DAY 1: THE HILLS ARE ALIVE…
He’ll do whatever it takes, pay any price, to be able to savor the sight of me lacing up hiking boots, sliding into my padded, taupe-colored coat and have me tromp along beside him out in the country, in the fresh air, wind whipping my hair, bringing color to my cheeks. He has sacrificed many pleasures at the alter of his love for me, abandoned days at the beach, splashing through the waves, hikes up mountainsides in the chill summer air, camping along rivers’ edges, an ice cold dip in the sparkling waters before starting his day. This city boy born and bred who fell in love with Mother Nature, who revels in her wild beauty, has given up his first love to one raised a mere stone’s throw from the beach, one whose childhood was spent running barefoot in the hot, hot sun under clear blue skies untarnished by the glare of city buildings, a view all the way to the ocean from her back windows yet one who prefers city to country, bustling streets to tranquil Edens, one who loathes camping and water, one who failed miserably as a Girl Scout.
So he’ll promise me romantic country inns, elegantly rustic, woo me with gourmet meals, meals set out on pristine white tablecloths, candlelight flickering in crystal wine glasses. He’ll hint of luxurious desserts, sumptuous chocolate treats under a froth of Chantilly or the satin shimmer of the perfect crème brulée hidden under her crispy, fragile, pale gold wrapping. He’ll whisper of quiet strolls over meadows hand in hand, picnics rustled up in village markets, delicious spreads of local delicacies eaten among the flowers. He’ll find the perfect spot and lure me with glossy photos and romance in his eyes. And I’m taken in.
Leaving the impersonal barrenness of the highway, we wind our way up through towns once busy, passing now-crumbling hotels and boarded up bistros once offering the pre-autoroute traveler respite from the long, snowy journey, our road growing ever narrower, spotting cows here and there whenever the shady coolness and wild beauty open up to clear green pastures, cows chewing contentedly in the sunshine and warmth, and we find ourselves in a picture-postcard village boasting artisan cheeses and promising a luxurious, peaceful haven. Our hotel offers us a quiet welcome, all warm chocolate browns and cozy country atmosphere right out of the pages of a women’s magazine, “charming” and “quaint” fluttering through my brain. We settle into a room of rough-hewn wood and blood red calico, heart-shaped throw pillows edged in lace soon tossed off the bed, abandoned. The window is flung open and we breathe in the lusty mountain air.
We wake each morning to bright sunshine and clear skies and, after breakfast, lace up those hiking boots, slide into the padded coats, grab camera and notebook and step outside. Step outside to the sun on our upturned faces, soft blue skies and that heady, sour smell of cows. Breathe in and welcome it though it may bite, sting just a bit, but don’t you know that those cows produce the wonderful Salers and Cantal cheeses of the region, and when you look out over the paysage, the countryside, over the rocky terrain and the grass in muted shades of browns and greens you see how the sharp, nutty, wild taste of these cheeses is born of this, the flavors reflecting both the scents and the wildness of what you are staring at and you understand how nature works. And up we walk, pausing occasionally to take in the beauty or wander under barbed wire to visit one or another ancient, rickety buron, the sheds built in the middle of cow pastures, shelters for both cows and farmers during the cold, snowy winters of this mountainous region, a place where the cows could be milked and that milk turned into cheese. All are empty in this beautiful spring season and some seem abandoned, all rotting wood and crumbling stone. The lush grass and the dirt paths are dotted with the first signs of the coming summer, tiny crocuses in white and mauve pushing their heads up through the ground drawn to the sun and warmth and we try to tiptoe around them, fearful of crushing even one. And we walk up and up, nearly to the snow, the last spots of snow loathe to let go of winter.
And down again. Mr. Nature leads me weaving through fields and pastures, over hills and tiny rivulets running clear and cold, as he rambles on, telling tales of his time working in this region, recounting the history of the region, and we chatter on about life and travels, politics and family. We peep through cracks in the old wooden doors of the burons, stop whenever we hear a bird, and, now tired and hungry we try and wend our way back. And notice that we’ve wandered a bit off course as we shade our eyes and peer off into the distance to villages on some distant horizon. We soon stumble upon a small group of houses and see a man and a woman rebuilding a stone wall edging their property. “What’s the quickest way to get back to the village?” “Oh circle around behind the farmhouse and just walk straight across the fields. It’s all right! Go ahead! Tout droit!” So we do. Down, down, down and then we come face to face with barbed wire, a line of trees and brambles and a river. No friendly, quaint little rivulet but a river. Ok, maybe just a few yards wide but a river nonetheless. Once, twice, three times we try. Under barbed wire, over barbed wire, pushing aside brambles and breaking off branches and hopping from stone to stone yet realizing too late each time that this path will get us nowhere. Once, twice, three times and Jamie is getting hungrier and grouchier and grumbling rude remarks under her breath as she tries to put on a brave face and remain calm. Finally after one, two, three failed expeditions to cross the river, she finally blows her top, gathers herself together and decides that it is time to take charge. Her inner Girl Scouts kicks in and she, shoes sticky with mud and cow pie, she stomps back through the field and along the river, husband trailing after her, until she finds what looks to her the best solution. Pushing the barbed wire out of her way, tossing her backpack across the water ahead of her, grabbing a branch, she hurtles herself over the water and onto the other side. Sliding under another barbed fence she calls “Here! Over here! And don’t argue just follow me, dammit!” And we are over! Only one more field, one barb-wired-edged stone wall to face and we are homeward bound. Calm again, as calm as the breeze.
A quick stop at the local bar for sandwiches of thick slices of local Cantal nestling in a soft, chewy baguette, we are back at the hotel and pulling off boots and sliding into bed for an afternoon nap.
And the afternoon slides lazily into evening and another meal of local specialties like Pounti aux pruneaux and Cromesqui de cantal followed by a cloud of fromage frais under a tomato coulis served with smoked salmon, perfectly cooked fish, veal or beef and a delicious dessert. A clink of wine glasses and the calm and tranquility of our day roll over us. And off we tumble to bed happy and looking forward to the following day.
QUINOA RISOTTO WITH ASPARAGUS, Parmesan Tuiles and grilled Coppa
From mai 2010 issue of Saveurs. Translated and adapted by Jamie
A recipe to lighten the load and cleanse body and soul after a wonderful, food-filled vacation. I am sending this to Ivonne of Cream Puffs in Venice for Magazine Monday.
9 oz (250 g) quinoa
2 Tbs olive oil
1 onion, diced
½ cup (125 ml) dry white wine
4 cups (1 litre) chicken stock or bouillon
7 oz (200 g) asparagus tips or @17 oz (500 g) thin green asparagus *
2 – 4 Tbs (30 – 60 g) unsalted butter
¼ - ½ cup (20 – 40 g) freshly grated Parmesan or to taste, a bit extra to serve
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 thin slice coppa or speck person (3 or 4)
½ cup (40 g) or more freshly grated Parmesan for Tuiles
* I cooked the 500 g of asparagus, used the tips in the risotto and added the tender stalks cut into 1-inch (2 cm) pieces to a salad the following day.
Prepare the bouillon or stock and keep it warm. Pour one wineglass of wine for the risotto and one for you to sip as you cook. Peel and dice the onion.
Trim the asparagus if you have whole stalks: break off the hard bottom inch or two then, using a paring knife or vegetable peeler very carefully just trim off the tough outer skin on the bottom of the remaining stalk. Bring a large pot filled with a few inches of water to the boil, add salt and boil the asparagus for 3 minutes. Drain and rinse with cool water.
Prepare the Parmesan Tuiles:
Heat a large non-stick pan or crêpe pan over medium/medium-high heat. While it is heating up, place piles – a tablespoon or two depending on the desired diameter of the Tuiles – of grated Parmesan cheese on the pan surface leaving space between the piles for them to spread. Using the back of a soup spoon, simply press the grated cheese out into a circle keeping the cheese a little thickly layered so it doesn’t burn. Heat for just a few minutes: the cheese will melt and bubble joyously. As soon as the edges begin to brown, turn off the heat and allow the Tuiles to sit and cool in the pan. Do not allow them to turn brown or cook too long or the cheese will become bitter. The Tuiles will firm up as they cool. Once cooled and firm, very gently lift them up with a thin metal cake spatula and remove them to a plate.
Prepare the Grilled Coppa or Speck:
Simply heat up the non-stick pan or crêpe pan (wipe it down with a paper towel if you have made the Parmesan Tuiles first) and grill the coppa or slices of speck for a few minutes on each side. They should change color and show spots of golden brown where they touch the pan. Remove to a plate (they should also firm up once left to cool).
Prepare the Quinoa Risotto:
Rinse the quinoa under cold running water until the water runs clear. Allow to drain completely.
In a large skillet, heat the olive oil then add the diced onion and sautée for 5 minutes until soft and translucent and beginning to turn golden around the edges. Add the quinoa and stir until coated with the oil and the onions are blended in. Add the glass of white wine and stir. Allow to come to a low boil and simmer until the wine has all but been absorbed.
Begin adding the chicken stock, 2 ladles at a time, stirring to keep the quinoa from sticking. Allow the quinoa to absorb the stock and then add a couple more ladles. Continue cooking and adding stock until the quinoa is cooked through, tender though with a little bite to it, and the stock is absorbed. This should take between 20 – 25 minutes. When the quinoa is just about but not quite cooked, after about 20 minutes of cooking, slip in the asparagus points pushing them gently under the surface of the risotto, add a generous grinding of black pepper and just a dash of salt (depending on how salty your stock is).
When the quinoa is cooked through, gently stir in the butter and grated Parmesan to taste (you don’t want to overpower the delicate flavor of the asparagus). Check and adjust the seasonings.
Serve the risotto hot with one Parmesan Tuile and one slice of grilled coppa per person.
This dish easily serves 2 hungry eaters as a main course or 4 as a starter or a side dish.