Late May is the ideal time to see red seas of poppies stretching across the French countryside. One of my earliest romanticized notions of France was Claude Monet’s painting, “Poppy Field in Argenteuil,” with a woman, hat on her head and parasol over her shoulder, wading through a poppy field with a child. He painted poppies in other places as well, including Giverny, where he had his lovely house and gardens.
It’s easy to play Monet around here. In fact, what’s hard is not driving off the road as I spy yet another spectacular red field. On the drive to the sports complex, there’s a big field on a plateau, and another below it are all red. As I continued my errands, I contemplated where I could pull off and how I could clamber over the drainage ditch and up the steep ledge to get to the view–which would have la Cité behind it! I made some stops in town, including for another field of poppies and la Cité, and then came back from a different direction. A hill that’s usually to my back was in front of me, and it was completely red. The flowers flowed down, like a floral Kilauea, across the road to the plateau I’d already seen. Amazing. But a very busy road, and no place to pull over and shoot photos. I certainly dismayed the drivers behind me as I slowed down to stare and gasp. (I will try to find a safe vantage point for shooting it!)
La Cité from the other side, with other poppies. This field is on the plateau, and the red hill is to the left, but hidden from this vantage point. I tried to climb around but couldn’t get to it.
A small traveling circus set up next to another poppy field. I’ve written about the circus before, but it was a different one. Shortly after this one arrived, I saw a large man at the top of a very, very high light pole. The poles have plugs for the Christmas decorations. While the municipal workers use a mechanical lift to get up there, circus folks just shimmy up like monkeys. Without a net.
During the circus’s stay, I marveled at the ability of some people to make noise for no reason. Mid-morning, a trumpet blared, not in the way of somebody practicing, even badly. It was in the manner of a child who comes upon a trumpet and decides to try it out, with the full force of his lungs. For a couple of hours. No discernible tune or rhythm. Even a child would get bored with just making noise, but this trumpeter didn’t. Day after day after day.
Along with the trumpet (which didn’t seem to be played during the shows–those had canned music), there was incessant hammering, clanking and banging throughout the day and night–normal when they put up and took down the tent, but the other times? Very mysterious. Also, neighing, braying, barking and whatever noise it is that camels make, because there were lots of them, munching on poppies, their humps slumped to the side, like melting ice cream cones just before they plop to the ground.From time to time, I heard a lion roar, and I thought, “it isn’t even show time. All the kids are in school (except for the two zillion children of the circus performers, who ran around screaming from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., except for when they were riding scooters. I don’t mind kids screaming, actually. They have a reckless exuberance that I admire, although not so much at 6 a.m. nor at 11 p.m.). Why are they playing that stupid fake lion tape now?” I even heard it during the night. It wasn’t until they were leaving that I realized it wasn’t a tape, but a poor, pathetic lion, probably as bored as the trumpeter.The morning the circus packed up to leave, at 6:02 a.m., I heard a guy shouting, “Allez, allez, allez!” (Go, go, go!) Then: “Oh! Tenez! PURÉE!!!” (Oh! Hold on! Mush!) I don’t know what went wrong, but I was impressed by his clearly rigorous inculcation in G-rated language, the circus being for children, after all. Even under under duress, rather than say putain–whore–a common swear word, especially in the south of France, where it is used almost like a comma, this distressed/dismayed guy spat out the polite version, purée. Some others are mince (skinny) or mercredi (Wednesday) instead of merde, and punaise (a thumbtack, which in turn is named after a stinkbug) which also replaces putain. So if somebody says Wednesday or thumbtack to you in a sentence where those words make no sense, now you know: they’re mad, not crazy.
I thought about the circus again this morning, when I woke up to the sound of birds singing. SO. MANY. BIRDS. And no trumpets or lions.
What do you get when you cross novelist Dan Brown with cheese? Rennes-le-Château!
Rennes-le-Château made an appearance in “The Da Vinci Code,” Brown’s thriller about a conspiracy and some very creative interpretations of history. Supposedly Jesus high-tailed it to France with Mary Magdalene, which is how the Holy Grail–or the cup he used at the Last Supper–ended up at a tiny church in a tiny village in the deepest depths of France profonde.
This just shows that we have stories for every stripe of crazy, from ufologists to people drawn to Rennes-le-Château, including to excavate for buried treasure. Which is strictly forbidden, and written all over the place.
Back in the 1890s, the village priest, Bérenger Saunière, seemed to be suddenly rolling in dough. He had the church fixed up, then built himself a domaine and a tower, la Tour Magdala, in 1901. By 1902, the bishop of Carcassonne, who had turned a blind eye to the priest’s spending, had died, and the new higher-ups demanded an accounting, which the priest didn’t want to do.
It isn’t clear whether the holy grail story was made up by Saunière or by a local hotelier looking for publicity. In any case, long before the advent of the Internet, the tale worked magic, because all kinds of illuminés turned up and haven’t stopped. For example, in 2011, some “researchers” claimed that Rennes-le-Château holds King Solomon’s gold and that the Visigoths brought the original menorah, used by Moses. Because that makes complete sense, right?
What is undeniable is that the hilltop village of 65 inhabitants (and THREE restaurants!!) is charming and has breathtaking views. We stopped on our way home from Bugarach, having loaded up on goat’s and sheep’s cheeses as part of de la Ferme en Ferme, or From Farm to Farm, circuit–something to check out if you’re in the region.
Rennes-le-Château is 45 kilometers (28 miles) south of Carcassonne. There’s lots to see along the way! Cute villages, mountains, farms, ruins, cows and sheep and goats….
One of the highlights of my life is a family vacation in Italy with my parents, my siblings and their families, plus an aunt. It was before the arrival of the Carnivore and our kid. I was the tour guide.
Here were the calculations: Europeans go on vacation in July and August, because school vacations don’t start until then (some places get out in mid-June). So for smaller crowds and lower prices, we would schedule the trip for right after the kids got out of school in late May.
Having so many people was going to be tricky, especially with kids ages 2, 3 and 4, and elders ages 61, 71 and 76, none of whom were up for walking all day. We wanted to sleep under one roof (which ruled out my one-bedroom apartment in Brussels) and have a place for two minivans to park. Good weather would be a plus (which also ruled out Brussels).These things also eliminated Paris–we’d have to get pretty far out before being able to find a house big enough and in the price range, and getting around Paris isn’t very easy if you aren’t on foot (and no, I was not going to try to herd 13 people in the Metro). The weather could be freezing or gorgeous, most likely both…in the same week. So despite the fact that I adore Paris and had the advantage of speaking French, I opted for Tuscany. (I had been to the south of France only once then, so I didn’t think of it—now I know better! But Tuscany was great.)“You don’t want to go to Italy, hon,” Dad informed me, pronouncing Italy like IT-lee. “It’s a mess. You can’t drink the water. I’ve been there.”
Yeah—when he was in the Army, with the U.S. occupation after WWII.
“It’s changed,” I told him. “You can drink the water now. It’s all fixed up nice.”
It was before the advent of AirBnB, but online rentals were available, with horror stories outnumbering the selection of properties. OK, confession: it was in 2001.I found a beautiful villa outside Florence, Casa Il Focolare, on a hill with sweeping views, a pool and lots of bedrooms and bathrooms. They have upgraded the décor; it was more basic when we were there, but very comfortable–you really have to check out the web site to see how pretty it is now. Rural enough that the kids could run wild around the grounds. Not too far for trips to Florence (30 minutes by car), Sienna (45 minutes), San Gimignano (45 minutes), Pisa (1 hour 15 minutes, to see the “bending tower” and also the beach at Livourne) and, twice, Rome (just over an hour). Plus the cute, less famous villages of Tuscany.
I’d reserved two minivans, but unfortunately, they had only one; the second vehicle would instead be a full-size monster called a Ducato. It had a horizontal steering wheel, like a bus. It held nine people, so we still needed the normal minivan, which held seven.
The next challenge was driving from Rome to the villa. My siblings, being pros at crazy roadtrips, had brought walkie-talkies (which, FYI, are called talkie-walkies in French. In Italian: walkie-talkie). I had a cell phone, but it was still early days and so expensive the others would have had to take out second mortgages to pay for international service (what a horror…I also had a “callback” service–illegal–where I called a computer in the U.S. with my Brussels landline and then hung up. The computer would call me back and patch me to an open line from which I could call U.S. numbers at domestic U.S. long-distance rates and not the approximately $5,000 a minute that Belgacom charged for international calls. It’s far more reasonable now).
Anyway the walkie-talkies worked great as long as we were in range. And the patter was nonstop.
<<static>>”I thought you were supposed to stay on one side of the dotted white line.” <<static>>
<<static>>”Yeah, well, most people think that.” <<static>>
<<static>>”She never could paint inside the lines.”
<<static>>”You gotta fix those things when they’re kids or you can see what happens.” <<static>>
One of the adults would ride shotgun and consult the gigantic fold-out paper map (it was before GPS, too). One time in Rome, I asked my co-pilot which way I needed to go only to see the huge map getting frantically turned around one way, then the other.
“We’re on … V…I…A…We’re on Via!” somebody from the back seat called out triumphantly.
Did I mention that nobody spoke Italian? (EYE-talian, as Dad said)
Another time, some of the women went to Greve, a very quaint town. The guys weren’t there when we got back. When they finally arrived, one made a grand wave at the other two and said, “Let me introduce you to Louis and Clark.” They had gotten very lost trying to go to the supermarket in Montevarchi.
No harm, no foul. No accidents, either.
There was another time, again in Rome, when a local colleague, who had generously gotten us tickets for the Mass with the Pope in St. Peter’s Square, was going to make the handoff as we drove down a boulevard near his home. I was talking to him on my cellphone (BAD) and trying to watch crazy Roman traffic while trying to spy the landmarks he was telling me to look for. Finally seeing him, I eased into the right lane and slowed to a crawl. My co-pilot rolled down the window, stuck a head and hand out, and snatched the tickets before anybody rear-ended us or even honked. Smooth as spies.
Most tourists probably don’t realize there’s an underground parking garage at the Vatican. With low clearance. Happily, the rental company didn’t look at the roof of the megavan when we returned it.
Then there was the time I got near the Coliseum and looked for a place to park, only to go down a street like a funnel—it got narrower and narrower, until I had to back out. Which mean the normal minivan with the rest of the family had to back out first because they were behind me.
And the time I was trying to get the megavan out of the tight turn on the villa’s driveway (which was so steep that our dad described a little grotto alongside the drive as “right before you go over the cliff”). Another guest’s car was in the way (there are also a couple of apartments on the property). One of the guys in front and another in the back directed me: get closer, cut it sharper, crank it the other way. They made catty remarks about how I was riding the clutch. “Might as well burn it out on a rental,” one said. “She’s just warming it up,” the other observed, adding, “She ain’t even spittin’ gravel yet.” At that moment, I gave it gas and sent a couple of pebbles flying. They cheered.
It was so difficult to park in Rome that we generally went to a garage then hoofed it. The littlest kids were in strollers, but our parents weren’t as lucky. Instead, I put them in a taxi, with our aunt, at the Trevi Fountain and told the driver “Piazza Navona.” I will never forget the image of three shocked faces looking at me through the back window as the taxi peeled off. They thought I would come with them. But I had figured that, with traffic, we would arrive on foot before the taxi (and it was true).
Our other challenge revolved around Italian dining customs vs. toddler attention spans. The kids were angels, but too much time sitting nicely at a table is no fun. So we would try to be fairly organized, to have our meals before meltdowns. Good Midwesterners, the guys would order coffee with their meals. They were new to wine, and certainly not at lunch. The waiter would nod, si, si, signori. Of course, the coffee wouldn’t arrive. They would remind the waiter, who would nod and say, what we figured was “don’t worry, I didn’t forget.” Dad would thank them with a heartfelt “Garcia!”
The kids would grow restless. No coffee yet. Then the kids would get VERY restless. No coffee…because of course, coffee is served after dessert, which we hadn’t yet eaten. Eventually we would need to leave—unhappiness in toddlers increases exponentially as you have more toddlers, so if one meltdown is X, then two meltdowns are X10 and three meltdowns are X100. (It isn’t their fault; it’s a fact of nature, like gravity.) Another famous Italian espresso so close, yet so far away. Eventually, the coffee lovers ventured to a café in Magliano. “The cup was about the size of a thimble,” one described afterward. “The foam barely covered the bottom of it. But I tell you, it was enough!”
We operated with a bucket list (the only thing we didn’t get to was Venice, too far at three hours’ drive each way), but didn’t schedule anything. One day at a time. The trips to Rome and Pisa took full days but the rest of the outings were for a few hours max, leaving lots of time for relaxing, chicken fights with the older kids in the pool and cooking lessons from the villa’s owners (who didn’t speak English or French, but we did fine. I still make their tiramisu.) At dinner, we would loosely plan the next day. Or not. Sometimes we did it on the fly. Our aunt was such a wonderful traveler, always game for anything, answering “why not!” to every suggestion. She seemed perfectly content to sit overlooking the breathtaking view and read a novel, yet was always ready to hop in the van at a moment’s notice. (Another time, looking at a guide’s suggestions for what to buy in Florence, she said, “But I don’t want any of this stuff.” I love her.)
It was great to have a kitchen, so we could have breakfast and sometimes other meals without the excesses of eating out for everything. It was great to have a TV, so tired kids could watch the only video we had (“Mulan”) over and over and over. It was great to have a single “home” that we could keep coming back to.
Our dad would regularly leaf through the photo albums (it was also before digital photos) for years afterward. Our mom had the villa’s brochure and some photos put into a big frame, and it moved with them to assisted living, where our parents were always more than happy to recount the adventure to all the aides who came by. The trip brought us closer together, though the littlest ones don’t remember it aside from the photos, and now there are two more kids, and even grandchildren, in the family and our parents are gone. I started writing this as a way to explain how to juggle the wildly different ages and a large group on a vacation, but in the end, it’s more an excuse to relive and immortalize the happy memories.And if you wonder whether a big family trip is possible, remember: Why not!
PS: I will write soon about a similar hub-and-spoke itinerary for the south of France. We have two AirBnB apartments on the same floor, in the center of Carcassonne—they are both good for couples, but one has a small single bedroom and a sofabed, making it possible to sleep five people there plus two in the adjacent apartment. And the huge kitchen is ideal for a family.
Whatever got into somebody’s head to cook with the stems of a plant whose leaves are poisonous? Yet rhubarb has a fierce deliciousness–a tartness that grabs you by the tongue and forces you into a duck face. For that, rhubarb (a vegetable!) usually is wrangled to play with nicer, sweeter fruits like strawberries and raspberries that tone down its tendency to make one’s eyes squint, while it pushes the berries out of their sugary comfort zone and into interesting territory.
Indeed, one of my favorite things in the world when I was growing up was my grandma’s raspberry-rhubarb jam, made with what raspberries were left (considering our favorite pastime was picking them and eating them on the spot, but I guess we were short enough that plenty stayed out of reach) and rhubarb that grew in her enormous, weed-free vegetable garden.
And, in what seems like another era, another universe, I used to stop by a favorite café in my hometown to pick up a rhubarb pie (I think it was rhubarb solo), to take back to New York. Those were the days where you could check in 20 minutes before your flight, with pots of grandma’s jam in your carry-on and a still-hot rhubarb pie in a box balanced in your hands, and your entire family of about a dozen people could walk right up to the ramp for last-minute hugs and kisses and your parents could watch you walk down the ramp, right up until you were swallowed up by the airplane and they’d have to wait months to see you again.
Rhubarb has appeared at the market for a few weekends now, and I decided that, sugar be damned, we were going to have dessert. I picked up a big bunch of stalks–I think they were €2.50 a kilo–and then considered my options. I also bought strawberries, but they were inhaled immediately by our kid. Never say no to a kid who wants fruit or vegetables. No matter how old they are.
We also had a dental crisis in the house, and I was investigating easy-to-chew menus. (FYI, we had a Cuban feast–ropa vieja with lots of vegetables, plus yellow rice and black beans (also with lots of vegetables, and, since my family don’t read this, I will admit to chopping up the leaves of some beets in there. Delicious!)) However, I feared that pie crust might be too tooth-challenging. Same with a crumble that was advertised as having “crispy” bits. Then I saw clafoutis–why not?
Usually clafoutis is made with whole cherries. In fact, the pits are supposed to be the key to success–they heat up and cook the dessert from the inside or something. I saw the first cherries of the season on Saturday, but they were from Spain, and I’m holding out for the local ones that will come soon.
The thing about clafoutis recipes is that they are all the same yet all different. In fact, they are quite similar to the recipe for crêpes, but with more sugar and less flour. Some called for thick cream (like sour cream), some for regular cream, some for milk. I had regular cream and used that. They all called for three eggs, but none of them had the same measurements for anything else. How is that even possible? Well, clafoutis is one of those French dishes that you can just whip up without much fuss (the French are so good at this–for all their famed fancy foods, they also have a way of taking four ingredients and turning them into something very yummy. Just look at the humble classic quatre-quart, or pound cake: eggs, sugar, flour and butter, which is just very beaten cream, after all, plus baking powder. Little tweaks and you get something completely different, from crêpes to cake). Seriously, clafoutis takes about 10 minutes of work, and most of that is for chopping the rhubarb.
I will warn you that if you like sweets, you may want more sugar. I keep trying to see how little sugar I can get away with, and I’ve finally gotten used to plain yogurt with fruit and no added sugar. Sugar and salt are two things where the more you have the more you want. I liked the result here because I liked the tartness of the rhubarb contrasting with the eggy, mild clafoutis. You have been warned.
4 medium eggs (or 3 big ones)
3/4 cup (160 g) sugar
1 1/2 cups (35 cl) cream or milk
1 1/4 cups (60 g) flour
pinch of salt
25 oz (700 g) of rhubarb (about four big stalks)
a pat of butter
Preheat the oven to 400 F (200 C).
Beat the eggs, then add the sugar and salt, then the flour. Then thin it out with the cream. Mixing in the flour before the cream helps prevent lumps.
Let the batter sit for about 20-30 minutes. (Similar to pancake batter that you let rest. But unlike pancake batter, you want the flour completely mixed in.)While the batter rests, prepare the rhubarb. Cut off the stalks’ ends and strip the long fibers, which is really fun. (Since you surely clicked on the link above about how the leaves are poisonous, I assume you removed them, if that wasn’t already done.) Then cut the rhubarb into sticks of 2 or 3 inches, if you like, or into small chunks (which I did). Butter a 9×12-ish baking dish or a large tart/pie dish and spread the rhubarb in it. When the batter is ready, pour it over the rhubarb. Bake for 20 minutes. You want it to only barely get brown. It can be served hot, warm or cold. If you want to gild the lily, or if it’s too tart for your taste, sprinkle with powdered sugar.
Even if we have brothers and sisters, our parents are ours alone.
Time changes us all by itself, even if everything around us stays the same. And circumstances change us even more.
My parents were youngish (old for their era, but on the young end of trends among millennials). It was a new world for them: married only a year, a new house, new baby, new lifestyle. When I was a toddler, my dad would patiently sit under the dining table for “tea” with me. My mother read to me all the time.
By the time the kid count was up to four, our parents were no longer the easygoing couple they had been as newlyweds. You could say they were different people. Harried. Organization was not my mother’s forte. Plus, housekeeping was a full-time job–you couldn’t throw clothes in the washer; you had to stand there and run them through the ringer, then change the water for rinsing, then wring them out again. Then hang them on the line. Even in winter. I remember my dad’s overalls being frozen stiff. No disposable diapers. Imagine keeping up when you had to soak and ring out individual diapers while making sure four extremely exuberant, carefree/less charges stayed safe/didn’t burn down the house/didn’t launch WWIII.
All the same, I am sure my mom did read a lot to my younger siblings (I didn’t pay attention–I always had my own nose in a book and wouldn’t have bothered hearing baby stories). Books were her thing. Although she had to divide her attention among more kids, she was clear about loving us. When I would have nightmares, I would call for her, terrified to stick so much as a toe out of my bed, and she would drag herself out of her own sweet dreams to comfort me, rubbing my stomach until I fell back to sleep. How did she keep up with four of us?
When the nest was empty, my mom dove into genealogy with with gusto. My dad used to say, “your mother is digging up the dead.” She wanted not just names and dates, but all the details of ancestors’ lives. Then she put them into stories. She joined a writing group and warily let me read her submissions a few times. I was shocked. They were good. Even downright funny. Where was she hiding this person?!?!
Of course, we trained her to be serious. Everybody wants to have the cool, funny parents, but everybody finds that their own parents are neither cool nor funny no matter what they do or what anybody else thinks. Even Tina Fey’s kid came down on her. And Jerry Seinfeld’s. We tell our parents, “that’s not funny” or “don’t embarrass me” or “act normal.” And, because they love us more than life itself, they put away their personality and try to blend into the furniture for the sake of our fragile egos. Even my own kid sometimes scolds me, especially when it’s my turn at the wheel of the activities carpool: “Don’t say anything! Just drive.”My mom was shy by nature, never given to joking or clowning around. But there was a time when she would belt out “I Beg Your Pardon. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” whenever it came on the radio, which was hourly. We would groan and beg her to stop, that it wasn’t funny. Actually, now I wonder whether my siblings remember that–the youngest might have been too little. That’s what I mean by our parents being unique to each of their kids. Even in our shared experience, we had different ages and digested events in different ways.
I spent most of my life trying to be the complete opposite of my mom. I thought of her as weak, but eventually I discovered all the ways she was strong. And I found something in her I wanted to emulate: her parenting. Her unquestionable love, the way her kids were her unshakeable priority.
I miss her every day. If you are lucky enough to still have your mother around, give her a call, a hug. And laugh at her jokes.
Having restored our 17th century apartments to their former grandeur, the spaces speak to me, as if we’re now friends and confidantes.
Bacchus would have been a dinner party regular….
The fireplace, the hearth of the kitchen, is big enough to stand in. To think that originally, it was the place for cooking. Even now, the French term for a house-warming party is pendaison de crémaillère–hanging of the notched tool that held the cooking pot above the fire–rather than increase or decrease the heat, you had to lower or raise the pot. You can see the transformation of the kitchen here. I can almost hear the voices and laughter of the generations who gathered around the table. The hands upon hands upon hands that smoothed its wood.
On the kitchen mantle.
Not far from Bacchus’s reach is a bottle rack. Our guests have joined in the game of adding to it.
We encourage them…
Wine tip: when choosing a bottle, feel the indentation, called la piqûre–the punt. It reinforces the bottle, and costs more than a flat bottom. If the winemaker is shelling out for a better bottle, you can figure what’s inside is pretty good.
What is so satisfying about tracking down just the right thing–as opposed to ordering with a click–is that everything has a story.
Like this Louis XVI armchair, so perfect for reading (feet up on the pouf), that matches the sofa and makes me wonder how the tiny lady who sold it to us is faring these days. And I smile at the little desk she threw in, which had seen better days but was revived with some fresh paint. Because that drawer really deserves it. They don’t make drawers like they used to.Or this cupboard, which had served generations in the huge, familial kitchen. Sometimes we stay here ourselves, to enjoy a night on the town, so to speak. It feels like vacation. Especially the sauna, followed by a cool-down in the huge shower, with its funny niche that we kept. Check out what was there before.
I love how the bathroom turned out. The Venetian mirror. The pedestal sink. The second mirror, that shows a glimpse of the sauna in its reflection. The cabochon floor.
We found another Venetian mirror for the powder room.
It’s hard to choose between black and white and blue and white. So we have both.
By the sauna, above, and then the blue and white china, assembled from so many brocantes!
The things you can find at brocantes! Young ladies…
More blue and white…and cool mantle ornaments. Befitting of a cool mantle.
A few things didn’t quite work in our house and found a home here. Like this table I bought many years ago in Lamu, a little island near Kenya’s border with Somalia, now too dangerous to go back, unfortunately. I have many happy memories of Lamu, including how I first admired the work of the carpenter who hand-carved this table back in the mid-’80s. Alas, I was a broke Peace Corps worker who could barely afford $1 a night for a mattress on the roof at a dive hotel (mosquito net included). Years later, I returned, dead set on buying a Lamu coffee table. Lo and behold, the same carpenter was working in the same place. He didn’t have any coffee tables, but he also wasn’t going to miss a sale. He got this one out of his own house, unscrewed the legs and wrapped it up for me to take home. While the cobbler’s children are the worst shod, I hope he got around to making himself a new coffee table.
It is just perfect in the apartment–the right size, not visually heavy, the carving remarkably similar to that on the Louis XVI sofa and to the swirls on the antique carpet.
While I enjoy watching the bustle on the street from the balcony in the other apartment, I also appreciate the quiet and the view in this apartment, which overlooks the communal courtyard, full of flowers and plants maintained by one of the neighbors. The apartment faces north, which, with the two-foot-thick stone walls, keeps it surprisingly cool in summer. In winter, who cares–there’s a sauna! And lots of radiators.
Bugarach, a tiny village in the foothills of the Pyrénées, is at the end of the Earth in both senses of the term. Well, sort of.
It was supposed to be the only place to be saved when the world ended on Dec. 21, 2012 (or Dec. 12, 2012, depending on your source). According to certain interpretations of Mayan calculations, the planet Nibiru was to hit the Earth on that day, reversing the poles and making the Earth spin in the opposite direction. However, the extraterrestrials would either come out of their hiding spot in the caves and around the supposed underground lake of the mountain Bugarach, under whose shadow the village sits and whose name it carries, or they would swoop in from space and pick up folks smart enough to be there.
Bugarach (the mountain) is indeed unusual. First, it stands alone and looks pretty impressive with its bare pech (in Occitan; pic in French or peak), which at 1231 meters is the highest of the Corbières. Tectonic movement caused it to be “une montagne renversée”–an upside-down mountain, in which the bottom layers are older than the top layer. Supposedly this also causes the magnetic poles to be reversed there, which is why–presto chango–the mountain would be saved during the cataclysmic global pole reversal. The predictions were inflated by the Internet, drawing an international throng of ufologues (believers in UFOs, though the French term is OVNI–objet volant non-identifié–same thing), illuminés (crazies) and zozotériques (a local’s fancy word for zozos–more crazies). The little village of 200-ish people was flooded with folks who went to the mountain to conduct strange rituals in the nude and who collected the mountain’s supposedly magical rocks.
Bugarach was big news in late 2012, and I kept meaning to check out the hippy dippy village–it’s about an hour and a half south of Carcassonne, a beautiful drive. Since then, it has eased back into quiet isolation. It’s a good 18 kilometers (11 miles) from the next village, making it feel quite a bit like the end of the earth…even though the world didn’t end, whether due to the nonexistence of Nibiru, miscalculations by the Mayans, or what.
This week was the start of De la Ferme en Ferme–From Farm to Farm–and the May 1 circuit included a loop from Rennes-les-Bains to Rennes-le-Château, passing through Bugarach for some sheep’s cheese. The two Rennes aren’t next to each other at all; Rennes-le-Château gained some notoriety with “The Da Vinci Code,” because of a fake buried treasure a local priest cooked up, spawning conspiracy theories. Rennes-les-Bains is the site of some Roman baths, of which there are many in the area.
Bugarach’s history also goes back to the Romans, who had a mine nearby in the first century CE. Then the Visigoths turned up around the fifth century; a cemetery remains. During the Wars of Religion, Calvinists from the north sought refuge in what would have seemed to be a safe place at the end of the world, but, no, they were hunted down in several massacres between 1575 and 1577. In the 1700s, Bugarach became known for hatmaking (up until 1990, and Queen Elizabeth and François Mitterand supposedly wore Bugarach brand hats). By 1831 Bugarach had more than 1,000 inhabitants, three hat factories, five water mills and many other businesses. It held three fairs, which must have been good, because it would have been difficult for folks to get to. I imagine many residents back in the day never left the village. Today the road is smooth tarmac (but only wide enough for one car; if you meet another vehicle, one has to back up to where the shoulder is somewhat wider to let the other pass), but when it was just a dirt track, it would have taken a long time to travel those dozen miles to the next town.
Bugarach today is very cute, starting from the view from afar. Everything is little.
What was left of the château was restored and turned into a community hall and exposition space, in what I thought was a decent mix of ancient and modern–something that doesn’t always work.
The town also has two charging spots for plug-in electric vehicles, which seemed exceptionally forward thinking. And three restaurants plus a table d’hôte for a town of 200! It shows how Bugarach continues to pull in people who today come to hike and enjoy the countryside.
Artichokes are intimidating. Not the meek hearts, already cleaned and cooked and ready to use from the can. Those were the only kind I knew for most of my life, usually as a stand-in for spring in pizza quattro stagioni–four seasons pizza, which, thanks to the artichokes, I thought was the most elegant pizza of all. Artichokes, even those in cans, were exotic and expensive and not something we ate growing up. I eventually experienced a steamed artichoke, which involved pulling off the leaves, dipping them in a lemony, garlicky butter and pulling the leaves between my teeth to scrape off the essence of artichoke. But it seemed to me to be awfully similar to snails and, I hear, frogs’ legs–things that don’t taste that great on their own and are essentially a garlic-butter delivery system. (I can only go on the Carnivore’s word regarding frogs’ legs; when we were dating, the first time I looked into his freezer, I saw a bag of them and nearly fainted and that was the end of amphibians in the kitchen.)At French markets in spring, artichokes accompany asparagus as the first vegetables of spring. Peas appear later. Tomatoes and the rest of the cornucopia don’t make their entrance until June at best. After all, it’s risky to plant a garden before the ice saints.
The market stalls are piled high with pyramids of myriad kinds of artichokes. Purple, green, long, perfectly round….how to choose? As the Carnivore and I finished up our marketing on Saturday, we decided to be daring. (Artichokes are old hat for the Carnivore, but the steamed and bathed in butter version…or hearts, again bathed in butter, and served with lamb.) Seeing a little old lady grab a bouquet of artichokes, then a second bouquet, I decided to follow suit. Market tip: If you aren’t sure whether the produce is good, observe what little old ladies are buying, because they actually know how to cook. But the way to pick artichokes is similar to other produce: they should feel heavy, full and firm–which shows they are fresh and not old and dried out. It was the end of the market, and we were given even more artichokes by the vendor, who didn’t want to be bothered with leftovers. (Another market tip: haggling isn’t done, at least not at the food market, but you’re likely to get extras at the end of the market.)
The next challenge was what to do with our personal pyramid of artichokes. I checked all my go-to French food sources: David Lebovitz, who gives a good step-by-step guide to trimming artichokes down to the hearts. (By the way, I made his asparagus mimosa for Sunday lunch and it was AWESOME.)You can see a good drawing of the anatomy of an artichoke here. In French, the heart is called le fond, which also means the bottom, the crux or the base. And the choke–the fluff that grows out of the heart–is called foin, or straw. Just to make things confusing consider this: the artichoke heart melts in your mouth: le fond d’artichaut fond dans la bouche. Yup, fond also is the third person present tense for fondre, or to melt. I love French.
I decided to do a few whole artichokes à la Mimi Thorisson, with her recipe for stuffed artichokes. I had extra stuffing, which I put on top of some chicken breasts and baked along with the artichokes (on a separate sheet, on the rack above the artichokes for a little steaming action). Delicious! The rest of the artichokes would be mostly sacrificed for their hearts. Following the advice of David Lebovitz, as well as Le Monde’s Chef Simon and Cuisine Actuelle, which wisely suggested wearing gloves–artichokes can turn your hands a surprisingly tenacious color. I wanted to use the recipe by Carcassonne native Prosper Montagné in his book “Les Délices de la Table ou les Quatre Saisons Gourmandes.” He has several, and I went for Lyonnaise-style quarters of artichoke hearts.
Montagné suggests cooking the artichoke hearts “à blanc,” which sent me down another rabbit hole. Everybody emphasizes rubbing your artichoke (heart or whole) with lemon juice to keep it from oxidizing and turning unattractively black, the way avocados do. To “cook something white” involves blanching it in a mixture that contains acid (vinegar or lemon juice), fat (oil or butter) and flour. The acid does its anti-oxidizing duties while the flour forms a barrier to light and the fat makes a protective film that seals the artichoke (or other food) from air. Go figure.My buddy Chef Simon gives a good explanation of les blancs, with proportions, kind of. Prosper Montagné also has a mix for unecuisson à blanc: 1.5 cups of water, juice of half a lemon and a spoon (no indication of how big) of oil. I used Simon’s version, which had more water (2 liters) and also a pinch of salt and a spoon of flour. First, mix the flour with a little cold water, adding more little by little to avoid lumps, then the rest of the ingredients and bring to a boil.The Lyonnaise style involves cutting the hearts into quarters, cooking finely minced onion in butter until translucent and setting the hearts on top, then adding a cup of white wine. Cook until the liquid is reduced, then add 1.5 cups of veal broth and cook, covered, for 45 minutes. Talk about melt in your mouth.
High-quality ingredients elevate the simplest meals to moments of wonder and joy.
We are spoiled for choice here in France, especially on market day, when local growers and artisans bring their goods, all nice and fresh and natural, for sale in the square, as has been done for hundreds and hundreds of years (758, to be precise).We are big fans of chevre–goat cheese–in all its forms. And there are many: from soft to hard and everything in between; from small rounds (called crottin–which also is the word for droppings of animals like sheep and goats!) to big rounds to bûches (logs) to squares and rectangles. They can be pure white, yellowish, ashen gray. Pasteurized or not. Something for everybody.
I am partial to the semi-soft rounds that are encrusted with all kinds of yummy stuff: peppercorns, dried cranberries, herbs… Our kid likes bûches for their chewy crust, but anything with strong flavor will do.
Although I have some favorite vendors at the market, sometimes I can’t pick just one. So it is with cheeses. There are several artisans, with slightly different products, so I buy a couple from each. We know some from having visited their farms during the Ferme en Ferme open houses–the 2018 season opens May 1!Of course, good bread is easy to find. And strawberries, grown in the cool, wet hills of Ariège. If you can’t come here, take yourself on vacation with some really good bread, some juicy strawberries and a real goat cheese that isn’t sealed in plastic from some factory. Every bite will be worth it.
Beauty can take so many forms. The voluptuous lusciousness of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting; her magnificently lined face photographed in her later years. The plump, kissable cheeks of a baby; the undulating starkness of the Sahara’s sands. The south of France has both extremes of beauty–the soft and the rugged. Right now, we’re in the soft season.Douceur in French means both softness and sweetness, which captures the spirit of spring in France. The air is perfect–as our kid remarked, it’s just right no matter what you’re wearing, whether a T-shirt or a sweater. It’s richly scented with newly cut grass and so, so many flowers blooming. We want to fill our lungs greedily with this nectar. Even though our winters are far from insufferable, we gorge on spring as if at a banquet after a famine.
The trees have mostly filled out with leaves, changing their shape from Giacometti sculptures to something more in the style of Botero. The platanes that were heavily pruned stay bare a while longer, with little tufts of green looking somewhat ridiculous on such big trunks. The vineyards are the same–pruned down to a single vine per stump, little leaves popping out in single file, catching the sun like emeralds.
The architecture and engineering of an anthill, bigger than my fist. How did they make such a perfectly round tower, with perfectly round entries?We take our time to savor the market, noting the appearance of each new player on the season’s stage. Bernard, the strawberry man, is back, attracting a line of customers, many of whom he greets by name, not having forgotten during the winter break. Promises of summer show up from Spain and Morocco in the form of melons and tomatoes. It’s so hard to wait, but we will hold out; flavor doesn’t travel well.The cafés are full…outside. The locals greet each other with kisses; the wide-eyed tourists take it all in, probably wondering (judging by the number of people toting both cameras and real estate brochures) whether maybe they, too, should move here for the sweet life.