“1. a bundle or parcel. 2. that in which anything is packed, as a case, crate, etc. 5. to put into wrappings or a container.” – ‘Package, packaging’ from the Macquarie Dictionary, 2nd Edition, 1981
Do you remember when I let it slip that I have a thing for packaging? Mmn, yep, still have it and lately I feel like I’m being bombarded with even more wonderful examples of it, everywhere. At home, at the markets, at the vide-greniers (the village garage sales – something I must absolutely tell you about soon), at friends’ houses, in the guise of gifts from friends… everywhere.
Colours, texts, fonts, old, new, shabby or shiny… I can’t get enough of it – and if there’s a text or a word here or there in French, even better! It’s amazing how much you can improve your vocabulary just reading the fine print! (and probably a lot more educational than my dippings into, shock, horror – Voici).
At the moment I’m getting a buzz out of OLD packaging and the eg’s here are from either home (my mother-in-law is a great help here) – or from stands in the markets and vide-greniers. I understand why people start up businesses selling this stuff – there are crazy people out there, like me, who love it! But a lot of it can be quite expensive so I’m happy to admire it and ask permission to take a photo or two. Yes, I think I am mad!
So here’s a second instalment of boxes, tins, bottles I’ve seen here in France lately. I should add however, that not all these products are French. Some come from next door in Spain (thanks to Vincent who is aware of my condition) or further afar. But they seemed too lovely to leave out.
“Oh, who are the people in your neighborhood, in your neighborhood, in your neighborhood. Say who are the people in your neighborhood – the people that you meet each day?”
For some reason I found myself singing this song with Lilas in the car yesterday. We’d been cruising, passing 20-odd tractors in full harvest mode, and I’d just filled up with gazole at Madame Marty’s in the village next to ours. On paying for the ‘gazoil’ I received a very cheery lesson from an old Frenchman on how to say ‘gazole’ instead of ‘gazoil’… “No, it’s not like how the Anglais say it!” he instructed. “She’s not exactly Anglais!” piped in Mme Marty with a nod at me. Oh I love the locals!
Mme Marty has been running the local ‘tabac’ (tobacco shop) and ‘station service’ (service station -as with a lot of things in French, just say it backwards and you will probably be right. I laughed so hard the day Benji asked me if I’d ever played with a ‘talkie-walkie’) for about thirty years. I don’t know a single person who isn’t fond of ‘La Souris’ (The Mouse) – the name the locals have affectionately bestowed upon her. In rain or shine, she is out there filling the cars, serving out the packs of cigarettes (they still smoke a lot around here), the cold beers from the fridge and the ‘bonbons’ to kids from her vast array at 1c a piece. Her beautiful dog Raya is either lying on the tiles obstructing your path or mooching around, taking a pause in the middle of the road near the petrol pumps.
Mme Marty has a brother Robert who also lives in the village, whose wife, Lilliane is responsible for what seems like all local children under the age of 10. She is the super-nanny with little ones constantly around her skirts, moving patiently at their pace with ther first steps, first bicycle ride etc. She has a play area at the side of Mme Marty’s station and you can see all the toys lined-up and waiting. This family are incredibly important assets to the village and it just wouldn’t be the same without them. I asked Mme Marty where she was from and she pointed upstairs. Born and bred on site, a true-blue local. And when I asked her how much longer she intended to keep running the tabac she told me in her inimitable husky voice, thick with its Southern accent “as long as this body will let me!”.
Living out here, to be honest, can sometimes do my head in. Everybody knows everyone’s business. There is no anonymity and rarely a kept secret. I’ve driven KILOMETRES from home in search of a pharmacy to buy a pregnancy test so that locals queueing behind me wouldn’t know of our plan. Haven’t I told you already about being observed at the recycled bottle bin? – ‘How much does that family drink with their ‘etranger’ guests!??’. Try buying suppositories on the quiet…
But (coming from a childhood in a city) ultimately, I have grown to appreciate living in a small community. There is a lovely sense of routine and an appreciation of Nature’s cycles in the country – and a wealth of information on offer on all sorts of subjects if you reach out for it. A smile and quick chat with Mme Marty can make my day, a wink from the butcher and an exchange of recipe ideas… life in the country can be rich.
And sometimes you have no idea where a conversation might lead you. As I was speaking with Mme Marty yesterday she mentioned that she’d known the former owner of our house. Tell me more!… She said that she knew the house well and had visited it when ‘the’ lady was living in it. The lady had been living there with her parents and when they died she stayed on but, being handicapped, had a live-in carer (a Spanish man) with her. After all these years! Suddenly my carefully-guarded scraps of beautiful purple-inked hand-written text – pages of a letter that Benji had retrieved from the mess of rats’ nests in the ceiling while renovating – from a young girl away at school to her ‘darling parents’, transformed from fiction into living history and real people! How many years I had struggled to read the lines (and marvel at how gorgeous the handwriting was) of ‘votre petite fille, Y’, amongst the nibbled pages and adored the little picture of a girl tending her farm animals in what may have been our home. This information was wonderful!
I’d so often wondered ‘who is she?’, ‘she must have lived here, as she is asking her parents how the weather in our hamlet is!’. I’d always felt incredibly moved by her tender words to her parents whom she obviously loved so much and wondered if she had slept in our home. I even kept pieces of the beautiful wallpaper (it wasn’t in a state to keep on the walls unfortunately) that I had painstakingly removed during work on the house. This might have even been from the little girl’s room…
And this little girl was called ‘Yvette’. The ‘Y’ was fully confirmed when Mme Marty said the lady’s name had been Yvette. She had existed. But with this came some sad information. Yvette had apparently fallen pregnant and her parents, unwilling to have their daughter unmarried and become a mother, forced her to terminate the pregnancy and with that, Mme Marty said, “elle a perdu sa tete” (she lost her mind). Heartbreaking. Whether it be village gossip, a myth or whatever, I am still thinking about that darling little girl, writing to her adored parents. In a way I wish I didn’t know the whole story.
…Umm, here we go again! For those of you who saw this as a ‘mini-post’ a few hours ago, you must have been thinking ‘so where the heck is that recipe then?’. Well, I was in a hurry to pick up our child from school and WHOOPS pressed the ‘publish’ button instead of ‘save draft’. I’ll give it another try.
As for the spelling …well yes, I checked in the cookbook. It’s one of those words, like ‘rhythm’ or ‘Mediterranean’… I always have to think twice about it or look it up!
So here is my version of a ‘Rattatooey’ (that’s how I pronounce it, causing grimaces all round I’m sure) – a very traditional French dish that for me, unlike any other dish, evokes Summer in the South. The colours of the ingredients are sublime and just thinking about cooking it conjures up images of potagers (vegetable patches), big cast-iron casserole pots simmering on country kitchen stoves, lashings of fresh basil and chilled French wines. Many households are cooking up this dish right now and on my visits to friends’ houses I love nothing more than peeking into their pots to see what theirs look like. Vegies cut big or small? Diced or sliced?? Oily, not so oily? Fresh tomotoes, tinned?
I say ‘my’ version as yes, there are many. The ingredients are almost always the same, but the cooking methods differ. I’m a little embarrassed admitting that mine has conserved tomatoes in it instead of fresh, but it has. A good friend of ours came to stay this Summer (more of him in later posts) and being the most wonderful cook he is (and being French, I must also add) I was eager to get his opinion on what the ‘correct’ way to prepare this is. Strike out! He insisted the tomatoes had to be fresh. Ohh, I thought to myself, now I feel unworthy. Oh well. It’s always tasted good to us and what’s the point in arguing with this Frenchman, whose opinions on cooking and wine I admire so much.
I should add that my two of my favourite references for cooking are Stephanie Alexander’s ‘The Cook’s Companion’ and Susan Herrmann Loomis’s ‘French Farmhouse Cookbook’ and I first accessed this recipe from their reassuring pages. They were both wedding presents and how many times did I think to myself in those early days as a mute-non-speaking the local language-housewife with her apron – ‘where wold I be with out you??!??’ Well I must say that neither of their versions use conserve/ tinned tomatoes either!
Our friend did have a little extra advice for me too. On his departure, he mentioned that during the vintage I should be preparing many good meals for my husband, be kind and – with a wink – be a ‘bonne femme’. What did he mean? Did he really mean the housewife variety relegated to her stove or being simply good to Him? In the kitchen, elsewhere? (now don’t go there…). Mais merci, I’ll take that on board.
Incidentally, in French, ‘bonne femme’ could be either ‘good woman’ or ‘good wife’ – it’s the same term for both. For the blokes however, there’s no such confusion as husband has its own word – ‘mari’.
I’m beginning to think we’re all destined to be good housewives here! (in the countryside anyway, if not the towns).
Anyway, here’s my recipe, minus the fresh tomatoes, from one Bonne Femme to you!
With these quantities, you can serve this to 6-8 people and still have left-overs.
This is one of those dishes that just gets better and better on the second and third days. Ideally, I make this the night before serving.
(I change my portions each time, according to how it looks in the pot, so these quantities can be varied according to your taste)
4-5 medium onions, sliced (I love them!)
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
4 eggplants, sliced
8 zucchinis, sliced to 1cm thickness
3-4 capsicums (that is, peppers or poivrons, depending on your country!) – green, yellow and red, seeded and sliced
1 x 690g bottle crushed tomato pulp (you may not want to pour all of it in)
2 x 800g tin tomatoes
olive oil, sunflower oil for frying
chopped parsley and torn basil
Cut the eggplant into 1cm (or finer if you like) slices, place the slices in layers on a large tray, sprinkling salt over each layer. Cover with tin foil, weigh down with a heavy book and leave for one hour.
Heat up a generous amount of oil in a large cast-iron casserole/ heavy-bottomed pot and fry the onions over medium-low heat until soft and golden.
While the onions are frying, seed and chop capsicums, chop zucchinis, chop garlic.
As the onions become soft and golden, add the capsicum and the garlic and stir well. Increase heat to medium-high, stirring frequently to mix the ingredients.
Lower heat, cover with lid. Cook for further 15 minutes.
During this time, rinse the eggplant slices, drain through a colander and pat dry with tea towels.
Prepare one or two fry pans for shallow frying eggplants with generous amount of blended olive oil/ sunflower oil in each.
Stir in the tomatoes into the pot.
Stir in zucchinis to the pot, add freshly ground pepper and continue simmering with lid on.
Over a high heat (watch that the oil doesn’t burn) fry the eggplant slices until golden, re-adding oils to the pan/s regularly. This step is one of the most time-consuming in this recipe, but I really think it makes a difference to the dish. Once slices are cooked, I lay them aside on paper towels on a large tray.
Please note: I don’t salt the pot until I’ve tasted it with the eggplant added – even if the eggplants have been well-rinsed there can be a residue of salt.
Once all the eggplant slices have been fried, I add them to the pot, taste for salt and then re-cover and leave simmering for another 20 minutes.
Serve cold, warm or hot the next day with torn basil leaves and freshly chopped parsley.
This is a great side dish for bbq’d meats – especially lamb. It also goes very well with country sausages.
We also enjoy serving left-over ratatouille as a pizza base or tossed through pasta – it’s a delicious mix with spaghetti or fettuccine, sprinkled with basil and parmesan.
There was a beautiful orange glow lighting up our room early this morning and I couldn’t wait to get outside to see what the garden and it’s adjacent vines looked like in that light…
It’s nearing ‘les vendanges’ (harvest time for the grapes – or vintage, as we say in Australia) and it looks like it will be about a week early. The grapes are all looking pretty good (those night visits helped!) and Benji’s only 3/4 stressed. What you see above are bunches of ‘Syrah’. Some of our friends have already started on their whites here in the Minervois, but our red grapes here probably have another week to go before the chop! My days of picking are long gone I’m sorry to say. Darn that back. Everytime I see the pickers out in the heat with their broad smiles, sticky and dirty hands, having a laugh with each other, I get so nostalgic! I never realised how much fun and satsfaction I’d have from finishing a row – finishing a whole vineyard! – with a team. I was only beginning to learn French and so a lot of my time in the row was spent listening to mad, sun-induced conversations I had little or no chance of undersatnding, kind advice from a few of the pickers on how to learn French in Three Easy Steps, or being asked to rattle off sentences out loud to everyone, whose meaning I had no idea about, with hysterical laughter greeting them. They’d ask me to repeat these word for word to ‘the boss’ at home, and then I would know what they meant!… Sentences full of ‘gros mots’ (what the lttle ones call ‘swear words) apparently!
The only thing I couldn’t bring myself to doing was guzzling down the red at lunchtime. How did they do that? You stop for a very LONG 90 minutes (these traditions of meal times must be respected. Geez, in Australia it was a brisk 30 minutes), and then get going again in the full force of the afternoon heat, to finish at 5pm. Most people were very un-Anglo-Saxon and would have just the one glass, but some of the guys would go crazy! I’d look over at the red faces with red in their bellies and wonder how they kept standing, or kept from snipping their fingers. My lunch break was a much less festive affair: lunch with a spectacular view, a very petite conversation in the French that I had, and then a long nap in the vines. Not much else to do out there. But it was so much fun.
A lot of people are already proclaiming that it will be a good year, but it’s hard to know until everything is safe off the vines! Fingers crossed.