Cow Seduction

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When people hear that we are leaving our home in France after eight years, one question that invariably follows is, “What will you miss most?” My answer is not what they expect to hear.

What I will miss most are Norman cows.

Specifically, those geographically situated cows that graze on the sweet green grass of Normandy and produce the most delicious and most flavorful butter in the world.

IMG_8469“Oh, don’t worry,” people will say, “you will find other good butter wherever you live.” I don’t think so.  All butters are not the same. Neither are cows.

We have traveled to both upper and lower Normandy innumerable times during the past thirteen years while living in Germany and France. My first trip to the Normandy beaches and WWII sites was when we were living in Germany. During that excursion I had a personal epiphany to learn French–to use the local language every time we traveled to this region of northern France where we fervently loved the history, the solid stone architecture, and the people. [Story of D-Day 70th anniversary here: The Unexpected in Normandy]

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WWII history commemorated all over Normandy

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American Cemetery Colleville-sur-Mer

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stony norman architecture

Eventually we moved to Paris and I did learn passable French. Soon after came the discovery of how butter from Normandy transforms nondescript food, like breakfast toast or potatoes or steamed vegetables into something noticeably scrumptious. I fell hard for the crunch of sea salt crystals in butter-with-a-real-buttery-taste on otherwise dry or bland food. Now there is no turning back. I have been known to carry salted French butter home to Colorado, frozen, in an insulated container tucked deep inside my suitcase.

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two favorites: but the very best is with sea salt crystals that crunch in your mouth

One weekend trip to lower Normandy, we stayed in an historic, privately owned château. It is also a bed and breakfast, with a fine dining room, which helps pay the taxes and upkeep on an ancient estate.

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chateau in basse normandy

There were wineries to visit and sites to see each day, but we constantly veered off onto pot-holed, muddy dirt roads to pay homage to cows. Just cows–grazing and standing around in fields. I wanted to study the source of my butter obsession, close up, in their natural environment.

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During the Germany years, we belonged to a weekend hiking club. Every Sunday morning we traipsed off, en masse, through forests, hills and vineyards in the countryside. I laughed at a friend who stopped to take photos every time a cow was in the landscape. When I asked why, he said, “I don’t know. I just like them.”

Well, now I like them, too, but for a reason. They give something special back because of being these cows. Norman cows are raised only for dairy. They roam. They eat nutrient flora and grassy greens in the hills and marshlands of the rolling countryside. They produce milk that is heavy and smooth. The fatty milk cream is buttercup yellow and makes butter that is sweet and memorable.

Why is French butter so irresistibly different? Two things. One, it often has a higher fat content [87%] compared to American butter [80%]. And secondly, the real secret behind the fineness of French butter is the way it is cultured.

Cream, separated from the milk, is allowed to ferment before it is churned. Thus, bacteria forms, sugar converts to lactic acid, and the result is a distinguishably creamier, velvet-ier, butter-ier taste.

American produced butter uses only pasteurized [uncultured] milk cream. The French, dedicated to quality, refuse to bypass the fermentation step.

Before industrialization all butter was produced the French way, in small batches, using natural fermentation. As the heavier cream rose to the top of the milk, it was skimmed off and stored until there was enough to churn. That was how bacteria got in and “cultured” the cream. It resulted in a taste that was “ripe” and very delicious.

When I was a child, my paternal grandmother kept one milk cow on her farm. I saw how the yellow cream rose thickly to the top of a container of fresh milk after it sat awhile. I don’t remember any butter churning, but she used that cream to pour into coffee or to make desserts like strawberry shortcake with garden picked berries and a dollop of fresh whipped cream.

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Today, with mass production, there is no skimming by hand and waiting around for natural processes. Cream is spun out of milk via machines. However, in France, a lactic acid producing culture is added to the separated cream and fermentation still takes place. The resulting butter taste is fuller and, to some, even a “nuttier” flavor.

It is well known that the French are extraordinarily fond of butter. Culturally they take it very seriously, and it is not lightly squandered. One vivid example occurred during my slightly quirky two-month tenure assisting a female chef with cooking classes in her Parisian apartment. I functioned as the prep and clean up person during a gap before a new student intern arrived to do the sludge work.

One day, as she was demonstrating her no-bake-tart-pastry recipe, an entire brick of opened butter fell off the counter. She stepped in it with the heel of her kitchen shoes, almost skidding to the floor, but grabbed the counter edge just in time. Without missing a beat, she told me to pick it up and “clean it”.

She carried on with class while I “cleaned” the butter with “beaucoup de paper towels” as that was the only method I could think of. [No suggestion was offered.] Only a sliver of butter remained when I thought it was “clean enough”. After sculpting it into a small ball, I set it out of sight.

During 2017 there was a lot of published hype about a calamitous butter shortage coming to France. It was and wasn’t true. Because of a shortage in raw materials, for a time, there was a supply problem in grocery stores. Concurrently, exported sales increased as the Chinese decided they loved pastries made with French butter. In America, sugar had shifted to being the dietary enemy so butter demand increased across the Atlantic. Fears of mass shortage did not transpire but my restaurant friend, Laurel Sanderson, did stockpile for several months because she is so dependent on mounds of butter for her baked fresh daily southern biscuits, cakes, and savory tarts. [Story of Laurel and her resto: Treize–A Baker’s Dozen, Paris]

Norman cows also produce milk for Camembert–the most famous cheese of the region. The village of Camembert resides in basse [lower] Normandy. The story is that in 1791 a Norman farmer, Marie Harel, while following the recipe from a priest who hailed from Brie, made some slight changes and improved it. Camembert was born.

Camembert de Normandie is a protected designation of origin. With this stamp, it can only be made from raw, unpasteurized milk from les vaches Normandies [cows from Normandy].  It is soft, with a fine rind covered in a “white duvet”. It is at least 45% fat, with a pungent aroma and stronger taste than Brie. When warmed it becomes even creamier and can be used as a dip for raw vegetables, potatoes, or bread. I serve it this way as an appetizer or light supper. It is typically sold whole, in rounds, inside thin wooden containers made of poplar. [How to make and serve baked camembert: “Not a Station, but a Place”–Paris to Avignon]

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thin rind with a white duvet covering

There are many things I remember after more than a decade living, learning and experiencing European life. There are adventures, travel, and friends to reminisce about, food, wine, and restaurants to recall, even exasperations or faux pas to laugh [or write] about.

Still, at the top of my list is “mes vaches Normandies”–those fabulous “buttah-making” cows that touched my senses and tastes in a forever kind of way. Always in anticipation of the next petit dèjeuner of good, wholegrain toasted baguette smeared with a melting pool of butter and sea salt crystals.

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Ogden Nash, the American poet of light verse wrote, “Cows are of the bovine ilk: one end is moo and the other milk.”  Factually and humorously true. But all cows are not the same.

I happen to have been seduced by the Norman ones.

 

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there’s no place like home–in normandy

 

Treize–A Baker’s Dozen, Paris

There is a story behind the phrase “13–a baker’s dozen”. In the days when bread was sold by weight, bakers regularly gave customers an extra +1, or 13 items, on every dozen sold. There were strict penalties if found guilty of shorting the customer. Since loaves easily varied in size and weight, they made a practice of “giving more”. Today, generous bakeries might offer a “freebie” as a courtesy for buying a dozen.

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laurel in the treize kitchen

Laurel Sanderson was a baker long before she decided to open a restaurant in the back of a Paris courtyard. She comes from a line of southern home cooks and bakers going back to her mother and grandmother in upper Charleston, South Carolina, USA.

At twenty years old, Laurel took off to learn French–in France. She immediately found other English-speaking friends doing the same thing. The combined excitement of new friendships and travel initially slowed the process of acquiring a second language.

After four years of polishing her French and having fun, she moved to Paris and began working in a bar off rue Mouffetard in the Latin Quarter. There, a group of same-age ex-pats from all over the world bonded in friendship. Most of them stayed on. They gravitated from those beginning days of tending bar to the grown up world of food and beverage distribution, management, organizational planning, and in Laurel’s case–a bakery.

Fast-forward another fifteen years–after starting a family and ending her bakery business partnership, Laurel discovered a former auto garage, at the far end of a centuries old cobblestoned courtyard, in the middle of Paris. She envisioned a new enterprise, all her own, and named it Treize…a baker’s dozen.

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For the first two years, after opening in January 2014, Laurel managed with irregular part time help that came and went. Finally, in February 2016, she asked a friend from those early bartending days to join her full time.

Kaysa von Sydow is Swedish. For many years, she owned a special events business with food and beverages. Now she runs the front-of-the-house at Treize, which highlights her engaging people skills along with creative coffee, tea, juices, and drinks. She brings the best of Swedish café culture [Fika]–savouring the moment, slowing down, making time every day for a break with coffee, tea, a baked good and [perhaps] some friendly gossip. She also sources the best products for variety and bio-freshness.

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kaysa and laurel, chez treize

Laurel now focuses on lighting up the kitchen space, as well as the whole restaurant, with whatever she is doing: cooking, baking or treating customers as life-long friends.

Why did a southern girl from South Carolina open a miniscule resto in a space that evolved from a storage workshop for antiques, to a jeweler’s workshop, to a hair salon, to a mechanic’s garage? When asked how she made the switch from full time baking to chef she replies, “It was actually pretty easy. People want pastry, but people need food.”

There’s more to it than that, of course. She missed the tastes and recipes from her southern American roots. She wasn’t planning to return to Charleston because “home” was now Paris, with a husband and children. So she created her own style of southern comfort cooking and opened it to the public.

When you push open the many-paned glass door at Treize, it’s like walking into a favorite friend’s quirky kitchen and dining room combined. It’s highly organized with floor to ceiling storage, but overflowing with jars and baskets and tins and spices, hanging cast iron and copper pots, piles of fruits, vegetables and herbs. Even the windowpane grills hold ripening avocadoes. There are flea market finds decorating out-of-reach shelves; vintage muffin tins, dough cutters, cake pans, antique copper or enamel cafetières. There is a gargoyle. And cookbooks tucked in everywhere.

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a place for everything and everything in some place

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carrot cake under glass, a basket of biscuits, ginger root, & a gargoyle!

On the largest wooden table, there is a seasonal flower arrangement next to a stacked pile of “Garden and Gun” magazines. [Laurel’s favorite periodical, from Charleston, y’all.] In the corner by the door, birch tree trunks support curling dried vines that snake upward toward the skylight. Vines decorated seasonally, of course. An antique glass chandelier hangs from the pressed tin ceiling. On one wall is a black and white mural of a little girl swinging meditatively into the air. Opposite, a chalkboard sign reads “In Buttermilk Biscuits We Trust” along with the recipe for this daily served bread.

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winter vines in twinkly lights, snowflakes, & pages from a french novel

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springtime in greenery and birdhouses

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southern biscuits, y’all

It’s an eclectic use of very small space. Vintage, antique-y, industrial-ish, chic/messy/favorite auntie décor are all terms that describe Treize. Your senses respond instinctively to the all-embracing ambience. Capturing any empty stool or chair, you melt into the friendliness AND the delicious food smells. It is the sanctuary you were dreaming to find–an escape in an accelerated world.

The kitchen is an incredibly small working space, but open to everything. As soon as anyone enters, Laurel and/or Kaysa look up with huge smiles and say, “Heeeeyyyyy, how are you? Come on in!” If they know your name, you are greeted with bisous [xx] too. By now, they know practically everyone who walks in, from around the globe.

The recipes change by the day and the season. Menus are based on traditional family recipes that Laurel grew up eating. Some are inspired from The Southern Cookbook. All have been updated and improved with Laurel’s creativity and by sourcing 100% bio ingredients. Top-notch staples of butter, flour, cream, sugar, seasonal fruits and veggies are easily found in Paris. They make everything taste better.

Everyday, Laurel bakes light-as-a-feather, melt-in-your-mouth buttermilk biscuits. [More than 40,000 since Treize opened!] Everyday, there is a three-tiered butter-cream-frosted carrot cake under glass. Laurel’s carrot cake is inspired. It is her own particular version. People come in just because they have heard about it. They return because they are hooked by everything else about Treize, too.

Laurel generally arrives first, very early in the morning. This is her quiet time to bake–biscuits, cakes [one or two in addition to carrot cake], and small pastries for savory tarts. Kaysa arrives next, soon followed by the current prep-cooks, Sam and Anne. Alam arrives last, but stays well past closing to finish cleaning and setting up for the next day. He moves quietly and knowingly in the back of the kitchen. By late afternoon, he nudges Laurel out to sit down for a moment.

After hours of multi-tasking: chatting up customers, overseeing and doing preps, sorting out Kaysa’s orders over the din of customers, unceasing chopping, cooking, baking– finally, it’s late afternoon and a special time to be at Treize. A bottle of wine is often opened and glasses poured. There may be time for more in-depth conversation while sitting on high stools around a tall table peeling oranges and lemons for the next day’s juices. It’s my favorite time to be there. I join in and the prep work goes faster.

I’ve spent many hours at Treize since stumbling into this hidden gem of a courtyard three years ago. I have taken friends or out-of-town guests or my family. I especially love going alone. In this coziest of environments, I find my better self.

There are stories about other people who find Treize, too. A family of five from Luxembourg was visiting Paris. They were looking for food after normal restaurant hours on a frigid wintery day. No place would serve them. They staggered into Treize–cold, tired and famished. Arms readily opened to hold the baby while mom ate her meal. The other children were nourished. Everyone was nurtured. They return every year.

A honeymooning couple scanned a fashion blogger’s website where Treize was mentioned and happily lingered over lunch and several rounds of beverages. A weekly table of mothers and babies has been coming in since before the babies were born. “Paris by Mouth” [restaurant review website] rents the large table several times a week to end their tourist walking tours with wine and cheese. A stream of regulars working in the area, bring in their own plates or coffee cups to be filled and taken back to work. A professional chess player, who summers every year in Paris, eats there weekly, if not more. A newcomer, curious about what he saw at the end of an ambient courtyard, walks in and claims his new favourite place in Paris. People find Treize. And they return.

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il y a d’or a la fin de la cour

The success of Treize is not hard to understand. But there are subtle, even humble, layers mixed into the daily joy of achievement. For Laurel, Treize is not about her or what she has built. It is about the connectedness created with everyone who walks in the door. It’s a throw back to an environment beautifully crafted twenty years ago in a bar off rue Mouffetard, where customers became friends. Sharing back-stories and experiences, staying in touch with each other’s lives, supporting one another through thick and thin. Both Laurel and Kaysa are masters of weaving friendship into work they love.

The essence of Treize, the thing that lingers, is this–no matter the time of day or the moment in the week or whatever else is going on in the world, when you push open the door, you always feel glad to be exactly there. It’s about broad smiles and sparkling eyes.  It’s about lighthearted banter between co-workers doing what they love to do. It’s about warm greetings to everyone, every single time. It’s the kind of place where you want to know their names and their stories. And they want to know yours, too.

There is a feeling of receiving something “more” each time you go. And that’s because the heart of Treize is not simply a baker’s dozen, it’s a baker’s soul…

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the smile that lights up a kitchen and a restaurant

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Full Statement: we believe food should be made by people [not machines], that animals deserve decent lives & farmers deserve to make a decent living. we hope you think so, too..

 Addendum July 2018:

Treize has a reopened in a new and larger location across from Jardin du Luxembourg. The current hours are 9AM to 9PM. Check their website for menu offerings. No reservations. 5, rue de Médicis, Paris, 75006

http://www.treizebakeryparis.com

 

Hack #1: Making Perfect Rice

Editor’s note: There is a lot of talk about hacking these days. The word actually has a wide range of meanings. In contemporary terms, “to hack” means to gain illegal access to a computer. More informally, “hack”, means a tip, a trick or an efficient way of doing something. Sticking with informal usage,  A Taste of Mind will offer an ongoing, but intermittent series of “Hacks”.  To make life easier…

We lived in Asia for a total of fifteen years in two separate cycles. First in Singapore for three years, followed by an interim three years in the Mediterranean, followed by twelve years in Taiwan.

Throughout Asia, the daily carbohydrate staple is, obviously, rice.

As a child, I grew up in the American Midwest where our daily carbohydrate was the potato. When my mother tried to spiff up evening meals by serving rice instead, we shunned the whitely tasteless pile of grain. In frustration, she resorted to sprinkling sugar on top. It only made things worse.

Fast forward to adulthood and the move to Singapore where rice and noodles became a regular part of the family diet. So many delicious ways to eat vegetables or bits of meat over a base of rice. Our son and daughter learned the use of chopsticks at tender ages. Three-year-old Lara had her own style. Holding a chopstick in each fist, she painstakingly pinched food between the two ends. With some luck, it eventually got to her mouth.

For me, making rice was always a guessing game–ratios of water to rice, cooking time, lid or no lid, rice cooker or no rice cooker, and so on. Finally, it was our Taiwanese helper, Alon, who showed me that preparing perfect rice required only one thing–an index finger.

The index finger method works for any kind of rice–white, brown, red, black or multi-grain. It works in any size pot. It works whether cooking with gas, electricity or induction. It is the best way to prepare fluffy, un-sticky rice. It is not the way to make a crispy, blackened, bottom layer of rice as some Middle Eastern preparations do.

Perfect rice can be made this simple way at home or in a restaurant, too.

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Treize Restaurant, 16 rue des Saints Pères, Paris

Here’s an example. While hanging out one morning at my friend Laurel’s small Paris restaurant, Treize, she wondered aloud how to cook the rice for the lunch special. I offered to show her the foolproof-wendy-hacking way. When you know the chef/owner and it’s an open kitchen, the answer is “Sure, go ahead!” And that’s how a Charleston girl learned to make perfectly cooked red rice to accompany her southern black beans…

PERFECT RICE HACK

Ingredients:

  • 1 cooking pot and lid, any size
  • rice of choice, optional to rinse first
  • water

 

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brown or basmati

Preparation:

  • Place any amount of rice [rinsed or not] into a cooking pot.
  • Add water to cover and stir gently until floating rice grains settle on bottom.
  • Gently rest the tip of your index finger on the top layer of rice.
  • Continue adding water until water level reaches the line of the first joint.
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place rice in pan

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place tip of index finger on top of rice

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add enough water until it reaches the line of the first joint

Cooking:

  • Place uncovered pot over high heat. [Sometimes I add a drizzle of olive oil or vegetable bouillon cube for flavor.]
  • When water begins to boil, adjust heat to continue the boil at lower setting.
  • When there is no bubbling water visible and the surface of the rice shows craters, immediately turn heat to lowest setting and cover with a lid.
  • Set timer for exactly 5 minutes.
  • Turn off heat when timer buzzes.

 

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surface of rice becoming visible

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forming craters or sink holes

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when no boiling water visible, cover with lid, turn heat to lowest setting

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time exactly 5 minutes, then turn off heat

And there you go. No fussy measurements. Just a finger joint level of cooking water. And a timer. Rice is ready immediately or will stay warm under cover until ready to serve.

For small amounts of rice, the cooking is very fast, only a few minutes. For larger amounts with more water to boil away, keep an eye on it until it’s time for the final five minutes.

For heavier rice grains like black, red or multigrain, I measure water to just above the line of my index joint. Somehow it always seems to work.

TORTA DI RISO

Because I don’t measure rice there is usually enough for another meal. What to do with it? Well, there is always eggs-on-rice [see link for recipe: Comfort Food for Cal] or ginger fried rice. Recently, I have a new favorite recipe for leftover rice. It’s an Italian dish called Torta di Riso. Credit given to Sasha Martin from her memoir Life from Scratch.

  • 6 slices bacon, chopped [can be omitted]
  • 1 T. olive oil, plus more for baking dish
  • 1 chopped onion
  • 3 C. leftover cooked rice [any kind]
  • 6 eggs, lightly beaten
  • ½ C. grated parmesan cheese [or more]
  • ¼ C. chopped parsley [or more]
  • S&P
  • Red pepper flakes [my personal addition]
  1. Sauté bacon in olive oil until fat begins to render. Add onion. Sauté until it turns light brown. Set aside.
  2. In large bowl, place rice, cheese, eggs, parsley, salt and pepper.
  3. Stir in slightly cooled onion mixture.
  4. Pour into lightly oiled 8×8 inch casserole.
  5. Bake 400 F. or 205 C. for 35 minutes or until golden brown on top.
  6. Cool 15 minutes.
  7. Cut into squares or diamonds.
  8. Serve room temperature or cold.

Torta di Riso is a nourishing finger food snack. It’s great for picnics or hikes.

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mixing ingredients

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ready to bake

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bake til golden brown

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i like it crunchy on top and with red pepper flakes throughout