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.