Tuesday, October 25, 2016

L'Ouverture de la chasse

The second weekend of October, Pierre and I went back to his family’s home, the converted mill at Spoir, for the opening of hunting season. The family has a fair amount of wooded land, and has managed it to support native wildlife—deer, grouse, ducks, woodcocks (go on, giggle), and hares. Pierre grew up hunting on their land; both he and his mother are hard of hearing in one ear from the cumulative sound trauma of shooting. The Deckers are hardly a family in the Duck Dynasty mold, but they are a family of hunters. This may surprise those who consider guns and hunting a uniquely American obsession; while it is true that it’s less common in France as a whole, in rural areas like Spoir it is no less deeply engrained than in rural Virginia.

That said, while I grew up the daughter of a hunter, I have never personally taken to it, so I recused myself from an active part in the opening hunt. I have accompanied Pierre hunting before, although never with the aim of being useful; think the duck hunting scenes in Downton Abbey, where the ladies stand beside the men making small talk and drawling “Oh, well done”. It's not because I'm a lady, it's because I have no interest in shooting but a keen interest in being in the woods. For the opening weekend Pierre’s father had organized a hunting party of ten, however, so the stakes were rather higher. While I resented the implicit gender narrative of not joining, I knew it would be worse if I joined but declined to shoot, so I bowed out.

Saturday morning brought crisp fall air, and the courtyard of the mill began to fill up with men and dogs. Someone had brought a bag of croissants, and everyone stood around sipping coffee, changing into boots, and munching on pastries. Finally Mr. Decker started to draw lines in the gravel to map out the plan for the morning, and the hunters trooped off.
The Moulin de Vilaine, although on a different day, with Pierre in farmer mode rather than hunter mode.
I rejoined them for lunch at the Moulin de Vilaine. Unlike the Moulin de Spoir, this mill has not been reconverted into a house; it is an imposing, square tower with a massive fireplace and a long table inside. We drank an aperitif outside on the grassy bridge that spans the remaining watermill structure—although the mechanisms and wheel are long gone, the architecture remains—then piled into the mill to eat.
What's left of the structure of the millwheel. 
And eat we did. Roger, a retired gardener with tufts of white hair and bright, bird-like eyes, produced a rabbit terrine, a sort of meatloaf of rabbit, pork, lard, onions, and seasoning. “We bagged the rabbit last weekend!” he announced, then, anticipating the problematic math this invoked at the weekend of the opening of hunting season, he added, “…with the car, of course. Roadkill. Eat in small bites, there might be some asphalt.” He spoiled the fib by winking largely, but no one seemed to mind, and the terrine was delicious.

This was followed by the main course, pork in paprika sauce and gratin dauphinoise, potatoes swaddled in cream and garlic and baked into a swoon under a crunchy lid of cheese. Bottles of wine were passed along the table, the hunters knocking back glass after glass to wash down the rich lunch. “You are going out again after this, right?” I asked incredulously. “I mean, with guns? You sure you’re not going need a nap first?”

After a smelly cheese course we waded our way to dessert: Mrs. Decker had made an enormous bowl of chocolate mousse, the annual end to the hunting party lunch. It made its way around the table twice; unable to take more, I tried to pass it back to the head, but Roger stopped me. “Non!” he cried indignantly, scolding me as he snatched the bowl with his bony fingers. “It would be a shame not to give this bowl back clean.” Someone else laughed. “What are you planning on, sticking your whole head in there to lick it dry?” Roger’s stern look implied he might just, if need required.

The team somehow waddled back out into the woods, and Pierre’s friend Tof—also a non-hunter—picked me up in his bright orange Dyane 6. We spent the afternoon at the Chateau de Maintenon, the residence of the infamous Madame of the same name, a marquise who became the mistress and later secret wife of Louis XIV. The castle is beautiful, well kept, and informative without being heavy-handed. It was built over centuries with different materials, and the resulting aesthetic—that of a castle put together from the spare parts of three other castles—is unique, and quite charming.
It was overcast all afternoon, but the sun came out just when I needed it for a great shot. Tof is, of course, rocking his signature orange foulard and round John Lennon-style sunglasses.

The gardens, meticulously bordered in the French style with trim hedges and swept gravel, look out onto a centuries-old aqueduct project that never came to fruition. It was ordered by Louis XIV to re-route the waters of the River Eure in order to keep the fountains in the gardens of Versailles fed “day and night”. The Eure is the river that flows past the Deckers’ house at Spoir; at one time there were mills every 500 meters along its length. It was a vital source of water, agriculture, and livelihoods for the communities on its banks, and yet had the project been achieved, it would have been diverted. This capricious and entirely self-centered—not to mention unnecessary—desire, in keeping with the absolute nature of the Sun King’s monarchy, drained the royal coffers, led to the deaths of hundreds of workers over a decade in unsanitary, swampy conditions, and left behind a 32-mile-long folly that stands today as a reminder of exactly why the French of the 18th century were getting so fed up with their kings.
Although for all that, it is pretty.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Seawater Soup

A quick life update: I finished my master's thesis and handed in that sucker the last week of August (yay!) and have moved out of London definitively. I'm now in Bordeaux with Pierre applying for jobs and, in the interim, learning how to be a French housewife. It's... interesting. The main takeaway so far is that French daytime reality television is just as horrendous as its American predecessors. My favorite: Four Weddings, One Honeymoon, where couples allow judges to come say snarky things about their big day and then grade them on it ("I give the wedding dress a 6/10. I don't mind that it's pink, I just mind the slit all the way up to her hip. It's... not very classy"), in the hopes of winning their dream lune de miel. Who knew? France can be just as lowbrow as America. 

In other news, I have oodles of time to cook, and PH and I are enjoying the late summer open-air market to its fullest. I'm getting more experimental, now that I'm less constrained by things like "word counts" and "sleeping at the library", which has led to me answering the question, Can You Make Soup Out Of the Ocean? Short answer: yes, although whether you should is a different conversation. 

Last weekend Pierre and I drove with a couple of friends to Cap Ferret, a spit of land separating the ocean from the Bassin d'Arcachon. We had a lovely Sunday afternoon on the beach, biked along the bay, and brought back mussels and clams, which we ate with green beans from Pierre's family's garden and a chilled rose. It was decadent without being heavy, which allowed us to more easily excuse following it with a cheese course (mais bien sur!) and dessert. 

Legs or hotdogs? Legs or hotdogs?!
The first time I ate mussels was with my family at a restaurant in London called Belgo. It was great for two reasons: (a) moules frites are delicious, and (b) they served Belgian beer, rather than its flat English counterpart. Lack of carbonation may be the secret to why the English can drink like sponges, but it does not make for good beer, particularly served warmish. What stood out most, however, was the sauce: a creamy mariniere heady with garlic and white wine. Pierre taught me last weekend how that's made-- the mussels open as they heat, spilling out the seawater inside them. A pot that began with only shallots, garlic, and closed shellfish ended two-thirds filled with broth, or deliciously flavored seawater, clam juice, and wine (we left out the creme fraiche). 

Doing their mussely thing
I saved a bowl of the broth and used it as stock for a sort of quasi-Asian fish soup with udon noodles and wood ear mushrooms, known in France as oreilles de Judas, or Judas' ears. Leery of the overpowering salt content, I cut it with plain tap water and vegetable bouillon, and let the mushrooms and Chinese cabbage simmer for a while before adding mackerel. Still, it would seem (now that I'm writing it I guess it goes without saying, yet here we are) that a little seawater goes a long way. The soup was not bad; it was not immediately unpotable; and yet there was an undeniable aftertaste of, well, ocean. Pierre described it as "surprising", which is generally not a word I strive for in the kitchen. After a night in the fridge the udon noodles had absorbed much of the liquid, so I added more tap water before re-heating it, and that seemed to help. I'm still not sure this is going to go down in the books as much of a success, though. 

Seawater soup: it was a surprise!

Sunday, April 10, 2016


Monday we began our road trip, which meant Pierre dove headfirst into driving on the wrong side of both the car and the road. I unenthusiastically offered to take shifts, but Pierre has experienced my abortive attempts to drive manual transmission in France, where I am on the familiar side of the road. He hastened to assure me (to my immense relief) that he had no problem with me acting as co-pilot for the trip. Our gender-normative roles established, we set off, Belfast-bound. Pierre gripped the steering wheel perhaps a little more tightly than usual as I pored over a road map unfolded across the dashboard, providing verbal reminders to buck habit when we came to roundabouts.

The road north of Dublin. The low stone wall along the highway was a riot of blooming genet, the sun was out, the hills were rolling and the farmland picturesque. 
Staying in the lane like a pro.
By far the most interesting thing we did in Belfast was a black cab tour with Michael, a taxi driver who had driven his cab as an illicit Catholic bus during the Troubles, after the barricading of Catholic neighborhoods meant Belfast municipal buses were restricted to Protestant areas. He took us around the Peace Line, a barrier that to this day separates neighborhoods by religion. Michael was full of historical tidbits and personal anecdotes, weaving a picture of guerilla conflict as we toured the protest murals and remembrance gardens which keep the memory of the recent conflict alive.

A section of the peace walls, slated to be taken down by 2023, although that may be an overly aspirational promise.
Murals in the Catholic Lower Falls neighborhood that recall history and grapple with current events.
Pierre and I were both surprised-- and chagrined at our ignorance-- to see how present the conflict feels. To the two of us, who knew relatively little about the situation and (in my case at least) were too young at the time of the Good Friday Agreement to be reading newspapers regularly, the Troubles were a thing of the past. I vaguely remembered learning at some point that there had been a wall, but I assumed (if I thought about it at all) that it had come down, like its counterpart in Berlin. In fact, it remains a thorny problem, as territoriality and community segregation are far from a thing of the past. Twenty years, it seems, has not been enough to assuage all grievances, or to restore trust lost over the course of a protracted and violent struggle.

But Belfast was not all somber reflection and activist public art.  We spent a lovely afternoon drinking Guinness at The Crown Liquor Saloon, a Victorian-era gin palace complete with stained glass, tile murals, gas lamps, and private wooden booths with elaborately carved doors. It was a suggestion from a Belfast friend, and an excellent one at that.

That night we went to hear an Irish folk rock band play in a pub. Pierre hit it off with a wobblingly drunk Irishman, who advised him not to marry me ("I don't trust her, she's too sober") then bought Pierre a beer and launched into an earnest, slurred conversation. In the interim I chatted with his friend, who told me at length about the Irish sports of hurling and Gaelic football, which, full disclosure, I didn't know existed. The band was great, the music was fast and full of fiddles, and Pierre and I were happy to make friends.

Next time: the Antrim Coast and Giant's Causeway!

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Dublin and Easter Rising

Ladies and gentlemen, I dust off the old travel blog and give you: the first of a couple or three posts about Pierre and my recent trip to Ireland over the Easter holidays. There will be a lot of pictures, because Ireland is a beautiful and highly photogenic place, and hopefully some worthwhile text.

In advance of flying into Dublin a week ago today, I had carefully planned my route from the bus stop where I would be dropped to our AirBnB and back out to the General Post Office, where the ceremony marking the 100 year commemoration of the Easter Rising would be taking place. But the best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft aglee, and mine agleed when a policeman boarded the 41 bus and announced last stop, as the center of Dublin was closed off for the Easter Rising parade.

Paddy, as I imagined the policeman to be named-- he sounded, by virtue of being Irish, like every cop in a film noir ever set in Chicago or New York, who are invariably named Paddy-- pointed me in the right direction. Before too long I started seeing roads lined with crowd-control barricades, which I followed to the main axe of the parade, O'Connell Street. Still unsure of exactly where things were in relation to each other, I decided to post up several hours in advance while the crowd was still sparse, rather than lugging my stuff around on a fruitless quest for the AirBnB.

With the advantage of ample time and a good viewpoint, I fell to chatting with a cluster of Dubliner women of a certain age, some accompanied by their young grandchildren. They had been children or young women when the 50-year commemoration took place, offset by a large protest from the Rev Ian Paisley and his hardline loyalists. The women traded fond memories of the parades of their youths, once an annual occurance, although subsequently suspended during the Troubles.

Start em young! Republicans from the cradle!

The women only spoke passingly of this period, and I did not ask them to elaborate, but it came up nonverbally later on. As giant screens along the parade route projected the Irish prime minister, the Taoiseach, presiding over a preliminary ceremony at Dublin Castle, two photographers appeared on the parapet of a building behind us. While the women continued talking and joking ("I hear the Air Force will be doing a flyover." "Oh aye? All four of our planes?" "Come now, Ireland has at least seven!"), I noticed their eyes swing sharply to the figures outlined against the roof. One, watching me follow her gaze, smiled and drily commented, "It's a good thing they have those cameras, or I might have thought them assassins."

There was, in fact, a flyover. It would seem Ireland has more than four planes, but possibly less than seven.
Finally the festivities commenced. Flickering onto the JumboTron screens, the scene playing out in front of the GPO took on life dozens of times every 50 meters down O'Connell Street. A general read Patrick Pearse's proclamation of the Irish Republic as the Taoiseach laid a wreath. As the flag was lowered to half-mast, the Taoiseach took the podium; I was gratified to hear him highlight the role of women in the Easter Rising, a role until now overshadowed by the names of famous male rebels.

And then began the biggest military parade in the history of the state. Tanks rumbled through the streets of Dublin, followed by armored personnel carriers, and what may have been anti-aircraft missile launchers, although I am wildly out of my depth when it comes to military paraphanialia. Troop upon troop of soldiers marching in lockstep paraded past the GPO in an outpouring of nationalism and republican pride. Brass bands played the national anthem, and then-- no joke-- "Danny Boy", and my gaggle of women sang along, shrilling through the high notes.

I finally left and found my way to the AirBnB, where a group of four Italian roommates and five or six of their Italian friends were preparing Easter brunch. They were gracious and voluble and invited me to join; and so I transitioned from a street packed with flag-waving, anthem-singing Irish to a room packed with laughing, gesturing, chattering Italians. The meal was delicious, and Pierre got in from the airport in the late afternoon, in time to join us for tiramisu.

Tomorrow: we hit the road for Belfast!