mon chou: kale, the forgotten vegetable

img_3431 In French, instead of sweetie, you might call someone mon chou.

My cabbage.

I appreciate the double meaning. Le chou is both my cabbage and my sweet. But all cabbages are not created equal. It’s kale that’s my drug of choice.

Looking for a light read in the ‘American Expats in France’ genre, I recently read a memoir entitled Bonjour Kale. It was fun to find out that the kale I enjoyed for dinner tonight, last night, and pretty much every night I cook for myself, is largely thanks to fellow American Kristen Beddard, a New Yorker who found herself a bit lost in Paris, lacking a day job and lamenting the absence of her favorite vegetable.

Five years ago, kale was the superfood and comfort food du jour for foodies around the US, but in France ce n’existait pas. Sure, you might be able to find a row in someone’s personal garden, but certainly not on a commercial scale. Stores didn’t carry it and market vendors and farmers hadn’t heard of it. There wasn’t even a consensus on what to call this neglected vegetable. There was, however, a term describing its sad state. Kale was a légume oublié–a forgotten vegetable–one that had fallen out of favor. One theory goes that kale was a hearty “poor man’s food” that reminded people too much of their lean days during World War II.

Beddard wanted to change this if she could. There could be such a thing as celebratory kale. Glamorous, chic (and full of antioxidants). Kale’s image needed a makeover and Beddard, with a background in marketing, felt she was the woman for the job.

First, she started a blog intended to detail the progress of “The Kale Project.”

Next she went to the market, gathering the courage to ask local farmers, in her beginner’s French, if they would be interested in growing le chou kale. She would provide the seeds. She made her case: healthy, delicious, and here’s proof it will sell…

A few said yes.

As it grew, Beddard made kale connections, identifying expats and restaurant owners ready to buy in case of a supply.

She visited the farms to see the progress, once carting back two full trash bags of kale on a three-hour train ride.

She promoted the vegetable at a Yelp event, a winter foods festival in Paris where she served pesto and smoothies and talked about her project. It was a hit.

As the supply of kale increased, so did its value in the public eye. Beddard’s website included a map, “Kale Spotted,” that let followers know exactly where they could find this vegetable, forgotten no longer.

She was interviewed by various media outlets and even got to help decide what to officially christen this revitalized veggie: le chou kale (sounds like kahl) it would be.

And there it was. Beddard said she was never in it for a profit. Bringing kale to Paris was its own reward. (Though you might also count as reward the kale-based tasting menu she was personally served by Alain Passard.)

I appreciate the book most as a business story: a great example of how to identify a need and meet it. A Humanities alum like me could use the lesson. “Make your passion your paycheck,” that’s the goal. As for the book’s subtitle: “a memoir of Paris, love, and recipes,” I’m less convinced. While the recipes are great (I’ve tried two), and it’s fun to learn of each one’s diverse origins (from the author’s mother to Passard), I don’t think the story quite covers “Paris” and “love” effectively. This title oversells the product–or perhaps represents a different product entirely. When I think of Bonjour Kale, I think of…kale.

I would have called this book something like: Légume Oublié: One Woman’s Quest to Bring Kale to France.

The ‘American expat stumbling around France’ thing has been done before. I think there is room to do it again: but the writing should be really sharp, the observations astute. Foreign words should be included effortlessly, with grace (don’t define for readers un petit peu or mon Dieu!: instead, simply provide a bit of context). The author should have something original to say.

Beddard has that something (how many other Americans have started a transatlantic initiative for a beloved vegetable?) but her true story gets a bit lost when trying to keep up with the other players in the memoir market.

Still, I have Beddard to thank for helping me get my daily greens. I buy my kale at Marché Forville in Cannes. Or at the chain Grand Frais if I’m feeling more commercial.

It is still largely unknown. Little old ladies in line at the market might ask me: “now what are you planning on doing with that?” Cashiers inputting the code eye the kale suspiciously. “Ça c’est le chou kale?

Thanks to Beddard, I know to respond with a confident oui.

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shades of blue: falling for gorges du verdon

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A stranger in the kitchen. That was my first impression of Rémi. I didn’t know how to politely phrase the question ‘who are you and what are you doing here,’ so I assumed he was related to my AirBnb hosts, a cousin or something. We had a whole conversation before I realized he was just a guest like me. In Cannes for a week from Bordeaux, he would complete a weeklong stage for his new job, the training period required before he begins in January and moves here for the year.

Both in our early twenties and new in town, we struck up an easy rapport, making our respective dinners at the same time and walking around Cannes together. In the middle of the week was le Toussaint–all Saint’s Day–and Rémi had the day off. He asked if I wanted to go somewhere.

Yes.

I thought of places Erika and I had visited that he might like. “No,” he said, “let’s go somewhere new for you too!”

Kind soul. I thought out loud about where we could go by train.

“I have a car!” He laughed.

La classe! Clearly I had been “roughing it” for too long. En voiture, the possibilities were endless.

We met early the next morning. Rémi hooked up the GPS, while I sat in the passenger seat thumbing through a Lonely Planet guide for Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur.

I fell on a page about the Gorges du Verdon: “Europe’s Grand Canyon.”

“Have you heard of this?” I read him the description, then typed the address into my phone. It was only thirty miles away, but the drive we’d need to make, winding around mountain roads, was predicted to take over two hours.

“Is that okay? What do you think…” I really wanted to go, enchanted by those turquoise waters, but I tried to hide it. If he didn’t want to, I understood. It would be a lot of driving time for a last-minute day trip, and we wouldn’t be able to trade off. (I thought of my one disastrous manual driving lesson the year before).

Rémi responded with that most French expression of enthusiasm: a shrug. “What’s the address?”

We were off.

img_3113It was a proper road trip: windows down, blue skies above, and the radio cut by static. In the space of an hour, our setting evolved from beach town to classic autumnal landscape to the ear-popping heights of the mountains.

We passed pastures of goats and sheep and plenty of warnings to watch out for wandering members of the flock.

Civilization became more and more scarce, but no matter the elevation, one thing was sure: even in the boonies, there would be no shortage of festivals.

Signs alerted us to the existence of fêtes celebrating everything from chestnuts to…donkeys. As you might expect from a country that loves champagne and celebration, France has a festival for everything. Some seem a bit…unnecessary (yay garlic. Yay orchids), but even the small ones are excuses to get together, eat, drink, and buy things you don’t need. And what’s not to love about that.

We were almost there, and I was more than ready, my stomach pleading with me to find solid ground. The comically tight, twisting roads were nauseating, as was the view (in a beautiful way, of course).

There were bikers (there are always bikers, tough as nails), and I would’ve stayed in the car all day before trading places. Their uphill plight looked like one of the circles of hell.

We passed crêperies and tiny pizza shacks squeezed onto the side of the road. Some had outdoor seating: the chairs lined up near the edge of the cliff, nothing between the casual diner and the abyss but a weak fence. One pizza margarita and a side of dread, s’il vous plaît.

We stopped to breathe and stare over the edge for awhile. Ultimately though, we wanted to get to Lac de Sainte-Croix. More driving.

It was worth it. I had never seen fresh water this shade of blue: from deep-teal to turquoise to swimming-pool-acqua depending on the light and on the depth.

We watched people set out in kayaks and paddleboats.

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Signs on the bridge warned swimmers from jumping. I was interested to see that the biggest danger cited was not the chance of landing wrong, or hitting a rock. No, jumping was a really bad idea, apparently, because of the high chance of getting stuck in the clay at the bottom of the lake. And drowning. To further dissuade, the signs listed a death toll. img_3109

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After driving, walking, and sufficiently appreciating the natural beauty, we were ready to find something to eat.

We drove away from the gorges and the lake and through a number of tiny villages perchés. They were postcard-charming…and postcard-still. Everything was closed for le Toussaint. img_3117 It was a hungry trip home to Cannes, which may have influenced my opinion of the pizza we eventually procured: absolutely delicious.

chez moi: a room with a view

I had been in Cannes for a month without a home.

That sounds dramatic.

I had the essential–a place to sleep–for which I was grateful, but the two-week AirBnb stay I’d planned had stretched into a month as I waited to move in to my studio. The host, (one of the nicest people I’ve met in France or otherwise), hooked me up with the place, rented out by an acquaintance. When we found out it wouldn’t be ready until mid-November, he graciously agreed to led me stay until that date.

I was comfortable there, but it felt a bit like sharing a hostel, with various people coming and going, bumping elbows in the kitchen and waiting for the bathroom. For the good of everyone, I was ready to get out of there and give the family some privacy before the next AirBnb guest surely showed up.

Last Friday night, my new landlord came to pick me up. She helped me drag my suitcases, several bags of damp laundry, my teaching supplies, and a box of food out to her car. It seemed like a lot and I wondered how I had ever maneuvered it all by myself. I do find that as soon as I unpack, my stuff has a tendency to multiply exponentially.

I popped back into the house to grab one last load, the fragile stuff: my carton of eggs, a llama-shaped mug, and a bottle of chilled rosé I propped between my feet. It was then that I apologized, sheepish, for the bazar that was my packing job.

She laughed and told me not to worry: she remembered being in my shoes.

But she was concerned: “aren’t you cold?”

I was wearing shorts and sandals. It was fifty degrees and raining. But I’d spent the day cleaning and packing, and anyway, I was nothing but relieved.

It had been weeks since I’d seen my new place, and that was only a glimpse, but it didn’t really matter what it looked like. I was looking forward to the solitude: my first time ever living completely alone. Long showers. My own kitchen. Phone calls late into the night. I wanted to fill the fridge with kale and cover the countertops with fresh fruit and buy a bouquet of flowers every week, especially during the winter.

We dragged my luggage up the stairs and into my new chez moi. Wood furniture, floor-to-ceiling wardrobe, a comfy bed, and a cheerfully-tiled kitchen with all the necessities.

The landlord pointed out a small window in the bathroom. It overlooked the adjoining roof.

“You’ll want to remember to close this,” she said.

“Oh?”

Gravely she warned me that I could come home to cats in my room. Apparently there exists a neighborhood gang of furry friends that lack respect for personal property. img_3425

All technicalities taken care of, the first thing I did was FaceTime my mom for a tour. The second thing I did was organize my closet, finally assigning coats and dresses a permanent space: a luxury.

The next morning, I awoke to soft sunlight streaming through the windows. I opened them and could hear Disneyish birdsong. The sun lit up the cozy whites and browns of the studio but even better was the view, which I hadn’t yet seen. There was the Mediterranean. Just glimpses, but enough to tell. It glittered silver under the sun, framed by the magenta bougainvillea climbing around the shutters.

It felt good to be home.

population, 21: exploring Île Saint-Honorat

(a South-of-France staycation, ii)

When the throbbing commercialism of Rue d’Antibes and the reality of competing for a spot on the beach prove tiresome, just hop on a ferry and leave the bustle of Cannes behind for some peace. Île Saint-Honorat is a storybook-lovely spot for a tranquil morning walk: or, if you’d rather, a weekend (or lifetime) of dedicated prayer. At last count, the island was home to twenty-one people: all Cistercian monks. img_3423

Île Saint-Honorat is one of four Îles de Lérins. All four islands are part of the commune of Cannes, though the smaller two, considered îlots, are uninhabited. Sainte Marguerite, the other island accessible by ferry, is about six times the size of Saint-Honorat. Inhabitants of these islands (about forty altogether) are called Lériniens. I found it charming–a name for something so specific!– but considering the history, I think they’ve earned it: monks have lived here since 410.

Today, besides running the ferries to and from the island, the monks produce red and white wine as well as Lérina: a liquor made from 44 kinds of plants macerated in alcohol. img_3224

For about 17 euros each, Erika and I bought round trip tickets on the speedy little Saint-Honorat III. We left at 9 am and enjoyed the crisp sea air and the view of Cannes from afar.

When we arrived, our few companions scurried off the boat and disappeared up some concrete stairs, moving like they had jobs to do: which was likely true. The island has a gift shop, a restaurant and snack bar, and even, it seemed to me, a small hotel or hostel.

We picked a path along the perimeter, determined to walk the whole thing, lest we miss something (no excuse for that on such a small island). The morning air was cool, the quiet broken only by birdsong and the occasional church bell. The air smelled faintly of pine. And the color! A feast of sage greens, soft browns, and shiny black olives. (So inviting, these olives, framed by dusty green leaves, and yet so bitter. Someday I’ll learn).

We came to an arch and changed direction, walking under it and towards the center of the island. A wide dirt path bisected a vineyard, and over the fences we saw pheasants: their startling blue feathers flashing in the bright sunlight.

As we approached the monastery, the scene changed from sleepy storybook forest to something distinctly tropical. The Abbayé de Lérins, framed by flowers and palmiers, looked like it belonged in Italy or Spain.img_3226

We tried to go inside, but after wrestling a lot of locked doors, we gave it up and continued to faire le tour. We found a chapel every few minutes, it seemed, in various states of restoration or decay. The oldest, I think (12th century?) was in complete ruins, nothing but a historic pile of small stones.

It was interesting to divine the island’s rich history through its architecture. In addition to chapels and statues, there’s even an ancient cannonball oven.

On the presqu’île (which translates literally to almost-island), the lonely Forteresse de l’ile Saint-Honorat seems to sit on the sea.

img_2343We gave ourselves three hours to explore, but didn’t need all the time. A picnic lunch and a book might have extended the visit. As we went to leave, it seemed the new arrivals stepping off the boat had prepared for some serious hiking: the ferry was full this time around, everyone wearing hats and light jackets, many carrying backpacks and walking sticks. I’ve noticed this about France: if you plan to exercise, you’d better dress the part. What felt like a light, refreshing walk to me saw these families of five dressed as one might be for a half-day hike straight uphill. In the desert.

 

 

eye candy: a guide to Menton (a South-of-France staycation, i)

As much as I would love to run away every weekend, this year I am going to be motivated by money.

And money is telling me (to borrow from an internet meme I saw this week): “girl, you can afford to walk downstairs.”

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What luck, then, that my home base of Cannes can easily satisfy the travel bug in its proximity to a wide range of landscapes, cultures, and activities. From here, trains, buses, boats, a quick car ride, or a good walk all serve to transport the weekend traveler to a variety of interesting locales.

It seems the Côte d’Azur is the ideal setting for a staycation.

When my friend Erika came to visit in October, she brought with her the motivation for me to wander away from my favorite stretch of beach in Cannes la Bocca and to do some exploring. Some destinations were entirely new to me, while others saw my second or third visit and I wanted to show them off. Though Erika and I saw a lot, often packing two destinations into a day, we didn’t even scratch the surface.

First up was Menton.

Candy-colored Menton feels like home, surely because it’s tiny and I have visited thrice in the past year. What is a twenty-something American doing in a sleepy ville that mostly attracts English retirees? Well, largely just wandering around and appreciating my surroundings. The town is home to my favorite boulangerie (they know me there), which may have something to do with it. Ever had pain au chocolat you’d take a train for? I hadn’t, not until Menton. The café is on a main shopping street and near the carousel. That’s all I’ll tell you (or can tell you. I don’t even know the name).

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Exploring Menton

Originally lured by the well-known Fête du Citron (not, in my opinion, worth a visit on its own), I spent a week here with Mom last winter, and two weeks with Mary in May to celebrate the end of our teaching year. Menton (“chin” in French) is definitely not the It destination on the French Riviera. Its glamour is dilapidated, its opening hours are frustrating (why must a botanical garden close for two hours at lunch, or completely shut its doors on a Tuesday?), but it is beautiful and it is quiet. Menton’s old town is a pastel wonderland reminiscent of Italy’s Cinque Terre.

I knew Erika would appreciate the colors (and the pain au chocolat), but once we were kicked out of one of the gardens only ten minutes into our visit, and found the rest of them closed, we decided to keep our time in Menton short and try to see another town that day. Still, it got me thinking about my other visits here, and, combined, I’d say I’ve acquired a bit of knowledge (or opinions, at least) about how to do Menton right.

Menton mentality: come here to relax, not to be entertained.

For a day-trip visit: I’d recommend spending all your time outside. Get a brightly sour lemonade from Au Pays du Citron and walk to Italy (seriously, the border is just a short ways down the coast) or wander through one of the botanical gardens. Make sure to check opening hours and check again. Once you’re inside, the fussy planning is worth it. I particularly enjoyed the secret garden atmosphere of Serre de la Madone.

In early May, this garden is low on tourists but teeming with life (mating frogs, mostly). Next, climb the buttercup-yellow steps to the top of the Basilique Saint-Michel-Archange for a stunning view of the sea framed by palm trees. Keep your eyes out for trompe l’œil paintings: those that fool your eye into thinking there are objects (such as windows) that aren’t really there.

From the basilica, it’s easy to get to the Cimetière du Vieux Château, a sprawling cemetery that sits atop the old town.

For lunch, save your money and keep it simple. Despite the drool-worthy menus displayed on chalkboards all over town, Menton’s food scene leaves much to be desired. Instead of getting suckered in by a perfectly average tourist trap, opt to walk around Menton’s covered market, Marché des Halles, and grab food for a picnic. I recommend getting bread from local boulangerie Au Baiser du Mitron and picking out several cheeses and seasonal fruits. I like goat’s cheese with herbes de Provence and sheep’s milk tommes, as both are indigenous to the warmer parts of France.

If you don’t want to do the picnic thing, I’d suggest stopping at Sini, right next to the market, for really excellent pizza that you can eat sur place or take to go.

For a longer visit: Bring plenty of reading material or a project to work on. There’s nothing like a Mediterranean sunset or a walk through an olive grove to ignite creativity. I would recommend staying in an AirBnb in the vieille ville. Particularly in the off-season, you can find some really good deals (think 20 euros a night!). Find a place with a decent kitchen, stock it with the basics: olive oil, salt, pasta, a basil plant…and you can walk to the market daily for fresh fruit, vegetables, and fish.

Above: live music in a small square near the Marché des Halles. I definitely felt exactly like Rick Steves while taking this video. 

Menton is well-situated for day trips to even smaller towns. I’d recommend Èze (take “Nietzsche’s footpath” and be ready for some serious walking) and Villefranche-sur-Mer, both easily accessible by train for just a few euros.

Otherwise, visit the Jean Cocteau museum, as well as his bastion by the sea. Cocteau, an artist, author, and the director of the original Beauty & the Beast, was a contemporary of Matisse and Picasso, and apparently had a bit of a Napoleon complex about keeping up with them. If you visit Villefranche-sur-Mer, you can see the chapel Cocteau decorated, motivated by an effort to compete with the other master artists and their own “spiritual” chef-d’œuvres.

For a dinner out, try the plat du jour at Les Enfants Terribles (named for Cocteau’s 1929 novel). They put the daily catch on special, which is fun considering the restaurant’s proximity to the sea.

 Other things to do:

Visit the fine arts museum

Take a boat to Italy: for about twenty euros, you can get to Italy via a small boat in about two hours. (I haven’t tried this, but it looks like a great experience!) Just walk around the port and look for the chalkboard signs advertising departure times.

Take a train to Italy (Ventimiglia). The town isn’t as striking as Menton, but it’s still fun to hop over the border and have some real Italian lasagna, or at least a cappuccino, and get a taste of a different culture.

 

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