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.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

A P.S./Edit on the Curmudgeon Post!

Thanks to Lynn - a reader who left a comment and very graciously corrected me - I have been reminded that Ruth's house was OF COURSE named and I couldn't remember the name and concluded it probably wasn't there. My skimming powers weren't good enough to find the answer. :)

It's "Another FINE Mess", which is brilliant - as is to be expected from Louise Penny!

Carry on... and thank you Lynn!

Friday, October 28, 2016

Lovable Curmudgeons & a Salad (and Burgers, Cheese, Rolls, Brownies, Cakes, Pies, Pastry, and Cookies)

by Amy

** Note: I’m blogging about a scene in A GREAT RECKONING, but I will avoid the spoilers in the scene, so for those (few) of you who are Penny fans and have not yet read it, I promise I don’t give the mystery away. For those who read the blog and haven’t read the books, I don’t suppose it matters, right?

“Ruth says she wants a name for her cottage,” said Nathanial. “She asked me to choose one.”
“Really?” asked Myrna. “She asked you?”
“Well, more told me to find one,” he admitted. “And told me not to fuck it up.”
“So what’ve you come up with?” asked Clara.“We’ve narrowed it down,” said Huifen. “It’s between Rose Cottage” – she pointed to the sweetbriar roses around Ruth’s porch – “ and Pit of Despair.”
“I dare you,” said Clara, laughing […].” 
We all seem to love Ruth. In the online forum where I was first introduced to Louise Penny there was actually an ongoing competition as to who was the most Ruth-like of us (no… I wasn’t one of them – I’m more likely to relate to Reine-Marie, Clara, Lacoste & Jean-Guy).

But we do all seem to love Ruth. At least we love the character Ruth.

I recently read the book A MAN CALLED OVE, by Fredrik Backman. Ove is the most lovable curmudgeon I have ever had the pleasure to read. The only reason it’s easy to love him, though, is because we’re in his head all the time throughout the book. And, in being in his head and understanding his irrefutable logic (it’s irrefutable mainly because he refuses to be refuted – not because it’s particularly good reasoning) and deep integrity make it easy to empathize with him and laugh away his grumpy rudeness.

When we meet Ove he has lost the reason to live because he lost the person who gave his life meaning. It is in finding other people (much to his dismay and against his wishes most of the time) and becoming useful to them that he rekindles joy (to the extent that Ove is joyful) in life.

Ruth, like Ove, is frequently grumpy, bitter, annoyed at the stupidity of all those who fail to agree with her, lacking in interest in food for the most part, stingy, opinionated, and loyal to a fault. She will swear, criticize, and bully you into action out of a deep rooted kindness that is usually expressed in irritated exhortation.

We aren’t told what they end up naming her home.

Rose Cottage doesn’t seem to suit, does it? It sounds so ordinary and old lady sweet or fairy tale princess… not very Ruth-like.

While “Pit of Despair” might adequately describe her unpalatable dinner party (that is, until we read Libby’s improved version), her home might be more of a ladder out of despair than a pit where you dwell in it.

She is no stranger to despair and sorrow. We aren’t privy to the details (I wonder if we ever will be), but Ruth is a kind of mirror image of what Clara could become. All the sensitivity and perceptiveness and soft-heartedness worn away at by pain and regret and the kind of loneliness that ensues when the lump in the throat isn’t shared with those that love us.

Ruth and Clara both express themselves in their art. They both have an almost magical ability to see souls and to understand that which is unsaid. They have a depth of feeling that requires enormous strength in order to keep them whole – despite the cracks.

Who hurt you once so far beyond repair…

I am reminded by the George Eliot quote:

“That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.” (GEORGE ELIOT – MIDDLEMARCH)

Ruth is far from stupid. She feels. I think her aggressiveness is an attempt to tune out the sound of the “grass growing”. Maybe she sees too much and understands too much and cannot hide behind the cushion of stupidity. So she chooses anger. It's a defense mechanism.

The blog Brain Pickings (a rabbit hole if there ever was one) has a wonderful essay on genius and the ability to face despair. Link here: Brain Pickings.

Clara is saved from that fate. So is Jean-Guy. And their savior, unlikely thought it may seem, is Ruth.
When Ruth witnessed Clara on the brink of falling into the “Pit of Despair”, she bullied her into facing herself. She told her (and probably warned her not to fuck it up) to face her demons and not become embittered and “greet each overture with curling lip”. She encouraged (she probably wouldn’t have used that word – dared, challenged or commanded might be more her style) Clara to use her art to help her heal – even if the process hurt.

When Jean-Guy was in the “Pit of Despair”, it was Ruth who managed to see him, find him, and reach him. He was beyond words or socially acceptable displays of kindness. She wouldn’t ever resort to those anyway. She uses words like the swords they are.

“There is that speaketh like the piercings of a sword: but the tongue of the wise is health.” (Prov 12:18)

Ruth knows despair.

Her home has witnessed it.

Her poems are the result of a lump in the throat and a measure of pain that we probably have only glimpsed at.

She knows despair, but her home is not the Pit of Despair.

Clara knew it. That’s why she painted that genius flicker of hope in Ruth’s eye.

Maybe it is familiarity with despair and deep emotional pain that make it easier for her to recognize it in others. Maybe it’s just a talent she was born with. But Ruth is exactly the kind of friend (although she isn’t friendly most of the time) who will pull you from the edge of despair if she can, or sit with you down in the pit if you’re there… and help you (or shake you, force you, impel you, dare you) to find a glimmer of hope. She won’t leave you in the pit.

I hope they found a better name. Ruth’s home deserves a good name. (Edited: They did. It's Another FINE Mess).

Have you ever named a house? I’m awful at naming things. I don’t know what I think Ruth’s house should be named. I agree with Clara in that Pit of Despair is funny… and I’d love to be able to “watch” if they ever actually suggested it to her face…

This meal was set up in her home and she was sitting in a rocker as friends gathered around…

“What were you looking at?” Jean-Guy asked Armand, as they stood on the village green eating burgers off the huge grill Olivier had set up. A long table had been brought out, filled with salads and fresh rolls and cheeses. Across the green was another, longer table with all sorts of cakes, pies, pastries. Cookies and brownies and candies and children.”

Aside from the actual scene and the humorous naming of Ruth’s home, I had a giggle when I realized we’d already food-blogged about every part of this meal! Isn’t that fun?! And isn’t it wonderful that the longer table is the one with all the sweets?! Loved it!

I had made a new salad this week and was looking through the meal list to see if I could sneak it into the blog somehow. I’ll add it here although I doubt it would be served accompanying burgers. 

Roasted Rainbow Carrot Salad

There’s no real recipe to this. I chopped baby rainbow carrots and added a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and pepper and covered them in aluminum foil and roasted them in the oven for about 25 minutes. They were tender, but not too soft. I let them cool a little bit and added some balsamic vinegar (a very non-measured and unquantifiable splash), a handful of pumpkin seeds, about half a cup of crumbled feta cheese, and tried it with a bit of cilantro and without because I wanted some green in there. I liked the colors with the cilantro, but I don’t think it went well with the other tastes. Next time I might add a bit of basil, that might be a better taste balance. I’m not sure. It was slightly on the sweet side for me, but it was a very enjoyable autumn-like salad!

And in case you needed proof that we’ve made some version of everything served in this meal, here’s a list! We’ve already blogged about:

Pastry & Vulnerability

Awesome, right?!

Friday, October 21, 2016

Lentil Soup & Unfashionable Beliefs, Kindness, and People Who Are Willing to Express Both

by Amy

“Why in the world would you confront Inspector Beauvoir? Especially now?”
“It’s difficult to explain.”
“Honestly, Thérèse, can it matter at this stage?” 
“Does he know what you’re doing? What we’re doing?” 
“He doesn’t even know what he’s doing,” Gamache said. “He’s no threat.” 
Thérèse Brunel was about to say something, but seeing his face, the bruise and the expression, she decided not to. 
They’d already eaten, but saved some for Gamache. He carried a tray with [lentil] soup and a fresh baguette, pâté and cheeses into the living room and set it in front of the fire.

This meal takes place in the quiet of the night, amidst low voices and in the presence of friends. There’s turmoil, though. This is the last meal before the culmination of the “last battle” he’s been planning for months – maybe years. He knows this could be his last meal, his last night, his last chance to make things right.

“Why did you go to Beauvoir?” 
Gamache sighed. 
“I had to try, one more time.” 
She looked at him for a long moment. “You mean one last time. You think you won’t get another chance.” 
They sat for a long moment. Thérèse kneaded Henri’s ears while the shepherd moaned and grinned. 
"You did the right thing,” she said. “No regrets.”

It’s easy for her to say he should have no regrets.

At the risk of being controversial, I think only those who don’t care enough can truly say they have no regrets.

Regret and remorse aren’t the same thing. Regret, unlike remorse, doesn’t necessarily involve guilt. 

Where there is regret, there is disappointment in opportunities missed, frustration with unwelcome outcomes, or sadness due to occurrences that might be beyond the scope of control. I don’t think it’s possible to live life and have no regrets. There are so many regrettable things in life.

Both feelings have to do with the past, but the main difference is in how we would do things if given the chance to change our actions. Where there is remorse, there is guilt, and I think the predominant feeling is that if we could just go back in time and choose another path, all would be well. Regret is less straightforward. It is possible to regret the outcome, but not the action that lead to it. It is possible to regret the pain you cause someone, but realize that there was little else you could do. It is possible to own up to the responsibility, but understand that it is not the same as guilt.

Regret and remorse aren’t the same, but they’re close and both can cause a deep ache.

Gamache undoubtably regrets that Beauvoir is so lost. His protege and friend is so far gone that “he doesn’t even know what he’s doing”. Gamache regrets that he feels abandoned and betrayed and hurt and alone. He regrets that he had to leave him in the factory, that Beauvoir didn’t listen when they tried to reach out, that boundaries had to be set, that Annie set up boundaries and, ultimately, left him.

While regret and remorse aren’t the same, niggling feelings of guilt tickle at Gamache and make him wonder if he could have done any differently. He blames himself even if there isn’t anything to blame. He regrets.

And he’s running out of time.

The scene where he confronts Beauvoir, a few hours before he sits to eat his soup, is one of the most powerful scenes in the books to me. There is so much love and kindness in these books and one of the central love stories is this one. Gamache and Beauvoir. The Chief Inspector and his Right Hand Man. Mentor and Protégé. Teacher and Star Pupil. Father Figure and Adopted Son. Father and Son-in-Law. Friends. Family. This is one of the most beautifully written relationships in fiction. To me, that is. But it's not secret that I have a soft spot for Beauvoir. Not to mention a book crush.

He walked straight toward his goal. Once there, he didn’t knock, but opened the door and closed it firmly behind him. 
Beauvoir looked up from the desk and Gamache felt his heart constrict. Jean-Guy was going down. Setting. 
Come with me,” Gamache said. He’d expected his voice to be normal, and was surprised to hear just a whisper, the words barely audible. 
“Get out.” Beauvoir’s voice, too, was low. He turned his back on the Chief.

Can you imagine the pain? 

“Well, take your fucking perfect life, your perfect record and get the fuck out. I’m just a piece of shit to you, something stuck to your shoe. Not good enough for your department, not good enough for your daughter. Not good enough to save.” 
The last words barely made it from Beauvoir’s mouth. His throat had constricted and they just scraped by. Beauvoir stood up, his thin body shaking. 
I tried…” Gamache began. 
“You left me. You left me to die in that factory.”

This broke my heart. I cried.

Not good enough to save.

I think none of us are good enough to save. And yet, while we are all unworthy, we are all redeemable. By Grace. By Love. And made whole and lovable and “good enough”.

Not good enough to save.

There are echoes of Beauvoir's own words, years earlier, when they went into a burning building to save Agent Nichole. Beauvoir questioned their heroics then, even as he followed Gamache into the flames. She isn’t worth it. Gamache challenged him to think of someone he loved, imagined it was them in that burning building, and then face the flames.

Not good enough to save.

He’d clung to Gamache’s hands, and to this day Gamache could feel them, sticky and warm. Jean-Guy had said nothing, but his eyes had shrieked. 
Armand had kissed Jean-Guy on the forehead, and smoothed his bedraggled hair. And whispered in his ear. And left. To help the others. He was their leader. Had led them into what proved to be an ambush. He couldn’t stay behind with one fallen agent, no matter how beloved.

There is regret. Painful, unsettling, heart wrenching regret.

But Armand Gamache knows he did what he had to do. He couldn’t have done any differently.

He’d known the unspeakable comfort of not being alone in the final moments. And he’d known then the unspeakable loneliness Beauvoir must have felt. 
Armand Gamache knew he’d changed. A different man was lifted from the concrete floor than had hit it. But he also knew that Jean-Guy Beauvoir had never really gotten up. He was tethered to that bloody factory floor, by pain and painkillers, by addiction and cruelty and the bondage of despair. 
Gamache looked into those eyes again.They were empty now. Even the anger seemed just an exercise, an echo. Not really felt anymore. Twilight eyes.

Jean-Guy had been so full of life, of potential, of intelligence. Look at him now! He’s in the pit of despair.

“You left me to die, then made me a joke.” 
Gamache felt the muzzle of the Glock in his abdomen and took a sharp breath as it pressed deeper. 
“You have to get help.” 
“You left me to die,” Beauvoir said, gasping for breath. “On the floor. On the fucking dirty floor.” 
He was crying now, leaning into Gamache, their bodies pressed together. Beauvoir felt the fabric of Gamache’s jacket against his unshaven face and smelled sandalwood. And a hit of roses. 
“I’ve come back for you now, Jean-Guy.” Gamache’s mouth was against Beauvoir’s ear, his words barely audible. “Come with me.” 
He felt Beauvoir’s hand shift and the finger on the trigger tighten. But still he didn’t fight back. Didn’t struggle. 
Then shall forgiven and forgiving meet again. 
“I’m sorry,”said Gamache. “I’d give my life to save you.” 
Or will it be, as always was, /too late? 
“Too late,” Beauvoir’s words were muffled, spoken into Gamache’s shoulder. 
“I love you, Armand whispered. 
Jean-Guy Beauvoir leapt back and swung the gun, catching Gamache on the side of the face.
“I could kill you,” said Beauvoir. 
Oui. And maybe I deserve it.” 
“No one would blame me. No one would arrest me.” 
And Gamache knew that was true. He’d thought if he was ever gunned down, it wouldn’t be in Sûreté headquarters, or at the hands of Jean-Guy Beauvoir. 
“I know,” the Chief said, his voice low and soft. He took a step closer to Beauvoir, who didn’t retreat. “How lonely you must be.” 
He held Jean-Guy’s eyes and his heart broke for the boy he’d left behind. 
“I could kill you,” Beauvoir repeated, his voice weaker. 
“Leave me,” Beauvoir said, all fight and most of the life gone from him. 
“Come with me.” 

I can only imagine how painful that was. For both of them.

I stole one of my husband's sunset pictures - he's obviously a better photographer than I am.

I know. I speak of them as though they were real.

They are.

There are Gamaches and Beauvoirs everywhere. Annies and Beauvoirs. Sometimes, regardless of how much love is involved, boundaries must be set. Neither Gamache, nor Annie, despite their deep love for Jean-Guy, could follow him to the bottom. Sometimes, although your heart breaks, you have to confront the spiraling self-destructive behavior.

My heart breaks for Beauvoir. I can empathize with Gamache.

I confess, though, that in this scene I’m not sure who I feel for most. Beauvoir, at this point, is almost numb. Empty. Only half alive. Gamache is intensely alive, overflowing with love and sorrow for this child of his heart. Beauvoir is closer to him, in so many ways, than the children that share his blood. 

And he lost him. He’s grieving for the man he used to know and for the man Beauvoir might never become.

Armand Gamache had always held unfashionable beliefs. He believed that light would banish the shadows. That kindness was more powerful than cruelty, and that goodness existed, even in the most desperate places. He believed that evil had its limits. But looking at the young men and women staring at him now, who’d seen something terrible about to happen and had done nothing, Chief Inspector Gamache wondered if he could have been wrong all this time. 
Maybe darkness sometimes won. Maybe evil had no limits. 
He walked alone back down the corridor, pressed the down button, and in the privacy of the elevator he covered his face with his hands.

We rarely see Gamache give in to hopelessness. I think it is a measure of how heavy his heart is that he is on the brink of hopelessness here.

Just sharing the autumn mood - only decorated corner of the house - on this chilly day perfect for a bowl of soup!

I am so glad for Grace. For Redemption. Second Chances. Faith. Hope. Love.

I am so glad Jean-Guy is restored to himself. No, better than his former self. He is redeemed and is surprised by joy and becomes stronger where he had been broken. He is told, by his mentor, friend, and father-in-law, that he is a brave man in a brave country. He marries Gamache’s daughter and becomes the father to his grandson. He resumes his role as an Inspector, and continues to be Gamache’s loyal supporter, following him even as he makes difficult career choices.

He is redeemed. The boy Gamache thought was lost, is found. Darkness did not win.

As a reader. I was content already.

Then this scene came along, in A GREAT RECKONING.

** The scene that follows is not a spoiler, but if you'd rather not read anything from the latest book, skip and go to the recipe!

Oh Jean-Guy… You have outdone yourself. Bliss.

Louise Penny has openly spoken of her own battle with addiction and how she was surprised by joy and grace and forgiveness. She has touched so many of us with her stories, her insight into human character and interaction, and the grace and hope she writes in her books.

Jean-Guy, like Penny, has managed to turn his pain into strength.

There is a crack in everything. That is how the light gets in.

And he shines in this latest book.

“I thought I had the world figured out. Then everything I knew to be true, I started to question. And I hated him for it. […] But then the hate shifted,” said Beauvoir, speaking as though telling him a fable, a bedtime story. “I began to hate the very people I’d trusted. The ones who told me the world was filled with terrible people and that brutality was the same as strength. I’d learned to hit first and hard, and fast. 
The world turned upside down,” Beauvoir continued. “It was at once more beautiful and more frightening than you’d been led to believe. And suddenly you didn’t know what to do. Who to trust. Where to turn. It’s terrifying. Being lost is so much worse than being on the wrong road. That’s why people stay on it so long. We’re too far gone, or so we think. We’re tired and we’re confused and we’re scared. And we think there’s no way back. I know.”
“When someone shoots at us, we return fire,” said Jean-Guy. 
Now Jacques did nod. 
“But it’s equally important that when someone is kind to us, we return that as well,” he said quietly. Careful. Careful not to scare the young man off. 
“It took me a very long time to come to that. The hatred I felt for Monsieur Gamache, and then the others, shifted again, and I began to loathe myself.” 
“Do you still?” Jacques asked, finally turning from the window, from the wasteland. “Hate yourself?” 
Non. It took a long time, and a lot of help. Jacques, the world is a cruel place, but it’s also filled with more goodness than we ever realized. And you know what? Kindness beats cruelty. In the long run. It really does. Believe me.” 
He held out his hand to the young man. Jacques stared at it.
“Believe me,” Jean-Guy whispered. 
And Jacques did.


I considered making a recipe that included bacon, but then I realized I was probably the one who would be doing most (all) of the eating, so I made a vegetarian version that appealed to me more.

-          1 tablespoon olive oil
-          1 onion
-          3 small carrots
-          1 leek (only the white part)
-          1 green onion
-          2 cloves of garlic
-          1 bay leaf
-         Dried oregano (about 1 teaspoon) (also some pepper flakes, maybe an extra bay leaf and some thyme)
-          Salt & pepper (to taste)
-          Broth (I used chicken because it’s what I had, but a true vegetarian might use vegetable)
-    Water (I started out with about a liter of broth, but added both more broth and more water in unquantifiable amounts because I added as needed)
-          1 can of tomatoes and their liquid
-          1 package (about 2 ½ cups) of lentils
-          1 teaspoon red vinegar
-          2 or 3 cups of chopped spinach leaves


Heat the oil and add onion, carrots, green onion, leeks and garlic until softened. Season with salt and pepper (if you’re like me you’ll add too much of something and slap yourself in the forehead and try to fix it later – it’s usually redeemable).

Add the broth and the tomatoes. Since I don’t like watery soups, at this stage, I put most of the veggies and tomatoes in a food processor and blended them, then poured the thicker mixture back into the pan before adding the lentils. This is optional.

Add lentils and the bay leaf. Allow to simmer for about 30 minutes. Add more liquid (broth/water) if necessary. Add the red vinegar and the spinach leaves and simmer for another 3 to 5 minutes before serving. I added a dollop of sour cream and, bemoaning the fact that I didn’t have a yummy baguette to accompany the soup, I sliced up some smoked cheddar to accompany the meal. Meals, actually. I enjoyed it so much it was both lunch and dinner.

This was the perfect soup for reflecting and enjoying the rainy cloudy autumn day.

** All quotes, unless otherwise stated, are from Louise Penny’s HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN or THE GREAT RECKONING

Friday, October 14, 2016

Jean-Guy Beauvoir and Chocolate-covered Blueberries

by Libby

Beauvoir had never liked dark chocolate. It seemed unfriendly. ... And on the wooden counter sat small mounds of very dark chocolate. Long rows of them, like tiny monks. He picked one up, turning it this way and that. Then he ate it. (The Beautiful Mystery, Kindle, p.64)

Jean-Guy Beauvoir has just made one of his more pleasant discoveries at the secluded monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups in the Quebec wilderness. And with his usual loyalty, he shares it with Gamache in a companionable moment amidst the investigation of a murder within the small, reclusive monastic community.

Gamache picked up a chocolate and held it between his large fingers. It looked microscopic there. Then he ate it. And Beauvoir smiled to see the astonishment, and delight, on Gamache’s face. “Blueberry?Beauvoir nodded. “Those tiny wild ones. Chocolate covered. They make them by the bucketload here. I found the chocolaterie when I was looking for the monks. Seems like the better find.” (The Beautiful Mystery, Kindle, p.84)

Both are still recovering in the aftermath of the raid that went devastatingly wrong. But Beauvoir, the more fragile of the two, has been buoyed, being three months into a deeply loving and committed relationship with Annie.

Beauvoir now seemed happy. Indeed, happier than Gamache had ever seen him. Not the feverish, giddy highs of the addict, but a settled calm. Gamache knew it was a long and treacherous road back, but Beauvoir was at least on it. Gone were the mood swings, the irrational outbursts. The rage and the whining. Gone were the pills. The OxyContin... (The Beautiful Mystery, Kindle, p.34)

And we see the return of Beauvoir's wonderful appetite for food. I've always enjoyed it! He approaches it with such gusto, and he doesn't hold back in the early meals at the monks' table. But for me, Jean-Guy Beauvoir will always be associated with those chocolate-covered blueberries.

Throughout The Beautiful Mystery they are referenced, and along with his messages to Annie, seem to parallel Beauvoir's state of mind, and the spiralling changes that will take hold.

The Beautiful Mystery is a haunting work, as much for its setting as the harrowing contrasts of good and evil, light and dark: the deadly tensions amongst the monks contrasted with the wondrous beauty of their Gregorian chants; the delights of flavour rich, seasonal foods contrasted with the bitter pills of an addictive drug; the integrity and devotion of those who love contrasted with the machinations of those who seek to damage and destroy.

Early in the book it's easy to wallow in the happiness Beauvoir experiences with Annie, the love and playfulness they share. But also evident, and slightly unsettling, is something of Beauvoir's internal struggle, where self-doubt and anxiety reside. There is an unfamiliar vulnerability as he worries about Gamache's acceptance of his relationship with Annie, once it has been revealed.

They were a good team. A great team. Suppose he isn’t happy? The question snuck up on Beauvoir, out of the woods. Suppose he doesn’t want Annie to be with me? But that was, again, just fancy. Not fact. Not fact. Not fact. (The Beautiful Mystery, Kindle, p.22)

However Beauvoir and Gamache's familiar camaraderie as the investigation initially proceeds, his appetite for the monastery food, and his care and playfulness with Annie are reassuring.
“I found some more chocolate-covered blueberries and brought them back to my cell. I’ll save some for you.” ... “I miss you,” Jean-Guy wrote. “ Merde! All the chocolates are gone! How did that happen?” Then he rolled over, the BlackBerry held lightly in his hand. But not before typing, in the darkness, his final message of the day. “ Je t’aime .” He carefully wrapped the chocolates and put them in the nightstand drawer. For Annie. He closed his eyes, and slept soundly. (The Beautiful Mystery, Kindle, p.105)

But, just like the monastery's defences are breeched as its music has drawn the attention of the world and the Vatican, so too, over the course of the story, are Beauvoir's. His self-doubt and vulnerability are fuel to Gamache's nemesis, Sylvain Francoeur, whose ominous arrival signals the descent of Beauvoir into an eventual state of paranoia. And as Francoeur preys on him, relief from confusion and angst is soon close at hand, and it is not found in chocolate-covered blueberries.

Beauvoir thought about the tiny pills the size of wild blueberries. The ones still hidden in his apartment. And the burst they brought. Not of musky flavor, but of blessed oblivion. (The Beautiful Mystery, Kindle, p.186)

It is harrowing witnessing Beauvoir gradually isolate himself, even from Annie, increasingly powerless to control the turmoil he is feeling, as the OxyContin and Francoeur do their work.

Then he wrote back, describing where he was. Telling her they were making progress. He hesitated before hitting send, knowing while he hadn’t exactly lied, neither had he told her the complete truth. Of how he was feeling. His confusion, his anger. It seemed both directed at Francoeur and undirected. He was mad at Frère Raymond, mad at the monks, mad at being in the monastery instead of with Annie. Mad at the silence, broken by interminable masses. Mad at himself for letting Francoeur get under his skin. (The Beautiful Mystery, Kindle, p.240)

By the book's conclusion we are left stunned and saddened at Beauvoir's spiralling decline into a state of insecurity, suspicion and paranoia. As one of the monks prophetically tells Gamache:

“Most people don’t die at once.” ... “They die a bit at a time,” ... "They lose heart. They lose hope. They lose faith. They lose interest. And finally, they lose themselves.” (The Beautiful Mystery, Kindle, p.277)

Is this Beauvoir? His loss of trust, growing resentment and feelings of blame toward Gamache and his ultimate desertion of him are shocking. And with the choices made, we are left with someone we no longer quite recognise as Jean-Guy...and one final reference to the chocolate-covered blueberries.

Jean-Guy looked down as they banked. A few monks were outside the walls, picking wild blueberries. He realized he didn’t have any of the chocolates to take back to Annie. But Beauvoir had a sick feeling that it no longer mattered. (The Beautiful Mystery, Kindle, p.371)

Inspirational site

Last year two dear friends and I toured the Eastern Townships region and visited the Abbaye de Saint-Benoit-du-Lac. It was Louise Penny's inspiration for Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups. We were fortunate to witness a service in Gregorian chant, but alas, the Abbaye had run out of the chocolate-covered blueberries for which they are renowned!

Chocolate-covered blueberries

While I would love to be able to use wild blueberries (for their 'immediate wallop of flavour') in this recipe, the only ones available here are cultivated. Good dark chocolate for the covering is readily available, though. But this recipe isn't just a matter of dipping the blueberries in melted dark chocolate. I have been uncovering something of 'the beautiful mystery' of tempering chocolate. This is what chocolatiers do to coat fruit and all manner of tempting fillings. 

Tempering is what gives chocolate its sheen and snap and stops it from melting on your fingertips as soon as you touch it. Tempering is about re-stabilising the crystals in the cocoa butter in the chocolate once it has been melted, through a temperature control process. Tempering prevents the chocolate from getting a whitish bloom when it sets.

A digital or chocolate thermometer is best used for tempering to get accurate  readings needed for success. You need to use chocolate with a high cocoa butter content, and that is why couverture* chocolate is used by chocolatiers with its minimum cocoa butter content of 32%. 
* The Hot Chocolate and Regret post gives the lowdown on couverture chocolate.

300g/10.5oz blueberries
380g/13.5oz dark couverture chocolate
* I used Valrhona couverture with a cocoa mass of 66%.

1.  Wash and completely dry the blueberries.

2.  Chop the chocolate into small pieces. Place 3/4 of the chocolate (set aside the other quarter) into a bowl that will fit snugly over a saucepan. No moisture must get into the chocolate.

3. Heat about an inch (3cm) of water in the saucepan until boiling. Reduce the heat so that the water is barely simmering and not steaming.

4. Place the bowl of chocolate over the saucepan (the bowl must not touch the water) and stir continuously with a flexible spatula as the chocolate melts.

Keep checking the temperature of the chocolate until it slowly reaches 116-119F/46-48C (don't let it exceed this temperature range).


5.  Immediately remove the bowl from the heat and stir in the remaining chocolate.

6.  Continuously stir the chocolate to gradually reduce the temperature (it will take a while) to 82-84F/28-29C to temper it.

7.  Now raise the temperature of the chocolate to the optimal working temperature of 88-91F/31-32C by placing the bowl in another bowl of warm water with a temperature of no more than 91F/32C. Stir continuously, moving the chocolate from the sides of the bowl as you do.

Maintain this temperature while dipping the blueberries. If you exceed this temperature the chocolate will come out of temper, and you will need to re-temper.

8.  Use a skewer to dip each blueberry into the chocolate. Allow excess chocolate to drip off.

9.  Use a second skewer to help ease the blueberry onto a tray lined with baking paper.

10.  Allow to set.

11.  As you work stir the chocolate occasionally and keep the temperature constant in the 86-88F/30-31C range.

12.  Eat the chocolate covered blueberries within two to three days. Leftover chocolate can be spread onto a sheet of baking paper and later broken into bite-sized pieces for eating, making hot chocolate or stored for later use.

I need to practise tempering to learn to manage the temperatures better, particularly when you have a load of berries to painstakingly dip, one by one. It will be worth it though as I really love the burst of the berry as you bite into and snap through the chocolate covering, and let it all melt in your mouth. The chocolate has a deep, rich flavour without being sickly sweet. And serving them with a glass of whisky is quite a match!


Friday, October 7, 2016

Shepherd's Pie & Keeping Grief Company

by Amy

“Clara had put the shepherd’s pie and apple crisp in the fridge. They’d been her own comfort food, after Peter had gone. She’d followed the casseroles back to sanity. Thanks to the kindness of neighbors who kept baking them, and kept bringing them. And who’d kept her company.
And now it was Clara’s turn to return the comfort and the casseroles and the company.”

Keeping company to someone in pain or grief or discomfort isn’t easy.

Empathic listening demands a willingness to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Some of us are more talented at it than others. It takes sensibility, I think. A good imagination helps. And there’s that elusive ability: a knack for extrapolating feelings from experiences you’ve had and applying them to a new context.

I’ve always thought that that is what good actors did. Maybe good writers, too. They don’t have to have lived the exact situation that a character they’re playing or portraying does. They do have to dig into their own emotional history and repertoire to empathize and represent the character they are giving voice to.

The same skill is necessary in order to be a good listener, an understanding friend, a counselor, a psychologist…

“I didn’t want to disturb you,” Clara said, cradling the dishes. “But I know how much energy it takes to get out of bed in the morning, never mind shop and cook. There’re a couple bags of groceries in the trunk. They’re from Monsieur Béliveau. And Sarah sent some croissants and baguettes from her boulangerie. She says you can freeze them. I wouldn’t know. They never last that long in my house.
Clara saw a hint of a genuine smile. And with it a slight relief, a loosening of the tight bands holding Evie Lepage in, and the world out.”

I know.

Clara wasn’t relying only on imagination in order to understand Evie’s feelings. She knew. She had recently been in very similar circumstances. Clara thought she was welcome in the Lapage’s home because she had suffered a loss of her own. She thought she understood because they were in the same boat, so to speak.

“How’re you doing?”“It feels like my bones are dissolving,” said Evelyn. And Clara nodded. She knew that feeling.”[…]“Al won’t come in here,” she explained. “I have to keep the door closed. He doesn’t want to see anything to do with Laurent. But I come up, when he’s outside.”She swung the door open and stepped inside. The bed was as Laurent had left it, unmade. And his clothes were scattered about, where he’d tossed them.The two women sat side by side on Laurent’s bed.The old farmhouse creaked and groaned, as though the whole home was in mourning, trying to settle around the gaping hole in its foundation.“I’m afraid,” said Evie, at last.“Tell me,” said Clara. She didn’t ask, “Of what?” Clara knew what she was afraid of. And she knew the only reason Evelyn had allowed her past the threshold wasn’t because of the casseroles she carried in her arms, but because of something else Clara carried. The hole in her own heart.Clara knew.

We talked before of Clara’s willingness to confront her own brokenness and her cracks (HERE). Her strength and her talent for seeing into people’s souls lies in her courage in facing and admitting her own vulnerability.

I think that is the true reason why Evie opened up to Clara.

Loss, heart-wrenching grief, sorrow, and a gaping hole where her heart was all made it easier for Clara to understand. It wasn’t the only determining factor, though. There are those who go through grief and still do not know how to reach out to others who suffer similar pain. There are those who turn their sorrow into bitterness and self-centeredness and cannot see that everyone in the world has a burden of their own and that maybe, just maybe, in sharing, we can lighten each other’s load.

Clara has a talent for seeing others. She hears the unsaid and reads between the lines.

I think Evie let her in because she was willing to say, “Tell me”.

That attitude explains why Clara had let Myrna, Gabri, Olivier, the Gamache’s in her own home when dealing with her own grief.

Maybe, if Clara had walked in, know-it-all attitude, telling Evie what to expect and how to grieve and what to do, Evie wouldn’t have been as comfortable to share.

Maybe, if Clara had interrupted Al’s solitary vigil in the backyard, forced him to confront Laurent’s room… Maybe she would have been kicked out.

Maybe, if Clara had expressed, in so many words that she knew exactly how they felt, Evie would have felt judged, labeled, and unheard.

Clara didn’t do any of those things.

She knew grief, yes. But she also knew people.

“I’m afraid it won’t stop, and all my bones will disappear and one day I’ll just dissolve. I won’t be able to stand up anymore, or move.” She looked into Clara’s eyes. Clung to Clara’s eyes. “Mostly I’m afraid that it won’t matter. Because I have nowhere to go, and nothing to do. No need of bones.”
And Clara knew then that as great as her own grief was, nothing could compare to this hollow woman and her hollow home.

And because she listened, she understood. She understood that while she could empathize and very likely understand much of what Evie was feeling, Evie’s pain was her own.

There wasn’t just a wound where Laurent had once been. This was a vacuum, into which everything tumbled. A great gaping black hole that sucked all the light, all the matter, all that mattered, into it.
Clara, who knew grief, was suddenly frightened herself. By the magnitude of this woman’s loss.
They sat on Laurent’s bed in silence, except for the moaning house.”

When confronted with another person’s pain, we can, at most empathize and keep them company. We can listen, give them room to vent, and assure them that they are loved and not alone. We can pray for them, encourage them, respect them.

“Tell me about him.” Clara walked back to the bed and sat beside Evie.
And she did. Abruptly, in staccato sentences at first. Until in dibs and dabs and longer strokes, a portrait appeared. Of an unexpected baby, who became an unexpected little boy. Who always did and said the unexpected.”

And we can listen to their story. The sorrow and the joy.

Clara knew that grief took a terrible toll. It was paid at every birthday, every holiday, each Christmas. It was paid when glimpsing the familiar handwriting, or a hat, or a balled-up sock. Or hearing a creak that could have been, should have been, a footstep. Grief took its toll each morning, each evening, every noon hour as those who were left behind struggled forward.
Clara wasn’t sure how she’d have managed if the grief of losing Peter was accompanied not by shepherd’s pie and apple crisp, but by accusations. Not by kindness but by finger-pointing. Not by company and embraces and patience, but by whispers and turned backs.
“We thought they were friends.”
“You have friends. Lots of them. And we’re defending you,” said Clara.
It was true. But it was possible they could have done a better job. And Clara realized, with some shock, that part of her wondered if the gossip wasn’t perhaps, maybe, just a little… true.

And we can offer them our loyalty and support.

Our friendship.

We can keep in mind that we might not be the person that is chosen to listen to their pain or to share their thoughts. Sometimes they aren’t ready and sometimes we aren't the right person (remember this post? Omelettes & Do you want to talk about it?)

Prayers, support, loyalty, and friendship are always (er… usually) welcome, though.

Shepherd’s Pie

I steered away from this one. I didn’t really know what shepherd’s pie was, but I do know when I first looked it up (about a year ago when we first started blogging) I just saw “meat” and wasn’t interested. Also, pies made me think of crust and of sweet pies (which my husband loves) and I ended up getting side tracked.

It keeps popping up in the books as comfort food. Or “practical” food. You know the kind? The kind of food that’s basically ready and doesn’t need much work or timing once it’s prepped. So you can have it handy to heat up whenever needed. Olivier & Gabri have left it behind more than once. They’ve mentioned to Gamache (or was it Jean-Guy?) that there’s shepherd’s pie in the kitchen (as they walked out of the B&B on their way to a potluck at the Morrow’s).

This week, in trying to figure my schedule out (haven’t managed yet) and trying to find some order in the chaos of little endless tasks that must get done (little success there as well), I started looking for meals that could be prepped ahead of time and/or frozen. To try to make life easier. It doesn’t help that none of us quite like to eat anything even remotely similar. We do find common ground, but we’re all happiest eating “our own way”.

In the midst of freezer friendly ideas, the one that stood out was Shepherd’s Pie. Who would have thought. I made a big batch based on Donna Hay's Shepherd's Pie. It’s a big recipe, so I put it in different sized dishes and froze most of them. I made a tiny one (heavy on the potato topping) and the rest I made in meal-sized dishes and froze. It was lovely to see the freezer filled with four potential main dishes for future dinners. Yey!

My recipe had slightly less meat, way more milk in the potatoes, a bit more of cheese on top, and no mixer, so the potatoes were a bit lumpier (fork and arm strength aren’t the same as a mixer).

All in all, I’d consider it a success.

Unless otherwise stated, all quotes are from Louise Penny's NATURE OF THE BEAST