Winding My Way Through Indiana’s Wineries

I’m having a fruit fit and we’re not talking salad. I can’t decide whether I want blueberry, blackberry, red raspberry, cherry, plum or apple. And let’s not forget grape. Fortunately, as part of the Rushville Psi Iota Xi Fall Wine Tour, I can sample each delicious fruit-filled wine before I decide which – or even how many – bottles to buy and take home. And trust me, it’s a difficult decision. I’m currently drooling over the blueberry at Ertel Cellars Winery just a few miles southeast of Batesville, and we’ve only just started the tour. Plus, I have a hankering for merlot, the day is young, the wine samples will be plentiful, and I have to carry what I buy.

Bottles of wine at Ertel Cellars Winery near Batesville, Indiana

Bottles of wine at Ertel Cellars Winery near Batesville, Indiana

Good thing I work out.

And good thing the Psi Iota Xi wine tour comes with a chauffeured tour bus because, if past history is any indication, I’m a cheap date and will need it. Fortunately, Psi Iota Xi has pulled out all of the stops with the tour I’m on, and it’s doing the same again with its upcoming 2014 fall wine tour highlighting three area wineries, including Buck Creek Winery, Simmons Winery and Mallow Run Winery. This year’s tour is set for Saturday, November 1st, and, in addition to the tour bus transportation, it includes a sampling of wines at each location, one meal and prizes in addition to garden and back room tours.

What can I say? Sign me up – again!

Also, take note, you may receive a free wine trail wine glass at each location. We did on our tour, but I’m not sure if that’s part of the November 1st tour. As the glasses are cute and, well, are wine glasses, it’s worth asking about at the first stop. Still, cute as they are, they pale in comparison to my new favorite plastic wine glass with straw and a lid to keep bugs out, courtesy of my friend, Michelle, who introduced me to wine touring by bus in all of its many glories. Now THAT’S a friend!

The three wineries to be toured on November 1st are just some of the seven wineries that make up the “Indy Wine Trail,” one of five designated wine trails in Indiana. The wine trails stretch from Braiali Winery in far northeastern Indiana (on the “Wineries of Indiana’s North East Trail”) to the Pepper’s Ridge Winery in the Evansville area (part of the “Hoosier Wine Trail”) and include various parts in between. The Indy Wine Trail – not to be confused with the “Indiana Wine Trail” – also includes urban wineries in Indianapolis such as Chateau Thomas in addition to Simmons, the furthest south on the Indy Wine Trail, near Columbus.

The five Indiana wine trails are the brain child of the Indiana Wine Grape Council and were created to foster collaboration between regional wineries in an effort to offer customers a localized wine experience. Visitors can travel from winery to winery to learn about the various wines produced in the state with wine tastings offered regularly at each location. As the trails include visits to several wineries, everyone is encouraged to designate a driver – such as our poor tour bus operator who gets to travel to each winery without touching a single drop so have mercy and tip him or her well – and drink responsibly.

So many bottles, so little time....

So many bottles, so little time….

At Buck Creek Winery in southeastern Marion County, Psi Iota Xi tour guests will sample from Buck Creek’s large collection of red and white wines and will get a private tour of the back room. With names like Dew Drop (a sweet white with a hint of peach and citrus) and Christmas Cherry (a vibrant red made from sweet and tart cherries), deciding which to buy at Buck Creek may also have you eenie, meenie, minie, mowing your way around a half dozen bottles too. Or maybe that’s just me.

The tasting room and restaurant at Ertel Cellars Winery near Batesville, Indiana

The tasting room and restaurant at Ertel Cellars Winery near Batesville, Indiana

At Simmons Winery, tour guests will enjoy lunch while sampling wines and wandering the winery’s beautiful gardens. Located on the family’s 115-year-old farm in northeastern Bartholomew County, Simmons also offers a market during the summer months and features pumpkins come fall. With red, white and blush wines available, Simmons – like many of Indiana’s wineries – also makes several specialty wines, including a sweet dessert wine, Vidal Ice, and Winter Spice, a sweet red Marechal Foch combined with brown sugar and mulling spices which is great served warm, especially during the holidays.

At Mallow Run Winery located near Bargersville in Johnson County, try the Dry Traminette which is made completely from grapes grown in Indiana. A dry white with notes of cinnamon, nutmeg and apple, it’s perfect for a fall stroll around the grounds. And, like many of Indiana’s other wineries, Mallow Run offers several sweet fruit wines, including its number one selling rhubarb wine, a zippy little number with a tart zing, not to mention a gold medal “best in show” award from this year’s Indy International Wine Competition.

As for the aforementioned Dry Traminette, that wine is actually produced from a grape specifically cultivated to grow in the harsh climate of the Midwest. The Traminette grape was created by Herb Barrett at the University of Illinois originally as a table grape, but it was found to have excellent wine qualities in addition to partial resistance to several fungal diseases. The Traminette also proved to be more cold hardy than its more established parent, the Gewurztraminer grape, while retaining its flavorful character. The Indiana Wine Growers Council has named wine made from the Traminette grape as the signature wine of Indiana so, as a fellow Hoosier, you should definitely give it a try.

According to Purdue University, Indiana’s wine industry annually contributes more than $72 million to the state’s economy, with Indiana wine sales growing on average by more than 15 percent a year. The exploding number of wineries in Indiana – from nine to nearly 80 since 1989 – have certainly helped with the growth in those numbers. Indiana’s wineries currently grow grapes on more than 600 acres, with Indiana wine production exceeding 1 million gallons a year – which translates into 5 million bottles, half of which I’ve probably sampled. Ok, maybe not, but it’s definitely on my bucket list.

As for this fall’s wine tour, Psi Iota Xi has opened it up to the public, but as the tour bus is only so big, it’s first come, first served with a limit of 55 seats. Tickets cost $60 per person in advance and include the very worthwhile tour bus transportation for the day, wine tastings at each winery, a delicious meal, and a drawing for prizes. Again, tickets must be purchased in advance – no same day sales – and can be purchased from the Rushville Public Library. For more information call Jan Garrison at 765-561-1105 or e-mail janmg@rpl.lip.in.us or Robin Sowder at rsowder0602@gmail.com.

The bus departs from St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Rushville at 9:30 a.m. – go to the west side of the church and just look for the big bus. Return time is approximately 5:30 p.m., but as that’s approximate, you may want to text your designated driver from the bus.

Vats of future goodness at Ertel Cellars Winery near Batesville, Indiana

Vats of future goodness at Ertel Cellars Winery near Batesville, Indiana

As for Psi Iota Xi, it is a charitable women’s philanthropic organization with chapters throughout the Midwest and places a special emphasis on speech and hearing-related causes. With that said, it’s great to be able to support a worthy cause while also enjoying a Saturday outing to experience some of the wonders Indiana has to offer, even if the end result blurs my speech in the process.

If you can’t make the tour, I encourage you to still check out Indiana’s wineries, several of which also have restaurants on site. Hours and days of operation differ at each winery, with some locations changing their availability based upon the seasons. For more information, to get directions or to plan your own visit to any of the three wineries on this year’s Psi Iota Xi tour, check out their websites at:

Buck Creek Winery – http://buckcreekwinery.com.

Simmons Winery – http://www.simmonswinery.com

Mallow Run Winery – http://mallowrun.com

For information on the Indy Wine Grape Council and the Indiana wine trails, go to:

http://www.indianawines.org/tour/wine-trails

Next Week – I explore Stream Cliff Herb Farm and Winery.

Follow my blog at: http://outaroundwithrobin.wordpress.com/ and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RobinFritz or email at outaroundwithrobin@gmail.com

481266_10203777348727600_1608806686782902373_nBy Robin Winzenread Fritz

Reprinted with permission from the Greensburg Daily News

A Day in the Life of Venice – Part II

Today my lunch consisted of a stale oatmeal raisin cookie left over from a Friday-night fundraiser combined with a generous smear of chunky peanut butter on a slice of Wonder Bread from the middle of the package which, unlike the slices near the open end of the package, didn’t glow green when placed under a black light.  As for the peanut butter, it was smooth when I bought it, but I’ve long since learned to not make eye contact with my food because, after all, a mom’s got to do what a mom’s got to do.

But why so pathetic a lunch, you ask?  Because, a) I didn’t plan well over the weekend and b) we live miles and miles away from the nearest store of any kind so on any given day, we have no choice but to make do with what’s on hand.

While I love living in the middle of nowhere, it usually requires a level of organization and planning that escapes me all too often.  If I don’t make a list and carry it with me, then I won’t know what to buy at the store, but if I carry the list with me, my husband and kiddies can’t add things to it so it becomes useless anyway.  You can see my problem.  And please don’t get me started about toilet paper.

So, today I munched on a stale cookie and dubious peanut butter and laughed.  Today I foraged for what’s on hand.  Last week, hunky Italian men with names like Renaldo and Luca delivered handmade pasta, fresh seafood and bottles of wine to me while I murmured “grazi” before “accidently” dropping my fork so they would have to bend over and pick it up. 

Sadly, as you can see, today’s lunch was a bit of a downgrade.

So forgive me if I tend to dwell on my Venetian adventure.  Because, had I been in Venice, even if I didn’t WANT to go out to eat (which I don’t see happening any time soon), I could have waddled just a few blocks to the nearest market where fresh produce, gallons of wine and unimaginable piles of seafood would have beckoned to me like Renaldo’s and Luca’s bent over behinds.

Which leads us to today’s blog entry – Part II of the every day life of Venice.  Let’s start with the food, shall we?  And while you’re reading this, I’m going to go burn that peanut butter….

Tomatoes the size of my head – what’s not to love?

This is my idea of a sandwich shop!

Don’t even get me started on the fresh seafood.  I live in Indiana, after all.  The closest thing to fresh seafood around here are the snapper turtles in Flatrock River.

As for the wine, I like to buy in bulk, don’t you?

Should my peanut butter make me violently ill, I’ll have to call 911, but in Venice, I could go to the hospital in style.

Not to mention, the hospital pharmacy is just that darn cool.  I wonder if they carry Viagra…

On second thought, maybe I WILL just go out to eat.  Just think of the time I’ll save by not having to do dishes.

The real question is, which ristorante do I pick?  Decisions, decisions….

I want to ‘Go with Oh’ to London

The story goes that my great, great grandfather had to leave England in a hurry due to a penchant for drinking, some shady business practices and too many bad gambling debts, and he took with him his oldest daughter – my great grandmother Marge – to tend house until he could bring the rest of the family to the Pennsylvania coal mines where he finally landed.  Eventually he did manage to haul the rest of them over, but to my knowledge, he never went back to the Mother Country and none from our family have visited since.  As great, great grand pappy’s debtors are probably, hopefully, long since dead, I think it’s time one of us took the chance.

Being half English and half Irish on my mother’s side, the British Isles have long been on my radar.  Thatched cottages and fluffy sheep seem to steep in our family blood, bad food seems natural on our plates, and visions of Wadsworth’s daffodils still float in my addled brain despite a 34-year gap since taking freshman lit.  It’s as if it’s in our DNA, so much so that my 17-year-old daughter already dreams of living her life in Dublin married to an Irish native and raising her future adopted Chinese children, Ling and Ping O’Reilly upon her rolling green hills.  My mother and her sister talk endlessly of finally visitingEngland, and my uncle longs to lose golf ball after golf ball inScotland.  As for me, I can’t stop dreaming of London’s tiny, twisting streets.  In short, we’re Anglo-Saxon through and through and we have the pasty pale skin, translucent hair and freckles to back it up.

So a visit to the UK, and London in particular, is definitely on my to-do list, because who doesn’t want to parade around her cobblestoned streets, imagining a long-dead great, great grand pappy getting tossed on his ass out of this bar and that before jumping ship to the States?  These are my people, even if it’s been over a hundred years since any of my ancestors sowed any wild oats in her back alleys.  Family traditions die hard, and it’s high time one of us resurrect a few.  So, in no particular order, here are some of my plans when I finally do make it back to the mother ship.

1)   Buy some bed knobs and broomsticks at a London flea market.

Flea markets appeal to me like beer on a Friday night and, I truly enjoy tromping around the occasional one in my neighboring Hoosier hills on a slow Saturday afternoon.  But I can’t imagine how much more exciting a flea market must be in a community as old, as vibrant, as urban as London.  Poking through piles of musty books and bobbles and antiques is only part of the fun, for in London, one can also imagine the castle or cottage or row house those antiques may have come from or the history they may have survived.  In Indiana, our flea market finds most likely come from a ranch brick house built in the 1970s and which barely remembers Watergate.  In London, however, it’s possible to find unique goodies that may be older than my hometown.

2)   Green up my thumb at Kew Garden

As an avid gardener since a very young age, I knew who Gertrude Jekyll was before I knew Mick Jagger.  Pulling weeds makes me happy, and my fingernails are usually home to more dirt than most entertainment “news” shows.  Thus a visit to Kew Gardens is a requirement.  I have to stroll all 300 of her manicured acres and when I break a sweat in the steamy Palm House, it will be due to the proximity of so many lovely plants rather than the heat.  I LIVE for plant life, so much so, that I feel almost guilty eating vegetables.  Whereas so many Europeans are passionate about their soccer, I drool over delphiniums.    

3)   Channel my inner thespian at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

Image

The Globe Theatre

All the world’s a stage, but in England, what a stage!  Yeah, I know, it’s a reconstruction, but the site remains THE site for English theater and as someone who trod the boards – albeit in high school – I want to stand in the shadow of the great playwright if for no other reason than just to BE there, standing there, in silent awe, taking it all in.  It’s as simple as that.

4)   Discover the ghosts of the Christmas Carol at the Charles Dickens’s Museum

My two favorite authors – Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway – are light years apart in terms of writing style, yet my love of their works runs so deep, they remain for me united to this day as the only two writers who’s footsteps I feel compelled to follow.  So a day of visiting Dickens’s old haunts must start with a thorough and informative visit to the museum dedicated to his life and works.  And, should I run into the Ghost of Christmas Past in the process, I’ll pinch myself and post it on Facebook.

5)   Discover something good to eat that’s actually British

Image

Blood pudding - yum!

During a recent shopping trip to Jungle Jim’s – billed as the world’s largest grocery store, conveniently located an hour away in Cincinnati – I pushed my treasure laden grocery cart to “Sherwood Forest,” home to edibles of UK origin.  Given that I had to work my way through the pleasures of the Orient section first, it was a bit of a let down.  It seemed the Sherwood Forest gimmick was the only way to enliven that section of the store, for the food of the British Isles proved to be less of a big draw and featured such lovely items as haggis in a can and potted meat.  Surely, real food on real British soil is better than this, right?  It can’t merely be about bad meat cooked in horrible ways, can it?  Right?  Yes?  Hello?  Is that an echo I hear out there? 

Ok, so it may be a long shot and tantamount to finding Nessie in her cold, deep lock up north, but I do plan to look for that elusive myth of the good English meal.  And, God willing, I’ll find her.  After all, there’s always fish and chips.

While a short stay of a week or too is hopefully on the not-too-distant horizon, I do want to someday spend some serious quality time in London, perhaps upon retirement by renting an Oh-London apartment for a few months.  I want to commit to the old girl and get to know her like the boy next door.  I don’t want her to be like some great aunt propped up in the nursing home who only gets visited on the holidays.  I want to know her, really know her, and hear the stories and feel the history and understand what makes her tick.  I want to know that in someway, it’s all connected to me and my family and our lives.  It’s our history, and it’s time to go.

For more information on Go with Oh or for a chance to win four fantastic prizes, check out their link at:

http://www.gowithoh.com/Image

I want to ‘Go with Oh’ to Venice

One hot stormy afternoon in the 1970s when my siblings and I were being difficult little brats, my mother caved and uncharacteristically turned on the TV in the middle of the day if for no other reason than to get us out of her over-permed hair for at least a half hour.  But when the little black and white TV hummed into life and the picture finally came into focus, she stopped dead in her tracks, dropped her basket of laundry and plunked down on the footstool behind her.  And, for the next 45 minutes, my workaholic mother didn’t move.

We were stunned.  The only time that woman EVER sat down was for dinner and mass, so to see her immobile on a midday afternoon was shocking at best.  And what, pray tell, drew her attention away from chores and children?  It was the site of Katherine Hepburn strolling the moldering alleyways of Venice, with Rossano Brassi in tow, in that classic movie, Summer Time.

The movie was already half over when we stumbled upon it that day, but even as a child, I took in enough to realize that Venice was the central character.  Whether it was the canals or Rossano that held my mother’s attention I’ll never know for she still won’t tell, but as a lover of all things nautical, I was hooked.  The fact that a city of canals actually existed ignited my boat-obsessed imagination like never before and I vowed then and there to visit her someday, preferably sans annoying siblings.

But now I’m the mother of chores and children myself, and Venice remains as elusive to me as a pair of size four jeans and a single chin somewhat resembling a right angle.  I still hold out hope that I’ll get there before she sinks forever into the ocean and when I do, I’ll make the most of it by:

1)   Becoming a temporary permanent fixture in Piazza San Marco.

As tourists, we Americans seem to prefer quantity over quality, rushing headlong from one landmark to the next, fanny packs a swinging, barely taking in all that each has to offer.  But Venice is worth lingering over, and linger I shall, preferably in the Piazza San Marco.  Getting there well before sunrise, I’ll stake out the perfect table, order a café late and sit.  For to sit is to see, and to see is to be enthralled as the everyday life of Venice unfolds like a multi-tiered wedding cake tipped over by a drunken groom.  Pigeons will be fed and locals will be observed and tourists will be spotted.  Books will be read, bell towers will be sketched, pictures will be taken, and I will sit and I will breathe and I will enjoy and I will wear Depends.  *Sigh*

2)   Dressing like it means something

Standing in line one Friday night at our local Wal-Mart, behind what I can only guess were three generations of one family all clad in flannel PJs, I felt decidedly overdressed in my blue jeans, turtleneck and brown leather boots.  One can only hope they were of Scottish heritage and overly proud of the family plaid.  But I’m thinking no.  In short, a fashion Mecca Indiana is not.  Rather, ours is a blue jean and t-shirt kind of comfortable world, but oh, not so in Venice. 

In Venice, one dresses for the occasion that is life, for to be Venetian means to embrace the spectacle that good clothing paired with the right accessories has to offer.  For in Venice the theatricality of its food, fashion and atmosphere enable her inhabitants to glide beautifully over the ugly realities of life, whether it be poverty, taxes, earthquakes or war.  So I will wear a flowing floral dress as I shop her cobblestoned streets for handmade sandals, and my jaunty Jackie O sunglasses will beg the question, who’s behind those gleaming dark lenses?  A silk scarf will frame my face – hiding the stubborn gray, mind you – and no one will look at me and assume for an instant that I own a t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase, “Who’s Your Mama” or that I live in stretchy but forgiving polyester yoga pants the better part of the year. 

3)   Becoming one with the peach bellinis at Harry’s Bar

As a Hemingway fanatic, hitting Harry’s Bar for a peach bellini is a given, no matter how much of an overblown touristy ritual that may be.  Yes, I’ll admit it.  I want to sit at the bar and drink them by the pitcher full, but not so much so that the toilet smells like a fruit salad afterwards.  No, I only want to get just tipsy enough so that when I close my eyes, I can realistically pretend, if even for a moment, that it’s the 1920s and I’m a colorful ex-patriot writer starving my way across Europe on the Grand Tour.

4)   Making like Mario Batalli and whip up a seafood feast

As a seaport city,Venice is dripping with creepy crawlies fresh from the ocean, just waiting to be devoured with splash of wine and a squirt of lemon.  And traveling with “Go With Oh” means the potential for stellar access to a kitchen – a tempting combo calling to my inner chef – hence I will make like Mario and cook, cook, cook!  Much as I love having someone else clean up the mess, experimenting in the kitchen is one of the few everyday rituals I don’t consider to be a chore.  Thus, inVenice, I will hit the markets for every conceivable slimy crustacean imaginable and experiment.  And then I will sit on my balcony, pop open a bottle of pinot and make like an American and pig out.  And, for that, I may even break out my yoga pants.

5)   Kayaking my way up the canals

While I will definitely wile away at least one afternoon in a gondola – singing Oh Solo Mio as off key as the next tourist – paddling my own rented kayak on a guided tour is an even better option.  With kayaks come a certain level of freedom not obtained in a pole driven gondola and, what I lose in the attractive Italian gondolier, I gain in the ability to paddle close and really observe.  There are sights to be seen in Venice that one can only appreciate from the water, and paddling my own craft, I can compose the perfect photo op that will forever capture my version of Venice.

It’s said that before filming the Summer Time scene where she walks backwards off of the pier into the canal, Katherine Hepburn plugged up every hole in her body to avoid infection from Venice’s dirty waters, going so far as to fill her ears and nose with waxy plugs, doing God knows what down below, and clamping her lips ever so tight at the last moment before taking that fateful plunge.  But she forgot about her eyes and is said to have picked up an infection that stayed with her for weeks. 

While I too wish to bring home ample memories of Venice, a lingering infection isn’t high on the list, though for this floating vision of heaven, I’m willing to risk it.  Whether it be handmade shoes, Murano glass or an imported bacterial bug, I’ll take it, because to bring home a little of that magnificent city is to keep her in your heart all year long.

For more information on Go with Oh or for a chance to win four fantastic prizes, check out their link at:

http://www.gowithoh.com/

By Robin Fritz, writer, artist, photographer and owner of bad American clothes.

Coming of Age with Coq Au Vin

            When I faced my first plate of snails, I was all of 16, a far-flung foreign exchange student who had never once set foot on a plane until that fateful trip.  The half dozen that arrived were plump, meaty things with tiny antennae long past wriggling, and they were swimming in a buttery, drippy sauce fragrant with garlic.  With sheer abandon, I tugged the first morsel from its shell and sank my teeth into the juicy flesh.  The heady scent of garlic engulfed me, and I surrendered myself to the thin veil of pungent seasoning.  Raised on pork chops and meatloaf, the texture of the little beasts overwhelmed my palate, and I was transported somewhere around heaven.  It was a gastronomic epiphany.

            Perhaps it was the skill of the chef, but I believe the magnitude of the meal had more to do with the decidedly French atmosphere.  No doubt the bistro kitchen had a hand in the level of perfection, but these were no garden-variety snails.  No, these were real honest-to-garlic-goodness French snails prepared by a French chef in the intoxicating white hot heat that is the south of France.  Sitting at the outdoor table of the crowded little bistro, I could have been served burnt toast and would have declared it a triumph.

 

            Raised on a small Midwestern farm, my experiences with good food were extensive, but while grand in quality, they were severely limited in variety.  My domestic dinnertime “adventures” barely extended beyond your basic meat and potatos.  These were quite competently fixed in ample quantities by my mother, but, as is often the case in the land of the frozen dinner, creativity and range was sacrificed at the hand of convenience.  Needless to say, while my mother is an excellent cook, variety was not a regular part of our dining experience.  Breakfast usually came from a box, except on Sunday mornings when my father took over the stove and whipped up inch-thick pancakes studded with apples.  Lunch was the standard American childhood fare – Spaghettio’s, bologna sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly crackers.  They were filling and we were kids – we didn’t care.

 

Lunch sometimes bordered on the adventurous when my mother would break out a can of Campbell’s Chicken Gumbo soup.  As she served us steaming bowls of processed broth with gumbo chunks and things that resembled chicken, she relayed fascinating tales of stalking the wild gumbo at night with our trusty tomcat, cleverly named Tom.  We never saw the cans, and we bought the whole story hook, line, and sinker.  I imagined my mother dressed in black, stick in hand, crawling through the backyard brambles with Tom pulling forward on the end of a crude leash made of hay rope.  Together they would spy a herd of the rogue gumbo and Mom would release Tom who would attack the wild beasties with all his might.  I imagined the work it took to catch such a beastie, and wondered how many it must take to make a whole pot of soup, since obviously Mom only used the intestines.  At least, that’s what I imagined the sliced pieces of gumbo to be, and I ate them heartily as any tomboy would.

 

           Mom usually followed up her gumbo soup with warm molasses cookies.  She once told me that it took a great many moles to make all of those cookies and after that, I could no longer eat them with raisins.

 

            While lunch was not exactly a culinary tour de force, my mother always did go all out for dinner, and the meals were good, hot, and substantial.  It was stick-to-your-ribs, this-is-Indiana kind of food, but the repertoire of dishes included a limited cast of characters.  We ate two vegetables – corn and green beans – mostly because these were planted by the acre in my father’s garden and canned by the quart in my mother’s kitchen.  Dad hated peas, so they never made an appearance, and broccoli, cauliflower and asparagus were rare treats that I inhaled by the forkful at my grandmother’s house on the holidays.  If we couldn’t grow it well in large quantities, we usually didn’t eat it.  Tomatoes we had in abundance, but the majority of these were processed into chunks, sauces, and ketchups.  Potatoes were considered a separate category altogether, but they too made their appearance in limited form – mashed and fried.  Mom sometimes threw in cheese, but it was always Velveeta.

 

            The meat course was usually dictated by whichever family pet was currently taking up precious space in our freezer.  We would butcher a few hapless pigs in the spring and eat pork for six months.  Then, suddenly, we would see the bottom of the freezer and, in short order, in would go one of our luckless steers – one year Clover Rover, the next Alfalfa Fred.  Beef would grace our table for the next nine months until we practically begged for our father to “do in” another pig.  These monotonous streaks of chops and roasts, loafs and steaks would be broken by the occasional Sunday chicken, but for the most part, that was it.  

 

And then I went to France.

 

            To say that it was a gastronomic awakening is an understatement.  I was fortunate as a child – most of the food I ate, from the goat’s milk we drank, to the eggs we fried, to the green beans I hid under my napkin, were home grown.  But I come from a small town that once voted Taco Bell as its favorite Mexican restaurant.  Seafood to me was Mom’s tuna casserole (light on tuna, heavy on the egg noodles and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup) and occasional trips to a fast food fish joint after Friday night Lenten services.  Cultural variety of any kind was not an option.

 

Then suddenly, overnight, I found myself surrounded by a culture that thrives on the creativity of its cuisine, and my taste buds, primed through years of 1970’s Midwest monotony, were ready for the challenge.  The family I was living with for the summer resided in Basel, in northwestern Switzerland but my host mother, Marmee, was French through and through – a product of Alsace-Lorraine who bled coq au vin.  Thus on my first day in Switzerland, we packed up and headed out for a month-long holiday in her homeland.  Our destination was a quaint, little rustic cottage with no TV or phone, and which contained a kitchen barely measuring ten feet by seven feet.  The refrigerator was no bigger than a cooler, the stove was small, ancient, and gas fired, and the entire room included maybe three feet of counter space, but it was all the canvas Marmee needed for her daily creations.  It was in this charming little home, perched on the edge of a deep, pine forest three miles from the Cote d Azure, that I soon discovered in France, meals – even every day, little meals – are an occasion.

 

            Breakfasts were an event served rain or shine on a little covered porch with a view of our neighbor’s vineyard and chicken run.  Two loaves of French bread arrived fresh daily, delivered beside the morning newspaper in a little plastic bag hung on the mailbox.  We ate three-minute eggs out of painted egg cups, and sipped huge bowls of cafe au lait served steaming hot with slices of biscotti.  As breakfast ended, we scooped up the few remaining crumbs and fed them to our neighbor’s chickens that stood watching us with obvious envy.

 

            Breakfasts were followed by long hours at the beach where we lay soaking up the sun, conquering the waves, or reading.  Lunch was usually light, straight out of a picnic basket, and involved fruit, bread, wine and still more cheese.  But the bread was always fresh and crusty, the cheeses different each day, and the wine was intoxicating in a way that alcohol alone could not impart. 

 

Late afternoon would bring a slow stroll up the boardwalk to the seaside town of Contis Place with plenty of stops along the way for Marmee to pick up her instruments for that evening’s performance.  There was no one store, no huge one-stop shopping extravaganza.  There was a fruit and vegetable stand overflowing with artichokes, eggplants, and more kinds of mushrooms than I knew even existed.   A little further on still stood a tiny market that specialized in dairy items, especially cheeses, ice creams, yogurts, and crisp sorbets.

 

            The town contained a butcher shop with interesting displays of fresh cut, unwrapped meats and poultry, their heads fully intact.  Rabbits and venison were also on display – things I had never seen on a butcher’s counter before.  The rabbits still had their legs on – proof that they were indeed rabbits and not cats – but the sheer thought of purchasing a cat for dinner, I thought, was an amusing gamble.

 

            My favorite stop, by far, was the seafood shop, where every day was a different experience, depending on the morning’s harvest from the Atlantic.  Shimmering whole-bodied fish lay in deep rows, nose to tail, at attention, and ready for inspection.  Huge sections of freshly caught tuna, too big to display in their entirety, took up their own counter.  Earthenware containers heaped with ice held shrimp, mussels, clams, and crabs by the dozen.  A wooden barrel teaming with snails stood by the door and as I watched, several of the slow-moving creatures tried to make a break for it down the sides.

 

            After Marmee had collected her treasures for the evening’s repast, we would head back to our little cottage in the woods to relax and unwind while she worked her magic.  Often Marmee’s son, Phillip, and I would head out into the woods in search of mushrooms.  Our prey in question were chanterelles – large, fairly flat with curly edges, but most impressive of all, they were the most marvelous shade of pumpkin orange.  We would arrive back home an hour or so later, our sacks swelling with fungi, and relate our adventures as we cleaned our harvest in the small bowl of the white porcelain sink.

 

            There was always an adventure to tell – deer we spooked, large hawks swooping down after unfortunate squirrels, interesting rocks to pick up, large pine cones to lug home, big, rotten logs to roll with hopes that mushrooms, and not snakes, would be hiding underneath.  It gave our meal an added element of interest to be able to relate an adventure with each course.  To think that our tuna steaks braved the cool Atlantic waters only the day before and that our mushrooms spent the previous evening under the same July moon gave dinner a hint of romance, an aura of elegance.

 

            The culmination of our six-week long holiday in France was an elaborate evening event prepared by Marmee as an exuberant farewell to her many family and friends in and around Contis Place.  It was truly a magnificent display of talent involving a great deal of planning and preparation.  The day before the big event, we made our way to a nearby vineyard where, in the searing heat of the August sun, we sat at red checkered tables, sipping vintage after vintage – sniff, swirl, sip, spit, repeat as needed – until Marmee found just the right family of wines for both cooking and serving.  Cognac came next, followed by a generous selection of brandies and port.

 

            We returned home, bottles in hand, and Marmee sequestered herself in the kitchen, making her lists.  The next morning dawned warm and sultry and Marmee and Poppy headed to the markets early, lists in hand, while Phillip, Myri, and I sat up large folding tables under the big trees in the back yard.  Stiff, white tablecloths soon followed suit and were anchored down with thick, cream colored candles surrounded by pine sprigs and cones collected from the surrounding forest.  An odd assortment of wooden chairs, benches, and stools were placed around the tables and then mismatched glass lanterns and candleholders suspended from wire were strewn overhead in the trees.  Finally, long, creamy yards of bridle netting, remnants from Marmee’s seamstress sister, were draped over limbs and twigs, creating a dreamy, makeshift canopy.  It was quaint, it was homey, and it was the most romantic thing I had ever seen.

 

            When Marmee and Poppy arrived, we all sprung into action.  I sliced warm honeydews in half, scooped out the seeds, and added a tablespoon of sugar to one half.  The sugar was topped off with a ruby colored port, the top of the melon was returned, and the whole concoction was left to ferment in the sun.  Phillip sat nearby slicing plums for Marmee’s tartlet.  Myri busied herself cleaning and de-bearding mussels, while Poppy worked feverishly on the shrimp, peeling and de-veining like a madman.  Marmee orchestrated the entire event from the kitchen where she somehow simultaneously, with the help of Myri, shucked oysters, de-boned cod and lightly kneaded the pastry crust for her piece de resistance, her seafood pie.  This mouth-watering concoction of jewels from the sea not only brought joy to the taste buds, but also delight to the eyes.  A small, cardboard roll which once held toilet paper now graced the top of her pie, encased in layers of pastry and hiding a tiny tea candle up top, in reverent initiation of a lighthouse.  The pie was served at sunset and when the big moment arrived, Marmee emerged slowly from the kitchen with a deliberate pace – much like a blushing bride – and carried her grand creation slowly to the table, candle lit, for all to admire.  It was a radiant performance and we banged on the table, cheered immensely and toasted her with raised glasses of wine.

 

            We sat under those tulle-draped trees for hours, eating and drinking, laughing and talking.  As the coffee and cognac were brought to the table, decks of playing cards and cigars appeared from pockets and purses.  The smaller children chased lighting bugs and tried to tempt the chickens out of their snug nests with crusts of crunchy bread.  Marmee and her sisters sat clustered together, talking animatedly, drawing pictures with their arms and hands, all the while cradling their drinks, not spilling a drop.  I sat at the table in total rapture, a glass of merlot in my hand, and drank everything in.  My spirit was intoxicated.  The sultry night air was fragrant with warm earth, pine needles, and vanilla candles laced with just a hint of salty sea air.  The toasts were frequent, the coffee and cognac were incredibly strong.  The friends and family were warm and generous.  It was to be my last night at the cottage – we would board a train bound for the Paris the next day – and I sat there with tears welling in my eyes.  The next day would bring more adventures, but that night, surrounded by those lovely people and their warm hospitality, I knew, was special.