Monday, November 25, 2013

Scratching Our Heads

The five of us stood there scratching our heads. It wasn’t so much the permit to build attached to a fence post in the middle of nowhere that had us confused, it was the words that had us flummoxed. “Permit to build building in ruins.”

We had been walking for about an hour after parking the car in a tiny village of five or six houses, one church and two farms. A half hour ago we had gone through a hidden hamlet of three or four homes and one farm. The farmer had nodded as we walked past. A dog barked until we were out of sight. The path turned, skirting the side of the farmer’s field and into the woods. This was not a very populated nor accessible part of the countryside.

The path through the woods was obviously an old road. It was wide enough for us to walk two by two, maybe wide enough for a small farm tractor, but it was clearly a road that had not been used for a long long time. And then we had come upon this sign.
While muttering about who the heck was going to be building something way out here in the middle of nowhere we had all been scanning the land for clues as to what this sign was all about. Someone spied another wide path leading down the hill that was neatly lined with ancient trees that had clearly been pruned in the severe French fashion. Here had once been an elegant double file of trees leading to what would have been something important. But still no sign of what that something important could have been.
Bitten by curiosity there was only one thing to do and that was to veer from our trail and see where the trees led us. Quickly the forest thinned on the left side and there was a large, bump and stumble field. It was there that we saw the saddest sight, something as broken as the field itself. There were broken walls rising out of the brambles and tall grasses, skeletons of shutters dangling at odd angles, emptiness where windows and doors should be and one beautifully carved fireplace mantle standing proudly in the midst of all this ruin.

This was it? This was the building site? The words “building in ruins” became heart-breakingly clear. We were flabbergasted that someone would take this reconstruction project on. There was obviously lots of love, possibly some sort of family pride, deep wells of money, and a mountain of madness.

Wandering inside the ruin the five of us ooh-ed and ah-ed at the few remaining handcrafted details, wondered about how the rooms had been arranged and how they might be arranged in the property’s new life.
Continuing on our way it became clear to us that the biggest obstacle to the rehabilitation of a this ruin was access. Walking another hour on a deeply rutted, muddy logging road made it obvious that no delivery truck could reach into the hidden valley. Even in a dry summer it would be miles and miles of bumpy roads. 

We had to come up with some solution that would make us feel hopeful about the future of this folly. Perhaps anyone crazy enough to “build buildings in ruins” also owned a helicopter.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Friday's Petite Aquarelle

Flower Vase in Window

12" x 16"
$120 including shipping
available at

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Beginner's Guide

A Beginner's Guide to Collecting and Identifying Wild Mushrooms

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Trompette de la Mort

I piled into the car with friends One and Two. One gave directions. Two drove. We headed over the back road out of town, turned left onto the Perigueux road, and a twist and a turn later we pulled onto the shoulder of the road in the middle of the forest. This was going to be my first mushroom hunt.
 Now you may wonder why my companions are called One and Two. Mushroom hunting does this to people. No names. No names of people. No names of places. If you have permission to hunt in a dark, mushroom filled forest you want to keep the shadows’ bounty secret. If you don’t have permission-- you’re poaching......

One, Two, and I grabbed up our baskets from the trunk and turned into the forest of chestnut and oak trees.

At first I called One over to look at every mushroom I found, but after about two minutes of this it became obvious that today we were looking for only one particular mushroom, le trompette de la mort, the death trumpet! Well, in a land where the numbers of mysterious deaths spike each year during mushroom season, all I could think of was Uh Oh. 

At first I couldn’t spot them. Two had headed off on her own leaving me to my own devices and with no advice. But One knew better and would call me over whenever she found a secret fairy circle of the black trumpets. “Look here, around the base of this tree, in the moss.” She (my only clue I’ll give concerning my companion) would pull the black trumpet up by the root, pinching off the tail where a little sprinkle of dirt clung, and toss it into my basket. Voila. That lasted for a little while and then she was off to fill her own basket. My training was over.
My basket filled slowly at first. I’d be distracted by bright, happy looking mushrooms that were so much easier to spy than the dead-leaf colored object of today’s hunt. From childhood I have had the fear of God put into me about picking and eating mushrooms and I wasn’t about to put anything into my basket that wasn’t a trumpet of the dead - an ironic name for someone as afraid of mushrooms as I am.
 It wasn’t long before my childhood spent in the woods kicked in and I began to notice a pattern to where I was finding my prey. Under a dead rotting branch, close to the base of larger oak trees, tucked up against a chestnut burr. Now that I was more clued in, after I had harvested all in one area I could quickly find a new patch. Then One called me over to another section of the forest. Here there were patches in strangely cleared spaces. Still full of lovely leaf debris, but no tree stumps or dead branches. It was hard to move without stepping on the trumpets. At one point Two said, “It seems like they are growing right in front of me as I pick them. Where are they all coming from?” I had thought the exact same thing a few minutes earlier. But there was little conversation as we each fell into our own tranquility. Just One, Two and me, and the deep woodsy smell of wet oak leaves, the pitter patter of water droplets and the chhh chhh chhh of a tiny squirrel. 
The light slinked out of the way as evening began its slow autumnal fall, and so with baskets pretty dang full we headed up through the forest to the car. Stooping along the way to pick that one last beautiful trumpet. With our baskets tucked into the trunk Two asked, “Straight on down the road?” and One said, “Yes, no retracing our steps, we have to confuse anyone that might see us.” So over hill and dale we returned to Bourdeilles.  I returned home with a basket full of mushrooms and a mouth zipped shut.

p.s. Dear Mom, I promise not to try this on my own!  xoxo s

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Pierre's Shock

Once he gets over the shock, Pierre will make a mental note to intercept next year's wine catalogs before Jeanne Anne-Marie sees them.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Tingly Excitement

The tingly excitement felt just like our early gardening days when I couldn’t wait to scour the seductive catalogues arriving in the mail. I would spend hours sitting at the kitchen table reading detailed descriptions of plants and tools. Studying what gorgeous new plant introduction or new-fangled tool I just had to have.

These days in France the glossy catalogues arriving in my mailbox are full of descriptive words like spicy, rounded, ripe, elegant, fresh, complex, strong and refined. Could be flowers, but they’re not! These glossies are wine catalogs, for it is the season of the Foire aux Vin. This event is the annual special presentation of wines in the major grocery store chains.

For years I have thought that this is just a gimmick to lead one to think that it is a great time to get bargains as the big chains stores try to get rid of leftover wine stocks. But, it turns out that each major grocery chain has a dedicated team of wine experts that spend a year tasting, buying and writing up descriptions of wines for this legitimate event.

One catalogue in particular was well organized and cleverly presented. So there I sat with little sticky tabs and a glass of wine trying to pick out a limited selection of wines to taste test over the winter. 

Bordeaux  Lussac Saint-Emilion Chateau Moulin de Grenet 2010 
"Strong with a beautiful classic presence stepping off with a note of minerals. A wine of character, correct and concentrated which will age wonderfully.”

Languedoc-Roussillon Fitou Domaine de la Piale  2011  
"A beautiful approach to the complexities of the soils of Fitou which pull flavors from the ocean and the rocky hillsides. Fruity and gourmand.”

Bordeaux vin Blanc Graves de Vayres  Chateau Goudichaud  2012  
"A very beautiful white, nervous and structured with a bouquet of citrus and white fruits. The soils of Graves near the city of Libourne produce wines well bred, but not well known.”

Could any flower be written up with such flowery language? It was so hard to narrow myself to a rational selection - I wanted to “sample” way too many.

The very next morning it was off to the grocery store. I was incredibly self conscious as the bottom of my grocery cart was blanketed in wine bottles. Then the spectacle continued to get worse until there were three layers of bottles. I won’t even go into how I felt at the checkout counter.....(Well, perhaps I felt a little French).

The tasting of the wines has started. I’m trying to keep notes on what I like and don’t like and which regions are more appealing to my palette. I also note if the catalog descriptions really helped me in advising what wine goes with what food. And, really, is the wine as full of cherries and earth as promised?

I’ve tasted a few. The first bottle was excitedly opened for a dinner with our neighbors. It was decidedly too young and we had to set it aside and open up something else. The second was a lovely wine from just down the road. This is great news as I can go visit the vineyard and buy directly from them now. A third was a Pouilly Fuisse. I can check that region off my list. Too fruity for me-- needs less cherry, more earth.  (Tom who doesn't taste nor drink wines added these flavor descriptions, for a white!...)

It will take years of trying this and that, but just like in gardening, experience will help me remember the nuances and strengths of the different wines and where they thrive with a meal or shine on their own. And, this new experience folds right into my gardening ways as raising a glass after a hard day’s shoveling isn’t such a bad thing.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Friday's Petite Aquarelle

Bourdeilles Fields
12" x 16"
$120 including shipping
available at

Glorious Flower Vase
12" x 16"

$120 including shipping
available at
Visiting on Market Day12" x 16"
$120 including shipping
available at

There is plenty of time for one of these jewels to cross the Atlantic in time for Christmas!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Helping Hnad

Tom built his studio without any help from his neighbors because he had another idea of how they could lend a helping hand:
"....OK. Now, in the lower right hand corner, paint: 'T,.,V,i,e,t,h.'"

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Hanging Out

At 7:30 yesterday morning it was a bit cool for sitting around soaking up the beauty of Bourdeilles. But, that is not for lack of amazing places to sit back and enjoy the grandeur.

And then this morning the sun came back to illuminate another corner of Bourdeilles.
Where Tom welcomes the neighbors.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Tom's Castle

Well it's not exactly a castle, but Tom is the king of his domain. It's a great thing to see the art machine up and running again.

An area for each thing - watercolors, sketches, oil painting and framing table.

Even room for visitors.
A calming view and northern light.
It seems to look a little bit Vermonty.....

Lots of projects on the boards.
The 4 o'clock in the morning corner.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

With a Little Help from my Friends

There are a lot of times that I get the notion to try something new, but then I just don’t seem to find the gumption to follow through with the project. I find all sorts of excuses about why something will be too hard, or too messy, or just plain ole not worth the effort. How I might mess up, or lack the finesse it takes to accomplish this or that. But just in the nick of time this past summer two unsuspecting people came together to get my butt into gear so I could check one of my projects off the to-do list. 
This was a project that was dictated by the season. A project that seemed to involve ancient secrets of being French in rural France. In my mind I wanted to attempt one of those French things that was so otherworldly, so mystic, and so, well, French, that it seems no ordinary person should even think about trying to do it.

My dream was to make vin de noix. Literally, but also misleadingly, “walnut wine.”

The two principle ingredients were also the two major hurdles that seemed to close the project off every time: green walnuts and eau de vie (the French version of moonshine). One, I couldn’t for the life of me picture how one got a hard green walnut integrated into liquids that would turn into a delicious aperitif. People would say with an air of mystery and authority “oh you have to gather the walnuts at just the perfect moment”. But I could not decipher when that moment was. Secondly, I knew just where to get the eau de vie.  But I imagined it to be a secret club where you had to have a secret knock to be allowed into the deep dark halls of this maybe not quite so legal operation.

Then by chance I mentioned this dream to one neighbor and he said that if I could come up with 40 walnuts in the next few days he would walk me through the process. 

When I mentioned this dilemma to a second neighbor she said she’d gather up the 40 walnuts out of her orchard that very afternoon. And sure enough that evening she arrived with a basket full of golfball-sized green walnuts. with the aviso: “Use them in the next 24 hours or you’ll loose the magic!” 
With the clock ticking I gathered up all the ingredients on the list given to me by Jean Pierre. He arrived and supervised the creation of the magic potion. Turns out that those seemingly rock-like green walnuts are as easy to cut as a stick of butter and we had the brew stirred up in less than 30 minutes!
Now why had I made up all those silly excuses?!  Sometimes you have to get to the bend in the tunnel before you see the light.

Now not only is this project checked off the “to experience” list, but I also have a delicious vin de noix to share on cold winter evenings. But more than anything I have the pride of having let go of the excuses, the pride of accomplishing a simple task that I had allowed to seem way to magical. Now I can wave the magic wand. I have that pride to carry me on to the next hurdles that will seem too magical , too beyond my reach. With, of course, a little help from my friends.

Jean Pierre’s vin de noix recipie
4 liters of Bergerac wine (dry red wine)
20 walnuts cut into quarters  ( picked between the feast of St Jean and Bastille day depending on the year’s weather and the ripeness, but not too ripe)
700 grams sugar
90 cl eau de vie  (highest proof you can find)

*combine in a ceramic lined container
*stir once a day for two months