Monday, December 30, 2013

Amongst the reeds, scenes from the Camargue

Hello everyone! We are in the Luberon but due to a storm on Christmas Day there is no internet or phone at the cottage. So we have driven up to a mountaintop to say Hello to the world, the sun is taking its final bow and the view is beautiful. In these final days of 2013, I have been focusing on gratitude more than ever and that most certainly applies to all of you, who have given such support, joy and kindness. I thank you with all of my heart. I am signing out as the sun goes down on one year, while eagerly awaiting the arrival of the next. And although I most likely will not be in touch again until after January 6th, please know that I am sending wishes of peace, prosperity, health and many wonderful discoveries in 2014...until then I leave you with these images of the reeds of the Camargue that bend in the wind and yet resist, snapping back to stand tall.
With all of my Very Best,

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas calm

I have often been asked about the differences between Christmas in France and the United States. And certainly one word comes to mind immediately: calm. It is pretty quiet around here.

In France, nearly everyone has stopped working. Most salaried positions have a two-week holiday.

And so it was not much of a surprise to see a large crowd gathered at the Place du Forum to watch an old-fashioned family circus perform.

People of all ages clapped and cheered as a loopy old clown rang bells.

Others gossiped leisurely at the café across the street.

The streets were nearly empty. Last minute shoppers strolled arm in arm, popping in and out of the small local boutiques.

Only the hair salons were abuzz as everyone (including Remi and I) got a final brushup for les fêtes.

And now, it is time to cook. Remi has thoughtfully planned out what should be a wonderful dinner for two: scallops stuffed with foie gras and wrapped in bacon to start followed by turbot in a langoustine bisque. 

Champagne is being chilled.

In France, it is less about the presents, so there is no frenzy or marathon wrapping sessions. Actually, we are just giving each other two presents this year, one big and one small, something which is just fine by me. 


It is a gift in itself. Now it is time to exhale and be grateful for being here. For being.

"Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on,
Our troubles will be out of sight..."

We will be heading out tomorrow to spend Christmas with friends in Menton and then are heading up to the cottage in the Luberon for the end of the year. To rest. As always, the internet connection is touch and go there, so I am not sure if I will be posting or not.

So I will take this time to wish those that are celebrating a very Merry Christmas and to all...a Happy New Year! Thank you for being here...
With my Very Best Wishes from my family to yours,
Heather, Remi, Ben & Kipling

Friday, December 20, 2013

Forever Chic, a holiday gift...for yourself

I have to say that I am not terribly fond of massive generalizations. There is little that will rile my red-headed ruff more quickly than any phrase containing, "You Americans always..." And yet...and yet...there are some such wide swaths of words that ring true, they just do. Americans are (more often than not)...friendly. French women are (more often than not)...chic. What does that word mean to you? I know what it does to me, most certainly within this context and I'll give you an example to illustrate it. 

When I first moved to Paris from Manhattan twelve years ago, I was struck by the beauty of French women, the way that they put themselves together in a way that didn't necessarily have to do with fashion per se. And yet I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was that made them unique. I was soon introduced to Claudine, a journalist specialized in luxury travel. That first time that I met her, she was wearing simple black pants but with Converse high tops and an artfully deconstructed jacket that, on second glance, I realized was a Yohji Yamamoto. The mix between high and low was dizzying. Not to mention that her hair was beautifully blown-out but she appeared to be wearing no makeup. I couldn't understand much of what she said yet but I watched as she spoke with conviction punctuated with fluid gestures. "How old is she?" I wondered. I had no idea but it didn't matter, really, not in the least. Because she was bien dans sans peau, good in her skin. 

Tish Jett knows all about this concept and understands that being chic is not only about what is happening on the surface but all about the big picture. In her fantastic book, "Forever Chic - Frenchwomen's Secrets for Timeless Beauty, Style and Substance" she methodically pops the bubble of the mysterious je ne sais quoi adjective that has always described our Gallic counterparts and while doing so, suggests how French attitudes towards the beauty - of the inside and out kind - can be beneficial for all of us. This wonderful sentence sums up her take well: "Over and over, they prove that what is pleasing to the eye is uplifting to the spirit, and that what is nourishing for the spirit is what makes life worth-living." Wow. Yes, please.

Now here is the thing. Tish, an American journalist and author of the wildly popular blog A Femme d'Un Certain Age, has lived in France for over twenty-five years and has a dizzying resume - she moved here to become the style editor of the International Herald Tribune and was the last editor of American Elle before the magazine was transferred to New York. So she not only has a clearly established point of view based upon extensive experience (I believe that I have already griped about "expat authors" who publish "authoritative" tomes after having trotted through la Belle France for a few months) but she has the Open-the-Doors might to take you right to the very top experts in each field she is discussing (such as Jean-Louis Sebagh for skincare/plastic surgery and Christophe Robin for hair color). Their advice can be surprising and gathered together (something I have never seen before at this level), it is a gold-mine. Plus - and this is something very appealing to me - 90% of the ideas kicked out have nothing to do with "cash flow" as Tish calls it.

With my redhead temper, I hate to be told what to do (just ask Remi) but at the same time, I love to have things clearly broken down for me, to have options. Tish is brilliant at this. Forever Chic is published by Rizzoli and so it is no surprise that the layout is gorgeous and the illustrations that pop up through the river-swift text help the medicine go down. The chapters range from skin and makeup to hair, diet and exercise, wardrobes and accessories to...une mode de vie or way of living, what makes the inner life tick. 

I am 44 and am feeling the physical and mental changes that have arrived already with age. Also in the past year, I have, admittedly, let myself go a bit. Too many days have been spent working in front of the computer sporting yoga pants and that messy Garance Doré bun. When I do make an effort, I feel better about myself. And when I feel better about myself, my confidence lifts and I feel...happier. With her book, Tish is giving us options on how to feel just that, tools for our arsenal if you will. And while the book is geared towards those of us over 40, this advice is certainly applicable to a far younger set (and indeed, Tish mentions how the French start young). 

I was lucky enough to meet Tish and her fabulous daughter Andrea this past summer (they too have a loving and fun Mother-Daughter relationship). I saw first hand that not only does she practice what she preaches but that it works. Like Claudine, she is just...beautiful. I never thought about her age for a moment but rather on what an amazing woman I was spending time with. She is funny, gracious and grounded. Never pretentious or preachy (I threw down "French Women Don't Get Fat" in disgust two chapters in). And generous too. Now I understand why she worked so very hard to make this book happen - and she did - for she wanted to pass on the goods to as many people as possible. Now, for me that is the definition of "forever chic."

While this certainly would make an excellent last minute gift for a girlfriend, Sister or Mom in your life, for my female readers, I think it would be even better...for yourself. Something to read and savor over the holidays in order to run into 2014 with a fresh perspective and a healthy attitude. Pas mal, non?

To buy "Forever Chic":
On Amazon US, it appears to be sold out in print (I told you it was good!) but for a Kindle edition, click here. But on Barnes & Noble there are hardcover editions, click here.
For my French speaking friends, there is availability on Amazon FR here.
For Amazon UK, click here.

To discover Tish's excellent blog: voila

And to read an interesting interview with Tish by the ever faboo Vicki Archer: ta-dah

How is everyone doing? Are you holding up? Enjoy your weekend and don't forget to breathe...only five more days until Christmas...

PS. Thank you all so very much for all of your amazing comments on my previous post. Both my Mom and I were very touched!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

With Love for my Mom

I know how lucky I am and you can bet your bottom dollar that I am grateful.

For I'll tell it to you straight, my Mom is beautiful, funny, smart and incredibly loving.

She loves to be silly.

Just the sound of her voice on the phone makes me smile but she prefers it if she can make me laugh right off the bat.


She has stood by my wonderful Sister and I through good times and bad, the glamorous and the sad.

She showed us about simple love and it was she who taught me to find happiness in those hidden moments. That yes, the taste of cherry jam counts.

My Mom transferred her fondness for four-legged creatures to us with the instructions that they are to be welcomed as part of the family...

...and encouraged us to follow even our wildest childhood dreams. 

To be true.

We did and do, she cheers.

I am proud to be a contributor to the amazing D.A. Wolf's incredible "blog" (for it is far more than that, she delivers original, thought-provoking content seven days a week) Daily Plate of Crazy. When DA asked if I would like to participate in her series on Mother-Daughter relationships, I nearly shouted out a "Yes!" Oh, this meant so much for me to do. So if you enjoyed this introduction, I would be so very delighted if you would take a look at my post here:

Thank you again for asking me to write this DA, it was a reminder that the best gifts rarely come in boxes. 

I love you, Mom!

For you...

PS. My Mom reminded me of a story that I had nearly forgotten from when I was in my 20s and a little Miss Manhattanite Hipster. I was with a group of girlfriends at a swank martini bar and a few rounds in the subject of Mothers came up. Well, as each girl told her story, the scenarios became increasingly fraught with tension and complexity. All the while I was sitting there thinking, "Oh my, I hope something happens to change the subject before it is my turn. I only have nice things to say!"

Wishing you all a week full of joy...

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The rabbit and the fox in the Camargue

"We both know that Ben runs like a rabbit when but did you ever notice that Kipling trots like a fox?" Remi asks as we watch our dogs from a distance. We all are winding towards the Étang de Vaccarès, the sprawling lagoon that tears a hole in the middle of the Camargue, the region that runs from Arles to the sea. It is wild country and so welcomes two savage beasts like the puppers. And as it has been over a week since they have been able to get in a decent walk due to rolling, bitter Mistral winds, they are both in peak form.

Bound up energy bursts forth in all directions. Yes, Ben's back paws swing from side to side when he is skipping joyfully, just like a bunny. But Kipling is truly unpredictable and is transformed as soon as he is released from the boundaries of his in town existence. The Collie in him shines out to the tip of his tail, which remains flipped proudly over his back. When he spies birds or chevreuil - of which there are many here in one of Europe's largest protected natural areas - he springs straight up in the air, four paws off the ground. He is so quick that my camera can barely catch him. Luckily, the birds outsmart him every time, swooping and swirling in mockery.

Kipling takes off on his own adventure (although he is getting better, much better at not running away entirely)...

 ...but Ben tends to stay near as he always has. I see his contentment in his sniffs and Golden smile.

Amazingly, the water is not too cold for either of them and I can see that both appreciate its stillness, so different from the Mediterranean's restless surge. They exchange land for lake easily, appropriate in this countryside where the limits between the two are often blurred.

They tread lightly over fisherman's nets spread amidst the garrigue to dry in the sun, inhaling a symphony of scent as they go.

And then they run and run again, a physical declaration of Hello. We call them over and over, just to have the pleasure of seeing them find us from far.

Remi and I wander quietly, each with a camera in hand. But my gaze is too fixed on the dogs and my sweetheart to notice much else.

 What joy they give me, our little band of four. 

When we make the whistle that it is time to head back, they follow; stopping each in turn to take a last look at this newly loved place before hopping into the back of the car to settle down to rest. I know what they cannot. That we will return because we can so easily. How fortunate we are to live in such a truly special place where beauty could be - and yet is never - taken for granted. Not by us. Not by a long shot.

Have a wonderful rest of your weekend. I am heading out to assist Remi for a photo shoot in Lyon and should be back in a few days (any restaurant recommendations? The lovely Ann Mah has made some excellent ones here or see her book, which would, indeed make a wonderful present)...

Not to worry, Ben and Kipling will be in amazing hands...

And no, I haven't forgotten the holidays entirely, we just haven't had the luxury of giving ourselves over to them yet. But if you are looking for a little celebratory libation this weekend, why not give a Lavender Ice a go? This evening's interpretation was made with Irish Whiskey and I can tell you that it might be better than the original. 


PS. We like to call Kipling "Scrappy Jaloux" because he is both scrappy and yes, jealous. So this is for him...

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The good, the bad and...vegetable bacon

I blame Elizabeth Minchilli, I do. Now, some of you might know who she is - yee of good taste! - a woman who wears many hats well but is principally a truly fine author and blogger. While she has written six design-oriented books (including two with her husband, the Italian architect Domenico Minchilli, for those hoping to restore their own little bijou under the Tuscan sun), her blog focuses largely on the food and drinks that occupy her daily life in Rome and Umbria. And can I get a little "Hallelujah" about that? For, along with Deb Perelman at Smitten Kitchen, she gives me ideas that I actually use and not just dream about wistfully.

But back to the blaming. Now, Elizabeth is a fellow redhead so technically finger-pointing of any kind is breaking some sort of cardinal Sisterhood of the Redheadedness rule but I can't help it. You see, a while ago she mentioned the wacky idea of roasting cabbage. Now, it's true, I have been on a severe roasting binge as of late after much smacking the forehead of the "Really? It is that easy?" variety. But come on, cabbage? Eww. Who likes cabbage? It's stinky. But as my favorite veggie guys were selling ones bigger than my head for only one Euro, I thought, "Why not?"

Oh my goodness, it is maddeningly delicious. Truly. So much so that I made up a small test batch, ate it while it was still warm, made another that I threw into vegetable bouillon for one of the richest without being rich soups that I have had in many a moon and yet still had to have it for lunch again today. You see, something that appears to be as innocent and vitamin packed as what you see in the first photo transforms in about fifteen minutes into buttery smoke on a plate...also known as...vegetable bacon. It's official, I am obsessed.

I imagine some of you might be thinking, either politely or grudgingly, "Heather, you just wrote a food post. Can you get back to Provencey please? Don't you understand that Christmas is only two weeks away and that every second is precious?" And I will and I do but I would have felt terrible if I had let another day pass without sharing this discovery. So feel free to use at will, cabbage is flexible and it will also be happy if you do a fusiony thing with soba noodles, a little celery, sprinkled cayenne, soy sauce and sushi vinegar. Or whatever. Just trust me, give the roasting a go, get creative and let me know what you think.

So that was two-thirds of the title which leads me to...the middle part. Uh oh. "The bad." You see that photo of cheese. Guilty as charged. Just as the immortal Becky Sharp proclaims in Vanity Fair, "I'm no angel." 

But Elizabeth has also led me to reconsider my expat whining that comes forth on many an occasion: "I miss waaaffles...I miss stuuffing...I miss..." You get my drift. Somehow it truly never occurs to me to just try and make an approximation. I know that it won't really be the same, just as my hilarious friend NK admits at Bread is Pain, so I hesitate. While I won't even try my dearly loved Grits & Bits waffles...stuffing seemed like a doer and when my Sister sent me a photo of a family classic, "Grandma Roxie's casserole" I knew that action needed to be taken. Of course, it turns out that I could easily buy everything needed to make one very fine batch of classic herb stuffing.

I was going to share this recipe with you to be used for Thanksgiving leftovers but wisely assumed it was not needed. However, you might be looking for something of the "just put it all together and get it done" factor right about now, one that has been slightly transformed from its 70s origins:

Make your  homemade version of Stove Top, butter a casserole, line it with the stuffing.
Cover the stuffing with shredded chicken or turkey breast.
Sauté coarsely chopped mushrooms in onion or shallots, when done stir in cream with s&p to taste.
Drizzle additional cream or crème fraiche.
Cover with a mountain of shredded emmenthal cheese.
Bake until the cheese browns.
Drool while it cools then serve.

Although she was related, I can't say that Grandma Roxie was my Grandma but I thank her for this casserole...and for not putting crushed potato chips on top of it. 

Speaking of food appreciation, I have one more idea to share with you that I loved, this time from Stéphane at My French Heaven. It is, as he claims, "A challenge for the real foodies out there" and involves a taste test of a single food item to awaken the senses and to return to really appreciating its essence. 

From his blog...

"The rules:
  • You may only use one produce + salt + butter or olive oil or lemon
  • If not scolding hot, you will eat with your fingers! We want the most symbiotic, raw experience possible!
  • The main ingredient has to be in season or available year round (like eggs)
  • No garlic, vinegar or ginger or anything that could overpower the taste of the main ingredient
  • You’ll have to eat this alone or with other foodies. No kids allowed! When I say kids, I mean anyone who could distract you from the experience. Husband, best friends or wives can be considered kids in this scenario :0)
  • Eat with your eyes closed if possible!!! This will really help you be more aware of all your senses
  • If at all possible, eat something you fished yourself, grew in your garden or picked in the woods (be careful with berries and mushrooms!). This will bring this experience to a whole other level…"
But there really is more to it than that so please take a look (not to mention discover his lovely photography):  I tried it with a piece of unadorned ripe avocado and the results were surprising. Plus, technically, since the cabbage was only roasted with olive oil and coarse salt, that counts and we all know how I feel about the cabbage. 

Admittedly, I have had a case of the Mean Reds - as Holly Golightly would say - as of late, in my case, one of the Holiday Blues! So this post is my equivalent of comfort food. I am doing my best to shake myself out of it, including listening to happy music (alas, "I'll be home for Christmas" only induces prolonged sniffling). This is what I had on repeat while writing this post:

With my Best from Arles,
Keep Calm and Carry On,