31 August, 2009

Vendange Cévenol.

I spent my morning at Puechcamp today. Puechcamp roughly translates to 'mountain meadow' from Lengadoc. And a meadow it certainly is, some 5 nurtured hectares of vines at 300m altitude, a short distance from St. Hippolyte-du-Fort, tucked into what the seminal Guide Hachette des Vins describes as the piémont cévénol (and what we might call the cevenol foothills in English).
This year the vendange, or wine harvest, is early. In the case of the viognier, the first varietal to be picked at Puechcamp this year, the harvest is nearly three weeks early, due to the unusually dry, hot summer. Just look how parched the earth is by the vines. I have mentioned viognier before, as it is the only varietal permitted in the illustrious AOC Condrieu. But a Languedoc viognier is quite distinct from a Condrieu viognier; the local conditions--mineral and meterological--make all the difference. It remains an exciting wine, which helps explain its extraordinary, international return from the near-dead. Daniel Faure, the proprietor of Domaine de Puechcamp (pictured below), has developed an engagingly floral yet dry viognier, distinctive, yet with persistent echoes of a classic Condrieu. His other wines are also worth a sampling, and he welcomes visits to the domaine. The low-yield viognier is grown without any use of pesticides or chemical fertilizers at Puechcamp, all the more impressive given how notoriously sensitive to mildew this grape is. Having reached full ripeness, it is picked by hand and brought to the cave.For more on this increasingly popular varietal, check this Jancis Robinson essay out. Happy oenological exploring.

27 August, 2009

Baby, it's hot out here.

We're in the final stretch of August, panting all the way, and September still to come. Watching my potted herbs wilt, the chickens pant, the dog doze; looking for a shady spot of my own, and inspiration. I found this Malcolm Sutherland pen and ink animation, based on sketches of German tourists in Croatia. Just the absurdist ticket for a tired, delighted smile. The music is from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, a record label which is an absolute Aladdin's cave of arcane folk, blues and world music.
May you find shade of your own, a well-made gin and tonic and your sense of humor firmly in place.

23 August, 2009

Bird droppings.

I shouldn't be annoyed but I am, because it has happened again. And I saw them, gliding in wide circles, coming in on the sunset. These crows remember, it would seem. Actually, I'm not entirely certain whether they are crows, ravens, or jackdaws but they certainly are corvid in character and form. I think I should know my enemy better, as he certainly knows my biggest fig tree quite well.

And herein lies the problem. They arrive in a great flock, wheeling above the landscape, with the insouciance of those who know they are its true owners. They remember this particular tree, and when its fruit ripens. Figs ripen several at a time on the tree, rather than all at once, shifting from a light green to a pregnant purple. For three years now, I have been unable to see that final state of ripeness, as the sweetest fruit are swiftly plucked, one by one. As the tree is set at some distance from the house, I don't even get the masochistic pleasure of catching them in the act. It had been a lovely end-of-summer holiday pleasure (please take note of the past tense used), picking basketsful of those turgid fruit to be converted into thick, vanilla-inflected jam. And here we are, school will begin in some ten days, and I've nary a fig to show for it.

It makes me think of my mother with sympathy, her anger over my childhood pet monkey snatching the finest of the ripe mangoes from the pile she'd painstakingly collected. She'd managed to make a sort of long fruit hook, with a little basket attached, so that the fruit could be yanked from the tree, slip into the bag, and gathered, unbruised. But that was one monkey adversary, and very many mangoes.

These figs and I are hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned. We haven't a chance.

18 August, 2009

Cassidaine by night.

We were none of us very hungry, having just returned from the fête votive of one of the nearby villages. (The fête votive is the annual excuse for amplified music, varying degrees of inebriation and flashing lights. It’s the party thrown for the locals and the summer interlopers, and, nearly by definition, it includes the basic retinue of carnival attractions—the squeaking bumper cars, “fishing” for little yellow ducks, the great big bouncy thing, where one is tied to too few security ropes and proceeds to defy gravity and spectator expectations).

Sprawled across the woven couch on the roofed part of the terrace, we were wondering in a desultory way about dinner, when the storm hit. What is it about summer storms that manages to startle, even stun? Do we, any one of us, imagine that growing things can survive a whole season of utter aridity? Why are we surprised when the sky finally breaks open? The rain was steady, the lightning and thunder less so. Through it all, we squinted into the unblinking brightness of the descending sun. The world around us was filled with the dazzle of light refracted through millions of raindrops. And the storm, despite the sun, just wouldn’t quit. I suddenly thought of the far drier place I’d just left. While I was there, Cassis had strikingly beautiful weather; while you do have to be ready for a certain degree of sultriness, there was none of the steamy, heavy air which I knew would be upon us as soon as this heavily backlit storm left the valley. And while the valley does tend to cool rather quickly after dark, it is different in Cassis.

The nights are far slower to release the day’s warmth, but the Cassis locals and visitors adopt beautifully. Spaghetti straps, flimsy silks and tank tops adorn freshly showered and powdered bodies; the men are encased in light cotton and car shoes. All are ready for the evening’s stroll, and Cassis is ready to assist. The ice cream shops stay open until late, and you expressly skip a sit-down dessert for this exquisitely cold pleasure, walking and nibbling at a cone. The night market is open several evenings a week, offering jaunty straw fedoras and the quintessential summer blouses, light as a swallow of Perrier. One night, I caught the Nocturnes Literaires, a sort of traveling sidewalk book show, set up before the gently rocking boats and complete with a dozen authors on hand to sign their works. Another excuse to parade, chat and browse. Evening is the time we all need to recuperate from the day’s labors and ardors. Between kayaking, hiking, swimming, biking, soaking up the sun and the almighty "sieste primordiale" (in the words of my Cevenol neighbor), there is enough to be recovering from. I am already planning next year’s visit to Cassis.

16 August, 2009

Cassidaine by day.

I've just spent a lovely stretch of time on the Côte d'Azur. I've great affection for the Côte d'Azur--of yore. That sepia notion looms large: a stunning coastline, peppered with impossibly charming villages which were the sun-filled, color-drenched locus of artists, writers, royalty and movie stars. This is the Côte d'Azur of say, some 30 or 40 years ago, before gaudy resort over-development and summer gridlock reared their ugly heads, like the advance guard of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Or something like that.

Luckily, beyond St. Tropez, Cannes, Nice and Monaco, there do remain a few (relatively) idyllic exceptions today. One is Cassis.
On the western-most border of the French Riviera, Cassis is a village of about 8,000 residents tucked into an inlet some 20 miles from Marseille. The beautiful white cliffs richly in evidence here have been quarried since antiquity, yielding a limestone used, among other things, for the base of New York's Statue of Liberty. I visited the nearby calanques, or coastal inlets; the tour's worth the ticket queue at sultry noon. The untenanted little bays and coves, with their imposing, cathedral-like cliffs and outcroppings (and a million plus visitors per year) still manage to seem somehow secret, serene and wild. The calanques are slated to become part of a national park in 2010, so the number of visitors (on foot, by bike, and boat) and attendant regulations are bound to increase. Visit soon if you can, and rent a kayak while you're at it.
As for Cassis itself, it is a low-key charmer of a port village, with creamy limestone-inlaid streets, gurgling fountains, aqua-hued Vespas, and laundry fluttering from windows. While outside of town you do have a one or two high-end options, the laid-back hotels in the village itself range from fairly spartan to comfortable but basic; this does impact the number of people who visit. I was concerned about the hordes of mid-August, but my worry was needless: while vibrantly busy, the village isn't overwhelmed, and the locals are friendly. I explored the large open air market, where I spotted some Reine-Claudes next to Provencal apricots. (Reine-Claudes grow in my garden, and are a tart, mouth-filling delight; they remain green, even when lusciously ripe, and are my favorite kind of plum, whether eaten out of the hand, or cooked. I digress).
The range of olives on display--purple, black, pink as well as green--were a delight (I sampled too!), as were the types and quantities of savon de Marseille, itself made from olive oil.
There were crafts, jewelry, summer frocks, and pottery on tempting display. I found myself out in the port itself, scrubbed nearly clean of its fishing past and reinvented as a starting point for leisure whether by yacht or rowboat. I also stumbled onto l'Eau de Cassis, in business since 1851. My home smells the lovelier for it (I left with Au Coin du Feu).
Of course, all this summer exploring leaves a girl quite thirsty; fortunately for me, in Cassis, there are certainly bars and restaurants enough.
I can recommend a stop at friendly local landmark Nino (a reservation may be necessary). Speaking of thirst, I'm off to refill my gin and tonic. I'll fill you in on the nightlife in Cassis in the next entry...

08 August, 2009

Luscious and ugly.

Right, I had the same thought: the blackberries look a bit grim in this photo. They should, they've just been baked and are meltingly soft. I should have taken a before shot, to better showcase their just-picked perfection. I planted a very prolific thornless blackberry a while back; it makes for painless and speedy picking and large, sweet fruit. My cheeks are nevertheless flushed and the brain is plain addled by the leaden air brought by a flash storm in full sun. I am still showing off this non-photogenic tart, because boy is it ever ravishingly good, especially with a generous lashing of gently whipped, vanilla-inflected sweetened cream. And yes, I baked in this August heat; there is only so much blackberry and ginger jam a girl can make before she starts running out of pantry space.

You may have also noticed I have a thing for sweets. In this heat, however, any excessive bending over a stove verges on masochistic. Cancel that. It is masochistic, period. Accordingly, simple, simple, simple is my personal theme song. And so naturally salad becomes the refrain. I do have well-appreciated favorites, but sometimes I need a nudge in the right direction when faced with the full panoply of produce now in season. Here's where Mark Bittman, a stand-out authority on the simple and good, races to the rescue, with 101 novel and easy recipes for salads. Check out his New York Times article for the ideas alone. If you like it, you might also enjoy his free-ranging NYT culinary blog.
In the meantime, for that ugly tart. As there are so few ingredients, please don't skimp on the quality. You will be amply rewarded in satisfaction, pleasure and praise (that last only if you're willing to share).

Tarte aux Mûres (Blackberry Tart)

1 uncooked, ready-made puff pastry crust, best quality
about four or five cups of fresh organic blackberries
about 3/4 cup of ground almonds (or almond meal)
about 4 tablespoons of blackberry or currant jelly, melted
about 1 cup cream
about 3 tablespoons powdered sugar, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 180C. Meanwhile, unroll the dough and place in the tart pan, folding the edges over. Prick the bottom with a fork so the crust will neither rise nor shrink while baking. Spread the ground almonds evenly across the bottom. They will absorb the berry juices while imparting a delicate flavor of their own. Fill the crust evenly and fully with the blackberries. Pop in the oven for about 35 minutes. Your kitchen will soon be suffused with a heady scent. Try to stay focused.

While the tart bakes, begin whipping the cream in a (preferably cold) bowl, adding the vanilla and powdered sugar, tasting all the while. I like the cream to be softly whipped, where it just holds its shape. Reheat the jam to a spreadable consistency. Once the tart crust is nicely browned, remove it from the oven and allow to cool a bit. Using a brush, ever so gently dab the jam glaze as evenly as you can manage across the now-fragile berries.

Serve lukewarm. And don't forget a big dollop of the cream, which marries quite beautifully with the baked berries.

05 August, 2009

Where are all the lightning bugs?

We are all too busy, giving ourselves up to a buzzy amount of activity that, upon analysis, turns out all too often to be fairly non-essential. The heat of August--the ripening of the summer season itself--burns that tendency out of the people around here. France and other Mediterranean countries shut down, giving themselves up to the elements, based on a collective ancient logic.

After the high water mark of Bastille Day (in this most parched of periods), everything and everyone tend to become rather worn down by the heat.

Yet herein lies the opportunity for renewal. It happens in the most incremental of ways, much like the turn of the worm in the earth or the roll of the owl's eye against its closed lid. In the deepest stillness of high summer everything that came before and is to come seems to fade. The focus is fixed in the now: the sheer cotton shift that clings to the humid back, the beaded sweat on the glass of iced green tea, the dog dreamy with prospect, his slightly wagging tail the only movement in the endless afternoon.

Come nightfall (what some call the winter of the tropics), we will begin looking for lightning bugs, glass jar in hand.
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