OLD FRIENDS BECOME NEW FRIENDS
Lanky frames filled out as becomes their age; low-slung jeans puddling around sandals updated, no longer dragging along the dirt in ragged abandon or political statement; hair once long and unkempt, sweeping low over the insolent, mocking eyes of youth, now cut short, shot through with gray befitting “gentlemen of a certain age” and eyeglasses now perched on the same two noses peeping out from old, grainy photographs scattered across the table. Meeting again after thirty-some years, two crazy young men now respectable members of society, doctors both, so different from those two who traveled the world together with nothing more than a backpack, a tent, curiosity and their dreams, yet still the same. They may have aged, moved on, changed lives, but what drew them together so many years ago, their passions and creativity, their humor and intelligence, are still what makes them both tick, what fuels their lives and off hours, what makes each who they are. What they had in common thirty-plus years ago joins them still and rekindles a friendship long ago lost to the dust of time.
A weekend together, now happily surrounded by wives and children, getting to know each other again as strangers and old friends. Photographs passed around like so many hands dealt, images frozen in time brought to life with story upon story, colored with laughter, characters alive and well around this garden table somewhere in France. Rebuilding the old, crumbling chateau down in the Aveyron in the middle of nowhere, back then when comfort and safety were no concerns of associations, societies or responsible adults; when they slept rough, ate rough catch as catch can, walked along dangerous parapets at will, hammered and hacked at wood and stone at the peril of their own safety but in joy and reckless disregard of danger. Hitchhiking through Ireland; sleeping rough under starry skies or the pouring rain; mysterious days spent in haunted castles; that old rascal picking up unsuspecting youth in the cart behind his old tractor and dropping them all, two by two, on a long, desolate road around the corner; standing for more than a day along a deserted highway, thumbs stuck out in space, waiting for a single car to drive by; beer upon beer drunk to Irish jigs and music played at street festivals and Old Irish pubs. Then heading north, spending a summer discovering Scandinavia, tale upon tale of hitchhiking up through the country of fjords and Edvard Munch: the hippie with the brick on the accelerator while he smoked the “gros petard”, the huge joint; the strange character with the mechanical arm clipped onto the steering wheel; the chauffeur in the Jaguar, sans boss but with the boss’s cigars, tickled pink to be giving a lift in this pristine vehicule to two filthy, ragged teens. Stories spiced with laughter, memories filling the spaces between their tales of roads traveled once back home, university, careers, families, children.
A weekend cut out of our busy schedules, time away from worries and the old day-to-day, a time to recapture all those years of time apart. I was worried about this meeting as I am always worried for him, truly concerned with his happiness and well being, wishing that I could always protect him from sadness and disappointment. He lives his private life as in a cocoon, just the two of us, relying on me for entertainment, comfort and conversation. I had long listened to him recount the tales of his adventures with that as-yet-unknown old friend, wild, crazy times in his wild and crazy youth. I had to pinch myself, finally meeting the mysterious comrade, trying to imagine the two of them back in the days, living the stories that they were recounting. But the stories were the same, the memories identical so what happened must have really happened! And the two finding each other again, not quite the same yet still the same. His staid exterior belying the happiness and joy of finding one with whom he could discuss books and film, art and history, medicine, plants and animals, another who snuggles with his dog, enjoys good food, wine and culture, characteristics all too rare these days.
A weekend filled with food and sightseeing; the lovely, lively city of Tours, the chateaux of the Loire Valley; a greasy, joyous dinner of fried food and beer in an old Guinguette along the Loire River to the strains of traditional accordion music and scattered voices drifting to us on the breeze. Lazing in the warm sun by the pool, admiring the plump roses and herbs spread willy-nilly around their garden, a mad dog rushing through our legs pausing only long enough for a pat on the head and a rub on the belly. Stuffed zucchini with the sweet touch of raisins, quiche rich with mushrooms and bacon under a crispy layer of cheese and lots of wine to round out the meals. Once again, food bonds, it infuses memories and it spices up friendships. We talked about our love of food and cooking all weekend long as we visited and ate, as we prepared meals and discussed the offspring. We carried a basket with fruit and cookies as we toured the countryside and we ogled the gorgeous array of macarons in the window of a local patissier in town. Old friends have grown, lives have changed, and new friendships were created this weekend around the dinner table.
On the way home, with nothing to tie us down, no obligations to bind us to a clock or calendar, nothing but Marty awaiting our return, JP and I decided to take the drive home slowly and visit the stunning gardens of the chateau of Villandry. After the beauty of Chenenceau, we decided to stay outside and only visit the forest and gardens and what a treat! The weather had turned but the rain didn’t dampen either our spirit or the enjoyment of this most romantic setting. Huddled under an umbrella, my arm tucked snuggly under his, we strolled first along Le Belvedere, the beautiful walk under the trees edging the forest overlooking the wide expanse of green below, affording the perfect view of the separate squares of this perfectly designed space. Slowly gliding down the ramp into The Water Garden where two swans elegantly float across the lake. From there we snuck into the raised Sun Garden filled with patches of flowering perennials and ending in a play area for children. Around the corner and bypassing the maze is the Herb Garden, tucked in between the Kitchen Garden and the Church, filled with 30 varieties of aromatic, cooking and medicinal herbs. The tremendous Kitchen Garden is a sight to behold! 9 squares filled with homegrown vegetables, each square a beautiful, precise geometric shape all its own, an elegant and romantic tapestry of greens, reds, violets and blues, feminine in style yet masculine in its origin. Edged in roses, dotted with tiny fountains, bowers and flowerbeds, this ornamental garden was both the source of food for the family as well as a calm, soothing, fragrant haven.
A burst of sunlight pushed the gray clouds away allowing us to finish our tour of the gardens unfettered by the wieldy umbrella. Romantic fool that I am, the Love Garden touched my soul with her squares of greenery shaped and styled simply for pleasure: an Allegory of Love. Tender Love, Passionate Love, Fickle Love and Tragic Love swirl in decorative charm and grace, bringing to a luxurious close our laughter-filled visit to this jewel of a chateau, the perfect point to the end of a wonderful weekend.
What better gift to offer a host and hostess than a bottle of wine and a sweet treat? Friday I baked, one Cinnamon Marble Loaf Cake to bring, one to leave at home for the young men as reinforcement as they study for final exams. Swirls of deep, dark chocolate nestled in cinnamon-kissed vanilla cake, dense and just sweet enough, moist and flavorful. Dollops of dark chocolate ganache graced the top of each loaf, offering something rich and decadent to an otherwise homey cake. Eyes light up as the foil is removed and the Marble Loaf is unveiled; cake cut off in slices and passed around with stories and photographs, the end to a perfect evening.
CINNAMON CHOCOLATE MARBLE LOAF CAKE with Dark Chocolate Ganache
Makes two 8 x 4 x 2 ½ -inch / 20 x 10 x 6 cm (4 cups/1 liter) loafs, one to keep, one to share
1 ½ ounces (45 g) unsweetened or bittersweet chocolate
2 ½ cups cake flour (350 g)
½ tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 Tbs baking powder
8 Tbs (1/2 cup/ 115 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 tsp vanilla
1 ½ cups (300 g) sugar
3 large eggs
¾ cup (200 ml) milk
Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Butter two loaf pans (measurements above). Lightly but thoroughly dust the pans, bottoms and sides, with flour and shake/tap out the excess.
Coarsely chop the chocolate and place in a heatproof bowl. Gently melt the chocolate either in the microwave (about 45 seconds to 1 minute on high) or over a pot of simmering (not boiling) water until the chocolate is almost, but not quite, completely melted. Remove from the heat and stir vigorously with a spoon until the chocolate is completely melted and smooth. Set aside to cool to room temperature.
Sift the flour, salt, baking powder and cinnamon together; or, alternately, place these dry ingredients in a bowl and whisk to blend and eliminate any lumps.
In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter with an electric mixer until fluffy. Add the vanilla and the sugar and beat on high for a minute or two until creamy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating to combine after each addition. Once all the eggs have been added, beat on high speed for one minute, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.
On low speed, add the dry ingredients in 3 additions, alternating with the milk in 2 addtions – dry-wet-dry-wet-dry – scraping down the bowl as needed and beating after each addition just to combine.
Transfer 1/3 of the batter – I have a tendency to divide out too much so I have taken the habit of weighing the batter and then removing a third of it from the mixing bowl – into a medium-sized mixing bowl. Add the melted chocolate to the smaller quantity batter and beat on low speed until thoroughly blended in.
Splotch large spoonfuls of the cinnamon-vanilla batter into the loaf pans, evenly dividing between the two pans and gently smoothing. Splotch the chocolate batter on top of the cinnamon-vanilla batter by large spoonfuls, lining up the chocolate splotches down the center of each loaf pan/batter. Using a small knife with a thin, sharp blade, cut through the batters in swirling motions from side to side and moving from one end of the loaf pan to the other. Return back to the other end of the pan using the same swirling/cutting movements.
Bake the loaves in the preheated oven for about 40 to 45 minutes or until risen and set in the center. Test for doneness by inserting a long pick or skewer into the center of the cake; it should come out dry. The top of the cake should spring back when lightly pressed.
Remove the cakes from the oven and allow to cool completely on cooling racks.
DARK CHOCOLATE GANACHE
3.5 oz (100 g) dark chocolate (I use Lindt 70% dark or one of the flavored chocolates)
½ cup (125 ml) heavy cream
2 tsps unsalted butter
Chop the chocolate and place in a heatproof bowl with the butter. Heat the cream gently over low heat until it just comes to the boil (it will begin to steam and fine bubbles will appear around the edges). Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and butter and let sit for one minute. Using a spatula or small whisk, stir until all of the chocolate and butter is melted and the mixture is smooth and creamy. Allow to sit at room temperature until thickened yet not so thick it cannot be drizzled or spooned onto the top of the cakes. Drop thick dollops on top as you like, smoothing or not as the mood strikes. Yes, you are allowed to lick the spoon and the bowl at the end.