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The Field in May, 2010 – Les Premières Fraises

May 2, 2010 9:21 pm

Alain called us yesterday to say he had a barquette of strawberries for us – the first of the season. I took a picture of what was left of them after breakfast today.First Fraises, 1 mai 2010

My son, Jake, gave me a book for Christmas last year – Bringing It to the Table, a compilation of essays by Wendall Berry. Berry has been writing fiction, poetry, and essays – as well as farming a hillside in his native Kentucky with his wife – for over forty years. I had never read his work before, but his ideas about food, its production, and its consumption seem to encapsulate everything I’ve been thinking and learning about food, especially since moving to France nearly five years ago. As I ate the delicious utterly fresh little strawberries this morning in a dish of yoghurt that Kevin had made, I thought of these words by Berry, “A significant part of the pleasure of eating is in one’s accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which food comes.”

Extolling the Virtues of the DandelionIt is so true. With each bite of these strawberries, we are fully conscious that they were planted by Anna and Alain in their nearby field, were grown with no pesticides, and that we even had the chance to help them along ourselves by weeding and cleaning up the row of little plants. And that consciousness has definitely deepened our appreciation, enjoyment, and confidence in this bounty.


Spring’s Sprung, the Grass is Rizz …

April 15, 2010 3:01 pm

… I wonder where dem boidies is. Dem boids is on dem wings. Ain’t that absoid? Dem wings is on dem boids!  (Alas, just missed The Beat Generation.)

Anna's Field 27 mars 2010I’m a little slow, comme d’hab, with keeping up with the blog, but here goes. We went to work in Anna’s field – for the first time this year – on March 27th. I wanted to record a photo of the field with the date, to keep track of its changes over the growing season. We met Alain in the field – while Anna stayed at home and prepared a big lunch for her hungry laborers (Kevin, Alain, and me) – and we weeded and generally cleaned up a big long row of strawberries (fraises). After a long cold wet winter, it was nice to get back outside and, especially, on to the farm. Extolling the Virtues of the Dandelion


The Caves of Orgnac

November 4, 2009 12:13 am

Heading Into The AbyssImagine being a potholer in 1935 and going down a hole that everyone knew about but had never visited before because it seemed too deep.  Well (pardon the pun), French spelunkerer Robert de Joly and a small team descended the hole in August 1935 and found themselves in a vast cavern covering 2.5 acres. Stalagmites and stalactites were everywhere. We went to vist these grand Grottes d’Orgnac, as they are now known, at the weekend. Rather than climbing down a hole, we walked down many steps into an immense underground cavern of great beauty.  Our tour took us up and down many stairs and by the end of the tour we were 121 metres below ground.  Luckily for us, at the end of the walk there was a lift to return us to ground level.

Curtains of StoneIt felt amazing to be in the caverns, it was beautiful. We saw many stalagmites growing up to 11 metres high. They were all made of little platelettes, each of which took thousands of years to create. Platelettes formed because the water that created them dripped from a great height. A little pool of water sits at the top of each stalagmite and every time a drop falls, it splashes water out horizontally to form the plate.  For some reason the French call them piles of crepes!

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Jake’s Visit

October 4, 2009 10:37 pm

Viva l'EvolucionMy son Jake came from San Francisco for a visit last week, and we spent a whirlwind 5 days putting him to work in Anna’s field, checking out the roman ruins in Nimes, playing boule, dining alfresco at various restaurants, and introducing him to our many wonderful friends here. He charmed everyone – no surprise – and impressed everyone as well with his remarkable language abilities. He doesn’t speak much French but I’m sure he’d pick it up in no time if he stayed for than 5 days at a time. (Hint, hint!) He speaks Spanish with a fluency and authentic Guatemalan accent that is stunning. What really amazed me, though, was how he conversed with Anna in Italian. She speaks not a word of English, and they could communicate only with smiles and gestures until Jake started speaking Italian to her. I knew he had studied it for a year at UC Santa Barbara, his alma mater, but I didn’t realize that he could speak it as rapidly as he speaks Spanish. He certainly didn’t get his language facility from me …

Anna meets Le PetitAnna nicknamed Jake “Le Petit,” because he reminded her so much of her grandson – a “petit fils” in French. Ha! She prepared a huge lunch for us after the morning’s work in the field. She had several courses but the highlight was escargot in her special sauce of garlic and Provencal herbs. (I passed; I don’t eat bugs, amphibians, reptiles, or things with visible mold.) But Alain, Anna, Kevin, and Jake wolfed them down.

Le Maison Carrée in NImesWe also visited Nimes, where I showed Jake some incredible Roman ruins. La Maison Carrée is a beautifully preserved Roman temple right in the middle of the city. We also checked out Les Arènes, the Roman coliseum which has an excellent audio guide explaining the gladiatorial fights that took place there 2,000 years ago. Another day, we visited more ruins at Glanum, the ancient Roman town next to St. Rémy de Provence.

Come back soon, Jake. Your mother misses you! In the meantime, check out some more pictures of the visit.


Quick Trip to Brittany

September 12, 2009 6:41 pm

OystersI returned a few days ago from a whirlwind tour of a small section of Brittany. I took the TGV to Rennes to meet my friend Mary  from America and from there we established our base in the beautiful village of Combourg. Each day we drove to a different town, most of them along the northern Brittany coastline. First we went to Cancale – the main feature of which was huitres – oysters. We had a fabulous three course meal that cost only 15€, very reasonable by French standards. The first course – l’entrée –  was a dozen oysters, the second – le plat – was moules frites (delicious mussels and fries), the third – le dessert – a cinnamon-laden mousse au chocolat. We had a perfectly chilled bottle of Muscadet with the meal. Afterwards, we walked along the windswept cliffs overlooking the acres of oyster beds below and Mary, a French teacher, helped me with my French.

Mont St. MichelThe next day we drove to St. Malo, a stunning granite-walled city on the coast. The weather was perfect but I could tell that, for most of the year, its ancient ramparts are battered by wind and sea. In the Middle Ages it was a fortified island and notorious as a haven for pirates. These days it is filled with seafood restaurants and, it seemed to me, loads of English tourists. From there, we drove to Mont St. Michel. I heard that this incredibly beautiful place has become extremely touristy and, for that reason, I didn’t really want to go there. However, I kept seeing the island way out in the water from Cancale and then St. Malo, and its siren call finally worked its magic on me. I just had see it up close. I’m so glad we drove the short distance there. I love the picture I took of the island but if I had turned around and snapped that view instead – well, let’s just say that “enchanting” is not the first word to spring to mind. My friend told me it was even more touristy on the island, so I left with only the gorgeous exterior view in my memory.

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Visit to Les Pyrénées

August 16, 2009 5:23 pm

Our Picnic Site on the Canal du MidiThis week we drove to the Pyrénées for a short visit. On our way there, we stopped to picnic alongside the Canal du Midi, built in the 17th century to connect the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and thus to avoid the then month-long journey through the pirate-laden waters around Spain. It was so breathtakingly beautiful there that I didn’t want to leave. But the lure of the mountains got us back on the road.

We stayed with French friends in the little village of Momères, which is just at the base of the Pyrénées and very close to Spain. There aren’t any foothills; rather, the mountains seem to just rise straight up. The first day, we drove up Le Pic du Midi de Bigorre – which visit Kevin is going to write about. Later that day, our friends took us to Lourdes, where thousands of “malades” come daily looking for miraculous cures. Legend has it that the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette in a grotto along the river Gave de Pau in 1858. That apparition converted Lourdes from a tiny village into a huge pilgrimage-tourist site. (The only city in France with more hotel rooms is Paris.) The Catholic church built huge cathedrals on the site, both above and below ground.

PyrenéesThe next day, we drove back up into the mountains, this time towards the Col d’Aspin. We hiked up to a small lake, where we were surrounded by cows, sheep, and horses. It’s August and hot, but there were still plenty of wildflowers there – including tall blue delphiniums. Hiking in the Pyrénées looks superb and I cannot wait to get back.

Of course, when visiting France, we always dive head first into the Gastronomic Specialties of the region. We bought a Pic Bigourdan, a type of cake that is meant to resemble a mountain peak (hence, “pic”) but looks more like a fir tree. It’s made by pouring batter over a spindle as it twirls in front of a fire. We also bought a Tourte Myrtilles, another cake, much different in shape – small, high, and round – and filled with blueberries.

At the market in Tarbes, we bought Haricots Tarbais from a bent-backed woman who looked over a hundred years old. These are the beans the French make cassoulet with. I cooked ours today with bacon, onions, carrots, hot peppers, tomatoes, and a bouquet garni. Incroyable!

We keep intending to start a diet but we never seem able to empty the refrigerator first. Maybe if we stopped buying all these tasty delights …

Check out our photos!


Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

July 28, 2009 12:59 pm
Yay!Our wonderful adventure-travel friend, Pasquale Scaturro, is starring in a current History Channel series, Expedition Africa. Unfortunately, we don’t get the History Channel here in France, but we did manage to see four exciting episodes while we were in England earlier this month. The series is about four adventure travelers retracing H.M. Stanley’s renowned search for Dr. Livingstone deep in the interior of Tanzania. The 970 mile journey took only 30 days to complete, and the group had to rely on only what was available to Stanley in 1871, even for navigation.

We’ve been lucky to accompany Pasquale on several adventures in Africa (see our photos of tribal people – including ones sporting plate lips – from the Omo River Expedition in Ethiopia in 2006). I have finally gotten around to finishing tweaking our Mt. Kilimanjaro photos, so I’m adding them with this post. We actually made it all the way to the tippy-top – 19,340 feet high. We climbed the Machame Route which, over the course of 5 days, took us through several distinct ecological zones: tropical forest, moorlands to the Shira Plain, semi-desert, Alpine, and arctic. On our final ascent starting at midnight, our camel-back tubes froze almost immediately. We arrived at the summit after 6 grueling hours of climbing a distance of only about 2 and a half miles. Seeing sunrise that morning is seared in my memory. Truly the most magnificent hike of my life.


Henley Hat Time

July 16, 2009 10:21 am

Henley Hat

The beginning of July is Henley Royal Regatta time and off we went to England for the event – my 7th year in a row! (Kevin estimates he’s been more than 30 times.) This year, I found my favorite Henley hat of them all. First prize goes to this lovely woman whose entire outfit was stunning, although unfortunately we only have a photo of her hat. And Best Runner Up goes to the Lady in Red in the background. Her hat was enormous! How these two manage to travel to Henley with these hats is beyond me. The few times I’ve taken my hat boxes on a plane, I’ve felt conspicuously like Zsa Zsa Gabor …

Another big first at this Henley: it didn’t rain once while we were there. In fact, believe it or not, it was scorching (although the G & T’s helped me cope.) I had brought my Wellies (Wellingtons to the uninitiated – knee-high green rubber English gardening boots) all the way from France but I didn’t have to wear them with my fancy outfits even once. Hurray!

Checking Out the Graffiti in Valencia, Spain

April 27, 2009 9:50 pm
Valencia GraffitiI love when Kevin has a conference in a city where I’ve never been. While he attends the conference during the day, I am on my own to do as I please, and at night we rejoin and make Grand Gastronomical Tours. You don’t have to travel far in Europe before you cross a border into an entirely new culture, with its own language, architecture, and cuisine. Even the people look different. From where we live in the south of France, it is a mere three hours’ drive east to Italy or a three hours’ drive west to Spain.

Last week, we drove seven hours to Valencia. The weather was gorgeous and so was this city. One of the first things I did on my own was walk to the Museo de Bellas Artes, whose collection of mostly 15th to 17th century paintings is regarded in Spain as second in importance only to the Prado. I was there about 15 seconds before I re-experienced the feeling I had during a 2 month solo trip  through Spain in 1996. After visiting a series of museums on that trip, I felt I’d die of boredom if I had to look at another painting of the Madonna and Child. This time, it was painting after painting of the crucifixion. All I could think of was George Carlin saying that he wouldn’t want to belong to a religion whose symbol was of a skinny white guy nailed to a cross. Definitely not my notion of “spirituality,” either! 95% of the paintings there were of a religious theme (mostly some form of torture and lots of blood), about 3% were battle scenes (more blood), 1.95% were portraits of the nobility (all of whom looked like really fun and groovy people), and .05% were still lifes. Enough already …

Wandering around and around Valencia for the next 6 days, I noticed lots of interesting graffiti, or were they murals? Hmmm … there’s a bit of a fine line there. Most of the art was placed on derelict buildings, around construction sites, or painted on businesses’ roll-up metal security doors, rather than defacing anything beautiful, and captivated me much more than the Old Masters at the Bellas Artes did … Click on the senorita with the castanets to see the graffiti album.


Summertime Provencal Produce

July 19, 2008 11:32 am

IMG_8783.JPGWe are deep into summertime here in Provence and enjoying the fruits – and the vegetables – of the local farmers’ labors. Each season has its produce charms but those of summer are incomparable. Tomatoes, especially, are in abundant variety. Some are best for making sauces, others for stuffing, and others just for eating as is. Drizzle the tomato slices with local olive oil, add a dash of red wine vinegar, and sprinkle with fresh ground pepper and Fleur de Sel (“flower of salt” in French, a sea salt) – et voila! Don’t forget to garnish with fresh parsley and basil from the kitchen windowsill pots.

Our favorite local market is close by at Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, a beautiful old village dominated by the 14th century hilltop Fort Sainte André. The village is on the Rhone, directly across the river from Avignon. All the outdoor markets are busier – thanks to tourists – during the summer, but this one never seems to get too overwhelmed. Every Thursday morning, Kevin and I arrive intending to buy just what we need for the week, but we always go berserk. We can’t help it. It reminds me of what Oscar Wilde once said: “I can resist anything except temptation.”

IMG_8787.JPGAs I was trying to stuff our purchases into the refrigerator (not the tomatoes, thank you), I counted fourteen different fruits. Fourteen! Okay, I admit to including lemons and limes on that list, as well as some non-local fruits such as bananas, pineapple, grapefruit, oranges, and some outrageous Bramley apples we brought back from England, but herewith the local fruits: raspberries, tiny plums, red currants, peaches, figs, cherries, and apricots. Yesterday, I removed by hand the stones from a kilo of cherries and made chilled cherry soup. Quite tasty …