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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. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Cooking Adventures: Fastnachts Are Not Just a Doughnut


In Pennsylvania Dutch Country, Fat Tuesday is Shrove Tuesday, better known as Fastnacht Day. Fastnacts are the heavier Northern cousine to the beignet, made with mashed potatoes and are the best when fried in lard, so the idea of feasting on fried baked goods to use up the “fat” in the house, is the same as it is for Mardi Gras. And even though Fastnacht Day has received less publicity than New Orlean’s parades and uh, so called festivities, the Pa. Dutch are racing each other to get out of, instead of into, bed.

But people of the world; fastnachts are “weigh” better than beignets. Fastnachts are fantastic, stupendous, and amazing. Fastnachts are under appreciated and can turn you into a fanatic.

Fastnachts are not just a doughnut. Come on! Fastnachts begin with supper. And potatoes. Can you say the same about beignets? I didn't think so.

Nana at Christmas, with my brother, Jeremy, 1973.

Nana at Christmas, 1982.

You see the dough needs potato and potato water to help them rise. Potato water has its own growing spirit in it for the yeast to take hold and grow.

During the day I watched Nana in the kitchen and smelled the potatoes cooking. We would have parsley potatoes, no doubt, with ham for supper. As I say, Nana was totally enrapt with the kitchen and I was always in there, anticipating, helping, waiting for Nana to show me the next step for fastnachts, or anything. But inevitably I would miss the magical big moment, and not see her work the dough. Probably because I was eating potatoes and ham. Then I would get sent off to bed. Sent to bed yes, but I would not be sleeping. Not the night before fried fastnacht morning. No, no. 

I know I was probably underfoot much of the time in the kitchen. Nana was patient but had a lot on her mind. As I look back, Nana was always cooking and so she must have made a plan. A plan to keep me busy too. By shopping! By the time I was 11 or 12  I was going to the Ciotti market and bringing Nana (mostly) everything she needed for cooking. She gave me money to buy from the huckster that passed by on Fourth Street. I was doing all the shopping for our little family. And I loved it. 

But back to fastnachts. On the night before fastnachts Nana crept in my bedroom and put the huge crockery bowl of dough to rise on the table by my supposed sleeping self, the fragrance of the sweet yeast and potato-ey buttery dough was unbearable. How could i be expected to sleep through that? I would wait till she left and then get up quietly, barely breathing, to lift the linen tea towel and sneak my fingers under the dough to pinch off little balls, (no, they were not little. that’s my devilish side telling a straight out lie) from under the big ball of dough and thinking I was so clever to do that. I would rise as the dough did repeatedly throughout the night. I can tell you the dreams in me then were huge; floating out as dreams are wont to do, snagging all kind of vistas and lands and I think, these nights of rising dough, the smells and the dreams, the sound of the heater - the shadows of Nana's coming and going - lit a poor little match girl/bread girl image in me that never left. 

Another part of the story behind the dough and the heater was that as a young young girl, they tell me I was quite frail. I know. Hard to fathom. And they gave me the front bedroom because it had the largest register. Isn’t it funny? Register is the word for heater. They thought this gave me the best chance to thrive.  And I did, on fastnacht dough.

Nana crept back in a little before dawn. She would ever so quietly snap the window shade and raise it up. Five am, I’m guessing. That’s when the bowl would disappear and in the kitchen I could smell the oil heating in her big deep fat fryer. She would be singing and rolling the dough. Cut it into squares. I would roll over and stare out the window. Then when I heard the door open to our neighbor Joe Hodgekins, coming over for coffee, I went to the kitchen.   

The poor soul to arise last on Fastnacht Day is called the fastnact and must remain as the chore-doer all day for everyone in the house.  My brother was the perpetual fastnact as I always woke early to enjoy the the first delicious fastnachts, dripping with turkey syrup. But Jeremy never had to do a single chore. As the only boy he was revered. 

So folks, make no fun of a fastancht,  just eat them.

Both of these recipes come from Nana’s files. The fastnact recipe can easily be cut in half. Neither listed a frying temperature or timing. It was normal to make dozens of everything and refer to the amounts of ingredients in such quantifiable measures as “the size of an egg or a walnut” and then admonished with, “Ach! Don’t be a dum-kopf, chust like Aunt Effie made.” I feel fortunate to have learned the basics from Nana. But since you might not have, fry them at 375 degrees and 3 minutes per side for each the fastnacts and the fritters. Enjoy.

Pennsylvania Dutch Fastnachts

The process isn’t difficult , just a bit time-consuming, but broken down into steps it’s as easy as pie, I mean, as doughnuts.

Makes a 5-6 dozen, large doughnuts

2 cups mashed potatoes
4 cups potato water
4 cups granulated sugar
5 scant T yeast
½ cup warm potato water
14 –16 cups flour
1 ½ cups butter (they used to use shortening, margerine or lard)
6 eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons salt

Mix the potatoes, sugar, and potato water. Add butter and cool. Gradually add the beaten eggs. Add yeast dissolved in warm potato water. Gradually add flour and mix well with a wooden spoon. When that becomes impossible turn the dough out on a large floured surface, and knead in enough remaining flour to make a non-sticky
pliable dough. Think of the texture as being similar to an earlobe. Place dough in a very large greased bowl or allow to sit on counter, covered with a linen tee-towel. Punch dough down after it has doubled in size. 2-3 hours. Let rise again for 2 hours, punch down and roll out ½ inch thick. Cut into rectangles, about 3 by 3 inches.  Place on floured baking sheets and let rise on the back of the stove or in another warm place for 20-30  minutes. Fry in oil at 375 degrees, okay you can use canola or vegetable oil instead of lard. Fry till a medium brown or about 3 minutes per side. It works well to use a bamboo skimmer to turn them, but if that is unavailable wooden chopsticks or a wooden spoon will do as well.

Apple Fritters

Nana used to refer to these as snowballs. Was it because they were dredged in powdered sugar? Or because it was usually snowing outside on Fastnacht Day when my brother Jeremy and I threw the round fritters at each other while eating?

2 cups flour
1 T. baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 tsp. salt
¼ cup sugar
2 eggs
1 cup plus 1 T. milk
3 cups chopped apples

Place all the ingredients, except the eggs and milk, in a large bowl. Blend the egg and the milk, then stir into dry ingredients. Use a #10 ice-cream scoop to slip into hot fat, 375 degrees, or barring that, use a tablespoon.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

"Before There Was C'est si Bon!" There Were Adventures Most Fowl

When We Raised On Our Chickens To Sit On The Futon

Are chickens chic? What's your chicken story? 

(This piece was first published in the Chapel Hill News, when I was food editor there, basically, a multitude of eons and forever ago. I don't have the exact date, but I might have a copy of the paper, if it wasn't for the chickens. At any rate it was written in the early 1990’s and I was reminded of it when my friend, Cori, asked me about raising chickens.)

       In answer to the age-old question, "which came first, the chicken or the egg?," I can only answer affirmatively for our family, in which case it was definitely the chicken. Then came the eggs, then came more chickens, and more learning, until I could collectively stash eggs no more and relented to make a huge batch of egg-rich key lime coconut bars.

But I also knew quite affirmatively the day I walked in the front door to find our two, four week old pair of innocent looking (or so I thought!) newly feathered and no longer downy and fluff-ballish cutesy pie chicks sitting lovey-dovey and chicken cheek to cheek on the futon that something had gone astray. Namely the chickens.

The Chicken Whisperer 

Therefore, even though I've heard it said that chickens are the new dog, I, for one, cannot recommend that chickens be considered suitable house pets nor be allowed indoors even if the sky begins to fall on our heads. It's far too dicey to reason with their scatter-brained attitude to use the paper for anything more than shredding and scratching into bite size little bits, presumably for our dog, Caramel, who was eyeing them with great delight. And, number two, even Caramel has learned to jump off the futon when I return, opening the door, it's tell-tale squeek and the sound of paws jumping on hard wood floor co-mingling. But the chickens? On no. They sit and cluck on the futon while you're out getting more chicken feed for them. All this in less than 30 minutes! 
Just to assure you I'm not in the habit of crying fowl, let me explain how this all began.      

The calendar had just etched beyond Easter when our friends who own Celebrity Dairy, Fleming and Brit Pfann, who are also goat and fromage-making savvy, enticed us to hen-hood with their tales of incubating and thus impending hatchlings of Rhode Island Reds. Naturally we were drawn to get cracking and like bees drawn to honey, we simply said, quietly. 

Please oh please. We must have little chickies, please! 

Alas, that is how we succumbed, scattering the many joys, and a few sorrows, like cracked corn for our dear four feathered fiends, who began our flock that continues to this day, with five hens from Fickle Creek Farm

Ben Bergman of Fickle Creek Farm with our Teen-Chefs. 

With the coming Mother's Day weekend, I hope its not gauche to suggest a menu related to our theme of chicken and eggs with a side of cucumbers.  Lest I give the impression that we ate the chickens that sat on our futon, no no and no. That is not correct. We never had in mind to raise chickens for meat. Just hens for their lovely eggs. But of course there were a few roosters involved, oh yes. 

Raising eggs isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  

Have you ever raised chickens? Won't you please share your chicken story? 

Cilantro and yogurt bathed and then crispified chicken
When the lure of fried chicken calls, it's best to answer yes, yes, yes, because nothing else does taste quite the same. Remembering past suppers at mom's or grandma's brings it all back.  Although not mine as I grew up in Pennsylvania where chicken was for pot pie or corn soup or…well, nevermind, but something other than fried chicken which I found out when I moved back east, and south. Fried is a historical entity down south. I won't even go there as I'm not southern born and bred, though I do like cornbread. The southern way. 

But way back hen - soaking your chicken in buttermilk is what I was told, but meaning no disrespect, I shrugged and leaned the Indian way. Give your grand attention to plumping the bird in a yogurt bath, seasoning the flour with deep spices, getting the right sizzle from the shortening, maybe coconut oil, or heaven's to betsy, just-like-grandma-lard-and-bacon grease. It's simple and yet, to make excruciatingly divine fried fowl, you must keep a firm grip on certain cooking principles. 

Time, temperature, and patience are all needed in the exact same amounts. 
Hence, enjoy each step along the way designed to bring out texture and flavor. So don't be chicken. Enjoy every last crunchy crumb. And if chicken isn't your thing, may I suggest the same treatment for - and this should be no surprise. Eggplant. 

Serves 4

4 split chicken breasts  
1 cup plain yogurt
1/2 teaspoon each cumin, cardamom, crushed fennel seed, crushed red pepper, white pepper
Zest of 1 lemon
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Bacon fat and lard for frying

In a large and deep glass casserole add the chicken, the yogurt, the cilantro, and the spices. Soak for at least 2 hours, turning half-way through if necessary and continue for at least another 2 but up to 24 hours, refrigerated.

When ready to fry, mix the flour, cornmeal, salt and pepper in a large paper bag. Shake pieces of excess yogurt, and dry the chicken on paper towels. 
Discard the yogurt.

Heat the fat to 375 degrees, in a large cast iron skillet or another sturdy frying pan. Use a deep frying thermometer to check the accuracy of the temperature. Shake each piece in the paper bag with the seasoned flour mix, a few at a time, until well coated. Place the pieces in the frying vessel and fry uncovered for 20 -25 minutes, turning occasionally to insure even browning. Each side should be a golden brown.  Drain them on paper towels or on plain brown paper bags.

Chilled cucumber, green chile, and tomato raita
Since we went the yogurt route with the chicken – very much like a tandoori chicken recipe, cucumbers can’t be far behind. Here's a wonderfully cool way to offer an accompanying sauce with either the fried or if you dare, broiled version of the chicken. It's high points? Delicious with a spark, easy to make. 

It’s also useful as a first course soup – so do double the recipe and save half, thin out a bit with veg stock or chicken stock, and you’ll have made soup while the sun shines. (See, even I’ve had it with chicken puns..)

3 large cucumbers
1/2 teaspoon each crushed cumin seeds and coriander seeds
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
2 cups plain whole milk yogurt
3 scallions
1 teaspoon fresh chopped ginger
2 cloves fresh garlic, crushed and minced
1 each medium red and medium yellow tomato, seeded and diced
1 green chile, seeded and minced
2 tablespoons fresh chopped cilantro

Take your cucumber and peel, then slice peeled cucumbers in half lengthwise. My favorite way to remove the seeds is with an old fashioned blade vegetable peeler, the kind with the open handle, because first you could peel your cucumber then after slicing lengthwise, you could flip the peeler and scoop out the seeds. Finis.

Chop cucumbers fine by hand. Place in a colander to drain for 30 minutes.

Toss the cumin and coriander seeds in a small skillet over low heat to toast for about 4 minutes. Remove from heat when fragrant. Squeeze any excess moisture from cucumbers, then drain on paper towels.  In a medium size bowl, combine cucumbers, toasted spices, yogurt, scallions, garlic, ginger, tomatoes, chile, and cilantro. Mix gently.  Chill or serve immediately.

Key lime coconut bars with first eggs and bear mush
These require an abundance of eggs to make and will power, not to eat. So, please bear with me.

Makes 24 bars

For the crust:
2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup bear mush, arrowhead mills (hard red winter wheat) optional
1/2 pound butter, melted
2 cups confectioner's sugar

For the filling:
2 cups key lime juice, nellie and joe's brand
2 cups granulated sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
10 small eggs, the first eggs your young hens have laid

For finishing:
1 cup confectioner's sugar
1/2 cup toasted coconut

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Butter and flour the 9 by 14 baking sheet with sides.

In a medium bowl combine the flour, sugar, and bear mush.
Mix these well together.  Add the melted butter and stir with a fork, then crumble with your fingers, if necessary to completely mix.  Press these crumbs evenly into the baking sheet. Bake for about 25 minutes or until light brown.

While the crust is baking, prepare the filling. Beat the eggs in a medium bowl. (you can use the same bowl as the crust was mixed in) add the key lime juice, sugar and cornstarch.  Whisk well to combine all ingredients.  Pour the filling onto the hot crust and return to the oven to bake an additional 25 minutes or until the filling is set when the pan is shaken.  Remove and cool on a rack. 

Finish by sprinkling with the coconut and confectioner's sugar when cool, then cut into 24 bars.

Friday, February 14, 2014

French Travel Adventures: Marche Dimanche. Part Two.

Please read Aperitif for the first part of this adventure. 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. 
Read Part Three. 

Part Two, Plat du Jour. 
After we parked, we walked into the Mezin market. Alice stopped to admire the honey of, and to engage as only as an emphatic American with a French beekeeper can, loudly.
Erick wandered off to explore the market like the chef he is. Once around or twice? To peruse and then plan.

I didn’t need a conversation, I was attracted to the light coming in through the jars. I bought a divine honey, a chestnut honey. As I paid my 8 euros I heard Alice grow more emphatic. “Bio, Bio, Ferme,” she loudly said, as if this would make things crystal clear.  
She whispered to me, “Wouldn’t it be fun to visit his Apiary?”
“It’s Sunday, Alice.”
“He said it’s ok.”

I listened in as their conversation continued.

“D’accord. 4 km out of Poudenas.” Alice confirmed.
“Non. 5.” The beekeeper kept on with his other customers.
“A hill with 3 pine trees?” Alice repeated as if she understood perfectly.
“Oui. Premiere the pine, then at ze second hill. A gauche.”
I wasn’t sure he had understood that maybe she didn’t understand.
“Turn right there. Aha. Parfait.” Alice scooped up her four jars of honey to add to her growing collection of honey she had begun in Paris. More photos ensued. 

Then we all wandered off for a bit to do our own thing. A pretty lacy brown scarf caught my eye, and made me remember the Saturday Market in Arles, Provence. I looked forward to the big Saturday markets, and a day off from writing. In Arles, the market stretched with tables of lavender and sunflower honey down and across the main road, Boulevard des Lices, before curving up to the Quai de la Roquette at the Rhone River. Here the Pilgrimage Route to St Gilles goes off on its merry way. Ah, the wide Rhone – the barges that go up and down to the Mediterranean. What bliss, wistfulness, and getting lost in market, at market. 

It might not seem so but Gascony is connected to Provence directly by the market and by the honey, and by the path of pilgrimage, as a host of visitors wandered to village and town on their journey.


But at the Mezin market, the Rue du Pont, and the bridge over the much smaller Gelise River was a little ways out of town. It marked the pilgrim’s route from Vezelay. From here the age old path continued on though Montreal du Gers and then into Condom, and Auch. There are arguments as to whether the new path goes through Mezin, but it still marks the old way.

 There was no getting lost in this small market. In contrast, the church, the Presbytere Catholic Church that was built from the 10th-14th Century  overshadowed the market. Mezin’s Marche Dimanche, Sunday Market, was a glimpse into a week of Gasconne markets. I looked up and could easily spot Erick and Jen wandering. And Alice, no problem. I could hear her laughing.

Erick and I gathered at the fromagerie - what beautiful cheeses! I felt a great deal of angst over choosing the right one. Was there a perfect cheese to grace the dinner table perched in front of the window looking over the pond tonight?   

The vendors lined the Mezin town square by the church. The clock on the church tower clearly showed it was 11:30. We circled and went out to the street to see about a charcuterie or a boucherie. The boucherie Erick had seen was closed, so we went into another charcuterie and saw whole ducks and without wasting a moment bought two then also some tarte au gasconne, which had little dices of magret fume or smoked duck. We wandered back to market to find most of the vendors were closing up. The small store was already closed.

Erick and I rushed to buy turnips, tomatoes, onions and garlic. We turned, and waved adieu to our lettuce. Which was hardly our lettuce. But which might have been ours if I hadn't been consumed with "finding the perfect cheese.”

Alice bought milk at the fromagerie that Erick and I had just left, and she quickly was dubbed the Milsch Maiden as she seemed to be carrying a liter of milk with her everywhere. Along with honey. Gascony has been known as the land of milk and honey, and she was taking this very seriously.

“Are you searching for the perfect milk?”

“How about the perfect lunch? And then the honey farm?”   

I laughed. What were we all searching for?

Marche Dimanche, Sunday Market in Mezin was oddly quiet, though the bells chimed 12 times for Midi. Not one inhabitant ventured in, it was only visitors who streamed in and out of the church, taking photos.

At lunch, I would find the courage to mention the 27 bells.

Read Part Three. Fromage. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

French Travel Adventures: Marche Dimanche. Part One.

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. 

Part Two.
Part Three.

Part One. Aperitif. Day of the Bells 



The gorgeous duck fat light coming through the shutter had to be the sun.
I listened again. At Nineteen I threw the covers back.
Heavens, what in the world was going on out in greater Poudenas?
Poudenas being a small village in the Lot-et-Garonne Department in Southwestern France.

Greater Poudenas is actually quite small. The population of Poudenas was 252 in 1999, 251 in 2006 and 246 in 2007. The population density of Poudenas is 14.27 inhabitants per km². The number of housing of Poudenas was 168 in 2007. These homes of Poudenas consist of 116 main residences, 39 second or occasional homes and 13 vacant homes.

But not mentioned even once was one Chateau de Poudenas or one Moulin de la Belle Gasconne. And one Café Galerie.

I counted the next bell’s chime as number 24. But certainly, even taking into account jet-lag, I was pretty sure there were only 24 hours in a day. Even in Poudenas, where time seemed eternal.

The bells rang 25 times.
Make that 26.  
And then a 27th time.

I waited on the side of the bed. Well, that’s a bit strange. Isn’t it? I blew out night’s candle. Had the church bells just rung 27 times in Poudenas? Or was it one long ring that had reverberated incessantly in my ear?

The bells weren’t the only sound. The Gelise River rushed outside my window. I looked outside to confirm. It wasn’t really the river, it was the pond, released and rushing to meet back up with the river and flow out of town towards Mezin.

But what did I know? Anything was possible. After all, I hadn’t been here since 2006. That was 5 years ago. Things can change, right, even in a place so old? Perhaps this belling was a newly installed French system of emergency warning using the resources at hand; church bells? Warning the 200 inhabitants of something dire but kept from the visitors who hadn’t attended the village meeting. Yes, agreed, there were more inhabitants, than visitors, in Poudenas. One of the four visitors who was staying in the Moulin, was reflected in the window and staring back at me. This visitor needed coffee.

But again, what did I know? There were vacant rooms just down the hall and maybe other visitors had arrived after we climbed to bed at midnight. Maybe that’s when all visitors arrived who know a thing or two about the proper time to arrive at the infamous le Moulin along the Gelise River. Sheesh. Couldn’t I even arrive at the right time?

But at the same time I was a bit suspicious, and pleasantly frightened, I was intrigued that there might indeed be very strange strangers in our midst and mist. Sleeping just down the hall.  

Now come on. Get a grip.
I opened my door and looked down the hall.

Did I have to start all over again in Poudenas? Had I forgotten everything I once knew about Poudenas? And what I did know, perhaps I didn’t understand. But I reminded my coffee-less self, I was not new to Poudenas. I began my pilgrimage here late in 1995. I had arrived on a post IACP conference trip from Paris.

Then, the following summer I was lucky enough to be accepted to do a stage, a weeklong apprenticeship with Chef Marie-Claude Gracia in La Moulin's kitchen, the summer of 1996. I remember hearing the bells at Midi, and taking a rest from studying foie gras, confit, and chocolate mousse. What did I know then? If it’s possible to know less than I do now, pretty basically, nothing. But confit and confound! Even in 2011 I still don't know where the church was that emitted these warning bells. Of course I didn’t. I was always more interested in things like Fromage, Floc, Foie Gras, Confit, Pigeon, Becasse, Confiture, and Armagnac.

Good lord.

Thinking is what got me in this jam, er, confiture, and the situation was far more dire than I thought. Even without coffee I deduced, as the sky grew pink, that the bells had likely rung more than 27 times, as they were already ringing when I woke up.  

My fingers traced the wall as I walked the length of the upstairs hallway, past the sleeping rooms of Alice, Jennifer, and Erick. Why weren’t they up? Hadn't they heard?

I wanted to open their doors to confirm that their presence still existed, but maybe this door opened to the sleeping new visitors to le Moulin, and my friends had all left me there? The stone steps led down to the kitchen. I fumbled for and turned on the light, half expecting to find an ancienne Grandmere of the Moulin waiting to tell me everything.

I filled a pot with cool water, lit the stove. Wrapping my shawl tight, I walked to the other end of the dining room with the huge picture window overlooking the millpond. And with my cheek pressed against the cold pane of glass, I cranked the door open. A duck paddled across the pond. I walked out on the point where the water spills over from the pond. I waved to a truck that careened by, and barely made the turn over the old stone bridge, and headed up the hill to another little village, Fources, which was about 6 km away.

A few minutes later the water boiled and I pressed a pot a coffee.
I perched a thick slice of yesterday's Parisian baguette over the stove flames, keeping one ear pressed towards the ceiling. But there were no doors opening and closing. And no more bells.  

I sipped the dark rich brew. Light was growing across the pond. Things were looking up.

The church had sounded very close, but as I took a mental stroll around foggy Poudenas, and came up with nothing except the Chateau at the top of the very top of the hill.

Finally there was a shuffling on the steps, someone was coming down to the kitchen. Would I know them?

“Hey Erick. Bonjour, there.” My son still looked a little sleepy.
“All ready.”
“Did you hear the bells?”
“I heard exactly nothing.”
“Do you think other people are staying here?”
“Other people? Like who?”
“Did you hear anyone come in after we went to bed?”
“No, Mom, I didn’t.”
 “I can’t help it. This place always gets my imagination going.”
“Just so long as the coffee is going..”

Well, that was kind of an answer. Right?

Who knows, maybe we'll hear the bells at Marche Dimanche in the square by the church in Mezin, the next petite village, about 3 km to the east, and the growing pink light.  

La Moulin de la Belle Gasconne (photo courtesy of Jennifer Santos Madriaga

Collection of Confit Pots, Inside the Moulin
The Stone Bridge, the Pond, and a Duck
Chef Marie-Claude Gracia with Tony Blair

Mezin, Marche Dimanche
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