Showing posts with label France. Show all posts
Showing posts with label France. Show all posts

14 May 2011

Of May and Mothers

"Just stop the car for a minute so I can get a picture of the virgin," I begged my husband as our rented Mini Cooper hurtled down what was surely the wrong road away from Montcuq, southwest of Cahors.

There was road work everywhere - not unlike Wisconsin - and we had gotten lost. The tight little voice inside the Garmin (I swear it's Joan Holloway from Mad Men) was nearly shouting "Recalculating! Recalculating!" but I wanted to photograph this charming little village and the pristine statue of the Virgin Mary.

Like every little Catholic girl of my era, I was taught to revere her. Because my name is Mary Virginia, I truly believed for a time that we had a special bond. Perhaps for a time we did.

May when I was a child meant great ceremony at church, much singing, and dozens of little girls in white dresses - all to honor the memory of Mary.

It was, of course, my mother who took the care to make sure my dainty little white dresses were ironed and crisp, who plaited my hair and made sure the blue bows were fresh and perky. And then after raising two sons, she did the same things for my sister.

This week, my sister and I had the sad and bittersweet experience of placing our mother in assisted living. We looked at the best facilities in town, and finally settled on one near the hospital, in our own doctor's park neighborhood.

My mother has Alzheimers Disease, which I have learned in the past 18 months, is so commonplace that you can be in a business meeting of 10 people, each of whom have parents or grandparents with this slow, killing disease.

It has broken our hearts, even though we know this is best for her: That she is around people, has on-site care, healthy meals, gets her medication on time and has few opportunities for catastrophes, like falls, now that she is no longer so steady on her feet.

The confusion in her eyes grabs at our hearts. We want to hug her and hold her and we do. She is now so tiny and vulnerable, this woman who once strode down luncheon catwalks, modeling dresses and hats for women's clubs and Rotary wives; who gamely played in the backyard wading pool with the neighborhood kids, and who served potato chips and beer to their mothers at late-night gab fests in 1960.

She is safe now, if not from the ravages of age and disease, at least from some of the frightening possibilities that have kept P and I from sleeping nights this last year.

It is finally spring. Winter here in northern Wisconsin extended into April, and was followed by rain, rain and more rain.

The air is sweet. The forsythia blooms outside my dining room window and the flowering crab may well bloom by May 24, as it always does.

Life goes on.

05 April 2010

Kitchen Tools: Rapé Tout

I am a pushover for freshly snipped herbs and freshly grated cheese or onion or nutmeg on whatever I am preparing.

There is a luxury to such things. And they are simple indulgences.

I was shopping in Cahors at a wonderful domicile shop called Choses et Autres, located at 77 Boulevard Leon Gambetta where I found this darling little dish-cum-grater called a rapé tout.

It does indeed grate just about everything, from onion to cheese to carrots.

When I use it, my kitchen is transported to the sunny southwest of France.

And that's a real luxury.

10 January 2010

Homesick for a Foreign Country

Saturday was a magical day here, cold but full of small gifts. Sunshine and blue sky, the purchase of herbs at a winter farm market, a downy woodpecker in my cedar tree, a trio of pottery pieces at bargain prices at the antique shop, and a surprise gift in the mail.

Sunday was a day of dull gray sky and dissatisfaction. I found myself turning to photos of sunshine and southern France in my iPhoto files. I felt almost a physical craving to be there. Can you become homesick for a foreign country?

The photo above was taken on a sunny day in Caillac, on the north bank of the meandering Lot River. Isn't that a tidy looking building? Apparently is is a clinic for people with drinking problems.

I have long loved the sight of sun warming old red bricks. So of course I loved the sight of sun on terra cotta tiles along the road to Caillac. I would like to be those tiles, caressed by sun of the Midi-Pyrenees. It's not only cold here, but it just started to snow.

I recall being content making salad dressing for our Sunday dinner. We spent the entire day lolling around the pool and patio, knowing we had two full weeks to explore the Lot Valley. Our dinner was chicken cooked with vegetables and wine wine of some sort. It was such a warm and pleasant day, much like the days of our first visit a few springs ago.

In winter I open the blinds early, light candles against the darkness and count the days until spring. The wait is a long one in Northern Wisconsin, and journeys through sunny photographs ease my mind and also fill me with discontent.

18 January 2009

Apricot-Walnut French Toast and a Visit to Albas

Entering Albas on the Lot River from the south.
Growing up in Frenchtown (which felt like home to us in a way our neighborhood on the other side of town did not), we felt closest to our French roots on Sundays. Perhaps it was the crow of the neighbor's rooster at sunrise, or the chatter of old folks in French after mass, or the long family meal at midday, or the feeling of lassitude that came over us in the afternoon.

In France, I find that feeling again, in the quiet of a rural afternoon. Sundays are nearly always the time for a late breakfast, a brief nap and a drive in the country.

One sunny Sunday last September, we set out to follow the meandering River Lot as it made its lazy way west.

First we conquered Douelle with its narrow streets. We have experienced Douelle often enough to know that Sundays are quiet there and we don't have to hold our breaths or cross our fingers or pray that we do not meet any traffic from the opposite direction.

We breezed through and set out for a more open road that took us past prosperous vineyards. Here the land looked more like Wisconsin, save for the houses and barns. We wound our way through Luzech, charmed by the feel of it. The wine country is prosperous, and Luzech seemed so. We stopped along the river, and took photos at the river's edge.

It was Albas that caught my imagination, with its narrow winding streets and its welcoming view. The sight of a village clinging to a cliff above a river is not something I see in my everyday life. My husband stopped the car at a small lookout over the river so I could take the photo above.

Fortunately our hearty breakfast kept us fueled as we explored the Lot River valley to the west of Cahors that afternoon. So many twists and turns!

Apricot-Walnut French Toast is a good use for stale bread.
Apricot-Walnut French Toast

  • 6 slices apricot or cinnamon-raisin bread
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/4 cup cream or milk
  • tablespoon brown sugar
  • teaspoon vanilla extract
  • dash cinnamon
  • pinch salt

For the sauce:
  • 1/2 cup apricot preserves
  • tablespoon melted butter
  • 1/3 cup walnuts
Beat eggs, cream or milk, sugar, vanilla and cinnamon in large bowl. Soak bread until it is thoroughly moist, but not falling apart. Place in buttered skillet and brown.

While bread is turning golden brown, heat preserves in a small saucepan over a medium burner. Add butter and walnuts.

Remove bread from skillet and smother in apricot-walnut sauce. This is delicious when served with vanilla yogurt and apricot nectar.

Like any other French toast recipe, this one is a good way to use up bread that is growing stale. Since I cannot resist buying bread while in France, French toast or pain perdu is a pretty typical breakfast for us when we travel.

13 January 2009

France: A Visit to La-Roque-Gageac

We are snuggled under down throws here in Northern Wisconsin tonight, waiting for The Big Chill of 2009, due later this week. They say it could reach a frigid 35 below.

We have mittens, gloves, scarves, Yak Trax, Cuddle Duds, Stormy Kroners, woolen balaclavas, leg warmers, long johns and flannel pajamas to keep us warm and safe no matter where we are and what we are doing. The larder is full, and I'll bake chicken tomorrow and try my hand at cabbage-and-sausage soup later this week. I still have some Calvados left. We are ready so Mother Nature, bring it on!

Would that we lived in a micro climate. La-Roque-Gageac, nestled under a cliff in the Dordogne, is such a place, by our experience about 10 degrees warmer than the surrounding area. While autumn was slowly coloring most of the Lot Valley, at the end of September to the north the Dordogne remained as green as mid-summer. Our trip up there, which involved a dizzying zig-zag drive past goose farms and through small crossroads, was like a trip into the recent past.

Because of the terrain, our 30-mile trip down and then up the mountain took more than an hour. It was after 2 p.m. by the time we finally found La-Roque-Gageac, after taking a wrong turn that sent us hurtling through corn fields toward a foie gras farm behind the cliffs. With help from the Garmin (is that woman inside dictatorial or what?), we crawled down a narrow back road and finally found ourselves there, under the cliffs at last, growing cranky in our search for a parking place.

La-Roque-Gageac was just as I imagined it would be, if a bit more tourist-y than I had hoped. We ordered cassis and mint-chocolate-chip ice cream cones and wandered the main street, a line of cafes and hotels and gift shops highlighting the patés and walnuts and confits of the Dordogne.

We found a place to sit and watch the excursion boat traffic on the river, shedding our jackets as we warmed ourselves in the sun. The boats are gabares, the traditional flat-bottomed boats of the Dordogne. We were tempted to take an excursion, but the trips seemed a bit long, and we'd only put enough euros in the meter for a 90-minute visit.

Inhabited since pre-historic times, La-Roque-Gageac lies under troglodytic forts, which you can visit (although we did not). About 50 years ago, portions of the cliff face fell, killing some village residents. Today, there are exotic gardens tucked away under the cliff, behind the face La-Roque shows visitors, and these intrigued me. Stairways climb up behind buildings to lovely secret places. This is after all, one of the "most beautiful villages" in France.

Too soon and we were on our way back into the green hills and the mountainsides, heading south this time forward into autumn. It seemed odd to drive north to experience a nearly-Mediterranean climate when to the south the days were crisp with the scent of woodsmoke in the air.

But there is always a surreal quality to our too-short time in France.

And always it is tinged with bittersweet.

05 March 2007

France: On a Train Going South

I knew I was French before I knew what it meant to be American, thanks to my grandmothers who spoke French at home. But my love affair with France began in the pages of books.

It was a gift from my father, Kay Thompson’s “Elouise in Paris,” that ignited my early passion for Paris.

(In fact, I rather patterned my behavior after Elouise’s own mischievous antics, something my father encouraged, even rigging a toy telephone hookup between my tiny bedroom and the kitchen so I could call “room service.”)

My attraction for points south of Paris began long before Peter Mayle even considered moving to Provence.

It started with a box of used paperback books. I was 14.

“Here, you’ll like this one,” my father said, as he handed me a copy of Dorothy McArdle’s suspense-cum-romance novel, “The Dark Enchantment,” set in a perched village in the Alpes-Maritimes.

He was right. I was hooked.

Words like “Languedoc,” “Provence,” and “the Midi” soon began to conjure up images of sun-warmed aubergines and deep rich wine and mysterious olive groves.

So as the train inched out of Gare d’Austerlitz for the southwest of France, there arose inside of me a sort of breathless anticipation.

Paris is lovely and layered and enchanting. But it is the south that resonates with me in a deeper, more atavistic way.

As the train made its way through banlieu and brickyard, my excitement grew. Somewhere south of Chateauroux, I sense a subtle change, a shifting of the light to be sure, but an insouciance, a spirit I could not define.

But I knew we were heading south on a train that cut a swath through the green heart of France. I could feel the south, sense its allure, smell its perfume.

At Limoges, I noticed the passengers who boarded looked like they could be my relatives, not surprising since the branch of family I most resemble originates in not-so-distant Poitiers.

Somewhere — perhaps Limoges — we saw old cars from the legendary Le Mistral rusting away on a sidetrack.

At Brive-la-Gaillarde (Brive, the strapping woman), the south was palpable. Red tiled roofs on sunny yellow and tan buildings. Place names ending in “ac.”

The Lonely Planet called Cahors “a sunny southern backwater.” It was sunny and southern, certainly, but no backwater in my book.

It could have been Aix. Plane trees and bougainvilla. There was a festive holiday feeling, one that continued as Gérard drove us up into the hills. Vineyard after vineyard. Pink and tan houses with dogs in the yard. Lilacs and juniper and a hint of sea breeze in the air, in this place midway between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

At the house, we unpacked and settled in chaises at the pool, surrounded by olive trees in deep pots. We drank the sunshine and the rich dark wine of Cahors.

Vacation? Home.

29 January 2007

France: The Lot Valley in April

Often after a big meal, my husband and I walk. We find ourselves doing this around the holidays, especially, and on the few winter nights that are considered warm by Wisconsin standards.

We don’t do it nearly as much as we should, of course.

What always strikes me about our walks is how quiet it is, especially this time of year when sound travels differently.

There is something very satisfying about silence after a meal. It’s as though eating is a ritual that requires silence to be properly digested, or appreciated.

Maybe it is.

In the tiny Quercy village we visited in France, we walked one evening. There was a smattering of rain for two days, but on the second it cleared up at suppertime. After our meal, we trekked down to the village to toss our kitchen refuse bag in the poubelle near the church.

Save for a motorbike cutting through the spring evening, the land was silent. Everything seemed to be at rest.

Somehow the quiet accentuated the oldness of the place, the old stone fences and the old stone houses, some with dovecotes, others with towers, all with terra cotta-tiled roofs.

The sun, a bit wan after the rain, infused the buildings and the countryside with a warm glow, like a benediction.

A late April night has a certain smell that accompanies the silence, a fertile, waiting smell. There was a chill, too, for even a balmy night is accompanied by a certain coldness that rises as the sun lowers.

This was the last such night, for the next day, the weather turned, and for the next week or so, France enjoyed temperatures in the 80s.

That place, that moment in time, was a gift, unmatched by the usual touristy things people do when they travel.

There is no better way to know a place than to be there and listen to its silence.

04 October 2006

The Ubiquitous Laguiole Bees

A few years back, when I set out to make my kitchen more “French” — long before I realized all the culinary accouterments in the world would not make it so — I bought a set of Laguiole steak knives. You know, the knives made in France and always decorated with a little bee design where the handle meets the blade.

I have no complaints. The slender, elegant knives cut meat swiftly and evenly. Because my knives have stainless steel handles they can be used in the dishwasher — a welcome convenience for a time-strapped cook like me.

It’s that darned bee. He looks different everytime I see him. If I want to buy — say table service for eight — I may get a different bee design. No big deal: I don't like matchy-matchy stuff anyway. But still.

As I learned last year, the Lagiuole is a type of knife, not a brand. The name is not restricted to any single company. An estimated 70-80 different manufacturers, some large and others cottage industries, produce Lagiuole cutlery. That explains the poorly made service for eight I saw for about 20 euros in a LeClerc store.

From what I've read, Laguiole knives originated in the early 19th century in the Avreyon town of Laguiole. Today, about 70 percent of the cutlery (the industry has expanded) is produced in the south of France.

Is the little critter on the handle a bee or a cattle fly? There is some debate there. (I say bee. The bees in France are so benign. They buzz contentedly and hover about, but never seem to sting. At least in my scant experience.)

The design differs from manufacturer to manufacturer. How many ways can a bee look? Many, it seems.

Ultimately, it does not matter that the Laguiole bees are not uniform, as long as the knives slice and cut and spread and do everything knives are meant to do.

All the Laguiole in the world won't make my kitchen French. It's — as I've said before — more of an attitude thing anyway. And my kitchen has plenty of attitude.

02 September 2006

France: The Worker in the Vineyard

During our stay in the Lot Valley, it was important not to rush around seeing things and taking pictures but to give in to the rhythm of the tiny village in which we stayed. We wanted to experience everyday life in rural France.

Mornings we drove down to Cahors, prowling the markets and the shops and cafés. Afternoons we preferred to stay closer to home.

The lovely house our friend loaned us after my husband’s surgery was too enchanting, with its tile floors, massive armors, comfortable sofas. Herbs and lilacs grew in the yard; everything was green and lichen-covered. Why leave? Here was sheer magic!

Nearly 300 years old, the home turned its back on the village and faced a vineyard. Afternoons while my husband rested, I sat by the pool listening to the calls of roosters and cuckoos and the droning of contented and very benign bees in the warm spring sunshine.

Looking down into the vineyards, I noticed a solitary worker, who began his task of staking the vines at about 9 a.m. each day. He worked until noon, took the traditional two-hour hour break, and went back to his vines. Between 2 p.m. and about 6:30, the sound of chain saws and tractors would ring out across the valley again, competing with the roosters and cuckoos.

The man in the vineyard went about his work, never looking up. I wondered if he could hear so strong was his attention to task. I later learned he could not.

For a week, I watched his progress. I don’t know if he ever saw me up there, but I considered him my companion on those sunny afternoons.

I sometimes think of him, when I am working at a repetitive task and giving it my full attention. I wonder if he is content with his job. Or does he merely tolerate it? Does he wish for a different lot in life? Is he happy staking vines and caring for grapes used in making the famous Black Wine of Cahors. I hope he is.

Several bottles of wine from the very grapes he tended had been left for us by our hostess. They were deep and rich and tannic and we drank from them in the evenings, once we closed the shutters and settled in. Our wine tasting was always accompanied by hooting from an owl that sat in the lilac tree each night.

Those were wonderful days and nights, the vineyard, the worker, the wine, the owl, the church bells and the smell of wood smoke and herbs. Such deep contentment!

17 August 2006

Olive Dip for Chips

The food stores and supermarchés in France are filled with products that are downright impossible to find in the United States, certainly not in small towns like mine.

Many products — like oils, honeys, mustards, aoili, jams, sauces and spreads — are available from a variety of online sources.

I have had no luck, however, finding olive-flavored potato chips, which we fell in love with on our last visit to France. Chips made with olive oil, yes, but none that taste of olives and potatoes and sea salt, a distinctly Mediterranean flavor.

A few months back, my husband said, “Why don’t you try making an olive dip?”

And so I did.

Olive Dip for Chips and Crackers

  • 1 eight-ounce container cream cheese,* softened
  • 1/3 cup chopped green olives and pimentos
  • ¼ cup chopped black olives
  • 2 teaspoons liquid from green olives
  • 1 teaspoon minced onion
  • ¼ teaspoon minced garlic
  • sea salt to taste

Allow cream cheese to soften until it is at room temperature. Blend ingredients in order of listing above. Chill at least 6 hours to allow the flavors to marry. Allow dip to warm to room temperature before serving. Best served with something bland like potato chips, but also good with many crackers and raw vegetables.

12 June 2006

France: A Sunny Kitchen in the Midi-Pyrenees

Recently I had the pleasure of cooking in what must be one of the cheeriest kitchens in France.

Located in a nearly-300-year-old villa in the Midi-Pyrenees region of France, the room is yellow and white with blue accents and terra cotta floors.

The villa’s owner is a woman of great style and charm who created a vacation feel in every room. The kitchen was no exception.

Working here — even cleaning up — was more like play than a chore. Why do we enjoy working in other people’s kitchens so much?

My husband and I shopped for staples upon our arrival and then daily for produce and meat. Everything, even the produce in super-marchés like the LeClerc chain, seemed much fresher than in American grocery stores.

I made ratatouille with a sun-dried tomato infused rice I cannot find in the U.S. My husband used a Moulinex “Robot Marie” hand mixer to make a rich spaghetti sauce with whole cherry tomatoes and green and black olives. At LeClerc he found a sausage unlike anything I’ve tasted at home.

Of course, I could not leave without making vegetable soup to eat with my daily baguette.

The kitchen was always sunny and from it we could hear church bells every hour.

Mornings from across the valley we would hear the calls of roosters and cuckoos and an early breeze would carry in the scent of lilacs and juniper.

At night, the faint aroma of wood smoke would waft in from a home in the village. Doves cooed and nightingales sang.

Surely this was heaven in a kitchen.

One warmer night toward the end of our stay I made an apple tart. I worked slowly and deliberately, cutting my apple into thin, even slices, and savoring every task.

I was content. The kitchen was my favorite room in the house.