Thursday, March 31, 2011

Tragedy Strikes Southern France

It is hard to explain how tragic this moment is.

This was my last jar. 
 Although I didn't actually lick it clean...I did use a rubber spatula to capture every last  bit.

I haven't been able to throw away the carcass. 
I'm still clinging to memories. 
(and there is a tiny bit of peanut butter still clinging to the jar!)

Perhaps it's time to move on?!?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Let's get serious

My mom skyped me yesterday (skype now being a verb in the same way that google has now become a verb) and the first thing she said to me is, “Where have you been?”

“What do you mean where have I been? Since I got back from Switzerland a week and a half ago, I’ve been here, Mom.”

“No, I mean you’ve been silent”.

“I have not. I talked to you several times last week.”

“But you haven’t written your blog. It’s like you’ve dropped off the face of the earth.”

I smiled to myself because I thought it was funny that my mom looks forward to reading my blog when she can simply talk to me any time she wants. And I put forward a few lame excuses like “I’ve just been so busy”, or “it’s been so beautiful here I haven’t wanted to spend my days indoors”.

But in fact, I finally had to admit that in light of all the horrible things going on in the world today, the little details of my life seemed  just…so….little. Inane, trivial, trifling…insignificant ( I know I’ve got a thesaurus on this computer…I’m sure I can find more adjectives!). I’ve written pages in my head as well as in my pocket notebook that is with me at every moment. But the words have remained lodged in gray matter or between two laminated cardboard covers where I felt they belonged.

While in Switzerland I heard (tardily) the news from Japan. I read a little about it but we didn’t have a television and, of course, I couldn’t understand Swiss-German commentary on the radio or read the newspapers. And I happily went on with my pleasures.

When I returned, however, I began watching the news. Incessantly. French, American and British troops begin their strikes in Libya. The Japanese people, devastated from their losses after the earthquake and tsunami and the entire world in danger from the nuclear power plant disaster. Syrians being murdered in the street because of their basic human need for freedom. And I have continued to stare at the television like a rubber-necker at a traffic accident.

My first year here in France, I was blissfully unaware of the goings-on in the world. I had no television and, of course, I couldn’t read the newspapers. I slept like a baby….for the first time in years. I haven’t slept so well in recent weeks. Don’t get me wrong, I am not, by nature, a worrier  (I have my friend Mary to do that for me). I have been blessed with an innate sense of optimism that I’m eternally thankful for.  But I’m beginning to think that The News is a sort of insidious culprit that plots to steal my sense of well-being.

My youngest son is a news hound. He reads 5 or 6 newspapers daily. He is so much fun to talk to. He knows about everything…technology, music, world events, history, art…and has very strong and fascinating opinions.  I always find myself wishing I were as well informed as he is. I would be so much more…interesting.

But at the same time, he often appears stressed. Sometimes when we’re discussing a political point or an environmental issue, he seems as if he’s fallen into a hole…despondent and without hope. I have actually said to him, “honey, you really need to stop reading so many newspapers”.

The question is, how does one establish some sort of equilibrium? What is my responsibility as a citizen of the world and what is my responsibility to myself and my personal psyche?

Bombs will continue to be dropped, innocents will go on suffering,  and we will persist in degrading our environment, whether I know about it immediately or not.  On the other hand, if all the world keeps its eyes open (including me), freedom might possibly be gained by hundreds of thousands of hopefuls in the middle-east and elsewhere, we might persist in finding a way for the suffering to nourish and heal themselves, and if we pay attention…really pay attention…we could find a way to exist on this planet without insisting that we destroy it in the process.

I don’t know what the answer is but as of today, as an experiment, I’m going on a mini-greve. The TV is off this morning. It’s going to stay off. My new strike from the news is going to mean I probably won’t be able to participate in meaty conversations about the current status of nuclear reactor #4, the question of where Gaddafi really is, why some dumb-ass French minister referred to the situation in Libya as a “crusade” (please, monsieur, think about the connotations of the word crusade for the Arab world), or the fascinating life of Elizabeth Taylor. It’s not that I don’t care about these things (this excludes the fascinating life of Elizabeth Taylor). And it’s not that I don’t have more than a little guilt about trying to surround myself with pretty flowers and soaring cherubs.

But for now, it’s going to have to be this way. And I will get back to writing my blog. While talking to my mom about this, she reminded me that in a world of bad news, there’s nothing wrong with a little humor. A break from the constant barrage of negative information that pummels us moment by moment is not necessarily a negation of the trials in the lives of others.  Light moments are essential when the weight of the world is slowing our steps and threatening to stop us in our tracks.

So I guess I’ll just continue doing what I do. As small and unimportant as it may be. And screw The News for the next….few weeks. Of course, just this moment, my New York Times headlines update came up on my email...and what did I do? Okay...I'm working on it. It will be interesting to see how I sleep in the next few weeks.

And it would also be interesting to know how you balance the weight of the world with your need for personal peace. Tell me.


Friday, March 11, 2011

La vie est dure!

I've gotta say, this skiing-in-the-Swiss-Alps thing is really a pain. It involves all sorts of difficult daily routines beginning with an hour and a half of skiing and then...breakfast and champagne on the terrace.

Where I am continually subjected to this view.

After breakfast, there's a little of this on the other terrace

I MUST sleep here...if not, I have to stare at this scene.

After a little repose, it's back to the slopes.
We do ski. Really. Here is proof. These are my feet. In ski boots.

Of course, I'm sitting in a snowbank here and there are no skiis attached to my boots. But really...we do ski!

But not without a few breaks to rest our weary...well, whatever happens to be weary at the moment.

Like here

And here...okay, same place, different day.

And then, we need to nourish ourselves. A little extra-charged cafe and pastry...

Maybe a brief moment to take in a high protein snack..... and a bottle of wine...

Then of course, late afternoon I've never seen schapps!

After a hard day of skiing there are numerous local medicines to kill the pain.

And then after all this strenuous activity, it's back to the house to change out of those oh, so sweaty clothes...and read a little.

Like I said, this is all really a big pain!


Thursday, March 3, 2011

Cheese Louise...I'm off to Switzerland!

Tomorrow I leave for Switzerland for a two week ski vacation in the Alps. Man I love saying that! I think I'll say it again. Tomorrow I leave for Switzerland for a two week ski vacation in the Alps!!! Actually, I had the opportunity to say the same thing last year around this time, and tomorrow I'll be returning to visit my friend Vreni.

I will probably only actually ski four or five days...lift tickets are pricey. And if this week's "Power Pilates" class was any indication of my current physical condition, I'm in for deep doo-doo on the slopes. But I have several books in my suitcase and I know a great hotel in Arosa with heated, outdoor seating and giant fur blankets to cover my inert body. Après-ski can be enjoyed with or without actually skiing!

In celebration of my expedition to Switzerland, I'm going to share a couple of simple cheese recipes. Fondue, raclette and other alpine cheese meals are specialties of the northern regions of France and, of course, Switzerland. We're well past heavy cheese season here in Aix en Provence but there are mountains of snow in Arosa and I'll get to enjoy mountain cheeses until my pants pop.

The first is so simple. In fact, it's not even a recipe at all. It's merely a way to serve a wonderful, stinky, soft, cow's milk cheese called Vacherin Mont d'Or. This cheese is sold in a round spruce box and the packaging is said to give it some of it's flavor. It has an edible crust which is what makes it look so wonderful after it has been baked. And don't be afraid of the white fur that may be growing on the top...ashes, mold, fur, whatever...these are good things when it comes to cheese here in France.

Baked Mont d'Or

Take the cheese out of the fridge at least an hour before cooking it but leave it in its box. Some say you should wrap the box in tinfoil to prevent leaking. I forgot to do this and had no trouble with drips.  Dig a little hole in or score the top rind and, if you'd like, poke a couple cloves of garlic down into the cheese. Pour about 1/4 Cup (50 ml) of white Savoie wine over the top of the cheese, and pop it in the oven at 425 F (220 C). Bake it for about 20 minutes.

Serve this right in the box. Spoon it over small boiled potatoes or with thinly sliced meats. Traditionally it's also eaten with little cornichons and tiny, pickled onions. You can also treat it as a fondue and dip chunks of nice, crusty bread directly into this box of melted wonderful.

The second recipe is for tartiflette. This delectable dish uses ripe, Reblochon cheese, which is another northern cheese made from the milk of 3 different breeds of cow.


You need:
     1 ripe Reblochon cheese (buy the good stuff with the fermier green
        stamp on top.
     4 pounds of potatoes (2 kilos)
     1/2 pound (200 grams) chopped bacon or lardons
     2 chopped onions
     8 oz. cream (250 ml)
     1/4 Cup Savoie white wine (200 ml)
     salt and pepper

Slice the potatoes after boiling them until they're just firm. (I don't peel them) Place them in a greased gratin dish. Saute the bacon and onions in a bit of oil over medium heat until golden. Add the wine and let this simmer until the wine is evaporated. Add the cream and salt and pepper to taste.

Mix the onion and bacon mixture with the potatoes. Be gentle.

Scrape the crust of the cheese wheel lightly with a fork. Cut it horizontally into two pieces and then in half. Put the cheese on top of the potatoes, crusts up, and bake at 350 F (180 C) for 30 minutes.


At this point I'm going to apologize once again for my horrific food photos and my obvious carelessness. If anybody has food photography pointers, I'm listening. (yes...obviously...clean all cream off sides of baking dish before proceeding to bake, burn and otherwise make this dish look....dirty!)

My fellow Americans.... there is one, small, teeny, weeny catch with these recipes. These are unpasteurized cheeses and have been forbidden in the U.S. since 2004. I believe some exporters are making them with pasteurized milk but I've heard the flavor is nowhere near as creamy and delicious. Read more about this American tragedy here...and then write your congressman! Or come to France and pick up your own! If any one of you is aware of a distributer of real, French, unpasteurized soft cheeses in the U.S.,  I would sure like to know about it. 

Bon Appetit!


I found these recipes in the AAGP (Anglo-American Group of Provence) newsletter last year. The article was written by Jennifer Dugdale, a woman who gives culinary tours here in English. Check out her website here.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Old Enough to Know Better

The other day I was cleaning my very old bathroom door. I know it's old because it is put together with wooden dowels rather than nails (although I'm certain it was not originally a bathroom door and its paint has been stripped off). 

I was doing what every normal Minnesotan (land of the clean and home of the disinfected) would do. I was cleaning the dusty and dirty mouldings with a toothbrush. 

Then I had a go at my ancient shutters which I've been told are at least 300 years old.

Yep, a little elbow grease and I'll have this place looking like new. It's spring cleaning time!

Yesterday, I finally decided to buy a real piece of furniture...not just something I've found in the dumpster in order to make do. I absolutely must have some storage here and I hate things sitting out in the open collecting dust (back to that genetic Minnesota thing). I've searched everywhere for something small enough to fit up my winding stairs, practical enough to hold a bunch of junk my valuable, personal belongings, and since I'm going to actually pay for it, something great looking and well made.

I found this. I chose it because it's beautifully crafted (fairly new but with a very old door and hardware) and its builder had done such an excellent job of making the entire piece look in slightly dirty and dusty.

I think I'll just stop there.  Does anybody else see the twisted irony in this situation?
Sometimes it's just good to take note of how ridiculous I can be. 
I do think though, that I'll consider retiring my toothbrush and find something better to do.

Cinderella graphic provided by The Graphics Fairy