Saturday, March 31, 2007

from oysters to geese, in SW France

It’s morning in Pons. I’m to head for the Perigord Noir, the region of fat geese and duck confit.

But at the petit Pons Saturday market, after purchasing a kilo of endive because I love it so, I note these two, who have came in with the oysters…


I turn the car away from Perigord Noir and head toward the Atlantic Ocean.

Eventually I get to what seems like the oyster hub of central France. I drive over the long bridge to Ile d’Oleron, just off the western coast. A stretch of flat land slapped on all sides by ocean waters. Muddy waters. The kind that oysters love to call home. (Oysters like slime it seems.)

beach and mud. what fun.

shell life

low tide?

I drive up and down the island and watch people do their island Saturday stuff. They do what we do on this day: chores.

Maybe this is why they are so frazzled on the road. If ever you are inching slowly on a French rural road, wondering if you should be on the D706 in the direction of Montignac, or on the N21 in the direction of Bergerac, concluding that you are completely off in your directions and only a u-turn will save you from yourself, you’ll get the equivalent of a finger for sure. French people on the road have no patience for the likes of me. Nor I for them. We finger each other (figuratively!) quite a lot. They become road mean and they bring out the tough and don't you push me around side of me that I thought I had left back in the old country.

Off the road, all is forgotten and we are fast friends, shaking hands and kissing each other furiously to demonstrate our sincerity.

But I digress. The oysters: yes, it is a big thing here. I wander in and around now empty oyster huts. Did people seek shelter here in bad weather?


I stay too long on the island chasing down mud banks and staring at those who fish in them for the stuff that eventually you and I will find so sophisticatedly decadent.

by hand

by boat (of sorts)

Refocus: head inland. Perigord Noir, dark and brooding, is waiting.

At first, the transition from the coastal land to the Perigord is nice, mellow. Hi there, cognac-country, wine-country, gentle slopes with vines that are just now waking up.


But then quite suddenly, it all changes. Fields are gone. Forests – trees still not entirely green – replace the vines and mustard yellow flowers. I think I like it, I think I like it… Hmmm…

It's like someone switched stations on me and I am now watching a different movie.

entering Perigord Noir

At every bend in the road, there is a sign directing you to a farm where you can visit and buy foie gras. In their spare time, all the people of Perigord Noir must be making foie gras. Should I go visit? Should I? After all, I watched a harvest of oysters and I photograph fishermen frequently. Aren’t fat geese, well treated fat geese in the same league? We take pictures of cows even though the vast majority of cows on our side of the ocean are so miserably treated it hurts.

Let me mull this one over.

In the meantime, I am getting acquainted with my village, Plazac. I’ll say this much about it now: it is remote!

More on my first encounters with the village folk tomorrow. Tres fatigue tonight.

[Post script: if there is one thing that will someday put an end to my travel blogging it is my relationship to the Internet in France. It has virtually always malfunctioned. It completely warped my email program in Pons. And here, in the Perigord, it killed my USB port, so that I can no longer download photos in any straightforward fashion from my camera. Thank you, Ed, for helping me find, by phone, through tedious, convoluted steps, a temporary fix until I get back to the States. France, you have GOT to do better with the WiFi! PLEASE!]

Friday, March 30, 2007

post from Pons

All you have to do is guess which country has Pons in it. No Wiki checking! I am helpful, I give photo hints:

This morning, I eat an early stand-up breakfast here:

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early illy

Tired and, I admit it, a little cold, I nonetheless continue on my journey. I hesitate only half a second before deciding I should pick one of these up for the ride:

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By mid-afternoon, after a bus, a plane and a train, I am almost there. I do the last short lap by car. This one. It's my partner for the week:

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It would have been less than an hour on the road had I not stopped to admire these:

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spring vines

Now you’re thinking – wine. It’s all about wine. She’s doing her vineyard visit thing. Next thing you know, she’ll be pushing one wine or another and telling everyone what to drink.


In truth, I am so very close to the place where Ann’s favorite post-dinner beverage is made. It's all about the c word here. This is serious stuff. Take a look at the selection from local producers, displayed at my evening meal in Pons (some 20 kilometers from the town of Cognac):

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I’m not here for long – just one night. I am waiting for my house rental to become available on Staurday. That will be in the deep Perigord Noir (the black Perigord). Okay, in case you haven't quite located it -- it's in the southwest of France.

Most people regard the Perigord region as the place which gave us overfed geese with huge livers. I prefer to associate it with cepes (the mushrooms) and berries. But all that should be talked of tomorrow. Today I am at the edge of it, closer to the Atlantic coast.

Pons has a very nice little restaurant (indeed, I chose it because I am a huge fan of small, regional restaurants with rooms). Nothing fancy, nothing elaborate. Just a place to take your dog or spouse to when you want to step back from your stove for a bit. Inside and out, it looks like a million others.

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Hotel de Bordeaux: no, it's not in Bordeaux, but close

But the kitchen is not a run of the mill place. In my opinion, it is outstanding, even for this side of the ocean.

Around me, I do not hear much English. True, there is a British couple right at my side. Easy to spot. She orders a plain salad. Perhaps she is on a diet. She is thin, but you know how odd people can be about maintaining a good weight. (If I were her, I would maintain the good weight while in England and chomp away here, south of the Channel, but that’s just me.)

A groan is heard. A loud one. It’s from the dog by the French speaking table on my other side. Meanwhile, its owner is surveying the cheese board. She asks for recommendation from the young waiter. And I mean young. How sweet to have confidence in what he has to say about cheese.

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Oh, but this country is insane about food. The restaurant is packed (with two Brit-occupied tables, a dozen French settings, and of course me). We are in the middle of nowhere and people are lining up, as they are in the town next to this and the next one and the next, just to have themselves a fine meal at the end of the day.

And it is a very, very fine meal. Carpaccio of scallops with shrimp and carrot mousse, fish fillets over braised endive with cocoa and orange sauce, crepes stuffed with a Grand Marnier soufflé – those are just my main dishes. Well worth the long, long trip over to small, insignificant Pons.

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I am falling over from tiredness. I didn’t even try a cognac. I know, do as the locals do. But for me, the day ends with an Illy noisette and a dish of cookies. Too tired to contemplate anything else. I post an unedited post from Pons and collapse. Tomorrow – the Perigord.

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Thursday, March 29, 2007


... of internet connections, even in Pons -- my first stop on a not too complicated itinerary (but it is a long journey, so be patient, I wont get there 'til tomorrow).

...of good weather later in the week.

... of good food, of calm, quiet.

Spring break is never a total vacation. But I can put myself elsewhere and it will feel like a vacation. That's the joy of being away from home.

Whether some of the other promises -- of good weather and Internet access -- hold, now that remains to be seen.

Check back tomorrow and see if you spot a posting from Pons.

Spring break. Finally. How nice.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

the other side of march

Cold. Wet. Windy. Generally gray.

Never mind. I’ll not dwell on any of it. Instead, I promise a change for the Spring Break ahead. Tomorrow night, I’m setting out for Pons (where, I hear, it is also cold and wet and windy, but it has other attributes and so I am not deterred).

In the meantime, from my dining room table, today, a shot of Ocean colors:

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007


It’s rare that I am at the front of the queue, trying out a new eatery before a single review is even posted. I’m just not that together. I say a lot of “we should try that new place…” before I actually do try that new place.

But, I got a rather insistent call from a person who rarely insists on this sort of stuff. We’re eating out at the new Peruvian place on Park Street tonight.

We are? I’m set to eat a salad with a bagel on the side.

No, really. We are.

And so we do.

And now I can say this: I know (“know” is a relative term) Peruvian food. Heretofore, I knew South American food. In our usual myopic fashion we lump foods from “over there” into something we ascribe to tremendously vast regions. African food. Continental cuisine (that would be Europe; would you believe it? Europe as a style of cooking!). South American. Asian. And the thing is, we sort of kind of think we know what we mean by any of that.

But Peruvian food – now that’s a stumper.

Not anymore though. Not if you live in Madison. You can break out of your Machu Pichu ideas about this country and try something truly authentic. At Inka Heritage, on Park Street.

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I, myself, started with the mushroom cerviche (adorned with HUGE kernels of corn and sweet potato, in a tangy sauce)…

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… and then proceeded to the dish I always ask for insofar as it is on any menu – seafood stew, or soup, or casserole, or soup, or something brothy like that. Described variously, it is a dish that speaks to me: bits of seafood in a liquid that is seasonaed with the imagination of the cook.

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Inka Heritage is a family run place. True, our waitperson was herself not Peruvian, but had I not asked, I would have guessed otherwise. Something about the way she pronounced the items on the menu… And yes, I know that not all Europeans speak Polish and not all South Americans speak Spanish. But to me, she sounded Peruvian Spanish. I am easily influenced by the circumstances.

Let me go back to the food: it is really quite good. Don’t be one of those who only goes in if the entrance is lavish and has valet parking. In case you've not been on Madison's Park Street lately, it's not Park Avenue-like. Go in anyway and focus on the menu. Have a glass of reasonably priced wine. Maybe another. Then discover the Peruvian in you.

And don’t forget to send me a thank you email, once you try the food.

Monday, March 26, 2007

it only takes a day

…to marry, to unmarry, to give birth (well, okay, maybe longer on that one), to get a job, lose a job, to get inspired, to crawl under the bed. To say love you, miss you, and miss you tons. To eat a good meal, to learn a new skill. To contribute to the well being of another.

To transform what looks like a ton of ice, along the shores of Lake Monona…

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Sunday, March 25

…into water.

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Monday, March 26

…good bye ice fishers. Hello boat fishermen and otters.

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And within minutes, the willows show leaves…

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No time at all. Most transformations take no time at all.
Others take a lifetime.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

fine. no further convincing needed. madison is brilliantly beautiful in march

Wow. Am I going to have to pay a price for this gorgeous gift of a day, easily topping 76 degrees?

An errand at Farm & Fleet (yes, me. at Farm & Fleet. I get around.) put me close to the Edna Taylor Nature Conservancy. It’s an odd little place – several ponds, marshlands, a postage stamp forest – all behind perhaps one of the least attractive commercial areas of far-east Madison (and there’s a lot of competition there).

Warm sun. Pond noises – of ducks and frogs (those gargling sounds, they’re frogs, right?). A light breeze. I am, for the first time this year, too warm.

The Eda Taylor park touches on the Aldo Leopold Nature Center. Quite the little crowd there today. Families. Children, moving around from one spot to another. An egg hunt? No, it is the Annual Leopold Day or Fest or something – a demonstration of life in times gone-by.

And the kids, they get into it. The fun of doing laundry outside, on a scrubboard. Like my grandmother. Hanging it out to dry. Until the next kid pulls it down for another washing.

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Or, the sampling of the dripping sap from maple trees and when watching the slow drip gets too boring, looking to the maple tree for other amusements.

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But mostly, the children get a thrill out of this wild card of a day, the day in March when we can all throw down our wraps. The bold ones take to the earth and water without restraint…

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…while the geese and turtles watch in amazement. Human antics. Who can understand why it is that we behave the way we do.

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Saturday, March 24, 2007


Someday, I am sure I will speak from the inside, rather than in a way that worries about the outside. Someday.

But not today.

Though here's a "from the soul" story: A day of work. Menial work. Good work that moves things forward. Happy work. Progress. And then I zip home.

Home. Quiet home. My occasional traveling companion, Ed, calls and asks if I would like to grab food at the Café Costa Rica. He reads me reviews. Sounds fine, let’s go.

Café Costa Rica. Sounds so wonderfully removed from the here and now. It’s a small place. Four tables and two of them are very very small. Mache parrots, suspended, lights, fake palms, a counter where you can pick up food. (A terribly positioned jar of disinfectant soap stands next to the tip jar.).

I had read about the plantains and the mango sauce. Yes, those, I want those.

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And the curried chicken with the famed rice and beans in coconut milk!

Good staff here, at the little Café Costa Rica. There’s Roy, who moves between kitchen and tables effortlessly, with stories of Costa Rican relatives and, recounts of fresh fish, prepared straight from the markets.

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Why didn’t you ever introduce me to Costa Rica? – I ask Ed, who is by now having a halting Spanish conversation where there are a lot of words such as mui biene thrown around. Halting Spanish conversations often have mui biene inserted somewhere in the text.

When I next go sailing there, we can meet up!

Spoken like a man, in a million ways.

Meantime, the owner of Café Costa Rica shows up. If Roy is warm, Thony, the owner (aka the Mango Man), is effervescent.

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I want to believe that Madisonians will find this little place and make it their own. Go for it. It defines authentic (if you are after a Costa Rican buzz in a Madisonian climate). Then send me a thank you note.

I want to believe that I know what I’m doing.

Friday, March 23, 2007

where am I and what am I doing?

First, consider the fact that I have not spent a week-end in Madison since who knows when (I like Madison. Please, it’s circumstantial). So predictably, I am not in Madison.

So where am I? Here, the first thing that I came across as I alit in my non-Madison surroundings was this:

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Later, I went to dinner at a Korean place just a couple of blocks down (exceptionally excellent).

So where am I?

(Hint: understanding fully how difficult it is to move into a condo, I am helping someone do just that. Not move in, exactly, but take the final steps of settling in. But where?)

Thursday, March 22, 2007

well now, we have ourselves another…

…day of work. And me, just barely barely moving forward, still frozen from yesterday.

Hardy Polish peasant stock. Will recover by tomorrow I know it. Wait and see.

with apologies

…for being late and brief here, on Ocean.

It’s like this: we make a million small and big decisions each day. Sometimes with confidence, sometimes with trepidation. But we go on and mostly think nothing of it. Then, something arrests us. Maybe a word pops out of a friend’s mouth. Maybe, finally, there is a misfit of some sort, something feels out of shape – for whatever reason, we come to a halt. Now, suddenly, all is suspect. Whatever am I doing?

It takes a while to fall back into the blissful nonthinking state that allows us to tumble along, to continue forward.

And so today, one minute I was in a store with a building contractor, spending n dollars of the bank’s money on six major appliances and the next minute I am at the loft, stalled, frozen solid in a state of inaction. In between? Small events, a few words, the hands of a clock moving forward.

So, I’m looking for the right track again. In the meantime, from my eating table, a flower. Because when words fail, there are always flowers.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

…last day of winter and what do I have to show for it?

Would you accept asparagus for dinner and an overhang of tulips? At the most basic level, that is indeed the entirety of my celebrating the end of the cold season.

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But, give a broader meaning to the word spring and suddenly, so much more may be acknowledged as rightfully being spring-like, belonging to a day that shuts the door on the cold and frozen and looks forward to the warm and malleable.

Condo deal finalized. Today I got myself a deal. Yes, yes, I know. I cannot hope to sell it soon given Madison’s condo market. I am ahead of you here. I have it all figured out. I can’t afford to sell it ever. I run one step in front. I know myself, I know my world, I cannot afford to do any of the things that I do on a regular basis. I make my decisions based on other criteria.

And yes, I did once write, here on Ocean, that I do not intend to ever own anything ever again, ever. But the fact is that I do not own the condo, the bank does, 100%. So there. And if per chance the bank relinquishes ownership in some small amount every year for the next 30 or so, why, who am I to protest.

And another thing, oh you nay sayers. I am aware of Tracey Kidder’s book, House. I read it. I also have experience with construction crews. So I know what I am in for in taking on the project of designing and building the interior of a living space. Today’s conversations with the builder would have demonstrated this well:
I say: I thought I asked for additional insulation against potential neighbor noise.
Builder says: we have absolutely no complaints that there is transmission of noise between units.
I say: it is difficult to imagine how you could have reports of neighbor noise when the building is 75% unoccupied.
Builder says: Did you read the line about sound insulation?
I say: whatever you put in there for others is not enough for me. We made a deal. Whatever is standard, I want more of it. You gave everyone two inches? – I want four.
Builder thinks: I’ll write something fuzzy into the contract and she’ll be satisfied.
I think: he’ll write something fuzzy into the contract, but I’ll be satisfied.

Happy spring to all. Spring of flowers and asparagus and of leaping forward, in spite of it all.

Monday, March 19, 2007


So quick. One minute you’re writing that the lakes will never freeze this year and the next day they freeze.

Two months later, I return from a series of trips and the air is, if not balmy, then at least easily above freezing. And so the lakes melt.

Late in the afternoon I went to check on the fishermen. I have watched them over the now almost two years that I have lived downtown. You would not think that they would be there, given that the ice has melted in significant portions of the lake, yet there they were, a small handful, seemingly isolated, but in control, pulling in a few of the little ones, for maybe the last time this year.

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

say it with food, from D.C.

Yesterday, I ate my way through the neighborhood.

No, really. There was hardly a pause. Take a look. (There is one photo that does not belong with the rest. Because there was one hour that did not have food written into it. In the interest of fair disclosure, I put it into the day’s line up.)

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a few blocks up 14th a small place for brunch...

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...starting the day with a mimosa

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scrambled, over cheese grits

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at U Street's Love Café

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blooming magnolia at sunset

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pear & elderberry martini

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wood-fired scallops from Viking Village, Maine, over red wine braised lentils

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a small, roasted lobster from Duxbury, Maine

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key lime and white chocolate custard with huckleberry compote (an apple pie and a baked to order chocolate cake in the background)

The last four were at a remarkable place (the Blue Duck Tavern) where artisanal foods were on parade, with due recognition to the farms and fisheries that supplied them. A few notable places do this in Madison (l’Etoile began the tradition almost three decades ago). That you can do regional seasonal foods well comes as no surprise, of course. What is always a huge joy is to see it done well in one of the worst cooking months of the northern climate – March. And at prices substantially lower than our own l’Etoile. [Why is that? I’m guessing it’s a matter of volume. The Blue Duck was packed. If you can count on a full house in late winter, you can lower your prices. Of course, one way to boost diner-ship is to keep the prices down. It is so very disappointing to see our own eateries price themselves out of our pocketbooks. Ah well, there's always the kitchen stove and the grocery store. And a good latte around the corner.]