Sunday, June 24, 2012

Saintes Maries de la Mer

 Last week we sallied forth to a tourist town, but one that is worth the candle. For starters, the seafood at Saintes Maries de la Mer, is exceptional. A bare bones, paper-plate outdoor café named La Cabane aux Coquilles had been recommended to us, and we all agreed that it exceeded our expectations of excellence.

No sooner had a plate of tellines, one of calamari and one of prawns been plunked down in front of us, along with the usual bread and a carafe of Rose, than we were well on our way to a sustained bout of finger sucking bliss.

The tellines, which are a clam no bigger than a fingernail, were steamed with nothing more than garlic and herbs. Texturally, they come with a hint of grit, which may sound unpleasant but it acts as a counterpoint that awakens the palate. The calamari, served complete, were the smallest that I have ever encountered, not much larger than the shells of the tellines. Cooked quickly at high heat, the batter was crisp, while the inside remained tender and fragrant with a hint of intertidal air.

From there we threaded our way through the side streets bustling with vendors left, right and centre until we arrived at a counterpoint of coolness and quiet. In a nearby square is a church with a sanctuary honoring Sainte Sara, the patron saint of the Roma. 

Inside the shrine.

The many legends of Sante Sara shape shift with such regularity that it is likely that they are rooted in one if not more of the polytheistic religions that were folded into the early versions of Christian mythology. In one version, she was of noble birth and chief of a tribe of Roma people who lived on the banks of the Rhone. She was not only well off, and a leader, but also known as a healer. Another version says that was born in Egypt into the family of Mary Magdalene, and was even present at the opening of the tomb of Christ.

Regardless of where she hailed from, or whether she even existed, one of the most visually interesting stories claims that she had a vision that the three Marys who had been present at Jesus’ death were approaching land and needed her help. One of them, Mary Salome, cast her cloak on the waves to use as a raft. Sara, who in some versions had also been a maid to one of the three Marys, possibly even to Mary Magdalene, stepped on the cloak and prayed both fervently- and also obviously effectively - resulting in the fact that all three Marys made land.

Be this as it may, she was adopted as a patron saint of the Roma, although never accepted officially by the Catholic Church. Perhaps she missed out on canonization because she was black, or perhaps because there were so many versions of her history that they didn’t quite jell – not that the lack of jelling has stood in the way of some of the canonizations of white males.

Unfortunately, a half dozen Roma women descended upon us as we both entered and left the church. I had been forewarned. As they do, they tried to pin a Sante Sara pin on me, so that they could then hit me up for money. They descended like pigeons on a crust of bread. Non, I said in my most crusty voice (bad pun, I know), Non. Obviously, I was insistent enough. They withdrew, but they clustered and clucked and mocked me: Non, non. they laughed amongst themselves, while glancing sideways at me as if I were trash.

When I had been inside the church, I had been enveloped by the scent of incense and candle wax, and the echoes of centuries of time, and I had felt totally blessed. Afterwards, the feeling evaporated. These women may not have taken my money, which perhaps they needed, but they did sully my sense of sanctity. I wonder what Sante Sara in any of her incarnations would have thought. On their part, or mine. After all, we all have choices, and for my part I can at least reframe this experience, even though I am not that enlightened yet. Not yet.

The woman pinned Colleen, but the pin fell into her bag, and although Colleen was a model of charm, it got a bit dicey for a few tense moments.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Still life at Beauvoisin #2

Back to back reading.

 I started reading Bring up the Bodies while I was on my way to join friends in the south of France. Choosing this much acclaimed follow up to Wolf Hall was a total no-brainer. Hilary Mantel’s previous novel, which also explored the inner and outer lives of Thomas Cromwell, was a total slam dunk. Pitch perfect. I loved it. The opening of her sequel confirmed that I was once again in trusty hands.

Falcons Wiltshire, September 1535
His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when he takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of feathers and the creak, the sigh and riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disproving. Her breast is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws

While still on the train down to Nimes, I finished it, wishing it were even longer, and then immediately started  Eric Enno Tamm’s: The Horse that Leaps Through Clouds. His opening is no less assured than Mantel’s. It opens with the arrival of an unlikely visitor – at least unlikely to me - arriving for the 75th birthday of Baron Gustaf Mannerheim, Commander-in-Chief and Marshal of Finland,

On June 4, 1942, Adolph Hitler’s private plane, a Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor, dropped out of a stormy sky on its descent to an airstrip in Imatra, a picturesque Finnnish town about two hundred kilometers from Leningrad, where Nazi troops were laying siege to the beleaguered Soviet city

As Tamm recounts, Mannerheim had been given a name during his 1906 trip through Northern China which translates as: The Horse that Leaps Through Clouds. Mannerheim did effectively leap through clouds in misty mountain passes, but straddling the geopolitical divides of his time took much more of his time and attention and is of more consequence. Not that I would have a clue what the Chinese characters for Man Who Is Not What He Seems might be.

In the art of painting, the painter David Milne talks about the dazzle spot, a place that the eye keeps returning to, and in the process of doing so unifies and makes sense of the whole. Mannerheim, in the hands of Tamm, is such a dazzle spot, a place for us to keep returning to as we explore the contested lands that he and Tamm explored, each in their own way and each for their own purposes.

Because I read Mantel and Tamm in such close succession, I found the two books started to talk to each other as I surfed the ups and downs of the aftermath of jet lag. The central characters in the two books could not have been more different in some ways, yet at the same time more similar. Thomas Cromwell, who came to be appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer to King Henry VIII had been born as a son of a blacksmith while Baron Gustaf Mannerheim, who had been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, held on to the silver but had to continually shape-shift the appearance of who he was depending on the ever shifting intentions of the rulers of Russia, Germany and Finland. In spite of the four centuries that separated these two men, I suspect that they would have recognized each other had they met in the flesh, and each would have had the measure of the other in the wink of an eye.

The phrase The Great Game, popularized by Kipling, was coined to describe the political rivalry between the British and Russian Empires in the 19th century but it is an equally apt fit as a description of the political intrigues of Europe in the mid-1500s. Like the falcons of Thomas Cromwell, any game was fair game to the rulers of the day, and like them, although remnants of flesh may have clung to their talons when they returned to their roosts after a day of conquests, a moment’s worth of preening put all to rights.

As for the outcomes of rule by fear described by Tamm, the still unfolding tragedies of the region include not only the deaths of hundreds of thousands but the death of a landscape. A mere hundred years after Mannerheim’s journey, the Silk Road has become so contaminated that Tamm notes that it could more aptly be named The Soot Road.  Not only has the land been so thoughly blackened and blighted, but the rampant unchecked development is messing with the DNA of future generations. 

In comparison, the outcomes of the mercenary acts of Cromwell and his falcon-like henchmen are small beer.Sad, but true.

Read Wolf Hall first, and then read Bring up the Bodies. When you read The Horse that Leaps Through Clouds do check out the accompanying web site for photos maps and much more. SEE:

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Still Life at Beauvoisin #1

Life is easy when the right ingredients are at hand.

Yesterday, the friends who are hosting us at Beauvoisin left to celebrate a birthday with a brief holiday within a holiday. For the next couple of days Himself and The Moi are par nous-mêmes. At least, I think this is how to say this en francais. My French from forty years ago is beyond rusty. Actually, it is an absolute embarrassment. Big time.

Even so, since our friends had already tuned me up on the art of local shopping, I sauntered off the next morning with no lack of confidence.

Sauntering, I should point out, was the operative verb. No brisk walking required. In fact, any striding of that ilk would be entirely out of place in Beauvoisin. Colleen, who like Himself and The Moi is no slouch in the go-go-go department, describes the slowed down demands of their typical day here: Each day we pick up our food for that evening’s dinner and then spend the night cooking, eating and drinking local wine

The first few days after we arrived, I tagged along with her and Kevin to markets at Nimes, Arles, and Générac, and saw what she meant. After planning the evening menu for that particular day, shopping for food and deliberating over suitable wine pairings – will this particular Gigondas go with tonight’s duck confit, or …? - , and then actually preparing the meal, there was barely enough time to fit in a mid-day nap. Arduous, is all I can say. And that was with three cooks on board who know their way around a cutting board and stove, as well as one dishwasher who mans a mean rag.

For me, one of the allures of staying here, aside from quality time with good friends, is the fact that all essential needs can be met within a five minute stroll. The sausages made by the local butcher are the best I have ever had the joy of cooking, and that is going some. They rank right up there with ones made by my brother Struan. In order to fully appreciate this compliment, what you have to know about Struan’s sausages, is that he grows, hunts or fishes for all his ingredients. These ones from the local charcuterie were that good.

A few buildings past the butcher is the local green grocer. Here, the selection of fruits and vegetables are grouped according to whether they are local, regional, or sourced from further afield. How can you go wrong? All the apricots are local. They are the same ones that I had already seen hanging off the branches in local orchards, and trust me: they are gobsmackingly full of flavour. The only downside is that they need to be eaten over something that can catch errant juices – a plate, a sink, the cobbled courtyard. Not your white slacks.

For our evening meal, using the ingredients shown above, I didn’t do anything complicated. I simply tossed together a ratatouille adding fresh basil, garlic, onion and a splash of rosé. While it was cooking down, I boiled the spuds, fried the sausages, and then deglazed the pan with some of the ratatouille juices, and then poured that over the entire assemblage.

One more thing. Normally, I would salt the water for spuds, but this time I didn’t even bother and none was needed. For me, not even butter was required, although on that score, Himself and The Moi would beg to differ.

So, there we were. Add to this a couple of glasses of Cahors Carte Noir 2009 (bought for a song), and a few fistfuls of baguette to mop up the plate, and there we were. Heaven. Total heaven.