Sunday, April 25, 2010

What is Sophie up to?

My beekeeper, mon apicultrice, Sophie Berton, is one of my oldest acquaintances in Provence. I met her early in the years of our business, when Leo was still a baby in a backpack, soon to be followed by the stroller. She became one of our first artisan visits, extending the culinary experience beyond the cooking classes. Many were the feasts of honey-laden dishes we enjoyed (and still do) in her wonderful home nestled in the woods off a dirt road running past a chapel from the middle ages (built upon an ancient Roman temple).

At one point, one of my favorite au pairs dated her eldest son, then in the early stages of his compagnonage (journeyman apprenticeship) as a stone carver (tailleur de pierre). I had great hopes of such an alliance -- I would have adored to have my au pair as a permanent neighbor and close friend, and also to be that much closer to Sophie. Ah well, that didn't work out, but Sophie and our friendship have stood the test of time and distance.

Since my move to Avignon, and my shifted professional focus (or simply the blow of the economic crisis and the ensuing dramatic lack of tourists which is happily coming to an end) not to mention the fact that I had been involved most every weekend with my vintner (this relationship now defunk) I hadn't been able to carve out the time to see much of Sophie. While I lived in Arles, we'd had the ease of my visiting her at the outdoor market in Arles nearly every week, and the frequency of my professional visits with cooking school clients to keep us close for most of our friendship. Now, it requires a bit of extra effort to find those moments to connect.

Single, with a weekend before me I snapped at the option of a party to celebrate spring at Sophie's today. And so off I went, dressed in summer attire -- the sun beating down upon us all--covered in sun screen, a straw hat atop my head.

What greeted me was an array of sights, people and feelings. I have always adored her home and her valley. It had often been a refuge for me from the city streets of Arles. A place where the scents of the wild flowers, herbs and trees fill the air, the buzzing of insects is ever present, and the singing of birds is just part of the atmosphere. Cars pass very very rarely on the her road -- and so you can revel in the sensation of merging with the natural world.

I found Sophie busily preparing omelets in the kitchen of her new home, friends working alongside. She has sold the home that used to greet me, and renovated a small ruin not far from it. She kept all her olive groves, and now lives in a tiny space just large enough for herself and the occasional guest (who observes the 3 day rule no more!), easy to heat, cozy and comfy. A bit tight in corners as she still has most of her art collection, library and accumulations of a life time to squeeze in there. But she's reduced her furniture needs to the minimum -- no more would fit in her space -- and exchanged what had been an ancient shepherd's shelter for a warm and far more luminous home. It fits her, if a bit snugly.

And, her projects have taken off. With her boys both grown and on their own, her former home sold for a tidy sum, she had the means to move forth in a way she had never been able to do on what she earned as a beekeeper. She has invested in a traditional yurt in which feasts, meetings, yoga classes and more now occur. She has built a new mielerie (honey house), put up a toilette seche, dry toilet, and is currently installing a lovely outdoor kitchen and area for showers.

She now welcomes visitors to learn far more than just what kinds of honey she can harvest. She is teaching medieval history through the lore of plants, food and tales. She is leading hikes, teaching about the world of bees and medicinal plants. And she is actively excavating and renovating the chapel across the road with an archeologist, historian and skilled stone cutters. Active, and yet seemingly finally at peace.

Sophie had always been someone for whom things came with difficulty. She was a grand complainer. Good humoredly regaling you with the difficulties of her situation (no electricity for 20 years) whenever you visited her honey stand. Was it simply her karma?

What I see today is a lovely woman who is finally approaching a moment of serenity, accomplishment and calm. She is still busy, surrounded by interesting and powerful women friends who tell stories, explore the sacred power of woman, connect with nature and shift the stones of their world. She is in her role as a teacher, a sharer of knowledge and place.

And in this place she welcomed her friends for a fête de printemps of omelets and quiche, salads and bread, cheese and wine and her best spice cake. News was exchanged, lotto played (a means of getting rid of some of her very large library...) and music filled the afternoon. What a lovely way to greet the warm weather!

I don't have Sophie's spice cake recipe for you. However I can tell you what she's told me. She uses a proportion of 1:1 for flour and honey -- thus this is a rich cake! She warms the honey to liquify it, just to a sizzle, no more, before pouring it over the flour. She lets it act on the flour a bit -- apparently her unpasteurized honey has a quality that helps break down the flour and initiate fermentation. Then she adds her other ingredients. She has a liberal hand with anise seed, something that it has taken me years to get used to. Having a mother who hates liquorice-flavored anything can mark you for a long time. (in my case).

Remarkably often, Sophie burns the bottom of her spice cake. A natural multi-tasker, over-extended, always chatting with someone, four or more things going at once, the occasional slightly over-cooked dessert is a standard in her house. But that doesn't stop her. And nor does it diminish the joy and délice of spending time at her table.

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