31 July, 2009


A nearby hamlet (consisting of about five houses, a cafe, no post office but a fine old church) offers, each summer, cinema under the stars. You arrive in the deepening gloom, with your blanket and pillow under your arm, settle in one of the canvas deck chairs arranged in a field and watch a well-amplified film on a giant screen. The film begins as soon as the night constellations emerge (lately, around ten-ish). A horse trailer stands next to the building-high screen. There is a small, rather jerry-built stand for snacks, attended by a smiling ticket-taker.

If you arrive earlier, you can have the full menu of the day for 5 euros under the hand-painted Chez Paulette placard. Over house-made pate, red-bean salad, pelardon and brie, you can watch a small band play quirky, witty French music, under multi-colored fairy lights. Which is what we did. It all feels very intimate and redolent of endless summer. You become both reflective and expansive over the home-made berry cake, and commiserate with the local beekeeper about the plight of the bees.

The idea was to take my three year old (who'd napped--twice) to see a computer-animated film I thought was playing last night. Instead I got a stop-motion animated film that is rated R in the US (for violence, language and sex, as I was shortly to discover). I raised my eyebrows when I saw the opening credits, but ended up staying to watch the wry and unsettling $9.99; luckily for me, my son seemed to focus on the child-friendly bits, which allowed me to mostly exhale. I emphasized all the cute parts in high Pollyanna mode on the way home, calculating all the while the cost of his therapy once he turns eighteen.

30 July, 2009

Going all tourist.

I had a minor dose of weather shock in the Netherlands, having gotten quite used to the pervasive siesta-inducing heat of the south. But other than the on-going distraction of scattered showers and rummaging for sweaters at the beach at midday, I was fully occupied in a bit of unabashed tourism, the kind of visiting that I too rarely did as a local. Here is some of what I liked of this most modest and splendid of cities.
The last few photos are of the newly renovated Royal Palace on Dam Square. In the decade I lived in Amsterdam, I was never really tempted to enter the building, in large part because from the outside it simply looks like the time-blackened municipal hall that it once was. But, you know, if it was good enough to serve as the royal palace for Napoleon's brother Louis (anointed King of Holland) and currently reigning Queen Beatrix, then it's most likely good enough for me to visit. That was sort of how my thinking went anyway. Plus it had just reopened a couple of weeks ago after a long renovation. The lavishly carved (over 15 years' worth by 17th century Artus Quellinus), jewel-box vaulted interior spaces of glowing white marble validated this line of reasoning quite admirably. Dutch Baroque, and unabashedly so.

29 July, 2009

Love (them) Apples.

One of the finest things to put in your mouth on a hot summer's day is a fragrant chunk of cantaloupe. Don't refrigerate a cantaloupe unless you have an excellent pretext for slowing down its ripening, as the cold will only mask that divine flavor and distract from the clean (anything-but-mealy) texture. This is not about cantaloupe, however.

It is about why summer, mayonnaise and white bread came to be. If you can't already guess the answer, their collective raison d'être is the tomato. In any paean to the pomme d'amour, as the French used to call it, the exotic, well-traveled past of the tomato figures large. Considered to have first appeared in the Peruvian Andes, it spread across parts of Latin America toward Mexico, then started breaking hearts Europe-side, in Italy (of course) first, around 1550. It is unclear when it made the shift from ornamental plant to culinary staple in Italy. Being a member of the toxic nightshade family put the brakes on early widespread adoption of this fruit. Belladonna (or tobacco) anyone? Then again, eggplant and potatoes--another culinary staple, at least in some cultures--are close family members as well.

So people gradually learned that while all other parts of the plant are in fact poisonous, the ripe fruit is a delight unto itself.

It is one of my primary July-August-September pleasures, thus herein lies my difficulty. What dish do I possibly select to showcase this love song to the season? It is, after all, a central player in Mediterranean cooking. In France, among the innumerable succulent possibilities, it can be stuffed and baked à la Provençale; simmered, filtered and chilled for a consommé; sliced and paired with haricots verts in a vinaigrette- and garlic-laced salad; and oven-roasted as part of a classic ratatouille ensemble. In season, I can get from my garden and local producers so-called "heirloom" tomatoes. You know, the kinds of tomoatoes that taste as individual as their shapes, colors and names. The ones you never really see in a conventional market (often simply because they don't travel thousands of kilometers well). To this extent, it's heaven here for a brief spell. And when something is this good, I like to keep the dish as honest and pure as possible.So picture lightly salted tomato slices tucked into good, white bread which in turn has been slathered with homemade mayonnaise, a recipe for which you can find here. I take the particularly easy route and use a food processor, which makes for a moment's effort. Just don't do this if you are feeling impatient, because you have to add the oil very gradually.

Have mercy, this is comfort food par excellence; don't knock it 'til you've tried it. And oh, do please try it.

23 July, 2009

Temperate 52°23'N 04°54'E.

On the sun-hardened highway northward, you could see the opposing lane of traffic parked at an utter standstill for what seemed countless kilometers. There were certainly a lot fewer cars aiming away from the Mediterannean. Amsterdam proved to be a charming surprise, as the city seems to have been emptied of most of its residents. It is verging on ghost town status, more so than the dog days usual; the influx of tourists I'd expected, given high season, have not yet materialized. Lucky for those of us remaining in town, not so lucky for the merchants. Passersby do seem a bit more quick to smile, or even chat, than usual--attributable at least in part to this low population density. (I base these observations in part on the time I lived in the city).

It is a clear change, shifting to city life from the country life I now call my own--but in a generally good, familiar way. The weather is mild but cool compared to the south, and so much more subject to change without notice. The dog leavings, litter and graffiti I could (still) do without. But ah, Japanese food within walking distance...what a thrill. The profoundly bright green vegetation and immoderate displays of pure white Annabelle hydrangeas everywhere just leave me wide-eyed.

The newly-opened Hermitage Museum, said to be stunning, is on the program for tomorrow. Time with the family and friends I've missed is of course woven throughout the week-long visit to Holland. I'll be sure to share some of my favorite shots once I return home, temperate and temperamental weather permitting.

22 July, 2009

Spoiler alert.

Cut to a more northern part of Europe...It was my first time seeing them, but Bono seemed in classic form last night in Amsterdam. Much to my pleasure, Snow Patrol had opened the show with a straight-up sweaty rock set (but yes, they did also play the one lovely, yearning song of theirs, which most of us might recognize).

Rock stars--no matter how height- or age-challenged--have perfected that certain animal stride, and stride the performers did, owning their high-tech stage before playing a single note. They owned every audience member as well, but then U2 was after all preaching to the intergenerational converted.

Whether or not Mick Jagger will ever want to hand over the baton, U2 is the band who follows in the Stone's wide swath. With one important difference: Jagger's preening, snapping swagger is sexual in origin, whereas Bono's swagger is all about religion. Attending the concert, you are reminded by a meters high Wizard of Oz image of Archbishop Desmond Tutu that we are all One, that the capacity for rebirth and world-rescuing lies within us all. This can make for heady stuff when combined with a powerful light show, hypnotic anthems and a sea of synchronized, waving arms. Cue ode to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese perennial political prisoner, during which volunteers from the audience file across the circular walks that orbit the central stage, holding masks of her telegenic, radiant face before their own. We are all one.

The shimmering old numbers were played, their pealing, searing sounds radiating outward and echoed by the thousands and thousands who had long ago memorized every inflection. Added to all this was a startling, breath-taking electronic screen in the round that lowered and expanded cone-like over the smoke and lights of the laboring musicians. Strike a pose in a laser-beam studded jacket, and redeem the world (and yourself) while you're at it.

16 July, 2009

Giving it up.

My daughter recently announced over lunch that she would no longer eat any fish. She explained to our raised eyebrows that if people keep up the rate at which they consume the world's fish, the oceans would more or less empty within the coming fifty years. Say the researchers are off and double the time; we'd still be losing this:

Which is why my eight year old stopped eating fish.

(Thank you to Jon Rawlinson, who filmed this in one go in Japan, and advises that you give it some time to load before playing to ensure smooth playback. That is, click on play, then click it again so it pauses, and just give the film several minutes to finish loading. My advice is watch it in HD, large screen, to really see these creatures that are grace incarnate. Song: "Please Don't Go" by Barcelona).

15 July, 2009

14 juillet.

So, if you were in Paris for Bastille Day (which the French themselves simply call le 14 juillet), you may have caught this, but you would be also joined by some 700,000 others and the inexplicably enduring, surgically altered phenomenon and tabloid staple that is Johnny Hallyday...In my corner of the Cevennes, things were a bit smaller scale.

It wasn't actually my intention to join in the village festivities, but with French friends visiting and excited children, it suddenly seemed like the only possible thing to do. On the village square, we tucked into sausages and paella. So French, I know, but keep in mind that in 1789 a famine was raging, so there's never really been a specific dish linked with the day.

After the communal dinner came the retraite des flambeaux. Translate this directly and you get torches, which may be what one might bring to storm the Bastille, but not really what one wants over-excited local children to be carrying about.

In villages and cities across France on the 14th of July, the children, carrying paper lanterns hanging from poles, lead the local population on a walk through town. The swaying, glowing, colorful lanterns, held high, held low, flow through the narrow and dark village streets. It makes for a magical effect, all those candles, all those children. In our village, the parade of hundreds was led, in Pied Piper fashion, by a mesmerizing local percussion group, who were distinctly channeling an African sound. (France's voice and face are changing; immigration leaves its traces everywhere.)

Oh, human river that we were, we could have followed them all night--well, those of us without babies and/or heels anyway--but the walk wound up at the municipal stadium. On cue, a terrific fireworks display began. The intruding cynical thought (our tax euros at work) was drowned out by the shouts of delight from young and old.

After this the bal populaire kicked into gear, and the band had itself some serious fun; multi-culti Nuits Blanches (used to refer to a night where no sleep is to be had) kept the crowd of all ages grooving and jumping and generally making merry well into the morning with Arab-, Spanish-, French- and pop/rap-inflected tunes. What a night for my eight year old, who essentially experienced her first non-classical concert.

I remember being her age, and celebrating the Fourth of July in West African Sierra Leone, on a isolated beach whiter than sugar. I remember the Marine solemnly raising the flag, the bonfire, the anthem. I held my first sparkler, delighted and afraid, and made circles in the ink-black night.

13 July, 2009

Feeling green.

While the Bambouseraie was begun in 1856, this 15-hectare (37-acre) horticultural sanctuary, an official, state-nominated Jardin Remarquable and Monument Historique, only opened its doors to the public at large some sixty years ago. Lucky us, that Monsieur Mazel, a successful 19th century importer of oriental spices, would have such an abiding passion for all things botanical--especially bamboo. Today, the garden he began now houses the largest collection of bamboo in Europe. Some three hundred varieties are represented. Black, striped, curved like a braid, from "turbo" giants (1 m + growth per 24 hour period!) to dwarf to bamboo "turf", you name it, it is probably there. To make all this possible, Monsieur Mazel diverted water from the nearby river to create some 5 kilometers of canals (as in the photo below), still in use today--and to what effect.I love the multitudes of gardens contained within it, and above all, I love the bamboo, shown off to fine advantage. Please forgive me for all the photos that follow. I can't help myself; trust me when I assure you I am displaying only a fraction of what I snapped.
You begin by walking down a long avenue shaded by sequoia and enormous (25 meters high), swaying bamboo. These trees and rustling grasses--for bamboo, like corn, is nothing less than an overgrown variety of grass--have survived long and strenuous travel over land and sea, from as far away as China, the Himalayas and the US west coast. Once in France, they survived the floods and drought that occur in 150-some years and in their majesty here, next to Anduze and close to Nimes, you can sense a near-tangible serenity. While bamboo is often viewed to be basically tropic in nature, it is actually quite rustic--some 90% of the varieties represented at the Bambouseraie tolerate -20 C and lower. There is, after all, snow in China and Japan.
In the Laotian model village made up of photogenic houses on stilts, one immediately gets a vivid sense of how other cultures might make use of the highly multi-functional bamboo--beyond today's viscose textiles. (Yes, viscose fabric is made of bamboo).
In recent years, individual works of art have been beautifully incorporated into the Bambouseraie. I particularly liked this woven installation by Paca Sanchez.

If you enjoy things Japanese--especially Japanese maples--you will be in tengoku, or at least a heightened zen state, in the masterfully feng shui-designed garden. Oh, do please go early in the morning, the better to wander and enjoy this particular space in quiet and relative coolness.
The gardens go on and on; if you are a lover of things green, you can easily while away three hours, as there are water gardens (that showcase unusual miniature water lilies and lotus, among others) to explore. To delight your child or the child in you, lose yourself in the living labyrinth of bamboo, after staring at ancient-looking "stands" of of expertly crafted bonsai...Make a point of visiting while you are in the area; just don't blame me if you linger and find yourself missing lunch.

09 July, 2009

How to convert them.

Go ahead, guess what vegetable is pictured above. I shredded and sprinkled it over a well-chilled beet and ginger soup.

I know, the beet is a love it or hate it kind of thing, but the hate it camp has probably never tried it steaming and right out of its aluminum foil jacket, well-roasted in olive oil, let alone in this chilled version.

With this suave soup in your spoon, you will have a hard time remembering your objections, if any, to the modest beet. Let go of any lingering notions of vaguely Slavic, cream-dosed borscht, as what I'm going on about is another animal entirely, with a clean, bright look and taste. It's a summer soup that sings, and is just tailor-made for sunny days.
Have you figured it out? These are two of four varieties of beets currently in my fridge. Oh so gaudy, but also so young they can be shredded and eaten raw.

Velouté Glacé de Betteraves et Gingembre (Chilled Beet and Ginger Soup)

Serves 6-8 people.

5 tablespoons olive oil
8-10 fresh, hard young beets, red or golden, which when peeled and coarsely cubed, make about 9 cups, green tops reserved for accompanying salad
3 cups coarsely chopped onions
1 ripe tomato
4 teaspoons minced fresh ginger, or 3 teaspoons pure ginger juice (from grating)
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon finely chopped organic lemon zest
5 cups (or more) chicken broth
2 to 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Preheat oven to 200 C. In an oven-proof dish or roasting pan, toss the beets, tomato and onions in olive oil, season with salt and pepper. The 13 cups worth of vegetables should completely fill the dish. Cover very tightly with foil and roast; after one 1 hour, test with a fork--the beets should be quite cooked through and nicely tender.

Meanwhile, bring half the broth to boil in a soup pot. Add ginger, ground coriander seed and lemon zest and allow to simmer. Once roasted vegetables are ready,add the broth andvegetables to a food processor and puree until velvety smooth. Return soup to pot. Add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice to soup and thin with remaining broth until you have reached the desired consistency. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary with salt, pepper, and small amounts of lemon juice. Note that chilled soups require more assertive flavors. Chill at least 6 hours before serving.

One of the reasons this is a great summer choice is that it can best be made a day ahead, enabling you to better enjoy your family, friends, the fine weather, or a good book.

05 July, 2009

Room to breathe.

If you can, allow yourself the liberty of taking the road that follows the Hérault river into the departement of the same name, across garrigue-filled plateau and through winding gorge. After stopping in Aniane and environs for some of the most exciting wines made in the Languedoc today, continue following the river, crossing it at the Devil's Bridge, or Pont du Diable. (Legend has it that, in the eleventh century, the devil nightly undid the construction work of the monks, until prince-turned-monk Guilhem promised him the first soul to cross the completed bridge. The clever saint-to-be Guilhem then sent an unlucky dog across the bridge to his fate, thereby ensuring the bridge's continued use until present times.)

Do try to pull yourself away from the soaring white escarpments, teal green water and gouged rock face around the Pont du Diable, as you will have nearly reached your destination: Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert.
The eponymous Guilhem founded a Benedictine abbey there, in the lost reaches of the wind-lashed desert. Perched on an escarpment, less promising spots to begin an abbey, let alone village, could hardly be imagined. But the (it is also said) heartbroken Guilhem, cousin to Charlemagne, left the court life and battlefield as a time-tested and valiant warrior after the early death of his youthful, second wife, to build the abbey that would later take his name.

Having spent some thirteen years successfully defending the southern borders of France (on land that had been wrested from first the Visigoths then the Moors by his own grandfather), Guilhem turned to carving out a place that would later become a popular stage in the pilgrimage route to Spain's Santiago de Compostela, and still later a flourishing touristic village with still-functioning abbey--and this after intervening centuries of benign decline and outright destruction.
But please, do be clever: avoid the congested periods in order to also avoid the Disneyland effect. Do take shelter from the burning sun under the century-old plane tree in the main square, its trunk a full six meters in diameter. Make liberal, cooling use of the fountains scattered across the village--drinking only from the ones marked eau potable. Lose yourself in the labyrinthine passageways. Peek into the well-maintained vegetable gardens of the order and other 250-some village residents.Admire the flowers growing in every possible cranny of the limestone walls, then duck into the cool of the Romanesque abbey itself. Only there will you find a small reprieve from the pressing heat and the sustained, fever pitch of the locusts.

I am fairly certain that regardless of your feelings on faith, the atmosphere of the village can be restorative, if you can remain open to the possibility.
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