The Bread Feed
Funerals have begun and my heart goes out to the families. Twenty-five months ago tomorrow, we buried our grandson Noah, himself a victim of unspeakable violence. The day of his murder was one of stupefaction, horror and denial. The day of his burial one of bottomless and never abating grief. That anyone should deliberately take someone's life and inflict such pain onto others is beyond comprehension.
On the day of the march, I spoke with one of my friends in Paris. She is an elementary school teacher in one of the city's toughest boroughs, in fact in the neighborhood of the kosher supermarket that was the target of one of the attacks . Her students are ten- or eleven-year old. Their reactions to the events were not what one would expect from kids born and raised in Paris. The allegiance most of them expressed was not with the values of democracy and freedom of expression. In fact several of them spoke with admiration of defiant older brothers. It will require more than words to convince these children that there is room for them in their own country and that violence isn't the only way. It will require commitment and acceptance. And some degree of trust. On both sides.
Meanwhile let us (the usually silent majority) rally against violence, any form of violence, anywhere. Even if we don't make an immediate difference, we owe to our shared humanity.
Or the twenty-minute walk up the fragrant hills from Lascours, the sleepy village where we had parked the car...
Maybe it was the beloved friends we were with and the good-natured group of locals we had joined for the occasion...
Maybe it was Delphine Douet, the owner of the saffron farm, a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide...
Maybe it was the weather, maybe the colors, maybe the aromas... Maybe a combination of all this. In any case, a morning so perfect that it could only foster hope and healing.
I didn't know much about saffron before visiting the farm. I knew I loved its smell and taste, I knew it was the most expensive spice in the world and I knew it came from a specific variety of crocus. Beyond that, not a clue. I suspect such is the case with most visitors because the first thing Delphine did was sit us down at a long table on a restanque (narrow terrace where the crocuses are cultivated) and tell us everything we could possibly want to know about the precious or rouge (red gold) as saffron is sometimes called.
Although I enjoyed hearing about the role of saffron in history, its place in religious rituals, its medicinal benefits, its cosmetic uses, its dyeing properties, its culinary assets, etc. I am not going to overload you with this info because you can easily find it on the web. If you read French, a good place to start would be 13'Or Rouge, Delphine's own website or this report she referred me to. For English-speakers, there is Wikipedia and other resources including this page of gardening tips in case you decide you grow your own (which I'd like to try).
What mostly got my attention was the fact that while the world produces about two hundred tons a year, four hundred tons are actually traded, meaning that not all that is labeled saffron is the real thing. As explained in this article (in French), some producers may substitute marigold, safflower, arnica, corn silk, seaweed, etc. or use dyes. They may make saffron threads heavier by coating them with sugar, oil, honey and mineral powders.
Others may include some non-aromatic parts of the plant itself. The stigma is the red thread which, once dehydrated, becomes the spice. The style is its yellow "foot." Cheaper brands often contains both stigmas and styles. Delphine explained that she always has her harvest helpers (us on that particular day) gather the stigmas in red bowls so that she can see at a glance whether or not they mistakenly included any of the yellow styles. Bowls containing yellow specks do not pass muster. To make her point, she passed around two little bottles, the first one containing dehydrated stigmas, the second one containing dehydrated styles, and invited us to uncork them and smell. The red stigmas smelled divine. The yellow styles smelled like old hay. In other words when you buy saffron that's both red and yellow, you are not getting one hundred percent pure saffron.
I normally get my saffron from Trader Joe's. When I got back home from France, I checked the bottle I had in my spice drawer.
Here is what TJ's saffron looks like on a red plate.
To be compared with the saffron in one of our bowls (prior to Delphine's inspection)...
Knowing what I know now, I understand why TJ's saffron is more affordable than others. I checked out saffron at Costco too. At first glance, it looks pretty much the same as TJ's and I assume it smells and tastes about the same as well. Less fragrant and aromatic that the one in Provence but a reasonable alternative although you will have to use it in bigger amounts to achieve comparable results.
One trick to find out whether the saffron you bought has been dyed is to rub some threads (or powder) between two wet fingers. Your fingers should turn yellow. If they turn red, dye has been used. Delphine advises against buying saffron powder because it is often adulterated.
The saffron-producing crocus is crocus sativus. The bulbs are buried in the summer for a fall harvest. They multiply underground during winter and spring then go dormant. Early summer is a good time to deter them, so that the cycle can resume. Dependent on man's help for reproduction, the crocus has been grown that way for five thousand years. To harvest the saffron, one pinches the flower at its base and snips it off (pulling would damage the bulb). When all the flowers have been harvested, the stigmas are pulled out. There are three stigmas per flower.
Delphine demonstrating where to cut off the style We were directed to a pile of little straw baskets...
...and off we went, the two youngest (age nine and fifteen) racing ahead and filling their baskets in record time. When the whole restanque had been plucked over and all the stigmas pulled out, Delphine weighed the contents of our combined harvest: twelve grams.
Well, it was twelve grams when she first weighed it but by the time I took the picture (like two or three minutes later), desiccation had set in and the weight was already down by one centigram. Just so you know, one hundred grams of fresh stigmas yield 20 g of dry saffron. For one kilogram of saffron, you need the stigmas of about one hundred and sixty thousand flowers.
Once enough stigmas have been collected, they are dehydrated for twenty minutes at 140-158°F/60-70°C, then stored in tightly closed containers away from any light source.
To maximize aroma and flavor, saffron must be rehydrated before use, preferably for twenty-four to forty-eight hours. A baker might want to soak it in the water to be mixed with the flour.
Delphine took out various saffron-infused products (jams, marmalades, honey, tea) to taste with bread from Dame Farine, the lovely Marseille bakery we had just visited. A match made in heaven!
Spent crocus flowers...
If you ever are in the Marseille area in early fall and would like to visit the farm, you may want to contact Delphine at +33 6 86 22 16 88 and put your name on the list for a group tour. She speaks English. Outside harvest season, she also organizes saffron-themed breakfasts at regular intervals.
I have long extolled the virtues of Stollen, the classic German holiday yeasted fruitcake, as not only one of the tastiest ways to get your holiday-bread-shaped-like-baby-Jesus-in-the-manger fix, but as an extremely easy and forgiving bread to make.
This was evident when my colleague Susan and I were charged with making the Stollen for our baking school graduation. We tossed all the ingredients into the mixer and turned our attention to the half-dozen or so other breads on our day’s agenda. Almost an hour later, our cries of “Aaaaahhhh, the Stollen!” brought our panicked instructor running, and once he determined that the bakery was not burning down, he shot us a glare that demanded to know why two grown women couldn’t manage to act more dignified (especially considering, I suppose, the hallowed origins of this bread). The forgotten Stollen, however, didn’t care at all; the mixer was chugging along, with the Stollen dough swirling cheerfully and patiently inside. Most breads are ruined by excessive mixing, but it was going to take much, much more to get this baby’s swaddling in a twist.
My Stollen this year proved itself, fittingly, to be further willing to forgive; I inadvertently left the egg out of the dough, and nothing bad happened. Butter, sugar, and rum-soaked fruit save one from a multitude of sins, it seems.
Anyway I was sorting through old photos on an external hard drive when I happened upon this picture dating back to September 2008. I was in California (already!) visiting our youngest son and his family. We had brought back plums from the farmers market and I had made a tart. While I remember neither how it turned out (there are no post-baking pictures) nor how it tasted, I love the way it looks pre-oven.
To me it suggests an old mosaic gently swept with an archeologist's brush. Perhaps a tile found in the ruins of an ancient Roman kitchen. Buried in dust and ruble and unattended for centuries.
Suddenly brought to light and glowing from within, it speaks of the ages. It set me thinking of Christmases past, of the faces once gathered around the holiday table. I have always found it a sad comment on the human condition that the persons we love the most as grown-ups so rarely get to meet the ones that meant the most to us as children. There is little comfort in the image of Time as an endless chain of which each of us can only see so many links because it begins and ends in darkness. If a family could exist outside of Time, I like to think it would form a mosaic. The patterns might vary from one family member to the next and each of us might interpret the story differently but we would still all get the whole picture and be the richer -and maybe the wiser- for it.
Time being unescapable, we are left with the chain. Which will never make a mosaic no matter how many times we try to coil it upon itself.
Still some of the light is carried over from one generation to the next. Not so much in the stories we tell about a long departed great-grandparent -although the kids clearly love hearing them- but in the way we tell them or even in the simple fact we tell them at all. When my dad retired, he spent a couple of years writing the history of our family. What started as a simple memoir turned into three volumes plus a fourth one, a year later, in which he collected his and my mom's favorite recipes (always a passionate eater, he had turned into a passionate cook in his old age). He had the pages typed (he wrote in longhand), added scores of old photos and documents, had it all photocopied and collated and gave a copy to each of his children and grandchildren. It makes for very interesting reading and it illuminates a part of the chain that would now be in complete darkness were it not for his efforts.
I love it that he -and my mom who helped out- cared enough to do it.
There are no stories of Christmas in these memoirs. We did celebrate when we were kids. It just wasn't as major an event as today. It wasn't as commercial either. At least not in France. Not then.
Christmas acquired a different aura when I met my mother-in-law who was Danish and for whom December 24 was the most important day of the year. The Danes know a thing or two about light and she knew a thing or two about family. She had had a very interesting life (she was born in St. Petersburg to a Russian mom who died giving birth when she was three, was raised by a stepmom she loved, fled Russia at the time of the Revolution, spoke several languages, was so beautiful than men vied for her hand in marriage, married a foreigner, visited pre-Castro Cuba, moved to Switzerland, then after the war, to Paris, etc. ). But although she shared a few details, she was the quiet type and not a born storyteller. Hers is a different kind of legacy. One I cherish very much.
The holiday season has become painful since Noah died. But the kids love it. So we make it a happy time for them. Some are still young enough to believe in Santa, others like to hold on to childhood a while longer by pretending they still do. Either way they clearly feel the magic and that's as should be.
As for me, having learned over the years that nothing is more important, I am content with spending time with family, friends, and pets, and grateful for our connected world which makes it possible to video-visit the ones who live far away.
And if the kitchen works out, I'll bake something. Not a plum tart (this is December after all) but maybe one of my mother-in-law's favorite holiday dish, a salmon koulibiac. My way to conjure her presence at the table. Plus our son's own mother-in-law loves koulibiac as well. As do we. Maybe one of our common grandkids will remember that one day and make it part of his or her Christmas lore.
See how the chain gets forged...
Happy holidays to all!
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Less than three years later, he died in a hail of bullets in his first-grade classroom. He had just turned six. A therapist advised me not to think of his death in terms of murder or massacre as I was traumatizing myself all over again every time I used these words. She said it made it much harder to start the mourning process.
She also said that I should try to accept the fact that six years was all he ever had, that all the hopes he may have had or we may have had for him had been just that: hopes. Not based in reality. Six years. That was the reality. Clinging to what never was could only stoke the pain.
I tried. I did learn to stop using the m words and it helped. Like a cast helps walk with a broken leg. I got unstuck. Despair slowly morphed into grieving.
But no matter how long I mulled over the idea of the six years as the only reality, I could never make it mine. Noah was robbed of his life on December 14, 2012. The hopes and dreams lived on. They still do. And that reality is just as inescapable.
Noah's siblings have changed a lot in two years. Strangely, he has too. I no longer see him as a six-year old. In my mind's eyes he is taller, his face has lost some of its roundness, his voice has deepened a bit, he is strong and he does look older. Deep down he is still the same though: all at once thoughtful, mischievous, provocative and tender.
Although I rarely see him in my dreams nowadays, in daily life anything can bring him back: a look, a shock of lustrous hair, the width of a little hand, lashes fanning on a cheek.
Punches to the heart.
Noah adored his brother and sisters. On December 14, 2012, evil irrupted into their world. He was taken. They now live with the knowledge that anything can happen to anyone, anytime and anywhere, and that those closest to you can be torn away in the blink of an eye.
A Noah-shaped fault line. Shaky grounds to build young souls on.
But they also live with the memory of the bond they shared.
It may take years for their world to stop shuddering but I do believe that, because they were raised to love, one day it will. That, like Albert Camus, each of them will come to realize that in the midst of winter, they carry within themselves "an invincible summer."
Noah's legacy. His reality. Rock-solid.
The lone light in these dark days.
The ornament below was given to me when the memorials were dismantled, a reminder that our family shares its profoundly personal loss with twenty-five others. A fellowship of grief. Joined by many more since Newtown. What a heartbreak...