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Monday, January 30, 2012

French Travel Adventures: Train from Montpellier to Florence. Part One.

Have you ever journeyed by train alone in France? Italy? How did it go? 

In the circa of fall 2005 I took a long train ride from Montpelier, France to Florence, Italy. And back again.

To be most sure the outgoing excursion was a beautiful ride, all along the Mediterranean! 

I lifted my skirt for the Rhone to empty into the sea at Marseilles, I wiped sweat with the length of my flowered scarf as we teetered along the rocky Calanques at Toulon, then the legendary Cote d’Azur fueled us with Aioli breezes. We chugged ever more stealthily into Genoa and its bay of pesto in Liguria. And even then we lost no steam gathering grapes at the base of the steep vineyards of the Cinque Terre. The train heated our path along the clammy looking Marble Mountains and squeezed into Firenze.

You see at the time I was headed towards work in Florence. And meeting a nice little group of ladies who were quite ready to pull up to a small unassuming villa of 320 rooms some 8 miles east of Florence that was formerly owned by Martini and Rossi, called Torre Cona. We didn't stay in the main expanse of the Villa. But in the gorgeous renovated agricultural or "fattoria" (farm) worker buildings. 

Fattoria Accomodations of Torre Cona Estate

As you might imagine the journey took a long time, a very long time. But there is something so quiet and rapturous about train travel. I was in love dozing by the window, scribbling notes, and lazing like a cat in the beautiful sunshine.

Fall Funghi in Tuscan Market

Making Paolo with Pasta. I mean Making Pasta with Paolo. 

But as much fun as work can be making sure that the cooking classes and the wine touring in Tuscany (read the vehement Gypsy lady story) went superbly well and did the following "going away to write" in Corniglia (read the story of two fires and a muse) it was the return trip from La Spezia, Italy that held yet another, just the opposite,  kind of adventure from my long inward bound trip.

Vin Santo Grapes Drying in the Villa Torre Cona, Italy

By this time I could certainly read Italian train schedules and flashing train numbers and find the tracks and even, get on the right train. This is important. Boarding in La Spezia I was able to board an earlier train. Pronto. I was pleased. I would arrive in Montpelier at the same time, but I would have more time in the train station in Nice to while away the hours sipping café at a café and remember back to 2003 and my first visit there.

Market in the Cours Saleya in Nice, France

Not much happened until the train stopped in San Remo, Italy, just before the French border, but in full view of the Sea. This was not unusual. An announcement was made. Also, not unusual. I was sitting in a 1st class cabin with about five other folks. That was unusual. But no one had stopped me from joining these plucky fellow travelers. 

Setting Sun in the Mediterranean

Everyone in the compartment except for me and an Asian Gentle Man gathered their belongings and departed the train. No one made any motion to us that seemed of dire consequence. Everyone was neat, orderly and totally composed. Then ensued a period of the beautifully tan and coifed and costumed people exiting the train from other First Class cars and standing in the station which looked very crowded to me, but there was never, I repeat not one, single ion (if ions are a viable description of atmosphere) of atmosphere of hmm, something more, something indeed of the “else” variety is going on here.

An elegant announcement began; undoubtedly made by a gentleman wearing cologne but it didn’t sound any different to me than any other train station arrival announcement.

Madame Messieurs.
C’est arrive Montpelier.
Je suis perdue.
Bien sur.
Je voudrais un croissant, peutetre doux.
Avec un grand café crème.
Oui! D’accor! D’accor!
Enfin. Exite.
Au revoir.

(Of course I don’t mean to imply that the announcements always say exactly that. I am not stupid. They are honed to the season. The aromas of the department we are traveling through. And just as often speak about a luxurious confit or a salad nicoise, or pomme lyonnaise – sometimes even mentioning a glass of vin rouge or vin blanc)

Soon enough there were conductors and police passing our cabin, and so we opened our door to inquire. And they kept repeating Bomb, get off!!

Of course we’ll get off. Why didn’t you say so earlier?

Tell me your train travel tale! And come back for Part Two. And Part Three. 

Oyster Mushroom Straciatella

This soup. This soup! Made in one pot, this soup is a wonderful way to warm up to the meal and impending conversations. both while making it in the kitchen and eating it at the table.

makes 8 servings

1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon fresh garlic, minced
6 dried mushrooms, reconstituted and coarsely chopped
3 cups oyster mushrooms, or your choice, coarsely chopped
1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
2 sweet bell peppers, coarsely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 stalks celery, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup each fresh parsley and basil
1 cup white wine
2 quarts chicken stock
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 eggs

2 tablespoons fresh grated romano cheese
2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley

Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed soup kettle over medium heat. 

Add the garlic, onions, carrots, celery, peppers, and fresh mushrooms. 

Saute these, stirring and tossing, for 7-8 minutes, or until softened.  pour in the white wine and scrape up any browned bits of vegetables. 

Add the dried mushrooms, their liquid and stock or water and bring to a boil.  

Simmer for 40-50 minutes.  Stir in the cream. 

In a separate bowl beat the three eggs and add to the simmering soup, continue to heat over medium for a minute or two, till the eggs cook.  

Remove from heat, transfer to a tureen or serve right from the stove.  

Top each bowl with some of the grated cheese and the fresh chopped parsley.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Write With Me: Escoffier's Butter Maker

Read Part Two of Escoffier's Butter Maker. 

Do you like Paris? Well, I don't.

I LOVE Paris!

After watching Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris again the other night - I went on a delirious hunt - a rooting for truffles in the forest - for a hard drive and a novel I had begun some years ago called, ABOYER, that takes place around the turn of the century in Paris.

Ok. So just what the hey is an Aboyer?

In culinary terms, an Aboyer is the announcer or expediter in the French kitchen brigade, and is the person who shouts out to the Chef what dishes have been ordered. And to give you a brief overview the story,  ABOYER speaks to the life of Chef Auguste Escoffier's butter maker. How she came to Paris, and prefers making butter, protecting it from melting in the sun. And selling it in the great and famous old market, Les Halles.

So, here's the opening- the first chapter as it was published in Women Behaving Badly: Feisty Flash Fiction Stories that was edited by Wanda Wade Mukherjee, a fine award-winning journalist, and Sharlene Baker. I treasure, absolutely, the beginning writing memories made with Sharlene (she was my very first fiction instructor at Duke University and we formed a rambling but dedicated group that met for years at her kitchen table) But beyond that she did much more important work like penning the rambunctious novel, Finding Signs, and co-authoring the movie made of it called, Love Always, a quirky little road adventure film that starred Moon Unit Zappa and Beverly d'Angelo

I believe Sharlene is still out there, still having adventures, and if she should read this ---- thank you, Sharlene!

A Crumbling Wedge of Panforte...

Even on a soft spring morning in Paris, my first thoughts rest with my daughter, Cocotte.
She'll be twelve in a few weeks. And I know I will see her before that. Maybe soon.
Maybe even today. It's the ides of March, the lady in the pheasant hat, the coat of foxes, tells Guilard, my regular waiter. The mists are always thickest just before seven o'clock.
I pull back on the iron chair; it scrapes against the pavement and I face Montmarte and
the graves. For the last six weeks, the same iron table at Cafe Brulot waits every morning for me. But there is plenty of room for Cocotte at my table. She would like…. will like…. the tall vase, fluted lips, the water rising halfway up the stem of the yellow rose, even the bubbles along the stem, especially the bubbles of air, and me, waiting, waiting for her.
I'm so sorry, Cocotte. So very sorry.
"The usual," I nod to Guilard, and he returns with two silver plates of glistening oysters,
setting one in front of me and the other across the table. At her place.  I squeeze the lemon over Cocotte's curling oysters, and then my own. I notice, for the first time, that the café's chairs are forged in the same manner as the iron fence surrounding the graves.
The fork's tines curve against the plate, barely touching the tips to the ice, but the cold travels up the handle, almost burning my fingers. I cradle a rough oyster shell in my palm. The cool flesh of the sea slides down my throat.
Cocotte, I didn't know. I couldn't. Listen to me.
My face warms to the young sun as it circles the white blooming apple trees, giving me hope that I too could be released from the rages of winter. The delicate new leaves are the bright bright green of youth unfurling.
Dear Cocotte. I know she will still come. Come back. I've whispered to her in my dreams. At Notre Dame the bells begin; chiming seven.
The morning people move about, crossing paths with those still occupied with the night.
And it is as if neither one is aware, both oblivious to the other's existence, ignorant of each other's importance in the plan. For the hour when the two cross, the night people ending their time, and the day persons just beginning, that hour holds the danger. Even the slight woman in the pheasant-plumed hat is here again. Cutting her croissant in bits to feed her small curly dog. She remains asleep too it seems, unaware whether she is a person of the day or of the night.
I sigh and wave my hand at Guilard. He removes the plate of empty shells and my glass, empty of Sancerre. He reaches for Cocotte's oyster plate, but I pull it away from him. When he returns, he slides a white cup topped with froth before me, and at Cocotte's place, a blue plate with a sugar-dusted croissant amande.  Butter and almonds to tempt her to come out from hiding!
I pull the folded paper from my gold beaded bag, feeling the hard triangle inside. I fold back the paper and raise it to my lips and kiss the memory of the rich scent: the bitter almonds, butter and black spices, of the tiny, the smallest imaginable, a crumbling wedge of panforte.
Oh, Cocotte. Can you forgive me? For I've listened, and listened for your voice. At every stretch. Every turn of the road.
And so I will wait here at the cafe. For us. I will watch you open your eyes again. I will watch you swallow art, tasting the colors of the city: apricots and pears. Your mouth will open, pink as rosebuds again, and breathe around the buttery tastes.
Yes, Paris! I understand why we must meet in the city of light. No other collections of hard butter blocks laid out as bridges, small birds of bitter almonds resting on branches above us in the cemetery, singing our songs, songs of the dead, honey flowing against the black spices and into light, could be more, more than what I've wanted, to bring us both back to life, than Paris. 
Come back to me. SShhhh..Listen. 

And since who can read a story about a butter maker in Paris without a little buttery recipe?  I give you one to try now. Just run to your favorite fishmonger and beg for a filet. 

Madame de Poulet

Fishmonger, Fishmonger Find Me a Find, Catch Me a Catch

sole a la meuniere (say meen-yair)
this is an "escoffier classic" preparation of sole, an haute cuisine staple as it was very expensive. but don't scoff. please. most any flat filet of fish may be utilized, such as cod or red snapper. in this wintery time of year i really like to use the orange juice and grated orange peel in place of the lemon.

serves 2-3

3/4 pound sole or other similar fish
1/2 cup plus 2 t. fresh lemon or orange juice
1/2 cup flour, seasoned with salt, black and cayenne pepper
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided in 2 tablespoon batches
1 tsp. fresh grated orange or lemon peel

dip the fish fillets in the orange juice, then in the seasoned flour mixture.  set aside. heat a large heavy skillet over high heat, then add the 2 tablespoons butter, melting it but not browning it. add the fillets and brown them carefully, turning them after 2-3 minutes.  remove to a heated platter. add the remaining 2 tablespoons butter and the citrus peel.  heat over high heat till the butter foams, remove from the heat, pour over the fish. serve at once.  

Monday, January 23, 2012

French Travel Tales: A Stunning Goat Butter Chocolate Cake

Pizza Royale at Cafe Galerie in Poudenas

Is it unfair to start off this post with a photo of a mouth-watering pizza? But this truly was not just any mw pizza. No, no. It was a Royale Pizza, with a perfect oven roasted egg in the center like a sun that the world revolved around. Covered with creamy reblochon cheese, salty ham, and olives (yes, Nicoise olives still with the pits in them) And the crust, the crust ~ even from this distance of months away from the actual pizza eating ~ the crust still invites with its crunchy pillow that you know (you hope!) will collapse under your teeth and give a semblance of structure; like a raft perhaps for the cheese to grasp and the ham to float on and find their way into your just closing mouth. Ummmmmm.

Sigh. So you can see where I've been, but this is more than just dreaming of pizza; this is a complicated study. As the light of winter changes, the early mornings are perfect times to stare at food photos and into the abyss and alternately work on my WIP (work in progress or at least in process of progress) and visit my main character, a food stylist, as she struggles with the dilemma of working in such a fickle medium: food! 

How can she convey exactly what the photographer demands. 
So that leads me to ask for another opinion - yours!

They say many things. 
A picture is worth a thousand words. 
We eat with our eyes. 
Another popular adage.

But just how do images of food affect your appetite? 

Chevre in Nerac's Market

Do photos of food (do as they are supposed to and) make you hungry?

Or do such photos infuriate you; make you think I can never make something that looks that good? 

But if you've ever ditched your plan for dinner while standing in line staring at an inviting burger (fish/chicken/sandwich/or devilish cake) on the cover of a magazine you know the power of the photo.

Can a photo bring more than a jolt to your appetite? For when you get to the dining part; how does dining, when does it  = art? Is it about the surroundings? The  ambiance, plates and napkins? Or is it the company? Is it about what you expect?

 Pâté de Compagne in St. Germain-en-Llaye

Do you believe what Ferran Adria of El Bulli fame believes?

"Eating is a very complex thing, but because we eat every day, we don't want to see it that way.

Imagine for a moment that food wasn't a physiological need; what would your relationship be with food then? We really need to think about eating, because eating and breathing are the only two things we
do from the moment we are born to the moment we die."

Ferran Adria - Reinventing Food, 2011

But I want to know what you think?

Decadent Chocolate Goat Butter Cake with Poached Winter Fruit

And then here is a link to a provocative film that explores the connection between the surrealist art of Salvador Dali and Ferran Adria.

The Film: The Cook, The Dog, and Dali

For everyone who leaves a comment, I'll send a copy of the unbelievable flourless chocolate cake recipe.

Monday, January 16, 2012

French Travel Tales: The World Cup of Bread

Okay, I hope you're curious about the world of breads and competitions, and were not too badly offended  by my "Let's Roll" pun.

Perhaps you've done it too, around the holidays when your counter is covered with fresh baked stollen and gugelhopf, and panettone? What kind of feverish devotion does it take to burn the midnight oil, hoist bags of flour, and keep baking long past the point of collapse? You see Guilds for Bread Bakers have continued from the time of the Renaissance, and this was one of the inspirations for my novel, City of Ladies, that this not only existed in the past but is still going today. How exciting, don't you think?

As you tear open that baguette or jammify that croissant on your plate The Bread Bakers Guild of America is furiously readying for the 2012 Le Coupe de Monde de la Boulangerie in, of course, Paris.

 A Mound of Dough in C'est si Bon!

Did I Make Enough Ropes for Shells, Bodies, and Heads? 

 Grand Escargot, A Bread from my novel, City of Ladies,  made for the Wacqueline Stern Show

Mixing in the Wine-Cooked Whole Wheat Mash

They are not alone however. 11 other countries are "proofing" their worth and raising their hopes too!

South Korea
Costa Rica
The Netherlands (don't you love calling a country The ......)
and Taiwan.

Have fun peeking at all the teams and their members. I am a bit taken with Team Poland.

All will have to produce:

The baguettes and the specialty breads
The sweet breads
The savory presentations --- a brand new category this year!
And an artistic piece that represents the theme of "Bread: The symbol of your country."

You might consider joining the Bread Bakers Guild of America to support our American Team in the upcoming World Cup of Bread. March 3-7 2012. The competition will be held at Europain, which is a major European baking trade show.

How has the USA faired in the past competitions? We won back in 2003. On Wild Yeast's blog check out these hot photos of the training at the San Francisco Bread Institute for the World Cup's 2010 competition.

Curious to see all this in live action? Over on the film site IMDb you can become a pro-subscriber (free trial for 14 days) and watch The World Baking Cup: The Best Bread in the World, a documentary from 2003 when the USA Team overthrew 11 other countries to take home the "Cup" for the first time.

What do you think, do we have a prayer of a chance to win?

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Read With Me: El Bulli: Cooking in Progress

As Ferran Adria explains he creates culinary art to create emotions. And this is not about comfort. Not at all. Its about art and confrontation, I imagine.

I feel.

I am.


What do you think? Can food make you feel?

San Diego Reader | "Review: El Bulli: Cooking in Progress" by Lickona

PS Please join our Friday January 13th Hot Spanish Cooking Class with Author, Diana Renfro. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Novel Review, Menu and Cooking Class: Spanish Doors, A Novel by Diana Renfro


Diana Renfro, author of Spanish Doors, A Novel

Spanish Doors, is a bright and delicious, heart-warming novel by Diana Renfro that seeks to speak to women who have been challenged in their father-daughter relationship and to anyone who wishes they could learn more about their own family. During Arden’s pilgrimage to Spain she uncovers her family’s biggest mystery, one that only begins to solve the questions of Arden’s past.

With heaping portions of good food, goods wine, and beautiful far-off lands Diana Renfro's debut novel, Spanish Doors, is sure to leave you hungering for the next course. Like all good Southern writers, Renfro writes with a strong sense of place where tantalizing food is on the table and there's plenty of good wine for everyone. She's also one heck of a storyteller. 

And now; Hola and Ole! Diana is coming to C’est si Bon! to offer a Reading and Signing on January 13th when C’est si Bon! Cooking School kicks off 2012 with a class devoted to the sultry winter feast season -  “A Tantalizing Evening in Spain.” 

Jump in and join in the preparations of a Feast inspired by her novel, Spanish Doors. Register Now - limited spots available. This class begins at 6 pm and is perfect for anyone of any culinary skill level and who loves spending the evening among fellow travelers! 

Pisto Manchego with Pan D’Horno
(spanish roasted vegetables with a beautiful handcrafted bread) 
Sopa with Roast Pork and Smoked Garlic
(steeped broth paired with roast pork and smoked paprika garlic)
Malaga Style Swiss Chard and Other Greens
(winter greens prepared with citrus and olive oil typical of Andalucia) 
Chocolate Flan with Candied Almond and Sea Salt Brittle 
(a wobbly creamy flan paired with a crunchy and salty brittle creates an avant garde dessert) 

Please read her answers to a few questions concerning how she arrived at SPANISH DOORS and how she opened them!

Spanish Doors will be available for purchase at the January 13th class and it is also available here.   
Follow Diana Renfro at - Diana lives on a forty acre farm in Grassy Creek, North Carolina where she gardens and nurtures the creative spirit with her husband, two rat terriers, and a cat.  
Visit Diana Renfro at - nestled on her 40 acre farm, this cottage has many essences of Spain and is a most perfect retreat for any and all writers. 
Now then here's Planting Cabbages interview with Diana. Muchos Gracias! 

Planting Cabbages: When did you start writing and what motivated you?

Diana Renfro: We lost a child in 1981 and I began to write as a way to talk to myself and God about what happened, to try to understand, and eventually heal. At first, I just recorded what happened, then I began to ask questions and eventually, the writing turned to art: poetry, and fiction. My first published short-story was from a man's point of view which I wrote because men and women grieve so differently. Finally, I could go on to writing other stories, almost always about women and their relationships.

PC: Who are the writers who first inspired you to write and who are the
writers you read now? What's changed?

DR: My formal training was in Nutrition and Foods, so most of what I read was science until I got out of school. I think the first thing I read for fun after that was Annie Dillard's, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Her descriptions of the natural world impressed me with the fact that science didn't have to be didactic and opened my eyes to seeing the world in a new way. I liked Hawaii, by James Michener, and the idea of telling stories to illustrate other cultures-anthropology made fun. Gail Sheehy's book, Passages, helped me see life as a journey and the necessity of relationships to personal development. (I could go on and on…) Now, I read what the book club is reading because I love a discussion and if I get more than one recommendation for any book, I will read that one right away. I am still catching up on the classics I wasn't required to read studying science. This year, I enjoyed, The Sound and The Fury, by William Faulkner.

PC: How important is 'everyday life' to your work?

DR: Everyday life is the medium with which I work. It is the clay, the paint, the fabric I use to shape, color, cut and piece a story. Paying attention is essential.

PC: Do you see your work in terms of literary traditions and/or broader
cultural or political movements?

DR: Wasn't there a time when all writers, in English, were men? Women writers started and fueled the Women's Movement of the last century. As life becomes global in this century, we Americans need to open ourselves to other cultures, other ways of experiencing life. I like reading about life in India or Tehran. I like writing about North Carolina and Spain.

PC: What aspect of writing and working as a writer is the most challenging?

DR: Distractions and tangents make me crazy. When I'm working, I have to let the phone ring and go to voicemail because if I answer, one thing will lead to another and I'll go off and do something else. If I have to research something, the same thing can happen, I get off on an interesting tangent. Discipline is the hardest part. Then there are times when the writing is fun and times when it is hard work. I can get lost in my work during the creative phase, making up the story, but then bogged down in the re-writes and the cut and paste work that makes the story flow.

PC: What reading, other than fiction, is important to your work and why?

DR: The research is always fun to me. If I get an idea, say, to write about a potter, then I will study pottery and clay work and try to learn enough to write it correctly and realistically. This part of writing takes the most time, so it's a good thing I enjoy it.

I also read a lot about life as a spiritual journey in books like, The Heroine's Journey by Maureen Murdock and The Soul's Code, In Search of Character and Calling by James Hillman, and about the healing power of stories in books like, Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes and Kitchen Table Wisdom by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.  I'm always reading something about wellness and wholeness, trying to get there.

PC: What genre is your fiction? Do you see yourself as changing genre or "branding" your work?

DR: Spanish Doors is general fiction, but women's fiction more specifically because it has to have a pigeon-hole, but that doesn't mean men don't like it. They do. I have written poetry, long and short fiction, and non-fiction, and it's always about women and their relationships and the places I love with food and health thrown in as necessities for a good life. My blog, speaks to these themes as well. I didn't come up with a  brand that would determine what I would write. It's the other way around. What I write creates a brand. If I wanted to change genres, I would use a pseudonym.

PC: What is the current state of American fiction, as you see it? 

DR: I hope fiction is going global like everything else. For my blog, for example, I know I have readers in Russia. Also, short is good, a quick read on the iphone reaches more people than hardback novels. Instant gratification meets the basic human condition.

PC: How do you think American fiction might best develop in the next ten years?

DR: I recently heard a futurist say, "Everyone over-estimates the amount of change that will happen in the next 2 years and underestimates the amount of change that will happen in the next ten years." I'm guessing I don't have a clue what will happen next. I'm hoping for something like, "Beam me up, Scottie," and downloading information directly to the human brain.

PC: How is Fiction relevant or valuable to contemporary society and culture in the U.S. and/or at an international level?

DR: Telling stories has always been a very human way of teaching and preserving culture. Today, we are hearing (and seeing in movies) more stories about other cultures. If I get to know a character who is different from me but still so very human like me, then I can feel his life and culture and recognize that his basic needs are the same as mine. Before we can find peace, we may have to learn how much alike we are as humans and how to see past our differences.

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