Jul 29 2012

Selling Your Soul, or How one becomes one of the most beautiful Villages of France

The Most Beautiful Villages of France is a thing. Kind of like The Most Interesting Man in the World is a thing.

www.effie.org

B & I tend to like superlatives. And, apparently, we like countries that like superlatives. Like Iceland’s pride in all things, France takes its beauty and its civility seriously. There are designations for being a Ville/Village Fleurie, a four flower rating system in place since at least the 50s. Rânes is a Village Fleurie (but only earned 1 of 4 possible flowers). When we first arrived, and until I googled it ten minutes ago, I assumed this meant there were awesome flowers. There are here. But it’s bigger than that. It’s about creating an environment that fosters beautiful flowers but it’s also about (and the Ville Fleurie website says it explicitly) about improving the quality of life and making people feel welcome, even if it is only a one flower welcome. Well, shit, that’s awesome.

But, back to the Most Beautiful Villages in France, which are apparently even more special than FlowerTowns. There has been one, yes ONE, village we’ve driven into that has elicited a “meh” from Brett. The town was Jort. No offense to the Jorties, but we just weren’t feeling it. And in high school we called jean shorts worn by dudes jolts. We’ve driven a lot this month. Nearly every place we drive through earns a -cute-, or a -charming-, or a -That’s a nice boulangerie-. Just not Jort. So it seems absurd to think that there is some higher, nay, highest class of beautiful since it would seem to encompass the whole damn country and all 32,000 villages (minus Jort). But there is a ranking and a process.

If you earn the designation you get to place a sign at the entrances to your village.

www.travel-wonders.com

There are 157 villages that have earned the designation. A village or town must apply and meet a stringent set of requirements, including having fewer than 2,000 residents, at least two protected sites or monuments (ah, they all have bazillion old churches…), and “mass support” for the application. Then you get evaluated, chartered, etc and have 27 objective criteria to meet. The mayor gets interviewed (one aspect of rural French life is no matter how small the town, it has a mairie, or mayor’s office, even if it is wee). No small feat, mes amis. And even then you might get listed “with reservation”. Ouch.

We’ve visited two, Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei and Beauvon-en-Auge. The latter was by chance as we drove La Route du Cidre, a 40 km winding journey through the Pays-d’Auge, the region best known for producing Cider, Calvados, and Pommeau. It was cute, for sure, but had a Disney-fied feel. Every one of those Tudor-style buildings seemed to house a storefront for eerily similar old lady hat collections.

Beauvon-en-Auge

The former (former/latter is a skill set I need to practice, sorry) was an intentional visit, and oh so worth it. While it only earned two stars according to Michelin, we were enchanted.

Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei

Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei

Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei

We wandered. We took photos. We managed to sit an enjoy a cup of coffee while Loie crawled around, an unheard of treat even with our pretty mellow kid. We passed a house called “Serendipity.” We discussed the artists that call the town home. As we drove away from the cobblestone streets and charming restos, B asked if I had seen the boulangerie. No. No, I hadn’t. No boulangerie in site, which is an impossibility. Whether you meet the 27 other criteria seems pointless if your town is missing the ONE thing (besides a mairie) every dang town has. Our theory? They sold their bread soul to the devil to get the designation. There is, I fear, no other explanation. Because no matter how beau, a ville sans boulangerie is no ville to me.


Jul 25 2012

Some Things We’ve Seen, pt. 2

Mont Saint-Michel

Refectory at Mont Saint-Michel

La Poste de Mont Saint-Michel

Beuvron-en-Auge

On the Road

Calvados Pierre Huet

Domaine Dupont


Jul 22 2012

C’est Marveilleux

I have done well in my resolution to gorge on bread products this month. But the scholastic in me requires that I try to learn a bit about what will soon make up 85% of my innards.

In the weeks before we left I had the chance to make baguettes, brioche, and ciabatta with a friend at Cook au Vin in Chicago (ugh on the name). Working the baguette dough involved throwing it from over my head onto the table as hard as possible only to then swoop it back up as fast as possible to encourage the large air pockets. Ten minutes of that meant I couldn’t make a fist for two days after. So I do have mad respect for the bakers in the world.

In France, there are two options for respecting.

A boulangerie would be responsible for unsweetened yeast breads like baguettes and brioches. And pain au chocolate like this, which frequently is in my belly:


(Ahem, only one is frequently in my belly. Brett digs them too)

A pâtisserie would have sweet, unleavened pastries like gallettes and tartes. A master pasty chef, or maître pâtissier, must be employed by the establishment for it to earn the government-controlled title of pâtisserie. I can really, really get behind a country that puts so much thought into the quality of its sweets. If you have a chance, there’s a wonderful film, Kings of Pastry, which follows several chefs efforts to achieve the M.O.F. The M.O.F. (Meilleurs Ouvriers de France) is awarded to only the Best Craftsmen in France after an arduous three-day test many chefs spend years training for.

In a typical French provincial town like ours the boulangerie and the patisserie would have been separate shops up until the 1950s though now they are often sold in the same place.

Rânes now has a combo, and an incredible one at that.

Honestly, I don’t know how one of the 1000 people who live here rocks breads and pastries so hard, but she does.

I’ve had many a delightful pain au chocolate, with incredible, flaky brioche as well as a rich and wide array of incredible breads. We’re in there daily so I believe I can speak with confident authority on how silly good their bread is, as well as their tolerance of my bastardized French. Je m’excuse!

But hey combo place that does it all, how are you? This was tonight’s dessert:

Pineapple, kiwi, strawberry, cherry, awesome. So awesome.

But friends. FRIENDS. Nothing prepared me for the Marveilleux, the pastry so inticing it is PLURAL and has changed my scholarship to fanaticism. Yes, it means marvelous and wonderful and all those like-minded words you can find on thesaurus.com. And no, I have no photos of my own from today because the singular Marveilluex that was brought into La Balayrie was summarily destroyed by the inhabitants. A stock photo seemed appropriate because of the total obliteration of the tasty bites. But, luckily, David Lebovitz digs ‘em.

davidlebovitz.com

The base is meringue. I had no idea. I went strictly based on the chocolate-flecked exterior. I freaking love meringue (and also might freaking love the chocolate buttercream inside, just to be forthright). I also love how this describes meringue as unfashionable compared to the haut macaroon. The writer, in explaining the new(ish) Au Merveilleux de Fred pastry shops in Paris and Lille, shared that “the finished cakes have names like Le Merveilleux, L’Incroyable and L’Impensable, referring to the period after the French Revolution when young people known as les incroyables and les merveilleux dressed extravagantly, took on odd mannerisms and refused to pronounce the letter “r” (as in Revolution), which they said had done too much harm.” Oh, I don’t quote people often, but I’m quoting that.

Yesterday my brother in law asked about how I imagined this trip will impact our world when we return. I didn’t have a great answer as we want this kind of trip to just be part of the way our world works. I know the slower pace has resonated with me, as has less TV and more laundry hung on a line. But, I can say with confidence that the merveilluex is coming home with me. If I know you now, you may know this recipe as a staple. But know that if I may know you someday, this may just be what you get.


Jul 17 2012

Some Things We’ve Seen

Falaise Church

Putanges-Pont-Écrepin

Normandy American Cemetery

Parc Municipal, Rânes

La Balayrie

Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Bagnoles-de-l’Orne

Falaise


Jul 14 2012

Potato Sacks & Mustard Jars: Bastille Day 2012

Today is Bastille Day, which the French call La Fête Nationale or the super-accurate Le quatorze juillet. Lots of fireworks (feu d’artifice) happened last night, but not until 11pm or later. Apparently, we only go to places that like to put nighttime in “air quotes”. Today is the largest military parade in Europe right on down les Champs-Élysées. I do love me some cadencing. The garden party at the Palais de l’Elysée is also happening, which sounds delightful.

Ah well. Paris is far and thus we needed an appropriately patriotic activity that would be more welcoming to our hyper-scheduled little one. I asked the English caretakers of our gîte, Anne, if she had any recommendations. She mentioned that Domfront, a town about 40 minutes from here, was hosting un vide-grenier. YES PLEASE. Turns out Bastille Day is also a common day for French towns to host vide-greniers.

I first read about vide-greniers on Design Mom’s “Love The Place You Live” post about them. She’s an American living with her many cute children in Normandy with far more grace and aplomb than I am with my one cute child.

What is it? Well, all the sites in English talk about car-boot sales. Not helpful unless you know that those sites are primarily written by British folk who are discussing a rummage sale, flea market, what have you. Car boots are trunks and what is being sold is primarily no longer wanted personal possessions. While some professional sellers and buyers lurk, it’s a national pastime in France to rummage like hell. For being, in my head, such a refined culture I love that there is this rummage-y mentality too.

There are many sites like Brocabrac! that helpfully list the daily offerings. And there are MANY. There are braderie, more traditional flea markets, and their little brothers brocantes. Then there are vide-grenier, the slightly awkward cousin of a braderie who just might say something awesome and embarrassing at the family dinner.

We opted to drive to a town called La Chapelle-d’Andaine, a town about 30 minutes southwest of us, for their vide-grenier.

I was hoping for an antiqued looking, perhaps hand-painted sign announcing the sale.

I got fluorescent. Ah well.

We entered with some small bills and some big dreams.

And you know, it’s just like our old crap. But it’s FRENCH.


It rained (of course) and sellers covered their wares with tarps. Considering the hodge podge of stuff they had, it made it fairly difficult to shop since under one tarp might be an old camera, a military helmet, some fairly new kids toys, and a couple coffee mugs OR a box of playing cards, some old gardening tools, a hair dryer, and some records. We were undaunted.

Vide-grenier translates to something like “attic clearance” and is considered a chance for kids to make money off their grandparents’ leftovers. A young boy sold us this fabulous mustard jar for 1€, which I hope he made after nicking it from his crochety grand-mère.

And from a former young boy, now a very old man, these fabulous potato sacks for 6€.

What will we do with them? I dunno. Something great.

Here’s to revolution, independence, democracy, and old stuff.


Jul 8 2012

A Roundabout. Un Rondpoint. Une Giratoire

Hurrah! We survived an overnight flight with a crawling 15 month old. All that was in our way? Only a 3 hour drive with a child not known to sleep in a car. As we cruised (and Loie miraculously slept) I was designated navigator since, despite my terrible ability at comprehending spoken French, I can at least not balk at place names.

Along we drove. Brett asked for the next few things to look for, at which point I read the following:

Now, we had been traveling since forever the night before. And this at the very end of the trail felt both daunting and comical (but more daunting).

Since settling in, I’ve seen one traffic light, in Argentan, which has 15 times the people our town does. The traffic light is also wildly confusing as it blinks a yellow arrow and is static red at the same time. Not awesome. I’ve either mastered or deviated horribly from French traffic laws each time I’ve gone to the big grocery store in that town. No one’s honked so I’m going with mastery.

We waxed philosophical on why France would be more likely to use a roundabout than a traffic light or stop sign. I said roundabouts were more civilized and that the French didn’t need so much -don’t do this- like American drivers do. Brett thought the French love the sexiness of a curve. Being me, I decided to look into it.

The term roundabout dates from the earlier 20th century and the first one, by modern standards, was built in 1903 in Letchworth Garden City, England. Circular junctions of older vintage can be found such as those around the Bath Circus (1768), the Place de l’Etoile around the Arc de Triomphe (1907) and New York’s Columbus Circle (1904). Half, yes HALF, of the world’s truly roundabout roundabouts are in France. There are some 30,000 here. In my world, they were very common in England because of something to do with the driving on the other side of the road thing.

Some of them are pretty gnarly, like this one. One of the subspecies of Magic Roundabouts, it’s in Swindon, England and there are some intense discussions online about it. Who knew folks could get so worked up about traffic flow?

BBC

It also self-refers as The Magic Roundabout which seems a bit much as it is really just A Magic Roundabout.

Wikimedia

Despite the nuttiness of that particular one, roundabouts are considered safer, friendlier to the visually impaired and other pedestrians, control traffic congestion, integrate cyclists into the flow of traffic better, AND, as one blog pointed out, roundabouts allow for awesome stuff in the middle like statues and plants and stuff (while also saying you shouldn’t have anything so tempting that pedestrians would feel compelled to run willy nilly towards the awesome).

Maybe they are safer because helpful things like this exist:

They’re becoming more common in the US despite resistance that mirrors that of British attitudes in the 60s. But like many acquired tastes, American surveyed after getting used to them lurve them.

And, I’m not the only person who is fascinated and kind of in love with roundabouts. This BBC story discusses a woman camping in her favorite roundabout to save it. There are blogs dedicated to the civic art in French roundabouts, people advocating for more aggressive US use. There are English travelers making fun of French roundabouts. And, you can discover the musical stylings of The French Roundabout.


Jul 5 2012

Rânes

Rânes is a small village in Basse-Normandie region. From what I can figure out, Lower and Upper Normandy means more or less western and eastern Normandy because Basse-Normandie isn’t really low from anywhere, minus England maybe. Once occupied by the Romans and the Franks (who gave the country its name), Lower Normandy got its name from the Normans (William of Orange, the conqueror of England in 1066, was Norman and is buried in Caen north of here.)

The region traded hands quite a few times over the centuries including being ruled by the fabulously named Plantagenets. And the beaches of Calvados, about 1.5 hours due north from Rânes were the landing beaches of the Allied invasion of WWII. I always assumed they were on the west coast of the country but they are north off the English Channel. Yes, it is very American of me to assume the invasion had to come from the west because that’s, you know, where America is. Yes, I studied American History. Yes, I am blushing.

Heavily agricultural, the area of Basse-Normandie we are in is cow heavy and known for its cidre, ciders made from apple or pear. (More on that. So much more on that.) Our gîte, La Balayrie, is lovely and next door to another house called La Balayrie. They have a dirt bike track and a St. Bernard. I don’t know why they are both called La Balayrie. I don’t think my French is good enough to figure it out either. I do know that I like that Google Maps lists it by name.

The village or town or hamlet or whatever is lovely. It’s a one roundabout kinda town (yup, more on that later too).

There is a mini golf course but we think it’s closed. A big phew that the boulangerie is thriving.

The population of the village of Rânes was 1035. Until we got here.
Now it’s 1041.
Once occupied by the Romans and the Franks now it’s occupied by the Schumachers.


Aug 21 2010

Threshold.

We’re back in Reykjavik. In a glorious hotel with satellite TV and too many pillows. It’s grand.

It’s the point in the trip where we cross over from present tense to future tense, to thinking about things that need to get done, people we’ll get to see, about home. Emails have gone out and a dinner reservation’s been made, concert tickets have been purchased. The September of a new school year approaches.

Yesterday at dinner we both exhaled and said we were ready to come home. I think we were both a little nervous to admit it and maybe devalue what we had been doing and were doing. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful or to appear less than fully present as we still had several hundred kilometers and a long weekend ahead of us. But an agreement was made that it is a good thing to be ready to come home. And it feels good to be homesick, though I wish there was a word that didn’t imply sickness. We need a milder diagnosis. It’s not a yearning or a desperation. It’s an anticipation and a swelling sense of the next. It’s a good feeling. One we’re relishing as we think about all that will be done on the new house in the days after the plane lands.

It feels good, too, to be back in Reykjavik. We know the street names, we know where we are. We aren’t trying to get anywhere. We’re in a transition for these next few days. If we’re working with the sick-ness trope, this is the quarantine. Thank goodness we’re not Icelandic ponies or we’d be here forever.


Aug 20 2010

# 8197

Despite my best efforts to cuddle with a puffin, two other animals have dominated our Icelandic experience. Brett pet a cow yesterday and we were followed by an overly social group of chickens, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

The first is the Icelandic horse. It is really lovely. We were told by Mosel, this odd-duck, Bluetooth-wearing woman we met who also randomly trains horses all about how special they are. They are gentle and friendly. They show well, but if you take one abroad for a competition you generally have to leave it as the quarantine period for a horse’s return is prohibitive. A very sad thought indeed. Since they are such an isolated species, they have limited immunity to all the grossness of less-magical ponies.

Pretty cute.

They are also magical because they have five (or six) gaits. Most horses only have three (or four) (walk, trot, canter/gallop…canter/gallop are sometimes separated). The Icelandic horse’s fifth gait is called the tölt, known for explosive speed and a comfortable ride.  This link is so, so worth the 19 seconds (they’ve turned off embedding.)  The sixth is very rare.  It’s the skeið, flugskeið or “flying pace”.

Here’s what it looks like:

Not as awesome as the tölt, but pretty sweet.

The other animal that we see, as there are far more of them than people, is sheep. Seriously, they are everywhere. If you look to the left or right, there are sheep. If you look on the craggiest hillside that looks steeper than steep, they’re there too. The Ring Road is a two-land highway. The threat of sheep attack is constant. They loom on the side of the road.

They glare at you to remind you that you are invading their space.

They run in front of your car.

The speed limit on the good bits of the Ring Road is only 90km/h. That is still very fast when dopey sheep are in the way. If you suffer the misfortune of hitting one, it is your responsibility to track down the owner and offer compensation. Considering the sheep don’t seem to notice the electric fences (Brett can tell you how he knows they’re electric), it seems a much realer possibility than I had given credence to initially.

Oh, what’s #8197?  That’s the big ram staring us down.  His ear tag told me so. He’s one of just under 500,000 potential speed bumps out there on our last two days. Fingers crossed.


Aug 18 2010

On the Road.

Tonight we arrived in Akureyri in northern Iceland. The town is cute as a button and quite a nice place to rest five days into our Ring Road adventure. We’ve survived some pretty foul weather. We’ve seen some pretty incredible things.

Here’s a sampling.

Clouds rolling in on the ring road

black sand beaches of vik

Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon

Sænautasel Farm

Leirhnjúkur

Krafla caldera

we made this ourselves, outside Mývatn

Dimmuborgir lava field

Ásbyrgi canyon

Goðafoss