Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Bordeaux diary #1: Hitting pause at the height of the day – Laurence’s lunches, and opining over mâche.

This is the first of a number of blog entries I intend to write about my recent walking trip through the vines of Bordeaux.

Without a doubt, one of the highlights of the walking tour in Bordeaux were the amazing lunches Laurence, one half of the tour company Walk and Wine, would make for us. Usually served outdoors, these homemade, thoughtfully prepared and simply presented lunches set the tour apart from any other in my opinion. After the large, carbohydrate-heavy breakfasts at the hotel I figured I would be good until evening. However, after walking through the fresh air of the French countryside all morning long I found that by 1100 I was daydreaming about the delights lunch would no doubt hold.

I learned the lunchtime routine after the first day. Starting off with two or three salads, a plate of fruit, one to two meats and fresh bread with wine from the area where we were visiting that day, the meal would progress to the much-anticipated cheese course, often so large and full of variety that it required not one but two plates for serving. It would end with chocolates and coffee. Most times it would linger on over the course of an hour, sometimes longer -- so divergent to my standard 10-minute lunch routine of walking to the microwave, taking my lunch back to my desk and abstractedly eating it in front of my laptop. And yet the time seemed to fly during these lunches. The companionship, food, atmosphere and wine rendered them over in the blink of an eye, so that now those lovely mid-day pauses in our walks are just warm memories, never to be forgotten.

Perhaps part of my deep-felt pleasure in these meals lay in the fact that they were so incongruous to what we feel is optimal and acceptable in our modern, outcome-driven society. To carve so much time out of the most productive part of the day to eat and, gasp, drink liquor, is just inconceivable in the world I populate. Fast, mindless and light (so as not to impact your afternoon productivity), our weekday lunches are often characterless, comprising of tired sandwiches made of stale bread, wilted salads with Styrofoam lettuce drenched in low-fat, high-sugar dressings, or in my case, leftovers that I have usually been acquainted with two or three times previously. No wonder Laurence’s lunches were like a kick in the pants. They made me realize how much I was missing, how much American society was missing, and how much richer life would be if we could just hit pause on the workday, relax and take the time to appreciate and enjoy our food, really interact with our companions and yes, drink a glass of wine or two.

Here is Laurence in action, holding sway over her makeshift outdoor kitchen under a stand of olive trees.

As an aside, I will note that I got my proverbial hand slapped on the first day when, noticing plates full of cheese, my number one degustatory weakness, sitting on the sideboard, I picked up my plate full of salads and meat and wandered on over. In a flash Laurence was beside me telling me in her polite but firm tone, no, no cheese now. The cheese was for later. And thus was this American schooled on the sanctity of the cheese course. In any case, like most of the good things in life, the cheese course was worth waiting for. I think it is telling that of the over 1500, yes 1500, photos I took during the trip, there is not one of the two cheese plates that made their appearance every day. I think that once the cheese came out I moved to a different plane of comprehension, where cameras and iPhones didn’t exist, or suddenly weren’t important. And that perhaps is what the relationship between French people and their food can teach us. That the things in life that are important are not measured by their data storage capacity or connectivity capability or processing speed, but in their fleeting, humble, simple and seasonal nature. It makes me pause and think. In my line of work, we view our mobile devices as our primary communication facilitators. Lunches like the kind we had in Bordeaux led me to the realization that no, in reality it is fresh and nourishing food, good cheese, wine and companions that create the conditions for true human interaction.

But I’ll be quiet now so you can see what I mean.

A table laid out with meats and salads. Here a cured ham, turkey rillettes and salad of shredded celeriac root.

In the Fronsac. Duck breast with cornichons and the magical wine made by the Mayor of the village of Saint Aignan.

Again in the Fronsac, hovering at the laden table under the trees and beside the vines.

Mid-day conviviality in the Fronsac.

An indoor table when the weather was iffy was usually as atmospheric as an outdoor setting.

The last lunch, by the water in the Saint-Estephé area of the Medoc.

The last lunch plate, eaten with the smell and breeze of the water in our faces. Smoked salmon, boiled shrimp, beet salad in vinaigrette, mâche salad and a white Bordeaux from Chateau Loudenne.

I will remember this last lunch, not only for the atmosphere of the perfect picnic spot, or the regretful realization that this would be our last outdoor gathering, or the fresh seafood and the momentously crisp white wine, but primarily for the mâche salad.

I thought I was fairly well versed in the various types of salad-worthy greens, thanks to my Mom, but I had never encountered mâche before. Sweet, nutty, incredibly tender mâche is sometimes known as corn salad, or lamb's lettuce. It isn't popular in the states for some reason. But it should be. The young leaves have a slight hint of bitterness about them, with a wonderful crunchy texture. I was in love at first mouthful. In fact after the bowl had been passed around multiple times, I asked, and was granted, permission to empty the bowl into my plate. I sat and opined at the table that I wished we were able to get this at home. And lo and behold, after getting home I was wandering slowly through the produce section at Whole Foods and there it was, amongst the other high end organic salad greens in an antiseptic looking plastic tub – mâche. It had a Whole Foods price tag, but I decided to try a tub just to see if it was indeed the same stuff as Laurence served us.

It was.

Oh why am I so expensive??


The tub made enough salad for two nights. The first night I made a potent vinaigrette (it makes the tip of my nose sweat just thinking about it) with apple cider vinegar and macerated grapefruit, leaving half the sectioned fruit to scatter over the salad. Dinner that night was the salad, a glass of red wine and grilled cheese sandwich on homemade European black bread. Perfect.

On the second night I recreated Laurence’s beet salad with mustard vinaigrette and tossed that into the mâche. Again, divine. Both salads left me with a longing for more mâche, but at that price it isn’t something I can do every week. So I thought about growing some and did some internet research. And of course, wouldn’t you know it, the time to sow mâche is early September. I am too late. It would have been perfect for winter salads, agh, if I had only known about it sooner. Still, it was comforting to know that I could reproduce, at least partially, some of the magic that Laurence created for us in Bordeaux. Next up I need to try my hand at that celeriac salad.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Returning with the story of a bone.

It has been a very, very long time…

The lack of postings does not mean there has been nothing worth posting about. On the contrary, it simply implies that life has gotten complicated, in ways both expected and unexpected. In late-July T reported to the Army War College in PA to commence his yearlong program. This involves weekday geo-bachelor/bachelorette-dom, weekly commutes up and down on the weekend and a serious crimp in our blog writing and Sunday supper routine.

Instead of cooking semi-elaborate meals on Sunday afternoon to be lingered over in the evening, I now somewhat frantically try to prepare multiple meals for T to take up to school for the week. A Sunday supper is usually made, but he often eats it on Monday night and I’ll eat it alone after he leaves.

Shortly after he started his program of study, I witnessed a milestone.


The day after this momentous event, I got sick. And except for a 10 or so day respite when I was out of town, I have been sick ever since. Initially it was the flu. Now it has morphed into severe, asthma-inducing allergies, brought on perhaps by the fact that since late-August, we have seen the sun only briefly and have had instead rain, rain and more rain, which means mold and mildew clinging to every available surface. In other words no fun. If this is what the 40s have in store for me, I say no thanks.

However, those 10 days of respite were wonderful. They happily coincided with my much-anticipated trip to France and walking tour in Bordeaux. The tour was my birthday gift from T and it will have to go down as one of the best presents ever. T being occupied with his program at the War College, I went with a good friend and we had a blast. Apart from the 2.5 “girl’s days” in Paris, we had a week in Bordeaux walking through wine fields, visiting vineyards, eating amazing lunches out in open air, spending wonderful hours with people who started out as total strangers but ended up being wonderful friends and companions. The walk was incredible - energizing and relaxing all at once and I’ll be writing more about it in the future, I promise. For now you will have to be satisfied with this, ripe on the vine in the Pomerol.

Today I will regale you with a story about a bone. A lamb bone to be exact. Several months ago I braised a leg of lamb. Not wanting to waste the bone and thinking it would be good for soup, I wrapped it up and threw it in the freezer where it continually reminded us of its presence by rolling out and falling onto our toes whenever we opened the door. After months and months of this routine, and after multiple queries from T on whether I intended to use the damn thing or not (my excuse being it was a particularly miserable summer and we were in no mood for soup), it hit my big toe on a day that was mild with a hint of fall in the air. I figured it was fate and picked it up off the floor, took out my soup pot, threw it in with some water and thyme and let it go. Before I went to bed I put it into the fridge, skimmed off the congealed fat the next day and started it up again, adding more water as I went.

In the intervening day I bought a can of white beans and a piece of lamb shoulder. There was little meat on the bone and I figured it would be a good thing to have something more than essence of lamb in the soup.

As I strained the broth I browned the meat in the same soup pot, threw in a chopped onion, some garlic and a couple of chopped carrots then threw the bone back in and let it simmer until the shoulder piece was fork tender.

 I then took it out, shredded it, and then put it back in along with the can of white beans and a container of sautéed kale that had been frozen some weeks earlier. After the simple addition of more thyme, salt and pepper it was GTG (“good to go,” as they say in my line of work).

 Honestly, I can’t remember when I have had a more satisfying “made up” soup. I’m going to say that the time in deep freeze aged the bone well, because the broth was rich and delicious. The vegetables and beans made me feel as if I was eating healthy too. I ate it with a cold salad of beets in mustard vinaigrette and chopped papaya and lime for dessert. It was a great mid-week meal.

In fact, the soup was so good in fact that I think I need to braise another leg of lamb soon so I can make it again.

Happily, the cooler weather brings the return of two of life's simple joys: Football season and bread making time. I can't bear to turn the oven on in the Virginia summer heat, but now that it has cooled off, it is all this all the time.

Mei Ping too is enjoying the change in weather. She is lethargic and acts like a relatively normal dog during the warm months, but as soon as the seasons change and it cools off she recalls her Siberian Husky roots and becomes once again the manic freak of a dog that I know and love and there she is at my feet, jumping on my back, desperately seeking another walk, run or play session.

Anybody want a dog for the next six months?

Okay, back again soon. I've got my trip to France to tell you about, needlework updates, a write up on our poignant trip to Mann Gulch and then there will be multiple posts about World War One, as T has finally resolved to write his big research paper on British national strategy and their decision to enter the war in 1914 in defense of Belgium and France. Partially thanks to my influence perhaps. Thank goodness he decided against the paper on African insurgencies.