“Summer,” this year, at least for me, was a relative term. Summer usually includes June in Paris, speckled with trips to the south with my Partner-in-Crime, Emese, July in Paziols, where afternoons are spent swimming in the icy-cold river, a welcome change from the heat of the Languedoc, and August on Long Island, tanning at the seaside. What transpired this year involved very little sun and very much cold. It’s the end of August, and I’ve already pulled out my flannel; pumpkins are out in the markets, and I’m not sure I’ve had my fill of summer tomatoes yet.
I proposed a “last summer picnic” to Foodbuzz’s 24×24 project this month, but the truth is, it’s one of my first picnics of the summer as well… and could have not occurred at all. When I rolled out of bed yesterday at 8am, my windows were speckled with raindrops, and the sky was dark and gray. Luckily, I was not the only one who had my heart set on getting out of the city, and so my friends, the Shoe Fiend, Camille of Croque Camille, and her husband, Nick, met up at the RER B stop in the center of Paris for the 45-minute ride out to St-Rémy.
I had printed out what looked like fairly simple directions from the Internet, but once we arrived in Chevreuse, about a 20-minute walk from St-Rémy, we realized that we had been wandering a much more difficult and indirect way than was necessary. However, thanks to Nick and his uncanny man-sense of direction, as well as helpful pointers from two lovely ladies out for a stroll, we realized that the “parc” we were looking for was actually an entire commune, and the castle we assumed was very, very far, was about 300 meters from where we were standing, after climbing a fairly vertical path.
Luckily, our out-of-the-way walk granted us a few fun views, including these twin orange jumpsuits, hung out to dry on a railing.
And, of course, the view from the top.
It was nearly two o’clock by the time we reached the castle, so after poking around for a few moments and realizing that the castle itself wouldn’t open for another half an hour, we decided to unpack the spread I had crammed into a borrowed backpack from the Country Boy.
True to French form, our picnic came in courses. First, we opened a bottle of wine from the Languedoc (where I had just spent the month of July), and enjoyed it with some saucisson.
Next came local tomatoes, purchased from my market that morning from my new favorite market vendor. He remembers me, which is more than enough to make him number one in my book, but he also grows his fruits and vegetables entirely naturally, with only nettles to keep bugs and other vermin away. And his tomatoes are out-of-this-world incredible. All I did was add a bit of olive oil and salt before leaving the house, and they made their own lovely juice to sop up with bread as we hiked.
Next, we helped ourselves to steak sandwiches with caramelized onions. While chicken or turkey may be the favorite in the States, and the French are partial to ham, I like local bavette with onions as a special occasion sort of sandwich, and what occasion is more special than a picnic with friends?
Unfortunately, between cheese and dessert, a quickly moving rainstorm we had been monitoring on the horizon found us perched on our little ledge, and we had to seek shelter under the ramparts of the castle (and two umbrellas that Camille and Nick were clever enough to pack.)
Before long, though, the rain had stopped as quickly as it had started, and we lay down our tarp and indulged in Camembert and a sheepsmilk cheese that was really more made for dipping… not that that stopped us.
Dessert of chocolate chip cookies was brought to a swift halt when the rain reappeared; we took it as a sign to explore the castle itself, where we hoped to find a bit of shelter.
This was not the case — the 11th century castle was more walls than roof — but the rain decided to stop again, and so we wandered around inside the castle, looking at art installations and the view from the top.
Before long, though, we decided to head back down, towards the town of Chevreuse. We walked down the front facade of the hill we had climbed, passing by a small door that the Shoe Fiend claimed would be her perch, if the castle were her home.
As for me, I thought more and more about the constant back-and-forth in my head that’s gotten stronger and stronger recently: I love living in a city, the urban environment and the availability of things to do. But the more time I spend in rural areas, especially in Paziols, the more I think about how nice it would be to have scenes like the ones we wandered past yesterday at my footsteps any time I like.
A path we walked down revealed a river that ran past the backyards of a dozen houses. We wandered along the path; the sun had come back out, and the sides of the road were speckled with tiny puddles.
Everywhere we turned, we saw flowers and trees and bridges. Everything was out of a postcard or painting.
While I know that, eventually, one might get to the point where views like this become pedestrian, it’s hard to imagine when it surrounds you, when a glance to the left reveals an old-fashioned water pump, and one to the right, a perfect hidden river.
As we continued, things got even more rural. We left the hidden backyards for wild blackberry bushes and fields of grazing cows.
We even stumbled upon a pasture of goats, munching on wild mint. After deciding that cheese made from the milk of goats with a steady diet of blackberries and mint couldn’t be anything less than delicious, we wandered over to the farm. “How often do you get to eat the cheese of goats you just met?” quipped Camille.
Alas, the farm was closed, though we did meet some more “wildlife” (the urban Shoe Fiend’s word for animals) — chickens, geese and a turkey — and vowed to come back to try again another day.
I suppose that’s the best part about this little day-long adventure. St-Rémy is only 45 minutes from Paris, and yet it feels worlds away. When you live in a city like this one, you can get the best of both worlds; I live my life in Paris, and for the past four years, I haven’t even realized the store of exciting adventures waiting for me just outside the city limits. Now that I know, I can’t wait to see what else I can find!
Steak Sandwiches (makes 6 small sandwiches)
1 tbsp. butter
2 onions, thinly sliced
1 tbsp. cassonnade or brown sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 cup white or rosé wine
3 bavette steaks (flank steak, in America)
1 tbsp. butter
1 tsp. vegetable oil
Prepare the steak and onions the night before. Heat the butter over low heat in a heavy-bottomed skillet. Add the onions and allow to sweat for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the cassonnade and salt and allow to cook for 10-20 minutes, until they begin to brown. When the onions stick to the bottom of the pan, deglaze with a bit of wine. Continue stirring and adding wine to deglaze until the onions have become deep brown and jammy. Set aside.
In the same pan, heat the butter and vegetable oil over high heat. Salt the steaks and cook about 2-3 minutes per side. Remove to a salad bowl (a plate with curved edges, to keep the steak juices together) and cover with foil. Deglaze the pan with remaining wine or water. Bring the liquid to a boil, and cook until reduced by half. Add to the onions.
When the steaks and onions have cooled, cover and put in the fridge.
The morning before your hike (if you’re going on a hike), remove the steak and onions from the fridge. Carefully remove the juices from the plate into a small bowl. Cut the steaks into thin pieces against the grain.
Slice the baguette into the appropriate size for your sandwiches. Using a pastry brush, brush the meat juices over the inside of the bread, and layer steak and onions inside. Close and wrap carefully with tin foil.