Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Walk Near My House

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

I walked down the dirt road out front to the edge of the Rhône, to the house-boats amidst their jungle vines of tree-draped electric cables. From there, to the left. The island is a haven for curious electrical connections (and plumbing?) functionally individual. back in the US, I would think these haphazard arrangements would be standardized, and all trees within a few meters chopped down. But here, the trees lean to the south, and the lines just maneuver around the rough bark.

Down the path, taking a moment to work with Filou on “Come” and “Stay”. Just a couple of weeks ago when I'd visited Isabelle at the goat farm I (and she) nearly had a fit when Filou went careening into the goat’s pen to corral the very pregnant goats. He wouldn’t come, no matter how I’d called. Who would have thought that with a combination of poodle and bichon he would have aspirations to being a sheep dog? At last, Thank God, he’d been willing to “sit” and “stay” and I fetched him out, shocking myself on the electrical fence crossing back. Isabelle and Paul Pierre were forgiving – graciously not too upset. Needless to say, for the rest of the visit, Filou was on his leash at my feet.

Today I brought some comté cheese to tempt and reward him for good behavior. He came when I called, but no nearer than a couple meters, skittish that I might catch him. He needed reassurance of my good intentions to get him to inch closer, till he came and sat right at my feet. In between each command I let him run wild, exploring the path lined in cane and brambles. Occasionally he went so deeply into the brambles he nearly got his long hair caught. More than once I had to backtrack to where he’d entered, and get him to work himself backwards to find the exit.

A couple bicyclists rode past, and Filou tore after them. Coming back a moment later when I whistled sharply, then bounding off again. As if to say, yes, I hear you and I know you’re here, see you later Ma. No big deal. Small and friendly, Filou didn’t scare anyone. Though his sharp bark is both annoying and at times seriously painful. However, when you come from a family with lots of superbly well trained dogs... it’s embarrassing to have one that doesn’t particularly like the command Come. Ah well, I'm working at it.

The cane stretched high on either side of the path, waving in the breeze or falling over to block my way. A recent rain storm had left a few muddy puddles to be avoided (or used for a quick drink by Filou). The under brush was layered with logs and debris from the flood three years’ earlier.

Was I crazy to purchase a house that could and would be flooded one day? But, it smelled good, and other than the front door that I'd replaced shortly after its purchase, had clearly not been damaged by the floods it had been subject to. And, where else could I have found a country house just five minutes from the center of town? A plus was that the flood status of the island had placed a ban on all new construction. Thus the farmers’ fields outside my door will remain such. Their crops will rotate, as they do in this part of the world, but no condominiums and developments would be put there. The price had been right too. A good chunk lower than equivalent homes in other tempting neighborhoods. And, when I saw it, I’d liked it.

It was as simple as that. I’d been looking for over six months when I visited this house. And nothing I’d seen had been remotely tempting. Many had been post-war, built with cement blocks, square structures, with no soul “sans âme”, dark and dank, and nearly all smelled odd. I’d seen a couple that had been quite beautifully renovated with snazzy kitchens and bathrooms. But in the end, I preferred a simple bachelor’s pad, clean, but not over done, not decorated, where I could put my own touch. I needed to be in charge of my home, my surroundings. And this house, a frame in need of filling, simply felt right.

The path continued along the water's edge, in front of a few beautiful homes. Filou’s presence drew out a large newfoundland, happily behind a fence, and a yapping terrier at the next. The path then wound back into the woods, with glimpses of the River still to the right. A lone rower passed by, so silently that if I'd not been looking I wouldn’t have seen him.

A Cooking Class with our Beekeeper

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

We left our home in Avignon mid-afternoon and set out to drive down the West side of the Rhône, over the bridge at Boulbon, through Tarascon, to the small village of St. Etiènne du Grès. Taking a road to the right of the old bakery, we climbed into the Alpilles. Soon the pavement petered out and we switched to a dirt road beneath the tall pines and green oak. Up and up, over bumps, and crevasses deepened by the recent rains, around a few switch backs, till we reached the crest. At this point Leo sat on the window sill for the last 100 meters, till we reached Sophie’s home, right across from the 10th century prieuré that lies in ruins. Rough and bumpy as it was, her road is actually one of the oldest roads in the region; the prieuré is testament to the passage of people by this route for at least the last millennium.

We arrived, letting Filou out to run wild, and headed into her home where we were greeted by her fluffy little dog (kind of a cross between a yorkie and a guinea pig) Chataigne (chestnut). Filou quickly found a gray kitten who hissed terribly at the intrusion.

While Sophie got things ready for us the kids ran outside to play hide and seek, cache cache, amidst the trees, huge laurel bushes and piles of bee hives (not currently in use). From her doorstep, it's a short jump into the woods and the wild asparagus, thyme, rosemary, bay leaves and fennel. A couple minutes’ walk leads to olive orchards, and across the path of the occasional cross country biker. Pines tower above.

Then, back to Sophie’s home and into her kitchen. Her kitchen is a tiny affair neatly filled by a large gas oven and a professional stainless steel sink. We set ourselves up on a table in her front room, a wonderful glass enclosed space encircled by the outside greenery.

Sophie had chosen three recipes for today’s class:

A salad of cucumbers in fromage blanc (or yogurt) with spices
A honey spiced roast pork, and
A honey and spice chocolate cake.

She loves working with fresh herbs and spices in her cuisine and shared this with the kids. She has nearly every herb growing haphazardly outside her house. Her spices are stored in an overflowing wheeled cart of warm-toned jars.

Hands washed, we got to work.

Sophie’s Cucumber Salad

Preparation time: 15 minutes


One cucumber 8-10 inches in length, or two smaller cucumbers
2 tablespoons Olive oil
1 tablespoon old style seed mustard
2 tablespoons honey vinegar (may be replaced by raspberry or cider vinegar)
2 plus 2 tablespoons Acacia honey (mild Clover honey is an ok replacement)
250 grams or 2 cups fromage blanc (This can be replaced by plain yogurt)
1 tablespoon crème fraîche – can be replaced with heavy
Fresh picked oregano sprigs
Or freshly chopped chives
Or freshly picked tarragon
Salt and pepper


a chopping surface
a vegetable peeler (called an “econome” in French)
a chopping knife
measuring spoons
a large mixing bowl
a wooden spoon
kitchen scissors

To split the work Sophie chopped the cucumber in two width wise. Then she showed us how to use the peeler. She prefers peeling towards herself (but my mother has always told me to peel away from myself to avoid accidents…). After we’d peeled the cucumber, we split it in half lengthwise and scooped out the seeds in the middle with the pointed end of the peeler. Sophie also showed us how we could use a small spoon to do this. The cucumber has lots of water, so, either, we scoop out the seeds and then proceed with the recipe, or we slice our cucumber, sprinkle it with salt and let the salt draw out some of its water – this would take about an hour.

Since we want to do the recipe right away, we’re using the seeding method today. Once the cucumber pieces are seeded, we slice them into thin rounds and put them aside.

Then, in the mixing bowl, Sophie puts in the olive oil, the mustard, the honey vinegar and 2 teaspoons of honey. She carefully showed us that when using really runny honey, it helps to turn the spoon back and forth till the drips stop, and then to bring it over quickly to your bowl. Otherwise you can get it everywhere. She mixes these together with her wooden spoon till they make a paste. Then she adds the fromage blanc (or yogurt) and a spoonful of crème fraîche to give the dish a more “unctuous” texture, aka smooth and rich, but unctuous is such a great word!

Then out to the garden to pick some fresh oregano. We brought it back in and she let us snip it in two ways, both with her kitchen scissors and on the chopping surface with a knife.

We sprinkled this into the creamy mixture, and then added the cucumber slices. But before we stirred them in, Sophie sprinkled salt on top and a couple turns of the pepper mill, as well as the other 2 teaspoons of honey. Then we mixed it all together and tasted. We thought a bit more salt would make it better. And then, when we were all satisfied, we put the bowl into the fridge to take out and serve nicely chilled when we were ready for dinner.

Since our day together, we’ve tried this recipes for other dishes. For instance, as a sauce for spicy grilled chicken, or lamb it is really superb.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Should He Like All that I Cook? - a recipe

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

My beau doesn't appreciate my muffins, nor my biscuits, nor my soda bread, nor my carrot cake. He doesn't really like the chocolate tarts either, nor the panna cotta, nor my yogurt. He likes store-bought brioche -- when I made one from scratch it didn't stay soft and sweet for days like his, and the rich buttery texture was too much for him. He likes Fjord brand fromage blanc and nutella. He does like my bread (though not for breakfast), sablet cookies, quiche, fish en papillote and stews. But he doesn't like sticky rice or risotto, and puts up resistance at the thought of duck. He likes his meat cooked all the way through, and minimally seasoned. He's not a fan of sushi, nor shell fish (I indulge my these cravings at restaurants whenever possible). Cooking at his house is not easy -- the fact that the kitchen was designed by non-cooks doesn't help things. And smoking up the house is strongly discouraged (therefore no pan frying meat or sausages). He adores salads, but I can't put any protein into them. Thus I must keep my hand back and not put hard-boiled eggs in the tomato salad, nor bacon in the green salad, nor a slippery poached egg to glisten and glide in the spinach salad.

This is very weird. In my house in Avignon, my kids eat anything I bake and with glee (good children they). But here too I am culinarily limited. I can't cook spicy, blend vegetables with meat, nor leave chunks of tomatoes in the tomato sauce. And Leo flat out refuses to eat brown rice, spelt or quinoa.

What is a food-oriented woman to do? I'm feeling rather stifled. I've crossed more than a river, going from the abundance and culinary experimentation that resonated in Arles (excepting pumpkin pie, never a favorite there), to the Protestant reserve that reigns in Vauvert (which no doubt contributes to my vintner's slender and elegant physique). By necessity, I'm cooking more than ever, but not experimenting, nor leaping into new territory.

The kids are thrilled when I make lasagna --as long as I stick to the basic recipe of a hamburger laden tomato sauce, pasta sheets and a cheesy béchamel. If I vary from this formula (say add sausage, or spinach leaves, or ricotta, or herbs) a rebellion foments. I do admit, a 45 minute lasagna, start to plate is a handy recipe to have on hand. But there are times when I'd like to toss in shredded chicken, up the spice factor, play with the cheeses, add vegetables. Apparently, not in this particular lifetime.

Being surrounded by picky eaters is either a punishment of sorts, or yet another life test?

My lasagna recipe (easier would be difficult to do).


tomato sauce (home-made or from a can, if the latter, extend it with water)
some hamburger
lasagna noodles (thin ones that don't require prior cooking)
2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
2 tablespoons flour
3-4 cups milk
2 cups grated gruyèse cheese
a touch of salt
olive oil

If you've the time, chop an onion, smash and chop a garlic clove, grab some olive oil and a can of crushed tomatoes and make your own tomato sauce (the recipe is earlier in the blog).

If not, then cook up your hamburger in the olive oil (or not if you're vegetarian). When it is nicely browned, add the tomato sauce, and extend with water. Taste, season, set on a very low flame and let simmer.

Start your cheese béchamel. Melt the butter in a thick bottomed sauce pan, add the flour and whisk to form a paste, add 1/2 cup of the milk, stir, and let thicken before adding the rest of the milk. Let heat up for a couple of minutes. Add the cheese and whisk till it melts and all comes together. You don't want it too thick, so if necessary, add some more milk or water.

Turn the oven on to 375F/175C. Take out your deep dish pan and drizzle some olive oil on the bottom. Place a layer of pasta sheets, cover with the tomato sauce which is still quite thin. Lay a layer of pasta sheets, cover with the béchamel, continue, and finish with the béchamel. Check to be sure that there is sufficient liquid in the lasagna as it is the cooking liquid that will soften and cook the pasta sheets. Bake for thirty minutes, or till brown and bubbling on top. Serve to happy children with a green salad alongside (or broccoli, or beans, season depending).

If serving to a more experimental friend, have fun playing and altering the recipe.

Memory Lapses - Limits Confronted

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

It is rather frightening to forget. Particularly when it seems to occur with growing frequency. I've twice forgotten a charge in the past two weeks. In the first case I was an hour late, and in the second 20 minutes. Both were waiting for me at school and no harm was done but... It is understandably disturbing and disorienting to not be able to remember a promised rendezvous just a few hours after you've made it, even if it is outside your regular routine. Thankfully children are more forgiving than adults (and these two were 14 and 17 respectively, not little children). But what's next?

Readying ourselves for Euro-Disney, I had put aside two rain coats and umbrellas for the boys. As we arrived at the station, I realized they were still on the chair in the kitchen. So, once in Paris, an unplanned stop by a store to get a warm jacket for Jonas became a necessity. Yet again, a mild but annoying and expensive memory lapse.

I can make a very complete list of what I've remembered. And it seems pretty impressive. But as is often the case, it is the details that are off, the forgotten one, that leaves its mark on our memory and our self-image.

My physical limits are gathering force and making themselves known to me in very humbling ways. I've taken on quite a bit this year, perhaps too much? I've my two children full time since September. Something that was never before the case, having had many au pairs and their father to share in the task during most of their childhood. In addition to my own children (seven and eleven) I have three boarders from their school to house and feed. These three are older than my own (14, 15 and 17). A situation which I prefer as I am coming to the conclusion, as time passes, that I can only handle so many small children. I do not feel up to parenting my boarders. I provide a warm and stable home, with good food, basic house rules, teamwork, etc., But parenting is something over and beyond this. I'm doing my darndest to succeed with my boys. Though I don't find it easy, loving my own flesh makes it extraordinarily worthwhile. However, extending this act to others is a stretch, and is it necessary? or desirable?

The twelve year old younger sister of my seventeen year old is now with another family. I learned, a bit painfully, that I was not up to handling her. We had somewhere, somehow, tacitly agreed to not raise our voices. But, in so doing so, her gift at persuasion and her stubbornness trumped my good sense. It is a relief for all of us in the house that she no longer be with us. Her sister has the time to concentrate on her studies, and is no longer her mother on site. My boys had never really gotten along with her, so they are not sad at her departure. And for myself, I was stumped. In many ways, I just didn't know how to communicate with this young child on the verge of adolescence, discovering fashion and make-up, refusing to read, always wanting to play games or write emails on my computer. Her blasé boredom was disturbing. And, though this makes me sound contrary and perhaps cold, when she gave me little gifts of wild flowers or some such, I wondered why? and is she trying to build brownie points with me for a future favor? I had to admit that being the 'in locus parentus' for a twelve year old girl who really needed proper parenting, not simply lodging and food, is beyond me at this point.

Another major failure this year is animal related. And for this, I imagine that my cats of yesteryear, i.e. my life in Seattle, are turning over in their graves. To catch and/or limit the mouse population in my home last year, I adopted a kitten. My au pair at the time, who adores animals, helped me house-break her, and was a great source of affection and care for this little cat. She very quickly became pregnant, and last June we had an adorable littler of kittens in the house. I was happy to have my kids experience this birth and all it entailed. True to pattern, our cat gave birth in Leo's sweater drawer (which brought back memories of my mother's cat giving birth in my father's sweater drawer). The morning the boys were awakened to those tiny mews under the bed was a magical moment.

I taught them to resist holding these tiny babies, at least till they could open their eyes, and to shower affection and gentleness on the mother cat. It was a very lovely month of caring for the babies in the kids' room, sharing this miracle with friends and more. Then, when I moved in with JP in July (renting my Avignon house for the theater festival), I brought mother and babies with me. They were settled into the garage, and I made sure all were fed and cared for, and cleaned up after them. I gave away all but one of the kittens (there were five) in the next few weeks, and planned to bring back one with me to Avignon, thereby having two cats (again, reminiscent of my childhood home warmed by a black poodle and two cats). I had both mother and daughter spayed, and looked forward to our return home.

At this point, however, things as the French say, "ont coincé." Rather than use the litter box, one of the cats (I believe the new one) starting crapping all over the house. I found many a gift under the stairwell, then by the toilet, then in the shower, then on a rug, then on a chair, then on the couch, and... thrice on my bed. At this point, I declared forfeit and put them outside. I could not manage my mentally deranged cats. I was not up to loving them back to good behavior. I've also developed allergies and so having them on my lap and petting them wasn't something I felt up to. No doubt a contributing factor to the situation. Friends seemed to manage with outdoor cats that they regularly fed, and so I tried this. I put out food daily, and made sure they did not come into the house. They mewed terribly, climbed the neighbor's scaffolding and leapt onto our bedroom window sills, begging to come into the warm house. But, I resisted and made sure the boys did too.

Then, we all departed for winter break. Knowing I've neighbors who feed their cats outside, I didn't worry that they would go hungry, and assumed we'd see them again in a week. But when I returned, the cats were no longer at my door. I've since seen the smaller one, but she's become very wild, and won't let me approach her. Her mother, I've not seen since. When I put food out, it is as readily consumed by another neighbor's dog as by the cats, and so, I've stopped.

I feel awful. I've had cats before, adored them, raised them, enjoyed them, and never had such issues with crapping all over the house. I think of Electra and Ziggy, my Seattle cats. I think of Puff and Toby, the cats of my childhood. But here and now, with two boys and a dog, plus my household charges, apparently, and most definitely, I'm not up to caring for two cats. Confronting my limits is anything but flattering.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Disneyland and Paris

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

This is a mother and her kids' post. Culinarily speaking, the weekend was not truly up to snuff -- I'm not a fan of mediocre fries, starchy burgers, just small enough sweets to stimulate demands barely an hour later for more, not to mention sweet sodas. However, it was a weekend that stemmed from my children's very good behavior while I plowed through the hundreds of wine tasting notes for my translation earlier this year. I promised them a trip to Disneyland. I never thought I'd do such a thing. Nor did they. As I say to friends, my parents brought me to Europe! We never did Disney anything when I was little, and as a baby buster, I missed out on all the Disney films (I still haven't seen Snow White or Cinderella).

Why was I willing? Why such a change of heart? Well, at some point last year, JP mentioned that he'd enjoyed Disneyland with his children and that he'd be willing to go there again. You can imagine that hearing that once was enough to have it firmly registered on my brain. Financially, it is a chunk -- the TGV tickets, a hotel room, entry fees, food for the weekend etc., -- so I held off for a good long while. However, with the funds from my translation making their way to my bank account, I bit the bullet, and off we went.

An early train ride on Friday morning began the adventure. This brought us to Paris for a visit to my old haunts. Lunch at the Brasserie de l'Ile St. Louis where two servers from my years in Paris (1995-1997) were still there, and greeted me with kisses and that marvelous look of recognition that makes you feel warm and special inside. The Maître d'hôtel was clearly the son of the Patron of my time there. Lunch finished, I promised to return to see his father in the evening. Then we set out for an after-lunch walk down the Seine to the Jardin des Plantes, where we wandered into the dinosaur and animal skeleton exhibits -- an amazing collection dating to Victorian times. You can feel Darwin and his fellow curious scientists in the room, painstakingly putting together these fragile puzzles of bones. There were classes of art students positioned on the floor sketching craniums, back bones, tails, jaws, teeth. My boys were wistful that I hadn't brought paper and pencils so they might join them. As was I. We'd done some mellow sketching and at the exhibits of the New York Museum of Natural History, paper and pencils in hand, and this visit brought back those good memories.

I suggested, and JP was willing, that we walk everywhere -- from the Gare de Lyon to the Ile St. Louis, from there to the Jardin des Plantes, from there back to l'Ile for drinks with friends, and from there back to the Gare and off to our hotel out by Disneyland. Back when I lived in Paris I walked absolutely everywhere, vastly preferring being up on the streets to down in the metro underground. It seemed to me quite doable to walk amidst these relatively close destinations. But how one forgets. And how I underestimated the possible (or rather, what could be pleasantly possible as opposed to within the possible). In our life in Avignon, I move and walk a good bit, but nothing compared to my Parisian life, apparently. Oh how my legs are aching today! The boys were pretty out of whack from all that walking too. Jonas said the soles of this feet hurt. Leo complained of boredom, weariness, hunger, and his need for a toilet. It was pretty non-stop. And, on top of that, the fight to hold my hand was a constant for the entire weekend (JP holding the other one). Jealousy, bickering, getting my goat... I mostly kept my cool, but I was an easy target.

Yes, a weekend outing with my boys is not something I've often attempted. Plane trips, airports, these we know well. The promise of being at Grandma's house when we arrive helps these long waits pass relatively easily. But cultural outings to cities are something I haven't much attempted -- beyond NYC's Chinatown at Christmas. Nor have I insisted they come along for adult outings, drinks with friends, restaurants, etc., So how much of the difficulty of all this stems from lack of experience? and how much is simply Leo's constant need to be stimulated?

That I had planned a short Paris time for us all before Disneyland was a bit hard for them. Leo is still learning that not every moment of the day is designed for his personal enjoyment. Jonas is easier. He can be genuinely physically tired, but he's rarely the vocal complainer that Leo is. A short rest on a park bench eases his weariness, and we can set off again. I'm not the only mother to have such different children. Variety is the spice of life, right?

Personally, having purchased tickets to Paris, I could not not take advantage of that Parisian feel and look and ambiance. Thus, a lesson to Leo: Sometimes we simply go along knowing that the person we're with is having a good time. We graciously accept that what we want to do is not always on the top of the list. Is eleven too young to learn this?

At last, Saturday morning we headed over to the land of fantasy, rides and haunted houses. Once the entry fee is paid, all is available to you. Star tours, and roller coasters, the underground hideaway of the Pirates of the Caribbean and the tree house of the Swiss Family Robinson. A favorite was the battle of Buzz Lightyear and Zorg: mobile video game battles and targets, complete with lazer pistols. The kids were amazed that we were there, and but for the 45 minute wait to get into the old mining shaft roller coaster were pretty well behaved. The directive "separate" seemed to work. Leo was willing to move to JP's side and stop (for a second or two) tapping Jonas, though that didn't mean that Jonas didn't continue to provoke his brother, who felt honor-bound to have the last word/hit/tap/pinch in their never-ending battle.

Seeing them happy and having fun was great, and joining them on all these rides (even the loop the loop of the Indiana Jones' Temple of Doom with Leo! -- eyes closed for most of that very long minute) pretty special. As every parent no doubt feels at the end of an extraordinarily exhausting day amidst Disney characters, extremely pleasant and multi-lingual ride managers, expensive junk food and endless walking, please may this not to be repeated extravaganza turn into a really good memory for them.

We had our glitches. After the Dream Parade, during which I fully understood how heavy Jonas currently is when seated on my shoulders, Leo ran off ahead disappearing completely into the crowd. I found him an hour later when the employee he approached called me on my cell phone. I'd been more annoyed than panicked, reassured somewhat by the fact that he knew my cell number. What the Hell was he thinking running off like that? We could never run through these dense crowds and keep up with him. He thought yelling back at us something unintelligible amidst the noise and density was sufficient. However, none of the three of us had heard where he was headed. We had simply an idea of the general direction. So I spent my last hour in Disneyland searching for him, and he me while JP took Jonas to see some ancient Mickey cartoons. Not the best end to an otherwise fun day. Hopefully another lesson learned? I had clung to Jonas' hand amidst all this insanity, knowing full well that he has yet to memorize my number, and if we lost him, I would be a complete wreck. But at eleven, Leo is both old enough and not. It's that ambiguous age that blends a certain amount of reason and responsibility, with the spontaneous gestures of an excited child. What do I expect of him? and vice versa? Each month seems to bring yet another occasion to test limits, at times expanding them is appropriate, at times we refine the terms.

Disneyland is a land of perpetual enjoyment, and employees trained to make sure you stay happy: giving directions, but gently. As I followed and/or led my children throughout this enormous complex I kept thinking of the many specialized professions that contributed to its existence. The roller coaster engineers of course, the fake stone, stalagmite and tree bark masons, but also the waiting line sociologist/psychologist who carefully plotted out 65 minutes' worth of weaving amidst an interesting decor and carefully delineated paths, keeping you unsure how much further you have to go till at last you're there. How to keep so many people pleasant and relatively entertained and content amidst such incredible crowds and potential frustrations? How to fleece them of a maximum of their hard-earned cash? Oh the occasions to pay 3E for a donut or a crêpe, to buy expensive t-shirts and hats, princess gowns, crowns. Clearly, the money behind the endeavor is immense (as we all know), but also the plotting/thinking/calculating down to the tiniest detail. For all this, bravo. However, I do believe this is my first and last visit.

Exhausted, we climbed into the TGV and headed back to Avignon, and not quite three hour trip, arriving sleepily in a cold and rain soaked landscape at 10:55pm. And then, at long last, we were abed. Ahhhhh.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Night Two Years Ago

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

Loreena McKennit played on the CD player. The kids were abed, after dinner, bath and stories. The house enwrapped me, with promises of something new, something different. Leaving the dishes drying in the rack from a dinner of chicken with honey and simply steamed beans drizzled with olive oil, I walked the few steps it took to reach the glass paned door to the terrace. Would you like to go outside Filou? I asked my minimally coiffed poodle crossed with bichon. Pushing open the door I walked out onto the wooden boards, some rotting beneath and creaking under my feet. The first day in my new home. My first night as a single parent. The first day of a new life?

The country air smelled grassy and sweet. Above the moon was full and drifted slowly behind and in front of the violet gray clouds as they wafted past. The sky was so large, so present in this rural setting. The majestic cyprus trees marked the end of the garden, sentinels jabbing their sharp helmets into the sky. Though 9pm, it felt both later and earlier. Holding my heavy flea-market sweater tightly closed, hugging my arms around myself, I wandered beyond the garden to the neighbor’s field. Beyond there were stands of trees, but here, it was open space in all directions. Filou bounded about, excited by the night noises so foreign to him. And I just walked slowly and held myself. The calm of the evening jarred with my nervous spirit. I should be so happy and content, but fear and uncertainty kept creeping back.

I’d gotten what I'd wanted... what I’d worked so hard to get over these past few months. And now what? Am I strong enough to make this work? God it was both terrifying and wonderful to at long last be in this house. The months of negotiating with banks to get the mortgage approved. The many stressful and laden discussions with my husband to get him to help me in this move out of his life. Emphasizing that it was for the children.... knowing inside that it was also, and so much more for me. The phone calls from the seller so worried himself about his finances, needing my reassurance, when in my own heart I was terrified and so uncertain. Even visits to the tarot card reader to see if anything in the cards would help see me through to this moment. September, all had been bleak, nothing seemed to work, the words No, and Not Possible seemed to come from each and every source. Then finally, the papers were signed, the money transferred, and the house became mine. Or rather, I had the right to live in it as long as I could manage what was a much heavier mortgage than I’d calculated on, and hoped for.

Today, the first of December, I’d moved a portion of my belongings along with the necessities for the kids to keep them clothed and shod for school. For the moment there was no need to move everything. The many weekends we would return to the home in Arles would permit future loads. I had time to fill out the home and make it more definitively mine. At the moment my arms ached from carrying both boxes and children up the stairs all day. The children were out of sorts. Leo seemed to understand without needing explanations. But Jonas, my baby, had already stated that he didn’t like this house because Daddy wasn’t here. Could I somehow nourish and protect him, warm and love him, so that this feeling wouldn’t keep him from discovering other joys?

So many emotions coursed through me as I walked out into that moon-lit night. Was it an omen to be here, my first night in this new house, on a full moon? Would I be filled with the richness and the potential of a new life? Would I be able to root myself here and adopt this land as my own? As the moon descended over the next few weeks, could I too plant my seeds as I hoped to plant irises and tulips? And would the roots take? Would they be nourished here as they had not been elsewhere? I ached to blossom and be, whatever my potential, whatever my spirit could achieve and reach for. I ached to love and teach and raise my young boys to be wonderful adults. Could I here?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

My version of Mac-n-Cheese

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

Here's an odd recipe, which is getting raves in my house from my somewhat American boys. It is my, no doubt, overly healthful variation on macaroni and cheese. My kids have tasted that boxed stuff in homes in the US, and liked it. So, my challenge was to mimic the color (bright orange) and to a certain degree the flavor. I'm also working with as much a happy memory as true sensory sensitivity. I wouldn't put this dish beside the original, but with a bit of distance and nostalgia, it goes over surprisingly well.

I start with a béchamel, add puréed cooked squash, tomato paste, lots of grated gruyère cheese, a touch of salt, and I pour it over the pasta. The art comes in blending just the right amount of squash and tomato paste -- these add both color and sweetness.


a tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons flour
3 cups whole milk
1 1/2 cups grated swiss cheese
1/3 cup fluid tomato sauce/paste (somewhat between the two, or more of the former and less of the latter)
1/2 cup dense pureed squash or 1 cup less dense (depends on the variety and the intensity of its flavor. Add in batches and taste.
a pinch of salt as necessary

a batch of cooked macaroni.

To make the béchamel base, melt the butter in a sauce pan over a medium flame, add the flour and whisk to make a paste, slowly add the milk, just a 1/2 cup to start with, whisking to even out the lumps. When it begins to thicken, add more milk. Add in the cheese and whisk gently. Let come to a simmer. Add the tomato sauce and the squash, blend together with the whisk, seeking a unified texture. Occasionally, if it doesn't come together, I sprinkle on a bit more flour to bind. Taste and salt as necessary. Add in the cooked pasta, stir, and then transfer to a baking dish, sprinkle a bit more grated cheese on top, place in the oven briefly to grill the top, and serve -- a large green salad on the side helps cut the very rich dish that this is.

I use organic but full-fat versions of all my ingredients. At this time my boys are very active, very slender, and eating so few packaged products both at school and at home that their fat/sodium/sugar intake is pretty low. Thus, the periodic rich dish such as this or my lasagna are to my mind, good nourishment for them, though this one in particular can stimulate a bit of sniffles in those who are sensitive to milk products. Currently the case for myself. As such, the dairy intake could be limited above by using olive oil in the place of the butter, soy milk in the place of the milk.. but I hesitate in replacing the cheese with a fake product, that just doesn't feel right. It would be easy for non-glutens to switch to rice flour to thicken and rice/corn pasta instead of wheat.


Frugal Times - Part II - Food, Shopping & Cooking

I look at the various choices I've made this year to reduce expenses and to follow my beliefs in nutrition, packaging, use of energy, etc., I suppose top of the list is the second hand (or third no doubt) cast iron stove I purchased for my fireplace. I then needed wood to burn in it. Purchase, installation and wood came to 600E. Conversely, I kept my thermostat at 14C (57F) during the day and 11C (51F) during the night. That I pay a monthly estimate calculated on last year's consumption and the fact that Gas de France has yet to reduce its prices since its own prices went down from the highs of the summer, have meant that my bills for the moment don't reflect these efforts, but I hope to see a shift in the upcoming year. In any case, I feel just a bit virtuous, and my fire-starting skills have taken a giant leap.

An added benefit of the stove is its cooktop. All soups, stocks, and even many vegetables have been cooked atop the stove this winter. Potatoes and one roast chicken were baked in the ashes, and nearly everything was reheated by simply placing it on the stove's surface. My main adaptation for this trick was working with time and the lower temperature of the stove compared to my electric oven and gas burners. I had to put the soup ingredients in the pot around 3PM to be ready to eat at 7PM, or to calculate double the baking time for the lasagna. But it was possible and a hoot to experiment with. Thus a reduced electricity and gas bill.

I've particularly adapted my shopping behavior to the current moment. I purchase in bulk from an organic supply store twice monthly my flour, rice, sugar, grains, butter, grated cheese, eggs, pasta, house-cleaning supplies etc., On the way home from school I will make a weekly pass by the grocery store for large size strawberry jam, batteries, light bulbs, toothbrushes, ham, maybe a chicken, coffee, etc., My girlfriend who goes to Switzerland once a month brings me back recycled toilet paper in huge quantities. And there is a farm on my island that I go to with the children as we return from school to pick up fruit and vegetables. In organic wine I'm well stocked by JP, no worries there. For milk we go to the farm that is on the road between Arles and Avignon, and Erick brings me 7 liters or so every Sunday evening -- using mineral water bottles discarded by a friend.

Do we have need of anything else? Not really.

After these basics, I've worked hard to limit my car usage to reduce my gasoline/diesel bill. This meant grouping as many activities as possible, fewer shopping runs, fewer to no visits to friends who live far away (we still see each other at school, so my social life hasn't been hurt much); scoping out the two cheapest gas stations in the area and keeping an eye on the prices, as they go from 1.20, to 1.10, to a low of 88.5 and now back up to 91.9. On my weekends at the winery, I take the route with the fewest roundabouts and no stoplights to use less gas for these unavoidable 60 kilometers.

Where I find myself stumbling is my easily awakened desires for a new blouse, a pair of pants, etc., I was raised in a world where acquiring pretty things each season is a well-established tradition. More than any other area, this one trips me up. I no longer live next to that great flea market, and I've read all those articles about these inexpensive, not-super well made clothes from China that have flooded the market and hurt the local garment unions. Yes, I think about all that badly paid child labor, the polluting air-flights over, the no-doubt highly sprayed cotton plants used to make the materials.... Do I make an effort to justify these moments of caving into the desire for a completely non-necessary pretty thing, or not. It all depends on background and my feelings on the subject of 'rewards' for good behavior, or, contributing to the local economy, or, just satisfying an urge for something pretty.

But oh, Promod has some really nice things in their window this spring...

Frugal Times - Part I Household stuff

It is an interesting moment in our lives. I use the plural as I know I am not alone. The world economy, the real-estate breakdown, the plummeting of the stock market, the many firings occurring in the auto and other major industries. We're waking up to a world that is no longer rewarding us for buying lovely cheap toys and clothes made in China. Somewhere along the line, I've lucked out -- perhaps -- in that I never really bought into this version of reality. First off, I chose to stay in Europe rather than go back to the US, be it to Seattle or the New York area. And, rather than pursue the obvious post Princeton route to NYC and a financial sector job, or perhaps business school, I joined my husband and started a cooking school and a b&b. I opted for a less traveled path already fifteen years ago. In doing so, I opted to hold onto my "poor starving student" skills, and continued to live simply, avoiding--if not banishing--the spending habits and expectations of many in my generation.

Early on, as the business was just beginning to build and life was still very tight, I simply never went into any of the lovely boutiques in Arles. As compensation, I became an adept at the local second hand clothing stall at the Wednesday market to satisfy whatever spending cravings, or acquisition cravings I had. For other flea market explorers, the pleasures of the inexpensive treasure are well understood, be it that lovely mirror at 50E, or the elegant Jill Sander gray wool slacks at 2E. My fingers were quite sensitive to texture and quality as they roamed through the heaps of clothes piled willy nilly on the outdoor stalls. I have a pile of cashmere sweaters (ditto at 2E/piece), Erick has the entire rainbow in silk shirts, short and long sleeved, I've lovely lined linen jackets, hand-knit sweaters for every occasion, and the periodic pair of jeans or easy summer dress. My children were clothed from my finds, my au pairs adored what they found, and, often, I'd find a little something for a friend here and there. At 2E a piece, I grabbed it and passed it on as a little gift from the universe.

Sunday mornings were often spent at the Nîmes flea market where much more was available. There, over the years, for a song and a smile Erick and I acquired electric adapters, a couch, iron beds, a set of plates and salad bowls (or three), iron pans, le creuset style, heavy cast-iron casseroles, two satin down quilts, iron plant holders, a screened cheese cabinet, a hexagonal bed-side table, lamp shades, art books, literature primers,... And, as soon as Leo was on his feet and mobile, he plunged into the boxes of matchbox cars, McDonald's happy meal toys and other objects enterprisingly being sold by small boys for a Euro a piece! (creative highway robbery!). We felt the shift from the franc to the Euro most keenly at the flea market. By psychological preference, prices are kept simple. What was 5 francs, became a Euro, or in the case of happy meal toys, what was 1 franc became 1 Euro! (FYI, 1Euro is officially 6.55957 francs).

Paying full price for anything, or owning something new was an anomaly.

When I first met Erick, his house was pretty barren. His past girlfriend had removed her things, and there really wasn't much left. So, there was a void to be filled. And I, fully in my nesting and settling period, went to it with fervor. I painted, I organized, I arranged, and I filled. Then, furnishing the bed and breakfast became necessary and there we were able to put some fun flea market finds, as well as sturdy basics and simple closets for ranging the clothes, etc.,

Now however, both my closet and my home are saturated. I'm in need of nothing. Truly. It's almost embarrassing to count the number of shoes I have (though in my defense, these include shoes I purchased in Seattle 15-20 years' ago and carefully re-heeled along the way), and I admit that some clothes don't see the light of day but once in a season. I have the excuse of explaining that I've not changed size (excepting pregnancies) since college, and so my now extensive wardrobe is an accumulation and blending of 22 years of my life. Nice excuse, no? In any case, my house is only so big, and more than what I've already put into it, would be impossible to place. My art photo collection has had to be put in a drawer to make place for kid photos. Space is what it is -- plenty for living in, but now full. Trends are converging -- I need nothing, I crave more simplicity, and my means for purchasing any and everything have diminished.

I recognize that some feelings and urges are age-related. When nesting, birthing babies, etc., it is hard to not acquire furniture, household items, 'practical' objects, etc., At my current age (42) I am feeing a certain level of stuff fatigue, alongside a need to face the hard facts of what is coming into my bank account and what must go out.

Caring about organics, the environment, how we live day to day I do what I can in my own small way to reduce my footprint. For this, I have the good education of an early environmentalist: my mother. From childhood we recycled newspapers for logs in the fireplace; we turned out lights and kept the heat down, learning to wear sweaters and slippers throughout the winter; we wore hand-me-downs from every direction (I'm the youngest of over 20 cousins... so you can imagine the boxes that arrived year in and year out to cloth me); we even used non-perfumed and super basic toilet paper and paper towels. Real cloth napkins with napkin rings were preferred to paper, and the house was furnished with furniture from the grandparents, or re-furbished pieces my mother found at a home for the blind in the early years of her marriage. Neither these, nor the rugs, nor the lamps, were changed during the length of my childhood. My mother never fell for the re-decorating craze of the 70s. We cared for the trees and the plants around our home, we took garbage bags with us whenever we went camping or hiking and picked up the leavings of other less-attentive humans. And we washed our clothes in cold water. We also cooked from scratch, and ate two vegetables per meal, but that's another story. Left-overs were a weekly challenged that my mother rose to, and I follow in her footsteps. Necessity encourages creativity.

I have all this life experience in me, and, have been able to add to it composting and recycling which are now encouraged and possible in my neighborhood.

So, this year has brought challenges, but not necessarily in a bad sense, to adapt and improve our way of life. Simply living in Europe has had a strong effect on my boys. I have raised them in a world where I believe it has been easier for me to convey as "normal" a lower level of materialism than they might have seen living in the US. In any case, I certainly haven't needed to have major arguments about reducing their pocket cash. An article in the NYTimes this fall was particularly striking on this subject, presenting families who'd always had lots and had given lots to their kids, but now, with the father out of work, suddenly the 150$ sneakers/jeans/purse/ipod are no longer possible, and the kids are apparently completed shell-shocked by this change of circumstances. I read these articles and at times think, that could have been me. I come from the same neighborhoods, went to the same schools, but then I shifted directions and entered an alternate reality.

No, my boys have always known that there was not a nintendo game, nor a game boy, nor any expensive whatnots in their immediate future -- which doesn't keep them from wishing, yearning, aiming towards a time when they'll have their own funds for these toys, they are human after all. For their clothing budget, being boys helps. They are completely ok wearing hand-me-downs and one or two pairs of shoes per year. Meantime, I'm working at teaching them all those skills my mother taught me: turn off lights when they're not in use; wear slippers and sweaters throughout the winter, and snuggle under those flea market down quilts. They are far far from perfect, and yes, the elder would like presents when he reads a book, and enough pocket cash to buy himself his own computer. And my younger comes back from his daddy's with a little something nearly each time, be it a matchbox car or a transformer. And I get the comments, "why can't you buy the sweet yogurts? or the packaged cookies?" But I am grateful that they have the innocence and grace to be thrilled if I take them to the cinema, or out for pizza, both having become very rare occasions. They're also adept at hanging out laundry on the line, and folding it when they bring it in. I'm working on their sorting it and distributing it around the house. Hopefully that will come.

All in all, I'm pretty proud of the particular version of reality that they are living and experiencing. I need to work a bit more on the development of their awareness that good things come to those who work hard for them... but that hopefully will come with time. I know that I'm caught between the generation raised by those who'd experienced the depression, pushed to work for everything they received in this life, and mine who had much offered them, and much expected of them, but truly, a very easy ride for a good chunk of this life. I'm amazed at the quantity of stuff that kids have in the US, and at the same time, by my own expectations and desires. I'm trying to be neither too extreme, nor a hypocrite. So far, so good.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Baby Goat Photos, and Goat Cheese hors d'oeuvres

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this site are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel.

I delayed my arrival at the winery Saturday. I couldn't resist going over to see Isabelle and Paul Pierre. I missed seeing their new baby grandson as their daughter was out shopping for groceries, but that was ok. I wasn't there to hold a wee little worm of a baby in my arms (no matter how lovely a sensation that is), I was there to see my dear friends, to give them big American hugs, and to spend a moment together. I brought her up to date on my adapting of her recipes, and what I've been able to find on the internet for the teen cookbook, and more. We chatted about my boys, JP, life in general. Oh yes, and, mothers that we are, and brand new grandmother that she is, we took turns telling tales of our birthing experiences: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Paul Pierre, who'd been there for the birth of his daughter, and his grandson, was actually able to partake in this otherwise very female discussion. I know many a man who would have politely tolerated this for a moment or two, and then suddenly found a reason to exit stage left. We heartily agreed that things have improved drastically since the day 30 years' ago she gave birth, and even since the day seven and and half years' ago when I gave birth.

However, I did take advantage of the time to photograph the new kids.

Between the flowers that are exploding all around, the leaves filling the trees and the arrival of baby animals... I revel in the depth of this rebirth that fills my senses. The perfume of the mimosa, the colors dancing off my eyes, and the gentle warmth of a baby's beating heart against my chest (the baby goat that is).

On their way back to Avignon with their father, the boys saw a brand new calf at the dairy where we get our milk. From atop our bikes as we ride by the dead arm of the Rhône, we catch sight of the families of ducks with the little ones trailing behind swimming, and darting and intermingling amidst the reeds. It truly is a renaissance.

Pistachio Goat Cheese Balls

4 fresh goat cheese rounds (about 2 cups of cheese)
1/4 cream
1 tablespoon tarragon (fresh or dried)

2 cups shelled and chopped pistachios
1/2 cup shredded parmesan

In a mixing bowl mash together the goat cheese, the cream and the tarragon to make a somewhat firm paste. Using your very clean hands, make lots of small thumb-sized balls. Put aside.

Mix your pistachios and parmesan together in a shallow plate, and one by one, roll and press gently the cheese balls in this mixture. Arrange decoratively on a serving dish, and chill till you are ready to serve.

If yesterday's lunch is any clue, they go fast!

Spring in Photos - What's up at the Winery

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this site are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel.

Spring is most definitely here, and the first flowers of spring are bursting out at every turn. The almond trees have already passed to leaf, but the large orchards of apricots and plums cover the landscape in various shades of pink.

At the winery, JP has a wonderful mimosa tree just by the balcony, a joy to behold as we take our post-lunch coffee and chocolate on the terrace. In the vineyards, the tiny four petaled flowers in yellow and white make a gorgeous bed beneath the vines.

However, with all this growing greenery and plant life, the next stage of the winery calendar is in full swing. It is time to pull out the tractor, with its special hoe that uproots the weeds around, between and amongst the "souches" (roots/individual vines/feet of the vine). JP is a master of this art. And truly, an art it is. For anyone contemplating switching from regular or "reasonable" agricultural practices to organic, he/she must first of all cease using Round-Up and other noccive plant killers, and begin working the land physically/manually. And in the place of a couple visits of chemistry sprayed from a vehicle, there is a minimum of six passages through the vineyards to uproot the weeds.

The art lies in the timing - tied closely to an intimate understanding of the plant life growing in your vineyards--, and the manipulation of a sensitive machine that must be adapted precisely to the spacing of the plants, and, which cannot work without the guidance of a person walking behind it. For many, this is a lost art, and even contemplating the physical labor necessary is a deterant to working organically.

To this end, JP will be offering hands-on classes at the Mas to his ever more numerous colleagues who would like to attempt working organically (and who are being encouraged to do so with special financial incentives from the European Union). With more than 25 years of experience under his belt, and a deep and abiding love of nature and the rich bio-diversity that is present in his vineyards, he has much to share.

You have to look closely now to tell the difference between organic and reasonable agricultural vineyards. In general, the latter are identifiable by the lack of weeds at the feet of the plants. However, it has become general practice to leave greenery (that they mow) between the vineyards rows. This is definitely better than killing all the weeds, but it also tricks the eyes. The organic vineyards are those that probably still have some weeds at the foot of their vines, and that also have the clear presence of actively turned dirt. So, salute your organic neighbors when you see them, and nudge the others, or suggest they come to Provence for a lesson or two, hm?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

My Take on a Daube

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

The Daube. The classic beef or taureau based dish from Provence. The basic premise is beef slow cooked for at least three hours, if not eight, in wine. The version you are most often served in restaurants in the region consists of the local grass-fed beef, or toro/taureau de Camargue, onions, garlic, herbes de Provence, carrots, salt and red wine. Erick has a marvelous medieval version that has cinnamon, nutmeg, thyme, ginger and white wine. My take is a variation of his. And, having made it today to sincere applause, I feel I can share it with you. I've added my favorite stewing vegetables -- turnips and fennel bulbs -- and re-worked the added flavor elements, removing the thyme and nutmeg, and adding in orange peel. And, as an option for those who like an occasional sweet touch, I tossed in some prunes. Turnips are a vastly under-appreciated vegetable, but no doubt those of you who get crates from local farmers are learning to use. I adore them in soups and stews. They add a flavor, but they also absorb the flavors of the broth and cook to a soft and divine texture. Whether I make a braised pork roast with onions and honey, or this variation on a daube, turnips are an excellent addition. And fennel bulbs -- that strange vegetable I discovered here in Provence, but which is now in most grocery stores in the US. Raw it is great in salads, but cooked in a stew such as this (particularly with white or rosé wine) they lend a texture akin to celery, but a sweet and delicate note that for me is far more spring-like. Then again, I was raised in a house where celery was actively discouraged... so I admit to my own prejudices. Enjoy!

Madeleine's Ginger Beef in Wine (a variation on a Daube)

1 kilo beef for stewing -- I like using the shank, and/or brisket. In France I choose the gite and the paleron
2 large onions
2 good sized turnips (about the same size as your onions)
2 fennel bulbs
3-4 carrots
2 large (thumb sized) garlic cloves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger (you can add another spoonful for a bit more flavor)
1 tablespoon chopped orange zest (careful that it is an organic orange, normal ones are intensely sprayed!)
a handful of prunes
1 teaspoon cinnamon
olive oil to brown the meat in
1 1/2 bottles of rosé or white wine (I used rosé today)
a sprinkle of sea salt

Cut your meat down to large bite size pieces. Trim off excess fat and/or skin.
Chop your onions coarsely.
Peel and chop your turnips and carrots into large bite size pieces.
Wash and slice your fennel bulb.
peel and prepare your fresh ginger
Crush and chop coarsely your two garlic cloves

Take a large deep dish frying pan with cover, or a "fait-tout" as they call them in France, or a large Creuset type cast iron dutch oven with lid. Place over a high flame and pour in olive oil to cover the bottom (about 3 tablespoons). When the heat comes up, start browning your meat in batches, removing the pieces that have nicely colored, and adding the rest till all is done. Toss in your onions, stir and let soften. Add back in the meat and all the vegetables. Stir a few times, then add in all the rest of the ingredients, wine included. Pour water over it all to cover, sprinkle in some salt. Cover and bring to a simmer. Switch to a very low flame and forget about it for a good long while.

After an hour or two, check for the level of liquid. As needed, top it off. Cook all afternoon. Let cool and put in the fridge. Pull it back out the next morning and bring back up to a simmer, top it off with water and cook a couple more hours on very low heat.

Meantime, pull out some good bread, make some rice or spelt or quinoa, invite your friends over, pull out a lovely concentrated and structured Châteauneuf-du-Pape, perhaps a Domaine de Marcoux, with its notes of cocoa which you've opened and aired overnight. Then, shortly before serving, make an olive oil mani -- blend three tablespoons of flour with enough olive oil to make a paste. Stir it into the simmering stew, wait a few more minutes and serve.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Hugging in France

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

I love to hug. I was raised cuddly, leaping into my father's arms when he came back from work, snuggling for long warm moments at night before bed, curling up on welcoming laps, be they my father's, my mother's or a boyfriend's. Already in high school I hugged my good friends, and even more so from university on, and during my years in Seattle. I was the affectionate, outgoing, demonstrative one. Not only hugs, but back rubs too. However, that's another subject. Full body hugs of dear friends, both sexes, simply expressing the joy and pleasure in seeing each other. Arms wrapped tightly around their backs, face gently pressed into a warm shoulder, this was the warm greeting I adored giving and receiving.

Then I spent a year in Japan. In Japan, not only do you not hug, you don't kiss, and greetings are the non-touching act of bowing (at various depths depending on status, etc.,). Girlfriends can link arms, but, hugs? I actually wondered if I could still be me, the myself I knew or thought I could define, if I wasn't giving and getting hugs. It was an existential moment.

And yes, as you well know, I now live in France where I've been for the past fourteen years. In France we exchange kisses as greetings. These vary. In Paris, the tendency is two kisses, one each in the air located somewhere in the direction of your distant ear. You certainly don't actually touch the cheek, and you lean gently towards the person, but don't touch. In the occasional brasserie when men get a bit high on wine and the company of women, this can quickly become four kisses, for said women.

The word 'embrasser' which so resembles 'embrace,' if we go back in time, originally meant enwrap with arms (bra=arm), as you would think. But with the passage of the ages, the word has come to mean to kiss. And the word that you'd think would be to kiss, 'baiser' which so resembles the word kiss, bise or bisou, has come to mean something much stronger, that is, to have sex. Yes, things get complicated when etymology comes into it!

In Provence, we exchange three kisses, and yummy little grandmas and aunties make a sincere effort to smack their lips on your cheek (this takes some doing, try it!), properly leaving a nice smudge of red-orange lipstick. It is also quite common to hold the shoulder of the person you kiss while doing so. It adds an extra affectionate touch, which is not out of place between between friends and family members. This is my tendency -- and so far it hasn't gotten me in trouble.

However, hugging... even between close friends is a rare thing. A mommy can hug her kids, and they her. But Grandmas more often get kisses. In general, such an exchange of bodily warmth (fully clothed yet) is reserved for lovers. And yes, I do count on JP for my share of being wrapped in arms, pressed against a warm chest, my nose snuggled in a warm neck. But, ... that's beside the point.

As my time in France has evolved, I think I've followed a sine curve on the hugging thing. In the beginning I missed it terribly, but kept myself carefully in hand and observed local customs most attentively. Then, when my babies were born, I cuddled them, and held them, and nursed them, and even had them sleeping in bed beside me. Yes, I had missed that physical warmth, and my kids were the recipients of all that bottled up affection (it could have been worse).

In general, I've mostly adapted to the state of things. It's been over fourteen years now after all. However, in the past couple years, as I've lived through the difficult times of my divorce, and realized what truly wonderful friends I have, I just can't resist pulling them into an embrace American style. And, dear and wonderful friends that they are, they respond, and it's ok. I am after all their American friend. I'm Madeleine, I happen to be American, and where I come from and who I am is most truthfully conveyed when I permit myself the freedom of truly expressing my love and affection. So, be it my two dearest friends, or my much loved goat cheese makers Isabelle and Paul Pierre... I reach out and pull them close. I love them so.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Spice Squash Cake for a Friend

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

From my cozy spot by my cast iron stove, Filou at my feet on his cushion, my kids with their father, I wanted to share Tonight's Spice Squash Cake (a variation of my favorite muffin recipe).

3 cups flour (350 g)-- all purpose, whole wheat, spelt or rice, as you prefer
1 cup rapadura brown sugar (200 g)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cardamon
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
1 cup (250ml) turned fresh milk, or 1 cup whey, or 1 yogurt plus 1 cup water
1 1/2 cups (325ml) cooked squash puree
1/3 cup (80ml) sunflower oil
2 eggs

a good handful each of raisins, pumpkin/squash seeds and pecans

I confess to simply putting all these ingredients into a mixing bowl, and with a sturdy spatula or wooden spoon, stirring till everything seemed smooth. I then poured the batter into a simply cake pan (two in fact, as this makes two loaf pans) and baked it at 175C/350F till nicely risen and browned on top -- about 30 minutes in my convection oven.

With a cup of herbal tea, it does cure what ails.

What Makes a Life Complete?

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

My sister once said, that having found a good dentist, gynecologist and hairdresser, she couldn't ever move again. That's one way to look at life. And yes, it took time for me to find all three in Provence. I started with my hairdresser in Arles, to whom I now return from Avignon when time permits. It's not the perfect situation. In the beginning, hairdressing vocabulary was not a strong point for me. These things have to be learned (highlights=faire les mèches, bangs= la frange; layers=dégradé -- or at least I think so....) There've been haircuts I was not so pleased with, and highlighting jobs that were too extreme -- these last he redid on the house after seeing my forlorn expression, for which I am quite justifiably grateful. I just don't do platinum. He cuts my sons' hair (when I don't, and/or remedies my 6-10 months of dramatic trims) with nary a snicker. And well, yes, for those great head massages and his pleasant demeanor, and as now he's got the recipe down for my highlights, I have to say I would loath to have to change hair dressers again.

It took far longer and with many more trials and errors to find a good dentist. There too, though I could discuss art, culture, history and basic grammar in French, I was definitely lacking in dental vocabulary. My first in Arles wanted to replace all my old mercury fillings and did quite a few before I said enough already. I then went on to a second, recommended by a friend, but he was rather scary. Not at all attractive, over-talkative, and proudly of the old school. He oversaw the fixing, the breaking, and then the removing of my ancient root canal. I now have a hole in my mouth (which is only a little visible when I smile). At long last, I found a very attractive (yes, I was going through a divorce, having attractive men caring for me in my life was a very lovely thing... even if he was just poking around in my mouth) and able dentist in Arles, pleasant to go to, good with my boys. And all was well. But, that was just before I moved to Avignon, and, well, a 50 minute trip every time one of the three of us needs a dentist is really not very reasonable. So I said goodbye to my most attractive dentist.

I then discovered that the mother of one of Jonas' friends is a dentist. Joy of joys! We went to her. It certainly helped that she is a gentle, thorough, detailed and calm person, and a mommy. Jonas had two cavities to be filled that day. She's also amenable to making a particularly long rendez-vous for the three of us to go together, and since Leo never has a cavity, and with me she's just doing a good cleaning, Jonas' cavities get filled pronto. She has also delivered the bad news that Jonas has very delicate enamel and will no doubt have many a cavity as his life progresses. So, he gets to go see her twice as often as Leo. Good thing she is has good bed-side manner!

Over time, stumbling my way through the children's births, doctor's visits, ear aches, vaccines, and such, I've mastered the basic vocabulary for numerous child illnesses (varioles=small pox, rougeole=measles, varicelles=chicken pox, coqueluche=whooping cough... those are the important ones, right? ah yes, and la scarlatine, i.e. scarlet fever) by necessity, and female ailments as well. Some, thank goodness, are pretty obvious.

Now that I live in Avignon, close to my friend S, a nurse, I rely on her for recommendations. She came to my rescue for appointments with the gynecologist and the dermatologist-- a must with my English/Irish heritage and fair freckled skin, the annual look-over is now part of the routine. Her gynecologist is good, discreet and reserved. I tend to be a bit chatty, so that throws me a bit, but she is gentle and competent, so we'll see as time goes on. She has on file my family's history with ovarian cancer. And she was able to calm my worries over my changing body. She confirmed that yes, it is normal for your breasts to grow two cup sizes after 40, and your waistline too. So far, it's only the upper portion of my body that has me kafutzed. I'm rather proud that my waistline (thanks to Triangle and Side Angle Bend) is fine for the moment. But just to be sure I checked with my favorite lingerie seller for confirmation.

The dermatologist was the first doctor I met in France who quite obviously earns a good living and shows this off in the quality of his office furniture, and his navy blue leather upholstered door. With his good tan, and his elegant white poet's blouse, his wavy gray hair so perfectly coiffed, he efficiently had me strip down to my skivvies, looked me over, burned off a spot on my back, declared his fee, received his check and sent me on my way. -- Why do I stress this? Well, the GPs I frequented back in Arles were sweet, overwhelmed with paperwork, and answered their own phones. They were able to pay their bills, raise their kids, keep a roof over their heads, but, they certainly were not wealthy, nor in a position to have a receptionist or file clerk, forget an elegant office.

So, if my sister is right, I've got the basics down. But perhaps, she was speaking of life before children? It's been awhile since we had that conversation.

Now, as a mother, next on my list is the kids' school. And yes, we can check that off. As long as I can manage paying for it, I'm quite content with their being in the Sorgues/Avignon Steiner school. They may succeed that rare blend of being raised in France, proudly carrying their dual citizenship within them. That the school is also a source of a wonderful multi-cultural community is a major plus.

However, truly, I didn't feel attached to this country for many years. In spite of my giving birth here. In spite of having a husband, a business, a house, and the numerous years under my belt. Having a French passport didn't connect me to the country. Speaking the language ever more fluently made life easier. But it seemed to me that none of that truly counted. There were moments when I was quite aware that if I left for the US the next day, few here would miss me. There would be those who'd be angry at me for hurting Erick, and perhaps a few who'd say, remember that energetic American woman who used to come by with her clients? I wonder what happened to her... But, for a very long time, there was no one in my life who would have truly missed me if I had gone home to the US. And I felt that vacuum where a good friend should be.

I have traveled across the country, and even over an ocean, for a man (or two). Yet, where I am right now in my head--post-divorce, coping alone with the kids, trying to figure out who I am--it's my friends who keep me sane, comforted, warm and feeling truly loved. The kinds of friends who let you cry, rant, rave, but also be proud, happy, joyous. The friends who can lean on you, rely on you, who trust you, know you, believe in you. The friends who hear you and are there, who say you're free? You're alone? and if I came over this evening to be with you? The friends who remind you to believe in yourself, who give you little suggestions for making things easier, be it with the kids, or jobs, or life in general. And yes, the friends who accept and love you, and even wait for you as you spend most of your free hours and days with your new man. They're there when things don't go right, when you need them. And they let you go right back to your maybe not-so-perfect situation that you need to live and discover on your own terms and in your own time.

It took time to find these friends too. Years. Today I can say that I've two really wonderful friends. A few lovely and close acquaintances, and a bunch of people who know and like me. The first real friend dates to my arrival in the Steiner school -- our kids had a thing for each other in the kindergarten, so it was like, hey, they seem to like each other, and wouldn't it be nice if perhaps we all got together sometime? And from that point, through hardships and joys, and many an exchange of children, our friendship has grown and truly taken root. The second, is also indirectly via the school. An acquaintance from school introduced us to each other, and it just clicked. I've been in France since 1995, but the first real friendship dates to 2001, and the second from 2004. It took time.

Today I hear them telling me, now that you are important to me, that you've become an integral part of my world, that I've opened my heart and let you in, don't go back to the States...

Thus, is my life complete as it is?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Baby Goats (aka kids) - A time of re-birth-A Recipe

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

Mid-March, a few weeks before Easter and in the numerous goat herds around us, nearly all have given birth or as they say here, "mise-bas". The warmth and good weather have been a plus. Our friends build a wall of hay bales in their barns to keep in the warmth and protect the kids as the cold winds can be fierce. But this year, with the wind holding off and the sun shining quite gloriously, the kids are out trotting with their mothers nearly immediately. In a couple weeks, the markets will begin to overflow with the new cheese.

I count a number of goat cheese makers amongst my friends, but I think my dearest is Isabelle. Sophie, my beekeeper and a fantastic source of contacts and suggestions, brought us together a few years' back when another goat cheese maker I visited was unavailable. Isabelle and her husband Paul Pierre are people I love dearly. I want to hug them and hold onto them at each visit. In their eyes I see sincerity, affection, amusement, and the gift of appreciating the moment and the people they love. It is magical and catching. Educated as architects, they met in Paris, and soon decided that the architecture scene of the 1970s wasn't for them. They went back to the country of their roots and started raising goats and making cheese. She is the go-getter, the one who launched many a work-site, collaborations with other farmers, and who, alongside Sophie, joined groups of organic women agricultural workers, pushing for better recognition, opportunities, and more. Paul Pierre is the more reserved one, hesitant, but in the end willing. Often, I believe he would simply sigh, push back his fatigue and jump in to pick up the pieces strewn by his much loved wife in her headlong momentum through life.

In the art and rhythm of goat cheese making they have built a life that welcomes visitors, nourished their daughter (and now their grandson!), and allowed them to slowly renovate the ancient olive oil mill that is their home, stable, and cheese-making facility. In the early years, when they had the physical force to attack any and all projects, they would spend the "off season" of the winter working on the buildings. But as time passed, they came to the realization, that just perhaps, the job wouldn't be accomplished in their life-time. And they are ok with this. Learning to accept your limits is a gift, if it comes soon enough.

And I think it did come just soon enough. Isabelle is very sick with a brain tumor. She is no longer charging across the country joining rallies for women agricultural workers. Her more political and active days are behind her. She is more than ever now living in the present with conscious joy in her brand new grandson, her daughter newly installed next door, and her husband more present and attentive since they passed on their goats to a former intern. And yet, with complete lucidity, she is also living the slow and persistent deterioration of her brain, and in particular the area that touches the concept. Bouts with various chemotherapy treatments hold the illness at bay for short spans before it starts back up again. Reading is no longer possible, long discussions wearying. She is there, in the present, grateful for and loving of those around her, and oh so aware of what the future holds for her. At first she had to give up driving, but now, even going up and down the one stairwell in the house is something she does to a minimum.

And yet even here, she is generous. I visit and we talk of her illness, but also of my children, of JP and I (she makes allusions to her couple with Paul Pierre, and that it is possible for a go-getter to be with a more reserved type, that perhaps we'll come to the point where the opposites that we are will balance and nourish and inspire...). She is the loving, head square on her shoulders, gentle and accepting aunt that I so need over here. She is my adopted family replacing those I left back in the States. I cherish the times we are together, and no doubt I talk too much. But I so value her counsel and her experience. I visit as often as the distance and my busy life permit, bringing a bit of my bread, or a story, or some of JP's wine, or just myself happy to be with her.

Isabelle is also my main resource for the chapter in my book project on artisans and recipes for teens and kids. She has shared many of her recipes with me, including the basic ones for making cheese in the style she has for so many years. And, last year, at a moment when she was a bit less weary, she gave a short cooking class to my boys and our friend Alexandra. It was a magical moment, the kids loved everything they made -- from herbed cheese spread to olive oil and goat cheese cake.

The herbed cheese spread was easy, and though it had enough greenery to put off many a child, the kids -- artisans of their own dish-- loved it. Here, with love, generosity and a nudge to live in the present, is Isabelle's recipe:

Collect all the ingredients and put them on or by your work surface:

2 fresh goat cheeses about 100g (3.5oz) each
cream (3 tablespoons)
salt (½ teaspoon)
fresh mint, chives, parsley, tarragon and cilantro -- or what you might have on hand, basil, lovage, celery leaf, thyme...


A whisk
Kitchen scizzors
A rubber (or silicon) spatula for scraping the bowl
A mixing bowl

Put the two cheeses in the mixing bowl, pour in the cream, and mix till smooth with the whisk – about 3 minutes.

Next with kitchen scizzors, snip the fresh herbs in a small bowl or cup – this way you don’t lose any on the kitchen floor.

The mixture we used was: 10 mint leaves, 10 stalks of chives, 2 teaspoons of tarragon leaves, a good handful of parsley, and just a pinch of fresh cilantro (Isabelle said to be careful with this herb as it is really strong in flavor).

Taking turns, we mixed for a couple minutes each, adding salt to taste (depending on your cheese, and your taste buds, you might not need any salt, so definitely taste first before adding any).

Enjoy on bread, with chips, or with carrot sticks and celery sticks. Definitely something to make for Mom and Dad’s parties, or even to stuff home-made pasta.

In the Beginning...

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

I came to Provence to work at the international photography festival, the annual Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles, the summer of 1995. I was attending graduate school in Paris at the Institute Supérieur de Management Culturel, learning the ins and outs of arts management, and this was my second internship through the school, in a field I loved. I had been director of one of the oldest photography galleries in Seattle before coming to Paris, and was hoping to further my ambitions in the world of photography. Little did I know that this city and a man deeply rooted here would re-arrange my future, as a large rock tumbling from a cliff can re-orient the direction of a stream.

I arrived with little more in mind than to do my internship, enjoy the sun, and perhaps go to the beach. Paris had been the rainy capitol of the world that spring, and I could think of little but to enjoy the balmy warmth that had greeted me as I descended onto the train platform of this little city in the South.

Within a few days, I had met Erick, my soon to be husband, borrowed his bike, been to the beach, and eaten quite a few marvelous, simply home-cooked meals in his kitchen. I moved in the next week. Though not love at first sight, the romance was whirlwind. Briefly returning home to Seattle, I divested myself of my most bulky possessions, reduced my belongings to a one meter crate, and came back to Provence, ready to start a new life. A few years later I was running a cooking school, renovating a bed and breakfast, and raising two raucous little boys of two nationalities and two mother tongues. Although my marriage has run its term, I am still here, living in Provence, in my own home in Avignon with my two boys and our dog.

Life is not always easy for an ex-patriot, particularly in a small town in the South. Neighbors find you strange, customs and social signals differ, and finding your place takes time. Finding people with whom you can form friendships and enjoy special moments is particularly challenging. New to the region, I grafted myself onto Erick’s deep roots, and sought a bit of sunlight to encourage my own growth.

This sunlight came in the form of our cooking school. Erick is the chef, but, I too have always cooked. I come from a family in which we are all quite competent in the kitchen, and I’ve orchestrated Thanksgiving feasts for 20 or more as far away as Kobe, Japan, from an early age. My friends back home considered it quite unfair, and rather amusing that I, who was not destined to starve from lack of culinary skills, should marry a chef. Ah well. That’s fate, right? Shared values make for a marriage.

In the beginning, we hosted individuals, visited the outdoor farmer’s market, and cooked, and ate. This was the basic formula of the school. The central pillar was Erick and his personal research into the history of Provençale cuisine, coupled with his passionate alchemical sense of discovery.

How best to cook a tomato? When working with garlic, how do we retain all of its flavor and yet render it more easily digested? And traditional meat dishes-- seared or cooked slowly in wine? What is traditional to the region? (olive oil, lard) What is a recent interloper (butter). And on and on, a never ending, rich research into culinary secrets and mysteries.

As the business grew, we expanded our programs and offered our cooking clients visits to the local artisans. We met Sophie, the beekeeper, at our local market who shares Erick’s passion for historical recipes. Then we met Jean-Marie Fassy, the baker, at a conference on Mediterranean cuisine. Later we sought out local wine makers and went to taste and learn and purchase. At the yearly pottery fair, we met Véronique, our favorite potter.

Wandering down from the Château atop Châteauneuf-du-Pape, we stumbled into the newly opened Cave Verger des Papes and met Guy, our chef-sommelier. A colleague from afar introduced us to the exquisite chocolates of Joel Durand in St. Rémy de Provence. And just down the street from our home in Arles is our maître-patissier Guy Le Blanc. Sophie introduced us to Claudine and Isabelle, our goat cheese producers; and through another friendly connection we met René and Jean-Baptiste at the olive oil mill. Our connections with Guy Brémond led us to our truffle-meister. And so on and so on.

After polite and tentative social overtures, we arranged clear and defined business visits to our artisans. With little hesitation, we invited them to the house to enjoy a five course meal of the cooking school, alongside the students they’d met that week. For us, we wanted to say thank you in the best way we knew how. Our world is food, feeding people comes as second nature to us: please, join us around our table. In France, food is king, a meal shared in a home is sacred. The artisans became our friends.

After my various stumbling and often failed attempts to connect with neighbors, librarians, shop-keepers, and such, it took just a short while to realize that amongst these artisans I had found my ‘friends of a feather’. As bees to honey, I was attracted by their passion, their generosity, their expertise, their patience, their extraordinary welcome to us and our students. They became my teachers. In many cases, we were their only visitors (though this is changing slowly), and my students and myself were given preferential treatment, encouraged to ask any and all questions, and proffered detailed and lengthy explanations on every element of the particular artisan’s area of expertise.

Alongside my clients I learned about wine making: from the pruning, to the selection of grapes, to the harvest, to the crushing and removal or not, of stems. Onwards to the 2-4 weeks of alcoholic fermentation, to the ‘bleeding’ and/or pressing. From there to the malo-lactic fermentation to the decanting, to the aging, to the blending, and finally, to the bottling and which corks are best. Phew! I’d drunk tasted a bit of good Bordeaux and Burgundy as a child, but that was it for my oenological knowledge up to my arrival in Provence.

Be it olive oil, goat cheese, organic wine, chocolate, fougasse dough or pottery, all these marvelous products and the much appreciated creations of our dear friends became essential to my life, and also to the business.

As a foreigner in their world, it is not a little thing that these individuals receive me with open hearts and light in their eyes. They appreciate my sincere interest, and give back a hundred fold. Never am I berated by them with discussions of the invasion of American cinema into French culture, nor challenged on other American behaviors or policies Europeans occasionally find questionable or troubling (i.e. how Americans historically treated the American Indians, international politics, the role of religion in America).

Much more concerned with making a living in a world of flux and periodic confusion; much more concerned with doing well and being proud of their chosen profession, these men and women have chosen the route of personal creativity and hard work. They opened their hearts to me, and made my life here enriched with their experience and friendship. I can truly say that through them, I truly live here, in Provence, in the terroir of the Bouches du Rhône, amidst the olive trees and the seasonal market. I’ve put down my own roots. As a result, I’ve come to understand the apprehension with which many French view moving from their home-town. Here, I know my market vendors. Here, I can drive to any of a number of wineries within 30 minutes of the house, and purchase my favorite wines. Here, I can stock up on fresh olive oil right from the press. Here, I can run down the street to collect my favorite pastries. And here, I am known by name, and greeted with kisses. The cliché says home is where the heart is, add the stomach to that and oh how true.