Finding the Heart of France

After years of visiting my family home in Southern France, this has become my favorite sight:

A closed gate. This gate means the afternoon is winding down and you are home to stay. This gate means that the day's excursions are done - everyone has returned to the nest and nothing else is needed. 

This is my second favorite sight: 

From the edge of the terrace you can look over the pool, the mountains as they change color in the setting sun, and the barbecue - usually tended by a small group of people, all with their glasses of wine. 

This is what you see when you turn around: 

People bustling in and out of the kitchen, listening to music, setting the table, and putting the final touches on dinner.

Food has always been my way of connecting with France. This may not come as a surprise to you - I mean, it is me after all. You already know that I really love food. And then, of course it is France, the land of baguettes, cheese (more than 365 different types!), and wine.

It goes deeper than that however. Everywhere you look, you can see people folding the rituals of food, food making, and eating into their lives. 

You can see it in how an elderly neighbor and long-time family friend stops by to present us with a bottle of his homemade Cartagen, a sweet regional liquor made from freshly pressed grapes.

Or how his wife still keeps my Grandmother's old books on identifying mushrooms, and knows all the right places to forage.

You can see it in the bee keeper, a friend from church, who takes his bee hives "up to pasture" to the aromatic hilltops of the Ardeche so his bees produce a richer honey.

Or how the little old man at the weekly market in Uzes sets up a small card table displaying two plastic boxes filled with goat cheese. He only has two kinds: Less dry and more dry, and it is the most complex and flavorful goat cheese you could ever hope to try. 

One of our favorite days came as a tip from my cousin - a talented wine maker with a thriving business. He told us of a wine festival taking place in nearby Anduze, a picturesque town situated along a river on the edge of the mountains. The festival would feature over 25 local, independent wine-makers - my cousin being one of them. 

The next day Jacob and I drove over to Anduze, and walked into the festival. The park was pleasantly busy - not crowded, but bustling with people tasting wine, having picnics, children riding mini horses, and buskers playing old-fashioned French vaudeville music. 

We paid the 4 Euro entry fee that granted us a wine glass and booklet for taking notes, and the tasting began. The vintners were set up in a semi-circle, each with 2-3 wines on display. All you had to do was approach a winemaker, let them know which wine you would like to try (we chose to stick with the reds - there were a lot of wines to try and we weren't planning on getting wasted), make small talk and take notes as desired, then thank them and move on. If you decided to purchase a bottle that would be handled at another tent separate from the tasting area. 

As someone who loves samples, but always feels guilty taking one without buying anything...I'm not alone in this, am I? Anyways, having an entire wine festival dedicated to pressure-free sampling made me giddy with joy (the wine helped too). Why don't more festivals do it this way? You could have easily spent the entire day there, drinking over 60 wines, for a grand total of 4 Euros - and you get to keep the glass.

In all these things I saw a common thread: a love for a life that finds pleasure in community, beauty in the simple things, and refuses to be hurried or pressured along. You could see it in the fact that the festival's entry fee was €4, as opposed to $50.00 as it could have easily been elsewhere. I realized it with a jolt when trying to run errands and finding all of the department stores closed for lunch between noon and 2 pm.  

It is difficult, as a visitor, to enter into the same slow stream that characterizes the south of France. It takes time for your heart to start beating slower, for your mind to stop racing, to let yourself relax into the beauty of simply being

So Jacob and I (and the rest of my family as well - we were in good company), hit the brakes and forced ourselves to wind down the fastest way we knew how: through cooking.

This year in France was a special one. It had been 12 years since this much of my family had been together in France at once. It was also the first time that we all really cooked together. My brother taught me recipes he created for the restaurant he is opening in Sydney. I taught him how to make green beans taste better than he thought possible. We brainstormed dishes to challenge each other and show off our skills, then had 6 sets of willing hands ready to act as sous-chefs.  

Over a week and a half we made lemon-stuffed trout, lavender-smoked artichokes, fried chicken and collard-style green beans, flank steak with chimichurri sauce, ricotta and olive stuffed peppers, American-style ribs and truffle macaroni and cheese, and much more. Not every experiment was a blazing success, but everything tasted amazing.

This is the beating heart of what I love about France. "My France" is slow mornings, lazy hot days, afternoon naps, and long, long evenings spent around the dinner table. My France is food shopping, wine tasting, bursts of activity before dinner, and star-gazing late into the night. 

I have always found the romance of France to be an elusive one to capture. In some places, you can find a city's pulse by simply strolling its streets and feeling its vibrancy. But walking France's markets and cobblestoned villages only left me skimming the surface of what I've always known to be a deeper pool. Finding that connection this year (in food, what else?) filled me with enough ideas and thoughts to fill a book - and so, I am starting to write one. It may take years to finish, but it will be full of stories of the people, the food, and the stories that cut straight to the heart of southern France.

But while you wait, I will give you some recipes. Stay tuned. :) 



Weekend of Festivals, Part 1

I have mentioned before that Vienna takes it's festivals quite seriously. During the short time we have lived in the city we have come across a music film festival, a buskers festival, a traveling circus, an animal adoption festival, an African culture festival, a sports festival, and an Austrian Wald regional festival. Currently in Karlsplatz outside of our apartment they are holding a Malaria...festival? I'm not sure that "festival" is the term they would use to describe it. And those, my friends, are just the ones I could think of off the top of my head. 

Allow me to repeat myself: the Viennese are serious about their festivals. 

Shortly after arriving in Vienna we heard about the Wiener Wander Tag, an occasion that may as well have been custom built for Jacob and I. Imagine the beautiful vineyards that surround the city (the "Napa Valley" of Vienna), a hiking path that connects the wineries, and throw in regular stops for wine tastings - and there you have the Wiener Wander Tag. Sounds pretty amazing, doesn't it?  

Wiener Wander Tag 1

Jacob, our friend Kathryn, and I showed up around noon to begin our trek. The vineyards of Vienna are so extensive that the Wiener Wander Tag actually hosts three separate walking paths, for a total of over 25 kilometers. The weather wasn't quite the sunny, glorious autumn day we were hoping for, but a bit of fog and rain were not going to dampen our spirits. We started up the hill, reached the summit, and were immediately greeted by a little wooden house serving glasses of Sturm, a seasonally available sweet wine. 

Wiener Wander Tag 2

"Be careful of Sturm", many people had told us. It's sweet, easy to drink, and served in a beer stein. That didn't stop them from serving it at Bible study though. We like our Bible study.

Kathryn made a good point: the Wiener Wander Tag was going to develop in us a dangerous Pavlovian response: Climb hill, receive wine. We had all but walked 100 meters before we had our first glass of Sturm in hand. 

Fortified for our journey, we continued on and decided that we would not last terribly long without food. This was the food available: 

Wiener Wander Tag 3

Spit roasted pig! A plate of pork and freshly shaved horseradish in hand, we found a bench to enjoy the view of the vineyard and the Viennese cityscape laying just beyond.  

Wiener Wander Tag 4
Wiener Wander Tag 5

Reaching the end of our trek we received a congratulatory pin for our efforts and celebrated with another glass of Sturm.

The following day, Jacob and I set out to scout the city for photo shoot locations (more on that another day...but in the meantime, feel free to check out my newest business endeavor). Walking through the Prater, Vienna's fascinating old amusement park (one of the oldest in Europe), we came across a true German spectacle: Oktoberfest. 


Throngs of dirndl and lederhosen clad people amassed outside of enormous beer halls, waiting for the parades to kick off the day's festivities. Musicians costumed to represent the traditional dress of their region march around, accompanied by the raucous cheers of the onlookers. I have never seen so many men in leather. 

Oktoberfest 3

At any of the less beer-centric festivals, it is easily possible to purchase a glass of beer for 2.50 Euro. At Oktoberfest however, the prices are steep - at over 5 Euro a glass, and a 40 Euro entry fee for the evening festivities. All things considered, Jacob and I would prefer to simply host our own Oktoberfest - call it an apartment "house warming". 




Disclaimer: Please excuse me if this post includes awkwardly written or half-formed sentences... Jacob is sitting on the couch next to me, singing "I Believe I Can Fly".