Friday, April 29, 2022

Malicious, Magical, Green Leaves

When I was about six or seven I accidentally discovered one of the diabolical properties of stinging nettles. One minute I was laughing and chasing my big cousins. The next minute I was crying and stinging from my finger tips up to my elbows. I’d scrambled through a patch of something and I felt like I was on fire. My dad swept me up, threw me under cold water and consoled me that the burring would go away soon. An hour or two later all was fine and I could now identify those malicious, stinging, green leaves. I’ve done whatever I could to avoid them ever since.

Sixty years later I’m discovering the positive, magical properties of this multitalented plant.

When we moved to France I quickly noted that stinging nettle is everywhere. But, here it is not just along the roads and riverbanks, it’s in magazine articles, on the shelves at the organic stores, and in my neighbor’s plant gathering baskets.

As an invasive weed it still has a bad reputation. If you weed it comes back even stronger. If you crush it it stings. If you just let it go it takes over. However, here in France there is a lot of positive press about the almost magical virtues stored up in this one powerhouse herb.

Wandering the nearby nettle congested fields you come home with a basket full of nutritious greens loaded with—

Vitamins: A, C, and K

Minerals: calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and sodium

Fats: linoleum acid, linolenic acid, palmitic acid, stearic acid, and oleic acid.

It’s free for the picking from spring until the end of summer. Some folks have learned the trick of stripping the leaves so they don’t sting. I haven’t mastered that move so I use gloves. Pick the top four to six leaves, wash in a basin of water with a drop or two of vinegar, and use right after picking as the leaves oxidize quickly. You can even plant it in a pot on your patio if you aren’t surrounded by it like we are.

In the kitchen you can cook up pesto, tarts, quiche, bruschetta, tea, caramel, or simply sautéed greens. In nutrition, 200 grams of stinging nettle can replace a steak. There’s a local cheese maker that has a nettle flavored cheese.

You can even chew the leaves raw if you roll them around between your fingers first. Three to four leaves have as much nutrients as an energy bar. Quite the handy snack while taking a hike.

I have read that you should consume nettle in moderation. Seems you can get too much of a good thing.

There’s more! Let’s move out of the kitchen and into the medicine cabinet. Nettles contain histamines. The plants begin to emerge in the springtime, at the same time many allergens are getting blown around. Nature works like that. It is a detox that also facilitates digestion and decreases water retention. It’s an anti-inflammatory that helps reduce arthritis and rheumatism (if you are willing to be stung). You can concoct pastes to strengthen your hair. reduce acne and eczema. Or brew up a detox to perk up your body for summer. The dried leaves make a tasty and healthy tea to keep you tuned up all year long. 

Tucked in the way back corner of their gardens my neighbors all have an atrociously stinking garbage can full of liquid gold. This is a macerating mix of nettle leaves and water. They swear it is the only fertilizer worth using even if you do have to hold your nose to apply it.

In Tom’s current murder mystery the detective looks for patches of stinging nettle to locate the body.

Who knew that something that could make you cry and tingle miserably could be so magically helpful?!

Here are a couple of “recipes” I enjoyed from recent magazine articles:

A Michelin star soup recipe from Philippe Hardy of the restaurant Le Mascaret -

300 g young leaves

1 liter water

1 garlic clove

2 potatoes 


Cook together until the potatoes are soft

Add a nutshell of butter

parsley and mint

blend and adjust seasoning

—-Yep - so simple and yet a Michelin star!

Home brewed fertilizer -

Macerate 500 grams of nettle leaves in 5 liters of water.

Cover and stir every other day.

After 10 days filter the liquid through a sieve. 

Store where the smell doesn’t bother you.

Dilute with 9 times the water when watering plants.

Better than the hairdresser’s goo - 

mix 2 grams of dried nettle in 95 ml of neutral wash

add 15 drops of citrus essential oil 

Mix and store in a sealed container

Use as a rinse for strong, glossy hair

Saturday, April 9, 2022

Middle of Nowhere Magic- Châteaux en Fête

 “This place is just polluted with castles,”  is Tom’s favorite thing to say when asked what’s exciting about visiting the Dordogne.

Here’s the legend of how the region came to have castles at every turn -1001 castles to be exact.

God wished to sprinkle some castles around the country of France. He headed out with a heavy sack, taking flight, and, like sowing wheat he tossed out a fist full of castles.

He had already traveled many provinces when he arrived in the Périgord. He shook his weary shoulders and pulled off the enormous rucksack.

One could see that the sack was worn out. There was a gaping hole letting towers, drawbridges, and spiral staircases tumble out. Before starting back up the road to Paradise to refill his rucksack with ramparts and arrowslits the Eternal Father shook out the bottom of his sack onto the rocky outcropping of the rivers Dordogne, Vézère, Dronne and  Auvézère.

He threw out so many that no other country is as rich in fortresses, chateaux and manor homes.*

Here in Bourdeilles we take for granted the everyday fact of living under a medieval castle and a Renaissance palace. But, there are off-limits places that drive us crazy with curiosity. We are tortured by those imposing monsters perched on overhanging outcroppings, the silent rooflines hovering just out of sight at the end of long driveways, or the enormous mysteries that we stumble upon walking in nearby woods.

Soon we’ll be able to scratch that curious itch. The formidable gates of many of the most important properties in our tiny, but mighty, corner of France will be opened to the public during La Fête des Chateaux.  For three weeks we will be welcomed in to marvel at the Dordogne’s impressive architectural heritage. Each property will share its own enticement; superb examples of medieval and Renaissance architecture, secret gardens, an evening of jazz under the stars, tea in the shade of an ancient Cedar of Lebanon, or a visit with local artisans invited to share their contemporary visions of French heritage. 

Forty-eight of those grand properties will be open right here in our tiny conner of the Perigord Vert.** It’s hard to  choose what and when to visit with such a wealth of options. There are castles in ruins, castles in their juice, (the french expression for a property not updated since the 1930’s), castles lived in by generations of the same family, castles lived in because someone had the courage and resources to revive a fading beauty, and castles converted to hotels and restaurants. All forty-eight of these visits are within thirty minutes of my humble abode. (The American size equivalent of the Perigord Vert would be a small county.)

We will not be allowed inside all of these private homes, but just passing through the gate, walking up the long driveway and standing at the foot of the entry steps is awe inspiring. It’s enough just to wander along the balustrades and to stand on that high perch that we have driven under so many times.

As guests we have so many questions. Who lived here, did they like it, were they ever warm, where is the kitchen, anyone famous, anyone infamous? What the walls could tell, but no one knows…. History was lived in day to day and often not recorded, or lost, or didn’t seem important to the next generation. Too many wars, too much civil unrest, lots of lost fortunes.

The owners are almost always there and might give us a brief tour or they might just be near the exit and give us a warm smile as we stammer words of thanks. How do I know they are the owners? There is just a certain look that us country folk don’t quite match. For the men it’s the shoes, for the women it’s the haircut. They ooze casual, simple grace and perhaps a little bit of wealth. 

This is the sort of off the beaten path adventure that should be on everyone’s travel list. Enjoy this quiet corner of France and for a few days fall under the spell of history stopped and steeped in time. Spend the night in one of the properties! Enjoy dinner in another. We are in the middle of nowhere, but what a magical nowhere.

  • *Jean Secret, Le Perigord, chateaux, manors et gentilhommieres, Tallandier 1966
  • **the Dordogne is made up of four sub-departments - Perigord Vert, Perigord Blanc, Perigord Noir and Perigord Pourpre (green for the agriculture, white for the stone, black for the truffles and purple for the grapes.)
  • photos are from 2021 visits to Chateau de Connezac and Chateau d'Aucors

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Faithfully Every Friday

Before I head out the door I remember to tuck a hat into the pocket of my raincoat. The car heater is turned up high so I can soak up some extra heat on this damp morning. I drive straight into town because the “Road Closed” sign isn’t up. The Brantome market happens every Friday. But the road is only closed seasonally, when there are so many market stands that they choke the narrow road between the Abbey of Brantome and the River Dronne. It’ll be Easter before that happens.

I don’t envy these vendors that are faithfully here every Friday all year long. This core group is not big, but they are committed to their role in the life of the Brantome market. Rain or shine, freezing cold temperatures or bitter blowing wind they are ready for customers by eight o’clock and hang on until the stroke of noon.

On these cold, often dreary, mornings they rely on a slow, but steady flow of equally dedicated regular shoppers. This is the season when we take the time to get to know each other. With no line behind me I ask the fromagier about the cheese process, I ask the honey lady how the beehives are surviving the winter, I hear about children, grandchildren and dreams of retirement. Laughter floats on the cold air.

Over the years I’ve worked out a shopping loop based on the weight of the items I will purchase. There is always the chance that things will have to be rearranged if some fragile delicacy unexpectedly shows up- chanterelles, blueberries, walnut cakes. This time of year there isn’t much chance of the unexpected. Maybe in the next week or so I’ll be surprised by asparagus or spring radishes.

Here’s pretty much my routine:

Two fresh trout fit perfectly at the bottom of my basket. Did you know that trout only get as big as the pool they are kept in? I don’t know what size Mr Trout’s pond is, but each trout sold measures almost exactly 30 cm.

The singing tomato man only has onions and garlic for now. He sings for them, too, so I’ll pick some up. 

We’re pretty much sick of kale, cabbage and rutabagas, but if we are going to eat local they’ll have to do for a bit longer. Thank goodness one can buy half of a cabbage and pumpkin can be bought by the slice. A couple of rutabagas will do for the week. All year there are three vendors working at this stand, but for now two of them are just along to help unload and load. They spend the rest of the morning visiting with their Friday friends.

Funny how I never tire of the homemade madeleines  They are little seashell shaped pound cakes. The baker knows I’ll pout if he’s sold out of these gems, but I’ll be willing to substitute a croissant or pain au raisin if I’ve arrived too late. Not missing out on the madeleines is what gets me out of bed early on market day.

Crossing over to the other side of the market I’ll decide if there is enough honey in the cupboard. I’ve tasted the sunflower, locust flower, and forest honeys, but my favorite is the flavor of the wildflower fields, a hint of summer to come. Mrs Honey and I always chat about her two adorable girls. Sometimes during school vacations the girls come along to help and I can keep an eye on their growing up. 

I save a lot of time when there are only one or two people in line to buy homemade dumplings and samosas from Jean Baptist. Summer mornings there will be at least six or seven people patiently waiting to be served. I know he prefers the hustle of a busy morning. Hustle or not he is always smiling and we find little tidbits to talk about while he calmly wraps up my order.

If there is a line at Jean Baptist’s I’ll go first to the stall with my favorite cheese. I hate to confess this, but I usually bypass the goats cheese from over the hill and the goats cheese from up the road in favor of the sheep cheese from I don’t know where. We talk about the herbs they use to flavor the cheese, the age of the cheeses, how many animals they milk, but I have never bothered to ask where the farm is. I’ll have to remember to look at their banner next Friday. 

I always stop for a visit with Kay the Irish potter. We could chatter for hours, but she’s popular and I have to share her with other shoppers that enjoy her and her happy pottery. 

The last stop is the Flower Lady’s stand. There is no better way to brighten a grey day than topping off my shopping with a colorful bouquet or a couple of pots of cheery primroses.  

Tossing my damp hat in the back seat along with my overflowing market basket, my toes and fingers glad for the blast of heat, I thank goodness for my morning out with this dedicated core of vendors.  We cannot take for granted this quintessential image of French life.

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Look for the Simple Noise

Often when the world feels out of control I dip into my old-fashioned French “handbook” - L’art de vivre au fils des jours - The Art of Living from Day to Day by Victoire de Montesquiou. I am comforted by Victoire’s reflections on life. She looks at life head on. She makes no bones about the fact that life is complicated and has bumps in the road. She feels strongly about the rules of etiquette and that following those rules helps to keep things running smoothly. She believes that it is often the simple things that bring out the best of life.

Here is Victoire’s entry for La vie avec les autres (living with others) from the January chapter-

Listen to the silence of winter. During the month of January we can learn to listen to the respiration of sleeping nature. Listening is a type of meditation, emptying ourselves, letting ourselves be filled with the serenity and the energy indispensable for living with enthusiasm and hope.

I detest noise, the racket of radios and televisions in the building; the often empty babble of the news, loud music in stores and restaurants, even the most “chic”. I do not like that blanketing fog of noise. 

In order to respect others and your neighbors, make the effort to make the least amount of noise possible. Lower the sound of your radio, record player and television. If you love to listen to music like you are at a concert, wear head phones. Do the same for late night television shows. Take your bath at “normal “ hours, remember that the insulation in certain old buildings leaves something to be desired.

On the other hand, pay attention to commonplace noises - to the breath of the household, the lively expressions of your family’s daily life. Savor the murmurs of the city as it wakes up and the sunset in the countryside when the evening bells sound and the cows come home; the swoosh of starlings swirling into the tops of trees to roost; the explosion of energy as school children escape to recess;  the joyful laughter of children at any moment and the crazy laughter of adults at the theatre. I love the cacophony emanating from the orchestra pit as musicians tune up and then burst into a few practice measures; the whisperings of a mountain village: muffled footsteps in the snow, the gurgling of a fountain, the swish of a sled or skies; the first cry of a newborn baby; the clatter of awaited footsteps on the staircase, the familiar creaking of an old door worn out by time; the long and silky murmurs of bicycles passing by…

I especially like silence when I find myself alone. In looking for silence one finds the beauty of life.

These are Victoire’s sounds, but I can envision all of them. They remind me to stop and listen to the small quiet noises, or the big raucous noises, in my life. I know full well that we do not all have the luxury of slowing down to listen to what is surrounding us and that even if we did the noise might be too terrifying to allow in. But I do know that the underlying theme of slowing down, listening to what is there, listing to who is there, will help me find peace within myself and hopefully the strength and courage to work for the peace of others.

At the moment I am living a life of great privilege to choose what I listen to. This is my small prayer for all of the displaced frightened people of the world that are finding it impossible to listen to the terrible things around them. I pray they may find small things to hold onto so as to hold onto their humanity.

A friend recently lent me this timely read:

A Gentleman in Moscow - by Amor Towles  

beautiful, sweet and provides some insights to Russian history

Another read that I'm mentioning just because I read everything to do with expats exploring France:

Chasing Matisse A Year in France Living My Dream - by James Morgan

a book project to explore where Matisse practiced his art and the author trying to discover himself...

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Putting a Shawl on a Bell Tower

 Last year two local women schemed up an extraordinary idea.. Their quirky and very original idea was to envelope one of the oldest, grayest bell towers in France in a glorious rainbow of colors. They were determined to create a big buzz for 2020’s annual fundraiser, a national event called The Telethon. Brantome’s event was going to be a charity walk.

The premise was pretty basic, knit hundreds of scarves, stitch them together to make one big shawl, and then hang the shawl from the 11th century bell tower of Brantome. Well, basic in a kind of heroic sense. This was to be a visual display of sharing, hope, and determination. They had no idea how much determination it was going to take. They also had no idea how far flung throughout all of France the desire to participate would spread. But, this was March of 2021 and as the lead organizer said, “Above all we have to believe. We have need of this type of challenge, especially at this moment, to get ourselves out of this covid morass.”

The Telethon was not until the first weekend in December so there was plenty of time to get things done. Or was there? With no exact plan they rolled out the threads for the project one determined step at a time. 

One of the organizers, the director of the local retirement home, knew just where to find a lot of willing knitters. These were folks confined to home. Even if they wanted to they wouldn’t be able to participate in the fundraising walk. But they were more than ready to help out by contributing with their hands.

Now those hands needed supplies. This rainbow of joy was going to require a lot of yarn. Six specific colors to match the colors of the Telethon. Yarn and other supplies were going to require money. The organizers doggedly knocked on doors asking for money - it wasn’t until around the first of June that a sponsor was found to pay for the 2880 skeins of colorful wool. Several months lost, but in their determined minds the project was still do-able.

And they were off! The clacking of knitting needles could be heard throughout the region. Word got out to other retirement homes and this crazy idea caught on like wildfire. By early September 90 retirement homes from almost every region of France had contributed scarves. Five hundred seventy-, eighty-, and ninety-year-olds and even one lady of 100 participated. Each product of their labors of joy, sharing and solidarity measured 25 cm wide and 1.5 meters long.

With a tiny office space stacked to it’s limit it was time to find room to spread out so the individual scarves could be stitched together - all 1200 of them! This time the organizers went knocking on doors looking for a work space. Word got around and someone offered the long and empty village hall in St Crepin. It was late October and the knitting changed to stitching.  Day after day they met, sewing all those individual scarves into the one long, long, long shawl.  By early December they had before them one great big colorful mass of scarf.

While that group stitched another one was meeting with the region’s Climbing Rescue Team to coordinate how to get the 150 kilos (about 300 lbs. !) of shawl onto the shoulders of the bell tower. The plan was to roll the knitting onto a spool, attach ropes to the corners, and with the aid of a motorized wench, climbers in the bell tower would pull the shawl up. Voila! What could be more straightforward?

Meticulously rolling up the slithery knitting, three meters wide and sixty meters long, took hours of patience. They were determined there be no snags or hitches for the climbers.

The big day was the Wednesday just before the Saturday Telethon. The operation was set for 8h30.

In an ideal world, that Wednesday morning would be bright and sunny, but as I set off it was drizzling, dark and chilly. I arrived at the appointed hour, but all I saw was a mysterious plastic-wrapped log sitting quietly in the church courtyard and three emergency trucks parked nearby. There was not a person to be seen. I went over to the cafe across the bridge and sat where I could keep an eye on things. At 9:15 there was still no sign of anyone. I was contemplating going home, but I was determined to see how this all spooled out. Finally two women came marching along followed by a gang of men clad in clanking, heavy, red jackets. I overheard a brief “here we go” and the men sprang into action.  The sides of the trucks opened to reveal spools of organized rope and climbing gear. It was now 10:00. The drizzle was turning into steady rain.

Ropes were unspooled, climbers climbed the 120 steps of the bell tower, shouts went back and forth from the ground crew to the tower crew and with the climbers secured in the position ropes began to fly from the high arches of the tower. … it was now 11:00.

The go ahead was given for the ladies to cut the protective plastic off their treasure. What they revealed was amazing. Bright colors glowed in the grayness. Oohs and ahhs escaped from the small crowd that was gathering. The moment had come to dress the bell tower in bright warm colors. A demonstration of how determination and good will can create something bigger than the individual parts. 

Heavy carabiners were attached to one corner of the knitting.  There was yelling and walkie-talkies chirping and the groan of a powerful wench. The shawl and the ropes started ascending. The little crowd let out a happy cheer. But, then there was a catch, a hesitation and everything dropped. The crowd groaned. The long wool shawl puddled at the foot of the bell tower. There was some fiddling with the hooks and ropes, some more yelling back and forth. The wench started up and again the long colorful serpent was slithering it’s way up the side of the bell tower. Everyone was holding their breath. Again without warning the colors melted down and pooled at the foot of the tower. The knitting could not pull up its own weight. To make matters worse the shawl was getting heavier from the steady rain soaking into the wool.

At 12:00 the bells were going to start ringing and anyone up there was going to have to scurry down before that happened. There had to be a way to get this done. It might mean coming up with a compromise, but if that is what it takes that’s what we’ll do. Let’s just get to it. It was 11:45 when the ladies started pulling out scissors.

To decease the weight they had decided to cut the shawl in half, but there was still the problem that the stitching was not strong enough. Word had spread to the nearby shops that things were not going according to plan. The butcher contributed extra strong “thread” used for sausages and someone else offered fine metal wire. Busy hands restitched while the mid-day bells tolled. By now the sun had come out and quite a crowd had gathered to cheer on the workers. This time when the men in the tower lifted the two halves of the shawl they rose up smoothly and fell into place without a hitch.

There were tears and cheers of joy when all of the corners were secured and the gray bell tower was snuggled into an elegant, glorious rainbow of colors and joy. 

The fundraiser was a grand success. Hundreds of people from throughout the region came to Brantome to participate in the walk. They raised 11,000 euros. For a week the shawl gleamed in the bright winter sun. When it was taken down the lovingly made scarves were sent to charitable organizations throughout France. 

What had started as a somewhat hare-brained idea had been pulled off with a few hitches and a lot of determination and love.