Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Village Ball

When was the last time you've been to a village dance? So many movies of the 50s showed them as part of the local scene -- Carousel comes to mind. But have there been any since the uproar of the 60s? Did they continue in their sleepy, gentle way amidst the turmoil and upset of the Vietnam War peace demonstrations? Did any survive the arrival of disco? Motown and punk rock?

If not in my world of Westchester County in New York, perhaps elsewhere? As I remember it, both my parents knew how to dance: my mother was in the folk dance club at her university, and my father as a good Southern gentleman who'd been to many a debutant's ball could be counted on to do a competent turn at a waltz and even a light fox trot.

But when my parents went out for an evening it was not to dance. Elegantly decked out, with cologne tapped around his throat, perfume spritzed behind her ears, a jacket and tie for him, hair up and occasionally the elegant long skirt for her, they went out to restaurants, concerts, theatre and to gatherings of friends where food, conversation and alcohol were the main events. I never heard tell of a night of dancing.

In our family, there was a tradition of dancing at weddings. However, this was a tradition dominated far more by square dances that encouraged all ages to participate, than elegant waltzes. Yet I have memories of at least one when I, perhaps 5 at the time, took over the dance floor in my favorite pink dress. At some point a parent was inspired to push a little boy of a like age in my direction. At which point, I fled. Though my love of dance was already a confirmed trait, femme fatale, I was not.

And so, here I am dating a man from a village. A man whose roots go back a number of generations, and who is more than a bit enamoured by his village's traditions. I've spoken elsewhere of the club taurine, and the summer bull games, paëllas and carnival fairs (post Fête Votive). Yesterday evening the yearly Bal des Commerçants was on the program. We, a couple who love to dance, couldn't miss this now, could we? Particularly as JP has aspirations to be a local politician. Thus, turned out and rarin' to slide across the dance floor we were there: to see and be seen. A mere 10E a person at the door (all for a good cause) led us into the salle de fêtes decked out with lights, tables surrounding the piste (dance floor), a band specializing in 70's classics with a twist and a selection of locals.

We found a spot to sit and put our coats, got our drinks in plastic cups, and contemplated the scene. Oh yes, we did first do a round of bises to all known folk, of which there were quite a lot. Three kisses for each of his fellow political aspirants in the Socialist circle, three kisses each to the many friends and colleagues he's worked with through the cultural and social centers in town, and the occasional handshake to simple acquaintances known from the market or the local shops.

The watchmaker was tending bar between dances (he was quite fluid and fun to watch). The local documentarian was photographing the event for posterity, when not inviting a friend to waltz. And when the piste was clear of tall dancers, those a meter and shorter happily took over the space, with the occasional parent coming in to keep order.

Somehow we danced the cha cha to The Doors' Come on Baby Light My Fire, followed by a Passa Dobles in simple step rhythm, and a Rock to Serge Gainsberg. Edith Piaf was best danced as a waltz. A European tango was played and I tried to adapt to the slow slow fast fast fast, slow slow fast fast fast rhythm, but was often tripped up by the simple idea that this was supposed to be a tango. To me, it wasn't.

When not dancing I watched. I observed the couples of a certaine age who've clearly been dancing together for at least thirty years. A large tummy and stiff joints were not going to deter them now. Then there were the husbands who love to dance, dancing with the wives who love to dance, none of them with their respective spouses who didn't love to dance on hand. Happily, these re-paired couples seemed delighted with this arrangement.

JP would point out one or another man who'd confided to him his private dancing passion, and consequent frustration that his spouse was not of like mind. They'd thus taken classes on their own and here in this public spot, were lightly and gracefully partnering their neighbors across the floor. What a contrary world. As many a woman can attest, it is far more often be the other way around! Somedays I think I could as easily give up dancing with my partner, as settle for a smoker. Deal-breakers both.

One couple in particular caught my eye. He had a grand mane of fluffed gray, nearly all white hair, an elegant striped black suit, and freshly shined black shoes. She was coiffed rather severely in a variation of a Dorothy Hamill, in a simple but elegant outfit, her face drained of all color with not a spot of make-up to brighten it, and rather clunky black shoes. He, heavy set though he was, moved with grace and joy, swinging her around in a rock, a passa dobles, and a waltz with ease. But clearly, they'd never danced the cha cha together before. He tried teaching her, but suddenly, where heretofore she'd been quite graceful, she became stiff and uncertain. They were a newly formed couple; he the adept and passionate dancer, she his new muse. They made being 60 look like quite a lot of fun.

Yes, the mean age at the ball was definitely 55 and upwards. And yet, when that disco medly came on: Freak Out, Staying Alive and all your favorites, there they were boogieing away. I must say, I was impressed and enchanted. No, I've never seen people of my parents' generation, much less those of my elder cousins dance the night away at a ball. I've had my share of nights in Manhattan clubs and raves in Seattle, square dancing at weddings, but a small village ball open to the public? No, this was a first.

I do hope this tradition doesn't die out here as well. Though I'm afraid, it is highly likely. Other than the little tots on the dance floor, I was nearly the youngest person there.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Cheesecake.... How I love it still

Here I am, living in France, surrounded by superb pastries, butter creams, éclairs, religieuses, ganâches to die for, tartes aux abricots... and yet, I yearn for a good old fashioned cheesecake.

Over the years, I've made attempts in this direction. At one point I purchased tubs of fromage blanc, dumped them into a (very clean and not soapy perfumed) dish cloth and squeezed as much liquid as possible out of these lovely textured dairies to render them if not as solid as Philadelphia Cream Cheese, then at least less fluid than they had been.

Then I pretty much gave up on the traditional New York style cheesecake (excepting when someone snuck me some cream cheese in from the States), and opted for ricotta (here known as brousse or broccio) cheesecakes. These have a grainier texture, which can be somewhat smoothed out in a mixer, and over the years became a standard dessert during the cooking courses. But though I was able to make them interesting (honey and spices, orange zest, grand marnier...) they lacked that certain acidic bite of a traditional cheesecake. Something was missing.

Out of the blue, I was inspired these past two weeks to make more cheesecake. It simply came upon me. Though then again, I had two dinner parties to orchestrate, so somewhere the inspiration for dessert was necessary, and rather than settle for a fruit tart, or a chocolate mousse, or a fruit salad and cookies... I felt like experimenting.

My first cheesecake was traditionally inspired, flavored only by lemon zest (of two lemons) and the juice of half a lemon. Delicate and creamy, all deemed it a success. I used the brown sugar cookies known as Gascognes crushed into crumbs by my blender, and melted butter with a pinch of salt as my crust. Graham crackers they were not, but they did have a lovely caramel flavor that well complemented the cheese and lemon.

My later creation (here photographed) was more flamboyant and considering that all my guests were French, rather on the unusual side for this side of the Atlantic. Fresh and candied ginger with dark chocolate swirl. I didn't have a packet of cookies on hand, but I did have hazelnut meal, cocoa, sugar and butter, so these made my rather haphazard, but appreciated and remarked upon crust.

And so, how did I succeed at long last where for years I'd simply stumbled or wiggled around the ingredients? Well, I picked up a faisselle. This is a fresh cheese with neither salt nor sugar, in a plastic tub in a tub. The inner tub is a sieve, keeping the curd intact and apart yet leaving it in contact with the whey.

To make this particular ingredient work for me I purchased it a day (or two, a bit more time wouldn't hurt) ahead of time. I removed it from its whey (which I put aside in a jar for future muffin or pancake making) and put it inside a strainer over a bowl and back into the fridge. In this way, I returned it to its cheese origins, and put it into a situation where it would slowly release its liquid and firm up. Thus, my kilo of faisselle became 850 gr of fresh cheese (approx 2 lbs).

To this I added 3 eggs, 1 1/2 cups of sugar (about 300g) -- note, these are the same proportions I used for the lemon cheesecake--, 2 heaping tablespoons of fresh grated ginger (which I now store in the freezer, something friends in Boston do, and how brilliant!) and 2 tablespoons chopped candied ginger. I blended this all together and tasted it to see if I wanted more ginger or not (I love ginger... can you tell? I also love tasting cheesecake batter...).

Once I was content, I poured the batter onto my rather creative crust (it was interesting, but not as yet a recipe I would share as a finished, or even preferred option...) and then prepped my chocolate.

In a heavy bottomed stainless saucepan I melted 150g (5 1/2 oz) of dark chocolate on the surface of my wood stove (t'is winter after all). I scooped up and blended some of my cheesecake batter with the chocolate in the saucepan till somewhat smooth and then poured this extended chocolate batter over the ginger batter and swirled it around with a knife till it looked relatively lovely, or at least like a meeting of the worlds of light and dark, with perhaps dark winning.

I opted for baking the cake at a low temperature (150C/300F), rather than in a water bath, for nearly an hour or till the cake looked done with barely a touch of browning on the top, and the center jiggled only slightly. It rose high as a soufflet, and them came down a good bit, but not unpleasantly so.

I made this cake two days before my party, so I simply let it cool and put it in the fridge till needed. The extra chilling time deepened and melded the flavors.

Three days of Organic wine

Three days of wine and wine and wine. Three days of chatting, tasting, sharing, learning. Three days spent meeting importers to the US, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Germany, Belgium, England and Ireland markets. Three days of discussing, commenting, sniffing, and tasting. Three days of early mornings, late evenings, hopes, excitement, moments of boredom, too much good organic food (a super caterer does the noon-time meals).

I was there with two goals: to help JP sell his wines, particularly to the US market, but of course to anyone who needed me to speak English with them. And, to discover and taste wines from other wineries to build my own portfolio of wineries whose wines I would like to help enter the States.

To that end, as time permitted, I tasted wines of Pic St. Loup (a region I adore, though their wines are a bit pricey for our relatively slow market perhaps -- generally from $20-$35 with the current exchange rate). I also made an interesting connection with a small biodynamic winery in the Loire Valley, with an Alsacian winery that also has holiday rentals on site and the possibility to offer meals, tastings and more for visitors, and a woman-run winery in Perpignan (right by the Pyrennees) with numerous very very interesting wines both blends and single varietals.

Yes, I am moving forward. Best to start slowly and carefully. I've still much to learn about the basics of exporting wines to the US. Paperwork, labelling, Customs' duties, State differences (of which there are more than you can imagine!). But the fun part is getting to know the wines and the persons who make them.

My plan is to have the majority of the wineries I work with be within easy driving distance (relatively) and be willing to work with me on wine tours receiving curious visitors as well as being an agent who can place their wines in the US market. And of course, each time I visit them, I will photograph and write and describe. For what else this blog? A chance to share the discoveries of people, places and more.

When not running about tasting others' wines and presenting myself, I was a diligent assistant pouring and discussing JP's wines, trying to suss out the perfect match with visiting importers. I was pleased to see that my advance work contacting these importers had paid off and most came by to visit and taste our discreet selection of wines.

Our neighbors in all directions had a larger range of offerings than we. In Alsace, no matter the size of the winery, it will make seemingly at least a dozen different wines -- in some cases 500 bottles or fewer per style! And, for those in Languedoc, lacking in many cases a known name or AOC, they have opted to enter the international market with the more easily understood single varietals, using creative labeling, etc., Not quite the critter labels of Australia, but often in that general direction.

We have our two whites, one rosé, and three reds. All are blends, and though there are differences in the labelling, they are minimal: two vin de pays du Gard, three AOC Costières de Nîmes (the three colors) and a red cuvée prestige (the Jardin Secret). The bare minimum.

Behind us was a négociant who had a wide range of wines from many parts of France -- one stop shopping if you will. All organic, all with friendly and attractive labels, and all very inexpensive. One prominent American importer spent most of his time with them. Disappointing for us, the private, personal and small winery, but understandable. Easier to work with a négociant who knows the ropes and has lots of offerings than a small, individual winery. Ah well. Do we really want to be on supermarket shelves?

It's an art knowing into which market you fit. Wine stores are one area, but only the folks in the know will shop there. Organic supermarkets are another -- Wholefoods being the holy grail of course. But no doubt, there is a large potential in any supermarket lucky to be in a state that permits them to sell wine, particularly if you can come into the US in the $10 and under range...
But then do you change your label to adapt to that market? Is your labelling in sync with the product in the bottle and the potential drinker who will buy it?

When we look at the many many possibilities on display at the wine fair, it is both encouraging and destabilizing. Should we update the label? and if so, in which direction? It's great to have wines that will retail in the US at a reasonable rate (likely $10-$12), but we don't want the elegant label to count against them, nor a flashy label to demote them.

Now, home, I've a list of contacts to follow up with -- both for Domaine Cabanis, but also for myself. Price lists, wine descriptions, meetings to envision and plan, visits to their respective wineries where feasible... Exciting...

Friday, January 22, 2010

If you're in need of a hospital in Avignon...

Well, I'm home and my minimal intervention (a conisation of the cervix) is done and over. Time now to teste what they removed, and simply keep an eye on things to see whether more abnormal cells appear or not. Patience... Perhaps also a time to visit my friend the healer and seer. A truly amazing woman. She is perhaps one of the major reasons Jonas has no scars from a vicious burn he received when he was about five.

However, I wanted to praise the Clinique Urbain V in Avignon, the private hospital in Avignon. All paper work went smoothly.Signing in and getting a room was easy, the nurses were attentive, good-humored, at times downright funny (telling jokes as they wheel you to the bloque). The meal after the surgery was a bit spartan (a slice of ham, a pat of butter, a small chunk of baguettish bread, some camembert, peach purée/compôte and a super sweet hot chocolate with milk.

As in all good hospitals I assume, one is constantly asked one's name, why you're there and who your doctor is -- safety measures that are quite appreciated, or perhaps simply sanity tests? And, just before the anaesthesiste comes to knock you out, there's my doctor with her smiling face, reassuring me that she is present and she'll be handling my procedure. It's a small thing, but it is nice to be conscious all the way to the operating room, to be greeted personally by your doctor and thus be reassured that all is well and as it should be.

I woke up just thirty minutes after I went under (those large clocks on the wall are easy to read even for a blindman like myself!) in the salle de réanimation. A couple nurses were calmly going about their business and quickly noted my open eyes and came to check with me, how I felt, whether I had any pain, etc.,

Within twenty minutes of my emerging from complete grogginess my doctor was there to reassure me that all had gone well, and she'd removed the offensive lesion of cells.

Then, back to my own room which I shared with a very pleasant woman operated on by my same doctor. We lay there, a bit out of it, and slowly returned to this universe.

The above-mentioned snack, a quick peepee, and a bit more patience (four hours from wake up to departure from the hospital minimum). And then, JP there to carry my things and steady me, off into the night I went.

So, be reassured as to the pleasantness, the efficiency, the quality of care, and the attentiveness possible and present in French hospitals. Perhaps we're particularly lucky in Avignon. Perhaps the team of nurses and doctors are particularly tight-knit, content with their jobs and competent, but, I think you'll find people like this elsewhere too.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Kids and Letters

Yesterday evening was a quiet one. Well, relatively. Once the game of hide and seek was over; once Leo had finally taken his shower and shaved (the once a month removal of very dark if minimal mustache); once Jonas had brushed his teeth, calm again reigned in the house. And to my bed crept a little boy, eager to work on his 'homework' with me. Can we call it homework when they're only 8?

Proudly, attentively, insistently, we read through (he read through!) sounds and syllables and simple phrases. He knows his French letters, and most of the combined sounds now -- ou, on, en, an... -- but we had some difficulty with 'ai' and 'au' and all those annoying silent letters. However, there he was pronouncing with the most lovely gutteral 'r's the most precise whistled 'u's. My little French boy. I resisted (and corrected myself as needed) from stating the alphabet in English... I kept wanting to say a and i with the English pronunciation, and then would repeat them a and i with the French. Some lapses just need to be accepted...

When Leo was little my mother and I worked on his reading in English alongside his reading in French. I don't know if this contributed to his current confusion when it comes to writing both languages, but it might have.

Jonas is another boy, growing up in a different time. I'm not in the kitchen teaching classes and cooking with clients. I'm in bed with him night after night open to whatever he brings to me. And, he's brought his joy at doing his school work. He's getting bigger and proud to be so, and I've convinced him he's not going to have half the difficulty his brother did. (positive mental reinforcement much?). Though this seems to be true from the get-go.

Gra gri gro gru grou groi gron; pla pli plo plu plou ploi plon; dra dri dro dru drou droi dron...

and on and on. We had about 30 lines, each one more difficult than the last, each presenting a similar rhythm and direction.

One of the scary aspects of the Waldorf education for many a driven parent (like myself) is that reading and writing are taught later than in the public school. The reasoning goes that until the physical body is ready (this moment of being ready is signaled by the loss of the first baby teeth) all the life forces in a child are needed to build himself, and it would be detrimental to occupy them in intellectual pursuits. This is not to say that creativity, play and many sorts of lessons aren't encouraged and done before this age, but, purely intellectual activities like reading and writing are put off till the first and second grade.

So, when you've a child like Leo who came to reading very very late and who still has horrid problems with spelling, you wonder if you made the right choice. When you've a child like Jonas who seems to jump at the chance to learn and who is delighted to share all his accomplishments and school projects with you, all seems right with the world.

By the way, while Jonas and I were working on letters and pronunciation, Leo was devouring the third in the series of Percy Johnson and the Olympiads. So, at least on this note, we can end my years of worry with delight and pride. Not bad to be 12 and reading as easily in one language as the other, n'est-ce pas? We'll see if the orthophoniste (speech and writing therapist) can help with his catastrophic grasp of basic verb conjugations, spellings, etc., One problem solved at a time.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Kings' Cake - Galette des Rois

A favorite dessert and snack for this time of year. Easy to make, and easier to eat! Surprise your friends (elsewhere than in France and Québec!) with a homemade version.

The kings' cake is a favorite snack and dessert for this time of the year. My kids adore it and request it often. I can purchase one from any bakery worth its name, but it really isn't hard to make from scratch (if you've some flaky puff pastry on hand).


* two sheets pâte feuilletée (puff pastry)

For the Frangipane:
* 1 1/2 cups ground almonds/almond meal
* 1/2 cup sugar
* 1/3 cup sweet butter
* 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
* 2 eggs
* 1 tablespoon flour
* a pinch of salt
* an egg with 2 tablespoons syrup (I used maple) to brush on top of the pastry so it will golden in the oven.
* a bean or a whole almond or a small clay figurine to be your fêve.

If you haven't found almond meal, then use your spice grinder or your blender to make it yourself (as I did this time). Blend all the ingredients together in your mixer, and then spread onto one of the puff pastry sheets. Put your fêve in the frangipane then top with the other sheet. Draw a criss cross pattern with the back of a knife (careful to not puncture the pastry). Pinch the edges of the pastry. Brush with the whole egg wash.

Place in a medium hot oven (375) till nicely golden on top, about 20-30 minutes depending on your oven.

Enjoy as an afternoon snack with tea, or for dessert. In traditional French house the youngest child goes under the table and tells the server of the cake to whom each piece should go. Then, he who gets the fêve is king for the day. Best to have a crown in the house ready for his/her head!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Snow, Kids, Avignon,

Who can resist a walk in the blurry, chilly world of a snow storm? Especially when we're relatively well equipped with boots, coats, hats, gloves... Watching Filou bound through the high drifts was entertainment enough. But many a snow ball was thrown, an ice angel attempted, and a lone leaf chased. Jonas was proud to join his Ma for a good half hour of ploughing our feet through deep snow -- that his friend's house was our destination did help!

Thank you French Healthcare

Yet again, I am and will be in debt to the French healthcare system. It has been not quite a year now since I first had an abnormal pap smear. From that day through to a snipping and biopsy to the surgery that removed the lesion of cells, barely three months passed. And, in my currently financially challenged state, I did not pay a centîme.

It is now six months later, and I've had two subsequent visits to the doctor, and another abnormal pap smear. This one is a bit more dubious, and might mean there are further areas out of sight and reach of a pap smear that are activating. My doctor contacted me immediately. I had a rdv in her office two days after I called. And not ten days later I'll have the less invasive of the two options she proposed.

I face now the choice of a pre-emptive hysterectomy, including the ovaries as there is a history of ovarian cancer in my family, or to choose the lesser option of removing what is visible plus a chunk and keeping a close eye on the rest.

My choice is personal, moral, physical, and not based on money and access. This is rather incredible. I am free to be freaked out at the idea that I might be harboring what could develop into a cancer. I have the option of choosing one intervention and following it up shortly with the more drastic choice. I have a present, bright, and competent doctor who is reactive, proactive and patient. Her schedule and the hospital can take me in. Whatever care I choose and need I will get. And, in my current economic position, I won't even have the minimal co-pay to handle (which would be a max of about 200E for the simple operation, and no doubt a bit more for the more dramatic one).

So yes, I don't like the thought of losing my interior organs at the age of 43. I don't like the thought of being on hormone replacement therapy till I choose (at a later age) to go through menopause. But, I have the option to deal with these personal feelings and worries. The care is there. I will be provided for. I'm not in the midst of going, "Shit! no job, no insurance and thus who and how to pay for such an invasive procedure?!"

If I were actually living in the States, I'd be royally screwed right now. Yes, I've family that would come through for me. I wouldn't be left without help and care. But, that would cause hardship and take funds away from other possibilities.

I have options. I have choices. I am just unbelievably lucky to be living in France right now. I simply need to decide on a when that coincides with free time on the part of friends and others who could help out while I'm following doctor's orders to take it easy.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Always the Observer

As a youngest child I was born with examples right before me to observe, mimic, identify with or not. I would look up to my elder sister and watch her navigate the world. Six years my senior, she had a handle on her studies (always a good student); she was knowledgeable and responsible; she knew how to get to Manhattan and see a play on her own when she was only 15. She could cook and taught me to bake cookies. And, as adolescence came upon her, she became grouchy, reactive, and yet always remained the good girl who -- whilst complaining -- did as was requested.

My brother was the funny and quiet one. Many a summer we were alone together and he made do with this and taught me to fish, to catch salamanders, to fillet, to climb trees, and later, to improve my pie crust, acquire a few frisbee throws, and juggle two balls in one hand. With adolescence he became somewhat sulky, sullen, long simmering then -- though never raising his voice -- overpoweringly mad, fed up. He started having difficulty getting up in the morning, was always causing my parents to yell up the stairs, making everyone late to school. He, the smartest of the family, started to struggle in school by sheer frustration and I think personality conflicts with teachers far less quick than he. He mastered the technique of always answering in the positive to requests from my mother, and then simply never getting around to getting them done.

You could call my elder siblings opposites. I spent many a year observing and considering their varying approaches to life. My sister, so efficient, obediant, good, but often bemoaning the degree to which she was put upon. My brother, mostly good-humored (when not contraried), wickedly smart, and off in his own world, fiercely stubborn.

In their cooking they differ as well. My sister cooks quickly, efficiently, as necessary for her family. Or she does take out. These days, super-busy as she is, home-made meals are a rather rare occasion in her home. But they manage.

My brother masters recipes. He takes the time to do them just so each and every time. He measures carefully, he follows the directions, he perfects his creations. I drive him crazy in my complete and total inability (some pastry excepting) to do likewise. As he would say, I've never seen a recipe I could actually follow faithfully.

Now that we're grown, and living in distant worlds, my siblings are far less the individuals I observe and consider. I've opened my perspective to a wider world. And when I travel back home (home?) to New York and I visit the friends I grew up with, or went to school with, or shared a first job with, I observe what they've made of their lives, the choices they've made, the values they reflect.

One dear friend is living a fascinating and demanding career, alongside a husband who is doing likewise and more. Perhaps he'll even be a senator one day? or she? They've their blackberries at the ready, tapping away throughout the day. They've good wine in the cabinet, elegant glassware, a gorgeous chess set from an art gallery, a country home up in the hills. Pretty awesome. But, they don't have much time. They don't seem to slow down -- can they? Family time is minimal, precious, and too quickly over. Stress and intensity seem to be a regular sensation. They've one lovely child: precocious, intense, demanding. Another wouldn't be possible. This year they'll be living mostly apart due to job choices. And next year?

Another dear friend is managing a toddler in her low forties. She's got a good corporate job, relatively flexible, with good benefits. She got her six weeks of maternity leave, and when it ended, back to work she went. Her husband works in a similar environment. They depend heavily upon their nanny, and are enjoying this late-in-life blessing. However, if she wanted to spend more time with her child, she could not. Her job's benefits are too essential to their situation. So, onward with the formula that no doubt many must choose till their child is of school age.

But then I visited friends who seemed to have found a magic formula: a balance of work, accomplishments and family: Nurturing of the next generation, time for each other, and success on the career front. Amazing. I met sensible and delightful and affectionate adolescents, solid and supportive adults, warm and welcoming individuals and families that reach inward to their own, and outwards to friends from afar. Ah, how did they manage to choose their partners so well? What portion is family values? What portion intelligence? What portion having a good example in their own parents to learn from?

Do I have a simple and clear response to all my observations? Have I learned the magic formula? No. I'm just -- perhaps, if I'm lucky -- a touch clearer on my own values of raising my children, and hopefully, being in a supportive, affectionate, equal, delightful partnership one day. In the meantime, I'll focus on the boys, and figure out which of my projects to bring to fruition.

Time for wine blends

T'is the time of year that the local vintners do their blends. Nearly all the wines of this region are a blend of two or more grapes. You can easily find four to six different varietals added in varying quantities in some of the great wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Côteaux d'Aix, Les Baux de Provence, and of course, throughout Languedoc. The different varietals blended together are what bring depth and complexity to these wines.

Grenache is known to be relatively alcoholic, rich in fruit flavors (most notably strawberry jam), cocoa, and even floral and fresh. Syrah is known for its dark color, exotic spices, deep black berry and cassis notes. Mourvèdre can lend sous-bois and mushroom notes, or hints of the herbal garrigue and liquorice, even dark cherries. Carignan, particularly when from old vines, has its own gifts which the talented and hard-working vintner can harness. Other possibilities in the region are Cinsault -- known to be an elegant, less alcoholic floral note -- and Counoise, a grape I know the name of and not much else! It is very rare, yet nonetheless present in a tiny minority of wines including at our friend's the Domaine D'Eole in Eygalières, though I believe he puts it into his rosé, not his red.

In Vauvert we were working with the four possibilities planted on the property: grenache, syrah, mourvèdre, and carignan. Now, over and beyond these simple varietal distinctions, there is the syrah of the Jardin Secret parcel, and the more recently planted syrah; there is the old grenache planted by JP's father, and the very young parcel planted only five or so years ago. And, then there are the various juices of the press and the jus de la coule, as well as the special cuve of old carignan that was vinified with the special technique of macération carbonique.

The goal was to produce five reds, two whites and one rosé. The rosé had been decided during the vinification, and as it is made purely with quickly pressed red grapes -- no white, it was needing only a sign off from the AOC board before it gets bottled next week.

The whites were easy. The clairette was bright and tart, potent grapefruit in the bouquet, zesty notes of orange and lemon on the palette. It will make a great vin de pays. The viognier is far more elegant, higher in alcohol as well (13.5) with lovely yellow flower notes, and a hint of honey on the palette. A touch of clairette with the viognier will brighten it up, adding in a necessary note of acidity.

For the reds: a vin de pays - fruity, not too tannic, easy to drink. Job done with ease. This is the wine to which the younger vines contribute their fruit, and to which you don't want to add the potentiall harsh juices from the press. For the moment, this is the bag in box option for the winery, though we might bottle it again. It used to be available in the bottle, and there is a lovely label ready and waiting to be printed. I keep a box of it in my kitchen and serve myself (and any friend present) a glass with each meal.

Then we looked at the possibilities for the cuvée Jardin Secret. The vast majority of this wine comes from the special parcel of syrah, giving it its dominant notes. But to this, a touch of the old carignan vinified with the macération carbonique technique, bright and rich in aromas, it immediately enlivened the wine. Then the best of the grenache: cocoa, violets, torrefacted notes, a touch of coffee. And the mourvèdre which really came out very well this year... and voila. The blend was decided.

For the Rouge Tradition, which is the primary wine of the Domaine, we sought a balance of flavors, texture, tannins and bouquet. Into this the best of the press juices (the mourvèdre and the press from the carignan were particularly interesting) contributed their ripe tannins. This wine took the longest to get just right as we considered doing a more elegant version to bottle, calculating the bottles necessary for this year including our hopes to expand into the North American markets, and another, slightly lesser (but still very good AOC) version to sell in bulk to our ever demanding German and Belgian clients to the north -- long devoted to the organic choice. And, hmmmm, it will be a lovely wine! Better than last year, with fresh notes of lilac, toasted notes of cocoa and coffee, a tart hint of cassis, ripe tannis, structure ...

And what was left? just a little bit, some less attractive press juices, etc., that shall be easily disposed of as vin de table.

Now, off to the cellar to physically put together all these recipes!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Cats in the Cradle

There are times when that song from my childhood, Cats in the Cradle, just streams through my head:

Cats in the Cradle and a Silver Spoon,
Little Boy Blue and the Man in the Moon,
When're you coming home Dad, I don't know when,
But we'll get together then son,
you know we'll have a good time then....

I suppose in many ways I'm living my life accordingly. Sensitive to the theme of this song, that the father who prioritized his work and had little time for his son, reaps his just rewards in that his son has little time for him in his old age, and hoping to avoid its message in my own family entourage.

Life is a cycle, or at least, I believe it is so. What goes around comes around. What we put into motion ever so unconsciously, can come back to catch us.

I felt this cycle in a strange way during these holidays. I went for a walk with my mother, and for the first time perhaps ever, she walked more slowly than I, frightened of slipping and falling in the icy snow. Mostly, I was able to slow down and walk at her speed, but I felt myself resisting, frustrated, and yes, a bit resentful. Why?

Scenes of my childhood when she was always in a hurry, out the door before me, honking the car, ahead of me by a few yards, urging impatiently for me to catch up, rarely waiting till I was actually ready... No, it wasn't all the time, but enough that the impression has stuck.

I see as well my grandmother ten yards (or ten minutes) ahead of my grandfather, abandoning him as she strode strongly along while he trailed behind hobbled by weak legs. Was it so important to arrive minutes before the other?

I want to stop this. I don't want to be the impatient mom always urging her kids along.

And yet, I have been thus. I remember countless times zooming across Arles with Leo in tow -- thankfully, he was able to keep up most of the time, especially with his hand in mine. But when we had a friend of his with us, one who was far more dreamy and slow, inspecting every crack in the sidewalk, every piece of paper on the ground (no matter the cars that nearly toppled him over!), I would go, admittedly, rather batty. I have even thanked the stars that I've a son like Leo who can keep up. If I'd had a child like his poor friend no doubt it would have been torture for us both.

And so, how to stop this? Well, I'm trying. I'm making moves in this direction. We walk hand in hand, or if not, I look back when they dawdle, and stop when I sense they've fallen behind. Then simply, during those precious times when the clock isn't weighing upon me, I stand and smile as I wait for them to catch up -- rather than urging and berating and tapping a foot, or worse, heading off alone expecting them to keep up ...

It will come.

Where am I?

Last week I was immersed in a typical New England snow storm. I drove carefully in my mother's not-snow-tire-equipped toyota out of my friend's freshly shoveled driveway onto the recently ploughed and sanded local streets. It was snowy and cold. My boots were a blessing on my feet. Snow wafted into the car when I opened the door. But hey, it was Boston. This is normal there, right?

As we drove out onto the highway we found ourselves directly behind the fleet of 6 or 7 plough trucks, in a diagonal formation, clearing the 4 lane highway before us. It was quite impressive, and not a car was seen bumping into the side walls, nor crisscrossing before our paths.

And then I got on a plane and flew home to sunny Provence. And yes, Tuesday and Wednesday were lovely days. Even Thursday started out quite pleasantly. The sun streamed through my window. It was cold so I had the wood stove going nearly twenty-four hours straight. But with warm socks, clogs, jeans, a heavy sweater, etc., I was fine.

And then they announced snow, starting in the night and falling through the morning. Gaetan reacted quickly. He called his mother and got permission for me to put him on a train that evening. I should have taken note of his prescience. Not two hours later the school called and announced its closing for the next day. Yet still, I didn't move. Or rather, I was on my way to a nice warm bath, and the thought of mobilizing to get the kids to Erick's or me elsewhere just didn't come to me.

I awoke, jet-lagged, at 3:30AM to a pink-tinted world of trees coated in heavy layers of fresh snow, and flakes falling still. In the morning (or rather, late morning) when next I awoke, my car was under a foot of heavy snow, and my phone line had fallen with the weight of the dense accumulation on my jasmin vines. I didn't even contemplate moving the car. And shovel? Yikes, my garden shovel would work, yes, but it certainly isn't a snow shovel. And I'm not used to this. However, put on boots and go out for a walk with Filou and Jonas? Well yeah, that I can do and with joy.

We didn't even attempt to move the car that day. Erick wasn't willing either to attempt coming up from Arles where he too was snowed in. Roads were a mess, trucks (though the majority removed from the roads in advance) blocked some major routes.

I did persevere the next day however (yesterday). I got out my shovel, some cardboard and worked to remember my Northern roots. There was a time when this was normal for me... back when. And off I slipped and slid and with a bit of effort, and some pushing by my neighbors (using my mother's time-honored rocking technique), I managed to drive out of my little country road (very carefully) and get to clearer surfaces.

As I drove down the West side of the Rhône I passed many a downed tree, and three small cars off in the ditches. Happily, I didn't join them.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Curious characters

Arles is a small town. Amongst the virtues and riches of a small town is the range of our own personal town fools, or curious folk. Living in Arles for more than ten years, I came into contact with a clutch of interesting individuals who are known, appreciated, protected, and fully accepted as belonging to Arles. They range from completely coucou, to simply mildly deranged, to highly colorful. None are dangerous. None are scorned. The locals call them nias or niase, fada, or maybe they simply think that une favouille mange leur jugement (a crab eats their brain, i.e. a screw loose). I don't think I ever truly experienced this before in my prior city and town lives. New Rochelle is simply too large and too suburban. Seattle had its downtown folk -- enough to please the local photographer population. But did we protect and accept them? We don't have the naked cowboy singing on Times Square, nor do we have the flamboyant cross-dressers of the Village. But I can honestly and proudly say we have ours and we cherish them.

When I first arrived there was a delightful woman perhaps in her late 60s, or low 70s, who would arrive at the market on her moped. Made-up in bright pastel tints, her helmut under her arm, she would make her first stop at the police station. Striding in a most official way, she would salute the officers as her fellow colleagues, and then head out to visit on the market. I would often see her leaning upon her elbow at the Charcutier Milhau -- the best-known in town -- with its owner and patriarch graciously listening to her, shooting the wind if you will. Our favorite vegetable seller -- Jean-Denis -- had pride of place in her Saturday morning routine, stationed as he was just in front of the gendarmerie. She didn't make much sense when she spoke, but that never bothered anyone. She was such a harmless and delightful fixture to market day. It has been years now though that she is either no longer with us, or perhaps just no longer able to come on her own.

César is no longer with us either. Already in his mid-eighties when I met him, you couldn't miss him (and many a photographer visiting for the photo festival in July captured his likeness) with his prominent dyed black mustache and his gentle demeanor. Nor did you pass in front of his former tailor's shop windows plastered with images of Pancho Villas and Clark Gable (something about those mustaches...) without giving it a long glance. He would come to the local bar in his white cotton pants and bright shirts, joining Erick's friends for a drink or simply an afternoon chat. My father-in-law told me tales of his younger years when he'd been rather notorious for having been caught photographing under-age girls. But at the time of my arrival, he was simply a gentle fixture. Friends would take him to his doctors' visits, keep an eye out to see if he was okay, and simply include them in their morning coffee and afternoon pastis rituals.

We've a fragile and ever-smiling cross-dresser as well. His hair was short on top and long in back last I saw. Quickly recognizable in his belly button revealing tops and tight white jeans, string underwear occasionally visible from the rear. He walks a bit uncertainly down the street in his high heeled clogs and sandals. Always pleasant, discreet, gracious, we worry when we don't see him, hoping he isn't sick, or otherwise indisposed. He's not very tall, and doesn't seem very strong physically (health-wise). At times he tries some make-up -- mascara and lipstick --, but in general, his style choices keep to the clothing and hair. Again, just like César, he is accepted and included at our local café. A fixture on the Place Voltaire.

And then there's Harmonie. Whereas the first three were relatively discreet, if highly visual presences in our town, Harmonie is someone you hear before you see her. Tiny, skinny, a little old lady with straggly gray hair, she lives in the local home for the not completely there folk and is free to roam the town during the day. She has a preference for the bar down our street, and I'm afraid does imbibe perhaps more than her minimal body-weight can handle. I try not to cross regards with her as she swishes her hips agressively home from the bar. When this has occurred, I've been treated to a stream of French cursing and vulgarity to turn my ears redder than a cooked lobster. She's really quite amazing. If you slow down and just listen, you can learn quite a bit -- as a foreigner that is. She is as harmless as they come, but has a terribly agressive front that led me to turn in the other direction whenever I spied her. Yet she too, is protected, known, watched, and assisted when necessary. She may be a bit wacko, but she's our wacko. And as pleasantly as a neighbor will come to our door to warn us our car lights are still on, he would equally accompany her back to her group home should she be too wobbly to get there on her own two feet.

In perhaps the colorful category, but completely sane and in command of all her powers is a marvelous woman who is to be seen everywhere and anywhere a cultural event is happening. With a red dot in the middle of her forehead, her gypsy style skirts and jewels, and her three dogs in their red bandana collars, she is a visual delight, and -- if you will -- a stamp of approval to the worthiness of your chosen show. Some say she used to be the editor-in-chief of Vogue in Paris, or if not that, a higher-up in the fashion world, before choosing her relatively simple life in this southern town. She most definitely has a strong sense of style and presence. Head high, her dogs in tow, she is on a first-name terms with the mayor and many of the movers and shakers in town. If I remember rightly, I believe she did us the favor to sign papers to permit Leo to attend the kindergartent across from town hall -- outside our district. I missed that meeting, but, her kindness and good will are not to be forgotten.