Rocks and Stones

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IMG_3817 Rocks and stones have been part of our existence for more than 2 million years.  They are responsible for the development of the human race and we are still fascinated by their beauty, their endurance and the mystery of their formation. We travel far and wide to gaze at the magnificence of canyons; we meet the earth and its rocky crust when our heels beat the ground as we hike trails strewn with stones. We take rocks as mementos of our wanderings, knowing that they will faithfully remind us of cherished journeys. We wear them as magnificent jewelry and a whole generation turned them into “pet rocks” secretly wishing that they were imbued with magic powers. Perhaps it is so, as in certain parts of the world it is believed that mountains and rocky slopes are where the gods dwell.

Stones are the keepers of time and history. They have been used by ancient generations to record stories and practice religious rites. We know that as long ago as 7,000 years, enormous stone slabs called “dolmen” were erected for such purposes.  More recent ones can be found in England (Stonehenge), France (Carnac) and many other parts of the world including Spain, IMG_3788Portugal, Ireland, the Netherlands and as far away as Korea and India.

I encountered these mysterious stone tables while visiting the little town of Rahier while on vacation in Belgium. It is a quaint village where every house is bedecked with flowers as if expecting some fabulous celebration. The region is known for its stone quarries supplying the material for the construction of these sturdy homes. Another type of stone called schist is also available. It is a remarkable stone that sparkles when the light strikes its mica chips releasing what feels like a magic aura. These stones are easily fabricated into specific shapes and sizes. And what an amazing sight it was to see slabs of these hoisted along the road, like glistening posters upon which were engraved poems dedicated to the trees, the insects, the rain, the old school, furrows where once stood old houses, the cemetery, a 600 year old tree, the church, a gate and a bench where lovers meet. It is like walking through a written ode glorifying the village and the soul that lives there.

IMG_3835These poems are the creation of an elderly couple of former teachers who live in a house that dates back to the 17th century. They live simply and imbue their surroundings with the immense love they have for nature and the world we live in. These poems engraved on stones imbues the onlooker with wonder and awe. It is as if some ancient scriptures from a long ago past have returned to remind us to pause and inhale our moments of beauty.

A few miles down the road are fields where ancient dolmens remind us that long ago the druids practiced their rites under mistletoe hanging from branches of oak trees. Their spirit seems to linger, whispering ancient thoughts into the countryside captured in poems floating on slabs of schist.

 

 

 

Là au creux du vallon

Le village semble aux aguets

Comme une frêle embarcation

Sous l’énorme vague des fôrets

Un ciel de plomb impose

Ses gris, ses noirs moroses

Il pleut

Que surgisse le soleil

Dans le bleu si bleu du ciel

Et les verts éclatent en mille tons

Et le vent entame sa chanson

Il est midi

Mais déjà l’astre est au couchant

Il met le feu à l’horizon, jetant

Ses rouges, ses jaunes, ses oranges

Le ciel deviant symphonie étrange

Voici la nuit

Suzanne et Marcel Mosuy

IMG_3822…To be continued with more poems from Rahier with translations

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Walking, Part II

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…yes,  there are colorful blossoms  and lots of bamboo framing the walk snaking through  the outline of buildings and the Paris sky. One has the impression of a bit of heaven captured walking along 4 kilometers where the scent of roses and lavender beckons the onlooker to sit and dream awhile under the foliage of some cherry trees, or garlands of huckleberry blossoms. The Promenade Plantée continues through to the Jardin de Reuilly and finally ends east to the Bois de Vincennes.

02 Luxembourg gardenOften, on my way back from buying petits pains in the local Kayser bakery on the rue d’Assas I would walk a block further east to encounter the Jardin du Luxembourg. Once there I’d find a bench and sit while breaking off a piece of the crusty bread, watching other flâneurs like myself on their way to discover what this extraordinary garden has to offer; chess tables, tennis courts, roundabouts filled with laughing children and a pond where even adults can be seen setting old fashioned miniature sailing boats on their course. And that is what one has to be in Paris: un flâneur which can best be translated as to saunter, to loaf, or perhaps to stroll.

But it is sauntering that has captured my imagination as I discovered its original meaning while reading The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux.  According to the author, Thoreau (1863) spoke of the word “saunter” as having been derived from the French expression “going to the Holy Land.” Thoreau further states, “I have met but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages and asked charity under the pretense of going A la Sainte Terre to the Holy land, till the children exclaimed,  “There goes a Sainte-Terrer, a “Saunterer” a Holy-Lander.”  And Thoreau concludes, “…for every walk is a sort of crusade.”

I find it amusing that I can now consider myself a crusader when I walk. Certainly not as understood in the Middle Ages: to go forth and re-conquer the Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels. I understand that in a modern way. While walking one can process a whole range of feelings and learning experiences. And in that way re-conquer one’s own mind.

01 pool in ParisAs I accompanied my friend through the cobbled streets of old Paris, I discovered La Butte aux Cailles, a neighborhood of old houses and streets in the 14th arrondissement bearing the names of flowers. I found myself in a time warp sauntering on winding cobblestone streets, finding quaint little restaurants, and drooling before mounds of freshly baked bread in local boulangeries. Then drinking  fresh water from fountains that are still fed by artesian wells. It is a working class neighborhood where the 1848 Revolution and the Paris Commune took hold. Even today the graffiti reveals an independent spirit as evidenced by the writing and drawings on the walls. There is a lovely arts-and-crafts style indoor swimming pool where the neighborhood kids cool off from the summer heat. And all about one can feast on the sight of flowers and the charming little houses of the Cité Florale.

It is endless, this love the French have for their parks and woods. Even the cemeteries are a place for reverie. In the Montparnasse cemetery, a cool and comforting place when seeking relief from the summer heat, I came across the names of the poet Charles Beaudelaire, Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Maupassant, Ionesco and even Frédéric Bartholdi, sculptor of the Statue of Liberty. But most astounding was the hour-long walk taken in the Forêt de Fontainebleau outside Paris where on a detour into the little town of La Samois I found the country hideaway of that extraordinary Belgian gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt.

As I now listen to the music of the virtuoso guitar player Django, I feast on the memory of sauntering in Paris. The unforgettable discoveries still swirl in my01 django mind.

Walking

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Pedestrians in ParisI love Paris. It is the keeper of a multitude of memories for me yet as I return yearly I am still dazzled by constant discoveries.

Upon arrival at the airport I am enchanted by the sound of the French language welcoming me into my new adventure. I know I will soon be sitting at a little café, blissfully inhaling the aroma of a cup of coffee while watching people flowing by.

I hail a taxi and within seconds the driver skillfully weaves into the traffic while I attempt to make my first observations. The cars are smaller and speed like jerky little boxes about to bump into each other. Yet on either side of the road it is all beginning to resemble the dehumanized New Jersey landscape. As if to compound my apprehension, traffic suddenly comes to a halt so that I can see and smell the landscape in slow motion. I gulp down my fear trusting the talkative driver reassuring me that all is well. But I can’t help wonder if the downfall has finally occurred and the city I loved irretrievably changed.

Then a comforting feeling reminds me of the novel I was reading on the plane, Freya Stark’s novel, “The Valleys of the Assassins” and I take solace in the statement “perhaps to find out what one thinks is one of the reasons for travel and for writing too.”  I’m totally captivated by her wisdom as that of Claude Levi Strauss who similarly felt that “Perhaps, then, this was what traveling was (is). An exploration of the deserts of my mind rather than those surrounding me.”  As I contemplate this wisdom sifting into my thoughts I realize we have arrived in Paris.  So much to drink in, sights whizzing by and street names I won’t remember.  All too fast to capture, speeded up as if I were watching an accelerated film.  I am relieved to reach my destination.  As I walk into the lovely apartment I have rented, I am suddenly struck by an enlightened awareness:  Never mind this world speeding into nothingness. I am opting for slow motion and will spend the next few weeks in Paris walking and writing to fill “the desert of my mind”.

My dearest friend soon came to greet me and we decided on a plan. She has been a Parisian practically all of her life and was thrilled at the idea of taking me on a walking adventure. She is not only a well-rounded scholar and lover of literature (French and English) but walks most of the time rather than taking public transportation. She confided that in her readings she learned that the great American writers Whitman and Wordsworth claimed to have been inspired by walking as it eased the mind. Of course the great Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote an entire novel confessing his experience as a solitary walker. He certainly was a perfect example of how loneliness makes things happen.

promenade-planteeAnd before long, trying to keep up with my learned friend I “sauntered” into undiscovered areas of Paris: La Promenade Plantée, a High Line (the one that inspired the New York High Line in 2011) where the railway tracks atop the Viaduc des Arts have been replaced by a promenade planted with a variety of plants and…(to be continued)

On Bliss

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On Bliss

Many people seem to have a bucket list; a series of unfulfilled desires or needs to be realized before life comes to an end. All of it depending of course on the chance that they live long enough to enjoy it all.

chocolate_and_strawberriesI have opted for the present moment and am indulging in a bliss list; that which gives me the most immediate and rewarding pleasure without having to compromise with fate.

I pondered briefly about what I would chose to lead the list of my life’s reward and agreed that it was that most intoxicating and mysterious of foods called CHOCOLATE.

But before indulging in the present, let me dip into the past. Chocolate’s history is fascinating and covers thousands of years. Both the Mayans and Aztecs believed in its magical power and divine properties. I also learned that bee keeping was an important occupation in the Yucatan. This may account for the Aztecs using honey in their cacao mixture. There is also a rather unsavory aspect to the Aztec use of the cacao bean. It was given to sacrifice victims who felt melancholy to join ritual dancing before their death. They were give a gourd of chocolate (tinged with the blood of previous victims) to cheer them up! (The Chocolate Connoisseur – Chloe Doutre-Roussel)chocolate

Recent discoveries place it even further back in time. But it was the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes who brought it to Spain. Nobility there disliked it at first but when they mixed it with honey or cane sugar, chocolate soon became the favorite drink of the kings and queens of Europe. It was believed to have nutritious, medicinal and even aphrodisiac properties. No wonder that Casanova was especially fond of it! And so it goes…

The Aztecs knew it all along as the “food of the gods” is now recognized to increase heart health, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. But the flavanol, an antioxidant shown to have anti-cancer properties, neutralizing cancer causing free radicals is found in dark chocolate only! (at least 70% cacao.)

And there’s more…Good chocolate won’t make you fat because you only have to eat a small square of chocolate a day to satisfy your senses with delight. And your heart and skin will respond with joy as well. Ah the bliss of it…

heart_in_chocolateI have my own history with chocolate, which summons memories recalling my childhood in Belgium. I was in a convent, not as a nun but as a four-year-old child taken into safety from the Nazi occupation. I didn’t know French at the time so the nuns did everything they could to hasten the process. One in particular, Sister Clotilde, the chef in residence, became very fond of me. She was Flemish and the pronunciation of her name was quite an effort for me. But when I finally got it right she swept me off my feet and led me to her secret cupboard where she was hiding her stash of Cote d’Or chocolates. To my surprise she handed me a bar with the most beautiful wrapping. I tried not to tear the picture of the gold elephant resting on the brown paper. When some of the chocolate melted and smeared my fingers Sister Clotilde exclaimed in delight Oh, les sales petits doigts! what dirty little fingers. She watched me lick the chocolate off my dirty little fingers before devouring the rest of the chocolate inside the wrapping. Then she picked me up and as I leaned against her headdress to give her a kiss I left a dark chocolaty stain on that purest of white. She started to laugh. I never forgot that first taste of chocolate ambrosia or Sister Clotilde’s laughter cascading into the universe. The event has remained with me through time as well as the recollection of my first gustatory ecstasy.

*** More of the story in my memoir entitled Mindele’s Journey – Memoir of a Hidden Child of the Holocaust on Amazon.com

Brussels, the city where I was born, has remained my chocolate paradise. When I return vacation time, I head for the Place du Grand Sablon. I walk down the side of the square just as I did when I was a child and stop in front of Wittamer and gaze in disbelief at the shimmering window display of row upon row of the most incredible chocolate and pastry creations in existence. It is as if time stood still. I go in and after giving the salesgirl a brief explanation of my relationship with the store, I point with a trembling finger to the display of chocolates that filled my childhood with such pleasure. And as I walk out with my purchase I feel I am bringing a bit of bliss back home with me.

chocolate_slows_down_the_aging_process

I’ve been told that there are good chocolate shops in New York but anybody who knows – knows Godiva is not the same (you’d never find liqueur in pralines made in the States) and that Cote d’Or is now owned by Philip Morris and Leonidas is loaded with too much sugar and Callebaut is owned by Suchard a Swiss company. Oh well, truth be told I wait for my next trip to Belgium to load up on bliss.

I invite all who read my chocolate tale to share in a recipe that became my signature dessert.

Warm Chocolate Cake

(for your best friends or enemies who need taming)

Ingredients:

8 eggs
8 yolks
12 tablespoons flour
2 cups sugar
14 oz. chocolate (I use Valrhona)
12 oz. butter

– Melt the chocolate and butter together in a double boiler.
– Beat eggs and yolks with sugar ( at least 10 minutes).
– Combine the chocolate and butter mixture with the eggs, yolks and sugar mixture (beat until well mixed).
– Add 12 tablespoons flour (mixing the batter until it reaches a smooth consistency).

Place the batter into buttered and floured molds and bake 12 min. in a preheated 375o oven (do not overcook as it will not have a velvety chocolate interior).

flourless_chocolate_cake

MAY YOUR BLISS BE ADDICTIVE!

On Nostalgia and Inspiration

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On Nostalgia and Inspiration: The Month of May 2013

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Road to Yasouj

Perhaps it’s this time of the year that fills me with an overwhelming longing for the past. I feel the evanescent beauty of spring settling into a memory. Yet this melancholia stirring sadness inside me also inspires an awareness of feelings that transcend time. Everything changes, moves on as we must. There is no destination but the journey we are on and the heart is filled with desires that light the way. The beauty of this month of May, the fragile joy of once barren trees now adorned in emerald, and flowers painting the lawns with color will soon be torched with summer heat. And as I place this scenery into my mind, images of other spring times appear.

I am traveling in Iran where I lived for two years.  We were heading, my partner and I, for Yasouj a city in the Zagros Mountains. I was falling asleep, dulled by the humming of the car engine when the most unusual sight appeared out of nowhere.  Tribal women were squatting in the river that glistened along the fields stretching below the mountains. They were washing their clothes and rugs in the stream dotted with snow that had barely melted. We stopped the car to take in the breathtaking moment that I recorded in the following poem.

desert_in_iran

Desert in Iran

The Road to Yasouj

The cold breath
of the distant mountains
has melted
The tribal women
are washing
their clothes
in the icicle spotted
stream
just formed
around
their squatting shapes
cajoled by the froth
hitting the stones
they are touching

Silently their hands
are parting
the icy sheet
The brocade cloths
they have shed
colors the water
into exploding prisms
splintering
the winter face
of the river
into a smile

And I
passing by
must stay
awhile
to see
the magic garments
drying
in the arms
of trees
transformed
into
a tribal tapestry

© Mariette Bermowitz 2013

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Tribal women in Yasouj

tribal_women_iran

Tribal women in Iran

And when nostalgia captures my being again, I welcome it for it takes me back to places and moments that have filled my life with meaning. With summer approaching I am inspired to travel once more, to continue the journey, and welcome adventures where I can discover myself all over again.

spring_in_yasouj

Spring in Yasouj

flowers_in_the_desert

Flowers in the desert

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Flowers in the desert.

Flowers in the desert

Sometimes we don’t have to travel very far to be inspired as with this poem I read while riding on the F train from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

                       Voyager

I have become an orchid
Washed in on the salt white beach.
Memory
What can I make of it now
that might please you —
This life, already wasted
And still strewn with miracles?

—Mary Ruefle (1952), Poetry in Motion

Waterzooi (Recipe)

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Waterzooi

la_ville_de_ghent

La Ville de Ghent

Before you know it, summer vacation will be upon us. You may not have made your plans yet but if you like to travel and enjoy good food as well, why not Belgium! The reason is very simple: everybody eats better in Belgium!  I should know because I was born there and I revel in the memory of all those gustatory feasts that made such an impact on my childhood.

It is not well known but Belgium has more three-star restaurants per capita than France. As a people, Belgians are fiercely protective of their culinary status which was well established as a result of the spice trade in the Middle Ages. It has also acquired and preserved in its traditions a rich combination of influences brought about by foreign invasions. If you travel there today you will find out for yourself the delightful variations that exist between the Flemish and Walloon part of the country.

I grew up in the Walloon part of Belgium not far from a monastery in the town of Rochefort known for its extraordinary beer. It was a delightful destination for excursions, especially driving down beautiful country roads before reaching the welcoming abbey. The monks tended their herb garden where I learned to recognize tarragon, thyme, sage, parsley, chives and chervil. But it was the tender leafy chervil I loved the best. To me it was a jewel among all the herbs I watched growing in our garden. It looked and tasted somewhat like parsley but incomparable in its fragrance and taste. I wonder to this day why it is so difficult to find it in the greengrocer shops in New York. But I took back some seeds from Belgium last year and dispersed them among the rocks behind the building where I live in Brooklyn. And when I went out this morning, I was greeted by the most tender green spreading out over the stones. I picked a few leaves and rubbed them into my palms to carry the scent of my childhood for at least part of the day. But today for the delight of my guests, I will recreate a Belgian dish that originates in the city of Ghent in Flanders.

waterzooi_dishAlthough Flanders is in the Flemish speaking part of Belgium, it was quite popular with my aunt Therese who never made such distinctions and prepared it on every special occasion. It’s one of my favorites because the scent and taste of this wondrous stew, like Marcel Proust’s petites madeleines brings me back to a past that lingers in my taste buds. And of course I will garnish the top of the dish with tender snippets of chervil!

Its name derives from the Dutch term “zooien” to boil but it really is a dish prepared with fish or chicken simmered in a soup base of egg-yolk and cream thickened into vegetable broth, carrots, onions, leeks, potatoes, parsley, thyme, bay-leaves, sage and snippets of chervil at the very end of cooking.

A simplified chicken version follows:
Take a plump roasting chicken (cut in pieces)
4 leeks (white parts only)
4 carrots (sliced into rounds)
4 sticks celery( sliced into rounds)
A bouquet garni of bay leaves, fresh parsley, thyme
Minced chervil for garnish
2 large egg yolks
1 cup heavy cream
Some large baking potatoes cut into cubes
4 cups chicken broth
Salt, pepper
2 medium onions (chopped)
3 tbsps. butter

waterzooi_ingredientsMelt the butter in a Dutch oven. Add the onions and cook until translucent. Add the bouquet garni and cook a bit longer. Then place the chicken pieces on top and add enough of the chicken broth to partially cover the chicken. Cover the pot and simmer for 30 minutes.

Remove any fat or foam accumulating at the top. Add the leeks, carrots, and celery. Simmer for another 30 minutes.

Add the cubed potatoes to simmering liquid and cook until the potatoes and chicken are done (chicken will be very tender).

Remove the chicken from broth and place in a large dish. Remove the bouquet garni from the broth.

You will easily remove the skin and bones from the chicken so that you can have bite-size pieces of meat.

Beat the cream and egg yolks in a mixing bowl. Place Dutch oven over medium heat.

waterzooi_imageTake a ladle and remove some of the liquid from pot to slowly add to egg mixture. This is to prevent the eggs from curdling. Then slowly stir mixture into the broth with the vegetables. Cook over low heat, constantly stirring until the sauce thickens. Be careful not to reach boiling point. Return chicken pieces to Dutch oven. Add salt and pepper.

Place the waterzooi in a deep ( and warmed) serving dish and sprinkle tender little chervil leaves on top. A dish to remember!

Mariette Bermowitz is the author of “Mindele’s Journey: Memoir of a Hidden Child of the Holocaust”, available on Amazon. Her story is a testament to a guiding force instilled in her by the nuns who sheltered her during the war. “I know what it’s like to give up hope, but something always drove me on.” says Bermowitz.

Reading From Mindele’s Journey

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A video presentation I recently did at Steve Feldstein’s Roundtable.

My introduction starts at the 2:11 mark, have a look…

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Mindele’s Journey: Memoir of a Hidden Child of the Holocaust” is available for sale online at Amazon.com and other channels.

About the Author 
Mariette Bermowitz was born in Brussels in 1938. Her father, the only other survivor of the family, brought her to live in Brooklyn when she was twelve. By making a career of teaching the French language and culture, she inspired her students and stayed connected to the world she had lost. She is a co-founder of the Miette Culinary Studio, and was married to Alan Bermowitz, later known as Alan Vega Suicide.