Wednesday, September 30, 2009

My team of helpers is slowly coming together (or not)

Team spirit is a great concept. Americans adore it. Truly, we are huge fans of team sports, and consequently, they make up a goodly portion of the high school educational experience for many. We learn to work together, to value all the players, to suffer through painful practices, to party after a win, to shore up our morale after a loss. We discover the value of the group over the individual. We also learn a certain level of "shut up or put up." We learn to subjugate our personal feelings and just keep on doing what's expected and needed. We adapt to the demands of a strict coach. We seek admiration and respect from our peers. Our behavior, our view of ourselves, our ability to listen and be present, all these are enhanced by being on a team.

Team sports are not part of the French educational system. The academic day begins at 8:20 and ends at 4 or 4:30pm. There's an hour for lunch (or even two), but no time in the afternoon, and often not the facilities present, for organized school-based team sports. However, you can choose to join a team or activity outside of school. There are private non-profits that tap into national and regional subsidies offering kids the chance to play soccer (practice on Wednesdays, game on Saturdays -- for the rest of your life), or as in Leo's case, handball (practice twice a week, matches twice monthly on Saturdays, optional intensive practices over the vacations). Many students do take advantage of the numerous offerings out there. But, they will never have their classmates show up at a match to root for the home team, nor any pompom girls. Nor will they have the experience of practicing five days a week, three hours a day, throughout either a season or the entire year. Sports (unless you go to a special school specifically for one) are decidedly outside of the main curriculum.

In our home, I am aiming to create a team of helpers. It would be nice, no? Mothering six kids, you'd think that the pay-off might be more help stacking wood, burning brush, raking leaves, sawing branches, breaking up kindling... The list goes on.

In fact, our most successful group effort of late was to push our van so that it would start, thus permitting me to bring my brood to school. Our biggest and strongest, Gaetan, was already off -- he'd hopped on his bike before 6:30 as he had to be at school at 7AM, and I'm afraid my bringing him was just a wee bit out of the question. It was a 40 minute ride on the smaller roads between Avignon and Le Pontet, and he made it with nary a wrong turn.

So, as 8 o'clock ticked upon the clock, and my poor motor wheezed most faintly at me, we were just the five smaller children -- the eldest, my thirteen year old girl, the youngest, my seven year old Jonas -- and me. The task required pushing this old nine-seater van up a gentle and curved slope to the flat road by the Rhône, our Chemin des Canotiers, where we were finally able to push with more ease, and get it up to the speed where the motor would at last turn over.

Laughing giddily, weary, yet very proud, they hopped into the car. We were only ten minutes late to school. Pretty good, eh?

Nothing like a bit of adversity to knit a group of disparate beings together.

However, this was not the case for the brush burning party this afternoon. I was reminded of a French 'Survivor' inspired TV show, 'Kolanta.' I'm afraid our team would lose quite early in the game. The task at hand was to bring the brush from the back garden to the courtyard and burn it in the tin drum, as safely as possible. Add to this raking up leaves, etc., There was a lot of cane which needed to be broken down before being inserted, scratchy bay tree branches, leaves that hissed and whistled as they burned, butterfly tree bows needing folding and compressing, to then be pushed down deeply into the drum., etc.,

Being numerous (mostly me, Leo and the younger boy, M) I thought this task would go quickly. But I didn't count on the amount of sitting rather than doing that they meant to do. At long last, once Gaetan (having finished his homework) came out to help, and our older girl (neither my little girl nor Jonas were with us), I thought it was under control. The last wheel barrow full of brush had been brought out. It needed only to be added to the drum, followed by a bit of raking and cleaning up, for the job to be done.

So, I delegated and went to the back garden to mow. I then took a much needed shower and came back out. What? they're all gone and there's still stuff on the ground which needs burning? and the place hasn't been picked up? the wheel barrow is in the path of my neighbor's car, and the rake lying on the ground, and...

I was disappointed. Was it too much to expect that they actually finish the job before disappearing? But, monkey see, monkey do. Once one disappeared (perhaps only to pee), the others quickly followed. Not a one had it in him or her to properly finish the job. Yet again, it was left to Super-Mom (or Madeleine Croft as I've been called).

I don't know about this...

I did my schpeel of what it is to truly finish a job. I bitched and moaned a bit. And then I got over it. But, I didn't make dinner. They did. Crêpes anyone?

Next week, I bring out the saws for the branches... I've discussed with Leo the value of physical activity -- especially at his age -- in helping him sleep well at night. He immediately related to the sensation of being mentally tired, and yet having his limbs move and jiggle on him. I told him how traditionally, the tasks of a life fatigued us sufficiently to send us to bed properly, physically weary. But now, many go to gyms to achieve this. That I can either do yoga, or clean the house top to toe. Take a long walk, or mow the lawn. Etc., -- yes, I was working a bit towards positive brain washing. But wouldn't it be great if he learned this lesson too? (amongst many another).

By the end of the year, if I've enough projects, I might actually whip this group into a proper team. My aunt's family of nine they are not, but then again, I've not any walls to build, nor barns to shovel out at the moment. Nevertheless I am very tempted to put in a chicken coop and a bicycle shed. And then there's the vegetable garden... I'll just see what I can do. I may need to purchase some boxes of ice cream, or bake brownies. Sometimes when the work ethic is not yet ingrained, a carrot of sorts is necessary.

A Teaching Moment - of an unusual sort

Pre-teens present all sorts of interesting opportunities for social interaction, question and answer sessions and just being. Taking a page from my aunt who mothered nine children's book of child raising, I enlist my troup in all house projects. I do my darndest to insist on participation, a certain level of enthusiasm, and actually finishing the job at hand.

However, when your thirteen year old girl says she has a tummy ache, and in fact she's got her period, and can she just sit it out? In this particuliar case it was sitting out the stacking the wood pile job. Well, it's awkward to be thirteen and it's wierd and scary having your period, so, okay, chill for a while, and do you want a pain reliever?

The pack mentality is such that, if one is missing, the others come looking. Why is she sitting down? We're not finished yet. Are you coming back out? Etc., Amongst the first to question this situation was Leo. So I said she had her period, a girl thing, and wasn't feeling so well. Oh? says Leo. And I said, haven't you learned as yet that girls bleed once a month? Hunh? says Leo.

Ah, a teaching moment presents itself. After all, twelve years old is a good age to learn something about girls, no? So, I shared the strange fact that we girls have eggs, and from the same age as he and other boys start having facial hair, a deeper voice, etc., we start menstruating. We produce an egg a month. And for this egg we make a nest in our uterus. But, if the egg isn't fertilized, if we do not have a relationship with a man, then the egg and its nest go away. And the way they leave our body is by disintegrating into blood. We bleed. Sometimes this time of the month hurts, and sometimes not. But in any case, this is something we live with for the rest of our lives till we get a few years older than I (his mother) am.

Oh. Okay, says Leo. And in the next while he was all solicitous of our very lovely pre-teen girl. It was quite touching.

That night Leo wanted me to stay later in his room so we could have one of our deep discussions. He loves these. He basically opens himself up to more teaching moments, a chance to converse at depth, to reach down into my feelings and whatever I'm willing to divulge. He also skilfully puts off that undesirable moment of Mom leaving the room and turning out the light. So, I continued on the discussion of girls, our menses, our monthly cycles, our relationship to the moon, the French and English definitions of Lunatic, the origins of the word hysterical, and some societal assumptions of why women are moody, or particularly vivacious at different times in the month. I spoke of the possibility (not all of us exhibit this, but many of us do) that women's mood variations are linked to the monthly cycle. I discussed the fact that men occasionally make rude comments about such, but that the concept is rooted in at least a modicum of truth. However, best to not to make assumptions, and yet to be aware.

As is often the case, I spoke perhaps too much, and not at a level necessarily adapted to a twelve year old. But he listens so intently, soaking up whatever is proferred. So the temptation is enormous to keep on sharing and teaching. At the very least, seeds were sown in a young man to be. May these seeds flourish, as he grows, help him better understand, or at least listen and pay attention to, the women in his life.

It's pretty cool mothering a boy.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Mommy Track - Theme and Variations

I started working early. Already in high school I was a hostess in a Chinese restaurant 4-5 hours each weekend night. Then I worked every summer -- a common thing to do for many an American teen -- in cafes, or for a kids' summer arts' festival, or at a book publisher's. I worked all through university, in the cafeteria (I already liked to cook, and made mean pancakes and french toast, though my special order eggs needed some work); and in clothing shops in town. And then, once on my own, I worked pretty much nonstop. In the beginning temping in various secretarial positions, then as the assistant director of a photography gallery, then in Japan at the University Presidents' conference, and onwards to France.

For a good ten years I was single, living with a boyfriend or not, and working full time. I had more or less interesting jobs, and gave lots of energy and time to them. It was pleasant, stimulating, and led to many discoveries and of course, many learning experiences.

Then I had kids. I continued working very long hours as that's simply what you do, right? I sent my kids to day care, or to nannies, hired au pairs, and juggled. I did this for ten years, more or less. All this time I was busy with my businesses, building them, caring for clients, working on the web site, working on the recipes, paying for renovations, learning new routes, hikes, going to conferences. All that one must do to make a business successful. I loved it. It was stimulating, fun, challenging, and used me to the utmost.

But where did my kids fit in? Those little beasties I would often have removed from my sight from 7AM to 7PM? I had an epiphany one day. And, though I felt quite constrained by circumstances, and told myself over and over again that I didn't want to leave destruction in my wake, I ended up by doing just that. I left my marriage and with it, pretty much the two businesses I'd co-created and built. The momentum of the divorce, or setting up home in a new house, of simply coping has carried me far.

For not quite two years now I've worked only sporadically, and whenever possible from home (translations). And now, I feel that urge to go back to work on a more regular schedule, if I can. I miss the rhythm, the consistency of working through a pile of papers and coping on all the phone calls that are waiting, teaching the hours that are scheduled, plugging through a certain number of pages of translation.

I miss this, but I am also reveling in being available to my boys. I treasure my Friday afternoon with Jonas when we have time, just the two of us, to explore our island on bicycle. I have the time to bake bread, the time to get the house in order, the time to help Leo with his home-work. I have the time for chats, cuddles and being there. And yes, it feels extraordinarily precious.

Why is it that the Mommy Track is so punitive to women? Why is it that taking the time to raise our children while they're little is something that will cost you in the long run on your social security and retirement benefits? Why does society not reward you for doing your utmost to raise healthy and emotionally stable, considerate adults? Doesn't everyone prosper from such a task well-done?

Granted, I simply haven't found the right balance. I will fully admit this. Teachers work the hours their kids are in school, and are then able to be with them on vacations, weekends, etc., However, I couldn't live on a teacher's salary in France (minimum wage under the best of circumstances, less than that --1100E/mo--for a Waldorf teacher) and pay for my house, food, car, etc., A teacher's salary is meant to be but a portion of a household's income, not the whole thing.

In France, there is a 3/4 option -- work 4 days a week, rather than 5. But, there again, it is an option for half of a couple, but not a solution for a single mother unless she has other sources of income.

My friend Martine is now, for the first time in 16 years, free to give her full time and energy to a new job. Her sixteen year-old son has chosen to live with his father, her boyfriend is in the South. She is now at a new posting in Nantes, in Brittany. She passed a difficult exam and took the job that was available to her. Now, in a new world, a new apartment, with new colleagues, she is living a vibrant and stimulating new experience. For the first time in ever so long, she is not split in two (or three).

I listen to her on the phone and I get wistful. How I wish I could concentrate on one task and do it well! I miss that energy of arriving in a new town, settling into a new job, meeting, discovering, setting up new rhythms and possibilities. Perhaps I did that overly often? In Princeton, in Seattle, in Kobe, Japan, in Paris, in Arles...

More than anything, I miss the clarity of purpose that giving your all to a job brings. Must I wait till Jonas is 15 before I'll again have this? Of course I'll be working throughout, but, working while divided in my heart? distracted? Begging help from friends to get my kids home from school, leaving them instructions for getting dinner on the table (not such a bad thing this last, I do believe in encouraging lots of autonomy)...

Ah well. I'm just freely associating here. I'm coping, and I'll continue to do so, and yes, my kids will be ok. My mother worked full time and more from my early teen years onward. I handled my own dinners, getting up every morning and getting to school on my own by bike down the Boston Post Road no matter the weather. We had time together in the evenings.

But somehow, in this day and age, I'm not sure I see my boys biking to school through the abundance of traffic and the dark winter mornings that we have here. I'm not sure I see them up and out the door without a nudge from me. Though this may simply be a mother's worrying on my part. However, no one else in this particular society permits their teens to bike such long distances, particularly not in bad weather nor in the dark. Encouraging full independence and autonomy is rather out of fashion. So at the same time as I must work more to keep afloat, I live in a society that expects parents to protect their children far longer.

Yes, I do feel in a bind. I keep working to stretch the twine wrapped around my thoughts, but I've yet to completely untangle the knots.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Oenologist's visit

The harvest is in -- excepting the late ripening Mourvèdre which is slated to be brought in Monday, five days after the other varietals. It is a time for attentive and daily cellar work. Sugar is transforming into alcohol. Daily the density of the liquid is measured: sugared liquid is heavier than water (thus numbers in the thousand plus); and alcohol is lighter (numbers in the very high 900s). Daily the total acidity is measured (by the lab), as well as the sulfites (those naturally present, those combined with the liquid, and those floating freely), the temperature and the presence of malic acid which will transform into lactic acid. Yeasts are working on the wine, but also indigenous bacteria. It is a highly methodical surveillance of a natural and occasionally shifting process. Each year, each grape, each day is different.

This year, for many, the sugar quantity is high. The grapes are very sweet. But, the tannic ripeness wasn't commensurate (phenolic ripeness). As such, the precise timing for the harvest was not an easy decision. And, in the cellar, the numerous consequences of this must be handled with care. If the malo-lactic acid transformation begins before the alcoholic fermentation is finished, this provokes problems, and must be attended to quickly -- urging the vintner to intervene and speed up the alcoholic fermentation by raising the temperature of the vat, for instance.

A few of the tanks have already finished their alcoholic fermentation. Six-eight days was sufficient. The temperature during this period was controled--kept relatively cool; the yeasts were efficient in their work, and the sugar has been fully transformed into alcohol. However, at this point, depending on whether the end product is a vin de pays, or an AOC wine, more or less extraction of matière is desired. Thus, for that which will become a higher-end wine, the solids, le marc, is left with the juice to macerate for another week or more and so, thus extracting a maximum of density and concentration, polyphenols and other good things. To encourage this process, the tank may be heated, and the liquid stirred up by pouring it out into a neighboring tank and pumping it back atop its solids.

When JP sits down with the oenologist, he has already removed samples from every vat in his cellar. They go through every wine, tasting, smelling, and noting what next to do with that particular wine. All these samples will then be off to the lab, who will efficiently get the results back to JP that same evening so he can get to work immediately on the next appointed task. This is a period in the year when the words Saturday and Sunday have little meaning! The wines need attending to.

So, I helped him immediately get to work removing the cooling insert from the grenache, adjusting the tubes and pumps to do the délestage, which can resemble the traditional technique of pigeage, slightly differing from a remontage. As I've just learned, the first lightens the vat: you remove all the liquid, allowing the solids to fall completely to the bottom of the vat, then you send the liquid back atop, breaking the solids, and fully mixing them in. Pigeage is that great technique (be it with your feet or a wooden tool) where you crush grapes to release their juice. And remontage is a continuous process of removing liquid from the bottom of the tank and sending it back in on top, yet keeping the quantity in the tank at the same level throughout.

We went up and down rickety ladders (a new stairwell is to be built to facilitate this, but at the moment, the building of such is in the stage of proposals from various ironworkers). We carried buckets. I cleaned tubes and overflowing tanks. We hosed down and scrubbed, double-checked temperatures, and removed the heating element from the Carignan. The clairette will need to be nudged towards finishing its alcoholic fermentation pronto as the volatile elements that the malic acide transformation creates will potentially cause problems.

There's always something to do.

A recipe for flavorful fowl

A goodly time ago, a fellow food historian came visiting in Arles. She brought with her a fount of knowledge of the Etruscan world and recipes that she and others had been working on recreating from the gorgeous frescos of feasts in Etruscan tombs. Interesting, eh? Well, we were all ears, and hearty appetites.

One of these recipes -- Duck with Leeks -- Erick took to with vigor and adapted to his repertoire. Amongst other differences I believe our colleague put in ground almonds (a traditional thickener) and Erick prefered slivered almonds. Over time, this recipe became a fall and winter favorite for our cooking classes. It is also an excellent recipe with which to practice cutting up a duck (or guinea fowl as I've done this time around) into its parts. Unusual, delicious, easy to serve and easy to freeze and pull out another day, I've always loved it. I tended to prefer more leeks and less meat (I'm a veggie nut) and Erick, being far more of a carnivore, would tend to serve the duck, with just a touch of the vegetables. To each his preference.

In this version, which I've adapted for my vintner's household, I've used a guinea fowl, pintade, as it is far less fatty than a duck, and yet still rich in flavor when compared with a chicken. I've also added -- by special request -- white turnips/daikon/navets longs. JP likes them, and they are lovely when cooked long and slow in a richly-flavored liquid. Otherwise, I've been true to the Erick's version of the recipe.

Etruscan Fowl with Leeks

1 duck or guinea hen
1-2 large leeks with their greens
a small bunch of parsley
1 yellow onion or half a large white onion
optional: turnips (two cups peeled and sliced)
1/2 cup slivered almonds
olive oil for browning
sea salt
a bottle of dry white wine
water to cover

I took apart my guinea hen as I'd watched Erick do so many times before -- myself, the ever-present assistant, I actually rarely did the cutting and chopping myself, but helped our guests and thus, though my fingers are not as adept as Erick's, the skill is nonetheless part of me now. I sliced the skin above the thigh joint, carefully cut down around the flesh under the back of the bird to remove the entire leg and thigh, not missing any nice chunks of meat. I then gently removed the breast meat with the wing attached. Once these were off the carcas, I separated the legs from the thighs, and the wings (with a small chunk of meat) from the breast meat. I now had 8 portions of meat -- enough for four very hungry people, or a family of 8 happy to have a small chunk of meat with their vegetables and grains.

Normally, I would now put the remaining carcas in a pot of water with some herbs to make stock, but as Filou was standing by looking rather hungry, I put it out on the terrace as a treat.

I sliced my onions, washed and chopped my leeks, peeled and sliced my turnips, and chopped coarsely a cup or so of the parsley. -- In the end, I'm limited by the size of my baking dish for this dish. The larger the dish, the more vegetables I could put in.

I then browned the meat in a frying pan with a bit of olive oil, and place the browned meat in the bottom of the baking dish. I put the onions and leeks into the frying pan to brown a bit and wilt with olive oil, and then added them to the baking dish. I then deglazed the pan with the white wine. I added the turnips, parsley and almonds to the dish, and poured the white wine over the top. I poured in the rest of the bottle, sprinkled on sea salt, and topped off the dish with water. I didn't want it all under the liquid, but sufficient liquid to fill the baking dish 4/5.

I then baked the dish for an hour in a relatively hot oven -- 200C/400F -- till nicely browned on top.

In fact, I made this Saturday evening, and will reheat it for Sunday lunch. The dish just gets better with time. Any left-overs can be put in a container on which I'd note the number of pieces of meat, and so be able to calculate how many guests I could serve at a future date.


Saturday, September 26, 2009

Steiner's Four Temperaments (aka the Medieval Humors)

Part of studying to be a Waldorf teacher includes learning about the four temperaments. As my father, a gifted medievalist and renaissance scholar, quickly noted, these are simply a reintroduction of the Medieval Humors. Though thankfully, our doctors no longer believe we should be bled to remove the excess choleric in us, nor plunged in an ice bath to startle the phlegmatic. I now see myself using this information when working with the children in my house, and when observing friends and colleagues. It is one of many tools for understanding a general tonality of a person, and for learning to accept differences. These differences can be so immense, and so basic. For instance, how we hear, how we interpret, our ability to sit still, our length of interest, and how to stimulate this last...

I see that my Leo and my elder female boarder, L, are definitely melancholic dominant. They are tall and willowy, intensely emotional, detail oriented, and potentially slow to get moving. When there's a crisis, emotions flow and sulking may ensue. They express this tendency in their own individual ways -- Leo is particularly sulky, brooding, and heavy to get out of bed in the morning, resistant to change and occasionally imobile. L is wildly emotional, feels everything as a personal attack, quick to tears, distraught. Apparently she is quite attentive to her school work, and has carefully and conscientiously decorated her room, surrounding herself with her own cocoon of emotional reassurance.

Gaetan has also a tendency towards melancholic: careful, detailed, discreet, tall and slender; he reacts emotionally but holds it all in, till he is nearly shaking with frustration and anger.

A typical melancholic adult might be your careful and long-winded professor who slowly and clearly explains the same idea to you in a multitude of ways. Precise, didactic, thorough. Either, you can relate to this type of person, and revel in his magnificent grasp of detail and the tremendous clarity he offers, allowing you to take the best notes you've ever taken in a class. Or, you fall asleep as he starts in on the third version of his discussion.

Or perhaps, you've a gentle and conscientious dentist who revels in rebuilding your broken tooth, working with the care and detail of the most gifted artist/scientist. She might, in her spare time, embroider a highly detailed wall calendar that you assume her grandmother made, but in fact, discover was her winter project.

Put next to them our other boy, M. Here is the epitomy of a choleric: short, compact, lively, quick to take umbrage, quick to initiate plans and projects, ambitious, direct, focused, revelling in challenges. Nothing will get him down! No one will beat him! He's up for anything. He needs little sleep, eats and stores his food on his tummy (and as an adult on his chest). He moves through life like a cross between a race car and a tank, pummeling much in his path. But, he gets things done. He doesn't mince his words. He is efficient, forward-looking, and perhaps just a bit egotistical, or you might interpret him this way as he's not necessarily looking right and left to see if he's done any damage to his entourage in his head-long flight forward.

Think of Sarkozy, or Hillary Clinton. We need cholerics, as otherwise, we might never get up and do things. The status quo would hold too dearly to us. A shove forward is a good thing. Ambition, challenges, clarity. These are strong virtues. And, getting over your anger as quickly as you express it. This too is a useful trait. No wallowing in emotional turmoil and angst.

I'm a dominant Sanguine. This is the personality that revels in the senses. Emotional, but fleeting as well. Deeply sensitive, sincerely touched and weeping at a funeral one day, I'm a Scarlet O'Hara the next, up and ready to move forward. Interested in the arts, revelling in beauty and the sensual, I can be creative, enthusiastic, light and social. I discover people, listen, ask questions, laugh, dance. On the flip side, I can become overwhelmed by the numerous aspects of the world and the people in it that interest me. I can be over-extended, and distracted. But I can also turn on a dime, be attentive to my entourage, hear the nuances expressed in voice or body language. As I child I danced, sang and loved artistic pursuits. I learned languages, music, history and a world of science fiction and adventure stories.

When I meet a fellow sanguine, I feel the click in a way that is quite amazing. My mother is dominant sanguine, one of the reasons we get along so easily. But so are many of my friends. We are generally people in motion, not as slender as the melancholics, but with perhaps more muscle tone.

The last temperament is one I've but little of: the phlegmatic. This is the person who is unflappable, calm in all crises, content to have a roof over his head and good food on the table. He is steady, assured, gifted at calmly attacking a complicated math problem that will take weeks to solve. He will state things as they are, with little emotional inflection. You can count on him, he is a good and faithful friend. However, getting him moving forward out of his comfortable cocoon requires thought, and creativity on the part of the teacher, parent, friend. The phlegmatic will have a tendency towards putting on weight, and will have remarkably few wrinkles on his face.

We all have all four in us, but in general have a tendency towards one or the other. It is rare to be equally balanced. And we are drawn to different temperaments for different reasons. My vintner has a strong tendency towards the melancholic (as did my father) but sufficient sanguine in him to not be driven insane by my love of conversation and stimulation. I am the light to his dark. I flutter like a butterfly and put him in motion, as well as in touch with feelings that he might have bottled up by preference a long time ago. I understand and enjoy cholerics -- often this will be the person who has little tact, but a heart of gold. They are quick to anger, but also quick to find a solution, help, be there. They are good leaders, and great friends in a crisis.

Jonas' teacher last year was a wonderful phlegmatic -- gifted at not saying too much. He was calm, present, sensitive to the needs of his students, rarely raised his voice, and knew just what to teach to keep them interested, but not overwhelmed.

This year, his teacher is a dominant sanguine. I appreciate her as well, finding her easy to talk to and relate to. I know that she has a tendency -- as do I -- to talk a lot, to be interested in everything, to jump all over the place in a conversation, leaping onto tangents and ideas as they pop out of the air or her head. She's learning to tone this down for her little charges, and I'm confident she'll manage.

The new accountant at the school is a calm phlegmatic -- perfect! and my dentist is a marvelously detailed and attentive melancholic who takes the time necessary to do a perfect job. What a privilege for us all.

So, whether I use these personality sketches to help me handle my brood of pre-teens at home, or to adjust my converstion with friends and colleagues in my professional and personal life, they are aids. Just a stroke more information to assist me in advancing through this life.

Planetary interference?

What's with this moment in time? A friend says the planets and stars are aligned in such as way as to render these last two weeks of September difficult. Hmmm. Is that why there are so many crazy and angry drivers on the road? And no, I'm not driving particularly worse than normal. I might be a wee distracted, weary, etc., but I still operate a vehicle conscientiously. So? Is it a time to stay home? Perhaps even stay in bed? There are days I wonder.

The kids seem over their moments of adolescent angst and anxiety -- for the time being. Next week, of course, will hold all sorts of possibilities for further clashes. Jonas is intact and cuddly. Leo is realizing -- with ever so much resistance -- that perhaps he needs to go to bed a bit earlier than 10PM? Since waking up is so painful at 7:30 the next morning, perhaps 9 1/2 - 10 hours sleep just isn't enough? He just might not be an invincible early teenager, no matter how much he wants to equate being older with having the right to stay up late.

I applaud heartily that he wants to read in bed (yippee!!!), but could we do that at 9PM? not 9:30? and certainly not at 10pm? How to accept limitations? Can we be reasonable? Probably not for at least another ten years. He is, after all, only twelve. And he's getting quite gifted at holding onto that last thought before sleep (I'm not getting up tomorrow! so there!) till the morning when I am there, urging precisely that. And goodness he's getting physically so much bigger! I'm amazed I can still get him to do anything. Thank goodness for learned behaviors.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The virtues of a cave d'affinage

Ah, the nuances of cheesemaking and refining. And yes, what is possible in a land where raw milk is the ingredient of choice, pasteurization an option. Isabelle and Paul Pierre spoke at length to me of their cave d'affinage. They built it specifically for the purpose of permitting their cheese to age, mellow, improve. It has terra cotta tiles (on a rather steep pitch to allow for easy hosing down) on the floor. The walls and ceiling are white washed brick. Period. There is an airconditioner to keep the room at 8-10 degrees C, and humidity control, but as the room is ground floor and inside other thick stone walls, the electric machines don't run all the time.

It is very important to build such a room with materials that breath. Plastic panels, stainless steel, these are anethema to the desired result.

The room is never cleaned with anything stronger than water. It is scrubbed down once a year, and hosed occasionally (only the floor, if some of the cheeses drip). During the off season, when the goats are not producing milk and thus there are no new cheeses to put in the cave, it is important to leave a batch or two of aged cheeses (seriously small, hard and blue at this point) in the cave to help the walls imbibe the good bacteria. Then, just before starting up the cheesemaking in the spring, all is hosed down, scrubbed down, and re-white washed. Once the paint is dry, the room is ready to go.

Yes, just in case you were wondering, a room like this is designed to replicate a cave underground. It was precisely in caves (and still is in certain parts of Europe) that cheeses have always aged. These caves harbor and nurture certain bacteria, that act on the cheeses in a good way, encouraging aging, refining, improving.

Isn't it marvelous to remember that excessive hygiene, anti-bacterians, and refrigerators didn't use to exist? and that people survived and in many cases thrived without them?

I don't deny the usefulness of salt and dehydration amongst other tools in keeping food safe for consumption. But that's for another day.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Resolving Conflict -- and the Fear thereof

It took a bit more doing to get my teens past their Thursday evening debacle. It had truly escalated to physical shoving, crying, screaming, and more before I came home. It was a lot to expect that one evening of listening, reassuring, advising, counseling would solve it.

Monday evening we were yet again together after our relatively tranquil weekends apart. And, my elder girl was loath to remain in the house alone with Gaetan when I went to drive Leo to his handball practice. Both she and our young and active boy came along with me rather than stay in the house. And of course little girl. She's basically stuck to me like glue. Thus, only Gaetan and Jonas stayed home and enjoyed the great weather outdoors, biking, playing, etc., Goodness!

So, I started back in, trying to explain why perhaps Gaetan had been so maladroit, and urging resolution, forgiveness... I wasn't getting very far. Ears were closed, self-pity was rampant, it just didn't seem to be a mental or emotional space condusive to understanding the enemy, much less forgiving him.

However, I insisted, and when we returned home, I sent the three of them into the boys' room and said, talk, listen, get to the bottom of this please. You are all good kids, no one was mean or evil, and you are all hurting from the compounded misunderstandings of the other day. My big girl was terrified, and literally in tears at the thought. I reassured her that Gaetan is a gentle and good being, if occasionally prone to saying foolish things. Go, I said, speak and listen.

I wondered if I should explain the rules of the peace talk -- give them a baton or a stick or something to replace the pipe as a signal to designate that moment's speaker -- but they managed, and fifteen minutes later, there was laughter and calm.


We're not totally over the hump -- there are factions and clans settling in and even today, I needed to help negotiate the sharing of my ladder (two different plans for tree houses were in effect, Gaetan and Jonas on one, the other two and Leo on the other).

I am not managing a low-maintenance household, but I certainly am honing my adolescent negotiating skills. How long is the training to become a child psychologist??

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

When Friends come a'Harvesting

For many years, I looked forward eagerly to the wine harvest period, and one of my favorite outings. On the third Sunday of September, I would bring my guests of the moment to JP's friends’ harvest.

Arles to Vauvert was but a short distance. We skirted the town, took tiny roads up to the plateau, down a seemingly abandoned road lined with vineyards, till we reached his dirt road and the small sign confirming our arrival at the Mas. Clients and children in tow, clippers and buckets in hand, we would all join in to carefully hand-harvest grapes.

Laughing, sticky hands all, brushing away wayward strands of hair falling in our eyes, each person adapted himself to the short vines so typical of this region, and sought out the awkwardly placed grape bunches. The little tractor trailed its large bin, awaiting the buckets of grapes. Wasps buzzed in the air attracted by the sweet juices.

JP would pass by each of us, a large grape carrier on his back, smiling his encouragement. The goal was to reach the end of the row, and then to go back and help the others finish up. Keep an eye open for who needs help so all advance together, then shift over to the rows that have yet to be done. Teamwork in the most basic sense. For we harvesters for a day, it was also fun and -- can I say -- romantic. But be not persuaded, joyful as this day is for visitors, picking grapes is hard physical labor, most often done in hot, uncomfortable, backbending conditions, with frequent possibilities for wasp stings.

The friends’ harvest days ended with lunch and nibblies aplenty. A hose was readily available to rince hands, clippers and buckets. A bit of music was put on in the background, and our host offered up a toast to the day’s volunteers. We then all settled down to the rows of tables laden with our pot luck feast, liberally washed down by last year's wine.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A day for me

I didn't need to leave home till late this afternoon. What a blessing. I spent all morning in bed with my cup of tea and the computer writing and editing away. The goal was and is to gather together 50 or so of my strongest pages, re-work, cut and slice, and aim towards what reads and feels like a foodie/frenchie/single mom coping on her own/cultural confusion memoir. Or something in that direction.

As you may have noticed, I'm not a single theme kind of person. I do the personal angst-ridden, life-decision stuff; recipes with a home-maker/kid/organic and provençale twist; raising kids; France vs. US; single woman in her 40s trying to cope; a wee bit of tourism; a few articles about my artisans (so far: the chocolatier, the potter, the goat cheese makers, the hat lady, the vintner, the beekeeper. Still to come: the baker, the pastry-maker, the olive oil mill, the truffle hunter and??? we'll see).

Going back through these, plus what I'd written before blogging is exhilirating, but also confusing. What to include? what to cut? And there I go again beating the dog with a stick... Yes, there are some issues I'm having a long haul with, and I see I'm repeating myself on occasion. Will there be an epiphany? Will I get to the other side? Will I achieve a moment of nirvana and inner peace? Or?

I'm not my own best editor, though I'm enjoying re-working phrases and my word choices. Once I wrote concisely... but I seem to have left that skill back in another life-time. Now, I'm holding too dearly, and need a bit of help with the scalpel.

Can I be funny? should I be? where and when have I been poignant? or struck a chord? What tantalizes? Which recipes have pleased the most? How much Frenchiness to include? How much mid-life crisis/decision stuff? And, should I go back to my personal journal and include anything more intimate? (which no, I'll not put here on the blog).

Once I finished a morning's full of contemplation, reading and typing, I got up off my sore butt and answered Filou's call for a nice long walk by the Rhône. The weather is still quite lovely, though muggy today. It's that inbetween time when I've still summer clothes hanging in my closet, but I'm pulling out the jeans, which are then too hot, but putting shorts on seems somehow wrong.

An hour of yoga nicely capped off my personal time (thank you pod casts off ITunes!) My choice of session today was a level 2/3 by Elsie Escobar, who, once you get past her boppy, babbling in the first couple of minutes of her pod cast, is truly a gifted and pleasant teacher to listen to and follow. I highly recommend her to anyone doing yoga from a somewhat beginner to a fully intermediate level.

With all this personal time, making a lasagna for dinner, urging the kids to talk over what happened Thursday last, reading, cleaning, what-have-you was far easier to manage this evening.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Savory Onion and Tomato Tart

This is the recipe (by request) for the tart I whipped up the other day for JP and myself when I ran over to the vineyard to gather my important documents. It is best with super-ripe, garden tomatoes!

A simple savory crust prebaked (I just made one with semi-whole-wheat flour, palm oil, olive oil, salt, and water).

olive oil
3 medium sized onions, (about 2 cups of sliced onions)
2 large garlic cloves
a small bell pepper (orange or red)
5 small very sweet, fresh-picked tomatoes
3 anchovy filets

optional: a sprinkle of fresh rosemary, thyme, or herbes de Provence.

Slice your onions and toss them in a deep dish frying pan with olive oil to cover the bottom, turn on the heat beneath and begin to sweat them. Turn down the heat and let them start to caramelize.

Chop the bell pepper and add it to the onions. Stir so they don't stick or burn.

Crush and chop the garlic, and add it to the pan.

Chop the tomatoes into quarters or eighths (depending on size) and add them before the garlic burns (a couple minutes).

Let simmer and reduce.

Pull out the anchovy filets and drop them into the simmering oil. Mash them with a wooden spoon, and blend into the rest of the mixture. -- Anchovies literally melt when simmered in oil.

Pour the mixture into your pre-baked pie crust. Spread it out. Sprinkle a bit of shredded cheese on top. I also put chunks of goat's cheese into the tart. Pecorino is also an option -- you can go creamy and tart, or salty and chewy.

Bake till it is nicely reduced and melted, perhaps 15 minutes. And enjoy -- hot, warm, or cold the next day.

Child Psychologist anyone?

I think I need to get a new degree and start a new career. There's something about living with four pre and full teens that stimulates conflict, confusion, emotional breakdown and the need for explanations, understanding, patience and finally, resolution. I am now proving myself a rather adept pediatric psychologist and group counselor, conflict resolutions my specialty.

Last year the dynamics were rather simple: my two little boys, and 3 teenage girls. The eldest of the girls being quite a bit older, she had authority, and could cover for me when I wasn't there. She could cook, she could organize, etc., And in general, the others fell into line.

This year, it is easier for me when I'm home -- I clearly am the adult and I can correct, direct, and exact relative obediance and contributions to the household tasks. Having ages that span Jonas' young 7, to our run from 11 - 15, they're all still young enough to listen to me. I've been able to make them accept my banishment of the computer, and when necessary, I can urge them to eat their vegetables. Early adulthood is as yet pretty far away. However, when I am not at home -- as I learned the other evening when unavoidably delayed by a broken down car on the ring road for two hours -- it's impressive the emotional damage that can occur amongst 12/13/15 year-olds.

When I returned home, at long last, I had one in tears, two ready to run off, one shaking with fury and frustration, and Jonas asking me to return the three new ones and keep only Gaetan. Woah..... As two departed on the button of my return, I began with Gaetan: please tell me what happened from your point of view. In terse and tense sentances, he spelled out the last two hours, as he had lived them. OK. Got it.

Then, the other two returned in time to accompany me to the train station to pick up a Japanese guest (just a little added element to render the evening even more challenging). OK kids, now tell me your side of the story. In infuriated bursts they communicated their point of view.

Can I go back through it all? There was a miss-use of authority on Gaetan's part -- but with good intentions, as being the eldest, he felt he was supposed to be in charge, and I hadn't clarified this as yet. There was immediate anger/ shouts, and rebuttals on the others' parts -- rather than calm the situation, the reactions were loud, insulting and strong. Then there were requests to clean up, and responses that they'd do it in their own good time. Then there were slamming doors and outings on the bikes. Return. And then Gaetan was out the door with Jonas, telling the others to sit still. Which of course, they wouldn't take from him, so they went out -- leaving my house unlocked, and empty a week after I'd been burglarized by local kids. This latter event provoked Gaetan into locking them out, which had them then throwing stones at my front door and damaging my paint job (yet another task for next spring...)

Goodness. Amazing how tempers will climb and fly off the handle, out the window and into the realm of temporary insanity.

So, I sat them each down separately. I reassured Gaetan that I appreciated his efforts, but that he is not responsible for the other big kids. That to this point, they've shown themselves honest and helpful, and that I'm sure they will continue to do so. That he keeps an eye out for Jonas is great, but not to worry beyond that. I also emphasized that the girls' room is sacred, i.e. knock gently and await an invitation before going into it. Gaetan comes from a large family (6 kids) and I sincerely doubt that bedrooms are sacred where he comes from, thus a point to make and stress.

My big girl, just 13 really, was a mess. Sad, upset, with a headache (no doubt from another female ailment), emotional, outraged, ... I reassured her that her room is sacred, that I know she is doing her best, that I trust and respect her and that I admire her integrity. That Gaetan is not there to order her about. However, flying off the handle rather than answering quietly to a request to clean up the snack area wasn't particularly helpful. And, leaving my home unlocked and empty is definitely not ok, no matter their desire to be off and biking, and no matter their sense of injustice. I caressed her hair, wiped away her tears, sat beside her in bed, and reassured her of my respect and affection for her. It would be ok. But on top of everything, her mother didn't answer the phone when she tried to call her. So, a miserable afternoon, headaches, and a non-existent parent. After consolling her again amidst her deception (with my Japanese guest looking on), I sent her upstairs to the bathroom for a super-special Lavender infused bath. At long last calm, she came down to eat dinner.

The third party is of the sort that reacts and then it's over. By the time I got downstairs, he was already back at playing cards with Gaetan, their recent dispute simply a memory, no matter that it had ended in physical shoving and hitting. But, I took time with him to be sure he was alright with things, to reassure him as well of my appreciation of his work ethic and presence these past few weeks, etc.,

It was a very intense evening. Our little 11 year-old girl provided comic relief in a most Shakespearean way, "so you're really mad most at Gaetan? Is he the one you're going to punish?" She so desperately wanted me to point out a bad guy. I disappointed her by replying that no, I wasn't mad at any of them. It had blown out of proportion, and I simply wanted to be sure such a level of misunderstanding and upset wouldn't happen again, or at least that we'd cultivate the tools in ourselves to calmer le jeu rather than exacerbate it.

An interesting element that has come in is the three new kids vs Gaetan and mine. Gaetan lived with us last year, so he knows us, he has a feeling for us. The new kids are completely new, even to the school, so they're banding together. It will take time for Gaetan to get along with them. And, from the beginning the new kids pretty much ignored Jonas, and even seemed to prefer each other to befriending Leo, who can also be rather bossy.

Such, the dynamics are flowing, stepping, shifting along. We'll see where we're at by Christmas...

Thankfully, breakfast the next day was a smooth and pleasant affair. Oophf!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Choices for Women, for Single Mothers

Divorced mothers have choices. At times they are forced upon you. They can be painfully difficult, rife with conflicting sensations, awkward and more.

Simply, do you, can you, will you remarry or at the very least shack up with another man while your children are young? (or ever). And if you do so, will that man find it in him to love your children? Can he love children not of his own flesh and blood? Will he help you, support you, encourage you in that love and care, or will he be that which draws you away from them? Will he seem to, but then, if you have a child with him, will his own take precedence, and yours of another man be pushed away? And what do you do then? Can a woman choose between her first child, her choice of a mate and the second child they've had together? Why must she? I've seen this, and the pain and awareness of the situation in the eyes of the first child. I've heard the worry and strain in the voice of the mother on the phone. But what do you do? How can you choose? You don't leave a second marriage with a second child lightly... and if, God forbid, you are dependent financially on this second husband, and thus truly feel your hands tied... How do you cope? In this particular case, the elder child is now at a boarding school. Thus, the new husband and new child have been chosen over the first. A variation of Sophie's Choice.

In my own situation I've found some level of rhythm and sanity. It is not perfection, but it has its lovely moments. I have children I care for during the week, and a man who cares for me over the weekend. Rarely do they meet. However, as they rarely meet, I keep the moments of jealousy and weirdness to a minimum. My children do not need to compete for my attention, and I don't have a man who feels excluded when I care for them. They each get my undivided attention all to themselves, during their alloted time slots.

This is not perfect. When I heard the words carefully spoken from his mouth I felt like I'd been kicked in the belly. All hopes of making a new life, truly making a new life with this man evaporated. As how could I continue to love and adore someone who didn't find my children lovable? And yet I did love him, and I didn't want to end what we had. And I still do, but differently. I've put distance between us, learned to protect myself, put up some barriers, and just stopped looking for more from him than he is able to offer. I've stopped asking, stopped suggesting. I've learned to consider only the good, and push aside what hurts, for now.

Nevertheless, my children are of my flesh, they are also me. It's the package deal. How can you take one without the other? Apparently, it's not such an unusual situation. I am not alone in living this conflict, nor this arrangement. And so for the moment, I've accepted and adapted to it.

And yet...

Perfect would be a man who loved me, (ideally adored me) but also contributed to a stable family unit with me, who could be good to my kids, fun, fatherly (though not their father), attentive, concerned with their education, and collaborate with me so as to avoid conflict. Ideally we would have joint projects, and approach life as partners in crime. We would go forth together, and my boys would fully be part of our lives.

Is this simply a dream? A fragile mirage?

My mother never re-married after my parents separated. She worked and she raised me. If she saw any men, it did not encroach on our time together. I think I would have welcomed a love in her live, but, for the duration of my time in the family house, it didn't happen.

I've received comments from readers of this blog who simply found it easier to raise their children alone, and then go dating once the youngest was on her/his way out of high school. Mixing children and new love was just too stressful and fatiguing.

I certainly have my amazing au pair Hayley to thank for even being able to start dating my vintner. If she'd not been there after my first date, and my subsequent multiple sleepless nights -- Pandora's box of emotions and torment had just been opened within my heart/head/body making sleep just impossible, and eating too -- I couldn't have coped. She got my kids up, to school, to tennis, fed, while I slowly recovered from the emotion-struck vegetable I'd become. After a week I was newly vertical, but continued to be a highly distracted individual for another few months.

It was not an easy thing to mother my boys and start a new affair. If I'd not had help, could I have done it? When you know that you have a problem with sleeping beside a new man; that fun though making love will be, and joyous as it is to fall into that new man's arms, you'll be a total mess in the morning having not closed your eyes once throughout that night... can you allow that night to happen? If the kids are home and waiting for you, counting on you to be copacetic, on the ball, a proper mother...? I'm just not so sure.

And so I look around, I consider, I wonder. I see the world in shades of gray. There is an idea of the perfect situation, but can it happen? It doesn't for many. Perhaps I'm destined to simply raise my boys, do the best I can do, and through yoga, healthy eating habits and a bit of face lotion, keep up my looks and potential attractiveness so that when at last I'm fully available, men will still be interested. But if I choose this route, will I be depriving my boys of the potential presence of an interesting and interested man?

Clipping with Goats

I ran a bit late this morning -- somehow, cleaning up breakfast after the kids, kneading the bread for a second rising, and?? brushing my teeth? just took more time than they should have. Thus I wasn't out the door till a full 30 minutes after my kids were off to school with the neighbors. But, with minimal traffic, I was at the farm within 45-50 minutes. Filou faithfully on the passenger seat, we drove through the morning mist. We, along with our fellow drivers, had our night-lights on, the fog was so thick. For the first time in three months we'd had a serious rain storm. All night long the rain had come down -- happily rather gently. The local farmers, vintners included, are relieved and pleased. So here I was driving along on this cold and misty morning. Where had summer gone?

Ah, summer went south. Once I'd crossed the Alpilles from St. Rémy de Provence to the Vallée des Baux I was greeted by sunlight. Rather akin to passing from Germany to Italy in the summer. One second to the next I was out of the mist and into bright sunlight with shadows from the trees lining the road rolling away before me in a pattern of strips of varying density.

At the farm Aurelie was clipping hooves. While the goats were held still by their manger, and the young intern (then me) worked the milking pumps, she carefully went at the over-grown hoof nails. She explained and showed me the patterns, textures and colors of the goat hooves. I didn't take a hand to the clippers, but I was able to get at least a visual understanding of the operation. Aurelie regularly goes through the herd -- never all at one go -- to keep their hooves healthy and groomed. I remember cleaning horses' hooves when I was a kid; there are similarities, but where with the larger animal you have a hook to clean out the cavities, the goats' hooves are not concave, nor do they have metal shoes, simply horn-like nails that grow and curve under, potentially digging into the more tender pink area. Aurelie has a sure hand, and went at the task with ease and familiarity. I could see, though, that this is the one part of a goat's body that is relatively filthy; clipping only the over-grown nails could be a bit difficult. As when I clip and trim Filou's claws, I just might nick a goat too closely, earning a kick (where Filou might try to nip me). I'll watch for awhile more before attempting this.

Back in the laboratory all the milk went through the filters and into the containers. I went right to work flipping the two day-old cheeses, and made another attempt at flipping the one day-old ones back into their molds. I haven't truly got the hang of it yet. I'll photograph Aurelie in detail next week. At this moment I've a way of doing it that sort of works, but where I might dent the cheeses slightly on a side. Ideally, I barely touch them, tipping them out onto the tips of my fingers, using my thumb to flip them, and place them back into the mold nicely, upside down. However, more often than not, they land on their side, get mushed, I tap and shift them, tip them back out and try again. The end result is not particularly aesthetic, to put it the least. Aurelie has the patience of a saint. But, I would very much like to get these gestures down and into my hands/fingers. Isabelle says I simply need to sacrifice perhaps 3 or 4 cheeses and work at it all morning till it comes. There's a way to do it, and my approximate style isn't it.

As I flipped out the two day-olds, I felt that they were every weight and height under the sun. And I remembered Isabelle and Paul Pierre emphasizing that with time and experience you learn to judge the density of the curd and make consistent cheeses. Goat cheeses are sold by the piece, not by weight. As such, if she's charging 1E40 per cheese, on some she is losing money, and on others, clients are being jipped. Not good. This is truly part of the art. Making cheese that is pleasant to eat is not too difficult. But making cheeses that are consistently of the same size, texture, salinity... this is where the master shows himself. Practice, tasting, keeping track, taking notes, being attentive. And yes, having the goal of achieving these standards.

One of the benefits of having a cave d'affinage to age your cheeses -- at 10C, a good 6 degrees above refrigerator temperature -- is that it allows you to offer multiple possibilties to your clients. Aurelie set herself to preparing a few of these in attractive trays for a friend's wedding. From fresh to five weeks' aged, rolled in savory, filled with a mixture of mustard grains, hot pepper flakes, ground peppers and whey, filled with tapenade... Even though you fill the fresh cheeses (i.e. 4-5 day old) by preference, once filled, they can continue to age and evolve, and depending on what you've put in them, their flavors will evolve differently. Aurelie showed me the trick of smoothing the side of the cheese once she put the two halves back together. In a couple days, a crust will form and no one will be the wiser that she'd filled this cheese (though we did put a dab of the filling on top of it to mark it), and they'd marvel and the seeming impossibility of it. That whey moistens the ground mixture contributes to the evolving ferments. Tapenade is also made from a fermented product -- salt-cured olives -- provoking a different evolution; and even the crumbled savory leaves will give their touch to the cheese. To that end, we tasted a forgotten experiment: fresh cheeses that had been rolled in savory and left in the cave d'affinage for over two months. They looked rather scary, but they were soft and oozing a lovely creamy interior...hmmmm??? Wow! They had a sharpness, a bite, and intensity, and they were wonderful. Made from raw milk, kept at 10 degrees, the natural yeast and bacteria were slightly altered by the savory, producing a marvelous end product. Nice experiment, and no, it didn't kill us. Good bacteria is a good thing.

As I came out of the lab, Paul Pierre was just beginning to ready lunch for himself and Isabelle, but also for a cousin, Isabelle's 90 year old mother, Marie, their daughter, Fred, her companion, and Shabi, their 8 month old son. It was a large family affair. Gratefully, I was included, and as such, immediately got to work on the crust for the tarte tatin that Isabelle had begun. Once this was done, I cleaned the salad, chopped some tomatoes, made the dressing, and in general, tried to be helpful. My only contribution this week was the pear compote I'd made the night before with all the kids -- something better adapted to Shabi's diet than to the adults. But that was fine by me and them. But another loaf of my no-salt multi-grain bread would be appreciated for next Thursday.

The meal was lively and nourishing, ending of course with a cheese course. Have you ever seen an 8 month old teething on hard goat cheese? Now, this would be hard to imagine in a country where we aren't allowed to work with raw milk, and thus 5 weeks' aged could only be found on a black market... or as contraband. But imagine, the strength of flavor, the snapping density, the hard interior that melts in contact with the gnawing gums. And, he loved it! Toss out those vache qui rit, those plastic little Baby Bells, and got forbid Cheesewiz! Real cheese, correctly aged, for real kids. And you can't beat it as a source of calcium and easily digested protein.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Testing for grape maturity

Today was a day to harvest the Syrah. Being a Tuesday, normally I wouldn't have been at the winery, but I'd forgotten the folder with all my important papers/documents (lawyer's letters, CAF, Sécu, taxes, ID, etc.,) at JP's and I just needed to have them within reach. I should be able to lower my property taxes this year as the divorce is pronounced, and I've been legally separated and caring for the boys on my own now for more than a year. The Avignon house still has both our names on it, but I've been the sole person responsible for it both in fact and legally, so, with papers in hand, I should be able to go and plead my case.

Thus, once I'd dropped the kids off at school I drove over for the day. Being there, I made lunch (a simple savory tart with caramelized onions, garlic, garden tomatoes and a couple anchovies, peppered with Aurelie's goats' cheese) and stayed long enough for a brief sieste (standard procedure) and to accompany JP on his early afternoon visit to the vines.

The morning had been spent harvesting, de-stemming, and then pumping the Syrah grapes into the tanks. These were the last of the Syrah from the special planting of his Jardin Secret. The grapes were already at 15 degrees alcohol -- rather high for Syrah--, and yet they weren't completely at the maturity JP desired -- due to the minimal rain-fall, the vines had simply stopped maturing, having put themselves on hold. Nonetheless, he felt it justified to harvest them now rather than to await tonight's rainfall, and the following 3-4 days it would require for the grapes to benefit from the rain, continue to mature, and hopefully be in shape for harvesting next week. It's always a gamble. And as there's been both mildew and oidium on the vines this year, waiting would allow these illnesses to spread, and he could potentially lose most of the harvest. So, the decision was made and the Syrah is now in the tanks, cooling down tonight. The careful and controlled fermentation will get going tomorrow.

The Syrah is the earliest-ripening grape (the French use the word précoce, or precocious in this instance) of the vineyard, and makes up between 25-40% of the winery's different blends. The rest of the domaine is planted in Carignan, Grenache and Mourvèdre. So, with a rendez-vous scheduled this afternoon with the oenologist, it was time to go out and randomly pick a selection of grapes from the the Mourvèdre and Grenache vines to check their maturity.

JP armed himself with two pails and a pair of clippers. We hopped into the little farm truck and bounced over to the parcels. He picked 4-5 small bunches from each area and added an identifying leaf (those in the know can recognize grape varietals by the leaf patterns). He tested a couple grapes by crushing them between his thumb and his index. By doing so he could see the color of the seed, whether the pulp still clung around the seed, as well as the thickness of the grape-skin, and the resistence or lack there-of to the pressure of his digits.

Neither varietal was as yet ripe -- which is what he expected. Once down at the cellar, he will crush a selection from each pail of grapes and then take the resulting grape juice and spread it on a refractometer (I do believe that's the word), a tool which takes the density of the sugar content in the fresh grape juice and lines it up on an easy-to-read scale to indicate the future alcohol degree.

Yes, there are tales of traditional vintners simply taking a grape, crushing it in their fingers, and tasting it, knowing empirically whether it is ripe or not. However, others (particularly those who are a bit more humble) use both these age-old visual and physical clues, and the aid of a marvelous and quite accurate tool.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Un bon déjeuner et une sièste -- ils sont sacrés!

A good lunch and a proper nap.

Do we still do this somewhere in the US (or even in the Anglo-Saxon world at large)? I certainly never did before I came to France. I remember being at work at 7:30AM, zooming through piles of text and tapes to type up, dashing out for a quick cup of soup at 11:45, back at my desk at noon, through another pile of folders, and out the door at 4:30PM, in time to get to an aerobics class. When necessary, I worked late into the night, nibbling at a hoagie or some Chinese food as I typed away, researched, etc., This was normal.

Then I came to France. In Paris the lunch hour was an hour plus. Everyone left their post. Everyone went outside and purchased something hot to eat, with a preference for a sit-down meal in a restaurant. I was still in Japan mode, and would bring my not-quite bento lunch to the office. My boss at the time, the travelling show coordinator at the Centre National de la Photographie, would look askance at my cold food, and encourage me to get out and about. A tendency to eat quickly and be back at my filing was something she just found odd and quirky, if not downright sad.

In France many businesses distribute lunch checks worth 10-12 Euros (perhaps more these days, I've not gotten any since I last worked in Paris, over 12 years' ago) to their employees. Thus, out the door, and go forth to purchase your lunch! Keep the bistrots and cafés in business. Or, if you are following the fast-food trend, perhaps a sandwich with crudités?

And then I moved south. My first years with Erick in Arles drove me batty. I tend to not be a morning person (before 7AM you're not likely to see me vertical). I need that cup of coffee. Unless I'm driven out the door by necessity, or facing an emergency, I have a brain that wakes up slowly. Brain speed is improved dramatically by a long bike ride in a brisk and moist wind before arriving at an office, or by an equally long and vigorous walk. But, when you work for yourself, it is a different sort of effort to put this activity into your day (particularly when you've small children to wake, dress, feed and get to school). All this to say that it was the rare morning when I could get to the computer and actually start working through emails, paying bills, etc., before 10/10:30AM.

But then I'd get on a roll and start boogying through the day's work. Simply writing, responding, corresponding would wake me up and I'd slip into the flow. Eleven thirty would arrive and I had to tear myself away from the computer, or the files, or the phone, and go prepare lunch. At twelve fifteen I called Erick (for many years he was working to renovate the b&b, so just visualize him covered in chalk dust, physically weary, and in need of a woman to put lunch on the table).

Salad, a hot dish with meat, pasta, cheese, wine, and then freshly brewed coffee with perhaps a square or two of chocolate. While Erick then went to sleep on the downstairs' couch, I would clean up, put away, do dishes, etc., It was now after 2PM.

I would feel sluggish from the meal, the post-lunch coffee didn't have the enlivening effect of its morning cousin. Stopping so abruptly for such a long lunch completely jammed my momentum. And yet, there was more work to do. At this point, I didn't consider taking a nap myself. How could I when there was ever so much more to get done? I was more than a bit terrorized by the idea that lying down mid-day would eat up whatever work hours were left, and then before I was newly conscious, the kids would be home, and time just a memory. So, I pushed myself up to the computer. There, it took a moment, but slowly, I'd get back into responding to emails, updating the email list, re-working the web site and the year's programs, etc., By 4:30 I was back in form and chugging through the work at hand.

5PM, little voices, feet running up stairs; the beasties are back. I could try to keep working, but distractions were many, and then if I didn't get dinner on the table, it didn't happen, so, off I would go to keep the household functioning. Between dinner prep, setting the table, eating, clearing, dishes, etc., then bath, tooth-brushing, bed, stories, ... I would never get back to the desk. For those who came to our cooking classes, they witnessed even busier evenings. No matter the needs of the kids, I was with the clients from 5PM till 11PM, with nary ten minutes here and there to run up to kiss the boys goodnight. Clients or kids, at a certain point bed called to me too, and off I would go. I've friends who manage to get back to work after the kids are down and work till far into the night. I'm not an adept of this option, unfortunately.

Thus, for me, this major pause mid-day -- 11:30 to 2:30 -- wrecked my efficiency. I lived this as a frustration and as a burden for years. I was in a state of shock and amazement. I would look back with nostalgia to the days when I got lots done (office work) every day, when I'd been a super-achieving employee, diving into piles, creating order, mowing down the tasks at hand. What might I have accomplished for our businesses if I'd been able to give the time my brain and past history told me was normal? I would laughingly say that both my business and my son would have benefited from all my time, but were managing with only a sliver, and yet, they both seemed to be doing okay.

But, I preamble for far too long. I'm trying to write about people who successfully nap, and though I've brought up an example, I am also digressing at length.

In my current life I spend time under the roof of and in the company of my vintner. He seems to epitomize the Frenchman who abides by the good lunch and proper nap routine, and yet who also succeeds in getting a lot of work done. He religiously eats his main meal at noon (and often noon on the dot), follows it with a small coffee and a square of chocolate, and then lays down for 30 minutes. Even on the longest of days, with stress pouring out of his ears, he peacefully nourishes himself and then allows his mind and body a moment of complete and total rest. As he helps me finish up the dishes, and nap time isn't till the kitchen is clean, I am able to join him with a clean conscience. The presence of a warm and perfectly situated shoulder to lay my head on renders the act of napping quite marvelous. I succumb to the temptation.

This past weekend was typical: no matter the work at hand, lunch and nap were integral parts of each day. Saturday work began at 8AM, pressing the marc, but he was up at the mas for his noon lunch. Back down to the cellar at 1:30 after fifteen minutes lying down, finishing up for the day at 8PM. He offered himself a brief social pause between 4:30 and 5, but otherwise, it was a day devoted to the work. And yet, a good meal and a nap were not neglected.

Sunday moved a touch more slowly. He actually slept in till 9AM. Breakfast, some paper work at the desk, then down to the cellar from 10:30 - noon. A lovely lunch with his mother and my good cooking from noon - 1, a good nap till after 2, and then back to the cellar to finish up the cleaning, hosing down, airing the fermenting tank, etc., When I departed at 5, he still had a couple more hours to go.

In the world I came from, working sun up to sun down with nary a moment's pause, grabbing a quick bite, drinking lots of coffee in large-sized cups is the standard operating procedure for many. There is a tremendous need and pressure to be efficient. We do the most we can physically accomplish. And if we return home and simply collapse, eating whatever is put in front of us that goes down easily, such is life.

But here--and I have to stress here in Provence amongst the traditional professions, as outside of my artisans, not all of the population still abides by these rhythms--work gets done, lots of work gets done, and yet the civilized meal, the refreshing nap are not sidelined in favor of more efficiency. Granted, there's no nibbling while working, there isn't a large cup of Java sitting on a side board to be sipped throughout the morning, and there's a strong discipline in regards to the workday -- weekdays begin at 7AM in the vineyards, and finish anywhere from 5-7PM. Only smokers take breaks during work hours (not my vintner's case, nor my baker's, nor the cheesemakers', nor the beekeeper's), everyone else is at work and working. Thus, when the lunch hour arrives, the rest is well-earned.

I see, I live, I taste this rhythm. I feel the sensible nature of caring for the body and soul in this way. And yet when I'm alone in my house in Avignon, I do admit, I return to what was inculcated into me as a young adult. I'm vertical at 7, but not really on top of things till 9:30AM (8-9 is drop off at school time). I work till 3PM when I have to ready myself to go pick up the kids. Lunch is thus a brief affair, and a nap non-existent (unless I'm in a state of collapse, but then I run the risk of not waking in time to get the kids). Getting the kids, being with them, keeping an eye on homework, preparing dinner, orchestrating dishes, etc., these eat up the rest of the day, (after all, there are six of them now) till my bed beckons and rest is at last an option.

Napping is a wonderful idea, and I adopt it when the opportunity is offered, when the situation warrants it, but... the rhythms of my birth country are still mark me.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A day for pressing

The Costières de Nîmes AOC (appelation d'origine controlée) has not always had a reputation for quality. You can count on it to be a concentrated red wine of the South. Good for what ails you and a good companion to steak, lamb stews and such hearty fare. Not every bottle is elegant and refine, with the potential for cellaring. However, this is changing, not for everyone, but for a few.

It requires more work, more attention, and perhaps the hiring of an oenologist to work alongside you as you harvest, press, ferment, decant, and bottle. This week, you can quickly perceive who has chosen to shift gears and aim for quality, and who is content with how things have always been done. Look around you, on either side of the small roads atop the plateaus there are still pickers in the vineyards, and small tractors chugging gently down to private village-based cellars. It may be Sunday, but these men and women are tending to their fermenting grapes, dashing off just after breakfast, and right after their brief noon-time sieste, to the tasks that need doing today, not tomorrow. The vintners and vineyard owners who work with the Cave Coopérative finished up last week. Already the roads are cleaner, the sloshing juice spills rarer. Those huge over-filled bins trailing behind impressive tractors are no longer blocking the road.

At Domaine Cabanis not even half the harvest is in. Careful attention is made to harvest at the right moment; daily the grapes' sugar content is tested, and estimates judged taking into account the local weather predictions. A team of 6-8 men and women are on call this month, ready to come in the next day at 7AM, or to wait a day or two till the next parcel is ready. Picking the grapes at the optimum moment is the goal of every conscientious vintner seeking to make the best wine possible from his grapes.

At the Cave Coopérative, they make perfectly good wine. It is made with care and "correctly" as they say here. But the many small and large-sized vintners who depend on this cellar fit into the schedule provided. It cannot be denied that for a substantial majority, the goal is simply to press out some liquid and get it onto the market -- simple and inexpensive wine sells often more easily than top quality. For them it is speed and facility. They choose not to take any risks, thus protecting their harvest from the potential damage of fall storms, temperamental weather, etc., (for example, they're announcing rain for Tuesday... will it be followed by a drying mistral wind? or by heavy and hot humidity? will the grapes still on the vines recover? or will they rot?).

The quality of the grape, its ripeness, its skin, its health: these are the primary materials, and if they're not right, there's only so much you can do in the cellar to improve on the beverage into which they will be transformed. Green grape seeds can bring bitterness to the final product. The careful vintner will crush grapes in a small bowl, view and then taste the seeds for maturity. One amongst a number of elements he observes and calculates.

This weekend the syrah for the vin de pays and classic AOC red, finished its eleven days of fermentation. The juice of the drip was removed from the solids Friday afternoon, and transfered to a different tank where it will rest quietly and decant the remaining solids in suspension. Saturday thus, was the day devoted to pressing the remaining solids, le marc, remaining in the tank. The vintner, or his helper (when not in bed with the flu) gets into the tank (with a fan going above his head to prevent any carbon dioxide intoxication/fainting spells) and shovels out the marc into the awaiting slide attached to the pump which sends it to the press. At the press the helper (or vintner, depending on the skill at shoveling of said helper) directes the large stream of solids, distributing it evenly throughout the press. It took three rounds of shoveling and pressing to get through all the solids.

Once the pressing was finished, it was time to fully clean, brush, and rince out the tank, the press, the pump, and all the tools used during this process. By the time we were finished it was 8PM, time to retire to the mas and enjoy a good night's sleep.

A very physical and visually staining sort of day. Lots of hosing down, shoveling, manipulating, cleaning, physical labor. The kind of day where someone like myself -- i.e. energetic but not particularly experienced -- can be put to work. Thus I too have legs stained with grapes, hands turning black (best cleaned with pure bleach), and slightly sore shoulders. But, I do enjoy getting my hands dirty, so no complaints!

Sunday dawned with more to be done. A remontage of the carignan (pumped out of the tank, and back in, with the goal to air the liquid, and mix back in the solids that often float to the top of a tank). The transfer of the pressed juice from yesterday to another tank, and the removal of the lees remaining on the bottom of the first tank. It then needed to be fully rinsed, disinfected, and rinsed again to be readied for the clairette (green) grapes that will be picked and pressed tomorrow morning. As with so many activities, the clean-up is as important as the task accomplished, and takes nearly as much time.

I did what I could to help, and still feel it in my hands, wrists, shoulders... then I dashed off to get my boys. It was 5:30PM when I said goodbye to my vintner, and wished him a short evening's labor in his cellar. Yes, a Sunday evening during harvest season ... At least in this country, we do stop for a proper lunch (I made a lovely curry with pork, onions, tomatoes, peppers, a touch of yogurt and tahini...) and a short nap before returning to work. So even when things are stressful and consuming, reason and civility have their place.