The Centuries Meet in Tours, A Vibrant City on the Loire
Ahh, the Delicate and Fussy Macaron
I'd never given much thought to how one of France's most famous cookies was made. Macarons, they're called.
Today I got an up-close look at how these delicious little sandwich cookies are made, when I joined ten French women for a baking class at Tours á Table, owned by a tall bespectacled woman named Frederique Dupuis.
It's a busy place, this cooking school, located on a main street in Tours. Passersby constantly gawk into the windows, interested in what all of those people in aprons are doing in there. Some ask for business cards, others phone Madame Dupuis incessantly, the place was hopping as I joined the group who spoke exclusively in French.
To make macarons, one needs to take almond flour and confectioner's sugar and force it into a sieve, so that only a powdery consistency is present.
This sounds easy, but it takes about 15 minutes of constant stirring, and grinding the two ingredients into the sieve. I took turns with two women named Caroline, passing the bowl back and forth as we all nearly faded. But that was merely, oh yeah, merely the first of many steps.
You must whip up egg whites, and then blend them gently with a variety of colors. Then you must fold the almond flour/sugar into the whipped whites, slowly, folding... folding... folding. If you rush, you get it wrong.
Then you must let this mixture sit. After a while you jam the dough into a plastic wrap funnel and begin making oh so tiny little cookies on the baking sheet. "Closer, closer to the papier," said Madame Dupuis. "Then leeft it up, just make them leetle."
The one-inch or so rounds are put into the oven for nine minutes. Exactly nine. Then after a long period of cooling, some of them stubbornly sticking to the pan, they are cooled and then made into delicate precious little sandwiches, filled with chestnut essence, jam or chocolate.
Phew! That was a lot of work for such tiny little cookies. But one bite convinces me it was all worth it.
In 2008 France, The Flat Rules
I've discovered that French shoe fashion doesn't follow what most women in America prefer. I first noticed this when I saw a women wearing ballet slippers. These women at my cooking school all agreed: the flat rules. No chunky heels here, no big high clogs or high-heeled sneakers.
I had written on my other blog that if you want to NOT look like an American, you should lose the white athletic shoes. (Hey Paul, that's a hint!) So that made me more aware of footwear and I've been looking at shoes here ever since.
I noticed that few women were wearing heels. They all had on flats, of various types, but mostly really slipperlike shoes and few had on flip-flops. I've seen almost no women here wearing sneakers.
One resident, who's about 50, said she thought it had to do with Carla Bruni, President Sarkozy's foxy new wife. She stands a bit taller than the president, so she always wears flats. But after I asked a few more women, the answer came back that it's just the style and it's not because of Carla. Flats, they said, are just more comfortable.
We got stuck in a rainstorm and my city tour guide and I sat under an umbrella in a doorway waiting for the rain to let up. A woman walked by with a pair of totally soaked and soggy ballet slippers -- showing that what's in style is not always the most practical.
The Makings of Dinner for One
At Les Halles, the indoor and outdoor market in Tours, I asked this friendly produce vendor why her strawberries were so much redder and juicier than the ones across the aisle, which barely looked red, let alone ripe.
"It's because they are vendres, and we are the growers," she explained. I had gotten advice that it's best to buy my produce outside, and for the meats, fish and cheese, go inside. The variety was fantastique, and I had a hard time deciding on what to buy. But I ended up with some shallots, the strawberries, a huge artichoke (that was a mistake!) and some magret du canard, dark duck meat.
I also picked some of France's famous Echire butter and made a sauce with the shallots and some lemon juice, and steamed the massive 'choke and enjoyed the strawberries one by one as the juice dripped down my chin.
There is only one problem with cooking for yourself in an apartment in France: It would be much more fun to have someone to cook for!
Tours is famous for it's rillons and rillets. Rillets are cooked longer but both come from this cute up-ended animal.
After the market, I got a tour of Tours and discovered a yard with Roman ruins that was being filled in with dirt.
They had been excavated, but the government decided that the best way to preserve them for future generations is to cover the whole area with tons of dirt...to be dug up in the distant future by the children of our grandchildren.
The city has many areas in which 10th, 12th and 15th century buildings all meet. At one part in a former Basilica, the ground is eight feet lower by these remains than the current street. It shows how we build up and up, adding to the ground with our pavement, sidewalks and new buildings.
Another Tours Market Where You Find Les Bons Vivants
I'm back from a different market, this one located just east of the train station, a quick walk from Madame Barnard's apartment. She had a family joining us last night, and at breakfast they sat in the sunny porch and had their coffee while their two young sons chattered in French.
Again at a market, I was shopping for one.... a tiny handful of haricot verts, one slender zucchini, a taste of rillettes, Tours' most famous product (masticated pork spread) and white asparagus. Oh, and the smallest little wheel of chevre I could find.
I was packing for a picnic to bring with me while I bike ride along the new trail that's been built by the Loire, and thinking about tonight's dinner. It's now about 100 km but there are plans to make it much, much longer, and eventually to connect to Budapest on a network of trails.
This market was full of foreign traders: a man selling headscarves and long flowing robes for women, a man making spring rolls and selling his pre-made packages of vegetables and rice, African and Arab vendors selling halal meats and trinkets, and a little amusement park area.
The locals come to the market towing their special market wagons, sort of like two-wheeler suitcases but suitable for placing vegetables and meats wrapped to go. Others just tote durable bags, but people were streaming in from all sides of the city.
I saw round zucchinis, chives with little buttons crusty with dirt, white asparagus of massive size, (and found that the bigger the spears, the higher the price) and this sign that said, "Come to the market, it's good, it's full of life, and it's people who like the good life." I couldn't agree more!
A Young Turk Succeeds with Organic Wine
Compared to the storied wine regions of Burgundy and Bordeaux, land costs in this part of the country are cheap, allowing twenty-something winemakers like Careme to begin early.
He grew up on a farm where his father cultivated vines, and in 1998, at age 21, he began his journey into winemaking.
Though his family was better known for their vegetables, he's now making a name for himself at top restaurants in the Loire Valley, where many of his customers come calling after they've had his wines at dinner. His sparkling and still Vouvrays are crisp and oaky. He says that the sparkling wines outsell the rest of his varieties.
While we visited the small winery in the village of Vernou-sur-Brenne, that produces just 80,000 bottles a year, customers from Belgium and Switzerland drove up to pick up some cases.
Tania, his friendly South-African born wife, helps with the bookkeeping and managing and his faithful yellow lab Provence stuck around our feet while we tasted his products. Inside, Pierre, their 2 1/2 month old son, sleeps under the watch of his mom. Someday he may become a winemaker too. "Or an accountant!" said Tania with a laugh.
"What makes your wine special?" I asked. "It's all organic, and it's hand picked," he said. Tania said that Vincent has always been particular about chemicals, preferring not to have them in his food, or in his house. This adds much to the labor costs. They do things like spray their vines with water that's been soaked in poison ivy to prevent fungus, and a lot of close tilling to keep the weeds down.
When we walked his vineyard, it was a big change from what I've seen in other growing regions: long grass, a few weeds and a much healthier overall environment. "We use copper and sulphur, and we have to hire more people but we think it's worth it," he said.
France's Secret Garden Isn't Just for Cheaters
While we were finishing dinner during one of the stops this week, a French guide told me that her kid's German teacher was sitting over on the other side of the restaurant with his mistress.
She knew him because her husband is a doctor, and he's treating the man's parents who are gravely ill. She looked at him with scorn, but not intense scorn, more the sort of 'well that's too bad,' kind of way.
She said that in France affairs are so common there's even a name for it. "It's the secret garden," she said. "There was a study, saying that about 65% of the men and 45% of the women here have affairs. It's just so common that nobody really cares that much. People here like to break the rules, and this is just the way it is."
I thought about the teacher's chutzpah, to just take his mistress out to dinner in a little town like this where people know each other... and talk. But it's not all people running around on their spouses here in this romantic part of the world.
I looked down into the garden this morning from the window in my apartment in Tours, as the sun was just starting to return. The photo shows my little kitchen and the window I looked out of.
The B&B owner and her husband were out there, and I saw him reach around and squeeze her rear end. Just then she looked up at me, coyly, and I waved hello.
Yes there is still love among the married here, as there is everywhere in the world.
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