Friday, January 6, 2017

Cafe Oc, the Book, Is Out!


I am so pleased to share with you that my book, Cafe Oc--A Nomad's Tales of Magic Mystery, and Finding Home in the Dordogne of Southwestern France, was just released by Shanti Arts Publishing.

A travel narrative and memoir set in southwestern France, Cafe Oc is available everywhere you like to buy your books, online or from your favorite local bookstore. If you are a bookstore owner, it is distributed by Ingram among other distributors so will be in your usual ordering venues.

I also am so happy to see that readers are already telling me how they are enjoying the book. One, on Amazon, called it a page-turner and also strongly suggested that you shop for French food and wine before you start to read it so that you don't wind up too hungry! That was when I realized I wrote more about the regional and visceral experiences of food and wine than I had thought. Those culinary journeys are interspersed with adventures into the wild forests and caves as well as into the humorous, engaging, and warm local life that is closely attuned to the land. It also goes deeply into a rich folklore that remains intact in this never-industrialized and deeply ancient part of France and Europe.

Given the natural cadences of life in the Dordogne as woven in with the seasons, Cafe Oc unfolds with the seasons as well, beginning with my first winter there--exactly eight years ago--and continuing into first spring, first summer, first autumn, and coming full circle with second winter and into spring again.

Cafe Oc is as much a love letter to the Dordogne as it is a meditation on home and belonging and how we find ourselves in our most authentic places, both within and without. And it does have a good strong dose of real magic and mystery, experiences that simply happen by showing up and stepping into the unknown.

I hope you will greatly enjoy reading Cafe Oc, and as we make the passage through winter, I want to wish you a joyous and fulfilling 2017. Tous les meilleurs voeux pour la nouvelle année!

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Summer in Sarlat



Come May, the number of visitors to the Dordogne and to Sarlat as the capital of the Périgord Noir portion of the region begins to swell much as the Dordogne and Vézère rivers after a good rain. Tourists arrive here all year round, a pretty healthy trickle in January and February, but the surge really begins in spring and the peak of the swell hits by late July and remains intense until late August and often well into September. What were once shoulder seasons to summer are now swell seasons and the shoulders have disappeared.

Last year alone, 3 million visitors made their way to Sarlat. When I first came to the region in early 2009, the statistics were just in for 2008 that announced nearly 2 million visitors. Just two years later, the new count was around 2.5 million. With a steady increase of half a million visitors every year or two, most are making their way to take in ‘one of France’s most beautiful markets’ right now.

That’s a lot of people coming to a place about which most people still have not heard. Unless, of course, you are a lover of the most beautiful French markets, of prehistory and painted caves, and of so many castles and chateaus waving to you from a riverside cliff top or from a rise in a misty forest valley with turrets and towers piercing the fog, then, it’s a serious destination.

I first came here in January, seeking a time of solitude—and lower prices, and more time to talk to locals, and to learn Occitan, the old Romance language of these hills once sung far and wide by the troubadours. I wanted also, in the calm of deep winter, to see the painted caves of the Magdalenians who lived around 18,000 to 12,000 years ago and left us Lascaux and to see places where Neandertals long before them, anywhere from around 380,000 years ago to 40,000 years ago, camped, hunted and gathered and made their life. It was during the quietest edge of visits and so I was in initial shock when I came back for a visit my first summer here and experienced the rush and throng of people in the peak season.

What was a quiet winter food market on Wednesdays and Saturdays, setting up slowly in the dark morning, sunrise still an hour or two away, merchants wrapped in their fleece and parkas and taking an early breakfast together at one of their tables, rested in spite of the 5 am hour, in summer, they arrived at the same hour but in daylight and seemed a bit worn at the edges but still cheerful and ready to engage in the parade of life—food and people, dogs and conversations, and if they could, steal a bite in what was no longer an early lingering breakfast but a peripatetic bite.

As much as I miss those quiet winter markets in the busy tourist season, I love the color and comedy of the market in summer. Winter had its spinach and squashes but summer has its strawberries, first arriving in spring, then its cherries and plums and peaches and apricots along with its sun-bursting ripe tomatoes of all colors and sizes, then its blackberries, and only in August do we begin to see the edges of autumn pushing in with early gourd squash and late zucchini.  The palette shifts from grey and green to red, yellow and orange. The bold summer colors pierce through the thick hot air, unless it rains, which it can any time for any reason, whatever the season.

Like the crowds that run currents through Sarlat’s market, so the rivers swell and overflow their banks and announce that this too is life, the feast along with the famine, the summer chaos after the winter calm. I love it all.

I marvel also at how, no matter the mood or demands of the market, the merchants remain steady, kind, warm, and generous people. The personality of Sarlat’s weekly market holds as a place where people savor life and share of its beauty without restraint, inviting everyone in. Including the dogs who you will see pushing their shoulders between peoples’ legs, insisting on being a part of the parade of life. (Be sure to see my post on the dogs of southern France, important citizens, indeed!)

And sunflowers. How could one overlook this distinct sign of summer, their peak arriving in July and their heavy, seed-packed heads beginning to droop and dry by mid-August? That is when you really know you are in the south of France in summer with one of its iconic delights. Here in the Dordogne, they make a special appearance just west of Sarlat, around the church of Vezac in the valley below the fortified castle of Beynac along the Dordogne river, the old 12th century Romanesque church making a lyrical backdrop to the splash of yellow across the horizon.

Also near Vezac’s church, and all across the region, walnut trees are beginning to drop their nuts. This ever-present produce of the Dordogne is always on hand in the market—winter, spring, summer and fall—and in its many forms: natural in the shell, toasted golden pressed oil, or in the form of the famous walnut cake made from both the nut and the oil.



Soon enough, the summer harvests will come in, the fig trees will swell with fruit and drop it on the garden path and roadside, school will start, and somewhere a shoulder of a new shoulder season will appear, most likely in late October these days, just in time for chestnuts to appear in the surrounding forests and in the market in Sarlat. 
 

Friday, June 27, 2014

Sarlat's Saturday Market in Southwestern France

After what feels like far too long, I am back in the land of Neandertals, Cro-Magnon, truffles, troubadours, and life closely lived in connection with the land, waterways, and sky. The market sets up below my window over one of two market squares. First arrived the fish seller at 5:30 AM to arrange her fish as florists arrange gorgeous bouquets. I can see that dourade, flounder, trout, scallops, mussels and oysters are a part of the sparkling fresh display.




A huge storm just washed through early this morning. While for the fish seller the challenge wasn't as great, as the fish were already wet, the bread baker had more of a time keeping his oven fresh goods dry. He succeeded and both vendors were able to greet, while still setting up, old time customers, locals in their 70s to 90s, who like to hit the market before the great crowds of visitors arrive to take in one of France's most beautiful markets. An elderly man in his 80s arrived with his umbrella and his little woven basket hung on one arm and bought some trout. Another in his 70s came with his shopping bag and picked up a few loaves of rustic bread. 

Long ago as an anthropologist I learned that markets will tell you a lot about the personality of the community in which they unfold week after week. Markets will tell you how they treat each other. They will tell you how they welcome outsiders. They will tell you how well they live the day to day. And if you are lucky and return again and again, they will tell you deep stories of remarkable lives that unfold lyrically and engagingly in their usual 25 mile radius.

This market reflects kindness to each other, a warm welcome to the visitor, whether s/he visits only once or is a repeat fan like myself. It reflects a deep connection to the land and the seasons, to locally grown and organic and locally crafted foods. And it offers rich, engaging stories, some of which I have been lucky enough to write about in my forthcoming travel memoir, Cafe Oc. For the latter, stay tuned, it should be out soon and I'll announce it here (You can learn more from my talk about it on YouTube though!). For the former, let your imagination come here and soak up the colors and smells, and the addictive laughter of the woman who sells goat cheese from Rocamadour, the saucy banter of the fish seller, the steady low key warmth of the bread baker, the bright warmth of the strawberry seller, and the Occitan garden talk of the lettuce seller and her husband with just picked greens from their kitchen garden. 


Ah, and now all the merchants have gathered at the bread baker's stand and are enjoying a traditional breakfast of foie gras, cheese, bread, and red wine, each ingredient contributed from each vendor's stand. Add savoring life to the market's personality. I have one week in this sublime spot and then I move a few miles south to begin the dig season with work at the Neandertal site of La Ferrassie for the rest of the summer. That is a related adventure. I may not get to see the weekly market set up under my window but I will get to the roots of the original inhabitants in this food rich land and gain better insights into why they too were drawn here. (I will write about that in my forthcoming book, Cafe Neanderthal).

May we all be reminded and bring into our lives again and again what these markets sustain: community, life with the land and each other and all creatures, and a daily balance that speaks of deep well being and real wealth.



Friday, May 30, 2014

Talking about Cafe Oc

This YouTube video comes from a fun talk I was invited to give at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iN2lJB23o3I.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Taste for Truffles (and other earthy delights) in Sarlat

“You must pay attention to the ground,” explained my friend, Gerard, who is from Sarlat, an important town in the Périgord for the native black truffle, Tuber melanosporum. He was standing in his backyard truffière—a cluster of native evergreen oak inoculated with the truffle spore. Truffles grow symbiotically near oak and hazel tree roots. They are feisty and elude efforts to cultivate them. They’ll appear when they want to. He was giving me my first lesson toward becoming a knowledgeable truffle hunter.


“Once you know the ground surface around the trees,” Gerard went on, “you’ll see when a part of it swells; that could be a truffle.” If you also see flies hovering around that spot, you’re guaranteed a little lump of black gold, but dig it up fast. The little buggers will lay their eggs in it and when the larvae hatch, they’ll feast on the musty-scented, nutty-flavored truffle like mother’s milk. Dogs and pigs are also used to locate truffles but Gerard’s method eliminates training the dog or competing with the pig, who will eat it tout de suite.

The first historical note about truffles dates to 5th century BCE Athens where a foreigner purchased citizenship with a plate of truffles. Today the fungus is no less lucrative and demands around 1000 Euros/kilo.

But a person of modest means can sample this earthy delight every November to February at Sarlat’s Saturday truffle market.


The town also hosts a Fête de la Truffe the third weekend in January when famous chefs offer truffle appetizers with regional wines at bite-sized costs. This year, as every year, the town’s main market square, the Place de la Liberté, filled up with white tents hosting celebrated chefs and their truffle creations. Visitors can pay a few Euros for a truffle appetizer and a glass of wine paired to go with that particular treat. 


And while this year’s festival has passed, each month seems to have a seasonal food festival. February’s will be the goose festival, Fête de l’Oie (set for this weekend). Soon, little tastes about town will involve all manner of fowl creation, from confit, to cassoulet, to grilled meats, to foie gras. Truffles will make a showing here too, so, not all is a lost if you missed the January festival.

Gerard has the best perch for all of this. Living on his own land, overlooking the town of Sarlat, every morning he goes out to his truffière while the bells of Saint Sacerdos cathedral ring the resonant hours up to his hill. Birds flock to his fruit trees nearby, and his friendly cats rub up against his legs as he takes in the fresh morning or afternoon air.

His is a daily festival for the joy of living here.



Friday, December 20, 2013

December in Sarlat



Sarlat's town crew works hard to kick off this month, hanging white decorative lights across roads and through the squares and placing the festive Christmas tree in front of the 12th century Saint Sacredos cathedral (this year, a white electric tree unlike prior years with pine trees decked out in white lights).

If this effort weren’t enough, the crew also builds 42 wooden kiosks on the south end of town. They are cottage-like in appearance and reflect the cottage industry handmade crafts and foods for sale in Sarlat’s Advent marché de Noël. This Christmas market opens the beginning of December and runs through to Epiphany to assure that when the Three Wise Men arrive to admire Jesus in his manger, all children will also benefit from the excitement of gifts on January 6. 

Epiphany cakes are also appearing, ones with fun ceramic creatures hidden in their semi-sweet, coffee-perfect cake rings. That there are so many different ceramic characters and that each bakery has their own surprise collection makes it a cake easy to buy and consume several times before, during, and after Epiphany. Luckily, Sarlat’s bakers keep making these cakes throughout January and sometimes into February.


Throughout town, shopkeepers are also decorating their storefronts with green boughs and colored lights. The pine scent and hot mulled wine (vin chaud) permeates the cafes and the Christmas market.


On the intersection of the main paths through the Christmas market—not far from the people roasting and selling hot chestnuts or hot mulled wine (from a secret family recipe)—is the crowded outdoor oyster stand. Master oyster shuckers array plates of 3, 6, 12, and more oysters (huitres) harvested each morning from several nearby shores in Aquitaine and Poitou-Charentes. They offer a glass of champagne to accompany the sweet briny treats. And this is precisely where you will find me. (Unless, that is, I am hiking in the ancient forests of the Dordogne and taking in the crisp winter air, or, back in New Jersey pining away and flying there in my mind’s eye.)


Wishing you all a very festive and joyous holiday season wherever you are and wishing you the same warm gathering of community as that in Sarlat.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Ode to the Dogs of Southern France


I love dogs and I love southern France and that the two come together everyday when I am in the Dordogne is an eternal source of joy.

Like French people, French dogs have a strong sense of public decorum and courtesy. The French are polite—saying bonjour and au revoir whenever entering and exiting a store or café and respecting personal space in public while making public life colorful, witty, and engaging. Dogs are raised to behave similarly. They meet and greet, they come and go in cafes, they stop to say hello but they respect personal space at the same time.

In Sarlat there are many dogs who are as free as local humans to wander about town. They have their circuit, their terrain, and their expected meeting points. In cafes and restaurants, many dogs are as regular as the regulars and add to the richness. I am always amazed that they don’t beg, except for polite attention.

Here is a photo essay, a tribute to the dogs of southern France, who make day-to-day life an even greater pleasure in this golden land of caves, castles, and croissants.

Vivent les chiens!