The French Spice Factor ~ Le Piment d’Espelette Friday, Oct 22 2010 

Have you ever wanted French cuisine to be, well, a little more piquant (peppy)? Occasionally, I have. Don’t get me wrong, I love all aspects of French cuisine, especially those subtle tastes and flavors that the French do so well. But every so often, you need a meal with some spice. And when you do, just head down to the Basque country.

For about four centuries now, Basque cooks have been using their special spice factor—the piment d’Espelette—to flavor their cuisine

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Introduced into the region around the village of Espelette from South America in the seventeenth century, this special chili pepper has added a smoky, fragrant and slightly hot taste to all types of Basque dishes including poulet basque (Basque chicken), jambon (ham), pâtés, piperade (slow cooked tomatoes, red and green peppers , and spices) and axoa (a ragout of veal that is to die for!). In fact, axoa is my favorite Basque dish.

Axoa

As the peppers grow in Espelette and the villages nearby, they are green on the vine. Then the peppers are picked in the fall and hung to dry on balconies and buildings turning a deep red hue to form guirlandes de piments rouges (garlands of red peppers). Once dry, the peppers are often ground into a powder which you can buy in a small pot (jar) for about 6 euros. 

Piment postcard 

To figure out just how hot this chili pepper is, I consulted the Scoville scale. Developed in 1912 by the chemist Wilbur Scoville, the scale measures the spicy heat, or piquance, of chili peppers. The piment d’Espelette rates level 4 on the scale, slightly spicier than the ancho chili pepper but definitely less hot than the jalapeno. (I love the French terms on the scale below–cayenne ranks as ’torrid’ and tabasco as ‘volcanic’ in spiciness!)

Table simplifiée de Scoville

Degré

Appréciation

Unités Scoville

Exemple

0 neutre 0 – 100 Poivron
1 doux 100 – 500 Paprika doux
2 chaleureux 500 – 1 000 Piment d’Anaheim
3 relevé 1 000 – 1 500 Piment Ancho
4 chaud 1 500 – 2 500 Piment d’Espelette
5 fort 2 500 – 5 000 Piment Chimayo
6 ardent 5 000 – 15 000 Paprika fort
7 brûlant 15 000 – 30 000 Piment Cascabel
8 torride 30 000 – 50 000 Piment de Cayenne
9 volcanique 50 000 – 100 000 Piment tabasco
10 explosif 100 000 et plus Piment habanero

 

So you can use piment liberally without putting your mouth on fire. In fact, the Espelettards (people from Espelette), have the following motto:  A consommer sans modération ! (Consume without moderation—a play on the phrase ‘A consommer avec modération’, consume in moderation , as required for alcoholic beverages in France.)

In practically any gourmet boutique in the Basque country, you can find the piment d’Espelette in a variety of forms-–the regular powder, jelly, jam, spicy oil for grilling, flavored salt, and even chocolats au piment d’Espelette. I found a wonderful jar of garlic cloves marinated in olive oil flavored with piment d’Espelette. And this vendor had a tempting array of dried spices that included mélange basque—basically a herbes de Provence mixture to which piment d’Espelette had been added.

Piment 7 compressed

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This weekend, you can find all these products and more at the Fête du piment d’Espelette. The festival is held every year the last weekend of October in the town of Espelette itself. In addition to the food fair with piments and regional products for sale, there are parades, concerts, pelota games and a competition for the best chili pepper of 2010. On Sunday, everyone sits down to a piment-inspired lunch at one o’clock following the Sunday mass and bénédiction du piments (blessing of the peppers). This year’s festival also marks the tenth anniversary of the piment’s AOC status, an official recognition of this regional product’s uniqueness.

Check out the piment d’Espelette website for more details on the festival and on the French chili pepper: http://www.pimentdespelette.com/. I particularly liked the “Recette du mois” (recipe of the month) section—this month’s winner created a “Piperade façon tarte tatin et sa glace au piment d’Espelette” (a savory version of the dessert tarte tatin). You can click here to see her recipe.

If you are inspired to cook with the piment d’Espelette in the U.S., you can find it at a variety of stores online. When in France, you can of course buy some in any Basque town or in Paris at La Grande Epicerie on the Left Bank. Happy, hot French cooking!

French Take-Out™ ~ La France à emporter

French Affaires readers in Dallas can enjoy a piment d’Espelette festival of sorts next week at Cadot restaurant. French chef Jean-Marie Cadot is offering an Espelette chili dinner from October 25 to 29 which features five courses for $39.95. The Basque chili menu includes:

Tomato & Red Bell Pepper Garnished with Espelette Crème & Popcorn

Crêpes with Shrimp, Onions, Espelette & Hatch Chilies, & Scrambled Eggs with a Mixed Green Salad

Blackened Ahi Tuna with Hatch Chilies, Prosciutto, & Chichoré Lettuce

Cornish Hen with Lemon Preserves, Espelette & Hatch Pipperade, & Roasted Fingerling Potatoes

Crème Catalane (Crème Brûlée)

Cadot restaurant’s chef Jean-Marie is a native of Paris and grew up in a family that’s been in the restaurant, hotel and bakery business since the 1700’s.

Cadot family_history_4

He trained in France before continuing his culinary career in New York City and Dallas. He opened his Dallas restaurant Cadot in 2009 bringing wonderful traditional and new French flavors to the Dallas dining scene. Reservations are recommended for this special Basque chili dinner. For more information and to reserve, please click here.

Burgundy–More Than Boeuf Bourguignon Friday, Oct 15 2010 

It’s fall in France and the U.S. and for me, it’s a return to winter cooking. I love gratins—vegetables such as potatoes layered with cheese and cream or milk—and hearty plats (main dishes) cooked with wine, mushrooms and onions. Sweaters and fires in the fireplace complete the picture.

A quintessential French winter dish of course is boeuf bourguignon (literally, Burgundy beef) which has enjoyed quite a renaissance lately due to the book-made-into-a-movie Julie & Julia. Julia Child’s recipe for this noteworthy stew made with Burgundy red wine is my favorite (pages 315 to 317 of Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol 1 or click here to see it online) and brings the region of Burgundy right into the kitchen.

But Burgundy is much more than its justly celebrated cuisine and wine: art, history, politics, culture, castles, nature, and more make this area of France worth exploring over and over again. Fortunately for several cities in the U.S., Burgundy is coming to us for the next two years—through its art. The spectacular exhibition “The Mourners: Medieval Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy” kicked off its American journey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this past spring, made a stop in St. Louis and is now at the Dallas Museum of Art.

In the late 1300’s and 1400’s, the Dukes of Burgundy were powerful nobles and significant patrons of the arts. Two of the dukes, Philippe le hardi (Philip the Bold) and his son Jean sans peur (John the Fearless), were commemorated after their deaths by spectacular tombs housed today in Dijon’s Musée des Beaux-Arts.

Tomb_wide_angle

While the Dijon museum is undergoing extensive renovations over the next few years, it is sharing the exquisite alabaster sculptures of mourning figures from the lower portion of John the Fearless’s tomb.

View_1_of_Tomb_side

These pleurants, or Mourners—from the French verb pleurer meaning ‘to cry’ or ‘to weep’ in English—are about 16 inches tall and pack a powerful emotional punch. There are nearly 40 of the sculptures representing a funeral procession at the Duke’s death. As Sophie Jugie, the Director of the Dijon museum and exhibition curator, notes in the catalogue:

“The mourners from the tombs of the Dukes of Burgundy are deeply affecting works of art. Beyond their evident visual & narrative qualities, we cannot help but be struck by the emotion they convey as they follow the funeral procession, weeping, praying, singing, lost in thought, giving vent to their grief, or consoling their neighbor. Mourning, they remind us, is a collective experience, common to all people and all moments of history.”

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But the Mourners exhibition is far from sad or depressing. The figures are breathtaking as oeuvres d’art (works of art). They are sculptures that appear both medieval and freshly modern at the same time. And they are a witness to the artistic vision of the various sculptors who worked on them six centuries ago.

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I have seen the Mourners several times—both in their native habitat in Dijon and at the Dallas Museum. The benefit of their American visit is that the figures can be appreciated to their fullest extent—i.e. we can view them on every side. In Dijon, the tombs provide a luxuriously beautiful context but the Mourners can only be viewed at a partial angle as their backs or sides are adjacent to the tomb.

Besides appreciating the figures ‘in the round’, other suggestions for getting the most out of this art exhibition are: 1) When viewing the hooded mourners whose faces aren’t immediately visible, be sure to bend down and look up into their hoods–their entire faces are there in wonderful human detail, 2) Go to the museum at a quiet time for a more contemplative viewing of the sculptures. Noisy, crowded galleries detract quite a bit from these artworks. 3) Take the viewing experience one step further and walk through it with medieval religious music playing on your IPod headphones. I can’t wait to do this last one!

Here is the Mourners exhibition schedule in the U.S.:

Dallas Museum of Art:  Through January 2, 2011

Minneapolis Institute of Arts:  January 23, 2011- April 17, 2011

Los Angeles County Museum of Art:  May 8, 2011 – July 31, 2011

Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Legion of Honor:  August 21, 2011 – January 1, 2012

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond:  January 20, 2012 – April 15, 2012

(Before they return to the capital of Burgundy, however, the Mourners will make a final stop at the Cluny Museum, also known as the Musée national du moyen âge / National Museum of the Middle Ages, in Paris in 2012.)

The ideal would be to see them both in the U.S. and later when they go home to Dijon. Il faut rêver, n’est-ce pas? (We have to dream, don’t we?) At the very least, we are fortunate that Burgundy and a special part of its art will be in the States for about two years. Be sure and mark your calendar to see the Mourners exhibition closest to you—it is a gift of France not to be missed.

French Take-Out™ ~ La France à emporter

If you have not been to Burgundy, one of its signature images is its colorful roof tiles. The center of Dijon has several examples covering the roofs of houses and mansions built by the wealthy from the Renaissance until the French Revolution.

Dijon_Tiled_Rooftops

In nearby Beaune, you have one of the more flamboyant examples of roof tiles on the Hôtel-Dieu, the city’s former hospital. This fifteenth century building of Burgundian and Flemish architecture is a showstopper in every sense. In anticipation of seeing the real thing next time you are in France, you can pick up a charming carte maquette (paper model) version at The Whimsey Shoppe French antique store (Henderson location) in Dallas.

Carte maquette1

They also have several other paper models of beautiful French landmarks including the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. To visit The Whimsey Shoppe online, click here.

Provence Bookmark Friday, Oct 8 2010 

As anyone who has spent time in Provence knows, there is an abundance of wonderful things to see and do in this beautiful corner of the world. It’s a paradise for anyone who loves the sun, mountains, beaches, gardens, cuisine, wine, history, art, music, architecture, pure relaxation—the list goes on and on. I have notebooks full of the soul filling Provence places and experiences I return to again and again.

One endroit (place) that is top on my list is St. Rémy-de-Provence. It is small and charming and has everything one could want in a southern French town. You can walk from one end to the other in about fifteen minutes and find something interesting to look at—or taste!—every few feet. And St. Rémy’s Wednesday morning marché (market) is one of the best in the south of France.

St Remy compressed

 St Remy market compressed

One spot I never miss there is the bookshop and newspaper store. La librairie (paradoxically enough, this word means ‘bookstore’—la bibliothèque is ‘library’ in French) in St. Rémy is a must-do. While it may not sound at all like an activity to bookmark, it remains one of my favorite itinerary stops. The owners have specialized in books on Provence—both in French and in English—on a wide array of topics. From Provençal cuisine to landscapes to history to pottery to art to decor to gardens to novels to memoirs to local stories and legends, they have it all. The postcard selection is pas mal (not bad, i.e. good!). And if you are looking for maps or guidebooks to the area, they have those too.

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For those who like French cuisine, the cookbook section is worth a special look as they carry livres de cuisine (cookbooks) by local chefs. Books on olives and olive oils and other local products have also found their way into my French book collection.

Provence cuisine2Provence cuisineHuile d'Olive

Since so much of actual Provence is eye-candy extraordinaire, a fair number of the bookstore’s offerings are more ‘coffee table’ type books with luscious photographs…of the region, of restored country houses, of pottery, of food, of the local colors. I have acquired many of these as well (yes, bookshelf space chez moi IS an issue!).

Provence potteryCouleurs de Provence

A couple of books that I especially treasure are not filled with photographs—they are illustrated with art. Si j’avais un mas en Provence (If I had a country house in Provence) is an adorable book about many a Provence lover’s dream—owning a house and piece of earth in the south of France. The artist-author includes her watercolors of every detail of Provence architecture, landscapes, and the little things that make life special there. This book makes you want to consult the Provence real estate listings immediately.

Un mas en Provence

A propos de l’art (speaking of art), if you are inspired by painting or are already an artist, there is a book solely devoted to discovering Provence through watercolor painting. Peindre la Provence à l’aquarelle is a unique and original kind of guidebook to southern France. You can even use this book to plan your itinerary and Provence sights to see—paintbrushes or no paintbrushes.

Provence watercolor book

All this to say, it is clear I love books and I love Provence. So this little shop in St. Rémy is a bit of heaven on earth for me. You might find it so too!

SAINT REMY PRESSE
12 Boulevard Mirabeau
13210 St-Rémy-de-Provence, FRANCE

French Take-Out™ ~ La France à emporter

If you are interested in a Provence painting experience, Provence resident and artist Jill Steenhuis will be in Dallas giving a painting workshop at the end of October. Jill is an American who has been living in Provence for many years and practicing her art there. She and her husband own a lovely home just outside Aix-en-Provence. Here are the workshop details:

Two Day ArtistsWorkshop with Jill Steenhuis
October 26 and October 27
9:00 – 12:00 (then lunch) 1:00 – 4:00
Cost: $250.00
Location: Ellen McDowell’s home, 4302 Enfield Dr., Dallas, TX 75220

This workshop will concentrate on color – how to mix a harmonious palette in oil paint, then put it to use in the landscape en plein air or still lifes and/or interiors if weather does not permit being out of doors. The focus is on color and the true creative process of taking in nature through the senses to activate one’s unique inner poetry. The workshop is about stretching oneself to experience the link with nature in a deeper way than just copying it, allowing Grace to intervene.

For more information on Jill, her Provence art experiences and her teaching philosophy, go to www.jillsteenhuis.com and click on “Workshops”, then click on “Workshop Description”. To register, a deposit of $50.00 is needed by October 20 to confirm your spot in the workshop. You can send check to Jill Steenhuis c/o Ellen McDowell to above address. And if you can’t fit this into your Dallas schedule, we may just have to include a workshop with Jill on a future French Affaires Provence trip!