Friday, March 7, 2008

My Weekly Exercise and Le Mistral

We have this "wind" in Provence, known as le mistral. My friend Kay, the mom of Rainer, a student in Emily's second grade class last year at DIS, kindly tried to warn me about it. They had lived in Toulouse for several years when Rainer was a baby. "Oh, Kay...," I thought, "I can deal with wind; after all, it is known to gust so strongly in the foothills of Denver, that occasionally an SUV gets knocked over!" Little did I know what lay in store with le mistral, (specifically, a cold gale-force wind, with gusts up to 100 kts, that can endure, unrelenting for as much as 65 hours, only to continue for several more 65 hour stretches, after an occasion, and all too brief, middle-of-the-night break.)

More than a wind, le mistral is a giant bully that once awakened, just won't stop pushing and shoving. If I were ever asked to give the one reason not to move here, my answer would not be the incessant challenges of dealing with French bureaucracy or the closed society of village life, nor the lack of shops or modern conveniences, and not the high cost of essentials such as books, gas, clothing, food, media and electronics. No, my answer would unquestionably be: le mistral.

I tell you about the mistral today because it has been blowing fiercely all week and the weather forecast gives no hope of immediate relief. Normally, when the wind is blowing, I head over to the piscine in St. Paul de Trois Châteaux and get my thrice-weekly endorphin boost through thirty minutes of intense swimming. Unfortunately, that was not a choice available to me because the pool is closed all week for annual cleaning! Beyond the lack of access to the pool, I had hoped to gather pictures along my run route that winds through the vineyards on a small farm road that runs parallel to the river from St. Roman de Malegarde in the direction of Cairanne, so that I could show you the wild white sweet alyssum growing abundantly, en mass throughout the vineyards. Thus, after too many days without exercise, I donned my running clothes. Against my better judgment, I headed out the door and into the wind. Hey, I once ran during a snowstorm in Boston; this shouldn't be so bad; after all, the sun was shining!

According to AccuWeather, the temperature had been -2°C (29°F) overnight and by 1pm, had risen to 5°C (41°F), but the "RealFeel" with the wind was -1°C (31°F) The first sensation of cold and wind took my breath away. After I got beyond the stone houses in the haut village, I had the benefit of sun shining on one side of my body, while cold wind pelted the shaded side. Not so bad I thought; the sunny side was actually quite warm. It created an interesting contrast of sensations on my skin. During normal (non-windy) runs, the scent of the delicate white blooms is just like the sweet alyssum that for decades I planted in my flower boxes, rich like honey. However, when I reached the flat terrain that lines the vineyards, the wind was so cold and gusting so hard that I could not perceive any smells whatsoever. I focused on remaining debout.

Upon nearing the halfway point, I stopped to snap some photos of the wild French sweet alyssum. The mistral was shaking the field with such force that the flowers were a white blur between the grapevines. Only the thick old vines stood still. I had not realized how cold my hands had gotten within my gloves; it was difficult to make the lens adjustments and push the shutter so I had to temporarily remove the gloves. As I focused the camera for a close-up, I realized that the wind was keeping the flowers from their normal, vertical stance. I crouched and waited for a break in the gust. Suddenly a moment of calm arrived; I snapped a couple of photos and then was nearly knocked off my feet when the hammering resumed.

With my hands practically numb from exposure while taking the pictures, it was time for me to head back as quickly as possible. I rounded the corner, turned away from Cairanne and began the trek toward St. Roman. Suddenly I was facing the full force of the mistral head-on. I had not realized what I would be up against on the route home. I was picking up my legs and thrusting them in front of me with all my might, but it was as if I was not moving. After thirty minutes of this, I had covered less than 50% of the return trip. My thighs ached and my skin was numb. Why on earth had I ventured out in this wind? Head down, I inched forward, muscles burning from the strain. It was as though my whole body was being pushed back.

At last, I made it to the house. A run that normally takes me 30 minutes, 35-40 if I stop to take photos, took nearly three times as long! Now I understand why the houses here are built of stone. As in the children’s tale of the three pigs, there really is a wind who, like the wolf, can blow a lesser house to the ground, and it is known as le mistral. When my hands warmed up I checked AccuWeather: Winds from the north were no less than 17 mph and the steady gusts were upwards of 42 mph. The temperature had warmed to 9°C (49°F) but the “RealFeel” was °C (39°F). I was very happy to be back inside our heated home. Though my muscles were sore for several days, the experience was invigorating; I had my endorphins, my photos and my story!

“Behind the Mistral is the beauty of Provence. Its fierceness blows away clouds and grime and doubt, leaving colors the depth of dreams and a freshness that can come only after the Mistral's scouring...Provence needs the Mistral or it ceases to be the Provence of my dreams. I need the Mistral to cut through those dreams to truth - beauty comes after the wind.” Kamiah A. Walker

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Poule au Riz, Part II

A couple of days ago I told you about the memorable Sunday lunch we enjoyed at the home of our neighbors, Odile and Armando Perrone. As promised, I have scanned Odile's recette for cooking the elderly hen. Remember that most French family recipes are "au pif" so, follow your gut where the instructions or measures may be vague. If you do try Odile's Poule au Riz, you will have a tender chicken with delicious sauce that is great on the rice as well as the slices of hen. Let me know how yours turns out.

This recipe serves 6 to 8 people.


1 Hen (not a young one)

2 carrots

1 onion, with 3 whole cloves stuck in it

1 bouquet garni (thyme and bay leaves)

250 grams rice

salt & pepper

for the sauce:

2 soupspoons of potato starch

1/2 glass cold water

1/4 glass of boullion (taken from cooked chicken's pot)

1/2 juice of a lemon

2 soupspoons of capers

salt & pepper

Put 2 liters of boiling water into a large stockpot. Add carrots, onion with cloves inserted, bouquet garni and salt. Plunge the hen into the boiling water and and cook at least two hours, maybe more, until tender.

In the mean time, rinse the rice and let it drain. When the hen is done, season with pepper, remove it and keep it warm; cook the rice.

To make the sauce, in a small bowl, put the 2 soupspoons of potato starch; add the 1/2/ glass of cold water and mix well. Remove the 1/4 glass of hot bouillon from the chicken pot and add to the sauce. Mix very well. Add the lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste.

Serve a slice of chicken accompanied by the rice and the sauce.

Enjoy with a smooth French white wine.

Bon Appetit!