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Tag Archives: French culture

Is, “finish my sentences, SVP” carved on my forehead? (the sequel)

Courtesy of Google images (well, I did the carving bit)

Just when I thought that being corrected couldn’t become more unnerving, yet again, another piece of humble pie shows up on the menu. My last serving you may recall was (Is ‘correct my French’ carved on my forehead?) where I was castigated by an eight and ten-year old. OK, maybe that’s too harsh a description, but you get the point.

Last year, my husband’s family and I made our annual pilgrimage to the Champagne region of France for the La Route du Champagne en Fête, where you get to sample the goods by walking from one producer to the next in a given region each year. This is a tradition in my husband’s family and so I wanted to assimilate the best I could and be part of what they already shared. Perhaps in my haste to ‘fit in’, I may have done myself more harm than good.

We were all excited, it was day one and we had purchased our ‘passports’ as they’re called, which is a book that has each producer’s information along with perforations on each page, that you tear off as tickets, in exchange for a tasting portion of Champagne. It’s a great system and one that anyone who doesn’t speak great french, can use. Or, so I thought. As we made our rounds, I realized that everyone was telling me which ticket to tear, as if I were challenged in this area. I thought I was doing fine, but evidently, this needed explaining, being unaware of any personal shortcomings. So, I shrugged it off, continued on with my champagne flute gently swinging from its handy lanyard with each step, in anticipation of the next sip.

Maybe the bubbles were going to my head and therefore my actions reflected that fact, but I continued to notice that the others were watching my every step by guiding me to other paths on the road or telling me that cars were behind me and so on, as if the sound of the cars were different from in the US or that paths were harder to navigate. Whatever the case, I began to feel like the others felt I was somehow, helpless.

The final straw came when we were sitting at a large table getting ready to have our aperitif when the proprietor of the hotel came to take our order. I think this may be the same ritual in any culture when the discussion is had on what everybody wants becomes a topic of conversation. We could easily think to ourselves what we want, then order it when we are asked by the server, but that’s not what happens. We like to discuss as a group what we are having and why. As a result of this bizarre yet common custom, I was in prime position to discuss what drink I wanted and why. I really wanted a Vodka martini but in Europe, martini’s are not the same as in the US. I was picturing my Sex And The City version, but in Europe, it’s something all together different.

Vintage Martini & Rossi Ad

If you order a ‘martini’ in Europe (not UK), you will get vermouth, just like the vintage posters. Knowing this, all eyes were on me, everyone ready to see what I had decided and how well I would do at ordering it. I tried to explain the drink by deconstructing it; naming its individual components. This left me grappling for words and then the carnage began. Everyone started guessing what it was that I was trying to order. I was doing fine, until I got to the elusive cranberry juice (le jus de canneberge). The scene became like a bad 70’s game show. Who would win the prize if they guessed the right ingredient? Finally, after saying no, to each person who gave it their all to guess the right one, I threw in the towel in defeat by ordering a sparkling water (eau pétillante) instead. I could hear the imaginary announcer in my head saying, ‘thank you for playing and we have some lovely parting gifts for you.’ I felt like a first class loser. Not only because I couldn’t explain myself properly, but because I got angry with how everyone was trying to finish my sentences; not giving me time to think. I was so busy saying, ‘no’ to the contestants, that I couldn’t find the right word.

Do I blame them? No, I don’t. Why? Because they were trying their best to help and the more they tried to guess, the more they were trying to help me. This I understand now, but in that moment, it became so frustrating that I couldn’t appreciate that the ‘game show’ was an act of love, not a display of disappointment or embarrassment of my failure. Innately, I knew they were trying to be helpful, but my artful combination of vulnerability and hubris yet again, clouded my understanding and judgement of the real intention. I did apologize for my behavior and they of course were gracious, which made me feel even worse.

We just returned from our last pilgrimage to the Route du Champagne en Fête, hence my memory of how much all has changed from last year. Of course, my French has improved some, but maybe we all have gotten a bit wiser. I never said why I got upset before, but I think they knew and understood my perspective better than I did. Now, that deserves a toast–santé (good health, cheers)!

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2012 in Culture Choc

 

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Gimme 5 minutes to ‘splain!

Sometimes [I think] we forget that language is the basis of culture. It shapes our experiences and in how we relate to others. If living in another country is not adventurous enough, learning the language can seem like climbing Mount Everest! I can honestly say, I am about halfway up the mountain and on good footing. Have I slipped and almost fallen? Absolutely! Many of these moments, I have humbly chronicled here (in my blog) for your amusement, but more importantly, in hopes that you will be able to step outside of your own culture and laugh with me (OK, ‘at me’ is fine too). Before moving to France, I was in love with all things French, still am. I thought there is no more beautiful language in the world and it has always been a dream of mine, to speak French. Well, again, “be careful what you wish for..”, as the saying goes! I have made every language gaff imaginable, made people laugh, cry and even angry at times. A veritable plethora of human emotions, I have insighted in complete strangers, new friends and family. I guess there is a sense of freedom in knowing that you’ve screwed up so much, that whatever comes is nothing new and hence; nothing you can’t handle. French truly is a beautiful language and I stand by my conviction, but it is certainly not easy to learn, not even for the French. For instance, there are multiple uses for the same word such as ‘toilette‘ (besides the obvious) and different words for the same thing, such as: ‘armoire’ (free standing cabinet), ‘placard’ (built-in cabinet) and just plain old ‘cabinet’ (hanging cabinet, like the kitchen type).

The biggest difference between French and English, is the subtlety. In French, you have to learn the differences between the types of cabinets and other seemingly redundant words, that have very close to the same meaning. In English, not so. You may learn English quicker than French to start, but the subtleties of English come later. After the basics are mastered, the nuances can then be put in place. It seems bizarre to me that a French child could know the subtleties of cabinets and toilets, but somehow, they do!

My poor hubby is constantly bombarded with questions by me about language differences between French and English, and he takes it like a champ. It’s like having a kid ask, ‘but why?’ all the time I would imagine. Sometimes he looks at me like I was just possessed by a body-snatcher (as in, the ‘invasion of’) to “I’m so proud of you, sweetie”, which I must say, is the one I prefer most. But either way, he supports my learning, even after a long day at work. Again, I can only compare it [my situation] to how a parent must feel when they have worked all day, feeling exhausted and your child needs help with their homework. That is probably the most important thing for any expat to know and commit to heart, is that you cannot do it alone. I’ve said this before but it bears repeating; we cannot succeed as expats without the support of those in-country, whether it be a supportive spouse or someone at the local market who is willing to work with you on your language skills.

In learning this [philosophy] early on, you will curb many feelings you will experience that are natural progressions of learning in an expat environment. The ‘imposter effect’ which is best explained as a chronic feeling of pretentiousness. You feel like the new kid on the playground, waiting for someone to pick you to play. At some point, your pronunciation exceeds your actual knowledge and this is the most difficult time. Why? Because you sound like you know what you’re saying, more so than what I call ‘tourist’ language.

When you learn enough to remove some of your native accent and construct simple sentences in present tense, people think you understand EVERYTHING they are saying. This is the imposter syndrome at its full-blown capacity! You feel like you have ‘faked’ your accent enough to trick them into thinking you know more than you know. And as a result, you feel awful that they have to repeat what they’ve said (especially when it’s very personal) which makes them feel more embarrassed than you. To combat this feeling, I would simply nod and smile and I got through most of it, but I still felt terrible that they walked away thinking I understood them, when really, I didn’t. There are just so many times you can ask someone to ‘parlez doucement’ (speak slowly) or repeat themselves, before it becomes awkward. In a nutshell, the expression, “fake it ’till you make it” is necessary to push past these insecurities. I now understand that in the end, most people are happy for you to just listen, nod and smile anyway. My takeaway from this? You can still claim to be a good listener even when it’s not your native tongue; you’re still paying attention to what they’re saying, even though you don’t understand everything. To listen to one another without judgement or interruption, transcends all understanding and never needs explaining.

 
 

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“To listen to this message in French, press 1″…go ahead, I dare you!

Courtesy of Google

We’re all familiar with the customer service prompts, “Press 1 to hear this message in English or presione 2 para escuchar este mensaje en español.” I never really thought much about it until recently, but after I read a post from a friend and consequently, saw all the “likes” for the Facebook group: “Press 1 to hear this message in English, press 2 to learn English,” I felt my blood begin to boil!

After reading the post and feeling my blood pressure rise, I thought, you know, I’m not going to dignify that with a response. Well, my good intentions were spoiled again, as I couldn’t keep quiet about a subject that was so near and dear to me as a visitor and now resident in France. It has taken me everyday, a minimum of 2 hours a day for the past year and a half to learn basic French. This is not to be fluent mind you, far from it! Only now, am I at the point where I understand the larger part of conversations when someone speaks to me and at least the gist of those I don’t. Passive understanding (comprehension without having to concentrate) is still (hopefully) yet in my future, but if I continue, by the end of the year (a mere 2 years later) I should be close to academic fluency. To become truly fluent (e.g. nuance, colloquial understanding), will take many more years. I am so grateful, that this opinion is not shared by my French neighbors, as they have been very understanding and helpful with my language mistakes and have tried to help me any way they could. They seem to inately understand how difficult it is to learn French and have complimented my efforts.

The point being, I’m not sure that those who are so insistent that we learn the language of the said, mono-linguist, truly understand the monumental task they have placed upon the heads of others (themselves, obviously excluded by default). I did in fact respond to the post and here is the excerpt;

POST: Happy Memorial Day!  Press 1 for English, Press 2 to learn English

me: Ouch, that’s a tough one on my end! My French has improved, so guess I pressed 2 to learn but am glad the French have been kind while I was learning. Maybe ‘Press 3’ for patience with those of us learning a new language? ;).

monophonic friend: When in France, speak French. When in USA, English baby! Enjoy France. Miss ya.

Well, I do miss him too, he’s a great guy, but I have to say, I was very stunned that someone who I thought to be intelligent, kind and considerate would still feel this way. Deep down, the devil in me one day hopes, that he will go on vacation or live in a place where he will have to learn a (at least some) foreign language to get by OR run into someone who speaks perfect English, who loves to correct him. I can dream, can’t I?

 
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Posted by on July 15, 2011 in Culture Choc

 

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Is “correct my French, SVP” carved on my forehead?

SVP: is the abbreviated, formal French phrase for 'please' (s'il vous plaît), used often on public signage

Let’s face it, no one LIKES to be corrected; we just try to stay open to it because it’s for our own good, right? Well, for many years, I have been open to being corrected. It was a long hard road, but I can honestly say, I don’t mind (not to be confused with like) correction. No matter the subject, I seem to be one of those people whom others feel a need (or is compulsion a better description?) to correct. Is it because I am constantly screwing things up and they take pity on me? It’s possible. Is it because I seem open to correction, that people are free to dole out the “you mean…” and “you should have said…” comments? Or is it because my past is coming back to haunt me after all the times I’ve corrected others, oblivious to the damage I was inflicting? Now, there’s a stark realization! My father always said I had a ‘noggin (southernese for head)’ made of wood, but I never thought the expression would have such literal impact (gee, thanks dad!).

OK, I readily admit, I was a ‘chronic corrector.’ My parents did it to me, so by golly, I should pass it on! After all, it really is in their best interest in the end, I told myself. But was I correcting others to help them or was I correcting only to prove [impress upon them] how much I knew? Regardless of the reason, I’ve had to re-evaluate my stance on correction and being corrected. This flawed logic kept me from not only understanding how hurtful over-correcting can be, but also how it can significantly undermine your learning. When everything needs correction, we don’t have the confidence to open our mouths, not just in learning a language, but in other things as well. We begin to cultivate an attitude of giving up before we start. I certainly agree that correction is needed at times and if someone cares about you, they will and should correct you. But every time is not necessary and being selective and compassionate in how you do it, makes all the difference. Guess you’ve figured out, I have a story about this one? Well, of course, you’re right again.

My husband and I joined some of his family (we were not married then) in Provence for vacation and naturally, we had a wonderful time. I got to spend time with his nieces and we decided why not take them with us to our place in the French Alps before they went back home to Belgium? Sounded like a great idea (and truly, it was) at the time. The girls were about eight and ten years old, so we got to be silly and goofy together; laughing, dancing and singing. My French was minimal, as I was just learning then. We communicated with my basic vocabulary, supplemented heavily with a plethora of hand gestures and facial expressions. It seemed like a pretty good system we had going. Maybe, I should have stuck to it a bit longer…

As I began to get to know them better over the past week, I began to speak more in French, but every word was greeted with some sort of correction. At first, I was OK and rolled with it, but then, after a while, I began to get disheartened and then, just darn mad! Yes, they were just children, I kept reminding myself. And because of that fact, it made it even harder to be corrected and consequently, not get angry about it. I was stuck! How could I get angry at them? After all, being children, they didn’t have the understanding that I had, the compassion, the…wait!

And there it was…the realization that our nieces were responding in the same way I had for years. Oblivious to the hurt that it caused, they thought they were helping, and they were, just not on my time schedule. Amazing, how we continue in the same mistakes and selfishly, we don’t ‘get it’ until we are greeted with the same emotions, but from a different perspective. What goes around always does come around. At 44 years old, I finally have lived long enough to see it happen, not just in my life, but also in the lives of others.

With all that being said, yes…I do apparently have, “correct my French, SVP (please)” carved on my forehead. It was being forged many years ago and now it has been a sign well-weathered from the expat experience. I have visions of one of those carved wooden signs, that we’ve seen at many a crafts fair. I can still smell the faint brûler (French for burning) of the wood, as each helpful correction is forging its mark, to make me a better person. So, please do correct the ones you love, just beware of how you do it–because you may soon smell the burning wood from your forehead, when you least expect it.

 
 

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Franco-American gray matter(s)

Allow me to introduce you to Mr. Mignon, a very reserved and refined French gentleman in his early 70’s, who lives across from us. He is as quiet as a church mouse and most of the time, I don’t even know if he’s home. I do know that he enjoys his weekly Saturday morning visits to the boulangerie (bakery) between 8-10AM, to have a fresh pastry and read the paper in the same place each week without fail. He always sits with his back to the window in the next to last row of seats, I assume, to have full purview of all those coming in, without being up against the window. When passing by, I always look for the back of his head, as I recognize it as well as his face, and it makes me smile. Most Saturdays, I pass by without making my presence known, but just observe that he is there, enjoying his routine, undisturbed. And on other days, I walk around, just to by chance find his glance, give a simple wave and continue on my way. In retrospect, I ask myself, would I have done this before living in France? Somehow, I don’t think so.

Image courtesy of Google

Being a Southerner, we are taught from a tender age, to always acknowledge those you know and engage them in conversation to make them feel comfortable. This Southern mindset is all well and good (southernese for well-intended), but sometimes, don’t you just want to be left alone? Left to your thoughts–undisturbed, without having to explain why you are there, what you are thinking or finding something relevant to say, without being intrusive? This was always the internal debate that replayed itself whenever I ran into someone I knew. Be polite, make them feel at ease, as I was taught. I became trapped in a cultural box of congeniality. It’s not that I don’t want to be nice, quite the contrary, but at what point did it become obligatory for me? This had been a grey area for me: how to be myself (nice), but not at the expense of myself? Luckily, la France came to my rescue!

Part of my brain is still and I’m sure always will be, uniquely Southern. But the other side is becoming more  Franco-phillic to the  French mindset: not bound by rules, allowing people their privacy and without the social expectancy of minding your P’s and Q’s to the Nth degree (sorry, thought it would be fun to use as many letters as I could there.). This is not to say that the French are rude, far from it in fact, in my experience. I would even go as far to say that they are genuinely nicer than most Americans I’ve met. The candy coating is not there, but the feelings are–kind, considerate yet respectfully private. Particularly Americans from the south have this candy coating, because it has been ingrained in us. Please understand, my intention is not to say that Southerners are fake, it just means that we are programmed to respond respectfully, even before the respect may be earned, which to some can sound disingenuous, without understanding our culture.

For example, we say “yes/no, ma’am and yes/no, sir” to everyone, not just our parents as a sign of respect, not servitude. As mentioned, we are also taught to engage people and make them feel at ease. This is a wonderful thing and has been a key reason to my love for people and successful integration into the French culture. I made others feel comfortable even when I wasn’t. The difference is, I now understand balance when I didn’t before. Now, I realize that not every occasion warrants an hour discussion (are you listening mother?). Sometimes a head nod, smile or simple wave can let someone know you care and wish them a good day.

This may sound strange, but the French don’t expect you to put them first, but when you do, they are incredibly appreciative. Using dear Mr. Mignon as an example: when we had snow, I would shovel our community stairs and everyone’s ‘stoop’ (as my grandmother, Mimi, would call it) and thought my good deed had gone unnoticed. Not that I was looking for applause or even a “merci”, again, it was just how I was raised, to be ‘neighborly’ as it’s called. I never knew it, but Mr. Mignon must have seen me without my knowledge. Just like me, he left me to my thoughts, just as I did with him at the boulangerie. We finally did meet face-to-face at the boulangerie and he made the effort to thank me for all I did and tried to pay me for shoveling the snow (naturally, I didn’t take it). That’s what I mean when I say that the expectation is not there, but the heartfelt thanks is evident. I was already shoveling for myself, so it was easy just to spend ten more minutes to help everybody and consequently, it keeps the snow from being blown or tracked back on my stoop, simple logic really. But in the French mindset, it was evidently an act worthy of payment, because that is not the expectation.

The expectation in the US is just the opposite, people EXPECT you to be kind and when you aren’t, they get angry. There are those of us (I was one) in the US that may have been slightly upset if we were not thanked at the time or if someone didn’t bother to shovel our snow as well, because it would have only taken a few extra minutes. When this standard is set so high, how can anyone measure up all the time? I often didn’t live up to my standard many times, but it didn’t stop me from holding that measuring stick up to everyone else. When you expect too much, you are bound to be disappointed. I didn’t realize that my ‘standard’ had morphed into something not originally intended from my upbringing. One cannot impose these congenial standards at the expense of one’s self. You only end up getting hurt by expecting too much and the truth be told, it really is a selfish way to live, when you begin peeling back the onion of the unconscious mind.

All this being said, I prefer the French way. My dad has an expression, “don’t expect anything and you won’t be disappointed.” Which although true, has a bit of a negative spin. I think the French put a positive spin on my dad’s philosophy and would probably go something like this…”don’t expect anything, but appreciate it when it happens.”

 
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Posted by on June 16, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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Memphis is Cookin’: Come Hell or High Water

Memphis is Cookin’: Come Hell or High Water

This year the festival saluted my husband’s native country, Belgium, so we thought it would be an oportune time to bring more family along to celebrate their country in my hometown. There were six of us in total, two Belgian‘s and two French who now live in the UK. They all were surprised at how comfortable and friendly Memphis is in general. And I have to say, I agree after living abroad for over a year and a half now. Memphis is like your favorite pair of shoes. When you put them on, you instantly relax. You won’t win any beauty contests, but you’ll feel at home–that’s Memphis.

For two of my husband’s family, it was their first trip to the US, so I was paying close attention to their reactions as I remember (and still experience) how I felt when I was in their shoes…experiencing something completely new, different and indescribable until your brain has time to process it. At the moment, you can only feel, not take inventory of the experience, as if your senses are overloaded with just keeping up with basic functioning. I recognized this ‘look’ (amalgamation of emotion) in them. It may be something that Americans take for granted, I’m not sure, but there is an overwhelming buzz that takes place when you set foot on US soil. Maybe it’s the collective energy of the people, a hopefulness that anything is possible if you just try? It’s difficult to describe, but there is palpable difference, that just being on the land emanates somehow.

The same is true in Europe but in a much different way. There is a feeling of being part of history, something older and greater than you. I love this feeling too and is equally overwhelming, but the US has the exact opposite feel. It feels new, exciting and I dare say, hopeful. France in deeply rooted in tradition, despite its socialistic economy and neo-political views reflected in its government. Not to digress into a geo-cultural-political argument here, but the point being that I think on some level, we can tune into the emotional climate of a country or city, whether we are conscious of it or not. You know when you feel at home someplace or not. Or the fact there are some people you connect with immediately and others, maybe never. You feel it before you experience it more often than not.

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So what does all this rhetoric have to do with Memphis In May BBQFest or a hill of BBQ baked beans for that matter? Well, simply speaking, some places get inside you, become part of you, shape you into someone more interesting if you let it. I think any place you connect to is for a good reason. Whether through their regional cuisine, the kindness of the people or for reasons you may not even understand. For me, I connect with my hometown more now than I did before. Not that I want to move back, but only that I appreciate how truly unique Memphis is and how it is part of me.

After living in the Chartreuse region of France for the past year and a half, I also feel connected to my village in France. I realize that having lived in both places has changed me for the better. I guess what I’m trying to say, is savor every experience in a place that you’ve lived or visited, appreciate it’s uniqueness and accept it as part of you. I think the BBQFest epitomizes Memphis pretty well when they say, “Memphis is cookin’: come hell or high water.” A resilient people and city, who will make a way, no matter what comes! Vive Memphis and thankya, thankya very much!

To learn more about Memphis, visit Memphis Travel: http://www.memphistravel.com/

* Photos (daytime) provided by the Memphis Commercial Appeal and yours truly.

 
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Posted by on May 26, 2011 in Culture Choc

 

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Dedicated to Memphis In May: The Best Dang BBQ Baked Beans in France (via Memphis)

BBQ Baked Beans and Chicken

As a native Memphian, we have BBQ sauce in our veins instead of blood (OK, a bit dramatic, but you get the point!). Living in France, I’ve now shared my BBQ fanaticism with everybody I’ve met. Ribs are a bit hard to come by here, but a great way to satisfy your BBQ fix is with the beans! My hubby and I have made these beans and have left our friends mouth’s open with shock and their assiettes (plates) empty.

This recipe is dedicated to all those working so hard in the Memphis In May competition and pays homage to their committment to BBQ, despite the horrible storms that are plaguing the South now. Keep on cookin’ and bon appetite, y’all!

Memphis-Style BBQ Baked Beans + Sauce

4-5 cans of white (pork & beans/canallini beans) drained and rinsed

24oz. (2 cartons) of tomato puree

1 can stewed tomato pieces

2-3 ripe tomatoes (if small, then 3) diced

1 can tomato paste or ½  tube tomato concentrate

2 large onions (or 3 smaller ones) diced or sub ½ jar dried onions

2-3 cloves garlic (or 1/2 tsp. dried)

1 large green bell pepper (or 2 small ones) diced

2 tsp. Tobasco® (or other vinegar-based hot sauce)

1 tsp. Worcester/HP sauce (I prefer the HP)

2 ½ tsp. smoky paprika

1 tsp. cumin

½  cup strawberry jam or preserves

½ cup dark brown sugar

2 tsp. Kosher/sea salt

1 tsp. black pepper

1 tsp. cayenne pepper

½  cup + 2 tbs. olive oil

1 regular package of smoked bacon diced

1 tbs. Dijon mustard

½  cup apple cider vinegar

½ tsp liquid smoke

*Optional:  to make spicier, add more Tabasco® (hot sauce) or Harrisa®(chili paste) to taste.  Add browned sausages, chorizo, pulled pork, diced chicken or ground beef, if desired.

Preparation: (TIP: without beans and put through a sieve, you’ve got great BBQ sauce!)

1) Drain & rinse beans to remove excess liquid and set aside.

2) In a oven-save pot (cast iron or Le Creuset® if you have it) add bacon, onion & bell pepper to render and brown a bit. Add a dash of olive oil or butter if needed to help with the render.

3) Add tomato paste, tomato pieces & tomato concentrate to the rendered mixture & stir to get all the good bits off the bottom of the pan.

4) Add all other ingredients (in any order is fine) as desired.

5) Cook over stove top on low-medium heat for 2-3 hours.  You should see the mixture turn from an orange base colour to a glossy red-based colour (same as bolognese sauce).

6) Then, (*add any browned meats at this stage) place in the oven for an hour at 325F or 160C.

7) Let cool and pig out y’all!

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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