Week Twenty-Five in France: An éclair of thunder and homemade bread
Disclaimer: This entry was written before COVID-19 was announced as a global emergency and before strict lockdown measures were in place. Knowing where we are now, I would have rethought a lot of these decisions.
07/03/2020: Ah, Mulhouse – its only claim to fame is its coronavirus cluster. And thus, in an attempt to spread their evangelical message, a church in town spread much more than just that, sending over 2,000 coronavirus carriers who attended their week-long worship service back home to different regions of France and around the world. When I first started reading this news, I was worried, but when the Haut-Rhin announced that it was closing all the schools in my region for at least two weeks, I started to panic. I only had six weeks left of my contract with Lycée Schweitzer. What would this mean for my future in France, my pay, my position? I had no idea that last week would perhaps be the last time I'd see my students.
So, in an effort to take my mind off of these swirling thoughts, I turned to the kitchen. Saturday brunch meant homemade crêpes with fresh strawberries, jam and caramel sauce – the perfect hit of sugar to inexplicably calm my nerves. One short walk in the countryside and a couple dog cuddles later, I was feeling a bit calmer. To close out the afternoon, a stop at local favorite Poulaillon for an éclair de tonnerre, which sounded and looked much better than it tasted. While the whipped cream inside was good, the dough and chocolate on top was spoiled by some strange artificial, almost chlorine-like taste. I took one bite before pushing it away, disappointed. Luckily, J. saved the day and bought me conciliatory macarons.
08/03/2020: All gatherings of more than 50 people have been banned in France, but that didn't stop J.'s dad from attending a small wine salon in Ammerschwir, a nearby town on the Alsatian Wine Route. So, that's how I found myself driving through the mountains of Alsace at 11 a.m. on a Sunday, slightly tipsy and wishing the sun was shining a little less bright. Armed with plenty of Purell and a complimentary glass, we had tasted champagne, rosé and red wines from a variety of vignerons, including J.'s dad's friend from la Domaine des Jougla in the south of France. After a twisting and turning ride home past some stunning chateaus, we arrived just in time for Sunday lunch with the rest of the family, starting with a chilled glass of the rosé champagne we'd tasted earlier that morning. The roasted chicken was fall-apart tender, and T.'s famous crispy potatoes (extra crunchy on the outside, as creamy as mashed potatoes on the inside) made a short-lived appearance before they were immediately devoured. We finished with a wonderfully acidic rhubarb and raspberry crumble before we parted ways to close out the strangest Sunday in a while – one that saw me staying home from work on Monday and for the foreseeable future.
09/03/2020: The strange Monday passed without major incident, and I headed downstairs for dinner with the family at night – we ate fall-apart lamb meatballs in a Thai green curry sauce and spent the whole evening reassuring each other that everything would be okay.
10/03/2020: We have to take our small victories where we can get them, and as a yogurt-wary, not-always-so-healthy eater, I was very proud of my Greek yogurt bowl topped with oats, dried cranberries, a drizzle of honey and fresh kiwi for breakfast. You'll be reading a lot about that tart green fuzzy fruit in the next few weeks, I think – they're quickly becoming my new favorite.
11/03/2020: It had been almost three weeks since I'd seen my Mulhouser friends, so we decided to brave the apprehensive air outside and meet up at a cozy bar in town, Les Trois Singes (The Three Monkeys). (This was just before Macron closed all non-essential businesses.) We sat together for an hour or two as I sipped on a nicely bitter peach brew and a fruity Kasteel Rouge cherry beer while eating practically the whole bowl of bar snacks – mini pretzels, crackers, you know the drill – myself. Although I look back on this evening with a bit of dismay, I have to admit it felt very good to chat, laugh commiserate with good friends and support each other after a few weeks of school vacation and independence.
12/03/2020: Today was filled with many tomatoes and much anxiety. Being at home with nothing to do, I found that it was so much easier to spend time in the kitchen. So, to make use of a can of tomatoes in the pantry I whipped up a homemade shakshuka for breakfast, just like the memorable one I'd had a few years earlier at Salatim in Paris. A flavorful sauce with garlic, onion, red pepper, tomatoes and spices became the comfy bed for baked eggs with perfect runny yolks, topped with fresh parsley and a few grinds of black pepper. I devoured it with a few slices of baguette. Not wanting to relinquish this full and satisfied feeling quite yet, I set off on another culinary journey that evening: Andy Baraghani's pasta e ceci from Bon Appétit magazine. Even though I accidentally dumped in far too many red pepper flakes, the brothy farfalle with tomatoes, chickpeas and parmesan was the perfect warm and comforting meal before we headed downstairs to listen to Manu – er, Monsieur le Président Macron's speech. Like we'd suspected, he announced that schools all over the country would be closed until further notice, as well as all restaurants, bars and non-essential businesses. Life as we know it is about to change drastically, but I am grateful that I'm safe here with J. and his family, and that I have the means and opportunity to spend this tumultuous time in the kitchen, soothing my (our) nerves with a good meal.
13/03/2020: Considering that the local university is closed as well, almost the whole household has been putzing around at home, practicing social distancing and discovering new hobbies. Although he's far from being a millennial, my landlord T. has taken it upon himself to start making bread like all the Instagrammers and influencers on my timeline, and his is mind-blowingly good. Whole wheat flour plus some spices in the dough (cumin, garlic, black pepper...) leads to a savory, warm, dense but light loaf that, with a pat of butter, can change your whole day for the better. And we need that right now, especially after I receive an e-mail from Fulbright this afternoon "strongly urging" me to return home. I know I don't want to go, and at this point they're not forcing us, but I'm worried.