Ode to My Paris Kitchen

I’m watching snow fall outside the dining room windows in our mountain cabin in Colorado. It’s good to have a retreat for winter hibernation or to avoid cities during a pandemic.

With the world facing a global health challenge and each of us needing to do what we can, collectively and individually, my thoughts turn to kitchens. Kitchens are the heartbeat of a home. During uncertain times we need them more than ever as a calming, comfortable retreat to nourish body and spirit.

A kitchen is a good place to be, almost always the best place in the house. Michael Ruhlman

The world begins at the kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live. The gifts of the earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on. Joy Harjo

Designed as the room to prepare food and feed a household, kitchens are also the place for informal banter, story telling, blasting favorite music while cooking or cleaning up, problem solving around the table, and memory-evoking aromas from childhood onward.

From early marriage through 31 years of overseas living, I have unpacked and set up sixteen kitchens. Eleven were in rented houses or apartments. Five were in homes we purchased. One is of my own design. It stands as a close second to the best kitchen I ever inhabited.

Good kitchens are not about size.Nigel Slater

My favorite kitchen has an old, yellow and orange, hexagonal-tiled floor. There is strong natural light, wooden countertops, and a window that opens in, like a door. It overlooks an interior courtyard of leafy Virginia creeper, twining thickly up brick walls. There is a small eating area next to it with a brown and gray marble fireplace and a tall French window with wavy antique glass. Outside, tendrils of vines hang down and create a living curtain that moves in the breeze.

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courtyard from kitchen eating area

To reach the kitchen, you crisscross the entire apartment–from the front door, through the wide entrance corridor, zig zagging down two narrow interior hallways to the backend of the building. This is the original floor plan for family-sized apartments, built in 1905, in the sixteenth Arrondissement in Paris.

During the early 20th century, Parisian kitchens were largely domains of household help who slept in tiny bedrooms under the roof. They shared a Turkish toilet and cold running water from a miniature corner sink in the hallway. There is a spiral wooden staircase to these rooms behind a double locked metal door in the kitchen.

By the time we moved to Paris, my daily cooking years were over. Children had grown up and now lived on another continent. Still, I was drawn to this kitchen every time I came home. Windows that opened wide over the quiet green of the courtyard became my meditative retreat.

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window meditation

I have a fireplace in my kitchen that I light every night, no matter what.Alice Waters

During the dark wintery months, candles and oil lamps were lit on the fireplace mantel every morning and evening in the kitchen dining area.

My writing mentor, M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] said that a good kitchen requires few things. 

There are only three things I need to make my kitchen a pleasant one. First, I need space to get a good simple meal for six people…Then, I need a window or two, for clear air and the sight of things growing…more of either would be wasteful.M.F.K. Fisher

During our last six years overseas, I found Fisher’s vision in my perfect kitchen too. It had sufficient counter space for setting out an array of ingredients or rolling out pizza dough. The chopping board under the window opened to flowers in window boxes and vines that unfurled in tender green shoots each spring and dropped to the ground in red, yellow and orange splendor by November.

chopping block with a view

This kitchen was the site of preparing simple meals for two, dinner parties for ten, girlfriend TGIFs, or standup cocktails and hors d’oeuvres for a crowd. Sunday pizza night was a weekly ritual. [wait-twenty-minutes-then-add-salt] It was the gathering place for breakfast and Christmas holiday meal preparation with family visiting from America. The chopping block was the stage for photo shoots to illustrate my story writing.

adam, anna, and leila in paris for the holidays, 2017

You start out playing in kitchens, and you end up playing in kitchens. Trisha Yearwood

Our first grandchild played with wooden utensils and plastic storage containers on the tile floor while her mother and I played at roasting a chicken or making Latvian Lasagna. love-and-layers-of-lasagne She patted her own tiny pizza dough with her grandfather at the marble topped table in front of the fireplace.

The kitchen is where we come to understand our past and ourselves.Laura Esquival

Many people think spending an hour or two in the kitchen is a waste of time. But it is a good investment in your spiritual development.Laura Esquival

People who find their kitchen a good place to spend time would agree there is another dimension beyond mere preparation and cleanup.  Whether you cook regularly or not, “inhabiting” a space that is pleasant and inviting is paramount to defining the kitchen as the soul of the house. More importantly, this is where you can retreat into your thoughts and dreams and nourish health in a personal way.

True health care reform cannot happen in Washington. It has to happen in our kitchens, in our homes, in our communities. All health care is personal. Mehmet Oz

These days, as we are staking out a safe place in the world by spending more time at home, don’t forsake the importance of your kitchen. Use it as a haven for renewing spirits, replenishing bodies, and exchanging worry for hope and optimism.

Hopefully, there is a window nearby to provide “clear air and the site of things growing”. And candles to light when the sun goes down.

I believe that one of the most dignified ways we are capable of, to assert and then reassert our dignity in the face of poverty and war’s fears and pains, is to nourish ourselves with all possible skill, delicacy and enjoyment.M.F.K. Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf

Weeknight Bolognese from the Barefoot Contessa–Good comfort food

Ingredients:

  • Good Olive Oil
  • 1# lean ground sirloin [or 1# mushrooms for vegetarian, or both!]
  • 4-5 minced garlic cloves
  • 1 T. dried oregano
  • 1/4-1/2 t. red pepper flakes
  • 1 1/4 C. dry red wine
  • 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 T. tomato paste
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1# dry pasta, any kind
  • 1/4 t. nutmeg [optional]
  • 1/4 C. chopped fresh basil, packed tightly
  • 1/4/ C. heavy cream [or use milk]
  • Fresh parmesan

Assembly:

Heat 2 T. olive oil in large skillet on med-hi. Add ground meat and cook until it starts to brown. Stir in garlic, oregano, and red pepper. Cook another minute, then pour in 1 C. red wine. Add canned tomatoes, tomato paste, 1 T. salt and 1 1/2 t. pepper, stirring to combine.

Bring sauce to a boil, lower heat and simmer 10 min. In another pot, cook pasta in salted water until al dente.

Add nutmeg [if you have], chopped basil and milk or cream to the simmering sauce and continue another 8-10 min. Add remaining 1/4 C. red wine or some pasta cooking water [as needed] to make enough sauce.

Serve sauce over pasta with lots of freshly grated Parmesan on the side.

Leaving Paris and Hemingway

It has been several months between writing 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 other 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 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, 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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through the bedroom window

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.

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“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 celebration in Normandy with President Obama and veterans: 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 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: the very best has 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 flower 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 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” as it was still usable.

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.”  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

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, so many 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.

la belle equipe memorial after paris shootings november 2015
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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 remember everything, even now, entwined as it was in those 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, we will chop, stir, and assemble 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 large carrots, chopped [or diced]
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 4 large stalks celery, chopped [or diced]
  • 6 large mushrooms, chopped in half, then sliced
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 lb [300 gm] thin, streaky bacon, chopped
  • 1 lb [500 gm] lean ground beef [5% fat]
  • 1 large can [600 gm] diced tomatoes in juice
  • 2 C. red pasta or marinara sauce
  • 2/3 cup [150cc] red wine
  • 2/3 cup [150cc] 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.]
  • 8 oz. [250 gm] grated Italian blend cheese
  • 8 oz. [250 gm] grated mozzarella cheese
  • Baby spinach or torn up leaves of regular spinach
  • Fresh or dried lasagne noodles, enough for 3 layers in casserole dish [Use thin, flat sheets of pasta rather than the wavy edged variety.]

Making the Bolognaise:

  1. Heat 2 T. olive oil in large saucepan over medium heat.
  2. Sauté onion until translucent.
  3. Add carrots and celery. 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, red sauce, 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 [as much as you wish] and a few mushroom slices if you kept any aside.
  6. Cover with another layer of noodles.
  7. Repeat layers one more time.
  8. Cover all with noodle sheets.
  9. Mix red and white sauces over top and spread to edges of pan.
  10. Cover with remaining cheese, as generously as you desire.
  11. Bake 350 F. for convection oven, 385 F. for gas oven about 30 minutes. Keep an eye on it. When top is browning and bubbly, check that noodles are cooked all the way through. Take from oven. Let sit 5-10 minutes.
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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 pour 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 served chez nous

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 cheese 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

French-splaining American Thanksgiving

In November 2005, before I was reading news digitally, I cut out an article by a humor columnist from a prominent international newspaper. The subject was why Americans eat turkey for Thanksgiving.

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roast turkey or la dinde rôtie

In 1952, an earlier version of this article was published under the title “Explaining Thanksgiving to the French”. The back-story, prompting the reprint, was a woman in Maryland who bought an old, yellowed newspaper clipping at a garage sale. She paid $10 for it. Someone-in-the-know, at the Library of Congress, told her it was worth $80,000 as a collector’s item. It became art on the wall of her home.

We were living in Germany in 2005. I didn’t speak French then, but found the story quirky enough to save. I understand French better now, so the literal translations read even sillier.

For history buffs wishing to be enlightened without forking over $80,000, here is one version of why we eat turkey:

One of our most important holidays is Thanksgiving Day, known in France as le Jour de Merci Donnant.

 Le Jour de Merci Donnant was first started by a group of Pilgrims [Pèlerins] who fled from l’Angleterre to found a colony in the New World [le Nouveau Monde] where they could shoot Indians [les Peaux-Rouges] and eat turkey [dinde] to their heart’s content.

 They landed at a place called Plymouth [a famous voiture Américaine] in a wooden sailing ship called the Mayflower [or Fleur de Mai] in 1620. But while the Pèlerins were killing the dindes, the Peaux-Rouges were killing the Pélerins and there were several hard winters ahead for both of them. The only way the Peaux-Rouges helped the Pèlerins was when they taught them to grow corn [maïs]. The reason they did this was because they liked corn with their Pèlerins.

 In 1623, after another harsh year, the Pèlerins’ crops were so good that they decided to have a celebration and give thanks because more maïs was raised by the Pèlerins than Pèlerins were killed by Peaux-Rouges…

 …And so, on the fourth Thursday in November, American families sit down at a large table brimming with tasty dishes, and for the only time during the year eat better than the French do…1

Living overseas for 30 years, without extended family around, our Thanksgiving holidays have been celebrated rather differently. In early Taiwan years, there was an annual pig roast in Maddy and Cabby’s backyard, linen covered tables lit in candlelight, adults drinking wine and trading stories while children ran rampant until late at night.

Another year, we shared Thanksgiving with Chinese friends who delighted in the array of traditional-American-food-in-excess more than we did.

The year we became empty nesters, I said to my husband, “No more beige, brown and white food for Thanksgiving. Let’s check into a hotel and eat what we want.” So we did. Spicy Thai is what I remember.

After moving to Europe, with both children permanently in the U.S., we continued to lay low during this holiday-that-was-never-a-holiday in the country where we were living.

A couple of Novembers ago, we were invited to our friends’ Sally and John’s Paris apartment for Thanksgiving. It was an intimate group of eight, but international with one Spanish husband and one Italian boyfriend mixed among the Americans. We brought champagne,  red wine, and something green to offset the neutrals of what would undoubtedly be served. Thanksgiving food color is traditional.

But then–I was completely turned upside down by the holiday dinner we had been avoiding for at least 10 years. At John and Sally’s table there was color, there was taste, there was texture, and there was deliciousness in the one dish I detest the most–dressing.

Everyone in this family is creative. They are artists, film producers, film animators, screenwriters, painters, musicians, and, as it turns out, they are kitchen creative, too.

The dish I now call “John’s Best Original Holiday Dressing” is far superior to the sage-y, soggy, overly bread-y brown mess I have skipped since childhood.

John’s dressing, rich with veggies, full of crunch, a hint of sweetness and tang, was the centerpiece to a remarkable meal in my favorite city where Thanksgiving is not celebrated.

Last year, when we were invited again, I asked to learn the family secret to the best dressing ever invented to be eaten with roast turkey on Thanksgiving. Like most naturally creative cooks, John uses no recipe. It varies from year to year, ingredients added or subtracted.

For the Benson/Bentley family legacy, as well as our own future holiday celebrations, here is, thankfully presented, the most delicious stuffing/dressing recipe you will ever enjoy eating. Second and third helpings, yes! Next day leftovers, if there happen to be any, yes!

There is room here for your own creativity too. Play with some of the spice amounts and optional ingredients.

À chacun son goût. To each his own taste. The essence of French-splanation.

_______________________________________________________

­1.   Story excerpt from International Herald Tribune, November 5, 2005

JOHN’S BEST ORIGINAL HOLIDAY DRESSING [serves 12]

Ingredients:

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  • 1 head celery, chopped
  • 4 onions, chopped
  • 6 large cloves garlic [or more], chopped
  • 2 red bell peppers, chopped
  • 2 yellow bell peppers, chopped
  • 2 green bell peppers, chopped
  • Button mushrooms, sliced
  • Fresh bread croutons–explained below
  • 2 apples, chopped
  • Greek Kalamata or Moroccan olives, pitted and chopped-optional
  • Tomato confit [or sun dried tomatoes, softened with just enough hot water], chopped–optional
  • 1/2 to 1 lb. good butter, melted–as much as you want
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 tsp. thyme
  • 4 tsp. sage, rosemary, oregano and tarragon [approximate]
  • Turkey, chicken or vegetable broth, 2/3-1 Cup*
  • Olive oil
  • Several Tbs to 1/4 cup Maple syrup**

*For turkey broth: boil/simmer neck and chopped gizzard in 2-3 cups water, lightly covered, for an hour. You want 2/3 to 1 cup of liquid to add per casserole dish. Okay to use chicken [or veggie broth] as substitute.

**John’s turkey preparation involves brining it beforehand. He likes using the salty drippings and basting liquid to add to the dressing. He uses maple syrup during basting to caramelize the skin and add sweetness. If you don’t use the drippings with syrup in them, then add syrup, as directed, at the end of preparation.

Preparation:

1. In a large pan, sauté red, yellow and green peppers in olive oil on medium to high heat, until they are slightly browned and softened. Add in onions and finally garlic. Add spices–2 tsp. thyme, 4 tsp. each sage, rosemary and oregano during sauté. [Quantities are suggestions because he doesn’t precisely measure.]

It needs to smell herby-and good-as it is cooking!”–John

2. In another pan [flat-bottomed] melt a couple tablespoons of butter. Place sliced mushrooms flat in pan without overlapping. Sprinkle tarragon over it all for a light coating. Brown both sides on medium to high heat. Keep adding butter to the pan as mushrooms soak it up. Don’t skimp on butter. Mushrooms should still be firm on the inside.

3. Make croutons by cutting day old baguette into cubes. Sprinkle olive oil and rosemary over them and toss together. Place in oven on low temperature until browned or crispy.

They should get oiled all around a bit, not soggy of course. Rosemary should be a light sprinkle.”John

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cubed bread before oil/rosemary toss and crisping

4. Mix together all sautéed ingredients in a large bowl while still warm. Add prepared croutons.

5. Add remaining melted butter, at least 1/4 cup or 250 ml [melt more if you need it!]. Divide amounts evenly per casserole dish. Just pour it over and mix in. Use 1/2 bay leaf for each casserole.

6. Stir in broth, a little at a time until everything is mushy and moist, but not soggy.

“Croutons should not crumble into crumbs if smashed. You will probably use 1-2 C. of broth, based on crouton softness.”–John

7. Now add chopped celery, apple, seeded olives, and sundried tomatoes [or tomato confit]. These will add crunch, flavor, and a bit of tang.

8. Smell and taste. Perhaps add more butter or broth and drippings. Can also add sprig of fresh thyme or extra sage.

9. Stir in some maple syrup, a few tablespoons up to 1/4 cup per casserole.

10. Spread all ingredients into ovenproof dishes. Can place some inside turkey as stuffing. Grind black pepper over the top, if you think about it.

11. Bake uncovered 180 C. [350 F.] for about 1 hour. Halfway through, give it a stir to check for softness. If it’s too wet, stir again in 15 minutes to help with evaporation of broth. If still too moist after an hour, turn on broiler for a couple of minutes to brown and crisp the top. Watch carefully so it doesn’t burn!

Ingredients are already cooked so baking is to evaporate the broth and crisp everything. A good dried out, browned, crispy top is unbeatable. I think it’s the butter.”John Benson

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maybe the secret is in the butter, but it’s really much more than that…

Set a festive holiday dinner table. When seated among family and friends give thanks to everyone and everything for which you are grateful.

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Remember to raise a glass to those Peaux-Rouges and Pèlerins who started it all…

Joyeux Jour de Merci Donnant!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Other stories about Sally Bentley here: Foxglove and “Oreos” on the Camino or Sex in a Pan and the Tennis/Hewitts [Maddy and Cabby] here: Transcendent Picnics

Treize–A Baker’s Dozen, Paris

There is a story behind the phrase “13–a baker’s dozen”. In the days when bread was sold by weight, bakers regularly gave customers an extra +1, or 13 items, on every dozen sold. There were strict penalties if found guilty of shorting the customer. Since loaves easily varied in size and weight, they made a practice of “giving more”. Today, generous bakeries might offer a “freebie” as a courtesy for buying a dozen.

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laurel in the treize kitchen

Laurel Sanderson was a baker long before she decided to open a restaurant in the back of a Paris courtyard. She comes from a line of southern home cooks and bakers going back to her mother and grandmother in upper Charleston, South Carolina, USA.

At twenty years old, Laurel took off to learn French–in France. She immediately found other English-speaking friends doing the same thing. The combined excitement of new friendships and travel initially slowed the process of acquiring a second language.

After four years of polishing her French and having fun, she moved to Paris and began working in a bar off rue Mouffetard in the Latin Quarter. There, a group of same-age ex-pats from all over the world bonded in friendship. Most of them stayed on. They gravitated from those beginning days of tending bar to the grown up world of food and beverage distribution, management, organizational planning, and in Laurel’s case–a bakery.

Fast-forward another fifteen years–after starting a family and ending her bakery business partnership, Laurel discovered a former auto garage, at the far end of a centuries old cobblestoned courtyard, in the middle of Paris. She envisioned a new enterprise, all her own, and named it Treize…a baker’s dozen.

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For the first two years, after opening in January 2014, Laurel managed with irregular part time help that came and went. Finally, in February 2016, she asked a friend from those early bartending days to join her full time.

Kaysa von Sydow is Swedish. For many years, she owned a special events business with food and beverages. Now she runs the front-of-the-house at Treize, which highlights her engaging people skills along with creative coffee, tea, juices, and drinks. She brings the best of Swedish café culture [Fika]–savouring the moment, slowing down, making time every day for a break with coffee, tea, a baked good and [perhaps] some friendly gossip. She also sources the best products for variety and bio-freshness.

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kaysa and laurel, chez treize

Laurel now focuses on lighting up the kitchen space, as well as the whole restaurant, with whatever she is doing: cooking, baking or treating customers as life-long friends.

Why did a southern girl from South Carolina open a miniscule resto in a space that evolved from a storage workshop for antiques, to a jeweler’s workshop, to a hair salon, to a mechanic’s garage? When asked how she made the switch from full time baking to chef she replies, “It was actually pretty easy. People want pastry, but people need food.”

There’s more to it than that, of course. She missed the tastes and recipes from her southern American roots. She wasn’t planning to return to Charleston because “home” was now Paris, with a husband and children. So she created her own style of southern comfort cooking and opened it to the public.

When you push open the many-paned glass door at Treize, it’s like walking into a favorite friend’s quirky kitchen and dining room combined. It’s highly organized with floor to ceiling storage, but overflowing with jars and baskets and tins and spices, hanging cast iron and copper pots, piles of fruits, vegetables and herbs. Even the windowpane grills hold ripening avocadoes. There are flea market finds decorating out-of-reach shelves; vintage muffin tins, dough cutters, cake pans, antique copper or enamel cafetières. There is a gargoyle. And cookbooks tucked in everywhere.

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a place for everything and everything in some place
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carrot cake under glass, a basket of biscuits, ginger root, & a gargoyle!

On the largest wooden table, there is a seasonal flower arrangement next to a stacked pile of “Garden and Gun” magazines. [Laurel’s favorite periodical, from Charleston, y’all.] In the corner by the door, birch tree trunks support curling dried vines that snake upward toward the skylight. Vines decorated seasonally, of course. An antique glass chandelier hangs from the pressed tin ceiling. On one wall is a black and white mural of a little girl swinging meditatively into the air. Opposite, a chalkboard sign reads “In Buttermilk Biscuits We Trust” along with the recipe for this daily served bread.

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winter vines in twinkly lights, snowflakes, & pages from a french novel
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springtime in greenery and birdhouses
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southern biscuits, y’all

It’s an eclectic use of very small space. Vintage, antique-y, industrial-ish, chic/messy/favorite auntie décor are all terms that describe Treize. Your senses respond instinctively to the all-embracing ambience. Capturing any empty stool or chair, you melt into the friendliness AND the delicious food smells. It is the sanctuary you were dreaming to find–an escape in an accelerated world.

The kitchen is an incredibly small working space, but open to everything. As soon as anyone enters, Laurel and/or Kaysa look up with huge smiles and say, “Heeeeyyyyy, how are you? Come on in!” If they know your name, you are greeted with bisous [xx] too. By now, they know practically everyone who walks in, from around the globe.

The recipes change by the day and the season. Menus are based on traditional family recipes that Laurel grew up eating. Some are inspired from The Southern Cookbook. All have been updated and improved with Laurel’s creativity and by sourcing 100% bio ingredients. Top-notch staples of butter, flour, cream, sugar, seasonal fruits and veggies are easily found in Paris. They make everything taste better.

Everyday, Laurel bakes light-as-a-feather, melt-in-your-mouth buttermilk biscuits. [More than 40,000 since Treize opened!] Everyday, there is a three-tiered butter-cream-frosted carrot cake under glass. Laurel’s carrot cake is inspired. It is her own particular version. People come in just because they have heard about it. They return because they are hooked by everything else about Treize, too.

Laurel generally arrives first, very early in the morning. This is her quiet time to bake–biscuits, cakes [one or two in addition to carrot cake], and small pastries for savory tarts. Kaysa arrives next, soon followed by the current prep-cooks, Sam and Anne. Alam arrives last, but stays well past closing to finish cleaning and setting up for the next day. He moves quietly and knowingly in the back of the kitchen. By late afternoon, he nudges Laurel out to sit down for a moment.

After hours of multi-tasking: chatting up customers, overseeing and doing preps, sorting out Kaysa’s orders over the din of customers, unceasing chopping, cooking, baking– finally, it’s late afternoon and a special time to be at Treize. A bottle of wine is often opened and glasses poured. There may be time for more in-depth conversation while sitting on high stools around a tall table peeling oranges and lemons for the next day’s juices. It’s my favorite time to be there. I join in and the prep work goes faster.

I’ve spent many hours at Treize since stumbling into this hidden gem of a courtyard three years ago. I have taken friends or out-of-town guests or my family. I especially love going alone. In this coziest of environments, I find my better self.

There are stories about other people who find Treize, too. A family of five from Luxembourg was visiting Paris. They were looking for food after normal restaurant hours on a frigid wintery day. No place would serve them. They staggered into Treize–cold, tired and famished. Arms readily opened to hold the baby while mom ate her meal. The other children were nourished. Everyone was nurtured. They return every year.

A honeymooning couple scanned a fashion blogger’s website where Treize was mentioned and happily lingered over lunch and several rounds of beverages. A weekly table of mothers and babies has been coming in since before the babies were born. “Paris by Mouth” [restaurant review website] rents the large table several times a week to end their tourist walking tours with wine and cheese. A stream of regulars working in the area, bring in their own plates or coffee cups to be filled and taken back to work. A professional chess player, who summers every year in Paris, eats there weekly, if not more. A newcomer, curious about what he saw at the end of an ambient courtyard, walks in and claims his new favourite place in Paris. People find Treize. And they return.

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il y a d’or a la fin de la cour

The success of Treize is not hard to understand. But there are subtle, even humble, layers mixed into the daily joy of achievement. For Laurel, Treize is not about her or what she has built. It is about the connectedness created with everyone who walks in the door. It’s a throw back to an environment beautifully crafted twenty years ago in a bar off rue Mouffetard, where customers became friends. Sharing back-stories and experiences, staying in touch with each other’s lives, supporting one another through thick and thin. Both Laurel and Kaysa are masters of weaving friendship into work they love.

The essence of Treize, the thing that lingers, is this–no matter the time of day or the moment in the week or whatever else is going on in the world, when you push open the door, you always feel glad to be exactly there. It’s about broad smiles and sparkling eyes.  It’s about lighthearted banter between co-workers doing what they love to do. It’s about warm greetings to everyone, every single time. It’s the kind of place where you want to know their names and their stories. And they want to know yours, too.

There is a feeling of receiving something “more” each time you go. And that’s because the heart of Treize is not simply a baker’s dozen, it’s a baker’s soul…

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the smile that lights up a kitchen and a restaurant
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 Addendum July 2018:

Treize has a re-opened in a new and larger location across from Jardin du Luxembourg. Check their website for menu offerings and hours. No reservations. 5, rue de Médicis, Paris, 75006

http://www.treizebakeryparis.com

Hack #2: Relishing the Radish

It’s time for a new food hack. This one is French-inspired. Consider the radish–eaten in a certain way, as a starter course, particularly at lunchtime.

Shortly after moving to Paris we were invited to a long Sunday lunch, family style, in the apartment of my husband’s administrative assistant. Traditional to such gatherings, there was a mixture of ages from toddlers to grandparents around the large dining table. There was a casual centerpiece of low flowers, printed cloth napkins and tablecloth, baskets of chewy baguette slices, small dishes of butter, and, of course, there was wine.

There was a small plate of elongated red radishes with short green stems already at each place setting. Also on the plate was a little pyramid of sea salt. After sitting down, our hostess said, “I will show one way we like to eat radishes in France.”

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She picked up a radish in one hand and a butter knife with the other. She smeared good French butter on the surface and, with her fingers, sprinkled sea salt over it all. She bit into the radish down to the stem.

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That was the first course of our first French family lunch.

Recently, a former Paris friend [who is American] was back in town for a visit and came to lunch “chez moi”. I planned to serve a small casserole of “Latvian Lasagna”.

But I wanted a different kind of starter from green salad. Early spring radish season was in full swing so that became the plan.

The best thing about French radishes is there is no harsh “bite” or spicy bitterness to them. They are simply a beautiful mouthful of sweetness,  crunch and moisture. Combined with creamy butter from those Norman-grass-eating cows and salt crystals from the sea, a single red radish becomes the perfect trilogy of beauty, taste, and satisfaction.

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My friend loved the surprisingly subtle combination of butter and radishes. She had forgotten how refreshing they were to eat. And how easy to prepare.

Another way to serve radishes is with homemade guacamole–simply mashed avocado, minced red onion, salt, pepper, and lime juice.

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radishes, guacamole and snacks for “wine and unwind” party

Buttered radishes would be an inspired idea to try anywhere else in the world–outside of France. You can’t call something so well known here as “inspired”, unless you are a foreigner. So, wherever you live, tantalize taste buds in an unexpected way, wow guests with a “new” starter, and veer away from always serving the same old green salad as a first course.

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french radishes in farmer’s market, laguna beach, california

Cocoa Cake With My Curry, Please

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It is almost impossible for the average person to prepare authentic Indian curry. With its’ countless spices and detailed combination of ingredients, you need to be born into the culture. Or, you can absorb the know-how as my friend Patricia did, by growing up in India.

Friendships and food, often in exotic locations, are part of the story that has richly colored, and flavored, our life overseas. “Curry Love” began in our family when we moved to Singapore with two young children in 1987. It is also where Patricia and I became friends.

Patricia was born in a colonial bedroom in the remote village of Tilda, in the state of Chattisghar, central India. Two generations before, her grandfather built the hospital there. Infrastructure was limited because it was a tribal area, but the local people had medical care. One generation later, her father returned to India as a Village Extension Worker with a specialty in agriculture. His job was to bring clean water, air, and other forms of conservation [soil, sewage] to rural India. He moved the family to a different village, Bisrampur, with a local population of 500, when Patricia was very young.

From the age of five, the four children in the Whitcomb family were sent to Woodstock, a Christian boarding school in Mussoorie, Uttarakhand, India. Mussoorie-Landour was a former British hill station in the foothills of the Himalayas. Hill stations, during the British Raj, were high altitude towns used for vacations to escape summer’s blistering heat and dust in the plains.

It took three days and three nights on a third class train to reach Mussoorie. One carriage held all the students rounded up in various villages. There were many stops, re-hooking to different trains, and finally taxis up to Woodstock. The school is spread over a steep hillside, 7000 feet in altitude. Students scamper up and down trails from campus into town like mountain goats. The beauty is stunning.

Woodstock School, Mussoorie Landour, established 1854

At eighteen, Patricia moved to the United States. She attended the University of Iowa with a double major in East Asian Languages and Literature [Japanese] and Anthropology/Archeology. Four years later, she earned a bachelor’s degree in Nursing [BSN]. She received an ESL degree [English as a Second Language] in Singapore after moving there with her teaching husband and young family in the mid-1980s. When they returned to the U.S., she worked as a neonatal ICU nurse in Madison, Wisconsin for more than 25 years. In retirement, she teaches and leads retreats in Alignment Yoga with 500-hour teacher’s certification. Oh, and by the way, Patricia speaks fluent Hindi, too.

During school holidays, back in the village, Patricia and her local friends entertained themselves creatively. Collecting dried dung patties for fuel, they cooked rice and curry in primitive outdoor picnics. Later, in university years, her older sister, Cate, began the tradition of family curry night.

Curry-themed parties in Singapore, hosted by Patricia and Bart, brought together a large group of friends. Sometimes we dressed in traditional garb from “Little India”. We also went there to eat curry with our hands, served on fresh, green banana leaves. The pungent aroma of open barrels of fresh spices intermingled with the heady sweet smell of jasmine flowers woven into necklaces is my takeaway memory of Little India.

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Patricia, Bart, and friends, curry night, 1988-89
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our try at Indian style, 1988-89

In May 2015, Patricia came to visit me in Paris. She proposed one full day to teach me to cook a curry meal. This was worked in between sight seeing, yoga-posing photo ops, and eating delicious French things.

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triangle pose, trocadéro, paris
double tree pose, jardins du palais royal, paris

We purchased fresh produce and spices at the Indian grocery store in the 10th Arrondissement. Green beans, tomatoes, eggplant, green chili, garlic, ginger root, potatoes, onions, spinach, and okra. This is also the neighborhood with the best Indian restaurants in Paris.

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It takes many spices to cook proper curry. We accumulated black mustard seeds, yellow mustard seeds, sambar powder, garam masala, turmeric, coriander and cumin seeds, desiccated coconut, dried curry leaves, cumin powder, fenegreek, red pepper flakes, sea salt and black pepper.

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sooooo many spices

The menu was all vegetable curries, as those are our favorites, with fried pokora, an Indian fritter made with graham flour and veggies and coriander chutney on the side.

I busied myself taking photos of the beautiful array of ingredients and spices in between some chopping prep work. When it was time to begin cooking, Patricia talked me through each step–one by one.

Suddenly overwhelmed, I drifted to the other side of the kitchen with a strong urge to re-arrange the spice cabinet. Admittedly, I abandoned the micro steps of curry prep almost from the beginning. I lost my way with the endless ingredients and order of spices from start to finish. Notes I wrote were a jumble of words without amounts or explanation. I cannot replicate a single dish she prepared.

The truth is, you have to feel it with curry.

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curry feast, except pokora which was consumed before reaching the table

At the opposite end of the food spectrum, dessert, I learned a Patricia recipe I have used many times. In the Green family’s Singaporean kitchen there were two things you could count on. One was about food. The other was about tropical living.

On the kitchen countertop there was always a dark cocoa chocolate sheet cake with thick gooey frosting. Everyone was welcome to dig in, anytime. The tropical living side involved a gecko that resided under the refrigerator. He scurried out to eat mosquitoes, ants, and food crumbs, usually under cover of darkness. In the beginning he was tiny, two or three inches in length. Over the years he grew substantially longer–and wider.

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One day, Patricia came home and found the chocolate cake tin uncovered. Not a good idea in that climate. On closer inspection, she saw the gecko, now a robust eight-inches, floundering on his back in the frosting. Alive and wiggling wildly, unable to re-right himself, he was going nowhere.

She picked up the cake pan and ran outside. With a spatula, she flipped the gecko onto the grass. Fearing fire ants would attack his sugary skin, she doused him with pitchers of water to rinse away some of the chocolate-y coating. Eventually, he was left to his fate.

Back in the kitchen, she scraped off a bit of frosting, re-smoothed the surface and covered the pan. That evening, her husband asked, “What happened to the cake? The icing is so thin.”

In the end, she had to tell him because, after all, the gecko was part of the family. Somehow that chocoholic lizard found his way back to the five-star-refrigerator-hotel and remained part of the household until they moved.

Of the many things I have learned from Patricia throughout our friendship, I believe this to be the most important. Her upbringing as a third culture kid in India paved the way to a life lesson she exemplifies so well in adulthood. Honed in primitive villages in the dry plains, to boarding school from a tender age amid lush Himalayan hills, to the mid-western United States, to Singapore, and back to the U.S., Patricia learned to lean into life’s changes and persevere through its’ challenges.

She didn’t teach me how to cook curry, but she teaches everyone by example. With compassion, intelligent curiosity, a completely positive outlook, flexibility, and laughter, Patricia leads in the direction of how far we can grow.

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friends anywhere in the world, paris, may 2015

COCOA CHOCOLATE CAKE [credit to Cate Whitcomb and P. Green-Sotos]

Butter a 9×13 inch cake pan. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Ingredients and Preparation:

  • 1 ¾ C. flour
  • 2 C. sugar
  • ¾ C. cocoa [best quality cocoa recommended]
  • 1 ½ t. baking soda
  • 1 ½ t. baking powder
  • 1 t. salt
  • Combine all dry ingredients in a large bowl.
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 C. milk
  • ½ C. vegetable oil
  • 2 t. vanilla extract
  • Mix the wet ingredients into dry. Beat at medium speed for 2 minutes.
  • 1 C. boiling water
  • Add this last, stirring just until combined. Do not over-mix.

Bake 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean.

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out of the oven, cool before frosting

Icing:

  • ½ C. butter
  • 2 C. powdered sugar
  • 4 T. cocoa
  • 3-4 T. milk or chocolate liqueur
  • Beat with mixer until light and fluffy. Spread over cooled cake and cover.
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Sex in a Pan

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painting by gustave moreau, french symbolist, 1826-1898

Some “firsts” you remember and others you don’t. I can’t remember my first Sex in a Pan.

Many years ago, I was told Sex in a Pan was for women only. Men don’t like it. It is something you never do alone, always with others, preferably in the afternoon.

Hemingway once said, “Never go on trips with anyone you do not love.” I say, never have Sex in a Pan with anyone you don’t like–at least a little bit. Otherwise, why go to all the trouble?

What’s special about Sex in a Pan? It’s not the equipment, which is ordinary. It’s not the getting ready, which is straightforward. It’s not the result, which is pleasurable. It is when everything comes together.

When we lived in Taiwan, I remember one Sex in a Pan party around my friend Linda’s dining table. The other guests were Asian women who had no idea what to expect. But, as with our American Thanksgiving dinners, they wanted to learn and share new customs. So they joined in…and loved it.

Sex in a Pan is like secretly swiping your finger across a thickly frosted cake. It’s what lingers in the memory after taste melts away. But Sex in a Pan is not cake. It is a decadent dessert of many layers–for sharing.

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The recipe I have carried around the world is in someone else’s handwriting. That well-worn piece of paper is the key to unlocking where I was and who I was with my first time. It’s sadly lost to memory now.

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who wrote this?

So, by default, Sex in a Pan is mine to offer anyone who loves smooth and creamy with some crunchy, slightly sour with some salty, chocolate-y, close your eyes, eat-with-a-spoon-kind-of-fun.

At the Taiwan party, inhibitions were safely shed around the table as we talked of taste and texture and guiltless self-indulgence while eating something pleasurable. There was laughter and letting go among friends. And that, in a nutty crust, is what Sex in a Pan is about.

Recently, I updated the recipe Euro-style since we live in France. The ingredient choices are different. Butter from Normandy embedded with crystals of sea salt, Chantilly whipped crème [from a can] instead of Cool Whip, dark chocolate shaved into curls instead of milk chocolate.

We were four women around the table–two Americans, one French and one German. The other three had little forewarning except I needed help to write a story.

It doesn’t really matter who or how many you gather for Sex in a Pan. Once you invite people in, they are mostly curious, ready to dabble in the unconventionally offbeat, perhaps with a touch of “double sens”, [“double entendre”, which is strangely not the expression in France]. The truth about Sex in a Pan is that what’s in the pan is simply a channel for what happens around it.

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sex in a pan parisian party

In double-sens-speak, I learned that “sensuously seductive” is said to be “croustillante” in French or “eine heisse Affäre” in German. We romanticized taste by describing the salty [yes to French butter!] and crunchy [those pecans!]. Layers of chocolate, sweetened cheese, and fluffy crème mingled in the underbelly. Tiny pellets of chocolate atop hid unexpected softness below. Voilà! Quelle langue!

We sipped Champagne and dipped into the communal dish. Late afternoon gave way to evening. And other liaisons.

When you host a Sex in a Pan party, try to keep the memory alive by having it again…and, then again.

SEX IN A PAN

Ingredients:

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  • 1 C. flour
  • ½ C. butter–best quality salted butter you can find
  • ¾ C. chopped pecans
  • 8 oz. cream cheese [let get to room temperature]
  • 1 C. icing sugar
  • 1 large pkg. instant chocolate pudding [6 ½ C. size]
  • 1 large pkg. instant vanilla pudding [6 ½ C. size]
  • 3 C. cold milk
  • 1 large container Cool Whip [or a good whipped cream]
  • 1 large dark chocolate bar

Preparation:

  1. Mix flour, butter and pecans and press into bottom of 8 1/2 x 11 inch [22 x 28 cm] pan. Bake for 20 minutes, 350 degrees F. [180 C.].
  2. Mix cream cheese and powdered sugar and spread on top of cooled crust.
  3. Spread ½ of Cool Whip or whipped cream over cream cheese layer.
  4. Mix together instant chocolate and vanilla pudding with COLD milk and beat by hand with a whisk until it starts to thicken.
  5. Spread over top of whipped cream.
  6. Spread remaining Cool Whip or whipped cream over pudding.
  7. Shave, grate and chop the chocolate bar. Sprinkle all over the top.
  8. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
  9. Serves 12-15 from one pan, depending on appetites.

Serving:

Pass out spoons, one to a person. Place Sex in a Pan in the middle of the table. In the spirit of communal adventure everyone dips in and eats spoonful by spoonful from the pan. Scoop all the way to the bottom with each bite.

So far, I’ve only known one man who said he enjoyed Sex in a Pan. He was able to rise above the gooey communal aspects others have no taste for. However, let it be known that my brother-in-law, Frank, has a very strong bias for anything chocolate.

“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 October 2016.

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railroad map: paris to avignon

In April 2016, my husband and I headed to Provence for an 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 took us there in a little over three hours.

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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 were seated at an unadorned table near the trackside windows.

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 with an early breakfast.

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.

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We breakfasted leisurely, ordering a second round of coffees. When our friends left to return to Montmartre, we boarded the train going 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.

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photo courtesy of SNCF [TGV trains]

Avignon sits on the banks of the Rhône River in Provence, north of the coastal city of Marseille. When the Catholic Church moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon in the 14th century, it became the center of Christianity. The Palais de Papes [Popes’ Palace] was occupied for the next seven decades by a succession of seven popes.

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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. Afterward, 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 Palace itself.

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

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. It is impossible to 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, resurrected into a period hotel centuries later. Our room had a small, walkout walled terrace overlooking rooftops and a church steeple.

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closeup on the steeple view
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rooftop mosaic from terrace

As is often the case when traveling, one of the best experiences was stumbling upon an unknown restaurant when rain-wet, tired, and hungry.

We were lucky to slip into the last table for two in a tiny, terra cotta tile-floored café called Chez Lulu. What we ate was so simple and satisfying that I wanted to replicate it at home.

On a piece of black slate, we were served a small round of Camembert cheese baked in its’ thin wooden container. Around the cheese box there were rolled up slices of prosciutto, tiny roasted potatoes, small green cornichons, and a lightly dressed mixed salad.

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 rain showers disappeared. Dim lighting radiated warm ambience. Provençal wine complimented the peasant-like simplicity of the meal. We ordered a second glass.

There is perfection and enjoyment in the harmony of opposites. Early morning spring sunshine–chilly, all-afternoon rain. Breakfast in luxurious old world splendor–dinner in provincial old world simplicity.

The day began under the splendor of Belle Époque frescoes in Le Train Bleu and ended at an unpretentious brick walled café with fogged over windows dripping rain.

Si vous êtes chanceux, alors ça va parfois dans la vie…

If you are lucky, so it sometimes goes in life…

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parisian luxury, le train bleu
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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 [optional]
  • tiny pickles, gherkins or cornichons
  • raw veggies such as sweet peppers, radishes, cherry tomatoes
  • baguette or crusty country bread
  • mixed green salad with homemade vinaigrette
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basic ingredients: camembert cheese, cornichons, potatoes, bread, veggies, mixed green salad
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remove some rind, insert garlic slices, drizzle with olive oil
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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.
  3. Drizzle a tiny amount of olive oil over. Place on baking sheet or in cast iron skillet then into 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. Recipe for best vinaigrette 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 as accompaniment.

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baked camembert served with turkey, pickles, tomatoes, bell pepper, potatoes, salad and bread
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Winning–At What Cost?

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American Ambassador’s Residence, Paris, France  November 8, 2016

I am not a political pundit or an op-ed writer. I don’t wear my politics or spiritual beliefs on my shirtsleeve. I write stories. Not of war and peace, but about relationships, experiences, or simply a place–often overseas.

Twenty-nine years ago, we chose to leave our home in the U.S. and move to a country in Asia with two very young children. The initial motivation was a job opportunity. But the multi-cultural, international lifestyle suited us. So we remained abroad as expatriates.

From the beginning, we found ourselves experiencing stronger patriotic feelings toward our country by living outside it and looking back in. We talked about this with other Americans also living overseas. We weren’t alone in our pride.

People from other cultures have often told us how much they love and admire the United States. They openly wept and leant support in times of national disaster, 9/11 in particular.

They followed the details of our presidential elections. No matter what country we lived in, we have been asked to give opinions about current U.S. politics. Keen to the international importance of American leadership, people were interested in our “insider” knowledge. Which was, of course, only what we ourselves believed.

The 2016 presidential election has been a turning point to wondering where in the world we belong. Yes, we are a generation older. Our global perspective feels very normal to us now. Yet, we are clearly outsiders looking back to a country we no longer recognize. We see a head-knocking clash of values and compromised national character.

This has been THE most difficult election to discuss or try to explain to non-Americans. During the campaign, my husband and I were often asked by neighbors in our Paris apartment building how Donald Trump could become a candidate for the Republican Party.

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We fumbled for words that mostly ended in head-shaking silence. Throughout the whole painful campaign we hung onto the [naïve] hope that preparation and decency and respect for the responsibility of being President of the United States would win in the end.

Because it didn’t work out that way, we have stumbled. We feel stuck in a way that is difficult to shake. Or explain to others in our overseas world.

My personal upset, initially “all over the map”, was honed by something I read a few days ago. A female educator, in Massachusetts, initially thought her sorrow would be about the loss of a qualified woman to lead the U.S., the loss of knowing what could have been.

She went on to say, “…but that’s not where the disappointment is for me. The disappointment is in the values that won and what that means for lots of people.”

In other words, our collective sorrow should be directed toward the dread of a man whose character and values make him a devastating choice of leader both at home and in the world.

And there, in a nutshell, is my sticking point.

Values are goals to strive for, abstract standards to live by. They are the moral fiber that makes us human. Having them defines character. We grow up. We get to choose personal values that play to our individuality, defining the path by which we live.

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Notre Dame, Paris at sunset

There is also a history of values that Americans have culturally ascribed to those serving as U.S. President. Intelligence, preparation, responsibility to service and inclusion of all others, integrity on the job–these are a few.

Living in Europe the past eleven years has solidified for us the valued role American leadership has played historically and continues to play globally. In Normandy, United States and French flags are flown side by side. At the American cemetery on Omaha beach, French school children annually adopt an individual gravesite to take care of, remembering and learning about the soldier who lies there.

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American Cemetery, Omaha Beach, Normandy

On this windy, northern French coastline the memories of WWII remain strong. People in Normandy beam when they learn you are American. All Europeans remember that in 1948, via the Marshall Plan, the U.S. pledged to rebuild a devastated continent. It was a remarkable historical first–the victor rising to aid the vanquished. These events, including the noble Berlin airlift, occurred because of morally responsible government leadership and values that represented the best of America.

One more story: Today, my husband went to pick up his dry cleaning. The normally reserved French woman at the counter looked directly at him and asked, “How are you doing?’ Then she said, with utter despair, “I have no words!” It was raw emotion.

This election isn’t solely about disenfranchised voters with a myopic view of what they “think” is going to change and “the guy” who can get the job done. It isn’t solely about the inability to break a glass ceiling by a woman capable of doing so.

This election, as all before it, is also about the recognition, reputation and stance of the United States in the world. It has unnerved people internationally that much of our “American-ness”, the compassion and cultural values exercised and upheld for 240+ years have been cast aside by so many. At what cost?

Looking upon my country from afar, it appears that we have tossed a vital piece of national character and conscience out the window. I feel ashamed right now.

It’s difficult to know, or predict, what this “win” will cost our country, our international standing, our global consciousness, and our future.

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“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.

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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.

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neon sign pre 2014 renovation
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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.

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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?

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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.

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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…

That story here: Paris to Avignon

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Judith S. Clancy drawing, exterior façades, 1979

Living Both Sides of the French Coin

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At one time or another, almost everyone has been caught in some kind of bureaucratic nightmare. Where you can’t complete a task because of missing a stamp, a chop, a signature, a photo or a form. These experiences occur wherever you live in the world. When they happen, it’s important to find a way to recalibrate, to feel glad to be in your life again. For me the reset button began with a serendipitous stop in a Parisian café.

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

Stepping inside, the blast of overheated air seemed minor compared to the long queue of people ahead of me. Shedding coat and scarf, I settled in for the wait 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.

I explained that I 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 his 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 it would take 30 seconds to give me a new SIM card. However, I did not have the proper IDs. He raised his shoulders and arms in a shrug and pursed his lips. A very French gesture. No further negotiation.

Outside in much cooler air, I walked twenty minutes to another part of the quartier to buy a roasted chicken, all the while fuming over French “rules”. The boucherie sign said “CLOSED” until 3:00PM. Now, both 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 for two. It was laid with a textured white cover, starched cloth napkins, heavy silverware, and bistro glassware. The menu was large and colorful with “CUISINE FAMILIALE ET BOURGEOISE” in bold letters.

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

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

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In France it’s easy and comfortable to dine alone, any time of day or night. 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 melted away.

At the entrance 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. The inside lighting was muted by wall sconces and chandeliers with pleated shades.

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 the door wearing a floor length fur coat, meeting friends already seated. An elderly man at the table 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 wine and an intense discussion.

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finale

I had finished eating, but remained sitting and rethinking the day’s events. Earlier, the score tally had been Paris–1, Wendy–0, feeling defeated by narrow mindedness and lack of service. Several hours later, my mood was lighter, my attitude readjusted. All because of doing a very normal Parisian thing–taking myself to lunch, blending in with culture and ambience that I both admire and appreciate.

La belle vie en France–c’est comme ça. Final score: French bureaucracy-1, Wendy’s love for Paris-1. Not a tie…I won.


OEUFS MAYONNAISE [courtesy of Paris Paysanne]

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

Preparation:

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

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photo credit, Paris Paysanne

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

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photo credit, Paris Paysanne

Looking Back To the Present

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christmas carousel, strasbourg, france

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

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

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

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

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

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

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chestnuts roasting
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gingerbread smiling
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baubles posing

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

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

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

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the best vin chaud in strasbourg is here 
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la petite france by day
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fairytale lights at night, times one
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fairy tale lights at night, times two
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street of baccarat crystal chandeliers
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a closer look inside

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

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

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

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memorial dans la Place Kléber

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

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french flag unfurled
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the tri color decorates

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

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

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

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

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

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Wishing you and yours a warm holiday season of togetherness.

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

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Simply Sally

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I have a problem trying to figure out what to cook for dinner. It’s silly because if you hand me a restaurant menu I know right away what will feed my hunger. My husband always asks what I am ordering before he makes up his own mind. He knows he will want it too. Especially after he orders something else and then sees the better choice in front of me.

Cooking at home is a repetitive daily hang-up. Over the years I have relied on friends whose culinary skills seem effortless, nurturing, even joyful. This kind of decision-making must be inborn. It bypassed my genetic makeup. Despite 39 years of marriage and two children, daily cooking is my predicament.

During our years overseas, friends taught me to prepare simple, delicious one-dish meals to nourish a growing, hungry family. Some of those meals became staples that over time no longer required following a recipe. Mujuddarah, People Who Pull the Magic Out of You Rancher’s Pasta, Lebanese egg-potato salad, veggie fried rice, Spaghetti Josephine Garlic and Girlfriends to name a few.

By the time we moved to France, children had grown and there were only two of us. It was also when I met my friend Sally.

Sally is an artist and teacher who moved to Bolivia for two years in the late 1980s. She became involved in running a house to support children living on the streets. A young boy in the program captured her heart and she adopted him. In 1990, they returned to the U.S. where she resumed her teaching job in the Arizona public schools.

Sally is a born nurturer who also happens to love cooking. Every day. She always has a plan.

Her picnics, in our Parisian neighborhood park, were memorable. Over colorful Bolivian blankets spread on lush grass, she arranged platters of sliced poached chicken, fragrant with spices, raisins, and sautéed onions, thyme and rosemary roasted potatoes, Mediterranean quinoa salad, cheeses and fruits, and chocolaty brownies. Flutes of champagne or a glass of wine served as accompaniment. Flowers stood in a vase. Sally made it look effortless. On many summer evenings, she and her husband charmed a revolving door of houseguests over the two years they lived here.

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One day, undecided about a cooking idea, I asked Sally what she was making for dinner. She said, “Galette.” What? I knew galette in the form of a cake [Galette de Roi] served in the early days of the New Year in France. It has a plastic toy king baked inside that is a good luck charm for the finder.

“No, no, no”, Sally said, “This is different. Galette can be savory as well.”

Traditionally, galette is a covered crust over cooked ingredients–savory [meat or veggies] or sweet [fruit]. She began to describe the process but I cut her off. “I’ll never remember, just show me.” We agreed to meet the following week in my kitchen-with-a-view for an afternoon of cooking.

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best kitchen view

That evening, on the day we met, I was to attend a potluck dinner party in the courtyard of our apartment building. All the other residents are French. At the time I didn’t know them well and felt intimidated by what to bring.

Back in the kitchen, there was a bottle of Burgundy in the counter wine rack. We opened it and got busy. From start to finish, preparing a galette couldn’t have been easier. A little glass of wine is a great buffer. –Sally Boyle

Sally brought cooked chicken breasts and potatoes, roasted red peppers, spinach, zucchini, olives, onion, and soft goat cheese. While I shredded the chicken, she sautéed chopped onion and sliced zucchini rounds in a pan with olive oil until tender. Frozen pastry circles thawed quickly at room temperature on a baking sheet.

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It was simple assembly after that–one meat galette and the other, vegetarian.

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fold crust over for half-moon galette

For the meaty one, we layered chicken, potatoes, and vegetables [zucchini, onion, red pepper and olives] over the pastry, seasoning well with salt and pepper. [Add red pepper flakes if you like more heat. Yes I do!] For vegetarian, we used a combination of cooked spinach, goat cheese, zucchini, red peppers, olives and onions.

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ready to bake
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the lovely result

Cover with the top pastry or fold over in half and seal the edges. [I have also made a one-crust version, which is even lighter.] Make holes in crust to let out steam. Bake 20 minutes at 210 Centigrade or 400 Fahrenheit. Voila–an instant main course worthy of a king, Serve warm or cooled to room temperature. Add green salad and glass of wine, as desired.

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one crust, open faced
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one-dish meal with salad and wine

Later that evening at the party, I discreetly placed my contribution on the table with other food offerings. Then moved away to meet and greet neighbors. As people began to eat, I overheard several women murmuring about something delicious on their plates. It was the galette! They wanted to know how to make it and what was inside.

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my dinner party galette

Surprised to receive notice in a foodie crowd, I said, “Oh, it was very simple…”

Simple, that is, if you have a friend like Sally.

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Champagne: “Tasting the Stars”

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

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

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

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

In the late 1660s, a young Benedictine Monk named Dom Pérignon was assigned to the Abbey d’Hautvillers to bring it back to life and productivity. This meant resurrecting the vineyards.

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

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

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

The most important thing he did was blend different grapes. The harmony he created between balance and taste was unequaled at the time. He mixed grapes from different parts of the region–a completely new concept. Myths arose because he was extraordinary, but in actuality he just made better wines than anyone else. He was an innovator and adaptor with keen observation and taste. He started using corks as stoppers rather than wooden pegs. Still, most of the wine he made was red, not white. And definitely not sparkling.

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pinot grapes
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chardonnay grapes

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

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chagall stained glass in reims cathedral

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

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

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

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

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champagne leaves in springtime, april 2015

A common consumer complaint was the unpleasant murkiness left inside bottles from dead yeast cells and other byproducts of fermentation. The discovery of disgorging this sediment became the crowning glory to Champagne fame.

Widow Clicquot [of Veuve Clicquot Champagne] and her cellar master experimented with trying to remove the sticky mess. He cut holes into the widow’s wooden kitchen table and inserted the bottles upside down, suspended by their necks. Periodic twisting and shaking dislodged the sludge and moved it gradually toward the cork. When the cork was pulled, sediment shot out leaving most of the wine and bubbles. Topped off, re-corked, and it was ready to ship. The secret leaked. An industry took off.

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champagne countryside, fall 2015

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

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undulating symmetry, post harvest, fall 2015

Post-war, vineyards not destroyed were massively re-organized. Numbers of vines were reduced. Replanting in symmetrically ordered rows, rather than haphazardly as in the past, became the norm. Grapes were matched to the soil and climate. The combination of ancient chalky soil, harsh northern weather, and unreliable harvests created a system for blending grapes from current and past years. All fine Champagne is now made from blending three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Exceptions are Blanc de Blancs which is 100% Chardonnay and Blanc de Noirs which is 100% Pinot Noir.

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blanc de blancs
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blanc de noirs

My love for Champagne came about later in life. In my 20s, California sparkling wine was the perfect storm for a day-after headache. During fifteen years of living in Asia we drank Champagne only once–on New Year’s Eve of the millennium. In Germany we sipped Sekt, the sparkling apéro-of-choice at social gatherings. But we never drank it at home. Only when we moved to France did bubbly wine shift from infrequent tasting to delight.

In Paris, Champagne was the only beverage served as an aperitif, day or night. It was light, refreshing, delicious, and trés French, of course. We began making weekend trips to Reims and Épernay, the co-capitals of Champagne region, to sample and learn more.

Some people consume Champagne only on special occasions–weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, retirements, christenings, or at midnight on December 31. We live outside of that box now. When home in France, Champagne is often our white-wine-of-choice.

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Good Champagne doesn’t have to be expensive. Épernay excursions led us to small producers who sell directly to the consumer. Delicious bubbly can be purchased for less than $20.00 a bottle.

Pairing Champagne with food often surprises. Strawberries and chocolate are cliché. Pizza happens to be a perfect chemistry match. On homemade pizza night we begin by uncorking something to sip while we cook. Glasses are refilled table side when we sit down to eat.

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classic pairing
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surprise pairing

Sparkling wine produced in other countries–German Sekt, Italian Prosecco, Spanish Cava, and California are runners-up to Champagne. They aren’t bad, just not the same. When you uncork a bottle of Champagne, for whatever occasion, raise your glass to Dom Pérignon. Then enjoy “tasting the stars”.

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

I’m not planning to have that regret.

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fall in champagne, 2015

La Bonne Rentrée in Paris

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August is the month when France goes on vacation. In the early 1900s, “La Fermeture Annuelle” was a tradition to provide paid time-off to factory workers. By 1982, laws were passed giving five weeks of paid vacation to all salaried workers.

From late July to the end of August, Paris is quieter, the streets emptier, parking–not a problem. There are still tourists and some businesses remain open. But most small shops and restaurants are closed and shuttered as Parisians head for beaches, country homes, and relaxation elsewhere.

Then comes September and “La Bonne Rentrée”. Schools reopen and summertime is officially over. By the end of the first week of la rentrée, streets and cafés are full again. Curbside parking disappears for another year.

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un café timeout
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un vin rouge timeout

La Rentrée is a time to reconnect with friends, re-establish routines and reacquaint to life in Paris.

One of my favorite returning rituals is to spend a morning at the “Marché aux Puces” at Porte de Vanves. This isn’t the biggest flea market or even the most famous one in Paris. The mega-flea market at Clignancourt, on the northern edge of the city, is where scenes from the movie “Midnight in Paris” were filmed.

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I like the smaller venue in the southern 14th Arrondissement. It lines only two streets, for half a day on Saturdays and Sundays, year round. There are professional merchants with covered tables and reserved spots. There are others who sell from a blanket spread on the ground. It’s treasure hunting and people watching fun. The crowd is both local and tourist.

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The entertainer
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the daydreaming vendor
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the watchful merchant
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the consideration
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the negotiation
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and the transaction

When looking for something special, like an antique enamel coffeepot for a story about Swedish egg coffee An Egg in the Coffeepot, I headed to the flea market. At other times, without a particular goal, I have stumbled upon useful items such as porcelain towel bars or heavy glass candleholders or Japanese-occupation pottery plates which we collected in Taiwanese street markets twenty years ago.

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red is best
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japanese-occupation pottery, circa 1895-1945, made in taiwan

Sometimes an excursion is rewarded with a beautiful signed vase or a framed picture for the wall. And sometimes–nothing at all.

Flea markets are recycled decorating ideas or collecting at its’ best. The volume and range of objects astounds. Even knowing, “one man’s trash is another’s treasure”, it’s hard not to be judgmental of some objects on display for sale. Odd, quirky, eccentric, useful, cheap, expensive, collectible, colorful, playful, beautiful, strange, or simply weird. It’s all there for a price. Bargaining is essential, bien sûr.

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The odd
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the quirky
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the eccentric
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the useful
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The cheap
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the expensive
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the collectibles
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The colorful
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the playful
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the beautiful
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the strange
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and the weird

I go to the Marché aux Puces for entertainment, to see what’s there, to eavesdrop on interactions between shoppers and vendors, to stroll along and muse over oddities with a cup of coffee or vin chaud [in wintertime] from the corner kiosk.

The adventure never disappoints. It’s an annual ritual that reminds me that I’m back home in my favorite city in the world.

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I. M. Pei’s pyramid
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Secret Eating

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Secret eating is seldom spoken about or easily admitted. If you ask most people what they enjoy eating alone, without sharing, they hesitate with a questioning look. Or mumble that they don’t know. It’s possible they’ve never experienced this solitary pleasure.

The desire to eat unobserved isn’t like bingeing on ice cream or sneaking candy bars to feed your chocolate craving. It’s not comfort food either. It is something you do surreptitiously, consciously, and quietly by yourself. It is a moment, by choice, of indescribable satisfaction.

A survey of extended family members about clandestine eating revealed only one answer close to my definition. It came from my daughter-in-law who is Latvian with Russian heritage. She formed a covert eating ritual as a child, from the age of ten. In the summertime, after her parents left for the evening, she went to the market by herself. She bought a huge watermelon with pennies saved or found under chair cushions. Lugging it home, she managed to cut it in two, carried half to the living room sofa, watched television, and ate it down to the rind. Spoonful by decadent spoonful. Including the seeds. She was not under the watchful eye of anyone, or told to get a plate, or to sit on the floor, or not make a mess. She did it quietly and happily, for her own pleasure.

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anna’s secret eating

M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] wrote a wonderful story about secret eating. It took place one frigid winter when she and her husband lived in an unheated walkup apartment in Strasbourg, France. They were depressed by the unending cold, dreary grayness and couldn’t afford to move. So they rented a room in a pension for one luxurious week. It came with a big bed, billowy curtained windows and heat.

Each morning after waving Al off to the university, Mary Frances sat in the window considering the day ahead. She wasn’t ready to brave the outdoor temperatures. While the maid fluffed up duvets and pillows, murmuring in her Alsatian accent, Fisher carefully peeled several small tangerines. Meticulously separating each orange crescent and removing all the white “strings” between pieces, she placed the sections on top of newspaper over the radiator. And forgot about them.

There was a long lunch when Al returned and perhaps a wee nip of “digestif” from the decanter on the dresser before he went back to afternoon classes. By this time the orange sections had majestically puffed up, ready to burst with heat and fullness. Opening the window, she carefully placed them in the snow on the outside sill. Several chilling minutes passed. Then it was time.

For the rest of the afternoon, Mary Frances sat watching the world go by on the street below, savoring each orange morsel slowly and voluptuously. She reveled in the spurt of cold pulp and juice after biting through the crackling skin that was like …”a little shell, thin as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl”. She mused while vendors sold half-frozen flowers, children ran home from school, and prostitutes sipped hot tea in a café across the way.

Winter’s early darkness descended and the orange sections were gone. She couldn’t exactly say what was so magical about them. Yet she knew that others with “secret eatings of their own” would somehow understand.

I read this story many years before we moved to Europe. The first winter we lived in Germany, I traveled by myself to Strasbourg on a train from Frankfurt. Next to Place Gutenberg is a small hotel where I stayed in a room under the roof. The spire of the Strasbourg Cathedral was visible when I stuck my head out the dormer window. The bathroom was at the top of an open staircase right under the peak.

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my room under the roof
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cathedral view from window by night

That February was bitterly cold.

I bought a bag of small clementines, peeled them into sections, and laid them on a piece of hotel stationery on top of the radiator. Then I went out to explore.

When I returned, the oranges had grown fat and hot just as Fisher described. There was no snow, but the outside temperature was below freezing. Out on the sill they went. When thoroughly chilled, I ate them one by one in the dim afternoon light. It was true–the skins were crisp and crackling. So thin that, when you bit through them, there was a “pop” followed by the rush of cool juice and pulp. It was a replay moment from the pages of a story by a writer I had long admired. It made me happy.

Several years later, a new secret eating ritual started during a visit with “Dietitian Daughter” in Colorado. She was buying a snack item for her husband from the bulk bins of a national food chain. I watched her fill a bag with flattened, dull-colored, brownish-orange pieces of fruit. They looked run over by a truck. They were unsweetened dried mangos. Dehydrated into stiffened leather. She handed me a piece and said, “Try it”.

The first sensation was what it looked like–rough, tough hard-edged, with the taste and texture of dust on shoes. As salivary juices kicked in, that road-kill-looking mango became softer, warmer, and pliable. Careful considerate chewing brought out interesting changes. It turned vaguely sweeter but held onto the essence of fruity leather. I had to chew slowly, without hurrying, before it was ready to swallow. I had to pay attention.

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unsweetened dried mangoes

The degree of subtlety from dry dusty toughness to a satisfying payoff several minutes later completely hooked me. I took my own bag back to Paris.

Now when I feel the urge, I go to the hiding place in the kitchen and randomly choose several pieces of dried mango. Then I stand or sit in a window of our apartment overlooking the vine-laden courtyard where I never tire of the view.

If I stand in the kitchen window during secret eating time, I might muse over the spring unfolding of the Virginia creeper vines or the work-in-progress renovations on the apartment across the courtyard. The neighbour’s cat might be outside on the balcony chirping wistfully at pigeons. If I choose to sit in the warm afternoon sun of the dining room windows, I have a private view of sky, rooftops, vine covered brick walls, and my own blooming geraniums.

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dining room window
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with a view

Or, I might decide to stand in the street-side windows at the front of the apartment where I take note of pedestrians, shopkeepers, or a trumpet-playing street musician four stories below.

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street side windows at sunrise

My secret eating is something I try to keep to myself. It gives me great pleasure and satisfaction. But what is it really? Like Fisher, I can’t exactly say. Perhaps it’s simply a meditative time-out, or a few private minutes of simply “being” and not “doing”, or a satisfying break in the midst of a day, a week, a month.

There must be someone out there who understands what I mean…

The Baba au Rhum Affair

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

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crème brûlée
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mousse au chocolat
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tarte tartin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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baba at first sight

Rum was slowly and generously poured over the cake. I took a spoonful of rum-infused cake with a little cream and–well, it was like sharing a magic carpet ride with “Ali Baba” himself.

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slowly pour rum over cake
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take a spoonful of rum infused cake and cream

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

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

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split open, ready for rum, cream on the side
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served with full bottle à table

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

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

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

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

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

And yet, I remain nostalgic because that bite of sweet, rum, and coolness, savoured and shared, is a fine way to spend time around the table with people you love.

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Kindle Some Candlelight

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

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Recently, I became aware this is not a tradition others follow as consistently as I do. Earlier this month, on a dark December afternoon, my friend Lesli invited a group of women for “wine and unwind” time. This is a time of bringing friends into your home, opening a bottle of something and letting conversation flow.

Lesli’s apartment happens to be furnished with a spectacular crystal chandelier from another century. Studying it admiringly, I noticed it was not electrified. It was outfitted with candles. They had never been lit since Lesli moved in three years before. She needed little encouragement from me. With partially burned candles already in place, I climbed on a chair and broke off the blackened wicks before re-lighting them. In full glow, this antique beauty became a Versailles-worthy show stopper. Although no “ugly duckling” before, it was now a stunning swan.

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candlelight transformation

She also had six or eight candles in heavy glass jars from the oldest candle making store in Paris, Cire Trudon. This is the most prestigious French wax manufacturer in existence since 1643. The wicks were deeply buried in hardened wax. It took some digging and trimming, but those, too, were put into burning use. Soon the living room was ambient with candle glow, “coupes de champagne” in everyone’s hand, and easy banter among friends.

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trimmed and untrimmed wick lengths

Everyone knows candlelight warms up any room. But for many people they are messy and off putting to use except on special occasions. If you are an infrequent candle lighter, a bit of know-how etiquette is what you need. For anyone inclined to light up the night with candles, here is a basic tutorial as requested by a few friends in France.

  • Always trim the wick before relighting a candle. It will break off in your fingers at the perfect starting point. Otherwise, smoke from a too-long wick blackens walls, ceilings and pollutes the room.
  • Prevent excessive dripping messes by keeping lit candles out of drafts. This seems obvious, but it’s really important to be aware of air currents where candles are burning. For safety reasons.
  • If you light a lot of candles, it’s good to use a candlesnuffer for extinguishing rather than blowing them out. This reduces smoke pollution and spraying wax on walls and surfaces.
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candlesnuffer
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held over wick 5-8 seconds
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voilà! no smoking candle or sprayed wax

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

  • Never display new candles [taper or column] with white, unburnt wicks. If you leave wicks un-blackened, they look like a store display rather than decorative home use. New candle wicks should be burned briefly and extinguished unless using the candle right away. [Votive candles are an exception.]
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votive monks
  • Don’t burn candles during daylight. Candles are for darkness only, morning or evening. Breakfast before sun-up with candlelight is a mellow way to start the day. Evening is natural timing. A candle lit bath can be a regular luxury.

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    breakfast candles with ceramic match holder
  • When a drippy mess occurs, as it will, consider it part of the experience. A plastic spatula easily scrapes wax from hard surfaces. Hot water does the rest, melting it away.
  • As column-shaped candles burn down, empty the wax pool [while it is still liquid] right after extinguishing. As it burns deeper into the column, occasionally trim off the top flush with the wick, using a cutting board and a large knife. This prolongs a natural burning life until it becomes a stump ready to discard.
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    wrought iron candelabra, paris
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    best of electricity and candlepower, colorado

    I can’t explain how fire and candle lore became second nature to me. But, I believe our “indoor lives” are  enhanced by strategic candlelight. It’s a personal, creative choice for the selection of candle holders, shapes, and colors. Almost any non-flammable container will hold some type of candle. Oil lamp candlelight is a no fuss no muss option.

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    mix regular and oil burning candlelight
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    coffee table candles
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    shadow play

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

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    santa says ho ho ho & hippobirdday dar

    Premier candles: www.ciretrudon.com

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

    In France: 78, rue de Seine 75006 Paris