Wood Smoke and Roses
Twice today I had to climb the steep hill up into the village to the little grocery. It was my night to cook supper. At lunchtime I went up to finish my shopping, and then, when I poured my first glass of rosé at 5:00 and started cooking, I realized I had no butter, so I had to walk back. The distance from our kitchen to the grocery store is the same as the distance from my kitchen back home to the backside of my farm. Round trip, one mile. The big difference is that hill.
On both trips I admired the flowers blooming everywhere. There were parrot tulips in one garden, wisteria cascading over a doorway. Another garden had flesh and fire colored roses. There was a shrub with thousands of bright blue blossoms, and a lilac bush in full glory. On the five o’clock trip there was smoke rising from chimneys as the chill of evening descended. All week the tiny airborne seeds of some plant have filled the afternoon air, lit by the slanting light. They are everywhere. At first I thought they were dandelion seeds, but on examination realized they were something fuzzier and more cotton-like. When you look up at the sky, they are always there, like ethereal sprites flying around, looking for some new place to light.
At the grocery, the brothers who are cashiers speak impeccable idiomatic English, but I speak French to them, and ask them to correct me. When I am corrected, I am more likely to learn the right expression. My French teachers are so good– they know how to make it really clear. They pantomime the meanings of words for me so they become unforgettable. The woman at the art supply store demonstrated that the word “terminé” as we used it, meant to be dead, not ” finished”, by showing her head being severed by an imaginary knife. Gesturing graphically at her body, she explained uses of the verb “to be”. My grocery store teachers showed me, pantomiming sleep, that I shouldn’t cook dinner in the “nuit”(night). I needed to cook it in the “soir” (evening) instead.
The ingredients for dinner were amazing. I roasted a gigantic yellow skinned hen, along with its innards, covering them all with fresh herbs. From the jus I made a gravy like my grandmother used to make, with bits of hardboiled egg, celery, and the gizzard, heart and liver chopped fine. The gravy went over whipped potatoes flavored with scallions and morels. There was sauteed celeriac and a green salad. For dessert I made an Alsatian bread pudding using apples and pears and my stale hazelnut bread. And it all started with a duck paté and a rosé, and finished with several really fine bottles of Bordeaux.
Last Sunday I went to Easter mass at the Gothic cathedral in the nearest town. All the text was printed in a program and because I knew the liturgy in English it was easy to understand the French. Driving to mass, we passed a horde of Boy Scouts, returning from a campout, with backpacks and sleeping rolls on their backs. By the time we got seated in church, they began to reappear as altar boys and congregants. I loved the kind of gangly, familiar way they handled the candles and censers. A large group of them took seats all together beside us. I’m not Catholic, so the chilly holy water being freely slung by the priest came as a tiny shock. Incense filled the air. I stood under the ancient vaults and absorbed it all as something intensely French, part of a long tradition of the spirit.
Moulin à Nef is on the Pilgrim Trail to Santiago de Compostela. Every day pilgrims walk by our windows, or rest in the park between the studio and the river. They walk, as those Boy Scouts walked, toward some spiritual destination. They walk, as I walk up that long hard hill to the grocery, to learn some hitherto unknown thing, to fill in some missing piece, drinking in, along the way, France, her roses and wood smoke.