The Hills Are Alive With

Text by Steve VandeGriek Photos by Jan Behmer

Copyright 2020

The New York Times recently covered a news flash from postcard perfect Austria. Dairy cows in their Alpine summer pastures were attacking hikers trespassing through their domain. I suspect that the human source of this story was Twilight Zoned in Gary Larsen’s Far Side. I have context for this suspicion.

I’ve spent a certain share of my time with one foot in rural Vermont – long famous for being home to more dairy cows than people – and I’ve encountered my share of the bovine persona. I’ve seen cows mosey a bit faster than usual when it’s time to hit the barn to be relieved of the weight of twenty or so gallons of milk. I’ve witnessed a small herd of curious heifers shuffle up to a fence line to gaze at me as I walked by. They have on occasion even seemed to pose for a photo op. They were perhaps justifiably envious of my position outside the fence. But there was no snorting, stomping or charging involved. Even tail swatting at flies tends to be at best a half-hearted attack.

I’ve met dairy cows in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, in Florida and Indiana, in England and Spain and France. And I’ve made the acquaintance of a few of their half million Austrian cousins. None of them vary very much in demeanor. They want only to graze. Cows are doe-eyed, gentle and shy. They are frankly too docile and too lazy to mount an attack on anything more threatening than grass. Cows are giant hopping-challenged rabbits.

What about the fighting bulls of Spain, you ask? True, they are aggressive, but they are trained to be so. And true, Vermont and Austrian bulls can be a bit more territorial than their female counterparts. So, a bored bull menacing an unwary intruder, maybe. But a ruthless gang of Elsie Bordens, their cowbells shattering the peace of the Alpine meadow, charging a lederhosen-clad hiker? Udderly ridiculous. Even the Brothers Grimm never concocted such fake news.

But the New York Times says it happened. The New York Times is not noted for fake news.

So, if true, were the hikers not clad in the familiar lederhosen? Did they yodel in accents that grated on Elsie’s ears? Or have Austria’s bovines appointed themselves virus vigilantes? Perhaps, in the even larger picture, the cows have anthropomorphized themselves and are following our lead.

Austria is a stunningly picturesque landscape. But topographically idyllic Austria is anthropologically not so tranquil. The Austrians are wary of the effects of excessive immigration on their cultural identity. Austria is a small country with a small population – about equal to that of New York City. Outside of metropolitan Vienna, which evinces subtle ethnic vestiges of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Austria’s populace is largely – and accustomed to being so for generations – homogenous.

So it is in many smaller European countries. They are protective of their cultural heritage, and they view the current on-going flow of immigration as a threat. Many of these nations’ histories of cultural interference are so long ago absorbed that they’ve become inherent. The status quo balks at these new intercontinental challenges. The twentieth century Soviet surge into Eastern Europe, while piratic, did not pack the culturally disruptive punch of Iraquis in Slovakia. Europeans may empathize with the relentless stream of migrants escaping poverty and various degrees of genocide in myriad self-ravaging countries. They do not necessarily consider the stream to be their responsibility. Even wealthy Germany and knee-jerk liberal Sweden, who initially threw open their arms and doors, have now reversed their stance. And political and cultural objections aside, small countries like Greece and the Czech Republic and Croatia can’t afford, as the United States and China could, to harbor the onslaught.

China remained insular and isolationist for centuries. Ungrateful for being rescued from Japan in the twentieth century, it reverted to same and remains less than cordial toward being marginally more open today.

The United States’ much more recent evolution differentiates it statistically, but apparently not so much psychologically. Since more or less eliminating the pre-existing native culture, American’s brief history has hinged wholly on immigration from all corners of the planet. Diversity is our cultural identity. Yet, Americans in large numbers with short memories have an attitude about immigration not unlike the rest of the world. Before and during World War II, American isolationists stoked massive public opinion against admitting European Jewry trying to flee the Holocaust. Today seemingly half the nation wants to wall in our Southern border. And ostensibly but perhaps not entirely due to a pandemic, Americans are currently persona non grata almost everywhere. Take that, Yankee. I say “take that” because my keyboard won’t print the accent aigu over the “e” in touche.

Touche sounds apropos, but it isn’t. None of this is intrinsically simple tit for tat or right from wrong. It is emphatically the status quo.

Endemic racism – that current buzz phrase – isn’t just about anti-Semitism in France or Germany, or Black versus White in America. It isn’t relegated to Uighurs in China or Syrian gangs in Sweden. It seems to be the adamant global Zeitgeist. And the Zeitgeist never seems to change.

Conflict is what humans do, have always done and, all hope to the contrary, will apparently continue to do. There are certainly ever present attempts at altruism on which to desperately dote, but they never seem to outpoint the uber-aggressors. We are the neo-dinosaurs. Our collective and injudicious bellicosity thrives. It so absorbs us that we have now neglectfully and unwittingly ignored its impact on the arena in which we wage it – the planet itself. We spit on the air we breathe and the water we drink. The World Wildlife Fund experts estimate that in the past half century seventy per cent of the world’s wildlife has been wiped out by human activity.

The planet, though, is more than our equal. To paraphrase Kafka, when it’s man against the world, bet on the world. She doesn’t miss the dinosaurs. She doesn’t care if we annihilate each other. But when we all together threaten the planet’s well-being, she will defend herself against us. She will summon a meteor. She will send a virus. Or cows.

There is a cow in the tiny Tyrolean village of Mutters, Austria, housed in a barn-lette right on the village square. I forget her name but I recall her countenance. She was seemingly oblivious toward any nascent incursion from the surrounding bakery, church, and tractor repair shop.

As she was toward the foreign intruder. Me.

But you never know.

My Wife Left Her Dress in Hemingway’s Room

Text by Steve VandeGriek

Photos by Jan Behmer

Copyright 2020

The Camino de Santiago is a centuries old roughly five hundred mile walking pilgrimage from St. Jean Pied de Port in southwestern France to the shrine of St. James in Santiago de Compostella in northwestern Spain. The first leg of the journey is a fifteen mile hike down through the Pyrenees from St. Jean to Roncevalles in the Spanish Basque region in the province of Navarre. It is reputed to be at once the most difficult and the most beautiful day of the entire Camino. I was eager to take it on, but my wife, whose name is not Patience, was with me, so we drove down.

Roncevalles, Basque name Orreaga, is a speck in the magnificent mountains that enfold it. A beautiful old church, a few smaller religious structures, the tomb of Sancho VII – King of Navarre from 1194 to 1234, one hotel and some rudimentary first night overnight facilities – a couple no frills bars included – for the pilgrims. The non-pilgrim population is about two dozen souls, apparently there primarily to service the Camino hikers. Apart from the centuries of pilgrimage, there is another history here. The Battle of Roncevaux Pass was fought in August 778. The army of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, led by the legendary knight Roland, was ambushed by the local Basques. Roland died while blowing, or refusing to blow – there is some legendary dispute here – his elephant tusk horn to advise Charlemagne to send backup. Charlemagne is said to have been busy playing chess. The French epic poem “Song of Roland”, in which the Basques are replaced by the Moors, was composed some three centuries later and bears little resemblance to the actual battle, which is thought to have been waged on the vast plain of Burguete, a mile and a half south of Roncevalles. It began to rain. We eased on down the road.

Burguete, Basque name Auritz, population circa two hundred, lies on that vast plain about three thousand feet above sea level. It sits astride the N-135 we drove in on, just below the Irati River, about fifteen miles south of the French border and some twenty five miles above Pamplona, of the running of the bulls fame. This twelfth century town has no art scene, no museum, no nightlife. The red-roofed white stone houses sit along the road, which becomes the narrow main street through the village. There are a couple small hotels and a general store. Burguete’s real attractions are the meadows, forests and streams that surround it. And the Hostal Burguete.

The Hostal Burguete has a few unassuming rooms, all of them comfortably clean, basic and simply furnished. On the ground floor is an amiably rustic lounge and restaurant area with a few wooden tables.

Turns out the hotel was the preferred accommodation of Ernest Hemingway while he fished the Irati River, prior to nine days of debauchery at the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona. He and his buddy Bill were in residence the afternoon we checked in. They had finished that day’s fishing, and were in the lounge working on the sturdy local wine. My wife was wearing a long-light-weight-loose-flowing-easy-to-travel-in white dress. While getting from car door to hotel door, the rain had lent the dress a semi-transparent effect. Hemingway thought it fetching and said so. In vino veritas.

We took our bags upstairs to our room, changed out of our wet clothes and hung the dress up to dry. When we came back down, Hemingway was noodling on the piano in the far corner of the room. We ordered wine from the old woman tending the inn, and chose a table near the fireplace. Bill engaged us in conversation. He offered that they had had the place to themselves for three days and it was good to hear a voice other than Hem’s. Hemingway feigned resentment and quit the piano. Soon the four of us were deep in the wine. On Ernest’s advice, we ordered the fresh local trout and potatoes. The old woman cooked it, served it and kept the wine flowing.

At some point in the party, my wife complained of a cold coming on due to the soaking she’d suffered that afternoon. She went up to bed. A bit later, Hemingway declared he wanted to rise early to dig worms. He went upstairs. Bill and I continued to tipple and babble, about baseball, I think. The old woman had disappeared without notice. Bill eventually put his head on the table and went to sleep. I finished the wine and stumbled upstairs.

We woke latish in the morning. My wife’s cold had not materialized. We packed our things and went downstairs to check out. The old woman said Bill and Mr. Ernest had long since hiked to the Irati. We drank a coffee and got in the car. The rain had stopped. We drove down out of the Pyrenees, through Pamplona and leisurely southeast along the River Ebro toward Zaragosa, a beautiful city with a magnificent old bullring. I wanted to see a corrida.

We checked into a more-upscale-than-the-hostal hotel and unpacked. I needed to have the concierge take care of some laundry, and asked my wife if she wanted to throw in her white dress. It was nowhere to be found. After much hemming – no pun intended – and hawing, she confessed. “I must have left it in Hemingway’s room.”

Moving on now to reality. Hemingway was at the Hostal Burguete in 1924. We were there a decade shy of a century later. Because he was there, if I’m honest. And the place is so embalmed in Hemingwaybilia that he is all but there. You can stay in Hemingway’s room, “unchanged since he left”. Which we did. On the restaurant’s menu there is the Hemingway soup, the Hemingway trout entree, and Ernest’s preferred wine. In the lounge/restaurant area is the piano Hemingway played. Ernest’s favorite chair. His usual table. Where he stored his fishing gear. The couch where Hemingway dallied with your girlfriend. Okay, I’m getting carried away, but you get the idea. I’m a Hemingway fan, but it was a bit much.

That being said, it is worth wading in the hype. The hotel is a rustic gem, quaint and comforting, and the Irati trout is ambrosial. Wandering through Burguete, Roncevalles and the surrounding old world forests and cold streams put me back in the Burguete chapters of The Sun Also Rises. They smack of timelessness, and there the Hemingway aura lingers unforced. We steeped ourselves in it all for a few days before embarking on the drive along the Ebro.

As it happens, my wife had indeed accidentally left her dress behind in Hemingway’s room – the room we had stayed in, where she had hung it up to dry. I’d gladly go back to Burguete to look for that dress. And not give a damn if I found it.

A POSTCARD FROM SCOTLAND

Photos by Jan Behmer

Text by Steve VandeGriek

Copyright 2020

Two hours north of Edinburgh, on a summery Saturday afternoon, my wife and I stepped off the train at our destination station, Dunkeld. Or so the sign read. The “station” was a low uncovered platform resembling a two by four sheet of plywood. Deserted. In the middle of a forest. Hobbits would not have surprised us. In the obligatory afternoon British rain. Cab service had been suspended pre WWII. Another signpost featured an arrow pointing into the woods above the words “One Mile”. Curious as to the terminus of said suggestion, and having no alternative, we grabbed our rolling bags and slogged. After about half of the promised mile, the wood path broke onto a rustic road that wound around small clusters of houses, a tiny Beatrix Potter Museum, and finally to a bridge resting on seven lengthy arches above a river. The rain stopped. Another sign. The River Tay. Longest in Scotland, we learned later. At the other end of the bridge was Dunkeld, sign, population 1100. Worth every soggy step.

Just across the bridge, we checked into the Atholl Arms Hotel, on the river at the head of the village. Built in 1833 and gently modernized in the early 21st century, the hotel is casual, clean and congenial – all adding up to extremely comfortable. The staff is helpful and friendly. The lounge and reception area is spacious, light and full of cozy furniture. The Riverview Restaurant is to one side of the lounge. On the other are the bar and Meeting Place, a more informal eatery. Out back is a garden leading to the riverside Garden Terrace, serving drinks and light fare. Our large upstairs room overlooked the River Tay from two sides. It had a comfortable bed and chairs, and in the bathroom a luscious liquid soap with which my wife was about to have a love affair.

The next morning, after a delectable breakfast of the ubiquitous smoked haddock and eggs, we exited the hotel onto the High Street, lined with charming 18th century merchant houses. A block on, the High Street crosses Cathedral Street. This intersection, called the Cross, is the center of Dunkeld. Here stands the Atholl Memorial Fountain, erected to honor our hotel’s namesake, the 6th Earl of Atholl, who first piped water into the town in the mid 19th century.

It being Sunday, a clot of villagers were ambling from the Cross out to the Dunkeld Cathedral. We tagged along and found it amiably situated in a large leafy park right on the river at the outside edge of town. Originally a monastic church in the Norman style, it was gradually rebuilt as the present Gothic cathedral between the late 13th century and the end of the 15th. The exterior structure is modest by cathedral standards, but no less charming for that. At the rear is a tidy garden, and the entire churchyard is dotted with gravestones. Some are age old – mossy and indistinct. Others are more recent and well-tended. Some whimsical and some eerily inscrutable. The cathedral’s away -from-village-center location was once common in Scotland due to the conviction that a church graveyard harbored restless wraiths and was therefore best kept at a distance from the village populace. The church’s chapter house holds the 9th century cross slab called the Apostle’s Stone. This section and the chancel make up the east end of the church, which is still in use. The interior of the western end, including the nave, is mostly in ruins.

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My wife joined the parishioners inside for the service. I opted for a book on one of several benches along the river. When the massive cathedral doors again opened, an elderly gentleman escorted my wife to my bench and assured me that she had had “only a wee dram” of wine at communion and there was thusly no danger of intoxication. I thanked him for his custodianship and he strolled off, to be replaced by an equally generous elderly lady. She offered us an earnest apology for the river being brown today, owing to storms up north that had churned up the mud and sent it down to Dunkeld before it could settle. She vowed that all would be blue again soon. We couldn’t help but believe her. You couldn’t have either. Despite the Scots’ taciturn reputation, we encountered only bonhomie in Dunkeld. Not overrun by tourists, the townsfolk seemed as interested in our story as they were – village wise – in each other’s.

We wandered back through and around the village, and eventually into a pub for Britain’s favorite repast – Sunday Roast. Beef, potatoes and two veg with Yorkshire pudding and pots of brown gravy. We walked it all off with a stroll across the bridge to the other bank of the river, where stands the mighty Birnham Oak. Legend touts it as the sole surviving remnant of Shakespeare’s Birnham Wood, of Macbeth fame. After a return stroll and a nightcap at the Garden Terrace, we retired.

We spent another three leisurely days and nights in this wee jewel of a village. We had a couple more reading and picnic sessions on that riverside bench outside the cathedral. We crossed the bridge again – the river was still brown, but then so is the Blue Danube – to the whimsical little Beatrix Potter Museum, full of rabbits both real and not so.

We ate blueberry scones with clotted cream while moseying the few short blocks of the High Street. In a tiny shop/smokehouse up a sleepy steep side street we came upon some exquisite Scottish smoked salmon. The salmon was right out of the river and smoked on the premises.

We lunched on various game pies in the bar at the other village hotel, the Royal Dunkeld. We stumbled into a small shop having a tremendous sale on single malt scotch, in celebration of upcoming Father’s Day. Scotland is bonny good to its Dads. We discovered that Dunkeld actually does have a taxi. Sitting in a cafe in the Cross, we were startled to see the cab in question pull up and park outside. The driver got out and came in for a coffee. We inquired. She explained. The service is part-time and minimal, mostly accommodating a few elderly villagers who could no longer get around on their own. We suggested she post her phone number at the train station, but it seems the potential business was too insignificant to warrant her attention.

We walked for miles on the lush green hills outside the village center, where we discovered and spent several hours at a wildlife reserve – the Loch of the Lowes. From inside one of the several wooden hides at the edge of the forest ringed lake – no sign anywhere of mankind – outfitted with high powered viewing scopes, we watched nesting ospreys fishing and feeding their young.

One elegant swan floated past our hide, trailed by her newly hatched cygnet. There were ducks galore and beavers on the water, and other water birds overhead. The surrounding woodlands are home to deer and smaller critters, notably red squirrels, that mysteriously revered member of the Scottish fauna.

On the morning it came time to leave Dunkeld, we took a last walk onto the Tay River Bridge. The river was blue at last and running fast. We rolled our bags down the short High Street to the bus depot at the other extremity of the village. We boarded and rode east to Anstruther on the coast, where they catch that fabled haddock.

SCOTTISH BLUEBERRY SCONES

INGREDIENTS

1 3/4 cups all purpose flour

3 T sugar

1/8 t salt

Dash of cinnamon

3 t baking powder

5 T cold unsalted butter

3/4 cup fresh blueberries

1/2 cup milk

1/4 cup plain yogurt

1/2 t vanilla extract

DIRECTIONS

Preheat oven to 400.

Sift together all dry ingredients.

Cut in the butter til it’s in pea sized lumps.

Stir in the fresh blueberries. Do not use frozen berries, they’ll make the scones soggy.

Mix the milk, yogurt, and vanilla together and pour into the dry ingredients.

Stir gently til well blended.

Turn out onto a floured surface and knead the dough gently for a minute to hold it together.

Using floured hands, form the dough into balls about 2 1/2 inches in diameter. You should have about 10 balls.

Place balls on a greased baking sheet and flatten the tops just a bit with a fork.

Bake 12-15 minutes til tops are golden brown.

Cool sightly on a wire rack. Serve with gobs of clotted cream, or, for the weak of heart, a bit of jam or honey.

Cinco de mayo Cocina

By Steve VandeGriek; Photos by Jan Behmer  ©2017

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The city of Puebla lies roughly one hundred miles southeast of Mexico City. On the fifth of May in 1862 it was the scene of a battle early in the French-Mexican War. Six thousand French soldiers assaulted the city from the north. An improvised army of about two thousand Mexicans resisted the attack for an entire day. Five hundred French troops were lost and fewer than one hundred Mexicans. Although not a major strategic victory, it was a moral one just six months into the six year long war. Mexican resolve toughened throughout the country. Puebla de Los Angeles, as it had been known, was renamed Puebla de Zaragoza in honor of the general who commanded the Mexican forces in the battle. The anniversary of the Battle of Puebla is a national holiday in Mexico – Cinco de Mayo – a quieter occasion than the party event it has become in the U.S. Much like St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland versus what it is here.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Middle Eastern immigrants settled in sizeable numbers the in the Puebla and neighboring Veracruz regions.

Nota Bene: Salma Hayek was born in this area to a Mexican mother and a Lebanese father. Thank you both.

But I digress. We’re concerned with another product of this immigration – Tacos Arabes. Originally slices of lamb carved from a vertical roasting spit and served in a pita with yogurt sauce, they have some time ago become Mexicanized and are a favorite in the state of Puebla. Obviously, numerous versions exist. This is one.

 

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Tacos de Arabes

Ingredients:

1 t. each of cumin, oregano, cinnamon, Kosher salt, black pepper, coriander

3 cloves garlic, crushed                          3 slices bacon, diced

8 T. lime juice                                           4 T. apple cider vinegar

2 lbs. boneless pork (shoulder roast, chops, sirloin, whatever you have on hand – it’s a taco)

8 or so thick 6” flour tortillas

Put the pork in the freezer for 30-45 minutes to firm it for easier slicing.

In a large zipper plastic bag, place the spices, garlic, lime juice and vinegar. Shake well.

Using a sharp knife, slice the pork as thin as you can. If you wish, pound it thinner between sheets of plastic wrap. Alternatively, you can cut the meat into strips about 1/2 in. square, like cheese sticks.

Place the pork in the plastic bag and shake it to coat all the meat. Marinate in the refrigerator for at least a couple hours. Squish it around and turn it a few times.

Put a large cast iron or nonstick skillet over medium high heat. When it is hot, spray it lightly with nonstick spray. Working in batches, place the pork slices in the pan in a single layer. Cook a few minutes on each side, until the meat crisps and browns. Remove to a platter and ten with foil to keep it warm while you do another batch, etc.

Warm the tortillas briefly if you like, don don’t let them get stiff.

Wrap a tortilla around a few slices of pork and serve with your favorite salsa and some yogurt sauce.

Yogurt Sauce

Mix a cup of plain Greek style yogurt with the juice of a lime, two cloves of minced garlic, 2 t. of cilantro, 2 T. grated cucumber and salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle over the pork or serve on the side.

 

An even more traditional –dating from the colonial period – fare of the Puebla region is Mole, pronounced mo-lay. There are dozens of basic styles of this sauce, most of them complicated, time consuming and using as many as forty ingredients – nuts, spices, herbs, fruits, vegetables, often chocolate, several different kinds of chilis – everything roasted separately before being cooked together. Mole means “mix” in an ancient dialect. Traditionally, whole families could spend a couple days making a cauldron of mole sauce for a special occasion.

The different styles come in a variety of colors, depending on the ingredients used – yellow, green, red, brown, black – and are served over chicken, duck, turkey, shellfish, enchiladas, pork or even vegetables and fruits. In Puebla, a common presentation is chicken baked in the finished sauce.

The recipe offered here is a greatly simplified version of a mild dark mole. While this adaptation lacks the complexity of the days-long preparation, it provides a credible mole experience with a fraction of the effort. It uses only the ancho chili, mild but with lots of earthy depth. You could add a piece of a chipotle if you want to up the heat factor.

 

 

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Simple Mole Poblano

3 ancho chili peppers                                         1 14 ½ oz. can diced chopped tomatoes

½ chipotle pepper (optional)                            ¼ C. dried apricots or raisins

3 T. vegetable oil or lard                                    ¼ C. blanched almonds or ¼ C. almond butter

1 medium onion, chopped                                 2 T. sesame seeds

½ t. cinnamon                                                       1 ½ T. breadcrumbs

1/8 t ground cloves                                              ½ t. sugar

½ t. black pepper                                                  ½ t. salt

1 T. oregano

3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped, or roasted            2 oz. chocolate, chopped (Mexican is best, but

1 ½ C. chicken stock                                                                   semi-sweet baking chocolate works fine)

Place a large nonstick skillet over medium high heat. Cut the stems off the ancho chilis and the chipotle, if using. Tear open and remove all seeds. When the skillet is hot, throw in the chilis. Press them down with a spatula and toast for a few minutes until they just begin to smoke. Remove them to a bowl and cover with water and a plate to keep them submerged. Lower the heat to medium.

If roasting the garlic, which I recommend, put the cloves in the pan with their skins on and toast for about ten minutes, shaking the pan occasionally, until they soften and blacken a bit. Remove and let them cool, then slip the skins off.

Add the oil or lard to the pan, and the onion, and cook until the onions soften, about 5 minutes. Add the cinnamon, clove, black pepper and oregano and stir for a minute. Remove the chilis from the water and add to the pan. Reserve a half cup of the water.

Add the garlic and stir for 30 seconds or so. Add the stock and the ½ C. chili water and stir well.

Add the tomatoes and cook for a few minutes. Add the apricots or raisins, the almonds or almond butter, and the sesame seeds. Stir well. Add the bread crumbs and stir well to thicken. Add the salt and sugar. Add the chocolate and stir until it is completely melted.

Continue cooking for several minutes, stirring often, until the sauce thickens a bit, then pour into a processor or blender, and puree until very smooth. Return to the pan and simmer on low heat to thicken some more. The sauce should be the texture of ketchup, but bear no further resemblance to it.

Serve over whatever you like. If you don’t use it all, mole freezes very well.

*Note. I like to lightly toast the almonds and the sesame seeds for a couple minutes before adding them. Do them in the dry saute pan after doing the chilis and garlic. It’s not strictly necessary, but it adds some nice depth.

To bake chicken in the sauce, Puebla style, brown 4 breasts with a little oil in the saute pan. Spray a 9”x13” baking dish with nonstick spray and spread some mole over the bottom. Place the chicken in the dish and cover with the rest of the sauce. Bake uncovered at 400° for about 40 minutes, until the chicken is done and the mole develops a slight glaze. Sprinkle some sesame seeds over the top.

Spanish Semana Santa Sweets

SPANISH SEMANA SANTA SWEETS

By Steve VandeGriek; photos by Jan Behmer   ©2017

My wife and I have a thing for Spain. We’ve been going there on occasion for more years than I care to admit having under my belt. And under my belt is the issue here. Spanish food is a rustic joy.  Any region, any time of year.  Madrid has its roast suckling pig and Valencia its paella. The cuisine of Andalucia in the sweltering summer is distinct from the fare of Galicia and Asturias in the wet and wild winter. And in the delicious Spanish spring, as the Lenten season comes to an end, every region does its own version of Semana Santa.

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The Spanish do Holy Week like no other people on the planet. And as it is with so many things in Spain, tradition is key. The stunning religious processions full of floats and masked penitents flow through the streets at night in every city and hamlet.

As they say, you always remember your first time. Ours was many years ago, a few days before Easter, in a small city in Andalucia. We were in our hotel room on the second floor and just after dark we were taken by surprise. A procession was suddenly trudging down the street right below our window. I’m not a religious person, but the Medieval aura surrounding the event was commanding.

The processions in Seville are famously spectacular. Likewise in Leon. Saetas, those haunting flamenco-like sacred songs, fill the air. Some towns scatter straw dolls in the streets, which are later torn apart and burned. Home dining tables are laden with special Easter dishes, customarily meatless for practicing Catholics. And how do they compensate for the lack of meat? Dessert! Spain isn’t as staunchly Catholic as it once was, but Spaniards haven’t lost their sweet tooth. The week before Easter, bakeries all over Spain are filled with confections especially for that week. Many were created by nuns. They are traditional, and traditionally simple and sweet.

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Rice pudding is prevalent around the country, in many regional variations.

Sweet dough balls are popular and come in a multitude of incarnations. Pestiños in Andalucia are of Moorish origin. They are anise flavored puffs of dough, deep fried or baked and dunked in a syrup of honey and liqueur. Buñuelos in the north are fluffy balls of yeasty dough, sometimes anise flavored, and usually stuffed with something sweet. Semana Santa balls are baked donuts flavored with Galician Orujo, a potent clear liqueur similar to Italian grappa, distilled from the dregs left after pressing the wine. Bartolillos are a type of cream puff and are a Madrid specialty.

Huesos de Santos (Saints’ Bones) are egg and sugar filled marzipan shells. Monas de Pasqua, chocolate eggs filled with little presents, are popular in Catalonia and Valencia. Flores de Semana Santa are crunchy fried pastries resembling opened roses. Hornazo is sometimes a pie, but usually a round flat bread stuffed with boiled eggs, chorizo sausage and other cuts of pork. It is traditionally eaten on the day AFTER Easter, due to that no meat during Holy Week rule. But there is a sweet non-meat version for the week prior. Hornazo is prized in the region to the west of Madrid, in Salamanca an Avila in particular.

Torrijas are ubiquitous throughout Spain, but a special favorite in the bakeries of Aragon. They are similar to what we think of as French toast, but they’re fried in olive oil instead of butter.

And the queen of Spanish Easter desserts has to be the Tarta de Santiago (Saint James Cake). It is found throughout the country, St. James being the patron saint of Spain, but it has pride of place in Santiago de Compostela, where its namesake’s remains are housed. The cake is thought to have originated or been brought there by a pilgrim during the Middle Ages and, due to its almond base, has an apparently Moorish pedigree, not as common in Galicia as it is in the south. Galicia was probably the region least affected by the Moorish occupation.

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There are as many recipes for these last two confections as there are regions in Spain. The following are our take on the many variations.

Torrijas

1 baguette – stale                            lemon and/or orange zest

3 C milk                                                 3 or 4 eggs, beaten

2/3 C sugar                                          ground cinnamon

1 cinnamon stick                               sugar or honey

Good mild olive oil

Slice the baguette into roughly one inch thick slices.

Heat the milk in a saucepan over medium high heat. When it is almost boiling, remove from heat and add the sugar, zest, and cinnamon stick.

Return to the heat and stir until almost boiling again.

Lower the heat and continue stirring at a simmer until the milk thickens a bit.

Remove from heat and let cool a little.

Soak the bread slices in the milk on both sides for about 30 seconds each – don’t let them get so soggy they fall apart.

Beat the eggs well, and dip each slice until well coated on both sides.

Heat the oil – about an inch deep – in a skillet until it quickly browns a cube of bread. Fry the bread slices until golden on both sides.

Drain them on paper towels and sprinkle with ground cinnamon and sugar, or drizzle with a little honey.

Torrijas can be eaten warm or at room temperature.

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St. James Cake

There are dozens of recipes for this cake, all with a ground almond base. Some use a little flour and some are flourless. None of them are overly complicated, but in my experience, a little flour works better.

10 oz. ground blanched (peeled) almonds

1 C flour

1 ¼ C sugar

4 eggs

8 T butter, softened

1 tsp. baking powder

½ C water

Zest of 1 lemon

Powdered sugar

Grind the almonds in a food processor or blender. You can grind them to a smooth dust, but leaving them a tiny bit coarse gives the cake a nice crunch.

Preheat oven to 350. Spray  the bottom and sides of a 9 inch springform pan with nonstick spray, or, my preference, grease it with butter.

In a large bowl, use an electric hand mixer to beat the butter and sugar, then beat in the eggs, one at a time.

Add the flour, baking powder, and water and beat well.

Add the ground almonds and the lemon zest and stir thoroughly.

Pour the batter into the pan and bake on a rack in the center of the oven for about 45 minutes, but check for doneness after 40. It’s done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Cool thoroughly on a wire rack. Remove from pan.

Place a piece of cardboard cut out in the shape of a cross on top of the cake. Sprinkle the top of the cake well with powdered sugar, using a sifter. Remove the cardboard carefully, leaving the impression of the cross on the cake.

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Fa La La La La from Flanders: Christmas Comfort Food

By Steve VandeGriek Photos by Jan Behmer ©2020

Brussels Main Square

My wife and I grew up in the north and, like many transplanted Floridians, we snicker in February at the folks we left behind. But when winter is new and the holidays approach we can feel them snickering back.

A few years ago we went to Belgium. Wintry and wonderful Brussels and Bruges. Magical medieval plazas filled with giant twinkling fir trees and Christmas markets and steaming gluwein flowing like, well, like wine. Frozen horses’ breath snorting in the chill air and sleighbells jingling behind. Decorated lanes full of local and foreign merrymakers strolling with hands full of Belgian waffles, Belgian fries, and Belgian chocolate. I know, I know, I sound like post-ghosts Scrooge. As I said, Christmas in Florida can leave me cold – no pun intended – and this really is storybook stuff. So just one more. Enormous fireplaces roaring in cozy old world establishments serving steamed mussels with fries, dozens of local sausages and hundreds of local beers that have been brewed for half a millennium.

And hearty regional dishes – more than we had time to savor, though we tried. Game paté, pumpkin soups, pheasant, North Sea shellfish, duck, rabbit, lamb stews and pigs’ cheeks with spiced cookies. (The cookies are Speculos – Trader Joe’s imports them. You’re on your own for the pigs’ cheeks.) Some classic Belgian dishes are easily done at home. The three recipes here are a cross sampling from Flanders, guaranteed to warm your cockles even if icicles aren’t dangling from your eaves.

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The first is a simple side from Brussels called STOEMP. It’s mashed potatoes on steroids. Serve with or without sausages. With is the wurst choice, without is the worst. Sorry. And don’t forget the ale.

This centuries old rustic gem is best made with roughly equal amounts of potatoes and any chopped vegetable mixture you choose – cabbage, leeks, garlic, scallions, which get sautéed, spinach, turnip, the obvious Brussels sprouts or the currently chic kale, which get boiled. A little fried and chopped bacon gets bonus points. For Christmas color, I like a little red bell pepper, which I sauté with the garlic and scallions I always use, and broccoli. Whatever you don’t sauté, boil until soft. Peel, cube and boil the potatoes in salted water until soft but not falling apart. Drain and combine everything in a big pot. Throw in a good amount of grated cheese – parmesan works well, gruyere is a rewarding splurge – and a few dashes of nutmeg, some salt and pepper and milk or half and half. I like to add a dollop of sour cream. Mash until smooth and creamy, sprinkle with chopped chives and serve with whatever meat – read sausage – you desire.

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VOL AU VENT – roughly French for “blowin’ in the wind” – is a traditional Flemish specialty. Puff pastry shells stuffed with chicken, mushrooms, meatballs and a white sauce. You can make the puff pastry yourself if you’re into that. I buy the frozen shells and they work just fine. A side of fries is requisite.
Boil a chicken breast and a few thighs in some water and a little chicken broth. Shred the meat, minus any skin or bones. Save the broth.
Form tiny meatballs from a half pound of whatever ground meat you like. If red meat isn’t your thing you can use ground turkey. I have, but don’t tell Belgium. Boil the meatballs in the chicken broth till cooked through.
Sauté ten or twelve cleaned and quartered mushrooms in a little olive oil.
Melt half a stick of butter and stir in a half cup of flour, a little at a time, til blended. Stir in about two and a half cups of chicken broth and a cup or so of cream until incorporated. Add a half cup of shredded cheese – any kind you want – and a couple egg yolks, a couple tablespoons of lemon juice and black pepper to taste. Combine the meats and mushrooms in the sauce and keep warm over low heat. Stir it often.
Bake six pastry shells according to the package directions. Slice off the tops and stuff the shells to overflowing with the sauce. Set the tops back on at a jaunty angle and serve with fries.

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FLEMISH CARBONNADE. I could do winter all year with enough of this stew. It’s a simpler variation of the French beef bourguingon, substituting brown ale for the red wine.
Marinate three pounds of cubed stewing beef in a pint of Belgian brown ale with a few crushed garlic cloves and a couple bay leaves. Leave it in the refrigerator overnight, then drain and reserve the marinade.
Season a few spoonsful of flour with salt and pepper in a large bowl. Pat the meat dry with paper towels and toss it in the flour. Shake off any excess.
Put a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium high heat. When the oil is hot, fry the beef chunks in small batches, stirring often, until they’re golden on all sides. Transfer each batch to a plate. Leave the brown fond on the bottom of the pan. Lower the heat to medium and fry a half pound of bacon, stirring occasionally, until it’s crisp. Remove the bacon, drain on a paper towel, and crumble it. Spoon out half the bacon grease. Leave everything else in the pan.
Add a couple of garlic cloves, a couple of carrots, a leek and a couple onions – all sliced – and sauté, stirring often, for ten minutes or so until they soften and start to brown. Stir in a spoonful of tomato paste and fry for a minute or two, stirring constantly.
Add the beef, the bacon and the marinade. Throw in a few mushrooms, if you like. Bring to a simmer, scraping up all the brown bits on the bottom. Add about a cup and a half of a beef broth and beer combo, some salt and pepper and whatever herbs you have on hand. It’s a stew, not a chemistry experiment. I like thyme, rosemary, cilantro, basil. Parsley and bay leaves work. Bring it all to a boil.
Cover and put it in a 350° oven for a couple hours, stirring once or twice on the way. Check the seasoning; maybe add some salt and pepper. Stir in a spoonful of Dijon mustard. Throw some chopped chives and parsley on top. Plate it with STOEMP, fries, or roasted potatoes, and a green vegetable. Serve with a robust red wine or brown ale.
From behind a big plate of this stuff I can squint and see Bruges.

Another Curbside Attraction

ANOTHER CURBSIDE ATTRACTION  DSC_0298

By Steve VandeGriek  ©2013

Photos by Jan Behmer  ©2013

Rewarding travel is often the result of being seduced by a tangent you hadn’t anticipated. My wife and I had planned to visit several central Mexican cities – some familiar, some not – with no particular agenda in mind.  We were not unexposed to the playful shades of Mexican art – some traditional, some not – but that was the tangent that caught us up and led us on.

Mexico City is home to the most focused museum exhibit you’re ever likely to see. The Museo Mural de Diego Rivera houses one single work of art – the mural “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central.” The renowned muralist painted it in 1947 on a wall in the Hotel Prado, which an earthquake destroyed in 1985. The wall in question survived and, in 1986, in an engineering coup, the 49 by 13 foot mural was moved to its current location in the tiny museum at the west end of the plaza named in its title.

Standing in the center of the painting is Rivera portrayed as a child dressed for a Sunday afternoon outing in the park. Next to him is an adult Frida Kahlo, the famed artist who was his wife at the time, and a Catrina – a female skeleton dressed in pre-revolutionary costume. The three figures are surrounded by more than one hundred historical Mexican personalities from a four hundred year span, all posing for a group portrait in the park. Other than the mural itself, the only structures in the room are two charts, one in Spanish, one in English, helpfully identifying all these personalities. The mural virtually vibrates with color and movement and emotion, all in a delightful fit of whimsy.

 

We were there on a Sunday morning in mid-summer and only two other people showed up during the hour we spent walking back and forth along the length of the huge painting. Don’t even try to get the whole thing into a photo. You can buy an excellent 36 by 12 inch print at the ticket counter for about fifteen bucks.

One more fun note about the mural. The original did not include Frida Kahlo, as they were having a marital dispute at the time. This according to the very eager and informative docent in attendance that morning. He told us that Kahlo apparently complained about the omission and Rivera relented and squeezed her in.

There are dozens of museums in Mexico City, from tiny to massive, and from curious to thunderous. The Museum of Anthropology is as exhaustive and well curated as any museum of its kind in the world. But we’re on a whimsical tour which takes us instead from the Rivera mural to the nearby Museo de Arte Popular. This is a collection of indigenous folk art from the eighteenth century to the present and from all over the country. The collection is wonderfully presented, with instructive videos and bilingual annotations.

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There are traditional ceramics and weavings, old effigies and icons, baskets and tree of life clay sculptures. But what gives this museum its quirky kick is its contemporary take on the traditional art of folk. There are an estimated eight million artisans currently at work in Mexico, and some of the most mischievously creative of them are on display here. There are droll and kinky Chiapan carnival masks. There is an astonishing complement of the ubiquitous smiling wooden Day of the Dead skeleton figures, from miniatures on carousels and ferris wheels to life-sized versions in all kinds of professional garb. And the place teems with alebrijes – fancifully crafted wooden animal figures from Oaxaca, tucked into nooks and hanging from the ceiling. They are a fusion of actual and mythical critters in all shapes and sizes and in a dazzling array of vivid colors. The museum hosts temporary exhibits and special events throughout the year. Every autumn there is a pinata contest. The competition is open to the public and the three winning entries become part of the museum’s permanent collection.

 

An hour south of Mexico City is Cuernavaca, a pleasant escape from the busy capital. Among its many charms you will find the Museo Casa Robert Brady. It is not a museum in the strictly structural sense, but a rambling jewel of an estate. The lush grounds surround what was built as a convent in the sixteenth century. It was purchased by one Robert Brady in the 1960’s. This Iowa born socialite and adventurer traveled the globe for decades, assembling a maniacally diverse collection of kitsch. He crammed more than thirteen hundred pieces into every nook and cranny of this serpentine succession of small rooms. African masks hang in profusion. There is a Rivera self-portrait painted for Brady. There are pre-hispanic artifacts galore, and humorous and erotic pieces of sculpture from every continent.  Frida Kahlos hang on the walls among samples of Brady’s own work.  The kitchen and dining room are filled with pieces devoted to the patron saint of cooks. Even the bathrooms are crammed with oddball art. The effect is tumultuous and a lot of fun.

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When you’re done wandering through this rambling riot, walk a few blocks to the Restaurant Indio Bonita, where we sat in a garden and ate the most exquisite chili relleno I’ve ever tasted.

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A couple hours northeast of Cuernavaca lies Puebla, as charming a city as there is in Mexico. Its historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is full of churches, at least a dozen of which can be seen from the rooftop garden restaurant of the Museo Amparo, the most impressive museum in Puebla. I think I actually counted thirteen. The Amparo holds an enormous array of colonial and pre-hispanic art and artifacts.

But while we’re in Puebla, we’re persisting in our whimsy walk and heading for the Museo Poblano de Arte. Open since 1999, it is housed in a sixteenth century building that was once the Hospital de San Pedro.  The building was restored in 1998 prior to the museum’s opening. There are three galleries surrounding a large courtyard. One gallery is used for temporary exhibits of Mexican art from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Another holds a permanent exhibit referencing the hospital’s history and that of the remarkable building. Standing in the courtyard amid the galleries is a treat in itself. The third gallery hosts temporary exhibits of contemporary Mexican art. That’s where the whimsy was during our visit. In this gallery were dozens upon dozens of glass cases filled with groups of large marionettes in all manner of occupational dress. Students and soldiers, doctors and bullfighters, singers and sinners, all with an obvious devil-may-care air about them.

 

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Puebla is the original source of sauce – Mole Poblano sauce  – that distinctive chili/chocolate accompaniment to all manner of meats. You can try its many complex variations in restaurants all over the city. And a fun sort of roadside attraction is a small museum in the Convento Santa Rosa, filled with the original utensils, plates, tiles, vats, and recipes used by the nuns who invented the magical stuff.

The beautiful smaller city of Zacatecas is a bit further afield – a quick flight or several hours drive north of Mexico City – but worth every mile of the trip. It is an old silver mining center, a UNESCO World Heritage site set at the foot of a craggy hill. Parks, gardens and plazas maintain a sense of peace. The eighteenth century pink stone cathedral is a marvel. Colonial architecture abounds. There is a cable car to the top of the high hill, affording panoramic views of the city and its arid surroundings.

We visited in early August during Zacatecas’ annual two-week International Folk Festival of Music and Dance. Sort of a museum on the go. Indigenous Mexican tribes and dozens of troupes from all over the globe perform in native costumes day and night at outdoor venues around the city.

 

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There are several exquisite museums here. For our off beat purposes, we went first to the Museo Rafael Coronel, housed on the grounds of a sixteenth century convent purchased by Señor Coronel and now maintained by his estate. A jumble of paths through wild vegetation and crumbling stone ruins surround the sprawling museum.

 

 

 

The collection contains several large paintings by Coronel himself, and the vast array of folk art he amassed. Pottery, puppets, ancient musical instruments, pre-hispanic artifacts are everywhere. One room contains a series of sketches by Coronel’s wife, Ruth, a daughter of the great Rivera.

But the real mind bender here is a collection of ceremonial and ritualistic masks – more than three thousand strong – from all over Mexico. The walls of room after room are literally papered with the things, and there are supposedly eight thousand more in storage waiting their turn. The masks exhibit an emotional range from giddy to ghostly. A riot of pigs, goats, devils and phantoms grin and growl at  you everywhere you turn. This is a real immersion in diversion.

 

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We finish this quest for quirk at the Museo Zacatecano, which set up shop in the recently renovated  Casa de Moneda, formerly Mexico’s second largest mint. One exhibit displays coins and coin making machinery from this previous incarnation. The rest of the place holds a strange – and, yes, whimsical  – mix of all things Zacatecan. There is a room dedicated to the pianist Manuel Ponce, one of Mexico’s finest composers. The tiny room contains his piano and his fedora. There are large halls filled with furniture and costumes and artifacts from all periods of the city’s history, arranged among text boards and video guides dispensing all you’ll ever need to know about them.  Another space is devoted to Revolutionary memorabilia. One wing is a Rivera-sized mural, depicting the city’s chronologically arranged landmark events.

 

 

But perhaps the most arresting exhibit here is the Mexican Mystical Tour that is the gallery of Huichol art. A knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide took us through this collection of peyote inspired works by this indigenous tribe. Peyote is a small cactus native to Mexico. Its stem produces small button shaped nodules containing mescaline which are used as a hallucinogen. The Huichol Indians have been ingesting peyote for thousands of years, and in modern times have a governmental dispensation allowing them use of the otherwise illegal substance. Peyote is deeply woven into their culture – its religion, medicine, and art. The mystical state of mind induced by the drug inspires the very distinctive Huichol artisanship. The craft involved is passed from generation to generation. The visionary result is stunning. Jewelry, masks, beadwork, sculpture, tapestries are all peyote inspired and painstakingly crafted. Yarn painting, a comparatively recent genre, is a visually spectacular application of wool or acrylic onto a board covered with softened wax. The images realized in the work portray legends and events from the mythology that informs every aspect of Huichol life. Shamans and gods and all manner of animals interact to confirm the Huichol sense of the link among all things in the universe. The art is intricate and detailed, and incredibly vivid. And while you can’t see it from a peyote perspective, the exhibit contains a large concave glass panel through which you can get a suitably distorted view – Huichol style.

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This brief look at the whimsical side of Mexican art only skims the surface, but any of these museums is a good place to start. Most allow some degree of photo taking, all are inexpensive and some free to visitors of a certain age. If you begin in Mexico City, the rest of this itinerary is easily achieved by car or bus. Mexico’s national first class bus system is comprehensive, efficient and inexpensive. The buses are comfortable – they all have facilities and show movies on overhead monitors – and they run on time. If you go by car, major highways connect all these cities and are very driveable. We ended our trip in Zacatecas, where the airport has regular flights to Dallas and connections home. If you make the stop in Cuernavaca, don’t forget that chili relleno. No whimsy intended.

At Home in the Languedoc

AT HOME IN THE LANGUEDOC

Published 4/28/13 by the Tampa Bay Times

By Steve VandeGriek

Photos by Jan Behmer

© 2013

I stand in a crowd at a corner of the Sunday market on the main square in St. Chinian, shaded by plane trees and hypnotized by a large rack of chickens rotisserie-ing over a huge bed of sliced potatoes, dripping, dripping, dripping until, when all is cooked, I taste the chicken and it is exquisite, and then I try the potatoes and then I slam more potatoes into my mouth and join the rest of the crowd in a loud sing-with-your-mouth-full chorus of “Vive la chicken fat!”

My wife and I have rented a house just off the square and, having arrived last evening, this is our first day in town. The market will return Thursday. In the meantime, what to do? And that is the joy of being at home for awhile in St. Chinian.

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The village of about 1800 people lies near the confluence of the Orb and VernazobreRivers in the hilly heart of the Languedoc Region of southern France.

Vineyards surround it on all sides. This is France, after all, and wine is everywhere. It is lodged in the psyche of the people and of the land itself. But here in the Languedoc, the obsession is more relaxed than in some regions of the country. The wine, too, is relaxed – delightfully drinkable, sans all the pomposity apt to bust your budget or make your eyes roll. As Mary Hemingway used to say, “We’re drinking wine, not labels.”

The house we’ve taken is a completely renovated centuries old building on a small side street about fifty yards from the square. It has a fully equipped kitchen, a living room, dining area, two bedrooms, a laundry room and a bathroom larger than a New York City apartment I once lived in. It is completely and comfortably furnished, including TV, DVD, Wi-Fi, and hundreds of books. All this in high season at less cost than a mid-range hotel.

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We’ve come this time by necessity in summer, which we rarely do. The area is not teeming with tourists, as is much of the continent this time of year, but it is warm. When we’ve gathered all our dinner makings we retreat to the house for an après market siesta.

Le Pressoir is a hotel on a small rise about a mile out of town. It has a restaurant and abuts a large supermarché and a gas station. Convenient if you’re passing through. But if your dream is to bring your market basket home to the kitchen like the locals do, there are vacation rental properties galore in and around town and in the area at large.

When the late afternoon air cools off a bit, we venture out again. Nowhere in the village is more than a ten minute walk from our house. Walking around the edge of the square, we pass five elderly gentlemen sitting on a long bench. They smile at us and offer four “bonjours” and one “bonsoir.” I assume the one fellow has an earlier bedtime than his compatriots. This scene would be repeated every day of our stay, and every day it was as if the exchange had been going on for years.

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We stroll through a plant-filled park at the bottom of the square, then past the church and a few shops. A little further down the street we stand on the bridge over the VernazobreRiver. Centuries ago the nearby medieval Canal de L’Abbé supplied water power to the town’s mills and workshops. We walk back into the town center, pass a winery, and stop outside a small bar to drink a beer and watch our fellow St. Chinians go by. Across the bottom of the square from the park is a grocery – very convenient for non-market days. We buy a bottle of wine to go with the fish we’re cooking later.

After dinner and some BBC programming on the TV, we browse through the house’s library for a book to go to sleep by.

In the cool early morning we walk from the top of the square out the other end of the village, past rows of small vegetable gardens. We pick up a lane that stretches through hundreds of acres of vines. The light of southern France lays on the vista of vines as in a Van Gogh painting. We walk for an hour and a half and see no one.

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Back in the village, at the top of the square, is La Maison des Vins de Saint Chinian. The old building was once the house of the French pop singer Charles Trenet. It now sells wines from all twenty towns that comprise the St. Chinian appellation. The sales staff are a fount of information and offer wine tastings on a daily basis.

This region has been an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée for red and rosé wines since 1982, and since 2004 for whites. The twenty villages are all a short distance away. A driving tour through several of them is a pleasant day trip. Many of the vineyards have small tasting shops selling their vintages directly to visitors, without a middleman markup.

Easy day trips abound from a base in St. Chinian. The preserved Medieval town of Minerve is about thirty kilometers to the south and west. It is listed as one of the Most Beautiful Villages in France. The list doesn’t lie. Olargues is another, roughly the same distance to the north and lying below the slopes of the 1100 meter high Monts de L’Espinouse. A distinctive single mount looming above Olargues is known to the locals as the “Sleeping Lady”. Have lunch outside and see if you can discern her pointy nose.  Only twenty kilometers west is St.-Pons-de-Thomières, with a large Wednesday market and a magnificent Cathedral, originally Romanesque, housing an eighteenth century organ, both of which are registered as historic monuments. Due east and even closer is the Abbaye de Fontcaude, founded in the twelfth century. Its museum is small, but holds an interesting assortment of medieval artifacts. Its cloister is the most serene spot we encountered all week.

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Dozens of charming villages lie within leisurely driving distance through postcard pretty countryside. There is a bustling outdoor market in one small town or another every day, offering remarkable breads, cheeses, fish, fresh produce, soaps, oils, lavender, wine and Moroccan baskets and shoes.

Back in St. Chinian another cloister enchants. It’s on the site of the nineteenth century Abbey Sanch Anian for which the town is named. The cloister hosts cultural events on a regular basis.

Should you tire of marketing and cooking in – “We’re on vacation after all.” “No, no, we live here!” – there are several casual restaurants on the main street, bordering the bottom of the town square. Most have their own variations on the region’s three specialties – foie gras, confit, and cassoulet. Café de la Paix has garden seating, nicely shaded for a lunch al fresco. In the evening, La Caleche, while still relaxed, offers a slightly more upscale dining experience.

Festivals take place in the region throughout the year. St. Chinians love their Fête du Cru on the first Sunday after Bastille Day (July 14). They have a festival to celebrate the wine harvest, which usually ends in mid-October. People from all over the region drive to the small town of Lautrec, near Albi (which is home to the ToulouseLautrecMuseum) for a huge garlic festival in early August. It’s about an hour and a half from St. Chinian. Nearby St. Pons hosts a chestnut festival in late October. There’s a bullfight feria in Beziers every August. And the town of Olargues holds half a dozen festivals between May and Christmas.

There is a lot to France. There is Paris. There is Provence. There is Normandy. We love them all. The Languedoc is none of these. It is quieter, gentler, more budget friendly. The region as a whole has some major tourist sites – Roman ruins, the ancient fortified town of Carcassone, the wildlife paradise of the Camargue, to name a few. But this small heart of the Languedoc is less about sites and more about what it feels like to live simply French.

IF YOU GO: St. Chinian

GETTING THERE: If you’re flying from the U.S., Barcelona is the nearest

international airport. You can connect on Air France or

KLM to Toulouse or Montpelllier, either way, about a

two hour drive to St. Chinian. Connections are more

abundant from Paris, and Ryanair flies to the small airport

at Beziers, only an hour’s drive away.

We drove from the Barcelona airport up through the Pyrenées-

a spectacular day’s drive, but not advisable in winter.

DRIVING:                It’s cheaper to arrange your car rental in the U.S. before you leave.

Roads are good. They are hilly and meander a bit, and ambitious

cyclists are numerous. Most towns have a gas station, but you can

go a long time between fillups in a fuel efficient European car. Road

signs are generally good, but a Michelin map is handy.

WHERE TO STAY:  We rented our house through Midihideaways, Ltd. They manage a

variety of  properties in St. Chinian and the surrounding area.

Most are available year round. Prices vary by house and season.

Find them at midihideaways.com.

Le Pressoir is the hotel just outside town. Standard room rates are

62 euros in low season, 72 in high. The restaurant serves breakfast

for 8-11 euros. They also have a half pension plan that includes

some meals.

MARKETS:                Sunday and Thursday in St. Chinian. You can find schedules for

all other town markets on your Ipad or at the St. Chinian

tourist office at the bottom of the square.

N.B. At the Market. Buy two baguettes. One will mysteriously                          .                                    disappear as you walk around.