Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Bird of Lascaux, France

Nestled on a hill above the town of Montignac in southwestern France, the approximately 17,000 year old painted cave network of Lascaux carries an ancient and sublime tribute to our ancestors’ passion for transformative art. The location itself is testimony to the human aesthetic desire to live in beautiful places. The paintings contain symbolic mysteries that no one fully understands, but we intuitively connect with the vibrant, animated, and emotionally depicted images. 

As if to emphasize my deeply emotional inner state at being there, when I was leaving Lascaux II—a perfect replica of the original cave that is just a couple hundred meters away and closed to the public for protection—a red throated European thrush flew toward me and landed two feet away.

I had just been contemplating the possible meanings of the one human figure in the cave, a reclining man who seems to have just speared a bison and next to whom lies a staff capped with a bird figure. The man's face is bird-like, to me a seeming precursor to later Neolithic-era depictions of the goddess as wearing the mask or the face of a bird. That goddess also often dwelled in caves. So far, archaeologists see the Lascaux figure as carrying on some form of masculine magic for the hunt.  Perhaps it is a shamanic figure. I am sure there is something to all this but I also think that the total imagery is making a call to both the sacred masculine and the sacred feminine to strike a balance that will assure the continuation of life and well-being. This was what I was thinking when the little bird of Lascaux landed at my feet.

Is it synchronicity or simply a very territorial bird who lives at Lascaux?

And, after a day of hiking around the amazing hill in whose belly sits Lascaux, my belly was grumbling and ready for a good meal. I walked the few kilometers back into Montignac and, as truffle season had arrived, I found and enjoyed a quintessentially local omelet with shaved black truffles.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Chartres, France

I fulfilled a lifelong dream to visit Chartres Cathedral after years of pouring over images and historical accounts of the medieval site. Once there, the inlaid stone labyrinth in the nave reminded me of the inner and outer relationship we forge as pilgrims, as explorers in life.

The labyrinth stands as a medieval testimony to the importance of pilgrimage: If you were unable to take the outer journey to Santiago de Compostela or Rome or Jerusalem, you could walk the labyrinth and it offered a similar walking meditation that allowed you to take the the inner world onto the road and the outer world's offerings inward.

Often, when I go for a walk or a hike, I try to bring to it the intense presence and awareness of a walking meditation. At Chartres, it was impossible not to feel this intention. The town reminded me of its ancient foundations, dating back to an original settlement by the Carnutes, a Celtic-speaking people who saw the magical potential of this site over 2,000 years ago.

Such a walk around town also inspired a hearty appetite. As Chartres is in the Eure-et-Loir department, one of the local culinary specialties is rabbit, partridge, pigeon, or venison pie. I confess, I held out and returned to my apartment in Paris and treated myself to a raspberry eclair from my local bakery in the 9eme.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Rite of Passage and a Tajine in Fez

I lived in Morocco for a year when I was doing research for my doctorate in cultural anthropology. One weekend, a Moroccan friend asked me to join her for a naming feast in Fez. It was for the newborn son of good friend of hers. I was giddy. I was about to become an intimate part of a household and the feast preparations for the event.

It turned out not to be a typical naming feast. The mother was divorcing her husband and was using the feast to alter resistant public opinion about her choices. She was successful in this and I think the turning point happened midway through the long feast, when the chicken tajine, a ginger and spice-rich stew with black and green olives, was served.

That weekend in Fez remains one of the highlights of my time in Morocco. It also possessed all the indications of a pilgrimage: everyone was transformed by the end of the feast. Below is the recipe for the main dish that pulled off the feast.

To read the entire story, called Feasting in Fez, which was a Runner-up Winner in the TranstionsAbroad.com 2008 Travel Narrative Writing Contest, visit http://www.transitionsabroad.com/listings/travel/narrative_travel_writing/feasting_in_fez_morocco.shtml

To read more of my food, travel, and adventure writing, visit  www.beebesfeast.com.

Moroccan Chicken Tajine with Two Types of Olives

(Serves 4)
1 medium sized-onion, cut in long narrow slivers
5 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup olive oil
1 chicken, whole
Water to cover the chicken half way in a
   cooking pot in which the bird can lay flat
   on its back and barely touch the sides of the pot.
1 to 2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
1/4 teaspoon saffron pistons, roughly ground
   in a mortar and pestle.
1 tablespoon ground cumin
Zest from half a lemon
lemon juice from a whole lemon
salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste (Be sparing
   with the salt because later you will add the olives,
   with their own saltiness.)
1/4 cup roughly chopped curly parsley
1/4 cup roughly chopped cilantro
1 cup green olives, preferably the Provence herb
   cured style (with pits) but other types of
   green olives work well too.
1 cup black calamata olives.

Pour the olive oil into the pot for your chicken. Heat it and add the onion slivers and the minced garlic. Saute these for a minute and then add the chicken and quickly pour cold water over it until the bird is half immersed. 

While bringing the water to boil, add the fresh ginger, the saffron, the cumin, lemon zest, lemon juice, and pepper. Once boiling, reduce the heat and allow the chicken to simmer for half an hour. Then turn the bird over and let it simmer for another half-an-hour. After the chicken has fully cooked, add the two types of parsley and the two types of olives. Allow to simmer on very low heat until you are ready to serve the dish.

Serve with freshly baked Moroccan style flat bread or with a fresh baguette. A leafy green salad is a perfect accompaniment to round out this meal.

Suggested Wine Pairing

As Muslims, most Moroccans don't drink wine and won't offer it to you. However, Morocco does produce some very good vintage. One of the best, I think, is Amazir, a red wine that tastes like a French Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blend. It is grown in the Meknes wine valley, not too far from the ancient site of Rome's North African provincial capital, Volubilis, known as Walili in Moroccan Arabic.  

Amazir works beautifully with this chicken tajine. The medium-bodied wine joins the meaty olives head on but is delicate and elegant with the refined sauce, rich with garlic, ginger, and saffron.
If you cannot get your hands on Amazir, an alternative, inspired by the saffron, is the La Manchan Jumilla label. This southeastern Spanish wine grows near saffron-producing lands and has absorbed saffron notes into its bouquet and palette: it is a rich experience to taste the saffron-infused terroir.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Trekking in Ancient Aragón

I recently hiked to a powerful sacred place, the old monastery of San Juan de la Peña in the northern reaches of Aragón province in Spain.

Close to the Pyrenees and on the traditional Camino Aragones, the Aragón Road is a road to Santiago de Compostela that is less traveled today. But in the Middle Ages it was a commonly taken alternative route over the Pyrenees to the one further east, the Camino Frances or French Road, that passes through St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles. This one crosses the more trying Somport Pass to Canfranc and across amazing mountain landscapes and little-known Romanesque churches to meet the Camino Frances in Puente la Reina, just southwest of Pamplona.

In the Middle Ages, as well as today, San Juan de la Peña  has been a side pilgrimage a pilgrim could take to a beautiful Mozarabic and Romanesque monastery. It is built into a stone shelter overlooking a magical, largely indigenous forest.

The hike to get there offers a taste of a more remote pathway on the Camino, one that can really tune you in to your sacred inner work while being on a remarkable spiritual outer journey. When I hiked it this autumn, blackberries were ripening and a clever fox was gorging on them, leaving his purple-colored scat all along the pathway, alerting me to the fact that other creatures also use this trail to get to their bliss.

More insights into exploring places in sacred Spain can be found in The Spiritual Traveler Spain—A Guide to Sacred Sites and Pilgrim Routes, www.beebesfeast.com.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Spanish Mushrooms and Wine

Three years ago I walked the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrim's road across northern Spain to the city of Santiago de Compostela. When I was walking through the wine growing regions of Navarra and Rioja, I witnessed the autumn colors of orange, red, and yellow erupt on grapevines that swept across vast fields like Zeus' fiery chariot.

In that cooling season, I also saw local mushroom enthusiasts use the Road to get to their favorite stretch of forest and return to their villages with beautiful baskets full of wild mushrooms.

One man in Rioja, near the monasteries of Suso and Yuso in San Millan de Cogolla, had gone mushroom hunting early in the morning and crossed my path with a basket full of just enough mushrooms to make a lunch of scrambled eggs and mushrooms, which he would likely drink with a red wine from the nearby winery, Bodegas David Moreno.

I liked the fact that he wasn't greedy; he gathered only enough mushrooms for the day's culinary adventures. I imagined that a part of cooking for him was the outdoor exhilaration of gathering his ingredients from the wild as well as from his own kitchen garden.

This recipe is dedicated to his local spirit of the pilgrim's road as well as to American friends who are vegetarians but want to sample the best of Spanish flavors.

Spanish-seasoned vegetarian mushroom wontons

1 package soft tofu (14 oz.),
   mashed to the consistency of scrambled eggs
   (use a fork, potato mashers or clean hands)
5 oz. baby bella mushrooms, finely minced
5 oz. shitake mushrooms, finely minced
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh chives
2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro parsley
1 teaspoon grated ginger
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/2 teaspoon Spanish picante pimentón
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
Salt and ground pepper to taste (keep in mind that
   the soy sauce adds salt)
1 package wonton skins 
Mix all the ingredients well in a bowl. Take a wonton skin and brush it lightly with water. Take a teaspoon full of the tofu mix and place it in the center of a wonton skin on the side you've just brushed. Fold up the corners to the middle and press all four together at the center. Then align the neighboring edges of the wonton and press them to seal the mix in, giving the overall shape of a diamond-shaped Japanese lantern. Steam the wontons in either bamboo steamers or simply fill a shallow pan with water and a little canola oil and set the wontons into it and cover with a lid. When the skins change from opaque to transparent, gently remove the wonton and set it on a towel to soak up additional water. Make the dipping sauce, below. Place the dipping sauce in a small bowl in the center of a large platter strewn with unchopped chive stalks and arrange the steamed wontons around the bowl on the plate.

Dipping Sauce Ingredients:
1/8 cup soy sauce
1/8 cup water
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon grated ginger
1/4 teaspoon garlic, finely minced
1/2 teaspoon minced chives
A splash of Chinese hot sauce

A Quick Note on Pimentón

My favorite Spanish seasoning, pimentón, turns vegetarian dishes into meaty, robust experiences. This is how my wontons here take on a more complex, rich texture and flavor even when they are made with tofu, instead of ground pork. Pimentón is a red pepper that is specially dried in smokehouses. There are three types, derived from three types of red peppers: dulce (sweet, the closest to Hungarian paprika but with a bit more bite); agridulce (bittersweet); and picante (spicy hot). I like to play with all three, sometimes even mixing them in the same recipe. This recipe uses the picante variety but sparingly enough so as not to overwhelm the dish or the palettes of pepper-sensitive friends.

Suggested Wine Pairing

Mushrooms are so much a part of the terroir in Rioja, and this recipe inspired by a Riojan mushroom hunter, that I strongly recommend a red Rioja Crianza, the most likely vintage locals would imbibe with their shrooms. 
Crianza refers to the aging of wine, where the wine is at least two years old and 12 months of that two years has to have been in an oak barrel, either American or French oak or both. (White and rosé crianzas are aged for six months in a barrel.)

Reserva and Gran Reserva are the next notches up in the aging process. Reserva reds are at least three years old and have been aged for 12 months in an oak barrel. (White reservas must be at least two years old, with six months spent in a barrel.) Gran reserva reds must spend two years aging in an oak barrel and another three years in bottles. (Gran reserva whites must be four years old and spend six months of those four years in an oak barrel.)

For this recipe, the red Crianza has developed enough character and oak to match nicely with the earth-bound mushrooms but hold enough youth to add a nice light zing. Riojan wines in general have a nice earth-mineral taste with their fruit, a nice dance partner for mushrooms, as well as the nutty sesame oil.