Garlic and Girlfriends

How can I cook dinner tonight–we’re out of garlic! –Aunt Josephine, from the Gilroy Garlic Cookbook

It’s not an exaggeration to say that an absence of garlic in the house could be, as far as dinner goes, a showstopper. Garlic simply makes things taste better. And, as Josephine makes the case, without it, why bother?

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creative advertising, estes park market

There is more lore about garlic than any other food. As one of the oldest cultivated plants, it was thought to be a cure-all, to have mystical powers, and even to protect from evil spirits. It was used in Egyptian burials and placed on windowsills when babies were born.

Garlic is a member of the lily order of plants and the onion family that includes chives, shallots, scallions and leeks. But the most important thing about garlic is the magic it performs when blended into other foods, creating delicious, taste-enhancing flavors.

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I love garlic like I love my friends. Friends, carefully cultivated with time and circumstance, blended into my life, enhancing everything. Friends going back to childhood, at home in the U.S., and while living all over the world.

Our early years living in Taiwan, in the 1990s, were the beginning of a ritual of rotating Friday afternoons among a group of women I grew to know and love. We took turns gathering in each other’s living rooms. Friends came and moved on as is normal in ex-pat circles. Yet, through the revolving door of overseas life, those Friday afternoons of “wine and unwinding” remained highly anticipated.

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a sampling of TGIF friends, Taiwan, late 1990s

Food served invariably included a healthy dose of garlic. In certain seasons in Taiwan you could find big heads of garlic that were perfect for roasting whole. We squeezed warm, nutty, oil-soaked roasted cloves onto fresh bread or directly into our mouths. Open bottles of wine stood at attention, ready to replenish glasses.

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We let our hair down and put our feet up. The formula within the formula was that all ideas, problems or dreams were fair topics. Laughter kept everything in check. We appreciated each other’s insights, intelligence and strengths. We learned to love the idiosyncrasies. And couldn’t wait to return to garlic and friendship a week later.

What garlic is to food, insanity is to art. –Augustus St. Gaudens

10,000 years ago garlic was first discovered. It has evolved since then, having survived winters in the caves of our ancestors. Garlic is a natural antibiotic, fights bacteria and viruses, thins the blood, detoxifies the liver, decreases inflammation and lowers bad cholesterol. It is also low in calories–one or two per clove.

There are five elements: earth, air, water, fire and garlic…without garlic I simply would not care to live. –Louis Diat

 

Store garlic in a cool, dry place with ventilation. Not above or next to the stove, sink, or in a window with sun exposure. Never in the refrigerator! Strands of garlic can be braided attractively into plaits, ready to pull off a head as needed.

 

There is no such thing as a little garlic. –Arthur Baer

To eliminate garlic on the breath: chew fresh parsley or, my favorite, allow a piece of good, dark chocolate to melt slowly on your tongue and slide down your throat.

The best way to rid garlic odor on the hands is to wash with soap and water then rub fingers and hands back and forth on the chrome of the kitchen faucet. This works!

Avoid at all costs that vile spew you see rotting in oil in screw top jars. Too lazy to peel fresh? You don’t deserve to eat garlic! –Anthony Bourdain

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Farmer’s market, Estes Park, CO

For easy peeling of cloves, separate them from the head. Smash each individually with the broad blade of a chef’s knife. Slip skin off. Or, from Dietitian Daughter, place cloves in a plastic container with lid and shake like crazy. The skin will loosen and separate, ready to be easily peeled away. For either method it helps to first cut off the stem ends.

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One little known use for garlic was as glue in the middle ages. It was used to affix gold and silver leaf to furniture, mend glass and porcelain. This seems like a natural idea when literally everything sticks to garlicky fingers after peeling and chopping.

Tomatoes and oregano make it Italian; wine and tarragon make it French. Sour cream makes it Russian; lemon and cinnamon make it Greek. Soy sauce makes it Chinese. Garlic makes it good. –Alice May Brock

As good as the garlic was in Taiwan, it is even better in France. I’m partial to the big bulbs of rose garlic on my market street. [My Market Street] It has a pink purplish tinge to the skin unlike white garlic. Once peeled, all cloves look the same. Rose garlic cloves are uniform in size and have a less pungent smell and taste.

 

We went to a party in Paris one Christmas season. The dining table was laden with an impressive array of food, but I made a beeline directly to a casserole of hot artichoke dip. It was perfuming the room with a delicious, warm, garlicky aroma that I could not resist. After the first taste, I spooned it directly into my mouth foregoing bread or crackers. A lot of garlic was the secret.

That same recipe for garlic artichoke dip played center stage at the French version of “wine and unwind”, chez moi. Not all of the women knew each other well, but conversation and laughter flowed as effortlessly as it does among long time friends. Garlic seemed to be the tie that binds. And, well…a few bottles of memorable white and red Bordeaux [Les Hauts de Smith Blanc et Rouge] from my husband’s wine closet worked a bit of magic, too.

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It is not really an exaggeration to say that peace and happiness begin, geographically, where garlic is used in cooking. –Marcel Boulestin

I don’t cook everyday now, but I always have a bulb or two of garlic in the kitchen. I’m afraid of being caught in a pinch, like Aunt Josephine, unable to put a meal together because the garlic tin is empty. And, if some girlfriends are having a rendezvous, I’m ready with my go-to ingredient to enliven the camaraderie…

…and create a memory of food and friendship.

 

ROASTED HEADS OF GARLIC

  •  Cut ¼ to ½ inch off the top of head of garlic.
  • Cut off just enough so all clove ends are exposed.
  • Drizzle with olive oil. Salt and pepper as desired.
  • Rub oil in with finger or use a brush to evenly coat.
  • If roasting 1 or 2 heads, wrap each in foil and seal.
  • If roasting many heads, place them in baking pan with cut sides up. Cover the whole pan with foil.
  • Roast 45 minutes at 400 F. [205 C.]
  • Cool a bit.

Squeeze roasted cloves out of skins onto fresh bread, crackers or mix into potatoes or any pasta dish. Or place in oil and refrigerate to use later.

GARLIC ARTICHOKE DIP

  • 2-15 oz. [400gm] cans artichoke hearts in water. Drain water.
  • 1 whole fresh jalapeno pepper
  • 3 large or 6 small green onions
  • 6 large cloves garlic, chopped, then smashed in mortar and pestle
  • 1 C. [250gm] grated mozzarella cheese
  • ½ to ¾ C. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2-3 drops Tabasco, Siracha or chili sauce
  • Salt and pepper
  • ½ C. [or less] good quality mayonnaise. Not Hellman’s. [add just enough to bind ingredients]
  • Sprinkle of cayenne over top

Bake 350 F. [175 C.] for 30-40 minutes until bubbly and brown. Serve with bread, crackers, or vegetable crudités.

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ingredients for artichoke dip

 

 

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serve with a side of friendship

SPAGHETTI JOSEPHINE from Gilroy Garlic Cookbook

[This dish was prepared regularly on cooking nights in Taiwan. You can add in other ingredients as desired. But I like it best Josephine’s way. Serve with a big salad.]

  • 1 medium head cauliflower, separated into tiny flowerets.
  • 1 lb. [500 gm] spaghetti
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 T. olive oil
  • ¼ C. minced parsley [cut with scissors in tall glass]
  • ½ C. butter
  • ½ C. or more freshly grated Parmesan
  • Freshly ground pepper
  1. Cook cauliflower in boiling salted water until almost tender [~5 min.]
  2. Cook spaghetti al dente.
  3. Sauté garlic in olive oil ~1 min, then add butter and parsley.
  4. Cook on very low heat until hot and bubbly.
  5. Add garlic butter to spaghetti and cauliflower.
  6. Toss together. Add Parmesan and toss again.
  7. Serve immediately with additional grated cheese and the pepper grinder.

 

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Janmarie demonstrates how to pound garlic in my Cyprus kitchen, circa 1992

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Estes Park, farmer’s market

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Living Both Sides of the French Coin


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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photo credit, Paris Paysanne

Mussel Memory, Revisited

Disclosure: A technical error sent an unedited draft of this story to readers on email and Facebook. This is the version I wanted to publish. 

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Hotel de Ville [City Hall] on the Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium

Brussels is an important city for several reasons. Politically, it is the capital of Belgium and the European Union. Historically, it’s importance as a fortress town began in the 10th century. Architecturally, the Grand Place is designated a World Heritage Site of striking 17th century design and construction. But the importance of Brussels, to me, is tied to memories of food I ate there thirteen years ago while visiting a friend. For the past five years we have lived next door to Belgium, in France. In February it was time to revisit. We set out on a little road trip.

In 2002, while we were living in Taiwan, my friend Nancy invited me to Brussels where she had moved several years before. She and her family lived in an attached row house of many ascending levels. The guest quarters were on the top floor, under the eaves. The ceiling angled sharply down from the peaked roof. A big skylight opened to fresh air, clouds, sun, or neighboring rooftops. Wooden floorboards were painted white. On the bed was a puffy duvet covered in green and white gingham. An adjoining bathroom housed a large bathtub and towels that were warmed by a radiator attached to the wall. I called it the Heidi-hayloft-room because it reminded me of the Swiss children’s book by Johanna Spyri. I flew out of Asia into a fairytale.

A small boy who believed he was Batman also lived in the household. It was nearly impossible to separate costume and character from the child. I was the guest in a house-of-many-levels with a miniature black caped, masked action hero and his parents. At his French pre-school, Brady acquired a perfect accent that I can only dream about for myself. And, like everyone in Brussels, he adored pommes frites. 32965c

Frites are a national snack food as well as a side dish. Locals and tourists eat them like popcorn at the movies. Storefronts are dedicated to selling paper cones of frites, right out of the fryer, with a choice of sauces. They are eaten with tiny plastic forks. Each order is freshly made and always just right–crispy on the outside, feathery light on the inside. I believe Belgians perfected making frites precisely because they know that eating them outdoors on a freezing day warms your insides. On our recent visit we shared a cornet on two bitingly cold days. And stayed warm to our bones.

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side by side friteries

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sauces are tastier than you might think

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cornet with a dollop of spicy samourai sauce [delicious!]

When Nancy took me to the Grand Place of landmark architectural fame, she said, “Here. You MUST eat this. Right now.” I was handed a hot waffle, wrapped in paper, from a street vendor’s cart. On the outside it looked like any waffle, except it was thicker, and more irregular around the edges. I bit into a surprise. Partially melted, caramelized crystals of sugar crunched and then dissolved into pools of syrup, filling my mouth with warmth and sweetness. In that moment, time, place and taste blended together. A blustery winter morning, an historic square with ancient cobblestones and gothic spires, and a mouthful of fresh waffle. I never forgot it.

My food writing mentor, MFK Fisher, has her own version. As a young woman living in France in the 1920s she belonged to an Alpine hiking club. Most of the members were much older. She felt a bit lonely as the only foreigner. One very cold day, reaching the top of a steep hill and catching her breath, an old general said to her, “Here! Try some of this young lady!” He gave her a pale brown piece of chocolate. She writes, “In my mouth the chocolate broke at first like gravel into many separate, disagreeable bits. I began to wonder if I could swallow them. Then they grew soft and melted voluptuously into a warm stream down my throat.” Another member of the group came bustling up to say, “Wait, wait! Never eat chocolate without bread, young lady! Very bad for the interior, very bad.” She continues, “And in two minutes my mouth was full of fresh bread and melting chocolate, and as we sat gingerly, the three of us, on the frozen hill, looking down into the valley…we peered shyly and silently at each other and smiled and chewed at one of the most satisfying things I have ever eaten…”

MFK’s hillside bread and chocolate. My perfect waffle. Two fine food moments. Fisher calls them “peaks of gastronomic emotion”. She intellectualizes, “It is, I am sure as much a matter of spirit as of body. Everything is right; nothing jars. There is a kind of harmony, with every sensation and emotion melted into one chord of well-being.” Still, these moments are very personal and often hard to describe.

Return visit 2015, I learned that waffle vendors are no longer in the Grand Place. Nearby, shop after shop sold waffles, mostly loaded with extras. We snapped a few photos, but it wasn’t what I wanted.

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waffles +++

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Then, on a side street, I spotted a parked truck with the words, “Gaufres Chaudes”. A man was making waffles in his van. What he handed me was smaller and not as dense as I remembered. The inside had a thin layer of sweetness but no crunch to the bite. Perhaps he used a finely grained sugar that readily melted on the griddle. The taste was fine. I was hungry. It was cold. But it wasn’t the same.

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the lone street vendor

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but not the same waffle

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The best food revisit turned out to be mussels. Moules-frites, en Français, because they always come with fries. I ate them for the very first time at Aux Armes de Bruxelles with Nancy. And then recently, I ate them at the same restaurant, three times in three days, with my husband. We found no reason to go elsewhere. It’s that special. Belgians go there for a mussel fix too.

September to April is the best season for jumbo mussels from Zeeland, which is a southwestern province in the Netherlands. It is the ONLY region from where to obtain this particular type of mussel. So our server said. Other mussels, and those eaten throughout the year, are not the same. Smaller. Different. Not as tasty.

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They were served in a big bowl, frites on the side and always bread to sop up the sauce and veggies at the bottom. Determining the best flavor of sauce was strictly trial and error. My husband found his favorite on the first try–white wine and cream sauce [au vin blanc et crème]. Second time, I asked for a made-up combination, which became my personal best–white wine, lots of garlic and spicy red pepper [au vin blanc, beaucoup d’ail, et piment]. It’s not on the menu, but the kitchen obliged.

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The broth is full of chopped onion, celery, fresh parsley, and once, tiny asparagus tips. It is an intoxicating combination–a bowl of plump jumbo mussels, steamed heat and aromas from the sauce wafting up, followed by the pleasure of eating them one by one. We smiled and sighed between morsels of mussel and bites of frites.

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two ways to eat: using shell as utensil

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or the conventional fork

The choice of accompanying beverage required more trial and error. Belgian beer was good for the beer drinker. A glass of red Bordeaux was good for the red wine lover. Unanimously, our recommendable favorite was a bottle of white burgundy Chablis. Order it immediately and begin sipping while you wait.

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Mussel memory was still great despite the intervening years. Sharing the experience with a loved one was especially poignant. Together, we know what it means to have a “Fisher moment” of complete gastronomic satisfaction. Mussels in Brussels. C’était bon.

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flowing chocolate, another story

  • Aux Armes de Bruxelles
  • Rue des bouchers 13
  • 1000 Brussels
  • Tel: +32 [0] 2 511 55 50
  • Open 7/7 from noon to 10:45PM, Monday to Friday
  • Until 11:15PM Saturday and 10:30PM Sunday
  • http://www.auxarmesdebruxelles.com

Kindle Some Candlelight

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I’m obsessed with flames. Growing up in a family with fire-making and fire-tending rituals, I come by this naturally. Wherever we lived, when the outside temperature dropped, it was time to lay wood in the fireplace and watch it burn. Now I live in a Parisian apartment with seven fireplaces. All of them literally sealed shut. In the dark winter months, there is only one alternative. Between four and five in the afternoon, as the sun is waning, I start lighting candles, room by room.

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or group impact

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single

Recently, it became apparent that this is not a tradition others follow as consistently as I do. On a late December afternoon, earlier this month, my friend Lesli invited a group of women for “wine and unwind” time. This is when we gather in someone’s home, open a bottle of something and see what conversational banter arises.

On this occasion, we met at her apartment. Which happens to be furnished with a spectacular crystal chandelier from another century. While studying it admiringly, I noticed it was not electrified. It was outfitted with white candles. They had never been lit since Lesli moved in, three years before. She needed little encouragement to change this. With partially burned candles already in place, I climbed on a chair and broke off the blackened wicks before re-lighting them. Once in full glow, this antique beauty became a Versailles-worthy candelabra. Although no “ugly duckling” before, it transformed into a stunning swan.

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candelabra transformation, chez Lesli

She also had six or eight candles in heavy glass jars from the crème de la crème candle store, Cire Trudon. This is the oldest and most prestigious wax manufacturer, since 1643. The wicks were deeply buried in hardened wax having not been lit in a long time. It took some digging and trimming, but those, too, were put into active use. Soon the living room was ablaze with candlelight, bubbling “coupes de champagne”, and good conversation among friends.

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trimmed and untrimmed wick lengths

It’s one thing to describe creating ambient light and warmth with candles. The truth is, for many people they are messy and off putting except on special occasions. This is easily remedied by a bit of maintenance know-how. For anyone inclined to light up the night with candlelight, here is the most basic tutorial, as requested by a few friends in France.

  • ALWAYS trim the wick before relighting a candle. It will break off in your fingers at the perfect starting point. Otherwise, over time, the smoke from a too-long wick blackens walls, ceilings and pollutes the room.
  • Prevent excessive dripping messes by keeping lit candles out of drafts. This seems obvious, but it’s really important to be aware of changing air currents wherever candles are burning. For safety reasons as well as dripping.
  • If you light a LOT of candles, it’s better to use a candlesnuffer for extinguishing rather than blowing them out. This dramatically reduces smoke pollution and spraying wax on walls and horizontal surfaces.
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    use candlesnuffer by

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    covering and holding 5-8 seconds

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    voilà! no smoking candle

    Whether you engage in regular candle usage or not, there is other interesting etiquette to know.

  • Never display new candles [taper or column] in their holders with white wicks. If you leave them unburned, it looks like they belong in a store rather than in your home. All wicks should be blackened, by lighting them briefly, even if not using the candle right away. [I make an exception with votive candles because they are small and often in containers that don’t show their wicks. I also have a lot of them. A purist would say to blacken those too.]

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    a pair of votive monks

  • Don’t burn candles during the daylight. Candles are for darkness only—morning or evening. Breakfast before sun-up with candlelight is a mellow way to start the day. Evening is natural timing. A candle lit bath can be a regular luxury.

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    breakfast candles with flea market match holder

  • When a drippy mess occurs, as it will, consider it part of the experience. A spatula easily scrapes wax from hard surfaces. Hot water does the rest, melting it away.
  • As column-shaped candles burn, empty the wax pool [while it is still liquid] right after extinguishing. As it burns deeper into the column, occasionally trim off the top to make it even with the wick. Use a cutting board and a large knife. This prolongs a natural burning life until it becomes a stump, ready to discard.
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living room candelabra, paris

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best of both, electricity and candlepower, colorado cabin

I can’t explain how fire and candle lore came to be so second nature to me. But, I do believe that our “indoor lives” are  enhanced with strategic candlelight. It’s a personal and creative choice as to the selection of candle holders, shapes, and colors. Almost any non-flammable container will hold some type of candle. Oil lamp candlelight is a good low maintenance option.

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mixing regular and oil burning candlelight

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colorado coffee table

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shadow play

So light a candle or two at home tonight. Enjoy a few flickering flames with family or friends. After all, ‘tis the season.

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santa says ho ho ho & hippobirdday dar

For premier candles: http://www.ciretrudon.com

Cire Trudon USA, Inc. 358 Fifth Ave., Suite 901 NY, NY 10001

In France: 78, rue de Seine 75006 Paris

My Market Street

When our son made his first trip to Paris in 2008, he wryly observed that the city seems to be founded on the notion to stop, have a drink, and talk with someone every 50-100 feet. Café culture has been built into centuries of French history. Within almost any radius of where you stop walking in this city, a sit-down-and-take-a-break opportunity presents itself. Locals always have a favorite café in their neighborhood or “quartier”. Here, you take a load off your feet, eat, drink, talk, muse, or hang out. It’s also the best entertainment around.

When I told a French neighbor in our apartment building about my favorite ritual at a café on our market street, she simply nodded and said I had established my “poste d’observation”. Now that’s what I tell my husband when he calls wondering where I am. I’m involved in an activity of great importance–assessing the cast of characters on any given day. Sometimes, he hurries to join me.

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the beginning of market street

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where the ritual begins

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Of course, there are market streets all over Paris—open markets, covered markets, farmers’ markets, daily markets, bi-weekly markets, organic markets. The most important is the one nearest to where you live.

I often venture to market street in late afternoon to find what looks delicious for our evening meal. If, by chance, there is an empty table at my “poste”, I take it as a sign that I must sit down for a moment or two. In warm weather seasons, I count 11 businesses with sidewalk tables on this narrow street. For my musing and entertainment, I have pledged allegiance to only one. It’s on the corner where all the action begins.

There is a children’s book by Arnold Lobel called On Market Street. It tells the story of a little boy enticed by shopping on a particular street. He buys everything from A to Z, then trudges home carrying it all. That is my experience, too, because on this small pedestrian street is just about everything I want or need.

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chickens roast, flowers bloom

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inside the covered market stalls

Butchers, bakers, patisseries, florists, cheese purveyors, books, jewelry, fruit and vegetable vendors, grocery stores, crepes, caviar, oysters, homemade pizza and pasta, middle eastern food, cafés and restaurants, coffee, tea and chocolate, wine, champagne and liquor, Italian and Greek delicatessens, candles, household decorations, a pharmacy and a dry cleaner.

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pastry art

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Before opening my wallet for the day’s necessities, I settle into an empty chair. Greetings are exchanged with the server. I order a glass of wine. This varies by the season or time of day. On a warm day, Côtes de Provence rosé is standard. In cooler temperatures, a glass of Bordeaux feels cozier under the overhead heaters. Every beverage comes with a savory nibble on the side. Something salty and always slightly stale. Homemade potato chips are the standard limp offerings. Sometimes a tiny glass of pretzels fills in. It’s what I expect and is always perfect.

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standing order: rosé and stale chips

The tables on either side of mine are occupied. To the left—a couple moves seamlessly from kissing, to smoking, to drinking beer. To the right—two women of a certain age share a crepe sucré. One has coffee, the other sips beer. I give them only a brief glance because my gaze is focused on the cobbled path in front of me. This is where the rest of the world flows by.

Best times to be positioned at “the poste” are late afternoon or early evening. Sunday morning is perhaps the most perfect day of the week to make important observations. The parade is constant. It requires full attention. And never disappoints.

Sometimes I’m absorbed by the range of footwear–spiky heels, stylish boots, flip-flops, sandals, platform shoes, sneakers, orthopaedic shoes, even chic Italian shoes on a man with crutches.

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crutches plus cool shoes

Shoppers use rolling carts called “chariots” to hold heavy purchases. They carry armfuls of baguettes.

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Or they may be laden with flowers, wine, fruits and vegetables, roasted chickens, oysters or prepared food from the “traiteurs”. On Sundays, a cacophony of sound permeates the air. Parisians are picking up ingredients for lunch at home “en famille”. Vendors hawk produce, servers rattle glasses and silverware, babies cry, friends greet each other with kisses, dogs bark and fight, children laugh and run, sometimes on bikes or scooters, music plays. And always, people talk, talk, talk over everything.

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The sweetest sights drifting by are small children and dogs, completely at home in the hubbub.

 

Sometimes I notice someone watching me watching them. The ritual is recognized. Smiles are exchanged. The parade glides by.

As the wine and stale chips dwindle, I move on to the shops and my own errands.

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time to go

Trudging homeward with arms laden, I pass the chair I recently occupied. Someone else is sitting there–watching me as I walk by…

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On Market Street by Arnold Lobel, illustrations by Anita Lobel

“The merchants down on Market Street were opening their doors. I stepped along that Market Street, I stopped at all the stores. Such wonders there on Market Street! So much to catch my eye! I strolled the length of Market Street to see what I might buy…

My arms were full on Market Street, I could not carry more. As darkness fell on Market Street, my feet were tired and sore. But I was glad on Market Street, these coins I brought to spend, I spent them all on Market Street…

On presents for a friend.”

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illustration by Anita Lobel from “On Market Street”