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.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Uneaten Danish

by Amy
“He’d watched her during the meeting, again choosing a seat one removed from the next person, not grabbing a coffee and Danish with the others. In fact, not doing anything anyone else did. It was almost willful, this desire to separate herself from the team.”

This post is about an uneaten meal. It’s an offering not accepted. It’s a refusal to engage or join in. It’s a form of self-denial in which Agent Yvette Nichol chooses, through a series of small gestures, not to be a part of the team. The sad part is that she yearns to fit in, to belong, to be accepted. She’s ill-equipped to do so, though. She hides behind a façade of aloofness while, inside, she’s crying out to be seen and understood.

I think we all have some of Agent Nichol’s fear of rejection in us. That fear influences our attitudes and our actions. We also all have at least a hint of Beauvoir in us – he can barely stand her (and maybe wouldn’t, if not for his respect for Gamache). Chief Inspector Gamache frequently sees beyond actions and at least tries to understand the reasons behind them. He was willing to give this inept agent a chance. Those who have read the books know it wasn’t just one chance, nor did Agent Nichol graciously step up and do well. She blundered and fumbled awkwardly and was usually more trouble than she was worth… but who’s to judge worthiness anyway?

It’s a fine line, isn’t it? The line between fitting in and staying true to yourself? Knowing when it’s important to stand up for your beliefs and when to go with the flow?

Just yesterday I was talking to a friend about how easy it is, as a parent, to teach children the bare basics. By that, I mean teaching them not to stick things into electrical outlets, touch fire, or pull plastic bags over their heads. Those are easy. They require attention (on our part) and much repetition of the rules, but we are in no doubt about what we are teaching and why.

Then there are the lessons we have a very hard time teaching because we have not mastered them ourselves. Sometimes I feel like the blind leading the blind when I am confronted with my child’s questions. They are frequently the same questions that bounce around in my own mind and to which I have incomplete and sometimes ambivalent and contradictory answers to. Some of the issues he’s struggling with are the ones I struggle with myself. I’m confronted with the realization that what I do, think and feel are very far from the high standards I would like to think I will set for myself.

One perk in interacting with children is in seeing the world through their eyes. It is fascinating to discover that we spend a lifetime reliving our childhood (to an extent). As preschoolers we start to deal with issues of conformity, individuality, egoism, altruism, manipulation, values, authenticity and friendship. And we’re never quite “done”, are we?

There is heartache in Kindergarten. There are battles for recognition, attention, and prestige. There are bitter feuds (that are sometimes resolved in a matter of minutes, but are no less angst-filled because of their short timespan) and marrow deep friendships. There are broken hearts and disappointments. There is profound joy…  And there is pain (beyond that of scraped knees).

 “We choose our thoughts. We choose our perceptions. We choose our attitudes. We may not think so. We may not believe it, but we do. I absolutely know we do. I’ve seen enough evidence, time after time, tragedy after tragedy. Triumph over triumph. It’s about choice.”

When he is confronted with the choice between fitting in and staying true to himself, my son is constantly questioning the importance of being authentic and firm in his beliefs and the need to be open to change. He is questioning what his “non-negotiables” are and learning when and where he can be flexible. He is sorting through acquaintances and identifying who his friends are: those who like him the way he is, who understand his strengths and weaknesses and the little irksome – and delightful – traits that make him himself. He is learning how to forgive and how the same things that attract us in another can sometimes annoy us, too. He laughs… and sometimes he cries.

And he teaches me. He teaches me because he is mostly unarmed. He forgives more readily. The pain is bewildering and usually unexpected and may hurt more... but he still expects to be loved. Unconditionally. As I watch him gradually lose his naiveté in social interactions and begin to create strategies to protect himself, I find myself seeing the parallels in my own life and rethinking old lessons.

When he tells me that he needs to cry sometimes because only he knows how much it hurts, I am reminded that it takes real strength of character and self-awareness to acknowledge our pain. It takes courage to stand up for your beliefs and to swim against the tide. It takes wisdom to discern when to be firm and when to bend.

Some wounds are deeper and harder to heal. Sometimes the sum of hurts becomes unbearable and walls are erected, true fortresses, in order to protect the heart. This form of safety comes at the cost of loneliness and, sometimes, bitterness. Agent Yvette Nichol was so full of self-condemnation and fear of rejection that even a simple snack of Danish and coffee and the pleasure of being part of the team seemed to be too much to hope for. So, to avoid disappointment she sat apart and didn’t eat. What she may not have realized is that she also deprived the team of herself. In trying to be what she was not and making sure no one discovered her weaknesses, she removed herself.

The lessons my son has begun to learn are the same ones we all are confronted with throughout our lives. Love brings us both joy and pain, and much of that latter is, I think, a kind of “growing pain”. These are the pains of compromise, of being uprooted from our point of view, of being confronted with the reality that we are not the center of the universe and while we are far from perfect, we are worthy of love and acceptance. And there are the bitter hurts of realizing that not everyone wants the best for us, not everyone loves us, and not everyone will live up to our expectations…

Children might actually be better equipped than calloused adults because they trust more readily than we do. Some might view such vulnerability as a weakness, but I think it is, frequently, their strength. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all venture beyond our hurts and scars and be brave enough to put down our weapons and defenses? If we were less self-conscious of the traits we perceive as defects and more self-aware of both our weaknesses and strengths as integral parts of ourselves and no less worthy of respect?

Scars are usually not as painful as the wounds that preceded them. Not all past hurts need cripple us. We can learn to forgive and, if not forget, be willing to trust again despite the hurt. Maybe we can even grow stronger in learning from the blows that we have been dealt.

Frequently, throughout the books, Beauvoir feels the need to protect Gamache from his apparent naiveté. At times Peter (and others) question Clara’s willingness to forgive. Olivier is humbled by Gabri’s loyalty and kindness. Yvette Nichol is also frequently baffled by Gamache’s actions. What many of these hardened (hurt and scared) characters have yet to realize (and some of them gain understanding as the series goes on) is the incredible power of faith. The shields we erect can sometimes distance and harden us.

As I watch my seven year old son, I pray that, (although he will inevitably be hurt sometimes), he manages to retain faith and hope and the courage to engage. I pray that he never loses himself or compromises his integrity and beliefs, but that he learns to bend. I pray that he continues to understand that forgiving and learning from our differences is one of the great joys of relationships. I hope he discovers that loving someone in spite of or because of their imperfections is more powerful than loving an idealized version that is easily shattered. I pray that he becomes a man who is strong enough to understand his assets and who doesn’t underestimate his weaknesses. And I pray that I learn, with him, to be all of that too.

My own Danish snacks were (appropriately, I suppose) ignored the first time they were set on the table. Once we started eating them it took no effort at all to finish off the entire batch. The star shape was fun to make, but they didn’t turn out as contained (the filling spread a bit) as the ones I saw pictured online. They’re basically fancily-cut croissants with jam or custard on them. I used the same recipe as the one for croissants (in earlier post) and just added the jam filling.

Quotes are from Still Life page 79 (Paperback Edition).

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Mille feuilles, Custard Tarts, Meringues and Vulnerability

by Libby

'This is really awful to watch. Pastry?Olivier was holding a tray of mille feuilles, meringues, slices of pies and little custard tarts with glazed fruit on top...'Im the official caterer for the disaster thats about to happen. I cant imagine why Clara is doing this, she knows what Yolande has been saying behind her back for years. Hideous woman. (Kindle, Still Life, p.125)

Clara has just approached Yolande, Jane Neal's niece, to offer her condolences. It's an action anticipated with dread by Clara, and painful inevitability by most of those watching on.

In this one tense scene we gain considerable insight to Clara's character. She is powerless to stand up for herself when faced with this difficult, aggressive person. And it goes back to her childhood. Yolande's behaviour is the emotional trigger, a reminder of Clara's school experiences, her vulnerability, and the pain of being teased, rejected, excluded.

For many years Clara would remember how it felt standing there. Feeling again like the ugly little girl in the schoolyard. The unloved and unlovable child. Flatfooted and maladroit, slow and mocked. The one who laughed in the wrong places and believed tall stories, and was desperate for someone, anyone, to like her. Stupid, stupid, stupid. The polite attention and the balled up fist under the school desk. She wanted to run to Jane, whod make it better. Take her in those full, kindly arms and say the magic words, There, there. (Kindle, Still Life, p.127)

Clara's experience is a reminder, of the long-term effects of being harassed, intimidated and excluded as a child, of feeling inadequate and powerless. There are lasting consequences in terms of a persons confidence, levels of anxiety and self worth which can make it hard dealing with difficult situations and challenging circumstances. We're reminded of those experiences that keep you captive throughout your life, that can define how you see yourself, that make you vulnerable. Your rational self knows that you can't control someone else's behaviour, but you can control your attitude or reactions to them. Easier said than done though when an emotional trigger is set off.

When shed gone over to speak with Yolande, Clara had known this would happen. Known that Yolande, for some unfathomable reason, could always get to her. Could hurt her where most others couldnt reach. It was one of lifes little mysteries that this woman she had absolutely no respect for, could lay her flat. She thought shed been ready for it. Shed even dared to harbour a hope that maybe this time would be different. But of course it wasnt. (Kindle, Still Life, p.127)

At another level, Claras issues of confidence and self-esteem are seen in her struggle with her identity as an artist, particularly compared to Peter's recognition and success. Her artistic expression is unconventional, searching for meaning, and this puts her on the outer; her works are not easily understood or saleable. She is still trying to find her artistic language while having to deal with feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. She has the comfort of supportive friends and an overtly supportive husband, but she is vulnerable.

Change is possible, though. Clara has recognised this by the time she sends the Queen of Hearts (with its inherent meaning of 'change') to Yolande. Over time, empowerment for Clara comes through her art as she faces her fears. She understands vulnerability, fear and courage, and she finds a language in her art to truly express this, through the portraits she creates.

When it came to the food in this scene in the Bistro, I was really struck by how Louise Penny created some telling contrasts. Olivier as caterer for the disaster serves, ironically, delicate little pastries, while Yolande's family are described in the most revealing terms through the food they are consuming. Louise Penny creates this wonderful tableau of Yolande, her husband and her son, where their eating amplifies the buffoonish and ugly nature of their characters.

Yolande reached out a hand to take her husbands, but both his hands were taken up clutching a huge sandwich, gushing mayo and meat. Her son Bernard yawned, revealing a mouth full of half-chewed sandwich and strings of mayo glopping down from the roof of his mouth. (Kindle, Still Life, p.126)

Well it wasnt hard to decide what food to recreate from this scene. In terms of economy of effort, the mille feuilles, berry custard tarts and meringues were my choice. They go especially well together as the custard (crème pâtissière) is used for the first two, and the leftover egg whites for the last. 

For mille feuilles, a thin layer of pastry is baked between two baking sheets (to prevent the pastry from puffing too much) until it is crisp. When cool the pastry is cut and layered with crème pâtissière and a flavouring of choice. I used home-made apricot jam, given to me by a friend. A dusting of confectioner's sugar completes the mille feuilles. Pretty delicious!

Oh the joys of making your own puff pastry, if you have a bit of time on your hands -- not sure I'll make a habit of it though! I used Julia Child's recipe in Mastering The Art of French Cooking (a new addition to my cookbook library). The dough preparation and rolling and folding process is particularly well explained and illustrated. Of course if you're pressed for time, choose a quality ready-made commercial puff pastry.

But don't be fooled by these delicate looking mille feuilles. Pure unadulterated carnage can ensue when you try to cut them into slices for serving. I speak from experience! Fortunately this nifty visual demo of making and assembling a 'Napoleon' mille feuille also provides a 'trick' for successful slicing.

Crème pâtissière
6 egg yolks at room temperature
2 cups of milk
3/4 cup of superfine sugar
6 tablespoons of cornflour
1 vanilla bean, split

Bring the milk and vanilla bean to a simmer in a saucepan.
Whisk the egg yolks, sugar and cornflour in a bowl until thick.
Pour the milk into the bowl, remove the bean, and whisk until smooth.
Transfer to a clean saucepan and stir continuously over moderate heat until it thickens. Remove from heat and beat rapidly with the spoon. Pour through a strainer into a bowl. Cool, then cover the surface with a layer of plastic film to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate.
I added some thickly whipped pure cream to lighten and create a silky custard for the mille feuilles and berry tarts.

Berry custard tarts
short crust pastry  (I made an unsweetened pastry)
crème pâtissière
fresh blueberries, strawberries or other
2-3 tablespoons of blackcurrant jelly plus a teaspoon of superfine sugar

Bake the pastry shells until golden. Cool.
Gently warm the blackcurrant jelly and dissolve the sugar in it. Cook to reduce slightly, and cool. Fill the pastry shells with crème pâtissière. Top with berries. Glaze over the berries with the blackcurrant jelly. It adds a wonderful punch of flavour to the berries and gives them a glossy appeal.

6 egg whites at room temperature
300g/10.5oz superfine sugar
1 cup almonds (skins on) lightly toasted and then roughly chopped
grated rind from 1/2 orange and 1/2 lemon

Whisk the egg whites on low speed and gradually let them build strength (the bubbles will start to appear smaller and more even). Increase the speed and as it thickens whisk in the sugar, a spoonful at a time, until the mixture is thick and glossy. Keep whisking until all the sugar has been dissolved. The meringue should not feel grainy. Fold in the almonds and citrus rind. Place tablespoons of the meringue on a baking sheet lined with baking paper. You might need to use two baking sheets depending on the size of your meringues. Bake in a low oven, 100C/210F, for 1.5 to 2 hours, until crisp on the outside and still slightly chewy on the inside. Leave in the oven to cool.

All those meringues made me think of a rather simple and 'messy' dessert, Eton Mess (a traditional English dessert). Now this can be a sickly, sweet affair if you get too carried away with ingredients including syrupy sauces. At its simplest and most elegant, Eton Mess needs only three ingredients; finely baked meringues broken into bits, a delectable berry of choice (which can be crushed to make a gooier consistency, if desired) and pure unsweetened, whipped cream. It's a wonderful explosion of flavour and texture contrasts, with the fruity acidity of the berries balanced with the sweet crisp meringue, which also brings more complex flavours to the Mess if you've added toasted nuts and citrus rind (or other flavourings of choice) to the meringue. And held together, of course, by the silky cream.

As I made it, I thought this 'messy' dessert might have suited what had transpired between Clara and Yolande in the Bistro. But I think Ruth had a better measure of it.

Ruth Zardo would also remember this moment and turn it into poetry. It would be published in her next volume called, Im FINE: You were a moth brushing against my cheek in the dark. I killed you, not knowing you were only a moth, with no sting. (Kindle, Still Life, p.127)

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Eating my Pain - Gabri's Muffin Platter

By Amy

I almost feel like I should apologize. I did write, in the short bio for the blog, that I’m not a writer or a cook by trade. I’m also not an artist – obviously. I could never compete with the master chefs in the books, but Gabri’s masterpiece of “a platter holding rings of muffins marvelously decorated with fruit and roses” was daunting to even attempt to make justice to.

I had originally intended to make many kinds of muffins, as Gabri had. He offered the agents a variety of carrot, date, banana, and a special “Carles de Mills” tribute muffin. I ended up making pistachio. I wasn’t cooking to drown out sorrow (Gabri was), nor did I have the excuse of a houseful of B&B guests to help me eat them.

So, in this interpretation of a book meal, I had only one muffin flavor, no roses (I did pick a leaf off my maracujá vine to add decorative vegetation), and only the single fruit I was actually going to eat for breakfast.

“Jane’s favorite. [Charles de Mills is] not just any rose, Chief Inspector. He’s considered by rosarians to be one of the finest in the world. An old garden rose. Only blooms once a season but with a show that’s spectacular. And then it’s gone. That’s why I made the muffins from rose water, as a homage to Jane. Then I ate them, as you saw. I always eat my pain.” Gabri smiled slightly. Looking at the size of the man, Gamache marveled at the amount of pain he must have. And fear perhaps. And anger? Who knows indeed.”

I confess that the first time I read this, I didn’t really pay attention to the bit about the muffins being on a decorated platter. I only noticed it after Libby mentioned being excited about this meal because the roses decorating the plate had enticed her imagination. I had no idea what she was talking about. Embarrassing, really. My brain registered “muffins” and moved on. I did pay attention to Gabri eating his pain. I could relate.

I ate my pain, too. I also ate insecurities, anxiety, unsuccessful quests for perfection, homesickness, frustrations, PMS and a typical adolescent search for identity. By the time I was 15 I had turned a genetic tendency for curviness into full-blown obesity. Not chubby cute. Actual obesity where there’s knee pain at 15 and doctors are telling you that you’d be okay if you just lost some weight. Then I started eating the feelings due to negative body image and the stress that comes from trying _not_ to eat. I knew exactly what Gabri meant about eating his pain.

It has been a couple of decades since I was compulsively eating my feelings and, in that time, I have made peace with my body, I have lost (regained and lost again) the excessive weight, discovered that I actually enjoy running, and have oscillated, for years,  within a healthy weight span. I will never be thin. The genetic tendency for curviness and a love of eating are unchangeable facts about me. I am healthy, though. Anyway, if given the choice, I think I'd always choose my own body over anyone else's (I'm used to it, it's part of who I am and what defines me) and I wouldn't want to lose pleasure in eating!

That said, my relationship with food is an ongoing learning process. I think anyone who has ever considered weight loss has gone through various attempts in dieting: restrictions, calorie counting, crazy diets, single-food-group diets, restriction of carbohydrates, vilifying of certain ingredients, binge-eating, manic avoidance of sugar – only to consume enormous quantities of it a few days (or hours) later… The list is long.

I remember laughing through Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me, when the character Min tries (unsuccessfully) to make Chicken Marsala. Since she is constantly dieting and has subjected herself to a fat-and-carb free diet (Ha!), she is trying to make it with no butter, no olive oil, and no carbs. It’s a disaster. The scene is hilarious. The message is not.

While I no longer eat feelings like I used to, that girl still lives inside of me. Every once in a while she takes over and it takes some effort to control her (and I’m not always successful). Frequently, unlike Gabri’s beautiful homage, the ingestion of negative feelings is associated with tasteless quantities. I have challenged myself, in the past years, to go beyond the boundaries of over-restrictiveness, and to explore tastes and "prohibited" ingredients (Ah, the joyful freedom of allowing myself butter and olive oil).

It is impossible to abstain from food in our lives (unless you can photosynthesize) – to do so, as my seven year old says (wide-eyed and with an exaggerated scary whisper), “If you don’t eat, you’ll DIE of hunger! For real. Literally.” Unlike other addictions where the solution for control is frequently sought in abstinence, unhealthy use of food must be resolved with some kind of equilibrium. I have proposed to seek indulgence in taste and flavor, instead of quantity. I have slowly come to an awareness that food is not the enemy (nor should it be a crutch), that overeating doesn’t make anything taste better, and that it is alright to treat oneself if there is balance.

When I first mentioned this project to some friends who are not readers of the books, I had varied responses. One friend thought I was trying to crack the cookbook market. Another, who's recently discovered a love of cooking in the past few years, thought I had caught the gourmet-bug. A reader friend (although she has yet to read Penny’s books) thought it was a kind of book review. As I heard their interpretations of what they thought I was trying to do, I tried to explain it to myself. The best I could come up with is that maybe it’s a form of therapy.

Part of the fun of this project was to ransom some of the flavor in food. Sometimes there is no substitute. Sometimes you NEED sugar in a recipe. Sometimes you NEED butter. How do you make croissants without butter?

I think most people have been there, trying to adapt recipes (or other parts of life) that aren't easily changed. Of course, sometimes change is necessary – or just plain fun. There may be healthier versions of recipes, just as there should be allowances made for personal tastes or local ingredients. Both Libby and I, while not vegan or restrictively vegetarian, aren’t big meat eaters. Libby doesn’t eat red meat at all, and I only do so rarely… We live on opposite sides of the globe and might not find the same kinds of ingredients in our local markets. Many of the meals we’re preparing for the blog have been adapted.

There’s a big difference, though, in adapting a recipe to suit your taste and adapting it to suit a calorie count.

The muffins were delicious. My husband came home mid-morning to get something he’d forgotten and grabbed a muffin (or five) as brunch. They ended up being a celebration of a breakthrough in one of his projects. (He and a student had been working on something for days and they couldn't find a solution to the problem. He was beaming because they had finally made things work!).

If we can eat pain and inadequacy, we can also learn to eat the joy of celebration, the happiness in good company, and the sensuality of amazing blends of flavors. Eating with joy might be less compulsive and may be both more pleasurable and more moderate.

I enjoyed fresh maracujá juice with my own muffin and contemplated the fact that while my mind may have rationally understood these concepts, I still have a long way to go in my relationship with food.

Pistachio Muffins

1 + 1/3 cups of flour
2 teaspoons of baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon of ground cinnamon (I always put more)
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon lemon zest
½ cup pistachios, chopped (in theory they’re supposed to be finely chopped… but… my muffins weren’t green because I used brown sugar and a bit of whole flour, too)
½ cup butter
2/3 cup sugar (I used brown)
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon rum extract (I didn’t have any and didn’t add it)
½ cup milk
½ cup pistachios, coarsely chopped

How To:

Preheat the oven (the recipe called for 425 degrees, I just put it on the highest) and grease muffin tins (I use silicone ones so I didn’t need to grease them).

Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl. Cream butter and sugar together. Beat the eggs, one at a time, into the creamed mixture until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and rum extracts.

Slowly add the dry mixture (about ¼ at a time) and milk, briefly mixing after each addition. It’s important not to overmix. Pour into tins. The original recipe (see link below) says to sprinkle the tops with the coarsely chopped pistachios. I didn’t have enough, so I left mine “unsprinkled”.

Bake for 15 in 375 degrees.

I adapted my recipe from:

The quotes are from page 70 of the Paperback copy of Still Life.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

French Canadian Pea Soup (Québécois Soupe Aux Pois) and Ritual

by Libby

Clara and Myrna stood in line at the buffet table, balancing mugs of steaming French Canadian pea soup and plates with warm rolls from the boulangerie. (Still Life, Kindle, p.118)
The Three Pines community have gathered for a buffet lunch at the Bistro, following a meeting with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache about the circumstances of Jane Neal's death. A simple meal of soup, bread and cheese seems appropriate, providing nourishment and comfort to the crowd shocked by Jane's death.

Myrna's centrepiece for the table leaves little doubt how insightful she can be, when it comes to dealing with violent death and loss. 

Clara leaned into the arrangement of annual monarda, helenium and artists acrylic paint brushes. Nestled inside was a package wrapped in brown waxed paper. Its sage and sweetgrass,said Clara...Does this mean what I think?’ ‘A ritual,said Myrna. (Still Life, Kindle, p.120)

Myrna is the 'wise woman' (everyone needs a friend like Myrna), who recognises the power of ritual for its symbolic, spiritual and emotional meanings, when a life is lost and evil and fear has descended in their midst. She leads a group of Three Pines' women through a smudging ritual, to cleanse the place where Jane died, and release the negative energy.

But the ritual also becomes a celebration as the circle of friends communally express their deepest thoughts and feelings for Jane, honour their friend and give testimony to her life.

One by one the women took a ribbon, tied an item to it, tied the ribbon to the stick and spoke a few words...Clara reached into her head and pulled out a duck barrette. She tied that to a bright yellow ribbon and the ribbon to the now festooned prayer stick...Clara pulled a banana out of her pocket, and tied it to the stick, for Lucy...From her other pocket she drew a playing card. The Queen of Hearts. (Kindle, Still Life, p.254) 
Together they are able to take some control over their fears, restore some balance and peace of mind, re-affirm their connection with each other and Jane. 
The women looked around and saw their circle was no longer bound by fear, but was loose and open. And in the center, on the spot Jane Neal had last lived and died, a wealth of objects played, and sang the praises of a woman who was much loved. (Kindle, Still Life, p.255)
I was quite taken by Louise Penny's use of ritual, and it's meaning in terms of identity, comfort and healing. So I thought about it a bit, its socio-cultural perspectives, the extent to which ritual (as symbolic observances of beliefs and traditions) plays a part in our lives, how we engage with it (as a community, family, and individual) at various stages in our lives, or at particular times -- rites of passage, seasonal events, and certain religious practices and secular events steeped in tradition, come to mind.

And I wondered where rituals exist meaningfully in my own life, at a personal and family level. Not as much as they once did, I think.  I came to this conclusion once Id sorted out the finer points about custom, tradition and ritual! One way or another they are about identity and communication of beliefs and values, and patterns of behaviour. But it's really the performance element, the prescribed actions with their symbolic meanings, that makes something a ritual.

I just had to throw this in! It's a fabulous example of ritual in the sporting world. It's the Haka of the New Zealand All Blacks (international rugby team), a traditional, rhythmic and synchronous invocation of identity, unity, power and challenge. 

Louise Penny reminds us, too, that ritual can also be an individual and private event, with Agent Isabelle Lacostes affirmations to the dead at every crime scene.
...Isabelle Lacoste was still there. Speaking to the dead. Reassuring them Chief Inspector Gamache and his team were on the case. They would not be forgotten. (The Cruellest Month, Kindle, p.143)
When everyone else had left, Isabelle Lacoste returned. To let the dead know they were not forgotten. (A Trick of the Light, Kindle, p.217)
And there is still more meaning to be found in these Three Pines rituals. Not only do the ritual cleansings in Still Life and in A Trick of the Light serve to help the friends to re-balance, take control and re-affirm their connection. They are also downright enlightening! It seems that another causal effect (must be something to do with the way they evoke the senses or heighten perception) is the discovery of key pieces of evidence at the ritual sites! 

And what about food?

Food rituals are central to many religions and cultures and rites of passage. We can all think of observances, occasions and festivals, celebrations in our own life or across cultures, where food and drink is steeped in symbolic meaning, as complex as fasting and feasting rituals, or as simple as the birthday cake, making a wish and blowing out the candles.
Perhaps you have a favourite to share? 

So what has all this got to do with French Canadian pea soup. Well not a lot, apart from the fact it was served at the Bistro at the time the smudging ritual was planned. But it is a reminder of the long tradition of this dish (or variations of it) across many cultures and times. Québécois Soupe Aux Pois dates back to the 17th century explorer, Samuel De Champlain. Personally, I date pea soup back to my childhood and can still recall the wonderful smoky aroma of it, on a cold autumn or winter's day, as my mother placed it on the table saying with a wry smile, "Here! This will glue your sides together." And it did! And it was delicious! 

I haven't thought about pea soup for a long time. And it's probably because I'm no longer a meat eater. Well now I've rediscovered it, and found a way of making a rich and satisfying meatless version...almost. I do make my own chicken stock as the soup base. A vegetable stock, of course, can be made for a strict vegetarian version. With careful attention to building the flavours of the stock, and of the peas and accompanying vegetables, the result is a rich, deeply flavoured version.
The stock can be made ahead of time. I simply add two chicken chops and a carcasse to about 3.5 litres/3.5 quarts of water and 2 chunks of ginger root, and let it lightly simmer until reduced by approximately a third. I taste it as it reduces and add pure sea salt (no additives unlike table salt), bit by bit, to enhance the flavour, but not to overpower.
If you are making the traditional pea soup, salted pork, ham hock or bacon bones added to the water that the peas and vegetable are cooked in, will provide the requisite rich smoky flavour, and also some meat as it melts from the bones. 

Pea soup:

1 brown onion
2 cloves of garlic
2 carrots
1 stalk of celery
2 fresh bay leaves
1 tablespoon of fresh thyme
3 to 4 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
2 cups of dried split peas, par boiled if preferred
2.5 litres/2.5 quarts chicken (or vegetable) stock

Finely chop the onion, garlic, carrots and celery. Gently fry these in olive oil that has been lightly heated in a large soup pot. With the lid on, let them sweat but not brown. Add the bay leaves, thyme and a pinch of salt and pepper, continuing to cook them over low heat. Slow cooking and a little seasoning helps to draw out the sweet flavour of the vegetables and the aromas of the bay and thyme.
Dont hurry this process.
Add the par-boiled split peas and stir through. Add the stock and cook gently allowing the flavour to build. Stir occasionally and taste. Bit by bit (so you dont over season), add some salt, and taste. The salt is used to bring out more complex flavours, but not to make the soup salty.

What comes through strongly is the deeply rich, earthy flavour of the peas themselves, which is a highlight in this dish. At the end of cooking I just blitzed the soup with a stick blender to create a smoother consistency for serving in a mug.

Soup and bread go so well together (just like Myrna and Clara). But freshly baked bread rolls filled with lusciously creamy Brie takes it to another level. And it's oh so filling! The meal was complete.
Well, there were no symbolic rhythmic movements around the table or chanted invocations, apart from a few mumbled "mmm, yum" between mouthfuls, but I might need to start up a new tradition! This soup is back on the menu!