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A gem in its Provencal setting!

Posted by Prosy Delacruz

“ People who do not feel at home on earth tend to abuse the earth itself. So the key to action that knows and cares for the other is to know and care for ourselves. That, of course, is exactly how the woodcarver came into fruitful relation with the tree - by knowing himself. He did not prepare for his work by conducting a scientific study of the external properties of trees, though his years of woodcarving clearly had given him knowledge of wood. He prepared by going into himself, penetrating the illusions that had him in their grip ( illusions about success and failure, for example ) in order to touch his own truth. What he found inwardly was not an ego that wanted to impose his designs on the tree, but a self that sought its rightful place in the scheme of things, its rightful relation to the prince, the people, the tree and the task at hand. This is what the “ live encounter “ of right action is all about – an encounter between the inward truth of the other that penetrates all external appearances and expectations. If the actor lacks self-knowledge, the live encounter will never take place, and the action will be trapped in externals.“ Parker J. Palmer

There is a certain snobbery I attribute to the French people, perhaps ill-informed by my limited perception of their particularity in tastes, in styles, and language unlike any other. I sometimes mistake the French snobbery as a national attitude. In Paris, when I searched for directions, ten folks turned me down. It took a Korean-French man who patiently drew a map to explain the subways’ interconnections for me to gain my bearings. Four days later, acclimating to the subways, I got bolder in striking more Parisians to dialogue with me. And I got them to engage in depth about spirituality, life, art, and even politics.

A former Parisian, Gabriella, now in Austria taught me how to manifest my aspirations collectively with a spiritual group. She wrote prayers for Obama and Americans during the elections, for they believe America is a moral leader who can usher world peace. Their written prayers were placed in a special box, with other folks’ prayers, towards a common purpose, that America choose its next president wisely. The box had a special energy and with their group’s consistent prayers, she believes they too had a hand in the Obama’s victory, just like the rest of America did.

Imagine their delight when Americans installed Obama with 53% of the popular votes and 365 electoral college compared to McCain’s 173 electoral college votes and 46% of the popular votes. As Pres. Obama was revered everywhere I went in Europe, whether in Paris, Amsterdam or Provence, Europeans vividly remember the dark years of the Marcos era and their greed excesses, and wondered aloud about the Malacanang Palace’s current resident. Oh how we may think times have changed, yet, they have stayed the same, but perhaps not?

Imagine that, I came to know that my inner stillness magnetized more of calmness in others, and our political discussions conveyed Europeans’ admiration towards the Americans’ use of t the ballot to have political change, absent the bloodshed and violence, and gratifyingly in California, close to 80% voted in November 2008’s Presidential elections.

There is a certain gracefulness about Provence. The gardens in our hotel injected serenity into my soul. And serenity peaked with more days I spent in Provence, perhaps because the city was pedestrian-friendly, and perhaps the beautiful structures throughout the city and its thousand fountains carried a reverence for historical continuity. Indeed it has, for after World War II, Provencal folks rebuilt their city with a vision that their city becomes the host of lyrical art.

“Three statues: Justice, Agriculture and Fine Arts adorn the fountain and recall the main activities of this town. In effect the fountain was a symbolic mark of the entry to the modern town, without rampart nor gate, open to the world. Aix has grown now and today the "great Fountain" is at the centre of the town. Source: Aix en Provence Tourism Website.

Much like Paris is the place where art occupies its psyche, its way of life, its clothing, its education, its museums and its food; Provencal artists have visible imprints in the designs of fountains, buildings, and gardens. No wonder Cezanne’s steps have been retraced throughout the city, marking where he was inspired, the places he spent his afternoons with friends, his father’s house, his residence, his studio, and even a sculpture to memorialize him at the center’s rotunda. At Les Deux Garcons Café, their menu reads “ where Cezanne and Zola met…. other giants frequented this place: Churchill, Belmondo, Picasso, Sartre, Darius Milhaud. This is where politics, art and fashion have been part of the building for 200 years. “

Shown here is Gabrielle and her husband, both former Parisians who now live in Austria.

It was as if Cezanne was our tour guide. Why, for our detour to familiarize ourselves with the city’s spiderlike network of plazas and roads, we found ourselves in a boulevard where Cezanne’s relatives lived and where he visited his friends’ homes. The sidewalks were imprinted with gold initials of C, retracing Cezanne’s steps during his life, and much like we, as Provencal tourists, are discovering the beauty of a city, whose grace matched the elegance of Tessa Talha, a ten year teacher of Provencal cooking. Tessa's students come from all around the world: Abu Dabhi, Canada, Australia, London, Japan, Philippines and USA with her cooking classes rated as #2 top attraction in the entire city of Provence.

I met Tessa at Hotel Pigonnet. She had a light and dark brown printed dress, accessorized with a necklace made of Murano glass. Back in our trips to Venice, I witnessed how each glassblower meticulously heated the glass and formed them, much like the shape that Tessa is wearing now.

The background bushes cast a “ heart like shape “ behind Tessa and Larbi Talha.

Without specifying what time she would pick us up, it became a test of our collective sensitivities and sensibilities. Sensitivity to recognize that French folks take their time to live in the moment, unhurried, and unaffected by the clock. There’s time to notice the butterflies, the mushroom growing on the bark of a tree, and time to take photos of the gardens after eating our breakfast. Sensibilities, for even if aware of the French’s unhurried pace, we dared not take advantage to make our teacher wait. As it turns out, the absence of this predetermined time, got us all synchronized, Tessa promptly showed up at 10 am, we were ready to roll at 10am.

A great introduction for three women meeting for the first time: my college friend who is now a college dean who travelled from the Philippines, Remedios; myself from Los Angeles, and Tessa who lives in Provence, all three at a convergence, derived from mutual respect. I knew from that initial meeting that it would be a live encounter of depth, of substance and of respectful interaction. I was not wrong in my presumptions!

When one thinks of Provence, images of yellow sunflowers, blue shutters, country-green landscapes dotted with red-orange poppies and lavender flowers come to mind. Tessa’s house had more: red roses trained to hug the posts of both doors: the entrance and the kitchen, as if creeping bougainvillas, the blue window shutters, the organic garden, fertilized with compost, and the wild red-orange poppies by the doorway to Villa Cirta, named after the street where Larbi, her spouse, was born in Algiers.

I was attracted to the garden for such an acre space is hardly manageable to care for even by the hardiest of us. It turns out that a cooperative system operates: their Corsican gardener, John Pierre cares for the crops, and Tessa and Larbi provide the plants, water and land and all three share equally in the harvest of radishes, melons, tomatoes, lettuces, and even green beans. A very likely arrangement from an unlikely pair, once thought of as unlikely in those days, but one which yields a solid marriage of 46 years between a French/Spanish woman, Tessa and an Algerian/African man, Larbi. Theirs is a loving partnership with Larbi, a former professor now a researcher, who gracefully provides us new plates and silverware at the dining table, with each course: appetizers, main entrée, vegetables, fromagerie and desserts paired with wines, while Tessa prepares the dishes with her students.

The view of Villa Cirta’s dining area, with a full moon’s reflecting blue from the window shutters, forming a synchronized hue with the dining area.

Both the Talhas are in their seventies, and their vitality comes from the inside: an openness to cultures, a curiosity about what folks do, warmth, generosity of spirit in sharing their house and their culture, a zest for life and their love for travel. We were warmly hosted, a generosity that was solicitous, but not subservient, yet graceful in recognizing personal boundaries, theirs as well as ours.

Unlike our hurried dinners in Los Angeles, Provencal dinners were paced, an apertif that took us an hour to partake and wine for the enthusiasts in the Talha’s living room appointed with art objects from travels and gifts from friends: a copper tea set, a green vase with orange roses imprint, Cambodian sculpture, a signatured painting by an American, an original painting by a Canadian with distinct hues of blues that matched the batik tablecloth on the dining table with Murano glass legs, and the blue shutters which the moonlight reflected one night. I got lucky to click an image for posterity, below.

The art display in the Talhas’ living room from their travels around the world.

The recipes that we learned did not unfold until the time was ripe: when we showed the interest to learn what was being offered. Just like love, it has to be received with an open heart.

With openness to receive knowledge and wisdom, we learned more than 20 recipes. I appreciated the pace Tessa introduced them, carefully building up our curiosity, our anticipation, and our respect for each of the ingredients, with discussions at the table how they evolved, some handed down from her Provencal grandmother who taught her how to cook.

She described how her grandmother taught her how to prepare a duck for foie gras. She held a funnel to the duck’s mouth which reached up to its neck, while her grandmother shoved down the grains to fatten it. For those familiar with foie gras, there is an element of sacrifice for your gastronomic pleasure. That description was enough for me to not consider foie gras at the top of my list. Her memories of her grandmother showed reverence and validated more by the centrality of her grandparents’ photos displayed in her hallway.

When our food was served, talks about cultures, even American politics were robustly exchanged: Tessa believes that Bush developed terrorism, a fine art of describing America’s failed foreign policy of waging war on terror, which stokes the fires of extreme fundamentalism, rather than extinguishing. I asked her to repeat the word, as I was surprised to hear “developed“ and true enough, she affirmed it, “Bush developed terrorism and strengthened fundamentalism.“

I had come to France for cooking, and as side dishes, I was relishing current political discussions around the globe, discussing the hot spots. And beyond politics, our discussions took us to Tessa’s travels around the world, carefully injecting her experiences only if they added depth, sharing them without bragging, but to elucidate, to enlighten, to teach.

Tessa had been to Adelaide, Laos, Cambodia, West Indies, Martinique, Guadalupe, Trinidad, Vallejo, Washington, DC, Florida, San Francisco. Los Angeles, Finland, Vienna, London, Sydney, Savannah in Georgia, India, Merced, Indonesia and this summer, Estonia. Larbi quickly gets an Atlas map to familiarize himself where the Philippines is and the nearby countries. They described staying up late to watch the elections of President Obama as enthusiastically as we Americans did, as closely as Filipinos and American citizens did in the Philippines.

But when our discussions got to Los Angeles, Tessa found my city of residence uninspiring. As this is my home city, I was determined to change her memories. I invited her to swap homes, with me as her tour guide, to discover Los Angeles' hidden gems: ethnic enclaves, gardens, museums, Disney Hall, Hollywood, theaters, community plays, and the wonderful French bakery, La Maison du Pain, a mile away. Of course, including the artisan cooking of various cultures in Los Angeles.

For a brief moment, she considered a trip to the Philippines, its 7,100 islands, surrounded by pristine waters with undeveloped islands, some of which can still be purchased, much of which I have not even explored yet. We conversed about 400 years of Spanish and American colonization, sharing with us that the Spaniards are her maternal ancestral roots, later to apologize for what her ancestors did to the Filipinos. A fine act of grace, extending goodwill and an expression of humanity, from one culture to another.

Reme, my college friend who has traveled a lot, shared her fondness of discovering snorkeling, the caves, the beaches, the hidden trails known to locals, and of course, regional cooking styles. We shared the diverse ways of cooking by regions: with coconut milk, with chiles, with shrimp paste and with garlic, vinegar and soy sauce. I left Tessa my recipe for adobo.

The author in red T-shirt, and Reme, her college classmate and friend, now a dean at Arellano College.

And somehow the talk of islands, got us to Chateau Diff Island, the island where the Count of Monte Cristo escaped, an island where Larbi took Tessa for their first date, except Tessa forgot. She had to be endearly reminded by Larbi, describing how he helped her write a dissertation in philosophy or was it Tessa who translated it from French to English for Larbi?Their love blossomed to 46 years of togetherness, two sons, and several grandchildren currently pursuing law and nursing.

Our conversations on love, marriage would of course get interrupted. After all, we were there to learn the art of slow Provencal cooking, allowing the marriage of flavors to take their own course. It is about the subtlety of blending, not overwhelming one with the other, but allowing the extracts of different ingredients to give life, to retro-marinate, to meet each other, as in bouillabaisse, where three kilos of rock fish were boiled with carrots, orange zest, white wine, saffron, garlic and onions, the star of course being congereel (for its intense flavor), and what was once a poor man’s dinner is now a rich man’s dish.

After the slow cooking of the fish stock, it is meticulously ground up, complete with fish bones, using a handcranked food mill, carefully pressing out ‘ liquid gold with a melded bouquet of flavors “ and from this liquid gold, larger fishes are poached. When served, the soup goes first,with baguettes and an aioli spread in a bowl, a soup that we handcranked from a food mill, and served with a bottle of Chateau de Beaupre chenin blanc.

The main entrée is a whole fish, with its head intact and by this time, the flavors are adding up in one’s palate, it truly deserves another serving of white wine. Finally, when the dessert is unfolded, there is the drama of red colored charlotte, decorated with strawberries, fruit coulis, made with strawberries, and garnished with fresh green mint.

The beautiful red Charlotte dessert, decorated with fruit coulis, which we learned to prepare the Parisian way.

By the third day, we stuffed eggplants, red pepper and zucchini with veal, and we infused crème brulee with lavender flowers.The day I got back to Los Angeles, I made pine forest salad, garnished with Spanish Marcona almonds. It is called pine forest for the colors remind you of the forest: red leaf lettuce surrounded by steamed asparagus spears, decorated like a circle of arranged logs in a campfire.

I remembered Tessa meticulously spreading the lettuce leaves in her artisan-crafted, a signatured-original red/green platter, created by a Provencal artist, and with each leaf laid down, repeating its color pattern on the platter, building our sensual anticipations for more colors to appear.

She walked to her garden, to harvest the radishes, half the size of what we are used to in California, and she picks them with respect for the earth, removing them with their green leaves, stems intact, carefully shaking off the soil which hugged the roots, washing and serving them on a red-pink artisan-made platter. She taught us to slice them in quarters, insert some butter and salt, and voila, a fresh produce made sumptuous in presentation and the simplicity of eating them raw. I got full eating raw radishes with ratatouile spread on baguettes. I saw what ecologically correct practices were, getting only enough such that we were all satisfied, but not full by greedy proportions.

There were many more days like this, where Tessa would hold court in her kitchen, the master of artistry and elegance in what she crafts daily. And the most enjoyable part for me to see was Larbi’s big smiles, an inner gratitude that he had a hand in milling the best bouillabaisse stock in the entire province of Provence, one prepared with care by Tessa with her students, andof course, made from local fishes freshly caught by the fishermen in Marseilles ( photo below ).

Chateau Diff Island on the left, where the Count of Monte Cristo escaped, and where Tessa and Larbi had their first date. Buildings in the foreground are in Marseilles, taken from the tower of our Lady of Notre Dame Garde Cathedral perched on the hill overlooking the harbor and the city. Background is "Les îles du Frioul".

Provencal cooking is about life, a cycle of life, extracting what is good, taking only what we need, and without wasting, as even the fishbones are milled, pressed for its calcium to help us grow strong bones. The strawberries were carefully chosen, at their prime, extracting their juice and enzymes to keep us energetic and of course, passionately eating our coulis with yogurt each morning with strawberry stems saved for compost to fertilize the crops.

It was not the white sugar which gave us the sweet taste, but the innate flavors that were allowed to marinate together, the ladyfingers that were soaked in orange juice and a special rum from West Indies, a swig given, not less, not anything more, but enough to enhance the marinade. Then, after soaking the ladyfingers, strawberries were folded gently with whipped cream, not in an aerosol can, but the liquid cream whipped into a thicker consistency with patience, with earnest effort, and with enough respect to wait for the texture to come forth.

Just like life, when one has determined that God’s talents are especially given to you, if you harness them in service of others, then life becomes truly beautiful and satisfying. Tessa and Larbi showed us this in live actions of cooking, dining, interacting with strangers, turning them into lifelong friends.

For me, cooking is about an inner knowledge of yourself, discarding a mountain of past knowledge, much like torching the top of the crème brulee to reveal its caramelized flavor, and not the raw taste of sugar, and freeing yourself to interact fully and instinctively with the ingredients at hand. It is what loving the present is all about.

It comes with a healthy respect for Mother Nature and what she gives us: a diverse array of vegetables and fruits in Provence and California, and fishes much like the fresh ones from the oceans in the Philippines.

The fishing port in Marseilles

The Chateau de Beaupre Winery in Provence

Perhaps this is life’s essence that I was witnessing, infusing the crème brulee with the lavender flowers’ through the art of marinade, allowing an inner essence to come forth with time, with careful work, with interaction with the new. Much like we humans evolve as we interact with new folks and their cultures, the way we do daily in Los Angeles, the home to 190 + nationalities from around the world.

Eating my Provencal bouillabaisse in France was not unlike eating my sinigang snapper in California or the Philippines, but next time, I will try putting fish stock into my sinigang, just like Provencal cooks do, giving back to Mother Earth what we took from her, giving back the fish stock to the fish being poached, a marrying of flavors to be re-introduced again.

It is easy to find Tessa and Larbi, your heart and soul will lead you to them, these two shining gems in their Provencal settings, perched in Bouc Bel-Air, amidst an acre-wide organic gardens and surrounded by wild red-orange poppies and tall acacia trees with spring white blooms.Contact me to continue our dialogues about life through cooking.


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