“Not a Station, but a Place”–Paris to Avignon

For the historical and contemporary story of Gare de Lyon and Le Train Bleu, see  “Not a Station, but a Place”–Gare de Lyon and Le Train Bleu, Paris, published here October 2016.

train-map

railroad map: paris to avignon

In April 2016, my husband and I headed to Provence for a early spring weekend getaway. We wanted to explore Avignon, the former Papal capital during the Middle Ages. The direct TGV train from Paris’ Gare de Lyon would take us there in a little over three hours.

img_6321

the staircase to le train bleu

We arrived at the station two hours before departure time and ascended the wide curving staircase to the stylish restaurant on the second floor, Le Train Bleu. It overlooks the tracks of incoming and outgoing trains on one side and the city of Paris on the other.

The first order of business was to relax in comfortable ambience before travelling. The second was to enjoy a classic petit déjeuner à la M.F.K. Fisher who wrote stories set in this very spot from the 1930s-1960s. My mission was to replicate the experience 50+ years later, in her memory, and for mine.

Le Train Bleu is grandly austere and mostly empty in the early mornings. A few scattered travelers may show up to drink coffee or tea, but the white tablecloth tables and red leather banquettes are unavailable until lunch.

We invited friends, Sally and John, to join us even though they were not travelling. They were first timers to Le Train Bleu, and we knew they would enjoy the historical elegance along with an early breakfast and conversation.

Fisher’s typical breakfast order was thin slices of Italian Parma ham, good bread and butter and a half bottle of brut Champagne. Parma ham is no longer a menu choice, but the whole grain brown baguettes with butter and jam are still a tradition. Cappuccino or café noir replaced champagne as the beverage of choice.

img_3002

We breakfasted leisurely, ordering a second round of coffees. When our friends left on the metro back to Montmartre, we boarded the train headed south.

Exiting the station, the train picked up speed passing sooty graffiti-walled cityscape. Then came the banlieue [suburbs] with blocky cement apartment buildings and finally pastoral countryside dotted with farms and grazing animals.

high-speed-train

photo courtesy of SNCF [TGV trains]

Avignon sits on the banks of the Rhône River in Provence and is north of the coastal city of Marseille on the Mediterranean Sea. When the Catholic Church moved the papacy [during the 14th century] from Rome to Avignon, it was the center of Christianity for seven decades. From 1309-1376, the Palais de Papes [Popes’ Palace] was occupied by seven successive popes beginning with Clement V.

img_0385

UNESCO world heritage sites: bridge of avignon and pope’s palace, photo courtesy of meu

Avignon was still under papal control until the time of the French revolution in 1789. Afterwards, it was used as a barracks and then as a prison for many years. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a must-see museum–the Popes’ Palace.

The Palais de Papes is the largest Gothic palace ever built. Its’ walls are an impenetrable 17-18 feet thick. Immense proportions are replete with cavernous halls, chapels and chambers.

For me, the most memorable part was the “Treasure Room” where all the gold, silver and jewels owned by the Church were kept. Back then, it was off limits to all, except for the Pope. Today, the room has a glass floor where you can see propped up, massive rectangular stones under which the treasures were hidden. Only the wildest imaginings can fathom the volume of wealth once secreted under these stones.

We stayed at La Mirande, an historic hotel in the shadow of the Palace museum. Originally it was a Cardinal’s palace, but resurrected into a period hotel centuries later. Our room had a small, walkout walled terrace overlooking rooftops and a church steeple. We sipped wine there after dark and carried pots of coffee from the breakfast buffet to sit in the morning sun as it slipped in and out of thick gray clouds.

img_5196

closeup on the steeple view

img_5192

rooftop mosaic from terrace

As is often the case, one of the best experiences we have when travelling is a restaurant we stumble upon.

We were lucky to slip into the last table for two in a tiny, terra cotta tile-floored café not far from the hotel. What we ate was simple and so satisfying that I knew we would replicate it at home.

On a piece of black slate, we were served a small round of baked Camembert cheese in its’ thin wooden container. Around the cheese box were rolled up slices of prosciutto, tiny roasted potatoes, small green cornichons, and a lightly dressed mixed salad. A basket of fresh bread and glasses of wine completed the table setting.

That molten cheese into which we dipped bread, potatoes, prosciutto and pickles is as memorable now as it was at first bite. The cold dampness of all-day showers disappeared. Dim lighting radiated warm ambience. Provençal wine complimented the peasant-like simplicity of the meal. We ordered a second glass.

That day, which began in the splendor of Belle Époque frescoes in “Not a station, but a Place”, ended at an unpretentious brick walled café with fogged over windows dripping rain.

There is a kind of perfection in the harmony of opposites. Enjoyment exists there too.  Early morning spring sunshine–chilly, drizzling afternoon rain. Parisian breakfast in luxurious splendor–provincial dinner in old world simplicity.

Si vous êtes chanceux, alors ça va parfois dans la vie… [If you are lucky, so it sometimes goes in life…]

img_5186

parisian luxury, le train bleu

img_0373

provincial simplicity, chez lulu, avignon

 

BAKED CAMEMBERT A LA PROVENÇALE

  • 1 small round camembert cheese per person or 1 large round for 2 people
  • boiled or roasted potatoes, skin on
  • prosciutto or any charcuterie [sliced meat], optional
  • tiny pickles [gherkins or cornichons]
  • raw veggies such as sweet peppers, radishes, cherry tomatoes, etc.
  • chewy baguette or crusty country bread
  • mixed green salad, dressed in homemade vinaigrette
img_2289

basic ingredients: camembert cheese, cornichons, potatoes, bread, veggies, mixed green salad

img_2291

remove some rind, insert garlic slices, drizzle with olive oil

img_2293

sprinkle with rosemary and/or chili peppers, place in an oven proof dish

Preparation:

  1. Remove the paper covering over cheese. Line the inside of the wooden box with aluminum foil [keeps cheese from leaking out of box]. Place cheese back in box. [Box should be held together with staples, not glue!]
  2. Cut a thin layer off the top rind to expose interior. Insert several slices of fresh garlic, place a few fresh rosemary leaves on top, a sprinkle of sea salt or chili peppers, as desired. [Optional use of garlic, rosemary, salt and peppers.]
  3. Drizzle a tiny amount of olive oil over. Place on baking sheet or in cast iron skillet in preheated oven set at 180C or 350F.
  4. Bake no more than 10-15 minutes, until cheese is “melt-y”.
  5. Place box of oozing Camembert on serving plate arranged with prepared potatoes, crudités, pickles, meat, and salad.
  6. To make the world’s best vinaigrette look here: Babies and Rice So Very Nice
  7. Serve with a basket of good bread.

A light red wine [Burgundy pinot noir], a crisp white wine [French Chablis], a rosé from Provence or Champagne [always perfect, all the time] as accompaniment.

img_2300

baked camembert served with turkey, pickles, tomatoes, bell pepper, potatoes, salad and bread

img_2305

et voilà, c’est mieux avec un verre de chablis

“Not a Station, but a Place”–Gare de Lyon and Le Train Bleu, Paris

Soon after we moved to Paris I sought out this “Place” M.F.K. Fisher wrote eloquently about as being more than just a train depot for entering or exiting the city. She was referring to the Gare de Lyon in the 12th Arrondissement. I wanted to know why it was so special.

Fisher’s experience on French trains began in 1929 when she moved from California to Dijon. She described herself in the early years as “…always one more ant scuttling for a certain track.” Then, in 1937, while waiting for guests to arrive, she sat under the enormous glass roof in a trackside café with marble tables and green trees planted in boxes. With a brandy and water in hand, absorbing her surroundings, she was suddenly overcome by a feeling that she “was not in a station, but in a Place”. From then on, she made it a habit to arrive early–with time to wait.

In the 1960s and early ‘70s, after children and husbands and lovers were long gone, she was often sent to Provence on writing assignments. Her publishers encouraged her to fly south from Paris. Memories honed decades earlier meant she preferred the “Mistral” train from Gare de Lyon to Marseille or Aix-en-Provence.

She developed the habit of arriving at least two hours before departure. This allowed time to ascend the wide stone staircase to the second floor restaurant–Le Train Bleu. When you spin through the revolving wood and glass door, then and now, it is like walking into a time capsule from La Belle Époque. Instinctively, you stand a little taller and walk a little more gracefully to your table.

In 1900, Paris was hosting a second world’s fair. As part of the preparation, a new train station, Gare de Lyon, was designed to highlight the railway lines of the PLM [Paris-Lyon-Marseille] Company from Paris to destinations in Provence and the Côte d’Azur on the Mediterranean. The company also wanted a prestigious and elegant restaurant to symbolize travel, luxury and comfort.

img_2846

gare de lyon today

In 1901, Buffet de la Gare de Lyon first opened its’ doors amid sumptuous art nouveau décor. Ornate carvings, moldings, gilding, and imposing chandeliers highlighted frescoes and murals of cities and scenery viewed from PLM trains as they headed south and east. The restaurant offered tranquility, character, and a place for travelers to spend a refined break. In Fisher’s words, it was “all that was opulently cheerful, generously vulgar and delightful about la Belle Époque.”

In 1963, the restaurant was renamed Le Train Bleu in reference to the French Riviera destinations.

Fisher’s early arrival gave her the luxury of time for a leisurely breakfast or lunch. In the 1960s, she believed that the fresh bread served in Le Train Bleu was the best she had tasted since before WWII. For petit déjeuner she always had “bread and butter, Parma ham, and a half-bottle of brut champagne…”, which she thought a bit expensive, but enjoyed all the same.

If lunchtime, she started off with a Kir and wine cocktail, followed by some kind of soufflé and fresh berries for dessert. Oh–and a half bottle of white wine–Grand-Cru Chablis. She liked her grown up drinks, having adapted easily to the French way.

Interestingly, Fisher played a role in the longevity and preservation of Le Train Bleu. By the early 1970s, the paintings were filthy with soot and pollution, gold leaf was flaking from the ceiling, the lace curtains hung in tatters and, underfoot, the flooring creaked and sagged. She was told by a group of worried waiters that the restaurant’s survival seemed doomed. She relayed all this to an American friend, Janet Flanner, who was also her neighbor. Flanner, a longtime journalist and Paris correspondent for the New Yorker magazine, went directly to the French Minister of Culture at the time. Le Train Bleu was designated an historic monument in 1972.

Since that time there have been many renovations, the most recent in 2014. Parquet floors were insulated and shored up, paintings re-cleaned, carved moldings refinished or repainted, brass coat and luggage racks polished, and leather banquettes refurbished. The name over the door was updated from neon lights to a chic metal plate.

img_1373

neon sign pre 2014 renovation

img_3037

and after renovation

The antique Big Ben Bar from 1901 is used today as a decoration piece and stands imposingly by the swinging glass doors to the kitchen. The original cash register is there too.

There is not one corner or wall, ceiling or chandelier, archway or window in this special Place that doesn’t grab your attention or overwhelm your senses. Every time.

These days, the menu is priced for upper-crust travellers, tourists, or well-heeled Parisians. But because it is such a Place, truly unlike any other, it’s always worth it.

Recently, I went for lunch by myself. Timed perfectly, I arrived near the end of the service, around 2:00 PM. On this cool, autumn day I decided to try the made-in-house foie gras served with rhubarb chutney and grainy toast, green salad and a glass of Montrachet white wine–from Burgundy.

When I dine alone, the pleasure is subtle and personal. Not everyone feels this way. But, over time, I have fine-tuned the ability to “disappear” in public and enjoy everything around me as if I were invisibly dropped into the scene. It is an example of cultural learning from which I have benefited greatly.

Fisher sometimes spoke of moving like “a ghost” in her travels, seemingly invisible to others, often because she was wrapped up in one of personal trials. I understand what she meant, but in a different way. For me, invisibility is a feeling of being completely content with my own company. And, at the same time, not taking anything, within the experience I am having, for granted. I observe and wonder, discreetly, without being the center of anyone else’s observations.

img_3025

view toward kitchen and big ben bar

On this particular day, directly in front of me was an opulent antique buffet with perfectly arranged wine glasses and the PLM [Paris-Lyon-Marseille] logo carved on the top piece. Above that, reaching up to the very high ceiling, was a colorful painting of Marseille.

As the tables to the left and right gradually emptied, I gazed openly through the window to my left onto the tracks and boarding passengers one floor below. I wondered where they were going, how long they would stay. Was it travel for business, pleasure, something mysterious or even sad?

img_5203

view toward the station tracks

To the right, down a long banquette of tables reset for another meal, sat two diners leaning in towards one another. They were silhouetted against the window overlooking the square at the entrance. Why were they lingering? What was their conversation? When you are invisible, all possibilities are imagined.

img_6335

Meal over, espresso finished, with no train to catch, I made my way home. Musing on the métro, my thoughts drifted to a weekend getaway my husband and I took from Paris to Avignon several months before–a trip that began in a place, not a station…

lo90

Judith S. Clancy drawing, exterior façades, 1979

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

Babies and Rice So Very Nice

Babies are such a nice way to start people—Don Herold

IMG_5466

leila alisa ulfers, born may 24, 2016

It’s true what they say. Grandmother hormones materialize in much the same way maternal ones do–even 30+ years later. Babies born in one’s own family are the most miraculously perfect creations in the world. Parents [and even grandparents] check out other newborns to confirm this nuance of nature. Gradually it is understood to be a “Universal Truth”. We all simply feel this way.

The good fortune to dust off my pediatric nursing and maternal memories arrived with the birth of our first granddaughter. I reflected on the gift of “presence” my mother gave me after our son and daughter were born. It’s a gift that gives both ways.

IMG_5499 (1)

First, an [experienced] pair of hands in the early postpartum weeks gives new parents time to focus on the interplay of relationships that are suddenly right there. Baby inside, baby outside. Everything has changed. All three, mother, father and newborn, enter a timeless dance that begins with a new song.

A distinctive aura hovers over first time parents, beginning in their own relationship. Helplessly charmed by the miracle they created, they now exist inside a bubble of enhanced love and new responsibilities. At the same time, bonds between mother and baby, father and baby unfold daily, even hourly. My presence [teaching rigorous burping techniques [!], offering parental napping time, having my own cuddling and singing time] opened a bit of space for these relationships to settle and strengthen in the first month.

IMG_5512

dressed like daddy

The second gift of being present was entirely personal. Watching my first-born baby [now a 34 year old man] tenderly hold, and croon to, his tiny, perfect daughter overwhelmed me with wonder. That “circle of life”, as clichéd as the phrase may be, sideswiped my heart with a flush of love and emotion. I’m all in now.

At night, I mulled over the randomness of dominant and recessive genes forming this beautiful baby’s eye color [murky grey to clearly blue–overnight!], the turned up button of a nose, the rosebud mouth, the one dimpled cheek, and the movable face of so many expressions [skeptical, smiling, hesitant, observant, and sometimes cross-eyed]. Even though it was too early for spontaneous social smiling, we gathered expectantly, eagerly, with each facial movement, hoping to be the first to receive that important human recognition, “I’m happy to know you.”

IMG_5509

sweet dimpled dream

One day I had a flashback of maternal “déjà vu” when my daughter-in-law said, “I’m overwhelmed by how precious she is to me. I didn’t know I would feel this way.” None of us do. But almost every new mother is eventually overcome by the feelings of her own power to nurture and love her baby. That’s universal too…

IMG_5721

wearing her “what’s not to love” onesie

I observed parents and babe develop their rhythms–for communicating, comforting, handling, and, of course, feeding. The dance changed by the minute, the hour, and the day. Flexibility is key with babies. But, in less than a week, my daughter-in-law blossomed from tentative new mama to an instinctively confident one. My joy was seeing this unfold.

IMG_6707

mama/baby love

Newborn nourishment is where everything begins. Breastfeeding rituals gradually establish themselves. Then, suddenly, they fall apart with a day of feeding frenzy or a night of longer sleeping intervals. It is an ebb and flow of constant change in the early weeks.

IMG_5640

independent girl time–hanging out with the owls

No less important is the nourishment of parents. Emotional swings as a result of sleep deprivation, new responsibilities, and sweetly swaddled newborn love leave not-so-much-time for meal preparation.

IMG_5700

father fatigue happens

We planned and cooked together as a team. Daughter-in-law, knowledgeable of her protein needs, prepared the meat or fish. Son stepped up to roast veggies on the grill. I offered carbohydrate rich side dishes and green leafy salads.

Leftovers were used creatively for other meals. A big batch of brown rice became the base for protein breakfasts of eggs on rice*. Two eggs cooked over easy then cut up into a bowl of rice with freshly chopped tomato on top nourished mama with easy effort.

*Recipe for “Eggs on Rice” can be found here: Comfort Food for Cal

Grilled eggplant, peppers, onions and mushrooms from the night before became a hearty side dish the next day when combined with whole-wheat penne, sautéed garlic, fresh spinach, and a sprinkle of grated Parmesan.

One night I made an old family favorite, Mujaddarah, a Lebanese lentil and rice casserole. The addition of chopped up bacon made it not purely vegetarian. Still, it was smothered with very slowly sautéed onions that made a delicious caramelized topping. Recipe found here: People Who Pull the Magic Out of You

IMG_5781

Babycakes nearing the one month mile marker

Extra lentils [the tiny green French kind] became the basis for another day’s cold salad with green onions, carrots, cucumber, parsley, and homemade vinaigrette.

The family food tradition I used every day and wish to pass on to my granddaughter is the simple 1-2-3 of dressing a salad. Any salad, any day, any time. With ingredients found in most kitchens.

So, with arms opened wide to embrace Leila Alisa into our family’s love, care, and nurturance, here is my simple wish:

May you grow up healthy and wise and become an interesting person. And may you always make your salad dressing from scratch.

DEE DEE’s VINAIGRETTE DRESSING

Ingredients: Amounts will vary according to how large the salad, so all are approximations. Taste testing necessary. Stick your finger in and adjust.

IMG_5802

basic lineup of what you need, plus some options

  • Dijon mustard, if you have some [optional]
  • Good quality vinegar of choice [balsamic, wine or champagne]
  • Good quality olive oil, extra virgin
  • Salt & Pepper
  • Dried basil [optional]
  • 1 clove garlic, minced or pressed [optional]
  • Seed mixture–like sesame, poppy, sunflower, pumpkin, almond, walnut or whatever [optional]

Preparation:

  • Place a small amount of Dijon in the bottom of a bowl. [¼ to ½ tsp.]
  • Measure about 2-3 spoonfuls of vinegar over mustard. Add the garlic, seeds and basil, if using.
  • Sprinkle in S&P.
  • Then, very slowly, pour in a thin stream of olive oil, blending rapidly with a small spoon. There is no exact amount of oil. You simply taste with your finger and adjust proportions of vinegar to oil, as you prefer. Adjust salt.
  • Pour dressing over prepared greens and veggies. Toss together.
  • Grind of fresh pepper over all and serve.

Voilà! A lifetime of salads without bottled dressing.

IMG_5816

IMG_5828

Colorado supper with a glass of white

IMG_5812

the one month director’s meeting

Spoons and Cookies

copyright 1998 k.a.shecklerwilson

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. –––William Morris

No kitchen is really complete without a container of wooden spoons on the counter. So useful and very beautiful. In our Paris apartment, a wire basket holds an assortment of spoons, soup ladles, spatulas, salad servers and flat bladed stirrers. When home in Colorado, an antique white stoneware pitcher and sugar bowl overflow with old and new implements. All wood.

I come about this affection genetically. My mother had a collection of well-used wooden spoons. Some were from her mother, whom we called “Gram”.

Before she married my grandfather, Gram was a Home Economics teacher in the local high school. That was back in the days  when “Home Ec” was taught in U.S. public schools. Several of her spoons now have a flattened edge on the left side. This, after many years of right-handed stirring by my grandmother, my mother, and me.

In Gabrielle Hamilton’s book, Blood, Bones, and Butter [Random House, 2011], her French-born mother is known to wield a wooden spoon as an extension of her arm:

“She lived in our kitchen, ruled the house with an oily wooden spoon in her hand, and forced us all to eat dark, briny, wrinkled olives, small birds we would have liked as pets, and cheeses that looked like they might well bear Legionnaire’s Disease….Her burnt orange Le Creuset pots and casseroles, scuffed and blackened, were constantly at work…cooking things with tails, claws, and marrow-filled bones–whatever she was stewing and braising and simmering to feed our family of seven.”

Legacy spoons, like from Gabrielle’s mother and mine, are recycled pieces of history. The patina and grain are enhanced by generations of cooks stirring rich stews, thick hot chocolate, or biscuit batters.

IMG_1777

Wooden spoons and implements are not meant to be decorative. I use them all the time for cooking or baking. The difference is, I treat them like royalty compared to other kitchenware. Except for knives. They never roll around in overstuffed kitchen drawers with metal and plastic. They aren’t abused by flopping back and forth in soapy cycles of the dishwasher. They are hand washed with a scrub brush using no soap and lots of hot running water.

When my spoons become noticeably dry, blotchy with scratches, and splintery around the edges, it’s time for “Spoon Spa Day”. A sanding, oiling, rejuvenating timeout.

DSC00011

rejuvenation tools: sandpaper, steel wool and mineral oil

After general assembly, fine grade sandpaper is used to exfoliate surface problems. Smooth wood grain emerges in seconds. Rinse off sanding dust under tap water. Air-dry and then apply the final finishing touch.

No olive oil or furniture polish should condition wooden objects used in food preparation. Ok, I have used olive oil in a pinch. But better to buy a cheap bottle of pure mineral oil. Massage into the wood from head to handle. Buff off any excess oil. Reassemble utensils into their container.  Admire briefly while they lean companionably against each other.

DSC00037

mineral oil rubdown

DSC00053

after-oil-sunbath

In William Morris philosophy, after admiring their beauty, put them to use. Baking is always a good option. The gold standard of baking in our household has always been Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies.

In my teens, I learned that the best homemade cookie batters are creamed, beaten, and stirred by hand–preferably with a sturdy, long handled wooden spoon. It is also a fact that raw cookie dough tastes better off wood than metal or plastic.

This recipe originated from Mrs. Longhurst, the mother of a high school girlfriend. I have been making these cookies for decades–from my own adolescent cookie cravings, for a young husband in early marriage, into the children-raising years, for nieces, nephews, sisters, and countless friends overseas and at home. The contractor and crews who built our Colorado cabin ate “Wendy’s Cookies” throughout construction. Some say it is a better built cabin because of mixing oats, chocolate and physical labor.

Wooden spoons are like the trees from which they are honed. They are organically beautiful. They are eminently utilitarian. They can be passed through many generations of kitchens and cooks. In this way, they live…maybe forever.

WENDY’S OATMEAL CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES

Ingredient amounts have been adjusted to make big batches that are easily frozen.

IMG_3168

  • 2 C. butter or margarine
  • 2 C. packed brown sugar
  • 2 C. granulated sugar
  • 4 tsp. pure vanilla extract [don’t skimp here, use an expensive brand for a big difference in taste]
  • 5 eggs
  • 2 ¾ tsp. baking soda
  • 2 ¾ tsp. salt
  • 5 1/3 C. unbleached flour
  • 5 1/3 C. whole oats
  • 5 C. semi-sweet chocolate chips or cut up dark chocolate bars or a mixture of both [best quality chocolate]

In a large bowl, beat butter, sugars, and vanilla until light and creamy. You can melt the butter first to speed this up. Beat eggs lightly together. Add to creamed ingredients.

Beat everything together with a sturdy wooden spoon. Stir in salt and soda. Add flour, mixing in each cup completely. Stir in oats and finally chocolate bits.

IMG_3185IMG_3189IMG_3191IMG_3193

Place spoonfuls of dough [small-size ice cream scoop holds perfect amount] onto ungreased baking sheet. Bake in preheated 375 F. oven until lightly browned, 8-10 min. For crispy cookies, bake to a darker brown. Lighter brown results in soft, chewy cookies.

Remove immediately from baking sheet to cool. Store in tins lined with wax paper. Or in jars as my daughter does. Keep one out for noshing. Freeze the rest.

IMG_0718

IMG_0716

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

Rocky’s Meadow Mountain Cafe

A year ago I wrote a story about my favourite Colorado hometown cafe. It was called “A Mountain Gem for 70 Years”.  A Mountain Gem for 70 Years  The owner, Rocky St. John, passed away right before Christmas. In tribute to her, I have revised my words with a few new photos. Over breakfast this morning, I spoke with her sons, Ben and Joe, who, along with their father, are keeping the cafe open in her memory. She trained them well.

IMG_3292

Allenspark, Colorado lies in a curvy bend off Highway 7, between Estes Park and the valley below. As you drive past the majestic scenery of Wild Basin and the backside of Long’s Peak, it’s easy to simply bypass this tiny town. But if you turn right onto the business spur, it’s probably because you know about Rocky’s Meadow Mountain Cafe.

IMG_3272

On a hillside halfway through town is a small green building with purple trim. Colorful buttons are mixed into the cement between the slate stone steps climbing to the front porch. The main room has knotty pine walls and an antique potbelly stove, radiating warmth. Shelves are lined with an eccentric collection of salt-and-pepper shakers. Local artwork is for sale on the wall. Behind this quaint façade is a long history of food, friendly service, and loyal customer relationships.

IMG_3284

It began in 1946 with a local character named Lil Lavicka. Known as the “Pie Lady”, Lil was famous for her homemade baked goods. As part of a divorce settlement, her husband hastily built a two-room cafe across from her tiny home. Lil’s Pie House flourished for twenty summer seasons.

Then, after several changes of ownership, Meadow Mountain Cafe was born. Breakfast and lunch became the daily fare. Food was fresh and home-cooked to order. Coffee was hot–with a touch of cinnamon. Consistently good food, friendly service, and reasonable pricing enhanced its’ reputation beyond the boundaries of the small community. Locals and tourists lined up for a table inside or on the covered porch, complete with hummingbirds, flowers and an overhanging pine tree. Lil Lavicka’s seasonal pie house evolved into a legendary year-round cafe with returning customers, who became friends.

IMG_1831

Roxanne [Rocky] St. John began waiting tables at Meadow Mountain more than 30 years ago. It wasn’t long before her cooking finesse and creativity nudged her into the kitchen full time. Rocky worked the grill for several female owners until finally, in 2007, she took over solo ownership. Already an established part of the ongoing success of Meadow Mountain, it was time to put her personal stamp on the place.

Rocky introduced two new house specialties–the veggie burger and the green chili sauce for huevos rancheros. Cinnamon spiked coffee is still standard, of course. She chose the outside paint colors and easy-on-the-eye peach walls for the kitchen. The button-inlaid steps were designed and built for safer access in all weather conditions. An herb garden was planted out in back. Inside, the eclectic collection of coffee mugs and salt-and-pepper shakers [always part of her style] continued to grow. Her kitchen blasting music-of-choice ran along the lines of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.

IMG_4937

We have been driving from our cabin in Estes Park to Meadow Mountain Cafe for more than 15 years. It never disappoints. It’s not meant to be fast food. You wait patiently and sip good coffee, talk leisurely. Perhaps you warm your back near the antique stove, muse over the salt-and-pepper collection, read a book or eavesdrop quietly on another conversation. You watch regulars walk into the kitchen to say hello. At a corner table, friends sit and play cards after their meal. A man at the counter leans his chin into one hand and dozes, holding a coffee cup with the other.

Orders parade out of the kitchen. Coffee mugs are refilled. Homemade brown bread, thickly sliced for toast or sandwiches, is baked twice daily in summer to keep up with demand. The scene is homey and multi-dimensional–from the diversity of customers stepping through the door to the din of country or rock-n-roll music pouring out of the kitchen. Conversation and laughter is spiced with the clatter of plates and silverware as tables empty and fill.

IMG_4934

beaded tapestry made by a friend of Rocky’s

What sustains this kind of success in a town of just over 500 people? Rocky, along with the women before her, crafted a timeless formula. It begins with an old-fashioned hard work ethic. It’s maintained by keeping quality high, service friendly, and community relationships strong. Rocky was passionate about what she did and consistently did it very well. And then, just maybe, that hint of cinnamon in the coffee didn’t hurt either.

IMG_4947

Rocky St. John, 1960-2015

IMG_4938

new step up to the cafe