NANTES: PART III
A sea of humankind swims outside the windows of our old apartment overlooking the bustling main thoroughfare of Nantes centreville. From our perch above this never-ending flow of bodies old and young, male and female, rich and poor, we watched as fascinated children staring into a giant fishbowl, endless hours ogling, inventing stories about each one below us, searching the crowds for look-alikes of the famous and infamous, endless hours of entertainment, amazed at such a variety of people all congregated in this one spot, in our city, all coming together for our own private show.
Women in tight jeans and high heels, swags of gold chains looped around their necks, clutching oversized handbags and laden down with elegant, beribboned shopping sacks, les Nantaises scurried by, always in a hurry, affording merely a glance left or right into the glass panes of the less-than-designer boutiques that line the sidewalks of our own humble street. Rebels, homeless or not, dressed all in scruffy black, hair stuck out every which way, backpacks or sleeping bags strapped to their backs, cigarettes dangling from their lips, traveling in packs with dogs trotting at their feet, parking themselves in circles like Scouts around a bonfire, hands out to the passing shoppers, begging, nay insisting, for the odd coin. Teens skulking down the sidewalk, book bags slung over rounded shoulders, hair hanging in their eyes, the newest fad, or moving along in great crane-like strides, gabbing non-stop amongst their gaggle of friends, always busy, forever important. And not to leave out the strange and the unidentified, wandering the streets of this city like lost souls, waiting for the next bus to leave.
We stood at our post year in and year out, experiencing the changing of the seasons from one story up, this distance divided by glass. We watched as the Christmas decorations were hung, great ropes of colored and sparkling lights, garlands twining gaily up lampposts, and we listened to the holiday music piped in, bursting forth from loudspeakers across the tiny square just as the official shopping season began and all the way, day in and day out, through to the end. And two months later we watched as cherry pickers crawled up and down the roadways, yellow-hatted men coming to end the festivities as each light was unscrewed and dropped to waiting hands below. Springtime’s inauguration came with great pots of flowers in reds and yellows and shades of violet, hung from where those Christmas lights celebrated the winter season. Summertime arrived as bar and bistro doors were flung open and tiny tables for two or four were moved outside, turning the streets into lively, noisy terraces, the clatter of cutlery, the clinking of glasses amid shouts of laughter our own warm-weather birdsong.
And parades galore of every kind took to that street and we never missed a single one: Christmas, Carnival or Gay Pride, we stood at our posts, Marty in our arms, and watched, enchanted as larger-than-life snowmen and Santas danced down that road to our old holiday favorites. Or the brightly costumed, tossing candy into the crowds, bright, shiny, feathered peacocks on stilts or gaily decorated trucks, disco music blaring, bodies swaying to the beat, bedazzling the gawking crowds who never failed to join in the songs, allowing themselves to be carried away by the energy and spirit of the festivities. We missed not even one single manif’, those highly charged political demonstrations, monthly if not weekly occurrences in these highly charged times. We watched, heads shaking in disbelief and annoyance, as noisy, rambunctious union members, teachers, students, nurses and doctors shouted and waved their collective fist at the government, demanding reform while refusing to budge, angry slogans sprayed across banners and blasted from bullhorns, time and time again, entire communities spilling down the street in solidarity and determination before wandering off to our neighborhood bars for a cool drink and a smoke.
But we no longer live in that apartment, the hub of the universe. Our axis has shifted from the noisy, busy center to a silent place where few humans roam. From our tall, elegant French windows where we now live all we can see is the back of the Préfecture and the small Place abutting the regal green gates. We watch as, twice a year, the well-dressed upper crust political and military elite sweep through the impeccably tended garden and the grand doors for annual garden parties, or peep over our balcony as M. le Maire, our illustrious mayor, stands at attention in front of the Guard as honors are given on the Fourteenth of July. The seasons now slide one into the next silently with no fanfare, no loud, colorful announcement in the form of a parade or decorations, the only music that seeps in through our windows is the distant, muffled sounds of far-off demonstrations passing in protest in front of the Préfecture, symbol of the government. The occasional pop of a firecracker or the whiff of manure dumped at the end of the road by angry farmers gives us no indication of reason, no sense of time. Nantes, for all of her glory and size, is really just a sleepy little hamlet with an undoubtedly small-town feel and ambiance and here, just outside the magic circle of activity, all lies quiet and peaceful, as time slips by. The seasons punctuated by parades and demonstrations like inked-in reminders on our own private calendar, keeping us up to date, never letting us miss one holiday, one event, no longer reach us in the far-off confines of our new part of town.
We would never be able to follow the calendar or even remember one holiday if it weren’t for the bakery goods, the special festive treats that have been baked and sold generation after generation, the traditional confections announcing each and every celebration, welcoming in each season as loudly and clearly as any newspaper headline. Buttercream-rich bûches every Christmas, golden, almond-flavored, rum-infused Galette des Rois for Epiphany, tiny Niflettes or that special XVIIIth century-inspired pistachio-raspberry gâteau for Toussaint, All Saint's Day, Nids de Pâques, luscious cakes piled high with swirls of creamy frosting, dotted with colorful candy eggs nestled on shelves amid the chocolate bells, chickens and eggs of Easter, cellophane-wrapped chocolate fish for April Fool’s Day, every single holiday has her very own traditional patisserie, pastry, confection or treat and they all, each and every one of them, arrive on the same day and disappear as suddenly, all in unison. Simply walk into any bakery or pastry shop in France and peruse the display of cakes and such and you will never need any other seasonal or holiday harbinger again. Although I do love a parade.
Merveilles, Tourtisseaux, Oreillettes, Bugnes or Bottereaux, these delectable little beignets, some feathery-light pillows, some crunchy, crispy confections, each and every one is a specialty for this Mardi Gras and Carnival season in France, the name and possibly the shape only changing from region to region. Trays piled high with Bottereaux, the rum-infused beignet specific to my adopted hometown of Nantes, cut into squares or lozenges, freshly fried, dusted with copious amounts of powdered or granulated sugar, begin appearing in bakeries and pastry shops throughout France shortly before Mardi Gras, and remain an absolute fixture through the end-of-March festivities. I recently posted a simpler, kid-friendly (for baking) baking powder version of the Bottereau on Huffington Post, which makes a denser, cake-like beignet, almost like a fried version of a brioche or our own Fouace Nantaise. Here I offer you the more traditional yeast version of this scrumptious, addictive treat. Lighter, airier, more donut like, the cake itself is barely sweet with a subtle hint of rum, the perfect delectable, backdrop for lots of powdered sugar. Eat them while they are still fresh and hot and you may just find yourself wanting this season to last just a little longer.
I’ll be sending this to Susan of Wild Yeast for her wonderful weekly yeastie event Yeastspotting!
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Carnival beignets from Nantes
2 ¾ cups (380 g) flour
2 ¼ tsps active dry yeast
Large pinch salt
2 Tbs (30 g) granulated sugar
3/8 cup (100 ml) milk
9 Tbs (125 g) unsalted butter
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
½ tsp vanilla
2 Tbs rum
Oil for frying
Powdered/confectioner’s sugar for dusting
Whisk 1 cup of the flour, the active dry yeast, salt and granulated sugar together in a large mixing bowl.
Heat the milk and butter together gently over medium-low heat until most of the butter (about two thirds) has melted. Remove from the heat and stir until all of the butter has melted. Touch the liquid with the back of a finger; it should feel warm or tepid which is exactly what you want. Warm liquid activates the yeast while too cold will have no effect and too hot will kill the yeast.
Pour the warm milk and butter over the dry ingredients in the bowl and stir until you have a smooth paste. Add the lightly beaten eggs, the vanilla and the rum and stir until blended. Stir in one more cup of the flour mixture until smooth. Blend in another half a cup flour, forming a dough. Sprinkle the last half cup flour on a clean work surface and scrape the dough out of the bowl onto the flour and knead until the flour is incorporated and you have a very smooth, elastic dough, about 5 minutes.
Place the ball of dough in a clean, lightly-greased bowl, turning the dough to coat with the oil. Cover the bowl with plastic and allow to rest and rise for about 3 hours.
Scrape the risen dough out of the bowl onto a lightly floured work surface and roll out to a thickness between ¼ and ½ inch (1/2 to 1 cm). Using a sharp knife, pastry or pizza cutter, slice smoothly into 2-inch (5 cm) strips. Then cut each strip into 2-inch squares. Heat the oil to 350°F (180°C) then slide a few squares of dough in at a time – you not only don’t want to crowd the Bottereaux but putting in too many at a time will lower the temperature of the hot oil! The beignets will float up to the top of the oil then begin to brown. Gently and carefully turning the beignets over once or twice or so during frying, allow them to turn a deep golden color on both sides. They should also be well puffed up. Using a slotted spoon, scoop up the bottereaux and allow to drain quickly on paper toweling. Continue to fry all of the squares of dough.
Place all the freshly fried, warm Bottereaux on a serving platter and dust with generous amounts of powdered/confectioner’s sugar. Eat warm and fresh.