by Kay Baumhefner
And Make Stock —
To be able to mindfully both take stock and stock up, so we’d be all set to make the most of each moment. To waste not want not in every aspect of our recent bon voyage back to the French Pays Basque. And, as much as possible, to minimize the travel tedium of required packing, schlepping, unpacking and having to settle in over and over again. That’s why we chose to rent one centrally located gîte in a small plus beau village, to provide a single home base for the entire time, with the best of both city and country close by. Of course, it had to come with an equipped kitchen, which immediately became the hub of our wheel, as we headed out in every direction for our daily discoveries. And this is what we discovered, both once again and as refreshed revelations.
But first a fair warning. In an attempt to play catch up, I’m going to break the basic blog post rules here with seemingly too many topics. But for me right now, all these reflections are like the essential multiple layers of flour and butter in fine pastry making, that first get combined, then further folded together and rolled out again to rise up for the creation of a memorably ethereal treat. And there’s more than one good reason why you haven’t heard from me in a while. So I hope you’ll accept my thankfulness for your patience and read on.
In rural France, internet access is unpredictably intermittent, which at first feels really frustrating. But then, because that’s completely out of your control, it affords you the opportunity to relax around your conditioned immediate need-to-know and response times, so that you are more freed up not to miss what’s actually going on right in front of or inside you. In fact, besides a few critical emails, I also found I barely wrote a word — not even in those deep teal notebooks filled with fresh, clean sheets I had brought and looked forward to spilling the inky beans on throughout. Nor did I follow my normal companion practice of morning meditation and stretches that start each day with a wise reminder to at least try to remain both focused and flexible.
No, steeped as we were in a blessed time out away from our normal responsibilities, I found I very quickly also set aside the often tempting possibility of any empty fillers and mindless distractions, to become actively still just taking it all in. Looking up, around and back inside again to recognize and honor what always matters most after all. Things like the here and now. Each other. We had apparently arrived in a state of living meditation — full of wonder and gratitude for every sight, sound, smell and taste that surrounded and filled us up to overflowing all day and night long. No editing either wanted or needed, please. And now the ongoing ripple of thoughts in my head and heart are still creating such a joyful riot, I hardly know where to begin. So how about quite simply with what happens in France as soon as you open the door?
Bonjour, m’sieur’dame! French people of all ages greet you both coming and going, so there is a constant connecting sense of being seen and acknowledged. Even in the bigger cities, we were amazed and delighted at how many vendors and hosts clearly recognized and welcomed us after only a single visit to their shop, stall or restaurant. And after several impromptu chats with various neighbors out walking their dogs, these casual acquaintances each ended up inviting us to join them back at their own homes the very next evening to share that vitally transitional apéritif hour together. It’s not hard to figure out why all of this quickly made us feel right at home. (And it also underscores the rewarding importance of always first learning and then remembering to mind the local manners, no matter where we are.)
There is a sense of balance in each day. French folks typically work to have enough, but not more than they need. Their culture supports both making and taking time to enjoy life itself. Restaurant service is not inattentively slow, but deliberately leisurely. And shops close to give everyone a mid-day break. Whether out walking, sitting alone or in good company, there is a quality of attentive connection, as people seem content to either chat and/or just watch the world go by, while still remaining quiet inside. And even in the most remote locations, when you pause to look around in constant awe, there always seems to be a bench or picnic table just waiting to say, “Stop searching. You’ve already arrived. So sit, down, stay.” (Yes, we really missed our sweet puppy dog, who actually knows how to obey that central command.) And cafés are also a great place to take a seat and soak up the culture. I still always looked forward to my morning coffee first thing, but ordering une noisette any time of day, let me linger, look and listen yet longer. (Une noisette is an espresso with just a suggestion of steamed milk floating on top, for a mere euro and change.)
Our days spent in Bayonne, Biarritz, Saint-Jean-de-Luz and Saint Sebastian all dazzled and overwhelmed us with living history, art, architecture, phenomenal food, museums, music, people, sites and shops — all with the market hall at the heart of the matter in each city. But whether on foot or simply taking a drive, it was our countryside rambles we loved best, for leaving us physically tired, but deeply satisfied and still floating instead of exhausted at the end of the day. You can expect a follow-up blog post with rolling green photos of our breathgiving vistas there to confirm how Mother Nature does indeed continue to nurture us best of all.
While buying local salt and chatting with the vendor at the St. Jean de Luz farmers’ market one day, I told her we thought this French Pays Basque was paradise. She smiled, but said, “Non, non,” then pointed to her head, covered her heart with her other hand, and explained, “C’est ici.” It’s in here. Is that the sensibility I perceived beaming out of so many people’s wide open eyes? Plus the ability to respond with “pas grave” (no problem, don’t worry about it) when Life steps on our toes, and/or “bon courage” (take heart, be of good heart) when it slams down road blocks or sends us on an unexpected detour. These people gave me hope for humanity. They embodied how vital it is to truly pay attention to what matters most. Particularly as we all grow older and have more reason to see how precious our time really is. Whatever happened to that sweet refrain, “Slow down, you move too fast, we’ve got to make the morning last…”?
So, yes, we got to move in for a month, and could have stayed on forever. But all too soon it was time to go home, and on our return flight, I started jotting down practical notes for what we hope might be the next time there. Even though our rental house kitchen reflected French sensibilities by offering in depth cooking equipment, it really helped to have brought along in our checked baggage both my favorite 12″ sauté pan and a trio of essential knives (chef’s, bread and paring). They were in regular use, as I created both lighter dishes to balance the indulgence of multi-course meals out, and also more substantial fare for full-on candlelit dinners at home, all of which simultaneously kept re-stocking our pantry with grab-and-go picnic possibilities.
And, in fact, I did make chicken stock the day after we arrived. As usual, it proved reliably indispensable for deglazing pans, making reduction sauces and providing the base for a primal pot of vegetable soup with the local lentilles du puy. And then we were able to put a generous portion of that soup in the freezer to have something both nourishing and easily digestible on hand for the end of our stay — to soothe both body and soul, when we knew it was time say goodbye. Thank heavens there was still a hunk of pain complet, a wedge of Ossau-Iraty cheese, and those last two pieces of Henriet dark chocolate. Don’t forget the Belambrée rosé and ripe peaches! The fundamental value in keeping a well stocked pantry lives on both here, there and everywhere. More on that to come too.
“What a gift!” my brother responded, when I tried to describe the profound nature of all we were experiencing while still in the bliss of it. He was right, and remains so, as I’ve come home inspired to share it with you here and now. But before I could speak out with collected clarity, I had to spend the time and opportunity both carefully looking and listening for myself. And I realize I now have the deep desire to ferment a supportive, cultural revolution…right back here, where we’re livin’ in the USA (and it’s true, although we never ordered them, you can find cheeseburgers there too.)
Yes, we wanted to stay moved in there for longer. But it was time to come home, and bring the essence and practice of these common sense abilities back with us for further exploration and expansion. We don’t necessarily need to stage demonstrations, pick up arms, or make someone else wrong to revolutionize the way we think, act and get to live. It’s up to us to make our own world, one conscious choice at a time. I do believe this is the real solution. Besides, our first grandchild is about to arrive, with a serendipitous due date on the eve of Bastille Day. And we wouldn’t miss that for the world! Don’t you know it’s gonna be more than alright. If we can all find a way to come home to ourselves and each other. Enough said for now.
Vive la revolution dans la joie de vivre pour nous tous! — Kay
And thanks to Simon and Garfunkel, Steve Miller, and the Beatles, whose song lyrics clearly still echo through my thinking.
Originally published July 5, 2016 on Come Home to Cooking.