|Les Deux Freres, Aix-en-Provence|
It was really cold. But the outdoor terraces of all the cafés and restaurants were still full of people, day and night. There were heaters hanging in the corners, or fancy heated standing lamps in between the tables. The Swiss students in my French class were incensed at this waste (gaspillage) of energy. I thought it was great that we could continue to enjoy the festive outdoor atmosphere, despite the plummeting temperatures. But then, as I sat out in one of these cafés, I couldn’t get away from the smoke drifting my way from the tables all around. The smoking ban in public places came into effect in February, 2007 and in bars and restaurants in 2008. But people are still allowed to smoke outdoors. So heated terraces, it seems, are very good for business.
YOU KNOW YOU’RE IN FRANCE WHEN:
Someone says “Il ne fait PAS chaud”, or “It is NOT warm”, meaning “It is #^!* freezing.” They like to speak in negatives. Likewise, if something is “pas terrible”, it is good.
“I think it’s important that we try cardoons,” Jim said to me very seriously. I knew what he meant. We are making a point of trying as much local produce as possible when it is in season. So we tried them. Cardoons, in case you don’t know, look like overgrown celery that someone left in the cellar for 100 years. They are not attractive. And they take some preparation, too, peeling away all the fibrous outside bits. Monique suggested simmering them in milk, not water, which is what we did. We made it into a gratin, garnished prettily with anchovies. Even though this dish holds pride of place on the Christmas Eve table, we were not convinced.
Topinambours, on the other hand, were our big winter discovery. When you find them nice and fresh in the market they are bright, with a lovely mottled purple skin. They are one of the “forgotten vegetables” (legumes perdues) making a big comeback these days. They are knobby little things, a pain to peel. But they make an extraordinary, gently flavoured but substantial soup.
In North America they are known as Jerusalem artichokes, or sunchokes. What I find interesting is that they actually came to France from Canada. Samuel de Champlain brought them over in the early 1600s, calling them the “Canada” or “French” potato.
RECIPE OF THE WEEK: TOPINAMBOUR SOUP
While your husband peels and chops around 500 g. of topinambours, peel an onion and chop it. Heat a bit of oil in a medium soup pot and add the onion. Sauté until softened but not browned. Towards the end, add two garlic cloves, chopped. Cook briefly. Add the peeled and chopped topinambours. Cover generously with chicken broth, about six cups. Add salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer, partially covered, and cook until the topinambours are very tender. This takes a long time, much longer than potatoes. Take the mixture off the heat for a few minutes and then blend it until smooth, either with an immersion blender or in an upright blender, in batches if necessary. Put it back in the pot to heat gently, adding more water if it is too thick.
Like all root-vegetable soups, this one benefits from a bit of oomph in the way of a garnish. Also, the colour is a bit beige – asking for a bit of pizzazz. In January we laid slices of fresh black truffles on top – amazing. At the restaurant Les Deux Frères in Aix-en-Provence they gilded the lily by drizzling truffle oil on as well. We have also topped it with sautéed croutons made from country bread, or bacon bits, or crisped rounds of chorizo, with or without a small dollop of crème fraîche. This serves four generously.
|Topinabour soup garnished with truffles|
A la prochaine,