Friday, November 20, 2020

Lost Inside Your Bubble

The French government has declared that we are confined to our own personalized bubble from now until the first of December. With a declaration form in hand you can, for one hour, leave your house to get some exercise in the the outside part of your bubble. There is no stopping to visit with anyone else, no dilly dallying outside the little grocery (if your bubble includes the little grocery). One’s legally binding bubble is restricted to a one kilometer radius circle around your home (about 2/3 of a mile.)

As you can see from the map our personalized bubble includes the bakery, the little grocery store, a pass across the river, and short, dead end jaunts up and down any street in the village. What the map does not show are the little woodland paths that criss-cross the back woods surrounding the village. Funny because if you asked any one from the village about the forest they would say they were all cut down years ago.

The locals know these ancient pathways well. They have used them to get to and from school, down to the shops, up to church services, over to pastures to tend livestock, or just for taking the shortcut to visit a neighbor. 

But what could happen if they leave these well worn paths? Can they count on the fact that they can’t be lost even when they are no more than one kilometer from home? I’ve heard some tales of folks turning around and around searching for their way home while still within their home bubble radius.

Tom and Daisy the dog

I had a late appointment so Tom went out alone for the evening walk. Taking advantage of my absence he decided to “explore”. I hate to explore because it really means bushwhacking. He headed up the prickly path behind us that we never take because it is too prickly, fades to rabbit tracks and goes to nowhere. Up the hill he went, then he turned east over a ridge looking to meet up with the path that heads south back into the village. He managed to make his way east over the ridge, but he wasn’t finding a path that headed south. Figuring he hadn’t gone far enough he went across a second ridge. Still no path down. Where the heck was he? He could hear the village bells ringing. There had to be a path down towards the village just down there…

In the meantime I had returned home and was wondering why Tom and the dog were still out in the dark. I wasn’t sure what to do. Should I walk along the riverbank to see if one of them had fallen in? Should I get in the car and drive along the ridge to see if one of them had broken their leg? What if the phone rang to tell me they were having drinks with the HappyPeople and would be home soon? I paced around further frustrated knowing that Tom doesn’t have a phone. Really. He didn’t forget it. He does not have one. Finally our phone rang. 

“I’m lost.”

“Well you’re calling me so where are you?”

“I don’t know! The lady who's phone I’m using says I am in Gueyzat. Where am I?”

Gueyzat is two hollows and two lanes over….. I hopped in the car and collected a very rattled Tom and a worn out dog all of 4 minutes away from home.

Madame Pink

We were driving back home late one afternoon when I saw a drunkard sprawled out in the roadside ditch. A few seconds passed by beforeI realized I knew who that drunkard was. It was sweet, elegant Madame Pink! “Turn around turn around. We have to go help her.” Sure enough it was her, barely recognizable, but her. Madame Pink is usually all bright happy clothes and extra bright pink lipstick. Today her hair was plastered to her forehead, her clothes were disheveled, and her makeup was melting. I hopped out of the car and a tiny voice said, “I don’t know where I am.” Here she was on the main road into the village. Was she having a stroke? No, and she wasn’t at all drunk. She had just been too engrossed in collecting mushrooms and forgot to pay attention to the time. Now she was too hot, really thirsty and terribly disoriented. “Can you please take me home? I have no idea where my car is…..” Now when I run into Madame Pink in all her elegance we laugh at the thought of the drunkard in the ditch.


Martha was born here. She grew up roaming the hills and dales of our river valley. She knows every hamlet, who lives in each house in the hamlet and how many dogs live in each house. But even the best country girl can get lost in her own back yard if she gets too distracted. Martha loves to tell this tale on herself. She had finished all her morning chores including shelling the peas for today’s lunch. The weather had been perfect for mushrooms so she decided to put everything out for the mid-day meal and take a quick hour to go on a mushroom hunt. No one would notice her absence and she’d be back in time to have lunch on the table at 12:30 on the dot as always. The mushrooms were plentiful and she kept saying just one more, just one more, one more. When she finally looked up she had no idea where she was.

“This looks like the stump up by the Fortins. I’ll be home just in time if I start heading back from here. Might even find some more mushrooms.” 

But suddenly there wasn’t a mushroom to be seen. Once flustered you loose the spell of the mushroom hunter. 

To make matters worse she could hear the village bells sounding noon and she still wasn’t exactly sure where she was. She needed to get herself sorted out because her husband counted on a hot mid-day meal. When she finally scrambled into the kitchen it seemed he wasn’t so much worried about where she had been, or why she was late, but why the peas tasted funny and the quiche was cold. They had a good laugh that he was eating raw peas and that Martha had been lost right there in her own back yard.

As you can see the locals have more space in their bubbles than meets the eye and the government can only control so much of your wanderings. It’s up to you to pay attention to the limitations of time and space. And nobody ever got lost buying mushrooms in a store.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

One Ugly Vegetable

In the commotions of a virulent virus and a nerve racking election,I’ve had a hard time getting my brain to focus on what to write about. I’ve been searching for something not too serious, or opinionated, fluffy, but real. In searching for a topic I find that I have to stay tuned to that hidden muse that keeps her eyes open for me. I’ll suddenly start noticing the same thing popping up again and again. Sometimes the muse has to beat me over the head. This thing showed up among the winter root vegetables at the farmer’s market, was served at a dinner party, kept popping up in the titles of recipes, and was mentioned four times in the fluffy book I am reading. Weird coincidences for such an ugly thing that I had never seen or heard of before moving to France.The muse was shouting, “Pay attention - it’s céleri-rave “, aka celeriac.

No I am not misspelling celery. The two vegetables are related, but you cannot swap one for the other in recipes. Celeriac is probably the ugliest thing you will ever bring into your kitchen. It’s a white, scabby ball with stringy roots popping out all over. I say it’s a ball, but it can be distorted in all sorts of ways. Appearances won’t matter once you cut into it.

Along with the potato, celeriac is the most versatile vegetable cultivated in the West. You can boil it, steam it, roast it, mash it, grate it, fry it, and cream it (for a soothing winter soup).

I encountered this vegetable for the first time in a slaw-like dish called, celeri remoulade. I’ve watched Americans as they tuck into this crunchy slaw for the first time. Without fail, folks love it. The question is always, “what’s the secret ingredient?”

At some point I noticed that every time I asked a friend what was the secret ingredient in her delicious side dishes the answer was always céleri-rave. Celeriac in mashed potatoes, roasted celeriac, celeriac gratin. Every bite extra rich and tasty and it’s not just the butter…

Heated, the root’s flavor is sweetened and mellowed.

Here are some ways to savor this deliciously ugly vegetable:

To roast the celeriac bulb whole, rub it with olive oil and the leaves from 6 sprigs of thyme or a spice like cumin or coriander. Wrap it tightly in foil, set in a pan and roast for 2 hours until soft. Spread the foil open and roast 30 minutes more to crisp up the skin. Cut into wedges, drizzle with hazelnut oil and lemon, sprinkle with sea salt.

The most classic of comfort food, a steaming, creamy gratin. Slice equal quantities of peeled potatoes and celeriac and layer them with thin slices of one onion in a gratin dish. Season, cover with cream and dot with butter - did I say cream and butter again?  Bake at 180C/350F for about an hour or until bubbling and golden.

Celeri Remoulade

1 tblsp sherry vinegar

1/2 cup buttermilk

2 tblsp mayonnaise

6 tblsp plain yogurt

2 tsp Dijon mustard

salt and pepper

—puree the above ingredients

—pour over

1 1/2 pounds celeriac peeled and grated, about 4 cups

sprinkle with capers if you like

Simplest Soup:

Place finely chopped leeks and onion in heavy casserole and brown in butter till soft, throw in chunks of peeled celeriac and let everything soften in milk or stock. Blend and finish with a generous pour of cream. A sprinkle of crisp bacon will top it off nicely.

Roasted celeriac wedges with sage and walnuts  - mixing Vermont and our region, the Perigord Vert. Get out your metric measures!

1 tablespoon olive oil

135 ml maple syrup or honey

1 kg celeriac, scrubbed clean and peeled

15g fresh sage leaves, shredded

1 teaspoon sea salt

175g walnuts

preheat oven 400F/200C

Beat the oil and syrup together in a jug. Cut the celeriac into 2.5cm wide wedges, and spread over a roasting pan. Drizzle half the liquid over the wedges and toss them to coat thoroughly. Roast for 20-25 minutes till the wedges begin to soften, turning them halfway through.

Add the sage, salt and walnuts to the remaining maple syrup and oil, which then spoon over the cleric. Continue to roast for 10 - 12 minutes more, or until the celeriac just begins to caramelize.

And one more soup - I told you celeriac kept appearing on my radar….

1 big bulb of celeriac

1 pear

3 potatoes

1 onion

1 garlic clove


crème fraîche

salt and pepper

Peel and cut the potatoes and cleric into little morsels. In a heavy weight casserole sauté diced onions and garlic in butter for 3 minutes. 

Add potatoes and celeriac. Just cover with water. Add salt and pepper to taste and simmer for 30 minutes. 

Peel and deseed the pear. Cut into cubes and add to the soup 10 minutes before the end of its cooking time.

Blend with a mixer.

At the moment of serving add a big spoonful of crème fraîche. Serve hot.

—decorations: sprinkle with diced black olives or chopped hazelnuts

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Three Wild Pumpkins, a Small French Boy, and His Curious Grandmother

The three pumpkins sprouted unintended from our compost pile. Their appearance there was quite a surprise as it has been a few years since I carved “American” style pumpkins (French pumpkins are flat and red and only for eating). It seemed a miracle that some seeds had survived and germinated after several long, hot summers laying dormant.

The small French boy normally lives in Bordeaux, but was in our small village visiting his curious grandmother.

The curious grandmother is not curious as the French typically use the word, “interesting or peculiar”, but curious as an American would typically use the word, “interested or inquisitive”.

I spent the summer defending the pumpkin vines from Tom and his impatience to dig into the compost pile. By the end of August it was obvious that I was only going to harvest three poorly formed, medium sized, pumpkins. Tom picked them, set them aside, and used up the compost pile by the end of that afternoon. The pumpkins sat out in the shade of the magnolia tree through the months of September and October.

I hadn’t quite decided who I would share my orange gems with, so when my friend mentioned her grandson was coming to visit, and that she was looking for activities to keep Small French Boy occupied, I knew I’d found the perfect audience.

At three o’clock on the dot Small French Boy arrived, grand mere in tow. He was eager to play with the dogs, he was eager to come up to the house to see what project awaited, but he didn’t seem all that eager to approach the three pumpkins lined up on the table. His eyes did light up momentarily as he cradled one of the pumpkins in his arms, but that spark of interest changed to confusion as he tried to work out what he was supposed to do next. He thought hugging the pumpkin was as much of an interaction as he was going to have with that oversized vegetable. Small French Boy was entering a foreign experience. He had no frame of reference for creating a jack-o-lantern. He’d never designed a face to fit a pumpkin’s unique shape. He didn’t understand that it helped to trace a face on the pumpkin and then carve out the design leaving gapping holes. He didn't know that we would place a candle inside the transformed pumpkin so that the gapping holes would glow a spooky jack-o-lantern face. He didn’t know that he could take the jack-o-lanterns home and set them shinning on his doorstep. 

Curious Grandmother looked a little perplexed too. She had never carved a pumpkin either. This came as a surprise to me. 

I knew what we were up to, but the two of them were baffled. Cut off a lid, scoop out the guts, trace out a face, all steps repeated every October from my earliest memories, steps so ingrained they seem to have “naturally” passed on from parent to child.

Stars, triangles, eyebrows, scraggly teeth?

Why do we have to clean the insides out? 

Why do we put a candle inside? 

When will it be dark?

I’d forgotten how slimy the inside of a pumpkin is. I tried to get Small French Boy to repeat the word slimy in english. Small French Boy was having nothing to do with slimy, not the word, not the muck. My coercions to touch the goo brought on tears so I had to back off. I had assumed that my excitement for all of this would translate to immediate joy for Small French Boy. Why had I assumed this?

I too had experienced a similar lack of understanding of a seasonal celebration when we first started coming to France. About mid-October I was befuddled by the sudden arrival of thousands and thousands of beautiful chrysanthemums for sale, but there was not a one to be seen on a front stoop or in a garden.  My experiences with chrysanthemums were all about big potted plants on the front stoop to celebrate the last glorious colors of Autumn. Here in France chrysanthemums are only used to decorate gravesides to commemorate deceased family. In one country the flowers are welcoming. In the other the flowers are saying we miss you. I had no starting point to understand why suddenly there was a parade of villagers on their way to the cemetery. What are the steps? What are the tools? What is the vocabulary? That lack of reference must be how Small French Boy was feeling as I badgered him about drawing a scale sized face for an orange gourd that normally is for eating. He has only experienced jack-o-lanterns as pictures or plastic toys.

In the end Small French Boy played with the dogs while Curious Grandmother watched me struggle to cut the silly faces. 

How do you know how much to cut? 

Why can’t you cut more? 

It’s not a good idea to burn it in the house? It will stink? It already does.

Where should I place them? 

It’s funny what three poorly formed, medium sized pumpkins can bring into one’s life. The joy of a child’s surprise, the humbling awareness of our cultural differences or maybe even misunderstandings, and the universal marvel of things that glow in the dark. 

Thank goodness that Curious Grand Mother is intelligently interested and Curious American Susan is interestingly peculiar. Thank goodness for the time to share an openness for curiosity with Small French Boy and all that that curiosity can lead to.

That night I received a picture of a very happy Small French boy and his magical, glowing jack-o-lanterns.