I wish I could have seen what happened here many many years ago.
“Elle est belle la campagne à cette heure du matin,” I tell my dad as he drives me to the train station in Saint-Avold (Nice countryside at this time of the day). “Oh tu sais, nous, on ne remarque même plus !”, he replies (You know, we do not even notice anymore). In many ways, he is right. We always seem to notice more what we do not see often as we do not take it for granted. This is exactly the feeling I have when I take a walk in the village during my short stay with my family.
The best thing to do in order to remember familiar places not visited in a while is to take a walk through its nooks and corners, with the camera in my hand. When I decided that I would wander the small winding streets, I knew that I would be stopped by people in the village and have nice chats with them. Ah ben t’es rentrée ? T’es là pour longtemps ? (You are back. Are you here for long?) They know that I have left the village, of course, but every time I come back, it is almost as if they saw me yesterday. The only difference is that we have questions. We are curious about each other’s lives and it is good to talk about old times, and know how everyone is doing. I am particularly curious to hear them talk about what has changed since the last time we met, how old the pig I caught a glimpse of is, how the new bakery is doing, if the summer was wet this year or hear the sound of the church bell ring every hour. Bing, Bing, Bing ! Except during the middle of the night, when I am lying in bed at 3 AM wide awake because of the jetlag I cannot get over with. Details jump in my face, and I cannot help but shoot pictures of things that I hardly noticed before, when I still lived here.
I decide to start with a walk through my brother’s amazing garden, full of apple and plum trees. With the fall, the quetsches season is almost over. The recent heavy rain has not helped either. The smell of rotten fruit on the ground attracts a myriad of bees who seem delighted to feast so freely. B’s garden is huge and beautiful. It seems that places to sit to relax and soak the air in can be found every five meters. I admire my brother’s carpentry skills while looking at the pieces of furniture he enjoys making: benches made of tree branches or chairs and tables. I keep telling him that he should really sell them. He has so many great ideas and talent.
As I wander around, I notice that he still has some strawberries and grapes. “Ce sont des pieds de fraises remontants”, my mums tells me. (strawberries that get ripe twice in the year)
There are flowers everywhere. I try to imagine the number of hours required to water all of these plants but when I ask B, he tells me that not only he loves doing it but for many plants, the less care the better. Kea, my brother’s beautiful briard follows me around.
Near the presbytère (the priest house), I continue on and head towards the path leading to the old ruins of the castle. I try to imagine what lives people had back in the 12th or 13th century. I ask my mum — the walking Encyclopedia — the story of the castle, and she tells me that it belonged to bishops during the Middle-Ages. Many conflicts arise during the years between different peoples who all want to own the village and in 1637, the village becomes a French possession despite a massacre of the French and Swedes.
On the way, I am lucky to find some cute shy friends. It does not happen often.
I take a détour by the cemetery. Some people might freak out simply at the thought of doing so but I personally love to walk through it to get a sense of the history of the place. So many nice details to observe. No one is there, enfin presque ! (almost!) Are you ever alone in le cimetière?
On my way out, I am intrigued by Monsieur Briot’s farm across the road. Am I hearing well? Mimi the pig makes shrieking shouts and runs away as soon as she sees me get closer. When Monsieur Briot comes out and looks at me, I can see he has aged and does not recognize me. “Je suis la fille Peltre, la fille de Jean“, I tell him. “Ah bon, la Betty ?” Yes, it is me. In the village, people call me Betty and would not know who Béa is. He calls Mimi and here she is, running happily towards us while making the same sharp noises. She is a real pet it now seems to me! “Elle a 10 mois,” he adds. Wow, for 10 months, what a big cochon !
I continue on to reach the old lavoir (washing place) now transformed in a lovely fountain. I cannot believe that I never noticed the face. Was I blind during all those years?
Time to go home and what a delight to see that the last quetsches that my brother picked in the morning will become tartelettes soon, thanks to the skilled hands of my sister-in-law. Despite the rain, I manage to get the last fruit of the season, and it feels like a real treat. I came just in time!
Even Ortie, my brother’s adorable cat wishes she could eat some of them.
The next day, my aunt calls to ask whether we want to come and pick walnuts. Elles tombent de l’arbre, il faut venir chercher un panier. (they fall from the tree, you need to come and pick them). We do not need to be told twice. Des noix ? Cool ! The grass is wet from the rain of the previous days, and they are hidden under the leaves that tell us that fall is at the corner. We truly have more than we need.
Some friends are there with us, even if they are totally scared. Again, on n’est pas des monstres, I tell them though.
We come back with a full basket. Already I think about all of the nice breads, pastries I could make, if only I could take some with me! Alas! I hate those agricultural restrictions between countries. Getting things in the US can be tough!
J’ai passé une bonne journée ! (I had a good day!)
The day comes to a close. A nice day à la campagne. I feel I have rediscovered beauties in my home village. I am already feeling sad because I know I am leaving soon. Wait! Still some time, a few days, time for a dinner together. Le dessert ? Des gâteaux au chocolat (mini chocolate cakes).
Gérard Vié, chef of the famous restaurant Les Trois Marches au Trianon Palace de Versailles, praises recipes coming from the past. He is the one who delivers this recipe which is old in its origins, yet stays very modern.
- 5 1/3 oz dark chocolate, melted using the bain-marie technique
- 10 2/3 oz soft butter
- 5 1/3 oz fine sugar
- 3 1/4 oz flour, sifted
- 4 egg yolks – 3 white eggs, whipped firmly
- Ground pepper
- Cinnamon, powder
- Clove, powder
- A dash of coffee extract
- Melt the chocolate (with a double boiler) and add the butter, flour and sugar. Mix well with a wooden spatula or with a whip.
- Add the egg yolks.
- Sprinkle with a dash of the spices, pepper, cinnamon and clove, and add a few drops of coffee extract.
- Add the firm egg whites carefully.
- Divide the dough between small molds (silicone or molds covered with parchment paper, or cook in cupcake cases), and cook the cakes in a preheated oven at 420 F, for about 10 mns. Unmold them when they are cooled down a bit.
- 150 g de chocolat noir fondu au bain-marie
- 300 g de beurre en pommade
- 150 g de sucre
- 90 g de farine tamisée
- 4 jaunes d’oeuf – 3 blancs montés en neige
- Poivre moulu
- Cannelle moulue
- Girofle moulue
- 1 pincée d’extrait de café
- Incorporez le beurre, la farine et le sucre au chocolat fondu. Travaillez bien l’ensemble à la spatule ou au fouet.
- Ajoutez les jaunes d’oeufs et mélangez.
- Saupoudrez d’un nuage de poivre et de cannelle, d’un rien de girofle, et de quelques gouttes d’extrait de café.
- Incorporez délicatement les blancs battus en neige ferme.
- Divisez la pâte entre des petits moules en silicone, et faites les cuire environ 10 minutes à four préchauffé à 210 C. Démoulez les gâteaux une fois qu’ils sont tièdes.
A recipe from Elle à table, September/October 2006 issue.