Sometimes simplicity is called for. Nothing fancy, gaudy or complicated; just unadorned goodness with home and cozy, warm kitchen written all over it. We had our great adventure, just the two of us alone in the wild. A week of outdoors and fresh air, sky as far as the eye can see. Swooping herons, steel gray and regal, whipping past, barely skimming the water’s surface; graceful swans floating lazily by, protecting their young; the buu-ruuup of invisible frogs carried off on the wind; the rustle of leaves alongside our wheels signaling the scurry of animal or lizard or snake each bringing to life this strange and fascinating world that wrapped itself around us during this one brief interlude. The simplest of holidays, one man, one woman, two bicycles and a goal: pedal from Nantes to Brest along the Canal. Our provisions were meager, our belongings few, our childlike excitement palpable, our energy pushing us forward. No frou-frou or fancy embellishments, no luxury hotels or first class train cabins, no extra pair of strappy, high-heeled sandals or stunning little black dress for evenings out. Just a plain, simple and uncomplicated holiday, the two of us and nature. Back to the basics.
As soon as his sabbatical began, from the very first moment of his new life, he dreamed of this trip, and began planning for the voyage. His yearnings tended to lean towards biking the Canal alone, at his own pace, stopping when he pleased to shoot pictures or jump in the cool water, to eat a bite or two or sleep in the shade of a tree. He organized, mapped, read the history of this manmade river and tinkered around in the garage, making sure his bicycle was in tip-top shape. But then, little by little, his thoughts veered off to the left and his ideas shifted ever so slightly. Suddenly, with no explanation, he would sneak up behind me, silently, lean into me ever so gently and whisper “Je t’aime” in my ear, his breath a warm suggestion on my neck. A beautiful bouquet of deep mauve-colored roses were placed in my arms one Sunday morning, his eyes glowing as I looked up at him. “And these are for…?” I asked warily. “Oh, you’ll see!” he parried, just the merest flash of evil glee in his eyes. And step by step did he wheedle his way into my own plans for a quiet week alone, his gentle words softening his path and my heart and thus did he talk me into….wrangle me…overcome my doubts and hesitations until I knew that I had no choice but to accompany him on this journey.
Yes, simple things often turn out to be the best. We buckled on the saddlebags and swung the backpacks on and off we pedaled. What was once inhospitable territory has become navigable, a route from Nantes through Brittany’s interior and reaching out towards Brest, a swathe cut through the mountains and the brush. The idea of creating a waterway joining the Duchy of Brittany to the French realm blossomed in the XVI century yet wasn’t completed until Napolean saw the need for a strategic route to send provisions, arms and munitions to his troops fighting the English. Yet Napolean’s effort went for little as the construction of the railways on the tail of the inauguration of the Canal made more sense for carrying freight and the eventual construction of a hydroelectric dam cutting the canal in two brought the usefulness of this waterway to a veritable end. Yet….yet… how beautiful, how simple this luxurious trail, inviting us to see the inner, hidden corners of France, the tiny towns and quaint villages otherwise untraveled. Parts of the canal still attract pleasure boats loaded with laughing, eating, fishing tourists, the picturesque beauty beguiling visitors who wend their way along the path along the water’s edge on foot or bike. We roll lazily along at our own pace, pausing to catch a glimpse of the odd heron or kingfisher, peering through the underbrush in the hopes of spotting the rare otter or simply breaking for a quiet interlude, respite in the cool of the morning shade or the warmth of the afternoon sunshine. We hop over this bridge or that and fill my basket with fresh baguette, cheese and ham, fruit, chocolate and cold drinks and make a picnic of it followed by an ever-so brief nap in the peaceful quiet. We pause at each lock, some still working, ablaze with flowers in brilliant reds, oranges and yellows, others abandoned, the tiny houses once lived in by the éclusier, the lockkeeper, now closed up, dark and crumbling into ruins.
As the days flew by, faster than we could have imagined, the weekend ramblers and tourists disappeared, no more gaggles of girlfriends straddling stationary bikes as they stop for a gossip, no more young dads with toddlers carefully strapped into baby seats zipping along for a bit of exercise and freedom, no more family groups out for their Sunday stroll. As we passed the barrage and the route become just a little bit more untamed and abandoned, we found ourselves alone, able to roll side by side with only the rare worry of dodging an oncoming bike or swerving around an elderly couple walking their dog as we neared each village or campsite. And on we pushed.
And for one week how simple was our life, pared down to the minimum, the basic necessities, the simplicity of our movements, the leisurely passage of time. Truth be told, we were pleasantly surprised at our own courage and fortitude in the face of something so daunting as this trip. No outdoorswoman I, not having biked since I lived in Italy oh so many years ago, I wasn’t sure that I had what it took and my own resilience astonished me! With the determination of a Scout and the desire for nothing more than pleasure, I found that my energy was fueled by the simple excitement of the challenge and doing it with my husband. In between snatches of old French ditties, marching and drinking songs with the occasional Boris Vian or Chet Baker thrown in, he urged me on, worrying for my safety, applauding each effort and accomplishment. Together we laughed and chatted and cheered each other on, kilometer after kilometer, and exhilarated, we ended each day proudly, albeit just a tad sore, rewarding ourselves with a crêpe or two (this is Brittany, after all) and a bowl of cider or a glass of wine.
Time stood still even as the miles flew by. Peace and quiet have this effect, you know. And after a relaxing weekend spent in Brest with Isabelle and Dominique, we settled into the train for the trip back home. Happy and astonishingly rested, we unpacked and readjust comfortably to our old (new) routine.
Nothing is simpler or homier than sweet apples heady with cinnamon in a dense, gooey bar. Add the crunch and nutty earthiness of pecans and it is comfort food at its best. Get comfy in a favorite armchair and dig into a thick slice of Cinnamon Apple Pecan Blondies served up with a steaming mug of café au lait or a tall glass of ice cold milk. Music low or a good film on the tv and it certainly is a luxurious pleasure.
I would love to share this scrumptious recipe with the charming, generous and talented Nina Timm of My Easy Cooking who is hosting June’s Monthly Mingle for Meeta of What’s For Lunch, Honey? Nina selected Apple Affection as her theme and in my home a dessert chock full of sweet, juicy apples is certainly the way to show my love!
2 apples, sweet with a touch of acidity
½ to 1 Tbs (7 ½ to 15 g) unsalted butter
½ tsp brown sugar (a bit more if the apples are not too sweet)
Dash ground cinnamon
2 cups (180 g) flour
2 tsps baking powder
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ to 2/3 cup coarsely chopped pecans (or walnuts)
2/3 cups (11 TBs or 115 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 ½ cups (275 g) packed golden or light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla
Peel, core and coarsely chop the apples. Heat a large skillet and melt the butter. Add the apples, the cinnamon and sugar and toss to blend. Cook slowly over medium-low heat, stirring often, until tender. Remove from the heat and allow to cool while you prepare the blondie batter.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Butter a 9 x 13-inch baking pan or the equivalent in volume.
Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and nuts.
Cream the butter together with the sugar in a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer until blended, light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time and then beat in the vanilla. Fold in the cooked apples and then the flour/nut mixture until just blended, smooth and creamy.
Spread the batter in the baking pan and bake in the preheated oven for about 30-35 minutes or until puffed and golden and set in the center. A tester inserted in the center will come out barely wet. Cool in the pan before serving.