The more idyllic the scenery, the harder it is for me to take pictures. That was the case this week when I visited one of my fellow teachers in Hennezel, France. It’s home to less than 450 people and completely surrounded by woods, but somehow cozy anyway. My host’s husband is a forestier; something like a woodsman or a forest ranger, who spends most of his days walking through the woods choosing the best trees to cut down while allowing the forest to prosper. Their house is a “maison forestière” heated entirely by wood with vegetable patches against the lean-to, and blossoming pear trees and lilac bushes.
I was feeling a little bummed out after saying goodbye to more than 100 kids I’ve taught this year, and a few calming days of making food from scratch and eating en famille went a long way. Our first dinner started with lamb’e lettuce salad from the backyard, tiny farm eggs and homemade mayo, asparagus and artichokes with red wine. We followed that with fresh organic brown bread, two kinds of cheese, and human-sized (not restaurant) cups of espresso, while yogurt was fermenting for breakfast.
There was dessert. In the basement cave (wine cellar), shelves upon shelves held up pickled and cured onions, tomatoes and pickles from her mother-in-law’s garden, and jars of sweet purple quetsche plums, tiny “vigne” peaches and Lorraine specialty Mirabelle plums, all from her aunt’s orchard and bottled without syrup or sugar. One jar of fresh Mirabelles carefully spiralled around a plain, unsugared pastry makes a fresh, juicy tart à la Mirabelle.
Outside of being incredibly well fed, the house itself intrigued me. The vaulted stone wine cellar was awe-inspringly stocked; providing Bordeaux, Côte du Rhone and organic reds for lunch and dinner, and sweet Alsatian white Gewurtztraminer to pair with dessert. The stairs creaked, the wooden shutters took two arms to throw open, and the lean-to filled with boots and chopped wood smelled like earth and oil, a scent that reminds me of my father after work.
Outside the house I managed to do something I rarely do: keep my mouth shut. When no one was talking, all I could hear was the rustling of the leaves in the wind, a few birds lazily tweeting, and water quietly tumbling over stone. These last eight months in France have been about a lot more than tourism for me, and I feel privledged to have had so many chances to dig into some of the best aspects of everyday life of my friends and coworkers. I might be living in the bitter north, but the cold and rain have built a community of people who have been so generous, helpful, and happy to share what they know with a goofball American who can’t pronounce her vowels right. It’s been enough to make a lady consider settling down with a little corner of farm to herself.
Especially if the farm has a wine cellar.