Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Chateau de Grignan

Add to Google Reader or HomepageAbout a half hour north of Vaison la Romaine is the village of Grignan. The most prominent aspect of the village is the restored castle that sits at the top of a rocky promontory.

Chateau de Grignan
Street in the village of Grignan
The gardens of the castle, below.
The history of the castle indicates that the first home was built in the 11th century then expanded in the 13th century and was the fortress around which the medieval village developed. The castle was rebuilt in 1479-1495 during the Renaissance and then destroyed during the French Revolution because it was one of the « monuments qui insultent l'égalité en rappelant ces temps de servitude, de féodalité et de superstition, dont le fardeau a trop longtemps pesé sur un peuple rendu à la liberté » “one of the monuments that insults equality by making one remember the times of servitude, feudalism and superstition for which the burden has rested too long on the people who have now acquired liberty.” In the early 20th century, the castle was purchased by a woman who worked with an architect and restored the chateau to its original beauty. The work continued from 1913 until 1931. Ultimately, the chateau was sold to the Department of Drome in 1979 and became an historic monument in 1987.

While the history of the building is noteworthy, there is an equally interesting about one of its inhabitants and her mother. It is the story of the letters from Madame de Sévigné to her daughter Françoise-Marguerite. Madame de Sévigné lived in Paris and her daughter married and moved to the castle to become the Countess of Grignan. Madame de Sévigné wrote over 1,000 letters most of which were to her daughter whom she missed very much. As a wealthy woman in Paris, she visited the court of Louis XIV and met the king as well as the high-society women of Paris. Her letters offered insights into the lives of Parisian aristocracy: what people were talking about, what people were seeing at the theatre, what books were popular, etc. Her descriptions were lively and heart-felt. She became widely known as a letter writer (une épistoliere) who offered wonderful descriptions of daily life among the aristocracy. Many of her letters were copied and distributed even before they were sent. She wrote not only to her daughter but to the wider audience of readers that she knew were waiting for her next letter. 

Madame de Sévigné is considered one of the icons of French literature. L'absence de la comtesse a fait d'une femme sans ambition littéraire un auteur par la volonté de combler son manque affectif et de consoler sa douleur... Parce qu'elles sont une recomposition de la réalité à travers le prisme de l'amour maternel, elles deviennent littérature. The absence of the countess turned a woman without literary ambition into an author by the will to fill her emotional void and to comfort her pain… Because they (her letters) are a restructuring of reality through the prism of the maternal love, they become literature; (Hélène Bernard, editor, Madame de Sévigné: Letters. Flammarion, Paris, 2003.)

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Locavores – Part deux,

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After only 10 days of our journey into the land of “Locavores” – where one buys only locally grown/raised products – I can offer four observations: the land of “Locavores” is more expensive, more time-consuming, requires more planning and is more interactive.

1.      Shopping locally (instead of in the box-stores) is more expensive. The prices are marginally higher. The local shops may have their devoted clientele but in order to maintain that loyalty (and to entice more customers), the local stores have to remain somewhat competitive – and they do!

2.      Shopping locally takes more time. As my friend Susan commented:  “I think one has to be retired to embark on such a venture, but i do love shopping at our market in Ann Arbor even though it takes a hit on the pocketbook - always the bummer that eating healthy and ecologically is not for those with few resources.” I have found every word of Susan’s observations to be true. I am thankful that I am retired and love that I have the time and opportunity to pursue the locavore life style. There is a time-saving aspect to shopping in big supermarkets. At the box stores, I need only go to the appropriate aisle; I don’t need to stop at the butcher shop, the green grocer or the cheese shop to get what I want to cook that evening. At the box-stores, I can get all of the items on my shopping list at one store – never mind that they may come from Holland or Morocco or Israel… (or, in the case of almonds – generally considered to be a local/Provençal cash crop – California!)

3.      I can confirm that shopping locally requires more planning. The local shops follow the French schedule of being open until noon, closed for 2 ½ hours for lunch and then open until 6:00 or 7:00 in the evening. Most of the local shops are also closed on Sunday and Monday, so when planning meals for those days, it is important to do my shopping by Saturday evening. On the other hand, the local shops are only a five-minute walk from our apartment, so they are easy to access – when they are open.

4.      Shopping locally means more interaction with the shop owner/counter person. At the big box-stores, you can find what you want without interacting with anyone. (For those of us with questionable language skills, that is a BIG plus. You don’t have to ask for an item if you can find what you are looking for.) On the other hand, interaction is a good thing. The shop owners begin to recognize you and that often leads to a conversation. Speaking with the shop owners improves one’s vocabulary and speaking skills (and you will have learned new words as you look up the words for the items that you want to buy before you go to the store).

We like the vegetables and meats that the local stores offer, like knowing that we are contributing to the local economy and are probably benefiting from eating foods that are grown/raised with fewer pesticides or insecticides (?).

Isn’t that a “win-win”?

Friday, January 3, 2014


Add to Google Reader or HomepageHe probably smiled to himself as he made the decision to send the book to me. He knows me very well and knows how the hypothesis would work on me. He has seen how we live in France and probably made a connection.

Now we are back in France and I am trying to address that for which I have been ruminating as a result of John's gift of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver and family.

The book is about how they became “locavores” for a year at their family farm in southern Virginia. The family agreed to eat only what they could obtain from their own garden/farm or the gardens/farms of neighbors. That meant no broccoli or oranges from California, no lamb from New Zealand, no red bell peppers from Holland or anything outside their region. The author claims that “Every food calorie we presently eat has used dozens or even hundreds of fossil-fuel calories in its making…” and once the food is processed, “Each food item in a typical U.S. meal has travelled an average of 1,500 miles” (co-author Stephen Hopp). The family wanted to know where things were raised and how things were raised: (pesticides? herbicides? growth hormones? antibiotics?)

So, as John knew it would, reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle has caused me to assess my shopping habits from a “locavore” perspective. When we are in Michigan, I go to the Allen Street Farmers Market on Wednesdays or make meals from the vegetables of my own garden (no pesticides, no herbicides there!). The majority of my food shopping is nonetheless done at big box stores. I do pay attention to finding fruits and vegetables that are in season – as in Michigan’s seasons. (I love it when asparagus from western Michigan is available and cheap In the spring).

In France, I think it will be easier to get closer to a “locavore” profile. For one thing, the French display prominently the country of origin of all fruits and vegetables.  Restaurants usually have a display showing the sources of beef and pork.  Cheeses, some meats and wines are origin-protected. Origin-protected means, for example, that only the sparkling wine that comes from the Champagne region of France can be called ‘champagne’. (You may remember my post a few years ago when I bought a 10 pound origin-protected turkey for Christmas and paid more than 100 € for the privilege – to my great shock.)

If Ellen and I are to be “locavores” in France, it would mean shopping at the local independent stores and not at the big box stores. The one ‘caveat emptor’ is that in the center of town there is a small grocery – part of a franchise large enough to offer their own brands…

We are going to try it. (John probably predicted this decision.) That means that we will buy our vegetables at the local épicerie (grocery store), our meats at the butcher shop and our fish from the fish monger and continue to buy our bread at a local, made-here bakery. I will include the market on Tuesdays as it is the day on which we can buy all that we might need even though the Tuesday market includes fruits and vegetables from Africa and Spain. (The “little” market on Saturdays is populated with farmers who bring produce from their farms.)
Since we are starting “cold”, I don’t have a cellar filled with canned vegetables or fruits that I could use to bring some summer back to the menu. I will have to get really creative to make inviting dishes to reduce the boredom of winter vegetables. “On verra.” (We’ll see) how this works out. Stay posted.