Monday, March 29, 2010

A Friend most in the Present

I believe the phrase is: The Past is History, the Future a Mystery, and the Present a Gift.

I've been spending time getting these ideas more clearly in my head. I've been listening to life-coaches and spiritual seekers as they are interviewed. I've been reading tales and suggestions for being in the present. I practice yoga, go biking with my kids, relish a good meal, stop to sniff the flowers.

But the concept is taken to a completely different level when I am in the present presence of Isabelle. If you go back through my blog posts to earlier tales of my goat cheese maker, you will read of her. She is a dear and wonderful friend now in the late stages of brain cancer.

Three weeks ago, I visited with Jonas for lunch and caught the magical moment of birthing goats. I was also privileged to share a moment of grace with Isabelle. She'd stopped her chemotherapy a couple of weeks earlier and was enjoying a time of renewed appetite, strength, humor. I shared a meal with her, Paul Pierre, two friends and Jonas. We laughed, we enjoyed the dish of Hachi Parmentier with chopped and sauteed swiss chard prepared by Paul Pierre (well we did, Jonas enjoyed the bread and butter and the orange cake). All but Isabelle partook of JP's rosé wine I'd brought along. She took a few pills with bubbly water. When the conversation at the table became a bit much, Isabelle went to play a game of solitaire on the computer. Yes, it would have been completely out of character two years' ago for her to do anything on the computer beyond business, but when you live with a tumor that is consuming your concept as she puts it, old assumptions go out the window.

I called Paul Pierre Saturday. I caught myself. I'd been going to ask, ça va? That classic and light-hearted opening to a conversation. But that wouldn't do at all. You're not truly a friend to someone living what he is living if you stay in the trite and hackneyed habits of simple conversation.

How did the past week go? Badly. Isabelle had an epileptic fit. She went into the hospital for a couple of days. She is home now, with an IV hookup, and her memory is gone. She is happy, lovely, self-deprecating and gracious as always. And she is in the present as few of us shall ever be.

In the time we spent together today, I was able to show her photographs, tell a few stories, laugh and share. And though she took it all in avidly, when she made attempts to respond to a train of thought, she just couldn't. I would finish her sentence, and then she'd say with a smile, humbly, excusing herself, "j'ai des trous. Je suis un peu bête, ça va passer j'espère."

This continued throughout my time. Tomorrow I return to be there while Paul Pierre does errands. I'll help make lunch, take her out to the sun, show her more photos, tell her about the kids, the goats. She'll listen, take it in, and perhaps just a few minutes later, she'll have forgotten what I just said.

Will she remember that I was here today?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Left-over potatoes? Gnocchi!

Oh joy of joys, I actually made enough mashed potatoes the other night (with lots of fresh milk, butter and salt) to have left-overs (not easy when you've a house with 4 boys with ever-developing hollow legs).

Thus yesterday evening a my 5 litre mixing bowl not quite half full of potatoes was enhanced with 3 fresh eggs and a few cups of flour. Oh dear, you'd like exact proportions? Well, let's say my hands did the talking? I mushed and mashed with my fingers, adding flour a cup at a time till I got to a nice soft play dough texture. Think extremely fresh, super soft.

I then poured some flour on my work surface, took out a handful of gnocchi dough and rolled it with the palms of my hands to make a boudin, aka a rope of dough about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. I got out a knife and cut my way down the rope, at half inch intervals. I placed these gnocchi on a baking sheet (in anticipation of a nice bath of salted boiling water) and continued the process till all my dough was rolled, cut and prepped.

I was making a lot, two large bowls' full if you will, as we were seven at the table, five being hungry boys, and one being myself, an incorrigible gourmande.

Once the water was at a roaring boil, in went my gnocchi -- in batches which didn't crowd the water too much. I covered the pot for a moment, checked two minutes later. Saw they were floating on the surface and ladled them out into my serving dish. A drizzle of olive oil on top, and on to the next batch.

I put cream, cheese, nutmeg, salt, tomato sauce and such on the table. The kids served themselves as they pleased and we all went to bed with nice round tummies.

Tonight, I'll reheat the left-overs in a frying pan with olive oil. Once they've browned a tad, I'll add a touch of cream and some tomato sauce, perhaps some fried bacon, and an option of fresh goat cheese???

The sky's the limit.

Doing Dishes - a personality profile

I've been listening to a lot of podcasts recently that repeat in different terms that we as a human race come in four basic molds. I learned the Steiner (which refer to the medieval which refer to the Ancient Greek) definitions of melancholic, sanguine, choleric and phlegmatic. The four basic humors. But I'm hearing variations which refer to our nature energies (nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, carbon) or to our crisis selves (rage, depression, distraction, avoidance), etc., etc.,

In this household, I'll probably stick to the first set of terms. I know them well having studied them during my Waldorf teachers' training and I'm ever amused by the many ways they manifest in daily activities in my household such as: doing the dishes.

There's the child who whips through the task, manages to soak the curtain beneath the sink, and then disappears. Often, there are dishes right behind him he neglected, and more than a few that require my rinsing them further.

There's the child that takes hours to delicately remove every tiny scrap of food with the point of his sponge. Scrubbing energetically isn't natural to him, so there are times he seems to be manipulating a powder puff on china rather than a scrubby on cast iron. His physical self, repulsion at having wet hands, etc, are far more present in his spirit than method and adapting to the tools at hand. In the end, the dishes are pretty clean, but not always.

Then there's the mellow kid. He sets up the two sinks -- soapy warm and hot clean water -- puts a chair in front of the work area (being eight, he's still a bit short for the task), and calmly gets to work. When he's finished he comes to me, ready to brush his teeth, put on his jammies and be read a book. All is calm, no hysterics, and the next morning I put away the dishes with ease. All are clean and sparkling.

These tendencies carry over to how we wash and vacuum the car -- he who sees half of the job no matter the explanation, and who is done in 5 minutes. Quickly done, poorly done, more than half left for me. If I push him to return to the task, I get a flash of moody, temperamental attitude. (no, this is not Leo). In fact, my own two were pretty on the ball for this task. Vacuum in hand they worked carefully on the seats and the floor. That I was right along side removing dust from the interior and mud from the exterior was reassuring, at least for them. For my little choleric, it was the annoying and heavy presence of a surveying adult.

Even the way they sponge off the table... yes, there's one that never gets the table fully clean, the other who sensitive to textures and moisture never completely squeezes the sponge out enough, and so though he does the whole table, it takes a while to dry... And my little one who is closest to the task, and yes, seems at this point to be the most calm and thorough in manner.

And me? a recovering and joyous sanguine. I do dishes quickly, mostly pretty well. I enjoy scrubbing and the hot water is lovely, and if my hands get torn up, oh well. However, I'm not a particularly adept wine glass washer. I leave that to JP (when he's around). I once had an au pair who took hours to do the dishes. She drove me batty -- how could you spend an hour on something that I do in 15 minutes? But goodness, her glassware sparkled!

How to appreciate our differences... That choleric? he's the moving force in many a bike ride/tennis game and more in this household. He definitely has his virtues and I would be the last to deny them. And my texture-sensitive one? He's a faithful and attentive friend to those he loves. No one will be written off. Simply, I hope, understood a bit better.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Just Spring Flowers

For me, all these books I'm reading and podcasts I'm listening to that underline the importance of living in the present and being grateful resonate with smelling the flowers, feeling the sunshine, and appreciating the beauty all around me.

A Resident at the Goat Farm

A Walk in March

Sometimes it's rather nice having a little boy home sick. He can accompany you on walks that way.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Being Centered -- and reaping the benefits

Life is improving. But then, if you are a spring child like myself that is rather normal, no? February is a notorious month for severe winter doldrums and a vicious hit of the blues. Minor anxiety attacks, fear of not earning enough, etc, etc., Not to mention, with a mostly tourism based income, this is my poorest month of the year. It can feel like simply a rather wretched moment to get past. And when at last these negative vibes are behind me rather than before... Ahhhh.

Amongst the good things filling my basket are :


Tourism is picking up. I guess passing the health care bill has truly impressed the American public? Or a whiff of hope is in the air, nourished by the promise of a better world? Or, simply, the fact that though unemployment and fear are out still there, many are nonetheless earning the necessary funds to travel and explore and are eager to do so.

In any case, thank you Universe for the numerous clients I am booking from now through October. I am most properly grateful and conscious of my good fortune. Time to warn my artisans they'll be seeing a lot of me this year!

Miracles of miracles, my man is open to change, shifting, being pushed, and accepting me more fully as I am. My kids and I were at the Mas this weekend and it went well for all.

T'is such a curious thing presenting your children another world to make their own. It's not a world they will live in full time. But it is a world that they will visit regularly and in which I hope they begin to feel a sense of comfort and belonging.

I've been having discussions with Leo about the homes in which he is comfortable, qu'il a appropriés. Primarily that means Arles (his father's house and the house he was raised in), Avignon (our current home since the winter of 2006), but also the homes of my mother in NY (where we spend many a Christmas) and in Michigan (our summer home). These four worlds are his. He knows them. He is at ease in them. He understands the rules (or the lack there-of), the dimensions, the expectations and the possibilities of these homes.

And now we are re-connecting with the Mas, the winery, the family home of JP. It has woods and a wonderful out-doors, like Michigan. It has TV and computer, but moderated and controlled, like NY. It has dogs to run and play with like Avignon and Michigan.

In Arles there are no rules or expectations. In my mother's homes the rules and expectations are strict and severe. At JP's it is a touch more strict than in Avignon, but no where near as strict as at Gramma's. When you're feeling bored, grab a book and hang out on the couch or in your room, just like in Avignon or Michigan. But, yes, you can spend some time on the computer, just like in Arles, but not much.

And yes, my kids are not too accustomed to having me there yet not focused on them (yoga sessions excepted). To everyone's relief, I seem to be past the major stress I used to feel over whether or not my three men would get along. There's enough of me to share. I set up the situation, I do my part, and I let them be themselves. I love each, and I am proud of each. Maybe that's enough.

Yes, spring is here, hope is in the air, possibilities aplenty are presenting themselves. Whole and present, I'm reveling in it all.

Clos de Trias

Up in the hills surrounding the Mont Ventoux, that majestic mountain that so dominates the Vaucluse, is the castle town called Le Barroux. Dear friends have settled there and are now making their wine Clos de Trias in this ancient world. Marie Caroline, a young Frenchwoman from a wine-making family in Champagne is the dynamic wife of Even, a tall blond Viking born and raised in California, now transplanted to Europe. A shared dream and passion, and most definitely a shared labor of love unite them.

As Even mixes and matches and experiments in the cellar and amidst the vines, Marie-Caroline covers the bases behind the scenes. As Even improves his French, he leans heavily on his fiercely bright wife. And as the three small blond heads of their children swirl about the living room and kitchen, the two come together to create, develop, raise, educate and pursue a most special path.

I was there the other day to discuss helping them distribute and import their wines to the US. In fact, they've so much knowledge between them, that much of what passed between us the other day was to my advantage. Even is a fount of information concerning marketing wine in the US, how it all works over there, who to trust, how to be sure to get paid, which markets to attempt entering, etc., Marie-Caroline is his equal on the French and European front.

However, why be at a winery if not to taste the wine and learn more about how it is made? Even is discovering the possibilities and potential of his vineyards -- averaging 42 years of age, with up to 65 and 75 year old vines in his vieilles vignes parcels. He is concurrently switching his vineyards to bio-dynamic viticulture and vinification.

As we tasted his most concentrated blend from 2007, rich in dark cocoa and spices, he expressed his conviction that he need not control temperature during fermentation, that the grape itself holds this knowledge within it. Depending on whether he is making his standard cuvée or his vieilles vignes, the fermentation lasts from 25 to 45 days. In either case a long period compared to most of his colleagues. And, from year to year, the temperatures spiked differently. 2008 was relatively cool -- just 25/26 degrees Celsius, while 2009 went all the way up to 35C. Compare this to many a vintner who carefully controls temperature to keep them around 18/20C for a white and no higher than 25/27 for a red...

As we tasted and contemplated, moving onto the 2009 grenache in a 300liter barrel of new oak with a bouquet of roses and flavors of candied strawberries, he noted that in fact, we were tasting on a root day. Oh? Yes, according to the bio-dynamic calendar, there are root, flower, leaf and fruit days. These cosmically influenced aspects affect our own palettes and thus our impression of the wines we taste, as well as affecting the wines. Ideally thus, try to schedule wine tastings on either a floral or fruit day (depending if you want to enhance the notes of violets and roses, or blackberry jam and fraises des bois). Fascinating, and worth some experimentation. Don't you agree?

He made me a vintner's special blend of his 2008, taking a certain amount from 3 different tanks (grenache, carignan and syrah, though he will also put a note of cinsault in the final blend). And this dark breuvage spoke to me of blackberry jam, dense, hints of sweetness and a full, round, chewy sensation in the mouth.

We spoke of his personal take on carbonic maceration -- a favored technique for the old vine carignan here, and one that JP also applies. However Even has information from an ancient text that suggests he pick his grapes and then let them sit in their bin in a cool area for 48 hours before putting half whole clusters and half de-stemmed grapes into the tank to ferment. Traditional carbonic maceration would put in only whole unpressed clusters, allowing a two time fermentation -- partially inside the skins, and then continued after pressing. But apparently, this latter requires adding carbon dioxide to protect the tank. Doing a half and half as Evan does allows those grapes that are pressed to create sufficient carbon dioxide to protect the whole clusters...

Experimenting is in his blood. As Even puts it, from one year to the next he'll test out anywhere from 6 to a dozen different possibilities. Having many small tanks permits this, as well as a cellar filled with 300 and 700 liter barrels. When back in California making wine for his former boss he would have up to 50 tests and experiments brewing in any given year. Can we say a passionate vintner?

What is fascinating is that the variables change from year to year, and as such, just because an experiment worked under the conditions of a certain year-- heat, sugar content, skin thickness, ripeness, etc., etc., -- it could turn out completely differently the following year. Thus the need to develop a certain sixth sense to what is possible.

As I savored the Christmas spices and dark plum jamminess of his Carignan I nodded and took careful notes. May his passion and drive continue!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Spring? By Hook or by Crook

No matter the cold winds. The freak snow storms, the distressing drop in temperature, the lowering wood pile. Spring is making its appearance with beauty and grace.

Life and Death in the world of farm animals

All excited, I followed a mother from school to her house 45 minutes from school to pick out chickens for the Mas. JP had been with me two weeks' earlier and seen the lovely chickens from her brood hen at my friend Alison's. He'd found them quite lovely and was very interested in the price (free, with gift). So, I called, I organized, I nearly completely zapped my rendezvous -- happily she came to me in the parking lot Friday morning! -- and off I went to collect some chickens.

First of course, I had to catch them. Aie yaie yaie. I forget sometimes to what degree I'm a city girl. Oh, I can climb trees, play in dirt, shovel out a horse stall, saddle and bridle a horse, wash a dog, find mushrooms under pine needles.... but catch shy chickens? Suddenly I wondered if truly, that greased pig contest would be any easier.

At last we cornered a few in the pen and succeeded in grasping some tale feathers and pinning them down into a carton. One rooster and five hens of various colors and styles.

I was humbled and proud at the same time. I'm not completely pathetic... just a bit leery and hesitant with age I think, yet often kafutzed by my inner child.

The chickens lived happily in a large cardboard box throughout the day in the back of my car till I got to the Mas. Whereby we released them into the poullailler which had normally been fixed up by JP's helper.

Immediately the dogs were very interested. They got a wacking for their interest, and we hoped had learned from it. In any case, the plan was to keep a close eye on them and prevent damage in the time it took for us to reinforce the perimeter of the pen.

But, the best laid plans of mice and men....

The next morning, it could have been a scene from Jemima Puddleduck. The dogs got into the pen, and there was damage. We found feathers, and one dead buried a distance from the pen. I was crushed. Half my chickens were gone in one fell swoop! And the rooster too?

So, we got to work, pinning down the fence all around, to make sure no dog or fox would slip under the wire. And then we cleared all the field grasses and branches and wild vines and more from the perimeter and put in an electric fence at the height that our four legged friends would best encounter. A long morning's work. But well worth it. A few yelps confirmed that the dogs had discovered the electric charge, and their subsequent distancing of themselves from the coop vastly reassured me.

And then, is that a rooster we heard? The day was not a total loss. We found our handsome rooster and corralled him back to the coop with success. Now, perhaps another one or two has saved herself in the woods and will come back to the rooster's call?

The day before, I'd learned of the loss of the baby goats (not those we saw born, but those from the night before). And this day, the natural instinct of a few house dogs did its work on our feathered friends.

As JP told me, when you work with animals, you learn to accept a certain level of loss. It is up to us to prevent it to the best of our abilities. But we are not perfect, and mistakes occur, and nature lets you know quite quickly to wise up and do the necessary.

It still hurts though. The learning curve is a bit brutal.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Baby Goats!!!

Les Petits Cabris Naissent!

A bit later than many others, the baby goats in Aurelie's herd are plopping into this world. Jonas and I were there on the second day of birthing. And a dramatic moment it was.

On the spur of the moment this morning, Jonas decided to stay with me rather than go to class. After the exertions of Tuesday, I was fine with one more quiet day before he returns to the hustle and bustle of friends and school. But, today wasn't a day for hanging in the house and watching films (yesterday he saw the Karate Kid). I let him know that our day was to be spent at the goat cheese farm, lunching and visiting with Isabelle and Paul Pierre whom I've seen but once since Christmas. Thus he needed to be calm, well-behaved and patient. I'd care for him, but he needed to be a good kid, easy to have along in a grown-up setting.

He was quite okay with the arrangements, so with fresh bread from the oven, a bottle of JP's organic rosé Domaine Cabanis, animal cards and crayons for Jonas and some rice milk for his tender stomach, we were off.

Forty-five minutes later we were there. And lo and behold, we had arrived at a most special moment.

Aurelie was in the barn with her new stagiaire calmly and competently busy. I saw that there were some babies, but it took me a second to realize that they were in the midst of accompanying a mother goat push out her baby. Just as we entered the stalls out slipped a new kid.

Is there anything more symbolic? Spring is here! The world is being born again. La vie renait.

Jonas watched in awe and then, as we awaited a second birth (the mother was to have triplets), we went into the far pen where the kids born the night and day before were gently nudging about alongside their protective mothers.

There was but one kid per mother. And I learned later from Paul Pierre and Isabelle that there had been a few accidents the day before.

Aurelie doesn't live at the farm with her goats (as yet) and has two small daughters to care for. She wasn't able to return to the farm the evening before till 9pm to attend the late night births. Unfortunately, there'd been a few before her arrival, and in one case a mother sat upon her new kid, in another it was long in coming, and in another... I didn't get the whole story, but a few kids were lost. However each mother was left with one. And in the end, the herd is there to produce milk, not goat kids. As long as the mothers have one beneath them to release the colustrom and get the system rolling, all will be (relatively) well. It is sad to have any new life depart too quickly, but in fact, Aurelie's herd is already quite a good number (45). Multiple births are typical in this herd. Singles are the exception. And one must always remember that as a general rule, all the baby males will be heading to the abatoir within a couple of weeks... Thus, it is all relative you might say.

As we watched (and documented), the mother goat pushed out the birthing pouch, then Aurelie slid her hand around the little feet that were poking out and assisted the head that followed. Goopy, bloody and oh so fragile, another life arrived upon the hay.

Then Aurelie felt the mother's belly and sensed more small feet. A third kid had yet to arrive. But the mother had stopped pushing. She was caring for her first two, licking them clean, gently manouevring about them. Aurelie was a bit worried and slathered her hand with some oil and slipped it into the mother up to her elbow. She felt the last kid and helped it out. He was limp in her hands, soft, as if his bones hadn't firmed up. He was dead. Malformed apparently, but nearly full size. She quickly whisked him away -- the mother barely realized that she'd lost one of her mini-brood.

It was then time to snip the bits of umbilical cord dangling on the bellies of the new kid, and and help them nurse for the first time. Once that is handled, the goat farmer can sit back a moment and take a breather. Till the next mother starts dropping her kid (which happened a mere 30 minutes' later.)

Nine down, thirty-six to go...

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Worrying about a child

Well, I did a Grandaddy Brady. And what does this mean you might ask? Let me explain. We've a thing in my family about worrying and testing for appendicitis. My mother's appendix exploded and she contracted peritonitis and was hospitalized for three weeks. Everafter my grandfather (a doctor himself) carried the torch of checking for sore stomachs, poking that right hand side below the belly button, and hurrying us to the hospital should the symptoms be indicative.

In fact I did have my appendix out when I was fourteen. I'm thus the only one of my siblings to have actually experienced the pains, the vomitting, the craziness and the urgency of it all.

And so, I must admit to being rather pre-disposed to consider this an option when my little one just doesn't seem to get better from his gastro, when he's just continuing to be wracked by dry heaves, deeply in pain, unable to fall back into a restorative sleep, crying out at the sharpness of the stabs in his abdomen. He wasn't even willing to get into a warm bath! (Unheard of in my family).

It was while I tried to take advantage of that bath (mustn't let hot water go to waste!) that it dawned on me that Jonas might be really sick. That I had no more than 5 minutes in the water before he called for me was also a sign. So I got moving.

At which point my support network totally failed me. I called seven different parents who drive -- if not the exact route I do -- extremely close to my house. And not a one answered his/her cell phone. I didn't want to leave my little boy alone in the house while I went to get the others. He just was so miserable, and I was really beginning to worry. But, pas de chance, off I had to go to get the others, leaving Jojo alone.

That extra time decided it. As quickly as I was able to drop off the older boys, I grabbed Jojo, his slippers, coat and a blanket, and piled him into the car and off to the hospital.

As we waited and waited and waited (two hours in the waiting room can seem very long when you've a very sad child tensing, moaning, crying with you) I felt as helpless as a flea. You want to be taken seriously -- I don't think I over react when it comes to my kids, probably I under react, if anything. But you see the nurses sending in the girl with the sore shoulder before you. Of course, all babies get priority treatment, which is as it should be. But isn't a possible appendicitis important? Are they thinking this is just a simple gastro and thus are letting us wait it out. Perhaps they're waiting for Jojo to fall asleep and thus show that he isn't truly that sick. Or?

At long last we did get taken to the doctor, and Jonas finally felt better. I watched how she tested to see if he truly had an appendicitis or not. I absorbed the lesson, felt hugely relieved, but also weary from all the tension of the day. And then, losing my way once, then at last finding it, carried my little boy back out to the car and home to bed.

And now, to sleep. I don't know if I'm humbled, or just weary. I'm sad to carry this burden alone. I suppose I could wonder why today of all days was one where the universe decided I needed to carry it all alone. I felt so completely demoralized when I couldn't reach anyone to help me get the boys back from school. Total system breakdown. But then, I coped, as I had to, and the day is over, as I suppose it was meant to be.

And now yes, to sleep.

A New Dog in the Family

JP received a four-legged Christmas gift from his kids this year. It (or he) was quite unexpected. I think JP was rather getting adjusted to his status as partial parent to my Filou and what with his mother still up at the Mas and her large black dog a semi-permanent resident (other than when he heads back to town to be with his urban buddies), well, the winery wasn't lacking in a canine presence.

But, that said, his opinion was not requested, and Perro arrived on Christmas day.

I just have to laugh.

What is it about seeing a man who cherishes control, calm and order deal with a chaotic, wildly tale-swinging, super-enthusiastic, slobbering and loving animal that just melts my heart? Or leaves me chuckling royally.

Suddenly Filou is the most discreet and well-behaved of dogs (excepting the fact that his poodle parentage breeds true in his tendency to bark quite sharply and way too much when he's rough-housing with the other dogs). Filou sleeps quietly at the foot of the bed (on the floor) till I move -- this could be till 7AM, 8AM, 9AM. He patiently awaits the levée of his mistress.

Oh but not Perro! At 6:30 sharp he's there all eager and excited, wacking his tale, licking and nibbling his master's nose, raising his paws upon the pillow (yup!). Be he in my home or at the winery, he is one rambunctious and large dog. With a good bit of German Shepherd in him, he'll be a large and powerful dog when he grows to full height. Right now he's the sweetest and funniest of beasts. Attentive to his master, great with the kids, playing wildly with Filou, jealous of anyone coming near either of us (Filou included) and likely to knock me down as I walk up the steps to the winery's front door.

Mealtime is now quite ritualized for both animals (when they haven't had their afternoon snacks down with JP's mother). We eat our lunch while they wait patiently, preferably lying dowon on their cushions. Then Filou eats indoors and Perro scarfs up his meal outdoors (carefully measured out). Ditto at dinner time. If we didn't separate them at meal times, Filou wouldn't get a bite! At my house, I put a cup of food into Filou's bowl when I awake in the morning. I fill the water bowl. Et basta.

JP brought Perro with him to my place last week when he helped me in the garden, with the shed, etc. All went well, but I hadn't realized that truly, I needed to put all edibles at least on shelves 6ft high. What was to be a special treat of brioche for my boys disappeared in a second, bits of torn plastic strewn on the floor. Filou has never stolen food. Naive woman that I am, I just hadn't expected this.

There are also the occasional accidents from over-excited beasts left to their own devices in the living room. We'll get past all this. But it is amusing. Life throws you curve balls all the time, particularly if you are a craver of zen and calm moments before -- just perhaps -- the universe has decided you are deserving of such.

Movie Night

Well we are continuing our tradition of curling up in my bed on Sunday night, my two boys and I, for a rented movie off of ITunes. This one was suggested by JP. He had strong memories of it as a child. And I? Well, no doubt I saw snippets of it over a few days on the 4:30 movie, much cut up by ads, when I was home sick during elementary school.

I rented Ben Hur. In my ignorance, I had only the image of the grand race course in my head. That it takes place during the time of Jesus, that the King Balthazar is a character, that you see a different side of Pontus Pilate, none of this was remotely in my head. I did realize that it would deify Charleton Heston a bit (though goodness he is stiff!). But I figured I could get past this.

Leo was very happy with my choice. He's been studying Roman History and the Greek Gods at school, and back in third grade we read the Childrens' Bible together (also in keeping with the Steiner program), so he had sufficient historical perspective to really get into what is a very very long and at times drawn out story. That Arles used to have a race course of its own the size of the one portrayed in the film is of course, icing on the cake.

Jonas however, was quickly overcome by weariness and lack of interest. He is not as yet able to watch a peplum film from Hollywood of the 1960s. Perhaps a modern one with lots of fighting (yuck), but an old-fashioned one with lots of talking??? Not really his cup of tea.

But Leo is old enough to get into it all. He happily watched the three hours of Richard Burton's Alexander the Great this summer. Listening to exquisitely pronounced English with the diction of a Shakespearean actor doesn't come to all children his age. That I didn't get him the Orlando Bloom version didn't seem to phase him at all.

Meantime, cuddling was the order of the day. In my exhuberance at the approaching end of winter I'd turned off the heat last week. When we all returned last night the house was frigid as could be. Only now, the next morning, is the heat beginning to enter the stones anew. Silly me. I was so thrilled to be saving on heating gas... Ah well, what's a night or more with the covers over your head to keep warm? thick socks, sweaters and more under multiple covers...

Monday, March 8, 2010

Personal hygiene for a pre-teen

Leo has always had a ton of hair. But, he's a boy. I was able to keep it relatively short, and if I didn't brush it smooth every morning, well... let's say he had a recognizable look. La tignasse they called him (lightly translatable as mop head).

These days he has decided to let his hair grow long. The last time I was allowed to come near him with scissors was this past summer. The hair is now past his shoulders. And, blessed as we are in this family with incredibly thick pelts, he has a ton of hair.

The teachers at school are beginning to complain. So we got him a bandanna to hold it down and permit him to see in class without needing to permanently wipe the hair from his eyes, and to limit the flick of his head to the right (and a possible krick in his neck at the tender age of 12 1/2). I've chosen not to make this a battleground. Let him test out the long hair thing now. And likely, just as my brother did when he was a teenager, he'll get it out of his system and in the end prefer a simpler style that requires less maintenance.

The bandana helps -- though he often forgets it at his father's over the weekend, so I cut up old sheets into large squares as replacements. Soon a rubber band will be in order (though for the moment, this latter he scorns). I realize that my child has never learned to properly use a hair brush. Or rather, he knows how to physically manipulate one, but that this can and should be done on a daily basis escapes him. After a shower, he is often caught combing his hair for hours in front of the mirror, trying different doos. But in the morning? fresh from bed? So, for Christmas he found a brush in his stocking... along with a razor and shaving cream.

The next step is to get him to shower more frequently. When he was a little boy, the nightly bath was just part of the ritual. Somehow, we've lost that, and it's a job getting my child into the shower after hand-ball practice. Hey, I tell him, you're an adolescent now, three times a week is the minimum! And, your hair is not only full of dust, but it's getting greasy and heavy. It's all part of your age and where you're at. You don't stink yet, but that too will come. And if you want to avoid getting pimples you need to keep your hair clean and off your face, and no poking at them with your fingers. You'll need to cultivate a daily routine of washing your face and your hands frequently...

Yes, this is part of our patter and discussion these days. Slowly, the message is getting through. Now, the next thing to learn is that showers can be a mere fifteen minutes long... not thirty.

Curious. I don't think mothers of girls go through quite the same routine and educational process.

Snow in March in Provence?

I didn't believe my eyes, nor the weather report, and most certainly not those first flakes that began to fall. But then I awoke from a lovely nap to see curtains of heavy white flakes swirling about outside. But, this is March! What's up? This is far from normal. I've experienced snow storms in NY on Easter, but in Provence?

The kids are way psyched -- school is closed (of course!) The locals (unless they come from the Haute Savoie or the Jurah) are incapable of driving in this weather, and in any case, nearly no one has snow tires. So, home we are, the stove well stocked with wood to burn throughout the day. A quite moment, though the wind is still howling outside. Do I dare go out for a walk with the dogs? When the wind calms... but I've left my great snow boots from Boston in Avignon. Will sneakers do?

And yesterday we'd planned on going out to dance the tango... But I've memories of driving in a snow storm years' ago across Nîmes to pick my mother up at the train station. A frightening experience to put it mildly. Those ditches along every road are simply too deep and too close to the asphalt! Instead we danced in the salon, pushing aside all the furniture. T'was certainly better than nothing.

Today, I suppose I should start working on my US taxes (yes, a bit late, but there's not much to calculate this year). I will also investigate US import laws for wine, whether and how many samples I can bring in when I come over for the IACP conference in Portland, OR in April. Oh yes, there is always something to do on a quiet day. Such as put up a blog post or two, particularly considering the dearth of such these past few weeks.

There's also the possibility of a bit more cuddling...

A Lady Cake for Yvonne

Well, apparently yesterday was grandmother's day in France. Nicolas shared this news with us Friday (having learned it from his girlfriend) and so I got to work preparing the cake and vegetables for the family meal on Sunday at the winery.

And, for reasons unknown, a favorite cake from my childhood browsings of Joy of Cooking (1960 edition) came to mind. As we all know everything is findable on the internet, and so not having the book on hand, I was still able to find a good copy of the recipe:

1 cup butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup milk
3 cups flour (I believe this is for pastry flour, as I had 65 grade meant for breads, I ended up using 2 1/2 cups)
1 tablespoon baking powder
6 beaten egg whites
and I added a pinch of salt...

Without a proper electric beater (the winery is only minimally equipped for those who enjoy cooking and baking) I had to use a fork to mash the softened butter (I'd left it out on the counter, happily) into the sugar. I then added some of the milk, then some of the flour, etc., etc., till I got to a thick paste. I then mixed in a third of the egg whites, followed by the rest. Not having a spatula, I simply mixed gently, but no doubt lost some of the lightness and air the egg whites might have conveyed if treated more gently.

The cake baked up easily in the mini-oven -- though it took over an hour. A. because the oven is pretty dinky, and B. because the batter is quite heavy. A light sponge cake this is not.

While the cake baked, I made an orange syrup to pour over it with the juice of two oranges and a cup plus of sugar. I also prepared the ingredients for my ganache topping: 200 grams finely chopped dark baking chocolate, 100ml light cream and three pats of sweet butter.

Once the cake was out of the oven, flipped onto a plate and dowsed in syrup, I got to work heating my cream for the ganache. I poured the hot cream over the chopped chocolate, blended it together to "faire une mayonnaise" as they say here, and then added the butter till blended as well.

In the past I've used lemon juice/orange juice and powdered sugar to make a simple glaze for this cake with very good results.

The ganache went on smoothely, and the cake awaited the next day partly in the fridge, and partly on the dining table. Yum!

Oh yes, just to keep things amusing, I made a crême anglaise to accompany the cake: 2 cups milk, 5 egg yolks and a 1/3 cup sugar. Heat the first, blend the sugar into the egg yolks, add some of the heated milk to the egg yolks, whisking, then pour the egg yolks into the milk in the sauce pan (heavy bottomed, stainless recommended). Whisk and whisk and whisk, -- as the milk is already quite hot, this goes very very quickly. In a couple of minutes the milk had thickened. I removed the cream from the stove, poured it into a cooler and shallower recipient, whisked some more, and let it cool. Perfect to dollop atop the cake the next day.

Monday, March 1, 2010

A nourishing spring/end of winter dish

My kids aren't big beans eaters. The dried variety that is. I can easily get them to consume lentils and chick peas, but beans, chilli, etc., well, they just weren't raised with them, and don't particularly like the texture farineuse of these most nourishing of foods. Yes, I admit to neglecting their culinary education on this level. I shall endeavor to remedy the situation. However, when they scorn the most delicious chilli con carne of my brother, who is a superb cook... t'is not easy.

However, I do like beans, be they red, white, black or green. And so does JP. So, to nourish my hard-working man as he shoveled, dug, and transplanted in the garden, then hammered away on my shed, I set some classic little flagelets beans to soak the night before, and put them on to cook late morning.

I chopped up the onion and shallot I had on hand, smashed and chopped coarsely perhaps 6 cloves of garlic, drizzled some olive oil in the bottom of a casserole and got to work.

To make life interesting, and the dish of course, I put in perhaps 6 whole cloves (clous de girofle), a teaspoon of cumin seeds, a teaspoon of white pepper corns and a teaspoon of powdered paprika.

While the spices and onions were toasted a bit in the oil, I added 4 organic sausages, and some chopped prosciutto that I had on hand.

When the onions and garlic were sweated -- and long before the garlic could burn, I put in the beans and I liberally covered with water. I then added 2 tablespoons of sesame paste (taking a note from Mark Bittman's suggested uses of peanut butter to thicken and add depth to the dish), a sprinkle of salt, 3 or 4 large bay leaves from my tree outside and left my dish to simmer.

I wanted to cook the dish on my wood stove, but, as the beans had a ways to cook, I quickly saw that for us to eat at a convenient hour within the range of what is locally believed to be lunch time (between noon and twoPM), I needed to have more of a rolling simmer going on than a gentle back burner blub blub.

Once the beans were soft I added a cup of tomato sauce (I'd read that beans don't soften in acidulated liquid, thus I held off adding the tomatoes till the beans were properly cooked), and a cup and a half of (organic) canned corn. The dish continued simmering gently till we were ready to eat.

Some simple rice, JP's lovely red vin de pays, a salad and a cheese plate rounded out the meal. Yum! Just what was needed as the humidity and chill descended on what had been a gorgeous morning, and what was going to be a misty and moist evening.

Hints of Spring

I am a being of the spring. I was born in May, and with each spring I come back to life as so much of the natural world does around me. In the winter, I'm often hit by the doldrums of sunlight deprivation (yes, even here in Provence: remember that NY is on the same level as Rome, so I'm really getting the light, or lack there of, of Boston, if not the snow...). I huddle, I hibernate, I snuggle, I pull out films, books, knitting, baking, concentrated red wines, hot toddies, rum or bourbon laced coffee and chocolate drinks... whatever I can just to get through it all.

At the painting show of my art teacher from the Steiner teachers' training, Nona Sederstam (you can find her on facebook), I chose the painting which for me best represented my soul and spirit -- not the calm and meditative blues, not the firey reds, but the burst of colors springing like a phoenix reborn. When winter depression comes upon me, I meditate on these colors, these beacons to life and hope.

Thus, it is most natural when those first hints of spring start to appear I grow hopeful. Energy comes flowing back. I seek to be outdoors for any and all reasons. I scratch the earth, roam the woods, admire the light bouncing over the water, listen to the birds, smell the dark soil. Ahhh.
This weekend was a particularly magical one. I had help -- hey, mon homme is back in my life, and proving himself useful and willing. T'is a good thing, no? And, I think understandably, before I'm willing to bring my things back to his place, I needed to see and feel him here, now, in my world, at my side.

The bike shed now has a roof (with the kids we'd managed only to get the walls up). The thyme and a cognassier (Japanese quince) have been moved to sunnier spots, and my jasmin and climbing rose on my facade are neatened up after the weight of the snow storm pulled them down.

As I weeded my rose bush patch I spotted the emerging crocuses planted two years ago by Hayley and Jojo. My long-ago planted cognassier is just beginning to flower, with many a bud promissing more of its bright orange pink blossoms. And back in the vegetable patch, my garlic experiment is sprouting happily. It won't keep me in garlic for more than a month or two, but hey, what joy to see life springing through that dark earth, promising a harvest shortly (need to double check on when...).

With a few more desk-top projects to accomplish, cvs to drop off, interviews to program... things are looking up!

Now, if only I could wake up a half hour earlier and salute the sun as it streams into my bedroom window. I know that would do me some good, n'est-ce pas?