Saturday, October 31, 2009

Goats and the Billy Goat

It's been a while, but I was able to get back to the goat farm Thursday this week. I took a day's break from helping Martine on her house and dashed off to milk goats with Aurelie and pour the curdle into the molds. It is now so dense that I didn't need to fill the molds all the way. The end of season milk is much richer in fat and makes larger cheeses than the early season milk. One of the arts of cheesemaking -- know your curd and adapt to the seasons so that both you and your customers can have consistently sized cheeses.

Aurelie and I laughed about paysans and their attachment to their land. She's separating from the father of her girls, and will leave behind her his house that she's worked on and lived in for fifteen years, intact and with no more than her own belongings. In France, property stays in the family. Her girls will inherit some day, but she, as their mother and not married to their father, has no rights upon his family farm. This is good for some, but hard for others. Imagine living twenty years with someone, perhaps married to him, and then walking away with only your own belongings?

Ah well, that's how it works here. The property goes to the kids. The wife/companion is simply passagère. This most particularly affects land-owners, thus, paysans. And yes, I've read Catherine Johnson's l'Affaire, and gone through these issues in my own divorce and confronted them in my relationship with a landed vintner. Whereas some new couples choose to sell their respective homes, and then move into a new home that belongs to them both, this just isn't possible when you're with a paysan/land owner. So... you deal somehow, right?

Aurelie has put the billy goat with the goats these past two weeks, and recently added in the yearlings. He's a discreet and hairy billy goat. Quite friendly actually. I think he even smiled for his photo. She put him in rather late compared with some other cheesemakers, on purpose timing the future births to just before and around Easter. When you enter the hay filled barn, his reeking musky scent fills the nostrils. Unmistakable.

I lunched with Paul Pierre and Isabelle, as usual. I wasn't very good company. I was drafting and re-drafting a dear John letter. Painfully, painstakingly. How to put into words all that I am feeling? The week before I'd come for lunch, but not to work with the goats, and broke down. Something I'd not done in years but been told by friends/therapists/etc., that I needed to do. Something's not right if you don't cry when you're sad. But it is such a wrenching act, and so not part of me. I tend to just deal and deal and deal.

Happily, they didn't tell me to get my act together, but simply were there, squeezing my shoulder, reassuring me that some moments just need to be lived through. Terrible isn't it? to cry and break down and pour out your sorrows to friends who are living much more powerful times with her terminal cancer. And yet, I felt safe and it just came. Yes, they are like family to me. They accept me in many ways and even if I'm a temporary burden, they are good to me. There are times I feel so far away from home and more than a bit lost. This feeling too will pass. There's more than a bit of Scarlet O'Hara in me, but till then, ouch.

And next week perhaps we'll harvest olives? Onward to the next season.

Building a wall

Sometimes, you just need to get your hands into a large tub of mud. It can be quite a nourishing and calming experience. Such a shame I never got into any mudbaths at the spas surrounding San Francisco the brief year I lived there.

I spent this week with Martine. She's doing the finishing work on her 'green' house. Working up in Brittany this year (and hopefully coming back down at the end of the year), she's only here for school vacations. Thus, perfect timing. I'd rented my house for the week, was not going to the winery for obvious reasons, and needed to be housed by someone who could put up with me in my current state (intermittent depression and babbling). That this person could also put me to work was just the icing on the cake.

Thus, after departing the home of my dear Scottish friends (where I'd over-stayed my welcome just a bit... but that's another story), I headed over to the small development in Jonquières in the Gard to Martine. When I arrived, she was putting up wooden boards on the walls just under the roof -- thus complicated and precise angles to cut. I was useful as a counter weight while she sawed away. A bit in a daze, and eager to speak with her, but hesitant as it was working time and a friend was there too whose ears I didn't feel like filling with my woes, I just helped as I could and bided my time.

Next up, a wall of raw bricks to be put together with clay and straw mortar. There were mason's tools available, but after attempting to use them, hands just seemed better, easier. Martine began the wall with me. Her friend pointed out where to put the nails in the wood at either end to hold the wall solidly, and how to (hopefully) build it straight. We didn't have a small level, so, it was a task that required eyeing things carefully and slipping into the flow of clay, balance, equilibrium and the sense of straight. I remembered my class in the 12 senses of Rudolf Steiner, and amongst them, is the sense of equilibrium/horizon. Interesting. You could also say, I was doing this à l'africaine, using just my hands and my eyes, scorning all Western tools.

Quickly, this became my task. Martine was much more at ease with the wooden planks, and for some odd reason, building this wall was just the thing I needed to do: repetitive, but requiring attention to detail. Soothing textures in my hands, the clay grounded me, the repetition centered me, level by level. All my wiggy, sad, stressed feelings seemed to ooze away as I handled that clay in my hands. It was truly a marvelous act of creation.

There I was helping my friend in an unexpectedly useful way, and healing my hurts all the while. Plus, I've discovered a hidden talent in myself. Who would've thought that I could build a clay wall?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Halloween, or the Eve of the Toussaint

Soon it will be Halloween. I have memories of being a child in NY, dressing up as a princess, or a can of TAB, not to mention a clown or a ghost. A large shopping bag in hand I scoured the neighborhood. My mother would confiscate most all my stash of candy, and certainly anything that wasn't wrapped -- all those worries of razor blades in the apples, or poisoned caramels, or whatever. I'd have my UNICEF box in hand, and Trick or Treat from home to home with my clutch of friends. Losing the candy wasn't that big a deal. It was the evening outing that was the most memorable and important part of the day.

Having children in France, as they came of a certain age, I attempted to Trick or Treat with them. After all, the local stores (this is seven years' ago) were selling Woolworth style plastic pumpkin containers for candy, witches' hats, ghost costumes, and fake blood and vampire teeth galore. The French commercial industry grasped at another opportunity to sell cheap China-made stuff at a time when normally, only the flower industry earns anything.

You see, the French do celebrate le Toussaint, or All-Saints' Day. It is a family day to gather, visit the graves of your ancestors, clean the grave stones, and put fresh flowers there. It is a chance to share family memories with the children, and to think of your long-gone loved ones.

And so there was an attempt to bring Halloween to France. This was most often greeted by harumphing folk sensing yet a further invasion of American culture. Now our English and Scottish friends also celebrate Halloween, and do so more in the style that the French attempted to borrow it -- all scary costumes of ghouls and vampires and witches, nothing fantastic like what you might see in Georgetown this October 31st. But of course, if someone is going to get the bad rap, it is the Americans.

Valiantly, I attempted to communicate the origins of this night of festivities. That in reality it is an ancient Celtic festival, closely linked to All Saints' Day (remember, All Hallow's Eve?) and as Arles is in fact identified with its Celtic history (Arlate is the Celtic name for city in the marshes), how appropriate that we celebrate this aspect of this ancient rite. I simply got blank stares.

Nonetheless, twice, I went out with my boys and a couple of their friends, costumes donned, and bags at the ready, and we Trick or Treated (Bonbons ou Betises is the closest I can come to this in French). At some doors, we were greeted graciously. The inhabitant smiled, rather amused, and found a little something for us. At others, old women looked fearfully through a curtain and shooed us away, and than at others, they looked at us rather quizzically and found a cookie or an apple or some such to toss into our bag. They tried, as did we, but truly, it just didn't catch on.

And so, years later, Halloween is a bit of a joke here. The occasional night club will have a theme party, and if you really must purchase paraphernalia in orange and black, one shop in town just might have some.

And for dress-up and costumes? Well the French celebrate Carnival before Lent, and there, costumes are encouraged, silly games and more. With that, who needs Halloween?

In fact, I've been berated as to the scary and negative nature of this holiday. In Alsace and areas north, they celebrate the St. Martin, by walking into the woods at night with lanterns in hand, bringing warmth and light to Nature as she signals her time of sleep and hibernation. A very different way to greet the end of autumn and the beginning of winter.

I'm trying to adapt, and have been trying for years now. But old habits persist.

Here is my Scottish friend's Pumpkin soup made from the scoopings of her kids' Jack-o-Lanterns. At least in her house, Halloween still has some meaning:

Pumpkin soup:

One chopped onion – butter and olive oil (flavor)
Pepper, salt and garlic
Optional: smoked bacon

Cook till browned, add three cups of pumpkin scoopings (what you’ve scooped out when you make your Jack-o-Lantern), a chopped apple and sweat.

Add 2 cups of chicken stock, one bottle of dry cider (bubbly), and grate a good nob of fresh ginger root.

Cook till tender, then blend with an immersion blender.

Happy children eat the soup of their labor.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Friends to the Rescue

Yesterday I finished that last load of laundry and headed to Mireille's. My horse whisperer to the rescue. Hours later, and half a bottle quaffed of Beaurenard Châteauneuf-du-Pape white that I'd brought along, we were side by side chatting and exchanging and sharing. She's very good for helping reinforce my memories of all that wasn't going right. She is faithful, funny, generous, present, willing, and full of compliments and support for me.

Mireille is there to sooth me, to encourage me towards future pursuits, to suggest that my preference for being in a couple might not be the ideal solution for me (at least at the moment), and more simply Mireille is there for me.

I slept a short night, but lay in bed till the sun was properly up before heading out to greet my renters (lovely former b&b clients!), and then off to Carol's.

Carol, a darling Scottish friend is a yoga teacher, therapist and life-coach. She greeted me with a marvelous long walk, lengthy and easy talking, and a soothing Yin yoga session upon our return to her home. It was just lovely enough to do our yoga outside on the terrace (hard to imagine with the weather we'd been having!).

And here I am, all talked out, bathed, a fire roaring in her majestic stone fireplace, cozily sitting on a plush couch, Filou at my feet, a Crozes Hermitage Rouge in my glass, awaiting a lovely dinner of ginger and cider spiced pumpkin soup, spinach tart, and her daughter's birthday cake.

How extraordinary to be received, coddled, accepted into the homes of my friends. And how grateful I am. I am not a hermit. Hiding out on my own is not how I get through tough times. These moments are for re-connecting, reaching out to those who are there, and testing new possibilities.

Discussions for Provence Hiking and Yoga Retreats are on the table. Next? Perhaps the inspiration to put back a long morning hike and some meditative chanting into my life...

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

And today was another day

Well, I don't necessarily take back what I wrote yesterday, but, I do modify it. Today, the whole household -- which was the younger two short -- was lovely, superb, delightful. I'll keep them.

Upon our return from school I asked that Leo and our younger boy saw the thick fig tree branches sitting outside since this summer into lengths that would fit into the wood stove. Together (amazing) they did nearly all of it. Forty-five minutes of civilized, shared labor between these very very different twelve year olds. Ahhhh, it does the heart good. It wasn't a perfect job, they'll need to re-cut 15 or so branches that are too long, but, hey, it's mostly done and I'm just going to bask in this golden moment.

Later, the idea of crêpes for a snack came up. But then they all went through my bread and the various boxes of cereal in the house (Leo finished off the Cheerios carried across the Atlantic by our cousin). Nevertheless, the idea stuck in at least one child's head. While Leo, our teen girl and I watched Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon, our young boy came upstairs to ask me for the recipe:

4 eggs, enough flour whisked in to make a thick paste, milk whisked in till the texture of cream, a touch of salt, a spoonful of sugar.

Happily taking this in, he returned downstairs. And as we watched Fred slink across the jazzy stage with the leggy Cyd Charisse, the lovely scent of crêpes wafted up to us.

Movie over, down we three went to enjoy a feast prepared by a child who was truly angelic today. Just goes to show, don't over react (me) and open the door and space to possibilities. Children can, and often will, surprise you. And yes, I both acknowledged and thanked him. I firmly believe in praising good behavior!!

My experience with the French school system (a bit of history)

School. A subject all of its own. At the bright age of three, Leo was potty-trained, propre as they say here, and ready for the first year of kindergarten, or the petite classe of the Maternelle. And off he went. I was all set to have my children in one of the world’s best public education systems and happily entrusted him to the school.

But little by little, things just went off. I read the teacher's notes on his drawings “n’a pas suivi les consignes” – didn’t follow the directions. Hm? Complicated directions for a three year old? Or, scribbles on a page that was supposed to be chestnuts colored in. Or many many tasks of taking stickers of round colors and placing them on a line.

Then there was the day the teacher was mad because Leo, dressed in blue, chose to sit at the blue table, even though he was apparently a yellow. Leo and his closest friends were perpetually kept separate from each other (especially after the incident when they flooded the bathroom…) As the year went on, Leo began stuttering.

The teachers decided it was my fault for speaking English with him, and for hiring American au pairs. “Madame vous faites une erreur”. When I brought Leo to the US during school time to see my family, forcing him to skip a week’s school, the teacher complained, stating, “il faut qu’il puisse se plier au système”. He needs to fold himself to the system, i.e. fit into the box, adapt. I wasn’t sure I was in full agreement with these ideas. And, to my mind, Leo's stuttering wasn’t so much a problem of language as of the stressful environment he was not adapting to.

So, after receiving the school work of the year, reviewing the many negative statements of the teacher in some amazement, I started wondering what could I do? For someone who did well in school and who comes from a scholarly family it was truly frightening to contemplate a child who already hated school and resisted going at the tender age of four. Imagine what that would lead to for adolescence? When school is actually hard!

Where might I enroll my child? Were there other choices? Perhaps a Montessori? None in the area, or an alternative school? The town boasted a Catholic school, and many parents who wished their children pushed a bit more sent their kids there. But I'm not Catholic and was a bit leary of a clearly religious institution.

It was then I heard that outside of Avignon there was a Rudolf Steiner school. My mother’s first boy friend had been in the Manhattan Steiner school during the War. My cousins had put their kids through a Steiner school in Chicago. A dear friend was a devoted anthroposophist. Hm. It sounded interesting.

So Erick and I took Leo to an interview at the school. We were received by two of the kindergarten teachers who actually wanted to know who Leo was, where he came from, what might have influenced his growth to this point, was he a desired child? When and how did he learn to walk and talk? Had there been any major events in his life to this point that might have shaped him?

After the cold and neutral reception of the public education system, I was in heaven. The rooms were warm, filled with toys of natural materials, and so many objects to be used to build, design, construct: wood blocks of every shape, silk scarves of many colors, a kitchen area, a play house area… There was warmth and thought behind every gesture. Pregnant with my second child, I felt at ease confiding my son to this school. And to top it off, the teachers waived away any worries I had about raising my children bi-lingual. It will improve his singing ear, they said. And not to worry about the stuttering. It will pass as he finds his way. We will speak in clear and good French, and he will gradually imprint the language of his birth-land. Reading and writing will come when he is older. We don’t force it early upon a child before he is ready to develop these intellectual gifts.

And so began a major shift in my life. Suddenly, a daily commute of an hour each way was part of our existence. It was something to ask of the au pairs, and something imposed upon our child. Late night meetings to learn about the educational methods used by the school, weekend parties to help clean and garden or paint walls.

The community of the school was tight-knit and varied. There were the French-German boys whose mother was an airline hostess for Lufthansa. and the Belgian-French girl who spoke Flemish with her mother. The French woman who’d lived in Australia for 15 years and whose children were fully bi-lingual. And as the years passed, the English families who came to settle in Provence, the American families who came to spend a year abroad, the Japanese-French family who put their children in the school. For Leo it became a ritual to sit beside the new English speaker in his class to help her or him adapt to the French swirling around them.

The Rudolf Steiner school is an international phenomenon. The major elements of the program are the same throughout the world, and the school welcomes exchanges and the movement of its pupils. In Southern Europe, the Avignon school represents the only school that goes all the way to high school, in a Southern climate. Thus though the school is state subsidized in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Belgium and Germany, and is costly in France, many Northerners come and settle near the school to benefit from the better climate. The Avignon school has become a hub of over a dozen different cultures and languages. My bi-lingual children are simply normal. In Leo’s class alone there are children from Germany, Slovakia, Italy, Spain, Scotland, England and Brazil. And, here, I am almost normal. A bit enthusiastic, energetic, frantic at times and a swirl of emotions, but, my Anglo-Saxon heritage is accepted here as it often wasn’t elsewhere.

Leo, followed by Jonas, are enrolled in the Rudolf Steiner school. There, they are raised on the universal stories of the Brothers Grimm, the fables of the crow and the fox, Greek myths and more. With this school, perhaps more than by any other means, I am able to raise my children in an international context. Born in a small town in the South of France, they nevertheless have the horizons of the world open to them.

Caring for Other People's Children

This is my second year hosting other people's children in my home. Last year, the number never went over three, and the kids were older -- proper teens or nearly. Thus, I had to feed them, house them, pay for the hot water of their showers, the electric heater in the girls' room, do extra laundry, and often, add in trips to school for their older kid schedules. But that was pretty much it.

As a plus, I was able to go to my tango class every Thursday, knowing the household was under control. I could crash early if I felt particularly weary or fell sick, and ditto, know that the next morning I'd find the kitchen pretty clean, and the kids in good shape.

This is not the case this year. Little did I realize when I agreed (I had little choice) to take in these pré-ados that I was setting myself up for a lot more work this year. Ten, twelve and thirteen year olds rarely come to a new home fully-formed and educated. And, they come with burgeoning hormones, new levels of moodines they have yet to master, and, if they're only children, with spoiled behaviors.

Thus, I am finding myself getting firmer and more strict by the day. If the dishes are incorrectly washed, you get to do them again in the morning. If there is a spill on the floor, yes, you will go and get the mop and clean it up yourself.

But what riles me the most is the lack of initiative and the resistence to helping. If I put a trash bag by the front door, they will move it out of the way so they can go out to play. But, pick it up and bring it to the trash can? It doesn't cross their mind. If, as they go outside they brush against a coat and knock it to the floor, they leave it, and if needs be walk atop it. Pick it up and put it back where it belongs? Hunh? And a classic: Filou has a tendency to vomit up a bit of water if he drinks too quickly. Simply water with a touch of bile, no more. They will point it out to me up to hours later so that I can clean it up. God forbid a one of them grab a sponge or a couple of sheets of paper towels to wipe it up themselves. I'm floored.

If the designated child for tonight's dish-doing isn't there, I have no offers to help, but must give a firm request (that cannot be ignored) to one of them that he/she do the dishes this night in the stead of the other (with the promise that on their night, they'll be off dish-duty). And to this I get, No, I don't want to do the dishes tonight. And I say, sorry buster, you are going to do them. Period!

I've kept the tone of my voice down, but I'm just startled by the selfish, me-first attitudes I'm getting. I'm also very annoyed by the constant bickering and pretty nasty comments going on from my teen girl towards our more difficult young boy. It truly is not necessary and it certainly doesn't help.

But these two, far more than the others, respond to all situations by making them worse. They are the first to over-react, the first to duck out of jobs, the first to snap and tease. There are moments I just have a hard time even liking them. How do kids get this way? I've forbidden Leo to listen too much to them, and am begging him not to be influenced! Stay pleasant and helpful, I beg you! And to Jonas, watch it my man, you too need to start helping out more. Being the youngest is an excuse that is wearing thin.

When I've slept a good night's sleep, I awake with more patience, and the realization that de facto I've taken on their education as well as their selves. I've even had comments from the parents that they feel the kids are doing better under my roof than they were before.

But, I'm wavering. Winter is coming and I'm feeling the desire to hibernate. I want to cuddle with my boys around a Fred Astaire movie, with a hot cup of tea in our hands. I'm feeling a bit out of my depth handling these children day after day. And yes, as JP noted, I arrived every weekend this month in need of sleep and rest, not perky and ready for romance. I'm feeling the strain.

Vacation is just two days away. A restorative period will be beneficial to us all. I know that I in particular have mood swings linked to weariness/energy level. So, if I can hunker down and care for me, the boys and the house as I need to over vacation, I should be able to start up again with the necessary verve to get through to Christmas.

I am learning, yet again, my physical and mental limits, (so porous on most occasions). I am also gaining in respect for teachers and child-care professionals on all levels. How can this extraordinarily important and exhausting activity be so poorly recompensed in our socieities? It just baffles the mind.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

What is a definition of Love?

Love? Infatuation? Fascination? Crush? Passion? What are these?

One definition I share with a number of girl friends is if you truly love another you are willing to share and accept his/her worries and problems alongside all the joy, strength, potential, and more that he/she promises. If it is truly love, you can't help but want to help, and you don't dread being drawn in, you just act.

However, infatuation or fascination is more a sense of being drawn and held by another's physical beauty, sex, an ideal, even the wishful-thinking version of that person. In this dynamic, reality can be off-putting and disillusioning.

In general, we all come with both. Right? Virtues are balanced by weaknesses. Worry is balanced by joy. Light is balanced by dark. Can you accept my weaknesses? or will they send you fleeing? Humanity is by definition flawed, right?

As I remember so well a teacher saying to me, "If we were perfect, we would not and could not love. It is in our imperfections that love can nest."

Nevertheless, and of course, we each have our limits. However, if your limits are so well defined that they cannot be wriggled around or through, how can you grow?

As my dear friends and I agree, I am porous. My limits are minimally defined. I am about saying yes, being there, adapting to situations, coping for myself, my friends, my family, my guests. You missed a train? ok, I'll come get you. You need a place to sleep tonight? Well, I've a mattress I can put on my bedroom floor. Your child needs to be picked up Wednesday? I'll make room, there's always enough for another person at the table.

I think that in a solid relationship I give, you give, I receive, you receive, and we're both stronger for it. No? I try to adapt without judgement. The universe throws me a curve ball and I tense my abdominals, flex my arms, and catch it, more or less gracefully.

And, while awaiting its appearance, I will revel and flourish in the love of my friends, the support and encouragement of my family, and in my two marvelous boys who think I smell good.

Mechanical devices and such

Once upon a time, I sought to be completely independent, competent and simply not-dumb around cars, stereos, drills, woodworking equipment, etc., I'm still ok with hand-sanders, drills and hammers (not to mention duck tape). I can set up a stereo, put up a make-do antenna... and perhaps there it ends. Oh yes, I'm fine with IKEA furniture, but that's not saying much.

In any case, I was going to be one of those women who could manage easily by herself and not have to have a man around to do things. Or, at the very least, I'd work along side him. But, then along came my marriage to a traditional man who was handy in all sorts of ways, and just a wee bit macho to boot. So, I made children and cared for them. Being the only one of the two of us who could manage a computer and type, not to mention with a couple of graduate degrees, I did all the marketing, the web site, the search engine optimization, the recipe writing, the communication, the calculating, the designing of programs... etc., I filled my days with the 'soft' stuff. And, hey, as there was a man in the house who knew how to do all those physical things, and, who had stone and plaster walls rather than wood, I let him hang the pictures, fix the plumbing, put in the light fixtures, manage the car, pay our taxes, parking tickets, etc., with more relief than oversight.

Yes, I fell into a traditional couple dynamic. I cooked, cleaned, raised and educated the kids, bought everyone's clothes, sorted out the house and got rid of all the old stuff every year, etc., He took care of all the physical manly stuff. And I was mostly okay with this. I wanted more help with the kids (and in the end got an au pair), the dishes and meal preparation (he was the chef after all). But mostly, I accepted the situation and simply got on with it.

When I met JP he seemed to want to be in that role of older male (something he'd never done before). I enjoy learning from (and occasionally leaning on) someone, and at the time, I was more than a bit fragile and out of sorts from my divorce and newly single state. Plus, here was a skilled mechanic, an outdoor's man, someone who knew how to do lots of things, or at the very least knew when they should be done and who to call and how much it should cost.

With such a person present, the urge to truly learn to cope on my own didn't need to be developped.

Ah, but now it does. And so to work.

At long last I've made the acquaintance of the mechanic around the corner. And at a timely moment. In the last two days I've replaced the battery, the back wheels, the spark plugs, every item linked to the brakes, and ... in two weeks he'll do a more complete diagnostic to see if there's more to do.

So, there I was relying on men to help me (still leaning just a bit on the ex-husband) and I was driving a car most definitely not in the best of shape. Guess what? I was no longer the responsibility of my ex-husband, and JP wasn't really into the idea of helping me out in this way. Lovely weekends? yes. Pay for dinner? yes. Take me dancing? yes. Take care of my car? no.

So, just in the nick of time I coped. And most of what I earned during my lovely month of outings in October? Now in the hands of the mechanic.

I admit it. I'm a humanist. I take care of people, children, guests, clients. I nourish, clean, write, market, pay bills, & keep my banker happy (the one who has my mortgage). However, I'm a home-owner and a car-owner, and I've got to learn to manage all of this. It's scary though. I'm pretty good at the first list, but these mechanical devices are rather frightening to me. There are days it is all simply overwhelming and over much. Thank goodness, at least the hot water heater should work for the winter. It seems to have a small leak... but it is functioning. And, my plumber is nearby and super-helpful. A man I can count on.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Fougasse of Provence

I was reading a fellow colleague's new blog, Hodding Carter, the Frugal Guy, formerly of Gourmet Magazine, and read his post on the cheese bread sticks he makes for his kids. In a rare slip for this erudite writer, he called them fougasses.

Well, to correct misunderstandings, I thought I'd put on a post about the local flatbread of Provence, aka, la fougasse. When you wander into a bakery in search of a savory (or sweet as the case might be) nibbly, this is an excellent choice.

I've taken many clients to my favorite bakery for a short class in making Fougasse and other local bread pastries. It's a favorite visit, as before we get going kneading dough ourselves, we get to be flies on the wall, observing and admiring the intricate choreography of a three bakers swirl around we the intruders, baking trays in hand, cookies, breads, cakes, and more efficiently being made one right after the other with barely a moment's breather between and amongst the many tasks and recipes. The baker seems to be the rare man who can multi-task with grace and skill.

The Fougasse is etymologically related to the Italian Focaccia. You can recognize it immediately by its Jacob's ladder shape.

Before your eyes in that aforesaid bakery, you will often have a selection of flavors before you: plain with a touch of powdered sugar (aka la pompe à l'huîle), olive, cheese (usually gruyère), anchovy paste, and pork (or duck) cracklings, gratillons. The pompe a l’huîle is one of the thirteen desserts of the Christmas meal, thus, every local baker has his variation of this regional classic.

Rabelais wrote of the Fouasse in Gargantua, and there are likely other variants on this word elsewhere in the Mediterranean.

I've put two recipes here for you to try, a classic bread dough that can be added to, and the olive oil and butter enriched pompe à l'huîle.


Bread dough style Fougasse

Mix the following together, knead for 15 minutes and let sit overnight in the refrigerator wrapped up in plastic to prevent a crust from forming and the dough from drying out.

• 500 grams of bread flour (2 1/4 cups)
• 10 grams of salt (1/2 teaspoon)
• 20 -30 grams of bakers' yeast in cakes (more in the winter, less in summer)
• 200-250 grams of water (1 cup or a bit more) as needed

The next day, take out your dough, cut into sections, roll it out to a third to a half inch thick. To add pork or duck cracklings, lay them in the flattened dough, fold as you would for croissants, roll out, then fold again, roll out again. Or you could sprinkle some cheese and sun dried tomatoes on the top, or a bit of olive bits, olive oil and herbs, or honey and herbs and olive oil , tapenade... Make your cuts in a pattern such as you see in the pictures to allow you to open your dough up to the lattice shape.

Let rise 30 minutes in a warm place till just filled out. Place in a hot oven (200C/420F) and bake for 10 minutes or until just golden on top.

La pompe à l'huîle

* 500 grams (2 and 1/4 cups) all purpose flour
* 50 grams (1/4 cup) granulated sugar
* 50 grams bakers' yeast in cubes (prefered to packet yeast)
* 10 grams salt (1/2 teaspoon)
* 200 grams water (1 cup)
* 150 grams olive oil (2/3 cup)

On a smooth surface, marble, granite, or even formica, place your flour with two wells. In one well crumble up the cake yeast and in the other well, place the sugar and the salt. Mix the water and olive oil together in a pitcher, then, careful to stay inside the well, pour about 1/2 of the liquid mixture in. With one hand gradually blend the yeast, sugar, salt and liquid with a bit of the surrounding flour, continue. Add more of the liquid mixture as needed (depending on your flour and depending on the room temperature, you will use all or only some of the liquid). Keep working with only one hand and as needed, use a pastry scraper to gather the rest of the flour from your surface, and to scrape your hand clean. When all the ingredients have come together, start working and kneading your dough with both hands. You can fold it, slap it back down onto your surface hard, fold it and press it some more, slap it down again. For about 5-10 minutes.

Put your dough aside for 10-15 minutes to rest, ideally beside your oven or even in an oven that has cooled to warm. Once the dough has rested, roll it into a 2 inch in diameter length, and cut your sections. roll out the sections into squares, triangles or circles as you prefer, make your cuts, stretch out the cut dough, place on a prepared cookie sheet, and let rise again for 15 minutes till only gently filled out.

Place in a hot oven (200C/420F) for 5-10 minutes till just browned on top. Remove and enjoy.

And the fire is lit

It is the third day having a fire in my cast iron stove.

It is a new sensation, this radiant heat. Coming in from the chilly winds outside, brisk, sunny, and intense, I am greeted by a toasty warm kitchen. I'd forgotten this feeling. The brilliant sunlight of my front window is replaced by the forged, heavy metal hearth. From white to black, from brilliance to coziness. Truly, there has been a shift.

Yesterday, I set up camp on the chair before the fire, tea in hand, Filou roaming between his cushion and my feet, and wrote, read, explored. No doubt way too much. My eyes were aching when at last the boys walked in the door with Erick.

The only drawback of the situation (that of my stove) is that I've only these two chairs in front of it, and not the room to put a love seat or some such object upon which two people could easily be seated together. When first I moved here, I had visions of small over-stuffed English arm chairs. But these were unfindable locally, and bringing one from home (i.e. the US) completely prohibitive. Yes, my English roots were speaking there, painting my image of what is right and proper before a flaming chimney. Put in a few floor to ceiling bookcases, a purring cat, and I'm right at home.

Thus, Jonas simply climbed onto my lap (a large 7 3/4 year old now) to watch A River Runs Through It with me while Leo claimed the other chair last night. As his lids grew heavier he sought just the right position to curl up and possibly sleep. But, though my lap is not getting smaller, his limbs are stretching to new lengths, and try though he might, it was never quite right. The last few moments were best spent, legs out-stretched, under the covers, up in my bed.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Leo, minus the mustache

As we hung out for an hour or more working our way across Avignon, I took a moment to photograph my now clean-shaven twelve year old.

Believe you me, his mustache was dark and thick! He rarely noticed it till our female boarders teased him (gently) about it. With the help of our thirteen year old girl, and a plastic green razor (new) from my pink packet of razors, he carefully removed his facial hair. T'was the night before the school photos after all.

However, cut his hair? No, he prefers the long bangs in your eyes look. And don't get me started on the time he spends in front of the bathroom mirror after every shower combing and re-combing and shaking those bangs!

Ah, those Manifestations!

Sorry for the quality of the photos -- I only had my cell phone with me, so, they are what they are. But perhaps Nathalie at Avignon in Photos will have some better shots soon. (see my list of blogs to the right).

Les Jeunes Agriculteurs are angry, scared, and desperate! And so, let us dump carrots, beets, grape must and more all over the main roads around Avignon. And let us block the two bridges coming into and exiting Avignon, and let us do this during rush hour on a Friday night! And we will... what? Wreak havoc and put poor women like myself (and thousands upon thousands of other people) in a car for four and a half hours covering no more than 40 km? In the vain attempt to go from home to school (normally 15 minutes -- I left at 3:45 and arrived at 4:30), from school to the train station (I've two kids to put on the train on Friday evening, remember?) to which we arrived at 6:15 -- a full hour and and fifteen minutes after the departure of Gaetan's train. From which we then zoomed through town (amazing) to my bridge, which we were dissuaded to attempt crossing by the friendly policemen as it was blocked by trucks and more. At which point I then headed south to another bridge across the Rhône, -- it took another hour to get out of Avignon. And we arrived home at the tender hour of 8pm. And to think, I thought I'd be able to have a nice shower quietly by myself at 5pm and prepare for the weekend ... silly me.

Arghghghgh. OK, life is pretty rough for anyone who's farming. Here, as in the US, if you try to sell in bulk to the major buyers, you are offered less than it cost you to produce your wares. So, there is a system of primes which pay farmers for what their farms used to produce at rates that were set a few years back. And, these primes don't change, as the farmer is encouraged to produce less. To the point at which these primes have no longer any connection to production. They are designed to keep farmers afloat while maintaining the sanctity of a buyers' market that refuses to pay decent rates for produce farmed locally.

Now, if you go organic, and you sell directly to the consumer as much as possible (through the markets, monthly crates, etc.,) you're far better off. Nevertheless, it is still a difficult life, and yet one which would like to choose.

Another barrier to setting up keep as a farmer is acquiring the land to do so -- good farming land is more often sold at high rates to developpers than at affordable rates to farmers. Haven't we heard that somewhere before? It is the same world-round I believe, be in the Ohio River Valley or ...

However, rarely in the US do farmers have the chutzpah to gather together and block a major city for an entire afternoon. So, cultural moment for all: my kids, myself ... and a time to hear tales of Gaetan's father's dumping goat manure in a local McDonalds way back when. I laughed with my boys in the car, stretched my legs when possible, took stock of the apples, carrots and various mashed and rotten fruit on the street, rolled through puddles of car-crushed refuse, eyed the many riot police hanging out on street corners, and when possible, made a brief stop for cookies and iced tea and other yummies to tide over the empty stomachs of my boys during the last stretch home. All's well that ends well. But aieeeee, I would have preferred to have Spain or the Alps or Italy at the end of my 4 1/2 hour drive! Not moving, barely inching along for hours at end is not fun, no matter that I maintained an optimistic outlook and the kids sang along to FUN radio.

Now myself, I was more in the mood for "Do you remember..." the strikes of the winter of 95? Do you remember walking or biking or roller blading or hitch-hiking all over Paris? in the cold winds of winter? (my legs have never since been as lovely...) Do you remember, missing your plane due to trucks blocking the highway exits? But be reassured, when this happens, the tickets are changed no questions asked. Ah yes, free speach and the right to demonstrate. T'is wonderful non?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

My household: coming together?

Well, perhaps you've been wondering where I'm at with the pressure cooker that is my household? Six children, a dog, a few too many mice and me?

I had a long chat with my contrary young man's mother this weekend. She was most startled when I intimated that he might need to change homes. Apparently, she finds he's doing better this year than in the past, and that our household is having a good effect on him. All for the better, and yet, I left myself an out by expressing the extreme weariness these house-hold blow-ups engender in me. It's always on a Thursday. Thursday night is akin to the full moon at the local emergency room. Excepting that it occurs four times monthly, not just once! All the horrors of my past month -- the car breaking down, both household explosions, Gaetan's broken arm -- have happened on Thursdays. And to think, these were to be my lovely goat-cheese making days.

Mother to mother, we spoke and shared examples of her son's rigidity, his dislike of helping out, his tendency to pull the girls away from my boys, etc., I was careful to praise his initiatives, his ambition, his drive and his energy, before going on to discuss his remarkably tackless--though proudly direct--manner of sharing how he feels and thinks. She's pleased that he is speaking out (apparently this is relatively new for him), but listened as I expressed that cushioning his verbal attacks with a bit of grace and politesse might go a long way in endearing him to the household.

I shared with her last Tuesday morning's debacle when Gaetan had turned off our young man's alarm clock to assure himself a more tranquil morning; and that when he awoke and realized this, our young man did everything in his power to wreck that tranquil morning, turning on every light, making tons of noise (which traveled up to my room awaking me, and for which I was quite upset). I shared with her as well the more appealing image of Leo and he paying court to our teen girl, taking turns holding an ice cube on her wasp sting just behind her shoulder, right above her tiny little bra strap. It was a charming and relatively innocent scene: These twelve year olds seeking the good graces of our lovely thirteen year old.

In the end, we promised to keep in touch and see how the next week fared. And, as I say goodnight to a subsequent Thursday, I can testify that this week has been far easier, far calmer than the last. Perhaps it is the wind which has knocked us all about. Or, perhaps our young man received a talking to from his mum and is trying just a bit harder to adapt to our household.

I've had a few quiet moments with him this week in which I reiterated what I'd said two Fridays ago: please make an effort towards my boys. They and I are the center of this house. You cannot live with us, and ignore them. I stressed that befriending Leo could be the key to re-accessing the social life of the household. It was our young man that set into motion the either he or Leo scenario. He excluded my boys from his games and outings with the girls for much of this month, and Thursday last, he reaped what he had sowed. If he were to cultivate Leo, the girls would be less likely to succeed at the game of playing one off the other. Part of last Thursday's distres came when the girls allowed Leo and Jonas into their room for the first time since their arrival, but in so doing, adamantly excluded our young man. It was not a fun moment for him. And yes, he wept with frustration and anger.

However, I did not feel it my place to intrude too heavily in the situation. I spoke with each individually, urging them to tell me what was going on in each of their heads and hearts, but I did not demand that the girls let him in. I clearly saw that he'd paved the way for this eventuality. Thus, to my mind he needed to live it fully.

Over and beyond these dynamics, the girls have both expressed frustration at what they see as his laziness and his lack of alacrity towards doing his tasks, or anything else in the house. He mostly does what he's signed up to do, but, there he stops. His attitude has been to do the least he can get away with. And, this has been noticed.

I spoke with him yesterday, suggesting that he try to do more. That whether or not he shares this view of how hard he works and how much he contributes, he would do well to make more of an effort if he wanted to regain the girls' respect.

Voila, two routes to reintegration in the house: cultivate Leo and do more. I would truly appreciate it if he could find a way to be with Jonas that was not exclusively teasing and putting him down, but, it seems that this is not yet a possibility. Thankfully, Gaetan, our littlest girl and Leo are all present and play-mates to Jonas. So, he is not left out in the cold, little man that he be amongst all these pre-teens.

So, for the moment, our young man stays with us. The money I get from his parents certainly helps pay my grocery bills. Though I continue to debate the value of and consequent fatigue from spending so much time teaching, correcting, adjusting, nudging. I signed up to house and feed and care for. Did I sign up to raise these children too? Last year, the boarders were older, and far more autonomous. This year, I hear myself actively scolding, encouraging, teaching, pushing, and not only for the benefit of my own children. Mostly, my crew seem quite content with the household as it is coming together and functioning. Leo certainly adores having kids to play with at all times, and would likely go through withdrawel if I didn't continue to host children. For Jonas, on the contrary, I'm not so sure.

And onward towards another week. And at the end of next week: vacation! All go home to their respective abodes, and I, recover.

Blog Action Day

The environment. In keeping with the personal nature of my blog, I will address this in a personal vein. I can do little more but vote where I might, and express myself a bit loudly when it comes to industrial polution and the carbon tax. However, personally, I can do what I can, and influence those in my immediate world. It comes down to so many small acts, hoping they will cumulate and spread to others:

- Turn out the light(s) when you leave a room (and make sure the kids do too).
- Insulate the house better (at least put rolled up rugs at the bottom of my doors to limit drafts).
- wear sweaters and slippers rather than jacking up the heat. - Into bed early in the winter.
- Bake everything I've to bake at the same time, or at least one right after another. For example, the no-salt bread for Isabelle, two loaves of bread for my family and a batch on corn muffins for the kids' afternoon snack.
- Keep driving to a minimum -- group all errands in the same trip, carpool, encourage bicycling or walking where possible and safe.
- Limit hot showers and baths to what is good hygiene but no more (harder said than done with my crew of pre-teens), but I do repeat myself frequently, in hopes that this message will eventually get through.
- One big sink of hot water to wash all my dishes throughout the morning.
- Buy locally from the farm nearby, or friends. And even better, get to the farm on foot or by bike.
- Buy in bulk from my organic wholesaler -- as locally as I'm able, but also, fewer runs to the store by using my pantry-space.
- Grow my own vegetables as I'm able (the dimensions of my vegetable garden are increasing yearly, as I -- ever so slowly -- gain more knowledge and skill in this area).
- Put in a chicken pen and get a couple of chickens from Gaetan's parents -- a project in the offing, we'll see... How would this help the environment? Well, it would help the house budget, and they'd eat up all the stale bread and such that I am also putting into the compost. At the very least, I wouldn't be using more than one egg carton or so by week, and thus would reduce my own personal consumption of cardboard/gas/plastic.
- As soon as winter sets in and I start firing up the wood stove, it will replace (as much as possible) the gas and electric burners as my cook-top.
- Heat off every night, heavy and warm covers for all.
- Efficient "green" bulbs in all the house lamps.
- Mix by hand whenever possible -- ok, I used the Kitchen Aid for meringues and the cereal bars, but all muffins, bread, cookies are mixed with good old-fashioned elbow grease and a wooden spoon.
- Furnish the house (should I still need anything, which I don't) and my wardrobe (ditto) from the flea markets/Goodwill. I've found some gorgeous items over the years that would do a princess no dishonour. No exotic hardwoods from the forests of Indonesia.
- Read, play board games and talk rather than watch TV -- and just don't own one if you can get away from it.
- Hang my laundry out to dry, either outdoors or in my bathroom, over all my house-hold doors (which I've wiped clean before-hand). Yes, this is doable even for those who have 6 month winters! The dryer habit can be broken.
- In keeping with the washing theme: wash only what needs washing: socks, underwear, and much worn jeans and stained or smelly t-shirts, etc., Don't just use the laundry basket as a catch-all for cleaning the room.
- Recycle, compost, re-use as possible, and have a stash of grocery bags and crates for shopping: as necessary, I give classes in this to the kids (yes, little girl, I'm serious, take a look at this bag, what do you see? Ah, so cold lentils don't really go with clean cardboard, plastic bottles, and printer paper, no? Ok, remove them please, you can use this cloth. And next time, please note the three recepticles and use them correctly).

Where do I find it difficult? Where do I continue to consume?

- I do have a dish washer (for 6 kids remember). But I'm trying to teach them to use one glass/cup per day and re-use it, rather than going through 5 per child (breakfast/lunch/snack/snack/dinner/snack) -- not there yet.
- Wean myself off my computer (ouch!), and let the battery fully run down before plugging it back in to recharge it (I can do this at least).
- In my food habits, it is very difficult to deprive myself of the classic triumverate of imported foods: coffee, chocolate and tea, add to this soy sauce, sesame oil, fish sauce, and?. Otherwise, I'm doing pretty well eating locally and seasonally and making most everything from scratch.
- I like shoes -- little boots (perhaps made in China?), tango shoes (designed for my feet in Buenos Aires), sandals (Spain). And my boys live in sneakers (made in China) -- though but one pair per year or till they are worn to bits. And, I do re-heel and re-sole my shoes till they become such an eyesore JP is embarrassed to be seen in public with me.

How more can I or any of us help? Public transportation is great -- for certain routes. Keeping lights off as much as possible requires larger windows than I have in this heavy stone house, and better eyes than I was bequeathed by my myopically challenged parents. As such, I'm sitting here with the kitchen lights on (though no others). I use the I-tunes in my computer as a source of music rather than play the radio/hifi across the room.

I'm teaching as I might. Yesterday evening's discussion with Leo included why I resist purchasing yet more plastic toys for he and his brother and emphasize those that last and those that have a thousand possibilties. And, considering the quantity they already have, Christmas may bring more books than toys this year. I don't like the throw-away culture. Yes, I do go through the house and bring whatever is no longer needed/used/ etc., to Goodwill or the Red Cross every June. But, I cringe as I throw away broken plastic toys. I hate it. What was the point of a noisy, fragile, highly colored object that lasted perhaps two weeks at most as a toy of choice for my children? Why? It's so much more fun to climb a tree, draw, build with bits of wood outdoors.

I teach, I encourage, I berate, sometimes lightly, more often no doubt heavy handedly. Am I wacko? Or just reflecting my own education at my mother's knee and my horror of trash, landfills, the green-house effect (which I'd already read about back in 1980 before graduating from high school), large cars, pavement everywhere, yet more large factories and malls going up where farm land once was, and food that tastes like plastic, ripened by a gas and flown across the world? Yes, I react oddly when served asparagus in the winter (in Provence, if I were in South Africa, this would be normal).

I'm just a bit off-center I suppose. Or not. Think Global, act Local. My mantra.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Mistral

The wind has been howling fiercely now for over two days. Over one hundred kilometers an hour. It is quite impressive and frightening. Trees are down, branches are scattered across the roads, some of my laundry is caught in my neighbor's Acacia branches. (Though, speaking of laundry, this is the perfect time to wash my down quilts as the winds dry them fast and efficiently!). From a gentle, humid, green late summer feeling last week, we have suddenly entered winter. And fall? For the moment, the leaves are more on the trees than off, but the yellow tones are coming in, and a few have gone brown. The kaki trees are at that ephemeral point of filling with their bright orange fruit, and yet still bearing leaves. In a month, they will shift to an elegant (and very appropriately Asian) state of scraggly brown branches laden with orange globes. Beautiful and startling.

As I lay my head on the pillow at night, I listen to the swirling, rushing winds out my window. In the morning, I snuggle down under my warm and protective covers, pressing my snooze button at least three times. I debate the virtue or reason for getting up. Having six children to bring to school is reason enough, granted, but... there are moments when I waver nonetheless.

I am not alone in moving slowly, rising heavily from the protective cocoon of slumber. Jonas resists, my otherwise morning-person young boarder crept out of his room at the very late hour of 7:40... We are all under the sway of this natural phenomemon.

Driving is scary -- the car wobbles as the wind hits it, and Heaven forbid I pass a truck. That swoosh of a vacuum can easily send me into a lane of oncoming traffic. I hold tightly to the steering wheel, and keep focused and present.

I've brought all my plants into the shelter of my home. They adorn the kitchen and the bathroom now. I've pulled out the winter sweaters, boots and coats -- and only last week I was wearing tank tops and sandals. There's no snow, no blizzard, but I feel as house-bound as if there was. A walk by the river, a bicycle ride around the island, things I was leaping to do just last week are on hold till the movement around me stills.

Cozy sweatshirts and sweat pants, warm and fuzzy slippers, hot coffee laced with cinnamon, and a good book (or in my case, many a writing project).

The kids have adapted. They've pulled out the dart board, and decks of cards. Calmly, they've shifted gears from tree house building. Munching away on my muffins, they're holed up in the boys' room. They've noticed the next batch of bread on the counter, and are pleased I re-stocked the fridge this morning. Just another day.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A Farmers' Fair -- La Conféderation Paysanne du Gard

Lunch at the beach

A Sunday outing to the beach. This is actually from a couple of weeks ago -- but I'd left my camera at the winery. So, imagine this as the first week of October. The food was so so, we didn't have our suits, but walking barefoot in the shallows was marvelous.

It was a family outing sort of day, at least for many locals (my kids were with their father). The food was mediocre, the wines okay. But that's not what we went there for. As you can see, my freckles are darker than ever. Fresh sea air and sunshine. It's a nice change.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

It's Fall, but the world is green...

My garden is green. My rose bushes are in flower. The jasmin is abundantly in blossom as it grows wildly up my facade. The grass is lush. All around me the world is rich in greens. Is this fall?

Well yes, the olives are nearly ready for picking. My friends at the olive oil mill tell me they're readying the mill -- cleaning all the equipment, re-organizing the tanks, getting everything working perfectly -- to open in ten days. And olives are a fall crop. They will take us into winter. The first will be picked in pleasant, sunny weather, and the last will often be picked during fierce gales of Mistral winds, fingerless gloves and winter coats exigés.

The wine harvest is in, the days are getting shorter. There are pumpkins in the fields, squash on the market stalls. My tomato plants are still producing, but meagerly. For a couple of weeks now I've been tempted by the mushrooms at the market, and seen little old men out scrounging with pocket knives and plastic bags by the cedar tree stumps lining the roads of my island. The signs are there.

And yet, it's so green. Where are all the colors? We're mid-way through October and the trees have barely begun to change. I don't smell fall. The leaves have still to tumble by more than a sprinkling into my courtyard. The rain came pouring down last night, but it encouraged the world to sprout and reach towards the sky. It did not moisten crushed, fallen leaves, nor leave that musty autumnal scent in the air. Crisp is not yet a word I can use for the weather.

I'm not complaining. We're out biking, walking, roller blading, climbing trees and more. Life is good. But strange. I feel like spring has come again. There are my rose bushes, smiling at me as they offer their most beautiful and delicate blossoms. White jasmin petals are strewn before my door as I step out ... not brown leaves.

I may need to program a biking week for this time next year. One including visits to the mills as they get ready, to the wineries where the wine is bubbling away, to the hills where the billy goats are now with their ladies, across the freshly tilled fields, under the sweet-scented pine, up the dirt road to visit our beekeeper and have a rich autumn meal laden in honey harvested over these past six months. With weather like this, what could be more lovely?

I was raised in New York, a land of four seasons. And part of me is still held in sway by the sight of maples and oaks and all those trees that change colors so majestically. I harbor memories of chilly nights under warm blankets, hikes across burgundy/yellow/orange coated hills at a friend's home in Vermont, hot toddies my style -- a grog of home-made cocoa and bourbon.

Soon, I'll have a touch of this. The vineyards will be red. The beech will turn yellow. The chestnut will be a rich brown, drop their fruit upon the ground and offer us both nourishment and handsome wrappings for cheese. Beneath the pine needles up in the hills I may find black trumpets trompettes de la mort, yellow girolles, pale pink pieds de moutons, or soft mossy-brown cèpes. Fall will come.

But for the moment, I'm living a second spring. It is a gift I shan't refuse.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Pressure Cooker on the Stove

Oh dear, the household is not coming together as I'd like. There seems to be one in particular who creates division and anger. One who reacts vengefully and angrily, with the others then fulfilling the role of chorus, or flying off the handle.

Will removing the one calm the others down? What level of group dynamics is happening here? The one was gifted at causing factions -- I think. There was a definite anti-group, anti-team, individualistic me-ness to him. Though at times, he was the motivating factor for glorious everyone-included treasure hunts and games of hide-n-seek.

Is he also the scape goat? Does his presence which once divided now unite the others in their annoyance of him?

A long chat is in store with his mother this weekend. At this point, I'm not too certain on which side the ball will tumble. Is fairness something to seek? or serenity and a cohesive, balanced household? Are they mutually exclusive or part and parcel?

Unexpected guests

As I came down from my upstairs office to refill my tea, I noticed a new dog following Filou around the house. Yes, I'd left the garden door open. And yes, I've become quite accepting of the regular visits of Saline, the neighbor's lab and shepherd blend who is practically my second dog (at least from 8:30AM to 8PM each day). But this was new. I recognized the newcomer, and hadn't realized it was a she till this moment when I saw her happily smacking her lips -- Filou's food bowl had just freshly been emptied.

Now, I've a friend dealing with her sixteen year old son's love life. She's struggling (successfully) with imposing the rule that his girlfriend not spend the night -- though she's there frequently behind closed doors during the day time. The time has come to establish certain rules for her household and her sexually maturing son.

Goodness I'm glad I'm not at that point yet. Leo is such a gracious and gentle young man towards women. He likes them -- his demeanor with our teenage boarder attests to this -- but the idea of their sharing his bed? For the moment, it seems to be a far distant concept. Not that I should be surprised. Simply pleased and relieved that we're not there yet. I've time to figure out what sort of rules I'll choose to put in place.

No, my sons are as yet relative innocents. Limits are set along different lines. However, my super sociable dog is another story! Aren't male dogs supposed to follow females? How is it that I've got all the local female dogs hanging around the house mooning over my scruffy black ball of fluff? How did he get so popular? And how do I convey to him that feeding the neighborhood is just not in the picture?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A delicious visit inspires

A delectable specialty of my favorite chocolatier is his caramels. Such a simple concoction: sugar, cream, and butter. And yet... all my gourmandise of my younger years comes to the fore when I am confronted with this beautiful, smooth warm-toned merveille.

Joël Durand's main shop is in St. Rémy de Provence: a hub of tempting smells, shelves of delights to the eye and the tongue, and a very friendly welcome. I come here for gifts for friends back home, for a little something to put by my computer while I work (a reward here and there encourages creativity, n'est-ce pas?). And of course, I bring my guests.

A whirlwind of movement and ambition, Joël comes up with new candies and confections every year. From an alphabet of flavored ganâche filled chocolates to cocoas to toasted almonds, crunchy caramel and chocolate to confitures and -- my favorite -- delicate chocolate cookies topped with flavored, oozing caramel (orange, lavender, liquorice, chocolate, salted butter, hazelnut...) and dipped in crisp, shiny dark chocolate. Yes... I do have an Achille's heel, I must admit.

I took my clients by yesterday, and obtained the rare permission to visit the laboratory (this used to be a bit easier to do, but it is now run like the proverbial ship and where once there were lovely bits of "waste" to nibble, there are no longer. An impressive change has taken place -- for the better -- but this may mean fewer visits... I'll see what the future brings).

We arrived shortly after lunch, and watched as the workers got into the swing of their afternoon recipes. One was making caramel (hmmmmm), while another simmered and infused fresh rosemary in a simple syrup, mixing it in a high-speed blender, and sieving it through a chinois for a rosemary-infused ganache chocolate and a rosemary-infused bar chocolate. In another room, a young woman was filling her bar molds with freshly tempered chocolate. All were cleaning impectably as they went along. The scene oozed focus, quietly and methodically applied.

I've been visiting behind the scenes for ten years now at Joël Durand's shop, and I must say, gorgeous creations have always been the order of the day, but rarely before was it such a serious workplace. I miss the friendly banter of yesteryear and some of the early employees trained on the job. But, if getting things ship shape, eliminating waste, perfecting the methods and improving production help keep the business thriving and the current employees employed, Chapeau!

As we continued to observe, the hive hummed busily along. Other recipes were begun, including one of my favorites -- the honey ganache. I noted that it is made with lots of cream and butter much like so many others, but the quantities? I'll have to guess, or look up another chocolatier's recipe, as here, they are tightly held secrets!

A Basic Caramel:

Looking around for proportions, Simply Recipes suggests the following for a basic caramel. I added chocolate to my successful attempt this evening; and yes, these are pretty much the proportions I used (I confess to eye-balling it, something a proper pastry chef would never do!):

* 1 cup of sugar
* 6 Tbsp butter
* 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
-- optional, a few squares of high quality dessert chocolate -- I put in 4.

After watching at the laboratory however, I would put the cream before the butter, as the pastry-worker I observed added his cream before the butter. And, if nothing else, I'm a quick study! It is a simple recipe, but one that requires having all ingredients on hand, quick responsiveness and a sharp eye and nose.

Melt the sugar in a heavy bottomed sauce pan (if making lots, a large copper jam pot works great). With a wooden spoon stir and press out the lumps. When it is fully melted and starts bubbling, watch carefully! Let it get darker -- this is where the flavor comes in -- till you see le petit fumé, the small smoke.

Then add the cream. It will foam up dramatically. Stir and stir till it is smoothe again. Let it color some more, then remove the pan from the heat and put in all the butter. Apparently, you don't need to stir immediately -- the butter will cool down the caramel a bit. Stir in the butter, and -- if you wish -- add your chocolate. Stir till it all comes together and then either pour it into a jar, or over ice cream, whichever suits you. -- a poached pear or some apple slices are a possibility as well.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Wine Tasting in Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Sometimes I forget how good wine can be. And then I spend a day truly tasting, savoring, sniffing, swirling and it all comes flowing back. With two savvy and interested (and interesting) clients, I spent Monday tasting at a few of Châteauneuf's finest cellars. Bright, round, full, balanced, lively whites. Delightful now, and yet with the possibility of cellaring should we be so inclined.

And then the reds: dark black cherries, rich cocoa, cooler dark chocolate with perhaps a touch of mint, red pie cherries, peppery fresh blackberries, earthy, structuring tannins, ... chewy, round and rich, these wines coated our tongues and lingered on the taste buds.

And what is this? a faggot of wild asparagus is the filter of choice to hold back the lees from the juice as it flows from the press? Curiouser and curiouser. And here, there are no pumps to remove the marc from the tank, just the glistening and powerful muscles of the son-in-law as he shovels away, filling bucket after bucket.

One winery vinifies every one of its 20 some odd parcels of grapes individually, awaiting January to decide upon blends of these precious juices, choosing to age a small portion in new oak, keeping the rest in stainless or cement. And yet across town, their neighbor makes just one wine per year, and thus, no matter his many parcels (30 acres divvied up into 20 chunks), and no matter the juice from the press and the juice from the drip -- all goes back into the same tank as all will eventually be one wine.

The first carefully removes the grapes from the stems, aiming for flattering fruit flavors, smooth and elegant velvet on the palate. The latter keeps the stems in -- enjoying the ripe tannins they contribute to the structure of his powerful red.

And you thought the label of an AOC could describe a wine? Only in the broadest of strokes. Yes, they're both mostly grenache grapes, and yes, they were hand harvested, and yes, the alcohol content will be somewhere between 14 and 15 degrees alcohol (and occasionally higher), and yes, they will not be bottled for a minimum of 18 months - 2 years. But there, the similarities end.

Taste and find out! If you can find them, we reveled in the elegance of Domaine Marcoux, and the power and heart of the Domaine Lucien Barrot et Fils.

To top off the day, Guy Brémond at the Cave Verger des Papes shared a few more bottles and arranged shipping for my clients' favorites. With that accomplished, I, having carefully (and ever more skillfully) spit throughout the day (drinking only water with lunch) was able to safely back my van out of the tight parking lot of the Domaine Beaurenard, and deliver my guests to their hotel in Avignon.