Friday, August 1, 2014

I wish I may...I wish I might...pick wild Poppies and find Kindred Spirits

After our blissful time spent in Paris...moving around the city at a pace that truly allowed for absorbing the sights and sounds of this glorious city, it was time to pack our bags again and move from urban to rural.

I had been able to enjoy everything in the city that is exciting but also soak in the everyday details of living in the city that is parents walking their children to school, early morning sweepers hosing down the city's streets, and country farmers setting up their market stalls to fill those iconic woven Parisian shopping totes.  

Poppy fields in the Loire Valley...just south of Orleans

But as we made our way out of Paris..."I wish I may...I wish I might..."kept ringing through my mind as we swerved and swiveled my teensy Fiat through the hustle and bustle of the city's freeways onto the open flat A10 that would take us south...around 3 hours the dreamy and resplendent Loire Valley.

I couldn't get out of my mind images of fields of red poppies, fluttering gawkily but enchantingly in the rolling fields of rural France.  Just south of Orleans, after getting off the big autoroute and onto the rambling rural A10 and meandering along the D951...I found them.  

Among the coziest of little french cottages, all along this tiny farming road that parallels the Loire River from Orleans to Blois, bursts of poppy fields dazzled my eyes.

"I wish I may...I wish I might...see fields of french red poppies...and I did"

Arriving at "Les Carrés"...home of Sylvie and Philipe in Genillé, France

Our destination was the quaint little village of Genillé, a quiet cluster of charming homes with doorways wrapped by rose vines, horse farms that dotted the country lanes here and there, and family owned restaurants, all nestled right outside of the more bustling but compact city of Loches.

We rented an adorable little french country home called "Les Carrés" from an instantly likable couple, Sylvie and Philipe.

When we pulled into the gravel covered entry way of their home, I knew I had chosen a spot that would work well for us.  Sylvie and Philipe's cozy little cottage is attached to their larger classic stone french home.  The walls are thick stone so there was absolute privacy and quiet between the two homes.   

Whole Grain crust for my Goat Cheese and Tomato Tart

Don't you just love it when you meet someone and there is that instant connection?  This happened within minutes of meeting Sylvie.  She is a petite elf-like woman with an energetic manner and dazzling smile.  We quickly swapped stories about our daughters, who were both studying abroad at the same daughter in Lyon and her daughter in  South Carolina.

My little summer "Gite" (cottage) in Genillé, France

As she was showing us around our little french cottage, I also learned that she was waiting on news from her other daughter about the birth of her first grandson!  How exciting to be a part of such an event.  Each day, when Riley and I would return from visiting one dreamy castle or other, I would check in with Sylvie to see if little Hugo (he already had a name waiting for him) had arrived while we were out.  

I was so pleased with the location of Genillé.  We were just off the path from many of the castles of the Loire Valley, however, off the path enough to feel like this little piece of the countryside was not overrun by tourists.

Just as in Paris, each morning I could see the parents of this tiny community walking their children to school.  Often the parents would return clutching their baguettes as they had stopped off at the little market to get their daily bread.

The petite cottage was much roomier than the photos online appeared.  Riley and I had plenty of room to spread out.  The earthy colored cobbled tile flooring was perfect against the classic french country white kitchen with country checks and plaids and adorned overhead by heavy ceiling beams that complimented the dark wood antique pieces throughout the cottage.  

Bottom Left:  The beautiful river behind my little summer cottage
Bottom Right:  home from the market to indulge

The bedroom had lovely french doors that opened onto a private little patio that was edged with rose bushes.  Hanging over my head was a tree with its branches hanging heavy with cherries.  A few times, while I was relaxing in the room, I could hear the clop clop of horses hooves as riders lazily made their way down the street.  Certainly that wasn't a sound I am used to hearing in Houston, Texas.

Sylvie quickly outlined for me where the local markets were and on which days.  I took one look at the adorable kitchen and looked forward to filling it with fresh market finds.  I had a toaster oven, stovetop burners, fridge, microwave, and all of the pots and pans and paraphernalia for pulling together fresh meals for our stay.

What I did not expect to find, but was completely delighted to discover, was the long enchanting country road that paralleled the most  serene little river called "Ruisseau de Marolles" only one block from Sylvie and Philipe's home.  

Every morning I enjoyed an early morning walk for miles along this quiet river.  The trees grew together over the river and touched forming a shady canopy.  The wind swept  through the branches creating the most lovely forest sounds as I walked and walked and walked...

Little country cottages that dot the rural roads of the Loire Valley in France

With nothing filling the little cupboards of the kitchen it was time to make my first rounds of the Wednesday market in the nearby village of Loches, about a 7 minute drive from Genillé.

The Loches Forest from Genillé to Loches for the Wednesday Market

What never fails to continuously impress me about France, is how even a mundane drive from one town to the next can turn into an enchanting journey of delightful discoveries.

Such was the drive to the bustling village of Loches.  The country road was flanked by horse farms and small french farming cottages that looked like they popped right out of a french storybook.  Then, the road darkened as the drive passed through a lush green forest called "Forêt Dominale de Loches".  There were several places to pull over and park the car.  Narrow trails stretched out as far as the eye could see and invited one to stop, bring along a picnic...and literally get rather lost in the woods for a bit.

Loches was the perfect size village for me to tackle the market easily and then escape back to my little country retreat afterwards.  Pulling right into historic center of the village, the market was bubbling right along and included everything from fresh flowers, ceramics, trendy clothing, and fresh fruits, cheese, veggies, and seafood from the Touraine region of the Loire Valley.

We sampled so much variety during our stay in this region of France.  This part of the Loire Valley is known for their assortment of chevre (goat's cheese).  Being one of my favorite cheeses, and the same goes for Riley, we never tired of sampling the local varieties alongside fresh cherries and melons and little forested wild strawberries no bigger than the tip of my pinky finger.

Market days are the very best ways to absorb country life in France.  People are serious about their shopping.  Hands are flying, samples are being tasted, as chatting is in full swing. People use these outings as a chance to stock up on food for a few days but also to greet and meet one another along with an opportunity to swap a fair amount of gossip.

Summer Fresh Tomato Herb Tart with Chevre and Cherry Balsamic Vinaigrette

The more I swapped daily stories with Sylvie, the more I enjoyed her company.  We chatted about cheeses, children, travel, and everything in between.  She was amazed that I spoke french and made me feel like my grammar guffaws were few and far between.  

One day, after having, castles, and children, Sylvie came over with a plate of cut up pieces of pork "rillettes".  She said this little finger food or appetizer is popular in this region of the country. The cubes of smoky flavored pork, rich with layers of fat made such a delicious impromptu dinner for us that evening.  Sylvie also gifted us with a sac filled with cherries from her cherry tree.  I threw together a fresh salad, cut up chunks of french bread, laid out the pork rillettes and cherries...and voilà, dinner in our little french gite (cottage) for everyone.

Market day in Loches, France

Market days were fabulous.  I quickly learned to buy just enough fresh fruits and vegetables to last us until the next market day.

We came home with roasted chickens, containers of paella, hazelnut flavored sausages, and aromatic melons.

Genillé, our tiny village as well as Loches, where we did our market day shopping, are situated in a wonderful part of the Loire Valley, ideal for taking day trips to visit the many MANY castles in the area.  For example, the town of Amboise and the château of Chenonceau are only about 25 minutes away by car.

Scenes from the Loches Farmer's Market in France

As I roamed the markets, taking in all the new sights, and then returning at the end of the day to swap conversations with Sylvie, I kept thinking how lovely it would be to have her visit my home.

After having sampled her pork rillettes, fresh cherries from their cherry tree, and several varieties of goat's cheese from the region, I couldn't help but imagine what I might prepare if she came for a visit one day.

I thought of a tart.  A quiche.  But, then a quiche would be more French than American.  What do we see at this time of year that is so enjoyed midsummer?  Tomatoes.  Fresh tomatoes are piled up here at all of our farmer's markets.  Cherry tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, yellow and red orbs of tomatoes are everywhere.

Flowers along the river in the back of our little country cottage

I still liked the idea of a tart but I would fill it with the goat cheese I enjoyed so much and then layer it with fresh tomatoes in season.  

Madeleine brought back a sachet of Herbes de Provence from her study abroad so I added a tablespoon of this to my whole grain tart crust.  

My market day haul...well, part of it!

Some chopped basil was thrown in the mixture and sprinkled on top of the tomato tart and I drizzled a little Cherry Balsamic Vinaigrette on top just to have a sweet and savory balance.

The little town of Genillé, France

How fun it would be to return the hospitality and sit for hours chatting with Sylvie around the my long country pine table.  Better yet, we could include our daughters and they would enjoy swapping study abroad stories.  

There were several varieties of soup to purchase at the french market in Loches.  I would include a simple summer soup to go along with my Tomato Tart with fresh fruits from our market up the road here.  Melons and cherries are taking center stage right now so that would round out my luncheon.  I did prepare all of this for my family...but I imagined the entire meal for my virtual luncheon with Sylvie.  Kindred Spirits formed...laughter and good times enjoyed.

The quiet country roads of the Loire Valley...moving inbetween castle to castle

Thursday, July 17, 2014 my mind's eye...17 again

In my mind's eye, while walking down the Champs Elysées in the heart of Paris this summer, I imagined I was 17 years old once more.

My son, who was walking next to me, faded into obscurity as I imagined this same walk, only years ago.  My present-day short cropped hair grew long and thick again.  My 40 year old self morphed into my 17 year old self...young and lithe from years of intense ballet training.

I was part of a ballet company, recruited to perform in various parts of France.  My dreams, since early childhood, to dance and to travel, were unfolding before my eyes. As I took each step in Paris, my 17 year-old self marveled at the sights that would greatly influence my future self.

At the time, this trip symbolized a turning point in my  unstable young life.  I was, am, and always will be...a dreamer.  My taurus-like disposition clawed at the restrictions imposed in my childhood, railed at the treatment that I endured daily, and bellowed at the abandonment by those who were supposed to protect me.

Jardin des Tuileries (Tuileries Garden next to the Louvre Museum)

But, in Paris I experienced my first taste of freedom from a childhood of difficulty and continuous affronts.  Paris was a chance to lose the self that was rejected over and over again and reinvent a new self that gave me a first glimpse of a possible me. Paris took me in as a bewildered and emotionally needy young girl...and turned me into a graceful and promising young woman.

So many things changed in my life after that time spent dancing through Paris and France.  Paris, as an experience, was like a gift, that when opened offered me a chance at a type of freedom of mind and of possibility I had not thought probable.  

I remember, as if it were yesterday, walking down the Champs Elysées in Paris.  I had not yet seen such glorious sights.  I was captivated by it all, completely unintimidated by it all, and spellbound by the intoxicating allure embodied by this great city.

Braised Pork with a Roasted Apricot Mustard Sauce;
Zucchini and Squash Tart with Goat Cheese and french herbs

We were an intimate group of dancers sharing an incredible experience together.  We trained hard every day.  We knew each other's strengths and weaknesses.  We worked well together and formed a close-knit supportive group.

I remember one of the first evenings in the city, several of us randomly decided to enter a beautiful looking restaurant somewhere along the Champs Elysées.  We had little money for a full course dining experience but we thought perhaps a sophisticated drink would be a worthy albeit impromptu experience.

The restaurant that pulled us in glowed red from the light gleaming through the tall elegant windows.  The beckoning glow was radiating from the wall color. They were painted a crimson red and the interior lighting produced a dark and moody atmosphere that was cozy and welcoming.  The corners of the room were swallowed in shadow from the rich color scheme and the barely lit dining room.  We loved it. We  felt more sophisticated just being enveloped in its ambiance. 

Braised Pork with Roasted Apricot Mustard Sauce;
Zucchini and Squash Tart with Chevre and Fresh Herbs

Most of us had no idea what to order.  A drink...we all agreed...but which drink?  A sophisticated Parisian drink.  We all looked at each other, waiting for someone to cue each other in as to what defined a sophisticated Parisian cocktail.  It had not only to be elegant-sounding but it was suggested it should have a rather dangerous connotation as well...

Our eyes glistened with excitement and anticipation of it all.  Initially, we glanced uncomfortably around the plush interior knowing we didn't quite belong there, knowing our pocketbooks would certainly give us away as certainly not belonging there.

Treats from the Paris patisseries

When it was my turn to order, I bravely met the waiter's face and carefully stated in my rehearsed french that I would like "a black Russian".  

"A black Russian" he repeated, one intrigued eyebrow shooting upwards in a gesture that was either mockingly trite or mischievously amused. I couldn't quite tell really.

Truth be told, I had no idea if the drink I ordered existed.  I might have read about it in a novel or imagined this drink in my very overactive imagination.  Regardless, the freedom I was experiencing that day, and all the days that followed, was a freedom so heady that no fancy cocktail could match the intoxication that I felt in that year of life.  I barely took any sips of the strange looking murky concoction that arrived at our elegant french table.  I was simply thrilled to sit there, with supportive friends around me, and enjoy a freedom that I had not experienced before. 

Puro FairTrade Coffee Company samples

One drink, however, that became a habit for life on this trip...was coffee.  We ordered café lattes and café cremes one after the other that entire time in France.  Thus, a love for coffee was firmly established in France.  

I love coffee.  In Louisiana, there is the distinctively delicious roast enjoyed by locals, because of the addition of chicory root.  In France, I had been introduced to that dark roasted french coffee that is mixed with steamed whole milk... and I loved it.

So recently, when the fairtrade company, Puro Coffees contacted me to see if I would like to sample their blends, I was tickled and curious and said yes.

Their offer was quite timely.  Riley and I had been studying about the growing partnerships between large corporations and small regional producers around the world that are being called fairtrade agreements.  With my love of coffee and his learning about fairtrade partnerships in business, this taste testing experience was an opportunity to learn more about how businesses can do good things for our planet as well as small regional coffee bean producers. 

Puro is a leading brand of Fairtrade and Fair Trade Organic coffee that works in partnership with the World Land Trust to purchase and protect areas of precious rainforest in South Equador, Columbia, and Brazil.

Riley and I read about what it means to be a "fair trade" company.  We learned that the  Fairtrade Foundation has set the standard to help lift working conditions and improve the lives of millions of people that work in the coffee growing dependent communities in the developing world.  

Puro Brand coffee being sampled with
packages of french butter cookies brought back from Paris

Money from each bag of Puro coffee sold goes towards buying and protecting areas of rainforest vital for biodiversity in coffee producing countries.  They have a beautiful video that illustrates what they are all about.

Currently, the coffee beans are being purchased by a central company in Belgium.  The company, however, is looking to partner with countries around the world.  

I was surprised and disappointed to read that there is no distributor for the Puro brand yet for the United States.  When I inquired, I realized the  coffee beans can, however, be purchased through their online site

This past summer, I again enjoyed frequent cups of wonderful lattés and crèmes in France.  I remembered those initial tastes years ago and had no idea what a fun journey it would be to discover various types of coffees over the years.

Whereas I've given little thought to where and how coffee beans are grown, I now have another layer of learning to discover about these little beans.  What a terrific learning experience it was for Riley, as well as for myself, to interact with this company and understand how they operate.  

And how wonderful, as a parent, to possibly plant a seed for Riley to consider in his future.   Perhaps he may consider working for a business  someday that cares and  works to protect our planet at the same time as provide products we all want to enjoy...whether it be in a cozy Parisian café or the many coffee bars dotting our cities all over the U.S.