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www.zidao.com Apprentice harmonizer, for sheer fun. Journeywoman writer, for work and pleasure. Starting point was Iowa, current stopping point on this journey is Switzerland, with frequent pauses around the world to watch and listen to the crowd, and occasionally make comments.

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Monday, November 21, 2005

The country house guest

Charolais country, Burgundy - France

Country homes in Burgundy are meant to be shared, for the pleasure of all.

They are places of repose and rejuvenation, where wining and dining are the centerpieces of each day and conversation is a brook traveling over smooth stones, rough mossy patches and sudden exhilerating little waterfalls.

The Burgundian country home guest has responsibilities: bring news of friends and family, allow yourself - however briefly - to be part of the intimate landscape of the home and the communal one of the lanes and fields and villages that wrap around you.

It is November, the land outside is wet and cold, with white frost hovering over everything, beast or plant or other. Animals push out rods of white steam with each breath. The fields have lost their careless appearance and are now drawn starkly with green borders and white centers. The landscape has reinvented itself, an inspiration to the rest of us. In the kitchen we study the last harvest, two ripe tomatoes and two green that might yet redden in the window, a pinch of rosemary found in a hidden corner the sun reaches.

Saturday evening. We sit around the blazing fire, sharing a bottle of Pouilly Fuissé, one of France's finest white wines, from a small vineyard 30 km away. Daniel, who makes this and the Beaujolais Village (aged, not the young wine) we drink later, has become a friend. We pass the platter of pâté en croûte, the name to which no translation can do justice: meat and pastry sounds edible, but not exquisite, which the French implies.

It is the season for game and mushrooms and nuts, all of which find their way to the stuffings bowls at the local butcher shop.

We step down into the cozy dining room and sit at a table set for four, under an old candelabra that hangs from the ceiling: another one of Evelyn's brocante (some say antique dealer, some say junkman) under-€3 finds, lovingly restored. We talk about the sad state of Beaujolais vineyards, many of which are being snapped up by the British, dreaming of country homes with wine bottles growing off the vines. If the European Union survives it may well owe something to this old love affair of the British for French cultural traditions. The French sit back amused, watching the price of property climb, or at least those French whose cashflow problems have not yet cut into the economics of Sunday dinner.

Saturday night menu:
green beans with guinea fowl livers
Charolais lamb braised in Cognac, with celeriac pureé
cheese, with 12 year old port served in a fine glass decanter with the curves of a swan, but the weight of a bull
a bite of chocolate from the local patissier
The pause
bread pudding, made with Italian panetone

Sunday morning. Lost in fog again. Three of us drive in the blind car to Charolles, feeling our way past two castles and a bridge that sits silent, beautiful and mostly unnoticed in this corner of Burgundy that deserves more tourists. We are in search of morning croissants to go with the foaming hot milk and coffee that Evelyn prepares in our absence. Three old men laugh about their PMU (betting) results and tug at their caps to keep out the cold. Two young men, confident they will never be bald, rush by and tug at jacket zippers to pull collars closer to bald heads. A child watches in fear from a safe distance as two men fuel the fire on which the chestnuts will be roasted later: this is the annual chestnut festival in Charolles. A young woman who stayed out too late last night stops to let an elderly widow pass before her, into the butcher's shop.

The butcher is proud of his meat, justifiably, says David. The former butcher was number one in France, he says, and I wonder how this is measured. The young man who took over not so long ago is also excellent. The French are particular about their food and love to debate what makes a perfect cut of meat. Judging by the crowd in this tiny shop, the new butcher has proven worthy.

Later, the croissant crumbs cleaned away and Martha's jam back in the cupboard, we decide to walk. But first we hold Martha's jam up to the light, for the sun has suddenly pushed its way through the fog. This, then, must be how the first cathedral builders chose to add stained glass windows, to leave worshippers in awe that such colors could stand still. Martha, the widow of a diplomat, is known for her charitable works and her magnificent cooking. We praise the quince jelly and fig jam, both from her garden fruit. Evelyn makes us long to become artisanal chefs when she described how Martha makes geranium and rose petal jellies, beautiful to behold, better yet to taste.

I wonder if my crazy mountain-climbing nasturtiums could be turned into jelly, a lovely bright orange. David thinks so, but suggests I crystalize them first. This is beginning to sound like one of the many romantic projects I will undertake in my eighties, when I finally have time.

We walk to the next village, where Evelyn's daughter and friend have just bought a house. It needs work, but it is good to see that the dream of the country house is alive and well: the British house in Burgundy, with a particularly strong Scottish streak.

The garden is across the path and as I peer at the plants left by the old people who lived a long and quiet life here, I see the magic of next year's perfect garden in the seeds, still hanging, before winter triumphs over these last stalks. "Yes, I think she's taken a fancy to gardening," I hear Evelyn say as she peers at some strawberry shoots.

It often begins that way.

We guests must always remember to sign the guest book, under the beautiful lamp that Eveyln made, to help us, and their daughter's haunting painting.


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