Category Archives: food

Sirha

Chefs working at Sirha in Lyon.

Chefs working at Sirha in Lyon.

I don’t know if any other country eats the way France does. All of the teachers I have lunch with create three course meals out of several tupperware containers and in restaurants the waiters ask if you didn’t like your food if you leave even a little on the plate. But it’s not just the quantity, most everything is also delicious. I could walk into any bakery in Valence and get a pain au chocolat that would beat any pastry back home. However, as a poor language assistant, I don’t often get to sample anything outside of E. Leclerc or Auchan. But this past Monday I was invited by my friend Helen to go with her boyfriend Julien and her mom to Sirha, short for Le Salon international de la restauration, de l’hôtellerie et de l’ alimentation (International Hotel, Catering and Food Trade Exhibition).

A display case of terrines for sampling at Sirha.

A display case of terrines for sampling at Sirha.

Sirha in Lyon is the second largest expo of this kind in France, with the biggest being in Paris. There were about 2,000 exhibitors at Sirha providing just about everything you would need for your restaurant, hotel, catering service, pasty shop, bakery, or whatever area of food in which you are a “professional.” I put journalist as my profession on my invitation. I’m writing about it now, aren’t I? Where’s my free stuff? Anyway, I’d never really thought about all the different elements that go into restaurants and all the different suppliers you would need. You might have to get your cheese from France, your chocolate from Belgium, and your staff’s shoes from Ireland. It was overwhelming.

A cinco jotas. I think Sirha reinforced my vegetarian lifestyle... and I didnt even photograph the snail eggs.

A cinco jotas. I think Sirha reinforced my vegetarian lifestyle... and I didn't even photograph the snail eggs.

Since I had no real professional reason to be interested in these products, I mostly snatched up free things and sampled from the vegetarian-friendly exhibitors. This didn’t really cut down on sampling, since there was an incredible amount of chocolate. Helen’s mom has a cake shop back in England, so we visited many of the chocolatiers and in addition to the sweets we also got glasses of champagne from one of them. Other sampling highlights included cheese from Auvergne (my old friend Cantal), baguettes, carrot cake and salt and vinegar chips from Wales, antipasti, olives, cheese pastry, and even some sparkling water from the Ardèche. It was kind of a weird mix and needless to say that night I had a light dinner that was chocolate-free.

Dobla chocolate display.

Dobla chocolate display.

There didn’t seem to be any strict rules for how the place was arranged besides loose umbrellas like “Produits (Products)” or “Planète Viande (Meat Planet).” We did stumble upon a few country-specific areas like Holland, Sweden, and Wales, whose exhibitor stand even had very American pecan pie. I saw on the map that the United States was there, but I didn’t find it. Maybe they were serving fried twinkies and were shut down for indecency. Sorry, I think I’m slightly brainwashed by France. But I would have loved to see what was on display and maybe hear some regional accents. I’ve become a lot more aware of my own accent since spending time in France. Although there are other Americans, they are mostly from the Northwest or Northeast and I don’t know anyone else from the Oklahoma/Texas/Kansas/Arkansas area of vague cowboy twang. I realize my accent is pretty standard American, but it’s just one of those random things I find myself missing.

Chocolatier at work on a delicious edible sculpture.

Chocolatier at work on a delicious edible sculpture.

I’m heading to Paris tomorrow morning to see Of Montreal and indulge in free Sunday museums. I have more pictures from Sirha on flickr if you’re interested.

Joyeux Noël

Close-up of Christmas tree in Valence.

Close-up of Christmas tree in Valence.

Bonnes Fêtes et Joyeux Noël à tous! I hope you all are enjoying the holidays, wherever you may be in the world. I wish I could have been able to celebrate with all my friends and family, but they haven’t yet invented the technology for that kind of travel. I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with my friend Sophie and her family, my second French Christmas. Although the first might not count since I was 8 months old and if you go by some philosophy, your self is only the sum of your memories. And I remember nothing, although the photos from family albums are stored in my brain. This was my first Christmas to be away from my family, and I never realized how much I could miss little things like driving through neighborhoods to look at Christmas lights and the empty Bartlesville streets on Christmas morning, or the walks we always take on Pathfinder on Christmas afternoon. I did listen to David Sedaris’ “Santaland Diaries” on my computer and watched “Christmas on Mars” (filmed in Oklahoma) on DVD to get into the spirit.

The Bastille above the cafe of the same name is decorated for Christmas. Just like it was when it was a real prison, Im sure.

The Bastille above the cafe of the same name is decorated for Christmas. Just like it was when it was a real prison, I'm sure.

Christmas Eve is the big night for the French and is when most of the celebrating happens. We got to Sophie’s parents house in the early evening and soon there were about 14 of her family members who had driven from Lyon. I get a little overwhelmed when I have to decipher French in a crowd, it’s subtle syllables get lost in waves of sound. Everyone likes to talk about Barack Obama and fat Americans, it seems, and I think people still think I am from Texas. Anyway, I tried to be as social as possible while not butchering their beautiful language too much. Often, I feel like my tongue is an axe.

The Montelimar bear returns, sporting the holiday spirit.

The Montelimar bear returns, sporting the holiday spirit.

I can’t believe how many courses comprised the Christmas Eve dinner, it was gluttonous even for France. First, there was the aperatif, where people mingled and drank kirs while eating cheese, antipasto, and olives. Then, everyone sat down and white wine was poured and salads with foie gras (duck or goose liver) were served. I’m a vegetarian, so I’ll list the meat to show the food abundance, but I didn’t eat any of it. Then there were plates full of salmon, followed by a giant bowl of oysters. Apparently, you squirt lemon juice on the oyster to make sure it moves and is alive, therefore good. Sometimes I’m glad to be a vegetarian just to have an excuse not to eat certain things. After the ocean animals were eaten, the next course was a “Trou Normand,” a little glass of pear sorbet with alcohol. This was the third type of alcohol, if you’re counting. You can add red wine after it. Anyway, the Trou Normand is served between meals as a kind of digestive and palate cleanser. After the Trou Normand, the “Volailles” were served, meaning the birds. Giant bowls of turkey and chicken were passed around. Soon after, there were two Gratins: Gratin Dauphinois with potatoes and Gruyere and Gratin de Cardons, also with Gruyere. We were unable to find cardon in the French-English dictionary while we were there, but some internet searching shows that it looks kind of like a thistle and is known as a “wild artichoke” in Spain. I guess it’s close to an artichoke and is used in some regional cooking in this part of France. I still can’t find an English translation. Anyway, there’s still more food to list! Following the Gratins, the cheeses were served. There were two choices: Fromages secs (dry) and Fromages blancs (wet). I guess you could have both if you so desired. I went for the dry cheeses, where there were three massive slices on a plate to sample from. Fromage blanc has the consistency of yogurt and most people added sugar to it. Then came the dessert: Bûche de Noël. There were two, one made from Nutella and another made from Creme de Marrons (chestnut cream). I went for oh-so-decadent Nutella. Oh, and there were macaroons and truffles as well as clementines alongside the main desserts. Finally, Champagne was uncorked and distributed. So there you have the 12 courses served for dinner. I have crazy respect for Sophie’s parents that they were able to prepare that much delicious food for so many people.

Christmas trees on the streets of Valence.

Christmas trees on the streets of Valence.

After dinner, gifts were exchanged, and I was shocked to receive some from people I just met. I got a bag of nougat, a jar of clementine jelly, a candle, and on Christmas morning I got a soft scarf and potpourri holder from Sophie. It was incredibly sweet and I was already grateful to have been invited, let alone to be given things. It’s amazing how generous people have been during my time in France. I think the gift giving ended at about 2 a.m. and I went to sleep at about 3 a.m. In the morning, the under-the-tree gifts that Père Noel left were opened and there was coffee and Christmas dinner leftovers for lunch. We paid a visit to some of Sophie’s other relatives in town before heading back to Valence and saw a movie later that night. I’ve condensed a lot of this down, but I hope this gives you an idea of how I spent my Christmas. Sophie was amazing to have invited me and it was much better than celebrating alone somewhere and let me see the French Christmas traditions. I am so thankful that I was invited.

I’ll be leaving for Paris on December 30, although I’ll try to get in some exploring before then. I miss everyone I didn’t get to see for Christmas and I wish you all the best!

La Vie en France

Armistice Day ceremony in Valence on November 11.

Armistice Day ceremony in Valence on November 11.

I’m a little behind on posting, so I’ll sum up what I’ve been doing with some pictures of Valence. On November 11, I went to the Armistice Day ceremony in the park. It was raining, although that trend would continue for all of Armistice Day (which as you may recall from a previous post, was one long string of board and card games). It was a little unnerving that the soldiers seemed to be carrying automatic weapons for the ceremony. Although I did like their capes.

Armistice Day capes. Probably year-round capes.

Armistice Day capes. Probably year-round capes.

I went to the ceremony with Jacinta, an English language assistant from Australia. We were pretty lost about what was going on. The ceremony didn’t end with much fanfare, just the soldiers marching off and the people with umbrellas staring at them leaving. There was a lively recorded version of La Marseillaise that played during their march. But there were guys with bugles there, so I don’t know why they didn’t play it. Maybe the bugles, like the guns, were just for show. Or at least that’s what I hope about the guns. I really doubt a war is going to break out in Valence in the middle of Armistice Day.

Flowers at the feet of the WWI memorial in Valence.

Flowers at the feet of the WWI memorial in Valence.

The memorial itself is in the Parc Jouvet and includes a large concrete obelisque, two walls with soldier names from 20th century wars, and this statue of a fallen soldier. I’ve noticed that almost all the WWII memorials in France have a little box on them or a small urn that contains ashes from the concentration camps. I find this to be a little strange. I guess something needed to be done with the ashes, but then again, all they are is stashed at the bottom of a giant block of concrete. I don’t know, something about it is off to me.

Le Suisse(s). A creepy Valence speciality.

Le Suisse(s). A creepy Valence speciality.

On Saturday, November 15, Sarah, an English language assistant from England working in Privas, came over to Valence and we went to the Bouquet de Vins. It was amazing. We paid 5 euros to get in and could taste all the wine and regional food that we wanted. The regional delicacies included Le Suisse, seen above. He is a pastry man who tastes like an orange scone. The story goes that when Pope Pius VI died while in prison in Valence in 1799, the Swiss Army men who guard the pope came to collect his personal effects. To honor this or mock them, no one is sure, a local baker made a pastry wearing the Swiss guard uniform. And for whatever reason, they kept on making them. The above Suisses are in the window of what people consider to be the best bakery in Valence. I did buy one of the tiny ones on the left when Liza, another assistant in Privas from the States, was visiting.

Stairway to the center of Valence.

Stairway to the center of Valence.

In addition to le Suisse, there was nougat, chocolate, cheese, truffle oil, caramel liqueur, and so many other things that are far from health foods and therefore amazingly decadent. Of course, there was also the wine. Over 150 wines and things in the wine family were available for the degustation, like the Champagne-like Clairette of Die. All of the wines were good, although I definitely liked the Clairettes. The wines were all from the region, so there were a lot of red and white Côtes du Rhône (as we are along the Rhône river). And the best part is that none of them were terribly expensive. There were a few that were 40 euros, but even that is decent compared to the cost of wine in the States. On average, the wines were around 8 euros. And all of the winemakers were very friendly and chatty so I got to learn about wine in French.

View of the cathedral in Valence.

View of the cathedral in Valence.

I think I’ve finally detoxed from work in the States and can relax. It was just such an abrupt change from working full-time 40 hours a week in a job that never had a break from stress, plus all the freelance work I was doing. I think I’m to a point now in France where I can finally just relax and not feel like I’m wasting time. I don’t know if it’s being an American or what, but I always feel guilty about relaxing when I could be working. I’m also used to rushing around to get things done as quickly as possible so that more work can be done. It’s just such a different approach to life here where it’s okay to drink coffee and stare into space for an hour. Not that I’m going that far yet. If you know me, you know that in a way I like to deadlines and work. But I am starting to not be stressed by the stress-free life, if that makes sense.

Kiosque at the Champ de Mars in Valence.

Kiosque at the Champ de Mars in Valence.

Work continues to get better as I adjust to the teaching routines. I really do the same thing everytime in terms of the ritual of the class: song, redo what we did last week, introduce new material. Soon I’ll be starting the Very Hungry Caterpillar in three of my classes. I’m also getting better at my private lessons. All of the kids I teach privately are incredibly sharp. So I’ve been using the book of Native American short stories I brought. My favorite is the story of the rattlesnake. Basically, a boy is walking along the road after a cold night and sees a rattlesnake. The rattlesnake asks the boy to pick it up, warm it, or it will die. The boy says no, the rattlesnake will bite him. But the rattlesnake promises not to, so the boy picks it up, warms it, and then the snake bites him. The boy asks the snake why it did that when it said it wouldn’t bite him. The rattlesnake says, yes, it said it wouldn’t bit him, but the boy knew it was a rattlesnake.

Parc Jouvet in Valence.

Parc Jouvet in Valence.

I’ve gotten to a point where I have somewhat of a routine. I can look forward to the bar quiz on Tuesday, although I’m usually not too much help with the questions about France. I usually meet with the international people on Wednesday. There are philosophy lectures on Thursday. And usually music at the pub on Friday. I do like to mix it up, so this week me and Lauren, a language assistant from Canada, went to the Internationale Biennale Design in Saint-Etienne. It was mind blowing. I have many pictures and will post about it soon. This weekend I was hoping to meet some other assistants today in the South, but I don’t think it’s going to work out, so I’ll try to catch them tomorrow. Next week will be epic, with two Thanksgiving celebrations, the Fete de la Lumiere, and Ratatat in Lyon.

I have a lot more pictures of Valence on my flickr that you can check out. I’m trying to work all my photos into blog posts, so maybe some of them will turn up here soon.