“Not a Station, but a Place”–Paris to Avignon

For the historical and contemporary story of Gare de Lyon and Le Train Bleu, see  “Not a Station, but a Place”–Gare de Lyon and Le Train Bleu, Paris, published here October 2016.

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railroad map: paris to avignon

In April 2016, my husband and I headed to Provence for a early spring weekend getaway. We wanted to explore Avignon, the former Papal capital during the Middle Ages. The direct TGV train from Paris’ Gare de Lyon would take us there in a little over three hours.

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the staircase to le train bleu

We arrived at the station two hours before departure time and ascended the wide curving staircase to the stylish restaurant on the second floor, Le Train Bleu. It overlooks the tracks of incoming and outgoing trains on one side and the city of Paris on the other.

The first order of business was to relax in comfortable ambience before travelling. The second was to enjoy a classic petit déjeuner à la M.F.K. Fisher who wrote stories set in this very spot from the 1930s-1960s. My mission was to replicate the experience 50+ years later, in her memory, and for mine.

Le Train Bleu is grandly austere and mostly empty in the early mornings. A few scattered travelers may show up to drink coffee or tea, but the white tablecloth tables and red leather banquettes are unavailable until lunch.

We invited friends, Sally and John, to join us even though they were not travelling. They were first timers to Le Train Bleu, and we knew they would enjoy the historical elegance along with an early breakfast and conversation.

Fisher’s typical breakfast order was thin slices of Italian Parma ham, good bread and butter and a half bottle of brut Champagne. Parma ham is no longer a menu choice, but the whole grain brown baguettes with butter and jam are still a tradition. Cappuccino or café noir replaced champagne as the beverage of choice.

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We breakfasted leisurely, ordering a second round of coffees. When our friends left on the metro back to Montmartre, we boarded the train headed south.

Exiting the station, the train picked up speed passing sooty graffiti-walled cityscape. Then came the banlieue [suburbs] with blocky cement apartment buildings and finally pastoral countryside dotted with farms and grazing animals.

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photo courtesy of SNCF [TGV trains]

Avignon sits on the banks of the Rhône River in Provence and is north of the coastal city of Marseille on the Mediterranean Sea. When the Catholic Church moved the papacy [during the 14th century] from Rome to Avignon, it was the center of Christianity for seven decades. From 1309-1376, the Palais de Papes [Popes’ Palace] was occupied by seven successive popes beginning with Clement V.

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UNESCO world heritage sites: bridge of avignon and pope’s palace, photo courtesy of meu

Avignon was still under papal control until the time of the French revolution in 1789. Afterwards, it was used as a barracks and then as a prison for many years. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a must-see museum–the Popes’ Palace.

The Palais de Papes is the largest Gothic palace ever built. Its’ walls are an impenetrable 17-18 feet thick. Immense proportions are replete with cavernous halls, chapels and chambers.

For me, the most memorable part was the “Treasure Room” where all the gold, silver and jewels owned by the Church were kept. Back then, it was off limits to all, except for the Pope. Today, the room has a glass floor where you can see propped up, massive rectangular stones under which the treasures were hidden. Only the wildest imaginings can fathom the volume of wealth once secreted under these stones.

We stayed at La Mirande, an historic hotel in the shadow of the Palace museum. Originally it was a Cardinal’s palace, but resurrected into a period hotel centuries later. Our room had a small, walkout walled terrace overlooking rooftops and a church steeple. We sipped wine there after dark and carried pots of coffee from the breakfast buffet to sit in the morning sun as it slipped in and out of thick gray clouds.

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closeup on the steeple view

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rooftop mosaic from terrace

As is often the case, one of the best experiences we have when travelling is a restaurant we stumble upon.

We were lucky to slip into the last table for two in a tiny, terra cotta tile-floored café not far from the hotel. What we ate was simple and so satisfying that I knew we would replicate it at home.

On a piece of black slate, we were served a small round of baked Camembert cheese in its’ thin wooden container. Around the cheese box were rolled up slices of prosciutto, tiny roasted potatoes, small green cornichons, and a lightly dressed mixed salad. A basket of fresh bread and glasses of wine completed the table setting.

That molten cheese into which we dipped bread, potatoes, prosciutto and pickles is as memorable now as it was at first bite. The cold dampness of all-day showers disappeared. Dim lighting radiated warm ambience. Provençal wine complimented the peasant-like simplicity of the meal. We ordered a second glass.

That day, which began in the splendor of Belle Époque frescoes in “Not a station, but a Place”, ended at an unpretentious brick walled café with fogged over windows dripping rain.

There is a kind of perfection in the harmony of opposites. Enjoyment exists there too.  Early morning spring sunshine–chilly, drizzling afternoon rain. Parisian breakfast in luxurious splendor–provincial dinner in old world simplicity.

Si vous êtes chanceux, alors ça va parfois dans la vie… [If you are lucky, so it sometimes goes in life…]

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parisian luxury, le train bleu

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provincial simplicity, chez lulu, avignon

 

BAKED CAMEMBERT A LA PROVENÇALE

  • 1 small round camembert cheese per person or 1 large round for 2 people
  • boiled or roasted potatoes, skin on
  • prosciutto or any charcuterie [sliced meat], optional
  • tiny pickles [gherkins or cornichons]
  • raw veggies such as sweet peppers, radishes, cherry tomatoes, etc.
  • chewy baguette or crusty country bread
  • mixed green salad, dressed in homemade vinaigrette
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basic ingredients: camembert cheese, cornichons, potatoes, bread, veggies, mixed green salad

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remove some rind, insert garlic slices, drizzle with olive oil

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sprinkle with rosemary and/or chili peppers, place in an oven proof dish

Preparation:

  1. Remove the paper covering over cheese. Line the inside of the wooden box with aluminum foil [keeps cheese from leaking out of box]. Place cheese back in box. [Box should be held together with staples, not glue!]
  2. Cut a thin layer off the top rind to expose interior. Insert several slices of fresh garlic, place a few fresh rosemary leaves on top, a sprinkle of sea salt or chili peppers, as desired. [Optional use of garlic, rosemary, salt and peppers.]
  3. Drizzle a tiny amount of olive oil over. Place on baking sheet or in cast iron skillet in preheated oven set at 180C or 350F.
  4. Bake no more than 10-15 minutes, until cheese is “melt-y”.
  5. Place box of oozing Camembert on serving plate arranged with prepared potatoes, crudités, pickles, meat, and salad.
  6. To make the world’s best vinaigrette look here: Babies and Rice So Very Nice
  7. Serve with a basket of good bread.

A light red wine [Burgundy pinot noir], a crisp white wine [French Chablis], a rosé from Provence or Champagne [always perfect, all the time] as accompaniment.

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baked camembert served with turkey, pickles, tomatoes, bell pepper, potatoes, salad and bread

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et voilà, c’est mieux avec un verre de chablis

“Not a Station, but a Place”–Gare de Lyon and Le Train Bleu, Paris

Soon after we moved to Paris I sought out this “Place” M.F.K. Fisher wrote eloquently about as being more than just a train depot for entering or exiting the city. She was referring to the Gare de Lyon in the 12th Arrondissement. I wanted to know why it was so special.

Fisher’s experience on French trains began in 1929 when she moved from California to Dijon. She described herself in the early years as “…always one more ant scuttling for a certain track.” Then, in 1937, while waiting for guests to arrive, she sat under the enormous glass roof in a trackside café with marble tables and green trees planted in boxes. With a brandy and water in hand, absorbing her surroundings, she was suddenly overcome by a feeling that she “was not in a station, but in a Place”. From then on, she made it a habit to arrive early–with time to wait.

In the 1960s and early ‘70s, after children and husbands and lovers were long gone, she was often sent to Provence on writing assignments. Her publishers encouraged her to fly south from Paris. Memories honed decades earlier meant she preferred the “Mistral” train from Gare de Lyon to Marseille or Aix-en-Provence.

She developed the habit of arriving at least two hours before departure. This allowed time to ascend the wide stone staircase to the second floor restaurant–Le Train Bleu. When you spin through the revolving wood and glass door, then and now, it is like walking into a time capsule from La Belle Époque. Instinctively, you stand a little taller and walk a little more gracefully to your table.

In 1900, Paris was hosting a second world’s fair. As part of the preparation, a new train station, Gare de Lyon, was designed to highlight the railway lines of the PLM [Paris-Lyon-Marseille] Company from Paris to destinations in Provence and the Côte d’Azur on the Mediterranean. The company also wanted a prestigious and elegant restaurant to symbolize travel, luxury and comfort.

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gare de lyon today

In 1901, Buffet de la Gare de Lyon first opened its’ doors amid sumptuous art nouveau décor. Ornate carvings, moldings, gilding, and imposing chandeliers highlighted frescoes and murals of cities and scenery viewed from PLM trains as they headed south and east. The restaurant offered tranquility, character, and a place for travelers to spend a refined break. In Fisher’s words, it was “all that was opulently cheerful, generously vulgar and delightful about la Belle Époque.”

In 1963, the restaurant was renamed Le Train Bleu in reference to the French Riviera destinations.

Fisher’s early arrival gave her the luxury of time for a leisurely breakfast or lunch. In the 1960s, she believed that the fresh bread served in Le Train Bleu was the best she had tasted since before WWII. For petit déjeuner she always had “bread and butter, Parma ham, and a half-bottle of brut champagne…”, which she thought a bit expensive, but enjoyed all the same.

If lunchtime, she started off with a Kir and wine cocktail, followed by some kind of soufflé and fresh berries for dessert. Oh–and a half bottle of white wine–Grand-Cru Chablis. She liked her grown up drinks, having adapted easily to the French way.

Interestingly, Fisher played a role in the longevity and preservation of Le Train Bleu. By the early 1970s, the paintings were filthy with soot and pollution, gold leaf was flaking from the ceiling, the lace curtains hung in tatters and, underfoot, the flooring creaked and sagged. She was told by a group of worried waiters that the restaurant’s survival seemed doomed. She relayed all this to an American friend, Janet Flanner, who was also her neighbor. Flanner, a longtime journalist and Paris correspondent for the New Yorker magazine, went directly to the French Minister of Culture at the time. Le Train Bleu was designated an historic monument in 1972.

Since that time there have been many renovations, the most recent in 2014. Parquet floors were insulated and shored up, paintings re-cleaned, carved moldings refinished or repainted, brass coat and luggage racks polished, and leather banquettes refurbished. The name over the door was updated from neon lights to a chic metal plate.

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neon sign pre 2014 renovation

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and after renovation

The antique Big Ben Bar from 1901 is used today as a decoration piece and stands imposingly by the swinging glass doors to the kitchen. The original cash register is there too.

There is not one corner or wall, ceiling or chandelier, archway or window in this special Place that doesn’t grab your attention or overwhelm your senses. Every time.

These days, the menu is priced for upper-crust travellers, tourists, or well-heeled Parisians. But because it is such a Place, truly unlike any other, it’s always worth it.

Recently, I went for lunch by myself. Timed perfectly, I arrived near the end of the service, around 2:00 PM. On this cool, autumn day I decided to try the made-in-house foie gras served with rhubarb chutney and grainy toast, green salad and a glass of Montrachet white wine–from Burgundy.

When I dine alone, the pleasure is subtle and personal. Not everyone feels this way. But, over time, I have fine-tuned the ability to “disappear” in public and enjoy everything around me as if I were invisibly dropped into the scene. It is an example of cultural learning from which I have benefited greatly.

Fisher sometimes spoke of moving like “a ghost” in her travels, seemingly invisible to others, often because she was wrapped up in one of personal trials. I understand what she meant, but in a different way. For me, invisibility is a feeling of being completely content with my own company. And, at the same time, not taking anything, within the experience I am having, for granted. I observe and wonder, discreetly, without being the center of anyone else’s observations.

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view toward kitchen and big ben bar

On this particular day, directly in front of me was an opulent antique buffet with perfectly arranged wine glasses and the PLM [Paris-Lyon-Marseille] logo carved on the top piece. Above that, reaching up to the very high ceiling, was a colorful painting of Marseille.

As the tables to the left and right gradually emptied, I gazed openly through the window to my left onto the tracks and boarding passengers one floor below. I wondered where they were going, how long they would stay. Was it travel for business, pleasure, something mysterious or even sad?

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view toward the station tracks

To the right, down a long banquette of tables reset for another meal, sat two diners leaning in towards one another. They were silhouetted against the window overlooking the square at the entrance. Why were they lingering? What was their conversation? When you are invisible, all possibilities are imagined.

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Meal over, espresso finished, with no train to catch, I made my way home. Musing on the métro, my thoughts drifted to a weekend getaway my husband and I took from Paris to Avignon several months before–a trip that began in a place, not a station…

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Judith S. Clancy drawing, exterior façades, 1979

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 also possible that they’ve never experienced this type of solitary pleasure.

The desire to eat 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 came 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, by herself, and buy a huge ripe watermelon, 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.

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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 in the room 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, Mary Frances sat watching the world go by on the street below, individually 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 from 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 others 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, 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 overhead. The spire of the Strasbourg Cathedral was visible when 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 with “Dietitian Daughter” in Colorado. She was buying a snack item for her husband from the bulk bins of a national 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 shoes. As salivary juices kicked in, 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, before it was ready to swallow. 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 a secret urge, I go to the hiding place and randomly choose several pieces of dried mango. Then I stand or sit 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 window during secret eating time, I might muse over the spring unfolding of the Virginia creeper vines or the work-in-progress renovations on the apartment across the courtyard. The neighbour’s cat might be outside on the opposite balcony chirping wistfully at pigeons. If, instead, I choose to sit in the warm afternoon sun of the dining room windows, 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

Or, I might decide to stand in the livelier street-side windows at the front of the apartment where I take note of pedestrians, shopkeepers, or a trumpet-playing street musician four stories below.

My secret eating is something I usually keep to myself. It gives me enormous pleasure and satisfaction. But what is it really? Like Fisher, I can’t exactly say. Perhaps it’s just 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?

Transcendent Picnics

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“There is more than the communion of bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.”

–mfk fisher

MFK Fisher said that the best outdoor eating happens on the side of a hill in the early evening. Her story of a memorable picnic occurred in Switzerland in the 1930s. Ours was on a grassy meadow in Taiwan in the 1990s. Continents and decades apart, these two stories interweave because a certain combination of people, place, and food surpassed simple physical nourishment.

Fisher’s story went like this. She and her husband were building a small house above Lake Geneva, Switzerland, on a steep hillside surrounded by vineyards. Her parents came from California to visit. Late afternoon sun in June promised enough warmth for an outside meal. The four of them came carrying baskets to the construction site, after the workers left for the day. A table under the apple tree was covered with a checkered cloth and set with silver, ceramic plates and cloth napkins. Bottles of wine were placed to chill in an ancient spring-fed fountain nearby. A fire was built, ringed with stones and roofing tiles, fueled with wood shavings.

The first peas were ready to harvest. As the men picked from the terraced garden uphill, Mary Frances ran baskets downhill to her mother who quickly shelled them into a pot between her feet. The iron casserole was set over the open fire where the peas “cooked for perhaps four or five minutes, swirling them in butter and their own steam”. Salt and pepper at the last, then immediately table side.

On each plate lay a small roasted pullet. There was salad of delicate mountain lettuces, a basket of good bread. Fountain-chilled white wine generously poured. And those tender young peas–freshly steamed and seasoned! They sat sharing the harvested feast and each other’s company as the surrounding hills turned rosy and the sun began to sink. Suddenly, in a neighboring field, “…a cow moved her head among the meadow flowers and shook her bell in a slow, melodious rhythm, a kind of hymn.” Fisher never forgot it.

During the spring of our first year living in Taiwan, there was one picnic with our own perfect alignment of people, place, and food. Perhaps more importantly, I witnessed our young daughter’s awakening to this symbolic communion.

Yangmingshan is a national park just north of Taipei. It was typically crowded on weekends with cooped up city people seeking fresh air, flowers and greenery, hiking trails, outdoor recreation. Our friends, Maddy and Cabby, knew of a less populated area of the park where water buffalo grazed freely on the grassy slopes. They organized a picnic for both families on Buffalo Meadows one late afternoon. We were a small group of four adults and three young children.

Hiking uphill, we were completely enveloped in a cool, misty cloud that moistened our hair and skin with droplets of water. At the top of the trail, we emerged into a sunny green landscape with views all around. Under foot, the soft grass was perfect for lounging and playing. Out came a Frisbee and the men took the children to play on the hillside. The two little girls tired of running and tried to follow a slow moving water buffalo. He wandered on.

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lara and liza, buffalo meadows, 1994

Our nine-year-old daughter came over to watch the food preparations. There was a tiny backpacking stove along with a  battered and blackened Japanese wok in which to produce the meal. Ingredients had been previously sliced, steamed, or grated at home. Once the stove was levelled against the hillside, primed, pumped and producing enough heat, assembly began.

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ancient wok from japan still in existence

Olive oil was generously poured into the wok and heated. Thinly sliced cloves of fresh garlic were added to the hot oil. Shaking the pan continuously, the slices began to brown around the edges. Then, bite sized broccoli flowerets [already steamed] were stirred in along with freshly ground pepper. Pre-cooked penne pasta and butter were added. The whole combination was tumbled about with a large wooden spoon until thoroughly heated. Finally, a fluffy  pile of freshly grated Parmesan was layered on top and melted into everything. Lightly browned garlic slices offered toasted sweetness to the broccoli pasta. The simple ingredients combined to make a perfect one-dish meal.

Plates were passed. We sat together on the downy grass, enjoying the view, eating, laughing and talking. As the sun slid over the far hills, the air began to cool. Thimble-sized glasses of single malt whiskey were passed among the grown-ups. A breeze stirred as the light continued to fade. We put on our jackets and leaned in closer, wrapping arms around children. Sleepy four-year-old Liza was zipped into the front her father’s sweatshirt. She curled against his chest with only her blond hair showing. We continued talking as darkness descended. When the mist returned, it was time to go.

Days later, our daughter asked if I could make that picnic pasta at home. She had a faraway look in her eyes as she spoke of how much she loved it while we were in Buffalo Meadows. Watching her face and listening to her speak, it was clear to me that she had made, in her little girl mind, a connection beyond physical taste. There was something more. She was asking to go back to the feeling created on a tranquil hillside with close-knit family and friends. I never forgot it.

It’s not easy to explain why this picnic, more than 20 years ago, remains so vivid–perhaps more so to me than others who were present. Although I still love to reflect on Fisher’s story of peas, a Swiss hillside, and a cowbell, my own memory takes me to a battered wok of pasta, families encircled on a misty Taiwanese meadow, and a water buffalo…and, well, I can’t let it go.

BROCCOLI GARLIC PENNE [via Silver Palate Cookbook]

  • 1 lb. [500 gm] penne, cooked ’til just tender [al dente]
  • 2 heads broccoli, in small flowerets
  • ½ C. extra virgin olive oil
  • 10 [or more!] cloves garlic, thinly sliced crosswise
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 4 T. [1/2 stick] good butter
  • Freshly grated fresh Parmesan cheese

Assembly:

  • Boil penne, drain, rinse under cold water.
  • Simmer broccoli in boiling water 1 1/2 minutes, drain, rinse in cold water.
  • Heat oil ~ 1 min. Add garlic and cook, shaking pan until it begins to brown ~1 min.
  • Add broccoli, stir, grind pepper on top.
  • Add butter and penne, stirring continuously until well mixed and heated through.
  • Sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
  • Serve immediately.
  • Pass the pepper mill.

Wendy’s suggested options:

Chopped cherry tomatoes, as garnish. Cooked chicken, black olives, green onions or leftover veggies can be added. Red pepper flakes always advisable. Original recipe calls for no added salt, so suit your own preferences. It can use some salt.

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assembled ingredients, except for parmesan

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shake garlic until it begins to brown

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add steamed broccoli and lots of pepper

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stir in pasta, butter, and combine til heated

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grated parmesan overall and cherry tomatoes to garnish

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enjoy immediately

More Than Just an Egg Sandwich

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In Colorado, the holiday season was snow-white and the fireplace blazed night and day. There were deer and elk on the hillside, daily hikes into the National Park, a miniature snow-woman laboriously constructed from barely packable “dry” snow, and, of course, there were egg sandwiches.

IMG_0936A multi-layered, made-to-order egg sandwich is staple breakfast fare when we are at home in the mountains. It is nourishment spiced with location, now entwined in longstanding tradition. The ritual evolved, as things often do, from something I read.

Some 20 years ago, I was immersed in the writings of MFK [Mary Frances Kennedy] Fisher. In sensually descriptive prose, she weaves autobiographical stories of people, place and food. Her mythologizing of Aunt Gwen’s fried egg sandwiches particularly captured my imagination. It is the tale of a child’s realization that food and life’s lessons are often inseparable from a strong, loving mentor.

When Fisher was a young girl, several influential summers were spent with Aunt Gwen in Laguna Beach, California. As Mary Frances explained, “…she taught us a thousand things too intangible to report, as well as how to roast kelp leaves, steam mussels, tease a rattlesnake away from a frightened horse, skin an eel after sundown, and stay quiet while a night-blooming cereus [cactus flower] unfolds…”

With Aunt Gwen leading the way, Mary Frances and her younger sister  hiked the hills and cliffs above the beach, singing hymns and marching songs at the top of their lungs. And always, there was an egg sandwich, or two, carefully tucked into their pockets.

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the hills above laguna beach

“In the good Laguna days, it was an exciting promise, to warm up the pan, ready the ingredients, and make fried-egg sandwiches. Aunt Gwen insisted that we have at least two pockets somewhere on us, one for shells, stones, small fish, or lizards, and one big enough to hold these greasily wrapped, limp, steamy monsters. Then we would race the sunset to a high hill. The sandwiches stayed warm against our bodies, and when we panted to a stop, and fell against a good rock or an old eucalyptus trunk, the packets sent out damp insistent invitations… We each had two sandwiches. The first we gnashed at like fairly well mannered puppies. The second was for contemplation, as we watched all of the quiet empty slopes down to the cliff edge, and the great ocean with the sun sliding into it.” —MFK Fisher, Among Friends, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 1970

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sunset at laguna

I love this description because it encompasses much more than satisfying simple physical hunger. Fisher was learning, at a young age, that the right combination of food, company, and spiritual nourishment were a metaphor for living well. The spiritual ingredients of those egg sandwiches included “equal parts of hunger and happiness”, a hillside sunset, and companions she loved.

There are no cliffs overlooking the ocean where our cabin is located, but cool summer mornings and darkly cold winter ones stimulate good appetites. Mountain views, towering ponderosa pines and native wildlife provide our spiritual geography. When we are in residence in Colorado, family and friends are often with us. With Fisher’s story in mind, a tradition was born around the kitchen table in winter and the front porch in summer—our mountain version of the fried egg sandwich.

Aunt Gwen’s original recipe was well documented. It started with heating the grease from whatever was cooked the day before in a large flat-bottomed skillet. When the fragrant drippings reached a smoking hot temperature, an egg was dropped in, the yolk broken, and quickly fried so that the edges were crisply brown and barely digestible. Next, two slices of good bread were added to the pan and browned on one side only. The cooked egg was slapped into the middle of the bread slices and pressed together. Finally, the whole thing was wrapped in wax paper that partially melted into the sandwich, small pieces of which were consumed when bit into with hunger and a happy heart. An ocean hillside sunset and good companionship completed satisfaction of body and soul.

As an aid to digestion and modern taste preferences, this is our contemporary version.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN EGG SANDWICH  

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basic ingredients, before adding options

Ingredients [physical]

  • Thick sliced smoked bacon, cooked crisply                                                          
  • Eggs, preferably brown and free range
  • Jalapeño jack cheese [or cheese of choice]
  • Toasted English muffins [or good brown bread]
  • Salsa or fresh tomato slices
  • Fresh spinach [or some kind of leafy green]
  • Avocado slices or guacamole [optional]
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Additional red pepper flakes, as desired

Ingredients [spiritual]

Family and/or friends gathered on a sun-warmed front porch in summer, around the kitchen table or fireplace in winter. Laughter and conversation flowing easily, with a cooked-to-order egg sandwich in hand. Appetites satisfied. Love and camaraderie shared. A new day begins…

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on the front porch in summer

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or around the fireplace in winter

Method

Assemble ingredients. Cook bacon in a well-seasoned cast iron skillet. Using the bacon drippings, crack an egg into round metal form and break the yolk. Season if desired with S&P or red pepper flakes. When egg is set, remove the form and gently turn the egg over for just a few seconds. On toasted English muffin, layer a thin slice of cheese, tomato, bacon and optional ingredients [avocado, salsa, etc.]. Add cooked egg and fresh spinach leaves or other greens. Press the whole thing down to a manageable biting size. Eat immediately while hot, using both hands. A mug of strong coffee or tea makes a desirable accompaniment.

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crack an egg into a round egg form

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break the yolk, season with red pepper, if desired

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constructing sandwich in layers

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completed, before pressing down

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added guacamole option

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with a mug of strong coffee

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the option of good bread instead of english muffin, coffee still mandatory

Traditions are specific to individuals or families, but the ritual and meaning behind Aunt Gwen’s egg sandwiches is as important to me today as it was to a young girl a century ago.

“All I could now say about Aunt Gwen will never be said, but it is sure that much of my enjoyment of the art of living, as well as of eating, comes from her…as well as my certainty that the two are, or can be, synonymous.” —MFK Fisher, Among Friends  

It is fortunate, indeed, at whatever age we learn this to be true.

An Egg in the Coffeepot

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“There is more than the communion of bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.” These words, which MFK Fisher wrote decades ago, guide my interest when food, people and place are combined. I do believe in the blending of spirit when nourishment and conversation about important things are shared with family or friends. Bread and wine are not necessarily the catalysts for creating a communal bond. It can happen, too, with a pot of egg coffee.

Three weeks ago, quite unexpectedly, we reconnected with a group of people in the U.S. It was one of those bittersweet reunions—gathering to celebrate the life of a friend who passed away. And, at the same time, seeing others with whom we had shared great moments in the past. The weekend was one of those memory jolts that occurs when you re-encounter special friendships after losing touch with them. It’s easy to catch up because what you loved about them before is still there. Then you want to hold onto those feelings after you part.

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courtesy of marilyn larson

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courtesy of marilyn larson

For several years in early marriage, we made repeated visits to a stone farmhouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was the home of the Larson family, parents of long-time friends. Their cozy house was thick walled, with deep windowsills, constructed from native fieldstone. Of all the warm memories of time spent on that beautiful farm, the clearest one, by far, is standing around an enamel coffeepot with a broken egg inside.

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enamelware, port de vanves flea market, paris

Legend has it that the recipe for egg coffee was carried on a boat from Sweden to the New World sometime during the 1800s. In Larson family lore, the story came about this way. A young Swedish girl named Edla moved to southern Minnesota to find work in the late 1880s. She was terribly homesick, often going into the fields to have a little cry in the evenings. Then,  Karl proposed marriage and a new life began on his farm. It was 1890. There was no more homesickness. And there was always a pot of egg coffee on the stove. Two generations later, five-year-old Dale Larson walked across two farm fields to visit his grandparents. To gain his mother’s permission, he had to take the hand of his older sister. She was six-and-a half. Upon entering the kitchen, Edla would say, “Milk is bad for you, coffee is good. Drink this.” So he did. For the next 80 years.

more flea market searching for the right pot

Every time we visited the stone farmhouse, we drank it too. It was a morning ritual, perfected over the generations, fascinating to watch, delicious to drink. But it actually became the symbol for something else—time spent with people we admired and loved. And who loved us back. Important life lessons were quietly absorbed over cups of egg coffee in those years.

During the memorial weekend for our mutual friend, subliminal messages from the Larson kitchen returned so clearly. It’s simply this; spend your time with people who bring out the best parts of you. The better version of you. Then, remember to go back to get refreshed.

I tried making egg coffee each time we returned from Michigan. But it was never quite right. I was probably too impatient or caught up in push button coffee making. Eventually the attempts stopped. The antique enamel pot became merely decorative. It makes sense, now, that what I was trying to do was replicate the feeling of being with special friends rather than simply making a beverage. IMG_2506These days I’m more willing to find the sweet spot in perfecting a ritual as much as enjoying the end result. With a coffee pot from the flea market and step-by-step guidance from my friend, a new breakfast routine has been created. Gazing at the courtyard colors, sipping a hot cup of egg coffee, I’m reminded of fragments of Kahlil Gibran’s “On Friendship”:

“…And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit

… …And let the best be for your friend…

…And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures. For in the dew of little things, the heart finds it morning and is refreshed.”

necessary ingredients

LARSON FAMILY EGG COFFEEIMG_2416

  • 1 enamel coffee pot
  • 1 egg
  • very coarse ground coffee
  • boiling water
  • chopstick or something long to stir with
  1. Determine how many cups of coffee your pot makes.
  2. Break one egg into the bottom of the pot. [With or without the shell.]IMG_2479
  3. Measure in coarse ground coffee for the number of cups. I use one rounded scoop for each cup [and one extra scoop for the pot]. This should be determined by preference.IMG_2485
  4. Stir the mixture with a chopstick to blend egg with the coffee grounds.IMG_2486
  5. Pour boiling water over the egg/coffee mix.IMG_2449
  6. Place enamel pot over heat. When it starts to foam up and boil, turn it off.IMG_2499IMG_2455

 

 

 

7. Cover and let steep 5-10 minutes.IMG_2502

8. Pour into cup and enjoy. [You can use a sieve to strain, but if you pour slowly, it’s not necessary.]IMG_2517

 

 

This is about as good as it gets for coffee drinkers who love a strong, yet very smooth, mellow brew. What happens scientifically is this: The egg congeals the grounds into a clump and neutralizes acidity that sometimes makes coffee bitter. It also acts as a filter, because essential oils from the beans are in the finished beverage, rather than on a paper filter. More oils make better tasting coffee. If you throw the whole egg with shell in the pot, you probably get some calcium carbonate benefits. I’ve tried it both ways, finding no difference in taste. Grandma Larson added additional water to the pot all day. She was probably frugal with eggs and coffee. I tried adding a second round of water and it tasted fine, but I wouldn’t go beyond that. Just start over. You can afford the eggs.

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perfect petit déjeuner

 

You Say Jam, Nico Says Confiture

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What to put on toast in the morning was not something I thought much about for most of my life. That is, until four years ago, when we moved to France. It still strikes me as odd how a seemingly nondescript food item can be turned into an art form once you step outside your normal way of experiencing it.

Most jams and jellies in North America are found in the supermarket aisle alongside peanut butter or honey. They can be chosen by color, flavor or, in my case, if there was seeded red fruit in it. One lone jar typically sat forgotten in the door of the refrigerator until I remembered to pull it out. It had the status of something easily ignored, possibly moldy.

Within the first year after our move, I experienced what can simply be called a “Jam Epiphany”. Students in French language courses learn “la confiture” is something to spread on the breakfast baguette or to stir into plain yogurt for dessert. Outside of class the learning curve rises sharply when you find that confiture in no way resembles Welch’s-fructose-sugar-product in a jar. Yes, it comes in jars, but the first difference is that there are shelves upon shelves dedicated to the myriad brands and flavors in every market or shop. The second difference is that you want to savor, remember, and talk about what it tastes like.

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considering the options: la chambre aux confitures

One day, while wandering about in Paris, I discovered a small shop completely dedicated to “Les Confitures”. This specialty store, stocked floor to ceiling with out-of-this-world-taste-sensational jams, was not in my normal shopping district. But it is spectacular. Now I plan excursions across town to pick up a jar, or two, or three.

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What is it about jam in France that turns my head around? For one thing, each jar tastes exactly like its name–-to the ingredient. You can close your eyes and identify the fruit from which it is made without even looking at the label. The sweetness is not overly sugary and very subtle. It tastes like pure, sweet, fragrant fruit in spreadable form.

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7 perfectly arranged confitures

Sometimes confiture can even taste like flowers. At a breakfast buffet in a chateau hotel in Normandy, I zeroed in on an arrangement of seven jars in a perfect circle of color, each with it’s own long handled spoon. They bore names like Violettes de Provence, Cerise Grillotes, Oranges Améres, Lait Confiture, and Roses Confit. I tried four of them on the good fresh bread being served. Each tasted more exceptional than the previous one. Those named after flowers were exactly as you would imagine a violet or rose would taste. They even had what looked like pieces of flower petals mixed into the jellied consistency. Lait Confiture was light caramel in color and taste. It was notable for it’s exquisitely creamy texture that made you want to close your eyes and hum. This summer when my nephew was visiting from the United States, I watched him quietly stir one spoonful of Beurre Lait Confiture into his black coffee each morning. A creative tasty pleasure, indeed.

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la cour

I have written before of my love for French butter imbedded with crystals of sea salt; how I spread it daily over toasted pieces of seedy baguette. On the weekends, breakfast has a different routine. My husband and I share a leisurely petit déjeuner in the small eating area overlooking the vine-covered courtyard of our apartment building. He starts the coffee and begins making a plate of toasted baguette. Sometimes we have the good round bread from Poilâne bakery. On the round marble-topped table goes a clean cloth. From the refrigerator comes a special pottery container. It is filled with confiture transferred from its original jar to this more festive, colorful one. The flavor is whatever is on hand: mango, fig, strawberry/rhubarb, wild blueberry, pear, or simply “fruits rouges”, red fruits. Weekend breakfasts are when we indulge pleasurably—when there is time to sit and read, or converse quietly, without rushing out the door. It’s a sweet formula we have come to love, with a pot of confiture as centerpiece.

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Recently I learned something new about enjoying fine confiture from a young boy. Nico, ten-years-old, lives in Strasbourg, and stayed overnight with us one weekend.

His mother and I were chatting over coffee when he arrived at the table to have breakfast. I served him a small wedge of Spanish omelet and two pieces of baguette toast. While our conversation continued, I became distracted by Nico’s approach to his food. He looked into each of the two open jars of confiture and smiled to himself. Next, he scooped a generous amount of strawberry/rhubarb jam onto a piece of toast. With patience and precision he pressed the fruit of the confiture into the larger holes of the baguette using the back of the spoon. Then he smoothed the entire surface, back and forth, back and forth, for about three minutes until it was evenly and completely covered. All the way out to the very edges. Not a millimeter of bread showed through. It looked beautiful. Like a rosy still life painting. Once satisfied that it was perfect, he began to eat. For Nico, nothing was more important than preparing his toast and confiture, just so.

It reminded me of a story MFK Fisher wrote about Lucullus, the gourmand from ancient Roman times. He was reputed to host lavish, elaborate banquets that were noteworthy in reputation. Yet even a solo dining experience was important to him. Once, when served a meal where “he was conscious of a certain slackness” in the repast, he became annoyed. When the summoned chef protested, “We thought there was no need to prepare a fine banquet for my lord alone—–“, Lucullus responded icily, “It is precisely when I am alone that you pay special attention. At such times, you must remember, Lucullus dines with Lucullus.” Now, right in front of me, it was clear that Nico was dining with Nico. With full attention and pleasure.

We stopped talking and simply watched as the second piece of toast was readied. With no less concentration, each meticulous motion was repeated: smilingly scooping out jam, pressing it in, painting in long strokes until it completely reached the edges. His mother asked him, in French, what he was enjoying more, his toast or his confiture. There was no need to answer. Nico’s contentment was visible right down to his little boy soul.

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order online

In Paris:

  • La Chambre aux Confitures
  • Specialty Epicerie
  • 9, rue des Martyrs, 75009

www.lachambreauxconfitures.com

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jars lined up for taste testing

 

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