la soupe de poissons (sewp-deuh-pwa-sohn)
: fish soup
Jean-Marc has been catching lots of little fish these days. Last time it was une rascasse! Apart from being unappetizing to look at, they are too small to eat. "Faites la soupe de poissons!" Make fish soup! our friends tell us. Recipe, in today's story....
A Day in a French Life... by Kristin Espinasse
It's the first week of August and we've got tomatoes coming out of our ears! (Now there's an expression to add to our growing list of English and French idioms...).
I thought about our neighbor, Annie.... but almost as soon as the idea popped up that old faulty thinking kicked in: Annie's probably busy with her family. Or she might be resting. Or maybe she doesn't feel like company. It's 7pm--too late now anyway... There seemed to be any number of reasons to stay put, and not risk stepping out.
But as I mentioned before, I'm working on such self-defeating and ingrained thoughts. I will no longer let doubtful thinking keep me from enjoying new experiences!
Quickly, I filled a paper bag with the best tomatoes and marched faster than my darting thoughts, right up the little dirt path, to the field between Annie's place and ours. Arriving at the edge of her garden, I heard a chorus of alarms: first there was the horse, which whinnied. The goose was next...honk! honk! honk! Then the dogs and the chickens chimed in. I didn't hear a complaint from the lapins, though. What should they sound like?
Barking, neighing, clucking and honking, the creatures approached the property line. I stood on the other side of the rope, not daring to venture any farther. Looking around I saw no sign of Annie.
And then I heard bleating... Turning toward the field above her house, I saw my neighbor walking her goat and her sheep. What an endearing sight! A rare and beautiful glimpse of another place and time. I wondered if Annie had any idea how peaceful and lovely she looked.
Apparently not. As I walked up the dirt path, she held out her cane in a gesture of warning. "I'm not very presentable," she apologized. "I'm wearing my pajama top. The long sleeves help keep the mosquitoes away!" Annie smiled, offering a friendly welcome despite initial standoff. Next, she pointed to her pants, which were missing a zipper. The waist was nearly held together by a rubber band.
How refreshing it was to be around someone so down-to-earth. I raised my hand in a thumbs-up gesture. "No worries, Annie! So many of my pants are busted, too! Rigged together now with rubberbands, safety-pins, or, in a pinch, an old tie from Jean-Marc's office days!" How I wanted to say these words to Annie, but I couldn't find the French to express myself. And so I smiled and said instead, Quel plaisir de vous voir tous!
Pointing to Annie and her walking companions--a feisty young goat and a tired old sheep--I wanted to let her know how treasured an image they were, but I should be careful not to gush.... or come off as the hopeless Francophile that I am! I love French country life and the uncomplicated characters whom I sometimes have the privilege of knowing.
I kissed Annie on each cheek and patted her goat and her mouton which, after a cursory greeting, returned to their foraging. (Chinese mulberries grow here like weeds and are a favorite to eat!)
"They are so sweet, Annie!" I didn't know goats acted like dogs, and were so outgoing. The sheep, on the other hand, seemed shy--especially for his giant size.
Annie told me that they were rescues, but that it wasn't so easy keeping up with all the animals. Picking up the ragged tail of her mouton, she laughed: "I just trimmed him. It's a little uneven but I did it my best!"
"You did an excellent job!" I assured her, impressed that she used kitchen shears when she didn't have the electric kind, made for the task.
As I admired her handiwork, I saw the heavy sharp hooves of the animals and took a few discreet steps backward. Steel-toe boots would have been better than these flip-flops...
Annie pointed to my skirt, below which my bare legs were splotched with red dots.
"Careful, the mosquitoes are getting you."
"Next time I'll wear my pajamas," I smiled, handing Annie the tomatoes I'd brought her. "I'd better get back. Jean-Marc wants to go on a boat ride and I keep finding excuses not to go."
Suddenly, Annie's expression turned concerned. "Go with him when he wants to take you on that boat. One day you'll be my age and you won't be able to enjoy such things anymore."
Annie's words struck me like a thunderbolt. Somehow, coming from this peaceful soul, the suggestion finally took hold.
"I've been out a few times..." I explained. "We went fishing last night. Jean-Marc caught a rascasse! We are saving all the little fish, freezing them, and plan on making la soupe de poissons at the end of summer!"
"I used to love to go fishing!" Annie said. She turned her gaze out to the parched field, beyond which the great blue Mediterranean beckoned.
"Why don't you join us?!"
Annie smiled and quickly changed the subject. Taking my arm, she shared with me another recipe, (after the fava stew ingredients she suggested last time).
A classic wooden fishing boat in the South of France, photo taken in Giens.
ANNIE'S SOUPE DE POISSONS
"Saute all the fish in olive oil. First, add onions and garlic to the pan, frying them in the oil. Then add salt and pepper and wild herbs," Annie said, waving her arm, indicating all the plants growing here in the field: thyme, fennel, laurier...
I was curious whether one emptied the fish, or did we keep the insides--as well as the eyes?
Annie confirmed that the entire fish was used. "The fish and the herbs will thicken in the pan. Next you can add some water to adjust the texture. Finally add a bit of saffron..."
"OK, I think I got it... olive oil, herbs, saffron, eyes and tails and stomachs..." I winked.
Annie smiled. "I'll remind you of the recipe at the end of summertime."
Now that was something to look forward to--the promise of another visit with Annie. With any luck, maybe we could see each other again before then? For even more lovely than the image of Annie walking her sheep and her goat, is the picture of her with her fishing pole--casting a line far out to sea.
le potager = kitchen garden
la rascasse = scorpion fish
le lapin (la lapine) = rabbit
quel plaisir de vous voir tous = what a pleasure to see you all
"The world is your huitre." Photo of Jackie when she was 7 years old. My girl, keep your vision steady and you will achieve your goals. Read a letter by Jackie in which she asks a work related question: Est-ce vraiment aussi dur qu'on le dit de trouver du travail? Click here to read her bilingual note.
Last month we met up with Rick (center, to the right of Jean-Marc) and his family and friends for a vineyard tour in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. After tasting at three caves, including Uncle Jean-Claude's, we had a sunny lunch and enjoyed talking about France, wine and writing. If you are interested in touring the vineyards of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and beyond, Jean-Marc is your man. Actually, he's MY man, but I might share him for a day....
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For more online reading: The Lost Gardens: A Story of Two Vineyards and a Sobriety