Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Daily Bread (lots of it)

           Beginning my 90-day (maximum for my visa) tour around Europe with a week-long stay in Italy, I had become accustomed to "going with the flow." After four weeks of classes in Toulouse, France, at the PURPAN agriculture engineering university, I began to master taking each day at a time. The four weeks of classes were packed with activities: two weekend trips (Cirque du Gavarnie in the Pyrennees mountains; Barcelona), four vineyard tours in two weeks, a trip to a dairy farm, and a tour of Roquefort natural cheese caves and one of their ewe dairies. Compounded with a limited number of nights to explore France’s fourth-largest city, the beautiful canal-striped and pink-bricked Toulouse on the banks of the Garonne river, we managed a pretty busy and somewhat sleepless schedule. By the time I went to live with my host family for the four-week vineyard internship at Château Boujac, just a 50-minute drive north of Toulouse, I had prepared nothing besides packing my bags and verifying the first and last names of the monsieur (M.) and madame (Mme.). 
Gavarnie Falls in the Cirque du Gavarnie in the Pyrenees
Spain lies just behind this ridge
          I arrived at the house with the rest of the family almost finished with lunch. I had known that French cuisine occurs in courses, but having only eaten in the student residence’s kitchen with other non-French students, I did not realize that courses continued at home. The meal had already started, and after basic introductions to the two daughters (I had been informed there would be one, and at a younger age), the other intern, and the madame’s father who lived with them in the house, I spooned some of the simple red cabbage Ala reached to examine the main dish, pheasant with a pasta that I would call linguini, was reassured that it could be reheated if needed, and was interrupted mid-ladle because the cabbage was cold and the pheasant was hot. Dishes come one at a time, hot and cold do not mix on the same plate, and I realized that eating here would be different.
Cafeteria lunch- "crunchy" lamb, cooked veg, salad, and apricot tarte
While living in the residence, students went to a central cafeteria to eat lunch, and I could hardly understand how the diners could eat so much for lunch until I knew what was a typical French breakfast. My daily fare before starting four to five hours of tending the vines or labeling bags of wine consisted of three or four buttered biscuits, store-bought pieces of crunchy toast, and a coffee. When a topping is added, the biscuits are referred to as tartines. Eventually I added some confiture de figues “fig jam” to include some sweetness and more flavor. I started eating more fruit after a while, and put an American twist on breakfast by topping the biscuits  with peanut butter, which I dearly love and missed. Another common breakfast food eaten in the house was a buttered baguette, slightly stale is fine, dipped in hot milk mixed with a powdered chocolate equivalent to Nesquik or Ovaltine. Coffee breaks were taken occasionally in the mornings as well, like on days where the work was tough (bottling slightly over 2,000 bottles on the first day) or on days when work was lighter and only simple labeling or inventory tasks were needed. Cups would be taken out from the coffee machine in the house, or we would use the espresso machine in the storage loft between the second level of the office and the chai,where the tanks held the steadily fermenting wine. The loft was much cozier, and reminded me of a secret clubhouse for grown-ups, equipped with caffeine access and a small dishwasher. 
A few of the 20 or so wine tanks in the chai
Before the principle meals of the day, lunch and dinner, the table is always set. A routine gradually unfolded between the interns, daughters, and I to make each eater’s place. Reused Christmastime champagne bottles served as carafes for water. M. drank his favorite red wine, also given to the grandfather who diluted it with water, and Mme. had her favorite rosé chilled with ice cubes. Sparkling water was made with their carbon dioxide injection appliance in the kitchen, and coffee was prepared if there was none leftover from breakfast. Each seat had a plate, sharp knife, fork, and glass. Each course was shuffled on and off of the table—we ate outside for the first two weeks before the weather turned too hot— and hot plates were set in a central location. Mme. served the main dishes which were too hot to pass around the table. Essential to the meal is the bread, which would be bought almost daily, the crust re-crisped at times with a few minutes in the oven, or stale bread softened with a few seconds in the microwave. The bread board, a checkered grate of wood with the square spaces beneath the cutting service serving to catch crumbs, was brought out and set at the table. The first to slice bread cut enough for each person at the table to start with one or two slices, and “passe-moi du pain, s’il te plait” was the simple phrase to receive another slice when more was needed. 
Tool used to cut off the useless vines, "pampres"
 I did a lot of "épamprer"

The largest differences between lunch and dinner were that one drank coffee after lunch, and generally had a shower before dinner. Lunch began between 12:30pm and 1:30pm (usually heading back to work just before 3pm to finish around 6pm), and dinner around 8pm. Both had the rhythm of an appetizer, main course, salad, cheese, and dessert (entrée, plat, salade, fromage, dessert). Many different dishes can be eaten as any of the courses, but I will list several of the more memorable dishes I experienced.

        Entrée- Canteloupe melon with French dry-cured ham jambon, sliced so thinly it is almost transparent. Olives and pickled lupin beans. Pâté (reminded me of better cold meatloaf). Mini biscuits topped with tapenade. Italian fare of carpaccio or caprese salad. Simple tomato wedge salad with oil, vinegar, and salt. More traditional pickled pig’s feet. Radishes from the garden, sliced long-ways down the middle just enough to sandwich a small pat of butter between the two halves. Bread.
        Plat (almost always a meat with a vegetable)- Veal steaks with cooked petits pois “green peas,” skewered pieces of lamb grilled with vegetables, shrimp skewers, blood sausage and potatoes, braised duck and canned white asparagus reheated, salted, and dipped in oil and vinegar. Bread.
        Salade- Some kind of butterhead or frisee lettuce, torn into large pieces, washed and spun, and served with olive oil, vinegar, and salt. I ate only two or three pieces typically. I wonder if it was for the vinegar taste, or to add fiber for digestion. Maybe some more bread. 
        Fromage- A wide selection of cheese, some soft or hard, from cows or sheep. The smelliest was a sheep’s cheese from the Pyrenees mountains, given to the family as a gift. I could still smell it across the table, and the odor lingered on my fingers until a thorough hand washing. It tasted incredible. Many of the soft cheese had flavors which reminded me of foods I could no longer exactly remember or describe. Many times I thought of honey. Bread.
        Dessert- Many ice-cream bars were eaten. A cup of yogurt, or pudding, a piece of fruit. There were cakes, tartes, and pastries for special occasions or weekends. Extra dishes and dessert spoons or a fork were brought out if needed
Cafe- Coffee with or without sugar. Small mugs filled with the strong liquid and small   spoons came to stir in a cube of sugar. 
(it's a joke that coffee in the US is jus de chausettes "sock juice," 
 like wringing out dirty laundry). 

The bread itself, typically baguettes, remain more or less a long, white loaf with a good crust which would go completely hard within three days, but almost never mold. While writing this report, my cravings for the good stuff have been awakened, and will be coming out of the oven by tomorrow night.
Araignee de mer
Oysters, snails, and the larger sea snails
Beyond the usual meals, special occasions or returns from vacation brought even more things to try. Typical escargot, and larger sea snails, eaten with plenty of garlic butter sauce. Araignée de mer "sea spider” crab. Mussels and oysters, and some kind of scallop cooked with eggs. The egg-seafood combination seemed a bit strange to me, but Mme. replied that it was just the way how her mother cooked the dish. For the eldest daughter’s finishing the French equivalent of high school, there was a “congratulations/going away” party with her future roommates’ families. We were graced with a gorgeous paella made in a proper, party-sized paella pan. Any meal with guests began with aperitifs, before-dinner drinks and snacks. 
The paello dish, filled with the unfinished paella

Soon to meet their fate with the rest of the masterpiece
So why does one eat snails, homemade vanilla ice cream after BBQ ribs, buttered bread dipped in hot milk, peanut butter and grape jelly between two soft pieces of white bread, or drink espresso before leaving the dinner party at 11pm*? During my travels after the program, I asked a farmer why we say à vos souhaits “bless you” after someone else sneezes. He returned the simple answer, “Because we were taught to.” My grandmother taught me to love PB&J every time she handed me one as she picked me up from swim lessons. The French eat snails because they were eaten with family and friends as children—the petits escargots represent the moment with loved ones when the meat was first tried (at least, that's what I'm going with for now). I did not realize how much picking black raspberries in my grandparent’s woods to eat with vanilla ice cream meant to me until I missed their narrow availability in early summer. Traditions can change, things included and excluded, for better or worse, but it does not change that what we learn to love as children become what reminds us of home for the rest of our lives, for those of us fortunate to grow up in loving location long enough to form those attachments. Whatever one did not grow up with is different, potentially exotic and exciting (peanut butter on crepes was a stretch). Sharing a meal, especially our favorites or those that our parents’ used to make, shares culture. It shares a part of ourselves.
If it is the case that distance makes the heart grow fonder, I am looking forward to expanding my nostalgia tolerance. Ending the summer with four days in Iceland was the last cure for wanderlust. And certainly what forms culture, what truly sticks into later life, must include more factors than our childhood. I hope to explore these questions and more when I am back in Europe for a semester-long study abroad Spring 2017.

 Eating a goat cheese and tomato sarrasin (buckwhat flour) 
crepe at a festival in La Rochelle. Santé! 
*attempted to give French, American, French, American, French, examples

Traveling Houseplants

           Before embarking on my summer 2016 adventures, I wondered how to approach doing a travel blog. Could I possibly pick up a little plant friend to carry with me throughout Europe and leave with a friend before heading back to the U.S.? On my first day abroad in Rome, I went to Mercato di Campagna Amica "Friend of the Country Market" (thank you Google Translate) just around the corner from Circo Massimo. The one-Euro potted succulents were incredibly tempting, but most likely a total pain (literally for the cacti) to carry for one more week through Italy, and the rest of the trip. 
On a fairly spontaneous day trip to Pisa while traveling between Florence and Genova--by train I would be traveling through Pisa whether or not I stopped to see the tower--I wandered through the campus at University of Pisa while walking through town. I found a destroyed succulent plant. Sad and in pieces, I collected some of the undamaged leaves and planned to hang onto them and see if they could be propagated. I also picked some more Jade plant-like leaves, and I can't remember from where (I think Genova. At this point I "caught" something which yelled at me that this was a good idea. I have to be restrained at garden stores). 

It's amazing how confidently one can "tourist"
when everyone else is doing the same thing
Forgotten in my purse, and impressively undamaged except for one, the leaves lived outside of sunlight for about 4 more days, and then found a home in my window at the residence in Toulouse. At this point I had started the official study abroad with PURPAN, and was keeping the leaved moist enough by dripping water on their toilet paper "bed."

I was lucky to be paired with a culinary wizard of sorts (she made pistachio custard, octopus stew, and a Greek cucumber soup, and made she there was goat cheese and fruit for breakfast and enough rice pudding for dessert) who gave me a leftover jar to transport my little ones to the next stop of the summer, a month at an internship on a vineyard. 

In just two weeks time, the leaves had shrunk significantly in the hot, sunny window sill. I left three or so plants with my host family at Chateau Boujac, just 50 minutes north of Toulouse. Plants were then gifted to a friend I visited in Brussels after the internship was completed. The Belgian propagations were officially reported dead, as the housecats loved them so much they ate them. The final home (but hopefully not "final resting place") of the plants is in Uppsala, Sweden, where they were left with another friend I was fortunate to visit. Yes another friend hosted me while in Milan, but the plants were merely leaves yet then (Hey friends--once again, thank you!)

Just before leaving, the final leaf--this one from Barcelona--was just pushing its new leaves and tiny roots through the callous formed over the wound. Some kind of metamorphosis takes place behind that light brown veil, a magic of sorts. 

If you are interested in propagating your own succulents, the internet is absolutely full of resources. I liked this blog post. Throughout my young life as a houseplant owner, I have learned a lot from the plants I have killed (by far not just a few plants). Don't be afraid, and keep trying. Sooner or later you can find the sweet spots for lighting and watering in your home.