Garden bounty

I haven’t had a full-blown vegetable garden since the early 80s; but up until that point, the gardens I planted and tended were fairly successful—healthy and productive and free of all the bad stuff. I’ve missed gardening over the years, but I gradually learned to accept the fact that I couldn’t do everything, all of the time. Today, I confine my efforts to a patch of fairly happy herbs nestled against our garage wall. My daughter and my son, however, love to grow things. My son, as we speak, has a tree positively overladen with figs in his city garden patch. My daughter and a friend plant and tend a very bountiful garden. Thankfully, Hubby and I are blessed with many local farm stands that offer a steadily increasing variety of fruits and vegetables, many of which are grown organically.

As lovely as this bounty is, however, it doesn’t begin to approximate the quality and beauty of the fruits and vegetables that we found at markets in France. Each of our trips to France has been in growing season. It would be impossible to forget the gorgeous array of freshly harvested produce in the market towns we visited in Provence—no doubt the reason why Provence continues to be so celebrated by many of the world’s greatest chefs. And why I have at least five Provençal cookbooks on my kitchen shelf.

But other parts of France are equally fertile. I’ve mentioned before that one of the great joys of blogging is that it puts you in touch with other bloggers across the globe. One of my favorite discoveries is Our French Oasis, tales of country life in the Charente Maritime in southwest France that are rich with gorgeous photos. Susan’s most recent post tells the story of her potager, or kitchen garden.

Appropriately, potage means soup or stew; and one of the great delights of the growing season is a soup made with vegetables fresh from the garden. There is the legendary soupe au pistou,* of course, but with fresh peas in season, you may want to try this simple but lovely potage. My daughter often serves a small portion as a starter. A parfait or even a shot glass—for juste un petit gout**—makes an elegant presentation. The recipe below is from Ginette Mathiot’s I Know How to Cook (Je Sais Cuisinier), which is roughly the French equivalent of our Joy of Cooking. The massive cookbook was a Christmas gift from my dear friend Stephanie a few years ago, and it’s really one-of-a-kind. Still,  I owe my daughter thanks for introducing us to this lovely early summer soup.

*The link is to David Lebovitz’s recipe, but you will find many others online.
**”Just a little taste”

Cover photo: Glorious beets at Four Corners Farm in Newbury, VT.

Pea Soup

1 pound, 10 ounces shelled peas [My note: You can approximate the quantity; European cooks often cook by weight. Just don’t be stingy.]
6-½ cups any stock [My note: Summer is a great time to make vegetable stock from all your peels and other odds and ends]
salt and pepper
½ cup crème fraîche (sour cream will do)
croutons

Put the peas in a large pan, pour in the stock and bring to a boil. [My note: To maintain the vibrant color of the fresh peas, I would bring the stock to a boil first, then add the peas.] Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes. Pass the soup through a strainer into a tureen, season with salt and pepper, and serve with the crème fraîche and croutons.

peas

Sitting on the porch shelling peas or snapping the ends off beans is one of those meditative kitchen chores I truly enjoy.

i know how to cook

Here’s the book. You will find it comprehensive but short on specificity. Every time I open it, I think of Julia Child’s insistence on detail when she was working on Mastering the Art of French Cooking. You can read about that in My Life in France. You can find both at your favorite independent bookstore, or on Julia’s Amazon page.

 

Oscar, mother, and those jelly jars

I’ve loved The Importance of Being Earnest, one of dear Oscar Wilde’s funniest, since we staged the show in high school. Many of its epigrammatic quips have stayed with me all these years.  It’s possible that I like this one best:

All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy.
No man does. That’s his.

The value of Oscar Wilde’s epigrams cannot be underscored. Their essential truth, well cloaked in satire, sticks like chewing gum under the dairy bar counter. They grow with you. When I was 16, I thought this was just a funny line. When I was 21 and trying to assert my independence, being “like my mother” was the last thing on earth I wanted. When my own kids came along, I wondered if they’d be like me. By the time I was 40, I began to hope I was at least somewhat like her. And now, of course, I am—at least in one notable way.

Which is to say, my kitchen in fully of jelly jars. Specifically, Bonne Maman (“good mother”) jelly jars. Like Clark Griswold’s Christmas bonus, they’re the gift that keeps on giving. Whereas my mother saved commercial jelly jars for her own wondrous jams and preserves, I use the Bonne Maman jars for everything from baking soda to chopped onion to leftover sweet potatoes. I find they’re ideal not just because I’m a “brand loyalist,” but because the mouth is fairly wide, the lids are an adorable red-and-white check, you can easily see what’s in them, and they stack. More than that, Bonne Maman jams take me back to June in Provence, where Françoise, our charming hostess at Hôtel l’Hermitage, at breakfast served baskets of just picked strawberries and cherries from the orchards around Mt. Ventoux. Plus, as you’ve probably discovered, if it’s French or Italian, I’m in.

Recycling is always a good thing, and since many of us are trying to make the switch from plastic storage to glass, why not try some Bonne Maman—non-GMO, by the way—and put some of these great little jars to handy new uses?

Bon Maman

 

 

 

 

 

As we hover between the last gasp of winter and the earliest days of spring, take a moment to visit Roussillon with me.

Roussillon rises out of the Vaucluse like a Provençal Brigadoon. The ochre-laden earth  gives it a sunny luminescence even on the grayest day. Roussillon is one of the villages perchés of Provence—the perched villages that grew up on summits as a protection from invaders—in the Luberon region, much of which is protected as a national park. This is the Provence of story, straight out of Marcel Pagnol*. If you are lucky enough to visit at an off time, when the village is not over-ridden by tourists, you are guaranteed to find magic there. But even in the height of tourist season, Roussillon is worth the effort.

Our favorite Roussillon experience, bar none, was wandering into Galérie Porte-Heureuse,  where we discovered the paintings of André Deymonaz and first got to know the wonderful Deymonaz family. Don’t miss it if you visit the village.

Roussillon is the fictitiously named village in sociologist Laurence William Wylie’s Village in the Vaucluse, the result of his in-residence account of rural village French life in 1950-51, with a later look back at the inevitable erosion of a culture and lifestyle clinging to its roots while still traumatized by the war and its aftermath. During one of our trips, I happened to meet a delightful woman who had grown up in Roussillon at the time of Wylie’s stay. She told me that her family had befriended the Wylies, and that a number of the villagers were very upset when the book was published, as they felt it far too personal and critical. Having read the book, I can understand that; I found some of his perceptions cold and distant, but an academic would argue that one with me, of course. Nonetheless, if you are a francophile and/or a 20th Century history buff, you may want to try it.

*Movies to see: Jean de Florette, Manon of the Spring, My Father’s Glory, My Mother’s Castle.

Note: I’ve added a number of links to this post so that, if you are so inclined, you can easily learn more.

 

‘Le weekend’

By the time we get to Friday, even those of us who are #HashTagRetired are ready for the promise of relief that the weekend affords. “Weekend” is a word so emblematic that the French, who used to be very zealous about protecting their language from outside influence, gave it a gender and added it to their franglais vocabulary. Le weekend is just a bit different in France, however, because the kids are typically  off school on Wednesday and Sunday but have a half-day session on Saturday.

The weekends of my childhood, and possibly yours, as well, were very special and “set apart” from the normal course of everyday life. Saturdays were spent marketing and tying up any loose ends; Sunday was truly a day of rest. Where I grew up, stores weren’t open on Sunday; our life was church, family, and Sunday dinner-centered. After dinner, we visited older family members—a gesture of respect, affection, and familial continuity. In the warm weather months, we went for a ride in the country or to the neighborhood dairy for an ice cream cone. Sometimes, we went to the movies. Once stores opened up, however, Sunday changed fundamentally—not only for shoppers, but for those who worked in retail, who could no longer spend Sundays at home. You might not think of this as a big change, but looking backward, it seems to me that it was: many people who previously were home with their families on Sunday had to give up that free time. (Of course, anyone who works in public safety, healthcare, or a service industry anywhere in the world gives it up as well—and for that, the rest of us owe them our gratitude.)

In many European countries, the Sunday pace is still slower and more family-oriented , with stores and businesses shuttered for the day even where tourism is a major economic driver. Restaurants are crowded with diners chattering away while they enjoy a leisurely  “Sunday lunch.” People of all ages gather in parks and public gardens. The net effect is a calming sensibility that everyday obligations can wait. Perhaps being #HashTagRetired gives us a chance to restore some of that calm. Why not try reinventing Sunday to incorporate some of the old-fashioned traditions?

And here’s the flip side. When you are #HashTagRetired, and much of your life was planned around a work week, it’s a little unsettling at first to realize that you don’t have to crowd all of the chores and obligations and social events into the weekend or your other days off. You can go to the movies or a show on a weeknight (or day, at a matinee price) and carouse all you want to afterward, without worrying about getting enough sleep. You can shop on Tuesday morning, when the grocery store isn’t crowded. You can watch This Is Us at 6 AM if you want to—and you’ve remembered to record it (thank you, technology). You can book flights on low volume days to reduce the airport agony. You don’t have to drive anywhere during rush hour. What’s not to like?

Photo: En route to Sunday lunch, a garden enclave in St.Remy de Provence.