LIVE from Mont

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even at the end of the world we couldn’t hide for long. We were on the news!! Local, but still.  France 3 was doing a story on WWOOFing. What are the chances that of all the WWOOFing farms in the Midi-Pyrenees region they would call YvesTom? The two France3 reporters filmed Brett and me painting, scrubbing cheeses, and of course, herding the cows. It’s rad to promote the amazing network of WWOOF. And our French didn’t even sound that embarassingly American! It aired that evening and the whole gang gathered on the couch to watch the minute and a half of interviews and awkward shots of us standing with the confused cows who knew it was clearly too early for the evening milking.

News??

Reporters interviewing YvesTom

(Cuute) Luic and his lambs

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Some Countries Have All the Luck

The best part of the day is waking up to the kiss of the sun on the green valley. Some mornings the mountains go missing, shrouded in cloud that burns off by midday. And what a wondrous scape to explore! Kilometer after kilometer of mountain trails, that cut through green pastures filled with apple trees and wildflowers, laughing mountain creeks, birds and beasts and mushrooms and insects that I ache to draw, remember, understand.

Scrubbing cheeses in the cave

After the morning chores are finished the fromagerie gang congregates in the living room, drinking coffee or beer or porto, depending on the time of day. Now that the autumnal chill of September has come calling, we wrap ourselves in flannel, wrapped in blankets in the evening.  The house was built in 1812, so everything is falling apart. There are very few windows and the kitchen currently has only two operational very low-watt lighting fixtures. We try and get the dishes done before the sun goes down and it’s too dark to see the scum. But the dinginess of the house is all the more reason to go OUTSIDE.

The other day Brett and I went for a long walk with the two dogs along a ridgeline, the fields thick with lilac-colored heather and delicate yellowing ferns so that when you see the ridge from afar it looks like God gave Van Gogh a try at it for a day. We spotted a herd of animals in the distance. This in itself was not unusual, as in the Vallee of Louron there are always herds of animals in the distance, midnight black horses with their foals, fat sheep with jingling bells around their necks, or the Aquitaine cattle with beautiful buttercream fur. But this time, it wasn’t so easy to identify. They were all different colors, chesnut, white, black…

“Oh look, goats!” I said.

“No way, they’re horses,” said Brett.

“They’re too small to be horses.”

“But they have tails!”

“You wanna bet? Loser makes lunch.”

“Deal.”

As we descended the ridge, we let out a shared cry of delight: miniature ponies! They had normal sized heads but tiny bodies and stubby little legs. Caramel, chocolate, licorice, and a white one with black spots that followed us in hopes of a treat. I am not a horse person, and yet I became filled with an overwhelming urge to take them all home and braid ribbons in their manes. It was worth the developing blisters and sore calves just to see this sweet unassuming herd of tiny proportions. Ribbons…seriously…

Two weeks ago we stopped milking the sheep, giving them sage-infused water and a homeopathy treatment in which Brett, Luic, Julie and I spent two days shoving tiny white pills into about a hundred sheep uteruses. That was what your mother would call a ‘growing experience.’ We stopped milking the cows a week ago. On chilly evenings we bring the animals inside and throw down huge mounds of dried grass with pitchforks from the stored bales on the top floor. The ewes and cows will have their babies soon, staying inside the barn all winter. They’ll start the milking again in October.

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Now that the milking is over and there is less work to do, Brett and I are painting a mural in the sheep milking room, an abstract Pyrenees moonscape. YvesTom likes it. Brett says she did it for the sheep. I’m painting a new ‘Miel & Confitures’ market sign for Joel, a local bee farmer, which features a baby bear stealing honey from the hives.

Always encouraged by the bubbly Julie, YvesTom sometimes takes us out to nearby bars to play billiards or eat tapas. One afternoon we went to Balnea, the posh bath house in the valley. Two hours of heaven, wandering between the Turkish steam room, roman baths with jets, Jacuzzis, an outdoor Japanese bath, cedar-planked saunas. There’s nothing like soaking your bones in a hot tub with the ever-glorious mountains on both sides above you. Just imagine when in the winter the snow-kissed mountains are covered in slalom tracks of skiiers…

Last week Brett and I drove to the next valley over to explore a gouffre, a vertical cave created by water filtering through the soil and forming an underground river. Beautiful stalagtites of white dragonite crystal, mushrooming castles of sparkling, calcified columns. Everywhere you looked something was in bloom. As if France isn’t pretty enough on the surface, God had to create some inner beauty too. Some countries have all the luck.

le Village de Mont

 

(all photographs by Brett)

Vallee des Vaches

September 4, 2012

Mont: population 20. The Valley of Louron is the end of the world. We see everything. The tiny villages nestled in the floor of the valley, the velvety rolling ridges that house herds of animals, and the turquoise sparkle of the lake. As we take the cows up the hill after the evening milking we watch the graceful parasailers as the sun sets behind the mountain, tiny floating crescents of orange and pink who will come to rest on the grassy valley floor. In the center of the valley lies a manmade lake in the center for boating, with a public park around it. Last year at this time I was in New Delhi, sweating through my kurta and taking the subway to world heritage sites I couldn’t afford to go into.

Before we arrived at the fromagerie of Mont, my sister and I joked that we were going to live like Heidi, living in an ancient village perched in the mountains, living off of goat milk and toasted cheese sandwiches. When we opened ourbedroom window that overlooks the valley below.  Brett and I were in raptured disbelief. “Wait, really? We get to live here for a month? How did we get so lucky?” I mean we thought the bee farm was beautiful, but this land makes Stephanie’s bee farm look like downtown Hillsboro.

Let’s meet the gang. First, there’s le patron. “My name is Yves, but my friends call me Tom.” Well, that clears things up, doesn’t it? I started calling him YvesTom to cover my bases. YvesTom is a fawn who crossed over into the human world to become a cheese farmer. At about five feet tall, he has dark shaggy curls, several missing teeth, and a laissez-faire attitude about everything. He likes to blast Gaga or Led Zeppelin as he loads his truck for a village market. Then there’s Julie, also tiny, with a light-up smile who could charm the pants off a 2×4. Naturally, she takes care of the animals. The rest of the day she buzzes around organizing, scrubbing pans, selling cheese to tourists at the fromagerie until about 3 pm when she crashes on the couch for a nap before the evening milking. To round out the group we have Luic, the 18 year old agricultural engineer student, interning for the summer. He spends his non-working hours playing fantasy fighting games online, swearing at the screen as his cigarette misses the ash tray for the tenth time. But when he tunes back into reality, he’s much more pleasant, telling stories with flailing hands, deftly rallying the sheep with a sharp whistle through his teeth.  YvesTom also has two daughters who spend half their time with their mom in the valley and the other half on their cell phones, watching TV, or generally looking pouty. (All three farms we have worked on have had two daughters. Coincidence? Or do they all have a secret affinity towards two traveling sisters?)

Luic, Julie, and Amelie a-milking

In the Vallee of Louron there are two tourist seasons, winter for skiing and summer for hiking and parasailing. So the economy has about four months a year of heavy activity, with lulls in between. Such a nice rhythm, no? Although it’s not as if YvesTom has less work to do, in fact, quite the opposite. Selling cheese and drinking beer with your farmer friends at markets is easy compared to milking and making cheese every morning, especially when you would rather just sleep in and forget about the whole thing.

YvesTom makes cheese from sheep and cows. He used to keep goats too, but spent all his time running around the mountain rounding them up. Apparently they would sneak through the gate behind passing hikers, like four-legged apartment burglars. Too bad, because goat cheese is delicieux.

Here’s an idea of what a day on the farm is like:

8:30-9:00 am Eat oatmeal, drink coffee. Boot up.

9:15 am Walk down the gravel road to the fromagerie. Gape at the mountain peaks and the valley below. Find the cows and herd them inside the barn. Water the animals. Milk the cows. Find the sheep and herd them inside the barn. (As soon as the gate to the sheep pasture is opened, YvesTom sprints with all of them around the backside of the barn so he can shut the gate behind them. It’s the most hilarious part of the day, YvesTom sprinting in his boots with his hair in his face, a lit cigarette dangling from his mouth.) Then everyone milks the 140 sheep together. Clean the milking machine. Let the sheep out to pasture. Let the cows out to pasture.

10:30 am YvesTom and Julie go back to the house for a coffee and cigarette break. Brett, Luic, and I enter ‘la cave’ to flip the cheeses and rub them with Armagnac, spreading the mold and building up the edible crust of the cheese.

On Mondays and Thursdays we “fabrique le fromage.” Well, YvesTom makes the cheese while we watch. We’re on clean-up duty, squeegeeing the floors, scrubbing utensils in scalding water, etc.

12:00 pm Come back to the house, loiter around for an hour until I or someone else makes lunch.

1:30 pm After lunch is free time. We read, go on walks, take naps, Skype our loved ones, or do art.

4:00 pm The fromagerie shop opens to visitors, so if the walkie-talkie ringer sounds, one of us (usually Luic) will run down the hill to serve les clients.

.In the summer, there are afternoon markets several times a week, so sometimes one of us will go with YvesTom, Julie or Luic to help. I love working the markets. Shaving off tastes of cheese for clients, chatting with them about the cheese, being nice to their children and dogs. And almost every village in the valley has an annual foire, or agricultural fair, which is simply a bigger-than-usual market, sometimes with a day concert and a beer garden thrown up.

6:03 pm But back at the ranch, it’s the evening milking of the cows. This milking is open to the public, so as tourists begin to trickle down the hill, we cry and push the cows down the hill, into the barn, and get the machine humming. I like the evening milking. You’d be surprised how many touristing families think it’s swell to come watch three cows get milked, but I guess if your kids are too young to ski or parasail and it’s raining, visiting a cheese farm sounds riveting after a week of paddleboating on the lake or walking up and down hills. Every day we answer the same three or four questions, (“Yes, we only have three cows…yes, the cows are milked twice a day…Yes, Daisy is an Alpine breed and the other two are Jersey…”) It makes me happy to see wide-eyed children stand a few feet from Daisy’s enormous head, caught somewhere between terrified and thrilled. As I crouch underneath the cows, squeezing out milk to speed up the process, I listen to young parents explain to their kids about the cows, (“See the milk goes through that tube there.” “No, these are all girl cows…”) The evening milking connects consumers to the agricultural process through a positive, interactive experience. This is exactly how we become more conscious of how we treat each other and all creatures on the earth. The evening milking is what it’s all about.

6:59 pm After all the tourists have bought cheese and gone home happily, we wash the milking machine, then cry and push the cows back up the hill. Panting up the stone steps, we go back to the house for l’aperitif. Rinse and repeat.

La Ferme Musicale

La Ferme Musicale is made up of Vincent, Ursula and their two daughters, 14 and 19. The small organic farm hosts workshops, and groups of children and families to see how food is grown and to get a taste of music from around the world.

Vincent and Ursula met in Indonesia, while backpacking through Asia. Ursula is a cooking teacher from Switzerland, with a graying pixie cut and a perma-smile. Ursula doesn’t walk around the farm, she power-walks.  When a customer stops by the farm store to pick up a plateau of peaches, she runs from place to place. Slightly obsessive compulsive, she works us hard but never harder than she works herself. Just like Stephanie the honey farmer, a woman’s work on the farm is never finished.

The other half of the farm is Vincent, a professional percussionist. He makes guitars, maracas, and drums from homegrown gourds of all sizes, which litter every available space of the veranda and music rooms (‘Batons de pluie a vendre -bon marche-resultat guarantie‘). Summer is by far his busiest season for concerts all over the region. When Vincent picked us up from the village train station with a boyish grin I thought, “Yes, this is going to be great, we lucked out again.” But things were not to be that simple. Vincent can be charming, but he needs Ursula’s help to find the dish towels, and probably the dishes too. He likes to take naps by the poolside, lathered in suntan oil.  It didn’t take us long to realize that he is more than a little tired of WWOOFers, these young strangers who traipse through his house all summer long, disorganizing his CD collection or dripping peach juice all over the pool deck. I’m sure he is painfully aware that this free labor allows them to keep their shared business going. At first it wasn’t fun to feel like unwanted house guests, but with daily dinner conversation over good food we are getting to know and trust each other, like the slow release of a clenched fist.

Perhaps of all the family members I like the farm’s Labrador best. Boogie is blacker than the night and likes to buck her nose under our restive elbows, demanding table scraps. Hardly ever successful, she bucks on, undaunted. Every night, Vincent condemns her with a sharp, “Boogie, mais arrête! Combien de fois est ce que je t’ai dis?,” as if a simple scold can be used to reason with a hungry dog. There is also a mean orange cat who does nothing but sleep and glare at us, clearly impressed with herself for being able to put up with it all.

On the bee farm, we were part of the family and work was secondary, now we are here only to work and are expected to give the family space to continue to live their lives. But neither Brett nor I have ever been afraid of hard work, so bring it on, I say. We eat our toast and homemade jam at 8 am sharp. Mornings are filled with weeding, peeling produce for jam, accompanying Ursula on trips to the dump or the bottling factory, sweeping, dusting, harvesting zucchinis, carrots, potatoes…

We arrived in the syrupy thick of peach harvesting,  fuzzy sun-kissed orange globes everywhere. Ursula takes hundreds of kilos to a nearby canning factory that turns them into bottles of delicious peach nectar. Whenever I get hungry before our very European and very late dinners, I’ll wander through the peach grove and scavenge for fallen or slightly bruised fruit. The light bump on their way down only makes them sweeter. At the table we eat peach tart, peach clafouti, peach compote with ice cream, peach jam with vanilla or coconut for breakfast, chicken with peaches and honeyed onions… Last night I dreamt that I was in a strange land where the peaches were as big as basketballs.

Once I spent a day and a half watering a grove of baby white peach trees, heaving the heavy hoses to the base of each tender plant. I would assume warrior pose while the tree drank its fill until my thighs burned like hold it no longer and I’d run off to see how the hose at the other end of the grove was carrying on. Just when I’d get in the swing of it I’d hear the ‘à table!’ call for lunch. We work hard and eat well, and in our free time we use the assez-functioning bicycles to explore the nearby beaches, Pyrenees Mountains and ancient cobblestone towns.

At the first chance I moved out of the house and into a tent near the orchard. I had missed sleeping outside, the chance to sleep with dreams scented by peach and fresh grass. At night I can hear Boogie on duty, making her nightly rounds through the orchard. The well-planned farm has some squat palms which remind me too much of India; one lovingly leans over the outdoor dinner table. The pre-pool shower is concealed inside a romantic grove of giant bamboo. Hidden inside, I look up and watch the graceful stalks sway between the liquid pieces of turquoise sky.

La chambre de musique

 

The farm regularly receives school visits from children of all ages. Last week we had two mornings of day-camp children, mostly 4 and 6 year olds, who all bounced off the bus in sun caps of shades of yellow, pink, and batman blue. Predictably, they instantly gravitate towards Boogie, who receives their sloppy caresses with panting grace. Brett led them on a hands-on tour, through the pumpkins and tomatoes, passing out leaves of menthe and verveine for them to rub and sniff. The chickens are always a hit. And then for the grand finale: potato harvesting! I love that kids find unearthing golden spuds just as miraculous as I do. After the tour the children pile onto benches to taste veggie quiche, peach tart and cold glasses of the pretty peach nectar. Snack is followed by Vincent’s clapping, drumming, singing music session, while the rest of us fall into the nearest chair.

The Final Harvest

“C’est sympa d’avoir des artistes chez nous!”  -Stephanie

During our last week at the bee farm it was less honey and more art! The family has a small summer cabin in a beautiful grove of acacias, but the cabin itself was filthy and the walls unfinished. Brett and I dusted and white washed the one room interior and then tossed around the idea of doing a mural on the outside. We only had a week, so something simple, natural. Giant wildflowers? After we showed her some sketches, Stephanie was in. Poppies! Si French, and they were everywhere on the hillsides, papery orange drops of delight. It was sad to say when we had to say goodbye to the joyful flowers, but to have turned a gray block of cement into something beautiful is like giving a handknit scarf to a cold stranger.

Les Coquelicots

We also replaced their roadside advertisement for honey which had broken in the wind last winter. This was a fun project Brett and I did side by side. We all agreed that it turned out better than the original.

Our last day at the farm we harvested honey! We cut into the slats with big knives, popping shavings of the falling honey comb into our mouths. The fresh honey melted on our tongues, leaving only the chew of soft wax behind. We ate so much sweet we felt slightly sick, but after about ten minutes we’d be reaching for another piece because it’s too pretty to resist, like eating liquefied stained glass.

After all the tops of the comb is opened, it is put into a machine that spins the comb at top speed and forces the honey out by centrifugal force. The honey poured out through a hole in the bottom, caramel colored and smelling like the heart of the summer forest. And just like that, our time in the fairy tale village of Treziers was over. We were heading south, to chase salty sea breezes.

To Go to the Ball

Kitty and I danced all the dances-” “-And Mary none!”  -Pride and Prejudice

Balls don’t really exist. Right? Yet last Friday night our beekeeping family went to a countryside barndance, or ‘un bal.’ I guess this French fairy tale paysage doesn’t let boring reality get in the way of pleasure filled evenings.  There are few things I liked better than dancing, I thought, and it had been so long since I’d had the chance! Brett and I excitedly scrubbed ourselves clean of the day’s grime and donned our swishiest skirts.

Set in a refurbished barn, the ball was in full swing when we arrived. Ignoring the tables laden with wine, cider, and clafouti, we wasted no time in kicking off our sandals. The the jaunty ecclectic band of bagpipes, drums, accordion, and a massive white tuba welcomed us onto the dance floor. Everyone was dancing, French, English, children and seniors. At the beginning of a new dance, the dispersed crowd would strain their ears to identify the beat. The few who knew the dance would lead off while everyone stared at their feet, memorizing the steps as quickly as they could so they too could join in. We danced Scottish jigs and Italian tarantellas, waltzes and spiraling line dances, until little Manon’s eyes started to glaze over and her giggling turned into sleepy whining. With a regretful look behind me at the swirling couples we ventured into the night towards the truck.  I could have danced all night, but I left happily grinning to have had the chance to dance at all. Besides, I knew how the fairy tale went, and the stroke of midnight was just around the corner.

The Golden Nugget

The garden’s tomatoes are slow to start this year, but the zuccini and lettuces are booming and so we’ve been trying to come up with interesting ways to stuff zuccini into everyone at least once a day, usually twice. Chinese veggie lettuce wraps with peanut sauce, stuffed zuccini with pesto potato and mushrooms, pasta with zuccini, couscous with zuccini…you get the idea.

On Monday Stephanie gave Brett and I some euros to go shopping at the market in the nearby town of Mirepoix. The fairly large market  sits under the town’s stone cathedral, and we wound our way past tempting stalls of summer dresses and paperbacks, filling our baskets with organic peaches, tomatoes, carrots, hazelnuts, rounds of chevre,  muesli, garlic, marinated olives, and lemon.

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This week we harvested  a batch of pollen from the hives that rest under the blooming chesnuts. The lady foragers could not be happier to zoom through the fireworks of blossoms that ring the grassy field. Thousands of bees dash around in the sunlight, collecting the heady saffron pollen in pouches on their hind legs.

Chataignier blossoms

photo by Brett

To collect the pollen, apiculturists place a special door on the underside of each hive. The bees must squeeze through the opening and in so doing the pollen is scraped off their back legs, falling into the metal collection trough a few inches below.  After we returned home, I sat on the lawn all morning with Manon, their ten year old daughter, and we sifted through the whole bucket of pollen armed with tweezers, picking out impurities like dead ants or shafts of wheat that had fallen in. The pollen is beautiful, and each flower’s pollen has its own unique color and taste. The yellow is from the chesnut, theblack is from the red-orange poppies, the grey beige from the wild blackberry. Marvelous.

The pollen is sold frozen or dried, but when eaten fresh one can benefit the most from its healthfulness. From WebMD: “Bee pollen contains vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, lipids, and protein. It comes from the pollen that collects on the bodies of bees. Bee pollen may also include bee saliva… You may find bee pollen in other natural dietary supplements as well as in skin softening products used for baby’s diaper rash or eczema. You may also hear recommendations for using bee pollen for alcoholism, asthma, allergies, health maintenance, or stomach problems…Bee pollen is also recommended by some herbalists to enhance athletic performance, reduce side effects of chemotherapy, and improve allergies and asthma.”

Emptying the pollen troughs

The nuggets of powdery pollen taste creamy and sweet. A piece of toast with peanut butter and a sprinkle of bee pollen makes for a delicious and healthful breakfast, just don’t forget the cup of mint tea with a sweet spoon of miel de la foret. Or try Brett’s fave rave, on coconut sorbet. La vie est courte mais certainement douce.

Photo by Brett

Le Griffage

Yesterday we learned how ‘jellé royale,’ or royal jelly, is made. A high-end bee product prescribed by naturopathic doctors and used in many beauty products, royal jelly is said to boost immunity and slow the aging of cells. The stuff looks and tastes like sour coconut milk, but I like it. A tiny 10 ml jar sells for 20 euros, and Stephanie has no problem selling all that her hives can produce.

Royal jelly is fed to all bee larvae, but the workers feed a lot to the ones that they have selected to potentially become queen bees. These ‘royal’ larvae are placed in ‘royal’ chambers where they are fed exorbitant amounts of jelly. The rowed plastic cups we use simulate the shape of these royal chambers, which the bees will fill with the white, gummy fluid.

So with a plastic scooper and a headlamp we began picking out the baby larvae from the honeycomb, placing one larva in each of the plastic cups (shown on the right), and careful to avoid hurting them.

Scalpel…

 

This picture is fuzzy, but you can see the large larva inside the comb. Yet we were searching for the most miniscule larvae possible, ten times smaller than a grain of rice. It takes a lot of concentration and hand-eye coordination! That afternoon we hurriedly took the larvae into each hive before the cups could dry out. In three days we will harvest the rows of cups and suction out the fattened larvae and the jelly. (The larvae get fed to the chickens.)

In the forest

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Today was Saturday and thus a day off. Stephanie and Dan dropped us off at the nearby lake, and we cycled a two-hour lap around the glorious water, through forest and grassy fields, past sailboats and picnickers, campers and old farmhouses, while the graceful peaks of the Pyrenées watched over us all. We had a chilly swim and then a warm sunbath on the grassy margin. We cycled home and I made garlicky hummus from some harvested beans while Brett made a lovely zuccini, onion and chevre tart for our outdoor repas. We ate and gabbed as the sun slipped behind the foothills. (The sun sets at 9:30 pm, I’m still not used to it, I keep thinking its time for tea when its really almost bedtime.)

We found the cows!

Brett et Dany

Brett’s Bees

Ahh, France…

I am still missing India (especially my plants) but its also so nice to have sunlight after 7 pm and toilet paper and water I can drink straight from the tap. The streets are so clean! Where are the cows? I often feel like I’m back in the US, yet for some reason everyone is speaking French. Any minute now I will wake up and be back in the muggy jungle again.

After a weekend at our grandma’s house, we took the train to our first farm to dive into the beekeeping world! I thought there is no place more beautiful than India, but it has obviously been too long since I had been to southern France. The farm is perched in the Pyrenées foothills, rolling hills of sunflowers and corn just beginning their climb into the long months of summer sun. Red poppies, thistles, and clover peek out of the fields of golden wheat. A crumbling chateau is perched on a nearby hillside, while the peaks of the Pyrenées show off the last splashes of winter’s snow. The family has two daughters, one of which has a kitten and the other a beautiful white horse. They farmhouse is covered in charming grape vines. They have a seperate apartment with a bathroom, kitchenette and small deck for Wwoofers, which was unexpected but it was so nice to be able to unpack in our own space. And did I mention the view? Brett and I are going to have so much fun exploring the nearby forests, creeks, lakes and old villages on cycle and on foot.

Our first day on the job was spent in the miellerie, filling glass jars with golden acacia honey, and then sticking labels on the filled jars. The farm produce several varieties of honey: sunflower, chesnut, honey of the forest and springtime flowers.

Stephanie manages 150 hives. The hives are placed in spots all over the nearby counryside, so when we go to work we also get to tour through the never-ending green hills and the tiny villages of stone houses and climbing roses. Brett and I both got our own beesuit, which comes with a sweet netted hat and a pair of thick gloves. Stephanie and Dany are very willing to teach us the ropes, like how to tell the difference between nectar and honey, how to find the queen (they’ve marked her with a colored dot), and how to properly smoke the hive before opening it. Tonight we are moving a group of hives to a field lined with just about to bloom chesnut trees. We will move them at night, when the highest number of bees will have returned from the day’s forage. Imagine if you had spent a long day collecting pollen in the forest only to return to find that your home had completely disappeared!

Today we transferred a group of chesnut honey bees into bigger hives. It’s a humbling experience to swim through the clouds of buzzing life. Even if you don’t speak bee, it is immediately obvious how organzed they are. And they are all working so hard.

Somehow one of the girls got under my hat and started crawling under my collar. I tried to calmly but swiftly walk away from the hives so I could pull off my hat, but by then we could smell each other’s panic and she stung me on the back of the neck, swift and sharp. It hurt. But did you know that beestings can help cure arthritis, MS, tendonitis, and (according to Baburam) high blood pressure? If that’s the worst that can happen in our three week stay here, I think I’ll be okay.

The family has two small vegetable gardens and some chickens. ‘Nous sommes vegeteriens, ça va?’ ‘Oui, oui!’ Today while we were in the forest I foraged a large bag of nettle leaves, which are a very healthy spring delicacy, good for the urinary tract, kidney, immune system and respitory tract. After you cook the tender leaves the sting goes away. Stephanie’s putting them into a soup right now.

(I came to France with boxes of masalas, spices, and pickles so that I could cook Indian food for our French hosts. So far, it hasn’t worked out like I’d planned. When I made my Mamie try some gorgunkala pickle, she sassily replied, Mais c’est du diable, ça! Ca te donne du feu au fesse!” Then Brett and I made lunch today and I must have put too much curry on the fava beans because Stephanie ran from the table with her mouth full of spicy vegetable. But she did say her stuffed nose is now clear; so maybe it was a happy accident. Note to self: the French don’t do spicy.)

 

A QUEEN

Filling pots

IcanhazLenap?

Mango Dreams

June 4th, 2012

Tonight I ate a giant Alphonso mango for dinner and then a small one for dessert. ‘Tis finally the season: India is up to her gold-studded ears in mangoes. And good thing too, as all I’ve been eating for my fruit fix is jackfruit, and everyone knows it’s not good to eat too much jackfruit. Apparently, it’s bad for your digestion. My astrologer calls it “slow poison.” And there are so many different varieties of mango! Football-shaped green ones, giant yellow ones, sweet tiny ones with a rosy blush that taste like apricots. Carts on the roadside corners laden with bananas, guavas, and oranges now have only piles of the red and green fruit.  Mangoes are the sweet reward for surviving through an Indian summer. No one can resist. Oh dear reader, I wish I could send you some in the mail. (Which reminds me, thanks to everyone who has sent me letters and packages to me over the past year. It makes home feel that much closer and the world seem that much smaller when you get a message that has physically traveled half the globe. Don’t even get me started, I can nerd out for days on how much I love the postal service…)
Some states in India have official mango festivals. I am envisioning an ocean of people with lots of mango vendors and some type of trumpeted ceremonial parade with pujas, processions and candles and the smashing of limes on the concrete and maybe an elephant just for good measure. Indians love processions. And pujas.
On the farm we have a lovely large variety that is slowly ripening on the low-hanging boughs. The sign of a good pruning job is if the tree is perfectly shaped like a half globe, the fruits hanging low, with good thick branches in the center to climb and reach the high ones. After two months of eating raw mango in chutneys and green papaya salad we will finally be able to start plucking the green globes and letting them fully ripen on the cool concrete floor of the fruit room. 
Seasonal crops serve as delicious ticks in the calendar year. Even if you can’t eat an Indian mango, you can still take a moment to appreciate some of the unique bounty that grows in your region. Find some of your best local seasonal fruit and eat it with your eyes closed. I always knew summer had begun when our fridge would get stocked with bags of black plums, bing cherries, white peaches and those huge nectarines from Costco. Become conscious of the sunlight and the soil that live in every cell of the fruit’s sweetness.  Take a minute to stop and enjoy. It’s only once a year!