Saturday, August 30, 2014


If you look really close in Western Africa, you’ll see a tiny strip of land inside of the country of Senegal. No, it’s not a stray mark. It’s the country of The Gambia. (It’s one of two countries that officially have the word “the” in their name: The Bahamas is the other one. I guess they just had to be different.)

The country takes its name after the Gambia River, which flows from the Atlantic Ocean through the country of The Gambia, through Senegal, and ends in Guinea. The borders were drawn up between the UK and France, essentially giving The Gambia roughly 10 miles north and south of the river. Gambians spend June to November in a definitely hot and rainy season, followed by cooler and dryer weather the rest of the year. The Gambia is surrounded by Senegal on three sides and the Atlantic Ocean, making it an enclave of sorts except that they share certain ethnic and cultural ties to neighboring Senegal.

Arab traders first wrote about this place; they brought along the Arabic language and the trade routes here. Later on, much of this area became enveloped into the Mali Empire, followed by the Portuguese a century or so later. The Portuguese sold the trading rights to England. The 17th and 18th Centuries brought along a lot of fighting and dispute between England and France for control of African lands and trade.  It’s estimated that around three million people were taken from this area as part of the slave trade, originally sent to Europe, but later sent to the Caribbean and North America. The Gambia finally became a separate colony in 1888. The following year, the UK and France worked out where the boundaries would be, making The Gambia a British colony renamed British Gambia. They were finally granted independence in 1965. Things had been relatively stable until an attempted coup in 1981; Senegal sent in troops as support. This prompted The Gambia and Senegal to join forces with creating the Senegambia Confederation, basically joining together militarily along with their economies and currencies. However, The Gambia backed out years later. Last year, The Gambian government declared they were backing out of the Commonwealth, citing their need to distance themselves from their colonial ties.  

Formerly known as Bathurst during the colonial days, the city of Banjul stands as the Gambia’s capital. The city itself lies on the end of St. Mary’s Island (also called Banjul Island) and has a population of less than 35,000 (the metro area has nearly 350,000 people). It houses government offices, several museums, an open-air market, an airport, and several schools. However, the largest city in The Gambia is Serekunda, known for its silk cotton trees, its market, as well as its wrestling arena.

The Gambia’s economy is mostly driven by subsistence agriculture along with peanut (also called groundnut) cultivation and export. However, the country is plagued with an unstable exchange rate and low tourism. They also do a significant amount of manufacturing in clothing, soft drinks, and soap. In recent years, the banking industry has made considerable gains in The Gambia with the establishment of several banks, and their economy generally seems to be on the rise.

For a country that was under British control and part of the Commonwealth, I was surprised that it didn’t have a large number of Christian followers. This is different from most other former British colonies. Perhaps because of historical ties to Arab traders, Islam is practiced by nearly 90% of Gambians, followed by a small percentage of Christians and those who practice indigenous beliefs (probably in conjunction with one of the major religions).

Although English is the official language of the country, there are numerous indigenous languages spoken in this country as well. The largest ethnic group is the Mandrinka, followed by Fula, Wolof, Jola and others. There are also a number of Europeans (including Britons) and Lebanese there as well.  Because of its proximity to French Africa, French is also studied as a common foreign language in Gambian schools.

While I’ve been struggling to find a bread recipe – not because there aren’t any, but because no one posts the dern recipe – I’m actually having fun in the search. I think I’m on to something though (thank everything sacred for Google Translate and the French-speakers who posted some information.)  I did find some things that stood out about this country though and some things that made me smile. The highest point in this country is an unnamed point. You would think that if it’s the highest point in the country, they’d at least take five minutes and think of a name for it. I mean, just write the first thing that comes to mind whether it makes sense or not: marsupials.  Or heck, name it after me. I found out the opening chapter of Alex Haley’s epic novel Roots starts in a Gambian village.  And lastly, the president of Gambia has the best title ever: His Excellency Sheikh Professor Doctor President.  Really? That is MY title. Copycatter.

Up next: holidays and celebrations

Sunday, August 24, 2014


I have to say: this is the first country that I got to where I searched long and hard and never did find a bread recipe for Gabon.  Almost every single reference I could find just merely mentioned that they tend to eat French bread and pastries. I did find one recipe in French from someone’s blog for a “pumpkin seed cake,” but it was ground pumpkin seeds (or possible egusi?) mixed with onions and fish and other stuff and baked in a banana leaf. It wasn’t the type of  “cake” that I was thinking of. And I also found a reference to a breakfast item of splitting a baguette in half lengthwise and filling it with beans and mayonnaise, but my husband balked at the idea. (He’s not a mayo fan.) So, I was forced to expand my search to include West African breads and came up with groundnut bread.

Groundnut bread. She's a beauty, ain't she?

The inside of the bread. Hello, peanut butter lovers. 
The recipe I found called to use a premade roll mix, but I can do better than that. I used the “Unbelievable Rolls” recipe from, and I cut the amounts in half. I heated the milk, water, sugar, and salt in a saucepan, and once I took it off the heat, I added in an egg and the yeast.  Then I put the flour in a different bowl, made a well, and poured the milk mixture into it, letting it sit without stirring it.  After this sits for about 20 minutes, I poured in some melted butter, stirred it, and let it sit for another 45 minutes. At this point, I jump back over to the groundnut bread recipe.  I rolled out the dough until it was a ½” thick. Then I spread peanut butter over the surface, leaving a slight gap around the edge, rolling it up. I pinched one end and swung the rest of it around to form a round loaf (or a ring loaf). I transferred it to a greased cookie sheet and let it rest for about 10 minutes. I brushed it again with melted butter and sprinkled a few chopped peanuts on top before scoring a criss-cross pattern on top and baking it at 400ºF for 15 minutes. I cut it into 2-inch pieces to serve it. I could’ve probably eaten the entire thing myself. But I felt obligated to share with my family. The roll part was light and airy and the peanut butter was not overpowering like I thought it might be. It was practically perfect.

Perfect summer salad. 
Next, I made the side dish: Gabon Cucumber Salad. I’ve made similar salads before, but this is a little different – and it is FABULOUS! I chopped up some onion and grape tomatoes and sliced some cucumbers.  Then I mixed in some dried parsley flakes, mint flakes, olive oil, juice from a half lemon, salt and pepper to taste, and some cumin. The cumin is what made it amazing. Cumin is always amazing.

More chicken than mustard, but try telling that to a finicky 5-year-old. 
The main course for today is Gabon Mustard Chicken. I took some chicken drumsticks and lightly fried them in oil and placed them in a pot. Then I sautéed onions and threw it into the pot as well. I added garlic (about three cloves minced) and yellow mustard. I didn’t realize I should’ve bought more mustard, so I added in a little Italian salad dressing to fill out the recipe. The recipe calls to cover the top of the pot with aluminum foil before placing the lid on it so that it traps the steam.  I also didn’t realize someone used up the last of my aluminum foil either, so I had to use parchment paper.  (I figured it was better and safer than plastic wrap. Oh, and I found out my husband just took my aluminum foil out to the garage for some project and never brought it back in. Pardon me while I scream inside of my head for a bit.) It cooked on low heat for about an hour. (And it was supposed to be on a bed of rice, but, yeah, I forgot to get more of that too.) But I should’ve adjusted my heat or added some water because the salad dressing pretty much burnt up in the bottom, and I got a steam burn on my fingertips. The flavor was still really good, albeit fairly subtle, and the chicken was fall-off-the-bone tender.   

Fresh out of the oven. Check out the photo below for the toppings.  
And finally, the dessert: Baked Bananas. I cut the bananas into thirds at a diagonal angle. Then I beat one egg into a couple tablespoons of orange juice and dipped the bananas into this before rolling it in breadcrumbs and lightly frying it. After they were fried, I transferred them to a baking sheet where I baked them for about five minutes. It’s topped with sour cream and sprinkled with brown sugar.  I wasn’t so sure about the sour cream part (and I certainly didn’t use the term “sour cream” with my daughter – I just called it “cream,” and she loved it. Until she just read this and yelled at me for “lying” to her.) But it was really good.

One outstanding meal, I must say. 
For a meal where I forgot part of the ingredients and part of it didn’t quite turn out the way I anticipated, this was actually a really good meal. The thing I like about West African cooking is that many of the meals often do not take very many ingredients. And although I started my business, Da Capo Proofreading LLC (, it’s slow-going when it comes to gathering customers. And my book project is dragging on forever, too. In other words, money is getting tighter.  But hopefully, things will turn around. At least we weren’t starving artists tonight. We’re pretty full at the moment.

Up next: The Gambia

Saturday, August 23, 2014


Gabonese folk music generally includes the folk traditions of the four main Bantu tribes that are in Gabon: the Fang, the Punu, the Nzebi, and the Obamba. They are mostly known for their music accompanying Bwiti religious ceremonies, especially that of the Fang and the Mitsogho. These ceremonies often use the powerful psychedelic tree bark of the iboga. This substance is illegal in several countries and is considered a Schedule I drug in the US (drugs that are basically considered illegal with no known medicinal value, although cannabis is on there, so…); in fact, it’s illegal to export it out of Gabon in an effort to preserve the sacred cultural ties to the plant. During these ceremonies, drums and the ngombi harp is played, heightening the effects of the iboga.

One instrument prevalent to traditional Gabonese music is the obala. (I had a lot of trouble finding any information on the obala; I kept getting hits for the city in Cameroun called Obala and the 1980s Croatian rock band called Daleka Obala. If you have any information on this instrument, please let me know about it!) The ngombi is a type of arched harp that is also used in traditional music, as well as the balafon (like a large xylophone with gourds used as resonators). Each instrument is designated to a specific rite or ritual within the Bwiti religion. This video is of Bwiti harp music used during an initiation. 

Dance traditions in Gabon were mostly used in religious ceremonies.  Different dances are used for different purposes and events (especially those that are tied to the Bwiti traditions), such as births, funerals, and coming-of-age ceremonies. Today, all kinds of dances –both traditional and pan-African as well as styles from Europe and the US– are taught and performed in clubs and dance troupes. The video below isn't of the best quality, but you can tell that the dance in this women's initiation ceremony uses rattles tied to the ankles of the women as they make quick movements with their hips and feet. 

During the 1980s, the African music radio station in Libreville, Africa No. 1, along with the first recording studio in Gabon, Studio Mademba, became the hot spot for up-and-coming musicians to record. Musicians across Africa and the Caribbean flocked to Libreville just to record here. However, during the 1990s, its fame dwindled, and cities like Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire and Johannesburg, South Africa took its place as recording capitals.  

Although rock, hip-hop, and reggae from the US, the UK, the Caribbean, and other African countries remain popular, there are several musicians who got their starts in Gabon. One of the most famous musicians in Gabon is Pierre Akendengué. He had traveled to France for treatment of an eye disease that would leave him blind. It was in France where his classical guitar studies would transfer to his music. He released several albums and only returned to Gabon when he challenged the government for censoring his music. Their response was to make him a government advisor. I listened to his album Destinée and Africa Obota/Nandipo. Both are really relaxing to listen to. I listened to it for hours.

Artists such as Hilarion Nguema, and Patience Dabany, and Oliver N’Goma have a very typical pan-African sound to their music. It tends to have a prominent percussion (albeit, some of it is synthesized), horn lines, and smooth melodic vocal lines. I’ve noticed that in the vast majority of African music I’ve heard, the vocal lines generally tend to stay within the primary key of the song.

I was immediately drawn to the voice of Annie Flore Batchiellilys on her album Mon Point Zérooo. Her alto voice intertwines with the choral harmonies, accompanied by strings and acoustic guitars. One song uses J. S. Bach’s “Prelude in C Major” as the background music. (That was the first piece I ever played in a recital.) The sultry sound of jazz guitar is what drives me to keep listening. The YouTube description on this video says she's from the DRC, although I thought I found her name on a list of Gabonese artists. Regardless, I still love her music, and I'm sure her music is played in Gabon. 

Up next: the food

Thursday, August 21, 2014


Gabon is globally known for its wooden masks. Each ethnic group has its own set of masks, with different masks representing different purposes. Masks are generally used ceremoniously, whether it’s for marriage, birth, funerals, harvest season, and other life milestones.  Although it would be relatively easy to buy modern materials, many of today’s mask makers stick to traditional methods by using local woods and materials to create their work. One of the most famous types of masks are the n’goltang created by the Fang tribes.

Not only do the Gabonese make these elaborate masks, but they’re also known for their face paint as well. The colors used are based on natural dyes, mainly white, red, and charcoal.

 Face paint is often used in Bwiti ceremonies. And apparently grass and leaves on your head is cool too. 

Reliquary figures of the Kota are another art form that has been preserved. Also called Bakota, their communities reside in the northeastern regions of Gabon.  These reliquary figures, mostly made from copper or brass, are an important feature in the Bwete religion.  These figures are viewed as guardians.

Every village values craft work because these are the items used in everyday life. Women – some professional craft workers, some not – make everyday objects with designs unique to their region such as mats, bowls, wall coverings, and other items for their families and the community.

Mvett, also spelled mvet
The literature of Gabon has a relatively short lifespan. The older members of each tribe passed stories down to the younger members, retelling these stories for many generations. It wasn’t until the French arrived when written language became prevalent as well. However, it would take until the last 10-20 years before literacy rates would rise; today it’s about 89% (92.3% for men; 85.6% for women).  Even though there is a growing canon of newly written literature in French, there are “raconteurs” in Gabon working to keep the oral traditions alive.  Two of these traditions that are the most documented are the mvett of the Fang peoples and the ingwala of the Nzebis. The mvett not only refers to the musical instrument (similar to a berimbau of Brazil), but also the performer, and the style of epic poetry that is performed.


A few of the more prominent Gabonese authors include Jean-Baptiste Abessolo (educator and short story writer), Angèle Ntyugwetondo Rawiri (novelist), Bessora (award-winning novelist, born in Belgium, daughter of a Gabonese diplomat), and René Maran (poet and novelist, born in French Guyana, lived in Gabon for a while).

Up next: music and dance

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


New Year’s Day.  January 1. Music and dance are important traditions for New Years.  The entire country seems to go into party mode. People dress in new clothes, and you’ll see evergreen decorations around town and in people’s homes. The evergreen is a symbol for long life. Some people send New Year’s cards to their friends and family.  New Year’s is often considered a larger holiday than Christmas.

Renovation Day.  March 12. Also known as National Day. It commemorates the establishment of the Gabonese Democratic Party in 1968, created by Omar Bongo Ondimba after the death of the first president and the end to his oppressive governing tactics. Parades where people dress in traditional clothes or in uniform clothing march through city streets. The parade ends in festivities with live music, food, drink, and dancing.

It's not exactly the same as a pagne, but they are similar and related, I think.
Easter Monday.  Varies. During Easter, many people wear traditional clothes and attend church services early on Easter morning. Women will often wear a pagne, a versatile and colorful strip of cloth. Parents will hide eggs for their children to find on Easter morning. One of the traditional foods eaten at this time is a block of cheese wrapped in a banana leaf. Easter Monday, the day after Easter, is also a holiday. Many people use this day as a day of relaxing.

Women’s Day.  April 17. International Women’s Day is widely celebrated on March 8, so I’m not sure if they just decided to celebrate Women’s Day on April 17 or if they do both. This holiday was enacted to celebrate the first women in government. Rose Francine Rogombé was the Acting President of Gabon during the interim time after Omar Bongo Ondimba passed away and before his son Ali Bongo Ondimba presided over the country.  She is a lawyer by profession but was President of the Senate prior to her interim presidency, and it’s where she returned to after the election.

Labour Day.  May 1. This is a day designed to celebrate the worker and to address any pressing labor issues, as well as the state of the economy and jobs. Labor organizations will often have parades and events on this day. It’s also a common day when people protesting as well. Gabon has a high unemployment rate. Some estimates from Gabonese sources say that it hovered in the 15-16% range between 2005-2010, but the CIA Factbook lists it as 21% in 2005.

Martyr’s Day.  May 6. This day is in honor of all those who have lost their lives defending their country.

Whit Monday.  Varies. Also called Pentecost, this holiday falls 50 days after Easter. It is celebrated as the day Christians believe the Holy Ghost appeared to Jesus’ disciples and gave them the gift of tongues. The name Whit Monday (and Whitsunday) is derived from the word white, in reference to the white clothes worn at baptisms.

Assumption.  August 15. Although it’s stemmed from the Christian (and particularly Catholic) tradition that this was when Mary was taken up into heaven, this holiday has turned into a multi-faith holiday celebration.

Independence Day. August 16. This is the day that Gabon won its independence from France. The day is generally spent in a party atmosphere. Music and dancing fill the streets, and good food and drink are had by almost everyone. There are also parades, dance competitions, and drum shows.

Eid al-Fitr.  Varies. This holiday marks the end of the month-long fasting period known as Ramadan. On this day, many people start their day reciting special prayers. Then it’s spent consuming a lavish meal with many savory and sweet foods.

All Saints’ Day.  November 1. This is a celebration of all the Christian saints, especially those who do not already have their own feast days. For many Christians around the world, one tradition is to visit the graves of loved ones to clean it off and decorate it.

Eid al-Adha.  Varies. This holiday occurs at the end of the hajj, the annual trip to Mecca. It’s also known as the Festival of Sacrifice, stemming from the story of Abraham willingly trying to kill his only son in the name of God (but was stopped at the last minute).  One tradition found in many Muslim countries is slaughtering an animal (or buying one) and giving 1/3 of its meat to your family, 1/3 for yourself, and 1/3 to charity. 

Christmas Day.  December 25. Many Christmas traditions include eating special foods and drinks. Sharing family dinners and special treats last the entire Christmas season.  Different areas of Gabon celebrate slightly differently and also incorporate traditions of indigenous religions into the celebrations.

Up next: art and literature

Saturday, August 16, 2014


I know close to nothing about this country. This is, of course, with the minor exception of where it’s located.  And I admit that with utter embarrassment. But that’s because unless something earth-shatteringly huge happens, the US mainstream media doesn’t talk about it. But in my research – which is still giving me slight troubles when it comes to finding a bread recipe – I’ve found a lot of really cool things about Gabon.

The name Gabon comes from the Portuguese word gabão, which means “cloak.” It was named because of the shape of an estuary of the Komo River near Libreville.

This West African country is bordered by Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon to the north, Republic of the Congo to the east and south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. The island country of São Tomé e Principe lies about 188 miles to the east. It’s also one of the few countries that the equator passes through.

Gabon is 85% covered by rainforests. It also has coastal plains, mountains, and savannas, allowing for a considerable variety of flora and fauna. Gabon also has many karst regions (a karst is a type of landscape where there is a lot of limestone, dolomite, and/or gypsum that slowly has deteriorated over time, leaving it exposed). These karst regions created cave systems, many of which haven’t been explored yet. Gabon’s climate is partly the reason it is also home to 777 species of birds and 80% of Africa’s gorilla population.

The French explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza (the namesake of the city of Brazzaville) was the first European to explore what is now known as Gabon. Before this, the earliest people here were the Pygmies, followed by the Bantu as they moved through this area.  De Brazza founded the town Franceville, and later ran the place as its governor when France officially occupied the area around 1885. It wasn’t until 1910 when it became one of the five territories of what was called French Equatorial Africa (along with Chad, what is now Central African Republic, what is now the Republic of the Congo, and what is now part of Cameroon). All of these areas gained their independence in 1960, electing their first president the following year: Léon M’ba. He essentially shut down the media and made demonstrations and freedom of expression illegal. He died six years later, and his vice president Omar Bongo Ondimba succeeding him. He changed the political scene in Gabon, initiating critical changes in Gabon that led them to an array of reforms. He eventually was elected for six straight terms until his death in 2009 from a cardiac arrest. His son Ali Bongo Ondimba took his place a few months later.

The capital and largest city in Gabon, Libreville, lies on the northwestern coast of the country. The name, which is French for “Freetown,” was in reference to a Brazilian slave ship that was captured by the French Navy in 1849, and the slaves were subsequently freed. With a population of a little less than 800,000 people (about the size of Charlotte, North Carolina, US), it is home to the Omar Bongo University, many parks, museums, shopping, and entertainment. Libreville wasn’t declared the capital of Gabon until 1993.

Almost 70% of Gabon’s economy is based on oil. This makes Gabon one of the countries with the highest GDP in Africa. However, there is such income inequality, that much of this oil money hardly trickles down to the actual people; about a third of the people live in poverty. The top 20% of the people own 90% of the wealth. Before the discovery of oil, Gabon was known for is logging industry, as well as their manganese mining (mostly for uses in stainless steel and other alloy applications – the US nickel coin contains manganese). Libreville is home to many shipbuilding industries, as well as the exportation of raw materials (mostly wood, rubber, and cocoa).

The majority of Gabonese people claim to be Christian, both Roman Catholic and Protestant. Other religions include Islam, animism, atheism, and Bwiti (a spiritual practice by the Babongo, Mitsogo, and Fang peoples; it uses elements of animism and ancestor worship, and worshipers often chew on a type of tree bark that give them “visions” as part of ceremonies and rites). Like other African countries, many people will practice their indigenous believes alongside either Christianity or Islam.

"You cross the equator" -- check out this girl's blog. It's pretty cool:
Gabon has nearly forty different ethnic groups, and there are as many different Bantu languages spoken. The most widely spoken of these languages include Fang, Mbere, and Sira (or Eshira). Gabon uses the colonial language French as the official language and lingua franca. French is used in government and official documents and as the language of instruction in schools. English is one of the most popular foreign languages studied in schools.

One interesting thing I read about Gabon is that women are encouraged to have children before marriage. Once a woman is married and has kids, those kids then belong to the man. So, if they were to separate, she will lose those children that were born after they were married, but she will get to keep the children born prior to marriage. It’s an interesting take on the marriage and kids debate. I’m not quite sure what to think about it yet. I’m finding this to be an interesting country. Like those uncharted caves, I’m hoping to delve into Gabon and discover something new.

Up next: holidays and celebrations

Sunday, August 10, 2014


When the movie Ratatouille came out, I was absolutely enthralled with it. And of course, I had to buy it. My husband made me promise not to make ratatouille though. Tomatoes don’t agree with him, and he doesn’t agree with zucchini. Not wanting to risk divorce, I reluctantly agreed to avoid that one.  And my husband also isn’t a huge fan of cooking with wine (I know, he’s the biggest baby in the house). This was certainly throwing a wrench into my choices though. But alas, I found some recipes that I think everyone will like. And I’ll just save the wine for myself. It’s a win-win.
Breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Or brunch, or linner, or midnight snack. Or the two-thirties, or the nine-thirties.
Yesterday, we made crepes from a recipe based on the book Recipe for Adventure: Paris by Giada de Laurenttis. I bought this book for my daughter, and it comes with two recipes in the back. It was pretty easy: mixing eggs, milk, flour, sugar, and salt into a bowl and whisking it until it’s a smooth, liquidy batter. Then I melted a pat of butter in a skillet and placed a ¼ cup of batter in the skillet, tilting the skillet to spread it around. This is one time I’m glad I have a skillet with a handle on both sides. After about a minute or so, I flipped it once to brown it on the other side. I was amazed at how light and airy it was. You can fill it with a variety of toppings, but we made Banana-Nutella crepes that were out of this world. We had them for dinner last night, and again for breakfast this morning (still just as good!).
Sometimes the things that take the longest to make taste the best. Like this right here.  
To start off today’s recipes, I had to look to Julia Child for guidance. I checked out her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, vol. 1 from the library. I started off with her recipe for French bread, although I was tempted to try the croissants as well. (Croissants are one of my most favorites things in the world.) This French bread takes a long time to make, so it’s not something to make at the last minute.  I first mixed the yeast, flour, and salt into a bowl, slowly poured warm water into it, and mixed it. Then I added one more cup of flour little by little to make the dough smooth and elastic. I let it sit for three hours while I went shopping. After that time, it had almost doubled in size, and I punched it down, letting it rest another hour and a half. When it was time, I divided the dough into three pieces, folding each piece in two, covering it with a towel and letting it sit for another five minutes. Now it was time to shape them and lay them on parchment paper dusted with flour. And again, I had to let them rest for another hour and a half. Then comes the slightly difficult part because I don’t have the optimal baker’s oven or equipment. I placed a baking sheet with water in it on the bottom rack while the oven preheated to 450ºF. Then I sprayed some water onto the tops of the loaves and slashed it before transferring it to the oven to bake for 25 minutes. It took all day, but it was so worth it. I loved the crunchy, flakey crust and the soft inside. It was the perfect bread to dip in the soup.
So comforting. I want to make this when it's not 90º outside. 
And now we come to the main course: Julia Child’s Potage au Cresson. The recipe builds off of her recipe for potato and leek soup.  It starts off with simmering potatoes, leeks (and any other vegetables you would prefer; I didn’t add anything else), chives, water, and salt for about 40-50 minutes. Then add in the watercress and mash up the vegetables. The recipes calls to pass the soup through a food mill, but I just used my hand mixer to blend everything together and puree as much as I could. Then I added a little more salt and a little pepper to it. Once I took it off the heat, I stirred in the whipping cream just before serving and garnished it with a little more chives and watercress. I did have to add a little salt and some garlic powder to make it perfect.  I had never used watercress before.  It has the consistency and flavor of a strong-tasting spinach. I really liked it and thought it complemented the potatoes and the leeks. Next time, I might try adding in a little sausage or mini meatballs.
There are no words. It blew me away. It was a huge hit with the kids. Especially when I called it bacon pizza.  
Next, I made a dish that was recommended by a friend who had lived in France for a while: tarte flambé. It’s native from the Alsace area. I had to make my own crème fraîche by mixing half sour cream and half whipping cream, and I also had to substitute low fat cream cheese for the fromage blanc. I mixed the crème fraîche, cream cheese, nutmeg, salt, and pepper in a bowl and set it aside. I also mixed together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl, making a well in the center. Then I mixed the oil, egg yolks, and water together and poured it into the well, stirring everything to make the dough. After kneading it for a minute, I divided it into three parts to make into a 12” circle. For each circle, I spread some of the cheese mixture, leaving the edges free, sprinkling some chopped bacon and some of the chopped leeks that I had leftover from the soup. I don’t have a pizza stone, but I did learn this hack of making my own. I nested two baking sheets together, put them into the oven upside down, and preheated the oven to 500º. I put one tarte onto a piece of parchment paper and transferred it to the overturned baking sheets and let it bake for about eight minutes until it was crispy on the edges. Originally, tarte flambé was a way that bakers would test to see whether the oven was hot enough. I must really enjoy what I do, because sticking my head in a 500º oven on an already humid day sounds a little crazy. 
"'S'wonderful... 'S'marvelous... That you should care for me." -- from An American in Paris
I loved everything about this meal. I actually had never eaten French food before (well, besides crepes and baguettes). It was amazing.  Maybe one day, I’ll just go ahead and make the beef bourguignon without telling anyone and just serve it for dinner unannounced.  Sometimes, you just have to go for it. In the movie Ratatouille, Remy takes the chance to follow his dream to be a chef, even though it seemed pretty improbable. I lost my job in April working at a large insurance company for almost four years, but tomorrow I will be launching my own business, Da Capo Proofreading LLC. It’s an online proofreading and editing company. At times, it seemed fairly improbable as well. But I’m taking a chance on a dream to work from home doing something I enjoy. Even this blog project seemed an improbable feat. But in the meantime, I’ll have some really tasty food to remind me of how far I’ve come and how far I can go. (And this is the last “F” country!)
Up next: Gabon

Saturday, August 9, 2014


French music during the Medieval and Renaissance period is one of my favorite genres I remember studying in music history class in college. Amazingly, I retained something from those 8am classes.  French traveling musicians such as troubadours and other traveling musicians added much to the development of French folk music, namely the idea of the motet. Baroque composers, such as Louis Couperin, François Couperin, Jacques Champion de Chambonnières, Claude Le Jeune, and Jean Philippe Rameau were influential at introducing new practices with harmony. The clarinet was also becoming popular as an orchestral instrument during this time. (The song below is "Revecy venir du printans" by Claude Le Jeune. It was one of my favorites in college.) 

The Romantic era is one of my favorite periods of music (and literature). I love that iTunes Radio has a station of just Romantic Era music. I used to listen to it all the time when I was at a job I couldn’t stand in order to attempt to block out the people I didn’t like. French composers such as Georges Bizet, Jules Massenet, Gabriel Fauré, Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, and Erik Satie were some of the biggest names in France during this time. Their influence spread far beyond France and even past Europe. Twentieth century composers built on the foundations of the Romantic period and merged it with modern genres such as serialism and the use of computers, electronic instruments, and non-instruments. Albert Roussel, Pierre Boulez, and Olivier Messiaen are two composers of this era. Since the late 1970s, French composers began experimenting with computer-assisted composition, called “spectral music.” Look, I had to listen to and study a lot of these new and avant-garde styles when I was in college. And I’ll just say this about it: I found I’m quite a fan of tonality. I tried to be open minded, but some of this stuff is junk. (There is a lot of good contemporary music out there as well, but you can only stretch the limits of what music is so far before it makes me want to jab a fork in my ear.) The piece below is Maurice Ravel's "Piano Concerto in G." My high school marching band did portions of this piece my last year. It's a little long, but one of my favorite pieces. 

Twentieth century folk music has become a popular genre in France, and each region has its own contributions and variations. The valse-musette (or French waltz) with its characteristic accordion accompaniment was popular in the Paris area and fairly iconic when it comes to French music. The soundtrack for the movie Amélie, written by Yann Tiersen, is a perfect example of this. The western provinces tend to promote more ballad-singing, dance songs, and fiddle music. The eastern province of Brittany has a lot of Celtic tradition to their culture. One traditional song type is a call-and-response mixed with a ballad. Bagpipes, bombards, and drums make up most of the instrumentation here. Central France also uses bagpipes, but they also make use of the hurdy-gurdy, a type of string instrument turned with a wheel with several drone strings. The Basque Country of southern France is most known for its ttun-ttun and xirula styles of folk music. Choral and band music alike are commonly performed there as well.   

Dance has a long tradition and generally falls into two categories: formal (or court) dancing and folk dancing.  And each region has its own variations of dances as well. Forlane, Menuet, Musette, Bouree, Gavotte, Farandole, Rondeau, Rigaudon, Valse Musette, Marchoise, Belle Danse, and Sarabande are also common types of dances, and if you study classical music, you’ll recognize many of these dance types in musical titles as well. Music and dance often go hand-in-hand. This is an example of a Bouree. 

Patricia Kaas is a French singer who is one of the top names of current cabaret singers. The style seems like a cross between other French folk styles, but also incorporates musical theatre and jazz traditions into the music. Cabaret music tends to use a lot of acoustic guitar, piano, and accordion as well as other instruments.

I’ve been a fan of Carla Bruni for years. I first saw her on one of those daytime news/entertainment shows when she first married former French president Nicolas Sarkozy. She’s actually Italian born but has lived in France since she was a child. Her alto voice has a slightly raspy quality that seems to match the acoustic bluesy guitar accompaniment. I was happy to learn that she put out another album last year called Little French Songs that I really like.

I’ve come across several pop singers, mostly female. Like a lot of American pop music, it seems highly dependent on electronic music. But I’m kind of a fan of that kind of music. Mylène Farmer is one singer that I like. However, Zazie has a dominant rock feel to her music and equally as good.

There are a lot of French rock bands as well. Trust is a band who has a late 1980s/early 1990s feel to their music. I kind of like it in a retrorock kind of way. Another band that I liked is Noir Désir. Their music is more on the punk edge of rock, but in some songs, they also use sung speech (it’s not quite rap, but not quite singing either). There are also a number of metal bands as well, if you need something harder.

France is known for its electronic and techno DJs/producers/musicians. David Guetta is one of the most well known in this area. I listened to the album Nothing But the Beat 2.0, and I have to say, there are a lot of catchy songs on there. He has a lot of collaboration with many big names in the industry. Another well-known musical group –and much older– is Daft Punk.  My husband is much more of a fan of their music, but I did listen to most of their new album Random Access Memories, and I like what I heard. They also composed the soundtrack to the movie Tron: Legacy (2010).  I’ve been a fan of Phoenix for several years now. Their song 1901 was used in a Cadillac commercial. I just discovered M83 – all I can say is why didn’t I know about this sooner? It’s great music to listen to while working. Modjo is another good one to chill out to.

Hip-hop and R&B are also huge in France as well, especially coming out of some of the former French colonies in Africa and other regions in the Caribbean. Some of the popular names that I listened to are MC Solaar, Booba (yes, really), Kenza Farah, Sefyu, Indila, and many more.

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