Sunday Strolling in Toulouse: the Garonne River

Le Pont Neuf, Garonne Toulousaine

Le Pont Neuf, Garonne Toulousaine

After several weeks of rain and gray weather, the sun finally came out for a while today in between sessions of hide-and-seek with the clouds. It was the perfect time to go out and get a little vitamin D before settling into another week under neon lights and computer screens.

Last week, the Garonne was at flood stage with a height of 3.78 m (right now it’s back down to around 1.2m) and the banks still bore some remnants of the flood this Sunday, making the river walk a little muddier than usual. The flood gates were closed on the right bank after the Pont Neuf (literally the “New Bridge”) and the river, while much lower, was just below the walkway. If you look closely at the photo of the Pont Neuf, you can see a set of holes above the archways. These are called dégeuloirs (a word which could be interpreted as vulgar depending on how you use it because dégeuler means to throw-up and this also means a recipient for throwing-up) and they allow flood waters to run through the bridge, relieving stress on the structure. Continue reading

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Christmas gifts from Toulouse

The Nutcracker, Repetto store front.

The Nutcracker, Repetto store front.


My annual holiday visit to the states is almost here and it’s time to stock up holiday gifts for the family before heading back home.
After all, what is the point of living in France if you don’t bring back souvenirs? Christmas shopping is always a stressful time. After living in France for a few years, I’m starting to run out of good ideas for Frenchy things to get for the family. Foie gras, Mariage Frères tea, opinel knives and t-shirts from assorted regions are just a few examples from previous years.
Continue reading

Saving money on fashion and makeup

advertising-188993_640A few months ago, I walked into a store specializing in makeup to ask about their options for replacing my current foundation which was a little too dark and didn’t offer enough coverage. A pleasant woman in her mid-twenties, who seemed to be advertising the store’s entire makeup line on her face led me to a product that she swore was just right for me. She proceeded to apply said product and then show me just how wonderful it was under the store’s carefully engineered spotlights. A few minutes later, I was outside and happened to see myself in the reflection of a store front window. There was a lovely orange line running down my jaw line from this so-called perfect makeup.

Sound familiar? Becoming a fashion/beauty victim is a sure way to significantly lighten your wallet. Often, advertisements and salespeople play on fears that if a women doesn’t buy this or that then she doesn’t care or doesn’t want to be pretty (how about doesn’t have the money, hein?). How many of us have pimples only because we are too lazy or cheap to buy the right cream?

To save money in Toulouse, I’ve discovered a few simple ways to shop for makeup and clothing without breaking the bank. While these techniques might not work for everyone, I hope that they will remind you that other women struggle with budgeting in beauty as well and that you’re not alone if you can’t afford to buy luxury skin care products.

The techniques:

1. Buy organic/bio makeup
Since makeup is already rather expensive, the extra cost for organic ingredients often represents a small mark-up or none at all compared to drug and department store brands. For example, Lily Lolo is a really nice organic English brand that I order online for the same price or less than non-organic drug store brands.

I buy most of my products from Ecco Verde, an Italian organic makeup website, which ships around the world. This keeps me out of the stores and focused on the products I really need (need being a relative term here). Note: I am in no way paid/free-sampled by Ecco Verde.

2. Shop seasonally
Unless something that I really need rips or gets stained, I buy clothes two times a year: the after-Christmas sales and the end of summer sales. In France, this are the only two periods when stores can legally put items on sale. Sometimes they get away with special promotions, but the real sales are only twice a year.

During this time, I stock up on the things that I really need. Are my t-shirts getting funky? Are my shoes holey after a year on cobblestone streets? Can I see through my socks?

Having limits on my shopping helps me to appreciate what’s already in my closet more and leads to a delightful anticipation of the biannual sales in France.

3. Buy USA
But isn’t Paris the city of fashion? Yes, if you’re pulling down about 90,000 euros a year. A lot of more affordable French fashion is made in China or the Middle East and is of very poor quality (think cheapy strip mall stores). I’m not saying that you can’t find reasonably nice clothes here, but they cost a lot more than in the US. Most people (in my social sphere) in France consider Levis like a luxury brand.

Stores like Marshalls, Ross and TJ Maxx allow Americans to buy high quality clothing at relatively low prices. Those don’t exist here, so for the same price, you are looking at Tati, which is comparable to K’mart. Clothes and luxury items are much cheaper in the USA, so take advantage of it!

Well, there you go, a few pointers on how to save centimes on your fashion and makeup budget. Don’t hesitate to share your own advice on how to save money as well.

Until next time, au revoir.

French Thanksgiving Pumpkin Piepocalypse 2013

Very cute pie pumpkins from the Biocoop in Toulouse.

Very cute pie pumpkins from the Biocoop in Toulouse.

If you’re spending Thanksgiving in Europe this year, be prepared to spend a little extra time cooking the pumpkin that used to come out of a can marked Libby’s over in the States. Since my coworkers love pumpkin pie, I’ve spent the day cooking pies and pumpkin for tomorrow’s celebration of my recent marriage (pot de marriage).

I burnt three pie crusts by trying to do dishes and pre-cook the crusts at the same time. Then in a fury, I whipped together a series of pie crusts made with the only thing left in my cupboard – buckwheat flour, all while trying not to burn the pies already in the oven.

While I don’t recommend that you try to make a bunch of last minute pies for your office party with pantry leftovers, fresh pumpkin pie is a great way to celebrate your American heritage while away from the States. Here’s my favorite internet pie recipe:
http://charlestonchow.blogspot.fr/2010/11/drunken-pumpkin-bourbon-tart.html

However, the problem is that it’s all in American units with some ingredients that are hard or impossible to get over here. So, for your cooking pleasure, in French units with the translated names of each ingredient:

Slightly-tipsy French Pumpkin Tart

50 cl roasted pumpkin or other orange fleshed winter squash (citrouille or potiron).
3 large eggs (oeufs, that one was easy).
150 g red sugar (sucre roux) – get the stickiest one you find, may not be available in all stores. Cassonade will work in a pinch, but has less flavor.
25 cl liquid cream (crème fluide) – usually next to the crème fraîche.
2 soup spoons scotch whisky – Bourbon is expensive here and I don’t drink enough for this to be worth it. And when I say soup spoon, I mean the actual spoon you eat soup with.
1 soup spoon vanilla extract or 2 packets of vanilla sugar which is easier to find in France.
Pinch of salt.
Molasses (mélasse) – impossible to find, omit. Sorry, Holly Herrick, I failed.
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon (canelle). As with soup spoon, I mean the spoon you use to stir the sugar in your coffee or tea.
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger (gingembre).
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves (clous de girofle).
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg (noix de muscade).
1 blasphemous pre-prepared pie crust (pâte brisée or sablée). If you’re a little more motivated you can try making a pâte brisée and replacing half the flour with buckwheat (sarrasin) flour, which gives it a bit more flavor.

Mmm, pie.

Mmm, pie.

The full instructions for how to make the Holly Herrick recipe are on the Charleston Chow website. If you’re in a hurry, mix the pumpkin and liquid ingredients with an immersion blender until smooth and then add the sugar and spices, taking care to sprinkle the spices evenly over the mixture before another whirl with the blender. Then pour the mixture into the pie crust which has been lightly precooked (about 5-7 minutes).

Now that my fingers are all burnt and the work’s done, I’ll be off to bed soon. The hubby is on dish duty tonight.

Till next time, bonne nuit.

After the party food : le cake au jambon et olives de Marion

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Thanksgiving and Christmas are just around the corner, which means it won’t be long until your in-laws invade, leaving a trail of leftovers and havoc in their wake. A close friend of my husband’s gave him this easy-to-make recipe which will help you to take care of some of those 40 pounds of spiral-cut ham ripening in your refrigerator. This simple dish can also be served cut into bite-sized pieces as an hors d’oeuvre at holiday parties. I’ve conveniently translated the recipe into American units, but please let me know if you have any recommendations, since I’ve never tested the converted version.

A small note on the meaning of cake in French: a ‘cake’ is typically not sweet in France and corresponds to what Anglo-Saxons would call a loaf.

Ingredients :

4 eggs
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup white wine (use the already open stuff in the fridge)
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 tablespoon baking soda
4 large slices of ham cut into cubes
1 large can pitted green olives
Large handful of shredded cheddar or gruyere

4 œufs
250g farine
1 verre vin blanc
1 verre huile d’olive
1 paquet de levure chimique
1 paquet de dès de jambon
200 g olives vertes dénoyautées
Poignée généreuse d’emmental
Une pincée sel et poivre

1)      Mix together oil, eggs and white wine.
2)      Mix together flour, baking powder, salt and pepper in a separate bowl.
3)      Add dry and wet ingredients together along with the olives, ham and cheese. Mix.
4)      Pour the batter into a buttered and floured cake or tart dish (around 8-10 in round). Sprinkle the top with shredded cheese.
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5)      Bake at 150°C/300°F for 30-40 minutes or until golden and toothpick comes out clean.

Our tiny tiny oven.

Our tiny tiny oven.

I hope you enjoy this recipe which is a classic of French parties (holiday or not). Let me know how it works out for you!

Si vous souhaitez les indications en Français, laissez un commentaire =).

Great place to visit: Corsica

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One of the most beloved vacation spots of the French, Corsica is an island paradise situated in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea to the Southeast of mainland France. It has been part of France since it was ceded by the Republic of Genoa in the 18th century, just before the birth of Napoleon in the Corsican city of Ajaccio. The island is split into two French administrative departments: Corse-du-Sud (2A) and Haute-Corse (2B). While French is the official language, a few rare residents still speak Corsican, which greatly resembles Italian (to me). Corsicans are very proud of their culture and language, which is distinct from other regions of France.

Like most of our vacations, we went to Corsica because my husband and I have friends there. We rarely go anywhere that’s not motivated by visiting friends or family since we have loved ones scattered all over two continents and wouldn’t get to see them otherwise.

Getting there:

Ferries are available from Toulon or Nice and take about 8 hours or more depending on what port you are going into (Bastia or Ajaccio). Easy-jet and Air France flights are also possible. However, be wary of low cost carriers, as we recently had an airport controller strike in France and a lot of flights were cancelled without the possibility for rebooking.

Things to do:

For those who love hiking, the valley of the Restonica, located near the town of Corté is really worth the visit. We hiked up to the first lake in the park and had lunch up there, though it was a bit cold and windy. The views were breathtaking. Did I mention there were waterfalls?

Melu Lake, Valley of the Restonica

Melu Lake, Valley of the Restonica

The limestone cliffs of Bonifacio are another must see of Corsica. When you get to the city, you park near the port and then walk up to the citadel, perched atop a limestone cliff. From there you can visit various historical points of interest such as the staircase of the king of Aragon. My favorite part was taking the path up the cliffs away from the citadel so we could see the ancient part of the city as a whole. If you’re planning on visiting, it’s best to go during the off-season and early in the day. Even on weekdays, the crowds are horrendous well into the month of September.

Citadel, Bonifacio

Citadel, Bonifacio

Finally, go to a beach, any beach, and go snorkeling. The Mediterranean is like an aquarium at bathtub temperature. We went to Ostriconi beach in the North and really appreciated the calm and the sea life. Small alert for nudists and yellow jackets (eat in the car, not on the beach).

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The food:

Corsica is famous for really stinky sheep milk cheese, pork products, hard cookies called Cannistrelli and sparkling muscat wine. Our neighbors had Corsican cheese that smelled so bad they closed the package with duct tape before putting it into refrigerator. There’s also a Corsican cheese that has worms in it (on purpose). The most famous Corsican pig product are lonzu, coppa and figatellu. Lonzu and Coppa are dried pork products similar to ham, while figatellu is a dried sausage containing pig liver. Finally, to wash down all that pig liver and wormy cheese, try a good sparkling muscat. Corsican sparkling wine is tasty and not too expensive, so why not indulge.

The people:

There’s a whole whole lot of tourist traffic that comes through Corsica, so don’t be surprised if people are a little gruff. If you are respectful and easy going, you won’t have too much trouble. Just remember that the customer service culture is not the same as in North America, so you might be a little taken aback at first.

I hope this little post about Corsica got you inspired for your next vacation to France or elsewhere. If you have already been to Corsica, I’d love to hear about your own experiences in the comments.

Until next time, au revoir.

Feeling like snails tonight

snails

My husband, M., and I have the luck to have a couple of really great neighbors. Every summer we watch a reality show about French famers finding love (L’amour est dans le pré) and have a great time laughing about all the particularities of French agricultural life. Tonight, we’re going over to the other side of the landing (palier) to have escargot.

Ready-to-eat escargot can be found in the frozen foods section of just about any supermarket. For the more adventurous, cans of escargot and their shells can be bought and prepared separately. For the Marthas among us, starving and salting your own snails is possible, but very oozy. Yum…

With enough butter and garlic, I find that these little mollusks are pretty tasty. They’re one of those foods that taste descent frozen and then baked, so I wouldn’t bother going to much more trouble than that if you’re curious about having these little invertebrates as a snack.  Cassoulet is another French food that’s good from a can for those looking to have lunch on the cheap, but I’ll get to that in another post.

Here’s my recipe for having an escargot night chez vous:

1. Go to Casino/Carrefour/Auchan/other supermarket (these are all French stores) and buy some frozen escargots garnished with butter, garlic and parsley. Buy some beer or hard cider plus Tyrell’s chips (the British make the best chips) while you’re at it. Maybe pick up a salad if you’re worried about being healthy. I’m lazy, so I buy the discount jug of grated carrots in salad dressing at Casino.

2. Put escargots in the oven. Open beer. Pour chips into serving dish (optional).

3. Call neighbors and put on Danse avec les stars. You’re ready to have a great night.

Having a good time in France doesn’t have to mean going to an art exposition or visiting a Michelin rated restaurant every night. You can have a good time at home with a bucket full of snails and some beers. Gastronomic restaurants and cultural events are a part of life here, but a lot of French people are much more down to earth than the stereotypes let on.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll go see the movie that won a palme d’or at Cannes this year (La Vie d’Adèle or Blue is the Warmest Color in English). Le bleu est une couleur chaude is the BD that inspired the film and the English title. A few of my co-workers said that the film was pretty good, but thought the sex scenes were a little over the top. Apparently, there were also some questions about the director pushing the actresses way too far.

I’ll let you know if I go to see it. Right now my motivation to go out tomorrow is moyenne (meaning not so much) as they say here.

Bonne soirée et à bientôt.