December 2020: Travel virtually to France for the holidays

December is here, Christmas lights turn on around Toulouse tonight, non-essential businesses are back open (except for bars, restaurants, theaters, and indoor sports/dance), but we’re still in a sort-of lockdown in France. Permission slips are still required to go outside, but if anyone’s actually checking I haven’t seen signs of it. The limitations on exercise have been loosened from 1 hour per day within 1 km of home to 3 hours per day within 20 km, so it’s easy enough to go out for a “walk” or some government-approved shopping.

We’re still waiting to find out what Christmas will be like. We’ve been told that, if we’re good and infection rates continue to drop, the lockdown will be replaced with a curfew on December 20 (which will be lifted on December 24 and 31 to allow for a little more leeway for the holidays). Any way we look at it, Christmas won’t be quite the same this year. Even those of us in France are missing out on things like Christmas markets and trips to the mountains for skiing.

However, I’m still finding ways to enjoy being at home and to savor the holiday season, despite the circumstances. My husband and I recently adopted two kittens that we named Camembert and Cheddar (because cheese and kitty cuddles are pretty much my two favorite things). They’re keeping us busy and, frankly, making it a little more difficult to work from home because we’d rather be playing or snuggling with them!

But despite this adorable distraction, I HAVE been working on something special for the holidays – a way for everyone to experience what I love most about Toulouse at Christmastime, no matter where they are in the world! To that end, I’m excited to announce the French Christmas Market Virtual Experience! Fill your home with the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of Christmas in Toulouse as we learn to make market favorites like vin chaud (spiced wine – or juice, for les petits) and aligot (decadently cheesy mashed potatoes) and then take a visual tour of the Christmas lights around Toulouse while we learn about French Christmas food traditions and how to replicate them in your own home. The experience is priced per screen so that you can share the joy with the other members of your household and travel safely to France for a few hours. Don’t wait to sign up because it’s only available for 3 dates in December (see below for the schedule). I hope you’ll join me!

And wherever you are in the world, I hope you’ll ALSO join me in supporting your local businesses this holiday season. Many are fighting to hold on after the disastrous year that we’ve had and even shifting a small percentage of your spending to them vs. chain or online stores can make a big difference. Amazon and other giants don’t need more of your money, but the small businesses that make each of our communities unique could use as much support as you can give them – whether it’s financial OR moral. Yes, even free forms of support like leaving positive reviews and liking and commenting on social media posts can mean a lot to small business owners (and those reviews and social media interactions help them gain a wider reach). Let’s all do what we can to make sure that when travel returns, we still have beautiful places filled with distinctive local businesses to explore.

Joyeuses fêtes,

Jessica - Taste of Toulouse
This could be you enjoying aligot and vin chaud at the Christmas Market!
(Well, virtually, anyways…)

Travel virtually to France with these online food events:

5, 13, and 19 December – French Christmas Market Virtual Experience

Savor the magic of Toulouse as Christmas during this limited-time, interactive workshop. Learn to make “vin chaud,” hot spiced wine; and “aligot,” a regional dish from Auvergne that is a staple at Christmas markets around France and much-loved in Toulouse as a perfect pairing for Toulouse sausages. We’ll also explore the Toulouse Christmas Market and Christmas lights around Toulouse through photos, talk about what other traditional treats are usually available at the Christmas market, and send you off with suggestions on where to find them or how to make them yourselves to recreate the sights, smells, and tastes of Christmas in France in your own home. Learn more and reserve your spot

Online Camp Cassoulet with Kate Hill

Add “learn how to make cassoulet” to your list of lockdown goals and cook along with the fabulous and talented Kate Hill of Camont as you master THE classic dish of southwest France. If you missed the first, sold-out Camp Cassoulet, never fear! Kate is now offering new sessions on Sundays in December. Get your cassoulet on!

In the (virtual) French Kitchen with Mardi Michels

Mardi Michels is the blogger behind eat. live. travel. write. and the author of In the French Kitchen with Kids, a book I love to recommend (and buy) for all of my family and friends who want to instill a love of cooking and food – especially French food – with their kids. She’s taken her cooking classes online, as well! Sign up for her kids’ baking series, an apéritif baking class, Bistrot classics, and more. Learn more and sign up

What I’m reading

French face raclette meltdown at cheese shops (The Times – requires free account to read)
Forget panic-buying toilet paper. The French are apparently panic-buying raclette cheese and producers are worried about potential shortages. Melted over potatoes, veggies, and meat, raclette is the ultimate comfort food for these times and, according to the article, 71% of respondents to a survey preferred raclette over fondue. Not sure what the difference is? Read this article I wrote about raclette and fondue in Toulouse.

Carole Delga is sending a gift basket to Joe Biden to ask for the Trump taxes on region products to be lifted (France3 – in French)
The president of our region of Occitanie, Carole Delga, has sent president-elect Joe Biden a gift basket full of products from the region, including olive oil, wine, sea salt, cassoulet, aligot, and more. It was accompanied by a letter asking him to lift the tariffs that Trump had imposed on agricultural products like wine and cheese as a result of an ongoing trade dispute in the aeronautic sector. As the largest wine-producing region in France, as well as a huge agricultural producer, exports to the US from Occitanie have been hit hard by these tariffs.

How cocktails are helping Armagnac reinvent its image for a new generation (French Crossroads)
Chris O’Brien, an American journalist living in Toulouse, write on his blog about how Armagnac producers are trying to appeal to new consumers by adapting their products towards use in making cocktails. It particularly focuses on Blanche Armagnac, which is a young Armagnac that has not been barrel-aged (what usually gives Armagnac its color). In Toulouse, Armagnac is very popular as an after-dinner digestif, though usually with a very traditional crowd. Next time I can head to a bar for a cocktail (who knows when that will be), I’ll have to look for something made with Blanche Armagnac. Have you tried it?

#takeawaychallenge – The street food challenged launched for restauranteurs in Toulouse (actuToulouse – in French)
A local food blogger in Toulouse has launched the #takeawaychallenge to help local restauranteurs gain visibility and keep their morale up during this difficult time when restaurants are foced to exist only on takeaway orders. Each week, a new theme is announced and restaurants compete to offer the best lunchtime menu item according to the challenge. You can participate by ordering these items and posting about them with the hashtag on social media!

This association brings together chefs and volunteers to cook for the disadvantaged (actuToulouse – in French)
Another piece of good news coming out of the Toulouse restaurant scene! The association Belles Gamelles, which was formed by out-of-work chefs during the first lockdown, has a new kitchen space at the MIN Market (the large wholesale market in Toulouse) where they are able to make 400-500 meals a day that are then distributed to the needy by local aid groups. They are looking for volunteers to work under the supervision of chefs to prepare meals and have launched a crowdfunding campaign to allow them to source from local farmers, in addition to the product donations they also receive.

What I’m eating

Most of what we’ve been eating lately has been cooked at home. When I knew we were going back into lockdown, one of the first things I did was order a few new cookbooks. I wanted to get out from behind my computer, intentionally spend time cooking with my husband, and plan meals each week that we would look forward to. I deliberately chose non-French cookbooks because I wanted a little bit of separation from the things that I’m working on all day and because I wanted the feeling of being able to travel through my tastebuds. So far, it’s been “mission accomplished” on all fronts!

Sweet Tahini Rolls from Falastin cookbook
Sweet Tahini Rolls from Falastin

Pictured above are Sweet Tahini Rolls from Falastin, by Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley. It explores recipes and stories from Palestine, where Tamimi grew up. The recipe is online, if you want to try them. But WARNING, they are ADDICTIVE! I’ve already made them twice in a month and my mouth is watering just thinking about them.

Swede Laksa from East

Pictured above is Swede Laksa from Meera Sodha’s, East: 120 Vegan and Vegetarian Recipes from Bangalore to Beijing. We made this laksa during a multi-hour Zoom cooking hangout time with my sister- and brother-in-law who live in Taiwan. We picked out recipes that we both could get the ingredients for, then rendezvoused on Zoom to cook together and it was a BLAST. For Americans like me who had to look this up, swede is another name for rutabaga. Sodha is the vegan columnist at the Guardian, where you can also find the laksa recipe, and many of her recipes are surprisingly simple to make and don’t take as much time as you’d think. So far, we’ve made mushroom bao, Vietnamese coconut pancakes, mashed potato paratha, honey-soy-ginger-braised tofu, and more. Each recipe has been outstanding and I couldn’t recommend this cookbook more, even if no one in your household is vegetarian.

Butternut, Orange, and Sage Galette from Flavour

The third cookbook we bought was Flavor, by Yotam Ottolenghi (or Flavour, if you have the British version, as we do). This book is all about how to develop the best flavors in plant-based recipes using techniques that are taught throughout the book. Pictured above is a Butternut, Orange, and Sage Galette (which, I suppose, is actually rather French in form), which uses the sweetness of an orange and maple syrup caramel to enhance the butternut squash. It was a beautiful balance of sweet and savory! The Guardian has the recipe for this, as well, and it’s the perfect time of year to try it out!

The best sweet potato casserole with marshmallows from l’Appétit Suprême

Surprisingly enough, the dinner we didn’t cook all from scratch was Thanksgiving! I didn’t want to spend two whole days in the kitchen for just the two of us (and no point in cooking a turkey for one), so I relied on one of my favorite traiteur (a caterer who sells prepared food to reheat at home) at the Marché Victor Hugo, L’Appétit Suprême. We made cranberry sauce and potatoes ourselves, then purchased turkey, cauliflower gratin, sweet potato casserole, and pumpkin pie from them. I admit to being a bit skeptical when they told me they were making sweet potato casserole with marshmallows, as it seems to be one of those dishes that Americans struggle to describe to the disbelieving French, but it was seriously the BEST sweet potato casserole we had ever had (yes, even better than Mom’s). I have long told guests on my market tours that French traiteur are a secret (or not-so-secret) weapon for dinner parties. Next year, when we can (cross out fingers) gather in groups again, I’ll be ordering a whole pan of this for Thanksgiving…or maybe just for us for Christmas this year…

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