13 April, 2011

Witchery, in and beyond salad.

The plum and cherry trees have gone green, releasing their petals in impromptu, lavish showers that would make a wedding planner weep for joy.  The wisteria has now picked up the slack. 
Defying expectations, the rain clouds stay away.  While it looks and smells like spring, it definitely feels like summer.  Just a couple of days ago, my neighbor's thermometer read 30 C (86 F).  In the flammable south of France, in weather like this, a mind turns to fire prevention.  We have no lack of water, but our water pressure is not superb, and should there ever be a fire, we'd be very hard-pressed to provide the firefighters with the necessary fire-extinguishing quantities.  Which is where this Monsieur comes in.
In the French countryside, no well is dug without a water dowser's sanction. This particular water witch has a sterling reputation, and charm to spare.  Originally a healer with thirty year's experience, he has been finding water for the last twenty years.  Apparently it is common for dowsers to have healing capabilities (the things you learn!).  This Monsieur turned to water dowsing not too long after his name was published without his consent.  Described as one of the 100 most skilled healers of France--you can now find that information online--he was besieged with visitors, a number of whom were sent by 'regular' doctors.  He was busy from morning til night, laying hands on people who patiently queued to see him.  He treated people for everything from the rather mundane, such as plantar's warts, to the more serious, like alleviating the side-effects of radiation therapy.  He would even help people by telephone, like those with serious and not-so-serious burns. 
He explained that it's simply about sensing magnetic energies.  After a while, the work with people became too much for him, and he turned to water, which he found less demanding.  To find water, he uses two copper rods, as well as two kinds of pendulums.  He turns first in a circle with the pendulum with his arm outstretched to determine which direction to go, waiting for the pendulum to begin rotating.  Once he has determined the direction to take, he heads off rather briskly, with his rods held horizontally parallel.  (He stopped using forked branches after the wood kept scraping his palms once it 'responded' vigorously to the presence of water.)  The metal rods turn in toward each other and cross once he passes over a source of water.  Once the point of water is established, he determines the depth of the water using either his wood or his metal pendulum.  
Freshly dug parsnip, carrot and salsify (for with the spring lamb roast).
It's a fascinating process to watch whether or not you are a skeptic.  The way he holds the smooth, round rods makes it unfeasible to turn them by design.  I know this from watching, but also because he had me--and my husband--try it for ourselves.  It's very peculiar to feel the rods move on their own.  With us, they didn't move with such assurance, but they very definitely moved, crossing over one another.  He then set me up with the pendulum.  Nothing happened.  I couldn't get it to move one jot, no matter how hard I concentrated.  Then he laid his steady hand on my arm, and the weighted pendulum started turning in a smooth, wide circle...
Of course he has a good sense of local geology, and his general knowledge must come into play, whether consciously or unconsciously.  He doesn't believe any of this process is magic, but rather a tuning in to the natural magnetic properties of things.  Watching him, though, you do get a glimpse into something that seems not entirely explainable, something that seems--at least a little bit--magic. 

Kind of like this salad, which will amaze you with its lightness, and its lush, addictive blend of flavors.  It will please you here and now, when you're looking for something both delicious and healthy, and well into the barbecue'n'picnic days.  The interplay of crunch and juice, of mint, orange, fennel and mild, pre-soaked onion?  Quite simply bewitching.   
Salade de fenouil à l'orange (Minted Orange, Fennel and Red Onion Salad)* 
Serves 6.

1 scant teaspoon whole coriander seeds
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
2 tablespoons Banyuls vinegar, Sherry vinegar or other good-quality white wine vinegar
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium red onion
1 large fennel bulb
3 large oranges (navel or other variety with few seeds)
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves

Heat a dry small heavy skillet over medium-high heat, then add and toast coriander seeds, stirring, until fragrant and a little darker, about two or three minutes. With a mortar and pestle, grind coriander to a coarse powder. In a jar, combine coriander and remaining dressing ingredients. (Dressing may be made in advance and chilled, covered).

Using a very sharp knife or mandoline, slice onion crosswise into paper-thin rings, then soak the sliced onion in a bowl of cold water, for about 15 minutes. Next, prepare the oranges: cut a slice from the top and bottom of each orange to expose the flesh, then place cut side down on a cutting board. From top to bottom, cut away peel and pith, then cut oranges crosswise into thin slices. While the onion is soaking, move on to the fennel: tremove any stalks from the fennel then slice bulb crosswise as thinly as possible.  Finally, drain onion well.

Arrange orange, shaved fennel and onion on the serving plate and top with mint. Shake jar of dressing to emulsify then drizzle over salad.

* From Gourmet magazine, February 1995 issue.


  1. What a fascinating tale! France, you never cease to amaze me.

  2. I am a skeptic too but who knows? It is nice to have some innocence and/or magic left in us.

  3. This healer is amazing; I would love to meet him and learn his trade!:)

  4. Tammy,
    The thing I love about reading your posts is that they're choc full of good stuff. First, the wisteria. I don't have any and I want some. I think it is so beautiful. Even if it takes over. Next, how wonderfully incredible is that water man? I've never heard of such a thing and find it fascinating. It makes perfect sense to follow the energy...the earth is controlled by magnetic forces anyway right? And, that salad is right up my street. I love the freshness in that kind of recipe.

  5. I have experience with dowsers, dowsing and pendulums -- I'm a believer! Great story. It sounds so South of France (however my experiences took place in California. Love reading your stories.

  6. Hi Rose,
    It all sounds a little crazy perhaps, but fascinating, definitely.

    Hi Nadege,
    I think there is still more mystery out there than we 'reasonable adults' would like to admit...

    Hello Joumana,
    He definitely had my full attention. I just wish I'd had the chutzpah to take a close-up of his craggy, expressive face.

    Hi Sarah,
    We are still waiting for the devis from the well-digger, who is a different person entirely. We run on a southern clock around here, like it or not.

    Hi Aidan,
    The wisteria is amazing. You should come over and have lunch under it while it is still blooming! I have a salad in mind...How about this sunday?

    Hello Charles,
    I know dowsers are used in many parts of the US too, but I think city people in both countries tend to be a good deal less familiar with them. I'd love to read about your dowsing story (-s?) sometime.

  7. I just bought some fennel and blood oranges at the farmers' market this morning. I've been wanting to make this salad for months now but the one stall at my farmers' market that has this said they're too small and still growing. As it is, I have a pretty small bulb, but managed to snag the last one.

    It's always a mystery to me how dowsers find water. When I was in England, I stopped at Avebury stone circle. The tour guide had two rods that when they faced the rocks crossed over each other, and when faced away were completely straight. He let me try it myself and they moved on their own. Magnetic fields or something. But still, mysterious!

  8. Hi WC,
    The great things about this salad are the tricks: that much coriander seed, toasted and ground is perfect. And soaking the red onion is an excellent way to take the edge off while still enjoying great crunch. So happy you can finally make this dish!

    Isn't it peculiar when you feel and see the rods moving on their own? There's a an awful lot out there I can't fully explain, magnetic fields or not. This Monsieur held the rods about 20 METERS away from where the water source is supposed to be. He had me walk over the place he'd marked. When I passed over it, the rods in his hands quickly crossed. We all watched it happen. Dowsing at a distance. Weirdness.


Thanks for visiting my blog and joining in the conversation!

Related Posts with Thumbnails