Lancaster Bomber. Photo © SNappa2006, via flickr Creative Commons

More than 70 years ago, Marcel Croteau, a veteran of the Royal Canadian Air Forces’ 425 Alouettes Squadron and my uncle, was flying nightly bombing raids over France.

Because of his role in those long-ago missions, Croteau is being inducted as a knight (chevalier) into France’s Order of the Legion of Honour today. It is the highest honour the French government confers.

It is one of many ceremonies taking place this year in which the French government is paying tribute to Canadian veterans who participated in the 1944 D-Day invasion to liberate France from Nazi Germany. This event is taking place in Sechelt, where 91-year-old Croteau, a former Victoria-area resident, now lives.

The smiles and congratulations of the 100 friends and family who will gather later today will provide a marked contrast to the night-time tensions experienced during the D-Day–related raids….


Read the rest of this editorial at the Victoria Times Colonist….


At the local supermarket last week, Gaston pronounced that he wanted to buy some of the pre-prepared packages of crème brûlée available in the refrigerator section.

It took a few nights for us to get to it. Last night, we indulged. Actually, we were clearing out the fridge. And Gaston was tasked with getting down, sticking his head into the gas oven, and determining how to light the broiler element.

No Sylvia Plath-imitations on my part, thank you very much.

The brûlée was good. It even had real vanilla powder.

Better yet, it still tasted good once I’d checked the ingredients on the package. Nothing was listed that my grand-mère wouldn’t have recognized.

It’s just as well we didn’t discover this treat earlier.

bread and thyme. Photo © Moyan Brenn
If you ask Gaston what he considers to be the defining qualities of good French bread, his eyes lose focus and a dreamy expression comes over his face.

You may prompt him: “Crusty? Fluffy?”

That snaps him back into the moment. “No! Absolutely not.”

I agree with his disagreement.

The best French bread bears little resemblance to the loaves and sticks we find in most North American supermarkets.

Good French bread has a slightly tough, crunchy, chewy crust. The bread’s flesh is very springy and slightly chewy—with substance, yet also with measurable, sometimes even large-ish air pockets. The texture tells you whether the dough was adequately worked before set to rise, activating and harnessing the long protein chains of gluten in the wheat, or wheat, rye, even barley or oat, flour combination.

The French take their bread seriously. No fluff-puffs or tasteless roll-into-doughballs for them. Bread, after all, is part of French heritage, and figures prominently in the history of the country. For instance, when told that peasants and workers were marching on Paris in 1789 because they had no bread to eat, Marie Antoinettes is said to have suggested, “Let them eat cake” (or brioche, more likely, given what she ate instead of peasant bread). The story is apocryphal; regardless, a lack of flour for bread was a trigger for the storming of the Bastille in July, 1789.
boule of country bread. Photo © by Brett Neilson

And we all know where that led.

Yet, in recent years, bakeries across France have been closing. And, yes, it is now possible to get a baguette or loaf in France that just doesn’t measure up.

A baker’s life is difficult, and the returns are low. A baker’s long hours preclude much of a social or even family life. Working conditions are uncomfortable, and rents and fuel costs are high.

Then there are the regulations. These regulations dictate, on one hand, staff wages and hours, and require immense amounts of paperwork. The regulations also limit how much a baguette can be sold for and how much time a baker and his family can take for vacation each year.

Further, the French are eating less bread in a collective effort to reduce waistline creep. Unfortunately, this also reduces bakers’ profit margins.

It’s little wonder few young people choose the trade.

Syndicates and corporations have stepped up over the last few decades to provide solutions. These organizations source and negotiate  lower prices for flour and other essential ingredients. The buying power comes with being able to purchase in bulk for thousands of member–bakers directly from producers. The syndicates and corporations also handle warehousing and shipping of ingredients across France, reducing individual bakers’ hassles immeasurably.

As you drive through towns and villages, bakeries display signs and logos for these organizations. They announce to passersby which of the organizations enables a baker to continue working his trade. Few independent bakeries now exist in France, although rare exceptions continue.

The organizations have changed baking in France in other ways, providing a number of optional services their member–bakers can subscribe to. One of these services is regular provision of ready-made starter, or leavening, for more traditional, sour-dough-type bread recipes.

The corporations can also supply bakers with factory-made pre-mixes or even frozen dough shaped into loaves, buns, sticks, and even croissants and sweet breakfast pastries. Bakers need only order a month’s supply. They can keep the goods frozen until needed, defrost the number of items needed for a morning’s bake, then pop them into the ovens.

These options have improved bakers’ lives considerably, but  at a cost to bread quality.

The pre-made loaves are sold as basic, or regular, baguettes or loaves. The state sets the price of these basic offerings, ensuring that the French will always be able to afford bread for breakfast, lunch and supper.

These baguettes and loaves are usually disappointing, with crusts that explode into crumbs as soon as you break the loaf, and a light, disappear-into-nothing crumb inside. That said, it’s still better than most supermarket bread we find at home.

Many French bakers, fortunately, provide alternatives. A 1998 law prevents businesses that use only pre-mixed dough and frozen-ready loaves from calling themselves “bakers.” As a result, any baker who wishes to be recognized as a baker must provide some product made from scratch. Some are true craftspeople. I recommend you bypass regular bread in all French bakeries except those on the Best Baguette of the Year list, and choose instead traditional options—called traditionnela l’ancien or d’antan. These are made more in the old-fashioned way, with sour-dough starter and blends of flour the baker can adjust.

Truly artisanal bakers create and nurture their own starter over months and years, imparting a distinct (and very satisfying) taste to their loaves and sticks. Some create taste–art by incorporating seasonal fruits or produce into specialty breads. I remember enjoying baker Cédric Diant’s exceptional pain aux figues (fig bread) and pain aux noix (walnut bread) during one fall vacation to the Mirepoix area. Both loaves were heavier than Diant’s traditional pain or boules, but they were so, so good.

French artisan bakers are becoming a rarity. When you stumble across one, return often, and buy from them. Help keep them in business, and enjoy the bread they clearly are passionate about making.

Boulangerie/Patissierie de Cédric Diant, Mirepoix. Photo © Scott Mair 2012
It took Gaston and I a week to find Diant’s bakery in Mirepoix. Now it is one of the many reasons why we keep returning to the region. Sadly, the rigours of running a bakery has changed even Diant’s business. He no longer offers the range of bread available even a few years ago. The menu is usually whittled down to everyday varieties sure to sell.

He was also closed for the first three weeks of this visit. Given that two bakeries on the town’s more-frequented central square have closed since we last visited, Gaston and I feel fortunate that the door to Diant’s establishment was locked only temporarily.

For his bread remains outstanding—the best bread in the region.

A French bread glossary

Baguette: a long, very thin loaf of bread

Pain: a loaf that is similar in shape and size to what North Americans call French bread

Boule: a round loaf of bread.

Pain traditionnel: country bread—often sourdough and made with rye, barley and even oat flour, in addition to wheat flour.

01. October 2012 · Write a comment · Categories: France · Tags: ,

Next to the entrance to the local supermarket, the owners have parked a spiffy trailer-wagon that has caught Gaston’s eye.

It’s small enough and light enough to tow behind a gutless Yaris. It has collapsible side bars that can be raised or lowered, together or separately. It would be the perfect alternative to Gaston folding the seats of his Toyota down, lining the back with a tarp and stuffing the works with the bi-weekly batch of garden waste en route to the municipal compost facility.

This being Europe, where they made peace with the ridiculous price of fuel back in the ’70s by embracing small, energy-efficient cars, accessories suitable to such vehicles exist here.

Watching the covetous gleam in his eye everytime we walked by, I suggested to Gaston that he get an import license and set up a business bringing items like this into Canada. That won’t be going anywhere.

Instead, he will be keeping that eye out for the time when wagons for wee cars become available on our home turf.

The dining room of le Ciel d'Or restaurant, Mirepoix, FranceI’ve frequently enjoyed soups and sauces made from mirepoix stock, but this was the first time I’d had the actual mixture of chopped celery, carrots and onion that is called mirepoix explicitly showcased on my plate.

Gaston and I were enjoying the Friday fixed lunch at le Ciel d’Or, the restaurant at the Relais Royal hotel in Mirepoix, France. Chef Rogier van den Biggelaar, here in Mirepoix-the-town, clearly is proud of his position’s occupational, geographic and historical connections to mirepoix-the-food. The aromatic mixture, which forms the flavour base of many stocks, soups, stews and sauces, is named for Charles-Pierre-Gaston François de Lévis, duke of Lévis-Mirepoix, whose family had ruled the area since the 11th century. Mirepoix-the-lord employed the cook credited with establishing and codifying mirepoix-the-cooking-technique within the canon of French cuisine in the 18th century.

Our meal in present-day Mirepoix-the-town was both simple and simply delightful.

It started with a salad featuring a few leaves of crisp oak-leaf lettuce that cupped a generous spoonful of pink foam redolent of tomato roasted just long enough to concentrate the fruit’s sugars. Slices of vine-ripened cherry tomatoes, a drizzle of bright olive oil, and a lick of balsamic reduction lifted the dish into art, both visually and gastronomically.

But the main course was, of course, the main attraction. The menu provided just one offering: roast pork with brunoise.

Brunoise consists of a small-dice mirepoix cooked with diced ham or pork belly.

In other words, we were going to lunch on mirepoix in Mirepoix.

The chef had highlighted the natural flavours within the mirepoix, and as soon as the plates were brought into the dining room, the aromatics filled the high-ceilinged room. Steeped in a rich, savoury sauce made from the reduced juices of the pork and the vegetables, this mirepoix consisted of orange, and translucent green and golden flavour jewels that seduced the senses and silenced Gaston and I. The tiny cubes had cooked only briefly and remained satisfyingly firm in texture. This dish, so commonly relegated to the background of everyday cooking, was both revelatory and familiar, pleasantly astounding us with the fullness of its flavour on the one hand and soothing us with the comfort of an old friend on the other.

The four generous slices of roasted pork loin we were each served were tender, flavorful, and moist, with a thin, slightly chewy, slightly caramelized crust, and were perfectly set off by the brunoise.

We both would have been content if the meal had ended with this main course. Being a weekday in September, the restaurant was quiet. The staff allowed us time to sip our wine and appreciate the lingering taste-memories before presenting the sweet course—a trio of small taste treats that pleased the palate without burdening the belly. Gaston particularly enjoyed the berry smoothie that was served in a shot glass, while I appreciated the tiny tiramisu.

Coffee, of course, completed the meal.

Some notes I compiled in response to a query from a fellow-Victorian regarding renting accommodation in France, sight unseen, over the internet.

The only way to make the process of finding and booking a place successful and endurable is to narrow things down:

1) Which region you are interested in? Lots of Peter Mayle-genre books, by people writing about their adventures travelling in/moving to/living in/interacting with natives in various regions of France exist; the Victoria public library has a good selection. Peruse them, talk to people, yada-yada. That’s how I focussed on Mirepoix for part of our first recent trip to France in 2009: Angela Murrill’s Hot Sun; Cool Shadow was the book that did it for me.

2) What you want to do while you’re there? (food? Michelin-starred restaurants? markets? wine tastings? beaches? hiking? artisan shops? barging down the Midi Canal? accessibility to getting elsewhere? History of the French/Roman/medieval variety? pre-history? museums?… etc.) The answers will inform your decisions re: 1), as well as where you decide to stay within a region.

3) Do you want the village, the city, or the country experience? There are advantages and disadvantages to each, and your decision should be based on 2) and your personality and tastes. Gaston and I are both introverts at heart, and we really like the “little house in the woods” experience, but it does mean we have to drive 15 minutes to pick up the daily baguette. We’re fine with that, having also tried the village “walk out the door and down the street to the bakery” experience in 2009. We found village life to be a bit too noisy-ish, busy-ish, and nosy-ish for us (it really brought out Gaston’s until-then secret nosy-ness). And the townhouses that exist in old villages are a bit like caves, with narrow street fronts and few windows. That was kind of weird. And dark. But you might like it. There is certainly something to be said for walking down the street for your morning coffee and croissant. As I said: personality and taste.

4) If you have the time, aren’t sure, and are opening to trying different kinds of experiences, book a week at each of a number of different kinds of accommodations in different settings, and decide which you like best for future reference. This is what we did. We booked our first week in a working farm village in the côtes du Rhone area (!__region); our 2nd week south of Mirepoix, and our third week south of Pézenas, in Nézignan-l’Evêque. Each was in a very different setting, in a different region, with different kinds of things to recommend it.

As to websites, we’ve found to be helpful, except when booking in Paris (there, we prefer We’ve also used (owned by the same parent company as vrbo, but not as expensive to landlords, apparently), which tend to have more French-owned places for rent. (VRBO has a lot of ex-pat rentals.) French-owned may mean you get to experience firsthand the difference in standards in cleanliness/fastidiousness that exist French vs N. American/British. But then again you may not: it may be fabulous. The website gites de targets the French, but we found some great B&Bs through it. I’ve seen signs in stunning little villages for Clé, as well, which might be worth checking out—We’re especially intrigued by N° D’AGRÉMENT: 81MS00191 in Hautpoul, on the north edge of the Montagne Noire, above Mazamet.

There are things to be wary of when booking via the internet: scrutinise the photos, and be aware that most of the photos are taken with fish-eye lenses, so the rooms appear much larger than they actually are. Also, the photos may be several years old, and may or may not reflect maintenance. Try to plot out the size and arrangement of the place from the photos. Read the reviews. Unfortunately, VRBO permits hosts to filter reviews about their units, but nonetheless if you read the reviews with a critical eye and read between the lines, you can determine a lot of what isn’t being said. Communicate with the owner, ask questions, etc.

As Gaston and Mimi are unlikely to be in a city that is home to a Joël Robuchon restaurant with enough cash in their bank account to splurge on a meal planned, if not actually cooked, by the many-starred Robuchon, they recently resorted to the pauper’s experience of the Gault Millau‘s Chef of the (Last) Century.

French chefs who make the three-star Michelin grade on French soil frequently expand and diversify. They open additional restaurants in Tokyo, New York, Las Vegas, and other well-heeled metropoles. They create specialty and ordinary food product lines for specialty and ordinary people, respectively. They publish cookbooks or star in reality T.V. shows on the Food Network. They capitalize, generally, on any means of branding and production in the food, cuisine, and cooking domaine.

Because, apparently, succeeding in the restaurant business is a precarious enterprise for even the best. Even in the country that reveres its top chefs and idolizes them more than movie stars.

So, in addition to opening a dozen restaurants in eight cities around the world, publishing multiple cookbooks, and managing the expectations that a total of 28 Michelin stars inspire, M. Robuchon teamed up with a producer of frozen foods to recreate T.V. dinner, French-style.

After a long day’s hike, Gaston and Mimi pulled two packages out of the frigo, threw them in the oven, and subsequently sampled confit de canard parmentier (butter-laden shepherd’s pie with duck) and pâtes à la basilique et poulet (pesto linguine with chicken). The food was pretty good, for frozen dinners. Certainly tastier than anything they’d find in the supermarket freezer section at home.

But, then, the French would require that.

And M. Robuchon does have a reputation to consider.

“Who comes to France to make soup?” asks Gaston.

“What more French thing to do than to boil up a carcass with some mirepoix to make potage?” Mimi responds.

Making soup is part of our Monday ritual at Montplaisir. First, visit the Monday morning Mirepoix market and purchase produce for the week. Next, go to the bakery and stock up on baguettes and other breads to last the next 36 hours. Last stop on the excursion: go by the rotisserie wagon to pick up lunch: one whole chicken and a carton of potatoes roasted in a pan under the turning chickens to catch all their jus (and fat).

Back to Montplaisir, where Gaston debones the bird and sets the skeletal bits to boil in a potful of water on the stove. Mimi makes a green salad and slices bread. They eat; the carcass simmers; they sip blanquette; the carcass simmers; they clean up; the carcass simmers; they find their current reading material and lounge on the terrace; the carcass simmers. At last, Mimi strains the stock and sets it to cool, and Gaston brings the resulting chicken trash up to the dustbins at the top of the road.

Then, the creative part: consolidating and taking care of many of the bits in the frigo—that last carrot from the previous week’s trip to the market, the lonely, withering stalk of celery, the handful of leek leaves and half an onion, the leftover potatoes and bits of meat from lunch, the rice from the previous night’s supper, and the herbs harvested from fields and trailsides during the week’s hikes.

Different each time. Satisfying every time.

roast-chicken wagon at the market

Roast-chicken wagon at the market

Other kitchen adventures include:

  • Duck, cooked lightly with coat of fresh-ground pepper, then served with steamed spinach and apricot-and-onion confit. That was yummy;
  • A green salad dressed with peaches stewed in balsamic vinegar and strips of dry ham.
  • Pasta in a ham, wine, eggplant and tomato sauce, with field herbs;
  • Onion tart with Dijon-mustard seasoning;
  • Onion and tomato tart;
  • Mimi’s signature fennel-apple-hazelnut salad with Dijon vinaigrette—the real French dressing;
  • Stacks of roasted eggplant, roasted red pepper, roasted tomato and fresh cheese, with balsamic syrup and figs;
  • and Cédric Diant’s pastries from Mirepoix.

Last time, Mimi tried cooking rabbit stew, but ended up with stewed leather instead.