Town Comes to Country: Our First Visit to the Château
Ron and I are urban folk, having lived in Charleston for so many years, so cruising around the lovely hilly countryside of southern Burgundy is always a delight for our city-weary eyes. Today, as our British friend Margaret climbs the hills in her battered and bruised old Renault, I catch a whiff of lilacs through the open car window, and I’m assaulted not by crowds but by the intense greens of the fields and the fluorescent gold fields of colza, all neatly divided into a crazy-quilt pattern by angular hedges. Margaret is taking us to see a medieval château and to meet a French couple who have an empty apartment at the top of their castle. We do not yet know that they will become our new ‘family’ when we move to France.
We drive past tiny villages of golden stone with rusty red tile roofs, and finally take a little allée that turns up toward a plateau at the base of the hill. At the end of the road, silhouetted against azure skies, is a majestic château, all turrets and spires and ancient stone, rising mightily above the tiny hamlet. Ron and I stand there rather foolishly, our mouths gaping open and our necks craned to see the pointy roofs of the turrets. “There’s no one in Charleston with a house like this,” he whispers in my ear.
Margaret throws her red hair back and laughs, clearly enjoying the surprise. We follow her through a huge stone arch that has supports for the drawbridge which was once raised against intruders. I picture crusty medieval soldiers on their steeds, lances at the ready.
“I hear pots banging”, Margaret says as we enter the courtyard and pass a bed of orange daylilies, bright against the warm stone wall. “”It must be Nicole, thechatelaine.”
The word chatelaine, which refers to the lady of the château, brings to my mind a willowy, sophisticated, aloof French woman in pumps and a Chanel suit. As we walk through the courtyard, I fret that in our jeans we are badly underdressed for the occasion. But we're distracted by a lovely smell, and immediately drawn to the summer kitchen, double French doors thrown open to reveal a massive wood-burning stove and the largest pot I’ve ever seen. A cheerful, sturdy looking woman, her short, curly dark hair patched with white, stirs the bubbling cauldron with a long wooden spoon. She sports a faded t-shirt, khaki pants and sandals. She is also wearing an engaging smile and there is a sparkle in her bright eyes behind her no-nonsense spectacles. “Do you like raspberries?” she asks, in beautifully accented English. “I’m making jam from the ones we’ve just picked in the garden. Of course you shall take some home with you.
The aroma of the warm, fresh raspberries and the casual welcome put us at ease at once. We hear the crunch of gravel in the courtyard and turn to see a slim, white-haired gentleman, walking slowly towards us as if on a leisurely afternoon stroll, sucking contentedly on a pipe. Though Monsieur le chatelain is dressed in jeans and a cotton shirt, he has the elegance of a professor. He rounds the corner, emerging from the shade of a weeping willow tall enough to compete with the château for height, and greets us with a warm bonjour. This peaceful scene is immediately broken by the arrival of two yorkies, who tear excitedly around the corner and rush up to us like dear friends, yapping and bouncing. As we gather them up for kisses and head rubs, we have the first sense that perhaps we’ve found our new home in France.
Double Raspberry Pie with Mascarpone
We came away with not only some pots of Nicole’s raspberry coulis and jam, but also with a basket of fresh-picked raspberries. So what’s a southern girl to do with such a cache? Why she makes a pie, of course.
The French love fruit tarts, and they keep them simple, just fruit on thin pastry napped with a little coulis or glaze. In this easy recipe I fluffed it up a bit with a cookie crust, and nestled the berries into some mascarpone cream. It’s the taste of a perfect summer day, in South Carolina or the south of Burgundy.
- 1 ½ cup finely crushed cookies (use chocolate wafers or any thin, crisp cookie. I used Lu Tea cookies).
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 4 T. Melted butter
- 1 1/2 cups Mascarpone
- 1/3 cup confectioner’s sugar
- ½ t. vanilla extract
- 1 generous cup Fresh raspberries (do not wash, this will make them mushy)
- 1/4 cup good quality seedless raspberry jam or coulis
- 1 T. Amaretto liqueur or Gran Marnier
- 1 t. lemon juice
- sugar to taste
Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. Use food processor or rolling pin to make cookies into fine crumbs. Mix with melted butter and sugar and press in a 10" tart pan or a pie plate. Bake about 7 minutes. Chill at least one hour.
Shortly before serving, stir together jam or coulis,lemon juice and liqueur (if using jam heat the mixture just to melt; add a little sugar, to taste, then cool slightly). Mix mascarpone with sugar and vanilla until blended well and spread gently in chilled crust. Arrange raspberries over top of mascarpone. Drizzle coulis over berries. Chill until ready to serve. Serves 8.
Our Excellent Adventure
Now that you’ve visited the château and met Nicole and Pierre, here is the story of how we came to move to France from South Carolina.
“So what are we going to next, now that we’ve jumped off a mountain?” said Paul to the rest of the family, as we lazily sipped our post-lunch coffee on a shady restaurant terrace. I was on a family vacation with my husband Ron and my two beloved step- daughters and their husbands, and that morning the whole crowd had indeed jumped off the top of an extremely tall mountain, each held aloft by what looked like a completely inadequate slip of fabric cut from a parachute. Except for me, that is; I stayed firmly rooted on the ground, more interested in the local museums and boutiques than in terrifying forays into paragliding.
“So, let’s go around the table,” my son-in-law continued eagerly, “and everyone tell what sort of great adventure you most want to have before you die.”
I sighed heavily. I am the lone wimp in the family of die-hard adventurers and risk-takers that I married into many years ago. I harbored no secret extreme sports fantasies. I listened to the offerings: jumping from planes, sailing around the world, rafting the most dangerous rivers. When it was my turn, I closed my eyes briefly and waited hopefully for something bold to emerge. What bubbled up was a forgotten high school memory of gazing longingly at the photos in my French 101 textbook of the faraway and impossibly glamorous country called France. Suddenly I had my answer.
“I want to buy a house in the French countryside, and go there to live,” I said firmly. There were approving responses from my step-daughters: “Wow, great idea,” and “Wish I’d thought of that one”. And from my husband Ron, a thoughtful, “I didn’t know that.” That moment was the first step of a journey which brought us to a life we couldn’t have imagined, living la bonne vie in a setting rich in history, beauty, and friendship.
Several trips to France and not so many years later, the memory of that day brings a smile, as I open the window of our salon, from the peak of the highest tower in an ancient French château.
Ron and I, after all, had long been firmly rooted in our home in Charleston, South Carolina. We had not a grand but a comfortable and lovely house, we drove a modest car, we saved our money sensibly and splurged mainly on travel. Taking up residence in a château in France had never entered our minds, or even our dreams.
Travel has been an enduring love for us, however, and after our first trip to France we were smitten. We loved the beauty, the elegant lifestyle, the wine, the food, the quirky French character. We returned for brief trips we began to make a game of visiting the different regions, fantasizing about purchasing a home there. Time and again we kept returning to the lovely hills that unfolded like picture postcards in the southernmost part of Burgundy. We decided that an early retirement and a move to France was to be our adventure; we needed to grow, to push boundaries. Now we feel like eager children, discovering new things each day, and hopefully serving in some small way as good will ambassadors between the two countries.
Somewhere down a quiet road near the château, an abandoned stone house whispers our name, waiting to be renovated into our family home. Until then we are accidental châtelains. Come on in and share the dream!
Recipe: A Celebratory Cocktail from La Bourgogne
Making a life-changing decision calls for a toast. In Burgundy, we quickly discovered that any celebration (which can be as simple as a good lunch) calls for a festive aperitif. The aperitif of choice in southern Burgundy is a yummy creation which combines crémant, and crème de pêche. Champagne, as you may know, can only be called that if it is made in its namesake region in France. The similar sparkling wine made in Burgundy is called crément. Crème de pêche is luscious peach liqueur. Here’s how to make our favorite libation for a special occasion:
--Pour a generous splash of crème de pêche (or any peach or fruity liqueur) into a champagne flute
--Fill the glass with chilled sparkling wine
--To make it pretty, drop a couple of fresh raspberries into the glass
--Toast to your new life, or just to a good lunch.
A votre santé!
Blobbing In Burgundy
My 82 year old mother, who lives in Georgia, called the other day and said, “Well Hon, how’s your new Blob going?” I hope it turns out a little better than that, but if you’re just tuning in to what is the first weekly post, preceded by a couple of posts to tell the story of the Château de Balleure, then welcome to my Blob.
By the way, this is the same geography-challenged mother who tells her friends, “My daughter lives in the south of France, near Switzerland”. That’s kind of hard to do. We do live in the southern part of Burgundy, and Geneva is two hours to the east, but no, Mom, we’re not in Provence but in eastern central France, an hour above Lyon.
Most folks are familiar with the pale palette of Provence, with its colors of soft sage green and gray and sand, its low trees and long vistas. But what is it like in our little corner of France? Ourcoin is first of all a riot of garish colors: grass so green it doesn’t look real, maples of all hues, fruit trees with showy blooms, silvery, swaying poplars. Fields of neon yellow colza, red poppies, golden sunflowers. The hills dip and roll, just short of being called mountains; and everywhere there are pastures, alive with violet and yellow wildflowers at this time of year. The pastures are divided with hedgerows,the cows are mostly the pure white Charolais variety, and there are sheep, too. Our views are valley views of pastures, fields, and vineyards, with woods rolling along the tops of the long hills; and everywhere little villages, well polished by time with their gold or gray stone and red tile roofs, windows shuttered in French blue or willow green. Villages are punctuated by the steeples of Romanesque churches. As a visiting American who saw the area for the first time said, wistfully, “It’s so beautiful it almost hurts.”
RECIPE: Mickey’s Grits with a French Twist
In honor of my mother Mickey, who taught me to make this dish, I’m going to kick this ‘Blob’ off with a recipe for—what else? Grits. Not just any grits, but Baked Cheese and Garlic Grits, frenchified up with some good gruyere (cheddar is the southern choice, but they don’t do cheddar here, in spite of having 500 kinds of cheese). I’ve already started feeding grits to the French, and they’re coming around; Pierre has been known to ask for seconds. And if you’d like to keep up with life at the château and swap a few recipes, please be sure to subscribe and get your weekly email update.
Serves 8. These are great for a brunch, or as a fancy side dish with dinner.
3 cups water, 1 cup milk
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cup quick cooking grits (NOT instant). Or use stone-ground.
2 cups gruyere (or sharp cheddar), grated or cup up small
1 stick butter (1/2 cup)
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 eggs, beaten
Bring milk and water just to a boil in large saucepan, stir in grits slowly, and immediately reduce heat to a simmer. Follow package directions; quick grits cook in about 5 minutes, stone-ground will take longer. Cook until fairly thick, stirring OFTEN to prevent lumps.
Meanwhile, put about 1T butter in a small pan over med-low heat to melt. Cook garlic in butter for a couple of minutes. Add remaining butter to melt and set aside (You can dial the butter back if you're dieting).
When grits are done remove from heat and add melted butter and cheese. Stir until cheese melts. Add some pepper, taste, add more salt if needed. Mix a bit of grits into eggs to warm them, then mix eggs into grits. Pour into lightly greased 2 qt. casserole and top with cracker crumbs. Bake at 350 for 40 to 50 minutes, or until top is set when you shake pan gently. It will take longer if your pan is smaller. Serve hot.