Friday, December 18, 2009

The Index: a work in progress

New Knowledge: An index of things I did not know before now

(August to Christmas version; hyperlinks to follow. Please let me know where I've made mistakes or missed something crucial.)

Armignac: a potent and deeply flavorful afterdinner brandy that Bill and I first tasted in tiny little glasses at Grenouille-du-Saut late this summer. We were sitting with Zaro and Gareth at a candlelit table outdoors, looking into the depth of night towards hills of the Luberon we would not see until the morning. A little goes a long way.

Aiguines: particularly great medieval hilltown, site of Best. Day. Ever.



Avignon: still waiting for a bill from the broken-mirror incident. Maybe the Pope picked up our tab.

Biên-Être: Well-Being. The name of the hotel just outside of Villecroze where we had our first transcendent French meal. Also, the feeling didn’t know we were searching, but in which we have been steeped since we arrived.

Bisous: great concept. I just wish I could remember whether it's right left, or left right. The fear that I will get this wrong can be a little paralyzing, so it always makes me happy when I meet a French person who knows how to do it right and isn't afraid to take matters into her own lips.

Beaufort: Firm cow’s milk cheese made in the French Alps. Bill and Buck got a particularly pricey wedge once in the Frejus Market that tasted vaguely of pineapple and was so delicious it made us want to cry. If you like cheese, try a salade bergere (with goat cheese) or some creamy brebis (ewe's cheese.)

Beignets de Courgette: Fried zucchini flowers, but I prefer the more literal “flower donuts.”

Casino, Intermarche, Carrefour: Supermarkets that would blow your mind. Everything from motor oil to clothing to to-die-for-wine to thirty kinds of cheese.

Cassis: We still argue over whether this is boysenberry or girlsenberry, but it sure makes nice kir.

Celcius: It’s weird, but you get used to it. This morning there was frost on the panes and ice in the puddles, and the temperature was the lowest I’ve seen it so far (-2.5.) A few snowflakes filled the air and suddenly all the municipal offices were ready to shut down. Most days and most months in Provence, it’s a nice comfortable swing between about 15 and 25.

Chateau: Little girls dream of living in one. We dream of drinking from them. Our favorites: Chateau Mirval’s “Clara Lua” (but not "Pink Floyd”), as well as the relatively cheap but delicious red from Chateau Beatrice. Should you ever go wine tasting in this part of the Var, skip Chateau Berne, and hit Chateau Croste instead.

Confit: means something cooked and then packed in its own melty-licious fat. Smack those lips just thinking about it.

CNED: are you smarter than a French fifth grader?

Crêpes: Thank you, Mrs. Buck, wherever you are.

Daube: I had tried unsuccessfully before this year to make beef stew, but it turns out I was going about it all wrong. For “Supreme Meatatarians” like us (Abigail’s term) a Daube de Boeuf Provençal is the way to go. If you want meat that melts in your mouth, with the cartilage and fat gone all mushy and gelatinous (and I know that you do), here’s a method:

Marinate chunks of good beef, quartered onions, and big chunks of carrot for about five hours in an entire bottle of heavy red wine, a little cider vinegar, a bouquet garni if you can get one (regular old thyme, rosemary and bay leaves if you can’t) and a little pinch of grated nutmeg. The Provence recipe asks for crushed Juniper berries, but threw in cloves instead. Drain the meat, the onions and the carrots and save the marinade. Brown another quartered onion in 4 ounces of leftover goose fat (or olive oil, I suppose) then quickly brown the meat, onions, and carrots. Dump the marinade on top, add in a pint of warm water, another bouquet garni, two chopped garlic cloves, and the peel of an orange or a Clementine. Boil really slowly on the stovetop for at least four hours.

If you’re feeling really special, half-cook some macaroni, then mix in some of the stew juices, put baguette crumbs and grated cheese on the top, and bake. (see Yummy, below.)

Dinde: When you roast turkey on a spit for a very long time and call it by a different name, it just tastes better.

Draguignan: We had high hopes for this place until we realized that it’s not worth the trip. From anywhere.

Epoisse: Stinky, mushy, gooey cheese best eaten outside in August during a full-afternoon picnic.

Family, My. This year has brought me back to the heart of things, both with my immediate and extended family. You’d think I knew them all just fine, but all this time together has given all of us the time to come to love one another even more. Who knew that the best way to get close to your family would be to buy plane tickets and go very, very far away?

Fondation Maeght: the polar opposite of Draguignan.

Figue, Confiture du: really good with goat cheese. And just think of all these years I ignored figs like they were the unpopular kids in the back of my 8th grade classroom.

Foie gras: Grace now gets up in the morning and slathers this stuff on whatever breadlike substance she can find. Never has something so evil tasted so good.

“Guillard”: while I’m not entirely certain how this word is spelled, I think that it means strong and manly, in a very specifically Provençal way. If you are guillard, you can split fencerails, play boulles, and herd animals if necessary. You drink pastis, you hunt whenever you can, and you can find truffles under the right kinds of oak trees. Not to be confused with American macho, in part because even a really guillard guy is likely to tuck his sweater into his cargo pants.

Grande Gardiole: Yes, Virginia, Chateau-neuf de Pape really is better. This one doesn’t break the bank.

Gomme: means “eraser,” the throwing of which, at Grace, ended up being the last straw before we finally switched to homeschool and all got much happier.

Gorge du Verdon : Beautiful and dangerous in equal parts.

Gyptis is a white wine named for a woman in a legend of the founding of Marseilles. Our third-favorite inexpensive white wine, it's a little unpredictable.

Guy Savoy: Incroyable. Thanks, Loni.

Homeschool, particularly in a home like this one, is a pretty wonderful way to spend one’s days. Recent explorations have included a study of The Rights of Children, Susan Cooper’s Greenwitch, and adding and subtracting fractions with different denominators. Oh, and Bill has taught her to speak French.

Halloween: While we appreciate that the French make an effort, it’s just not the same outside of The Slope.

Hobbit: It’s become clear to us that when Tolkien was describing The Shire, he was talking about Provence. Just one of the great kids’ books we’ve read to the girls this year, all with the theme of big adventures. A nice way for us to return to our childhoods while shepherding the kids through theirs.

Internet: I didn’t know quite how sustaining information technology could be until I really needed my daily fix of The Times online, novels in English from, and emails from my friends and family in real time, right when I needed them. Blogging has also been a revelation, in the ways that it has helped me see the world anew, and build on old and new friendships. See also Skype.

Iphone: Whee! This is fun!

Jus du Carcasse: Translated literally, “Carcass Juice,” the delicious foamy crayfish sauce I once ate on pasta. Just one of the many pieces of evidence that in France, gross things can be delicious.

Kaki means “Persimmon,” just one of the many things still growing here. In December!!

Louvre: Where the kids finally stopped being irritated with us, and fascinated by the joys of France. Basically, France had me at “Bonjour.” But for our kids, it required a real mummy, a giant black stone tablet of Hamurabi’s code, Napoleon’s apartments, and an incredible meal at Café Richelieu to get their attention.

Lapin: It’s sad to watch a rabbit be maimed. But they taste so delicious in burgers. But it’s sad. But they taste good. (Repeat this dilemma endlessly.)

Lauve, Tholos de la: 4,000 year old gravesites on a rocky, otherworldly hillside. This makes for a great hike, unless perhaps hunting season just started.

Lavoir: Every adorable hill town in the Var has at least one, a series of stone troughs through which water runs year round, where you can (still) wash your clothes. A testament to the power of flowing water to really pull a community together.

Magrets des Canards: Abigail is of the opinion that Americans and other Supreme Meatatarians like us would be happier if they just ate more duck breasts. If searing then pan-cooking them seems too daunting, might I recommend to you a nice can of confit?

Maps: come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes need a little adjustment in order to fit reality.

Miel: honey tastes completely different depending on what flowers the bees have been so busy with. Miel de Garrigues is so heavy it's like a meal, while miel de lavande is light and full of sky.

Monty Python: OK, not French by any means. But Southern France is chockfull of Brits. And you haven’t really lived, as a parent, until you’ve seen your own children in fits of giggles quoting Life of Brian at the kitchen table.

Mouches: You can follow special little flies to find truffles if you know what you're doing. Or at least Gerard can.

Moulles Marinere: Olive oil and butter. Fry a few chopped shallots and some garlic. Add lemon rind, lemon juice, white wine, mussels (and their juice if you’re using canned) and cook till they open. Throw in your chopped parsley to cook at the end.

Nice: A big wide wooden boulevard, a port, a sunny market square, 99 flavors of ice-cream, and an incredible park on top of the hill. And people swim nearly all year round. A nice place to visit as long as you've got some cash to burn through.

Oie: Oy! Why roast a turkey if you can roast a goose? This could change Thanksgiving forever.

Olives to die for. Maybe even to kill for.

Portail: the schoolyard gate for which I had such high hopes. As it turns out, it still feels like a pretty unfriendly place – both for kids and for parents, and it's not as liberating just to drop them off there as I had hoped it would be. Today when I had to pick Abigail up at her French class in Lorgues, I was actually accosted by another French mother who thought I took her parking place. The town cop had to break it up, but not before I saucily "tutoyer-ed" her to show I wasn't afraid.

Pastis: Just don’t make this at home

Picard: Not all frozen food is the same.

Quinson: Musuem of Prehistory, and incredibly sweet Provencal hilltown. You can get your fill of looking at stone arrowheads and dioramas of super-hairy cavemen, then buy really good olive oil from a guy in his living room.

Radishes: take on a whole new meaning when you dip them in soft butter then roll them in coarse salt.

Ratatouille: The key? Cook the tomatoes, onions, zucchini, sweet peppers, and chopped/salted/drained eggplant separately in lots of olive oil for about 30 minutes. Then mix them together for another 30 minutes. NOW I get it.

Renault: there’s a damn good reason these aren’t sold in the U.S.

Romarin, or rosemary, grows wild on every hillside.

Rocket is the name of the white flowers that grow under all those olive trees in the late fall/early winter. Pick them and eat as you would arugula!

Rosé: I am sure that there is some sort of Rosé board or association or group someplace to which I can beg mercy for my many years of unfairly hating on Rosé wine. For now that I have drunk Blanche Nuits from Chateau Arnaud, and Cotes de Provence from Domaine Marchandaise, I have seen the light. And it glows a nice pale pink color.

St. Tropez has yet to catch my fancy like it did in 1985.

Salernes is where they make great pottery, and I take French lessons.

Saucisson: du figue, du canard, du porc, and yes, Corsican donkey. (Sorry, Jessica. I wish this were not true.) My favorite so far is pork with Roquefort cheese.

Sillans-la-Cascade: our home for five weeks of heaven late this summer. Waterfall. Dinner on the rooftop. Little tiny white snails on the wild fennel. Cypress trees in a row.

Skype: better than magic. Harry Potter would be jealous

Sunflowers grow in enormous fields, but at some point, somebody cuts them all down.

Taradeau Offidum: House white. Cheap, simple, light, delicious. House white. If they only sold it at intermarché, life would be perfect.


Tapinade: green or black olive paste, a good substitute for foie gras in a pinch.

TGV: goes really really really really fast. The U.S. should get us some of these.

Thym: see Romarin. Also grows just about everywhere.

Time actually moves at different paces in different places. Here, it’s slow and steadily luxurious, and I never need to cross a single day off the calendar.

Tome de Pyrenées: Abigail’s favorite cheese. Black, waxy rind, light, creamy and smooth.

Tourtour: the beautiful Provençal hilltown to end all beautiful Provençal hilltowns. Really, truly, gorgeous, but it seems that nobody really lives there. The road between here and there is a pretty close approximation of the path to heaven.

Truffes: When you walk through downtown Aups on Thursday morning, you can buy about 100 grams of this stuff for 90 Euros. But nobody charges you to just stand there and inhale.

Unfriendly: in a small town, it can take awhile to find out who will smile your way. But then it feels awfully gratifying.

Ursuline: The giant convent in Aups

Vaccinations: Thank you, French government.

Var: When we sing John Denver’s “Country Roads,” we now think of the Var. Zero glitz, rolling hills, and everywhere you look, the landscape is striped orange (earth), green (trees) and blue (sky.)

Vervienne: Put this herb in your teapot and add hot water. Soothes those edges when people aren't being so friendly.

Villecroze: Has great caves.

Vin: At lunch and dinner, and then sometimes a little more after that.

Visitors: Thanks to Jackie, Carol, David, Buck, Gus, Linda, Laura, and Finn for making the big transatlantic flight to visit us. Your visits were the highlights of the fall!

Visa Problem: Solved for the time being, by the brilliant and talented Bill Lienhard. A form was faxed to us the day before we needed to go home. Saga to be continued.

Wharton, Edith: my secret guide to all things French.

Yummy: what nearly everything is.

Zaro, (as well as Gareth, Paris Jessica, Nick, Gerard, Aups Jessica, Laurent, Mathilde, Eric, Nadia, Loni, Hillary, Jean-Claude, Ruth, Anna Maria, Dermot, and Megan, all of whom have had us as your guests, or who have been guests in our home. You come from many parts of the world, and speak English, American, and French, but you share an open warmth that has made us glad we came. It has been an honor and a privilege to share this year with you.


  1. You left buck off thé list of visitors. How could you?

  2. Fabulous list! I really get a sense of your life there now. Hooray Launa! Are you the same gal who told me you weren't "a wine drinker", you were "more of a beer drinker"? A toast you with a glass of Nuits St Georges!

  3. Traveling mercies to you, dear Launa. You will return to mounds and mounds of snow in your beloved Park Slope. Are you ready??? You are welcome to take refuge here in Charlotte where it is a little warmer, but we are not big meat eaters at our house, so you may find yourselves feeling rather hungry much of the time...

  4. Cassis are black currants, a fruit that is curiously absent in the US. Now, have you tried salsify, or crosnes?