France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

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!

April 1, 2009

Sheepish about Mutton

Okay, so, besides picking more pissenlit (dandelions to you bub) for lunch (in a salad this time, rubbed with lots of garlic) I was supposed to use the walk past the horse and donkey farm (sans the dog, whose owners have — cruelly to my mind — tied or him up while they’re on vacation) to think about whether it’s worth it to go to Paris for a month even if the dance assignments I’ve got will just allow me to break even, and even then not pay right away, but instead I found myself pondering the mutton.

Riding the Metro one day when I still lived in Paris, I caught an ad for a computer or Internet company in which a (stereo)typical sheep-herder, his charges on the plain behind him and beyond that a vast vista of Pyrenees-like mountains, was staring into his computer screen with a look of satisfaction. The intended message: Now you can reach out wherever you are. My received message: We can reach you wherever you are. (Never mind that the intended message is a lie; when I moved here to the Valley of the Dordogne in 2007 France Telecom promised to connect me right away; it took two months before two technicans arrived with a radar detector to find the line.) I remember thinking: If I were in those mountains, that tiny computer screen is the last thing I’d be looking at.

So here I am looking at my computer screen telling you that here I have a chance to look at real sheep in the tiny pasture in my backyard, with gigantic limestone shrub-covered pre-historic cave-filled cliffs hovering in the background, and I’m saying non?

Okay so if I say yes, what are the potential complications, besides the moral one of turning my pauvre baby over to the hunters after he’s slaved for four months to mow my lawn, and then eating him and having a party for the occasion?

Well, what would I do if the mutton got sick? Where I live there is no veterinarian. When Hopey got sick, I had to walk her to the train station and take it two stops down the tracks early in the morning. And that was before the train workers went on strike, when I needed to take a cab back and forth. So…. presuming the sheep wasn’t so sick that I could walk him to the train station, would he have to buy his own ticket, like my cat? (Which actually has to buy a ‘small dog’ ticket.) Or maybe I could take a cab. The cab driver who occupies himself with Les Eyzies and the surrounding area would probably be more amenable to the sheep than the train company, considering that he has two donkeys of his own. (I know what you’re thinking, but unlike my doomed sheep, his donkeys are not killed and eaten after cleaning his yard, never mind that donkeys make great salami.) Hey, considering that when he was filling in for the noon train from Les Eyzies to Perigueux, the cab company owner/driver not only helped me move my stuff from Perigueux to Les Eyzies on the train company’s tab but brought his moving van, maybe, if it’s among his 18-vehicle fleet (in addition being the taxi, M. Tardieu is also the ambulance and the hearse, thus providing cradle to coffin service), to transport me and my sheep he can harness his donkeys to a donkey cart! Then I would truly feel I’d retrieved the France d’autrefois.

Another potential complication would be what to do with the mutton if it floods here again, but I guess Mr. Marty would let my sheep bunk with his chickens, across the path and on higher ground.

On the plus side, having the sheep would mean I could write it about it and writing about it would probably mean I could write it off my taxes — including up-keep. Which includes food. And if I was able to write off keeping the sheep in caviar, or whatever sheep eat besides grass that’s good, who would notice if I siphoned a little bit off for myself?

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