Rocky’s Meadow Mountain Cafe

A year ago I wrote a story about my favourite Colorado hometown cafe. It was called “A Mountain Gem for 70 Years”. The owner, Rocky St. John, passed away right before Christmas. In tribute to her, I have revised my words with a few new photos. Over breakfast this morning, I spoke with her sons, Ben and Joe, who, along with their father, are keeping the cafe open in her memory. She trained them well.

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Allenspark, Colorado lies in a curvy bend off Highway 7, between Estes Park and the valley below. As you drive past the majestic scenery of Wild Basin and the backside of Long’s Peak, it’s easy to simply bypass this tiny town. But if you turn right onto the business spur, it’s probably because you know about Rocky’s Meadow Mountain Cafe.

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On a hillside halfway through town is a small green building with purple trim. Colorful buttons are mixed into the cement between the slate stone steps climbing to the front porch. The main room has knotty pine walls and an antique potbelly stove, radiating warmth. Shelves are lined with an eccentric collection of salt-and-pepper shakers. Local artwork is for sale on the wall. Behind this quaint façade is a long history of food, friendly service, and loyal customer relationships.

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It began in 1946 with a local character named Lil Lavicka. Known as the “Pie Lady”, Lil was famous for her homemade baked goods. As part of a divorce settlement, her husband hastily built a two-room cafe across from her tiny home. Lil’s Pie House flourished for twenty summer seasons.

Then, after several changes of ownership, Meadow Mountain Cafe was born. Breakfast and lunch became the daily fare. Food was fresh and home-cooked to order. Coffee was hot–with a touch of cinnamon. Consistently good food, friendly service, and reasonable pricing enhanced its’ reputation beyond the boundaries of the small community. Locals and tourists lined up for a table inside or on the covered porch, complete with hummingbirds, flowers and an overhanging pine tree. Lil Lavicka’s seasonal pie house evolved into a legendary year-round cafe with returning customers, who became friends.

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Roxanne [Rocky] St. John began waiting tables at Meadow Mountain more than 30 years ago. It wasn’t long before her cooking finesse and creativity nudged her into the kitchen full time. Rocky worked the grill for several female owners until finally, in 2007, she took over solo ownership. Already an established part of the ongoing success of Meadow Mountain, it was time to put her personal stamp on the place.

Rocky introduced two new house specialties–the veggie burger and the green chili sauce for huevos rancheros. Cinnamon spiked coffee is still standard, of course. She chose the outside paint colors and easy-on-the-eye peach walls for the kitchen. The button-inlaid steps were designed and built for safer access in all weather conditions. An herb garden was planted out in back. Inside, the eclectic collection of coffee mugs and salt-and-pepper shakers [always part of her style] continued to grow. Her kitchen blasting music-of-choice ran along the lines of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.

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We have been driving from our cabin in Estes Park to Meadow Mountain Cafe for more than 15 years. It never disappoints. It’s not meant to be fast food. You wait patiently and sip good coffee, talk leisurely. Perhaps you warm your back near the antique stove, muse over the salt-and-pepper collection, read a book or eavesdrop quietly on another conversation. You watch regulars walk into the kitchen to say hello. At a corner table, friends sit and play cards after their meal. A man at the counter leans his chin into one hand and dozes, holding a coffee cup with the other.

Orders parade out of the kitchen. Coffee mugs are refilled. Homemade brown bread, thickly sliced for toast or sandwiches, is baked twice daily in summer to keep up with demand. The scene is homey and multi-dimensional–from the diversity of customers stepping through the door to the din of country or rock-n-roll music pouring out of the kitchen. Conversation and laughter is spiced with the clatter of plates and silverware as tables empty and fill.

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beaded tapestry made by a friend of Rocky’s

What sustains this kind of success in a town of just over 500 people? Rocky, along with the women before her, crafted a timeless formula. It begins with an old-fashioned hard work ethic. It’s maintained by keeping quality high, service friendly, and community relationships strong. Rocky was passionate about what she did and consistently did it very well. And then, just maybe, that hint of cinnamon in the coffee didn’t hurt either.

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Rocky St. John, 1960-2015

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new step up to the cafe

 

Looking Back To the Present

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christmas carousel, strasbourg, france

Long ago, in December 1570, the first Christmas market was held on a cobblestoned square in front of a towering Gothic cathedral. Torches and candles lit the wintry darkness. Religious objects and decorations were offered for sale. A bowl of steaming stew might have been ladled from a cauldron over an open fire to entice passersby to linger and warm themselves.

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Now, 445 years later, this fairy tale-like tradition continues in the “Capital of Christmas”, Strasbourg, France.

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Strasbourg is situated in the Alsace region on France’s eastern border, across the Rhine River from Germany. Its’ strategic location dates back to 12 BC where, as part of the Roman Empire, it became the crossroads of Europe. Frequented by both travelers and invaders, Strasbourg has bounced back and forth repeatedly in political tugs of war. At the end of WWII, Germany returned the city to France for the last time. It retains strong remnants of Franco-German culture and tradition from the entwined history.

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IMG_4551The original “centre-ville” is a small island formed by branches of the River Ill [La Grande Île]. Here, the red sandstone Cathedral is the most striking architectural feature. Construction begun in 1176 was finally completed in 1439. An impressive 263 years of engineering, masonry, and carpentry featuring a single Gothic spire which rises 142 meters [466 feet]!

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The oldest Christmas Market is also one of Europe’s largest. Three hundred cottage-like wooden stalls offer food, drink, and seasonal goodies along with an impressive array of gifts and decorations. A 30-meter fir tree from the mountains is beautifully bedecked in Place Kléber. The market officially opens the last weekend of November. This year we made plans early, knowing the crowds are daunting. It didn’t turn out to be that way.

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100 feet of mountain evergreen

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Late Friday afternoon began with the usual glowing stalls selling festive wares, ambient street decorations, lights sparkling in cold, wintry dusk. It smelled even better. Aromas of roasting chestnuts, gingerbread, grilled brats and sauerkraut, mingled with steaming vats of spiced vin chaud or glühwein [hot wine].

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chestnuts roasting

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gingerbread smiling

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baubles posing

While Mark was on his assigned mission of photographing the charm that transforms Strasbourg into Christmas wonderland, I busied myself locating the best cup of vin chaud. It is a serious task. They are not all alike!

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hot wine comes in red, white, or nonalcoholic juice, pretzels on the side

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gutenberg square

Unsuccessful initial research shooed me away from the bustling cathedral area. Winding my way to La Petite France, the old tanners district near the river locks, I found a small outcropping of stalls. Here was the place. “Le meilleur vin chaud dans la marché” [the very best in the whole market]. Not gagging-ly sweet, not cloyingly spiced, just good quality red wine, perfectly heated with the right amount of subtle spice. I was scientifically sure. The vendor beamed when I told him this “Truth”.

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the best vin chaud in strasbourg is here 

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la petite france by day

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fairytale lights at night, times one

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fairy tale lights at night, times two

 

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street of baccarat crystal chandeliers

 

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a closer look inside

This year’s market was very different for several reasons. First were the roadblocks to cars entering the city center. We parked outside and walked in. Secondly, there were heavily armed police and military positioned on every bridge, square, and corner intersection. In teams of two or three, they stood, walked about, or drove slowly down the [now] pedestrian-only streets. We meandered leisurely through even the most popular areas without jostling shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. At 7:00PM the stalls promptly boarded up. It was not a typical opening night.

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IMG_1491We slipped into a wine bar to warm up. The owner told us this was the first year he could look out the windows and see across the street. Normally it would be a wall-to-wall crush of people until late in the evening.

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Two weeks before, November 13, was a tragic night in Paris. Terrorists killed 130 people and injured 400 others. France is still tender, reeling from an assault on the lifestyle [and young lives] in a proud democratic republic.

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memorial dans la Place Kléber

We paused next to a memorial for Paris victims near the towering Christmas tree. We noted the French tri-color worked into holiday decorating. These outpourings of nationalism, part memoriam and part act of defiance were not surprising. After a tragedy, solidarity and resilience are often displayed this way.

 

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the french flag unfurled

 

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the tri color decorates

Still, it can be difficult to know how to move on when inexplicable things happen. We live in Paris and didn’t know the victims. But we learned of them.

The story about the café owner of La Belle Équipe is particularly poignant. One of the shootings occurred at this popular neighborhood bistro. His wife was among the fatalities. She died on the floor, in his arms. This man is Jewish. His wife was Muslim. They have a son. Their family represents the healthy diversity permeating Paris, and France.

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After burying the mother of his son, the still grieving owner said it was out of the question to close his café. “We must go to concerts. We must sit on terraces. We can still smile with scars on our face. We will lick our wounds and live with our scars. It doesn’t stop us. There is no choice.”

I am struck by this [often] difficult truth after disaster strikes. But of course he is right. One way to reaffirm hope is to return to the things we normally do. Going to work, eating in restaurants with friends, attending concerts, playing with children, musing over coffee on a terrace, visiting museums, strolling through a Christmas market…

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The ability to persevere over hundreds of years to  build a cathedral is the same sentiment that propels us forward when heartbreaking events happen. Giving up is not a choice. Instead, as we lean into the collective embrace of family, friends and community, we hold onto our hope for the future as tightly as we can.

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Wishing you and yours a warm holiday season of togetherness.

[All photos courtesy of MEU, my in-house photographer extraordinaire.]

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Simply Sally

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“A little glass of wine is a great buffer.”–––Sally Boyle

My recurring problem, throughout adult life, has been figuring out what to cook for dinner. This seems rather silly because if you hand me a restaurant menu I can decide within seconds what will feed my hunger. My husband invariably asks what I am ordering before he makes up his own mind. He knows he will want it too. Especially after he orders something else and then sees the better choice in front of me.

Coming up with a plan for cooking at home has always put me in a quandary. Over the years I have relied upon friends whose culinary skills seem effortless, nurturing, even joyful. The ones I count on know exactly what they are making at the very moment when I am asking them! I’ve come to believe this kind of decision-making is inborn. It bypassed my genetic makeup. Despite 39 years of marriage and two children, daily cooking continues to be a troublesome hurdle.

During our years overseas I have had many mentoring friends who taught me how to prepare simple, delicious one-dish meals to nourish a growing, hungry family. Some of those meals became staples that, over time, no longer required a recipe. Mujuddarah [Lebanese lentils and rice], Rancher’s Pasta, Lebanese egg-potato salad, veggie fried rice, Spaghetti Josephine to name a few.

By the time we moved to France, children had grown and there were only two of us. It was also when, thankfully, I met my friend Sally.

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Sally is an artist and teacher who moved to Bolivia for two years in the late 1980s. She became involved in running a house to support children living on the streets. A young boy in the program captured her heart and she adopted him. In 1990, they returned to the U.S. where she resumed her teaching job in the Arizona public schools.

She is a born nurturer who also happens to love cooking. Every day. Sally always has a plan.

Her picnics in our Parisian neighborhood park were particularly memorable. Over colorful Bolivian blankets spread on the lush grass, she arranged platters of sliced poached chicken, fragrant with spices, raisins, and sautéed onions, tiny thyme and rosemary roasted potatoes, Mediterranean quinoa salad, cheeses and fruits, and chocolaty bites of brownies. Flutes of champagne or a perfect glass of wine served as accompaniment. Even flowers in a vase. Sally made it look effortless. On many a splendid summer evening, she and her husband charmed a revolving door of houseguests over the two years they lived here.

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One day as I was floundering around for an idea, I asked Sally what was for dinner. She said, “Galette.” What? I knew galette in the form of a cake [Galette de Roi] served in the early days of the New Year. It has a plastic toy king baked inside that is a good luck charm for the finder. That is if you don’t swallow it.

“No, no, no”, Sally said, “This is different. Galette can be savory as well.” Traditionally, galette is a covered crust over cooked ingredients–savory [meat or veggies] or sweet [fruit]. She began to describe the process but I cut her off. “I’ll never remember, just show me.”

We agreed to meet the following week in my sunny kitchen for an afternoon of cooking camaraderie.

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world’s best kitchen

That same evening, in celebration of the retirement of our apartment building’s caretakers, I was to attend a potluck dinner party in the courtyard. All other residents are French. At the time I didn’t know them well and felt intimidated by what to bring.

Back in the kitchen, there happened to be a bottle of Burgundy in the counter wine rack. We opened it. Then got busy. It couldn’t have been easier. Especially with the “wine buffer”.

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Sally brought cooked chicken breasts and potatoes, roasted red peppers, spinach, zucchini, olives, onion, and soft goat cheese. While I shredded the chicken, she sautéed chopped onion and sliced zucchini rounds in a pan with olive oil until tender. Frozen pastry circles thawed quickly at room temperature on a baking sheet.

It became simple assembly after that–one meat galette and the other, vegetarian.

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fold crust over for half-moon galette

For the meaty one, we layered chicken, potatoes, and vegetables [zucchini, onion, red pepper and olives] over the pastry, seasoning well with salt and pepper. [Add red pepper flakes if you like more heat. Yes I do!] For veggie style, we used a combination of cooked spinach, goat cheese, zucchini, red peppers, olives and onions.

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ready to bake

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the lovely result

Cover with the top pastry or fold over in half and seal the edges. [I have also made a one-crust version, which is even lighter.] Make holes in crust to let out steam. Bake 20 minutes at 210 Centigrade or 400 Fahrenheit. Voila–an instant main course worthy of a king! Serve warm or cooled to room temperature. Add green salad and glass of wine, as desired.

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one crust, open faced

Later that evening at the party, I discreetly placed my contribution on the table with other food offerings. Then quickly moved away to meet and greet neighbors. As people began to eat, I overheard several women murmuring about something delicious. It was the galette! They wanted to know how to make it and what was inside.

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my dinner party galette

Surprised to receive such notice in a foodie crowd, I laughingly shrugged, “Oh, it was so simple…”

Simple, that is, if you have a friend like Sally…

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sally and rick, courtesy of rick engelmann

“Tasting the Stars”

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“There is nothing more beautiful than a sunset, viewed over a glass of chilled Champagne.” –Jared M. Brown

“I only drink Champagne when I am happy and when I am sad.”–Lily Bollinger

“Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right.”–Mark Twain

In the beginning, Champagne was not a wine. It was an area in northern France known for producing fine wool. Scattered vineyards made a bit of wine for local imbibing. It was rough and pinkish brown and bubbles were considered a bad sign. For several centuries there was a lot of sacking, burning and desecration of the region, especially during the Crusades and the 100 Years War.

Then, in the late 1660s, a young Benedictine Monk named Dom Pérignon was assigned to the Abbey d’Hautvillers to bring it back to life and productivity. This meant resurrecting the vineyards, formerly a financial mainstay for monasteries.

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Here is where legend and fact collide. Dom Pérignon has been credited for “inventing champagne”. A famous quote speaks of him hailing fellow monks, “Come quickly. I’m tasting the stars!” But the truth is–Champagne invented itself.

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All wines bubble when grapes are pressed. Yeast cells on the skins mix with sugar in the juice and fermentation begins. But no one knew about yeasts then. Bubbles were considered to be a flaw of nature. And fizzy wines were unacceptable for Mass.

What Dom Pérignon did do was pave the way for the Champagne industry of today. He set down some “Golden Rules for Winemaking”. Like using only the best grapes and discarding the rest, pruning hard in the spring, harvesting in cool weather, and pressing the grapes very gently, keeping the juices separate with each pressing.

His real genius–the most important thing he did–was to blend and marry different grapes. The harmony he created, between balance and taste, was unequaled at the time. He mixed grapes from different parts of the region. A completely NEW concept. Myths arose because he was so extraordinary, but the truth was he just made better wines than anyone else. He was an intelligent innovator and adaptor with keen gifts of observation and taste. He started using corks as stoppers rather than wooden pegs wrapped in oil soaked hemp. Still, most of the wine he made was red, not white. And definitely not sparkling.

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pinot grapes

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chardonnay grapes

Geographic proximity to Paris [and royalty] further enhanced the region’s reputation. Coronations in the cathedral in Reims featured massive celebrations. While partying, Kings and courtiers drank the local wine, deciding the erratic tingle in the mouth was rather pleasant. By 1730, Champagne was the beverage throughout European courts.

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chagall stained glass windows, reims cathedral

However, production remained unpredictable. It had either too much or too little fizz. There was also the danger element. Because fermentation inside the bottle was uncontrolled, excessive build up of carbonic gas caused unexpected explosions. More than a few were maimed, or killed.

Still, love for Champagne continued to rise in France and throughout Europe.

Napoleon purposefully stopped in Épernay before every military campaign to pick up a supply. “In victory I deserve it. In defeat I need it.” One time, in a rush, he failed to make the stop. He was on his way to, well…Waterloo.

Fast forward to the mid-to-late 1800s. Louis Pasteur discovered yeast cells. Fermentation became more than a “strange phenomenon” that exploded wine bottles. Wine making took off with newly applied knowledge. Stronger glass bottles, the invention of the wire muzzle and metal foil to hold down corks, and significantly, the process of “remuage” [disgorging sediment] further propelled Champagne’s future.

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spring unfolds april 2015

A common consumer complaint was the unpleasant murkiness left inside bottles from dead yeast cells and other byproducts of fermentation. Widow Clicquot [Veuve Clicquot] and her cellar master experimented with trying to remove the sticky mess. He cut holes into the widow’s wooden kitchen table, then inserted the bottles upside down by, suspended by their necks. Periodic twisting and shaking dislodged the sludge and moved it gradually towards the cork. When the cork was pulled, sediment shot out leaving most of the wine and bubbles. Topped off, re-corked and ready to ship–a clearly sparkling outcome. Their secret soon leaked. An industry took off.

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champagne countryside, fall 2015

During WWI, two extremely bloody battles were fought along the River Marne. Trenches cut knifelike paths through the vineyards. Villages in Champagne were bombed, burned and pillaged along the front line, but hardy Champenois women, old men, and children managed to tend vines not demolished.

In WWII, most of the wine stock was hidden behind false walls to offset German demands for shipments to send home. Winston Churchill, a notorious Champagne consumer declared, “Remember Gentlemen, it is not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne!” His admiration for U.S. President Roosevelt was immortalized in a simile, “Meeting Franklin Roosevelt was like opening your first bottle of Champagne; knowing him was like drinking it.”

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undulating symmetry, post harvest, fall 2015

 Post-war, the vineyards were massively re-organized. Numbers of vines were reduced. Replanting in symmetrical orderly rows, rather than haphazardly as in the past, became the norm. Grapes were matched to the soil and microclimate. The combination of ancient chalky soil, harsh northern weather and unreliable harvests created a system for blending grapes from current and past years. All fine Champagnes are now made from blending three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Exceptions are Blanc de Blancs which is 100% Chardonnay and Blanc de Noirs which is 100% Pinot Noir.

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blanc de blancs

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blanc de noirs

My love for Champagne came about later rather than earlier in my life. In my 20s, California sparkling wine was the perfect storm for a day-after headache. During fifteen years in Asia we drank Champagne once–on New Year’s Eve of the millennium. In Germany we sipped Sekt, the sparkling apéro-of-choice at social gatherings. It was nice, but we didn’t buy it to drink at home. Only when we moved to France did bubbly wine shift from infrequent tasting to outright delight.

Soon after moving to Paris, we saw that Champagne was basically the only beverage offered as an aperitif on any occasion, day or night. It was light, refreshing, delicious, and trés French, of course. We began making weekend trips to Reims and Épernay, coexisting capitals of the Champagne region, to sample and learn more. Gradually, we found the tastes and the amount of effervescence we most enjoy.

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current lineup of favourites

Some people consume Champagne only for special party occasions–weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, retirements, christenings, or at midnight on December 31. Now we happily live outside of that box. When home in France, Champagne is the white-wine-of-choice any day of the week, month or year.

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Buying good Champagne doesn’t have to be expensive. Épernay excursions have led us to small producers who sell directly to the consumer. Deliciously drinkable bubbly can be purchased for less than $20.00 per bottle.

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color change fall 2015

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Pairing Champagne with food sometimes surprises. Strawberries and chocolate are obvious clichés. Perhaps counter-intuitively, pizza is a perfect match to the sparkles of Champagne. Homemade pizza night begins by uncorking something to sip in the kitchen while we cook. Glasses refilled table side when we eat.

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classic pairing

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surprising pairing

Sparkling wine produced in other geographies–German Sekt, Italian Prosecco, Spanish Cava, and California Champagne are runners-up. They aren’t bad, even acceptable tasting to many people. But it’s simply not the same. If you are fortunate enough to buy or be served a bottle of Champagne, raise your first glass to thank Dom Pérignon. Then sit back, relax, and simply enjoy “tasting the stars”.

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“In a perfect world, everyone would have a glass of Champagne every evening.”––Willie Gluckstern.

I second that notion.

“There comes a time in every woman’s life when the only thing that helps is a glass of Champagne.”––Bette Davis.

I’m not sure when that time is, but I’m probably there.

“My only regret in life is that I didn’t drink more Champagne.”––John Keynes.

I’m not planning to have that regret.

For an award-winning documentary entitled “A Year in Champagne”, click on this website for a preview or download on ITunes: http://www.ayearinchampagne.com

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fall in champagne, 2015

La Bonne Rentrée in Paris

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August is the month when France goes on vacation. “La Fermeture Annuelle” is a tradition which originated in the early 1900s to provide paid time-off for factory workers. By 1982, laws were passed giving five weeks of paid vacation to all salaried workers.

From late July to the end of August, the city of Paris is quieter, the streets emptier, parking–not a problem. There are still tourists and some businesses remain open. But most small shops and restaurants are closed and shuttered as Parisians head for sunny beaches, country homes, and relaxation elsewhere.

Then comes September and “La Bonne Rentrée”. Schools reopen and sleepy summertime is over. By the end of the first week, streets and cafés are full once again. Curbside parking disappears for another year.

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un café timeout

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une bouteille de vin rouge timeout

La Rentrée is a time to reconnect with friends, re-establish routines and reacquaint to life in Paris.

One of my favorite returning rituals is to spend a morning at the “Marché aux Puces” at Porte de Vanves. This isn’t the biggest flea market in Paris or even the most famous. The gigantic market at Clignancourt, on the northern edge of the city, is where Woody Allen filmed scenes for his movie “Midnight in Paris”.

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I much prefer the smaller venue in the southern 14th Arrondissement. It lines only two streets, for half a day on Saturdays and Sundays, year round. There are professional merchants with covered tables and reserved spots. There are others who sell from a blanket spread on the ground. It’s both treasure hunting and people watching fun–crowded with locals and tourists.

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The entertainer,

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the daydreaming vendor,

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the watchful merchant,

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the consideration,

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the negotiation, and

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the transaction.

When looking for something special, like an antique enamel coffeepot for a story about Swedish egg coffee [An Egg in the Coffeepot, Oct. 4, 2014], I headed to the flea market. At other times, without a particular goal, I have stumbled upon useable finds such as porcelain towel bars or heavy glass candleholders or Japanese-occupation pottery plates which we began collecting in Taiwanese street markets twenty years ago.

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red is best

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japanese-occupation, circa 1895-1945, made in taiwan

Sometimes an excursion is rewarded with a beautiful signed vase or a framed picture for the wall. Or nothing at all.

Flea markets are recycled decorating ideas or collecting at its’ best. The sheer volume and range of objects astounds. Even keeping in mind the adage, “One man’s trash is another’s treasure”, it’s impossible not to be judgemental. Odd, quirky, eccentric, useful, cheap, expensive, collectible, colorful, playful, beautiful, strange, or simply weird. It’s all there, for a price. Bargaining is essential, bien sûr.

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The odd,

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the quirky,

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the eccentric, and

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the useful.

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The cheap, for a discerning eye,

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the expensive, and

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the collectibles.

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The colorful,

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the playful,

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the beautiful,

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the strange, and

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simply, the weird.

Most of the time I go to the Marché aux Puces for entertainment, to see what’s there, to eavesdrop on interactions between shoppers and vendors, to stroll along and muse over oddities with coffee in hand or, in winter, a cup of vin chaud [hot wine] sold at the corner kiosk. On a perfect day, the corner café features a temptable lunch offering.

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The adventure never disappoints. It’s simply a rentrée ritual to remind me that I’m back in my favorite city in the world.

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I. M. Pei’s pyramid

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Letting Go In Latvia

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Jumurda Manor, Latvia

Joseph Campbell, noted mythologist and philosopher, wrote, “A ritual is an enactment of a myth. And, by participating in the ritual, you are participating in the myth…But you don’t know what you are doing unless you think about it. That’s what ritual does. It gives you an occasion to realize what you are doing so that you’re participating in the energy of life. That’s what rituals are for; you do things with intention…you learn about yourself as part of the being of the world…”

Campbell also said, “Mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical…it is beyond images. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known, but not told.”

Herein lies the challenge–to tell a story that for the past two months has been largely beyond the reach of my own words. It is rooted in a ritual with pagan origins. It also happened to be part of the wedding of our son and his Latvian/Russian bride.

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ceremonial site from our skylight window

In a countryside setting outside of Riga, Latvia, June 12 was as perfect as a summer day can be anywhere in the world. There was warm sun and a light breeze. Cloudless sky. Lapis-blue lake and a field of soft grass. A ceremonial framework of boughs entwined with flowers. Shared vows in both Russian and English. Radiant smiles. Applause, joy, and love.

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The after party began with a scavenger hunt and Champagne for guests as the newlyweds were whisked away for photos. Upon their return, the celebration continued with good food and drink, fantastic music, poignant toasts and funny speeches.

Just before midnight, the band music stopped. All of the guests were ushered from the party tent, down the hill, to the wedding site near the lake. Glowing candle lanterns lit the darkness. DSCF1672 Blankets were offered for the cool evening air. There was a young man playing soft guitar music. Two chairs had been placed beneath the framework of boughs and flowers. The mothers of the bride and groom were instructed to sit on the chairs. Then our children sat on our laps. No one understood what was happening, but we became participants in an ancient cultural myth.

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Mičošana [pronounced “Michuashana”] is a Latvian wedding tradition that dates back to [pre-religious] pagan times. It symbolizes the moment when the bride becomes a wife and the groom a husband. It is a way of saying “goodbye” to childhood and home. In this enactment, there was an unspoken tribute to both mothers as we held our children one final time before they passed into adulthood and the creation of a new family. It is a sweet, sad, and yet somehow romantic experience.

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Historically, Latvia was a country of peasants living and working on large farming estates under a feudal system. Girls typically married boys from settlements far away. Mičošana became a ritual of farewell. After marriage, the bride would live on her husband’s settlement, rarely seeing her own family again. The ceremony symbolized “giving the bride away” because it severed ties between the girl and her family.

Here is how it went 21st century style. Midnight–the end of the day and the beginning of a new day. With soft background music and married children on our laps, the bride’s mother took off her daughter’s veil and placed it into a box. She tied a ruffled apron around her daughter’s waist. IMG_4409

I placed an engraved wooden pipe in my son’s hand. The bride and groom stood together with their symbolic accessories and read aloud the roles they would now assume. This was the lighthearted version of contemporary Mičošana, with laughter too. From a basket holding printed cards the bride read, “I will drink beer and be the master of the remote control.” The groom, “I will always be very pretty and sweet.”

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The readings went on for several minutes. The wedding bouquet was tossed by the bride. Finally people began to drift uphill to the tent where the party continued until the sun rose. But something very special had happened. I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t have words to describe it. I only knew how it made me feel. And I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Walking back across the grassy field, the bride’s mother and I linked arms. She turned to me and said softly in rudimentary English, “Wendy, when babies come, 50/50, okay?” I wrapped my arm around her shoulders and said, “Of course, Tanya. 50/50. Always.” It was another unexpected moment. Her overture touched me. The meaning behind the words was heartfelt and real. Women, then mothers, and now a multi-cultural family bound by our children.

Later, as I learned more about Mičošana, the symbolism became clearer. Our son and his wife have assumed roles in an international marriage. It will take our daughter-in-law far from her Latvian family home. She will undoubtedly see her parents and family less and less often. The bittersweetness of the midnight ceremony was the same parting experienced by generations of brides over thousands of years.

I believe Campbell. Myths are important. Rituals are important. Poetry is important. Symbolism runs through ceremonies from ancient times to the present. Because of our thinking nature, we strive to understand the meanings underneath. And this helps awaken us to our place in the circle of life.

Campbell’s words, again: “…by participating in the ritual [with intention]…you are being put into accord with the wisdom of the psyche, which is the wisdom inherent with you anyhow. Your consciousness is being reminded of the wisdom of your own life.”

This is what we hope for all of our children. We wish for them to grow into the wisdom of their own lives.

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ajutimestwo, 6-12-15

SOLYANKA [pronounced Sahlahnka] aka HANGOVER SOUP

Partying continues well into the day after a Russian/Latvian wedding. A thick hearty soup of salty, cured meats and sausages is usually on the menu after a night of drinking. It hits the spot with its’ rich meaty stock, briny pickles and vegetables, garnished with sour cream. Although there is a vegetarian form, meat solyanka is more common. I fell hard for it’s delicious taste at Jumurda Manor. Anna and I made a version in her London kitchen. The key is simply a lot of sour and salt in a rich broth. Ingredient proportions are flexible. Rice can be substituted for potatoes. This is an “everything but the kitchen sink” kind of soup, but tastes so much better than you think it will!

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lean beef and seasoning for broth

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other raw ingredients

MAKING THE BROTH

  • 300 gm lean beef rump
  • 1 whole onion, peeled
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 1 T. whole peppercorns

In a saucepan, cover broth ingredients with water. Boil uncovered over medium heat for 30 minutes. Take out onion and discard. Continue boiling until the meat is cooked through, about 1.5-2 hours. Add additional water to keep meat covered and to build up broth. When meat is tender, take out to cool slightly. Skim fat off top of broth.

NEXT STEPS

  • 200 gm Polish sausage
  • 100 gm good German ham

Cut cooled beef, sausage and ham into julienne strips. Cube some potato. Place in broth to simmer.

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ready to use ingredients

Chop ½ onion and sauté in olive oil. Add julienned carrots and ¼ cup [or more] tomato paste. Continue sautéing for a few minutes then add all of this to stock.

Place sliced meat in skillet to warm slightly. Then add to stock.

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brine soaked cukes and olives

IMPORTANT FINAL INGREDIENTS

  • Jar of cucumbers in BRINE. Different from regular pickles. Saltier. Brinier. See photo.
  • Black olives packed in BRINE

Stir in julienned cucumbers, whole black olives and ¼ to ½ cup [or more] of the brine.

When potatoes are cooked, turn off heat. Salt and pepper to taste.

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Slice fresh lemons into circles and place over top of soup. Cover pot and let sit about 30 minutes. Remove lemons. Serve garnished with a large dollop of fresh sour cream.

Delicious and nutritious even without the hangover.

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Secret Eating

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Secret eating is something seldom spoken about or easily admitted. If you ask most people what they enjoy eating alone, without sharing, they generally hesitate with a questioning look. Or mumble that they don’t know. It’s possible that they’ve never experienced this type of solitary pleasure. The desire to eat intimately and unobserved isn’t like bingeing on ice cream or sneaking candy bars to feed your chocolate craving. It’s not comfort food either. It is something you eat surreptitiously, consciously, and quietly by yourself. It is a moment, by choice, of indescribable satisfaction.

A survey of extended family members about clandestine eating revealed only one answer close to my definition. It comes from my daughter-in-law who is Latvian, with Russian heritage. She formed a covert eating ritual as a child, from about the age of ten. In the summertime, after her parents left for the evening, she would go to the market and buy a huge ripe watermelon, by herself, with pennies saved or found under chair cushions. Lugging it home, she managed to cut it in two, carried half to the living room, sat on the sofa, watched television, and ate it down to the rind. Spoonful by decadent spoonful. Seeds and all. She was not under the watchful eye of anyone, or told to get a plate, or to sit on the floor, or not make a mess. She did it quietly and happily, for her own pleasure, over several summer seasons.

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anna’s secret eating

MFK Fisher, of course, has a wonderful story about secret eating. It took place during a frigid winter in Strasbourg, France when she and her husband, Al, lived in an unheated walkup apartment. They grew increasingly depressed by the unending cold, dreary grayness and couldn’t afford to move. So they rented a room in a pension for one luxurious week. It came with a big bed, billowy curtained windows, and, most importantly, heat.

Each morning after waving Al off to the university, Mary Frances sat in the window, considering the day ahead. She wasn’t ready to brave the outdoor temperatures. While the maid fluffed up duvets and pillows, murmuring in a thick Alsatian accent, Fisher carefully peeled several small tangerines. Meticulously separating each orange crescent and removing the white “strings” between pieces, she placed the sections on top of newspaper over the radiator. And forgot about them.

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mfk’s secret eating, pre preparation

There was a long lunch when Al returned, and perhaps a wee nip of “digestif” from the decanter before he went back to afternoon classes. By this time, the orange sections had majestically puffed up, ready to burst with heat and fullness. Opening the window, she carefully placed them in the snow on the outside sill. Several chilling minutes passed. Then it was time.

For the rest of the afternoon, she sat watching the world go by on the street below, savoring each morsel slowly and voluptuously. She reveled in the spurt of cold pulp and juice after biting through the crackling skin that was like …”a little shell, thin as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl”. She mused while vendors sold half-frozen flowers, children ran home after school, and prostitutes sipped hot tea in a café across the way. Winter’s early darkness descended and the orange sections were gone. She couldn’t exactly say what was so magical about them. Yet she knew that other people, with “secret eatings” of their own, would somehow understand.

I read this story many years before we moved to Europe. The first winter we lived in Germany, in 2006, I traveled alone to Strasbourg, via the train from Frankfurt. There is a small hotel off Place Gutenberg where I stayed in a room under the roof. The bathroom was at the very top of the peak–reached by climbing an open staircase with a skylight. The historic Cathedral was visible if I stuck my head out the dormer window. It was a bitterly cold, gray February.

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Place Gutenberg, Strasbourg

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Notre Dame Cathedral, Strasbourg

I bought a bag of seasonal Clementines, peeled them into sections, laid them out on a piece of hotel stationery, and left them on the radiator. Then I went out to explore. Later, when I returned, the oranges had grown fat and hot, just as Fisher described. There was no snow, but the outside temperature was below freezing. Out on the sill they went. When thoroughly chilled, I ate them one by one in the dim wintery afternoon light. It was true–the skins were crisp and crackling. So thin that, when you bit through them, there was a “pop” followed by the rush of cool juice and pulp. It was a replay moment from the pages of a story by a writer I had long admired. And it made me happy.

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my room under the roof

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“peaked” bathroom, up the open stairs

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cathedral view from window by night

My current secret eating began during a visit to “Nutritionist Daughter” in late March. She was buying a snack item for her husband from the bulk bins of a national U.S. food chain. I watched her fill a bag with extremely flattened, dull colored brownish-orange pieces of fruit. They looked run over by a truck. As it turned out, they were unsweetened dried mangos. Dehydrated into stiffened leather. She handed me a piece and said, “Try it”.

The first sensation was what it looked like–rough, tough and hard-edged, with the taste and texture of dust on shoe leather. As salivary juices kicked in, so did transformation. That road-kill-looking mango became softer, warmer, and moistly pliable. Careful, considerate chewing brought out interesting changes. It turned vaguely sweeter but held onto the essence of fruity leather. You had to chew slowly, without hurrying. You had to pay attention.

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transformed into a secret obsession

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delicious fresh mango

The degrees of subtlety from  dry dusty toughness to a satisfying payoff several minutes later completely hooked me. I took my own bag back to Paris. Now when I feel the urge, I go to the secret hiding place and randomly choose several pieces. Then I stand or sit for awhile in a window of our apartment, often overlooking the vine-laden courtyard, where I never tire of the view.

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early spring

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later spring

If I stand in the kitchen, I might muse over the gradual unfolding of the Virginia Creeper vines or the work-in-progress renovations of the apartment across the courtyard. If I choose to sit in the warm afternoon sun of the dining room window, I have a private view of sky, rooftops, vine covered brick walls, and my own blooming geraniums.

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courtyard dining room

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with a view

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street side windows at sunrise

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across the street

If I move to the noisier street side windows for “mango time”, I take note of pedestrians, shopkeepers, and sometimes a wandering trumpet playing musician four stories below.

My secret eating is something I usually keep to myself. It gives me enormous pleasure. But what is it really? Like Fisher, I can’t exactly say. Perhaps a meditative “time-out”, a few solo minutes of simply “being” and not “doing”, a uniquely satisfying break in the midst of a day, a week, a month…

Still, there must be someone out there who understands what I mean?