Cross-cultural connections

“Nothing vast enters the world of man without a curse.” Sophocles.

I think of this line often when I work on my computer. Like everyone else, I am oppressed by the Internet. I am burdened by a constant stream of emails and by the overbearing sense that I “should be doing more”. More tweeting, more blogging, more adventuring in to the virtual unknown.

For the most part, I try to resist these impulses. My life is rich, and seldom improved by spending more time on my computer.

But that said, there is the occasional surprise, something that could never have happened without this wonderful and terrible invention.

Recently, I received an email from a woman in South Africa named Zerilda Wessels. Zerilda lives in Stellenbosch, which is about 50 kilometers west of Cape Town. She is a painter and studies at the Marie Stander Art School.

Every year, students from the school are invited to exhibit at Muratie, a winery in the Knorhoek Valley north of Stellenbosch. The Stellenbosch area has been at the centre of South Africa’s wine industry since the eighteenth century – the first wine was pressed in 1659 – and Muratie is on one of the oldest estates in South Africa.

Sales from the Art School exhibit raise funds for local charities. Last year (2013) they raised over $20,000 CAD and the funds went toward various educational institutions, helping with the purchase of school clothes, educational books and material, music instruments, sport equipment for children of need in and around the Stellenbosch area.

For the 2014 exhibit, Zerilda wanted to paint a picnic, something in the style of Renoir, thinking in particular of his “Luncheon of the Boating Party”. So she searched the Internet for images of picnics. Somewhere, amidst the mass of Google images, she found a photograph that I took 3 years ago when Tim and I were canoeing on the Loire. We were with a wonderful group of French friends, enjoying a mid day picnic of exquisite excess.

Picnic on the Loire
Our picnic on the Loire

I had blogged about the adventure, and, in the way that things work on the Internet that I don’t entirely understand, the photograph I took was out there waiting for Zerilda to discover it.

“Your photograph appealed to me due to its beautiful composition, ” Zerilda wrote to me. “The similarities between your photograph and the Renoir painting was to me that no one seemed to be making eye contact, yet there seemed to be an enjoyment of each other’s company and a comforting ease of closeness.”

Zerilda worked with the image to recreate it in oil paint, developing it in an Impressionist style, enhancing the sense of occasion and camaraderie.

Zerilda Wessel's painting of our picnic on the Loire
Zerilda Wessel’s painting of our picnic on the Loire

I am totally enchanted by the idea that a moment of my life has inspired this lovely painting. It’s a thrill to see Tim, Peta, Bryan and Matt in the foreground, to remember our delight at the food, wine and company that afternoon. Somehow the painting makes the memory more permanent. I love seeing us as a Renoir moment.

It is amazing to think that a little part of me, and my memories, exists on someone’s wall on the other side of the world. I doubt that I will ever have the opportunity to travel to South Africa, but I know that if I do I will have a friend there, someone who has spent time trying to see the world as I saw it one sunny afternoon in France. And, at the risk of being entirely too sentimental, I am thrilled to think that I have a small connection to helping a child toward a better educational life, courtesy of Zerilda.

OK, maybe there are some redeeming qualities to the Internet.

Encore Une Fois, part deux

After a morning exploring the treasures at the Marche des Puces in Restigne, Bryan, Peta, Tim and I drove to Bel-Air. Our task for the week was to wash all of the inside beams, and to put everything away for the winter. Although we arrived to a cold house, we got the wood stove burning and it was soon it toasty and warm.

Of course the best part of being in France is market day. Mondays are market days in Marcigny, a little village of about 2,000 people, about 20 minutes away. The town has beautiful architecture that is well looked after.

The market in Marcigny

The Marcigny market is my favourite thus far. It was small, yet filled with stalls of delicious foods. Huge lettuces, about the size of the largest platter in my kitchen. Every vegetable imaginable – incredibly fresh and healthy-looking. A cheese vendor who sold the most remarkable Cantal Entre Deux (my new favourite – it’s a semi-hard cheese that is savory and earthy), a chèvre, aged, dry and nutty, and a runny, creamy something covered in ash that we didn’t get the name of but which we fought over with a passion. We bought some saucissons (dried sausage), selecting one with wild boar and one with Myrtille berries, and some delicious, dense whole wheat baguettes. Clothes, CDs, handbags mixed with food stalls wafting the delicious smells of paella, roast pork and cooked potatoes. Bryan decided to splurge on a treat that he has always wanted to try – Calamari Farci, calamari stuffed with vermicelli, mushrooms and spices. (Good, but not great. An unusual choice for a French market, but reflecting a Vietnamese influence perhaps). We walked by rabbits, pigeons, chickens and budgies in cages. Peta and I found cute winter hats, 2 for 10€ (about $12), perfect for the cool fall air.

It was about 11:00 in the morning when we finished, and we popped into a café for coffee to warm us up. Most of the people at the other tables were drinking small tumblers of white wine. By the time we left at mid-day, the market stalls had been packed up, and people had vanished from the streets.

Marcigny and Peta. Everyone has gone home to have lunch.

Our days at Bel-Air were spent scrubbing and cleaning, except for the day we were invited to lunch at Suzanne and Christian’s. Their friends Monique and Jean Michel were also visiting, and the meal certainly stretched our meager French to the limit. Both Tim and I feel constantly embarrassed by our lack of French, and are very shy in social settings. However, along about the third bottle of wine, both we began to understand far more of what was being said, and were able to contribute with more enthusiasm (but with just as many faults!).

Suzanne served us appetizers (salted cashews, spicy crackers, slices of a bread, like a brioche, with ham and cheese) while Christian served Crémant. First course was a delicious seafood tarte, with a dollop of mayonnaise, olive and an Auxerrois wine (Vin des Fossils, 2010) from the Loire. Everyone we have visited in France is proud to share local produce with us, and  it is one of the great pleasures of the trip to be able to try so many new foods and tastes. Suzanne and Christian had just returned from the town of Charlieu with a specialty from the Loire – Andouille. Andouille is an aged sausage, made from, as far as I can tell, the neck and lungs of pork, and possibly beef as well. It is a very old recipe, carefully guarded. “Une recette tirée des grandes traditions gastronomiques Charliendines qui date de la nuit des temps, des hommes fidèles et rigoureux de cette douce alliance vous garantit ce résultat exceptionnel.” (which translates roughly as: “A recipe drawn from the Charliendines culinary traditions, which date from the dawn of time. Add to this men faithful and rigorous, and the combination guarantees this exceptional result.” The translation is rough, but so is the original!) Suzanne served the Andouille with the traditional boiled potatoes, and sauerkraut cabbage casserole. The Andouille had a dark, extraordinary flavor. Deep, slightly smokey and aged. Like nothing I have ever tasted. Served with a special Macon-Cruzille, 2008.

The entre was followed by the cheese platter (another new favourite – Délice de Bourgueil –  an amazing creamy cheese, somewhat similar to the St. Andre that we get at home). The meal was topped off with chocolates and coffee. There were other wines, other tastes. Too much for my already struggling brain to remember. Local foods, local wines, new friends who are very much of the terroir. A lunch from which we rolled home around 5:00 p.m.

Understandably, we needed a good walk the next day. The weather was lovely, and Christian offered to take us mushrooming in the nearby woods. Finding mushrooms is akin to the proverbial needle in a haystack – at this time of year they are buried beneath mounds of fallen leaves, often camouflaged the same colour. The day started promisingly, with a large Chanterelle – a mushroom that Christian knows well.

Christian shows Tim a Chantarelle

But although we found many mushrooms after this first, they were mostly inedible and potentially poisonous. However, they were very beautiful and unusual (I never knew that there were mauve mushrooms!) and after a while we developed a “catch and release” attitude. The joy of being out and tramping directionless in a fresh wood made the adventure rich in every detail.

The next day, the last of our week’s visit, the weather went from nice to spectacular. Unbelievably for late November, we took the big kitchen table out into the sunshine and had a lunch of Frisée salad and white wine, basking in the hot sunshine and overlooking the fields of Burgundy. The grey skies of London seemed a very long way away.

A November lunch in France

Encore une fois

Peta and Bryan invited us back to France, to help close up the house for the winter. The trip coincided with a visit to friends in the Loire area, in a small village called Restigne. We were thrilled to be invited to see another part of France with new culinary, and vinicultural, treasures.

Françoise and Pierre live in a house that they have marvelously restored, complete with courtyard, gardens and guesthouse.

Tim in Françoise & Pierre's courtyard

Restigne is only several streets long and surrounded by vineyards.

The main corner of Restigne, with sign posts to local vitners

The nearest city is Tours, and Françoise offered to take us there so that we could go to a craft show to see the work of local artisans.

I have participated in a number of craft shows myself, and I was really intrigued to see the similarities, and the differences, at L’Art au Quotidiens in Tours.

Amongst the many wonderful potters, jewelers and clothing designers were fine furniture makers and restorers able to appropriately re-paint or re-plaster your 16thcentury home. The show was housed in the Vinci Centre International de Congrès, a contemporary building in the centre of town. In the middle of the building there is a large, ultra modern theatre, which was converted to a restaurant for the duration of the craft show. Large tables were set up on the stage where we had a lunch of an extensive salad buffet, hot entrees and seemingly endless glasses of white and red wine. A pianist played American jazz standards on a keyboard set up in the theatre seats. The French really do up a craft show in style.

Our lunch on the stage of the theatre

I have always wanted to visit Tours because of a beautiful manuscript that I studied many years ago, done by Alcuin of York in the 9th century at the monastery of St. Martin of Tours. It is one of the most graceful of the Carolingian manuscripts and is one of the reasons why humanist lettering styles are as appealing as they are.

The cathedral in Tours

Tours did not disappoint. It has a lovely old centre and on this warm November bank holiday (Armistice Day) there were hundreds of people out walking. Françoise told us that people are always out strolling in Tours.

Tim and Bryan in Tours

It’s a very friendly atmosphere. We stopped for coffee in the square, so that we could watch the world pass by.

Back in Restigne, the village is only large enough to support a single Boulangerie, a Charcuterie and a small chapel. But once a year the village is home to a mammoth Marche des Puces, and we have come to help Françoise organize her stall. But before we got started with collecting treasures from the attic and guest house, Françoise took us to see the caves outside the village.

Seven hundred years ago, when people started building in this area, they found large deposits of limestone from which they could easily cut blocks for their houses and Chateaux. They soon realized that when they took the blocks out, they were creating useful spaces. These spaces became caves used for storage, and in times of war, entire villages hid in the caves with their livestock. Today, the caves are still in use by the local vitners. Thousands of bottles can be stored at perfect temperatures. Aside from wine storage, caves are also used for a huge wine industry, as well as large (and rather legendary) parties and often for extra living spaces.

Françoise took us out of the village.

The vineyards outside Restigne

There are vineyards everywhere. As far as the eye can see in all directions. There are a few bunches of grapes left on the vines. They are sweet and warmed in the autumn sunshine.

Peta sampling the grapes in the sunshine

Along the sides of the fields, invisible unless you know where to look, are the caves. They are completely hidden away in the landscape.

The invisible Caves, in the fields outside Restigne
The Entrances
An archway leading to the caves

Back at Françoise and Pierre’s, we got a tour of their cave, tucked right under their house.

Dinners chez Françoise and Pierre are marvelous affairs, where we sit at table for many hours. We drank various vintages of the delicious Cabernet Franc that is made in the fields just beyond the village and stored below. There were numerous courses, concluding, always, with cheese platters followed by a dessert. As ridiculous as it may seem to bring cake to the French, I had made my favourite chocolate torte, Bonnie Stern’s California Chocolate Pecan Torte, (thanks to my wonderful friend Hinda who emailed me the recipe just in time) to give to Françoise and Pierre. Thankfully, the recipe is astonishing and the cake came up to their culinary standards. It helped that it was made with good French chocolate.

In response to my cake, the next day Pierre purchased a Galette Bourgueilloise – a specialty of the region. Where the chocolate torte was heavy and rich, this was such a light confection that you could almost believe you were eating flavoured clouds. Extraordinary. It, like the wine of the area, has an appellation controlee. Unique to the region, it is a very good reason to visit again.

Aperitifs with Peta, Pierre, Bryan, Françoise and Tim in the courtyard in Restigne