Archive for June 2014

Slow Walnut Wine

June 27, 2014

DSC_8552There’s a verb in French, patienter, that we don’t really have in English. It means to wait patiently, and you’re asked to do it often, like when you’re on hold on the phone with the notorious French bureaucracy, for example. The ATM will even tell you veuillez patienter, please wait patiently, as you’re waiting for your Euros to be dispensed. The French know how to wait.

And if you want to make this beautiful French walnut wine, called vin de noix, you’ll need to be patient too – actually, in this case what you need to do it hurry up and wait. Because you have to go pick the walnuts right now, meaning, in the next few days. The walnuts must be soft, easily pierced through with a needle, and in France the optimum day to do this is the day of St. Jean, which is June 24th. So I was already a couple of days late when I picked these this morning, but hey, the climate’s cooler here, and the walnuts are probably a little behind their French cousins. So, if you have access to a walnut tree, rush out now and gather 15 of  the small green nuts.

Making the wine is child’s play, and takes a matter of minutes. It’s waiting for the wine to be ready to drink that takes patience. First you let all the ingredients rest quietly together for about 40 days. Not so hard, right? But then you filter the wine and let it rest for another….year. And if you can wait two years, it will be that much better. So run right out and get the nuts, and then, veuillez patienter. It’s a lesson in French culture, both the waiting for and the drinking of, vin de noix, that’s completely typical and utterly charming. And yes, this recipe makes quite a lot, but you won’t be sorry you have it, and neither will all the friends you’ll delight with your bottled patience.

Abra’s Vin de Noix

15 green walnuts
3 large walnut leaves
5 bottles red wine (nothing expensive, but something good to drink)
1 bottle inexpensive brandy
3 star anise
3 cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1 pound of sugar

Cut the walnuts in half, or in quarters if they’re large. If they’re hard to cut, they’re already too old and the wine will be very bitter. Place the walnuts in a very large jar, or divide them among 3 half-gallon canning jars. Add the rest of the ingredients to the jar(s), cover, and place in a cool corner of your kitchen. Now wait for 40 days and 40 nights. The wine will darken in color, and if you want it even darker you can put it outside for a few hours on a sunny day or two and let it get a little sun. When the 40 days have passed, filter out all the solids and place the wine back into the jars, or into wine bottles if you like.

I know that you are going to want to taste it at this point, and if you do, it will be horrible. Horrible, I say. Undrinkable. Don’t despair, don’t throw it out, veuillez patienter. Set it aside in a cool, dark place and forget all about it for a year or two. When you taste it after that long wait, you’ll be overcome by deliciousness. This is a wine to drink with a simple, unfrosted cake, or to drink all by itself instead of dessert. I promise you that your patience will be richly rewarded.



Heavy Traffic

June 21, 2014

DSC_8480Although there’s a ton of boat traffic past my door each day, every so often something truly amazing floats by. This baby was breathtakingly enormous, so much so that I had to run and look her up.

DSC_8482 She turned out to be the Rainier, and Wikipedia tells me that she’s a fast combat support ship and is 764 feet long, which totally dwarfs the largest ferry that passes by here and is a mere 440 feet long.

DSC_8500And then, just a couple of days later, this item went by. I call her an item because, really, what could she be?

DSC_8507She looked like nothing so much as a giant floating garage. Neither Google nor Wikipedia enlightened me, and it’s a sad day in info-overload land when I come up blank like that. Does anyone care to hazard a guess?

Glamping it Up

June 16, 2014

IMG_8368Nope, this little baby tent is not glamping. This is hard core, crawl in, crawl out, miserable camping, for which I am decidedly too old. Nonetheless, this is what I’d inadvertently signed up for when I agreed to go camping so that I wouldn’t be home alone for Shel’s and my 19th wedding anniversary.

Before I left home to head out to Cape Disappointment, I walked around the house, saying goodbye to Shel for the umpteenth time. This felt different. For two months I’d stuck close to our life here, keeping the home fires burning. Now I was venturing out to a place he’d never been. And camping: no way he’d ever have done that. It felt like a big milestone, and I was determined to be brave.

So when I found myself on my hands and knees on an air mattress, trying to crawl out of my tent in the middle of the night to pee, I admonished myself: bravery at all cost. When I woke up several hours before Eric and Jessica and Jessica’s family, and had to sit in the drizzle reading and shivering, because we hadn’t discussed how to make coffee in the morning, and because I couldn’t sit upright in the tent anyway, I swore that I’d be a good sport about it all. But within hours, I’d abandoned the idea of tenting for ever more, and persuaded them to move campsites so that I could ensconce myself happily


in a park yurt. Oh so civilized, with actual beds! A table, a heater, and even an electric light!

IMG_8517Now that’s my definition of glamping, and I’m totally hooked. A good night’s sleep, a lesson in using the propane stove early in the morning, and damn the raccoons, full speed ahead. From then on out I had a glorious time.

IMG_8372Being right on the coast, we had to grill oysters two nights in a row, the essence of succulent freshness.

IMG_8369We also grilled salmon (just layer butter, sweet onion, sprigs of fresh rosemary and sage, slices of lemon, salmon, and repeat),

IMG_8383and asparagus, just about the last of the season and oh so delicious cooked over a wood fire. There was also Crack Pie (which you should definitely make, from this recipe), and Hummingbird Cake, and chili, and fajitas, and then, the infamous Cooler Cleaning dinners. I absolutely 100% love cooking outdoors, there’s nothing better, no matter how humble the dish.

IMG_8402When we weren’t cooking, eating, and drinking far too much, we were down on the beach, which had an amazing heap of driftwood,

IMG_8409affording Eric the opportunity to square off with his future father-in-law Don

IMG_8411and Jessica to demonstrate her independence.

IMG_8412The sand showed me how easy it is to be entirely swallowed up, and I thought about Shel a lot, so gone now, not yet returning to the earth, his ashes in the closet with Toby curled up sleeping right beside them.

IMG_8419We spent a gorgeous afternoon at Hug Point, where despite the warnings about sneaker waves and rip currents

IMG_8418and Japanese tsunami debris

IMG_8460we were able to enjoy a fabulously beautiful beach,

IMG_8434that boasts a road blasted out of the rock in the 1930s for wagon traffic to round the point and travel up and down the coast, albeit only at low tide.

IMG_8443We saw all the usual, magical, beachy stuff like anemones,

IMG_8445bright seaweeds,

IMG_8453mysterious patterns drawn on the sand by the ebbing tide,

IMG_8465a gull eating a starfish bigger than its own head,

IMG_8471a handful of some kind of peculiar eggs that Jessica collected,

IMG_8475and the crazy artwork made by scurrying sand fleas.

IMG_8481We also admired beautiful rock formations,

IMG_8484including a jetty that took 30 years to build, and that narrowed the mouth of the Columbia River by several miles, in an attempt to reduce the number of shipwrecks that occurred there regularly.

IMG_8490The mouth of the river is four miles wide now, and is crossed via the prodigious bridge that joins Washington to Oregon. We spent our anniversary doing things that Shel would have enjoyed, going to the Maritime Museum in Astoria and the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center at Cape Disappointment, and I think that we all felt that he was with us.

IMG_8480But I have to confess that the feeling isn’t enough. I want to be able to get in my time travel machine and journey back to the days when Shel was healthy and happy, and bring him back home with me into these times, where we grope for his memory. Sometimes it’s just unthinkable that he’s not here.

But I know that if he were here I wouldn’t have gone camping, not even glamping, and that really was fun, sadness and all. And so I perceive that slowly I’m starting a new life, all the while wanting my old life back again. I might have to kick Jessica off that see-saw.

Show Me A Sign

June 11, 2014

IMG_8507Shortly after Shel died, my friend Jenny brought me a candle shaped like a starfish. She told me that it came from Brazil and that it had been blessed by a shaman. I waited and wondered about when to burn it, and wondered whether it had any special powers, even though I’m not sure that I even believe in special powers.

This weekend I went camping at the coast with Eric and Jessica, and I’ll tell you more about that later. For now, I want to talk about the candle, and about Eric and Jessica. If you’re new to French Letters, Eric is Shel’s son, my step-son, although I think of him as my own. Our reason for being at the coast, I thought, was to be away from home on June 10, Shel’s and my 19th wedding anniversary. I wanted both to avoid and celebrate the day, in that complicated way that bereavement engenders. So we took the candle, and four regular votives to represent me, the two of them, and my son Jordan, our little family, with the starfish standing in for Shel, down onto the beach near sunset.

IMG_8509And of course, being us, we took a bottle of wine and some good cheese. We talked about Shel, and about love, and I cried more than I’d planned to. I said that 19 years ago we had said “so long as we both shall live,” and they reminded me that thus it had been. And I said to them that I so wished for a sign from Shel, because I hadn’t had a visitation, or a dream, or a vision, or any little thing that indicated that it wasn’t just a black hole into which he, and we all, disappear. And we watched the wind take the flames and still them, one by one, and we talked about how one day only one of us would be left, the last of us, until only one flame was left burning, and that one was Shel’s.

IMG_8431 Eric and Jessica have been together for seven years, since she was just 20 years old, and as couples do, they’ve had to go through a lot to get together,

IMG_8426but mostly they’ve landed on their feet,

IMG_8497and have remained high on each other, even in the very lowest times, like while Shel was dying. So I don’t know whether it was the wine, or the candle, or the sand between our toes, or the realization that life is so terrifyingly short, as we watched one candle after another blow out in the gentlest of winds, but this happened.

IMG_8510Eric and Jessica got engaged, with a beach grass ring, and me as their witness. And Shel, of course, in the form of that Brazilian shaman-blessed candle. So now, June 10, the saddest day of the year since Shel left me, has taken on a new meaning, now it’s also the day of hope for a new life, a new family, a new commitment to love everlasting.

But back to that candle. As I left the park today, headed for home, knowing that Shel wouldn’t be there waiting for me, a russet-colored bunny appeared by the roadside, just by my car. And even though I’m not a person who talks to herself, I said aloud “Oh, bunny!” And as the words flew out of my mouth I realized how many times I had said exactly that, because, now that Shel’s not here to chastise me for telling you this, I used to call him bunny, my bunny, only in private, of course.

I suppose that bunnies are a dime a dozen in the park, although we didn’t see any other in the four days we were there. And maybe red-haired bunnies are a dollar a dozen, but the fact is that we burned that Brazilian candle in Shel’s name, and a red-haired bunny looked me right in the eye, and Eric and Jessica decided to marry and have children and begin a whole new family.

I guess that sometimes a candle is just a candle, just as sometimes a bunny is just a bunny. But possibly, sometimes, it’s more than that. Sometimes it’s a beach grass ring, and a kiss in the sand, and hope for a new life.