Monday, January 29, 2007
A Friendship Blooms in the Lavender Fields
I was looking for lavender. They had it. A friend of mine who knew us both put us in touch as I was shooting for Façonnable and looking for the quintessential Provençal shots to provide the bling for their us marketing. And so began a lovely friendship.
Immediately and warmly, I was welcomed into their family and their family of friends. In fact, the first night that I had arrived, they had invited me to dinner on a mid summer night. We dined on the terrace of their centuries-old farmhouse under a canopy of stars as course after course appeared from somewhere within the house. Wine flowed and with it, the laughter and chatter that accompanies gatherings of friends. I only had enough French under my belt to be able to get around sufficiently in my travels, but conversation still eluded me at that point so I was mostly listening...and smiling in that American fashion of “politesse”. There was a point in the evening, sometime after dessert that my jet lag kicked in and as the voices of foreign speakers swirled around me, I realized that my head was about to drop into my dessert plate. Recognizing the potential disaster of comportment in this eventuality, I begged off to return to my hotel in the village.
It would seem that from that evening forward, I had made my first friends in France. There would be several more of those dinners on the terrace where the evening would be filled with traditional Provençal fare - a feast for the eyes and the belly.
Last weekend, I made the lovely drive up from Aix to their home in the lavender country. There is a shift that happens for me as I approach the vineyards of that region. Vineyard after vineyard stretches along the roadside from which one can see the vines that are currently being prepared for this year’s harvest. Occasionally there is the little road off the beaten path with a small hand-made sign that indicates farm fresh goat cheese or lavender honey. Some of the smaller wineries remind me of Napa Valley many lifetimes ago, when tasting would happen with the wine grower/maker in his living room and to get to the tasting, one would have to navigate the signs of life - family life, that is: dogs, tricycles, laundry hanging out, watering cans left aside a pot – perhaps when a telephone rang. Life happens here and the wine-making is a part of it.
And after meandering through vineyards, various agricultural patches and the twists and turns of ancient village rues, I begin to pass lavender fields and Grignan appears in the distance. A right turn down a narrow dirt road takes me through oak woods to the home of these friends. Genevieve, who feels like the steady and quiet heartbeat of the group, seems to have endless energy and stays well ahead of three sons, and husband Maurice, who sold a successful lavender business a few years ago. Although there are still lavender fields to manage, he fills his time with other creative projects as well.
Currently, he is working on a serious remodeling project with (and for) his oldest son (who has continued on successfully in the family’s former lavender business) on an old farmhouse in the middle of an oak forest not far from the village.
(Of course, it only makes sense that the walls in this home are now insulated with lavender!)
And then of course, there is the task of keeping up with two other sons, one a fireman in the village of Grignan, and the other in Los Angeles engaged in his first year of work after successfully completing his MBA at Pepperdine University (which I always thought was a wise choice: when leaving France for the US, choose to go to school where you have a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean...although I think his reasons for choosing Pepperdine were all formulated before he even knew about the view!) This is a family that welcomes new friends with enthusiasm and generosity.
I caught up on some of the latest news while walking with Maurice. As lavender fields slept, quietly renewing themselves for the bloom that is to be, ancient stone structures whispered fragments of stories from centuries past...and our footfalls along the path and quiet conversation was simply woven into the tapestry that is life in this village. (On this mild mid-January day, we were not the only people out for a stroll through the little roads on the edge of the village.)
The Christmas holidays a year ago were spent with all of them eating fois gras and drinking champagne and hanging out with the rest of their family members and friends. Once again, course after course was brought from the kitchen. Genevieve makes it look so easy.
One of the dishes served over the course of that holiday feast was a Courge Dans La Peau (Pumpkin in its Skin). A gratin prepared inside of a pumpkin, it is baked and comes out looking like a piece of ceramic art that would be very expensive to purchase at an art show to grace a coffee table or kitchen corner. But it’s what comes out of this beauty when the lid comes off that is something really special.
On a cold winter night this would go well with with a salad and a glass of wine...or as a side dish for roasted chicken or turkey. Last weekend it was served with a roasted goose...but before that goose ever hit the table, the weekend fare included a rich watercress soup, a terrine of chicken and truffles
(they have a friend who sells truffles and have access to beautiful, dark round gems far more beautiful and seductive than anything one might see in stark relief against the creamy white pages of the Dean and DeLuca catalogue), a tender mâche salad with a vinaigrette made from the “house vinegar” (from Genevieve's pottery crock of homemade vinegar), rich and smoky braised endives, garlicky green beans, and a mushroom sauté of a local harvest of dark and fragrant mushrooms.
As I prepared to return to Aix after a much-needed weekend in the country (given my recent push to finish required assignments for the end of the semester), Genevieve put together a "care package" that just kicked my little French kitchen up a notch: a mother of vinegar so I, too, can dress my salads with "vinaigrette du maison" and a stash of herbs de provence...some of the herbs taken from one son's garden, the remaining from another. Special treasures that link my little French kitchen to Genevieve's.
My first glimpse of Grignan was in an evening's wash of gold, just like this. As I shot this image last weekend, I thought of that first evening back in 2000. I had no idea what was ahead of me. I had no idea that the people I would spend that evening with under the trees and stars would become the friends I have today...and I had not yet realized the true bounty of Provençal fare.
The village has not changed in appearance since that first shot. My life, on the other hand...well, as the French say, "Tout est possible!" (All is possible.) The momentum of that change really picked up speed after that first visit to Grignan.
Courge dans la Peau
1 medium sized pumpkin, seeded and cleaned (with the top cut to fit for baking)
1 baguette of day-old bread, cut in 1 inch cubes
1 1/2 cups of gruyere cheese, grated
1 small container of crème fraiche
salt, pepper and herbs de provence to taste
Cut top from pumpkin (to be replaced as a lid for baking.) Clean seeds from inside and layer bread, cheese, crème fraiche, herbs, salt and pepper in two or three sets of layers (depending on size of pumpkin). Firmly fit lid onto pumpkin and place in shallow pan. Place in 400º oven for an hour or so or until the flesh of the pumpkin is soft to a knife point.