DAILY MENU

Mobile Meat Counter, Cazouls, Market Day
Now that we've shopped, let's eat.

Breakfast

Cathey's day starts with coffee. Two cups. French press. Nothing, and I mean not one single thing, happens before the coffee happens. If she's lucky, the smell of the fresh-brewed coffee wakes me up.

I scratch, yawn, wash and brush, dress, and take the short walk to the artisan patisserie for my morning pain au chocolat, Cathey's croissant – when she chooses to risk the carbs and the fat, and the day's baguette or other specialty loaf. Yes, one of the truly wondrous experiences for any foodie living in France is having the smell of fresh-baked bread permeating the house every day.

Once coffee has kick-started the digestive and intellectual processes, we decide on breakfast. To a certain extent, the breakfast menu depends on the previous night's dinner. If we splurged, went to a favorite restaurant for courses and courses and wine to match, there is the distinct possibility that we're still full. Or we might be anticipating a lazy, grazing lunch. If either is the case, a simple menu of juice, fruit, and that flaky pastry that I just bought might suffice. If UK Sharon brought some fresh preserves – or if we bought some at the market – we might spread a bit on slices of our baguette.

If a greater degree of sustenance is required, add a one-egg omelet, perhaps with a bit of cheese. Beyond that, the choices are endless – a couple of links of merguez left over from the night before, rashers of thick-sliced smoked bacon, perhaps a few slices of smoked salmon; Europeans really appreciate smoked salmon and that particular section of the supermarket is a delight for this Jersey boy. (That's NEW Jersey, if you please.)

Lunch

When we're on vacation and money is no object (yeah, right) we generally plan to eat out once a day, either lunch or dinner. Most often, it's lunch. We're already out and about, often far from home. So many of the places to which we might want to go – specialty shops, vineyards – are closed for the lunch hour...or two or four. And the specials at good restaurants can be inexpensive and a good measure of what the dinners might be like. For instance, the 12 euro lunch special at Le Terminus, a picturesque dining spot in a beautifully redesigned old railroad station between Quarante and Cruzie, includes an amuse and three courses.

But more about restaurants in my next post.

The point is, if we're eating lunch at home, it generally means that we're either going out to dinner or cooking dinner ourselves. Either way, since we expect dinner to be heavy, lunch at home is usually light. Remember the wonderful deli and cheese counters at the supermarket? When lunch is light, we graze.

One plate holds a selection of cheeses – St. Nectare, something bleu, something hard, something goat. One plate features meats – a dry chorizo, salami – perhaps with a peppery crust, a country terrine, a coarse pate, thin slices of serrano ham. Side goodies might include a selection of olives for Cathey, perhaps some of those marvelous Mediterranean anchovies for me – although Cathey gets into them too, maybe a few slices of smoked salmon. Don't forget the slices of fresh baguette and the fine butter of Normandy or Dijon mustard.

And wine. Usually rose. Usually only 3 or 4 euros a bottle. Often from Caveaux St. Laurent in Capestang.

By the way, this setup can be packed up and taken along as a picnic lunch. Don't forget the sharp knife and the corkscrew, though.

Dinner

If we've eaten our lunch out, dinner is the grazing described above. If the dinner at home is to be the main meal of the day, wondrous possibilities present themselves.

Main courses in our house in Cazouls have included French lentils with merguez sausage, rabbit braised in wine, beef steaks on the grill, salmon steaks on the grill...

And speaking of the barbecue out on the patio, you should know that grapevine wood added to the fire imparts a distinct, delicate flavor to grilled foods that is unique. We've used it for grilling duck duck breast – complete with a thick layer of fat that kept the breast moist through the process, for smoking fresh sardines from the Mediterranean, and for mutton chops.

Starters might include salad with buttery fresh lettuce or leek and potato soup. Sides of fresh veggies (haricots verte or potatoes or whatever else looks fresh that might come from either the outdoor market or the super. – except Brussels sprouts. I hate Brussels sprouts.) And dessert.

DESSERT!

Wonderful little pastries from the artisan patisserie. Chocolate.

FRENCH CHOCOLATE!

DESSERT!

A POLITICAL ASIDE

Eric Cantor, Republican House Majority Leader, was quoted today in the Wall Street Journal as having said that his Democratic opponents don't believe in capitalism, they believe in the welfare state.

First of all, how do you describe a political party that insists on continuing to provide significant, targeted subsidies to an industry (Big Oil) that collectively pulled in one trillion dollars in profits last year alone? To me, that's not a political party with conservative principles, a political party that espouses capitalism. That's a party that doles out welfare. The amount of corporate welfare that has been incorporated into the tax code would outrage their base if widely publicized, and at this point the Republicans have to take ownership of that lost revenue.

And ending the corporate welfare state does not represent a tax increase. It's tax reform. Tax increases are properly defined as increases in tax rates. Tax reform doesn't increase rates. Tax reform levels the playing field, sees to it that every American citizen and every American corporation is treated equally. Only tax reform can lead to the realization of truly conservative principles and an end to the corporate welfare state.

How do Republicans define the term 'welfare state' then? I suppose that their definition is a state that values individuals over businesses. Well, at least to the extent that I believe that it is the business of government to see to it that the elderly, the infirm, and the poor don't of necessity go hungry or homeless, I believe in a welfare state for individuals. Is there waste, fraud, and abuse in our system of welfare dedicated to individuals? No more, I submit, then the waste, fraud, and abuse in our corporate welfare system.

The cost overruns collected fraudulently by a single defense contractor for the development a single weapon system are, in all likelihood, equivalent to all of the waste, fraud, and abuse in what Republicans choose to call welfare. It's time that they stuck to their supposedly conservative principles. It's time that they let businesses stand or fall on their own merit, like true capitalists. It's time for the rest of us to insist that they do.

FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD...



It sounds trite to say it, but it must be said. The French are really into their food and wine.

Whereas Americans can be characterized, and not altogether unfairly caricatured, by the speed with which they eat and the vast quantities that they consume at each sitting, the French actually care about quality – the quality of ingredients, the quality of preparation, the quality of presentation, the quality of time spent at table. You would think that given the opportunity, Americans would appreciate this different attitude toward mealtime. You would be wrong. 

Americans complain that they can't get a decent cheeseburger. Americans fret that the service is slow.

Americans are jerks.

Not that I'm some sort of unreconstructed Francophile. I appreciate the opportunities available to me growing up in America. America is a great country.

But Americans are jerks.

Americans have adapted their mid-day meal regimen to accommodate their working life. They shovel in the calories and gobble them down within a half-hour time window and are back at work before the last mouthful has completed its journey down the esophagus. France, on the other hand, is a country where business ceases at noon and everyone takes a couple of hours to have a hearty meal with friends, lingering over three courses, letting the digestive juices do their work as they were meant to do. And if the French are becoming the least bit Americanized, if more and more urban – and even some rural – supermarkets and big box stores stay open over lunch and even (gasp) open on Sundays, is that not the saddest of intrusions of modern life into a culture that celebrates its rich history of decadence?

Let's begin our examination of the French food supply chain with a discussion of grocery shopping.

Every village of even modest size has at least one market day in the town square, sometimes two or three. Local produce, meats, seafood, and cheeses abound. Fresh, fresh, fresh. There's a local lady with a small table selling a few dozen eggs. Next to her a guy has six or seven tables covered with produce that tastes as good as it looks...and it looks pretty darn good. There's the 30 foot-long meat counter, just like a small supermarket's meat counter except that there's no self service. And they take plastic. A smaller trailer sells Chinese food and I'd swear that other guy is advertizing horse meat. During Thursday market, the one closest to the weekend, you might find the spice lady or the olive man as well. Shoppers may not be able to eat the whole week through from market day purchases, but they know the good stuff when they see it, they buy the good stuff, and they use it while it's fresh.

Supplementing the markets are the alimentaires, the little grocery stores, often themselves in the town squares, presided over by a woman of indeterminate age who knows your business better than you do. There's just enough of everything on the shelves to tide you over in case of emergency – a few bars of hand soap, a couple of packages of disposable diapers, two or three boxes of laundry detergent...France hasn't completed the conversion to liquid by half. And there's always butter and cheese, a small selection of local produce, and a free floor show...like the American guy who comes in at odd hours for odd things. He lives across the square and down the alley and he rents out his house to people from all over the world. C'est vrai!

I'm not ashamed to say that we do the bulk of our grocery shopping at Carrefour, the supermarket outside of Cazouls and the hypermarket on the outskirts or Narbonne. (For the uninitiated, a hypermarket is a combination supermarket and department store, often the anchor of a large shopping center. Think K Mart with a kickin' seafood section.) You can't beat the price and selection. Take a quick tour.

As is typically the case in the States, the entrance to a Carrefour supermarket brings you to the produce section. I never understood the logic of that, by the way. It means that your delicate fruits and veggies are at the bottom of the cart, at the mercy of being squished by that two liter bottle of Coke that you throw in at the other end of the store. Anyway, that's where the similarity ends. Nothing is wrapped in plastic and everything is clearly marked for price and country of origin. And since we're talking the Mediterranean marketplace here, including north Africa, just about everything is in season all of the time.

Lovely leeks, fat and snow white with crisp greens. Lettuce heads, untrimmed, straight from the fields, tasting like butter.

Seafood is displayed on deep beds of ice and the whole corner smells of the Med. The salmon and the shrimp will be familiar, but there are a whole range of Mediterranean species to choose, from various whole fish and filets to the exotic 'what-the-heck-is-that' swimmer. Look but don't touch; there are attendants. And be careful, the floor is always wet.

Although by American standards the meat counter is lacking in the beef department, the variety is stunning – chicken, duck rabbit, lamb, mutton, a dizzying choice of sausages, and more. If you've never barbecued a boneless duck breast with a thick, untrimmed layer of fat over a grapevine wood fire, the flavor is impossible to describe.

My favorite place in our local Carrefour is the deli counter. Such an understatement: deli counter. There's boiled ham and Serrano ham and salami and pepper salami and four different kinds of country pate and three different kinds of foies gras and big round chunks of sweet chorizo and chorizo and you can ask for a couple of slices of this and 100 grams of that and before you know it, you've got sufficient pickings to keep you happy for several days – assuming you've also visited the cheese counter, as exciting for the discriminating cheesehead as the deli is for me.

As for the rest, much is familiar but with subtle shifts in emphasis. There is a lot less breakfast cereal and a lot more chocolate. There's a huge aisle of milk, unrefrigerated and in cartons as well as plastic bottles. Irradiated? Don't know. Hard to get used to. Lots of wine. Beer, too. Shelves and shelves of alcoholic beverage.

Ah, France.

Next up, we'll talk about how all of this translates into a typical day's menu and a few restaurant tips.

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