Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Tapping into my Acquis - Wine & Teaching

I love this expression, mes acquis. That which you have acquired, that which you own, and in this sense, my skills and knowledge. In the many years, the many lives, the many projects I've managed, I've come away richer in much, if not in gold.

As I put my efforts to creating a fulfilling life in a beautiful community, known frequently as a place where, "half the pay is the bay," I am tapping into my various skills, and rediscovering how deep my knowledge is, and how it might carry us forward.

Wine and teaching. I've done so much of both. So, it's rather a natural progression to develop this angle further. The last time I hoped to make wine a major part of my professional life, the timing was terrible. The dollar was weak. The US had just experienced the financial crash/housing crisis, and I was hoping to use my experience at the side of an organic vintner to sell French wines to the US distributors. To do so, I honed my tasting skills, my teaching skills, and my knowledge of the wines themselves. However, I did not have the personal nor professional funds to ship and carry wines to the US repeatedly in order to find those importers/distributors.  Too late I realized that one must present wines again and again, proving consistency and professional commitment, before finding a business partner. And so, for the time being, I shuttered that possibility.

Yesterday, after a fruitful discussion with a colleague who runs a professional culinary school, I've submitted a proposal for an intensive wine tasting and food and wine pairing program for his students. As I put it together, it was so clear how I would progress, what subjects were important to cover, how I would balance the intellectual and the practical.

I think back to the many wonderful professional wine tasting experiences I've had, with the top experts in the field such as Karen MacNeil, with my chef sommelier in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Guy Brémond, with the many vintners who received me generously into their wineries and explained at length the processes they used, tasting from the barrels, tasting from the tanks, tasting bottles both young and old, tasting, savoring, describing, explaining. And yes, I remember back to the years I spent alongside an organic vintner who shared every step of his world with me. Thus, I've been there, from harvest through winter pruning. I've been there to taste and blend with the oenologist. I've been there at wine fairs, tasting, selling, discussing.

And then there was that huge translation project I (happily) plowed my way through, the Bettane & Dessauve.  All the tasting notes for every wine they considered worthy, throughout every region of France (except Burgundy and Bordeaux, which my colleagues kept for themselves). I put together a massive list of specialized vocabulary, and eagerly went out to taste some of the most interesting options. 

So, add in my Waldorf teaching experience, and the twelve years' running a cooking school in Provence, and well, what a perfect fit! Stage one - wine intensive; stage two... sensory analysis on a deeper and wider level: cheeses, beers, chocolate.

So, the proposal went off yesterday. We shall see...

Saturday, September 5, 2015


It's been a doozy of a year. As my son Jonas says ever so simply: a lot has happened. Catching our breaths, living under the same roof, grounding our lives in some semblance of normalcy. These seem to be our main goals right now.

Balance: living both as American and French nationals.

This is a goal. Not always easy to manage, but still a goal. For the kids this meant Jonas in France for much of this school year, reintegrating his Waldorf school, and living with his father. For Leo, that meant a long and leisure-filled summer in France for his 18th birthday. For me, this means getting back to France every winter to care for my home and to offer Winter Truffle and Foie Gras Tours.

In the meantime, we are now reunited in my family summer home in Traverse City, enjoying the end of summer quiet, the last of the heat, and a very late Labor Day. Most of our extended family has departed for their winter lives and homes. Schools start up on Tuesday. Later than I've ever experienced. When was the last time Labor Day came this late? I imagine we were back in France with schools that began on August 29th at the time.

I've had some fantastic work experiences this year - consulting on a goat farm in North Carolina, helping them improve their lactic cheese makes, tweak their blue cheese-make and develop a new washed rind soft cheese; the last won an award at the American Cheese Society this summer. I've also visited other colleagues and worked along side them, sharing my skills and knowledge, and picking up some new skills and ideas through observing them and chatting over a meal, wine, and nibbles of cheese.

During this pause in my full-time cheese making life, I'm contemplating different futures, different possibilities, different projects. I'm also simply looking at different ways to make ends meet in the meantime. Life doesn't stop and top of the list each day is caring for my children and paying the numerous expenses a life accumulates. I'm also treasuring my friends, consolidating our affairs, considering book projects, and reaching out. It's a luxury to have time to plan and plot.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Truffle hunting in the snow

 After five weeks of attending the Carpentras Truffle Market assiduously every Friday morning, I seem to have become a fixture. Or at least, many men are looking at me wondering who is this woman? and perhaps I've got some official credentials for being there? Perhaps that she's is a journalist? or?

I've also persuaded one man to take me and my guests out for a tour and a truffle hunt. It was the old photographer's trick. Take good pictures, and give them to him. Come back, purchase truffles. Be present but not intrusive. Next thing you know... he's offering.

And so a plan was made for a Monday morning. However, that Sunday, the Mistral was blowing at 140km/hour, trees were down on the roads, and it was scary even considering leaving the house to bring my son to his friend's for the night. Checking the météo it was clear that truffling that Monday was not going to happen. So, I replaced the day's events last minute with some wine tasting at Châteauneuf-du-Pape (always a Plan B in my pocket), and arranged to meet the truffler close by his village on Tuesday morning.

There was a dusting of snow still on the ground, but the sun was shining brightly and the wind had calmed down. One couldn't ask for more lovely weather and conditions for being out truffling.

We climbed into his car alongside his dog, piled into the dust and muddy floors, and then off he zoomed to his truffle properties. Down bumpy dirt roads, off to one direction and then another, spectacular views of vineyards and the hillside town beside us, till we ended up in a scrub-brush surrounded clearing filled with oak trees of many sizes and ages, plenty of wild juniper (Cade), and a few ancient dry stone bories in various states of repair. You could imagine being here in another age, perhaps with goats out nibbling the bushes, and huddling away into the dark and protected circle of stones when a sudden averse rained down upon you.
A bit worried by the thin city boots on one of my guests (her luggage had been lost for over six days by Air France!), he set off with his faithful canine colleague to see what he would find. I promised him that we were happy to simply be with him during this hunt, if we did or didn't find truffles, it would all be ok. More than once, he stopped, looked around, took a deep breath and shared how much he loves going to work every morning.
One of the things to know about experienced trufflers. They really know their lands and where truffles will be and should be. They've explored them carefully with very good dogs, repeatedly. And, once you've a tree that produces, it will continue to do so for years going forward. Thus, really, when they go out every week to harvest, they are guiding their dog to the best spots, encouraging him to sniff out in a far smaller radius than we imagine.

And so it was for us this day. We followed our guide across his orchard, to particular trees, by particular bushes, and in most cases there was something to dig up. Not always, but he found a good handful that day.
His dog was a funny one - trained to start digging (and thus save his master a bit of manual labor) he would occasionally break a truffle. But, the benefits of his front paws outweighed any loss of small truffles. This dog also was quite clear that he was a necessary part of the operation. As such, he happily received a treat when he found a truffle. But, he would also demand a second treat before getting back to work.  You could see him hang back, waiting, pretty much letting his boss know that yeah, he'd get back to work, but, ahem, ... cough it up first buster.

Our guide is an entrepreneur. He started out as a farmer, but then switched to stone masonry and repairing and renovating the traditional stone homes of the Lubéron. He now has a couple rental properties that he manages. He also purchases, restores and resells vinyl records with images on them, and he has a whole stash of books he sells second hand. Truffling is something he's come to more recently, and he's attacked it with a vengeance. He's read, interviewed, investigated, followed and learned all he can of the tuber melanosporum. And now he has purchased and renovated quite a number of truffle plantings that others invested in, tended and then gave up on.

Over the past twenty years, it has become a trend to plant truffle mycelium injected/infected oak or walnut trees on property that looks propitious for truffles. (limestone, good drainage, good exposure). I used to hear that in general 15% of your trees would bear in 15-20 years. As such, it was as much an investment for your children as for yourself. Purchasing lands that were in disrepair, but already planted with these trees, my guide had gone about pruning, clearing, and healing his lands. And, he's been well rewarded.

Once our hunt was over we went back to his house for an apéritif. My client with her thin city boots put her feet up by the fire in his wood stove, and we all enjoyed a glass of rosé. He showed us how he brushes off his truffles, divides them into various quality levels - brumales, mediocre, broken, good but small, good and good sized. He stores them in cloth bags in a cold place, and then brings them to sell Friday morning in Carpentras. He also has private clients who call him and request shipments - throughout France and the European Union.

So he's both a truffler and a seller. A less common combination in that world where often there is a stark division between the trufflers (rabassaou) and the buyers/resellers (courtiers). As I hung around the truffle market on those Friday mornings, I'd get into conversations, or simply sidle over and start listening. The discreetly dressed, scruffy haired, capped paysans would explain to me that those on the outside of the ring of tables (the sellers) arrived in rusted out 2cheveaux, wore muddy boots, and hoped for the best. Those on the inside of the rind, (the buyers) arrived in BMWs and Mercedes, wore leather jackets, schnazy shoes and pretty much had the power in their hands. It was confided to me that the Courtiers got together ahead of time and set the price they were willing to pay. Thus, though from the outside, witnessing the price per kilo range from 190-240Euros the first week I was there (right after the New Year) to a high of 650Euros and back down to 450-500Euros my last week, seems pretty random and chaotic, it was actually pretty tightly controlled. The outside elements: rain, the Mistral, holiday weekends - quality, quantity and demand - were calculated into the estimates. Then men (and women) carrying upwards of 15-20,000Euros in cash in a pouch draped across their chest, carefully held under their coats, called the shots.

My last morning at the market I spent time chatting with a Courtier. He was gracious and informative, letting me know that in general, he purchased between 25-30 kilos each week, and that his primary markets were Manhattan and LA, where he had a personal/professional connection with an ex-pat Frenchman (or woman) who did the selling on the ground there. As he bantered back and forth with one of the more scruffy of the gentlemen who are present weekly at the market, after taking a good sniff in his canvas bag, "voleur ! tu n'as que des brumales, je n'en veux rien de ton sac ! va abuser un autre" the other retorted laughing, that he knew he had true melanosporum truffles in his bag, and he'd be off to find a purchaser more worthy. Perhaps..

I downed my café noisette, took a last few photos, and off I went. Next time, I hope to repeat my attendance, and perhaps, be taken into the inside ring to sniff and inspect alongside the Courtiers. At least as I left that sunny morning, it felt quite possible, and only another few visits away.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Sitting by the Fire

So, it's a Friday night. I suppose I could have gotten all dressed up and gone out to Tango. But this trip to Provence has not been one for dancing. My main occupations have been caring for my house, which, after three years of rentals and months of being empty, has been in need.

And, I suppose that I too have been in need. In need of caring and repairing and designing and laying my imprint on a place and space. I understand that renters have the legal right to paint and in some instances re-configure rental homes/spaces. But, I've never dared. However, in my own home, I can and I do. And it feels good. It is the act of re-appropriating through care & labor.

I pretty much got off the plane a month ago (tout juste), walked into the house and starting attacking projects. Floors have been painted, as have walls & radiators. Leaks fixed (or at least spotted so they will get fixed). Plumbing fixtures switched out. A new boiler installed. Electrical fixtures replaced and updated. Walls re-configured (in the bathroom). And most recently, broken clay tiles from my and my sons' bedrooms are being replaced & affixed. If only this last task were as easy to do as it is to convey in one short sentence. The dust that has been stirred up by the crumbling cement/plaster joints, the sand beneath this thin layer upon which the old tiles once were sturdily stuck. Jonas' room has now a pit in the middle, gray with drying cement, piles of cleaned ancient tiles lined up ready to lay. A thin layer coats most everything. Ah well, I had been going to get rid of most of those books anyway, and move that book case, and revacuum every surface, and change all the sheets, and re-wash all his clothes... just not right away.

My room has less dust stirred about, but it too has many missing tiles. So many have gotten broken over the years as they started moving and wobbling, and weakening and then cracking.

The thing with beginning such projects, is that you simply have to finish them before you head out. And so, rather than going out to dance the tango, I'm doing what work I'm able to do here.

However today, the work included drafting my program for the upcoming Winter Truffle Tour. And it included a morning visit (my 5th in a row) to the Carpentras Truffle market. It proceeded to a café shared with one of my truffle hunters, discussions of Nyons olive oil, home-made wild boar ham, and curing black olives. - I took careful notes.

This is the first time I've done culinary tours since I departed to start the goat farm in the US. It has been a truly wonderful time re-integrating myself into a past life, but a life that is still vibrant and filled with great rencontres, dear friends and colleagues, and so many opportunities to learn and connect.

And so, I ready myself for my next Stage Culinaire. It begins Sunday. And I've my program ready to go, and my shopping list for tomorrow. Truffles are already embedded in rice for the risotto. Onward.

Friday, January 16, 2015


Back at the truffle market at Carpentras, the oldest market of truffles in France (or the world no doubt - I was told the date of 1155), located in the region where the best and the most truffles traditionally have been found. This being France, and most particularly Provence, anyone who has read a bit of Alphonse Daudet's Tartarin de Tarascon will recognize the extreme dimensions of all things of this most beautiful place in the world (is there another? Many Provençaux never range more than 50 kilometers from their birth place).

 From the annals of History:

Man has known & relished the truffle since High Antiquity; she used to be celebrated for her aphrodisiac virtues. However, during the Middle Ages, the truffle lost its luster and was associated with evil and the devil. At that time it was food for pigs (sound familiar? - see the story I was told yesterday of how to make the best blood sausages...), pigs being considered the most un-pure of animals by the Catholic Church. It isn't until the end of the Middle Ages, early Renaissance that the truffle was rehabilitated by the Popes, then based in Avignon, who brought it back to his banquet tables.  

 We were three today to visit the market, myself, Erick (my former husband) and Eric (my colleague chef from Traverse City). As we arrived, the wafting scent of truffles began to invade our nostrils. Happily, none of us were suffering a sinus attack. 

This is very masculine world, though the rare woman rabbasier (truffle hunter/grower) and courtier (official purchaser) mixed amongst them. Elegance is a rare trait (though a few of the courtiers sport their elegant leather jackets and snappy felt fedoras). Much as I try to avoid the clichés made so famous by Peter Mayle (and more honestly Jean Giono and Marcel Pagnol before him), we had entered into a group of relatively diminuitive, gray-haired men, in non-descript jackets, work boots and closed expressions. Small groups of them clustered about the square, slyly opening up their sacs, meeting with colleagues, making small deals before the official market began. 

I found myself beside an elderly man, (or did I sidle up to his elbow?) with a slight shake to his hand and a bushy white mustache. Putting timidity to the side, I asked him how his harvest was this week? And compared to the week before? And what is the going rate? How's it been this season? Where abouts did he hunt his? Oh, the Mt Ventoux? Hm, and might I take a look at his? Ahhh and how much are in that sac? I felt them carefully for firmness, noted that the dirt had been rubbed off, and made my own little deal.  


Officially, you cannot sell or purchase less than a kilo of truffles if you participate in the official market. Thus, if your sac is a bit on the light side, making a discreet deal before (or after) makes good sense. And, if you catch someone who's eager, foreign, a bit out of the loop (ahem), you can make a bit more. i.e. We purchased 280grams for 80Euros before the market based on a range of 300Euros to the kilo. In the end, the truffles sold today for between 190 - 240Euros/kilo. So, we were far from ripped off. But, had we waited, we might have had more for less. (There's always next week). 

At 8:50AM all move to the interior courtyard of the Mairie, the official heads of the market arrives, parking his car in the reserved spots. The police are there, blocking all further traffic. Barriers are put up around the square of tables. All the sellers enter and prepare their bags. At the sound of the whistle, 9AM sharp, the courtiers enter and the market begins.

Today's market went quietly and slowly. Even here we feel the effects of a poor economy, ruffled feathers, minor fears. I addressed on of the official market men (a colleague Erick remembered we'd been presented to years before by a colleague from Châteauneuf), and opened my eyes wide, nodded my head in encouragement, and got a wonderful earful of history and tales. Many's the time, he said, that had he turned his back on the market, there'd be nothing left 10 minutes later. But, today, more than a half hour passed, and still, there were a couple sacs on the table. It wasn't a great day for the sellers. The courtiers, however, had their pick.

As we departed, my new friend gave me some good addresses, private phone numbers and suggestions for the weeks to come. And next week, I'll bring my better camera :-) Now that he knows me, in I'll go, and respecting the unspoken rules not to take portraits (darn!) I'll be permitted to snap a few up close.

There are still spots left in my Winter Truffle Tour in 8-15 February

And note that with the dollar getting stronger and stronger, I've adjusted the prices down on the web site to reflect the shifting value.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Climbing a steep hill with goats

What a day! The French have a great saying "resourcer" meaning going back to your source, back to the source of your knowledge, learning, roots, family, nourishment, inspiration... And that's what it's like when I'm back here.

Today was a trip to meet with a handful of sheep and goat herders, some for meat, some for cheese, out in the Lubéron, up in the hills above Lauris. We were in the home and pasture lands of a young goat herder. His wife makes the cheese, he cares for the goats. There were but 40 or so, all with horns, raised biodynamically, and pastured on and over and in the rough and steep grounds of the Luberon park land, aka, Garrigue, rich in herbs such as rosemary and thyme, covered in short little oak trees, and speckled with prickly juniper, majenta rockroses, and more (depending the season).

As we presented ourselves to each other we sipped freshly infused thyme and rosemary (no coffee here). When the presentations got to me, after learning of the man who has 100 Rove goats and 20 years handling them, the young man who has 300 sheep all kept out of doors, the neighbor who has 50 sheep, and looks towards more, and my friend Catherine with her handful of black belly meat sheep, I shared my Franco-American background. François, with his 100 Rove goats looked at me and said, "hey, I've heard about you! From Laure, the "commercialle" at Maison Mons, and oh yes, I know Claudine Malbosc, I did my internship with her and Yves 20 years ago, and of course I know Jacky, and Hélène, annd Christian... " And so it goes. The world of goats is quite small. And tales of my project creation in Michigan have traveled far.

As we headed out to walk the goats, we first visited the bucks, calmly kept in a field (all the time, their only shelter the trees) with a donkey. The donkey acts as a social buffer, both protecting, but also quieting the bucks.

I couldn't help but gravitate towards a marvelous older man who was telling tales of dining upon his truffles. I listened closely as he regaled us with how to make the most amazingly flavored blood sausage (boudin noir) possible. Well, the week before you slaughter your pig, you give her a bucket of truffles (these are apparently low-cost when you can find them in your backyard, i.e. the Lubéron hills) daily. When at last you slit her throat, the blood that spills will be scented with truffles. Catch it in your frying pan, stir it up, and fill your casings.

I must say, that's a new one for me :-)

Truffles being his primary income source, he has his methods. Leaving the village with your dog early morning is simply too suspect. Someone's going to follow you. And, well, the truffle fly method is something you do between 12 & 2pm, again a very suspicious time to be out and about (normal humans lunch and nap at these hours). So, to out-wit any sneaky, some-time friends who might wish to suss out truffle hot-spots, you must adopt a different tactic. Jeannot goes out for his primary investigative walks in August and September. When he spots what are called white truffle mushrooms, spikes that come up, perhaps split and crackled on the cap, he marks the spot with a few barley grains (after harvesting these white mushrooms to take back home for his mid-day omelette). When he returns to the hills late fall/winter, the barley has grown, and the truffle beneath it will have burned it golden. He can spot these even by the light of the moon. And so, he collects his truffles, takes them home and sells them, no one the wiser.

Our goat-herder took us up into the hills along a portion of his daily three hour tour. Steeply we climbed, slipping in the shale, trying not to pull on the rough oak scrub brush to pull us up to the next level. Breathing hard, we huffed and puffed to where the goats were happily nibbling the oak leaves and the rosemary buds in a fresh stand of greenery.

Our herder/host explained that his goats do not have issues with parasites, and are in excellent health. There are, however, the occasional "mechanical" problem. I.e. we spotted a very happy and active 3 legged goat (he did not divulge how she became 3 legged.. so the mystery remains), goats get tears on their teats, and ear tags get lost in the branches. But, all in all, it's a small price to pay for healthy goats. He likes the quality of his milk as well. Back by the milking stand he has a manger full of hay, so they can eat to their hearts' delight before and after milking - should they need to.

Certain stands of prairie down by his barn are planted in alfalfa and a mix of prairie grasses. The latter a mix so delicious and varied that his goats barely reject any of the 1st cutting. OK, I'm speaking goat breeder talk here. But if you knew goats, you'd realize that this is important news. I'm going to learn about this mix! Rejection of a goodly portion of their hay, tossing it on the ground, etc., by goats is a classic woe of many a goat herder. And, in general, the saying goes, give your first cutting to the horses, the 2nd and 3rd cuttings to the goats. So delicious and much appreciated 1st cutting? I'm in!

As we head back down from the hill top, we discussed when you move your goats from one area to another (when a 1/3 has been eaten, no more), and which plants suffer more or less from the passage of the goats. My colleague with the Roves mentioned a recent class in pasturing where they'd discussed whether it is a good or bad thing when goats get up on their hind legs to nibble in the trees (a sign that there is no longer sufficient nourishment at their head level).
One participant had his copy of today's Liberation paper, upon which every known vulgar and rude curse word had been printed in yellow. With the title in bold red. This, stated the man holding the paper, is what Liberty means to us in France. Completely and total free expression, even if it is rude, vulgar or in poor taste. It is following the example of Charlie Hebdo, and the recent marches all over France. Journalistic freedom & individual freedom of expression are ferociously in the forefront of everyone's mind. France is adamantly a Republic, where the separation of Church and State have been forcibly chosen and enforced. 

Vive La France - for all its virtues, vices, joys & sorrows, traditions and contradictions.

 A view of the Luberon Hills.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Back in Avignon - Winter ? 2015

I'm back for an extended visit in my home in Avignon. And oh how lovely it is to be here, to be in my own home (rather than camping out or renting....). I'm doing what you do when you come back to your home after an extended trip. I'm cleaning, I'm renovating, I'm painting, I'm fixing, I'm purchasing some lovely things on sale to spruce it up. I'm giving it love and attention. I'm re-appropriating it after leaving it in the hands of many (much appreciated) renters.

It's just myself and Jonas here, with a guest or two stopping through. No Filou (he's with Mom in NY), no Leo (he's back in Michigan) and no extra kids from the Steiner school. It feels rather empty, I must say. I'd also forgotten how large each room is. It is a very spacious house (this I observe after being in many homes in the Midwest). My bedroom is vast - the bed taking up but a small piece of it. I've space to do my yoga, work at my desk, pile books and knitting on the floor by my bed, and still it feels large. The house is simply laid out - 2 rooms per floor and the central stairwell - which belies its size. There is the new addition that adds to its comfort now - the glassed in terrace out back by the garden. A cozy, lovely, luminous space that I can at last enjoy. (pictures will follow in future posts)

Jonas is back in his bed room -- full of books, a spare couple beds for when friends want to spend the night, and the huge new sky-light in his ceiling (I had the roof re-done the summer I departed for the States). Having light stream in throughout the day has definitely helped him adjust to the time shift.

In fact, we're both pretty much on schedule now. Getting up at 7:15 in the dark, heading out to school as the sun rises, admiring the sky as it lightens into all shades of rose and purple, grays and blue, over the Pope's palace.

The weather is unseasonably warm - not ideal for this agricultural world, but a dream when you're eager to be out walking or working in the garden.

I've been out to the Arles' market already - and it is as glorious as I remember. I saw many many known faces, vegetable sellers, Sophie the beekeeper, my favorite bread guy, the pain d'epices guy. The only person missing this past Saturday was the sheep cheese stand. Hopefully they'll be here this weekend. I didn't do many major purchases. I'm awaiting the arrival of clients and friends to truly do the market justice, and fill my bag!

I'll not see Guy from Châteauneuf this trip, but I did get to enjoy an afternoon walk by the Rhône on the tree-covered dirt path by my house with his wife Myriam. I'll be heading out to an organic goat farm tomorrow afternoon with friends (photos to come). And over to the Truffle market on Friday, then perhaps lunch at one of our favorite farm restaurants. (Table d'hôte).

Next week I'll be off to see all my artisans and check in with them. It's such a joy seeing friends at the Steiner school, investigating everyone's new projects. I have the impression that half of the people at the school are new to me, and the other half have long beanstalks planted beneath their newly chiseled facial features. What a change a couple years can make!

Oh it's good to be back in Provence! What can you say to a brilliantly sunny day that begins with a dear friend over breakfast, goes through a market filled with terribly tempting and gorgeous food, then moves onto a little cafe on an open terrace in town, and proceeds to an intimate lunch of freshly prepared goodies?

Perhaps that it's time to reinstate the sieste? Yawn..... Good food and warmth. Ahhhh.