Moroccan Miracle

When some 180 skiing journalists from 33 different countries met to ski and compete in Morocco’s High Atlas mountains recently, it was declared a “miracle.”  The organizers (Belgian and Moroccan) had to overcome monumental difficulties, including a dearth of snow, to host this unique event.Ouka.1

The Journalists’ International Ski Club (S.C.I.J.) (sceej)  holds a meet in a different country every year attended by members — professional journalists — often as many as 300, who ski for fun, race for more fun, attend interesting and lively round table discussions on timely issues, visit nearby sights and savor the best of local cuisine. This was the first time the group met to ski in Africa.

I’ve been a member of this amazing organization since 1978, attended 19 different meets skiing in 16 different countries, from Spain to Japan, Bulgaria to Argentina. The Moroccan meet on the slopes of Oukaimeden, about 70 kilometers from Marrakech, was definitely different.

No snow-making equipment, no gondolas or fast six-passenger chair lifts, no cozy mountain restaurants, Oukaimeden is a step back in time.  Skiing here may not be much different than it was back in 1937 when the first poma lift was installed.  Today there are six of those, plus a chair lift which accesses the peak at 3,269 meters.  The views from the top are awesome, and the run down is challenging.  Riding the poma lift to the top of the main intermediate slope was no less a challenge.  At the start, it jerks you up in the air. No complaints, however, as an all-day lift ticket costs just 10 euro.

Ouka.3 Where else can you ride a donkey to the slopes?  Enterprising Moroccans were on hand with their beasts to offer transport to the slopes for a mere euro. As racing is de rigueur for SCIJ, by the grace of Allah snow fell the night before the giant slalom race adding enough extra white stuff so a professional crew from the Sierra Nevada mountains in Spain could prepare the slopes and set the gates.

SCIJ races follow professional standards, and many members (those who are fast) take the course very seriously.  In the past (when I was younger), I did on occasion win medals and prizes. It was a thrill, but those days are over for me. 

In addition to slalom, there is a cross country competition.  The Scandinavians usually capture the prizes in this race.  At “Ouka” there was serious concern that there would not be enough snow for the cross country event, alas another miracle. Ouka.11 Those wizards from Spain did it yet again, and prepared a course.  It was shorter than usual, just one kilometer for women, but at the high altitude, most felt that was enough.  This was the first time there had ever been  cross country competition at Ouka.

Members of the Dutch team always serve their traditional pea soup at the end of the cross country race.  Enjoying the warm and tasty soup with us were members of the Moroccan army who were on hand to help with the races.  One kind soldier even helped me up after I fell on the track.

SCIJ meets usually attract local media.  The Moroccan event seemed to be a sensation for  press and television crews who were always on hand to publicize our doings.

Off the slopes at Ouka, many indulged in a “hamman,” – a Moroccan steamy bath and scrub down.  I tried it.  Stretched out on hot tiles, a pretty woman doused my body with warm water, lathered me with black, sudsy soap, then scrubbed and scrubbed with a rough mitt.  I was wiped out after the treatment, but definitely felt clean.  Many also took advantage of massages offered at bargain prices. There were more bargains in souvenirs.  Berber jewelry was a special hit. Moroccans, arms loaded with necklaces, followed us, offering their treasures.  As this was Morocco, it became a game – to see how much you could get the seller to lower his price.  My Ouka.20 Irish friend Isabel was a pro at this and ended up with more than a dozen necklaces, some for as little as 2 and 3 euro each.  

Another interesting après-ski activity was a short hike in the surroundings to see ancient (1,500 BC) etchings in the red-brown sandstone.   But, the most après-ski fun was on the disco floor.  One evening the party even moved to the hotel pool (indoors) with a group deciding to jump in, fully clothed.  

As Morocco is not a typical ski destination and the skiing is limited, several days of our week in the country involved other activities.  We toured Marrakech where we were overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells in its labyrinth of souks. The day we set off for the mountains (a caravan of 36 four-wheel drive Toyota land Ouka.18 cruisers), we stopped at a “Kasbah” nearing completion as a luxury resort,  were welcomed by dignitaries at a town en route with a reception, then had a lunch stop at an eco-resort in the mountains.  At all these stops, as well as wherever we went, a Moroccan band was on hand to welcome us with traditional sounds – mainly drums and a type of shouting song.

Meals were tasty, often the Moroccan standard, tagine (stew with meat and sometimes fruit and nuts) and/or gilled meats, usually preceded by a buffet of a variety of salads.  The concoction with cumin-spiced eggplant was my favorite.  These repasts in Marrakech were held at lavish hotels richly decorated with colorful tiles and marble.

On the serious side, during the meet there were conferences on the economy of Morocco, the role of women in modern Morocco and freedom of the press in the country.  The session on women generated lots of questions and discussion.

Since I have been attending SCIJ annual meetings for so many years, I have made numerous friends from numerous countries. I look forward to seeing and skiing with them each year.  Coming up are a meet in Argentina in late August, and one on the slopes of Banff, Canada, in Feb. 2011.   I hope I can join the fun.

(For more photos, click on the photo gallery, center column.  After the week's ski meet, I joined a post tour to see more of Morocco  Read about it in my next blog.)    


Homage to Helen

Helen Geneva Theresa Cecila Keefe Koester, Aug. 7, 1918 – Jan. 3, 2010. My mother, a remarkable woman with a contagious passion for life, died at the age of 91 in a nursing home in Louisville, Kentucky. It’s not just my three brothers and I who will miss her.IMG_0037   She had many friends and fans and seemed to touch the hearts of whomever she met.

“She was a delightful lady.  We’re better off for knowing her.”  “She was a sweet heart.” – comments from the staff in the homes where she recently resided.

She loved to talk, socialize and make new friends. She was quick to praise and compliment, often telling those she met that they had beautiful eyes, a lovely dress, a nice smile…She made people feel good.

Helen was a classy lady who loved clothes, jewels, furs, pretty things – and chocolate.  Her numerous collections included Hummels, madonnas, miniature turtles, silver spoons, and ceramic Bourbon bottles (although she was a teetotaler).  But chocolate was her 2009_1103usaoct090095 passion.  She used to hide Hershey bars and Oreo cookies in secret places for her chocolate fix.  Growing up, we’d beg her to make her famous chocolate cake.  She claimed my father proposed after tasting it.  Whenever we visited in recent years, we’d take her to Graeter’s, her favorite ice cream shop, for a chocolate cone.  I sent frequent care packages from Europe with quality chocolate.  (I figured she deserved better than Hershey bars).

She was also an animal lover – a trait she Helen1 passed on to all her offspring. We always had a dog, at least one cat, as well as fish, chameleons, mice, birds,– even a pet crow.  In recent years her constant companion was Brandie, a cream-colored toy poodle who clung to her like Velcro. 

But, her children were her life.  She showered us with love and attention.  Not just us.  Ours was the house in the neighborhood where all the kids would congregate.  She was fun to be around.  As children, she made sure we all learned to swim – summer swimming lessons at a nearby pool were a must.

She loved fun and adventure.  When she was in her ’70s we took her on a thrilling white water rafting trip in Colorado. She often came to visit me in Europe and was the perfect traveling companion on our numerous treks to different countries. She was thrilled with new sights and experiences.  However, I went too far when I took her on a Greek cruise – not the luxury kind.  It was a small boat in July.  The sea was rough. The tiny cabin was scorching – no air conditioning.  She got terribly sea sick, but did not complain, although she said she’d never get on another boat after that.

Helen considered herself “Irish,” as her distant ancestors hailed from the Emerald Isle.  I insisted she was “American” to no avail.  On St. Patrick’s Day we were awakened Helen with “When Irish eyes are smiling,” blasting from the hi fi. She made sure we wore green on March 17.  She was proud of her beautiful hair, “good Irish stock,” she called it, and told me I was lucky that I inherited it.

Of course, she was not perfect.  She could be very stubborn, and her temper was not one to reckon with.  We had our share of mother – daughter fights. 

But, dear Helen, you were fantastic and incredible and wonderful.  I miss you. I treasure the memories you’ve provided.

Joyeux Noel

This will be our sixth Christmas in Provence.  Hard to believe!   We always miss Germany at this time of the year.  No one does Christmas like the Germans with Advent wreaths, sparkling, tasteful decorations and those fabulous Christmas markets with hot mulled wine, tasty sausages, spicy cookies and delicious Stollen.  But, we've come to appreciate Provencal Christmas.

In these parts the big celebration is Christmas Eve with a grand meal amongst family.  If children are involved, Santa usually makes an appearance after the meal to distribute gifts to all.  We've been honored to share the festivities with the family of a former neighbor, Veronique, on two occasions.Noel 2006   Her sisters, their families, mother, grandchildren — all gathered at her home and all contributed something to the meal.

The Reveillon (Christmas Eve) meal is a very special feast of numerous courses.  Champagne and hors d'oeuvres mark the start, usually at 9 p.m. or later.  Then there's  a seafood course with oysters, as well as other delicacies such as shrimp and smoked salmon.  Foie gras is another favorite (more on that later).  At Veronique's one year we had a stew of wild boar for the main course.  Pere Noel (Santa)  arrived shortly after midnight.  After the gifts, eating resumed with dessert, and the party continued until 3 a.m.

In Provence, it's a tradition to have 13 desserts, symbolizing Christ and the 12 apostles, following the Reveillon meal. Dates, figs, raisins, hazelnuts, almonds, nougat, fresh and crystallized fruit and fougasse (a type of flat bread) are among the selections, usually accompanied by a sweet wine.

Two years ago British friends invited us to celebrate on Christmas Day following British traditions.There  were 10 of us for an extraordinary multi-course meal with, in deference to the French, Noel2.2008 foie gras, followed by  roast beef, numerous vegetables and that fantastic British Christmas pudding. The Brits put fun into Christmas with "crackers" — everyone gets one at his/her plate.  You pop the ends of your firecracker-like cracker to find a prize inside — a tiny toy, pen, mini note pad.  And, to add to the fun at that party, we all were given Santa hats to wear.  A jolly good Christmas. 

Last year I invited French and British friends for a Reveillon chez nous.  They all arrived with contributions.  I special ordered a large turkey  – a la Americain  – 18 pounds.  French turkeys are usually much smaller.  They were all impressed.Noël turkey 2008

I also prepared foie gras (oversized liver from a duck or goose that has been force fed).  This is a very controversial subject as many contend the poor birds suffer during the last weeks of their lives when tubes of corn are put down their throats.  As an animal lover I feel guilty, but foie gras is a wonderfully sinful pleasure — smooth, silky, rich and exquisite in taste.  As it is such a staple in the French diet, at least at festive meals,  years ago I worked for a weekend at a foie gras farm in the Dordogne in western France to learn more about the delicacy.  The geese led happy outdoor lives until they were brought indoors for the period of forced eating, but they did not resist the feeding, and they did not seem tortured. They were humanely butchered and every part of the carcass, not just the enormous liver, was put to culinary use. 

 Is this any worse than stuffing American cattle, which are grass-eating animals, with corn in disgusting feed lots?  Or crowding  thousands of chickens in dark pens and fast feeding them to the point that many are unable to move their fat bodies more than a few steps. See the documentary "Food," then decide. 

French love to discuss food.  Everyone is eager to give tips on foie gras preparation which is very tricky lest the liver get too hot and melt. Even my veterinarian felt obligated to relate his method  The recipe I followed last year called for the addition of Calvados and apples.  Everyone was pleased.

New Year's Eve means another Reveillon feast.  The menu may be similar to Christmas Eve.  This year we've been invited to celebrate with French friends. As food is foremost,  we even had a pre-party meeting to decide who would bring what, which wines would be needed, etc.  I just completed a foie gras cooking course, so I'm bringing the foie gras with two wines, Sauterne, a sweet golden wine which is recommended with the rich liver, and a dry Jurancon.

Wishing all a joyous holiday season and a very prosperous 2010 — and Bon Appetit!

Tracking down Truffles

Many, many years ago when I lived in Germany a French friend honored me with the privilege of accompanying him and his friends on a truffle hunt.  I had been intrigued by the mystery and mystique surrounding this prized and elusive fungus which grows underground.  After years of pestering him to join a hunt, he finally issued an invitation, but only on the condition that I would tell no one of the location where we would conduct the secret search.

We were in  northern France near the River Meuse where Regis, my friend, had a friend who supposedly Truffle8 frequently found truffles in the forest.  We set off into the woods, basket and a tool for digging in hand.  It was snowing.  It was freezing cold. Truffle season is from November through March. 

We started in an area of thick brush at the edge of the forest where a type of nut tree grew. We were told to look for a patch under the tree with no vegetation.  Truffles grow near the roots, depleting the soil of nourishment so other plants cannot grow on the spot.  We found many such spots and began digging, combing, sifting through the icy ground. 

And so it went, for hours it seemed.  I kept unearthing blackened, semi-decayed acorns, worms and roots — but nary a "black diamond," as truffles are called.  None of the others hit pay dirt either. Darkness approached.  The cold pierced my fingers like tiny needles. I was beginning to think it was all a hoax. 

The hunt ended sans truffles, but to reassure me that they really do find truffles, Regis' friend invited us back to his home where he proudly displayed a large jar filled with the knobby fungi.  And, his wife prepared  a delicious chicken dinner with truffles.

I am still in awe of truffle mystique, and now I live in southern France where precious truffles are big business.  Truffle markets and truffle festivals abound. There are even truffle masses where the earth's sacred treasure is blessed. Those in Truffle13 the truffle business belong to an exclusive "confrerie."  They turn up at festivities wearing their "uniform"– long black robes with huge medallions hanging from yellow ribbons around their necks topped off with broad rimmed black hats.  Consumers spend lavishly on the cherished delicacy, and restaurants charge dearly for dishes graced with this culinary gem.

I  was  thrilled with a recent invitation to join a truffle weekend with French journalists in Richerenches, a small town known to have the largest truffle market in the country.

Truffles have traditionally been associated with Perigord in southwest France, but we were in southeast France.  In fact the Porsche of truffles (there are several varieties) is known as the Perigord truffle, but it is cultivated in these parts where farmers plant acres of oak trees which are excellent truffle hosts.

Our truffle weekend got off to a tasty start with a Friday evening four-course meal, each course prepared with truffles. The first course was "brouillade," soft scrambled eggs with truffles.  This dish is rated as being the best for appreciating the earthy truffle taste. Presentation — served in an egg shell — also got high marks.  The journalists, mainly food writers, were critical of the main course — chicken, cabbage and risotto all prepared with truffles.  They detected little truffle taste.  I had to concur. The reason: it's' too early in the season as truffles don't mature until Christmas, they concluded

Nonetheless the next day at the truffle market there was plenty of buying and selling of black diamonds.  This market is primarily for professionals.  Growers come with sacks of the treasure and  make the rounds of the buyers to see who will offer the best price. The latter set up shop under their car trunk hoods or the back of vans where they have a small scale to weigh the merchandise.  They hold the truffles up to their nose for a whiff of the strong scent, examine the fungi carefully, often scratching Truffle4 the surface to check the interior color.  The darker the color, the more flavor the truffle will have.  It's all shrouded in secrecy. The buyers and sellers want no photographs.  Most did not want to talk to journalists.  It is said they fear thieves. No doubt that's not all they fear.

A sizeable quantity of truffles is worth thousands of euros, and truffle theft is a big problem.  At this market the going rate was between 150 and 230 euros ($225 – $345) per kilo (2.2 lbs.), but throughout the season the price will fluctuate depending on quantity and quality of available truffles.

After lunch in a crowded community hall — truffle omelet — we set off to a truffle farm where we accompanied Christian Allegre and his dog Chou Chou, a small, sleek, speedy black Labrador, into the fields where oak trees grew. "The dog is the master.  We follow him," Allegre said.

Chou Chou went crazy, running madly from tree to tree, sniffing the ground, then often furiously Truffle10 digging.  Allegre was quick on the spot, rewarding Chou Chou with a treat. The lively canine let him take over the digging with his truffle tool. He did uncover truffles, not on every spot, but frequently.

Allegre told us about the trees, truffles, dogs — and thieves. The latter are known to come to truffle farms at night early in the season after a rain, marking bare spots where the earth is raised indicating a truffle is growing underneath.  They return later — also at night — to  unearth and carry off the riches.

The best and biggest truffles are found after a full moon, Allegre said.  Labradors make excellent truffle dogs because they are "calm, gourmands and attached to their master," he explained.  Pigs were once used to sniff out the fungi, but they are too big and they can be mean. As to the trees, they must grow for eight years before their roots  will nourish truffles.

Why he is enamored of the black diamond?  "It's magic.  It's mysterious. It's a product of deception."

Our truffle ramblings ended with a taste of truffle ice cream prepared by a noted pastry chef: creamy vanilla with black specks of truffle that was surprisingly good.

Click on the photo of truffles in the Photo Album for more photos.


Back in the USA

Our recent trip to the US  got off to an ominous start.  Our flight from Marseille to Munich for the first leg of the journey was more than an hour late in departing.  We missed the connection to the transatlantic flight, and all Lufthansa flights to the US that afternoon.  We had to spend the night in Munich which wouldn't have been bad had we been in the city, but we were in the boonies at an airport hotel far from excitement.  At least Lufthansa paid for the hotel and dinner, although the latter was pathetic.

Fortunately all was on the upswing after our Munich misadventure.  We had wonderful family reunions, ate some very tasty food, did major damage to the credit card with power shopping, admired the exquisite fall colors, watched some interesting and informative television, and celebrated Halloween.

The trip began in Winchester, Va., where  Bicycle Bob's son Rob, wife Buffie and two grandsons, Samuel (6)and Lang (4) live with their gorgeous, three-legged cat, Shitake, (9). We visited an apple orchard where the boys delighted in picking apples.  We feasted on delicious apple cider and apple cider donuts. Blog4

Bob's daughter Kellie, a highly successful NYC graphic artist,  and boyfriend Michael joined us for the weekend and a visit to the Marterella winery, owned by Rob's boss, where we sampled excellent wines.  We learned that many former Virginia tobacco fields have been planted with grapevines, and wineries now abound in the area.

We joined a stream of cars on Skyline Drive which is the northern part of the Blue Ridge Parkway offering superb views of the Blue Ridge mountains, especially picturesque bathed in the orange, gold and red tones of autumn. 

Food was also a highlight of this part of the trip.  Rob grilled fish, beef filet and lamb. You can't beat American beef. We ate at a Mexican restaurant, a Thai restaurant featuring sushi, and an incredible supermarket, Wegman's, with counters offering a wide variety of hot food to eat in the restaurant section. 

Supermarkets are indeed super in the US. So huge and clean and offering such amazing selections.  Bob went overboard in the cereal section, bringing four boxes of healthy kinds not available here back in his suitcase.  (In addition to being a bicycle addict, he's a bit of a health fanatic.)

The department stores are another delight.  I had a field day in Macy's in Louisville which was the next stop on our trip.  It's such a joy to shop where the prices are in dollars, not euros. Compared to France, US stores offer bargains in clothes, shoes, linens.  We had to buy an extra suitcase to get our purchases back to France.

Blog16 My mother has been a resident of an assisted living home in Louisville, Kentucky.  She's 91, and sadly in her last days with a variety of medical problems.  But, we had a great reunion.   Joining us in Louisville were my brother Tom from San Francisco; brother Steve, wife Yoshie and son Tai (13) from Boulder, Colorado, and nephew David and his girlfriend Sabrina from northern Kentucky.

We had a dinner together at the home where Mother lives, complete with a chocolate Halloween cake.  My mother is a chocoholic.  We took her to Graeter's, famous for homemade ice cream where she  savored her favorite flavor. 

As a dedicated foodie, I did some Internet research on Louisville restaurants before our departure. We followed the recommendations to Ramsi's Cafe on the World, a funky and fun place with an extensive menuI was knocked out by "coconut scallops served with horseradish Mandarin sauce, fried plantains and spinach Alfredo"  Bob was equally pleased with "Pastafari," a tangy concoction of  blackened grouper over Kentucky spinach with roasted potatoes, tomatoes and gemelli pasta. We liked it so much we made a return trip with the group on Halloween, that unique American holiday.

No one does Halloween like Hillcrest Avenue in Louisville.  Every house on this long street decorates for the occasion: ghosts, goblins, skeletons, witches, graves with moving corpses, pumpkins and orange lights.  Some even featured live entertainment on the porch — costumed dancers. Blog25 Two had bands in the front yard. Crowds come to take it all in on foot on Halloween.  We joined the masses for the macabre, crazy, fun experience.

In Louisville we stayed at a motel  where every evening we enjoyed informative TV — political news commentary by Keith Obermann and Rachel Maddow on MSNBC.  Much better than CNN International which we watch in France.

Before returning to France, we spent two more days in Winchester.  I headed into nearby Washington, D.C., to meet Jolene Carpenter, the Stars and Stripes travel editor based in the city who has been handling the articles I write for the paper with TLC for 10 years.  It was great to put a face behind all those years of emails, and to enjoy a truly  gourmet lunch:  autumn squash risotto with baby scallops and pomegranate oil at Chef Geoff's.

While in the city I also met Gene Kramer, an old friend from the Journalists' International Ski Club.  Gene, who has served as an Associated Press bureau chief in many parts of the world, gave me a tour of the National Press Club after we had coffee in the prestigious surroundings.

Indeed, it was a "bon voyage," but it's also good to be back home in Provence. 

(For more photos click on the cat in the middle column.)