Saturday, September 30, 2006


I have always liked both the word and the flower. I have heard it referred to as the windflower. Someone who writes a blog called Ocean is apt to like a plant called windflower.

The word anemone is itself is light and airy (though sometimes, especially after a trip to France, I think it should be pronounced "any-money" because typically this is what I have none of after a period of travel). Little anemone. Like a child.

Walking back from the market I passed a sign in front of a flower shop: local anemones on sale here. Irresistible. And so, rather than photos of fruits and or veggies, you get this, locally grown near Madison, Wisconsin:

september 06 278

Friday, September 29, 2006

compare and contrast

I have said this before – I miss the café life of France and especially of Paris.

I’ve been asked if I long for French food when I am back here. But I am (basically) okay with food in the Midwest.

For example, on my last evening in Paris I ate in a terrific, hidden little gem, L’Ourcine.

France Sep 06 830

The chef is one of several dozen up-and-coming chefs in France, much adored and fussed over for his talents. The food is excellent. The price of the menu – 30 Euro. For this I had crabmeat smothered by avocado mouse with diced green apples on top, a grilled filet of St. Pierre over Asian greens and a sublime pots de crème.

France Sep 06 838

The next evening I ate in downtown Chicago at an equally wonderful gem, Crofton on Wells. Ms. Crofton has been cooking up a storm here for nine years now, at very decent-to-your pocketbook prices, quite comparable to l'Ourcine. My heirloom tomato gazpacho with rock shrimp rocked with the zest of house-smoked tomatoes, and the scallops, bathed in a red-curry mussel reduction could not be more perfect. I ended with a quad of icecreams: sour cherry, apricot, honey and dark chocolate.

France Sep 06 888

The wine prices at Crofton were a little silly, but hey, the Midwest isn’t as rich in wine as is France.

And so I have been forced to admit that I can eat well on this side of the ocean.

But the café life. Give me a break.

On Tuesday in Paris, again and again I would come across scenes like this:

France Sep 06 828

Now granted, the skies were a touch friendlier and temps a few numbers warmer, but that shouldn’t matter. Wisconsinites are hardy types: they freeze their eating spaces year round with overworked air conditioning and underutilized heating systems. So how do you explain today’s café scene on State Street? Walking home, again and again I would come across scenes like this:

september 06 268

And in case you do not buy the fact that the temps were not sufficiently low to drive away café moments, I’ll note that right next to an empty café I saw these two, sitting on a bench, clearly enjoying this very unwarm dish:

september 06 270

Have I mentioned that I miss the café scene of Paris?

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Paris thoughts

In Paris, evenings for me are mad. Much to be done, food to be eaten, last minute poking into places that stay open only so long.

But mornings in Paris are sacred: I have nothing to do but catch the train by 10:30 to make it to the airport in time for my flight. It is always like that. And so I get up early and walk.

If it’s fall or winter, then being up and about at 7:30 puts me on the streets before the sun is up. It’s a toss up then whether to head for the Luxembourg Gardens or the river. Usually the gardens win. This time I went to the river.

France Sep 06 858

I never much cared for the heavily trafficked streets along the Seine. But I like the bridges. I suppose I could pick up on the bridge theme now and see in this some statement about how confused I am about where I have been and where I am heading, but I wont do that.

Instead, I’ll take you to one of my favorite corners to have breakfast. It’s a bit of a walk from the area where I always choose to overnight, but the walk is a nice one and so I do not mind.

If the weather is decent, as it was yesterday morning, I’ll sit outside. The world is a blur of activity. A fishmarket is just across, a butcher – to the side, two chocolate shops are down the block and a baker, a very unfriendly baker, is around the corner.

France Sep 06 868

And there is an elementary school a block away. Since this is the center, the hub of the left bank, the kids all look well-tended, cared for, not wanting.

Still, children are children. Their needs are significantly less complicated than ours. They don’t need to cross oceans to feel complete. In the village of Vacquieres, Jean-Benoit, the winemaker, told me that joy for his daughters comes from hearing that a half a centimeter of snow is in the forecast. (They share that delight with many Wisconsin children, though I think we over here wish big: no dusting will do; waist-deep at a minimum.)

Across from my café three children pause, waiting for the light. They’ll go to school, go home, eat their meals, fall asleep and the next day they will be at this same corner.

France Sep 06 872

Not me. I pay for my breakfast and head back to catch the train for the airport.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

from Paris: patience

Tuesday was not a play day for me. Ocean suffers when I have things to do that aren't camera worthy. Today I travel back to Madison.

Like the Parisian pup, waiting for something to happen here...

France Sep 06 847

...Ocean readers will have to wait for something to happen here. Tomorrow, after classes, I'll return to Paris on the blog.

A bientot.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

from Paris, via Pierrerue...

I am spent. The intense days at the vineyard (see posts below) were a high, for sure, despite the round the clock watching, listening, writing, photo editing. But now I am spent.

I have a day before I need to be back in Paris, but I want to leave this wonderful family alone already. The change in weather has reinvigorated the vineyards. I hear trucks rumbling to and from the fields constantly. At the Chateau de Lascaux as well, the pace quickens. Jean-Benoit is giving the fields a day to dry off, but there is work to be done elsewhere. The intensity of the vendange is suddenly palpable.

Monday noon, I finish my last post, pack my computer and resolutely load up my very tiny “Smart” car. Jean-Benoit rushes over to say good bye. He makes sure traffic is stopped at the bend in the road so that I can do a u-turn and head back. Helpful to the very last second.

So what now? I head for home, Pierrerue, deep in the belly of the Languedoc.

It’s not really home. I lived there for only three weeks this June. But I want to return nonetheless. I want to be like the mother who visits her child season after season, simply to note changes and hear that sweet voice of a younger one..

And if I am searching for a calm, for an equilibrium to take hold, I'll include a stop by the sea.

I'm smitten with the beaches here, in the Languedoc. Like everything about the province, they are without fuss. I park the car by a stretch of sand, I step out the door and my feet are on the warm golden crystals.

Just three weeks into September, the beaches are empty.

France Sep 06 696

Sure, there is the idle fisherman sitting, waiting for something to happen. I wait with him. Nothing happens.

France Sep 06 703

I play with my new camera, I make footprints in the sand.

France Sep 06 712

I admit it. I miss the harvest and the vineyards. I miss the sounds, I miss the smell of day-two juice.

Move on. No fish in the bucket, no room for nostalgia.

I pick up the road to St. Chinian and its baby village, Pierrerue. Hello vineyards. I knew you when you were throwing infant leaves out. Look at you now!

France Sep 06 731

I’m hungry. I am nearing my destination, but I am remembering that Pierrerue offers no eateries. But the Chat qui Peche does, right there, besides the Canal du Midi.

France Sep 06 720

The waiter stares at me. You were here last spring! You’re Polish, right? Remember? I am too.
Oh, I do remember. It's just that I am having trouble with the "friendly to the outside world" switch. Still, I ask about his summer at the Cat who goes Fishing.

Too hot, that’s for sure.
You have so many flies here now! Why?
It’s the harvest. The trucks drop grapes, the flies like the juice.

Hmmm, Vacquieres didn’t have flies. Pierrerue doesn’t have flies. Perfect villages clearly do not attract flies.

Pierrerue, I love you, Pierrerue, I love you. A song to the forgotten one, the one left for
its perfect cousin up in northern Languedoc.

Pierrerue is pouting. The sun hides behind a cloud as I stand facing it, there halfway up the hill.

France Sep 06 746

I pass the house of the artist whose paintings now hang on my loft brick walls. I hesitate. If I knock on her door, I will have to stay a while. But my mind is still unsettled, full of harvest thoughts. I am spinning with images from Chateau de Lascaux vineyards. I pause the car, my foot vacillates between the gas and the brake, finally resting gently on the gas.

A few more glances at the familiar hills and I push forward. I will overnight further south. I need space from the familiar.

France Sep 06 758

I eat a meal alone, for the first time since coming to France. I need the quiet before I turn north and then northwest.

France Sep 06 769

In the morning, I speed to Montpellier, buy my croissant and café crème for the train and turn toward Paris, with a last wave to the vineyards of Languedoc. They were meant for sunny skies and this morning they are getting them.

France Sep 06 808

France Sep 06 803

Monday, September 25, 2006

from Vacquieres, France: fields of dreams

Sunday Afternoon

So I had to ask Jean-Benoit Cavalier, winemaker, proprietor of Chateau de Lascaux – what do you like best about this life of a vintner? Is the work in the fields? The mixing, blending? The harvest?

We were walking through the mixed forests, the garrigues, just north of his village of Vacquieres and every so often we would come across a field of vines. It is the nature of winemaking here: these woods are part of the terroir. And each vine-planted plot has a story – an age, an expectation, a purpose.

France Sep 06 649

I already know Jean-Benoit loves his work. He told me so. And really, it is obvious.

He tells me now how deeply satisfying it is to reflect about the entirety – putting together the whole story of a wine, from the planting to the final bottle placed in the cave. Watching it unfold, shaping the outcome.

The harvest is one important part of that entirety. Jean-Benoit leaves the vacation home up north, in the mountains, two weeks before the end of August.

I come back to the village and I think about how to run the harvest that year. It requires all my concentration and so I like to be alone then.

And there are other elements of pride – I can see that. There’s his family, sure. And his village, Vacquieres. His wife, Isabelle, is a fan of it as well.

Just the right size, she says to me. Three hundred people. No more. At this size we all look after each other, there is a sense of community. It is quite wonderful.

Aren’t all villages like this here, in the south of France? I think of Pierrerue – my June retreat this year, also with about three hundred. And with people who believed it was special, unique. Or maybe I have just visited the only two special and unique villages. These are it! They are the beloved ones, the savage babes (another term I hear about Pierrerue and now Vacquieres – sauvage, untamed by the outside world)!

Jean-Benoit pauses at a field of vines that is already harvested. Organically grown grapes, because they are better that way. The leaves are starting to turn. In a few weeks it will have to be a fiery red blaze of color.

France Sep 06 650

It is my first planting of a new field. The soil is terrible – layers of deep stone…
So why would you choose to plant in this spot?
Because I like coming here. Look, you can see the village, just so.

France Sep 06 674

France Sep 06 676

There are trees on all sides. I can show you something else – bee hives. I have someone tend to the bees here.

I look closely. Why do I think a photo of a bee is well worth the encounter of a close kind? Maybe to remember the moment.

France Sep 06 673

France Sep 06 670

And sure enough, a bee gets tangled in my hair. I remember childhood summers in the Polish countryside, with my grandparents. At least once each year a bee would dovetail right into my hair. There is a choice: endure a bite to the scalp or fish the bee out with your hand, knowing that you will get stung. I fish, I get stung.

I will remember the moment.

Back in the car, we drive up through a dense fragrant forest. The rain has really intensified the scent.

Rosemary? I ask, but I know the answer. The herb is everywhere, growing in the wild, adding its distinct essence to the forest floor.

France Sep 06 640

See this? It is a capitelle, a hut, a shelter, from sheepherding days. It is probably two thousand years old.

France Sep 06 634

We crawl inside. Jean-Benoit touches the roof, nicely layered into a conical shape.

It’s fine work, isn’t it?

He could be talking about the hut, he could be talking about winemaking.

Earlier in the afternoon, we had stopped at the garage/cave of his friend, Christophe. It was after the Sunday meal. Family members were gathered to help with the press. Christophe is a writer, a vintner (Domaine Beau Thorey), a man of several trades. He presses his grapes by hand.

France Sep 06 566

We like Americans because they gave us this model of a hand press. It is a California invention!
We like the French because you gave us your wines.

The men push, with great breaks in between. There are no pauses in the laughter.

We linger until the pressing is finished and the residue is carted away in wheelbarrows.

France Sep 06 598

One spot you have to see. Jean-Benoit knows the roads well. I am lost, but then I am always lost when a local person keeps track of the turns.

Before us, in the gray light of a misty, drizzly day I see a vineyard, stretching toward the hills. At the end of it there is a church, standing alone, unprotected by village houses.

France Sep 06 608

If you want a memorable wedding, this would be the scene. The feeling of your place in the scheme of things is tremendous. You get the sense that life is about your backbreaking work in your (chosen) field and the passion that drives you forward. Or is it I’ve been hanging around Jean-Benoit Cavalier and the Chateau de Lascaux too long...

Is there such a thing as a perfect moment? A perfect cluster of grapes? A perfect wine? …village? …host? Perfection, defined not only by the result, but also by the beauty of the effort that went into it? Do you need me to answer that?

France Sep 06 334

from Vacquieres, France: maman, papa, three daughters and tante Madelaine. and me.

Sunday Midday

Since when did I become a permanent fixture at the large kitchen table of the Cavalier family? Since Friday. Three times a day. I am hopeless when it comes to the family meal, especially when it is prepared by Isabelle.

I love to cook – for two, for four, for ten – all of it. But I love to be cooked for even more. Especially here in France.

On Sunday afternoon, though, the routines change. Out come the better clothes (I forgot my time and place, so the image of the grungy American will stay firmly rooted in the French consciousness after my visit here). Out come the relatives (the aunt, who lives just across the street). Out come the better dishes, the dining room table cloth placed at the dining room table.

We eat at midday and were it not for the fact that in the evening, Isabelle will serve a supper of pureed vegetable soup and omelets packed with wild girolles (mushrooms much like the chanterelles), I would probably throw down my napkin and retire from eating after that Sunday meal. Perhaps not. This is, after all, the south of France.

First come the mussels, straight from the Mediterranean sea.

France Sep 06 520

France Sep 06 526

Then the eggplant and tomatoes, the salad, the cheeses and the chocolate gateau. The Cavalier daughters hover and help, maman serves, tante comes with freshly baked cake. And with the most fascinating conversational contributions you could imagine. Passion for all that is great and wonderful runs high in this family.

Oh, the Languedoc Sunday family dejeuner! I leave it with such a feeling of warmth and contentment! It’s not just that there are plates of foods that stir all senses. It is the understood sentiment that now is the time to put away all baggage and sit down and exhale. For a long while. Because the week ends well if there is shared food, wine and casual observation with people you care about.

I am so relaxed at the mere recollection that I will write no more. I’ll leave you with photos of la famille Cavalier of Vacquieres, France.

France Sep 06 543
aunt Madelaine, nephew Jean-Benoit

France Sep 06 521
oldest daughter

France Sep 06 528
middle daughter

France Sep 06 556
mother Isabelle and youngest daughter, beneath an old family portrait

France Sep 06 559
the mirror, creating a new family portrait

from Vacquieres, France: in the still of the barrel

A machine may pick well. It can, for the whites and rosés, sort out the leaves and stems.

France Sep 06 201

It can mash, crush, move things from one bin to another.

And then there is quiet. The wines rest in their barrels. Twelve months for the Chateau de Lascaux les Pierres d'Argent, the whites. But early after the harvest, you need the human hand to open each barrel, plunge down a stick with a chain and stir up the residue. It's called la battonage. Daily, at this stage.

France Sep 06 504

And if you put your ear to the opening, you can hear the process of fermentation.

The world is never completely silent. You just have to pop a few corks sometimes to hear movement, that’s all.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

from Vacquieres, France: fast running, heavy rains, slow snails and lively rosés

Sunday Morning

La Premiere Foulee des Vendanges! – reads the poster. A race to honor the wine stompers of the past.

I think the local jogging club simply wants to promote their sport, but that’s okay. Jogging is good. Grape stomping is (was) good. I am all for watching and supporting le local sport on a Sunday morning in the neighboring winemaking village of Corconne.

Only you have to feel sorry for the 47 who have chosen to participate in this thirteen kilometer mini-marathon through the vineyards. Sometime at night the rains came and their occasional pause hardly lasts the length of time needed to gulp down a café crème.

Still, it is a happening and so my host at the Chateau Lascaux, Jean-Benoit, takes time off from picking and pressing to drive me to the village where it all begins.

The race starts and ends outside the Wine Cooperative and the band is there to put some oomph into the day.

France Sep 06 389

France Sep 06 395

The runners are off. We follow their progress across rocky soils and paved paths. Volunteers wave road traffic to the side and provide sustenance. Are those real fruit pates I see? That would just throw me off, were I running. I’d get out of the race and concentrate on selecting the cassis over the kiwi, despite the encouraging cries of “courage!, courage!” from the sidelines.

France Sep 06 428

Up village streets (they have run over to our village now!), past painted doors and Jean-Benoit’s caves…

France Sep 06 437

France Sep 06 431

Onto the finish line. I am a poor observer of the human condition when the rains come down. I worry about my camera. I go inside the Cooperative and sample rosés that are freely being poured. I miss who came in first or last. I taste, I purchase.

France Sep 06 456

A farmer of snails has set up his table at the Cooperative as well. He sells escargots in jars or as a snack, roasted on the spot, served in a baguette. I buy those as well. Your guess as to which – the jars to take back, or roasted in a baguette?

France Sep 06 467

France Sep 06 472

Sunday morning in the Languedoc. No one appears to mind the pause in the vandange (grape harvest). They all have read the reports. The sun comes out tomorrow. Today’s wet skies means that you can take time off, guilt free. Sort of like a snow day back in Wisconsin.