Great Spruce Head Island, 6/23 – 6/29/2012

Eight tubes of paint, five brushes (thanks, R!), stand oil and turp, paper towels, 5 boards (that’s way too many), 10 pieces of paper (ditto), a Mason jar of shellac and chip brushes, mosquito/tick repellant, sunscreen, hat, windbreaker, socks, running gear (hells yeah), 10 lbs of fresh herbs for Barney the Chef (not even kidding), a world of pencils, white plastic erasers, blue masking tape, Alleve and Absorbine Jr., 3 Kind bars, a Kindle Fire, a Tracfone, a pac of USB’s, camera, 2 memory cards for same, 2 Moleskine notebooks.  I think I’m ready.

Ready set go

TBC. . .

Astier, 12 Avril 2012

One more post about Paris, and then on to what’s happening in the Maine garden these days. Right now there’s a pounding Nor’easter in the garden so it’s more pleasant to blog about dinner in Paris, but soon. . .

We went to a traditional French restaurant for our wedding anniversary on April 12. Restaurant Astier is tiny, friendly, and thirty feet from the apartment we were renting. Did  I mention tiny? The waiters had to back down the stairs to the wine cellar – I don’t think there was enough room to turn around down there.


We chose the prix fixe menu and split the dishes between us. The first course was one dish of thin slices of duck breast on a circle of mirepoix, and the other a bright green cold soup with a “dumpling” of lightly smoked haddock.

first course

Second course: a circle of lamb in dark gravy topped with eggplant tomato puree; grilled pork chop on a plate of white beans.

second course

Third course is The Famous Cheese Platter – renowned in song and story. Fifteen pounds of cheese folks, representing every shape, flavor and region. The waiter brings this huge platter of cheese to your table – on a metal stand because it’s much too big to actually fit on that tiny surface with your plate and the accompanying bread basket – and hands off a couple of sharp knives. That’s it – for this course it’s you against the cheese.

amazing cheese

Last course, dessert! R. had creme brulee covered in diced strawberries. Delicate and delicious, very sorry the photo was taken moments too late to see its lovely presentation. I had Baba au rhum traditionnel. Now baba au rhum in my experience is a nicely glazed brioche sort-of-thing. At Astier our waiter brought me a cylinder of yellow pound cake in a soup plate, a sharp knife, and a soup spoon. I was puzzled. He took the knife back from me and cut the pound cake into quarters, produced a dark green decanter and poured a cup of rum into the soup plate, then handed me a drinking glass full of whipped cream and wished us “Bon appetite”.


It was a wonderful meal, we had fantastic (and very friendly) service, delightful people-watching, and it was also fortunate that our apartment was two doors down the street after wine with dinner and rum with dessert.

And evidently wedding anniversary #26 is the French restaurant anniversary. If I could, I’d make reservations for #27 right now.

Home again, home again

Back from Paris, still unpacking and doing laundry. Yesterday it was disconcerting that everyone in the grocery store spoke English and today I keep patting at my pockets, missing the familiar shape of our passports. By tomorrow most of the “re-entry syndrome” will have worn off. Until then, I have pictures.

We lived out our week at #40 Rue Jean Pierre Timbaud. It’s a nice, normal neighborhood with lots of motor scooters and old men arguing on the corner. Our block had a pharmacy, a “tabac”, a bar with good food, a five-star restaurant, a take-out place, a smarmy pizza joint, and a motorcycle dealership. Yeah, we could have lived there. No problem.

Lunch in our tres tiny apartment: quiche a la legumes, “jambon” sandwich, apricot tart and the ubiquitous bottle of vin ordinaire.


Looking out the window eastward on an overcast morning. The awnings on the “v” belong to Les P’tites Indecises, a wonderful little restaurant where we translated a menu item as “crunchy chicken tandoori”. I had to try it – turned out to be chicken tandoori as a fried spring roll. It was incredible.

view to the east

Looking toward the west. . .Curious about how many apartments in that building? Count up the chimney flues.


Next post – dinner at Astier, just underneath this window.

Paris Botanical Garden

I sat down to write a post on the tradition of burying one’s heart separately from one’s body – no, really – and was then distracted by the opportunity to visit Le Jardin des Plantes. Thank heavens, right? Turns out the gardens are right down the #5 Metro from our apartment, it’s a beautiful April afternoon, and admission is free.  I couldn’t resist.

So, this post is dedicated to SP, ChK, LF, KW, CT, and all my other  friends who commiserate with me about the poor dirt and harsh climate where we garden in Maine. Take a look at what 28 hectares of managed soil, mild weather, and 400 years can do.

avenue gran

They’re a bit further on into spring than we are, too.


This is their Sargent Crab. This Japanese variety is notable for nearly horizontal branching.  I have one of these too – the trunk caliper on mine is about two inches.

Sargent crab

I remembered the French for bee – Apis – and had a halting conversation with one of the staff about apis and miele (honey). They don’t have hives at the Gardens because too many visitors are allergic, but they have begun to foster orchard mason bees and other wild pollinators with “bee hutches”.

bee hutch

I wandered around in the conservatories for a while, past figs, bananas and date palms, through the orchids and into grasses and succulents. At one point I had the whole place to myself; I guess it was just too nice a day to be inside even in a place like this.



I found “Jardin de Roches” on the map and correctly translated it as a rock garden. I was expecting dry succulents and small arid plantings, but this turns out to be a very nice garden filled with very big rocks. Specimens from the Mineral Bibliotech that are too large (way too large) are arranged out of doors here with polite signs asking visitors not to sit on them.

rock garden

Beds of poppies were everywhere. The staff will begin to dig them out and replace them with summer plantings next week, as the roses begin to leaf out in the alles. Later this year they’ll be installing webcams so that, although we have to leave tomorrow,  I’ll be able to check in on the new plantings.






Full Persian

Quite a few people have advised us not to do too much of the Louvre in one day and we’ve taken that to heart. Unfortunately we haven’t been able to resist going to as many museums as possible during daylight hours. Today we went to Musee d’Orsay, the Petit Palais, and Cathedral Saint Merri.  I’d never heard of the Cathedral – it’s not even on our map – but Paris is the kind of place where the immense 500 year old building is so beautiful you have to walk right in.

The Petit Palais was built for the 1900 Universal Exhibition and became a museum in 1902. It has an amazing facade, an exceptional collection (I love Bougeureau, so sue me), and the gardens are outstanding.

persian gardens entrance

The gardens are described as “Persian” and have the ornate geometric pools, mosaic tile floors and potted palms you might associate with that geography. The plantings are designed to be very hardy while appearing exotic: euphorbia, bergenia, and yucca grow beneath crabapple and ornamental pears. Pampas grass is planted as a background, but it also provides a hedge divider – I’ve never thought of cutting it back like this. I can’t wait to try this out in my gardens.grass hedge

The immense roof line adds scale and is lavishly decorated with, well, boats. I have no idea why – Paris hasn’t struck me as very nautical so far but we’re headed across the Seine tomorrow and perhaps we’ll find out?

ships of stoneA golden metal garland hangs between the portico pillars – I imagine it’s very festive when the vegetation is dormant. Something else to think about in the home garden, should you have a portico? I couldn’t get a good photo, but the ceiling of the portico is painted with a fresco of vines and medallions featuring the Months of the Year by Paul Baudouin, a student of Puvis de Chavannes.

golden garland

When we get home I plan to go “full Persian” on the gardens. Meanwhile, I’m trying hard to resist replacing the dead geraniums in the window box of our apartment. Maybe tomorrow we’ll pass a Fleuriste and I’ll succumb to temptation.

our windowbox

Addendum of Things I Have Learned in Paris

  • A forecast for rain here means that it will shower periodically and everyone will become attractively tousled. Then the sun will come out briefly, followed by clouds, and the cycle begins again. In addition, everyone here looks good in a wet t-shirt.
  • The French are courteous, friendly, and enthusiastic about visitors to their city. I hate to spill the beans given how hard they must have worked on that haughty image throughout history, but none of it is true. They will patiently try to understand my lousy, halting French and they will praise my husband’s better version. They will apologize for switching to English. They will give us directions home when we’re lost (quite often) and tell us (slowly and clearly) where to get coffee. They may be trying to kill us with espresso and pastry, but I’m strangely fine with that.

Reality check

I’m using a “Streetwise” map of Paris, and it’s wonderful. It has just enough detail to be useful without being overwhelming, it seems to be very accurate (we’ve only gotten lost by not consulting it), and it’s laminated which has come in handy more than once.


I was remarkably slow, however, in learning that when a building takes up two square inches on my little tiny map it means that building is huge. Gargantuan. The biggest pile of carved rocks you have ever imagined, times two. The Louvre? Is huge. We’ve spent the better part of two days there now and several docents have nodded graciously in recognition at seeing us in the French painting galleries multiple times, but we’ve only just begun to see what is enclosed in that space.

BoucherThis is the Lion Gate.

lion gate

I couldn’t get anything in the photo for scale because the lion is on a 10′ plinth. And he’s huge.

I happy am, if well with you.

packed up and gone

. . when each of you shall in your nest
Among your young ones take your rest,
In chirping languages oft them tell
You had a Dame that lov’d you well,
That did what could be done for young
And nurst you up till you were strong
And ‘fore she once would let you fly
She shew’d you joy and misery,
Taught what was good, and what was ill,
What would save life, and what would kill.
Thus gone, amongst you I may live,
And dead, yet speak and counsel give.
Farewell, my birds, farewell, adieu,
I happy am, if well with you.

Excerpted from “In Reference to her Children, 23 June 1659”

By Anne Bradstreet

Monhegan wild gardens

Yesterday we made an impulse trip to Monhegan Island. The forecast for Sunday called for calm and bright so we packed water, apples and granola bars, windbreakers and extra camera batteries, a watercolor pad each and made reservations for the ferry.

The Monhegan Boat Line has made three trips a day from the island to Port Clyde and back again (weather permitting) since 1914. It’s a small, sturdy boat with a stalwart captain who will slow down to allow the birdwatchers to get a good look at the bald eagles roosting along the shore and a rotating crew of very hardy high school girls wearing MBL sweatshirts and the ubiquitous Maine shag haircut. You couldn’t be in better hands. Especially Sunday, when the slightly rolling seas flashed with sunlight and the temperatures stayed in the balmy 60’s.

The trip takes about an hour. We were delayed for a few minutes docking to allow a man to ferry a cow in a rowboat across the inlet from Manana, the tiny island next to Monhegan. As we left they were ferrying goats who seemed much more unhappy about leaving their summer pasture, or maybe about being in a rowboat – it was hard to tell.

We hiked from 11:30 – 3 with a break for lunch. Monhegan is renowned for its rocky headlands and breathtaking cliffs; Black Head, White Head, and Green Point, but my lasting impression on a hot September mid-day trek was the vast amount of plant and animal life. Asters, several varieties of goldenrod, feverfew, and late roses were all in full bloom. The bayberry bushes and ash and apple trees were heavy with fruit and wasps, there were kinglets and cedar waxwings gorging on seeds and berries and making a ruckus.  We saw three varieties of butterflies  and in every warm hollow filled with flowers there were dozens of Italian honey bees. I didn’t see any hives in passing through the village, but perhaps there’s someone out there? It seems improbable that a colony would survive a Monhegan winter in the wild, but who knows – it will be worth investigating when we make the trip this spring.

Sauce Pontchartrain

“Pontchartrain” is a wonderful seafood sauce, to be eaten either on its own in a big wide bowl with plenty of Tabasco or over something else, as long as there is plenty of Tabasco. I’ve had Pontchartrain over broiled catfish, on sourdough toast, over rice, grits, and on one memorable occasion, instead of Hollandaise on poached eggs. I decided to make a batch and post the recipe, but as often happens when I’m eating something delicious, I didn’t take a picture. Instead, here’s a photo of Pontchartrain herself.

The pictures on the left are from the last big flood, in 2005. The Mississippi should crest tonight just below that record high in Memphis. The upper photos in “real color” detail sediment and drift and that thin tan line that looks like a scratch on the photo is the Causeway, the worlds longest bridge at 38 miles and change.

To be honest, this dish isn’t the most picturesque recipe to come out of NOLA. That honor would go to blackened snapper, maybe, or quince paste with beignets.  Pontchartrain sauce is a poor man’s dish, with lots of finely chopped mushrooms and green peppers to fill out the seafood and an overall “lumpy” white appearance. Now that I think about it many of the dishes I loved and learned to make in Louisiana have that look: smothered hare (pale green and lumpy, in its herb sauce), duck’s blood gumbo (you can picture that without help, right?), cheese biscuits (lumpy yellow). All equally delicious, without being particularly photogenic.

Sauce Pontchartrain

3/4 cup green onion or leeks, 1 cup mushrooms, and 1 cup green pepper, chopped fine (I actually whir them briefly, separately, in the food processor. Be careful not to puree.) 2 cloves of garlic, smashed
5 tablespoons butter, in 1 tablespoon pieces and 4 tablespoons flour
1/2 to 1 cup vegetable stock or broth, depending on how much seafood you’re adding, and 1 cup Chardonnay
salt, black pepper, cayenne, and tarragon to taste

2 cups (or more) seafood. It’s easier to throw the dish together if all the fish and shellfish are pre-cooked, but it’s also possible to add raw shrimp and other delicates while the sauce simmers.

Cook the onions, green pepper, mushrooms and garlic in the butter, adding in that order, until the vegetables are soft and “reduced”. Add 3 Tbs flour and stir until the roux thickens, about 2 minutes tops. Add the Chardonnay and stock, blend over a very low heat.  Taste before adding the spices because you may not need to add salt.

Shortly before serving add the seafood to the mix. I generally use cooked leftovers and anything goes: lobster, shrimp, crabmeat, or flaked whitefish, or any combination. Serve as is with beer and crusty bread, or ladle over hot white rice, thick slices of toast, eggs, fish filets, or crumbled milk crackers. Hand around bottles of Hiracha and convince your guests that all the vegetables you need for healthy living are in the sauce.

And all best wishes to those living along the Mother River tonight.