Thursday, June 07, 2007

Auvergne's Magic, Strawberries & Champagne

Photo by Lisa Annenberg, Mother of the Bride

Yesterday Loic opened the jam called Strawberry and Champagne. This prompts me to tell about who gave us the jam, and why the jar Loic opened is fitting.

Alison, my second of 8 nieces, came to France after graduating from the university with her diploma in Classical Dance and also Arts Management. She came here for dancing at the National Conservatory and teaching and learning the language. Her teaching position was placed in the Auvergne, it was to be her home base.
After the audition which basically consists of a master class,
and before she met Tom.

Anyway, Alison's job and dancing in Auvergne gave me a pretty good excuse to go out and do some research into the traditional regional cooking of a region that had me in a constant state of fascination. One typical dish, for example is the stuffed cabbage soup that originates there. I have had discussions also with chefs here in Lyon who come from the Auvergne. One striking fact is they all independently tell me without pause that the Auvergnat culinary heritage is rich precisely because it has its roots in poverty.

Being broke, as we all know, is one of the most difficult things to have to endure, and it's funny that some of the best tasting and most powerfully touching country dishes in the Auvergne were developed and transmitted through the region in times when poverty was the moving factor in creating them. Things are of course very different now, and the Auvergne of today is much more affluent. Now there are remnants: symbols, some traditions which have been embellished for touristic reasons, and icons of a certain style that existed at another time, now markers of places where one must dig deeper and send out feelers for the stories and peoples traditions that once created the food there.

Clermont Ferrand.

Imagine you go to a place and it strikes you because there is a very old emotion circulating around and through everything. For me, being in the Auvergne is like being in the back yard among a whole lot of towering trees in autumn with a rake. You get lots of leaves some pretty and colorful and some faded and grey. You rake up a big pile of them and then you lie down in the pile if only to rest, and take one in your fingers by the stem and hold it up to the sun. The veins in each leaf are like treasure maps to images and stories of that region to me. The richness of the culinary tradition is central to all of it because it is what has always brought communities and families together. There seems to be a collective memory of something tragic but also shared and joyous and a feeling that resides in your throat threatening to sweep you up that settles in when you enter certain places, something I cannot explain, and this region is one of them. It can come out in words with some coaxing and early morning channeling, I am sure of it.

The dirt there sparkles because of the volcanic soil so when you are dirty and tired you glow and sparkle. (do you remember, Alison?) There are a number of very special cheeses that are local to the region and many recipes I have collected and researched have been put in my kitchen notebook. They find their way to our table time and again. I hope that one day in America these cheeses will be available to everyone and not just the rich and glamorously connected. I still have much to discover there.

Tom is a person I admire a whole lot. I can see that his mind turns carefully and thoroughly as he takes in the significance of activities and subjects of conversation, and like my father, who was a remarkable man, Tom reflects about what he wants to say before he speaks. Tom knows how to verbally encapsulate an idea extremely well. This is a good quality in a man, and he may not realize it now, but a central quality to a leader. His symbolic gestures are profound as well, for example, we had a discussion one afternoon when he was but a mere acquaintance to Alison, and a week later, in the mailbox, Alison's aunt Lucy received an interesting book to read on the same subject that enriched not only my knowledge of the topic we had touched upon but took my esteem for him up a notch.

Tom is good for Alison and I felt that fact in my bones even before she told me that she had fallen in love with him (I was not the first to know, her mother knew already). Tom is also a man who knows how to compliment a woman's cooking, even a first attempt at Sticky Toffee Pudding which for me was a stab in the dark in which I incorporated Molasses and he didn't bat an eye. He appreciates soft yolks coddled in egg coddlers and passes the whites to his friends, which tells me he will well fit in to the clan, especially that side where my father comes from. My feelings stayed strong and I felt unequivocal joy much later when the news came that he proclaimed she was the love of his life and had proposed marriage to her. I told her at one point, I think in general about men that she had to have not a single doubt in her heart, not one doubt. And she didn't with Tom.

I wanted to do something special for them to celebrate. I wanted to make a dinner party sized croquembouche, which is a traditional French wedding pastry served like a wedding cake and more a pagan fertility rite more than elegantly French - of pastry creme filled profiteroles and held together with caramel with its own history and symbol all mixed in. But then as usual events went this way and that and I began flipping through one of David Lebovitz's now classic dessert cookbooks, you know the one Ripe for Dessert, a very good one, actually one of my favorites. I looked at the sky, was it was clear blue and had been all day, felt my thumb for any sign of stiffness, and feeling none, I decided that David's idea of meringue nests with chantilly and strawberries in a very special sauce (listed in his easy desserts section in that book) would be just the thing. We went out for an apero at a sidewalk cafe while the nests crispened in the oven.

I always do a few extras to ensure I have at least enough in tact to serve.

Not being a person particularly adept with pastry, I appreciate David's encouraging note that I don't have to pipe the meringue from a pastry cone like a professional although this is an option. I can plump up little nests like the ones the birds make, created with a spoon and with love.

I chose the recipe too because it was an opportunity to use our instant chantilly pumper, which is amusing to newlyweds and I just love the thing. The kind you insert a cannister of gas into and pump out the foamed sweetened cream as a kind of way of making instant bliss, just the kinds newlyweds appreciate. (David doesn't say to use this contraption in the recipe, it's just something I use when I can). And the strawberries, which needed no searching for. We served the dessert with champagne, of course.

When we were at the table and having fun each feathering our nests with chantilly and strawberries in sauce in our own style I mentioned that this was like a Pavlova, and Alison being a dancer, it was a nice light touch to the end of their weekend of gluttony in Lyon.

Tom delicately noted said that his mother does a sublime Pavlova. What he didn't say was that his mother's Pavlova (with which these nest have no comparison to) is that one day Alison must go and spend some time in Sue's kitchen with her own kitchen notebook (which I gave her as a wedding present) in hand and get that Pavlova recipe, because it is something very special to Tom and to his family.

They will be having a big party at home in America to celebrate next summer. That is going to be one big serious party. Congratulations, Alison and Tom Gardiner. I am glad you finally made the formal announcement to everyone. And you are a pair of complementary personalities that I just know will help each other to flourish as you tend to each others' spirits together throughout each others long and fruitful lives.

Come and see us soon again. And bring jam.



Blogger wheresmymind said...

Love that picture of the couple walking down the street

10:33 PM, June 08, 2007  
Blogger Jann said...

All I can say is: HOW ROMANTIC! there are two people deliciously in love~

1:57 AM, June 09, 2007  
Blogger L Vanel said...

That was exactly what I told my mother when she asked how their visit went. They are glowing.

10:56 AM, June 09, 2007  
Blogger Wendy said...

"When you are dirty and tired you glow and sparkle" - now there's an image I'm going to carry around for some time.

9:36 AM, June 10, 2007  
Blogger Mercedes said...

Lucy, you've had such wonderful posts recently, and I've just gotten a chance to catch up. Your sentiments about Willie and chicken sandwiches so well expressed, I sympathized with the secret stash of jam, since I've got that sweet tooth also.

I feel like we are kindred spirits somehow. Perhaps it's because my closest family (and only them) call me Lucy, or because I also have those southern roots. Or because I was also a ballet dancer like your niece, and I have a jar of strawberry and champagne jam in my pantry. In my case, I picked it up because my boyfriend has a terrible love of champagne, and he's a Scot, so when I saw McKay's Strawberry-Champagne preserve, I had to buy it.

Anyways, all this to say keep up the good work, I so enjoy your stories and photos.

1:59 AM, June 11, 2007  
Blogger SteamyKitchen said...

Congratulations to the beautiful couple!

That is a wonderful love-potion dessert you made! Maybe if I make it for dessert tomorrow I can fall in love all over again and get lucky in bed! ;-)

6:38 AM, June 11, 2007  
Blogger L Vanel said...

Mercedes (or Lucy), if you're like me you know I pretend I don't cry easily... thanks for telling me you're there and a little about yourself.

Jaden, you might as well give it a try! In any case it's one of David's desserts - my only extra was adding the whipped cream contraption and making it a table assembled dessert!

8:30 AM, June 11, 2007  
Anonymous Franchini said...

It's interesting to see how you incorporate symbolic and meaningful ideas into your cooking. That is such a gracious touch. You sound lovely, Lucy.

11:26 PM, June 17, 2007  

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