Four Days (Mostly Food) on Île d’Oléron

Île d’Oléron is an island set–at its narrowest–5 kilometers off the western coast of France; the wilder cousin of comparatively posh Île de . The island was once inhabited by pirates who hung lamps around the necks of donkeys at night, in hopes of tricking returning ships into wrecking along a shore that ebbs dramatically with the tide.

At the Frenchman’s paternal grandparents’ home–or, more accurately, a series of small homes for renting, each named with flowered tiles brought home from Pays Basque along with wheels of brebis and black cherry jam–there is no food processor. In fact, aside from stacks upon stacks of dish detritus–and one surprisingly versatile pair of scissors–there’s not much to aid in the cooking of a birthday lunch for nine. (I can’t locate a pen, until my father-in-law pulls one from another room.) I have the good sense to bring my own sharp knife.

I meander the garden with my camera, spotting tiny flowers and many fruit trees–the fruit still in its infancy at the start of July–but also raspberry bushes offering a handful of miniature, sweet-tart fruit. The soil here is so nutrient rich, it’s often mixed with sand. We find potatoes, green beans and apricots. In August, there will be hazelnuts, figs, peaches, prune plums, pears and apples.

At dusk, while my mother-in-law fries ceteaux in a pan of oil, I mix chocolate cake and marinate chicken with handmade mayonnaise, vinegar and herbs. We sip her punch–lime, simple syrup, rum–while we work. For dinner we eat fish rilletes from Pêcheries De la Cotinière, alongside langoustines boiled with bay and garlic, and steamed local potatoes. (In the fridge, we’ve stocked away fifty oysters I’ll grill the next day, and tuna I’ll kebab, and dress in herb oil.)

By 11pm, dinner is over, and I’m hand chopping basil, parsley, arugula, garlic, and chives into near paste for pistou, as the boys watch the Euro Cup match across the kitchen, hollering. Chopping parsley is a contemplative act–even with the occasional chant of, “GiroudGiroudGiroud!” in the background; it’s only when I finish I realize my back is gently throbbing from standing over the low kitchen table for so long.

The morning comes, along with more family. We swim in the freezing ocean, bike as a chatting horde through narrow streets lined with white stone houses, pastel blue shutters, and spindly hollyhock stems flagged with pink, red, purple, and white flowers. Even though the cooking has not gone perfectly, the party is a success in every way that matters: we grill and eat and drink and sing songs and play the accordion and the violin and laugh. People go back for seconds. I decide to make more space for this in my regular, workaday life–“joy is not a crumb.”

Four Food-Filled Days on Île d'Oléron Four Food-Filled Days on Île d'Oléron

Four Food-Filled Days on Île d'Oléron

Four Food-Filled Days on Île d'Oléron Four Food-Filled Days on Île d'Oléron

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Panamá City

panama city street art

panama city street art

american trade hotel tile, panama city

roaster in a window, panama city

Panamá has always held a special place in my imagination. My mother was born there, in Almirante, and emigrated to the U.S. when she was small. The country is currently very much in transition–last year, Panamá had 2 million visitors, a number that’s already risen to 2.2 million this year. Compare that to Costa Rica’s 10 million per year, and you see the possible rapidity of growth.

Trump was built in 2007. Las Clementinas in 2010. The American Trade Hotel in 2013. (It’s worth noting–all three were built by New Yorkers, not Panamanians.) Casco Viejo is in the midst of a major revitalization. Still, there’s contrast:

Low, tin-roofed houses under the direct shadow of luxury high rises, and the twisted jenga of the BBA building, and billboards for Black Friday. Street food stalls cooking meat, or selling tropical fruit and jugo de caña, set up in front of Chuck E. Cheese. A modern bus line, and the construction of a subway to the limits of the city, but also the commonplaceness of the city’s old transport: converted school busses painted in the style of psychedelic 1980’s cartoons, twin steampunk gas pipes rising up their backs, some with graphic comics, some with magenta shark tails finning their back.

Outside of skyscrapered Panamá City, most buildings are flamboyantly painted, with hand-drawn shop signs and local advertisements to match. Concrete apartment blocks are splashes of cerulean blue, orange, yellow, a checkered smile of laundry drying across balconies.

The humidity is sometimes overwhelming.

Prices are still relatively inexpensive: four local beers cost $10, even at the fancy tourist rooftop bar. (US dollars are accepted everywhere.)

Finally, we could never have experienced what we did in the time we had if not for Juan José Calvache Arango, a guide at our hotel. He was a font of knowledge. Thank you so much, Juan. 


* I will mention as a disclaimer: I was only in Panama for four days; I’m sure I missed so many gems, and so much culture. I only included the spots I really loved and would recommend without reservation. This is as much a record for myself as it is a guide for others. If you live in Panamá City, I’d love to hear your opinions about my finds (or better yet, what I didn’t find) in the comments. This is where I went and what I saw in November 2015; in case you should find a broken link in future.

panama citypanama city

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Garlic Scape Pesto

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

–Mary Oliver

garlic scapes Garlic Scape Pesto

The arrival of garlic scapes at the market makes me Christmas morning happy–their appearance marks the start of a deluge of summer produce.

Garlic scapes are the green, curly cue shoots that grow from hardneck garlic plants, where flowers might otherwise sprout. Farmers cut away these scapes regardless, so that all growing energy is diverted to the garlic bulb growing underground. Scapes make for delicious eating on their own though, so they need not go to waste.

In the northeast, garlic scapes appear in June and July. Raw, they taste like a fresher, greener, less astringent version of mature garlic. Cooked, they have a garlicy, lemony-leek flavor.

garlic scapes

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