August: The Learning Year

A view from our village

A view from our village

It's the end of August and the end of our first full year in Pouillé. It feels like we officially live here now, though I realize that I still feel like I'm settling into this life. Probably because so much felt exceptional and up in the air this year, it was hard to get used to anything before it dramatically changed into something else, or before I started reminiscing about what came before. 

I've thought of this year in a lot of different ways throughout the past 12 months. It was my tenth year in France, my last in Paris and my first in the countryside. It was the end of being a single urban apartment dweller and the beginning of living with my loved one. 

It was a year of surprises, some exciting and fun- especially when we learned new things about ourselves, our hidden talents, and our ability to adapt.

It was a hopeful year, with all the ideas we brought with us for the future, packed in our minds like our possessions in moving boxes. It was a year of surprises, some exciting and fun- especially when we learned new things about ourselves, our hidden talents, and our ability to adapt. At times the surprises were heartbreaking or disappointing-  and we were let down by our expectations of ourselves and others.

Good wine, BBQs, and matching overalls- all keys to lasting friendships!

Good wine, BBQs, and matching overalls- all keys to lasting friendships!

It was a participative year- with friends and family from different cities and countries coming to stay in their adopted country house. We pulled out sofa beds and made up guest beds, I've never washed as many sheets in my life and never so consistently felt the joy of a full house.

It was a year of eating- abundant in inspiring seasonal, often foraged ingredients, and equally full of days where I would've just ordered in pizza but couldn't- because there wasn't anywhere to order from. So I sucked it up and cooked- and I'm better off because I did.

From the rising flood waters in our backyard to the present day drought that is currently turning grapes into raisins on the vines, we’ve had no shortage of extremes.

It was a hard year. From the rising flood waters in our backyard to the present day drought that is currently turning grapes into raisins on the vines, we've had no shortage of extremes. In just one year we've gone from the threat of frostbite in the vines to a violent heatwave. It seemed like this year only existed to challenge us. My potager died, came back to life, and now it is overgrown with unripe tomatoes- due to my lack of gardening experience and the weather that was just never right this year.

Early, innocent days of my first potager

Early, innocent days of my first potager

It was a hard year. That's what I keep saying when I talk about what it feels like to be someone who moved from a city to the countryside in a wine growing region in 2016. But I can't settle on simply saying that 2016 was a hard year. 12 months later, I realize that my frustrations with any and all obstacles encountered could've been alleviated if instead of thinking of this as a hard year I thought of it as a Learning Year.

Here are some things I learned, things that make this year very dear to me, because they are lessons I won't have to learn in my next year in Pouillé, and they are lessons I will build on for the next 365 days:

“On ne compare pas l'incomparable” (you can't compare what's incomparable): Every place has its own inherent, incomparable beauty.

Prune tomato plants: Before your garden becomes a jungle of leaves!

Make friends with your neighbors right away: They know more about where you live then you do, and they are there to help you.

Cucumber plants like shade: Fact.

The smaller the community, the bigger your role: Small actions make a big difference. Help organize a party with your neighbors and share something that's you made from scratch. Lend and borrow things. Make plans. Introduce the thing you miss into your new world, and people will share things you never knew about with you. 

Cats are more resilient than you think: And they're also really good at being cats. No need to worry, or take them to the vet, as much as you may think. It took me about 250 euro to learn the vet thing....

Cooking every day makes you a better cook: So slowly that you won't even notice it, perhaps. But that's also because cooking every day also makes you more confident in the kitchen (and maybe life?) Moments when baby steps in progress or change are clear to you make every meal along the way even more worth it.

Make sure your house has a reliable source of electricity before renting it: Learn it, live it.

Don't ever let yourself become blasé about the thrill of tasting something you made: This is the most amazing thing we can do in our lives- in the city, countryside, in a foreign country or at home, in your own language or a borrowed one, in times of happiness or times of homesickness- the best thing we can do is create. Don't ever get over that, because there's nothing more worth getting excited about.

 

And with that, another year in the countryside begins.....

July: Fête des Voisins

Small groups chatted while sipping artisanal beer and natural wine while enjoying the warmth of sunshine on their shoulders. I overheard bits of conversations that covered topics such as raising backyard chickens, canning, and the secret to homemade jam. Talk of the arrival of warm weather inspired the exchange of recipes that we were looking forward to making once our vegetable gardens gave us the ingredients. The scene sounds like it's from a backyard BBQ in Brooklyn or Portland, but this was actually happening at the Fête des Voisins in my tiny village of Pouillé, France.

Since moving to Pouillé almost a year ago, my days involve constant adaptations to country life. As I transition into the rhythm of rural living, I am surprised by the many ways my lifestyle has actually remained the same. Looking around at the group of gathered neighbors, I reflected that in many ways this community was strikingly different from my Paris peer group- I had gone from happy hours with friends in their 30s to garden parties with retirement age neighbors- but I was still talking about the subjects that my Paris friends are passionate about: food, cooking, living sustainably, and eating locally and in season.

Homemade jams

Homemade jams

I have no delusions about how some of the conversation topics listed above have become co-opted buzz words that have been repackaged as hipster scout badges, but what I was delusional about was in thinking that this knowledge was currently only being preserved by old books and blogs.

Living in the countryside has led me to be less reliant on the internet for advice, and to learn things in the field, often literally.

Living in Pouillé has taught me that the opposite is true- this knowledge is as accessible in the countryside as it is in urban foodie subcultures. But you won't encounter it in the library or online, you have to be more active in your research. Living in the countryside has led me to be less reliant on the internet for advice, and to learn things in the field, often literally. I get my hands dirty and experiment with new ingredients- wild mushrooms, ail des ours, foraged flowers, and stinging nettles- without asking the internet what to do with them first. Instead, I ask my neighbors.

Which brings us back to our party in Pouillé, where hostess Maire-Claude was showing off her Cabernet grapevines to a small group of neighbors. Marie-Claude and her husband Pierre-Philippe don't use any chemical treatment on the vines because they use every part of the plant and want it, and themselves, to be as healthy as possible. Marie-Claude explained to us that she waits for the leaves to become almost the size of her hand and then harvests them to make batches of stuffed grape leaves that she freezes and enjoys throughout the year. Marie-Claude also makes our favorite confiture in the village.

Marie-Claude and Pierre-Philippe's Cabernet vines

Marie-Claude and Pierre-Philippe's Cabernet vines

In addition to the culinary advice, I also have Marie-Claude to thank for introducing me to other neighbors, including Régine. Another Paris transplant (like Pierre-Philippe and Marie-Claude, Régine and her husband worked for years in Paris before settling in the countryside), Régine now lives in a charming dollhouse of a home which is rendered model size by the overgrowth in the surrounding garden. She invited me to comes see her when I told her I was on the lookout for raspberries to use in a new beer I wanted to brew. “I have raspberry bushes!” she happily announced and we agreed I would stop by to pick some raspberries the next day.

Each plant had a story and it quickly became clear that Régine’s garden was almost exclusively sourced through begging, borrowing, or stealing.

Not wanting to come empty handed to our rendez-vous, I brought two small tomato plants with me that morning. They sprouts had finally broken ground after I had planted them as seeds and this felt very successful to me. I was embarrassed by how proud I was of my green thumb when I discovered Régine's beautiful garden and her exhaustive knowledge of all things that bear fruits and flowers.

She took me on a tour of her garden, with its fig trees and tea roses and plots of land bursting with the colors of carefully chosen flowers. Each plant had a story and it quickly became clear that Régine's garden was almost exclusively sourced through begging, borrowing, or stealing. Régine asked friends and family to bring her plants, but most often she gleaned sprouts or seeds from existing plants and wasn't shy about pulling her car over while out for a drive, stopping just long enough to snip of a branch or bit that she would plant once she got home.

Garden + Doll house

Garden + Doll house

We arrived at the raspberry bushes to discover there were few berries to be found. “The birds are eating all the fruits this year!” Régine announced the bad news with a smile. We shrugged our shoulders and decided I'd stop by another time, before the birds could beat me to it. In the meantime, Régine assured me, I could take the raspberries she had already picked and saved in her freezer.

You never know what a year may bring- the river may flood and birds might eat your berries. Knowing how to handle whatever nature brings is key to living in the countryside, but also crucial to living in general. Régine and my neighbors taught me that summer fruits are just as valuable as the knowledge of how to preserve them- and that both are made even more precious when they're shared.  

June: Flood Season

Last month's view from our temporary lakefront property

Last month's view from our temporary lakefront property

It's late afternoon and I'm writing under our walnut tree. It's leaves are blocking the sun and providing shade against a 34 degree (93°F) day.

It's the second day of summer, but the first day that feels like it, with the sunshine showing up both unexpectedly and almost on time. All the signs of the season are here: mosquitos either buzzing in your ears or flying into your glass of wine, socks an annoyance instead of a necessity, and the tame sprouts of climbing cucumbers, tomatoes and snap peas making grabs for everything they can as they claim garden space and become taller by the day.

I'm claiming my own garden space, under this tree that only weeks ago was knee deep under water. Pouillé's floods were just as unexpected as today's sunshine. I am inclined to welcome one unexpected surprise over the other.

Water levels creeping up to our walnut tree

Water levels creeping up to our walnut tree

I start ramping up for warm weather with an admittedly unwarranted and premature level of expectation. My annual feeling that the survival of February, the longest short month as far as I'm concerned, should be compensated with immediate warm weather, is a source of regular disappointment that I for some reason cling to. I adopt an “are we there yet?” approach to the first sunny months of the year, and ask my loved ones when spring will show up over and over again until the response is “right now”.

But this year spring didn't show up. Post-February felt like every day began the same: with a sky so blank it looked as if someone had cut and pasted it somewhere else, where lucky people sat on blankets in the grass under a blue sky.

The grey and cold weather wasn’t just bad for my tendency to be S.A.D, it was also potentially devastating to our winemaker friends.

I know the weather happens to all of us, and has nothing to do with any of us (man made effects on global warming aside), but I take gloomy weather personally. Having said that, while I moped and looked up California weather reports I was also aware of the larger implications the cold weather announced. The grey and cold weather wasn't just bad for my tendency to be S.A.D, it was also potentially devastating to our winemaker friends.

Including Noëlla, who has a plot of Sauvignon vines across the street from our house.

Our first 4 am rendezvous in these vines was late April. We would be back a second time in early May to do the same thing: lighting paint can sized candles to ward off the devastating effects of violent pre-dawn temperature drops on the vines. We were engaged in the fight against frostbite, resistants in a swiftly shrinking army, as we saw more and more neighboring winemakers share photos of heartbreaking scenes in their vines- mornings that brought frost burnt vines and the end of their vintage.

Anti-frost candles ward of threats from dropping temperatures in the vines

Anti-frost candles ward of threats from dropping temperatures in the vines

It felt like a second February- the summoning of all your forces to get through whatever nature would throw at you. We were cold, we were seasonally depressed, but we were there for the vines and both us and them survived. We made it to the other side, so we were there yet, right? Surely spring was also on this other side. That same unfounded optimism came back. Soon we would be eating lunch outside, I told myself, letting my hopes rise high.

Roads turned into rivers and I sludged through the current on my way to work in the vines, wearing waterproof gear but giving up on gloves that would be soaked within five minutes of debudding the vines that made commendable attempts at sprouting with little encouragement from a timid spring.

But then it started raining. It started raining and never stopped. Roads turned into rivers and I sludged through the current on my way to work in the vines, wearing waterproof gear but giving up on gloves that would be soaked within five minutes of debudding the vines that made commendable attempts at sprouting with little encouragement from a timid spring.

There was something reassuring about this rainfall being the worst the region had seen in 100 years. I wasn't making it up, this was shitty weather. It was the worst.

In Paris the banks of the Seine were under water and in Pouillé our river, the Cher, was drowning.

I say drowning because that's how it felt- not overflowing and abundant but imprisoning and inundated. It's strange how flooding happens, water doesn't come in waves but rather it sneaks in from under your feet.

It mostly happened overnight, but then it was just a matter of hours. We woke up to see that our house suddenly had a lake view, and by the end of the day it was a lakefront property.

I checked our backyard regularly, as water crept closer and closer to the henhouse and then, just a few paces away, our own house. Eventually the water seemed to stagnate within a safe distance of the chickens, but one loss was already apparent. I waded out to the corner of the yard that was home to my vegetable garden, which I had been preparing since we moved into our house in the autumn. My garden was still there, but it was very, very under water.

Post flood potager

Post flood potager

“Maybe it will be okay?” I mustered up some optimism, trying to believe that tomorrow we might wake up and discover that all the water had magically gone away.

“Forget about it”, Ben replied, unable to understand that the survival of this patch of land was the only thing between me and a nervous breakdown.

I crumbled. I was out of perspective and full of feelings. It wasn't just the vegetable garden. It was everything. The mean lady who owned the nearby coop and yelled at me when I touched the avocados. The local farmer who couldn't deliver our weekly vegetable baskets because he barely had enough produce for his market stand and CSA. The fact that I had left my apartment, my Paris, my friends, my habits to move to the countryside where even the most basic things, like buying vegetables, seemed impossibly hard procure.

I needed to go for a walk, but everything was flooded and it was, of course, raining. I could at least say goodbye to my garden, I thought, as I put on my boots and waded into the backyard, which would be shin deep in water by the next day. I went to my little garden, which we had inaugurated just two months earlier, after Ben had built a fence around the patch of healthy soil in order to keep the chickens out.

Pre flood potager dressed up for the inauguration party

Pre flood potager dressed up for the inauguration party

I could see the tips of my baby kale plants, poking out just over the pop-up lake level. I decided I would pick them and have a first and last salad from my garden. Then I remembered that our landlord and neighbor had chosen this corner of his garden, just over the fence from my potager, to be his dumping ground for illegally hunted animal carcasses.

My sweet, innocent baby kale plants- born from seeds brought to me by my sister and planted with love by me and my mom, were now essentially steeping in a deer cadaver cold brew.

I discovered this unpleasant fact one day as I was weeding in my garden and a strange smell led me to investigate further. The odor turned out to be the remains of a deer that was rotting before my eyes.

My sweet, innocent baby kale plants- born from seeds brought to me by my sister and planted with love by me and my mom, were now essentially steeping in a deer cadaver cold brew.

I decided not to make the salad. And to keep feeling sorry for myself.

Things never seem like they'll get better until they do. Ben and his best friend built me a raised bed garden and it's now full of healthy plants. With time, my old vegetable garden dried out and is currently home to a half dozen heirloom tomato plants. And baby kale.

At the time of writing, the sun is out and the sky is blue. I'm watching it all from the comfort of a walnut tree canopy, equipped with a glass of Sauvignon and my 5 euro Barbès bought flip flops and I'm feeling pretty close to heaven. I know that this could change tomorrow and I know that the weather has nothing to do with me, but sometimes you really truly understand how much you need the sky to be on your side in order to thrive.

This, I've learned, is another thing we have in common with gardens and grapevines. Both of which are as fragile and sensitive as we are, and both of which mean more to me than I could understand before thinking of my life here without them. 

Plan B potager, filled with happy plants

Plan B potager, filled with happy plants

May: Portes Ouvertes

The Cher river

The Cher river

As we settled into our daily habits and life in the Loir-et-Cher, Ben and I became curious about uncharted territory. We took detours and the long way home, driving around neighboring villages and the backcountry, trying both the get lost and to find places that felt like they could be home. From the heights of the left bank of the Cher river, we admired the hillsides and valley of the right bank and the opposing village Thésée, where patchwork plots of organic grapevines were cultivated by veteran winemaker Bruno Allion.

We were trying to travel in time- into a future where we would have our own abandoned winemaker’s house to fix up, or find a family farmhouse to call our own.

“You like this view, don't you” I'd ask Ben, leaving off the question mark because I already knew the response. Luckily I didn't need an answer, because Ben's reaction would simply be a big smile- it was a rare occasion for Ben to be a man of few words.

We were trying to travel in time- into a future where we would have our own abandoned winemaker's house to fix up, or find a family farmhouse to call our own. 

May is a month of portes ouvertes, or open houses. Local winemakers, farmers, cheese makers, and other artisans open up their work spaces and invite the community to spend a day or two learning more about what they do. Events often include tastings, a shared meal, music, and sometimes late nights.

Picnicking with friends in the vines

Picnicking with friends in the vines

We were no stranger to the idea. Our portes had been very ouvertes ever since moving to the countryside- a happy and reassuring fact for me, since I wondered if leaving Paris might equate to disappearing as far as my friends who were still in the city were concerned. Luckily, we have faithful and wonderful friends willing to follow us to the countryside- bringing fun and lively discussion to our table, and sometimes late nights.

On these winding road trips in the hills of Pouillé I thought about all the things the future could bring, but I also fantasized about the perfect kitchen, about more rooms to hold even more friends, about dinners outside and vegetable gardens big enough to feed us through the summer months, with leftovers for the winter ones. And a bathtub. 

We were beginning to learn that even if we weren’t living in our dream home, we were beginning to be a part of a community that made us feel like we had a place in Pouillé.

It was fun to daydream but eventually the road led us to our real home, which was just fine for now. We were beginning to learn that even if we weren't living in our dream home, we were beginning to be a part of a community that made us feel like we had a place in Pouillé. 

Portes Ouvertes work both ways- while we had opened our home to visitors and already had memories of dinners and late nights spent with friends both new and old, we were also grateful to the welcome that we had received from our neighbors.

Ben in our plot of Gamay vines

Ben in our plot of Gamay vines

This is one way I've experienced the kindness of neighbors since moving to Pouillé: Juliette and I knew that my across the street neighbors, a retired couple who had moved to Pouillé from Paris a little over 20 years ago, were looking for someone to prune the small plot of Cabernet vines in their backyard. Interested in meeting the neighbors, and with some free time on our hands, we arranged to meet with the couple and offer our services.

Pierre-Philippe and Marie-Claude invited us to have a café after a quick tour of their vines. Marie-Claude spoke with me in English about her time as a stagiare in kitchens in Cape Code, over 40 years ago, and Pierre-Philippe was earnest about negotiating a salary with Juliette and I, assuring us that he wanted to pay a fair rate for the work we would do.

“We're not really interested in the money,” we told him adding, “but we heard you may have a fermentation tank to sell?” There was our ulterior motive- 30 hectoliter fermentation tanks are hard to find used and expensive to buy new- word on the street was Pierre-Philippe had one he might be interested in getting rid of. “You're too late!”, he told us “I sold it awhile ago- you should've told me earlier!”

View of the Cher Valley from the left bank

View of the Cher Valley from the left bank

Juliette and I were slightly disappointed, but the conversation continued with pleasantries and plans for dinner parties together as we prepared to leave.

At the door, as we prepared to say goodbye Pierre seemed to have an idea that pleased him, “I'll tell you what,” he said leaning his head out the door and pointing into the distance, “you see those vines there? The Sauvignons?” We nodded, making out five rows of scraggly but growing Sauvignon vines. “Well if you're interested in those they're yours! But I don't want to hear anything about them- you do what you want, they're not my problem anymore!” Juliette and I looked at each other in disbelief. We had come for a chat and a coffee and a few hours of work, and were leaving with a plot of Sauvignon.

This is the magic of life in a small town in the French countryside, you never know where a porte ouverte will lead you.  

April: What Working Outside Means to Me

Today I came home smelling like sheep fat and grass. My skin was red from sunshine and canvas straps on bare shoulders. All I wanted after an afternoon on my feet was a glass of wine and a shower, both chilled. In a sudden change from the misty mornings that smelled like buttercups and honeydew in the vines, this afternoon had gotten hot- a sign of a lazy spring making its way towards summer. Noëlla and I walked the vines, wearing large plastic backpacks filled with liters of water mixed with concentrated sheep fat, which we sprayed in thin sheets on her vines, hoping this would ward off hungry deer.

I hadn't intended on spending the day taking precautions against unwelcome grapevine grazers. I had a to-do list waiting for me at home that included scheduling social media posts, updating online calendars, following up on interviews, and dealing with the current French railway strike and its effect on an upcoming trip to Paris. But here I was, under the sun with Noëlla, both of us stripped down to t-shirts for the first time of the season, spending the afternoon working outside.

I looked outside my window from my desk, a front row seat to the internet, and wondered why I wasn’t outside.

A few months past, while at a wine tasting in a musty wine cellar, I had sent Noëlla a drunken text message telling her how much I missed the smell of the cave and asking her if she would let me know when I could work with her in the wine cellar again. Then one day, as spring started setting in, I looked outside my window from my desk, a front row seat to the internet, and wondered why I wasn't outside.

There are a few reasons this question isn't easy for me to answer.

The rhythm of life here is very different than the lifestyle I had in Paris. I'm not used to waking up with the sun or, more specifically, getting out of bed with the sun. As a freelance writer, I hardly ever work with other people, and often my most productive period will be after the sun has set- which in the countryside usually signals the end of the work day, not the beginning.

My city life of waking up around 9 am and then lounging/writing until I feel like eating around 2pm didn't fit in with country life and I was starting to feel out of sync. I still appreciate this schedule- I love when I go to Paris and suggest a morning meeting over a coffee and I get proposed 10 am as a meet-up time, I never thought that would feel late to me. But the reality is no one wants to meet up with you for a 10am coffee or a late lunch in the countryside. 

Me during the 2014 harvest

Me during the 2014 harvest

However, being on everyone else's schedule didn't seem a good enough reason to work outside. At first, I didn't feel like a change in geography should necessarily result in a change in my work or my work schedule- both of which I had chosen and cherished for the very fact that they flexible and allowed me to wear pajamas all day if I wanted to.  

But looking outside at the first signs of sunshine I remembered another reason why I was in Pouillé and not Paris. Ever since I started visiting the region my favorite thing to do, besides spending time with friends, was to work in the vines. Every season brought a new task and our winemaker friends walked us through each new job responsibility that a winemaker undertakes.

Ben and I looked forward to being able to work year round in the vines- seeing them transform from nubby pruned stumps in winter to fruit bearing vines in the summer. So the question came back to me- why wasn't I outside working in the vines? 

Pruning with Ben

Pruning with Ben

When we moved to Pouillé I started having some reservations. I didn't want to give up the things I loved doing- the blog, my podcast, writing articles- just to fit in. It was also important for me to maintain my independence and autonomy. Ben, who is friends with many winemakers and also really great at talking about wine, and passionate about tasting it, was obviously going to become deeply involved with winemaking. He even planned on enrolling in an organic winemaking course. I've always been supportive and excited about the prospect, and thought of taking on winemaking as a life choice we made together, but I never wanted to be known as Ben's girlfriend or a femme de vigneron (a winemaker's wife), which is a designation I hate and wish would disappear along with “housewife”.

Reading stories of women confronted with similar circumstances was helpful. I related to Molly Wizenberg in Delancey when she wrote about her hesitations to become involved with, and then later the challenges of working within, her husband's restaurant. It was a relief to feel like I wasn't alone in wanting to both share dreams, but also create distance, from my partner. But these reservations also inhibited me, leaving me inside looking out, instead of in the vines. And I love being in the vines. 

A pruning lesson in the vines

A pruning lesson in the vines

It seemed a good time to get back out there. I sober texted Noëlla and asked if she needed any help. She's a winemaker, so of course the answer was “yes”. Their job never ends and it was time to fold the canes, or long branches of the vines, taming them with staples by attaching them to shin level wires. 

Everything is better outside. A cup of coffee. The latest issue of the New Yorker. Anything done barefoot. And so much more is possible outside. A bike ride. A longer walk than you expected taking. Running into a neighbor or a friend. I knew all of these things before, in Paris I got outside often (never barefoot, but...). I biked everywhere, took the long way home when I walked, lingered in coffee shops as friends wandered in and out. But a cup of coffee can only last so long and a walk or a bike ride eventually brings you home.

Deerbustin' with Noëlla

Deerbustin' with Noëlla

Working outside here in the vines, it means really being outside. Hopefully under the sun, sometimes in the rain, often with cold or wet hands. But wet hands aside, while I was spraying Noëlla's vines with sheep fat, basically a stroll with a cool Ghostbuster's accessory, I was working- but also wondering “what else would I even be doing right now?”

In Paris I'd be running around, stressed but smiling once I saw the Tati sign on the horizon and knew I was closing in on Boulevard Barbès. Or chatting with the guy who had been selling random things in his chaotic bazaar of a boutique across the street from me for 30 years, or maybe running into a friend if life made our paths collide. Living in a city teaches you how to live with others, really live together in a place where space is limited. But outside- the big, green, buttercup, mint, and clover outside- helps you learn to live with yourself. I think that's a lesson worth making compromises for. 

March : The Importance of Feminism, Food Culture, and Folk Rock

Parabere bracelets, made by incarcerated Italian women 

Parabere bracelets, made by incarcerated Italian women 

In Rome I waited to board an hour long flight to Bari, waiting in a huddle of hand gestures and fidgeting that the Italians call a line. Once on the plane, I saw a petite woman I recognized as Dominique Loiseau sitting in the front row of first class. We were both headed to the same place (though not in the same class): the Parabere Forum.

I didn't realize how much I needed women in my life before I moved to Pouillé. I took for granted the fact that my social circle was made up exclusively of ladies, gays, and honorary ladies (a small group of straight men who were partners of my lady friends and deemed worthy of the status). It never occurred to me that would change. Then I moved to the countryside in a region where the main professions- winemaking, agriculture, etc.- have always been and remain totally male dominated.

In response to this new environment, I sought out women everywhere. There was Noëlla, of course, and Juliette whose partner had just started making wine in the region. Lisanne, a sommelière in Antwerp would often make visits to the vines, and Corinne who makes wine with her husband Paul, was also an example of a strong, independent woman.

I read food memoirs and cookbooks written by defiant and talented women...I brought these women into my life by reading about their lives. And I listened to a lot of Beyoncé, Bikini Kill, and Sleater Kinney.

Another source of comfort came from books. I read food memoirs and cookbooks written by defiant and talented women. I devoured Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones, and Butter. I relished the witty commentary and critiques of MFK Fisher and Elizabeth David. I learned from Barbara Kingsolver's adventures in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I spent time cooking vicariously with Judy Rodgers using The Café Zuni Cookbook. I pickled red onions just like Tamar Adler told me to. I read Tender at the Bone and loved Ruth Reichl's out of control adventures. I brought these women into my life by reading about their lives. And I listened to a lot of Beyoncé, Bikini Kill, and Sleater Kinney.

But passive consumption doesn't create community. That's why, pretty much directly after I interviewed Parabere Forum's president Maria Canabal for the Paris Paysanne Podcast, I asked her if I could come to the forum, which included chefs and culinary entrepreneurs giving presentations and sharing their experiences. Maria put me on the press list and I bought tickets to Bari right away, without even trying to get my Paris lady friends on board first. I wasn't particularly excited about going alone, but I knew I wanted to go and hoped I wouldn't be too shy to make friends while there.

New friends at Parabere Forum

New friends at Parabere Forum

The fact that I made numerous friends the first night is truly a testament to how friendly and welcoming Parabere Women are. From the start, a ray of sunshine named Flavia grabbed a seat next to me during an ice breaker activity and we ended up talked about everything but the given topic. I was excited to have made a friend and looked forward to what was to come as I headed to the restaurant where I had made a reservation for one that night. I opened the door to the small bistro and realized that almost everyone from the forum was at that very restaurant. My sunshiny Flavia waved to me from the back of the restaurant where I joined her, pulling up a chair to a group of Italians, Turks, and Swedes.

It was a lady universe, a world of our own. Successful women presented the projects and were met with support and standing ovations. We mingled and shared stories- women switched seamlessly from talking about raising their kids to managing a team in the kitchen.

Everything about Parabere Forum was this way. It was a lady universe, a world of our own. Successful women presented the projects and were met with support and standing ovations. We mingled and shared stories- women switched seamlessly from talking about raising their kids to managing a team in the kitchen.

They talked about a sense of duty towards future generations, about being “eco chefs” and not “ego chefs”. One presenter told us that when she found out she couldn't have children she “realized there had to be another way to influence the next generation” so she set out to help incarcerated women design clothes and generate their own income. The theme was entrepreneurship, but the aim was empowerment. “Great women empower other women to be great,” Maria told us on opening day of the forum, something that clearly all participants agreed on- in both principals and actions.

The ladies of Osteria Francescana

The ladies of Osteria Francescana

“What's it going to be like when we leave?” I asked one of my new Swedish friends on the last day of the forum, as we toured the barrio vecchio of Bari, where women invited us into their homes to teach us to make the local pasta specialty, orecchiette. Somewhere in the world, a critically acclaimed male chef was surely serving this pasta, using a recipe passed on to him by his grandmother, and getting credit for being innovative. This reality is the one we'd all be going back to the next day when the bubble burst. “It's going to be different,” my friend responded and we tried to muster up a smile.

Looking back I realize that this was a unique moment, one in which-just for a few days- the world we were going back to felt like it was the different reality, and the world we had created by being together and sharing our stories felt real and unchallenged.

An orecchiette lesson in Bari's old town

An orecchiette lesson in Bari's old town

Luckily I was not headed back to the real world after Parabere Forum, but rather to another alternate universe: Brittany. After Bari, I met up with Ben in Nantes to join him as he opened for the Belgian singer Arno for a few dates. The tour would take us from Nantes to Brest and then Rennes, with some smaller shows Ben had organized through friends along the way. This would be the last tour Ben would do before dedicating himself to working in the vines and, eventually, starting an organic winemaking courses. I had never been on tour and was along for the ride.

I would soon find out that in Brittany it very rarely isn’t apéro time.

We arrived in Douarnenez, a small port town South of Brest, just in time for l'heure de l'apéro. I would soon find out that in Brittany it very rarely isn't apéro time. Ben had been contacted by Emilie, the owner of Chez Mathurin, a restaurant in the village that served natural wine. The cozy bistro had just enough space for Ben to set up and play a set in exchange for food, wine, and good company.

Ben, aka The Healthy Boy's personalised wine opener and a bottle of Marc Pesnot

Ben, aka The Healthy Boy's personalised wine opener and a bottle of Marc Pesnot

Ben's music is beautiful, loopy, and sonorous. It's him and his guitar playing the space around him like an instrument. Ben takes his time making music. He lets notes linger and lyrics create worlds. He can turn a rowdy wine bar into the world's smallest symphony hall and a drafty concert hall into a cosy house show. With few exceptions, I'm always impressed by French audiences. The crowd that gathered that night lived up to their reputation of being receptive and engaged, interested and encouraging. They watched as Ben played his set, enjoying the freedom to play whatever he wanted for however long he wanted to- a change from the strict instructions given to him by Arno's tour manager.

Bottles of Marc Pesnot... kicked off the apéro and opened our appetites with their ocean air salinity and refreshing acidity.

Bottles of Marc Pesnot, a local winemaker who works with the native varietal Melon de Bourgogne, kicked off the apéro and opened our appetites with their ocean air salinity and refreshing acidity. Oysters were busily opened behind the bar and accompanied with corks being pulled from Alsatian whites by Christian Binner. The evening became a blur, I have a hazy memory of a tray of shot glasses filled with cognac awaiting us outside a café on our way to one of the patrons apartments for an after party. It was that very café where we would resurface at some point the next day, ostensibly for the market, but actually to see how everyone had made it through the night.

Oysters and Marc Pesnot

Oysters and Marc Pesnot

Up until that following morning, I had seen this part of Brittany from the point of view of a car or bar (or drunken midnight stroll). As we groggily made our way to the market the next day, I had my first glimpse of the streets and sounds of this little port town. A main street led to the market and surrounding commerce, where locals flocked to do their weekend shopping. I pulled Ben into a crêperie and we watched as a team of six prepared crêpe upon crêpe on a rotating mechanism of a dozen griddles.

The combination of the quality of the work and the pride in doing something well, as well as the commitment to not wavering or changing a time tested recipe, summed up everything I love about long established food cultures- where food and culture come together in edible perfection

The simplicity and mastery of their gestures- making what has been eaten here in the way its been made for years- touched me. The combination of the quality of the work and the pride in doing something well, as well as the commitment to not wavering or changing a time tested recipe, summed up everything I love about long established food cultures- where food and culture come together in edible perfection. The opportunity to be witness to a thriving local food culture, I realized, is the reason I feel compelled to leave my house and explore the world. 

As much as I don't like leaning on one filter through which to see the world, I have to say if I had to choose I'd want to see the world through food. Not because I'm exclusively pleasure seeking, but because it's provided a platform for me to experience and enjoy culture in general. Eating my crêpe under the Bretagne sun, savoring the simplicity of an egg folded into an airy flour envelope, I thought about how I went from making pasta with Italian women in Bari to discovering hangover cures in Brittany in the span of only a few days. Reflecting on this, I started giving thanks; to Maria, to feminists everywhere, to my guitar playing boyfriend and the aging Belgian rocker who inspired the trip, to Emilie who welcomed us into her home, and to the people we had met along the way.

thanks to a magical mixture of feminism and folk rock, I had been invited to crowded tables of people eager to share food.

A few months ago I didn't know Maria or Bari, Emilie or Douarnenez and now, thanks to a magical mixture of feminism and folk rock, I had been invited to crowded tables of people eager to share food. This is why food is important, it's what brings people to the table.

The sprawling terrace of the Café des Halles (whose staff had so kindly provided us with cognac the night before) was full of families and friends, recovering from the night before. Easing into the day with a late morning cider it was only a matter of time before bottles of wine were brought out. Villagers played musical chairs, hopping from table to table to share a drink and catch up. At one point our table was served a plate whose contents I was unable to distinguish. “They're pouce-pieds” Emilie explained to me, as if that clarified the situation.

Pouce-pieds look like dragon's claws. I can't think of anything in our world to compare them to. The dragon toenail is actually a shell and the leathery phalanges house an edible creature, which is rubbery and similar to whelks in taste. These barnacles are harvested manually and grow in hard-to-get-to places, which explains why you most likely have never had a plate of them magically show up on your table. But this was Britanny, the land of spontaneously appearing cognac shots and edible dragon claws. Unsurprisingly, pouce-pieds pair perfectly with white wine and cider, and thus another apéro begins in the tiny port town of Douarnenez.

February: How Homebrewing Cures Homesickness

I plunged into the natural wine world somewhat unintentionally. Unlike almost everyone you meet in the natural wine scene, I don't have a story of the bottle that turned me on to natural wines and changed my life forever. I guess I do- but I'm sure it wasn't a cool bottle and if I cited it wine geeks would just politely smile and nod, judging me. I didn't have some revelatory moment over an epic bottle by a mythical winemaker like Jean Foillard or Richard Leroy or Olivier Cousin. I just stumbled upon it.

It was sometime in 2010 and I was at a restaurant in Paris called Les Fines Gueules, which I later found out serves almost exclusively natural wine. I put two and two together and figured that was why I had so enjoyed the bottle of Beaujolais I drank there, from a domain called P-U-R. It was one of the least expensive bottles on the menu and one of the best wines I had ever tasted.

It was during my early years in Paris and I was broke and had been for years, working under the table at a bar and trying to figure out how to get my visa renewed, I don't think I even had a bank account and I can't remember what horrible apartment situation I was in at the time, most likely the illegal sublet in the 9th. In any case, the meal was a special treat, a fancy sit down dinner and the cheapest wine on the menu ended up being the highlight.

I started drinking what I could on a super limited budget, every once and awhile going to restaurants that served natural wines to see what they had on their menu and treat myself to a bottle.

I was only beginning to be curious about the food scene in Paris- I started my blog that very same year- so I didn't have much community to explain the concept of natural wine to me and early internet articles on the subject made it sound so scandalous- does/can organic wine even exist? was the gist of most articles written predominantly by skeptics at the time. I didn't even bother going down that rabbit hole on the internet. Instead, I started drinking what I could on a super limited budget, every once and awhile going to restaurants that served natural wines to see what they had on their menu and treat myself to a bottle. It was at Le Grand 8, a restaurant in the 18th arrondissement, where I first had a bottle of Noëlla's wine. It was her Gamay, Mon Cher.

I started writing a little bit about natural wine, wanting to talk about it in a way that wasn't polemic or overcomplicated or smug, but simple and focused on the work that natural winemakers do. In February 2012, I went to my first Dive Bouteille wine tasting- the woodstock of natural wine which brings devotees from around the world to taste wine made by hundreds of biodynamic vignerons.

I made the rookie mistake of counting on the shuttle bus (which never came) to get me to the tasting- I ended up hopping into a cab with a bunch of strangers, one of whom was a caviste from the South of France who I followed around for most of the tasting, listening to him describe and ask questions about wine.

At the dive bouteille in 2014, distracted from wine tasting by Panache

At the dive bouteille in 2014, distracted from wine tasting by Panache

It was at this tasting that I met Noëlla for first time, I was too shy to talk much and also unsure how to talk about wine at all, I think I managed to go up to her a sheepishly say “I really like your wine” and then run away.

I saw Noëlla in following years at the same tasting and also visited the Loir-et-Cher region, visiting her fellow winemakers in the region, Michel Augé and Christophe Foucher, who took me on tours of their vines and talked with me about their process while we tasted their wines.

I went from girl crush, to boy crush, to crushing Gamay grapes in my front yard.

By 2014 I felt like I needed to know more about how these wines were made in order to better write about them. I asked Noëlla, who still barely knew who I was because I am socially awkward, if I could join her harvest team and she said yes! Then I met Ben and the rest is history. I went from girl crush, to boy crush, to crushing Gamay grapes in my front yard.

So that's how I got here and I often feel like I'm playing catch up because I don't know or understand so many things about the world I live in now. I don't like it when people say they don't have a vocabulary for wine, I love listening to people use all kinds of words and memories to describe a wine they're tasting, but there definitely is a jargon associated with wine, and I'm at a faux débutante level in wine vernacular.

Sometimes, okay a lot of times, I feel left out of wine conversations. I listen so I can learn, but then I get lost. Then my mind wanders to conversations that made me feel like I belong instead of like I'm an outsider. I start missing my Paris friends, my lady lunches at Holybelly, my dance parties with the gays, when we sang Céline Dion at 4am, our arms draped over each other.

California sunshine and craft beer

California sunshine and craft beer

Sometimes the homesickness goes back as far as California, where I remember meeting up with friends in a places that smell like the sea and having a pint of beer. Whenever I have a beer with friends I try to stop and hold that moment for a second before letting it go away, those moments are rare and precious to me.

I can understand Gamay in the present, and I think I’ll get it more in the future, but a sip of beer takes me back.

I don't speak beer jargon, either, but beer speaks to me in a more personal way than wine, probably because I grew up with it. I can understand Gamay in the present, and I think I'll get it more in the future, but a sip of beer takes me back. I haven't had a Miller High Life in over a dozen years- and I'm in no rush to crack one open- but I'm sure once it hit my lips I'd be transported to my early college years, my Wisconsinite college boyfriend, the silly parties, and a whole era that sometimes feels like it belongs to a different life and a different time. Until beer brings it back.

Even with almost unlimited access to great wine, I still crave beer. It's the thing I want to drink after spending a day working outside, it's what I want to celebrate a change in seasons, a fatty green IPA in the winter or a fresh, citrusy Pale Ale in the spring. These flavors excite my palette and never feel redundant- every beer is a surprise.

We have one local craft brewer in the region and recently a Paris based company called HopBuddy has started delivering craft beers anywhere in France, so there are options for getting craft beer here, but I decided it was time I started making my own.

My first home brew. Photo courtesy of Bertrand Celce

My first home brew. Photo courtesy of Bertrand Celce

With ingredients I hauled back from 7 Bridges Organic Brewing Collective during my trip to Santa Cruz and a starter home-brew set I ordered from Belgium I was ready to make my first beer: a double IPA using four different American hop varietals.

I won't go into all the minutia of my first brew day (which was actually a very late brew night), suffice to say I learned a few things for next time and the beer turned out more than ok. But here's what I learned the first time I made beer: Steeped grains that start off your beer smell like Grape Nuts, the morning cereal of my high school days that my brain had forgotten but my nose definitely hadn't. The malts smell like the walk home to a house I had while in college in Olympia, Washington- which took me past the Fish Brewing Company, and this smell, of approaching the brewery on my way home, maybe stopping to glean blackberries on the way if it was the right season, filled my kitchen as I brewed. And then I started adding hops, the color and scent of a Pacific Northwest Forest and so many memories- everywhere from splurging on a six pack from Deschutes Brewery when we were broke college students to happy hours at Le Supercoin in Paris, my favorite beer bar just steps away from my apartment.

Brewin'

Brewin'

Making my own beer felt like a conversation I was a part of, it uncovered memories and made them feel warm and familiar again. It turned the past into something I could almost feel in the present. 

Home brewing is definitely the cure to a shortage of beer, but for me it turned out to be a cure for homesickness, as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

January: Just Because You Didn't Put it Online Doesn't Mean it Didn't Happen

Whenever I return from a trip to Paris or beyond, I like to take my first morning back in the countryside super, super slow. When there is sunshine, it streams in through the large window that we look out of from our bed. I'll linger there a little bit and maybe instead of grabbing for my phone I'll pick up the latest issue of The New Yorker or whatever book I'm reading at the time and sit with it until I absolutely can't stand not having a cup of coffee in hand.

If the sun is still out, I'll drink my coffee outside- because coffee tastes better outside. I'll bring a mugful with me, along with the bowl of food scraps we fill while making lunch and dinner, delivering the latter to the chickens who squawk and peck excitedly at the leftovers. There's usually a freshly laid egg waiting for me in the hen house, so I'll bring that back inside with the bowl.

Then it's just me and my cup of coffee sitting on a deck chair, sitting in a ray of sun. If I notice that the nettles look bright green and are begging to be picked I'll do that. I get a basket and start pinching the tops off, careful to only touch the undersides and stems with my fingertips to avoid being stung, carefully amassing a stock of stinging nettles that I will turn into a pesto or a topping for pasta or add to a quiche.

While hopping from nettle patch to nettle patch and pinching away at the plants, sometimes I pass by the corner of the garden where we piled whatever food scraps and compost the chickens won't eat. The compost turns into a beautiful dark soil. My coffee, long forgotten, has gone cold by now, so I have two hands free to shovel soil and bring it to the patch of land I've designated as my future vegetable garden.

The activity excites the chickens, who see the unearthing of soil as an opportunity to find worms and other treasures. With each shovelful of soil removed, a new world is revealed- a world that invites the scratching and pecking of the enthusiastic chickens.

Meanwhile in the garden plot, I mix the new soil in with the old- a combination of mulch, hay and dirt from the henhouse floor, all atop a layer of cardboard that has killed the grass below and will slowly disintegrate throughout the winter.

The cats observe, the kitten jumping from one end of the garden plot to the other, just barely getting in the way of the shovel, Jack watching calmly from afar, every once in awhile returning his attention to his personal grooming.

I wipe my hands on my country jeans and think about what I will grow in the spring. I find my coffee mug and go inside to make a fresh batch. Sometimes this is how I spend a morning in the countryside.