Shrooming in Latvia

img_4560

photo by olga gorbacova

In June 2015, our son, Adam, married his bride, Anna, next to a lake in the Latvian countryside. The partying went on for two days and was partially described in a previous story, “Letting Go in Latvia”.   Letting Go In Latvia

img_4050

the site, june 12, 2015

The women in our daughter-in-law’s Russian family–mother, aunt, grandmother–invited me to return to Riga for mushroom hunting season in September. Foraging the forest for edible fungi is a highly anticipated annual event.

The lack of language on both sides [no Russian-me; basically no English-them] was slightly daunting. Then I realized it would be crazy to pass up an adventure like this. Think of the advantages: I would forge a new Russian/American alliance. I would participate in an ancient survival skill involving tools and hunting. And I would learn to avoid poisonous fungi that could upset international family relations.

img_4572

architecture in the historic part of riga

Arriving in Riga, I was hosted to a private tour of the old city and its’ history. My guide, a young Latvian woman, spoke fluent English. Anna’s mother, Tania, who speaks a little English but not confidently, acted as my personal photographer.

Like many small Eastern European countries, Latvia has a complicated history. In the beginning it was purely Pagan. Then Germanic people arrived bringing Christianity to the old world mix. They set up shops and churches and a new form of civilization. There were also influxes of settlements of Poles, Finns, and Russians.

img_4695

on the tour with tania

After WWI, from 1918-1940, Latvia had a brief, twenty-two year period of complete independence. The Russians returned in 1940. Then, the Germans replaced the Russians until WWII ended. In 1945, the Russians ran the Germans out for the last time. The Soviet Period lasted until 1991. Finally, Latvia underwent its’ second independence with the breakup of the USSR. The post-Soviet years began.

In 1991, a new law stated that in order for citizens of Russian heritage to receive Latvian passports they must learn both the language and history of the country. Many chose not to, as they were past school age, raising families or trying to get by working their everyday jobs. Anna’s maternal grandmother, Vera Gorbacova, is one example. She was born on the eastern edge of Latvia near the current border with Russia. She raised two daughters, Tania and Olga, and worked in a factory. She never learned to speak Latvian. The family’s mother tongue is purely Russian.

img_4585

vera aka “babushka”

Mushroom hunters in Latvia are a devoted cult. The day of the hunt has its’ own rituals. As foragers, the women have favorite forested areas where they return many times each season. Mushrooms are best harvested in cool, rainy weather where fungi grow plentifully in mossy groundcover, under trees, rocks, and leaves.

img_4605

Early fall of 2015 was unseasonably warm and sunny . I didn’t need to dress traditionally in rubber boots or even wear a coat. We left Riga mid-morning and drove 45 minutes outside the city to the secret woods. My guides were Tania, her sister Olga, and their friend Edita, who acted as my translator. That day, they needed to do some serious sleuthing to find coveted treasures.

I was given my own set of tools–a basket holding a knife for harvesting and a purple plum for energy. I was shown how to cut mushrooms close to the ground with the special blade. Off we went, fanning out to cover maximum territory.

The woods were not particularly dense, but if I wandered out of visual range I would hear a plaintive “Wennndeeeeey, where are you?” These women were not about to lose an American in a Latvian forest. I tried to stay within their range of comfort.

img_4625

serene beauty in a secret forest

Olga is particularly gifted in guiding the hunt. She would search an area alone and then call me over to do the actual picking. Or cutting. But I really liked finding some little nest of mushrooms on my own. However, when I showed them off proudly, Olga threw most of them back on the ground because they were too small. Or they were­, well-poisonous.

img_4610

olga scouting for me

One of the great parts of the day was when we returned to the car for lunch. A tailgating party! From the open trunk came a delicious little feast you could hold in one hand. No plates or napkins necessary. Silvery smoked fish covered small squares of sliced black bread. There was a whole hardboiled egg, and a big wedge of red tomato.  Lunch looked like a beautiful still life painting–in my hand.

img_4642

olga and edita

Two more hours of hunting before returning to the city, changing clothes, and meeting at Tania’s to cook dinner. My translator from that point on was the vivacious Julia, married to the very patient Juris who would not take a drink of alcohol during our time together because he was responsible for safely chauffeuring “precious cargo”–Julia and me. You have to love a man like that!

img_4724

cleaning ‘shrooms with julia

img_4656

the harvest pre-cleaning

Tania was cleaning mushrooms when we arrived. Her technique was meticulous. They must be completely peeled–head to stem. [Thus, the bigger, the better means less overall work for more result.] If the inside of the stem was not perfectly white, when looking at it from the bottom, it meant that worms had invaded. These were immediately discarded. After peeling, mushrooms were rinsed and drained in a colander.

While the cleaning is tedious, the cooking is easy. Slice and chop stems and heads into random sized pieces. Sauté diced onion in olive oil. Add mushrooms and cook on medium-high heat. Keep the water that is released and stir it around to steam them.

img_4668

Then, drain the water. Add some butter. Add two big spoonfuls of solid cream [like crème fraîche]. Add salt. Serve immediately. [I would add a generous grind of fresh pepper or even some red pepper flakes. Not Russian at all.]

While Tania was preparing our meal of roast duck, fried potatoes, sautéed mushrooms, and sliced tomatoes, Julia was introducing me to the finer points of drinking vodka Russian style. It should be consumed in shots and always with traditional food pairings.

img_4664

fish, onion, tomato on black bread, icy cold shot on the side

First the vodka is frozen. Pour into a shot glass. Drink the shot. Immediately eat a tiny piece of black bread covered by oily fish, onion, and tomato. Or, take a shot, followed by a pinch of warm fried potatoes and some pickled cabbage. Either way–deliciously satisfying. No side effects.

A cultural turning point occurred unexpectedly at evening’s end. For dessert we had eaten sweet watermelon chunks with our fingers. This reminded me of a story Anna had told me from her childhood. So I shared it with the others.

When her parents, Tania and Sergei, would go out on summer evenings leaving her at home, Anna would slip out of the apartment and go to the market with saved coins. She would pick out a big ripe watermelon and lug it home. Managing to cut it in two pieces, she ate one whole half, by herself, with a spoon, down to the white rind. Seeds and all!

As I finished telling the story, everyone glanced down at the dessert plates. On every plate there were two, maybe three watermelon seeds, idly dropped. But, on my plate, there was a black and white mountain of seeds because I had carefully picked them out. Every one.

I quietly covered my plate with a napkin. But it was too late. The women watched, and then–they erupted into uproarious, mirthful laughter. And so did I.

As it turned out, Glasnost prevails. Around this cross cultural table of Anglo/Russian women we laughed long and hard–and saw each other clearly.

cf041989

my favourite tania and julia photo, june 2015

Berry Best Summer Sangria

A perfect summer day is when the sun is shining, the breeze is blowing, the birds are singing and the lawn mower is broken. –James Dent

Hey! It’s summer! Be free and happy and danceful and uninhibited and now-y! –Terri Guillemets

Summer afternoon–summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language. –Henry James

IMG_5926 (1)

My husband has referred to me as a “late adopter”. This has been true regarding certain forms of technology. I’m not the first one to run with the latest tech innovation when it is tossed into popular culture. But when I do jump in, I’m in all the way. Afterward, it’s impossible to remember life as it was before…

This summer I surprised myself with a different type of “late adaptation”. It happened to be with a beverage I had never tried, even once.

On the American Independence Day holiday weekend, July 4th, with Dietician Daughter, her husband and his Kansas family, she served me a berry and fresh fruit topped drink in a tall glass with a straw. It was deep burgundy in color. The icy glass, sweating beads of humidity, was garnished with succulent fruit. It was her version of Sangria.

IMG_2191

On a sultry summer afternoon, around a backyard table with good people, this drink captured my attention. There was thirst-quenching coolness. There was the lushness of summer berries in red wine. I drank a second glass.

IMG_2206

Sangria has been around for 2000+ years. When the Roman Empire reached the Iberian Peninsula of Spain and Portugal and began mixing wine into the water to sanitize it, the beginnings of Sangria were born. Long a common informal drink on the European continent, Sangria was not widely consumed in the U.S. until it was introduced at the New York World’s Fair in 1964.

Twice I have been to the Iberian Peninsula in western Spain hiking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, but I was not offered Sangria there. We drank delicious Galician wines every evening as an accompaniment to the regional food. It was poured straight from the bottle and never mixed with anything.

IMG_6694
trail marker camino de santiago

Sangria comes from the Spanish and Portuguese word “sangre” meaning blood, because of its’ dark red color. It is traditionally made with Spanish red wine, fruit, brandy, some kind of sweetener and ice. Carbonated water may or may not be added for fizz.

That’s all there is to it. This is also where Sangria becomes much more interesting. With a rudimentary knowledge of ingredients, the end result is in the hands of the maker. Dietician Daughter was imaginative in her “berry” form of creativity. Now I can’t drink it any other way.

For the rest of the summer, I began ordering Sangria in restaurants. Some were made with white wine, some with red. At the very most they might have one or two pieces of shredded, mangy looking citrus fruit in the bottom of the glass. Pizzazz and eye candy beauty were nonexistent. Not one was memorable. Not one reminded me of friends and family sharing stories and playing games on a summer afternoon. Not one begged to be repeated.

My short scientific study convinced me that the only Sangria worth the calories is the one you make yourself. With ingredients you choose. The wine must be of a quality that you would drink on its own. The fruit must be plentiful. And FRESH.

IMG_5928
sangria’s few ingredients: summer fruit, wine, brandy, and a jar

Here is the very best summer SANGRIA you will ever make. Or drink. It’s simple, it’s fruity, slightly dry and slightly sweet, a bit boozy, and refreshing like a lazy summer day. Pass the pitcher around a table in the mountains, by the sea, on the terrace, or in the backyard. Say “yes” to a berry sangria and then go lie in a hammock and muse.

IMG_2079
sangria in the mountains
DSCN1298
sangria on the côte d’azur, france
CIMG0547
sangria on a terrace in germany
CIMG0541
in full summer bloom
IMG_2186

LARA’S BERRY BEST SUMMER SANGRIA

  • fresh whole berries [or pieces of fruit] for garnish
  • ice to chill
  • 750 ml bottle of Spanish Red wine, chilled [I used Ribiera de Duero. Or Rioja.]
  • ½ C. brandy
  • ¾ C. orange juice
  • 3-4 T. brown sugar
  • any seasonal combination of blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and/or strawberries. [Or use peaches and mangoes]
  • ½ orange, rind on, sliced thinly
  • ½ apple, skin on, chopped

In a large glass jar or pitcher, place fruit and sugar and muddle with a wooden spoon or muddler.

IMG_5934

Add OJ and brandy and muddle again. Add red wine and stir.

IMG_5939

Taste and adjust flavors to your liking. [More brandy or OJ or sugar as you wish.] Stir again. Add ice to chill and serve as is in clear glasses.

Get the fruit on. Garnish with lots of fresh berries or fruit of choice. Serve with a spoon for scooping winey fruit into your mouth between sips.

IMG_2193

May be stored, covered, in refrigerator to steep and chill several hours, but then don’t add ice until serving.

Best consumed within 1-2 days.

Living Both Sides of the French Coin


-1 (1)

At one time or another, almost everyone has been caught in some kind of bureaucratic nonsense, when you simply can’t complete a task because of missing a stamp, a chop, a signature, a photo or a form. These experiences come and go, wherever you live in the world. When this happens, it’s good to find a way to recalibrate, to feel glad to be in your life again.

I had just returned to Paris from two months in the U.S. First order of business was to exchange my old French SIM card for one to fit a new smart phone purchased over the holidays. It’s a pleasant ten-minute walk to our neighborhood telecom store where we have been customers for six years.

Stepping inside, the blast of overheated air was minor compared to the long queue of people waiting for service. Shedding coat and scarf, I settled in by staring at mute TV monitors rolling repetitious ads. A sign on the wall reminded everyone to behave courteously, at all times. Potential customers entered, assessed the non-moving line, and spun back out. A few lined up behind me. Ninety minutes later, it was finally my turn.

th-4 (1)

I explained that I simply needed a replacement SIM card to fit my new cell phone. Account numbers were given. Alors, mais non! The account was not in my name. No transaction was possible without the account holder’s identity card. The “account holder”, my husband, was at work outside the city with his passport and carte sejour [residence card] in a briefcase.

I pleaded [courteously], in poorly phrased French, about how long and patiently I had waited, what an easy transaction it was. Surely the man could see our long-standing account on the computer. He agreed that it would only take 30 seconds to give me a new card. However, I must have the proper IDs. He raised his shoulders and arms in a shrug and pursed his lips. A very French gesture. And no further negotiation.

th-2 (1)

Outside in cooler air, fuming over the silliness of French “rules”, I walked twenty minutes to another part of the quartier to buy a roasted chicken. The boucherie sign said “CLOSED”, until 3:00PM. Now annoyed and hungry, I decided to wait it out in an upscale brasserie around the corner. Although well known by everyone living in the area, I had never been inside. Unknowingly, upon entering the door, my reset button began to tick.

A man in a red tie and black suit greeted and then ushered me to a small table facing the door. It was laid with a textured white cover, starched cloth napkins, heavy silverware, and round-bowled bistro stemware. The menu was large and colorful with “CUISINE FAMILIALE ET BOURGEOISE” in bold letters.

IMG_5117

The menu covered a range of fresh seafood platters–oysters, lobster, shrimp, and crab–served on ice with lemon halves, brown bread and butter, or starters of salads and terrines, main courses of viandes or poissons [meat or fish], desserts of profiteroles au chocolat chaud, crème caramel, glaces and sorbets. Très French indeed.

IMG_5120

I chose two starters as a meal. OEufs durs mayonnaise is one of my favorites. Hard-boiled eggs with fresh, homemade mayo, garnished with greens. Followed by a salad of frisée, croutons, and bacon. A silver basket of sliced artisanal baguette was placed on the table almost immediately, along with a tall pepper grinder, a carafe of water and a glass of wine.

IMG_5123

It’s wonderfully easy in France to dine alone, any time of day or night. It’s also very comfortable. As a single diner you are rather ghost-like, invisible to others dining and talking with companions. I sipped red wine, relaxed into the back of the cushioned leather chair, and contentedly looked around. A layer of frustration began to melt away.

At the entrance, there was a long brass bar framed in wood. While the bartender busily prepared coffee or drinks, his eyes took in everything else going on in the room. Interior lighting was muted by wall sconces and chandeliers with pleated shades The floor was terrazzo, in beiges, browns and blacks, with flower accents in tiny mosaic tiles. There was a tall black urn with long stemmed red roses on a windowsill next to the bar. Thick curtains on brass rods and rings trimmed the lower third of windows along the sidewalk. Natural light streamed in above, allowing views of passers-by. Walls of burnished wood were decorated with framed, cartoonish café scenes.

IMG_5129

underfoot ambience

Servers wore traditional long black aprons over white shirts and black ties. They moved in fluid choreography; carrying food from the kitchen, unobtrusively refilling carafes of water, breadbaskets, or wine glasses at tables with standing silver buckets and cloth draped bottles.

A woman swirled in wearing a floor length fur coat, meeting friends already seated. An elderly man next to me was obviously a regular. His meal appeared without ordering, including an espresso at the end. He donned a fedora, slipped a newspaper under his arm, and departed with a handshake to the man at the door.

My food was served in two leisurely courses. I never felt hurried. Another layer of annoyance fell away.

By 2:45PM, the atmosphere changed. Diners drifted away and the bartender’s pace visibly slowed as he cleaned, polished and put away wine glasses. Servers casually cleared and reset tables, chatting back and forth to each other. A table of four lingered over a bottle of unfinished wine and what appeared to be an intense discussion.

IMG_5132

typical finale

I had long since finished eating, but remained sitting there rethinking the day’s events. Earlier, the tallied score had been Paris–1, Wendy–0, feeling defeated by narrow mindedness and lack of service. Several hours later, I had readjusted my attitude by simply doing a very normal Parisian thing–taking myself to lunch in a traditional café, blending in with culture and ambience that I both appreciate and love. La belle vie en France–c’est comme ça.

Final score: French bureaucracy-1, Wendy’s love for Paris-1. Not a tie––I won.

OEUFS MAYONNAISE [courtesy of Paris Paysanne]

  • 2 fresh egg yolks, room temperature
  • 2 pinches salt
  • 1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1 1/2 cups olive oil
  • dash of H2O
  • drop of red wine vinegar
  • 1-2 hard-boiled eggs per person
  • Mâche [lamb’s lettuce] or greens for salad/garnish, cayenne pepper, optional

Preparation:

Whisk egg yolks together with salt and mustard until creamy and light in color. SLOWLY begin to add olive oil–a few drops at a time to start, whisking vigorously all the time as you go. It should become thicker as the oil is mixed in, but not liquidy. Add all the oil until it is finished. If it seems too stiff, add a dash of H2O and continue whisking. Finish with a drop of red wine vinegar and salt to taste.

1452882286972

photo credit, Paris Paysanne

Cut hard-boiled eggs in half. Top with fresh mayo. Garnish with a sprinkle of cayenne pepper and greens as desired.

1452881750375

photo credit, Paris Paysanne

Looking Back To the Present

IMG_1387

christmas carousel, strasbourg, france

Long ago, in December 1570, the first Christmas market was held on a cobblestoned square in front of a towering Gothic cathedral. Torches and candles lit the wintry darkness. Religious objects and decorations were offered for sale. A bowl of steaming stew might have been ladled from a cauldron over an open fire to entice passersby to linger and warm themselves.

IMG_1420

Now, 445 years later, this fairy tale-like tradition continues in the “Capital of Christmas”, Strasbourg, France.

IMG_1358

Strasbourg is situated in the Alsace region on France’s eastern border, across the Rhine River from Germany. Its’ strategic location dates back to 12 BC where, as part of the Roman Empire, it became the crossroads of Europe. Frequented by both travelers and invaders, Strasbourg has bounced back and forth repeatedly in political tugs of war. At the end of WWII, Germany returned the city to France for the last time. It retains strong remnants of Franco-German culture and tradition from the entwined history.

IMG_1375

IMG_4551The original “centre-ville” is a small island formed by branches of the River Ill [La Grande Île]. Here, the red sandstone Cathedral is the most striking architectural feature. Construction begun in 1176 was finally completed in 1439. An impressive 263 years of engineering, masonry, and carpentry featuring a single Gothic spire which rises 142 meters [466 feet]!

IMG_4559

The oldest Christmas Market is also one of Europe’s largest. Three hundred cottage-like wooden stalls offer food, drink, and seasonal goodies along with an impressive array of gifts and decorations. A 30-meter fir tree from the mountains is beautifully bedecked in Place Kléber. The market officially opens the last weekend of November. This year we made plans early, knowing the crowds are daunting. It didn’t turn out to be that way.

IMG_4580

100 feet of mountain evergreen

IMG_1360

Late Friday afternoon began with the usual glowing stalls selling festive wares, ambient street decorations, lights sparkling in cold, wintry dusk. It smelled even better. Aromas of roasting chestnuts, gingerbread, grilled brats and sauerkraut, mingled with steaming vats of spiced vin chaud or glühwein [hot wine].

IMG_4595

chestnuts roasting

IMG_1389

gingerbread smiling

IMG_1404

baubles posing

While Mark was on his assigned mission of photographing the charm that transforms Strasbourg into Christmas wonderland, I busied myself locating the best cup of vin chaud. It is a serious task. They are not all alike!

IMG_1363

hot wine comes in red, white, or nonalcoholic juice, pretzels on the side

IMG_4561

IMG_4567

gutenberg square

Unsuccessful initial research shooed me away from the bustling cathedral area. Winding my way to La Petite France, the old tanners district near the river locks, I found a small outcropping of stalls. Here was the place. “Le meilleur vin chaud dans la marché” [the very best in the whole market]. Not gagging-ly sweet, not cloyingly spiced, just good quality red wine, perfectly heated with the right amount of subtle spice. I was scientifically sure. The vendor beamed when I told him this “Truth”.

IMG_1415

the best vin chaud in strasbourg is here 

IMG_1480

la petite france by day

IMG_4601

fairytale lights at night, times one

IMG_4642

fairy tale lights at night, times two

 

IMG_4652

street of baccarat crystal chandeliers

 

IMG_4615

a closer look inside

This year’s market was very different for several reasons. First were the roadblocks to cars entering the city center. We parked outside and walked in. Secondly, there were heavily armed police and military positioned on every bridge, square, and corner intersection. In teams of two or three, they stood, walked about, or drove slowly down the [now] pedestrian-only streets. We meandered leisurely through even the most popular areas without jostling shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. At 7:00PM the stalls promptly boarded up. It was not a typical opening night.

IMG_1464

IMG_1491We slipped into a wine bar to warm up. The owner told us this was the first year he could look out the windows and see across the street. Normally it would be a wall-to-wall crush of people until late in the evening.

IMG_1432

Two weeks before, November 13, was a tragic night in Paris. Terrorists killed 130 people and injured 400 others. France is still tender, reeling from an assault on the lifestyle [and young lives] in a proud democratic republic.

IMG_1466

memorial dans la Place Kléber

We paused next to a memorial for Paris victims near the towering Christmas tree. We noted the French tri-color worked into holiday decorating. These outpourings of nationalism, part memoriam and part act of defiance were not surprising. After a tragedy, solidarity and resilience are often displayed this way.

 

IMG_4625

the french flag unfurled

 

IMG_4621

the tri color decorates

Still, it can be difficult to know how to move on when inexplicable things happen. We live in Paris and didn’t know the victims. But we learned of them.

The story about the café owner of La Belle Équipe is particularly poignant. One of the shootings occurred at this popular neighborhood bistro. His wife was among the fatalities. She died on the floor, in his arms. This man is Jewish. His wife was Muslim. They have a son. Their family represents the healthy diversity permeating Paris, and France.

IMG_1467

After burying the mother of his son, the still grieving owner said it was out of the question to close his café. “We must go to concerts. We must sit on terraces. We can still smile with scars on our face. We will lick our wounds and live with our scars. It doesn’t stop us. There is no choice.”

I am struck by this [often] difficult truth after disaster strikes. But of course he is right. One way to reaffirm hope is to return to the things we normally do. Going to work, eating in restaurants with friends, attending concerts, playing with children, musing over coffee on a terrace, visiting museums, strolling through a Christmas market…

IMG_1366

The ability to persevere over hundreds of years to  build a cathedral is the same sentiment that propels us forward when heartbreaking events happen. Giving up is not a choice. Instead, as we lean into the collective embrace of family, friends and community, we hold onto our hope for the future as tightly as we can.

IMG_4622

Wishing you and yours a warm holiday season of togetherness.

[All photos courtesy of MEU, my in-house photographer extraordinaire.]

IMG_1365

IMG_1379

Tasting the Stars

photo (1)

“There is nothing more beautiful than a sunset, viewed over a glass of chilled Champagne.” –Jared M. Brown

“I only drink Champagne when I am happy and when I am sad.”–Lily Bollinger

“Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right.”–Mark Twain

In the beginning, Champagne was not a wine. It was an area in northern France known for producing fine wool. Scattered vineyards made a bit of wine for local imbibing. It was rough and pinkish brown and bubbles were considered a bad sign. For several centuries there was a lot of sacking, burning and desecration of the region, especially during the Crusades and the 100 Years War.

Then, in the late 1660s, a young Benedictine Monk named Dom Pérignon was assigned to the Abbey d’Hautvillers to bring it back to life and productivity. This meant resurrecting the vineyards, formerly a financial mainstay for monasteries.

IMG_4025

Here is where legend and fact collide. Dom Pérignon has been credited for “inventing champagne”. A famous quote speaks of him hailing fellow monks, “Come quickly. I’m tasting the stars!” But the truth is–Champagne invented itself.

IMG_1993

All wines bubble when grapes are pressed. Yeast cells on the skins mix with sugar in the juice and fermentation begins. But no one knew about yeasts then. Bubbles were considered to be a flaw of nature. And fizzy wines were unacceptable for Mass.

What Dom Pérignon did do was pave the way for the Champagne industry of today. He set down some “Golden Rules for Winemaking”. Like using only the best grapes and discarding the rest, pruning hard in the spring, harvesting in cool weather, and pressing the grapes very gently, keeping the juices separate with each pressing.

His real genius–the most important thing he did–was to blend and marry different grapes. The harmony he created, between balance and taste, was unequaled at the time. He mixed grapes from different parts of the region. A completely NEW concept. Myths arose because he was so extraordinary, but the truth was he just made better wines than anyone else. He was an intelligent innovator and adaptor with keen gifts of observation and taste. He started using corks as stoppers rather than wooden pegs wrapped in oil soaked hemp. Still, most of the wine he made was red, not white. And definitely not sparkling.

IMG_4023

pinot grapes

IMG_4073

chardonnay grapes

Geographic proximity to Paris [and royalty] further enhanced the region’s reputation. Coronations in the cathedral in Reims featured massive celebrations. While partying, Kings and courtiers drank the local wine, deciding the erratic tingle in the mouth was rather pleasant. By 1730, Champagne was the beverage throughout European courts.

IMG_1184

chagall stained glass, reims cathedral

However, production remained unpredictable. It had either too much or too little fizz. There was also the danger element. Because fermentation inside the bottle was uncontrolled, excessive build up of carbonic gas caused unexpected explosions. More than a few were maimed, or killed.

Still, love for Champagne continued to rise in France and throughout Europe.

Napoleon purposefully stopped in Épernay before every military campaign to pick up a supply. “In victory I deserve it. In defeat I need it.” One time, in a rush, he failed to make the stop. He was on his way to, well…Waterloo.

Fast forward to the mid-to-late 1800s. Louis Pasteur discovered yeast cells. Fermentation became more than a “strange phenomenon” that exploded wine bottles. Wine making took off with newly applied knowledge. Stronger glass bottles, the invention of the wire muzzle and metal foil to hold down corks, and significantly, the process of “remuage” [disgorging sediment] further propelled Champagne’s future.

IMG_1132

spring unfolds april 2015

A common consumer complaint was the unpleasant murkiness left inside bottles from dead yeast cells and other byproducts of fermentation. Widow Clicquot [Veuve Clicquot] and her cellar master experimented with trying to remove the sticky mess. He cut holes into the widow’s wooden kitchen table, then inserted the bottles upside down by, suspended by their necks. Periodic twisting and shaking dislodged the sludge and moved it gradually towards the cork. When the cork was pulled, sediment shot out leaving most of the wine and bubbles. Topped off, re-corked and ready to ship–a clearly sparkling outcome. Their secret soon leaked. An industry took off.

IMG_4104

champagne countryside, fall 2015

During WWI, two extremely bloody battles were fought along the River Marne. Trenches cut knifelike paths through the vineyards. Villages in Champagne were bombed, burned and pillaged along the front line, but hardy Champenois women, old men, and children managed to tend vines not demolished.

In WWII, most of the wine stock was hidden behind false walls to offset German demands for shipments to send home. Winston Churchill, a notorious Champagne consumer declared, “Remember Gentlemen, it is not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne!” His admiration for U.S. President Roosevelt was immortalized in a simile, “Meeting Franklin Roosevelt was like opening your first bottle of Champagne; knowing him was like drinking it.”

IMG_4039

undulating symmetry, post harvest, fall 2015

 Post-war, the vineyards were massively re-organized. Numbers of vines were reduced. Replanting in symmetrical orderly rows, rather than haphazardly as in the past, became the norm. Grapes were matched to the soil and microclimate. The combination of ancient chalky soil, harsh northern weather and unreliable harvests created a system for blending grapes from current and past years. All fine Champagnes are now made from blending three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Exceptions are Blanc de Blancs which is 100% Chardonnay and Blanc de Noirs which is 100% Pinot Noir.

IMG_4794

blanc de blancs

IMG_4796

blanc de noirs

My love for Champagne came about later rather than earlier in my life. In my 20s, California sparkling wine was the perfect storm for a day-after headache. During fifteen years in Asia we drank Champagne once–on New Year’s Eve of the millennium. In Germany we sipped Sekt, the sparkling apéro-of-choice at social gatherings. It was nice, but we didn’t buy it to drink at home. Only when we moved to France did bubbly wine shift from infrequent tasting to outright delight.

Soon after moving to Paris, we saw that Champagne was basically the only beverage offered as an aperitif on any occasion, day or night. It was light, refreshing, delicious, and trés French, of course. We began making weekend trips to Reims and Épernay, coexisting capitals of the Champagne region, to sample and learn more. Gradually, we found the tastes and the amount of effervescence we most enjoy.

IMG_4803

current lineup of favourites

Some people consume Champagne only for special party occasions–weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, retirements, christenings, or at midnight on December 31. Now we happily live outside of that box. When home in France, Champagne is the white-wine-of-choice any day of the week, month or year.

IMG_1260IMG_4804

Buying good Champagne doesn’t have to be expensive. Épernay excursions have led us to small producers who sell directly to the consumer. Deliciously drinkable bubbly can be purchased for less than $20.00 per bottle.

IMG_4034

color change fall 2015

IMG_3406

Pairing Champagne with food sometimes surprises. Strawberries and chocolate are obvious clichés. Perhaps counter-intuitively, pizza is a perfect match to the sparkles of Champagne. Homemade pizza night begins by uncorking something to sip in the kitchen while we cook. Glasses refilled table side when we eat.

IMG_0403

classic pairing

IMG_0081

surprising pairing

Sparkling wine produced in other geographies–German Sekt, Italian Prosecco, Spanish Cava, and California Champagne are runners-up. They aren’t bad, even acceptable tasting to many people. But it’s simply not the same. If you are fortunate enough to buy or be served a bottle of Champagne, raise your first glass to thank Dom Pérignon. Then sit back, relax, and simply enjoy “tasting the stars”.

IMG_4263


“In a perfect world, everyone would have a glass of Champagne every evening.”––Willie Gluckstern.

I second that notion.

“There comes a time in every woman’s life when the only thing that helps is a glass of Champagne.”––Bette Davis.

I’m not sure when that time is, but I’m probably there.

“My only regret in life is that I didn’t drink more Champagne.”––John Keynes.

I’m not planning to have that regret.

For an award-winning documentary entitled “A Year in Champagne”, click on this website for a preview or download on ITunes: http://www.ayearinchampagne.com

IMG_1203

fall in champagne, 2015

Letting Go In Latvia

DSCF1667

Jumurda Manor, Latvia

Joseph Campbell, noted mythologist and philosopher, wrote, “A ritual is an enactment of a myth. And, by participating in the ritual, you are participating in the myth…But you don’t know what you are doing unless you think about it. That’s what ritual does. It gives you an occasion to realize what you are doing so that you’re participating in the energy of life. That’s what rituals are for; you do things with intention…you learn about yourself as part of the being of the world…”

Campbell also said, “Mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical…it is beyond images. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known, but not told.”

Herein lies the challenge–to tell a story that for the past two months has been largely beyond the reach of my own words. It is rooted in a ritual with pagan origins. It also happened to be part of the wedding of our son and his Latvian/Russian bride.

IMG_4048

ceremonial site from our skylight window

In a countryside setting outside of Riga, Latvia, June 12 was as perfect as a summer day can be anywhere in the world. There was warm sun and a light breeze. Cloudless sky. Lapis-blue lake and a field of soft grass. A ceremonial framework of boughs entwined with flowers. Shared vows in both Russian and English. Radiant smiles. Applause, joy, and love.

CF042018

CF042093

The after party began with a scavenger hunt and Champagne for guests as the newlyweds were whisked away for photos. Upon their return, the celebration continued with good food and drink, fantastic music, poignant toasts and funny speeches.

Just before midnight, the band music stopped. All of the guests were ushered from the party tent, down the hill, to the wedding site near the lake. Glowing candle lanterns lit the darkness. DSCF1672 Blankets were offered for the cool evening air. There was a young man playing soft guitar music. Two chairs had been placed beneath the framework of boughs and flowers. The mothers of the bride and groom were instructed to sit on the chairs. Then our children sat on our laps. No one understood what was happening, but we became participants in an ancient cultural myth.

IMG_9498

Mičošana [pronounced “Michuashana”] is a Latvian wedding tradition that dates back to [pre-religious] pagan times. It symbolizes the moment when the bride becomes a wife and the groom a husband. It is a way of saying “goodbye” to childhood and home. In this enactment, there was an unspoken tribute to both mothers as we held our children one final time before they passed into adulthood and the creation of a new family. It is a sweet, sad, and yet somehow romantic experience.

IMG_9575

Historically, Latvia was a country of peasants living and working on large farming estates under a feudal system. Girls typically married boys from settlements far away. Mičošana became a ritual of farewell. After marriage, the bride would live on her husband’s settlement, rarely seeing her own family again. The ceremony symbolized “giving the bride away” because it severed ties between the girl and her family.

Here is how it went 21st century style. Midnight–the end of the day and the beginning of a new day. With soft background music and married children on our laps, the bride’s mother took off her daughter’s veil and placed it into a box. She tied a ruffled apron around her daughter’s waist. IMG_4409

I placed an engraved wooden pipe in my son’s hand. The bride and groom stood together with their symbolic accessories and read aloud the roles they would now assume. This was the lighthearted version of contemporary Mičošana, with laughter too. From a basket holding printed cards the bride read, “I will drink beer and be the master of the remote control.” The groom, “I will always be very pretty and sweet.”

IMG_4457

The readings went on for several minutes. The wedding bouquet was tossed by the bride. Finally people began to drift uphill to the tent where the party continued until the sun rose. But something very special had happened. I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t have words to describe it. I only knew how it made me feel. And I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Walking back across the grassy field, the bride’s mother and I linked arms. She turned to me and said softly in rudimentary English, “Wendy, when babies come, 50/50, okay?” I wrapped my arm around her shoulders and said, “Of course, Tanya. 50/50. Always.” It was another unexpected moment. Her overture touched me. The meaning behind the words was heartfelt and real. Women, then mothers, and now a multi-cultural family bound by our children.

Later, as I learned more about Mičošana, the symbolism became clearer. Our son and his wife have assumed roles in an international marriage. It will take our daughter-in-law far from her Latvian family home. She will undoubtedly see her parents and family less and less often. The bittersweetness of the midnight ceremony was the same parting experienced by generations of brides over thousands of years.

I believe Campbell. Myths are important. Rituals are important. Poetry is important. Symbolism runs through ceremonies from ancient times to the present. Because of our thinking nature, we strive to understand the meanings underneath. And this helps awaken us to our place in the circle of life.

Campbell’s words, again: “…by participating in the ritual [with intention]…you are being put into accord with the wisdom of the psyche, which is the wisdom inherent with you anyhow. Your consciousness is being reminded of the wisdom of your own life.”

This is what we hope for all of our children. We wish for them to grow into the wisdom of their own lives.

001295050018_1 (1)

ajutimestwo, 6-12-15

 

 

SOLYANKA [pronounced Sahlahnka] aka HANGOVER SOUP

Partying continues well into the day after a Russian/Latvian wedding. A thick hearty soup of salty, cured meats and sausages is usually on the menu after a night of drinking. It hits the spot with its’ rich meaty stock, briny pickles and vegetables, garnished with sour cream. Although there is a vegetarian form, meat solyanka is more common. I fell hard for it’s delicious taste at Jumurda Manor. Anna and I made a version in her London kitchen. The key is simply a lot of sour and salt in a rich broth. Ingredient proportions are flexible. Rice can be substituted for potatoes. This is an “everything but the kitchen sink” kind of soup, but tastes so much better than you think it will!

IMG_4450

lean beef and seasoning for broth

IMG_4439

other raw ingredients

MAKING THE BROTH

  • 300 gm lean beef rump
  • 1 whole onion, peeled
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 1 T. whole peppercorns

In a saucepan, cover broth ingredients with water. Boil uncovered over medium heat for 30 minutes. Take out onion and discard. Continue boiling until the meat is cooked through, about 1.5-2 hours. Add additional water to keep meat covered and to build up broth. When meat is tender, take out to cool slightly. Skim fat off top of broth.

NEXT STEPS

  • 200 gm Polish sausage
  • 100 gm good German ham

Cut cooled beef, sausage and ham into julienne strips. Cube some potato. Place in broth to simmer.

IMG_4444

ready to use ingredients

Chop ½ onion and sauté in olive oil. Add julienned carrots and ¼ cup [or more] tomato paste. Continue sautéing for a few minutes then add all of this to stock.

Place sliced meat in skillet to warm slightly. Then add to stock.

IMG_4439 (1)

brine soaked cukes and olives

IMPORTANT FINAL INGREDIENTS

  • Jar of cucumbers in BRINE. Different from regular pickles. Saltier. Brinier. See photo.
  • Black olives packed in BRINE

Stir in julienned cucumbers, whole black olives and ¼ to ½ cup [or more] of the brine.

When potatoes are cooked, turn off heat. Salt and pepper to taste.

IMG_4446

Slice fresh lemons into circles and place over top of soup. Cover pot and let sit about 30 minutes. Remove lemons. Serve garnished with a large dollop of fresh sour cream.

Delicious and nutritious even without the hangover.

DSCF1686

The Baba au Rhum Affair

th-2

crème brûlée

th-3

mousse au chocolat

Typically, there are three favorite dessert categories people choose from when dining in a French restaurant. There are crème brûlée lovers or mousse au chocolat [or anything chocolate] lovers. Thirdly, there are fruitarians who crave tarte tartin or other fruity things.

th-4

tarte tartin

When I watch people eating these classic desserts I sometimes live vicariously with a mental spoonful. Mostly I remain distant from what I consider their banal desires. This is because of an intensely passionate affair I had with Baba au Rhum.

It began casually, with an innocent introduction. We skipped over flirtation as things rapidly accelerated to a lusty peak, then slid rather quickly into unmet expectations. Inevitably it dwindled to a wistful end. Such is the cycle of most affairs. Even desserts.

A series of events led to this unexpected relationship. For two months I worked as an assistant to a French woman who conducted cooking classes for tourists in Paris. She was between student “stagiaires” during a busy season so I volunteered to fill in. Lessons began at 9:00AM with a walking tour through a well-known market street, followed by preparation in her professional kitchen, ending with a three-course luncheon. My job was to pay the vendors, schlep items home, prep and clean up while clients chopped, stirred, watched and listened. As they nibbled on regional cheeses and sipped white wine around the large kitchen work-island, I set the dining table, refilled glasses, and washed dirty dishes and utensils.

“Payment” for my services was mostly in the form of laughable anecdotes. Once, a 500gm block of butter accidentally fell to the floor and was stepped on by the chef. I was told to, “Clean it because it was still usable”. So I wiped the smashed butter with a lot of paper towels until only a small “usable” sliver remained. Then I hid it.

As a thank-you at the end of this brief tenure, I was invited to lunch in a small, classic French restaurant off the Boulevard St. Germain. My hostess ordered the dessert for both of us. And so, with this rather informal introduction, I met my French love.

In front of me was placed a shallow white bowl containing a cylindrical piece of spongy cake, a side dish of smoothly whipped fresh cream, and an open bottle of Martinique rum.

IMG_0529

baba at first sight

Rum was slowly and somewhat generously poured over the cake. I took a spoonful of rum-infused cake with a little cream and–well, the sensation can best be described, figuratively, as sharing a magic carpet ride with “Ali Baba” himself.

IMG_0530

slowly pour rum over cake

IMG_0538

take a spoonful of rum infused cake and cream

Here is the curious part; I don’t drink rum or even think about it, ever. I shun plain squishy cakes as unnecessary calories. Whipped cream is so “dairy” and off my nutritional needs list. But, all together, the sum of the parts turned into obsession–dark, lusty Caribbean rum plus airy booze-drenched cake mingled with cool, vanilla flecked cream. All of which dissipated into a cloud of vaporous desire in my mouth. I was hooked at first bite.

Thus began my infatuation with Baba au Rhum. It wasn’t perfect. We had our ups and downs. I rejected restaurants that did not offer the rum bottle tableside, or served pre-fab, stale, even crunchy cake. Quelle horreur! I knew what I wanted. Expectations were extremely high from the start.

IMG_2829

split open, ready for rum, cream on the side

IMG_2828

served with full bottle à table

After months of reckless indulgence I made a profound discovery. And ultimately, it was the beginning of the end. The best Baba au Rhum I ever had was not found in Paris.

During one fall season, we took a road trip to the countryside of Bordeaux. We stayed in a charming guest cottage near the town of St. Emilion. It was in the middle of the vineyards of the Troplong Mondot winery. Having arrived after the harvest, the vines were empty and the fields quiet. The weather was cold and wet. But we had an open-hearth fireplace in the living room, which burned twisted grape vines and three foot logs.  One evening we dined in the upscale restaurant of the Château. The menu was fixed. Dessert was Baba au Rhum. Of course I was thrilled.

It was served in the usual trilogy with one notable exception. The cake was lightly warmed–a variation which perfectly enhanced the coolness of the cream and the velvety smoothness of the rum. I immediately knew this was the best it had ever been. And might ever be.

Intense relationships often run their course. So it was with Baba and me. After Bordeaux, I tried it a few more times, but it was never quite the same. Finally it faded into a fond memory. Now when I see Baba on the menu, there is a flutter of recognition, and I question whether to dabble again. But I’m certain my expectations won’t be met. And, truthfully, they can’t be.

I enjoy telling friends and guests about Baba au Rhum’s charms, urging them to give it a try. It seems to fall into the love/hate category. Maybe it’s too extreme, too unusual or too far removed from mainstream desires for chocolate, crème brûlée, or fruit tarts.

IMG_3800

And yet, I remain nostalgic to this day because a bite of sweetness, savoured and shared, is a fine way to spend time around the table with those you love.

IMG_3788

another presentation