Posts Tagged ‘1940’

Honest French Country Cooking….

April 27, 2009

Is there DIShonest French country  cooking?

Probably, but I would take country cooking over the Parisian versions most days.  The ability of the French to make a good dinner with plain and simple ingredients and not cover them with random sauces is still remarkable to me.

I have a lot of cookbooks.  They appeal to the eye, one reads a few pages, and then stores them away.  At least I do.  I think I am in ‘love’ with the idea of the food, but unfortunately, I am a creature of habit.

I am a relatively good cook, and I cook everything fresh just because it is how I learned.  My mother was an excellent cook and we lived in the country.  But this was Dutch Colonial country in the Garden State and we had access to great vegetables and fruits.  My father cultivated a friendship carefully over the years with Chester, the local butcher, so we had great meats.

Lately, with the shifting of cookbooks into a new cabinet just tailored for that, I sat on the floor and read over some of them.  I’m talking about 30-40 cookbooks, some that I don’t ever remember cracking.  But I have decided it’s time, Jane.  It’s time to see if you can improve your abilities here (yes, I can…) and come up with some new recipes to feed your husband and son.

So the first one I decide is something I have used many times before, but it’s like comfort food:  A cassoulet.  Basically a casserole.  But French.

This cookbook was published before I was married the FIRST time, and I marvel at how much time and effort went into the preparation.  Just last week, I was off doing something else, and  Husband Fred said he would make dinner.  I had wanted to bake beans from scratch, something I was thinking of as more a New England dinner, with fresh bread and a salad.  Sneaky Fred googled “Baked Beans” and made the most marvelous beans I have tasted.  They were rich with sausage and garlic/onions and tomatoes and cooked just right.  They were good hot or cold…and that is the gold standard for me in cooking.

A couple of nights later, I tried the same trick but I didn’t use navy or white beans…I used pinto beans.  A disaster!  Plus, I didn’t parboil the beans tender enough and the dogs got that dinner.  I tried again a couple of days later, but my husband and son were rather put off with the aftereffects of so many beans.

It’s been a week so hope springs eternal.  “The Cooking of Provincial France” has a very old cassoulet recipe and I have done the deed today.  I still marvel at the rich ingredients and have sacrificed some for more modern tastes and time issues.  Where salt pork and pork rind was used in the beans (after simmering for an hour….) I just cooked the beans in chicken stock.  Instead of duck and lamb (hard to get in the South after Easter)  I used chicken (which I clobbered apart with a meat cleaver and kitchen mallet), a good Polish kebasa and the leanest pork loin cuts I could find.  As this was browning in olive oil ,   I cut up leeks, garlic and celery.  I see I forgot the bay leaf, but no matter, the new garden supplied the parsley for the top.

You layer first beans, then meat, then the sauted veggies, then beans, meat and at the top, you cut up a couple of fresh tomatoes and  cover everything with 1/2 cup of parsley and bread crumbs (about a cup)

Here’s where it gets tricky.  Either a good cup of wine with more chicken stock to cover the beans, or a bottle of my husband’s Bass Ale.  I just have to be sure it’s not his LAST bottle of ale.  I added more chicken stock and hid the bottle.  I was his last but one spoonful of this cassoulet with make him forget the ale.  Plus, he was told to bring a bottle of wine home….his choice.

This is a lot of carbs, but people obviously work hard in the French Countryside.  I made French Bread, a very easy recipe that I originally took from Julia Child’s “Baking with Julia”.

5 cups of unbleached flour

2 cups of cool water

.6 ounces of compressed yeast….I just use 1.5 tablespoons…does the trick

1.5 teaspoon of salt.

Kneed  well, about 10 minutes…let it rest an hour, then divide it with a pastry knife (or a large knife, whatever you have) into about 6 baguette sized loafs.  (let rise again about 40 minutes) Slash with a sharp knife diagonally three times per loaf.    Humidify the bottom of the stove in a cast iron skillet with about 1/2 cup of water before you shape the loaves and bake at fast oven…425 degrees for 20-25 minutes…but make them golden brown all over.

This bread is very simple, crusty on the outside and hollow sounding (when you tap them) on the inside.

A simple salad of cukes, onions and feta cheese with olive oil is delicious with the cassoulet.

I wrote a series this late fall, called ” Diary of a Changeling”,  set in Paris during the German invasion of 1940.  This  part has the female character (unnamed) buying food in the countryside.  She is English, a teacher and obviously has never prepared meat from the raw.  Nor has she ever come up against the wily French country folk who can see a rube a mile off.

Lady Nyo

Diary of a Changeling, #10

July 21, 1940

Yesterday MN drove us in S.’s car to the countryside, northeast of Paris, near Reims.
S. gave me even more money and said to be sure and bring back some champagne.

It was about 2 hours out from Paris, the countryside beautiful, blooming.  We passed some boches, but MN just waved and they didn’t challenge us.  I was surprised, but MN said that the Germans, for now, are few and far between in this region.

He unloaded me and my two large baskets at the edge of a village, and pointed out the road to the farmhouse.  He didn’t say much about ‘his business’ as S. calls it, but she already told me he was meeting some men on ‘that’ business today.  I am forming my own opinions about his ‘business’.

The first farmhouse I approached looked prosperous enough, with barns and a low stone wall across the front of the property. A man, above middle age, was sitting in the sunlight, whittling some wood.  My bad French brought a scowl, and he asked me if I were German.  I assured him I wasn’t, I was an English teacher in Paris, sent by my French relatives (a big lie here!) to buy food.  Parisian stores were short on rations. I wanted a couple of chickens, and I would pay well if he had them.

He told me to sit down on the bench and he would get me my chickens.  I heard some squawking and he came back with two dead ones,  hanging by their necks.  I asked him if he would cut off their heads, and he scowled and sputtered something in French, the only part I caught was that he expected the whole price, with or without the necks.  I assured him I would pay him the price of the chickens, and he could keep the necks and heads as part of the profit.  His chickens were cher enough! I forgot the hens would bleed out the bottom of the baskets, and I dripped blood down the road.  M. the Farmer had the last laugh and the English teacher had blood  on her shoes.

A few more farmhouses, and I had garnered 8 kilos of potatoes, a few of tomatoes, peaches and my baskets were heavy.  I walked down the road MN had pointed to, and it took me an hour. I had to put down the two heavy baskets frequently.

I was lucky a man with a donkey cart came down the road behind me and I waggled a lift, the price of a few francs.  He dropped me near enough the farmhouse, at a fork in the road.  I saw S.’s car when I rounded the hill.

Coming up to the door, I dropped my baskets and opened it.  There was a heavy cloud of smoke, those damn French cigarettes, and there around the large, rough wooden table were four people, one of them a woman.  MN looked up, his expression startled, and rose to meet me.   The others looked hostile, as if I was a boche.

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2008

“Where is “Diary of a Changeling”?….a short answer.

November 20, 2008

A couple of people have asked me very recently where the series: “Diary of a Changeling” is and what is happening with it?  Have I dumped it? (I do, like many writers..start things and don’t finish..)  Has it been put aside?

Well, I am grateful for these questions because it makes me realize that some of what I write resonates in some readers.  It’s usually the issue that we write for ourselves..our own interests.  When others are involved with the same issues, it’s a bonus.  It grounds you for some reason to know that others find a particular joy in the same things.

Finding my particular ability to recreate the vision of Paris, 1940 and all that was happening in the world to be …well…lacking…I ordered a shitload of books and have been reading them.  Slowly.

Since the Diarist is a British woman caught in Paris, unable to leave before the Germans marched down the boulevards in June 14, 1940, I have reason to read and try to understand what was going on in London at that time, and especially the war policies of Churchill concerning France.  I have quite a few books on Churchill…before and since hitting up  Manchester’s “The Last Lion” I had around here already, and Violet Bonham Carter’s wonderful writing on Churchill:  “W.C. An Intimate Portrait”.  I further have his four volumes of “The Second World War” and other writings.

The issue is time…and they are in a queue right now.

I have found some marvelous books on the German Occupation, and have been reading these mostly.  “The Fall of France”, “Marianne in Chains”, “Outwitting the Gestapo” (by two of the French Resistance Fighters in the south of France) but the most intriguing book so far is “Occupation- The Ordeal of France 1940-1944”, by Ian Ousby.

Ousby traces the bitterness between England and France, and the secret visits of Churchill right before the Germans invaded.  He lightlights Laval and Petain, and of course the Vichy government and it’s dealings on a day to day basis.

Although “Diary” is a story about the French Resistance (in a large part) (and boy, is my opinion on that issue changing!)…what I have really been interested in is the social conditions of the French population during these first two years: The relationships between French citizens and the German occupiers….and they…at least in this early period, were a lot different than I had formerly imagined…and the daily conditions that the French lived under.  For instance, the change in diet, the nutritional issues that resulted from the Germans confiscating all the meats, butter, wines, flour, wax, leather…to be shipped to Germany, and also the feeding of the German occupiers.  The rations system, and the grey and black markets, and how they were on the one hand, suppressed by the Germans, and also on the other hand, how they were promoted by the same….

By 1942 the mortality rate in Paris was 40 per cent higher than it had been in the years 1932-38.  This is directly from the effects of a cuttage of protein and decent, nutritious foods.  There was also a curfew applied for the 4 years to the Parisian population.

It seems that those in the cities suffered far worse than those in the countryside…but there are obvious reasons for this.  There was also forced labor…men from France shipped to factories in Germany.

The effects of collaboration certainly messed with the psyche of France.

Also, the French became aware, far more aware than before the war, that so much of their goods were imported from their ‘colonies’…especially North Africa. With blockades and embargos, they lost much of their cooking oils, fruits, leathers, etc.

Whatever the issues were….surviving from day to day sapped their energies for resistance, and with a government of collaborators, there was lack of energy from this too.

The influence of de Gaulle from London….a government in exile….was to grow and grow…but de Gaulle was working from afar.  Radio…when it wasn’t jammed…and when the French populace could find a radio broadcast (and radios were forbidden to the French …as were showing any the Germans) well, information, competent information was iffy.

So…all this is just to say that there is a LOT to learn here..and to try to incorporate into “Diary”.

I believe strongly that research, recreating the period and the conditions is very important in any historical…or quasi historical writing…and this is a period of deepening research.

I have the Diarist coming upon her lover (MN) and his group of resistance fighters..she with a dead bloody chicken and blood all over her shoes and legs from the hen.  She is told to pluck and clean the chicken and prepare a meal for the 4 people in the room.  She struggles with a couple of things here….not the least cleaning a chicken.

But  little and big details as to the real conditions for the French at this time are important for the story.  They add life and color…but they add even more for me.  They make the story breath and perhaps IF they tell it with conviction, there are some future lessons to learn, and perhaps a deeper understanding of what a people face in war.

Be Well.

Lady Nyo

“Diary of a Changeling” Part 9

October 23, 2008

A continuation of the “Diary” series in a different form…but slightly.

Diary of a Changeling, #9

Diary Entry, July 20th, 1940

S. has gone out, and I finally get a chance to write.

This morning, breakfast definitely showed the scarcity of food Parisians are suffering.  S. tells me the countryside fares better. There is the blackmarket in Paris, but the prices!  Bread is almost not to be had.

The damn boches are demanding that all the good stuff be sent to Germany, so there goes our meats, flour and cheeses.

I wonder about S.  After our meager breakfast of stale-ish bread and tea, she suggested that I go with MN into the countryside and see what I could obtain from the farmers. She mentioned that MN would be meeting with a man about some business…what she never clarifies.  At that time I could take baskets and buy whatever was possible at the farm houses or the village market.  I asked where, and apparently we are to return to the farmhouse she owns.

That is all to the good, because perhaps MN and I will be able to stay over again in that lumpy bed.

Right after breakfast, one of these damn Germans came to visit and brought a sack of flour.  S. was very gracious and poured him some of her dwindling cognac.

I wonder what her neighbors think with these Germans welcome in her salon?

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2008

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