French Memories

California is living one of the worst heat wave in history. Temperatures have been hovering in the three digits for the last few days everywhere but along the tiny stretch of costal land, and there is no sign of decline until next week.  Today we’ve reached 105 F in the foothills, where it is always ten degrees cooler than it is in the valley. Staying inside is the only reasonable thing to do.
The only good news is that I took the time to go through the pictures of my long summer.
Among the many memories I took home with me, it’s time to pay homage to my native Normandy.
Paris will forever remain the city of my heart, but Normandy is my mother, and I am proud to be from one of the most picture-like regions of France.
When I visit my parents, I love spending time in their garden. What a contrast with the golden grass of California!
My mom cooks like the gourmet she is, but she can’t say no to a restaurant invitation from her son-in-law. Besides, the reason that it’s so green in Normandy it’s because it rains a lot, and what better way to spend a rainy Saturday than enjoying lunch in a gastronomic restaurant?
Many little villages and small towns surround my parents’ own village. Bagnoles de l’Orne is a renowned thermal town, where men and women from all over France and surrounding European countries come to cure blood circulation problems. Most restaurants, cafés and hotels are located around the lake and on the main street.
Le Manoir du Lys, a hotel/restaurant, nestled in the Andaine forest, a paradise for mushrooms hunters and nature lovers, offers a pause away from fast-paced life.
Lunch is served in the dining room, which is filled with natural light pouring from the French windows opening on the lovely landscaped garden. I am partial to rural Normandy and the manor is a great  example of the traditional architecture of the region.
The local and fresh products of Normandy inspire the chef who has a star in the Michelin. His cooking is innovative, although tradition is present with the impressive cheese tray and wine list as well as with the impeccably served table.
The presentation is flawless as is the service. Perfect combo of professionalism and casualty.
I ordered the foie gras, ironically banned from California the very same day. The cheese selection was outstanding and would scare an American when I remember the smelly Epouasses and the runny Camembert, but it is a must-see at least once in a lifetime, if only to understand the French a little better.
The poached white peach came inside white chocolate molded around the fruit. It looked like a jewelry box.
The hotel is a Relais du Silence. Very attractive contemporary rooms are located within walking distance of the dining room.
If I enjoyed my casual Parisian lunches a lot, my two dinners at Chateau de Noirieux will remain unforgettable.
The Chateau is located fifteen kilometers away from Angers, the shy sibling of Tours, better known because of the Grands Chateaux. Angers, however, has grown a lot and is worth the detour. The area is packed with small chateaux less intimidating than Chambord and Chenonceaux and much more personable.
The Chateau de Noirieux is a Relais Chateau and offers all the comfort you expect from such a place, and yet there is the right old-fashioned touch that makes it unique and charming.
Service is perfect from breakfast to dinner. I especially loved the honey that came with a basket filled with croissant, pain au chocolat and all sorts of bread for breakfast, which is served in a conservatory overlooking a bucolic nature. The honey is made locally and all the production is for the chateau. It is the best honey I had in ages.
Dinner is served either in the filled with light dining room or on the terrace bordered with potted geraniums and overlooking the river Loir. The weather was never warm enough to eat outside, but I hope to return for an al fresco dinner.
Chef Gérard Come and his team cook from fresh and local products.  Each served plate is a feast for all senses. From the tiny bouchées, offered before the appetizer, to the sweet treats that accompany the after dinner coffee, which can be served in the nearby sitting room, the attention to detail is perfect.
This is France at its best, a seamless blend of tradition and culinary exploration.
A lot of French yummy memories to feed my California winter.

Lobsters as Tasty as Ever

I discovered Maine when I lived in Massachusetts and it instantly became home. My husband and I purchased a cabin there in the mid 90s. Snuggled at the feet of a sparkling lake fed by the Kennebec River, the cabin needed some work. We were young and although we had four little kids, we spent most of our weekends from Memorial Day to Thanksgiving working on the house. We cleaned and stripped. We scrubbed and painted. We nailed and sawed.
In the mean time, we discovered the fragile sun of Maine and the rocky shore of the Northern Atlantic. Moreover we met the reserved, respectful and kind people of Maine who live in the small towns along the Kennebec River. Far enough from the too quaint towns of southern Maine that attract hordes of tourists, this is real Maine populated with people who endure harsh winter and quick summers.
Our cabin and this part of Maine became the place of memories, personified our first encounter with the American real estate dream and established our roots in the US. Year after year, the cabin witnessed snow and ice storms, brief summers and river floods. I know it’s a privilege to have a place on both coasts of the US. I know how lucky I am to leave the California foothills when temperatures reach the triple digits and I treasure each day spent in Central Maine.
This summer is no different from the many I’ve spent there except for two important facts. For the first time, my four children are away, attending summer schools or summer camps. Their talks and laughter don’t fill the cabin until midnight. Grocery shopping and laundry loads are ridiculously small. Quietness suits well the small house, free time allows delayed remodeling projects and definitely matches the general mood in this part of Maine.
As any American state Maine is bracing itself against state budget cuts, unemployment and lack of locals and tourists who usually flood the coastal towns after Memorial Day. Familiar business owners talk about their fear for worst times ahead. Stores have closed and no reservation is needed at restaurants.
The cost of real estate has pushed many business owners to shut down their shops and restaurants. The mood is somber yet smile is on every face, kindness hasn’t vanished, driving remains one of the most courteous in the country. Since small businesses are the backbones of the USA, a few brave entrepreneurs are already remodeling closed buildings and signs announce openings for early July. Others are planning to find a less expensive location in order to remain open.
The Gulf oil disaster, the high unemployment numbers, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the gloomy economy make for a toned-down summer background. Even the sun that pokes its timid nose after sudden rain showers seems hesitant as if summer weather was indecent in times of crisis.
Yet, like the entrepreneurs who, against all odds, remain creative, I force myself to see beyond the obvious slow market. And I notice the appetizing produce aisle at the local supermarket. Thanks to a mild and sunny spring, the blueberries are plumper than ever and the corns beg to be grilled. The nurseries abound with plants, shrubs and flowers, no doubt better looking than last year when it rained almost every day of the summer. Houses are decorated with flags in anticipation the fourth of July. Boats and canoes appear on the lake. And of course, the lobsters are as tasty as ever.

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