Thursday, May 24, 2018

Turn Left? Turn Right? in the Dordogne

Turn left? Turn right? - it doesn’t really matter if you aren’t in a hurry. Getting a bit off track out here in the middle of nowhere might even lead to something unexpected.

On a recent outing there was no messing about with the getting there. The destination was a sale of rare plants. Arriving on time was imperative because all the big buyers come early and buy quickly. There is nothing worse than arriving and seeing someone leaving, smugly carrying the one plant that would have been a great addition to our garden. I knew the route and pulled the car into a parking spot right to the minute of our desired arrival. The spot was close to the sales area so we could get in quick and it wasn’t going to be too far to lug out our plant purchases.

Later, exhausted by too much adrenaline, we called it quits. As Tom loaded up (or should I say stuffed) the car with our purchases I looked over the exit situation. We were parked on a one lane road. Crazy plant people parked tightly on both sides, crazy plant people staggering down the one lane behind their load of foliage, crazy plant people arriving late weaving down the lane. The only direction that looked fluid and easy was ahead, but where did ahead go?

Oh well, the goal of our adventure was over and there was no urgency to getting home - we’d take a wander through the countryside.

The original guess was that the lane ahead would lead right and then with a couple of turns we would get back to the main road. But, the lane kept heading more and more left and south away from home - an hour back up north. The countryside was steeper than up our way. There was no way to see what lay ahead. Right and left turn choices came on sharp angles, headed down steeply or up sharply. The side of the road fell off abruptly down the valley edge.

Out here there is no rhyme or reason to the direction the lanes might go. A GPS is useless. It will tell you to turn right into a creek or continue straight and drop you in a farmer’s manure pit - giving no alternative directions. At first I listened to the GPS heading off to the south even though I knew home was north. When we did indeed end up in a farmer’s manure pit I asked Tom to turn off the GPS. It’s a small corner of the world and we’d eventually come upon something recognizable and untangle ourselves. Eventually…..

Then suddenly -  “What the heck!”

I backed the car up just to be sure I wasn’t hallucinating. There in a gap in the trees floated the towers of a castle. A really big castle. Tourist brochures don’t mention a castle down in this neck of the woods. 
“Just look at the expanse of that roofline!   Let’s try and find it.”

Down a steep turn to the right. Another turn to the right. It seemed like I was heading above the mystery building and had somehow missed it’s hidden driveway. The road was getting narrower and wilder which seemed strange at the foot of a huge castle. Then coming over the crest of a ridge there were two discrete, simple pillars clearly marking what had to be the entrance.

There were “Private - No Entry” signs on the pillars. However this was too enticing to be resisted. I parked the car on the edge of the road facing down hill in case there was need to make a speedy get away. Thoughts of shotgun owners came into my American brain. The property had been recently mowed adding to the tension that someone might be around. Still curiosity was getting the better of me. Tom, not saying go - or don’t go, followed along

This baby was a monster!

The lane curved along to a carriage gate set into a mounded defensive wall. That gate was closed tight, the only decoration a stone lintel with a coat of arms looming solemnly over entry. Standing under the gate we could still just see the rooftop and towers. The funny thing was that there were earthen wings that one could walk up to the top of the wall. Clearly these had been added when defending the place had no longer been necessary.  Walking up to the top the entire face of the building expanded before us in all it’s splendour. Desolate, quiet, and enormous. An architectural feat that seems to have lost it’s purpose. Silently standing there like a sleeping giant, delicate pieces of it breaking apart from neglect and age. How astounding. 

All the usual questions came to mind: when was it built, who built it, what had made them so rich, who owns it now, why don’t they…….. what’s going to happen……

The feeling of awe was physical. We could feel the weight of the building, the weight of history, the weight of the burden of caring for such a place.

It’s hard to believe that there are so many castles in this area that they can be taken for granted. Hardly any are a part of the public domaine. They don’t get written up about in history books or put into storybooks.

The fact is there are records of 1200 castles in the Dordogne. The Dordogne has the highest concentration of  noble structures in all of France. Most of them are off the beaten track and tightly shuttered against curiosity.

Feeling awed and moved by what we couldn’t know we headed back to the car. Turns out just a few more lefts and rights got us back to the main road. The spell was broken. The past gave way to today. For now.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

A Gourmet in Training

For hors d’oeuvre there were tiny shrimp, dipped in sauce.

The starter was a charcuterie plate that included museau vinaigrette —-pickled pig's snout

The main course was veal piccata accompanied by green beans, diced beets and potato. 

All this followed by a cheese course.

Then there was dessert and last,
but not least a bit of chocolate.

No, this is not some Michelin starred restaurant. We are in the kitchen of Grandma Frederique (“Fred” to one and all.) We are watching her feed her 18 month old grandson, Baby Louis.

It’s at home that the French learn to be so discerning and passionate about food. 
Here in Grandma Fred’s kitchen there are four or five pots bubbling on the stove, a casserole in the oven and various crisply wrapped cheeses sitting on the counter. All of the ingredients were carefully selected yesterday from the best Farmer’s Market in the area. The fruit comes from the vendor up towards Marueil, vegetables from the vendor heading out towards Brantome, meat from Monsieur Bouffier, and fresh goats cheese from the farm over the hill.

When he is in town Baby Louis joins Grandma Fred on her Friday morning shopping. He watches her closely as she banters with the vendors, her eyes subtly looking over the produce to check that only the best is being put in her basket. Baby Louis has no idea that he is in training for one of the most French of French enthusiasms - good food.

Now that Baby Louis has moved on from the bottle he is going to eat comme il faut (“as one should”), and this means whatever the adults will be eating that mealtime. The only nod to his babyhood is that each delicacy will be pureed or diced to baby format.
It was already a surprise to see Baby Louis gobbling up shrimp, but when the museau vinaigrette was served up I was bowled over. Truth be told if you don’t know the word pig snout and if you concentrate on the flavor rather than what it is, you would love it too.  Starting off young the French skip a lot of hangups. We are, indeed, a long ways away from chicken McNuggets.

He loved his main course of pureed veal picatta and demanded “more more” pureed beets and green beans. He’s learning to use the fork himself and selects his next taste sensation carefully. The cubed potatoes were easier picked up with little hands than stabbed with a fork. Finally he starts saying “no” to what is being offered. Time for the next course. The next wave of taste sensations.

Baby Louis starts humming yum before the cheese course hits the table. Today’s selection is a creamy soft goat cheese. One could buy grocery store goat cheese, but in this household everything that can be is bought directly from the producer. Fresh, tasty ingredients is what eating is all about. It’s no wonder why the French feel that they can be food snobs with this sort of focus on each detail of a meal.

After a few mouthfuls of cheese it’s time for dessert. Today's selection is a simple goat milk yogurt, but Baby Louis has visited the goats and watched them being milked. He’s petted their heads and can even say baaa baaa.

Baby Louis sits quietly while Grandma Fred wipes his hands and mouth. He starts to make little cooing noises and his eyes sparkle. Out of his highchair he follows quietly along behind Grandma to the cupboard. She carefully places a square of lovely chocolate into his grasp.

He’s had the stamina and patience to make it through all 5 courses and knows how to savor his last simple pleasure. 

Now much to the jealousy of several of the adults that will attempt this same gastronomic feat - baby Louis is off for his afternoon nap.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Eat Your Dandelions

I’m not sure if I have ever told you about our local newspaper, the SudOuest (the Southwest). It’s about 12 pages long, six of those pages are sports stuff. An American friend of mine said she wouldn’t read this rag because its all about fender benders, tragic car wrecks and group photos of every kind of local club you can imagine. French folks wonder that I find any use for the brief, unsophisticated articles. The thing is that I am not reading the SudOuest for “real” news. I read it for a dip into the daily news around me. I find this “rag" a very valuable part of understanding my life here in France.

My favorite section of the paper is the last page. Here I check out the weather forecast for an overall view of the upcoming week and I glance at which saint day it is. The very last things to read are the little boxes with “It’s the moment for….” and “The trick of the day”. 

Here are some examples of this charming French life version of “Hints from Heloise”. This particular collection of snippets were helpful in getting us through a long, damp, grey winter:

C’est le moment de..
“It’s the moment to eat dandelions. Like lots of wild plants, the dandelion is full of great nutrients: fiber, iron, calcium, vitamin A and B9. Gather them when the young centers are tender, because the dandelion gets bitter with age. The more it is big and green, the more fibrous it is.”

Le truc du jour    The trick of the day….
“Cook some dandelions. Boil them up and they can replace spinach, or add to a soup. Steam them and serve with potatoes. The young leaves of the dandelion can be eaten raw, in a salad, with croutons, eggs and cheese.”

Le truc du jour
“Take care of your rubber boots. With time your rubber boots loose their elasticity. Rub down your boots with a rag dipped in glycerine to give them back their suppleness. And especially avoid letting them dry in a hot place, that risks deforming them.”

C’est le moment…..
“It is the moment to adapt your meals. Now that winter has settled in in France, you have longings for cheese raclette, macaroni and cheese, and you pound on the fondu, but do not let yourself give in to cheese for all your meals! Soups are ideal in this season: they reheat the body and, better yet, they keep one hydrated.”

Le truc du jour..
“A good balanced vegetable soup will contain fast and slow sugars. Marry cooked carrots and navets with leeks and onions. Then add some dried vegetables (lentils, chick peas…) that will stick to the body.”

Le truc du jour..
“You feel a cold coming on, boil 1 litre of water and add a handful of fresh thyme, a slice of lemon, and a few dried elderberry flowers. Let this infuse for 15 minutes, add sweetness with a bit of honey and drink this herbal tea all day long.”

C’est le moment……
“It’s the moment to eat celery-rave. It is full on season of this vegetable low in calories, but rich in vitamins ( especially in vitamin K). You can eat it raw or cooked. To cook cut the root into fourths and grate before cooking.”

Le truc du jour…..
“Make a crumble with celery-rave. (lemon, 20 cl of creme, half a log of goats cheese, 1 onion, 5 slices of cooked bacon, bread crumbs) Slice the goats cheese and place in a gratin dish, spread the diced onions and bacon on the cheese, then the grated celery-rave sprinkled with a bit of lemon juice. Sprinkle the top with bread crumbs for the crumble. Cook. (there are no cooking directions - of course you know what to do - right?)”

The SudOuest might be considered fluffy, but that is exactly what I like about it. Le Figaro and Le Monde can carry the heavy load of real news.  For me, reading the SudOuest is all about absorbing a little Frenchness: how the weather will affect next year’s wine, how did the Crusades change the way villages were constructed, and be sure to eat your dandelions.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Spring Kids

A wonderful sign of early spring are the baby goats gambling about in the small pastures along our country lanes. Curlicue puff balls springing about on tiny legs, bumping into brother and sister kids. No matter what else might be happening in ones life these bundles of adorableness make one smile. Well, that is for those of us that are causal observers. The arrival of these fragile babies creates some anxiety in those that are responsible for them. Here is a little story told by the best goat cheese maker in the region and the Little Bo Peep of her herd.
Kids in Louise's kitchen with the warmth of the AGA wood-stove.

Well folks, some of you might be wondering how we are getting on....
Well it's been interesting. Last Saturday was day one with 3 goats producing 5 nice kids. That was a good start if a little startling as we had reckoned Monday was the big day. 
Ok so Sunday was quiet and we caught up. 
Then the interesting bit. It got seriously cold. Of course I thought to myself, nothing like a freezing wind when your most precious kids are arriving. 
We did our best to keep the little ones cosy and our water protected. 
The next couple of days was a trudge, lugging water to pigs etc etc. Of course as luck would have it, our tractor was having a much anticipated overhaul, so it couldn't help. 
....but no kiddings!
Last night, as we finished our evening chores I asked the goats, very nicely, if they could please just hang on until this morning, after 9, preferably. 
Well what lovely goats we have...
10 am, Macy produces twin sisters. 3 more kidded in the afternoon. 
I guess they decided in all that cold and ice the kids were better in than out!
Well that or we were jolly lucky.

Thank you for the story Louise!

Monday, March 5, 2018


If someone were to say to you bird images, great big paintings of American birds, by an American artist, you would probably say Audubon, John James Audubon. And you would be right except for one thing - he wasn’t American he was French. That news sort of shocked me the first time I heard it as I think of Audubon as an icon of American art and as American as Davey Crockett.
I came across this tidbit of information in a newspaper article a few years ago.  Then recently there was more news of Audubon and we took a little drive up to the Natural History Museum in La Rochelle to see an exhibit of the early works of a young Jean Jaques Audubon.
It turns out that Audubon led a chaotic life starting with the fact that he was born to a mistress while his father was living in Haiti establishing sugar plantations. His mother died early on and he and his father left Haiti, went to Pennsylvania, and then to France to live with his father’s wife who had stayed back in France. His father pushed him into military school when he was 12 years old to become a seaman, but it was quickly evident that he got seasick and that he had no aptitude for mathematics or navigation. The young Audubon was thrilled to be back on dry land and in the fields where he could focus on birds. From his earliest days he was obsessed with birds, “I felt an intimacy with them….bordering on frenzy (that) must accompany my steps through life.” He was lucky because the 1800’s was a time of huge discoveries in natural history with funding for exploration and buyers of all things that gave the everyday citizen exposure to these new discoveries.
At 18 his father obtained a false passport for Audubon so that he could avoid conscription during the Napoleonic Wars. He avoided the military, but his calamities continued to follow him. Before he even got off the boat he came down with yellow fever. The captain took him directly to be nursed back to health by a group of Quaker women. This was his introduction to english and he always spoke with stilted, old fashioned words. Launched into American life he dabbled in several different careers and moved around from Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Missouri. Along the way he met and married Lucy Bakewell. They had two surviving sons. Audubon was often on the road, or rivers, in search of new bird species and working to perfect his representations of birds. His talent was quickly recognized, but there was a fair amount of competition in the field and he was perceived as a young upstart. Barley keeping his family afloat he did portraits on the side and Lucy was a teacher - the family seemed to be used to wandering around a lot and scratching things together just enough to stay afloat. Whenever possible Audubon tied his work to his passion for finishing up his main project, a book - The Birds of America. He developed wiring techniques that allowed him to show the birds in a more animated way. He’d redo all the paintings that had been done before he worked out this new technique. He hired hunters to gather specimens for him. He wandered up and down the waterways of the east coast where he could encounter the most diversity of birds. In all the project took 14 years of drawings, wandering, and self promotion of the project. There were not many folks that thought he could get the book into publication.

 He was rebuffed by the publishers he approached in Philadelphia. He had somehow upset the leading scientist at the Academy of Natural Sciences, Finally at the age of 41 he took his body of work to England to see if he could find the best engraver and a more sophisticated audience. His talent quickly caught the attention of the British who were in the throws of a Natural History craze. It cost Audubon - $115,640 (over $2,000,000 today) for the printing of the entire work. He earned his money back by selling subscriptions, hosting exhibitions, and selling commissioned works, and animal skins. Whatever it took to get his project out there. A contemporary French critic of The Birds of America wrote, “A magic power transported us into the forests which for so many years this man of genius has trod. Learned and ignorant alike were astonished at the spectacle….it is a real and palpable vision of the New World.”

Audubon’s story continued to be one of the driven, starving artist with highs and lows in his financial life. The things that were never in question were his endurance, his curiosity, and his faith in his work. At a time when he was losing subscribers he is quoted as saying, “The Birds of America will then raise in value as much as they are now depreciated by certain fools and envious persons.” (In 2010 a copy of The Birds of America sold at Sotheby’s auction for $11.5 million.)

I’ll encourage you to go to the John James Audubon wikipedia site. This is where my information has come from and there is oh so much more than I have quickly relayed to you here.

Our trip to the museum in La Rochelle was wonderful. The museum is a quaint, old fashioned, natural history museum. We started our tour among the many stuffed birds from the region and explanations of their habitats. These displays were the perfect lead in to the small collection of Audubon works. The museum found these papers tucked in their attic mixed in with the works of one of Audubon’s original teachers and founder of the museum when they did a restoration 10 years ago. The exhibit interwove a bit of his life story with his early works. We had gone expecting to see the big portfolio engravings, but were pleasantly surprised to find how engaging and rich the smaller early sketches were. The early sketches already showed the power of his representations and we could see his early experimantations with how best to share the beauty of these birds that he was so obsessed with.