For years, my father told me a tale about a mysterious walking stick. He had seen one on one of his travels in France with my mother thirty years ago, but young marrieds as they were, alas there were no funds for him to obtain one. These are no ordinary walking sticks though. The Makhila is a special type of walking stick made in the Basque country in southwestern France and northern Spain, and the authentic ones are made in a single workshop in the village of Larressore, France. Run by the family Bergara who have been making Makhilas since the eighteenth century, these renowned sticks have become the symbol of the honorable Basque man. Possibly going as far back as the Middle Ages, these sticks were originally used by sheep herders and travelers to provide protection from wolves and highwaymen. This past summer, my entire family spent a month in the Basque region of France, and there was no conceivable way we would visit this region without getting my father one of the sticks he had talked about for the entirety of my youth.
And so the day came when the seven of us loaded up in the car and drove to Larressore. It took a moment to find, but finally we pulled into a small pelota court on the side of which was a tiny workshop. When we walked in, we were greeted by a Bergara family member, Charles, who was to be our guide through the process.
All around were photos of famous people being presented with one of these Makhilas. There was Charles de Gaulle, Prince Charles, Winston Churchill, and even actress, Natalie Portman. Charles began showing us the sticks that were currently in the making.
He explained to us the long and exact process that must be followed before one can finally receive an authentic stick. First, they hunt for quality branches on Medlar trees, a type of shrub or small tree to be exact. Once they are found, they make exact incisions that will later form designs on the stick. Several weeks of waiting go by before they can come back and harvest the stick. After shaving the bark off, the sticks are then heated in a kiln and straightened out.
Once this process is complete, the sticks are laid across the rafters of the workshop and allowed to naturally dry and cure. The curing process takes a total of fifteen years! After the stick is cured, Charles takes one final look at the stick, and at this point will decide whether to throw it out or not, depending on if the stick cured properly. If the stick passes the test, then he coats it with a secret family stain, the exact ingredients of which have been kept a mystery for generations to all but the Bergara family. After the stick has dried again, Charles fits it with silver, brass, or gold fittings, and an iron spike that the pommel screws on top of.
So, there we were the seven of us, in this tiny shop, and my father lit up like a child. Many decisions had to be made before we could order his very own stick. Charles began by asking my father’s height and weight since each stick is made to the specifications of the future owner. Next, my father wrote down his initials, his artist’s chop, and his motto. Every Makhila is fitted with these elements: the initials, name, date, and motto (which are then translated into Basque).
My father’s motto, “all through time”, was to be engraved on the stick. Charles informed us that it would take another four months before the Makhila was ready. At last, this past November, my father finally received his cherished Makhila, a noble walking companion for a noble man!
This past summer my family and I spent a month in the Pays Basque region in the southwestern part of France. It had been my mother’s birthday wish that all seven of us be together in France at least once in her lifetime, so we all worked hard to make sure that her wish would come true. Little did she suspect that we had another surprise in store. Before our departure, my father, siblings, and I had tossed around ideas of a nice dinner, or perhaps a champagne tasting. However, it wasn’t until we’d arrived in France that we hatched a better plan. All was decided. My father, sister, and I were to take my mother on a drive up into the foothills of the Pyrenees.
Meanwhile, my brothers, Elliot and Alexander, were to go to the market and pick out cheeses, meats, champagnes, and other delectables. Alexander had researched and found a boat rental company, and we reserved a sailboat with its own captain in Hendaye, a port town just south of Saint Jean de Luz. That evening we told my mother we had reserved a table at a restaurant in Hendaye. My father pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant, but told her we wanted to take a look at the port before dinner. We made our way around the restaurant, and as we turned the corner, my mother caught sight of my two brothers and my sister-in-law Cynthia aboard a thirty-foot sailboat. Needless to say, my mother was beyond surprised!
We boarded the vessel where my brothers had beautifully laid out the spread of food on trays. There was charcuterie of all varieties, stuffed peppers, olives, shrimp, various tapenades, shaved truffles, cheeses, and an array of pastries, chocolates, and macaroons.
Sitting alongside was a champagne bucket full of ice and five different bottles of champagne; Perrier-Laurent, Veuve Cliquot, Moët, Roederer, and Taittinger.
The captain of the boat took us out into the bay, and we sailed along the coast and down the shoreline of France and past the border of Spain. Once we were out at sea, we each took turns steering the boat, and it took my father (who had been a sailor in the Navy) little time before he was messing with ropes and knots.
As we cruised along the coastline, a beautiful sunset began to spread out before our eyes.
The experience was breathtaking. It was then that we decided to get scientific about the champagnes in a blind tasting of the five varieties. After having tried them all, our verdict was almost unanimous: Taittinger was our favorite. Just before dark, we pulled back into the harbor and moored the boat. We thanked the captain and began walking back to the car. However, the night had something else in store for us. We happened to spot a concert playing just beside the water a little further down the quay. We were all in a rather pleasant mood (champagne will do that for you), so we decided to join the festivities and went to see what was going on. As soon as we joined the crowd, we let loose and began to dance.
The evening was cool and the people were radiantly smiling. Rosé was to be found on every table. We made merry and reveled in our good fortune until the small hours of the night when we returned to our rented house in the Pyrenees. The evening was wonderful, one I shall never forget. It was a birthday success one can only dream of.
Louis XIV loved the dance, Louis XVI loved locks, and Napoleon was passionate about mathematics. Hobbies are essential to all people. They add character and make people interesting. Though my hobbies are numerous, there is one that stands out more than the rest. It all started when I was still just a teenager. On her return from yet another buying trip in France, my mother presented me with a small gift: a gift that would develop into a strong passion. What she gave me was a variety of lead soldier molds and casting metal. In the beginning, it was a collaborative effort on the part of my father and me. We casted a dozen or so together, and then he would paint them. However, as time went on, I gradually took over the operation.
Overall, the process takes about a day per soldier. First, I must powder the molds so the metal will cool faster.
Then I melt the metal and pour it into the mold.
Sometimes this takes multiple attempts until I get a good cast. Next I cut off the excess and file down my soldier.
Once complete, I paint the parts and glue the soldier together. This part of the process is an all-day affair, requiring patience as I wait for paint to dry.
It wasn’t until I was sixteen that I fully launched myself into mass production. That summer proved very productive. I probably casted a good forty or so soldiers. To top it all, I spent that summer making a 50” by 50” diorama. I laid out my plan topographically, making two hills and a road down the middle with trees from model train sets scattered around. I added a stone well, and constructed a scale model of a house out of wood, going as far as to make shingles out of cut-up popsicle sticks. As a hobby, it was a gradual affair. At first, all I was doing was casting Napoleon’s Imperial Guard. My options were limited then. Eventually I attained more molds; Napoleon on horseback, canons and crew, and sappers.
After I amassed a good number of troops, I realized that my French army had no enemy, and that their battle-ready positions on my diorama looked rather silly. Therefore, I obtained molds for the British foot soldiers.
Hobbies develop slowly, and there were times when I had to sell a few soldiers in order to afford supplies for more. Over the years, I have acquired books on Napoleonic uniforms and have become very detail oriented, going as far as to paint insignias and cocardes on my soldier’s uniforms. My most recent endeavors include making French line infantry, skirmishers, and developing a new diorama (I had to throw away the old one since it was too cumbersome and hard to transport from residence to residence). I’ve been asked before what I plan to do with them, or when I will reach a stopping point. I have no intention of stopping any time soon. Hobbies are meant to be fun, and quitting is never fun. I’m not sure what new facets I will delve into, but I’m sure that I’ll finish my next diorama and then expand even more. Who knows, maybe cavalry is in my future. In any case, my passion for French history has fueled some very large armies!
On May 8th, 1945, church bells rang throughout Paris, ushering in a new age of peace in Europe. Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French Forces, announced an official declaration over the radio, announcing an end to the conflict we recognize as World War II and marking the conclusion of a six-year war and the Nazi oppression in France. Having been the symbolic leader of the Resistance in France during the German Occupation, de Gaulle addressed his countrymen and their allies with a moving speech that reached the very core of French hearts.
“The war is won. This is victory. It is the victory of the United Nations and of France. The German enemy has just capitulated before the Allied armies of the West and the East. The French Command was present and took part during the act of capitulation…
While the rays of glory shine once more on our resplendent flag, the nation expresses its thoughts and love, first, toward those who died for her, then toward those, who in her service fought and suffered so much for her. Not one effort of these soldiers, of these sailors, of these aviators, not one act of courage or selflessness of her sons and of her daughters, not one suffering of these men and women prisoners, not one mourning, not one sacrifice, not one tear will have thus been lost in vain. In joy and national pride, the French people address their fraternal salute to their valiant allies, who, like themselves, and for the same cause, have long and painfully languished in sorrow. To their heroic armies and to the leaders who command them, to all these men and to all these women, who in the entire world, have fought, suffered, worked, so that in the end of ends, justice and liberty would be theirs. Honor! Honor for all our armies and their leaders, honor to our people whose terrible trials have neither reduced nor weakened them, honor to the United Nations who have joined their blood to our blood, their sorrows to our sorrows, their hope to our hope, and who today triumph with us. ….Long live France!”
Victory over the Axis powers was celebrated worldwide in every major city, but nowhere was it more welcoming than in Paris. A sensitive subject for most of the French who endured this era of resisted subjugation, my introduction to this period in history was through my host grandmother, Genevieve Guy, who is now ninety-nine years old.
Genevieve remembered life under the puppet government of Vichy in southern France and would tell me about it whenever it was just the two of us at the chateau that her family has lived in for generations. After school, I would often sit and talk with her about her experiences. Ration cards, curfews, using car tires for shoes, and even executions in her town englobed her experiences during the Nazi occupation. Most of her stories she told to me while we were watching a documentary on World War II together. Having formed a very close bond with me, she imparted how she and others dealt with events at the time. She told me about the opposing viewpoints of de Gaulle and of Pétain, the president of Vichy, France, and about the shame of the collaborators and their punishment after the Allied Victory. I also learned about Jean Moulin, the Resistance leader in southern France, who was a native of Béziers where I was living. Most of all, she talked about her father, a former soldier of the First World War. At the outbreak of World War II, he was then a doctor in Montpellier, in the Languedoc region of France. His feeling was one of disgust with the war due to his disappointment in how the First World War had accomplished so little. Nevertheless, the end of World War II meant more than simply reinstituting national pride in people like her father. It also meant that she herself no longer had to watch idly as a generation of men and women coped with having been vanquished. The 8th of May represented something momentous to her. It was a revitalization of the French communal spirit. The reunifying effect after Victory in Europe Day was an assurance that the soul of France was still intact. Therefore, this day, like that of seventy-two years ago, we must acknowledge the rebellious spirit of the millions of men and women who endured so much. Their tears were not in vain. May they never be forgotten.
This past summer, I met the parents of my French girlfriend, Pauline. Residing in the small village of Mazangé, near the town of Vendôme (a two hour drive from Paris), they live in an old house that boasts a garden, orchard, chicken and duck coop, as well as a rabbit hutch. When we arrived at their home, the gates opened up to this vast garden and patio space.
There was a practical kitchen garden as well as flowers and plants of all varieties.
I was greeted by her father Dany who was in the middle of tinkering with an old French car. He runs the operations of the village and its upkeep. A former welder, he and Pauline’s mother, Maryline, were very into motorcycles and had even taken a road trip down Route 66 a few years before. Upon my arrival, we moved to an outdoor table, and had a small aperitif of a rose thorn alcohol that Dany had made. Once her mother came home, we drove to the grocery store so as to collect things for that evening’s dinner. I had been bold enough to offer my culinary skills for the evening since I’d spent the last year working with my brother Elliot, the chef at Theo’s in Fayetteville. However, I hadn’t imagined how hard on my nerves it would prove to be. For one thing, I knew I wanted to prepare fish since it was summertime, and Pauline had told me that her family tends to eat light meals. However, when we arrived at the fish market, I recognized only a few of the fish there. As I stood there undecided, I began to wonder if I could even pull it off. Finally, after much discussion about which fish were similar to those that I knew, Maryline (who had accompanied us) and I decided upon a fish together. I had never heard of it before, and still to this day cannot recall the name. It looked similar to turbot though, a thin white flaky fish that takes only a few minutes to cook. It was either going to make me or break me in the eyes of her parents (or so I thought). We arrived back at the house, and I immediately took control of the kitchen and began frantically trying to get myself together. Meanwhile, Pauline’s parents and sister did some gardening and Pauline picked radishes and arugula for my anticipated dish.
Pauline tried reassuring me that whatever I was going to do would be fine, but I was losing my mind at this point. My nerves were shot, and the pressure was on in my mind. I wanted to make a great first impression of myself to her family. After sautéing and mounting a medley of carrots, zucchini, and radishes in butter, I made an arugula pesto out of the arugula from the garden. Then came the most frightening part…the fish! I took a few deep breathes and reassured myself that I had done this enough times and in even more stressful circumstances. I told Pauline to gather everyone at the table and that I’d be only a few minutes more. I began with what I knew and seasoned the fish on both sides. I got my pan hot with oil in it and began laying the fish down. At first I wasn’t sure, but soon enough I realized that it was all going to work out just fine. I seared my fish off and began to plate: arugula pesto on the bottom, vegetables next, and the fish on top with a squeeze of lemon and a little more pesto. I then looked out of the kitchen window to see if all was ready, but my heart sank. No one was at the table! I rushed to Pauline and asked why nobody was gathered. She explained that this was normal and that it usually took a while before everyone finished up what they were doing. Though she persisted on how casual things were at her parent’s house, I spent the next few minutes painfully stressing about whether my food would stay hot. Finally, everyone gathered around the iron garden table, and we began eating. They were thrilled with the result, and to my relief, even hailed it worthy of a gastronomic restaurant. I’d done it! I’d succeeded in impressing the French with what culinary skills I had.
Timing is everything, both in baking and in good fortune! French Metro Antiques shares its good fortune this weekend in presenting its very own French pastry chef. Pauline Nieltz, who makes her home in the Loire Valley in France, has been visiting our family in Fayetteville for the past three months. Trained in the culinary arts in the city of Angers and in the art of pastry making at the Centre de Formations d'Apprentissages in Tours, Pauline offers her sweet creations to our friends and customers at French Metro's Champagne and Pastry Party this Saturday, March 25th, from 5 to 7 pm Merci, Pauline!
What is a "salon" ? This French-origin word has different meanings. The first would be the definition of an elegant living room. The second is "a fashionable assemblage of notables (as literary figures, artists, or statesmen) held by custom at the home of a prominent person." And here is an example of the third meaning of a Salon with a capitalized S : an annual exhibition of works of art. For instance the Paris Salon was where the eighteenth and nineteen century artists displayed their works to the public.
The Royal Academy of Art, established in 1648 by the Sun King, was the most significant professional art society in France. This school held annual exhibitions where artists could display their works of art and wait for the critics reviews! It provided the chance for young artists to be promoted and to make connection with patrons who could help them move out of the "starving artist category."
From the late eighteenth century this institution had a real monopoly on how the public defined good taste and on official patronage of the artists who exhibited at the Salon.
In the 1850's, new movements appeared and undercut the influence of the Royal Academy. They would later be seen as avant-garde movements. The Realists represented by Gustave Courbet, Jean-François Millet, and Édouard Manet was one of these movements. In the late nineteenth century, there appeared the most famous avant-garde movement : Impressionism. The first Impressionist exhibition was held in Paris in 1874, at 35 boulevard des Capucines, the former studios of the renowned French photographer Nadar.
By the end of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth, the Royal Academy's influence was gone and new Salons appeared, showing the works of modernist artists like Henri Matisse and André Derain.
It's spring and at French Metro, that means two things: tulips and a new shipment from France! The two thousand tulips planted at our shop are just peeking through the ground, and our work is just beginning as we unpack our latest arrivals from our January trip to France. We will be closed for a week starting Tuesday, March 7th, and will re-open our doors at 10am on Wednesday, March 15th with our four hundred fifty new arrivals. Also, save the date to attend our Champagne and Pastry Party on Saturday, March 25 from 5-7 pm to toast our new shipment with champagne and pastries, created by our visiting French pastry chef, Pauline Neilz.
We are off to France on January 5th for another three week buying trip that will take us from Paris to the provinces to uncover the rare and unique. Our shop will remain open, but join us on Facebook as we discover treasures along the way -- the next best thing to being right there with us. Or take advantage of our complimentary custom shopping service. Complete your detailed wish list below, and we'll email you photos of pieces we find in France that could meet your needs. Plus, all custom purchases qualify for a 10% discount. It's like having your own personal shopper in France. It doesn't get any better than that.
Reveillon de Noel in France is traditionally the great feast that takes place on Christmas Eve just before the midnight mass at the local cathedral or church. This particular feast is a grand affair, and little expense is spared in creating the sumptuous delicacies that are put on the table. In 2012 and in 2014, I spent Christmas with a French host family in the Languedoc region in southern France. On this celebratory occasion, I had the opportunity to help my host mother and grandmother of 96 years of age in preparing this much anticipated Christmas Eve dinner. The day before, I remember going to the market with my host mother to pick out various cheeses, charcuterie (cold meats and sausages), fruits, chocolates, and in particular oysters.
We returned that afternoon to the chateau of my host family (a conglomeration of large buildings to be exact, the oldest of which was a small chapel that housed the remains of a converted Visigoth).
Once we had returned, I lent my host grandmother a hand in preparing the foie gras, using a recipe that she’d had for decades.
Oysters and foie gras are traditional dishes for the Christmas Eve feast, though goose, boar, and lobster might also be among the spread on the table.
After everything was prepared, we all adjourned to the large sitting room where the master fireplace was. There we had all set out our shoes according to custom and rather than under a tree, there were various assorted sizes of presents gathered around each pair of shoes. We each took our turn opening our gifts, and though I cherish all of those given to me, I can say without a doubt that my favorite was that of my host grandmother, Genevieve. She had presented me with a beautiful Laguiole knife with a wide blade and black wooden handle as well as a case. Though it would take me a few days to fulfill the necessary compensation, I eventually gave her a coin in return in order to secure good luck (as is the custom when receiving a knife in France). Once everyone had opened their gifts, we promptly took our places at the table with much anticipation. And there we stayed for seven or so hours, whereupon we delved into the delights of the season. The experience was delectable if not divine. And, between each course or two, we would take minor breaks to sip on rare liqeurs or smoke cigarettes, in true French fashion. The strangest of these "degustations" was a liqueur made from fermented lizards that someone in the family had brought back from South America. The exquisite meal finally ended around two in the morning, whereupon we all retired happily to our beds. The following morning we had a light breakfast of baguettes and jam and played several rounds of petanque, a type of lawn ball game. After a short siesta in the afternoon we all drove to the Eglise de la Madeleine to watch a rendition of the nativity story. Memories such as these warm my heart around Christmastime…memories I cherish in a country I call my other home.