Friday, December 23, 2011

Ziemassvētki klāt!

No baznīcas braucot Ziemas svētku vakarā
-Jānis Poruks

Balts sniedziņš snieg uz skujiņām,
Un, maigi dziedot, pulkstens skan;
Mirdz šur tur ciemos ugunis,
Un sirds tā laimīgi pukst man.
Man ir, it kā kad paceltos
Gars augstumos, kur debess telts
Ir pulcējusi eņģeļus,
Kur āres spīd kā spožais zelts.
Es saprotu, es sajūtu,
Ka šeit uz zemes spodrība –
Tas augstākais, ko mums var dot,
Un skaidram būt ir godība.
Ai, māmiņa, cik laba tu:
Tu mani baltu mazgāji,
No acīm skūpstot asaras,
Man svētku drānas uztērpi.
Ai, māmiņa, vai mūžīgi
Es varēšu tāds skaidrs būt,
Jeb vai būs liktens nolēmis
Man citādam virs zemes kļūt?
Balts sniedziņš snieg uz skujiņām,
Un, maigi dziedot, pulkstens skan;
Mirdz šur tur ciemos ugunis,
Un sirds pukst aplaimota man.

Novēlam ikkatram spožus, skaistus Ziemassvētkus, un visu to labāko 2012. gadā!

Our family wishes everyone a warm and magical Christmas, and best wishes in the coming year!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

December in the Auvergne - piparkūkas!

The Latvian Christmas cookie is without a doubt the piparkūka. The direct translation would be “peppercake” and they can be compared to gingerbread, but I’ve always thought that they taste more of the molasses and other spices and have a much different texture. The recipe I’ve used the past ten years that my mother gave me calls for cinnamon, ginger, pepper, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, coriander as well as cream of tartar, baking powder and baking soda. Of biggest concern to me (as I had checked and double checked the spice rack to guarantee that I could find all the necessary ingredients I still needed) were the required dark molasses, dark brown sugar and lard. For those familiar with the French brown sugar, it is very light and very granular, and this would take away from the dark brown color of the finished product. The molasses is another tricky ingredient, some cooks swear by a certain brand of unsulphered variety I have only seen in the States, and although my mother promised me Crisco would suffice in place of the lard, I have yet to find anything of the sort in the stores here.

As luck would have it, I stumbled upon Lyle’s Black Treacle in the Irish store nearby, “made from cane molasses… add(ing) a distinctive rich, dark flavour to traditional recipes like... gingerbreads.” I’m not sure if it is unsulphered, but being the closest thing to dark molasses I would find, I decided to take the risk. Then a fellow mom arrived bearing the dark brown sugar and lard I had been searching the past three weeks for; she says she got them at her local supermarket! The lard I understand why I have not seen, I had been searching near the butter and cream, instead it is located in the charcuterie aisle. However, the dark brown sugar I still have not found – I don’t believe any of the stores I frequent carry the brand she brought. But thanks Sue; you saved my yearly cookie ritual!

 A labor of love, the dough takes me more than an hour to make, and then once it is allowed to rest for a few days the real work begins. The dough is not the easiest to work with, it takes a lot of muscle to roll it out as thin as I prefer it and this year I found my ginormous pregnant stomach was interfering with my leverage. But as the ratio of thinness is directly proportional to crispness, taste and cook’s reputation, I labored on. Another shortcut can be taken with size of the cookies, I have cookie cutters in a variety of shapes and sizes, but again, I prefer the bite-sized morsels which just happen to take three times as long to make. Once they are on the pan, they are glazed with egg yolk and then decorated. Traditional decorations include chopped or sliced almonds and rough sugar, and I added in a little chocolate since I had some on hand.

The final and most dangerous portion of the process is the oven. Being so thin they burn to a crisp in an instant, and no two pans take the same amount of time to cook. Being on unfamiliar territory with an oven that had yet to bake its first batch of piparkūkas added to the challenge. The end result was that they took anywhere between 4 to 15 minutes to cook, and often I removed the cookies from the outer edges that cooked faster before returning the rest of the pan to the oven. But I can proudly say, this year’s batch is finished and you are more than welcome to stop by and try one!

Ziemassvētku gaidās – Vilis Plūdonis

„Māsiņ, vai tu zini ko?
Nestāsti tik citiem to!
Eglīti jau rūķītis
Mums uz svētkiem atnesis.
Nejauši to ieraudzīju
Vakar es, kad laukā biju:
Malkas šķūnītis bij vaļā,
Skatos – eglīte stāv zaļa.
Nu vairs, māsiņ, šaubu nav:
Ziemassvētki klātu jau.”

„Nu tu tiešām redzēji?”

„Vai tad tu vēl netici...
Tad vēl citas jaunas ziņas:
Māte ceps ar’ zaķaustiņas!
Piparraušu necepšot:
Tie tik zobus maitājot.”

„Man gan piparrauši garšo...”
„Jā, un cik tie jauki smaršo!...”

„Brālīt! iesim palūgties
Māmiņai, lai cep ar’ tos!”

And here is a quick translation that in no way does this famous Latvian poet justice...

Waiting for Christmas – Vilis Plūdonis

“Sister, did you know?
Only don’t tell anyone else!
A Christmas elf has already brought
Our Christmas tree.
I accidentally saw it
Yesterday, when I was outside:
The woodshed door was open,
And I saw the green tree.
Now there is no doubt:
Christmas is very near.”

“You really saw it?”

“You still don’t believe…
Then more good news:
Mother is cooking zaķaustiņas!
She said she will not cook piparkūkas
Because they are bad for our teeth.”

“But I love piparkūkas…”
“Yes, and they smell so nice!...”

“Brother, let’s go ask
Mother to bake some of those as well!”

With all the cooking we still found time to take a ride on the Christmas train that is taking tours around downtown Clermont. Although not real trains, the little tourist trams are decorated with lovely Christmas lights, run every half an hour, have eight stops including Place de Jaude and the Christmas marché and run between 2pm and 7pm (8pm on Saturdays) every day from now until Christmas.

Monday, December 19, 2011

December in the Auvergne - home stretch!

Thank goodness for the weekend! Just as the Latvian Christmas carol sings Man atnāca Ziemassvētki, Visi darbi nedarīti: Ne krekliņi man mazgāti, Ne nāteles balinātas (Christmas came for me with all the chores undone: the shirts unwashed and the nāteles unbleached), there are many thing yet to be done before Christmas!

We were able to accomplish several things this weekend, the biggest of which was finishing gift wrapping and packing for those gifts to be sent off to family across the Atlantic. Hopefully these presents will not arrive too late!

Putting the final touches on the tree

Sunday morning came the first snow of the season. Puy de Dôme received its first dusting almost a week ago, and although nothing stuck from this morning’s precipitation, it was a nice change from the weather of the last couple of days.

In the south of France they have the Mistral; a regional wind, which usually blows during the winter and spring, lasts one or two days (or sometimes more than a week) and can reach speeds of more than ninety kilometers an hour. What we had Thursday and Friday was something else! Supposedly reaching speeds of over 120 km/hour, I was naïve enough to venture outside and was rewarded with rain in the face and a scare that I would be hit by shingles or panes of glass that were raining down across the city. The Clermont-Ferrand airport was closed, train service discontinued due to downed trees and power lines, and perhaps the saddest result of all, the top of the grand Christmas tree on Place de Jaude was snapped off…

Another item checked off our to-do list was a visit to see Santa. Last year Lauris paid a visit to Ziemassvētku vecītis in Latvija, with many tears and quite a bit of crying being the result. This year was not much different. Lauris was calm as we approached a short and skinny version of Santa in the Place de Jaude mall, and we spent ten minutes watching other children sitting on his lap having their pictures taken. But once it was his turn the previously mentioned waterworks ensued, and the only picture we were able to get of this year’s visit was one with Santa, a teary but well-dressed Lauris, and a disheveled and tired 7 months pregnant mom.

Wishing everyone a productive yet enjoyable last week before Chistmas!

Friday, December 16, 2011

December in the Auvergne - decorating the tree

One of my favorite Latvian Christmas carols, “Ak, eglīte, ak, eglīte,” is an ode to the Christmas tree. It sings of the beauty of the evergreen, and of the peace, light and happiness it brings into the home, be it a castle or a hut. Our beautiful tree has been gracing our living room for over a week now and although the lights were in place soon after its arrival, only a few days ago did we finally hang the decorations.

Lauris helped. Then he un-helped for a bit before helping again. So far there have only been a handful of casualties, and one of them occurred while a certain blogger was attempting to take a few pictures of the ornaments.

When the Christmas tree originally arrived, it proved to be a little taller than our ceiling, so a good meter was cut off. I finally used the last of the cut branches for a garland. This is our first home that has a fireplace, and therefore an ideal location for the Christmas stockings (which will possibly merit another post as I have yet to hang them), the advent wreath, a garland and our numerous holiday knick-knacks and candles.

As we listened to Christmas music, hung ornaments and drank our hot chocolate, I set aside one single decoration: our angel tree topper. It will wait patiently on the shelf until Roberts gets home to place it.

Ak, eglīte, ak, eglīte

Ak, eglīte, ak, eglīte,
Tu patstāvīga esi:
Tu zaļo ziemas aukstumā,
Tāpat kā vasar’s karstumā.
Ak, eglīte, ak, eglīte,
Tu patstāvīga esi.

Ak, eglīte, ak, eglīte,
Tu manim patikt vari:
No Ziemassvētku eglītes
Man spīd daudz gaišas svecītes.
Ak, eglīte, ak, eglīte,
Tu manim patikt vari.

Ak, eglīte, ak, eglīte,
Tavs apģērbs man ko māca:
Patstāvība un cerība
Dod spēku skumjā nestundā.
Ak, eglīte, ak, eglīte,
Tavs apģērbs man ko māca.

Ak, eglīte, ak, eglīte,
Cik skaista tug an esi:
Tu grezno pilis, būdiņas,
Nes visur mieru, līksmību.
Ak, eglīte, ak, eglīte,
Cik skaista tu gan esi!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

December in the Auvergne - the Christmas party

A Latvian Christmas carol tells of "the hundred cakes I baked while waiting for Christmas, when a hundred dancing children came to visit."

Simtu cepu kukulīšu,
Ziemassvētku gaidīdama:
Simtiņš nāca danča bērnu
Ziemassvētku vakarā.

The big Christmas party I had been looking forward to for over a month now was on Sunday. As we lost a very dear member of the family last week, Roberts flew back to the US to represent the three of us and so it was only Lauris and I making the drive out to his friend Stephan’s house.

The party had it all; good food, good company, plenty of dancing children for Lauris to run around with and of course, chocolate with firecrackers. A French tradition perhaps?

A potluck lunch, but we didn’t return home until early evening, and there were soon two of us taking a well-deserved nap. Another lovely December weekend, but I am oh-so-happy that it’s over and Roberts is back home with us.

Monday, December 12, 2011

December in the Auvergne - trees taking over

On our walk to the crafts fair at Massillion International School on Saturday we passed by the fountain in Place Delille that usually looks like this:

It appears Place de Jaude isn't the only place the Christmas elves have been busy!

Svētvakara - Augusts Saulietis

... Un lēni durvis veras:
Tēvs zaļu eglīti nes,
Un zaros tai pārslas zaigo
Kā baltas zvaigznītes.

Un vienu svecīti spožu
Dedz māte un eglītē liek:
Cik gaiši un silti no viņas
Kā saulē visapkārt tiek!

"Pie Taviem šūpļiem stāvu" -
Tad tēvs un māte dzied,
Un lielas, zaļas zvaigznes
Aiz sniegainā loga zied.

Friday, December 9, 2011

December in the Auvergne – raclette

Nāc, māsiņ, ciemoties
Ziemassvētku vakarā:
Būs pupiņas, būs zirnīši,
Būs cūciņas šņukurīts.

“Come for a visit on Christmas eve, there will be beans, peas and pork!” (Sounds a bit better in the Latvian Christmas carol!) This post is not about pork and beans, and honestly, it didn’t even happen in December, but since the holidays are upon us along with the various dinners, lunches and gatherings, I felt it was an appropriate “December in the Auvergne” post. During the very last days of November we were invited to a friend’s house to celebrate the November birthdays: among the five families that attended there had been seven birthdays (including mine)! The menu? Raclette!

The three amigos meet again!

A dish originally from Switzerland and the Savoy region of France, it involves melted cheese, potatoes and charcuterie/jambon cru. According to Wikipedia, the term raclette derives from the French word racler, meaning "to scrape", because traditionally the heated cheese was scraped from a large round onto diners’ plates. The modern version involves an electric table-top grill with small pans for heating the cheese and a griddle top for cooking the ham.

Melted cheese with bacon and potatoes, I believe I’ve mentioned a pregnant woman’s affinity for such dishes in posts such as Truffade, and Happy New Year. Actually, I’m surprised how little I’ve written about this particular weakness of mine, considering how much I’ve been thinking about it the past months. Why do my pregnancy cravings center around bacon, cheese and fried dough instead of healthier options such as veggies and grains, I do not question.

The evening was a wonderful success. The children spent all their energy while the adults dined and talked, and the raclette grills were turned off much too soon (in my opinion) to make room for dessert (well that did change my mind). Four different birthday cakes with candles appeared, happy birthday was sung twice, and I have my doubts that anyone left without a stuffed belly and that inner peace that comes after such a pleasant occasion.

* Thanks Robert, for all the pictures! Pregnancy brain struck again, as I left my camera at home!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

December in the Auvergne – everything is illuminated

The Latvian Christmas carol “Dedziniet gaišu guni, laidiet Dievu istabā: Dieviņš brauca par kalniņu sudrabotu mētelīti,” counsels everyone to keep warmth and brightness in your home and to let God in, for God is coming over the hills in a silver coat.

Warmth and brightness came to our apartment this weekend in the form of our friends from Chatenet. On Saturday they helped Roberts find and bring home our very first French Christmas tree, and by the evening it was softly glowing with Christmas lights. But there were more lights in Clermont-Ferrand to be seen, as it was also the kick-off weekend of Illuminations and the Christmas festivities here in Clermont-Ferrand.

After a morning spent resting and recuperating from the flu, I was physically able to join my family and our guests on an outing to downtown. As we emerged from the apartment a light drizzle was falling, but at that precise minute all the Christmas lights decorating our street were turned on for the first time, and this encouraged us to continue on to Place de Jaude. The Christmas tree there was not yet lit but the plaza was full of people that had come out to enjoy the shopping and lights on this dreary Saturday. Rue Nestor Perret was the site for the annual fête du miel with a dozen local honey vendors set up displaying their wares, and the smell of roasted chestnuts was in the air, as vendors sold everything from churros to crêpes from small mobile carts.

Although the drizzle had stopped, the wind was still blowing pretty fiercely, and exactly at the moment as I started wondering if I had misunderstood the time that the lighting of the tree would take place (for there were very few people milling around the tree as we were), the Christmas tree was illuminated! With beautifully flowing icicle lights interspersed with the smaller lights, the wind was moving the branches, causing a wavelike effect. Along with the tree dozens of smaller light displays all over Jaude were also turned on, and the giant Ferris Wheel was simply icing on the cake.

We continued north to the Marché de Noël, set up in Place de la Victoire next to the cathedral. Although the Christmas market was filled with people and all the vendors were open for business, the lights there had not yet been turned on. As we sipped on hot wine and enjoyed the atmosphere came a wonderful surprise; the overhead canopy of Christmas lights came alive, the roving musicians struck up a nice Christmas melody, and the whole marché came even more alive than it had been!

We didn’t linger much longer, after Roberts and Max’s parents enjoyed a quick snack of oysters at the oyster vendor’s booth it was time to head back home to enjoy the lights of our own tree. But that is how Clermont-Ferrand came to be illuminated for Christmas this year, and we were there to see it happen.

Monday, December 5, 2011

December in the Auvergne – the Christmas spirit arrives in our home

Another Latvian Christmas carol sings “Bagāti Ziemassvētki no Rīgas nāca: trīs simti sulaiņi bruņoti līdz,” a wealthy Christmas came from Rīga (the capital of Latvia), three hundred guards along with it .

Our visitors came from Chatenet, not Rīga, and although they were three not three hundred, they brought along with them the Christmas spirit and a wonderful start to the holiday season. Arriving with a beautiful holly wreath that now holds the advent candles, food from their garden and a sac full of presents, their timing couldn’t be more perfect.

Friday I came down with some 24-hour bug, and we almost cancelled at the last minute after I found myself laid out on the couch before noon. Luckily, after consulting our guests they decided they would travel anyway, risking the possibility of contracting what I had in order to help with Lauris and assist Roberts in a few tasks I wouldn’t be able to be of aid with. They arrived just in time, taking over the duty of watching Lauris and making dinner.

The next morning is when our guests really proved their weight in gold. As I rested, my husband, Lauris and our Chatenet guests left on a difficult assignment; to find our first French Christmas tree. My hopes were that they would find something a little taller than the 3-4 ft trees I’d been seeing at all the local grocery stores, and they didn’t disappoint.

Testing for "bounce"
As my husband tells the story, at their first stop a salesperson brought out a 3 meter tree wrapped in the mesh wrap and named the price, which was over 100 euro! Knowing how sad I would be if he came home empty handed, he almost bought it; luckily at the urging of the others, he asked to see the tree unwrapped. As the man pulled off the wrapping, a good shower of needles fell, and as he pulled at the branches, even more dropped. Finally, he gave it a good tap and when the pile on the floor doubled, they decided that this tree wouldn’t survive the trip home.

The next stop proved to be the final stop. After the first experience my husband was worried that this might be The Most Expensive Tree Ever, and so when they saw the 27 euro price tag on a 10+ ft tree at a tree lot, they assumed it would be per meter. The salesperson quickly assured them that the price could not be right, but when she returned came the nicest surprise; it was actually 4 euro less than the sign said!

Note: saws were not actually used in close proximity to children!

Needless to say, the five were soon on their way home with a giant tree somehow strapped to our car (this I wish I had seen!), and as the fathers carried it into the house, the holiday scent of spruce entered along with it. Before long they had it standing in our living room, Christmas lights softly glowing, and I have to say it is The Most Beautiful Tree I have ever had the luck to have in my home. Thank you to my Chatenet elves!

Friday, December 2, 2011

December in the Auvergne - trees and trucks

There’s an old Latvian Christmas carol that sings of Christmas arriving in a decorated sleigh:
            Ziemassvētki sabraukuši rakstītāmi kamanām’,
            Tidrallā, tidrallā, rakstītāmi kamanām.
Here in Clermont, it arrives on an AltéAd semi-truck.

Last Wednesday the plumbers and heating repairman that were once again visiting our apartment had a difficult time finding parking. The signs we had noticed the previous night clearly stated no parking anywhere on rue Blatin all day. Roberts took the car to work, and so we weren’t worried, but the repair team spent some time finding an alternate spot and blamed the day’s ban on the city installing Christmas lights.

I was excited, and kept an eye out all day for the Clermont elves. The Christmas decorations and lights had been appearing up and down all the other streets all week and it seemed ours was the only one left bare. I wondered if there would be a mass towing of disobediant parkers as there had been with one of the large marathons.

Then at dusk the flashing lights alerted me that something was going on. I grabbed Laurīts and the camera, and we went to the balcony to watch. But instead of the machinery needed for Christmas lights, instead we had police blocking off the side streets and redirecting all traffic…

Then, off in the distance, what to my wandering eyes should appear? A slow moving flatbed semi, with the annual Christmas tree on back! In Chicago the Daley plaza Christmas “tree” is actually composed of many smaller trees mounted onto a base, so I was delighted to see one single giant tree riding down our street like a forest on wheels.

27 meters high and weighing 8 tons, the tree is over eighty years old and from the Allagnat region. Those citizens that dared disobey the no parking signs will possibly find scratches on the sides of their cars, as the branches of the behemoth stretched from curb to curb. The Christmas tree was set up the following day, and over the past week has slowly been decorated. Lauris and I have followed the daily progress closely; one day watching as bottom branches were cut off only to be mounted in barer spots higher up, the next few as dozens of smaller trees were installed around the base, then as the lights, decorations and topper attached.

Redistributing branches and adding decorations

We can’t wait until all the lights are turned on this Saturday! And the tree will remain illuminated in Place de Jaude until the 8th of January, giving us more than a month to enjoy its festive beauty and remember the day that the Christmas tree came riding past our windows.
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