MISSING PROVENCE

at-cap-d-antibes by Claude Monet.In case anyone wonders why I am always homesick/depaysee for my life in Provence, this is Monet’s answer.

In 1987, I sailed free aboard the good ship QEII because I gave two lectures based on my decade of Transition Consulting: one on Success and one on Change, key topics in the Transition years.  I was also blessed to launch my poetry chapbook, Gatherings, , which had just been published prior to sailing.

The French line didn’t exist any more; and Cunard ships did not deign to dock in Le Havre.  So I tooled around Cornwall in search of King Arthur for a bit, after arriving in unwillingly in Southampton.  I then flew to that adorable casual palm-fringed gull-populated airport, right on the sea, named Nice.  Once, in early February of 1976, my MIchigan friend Bernadette Thibodeau went for the luggage there, and I for the car.  On the autoroute to St. Jean-Ca–Ferrat, we discovered that neither had somehow gone through customs.  Ever since 1964, Nice had been the gateway to paradise for me,.  It has not diminished in importance in all these years.

That view, which you might think Monet embellished, was a normal everyday scene for me, living on Observatoire Hill above Cannes in 1987 and ’88.  The simplest errands also took me past this idyllic spot in Cap d’Antibes.  After the market, I would take in either the Picasso Castle or the Napoleon Museum, if not both.  My neighbors scoffed at my Napoleon-mania:  “O,” they would sniff.  “That Corsican!”

Cap d'Antibes beach FRanceThis scene is but my screen-saver now.  I yearn day and night for the Mediterranean’s beauty and the hearty human interchanges bestowed upon me, year upon year, in that environment.

For example, in 1976, Bernadette Thibodeau and I dined nightly at table, next to Leslie Charteris (author of The Saint televisionseries on television, as well as of priceless gastronomic sagas in Gourmet).  Charteris was there for the winter.  We for around ten February days.  Both exquisite tables tucked into a glass corner of La Voile d’Or, one of the most perfec establishments I have ever encountered, even in France.

The sea wrinkled and twinkled at our feet as we supped.  As night fell, the three Corniche roads glittered, sinuous ruby and diamond necklaces bedecking dark velvet rocks.  The identity of the gems depending upon whether vehicules were hurtling toward nearby Italy or back into blessed France.

On our second night, I dared question our sommelier’s choice of red wine to accompany our legendary lamb of Sisteron.  If a person can twinkle, he did:  “I’ll just bring it, and if you don’t like it, I’ll drink it myself.”  We laughed so very hard.  Of course his choice was perfection with Sisteron lamb, so much more delicate than ours in the States.  My fear had been that his suggestion could not stand up to that entree.  Soon we were laughing,  rather ruefully, in the elevator returning to our rooms, discovering that that our mentor had just been named Le Meilleur (BEST) Sommelier de France. 

Do not forget that it was February in St. Jean-Cap=Ferrat.  Sweaters over our shoulders were enough, sauntering the exquisite shore path from our hotel over to Beaulieu-sur-Mer and back.  Blossoms framed every view out our windows.  Their scents suffused our senses, as we drove through stony garrigues to Provencal hilltowns:  Almonds.  Mimosa, Cirtons, such lusty fragrances penetrating through closed Renault windows.

back streets old antibes

NJWILDBEAUTY readers know I spend my life praising New Jersey.  I do my best.  I mean my enthusiasms.  But sometimes, I just cannot bear not being on the South of France.

Especially as I tuck into interminable layers of gear just to drive to work – from earmuffs to lined gloves to lined hiking pants to fleece-lined tights and thick boots with crampons on for New Jersey’s invisible ice. January and February returns to the South of France, as well as my wanderjahr residency, proved me that it’s not winter in Provence, not EVEN when it snows!

This street scene just above is in old Antibes.  But it could be almost anywhere — Roquebrune, Mentone (although more colorful, because closer to Italy), San Rafael, Biot.  Each a town of magic — Roquebrune for its castle’ Menton(e) for its citrus festival, San Rafael where the Invasion of Provence (Le Debarquement) took place August 16, 1944, Bior of the bubbly glassware and the Leger Musee.  Mougins with its multi-starred temple of gastronomy, Le Moulin de Mougins, found along La Route de la Transhumance — the way that shepherds, goatherds led their flocks to and from winter pastures.

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Sometimes, what I miss most are the olive trees. Renoir bought his property in Cagnes-sur-Mer because he wanted to save the (then) 100-year-old olive trees.  He would paint the late nudes under their leaves.  It is said that the artist did not ask if a new maid could make the beds and serve the meals, or a new cook could cook.  All that mattered was the way the light of the Provence sun bounced off the silvery olive trees and onto their flesh.  We think Renoir was being an Impressionist.  He considered himself a realist.  And this man painted, despite crippling arthritis, with his brushes and palette taped to his two arms, wheeled in a wheelbarrow to his olive trees.

I also am a realist.  I cannot live in Provence now.  I won’t be seeing flame-hot tomatoes at Thanksgiving or pale feisty daisies in January.  I cannot buy an ancient liqueur made of wild thyme by the monks of Isles de Lerin.  I cannot walk the open Cannes Marche, the mistral swirling my scarf hither and yon, as the olive oil man won’t take my francs because I am an American, and he’s pleased that I chose the fruity one.  I won’t be buying lace-delicate ravioli from a costumed young woman who rose at dawn to make and bring and sell it.  I won’t encounter dates so dark and succulent that them seem to melt off the table.  Or try to choose a fish, when all are so near to having been in the sea that some, especially sandre, flip themselves off the oilcloth-over-ice on the fishwife’s table.  I won’t walk past the Provencal woman selling her white chickens, tying their legs, balancing them in jer hand-held scale, sending them home flapping wings.  The apicultrice isn’t bragging to me about the succulence of her lavender honey.  There are no brioches still hot from the wood-fired oven hewn from  ancient rocks of old town/Cannes, otherwise known as Le Suquet.

When I’m this homesick, I have my most courageous friends over for a Provencal Sunday supper.  It’ll be some peasant specialty I encountered there, and cannot find authentically in this country.  (I was once served cassoulet made with KIDNEY beans, in Kingston!.)  At my Lawrenceville table, we’ve shared cassoulet de Toulouse; choucroute garnie such as filled South of France markets abruptly in November, though its newly ready sauerkraut and all those hefty sausages came from Alsace.  On a hot May afternoon, golden aioli took center stage, each friend bringing a different vegetable or hard-boiled egg, I supplying the prepared salt cod.

No, this is New Jersey and this is February, and soon it will be boeuf a la gardiane — otherwise known as le boeef sauvage — which thelegendary cowboys of the mouth of the Rhone concoct with the meat of the wild bulls of the Camargue.  Friends will bring a lighter Rhone wine for the Provencal cheeses and an artichoke melange; a heftier one for the boeuf; and a delicate Muscat de Beaumes de Venise to accompany the dessert tart. This dish I have not tasted, but it’s a question of flavorful real beef (Brick Farm Market of course, my being fresh out of cowboys and bulls ).  It’ll be crafted with fresh herbs, Rhone wine, a swirl of orange peel, a pig’s foot.  No, I haven’t made this before, but the Intrepids weren’t given that name for nothing.

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The gardianes’ stews were cooked long and slow over driftwood fires on Mediterranean shores.  Mine will, of course, depend upon the Crock Pot.

My Provencal specialties will have one ingredient more precious than all the rest, however.  When we savor our boeuf with wild thyme and Rhone wines, the multi-hued South of France vegetables from one friend,  a complex tarte from another — all will be seasoned with Fellowship.

In my year in Provence, I lived alone.  My neighbors in the villa became dear friends.  But somehow, they would not let me cook for them.  We could dine out, and I could lead them to places, like Auberge des Seigneurs in Vence after the Matisse Chapel, which I knew better than they.  But I was not to be in the kitchen for their sake.  Thank heaven, my New Jersey friends have courage, eagerness, and I will even say, Love.  They let me play in the kitchen for them.

My wildest wish, I must admit, is that we could all appreciate Provence together.  Meanwhile, boeuf a la gardiane will have to do!

 

THE GREAT CHOUCROUTE GARNIE CHALLENGE

Provencal Christmas Creche 2014

Provencal Christmas Creche 2014

Some of my NJWILDBEAUTY readers know that I lived the seasons round in Provence in 1987/88.  Around the time of my Thanksgiving birthday, all the excitement in the rues surrounding the Cannes Marche had to do with the Alsatian specialite, Choucroute Garnie.  Signs threaded the byways that circled the market, emblazoned, “LA CHOUCROUTE GARNIE EST ARRIVEE!!!”  (Choucroute means sauerkraut, and Garnie means garnished, as with meats.)

In the streets outside the market were imposing metal containers, in which the just-arrived sauerkraut with sausage masterpiece was enthroned and simmering.  In my halting French, with my midwestern-teacher’s accent, I managed to have the most interesting proprietor prepare a take-home container.  It was done with such pride, such ceremony, you’d have thought he was ladling with sterling onto heirloom china.  The proprietor steered me to the best local wine provider, also on that side-rue, so that they could give me the best Riesling to accompany his chef d’oeuvre.

At home, in my tiny, heatless Cannes apartment, I ladled out cabbage and sausages, carried it to the Provencal-quilt-covered table on my minuscule balcony.  I went back in for the Riesling and a wineglass.  I poured that nectar very slowly, watching it reflect the Mediterranean shimmering below.  It was warm on the November balcony.  A slight breeze ruffled the wild herbs from the garrigue which somehow thrived in my balcony window-boxes.  These wind-visits carried with them the essence of wild thyme and sage and rosemary, mingled with sea air.

I remember being surprised at how light the choucroute was, and that I liked the somewhat sweet wine that is its essential accompaniment.

In October, here, in 2014, I was suddenly overcome by choucroute nostalgia.  I called six brave friends, two of whom are our regions Ur-food-critics.  I told them, I have to do this.  I described the dish, which always loses everything in translation.  I said, “I’ve only tasted it once and made it never.  Would you come and eat it with me?”

Every single one said an eager yes.  One knew immediately, “I’ll bring rye bread.”  I’ve not been in Alsace so I’ve never asked why, but rye is the only acceptable bread with choucroute.  One agreed, bravely, to make a winemaker’s tart – specialty of the grape harvest in France.  It has a sweet crust, a custard filling, and is studded with what should be the ripest grapes of the current year.  We’re a little lacking in that particular ingredient.  The others volunteered to go to their favorite wine providers here, say “choucroute” and see what happened.

Heating the Riesling with the Spices and Herbs

Heating the Riesling with the Spices and Herbs

Sunday, December 14, was the day of the great choucroute challenge.  I’ve now dubbed my formidable friends, “La Confrerie de la Choucroute.”  (Not all my NJWILDBEAUTY adventures are outdoors…) My friends assembled promptly at 2:30, bearing their specialties.

The Table Awaits...

The Table Awaits…

We began with the sprightly German champagne from Trader Joe’s, Schloss Bieber.  With it, was served a hearty terrine from Brick Farm Market.  It was of pork and lamb — there wouldn’t have been lamb in the Alsatian version.  It was rosy and succulent, studded with fresh green pistachios.  Another dear friend had given me pickled fiddlehead ferns for my birthday, so we savored those instead of traditional gherkins and tiny pickled onions.

Brick Farm Terrine and Fiddlehead Ferns, taken by Faith Bahadurian

Brick Farm Terrine and Fiddlehead Ferns, taken by Faith Bahadurian

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, the choucroute simmered merrily.

Choucroute about to be put into oven

Choucroute about to be put into oven

It’s more of a technique than a recipe.  I’ll try to recreate it, because, with the help of the Pennsylvania Dutch Farm Market in Kingston/Kendall Park, this magnificent signature dish which absolutely defines that region can be successfully made in America.  And it’s not that hard.  Worrying about whether I might ruin it or not was far harder than just making it.

Buy meats at the PADFM — thick slab bacon, a ham hock, and knockwurst from the smoker right inside the front door.  Buy the plainest sausages (no apples, no chorizo, nothing trendy) — I bought sage and pork, and what I think they called brackwurst — it wasn’t white like the brafwurst I usually get there.  They were rough peasant sausages, and that is what’s called for.

Choucroute Meats on Royal Copenhagen, taken by Faith Bahadurian

Choucroute Meats on Royal Copenhagen, taken by Faith Bahadurian

Buy sauerkraut from the pickle-and-olive man — my recipe for eight called for three pounds, but that didn’t look like quite enough, so I did three and a half pounds.  I checked with him about rinsing the sauerkraut, which my American recipes required.  The French did not seem to get into that, but maybe they think everyone knows. I said, “I don’t want to ruin your wonderful sauerkraut,” as his (probably) grandson, with blonde hair yes in a Dutch boy cut was ladling my order.  “No!,” the elder insisted, “Rinse it!”

Choucroute with Spices

Choucroute with Spices – Dark Bits are Juniper Berries — essential item

I actually cooked the choucroute on Friday for three of the six hours it requires.  I just wanted part of it behind me.

Rinse cabbage and press to drain.

Saute four large yellow onions in bacon fat – I did this in large flat pan in oven with the slab bacon slices, so they rendered their fat and browned the onions.

Mix onions when golden but not dark, with cabbage.

Put layer of cabbage in bottom of crock pot or heavy casserole.

Put smoked ham hock in middle, and ring with knockwurst.  I should have had two of this hefty sausage, and could have used a larger ham hock.  But quantities are not the point here — marrying of flavors is all that matters.

Meanwhile, I was browning all the other sausages in bacon fat in a pan in the oven.  Then I cut those into chunks, but I had not cut knockwurst or ham hock.  I mixed the chunks with the rest of the sauerkraut and put that on top of the first layer and that ham hock and knockwurst.

The bacon slices were beautiful, like antique wood, wide and rich and dark.  I ringed the sauerkraut with them.

I couldn’t figure out, from any of the recipes, how the spices were going to infuse everything.  So I put them in the Riesling (for cooking I bought Ullrich Langguth Riesling from Trader Joe’s — “made from 100% very mature Riesling grapes — fruity, elegant, refreshing acidity” – says the label), in a saucepan and heated just to the simmer for about five minutes.  I poured that concoction immediately over the casserole.

My ingredients come from an array of recipes in French and in English — in effect, juniper berries are the heart of the matter.  I’ve just moved to Juniper Court, so this felt most appropriate.  Some recipes counted the berries and some measured.  You could say 2 tablespoons of juniper berries; 1 tablespoon each of whole black peppercorns and whole cloves or allspice.  Some recipes call for both – that might have been a bit much of that taste.  I put in 6 garlic cloves, cut very thin.  Cumin and coriander are usually part of this, and my new landlord, from India, tells me they help with digestion of meats.  For my recipe for 8, two tsps. ground coriander and two tsps. ground cumin were fine, not overpowering.  I bought those spices at Brick Farm Market, so they were very fresh.  I had inferior bay leaves — nothing equals Williams Sonoma bay leaf wreaths, and I don’t see them this year.  So I used six bay leaves.

This with a lid went into the crock pot on high until it boiled, and I don’t know how long that took; then on low until three hours had passed.  This went into the refrigerator when cool enough.

On Sunday, I took it out at noon and put it in the oven at 350 until it boiled, then on 225, until we reached the three-hour point.

Willm Riesling, from Faith Bahadurian, by Faith Bahadurian

Willm Riesling, from Faith Bahadurian, by Faith Bahadurian

One friend brought Willm Alsace Riesling Reserve, 2012, which was perfect; another brought Alsace Domaine Bott Freres Riesling 2010, which was also perfect.  Some Rieslings are fruitier than others.  I am no connoisseur, but they did blend and enhance with perfection that astonishing choucroute.  The other bottle of Riesling we did not open — it is Alsace Riesling Hugel.  All three wine purveyors were delighted to play the choucroute game.

Choucroute with Bacon

Choucroute with Bacon

If you want to read an expert on this, check out that marvelous chronicler, R.W. Apple, on his family’s choucroute traditions. I am no expert.  Pardon my inadequacies, as I even attempt to convey the savory, subtle, astonishingly light and digestible, beautifully melded dish that filled our plates.

Choucroute and Meats, Rye Bread, by Faith Bahadurian

Choucroute and Meats, Rye Bread, by Faith Bahadurian

Filled our plates twice, because everyone went back for seconds.  You couldn’t taste those spices individually — alchemy had occurred.

The meats had given over all their succulence to the whole, and yet were tasty and somehow almost airy – when I’d frankly expected heavy.  The choucroute gleamed and glistened, fairly leapt off the plate, after all those hours of cooking.  I couldn’t believe it.

Fini!

Fini!

Americans frequently add tart apples, and that would be good.  I didn’t do so because I wanted to be authentic.

French, not only Alsatians, add steamed small potatoes, red bliss i would think, in this country.  I didn’t do that because I felt it would be too heavy.

These friends are not trenchermen, but wondrously supportive, even outrageous women, perfectly willing to take this chance together.  I don’t know if I’ve ever seen them have seconds, come to think of it.

One of us brought the Alsatian winemaker’s tart, which was rustic and beautiful, and carried the theme through delightfully. However, American grapes can’t hold a candle to French, and don’t let anyone tell you they can.

Winemaker's Tart by Pat Tanner, Sugarplums by Faith Bahadurian, taken by Faith Bahadurian

Winemaker’s Tart by Pat Tanner, Sugarplums by Faith Bahadurian, taken by Faith Bahadurian

Faith Bahadurian, who has provided the actual dinner photos, brought sugarplums, which she had made herself!  I’ve never had, but only heard of, sugarplums.  Tiny, rich, dark, intriguing, even a little dangerous (cognac?), they were the perfect climax.  Now we all have ‘visions of sugarplums’.

Visions of... made by Faith Bahadurian, photographed by Faith Bahadurian

Visions of… made by Faith Bahadurian, photographed by Faith Bahadurian

Now imagine, since in Alsace they would have finished the meal with plumliwasser, kirsch, or eau de vie du poire, my visit to the industrial strength Vingo on Route 27, seeking these forms of finale…To their credit, though they clearly thought I was making this up, they checked their computers.  Lo, a young man ultimately arrived bearing a beautiful, jewel-like round and charming bottle:  Belle de Brillet — don’t you love it? – and belle she is.  Liqueur Originale.  Poire Williams au Cognac.  It is not firewater-clear, as is kirsch, as is eau de vie du poire.  It seems that Brillet has been crafting this elixir since 1850.  It is the color of the most luminous honey, only transparent.  I have little Swiss liqueur glasses, from my long-ago marriage. They were our centerpiece.  And they held the Belle de Brillet, to accompany our winemaker’s tart.

I still cannot get over the changes in the sausages, how they enhanced the cabbage.  I have to face it — choucroute is about one of my most cherished concepts — transformation.

And I’m here to tell you that every aspect of this, from light-bulb through phonecalls through research through talking with the sausage lady, the ham hock lady and the sauerkraut man, was a joy.  The cooking was so much easier than I thought, and the sharing paradise.

I didn’t take enough pictures as I was serving.  My guests did.  If they can send them in a form I can save and insert into NJWILDBEAUTY, I’ll do so.

Meanwhile, savor this with us in spirit, and go out and put together your own.  All of the chat rooms I read on this subject seem to imply you can’t go wrong.