned out to be what looked like a child’s car, complete with pedals and engine.

“Vient voir!” I urged Mr. Marty, the retired farmer who lives across the path. “I think I found Bernard’s first car!” He was impressed. “C’est un vraie antiquité! Tu peut le vendre!” I couldn’t wait to show Bernard, who’d said he’d return in the evening to see how I’d progressed on the wood. I was lying around listening to “Our Miss Brooks” when he drove up at around 7 with Stephan. “I have a surprise for you!” I announced. “I found your first car.” “Mais oui, c’est ca,” he confirmed, but all it provoked was a smile, no marvel, and he was not interested in taking it with him; he only laughed when I proposed he show it to his daughter Mathilde. Bernard and Stephan had other business; they’d brought over deer liver and heart from a deer Stephan had shot that morning.

I hadn’t had venison since we lived in the country in Northern California in the late ’60s, and the taste lingered still; I was salivating already. Mr. Marty rushed over to see Stephan, whose matrimonial future he continues to worry over. (“Mais, quand est-ce que il vas se marrier?!”)

“Got garlic?!” asked Bernard.

“Mais oui!”

“Chop it up and let it cook first before you add the meat.”

“I have even better!,” I said, pulling out the grater.

“Pepper?!”

“Bien sur!”

If you’ve seen the kitchen/dining room, most of which is taken up by a mahogany picnic table and benches, the rest by a large armoire set on cinder blocks (to protect its contents from the annual flood), a long counter, an over-stuffed easy chair, a range, a bicycle, and half of a huge two-piece late ’50s era rose and off-white formica cabinet-armoire (40 Euros at the Emaus ((or Salvation Army)) in Perigueux, later spotted in the identical model for 400 Euros at a Menilmontant brocante), you’d know that adding four people to this space, running excitedly around, two cooking, two commenting on the cooking, makes for a bit of an obstacle course, but to me it felt festive).

After the liver had started already started cooking, Bernard, taking in the dozens of apples strewn over the picnic table (more local booty, along with the walnuts strewn in even more quantity) and the 1/2 of the ’50s cabinet suddenly said, “Ah, I should have said, add apples!”

“I’ll add them now!”

“And if you have panaché…” Bernard said hopefully, referring to the beer lemonade which is the only liquor he can drink… Unfortunately I’d drunk up my last bottles. “Mais…offer Stephan something!” I offered wine all around but none of the (French) men were into it.

Usually, the French undercook (by my standards) meat. In the case of the liver, though, whenever I’d ask Stephan if it was time to take it out, he answered, “Pas encore. Laisse!”

Finally, when the meat — and, as important, the garlic and the apples — was nice and crispy and dark brown, it was ready, and Bernard, Stephan, and Mr. Marty stood around watching me eat. (None wanted to join me.) It was succulent — perfect. And it was as much the apples taking in the juice of the liver that made it as opposed to the other way around. (Of course, I had to ask if they’d mind if I added ketchup, and Bernard grimaced.) A perfect cap to a perfect day.

Before Mr. Marty left, I’d wrassled him into accepting that I’d do the vendange Monday. I’ve been pestering him about this for weeks, always with the proviso that I’d do the work, he’d just need to direct me. Mr. Marty — as is his right; he is, after all, retired — has sort of let the vines in back of and next to his house go. While he did clear out the sarmantine — dead branches — from last year, he only half cleared the weeds. But as this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me — yes I know, there’s supposedly a vineyard in the Belleville neighborhood of somewhere, but I’ve never found it, nor that in Montmartre — I’ve permitted myself to insist. (I also think it will make me feel less guilty when I ask for a third bottle of his famous eau de vie, made from previous harvests, this winter.)

The moment finally arrived Tuesday afternoon. Mr. Marty found four barrels, and his sharp clipper, and I set to working my way through the seven rows, clipping the grapes and tossing them into a red plastic basket. It was harder going that I’d anticipated. Because the branches were lower than me, with many bunches of the fruit close to the ground, I did a lot of bending and, then, sitting, and I wasn’t starting out with a back in full form. I’d also assumed — remembering a previous experience with sour new wine — that I should pick only the sweet grapes, so I did a lot of taste-testing. After four hours without pause (and without getting stung; my desire to make wine in the Bordeaux region tromped even my phobia of bees) (contrary to what you may have heard, the bees are not disappearing, they’ve all become grape tasters in the southwest of France), I’d amassed close to three (medium) barrels full, in each of which swarmed about half a dozen bees. Physically tired as I was, I was ready to continue to get it all done in one coupe (I had three rows left), but Mr. Marty appeared at the base of the fields and said, “Time to stop for today Paul.” As tired as my dogs were, the physical work had also left me exhilarated, so, rather than turn in chez moi, and taking courage from Boo-bah, the Belgium shepherd — collie followiing me, I decided to walk to the railroad bridge, stopping to collect walnuts from Bernard’s trees. The stark grey autumn evening sky and the magnificent setting of the valley surrounding me, the crisp air made for another perfect ending to another perfect day. Until the night anxiety of the solitaire set in, anyway.

I resumed the vendange yesterday. This time what threatened to do me in was the taste-testing. I must have tasted from at least one bunch of every little grape tree, and as about half seemed to be sour, I was starting to get nauseous. After close to three hours, I’d pushed it to three barrels and was, I thought, finished. But when I checked in with Mr. Marty an hour later, he indicated the heights of the rows and said, “There are still grapes to pick.” I explained that all those that were left were sour. “Mais, c’est rien! C’est l’eau!” (It had been raining more or less constantly since the previous night.) Just to be sure, I picked a bunch with some sour grapes, and asked him to taste one to verify. “Mais c’est bon!” In effect, I could pick all. Now that I also know that I don’t need to taste them, I’m all right with this.

On Tuesday, Mr. Marty had offered me some of his eggs after I finished working. These are farm eggs, of course, and are the yellowist eggs you’ve ever seen and fluffiest I’ve ever tasted. Yesterday, and for the first time in the two years we’ve been neighbors, after he’d straightened me out on the grapes he proposed, with a glint in his eyes, “Un petit Ricard?” “Avec plaisir!” said I. Later, when I noted that one of the things I liked about pastis was that, “It’s natural,” he reposted, without missing a beat, and indicating the bottle of cold water, “Except for the water!”

September 4, 2009

The Big Prune

When I tried to get my Parisian bouquiniste (Seine bookseller) pote Luc to come down here this summer, one of the excuses he gave me was, “Ah, you know, down there, in the country, they eat mostly meat.” (Sounds better in French: “Ah, tu sais, la-bas, c’est que le viande qu’on mange.”) Luc is a vegetarian. (Though definitely not a vegan, judging by his predilection for the camembert Le Petit; he even saves the red cartons.) (Camembert secret: Open the box — yes, in the supermarket — and press down on the cheese. If it bounces back, don’t buy it. Unless of course you’re planning on using it for the eight-day Simenon diet.) Okay, c’est vrais que the great southwest of France, surtout the Dordogne, is known as the capital of foie gras. And, yes, my neighbor Mr. Marty did just knock on my door this morning with a big bloody chunk of raw sanglier (wild boar) meat. And I’m certainly not complaining. Nor did I say no when Bernard and Stephan came by one night and asked, “Are you in the mood to eat sanglier?,” and we cooked up the meat Stephan had brought from the sanglier he caught the day before on the converted half water heater Bernard made into a grill, after gathering wood by the river. (The succulent flavor was no doubt helped by the sarmant or dead wine branches from Mr. Marty’s vines.) So what if the morsel that lodged in the ruins that are my teeth is still there two weeks and a couple of dozen ibuprofen tablets later? I will still cook up Mr. Marty’s sanglier with relish. I will cook it up for ten hours and pulverize it, but I will still cook and eat it with relish.

If Luc is still reading after that little eloge to viande, I want to tell him that I have never eaten as much fruit in my life as I have eaten the last two months — peaches (from Mr. Marty’s grove), apples (mostly from the tree in the backyard, near the river). And above all plums. It started with Mr. Marty inviting me to bring a basket over and pick some of the tiny red plums from the tree behind the chicken coop — “Otherwise they’ll be wasted and that would be dommage!” — then progressed down the route to Le Bugue, the village where I do my marketing, and along which I scored green, red, and a whole lotta yellow or mirabelle plums. (The rule here is that if the branch is hanging over the road you have the right to pick the fruit. And for fruit on the ground, it’s safe if it’s not punctured.) There’s even a bush of mirabelles right before you turn into the train station. In Le Buisson, where I go to get the medicine for Sonia, my 20-something part-wolf Alaskan Siamese, I took a different route to get to the river after picking up the meds and trampled upon a field of prune plums — probably the best I’ve found. And in the cute medieval vllage of Belves a couple of weeks ago, finding myself stranded at the train station for two hours (the wine festival I was there for was over by the time I arrived), I was reduced to picking very hot, almost prunified plums below a little red-leafed tree next to the abandoned gare.

But The Big Prune Show — that’s what it’s called — took place last weekend in Agen, after California the largest producer of prunes in the world.

If there’s one great food divide between Americans and the French, it may be our different perspectives on the noble prune.

In the States — even in California, the world’s largest producer of prunes — prunes and above all prune juice are something for very old people. And they are diaretics, which is exactly the reason I avoided them for 40 years. I actually like the taste, so it was more a protective measure. (Even in the popular culture, prunes get a bad rap, e.g. the villain character of Pruneface in the Dick Tracy comic.)

France has totally changed my perspective on prunes.

First, they don’t give me diarrhea here.

That out of the way, I’ve been able to indulge.

Besides being succulent tout seule as a fruit (generally speaking they’re not so dried up here), they’re fantastic in yogurt. I’ve also had them wrapped with bacon and have made my own aperitif recipe involving spreading creme de canard (or foie gras if you’re rich enough) and a single (pitted) prune on a grainy bread, preferably toasted. Soaked and stewed with lamb, tajine-style, they’re sublime and make the lamb sublime. Then there are prune tarts. This region is also known for ‘prune,’ which doesn’t actually mean ‘prune’ but eau de vie a la prune. (The eau de vie Mr. Marty supplies me with is actually made from his grapes. Not that he makes it; he no longer has the right. The problem when he, and other paysans, made it on their own is the government couldn’t tax it. Now, if he wants to have eau de vie from his own grapes he has to pay a man who comes around once per year to collect the harvest and turn it into ‘fin.’ It costs him as much as if he were to buy a bottle in a liquor store. The best way to consume eau de vie, btw, is a la ‘canard.’ which does not mean getting a duck drunk with the liquor and then killing it for the barbecue, but rather dipping a sugar cube into the eau de vie and then sucking on it. The best eau de vie I ever tasted was fig, which is illegal, perhaps because the alcohol content is too high.)

So last weekend I decided to take the Perigeux-Agen regional train to the end of the line in Agen, a 90-minute to two-hour ride depending on how many stops you make. Later I learned, watching a television documentary on French concentration camps, that if I were taking that same train in about 1944 I probably would have had to get off in Penn, where I’d have been interned before being shipped off to Auschwitz.

Fortunately, this being 2009, my French hosts permitted me to stay on the train until the terminus (of the train), where San Francisco pals Renee and Alvin were waiting for me. I know Alvin peripherally, because he used to run a jazz cafe across the street from me in San Francisco’s Mission District, Cafe Babar. They were installed having a glass of blanc and tea at the buffet I was a bit impatient. “Where’s the prune giveaway?” I pressed them. We started with a walk through an alley where local producers were selling regional wine and liquor specialties. Here I had a great reunion with an aperitif called the floc of Gascon. The red variety kind of tastes like bitter strawberries, and goes well with chocolate. I also discovered that I was not quite as finished with rosé as I thought I was after a summer of going through three three-litre cartons (of a very red and dry Lot variety) and one 5-litre box (from St. Emillion). The one I tried in Agen was fruity and actually had a nose, rare for a rosé. (With a nose like that, it probably also would have found itself type-cast and sent to Penn by France, er, Vichy, during the Occupaton. ‘Free Zone’ mon oeil.)

After the tastings, Renee and Alvin lead me to a tour of the old city, starting with the Street of Jews. (Talk about making it easy for the French, er, Vichy police. “Eh les flics! Nous-sommes la!”) (If I keep digressing to this subject, it’s because this week, finally, after years of films in which everyone in France seemed to be resisting the Nazis and/or hiding the Jews, the public television is finally focusing on the collabos. On Tuesday, France 2 broadcast a fictional film in which Marthe Keller discovers that the granddaughter she thought was shipped to the camps and her death was actually kidnapped by one of the French militians who arrested her family, and is now a pupil in her class. This was followed by a documentary on Drancy and the other French camps that focused on the role of the French police and gendarmes in rounding up the Jews, and reminded us that it was the French, er, Vichy government that volunteered to do so before the Germans, er, Nazis could ask them to — the only country where this happened. Then the last two nights, a documentary on Jacques Chirac replayed — twice — the landmark speech he made, shortly after being elected in 1995, in which 50 years after the fact, a French chief of state finally acknowledged the culpability of the state of France in the deportations and deaths of the Jews.)

But where were we? Oh yes: In the old city of Agen. Which is pretty breathtaking, with the buildings a sort of melange of the sandstone found around these parts and Spanish-Toulousian red brick. (Agen is an hour away from Toulouse by train and, in the other direction, the same from Bordeaux. It has a real Mediterranean, luminous feel, not surprising, I guess, as it also hosts the canal deux mers, which runs from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, more or less.) Later, when Alvin and Renee decided to take a pause for lunch, I left them at the resto and took my picnic kit and lunch to the white-stony banks of the broad and vast Garonne. This is fast becoming one of my favorite French rivers, after the Seine. (In the moving van that brought me here two years ago, trying to make conversation, I asked the French girl who was doing the driving what her favorite dream was. I guess I must have said ‘rive’ instead of ‘riviere’ and she must have heard it as ‘reve’ because she answered, “A fragment of Roland Barthes.” Even when I do manage to connect with a French woman on a serious topic it’s by accident.) It may be just my imagination, because I’m aware that the Garonne feeds into the Atlantic, but I could swear it was almost blue and that my lunch was accompanied by a briny aroma.

On the way back to find Renee and Alvin, I crossed a long, green esplanade, with the requisite skate park and petanque players. I stopped to watch the petanque players, just so I could write that. Then finally, at about 3 p.m., we reached the prune give- away, where there was already a long line. Renee and Alvin left me there, with their sac, which gave me two. First I scored a big sac of wet, just prunified fruit — what looked like a prunifying machine was just behind the tables where the young men and women were handing out the sacs of prunes — and then, cleverly stuffing it into my bag, I moved to the next table and was handed a bag of the dried variety. Before leaving I found a Shopi in the covered market, where I scored a jar of brandade (great in crepes — thank you, Joe Liebling) and a bottle of Tariquet at an affordable price (4.20); then a second at an even more affordable price 3.70) at a food and wine boutique. (Tariquet is a white made from the same grape as armagnac. It’s kind of like Colombard, which one can find in the States, but better — fruity and with a bite. Goes great with fondue, tartiflette, and raclette, and can even be served as an aperitif.)

While my train was still in the station, a friendly-looking older man with a hearing aide sat down across from me. Noticing his umbrella, I said amiably, “Fortunately it didn’t rain today!” He explained that he’d just been getting the umbrella repaired for his grandchildren. I asked if he’d checked out the prune festival; he’d been busy visiting the church. “They were giving out free prunes!” I said, and invited him to try the wet ones. “Delicious!” he remarked, his whole face lighting up. As soon as I found out he was from Toulouse, I asked him if he found it polluted. Toulouse had been one of my candidate villes until I visited it last summer and discovered that on some streets you can actually see the pollution in front of you.. But for social reasons, I keep coming back to it. “No no,” he said, he didn’t find it polluted. As, doing the math, I figured he must have been close to 80, I thought this was a good sign. He added that public transport is FREE for those over 60. This is another thing I like about Toulouse, on paper anyway; it isn’t just that it offers a lot of cultural events, but that they’re free or close to. (For 80 Euros, you can see everything at the Cinematheque — a good one, with a strong Russian collection — for one year, which beats Paris (120) and Lyon (183, and you still have to pay for the special seances). He also said, brightening up even more, that in the park across from his home there’s lots of pissenlit (dandelion leaves) to pick, so we swapped recipes, mine for salad and his for a casserole with potatoes (the key is to cut the pissenlit up into tiny morsels). I guess I was friendly enough that the man, whose name was Marcel, asked me if I wanted a gold or a silver Virgin medal. I asked for the silver but he ended up giving me both. All I need to do to get benedicted is show it to a priest. (According to the documentary on the deportation camps, it was the albeit belated protests by the priests — notably the archbishop of Toulouse — that finally slowed the French, er, Vichy government down in its zeal to collect the Jews and deliver them to the Germans, er, Nazis.) On the trip, Marcel, a retired telecommunications specialist for the train company, explained to me how fragile the telecommunications lines for the train company used to be, made of glass.

Just before we passed the stone house where I live, from the train window I caught Bernard and Stephan harvesting Bernard’s potatoes. During the Occupation, according to Bernard, whose father lived those years here, the maquis used to sabotage the train tracks just above the stone house. They hid in the pre-historic caves I look up at when I take my apero on the terrace. The Germans once shot at Bernard’s father — for nothing. There were also collabos who told the Germans where to find the resistants and, not far from here, a whole village that was killed in reprisal by the Germans.

After dropping the prunes and Tariquet at the house, I walked down up to the potato fields. Bernard handed me a heart-shaped pair of Siamese potato twins and said, “You know what these are? Balls!” I unearthed a potato tinier than a prune. Holding up the one Bernard had given me I said, “These are American balls.” Then showing him the tiny one I added, “And these are French balls.”

For the prunes: The more aged ones are so hard — almost like hard candy — I decided to stew a few in a glass filled with Mr. Marty’s eau de vie. Perhaps I will have them for desert today if there’s any room left in my teeth after the sanglier gets through with them.

April 1, 2009

Bahhhhhh – Non

So there I was innocently watching Clint prepare to shoot it out with everyone in “High Plains Drifter” last night when I heard a tapping on the window. Stephan and Bernard had found the tree-picker the garbage collector had given me and which I’d hung on the front of the house (I plan to use for picking errant plastic bags out of the trees abord the Vezere) and were using it to let me know they’d come by to chew the duck fat. I opened the window, pushed the speaker out, and started my CD “The major speeches of General de Gaulle” before descending and breaking out the Panache. (I know it might sound more Frenchy if I had broken out the eau de vie but if I had, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing, I’d still be in bed with a brick on my head and a river in my stomach. And anyway, Bernard is on a regime so we stick to the Panache.)

I don’t know how we arrived on this subject, but as Clint and the General were debating in the background (Clint’s prowess with the pistol was trumping de Gaulle’s oratory might), Bernard and Stephan suddenly got it into their mischevous heads that what I need is a mutton to clean up the garden, i.e. the petit field that separates the stone house from the river a hundred meters away. Not only would he mow the lawn (“you just tie him to a cord, move the cord when he’s done with one section, and put out a bowl of water”), but after he was finished, Stephan and Bernard would mow him down so that Stephan, the famous barbeque-er, could put him on a spit over a pit and we could roast him for a grande fete. I protested that this wasn’t fair to the mutton; how would they like it if after a hard day’s work, their employer or client shot, roasted and ate them? Plus I know me and in four months — the time it would take for the sheep to eat the grass and get nice and fat and juicy — I’d give him a name, we’d become friends and, well, there had already been enough animal death around here (my late tortoise-shell calico kitty Hopey is buried right in that pasture). I even enlisted my black sheep bath puppet from my belle-mere Linda’s bath store Common Scents in San Francisco. “Je vous en suplie, Messieurs, ne me tué pas!” (I beg you sirs, don’t kill me!) And my police puppet. “Nouvelle loi du President Sarkozy! C’est interdit a tué les moutons!” (Sarkozy has introduced a new law: It’s forbidden to kill muttons!”) But my pals weren’t buying it. “Your problem is you can’t make a decision!” Bernard complained. “En general peut-etre c’est vrais mais la, il y a aucun dout, je ne veut pas qu’on m’amene pour le tué apres cette pauvre mouton.” In general he’s right, I have trouble making decisions but here, there was no doubt: I don’t want a mutton that they’re then going to kill.

They even tried to cherche la femme angle, pointing out that a mutton in the garden was a sure-fire way to get passing women to stop. “Right,” retorted I, “they’ll pet it, and then when I tell them we’re going to kill and eat it and have a party they’ll call me a beast.” “No, you can invite them to the party!” Stephan countered.

Perhaps they were ribbing me, but despite my protestations, it seems Bernard and Stephan made a plan to drive over to the last remaining sheep farmer in the land that pre-history didn’t forget Friday to pick up the mutton. (Tthere are only four farmers left in Les Eyzies; my retired farmer neighbor Mr. Marty, B & S told me, used to have 15 muttons that promenaded right in this same garden.) I am still leaning against it, but when Stephan mentioned ‘stuffing’ I started to hesitate and since he mentioned he might break out his accordion for the fete, I’ve been wavering.

December 9, 2008

Duck-killing without the stress

Where I come from — the San Francisco Bay Area –‘foie gras’ is a four-letter word. It’s not that we have anything against haute cuisine — au contraire! — but rather the requisite cruelty to animals that cultivating this delicacy entails. Autrement dit: Force feeding. (Sounds more elegant in French: Gavage.) (A couple of years ago, at a vide grenier or community-wide garage sale (vide grenier = empty the attic)  in Le Bugue, I came across a funnel-like object. “Is that for what I think it’s for?” I asked the vender. “Yes, but, it’s not cruel at all. The animals don’t feel any pain!” Ah oui.)

Frequenting the southwest of France since 2003, and living here in the Dordogne department since August 2007, it’s been hard for me to avoid eating duck, which is kind of like the soul food of the region. If pure foie gras ‘mi-cuit’ is expensive, buying it stuffed in figs is relatively cheap (1.50 Euros at the stand at the twice-weekly Perigueux marché manned by the captain of the marché, and if they’re small, he usually throws in an extra.) And other duck products are downright bon marché: Confit de manchons de canard — drumsticks to you, bub, ‘confit’ meaning they’ve been preserved in their own fat — can be had directly from a producer for as little as six for 3 Euros, enough for two meals. Get a a small tub of duck fat for .50 cents, some potatoes for the same, et voila, pommes sarladois to accompany your fatty duck legs. (Tip: boil the potatoes first for about 10-15 minutes before slicing them into rondelles and fryin’ ’em up in the duck fat, parsley, and if you like fresh garlic.) Duck hearts cost about 1.50 for a meal’s worth, and are better than they sound. Duck necks are .40 cents and over-priced. And the best deal is duck carcasse, which is what’s left after all the other parts, except for the neck, are extracted. Basically for soup, but with enough meat left on it quand meme for a sandwich with some remaining to cast into the soup. The only distasteful part of the task is wondering whether that plastic-like tube channel was in the front or the back of the duck. And just when I thought I’d tried everything, last week at the marche de gras (Fat market to you bub) I discovered duck blood patties. Look like pancake shaped boudins, but are ultimately tasteless and, yes, rubbery.

As you may have divined by now, bon perigourdin, the duck plays a starring role in my diet — en effet, c’est la vedette.  As a conscienteous carnivore, I’ve avoided thinking about the process that gets these various delicacies to my table. Until now.

“L’abattage au top” trumpeted the headline on the front page of the Dordogne supplement to Saturday’s editions of Sud-Ouest. Dateline: Saint-Laurent-sur-Manoire, where, on November 17,  the duck company Espinet SA opened an abattoir able to, er, abatt ‘palmipèdes’ at a rhythm of 8,000 per week, with a target of 500,000 canards annually. Among other reasons behind the new plant, Guillaume Espinet explained to reporter Pierre-Manuel Réault, “the Bergerac factory is saturated. We had to find a better solution.” And quelle solution! In addition to high volume, the new unit has been designed with ergonomy in mind. When I first saw that, I of course thought, “Well, yes, G-d forbid that the ducks suffer from repetitive stress injury on top of everything else.” But in fact — je me suis trompè! Au lieu of being designed to make the *ducks* more comfortable, the ergonomic measures have been taken “with the goal of reducing the ‘pénibilité of work for  the employees,” explained production director Rémy Banon. “For example, they can adjust the height or depth of their podiums.” When killing ducks (so that I can eat them, it must be admitted), surtout il faut etre confortable!

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