Saturday, February 28, 2009

What is Normal?

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

After living more than a quarter of my life in France (and one year in Japan), I've lost a rigid sense of normalcy. What is normal? What are my or one's expectations? of life I no longer expect to work a city job with a daily commute on Metro North, nor perhaps a gallery job with a daily commute by bicycle from an outlying neighborhood to the center of Seattle. In my daily existence I no longer think it normal to have a clothing dryer, and rarely touch my blender or Kitchen Aid. My childrens' toys have a decided lack of electronics which for the moment, they're willing to accept.

Taste, looks, education, music, food, weather -- almond trees in bloom early February, whirling wind storms throughout the year, four days of non-stop rain could mean my house flooding... or magnificent and non-fruit bearing Magnolia and Dogwoods? Beautiful to see, but not there to make a living for a local farmer. Granite rocks pounded by the waves of Long Island Sound. It is all are slightly askew in my head. I am no doubt not alone in sensing cultural dislocation when I go home.

The trees are so large in Westchester County NY! and the houses immense, not to mention the lawns. And how interesting that there are so few houses with shutters on the windows, and even fewer with bars on the windows of the first floor. Do I really want to buy those very very bright orange carrots that A&P offers? Ah, yet I can't help being tempted by blueberry poptarts and Ben&Jerry's Cherry Garcia... maybe even some Stoffers frozen corn soufflet? That's my childhood taste buds talking again. In the present, I miss the dark yellow yolked eggs I have in Provence, my black currant jam, my raw milk from the local farm, truly flavorful grocery store chickens (and the choice of 6 different kinds). And then when I fly back to France, I suffer from homesickness for my land of birth. I have a hard time getting my mouth and throat around the French language (which I've spoken fluently now for most of my life, but...). My conversation tends to make reference to an article I read in Newsweek or the NYTimes about something going on politically in the US, or... I've seen (and perhaps gotten hooked to?) episodes of a new TV series that I'll not see again till my next US visit. I miss hugs.

I'm somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. Neither here nor there, no longer a normal American (is there such a thing?) but not yet fully European.

A couple articles recently have sent my head spinning into ideas and comparisons. One was in the NY Times about the tele-reality show Who Loses the Most Wins (or something to this effect). An extreme show, showcasing individuals in an extreme situation, its the goal is to bring obscenely obese people together in a home, and with a team spirit, encourage them to lose weight. Most Americans are not grossly obese, but, many, oh too many worry about their weight, thus a national fascination at such a show. A comment that struck me in the article was uttered by a guest chef who was there to teach these people how to eat other than "salty, sweet, fatty and crunch" foods, other than cheap, pre-packaged, easy to find food in any supermarket or 24 hour gas stations, etc.,

More than anything, he stated his surprise and pity? that these people didn't know how to cook. Put them in a kitchen with kale and quinoa and they are completely lost and feel close to starving. How can anyone grow up without a basic sense of boiling water and cooking the simplest of dishes? Ok, we're not all gourmets who want to eat exotic grains and greens, but... the basics? scrambled eggs? boiled broccoli?

How could I live a life so completely at the opposite end of this spectrum? I love kale and quinoa, and have oodles of possibilities for turning these ingredients into a meal. I was graced with parents who cooked and encouraged my adventures in the kitchen. I then traveled to countries where cooking and feeding a family are of utmost importance. The Japanese take their lunches very very seriously! be they boxed or purchased! And France? Provence? need I say more? My adolescent tendencies towards cinnamon rolls and extra large chocolate chip cookies from the cookie stand in Grand Central Station were re-directed to complete, balanced and yummy meals.

Now I have many friends, family members, clients and colleagues in the US who are superb cooks and who nourish their loved ones marvelously -- but it can be so stressful to do so when work hours are long and weekends are filled with sports' events, music recitals, and more... We've built a society that renders these efforts exceptional, not normal. Why? Can we change it?

The second small epiphany came when I glanced through the and article on the web site EHarmony. I was startled to see the number of men who tout themselves as "physically fit" and their hobbies including "staying physically fit" and their passions even stressing "staying physically fit". This included men of educational accomplishments, middle aged, professionals of all sorts. I can't deny a rather visceral reaction "please, get a life! Healthclubs can be fun, but???"

I too enjoy being physically fit, and yes, I don't deny that I'm proud that at 42 I basically have a body quite similar to that I enjoyed at 22. And yes yoga and dance help particularly because I adore them, and adore moving my body whenever possible. But... it is just not that difficult to keep my figure when I eat what is normal food here (lots of salads, vegetables, lean meats, some pasta, my bread...) and when I'm walking everywhere, and doing all my own house and garden work. I'm mobile, I'm active, I live outside a small Provence town where you park the car outside the ramparts and then walk to all your errands, appointments, etc., I certainly use my car more than I'd like -- the kids' school is a drive away unfortunately.

I don't see this aspect of my physical self as needing touting. I'm happy to be healthy, and hope to continue being healthy for many many years to come. I'm happy to be able to keep up with my kids and go cycling, roller blading, hiking, etc., I'm happy not to be (too) winded after climbing many stairs. It's reassuring. I'm happy my hands aren't too tired when I make by sablé (shortbread) cookies by hand (I don't own a food processor).

So just musing on what used to be normal back in the US too. With time, a little tummy, sure, after kids and a sit-down job at the office. But, was it surprising that Katherine Hepburn kept her figure till her dying day? Or Paul Newman? Even Sinatra's excesses gave him simply a generous build.

But, the French too are getting bigger and using their cars more and more. They've long ago discovered the large supermarket and sweet frozen desserts. And in the US, there are many who've returned to walking, biking, public transportation, etc., May shorter work hours, and many local markets of locally grown produce follow! May the family meal be easier to manage, and may kids cook alongside their parents. And, let this be normal.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Dogs and Cats

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

When I first met my vintner, he had a wonderful hairy mutt with a lot of German Shepherd in her. Sally would bark intimidatingly at any intruder, or simply at the arrival of anyone on the property. Over the years of my visits with clients, I came to know Sally, and was able to reassure her quickly of my presence, my good intentions, my calm. She had an intimidating presence, but in fact, was a loving and gentle dog once you got to know her. Long before Jean Paul and I got together as a couple, I had a great relationship with Sally. She welcomed me, accompanied me when I walked through the vineyards, leaned against me, sat on my lap (a rather awkward position, but I was nicely settled on the grass when she came over and decided that my lap was a better surface than cool grass). Or was she simply holding me in place till her owner arrived? I preferred the alternative possibility: when you're feeling romantic, it is an easy extrapolation to say, if your dog likes me, you could too...

Before I divorced, but on the road to it, I got a dog myself, Filou. A small, fluffy cross between a poodle and a bichon. Living in the city of Arles, with no grass out our door, and with the prospect of flying back to the US frequently, a small being seemed the best choice. Not to mention, I was raised in a family of poodle owners, so I had a sense of how he would be in our home and with the kids.

Filou, though nominally joining our family closer to Leo's birthday than mine, became my dog and my responsibility, and accompanied me everywhere. This being France, that includes all cafes, elegant restaurants, the hair-dresser's, and yes, to all the artisans' homes and workplaces, be they grape vines or potter's studios. Filou, if you want to take a psychological/Freudian tack, was also my replacement for affection in my life. My marriage was pretty dismal at this point, I wasn't misbehaving nor taking a lover in any way, and my children were old enough to not be in my arms all day long. So, for warmth, devotion, affection, cuddling, I had my puppy.

My dog-loving clients were in heaven with this sweet fluffy being on their laps -- as were my au pairs. But when a non-dog lover was along, I tried to oblige by leaving him at home. Being with me all the time, he grew into a calm and pretty well behaved beast. However, that said, those poodle genes bred true, and he does have moments of yapping, at a particularly horrible high pitch that brings on head-aches. Nobody's perfect.

Thus Filou met all my artisans' dogs, the sheep dogs, the dogs at the potter, and Sally when he was still a puppy. You could say I socialized him early. He got along with everyone, yipping and jumping all over the older more sedate canines, who tolerated these intrusions of a pert child kindly.

Jean Paul wasn't duped, he saw the role Filou had in my life, and, quite familiar with animals himself, he set about letting Filou know that he was top dog, not Filou, and, that he was also a source of affection, food, water, etc., So, though you would think my children were more part of the package of me than my dog, at this point, it is my dog who has been welcomed/tolerated in Jean Paul's home with the most ease. But we have our moments. Back in my maternal life in Avignon, Filou sleeps at my feet, keeping me warm in my minimally heated house, and follows me from room to room, knowing his place is at my side. When Jean Paul is there, or when I'm in his house, Filou has learned that his place is on the floor, and, he'll often stay in a room that I've left, if Jean Paul is still there.

Last year, just before a trip to Japan, Sally being clearly very sick, Jean Paul had to put her down. The mas has changed personalities. Sally was in many ways his soul-mate, joining him in the vineyards while he worked, greeting him with joy, protecting his home and his family. Her loss was deeply felt, and perhaps surprisingly, also very strongly by me. I felt supported and appreciated by her, welcomed and warm. Her departure saddened us all.

Over the year that has passed since, Filou has taken his place as the announcer of approaching cars. He doesn't scare anyone, but he is efficient as a look-out. He has his bed in the living room, his bowl by the wood stove, his blanket on the floor of the bedroom. This is in contrast with Sally, who, in the fashion of many a farm animal, had never been an indoor dog, never been brushed, nor clipped. She ate and slept in the garage, coming into the warmth of the house only the last months of her life, as her illness rendered her feeble.

All this said, Filou and I are only here at the winery on weekends and over certain vacations. So, in the meantime, a former renter's cat has come into Jean Paul's life. Just to keep things lively, Filou goes tearing after her, sending her into hiding at his ferocious (not) barking. In the house, she sits on the couch and glares. She smells Filou's food and tears into the bag, no longer content with her bowl down in the garage. More often, I find Filou tries to be mellow and discreet, sitting at our feet while we eat, etc., and the cat simply takes umbrage at his existence. But, with time, they seem to have come to somewhat mutually tolerate each other. At this moment, I've the cat curled up against my thigh while I write, and Filou is in his bed across the room under the piano. The wood stove is burning brightly, warming us all. A pretty happy domestic scene. Though I've yet to completely adopt the cat -- I'm being a bit resistant, annoyed that her hissing takes precedence over Filou's desire to play. But, slowly, I'll be won over.

T'will be interesting if Jean Paul gets a new puppy one of these days...

Monday, February 23, 2009

Just can't complain - kids, love, muffins

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

There are moments in this life that just flow beautifully. The house is warm, the food is good, the weather is sunny and invigorating, the kids are healthy, happy and well-behaved, not to mention considerate and interesting. And, last but not least, the love of your life is happy, willing, helpful and delighted that you feel good too. I had one of those marvelous epiphanies the other night cuddled up beside my vintner in my home by the Rhône. More than anything, I think it was the joy of having my kids be well.

Is that a big deal? Yes. I removed them from their father's house over two years' ago now. I chose to raise them mostly alone -- sending them back three weekends out of four. But otherwise, I've taken on school, discipline, table manners, chores, reading, writing, limits, discussions about sex and growing up. The whole shibang. I'm far from alone in this. But, it's been up and down for over a year or two now. Can a woman do all this alone? I certainly saw my vintner as a life-saver when we started going out a bit over a year ago. But, that he is not and does not choose to be. Whompf. That was a hard one to swallow. Love me, love my kids, right? But, apparently not. They're mine, and it's up to me. OK. Can I do it? Do I have the physical energy? the patience? the constancy?

Early on, no doubt, I tried almost too hard, compensating for the cuddly presence of their father. Then, things got a bit easier, and I leaned heavily on the new au pair. But this year, I've been alone with them and the teen boarders. In particular with my elder child I still had many a moment when I started calmly, and ending shouting. Hard to resist, but how do you make your authority known otherwise? Doesn't fear and the sheer power of a very present Mom do it? No. The level of stubbornness and will to resist me simply grew.

OK, new methods needed. My friend Mireille is a horse-whisperer. Truly. She has trained horses and dogs in this method, and is now using it on her kids, very successfully. The key trick she shared was this: don't ever raise your voice. Just keep on saying what you need to say, be it, "down Filou" (for my dog) or "Jonas, please help with the dishes". Say it and repeat it, in the same tone of voice, don't let up, just keep on keeping on. Be a mosquito in their ear. Don't let yourself lose patience, just keep on. As she put it, losing patience with a two ton horse doesn't work too well, but nor is it the desired trick for a stubborn 7 year old. And so, I've put this method to work and Bingo! Pay dirt. I'm amazed, and amused, and delighted and yes, the house is calmer, the kids better behaved. Life is just nicer.

Leo is advancing in his reading skills, at long last willing to read just a bit on his own, and with me at his side, quite a lot. Jonas is adoring the Magic Treehouse books (I'm reading them to him) -- our first foray into chapter books without images on every page.

I was scared, and intensely wrapped up in my idea of "I've put these children on this earth, I can't not raise them as well as possible. They are my responsibility to succeed or neglect, and I take this task terribly seriously." And yes, when I met Jean Paul, I saw a firm, resolute being, who had successfully fathered two kids in their early 20s and I thought, hm..... It was more than a bit unsettling to then be back on my own with my children. But, at the same time, I'm not alone in finding it also easier to be the only authority, educator and rule-setter in my home.

So, my new formula for happy and growing kids? Presence, Patience, Constance. If only this world permitted us to realize these three acts more often!

Fresh and hot chocolate swirl muffins go over well too:

My current favorite recipe is:

3 cups flour (or 1 cup almond meal and 2 cups flour, or 1 cup corn flour, 1 cup rice flour and 1 cup almond meal for the non-glutens out there).
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
sufficient yogurt or whey (the clear liquid atop your yogurt) or one week old raw milk (kept in the fridge, it will turn, but in a good way) to moisten the flour.
2 eggs
1/4 cup organic vegetable oil (I use sunflower)
1 cup organic non-bleached sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Mix altogether in a single mixing bowl with a wooden spoon/whisk as you prefer.

Meantime, melt some good quality chocolate.

Pour your muffin batter into tins till 1/2 full. Pour on a dollop of the chocolate and swirl with a knife into the batter. Bake at 175C/325F (in a convection oven) or a bit higher in a normal oven. When they've risen nicely and have browned a bit (and smell great), they're ready.

These go very very quickly! so beware. Enjoy!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Chocolate part two -- the chocolatier

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

I've a couple books on back burners that I'm slowly putting together. One in particular is in collaboration with my artisan friends. To that end, I invited Joel Durand, the chocolatier of St. Rémy to lunch on Thursday to discuss future collaborations. We've worked together, teaching my cooking clients about chocolate, or simply giving them oodles of tastes and showing them the laboratory, for years now. I remember mutual congratulations upon the birth of his last child (Lucy) and the birth of Jonas. Both just over 7 years' old now, they were born only months apart.

Joel is one of those men who shake up people who come upon him. He is a whirlwind of energy, focus and ambition. That might be a normal description of a New Yorker, but in Provence? no, he's not too typical. At the moment, he has his St. Remy shop (now more than 10 years' old) and his large completely renovated laboratory nearby. But he also has two more shops (St. Paul de Vence, and...) plus a deal with the Bon Marché in Paris and soon Printemps in Toulon. He exports via a high end catalog in Japan, and to Germany, and to any client who contacts him by fax or email desiring Fed-ex shipped divinity. At the same time he has cultivated and cared for his local clientele. They might be jazz artists, house-wives, businessmen, teens, what-have-you. He has the knack. He has also just recently finished the mock-up for his book on chocolate and it will be coming out (in French at this point) in April. Earlier this year when I stopped by the shop, I came upon him and his photographer blending dark cocoa into whipped meringued egg whites... it was quite beautiful.

A son of engineers, he told his parents he wanted to either go into pastries or racing cars. Reasonable folk, they opted for the former. Thus he has a top-notch education in all things pastry. He is in perpetual motion, both in the shop, and in his head. Strategizing over new possibilities, brain-storming, in close discussion with his accountant as to what is possible, how to pay for it, etc., And with his skill at viewing the larger story but also following behind on all the details, he has year in and year out, put into play his ideas. At times he lives the cliché of the ever-ringing cell-phone. But, it is undeniable that everything he does, he does 100%. Truly a master-engineer of his own career and the products he sells.

Our lunch began discussing family and children -- divorced, he has partial custody of his 3 girls, and is managing quite well by them. Then we moved on to my situation -- working its way towards stable. And here I piped up suggesting that when he decides to do the English version of his book, that he give me a call. He was open to the idea, and perhaps sometime in the next year, we'll get together and discuss that project. In the meantime, I explained my book idea to him and my desire to work together, to interview him to get a good sense of "a day in the life of; a week in the life of; a year in the life of" and his background education that brought him to this point. We also discussed the possible recipes we could include in my book, with a link and references back to his. He was quite willing to participate, and we set up a future date to do our interview, looking at post-Easter for the teens'/kids' cooking class.

As a business gesture, and just because (it's so difficult discussing these things) I picked up the tab for our lunch. But of course, when we got back to the shop, he handed me a wonderful basket of chocolates to bring home to my brood.

Oh, and did I mention that he is extremely attractive? Thick curly black hair, piercing eyes, intense, tall, athletic. And yes, he is currently single, but I'm not, and in any case, I think as a couple it just wouldn't work. Just too much combined energy! But I do admit to dressing just a wee bit more elegantly each time I go to St. Remy.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Chocolate part one -- the tarts

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

Shall I begin with one of my favorite recipes? Why not, best to whet the appetite. Here is my recipe for spiced chocolate ganâche tarts with hazelnut sablet crust (if allergic to nuts, by all means, just remove the nut meal from the recipe and replace with flour, or a bit of cocoa and flour, or a bit of coffee powder and flour... as preferred.

So, this is a recipe that in its original is sinful, decadent and full of things people are becoming more and more allergic to. However, should you need to alter it for non-gluten, or non-dairy or non-nut folk, it is quite doable, and will still come out delectable. With good chocolate and a little technique, it is fool-proof.

Hazelnut tart with Chocolate Ganache

Ingredients :

For the crust : (makes enough for a dozen little tarts or a large single tart)
2 cups flour (can be replaced with rice flour)
1 cup toasted and ground nuts (hazelnuts, walnuts or pecans) (can be replaced by normal flour, or a 1/3 good quality espresso and normal flour).
1/4 lb plus 3 table-spoons sweet butter
1/3 cup sugar
pinch of salt
1 egg
1 tablespoon of water (only if necessary to get the dough to come together, and particularly if you're using all flour)

For the Ganache:

300 grams (12 oz) superior quality dark chocolate (like Lindt 70%, Valrohna 64%))
225 grams (9 oz) tablespoons heavy cream (can be replaced by soy milk if you must)
90 grams (4 oz) butter in small pieces (can be replaced by a high quality substitute, or even a simple palm oil)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/3 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated or powdered ginger (whatever you have on hand)

For the tart shells:

Many are now making their sablée tart crusts with a food processor. Here in Avignon, in my alternative existence I find it satisfying to make this tart by hand. After all, the word "sablée" in French means "sandy" and this crust must become sandy in your fingers before it is just right. You need to work it much more than a standard American pie crust, and not be afraid to.

In a large mixing bowl or on a smooth pastry surface, put in the flour and toasted, ground nuts, the sugar, the salt, and the butter cut in small pieces. Push up your sleeves, wash your hands, take off your rings, and with your fingers and opposable thumbs, work the butter into the dry ingredients until you get to a sandy texture that, if you squeeze a hand-full, will hold together. Into this mixture, break your whole egg and work in the egg with your hands lightly, then, as needed, add a tablespoon of water, work the dough quickly together and pat it into a ball, then put it into your refrigerator to chill.

At a minimum 2 hours later, remove the dough from the fridge and put it onto a work surface. (At this point you can preheat your oven to 350F/160C). I highly recommend working on a marble pastry surface (or polished granite). Sprinkle some flour on the work surface and start to knead your dough. Press it down and fold it over, press it and fold it, for about 1-2 minutes. You want it to start to hold together and no longer crumble too easily apart. I like to make tartelets with this dough as it is not easy to cut once cool after cooking and the presentation is more elegant and individual. But, should you wish to make one big tart, cut the tart crust into portions just out of the oven.

When making tartlets, I take a small amount of dough, roll them out, place them in the greased tart pans and then snip off the extra dough around the edges. Or, I take a small amount of the dough, and simply press it into my tart pans.

To pre-cook the crust: poke the crust with a fork multiple times, place into your pre-heated oven and bake till it just begins to take some color, about 5-10 minutes in a convection oven, double that in a normal oven. If you've a stash of beans for baking tarts, do use them here. If not, you may need to keep an eye on the tarts that they do not rise, and tap them down with a wooden spoon.

For the Ganache:

Chop the chocolate into very small pieces. I use a large knife, shaving off the corners till I'm down to very small pieces, but you can also use a sturdy food processor. Put your chocolate into a large mixing bowl.

In a saucepan, heat the heavy cream with the spices till just the boiling point. Remove the cream from the heat and pour slowly over the chocolate – you can pour it on the whisk to limit splattering. Stir gently till the chocolate melts into the cream, adding little by little the bits of butter, stirring gently and continually till there are no more lumps.

Pour your ganache into the tart shells while it is still hot and relatively runny. Shake each shell to even out the surface, and let cool in a cool room temperature space.

If so desired, serve these tarts with a red grenache vin doux naturel (fortified wine) from Rasteau -- devine! or, perhaps you prefer a rich and smoky extra proof aged whiskey? Both marry beautifully with this dessert. However, if you're making it with 12 year olds for a birthday party, then a glass of milk is perfectly ok too, but don't be tempted to top it with whipped cream. It would be a shame to mask the rich and dense chocolate texture.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Wine Translations - Teen Girls/Brief Crisis

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

I've a huge wine tasting translation to finish by the end of the month. The Grand Guide to Wines. It's great fun, if a bit repetitive, and a touch stressful all at the same time. When I have a day at home, I get loads done. When I bring my computer along to Leo's hand-ball practice, ditto. Concentrated time alone (or relatively) to work is rare. Far more common are the days when I'm in the car 3/4/5 times with minimum 30 minutes out, pause, 30 minutes back and so on and so on. For instance, today. I luckily didn't do the morning route as my carpooling buddy handled it. But, Jonas, my little one, had a tummy ache, so he stayed home. Thus, up at 7, breakfast on the table, fire lit in the stove, costumes found for the Carnival party at school, snacks prepared, out the door at 8. I clean up from breakfast and sit down with a second cup of chai (yes I'm trendy, I love this beverage!, particularly the Tazo black chai... heaven). Jonas cuddles next to me and is quiet for a while as I type away, With its notes of tobacco and spices, this honest and seriously structured wine is still a bit linear, but with great length. and Dense, serious, tannic, with beautiful scents of wild herbs. It’s an intense and masculine wine, finishing on opulent and rich fruit. etc., etc.,

Today I'm in the clean up and improve the English stage. It's the second batch of translations, with a third (the largest) awaiting me, that I'm hoping to begin tomorrow. I work my way through a good chunk before Jonas pokes his head out of the covers, takes a drink of his hot chocolate and disappears upstairs. He comes back down thirty minutes later with a couple masterful bionicles in hand, proudly showing me arms and armor and spikes and swords. I ooh and ah appreciatively, and try not to be to quick about it. I then look up, uh oh, already 10 O'clock, got to get ready to go and collect the large organic bulk purchase -- grouped with 3 other friends. I make a snack for Jonas, settle him in with toys and covers, check with my neighbor to keep an eye on him, and off I go.

Back at noon, I put away the groceries, figure out what the girlfriends owe me, and start making lunch for my crew, soon to arrive. Jonas wants to play a hand of cards, so I oblige. Once everyone is happily fed, I then have from 2 to 4 to work some more -- but Leo is in a snit about the weekend plans/vacation plans and sits in front of me, arguing, debating, negotiating... This takes time. Then my 12 year old teen boarder wants to send an email (mine is the only computer in the house), and we need to get ready for handball, and I prepare everything to work at the practice... and forget my computer. Argh. So I take the time to write down all the phone numbers in my cell phone, just in case the worst happens some day... And why not a bit of yoga while I'm hanging out in a gym? Leo can handle the minor embarrassment of his mom being weird in the corner.

Now, tonight, I have managed to work through some more, but I'm getting tired and sloppy. Not a good state of mind for the precise work of language revision. So, a pause is necessary.

I'm also a bit out of wack due to a family crisis. We had a major young teen female moment. My twelve year old, lovely young brunette teen, graceful, a bit spoiled, persistent, persuasive, and determined... wanted to do a bit of shopping this afternoon for her party this weekend (at her mom's). She caught me off guard. I wasn't sure. I was out from 4:30 till 6:30 with Leo and his hand-ball, I could drop her off, but not pick her up right away. I couldn't accompany her, and nor was there a friend in town, nor her sister. Couldn't she wait for Friday when her mother would be here? She was quietly, intensely determined, and I said, ok, but, two hours is a long time to be in town for a short errand, why don't you walk straight home, the sun doesn't go down till 6, so you should be home in plenty of time, better that than to wait in town for me in a café for two hours. Or so I thought.

Yes, the classic (but far from the worst) happened. She took her time in town, visiting other lovely shops, and walked slowly home. On the way, now that the sun was down and it was already getting dark, she was hassled by young men in their cars who slowed down, spoke to her, drove on ahead and turned around and came back. Scary for her. A right of passage for way too many lovely young females barely out of the cradle. Somehow we live in a world where men think it's ok to hassle and proposition a lovely young girl who's only barely 12 years' old! I certainly lived through that, as I think most women have. I was whistled at, hooted at, ogled etc., from pre-puberty on. But I was more of an urban child, perhaps, I don't remember being afraid, simply finding the men ridiculous, and I would just lower my head and hurry away.

So, as is obvious for parents of young girls, she will not go again to town on her own and most certainly will not walk home on her own again. Yes, I was slow on the uptake. My son is amazingly obedient, and I know him, his level of innocence, his level of city-smarts, and what is ok for him. No doubt my limits are more relaxed than some mothers, more strict than others. I've not had girls till this year, and starting with pre-puberty is pretty intense. I should have put my foot down, simply said sorry, not doable, and not allowed myself to be persuaded by this graceful and determined young woman. I'll get a second chance, thankfully, and she's now had a very unpleasant lesson in growing up, and in why parents set limits.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Join the Club

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

I'm now part of the general social movement of single moms raising their kids mostly alone.  Strange to be part of an international trend.  Be it the New York Times (1 mom + 2 kids = a family) or simply my numerous friends around me here, and in my kids' Waldorf school.  We are a surprisingly numerous group.  In many cases there is not a boyfriend in the picture, or, as in mine, he's only in the picture on the weekends. In some very tough cases the father is completely non-existent, and doesn't even pay his monthly child-support (no such thing as alimony).  I'm amongst the very lucky ones in that my children's father loves them dearly and has them with them as often as he can, and he pays as he's able to which varies month to month.

In general, these single moms need to master the orchestration of the days and weeks to the nth degree, and juggle numerous sources of income (if possible), or move to a tiny space that costs nearly nothing in order to maintain the closer ties to their kids that simply being there permits. Many are in far worse straights than I am -- though this has been a very rough year financially for me, and but for help from home, I wouldn't be able to stay in my house. 

Last night my kids and I (boarders included) went to dinner at a friend's house, for crèpes, pasta, salad and good fun.  I dropped off the kids at her house (right close to school, ideal for her kids to manage the trip by bicycle), and then went quickly to pick up some ingredients to contribute to the meal. When I got back around 5:15, she was just walking in the door from her job as a nurse. There was a last little bit of clean-up -- her 17 year old English boarder/student from the school had left that morning for the trip to India, and left half the dishes undone.  Ah well. Not to mention his bed un-made. I then took out the eggs and milk, found a bowl, whisk and her jar of flour and got to work making a big batch of crèpes.  

While the kids played ping pong, curled up on couches, etc., we chatted about life, kids, jobs, the school, the tough economic times, the future of the school and the many many parents who were going to be in even worse financial situations as this crisis progressively hits us all. S. has always managed by being a superb juggler, and by simply never giving up.  She's one of the friends who manages with absolutely no help from the father of her boys, and she's needed to do everything.  The list is long, with never a weekend off: alone she has raised them, disciplined them, fed them, housed them, clothed them, discussed the birds and the bees, adolescence, how to protect themselves, paid for the school, home, vacations, music lessons,.... the list never ends.  She's managed to keep the majority of their food organic and home-made, and this on long, erratic nursing hours. From early on she took in borders, and for a time she taught English at the school (after living in Australia for 15 years, her English is excellent) to offset the school fees. Now she gives a hand at the cafeteria to off-set the cost of the school lunch, and is one of the mainstays in teaching various mothers how to felt and make lovely items to sell at the school Christmas fair each year. Basically, she can't get sick.  She just can't. But she manages, and has fun wearing skirts, purple, and dying a few strands of her bangs purple/magenta/as the mood hits her.

In the past few years she's begun having men in her life again.  She tends to attract those who find tempting her masterful mothering and her management of her home. They often want to move in pretty quickly.  So, she's in the position of protecting her home-life and setting the limits of what the relationship will be. It certainly is a mood booster to know that men are attracted to you, and to see them be good to her boys, help out building the wooden deck, or a mezzanine in the kids' room. Though things are far from easy, she seems to be on the other side of the hardest times. That said, her elder son is 15 -- and quite temperamental with his strict mom. Mothering is for the long haul. 

S's just one case.  But what is difficult to comprehend is that in Provence financially the deck is quite stacked against a single parent.  Salaries, even for experienced professionals like S, are in the 1400-1600E/month range (and even lower for the teachers at our school). But rents are in the 700-1000E/month range for 3 bed rooms. And, in my case, the owner of a new house, that was reasonably priced for the area, I've a 20 year mortgage of 1300E/month.  So, how do you work a full time job, collect your kids at noon or 4pm, and buy groceries, or have kid-care (even au-pairs) when your monthly salary doesn't even cover the basics? The French State helps some, (in general people in our situation get about 300E/mo from the State) but that doesn't go far. 

For another friend in the same situation, she managed to find a job, which she does well, which she enjoys, but which pays this standard low salary (the French minimum wage), an apartment at 650E/mo and I collected her kids from school regularly over the past few years.  Child care is simply not an option. I used to pay my au pairs 400E/mo -- which many thought was nothing.  But to me, and the French in general, it was huge. Everything is on a different scale than back home. And gas... I've at least 150E/gas per month, but this friend, living a good half hour from school, and myself (though close to her job thankfully) had double that each month simply driving her kids to and from school. 

It's most definitely not all gloom and doom. Choices were willingly made, love and education willingly given. These are mothers who are managing with smiles on their faces, and pretty happy and solid -- and far from spoiled -- kids at their sides. I rail against the French tax system which encourages businesses to hire people on special rates of just 25% social security/health benefits/ etc., at minimum wage, but which ups these rates to nearly and over 100% the salary as it climbs.  So, S and M cost their bosses perhaps 1800E/mo now, but were either to get a wage increase, that could jump to 3000E overnight for the bosses, which understandably keeps them at a lower salary much longer than their skill and abilities warrant.

It's all part of my ex-pat education.  I'm a very lucky one.  With my optimism, drive to work for myself and to share my world in Provence, I've been able to earn far more up till the divorce -- perhaps ignorantly so.  It just felt natural for me to start the cooking school with Erick, and then the bed and breakfast.  It felt natural to learn how to market on the internet, make use of every contact possible, share my business cards around, cultivate artisans and colleagues.  I was raised in the market friendly American world.  Between New York and particularly Seattle where small businesses were the norm, it all just felt right. And, I know, that I have it in me still.  Thus I'm encourage to re-do my web site, re-organize my business, and persist, even through these tough economic times (post 9/11 already taught me to hold tight and believe that this too shall pass). This new blog is all part of it, and who knows, perhaps getting a couple books published... 

I'll be ok, and, as before, where possible, I'll hire my friends, and share the wealth. What is success if it isn't shared? And this time, I'll not sacrifice my kids as I do so.  Yes, I'll find the formula that works. Being an optimist from the other side of the Atlantic does come in handy. I see the world naturally through rose-tinted glasses, and if I believe hard enough, I see truly.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Tempest -- in French by high schoolers

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

Yesterday was the day of the 11th grade class' theater performance.  Always with a theme of seeking meaning in this life, querying why we are on this earth, this year's choice was Shakespeare's The Tempest.  The thirteen kids in the class, with the help of their literature teacher and a theater director from Avignon put on a two and a half hour performance, with a mostly intact text, three players of Prospero, music, movement, and bi-linguality.  Those who were English language natives (two in the class) performed most of their text in English, with a smattering of French.  Of the others, only two uttered not a word of English. The rest, with highly varied results, boldly strode forth and spoke in a language not their own at birth.  It was wonderful, even if I didn't understand a word of the strangely emphasized English of two of the Prosperos.

Leo and Jonas had seen it with the whole school in the morning.  So I'd already received notice from Leo that he'd enjoyed it, and understood all the French (of course Ma!) and the English of the English natives, but he'd had a hard time with the accented English.  Strange how our ears can be accustomed or not to hearing our own tongue altered. It makes me think of the French subtitles accompanying any documentary or interview in French speaking African countries. I can understand their French simply by listening to the person himself, so why the need to assist real French people in understanding their French? It could be my years in New York City listening to English spoken in nearly every accent possible that attuned them to comprehending even the most distorted sounds.  And yes, even I was caught in a fog by two of these young actors.

It is a huge event this theatrical performance. The 11th graders spend an intense stretch of time choosing the piece, re-working the text as necessary, preparing, making all their own costumes, incorporating voice, music, movement. And this year's class will take this production with them on their trip to India (thus in part the effort to keep a maximum of the text in its original English). Next year, when they choose their individual directions -- switching to the public school system to pass the baccalauréat exams, or taking an alternate route towards a manual activity such as woodworking -- they will have under their belt an achievement of immense proportions, and simply that knowledge in themselves, will (hopefully) render future challenges easier to face.

I tried to get my vintner to come with me last night. But, he's not a scholar, and the prospect of Shakespeare was daunting to him.  He does enjoy reading (one of his attractions), but contemporary novels, and often written by women.  He's borrowed my Women Running with Wolves and for his birthday I offered him (in translation) Eat, Pray, Love -- feeling a kinship to the author, perhaps he'd understand his American love better after reading it...  And he enjoys learning, he's been taking a course yearly, be it related to psychology or renewable agricultural practices for some time.  But, he drew the line at Shakespeare.  

So, daughter of a Shakespearean scholar that I am, I tried to convey to him (over the phone Wednesday evening) the story-line of the piece, the themes touched, and that truly, it was quite accessible.  No go.  Ah well. It is all of a piece I suppose, I've not been with a highly educated man (in the traditional university sense) since my boyfriend from Princeton. And, at least with the balance of the kids' school and my family, I haven't missed it too much.  Though at times, it would be fun to bounce those literary references off someone... I'll have to wait for the next New Year's feast in Boston at my friends' (a hornets' nest of Shakespearean scholars!) home.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Baking Bread

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this site are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel.

My weekly bread making has become a firm ritual.  I bring it as a gift to the homes of friends when I'm invited for a meal. One loaf goes with me every weekend to my vintner's home. And, whatever else they eat throughout the week, I know that with my multi-grain long-rising bread, my boys are well-nourished.  It was a hit at the bed and breakfast, and during the cooking classes -- much more fun than putting baguettes on the table. Even my mother -- who's made her own bread since I was little -- awaits anxiously my arrival in Michigan in the summer, hoping I'll take over the bread baking there too.  

It's a combination of experimenting and reading matter that have brought me to my current recipe.  I devoured On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, learning about glutens. Then I spent a year or so reading Cookwise by Shirley Corriher every night, learning more about citric acid, spices, liquid content and temperature. Then I read the chapters on making your own starter in Peter Reinhardt's The Bread Baker's Apprentice.  I went through the entire book of Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions soon after receiving it from my cooking colleague one summer.  She inspired me to pursue long and natural fermentation. My local bakers kept repeating the mantra of temperature -- the ideal rising temperature is between 26-27C (78F), which you obtain after vigorous kneading.  And then, along came Mark Bittman's column in the New York Times on no-knead bread. And I was converted.

However, I had a past history in bread baking that could not be ignored, and, I've rarely followed a recipe to the letter (my brother will attest to this at times frustrating quality).

Thus, my recipe has evolved into the following:

my own starter which I began a few years' back at this point.  It is quite simple to do.  Take one cup of organic whole wheat flour and one cup of water.  Blend, leave in a bowl with a cloth on top. The next day, add another cup of flour and more water.  Blend and leave in the bowl with a cloth on top.  Repeat all week, increasing the quantities of the flour and water to double the mixture in your bowl.  If the quantity becomes cumbersome, you can pour some of it into your compost or garbage, or down the sink as the case may be. when the mixture starts to bubble you have your own home-made sourdough starter made with the ambient yeasts floating about your home.

Depending on the yeasts in your home, the starter will be more or less acidic, more or less sweet.  I've been able to make a surprisingly mild yet active one here in Provence.  But when I've made one in Traverse City Michigan, it has come out rather acidic -- akin to the San Francisco sourdough.  

Voila, once I've my starter, I can continue the process.  I measure haphazardly, but, this style of bread baking is thankfully very forgiving.  I have a large mixing bowl -- I'm always making at least 3 loaves at a time, remember, I've a household of 5 growing kids to feed, and my bread is one of the staples, along with pasta and raw milk from a farm by their school.  My mixing bowl is 5 quarts (or liters, as I purchased it here in France). I begin by putting all my starter (I've generally 2 cups of it in the fridge in a glass jar just waiting for me) into the bowl, I add 3 or more cups of organic wheat flour, sufficient water to blend it with a wooden spoon -- not soupy, but not too stiff either.  I put 2 cups back into my glass jar and back into the fridge.  Now, what's in my bowl is the beginning of this week's bread.  I pour in my 9 grain flour (in Provence we've a wonderful organic flour supplier called Moulin Pichard which makes a very flavorful blend), at least 10 cups or till it fills 2/3 of my bowl.  I then sprinkle on a handful of sel de Guérande (the gray sea salt from Brittany), a 1/2 cup of good local honey, preferably a wild flower from the Garrigues, or Provence hills. I then pour in sufficient filtered water to be able to stir this mixture together -- not soupy, but not so hard that my wooden spoon snaps.  Far thicker than pancake batter, but still stirrable.  This is not a recipe where my Kitchen Aid gets a work-out.

I then put a cloth over the bowl and forget about it till the next day.  Here is where temperature comes in.  I don't put in warm water -- not necessary at all.  However, this dough reacts very differently as the seasons change.  Now in the winter, in my minimally heated home, it bubbles and rises in about 24 hours. However in the summer, the heat pushes it to bubble much faster, and ideally, if I can, I put it into a cooler place so the fermenting stays slow.

The next day, I put flour on my kneading surface -- a couple cups at least. This might be more of my 9 grain, or some whole wheat or spelt or some such.  I arm one hand with a pastry scraper, and I then pour my dough (which has nicely doubled) out onto the surface, catching it as it tries to slide away. I work it gently, bringing the new flour into it.  I use one hand free, and the other keeps the pastry scraper, helping me lift it off the surface each time this super moist dough sticks.  I don't want to add too much flour, just enough to give the dough a bit more body.

Once it all comes together -- relatively light for its quantity. I prepare my baking dishes. I line them with parchment paper to make life simple, and put a nicely worked lump of dough, approximately a third the size of the dish, in each.  I sprinkle with flour and wait.  This winter, the second rising time has been at least 3 hours, if not more.  I want to let the dough rise and rise, till it is completely filling its baking dish.  FYI, I've rarely had problems with over-rising this dough, perhaps simply because it goes slowly, so whereas for traditional bread, a 30 minute delay can be a problem, for this one, it is not.  Then I heat my oven to 450F/225C.  When the oven is hot, I put my bread in (I use a convection oven), and not owning a spritzer, I take a small cup of water and I throw it on the bottom of the oven (no doubt not a great idea, but so far, I've not broken the oven, so I'll keep it up). The steam from the cup of water helps give a lovely top color to the bread, and I believe improves the oven rise.

I turn the oven down a bit, to 400/200 after about 15 minutes, and I bake for at least 30 minutes, if not a bit more.  I keep an eye on the color of the bread, wanting to bake till it is nicely browned.

If the kids are walking through the door at this moment, a loaf disappears before you can say boo.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Jonas in front of our home in Avignon, after the wonderful but brief snow storm early January. This was before he started pelting me with snow balls from the top of the red bus!

Starting over-- Coping

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

Divorce hitting at the same moment as an economic downturn.  It's not the best combination for maintaining the lifestyle to which I had been accustomed.  But, it does stimulate the mind to seek creative solutions. Figuring out how to continue paying a mortgage (a problem I am not alone in having), feeding the kids, putting gas in the car, and, if you work for yourself, keeping some kind of marketing budget for a business -- these are major occupations for me now.  It's been a very interesting year so far.

I stopped working closely with the father of my boys in the fall. I still help out occasionally, but ideally for me, our partnership is over.  Easier said than done.  Without me to help bring clients to the door, he's a bit lost and his finances are in worse shape than mine. Thus, minimal to no help from that end. We're both waiting for the bed and breakfast to sell... Once it finally does, it will feel like a windfall.

From the summer on, I've been adding up the possibilities of how to cope with my newly discovered financial scarcity. When I was younger, it was easy to just walk into a temp agency and get a part-time job. It paid the bills -- which were minimal for a single girl -- and life was good.  I had money while I took my time looking for more interesting employment.  But, with two kids in private school (yes this might be a budget to eliminate, as it involves fees, cafeteria bills and lots of driving, but... I'm committed to the kids' Rudolf Steiner education while I'm able to be, such is life) and no nearby family to help out, I needed to become creative and disciplined.

So, I've taken in boarders. Three teens from my kids' school now live with us five days a week.  I've become a "famille nombreuse". Who would have thought after I'd stopped at the reasonable number of two for myself?  So, rather than driving two children to school daily, and picking them up at 4 o'clock three days a week and at noon the other two, I'm driving five kids.  I'm also feeding and cleaning up and doing laundry for a family of six.  It doesn't feel too different from the bed and breakfast.  

The added dimension of teenage girls is quite interesting.  I must say, I'm grateful that of the three, only one is into make-up.  Bathroom time juggling thus has not been much a problem. (The house has only the one bathroom, with toilet, shower, tub etc., all in the same space). Yes, all-natural girls from the Waldorf school are a pretty easy bunch to live with.

I use the various recipes I'd mastered in my prior profession, and continue to pick up all my organic staples at a wholesale warehouse.  This keeps my bills relatively low, and the quality of the food high. The week is ordered by bread-day, yogurt day, house-keeping/laundry day,  vegetable soup day, and as time permits, baking muffins, shopping for the rare extra object, or a pass by the market or local farm for some fresh vegetables and fruit.  Meat is a rare offering, but I get 30 organic eggs a week for 7.50Euros, and we've lots of nuts, cheese, whole grains and beans to cover most protein needs. But the sheer time necessary to prepare food so regularly and in such quantities... Well, it is at times quite overwhelming.

But, on the positive side, my boys are no longer the spoiled kids of a manically working mom who depends on au pairs to cope with her kids when she's not around (which was a lot). They now follow the careful calendar of chores that all share: setting and clearing the table, doing dishes, laundry, sweeping the stairs, bringing in fire wood. All these get shared amongst the brood and each does his part.  Of course, there is also the need to be patient, pleasant, to respect common and private space. 

The household has now been together since September, and it is an amazingly smooth operation. Oh I've had my moments of freaking out. But I only crashed completely once, (the eldest who's 17 took over that night), and have kept yelling to an absolute minimum.  I am no doubt harder on my boys than on the girls. They're mine, and I want them to be perfect, helpful, considerate young men.  So far, they're holding up very well under the invasion, and their mother's expectations of them.

Oh, and no, taking in boarders doesn't by far cover all my monthly costs. I also have translations, a few tours coming up this spring, and I've been helping my organic vintner export his wines to the States. A multi-tasker from birth, I do what I need to to keep things functioning. It's very month to month right now (a cookbook before Christmas, now a wine book, soon some wine web sites..). All rather surreal and at times disorienting.  But I think that though it is very stressful to be so hyper-aware of money and the lack of it, this is a good year when I'm finally truly caring for my boys and maybe, when all's said and done, they'll look back to this year and reminisce about "the year Mom was there, like, all the time!"  It could be a lot worse.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Family photo close to home

A Day in Provence

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

The sun is streaming through my kitchen window. The kids are off to school, and my wine book translation is awaiting my attention.  Filou, my faithful poodle/bichon mutt is calm at my feet, and the wood burning stove is sending out warmth and reassurance.  A proper "foyer" or hearth and home.

Living in Provence as an American is marvelous, frustrating, exciting, disorienting and enriching. I've lived here now for nearly 15 years. I first came to France as a five year old with my parents, both francophiles, and visited again at ten with my mother and brother, then at 16 on my own, with strict marching orders to get my French up to speed. And, when I had my own funds from working at a Chinese restaurant every weekend through high school, I returned with a girl friend to tour all over Europe by Eurail Pass.

I then proceeded to study Japanese in college, taking French classes only intermittently as a relief to the brutal difficulty of mastering kanji.  It wasn't till after a year in Japan, when I was 27, that I decided to come back to France to go to graduate school.  I felt, having achieved the impossible of speaking Japanese fluently, I needed to get my French back up to speed.  So why not graduate school in Paris? I loved the arts, and photography in particular, so, to Paris I went.

Part-way through my schooling I came to Arles to work as an intern with the annual photo festival, Les Rencontres de la Photographie. I met Erick Vedel, a local chef, and decided to stay.  We then proceeded to get married, start the cooking school, have one child, start the bed and breakfast, have a second child, and work like crazy, but joyfully, building the businesses into bustling and busy activities.

However, as can happen in this world, what seemed lovely from the outside, had a few dents and cracks on the inside.  I opted to leave the marriage, and thus the bed and breakfast behind me.  I am now in a house of my own in Avignon, with my two boys Leo and Jonas, now eleven and seven years' old. I am reinventing myself as a tour guide specializing in culinary and wine destinations -- a specialty I've concentrated my energies on now for over 13 years.  

I am also in a new relationship, with an organic vintner who loves to tango. Literally! So, my oenological knowledge is being enriched by living through the seasons of a winery, and my dance skills (always a passion for me) are being honed by weekly classes, and periodic intensive weekends.

The world economy is making life that much more interesting. But, hey, what would life be without a few bumps in the road?