Thursday, May 26, 2011

Pilgrimage in Southern France - Moissac, Chant, and Cherries

My favorite French film, Saint-Jacques…La Mecque, is a story of an unlikely group of characters, each with their issues, walking together to Santiago de Compostela from Le-Puy-en-Velay in France’s Massif Central region. That particular road to Santiago, El Camino, Le Chemin, passes through Moissac, home of one of France’s most remarkable Romanesque structures, the Abbaye de Saint Pierre, Saint Peter’s Abbey.

Founded in the 7th century, the current abbey dates largely to the early 12th. It possesses intimate and humanistic images of what it is like to strive for spiritual transcendence while being an imperfect mortal. 

Both for the road and for the film, I knew I had to visit Moissac.

Many visitors spend a night and continue on the road. I decided to stay for a couple nights and it brought forth two unexpected delights. One was the spellbinding experience of chanting Laudes with the sisters of the Communauté Marie Mère de l’Église in the abbey’s church at 8:30 am. The other was taking an afternoon hike around the perimeter of town, along the Canal du Midi, a stretch of the waterway that connects the Atlantic to the Mediterranean across southern France. 

The small trek gave me a full perspective of this pilgrim’s town on the Tarn River and near its confluence with the Garonne River. I passed numerous cherry orchards. Some of France’s finest cherries come from this region, reminding me of tried and true pilgrims’ wisdom:  You can trust pilgrims to know where to traverse for both spiritual transformation and mortal delight.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Amazing Walnut Cake from the Dordogne, France

This recipe, test driven and tweaked to work in an American kitchen, is one I played with while passing the winter in the Dordogne in southwestern France. There, walnut orchards abound, as do walnut products, from the raw nut to the toasty amber-toned walnut oils, walnut liqueurs, and walnut wine (vin de noix).

This cake is easy, incredibly delicious--made with white wine and walnut oil--and beautifully paired with berry sauce and vanilla ice cream. A full-bodied red wine from the Cahor is a perfect match, enhancing the walnuts, cream, and berries. But a glass of white wine, of the same vintage you mixed into the cake batter, is also remarkable.

Dordogne Walnut Cake

4 eggs
3/4 cup raw sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 pinch sea salt
1 cup dry white wine (I like using a dry white from Bergerac)
1 cup shelled walnuts
1 cup all-purpose or whole wheat flour
1 cup walnut oil

Mix the eggs and sugar until well blended and then beat in the baking powder, sea salt, wine, walnuts, and flour. Add in the oil and beat until you have a smooth batter. Pour into a round baking dish lined--bottom and over the edges--with parchment paper.

Bake in a 400 degrees Fahrenheit oven for ~30 minutes or until the center springs back from your touch.

As soon as you take the cake out of the oven, you can lift it out of the baking dish by the edges of the parchment paper. Set it on a heat-resistant surface, such as a wooden chopping block, and allow to cool.

While the cake cools, make the simple berry sauce.

Easy Berry Sauce:

My favorite berry sauce is a pint of black berries heated slowly in a pan with a tablespoon of any berry preserve you have on hand, such as raspberry, strawberry, or even elderberry. Other fresh, seasonal berries work beautifully, too. Over the low heat, let the berries slowly "melt" into their own sauce.

Plate the cake by first placing a couple spoonfuls of the sauce onto a dessert plate. Set a wedge of the walnut cake on the sauce to one side of the plate. On the other side, place a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream.

Bon appetit!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Hiking in SW France with Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon

I picked up the trail of the GR64 in St-Cyprien, in the Dordogne of SW France, and spent the day hiking to Les Eyzies, home of the National Museum of Prehistory as well as the center of an area with a remarkably high concentration of early modern human (Cro-Magnon) and Neanderthal sites.

Though visitors were overtaking the nearby towns, I saw not a soul on the trail except for a man in a forest clearing, tending his vineyard.

I passed old caves, native forest, and farmsteads speckled with black and white cows.

It was stunning to hike in a landscape traversed for thousands of years by ancient humans, from some 300,000 to 10,000 years ago. My senses grew sharper and my imagination expanded, contemplating what their realities might have been.

Four and a half hours later, after interpreting some ambiguous trail markers or lack thereof, I arrived in Les Eyzies. On the edge of town, along with signs pointing to numerous famous prehistoric sites, was a hand-painted board informing me that I would find wine in 50 meters. I think Cro-Magnon would have liked that.

To read more on this fascinating place and ancestry, check out
On Hearths, Ancient and Modern: