Saturday, April 3, 2021

Dreaming and Drinking

The pandemic in France means seven o’clock curfew, no gatherings, no restaurants, no bars, no clothing stores. I’m fine, Tom’s fine. Our days are busy and our evenings are cozy. So why is there this lingering feeling that I’m lacking a little extra zest in life? Maybe its because for more than a year I have not been 30 minutes from home

Recently the local SudOuest Mag(azine) gave me the spark— the zest!—for a dream adventure. My dream destination is just south of Bordeaux. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 10h - 12h30 and 14h - 18h. Three euros will get you entry and a tasting, by appointment only. (All of this changed last night when a month long shutdown was announced.)

In my fantasy I’m speeding down back roads, over rolling hills covered in blossoming fruit trees, gamboling sheep, and miles of budding vineyards. I’m exhilarated by the liberation of the open road. If I’m on my lonesome the first song up is Freedom (yep, George MIchael, for a hoot hollering sing along). If I snagged a friend for this adventure there’s mile a minute disjointed conversations. If Tom has reluctantly left the ranch to join me there’s snoring.

I’m off in search of the glamor of James Bond, the Duchess of Windsor, and the glory days of transatlantic steamships. I’m off to la Maison LIllet. 

Here’s the back story-

In 1872 two brothers, Paul and Raymond Lillet  (pronounced “lee lay”) created a “society” for the production of a fortified drink. Using locally produced white wine and the waste from citrus fruits imported from French colonies they created a concoction “based” on the principles of Louis Pasteur. “There are germs in the water? Then let us drink wines with quinine.” It was reputed to be “exquisite, inoffensive, hygienic par excellence.” Lillet quickly became the apéritif of fashionable women and discerning gourmets.  This alcohol of a golden color with the taste of summer received a gold medal at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris.

The golden years continued from 1930 to 1950. Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor (the American interloper that tumbled a crown) was crazy fond of Lillet. She was miffed when it wasn’t served in Paris at Fauchon,  the George IV, - or even the Ritz!  She quickly corrected this and introduced Lillet to all of the hot spots where she hung out - palaces, beach hotels, ski resorts, glamorous transatlantic crossings… 

Her signature drink, The Smiling Duchess won first prize for a cocktail drink in 1937.  The author Ian Fleming was also a grand devotee. In Casino Royale James Bond orders a drink that has 3 measures gin, one measure vodka and a half measure Lillet. 007 baptized the cocktail The Vesper for his one and only, the beautiful Vesper Lynd.  Bond ordered this drink "shaken, not stirred"  giving rise to this immortalized catchphrase. From the casinos of Montenegro Lillet sailed into American high society via transatlantic crossings from Le Havre to New York City. Eighty percent of Lillet sales were in America. Ironically, it took a trip to the restaurant in the Empire State Building for Frenchman Bruno Borie to discover this drink that was made in his region of France.  By 1985 he had purchased Lillet and was marketing the brand world wide.

To this day no one knows the secret ingredients that give Lillet its special zest. We know it is based on dry white wine produced in the south west of France, quinine from the bark of the Cordiliere tree in the Andes, the zest of sweet Moroccan oranges, and the zest of bitter Haitian oranges, but that special something extra remains a well guarded secret.

Lillet is still a small company. This keeps the “society”  agile and guarantees the handcrafted quality of each bottle of spirits. Lillet is exactly what folks are looking for now-a-days - small is beautiful, authentic, anchored in tradition, coming from a small territory and still produced on location. In 2013 1 million bottles were produced per year. In 2020 the production grew to 9 million bottles per year. The staff has grown from 5 to 10.

Soaking up the glory of this long history I’ll take the tour of la Maison Lillet, enjoy the tasting, fill the trunk with Lillet, spend the night in the glorious Chateau Sigalas Rabaud, dine on the terrace overlooking the vineyards, and wake up the next morning to the gentle sounds of Fleetwoood Mac singing Dreams (“now here you go again you say you want your freedom,,,,,”)

Back in reality I’ll settle for a Smiling Duchess under the tower of a medieval castle on the sun soaked terrace of a glamorous friend. Boy I’ve had a zesty, grand time right here in our small dreamy village.

Smiling Duchess
2 cl gin
2cl Lillet
1cl apricot brandy
1 cl Crème de Noyeaux

The Vesper
6cl gin
2 cl vodka
1 cl Lillet Blanc
zeste of orange or lemon

Some fun web sites:

Thank you Louise for being my bartender!
All Lillet posters are taken from web images - thank you for letting me share these.

***Please drink responsibly***

Friday, March 12, 2021

Nitty Gritty of March

I’ve turned to Victoire de Montesque again to see how I should be managing my “french” household. Turns out March is a good time to get on with organizing the kitchen, but before she drags you into the nitty gritty of the soul of the home she sets up the scene.

‘March is the most unstable month of the year. You awake to a dusting of snow, in the afternoon you are pulling weeds under a hot sun, you grab a cup of tea looking out at the hail stones, and just before the sun sets you stop to enjoy cocktails bundled up against the  wind on the sunny side of the house. Ups and downs and backwards turnings that might make you a bit crazy. Only the birds sing along with serenity knowing that spring is advancing in spite of her taunts. Spring is carried along by the violets, the flowering cherries, timid irises, tree peonies, and branches of lilacs blooms.

You have to be adaptable to these humors of March. It’s time to move on from winter routines and prepare for the lightness of the beautiful days to come.

Once a year it’s good to screw up the courage and energy to question our humdrum routines. March, the chaotic month, can be transformed into a moment of deliberate planning. The art of organization can ease the routines of the household in unexpected ways, but always positive.’

I am tickled by the nitty gritty of that positive organization.

‘Hanging above the stove and under the exhaust fan: paddles of different sizes, slotted spoons, and big spoons for filling up jam pots. On the counter top: pottery jars for spatulas, wooden spoons and whisk, the knife block, a wooden tray for the bottles of olive oil, sunflower oil, a liter of homemade vinaigrette. Glass jars, one for sea salt, one for fine salt, and a big wooden pepper grinder. A mixer, a basket of eggs, a small basket with two onions, one garlic head, bay leaves, and some shallots. Three cutting boards against the wall, behind the jars of vermicelli, spaghetti, macaronis and rice, and the clay pot of coffee beans. In a drawer, the little knives, the slotted spoons, spoons and forks of different sizes, metal spatulas, salad tongs - all this lined up in a plastic holder. In a cupboard: the crepe pan, an egg pan, a series of casseroles and some soufflé forms…….’

I won’t continue with this exhaustive list - it goes on for five pages. She’s trying to be helpful to someone setting up house as well as helping us oldies organize our accumulated stuff.

Her main point is that by deliberately organizing items by categories, size, and frequency of use, you will take stock of what you really need to keep the kitchen humming along. ("Humming along" -growing up in the mountains I did not understand this expression until I went sailing. Moving so fast that the sail stays were humming. I was so scared that I cried - then I loved it!)

Speaking of a kitchen humming along I feel pretty shipshape in mine. Tom designed and built the space. I call it the sailboat kitchen because it’s practical and easily navigated, everything has a place and is in it’s place. The limited shelving and cupboards dictated that I pared down the pots and pans, spatulas and knives. But, if I’m not careful things start to creep in. Where to store the new juicer? Why do I have so many varieties of lentils? How many jars of green olives do I need? Why’s the walnut oil shoved way back there?

So on a recent frosty morning I pulled stuff off the shelves and out of the drawers. I grouped things into categories, restocked the shelves in a deliberate manner, and now I can see at a glance that I don’t need any more green olives but that I do need ketchup. Maybe I should let go of one of the 4 pyrex baking dishes. It sure feels good to have the Tupperware sorted out. Later that afternoon my neighbor and I were walking the dogs under the wild plum blossoms. When I told her about my discoveries hidden in the kitchen jumble she said, “You’re rich!”

With that job done I’m off to the garden. I want to be ready for the lightness of warm sunny days. I want to have friends over to sit under the lilacs and enjoy green olives and a cold drink.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Rivers Up 2021

As it straddles the Dronne river, the charm of the village of Bourdeilles comes from how houses, gardens, and empty fields are arranged on the river’s left and right banks. On the left bank is the town center, the Bourg. The right bank is host to the “not-quite town center”, the Faubourg. 

Houses in the Bourg rise upward along the road leading up to the castle. A castle that is defensively perched on a rocky outcropping. It is literally overhanging the river. 

Houses in the Faubourg are regimentally lined up along the edge of empty fields that follow the river. These fields are left open because they are on the floodplain. This neighborhood is at the mercy of the river.

Most of the year the picturesque Dronne flows gently along, animating her artistic setting with sparkling ripples and visiting wildlife. The folks of the Bourg and the Faubourg mingle as they cross paths on the medieval bridge connecting the two neighborhoods. One can’t cross the bridge without stopping to count the trout lingering in pools formed behind the bridge’s five stone arches. Everyone’s hands move in or out to show how big this fish or that is. The babble of the Dronne is contagious, echoing into human voices. There are tales told out there on the bridge.  

Those animated neighborly visits above the river are for spring, summer, and fall.  Early winter shortens our chit chat to a quick,“how ya doing?”.  The trout are harder to spot and grey skies don’t encourage visiting.  Only the juiciest bits of gossip are worth a few extra moments discreetly shared over the murmurings of the river. Then the rains start. After the long hot summer months of pounding sun and parched sunflowers, the first few weeks of grey skies and wet pavement are welcomed.

January days alternate between heavy rain or gloomy drizzle. There are no days of drying sunshine.  Little lakes start to appear in the fields along the river. Everywhere, high and low, the ground is saturated. The ducks and the herons gobble up rising worms and drowning moles in the disappearing hay fields. We start to pay attention as the sweet, easy going Dronne creeps up her banks. Gone are the sparkly ripples. The swelling river’s surface has smoothed out, she’s changed color, and she’s moving fast. Newbies to the area start to twitter about how high the river is. Oldies aren’t worried —yet— but they make a mental note of the river’s level each time they pass by - good to keep an eye on the ole gal. 

Instead of every conversation starting with “fine day” you hear “rivers up”.

Bourdeilles organized itself for this annual phenomenon years ago. The Bourg was established here long, long ago because of the high ground atop the cliffs on the left bank. The low lying neighborhood of the Faubourg had to be precisely calculated. Clearly people have always payed attention to the tipping point of the episodic floods. Everyone knows that even a modest change in the amount of water pushing down stream will send the waters seeping into and then sweeping across the floodplain. You can pretty much tell where the water is going to max out in a typical flood by where the line of houses starts. However even with this careful placement there is always the risk that some floods might exceed planning. For the inevitable flooding the ground floor of these homes was reserved for livestock, farm equipment, things that can be easily moved (remember some of the houses date to the 1600’s). Living space starts on the first floor (which, to Americans, is the second floor.)

February arrives and the rains keep coming. Two, three, four days and nights of nonstop heavy rain. There is too much water to rush along towards the ocean outlets. The river pushes off the rocky bank seeking the easiest release.  Water sweeps over the fields. The expanse of water looks languorous and glassy. It also looks menacing.

There’s a buzz on the bridge as folks come out to watch the waters sliding across the fields and creeping up the inclines in the alleyways. There are only a few places that might get flooded, but everyone is watching them with excitement and apprehension.

In 2003 I went to the bank in Brantome to pay for one of those Faubourg houses that a big flood will flood. On my way to the bank appointment I had to stop at the farmer’s co-op to buy Wellington boots, I had to pass swans swimming in the parking lot as I sloshed through water coming just centimeters from the tops of the wellies as I bobbed up and down on springy, quickly laid planks. The actual sidewalk was nowhere to be seen under the flood water. During the closing transaction I had to draw a picture showing the location of our future house (I was learning a lot of new vocabulary that day..) “Is that in a flood zone?” A question whose answer would surely affect our homeowners insurance. What to say? I’d just seen the river lapping at the threshold. “Yes”

Forty or fifty years ago a damn was built so humans could “control” the flow of the Drone. The arrival of the damn put an end to the annual threat and excitement of high waters. Nowadays it seems to be about every ten winters that the reservoir gets more water than it can handle. That’s when the folks controlling the dam contact the town hall, sending out a flood warning. That warning call is when we can’t deny how precarious our situation is. Some people have vertical runners on each side of their front doors.  When the call comes, wood planks are put here to try to keep out the flood.  All of the houses have ground floors made of concrete, tile, or paving stones. Water coming in is no big deal.

Mid-February and the rains have slowed and the dam has closed it’s gates (gotta keep as much water in the reservoir as possible for next year’s inevitable drought). The high water level receded quickly.

Crossing over the bridge, our lengthening conversations are about next week’s forecast for sunshine and warmer temperatures. The River Dronne is nestled back in her banks. Her winter animations are over. We can relax and enjoy the charm of it all— the trout in their pools, the swallows sweeping over head, and the Dronne’s sparkling ripples of spring, summer and fall.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Magic in the Village

The winter days are grey and foggy in Bourdeilles, but look closely and you’ll see a little sparkle in the main street.  A young lady has dared to open up a shop in the practically abandoned center of the village. Her name is Pauline. Her’s is a gutsy adventure, but this is exactly the sort of madness that a small village in France needs.

If you don’t live in Bourdeilles and you drive through too quickly you’ll think that it’s a ghost town, but if you slow down and turn your head at just the right moment you will notice some happy lights twinkling in a window between gloomily closed shutters. You’ve spotted Bourdeilles’ newest spark of life. A little grocery with so much more to offer than you would imagine - L’épicerie Abracada’vrac— ‘the magic little grocery store for buying in bulk’. I just call it the magic shop.

Pauline is the third generation on her father’s side to live in Bourdeilles - the eighth generation on her mother’s side. She didn’t grow up here, but spending all those summers and school vacations with her grandparents gave her a taste of village life. After a few years working in the city she and her partner made the decision to slow down life and to start a family smack dab under one of the tallest castle towers in France. Pauline’s dream has been to open up a little grocery. The couple worked out that they could create a shop in the basement of their home under the castle. Like shop keepers of days gone by the family lives upstairs and the commerce is downstairs (if you look carefully you’ll spot the baby monitor on the checkout counter next to the register..). This all encompassing way of life has been disappearing, but lately there is a small revival as some young people are trading the hustle of city life for a quieter one in the country.

It’s a bit of an adventure to shop at Abracada’vrac. There is no parking lot at the entrance. You either have to park your car by the river and wander up, or below the church and wander down. Walking from my house, I pass under the castle tower and through a multi-centuries canyon of houses, equipped with empty shopping containers. Shopping here is BYOC (bring your own container). The shop entrance opens abruptly onto the street. The door handle is decidedly 1940’s French and I have to mind the couple of steps down into the warm and welcoming shop. Pauline greets me with a wide smile that sparkles with enthusiasm. You can’t help but be caught up in her pride for what she has created.  A pride that is shared by the community. She courageously sent out a request for seed money. Where times are always a little tough the concept of crowd-funding isn’t something you find in a small village in France. It ain’t easy to ask, but ask she did. She is encouraged by the enthusiastic response of the folks of Bourdeilles. She in turn invested in the community by hiring a local furniture maker to help plan and build the custom shelving for the awkward, cramped space. They have quite successfully created an atmosphere of simple elegance.

Here’s what I’ve spied in the magic shop so far— black licorice, spicy crackers, several choices of pastas, beans, flours and rice. I’m currently obsessed with a rice that comes from the Camargue region of France. There are olive oils from Provence and walnut oil from our region of Aquitaine. There is a section of cleaning products from detergents to toothpaste. There are household and baby care items that are practical and pretty at the same time. These make great little gifts.

It’s going to take me awhile to organize the correct containers for shopping and storing what I buy at the magic store. I’m enjoying having a practical use for my milk bottle caddy and all the apple juice bottles I’ve been saving. I might have to spring for some more mason jars with wider openings for filling. My goal is that our pantry will look more like a calm photo in a country living magazine than the spoils from a rampage in a dollar store.

Pauline has done the hard part for us. She screwed up the courage to launch herself into risks and long hours of work in order to concretely do something about her conviction that the long term global cost of our shopping habits is not acceptable. Wrapped up in this conviction is also the desire to help animate our little village. Now it’s up to us oldies to grab a basket and some jars and enjoy the magic and sparkly light offered by this little épicerie in our small village in France.

--join her on FaceBook  Abracada'Vrac-Épicerir Vrac Bourdeilles  


--a couple of other "frenchie" food sites I'm enjoying on instagram  

- katedecamont


Saturday, January 16, 2021

The Man who wanted to be King of America

I’m constantly tearing out articles that catch my interest from our local newspaper The SudOuest. This a quiet region so the paper uses a lot of non-news stories as filler.I love it when the filler piece is both local and historical. Especially anything to do with a French/American connection. A good pandemic exercise is to make a big pile of all my newspaper clippings and see what jumps out at me. Here’s a good one.

“The Man who wanted to be King of America”

I’m terrible about keeping the date attached to the clipping, but I do know that this is not an April Fool’s article. This is a factual accounting of a Frenchman that thought it would suit him to be king of the budding United States of America. Here’s how the story goes.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, Charles-Francois, count de Broglie, was born in Paris. The year was 1719 and his prestigious father was head of the army of King Louis XV.  Needless to say, the well-connected boy rose quickly in the ranks, eventually becoming a general, the ambassador to Poland, and a secret agent in the service of the King. At age forty de Broglie used the dowery of his new wife, the Princess Louise de Montmorency, to purchase the county of Ruffec. (Which is in our corner of France.) This deal came with a county, a nice village, and most importantly, a title.  De Broglie was now the Marquis de Ruffec.

While de Broglie was amassing his titles and fortunes the far-flung American Colonies were organizing to break away from England and the rule of monarchy. As the English were the sworn enemies of the French, the Marquis de Broglie decided that now was a good time to encourage the king to involve France in this insurrection. He is quoted as writing,”The American colonies are destined to one day form an independent state. Sooner or later it is destined to happen.” His purpose was to help move things along.

Apparently he already had visions of grandeur of what he hoped to gain from this foreign conflict. He wrote a letter of self-promotion to the Baron Jean deKalb, a German born French general. DeKalb had already joined the Continental Army and had strong connections to Washington, Adams, Franklin and the Marquis de Lafayette. De Broglie wrote, “America needs a political and military leader that can impose and reunite. Someone who is capable of attracting and leading with him a considerable number of the population. You have the power to make known who you think can fulfill this position.” De Broglie’s description of who he thought would fit the bill strongly resembled himself. His pretensions and his narcism were over the top. Earlier in his life he had tried and failed to become Prime Minister of France, he had bought the title of Marquis, so why not try to be a King?

While waiting to see how his political aspirations were being received in the court of King Louis XVI de Broglie jumped into non-stop work. Between his properties in the Charente and his commitments in Paris, he worked day and night. He organized his memoirs, he schemed and presented recommendation and plans for France’s participation in the colonial revolution. He directed mines, constructed a forge for cannons and drained the swamps around his county. He kept up very good relations with all of the military suppliers of La Rochelle and Rochefort, the centers of naval power in France. These resources would come in handy when it came time to launch his ambitions in the Americas.

In May of 1776 de Broglie was part of a small group that secretly sent Versailles a plan of action for France’s involvement in the American conflict. At this point de Broglie still felt it was too early for France to send over troops. He wanted to wait until the American Congress requested France’s aid in ships, armaments, and soldiers.  All to be led, of course, by de Broglie. July 4, 1776, and the Declaration of Independence, moved his plans forward.

 In December of 1776 de Broglie gave instructions to deKalb to lead the way for his ascension towards ruling America. DeKalb was to “suggest” the idea of de Broglie being appointed king without outrightly stating that this was was the final intention. He had even schemed up a royal procession to traverse his future kingdom. By now deKalb was distancing himself from the project, declaring de Broglie’s ideas more than a little crazy - “une folie” (a foolishness or maybe a folly).

All of this scheming and de Broglie had never even left France!  Benjamin Franklin, now the chief diplomat in Versailles, shot down de Broglie’s petition to be sent to America to “represent” France. This opposition  was the end of Charles-Francois de Broglie’s dream of becoming King of America.

Undeterred in his efforts to help the American colonies de Broglie put his energies into financing a voyage for the young Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette sailed from Bordeaux on La Victoire in March of 1777. Lafayette was to play a critical role in America’s road to independence.

De Broglie died alone in August of 1781 near his village of Ruffec. The newspaper article makes a point that neither his wife nor his children were at his funeral.

from - SudOuest, LeMag   written by Jean-Michel Selva