Bénie Soit La Truffe

Posted January 18, 2015 by Abra Bennett
Categories: At Home In France

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Today was the day of the 30th annual Truffle Festival in Uzès. It wasn’t perhaps as grand as in years past, when a huge scramble of 3000 eggs and 3 kilos of truffles was cooked over a fire and served to the eager participants. In fact that was really the best part of it all, and I’m not sure why they decided to stop doing it. I’d hate to think that it had anything to do with health department restrictions; after all, what could go wrong with 3000 raw eggs and a pan moved about by forklift?

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So, not being able to dive into a gigantic mess of truffled eggs, we went to church instead, where the Compagnie Bachique, normally devoted to promoting and enjoying the local wine, brought a heap of truffles to be blessed before they were sold.

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It’s a funny thing they do here, blessing the most worldly of things. I’ve seen piments d’Espelette blessed, wine grapes blessed, and before the Pastorale just before Christmas even the animals were taken to the Cathedral to be blessed.This wasn’t nearly as picturesque, in the event, and the mass was long and not much of it was about truffles. But I was struck by the emphasis on how much truffles contribute to the economic life of the region, and when the collection baskets were passed, there were a few truffles in them, along with the Euros.

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At the end of the mass the truffles went off to be auctioned for the benefit of cancer patients. I saw a truffle of 110 grams go for 410 Euros, which was quite a good deal for cancer patients, considering that the same truffle, sold on the truffle market that was taking place all around the auction, would have sold for about 100 Euros.

Eric and Jessica are off hoping to catch sight of a demonstration of pigs and dogs rooting for truffles, which is always fun, and then tonight we’ll go for truffle pizza, another traditional highlight of the day. Tomorrow they’ll head back to the US, and I’ll have a month here on my own before spending a few days in the Netherlands on my way back to the island. Time is flying, the sun is shining, it was a good year for truffles, and there’s been virtually no winter so far.

Ghosts

Posted January 9, 2015 by Abra Bennett
Categories: At Home In France

Tags: , ,

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Today I went to our old house, meaning just to drop off some things for the coming commemorative ceremony. I had been afraid to go there, thinking that the rush of emotion would be overwhelming. For that reason I took care to go by myself, opened the gate cautiously, lingering a while in the garden – touching the bougainvillea I had nursed back to health after a killing frost, the lemon tree that seems to have made just one lemon this year, just for me, listening to the magpie in the cherry tree –  before daring to open the door to the house.

I wandered slowly from room to room, seeing Shel everywhere. I had expected that, in a general sort of way, but I hadn’t been prepared for the flood of memories – crystal clear images of Shel in the living room playing the guitar, hanging his coat on that particular hook, putting his slippers on that side of the bed, gathering the recycling on that ledge, reading the paper with his morning pain au chocolat on that particular chair. What I hadn’t expected was to see Beppo and Zazou there too, Beppo’s favorite brown velvet chair, the hedge Zazou loved to climb. My whole life was still in that house.

But although tears sometimes welled and spilled, there was another thing that I hadn’t expected. In those memories, Shel was reasonably healthy, busy doing things, loving our life in France. He hadn’t wanted to die in France, and he didn’t, thus the house isn’t imbued with memories of his death as our house on the island is. Beppo and Zazou were in fine fettle, and we never imagined losing them. We were all together here, and we were so happy, so much of the time. That happiness still fills the house, which still feels like it belongs to me.

I know every corner, every plate and cup, every painting, napkin, tablecloth, tile, crack…..everything about it says home to me. The kitchen where I made so many beautiful meals, the table where so many friends shared them with us.Today I walked back into my past, and it’s a past where Shel was still on the earth, where we still had hope. I could hardly bring myself to leave. Once it was all mine for what felt like forever.

Light A Candle In The Night

Posted January 2, 2015 by Abra Bennett
Categories: At Home In France

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IMG_8980 I never knew how much I’d miss living on the water. Somehow, I was never really alone, with tides, clouds, sailboats and submarines, and even oysters to watch as day turned to night. There’s always something happening on the water, and it all kept me a sort of distant but tangible company. Now, living in a stone house with beautiful views over 11th century towers, I feel more isolated. History whispers all around me, and in the daytime winter-vacationing tourists traipse through the cobbled streets, but at night, it’s quieter than anything I’ve known. For days the mistral howled, and it reminded me of the ferry wake and the tidal surge that filled my ears day and night on the island. But the wind has finally died away, thank goodness, leaving a deafening silence in its place. On the island I eat dinner while looking out at passing boats, birds, and occasionally otters and seals. Here, I need to light a candle every night, in order to have something that moves, something to look at when I raise my eyes from my plate and my Kindle, something alive. There’s no fireplace here, or I’d certainly light that, just for the flicker of companionship. I’m alright, really, and I’m not complaining. I read, I write, I walk, shop, spend time with friends. But still I’m alone enough to find comfort in the small brightness of a candle. I’ll take it where I can get it.

Fifty Steps

Posted December 29, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: At Home In France

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There are fifty tile and stone steps in my new abode, and sometimes as I trudge up and down I ask myself what in the world I’m doing here. I’m not the right age to be living alone in a house with fifty steps. I’m not the right age to be living alone. Is there ever a right age?

The year is drawing to a close, the hardest year of my life. I came here for closure, and to be surrounded by the past. And, if truth be told, to see whether that past could be made to spill into my present.

So far it’s an uneasy balance. To accept a dinner invitation means that I have to drive home alone at night, find a place to park as close to my house as possible, walk home alone in the dark. I did that last night, and it was shockingly hard to do. To print a simple page today reminded me that it was always Shel who changed the printer cartridges, who knew what should be plugged in where, what settings to fiddle to make our technology change homes and countries. I managed that too, but I missed him every step of the way.

The temperature, which was about 60° on Christmas Day, now hovers right around freezing, and the mistral is howling around the house. Somewhere a shutter is banging frantically, but I don’t know how to fix it. All I can do is wait for the wind to stop blowing, which can sometimes take days.

This afternoon I had a hard time making a train reservation to leave here in February, not because of the complicated French train website, which I’ve long since mastered, but because some voice kept telling me “just go home sooner, you know you want to, this is just too hard.”

But not long ago this place was all the home I wanted, and I could barely drag myself away. I came back to find out whether that home still exists for me here somewhere, or whether it vanished from my life when Shel did. And so I’ll stick it out, because I must, like making that walk home in the dark alone, because it’s something I have to face, like it or not. It’s medicine. I want to like it, but so far I don’t know how. I want it to heal me, but I feel so shaky.

One step after another, climbing slowly, hoping not to slip and fall. All I want is the one thing I can’t have.

Noël Encore Une Fois

Posted December 26, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: At Home In France, Posts Containing Recipes

Tags: , , ,

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I was wondering how I’d survive a Christmas without Shel, especially in Uzès, where we spent so many Christmases together. Although, I have to admit, we never had sheep for Christmas. Eric and Jessica came to join me here for the holidays, and a couple of days before Christmas Jess looked out the kitchen window, where we normally see this,

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and saw a procession of animals making their way up the street. After a while we heard singing, and went down to the Place aux Herbes, which is the center of town. I didn’t have the wit to take my camera, but Eric did, and there he captured these images

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of what turned out to be a sort of mini-Pastorale, with scenes all around the Place, and singing in Provençale. The best part, for us, was the way the sheep and goats stood up on two feet to eat absolutely all of the holiday greenery that had been wrapped around the huge plane trees that shade the Place in summer. That, and the camels, because really, you never see camels around here.

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That helped us get in the holiday spirit, and we made a little attempt at decorating the new house, a house Shel never lived in (and a good thing too, because it’s spread over four floors, and the number of stairs is pant-inducing and thigh-numbing). We also wrapped a few presents, because, as Jessica said, “It’s nice looking at presents.”

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Christmas Eve is when the French celebrate Christmas, so we made an effort too, eating oysters like everyone else in France on that night. Alas, our conclusion, since we raise our own, is that our oysters are far better, pulled out of the water and consumed within the hour, than the ones I bought here. Spoiled, we are, and we freely admit it.

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We’re also being spoiled this year by Cannelle, a little  kitten-cat who belongs to our friend Maryse. She’s gone up north to spend the holiday with her parents, and we’re cat-sitting, to our great joy, because we’re all missing our own cats, and a loaner cat is oh so much better than no cat at all.

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And then it was Christmas day, and we set a table for seven, including four old friends with whom we’ve spent many a holiday here. In the rush of things like making a complicated dinner in a totally unfamiliar kitchen I didn’t take any pictures except this one

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of cabbage leaves stuffed with a traditional French farce.  But there was an entrée of foie gras, mini-ballotine de pintade, and mâche, with a very nice Monbazillac, then a plate of coquelet au four froid, whose recipe you can find here, with sides of the little stuffed cabbage leaves, Romanesco broccoli with beure noisette, a purée of celery root, a little écrasée of Jerusalem artichokes lightly spiced with ras el hanout, carrots tossed with marmalade made by Chef Nathalie from the oranges at l’Institut de Français, and a sauté of morels and trompettes de la mort in Monbazillac and butter. Followling a trou Gascon  of Armagnac, we had a beautifully runny Mont d’Or cheese, with a vintage Port, and a Dutch apple pie made by Katherine, without which is just wouldn’t be Christmas in Uzès. I think that’s my record, to put six different vegetable preparations on one plate (see what you missed, Xavier, by not joining us?).

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And now, looking out the office window, I see Uzès returned to its normal post-holiday beauty. Tomorrow Eric and Jessica will leave for ten days, and I’ll begin to learn what my single life in Uzès will be like. Like all the other firsts since Shel died, I both dread it, and look forward to making it through. See you on the other side.

French Eye Candy

Posted December 17, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: At Home In France

Tags: ,

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This area is renowned for its art and the history of the artists who have lived and worked here. At the lovely Chagall museum in Nice, where you have to pay an extra 5 Euros for the privilege of taking photographs,

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we saw a huge collection of his works, mostly those with a religious theme. Leaving the museum we wandered down into the labyrinthine streets of Le Vieux Nice, the old town.

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The 17th century cathedral in old Nice is pretty splendid too, and the fact that we happened to walk in 15 minutes before a free concert didn’t hurt at all.

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The Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul de Vence is home to a phenomenal amount of avant-garde work, like this sculpture and this stained glass window by Joan Miro, whom I hadn’t known except as a painter.

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We saw work by Marco del Re,

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Ladislas Kijno,

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Damien Deroubaix,

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Pablo Picasso,

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Alberto Giacometti,

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and Christian Bonnefoi. For a small museum, that claims not to be a museum at all, they have a really astonishing collection, and I was delighted that the school thought we ought to see it, and took us there.

And now there’s just one more day of class, alas, then final exams, then saying goodbye to some people here who have really come to matter to me, then a train ride to Avignon, where Marie will pick me up and take me to my new/old life in Uzès. Reinvention never ceases.

Lunch In Italy

Posted December 15, 2014 by Abra Bennett
Categories: At Home In France

Tags:

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It’s hard to say just why, but all of a sudden I had a hankering to go to Italy for lunch, just because I could. So on Saturday I set off with Xavier and Semra, heading to Ventimiglia on the train, with no plan except to have lunch, and visit the food market.

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In the event, the food market was more exciting than the actual lunch. The produce was spectacular, and unbelievably cheap in comparison to what we’re seeing in this part of France.

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The whole market was awash in artichokes, and many of them were already stripped down, ready to be made into a fresh salad with Parmesan.

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The salamis and cheeses were gorgeous, so much so that we had to return after lunch to buy some to take home. At lunch I had discovered gorgonzola cremosa, a mild and creamy cheese with the texture of a runny Époisses, and I had to have more. I have to say that it tastes just as good in my little student apartment as it did in Italy, and it’s a crying shame that we don’t see it in the States.

Ventimiglia also boasts a lovely little estuary absolutely filled with ducks, swans, and gulls.

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On the way home to Villefranche we got off the train and wandered through Menton, which was all lit up for the holidays.

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We had hoped to visit the Cocteau Museum, but arrived too late. Even though they were still open they wouldn’t let us in, so we had to content ourselves with glimpses through the windows of the interesting building. Our true reward, however,

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was a store window that presented the most fabulous photo op imaginable for Xavier and Semra.

And now there are only four days remaining in my stay here, although I wish I had another couple of weeks, four weeks not having been enough time to master all the grammar that I’d like to have perfected. Before I leave I’ll show you some art from the museums we were actually able to get into, and then I’ll be off to Uzès, my second home, to see what life holds in store for me there, as the holidays draw near.


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