Paris to the Pyrenees: David Downie

By Tuesday, April 1, 2014 Permalink 0

Jonell Galloway, The Rambling EpicureParis to the Pyrenees: A Review of David Downie’s Book

 

by Jonell Galloway

CoverParisPyrenees

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Paris to the Pyrenees, David Downie takes us right along with him on the Way of St. James, without our ever leaving our armchairs. As stated in the subtitle, “A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Ways of St James,” we’re not talking about a conventional pilgrim, so we don’t expect his transformations to be like those of traditional Christians. But then, the Way of St. James, like so many pilgrim routes in the world, becomes a spiritual journey spreading well beyond the confines of Christianity.

 

St. James Camino Scallop Shel lMarker

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Downie makes it a personal journey, full of the classical culture and history he knows so well, and we have the pleasure of experiencing it along with him. His journey through classicism and French history becomes ours, as we learn about the Druids, the Galls, the Romans, former French President François Mitterand, and much more; as he carries around a stone he was convinced had magical power because it looked like a scallop shell, until it becomes too heavy to carry; as we wolf down hearty French meals and sup coarse local wine after a long day of walking, before we fall like a stone into bed.

Author of Paris to the Pyrenees. A S

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And though we might not receive penance, we end the journey all the richer in knowledge, having read a good tale, too. The book is a latter-day Canterbury Tales, with a varied lot of pilgrims, locals, and farmers all along the way. Alison Harris’ photos are in perfect harmony with Downie’s narrative. You’ll want to wear a scallop shell around your neck after reading this book.

Other sources of information about the book: NPR, 3 Quarks Daily, Boston Globe, Bonjour Paris

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Paris to the Pyrenees: David Downie Eats His Way Down the Way of St. James, Interview by Elatia Harris

By Monday, April 22, 2013 Permalink 0

 

Left: Cross with Rocks, copyright Alison Harris.
Right: Forest Cathedral, copyright Alison Harris

 

Interview by Elatia Harris

Their 50th birthdays in sight, the acclaimed travel and food writer David Downie, and his wife, the photographer Alison Harris, decided that trekking from Paris to Spain, would be just the thing. They are based in Paris, so the Way of St. James, for a millennium one of the world’s most celebrated pilgrimage routes, was right at their back door. Neither Alison nor David is religious — the classical pilgrimage experience was not what they were seeking. What were they seeking? Renewal, changed perspectives. Perhaps to test themselves, over 72 days and 1100 km of — at times — very rough terrain. And thereby hangs a tale.

Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of St. Jameslaunches this week. Scroll to the end to see book tour information. Permission to post on TRE the superb photos from the book was granted by Alison Harris.

  

ELATIA HARRIS: There has been a lot in the news lately on pilgrimage, however one understands the phenomenon. People who do it talk about needing to lose their routine and find themselves. Most set out alone, meeting others en route. You and Alison started together.

DAVID DOWNIE: Our choice to walk together happened organically. I had planned to do this on my own. Alison came along to keep me out of trouble. If you ask her, she’s likely to say it was her idea about 25 years ago, when she suggested we do something similar.

EH: Readers cannot but wonder how they would hold up, in these circumstances. I pictured a long leisurely walk through a French countryside movie. Cows, chateaux…oh, perhaps a few mildly strenuous stints.  I was so wrong. This was a test of all your combined resources. It would be for any couple. 72 days of togetherness and real physical hardship. And you had already spent years collaborating on your books.

DD: Like some old couples, we have merged in mind and spirit — if such a thing exists — while remaining very different people, and very pig-headedly independent. So, while we were together on the pilgrimage, we were often apart both in our mental spheres and physically. Alison stopped constantly, ran ahead, took detours, disappeared, got lost—often, though not always, in pursuit of a photograph. She probably walked twice as many miles as I did. By the end of the pilgrimage, my regard for her had only deepened. I can’t speak for her, of course.

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David Downie: Truffles in Black and White: Part Three: the Truffle Heartland of Southwest France

By Wednesday, February 29, 2012 Permalink 0

David Downie: Truffles in Black and White: Part Three: the Truffle Heartland of Southwest France

by David Downie

“Even an expert has difficulty distinguishing brumale from melanosporum,” growled Pierre-Jean Pébeyre, France’s leading dealer of fresh and conserved melanosporum. I met Pébeyre on a freezing day in February in Cahors. Like many traditionalists Pébeyre expressed hostility to spore-impregnated trees, the probable source of the brumale infestation.

Pébeyre estimated that 5 percent of the black truffles he buys at premium prices turn out to be brumales. “You buy truffles when dirty, and you can’t tell. The ugly truth comes out after brushing.”

The Pébeyre truffle plant, founded in 1897 by Pierre-Jean’s great-grandfather, is based in central Cahors, capital of the Lot département. The Lot’s pre-Revolutionary name was Quercy, a deformation of the Latin quercus—oak. The scenic, oak-covered Quercy and abutting Périgord are France’s main melanosporum source. Another common name for this truffle is truffe noire du Périgord.

With a sense of humor as noir as the truffles he trades, Pébeyre, in a blue lab coat taut over his stout frame, walked me through the sorting, grading and brushing processes. He held up two black truffles that appeared identical, with rough patterned skin like a dog’s nose. “Brush a brumale and the skin detaches,” he grunted. With a pocket knife he sliced the brumale, pointed out the dark brownish exterior and flesh, and the thick, white veins within, and offered a taste. It was crisp, smelled unpleasantly of alcohol, and was flavorless.

Pébeyre then sliced a melanosporum, noting how the outside was asphalt-black, the flesh gray-brown, the pattern of veins fine. It was crunchy, smelled pleasantly of mushroom, and, I suggested, tasted something like strawberry jam and chocolate. Pébeyre fought back a frown.

Mélanos smell and taste like mélanos,” he said, using the regional abbreviated form for melanosporum. “Why make taste or nose associations?”

The Pébeyre plant once processed tons of local melanosporum. With dwindling supplies, however, sourcing has widened to Italy and Spain. “The Italian and Spanish mélanos are just as good,” Pébeyre insisted. “The problem is brumales and others.”

Such is the demand for truffles in France that brumales and many undesirable truffle varieties are not discarded. They find their way into pâtés and truffled foods where they cannot be identified readily. France also imports around 50 tons per year of Chinese T. indicum; Pébeyre sells indicum worldwide. “Some people actually prefer it because it’s mild,” he shrugged,  “and everyone likes the price.” In Europe, Chinese truffles fetch a fraction of the price of melanosporum. Boosters say Chinese indicum taste of moss and undergrowth, are not “bad” merely “different” from melanosporum.

However some unscrupulous retailers and restaurateurs fraudulently pass off lesser truffles as melanosporum. “It’s bad for business,” sighed Pébeyre, whose products are clearly labeled. “And in this business reputation is everything.”

Over lunch at Pébeyre’s comfortable house we savored delicious tastous, sandwiches of long, thin, lightly buttered country bread and shaved raw brumale seasoned with salt and pepper baked in a very hot oven for about two minutes. We followed with hearty truffled cervelas sausages and truffled mashed potatoes.

As with white truffles, the food melanosporum accompanies should be simple. Unlike whites, however, blacks stand up to cooking. “Cooking melanosporum transforms the flavor,” said Pébeyre, citing a handful of classic French recipes including poulet en démi-deuil (roasted chicken with sliced truffles under the skin). “Cooked truffles, whether they’re fresh or conserved, are different, more complex, less forceful than fresh, raw truffles.”

Conserved melanosporum are sterilized in 115° C boiling water for 2 1/2 hours. The juice is sold separately and is, to my palate, as flavorful as the conserved truffles themselves.

The French melanosporum harvest has at times dipped to or below a mere 10 tons in bad years. There have been many bad years in recent decades, and very few good years. Pébeyre ascribed the decline to rural abandonment, meaning demographic shifts of farming populations to cities. He also cited unsuccessful propagation efforts, and changing weather patterns. “There are fewer summer storms and to thrive all truffles need heavy rainfall in July and August,” he explained, adding, “it’s possible one day we’ll simply run out of melanosporum.”

About 10 kilometers by road due south of Cahors at the government-funded Station d’expérimentation sur la truffe, chief botanist and trufficulteur Pierre Sourzat, an excitable, sinewy man in his 50s or early 60s, showed me spore-impregnated seedlings he was growing and took me to visit two truffle plantations. An affable zealot whose mission is to unravel the mystery of mycorrhization and bring back the days of 1,000-ton melanosporum harvests in France, Sourzat radiated optimism about boosting truffle production worldwide through scientific methodology, soil preparation and fertilization, and summertime irrigation. He spoke in a rapid-fire tenor voice, pulling me along as he raced to keep up with Boubou, his trained golden retriever. Within minutes Boubou had unearthed a dozen small brumales, melanosporums and other truffles.

Peak truffle production in France coincided with the phylloxera outbreak that decimated vineyards in the late 1800s, Sourzat explained. “Desperate grapegrowers replaced vineyard tracts with truffle-oak plantations. They bore fruit for decades but after World War Two weren’t well maintained or replanted, and we’re suffering the consequences now.”

Host trees take 5 to 15 years to bear truffles, producing for 40 to 60 years thereafter. “If we hadn’t reforested with spore-impregnated trees decades ago we might have no truffles at all by now,” Sourzat insisted. “Mycorrhization does work. Look at Spain. Soon plantations in Oregon, Texas and New Zealand will be commercially viable.”

In the fourth and final segment of Truffles in Black and White I travel to the legendary truffle town of Lalbenque and meet truffle-hunter Marthe Delon and her truffle-hunting pig.

The photos in this series of articles on truffles were taken by Alison Harris. You can see the entire set as a slide show in Food Art: Behind the Scenes of the Noble Truffle, food photography by Alison Harris.

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Food Art: Behind the Scenes of the Noble Truffle, food photography by Alison Harris

By Friday, February 17, 2012 Permalink 0

A slide show of truffle-hunting in the southwest of France: behind the scenes of the black diamond. Photos by Alison Harris.

 

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Don’t miss this fascinating interview with David Downie about his new book “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light”

By Friday, April 8, 2011 Permalink 0

by Jonell Galloway

Rambling Epicure correspondent David Downie gave a fascinating interview on Paris (Im)perfect about his new book Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light. A must read, that lets you get a peak preview of what’s in the book, if you haven’t already bought it.

See our article of March 31, 2011, regarding dates of book signings, radio talks, etc., and for a list of other books coming out soon.

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David Downie: Paris, Paris Delighting in Discovery

By Monday, February 28, 2011 Permalink 0

 

by David Downie

Paris, Paris Delighting in Discovery

Unlikely Discoveries Department: the tearoom, restaurant and courtyard terrace of Bonpoint, the chic clothes emporium for kiddies with well-healed parents.

The official name is “Salon de Thé Bonpoint.” The address: 6 Rue de Tournon (Tel: 01 56 24 05 79). That’s in the 6th arrondissement in Paris, a 2-minute stroll or roll-by-baby carriage from the Luxembourg Gardens and the French Senate in the Luxembourg Palace.

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David Downie: Brittle Delight

By Monday, February 28, 2011 Permalink 0

by David Downie

Confession time: for the last 25+ years I’ve lived in Paris and traveled the byways of France and Italy, tasting and writing about delicious food and lickerish wines. I’ve rarely felt gastronomic nostalgia for my native land, though the food and wine of California admittedly aren’t bad (this is serious understatement as you all know). But I have an incurable passion for peanuts in all sizes, shapes, and clonal varieties. I also love other spicy nuts, and, the real shocker, brittle. Yes, brittle. Peanut brittle not only hits all the right pleasure buds. It also whisks me back to the happy days of my youth in San Francisco and Berkeley, when “wild” was the operative descriptor.

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The Rambling Epicure is looking for food photographers who would like to exhibit their work

By Thursday, February 17, 2011 Permalink 0

by Jonell Galloway

When I had the idea of covering the entire A to Z of food, including Food Art and Food Poetry, I never dreamed it would be such a success. Our readers love it, and are asking for more.

If you’re a food photographer and would like to exhibit your work in our Food Art section, please send your portfolio to jonell@theramblingepicure.com. And please do spread the word!

Below you can view the exhibitions of our two staff members, Alison Harris and Meeta Khurana Wolff.

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