Thursday, August 04, 2016

Camp Plum!

Mexican plum tree, early August
As a kid, I loved summer. It was everything good and nothing bad: endless hours of doing whatever I wanted, staying with my grandparents, playing with the neighborhood (or nearby farm) kids, exploring, discovering. Just nonstop fun, fun, fun.

Jack & me, at Grandma Bobb's
for the summer
Heat? Wasn't bothered by it.

Only one thing was missing. I always hoped I'd get to go to summer camp one summer, but that just didn't happen. Truth was, my grandparents' houses were close enough to summer camp, but I didn't realize that at the time. As I got older and summers began to mean summer jobs instead of summer fun, and then after college summer just disappeared into the normal work year, that heat became the only thing summer meant anymore, heat and humidity. Summer certainly lost its appeal.

A lifetime of working for a living later...

Camp Plum's gardens and Kitty Girl

I've been in summer camp all summer this year! Camp Plum this week. The name changes as my interests drift from one thing to another. This camp lets you do whatever you want, and there are no schedules other than the ones you set for yourself!

It's been a birding camp; lots of magic in the kitchen camp; French camp; meditation camp; reading mysteries camp; gardening camp. Whatever!

So, Camp Plum. 

Mexican plums
I've got a Mexican Plum tree in the front yard that always produces loads of beautiful little plums, but they're mostly pit and skin and little flesh, and way more trouble than they're worth, or so I used to think. But last year I read about how chef Jesse Griffiths at Dai Due, who is totally local everything, made the sourdough starter that the restaurant uses for all its baked goods from the wild Mustang grapes that he found growing on the alley across his street. Local flavors, indeed. I'd tried making a sourdough starter from apple peels myself, some years ago, and it was good, but I'd used organic apples from... who knows where? Not here though. So I decided to try making one with these plums, even though I'd have to wait until late summer.

Once the plums started falling, late July, I thought about jam too and it turns out, they need very little processing to go from fruit on the sidewalk (warm and incredibly fragrant) to jam in the fridge. About 30 minutes But there's a lot of room for experimenting, which I love. How long to cook them the first boil? How much sugar? How long to boil the juice and sugar? Pulp or no pulp? A rolling boil or a gentle simmer? Lid on or lid off? A few skins in the juice for color? How much pectin is in the plums? Do I need to add any? How much ripe versus underripe fruit? All these things make a difference, and so there's room to play with this for at least a week. And the plums keep coming. Small batches! Perfect for experimenting.

Yesterday these two experiments came together in fresh, hot 'plum sourdough' bread, right out of the oven, tartiné with butter and homemade plum jam. Incredibly delicious, both of them.

Here are the results of the experiments.
First, the jam:

Finished jam (first experiment)

I made very small batches because I only collected the fruit that fell on the sidewalk, and after a couple of days I'd have at most a cup or two of plums. That will make a small amount of jam. Good size for an experiment.

You pit the plums (I used a cherry pitter I'd bought earlier in the season to make Cherry balsamic shrub), cut them in half to remove any flesh that's insect damaged or over-ripe (a lot of people apparently skip this step entirely, but ewww!), then put them in a small saucepan just covering them with water (filtered or spring). Bring to a boil and boil for 5 or so minutes.

First boil
This first boil makes the next step easier: Pour the water through a sieve into a measuring cup, and use the back of a spoon to press the flesh against the sieve, so that some of the flesh goes through, as much as you want (no flesh and you'd be making jelly; some flesh and you get jam). You can throw into the juice/flesh mix a few bits of the plum peel if you want. It's supposed to deepen the shade of rose the jam becomes as it cooks.

Notice how much juice/flesh mix you've got in your measuring cup and add an equal amount of sugar. These plums are not sweet. They are really yummy, but quite tart. You'll have to be your own judge on the amount of sugar. From what I understand, it can affect the jell, but this stuff jells so quickly that I'm not sure normal guidelines for assuring jell are all that helpful.

Stir to blend the sugar in with the juice/flesh mixture, and return it all to your saucepan. There's a lot of pectin in the skins of these plums, and the less ripe they are, the more there is. So, depending on what you started with, whether you have the lid on or off, and how rapid a boil you've got, this step might take only a few minutes. Bring the mix to a boil and let it continue to boil for 10 - 15 minutes or so.

Or so...

Jam is not rocket science, but everyone's tastes are different and what's just right for me might be too firm or too runny for you. There are tried and true tests for jelling. First is 220 degrees. Believe me, this jam does not need to go that high. It's way too firm after that much boiling. Better to try the more subjective tests, for example, coating a spoon with the boiling jell and seeing if, when you run something (maybe not your finger! this stuff can be hot!) through the jell on the back of the spoon, the gully you make stays there. Does it stay? Enough boiling. Does it go right back together? Not enough boiling. Another test: drop a little on a saucer you've been keeping in the freezer. Does it stiffen up within a few seconds? It's done.

For a medium kind of jam, I found that you could get away with very little cooking at all, 10 - 15 minutes, at a medium boil, lid on some times, off others (I was testing a lot!). But there are so many variables. It's really best to use one of the "has it jelled yet" tests until you know your fruit, your stove and all that.

Now, for the sourdough:

This one is the opposite of the jam in terms of time. It takes 5 - 6 days to get a well-developed sourdough from the yeast that lives naturally on the peels of wild fruit. I used about 6 plums for this. All you have to do is lightly rinse your fruit and trim some of the peel with some flesh attached into a small bowl. Cover with water and add a tablespoon of all purpose flour (AP), a tablespoon of whole wheat or a multigrain flour and 1/2 teaspoon of sugar. Stir it up. It ought to be a very watery mix.
Watery mix, day one

Cover lightly and forget about it. Actually that part is hard to do. I found myself checking on it constantly. You so want to see it start bubbling and telling you that this is going to work. But it doesn't do that for awhile. So you have to be patient.

Day two, three, four and five, add another 2 tablespoons of flour (your choice about the amounts of each) and another 1/2 teaspoon of sugar. The mix ought to be getting a little thicker each day, but still be pretty wet. I began to see clear signs of bubbling by about the fourth day.

Last day, mix at normal
sourdough consistency
On the sixth day, remove the fruit skins and bring the mix up to normal sourdough consistency (like nut-bread or muffin batter) by adding AP flour and perhaps a little more water, and another 1/2 teaspoon of sugar. For me, after about 4 hours, this mixture was acting just like my regular sourdough would have. Success! I decided to save out half of it (into a glass jar, and into the fridge) and make a test loaf with the other half to be sure it didn't have any off flavors.
Toast with jam

The results were really wonderful. Local flavor for sure!

And up next -- Plum orange shrub. As soon as I collect another cup or two of plums...

Plum orange shrub

And the shrub

Well, that didn't take long. The tree hit its stride, and I got a windfall all of a sudden. Gayle Engels, who has since moved to Oregon, introduced me to a few shrub recipes last summer and I'm a true believer now. So far though, I'd only used organic produce from the grocery store. Since these plums worked so well for jam and sourdough, I thought they'd probably make a nice shrub too, and they did not disappoint!

I won't go into details about the process, since you can read all about it and the recipe under the link above, but here's the result, all bottled up and ready to go. I will definitely let it age a few more days before I serve it on ice with Topo Chico. We've got plenty of hot summer days still to go here in Austin.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The wandering

As the final weeks of our sejour commenced, what I really wanted most to do was just to really be here, to see, to hear, to smell, touch and taste "here." So I set off wandering around in the afternoons, after my class, a nice lunch and a little homework.

Dennis' daily hikes filled his head with ideas for places for us to go together -- not the monuments, museums and architecture one usually "must see," but things like someone's private Japanese garden,
Japanese garden

a rose that actually smells like a rose,
My favorite
a row of birches shimmering in the breeze coming off the Seine,
Birches along the Seine

and the taste of an apple crepe ordered at a window and carried off down the street.

There's a bridge that attracts musicians. We wandered across it, enjoying a piano tune. The player was perhaps performing something that might well have been his own composition. We don't know. Notice the bride and groom who stroll across the bridge behind him. Anything can happen. It was Saturday.


One of the oh-so-many King's palaces had a rose garden. Think about this. Roses, dozens and dozens of them, some of them bound to be the poster plants for "antique roses" being perhaps centuries old ... Varieties created way before looks and carefree cultivation were all that mattered. Smell these roses. Go ahead. They don't mind. Every one of them has a unique scent. Ahhhh. All my time in this garden I spent bent over, my nose in some rose or another.
Like a bee, drawn to the flower

One doesn't hear horns honking much in Paris, with two exceptions: marriages being celebrated by everyone who was invited to participate, as they drive apparently all over town hanging out of their windows and yelling and honking; and police convoys (and they always seem to travel in packs). So traffic has a bit of a different ring to it. It's more of a hum.

And there are all these little unique shops with their windows full of different kinds of things. If you see something that interests you, you'd better just stop right there and go inside and check it out. You won't remember where you saw it, and you won't see it anywhere else. No going back!

There was a hunt for the best yogurt. Yes, yum. My favorite was actually a fromage blanc with granola, served up at Telescope, near my school. Makes me want to start making yogurt again when I get home. Bread, granola, yogurt, fresh berries. Best breakfast in the world.
Telescope's fromage blanc
 et granole; Credit: Farfalue

A lizard, fish, crawfish-looking fountain? Well, why not?

Sea-themed fountain

Off to the side somewhere hidden, a courtyard with an old massive port that once opened to let in coaches, once blue, now with the paint very nearly completely peeled off. Oh, and a pot of yellow pansies beside it. Someone must have thought that one through.
The blue door

Things in the market that I've never seen before:

The roots of a celery plant.
Celery root

Apples that are sort of shriveled up, each box labeled with the variety. I wonder what one does with them? One of the stories in the Premiere Gorgee de Biere was about going down to the cellar and smelling these apples, and what a treat that was. Indeed.

Pommes ratatinees

And outside a shoe store, for no good reason, an antique pitcher filled with a colorful mix of tulips in full bloom -- it's being what I'd call late winter here and all...
Tulips on the sidewalk

So, this will go on for the next several days until the sun sets for the last time on our trip, we put away our things, fold everything up, compact it all into the couple of cubic feet we're allowed for luggage, and head for home!

Sunset from 7 Quai Voltaire

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Getting away from Paris for a long weekend

My french class made a weekend trip to Normandy last Friday, and I took advantage of a full day, Saturday, to relax and "faire du shopping."
Bayeux, Saturday morning

Bayeux, the town we spent most of our time in, is small, with a walkable downtown. I had noticed on Friday night as we explored a little that there were lots of small shops with all kinds of things for sale, and it seemed like a good place to look for the little gifts I wanted to take back to friends.
Gift shop

So, Saturday, after a leisurely breakfast, I headed off to town.

Before I got there, however, I came upon something that always enchants me, a weekly market. Coming upon one of these by surprise, as I did, just makes the day for me. There's an atmosphere that's special -- the sounds, the smells, the sights, catching little bits of conversations as people greet each other, ask questions, corral their kids, and such.

And, a market gives me a chance to practice french!

This market had every kind of thing for sale: Animals, clothes, books, CDs, vegetables and fruits, flowers, cheeses, and all kinds of meat, fish, and shellfish, as well as prepared foods for eating then or taking home.

Chickens for sale

I could have spent the whole day there. 

Gorgeous veggies and fruits
Cheese market
When I texted Dennis photos of the rabbits, chickens and ducks, he suggested they would make great gifts. Perhaps...

And I did indeed find some nice gifts there, other than the beautiful and healthy little animals.

Catalan Paella in the market

Gorgeous dessert
Bayeux, as does all of Normandy, enjoys a great reputation for its regional dishes, among them, just about anything and everything made from apples.

Another specialty is dairy, so there are lots of dishes with cream sauces and cheese. Among others, the region is famous for its Camembert.

One of the students in our class and I had dinner together Saturday night and ordered several small plates to share, so we got to try five different regional cheeses, as well as a fabulous polenta dish with little slivers of brightly colored veggies tucked in everywhere.

Bayeux has a botanical garden, and it just happened to be right across the street from our hotel, so I spent a bit of my afternoon there. So peaceful and beautiful.

And for my friends who are as transfixed by birds as I am, I awoke every morning well before it got light to a vibrant dawn chorus, owing to our hotel's being adjacent to the garden. I hadn't heard this much birdsong in weeks. As is always the case for this trip, I couldn't put a name to anything, but whoever they were, merci beaucoup! 

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Gardening, Paris-style

While last week, nothing topped a good hot chocolate, this week, nothing tops a Paris garden in springtime. Our weather turned truly spring-like this week, and we were able to shed the wool hats, sweaters and jackets (and for me, the wool base layers...). We visited lots of little gardens. They're everywhere, often tucked into recesses behind walls. I would turn a corner, and all of a sudden there's a little gate and I hear birdsong and the strong scent of flowers. I'm simply drawn inside these worlds of green, magenta, yellow, red and white as though I had no power to resist.

Austin has lots of little neighborhood parks too, but all pride about Austin aside, these little gems here in Paris simply put us to shame (excepting of course our Japanese Garden, which is a treasure in any season). I don't know who tends these gardens, but they are beyond magnificent. And they're everywhere!
Jardin de Voltaire

Almost daily we stroll past Voltaire's little pocket garden, on our street. Not a park you can actually go into, it's just a bright spot along the walk to the area around Place Buci, one of our favorite destinations for drinks, dinner and shopping.

Promenade Plantée
We strolled La Promenade Plantée last Sunday -- the first-in-the-world elevated park (the model for the High Line), repurposing a part of an abandoned rail line. About 2 1/2 miles long, it passes through two parks, Jardin Hector Malot and Jardin de Reuilly, while being a park itself. A triple-delight.

On the Ferris Wheel
A day later, we rode the Ferris Wheel, for splendid views of all of Paris. It's at the back of the Tuileries, a rather formal garden close to where we are staying. It's beautifully planted with beds of tulips, redbuds in bloom, lilacs, and pansies, daffodils and other winter bloomers (winter, for us in Texas).

Tulips in the Tuileries
Dennis goes on long walks each day, in the mornings while I'm in class and discovers things that we go off together to see in the afternoons. He hit the jackpot today! He orchestrated a "small garden tour" day just for me, a beautiful walk that took us to 3 of these small gardens and the Luxembourg Gardens, one of the most well-known in Paris. Two of the gardens flanked Le Bon Marché and La Grande Epicerie, rather over-the-top stores in Saint Germaine des Prés. So, we made the tour of those grand edifices as well. But back to the gardens -

Square Boucicaut

The first was Square Boucicaut. Flowers everywhere; birds singing; kids playing; Parisians lounging, relaxed, in the chairs and on the benches. The second, just a block or two away, was Jardin Catherine Laboure. Slightly larger, a little more elaborate (espaliered apple trees waist-high, in full bloom - can you believe it?), totally amazing.

Next was the Luxembourgh Gardens and I simply can't say enough about this grand example, certainly nothing that hasn't already been said.

Pictures describe Luxembourgh better than words anyway, so, have a look for yourself!

Our last garden today required a bus ride across the Seine all the way to the East Train Station. Jardin Villemin was just incredible. I was stunned upon entering to see peonies in full bloom, the size of a dinner plates. We don't have those in Texas, no we don't.

All day I've been hearing these lovely little birds singing their hearts out, but just never get a look at one. They must be tiny or in the very tip tops of the trees, or both. It's a nice reminder that naming a thing can often shut down curiosity about it. It's good to simply listen and enjoy, see and enjoy, feel alive and enjoy!

I hope your spring gardens are all blooming beautifully too.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Paris daily

Ah, how quickly we've settled into routine...

There's a gentle rhythm to days when you have a few things that you have to do but plenty of time in which to do them. That means there's time for all those other little things, like writing in a journal, planning out a day-trip for later in the week, and gazing out the window at the roof across the courtyard and the gray sky above it, with the clouds that slowly move across the whole scene.

That's what's happened in our second week here; we've got our little routines, but that doesn't mean we've sunk into ruts! Hardly. I made a day-trip to Fontainbleau this week.
The Library, CC*BY Mark Schlemmer
I am not sure I've ever seen a man-made thing so over-the-top, though I no doubt will find Versaille even more so than Fontainbleau, from what I've heard. But then there's the Grand Canyon, the desert at sunrise and Big Sur. I get chills just thinking about places like that. Not so much with castles.

But chocolat chaud, absolutely incredible. I will swoon over a good hot chocolate any time. I had one this week. It was served with an empty cup and two little pitchers. The smaller pitcher was filled with smooth-as-silk melted hot chocolate; the second with steamed milk. Being a novice, not knowing just how to proceed, I just poured *all* the chocolate into my cup and then topped it off with a little hot milk. I could have died right there after the first sip and been completely content. So this is now the chocolate trip, like our earlier trip was the gelato trip. We had for that trip a daily budget for gelato of about $15, and that was a decade ago. This time chocolat chaud, oh, and croissants.
Chocolat chaud, à la Carette

French is coming along well. There are times I hear and understand whole conversations, short ones to be sure, but still. Every word! Yea! Other times I understand nothing, but those are usually other people's conversations where I lack context. And most people talk so fast. I think I'm disadvantaged by being from Texas. I just talk slower and I hear slower too, I guess. I love the classes though and can't imagine missing even a single day. We're reading these lovely little stories about "minuscule pleasures." Exactly my kind of thing. One need only notice to find life an incredible thing.
Premiére Gorgée
The book is called La Premiére Gorgée de Biére, by Philippe Delerm. The first sip of beer, out of the bottle. Dennis has always said it was the best. My favorite story so far, "Helping to shell peas." Imagine that.

The morning classes, as much as I love them, make my trips to the bakery a very early morning ritual because I have to fit them in along with quite a few other things before I go to class. So, leisurely mornings are reserved to the weekends. Sounds so familiar, like a time far away and long ago.

So, 'en avant la troisiéme semaine!'
Eric Kaiser Bakery

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Ten days in Paris

What an adventure! I’ve barely been able to catch my breath this first 10 days because Road Scholar whisked me into gear only hours after we arrived in Paris. The first 3 days were a seemingly unending series of dinners, breakfasts and lunches, with meetings in between, or trips around the neighborhood where most of the students in the French course I’m taking are staying, or to the Sunday morning market. For that one, we had a French restaurant chef as our guide to picking the best fruits, vegetables, cheeses, olive oils and fish!

That’s all very good information for me, as I love to cook, and our little Paris garret has a nicely equipped kitchen. 
Rainy day courtyard

La cuisine!
The Road Scholar program offered a “commuter” option, which let us choose our own place to live. I wanted somewhere centrally located, and with a real kitchen and a few other features that the Adagio (the apartment that students stay in who don’t choose their own accommodations) didn’t offer. So I found this wonderful apartment through AirBnB, right on the Seine, across from the L’œuvre, in a 300-year-old five-story building. 

Le salon
We love it!

There is an elevator...
Take today: Paris is more like winter than spring for us this Sunday. It’s cold, rainy, and we’re inside, warm as toast, listening to Vivaldi and having our dejeuner of ‘pain avec du beurre et de la confiture, et café, bien sûr.’ 

Le dejeuner
But tonight I’ll get to cook a homemade pasta sauce and serve it over spaghetti, with a salad of fresh greens and other goodies from our local market, Marché Saint Germaine des Prés.

No way this will compare with the dinner we had last night, Saturday, at La Buca, down near Place Buci – a 3 course affair where we could easily have called it a night after the first course! And that fabulous dinner had followed an equally impressive beginning at Prescription, our “neighborhood” bar, where we had wonderful cocktails and a copita of Del Maguey’s Tobala. We literally fell into bed after our walk home.

So, that is our first free weekend. During the week we were much more like ‘des tourists.’ I walk to my class each morning, after a quick trip to our local boulangerie for the day’s bread, and a breakfast with Dennis of bread (sourdough, croissants, pain au chocolat) with butter, jam, and fruit, with yogurt and orange juice and coffee. Actually, that’s an enormous breakfast by French standards, but it’s what we love. All fresh, and delicious.

Nôtre Dame
My classes are incredible. I can’t recommend the Road Scholar independent live and study in Paris program more highly. Class meets 3 hours each morning, Monday through Thursday, and then all day on Friday. Fridays are devoted to learning about French culture, art and history. Last Friday we had a lecture about the middle ages, up to the time of the revolution (1789). We visited the Conciergerie, Saint Chappelle and Nôtre Dame. The lecturer is really wonderful. He’ll be joining us next Friday for the continuation of this theme, with our day trip to Fontainbleu.

The rest of the time we are in Paris, outside the class times, we are totally on our own, free to do whatever we want, when we want. Like being retired! La vie est belle!

Dennis isn’t taking the classes, so he’s off exploring in the mornings, and in the afternoons after I get home, he and I take long walks, usually with a destination in mind, or errands to run. We ride the busses and take the subway as needed (weekly and monthly passes), but mostly we walk. One does not come to Paris to lose weight, but it would be nice not to gain too much… This week we explored little pockets of "old neighborhoods" hidden within larger quarters of the Paris districts. Such hidden gems were the subject of our first week's study in our French classes, as taught by our talented Madam Bocquet, or, as she prefers, Odile. The first neighborhood was La cité floral. Indeed.

In the evenings we prepare our little repas, do emails, spend a little time on FB, and then watch some little BBC or PBS drama, or science program, or an Australian murder mystery like the Miss Fisher series, all on YouTube of course, and off to bed!

I am learning French, and really having so much fun doing so. I’ve studied off and on for more than 10 years, but I’ve learned the most when I was here, especially the two weeks I spent with my friend Zarah, who lives in Lyon. We spoke nothing but French the whole time. That’s what it takes, really, being here. I don’t have quite the “only French” situation now, because when Dennis and I are together, we don’t speak French, but, on the other hand, I’ve never had classes quite like these, geared precisely to where I am and what I need to progress. They are very practical, not so much about grammar and all (which it’s assumed, for those who are intermediate to advanced, we all have had plenty of), but more about vocabulary and how to say things like they are actually said, rather than how we as speakers of English might think they would be said. The subjects about which we speak are all relevant and interesting (like learning all about the character and differences among the neighborhoods in Paris, first week). And the classes are entirely in French, though the beginners’ courses are not. The course is offered through the IESA, Institut Supérieur des Arts, Paris. Their instructors are fabulous.

Flower market
So, highlights of these first 10 days for me include visiting the flower market on Île de la Cité, understanding more and more of what I hear around me, as well as understanding my teachers (we have two) when they speak quickly as well as slowly, getting braver about speaking with people I meet in social situations, and vendors, cashiers, waiters, etc., being able to walk several hours without getting hot and tired (being from Texas), visiting the markets, whose sights, smells, and sounds I simply love, and the view out the “front door” of the building, onto Quai Voltaire, each time we take off on an excursion. Oh, and the food, and the drinks, and the course I’m taking, and our apartment, and having Dennis here, and the fact that we’ve got another 35 days!!!

But I do miss my kitty. Yes, I do.
Kitty girl - Minou