A Gigantic Gourd


Our friends Steve and Lorraine gave us a zucchini the other day. Their neighbor tends his potager with great dedication, growing all his vegetables organically, which they seem to appreciate since his produce grow happily to rather impressive sizes. We were presented with a 1.76 Kg or, in Imperial measurements, a three-pound fourteen-ounce zucchini. What do you do with a beast like that?

One finds zucchini or courgettes in the vegetable section of the supermarket, but biologically speaking they are fruits which belong in the Genus Cucurbita, gourds or squashes. C. pepo, our courgettes are one of the oldest known gourds. They were already cultivated 10 000 years ago in Oaxaca, Mexico. Many gourds are commonly used as winter squash, like pumpkins for example, and they can be stored for months. Zucchini, however, fall into the category of summer squash. They are preferably harvested when they are still young and tender, and eaten raw or grilled.

Clearly, our zucchini fell into the winter spectrum. Quite firm, not to call it wooden, with a large core of seeds, it wasn’t at all suitable for raw consumption. I walked past it for a few days looking at it a bit sideways, to tell the truth, but one can’t very well throw out a perfectly healthy vegetable, never you mind it’s actually a fruit. Finally, I decided to make zucchini bread. I’m not sure what came over me, but it seemed to be the only way to process a kilo-and-a-half-plus of aging zucchini.

Many decades ago, when we lived in Michigan and even earlier in Texas, I used to bake bread occasionally. Those were times when it was difficult, sometimes even impossible to buy actual bread, meaning a same-day baked loaf with a crust and a flavorful center as opposed to pre-sliced, plastic-sheathed squishy things languishing on store shelves for weeks on end. Since moving to France, I haven’t baked anything other than a tarte now and then. And cornbread, I forgot about making cornbread. Anyway, that’s not bread, it’s soul food. I gladly leave the creation of true bread to professionals.

On the internet, I found a well-liked recipe, possibly one of Elise Bauer’s “Simply Recipes”, and adapted it according to the content of our pantry. The dry ingredients evolved into:

  • 2 cups/450 g white wheat flour
  • 110 g coarsely ground blanched & skinned almonds*
  • 120 g cornmeal
  • 1 heaped tsp baking powder
  • 1 heaped tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp cinnamon powder
  • 1 tsp cardamom powder
  • a good lick of freshly grated nutmeg

[* I had processed the almonds a few weeks ago for a different recipe and it was high time for the leftovers to disappear. Ditto for the cornmeal. I would suggest just using 3 cups of flour]


Combine the dry ingredients and set aside.

My next chore involved processing that unloved mega gourd.


3 lb 14 oz of gourdness!

Without much fuss, thanks to the kitchen machine, this yielded 1 255 g or roughly 44 oz of squashy flesh.


Lastly, again in the kitchen machine, I combined the wet ingredients:

  • 3 eggs
  • 1/4 cup of white sugar
  • 1/2 cup of light brown sugar
  • 3 tsp of good quality Bourbon vanilla extract
  • 1 envelop of vanilla sugar
  • 1/2 cup of vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup of unsweetened apple sauce


I beat the wet ingredients until fluffy and creamy, before folding the dry into the wet, adding some coarsely chopped walnuts along the way.



I had no idea how much of the shredded zucchini I should use, so I gradually added three heaped cups, roughly the same amount as the dry ingredients. I should’ve stopped right there. But I didn’t. As there was a goodly amount left, I foolishly incorporated every last bit of the shredded gourd thus tilting the balance of proportion between vegetable matter, or fruit matter as it were, and dough to 2 to 1. Bad move!







After 60 min at 160ºC Umluft or 320ºF convection, plus 15 minutes with the oven turned off, our zucchini loafs looked quite nice with an evenly browned, crusty top.


But the zucchini aggregation had overwhelmed the small amount of dough. Alas, as you can see, instead of bread we had sliceable pudding.


Lesson learned: continue to cook if you must but leave the baking to people who know what they’re doing 😱

A Canicule and a Can of Fish


16. Juni 2019, 21:25:29


17. Juni 2019, 21:59:24

Over in my other blog, you know which one I mean, I’ve recently finished posting about our Loire Valley trip. Castles galore, of course, and some wine and food, scenery, and all those precious memories of adventurous times on the road. But you know, one’s home turf can be beautiful, too! Summer has arrived and with it a changing landscape in our small but lush courtyard garden.


We’re still in the throes of our bathroom renovation which generates daily mayhem in the form of high pitched sounds from power tools setting nerve endings on edge and powdered sticky stuff seeping through cracks and crevices. From the front door through the entry and up the stairs, bubble-wrap-like plastic protects delicate ancient tiles and old oak steps, while thin plastic sheets billow over doorways, but the dust settles everywhere, protection or not. Our house has currently the air of a chantier, a work site requiring hard hats, it seems. To top off all that fun, the main sewer pipe got plugged up by ingrown roots and we had to call the Roto-Rooter pros with their heavy-duty equipment, cash or check, please. Naturally, all this is happening as we go through the hottest week of the year. A quiet cup of early morning coffee in a shady spot under the pergola is much appreciated indeed!


The jasmine shading the pergola is in full bloom, releasing a lovely scent.





I love to prepare pies with ready-made dough from the grocery store in the summer. Last week I had a solitary sweet potato lying around, so I made a pie layered with very thinly sliced sweet potato, pre-sliced Emmental that needed to disappear, spinach – first wilted in a large pan with softened diced onion and a dusting of fresh nutmeg – and tomatoes. Light, easy, and tasty with a green salad, just right for warmer temperatures.


Yesterday’s Tarte au Thon à Canicule, my Heatwave-Tuna-Pie was even easier.

The ingredients were:

  • 280g net or ~10 oz of tuna packed in water, drained
  • 1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
  • 3 Tbl olive oil
  • 1 Tbl white wine vinegar
  • 1/2 Tsp each garlic paste, anchovy paste, harissa paste
  • 1/2 Tsp crushed, dried marjoram
  • salt, freshly ground pepper

mix the above vigorously, cover with saran wrap and refrigerate while you pre-bake the dough, if you wish, and slice the tomatoes in thick slices. Once the dough is ready, toss the cooled tuna mix with 2 Tbl of fresh lemon juice and spread sour cream and sweet mustard generously over the pie bottom. Spread the tuna mix evenly across the pie round and cover it with densely packed tomato slices. I sprinkled some parmigiano bits on it simply because I had them, but cheese is really not necessary for this pie – lots of tomatoes are! Drizzle the pie with olive oil before baking.


Bake the Tarte au Thon à Canicule for 45 min. at 200º/180ºC convection [400º/360ºF convection] for ~45 min. Before slicing, let it rest for 10 minutes or so. As a matter of fact, if you’re not too hungry, slide the pie on a rack to cool down without getting soggy, while you clean and slice a crunchy garden cucumber and maybe some radishes. Especially on a hot day, this pie tastes even better at room temperature.

And don’t forget to close the shutters against the heat!



Tomato Pie

This past weekend gave us a great taste of summer with bright sunshine, cheerful birdsong and a mini-harvest of strawberries from our rather pathetic strawberry bush that lives in a flowerpot on the patio.


Tomatoes are currently a bestseller both in the local produces markets and in the supermarket chains, and they are very well priced. When I went shopping early Saturday morning, two other items caught my eye. Firstly, and especially interesting to me because I like sheep’s milk yogurt, I noticed crème fraîche au lait de brebis, the American equivalent of which would be sour cream made from sheep’s milk. I had never noticed crème fraîche based on anything other than cow’s milk, so naturally, I had to try it. Secondly, there was an excellent special on Italian Mozzarella di Latte di Bufalo. That clinched the deal, we would have a tomato pie for our light and summery dinner!

Being lazy by nature, I used a ready-made, store-bought shortcrust pastry dough for my pie. The only slight effort I invested was a blind-bake with ceramic beads to make the pie a little crisper.


While that was going on, I sat comfortably at the kitchen table slicing a small mountain of ripe tomatoes and letting myself be distracted by a British TV program on home renovations. The tomato slices also had a brief pre-bake in a 110ºC/225ºF oven, seasoned with a few grinds of a pepper mill, some coarse sea salt, plus ground coriander seeds, dried marjoram, a little brown sugar, and a few drops of olive oil.


The purpose of that extra little bit of heat was simply to bring out the tomato aroma more strongly. Meanwhile, the pie assembly commenced on the kitchen counter by spreading the sheeply sour cream all over the bottom of the pre-baked pie case and sprinkling it with lemon zest, salt & pepper, ground coriander, powdered parmesan cheese, and some left-over shredded Emmental cheese. I also distributed teaspoon size dots of tomato pesto here and there. That’s a flavorful base for our Tomato Pie! After the tomato slices were placed in concentric circles, I just added the Mozarallo bits, shredded fresh basil, some yellow cherry tomato-halves, and another dusting of parmesan – we were ready to go in the oven.



This pie would be as easy as, well, pie if you omit the pre-backing altogether. With juicy tomatoes, it will come out soggier than ours, though. Lay the dough in a pie tin, smudge sour cream and some mustard in the bottom, followed by shredded cheese(s), and salt & pepper. Slice a bunch of ripe tomatoes and put them on top of the cheese in overlapping circles. Finish with more seasoning and cheese and the pie is ready to be baked as per package instructions. That’s all there is to it and it’s very tasty on a warm evening, maybe with a glass of chilled white wine. Our dish wasn’t any more difficult, just a little more time-consuming. For once😎, I used mostly store-bought and processed ingredients, for example, the tomato & basil pesto was a commercial item and the grated parmesan cheese came in an envelop. I love freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano, of course, who doesn’t? But it’s prohibitively expensive which makes it a rare treat for special occasions. For cooking, I think, the powdered stuff is quite sufficient. I look for the best freshness date and buy the most expensive-by-weight small pouch.


Our dinner included the Tomato Pie with a slice of cold-smoked wild Alaskan salmon from the fish counter in the supermarket, some frisée with fake crab salad from the deli counter, and a cup of yellow pepper and mango gazpacho from the cooled dairy section, where I also found the mozzarella and the sour cream. See, I told you I’m lazy! The wine, by the way, is a chilled Bordeaux Clairet. A dry yet fruity, light red wine mostly based on Merlot grapes. It is a very popular summer wine in the Bordelais region. Have a great week!

P.S. Here’s an update: In response to my Tomato Pie post tonight, my dear friend T. Michael Jackson of Traverse City, Michigan allowed me the use of his recent and completely incidental “Tomatoes in Colander” painting for my little story. Thank you so much, Mike, I love it! So much more apropos than roses!!


“Tomatoes in Colander” by T. Michael Jackson, 2019



Fischsuppe, once again

For a variety of reasons, I haven’t cooked much lately, but when I recently received the medical advice to eat less raw vegetables in favor of the cooked variety, I went straight to the market and stocked up on root veggies, greens, and two lovely pieces of dos de cabillaud otherwise known as cod.


After scrubbing everything, I started by separating the “good” parts of the veggies for the soup from the odds and ends to be discarded. Those I collected in a large pot of water with two cubes of Court-Bouillon heating up on the stove.


Adding a handful of cardamom seeds and curly parsley, I let these “aromatics” simmer to extract all of their flavors while I sliced and diced the vegetables for the soup. We had, in order of cooking, potatoes, carrots, shallots, leeks, celery, and fennel.


The dirt bits are coriander seeds


As always, I dry-toasted crushed coriander seeds first, before adding oil in which to roast the potatoes for a good five minutes. It took about another five minutes to gently toss and turn all the other gradually added vegetables to release their flavors. Meanwhile, the bouillon was ready to be drained, so I could add it to the veggies roasting in the sauteuse.


Put a lid on it and simmer for about ten more minutes.

When the vegetables were still al dente, I laid the fish on top of the soup, replaced the lid and simmered the concoction for another ten minutes, before checking for doneness. the fish should have just turned opaque and flake easily. I used quite thick pieces of cod that had come to room temperature to cook through more evenly. I flavored the cod with a dusting of white pepper, curcuma [turmeric], and lemon zest, plus a little sea salt. To add a twist to the simple fish soup, I made a shrimp persillade topping for the fish. In a small frying pan, I heated some butter to which I added breadcrumbs, letting them brown carefully. Next came salt, garlic paste, and finely diced curly parsley, all the while mixing the ingredients vigorously before adding tiny, pre-cooked, shelled shrimp to heat up in the persillade.


Fresh parsley & capers add a finishing touch. Guten Appetit!





Cornbread & Sunday Sunshine

As I record my cornbread recipe, it has become increasingly overcast and a light drizzle moistens the air. Not so earlier this morning. When I looked out an upstairs window, the day was delightfully bright, crisp, and shiny.


April 7, 07h57

With my first cup of coffee, I processed yesterday’s cooking pictures. Going downstairs to fetch another cup, I took my camera with me for a delightful stroll among our newly sprouting green stuff. That gave me the opportunity to mingle pictures of sauteed onions with those of delicate vine leaves to make my recipe a little more adventurous.


Saturday’s kitchen session revolved around Southwest flavors which we miss over here in France quite a bit. That is until we discovered a French online business called “My American Market” where we now order things like creamed corn and Rotel chile&tomatoes, not to mention pancake mix and, yes, Cheetos.


The 13 ingredients for my cornbread, 14 if you count the eggs individually 🤓


Firstly, combine the dry ingredients:

  1. 1 package Jiffy corn muffin mix
  2. 1 rounded cup cornmeal
  3. 2 tsp baking soda
  4. 1/2 tsp salt
  5. 1 rounded Tbl crushed, toasted cumin seeds
  6. 1 tsp powdered cumin seeds
  7. 1/2 tsp piment d’Espelette


Then add the moist ingredients:

  1. 10 oz of the creamed corn
  2. 4 Tbl Rotel tomato-and-chile bits without the liquid
  3. 2 eggs, lightly beaten with 1 Tbl of Rotel liquid & some freshly ground nutmeg
  4. 2 Tbl honey
  5. 2 Tbl olive oil
  6. 1/4 cup finely shredded cheese [Comté in my case]

Blend well and pour into the baking dish of your choice. I decorated the top with the remaining creamed corn and coarsely chopped cheddar cheese.


Using a convection oven, I baked the cornbread at 180ºC/350ºF for 10 min, lowered the temperature to 150ºC/300ºF and continued to back for another 30 min. The bread wasn’t quite done, so I added a few more minutes at 180ºC to finish the center and get a nicely browned top.



While the bread was in the oven, the skirt steak for our fajitas needs to be marinated. Some good quality olive oil, fajita seasoning, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, dried herbs, piment d’Espelette – or whatever comes to mind or happens to be laying around your pantry.


We brought that olive oil back from San Sebastián in January, it’s delicious.



Looks like we might have some figs this year!

Meanwhile, it was time to slice and dice the vegetables, green and red bell peppers, yellow and red onions, and a little garlic for the fun of it.


As usual, I sautéed my onions first by themselves at a low temperature to let them gently caramelize, before I added the peppers, garlic, and flavoring.


When all the veggies were pretty much ready, I turned up the heat and added the juice of the zested lemon for a fruity finish. Truth be told, this kitchen version of fajitas, both the meat and the vegetables, is pretty much a lame second choice. Real fajitas should be charcoal grilled, nicely charred, and dripping with Tex-Mex flavor!!


Our Clematis growing steadily over the pergola support.



With a little avocado and a drizzle of Balsamico, it was pretty tasty, nevertheless.



Marcus Meyer and the Winged​ Lions

My sister Bianka did something pretty sneaky recently. She pushed my curiosity button, and I was hooked immediately.

As you know from my last post, my doctor condemned me to a somewhat semi-invalid situation with nothing but restful inactivity which is not half as much fun as you might imagine. Even in the household of two retired fuddy-duddies with neither pets nor children, there are constantly small things that one “does”. Not doing them drives me bonkers but I must be sensible and continue to recline, if not gracefully, at least grateful that I do have the leisure to do so thanks to my husband who not only picks up the slack but cooks tastily.

However, physical inactivity leads to excessive browsing through social media, where I stumbled across my sister’s post of photos she took while walking through a Hamburg, Germany, neighborhood on a November weekend. The Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg is a vibrant city with a long and proud past as an independently governed city-state.

Hamburg’s upwardly mobile history began in 808 CE, when Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor, and original Pater Europae ordered a “burg” or fortification to be built somewhere near the confluence of the rivers Elbe and Alster to better defend his Frankish realm against the raids of peoples not yet integrated into his domain, like Slavic and Saxon tribes. The castle became known as Hammaburg, eventually written as Hamburg. The meaning of the hamma part is hitherto unknown. Although such a riverside location close to the sea has enormous growth potential, it may invite calamity as well. The citizens of Hamburg have certainly experienced both.

Some aspects of the city’s past onto which my sister’s post touched became the starting point for a meshuggeneh internet search about Sephardim and Holsteiners. Such an odd combination, don’t you think? The photos Bianka posted contained place names like Krayenkamp, Markusplatz, jüdischer Friedhof [Jewish cemetery], and Großneumarkt which eventually lead me to the work of a Dr. Otto Adalbert Beneke (1812 – 1891) director emeritus of the State Archives in Hamburg and also a published author of historical non-fiction. Through Wikisource, I found his lovely and entertaining book called “HAMBURGISCHE GESCHICHTEN UND SAGEN, erzählt von Dr. Otto Beneke”, meaning “Stories and Legends from Hamburg, as told by Dr. Otto Beneke”. On page 280 we can read the story of a Marcus Meyer which I am retelling in English, below.

Dr. Beneke’s book is written in a manner of German used in the 19th century, printed in an antique blackletter typeface to match. It is a delight to read and I wish you could enjoy it with me. For German speakers: “… um in liegenden Gründen seine Verewigung hypothecarisch sicher zu stellen …”. This passage alone is as lovely as any Shakespearian sentence, expressive, precise, yet poetic. Sadly, it’s beyond my capabilities to write in an equivalent style in English, therefore I didn’t properly translate the narrative, choosing instead to retell it in my own words but following the storyline as closely as possible. In the “Marcus Meyer” Wikisource link above, the German text was transcribed into a modern font for easier comprehension. I do prefer to read the old script, though! I took a screenshot of a partial page to give you a glimpse of the original.

Auszug aus Otto Beneke HH Geschichten und Sagen

Excerpt, Otto Beneke “Hamburger Geschichten und Sagen”

         My modern English version:

[Venice and Hamburg once shared a similarity, a place called St. Marcus Square. Both squares had winged lions. In Hamburg, the square no longer exists, but the lion image can still be seen in the Hamburg Museum.]

In the olden days, a neighborhood of Hamburg called Neustadt or New Town lay outside the gates and ramparts of the town proper or Old Town. Gradually, farmers from the surrounding countryside became inscribed in the St. Nicolai parish of Neustadt, populating the ever-growing area with their vegetable gardens which were called Kohlhöfe, cabbage farms. During the time of the 1563 black plague, the St. Nicolai church made two plots of land available to be used as burial grounds for the pestilence victims.

One of these was called the Krayenkamp because, according to legend, the corpses buried there lured large murders of crows [Kray possibly low German for Krähe = crow; Kamp = field]. Then again, “Kraye” may simply have been, ever so boringly, the name of a former tenant of that piece of land.

The other graveyard between the cabbage farms laid fallow tilSt. Nicolai leased it to Harm Husmann in the year 1623Farmer Husmann hoped to gain a nice profit from crops grown in the rich soil fertilized by all those ancestral bonesFrom 1627 to 1653, his plot neighbored yet another burial ground, that of the Portuguese Jews who had settled in Hamburg since about 1612.

There lived in Neustadt a man by the name of Marx Meyer, who lived a blameless life respected by his peers. His one weakness, though, was vanity. Oh, how he longed to be a proper dignitary in Old Town, a senator perhaps or an alderman, but such ranks were beyond the reach of a suburbanite. When permission was granted for the formation of a militia unit to safeguard Neustadt against roaming marauders, Marx Meyer soon advanced to the position of captain. Many a humble Christian would have been content with such a rank and the resulting elevated standing in the community. Not so our captain who realized that a militia rank would hardly inscribe his name in the history books, specifically his precious new name, since he now signed his name as “Marcus” Meyer. Captain Meyer’s determination to preserve this beautiful name for posterity was so strong that he came up with the ingenious idea of buying himself an alleyway or a square to be named after him. Why not mortgage his immortality to the chartered ground of Neustadt, he reasoned. He donated 100 Lübische Mark to the coffers of St. Nicolai for which the church treasurers awarded him with a name for the remaining acreage of the black plague boneyard next to farmer Husmann’s cabbage patch. In a document dated September 7, 1625, the churchmen pledged “that in his honor, the aforementioned square shall henceforth be known by his name as Sanct-Marcus-Kirchhof”. As a little bonus, they also allowed him to erect a monument to himself, at his own expense, naturally. Thus, in one fell swoop, a lowly Lutheran militia captain was not only inscribed in the temporal archives of Neustadt’s history but he became miraculously canonized for eternal immortality in the Papal register! Indubitably, Marcus Meyer died a happy man.

But already during his lifetime, Marcus Meyer’s so desperately craved name recognition slipped through the cracks of common remembrance in the local population. When a Paul Langermann built house at said Sanct-Marcus-Kirchhof or St. Marcus Square in 1641, he attributed its name to the Evangelist St. Mark in whose honor he forthwith commissioned a bas-relief stone plaque picturing the saint’s emblem, a winged lion, to be incorporated in the front wall of his house.

Roughly one hundred years after these events, the Krayenkamp plot became the building site of the Hanseatic baroque Hauptkirche Sankt Michaelis, one of the five Lutheran main churches in Hamburg. The church is affectionately called “Michel” by seamen and citizens alike. Its copper-clad spire isn’t just a well-recognized landmark, it also functioned as landfall mark for ships sailing up the River Elbe.

The sentence in Dr. Beneke’s story in which I became most interested reads like this: “… Von 1627 bis 1653 haben dann dicht daneben die seit 1612 aufgenommenen Portugiesischen Juden ihre Todten bestattet.” Which translates to “between 1627 and 1653 the Portuguese Jews who had been accepted since 1612 interred their dead next door.”

Who were those “Portuguese Jews”, traders in the most part, who had indeed been tolerated and even appreciated in the Lutheran Hanse Town of Hamburg despite some intermittent ruckus with the clergy? I’ve come across references to Portuguese Jews before, including in historical fiction, but this time, I was determined to dig a little deeper. And, there arises quite naturally another question. Why were there such precise and limited dates given for their burial practices? Let’s begin with a little background research.

For the last couple of thousand years or so, circumstances drove many Israelites further and further away from Eretz Yisrael and their Semitic roots. The Babylonian and Egyptian exiles are known well enough, I assume, but according to a medieval Spanish text, there may also have been a Jewish presence in the Iberian peninsula as early as the time of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem which culminated in the destruction of the sacred Temple of Solomon in 587 BCE. Israelite captives were brought to Hispania by ship, the text states, and one such sea captain is even referenced by named as Phiros the Greek, who was commissioned by the Babylonian conquerors to transport the Jews. However, this has not been historically substantiated.

Significant waves of migrations were triggered by the Roman occupation of Judea leading to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in 70 CE. During the Roman domination over the Levant and the Middle East, Jewish migrations as far as India and China are documented. Other groups began to spread through Central Europe and from there into the Slavic East, while a large number of Jews followed Phoenician trade routes and dispersed circum Mediterraneum, through northern Africa into the Iberian peninsula. Still, others wandered counterclockwise around the Mediterranean Sea through Greece and Illyria into Venice and Northern Italia – all the while settling along the way, forming new Jewish communities in the diaspora.

Historically, through these migrations, three distinct Jewish ethnicities developed out of the Biblical Israelite people. The Central European group became known as Ashkenazim [“Ashkenaz” meant Germanic in Medieval Hebrew], while the Mediterranean Jews of the Maghreb, Portugal, and Spain were grouped into the Sephardim [“Sefarad” meaning Hispania in Hebrew]. Lastly, in contrast to the developing European Jewry, the Mizrahim [“Mizrach” meaning East in Hebrew] are descendants of Jews who lived across the Middle East, in Babylon, Syria, Iraq, and far beyond, including the Caucasus regions and Yemen.

Taking a closer look at Jewish life in ancient Hispania, we see that it had its ups and downs, believe me! After the Roman empire pretty much fell apart with the influx of the Goth from the Baltic region across most of Europe, their western branch, the Visigoth, eventually settled in the Iberian peninsula during the 5th and 6th centuries CE. This worked out well for the Jewish communities therein until the formerly tolerant Goth converted to Catholicism toward the end of the 6th century, resulting in severe taxation and pogroms. Thus, when Tariq Ibn Ziyad rode into town in 711 CE, the establishment of a Caliphate was welcomed by Jewish leaders hoping for relief from oppression. The centuries of Islamic rule over the Iberian peninsula weren’t necessarily one long holiday on the sunny beaches of Andalucía for the Jews, but all in all, al-Ándalus constituted a period of relative peace for the roughly half a million Jews living in Spain at the time, making Medieval Sephardim the largest and most prosperous group of Jews in a diaspora.

Sephardic religious worship and its intertwined secular culture were shaped by the exchanges and discussions between Greek, Persian, Arabic, and Hebraic thinkers, philosophers, poets, mathematicians, and physicians during this invigorating period between late antiquity and the emerging Mediterranean medieval world. When Hebrew scholars began to incorporate Aristotelian worldviews into liturgical tradition, it marked the chasm between the Iberian Sephardic Rite and the worship practices of Ashkenazim which remained aligned with Rabbinic and Halakhic writings. Thus the Central and Eastern European Ashkenazim developed their distinct identity through introspection and stringent adherence to Hebraic traditions in a generally hostile Christian environment. Although they too benefited from periods of acceptance and respect, the Ashkenazim never experienced the same degree of an almost joyous mingling of cultures as the Sephardim enjoyed in the Iberian peninsula.

During long phases of relative freedom in Muslim Iberia, the Sephardim were not as severely segregated from their Christian and Islamic neighbors as happened later under Catholic rule, so they developed a language based on medieval Spanish mixed with Hebraic loanwords which is called Ladino. Just for the fun of it, I listened to a recording of a Ladino speaker and to my surprise, despite my poor Spanish, I got the gist of it [she spoke about the preparation of a plato típico, a regional dish which made it easier to comprehend 😎].

As we have seen, the expansion of the Roman Empire into Judaea and the destruction of the Second Temple triggered migrations not only to Iberia but also into Central Europe. Many of the descendants of Jewish slaves taken to Rome gradually drifted north across the Alpes, almost like a counter-migration to the Goth invasion of southern and western Europe. A Jewish presence in Köln [Cologne] goes as far back as 321 CE, and the granting of “Imperial Privileges” for the Synagogue of Cologne in the year 341 indicates a sizable community. These early settlers were soon joined by more and more displaced Jews, gradually making their way across Central Europe into areas we now call Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus, Böhmen, Poland, Russia, and so forth.

Along the way, roughly between the 9th and 13th century, a new, uniquely Ashkenazi language developed called Yiddish. Its base is medieval High German, enriched with many Hebrew expressions. There are two main dialects, one more strongly grounded in German, while the other has its roots in Slavic and Romanic languages, and both are spiced with regional flavors. As a personal aside, I want to mention the first meeting between my German mother and my American mother-in-law. Neither spoke the other one’s language, but Yiddish made an initial conversation possible between these two lovely ladies. Subsequently, during my early married life in the US, every time my dear father-in-law used a Yiddish term, he would turn to me, ready to explain and I would have to laugh because it’s just German with a funky pronunciation! Like so many others, the following colloquial German expressions were derived from Yiddish: Bammel haben – anxiously anticipating something, like an exam; Ganove – crook; Mischpoke – originally extended family, later on, something more like rabble; Tacheles reden – clarifying something forcefully; Schmiere stehen – lookout [during the commission of a crime]; dufte – great, cool; Zoff – strife, troubles; geschlaucht sein – to be exhausted; Ramsch – cheap stuff; Blau machen – skip work or school without permission; ausgekocht – cunning; einseifen – to trick someone; Maloche – exhaustingly hard work; abzocken – to take advantage of or rip off someone [This is not a term a woman would use in polite company 😳]. From the 16th through the 20th centuries across Germany and Eastern Europe, Yiddish was much more than a language, it was more than a cultural assertion, it was the beating heart of a people, united in the midst of the diaspora. Despite the deep cleft between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, there is one thing at least their diasporic languages have in common. Traditionally both are written in a form of cursive Hebrew.

After our short linguistic digression, let us consider the fate of the Sephardim during the Reconquista, the “re-conquering” of the Iberian peninsula by Catholic rulers. The textbooks tell us that the Reconquista pitched Moorish invaders against the rightful rulers of the Iberian peninsula, Catholic Spaniards, who gloriously freed their realm from oppression. Especially during the years of Fascism in Spain, the Reconquista was termed as righteous Crusade versus Jihad. One might, however, view certain aspects of this nearly 800-year struggle a little differently.

Until the merge of the Kingdom of Castile with the Crown of Aragon, and the annexation of a part of Navarre, there was no “Spain” as we understand it in modern times. Conveniently skipping pre-history, we move straight into Iberian proto-history when the peninsula was populated by an assortment of indigenous tribes with the addition of a few Celtic immigrants. Beginning in the 10th century BCE, adventurous Phoenician traders, ever so courageously sailing along the Mediterranean seashore, settled in Hispania, establishing, among others a harbor now called Cádiz. Greek merchants followed suit, and ultimately the Carthaginians from North Africa populated large swatches of Hispania. With the final destruction of Carthage, Rome took over and gradually subdued all others until the peninsula became a Roman province during the rule of Emperor Augustus and beyond. It was Roman tyranny which brought large groups of Israelites to the Iberian peninsula in the first centuries of the Common Era.

And then came the Visigoth, see above.

When Maghrebine Berbers and their Umayyad overlords crossed the Strait of Gibraltar in the early 8th century, they intended to expand their sphere of influence into the Visigoth domain. A move, one would have to consider to be no different from previous ethnicities having crossed established borders in search of new territory.

It was, in fact, a very fortuitous moment for the fledgling Islamic caliphate to stretch its wings beyond the newly subdued North African region. The Visigoth kingdom in Hispania was mired in disarray through dynastic infighting. Thus, when Tariq Ibn Ziyad, possibly the son of a freed Libyan Berber in the service of Musa bin Nusayr, Governor of Ifriqiyah, the Maghreb as we call it now, fought the initial battle against the Visigoth king Roderic, it was no big surprise that he prevailed, at least in hindsight. Over the next few years, this initial victory snowballed into Umayyad rule across the entirety of the Visigoth’ Iberian holdings, with the notable exception of Asturia. Well, possibly. Historical records are a smidgen fuzzy about the details.

You see, there was this Gallaecian-Visigoth guy called Pelayu or Pelagius, son of Fafila Dux of Gallaecia. Dad having been killed by Wittiza, another one of a multitude of Visigoth kings drifting in and out of Iberian history during these times of upheaval, young Pelayu, our orphaned squire, became a latter-day hero of the Reconquista. Sometime between 718 to 740 CE, Pelayu allegedly rebelled against Umayyad rule. A small army under the leadership of a Muslim named Alkama and a Christian-Visigoth bishop named Oppa, who may have been a half-brother of murderous king Wittiza, was dispatched against Pelayu and his band of “30 wild donkeys”, as reported in Muslim chronicles. The donkeys won the day and victorious Pelayu returned to his ancestral region where the local leadership proclaimed him Principes of Asturia creating him the founding father of the Kingdom of Asturia, which for some time was pretty much the only Christian political entity in Islamic Iberia. Subsequently, many a Visigoth noble and disposed kinglet gathered in the Asturian exile planning revenge against the al-Ándalus subjugators. Skirmish by skirmish, Asturia grew into the Kingdom of Léon, out of which the Counties of Castile and Portugal arose. Eventually, and with a strong helping hand of other European ruling Houses, who worried greatly about the Islamic presence in Iberia, the Christian position in the peninsula strengthened and developed into several emerging powers, like Léon, Castile, Aragon/Naples, Pamplona/Navarre, Portugal, Barcelona/Catalonia, and so forth, gradually shrinking the Islamic power base to one last caliphate. Fast forwarding to 1491, the deciding victory of their Most Catholic Majesties of Castile and Aragon over the last Iberian Emir in Andalucian Granada, brought all non-Catholic culture in the Iberian peninsula to a crashing halt. The now dominant kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, incorporating also the southern portion of Navarre, would ultimately emerge as the unified Kingdom of Spain during the 16th century. Voilá, Catholic Spain was finally born, almost a hundred years after the rule of al-Ándalus in the Iberian peninsula had ended.

A few months after the victory in Granada, the infamous Alhambra Decree forced practicing Jews to leave the kingdoms of Castille and Aragon by midnight of July 31, 1492, or 8 Av 5252 in Jewish reckoning, the day before the Fast Day of Tisha B’Av, which is the annual commemoration of disasters that befell the Israelites through history during the month of Av. For instance, both Temple destructions happened in Av. During the summer of 1492, many Jewish families gathered their belongings and walked toward Lisbon and Porto in Portugal where they hoped for more tolerance when, only six years later, royal Portuguese ambitions threw another spanner in their hopes for a peaceful co-existence. The Portuguese king was eager to marry a Castilian Infanta but his chances were pretty much nil unless he could please her Most Catholic royal parents of his Christian zeal which lead to a forced mass conversion and related hardships. By 1497 most Jews had left the Iberian Peninsula in search of more hospitable shores, some of which were to be found eventually in northern Europe, mostly in Hamburg, Amsterdam, and London. Thus our “Portuguese Jews” of boneyard fame in Neustadt were the descendants of Sephardim escaping the Inquisition and the Edict of Expulsion of  1492 in Spain and subsequently the Portuguese Edict of Expulsion.

I wonder if anyone is aware that the modern Kingdom of Spain has acknowledged the ill deeds of the Houses of Castile and Aragon in the name of the Reconquista. Since the early 20th century, Spain has granted automatic citizenship to Sephardim returning to Spain. In 2012 Spanish citizenship was extended to the global Sephardic community without the requirement of residency. A truly unique gesture of reconciliation, as no other European nation has granted this privilege to atone for their past expulsion policies, of which there were many.

Now that we have returned in one piece from the hardships of Medieval Iberia, thus solving the “Sephardim” portion of the originally posed question of Sephardim and Holsteiners, we still have to tackle those Holsteiners, won’t we? The name goes back to the Holcetae, as the Romans called them, a Saxon tribe living along the northern bank of the River Elbe near Hammaburg. According to Medieval chronicler Adam of Bremen, their name translates to “those who dwell in the woods”.

Of course, Holstein can also refer to black and white milk cows, but as far as placenames go, our Holstein is the region to the North of Hamburg, traditionally occupying an area between the rivers Elbe and Eider. Throughout its history, Holstein was pulled hither and thither through frequent subdivisions, merges, and changes in ownership. At times belonging to the Holy Roman Empire, it was for far longer periods of time either a Danish possession or under the administration of the kings of Denmark. During the time of the Viking Age, when they sailed their sleek warships further and further South looting and burning, the Catholic Church moved inviolably North, converting Odin’s warriors to Christianity along the way. The Prince-Archbishopric of Bremen and Hamburg, jointly owned by the Holy Roman Emperor and the Catholic Church, had been given jurisdiction over The Faith in Scandinavia and the Baltic-North by the Pope. A certain Magister Adam, a member of the Church of Bremen, whose wisdom we’ve encountered just a few sentences ago, traveled with great enjoyment through Scandinavia. In 1070 he was a personal guest of King Sweyn II Estridssen of Denmark who told him long and detailed stories of Viking history over many a keg of mead, I imagine. Back home, Adam of Bremen spent three years writing his Œvre épique of the Archdiocese and her Bishops. His Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum [Heroic Tales of the Bishopric of Hamburg] wasn’t limited to church history, though, it included a Norse history with unique geographical details of Northern Europe based on his Scandinavian travels. And, remarkably, the Geste incorporated the story of the Viking’s transatlantic journeys to legendary Vinland in modern-day Canada, as the Danish King had told him. Magister Adam’s chronicles of Viking travel to North America were the first such reports outside of Norse Sagas.

As tantalizing as these Viking exploits are, we do have to focus on Holstein and, ultimately the town of Altona, because, as you well remember, we want to decode the reason why Jews buried their dead next door to the Hamburg St. Marcus square only for a few years which begs the answer to the simple question, where else did the Sephardim inter their dead? In order to approach an answer to this question, we have to take a look at something called the Thirty Years’ War. Extremely simply put, it was a Catholic versus Protestants [Lutheran Reformists] religious war that began in 1618. It turned into a major power play between twelve “Reformist” forces led by Sweden against six “Catholic” forces led by the Holy Roman Empire. When it was all over in 1648, thousands of castles and untold numbers of towns and villages were reduced to rubble, leaving large stretches of countryside scorched, mostly in the central combat region of what is now Germany. This war that began as a religious conflict, turned into a political war with profound results for the European balance of power and with a long-lasting effect on society at large. It claimed an estimated 20% of the European population, a geometric mean estimate of eight million people, of which less than half a million were combat casualties, while all others fell victim to famine and diseases like typhoid, dysentery, and the black plaque. Although this represents one of the highest war casualties ever recorded, I can’t help but think that nothing has changed through the intervening centuries. Civilians are still suffering the consequences of religious warfare and power games in contemporary conflicts.

Backpeddling ever so slightly, we return to Hamburg in the 16th century. Right next door to Neustadt, a fishing village grow along the banks of the River Elbe. It became known as Altona. And Altona became the first home of the German Jews when in 1611 Ernst Count of Schaumburg and Holstein-Pinneberg granted them the privilege of permanent residency. Soon thereafter Altona came under the jurisdiction of the king of Denmark who was also favorably inclined towards the Ashkenazim. Hamburg, on the other hand, wasn’t too keen on German Jews. They already had to deal with the Portuguese Jews, you see, and there’s a limit for tolerating those pesky Jewish migrants.

So there we have two communities in close proximity and a bunch of migrants clamoring for residency. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? As ever, back in the 16th and 17th centuries attitudes were, although black and white as in Christian versus Jew, nevertheless colored by practicality, politics, and Mammon. Sephardim in Hamburg were considered to be more valuable business partners owing to their Portuguese and Spanish connections which opened the spice, sugar, tobacco, cotton, and coffee markets to Hamburg traders. In general, the “Portuguese Jews” were wholesalers while the “German Jews” were retailers and as such small fry. The Jewish dilemma went back and forth between Altona and Hamburg for a while, during which time the Sephardim proudly presented many highly regarded members of their community, who were bankers, diplomats for foreign powers like Queen Christina of Sweden and the kings of Poland and of Portugal, there were also highly respected physicians, astronomers, philosophers, and thinkers, while the Ashkenazim were, officially, from 1567 onward only allowed residency in Hamburg as domestic employees in Sephardic households. Such irony, when you consider the many contributions to global knowledge by Ashkenazim. Beginning around 1627, the Hamburg Sephardim began a Talmud Torah, essentially a communal school to study Jewish Law. They met in the home of Elijah Aboab Cardoso for their lessons. In an amusing little aside, the aggrieved Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II lodged indignant objections with the Hamburg Senate concerning this “synagogue” because Catholics weren’t allowed to have a church in this Lutheran town, but nobody paid any attention to the emperor’s whining. The Hamburg Sephardim organized themselves into a proper congregation under the guidance of a Chief Rabbi in 1652. The Ashkenazim had to take a more roundabout approach through the Danish and Prussian holdings surrounding Hamburg. They established a congregation around 1671 in Altona. Against expectations, the Altona Ashkenazim proved to be an invaluable asset for the fledgling community at large. King Christian IV bestowed the privilege of ship-building to the Jews of Altona which was instrumental for the vast expansion of the whale fishing industry there, bringing prosperity to the whole town.

In addition to the separately weaning and waxing fortunes of the Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities in Hamburg, there were traditionally separate burying grounds for German and Portuguese Jews. The Hanse town of Hamburg did not grant burial permission to Jews, so Danish Altona hosted the first of the Jewish cemeteries that gradually appeared in communities outside to Hamburg. However, during the Thirty-Years’-War civilian life in the countryside became increasingly dangerous, hence the standing militia in Neustadt that appointed Captain Meyer, as we’ve seen above. The dangers in outlying areas through cruel and ruthless bands of mercenaries became so imminent that the St. Nicolai parish gave permission for Jews to be buried in a specially designated plot in Neustadt, for a hefty fine, of course. Five years after the Westphalian peace accord in 1648, the Altona congregations disinterred their dead and brought them back home. The Jewish cemetery of Altona is unique as it contains both Ashkenazi and Sephardic graves. In the Ashkenazi section, the gravestones are upright and have Hebrew inscriptions, while the Sephardic markers lay flat and show richly adorned Portuguese dedications.

It appears we have finally reached a conclusion to our search about Hamburg’s Portuguese Jews and the reasons for their temporary cemetery in Neustadt – not without uncovering a new puzzle, though: the curious fact that the Sephardic community in 1652 actively participated in the reburial of their ancestor’s remains, a practice which is not approved in Judaism. But do not fear, we will not go into it today!

Further Materials:

“The Thirty Years’ War: the first modern war?” a thought-provoking blog post by Dr. Pascal Daupin, Senior Policy Advisor at the ICRC, Policy and Humanitarian Diplomacy Division.

Mother Courage and her Children, the remarkable 1939 play by Bertolt Brecht. He uses the 30–Years-War to condemn the ideology of Totalitarianism and the actions of fascists.

http://jewishencyclopedia.com, this is the online version of an encyclopedia about all things Jewish published between 1901 – 1906 in 12 volumes. It has not been edited and therefore only contains references up to the 20th century.

A Roasted [temporary] Swansong


As the glowing colors of Fall inevitably turn into the more muted tableaux of Winter, our longing for rich, savory, and warming food increases. Instead of imbibing refreshing cocktails on a sun-flooded terrace, we tend to focus on root vegetables and steaming broth slurped in a cozy inglenook, until once again, the earth’ axis is tilted more favorably for al fresco fun.


In our kitchen, carrot, fennel, onion, and their brethren are usually slated to find themselves swimming in a bubbling bouillon. This time, though, I thought let’s switch it up a little. All scrubbed and trimmed, they looked so nice and orderly, why not roast them, for a change?


So, I invented the following oven-roasted vegetable medley & steamed cod dinner:

Dos de Cabillaud Citron en Papillote avec ses légume rôtis et sa sauce yaourt

The inspiration for this dish proved to be a fairly shriveled and sadly abandoned little lemon in the fridge. I skinned the poor thing and soaked the pieces of desiccated rind in olive oil, heating it now and then in the oven when an opportunity arose, for example during the pre-heating phase.


Later on, I used this lemon infused oil to marinate the cod filets, as well as adding the rind to the papillotes for additional flavoring.

The huge and wonderful head of garlic below wasn’t part of the recipe. I simply used the activation of the oven to turn it into an absolutely marvelously creamy delight.


The preparations for our meal broke down into three stages. Firstly, the vegetables had to be roasted during which time the fish packages were to be prepared. While those baked in the oven, there was ample time to beat the yogurt sauce into submission.


On the vegetable tray, we had sweet potatoes and pommes de terre grenaille [immature baby potatoes], baby carrots, leeks, fennel, red bell pepper, cherry tomatoes, red & yellow onions, and, a little belatedly, some parsley.


Meanwhile, creating the papillotes proved to be a pain in the neck. Assembling the flavorings wasn’t the issue and they looked quite pretty, however …


Preparing a bed for our fish with finely diced fennel, fennel greens, lemon zest, marinated lemon rind, lemon slices, and capers, plus coriander & cucurma powder.



Cod, marinated in warm lemon oil, then flavored with mustard, salt, and cucurma powder.


… closing the darn parchment packages turned into a farce. My plan to staple the paper together fell apart rather quickly when our one and only stapler failed to staple. Utterly and completely. Not a single staple made it through the paper, let alone fasten it. Neither did the dimensions of the parchment sheets allow for tying it with Ficelle de Cuisine, kitchen yarn. Ultimately, all I could do was crimp the parchment as firmly as possible, shove the loose bundles in the oven and hope for the best.


The yogurt dip, one the other hand, was quickly blended and provided a fresh and creamy complement for the roasted vegetables and the fish.


Dinner’s served, with a nicely chilled glass of Clairet de Bordeaux!


Regarding the roasted vegetables:

The washed and dried vegetables were rubbed with olive oil. I pre-roasted the huge sweet potato while the oven came to temperature to be able to cut it into 3 pieces. During this time, I also roasted the head of garlic. Once the oven had reached 240ºC/220ºC convection, I placed the baking sheet with 2 sweet potato ends, the grenailles, and the leek & onion pieces in the oven to roast for 10 min. After that, the other veggies joint in the fun, all of which I dusted with freshly ground pepper, coarse salt, a little dry marjoram, and ground coriander. The total roasting time was about 30 min, it could’ve been less for the carrots and fennel pieces.

The ingredients for each fish package consisted of:

  • ~ 200 g skinless Cod filet, marinated for 15 min at room temperature in the preserved warm [not hot!] lemony olive oil
  • 1 tsp lemon juice drizzled on the fish
  • 1 tsp of stone-ground or sweet mustard shmeared over the fish
  • 1/2 tsp lemon zest
  • finely diced fennel & greens
  • some of the lemon rind pieces from the small lemon, previously incubated in warm olive oil
  • a few slices of the now rindless small lemon
  • a dusting of ground coriander
  • a dusting of ground cucurma
  • coarse salt to taste
  • finely diced parsley
  • fresh dill
  • a splash of olive oil
  • Capers to taste
  • Cherry tomatoes for color

Tightly close the parchment paper packages and bake at 200ºC/180ºC convection for 20 min. Let the fish rest in the unopened package till serving.

The ingredients for the yogurt dip were:

  • 125 g un-flavored yogurt [I used Greek-style]
  • 1 heaped Tbl honey
  • 1 heaped Tbl mustard of choice
  • 1 heaped tsp fresh lemon zest
  • juice of 1 lemon, amount to taste
  • white pepper to taste
  • salt to taste
  • 1 heaped tsp ground cucurma
  • 3 Tbl olive oil

Beat with a hand mixer until well blended and creamy. Adjust amounts of ingredients and seasoning to your taste.

Allow me to add a personal remark to conclude this post. As it happens, dodgy spinal columns and their associated troubles are a sad trademark in my family. After having done reasonably well for some time, including weathering our extensive travels last year and our move to Cognac earlier this year, I’m currently going through an “episode”. My exceedingly charming doctor has issued stern orders, condemning me to a period of utterly boring inactivity. No driving, no marketing, no housework [Yes!], but also no cooking [😱] until further notice. Consequently, there won’t be any cooking posts for a while in this blog! However, I couldn’t bear for you to feel abandoned and rejected. Therefore I’d like to suggest you check out some of my Travel Posts at Photolera Claudinha’s other blog.

Under the search function “Home cooking” there are quite a number of cooking posts thrown in with my travel posts, not to mention stories about our former Costa Rican and Central Texas places. You might even enjoy some of my food-free Travel-through-Home-Exchanges posts from across the world, well, some small areas of our globe, anyway.  I hope, this will keep you entertained for a while 😁

A bientôt, mes amis !







A lot of Color & a few Beans

Fall Colors

In just a few hours, clocks will go back to standard time here in Europe. A good time, I thought, to celebrate another seasonal change, leaf color. We don’t have majestic maples nor delicate aspen around us, just vines. Vines and assorted evergreens.

Fall Colors

So let’s immerse ourselves in some crazy vines, shall we?

Fall Colors

Fall Colors



Fall Colors

Fall Colors

Fall Colors

All that color made me hungry. Let’s whip up a quick and nutritious meal. Quick, that is to say, if you remembered to soak the haricots Tarbais for a few hours in the morning. Should you have forgotten, that’s alright, too. Bring the beans to a boil and cook for about 15 minutes. Drain and start again with fresh cold water. To flavor the cooking water, I like to use a small “pot” of vegetable bouillon.


In the background, a portion of frozen chunky tomato sauce with yellow onions that I made a while ago for future use.



We still had some dried Espelette chiles laying around, two of which I boiled with the beans to soften them. I could then scrape out the meat to be mixed with salt and olive oil for a spicy condiment to enliven all sorts of tame and boring foods.


After about an hour and a half, the beans were done. I separated them into one bucket for some other time and a nice, smallish portion for our dinner. Those I pan-fried in duck fat with a few bacon bits and a lot of Curcuma and white pepper. the Curcuma [an immune system boosting root in the ginger family, also called Turmeric] turned the beans quite yellow. Such a lovely fit with our colorful post!



Beans, sauce, and fettuccine are ready to go, let’s eat!


Happy Autumn, my friends!


Sook, by any other name, still Sook



Today we commemorate my father-in-law’s fifth Yahrzeit. He was the kindest and gentlest father-in-law any woman could ever wish for and I loved him dearly.



Irv “Sook” Leon, 15 August 1920 – 23 October 2013


In the summer of 2010, my in-laws stayed with us in Atenas, Costa Rica for several weeks, during which time we celebrated Sook’s 90th birthday.


Owing to some health issues, he was instructed by his doctor to exercise regularly for strength and improved circulation. Since our house sat on a very steep hill, it was impossible for Sook to exercise by walking – not only for him, truth be told! – so we developed a regiment including water exercises in the lap pool, followed by a tropical fruit smoothy and a nap in a comfy lounge chair on the shaded terrace. He quite liked this spa vacation routine!


What he liked best about his water sport, I illustrated with the first picture in this post. The outside edge of the lap pool sat above an almost vertical slope toward the tract below us. That’s the strip of grassy green curving along the bottom edge of the picture. Below that lot was another as yet unimproved homesite which the construction crew of a building site across the street used to play soccer during breaks. The builder brought the crew to the building site every morning around sunrise. He careened down the switchback road in a panel truck, the loading area filled to capacity with men tossed hither and fro during the sharp turns. Toward evening, the same truck with its human cargo could be heard echoing across the canyons as its too-weak engine strained to conquer the impossible gradient, the driver downshifting again and again in desperation. The crew foreman lived on the building site for the duration, thus functioning also as a night guard against theft. His wife cooked the meals for everyone and, as we observed from above, she also did some laundry for the guys. After meals, the older workers would prefer to play cards, while the younger ones released their energy with a vigorous game of soccer.

Sook would delight in watching these games from the pool because the hard-working men had such fun. The whoops and hollers of sheer joy easily rose to our level on the hill and we would cheer each goal with them. Every now and then, one of the players would kick much too forcefully, dropping the ball into the jungle of the canyon below. The men would then send their youngest and presumably most agile crew member to climb down and retrieve the precious object. Those were tense moments for us watching helplessly until we saw the kid climb back up without having been bitten by one of the vipers that live down there!

Sook was an avid reader and also enjoyed quiet times on the patio of the casita.


Dinner out on the other hand wasn’t his most favorite thing, although he never complained. But he wasn’t an adventurous eater and the Costa Rican cuisine left him, shall we say, unimpressed. Here we are at La Trilla, which back then, was a little dark and murky, I have to admit.


Both mom and dad are gone now and we cherish their memory.


Coal Fish without Capers

When we moved into our new home in April, our green space, a courtyard garden between the house and the street had been maintained only in minimal fashion for some time. The previous owners had long moved to Spain and stayed in Cognac only sporadically. It fell to a neighbor and avid gardener to do the most urgent tasks whenever he could. Since he knew the garden so well, we had arranged with him to become our gardener of record. But soon after we moved in, he fell ill and outside of two brief sessions, he was never again able to continue the necessary work.


Throughout the summer, always hoping he might be able to return, we watched the already unruly plants get completely out of hand. the vines grew over the barn shutters and invaded gutters and soffits, threatening the integrity of the tiled roofs of the barns. The poor cypresses drooped every which way with heavy loads of cones, and the mushrooming rosemary population proliferated beyond reason. It was high time to take action!

On the dot of eight on a greyish morning, a three-man crew of the “Thomas Espaces Verts” garden maintenance company arrived with their heavy equipment.




Some of the work was quite precarious, especially at the laurel hedge along the wall to our neighbors. It had grown through the mesh cover of the pergola by several feet.


Trying to scrape the vine tentacles off the white façade – with partial success only.

By 16 hrs, the job was nearly done and the agile monitor lizard went back on its trailer pad.



That left only the clean-up of bits and pieces which the guys accomplished with the same professionalism they had shown all day, aided by leaf blowers and rakes, before driving off into the sunset.


They were actually driving in an easterly direction, but that just doesn’t sound right, does it?


Merci beaucoup, Monsieur Thomas et son équipe !

Meanwhile, in the house, some cooking was going on. Since we both like hearty soups and I am a smidgen lazy, I usually steam fish with fennel and capers as the last step of preparing a stew. For some unknown reason, this time, I decided to bread the fish and pan fry it. I don’t like breaded food, mostly owing to the unnecessary calories, but I have to admit that it can be delicious. When I was much more slender and so young that I naturally believed I would remain slender forever, I used to get a bagful of those deep-fried breading tidbits that the Long John Silver chain used to sell. Oh, those frivolous days of yonder!

The recipe I was planning to use for the breading called for the egg dip between the flour and the crumbs to incorporated crème fraîche. Talk about calories!! What most intrigued me, though, was the idea to mix the breadcrumbs with fresh dill. A great starting point for a flavorful breading, I thought.

So, what are we cooking, then? Pollock or saithe or coalfish, that’s what we’re cooking. Pollachius virens, Gadidae, called lieu noir here in France. We’re also going to have skinny green beans with red onion & garlic & ginger confit, plus some peppers & dried tomatoes for color.  And, an accidental side dish, satiny mashed potatoes.



Here we have the potatoes which, after being started in cold water with a vegetable bouillon cube & salt, will be boiled for 20 min with a Tbl of the diced garlic.


Dill & lemon zest will become part of the breading


clockwise from top: nutmeg [for the potatoes], lemon zest [for the breading], marinated dried tomatoes [for the green beans]


Breadcrumbs with salt, white pepper, powdered coriander, dried sage mixed with 2 Tbl of fresh, chopped dill and the zest of a smallish lemon.


Before stirring 2 heaped Tbl (!) of crème fraîche in the egg, I added a little anchovy paste to enhance the overall flavor


The breaded lieu noir should rest in the fridge for 15 min [or longer] to let the breading adhere to the fish for frying. Meanwhile, one can look after the beans and their aromatic confit.


Our other side dish, the mashed potatoes truly were an accident. My original intent was to mash the boiled potatoes with the “stick” attachment of a hand-held mixer, a weak immersion blender, as I believe they’re called. Only, the darn thing wouldn’t work. Well, the mixer worked perfectly fine, but I couldn’t open the sliding shutter covering the stick attachment site. The stubborn plastic thingy plain refused to slide further than halfway. Neither could I find the mixer manual in the drawer specifically designated to hold the manuals of all our large and small appliances. All of them, except the Bosch hand mixer, apparently. Lengthy search-and-rescue missions for operating instructions while hot potatoes wait for action, any action, and another dish awaits stirring, isn’t such a hot idea. So I tossed the mixer back in the cupboard in disgust and poured the potato pieces with a little cooking liquid including the garlic bits, the nutmeg, a dollop of cream & butter, and some crème fraîche in the blender, where it turned into this incredibly smooth and silky potato cream. Sort of like soft serve ice cream, only hot and potatoey.


At least, nobody can say it’s monochromatic 😇