The season has taken over my head, my heart, my space. It's been a time of decorating the house, bringing Christmas into our visual world. It's been a time of baking and contemplating. But also a time of learning, exchanging querying.
I haven't spent many Christmases in France. Once early on in my marriage, once when Jonas was born (early December), two years' ago shortly after the divorce, and this year. I'm not quite practiced at the act you might say. I don't have my bearings, I'm not an experienced adept. And yet, having lived here for 15 years, few in my circle 'get' that.
So, amidst the joys of the school Christmas market and the marvelous village of gingerbread (aka pain d'épice) in Jonas' class, the presentation of the Jeux de Noel by the teachers in school, the stars folded and created by Jonas and brought home to adorn my windows, the Christmas fairs lit up and delightful in every city, the lights hanging over the roads... I've absorbed some of what happens here.
In my own home I blend traditions -- I've my tree with my collection of ornaments acquired over a lifetime, and my Provençale crêche acquired from my years of touring to the village of Séguret where my favorite santonnier lives. I put candles around the room (the kitchen) and made an advent calendar with a little help from Cultura -- our cultural book/cd/art supply store chain. I made my raspberry chocolate bûche (see the recipe in my blog from exactly this time last year) - an item 'de rigueur' for my children and myself now. I tried to hang stockings by the fire -- I wanted to -- but they didn't arrive in time from NY (they'd been stored at Mom's). I do hope the Post Office hasn't lost them!
This was a year of both joy and melancholy. It is peculiar being a single mom in a country which is almost but not quite yours. I thought I might spend Christmas with the new beau, but in fact, that didn't work out, for many reasons, amongst them a French tradition that deems Christmas an intimate family affair. We'd been seeing each other gently this fall, but there's no declaration of more for the moment, and it is simply not appropriate, done, approved, of blending families for such an event. Ah well.
And so I looked to girl friends. I didn't quite feel up to spending Christmas alone. This being Erick's year, I was able to keep the boys for Christmas Eve, but then passed them to him for this week. And, I realized that here too, this is an intimate family event. And, my status and confusion being a last minute thing... it was a bit of an imposition to bring it up.
However, life is evolution, shifting, gifts, change. My dear friend P had spent Christmas alone last year -- like myself, a divorced mom who gets the kids one year in two. And she open her house, her kitchen, her couch and her family to me and mine. We were invited into the bosom of her world to share Christmas Eve with her and her boys, her new beau and his son and their respective parents. I brought my bûche, my squash recipe (which I'll tack onto the end of this post), my bread and home-made granola, plus some sparkling wine from Domaine D'Eole in Eygalières, one of the organic wineries I've worked with and visited for years.
The boys piled into the boys' room with our extra mattresses and sleeping bags (5 altogether!) and I settled happily onto the couch in the living room, and Filou (yes he was included) slept on the floor by the couch on a nice rag rug (the house cat fled to another room during this time).
We ate, drank, sang a bit, lit candles on the tree and opened presents all on Christmas Eve. The boys played together beautifully and truly enjoyed this different Christmas. We've decided that P and her boys are our cousins in Provence. She is like a sister, close, affectionate, but also honest with me. She is a teacher, a mentor, and a fellow traveler in this life that is not quite like we expected it to be when we were young.
I dropped the boys off with Erick on the 25th, went home for a bath, to check in, and then returned to the warmth of P's home to spend one more night. It just felt lovely to be 'part of' to be included. And, well, she did a splendid job of bringing Christmas to her home.
After all this, what did I truly miss? 24 hour radio stations with Christmas carols, singing in the church with Ma, and a snow storm. Provence is probably the only place this past few weeks that hasn't had snow!
Tian de Potimaron (Baked Squash)
The Squash, the pumpkin, and all its varieties is of course, and import from the new world. But, we have at least 200 years of enjoying this hearty fall vegetable in Provence. The most popular preparations are either in soup/potage or as a gratin or tian. In Provence there are now many different squash available on the market. The most abundant is the Potiron which most resembles a pumpkin, but has a slightly more watery flesh. This grows to quite large proportions and the vegetable sellers sell it by the kilo, in large slices. More rare, but much more flavorful with a meatier flesh is the Potimaron. It can be either orange or green skinned, and is 6-10 inches in diameter, and quite dense, thus heavy in your shopping basket.
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 3 slices of bacon cut in 1/4 inch (1cm) short strips
- 2 onions minced
- One 1 1/2 kilo (3 pound) squash peeled, sliced and cut into 3/4 inch (4 cm) cubes
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 garlic cloves crushed and minced
- a couple grates of nutmeg
- salt and pepper as needed
- 3 tablespoons of honey (you can use a strongly flavored honey like chestnut, or garrigues, or a more mild, depending on availability and your preference).
In a large deep frying pan, pour in enough olive oil to cover the bottom, reserving the rest for later. Turn your flame up to medium high, and add the bacon bits and onions. Sautee till the onions are sweated and the bacon cooked. Add the squash and the remaining oil, and sautee over a medium flame, allowing them to lightly brown, for 10-15 minutes. They should start to become tender.
Now remove the squash from the flame, fold in the bay leaves, the minced garlic, and nutmeg. Salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to a baking dish/tian/gratin dish and place in the oven at 400F or 200C. Let bake for 30 minutes, or till tender. When just about done, drizzle the honey over the top, return to the oven and bake for another 10 minutes or till the honey caramelizes.