Margaret and Dick   


June '06: Cars and cooking

You think it’s a stretch to connect buying a new car with cooking?  Here goes.

It was time to trade in our old sewing machine – er, car – in Limoux, after 10 years of faithful service.  She screams at us when we go up steep hills, and when we’re driving over 75 mph on the autoroute we need to shout to communicate.  But she hasn’t broken down, she’s just large enough for us and our bicycles, and she squeezes into the tiniest parking spaces.  Her main shortcoming has been her lack of air conditioning.  Global warming is very evident in the south of France, and trips seem especially long when we’re moving slowly while shouting over engine noise.

Off to the Peugeot dealer I went.  There were lots of slightly-used cars on the lot, with one common feature:  red license plates.  The price was right, but what’s with the weird plates?  “Oh, those are cars that have been used by a Peugeot collaborator from outside France while they are in this country.”  So many Peugeot collaborators in our little town?  No hope for a straight answer from a car salesman.

I noted the salesman’s name, Tallavigne.  “Does that mean someone who prunes grape vines?”  “It sure does,” he said.  “My family has been around here a long time.”  Mr. Tallavigne was friendly but frantic, going from phone call to another client to secretary to phone call, and eventually returning to me.  “Things are moving, non?” I asked.  “Yes, perhaps,” he said, “as long as somebody buys a car now and then.”  The secretary winked while he was on the phone, “He’s a talker.”

I went to to get the scoop on the strange plates.  The different colored plate denotes a car in “Transit Temporaire,” a special tax status.  A person who comes to France for a period of more than X and less than Y can buy a new car without the usual 19% value-added tax (VAT), and the dealer guarantees to buy it back at the end of their stay.  It’s a win-win:  the customer finds it cheaper than renting; the dealer first sells a new car and then sells it again slightly used.  French ex-pats or residents of colonies from Martinique to Tahiti are as adept as the mainlanders at working the system, and the system is always meant to be worked.

I returned to the dealer armed with knowledge and more questions.  Will I be the one to pay that new-car VAT?  “No, nobody pays it – and the used-car VAT is already built into the sticker price.”  Will this odd plate cause me a problem when I go to sell the car?  “No, we will issue a standard one when you buy the car.”  The French demonstrate once again their ability to weave sinuously through their rigid laws.

The price of gasoline in France is currently $8.50 per gallon, which makes diesel the obvious choice.  Diesel is 10% cheaper than gasoline, and diesel engines get better mileage, a double benefit.  The advertising promised that the two-liter engine of a diesel Peugeot 206 would get the same mileage as our one-liter 106 sewing machine.  And diesel engines promise the option of bio-fuels instead of buying more oil from the Arabs.

As it happens, I was gearing up for some cooking workshops at the “Atelier de Cuisine” in Toulouse at the same time as I was stewing about a car purchase.  The Atelier de Cuisine promised hands-on classes on subjects close to my heart and stomach.  I signed up for classes featuring duck, the central element of the cuisine of our region.  A residual benefit of cooking duck is a reservoir of duck fat for later cooking. 

In Atelier courses, students prepare and take home dinner for a dinner party of six.  What a concept!  So I invited French friends to share the results of the first class, North Americans for the second. 

The Atelier has cooking stations for twenty students, each with counter-top, cooking tools, and a picturesque basket of the today’s ingredients; stove and sink are shared between two students.  The chef-teacher demonstrates and then looks over the shoulder of the students, giving pointers.  Chef Damien saw me cutting an onion and said, “No, not comme ca.  Comme ca!”.  He demonstrated, slicing a half-onion horizontally towards the palm of his hand.  I’ve been slicing onions for fifty years, but there’s no way I’ll trust myself with that technique.  But Chef Damien is expert and helpful, so I kept my onion preferences to myself. 

I won’t go into too much detail on the recipes – they will appear in my on-line cookbook shortly – but the first class featured:

  • Fresh foie gras, pan-seared, with a cherry and cherry-wine reduction sauce
  • Tomatoes stuffed with duck confit, wild mushrooms, and pine nuts, on a bed of wild rice
  • Strawberry mousse

My greatest delight was mastering the technique of pan-seared foie gras.  We’ve done it at home several times, and it has seemed like trying to sauté a slice of butter.  Cook it too long and you literally have nothing left but liquid.  Chef Damien taught us two tricks:  flour the slices to trap in the fat, and be sure the fry pan is extremely hot so the juices are seared inside.  Thirty seconds on side one, twenty on side two, and it’s done.

Each of us went home with our own WHOLE foie gras, a treasure and calorie bomb that Margaret and I might allow ourselves once a year.  This actually made the course quite a bargain.  Next time you’re in France, price out a whole foie gras, and you’ll see. 

I drove back from Toulouse to Limoux with my three-course treasures.  I baked the confit-stuffed tomatoes in the oven.  When guests arrived, I sautéed the foie gras just as chef Damien had demonstrated.  The duck-stuffed tomatoes on wild rice were an original yet apt match of ingredients.  The French guests were duly impressed, but they declined dessert, having also eaten a large meal at lunch.  It was just as well, I discovered the next day, since the warm sheets of gelatin had not mixed into the cool strawberry froth but had congealed into little gelatinous lumps.  Eating my strawberry mousse was like biting into pudding with little chicken tendons in it.  Realizing once again that desserts are not my thing, I ultimately threw it out.  

A week later, I was back at the Atelier.  The entrée was a tabouleh salad of couscous grains with three fresh herbs in addition to the usual parsley.  We hydrated the couscous grains with fresh lemon and lime juice and olive oil, which gave it a citrus-olive character.  Back at home, my North American guests said it was the best they ever tasted.  The main course was a brochette of duck breast chunks separated by whole figs and halved apricots.  With no barbecue or traditional oven, I trimmed the skewers to fit our little microwave/convection/broiler (great combo!).  Dessert would be a fruit tiramisu, much more successful than the strawberry mousse.  As I screamed down the highway back to Limoux in our sewing machine, I remembered with dismay that I had left dessert in the fridge at the Atelier.  Like I said, desserts are not my thing.  Guests were delighted in any case.

What’s the food/car connection?  As I fantasized – no, obsessed – about buying a car while waiting for Margaret to wire money, I had time to explore a rumor about diesel engines.  Yes, with minor alteration they can run on old vegetable oil, an unwanted by-product of every fast food restaurant in the world.  Clever inventors have found ways to hand a hose to the clerk at the drive-up window to drain the barrel of used vegetable oil.  Of course, pioneers found that bits of French fries clog the fuel filters, causing the engine to seize up.  (Prefiltering the oil is critical.)  And since vegetable oil is more viscous than diesel fuel, the oil must be preheated, and you must switch back to regular fuel before turning off the engine to avoid veggie oil coagulating in the fuel lines.  Sounds a little complicated.  Still, the concept is appealing.  Imagine the fast-food drive-up window: “Some fries with your fill-up, sir?”

One final anecdote on bio-diesel in the Aude Valley:  duck fat also works.  Have we at last found a use for all that duck fat in our freezer? 

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