Monday, November 30, 2009

Things to Be Thankful For

We fêted Andrew's birthday on Monday, November 23, with a delicious but messy chocolate raspberry cake and some bellini's with a couple of assistant friends. I also made Andrew a yummy dinner of escargots, or snails (I just heated the pre-stuffed parsley/butter/garlic mollusks in the oven, so no real credit to me for cooking them), garlic bread, and linguine with scallops in a cream sauce.

I was disappointed that my cake collapsed, but the moistness and richness more than made up for it. It is too bad, though, as now there's no hope of starring on "Cake Boss."

This week was a tad hectic. Tuesday the teacher's were on strike, so things were a little weird at school. I opted not to participate in the strike, though now I'm regretting it as I really want to give the French government a piece of my mind. Once again we are late in receiving our salaries for the month of November, and I'm not sure how much more I can get away with by bribing my landlady with chocolate. In addition to being late, apparently we are also receiving 15€ less a month now, which isn't a lot unless you're an assistant and already made crap for pay. And finally, in the years past, assistants have qualified for government assisted housing, which is why our pay is so low to begin with. This year they aren't sure if they are going to extend this right to us, which means that many assistants are pissed. Normally this assistance pays for 1/2 the rent, so it's a really big deal if we don't get it. They will most likely eventually decide that we qualify, but once they actually make that decision and sort through the backlog of applications, it may be time to leave France, in which case there will be no way to receive that money. Andrew and I are a little better off than most, because we have two salaries for one rent, which equals what most assistants pay in rent per month, but it's still money we were counting on to get us home in April.

This week was a pumpkin pie filled week. I baked about 8 of them, all from stratch, to give out to teachers and students and other friends who have never experienced the wonder of Thanksgiving. Most adults really liked it, most of my students hated it. On Saturday we hosted a twelve-course Thanksgiving meal for my Canadian friend Catherine, her French flat-mate Julien, and one of the French assistants, Emilie, and her boyfriend Thibault.
If you've never tried to cook a Thanksgiving feast on a two-burner electric stove and a microwave-sized oven, well...consider yourself lucky. Andrew made two types of stuffed chicken, one a honey-thyme and one a bacon and herb, as well as a huge turkey thigh (we couldn't find a whole turkey cheap enough, and we weren't sure we'd have room in the oven, so we opted for chickens). In addition, I prepared deviled eggs, homemade rolls, in garlic and herbes de provence flavor, cranberry sauce made from dried cranberries, gravy, homemade stuffing, corn, green beans, glazed carrots, mashed potatoes, apple pie, and pumpkin pie. It was delicious and a lot of fun, and lasted over 6 hours. And left quite a mess.
This afternoon we had a lovely meal at the home of one of Andrew's teachers. She and her husband and daughter graciously welcomed us into their home and served us a walnut salad, roast beef, fresh mushrooms from the south of France, roasted potatoes, a cheese platter, and an orange meringue tarte. In addition to the vats of wine and obligatory coffee/tea. We had a great time speaking to them in French, though they all spoke English. They're going to California for the April holiday, and we're negotiating a car/house exchange with Andrew's parents, who will be in France at the same time. Their daughter also offered us a place to stay in Paris.

We left their house just in time to run home, grab yet another pumpkin pie, some stuffing, deviled eggs, apple cider, and roast chicken to bring to the assistant Thanksgiving dinner. There were about 30 people there, and surprisingly it wasn't as chaotic as I originally imagined. There was a ton of food, which I somehow managed to force down my throat despite the large lunch I had consumed mere minutes before arriving at the party. It was a mix of American, British, Australian, French, Russian, and even German residents, many of whom had never celebrated Thanksgiving before.

This year, I'm thankful that I am not in Mali for Thanksgiving, though the two Thanksgivings I celebrated there with friends were happy times. I'm just grateful to have that part of my life behind me. I'm grateful that I made it through that experience *mostly* intact. I'm thankful that I am here in France, living my dream. I'm grateful that my husband is still my best friend, and that we're still in love after six years. I'm grateful that I got to spend time with my family this summer, and I'm grateful to French people for welcoming me so warmly to their country and for accepting me so easily into their lives.
We'll be hosting yet another Thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday, for the French friends who couldn't celebrate with us this weekend. And the chaos continues...

Monday, November 23, 2009

H Party in the Hizzouse!

We had a great H party tonight. I busted out the Horse steak. Nicole made Hachis Parmentier (like shepherd's pie). Others brought Healthy food, Haricots verts, Ham, Ham Pizza, Haribo candy, Hot fudge sundaes, Haggis, Humus, Honeybutter and bread, and to drink: Hot chocolate and Horchata (care of yours truly). I love these. Next week we're doing a 40 person Thanksgiving (not at our house, thank God), and the week after, we're spicing it up with a Southwestern/Tex Mex theme.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Living Like Royalty

Andrew and I spent a fantasic Saturday touring a couple of the more famous châteaux, or castles, of the Loire region. We rented a car with two other assistants, Casey and Kyle. Aided by Casey's TomTom, which was voiced by Cartman from South Park, we amused ourselves on the ride south. It was a little hard to follow directions like "Turn right into Kyle's mom's vagina" and "Turn left at the circle-thingy, you idiot!" but we made due. Just 40 minutes south of us is probably the most famous French castle, (after Versailles, of course): Chambord.
This gigantic castle in the countryside doesn't have much in the way of fancy furnishings, but the architecture is stunning. Apparently the double-helix staircase was designed by Leonardo Da Vinci, even though he died before the castle was completed.
This castle was basically designed as a hunting palace/place to stay when the king was traveling through the countryside. As such, it wasn't ever really inhabited. There was an interesting exposition on Chambord's role during WWII. Priceless pieces of art, such as the Mona Lisa herself, were stored here during the war to prevent them from being destroyed during the frequent bombings of Paris.

After Chambord, we continued through the countryside to the château of Cheverny.

This one was less impressive on the outside, but had amazing furniture, weapons, artwork, and a kennel of over 100 hunting hounds.
The doggies were simply adorable and we spent several minutes letting them sniff and slobber all over us.
We started our tour with a picnic of salami, prosciutto, apples, brie, goat cheese, cheddar, nutella, white wine, and fresh crispy baguettes from a nearby bakery.
Having been fortified, we headed over to the house for a tour of the first two stories. There were paintings of Don Quixote and nice fireplaces.

Apparently the current Duke and Duchess of Vibraye actually live in the house, so the whole west wing was off-limits to us. However, Andrew and I struck a deal and purchased the castle for our very own. You're all free to come visit, but mind you, we only have about 50 bedrooms, so reserve in advance or you'll be forced to stay in one of the guest houses.
They also had this weird Siberian elk-human hybrid thing on display:
We saw something similar at Chambord, in female form:
God save the world if these two ever decide to mate.

We also spent some time snickering over the lop-sided anatomy of one of the caryatids on the fireplace. Yes, if you add our two ages together, we still only equal 12.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

France: Where Students Kiss Teachers and Wine is Served in High School Cafeterias

Interesting French Cultural Tidbits

  • You know how in French movies, everyone kissed each other on each cheek whenever they feel like it? I used to think that was just a silly stereotype. And then I moved to France. Not only does this kissing thing happen, it happens a lot, and it happens at sometimes odd, inappropriate times. For example, I tutor two high school boys, both of whom kiss me once on each cheek when I arrive and when I leave. This is obviously an inherited trait, as their parents also partake of this interesting custom, so much so that I feel a little dizzy with all the kissing I have to do in the space of only 1 hour. Since most men don't kiss each other (though one of the boys occasionally does kiss Andrew) Andrew doesn't have to worry about this so much. Which is a little insulting really; men don't kiss men, but women are expected to allow both men and women kiss them? I'm not really all that bothered by it, because I believe in following another culture's customs when I'm living in their country, but it does make me a little uncomfortable.
  • The French don't really seem to have a concept of "personal space" either. They like to sit or stand very close to someone when they are having a conversation, even if there's plenty of room in the room to spread out a little.
  • Not only is free wine offered at lunch time in the teacher's room, but at the high school students who are "of age" (not sure what that age is exactly, but I think 16) can have a bottle of wine or hard cider with their lunch. I'm curious to know if this courtesy extends to other professions, such as law enforcement and transportation. Then again, maybe I don't want to know. However, despite this shameless imbibing, the French seem very concerned with preventing drunk driving. Several times when dining with the French, he/she has remarked that they could only have one glass of wine because they were going to be driving afterwards. And as far as I know, their drunk-driving record isn't as high as ours.
  • With every food advertisement, whether it be a billboard, a menu in a fast-food restaurant, or the packaging that your food comes in, there's a warning label, similar to the ones on cigarette packages, that warns the consumer not to each too much, and to "manger et bouger," or "eat and exercise." Andrew and I have not been paying attention to that so much, but I do feel guilty when the warning label is staring me right in the face.
  • People love Twilight, Dr. House, Desperate Housewives, and Prison Break.
  • Bags are not free in supermarkets! This is a custom we should absolutely adopt in America. Plastic is such a waste, and if you had to pay for every bag you took, wouldn't you be more likely to re-use or buy cloth bags? The downside is remembering to bring your bags when you go to the store.
Tomorrow we're going to Chambord and Cheverny, two very pretty castles in the Loire Valley. We're renting a car and going with two other friends. It should be fun! I'll post photos later this week after Andrew's birthday.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Tour of Tours and More Food

Pretty stained-glass reflections in the cathedral

During our vacation, Andrew and I went to Tours, a large city in the Loire Valley about 1 hour south of Orléans. Typical of any French city, there was a beautiful cathedral that had some lovely glass-stained windows.
There was also an "Old Town" that had some great half-timbered houses and a row of delicious looking crèperies, which unfortunately all close at 2pm, which was, naturally, the time we showed up expecting to be fed. Instead of eating at one of the atmospheric restos in the Old Quarter, we had to settle for the fast food version of crèpes, which weren't bad at all, and had the added benefit of being much cheaper than the restaurant equivalent. I feasted on a ham, mushroom, and gruyère cheese crèpe, while Andrew had a simple ham and cheese crèpe.
For dessert, we splurged and had a pear, almond, and chocolate crèpe covered in whipped cream. Our time spent in Tours was not as fun as we had anticipated, since we had expected to meet a group of friends there, who instead decided to travel to Amboise instead of Tours that day. Even still, being married and all, we're pretty happy with each other's company and weren't bored out of our minds or anything.
Weird floating-lady on the river
Also during the vacation, we took the bus out east to Châteauneuf, where two of my English teachers from St. Exupery live. We had a yummy lunch with Emilie and her boyfriend, Tibault (pronounced Tee-bo). They served us wine and cheese, bien sûr, and potatoes, green beans, and a cheddar-covered ham. I brought along some Bailey's brownies which didn't turn out quite as I expected (still working out the French ingredients) but were still tasty. After lunch we went on a walk around the Loire River and the small downtown area. It was very drizzly and a little cold, but it was fun.

We've also been having some fun in the kitchen. We used our raclette grill for the first time last week. Unfortunately it only has one heat setting, so everything cooks pretty fast, but we had a fun time. Next time we'll invite people over, as it's meant to be used!

For our "A" party last week Andrew made andouillette sandwiches. Andouillettes are a very typical French sausage made from the grossest parts of the pig. They smell "offal" when you cook them, but they don't taste half bad with lots of mustard. I made a lovely apple pie, which earned rave reviews, even though I had a problem with the bottom crust (as in, we couldn't find it under all the gooey apples and caramel sauce).

Tonight's party is sponsored by the letter "C," which I hope will elicit some good responses from our guests. Every week someone brings cheese and bread, even though there's never been a good justification for it. Tonight at least, there's a reason to. I'm making crostinis with date, mint, and prosciutto (kind of stretching it, I know, but I've been craving them) and Andrew is making California rolls, without seaweed, and succeeding, by the looks of it.

Last night we had dinner with a french English teacher and her husband. She has the cutest, fluffiest, softest cat, and an adorable son who goes potty on a little chair in the living room. We had an amazing 5 course meal, each with its own wine, that lasted 5 hours. I made truffles for the first time and they turned out pretty well. A French meal is really something else. The apértif alone included crème de sardine on toast, black olive tapenade, and anchovies marinated in garlic, washed down with a cassis/champagne bellini.

Oh yeah, we got paid!!! The landlady is no longer knocking on our door, asking for the rent, forcing us to sneak upstairs separately so that she doesn't know it's us.

As usual, more photos at

Otherwise, cou cou

A Moveable Feast

Sorry it's been so long since we've posted. Honestly, not a lot of interesting stuff has been happening, even though we're in France, which in itself should mean we're having lots of adventures. But there have a couple of highlights the past couple weeks. Last night we had dinner at one of my teacher's, Sandrine. Last night was the first night I met her, because she's kind of on sabbatical from school right now, but we've been chatting the past couple of months via email so she graciously invited us to her home for some typical French fare yesterday.

We were told to show up at 7:30pm, which for us is pretty late, and we enjoyed a very lengthy, somewhat fancy meal. There were cute little menus rolled up and tied with twine at each autumn-themed place setting. The culinary theme was "fruits de mer", or seafood, and each course was paired with it's own wine. Here's the complete menu:
Le plat de résistance

Apéritif (appetizer):
-crème de sardines sur toast (sardine dip on baguette)
-tapenade d'olives noir (olive spread)
-anchois marinés à l'ail (anchovies marinated in garlic)
à boire (to drink): crémant de Bourgogne (basically a bellini: champagne and black currant syrup)

Entrée (second appetizer):
- tartare aux deux saumons en verrine (a type of fresh salmon ceviche served in a little glass jar)
à boire: Touraine cépage sauvignon 2007 (a nice chilled white wine)

Plat de résistance (main dish):
-Noix de St. Jacques sur lit de poireaux (scallops served on a bed of leeks with a creamy parmesan sauce)
à boire: Riesling 2007 (another white wine)

Plateau de fromages (cheese plate)
-chèvre (a creamy goat's cheese)
-a hard cheese whose name I forget
à boire: Côtes de Rhône 2005 (a red wine)

Dessert (made by yours truly)
-truffes au chocolat noir (dark chocolate truffles)
-truffes au chocolat et à l'orange (orange chocolate)
-truffes au caramel et au pralin (caramel and praline)
-truffes aux amandes et au miel (almond and honey)
à boire: café, thé, et eau de vie au poire (coffee, tea, and pear-flavored schnapps)

Dark chocolate rolled in cocoa powder, honey and almond rolled in crushed almonds, caramel rolled in praline, and orange chocolate rolled in powdered sugar

Looking at all this food, is it any wonder we were eating until 11:30pm? It was pretty intense. What was even harder than shoveling in all this delicious food (which, let's face it, wasn't that hard) was keeping up a steady stream of French with Sandrine and Alex. I must say, that even after four bottles of alcohol, I still managed to stay pretty coherent. I only made a few silly mistakes, which were easily forgiven. Andrew said something that was really funny, to both me and our French friends:

Sandrine: Notre fils viens d'avoir peur de noir. (Our son has just started being afraid of the dark)
Andrew: Il a peur de gens noirs? (He's afraid of black people?)

N.B. In French, "noir" means both "the dark" and "black."

Last night we had the food experience I've been craving since I've been in France, at a fraction of the cost, considering I just had to pay for the dessert, and that was only because I offered; I wonder what they would have served us otherwise! In addition, we got great conversation practice and we know a little bit more about wine now, since Alex, Sandrine's husband, is somewhat of a sommelier.

For those interested in making truffles at home, here's the recipe that I used, taken from Clothilde Dusoulier's Chocolate & Zucchini blog, with a few additions of my own:

400 grams of chocolate (I used four 100g. Nestlé bars in different flavors)
1 c. heavy whipping cream
4 teaspoons butter
Crushed toppings to roll the truffles in (I used powdered sugar, cocoa powder, crushed almonds, and praline)

Break up the chocolate bars into very small pieces in separate bowls
Heat the cream just until it boils
Pour 1/4 c. cream over each bowl of chocolate
Mix until smooth
Add 1 teaspoon butter to each bowl and mix until smooth

N.B. I found that the hot cream alone was not enough to melt the chocolate, so I threw the bowls in the oven for a minute or so to facilitate melting. You can also use the microwave.

Cover each bowl with plastic wrap and leave in the fridge overnight
The next day, using a teaspoon, scoop out the chocolate mixture and form into small balls with your hands
Roll each ball in a topping of choice

N.B. Keep the chocolate in the fridge until you're ready to form the truffles. If the chocolate gets too warm, return to the fridge for a while to harden.

Monday, November 2, 2009

We must be the most boring people in the world...

Crazy H & M hat

Our vacation hasn't gone exactly as planned. Right now, we should be in Paris, chatting with Natalie and sipping delicious wine in front of the Eiffel Tower. This morning, after a late Halloween night, we got up at 6:30 and headed down to the train station to catch the 7:38 train to Paris. We got there aout 15 minutes early, and stood in line for a while waiting for the single slow ticket salesman to help the not-so-long line of people trying to buy tickets. With only about 6 minutes left until our train, we decided to run outside and use the automatic ticket machines instead. But alas, the machines didn't want to sell us a ticket for the 7:38, so we ran back inside to find the line even longer. After another stressful two minutes, we decided that we would buy tickets for the 8:41 train from the machine, and get on the 7:38 anyway (supposedly this is okay to do, as long as you have a ticket for any time that day). With two minutes left, Andrew went to stall the conductor while I tried to get the machine to quickly spit out my tickets.

We missed the train by about twenty seconds. The bastard conducter wouldn't let us on the train crawling away at a snail's pace.

At this point, both of us were in a rage and I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I cried like a baby and demanded a refund from the (now, conveniently free) ticketmaster. Of course they didn't refund 10%, which only made it worse. So today I've been in a major bad mood, especially since I was supposed to meet up with several friends in Paris. And while we can go anytime to Paris (it's only 1 hour away), today the museums were free and our vacation is almost over. Maybe this weekend we'll give it another try. The only consolation for me is that the weather report said it was cold and rainy today.

In other vacation news, we went to Beaugency, a little town just 20 minutes from here where we visited my friend Justine and her French boyfriend Julien.

We ate a yummy lunch of smoked salmon tagliatelle and walked around the river and the small château there.

Yesterday was Halloween and we went to a party with the other assistants in Orléans. I dressed as a waitress and Andrew went as Scotch on the Rocks, meaning he wore his kilt with two rocks in his plastic bag for a sporrin and carried around a bottle of Scotch. It wasn't really my type of party, which just goes to show what a geek I am. I much prefer parties where the point is to play games and talk and eat good food, not dance around to club music and drink a lot of booze, but Andrew had fun twirling his kilt.

Tomorrow we're heading to Tours, which is supposed to be beautiful; hopefully the weather will be nicer than it was today. Tuesday we're going to have lunch with two of my teachers from my school, both of whom have studied in the States (one in SF, the other Boston). I'm going to make Bailey's brownies (thanks to Cynthia for introducing me to those so many years ago!).