Sunday. Summer has finally swept over us like a warm blanket. Waking earlier than usual, our sleep disturbed by a tumult of angst, a jumble of confusion, we felt the sun squeeze through the slats of the shutters and reach towards the bed, chasing away the discord of the night like a prayer chasing away the darkness and fear. We knew that today was the day to head outside of the city for a walk or a ride, a day to revel in the second coming of summer. After what has been a melancholy, dismal season, overnight the world has seemed to shift to right.
We pulled out the bikes from the garage, loaded them into the car and headed out, deciding on a whim to pedal the Canal de la Martinière. This short 15-kilometer canal was constructed for commercial reasons in the late 19th century at a time when Nantes was a major port city. The passage from the Atlantic to Nantes was made, up until this time, by traveling the Loire River, but the Loire wasn’t always navigable nor reliable due to the seasons, tides and the constant build up of sand, and another access had to be built for the ships carrying products and goods. So a network of canals and basins was built to ease the passage of this transportation and create a waterway that was constant throughout the seasons. The canal, which would even afford access to large ships, saw an important and intense activity for about 20 years until, in 1913, technological progress allowed for a return to the Loire River for transport. The Canal became, until its re-use during WWII for naval purposes and followed by the German Occupation, simply a great boat cemetery. And finally, after a brief period of use by NATO in the Fifties, its uses were exhausted and the canal was no longer needed.
Today, we ride up the now boat-free canal, her borders dotted with lone men or fathers and sons nestled companionably amongst the reeds, fishing poles reaching deep into the water. July in France finds the roadway that lines the canal unencumbered with Sunday strollers who are to be found here in the beautiful weather of June and September. These summer months only give us the occasional group of friends out for a bit of fresh air and men decked out from head to toe in professional biking gear like some odd, local leg of the Tour de France, men still working through the month until they can join their wives and children who are already out at the beach enjoying the long summer school vacation. Today’s ride is easy, almost languorous even though it is somewhat of a physical effort.
~William Carlos Williams
We’ve never been a vacation family; you know, those who grab at each and every opportunity to pack suitcases, close up the house and head out of town to some beach spot, second home in the mountains, a fancy cruise or jazzy club. No skiing, boating or camping, no safari adventures or road trips to odd and unusual places. “School out”, unlike for most French families, does not mean bags and baggage and good-bye city, hello outdoors and sun. Nope. Neither JP nor I were raised that way. His family rarely went anywhere, the plight of true blue collar working families in those days. And my own father had only 2 weeks off every year and that meant visiting relatives, moving our family life to another home, either our grandparents’ or my aunt and uncles’. All those other weeks of school holiday were spent running in and out of the house, playing ball in the street or biking up to the public swimming pool. And time spent in the cool of the public library, reading to my heart’s content. Spending school holidays at home was a much-loved way of life.
So, needless to say, fancy holiday spots or time away for the sake of “getting away from it all” are just not part of our culture. When the boys were small and we lived in Italy, we would place them on an airplane alone and pack them off to their grandparents’ in the French countryside for the month of July where the two of us would join them in August; JP and I would enjoy the calm of summertime Milan for one month as lovers rather than as parents, a time for ourselves. That’s not to say we didn’t have some fabulous family adventures: JP and Clem took month-long trekking holidays in both France and Morocco; the four of us spent an incredible summer discovering New England, driving from the Poconos, up through New York all the way to Montreal, then back down again via Vermont, Connecticut and Long Island. Enchanting and memorable! We’ve traveled around Italy, thrilled to share culinary, historical and visual discoveries with our sons. We’ve visited New York City from top to bottom, from Brooklyn to Queens, the Bronx and Manhattan and loved every inch of it, every restaurant, monument, museum, zoo and park. Yes, we love to travel and are thrilled now that our boys want to travel and discover the world as well.
to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.
~ Henry James
But vacations are best spent at home, that quiet time when the city empties out, when the French abandon their homes, apartments, markets, restaurants and streets. For those of us living in France and sticking around, spending the soothing summer months in our own apartments, a kind of Zen-like sensation settles upon the city and it is a true pleasure to take walks through the streets, window shop and stop for an ice cream without having to push our way through crowds of students, parents with small children and strollers, gaggles of teens oblivious to the world around them. No traffic slows down our occasional excursion outside the city for a walk in the vineyards or forest on the rare sunny day. No noise breaks the calming silence as we sit in our livingroom and read, windows thrown open to catch the soft breeze, weather permitting. We gather up the courage for the occasional bike ride or picnic enjoying the empty space we are sure to find. The vacation spirit descends on our city and even those of us left behind find serenity and peace from the madness of the rest of the year. We have always wondered at the number of people who feel the obvious need to escape hearth, home and city every chance they can, every weekend, every school and work holiday. We have created a home that we love filled with books, kitchen paraphernalia, our music and films and we are absolutely content. Why leave, indeed?
Yet now that Nantes is unnaturally calm and quiet, there is little to inspire me: no holidays or special events, no festivals and no bustle of young people in our home. All I want to do is curl up with a book and a cup of coffee or a bowl of bright, sweet, juicy summer fruit and a film. I am finding it difficult to gather together the energy to bake, even more difficult to find motivation and imagination to write. Summers home are slow and languorous, although both of us try and work on our many projects. Neither son is at home, so we can live the days at our own rhythm, our own pace. The house is ours and ours alone to do as we please. Yet little conducive to work and thought.
And when I do feel the urge to bake, I choose recipes that are simple and laid back, taking little effort and time to put together. I try and take advantage of the gorgeous summer fruit, the sweet nectarines and peaches, plums and berries that are now abundant on the market. There is nothing we love better than a simple coffee cake, nothing rich or heavy, no creams or frosting, no guilt-inducing chocolate to speak of. A cake light and airy yet so rich in flavor and topped with the perfect amount of fruit is truly a favorite in our house, eaten morning, afternoon and for desserts. This is truly summer at her best when, indeed, the living is easy.
My wonderful friend Abby Dodge has taken upon herself to gather us around her table, in her kitchen for a bake together. Each month she proposes a recipe and challenges each of us to bake along, twisting, tweaking and adapting the recipe, as we desire. This month she proposed a simple Summer Fruit Cake topped with berries. I turned to her cookbook, The Weekend Baker, where she had introduced the same cake with slight variations, variations that suited me just fine. I added raspberries to her lone blueberries and just about doubled the amount of fruit to create this fabulous coffee cake, redolent of warm cinnamon and bright with the sweetness of a jumble of berries. As there were only the two of us to enjoy this treasure, the cake lasted several days, and stayed moist and delicious to the last slice. We absolutely loved it and you will too! Hurry before summer ends and the berries fade away. But no need to fear, frozen berries work the charm!
Don’t miss the International Food Blogger Conference held in the grand city New Orleans 25 – 28 August. Great food, great fun, so much information and a group of incredible speakers! I will be presenting the topic Food & Culture with Pim of Chez Pim. Register now!
RASPBERRY-BLUEBERRY CINNAMON COFFEE CAKE
From The Weekend Baker by Abigail Johnson Dodge
1 1/3 cups (170 g) flour
¾ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
¾ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp salt
6 Tbs (85 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 cup (200 g) granulated white sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla
2/3 cup sour cream (I used 3% lowfat fromage frais)
For the topping:
1 cup berries, one kind or mixed (I used slightly more than a cup of a mixture of fresh raspberries and frozen blueberries)
2 – 3 Tbs granulated brown sugar
1 Tbs flour
½ tsp ground cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Lightly grease and flour a 9 x 2-inch (22/23 x 5-cm) round cake pan, tapping out the excess flour. I lined the bottom of the cake pan with a round of parchment paper, lightly buttering the pan then again the parchment before dusting with flour.
Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt in a small bowl and whisk to combine.
In a large bowl, cream together the softened butter and sugar with an electric beater until creamy, light and smooth. Beat in the eggs one at a time, adding the vanilla with the second egg. Using a rubber spatula, fold the combined dry ingredients into the butter mixture in 3 additions (in thirds), alternating with the sour cream in 2 additions, beginning and ending with dry. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 10 minutes.
Once the cake has been slipped into the oven, prepare the topping by combining the sugar, flour and cinnamon in a medium-sized bowl then toss in all the berries until evenly coated.
Once the cake has baked for the initial 10 minutes, carefully pull the pan out of the oven and sprinkle the fruit topping all over the top of the cake, trying to evenly distribute the berries. Go ahead and sprinkle on any remaining flour/sugar/cinnamon remaining in the bottom of the bowl.
Return the cake to the oven and bake for another 30 minutes or until the cake is slightly puffed, the center is set and a tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Remove the cake to a cooling rack and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Run a sharp knife carefully around the edges to loosen the cake from the pan and invert onto a rack, remove the parchment then invert onto a serving platter so the berries are on top. Serve warm or at room temperature.