Life Lesson from a French Brioche

In Jodi Picoult’s latest book, “The Storyteller,” Sage Singer, baker and the novel’s heroine, turns to her kitchen for comfort. And in so doing reveals the power of baking to teach us all a lesson about ourselves and coping when events seem to unhinge our emotional stability.

“I decide to bake something that requires my undivided attention: brioche.

brioche, baking. bread

“It’s a bread that is an anomaly—50 percent of it is butter, yet instead of being a brick of a loaf, it is melt-in-your-mouth, sweet, airy. To make it on a hot, humid day like this is an added challenge, because it requires all ingredients to be cold. I even refrigerate the mixing bowl and the dough hook.

“I begin by beating the butter with a rolling pin while the dough is mixing. Then I add it, in small portions, to the mixer. This is my favorite part about brioche. The dough doesn’t quite know what to do with all that butter, and begins to come apart. But with enough time, it manages to bring itself back to center, to a satin consistency.

“I turn off the mixer and rip off a hunk of dough the size of a plum. Holding it between my hands, I pull it slowly to see if it sheets—growing transparent as it stretches. I set the dough into a container and cover it tightly with plastic wrap, then place it on my counter and begin to clean up the kitchen.”

Read that middle paragraph again – and join me in saying “Vive la France, la brioche, Mlle Singer et spécialement Mme Picoult!” 

Petanque: The French National Pastime

There’s a game played in France that might almost be dubbed the nation’s national sport.

They call it Petanque. OK, some people call it “boules” but that’s really the name of the balls used in Petanque.

petanque courtIt began in Greece in 6 BC, moved to Rome whose soldiers and sailors introduced it to Provence and by the Middle Ages it was being played all over Europe. Until England’s King Henry III banned his archers from playing it and in the 14th  century France’s kings Charles IV and Charles V forbade commoners from playing the sport. Only in the 17th century was the ban lifted.

Our friends at European Waterways (barge trips on canals throughout Europe) sent us a note recently describing the sport:

“The game of Petanque holds a special place in French life. It is virtually impossible to travel through France without coming across a group of men in a local village square relaxing and socializing over a game of petanque. Yet it is far from just a trivial pastime. In France there is an official association to whom you have to apply for a permit before you can even consider competing seriously!

“The form of Petanque played today originated in 1907 in Provence and consists of throwing a hollow metal ball, from a designated, standing position, to land as close as possible to another smaller wooden ball, known as the jack.

Petanque player“Apparently there are various strategies which define your style as a petanque player. The more competitive player trains hard, applying the unfriendly strategy of aiming to bomb the opposition’s ball out of the way. He is known as a ‘tireur’ – meaning shooter, quickly and skillfully shooting his way to a winning position. The less serious player is called a ‘pointeur’ – meaning timekeeper. He takes a more relaxed approach, enjoying the friendly ambience of the game and taking his time over each throw. His strategy is to use subtlety and guile to get his boules as close to the jack as possible and if he knocks the opposition out of the way in the process, well then that’s just good luck!”

Each of European Waterways’ hotel barges in France has a petanque set on board, so there’s always an opportunity for you to have your own game on the banks of a canal and decide on your strategy! I suspect their number one rule is: “Don’t toss your boule in the canal!”

Gorge du Verdon, the French Grand Canyon

gorge du verdon cliffLocated in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence area of France, not far from the Cote d’Azur, this canyon, called the Gorges du Verdon, is one of Europe’s most spectacular natural wonders. It’s also one of France’s best-kept secrets. Perhaps because seeing the beauty of the gorge comes at a price: you have to drive on one of the scariest roads in Europe. But it’s also one of the most beautiful as the road follows the meandering river, zigging and zagging up, down and around mountains carpeted with yellow flowers, going through windowed tunnels and over a single span bridge.

Gorges du Verdon, Provence, South France, view from north rimAlthough affording spectacular views of the canyon and river below, be aware that at times only a white line, a couple of little rocks and some wildflowers separate the road from a sheer drop to the bottom of the gorge.

Two Must-Haves Gadgets for Summer Travel

Kanex DoubleUp ESB ChargerPower when you need it – Dual USB Charger

Tired of traveling with two device chargers – one for your iPad and one for iPhone or iPod? Kanex makes this dual USB charger (called DoubleUp) that features two full-power 2.1 amp USB charging ports for fast charging for your smart phones and tablets. And the best part is its LED indicators let you know when each is done charging. Available in white and black. $49 @


Lifeproof iPhone CaseLifeproof your iPhone

This is the case to take when you’re traveling everywhere. It’s waterproof, dust-proof and shock-proof. So you can take it where you’re never taken it before – the ocean, a lake, or even the shower or tub. Plus it’s sleek low profile barely increases the size of your device. Protection and cool looking. $80 at Best Buy, Target.



Roll Out the Barrel

Many factors combine to make a great wine: the grapes, the soil and environment where they grow, the skill of the winemaker and even the very barrels in which the wine comes of age before bottling.

Oak barrels at CHATEAU LUSSAC

– There are actually three kinds of wood barrels that are used: oak, pine and chestnut. Oak is used primarily. Most of it comes from France and the U.S. (particularly Michigan and Minnesota).

– Typically barrels hold about 59 gallons. French oak barrels are the “gold standard” of the trade and cost about $600 each. American oak barrels are about $300 each.

– Oak can be used either in the fermentation or aging process.

– The porous nature of an oak barrel allows some degree of evaporation and oxygenation to take place in wine but typically not so much that it spoils the wine.

French oak tree

The best barrels are made from French oak trees.

– When the barrels are made, the oak staves are heated over a wood fire, so they can be bent and shaped. The charring that occurs is retained on the inside of the barrel during construction and is called “toasting.” Wineries ordering the barrels will ask for a certain degree of toasting. The more it’s toasted the more the tannin level and wood flavor will be in the wine. It also imparts that “vanilla” taste in a wine that you hear mentioned so often.

– Oak barrels have become so expensive that a number of U.S. wine producers have taken some short cuts to give their wines an “oak” flavor without spending so much money. These methods include floating oaks staves or oak saw dust in the juice to give it the oak taste, or even buying and using liquid oak extract and powders. In France, where wine production is highly regulated, only oak barrels can be used.

– California wines tend to be more “oakie” because that’s where the American palette is right now. In France and other parts of the world the wine has less oak and more mineral taste.

– Pinot Noirs, which are lighter in tannins, pass through the oak quickly. Heavier Cabernet Sauvignons stay longer.

French Words To Travel By: At the Market – Les tomatoes

les tomates

Tomatoes in a bowlIn the summer, the local French markets are teeming with vendors selling big juicy tomatoes right off the farm. They smell and taste just like the ones I remember from my youth and it’s impossible to get back to the villa with them all in tact. But we do save enough to stuff and bake for Les Tomates Provencal or to make a Tomato Tarte.

les tomates, f, (tomatoes) from the Spanish word “tomate.”


Illustration by Judi Janofsky

Finding The Great Gatsby in Paris

Hemingway and Fitzgerald in Paris

Getting ready to see the remake of the film “The Great Gatsby,” I’m reminded of the Jazz Age, a term coined by F. Scott Fitzgerald himself for the period of time in the 1920s just before the Depression when jazz music and dance became popular in the U.S. and Europe.

During most of the era, Fitzgerald lived in France, primarily in Paris. Back then Paris was the rage for ex-pat American writers, painters and intellectuals who would hang out at cafes and bars and attend private salons, many hosted by Gertrude Stein.

One of the biggest relationships that was forged in Paris during that time happened when Fitzgerald was introduced to Ernest Hemingway in the Dingo American Bar on 10 rue Delambre two weeks after Fitzgerald published “The Great Gatsby.” By then, Fitzgerald had already written to his publisher about the American writer that all of Paris was talking about. But what sealed the friendship was the uncorking of a champagne bottle and the evening spent together in the bar.

Hemingway would write about that meeting in “The Movable Feast.”

Today, The bar where Hemingway met Fitzgerald L’ Auberge de Venise, an Italian restaurant, occupies the address, but the wooden bar where they met, sat and drank remains and continues to pay tribute to two great American writers.