Archive for April 2010

Who Wrote The Book?

April 30, 2010

A Gentle and Constant Reader wrote a comment responding to my last post, saying “It appears that you are approaching each day as a miracle.”  To which I say Amen.  No, not really, because I’m a heathen and never say amen, but “to which I say whoa! hey! too true!” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Because I do see each day as a miracle – even each hour is miraculous when I’m paying attention.  Shel and I are here together in a green and growing land.  True, the sky is gray almost every day, which is not the funnest.  But the green and the gray go together; you can’t have growth without rain, although tears often work in much the same way.

When you sign up to love somebody for life, you usually don’t know what you’re going to get, and you’re hoping valiantly for the best.  Shel and I knew when we married that he had cancer, and that was almost 15 years ago.  We too were hoping for the best, and if you’ve read the whole story of French Letters, you know that we really have had more than our fair share of the very best, mixed in with the grayer moments.

We opened the books of love and cancer at the same moment, and every page we’ve turned since then has had the same malignant footnote. Sometimes it blows up into a screaming headline, sometimes it’s written in invisible ink.  But it’s all always there, a bittersweet twist to a tale that’s miraculously long in the telling.

Another dear French Letters reader is the person who discovered the extent of our latest troubles, just because he’d read about Shel’s illness here, and offered to help.  That’s a miracle in itself, because if there had been no French Letters we never would have known him, he never would have looked at Shel’s CT scans, we’d still be in France now, not knowing that there were new things to worry about.  The way people come together and change the course of each other’s lives is a miracle.

All this, plus the title of the post, may have you thinking “foxhole conversion.”  Mais non, pas du tout.  Not a bit. I think that we’re writing our own book with each breath, turning the pages sometimes with trepidation, sometimes with elation, letting the pen race ahead of our thoughts, and as with any great book, hoping never to come to the end.

The book of love is the one you read at bedtime, staying up far too late because you can’t bear to put it down.  And then,  even after you do set it aside, you continue all night, dreaming a happy ending.

Status Report

April 25, 2010

Eggs Of The Gods

April 23, 2010

Have you ever had oeufs en meurette?  It’s a treasure of the cooking of Bourgogne, or Burgundy.  To call it poached eggs in a red wine sauce is like calling foie gras duck liver.  Technically yes, that’s what it is, in a parallel universe.  Actually it’s one of the more sublime egg dishes there is, and if you like eggs, you need to have this dish in your repertoire.  I’ve had them twice this week, courtesy of left over sauce after the first meal, and I dare say that twice in a week is not at all too often.

If you want to serve these for brunch, the best thing is to make the sauce the day before, since it takes quite a while to reduce to its final glory.  If you’re serving it for supper, and a very fine supper it is, allow yourself at least an hour of preparation, most of which will be spent sniffing the air hopefully as the wine in the sauce perfumes your house.

Oeufs en Meurette*

Serves 4

8 very fresh eggs
2 large shallots
4 oz good-quality bacon
1 bottle red wine, something quite tannic, perhaps a syrah
1 cup chicken broth
4 oz butter
4 slices good crusty bread
2 cloves garlic
2 T red wine vinegar
2 T finely chopped flat parsley
salt and pepper

Cut the bacon across the width of the slice into small strips.  Peel and chop the shallots.

Melt 1 oz of the butter in a medium-sized saucepan on low heat.  Add the shallots and the bacon and let them sweat very gently for 10 minutes.  Don’t allow them to brown at all.

Add the chicken broth and 2/3 of the bottle of wine.  Simmer very slowly and gently until the sauce is reduced by 2/3.  (If you’re making this the day before, refrigerate it now and bring it back to a simmer before poaching the eggs).  Cut the remainder of the butter into small cubes and whisk them one by one into the sauce over the barest heat, until all the butter is added and the sauce thickens.  Stir in the parsley, season to taste with salt and pepper, and set the sauce aside, keeping it warm.

Toast the bread.  While it is still hot, slice each garlic clove in two and rub each piece of toast forcefully with a cut piece of garlic.  The garlic should smoosh onto the toast.  Set aside.

Break the eggs into 8 small bowls or cups.  Bring one quart of water to a boil in a deep saucepan and add the rest of the wine as well as the vinegar.  Bring to a very gentle simmer and poach the eggs in this liquid, removing them when the white is set but the yolks are still soft.  You will need to do this in batches, two at a time is easiest, to ensure that the eggs don’t get overcooked.  Remove the eggs with a slotted spoon and place them to drain on a paper towel.

To assemble, place the toast in a shallow bowl or on a plate.  set two eggs atop each toast slice and spoon the sauce over the eggs, letting it soak into the toast and pool around the edges.  Prepare to be blown away.

*The original recipe is here.  I haven’t changed a thing, because it’s perfect just as it is.  All I’ve done is translate it for you.

Noodling With My New Nikon

April 19, 2010

Those of you who are fans of French Letters photos will be glad to know that I finally bit the bullet and graduated to a grown-up camera.  Wow, there’s a lot to learn!  This baby has more menus than a Michelin 4 star restaurant, more buttons than my Grandma’s old button basket.

But my new photo friend, a Nikon D-90, is so well-behaved that even a rank beginner can produce respectable pictures, even if she gnashes her teeth at all the SLR lingo while she’s doing it.

I think I’m going to love it, as soon as I get over hating it.  Actually, it’s my own incompetence that drives me crazy.  Even though I’ve got the Nikon D-90 For Dummies book I have a sneaking suspicion that the author was writing for a smarter class of dummy than I.  I know she’s using English, but half the time I still have to get Shel to translate for me, and we both have to send email to our friend Rob asking for tech support.

But I’m starting to have a few glimmers of hope, as more and more shots are turning out decently, and at least I’ve mastered how to hold the darn thing, which is no small accomplishment in itself.  It’s a quantum leap from my old camera, but then, French Letters has made a quantum leap from the Old to the New World, so it seems only fitting.

So here’s a toast to French Letters’ new look, and now, let’s hope that it continues to improve.  I have a week of intensive practice planned

if only I can get Shel to lay off taking 25 shots of last night’s apple tart, in all of which he demonstrates his superior mastery of depth of field,

and Eric to take a break from playing with my new toy while pretending it’s all about capturing the true essence of  Zazou.  Boys and toys, they’re a natural combo.  Girls and techno-weenie-gadgetry, not so much, but I’m gritting my teeth and clicking away as if I knew what I were doing.

And meanwhile, I’m sending myself flowers and an F for Effort.  Or is that F for F-stop?

Ma Vie Américaine

April 16, 2010

Plusieurs de mes amis français m’ont demandé de les montrer ma vie ici aux Etats-Unis, et en plus, de l’expliquer en français. Zut.  Mes anciens profs de français, couvrez les yeux !

Lots of my French friends have asked me to show them my life here in the US, and to write it in French so they can understand it.  Yikes. My former French teachers better cover their eyes!

Nous habitons rue du Lever du Soleil, et vous voyez ici pourquoi elle est appelé cela.  Notre chambre donne sur l’est, et comme nous sommes dans le nord, l’été le soleil se leve vers 4h30.  Donc, gros manque de sommeil dans cette saison-là.

We live on Sunrise Drive, and you can see here why it’s called that.  Our bedroom faces east, and since we’re in the north, in summer the sun rises about 4:30 in the morning, so I’m always suffering from lack of sleep during that season.

Voici l’entrée.  Soyez les bienvenues !  C’est un peu sauvage, hein ? Rien de tel à Uzès.

Here’s the entryway.  Welcome!  It’s a bit wild, no?  Nothing like this in Uzès.

Dès que je rentre je me déchausse toujours, exactement comme en France, et on trouve mes chaussures partout.  Mes habitudes marrants me suivent où que j’aille.

I take off my shoes as soon as I come into the house, just like in France, and my shoes are everywhere.  My weird habits follow me everywhere.

Installez-vous, c’est jamais très bien rangé, mais l’hospitalité est excellent. Un verre de vin américain ?  Mais oui, ça existe, le vin américain !

Come on in, even though it’s never too tidy, the hospitality is excellent. How about a glass of American wine?  Yes of course there is such a thing as American wine!

Voici votre chambre.  Vous dormirez très bien ici, il est toujours tranquille la nuit, sauf si on entend les coyotes, mais normalement, vos rêves seronts calmes.  Mais oui, les coyotes existent ici !

This is your room.  You’ll sleep really well here, it’s always very quiet at night, except if you happen to hear the coyotes.  Usually, though, your dreams will be undisturbed.  Yes there really are coyotes here!

Nous dormons tout près, juste au cas où.

We’ll be sleeping close by, just in case.

Mais il est encore tôt.  Permettez-moi de vous préparer un vrai repas américain, comme un poulet rôti, un gratin dauphinois, une salade, et une mousse au chocolat.  Avec, bien sûr, du vin américain.

But it’s still early.  Let me make you a real American meal, like roast chicken, scalloped potatoes, salad, and chocolate mousse.  With American wine, of course.

Comme il fait un peu frisquet, comme il le fait souvent, on mange à l’intèrieure

Since it’s a bit chilly, as it often is, we’ll eat inside

mais demain, s’il fait beau, on fera un barbecue

but tomorrow, if the weather’s nice, we’ll have a barbeque.

et on mangera sur le balcon.  Et là, d’accord, je chercherai un vin français. Pour vous, chers amis, je suis prête à payer le 14 Euros qu’il faut pour un simple vin du pays français.  À ces prix là, un vin d’appellation, ça ne s’achète pas pour un barbecue, vous comprenez.

and we’ll eat out on the deck.  And for the occasion, I’ll even invest the $18 that it costs to buys a perfectly ordinary French wine.  A good French wine is much too expensive for a barbeque.

Après, vous pouvez vous reposer dans le jardin

Afterwards, you can relax in the garden

ou bien dans le jacuzzi.  Pas besoin de maillot, parce qu’il n’y a pas de vis à vis.

or even in the hot tub.  You won’t need a swimsuit, no one can see you here.

Mais j’ai une mauvaise nouvelle: il n’y a pas de boulangerie.  Donc, pas de croissants pour le petit dej, désolée.  À part çela, il n’est pas du tout désagréable ici, on est bien d’accord ?

I do have some bad news though: there’s no bakery.  So, no croissants for breakfast, sorry!  But other than that, it’s not too bad here, right?

Summer Flowering Bulbs

April 10, 2010

Planting bulbs has got to be one of the garden’s most hopeful tasks.  You put something dried, wrinkled, and dead-looking into the ground.  You have an image in your mind, a flower future tease sort of thing, but you really don’t know what’s going to happen.  Maybe, as with these bluebells, you’ll plant a few, look away for a year or three, and find them everywhere. Maybe some creature will come along and dig up your carefully planted treasure, and there’s not a single thing you can do about it.  Maybe you will have purchased a yellow lily which turned out to be red.  You just can’t know.

Sometimes, as in life, your efforts result in something dark and mysterious, wholly unexpected, thanks to the law of unintended consequences. Sometimes you must bow your head in the face of the universe having its way with you.  Sometimes you’ve got dirt under your fingernails.

Sometimes the smallest thing can be so poignant.  Tiny flowers bravely launching themselves into the savage world in a way that puts us to shame. Tulips are fearless, facing the hardest of times.  We’ve had sun, rain, and sleet this week, all while these little flowers were in bloom, and they’re none the worse for wear.

As further testament to the tough persistence of life, here’s a tulip growing in a path, placed there by a squirrel who uprooted it from a more sensible spot.  Plus, it’s spotted with blue wood stain that I accidentally spattered when staining a raised bed I had built so that I can argue with the deer over who gets the fresh salad.  And it’s still a flower with attitude, despite the mistreatment.

All this I thought about as I dug and buried and patted and watered.  All this and more.  Even Beppo got into the act, leaving his footprints and a dose of uric acid fertilizer in the freshly turned dirt of an anemone bed. Those future anemones will be launched into the world by cat pee, if they survive.  But even if we know where we came from, we can’t know what we’ll become.

Standing in the cool damp evening with the scent of woodsmoke on the breeze, I saw for the first time what I had envisioned so many years ago, hopefully digging in the sandy soil of my garden,  and I was glad to be here.

A Sweet Easter Treat

April 4, 2010

Here’s how I know I’m not in France anymore: it’s Easter morning and I’m baking.  In France, where practically no sensible person bakes at home except for the simplest of treats, Shel would be strolling to one of the 15 bakeries in town to pick out something special for Easter brunch.  Here, even though I won’t be eating it, I’m up early baking something that I hope will be delicious enough to put on the table.

Actually, I started out the morning with my nose buried in the King Arthur Baking book, trying to find a recipe for which I had all of the ingredients in the house.  Being totally unaccustomed to baking these days, my cupboard is a bit light on sweet ingredients.  Finally, I settled on the recipe for Almond Puff Loaf.  It’s a very unusual recipe, consisting of a sort of pie crust, topped with a sort of unsweetened pâte à choux dough, topped with jam and icing.

It bakes up to be not the world’s loveliest pastry to look at, but it has, according to Shel, a deliciously crispy bottom layer, topped with a tender dough that is neither cakey nor bready.  The unsweetened dough, combined with the sweetness of the jam and icing, make it not too plain, not too sweet, but just right.  The recipe calls for apricot or raspberry jam, but since what we had was strawberry jam and orange marmalade, I combined those, to evidently very good effect.  Shel’s an almond lover, so I’ve adjusted the recipe at his request to get more almond flavor in there.  Happy Spring Holidays to you, wherever you are, whatever you eat, but don’t hesitate to make this anytime you want something special to serve with coffee or tea.

Almond Puff Loaf
adapted from the King Arthur Baking Cookbook

For the Pastry
1/2 pound butter (2 sticks), divided use
2 cups flour, divided use
1 1/4 cups water, divided use
3 eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract

For the Topping
10 ounces jam, half strawberry, half orange marmalade, or use your favorite
1/2 cup sliced almonds

For the Icing
1 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
2 Tablespoons milk

Preheat the oven to 375°.

Cut one stick of the butter into 1 cup of the flour with a pastry blender until coarse crumbs form.  With a fork, blend in 1/4 cup cold water and work the dough lightly until it forms a ball.  Divide the ball in half.  Place a Silpat on a baking sheet and pat each half of the dough out into a long strip about 3″ by 11″.  I used a very small rolling pin dipped in cold water to smooth the dough out.

Bring the remaining cup of water and the remaining stick of butter to a boil in a small saucepan.  When the butter is entirely melted, pour the contents of the pan into the bowl of your mixer.  (In theory you can also do this by hand, but I really recommend using the mixer to get a smooth dough) Add the remaining cup of flour all at once to the mixer and beat thoroughly at medium speed until the flour is blended in.  Beat in the almond extract, then add the eggs one at a time, beating very well after each addition.  Continue beating until the mixture loses its curdled appearance and you have a bowl of smooth, creamy dough.

Spread half of this dough on each of the two dough strips, smoothing the dough lightly down over the sides of the strips so that they are entirely covered.  Bake until they are puffed and golden brown.  In my oven this took 45 minutes, although the original recipe calls for a full hour of baking.  Keep your eye on the oven to be sure you don’t over-bake the pastry.

Remove the pastries from the oven and immediately frost them with the jam.  Let them cool completely.  Stir together the icing ingredients and drizzle the icing over the pastry.  Sprinkle with the nuts.  Eat with pleasure.

Why We’re Going Back To France

April 1, 2010

Please don’t take this personally.  Whenever I say to someone here that we’re longing to go back to France, I feel like a rat.  Of course it’s not you we want to leave, and we’re not saying that where you live happily somehow isn’t good enough for us, and we’re not saying that we’re such misfits that we can’t find a way to be happy here.  All we’re saying is that we loved our life in France and we want it back.

I feel it the most keenly, speaking with friends in Europe, trying to explain to them how it’s possible that we almost missed having a health care bill, how the insurance companies wanted to weasel out of covering sick children.  It’s like science fiction to a European, that such a thing could even be possible. And congress people getting death threats for their votes?  Like a cowboy movie, right up there with the fact that we have coyotes here on the island, something from an old Western.

Last night we watched Food Inc.  We missed it when it came out, but we’d heard a lot about it.  Even still, it was beyond appalling.  Shel says that he kept thinking “this could never happen in France” and I think he’s right. The French have a spirit of resistance that I find totally formidable.

People here joke a lot about French strikes and protests, but I love them. I love the fact that it’s part of the French national character to stand up and be counted, to fight back against social injustice, to struggle to maintain their quality of life, including the quality of their food and of their medical system. The French believe in sticking together to defend what’s important, in solidarité, in a way that’s nearly impossible to explain to an American, for whom the very word solidarity conjures up images of McCarthyism.

But to the French, solidarity is what makes society function, what makes life livable, what knits the country together.  And when we lived there, we were knitted into that web, in a way I’ve never experienced in this country.  Sure, we were in it for the wine, the cheese, the antiquities, the cool French cars, the beautiful language.  But what we’re really missing, and why we really have to go back as soon as possible, is the feeling of living in a culture where relationships between people are the highest value.  It’s a remarkable thing to be part of and we’re going back to find our place again in that enticing French web of life.

Although given today’s date, I can’t tell you exactly when this will all happen, or if it’s only an April delusion.