Wine and Food

Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr

Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American TasteProvence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste by Luke Barr My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On a run last week, I saw a hummingbird at rest on the bough of a blackberry bush. Such a rare treat to see this tiny thumb of shimmering green and red in repose instead of as a darting blur at the hanging basket of flowers on our front patio. I paused to watch him on the gently swaying bough. In three heartbeats, he was gone.

Provence, 1970 is about recognizing the hummingbird at rest. It is about capturing a moment in time and holding it in freeze frame, before it darts away to catch up with the world. The moment and place and (most of) the players are evident in the book's title. Luke Barr, M.F.K. Fisher's grandnephew and an editor at Travel + Leisure magazine, offers a bird's eye view into a movement on the threshold of change.

The movement is, of course, America's relationship to food. The change afoot in Provence, 1970 is the shift away from European—predominantly French—sensibilities, toward an embrace of the organic, local movements combined with an increasingly global palate.

Food is perhaps the most vibrant reflection of culture and when cultural trends shift, shed and shake, those who influence our taste buds must shift with it, or be pushed back to the dark corners of the kitchen cabinets with the jello molds and fondue pots. Provence, 1970 shows how some of our greatest food icons reconciled their beliefs in the superiority of all things French with the inevitable change in American tastes.

Most tender and intimate is Barr's treatment of M.F.K. Fisher. She is the central character, a women in her sixties on the cusp of a life shift. Her children are grown, her career is comfortable, she is content to be without a husband. But she does need a home. When her house in Napa sells, a friend offers to build her a cottage on his property in Sonoma. She'd long planned to live out her older years in Provence, but now that this time is upon her, she wonders if modern France holds the same magic as the one of her memory. Her months in Provence, while she awaits the construction of the Sonoma house, become a meditation on the acceptance of letting go of the past and embracing a fresh start.

The author's portrayals of M.F., the Childs, James Beard, Richard Olney and numerous secondary players are rich, savory, bitter and sweet. He shows the internal conflicts these talented and passionate chefs and writers wrestle as their relationships to food and France shift and indulges the reader with good old-fashioned gossip as he details their conflicts with each other. Julia's increasingly fraught relationship with her co-author Simone Beck is not news, but Barr shows how it is viewed through the eyes of her contemporaries. He shows what it means to be a snob (Richard Olney), a bon vivant (James Beard), and a sensualist (M.F.K. Fisher) and how a small group of Americans excel at being more French than the French themselves.

And the food. Some of Luke Barr's most delicious, vivid and even hilarious writing is in the descriptions of meals prepared and consumed throughout Provence during these winter months. It is at once a celebration of and a primer on Provençal cuisine, with unparalleled scenery, tart conversation and raw observation to set the mood.

Provence, 1970 shows the beauty of capturing time just at the moment it hovers between the past and the present. Of course, we never realize the importance of such moments until they are long gone. Luke Barr does the nearly impossible: he conjures up the hummingbird and holds it in his hand just long enough for us to recognize the wonder of stillness before change.

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Provence, 2009

Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant ChefBlood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Three and a half stars. I can't quite get to a fourth.

My food epiphany occurred in France (of course), with food prepared by—wait for it—an Italian (of course). It was a three a.m., post-nightclub gathering of bleary-eyed, eardrum-collapsed international students, crammed into Bruno’s and Filippo’s kitchen in the Alpine city of Chambéry, where I had chosen to study because of its proximity to Italy (of course).

I was already half in love with Bruno from Ancona, but when he handed me a bowl of pasta glistening with sea salt and oil and tossed with tuna, capers, tomatoes, and Parmigiano Reggiano, its hangover-killing goodness transported me to a new sort of bliss. It took all of 20 minutes to prepare—most of that was waiting for the water to boil. Simple. And I’d never tasted anything as delicious.

A second light flashed fifteen years later, during culinary school in New Zealand. Pulling several kitchen shifts as part of my course, I realized the chef’s life was not for me. I hated the heat, the pressure, the clothing. My place was front of house, with the diners. As an introvert who loves a crowd, I adored the two-hour relationship with my tables, the way we could swap life stories over lamb shank and wine and, usually, never see one another again. It was the sharing of delicious food and the way the diners turned themselves over to me—trusting, expectant, curious, and delighted—that I treasured.

So, it was very easy to connect with Gabrielle Hamilton at the most visceral level. The psychology of beautiful food—the way it feeds our souls at least as much as our bodies, I get. It was even a vocation for a spell, from that glorious era in New Zealand where I waited tables and taught Hospitality, to the several years I spent working in Seattle as a wine and beer buyer and steward.

As someone who can’t tell a joke at a dinner table to save her life, but who feels the wonder of words in her soul and astonishment that she can weave them together in powerful ways, I connected with Gabrielle Hamilton as a writer. She made me feel better that my treasured acceptance to an MFA program this fall will go no further than a dream pinned to my bulletin board. Hamilton accepted that her soul needed the pan rather than the pen. Like me, she’s a doer, not a scholar.

This connection to her craft, born of nature and desperation, is the most powerful theme in Blood, Bones, and Butter. Hamilton's family celebrated food and loved to party. From her French mother she learned to cook and to revere the process; from her father she learned the crazy sort of joy that comes from opening your home and feeding the masses with fishes and loaves.

The desperation came when that family split apart, scattering like dandelion spores to the wind. The author entered the back door of the restaurant world, tethering herself to dishwashers and prep sinks as a way to create stability while her adolescence was crumbling beneath her.

And thus a memoir was born—Hamilton uses the broad outline of her résumé to structure her relationship with the world—her family, her marriage, her emotional development. This is less a memoir about the power of food than it is about the power of work, about one woman’s dogged determination to succeed on her own steam. Her industry could have been writing, or the stock market or real estate or teaching. The fact that her profession is cheffing is lucky for those of us who love the things she writes about so evocatively—food, travel, and the grit and grime of the restaurant world.

But I never quite trust her. Memoir is an eel—it’s either going to slip through your hands or shock you or, as is the case with Blood, Bones, and Butter, both. The danger for the contemporary memoirist comes in offering up course after course of one’s life, proffering it as a collection of tasty facts, then dropping the plates when real life catches up and contradicts you.

Around the time of the book’s publication, Hamilton appeared on “The Interview Show” and dismissed foodies as "a population that has kind of misplaced priorities." Granted, “foodies” is a tired moniker, but it’s an odd thing for a chef to give the finger to her most ardent fans. In the same interview, Hamilton declares "I'm barely interested in food....I love food but I don't like to talk about it very long."

Kinda weird. This tone of contrariness and defensiveness echoes in her writing, most notably during her years in Ann Arbor as she pursues her MFA at the University of Michigan and when she takes us down the short but winding road of her personal relationships. I ran often into the brick wall of Hamilton’s ego, erected and fortified against deep insecurities.

I was also perplexed by her marriage. Not the doing of it— she wouldn’t be the first to extend a generous hand to someone at odds with the INS. But she seemed baffled to find that love wasn’t waiting for her on the other side of the aisle. And yet, she stepped out on her long-term girlfriend to have a brief affair with her husband-to-be. And she cuckolded her own sister while writing this memoir. Hamilton’s disappointment felt very disingenuous, given her proclivity for infidelity.

I was also troubled by her mother-as-martyr routine. She chose to have two children, twenty months apart, with a man she was neither living with nor, if she is to be believed, hardly speaking to, all while in the early years of running a restaurant. These were choices. She had options, could have sought help, could have organized her life differently. She did not and I respect that. But her natural prickliness and independence read to me like a whole lotta “I’m such a badass, cooking brunch at thirty-nine weeks” self-back patting. It seems to run counter to her belief that we shouldn’t talk about “great female chefs,” we should talk about “great chefs,” period. A discussion, incidentally, that makes of one of the best chapters in the book.

Hamilton isn’t clear why she remained in a loveless marriage, nor why she drifted so far from her family, so the reader has a shadowy grasp on Gabrielle Hamilton, the woman. But in all fairness, this is the memoir of a chef. Touching on her two years abroad, on her summers in Italy with her now ex-husband’s family, her epiphany while working with the inscrutable Misty in Michigan, and her hardcore catering experiences, Gabrielle Hamilton—the chef and the writer—is a remarkable force. I’d welcome the chance to eat at her restaurant, Prune, and the opportunity to read more of her sparkling, no-holds-barred, angry, irreverent, and sexy writing. But I’d rather read it as fiction, because I think I might choke on her facts.

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Wherein I rail against cheap wine and contemplate unemployment.

For many years, the résumé folder on my hard drive remained unopened. A small lifetime of sorts passed by, rendering those dozens of NAFSA: Association of International Educator conference presentations meaningless and nullifying my skills in various software programs (PeopleSoft? Access database? Anyone? Bueller?). I let the bones of my career as a study abroad program administrator calcify. Once I turned my back on the Ivory Tower for the green shores of Aotearoa, I never looked back on that decade-plus of world travel and helicopter parents (would I have turned to salt had I tossed one last glance over my shoulder?). Then it was off to the world of wine, first in vineyards, then in store aisles and finally in a cramped office in Seattle’s University District, sipping and spitting dozens of samples a week. A terrific gig, really - leading people to phenomenal wine is awesomesauce.

Inserting impassioned parenthetical:

Working in vineyards in foreign lands sounds very glamorous, but the months spent pruning and training vines wrecked my hands and wrists: for several months I couldn’t hold a coffee cup, I had to sleep on my back because of the pain, my liver suffered from the massive doses of NSAIDs. It was bliss. Best job I ever cried in pain over.

So when I see people who would bite off their right pinky toe before tossing Kraft Cheese Singles on their grilled sammie throw good money after cheap wine, it breaks my heart.

Ever ask yourself how a labor-intensive, high-overhead agricultural product made from raw ingredients subject to the vagaries of weather and disease can be produced so cheaply? Because the "winery" used crap juice. Best case scenario the juice was rejected by producers who don't want their names associated with poor quality, so they bulk it off. Worst case, your $5 steal was produced not by people, but by machines, factory-style. It’s made from fruit laden with herbicides and pesticides grown on a massive farm with little regard to land stewardship, and the wine was manipulated to taste exactly the same every time, vintage in-vintage out (if it even boasts a vintage). You paid for a bottle or a box, a cutesy label, overhead, maybe even an ad campaign. You did not pay for wine anyone gave a shit about, except to rip an easy buck from your wallet.

You can do better. You should do better. You don't have to spend a lot for quality vino. Ask me for a $10-12 wine recommendation. I'm thrilled to oblige. Because I love wine. I love the process. I love the people who grow the fruit and craft the wine with passion and integrity. Because I will never forget the shooting pain in my hands as they closed around a pair of pruning shears or wrapped a cane around a wire. Those tortured hands were producing something of beauty.

IMG_1132

Alas, a manifesto for another time.

I find myself opening that résumé folder not once this spring, but twice. I may be in for a record number of W-2s to track down next year. So far, the count is three (Wait, you say, I missed one! Yeah, well, you blinked). Pretty sure I’m guaranteed a fourth.

Unless.

Here’s where I admit I am strangely relieved that the non-profit for which I have been Business Manager since April is about to go belly up. The Board of Directors recently passed a unanimous vote to close it down over the summer (ahem, not my doing, folks – this is a disaster eight years in the making. I’ve just been paying the bills for six weeks. In theory. Well, not the bills - there are plenty of those. How to pay them, and myself, is another matter entirely).

How can I be relieved the spectre of unemployment and over-paying for inadequate private health insurance is now a real-life ogre? Because it has forced me face what I’ve been pushing off for yet another “Someday.” It’s giving me an out.

I’ve known since those anxiety attacks of mid-April, which I wrote about here, that my head was trying desperately to tell me something. The message finally found a way through my heart, with those terrifying moments of choking panic (which have ceased, tap wood). And this is, in part, what I believe the message to be:

...  ... ...

This is the hard part. The part where I stare out the window for long moments, check my iPhone for possible life-changing Facebook updates, rearrange the coffee shop punch cards in my wallet. Because it’s so difficult to come out and just say it. Here's a practice run:

I think I should let this job run its course, not look for another one for (an undecided period of time) and write. Finish my novel? Maybe. At least get it to the point where it's ready to be turned loose on beta readers, which means a couple more rewrites. Pour out some of those short stories clamoring for attention. Pull together a book proposal - a several-week endeavor. Submit said book proposal to those agents and publishing companies I have yet to research. Attend at least one week of the Centrum Writers' Conference in July (located conveniently one mile from my house).

And heal. Heal after a year of loss and anger. Run and bike, walk on the beach, cook healthful meals, open my home to friends, read Thomas Hardy, find a park bench overlooking the bay and sit. Sit still. Work on being present, not six months or six years or twenty-six years in the past or similar time spans in the future. Be amazed to have a partner who needs no explanation, who asks “What are you waiting for?” Have faith that even without my income and with the added burden of said stupid health insurance policy, we’ll make it.

Step off the ride, leave the carnival. Do Not Pass Go and definitely do not collect $200.00.

There. I’ve gone and said it. I might just do this thing. This “What do you do, Julie?” “Who, me? Like, what do I do for work? I’m a writer.”

Right. Well. I just submitted a résumé to an art gallery in town, in response to a Help Wanted in the weekly paper. My résumé’s pretty cool, actually. I mean, how many people do you know who have a Masters degree in International Affairs and can boast a stint at a slaughterhouse in New Zealand? What’s that? You say you want to see this résumé? What, you hiring?

Then again, I promised my husband if I ever sell this book, I’d buy him a vineyard in the south of France. Because next to growing stories, growing grapes is the best job there is.

L'Excuse (or, I play the Fool)

I may as well put it out here first thing. Because I can't think about anything else until I come clean. I haven't been writing. Not, "I haven't been writing recently." Or, "It's been days since I've written." No. I haven't written in weeks. Weeks. Not quite months -  I smashed together a couple of flash fiction pieces in March and April. A few book reviews. Does a restaurant review count? No, I didn't think so. I do have a reason. Reason, a variant of Excuse. Excuse happens to be the term for "the Fool" in French Tarot. If you hold L'Excuse, you can play the card on any trick you wish, but L'Excuse can never win the trick. How very à propos. So, here's my Excuse.

I was studying for the Level 3 (Advanced) Certificate from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. I sat the exam on Sunday. I think I passed. It was wicked and hard. I remembered that Grenouilles is a Chablis Grand Cru but forgot that Vougeot is in the Côte de Nuits; I knew that Coonawara's terra rossa makes smashing Cabernet sauvignon, but couldn't for the life of me remember the principle Sauvignon blanc production region in Chile (Casablanca, wine fans). Fortunately, essay questions made up the bulk of the exam. Once I started writing, I felt on solid ground. Except that the written portion of the exam took place AFTER the blind tasting. With all that ** and ** sloshing around in me (at least I hope to God that's what those wines were; it was a blind tasting after all! And we're asked not to offer any identifications until we receive the exam results. In three months.), I was in prime form. Off I went to write how to cultivate and vinify grapes for a botrytized wine.

From the end of February, I devoted my weekends (and evenings when I could muster the energy) to a growing stack of flashcards, to notes in a carefully plotted rainbow of ink colors, to maps of regions and charts of processes, to diagrams of Coffey and pot stills, to drawings of Vertical Shoot Positioning with replacement-cane vs. cordon-spur pruning.

But Sunday afternoon, when I turned in my exam materials and the borrowed #2 pencil, the need to keep appellations, classifications, soil types, climatic conditions, aging requirements and vinification procedures nestled in drawers in my brain came to an end.

Yes, my day job involves wine. And beer (I prefer an informal approach to studying the glorious world of malt and hops. It involves a bottle, a glass and an opener). But the WSET certificate was far more than a professional endeavor. This continuation of my wine education, which began formally at the New Zealand School of Food and Wine in 2006 and informally at a Vietnamese restaurant in Paris in 1990, made me ever more passionate about wine (and its more rough-and-tumble cousin, spirits - all that rectifying and reflux makes it the more masculine of pursuits). It was a way to connect the intellect with the heart. So much of what inspires me about wine is intuitive and sensory - after years of tasting with intent - or has come from my experiences traveling and living in regions known for wine production, from personal relationships with winemakers and farmers and of course, from my own experiences in vineyards.

But truth be told, there were days and nights when I ached to write and I turned away from the computer and from my notebook nearly every time, to refocus my attention on my multi-colored notes and highlighted text. And I felt like a fraud each time. I had that twitchiness you get after you haven't worked out for a few days. The twitchiness turns all too soon to lethargy; writing chops atrophy just like blood-and-sinew muscles. You stop using them long enough and they stop caring much about what you do.

But if you aren't too far out of shape, it takes just a few weeks of consistent workouts to feel those lean muscles forming underneath your lazy fat. You stand a little straighter, your lungs don't empty out so soon, your find yourself craving...

...the pen, the keyboard, the rush of words that push at your synapses and burst from your fingertips as you pelt at the keys. I can't say that the more I write, the easier it gets. But the more I write, I want to write more often. The general idea is to get better at it.

Last week a stranger who is considering hiking in Ireland contacted me via a mutual friend. I've hiked in Ireland several times; Brendan and I are returning in September to hike the Kerry Peninsula. So, I wrote Heather a general e-mail about what to take, how to approach the experience and what to expect. It was a packing list with anecdotes. Here's what she wrote in reply:

Dear Julie:

First of all, wow.  Just ... wow.  You write so beautifully.  I don't know what you do for a living, but if it doesn't involve writing, you should quit whatever it is you are doing and change careers.  Immediately.  I've read this email three times now and I get more excited about the trip with each read-through.  Thank you!

No, Heather. Thank YOU. Shit. But I love my day job. All that wine...

And so I return. I set aside the formal pursuit of one passion and turn my soul to its other calling. It's going to take a few painful, exhausting workouts to get back in shape. I knew this was coming. I just have to begin. To write.

I think I'll have a beer first.

Book Review: An Ideal Wine: One Generation’s Pursuit of Perfection - and Profit - in California, David Darlington

An Ideal Wine: One Generation's Pursuit of Perfection - and Profit - in CaliforniaAn Ideal Wine: One Generation's Pursuit of Perfection - and Profit - in California by David Darlington My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Once upon a time, in the fabled Land of Milk and Honey (1970's California), the Knights (and a few Maidens) of Vitis Vinifera vowed to champion beautiful wines that would express the true nature of the golden slopes and coastal valleys they called home. They armed themselves with degrees from the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology, they pulled stints in wine shops and wineries, they met to taste the great wines of the world, sharpening their palates on Bordeaux and Burgundies, Rieslings and Champagnes. They shared and stumbled together, battling the dragons of weather, pestilence, fungus, financial woes and burnout to create a stunning array of wines that would be celebrated across the world (I write of the legendary Judgment of Paris, at which a host of California wines bested French labels in a blind tasting in 1976).

Then one day a great shadow fell over the land. A cunning sorcerer - bearing the benign moniker of Robert Parker - and his sipping sycophants - sidled on to the scene. Slinging arrows in the shape of 100-point scale scores these sorcerers cast a spell, causing the people to believe that quality wine was plush, plummy, velvety, overripe, oak-laden, high-alcohol jam that bore no distinguishing characteristics of the terroir from whence it came. The people were deceived and began to shell out premium coin for ripe and fruity plonk. The Knights of Vitis Vinifera fell to their knees, proclaiming allegiance to the Dark Lords of High Scores. They were rewarded with riches beyond imagination.

The Court Jester, Randall Grahm, and the Court Wizard, Leo McCloskey are the central characters in this tale. The former, the iconic proprietor of Bonny Doon Vineyard and erstwhile owner of Pacific Rim, Cardinal Zin and Big House wines, took a tangled route through the California wine industry. He baffled and beguiled his counterparts, critics and devotees by reaching for the sun with his wings barely glued to his back. He grew everything, everywhere, experimenting with grape varities, sites and techniques in an astonishing display of fearlessness. His odd pockets of vineyards grew into an empire of brands and Grahm -- through his prolific newsletters and showboat style -- became the tail that wagged the dog. A master of marketing which grossly overshadowed the quality of his wine in the heady days the 90's, Grahm at last returned to his original, earnest goal of creating artisanal wines that speak of the true terroir of California. He is now a champion of biodynamic processes, committed to restoring winemaking to a craft of nature respectfully managed -- not manipulated -- by man.

Leo McCloskey, a contemporary of Grahm's, was a young, gifted scientist and winemaker who guided storied Ridge Vineyards to worthy acclaim. He pursued a doctorate in chemical ecology at UC Davis and Santa Cruz, and earned his reputation as a skilled winemaker and consultant. McCloskey recognized early that the rapid and massive growth of the California wine industry needed savvy businesspeople to manage the aspirations of idealistic entrepreneurs. He studied the ascending importance of Robert Parker, editor of The Wine Advocate and the world's most renowned wine critic, and of the luxury magazine Wine Spectator, which copied Parker's 100-point rating scale. McCloskey's genius revealed itself in the creation of a service that winemakers had no idea they needed: Enologix. Enologix is founded on the principle that wine quality can be measured empirically, therefore crafted chemically. He has created a metric which takes into account the tastes of Robert Parker and critics from Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and other noted wine and spirits publications. The algorithms analyze a wine's flavor components at every stage of production, from growing, harvesting, and fermentation to aging and bottling. Used in conjunction with a market analysis, the Enologix metric is designed to ensure a wine will reach a target price, volume and critic score.

In An Ideal Wine, David Darlington pours out a sweeping history of the modern California wine industry, the one that began with idealists in blue jeans in the late 60's, through today's corporate megalopolises. Dozens of winemaking and kingmaking scions are introduced, though the two principals -- Grahm and McCloskey -- are featured as the Yin and Yang of the vast and complicated pursuit of the "Ideal Wine."

Darlington is comprehensive and fair, respectful of the access McCloskey and Grahm provided to their businesses and personal lives. He does not spare us Grahm's cringe-worthy self-absorbed silliness nor does he underplay McCloskey's appreciation of fine wine. But despite his journalist's quest for balance, it is clear which approach he favors: the artisan's, over the industrialist's.

And it is not hard to determine why. To the industrialist, the vine and its fruit are commodities. Remedial techniques, such as micro-oxygenation, spinning cone, reverse osmosis, and oak chips are regularly employed to correct what nature has wrought. The artisan has a "less is more" approach, adapting viticultural and oenological processes to the prevailing climate and terrain.

Of course, nothing is so black and white- there are no true villains or heroes. If one hopes to make a living making wine, business principles that recognize the consumer must be respected. The wine artisan's quixotic mission is to refine the consumer's palate; the wine industrialist admits that an American populace raised on high-sugar treats that are silky with fat will clamor for a wine that offers these qualities, year in-year out. Many will pay top-dollar if popular critics tell them so; otherwise bulk juice bottled by discount retailers or mammoth wineries will suit just fine.

An Ideal Wine is a ripe blend of anecdotal, wizard-revealing dish-outs and technical information, which will satisfy the wine geek without overwhelming with jargon.

I toast Darlington for revealing the reality behind the romance of winemaking, for underscoring the idea that winemaking is an incredible marriage of art and science, perhaps the greatest collaboration of man and nature that we know. It is also a partnership still in its infancy in the United States. Winegrowers and winemakers are yet in the early days of exploring, defining and working compatibly within the micro-climates and micro-terrains of California and the Pacific Northwest. Exciting, beautiful wines are being crafted throughout the region and there is a slight but growing shift away from the mammoth mouthfuls advocated by popular critics.

During a trip to the Languedoc region of southern France last spring, my husband and I spent a couple of days with biodynamic farmer and winemaker, Jean-Pierre Vanel (Domaine LaCroix-Vanel). We visited two vineyards that he had just purchased. The vineyards had been conventionally farmed and resembled moonscapes: the soil was brittle and dead, the vines were tired, flat and gray. Jean-Pierre caressed the vines, lamenting over their poor state like a nursemaid with a cherished charge. We then visited vineyards he has tended biodynamically for several years. They were green and lush in the early days of their ripening. Grasses grew underfoot, the soil was thick and richly-colored, flora and fauna abounded in harmony. Vanel's wines -- blends of the region's signature grenache, mourvedre, syrah, cinsault, carignan (reds) and grenache blanc, roussanne, terret (whites) -- are fine and pure, with angles and tannins, acids and structure: wines that fully express their terroir. Vanel's vision is to be a steward of his land, to allow the vines to create the wine. Not unlike the vision of that long ago, once upon a time, California.

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Book Review: Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes, Elizabeth Bard

Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with RecipesLunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes by Elizabeth BardMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

It would be easy to begrudge Elizabeth Bard her lovely life. As New Yorker living in London in the early 2000's, she met a nice French man at a conference in Paris. They had lunch and fell in love. Ten years on, she is married to that French man and they split their time between a Parisian pied-a-terre and a home in the south of France. In between, Bard became fluent in the French language and French cookery, penned a best-selling memoir/cookbook, her husband launched a successful digital film company, and they have a beautiful young son. Her blog is rainbow of food porn, lit by Provençal sunshine and Parisian lights. Scroll past vivid photos of heirloom tomatoes, fresh figs, haricots verts, cheeses weeping from their casements and naked beasts ready for roasting and you will be seduced by a life that seems the stuff of dreams. Envy as green as those fresh beans would be perfectly understandable.

But instead you just want to curl up on a sofa with Elizabeth to share a pot of tea, nibble her chocolate chip cookies, and giggle like schoolgirls over the photos of Daniel Craig in Le Figaro: Madame. She writes with unselfconscious charm and honesty that makes Lunch in Paris pure pleasure. It is like reading a series of letters from a dear friend.

This is not always a light-hearted memoir, though Bard's breezy style often belies the very serious nature of her acculturation to France, the challenge of a cross-cultural marriage, and the loneliness of living in a city without friends or gainful employment. I have a sense that she made a deliberate decision to put the most positive "atta girl" spin on her period of solitude as she learned her way around the French language and culture and said goodbye to the career of her dreams for the man of her heart. She allows sparks of frustration and anger to glow brightly when she writes of the diagnoses and treatment of her father-in-law's cancer and of her determination to see her husband succeed in his business venture.

There are a few jangly notes, mostly around the issue of money. Although Bard takes pains to show that the advantages she enjoyed in childhood were the result of a resourceful mother, she has the means to attend graduate school in London, then to travel every weekend from London to Paris in the year before she moves to Paris for good. Her mother and stepfather visit frequently from New York and she to see them. At one point, she withdraws around $20k from an ATM (Her stash? Her parents?) to make a down payment on an apartment in the 10eme arrondissement. It's a bit of perspective that sets her apart from your average late 20s/early 30s-something single gal.

Bard centers her memoir around the theme of food and cooking as a means of discovering and falling in love with a place -  hardly new ground, particularly when the country in question is France. But Bard's bright writing keeps this well free of cliché territory. Bard does a lovely job of addressing her attitudes toward eating and body image, in a land where women maintain slim physiques on petite frames well into middle age. She uses gentle but candid humor and relates some painful stories of fitting her curves into French expectations. I have since read an essay Bard wrote for Harper's magazine about her struggles with her weight and emotional eating, a struggle that seemed to dissipate in a culture that regards food and mealtimes with reverence.

The recipes at the end of each chapter will make this book a permanent part of my cookbook library. She offers up an array of French home cooking, culled from her imagination, from meals at favorite restaurants and from French friends and in-laws who readily shared their culinary traditions.

I am now addicted to Elizabeth Bard's blog. Seeing her happy life unfold in living color makes my own dreams seem full of possibility.

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Champagne: How the World's Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times by Don and Petie Kladstrup

Champagne: How the World's Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times La Champagne, the region in northwestern France that is home to the world's most celebrated wine - 'le champagne'- has ever been at the crossroads of European history. In contrast to its rightful claim of a wine of superlative clarity, joy and finesse, it has been the site of some of the bloodiest battles of ancient and modern times.

Don and Petie Kladstrup's lovely and heartbreaking book encapsulates an enormous stretch of history into 300 wonderfully readable pages. The authors originally intended to focus solely on the role of La Champagne during WWI and this crushing war does indeed receive most of the attention. But the Kladstrups realized as they began their research that the story of 'le champagne' could not be told properly without the historical context that defined the region it calls home.

They are quick to dispel the myth of Dom Pérignon- a 17th century monk and cellarmaster- as the father of champagne. Dom Pierre was a fantastically skilled winemaker who presided over the vines and vats of the abbey at Hautvillers. He established some of the earliest winemaking standards that laid the foundation for France's system of delimited wine zones or appellations contrôlées. But the inventor of la méthode Champenoise? Je crois pas, moi! Our monk of Hautvillers endeavored his whole life to stop the process that turned still wine to sparkling. It wasn't until the late 18th century that the process was fully understood and pursued with dedication and precision. It was the marketing genius of the champagne house Moët and Chandon that led to the image of a blind monk tasting sparkling wine for the first time and declaring "I have tasted stars."

The Kladstrups could have taken a few moments to tell the rest of the story- that the process for creating a sparkling wine was indeed invented by monks in the early 16th century, but far to the south at the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire in the town of Limoux, deep in the Languedoc. Silvery-brisk, clean, ravishing Blanquette de Limoux is rightfully the world's first sparkling wine and remains a treasure- at about 1/4 the price of a fine champagne.

I also wish the authors has given just a page or two to explaining how champagne is made. It is hinted at in Dom Pérignon's efforts to stop secondary fermentation in the bottle and his championing of blending wines, at the Cliquot invention of rémuage, at the process of chaptalization, at Pasteur's unraveling the mysteries of yeasts, but they never give the full, fascinating picture of the champagne process. Perhaps this is important only to a wine geek, but it goes a long way to explaining why champagne is so celebrated and so darn expensive.

At the heart of this book is a celebration of France and of its resilient and graceful citizens. Every so often, when France and the United States disagree over a grave matter of foreign policy, I hear grumblings of the cowardice of the French and their reluctance to contribute resources to a military effort. I say those grumblers are in need of a history lesson. Here's a brief one: "Thirteen million lives had been lost in the Great War, with France having suffered the most proportionately. More than one and half million of its soldiers had been killed. Another three million were disabled, one million of them permanently. A whole generation had been practically wiped out." (p.213). This was France in 1918. Twenty years later the shadow of war fell upon it again. Now, please tell me why this proud and beautiful nation should have to justify its trepidation to anyone.

Le champagne, the wine that tastes of starlight and joy, is more than a drink. It is a history, a culture, a story of love and loss; it is a phoenix rising from the rubble of war. Champagne is hands-down the perfect food wine. There is no dish, from omelets to osso bucco, Tarte Tatin to turkey, pizza to pancakes, that wouldn't taste all the more delicious accompanied by a flute of France's finest.

My Spitting Image

My job requires spitting. Well-aimed, unself-conscious, fine-streamed expectoration. A few times each week, I sit at a meeting room table or perch on a chair in my boss's crowded cubicle with a winemaker, vendor, or importer sampling their liquid wares. After swirls, sniffs and sips, accompanied by audible swishes and slurps- and if the mouthful is a pleasing one- hums of pleasure and affirmation, we pass around an aluminum bucket  for the obligatory expelling of libation and saliva we have stirred up in our oral cavities. I consider it fortunate that we are romanced by visitors and thus can avoid the cocktail party scene of industry tastings. Set up just like the study abroad fairs I organized or participated in so many lifetimes ago, vendors open their portfolios and representatives rattle off canned speeches about their products. Spitting is optional. Industry colleagues happily capitalize on the free plonk and party platters and as the afternoon wears on, the volume level rises to that of Happy Hour at Tini Bigs. The big chain buyers, slick players in Men's Wearhouse off-the-rack,  slap palms and talk golf, while the restaurant sommeliers clump in a corner, sniffing haughtily at the retail grocery types who tipsily calculate margins on the latest California-style Riojas.

Yet this personalized wooing means I've had to refine my spitting technique, as there is no way to cover gaffes or spittle in the quiet of our cramped offices.

Communal spitting is not for the squeamish, as the gross-out factor is high. When four people taste eight wines from the Republic of Georgia, that spit bucket fills up quickly with a thick and foamy mixture of wine and slime. When it comes sloshing your way 3/4 full, you must carefully gauge the force of your discharge. Too vigorous and you risk splashback of vin de sputum. Too delicately and your own drool will trickle down your chin in a thin red rope.

Beer presents its own unique hazards. The lovely froth of cream that forms a beer's head  does not lend itself to a clean ejection from pursed lips- the bubbles insist on clinging to your tongue or tucking themselves into the space between your lower lip and your teeth.

Fortified wines and  stickies - the ports, sherries, Muscats, late harvest delicacies, vins doux naturels, Sauternes- are such flirts. Their rich viscosity remains in your mouth, coating your tongue and your teeth and sweetening your lips, despite your best efforts to clear your mouth of their fanciful tendrils.

All this spitting- what a waste of beautiful libation, no? Of course, drinking on the job is verboten, but even if swallowing were permitted, this would be the tragic waste. It takes only a few ingested sips to dull the senses and swell the palate to a woolly thickness. At least half the story is told in the deep inhale of aromas that releases as the wine touches the air; the rest unfolds in your mouth, as the aromas connect with the nasal passages at the back of your mouth, as your palate discerns the weight of the alcohol, the strength of the tannins, the degree of acidity- your bloodstream and belly aren't part of the analytical equation.

Not to mention how doomed to inertia would I be when faced with another fours hours of correcting price codes mangled by a software upgrade after allowing the sparkling wines and Champagnes we're bringing in for the holiday season to pass my throat's threshold. Oy. Of course, you can't escape the trace amounts that are absorbed by the mouth's skin and the trickles that invariably slip down the back of your throat, but such are the workplace hazards. It really just calls for more practice.

All this spitting doesn't for a moment diminish the pleasure of uncorking a bottle at home or being served a glass of something gorgeous when out on the town. Wine (and beer!) brings out the best in food - they are Bogart and Bacall, Ginger and Fred, John and Yoko- damn good on their own, to be sure, but together: Be still my heart (of course, things can go badly astray and you might end up with Tipper and Al or Angelina and Billy Bob, but really, just drink what you like with what you like to eat- it's all about the adventure).  Give me the glories of albariño and mussels, of Barolo and mushroom risotto, of syrah and Moroccan stew, of riesling d'Alsace and pork loin, of Côtes du Rhône and roast chicken, of zinfandel and black bean chili , of pinot noir and salmon, dark chocolate souffle and Russian Imperial Stout. And watch me swallow.

Dinner is served. At least for tonight.

As I sit down to write, marinara is burbling on the stove and moussaka is cooling on the table.  The earthy aroma of oregano, marjoram and roasted eggplant mingles with the tangy perfume of caramelized onions and sweet tomatoes. The air is thick with the scent of comfort and love, of industry and purpose.

Once upon a different lifetime, I prepared a meal every evening. I would plan my weekly menu carefully, seeking balance between vegetarian and meat-based mains, using leftovers to create meals later in the week, focusing on seasonal produce,

trying new recipes from the shelves of cookbooks in my library, and perfecting the tried and true in my roster. For several years I belonged to an on-line community of foodies, through whose guidance, encouragement and humor I discovered a passion for cooking, gained confidence in the kitchen, and found an intellectual and emotional outlet creating beautiful food that gave me great joy when shared with others.

Life runs in a different rhythm now. We don't work traditional hours,  or have more than two or three evenings during the week to enjoy a meal together. Many nights I return home almost too late to eat dinner before bed, certainly too late to prepare a meal.

These days my cooking has a far more utilitarian approach: I cook in two- to three- hour sessions on a Saturday, preparing several dishes at a time. Hearty casseroles of quinoa and roasted vegetables, creamy soups of yam or lentils, long-lived salads of farro and black beans, only that which can be spooned into a container as part of a brown bag lunch or reheated in the microwave, mindlessly and wearily consumed for dinner at the end of a long day.  I fall back on a familiar roster of favorites that I know will last several days, the leftovers folded into Thursday night's kitchen sink frittata.  On the occasional weekend when I can't make it into the kitchen for an intensive cooking session, (or during the months of July and August, when summer's heat shuts down my kitchen for the brief Northwest summer) it means a week of egg white omelets, stir fry, tuna fish sandwiches, or, if I've managed to plan ahead, something defrosted and resurrected in the oven.

But the muse hasn't left the kitchen. Her spirit waits patiently in my cupboard, offering gentle inspiration when she knows I have the time to focus, when I need the peace of puttering, kneading, mincing, braising; she knows when it is time to open my doors to friends and loved ones, to offer the friendship and love I don't always express in words, but that arises in wafts of cinnamon and cardamom, in waves of red wine reduction, in spoonfuls of chocolate and crème anglaise.

I trust that life will make its periodic adjustments and I will find myself again in the kitchen on a regular basis, cooking for pleasure, not just for nourishment or simple necessity. In the meantime, I have afternoons such as today's: no place to be but my kitchen, no excuse but to cook what tickles my fancy and fires my imagination.

And thank goodness for the public record that is the internet. A quick search of that online cooking community in which I participated brought up years' worth of menus. Just think of all that planning that's already been done for me, BY me. And what a perfect excuse to  repurchase some of those cookbooks I gave away.

A look back...

Weekly Menu, May 2-9, 2003

Friday Eggplant Parmesan, Italian Vegetables Saturday Marinated Salmon w/Roasted Corn and Black-Eyed Pea Salsa Baked Garlic-Cheese Grits, Garlicky Green Beans Sunday Cate's Springtime Risotto Soup, Dried Pear and Cardamom Scones Monday Almond-Crusted Chicken w/Scallion Rice Braised Butternut Squash; Leftover Garlicky Green Beans Tuesday Chickpea, Red Pepper and Basil Saute, Mixed vegetables Wednesday Thyme-Scented Salmon w/Tuscan White Beans, Fennel Salad w/Green Olive Vinaigrette Thursday Grilled Onion, Beef, and Sweet Potato Salad Friday Linguine w/Pine Nuts, Roasted garlic and Capers, spinach/vegetable salad

Tune in, turn on, say "Ahhh...."

Recently I read an article in the New York Times* that chronicled the adventures of five eminent neuroscientists who spent a week camping “off the grid” in southern Utah- no laptops, no cellphones, just gear and a guide.  In between rafting and hiking excursions, these academics discussed how the compulsive use of digital technology affects our learning, memory and decision-making abilities and whether we should give our brains an occasional vacation. Like me, you probably don’t have any trips to the back of beyond in your near future, no forced retreat from the demands of your digital technology addiction. You must grasp those moments of peace and tune in, turn on to what you can access with your five senses, not with a wireless connection.

Let me offer you a simple exercise, an antidote to the rush and whirl of the daily digital grind. We’ll call it “Mindfulness in a Glass. “

Disconnect the phone, turn off the computer and the HiDef whatsit (it’s all right to have Cassandra Wilson or David Gray playing softly in the background). Pour yourself a glass of wine and settle in.

Tilt that glass to the light and consider the wine’s color and intensity. It may be the pale lemon of verdejo, or the deep purple of syrah. Notice how the light reflects the brilliant clarity of youth or the rich warmth of age.  Now, gently swirl the wine and stick your nose deep in the bowl of the glass. Inhale. Savor.  You may be transported to an orchard of ripe peaches or a meadow of violets, or find yourself tangled in a thicket of blackberries.  Inhale again and let almond blossoms or freshly-mown hay tickle childhood memories, allow the lavender and tobacco to take you to warm and distant lands.

Take a generous sip and let the wine spread throughout your mouth, coating your teeth and tongue. Close your eyes and be seduced by the musky mango of Spätlese or the rosewater-laced cherry jam of Barolo. Imagine the forces that combined to create this moment of quiet pleasure; the millennia of floods and glaciers, the seasons of sun and rain, the labor of planting and harvest, the passion of the winemaker, the volatility of chemistry, and the patience of the cellar.

Richard Feynman, Nobel Laureate in physics, once said “if we look at a glass [of wine] closely enough, we can see the whole universe.” We might think we hold the universe in our iPhones; a glass of wine reminds us that by savoring unplugged time, we can discover a universe of far more real and satisfying pleasures.

*(Richtel, Matt. “Outdoors and Out of Reach.”  The New York Times, 15 Aug. 2010).