Reading may seem like a solitary pleasure, but we do not believe it is so. As we read, we intimately interact with writers, the worlds they create, and our own inner selves as well as the real world that surrounds us. Some of us are also blessed enough to have friends to share the experience with.

While discussing the idyllic village of Three Pines and the captivating characters author Louise Penny created in the Inspector Gamache books, we were aware of the sensory pleasure to be had in the meals described. Olivier’s Bistro, Gabri’s baking, and dinners at the Morrow’s can easily make us salivate while reading the books… Louise Penny's books, are a wonderful entrée into a sensual world, where each book is a season, capturing its mood and flavours, and contributing to the layers of meaning about the characters, who are marvellously revealed over the series.

At one point, a daydream of going through the series with a notebook in hand, writing down all these meals and later cooking them, took shape. This is our "notebook". We hope you enjoy this literary-culinary-sensory-philosophical journey.

Monday, August 31, 2015

In Search of a Licorice Pipe

by Libby

'The woods had been chilly and the thought of a café au lait in front of this open fire was too good. And maybe a licorice pipe, or two.'
(Still Life, Kindle, p.61)

This is our  introduction to Chief Inspector Armand Gamache with a licorice pipe. It's rather quirky, and unexpected, that the Head of Homicide in the Sûreté du Quebec, is partial to such a treat. Arent fictional detectives usually predisposed to greasy fast food, an alcoholic beverage or other drug of choice?

We get to know Armand Gamache as a refined, intelligent and loyal man, highly observant, thoughtful, and also intuitive. He is a man of integrity. His honesty, conscience, compassion and empathy attest to it. I am reminded of Louise Penny's hope for readers, that if there is one message received from this series it is that 'goodness exists'. This is probably no better personified than in Armand Gamache.

We sense that he is a man, a leader, comfortable in his own skin. He has no need for pretentious or condescending behaviour. Funny how a little idiosyncrasy like a penchant for a licorice pipe captures our imagination and draws us closer to the character of the man. He's not even above a little self-parody amongst friends. And that's what endears him to us.
Did you miss me? We must never speak of our feelings, Gabri, said Gamache. It would crush Olivier and Reine-Marie. Too true, laughed Gabri and coming around from the bar he offered the Chief Inspector a licorice pipe. And I hear its always best to suppress emotions. Gamache put the licorice pipe in his mouth as though he was smoking it. Very continental, said Gabri, nodding approval. Very Maigret. Merci. The look I was going for.   (A Trick of the Light, Kindle, p.202)
We also associate the liquorice pipe with a 'welcome' to the convivial setting of the Bistro, a small offering by Gabri or Olivier, of friendship and comfort.
Olivier had greeted him with a hug and a licorice pipe.' (The Cruellest Month, Kindle, p.96)
If any man looked like he could use a good pipe, said Olivier. Merci, patron. Gamache dropped onto the sofa with a groan and raised the candy to his companions. “À votre santé.  (How the Light Gets In, Kindle, p.196)
But that association changes during the excruciating time, when the Three Pines community is reeling from the conviction of Olivier, and the connection between friends is strained.
Gabri, said Gamache, and the two old friends stared at each other. Monsieur, said Gabri...And offered Gamache a licorice pipe. Myrna walked in a few minutes later to find Gabri and Gamache sitting quietly by the fire. Talking...An uneaten licorice pipe between them.'
(The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.498) 
Later the licorice pipe becomes not only a reminder of the bond of friendship, but almost an inducement to right a perceived wrong. 

'Gabri looked down at the...writing paper with its partly finished message. The same one he wrote every day and mailed, along with a licorice pipe. ' (Bury Your Dead, Kindle, p.42)
Significantly, Gamache is unable to accept the treat, as he wrestles with his own demons and the improbability of changing Oliviers conviction.

'Inside, as always, Gabri had put a licorice pipe. Gamache took it out, hesitated, then offered the treat to the man across the way.'  (Bury Your Dead, Kindle, p.16)
And so, Armand Gamache has succeeded in elevating the licorice pipe into our consciousness! Even Agent Yvette Nichol is not unaffected. She can't resist having a little dig.
How could his name be attached to this file, but not appear in it? Gamache asked. It could be hidden, said Nichol. Or an outside reference. Like your name might be attached to a file on balding, or licorice pipes.  (How the Light Gets In, Kindle, p.303)

Early in the series I was left wondering why a dedicated licorice eater such as I, had never heard of a 'licorice pipe'. It seems I've been living on the wrong continent!
Recently, two close friends and I had an amazing trip to Quebec and the Eastern Townships after we acted on our inspired idea to go in search of Three Pines. We hit the trail of all the inspirational sites for the series. 

Inspiration for church of St Thomas, Three Pines

 Tracking down licorice pipes was also high on our agenda! So there we were in the township of Lac Brome, envisaging going home with boxes of them. All we managed to do was scoop up the last handful in the last box in the shop. But we had a good laugh later that day posing with, and eating our licorice pipes!

It's actually quite a good flavoured licorice, not sticky and with the right amount of chewiness. But I have always wondered (I think a few of us have) about its pairing with a cafe au lait or a glass of Scotch.

'Armand Gamache leaned back in his chair, just as the Scotch and his café au lait and candy arrived. He took them and with all the dignity he could muster, turned to Ruth. Pipe, Madame?...Ruth nodded and absently stirred her Scotch with the butt end of her licorice pipe.'  (Still Life, Kindle, p.64-5)

I was rather curious about these seemingly incongruous flavour combinations, so I had to give them a try. Well as it turns out, both are quite pleasing to the palate. Coffee and licorice seem to go together. It's not a jarring combination.

As for Scotch, well there's a surprising flavour harmony between a licorice pipe and a glass of 12 year old single malt. This made more sense when I learned that 'licorice' is in the tasting descriptors of some single malt Scotch whiskies, and even some bourbons.

So perhaps it's not just a sweet treat but something more sophisticated, which Armand Gamache, Olivier and Gabri, have obviously understood.

Licorice candy derives its flavour from licorice root (Glycyrrhiza Glabra) which has a subtle earthiness and natural sweetness (because of the glycyrrhizin it contains). Traditionally it has been used as a herbal treatment for quite a few ailments including digestive ones.
There is, however, some licorice' candy that is made without licorice root and uses other flavouring agents. Look for licorice extracton the ingredients list, for the real deal!

All things in moderation, though. Here are some health warnings about over consuming black licorice (that contains licorice extract) in a short period of time.

Licorice root is also used in the making of some aperitifs, for example, Red Vermouth (used in such popular cocktails as the Manhattan and Negroni) and the French aperitif, Pastis.

And now its being rediscovered in ice-cream, other creamy desserts and chocolate, and as a taste partner with some fish, poultry and game. I was rather intrigued by the idea of licorice root ice-cream, so I've taken a small tangent! I've adapted my usual recipe (see below) to make some. Much less sugar is required for this recipe than normal, owing to the natural sweetness of the licorice root. The ice-cream custard is infused with pure licorice root shavings, or tea (usually available in health food stores that sell herbal products).

The ice cream is a little unusual with an earthy, delicate licorice flavour (quite unlike black licorice candy) and goes perfectly with the tartness of rhubarb, lightly stewed with just a little sugar. I made some coconut tuile biscuits for a sweet, crisp accompaniment. Its a sophisticated combination of flavours, but easy enough to achieve when you have a bit of time on your hands.

This is obviously not the purplish-black confection that usually passes for 'licorice ice-cream'. If you want to make that you just need to substitute ground-up black licorice candy and melt it into your custard.

Licorice icecream (makes 1 quart/1litre):

2 cups/500ml of pure cream (not thickened cream)
1 cup/250ml of whole milk
2 tablespoons of licorice root tea (double this amount of liquorice root for a more intense flavour)
6 egg yolks at room temperature
1/3 cup/90g superfine sugar
2 tablespoons of vodka or other alcohol (optional)

Warm the cream and milk in a saucepan until just before it reaches simmer point. It must not boil. Remove from heat and stir in the licorice root tea, lightly cover, and allow it to infuse for about an hour.
In a bowl, whisk the egg yolks and sugar until they are light and creamy. Place a fine sieve (to strain off the licorice root) over the bowl and pour in the warm cream/milk infusion. Whisk together until well mixed. Pour into a clean saucepan and gently cook over medium to low heat for 10 minutes while constantly stirring with a wooden spoon. Dont let the custard come to a simmer. This is no time to be distracted!

Pour into a large jug, allow to cool and then refrigerate until very cold. Pour into an icecream maker and churn for 20-25 minutes. Optional: Add 2 tablespoons of alcohol, such as vodka, in the last ten minutes of churning, for a softer icecream.

Earl Grey ice-cream, from an earlier post, uses the same recipe. Just substitute 2 tablespoons of Earl Grey tea leaves, and use ¾ cup/150g superfine sugar and 2 tablespoons of Cointreau.

Chicken and Baked Veggies on Baguette

by Amy

He strongly believed in collaboration, not competition, within his team. He realized he was in a minority within the leadership of the Sûreté. He believed a good leader was also a good follower. And he invited his team to treat each other with respect, listen to ideas, support each other. Not everyone got it.”

The setting for this meal is a private back room at Olivier’s where we listen in on the first Sûreté team meeting in the books. It is where we are introduced to the Chief Inspector’s kind (and successful) mode of leadership: collaboration and respect.

I like how the food they eat gives us a feel for the characters, who they are and, as we read through the series, how they change. I found it interesting to see how their meal choices varied with their moods and the phase they're living in their own lives (Beauvoir's lack of appetite in A Trick of the Light comes to mind). In this scene, we aren’t told what the other agents ate. We "see" Beauvoir’s ham sandwich (with honey-mustard sauce and aged cheddar on a fresh croissant), but I ended up choosing to make Gamache’s lunch for this post.

There is room for individuality and difference in opinions – and taste. Gamache, through Louise Penny’s writing, fosters tolerance and acceptance with rare kindness. Each individual is allowed to have – and share – even wild, unexpected, and apparently insane ideas. He embraces respectful divergence of opinion and frequently encourages it in an attempt to reach a fuller understanding and have a better grasp of the whole. That does not mean he is weak or doesn’t have his own ideas and beliefs. The ability to listen and cultivate empathy does not presuppose lack of firmness or decisiveness. And opinion isn't equal to fact.

Actually, that last sentence may be the key issue in respect. Opinion and fact are not the same thing. Gamache understands (more than most) that perception, affinity, beliefs, and personal taste are not absolutes. They cannot be proven right or wrong. Unlike facts. He fosters respect for opinions and perceptions while seeking factual truths.

It’s easy to support those who share your views, your ideas, and your tastes. It’s harder to listen and respect when you disagree. Respect doesn't require agreement. You don’t need to condone to empathize. You don’t need to share a belief to try to understand why and how someone might hold that belief.

Gamache put together a team of underestimated and misunderstood individuals. He has a rare gift: he sees people. He knows how to make use of and value what each member of his team is able – and willing – to contribute. He helps them optimize their strengths, understand their weaknesses, and grow where they need improvement. The quote above uses the word “invite”: “he invited his team to treat each other with respect“. He doesn’t even force the process of teamwork – he gives them time to adjust and room to grow into a better version of themselves. He’s one of those people (I’m sure we all have at least one of those in our lives) who inspire us to be better just by knowing them.

I’m not sure if the grilled chicken and roasted vegetable baguette (as worded  in the book) corresponds to my interpretation of it, but maybe all of my rationalization on respecting variety in taste was an excuse change the recipe... I allowed myself to experiment and also to use some leftover grilled chicken that was in the fridge. I’d run across a recipe for baked vegetables that I wanted to try and dragged my son (who wasn’t happy about leaving his Legos on a Saturday) out of the house to go buy a petit pain (which isn’t quite the same, but very similar to a baguette). So I guess it isn’t at all the same meal… I’m sure Gamache would excuse my poetic license, I hope everyone else will, too.

Here is the recipe I used as inspiration (of course I tweaked it) for the baked vegetables:

This scene is on page 65 of the paperback copy of Still Life.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Pumpkin Pie

by Amy

The pie in the Pre-Thanksgiving Dinner is almost an afterthought. We only know they even had it because their stomachs are described as being full of pumpkin pie (along with turkey, port, and expresso) as they say their goodbyes.

I wonder who the baker was and whether or not it was anticipated and appreciated. In my own home, when a pie is baked, my husband spends most of the meal saving stomach space for dessert. He’s discreet about it (if guests are present), but he keeps an eye on the slices as they leave the plate and mentally calculates how long the pie will last. I don’t think he’s ever eaten a last slice without asking when the next one will be baked.

This was my first time making a pumpkin pie. Maybe it’s because pies are usually baked with aforementioned pie-loving husband in mind. I tend to ignore recipes that he won’t enjoy since I’ll end up eating them all by myself. Pumpkin doesn’t rank high (or anywhere near the middle) on his list of favorite flavors. Another (very likely) reason is because pumpkin pie is unusual in my part of the world and there is some truth to the cliché that ‘out of sight is out of mind’.

I’m sure I must have tasted it at some point, but I can’t remember. To me it is a “borrowed memory”; it is my mother’s favorite. My memory isn’t of the pie itself, but of hearing her praising the wonderful blend of cinnamon and nutmeg with pumpkin. I remember the nostalgic look in her eye when talking of autumn desserts shared with friends when we lived in the US decades ago.

She loves pumpkin pie, yet I don’t think she’s ever baked one here. She might have, once or twice, but while I remember listening to her talk about it, I have no visual memory of her actually eating a slice.

As soon as I realized it was on the list of meals for the blog, I called her. Mom said she started salivating as soon as she heard I was planning to share her favorite pie with her, but the one thing she repeated over and over was, “I love pumpkin pie. I don’t know why I never bake it!” Her voice held a hint of disbelief every time she said it. Now, it would make perfect sense if she didn’t cook or if she had never incorporated into her diet any of the dishes she’s learned from various international friends. However, we’re talking about a woman who bakes her own bread and who is fearless about tasting new dishes and adding to her repertoire from the flavors and meals she’s been introduced to by friends both here and abroad. So why doesn’t she bake pumpkin pie?

I wrote out the list of ingredients and realized most were staples in my pantry and none were hard to find. In the meantime, I pondered on why my mother had, for so many years, denied herself something that was so accessible.

It was only today that it came to me: a possible reason why. It is probably the same reason why I usually make the pies my husband likes best and why the only cake that can usually be found in our house is the only one my son eats (carrot). If what we love is not shared by those we love, there is less pleasure in indulging. Mothers frequently lose sight of their own preferences in their role as caretakers. If “the girls” (my sister and I) would rather eat fudge or brownies or chocolate chip cookies or rice crispy treats as reminders of a childhood in the US, she chose those over her own preference of pumpkin pie (which we’d probably have turned our noses at, at the time).

I think it’s easy to get lost in the needs of others. I may be wrong, though. I may be biased because I am surrounded by wonderful people who recognize joy in those around them and choose to rejoice with them. I was raised by parents who seemed to think nothing of meeting our needs and sharing our delight in the smallest of things. The same mother who never forgot to make chocolate chip cookies and brownies was the young woman who, during a much-anticipated cross-country trip, nodded a yes to two little girls who begged to stay longer playing in a plastic ball pit. With a young son of my own, I can now empathize with the young couple who gave up on their ambitious touristic schedule to sit quietly, smiling, as their daughters thwarted the family vacation plans. This is the same woman who now, as a grandmother, easily gives in to her grandchildren’s requests for “Again, vovó!” or “Can you stay a little longer?” The same woman who adjusts her plans to be there in our lives whenever and however she can.

No wonder she didn’t bake herself pumpkin pies. She was too busy thinking of what everyone else wanted. Now that I’m a mother myself, I can absolutely understand. There is a magical kind of pleasure in seeing your child enjoying something you have made or helped make possible.

So now I know that the taste of pumpkin pie will carry with it a three-fold reminder. I will now eat pumpkin pie and remember that (i) I was blessed with parents who taught me that they loved me enough to rejoice in my pleasures and opt to indulge in what I loved, at the expense of frequently putting aside their own preferences, (ii) I should remember to give my son – and others around me – the same loving gift, and (iii) I should bake my mother more pumpkin pies. She deserves it.

I asked mom if the pumpkin recipe lived up to her memories… She said it was delicious, but there seemed to be something missing. She’s right. I didn’t have powdered cloves. I’ll have to bake another one and, since this time we weren’t able to eat it together, we’ll try to make a date to indulge in what will now be a shared pleasure. With my mother, that is. My son refused to taste it. He might grow into it – I did.

The pumpkin pie is mentioned on page 25 of the paperback edition of Still Life.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Earl Grey Tea

By Libby

Why do some of us reach for tea, and particularly Earl Grey, when we feel anxious or upset, or want to comfort others? Is it a need to lose ourselves in the actions of making tea? Or do we perhaps instinctively know that sipping a fragrant brew will have a calming effect?

And why this opening about tea and comfort? Well, blame Peter Morrow!  Louise Penny's writing does tend to lead you down all sorts of rabbit holes!

'Peter was willing the water to boil so he could make tea and then all this would go away. Maybe, said his brain and his upbringing, if you make enough tea and small talk, time reverses and all bad things are undone. But hed lived too long with Clara to be able to hide in denial. Jane was dead. Killed. And he needed to comfort Clara and somehow make it all right. And he didnt know how. Rummaging through the cupboard like a wartime surgeon frantically searching for the right bandage...his hand clutched the box just as the kettle whistled. Violent death demanded Earl Grey.' (Still Life, Kindle p.53)

Peter's initial response to Clara's grief is painfully awkward, and then strangely decisive as he seizes upon his tea of choice. He is distracted by his own emotional turmoil and we're left wondering if his instincts are at all attuned to Clara's needs.

But what a good line: 'Violent death demanded Earl Grey.'
It made me reflect on giving comfort, and also the capacity for human grace. Louise Penny provides a telling insight through her short-lived character, Jane Neal.

How do we provide comfort and support to others, particularly when someone is experiencing loss and grief. What to say? What to do? How do you get past yourself, your own discomfit, sometimes even a measure of arrogance, and really think of someone else, see it from their perspective? It's difficult when you're primarily viewing things from your own perspective, as Peter initially does.

It's a matter of trying to put yourself into someone else's shoes, and genuinely understand what they're experiencing. It's also about learning from others. Clara understood that.

'What would Jane do?...Jane would let her cry, would let her wail. Would let her throw crockery, if she needed to. And Jane would not run away. When the maelstrom passed, Jane would be there. And then she would put her arms around Clara, and comfort her, and let her know she was not alone. Never alone. And so Clara sat and watched and waited. And knew the agony of doing nothing. Slowly the crying subsided. Clara rose with exaggerated calm. She took Jane in her arms and felt the old body creak back into place. Then she said a little prayer of thanks to the gods that give grace. The grace to cry and the grace to watch.' (Still Life, Kindle p.8)

Louise Penny reminds us of our foibles, and importantly, our capacity for grace. There are some people, like Jane, who just seem to know what to do, and have remarkable empathy. While reflecting on that, I thought of a dear friend.

She recently composed and sang a tribute to her dying friend on behalf of their circle of friends (it had to be done over speaker phone as her friend was no longer able to receive visitors). Her friend, still lucid, loved it. The next day she died.
What an amazing  gift of comfort and recognition. How difficult that must have been, knowing that it was a final farewell. I was very moved by the empathy it demonstrated and was left wondering if I could be quite so intuitive and selfless. I hope so.

Of course at times it can simply be a matter of holding someone, allowing them to relax into a hug that has expressed, more than words, "I'm here, I'm attentive, I understand"; or letting them talk and even hit out; providing practical assistance when loss and grief is crippling.

Peter, too, manages to step outside of himself.

'For the first time in his life he asked what someone else would do. What would Jane do if she was here and he was dead? And he had his answer. Silently he lay down beside Clara and wrapped himself around her. And for the first time since getting the news, her heart and mind calmed. They settled, just for one blessed instant, on a place that held love, not loss.' (Still Life, Kindle p.88)

Does he genuinely try to understand what Clara is experiencing, though? While racing to 'somehow make it alright' he seems to be oblivious that loss and grief are a deeply personal experience that doesn't come in a neat package, with a timetable attached.

'Lying all night, holding Clara, hed dared to hope that the worst was over. That maybe the grief, while still there, would today allow some of his wife to be present. But the woman he knew and loved had been swallowed up. Like Jonah. Her white whale of sorrow and loss in an ocean of body fluid.' (Still Life, Kindle p.89)

Peter struggles with disruption to his life. Life for him is controlled and focused (like his measured, hyper-real paintings), with Clara at its core. He wants to restore normalcy as neatly and quickly as possible.

I'm reminded, of coping with disruption in my own life. When your child is devastated by an unexpected and shocking relationship breakup, you suffer with them. It is so hard to see them grappling with the hurt and uncertainty it has brought to their life, and the fear. You want it to be over as quickly as possible, perhaps a little impatiently (shouldn't she be over this by now?) with minimal scarring, for their sake as well as your own, so the hurt and worry can stop. And when finally she says, "It's taken three years, and I'm now in a good place", you realise they own the timetable.

Fortunately, Peter does have an epiphany, of sorts, after Clara hits back at his unholy haste for things to get back to 'normal'. He brings into question the conversations about faith between Clara and Jane that he has overheard for years, and provides the means for Clara to realise some genuine comfort.

'And suddenly her pain and grief became human and natural. And survivable.' (Still Life, Kindle p.93)

While Peter's actions remind us of tea and comfort in times of loss and grief, I have some fonder associations with Earl Grey.

It's my drink of choice to relax and engage in some pleasant reveries. I had never been a black tea drinker until I discovered the heady fragrance of Earl Grey. And I never appreciated it quite so much until I discovered the Earl Grey blend produced by Gillards of Bath, on a memorable trip to 'take the waters' and discover the Bath of Jane Austen's Persuasion. I enjoyed a wonderful, solitary morning tea at the Regency Tearooms in the Jane Austen Centre (well perhaps not quite so solitary as I did commune with Mr Darcy -- there are some things you just have to do), a beautifully fragrant brew accompanied by the best and lightest sugar bun I've ever tasted, seriously!

I can't help myself when it comes to finding out more about the foods I like to prepare and consume, including Earl Grey tea. This sort of stuff just interests me, in the same way I was drawn to the food and drink connections in the Louise Penny books.

Originally I thought Earl Grey tea was flavoured with the herb bergamot (Monarda Didyma) as it actually smells like the tea, but after a little research learned that it is flavoured with the essential oil from the bergamot orange. How much of that oil, and the blend of black teas that is used, determines the flavour of the tea. The following link provides information about the origins and making of Earl Grey tea. Now this is interesting stuff!

Peter Morrow's initial instincts were actually not altogether misplaced. There is some recent research that suggests black tea, generally, has calming effects, and that the bergamot in Earl Grey, in particular, has additional health benefits. Isn't it good to learn that the food or drink we love to consume, also has some health benefits?

Earl Grey tea needs to be enjoyed with a bit of grace and style, never on the run and certainly not with a tea bag. As an accompaniment, a thick slice of toasted, homemade sourdough grainy bread with lashings of  marmalade, made from home-grown Seville oranges with just the right note of bitterness, does me every time (no butter required). It balances beautifully with the smoky and fragrant tea, which I prefer to drink as it comes, straight out of the pot, though sometimes a slice of lemon adds pleasing acidity to the tea's perfume.

The whole thing is a delightful interlude on any given day, and a time for pleasant thoughts. And not such a solitary comfort, when dear friends come to mind. Recently while taking tea, I mused  and marvelled at the comfort and grace in a wonderful friendship with women who live on the other side of the world, and yet are ever present. It's a friendship more close, joyous and soul-nurturing than you would ever think possible with such geographical distance between us.


But Earl Grey is not just about a comforting and restorative drink. I discovered that it makes a wonderful flavoured ice-cream which lends itself perfectly to any orange-based dessert. Cream and whole milk that has been infused with Earl Grey tea is sieved over and mixed into beaten egg yolks and sugar, then gently cooked until the custard thickens. Churning the chilled custard, with the addition of some Cointreau at the end, results in a beautifully smooth and fragrant ice-cream.
Served with a delicate, orange custard tart and sticky orange and cumquat sauce, it's not exactly comfort food (being perhaps a tad too fussy for that), but usually reserved as a special dessert for a gathering of friends, which is where the comfort lies.

When the Three Pines' friends gather at the Morrows, shortly after Jane's death, it is to seek solace in each other's company. By necessity they assemble a meal of bought fast food so unlike their usual, convivial meals together. Nevertheless, all manner of salty, sweet and alcoholic choices are just the right accompaniment to the comfort of friends and their sense of belonging with each other at such a difficult time. And it's what grabs our hearts.

Finally, an irresistible quote from Neil Gaiman:

Honestly, if you're given the choice between Armageddon or tea, you don't say 'what kind of tea?  

Well.....Earl Grey?

Friday, August 21, 2015

Pre-Thanksgiving Pot-luck Dinner

by Amy

They ate by candlelight, the candles of all shapes and sizes flickering around the kitchen. Their plates were piled high with turkey and chestnut stuffing, candied yams and potatoes, peas and gravy. They’d all brought something to eat, except Ben, who didn’t cook. But he’d brought bottles of wine, which was even better. It was a regular get-together, and pot-luck was the only way Peter and Clara could afford to hold a dinner party.”

It was a regular get-together. This is the first such pot-luck meal we are invited to listen-in on in the books, but it’s not the first time for this particular group of friends, nor is it the last time we’ll be invited to join them. Dinner at the Morrow’s features repeatedly in the books, and if their walls could speak…

This particular meal takes place just before Thanksgiving and right after Olivier and Gabri go through an unpleasant experience and are not only buoyed by their friends, but actually have undisputable evidence of support when said friends spend the morning helping them clean the Bistro. During dinner conversation, while they do mention their hurt, the couple focuses on their gratefulness for friendship.

It was a phenomenon Myrna had noticed before, some people’s ability to turn a terrible event into a triumph. She’d thought about it that morning, manure under her fingernails, pausing for a moment to look at the people, young and old, pitching in. and she was one of them. And she blessed, again, the day she’d decided to quit the city and come here and sell books to these people. She was finally home. Then another image came back to her, one that had gotten lost in the activity of the morning. Of Ruth leaning on her cane, turning away from the others, so that only Myrna could see the wince of pain as the elderly woman lowered herself to her knees, and silently scrubbed. All morning.

I believe that what Myrna is thinking of is integral to resilience.

I don’t know if Louise Penny placed this idea of resilience during a holiday dedicated to thankfulness on purpose or not, but I think there’s poetic reasoning to it. Resilient people are often those who are grateful and who are able to spin meaning in the retelling of their stories and experiences. There is power in active optimism, where you work to ensure the best outcome. And, maybe most important of all, resilience is a product of belonging, of acceptance, of a sense of community.

When writing a paper on resilience what most struck me, as a new mother, was the importance of a mother-figure or at least one person in a child’s life who cared and who loved and accepted them unconditionally. At the time, I was less impacted by the importance of a network of friends and a sense belonging, both of which were often mentioned in papers on resilience.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons why so many of us love Three Pines and yearn to be among those blessed few who inhabit the idyllic village. It’s not that the characters are perfect. They aren’t. We slowly uncover their layers as the series goes on and the characters also get to know each other better. They are exposed to deep dark secrets they may not have even wanted to admit to themselves, much less each other. They go through hardships, disappointments, fears, and loss. They anchor each other. 

Their love is not blind. They are perfectly aware of their flaws and as they uncover their friends’ shortcomings they do not turn on each other. They adjust, adapt, compensate, learn, grow… and accept. Of course, it's hard not to be aware of your flaws if you hang out with Ruth...

There is a kind of magic in knowing that someone is willing to be there for you even when it isn’t fun. Gabri toasted his friends in gratitude for their loyalty and help. He chose to concentrate on that instead of the damage to their feelings and the Bistro. But part of the reason he was able to turn “a terrible event into a triumph” was because he had their support to begin with. He knew he belonged. He knew he would be embraced and taken care of. That gave him – and Olivier – the strength to shift the significance of the event. Their joy in friendship was greater than the pain of rejection.

These same friends were intimate enough and close enough to tease them about their choice – despite being chefs – of contributing canned peas to dinner. I felt obligated to add canned peas to my own interpretation of this meal. I’m not much of a turkey-eater and couldn’t imagine making a whole turkey for our small family (the left-overs alone would probably drive me crazy since none of us much care for it). So I adapted the meal and made white raisin and cashew nut stuffing for chicken breasts. We shared the meal with a friend who was staying over at our home that day. I added a salad and some fresh homemade bread I’d baked earlier that day.

The pea can was carefully opened and poured into a bowl. I took as much care as I assume Gabri and Olivier did.

The potatoes were coated in olive oil mixed with minced garlic and fresh herbs – then baked for an hour.

The chicken was based on this recipe – switching the cranberries and chestnuts for white raisins and cashew nuts (which are easier to find here):

My husband’s comment was a “Ruth-like” complaint that it was hard to stop eating – I took it as a glowing compliment on the food.

The meal is found on page 23 of the paperback edition of Still Life.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Croissants and Café au lait

by Amy

Sometimes a meal is the focus of a get-together. There are dishes that take time and effort and they demand appreciation because they are difficult or elaborate or because they have exotic or novel flavors. Usually, though, we end up eating similar foods in our day-to-day lives and fail to recognize, as we ingest, how wonderful they really are.

Croissants definitely do not qualify as a frequent item in my home. I barely drink coffee (although this project might change that) and I’d never baked croissants before in my life. I’d eaten my fair share (including the mouth-watering dark chocolate filled variety), but had this idea that they were very complicated to make and required a level of culinary skill I have never aspired to. I was wrong. They aren’t difficult to make, but they do require some attention to detail, willingness to work at it a little bit at a time, and patience to wait the required time between dough folding bouts.

I had to follow a recipe (there’s a link to the one I used at the end of the post), but I’m pretty sure both Olivier and Gabri could make these with their eyes closed. In fact, croissants and café au lait are such an integral part of Three Pines and the characters’ quotidian that we, as readers, tend to smell coffee and croissants just thinking about the idyllic village.

There is magic in the kind of meal that is enjoyed regularly to the point that it is almost taken for granted. In this first introduction to the food in Three Pines, we are drawn to a setting and a sensory experience that is so common to the characters that they seem to barely notice it. There is magic in the comfort of familiarity.

“Clara sat at the table by the window and waited. Patience was not her long suit. The mixture of café au lait and impatience was producing an exquisite vibration.”

The scene opens with Clara waiting at the Bistro, an extension of home for most of the Three Pines characters, croissant crumbs scattered on her person, and a mug of café au lait in her hands. She’s there at Jane’s request and, when this friend arrives we discover that, not only are they close friends (despite an obvious age gap), but also that Jane has chosen Clara to confide in. She is going through a life-altering moment and has made a momentous decision. She needs a friend. A kindred spirit. I think she chose Clara not only because of their friendship, but also because Clara, as an artist, was in a unique position to understand and empathize.

“No one was to see Jane’s art.Until now, apparently. But now the artist was overcome with an emotion so strong she sat in the Bistro and wept. Clara was both horrified and terrified. She looked furtively around, partly in hopes no one was watching, and partly desperately hoping someone was, and would know what to do. Then she asked herself the simple question that she carried with her and consulted like a rosary. What would Jane do? And she had her answer. Jane would let her cry, would let her wail. Would let her throw the crockery, if she needed to. And Jane would not run away. When the maelstrom passed, Jane would be there. And then she would put her arms around Clara, and comfort her, and let her know she was not alone. Never alone. And so Clara sat and watched and waited. And knew the agony of doing nothing. Slowly the crying subsided.”

Rarely do people accomplish great things – or anything, really – if they are completely alone. Most of us need the stimulation of minds that we can bounce ideas off of, we need the encouragement that comes from having someone believe in us and respect us, even if they don’t fully agree. We need the comfort and familiarity that comes from not just our version of café au lait and croissants and our comfy chair at home, but also from the embrace and the acknowledgement of a friend who hears what is unsaid and listens to our souls.

In A TRICK OF THE LIGHT, Clara realizes that Myrna is also such a friend: “[Clara] looked at her friend. The one who’d whispered into the silence. Clara got up. Arisen, she thought. Arisen. And she hugged Myrna.”

As I made my first batch of croissants (they turned out delicious even if they didn’t look as nice as the pictures in all the online recipes I looked at), I reflected on how blessed I am to have such friends in my life. I was, like Jane, “surprised by joy” and feeling very grateful because I am surrounded by people – online and off – I can share ideas and dreams with.

I spent much of the week making mental lists of friends  – and whispering prayers of thanksgiving – and remembering the cafes, bakeries, and little bistros in my own city that hold more meaning because of the conversations that have taken place there. Most encounters aren’t set up with a specific agenda and rarely are they as emotionally charged as Jane’s conversation was.  Sometimes the setup is my own living room and, not infrequently, it’s through the convenience of online conversation.

Actually, this project wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for a friend who listened to the daydream and prodded me into believing it could be enjoyably done.

There is magic in friendship. And in croissants.

I didn’t forget about the coffee. But the coffee deserves a post that is all its own.

All Quotes are from Louise Penny – Still Life, except the last, which is from A Trick of the Light.

I checked out a few recipes – most similar – and this one is basically what I made: