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.


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.



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


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.)



Filling pots


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!

“Green Revolution is not a revolution. It is a fraud…Revolution is an attempt to carry mankind towards happiness and spiritual infinity. Green Revolution is a great attempt to carry the farmer and consumers towards mukti…and ultimate death.” -The Philosophy of Spiritual Farming

I wish you could see me now, crouched under my mosquito net in my grass hut bedroom. The laptop spread out, my books, camera, and colored pencils fingertips away, Rihanna blasting in my ears. Sometimes with all this 24/7 nature time I have to have a techno binge to balance myself out.

The two ponds on the farm are so low that on a run yesterday I caught the cows grazing in one of them. Their sweet faces turned towards my footsteps, healthy auburn coats against the verdant bank. I stopped in my tracks, they looked so serene there.  I was too late to call back my two bodyguards, who were already busy chasing a peacock and some egrets into safer tree lines yonder.

Everyday is filled with so many activities. At five o’clock, when the sun has given up for the day, we went out and transplanted some beds of okra seedlings. I also squeezed about 50 limes today to make hibiscus juice syrup, ate a lot of jackfruit, and hung some Tamil natural farming posters in the newly clean Visitor’s Center.

Tonight I smeared my face, arms and neck in a turmeric paste skin treatment. In the last two weeks I have developed heat rash, a bumpy itchy experience that I will be glad to escape when I head to the Pyrenees in ten days.  Even though my heart and head have become bosom friends with the sun, my skin seems to garner some resentment. Multiple coats a day of fresh aloe vera have only seemed to make the rash spread. So today I’m trying turmeric paste.  Turmeric is an antibacterial root crop, used in almost all Indian dishes for its health properties and nice color. I learned how to make fresh turmeric powder: lots of pounding with a mortar and pestle, then a trip through the blender and finally a delicate sifting to get the powder as fine as possible. I pass Tamilian women on the street who go about their day with a thin layer of turmeric paste smeared on their face.  It smells like medecine, but in a good way. My skin is going to glow yellow for days.

Sifting on the veranda

Whoops, I suppose I should have told my parents that I’m planning to stay in India another year before I told all of cyberspace. Oh well. But they forgot to be upset because in October they will be joining me in Pondy for six months. I’m really excited for them to find work that is meaningful and engaging. Needless to say it will be rad to explore more of this crazy country with them. Plus I haven’t even learned how to build my own grass hut, right? If you ask me, there’s nothing to do back home until 2016 anyway…

This post is dedicated to my sister who graduated from Pacific Lutheran University this term. (Don’t worry sis, there is life after college…  but then again, as my friend Niha reminded me recently, my ‘real world’ is an ashram in India…) After months of unpredicted work on the house, I finally hung the informational panels that my sister and I had created in January. Looking back, I see now how those panels started the whole snowball of fixing the farmhouse into the a place where visitors, volunteers and workers can learn and grow together. I couldn’t hang these panels until I had painted the room. I couldn’t paint one room unless I had painted the whole house. Sometimes life is filled with tiny tipping points.  One small act leads to bigger victories towards a more harmonious future.