Eating With the Ancestors: Curds and Whey

A while back our neighbors offered us a couple of bottles of raw milk.  Because of complicated laws regulating the sale of raw milk in New York State, consumers who want to buy unpasteurized milk on a regular basis sometimes work around the regulations by joining a buying club or purchasing shares in a herd–essentially subscribing to local milk deliveries on a regular basis.  Our neighbors were going on vacation, but the milk they had subscribed to was coming anyway.  All we had to do was pick it up and of course wash out the bottles afterwards. 

Those milk bottles, with a generous amount of cream at the top, reminded me of the milk of my childhood, but I should say right from the start that milk and I have always had a difficult relationship.  I remember that we had three kinds of milk in our tenement: chocolate milk, coffee milk, and plain milk.  Chocolate milk had some sort of cocoa powder stirred into it, while coffee milk was made with Silmo Coffee Syrup, a long-gone product that was once a staple in the New Bedford area.  Of the three, plain milk was the one I liked the least, although it was the simplest to prepare.  My mother would remove the orange cellophane from the top of the milk bottle, rinse the top of the cardboard cap, and give the bottle a vigorous shake.  Then she would remove the cap, pour some milk into a saucepan, and start warming it up.  Of course when my mother poured the warm plain milk over my breakfast Cheerioats, they immediately turned to mush. Truth is, I didn’t like Cheerioats much either, and changing the name to Cheerios didn’t make them any less mushy.  I didn’t know then, and didn’t learn until I was in college, that other people enjoyed their cereal with cold milk.

Today I like Cheerios quite a lot, but I prefer them with lactose-free milk straight from the refrigerator.  Yes, milk makes me sick–not terribly, horribly sick, just sickish enough to feel uncomfortable.  So, as appealing as those two bottle of raw milk looked, I wasn’t about to pour myself a tall one and drink it down.  I knew what I would do.  I would make some fresh cheese.

Fresh cheese is an Azorean treat, a simple cheese made with only two or three ingredients: milk, rennet, and sometimes salt. My mother made it often, possibly because she had extra milk in the refrigerator and the milkman was coming the next morning, or possibly because she knew my brother and I liked it.  Despite my problems with plain milk served in a glass, I loved most foods prepared with dairy products, especially fresh cheese but also goldenrod toast, cream of tomato soup, and creamed anything.  But could my mother have had another reason to include this shimmery white wonder in her cooking rotation?  Could there have been another explanation for the popularity of fresh cheese, or queijo fresco, among people of Azorean ancestry in the New Bedford area. 

I made my fresh cheese, and I made it again, and when the raw milk was used up I made it with pasteurized non-homogenized milk.  I could have used homogenized milk.  My mother did after homogenization became the standard, and the cheese tasted just as good, although the texture was a bit grainy.  I could have used low-fat milk or skim milk, as those work, too, as does goat’s milk.  (Ultra-pasteurized milk would not have worked, and neither would soy or almond milk.)  I chose whole milk simply because that’s how my mother made it.  After months of experimenting with different types of molds (my mother used a one-pound coffee can with top and bottom removed) and different types of rennet, I finally produced a cheese I was happy with.  And while I was testing out variations on my mother’s recipe and hunting down other recipes on the web, I learned something interesting: when the coagulated milk has been spooned into its coffee can or cheese mold and the whey is draining out the bottom, most of the lactose in the milk drains out with it.  

My ancestors came from the island of São Miguel in the Azores.  I have traveled several times to mainland Portugal and the Azores, and the only hotels where I was served fresh cheese with my breakfast–two different hotels on two different trips–were in Ponta Delgada, on São Miguel.  Nowhere else in this country of amazing cheeses was I served fresh cheese, although my hotel in Angra, on Terceira, included the different but equally wonderfully São Jorge cheese as part of its breakfast buffet.  I can’t help wondering whether the residents of São Miguel have an especially high incidence of lactose intolerance.  I’m only guessing, of course.  I’m guessing that my mother, a descendant of Micaelense parents, was lactose intolerant, although the term was not tossed around in those days.  I don’t think she knew that when milk is heated some of its lactose is broken down, but she fed me a cup of warm chocolate or coffee milk first thing in the morning, every morning, for years.  It seems that whenever she reached for a bottle of milk with one hand, she reached for a one-quart saucepan with the other.  And she made fresh cheese often.  

Last weekend our neighbors offered us another half gallon of raw milk.  The bottle is in the refrigerator right now, a gleaming reminder of what life was like before something as simple as milk from a cow was subjected to commodification and hyperregulation.  But what do I know about the dairy industry?  Here’s what I do know:  If I warm a quart of milk in a saucepan, if I add a small amount of powdered or liquid rennet, if I let the warm milk set for a few minutes, if I transfer the curdled milk into a cheese mold, if I patiently wait for the whey to drain out, if I do all of this and maybe add a couple of optional extra steps, I will have a smooth white cheese about the diameter of a coffee can and slightly more than an inch tall.  I will cut myself a good-sized wedge, and I will salt it generously.  When I taste it I will think of the cheeses that my mother made, and I will be surrounded by memories that I do not have of ancestors that I never had a chance to meet.  The cheese will not stand alone.

The Wegmans Parking Lot Riviera

The lead story in this morning’s Ithaca Journal was about how Canada geese have invaded area parks and disrupted peaceful family outings just by doing what geese do naturally and leaving behind what geese typically leave behind.  I can understand the concern.  There are a whole lot of these geese living in our city–about 240,000 in all of New York State, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation, and we have our share–and they’re not about to walk away from a grassy area just because some nice people want to have a picnic.  In fact, when they see that picnic basket I’m sure images of free food pass through their heads, and I can’t really blame them.  Living in today’s world takes energy and inventiveness, and geese don’t have credit cards to use in area restaurants.  But, because I had other things on my mind this morning, I set the newspaper aside.  

So I was surprised, as we were leaving Wegmans after our weekly grocery shopping expedition, to see a whole flock of Canada geese wading in the lake that the week’s rain had left at the edge of the parking lot.  Some were just strolling along the shoreline, enjoying the sun.  People were feeding them.  They like people, and they seemed happy to have found a place to hang out on a hot day.  

They strut their poise and stateliness.  Wouldn’t they make handsome carousel animals? 

Greetings from the End of the World

That’s where I am, Cape Finisterre, which translates as “end of the earth” and feels like it.  This peninsula in Galicia, Spain, narrows and pokes into the ocean and into the wind so that you feel totally disconnected from what your life used to be and ready to start anew.  For a long time people believed that Finisterre (or Fisterra, as it often is called on maps) was the end of the known world, but the honor of being the westernmost point of continental Europe belongs to Cabo da Roca, Portugal, which wins by a few feet, although the two points of land look more like noses than feet.  That’s horseraces for you.  

Actually I’m in Finisterre virtually, at the end of my most recent virtual walking tour. I started in Le Puy, France, and walked through Moissac, St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, and Roncesvalles before reaching Pamplona, Spain.  From there it was Burgos, León, Santiago de Compostela, and Finisterre, which is an optional extension of the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James).  My itinerary was virtual, but the walking was real; I use a pedometer and chart my progress on a spreadsheet.  But I’ve been to Finisterre in real life.  A couple of years ago, Joe and I took a trip through Galicia and Portugal.  We stopped in Pontevedra, where I had the best Spanish tortilla I’ve ever had in my life, and in Santiago, where we saw more pilgrims than I would have believe existed.  There were pilgrims in Finisterre, too, like the nun in the above photo.  We were cheating, though.  We traveled in a rented car and slept in hotels rather than pilgrim houses.  This time around I did the walking, but I did it elsewhere; in fact much of the legwork for the last part of my route was done on wide Parisian sidewalks dotted with Parisian cafes.

Finisterre became a pilgrimage destination in pre-Christian times.  People believed it was the place the sun went to die.  Modern pilgrims don’t make sacrifices to the sun, but they are likely to leave something behind in that sacred place, perhaps their hiking boots or an article of clothing.  

Where do I go next?  I’ve already decided that I’ll walk down the coast of the Iberian peninsula, visiting Cabo da Roca, of course, and ending up in Sagres.  I’m still mapping out the route, but I’ll definitely stop in Porto to sample some of that 20-year-old Tawny.

The Horse in the Calendar

Lately I’ve had horses in my head, mostly made of wood (the horses, not my head), painted in vivid colors, and engineered to prance counter-clockwise in a circle.  The track at Belmont Park is an oval, not a circle, but like carousel horses the thoroughbreds run counter-clockwise, just as they do in every other racetrack in the United States.  Before the American Revolution, racing in the Colonies was clockwise to conform to the practice in the mother country.  I’ve read that our change of direction was meant as a deliberate expression of our independence.  In England most of the racetracks are still clockwise, but a few now copy our habit of racing against the clock.  

I thought of all this Saturday as I was sipping my manhattan and watching the pre-race coverage of the Belmont Stakes.  Although I have never ridden a horse, I love horse racing and have been to races at Saratoga and Canandaigua and at tracks in California and Dublin.  According to the Chinese calendar, I was born in the Year of the Horse or, more accurately, the year Wu (Horse).  I first heard of the Chinese calendar when I lived in San Francisco in the late 60s and early 70s.  The calendar is very complicated and I won’t pretend to understand it, but I believe the twelve animals used to indicate the years are technically part of the Chinese Zodiac.  Every year has an animal assigned to it, and at the end of twelve years they start all over again.  I remember going to Grant Avenue to watch the magnificent parade held each year to celebrate the Chinese New Year. The parade would feature an assortment of floats and marching bands, but the finale would always be the many-footed dragon that would dance and bob and threaten and delight to the sound of drums and firecrackers.  During my time in San Francisco I always lived close enough to Chinatown to spend a lot of time there, and once I had an opportunity to see the dragon up close, although certainly not personal.  It was the year I took a course in spinning and weaving; our class was held in the Chinese YWCA, and our instructor had arranged to let us into the gym where the dragon lived in all its glory while it was being assembled and adorned for the big day. 

I loved those parades, and I loved the dragon.  But am I attracted to the sport of kings because I was born in the Year of the Horse?  It’s possible, I suppose.  As for the Belmont Stakes, the odds-on favorite, American Pharoah, proved that he was a true descendant of the daughters of the wind by winning the Triple Crown by a splendid margin.  I am truly happy!

More Circles: The Horses of Destiny

After France, we found we missed all those noisettes we had been drinking in Parisian cafes. The noisette, an espresso with a touch of cream, was our drink of choice for a whole glorious month, but when we returned home we realized there were no noisettes to be had unless we made them ourselves. That was why, a few days later, we headed for Destiny USA in search of a Nespresso machine. 

Destiny USA is a shopping center in Syracuse. It used to be called the Carousel Center because of the restored antique carousel in the food court on the second level. Built in 1909 by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, the carousel had several homes before being purchased for the Carousel Center, where it was placed in 1990. It survived the mall’s name change and remains a hard-working carousel with unusually fierce-looking horses, some outfitted with weapons and some with animal skins on their backs instead of saddles. 

Did we buy a Nespresso machine? Mais bien sûr! Then it was off to the food court to watch the horses go around and around. 

Going in Circles: The Carousels of France

We passed one on our first morning in Paris.  We were walking down the Rue de Rivoli, and there it was in the Place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville, a lovely double-decker merry-go-round with old fashioned horses and carriages.  I was confused, because I was on the lookout for the Apple Store, one branch of which was in the Carrousel du Louvre near the inverted pyramid.  The carousel we saw was definitely not an underground shopping center, and it turned out that the shopping center had nothing to do with carousels.  (I hadn’t noticed the difference in the spelling; I was in another country, after all, where they spelled in a different language.)

But wait, there’s more.  Paris is full of carousels.  We saw one near the Eiffel Tower, one in the Jardin du Luxembourg, and one near the St. Paul Metro station.  And when we left Paris for a short trip through Normandy and Brittany, we saw carousels in Saint-Malo and in Honfleur.  Most of them were not limited to horses but included lions and tigers and elephants and chickens and cars and planes.  I loved all of them.

When I was a child, my mother would occasionally take me to Acushnet Park near Fort Rodman in New Bedford.  The park is long gone, and it never was serious competition for Lincoln Park, whose carousel had an impressive collection of horses and carriages.  Lincoln Park is, alas, also gone.  I was very young when Acushnet Park disappeared from my life, but I still remember the carousel, which was not limited to horses but included geese and rabbits and other animals.  I was particularly fond of the rabbits. 

On the carousel in the Jardin du Luxembourg, the children riding the outside circle of horses are given sticks that they use to attempt to spear metal rings from some sort of ring dispenser.  I remember once riding a carousel in Oak Bluffs that featured a ring dispensing machine, but I don’t remember being given a stick.  We had to reach out and grab the rings with our fingers, and I think there was a knob on the horse’s neck to hold the collected rings.  I wasn’t fast enough to grab more than one each time around, but the Oak Bluffs kids would grab two or three at once.  Anyone who got the “gold” ring would win a prize.  It was fun, but I really wanted to ride a rabbit.

Don’t Be Crewel: Erica Wilson, William the Conqueror, and Me

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when everybody was “into” crafts and needlework, Erica Wilson’s crewel embroidery kits were all over the place. I remember that they were pricey and very attractive, bordering on cute—lots of bouquets of flowers, with some fauna thrown in. The finished products, which could be framed as wall art or made into pillows, differed from the cross-stitched sampler sort of embroidery by using woolen yarns rather than silk or cotton to produce a still life that was both highly textured and highly decorative. Erica Wilson was an Englishwoman who came to the United States to teach needlework technique; she intended to stay for only a year but soon turned herself into the Julia Child of the needle arts. She owned a house on Nantucket, and I believe her Nantucket boutique is still going strong. (Wilson died in 2011.)

During the needlework renaissance, I was living in San Francisco and not making very much money. I considered the Erica Wilson kits beyond my means, and anyway my crafts of choice were spinning and weaving, although I also experimented with tie-dye—who didn’t?—and sewing. Tie-dye required boxes of Rit, but in my spinning and weaving class I was learning how to use natural dyes like saffron, madder, and cochineal. I never attempted indigo, which was much more complicated and required large amounts of urine as, I think, a fixative, although I did admire the pretty color it produced. We did our spinning on drop spindles and learned how to make frame looms from pieces of lumber and wing nuts. It was fun, and while I never became a weaver I retained an appreciation for the techniques of the great tapestry workshops of the Middle Ages and for the beauty of the work they produced.

When I read that the Bayeux Tapestry was not technically a tapestry at all but instead a large piece of crewel embroidery, I was horrified. The Bayeux Tapestry was supposed to tell a story of many chapters, and the crewel embroidery I remembered was certainly appropriate only for stories of single paragraphs, sort of like flash fiction. But I learned that crewel embroidery is at least a thousand years old and had its heyday in 17th-century England, long before Erica Wilson was born. What makes it “crewel” is the wool embroidery yarn, whether thickly plied or single strand, and the embroidery stitches in the Bayeux Tapestry are very fine so that, for example, the stitch used to fill in the color of the horses doesn’t call attention to itself. The horses look like horses, not like woolen concoctions. The natural dyes that were used—madder, weld, and woad—are still vibrant. (Indigo had not yet been imported from the East.) The tapestry contains 626 people, 202 horses, and 41 ships. It is truly a book of many chapters.

How does any of this involve me? William the Conqueror, the hero of the Bayeux Tapestry, was, I believe, one of my ancestors. That’s not a big deal. The old kings and queens were fruitful and multiplied, and most of us are descended from at least one of them. It is unlikely that I have inherited so much as a micro-smidgeon of William’s DNA, but I feel that I have a stake in the tapestry. This is my great-grandpa we’re talking about, after all. In one panel, William’s army is clearing land to use as a battlefield. A house is in the way, so they burn it down. We see a woman and child escaping the flames. In another scene, William’s army attacks the enemy soldiers by hacking off the heads of their horses. I would like to think that no animals were harmed in the making of this tapestry, and no people, either. But this is history, crewel and cruel, and we can’t go back and change it.

Juliette Binoche, No. 43 (Moulin Rouge), and Me

Juliette Binoche is one of my favorite actresses, and definitely my favorite French actress. I think the first film I saw her in was The Horseman on the Roof, which had something to do with European history and something to do with cholera. She was great as the nurse in The English Patient, whether scrambling a precious egg for her patient or dangling from a rope high inside a church’s dome, ecstatic at the beauty of the Renaissance frescoes that had survived war’s destruction.

In preparation for our trip to France, Joe and I decided to watch only French films, whatever we could get from Netflix, with English subtitles of course. Juliette Binoche starred in at least two of these, including the beautiful but enigmatic Certified Copy, in which a couple who may or may not have once been married go on a day-long drive through the Italian countryside. She is French, a gallery owner living in Italy with a young son. He is English, an art historian on a book and lecture tour. In one scene Binoche’s character goes into the ladies’ room at a restaurant and applies lipstick. We see this from the perspective of the mirror. The lipstick is an intense shade of red, and Binoche applies it generously, at one point smoothing it with her finger. I had forgotten that women do this. I wear lipstick, of course, but I tend to favor colors with names like Saint Nude and Nude Blush, colors that don’t need to be applied carefully because mistakes won’t show. Possibly it was the mirror’s eye view that made the lipstick scene the high point of the film for me. I made a point of watching the credits at the end and learned that Binoche’s makeup was from Make Up For Ever.

So Joe and I were walking down a shopping street in the Marais a few days ago, and we came upon a Make Up For Ever store. I just had to go inside. The nice sales clerk, who was fluent in English, didn’t know which color lipstick Juliette Binoche had worn in Certified Copy and hadn’t seen the film, but she suggested a couple of shades that fit my description, including Make Up For Ever’s classic red, No. 43 (Moulin Rouge). I asked her if she thought I could carry it off, and she said I could—well she had to say that, I guess—and I bought it.

We are on our way to Normandy and Brittany, planning to see the Bayeux Tapestry and Mont Saint-Michel and then possibly the Loire Valley before heading back to Paris. In Paris we will have a treat. We have tickets to see Juliette Binoche in Antigone at the Theatre de Ville. The play is in English with French surtitles; the script was written by Anne Carson, based on her translation from the ancient Greek. I’m sure I will enjoy Binoche’s performance regardless of her lip color. As for me, I will be wearing No. 43. When I started this trip, I said I wanted it to change my life. I think it already has.

How To Be Sorry In French

Last Christmas, when our trip to Paris was still in the planning stages, my brother, Edward, and his girlfriend, Susan, gave Joe and me a French language map, a laminated collection of all the phrases a traveler would need to know when meeting people, changing money, eating out, shopping, or dealing with emergencies. We already knew how to say “good morning” and “thank you,” but the French phrase for “I’m sorry” was unfamiliar to us. Je suis désolé sounded like something we might write on a sympathy card, not something we’d toss off after accidentally stepping on a stranger’s foot.

Last Friday was the big day in all the Apple Stores, including those in Paris, and we were there early. I wanted to see the Apple Watch in person, compare the various models, and try on a couple of the bands. It was great fun! But as I was taking a last look at one of the watch tables, an Apple employee took a step backward and accidentally stepped on my foot. Je suis désole, he said, and he really, truly did look désolé. In fact, he looked so désolé that I forgot all about my foot, which really didn’t hurt at all, and tried to console him in his desolation. 

Now I think I understand a few things about how Parisians interact with one another. Je suis désolée that we will be leaving this city of surprising courtesies just as we are beginning to feel at home.

Being In Two Places At One Time

I am well into a virtual walking tour from Le Puy, France, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, with a further trip to Finisterre. I reached Léon, Spain, on April 1, during a long layover at Heathrow Airport on my actual trip from Ithaca to Paris. Right now I’m virtually between Léon and Santiago but actually in Paris. I’m thinking this is sort of like being stuck inside of Mobile while wanting to be in Memphis, which was pretty much the pattern of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, as I think I remember one reviewer saying, but that was a long time ago.

Neither virtually nor actually, but truly, madly, deeply, I am not stuck anywhere. I am where I want to be–in Paris and in Léon–and there are a few other places I would also like visit all at the same time. I think that’s what life is like, and while living in the moment has its benefits it also has its limitations. Why should geography deter us when the mind can fly faster than a speeding bullet or a powerful locomotive?

Three days ago we took a day trip from Paris to Chartres, toured the Cathedral, saw the sights. One sight I didn’t expect to see, although perhaps I should have, was a marker in the sidewalk indicating that Chartres is on the route to Santiago de Compostela–not my route, which began much closer to the Spanish border, but the one that starts in Paris. Pilgrims can begin anywhere they want. Where you are is always the starting point, and the journey radiates outward.