Will Our Children Know and Care About June 6, 1944?

Editor’s Note: While we were living in France, my husband was invited by the American Embassy in 2014 to take a group of students from the American School in Paris to a commemorative ceremony overlooking Omaha Beach at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. It was the 70thanniversary of the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944. The presidents of France and the United States spoke. American veterans of that fateful day were present. It was a time to reflect on remarkable courage and leadership–with freedom as the outcome. I wrote about that experience here: https://atasteofmind.com/2014/06/19/the-unexpected-in-normandy/

Five years later, as the 75th D-Day anniversary approaches, we now live in the U.S. and find ourselves thinking about our country’s role in today’s world. I asked my husband to be a guest writer and offer his perspective on keeping the spirit of D-Day alive. What follows are his remembrance and thoughts about an historic event and the hope that the metaphoric message of D-Day will live on throughout all generations. Thank you, Mark.

“an orchard of graves”, Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, Omaha Beach

There’s a graveyard in northern France where all the dead boys from D-Day are buried. The white crosses reach from one horizon to the other. I remember looking it over and thinking it was a forest of graves. But the rows were like this, dizzying, diagonal, perfectly straight, so after all it wasn’t a forest but an orchard of graves.Barbara Kingsolver

Second Lieutenant Richard Winters parachuted into D-Day in the early hours of June 6, 1944, separated from his weapon as he jumped, landing miles away from the rest of his Easy Company 506 Parachute Regiment.  A soldier from another company, who came down near Winters, asked if they were lost. Lieutenant Winter’s response? “We’re not lost private, we’re in Normandy.” Operation Overlord had begun at 1:30AM on a pitch-dark morning. 

In all, about 75,000 Americans parachuted behind the lines or disembarked from an armada of boats onto Utah and Omaha beaches that first day. Casualties were over 10,000. With unimaginable sacrifice and courage, so began the liberation of France and, once the breakout unfolded beyond Normandy, the fall of German Fascism.  

Consider that seventy-five years ago the youth of America with their lives out in front of them came ashore, under withering fire, based on a premise of arriving into a country not their own, fighting to liberate a people they did not know, and becoming one with the human race in a fight against Nazism. Not words but actions to preserve democratic ideals of self-government, liberty, equality and human freedoms. “America First”–no.  American leadership–yes. In the words of Harry S. Truman, “America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.”

But on June 6, 1944 there was terror amid bloodshed and dying young men crying out for their mothers. It was a time when America did the most important thing on earth by letting besieged nations know they were not alone. It was American power with characteristic capacity for good.   

Today if you fly into Paris, rent a car, and drive into the Normandy countryside you will see two flags adorning doorways of farmhouses and homes–the French tri-color and the American stars and stripes. Young school children still tend the graves in allied cemeteries across France.

two flags, two allied nations

Five years ago, I took students to Colleville-sur-Mer, in Normandy, France, to participate in the ceremony of the 70thanniversary of the D-Day landings. That year’s commemoration brought together then U.S. President Barack Obama and French President François Hollande at the Normandy American Cemetery.  They spoke of what love means after all: sacrifice and selflessness. Standing on this ground, absorbing the meaning of their speeches, made me weep.  I wanted every child from now to eternity to understand what happened in Normandy.  

entrance to American Cemetery and Memorial, Omaha Beach, Normandy

President Obama observed that, If prayer were made of sound, the skies over England that night would have deafened the world. And in the pre-dawn hours, planes rumbled down runways; gliders and paratroopers slipped through the sky; giant screws began to turn on an armada that looked like more ships than sea. And more than 150,000 souls set off towards this tiny sliver of sand upon which hung more than the fate of a war, but rather the course of human history.”  

Then our president said, “But in the annals of history, the world had never seen anything like it.  And when the war was won, we claimed no spoils of victory — we helped Europe rebuild.  We claimed no land other than the earth where we buried those who gave their lives under our flag and where we station those who still serve under it.  But America’s claim — our commitment — to liberty, our claim to equality, our claim to freedom and to the inherent dignity of every human being — that claim is written in the blood on these beaches, and it will endure for eternity.”  

How important it was for our students, surrounded by 9388 gravestones, to hear about America’s (and our allies) sacrifice beyond borders.   

9388 gravestone markers stretching toward the sea

President Hollande described the reality of that day in 1944, Seventy years ago to the day, right here, opposite this beach, this beautiful beach on the Riva Bella, thousands of young soldiers jumped into the water under a torrent of gunfire and ran toward the German defenses. They were 20 years old, give or take a few years, and at that moment, who could say that 20 was the best age in life? For them, 20 was the age of duty, it was the age of commitment, it was the age of sacrifice. They were cold; they were afraid. On that June 6th the air, so pure today, was thick with the smoke of the first clashes, and riven by the din of explosions. The calm water we see today was striped with foam from the landing craft and red with the blood of the first combatants. What were those 20­-year­-olds thinking in the face of this terror? They must have been thinking of their beloved mothers, their fathers so worried, their loved ones so far away, their childhoods so recent, and their lives so short, lives whose horizons were blotted out by the war.”

“And yet those young men, amid that hell of fire and steel, didn’t hesitate for one second. They advanced, advanced across the soil of France, braving the bullets and shells; they advanced, risking their lives to defeat a diabolical enemy; they advanced to defend a noble cause; they advanced, yes, and went on advancing, to free us, to liberate us at last.”

The French president reminded us about the character of America and our country’s leadership, “But the soldiers who came from the sea had achieved the essential thing. The essential thing was to set foot on French soil, and on 6 June they had begun to liberate France. And as the sun set on the Longest Day, a radiant beam of hope rose over subservient Europe. On these Normandy beaches, the memory lingers of a bitter, uncertain, decisive confrontation. On these peaceful Normandy beaches, the souls of the fighters who gave their lives to save Europe live on. On these tranquil beaches, whatever the weather, whatever the climate of the seasons, a single wind blows, the wind of freedom. It still blows today.”  

Presidents Barack Obama and François Hollande, June 6, 2014, Omaha Beach

On that beautiful spring day in the “orchard of gravestones”, Normandy American Cemetery, all of us attending the 70thanniversary recognized that freedom is fragile and that we must stand together as nations. Hollande continued, “I’ve talked about courage – the courage of the soldiers, the courage of the resistance fighters, the courage of people at the time; courage in wartime. But courage in peacetime is just as essential and necessary. What motivated the soldiers who landed here 70 years ago? Their patriotic duty? Yes, no doubt. But also an idea, an idea they all shared, whatever their nationality: by setting foot here, on these beaches, they were carrying a dream, a dream which seemed impossible in 1944; a dream born out of the depths of despair, a dream which enlightened their conscience. What was this dream? It was the promise of a world free from tyranny and war.” 

Speaking directly to President Obama, François Hollande said, “Mr. President, the French people recognize an indefatigable energy in America, an ability to innovate, create, invent and carry the dream of success. But what they admire the most in the American people – because they themselves are its most ardent champions – is their love of freedom. And my compatriots know that, when the critical moment comes, when our principles are in danger, France and the United States always come together, as in that terrible summer of 1944 on the beaches of Normandy and on the beaches of Provence.”

playing the national anthems of France and the U.S.A.

How is it possible to hear the French president’s words about the spirit and character of America and not feel proud, and today wonder how we would ever compromise this legacy under the moniker of “America First?”  What is the message we send our youth about the principles of democracy and friendship between nations being worth courage and sacrifice?  The story of June 6, 1944 must live in the hearts of today’s and future generations too.  

As the 75thanniversary of the Normandy landings approaches, with many fewer World War II veterans alive, is there not still a message about America’s leadership overseas?  To honor those young, forever young soldiers who died for our freedom on foreign soil that day in 1944, what decisions will we make about our world? Is it going to be totalitarianism or will democracies prevail?  Will the current “America First” idea, or runaway nationalism, diminish the message of Normandy?  History tells a different story. America was not so constructed. We lead with generosity.  

Today, American leadership around the world is perhaps in doubt, especially when leaders of other countries are asked. We appear to be an uncertain friend. Our moral compass is without a true north.  

Maybe the Longest Day, seventy-five years later can serve as a reminder that if there is an “America First” concept, it is our willingness to step into the breach–to advance values born out of the Constitution and with our allies in common purpose to preserve freedom around the world.

It was William Blake who said, “The most sublime act is to set another before you.”  We remember June 6, 1944 by defining a hero as someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself. Such thinking might well apply to individuals and nations alike. A life message to all children–we want them to know and to care.  

Let “America First” mean finding our way with confidence and courage to confirm our nation’s place as an agent for good in the world. On this principle, we need to stand rock solid. Think of two soldiers finding their way on the darkest of nights, having been dropped from the sky, not knowing what was ahead, but optimistic–where the metaphor of our time lies in the hopeful words of Dick Winters, “We’re not lost private, we’re in Normandy.”  

Wait Twenty Minutes Then Add Salt

Naples, Italy is the birthplace of pizza. When tomato was added to flat bread in the late 18th century, pizza, as we know it today, was born. If you go to Naples, you will certainly enjoy eating pizza on a cobblestoned street after touring the Amalfi coast and the dusty excavations in Pompeii. Then fly out the next day. Naples is not an easy city.

Pizza ranks high as a favorite food all over the world. You can order in, carry out, or enjoy at your neighborhood spot. However, I don’t eat restaurant pizza anymore, except in Italy, because my husband learned to make perfect pizza dough at home. His finesse began with a not-so-subtle suggestion and a friendship of mine…

My husband enjoys creative time in the kitchen. Not everyday. But when people come to our home he will go to finicky recipe extremes. I call it performance cooking. No one would do this on a daily basis unless highly paid. Guests love it. Each course is beautifully plated and presented with a detailed description of what goes into whatever is being served.

His foray into kitchen time began years ago when we lived in Taiwan. Home dinner parties were an almost every weekend event. This, in contrast to meeting up with friends in fluorescent lit, Formica tabled, disposable chopstick, plastic plate Tien Mu restaurants circa 1990s.

We did that, too, because the food in Taiwan is freshly prepared and delicious. It was also a no nonsense way to get the eating chore done. However, it wasn’t a place for long, conversation filled evenings with good wine and food, heavy china, linen napkins, and candles flickering down the middle of the table.

One of our family rituals while the children were growing up was to have a formal Sunday night dinner. Husband­ was in charge of menu planning, shopping and meal prep. I laid the table with the “fancier” china and flatware. Son and daughter were on cleanup and some form of “presentation” as entertainment. Children responsibilities worked some of the time.

My friend Linda is a Midwestern born ex-pat who moved to Taipei with her family several years after our arrival. We became fast friends with husbands and children joining in. Linda’s Sunday night family ritual was making homemade pizza. Her youngest daughter liked to participate by carefully rolling out the dough, just so. Her two teenagers would occasionally help with preparation, but often just showed up for the eating part.

When she made pizza for entertaining, I latched right onto my favorite Linda version. It was always this: the thinnest crust, a green pesto sauce, toasted pine nuts, sliced garlic and fresh chili peppers with grated Parmesan cheese over the top.

Along the way, a quirky tweak was added to her recipe because of an Italian chef named Max, who found himself temporarily employed in a Taipei restaurant. He left Barbados for one year while the hotel where he worked was being renovated. What he loved about the Caribbean was the warm, turquoise colored water and beautiful beaches. Max found Taiwan on a world map and saw it was an island, too. He thought he could happily work and still be near sand and water. The sand and water part didn’t work out. Not much beach in Taipei.

After an evening of cooking, Max enjoyed chatting up lingering late night restaurant customers. When Linda mentioned she often made pizza from scratch at home, he told her the secret for the “best pizza dough”. It was a tip from his Italian mama.

“Don’t add salt right away”. Wait at least 20 minutes to let the yeast, sugar and warm water begin their bubbly reaction. Yeast reacts better without salt added until later. It creates more pliable and elastic dough. From a mother in an Italian village, to a beach loving chef in Taiwan, to an American home cook, here was insider pizza chemistry.

Before Linda left Taiwan, I wrote down her dough recipe with Max’s tweak. I’m the basic kind of cook rather than the finicky kind, so it was filed away and several years went by. Children left home. A new job with new geography moved us out of Asia.

With only two at the table, formal Sunday dinner faded away. We ate out more often because it was Europe! Germany! Restaurant atmosphere was charming. And the food didn’t disappoint.   

Sundays in Germany are quiet. Everything closes from Saturday afternoon until Monday morning. Pulling out Linda’s recipe, I waved it in front of my husband and suggested, “We need a new Sunday ritual. I love Linda’s pizza. Why don’t you learn to make it?”

And so, my man began kneading and punching and creating homemade dough with puffs of flour in the air and a rolling pin in hand. Sunday night became Pizza Night. It worked when there was just the two of us. It worked as a night for entertaining guests. It worked as a Christmas Eve meal for a crowd.

From rustic Naples centuries ago, to an ex-pat friendship in Taiwan, to a misplaced Italian chef and his mother, to a man who found contentment in mixing flour, water, yeast and salt into elastic dough, a new family tradition was formed. Linda’s pizza became ours.

We have made it for family, and for people from cultures around the world. In whatever geography we find ourselves, and in the midst of complexity and the rush of life, we always wait twenty minutes. And then add salt.   

MARK’S PIZZA CRUSTS

Yield: 4, 15-inch or 6, 12-inch pizzas

Ingredients:

  • 2 packages active dry yeast 
  • 1 t. sugar
  • 2 C. semolina flour–mix in first [optional, but a good Italian touch]
  • 3 C. all purpose flour, plus more for kneading
  • 2 t. salt
  • Olive oil for coating bowl as dough rises and for pizza pans

Preparation:

  1. Place 2 C. warm water [110-115 degrees F.] in small mixing bowl.
  2. Stir in 1 t. sugar. Then sprinkle in yeast. Stir to combine.
  3. Set aside for at least 20 minutes, letting it expand and bubble.
  4. After 20 minutes, combine flours, salt and yeast mixture in a large bowl. If using semolina flour, stir in first, then add the rest.
  5. When dough becomes difficult to stir with a wooden spoon, turn out of bowl onto a lightly floured smooth surface.
  6. Begin kneading by hand. Add small amounts of flour, as needed, so dough is not sticking to hands and surface.
  7. Knead at least 10 minutes, squeezing and folding dough over on itself, pushing with heels of both hands. I like to pick the dough up and throw it down hard onto kneading surface several times. Husband likes punching it. 
  8. When dough becomes smooth and elastic, form into a ball.
  9. Lightly wipe a large bowl with olive oil. Place dough in bowl. Turn once to coat both sides in oil. Cover with a clean kitchen towel.
  10. Set aside to rise 45 min. to an hour or until doubled in bulk.
  11. Punch down, reshape dough, and cover. Let it rise once or twice more as you wish. It’s not necessary to do multiple risings, but time gives more structure and flavor to the dough.
  12. Preheat oven as hot as it will go. 500-550 F. Heat is crucial to good pizza. You must keep an eye on it as it can burn easily.
  13. Wipe or spray pizza pans lightly with olive oil. Optional to sprinkle pans with semolina flour.
  14. Roll out sections of dough as thinly as possible to fit prepared pans.
  15. Arrange toppings on dough. Less is more with homemade pizza. This keeps crust from becoming soggy and heavy.
  16. Bake in preheated oven to desired doneness. Start checking at 10-12 min. Watch the edges so they don’t get too brown.
  17. Remove from pans and cut into slices. Kitchen scissors work great.

Toppings:  

  • Unlimited variety 
  • Individual preferences rule 
  • Allow guests to create their own pizza topping combination

Toppings and Sauce suggestionslight brushing of red pesto, basil pesto, tomato sauce or olive oil over unbaked dough

  • Thinly sliced [or diced] garlic cloves–always
  • Red pepper flakes or sliced fresh chili peppers–optional
  • Meat–chicken, prosciutto, pepperoni, sausage
  • Or no meat 
  • Roasted vegetables such as eggplant, broccoli or cauliflower 
  • Raw veggies like sweet peppers, mushrooms, black olives, onions or shallots 
  • Toasted pine nuts
  • Anything else
prepared toppings
parmesan cheese, chicken, garlic slices, shallots, feta cheese and mushrooms

Cheese

  • I like freshly grated Parmesan, only, over top of ingredients. 
  • Husband mixes a little fresh buffalo mozzarella, or goat cheese, or mixed grated cheeses with a topping of Parmesan.

Final Flourish:

  • Fresh arugula or baby spinach strewn over cooked pizza adds a bite of salad and green. Add before serving or let people help themselves table side.
  • Champagne is our pizza beverage of choice. There is some kind of chemistry going on there too. In your home, family choice rules.
Santé, cheers, za nas [За нас]


arugula
champagne sipping for assembling and eating

Final Note:

  • Practice makes perfect. Play with proportions until you are comfortable with the sequence of steps. You won’t need a recipe if you make it regularly.
  • This makes a LOT of dough, which is efficient for later use.
  • It freezes well in zip lock bags and thaws easily. Place in refrigerator overnight or on the countertop until soft.
  • Roll out on lightly floured surface and proceed with toppings.
  • Make friends and family happy! Pizza night!
yeast bubbles begin
the next generation of pizza makers

Leaving Paris and Hemingway

It has been several months between blog stories while we packed up our life after 31 years overseas and repatriated home. Now there are new jobs to learn and new geographies to explore on the east coast of the U.S. And while there are still overseas adventures to share, this is my farewell to eight years in Paris.

If ever a city were designed to distract us from our troubles, it would be Paris.–Thomas Jefferson

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris…then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast. –Ernest Hemingway

When I read The Old Man and the Sea as a student, I found it dry as dust. Decades later, after devouring A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir to first wife Hadley set in 1920s Paris, our lives intersected more personally. Because I was living there.

My “earnest” infatuation with all things Hemingway began in 2010. It was more than literary interest. I walked up and down streets of the 5thand 6thArrondissements (neighborhoods) seeking addresses transcribed into my pocket-sized black moleskin notebook. I found the location of every apartment, restaurant, bar, and café where Hemingway was known to have lived, eaten, slept, talked, consumed alcohol, or written. More than 90 years later, in cafés where he nursed a single café crème for hours to keep his table and construct that “one perfect sentence”, I sat and read his books.

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The first apartment where he and Hadley lived until the birth of their son, Jack, is marked with a plaque outside the entry door on rue du Cardinal Lemoine. The studio apartment he used for writing was around the corner from Place de la Contrascarpe on rue Descartes. He carried bundles of sticks up six flights of stairs to burn in the fireplace for winter heat.

Hemingway crossed through the Luxembourg Gardens, often passing by La Fontaine de Médicis, on his way to meet Gertrude Stein at her apartment on rue de Fleurus for conversation and counsel before the unfortunate rupture of their friendship.

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la fontaine de médicis, jardin du luxembourg, paris

He borrowed books and talked with other struggling writers at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore owned by Sylvia Beach on 12, rue de l’Odeon. Sylvia lent him money, when he was hungry, along with the books. Today, the original Shakespeare is a clothing boutique.

After WWII, Shakespeare and Co. re-opened across the river from Notre Dame. The owner, George Whitman, eventually passed it on to his daughter, Sylvia, named after Sylvia Beach. Under Sylvia Whitman, Shakespeare now encompasses two storefronts plus a café.

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notre dame paris

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shakespeare and company, 37 rue de la bûcherie, 75005 paris

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george whitman passes the torch to daughter sylvia in 2004

When Hemingway began an affair with Hadley’s girlfriend, Pauline Pfeiffer, the marriage sadly ended. After marrying Pauline, they lived on rue Férou near Saint Sulpice church. In this apartment he wrote A Farewell to Arms.

I read stories of the bar at the Ritz Hotel where Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others convened for hours on end. Since Hemingway was a regular there for 30 years, and the bar was eventually named after him, it was on my list to know.

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Actual discovery did not begin until our last year in Paris due to an extensive four-year renovation of the entire Ritz infrastructure. Toward the end, a roof fire created even more delays before the reopening.

Bar Hemingway, a very small space in the Ritz footprint, has it’s own unique history. In the early 1920s, it began as a ladies bar or “steam room”, followed by a poets’ bar, and then a writers’ bar called Bertin’s. Bertin was a friend of Hemingway’s who gave him gambling tips. And more than a few free drinks. Ernest was a man who often counted on the generosity of others.

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In 1979, Mohamed Al-Fayed (owner of Harrods, London) bought the Paris Ritz. That same year, Hemingway’s family officially named the “Hemingway Bar”. Three years later it closed for the next twelve years, 1982-1994. Two years after reopening, in 1996, the name was copyrighted as “Bar Hemingway Ritz Paris.”

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the first menu of the newly reopened bar in 2016

Located on the very backside of the hotel, it is most easily accessed from a small side street. But I like to enter via Place Vendôme, through the front door of the Ritz, where there are uniformed doormen. Walking down expansive high ceilinged hallways past splendidly decorated rooms where tea or drinks or food is served, I peek into display windows of the high-end shopping gallery. Turn another two corners, go down several steps and walk in the door of a cozy, wood-paneled room.

Minimal changes were made here during the renovation. Woodwork was stripped and refinished and new lamps were added over the bar. The Hemingway paraphernalia is all there–books, magazine portraits, photographs with wives, friends, and dead animals, a black Corona typewriter like the one he used, a long barreled hunting rifle behind the copper bar, fishing rods, a boat propeller, and a bronze bust of his head.

Sometimes I would go with a girlfriend or two when it opened at 6 PM, other times with my husband on a weekend. But if I wanted to ask questions and learn more, I went by myself–sliding onto a barstool to talk with head barman, Colin Field.

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colin behind the bar

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white bordeaux and a seat at the bar

What is it that draws crowds of people every day to this little piece of real estate tucked into the backend of a high-class hotel? Is it romanticized lore of Hemingway’s life in Paris–from marriages to Hadley and Pauline in the 1920s, to working as a WWII correspondent in the ‘40s, a short-lived third marriage, spiced with competitive friendships and raucous fights with other painters and writers of the time? Or is it because of the drinks, many of which are original and creative but, at the same time, over-the-top expensive?

I believe Bar Hemingway’s current popularity continues to be about ambience and lore and cocktails, with the added garnish of Colin Field’s 24 year history there. His amiable personality, professional bartending and management skills, and vast anecdotal knowledge of famous past patrons have kept it high on the list of iconic places to visit.

In 1994, Colin was hired to reopen the Hemingway Bar [before the name change and after the twelve-year closure]. In the beginning, as the sole employee, he did everything single-handedly. But, he added a twist–keeping the bar open until 4:00AM when all the others closed at 2:00. During times when it was too busy to manage alone, he recruited regulars to help–answering the phone, greeting and seating customers, taking orders. In exchange, their drinks were free.

Opening night, August 25, 1994, happened to be the 50thAnniversary of the liberation of Paris in WWII. Jack Hemingway [son by Hadley, father of Margaux and Mariel] was invited and came for the party. It turned into a bash. People dressed in GI and MP costumes. A full line-up of army Jeeps was staged along the street outside. Chaos reigned inside. Hemingway would have loved it.

These days, there are five or six employees who serve a regular flow of clientele seven days a week from 6:00PM until 2:00AM. Colin continues to hold court behind the bar, chatting up customers and blending new drinks.

Shortly before our departure from Paris, I met friends at Bar Hemingway on a clear summer evening. They invited me for a final good-bye drink.

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kandice and sally

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“new age caipirinha”, a lime smoothie plus

Conversation flowed as we reminisced about shared experiences and future plans. We mused about hiking together in Portugal and Spain on the Santiago de Compostela trail a couple years before. And then, after two drinks, it was time to part ways. Walking back through the corridors of the Ritz, we stopped outside to say good-bye on Place Vendôme.

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napoleon atop column vendôme, paris

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There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person differs from that of any other. 

We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties or what ease could be reached. 

It was always worth it and we received a return for whatever we brought to it.

–E. Hemingway

Like Hemingway, Paris doesn’t end for me because I no longer live there. When I return, it will be with the happiness of years of wide-eyed discoveries, friendships for life, and the realization that…I will always be coming home.

 

 

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Cow Seduction

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When people hear that we are leaving our home in France after eight years, one question that invariably follows is, “What will you miss most?” My answer is not what they expect to hear.

What I will miss most are Norman cows.

Specifically, those geographically situated cows that graze on the sweet green grass of Normandy and produce the most delicious and most flavorful butter in the world.

IMG_8469“Oh, don’t worry,” people will say, “you will find other good butter wherever you live.” I don’t think so.  All butters are not the same. Neither are cows.

We have traveled to both upper and lower Normandy innumerable times during the past thirteen years while living in Germany and France. My first trip to the Normandy beaches and WWII sites was when we were living in Germany. During that excursion I had a personal epiphany to learn French–to use the local language every time we traveled to this region of northern France where we fervently loved the history, the solid stone architecture, and the people. [Story of D-Day 70th anniversary here: The Unexpected in Normandy]

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WWII history commemorated all over Normandy

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American Cemetery Colleville-sur-Mer

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stony norman architecture

Eventually we moved to Paris and I did learn passable French. Soon after came the discovery of how butter from Normandy transforms nondescript food, like breakfast toast or potatoes or steamed vegetables into something noticeably scrumptious. I fell hard for the crunch of sea salt crystals in butter-with-a-real-buttery-taste on otherwise dry or bland food. Now there is no turning back. I have been known to carry salted French butter home to Colorado, frozen, in an insulated container tucked deep inside my suitcase.

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two favorites: but the very best is with sea salt crystals that crunch in your mouth

One weekend trip to lower Normandy, we stayed in an historic, privately owned château. It is also a bed and breakfast, with a fine dining room, which helps pay the taxes and upkeep on an ancient estate.

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chateau in basse normandy

There were wineries to visit and sites to see each day, but we constantly veered off onto pot-holed, muddy dirt roads to pay homage to cows. Just cows–grazing and standing around in fields. I wanted to study the source of my butter obsession, close up, in their natural environment.

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During the Germany years, we belonged to a weekend hiking club. Every Sunday morning we traipsed off, en masse, through forests, hills and vineyards in the countryside. I laughed at a friend who stopped to take photos every time a cow was in the landscape. When I asked why, he said, “I don’t know. I just like them.”

Well, now I like them, too, but for a reason. They give something special back because of being these cows. Norman cows are raised only for dairy. They roam. They eat nutrient flora and grassy greens in the hills and marshlands of the rolling countryside. They produce milk that is heavy and smooth. The fatty milk cream is buttercup yellow and makes butter that is sweet and memorable.

Why is French butter so irresistibly different? Two things. One, it often has a higher fat content [87%] compared to American butter [80%]. And secondly, the real secret behind the fineness of French butter is the way it is cultured.

Cream, separated from the milk, is allowed to ferment before it is churned. Thus, bacteria forms, sugar converts to lactic acid, and the result is a distinguishably creamier, velvet-ier, butter-ier taste.

American produced butter uses only pasteurized [uncultured] milk cream. The French, dedicated to quality, refuse to bypass the fermentation step.

Before industrialization all butter was produced the French way, in small batches, using natural fermentation. As the heavier cream rose to the top of the milk, it was skimmed off and stored until there was enough to churn. That was how bacteria got in and “cultured” the cream. It resulted in a taste that was “ripe” and very delicious.

When I was a child, my paternal grandmother kept one milk cow on her farm. I saw how the yellow cream rose thickly to the top of a container of fresh milk after it sat awhile. I don’t remember any butter churning, but she used that cream to pour into coffee or to make desserts like strawberry shortcake with garden picked berries and a dollop of fresh whipped cream.

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Today, with mass production, there is no skimming by hand and waiting around for natural processes. Cream is spun out of milk via machines. However, in France, a lactic acid producing culture is added to the separated cream and fermentation still takes place. The resulting butter taste is fuller and, to some, even a “nuttier” flavor.

It is well known that the French are extraordinarily fond of butter. Culturally they take it very seriously, and it is not lightly squandered. One vivid example occurred during my slightly quirky two-month tenure assisting a female chef with cooking classes in her Parisian apartment. I functioned as the prep and clean up person during a gap before a new student intern arrived to do the sludge work.

One day, as she was demonstrating her no-bake-tart-pastry recipe, an entire brick of opened butter fell off the counter. She stepped in it with the heel of her kitchen shoes, almost skidding to the floor, but grabbed the counter edge just in time. Without missing a beat, she told me to pick it up and “clean it”.

She carried on with class while I “cleaned” the butter with “beaucoup de paper towels” as that was the only method I could think of. [No suggestion was offered.] Only a sliver of butter remained when I thought it was “clean enough”. After sculpting it into a small ball, I set it out of sight.

During 2017 there was a lot of published hype about a calamitous butter shortage coming to France. It was and wasn’t true. Because of a shortage in raw materials, for a time, there was a supply problem in grocery stores. Concurrently, exported sales increased as the Chinese decided they loved pastries made with French butter. In America, sugar had shifted to being the dietary enemy so butter demand increased across the Atlantic. Fears of mass shortage did not transpire but my restaurant friend, Laurel Sanderson, did stockpile for several months because she is so dependent on mounds of butter for her baked fresh daily southern biscuits, cakes, and savory tarts. [Story of Laurel and her resto: Treize–A Baker’s Dozen, Paris]

Norman cows also produce milk for Camembert–the most famous cheese of the region. The village of Camembert resides in basse [lower] Normandy. The story is that in 1791 a Norman farmer, Marie Harel, while following the recipe from a priest who hailed from Brie, made some slight changes and improved it. Camembert was born.

Camembert de Normandie is a protected designation of origin. With this stamp, it can only be made from raw, unpasteurized milk from les vaches Normandies [cows from Normandy].  It is soft, with a fine rind covered in a “white duvet”. It is at least 45% fat, with a pungent aroma and stronger taste than Brie. When warmed it becomes even creamier and can be used as a dip for raw vegetables, potatoes, or bread. I serve it this way as an appetizer or light supper. It is typically sold whole, in rounds, inside thin wooden containers made of poplar. [How to make and serve baked camembert: “Not a Station, but a Place”–Paris to Avignon]

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thin rind with a white duvet covering

There are many things I remember after more than a decade living, learning and experiencing European life. There are adventures, travel, and friends to reminisce about, food, wine, and restaurants to recall, even exasperations or faux pas to laugh [or write] about.

Still, at the top of my list is “mes vaches Normandies”–those fabulous “buttah-making” cows that touched my senses and tastes in a forever kind of way. Always in anticipation of the next petit dèjeuner of good, wholegrain toasted baguette smeared with a melting pool of butter and sea salt crystals.

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Ogden Nash, the American poet of light verse wrote, “Cows are of the bovine ilk: one end is moo and the other milk.”  Factually and humorously true. But all cows are not the same.

I happen to have been seduced by the Norman ones.

 

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there’s no place like home–in normandy

 

The Grown-Up Table

Long ago, M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] wrote about the art of good eating in one of these combinations: “one person dining alone, usually upon a couch or a hillside; two people…dining in a good restaurant; six people…dining in a good home.”

Fisher suggests that six people, together in a private dining room, form the ideal dinner party combination. The reason is simple; that number engenders the best conversational banter.

The six should be capable of decent social behaviour: that is, no two of them should be so much in love as to bore the others, nor at the opposite extreme should they be carrying on any sexual or professional feud which could put poison on the plates all must eat from. –mfk fisher

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dinner for six, chez bentley

Her other requisite for a memorable party is to make the usual unusual, the ordinary extraordinary. In other words, when inviting people to your home, be playful and sometimes mix up expected rituals or habits.

I still believe…that hidebound habits should occasionally be attacked, not to the point of flight or fright, but enough. –mfk fisher

 During our years of living overseas, we have been both frequent dinner party guests and hosts in various countries and cultures. Our own rituals evolved from naive beginnings. But we improved with creativity, time and practice.

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sunday pizza night–courtyard oberursel, germany

When we first began to invite guests for dinner, I needed guidance to learn and perfect one decent dish to cook. [Two Non Cooks Saved by the Brazilians] After that, I shifted into doing-everything-mode; the guest list, menu planning, shopping, prepping, cooking, creating the ambience, serving and finally…retreating into a Zen moment of clean up.

Gradually, and gratefully, we changed our entertaining routine. My husband began cooking for dinner parties. He planned menus, shopped for ingredients, selected the wine, did most of the cooking and serving.

Left to my preferred activities, I prepared the table, carefully, on the day. Sometimes layering antique linens that belonged to my mother and grandmother. Filling tiny vases with small flowers or vines, alternating them with candles down the middle of the table. Scattering glass beads randomly, to reflect the candlelight.

Later, when echoes of departing guests drifted away, I stayed up late to put the kitchen in order, listening to favorite tunes. Then, lights off, I sipped a last bit of wine as candlelight faded in the living room, recalling the best parts of the evening.

My current mentor of all things culinary is Gabrielle Hamilton, owner and chef of Prune Restaurant in the East Village, New York City. Her memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter, was a gift to me several years ago by my daughter. Since then, I have gone to Prune every time we find ourselves in NYC. Twice, late at night, I have seen Gabrielle climb the stairs from the basement kitchen and hurry out the door as diners lingered over conversation and dessert. Once, she stopped to briefly say hello and signed a copy of her book.

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Prune Restaurant, East Village, NYC

I have read Hamilton’s description about the art of a grown-up dinner party. Her words depict not only a vision of a perfect dinner but some advice for the perfect guest, too. It is a highly desirable life skill to embody the role of a good guest.

Gabrielle’s words from a NYT series of articles published October 2017 are in italics preceded by her initials, GH, followed by my thoughts and experiences.

GH: To me it has always been clear that a dinner party is about what is said, not what is eaten. There would always be wine and salad and bread and stew: chocolate and fruit and nuts and sparkling cold duck. But those were just the props — the conduits for funny and real and meaningful conversation; the set pieces of a lively, engaged, lingering old-school dinner party. The one that I have been chasing ever since…

WCU: I believe the best dinner parties are the ones you think about in the wee hours afterward. When guests have departed, before candles have been snuffed and you tumble into slumber, there are precious moments of remembering everything from mishaps such as trying to cut into underdone chicken breasts rolled in pistachio nuts or our friend Alec’s chronic clumsiness [Taiwan Green-Marble Pesto] or the philosophical exchange of ideas during a group study of Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth interviews with Bill Moyer. For me, this is the way a good party night should end–in a quiet, candle lit room reflecting on the communion of spirits present around the table hours earlier.

Conversely, if you are a guest, “debriefing” is the perfect transition while you head home. Once, in a taxi, we laughed long and hard about an awkward departure where we were suddenly offered orange juice on a silver tray followed immediately by our coats. Buh-bye now.

GH: …But there were always, also, a couple of guests who knew exactly what to do. Who never arrived too early but allowed you a 10-minute breather just past the hour they were expected. Who never just plopped their paper cone of bodega flowers on the kitchen prep table in the middle of your work but instinctively scanned the cabinets for a vase and arranged the gerbera daisies then and there. They found the trash and put the wrapping in it, leaving your counters clean and your nascent friendship secured for eternity. When less-experienced guests arrived, those perfect friends guided them quickly to the bedroom to stash their coats and bags so they wouldn’t sling them willy-nilly over the backs of the chairs at the dinner table I had spent a week setting.

WCU: There is cultural variety in correct “arrival times” at dinner parties. Americans are almost always exactly on time, unless they follow Hamilton’s ten-minute rule. Europeans generally adhere to a 20-30 minute-late rule. They also thoughtfully send flowers in advance so there isn’t the scurry to trim stems, arrange, and find a vase while other dinner prep is going on. I love this idea. But if you haven’t pre-planned, then be the guest who knows how to put flowers in a container without leaving a mess.

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GH: I’ve always been against the insistent, well-meaning cleanup brigade that convenes in the kitchen before anybody has even digested. Those people who are pushing back their chairs and clearing the dessert plates from the table just as you are squeezing the oily tangerine peels into the flames to watch the blue shower of sparks, who are emptying all the ashtrays just as you are dipping your finger in the wine and then running it around the rim of your wineglasses to make tones like those from a monastery in Tibet. When I invite you over, I mean it. I mean: Sit down. I will take care of you. I will buy the food and get the drinks and set the table and do the cooking, and I will clean up after. And when I come to your house, you will do the same. I will get to have the honor of being a guest. To perfectly show up, 10 minutes after the appointed time, with a bottle in hand for you, to bring my outgoing, conversational self, my good mood, my appetite, and to then enjoy all that is offered to me, and to then get my coat at the very end and leave without having lifted a finger. It is just the greatest thing of all time…

WCU: This is my pièce de résistance, the centerpiece of all parties. I truly believe that invited guests should be the King and Queen of Everything. They should not clear plates or stack dishes or put away leftover food or wipe kitchen counters. They have been invited to be taken care of, to feel special. A guest need only bring an appetite, a good sense of humor, and their best “conversational self”.

GH: …The dinner party now depends more than ever on having one frequently, offhandedly, with abandon. If there are only eight seats and you know a few are going to end up with someone who’s got his head down to check his phone every 20 minutes, or who will be drunk on red wine by the salad course, just think of next month. To know that there will always be, for you, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, a well-set table and a roast and a salad and still, always, the wine, is to know that you are always going to find along the way another perfect friend, and then yet another.

WCU: About the wine…In Taipei, we had an experience that clearly marked cultural differences around wine and a meal. Seated in the dining room of a Chinese family home, the first bottle of red wine was a 1953 Château Lafite Rothschild which had been “breathing” on a side table before gently poured into each glass. A brief toast, then the tasting which was velvety, delicate and delicious. There was a pasta course generously garnished with white truffles our host had imported from Italy. He proposed another toast. This time he held his wine glass with both hands and looked directly at my husband, who followed his example but held his glass slightly lower to show respect. They executed a perfect “ganbei”, the Chinese toast of draining glasses until empty. It was a time-and-place cultural experience, but a bit tragic, too. This old vintage Bordeaux wine, which we were privileged to drink once in our lives, was downed like a beer on a hot day.

At our own formal dinners we like to announce each course as it is served, giving a little description of ingredients or preparation. It’s a quirky ritual, but seemingly enjoyed by guests. We also begin the meal with a toast. One of my well-used ones originated from home cook and author, Laurie Colwin, “One of life’s greatest pleasures is eating. Second to that is eating with friends. And for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends.” Cheers and bon appétit.

A dinner party doesn’t require formality. As Hamilton says, throw them often, even with reckless abandon. It’s about getting people together. We often entertain by making homemade pizza topped with arugula, served with champagne for Sunday night supper. There could be placemats instead of tablecloths or bare wood with a colorful Asian tapestry running down the table length. Candles always. [Kindle Some Candlelight]

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family style, at the cabin, estes park

GH: …Set the table. Arrange the chairs. Even if you can now afford real flowers, trudge across a field for a morning anyway collecting attractive branches and grasses to arrange down the center of the table — it will put you right. Roast the rabbits and braise the lentils, and clean the leeks and light all the candles. Even now, someone may get a little lit on the red wine and want to do a shot. But that may be just what your dinner party needs…When your kids come downstairs to say good night, give them a glimpse of something unforgettable.

Our children are adults now and the best ones to tell what they remember about growing up overseas. Yet, I believe they might recall coming home from their own night out with friends to a dining room full of adults well known to them, backlit with candles, open bottles of wine, empty dessert plates and coffee cups and, always, the lingering aura of good friendship and conversation around a table.

I can’t say whether this memory is unforgettable to them. But, to me, it is imprinted forever–the communion of good people around a grown-up table.

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Excerpts from “The Grown-Ups’ Table” NYT, Oct 26, 2107 [The Art of the Dinner Party]Gabrielle Hamilton, owner Prune Restaurant

 

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the best dining room view in the world

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dinner chez tennis/hewitt, athens, greece

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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Love and Layers of Lasagne

There are two kinds of people who make messes in the kitchen–those who cook and those who simply prepare meals.

Anna, our Latvian/Russian daughter-in-law, is one who cooks. All the women in her family chop, combine, stir, taste, and serve wholesome food from scratch. From a very young age she watched and learned from her grandmother and mother before beginning to experiment on her own.

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The cooking gene skipped around in our family. My grandmother cooked. My daughter cooks. My mother prepared food that fed us. Joy of cooking didn’t inhabit me either.

Because I care about nutrition and eating well, I put in the time required for meal prep during the years when everyone was living at home and hungry. Friends who loved stirring up tasty concoctions everyday were a regular source of inspiration. I copied their easiest ideas. One-dish meals, everything mixed together-protein, veggies and carbs, were my best efforts. This was also efficient because meals could be made in large enough quantities for leftovers.

I have never lusted for or spent any time making lasagne. To my taste, béchamel sauce is like eating wallpaper paste, bolognaise sauce so heavy with meat and thick chunks of canned tomatoes. Then, those layers of rubbery pasta–simply too much of everything.

One December, several years ago, Anna made what she called Latvian Lasagne for our Christmas Eve dinner. It was a recipe she invented. The origins began while she was a student in university. It evolved as circumstances in her life changed. Each improvement was sparked by an episode of love.

The Beginning Episode:

In 2007 Anna left Riga, Latvia to attend Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom. While there, she bought a book for one pound Sterling called Simple Pasta. She found her bolognaise recipe and cooked it many times for herself and friends in their shared living quarters. They poured it as a sauce over different kinds of pasta or ate it as a hearty stand-alone meat and vegetable main course.

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The Second Episode:

There was a German boyfriend for a few years. His mother was a wonderful cook who took enormous pride in her meals. Anna enjoyed many excellent dinners in their home. One time, lasagne was served. But, it was a disaster. The green colored pasta was undercooked and crunchy, the sauce too dry and tasteless. All three sons complained loudly. There was drama as their mother, humiliated by criticism, slammed her hand on the table, stood up and left the room, taking a bottle of wine with her.

Anna thought the recipe could be improved. She began by using her already perfected bolognaise sauce, layered it with thin, flat sheets of pasta and baked it in the oven.

The Final, Most Important Episode:

A new relationship bloomed between Anna and our son, Adam. He told her his mother said he should eat something green everyday. So they began adding fresh spinach and basil leaves into the lasagne layers. Then he suggested a bit more cheese might enhance the final result. This became his special part of the assembly. Collaboratively, they improved the recipe to its’ final evolution and, soon after, began a new life together. Letting Go In Latvia

It was during that Christmas Eve dinner several Decembers ago that my taste buds took serious notice. This was lasagne I wanted to eat again. It wasn’t ponderously heavy. It was slightly sweetened with the addition of bacon, flavor-enhancing vegetables, liquefied and mellowed with milk and red wine reductions. The ingredients blended smoothly, beautifully, yet distinctively. You couldn’t help but comment on the wonderful combination of flavors. Everything worked in this dish. I wanted to know how to cook it.

November 2015, in the days after the terrorist shootings in Paris, Latvian Lasagne offered me respite from the shock waves that followed. Planned attacks on several cafes and the Bataclan concert theatre occurred on a Friday night. Everyone in Paris was tender and raw after the devastating events. Friends from the U.S. were arriving on vacation. We had already arranged to take them out to a restaurant for dinner.

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la belle equipe memorial after paris shootings november 2015

Eating out socially in a public setting was the last thing anyone felt like doing. Instead, I shopped in the morning on my eerily quiet market street and spent the afternoon meditatively chopping, sautéing, and stirring a bubbling pot of sauce. Then I went about setting a formal dining table, assembling and baking Anna’s lasagne to share with our guests. It was an activity I needed, focused and calming, to cook for friends we love and hadn’t seen in many years.

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That evening, six of us sat around the table, warmed by candles, nourishing food, friendship, and conversation. It was the right blend of the right ingredients and the right recipe. I can’t forget it, even now, entwined in the world circumstances…

This month we are approaching a holiday season where family and friends gather in celebration and familiar food is often featured. Traditions in our family have benefitted from each overseas location where we have lived. Merging ideas from other geographies and people who became part of our extended family have contributed to our own evolving traditions.

With our dual culture family with us in Paris this holiday season, we will chop, stir, and assemble the layers of Latvian Lasagne together on Christmas Eve.

Even if you have your own traditional holiday meals, this is one of the very best cold weather comfort foods to cook for family or dinner guests.

Everything about the end result is worth the mess in the kitchen!

LATVIAN LASAGNE

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Some of the basics: flat sheets of pasta, spices, canned tomatoes in juice, white and red sauces, red wine, milk

 Ingredients for Bolognaise:

  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 6 stalks celery, chopped
  • 6 large mushrooms, chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 300 gm bacon, chopped [In France, I use lardons which are already chopped chunks of bacon]
  • 500 gm [1 pound] lean ground beef [5% fat]
  • 600 gm or 1 large can of tomatoes in juice
  • 150 cc [2/3 cup] red wine
  • 150 cc [2/3 cup] milk
  • 1 T. dried oregano
  • 1 T. dried basil
  • Fresh ground pepper
  • Red pepper flakes [optional]

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spinach, mushrooms, celery, carrots, onion, garlic, grated cheeses, fresh basil

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chopped and ready to cook

Ingredients for the Layers:

  •  Red sauce of choice, ~400 gm [This is approximate, but use an amount that when mixed with the white sauce covers the casserole to the edges.]
  • White Alfredo or lasagne sauce of choice, ~300 gm [As above.]
  • 250 gm mature salty cheddar cheese, grated
  • 250 gm mozzarella cheese, grated
  • Baby spinach or torn up leaves of regular spinach
  • Fresh basil leaves [optional]
  • Fresh or dried lasagna noodles, enough for 3 layers in casserole dish [Do not use wavy edged noodles. Anna says these are ugly. Use thin, flat sheets of pasta.]

Making the Bolognaise Sauce:

  1. Heat 2 T. olive oil in large saucepan over medium heat.
  2. Sauté onion until translucent.
  3. Add carrots and celery and cook until softened.
  4. Add bacon and cook until it turns pink.
  5. Add ground beef. Cook and stir until it turns brown.
  6. Add red wine, reduce heat and simmer until ½ has evaporated.
  7. Add milk and do the same thing.
  8. Stir in canned tomatoes with juice, garlic, fresh ground black pepper, mushrooms and dried spices.
  9. Keep stirring and mix everything together well.
  10. Turn heat to low for 45 minutes to one hour, cooking until mixture is thick.
  11. Take off heat and set aside.

This sauce can be used with any type of pasta.

Assembling the Layers:

  1. Wipe bottom and sides of a deep-sided casserole dish lightly with olive oil.
  2. Place a layer of noodles on the bottom. Break dry noodles to fit evenly in pan.
  3. Spread one layer of bolognaise sauce over noodles.
  4. Sprinkle a sparse layer of grated cheeses over sauce.
  5. Add a layer of fresh spinach [and a few mushroom slices if you kept any aside.]
  6. Add 5 leaves of fresh basil, optional.
  7. Cover with another layer of noodles.
  8. Repeat layers one more time.
  9. Cover all with noodle sheets.
  10. Mix red and white sauces over top and spread to edges of pan.
  11. Cover with remaining cheese, as generously as you desire.
  12. Bake 180 C. [350 F.] 30 minutes for fresh pasta, 60 minutes for dried. [Noodles must be cooked all the way through. No crunchy pasta like German mama!]

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first layer of noodles, sauce, light cheese, spinach

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mushrooms sprinkled in

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grating salty english cheddar

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pouring red and white sauces over top layer and spread to edges

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adam fine tunes the cheese layer

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out of the oven and straight to table

Serve immediately with salad and fresh baguette. Decant a Volnay red wine from Burgundy or serve Chablis if you prefer white. Light candles. Savor everything and everyone around the table for a long, relaxing evening.

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latvian lasagne dinner chez nous, recently, for friends

Final notes:

  1. Purists will note this is not Italian style lasagne. Anna describes it more as a “pasta cake”. She believes cheese is what makes the whole thing extra delicious. Adam still does the cheesing at home. She usually thinks he overdoes it, but then says it always turns out great.
  2. You can make it non-dairy by eliminating milk, white sauce and cheeses. It then becomes a tasty “red-only-pasta-cake”.
  3. You could make it vegetarian by eliminating bacon and beef. I don’t actually know how that would taste. The bacon adds something subtle and sublime.
  4. There is no added salt. Bacon and salty cheddar are enough.

There is flexibility in personal touches. I usually put red pepper flakes on the table because I never know other people’s preference for spiciness, but sometimes I sprinkle them inside the layers.

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anna jerofejeva ulfers

Other stories about Latvia and Anna’s family: Begin With Russian DumplingsShrooming in LatviaLetting Go In Latvia