Recollections of France: First Trip to Saint-Émilion

First trip to st emilionWhen we first planned a trip to Saint-Émilion some years ago, I was so excited that I prepared myself for a few tears of happiness upon seeing the village’s name on one of those rectangular white, red-rimmed street signs. Saint-Émilion can boast being the oldest wine area in the Bordeaux region. Its wines, primarily made with Merlot grapes, are incredibly smooth and easy to drink. To me they are the most feminine wines of this region.

IMG_0252Our very first trip started with a drive through the vineyards. We went from one château to the next, Hans getting out of the car to take pictures, and I to allow myself the incredible pleasure of cupping my hands around bunches of juicy grapes.

IMG_0569But there’s more than wine to make my heart flutter when it comes to Saint-Émilion. When we arrived at the centre ville, I felt as though I had been transported back to the Middle Ages. The village is intersected by steep, cobblestoned streets that are lined with all sorts of wine and souvenir shops. It was the height of the summer season and masses of tourists were admiring the impressive ruins, walking around with boxes of wine or seeking refreshment at many of the lively terraces.

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First trip to St Emilion Streets After a stroll through the village and a few wine purchases complete with tastings and wine chats, we decided to round off the afternoon with lunch at the panoramic terrace of Bistrot du Clocher, a restaurant situated at the foot of the largest monolithic church in France. Hans and I both opted for the trio de cote d’agneau and a glass of their best grand cru. It was a light yet satisfying lunch. Besides the three succulent little lamb chops, our meal was accompanied by a mini-serving of a flan made with minced vegetables.

IMG_0228 First Time in St Emilion Lunch FlanBefore heading back to the car, we popped into the famous Ferlion Macarons Blanchez bakery where we purchased Saint-Émilion’s other gastronomic specialty – macarons! Not the colorful ones with the creamy/jammy fillings, but the flatter, paler ones baked directly onto a piece of parchment paper. These chewy, almondy treats were the sweet ending to one of our most anticipated wine trips.

First trip to St Emilion Bakery First time in st emilion end

Baby Bundt-Shaped Moelleux aux Fruits Rouges

Ever since I tried a version of these moist little cakes, I’ve been thinking about how to make them myself. My first taste of them was not in France though, but from our own French baker here in the Netherlands, Le Fournil de Sébastien. I’m sure you’ve probably heard about his bakeries (he has one in Amsterdam on Olympiaplein and another one in Hilversum on Gijsbrecht van Amstelstraat) if you’re a foodie or Francophile like me. But if you haven’t, you’ll definitely want to stop by. He has the best pain au raisin ever, and my goodness, his baguettes are to die for!
The tender, fruit-filled cakes I bought at his bakery were smaller and rectangular, though, but just as good as mine. Just don’t tell him I said so! I made mine in a bundt-tin, but a muffin tin will work just fine. In that case, I’d probably advise you to bake the cakes just a little shorter. Perhaps start checking for doneness after twenty minutes or so.
These pretty cakes have a dense crumb, are packed with bright summer fruits and have a creamy, sweet texture which is absolutely divine. I’m sure you will love them too.

Moelleux aux fruits rougesMakes 6 tender, fruit-filled cakes

  • 220g all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 150gr mixed red fruits (frozen)
  • 150gr Greek yogurt
  • 80 gr butter, melted
  • 130g sugar
  • 1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
  • 3 eggs

Preheat the oven to 180°C and generously butter and flour a mini-bundt cake pan. Using a wooden spoon, mix the flour, baking powder and frozen fruits. With a standing or hand-held mixer, beat the yogurt, butter, sugar and vanilla extract. Beat in each egg one at a time while the machine is still running. Add this mixture to the dry ingredients and fold in to combine. Divide the mixture over the bundt tin and bake the cakes for approximately 25-30 minutes. Allow to cool completely in the tin (on a wire rack) before serving.

 

Dear Bread, I Still Love You

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Ask the average Dutch person what he or she had for breakfast or lunch this morning and they’ll probably mention bread. My husband, for example, is a huge fan of bread, and as a proper Dutchman, cheese. When he was a teen, he could eat up to eight slices of bread as an after dinner ‘snack’, and when he first visited me in the US, the thing he lamented most was the lack of decent bread and cheese. Our wodgy Wonder Bread and plastic-wrapped cheese slices were an absolute horror to him. Only after I moved to the Netherlands did it all become clear to me. Of course, I knew that Holland was a major cheese country, but I had no idea that it was such a major bread country as well. I was astonished at the varieties of bread sold at an average Dutch supermarket. Excluding rolls and sweet bread, there were at least ten different kinds of whole wheat breads and various whites and ryes. Again, we’re not talking about fancy bakeries or delis here, but about your average Dutch supermarket.
The Dutch love affair with bread is also evident in many common sayings: broodnodig (extremely necessary), brood op de plank hebben (to have/earn enough), brood verdienen (earn a living), als warme broodjes over de toonbank vliegen (to sell fast), wiens brood men eet, diens woord men spreekt (whose bread you eat, their word you preach). It’s a love affair that started in 4500 B.C. (when grain was first cultivated near Limburg) and really took off during the Middle Ages (when the first bakers started to set up shop in the cities). Together with the herring industry, the Baltic grain trade, was one of the main pillars of the prosperous Dutch economy during its Golden Age. Many 17th century paintings attest to the love the Dutch had (and still have) for their bread. A fine example is Jan Steen’s ‘The Leiden Baker Arent Oostwaard and His Wife Catharina Keizerswaard’ (1658-1659). In the painting we see a tempting variety of breads, rolls and even pretzels. Doctors of the time also agreed on the health qualities of bread. In his book, Borgerlyke Tafel (Bourgeois Table), published in 1683, physician Stephanus Blankaarts dedicated a whole chapter to bread, calling it ‘koninklijk voedsel’ (royal food) and saying that it deserved an important place in the Dutch diet. In the Netherlands, bread remained the most important food up until the end of the 18th century, when it was replaced by the potato. Today, the Dutch still love their bread, even though it has been the source of heated controversy in recent years.
In case you are reading this, Dr. William Davis (author of the bestselling book ‘Wheat Belly’, who warns against the dangers of wheat and refers to healthy whole grains as ‘incredibly destructive genetic mosnters’), look away now. According the Voorlichtingsbureau Brood (Consumer Information Center for Bread), the Dutch consume an average of 60 kilos of bread per person on a yearly basis. Those statistics haven’t changed in the last 15 years, regardless of the recent ‘low carb’ bandwagon. In fact, in the Dutch ‘Schijf van Vijf’ or ‘Wheel of Five’ (a tool showing what the body needs to stay healthy), bread still plays a prominent role. Bread has carbohydrates, and carbohydrates, we are told, ‘give the body energy and fiber which help us stay full and maintain our weight.’ The Netherlands Nutrition Center Foundation (Voedingscentrum) advises us to eat approximately six slices of bread per day. A bit much, if you ask me. That’s two to three slices more than the average daily consumption. So what about the recent claims that even whole grain wheat products increase blood sugar and make us fat? And that they are addictive, cause digestive and circulatory problems, worsen inflammatory illnesses and lead to premature ageing?
In an article that appeared in October 2012 in the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, Menno ‘t Hoen warns us against the dangers of whole wheat bread. He tells us that a single slice of bread has a worse effect on our blood sugar levels than a tablespoon of sugar. According to him, if we follow the advice of the Nutrition Center, we will become unhealthy and overweight. Menno, who by the way is a baker, doesn’t say we should give up bread completely, only that it should not have a prominent role in our diet. We should use bread (good, white bread, not whole wheat bread which is meant for pigs) like the French do – as tool to wipe our plates clean after a meal.
Who are we to believe? Again, in this case I think it has a lot to do with common sense and little to do with the ‘latest research’. One thing is certain: the diet industry takes every opportunity to make a profit from our anxieties. Today bread and carbohydrates are the enemy. Oh yes, and sugar. Sugar is the devil. In the 1990s it was fat. How about not labelling foods ‘bad’ and having a little of everything in moderation?
I myself do not eat much bread. Fruit or vegetable smoothies are my usual breakfast and salads with protein, my lunch. But say no to bread? Forget the pleasures of a glazed pain au raisin for breakfast or the sensuality of devouring an entire baguette with rilletes and a bottled of red wine? Haha. Stuff your latest research. I’ll eat bread, sugar, fat and anything I damn well please. Just like my grandparents (who lived a long, healthy life) did in the good ol’ days before all of this foolishness started. Food, to me, will always be pleasure, not the enemy. Bread, I still love you and always will.
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Using Up Every Last Bit

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When it comes to strange food preferences, I am probably a downright wuss. While I do enjoy a piece of fried blood sausage and can admit that as a child, one of my favorite treats was a steamy bowl of tripe soup, I still have a lot to discover.
I have great admiration for people who are fearless when it comes to food. In fact, it’s something I’m striving to become – a fearless omnivore.
I remember my late uncle telling us about how delicious bulls’ testicles and scrambled eggs were for breakfast. He talked about the dish with such joy and hated the fact that testicles weren’t as readily available then as they were while he was growing up. My father adores stewed tongue. It is the dish he requests on birthdays and on other special occasions. Tongue was as much a treat to him as a bottle of fine wine is to me. But oh that smell! Sour, pungent and thick enough to stick around the house long after the meal was cooked and eaten. Disgusting you say? What’s so disgusting about using up every last bit of the animals we slaughter for food?
Much to my joy, the French pretty much adhere to this principle. Just walk around a market in France or have a good look at the meat section at a supermarket and you’ll see what I mean. They’re not picky. Everything has a use and everything gets eaten. Take andouillettes, for example, a food that many non-French fear. Some, who have naively ordered andouillette at a restaurant, recall the traumatising experience of that first cut into what seemed to be a simple sausage. Not surprising, since the malodorous sausage’s main ingredient is chitterlings, or pork intestines. While it’s true that the smell of andouillettes isn’t exactly that of freshly-baked apple pie, (it’s often described as ‘very offensive’ and said to ‘genuinely stink of shit’) to many French, the andouillette is considered one of the most loved charcuteries. Authentic cuisine du terroir. And who are we to think we know better? What if we’re the ones missing out?
I can’t help but wonder why and when we all suddenly developed such picky eating habits. Why is one part of the animal better than the other or more acceptable to eat? Nobody blinks an eye when someone eats chicken breast, but oh boy if you happen to enjoy a soup made with its feet! And why do people who repulse at the horrors of foie gras still hop on over to their local supermarket to stock up on ridiculously cheap trays of mass-produced meat? Talk about horror!
Perhaps it’s time to rethink our eating habits. Eat meat? Go ‘head to tail’. I’m on a mission to become a totally liberated omnivore. I might just walk up to my butcher sometime in the near future and order a whole pig’s head. It’s never too late to try my hand at making fromage de tête– I hear it’s a lovely appetizer.

Bon Appétit!

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