food

Busy as the Nuns

Chomping down watermelon after a lunch at the monastery, I cautiously eye the honeybees that linger around my plate. They are visiting our table, searching for sustenance to take back to their hives. The nuns keep a few hundred hives of honeybees (more on that in another post). With this summer abundance, the bees are everywhere, preparing for the cold winter.

As the bees do at the monastery, so do we. The nuns grow most of their own food, and during the summer months, they keep busy juicing, pickling, drying, pureeing, freezing, and preserving it. Feeding fourteen or more people, year round, requires much work and planning. I’m not sure who is busier- the nuns or the bees.

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Most mornings, we harvest whatever vegetable is most ripe. This region’s summer heat wave has finally been broken with days of steady rain, and every vegetable seems to be reaching its peak production. We pick tomatoes, eggplant, beans, zucchini, cucumbers, and peppers in enormous amounts, each harvest bigger than the last. Other nuns pick forest herbs and flowers, destined for tea. Plums and grapes are beautifully ripe, and even the apples are ready for the table.

The afternoons and evenings are spent processing most of our harvest, to keep it for winter. We pickle green tomatoes and small peppers, lining up the jars on shelves. Trays of roasted eggplant are peeled and packed into sterilized freezer bags. The hundreds of kilos of tomatoes are juiced and mostly distilled into concentrated products, like spicy ketchup or tomato paste. Beans are cleaned, blanched, and frozen. Slowly, our wheelbarrows and crates full of fresh produce disappear into jars, bags, and bottles that can be stored for the upcoming months.

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“How do you say ‘zacusca’ in English?” Maria, a Romanian volunteer, asks me.

Before I can respond, Maica Irina interrupts with her answer: “Zacusca.”

She’s right. There is no English translation for one of my favorite Romanian foods. Zacusca, basically meaning snack in various Slavic languages, is essentially a vegetable spread. Its exact contents vary, but most families use finely chopped and blended eggplant, peppers, onions, and tomato paste. This mix is slowly roasted for hours before being canned. Made at the end of the summer harvest, it is kept over the winter, usually eaten on bread. It has a taste that reminds me of summer’s bounty, with roasted, smoky, rich flavors that only deepen over the winter.

Having tasted zacusca for the first time when I was Romania in March, I was incredibly excited to be back in the summer, to learn how to make it. The other two volunteers, Maria and Teresa, and I spent one rainy, long Friday preparing it with the zacusca expert, Maica Irina.

Like most delicious dishes, zacusca takes an immense amount of work. Even having harvested and roasted all the ingredients in advance, we still spend the entire day cleaning and processing and stewing them. The peppers need to be peeled and de-seeded. The eggplant is peeled and washed and made into a paste. And all the onions need to be peeled, cut, and cried over.

I stare, mouth agape, as Maica Irina finely chops buckets of onions faster than any chef I know, while still keeping an eye on the cows trying to enter the kitchen. We are making large quantities of zacusca, measuring ingredients in kilos and liters. Having made this vegetable spread since she was young, Maica Irina can practically peel a pepper with her eyes closed. And her hands behind her back.

I am humbled by how quickly and efficiently the women cut, clean, and process these vegetables. I cannot even compare with their deft hands and experienced movements. They work longer days than I do, sending me to take breaks while they continue. If I look tired, a nun will suddenly appear with coffee, hot chocolate, or fruit to give me energy.

I try to be as helpful as possible, learning what I can, and not being in the way. Nuns are busy. There is a lot of work to do.

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Late in the evening, with the zacusca finally finished and packed into glass jars, we breathe a satisfied sigh. The last little bit of hot zacusca is spread and shared on slices of bread, and I enjoy the fresh fruits of our labor.

Every day, we take some of the summer’s bounty, and save it for winter. It’s a lot of labor, but, like the worker bees, these nuns keep moving. I’m starting to see new truth in the old saying, “keeping busy as bees”.

And I’d like to propose a new phrase: “keeping as busy as the nuns who keep bees.”

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Celebrations and Feasts

I spot the two nuns through the packed crowd on the train platform, and after brief introductions, we head towards the car. I’m a little nervous, wondering what these Romanian sisters will be like. Maica (Sister) Antonia and Maica Demetria quickly put me at ease, joking, laughing, and asking me questions as we speed through the Romanian countryside.

The rolling hills, forest, and fields of corn and sunflowers makes me think of the last time I was in Transylvania, in March. I am happy to be back, watching familiar images whip quickly past my window. My first lesson: being a nun does not stop Maica Antonia from driving like a getaway driver.

“So…” I ask, tightening my seatbelt, “What kind of work are you doing at the monastery right now?”

Maica Antonia and Maica Demetria look at each other knowingly and burst out laughing.

“We are preparing for a special event. It is… a lot of work. You will see.” Maica Antonia says, ending with a mischievous smile. “We are happy you are here to help us.”

I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

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I am spending a month at the Fardea Monastery, located 100 kilometers from Timisiora, in northwestern Romania. This Christian Orthodox monastery was founded in 2001. It is home to fourteen nuns, the church father, some workers from the village, and other Romanians who spend parts of the year at the monastery.

This monastery also welcomes women from around the world to stay and work with them, which is unique in Romania. We help them with the enormous amount of work that goes into running a monastery. Without prior knowledge, I had arrived just in time to help the monastery prepare for their biggest celebration of the year. August 15th is the feast for the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and this is the holiday with which this monastery is associated. On this day, the bishop, regional priests, and busloads of local worshippers will arrive for a 16 hour service. And at the end of it, we’ll feed them all.

There is a lot of work to do, indeed.

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The weeks before the celebration, we are kept busy tidying the grounds, cleaning buildings, moving furniture, and arranging rooms. The monastery is thoroughly polished and shined, inside and out. But the few days before the 15th of August, there is only one large task left: cooking the food.

Preparing food in large quantities is an enormous logistical task. Feeding hundreds of people requires careful planning, large pots, and many hands. Luckily, the nuns are experts, experienced with these types of feasts. The menu is already worked out in advance, and all we have left to do is to face the mountains of uncut, unwashed, unprepared food.

Gutting a hundred kilos of fish with two of the nuns, I keep thinking of the summer I worked in a catering kitchen in Wisconsin. It was the first time I thought about food in terms of weight. Instead of talking about the number, or cups, of potatoes, suddenly you are measuring what you need in terms of fifty kilo bags.

We spend the days peeling potatoes, de-scaling fish, and picking through beans. The kitchens are full, people coming in and out, jokes being passed back and forth. The nuns are busy before I wake up and continue after I go to my room to sleep. I am, obviously, not responsible for any of the logistics, but I feed off of the tangible energy in the air: the stress, and excitement, that a big holiday brings.

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Finally, the 15th of August arrives. A stage has been built outside, near the monastery’s church, as the church itself is not big enough for this special service. Threatening rain clouds menace us in the afternoon, but they clear up by evening, bringing in a refreshing breeze. The buses arrive and unload locals from the surrounding regions, families and friends convening and reuniting. The service starts on Friday evening and will continue through the night, until Saturday afternoon. Those who can will fast during the entire service, and I join them.

I do not follow all of the service, despite the English explanations from helpful friends. But I sit, stand, and kneel in the grass, mesmerized by the beautiful singing of the church fathers and the nuns. Later in the night, everyone holds candles, and the cool evening air brings us energy. Some people nap on blankets, drifting in and out of the prayers.

I eventually retire to my room, falling asleep to the sounds of the continuing service. I dream of candle flames and the sound of bells.

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The next morning, I attend part of the service again, but I soon make my way to the kitchen to help the nuns with the final preparations for the lunchtime feast. We set the tables, and I help to carefully carry full pots and plates from the kitchen.

We soon run out of space to put new dishes on the tables. There are the Romanian classics: bread, onions, cabbage, and of course, ciorba, the Romanian sour soup. Heaping plates of sarmale, steamed stuffed cabbage leaves, line the center of each table. We add two different types of stuffed and roasted fish, different cheeses, olives, tomatoes, creamy fish eggs, and buttery mashed potatoes. The tables groan under the weight, but there is dessert too- piles of juicy Romanian grapes, plums, and pears, cookies, and finally, layered cake.

When the service ends, sometime around 1pm, the benches and chairs are filled, and we feast. Relieved of my responsibilities, I watch as the nuns continue to work, making sure there is enough food in front of everyone. Of course, with all their careful planning, there is an abundance of everything, and we all enjoy the end of the celebration by stuffing our stomachs.

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There is a beautiful, tired air that descends after a holiday. Saturday night was quiet at the monastery, the nuns taking naps that, for some, lasted until Sunday morning. I found myself at ease, and grateful to be here.

As I helped wash and dry a truly enormous amount of dishes, I reflected on the holiday. We put so much effort into a single celebration, preparing for weeks for one single day. And yet, afterwards, I felt nothing but contentedness, a great exhale from the nuns. One of my favorite parts of a holiday is the release after it is finished, when the work and celebration are over. This is when you can pause, see the arc of the seasons, mark the passage of time. It is when you can reflect on the holiday, and why we celebrate these traditions to begin with.

But as I stared at the mountain of plates and silverware, my stomach full and happy, I admitted to myself the true reason I love to celebrate these holidays: people never seem to come together without someone suggesting that there be food.

 

(Note: out of a general respect for the nuns’ privacy and their services, I limit my photos of the monastery and the activities there, so they will rarely include people besides myself.)

Dining in the Vercors

Out of breath after a steep ascent upward, I pause and stare up at Annick as she beckons from the mountain path above. “Come on!” she tells me. “Come look at the cows!”

I do as she says, continuing the climb up, up, up the steep mountain side. The faint ringing of bells grows louder and louder, until I reach the top of the crest. There, looking over an enormous valley in the Vercors, I spot the cows. The herd is far below us, but their bells echo up the stone mountainside. They graze near a small but solid house, made of stone and plaster.

“Who lives there?” I ask.

“A shephard,” Annick answers.  “You can tell because there’s no road that leads to the house.” She’s right. I stare at the house, wondering what it must be like to wake up to the sounds of cows’ bells and a view over the Alps.

Claire, Annick’s friend, joins us at the hill’s crest. I ask another question.

“Think their cow milk is used to make the Vercors blue cheese?”

“Oh definitely. And we’ll be eating that tonight, on our pizza!”

I smile as we continue on, Annick and Claire outpacing me. I’ve returned back to the Alps for a brief stay with my former hosts, who are starting to feel like family. This visit to the Vercors, a range of mountains close to Grenoble, has been one of the highlights of my trip.

Queen of the Vercors cows looks over her domain…

An afternoon rain cut short our hike and created a layer of fog throughout the valley. We explored the small surrounding villages instead. The Vercors are an old Catholic region, with crosses crowning hills and crossroads.

Camping sites in France have one major difference from those in the United States: in France, you can order fresh bread in the morning, and it will be delivered to you. Instead of soggy, stale Wonderbread packed into cartons, we eat fresh baguettes and croissants for breakfast. Although I love the simplicity of camping cuisine, I must admit that this morning luxury of fresh baked bread is much appreciated.

We eat well during our four day trip, packing a light lunch to eat in the mountains and preparing a healthy dinner in the evenings. One evening, we visit the camping site restaurant, where the three of us share well-earned pizzas. My favorite was aptly named “The Vercors”, topped with specialties from the region: ravioles, bleu du Vercors-Sassenge cheese, and lardon, or diced bacon. What a perfect meal after a day climbing up and down those steep mountain peaks.

Annick and Claire walk ahead of me, as I take a moment to admire the surrounding view.

Roadside milk, pumped fresh from the cow every day at 6pm.

The final evening, I try what I’ve been waiting for, since I was in the Rhone-Alpes last month: ice cream, à la Chartreuse. With a scoop of chocolate ice cream, la Chartreuse flavor is strong and tasty. I debate ordering the small shot of la Chartreuse to pour over the ice cream, but I choose to enjoy the flavors alone instead. We drink more Chartreuse later, snuggled near the campfire.

I sigh contentedly when I’m finished. The Alps have left me feeling absolutely full: mountain views, mountain air, and mountain food.

The view from the top of Col Vert- 1800m (almost 6000 ft). The world’s best view for a lunchtime picnic!!

Four Days and Four Nights of Dour Festival Cuisine

I called my Belgian friend Arno back in March, when I first arrived in Romania. I had planned little of my seven months in Europe, beyond the first step, and I was looking for advice. Arno had been an exchange student at my tiny Indiana high school, and we had stayed in touch over the years as he moved between America and Europe.

“Come to Belgium in July,” Arno told me. “I want to hear how good or bad your French has gotten. And I want to take you to Dour festival.”

Flash forward five months, and I’m standing in a grocery store in Liège with Arno. We’re staring at our cart, calculating.

“Ok, so that’s enough for the breakfasts… and the sausages and the breads… the noodles for dinner…” Arno is going through some mental checklist, created from years of experience. I, however, am looking around in awe; we’ve come to “the cheapest grocery store in Belgium” to buy in bulk, and I feel like I’m in a dystopian European Costco.

“Alright. The beer, and then we’re good.” We head to the liquor section, and Arno reaches for the Jupiler without hesitation. We are in Belgium, after all, and Jupiler is Belgium’s cheap beer of choice.

In the checkout, the cart is loaded. I stare at its contents in fascination. You could say that this is festival cuisine.

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Dour is an annual alternative music festival that takes place in the fields next to a tiny town near the south Belgian border. The lineup is DJ heavy, with a lot of electro, drum and bass, house, and techno, but there is plenty of metal, hip hop, indie, and reggae as well. The festival, though medium-sized by European standards at 220,000 people, still draws thousands of loyalists every year. Like at most festivals, the entry ticket is exchanged for a fastened bracelet. Those who have been coming to Dour for years proudly flaunt their wristband evidence. There is an air of freedom, and grit, to this weekend.

We spend the days relaxing, talking, and eating at the campsite. I take the opportunity to learn as many French curse words as possible from Arno’s friends, in exchange for teaching English ones. We eat slowly, throughout the afternoon, without hurry to be anywhere at anytime.

The evenings are spent at the music venues, moving from artist to artist in an attempt the create the perfect lineup. Not knowing many of the European artists to begin with, I find a lot of new talent to add to my playlists. A few American artists are there as well, and I’m happy to sing along in English.

The obvious highlight of the festival, for me, was seeing Ms. Lauryn Hill perform. The concert was made all the better by an unlikely meeting with the only other Belgian person Arno and I know from Crown Point High School. Fiona, a former high school exchange student as well, was at the concert too. The three of us never could have imagined, leaving Crown Point, Indiana five years ago, to find ourselves reunited at a Ms. Lauryn Hill concert in Dour, Belgium. The world is a strange place.

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The four days of music and staying out until early morning require fuel. But in a campsite where tents are packed like sardines, there is no electricity, and even getting water requires waiting in line, food options are limited.

I quickly learned that Arno was wise in choosing the food that we brought. After now having the experience of camping at a festival, I can delineate a few simple rules for what I’d like to call “festival cuisine”:

1. Do not bring anything that will suffer in the heat. Forget shade, forget cold spots;  don’t bring anything that can spoil. And after that first afternoon, forget even the possibility of a cold beer.

2. The bare minimal amount of “cooking” possible will be boiling water using a small gas stove. This will enable you to make pasta, instant noodles, and coffee.

3. If it’s processed and comes out of a plastic bag, it will probably taste good after a might of festivities. Give in to it.

4. Though you may try to hold out, eventually, late at night, you will buy a kebab from one of the vendors. Also give in to that.

5. Bring more food than you alone can eat- share with your friends.

A pictorial survey of some ideal festival cuisine:

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At the end of the four days, we emerge from our tent cocoons, pack up, and go home. The ground shows the destructive signs of the festival lifestyle: mud, and garbage. Eating this kind of processed food generates a lot of waste, and here most people leave it on the ground, ready to be picked up by the festival volunteers. I shudder at the mess, realizing the reality of eating festival cuisine. It generates a lot of waste, and judging from the way I feel, it isn’t good for the body.

I’m ready to return to a simpler diet, full of cooked foods and fruits and vegetables. Though I enjoyed the four days and four nights of Dour, I think I need four days of good food and four nights of good sleep to recover.

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Cool Cats in Amsterdam

I spend one quick weekend in Amsterdam, stopping over to meet my Belgian friend Arno before returning back to Belgium. The weekend was full of beer and bicycling, as I lost myself between all the canals and bridges of the charming city. I saw signs for “Amsterdam coffee shops” everywhere, packed full of tourists trying Amsterdam’s most famous product: strong weed.

However, on a rainy Sunday, Arno suggested a different kind of experience, asking, “want to go to a cat cafe?”

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Cat cafes are exactly what they sound like: cafes, with cats that live in them. The concept started in Taiwan, but grew to be most famous in Japan. Sometimes, cat cafes are themed, and frequently they are associated with animal adoption charities.

Kopjes, Amsterdam’s first cat cafe, is named after a clever word play: “kopjes” means both “cup” and also the “nuzzling” that a cat does. The cafe has only been open for a few months, but it is usually packed. The food and drinks are prepared in an exterior kitchen, then passed through a small window into the interior room, where the customers are surrounded by cats.

There are seven cats in this cafe, each with a glamour shot and bio listed on the wall. They all come from the adoption center, but their permanent home is this cafe. The walls and floors are littered with boxes, perches, and scratch posts for the cats. They climb around, laze about, and occasionally do something that makes the whole cafe laugh. Entertainment is included in the price of the coffee.

The cats themselves get more than enough attention from the patrons during the day. True to their species, they seem wholly uninterested in the caffeinated humans that are busy snapping pictures. But somehow, that’s what gives cat cafes, and indeed, cats, their charm.

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Belgian and French Fried

If you’re traveling to Belgium, as an American, you’re bound to offend if you don’t watch yourself: those aren’t French fries. You can call them by their French name (frites) or Dutch (frieten) but in English, they are not French fries. They are Belgian fries.

In Belgium, any grandmother will tell you that the secret to good fries lies in frying them twice. The first time, fried on low heat, the potatoes cook and become fluffy. The second time, on high heat, the outside of the fries becomes crunchy and crisp. If you order your fries at a friterie, they will come in a white cardboard cone, with sauce squirted on top. Most Belgians prefer mayonnaise, and perhaps ketchup.

Belgians supposedly consume more French fries frites than anyone else in the world. As I wander the streets of any city in Belgium, it comes as no surprise. The Belgians celebrate their history by placing a friterie about every block.

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Fries, or chips (for all you Brits), are essentially all a comfort food should be: hot, salty, starchy, and fatty. It is no wonder that there is a hot and salty (and starchy and fatty?) contention over who “invented” them.

A French person will quickly point to a number of anglophone sources, including Thomas Jefferson’s own writing, that refer to fried potatoes “served in the French manner”. “French fries” may indeed come from the old culinary term, “French fried”, which referred to any number of different things that are deep fried.

The Belgians, however, claim that while France, the bigger country, may have popularized fries in the world, it was the Belgians who showed the French how to make the dish in the first place.

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There are an enormous number of origin stories of “French fries”. When the potato was introduced to Europe from South America around 1600, most people thought it was toxic. It wasn’t until the late 1700s that the potato became popular in western Europe.

One origin story claims that when Belgian peasants ran out of fish to fry during some particularly tough seasons, they cut up potatoes in thin strips and fried them to mimic the way they normally prepared fish. This dish eventually spread to France, where it was then exported to the world under the French name.

Another popular Belgian story comes from WWI, when the many American troops stationed in Belgium tried the local cuisine, which included fries. The mobile troops, not really knowing European geography and hearing the locals speak French, assumed they were in France. When they returned to the US, they called the dish “French fries”.

No one knows who “invented” fries. It’s possible that the Belgians invented the fries and introduced them to the French; the reverse is also conceivable. Or, the dishes evolved concurrently in different places that already had similar climates and cuisines. What is most likely is that we’ll never have a definitive answer in this debate.

And yet the lively debate continues, over cones of fries in Belgium and France. This is what is most interesting of all: how cuisine becomes tied to identity. The ownership of fries is not a major dispute. But to those involved, it is a debate of both gastronomical legacy and of cultural influence. People want to claim ownership over what they see as their contribution to the culinary world, because food is tied to cultural identity.

This is why, in every debate that I witness, I try to set everyone off balance. “Wait…” I ask, acting confused, “didn’t McDonald’s invent the fries in like the 60s?”

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To Each, His or Her Own Glass

On my arrival in Flanders, I was welcomed with great hospitality and beer. I don’t know which was better.

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Flanders is the Dutch speaking northern part of Belgium, a tiny region filled with loads of history and kind people. I was lucky to be hosted near Gent by the aunt and uncle of a good friend. Peter and Ann showed me more kind hospitality than I knew what to do with, helping me explore the region on bike and by train, and feeding me well.

Peter and Ann live in the Flemish countryside, where the flowing fields of corn and wheat quietly remind me of my home in Indiana. The land here, however, doesn’t bear the same signs of big agriculture that I see back home. Farms, even when big, are split up into smaller plots, with farmers owning many parcels in different locations. Homes that have been around for generations rest on their land, making it difficult to consolidate. Small walking paths that crisscross the fields provide arteries of public access through the farmland.

I take a few long bike rides through the countryside, using the region’s brilliantly laid out biking map. I follow back country roads, avoiding the big highways. On these little roads I can pass an entire afternoon without seeing anyone but the occasional tractor and other cyclists. I pass tree nurseries, full of young lindens and ash and maples, destined for cities all over Europe. Some of these trees stay in the region too, relining the country roads that were a long time ago made bare. The countryside, here in Flanders, is tranquil.

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In the evening, to my great joy, Peter and Ann would usually crack open a beer. I couldn’t have been more content; I think Belgium makes some of the best beers in the world. And I was eager to drink these beers in the proper way, Belgian style.

Belgian beer afficiandos need to have a lot of space for glassware, because each beer has its own glass. Chimay, Duvel, and Westmalle all have differently shaped, branded glasses, and a Belgian beer drunk in the wrong glass would be an embarrassment. It is said that the shape of the glass allows the beer to breathe optimally, but I like to say that the name in the glass helps you remember what you’re drinking as the night goes on.

True to form, Ann and Peter had all the proper glasses, and we drank each beer in its own. I’m no expert on Belgian beers, but I think I have been converted. A special glass makes a special occasion out of each beer.

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The last night I am with Ann and Peter, we celebrate the summer arrival of fresh mussels, from the northern coast. We cook the mussels with onion, a few spices, and, of course, beer. With a side of Belgian fries and mayonnaise (see the following blog post), the meal is perfect. We spend the night around the table, eating, drinking, and talking.

I could not be more grateful, to be welcomed and sent off in the same way: with great hospitality and great beer.

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Short Summer Stays

If you love food, the summer is full of celebrations. Each week, there is something new to look forward to. In Wisconsin, I love watching the season pass, tracking when the raspberries are at their sweetest, or how many weeks I can count on fresh peaches. I count the summer weeks by what fruit is most ripe.

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Fresh wild strawberries, found on a walk in the woods. Luckily, with the rain earlier that morning, they were fresh and washed.

Now, here in France, I am less familiar with the timing of the season, but I enjoy celebrating the cycle nevertheless. During my stay with Thierry and Annick, there are a few things in particular that are in peak season. The wild strawberries and raspberries are bountiful, and I harvest them nearly every day. Elderflowers are also blooming, and Annick and I use them to make a pétillant, a naturally fermented drink.

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Annick takes a picture of me, as we work to shake loose the blooms of the elderflowers.

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The elderflowers, combined with lemon and sugar, sit in the sun. Natural yeasts in the air will ferment the infusion, and after a few weeks in the cellar, the pétillant will be ready to drink!

And why not celebrate? I savor these summer fruits, made all the sweeter by their short stay.

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Wild strawberries stained my hands red all week. I didn't mind.

Bread in the Oven or the Fire?

I confuse a lot of French words. Gare and guerre (train station and war, respectively) tends to be a perennial hilarious mixup (“excuse me sir, is the war this way? I need to catch a train”). I still remember the Polish man who told me that he will never be able to keep straight the difference between chicken and kitchen, and I empathize. Anyone who has learned another language can recount numerous embarrassing stories about misunderstandings and errors. It’s part of the learning process.

It also inevitably makes my life full of surprises, as I usually only understand around 85% of what is going on at any given time.

One day, Annick, my French host, kept mentioning that we were going to make what I thought I heard as “pain au four”, or bread in the oven. “Well of course!” I thought, “why is she specifying? Where else would we make bread?”

It was only later, when she showed me the recipe, that I understood my mistake: not pain au four, but pain au feu- bread over the fire. Suddenly, I became much more excited.

The dough, ready to cook over the fire on the branches.

Annick and Thierry, my WWOOF hosts in France, are always up to something. Whether it’s hosting the village open-air cinema, or tromping through the woods to find elderflowers, they stay busy with different projects. Annick has recently been toying around with cooking over an open fire, and she has perfected the pain au feu.

We started with a simple dough, and let it rise. I wrapped the dough around a branch and slowly and attentively roasted it. Next to me, the children that Annick watches after school roasted their breads, and I woefully tried to prevent their sticks from dropping into the fire.

Annick, wrapping the fresh dough around the stick.

Eventually, we all had cooked pain au feu, with various levels of charred bits. We gleefully ate the bread with a bit of cheese and chocolate, enjoying the smokey flavor and crisp outside.

Though I’ve always had a high respect for French bread, I’ve now grown even more respect. Even regular bread, cooked in the oven, won’t be enough for me anymore- I’ve discovered pain au feu.

I, amused, guard the kid’s bread, when they lose their patience with cooking and start to play instead.

and finally, the bread is done! The outside is a beautiful crust, but the inside is still soft dough. Perfect with a piece of chocolate.

Searching Out the Specialties

Upon arriving in Grenoble, a college friend, Patrick, informed me of two Rhone-Alpes specialties that I must try. The first is the la tartiflette, which features the specialty regional cheese, and secondly, la Chartreuse, which is a strong liquor specially made by monks with a secret blend of herbs. However, as the weekend flew by, full of activities and parties, I never found an opportunity to search out these specialties.

After the weekend, I headed to the countryside, to do WWOOFing work with a family near Lyon. And there, by the second day, I had not only made and tasted la tartiflette, but I had also drunk la Chartreuse. La vie est belle, à la campagne.

La tartiflette is made with reblochon cheese, a famous type of cheese from the Alps. The name comes from the French word “reblocher”, which basically means to re-milk a cow. The origin legend claims that cow farmers, back when they had to pay tax on the amount of milk their cows produced, would purposefully only partially milk their cows. Then, after their product was accounted for and taxed, they would return to their cows for a second milking. The second milk has a much higher fat content, and it is with this creamy milk that they made the strong reblochon. The cheese has a strong nutty flavor, one that you can smell from a mile away.

La tartiflette is a type of gratin, made with potatoes, onions, and chunks of pork fat. All these are cooked together, in a pan, until well browned. Then, they are combined in a casserole dish, and the round of reblochon cheese is added on top. These ingredients combine in the oven to become a gooey, oozing, beautiful mess of a dish.

It is most popular in the winter in the Alps, after you’ve finished skiing and tromping in the snow all day. We, however, ate it at the end of a hot summer day. As my Portuguese friend Catarina would say, after eating la tartiflette, you can’t do anything but roll away from the table. This is comfort food, the meal that leaves you satisfied and wanting a nap.

La tartiflette, in its cheesy glory. The original round form of the reblochon can still be seen on top, cut into four pieces.

La Chartreuse is the liquor of the Alps, with a long and eventful history. Made by monks since the 1600s, even during periods of their exile, it has become world famous. There is even officially a color, chartreuse, which lies somewhere between yellow and green.

The most famous type of Chartreuse, the strong green liquor, is made from reportedly 130 different herbs, and is the “secret elixir for a long life”. Today, only two monks know the exact blend at one time, and they prepare the herbs for each batch. In typical AOC fashion, it is rumored that the two monks never see each other, in case some natural disaster should kill them both at the same time.

The flavor of la Chartreuse is strong and herbal, staying in your throat and warming your bones. I drink it the second night with Annick and Thierry, and I feel as if I am tasting the elixir of the Alps.

La Chartreuse verte, at 55 percent alcohol. Don’t worry, we didn’t start out the evening with a full bottle.

Though it can be a bit overdone to always focus on the “regional specialty”, I find something very beautiful in searching it out. First of all, I truly enjoy how even if people may be embarrassed or roll their eyes when they tell me about their “specialty”, every single person I ask gladly joins me in sharing a plate. Familiar food is still good food.

I also find that, over a shared plate, people will frequently share memories about the dish. Stories about holidays, family, or attempts to cook pass back and forth. There is something in a familiar taste that elicits some sense of home, a sort of comfort hidden in the sauce.

Cuisines are becoming more global, influenced by styles from around the world. I love that I can see Thai influences in French cooking, or eat a damn good baguette in Tokyo. But these regional specialties, too, add diversity and resilience to a globalized food network. Great cuisines, like French and Japanese for example, celebrate their local products, encouraging local pride and continuation.

But for me, I search out these regional specialties for a different reason. In a time when cuisine becomes more and more global, these regional specialties tie us to a place. They help bring us together; they help us remember. When we make and celebrate a special dish, we are acknowledging the long tradition we come from, and creating our place in it. These dishes give us a sense of belonging, if only for a meal.