21 June 2006

A Summer Solstice Among the Herbs

Although I have a few herbs in the perennial garden south of the horse barn, I also grow herbs in pots on my deck. It is a sunny but private spot. It draws sun from the south and west but is shielded by a line a maple trees and a thicket of juniper. Virgina creeper clinging to the lattice work adds to the sense of privacy.

It is the perfect place to enjoy a summer evening. I head out there around 7 p.m., with a stack of garden or cookbooks. I light punk sticks, which keep bugs at bay and fill the air with woodsmoke. I might read, but I mostly dream and give thanks that the world is so beautiful.

If the day is warm, I'll bring an iced green tea with lemon and perhaps a sprig of lemon basil or mint.

I love to hear the nightjars and robins as dusk falls. Often a bird will find a perch at the crest of the old horse barn. The sight of one of these lovely creatures silhouetted against the robin's egg blue of the sky enchants me. Sometimes a heron will fly overhead or an egret or a skein of Canada geese.

Because of the herbs, the deck looks and smells wonderful. The green foliage in terra cotta pots against the deeper redwood stain on the deck is lovely to look at. I also keep herbs on my side porch where they can catch the morning sun and complement the red geraniums, but the deck is my real herb garden. I can step outside in the morning and snip fresh chives for my eggs and find fresh basil for my tomatoes in the evening.

Crushing a sprig of lavendar or rosemary in my fingers, I am reminded of the descriptions of herbs in "The Country of the Pointed Firs," by Sarah Orne Jewett. It is not French, but it is perfect reading for a summer night.

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.

11 June 2006

My Kitchen — and my Grandmother's

What makes my kitchen French?

I did not set out to create a French country kitchen, not the kind featured in home-decorating magazines. Too contrived for my tastes.

Still, my kitchen has a few of the accouterments of what is thought to be a typical French kitchen, including a ceramic rooster and a wire wine rack, the latter tucked away in a cool corner.

But I have no blue-and-white tiles, no copper pots — only one piece of pottery I purchased in France, a colorful serving tray.

A French kitchen is all about food anyway, and the spirit in which it is prepared and consumed. Forget carved cabinet doors and racks of gleaming pots.

If you like to cook, and you like French food, your kitchen can be as French as the most over-decorated room in Architectural Digest (which regrettably really isn’t all that much about architecture).

In my kitchen, bottles of olive oil and spices are within easy reach. A jar of herbes de Provençe is always nearby. A bowl of tomatoes sits on the counter. Every scrap of food is used, and if it cannot be used, it is carried out to the compost pile.

I think of my grandmother often when I cook. Her kitchen was always tidy, and it was important for her to keep everything in its place. (Not so in my kitchen.)

Grandma Annie lived in Frenchtown in the small Michigan town where her parents settled in the 1880s. The neighborhood included a meat packing plant, an ironworks and a small retail area. Small grocery stores abounded and farmers often came to town peddling eggs and vegetables. Annie’s home, purchased by her father in 1883, once included a small grocery store on its ground floor.

Annie bought her eggs from a German farmer. Neighbors traded produce from their gardens: Green beans, carrots, tomatoes, zucchini and potatoes. Mid-morning or in the early evenings, she would set out, basket on her arm, for the home of a neighbor who had fresh produce to share.

Annie’s kitchen had only one west-facing window, but it was never dark. It was a cheerful red-and-white, very much in the style called “retro” in today’s shelter magazines.

What made Annie’s kitchen French? Her love of food and cooking. It was a love that extended throughout the home, a home the family owned for 125 years.

My memories of Annie include sunny summer mornings when she would sit on her back step and shell peas, or cooler days in late summer when she would bake a cake or a blueberry pudding and her kitchen would be redolent of vanilla and almond.

These are simple activities I have tried to make a part of my own culinary life. Come high summer, I clean corn and shell peas on my deck, within yards of my compost pile. In cool weather or when storm clouds gather, I, too, gravitate to my kitchen to bake an apple crisp with cinnamon. The aroma and the activity provide comfort.

What makes your kitchen French? How does it comfort you?

Welcome to my French Kitchen in America

Bienvenue! My name is Mary, but many people call me Mimi.

My kitchen is smaller than those found in rural France but larger than that found in a typical Paris apartment. One window overlooks an ancient horse barn and a grove of cedar trees. The other looks down a small hill.

My cabinets are warm brown and worn from years of use. Appliances are stainless steel and black. Countertops are black, too, and a bit scuffed. Nothing terribly fancy or upscale here.

But, the food is good, mostly. We'll talk more about that later.