Monday, September 27, 2010

Week 18: A Cup of Coffee, a Wild Mushroom and the Illuminated Forest Path

The weather is not a central topic of conversation when you live in California, where I grew up. There, of course, weather is fairly predictable and unchanging. I have always enjoyed the conceit in LA Story, where Steve Martin, as weatherman, tapes his transmissions several days in advance to be broadcast later. I think the last couple of years in California have been much less "normal," but still, I doubt that the weather has become an important subject when people get together there. In our region of France the weather is a part of almost every conversation. There is a saying here: "If you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes." It's absolutely true that our weather changes quickly and dramatically. We can have a taste of three or four seasons in the space of a few hours. Thus I often imagine some meteorological observation as a fitting opening paragraph to my blog posts, as it is much on my mind and in my daily encounters.

This week has seen bright sunny warm days, as well as heavy rainfalls and really chilly moments. There was an especially golden full moon. A harvest moon. Autumn officially has begun. We ordered our heating oil and called a local farmer to deliver several cords of wood, ready for our four working fireplaces (we have nine total in the house) to be ready once the weather makes a sharp turn towards the cold. It hasn't yet, but we've had a few hints. We're at that transitional point. It's a charming, if achingly temporary moment of the year. Surely one of the most beautiful.

September is one of the most popular months of all the year for French weddings. We have been full every weekend with a series of local marriages. It keeps our business humming right through the month, even after the holiday-makers have taken the kids back home.


Another thing which keeps our business going are friends of friends. Buzz and Ginger who stayed with us earlier in the season, have referred several people to us. We were happy to welcome Mina, from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, last week. She stayed with us for three nights and was a lovely presence.

Mina has a business making gluten-free products. She is so allergic to gluten that any consumption is actually life-threatening. Apparently that means not only avoiding bread and flour, but lots of other processed products. She was in France as a consultant to a company in Paris. Maison Conti was the rest-stop before the work. I cooked meals for her, but she brought her own breakfast pastry. She let us try it, and it was really fantastic!

Next week we welcome some other friends of Buzz and Ginger.


James and his boyfriend Adric stayed with us for several days this week. When we first moved to France, James lived in Paris and was going to school there, so I had my whole tribe in one place. Our family gatherings were frequent. For the last three years James has been living in San Francisco, where he just completed his MFA in playwriting. His next big adventure is in England. We call him our perpetual student. He is now undertaking a PhD at Warwick University. Adric will be studying African Theatre in London and will receive an MA at the end of the year.

There is certainly a passage that occurs when one becomes a grandparent. Another must surely be when the youngest child finally takes all his boxes of stuff out of your garage and moves away with them! We have carried James' 12 boxes of miscellany across the seas and moved them from one place to another. But now there is a big hole in our garage where once the cardboard boxes were stacked high! That really seems quite strange. He loaded them all into the rental truck, but couldn't resist unpacking just one box of posters and photos for a walk down memory lane.

While the "boys" were here they requested an etching course. I had such a good time with them! Adric is an artist but James has usually avoided art. He told me as a child that he thought I worked much too hard as a graphic artist. I guess he felt he equated art with work, not fun. Neither of them had done printmaking before and they both loved the technicality of it. I taught them three techniques, soft ground, hard ground and aquatint, which they used on different areas of one plate. Their results were wonderful. They seemed to be pleased and talked of future projects.

I always do a demo plate, but very rarely print it, since it's just for showing techniques to students. But in this case I rather liked the image that emerged. This is a soft and hard ground combination which I inked up and printed.

I added an aquatint, by way of demonstrating the technique. I was pretty sure I wouldn't like the effect, but I etched and printed it anyway. As expected, I prefered the image without the tone, but it was still interesting in its own right.

It's not easy to go back once you've added your aquatint, so I let all that be and started over on a slightly larger plate and created a whole new image. I call it Boy in a Plaid Shirt.

There were days that simply cried out to be enjoyed outdoors this week. We took a walk in the woods one early afternoon and enjoyed the quality of autumn light as it played among the branches.

Adric noticed some wild mushrooms which reminded me that this is mushroom gathering season. The French love to take to the woods this time of year and collect edible mushrooms by the basketfull. Most of the people we know are experts at identifying them and soups, salads and main dishes filled with wild mushrooms are served up on many tables this time of year. When I was at university, and lived in Oregon, I took a field guide and went out in the woods behind our house to identify mushrooms to bring home and cook. Those were the days before I read about an Asian family who moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and found some mushrooms they recognized from back home, cooked them up into a sauce and then had to be rushed off to the hospital. The entire family lost one of their internal organs and barely survived. That local news story affected lots of other people I know and I don't think any of us has felt very safe with a wild mushroom ever since. Here in France you can bring a mushroom to the pharmacy and they will identify it definitively for you.

I have no idea if the ones we noted are edible of not, but I would be very reluctant to take the chance. Luckily our local grocer also sells wild mushrooms this time of year, and I'd just as soon let the experts do the gathering. I don't mind paying for them. They are wonderful and I have a very nice recipe for warm wild mushroom salad with curls of Parmesan cheese. It can only be made during a very brief time of the year when these delicacies are available.


This week we received a coffee care package from our friends Wolfgang and Sabine, who I wrote about two weeks ago. While they were here earlier in the month, the conversation turned to coffee and we discovered yet another area of common ground (no pun intended). Coffee fanaticism. Wolfgang has a really gorgeous espresso machine and, like Rick, can't imagine a day that is not punctuated by cups of perfectly brewed coffee from ideally roasted beans.

When we lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, we always bought our coffee at Peets, one of the first and finest European style coffee roasters in the United States. It was Mr. Peet, a Dutch man who opened his first shop in Berkeley in 1966, and taught the mega coffee founders of Starbucks how to roast. They were his employees at one time. The secret to good coffee is mostly in the roasting, at least if you have good beans to begin with. The trouble with Starbucks is that their volume is so huge that they are forced to buy the good, the bad and the ugly coffee beans in order to have enough for all the cups of coffee they brew. The coffee bean is a seasonal product, after all, and therefore the highest quality beans are limited. For the first year that we lived in France a friend in California sent us Peets beans every month. After being spoiled like that for so long, it was hard for us to adjust to life without really good beans. In our local area we could find nothing that approached what we were used to. Even in Paris, at one of the most well known suppliers in France, Café Richard, the beans are not at all the same. They are dry, which indicates that they've been roasted too fast. A really well roasted bean is greasy, and that oil on the bean's surface is responsible for the crema on the top of an excellent cup of coffee.

It is only within the last year that we had found a roaster in Le Mans who could approximate the coffee we had from Peets. Even I have become a coffee snob, and I know when the beans are inferior. There is a stale or bitter taste that lingers after a sip from a cup of coffee made from either inferior beans or beans roasted haphazardly.

Wolfgang told us about his coffee roaster in Munich, Caffé Fausto. To prove the point, he sent us a huge box of beans, four different roasts. Believe me, we have been particularly enjoying our mornings this week! The beans are every bit as beautiful as Peets, and perhaps even better, since some of the roasts are dark, like Peets (who roasts all his beans very deeply, slowly and for a long time, until they're almost black), and some are just a bit lighter, which I personally prefer.

A new refinement we learned from the Fausto literature is that it is also important, when blending coffee, to roast each type of bean separately and to put them together only after that. It makes sense that each type of bean would require different temperatures and times. They're not all the same size, for one thing. Most roasters don't take the time and trouble.

Wolfgang also introduced us to a crazy YouTube channel Seattle Coffee Gear, that offers endlessly fascinating tutorials on coffee making. It's well worth checking out if you are an addict.


Monday, September 20, 2010

Week 17: In and Around a French Country Village

Days have been clear and bright inviting lazy walks about town. One day recently I began to notice beautiful textures created from old doors, rusty gates, stone walls. Once I focused on them, I saw them everywhere. I spent an afternoon snapping photos of some interesting patterns our little village offers to the observant eye. Time has had its way with paint, brick and metal; vigorous plant roots are not confounded by stone structures. Between the works of men and the effects of nature, lovely images are created.

We noticed this curiosity on the road towards our garden. If it is a make-shift scarecrow, the question would arise, what is being protected from the birds? This is no fruit-bearing tree. If the clothing is just getting an airing, someone had to climb rather high to hang it there. Is there some magic in it?

Historically there were a double set of walls encircling our village, one around the castle, another protecting the entire village, now, mostly removed to allow for roadways. One large piece of this ancient structure still exists. The original town ramparts stand behind the castle and enclose the village garden plots. The back of our garden is bordered by this wall. I rarely go on the other side, even though there is a very nice little trail next to it.

The pathway there affords very lovely views over the valley beyond, which this time of year are particularly sweet.

Below the path is the Ramparts garden which is maintained by the community. It is a medieval herb garden, growing medicinal plants.

Of course this time of year also offers an abundance of fruits and pods. I don't know what kind of tree grows these wonderful bean shaped seed pods, but they look so nice hanging from the branches.

Monique's fence is festooned in grapes, sweetening in the fall sunshine. We got a jar of her homemade
grape jelly.

And apple orchards everywhere encircle the village, ready to give of their effulgence. Northern France is a natural home to apples of every description, used primarily in the making of cider and calvados.

We are full each weekend this month, but week days are much quieter now. I've had many enjoyable hours in the studio or sitting in our sunny apartment window, sketching my favorite view.

I haven't seen my son James since last Christmas, but he arrives this afternoon! And not just for a visit, but to stay for at least the next three years. He will be living in London and working towards his Ph.D. in play writing. I expect to have many opportunities to visit Britain in the months and years ahead. More on his visit to France when we meet again next week.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Week 16: Busy Days, Tasty Nights

If it's the end of the season, we haven't heard the news yet. We have been remarkably busy with people coming and going, enjoying sunny September days in our part of France. We have had guests almost every day and made dinners most evenings as well.

Julian and Penny peddled up to the gates on Monday. They are riding bikes from England to the Pyrenees, an ambitious 10 day jaunt that includes some rather brutal climbs and conversely some wonderful down-hill costings.

Some of our other British clients told us that September, after all the children are back in school, is their preferred time to travel. I have to agree. The weather is generally lovely, the sites are less crowded and roads clear.

The quality of fall light is sparkling and magical. The sun, softened as the earth begins to tilt away, is sweet upon my face. I take my afternoon coffee on the terrace.


The one day free this week allowed us a quick visit to Paris to see Emily, Jos and Quinn for the first time since the end of their vacation. We celebrated Jos' birthday together, even if the actual day was a month past. Emily, Rick and I made a marvelous feast that we all thoroughly enjoyed.


Limoncello Champagne Cocktails With Mint
Insalata Estiva Di Patate
Grilled Salmon With Black Beans and Piment d'Espelette Mayonnaise
Quinoa Pilaf
Orange Polenta Cake With Vanilla-Scented Plums And Buttermilk Ice Cream

Italian potato salad with garden tomatoes, carrots and black olives


The good eating didn't end there! Wolfgang and Sabina, our German clients who brought us two bottles of excellent German wine on their way to their three-week holiday in Brittany, stopped again on the way home, this time with armloads of fresh fish.

These are clients who are seriously veering into the category of friends! Wolfgang and Sabina are both doctors and live in Mannheim, home of Mannheim Steamroller, a group I've staunchly enjoyed despite the rest of my family finding their music completely cheesy (which of course it is). 

Remarkably, in the category of it's a small world after all, Wolfgang met an American in Germany who happened, at the time, to be living in France and he mentioned Maison Conti to her. She knows my brother Gary and had heard of us. Her name is Abra and she writes a very nice blog, often about cooking called French Letters.

I set two tables on the terrace to accommodate all of us. The other clients were either at a wedding or visiting friends, so it was just the four of us enjoying a bottle of champagne and four dozen oysters! Victoria and Roderick had 7-Up and Cheetos instead.

That was just the warm up. The other fish, pulled straight from the Atlantic and rushed, on ice, to Maison Conti, was some lotte (monkfish in English), often called the chicken of the sea. It's kid friendly, as Wolfgang put it. It's a fish with a very ugly face, so it isn't sold with the head on usually, but the taste is meaty and delicious, there is no fishy smell, and no bones whatsoever.

We threw it on the barbecue, along with a few garden vegetables and Rick used his souffleur to get the charcoals burning. One of the few things we don't like about France are the briquettes. They never seem to stay lit.

I made a couple of salads and some blue cheese dressing. We sat outside as night descended around us. The children were particularly happy with dessert: double chocolate pudding parfaits.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Week 15: Quinn on Vacation and Other Adventures

One thing summer does not offer, is much opportunity to visit Quinn, especially since he's been traveling around Europe with his parents over the last three weeks. We are lucky enough to get some virtual views and lots of photographs of his ongoing adventures. Phone conversations go something like this:

Quinn! How are you?

Nana? Bobo?

Yes Quinn, it's Nana and Bobo! We miss you.


Did you see a doggie today? What does a dog say Quinn?

Woof woof!

What does a rooster say?


This same conversation can be repeated over and over and none of us ever seems to get bored. Such is the goofiness of grandparenthood. Here are a few images from Quinn's summer vacation which ends next week.

The first week of vacation was spent on a working farm in Austria which caters to children. There are lots of animals (thus the animal sounds). Quinn, who lives in Paris, hasn't met many animals before and apparently he is quite enthralled with furry and feathered creatures of every sort. He even dreams about them and repeats animal noises in his sleep.

Farmer Quinn

Mighty Quinn, the swimmer

Quinn helps plan the itinerary

The second week brought him to the beautiful city of Ljubljana (Slovenia), where the setting is urban. When Quinn got to the hotel he pointed out the window and said "Moo?" in other words, "Can we go see the cows now." There aren't too many barnyard animals in the city, so Emily and Jos took him to the zoo. His favorite creature was an owl in a big cage.

Here he's pointing and saying "gar!" which he says frequently. Quinn is 19 months and beginning to talk three languages at once. He understands what his father says to him in Flemish, he understands English which Emily speaks with him and he also can respond to French, as this is the language of his neighbors and nanny in Paris. "Gar" is one of the first things he learned to say and it is meant to be "Regard!" French for "Look!"

'Look at the owl!"


Playing around

His last vacation week was spent on the Island of Cres in Croatia enjoying the sea, the sun and the wonderful sea food. There is a donkey next to their bungalow and Quinn visits him every day.

Mediterranean Idyll

Sardines. Yum!

Quinn meets Mr. Donkey


We visited another Loire Valley garden this week. In contrast to the whimsicality of the gardens of Chaumont-sur-Loire, Villandry is formal to a fault. The gardens are historically accurate representations of royal French gardens of the Renaissance, which clearly are meant to be observed from above.  I prefer wild garden excess myself, but certainly one can appreciate the discipline required to maintain these precise gardens whose shapes and colors represent specific ideas and feelings. For instance, one garden represents different experiences of love, the four quadrants speak of tender love, passionate love, fickle love and tragic love.

Surrounding the castle and gardens of Villandry are woods with pleasant paths for strolling. The views through the trees are lovely.

My favorite garden was called the water garden. I have a recurring dream about a place like this. To me it's like looking into another world.

What a wonderful way to grow vegetables, although how could you ever pick any of the produce?

I love the purple basil. It would take quite a few people to consume this much. We did lunch at the Villandry restaurant where they specialize in salads and greens fresh from the gardens.


September brings visits from journalists. This week we had Laura and Gilles from the Derby Telegraph in the Midlands, England. Our regional tourist office hosts British journalists quite often who write articles about our area of France, which is very convenient to England. Generally the itinerary includes a stay at Maison Conti as we are one of only two four-star establishments in the region. This is the first time, however, that a journalist has requested an etching course as well as a night's stay and dinner. They were enthusiastic students.

Laura's print. This is the symbol of Liverpool, where Laura was born


This week the moon is waning and rising quite late at night which allows for some spectacular star gazing on crystal clear evenings. Night falls much earlier these days, and by 9:30 it's already dark. Last night Rick and I sat at the window with the telescope, looking southeast at Jupiter. We could see four of it's moons clearly lined up, one on the left three on the right of the bright planet. We could even see some of the striping as we looked with our highest magnification lens. Out the back windows the dipper blazes above the castle; there is little light pollution in Montmirail, so we can enjoy the entire canopy of the sky and bright stars on a clear night.

If you're lucky enough to live somewhere that allows you to enjoy the night sky, there are good opportunities to view Jupiter this month. It's at it's closest now. A good calendar of celestial events can be helpful in knowing where to look and what to look for.


Late summer picnic