December 27, 2016

Noël in Provence: Horn/Organ Concert

Provence villages each celebrate the Noël season with public concerts and live crèches and Christmas markets. In our village, the local church (whose domes have blue hues to die for) hosted a hunting horn/organ concert. Colette and Xavier's mother were enthusiastic enough to join me (Colette was a total peach - the horn blowing lasted 2 hours). The horns players were arranged in a V shape - facing away from the audience. At first, the tooting sounded comical - like ducks. Then, paired with the church's massive organ, it was a beautiful fusion.

The church also has a Provençale crèche - ladies surrounding baby Jesus in typical Provence threads.

Noël in Provence: L'éveil de Noël

First we headed into Aix-en-Provence to soak in that sunset and mingle with the Christmas lights, ride the carousel, do a little eleventh hour shopping.

Then arrived back at home...

Lots of elation and dancing: Christmas Eve.

Hand-picked flower arrangements (from the yard) by Marguerite.

Charades with tante Marie and cousine Louise (the best).

The girls sprucing up their tree upstairs.

Xavier's dad shucking oysters for the traditional Christmas Eve meal in the garage (so much work!). Total professional - many years of practice.

Et voilà !

And the meal together (complete with the Joly family tradition of the "ban" - a special synchronized clapping formulation done in rhythm to salute the chef/host): oysters, fois gras, smoked salmon, blinis, champagne, etc.

Jules and Marguerite were lucky and got to stay up in front of a big screen we brought down to watch Home Alone. Even French kids love this Christmas classic.

Noël in Provence: Souliers et Crèche Santons

The chorus of the famous French Christmas song "Petit Papa Noël" includes "n'oublie pas mon petit soulier" (don't forget my little shoe, please Santa). One of the sweetest French traditions: shoe shining on Christmas Eve, placing the little shoes under the tree and then waking up to find them full of chocolate papillotes. Colette was very well-intentioned, but hadn't quite understood: she got four pairs of shoes for her and four for Romy and placed them all under the tree. Xavier explained it is only one pair, and well-shined, so they did hers and Romy's together.

Xavier's dad inspecting the work of Christmas Eve - souliers full and piles of presents.

Chocolate papillotes include words of wisdom - to be read aloud together.

Another tradition I like in France (especially Provence) is the crèche at the foot of the Christmas tree. Of course our crèche is made up of hand crafted/painted figurines from Aix (Fouques family). We picked out the traditional characters, but added a band of Provençale folks, tiny lavender plants and an olive tree for the setting.

Noël in Provence: Chapon

Our Christmas day Chapon: another tradition in Provence (and France more broadly). A chapon is a young, castrated rooster, generally born in June and eaten at Christmas - by then, a well-fattened bird. I ordered mine in advance from a chicken farmer in a nearby village (again, a recommendation of my lovely family friend Karine). Xavier and I went to pick up our freshly killed bird Christmas Eve morning. The road there looks like this - the valley often blanketed in fog. The farm itself was entirely covered by fog and we were straining to find it - small roads, no precise address (just a road name). I hardly remembered to bring enough cash - of course the farmer does not take a card...he makes his living selling fresh eggs and chickens. So grateful for country life around here. We walked away with our chapon; I was nervous. It is a bit of a feat to cook one of these birds well.

Earlier in the week I had stopped by our village butcher after picking Romy up at school. We walked in together and said bonjour to each of the 5 people waiting in line. When it was our turn, Romy noticed a photograph on the wall behind the butcher and said, "Ça c'est Gabriel, mon copain à l'école!" The butcher lit up and said Gabriel is his grandson. We talked about the village crèche (Romy's 'school') and both praised the women who work there. I then told him about my chapon project and confided that I felt a bit daunted by the whole thing - feeding 13 (French) people for Christmas dinner and incorporating lots of food I had never before attempted cooking. He looked at me with a big smile and told me he would package up 700 grams of his personal stuffing for my chapon and that I should come to pick it up on Christmas Eve morning. He also told me just how to cook Mr. Bird (well-stuffed and well-sewn): 4 hours in the oven starting at 100 degrees (C) and gradually increasing the temperature to 160 degrees (C) - never higher! (with big insistent eyes). He also recommended basting (same verb for 'watering' in French) the bird every 10 minutes over the four hours if possible. (I managed every 15). I walked out with a huge smile on my face and felt special to experience a pick-me-up from our local butcher. He's been the butcher in this town for 40 years - he knows his stuff. Plus, his shop is so festive and full of cheer. Meticulously decorated for Christmas.

That night, with my stuffing in hand, I unwrapped Mr. Bird with my brother-in-law Fabien. Fabien generally cooks for the Joly family - he is more enthusiastic and generally a better cook than the rest of us (his mother is a supreme cook, and happened to be one of our guests for the following day's meal). I was actually charmed to find an integral bird. His head, all of his parts - everything there. He looked almost as if he were simply sleeping. We all introduced ourselves to him and thanked him for being our Christmas meal in advance.

Then we cut off his head and started pulling out what was in his cavity. Heart, liver, kidneys. But no intestines, etc. So this bird had been properly cleaned and gutted and the good parts had been reinserted like a gift box. We added the liver to the stuffing (which was a mash of meat, herbs and spices) and Fabien suggested mixing in gingerbread for a Christmas twist. We stuffed that 4.5 kg bird full. Then I took on sewing him up. It was tough, literally. We wrapped him back up and put him back to sleep in the fridge.

Early Christmas morning I prepared the bouillon for basting and let him bathe in that hot bath for 30 minutes before beginning the baking process. He turned out to be delicious - accompanied by roasted vegetables (turnips, beets, carrots, squash), chestnuts and roasted apples. Even Fabien's mother (who brought her homemade fois gras for the regalement) gave honeyed compliments. Hooray for the Christmas Chapon!

December 26, 2016

Noël in Provence: 13 desserts

My favorite Christmas tradition here is the Provence 13 desserts de Noël. Anyone from around here knows which desserts make this list. They assemble the desserts together for the Christmas feast. We dedicated a table to them. I had been gathering them and planning for a few weeks in advance.

The 13 desserts are made up of an assortment of:

* Dried fruit and nuts: raisins, hazelnuts, dried figs, almonds, dates
* Fresh fruit: clementines, apples, melon
* Biscuits from Aix
* Pompe à l'huile (a sweet cake or brioche made with orange flower water and olive oil)
* Gibassier (a galette made with fruited olive oil, spiced with anise)
* Candied fruit (here melon and red peppers!)
* Calissons d'Aix (a marzipan-like candy made from almond paste and candied melon);
* Bûche de Noël (tradition chocolate yule log cake)
* Black nougat
* White nougat

There are whole markets dedicated to these desserts. People often order the cakes, biscuits and bûche from their local boulangeries. In the next town over, we found a divine boulangerie (if you are in the region: La Biscuiterie de Rognes: 6 Avenue d'Aix, 13840 Rognes). Full of beautiful things to eat (all year-round), more like lovely crafts than food. I ordered a few of the desserts from here and went to pick them up on Christmas Eve morning.

I love the tiles that lead into the bakery.

Another Christmas tradition in Provence: le Blé de la Sainte-Barbe. Xavier's cousin's wife, Karine, who lives in a nearby town and who has become a close friend, told me about many of these traditions and came over one day with two little bags of wheat seeds. To be planted on December 4 - the day of Sainte Barbe - the day that opens the advent season for the French. The seeds are to be planted and grown in cotton and placed on the table the day of Christmas festivities. They are symbolic of prosperity and if your grass has grown tall and green, your year will be a bountiful one.

The girls planted our seeds. This is the grass a few days after planting (fully grown in the windows below).

Getting the table ready (love our tablecloth gift from John). It was a good Christmas feast - we fed 13 people!

Noël in Provence: Christmas Morning

Christmas morning here begins with breakfast: croissants, pain au chocolat, tartines, chocolat-chaud (torture for the little ones). Marguerite, Jules, Colette and Romy had one bite of their pastries and were jumping up from their seats to get going. They lined up outside of the living room youngest to oldest and waited until the moment they could enter the room. The shutters still closed - a small candle on each pile of presents, souliers full of chocolate papillotes, Tino Rossi's version of Petit Papa Noël playing softly. Marie said she had goosebumps when she walked in the room - it took her back to Christmas after Christmas of these same small rituals.

December 17, 2016

Colette (4), Romy (almost 3)

A December update on the two little girls (Marguerite arrives this evening for the Christmas holiday).

We keep exploring Provence - lured by trees and light. Chums - these two really love each other now.

We were out exploring a little Christmas market in our town the other day. Colette looked thoughtful and asked me, “Did baby Jesus go down in history?” I told her, yes, certainly, he went down in history. “Will I go down in history?” she wondered and then went on: “Maybe at the end of my life because I am pretty smart.”

The fascination with ‘going down in history’ has lingered. When I put her to bed at night she has been asking me questions about the topic. “But how does someone go down in history?” (I told her they do interesting things - or wonderful things for other people - or they come up with unique ideas - or they make beautiful artwork - many different ways). After my list of things, she insisted, “What can I do to go down in history?” thinking aloud to herself in an impatient key.

Then, “Mom, will you go down in history?” (didn’t let me respond and was clearly sizing me up), “Hmm…no, maybe not you.” I was cracking up as I left the room.

A parent of one of the students in her class recently accompanied the children on a field trip and told me that when the maitresse of Colette’s class wanted everyone to quiet down, she would say, “Be calm everyone, like Colette, please.” The mother also said that Colette was in her group on the outing. When she would speak, Colette would look directly in her eyes and “drink her words” (“Elle boit les paroles”). Totally cracked me up. Apparently, Colette knuckles down in school settings.

We are all staggered by her progress in French. It is well known that children at this age pick up languages very easily, but to watch a child become bilingual before your eyes is really an impressive event. When I pick her up from school and watch her interact with the other children, she uses the language of French 4-year olds - lingo I will never know. She sometimes misses the correct gender or makes a funny verb conjugation, but I think within a few more months, there may be no discernible difference between Colette and the other French children.

This week, I volunteered to walk to the sports field (10 minutes from her school) with the class. They make the trek on Thursdays and need parent volunteers to herd the children on the way. Colette’s classmates were full of questions for me. Do I always speak to Colette in English? Could I hold this one’s hand and that one’s hand please? (Colette had a jealousy breakdown at some point, insisting that I was no longer her mother and that I had abandoned her for the other children).
All sorts of translation questions on the walk back to the school:

Comment dire stade en anglais?
Comment dire voiture en anglais?
Comment dire sport en anglais?
Comment dire chaussure en anglais?
Comment dire Renault en anglais?
Comment dire cigarette en anglais? (!)

Some of the children have a sweet little accent from this region of the southeast of France. It is almost a twang - chemin becomes chemaign, demain becomes demaign, pain is paign. They pronounce more of the letters at the end of words than their Parisian counterparts.

Little Romy is obstinate. I pick her up from her school and she refuses to put on a sweater, a coat, anything. She is a hot box. Judgement from all of the parents here in the south, who make certain their children wear a scarf when it is 60 degrees outside. They look at me like I am nuts. I shrug and say that it snows a lot in New York. To us, this is perfectly balmy. (They don’t know snow here).

Then Romy runs out of the school and refuses to hold hands across the street. I have to pick her up kicking and screaming. I’ve tried to convince her that I am afraid of cars, after my taxi run-in in New York, and that it would really help me if she could please hold my hand. Sometimes that works. Most of the time, she just runs, heedless.

She is naked as much of the time as possible at home. Just strips. She talks about being a big girl a lot and asks if I can believe how much she is growing, as she looks down admiring her rotund, bare belly. It is hard to believe. She is right.

If Colette is meticulous and pensive, Romy is fun. She is ‘yellow,’ as my mom would say - on the color personality chart. She wakes up in the morning, pops up and starts playing immediately. There is no grumpiness or waking period. (Colette takes about 10 minutes to stop groaning and sloshing about in her bed, as if she is being tortured).

This week we were all sitting in December sun outside the house. The sun is glorious here, even in December. It might be a 58 degree day, but if you sit right in a patch of sun it is pure therapy. I was leaning my head back to take it in and I pulled the straps of my tank top off my shoulders. Romy cried out, ”your wings! Put them back on!"

Romy is a singer. Her voice rings like a little bell. Elle chante juste, as the French say - on pitch. Just before bed this month, we all sing Christmas songs. Xavier, Colette and Romy all sing in unison “Petit Papa Noël” - the famous French carol. They’ve both learned it at school and Romy sings out the loudest: “N’oublie pas mon petit soulier”!

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