Episode 4: The French Food Market and Food ‘tout court !’ – just simply!

Cheese and wine are reason enough to visit France; oh, and a good-tasting baguette or pain de compagne – country loaf. French stalls are so carefully laid out; they take such care with their produce. They recognise the importance of their cultural heritage – leur patrimoine culturel – and food is an integral part of that culture. They are aware of the value of what is old; they take pride in repairing and refurbishing anything from a falling-down wall or a crumbling village fountain where, once upon a time, the local women used it to wash their laundry. It’s about meaning and memories; all this material culture shapes who they are.

Haricots verts of natural and varied sizes; not those uniformly-cut! Even aesthetics has crept into our food. Here, peas-in-the-pod, mmm, the idea of shelling them and creating delightful combinations for this evening’s meal… umm with what? Let’s ramble some more…

I’m after getting side-tracked! A boulangerie – bakery – you will find all sorts of bread. Scrumptious smells wafting from the kitchen – behind the scenes. Les brioches, my favourite – full of salted butter – mouth-watering! You have, no doubt, happened upon the many chocolatiers – craft chocolate makers – or discovered one or two pâtisseries – French pastry shops – on your travels to Paris. I am always enthralled; my eyes are entranced by exquisite gâteaux of all shapes and sizes, mouth-watering, these pastries look as good as they taste!

As I step back in time to when, as a jeune fille au pair, I first set eyes on the mosaic of pastries I was mesmerised, wow, such choice, perhaps too much! Non, there is never too much! I appreciate good, bitter chocolate, and strong, but not-bitter, coffee, and so my choice of gâteau was, for quite some time, an opéra – mmm – just to think about it I can taste the delightful marriage of chocolate and coffee; all those layers… the onctueux – smooth chocolate, the rich coffee, what a mélange – a match made in heaven. So back to recalling this first time… the young shop assistant asking me to repeat, opéra, no less than three times! Of course I was not accentuating the ‘é’ of opéra, and she failed to understand my accent. It’s like the ‘fada’ in Irish; it indicates that the vowel is to be pronounced ‘long’. So in the end I just pointed to it – ce gâteau là ! – getting rather impatient, I suppose that is why I wanted to speak French without my Irish accent! Don’t worry I wasn’t traumatised or anything!

Every time my husband and I take a trip to Paris – or to France in general – the predominant theme that informs our vacances is food. We are constantly in pursuit of that original pâtisserie, bread, café, restaurant that heightens our senses.

Laurent Duchène, 238 Rue de la Convention, Paris XV, is a pâtissier with the edge. His work is colouful, creative, and bien entendu, tasty. The Club pistache griotte is a favourite of ours; L’exodus is a personal choice, go try it out, it’s worth the detour. And there’s so much more; the colourful shop front will entice you. We never leave Paris without having our box of macarons – not to be confused with macaroons. Made with almond flour (ground almond), Pierre Hermé, 72, rue Bonaparte, Paris VI is a renowned name in this speciality. But don’t forget to support small, local food businesses that produce their bread and pastry from scratch in the early hours of the morning, they are just as inviting so check them out. À suivre

Culture Night – Our Local Craft Makers

Culture Night started in 2006 as a rather small-scale event concentrated only in Dublin. This annual occurrence has become an important and all-encompassing public event across the island of Ireland. It celebrates culture, creativity and the arts. Special and exceptional activities are scheduled at participating locations and everything is available free of charge.

I would like to tell you about my experience of it here in Cork this year – September 20. There was a plethora of activity throughout the county and city, however, I spent time at the Cork County Hall where there was a fantastic craft fair organised by Cork Craft and Design. From 2:00 pm, craft makers from around the county were busy setting-up their stands. Table cloths of all colours and patterns embellished the stands. By 4:00 pm all makers were operational, ready and waiting. There was an astonishing amount of crafters selling their creations from ceramics, and wood to jewellery makers, from lace and knitwear to greeting cards as well as artists putting their creativity into giving new life to organic objects found in nature.

As I meandered around the foyer of the County Hall, I was drawn towards the array of crafted objects, neatly arranged, and so appealing to the eye. I paused at each one, contemplating the items that were imagined, created, and produced by resourceful and artistic individuals. I chatted with some of them; sensitive to the personal stories about what inspired them and continues to motivate them to embrace such an aspiring livelihood. It must be highlighted that creative activity is not easy and many craft makers are regularly challenged in their daily enterprise.

I would encourage anyone reading this post, no matter where you are in the world, to support local industries. These small businesses are often the heartbeat of our towns and villages and without them life in such places would dissolve. Next time you are invited to a wedding, or a birthday party, or perhaps you would like to treat yourself, think of all those craft makers and artists in your local area creating unique work that merit your support. Let’s help sustain our local communities.

If you have not yet participated in Culture Night, come along to experience it for yourself, it’s a great way to celebrate and promote culture through creativity. Check out: https://culturenight.ie/. Bring on 2020…

Les Estivales

What I appreciate about France is the mosaic of associations; the French tend to be creative when it comes to the ‘collective’. From summer estvales to Christmas markets, France has a lot to offer… Here I would like to tell you about one place in particular – Le Guilvinec – in south Finistère, Brittany.

Les Estivales – summer festivities take place every year. They are a creative expression of the local people and place. Every Friday evening, during the month of August, different associations organise their own event around food and music. One particular Friday night I helped out the Twinning committee. People queue to choose and pay for their ‘menu’; in receipt of a ticket they then head to another queue for the ‘grub’.

Large wooden benches and tables are lined up in the car park near the pier. As locals and visitors alike settle themselves they begin their tasty meal, usually seafood chowder, mussels and French fries, followed by the incontournable – not-to-be-missed – Far Breton, a traditional Breton flan habitually made with prunes. Conversations between old friends and new acquaintances start in earnest; some of whom exchange mobile numbers et voilà, new friendships blossom.

There is a great crowd. I listen to the buzzing sound generated by the multitude of conversations floating through the atmosphere. The music commences; a mix of Breton traditional and contemporary. It really gets the crowd going. Young and not-so-young gather on the ‘dance floor’ – the car park tarmac but it does the job! Fingers are linked, arms are raised and feet begin to move to the beat, a Breton beat. The novices are guided by the experienced. While I enjoy dancing I just want to watch and soak it up. It’s enchanting; I’m mesmerised.

June had been extremely hot; July and August were cooler, with a misty day here and there, thrown in for good measure! As the evening draws to a close, the crowd disperses. Tables and benches are folded and stacked and put away until the next time. My host and I arrive home after midnight. Both body and mind are ready for a good night’s sleep. We bid one another ‘goodnight’; and I awaken the following morning to the sound of the Church bells chiming, it’s 8 o’clock!

Le Guilvinec has a lot to offer in terms of quaint seafood restaurants, a delightful beach and coastal promenade, and a maritime visitor centre called ‘Haliotika’. This visitor centre is worth the trip; plenty of things to see and do – go check out the website: https://www.haliotika.com/

Roman Holiday

Rome, what a refreshing city; the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain… there is so much to see and experience… If these ancient structures could talk, I think they would have a lot of secrets.

Finding myself at the Colosseum I couldn’t help but think about Gladiator (2000) and they thought the Celts were barbaric! But I suppose it was all in a day’s work; it was the context in which life evolved. The sheer volume of this edifice; I am in awe, I hear the cries, the shouts, the roaring crowd that fills the amphitheatre… I try to imagine what life was like but it’s rather difficult. Emerging from my dream-like state, the hustle-and-bustle of modernity bring me back to my reality… a plethora of tourists speaking multitude of languages.

If Walls Could Talk!

Next the Pantheon; a former Roman temple and is now a church. What architectural prowess, marble floor with geometric patterns, what majestic craftsmanship. The nine metre diameter hole, called the Oculus is fascinating. The floor is slightly convex so when it rains the water flows away. I respect the fact that even ruins are so important to the local people, they carry significance in their own right.

I like Rome. It’s a compact city. It has kept its architectural heritage; there are no unwanted ugliness creeping its way into Roman architecture. I breathe a sigh of relief at the lack of standardisation, in other words, globalisation is on their terms…

I appreciate the exuberance of the Italians. The notion of far niente is compelling; the sweet idleness, delightfully slow-paced way of life. It reminds me of parts of France where life has a rhythm of its own. I feel lifted by the musicality of their language, but also, I think that the musicality comes from their personality and body language. They drive around the streets like mad yet they appear to soak-up life’s pleasures. The streets are so narrow that almost every car has its ‘signature dent’; they remind me of little laneways in an alpine village.

Rome often reminds me of the film The Scarlet and the Black (1983). It’s based on the true story of an Irish priest, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who saved thousands of Jews and Allied soldiers during World War II.

Back to the present…food is simply delicious here. One thing I remarked was the importance of fresh vegetables. Italy is a great place to eat for a vegetarian. There is great taste in their vegetable dishes, a real delight. Of course, not forgetting pizzas and pasta! My choice is the indispensible Margherita, always authentic. My husband finds the pasta Carbonara irresistible; made with pancetta or pork jowl – guanciale – the name is derived from guancia, the Italian word for cheek – a sweet and moist piece of pork.

I want to return to Rome and explore other parts of Italy; Venice, Florence – indulge my senses in art history – Naples, Sicily… My parents and brother’s family toured Italy last year; gosh looking at the myriad of photos they took was enough to persuade me to take another trip there. My sister has already toured many parts of Italy some years ago but she is ready for another trip! Perhaps we’ll explore together…

An Encounter with Brittany

There are many things that remind me of France – of course la Tour Eiffel, le Champs de Mars, le Champs Elysees – for me it is without doubt the food. It’s always a culinary experience to eat in France. I suppose my first ‘taste’ of France was around the breakfast table of our host family in Morbihan, Brittany. Baskets overflowing with croissants, pain au chocolat – literally translates as ‘chocolate bread’ – and the incontournable – indispensible – baguette! Bien entendu – of course – no French table is without its beurre salé – salted butter – un délice – a delight – my mouth is watering!

In today’s post I’m going to be more specific; I want to tell you about the myriad of specialities that you can experience in Brittany. I suppose you have all heard of the infamous crêpe –pancake – but much thinner (I’m actually making crêpes for lunch mmm!). In Brittany one makes the distinction between crêpes, used for sweet fillings, and galettes, used for savoury ones. Crêpes, just like our pancakes are made with plain, white flour. However, galettes are made with blé noir (or sarrasin), buckwheat in English. Galettes are like dentelle – lace – they are so thin and slightly crispy.

Galettes and crêpes are a meal in themselves. The ritual is to have a ‘taste’ by having a galette au beurre – butter – this is the ‘opening scene’ to what is to come. It is important to get the earthy taste of the sarrasin; this awakens the taste buds. Afterwards, there is usually the choice of combinations, à composer soi-même, with cheese, ham, mushrooms, egg, saumon fumé – smoked salmon and so forth. A popular choice is la complète, consisting of ham, cheese, usually gruyère or emmental, and an œuf miroir – egg sunny-side up cooked on the galette and not separately. For dessert, it’s over to the crêpes! Again, some have the ritual of having a plain one or with a little sugar; sets the taste buds in motion. Then you can be more adventurous by tasting caramel au beurre salé – salted butter caramel. And the Bretons know how to make their caramel au beurre salé! Of course, there are the usual suspects with chocolate, sometimes with Chantilly (sweetened whipped cream) or orange segments. Our family favourite is a crêpe flambé au Grand Marnier. This orange-flavoured liqueur was created in 1880 by Louis-Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle. Its best-known product is Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge; a delicate blend of fine cognacs and distilled essence of tropical oranges. Slow ageing in French oak casks gives it incomparable roundness and finesse. Accompanied with a bolée of cider, brut or sweet, the list of galettes and crêpes combinations is endless, well almost! I tend to remain a traditionalist!

The blé noir or sarrasin dates back to the twelfth century when the Crusades brought the plant to Europe. It is quickly acknowledged that this type of wheat, which isn’t wheat but a seed, is not easily cultivated. It wasn’t until it was planted in Brittany, where the soil is favourable and the climate id humid and mild, that the crop yielded results.  Voilà, un peu d’histoire – a little bit of history!

The Bretons usually make their biscuits and pastries with salted butter. One such pastry is thekouign amann – gâteau au beurre – butter cake – which is made from a rather unusual bread dough recipe and large quantities of butter and sugar. History tells us that the kouign amann was made for the first time in 1860 by the baker Yves-René Scordia. That particular year there was a shortage of flour but an abundance of butter and while his bread dough was a complete failure, he baked it all the same to satisfy his customers. This crispy cake with such a delicious taste of butter and caramel turned out to be a huge success. I must admit that it is rather heavy and very buttery but on a damp afternoon with a strong coffee it’s scrumptious; a great way of immersing myself into Breton daily life.

Food reflects our identity; it shapes who we are and is an important part of our everyday lives. When you consider the story of the kouign amann with its taste of salted butter, or the blé noir that is inherently linked to a damp and mild climate so typical of Brittany, you can begin to understand the distinctiveness of this authentic region and its people. I think that’s why I feel so at home there; the people have similar character traits and its climate is very much like that of Ireland’s. Both places are worth the visit.

Episode 2 First Impressions

I arrived in Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport – Roissy for those acquainted – in January 1992; my life packed into two suitcases. I was about to begin the best life experience. Being a jeune fille au pair was the perfect stepping stone to gaining my independence – I would encourage anyone to embrace such an experience – yet, I was encadré – supported – by a familial network. Of course I was fortunate enough to have earned my ‘pathway to Paris’ through the twinning contingent. Thanks to this personal link to the host family, my experience was all the more unique and meaningful. Memories of this extraordinary time always bring a smile to my face. Especially that I remain in contact – albeit seldom – with family members.

Basically, they took me under their wing; I was part of the family, a family friend rather than a jeune fille au pair so to speak. Sometimes I accompanied the children to their grand-parents in Brittany. I was already acquainted with the children’s paternal grand-parents through the twinning. I have nothing but gratitude towards them as they were so welcoming at all times (and still are); having a full house during school holidays, I usually stayed with the maternal grand-parents. Their maternal grand-mother’s welcome and wonderful cooking made me feel at ease. I recall her being a lovely, gentle person. Also, friends whom I met though the twinning would take me out some weekends.

Only three weeks into my au pair ‘adventure’, I met a young Parisian, my spouse, who sat beside me and engaged in casual talk – in other words chatted me up! He still reminds me of my Irish accent and how he found it ‘pleasing to the ear’! While I employed every opportunity to rid myself of my accent to fully integrate, I was told that it was a pity as they found it ‘adorable’! Yet, I remained awfully proud of my Irish identity; we can be such complex beings! So, leaving my accent behind after a couple of years meant that I was now ‘part and parcel’ of this delightfully complicated and deliciously arrogant place. I immediately knew that I was going to relish every moment in my adopted country.

In order to perfect my French, I read, read and read; watched TV, and more TV. I became a member of France Loisirs; you’ll find these shops dotted around street corners in France, probably more so online now! Becoming a member obliges you or I prefer to say ‘encourages’ you to buy a book every trimestre. As long as I can remember I have had a passion for reading and the good ole smell and the touch of the pages. While I remained a member of France Loisirs, I befriended the Fnac! a place where I felt very comfortable indeed. How I relished browsing through the French Classics – Jules Verne, Victor Hugo, Molière and many more; sometimes I found myself ‘surfing’ the English-language shelves – advice from my parents as I was slowly becoming a ‘Frenchy’; I was even dreaming in French! À suivre…

Cotton Wool Clouds!

As I sit on the terrace at home it’s a delight to feel the warmth of the sun on my face; a warm breeze touches my skin like a feather cooling me down. Indeed it is one of those rare days when the breeze is a welcoming encounter.

I hear the sound of the ocean against the rocks and the cries of laughter that come floating in the wind from the beach below. The sound of the sea is soothing. While I love to travel, well, today I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else; Ireland is paradise when the sky is blue and ‘cotton-wool’ clouds populace the horizon.

Peace and tranquillity… such bliss. Umm, the bliss is short-lived! The mood is broken! The thundering sound of a plane overhead; I open my eyes and catch the Brittany Ferries on its southbound course… you all know where this story is heading… Ah! Where is that plane going? And what about the holiday makers in the ferry… My imagination is quick to deviate itself from the pleasures of sitting on my terrace to travelling…

Falling asleep in a faraway place, aware of the pleasures that tomorrow will bring, feelings of freedom exploring new places and people, days of discovery fill my imagination. Visiting a foreign city, or distant coastal places, there’s delight in creating narratives of my own as I stroll through the streets sharing my thoughts about art, culture and architecture with my husband. But don’t forget that the ordinary is rich and wonderful. Join the journey of discovering the mundane experiences of new places; Be-in-their-world.

Allowing my feet to take me to where they want to go. Going with the flow, following my instinct, detecting the places where locals go, immersing myself into mundane activities. But, I also very much like to go where the visitors go, checking out interesting spots that showcase the geography, history, and indeed art of the places I visit.  

 I must say that living on the coast entices me to appreciate city escapes; discovering the flurry of activity that city life brings knowing that I’ll return to my quiet haven.  

Weaving together the cultural fabric of places through food, wine, art, architecture, and other elements of distinctiveness that make these places what they are and the people who they are. Threads woven together creating narratives that endeavour to reveal the secrets of such locations. Places mean different things to different people. Sharing experiences can open up new ways of seeing the world around us; and in so doing, entice the visitor to create narratives of their own.

Travelling and writing experiences are, for me, intertwined. I observe the places where my feet take me, be-there; then my feet surrender to my hands. Such encounters, using all my senses, are transferred to the blank page; my hands take over, gliding along its smooth surface. Both pen and page unite to create and archive my memories.

Celtic Cousins

While I am quite at home anywhere in coastal France, I must admit that Brittany holds a special place in my heart. From early adolescence, my native Castletownbere began twinning with Locmiquelic, a coastal town in the Morbihan, south Brittany. Morbihan (Mor Bihan) means ‘Petite Mer’ – ‘Little Sea’ in Breton. Every other year a delegation from Locmiquelic would visit our native West Cork fishing port. For over twenty years our family greeted between two to four guests for one week. When it was our turn to set sail for Brittany, the people of Locmiquelic would play host to their Irish guests. It was then that I felt a strong connection with France and especially with Brittany. There was an air of familiarity – Celtic Cousins so to speak. Since then, I’ve always felt comfortable in this north-westerly part of the Hexagone – a moniker the French give to their country.

In the summer of 2014 I immersed myself in the fishing port of Le Guilvinec, Finistère (south Brittany) for the purpose of my research. It was my first time visiting this coastal community and I must say that there is ‘something’ about coastal Brittany that makes me feel right at home. What strikes me is the winding coast road that meanders from the auction hall to the beach. It is delightful for any swimmer to have such a splendid beach just at the edge of the town. I frequently walked the coast road; there is something so enthralling about the sea. Whether calm or calamitous, the sea has the ability to ‘draw’ you in to its world. I admire the houses that stand tall along this road with their spectacular views. It’s my favourite part of the town. The sound of the sea is so soothing.

Going to the boulangerie, most mornings, for the baguette; getting to know local residents though various associations and participating in various events, meeting people in the streets, having the banter… There’s a sort of mutual understanding between people from Celtic regions; a Celtic language, musical traditions, and in a way being rather similar in manner. Our perspectives, our ways of seeing and being in the world as Celts, intertwining traditions and modernity.

Brittany was an independent duchy; however, there were many turbulent years during which the Breton Duchy defended its territory against the Romans, Vikings, English and the French. The Duchy came to an end upon the death of Francis II in 1488. His daughter Anne inherited the Duchy. In addition to ‘keeping the peace’, a lack of political stability and financial resources engendered the marriage between Anne de Bretagne and the King of France, Charles VIII. The Ducal crown became united with the French crown in 1532. Following the French Revolution, and as a result of the various republican forms of French government since 1792, the duchy was replaced by the French system of departments. Of course its history is a lot more complicated but that tale is for another day… 

While centuries have passed, Bretons continue to defend their Celtic roots; never giving up the ‘battle’ – which at first was political especially during the mid-twentieth century but has, in recent decades, become a cultural one. I have observed, during my many trips there, and having lived there for three years in the early 2000s, contemporary Bretons are at ease and confident with their Breton identity – with who they are. Bretons are recognised for their force de caractère – strength of character. A Breton fisher once told me that “Le fait d’être Breton est ancré en nous, c’est régional, je me sens enraciné dans l’héritage Celtique” – “The fact of being Breton is anchored within us, it is regional, I feel rooted to the Celtic heritage”. There is a sense of belonging to a collective. During my fieldwork, I become conscious that Bretons tend to experience a stronger affiliation with people from other Celtic regions, such as Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Galicia, among others rather than those from other French areas. Identity is complex. Everyone experiences it differently and constructs rather distinct meanings to how sense of identity is to them.