The devil – and the delight – in the details

Sausages at the market in St. Remy are thoughtfully arranged.

Since we returned from our recent travels in Burgundy, Provence and Paris I have been thinking (and thinking) about the French attention to detail, the way fruits, vegetables and even sausages are carefully arranged at the market; simple pots bursting with flowers on every cafe table, cherries thoughtfully piled on a footed plate, individual pastries arranged in a boulangerie window. Even the arrangement of garden plots.

Although attention to detail is one trait that characterizes French charm, it’s not limited to that part of the world. I have been looking at details closer to home, from what catches my eye on my Instagram feed, to Pinterest boards, and garden plots. And for me, at least, it’s often the details — simply shown or in layers — that capture my attention and imagination. (Perhaps this explains how I can spend hours arranging plates on a shelf, pictures on a table, etc.)

I fell in love with this vegetable garden at the Chateau de Courmatin. Plants variously arranged, here by color and at an angle. Other parterres were arranged in various geometric patterns.

What makes these details so important? Obviously, we all want to put our best foot forward. We care about our surroundings and the people in them; personally, I want the surroundings to be visually appealing as well as comfortable. And I want the people to be comfortable and feel special or even pampered at my house.

In fact, I’m not comfortable if something is off visually. In my case, this may be genetic…

Some of us may be born detail tweakers

My mother had a way of arranging appetizers on a tray or serving platters on a buffet. She tweaked this and fluffed that and everything looked a little better. She fussed over curtains inside, then went outside to see how they looked from there (because pretty inside was only part of the story!).

My dad was no better. He was an ad man in the 50‘s and had an innate sense of balance (which he would point out is not the same as symmetry) and a sharp eye for details. One of my fondest memories is of the two of them engaging in a silent duel over the placement of a new pair of arm chairs. Dad happened to be home to accept the chairs, and after the delivery crew left, he adjusted the chair placement on each side of a table as he & Mom had planned. When she came home, Mom admired the chairs and then readjusted the angles on their placement. (Dad was out of the room.) Later, he walked back in and readjusted the chairs. And so it went for the better part of a week. Dad adjusted the chairs every morning. Mom, who left first and came home first, readjusted every afternoon when she returned from work. Until, that is, she finally caved and agreed to Dad’s angle.

There are details and then there are details

I can’t remember the name of this daylily in my perennial border, but I love the ruffle along the edge of the petals!

Obviously the details that I have been focusing on have to do with design and presentation. But life is loaded with other details. In my editorial days, I was involved in a lot of meeting/event planning (something for which I did not have much talent), and though I dragged my heels at many of the details we added to each agenda, itinerary, and banquet event order, you only need to be unexpectedly left in charge of one event to know how important those details are. You only need to run one meeting to appreciate the importance of a good agenda, including who reports on what. If you start skimping on those preparations, and someone always does, then it’s like fabric fraying around the edges. The result is not as crisp, clean and smooth as it should be.

And so the lesson is: the outcome depends on your attention to the details.

I hope I’m not painting myself as an uptight, Type A person. If anything, I tend to fly by the seat of my pants much of the time. This explains why, when I totally forgot a book group was coming to spend the evening on my back porch, I was able to invite them in, open some chilled wine and serve up cheese and crackers. My detail, as it turns out, is to keep cheese and wine in the fridge and crackers in the pantry.

Where was I going with all this?

Oh, yes, the French attention to detail. This is one of my souvenirs from France. I want to remember to take the time for the attention to details, the carefully wrapped package, the way the cheese looks on the board and the olives in the little glass jars (that I bought at the French flea market), the buttered cookie tins sprinkled with lemon zest to add a little extra. The bottom line is that it doesn’t take much time or money to add a bit of graciousness to our days. And that’s what I’m after.

Which details catch your eye and which ones bypass your attention? I’d love to hear from you.

See you next time!

 

 

 

My sweet & savory day at The Cook’s Atelier

Oops! That’s my husband in the doorway, probably reading a map.

Blog reading can lead in all sorts of directions. For me, it includes the discovery of The Cook’s Atelier in Beaune, France. The Atelier is a cooking school/wine shop/kitchen boutique created by American expats Marjorie Taylor and her daughter Kendall Smith Franchini to share their love of French food and wine.

I discovered them and the Atelier in a blog more than a few years ago and thought, “Wow! I’d love to do this.” Last winter as we began planning our trip to France, I realized I really could! Beaune was already on our itinerary and we made sure we would be there on a “class day.” This is the story of  the “Day in Burgundy” I spent shopping, cooking and dining with nine like-minded travelers and the charming and remarkable Marjorie and her daughter Kendall.

A day at the The Cook’s Atelier is first and foremost an extended class in French cooking with an emphasis on the Burgundian region and its traditions. However, it’s also a short course in the fine art of the French kitchen, in the selection and preparation of fresh, farm-to-table ingredients from the best local resources, in pairing food with the best local wines and then in serving it in a beautiful, casual-yet-elegant french tradition. It is, quite simply, what Marjorie and Kendall love best about France and how they share it.

If I sound smitten, it’s because I am.

We began at a local cheese shop. A total of ten participants, some in two’s and three’s, others like me on their own, gathered a little self-consciously in front of an enticing cheese shop on a square in Beaune. A few of us began introducing ourselves as class participants, but before we could really figure out who was who, Marjorie showed up, introducing herself and her daughter Kendall, connecting many of us to bits of information she had gleaned from our emails, and promising a full day of shopping, cooking and savoring the results. Whatever shyness we may have felt quickly dissolved under the influence of Marjorie’s warmth.

After a tour of the shop and talk of pairing soft and hard, strong and mild cheeses, as well as purchasing some of what we would need for the recipes ahead, we moved on to the Beaune market. Since my husband and I had made a brief tour of the market on our way to find our morning coffee and croissant, it was especially interesting to meet their favorite vendors. Marjorie and Kendall had shopped the market earlier to make sure they bought the best of the fruits and vegetables available. This is key to their cooking philosophy, the best and freshest ingredients, simply prepared.

From the market we moved on to the butcher where we discussed and tasted a variety of pates and acquired some veal rib roasts for our lunch. Then it was off to the Atelier where we trooped up to the second floor kitchen. (Deep breath!) It’s amazing!

The stove and the copper! We all wanted to take it back home!
This is a recent Instagram I saved showing this light-filled space!

This is a teaching kitchen, but I could easily live with it. In the U.S. we have such a different kitchen aesthetic, requiring space for a variety of tools, gadgets, appliances, and knickknacks. The Atelier kitchen is spare and simple, and what I think of as quintessentially French. It stars a beautiful LaCanche stove and Marjorie’s stunning collection of copper cookware, which, she tells us, are (along with her cookbooks) the only things she brought with her when she moved from Arizona to France. Next to the stove, a long, counter-height cabinet provides serious storage. Above it a knife rack holds enough cutlery for the class a few times over. In the center of the room, a narrow, marble-topped worktable was neatly set with chopping blocks, aprons and towels. And light. There’s so much light. The Atelier is housed in a 17th century building, and the second-floor kitchen features a floor-to-ceiling window at one end that looks out to the original, winding wood stair to the third floor, the wine shop and kitchen boutique at ground level below, and a skylight above.

 

Who wouldn’t be happy cooking here?

Simple storage, the freshest ingredients, basic tools.

So, we donned our aprons, and took our places while Marjorie chatted to us about the menu (grougeres, green garlic souffle, vegetables including fava beans, fennel, wild asparagus, carrots and potatoes, roast veal, madeleines, and simple butter cake). We cleaned and trimmed vegetables, prepared cake batter, and prepped the madeline batter and pans for later use. We learned about knives, storing fresh herbs and whole vanilla beans (but not together!), and how to crack and separate eggs (it took two dozen eggs to get the 12 egg whites we needed for our souffles, but that was part of the fun). We grated cheese, whipped egg whites, and learned to “french” the bones on the veal roasts. We discussed copper cookware and the basics of roasting any meat.

The veal roasts, seared on the stove top and ready for the oven.

And all the while Marjorie shared the story of her restaurant in Arizona, her daughter’s love of France and move there, Marjorie’s decision to follow and the serendipitous development of the business with their love of cooking, wine, and all things French. Kendall’s husband Laurent, has joined the business, running the store and negotiating the intricacies of owning a business in France. Together these three have created a successful family business focused on work that they love and accommodating the needs of Kendall and Laurent’s two small children who dart in and out of the business as they would their own house.

At the same time all ten students developed our own brand of kitchen comaraderie, asking questions, sharing tasks, basking in Marjorie and Kendall’s hospitality. I have wondered since then, did we all get on so well and enjoy our time together because we shared a love for cooking? Perhaps. But I also think the hospitality, the shared tasks and, later, the shared meal ultimately had total strangers trading emails and hugging goodbye.

The seven course lunch.

A simple, beautiful table that focused on the food.

After our cooking chores, Marjorie and Kendall gathered our aprons and shooed us upstairs to another sunlit room with another table for ten, this time set for dining. It was simple, set with white dishes and heavy, white monogrammed napkins simply folded. No overblown centerpieces or themed place settings. Despite the afternoon light, votives and candles glowed on adjacent surfaces.

We began with glasses of champagne and the grougeres we had prepared earlier, then some of the charcouterie from the market. Next, fava bean and shaved fennel salad and then the individual souffles in copper pots appeared. (Note so self: Serve something in individual pots. It’s magical!) We oohed and aahed over the presentation, then over the souffles themselves. Kendall served more wine (She chose something for each course, and I am so sorry I did not take a photo of each bottle. I would love to refer back to them!)

The souffles tasted even better than they looked!

I can’t go thru all the courses (I’ve probably already bored you), but clearly thoughtful presentation is the perfect complement to fresh, seasonal ingredients and careful preparation. We took the time to savor each course, the conversation (and wine) continued to flow, and the rest of the afternoon slipped away.

I loved every bit of the day, and I have continued to savor it, mentally as well as puttering in my own kitchen at home. I’ve tried a few of the recipes and look forward to doing more.

When we travel, it’s so easy to define what we want to see (the Eiffel Tower or Duomo) or experience (hiking in the Grand Canyon or walking China’s Great Wall). I think my day at The Cook’s Atelier was more; it was slipping into a heady slice of French culture, and now seeing what I have brought back home.

I encourage you to visit the new website for The Cook’s Atelier. The photos are gorgeous, you can learn more about them and their classes, and they have a shop!

For now, I’m so glad you joined me. See you next time!

 

 

 

We almost had a castle in France

The hoarding tower.

If you follow me on Instagram, you know we recently traveled to France and you also probably saw my post about the French castle that is, sadly, not in our family. But, in sixteen days of wonderful sights, sounds, tastes and people, the morning we spent at Sercy Castle has to be among the best of the best.

A bit of the back story.

Last year I gave my husband an international membership to Ancestry.com so he could pursue his mother’s family roots in Europe. The genealogical research was full of surprises, not the least of which was this castle in Sercy, France. In truth, the Castle Sercy part of the story required a few “leaps of faith” to get to the 12th century, but it was fun to pursue. In reality, our visit here was absolutely wonderful (and, no, these are not the right Sercy’s!).

I’m not sure what I expected. We had seen a few Google pictures on the web, but when we came around the bend in the road on this particular morning and saw the castle in person, I was totally blown away. A stone castle, with turrets and a diminutive lake out front! As one friend noted, it’s just like Cinderella! But of course, it’s very real with a very interesting history.

This is the castle kitchen.

Castle Sercy is a 12th-century structure, in Southern Burgundy near Tournus. Although it is not normally open to the public, except for certain special occasions, Steve had corresponded with the current owner and his welcome was genuinely gracious. The castle’s current owner, a retired naval officer and descendant of several centuries of owners, greeted us warmly and invited us into the small home he & his wife share on the property. (The castle has no running water or electricity, making residence there somewhat inconvnient.) Over coffee he shared some castle and family history.

Start in the 12th century

Construction on the Château de Sercy started in the 12th-century and continued for the next few hundred years. By 1470 the Château had become a fort with ramparts and a moat. The Sercy family owned the Château de Sercy (hence the name) from its initial construction until the 16th century when Philibert Sercy died in Lyon. The Château was subsequently uninhabited for over two hundred years and fell into ruin. It was sold in 1771 to a French army officer and then sold again in 1785 to an ancestor of the present owner.

The Romanesque Chapel is also the burial site for generations of the castle owners.

Those owners were royalists who were beheaded during French Revolution (Really!). Their very young daughter was spared, but the castle was sacked, its furniture taken, its sculptures and fireplaces broken and archives burned. Later, after the daughter had grown and married, a major reconstruction took place from 1811 to 1815 and the Château de Sercy was inhabited once again. Much later, in 1929, a major fire destroyed much of the structure, although some of the best parts of the Château were saved. In 1954 the family began to rebuild, again.

Castle living today

The French government can classify a building or part(s) of a building as historically significant. Castle Sercy’s round, northwest tower with the raised roof supported by a substantial network of wood pillars and trusses, called a hoarding, was built sometime in the 15th century to defend the castle. It’s one of the oldest hoardings in France, making that part of the castle historically very significant.

We had access to a limited part of the interior, but the owner did share the original castle kitchen with us, along with the courtyard area which dates to the 12th and 15th centuries. Despite the lack of conveniences like electricity or running water, the owners do use the main salon in the summer, as well as an adjacent room. Interestingly, the fireplace in the main salon is also classified for historical preservation, and has been restored but fires are not permitted per the architect.

We walked the grounds to see where the castle walls had once been and the moat beyond the walls. We also visited the castle’s Romanesque chapel where generations of forebears are buried. The chapel walls and ceiling are beautifully decorated in great detail.

Part of the courtyard dating to the 12th century shows more of the timber framing.
Detail of the restored fireplace in the main salon features remarkably delicate stonework and the owner’s family crest.
Another space awaiting restoration.
The chapel’s interior.

 

Rather than being disappointed that our family is not related to the castle’s original owners (which really was long shot!), Steve and I were both totally charmed by our time at Sercy and honored to have the opportunity to visit. It was a remarkable look at castle life “then and now” as well as a very personal lesson in one family’s French history.

Thanks for coming along.

See you next time!

 

Rick Steves…again!

Travel as a Political Act is the name of Rick Steves’ latest book. It’s also the name of a thought-provoking talk we heard him give last weekend.

You may recall from an earlier post here that we ran into public TV travel guru Rick Steves twice while we were in Italy this spring. (Of course, we were following the restaurant recommendations from his book while he was coincidentally in Italy taping a new season.) We are big fans of Rick. For independent travelers like us, his books, shows, tapes, travel forums, etc., have been the backbone of more than one trip abroad. So, we were very excited to learn that he was speaking at the local junior college.

And, we were not disappointed.

Though his books are full of savvy travel advice, this was not a discussion about about itineraries, European train travel, the best way to get museum tickets or any of those nagging questions would-be travelers have. It was a talk about traveling with “purpose,” about choosing to be open to new experiences.

Personally, I think travel, especially to other countries, is a leap of faith. You may not know the language, the food will be different, and so will the money. You may find yourself somewhat humbled. People do things differently.

The first time I went to Europe was a trip to Paris with my then sixteen-year-old son. We hopped into a cab one evening and, in my Chicago way, I brusquely gave the driver a restaurant address. The driver didn’t make a move. Instead he patiently greeted us, “Bonjour madame, bonjour monsieur.” I had totally forgotten the essential niceties always observed in so many other countries. (So, we all exchanged greetings and then we proceeded to discuss our destination.) It is, however, a faux pas I have never forgotten.

It’s easy to travel checking things off your bucket list but not always really seeing and savoring what’s around you. In all honesty, Steve and I are not hugely experienced travelers, but we do try to make personal connections whenever we can. On our first post-retirement trip, we took a train from Edinburgh to London, chatting with a wonderful man who had retired after serving as the major general of the Queen’s bagpipe regiment. He talked about his many experiences and gave us a running commentary on the countryside and towns we were passing. He added a personal view of Scotland (not to mention Scottish view of the U.S.A.) to our trip.

1On the same trip, we were working our way through the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh when a giggling, running, skipping pack of what could only have been kindergarten or first-graders swarmed into the gallery. The little boys hopped astride some small canons and the girls spied a memorial, exclaiming “Look, look, it’s Mary Queen of Scots!”

Then they managed to swarm around the effigy, patting her hands and her dress. While their somewhat mortified teachers tried to gather and shush them, we joined the museum guard in a good chuckle, happy to realize that kids are kids no matter where. For me, it is one of the singular moments from that trip.

Rick’s talk was 90 minutes, but the time just flew as he moved seamlessly from point to point. Among them: the importance of being open to new experiences, taking history seriously and overcoming fear. He points out that these are all things we grapple with to varying degrees and with a range of success.  And, he says, that’s okay.

Some trips take you farther out of your comfort zone. As an editor I traveled on trade missions to both Istanbul and China. Despite being with co-workers and clients whom I knew well, along with charming guides charged with making sure we had a memorable time, both destinations were far afield from anything I had experienced. And while touring the Forbidden City or climbing the Great Wall in China and shopping the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul or visiting the Blue Mosque are travel moments to treasure, visiting factories, often in tiny towns, added a whole new dimension to those trips. On one hand, this is a way of life that’s totally different from ours. On the other, we’re all very much alike, working hard to lift ourselves and our families to the next level of security and safety. And that’s important to remember when we are sorting international friends and enemies.

1-copyUnfortunately we live in a scarier world these days. Is it sad or strangely reassuring to see armed soldiers at popular sights in Rome and London? I’m not sure it’s any different from this country where we walk thru metal detectors and have our purses and backpacks searched to enter a museum or a ballpark. This is the world we live in. (Sometime I’ll tell you about the first time Steve and I traveled to Paris and both lost our wallets to pickpockets on the same day!)

Finally, I’ve been pondering this post all week, and I think the concept of traveling with a purpose applies as much to domestic destinations as it does to foreign travel. My family will tell you I am the queen of hunkering down in a beach chair with a new book and happily tuning out the rest of the world. And I think that brand of travel has a well-deserved place in our busy lives. I also think that stepping out of line to talk to a museum docent or engaging the sweetgrass artist in the fine points of his craft are more than worth the effort. What about you?

I encourage you to read a text version of Rick’s talk here or to check out a copy of his book by the same name.

See you next time!