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Monday, June 23, 2014

The Cooking Life: St. Jean's Feast Day, June 24th and Green Walnuts!

La Belle Gasconne

Hello and bonjour! 

It’s still early in the (day..) summer, June 23, but tomorrow is June 24 and St Jean’s Feast Day; and the day for bonfires, collecting green walnuts, and crushing them to make a sweet wine that is a tradition in Gascony. 

We have a grand old tree near us in Carrboro, that we've been watching grow and picking from since 1997. Listen while collecting the nuts, and you may feel a slight shift, as days are getting shorter, but not as short and cool as they will be come September! And there's a few spaces left for C'est si Bon!'s Trip to Gascony, we'd love to have you join us! 

Happy Anniversary! June 24th also just happens to be my 36th anniversary with Rich, my dear husband. 

I will try to photograph the process of making the green walnut wine, on instagram. Please feel free to follow me at MadameLevain. 

In the meantime, here is a true favorite ~ Salt and Honey Walnuts with Floc’d Figs

I have not seen any figs in the market yet. I know our trees will be lucky to bear any this year, because there was a cold snap right at the critical moment. This recipe works really well with dried figs. Serve as a sweet and savory appetizer for a special dinner. And in November, serve with your Vin de Noix. 

The Esplette pepper, is from the Basque region of France and has been used since introduced with corn there around 1523. adjust to suit your taste, then uummm!

1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon esplette pepper

1 cup sliced dried figs
1 cup floc de Gascogne, available at Southern Season 

2 teaspoons olive oil
1 cup chopped walnuts

2 tablespoons honey

mix together the salt, sugar, and pepper. set aside in a small bowl.

soak the figs in Floc for a couple of hours. when ready to cook, drain the Floc (should any remain, its yours, drink up)

heat a wok or heavy skillet over medium heat till hot.  add the oil, give it a swirl, then add the nuts. 

stir well, but gently till the nuts are warmed, but not burned.

add in the figs. sprinkle on the salt, sugar and pepper combination. stir well. 

add the honey and continue stirring till it’s melted and glazes the nuts. remove to a buttered baking sheet and allow to cool and harden.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Carpe Diem. Fulton Fish Market, Where it Began.

This excerpt from Mother's Five. A Season of Sauces. During this period, I was the food editor of the Chapel Hill News, and joined a conference in NYC of the AFJ, Association of Food Journalists. 

SEPTEMBER1995 AT FULTON FISH MARKET with the Association of Food Journalists.

Teddy's at Fulton Fish Market in 1944. A Tisket and a Basket of  Carp. 

“It is 2:30 isn’t it ?” came the questions, from uncoffee’d souls, not sure why now they had signed on for this early morning, Fulton Fish Market, tour.  Though the light inside the Westbury Hotel was the same as ever it appeared to be less bright than at 9am, coffee again, notwithstanding. 

            “Where is the goddamm coffee?” someone asked. Oh, that was me.  Walking amounted to mere attempts at shuffling. Blood circulated sleepily through veins, which only hours before, had rollicked alongside Rioja wines and tapas at the Metropolitan in a toast to the new Goya exhibit.

            We begin in a double decker bus, cruising the back streets of New York under the guidance of an almost full moon.

            At market we saw a doctorfish, mentioned by Shirley King in her book, Fish Basics. Cries of “watch out for trucks and men with hooks.”  Good advice no matter what the hour.

            “Nothing comes here by boat anymore.” Open 5 days from 3AM to 9AM.  Greatest variety of seafood on the Atlantic Seaboard.  Southern fish comes in Sunday and Wednesday.  Two buildings run from Fulton Street to Pecks Slip South.  Most fish sold whole.  Outa town people come on Monday, Thursday, and Friday. Oh, zee little crabs, king mackerel, Venezuela parrot fish, croakers, squid, spanish mackeral, weakfish, John Dory, and spots.  All fish in New York comes through here at some point.  Sea robin, carp, tuna, shark, sword, fluke, flounder, bluefish, red snapper, amberjack, porgies, marlin, yellowfish and the movement to not buy billfish.  Who needs a fish with a bill? Yikes!  Tilefish, deepwater local fish not floor specialist. Monkfish, shark of unknown origin, arctic char, skate wings, triggerfish, red mullet (rouge).

“Everything that moves in the water, we sell.” Fish from Portugal, just for the halibut. Atlantic Wolf Fish, charmer with teeth. We wave goodbye to fresh smelt, and pass Sloppy Lowie’s, established in 1930 on our way to Amy’s Breads.  

Little did I know the luminaries I was walking with. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Merging the Life of Cooking and Writing. Happy Mother's Day, Nana.

An excerpt from the Chapter on Ducks and Veloute in Mother's Five, A Season of Sauces.  

My brother, Jeremy, and I were handed over to Nana to raise like she raised her zinnias, begonnias, and tomatoes, right beside her deep bowls full of old fashioned yeasty potato dough she used for big round potato cakes and fastnacht doughnuts. We were about three years old and never gave a second thought to the arrangement, then. Nana also ran a Beauty Shop in her house on Fourth Street, which was right around the corner from my adopted mother's, Dr. Aileen's, medical practice on Douglas Street. I think because both these businesses were in our home, that may explain why I chose to build C’est si Bon! Cooking School beside our house, instead of renting a retail space.

Nana, (Dorothy) and her husband, Leroy's wedding portrait. 

Beauty Shop seems like an old-fashioned term. I mean how  many variations on a theme have we seen in that regard? But shop of beauty still perfectly describes Nana. Her linen tablecloths would also now be seen as vintage ~ but unlike her beauty Shop they are still here, and still in use at C'est si Bon! I used them in a Team Building just last week for a company that well, sees things a little differently. I talk back with Nana's simple and beautiful linens and as they lift her tablecloth off their "gourmet basket" my Team and I make sure they know the ingredients are organic. And so Nana's tablecloths are still full of her kind of beauty and her voice. The one she liked best was the one with bright red strawberries and a white background. That was for the days in May when the three of us, Nana, Jeremy, and me would have strawberry shortcake for dinner.

Nana, Jeremy and Me, early on. 

Nana didn't make cake in the traditional sense for our strawberry short cakes. She made a biscuit dough, patted it in and baked it in a glass pie plate. Her biscuit dough was a little on the sweet side. And the strawberries –  they were always bought the day we were going to eat them. Nana tucked quarters in our hands from the tin cans full of loose change that she kept in the glass-doored cupboard. We rushed out the front door and down the steps to the huckster lady who drove her truck slowly down Fourth Street every Wednesday morning. She drove slowly, so we would be sure to catch her. Nana shouted behind us - “taste them first and the best, only the best strawberries, you hear?” The huckster lady smiled as Nana watched from the front porch. 

About an hour before supper we mashed the sweet berries in a red pyrex bowl and mixed in lots of sugar. Nana pulled the hot shortcakes out of the oven, split them open while steaming, and spread them knee deep with butter, then piled on the strawberries and more strawberries. The crimson juice spilled all over the white plate. I'm sure Jeremy and I dribbled our fair share of red juice on Nana's tablecloth too. Well, I am sure I did. 

But besides buying strawberries from the huckster, Nana was devoted to going to the farmer's markets. And she was a natural teacher. I don't think she thought of it that way. But she was always dropped little hints as I tried to keep up with her in aisles of the 9th Street Market in Reading. But I was always dropping the paper bags instead, filled with white celery, mushrooms, parsley, and scallions that she piled in my arms. As the youngster, this was my job. I suppose I was in training then, but of course I had no idea about that either. This was "chust" the way it was done. I caught little wisps of her conversations with the vendors. She asked the poultry farmers about the muscovy ducks, the bakers about the bear claws and the rye bread. The farmers who heaped the straw over the celery to keep it white, always greeted her with a smile and a "Hello, Dot!" The man who ground horseradish knew she loved good food, and she was fussy about it. She knew exactly how she wanted her horseradish. I don't know how you learned all of what you knew. Nana, but you passed along everything. She adored cup cheese with molasses, sat down anytime for baby cakes dunked in coffee, and saw eye to eye with raisin sticky buns teeming with walnuts. 

Nana in Florida, with a friend. Maybe in her Forties?

Later my shopping privileges grew, and I advanced to being the main shopper. "Pick up some chicken corn soup  too, from Ciotti's freezer," she said. Was this a test to see if I had been paying attention during all our trips together? I am not sure how I got the big metal shopping cart out the door that first week. I'm sure she laughed a little as I tried to make it work. I like to think she had faith in me, I must have been about eleven, and I didn't know that being given the grocery shopping was such a big responsibility. I loved having the shopping to do, and I loved helping Nana. Going shopping to Ciotti's, the big Italian grocery store was the next step in the test, but again, I didn't see it that way. I only saw the glint in her eyes as her hands pinned the money in my pocket, as if now I had passed over the border into her land, and our bond grew. 

Nana at Fifty

One of the most special times with Nana was when I was newly married, and actually had nothing to do with food. Rich and I drove her away from Dr. Aileen's place where they both had moved; Mesa, Arizona. We drove west to California for a few days at Disney Land. This might have been for her 70th birthday. We drove with the windows open because the Cutlass Supreme had no air conditioning. Even though we kept checking in with her, Nana always shouted from the back seat that she was “chust fine.” We checked into a hotel just over the border in California and when we stepped into our room, there was a long mirror. Nana's hair was still perfectly coiffed, her permanent didn't let things get too far out of hand before they sprung back. But when I saw my hair – wild and windblown. She finally laughed out loud too, as if maybe we had recaptured a time where we had once been. A time we hadn't seen since Jeremy drowned. It was a sweet time, where the day was defined by simple tasks; like going to the market, digging weeds out of the garden, or collecting the heads of the zinnias in paper bags for their seeds. Before the time that Jeremy and I grew up and all innocence had passed. The time when she raised me and Jeremy on strawberry shortcake.  

She asked me to sit down on the bed. She slid my blue plastic comb out of my purse, and sat on the edge of the bed, too. We watched The Galloping Gourmet on TV and Nana patiently worked through the tangles to the ends.

As I say she was a Beautician. She always took matters into her own hands to fix them. When Jeremy and I first came to live with her she gave permanents and "sets" where she divided the neighbor ladies hair into plots and then into pin curls in the cellar shop. There beside the old wringer washer was one of those old-school bonnet hair dryers. Jeremy and I pretended to do each other's hair while she was washing clothes. My hair must have presented some sort of special project merit for Nana. Just like picking out the right Muscovy duck or getting the right grind on the horseradish, Nana was determined to fix the color of my hair and keep it curly. My hair was never allowed to get long, which of course I longed for, to be like the others girls. She always got out the hairdresser's scissors just when I thought maybe she would relent. Nana bleached my hair with baby shampoo mixed with 20 percent peroxide. She asked a hairdresser friend, Mr. Lloyd, for the correct timing. I remember my hair being very soft and yellow. And always curly. Later on, much later, when I was in charge of my own hair, I ferociously blew my hair dry and straight and in the dry heat of Arizona and California it was very easy.

            But on that day on in Hotel California Nana’s hands that had taught me all about the beauty of how to make biscuits, buy strawberries and search out chicken corn soup, held my long straight yellow hair as she softly stroked through. She didn't say a word. Neither did I. 


Later on, Nana and me.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Writing Life: Escoffier's Butter Maker Part Two

Read Escoffier's Butter Maker Part One 

Won't you join our trip to Paris? 

This excerpt is from a novel in progress, Aboyer: The Little Announcer.  Aboyer tells the tale of Chef Auguste Escoffier's butter maker. What she left to come to Paris, why she makes and sells butter in the great and famous old market, Les Halles.

A rush of cool air rises as I descend. The familiar chill envelops me. A burgeoning desire overwhelms me to turn away and enter the Paris that lives below the streets, walk out to the Seine, throw my cap aside and jump on a barge to wind back to Siena on the threads of water.
But I burrow and descend towards the darkness where my work keeps my secret. The sharp steely scent of the ground opens, like a flinty white from Bordeaux, from Graves on the left bank that I passed on my way north. My steps echo and lift towards Rue de Montmorency, the street of cherries, and a tree of the fruit that joins me with my daughter.
At the foot of the stairs, the cool dark startles my cape, made of black lamb’s wool, from Severino’s night flock. The curls weave even more tightly, refusing to unfurl and comfort me in the cold. Why this darkness? You know I prefer the light that begins each new day, and the heavy work. The old, grassy, smell of the souring cream, that reminds me of the room, how long ago it seems, where we first made the sweet ricotta, and where Cocotte was born.
The polished door swells from the dampness inside, perhaps as determined to remain closed as I am to open it. My fingers, the tips numb and spreading their ice up my arms, feel the length of the filagree key, and push it into the hole. It catches and the bolt releases, much as I felt the latch close on the box in Siena weeks ago. The box hides the letters, the wooden box that cradled the first cherries Cocotte picked in Severino’s orchard.
Down in the creamery, the stone-wall feels rough and damp. The lid on the oak box is heavy. After weeks of struggling, I know that once the suction is broken, the lid will lift easily, opening to the hard white treasure, inside the long rough wood.
But the sadness wakens in me; a deep and golden, aching vision of Cocotte, sleeping in the room below the patisserie. Cocotte, shh, wake, and remember my love for you.   

Perhaps she still does. She climbs to the top of the stairs. Straightens the mirror with the golden angels on the frame. She slips on her blue leather shoes with scuffs and opens the door to the shop. She walks across the shop’s black and white squares. She hits the iron framed window (it sticks too when cold outside.) with her palm and then breathes in the first light of Siena.
From butter's home in Paris, if only she could see what I am showing her. For I am showing her, that instead of working on the panforte, she should leave the shop and walk around the piazza and down the promenade and around the next corner. It’s so close to her, the proof that I am alive. Her blue leather shoes could enter the Duomo and snatch my cross, hanging where I left it for her to find. She can’t see it there, on the wall in the Duomo with so many others crowding around. Instead she walks past the Duomo to the cemetery, looking for her golden sadness, as she doesn’t believe Severino, she has found no evidence and she’s clever to question him. Has she dug for my bones? The ground is too hard, and dry. She’s not yet strong enough.  

I return to my work in the cremerie. The white mass in the trough is hard and unyielding; it’s job is to protect the center, the heart of the butter, where it all began. This cutting will take some time. Be patient. I prefer cutting the blocks, then washing them in the cool air. Leaving the irregularities in the texture where they are plain to see.  
Make them all the same, Auguste implored last night. But I don’t see the point. Anyone can do that.
Last night Auguste danced at the stove, showing me the sauce where tarragon stems, the shells of crayfish, and bones of espelette peppers swirl with butter.
But this morning, returning to the cremerie, I am alone. I mold the white butter into square stones that could build a path. A path to the mother inside, the mother I never was, one stone of butter at a time, for the one day, when Cocotte leaves Siena and winds her way to Paris.
The flavor is better when irregular, I whispered last night. But Auguste had already left, and I was alone at the stove, stirring the marrow into his Bordelaise. Even at that distance of meat and shallots and stock, I could still hear the butter.
Whether melted into a roux for le béchamel, le veloute, a silky espaganole, or hot and streamed into l’hollandaise, or even for la tomate, it’s golden sheen swirls and loves the tomatoes from the day they were born in the hot sun.
This morning I stand over the trough in the cremerie and can't wait any longer to decide. Do I listen or ignore the buyers at Les Halles; who insist that their butter all look the same. Auguste maintains that he cares, that he sees, but they can’t see, and don’t care what I want. It doesn’t matter to them.
But it should, and to Auguste too. The shape of the butter does matter, and is more pleasant, as life can be, can be sweeter, despite being irregular, haphazard, the corners rough, chipping away to reveal the creamy center. He will understand. 

The thin knife penetrates, and slices across the long block of butter. I follow the cracks and cut irregular blocks guided by their path. Their path leads back where the flavor began; back where the butter began as a soft yellow secret, heavy and full of the fields.

The butter rounds with soft breathing sheep and Cocotte who is still sleeping. 
I reach her arm, shake her awake. Wake before dawn. Before you put the heavy copper pan on the stove, and you melt the butter and add the sugar – before the syrup swirls and dizzies the hazelnuts, almonds, and orange peel and you turn out the pan forte; while the air mists and  lifts between us. Cocotte, quickly, before the wall of nuts caramelizes, before it’s too late and the wall grows too high between us, between Siena and Paris. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

French Travel Adventures: A Proustian Repast, Just Past the Cimetiere In Montparnasse

A few years ago, I studied Proust for 18 months with a wonderful group of friends who met in the Piedmont Biofuels Kitchen and was led by author and poet Judy Hogan. I longed to continue the ambiance of the novels after class, in Paris. Alas, even after our adieu's and speaking to my four-runner in French - my car took me back to Carrboro instead. 

My notes from reading recount the many culinary passages in his work. Proust is likely best known for his madeleine and lime-blossom tea scene, but there are others. Here is a wonderful passage from Swann’s Way.

Won't you join our C'est si Bon!'s trip to Paris and Gascony this fall?    

“And meanwhile, Francoise would be turning on the spit one of those chickens only she knew how to roast, which carried the fragrance of her merits through the far reaches of Combray and which, while she was serving them to us at the table, would cause the quality of gentleness to predominate in my particular conception of her character, the aroma of that flesh which she knew how to render so unctuous and so tender being for me only the specific perfume of one of her virtues.”

from Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust.

At Fauchon in Paris. Do you see what "eye" see?

And so it was that last night after I left our class I was joyous and satisfied, but for one thing. Overhead the blue black sky was just like the one over Paris, France, right? It seemed reasonable, then. 

C'est normal then, that the Paris of the Piedmont full moon could transport us, Midnight in Paris style, to the moon over Montparnasse. 

As we walk arm in arm – the Montparnasse blue black mist – becomes the scent of onions. Sweet globes, purple and swollen. They are simple eschallottes. Round. Rolling in the heat with rosemary, sautéing in butter, and splashed awake with a sincere Sancerre. This deep aroma traveled and meandered through my bones, looking for the root, the home of this memory. Had it begun as I walked up the hill from B dorm to Roth Hall during my two years at the Culinary Institute of America; when I was 25?  

Mon Dieu! C'est magique to be back, was Jacques de Chanteloupe still in Charcuterie, waiting while the aspic reached the right temperature? 

But. Non

Up ahead my little Proust Class had gotten deliciously lost on Boulevard Edgar Quinet, passing the creaky iron doors of le grand Cimetiere. They waved and I hurried. It was getting chilly and drizzly. They stopped at La Coupole. Just as I reached them, we looked in and shook our heads. Too much air, too much sky, and way way too many pillars; 33 to be exact. And that damn Art Deco. Not tonight. 

We continued on towards Chez Clement. Very blue decor, again. Top chien. And trop chere. Very expensive. 

La Cerisaie? Peutetre? Their cochon noir de Bigorre was legendary. 
But not tonight. 

We circled again, past Le Select, which was where plenty of the Lost Generation had found themselves. But now (it was still now, wasn't it? I was afraid to ask..) it was more of a tourist trap then anything. 

Ah! Here we are.. C'est parfait. Perfect. Shouting and singing. Swilling and swaying. 

Parnasse 138

As I squeezed in the booth, a carafe of vin rouge was winging its way to the table. We squinted to see the chalk board that le garcon stood on a chair. This was where the language of Proust had been born.

Pate De Compagne
Rillettes De Porc

And then, Poulet Francoise.  

Well, there it was. I was home. At least for the night. It was quite late, but no one cares in Paris – this is Paris. And it always would be.

Poulet Francoise
I love making this bistro dish with sliced local mushrooms. Sigh. Yes, I know. Its not made on the spit ala Francoise. Not tonight. Find your fork – and Francoise if you need to, and enjoy.

4-5 large chicken thighs, cut in 1 inch cubes
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 quart chicken stock, or more
1/2 cup rough cut fennel
1/2 cup each roughly diced carrots and turnips
1/2 cup roughly diced onions
1 sprig thyme
1 stem fresh sage leaves
2 small bay leaves
3 1/2 ounces red or white wine

there is more than one way to do this, but let’s use this as our basic efficient method. first, mise it, which means get your mise en place in order.

chop your veg first, then your chicken and gather all remaining ingredients.

then and only then, place the butter in a large, wide pan (2 qt.) over medium heat. when the butter is melted, hot, add the chicken, a handful at a time.

brown the thighs on all sides (this li’ kitchen two step is called searing, and gives deep color and flavor to the finished dish) and you will need to work in batches till the chicken is browned.
remove the seared chicken to a bowl or platter till the rest is finished.

once the chicken is completed add in the vegetables and sauté till slightly brown, but not terribly.

add the flour to make a roux with the sautéed veggies, stirring well and frequently over low heat until an even light brown color is obtained. the roux (and the vegetables bien sur!) should have an even light brown color and give off the scent of roasted nuts.

deglaze the pan with a bit of wine. stirring up any browned bits. add the chicken, thyme, sage, and stock, continuing to stir well as the sauce thickens.

bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and allow it to gently simmer for about an hour.

serve with a wonderful pain Poilane, and our next adventure.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Rhubarb Never Apologizes to Squash for Being Tart, Ça va?

I'm sure I'm not alone.

This April, there's a melodious and harmonious aroma in the air. I've always wanted to tell you how often I struggle between two worlds; one of being an out there and running C'est si Bon! kind of gal/chef/teacher/person and the other of being an introvert who loves quiet for days on end; watching the birds at the feeder, writing, thinking and perusing a story; how it ebbs and flows.

Understanding the journey.

I thought it takes two different people do both, and do them well. I thought about a lot of questions over the years. I thought and often felt like a fish out of water in both fields. Why didn't I ever write a cookbook, some would ask, almost indignant as if I was resisting for some reason to join their crowd. Simply, I wanted to give more than a recipe. I had not yet crafted out the story. I ask my students to listen to their intuition in the kitchen. Shouldn't I do the same?

And in the writing field; why hadn't I published this novel, or that? A book of short stories, poems; punny one liners, something? The expectations I had for myself were quite enough pressure believe me.

So, it nagged at me. Had I given either passion the proper attention, enough attention? And what would it look like if I had? Would I know? Wouldn't there always be more to do, and be? It bothered me not because I hadn't done what was expected of me - for I had made this choice. To be outside the norm. To choose to be off the beaten path. Maybe sitting in that tree where the paths divide. C'est si Bon! is not a drive by location. There's not a lot of walk-in traffic.

But upon further inspection, we are all outside the norm. And there we are all joined.

Hell, I am not perfect. First and foremost. :) But I am grateful for friends who have stuck by me, even if they might not have understood why I was silent for days. I hope I am as tolerant of them, and their struggles.

But this April, even after having a garden for years, I have found some renewed peace, nourishment, and common ground in the garden; among the shitakes, blooming lemon trees, coaxing seedlings of white pumpkin and the round zucchini from Provence still waiting and begging to grow, planting potatoes, rhubarb, and seeing last year's asparagus return.

In the garden there's plenty of room to grow and be who you are. Rhubarb never apologizes to squash for being tart, right?

I wish that strength for all of you, wherever you are in your journey!

Happy Easter, renewal and rebirth.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

French Travel Adventures: Marche Dimanche. Part Three.

Inspired by a beautiful trip in the Fall of 2011 to Poudenas, a beloved and petit village in the rustique Southwest of France. Won't you come along, this summer and fall, for Twelve Days in Paris and Gascony. 

(Read Part One. and Part Two. )

Part Three. Fromage.

After we stored most of our market goodies, with the exception of Alice’s milk, in the car, we returned to find as perfect a lunch as possible in the Café du Marche, under the Oasis umbrella. The church bells that had rung 12 times, gave way to a troupe of youngsters playing soccer, as we sat across from what we learned was the Presbytere, the huge Catholic Church in Mezin. Time tolled along with our forks in our Salade de Chevre Chaud, a grande salade with warm goat cheese croutons.

Later in the afternoon, as we enjoyed the beautiful light, Jen and Erick and I departed the pool at the Moulin to get changed, as Alice was chomping at the bit to search high and low for the Honey Farm.

Peasants, Selling Their Bread Before It Was Even Baked.  

The Dining Room and the Broad Picture Window Overlooking the Pond.
We carefully backed out of the space in front of the Moulin. Cars and trucks whizzing by were not at all concerned. We set off, the sun lowering itself languidly in the sky, the 4 o’clock light bringing a magical cast to the day.  

We traveled west in the direction of Sos. Looking for hills and pine trees. We first passed a number of barren already harvested fields, and fields that were out and out burning, that exuded a wonderful smoky aroma that I associated with my very first visit to Gascony in the fall of 1995. Indeed a whole field appeared to be smoking.

Pine trees would stand out and be easy to spot. There wasn’t a hill yet that lay unseen.

Finding the honey farm would be a piece of cake, but in French this saying about counting your luck beforehand was akin to selling your bread before it was baked.  Unbaked bread, then and now, was called levain, the mother, or the sourdough starter and selling it would have been expressly forbidden by the Guild back in the day.

We reviewed the directions from the Bee-man. Apiary-dude. Honey Monsieur.

We joked that he sure had collected Alice’s honey.

Where did he say again, Alice?

By the pine tree on a hill? Overlooking a valley? How many pines? Before or after the hill?

Exasperated Alice directed us off the main road, as much out of frustration as anything.

We sang, and we might have cavorted, too.

Didn’t legions of pilgrims find other ways and follow their nose at the same time too? While we didn’t want to sell our bread before it was baked, we did want to push the unbaked loaf into the fire, and get it baked so we could enjoy it!  Something was bound to happen as we drove past a field on fire to find the honey farm.

How many honey farms could there be, we reasoned. We actually saw quite a few “Abielle” and “Miel” signs. We followed one past another burning area and turned at three lonesome pines down a dirt and bumpy road strewn with rocks til it meandered back – back – and back some more. We passed a grove of pear trees. With bees swarming around.

“Miel!” Alice cried.
“Alice, abielle and miel are not the same thing. “
We dared pull into what appeared to be a driveway. The house had open windows and an open front door. Bees again seemed everywhere.

Before we could assess whether this even approached the idea of a good idea, Alice bolted out of the car. At pretty much the same time a German Shepherd appeared on the porch. We rolled the windows up and shouted for Alice to return post haste. Or at least right away.

She stooped to pet the German Shepherd who wagged his tail. It’s easy to discern the sex of dogs in France. No question about this fellow. Alice knocked on the door frame. Amazingly enough Alice disappeared inside the house, calling out Abielle in the same voice she had said Ferme at the market. Meanwhile back in the car, we set about making up a story and offered explanations that might give her friends at home comfort upon hearing of Alice’s reluctant demise at the honey farm outside of Poudenas. Those who knew Alice and her friendliness, gregariousness and unthwarted disposition wouldn’t find it much of a stretch to learn that she had gone to the big milky way in the sky traipsing after Miel.  

It was no more than an eternity and certainly not longer than five minutes later that Alice’s presence returned and walked out of the door, towards the car. Mr German Shepherd waited on the porch and seemed sad to see his dinner leaving so soon. Alice’s voice kept insisting this was the place.

“But no beekeeper. Where could he be?” She stood with her hands on her hips.
“With his honey,” we joked.
“Let me look around a little more.”
“Alice, get in please.”

On the way out to the main road we stopped at the grove of fruit trees and tumbled out of the car to pick a few pears. We hurried with as much pluck as we could muster back to the car, when the bees got too curious about just who was absconding with their dear fruit.

Dinner was pressing upon our return, and Erick decided to not roast the duck whole but remove the breast and bone out the legs and stuff them.
Time Carrying a Load of  Cabbage

We took our time as in the kitchen and in between, Erick had browned the carcass, leg bones, onions, garlic, thyme and deglazed with the grapes squeezed from the vine growing in front of Café Galerie, (it’s okay we were invited to pick them..) across the street - then a bit of wine, salt and pepper as it reduced, reduced, and reduced….

Just as I knew my chances of mentioning the bells were getting smaller and smaller.

Jen sat an appetizer platter of thin-sliced zucchini, olive oil, salt and pepper on the table in front of the millpond. Ducks unaware of our dinner roasting and cooking in the kitchen, swam across the pond that reflected the stone 

bridge and more cars traveling up to Fources, the round bastide we might see tomorrow on our way to market in Auch.

Next it was my turn at the stove, and I ask you, was it so bad? I admit I had not yet completely left our America dining habits behind. At that time it seemed perfectly natural to combine such beautiful sliced tomatoes with onions caramelized and crispified in duck fat. One ingredient cooked and the other raw and unadulterated.

Then at last, came dinner.
The tart au Gasconne we had purchased in Mezin.
A pile of caramelized turnips and our pilfered pears.
And in the center - the stuffed duck legs surrounded by the seared magret, sliced and almost rare.  

For dessert, we lit the candles.
And Not One Minute Later, Darkness

I set out a firm brebis, a cheese made from goat and sheep milk, and added, “May this honey satisfy the spirits who rang the 27 bells this morning.”  I put the jar of chestnut honey on the table.

“The what?”

“27 bells, don't tell me you didn’t hear them?” I opened the jar, and passed the honey to Jen. The aroma was like the one that surrounded the pear trees. Flowery but deeper, more distant. If that makes any sense. 

“No…..” Jen said. “But I’d love to.”

“I’ll get you up when they start – if they start again..”

“That’s ok..” Erick and Alice said almost together. Alice sliced off a wedge of the tower of cheese with her fingers and dragged it through the drizzled honey on her plate.

A Most Beautiful Fromage

“Oh, and do you think someone else staying here, too?” I said as nonchalantly as  I could. 

“I can’t imagine …You mean upstairs?” Alice offered.

“No..there’s not..” Erick was quite firm. He never liked ghost stories.

The Hungry Spirits of the Moulin..

“Is there a third floor? That would be where the spirits live,” Jen said, jumping into the idea with both feet.

“I suppose I should just let it bee.. Get it..Bee.” But no one else laughed.

Because at that very moment the candles blew out and our reflections appeared in the picture window. Outside it was completely black, and dark as well. 

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