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Archive for September, 2010

L’artichaut

As I started Budgie Diaries, I realised that my first impulse was always to write about food. Being in France obviously made matters worse. In order to satisfy this craving,  I thought I would start another page where I could archive my everyday cooking and share one of my main passions/obsessions. I’ve called it L’artichaut because someone once told me that it was a very underrated vegetable, and I couldn’t agree more.

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We are now cosily living la vida doce in Portugal, and my mind has been so relaxed and my brain so vacant that I found it hard to bring myself in front of an empty blog entry. Also, the weather is so marvelous that we spent most of our time outdoors.

But I think I should try to write a bit of a recap of some episodes of our French epic. At book fairs, I used the cliche “a journey of self-discovery” so much to describe commercial women’s fiction that I managed to even bore myself. So, when I started in my mind to use it to describe aspects our small adventure, I decided that it would be a good way, cliché or not, to explain some deep experiences I’ve been through when in France.

After our vibrant start in Normandy, we went to spend a fabulous evening at my cousin’s Jerome. Jerome was born 13 months before me in the early 70s and we have spent a lot of time together mostly during summer holidays when we were toddlers and up to the age of 7 or 8. It’s rather young and I remembered pictures more than the actual holidays. I hadn’t seen Jerome for almost 20 years until we started being in touch again through facebook last year. It was amazing to feel already by email how much we had in common.

Dinner at his house was wonderful, Isabelle his wife being a dream of a hostess and also because my aunt Martine, Jerome’s mother who I hadn’t seen for the same amount of time was there as well. She had lots of stories and pictures of us two when we were children but also about the family on my father’s side – she married and then divorced my father’s elder brother – all stranger characters the one than the other, and rather on the dark side of the force.

I have always admired Martine as a child, she was my cool aunt, very pretty, wonderful silhouette and always effortlessly fashionable, but above all she had always incredibly and genuinely kind to me. With Jerome we looked at all the photos she had of us like a recently dug treasure of our lost childhood, and Ed took a picture of the two of us, and we took the road again, my mind full of new-found memories.

We then went Brittany, because, even if the weather has become a joke, it’s always my favourite place in France. We first headed to La Torche, one of Brittany’s best surfing spots, and spent the night close to the dunes, camping in the wild with the other surfer vans, all shapes, sizes, colours and interior designs. The following day we drove to the presqu’ile de Crozon.

When I grew up I heard the name a lot as this where my family on my mother’s side comes from. You don’t have to believe me and it’s no mere Breton chauvinism, but it is a place of exceptional beauty. The pointe de Pen-Hir, is a perfect example of the monumental wonder of nature, giant rocky islands, thrown into the ocean as the legend says. In Landevennec, the bend of the river Aulne as it reaches the ocean forms a majestic landscape of water, islands and lush forest.

Landevennec is another name I heard a lot as my grandmother was born in the watermill there. So when we visited that tiny village and I saw the old stone church and its graveyard surrounded by the ocean, my imagination started to work wildly. I kept on thinking that if my grandmother was born here, my great-grandmother Philomene – another kind lady – would surely have been married in that pretty breton church, a century ago. I imagined the stern dress and traditionnal breton headpiece, and the wedding lunch afterwards, possibly beef tongue, as it was the Breton feasting meal.

When we left Landevennec, we drove a few miles into the country to Hanvec and after losing ourselves various times in the forest, we finally found the house of my ancestors on Philomene’s side. A grey granite stone house that has endured the passing of time in an awesome way, so much so that the stone oven that is facing it,  although covered in moss, is still in pristine condition.

The oven somehow captured my imagination too, and it’s probably because of my obsession with food and cooking, but also because it’s fire and it’s warmth and possibly was the center of the family life. My ancestors were wooden clog makers and given how isolated they lived in this very woody part of Finisterre, the process of food was probably one of the rare occasions to socialize and chill at the end of the working day. That was how Philomene was brought up, very simply, very cut-off from the world, and then for some reason she went to town, Landevennec, and worked as a maid in the watermill.

We continued our journey and spend almost two weeks in the South West of France, renowned for good food, good surf and beautiful countryside, and we enjoyed all of it very much. We went to visit my aunt Danielle in the Lot et Garonne, one of my mother’s younger sisters. She came to visit me in London last year, after again a long time without seeing each other. She, too, has lots of family stories to tell and like me she is quite fascinated by the Landevennec family. In her living room, she has a picture of Philomene’s husband with his parents and sister, young,  with a beautiful and proud moustache and dressed up in his military uniform – he fought in both wars and died in combat in 1940.

My aunt also had picture of his wedding with Philomene, which looked more like an end of year school picture than the romantic setup of nowadays wedding albums. Nothing romantic there, all dressed in rigid black and white traditional outfits, sitting on wooden benches in perfect orderly rows, as simple and austere in fashion as a wooden clog.

I love those old pictures, I stare at them intensely trying to find something that resonates in me and repeating in my mind, I come from these people. They’ve stayed for decades and generations in that tiny hamlet, lost in the woods, minding their own clog business, making bread in their indestructible stone oven, and then Philomene broke free and went to town, and then my grandmother became a teacher and went to Nantes, the big town. I’ve lived in different countries and I’m about to move another continent yet again, but I wonder how would my life have been if Philomene had stayed in Hanvec. I would probably not be born for a start, but I found out that the people who now live in the house are actually still related to Philomene’s parents. I should be a bit more bold next time, I go there and ask why they still live here, and how it feels to have stayed in their ancestors’ house.

In the meantime, I’m grateful of Philomene and her free spirit, and I’d love the Breton Samhain myth – now known as Halloween – to be true and spend a night with her, listen to her stories.

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