Sunday, March 30, 2014

Comfort in comfort

I don't usually post on Sunday nor do I do two foodie stories in the same week...but then again...this isn't any ordinary Sunday. So while I prepare the long wait until 8pm when the election results start rolling in, I am taking comfort in comfort, wherever I can. 

My grocery store roses help, even if they are bruised and fading fast. I still love their leathery petals and spindly form that pulls me into the gateway of a labyrinth with a simple gaze.

And of course, there is food. I have been cooking even more than usual, if that is possible. Actually, it isn't, so I will add that I have been putting a little more thought into what goes in the pan and onto the plate as I need an extra outlet for the brimming anxiety within.

First up, for those of you that might be pondering your Sunday brunch, a funky mixture that worked well. I have the fantastic Deb Perleman at Smitten Kitchen to thank for both the "just put it in a bowl" and the "everything tastes better with a fried egg on top" concepts which are fun to play around with. Here, the bottom layer is shredded zucchini sauteed in cumin and crushed cherry tomatoes, then perfectly ripe Haas avocados were spliced around the sides, topped with eggy and crumbled feta and there you go. I will be making this again.

Have you already eaten? Europe just finally swung around to the time change last night (I know, I don't understand why we can't just do it all on the same day either), so depending where you are, that is entirely possible. All right then, well, if comfort is what is called for, there is nothing that fits the bill better than this dish, a riff from the most amazing Patricia Well's "The Provence Cookbook" which has been sleeping up on the top shelf for far too long. 

Get out your trusty Creuset (or any deep iron casserole dish) then brown chicken legs on each side and remove with thongs so as not to pierce the skin (p.s. France, you may be in crazy politics mode, but I love you for providing chicken fermier or straight from the producer so readily). As they are in season, sauté some sliced spring onions until tender and then replace the chicken, add two cups of white wine (or less if you are not as greedy about sauce as I am), add olives (I happened to have some that are stuffed with chorizo on hand and I have to say that it added mucho gusto), more of those perky cherry tomatoes, additional spring onions and sliced lemons on top. Cover and cook over lowish heat for about an hour until done. This has to be the easiest and yet most rewarding dish I have made in forever. Don't go by the mi-cooked crappy iphone photo, just trust me. 

And since we know by now that roasted cabbage is actually vegetable bacon, why not make some? Along with eggplants roasted with a little olive oil and a delightfully wacky product that is a mashup of Tabasco and teriyaki sauces plus some strips of whatever fish you have on hand (I used leftovers of Remi's excellent trout), voila, another healthy stack in a bowl idea. P.s. I also made a lemon tahini vinaigrette for this but it doesn't really need it so if you are feeling lazy, like a true Food E, then skip it.

So there we are. I am currently roasting asparagus (two huge bunches for only 4.50€ at the market yesterday) to surprise Remi with a salmon benedict for when he comes back from voting...

...for something tells me that I am not the only one that is going to need to take comfort in comfort today.

So I will leave you with this absolutely gorgeous version of one of my very favorite songs in the whole wide world...turn it up and calm down...

...and sigh it with me now, "Ommm"...

..."Shanti, shanti, peace, peace, peace."

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Contrasts in Provence

Hello there. Just to give you a head's up, today's post is also on the current political situation in France regarding the rise of the extreme right Front National party in the municipal elections that will have their final round of voting this Sunday. I realize that this is not everyone's cup of tea, so feel free to come back next week (although I am not planning a political post for Friday but who knows). This blog is about all of the things that are of meaning to me and this subject most certainly qualifies. I was incredibly moved by the courageous and heartfelt response by my friend Silke, who is German, to my previous post. I think that it is important to share what she has to say and with her permission have reprinted it below:

"Dear Heather, I am so busy right now I hardly find the time to write a sentence on your blog!

And yes, me too I am in rage, I am sad, speechless and badly disappointed of my dear French neighbours!

Especially as I am German and EVERYBODY knows the German History and the History of the Second World War. And therefore everybody SHOULD really know certain relations of the FN contents and the German National Socialism Party during the Second World War!

This is not "just" politics this is about about avoiding a human catastrophy. And trust me, this is not just another Hollywood Production, this is real life. And the latter is sometimes not funny in France for people who think different.

As a German it was a weird feeling to have extreme right wing advertising in the mailbox on a daily basis when we were in Arles!

Also, La Provence is not only "belle" it was also one of the centers of "La Résistance" (against German atrocities) during the Second World War who's leader was Jean Moulin.
The beautiful "Alpilles" that we were so happy so see on this blog are crossed by a road called "Route de la Liberté" because Jean Moulin took a shelter there for one night. Every third beach on the Côte Azur is called: "Plage du Débarquemet"! On those beaches landed the Allies to free Europe from the horrors of the National Socialism.
Yes, in the South of France they are proud of their Résistance and for good reasons. But that does not stop them to vote for a party that is Anti-Semitic, Racist and Homophobic! France has a lot of problems but they won't get solved with the FN.

Of course one cannot completely compare the time of the German National Socialism with the FN Party in France. But there are obvious tendencies and similarites in their "values". And their gains of power with a program that is based on Anti-Semitism and Racism is already a political catastrophy.

And the politics of Racism concerns us all wether live in America, Europe, Australia etc, whether we are interested in politics or not, we should be interested in Humanity!

To say something positive finally, the responsables of the Avignon Festival will resist and cancel the whole Festival under a FN Government!"

Personally, I don't feel that Silke is exaggerating. It was only while in the midst of preparing these photos that I noticed the swastika on the right hand side of the image above. 

And so while I see everyday...

...that there is beauty great and small...

...and a living scale of time here in Provence...

...there are also barriers to come up against and - hopefully - breathe through.

There is the landscape that the tourists see...

...graced with goodness...

...and a splendid solidity...

...but there are also the contrasts of the human kind, stark and striking...

...from a history not always seen straight on but peeked at sideways or dismissed with a nod.

From the outside in, we don't always know all...

...and there are many who turn a blind eye to the challenges in front of them...

...just as they can walk by our living monuments without seeing them anymore.

These contrasts are woven together in a pattern so complex that it can be tough to unravel and they scratch up against each other, side by side by side. At least that is how I feel after having lived in the South of France for nearly ten years. I agree with Silke. This is not about politics, it is about Humanity. In our own way, we each make a difference in shaping the future. Eyes open, hearts wide.

Thank you for reading and for your respectful consideration of all that is presented here...

Monday, March 24, 2014

Salad with a side of politics

Oh, dear me.

Well, here is the deal. Last night, while watching the municipal election results roll in from around France, I was pacing the room violently, sloshing the red wine in my glass as I did so, until worked up to a fuming pitch, I swore to myself that I was going to write a tirade of a post today. 

And yet, I just can't quite do it. Not yet, at least. 

Am I angry/afraid/appalled that the extreme right Front National party made such a large advance over their numbers from four years ago? Indeed I am. So much so that I find myself slightly stunned and waiting eagerly for next Sunday to arrive for the final round of voting with a desperate hope for a "Say it isn't so" moment. 

Here in Arles, Herve Schiavetti, the current mayor, has the lead but with only 38% of the vote, while the FN candidate has a whopping 24%. Really? In Arles? Such a second place status was rampant, especially in the South of France and in nearby towns like Avignon, Saint-Gilles, Tarascon and Beaucaire, the FN so far has the lead often with just shy of the 50% needed to have won in the first round.

So, for lunch today, I knew just what to make. It is one of my favorite winter into spring salads but is also quite bitter. Parfait

Endive, beet and blue salad
for 2 people (any more and you might have political disputes)

3 heads of endive, sliced into rounds and sliced in two
Top with:
cooked beets, diced
sprinkling of dried cranberries and/or golden raisins
a sliced apple for crunch
ample amounts of crumbled good blue cheese (I used a bleu d'Auvergne)
sliced nuts on top

Sweet mustard vinaigrette
2 soup spoons of Dijon mustard
2 soup spoons of a sweet vinegar 
(I used a mix of crème de noix - aka nuts - and balsamic with lavender honey)
4 soup spoons of good olive oil
salt, pepper and herbes de Provence to taste
Whisk the mustard and vinegar together then add in the olive oil by two's, adjust to your preferred consistency and taste.

 To read an article in the New York Times on this subject (not the salad): please click here.

For those of you wishing to learn more about the background of the Front National party, please click here (and don't miss the founder's denial of the Holocaust and the current interest in deporting unemployed immigrants...*cough cough*)

To read a previous post that speaks of this party, please click here.

As for Ben and Kipling?

They have both made their point of view clear: "Wake me when it's over."

Just to balance out the amertume?

Here is the beautiful opening to the new collaboration between Bonobo and Late Night tales. The entire album is just wonderful...

Have a great week everyone...

PS. Thank you all so very, very much for your overwhelming response via comments and emails about Remi's first story in National Geographic magazine. We both are extremely moved and grateful.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Remi's story in National Geographic magazine!

Have you ever had a dream that took a long time to come true? Or maybe you are still on the path?

Today is a very big day, one that has been over three years in the making. 

I am so very excited to tell you that my love, Remi Benali, has his first story for National Geographic magazine in the April 2014 issue. Worldwide.

Remi has been a professional photographer for 25 years. He started as a sports photographer with the prestigious Gamma Agency and covered five Olympic Games. He changed paths to start shooting magazine stories and became interested in National Geographic magazine's aesthetic and high-level quality during a three year stint as a foreign correspondent in New York City. Along the way, he was published in many of the world's most prestigious magazines such as Life (his photograph of "Dolly the cloned sheep" was chosen as one of the "100 pictures of the century"), Time, Newsweek, Vanity Fair, the Sunday Times, Le Figaro Magazine, Paris-Match, Stern, Geo, El Mundo and La Repubblica. Often, he would receive the same feedback: "We love your work but tell me, why aren't you working for National Geographic?"

He has voyaged to over 80 countries on five continents and became a specialist in tribes, traditions and UNESCO World Heritage sites. Starting in 1998, several of his stories were presented to the National Geographic Society in Washington D.C. - including his impressive work on "The Marble of the Taj Mahal" - and he had several near misses. But they were misses. It was disheartening. 

In 2005, we chose to leave Paris in order to make Arles, a small town in Provence, our home base. At the time, we were working extensively together as a writer-photographer team and were frequently on the road. But then the economic crisis hit in 2008 and the press took an enormous hit. Our travels slowly trickled to a halt. That same year, several incredible finds were made in Arles during archeological digs in the Rhône River.

One of the most impressive was the discovery of a 31 meter-long (just over 100 feet) intact boat from the Roman era. It took several years to acquire the financing to bring up such an impressive object. In 2011, the Musée départemental Arles antique was ready to take on the 8 million Euros project with the support of the region's Conseil Général for the launch of Opération Arles-Rhône 3. 

Remi (seen in the white hard hat above), along with two underwater photographers, Lionel Roux and Teddy Seguin, was awarded a government contract to document the entire process. Opportunity was knocking. 

After having searched the world over, the story that he had been waiting for was his own backyard. 

National Geographic said, "Yes."

The boat, which was beautifully preserved due to being in a river as opposed to being exposed to harmful amoebas in the sea, was cut into ten sections underwater that were individually lifted up to the surface. Having been present at several of these occasions, I can tell you it was a nail-biting experience each time for all involved.

After having been brought up to the light of day, each section then needed to be treated. The renovation process was extensive, included being heated with non-radioactive gamma rays to solidify the structure of the wood. Each original iron nail was removed and replaced. Additionally, the thousands of objects that were found during the archeological dig - from giant statues to minuscule gold rings - were categorized and restored. Remi followed the entire process.

Within his contract was the possibility to photograph one of the museum's masterpieces, which was also discovered in the Rhône in 2007.

This bust of Julius Caesar is believed to be the only one in existence that was carved during his lifetime. I was able to assist Remi on this photo shoot and it was absolutely thrilling to be literally nose to nose with such a masterpiece of Roman art. 

But that was nothing compared to the night at the very, very end of the three year-long process when he photographed the boat, now reassembled in a new wing especially built within the museum, for a panoramic shot that was a great technical challenge. For six and a half hours, we were in near darkness. Alone. I am happy to say that the resulting photograph is the opening gatefold of the article, especially as Remi had conceived the image even before the boat had been lifted out of the water. He made it happen. Wait until you see is stunning.

On October 5th, 2013, the Roman boat of Opération Arles-Rhône 3 was presented to the public in an opening ceremony.

The crowds were impressive...

...everyone wanted to see and understand the boat which had already been labelled a "National Treasure" by the French government.

But where was Remi? Was he swanning about? Resting on his laurels?

Hardly. He spent the evening secured up on a perch above the crowd to shoot a long exposure photo that was also one of his specially conceived ideas. The masses swirling around the boat were eventually transformed into one blur of a wave that buoyed it back to life! That photo can now be seen on billboards throughout the region as it was used as the poster for the opening exhibition.

When the crowds left that evening - amidst a great thunderstorm that felt fitting somehow - we both had an awareness that the boat had been delivered to port and that the story was nearing its end. 

Remi then went through an extensive and incredibly thorough process in conjunction with his editor on the story. Photographs were selected, abandoned, questioned and every last fact was verified. Finally, the layout came together. The first time that I saw the pdf version of it with Remi's name up top, I cried. I think that we both did, actually.

The day before yesterday, we had a Fedex delivery from Washington. The magazine, which has been so gracious throughout, sent us five copies of the April issue. It will be available in 170 countries in English plus in 60 countries in an additional 38 languages.  To hold it in our hands and know that 40 million readers all over the world will soon be seeing it feels slightly unreal.

Through hard work, tenacity, talent and vision, Remi made his dream of working for the National Geographic magazine come true.

Bravo, coeur. Je t'aime et je suis tellement fiere de toi...

Only one song can express how I feel today:

Turn it up and let's pop open the champagne!

 Can't wait a moment longer? You can see the story at National Geographic online by clicking here.

But please do go buy the magazine! I am going to be asking for photos of the different international versions from you should be reaching subscribers from March 20th or so and on newsstands by the end of the month.

To see five excellent videos (in English) about the lift-up process, please click here.

For mes lecteurs francophones, the story has already been published in three separate editions of the French version of National Geographic. To see more, please click here.

To discover more of Remi's images for the Arles-Rhône 3 story, click here.

To learn more about his photography, please be so kind as to click below:

As always, all of the photos in this post were taken by me (and some even with my scrappy iphone) - trust me this is not the quality of National Geographic or Remi's work... :) 

Thank you for your support and have a wonderful weekend everyone!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A discovery in Castillon du Gard

"Medieval village, first left." We made the turn and snaked up the hill towards Castillon-du-Gard, emitting suffused sighs of wonder with each twist of the panorama. A discovery was in front of us, waiting.

Admittedly, they are increasingly rare for Remi and I. For his various photographic projects, we have criss-crossed la Provence and the eastern reaches of the neighboring Languedoc and wear our metallic merit badges proudly. We even know of secret villages and bijous that are hidden in plain sight.

But Castillon? Well, it was just a mark on the map that we passed on our way to the Pont du Gard and my beloved Uzès. As we had just left nearby St. Hilaire d'Ozilhan and were taking the long road home (aka driving in the opposite direction of where we needed to go), it was time to explore. The light was softening to  a whisper and as we pulled ourselves and the pups out of the car, we realized that we had the streets to ourselves, just as we prefer.

And what unusual streets they are, such perfect cut stone paths...rock against rock to echo...

...and lead us down the yellow brick road...

...into a forest where things haven't changed actually, not since one thousand years.

And yet I felt slightly ill at ease, as if the old stones were holding their breath, waiting for us to leave them in peace. We did and let the light lie behind us.

Mystery is a fickle dancer. So, of course we were immediately tempted to go back by day...

...and discern with a wagging finger...had we been imagining things?

Solidly, yes. 

For there was something of the touch too much perfect...

...a stage set without blunder... if the joke was on us.

What to make of this and these - those pictures that beg to be taken without posing?

A bit like a Frenchman captivated by an insouciant minx, we were slightly under its spell.

We visited a house for sale and returned, returned again; trying to imagine ourselves walking those streets... different from the rowdy roll of Arles with no graffiti, no garbage, no wild cats to be seen. Could we? The answer is no. At least no for now.

But it was still a good discovery and like the mirage of the Pont du Gard shimmering in the distance, a kindly reminder not to assume but to stop and question. "Tu as toujours de préjugés," Remi has been saying to me lately. And I believe that he is right. I think that after all of those years in New York, I try to decide what a situation is or could be in advance as a sort of survival tactic. It might have been smart then but it could be time to change now. Better to think twice then. Once with your head of course but always, always once with your heart as well.

PS. My friend DA Wolf at Daily Plate of Crazy recently wrote a thought-provoking piece on the definition of wisdom that I think that you might enjoy. You can find it: here.