It was January 11, at 5:41pm, CET, which would have made it 11:41 in the morning on a Friday in the United States, that I wrote an email message to the professional chefs forum I belong to, and with whom I exchange, likely, the greatest number of messages online. I’ve long since accepted that my friends have forsaken email for other less taxing (on time, on time) forms of communication. This is a very roundabout way of saying, my friends don’t exactly stay in close touch, except one or two, whom I love like life itself.
Anyway in the course of the message, which was extremely brief, brevity being unusual for me, and in a mock tone of some derisory pose: irony, sarcasm, insincerity in one of its more sophisticated forms, I added at the very end, "Women rule./That’s why John McCain will be our next President."
I make no claim on prescience. More importantly, and this is an immodest source of pride, I don’t spend great amounts of time thinking about political matters. I read nowhere nearly enough I’m sure, but sufficient to have a sense of where people stand and what they represent. I spend no time at all, if I can help it, watching debates. I’ve heard it all before, if not from the same lips, then from other lips, and I don’t accept that it’s all so subtle that I am depriving myself of opportunities to see either displays of above-average wit or the gaffe that will sink a campaign. Indeed, the debates long since have proven, to me at least, that they are contests of avoiding the brink while appearing to come closest to it. Hence nothing of substance gets said, and I could care less how people come across on television. And I don’t care what the true weight of the factor of other Americans perceptions because of a television appearance (I am forbearing the urge to say "performance"). The United States electorate has had ample opportunity to prove during the 41 years, soon to be 42, that I have been eligible to vote, that they are not particularly intelligent, nor particularly stupid.
Just significant fractions of them go one way or the other.
I was in France when I wrote that off-handed remark, which seemed not only obvious, if spontaneous on my part, but more importantly was a good laugh line on which to exit. Though I didn’t mean it as a joke. Except of the rueful variety. We make little enough of the continued power of rue and ruth (as in ruthless… there is certainly a dearth of ruth among certain groups of individuals in the world) in our emotional lives. I suspect it is because it is, in fact, all too painful to deliberately remain conscious of the political state of the world, and the behavior of what we are told incessantly are the world’s leaders. Some are OK, I suppose, but this is the world we’re talking about. Big enough that, even though we’re hurling through space at a speed of 40,000 miles per hour along some vector, and twirling with an angular velocity of over 1000 miles per hour, we’re completely insensate of the motion. Big enough that we’re not extremely anxious that the planet now finds six billion souls inhabiting its surface. Is this the best we can do?
As in any country of any size (Italy, the United States, China, being the best known examples) the cookery of France is a cuisine that is essentially regional. A "French" restaurant is never a precise designation, unless of course, the restaurateur, especially in a foreign country, and particularly the U.S., where French restaurants abound, is ambitious enough to have a bill of fare that fairly represents the diverse numerous distinctive cuisines that add depth and dimension to the country with which we have had a love-hate affair for well over two hundred years.
As Americans have become more sophisticated—say in the past 40 years or so, dating from the publication of the classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking—they can and do indeed distinguish Provençal specialties from those of, say, Alsace, or the great Southwest, of Lyon (the Bologna of France), of Burgundy, of Nice. That is, Nice as well differentiated from Provence, being some amalgam of dishes native to this independent County—not a part of France as we know it until the very late 19th century, plus ingredients begged borrowed or stolen from neighboring Provence, to the west, and Liguria, to the east and the closest distinguishably unique Italian cuisine.
A tart, to speak of one dish common to many cuisines, is simply a pastry casing which is filled with whatever, and may, of course, be savory or sweet, or something in between; and let’s clear this up right now. A pie can be a tart, in that a tart is always open (no top crust or pastry covering), but a tart is most certainly seldom a pie, in that most pies are covered even if only partially. Although the characteristic tarts of Alsace, the onion tart, larded as it is with bits of pork belly, and the ever popular quiche lorraine—butt of innumerable jokes—are well known to Americans, there are few tarts from Provence that have attracted our attention. This is possibly because there are no indigenous tarts in Provence, or even in Nice, but, as I’m being cute, mainly because of a linguistic anomaly and a soupçon of strict culinary interpretation. Strictly speaking, the dish is a tourte, a Provençal and Niçois term. There is the great, and ubiquitous, tourte aux blettes, which comes in two versions, the savory and the sweet. Blettes is French for chard, and it’s a big vegetable in the south of France, in every sense of the adjective.
The weather is temperate enough (even in the somewhat elevated climes of the village, at 540 meters above sea level, and where the usual temperature around the first of the year is 0° Celsius, or freezing, first thing in the morning). On the other hand, this is about as cold as it gets, and chard is a hardy plant. I noticed just the other day as I walked through the village that the nearest potager, or kitchen garden, had a few robust chard heads growing, without a sign of freezing or wilting.
In the market, healthy chard is sold in bunches, even in mid-winter, as a local product, with leaves as much as half a meter long, and more than a quarter meter across, that is to say, in practical terms, and British measure, more than a foot-and-a-half in length from tip to stalk, and, in some cases, as much as a foot across. A bunch is usually about four or five of these behemoth deep forest-green leaves, with startlingly white stalks tinged with light green.
Also readily available are poireaux (pronounced like the cunning and cunningly named Belgian detective invented by Agatha Christie, that is, Poirot) and is simply the magnificent member of the genus allium, the leek, making it cousin to the onion and garlic, though with some loftier pretensions.
Where I am headed with all this is a recipe, one that has become stock-in-trade for me, as I’ve made it repeatedly while over here, probably at least once on every trip for a few years now, and well-known to our friends and neighbors in the terroir. I’ve made it so many times, I make no reference to a recipe, and in fact, have forgotten where I might have seen the original recipe on which I based the one I prepare now not so much by rote as absently, if not automatically.
It’s a wonderful thing, if I do say so myself, and made in the more-or-less 11" tart pan that I use over here—largish by American standards, and doubly so, because the pan is in one piece and with very high sides, perhaps close to an inch-and-a-half, as opposed to the half-inch standard tart pan, with a removable bottom that has become so familiar as the receptacle for almost any dessert or savory tart made commercially in the U.S. The tart I make, which includes far more than the nominal leeks and chard, is a robust dish, with one slice, a healthy wedge of perhaps one-tenth the whole, and a salad making quite a substantial meal.
The crust is a not-out-of the-ordinary pâte brisée, made from scratch from three ingredients, or four, if you insist on a pinch of salt, though I usually omit it.
From this point on, I’ll write this in recipe format, which, being who I am, may not be entirely standard form, but it’s the form I use, and which regular readers have seen before in this space.
And sorry, but since I usually make this tart over here, in metric Europe, what I can interpolate from my usual ministrations to the ingredients, which does not include much measuring anyway, is in metric units, in those few places along the way where I actually take note of the volume (nothing weighed, so it’s all cubic centimeters or milliliters). Otherwise you need only be able to count, and use a very sharp knife without injuring yourself, and a rolling pin (I prefer a French pin, which is a healthy length of hardwood, rounded on the ends and of uniform circumference, about the size of a very fat broom handle, but shorter, maybe two feet).
Leek and Chard Tart (with optional goat cheese)
For the crust (pâte brisée)
350 grams All-purpose flour (yes, I know I said I didn’t weigh anything, but I use a liter graduate that’s marked variously for the actual ingredient being measured, so there’s a scaled line for flour, for sugar, for water, etc., with the volume being measured indicated in grams if it is a dry ingredient—I’ve never seen such a graduate in the ‘States, so you may, indeed, have to get out the kitchen scale). On another note: the flour in French supermarkets is softer than American all-purpose flour—less gluten—and you might want to consider adding a small amount of cake flour to replace and equal amount of the all-purpose; all in all, however, the flour from King Arthur (Sands & Taylor’s venerable brand from Vermont) should work fine without any tampering or tinkering;
175 grams 82+ (or higher)-butter-fat unsalted butter (butter is sold by weight, so I guesstimate from the total full packet—usually 250 or 500 grams—approximately what fraction is the amount I need) several tablespoons of iced water
Optional:granulated sea salt
In a food processor, add the butter cut into medium-size bits (about a teaspoon apiece) to the flour in the bowl, using the conventional metal-blade. Add a pinch or two of salt if you like.
In bursts, combine the butter and flour until all of it is about the consistency of coarse meal.
While operating the processor in bursts, add the iced water (keep the ice out of the processor) in tiny amounts, until the mixture forms clumps that adhere naturally to one another. Do NOT allow the mixture to form a single mass, usually taking the form of a rough ball trying to whir around the angular force of the spinning blade.
Dump out the dough onto a sheet of wax paper or plastic wrap. Trying to handle the dough as little as possible (keeping the heat from your fingers and hands away from it), work the dough into a single rough ball. Dust your hands in flour if necessary and work it only until it doesn’t stick to your skin and the surface is relatively smooth. It should end up about the size of an American softball. Wrap it in plastic wrap. Place it in the refrigerator for about an hour.
For the filling
A bunch of very large leaves, with stalks intact, maybe four or five in all, of Swiss Chard, the all-green kind
Four medium sized leeks
Five large eggs
One cup whole milk
30-35 cc crême fraîche
3/4-1 cup grated Emmental cheese
3/4-1 cup grated Cantal cheese (actually you can use almost any combination of semi-hard cheeses: Gruyere or Comté keeps it in the European family, or Gouda, Leerdammer, Jarlsberg, or even cheddar)
Extra-virgin olive oil, sufficient to sauté the chard and the leeks
3-4 Tablespoons of nigella (also called black cumin), an interesting mild spice that will actually help dispel some of the natural bitterness of the leeks, while adding a certain sweetness that goes well with the custard that encases the vegetables
Whole nutmeg, with grater
2-3 teaspoons of dried thyme
OptionalA log of fresh chevre, about 7-8 inches long and about 1-1/2 inches in diameter, cut into 1/4-inch thick slices
11" fluted tart pan, one piece, preferably Teflon® coated inside and out (the type I described with very high sides, about 1-1/2 inches); if you can’t, improbably, find a non-stick coated tart pan of these dimensions, use any tart pan that fills the bill, and butter the inside generously before inserting the dough as described below
Large sauté pan
Three non-reactive bowls (stainless or ceramic)
Two plates larger than 11" in diameter
Heat the oven to around 375-400 degrees Fahrenheit (it’s really not critical, and don’t be a baby about this; I cook in France on a French stove, whose oven control, like all French oven controls, has a dial numbered one to ten—actually in numerals, 1-10—and I cook in a medium-hot oven, around 6, and believe me, it’s a really good oven, or at least it’s a very expensive one, and I know it never delivers the same temperature twice; remember cooking may seem like science, and this is the bullshit a lot of recent books tell you, but it’s all art, and heart, and instinct… Just pay attention, that’s the main thing). Put the rack you will use in the middle of the oven.
While the pâte brisée dough is chilling, clean the leeks in your usual method after cutting off the dark green portion of the heads, and cutting off the soft curly roots, well into the white stalk. Slice into "roundels" about 1/8-inch thick. Set aside in a bowl.
With a very sharp knife, cutting as close to the white stalk as possible, separate the green leaf of the chard from its stalk. Cut off the wide end of the stalk, to remove any dried-out portion. Set aside the stalks. Stack the leaves, minus the stalks, on top of one another. Fold in half length-wise, and loosely roll the leaves into a huge "cigar" of chard. Cut the chard crosswise, through all the leaves at once, into slices about 1/4-inch wide. Set aside in a separate bowl.
Stack the chard stalks, and from the thin pointy end, cut into 1/4-inch thick slices toward the wide-end, until you have about a cup of sliced stalks, and add to the bowl with the chard leaf slices.
In a large sauté pan, heat EVOO, at least three tablespoons, and no more than 1/4 cup, over medium heat. Throw in the chard and stir with tongs or a wooden mixing blade (or silicone rubber spatula… let’s not get too technical here), until it is all coated with oil and cooking well, but not too quickly. Throw in a few pinches of sea salt, and grind a few grinds of fresh ground black pepper into the pan. The chard leaves will wilt immediately. Stir a few times. Cover lightly, but keep watching it. The stalk slices will ultimately turn translucent and get limp. The whole concoction will reduce significantly in volume. Without burning anything, cook until you are satisfied it is well-cooked. Transfer back to the bowl, and remove all of the chard with a slotted spoon or skimmer, leaving as much oil behind in the pan as possible.
Top up the oil a bit with more EVOO. You’ll need a bit more for the leeks than the chard, as the volume of leeks is greater. Heat the oil, and add the leek roundels. Add salt and pepper to your preference. Stir well with your instrument of choice, and let the leeks cook covered until they are quite limp. They will also reduce in volume, though not as significantly as the chard. The leeks will give off a lot of liquid. Uncover, and stirring, turn up the heat a tad, to drive off the liquid (mainly water) from the leeks. Do not burn, and try not to brown the leeks significantly if at all. No tragedy if you do brown them a little. When done, again using the slotted spoon or skimmer, remove the leeks, leaving as much oil behind as possible, and put the leeks into the bowl with the cooked chard. Set aside to cool.
Crack all the eggs whole into a bowl, suitable for whisking. Whisk the eggs well, until beaten into a froth of a uniform color. Add the milk, the ctême fraîche, the nigella, and the thyme, in no particular order. Grate maybe a 1/2-3/4 of a teaspoon of the nutmeg into the bowl as well. Don’t go nuts with the nutmeg. It takes an experienced hand to add enough for nuance, without adding so much that you actually taste the nutmeg in the finished dish. It should help lend an indefinable nuttiness to the flavor overall. Under-grate if you’re not sure or just plain nervous about these things.
Mix all the ingredients in the bowl until uniform, and then dump in the grated cheeses and mix some more. Set aside.
Remove the ball of chilled dough from the fridge, and place on a floured rolling cloth (get one; I know you probably don’t have one, because none but the fatally serious cooks do, so get one; a light canvas is best, because most durable; probably the on-line shop that King Arthur has on its site will have one available). Gently beat the top of the ball all over with the rolling pin ("gently" is the key word here) until it begins to flatten. Turn the flattened ball over and continue gently to tap it all over uniformly, until it has become a very fat disc.
Now begin to roll with the pin. Roll a few times in one compass direction, and then roll a few times in a compass direction 90° (you know, right angles) to the first direction you used. Then at 45° to that direction, and then at right angles again to this last direction. In short, roll it out uniformly, switching directions every half-minute or so, so it retains a more or less circular (as opposed to oval) shape. Keep rolling until it’s about 1/4-inch thick. Then roll some more so that it’s incrementally thinner (don’t get obsessive; incrementally means noticeably, but that’s all; just get it a little less than 1/4-inch thick).
You should have a more or less round piece of flattened dough significantly and hence comfortably larger than the diameter of the tart pan.
If you did this right, you should be able to lift the edge of the dough and simply fold it in half over itself. Keep right on going if there were no hitches (if you used a floured rolling cloth, nothing will be sticking to anything else), and lift the dough folded in half and place it on top of the tart pan, so the straight edge of the dough is right on the diameter of the pan. Carefully, if not gingerly, unfold the dough so it covers the entire tart pan, and gently, gently (gently!) lift the edges of the dough and let the dough drop down the fluted sides of the pan. The idea is to get as much dough of a single layer into the pan, covering the bottom and the sides.
Gently push the dough into the flutes of the sides of the pan. Be careful that the dough fits into the inner circumference of the pan where the sides join the bottom. In short, the dough should conform, like a skin, to the inside surfaces of the pan. Keep the extraneous dough draped on the outside over the edges of the pan. Once you’re satisfied that as well as possibly can be, the dough is touching all surfaces of the inside of the pan, take the rolling pin and roll it over the pan, thereby "slicing" off the extraneous dough like a big ring, using the edge of the pan as the slicer. Dispose of the extra dough. Set the pan and the dough aside.
Add the cooked vegetables in the bowl where they’ve been cooling to the egg-dairy-spice-herb mixture, and stir thoroughly until uniform.
(Optional step) Take the rounds of chévre and symmetrically place in the bottom of the tart pan, more or less covering as much of the area of the dough in the bottom as you can. You should be able pretty much to cover most of the bottom with goat cheese rounds.
Carefully and slowly pour the contents of the filling from the bowl into the tart pan, with the aid of a silicone rubber spatula to spread the filling evenly. If you did this right, and if I am not a complete nincompoop, it will miraculously just fill the tart pan. It’s also a miracle to me, and it always just fills the tart pan. And I swear, I measure nothing but the flour.
(Special bonus, secret optional step: I’ve only done one or the other of these, but once) Sprinkle the top with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese uniformly. Just a little all over. Or take bits of butter and dot the top evenly. Not a lot of butter either. You could go crazy and do both. But like I said, I usually do neither.
Place in the middle of a medium-hot oven and watch it once you get past about a half-hour of cooking. It will have started to puff up by then. It should take no longer than 50-55 minutes to brown to the degree in the photo. In any event, it should be a nice uniform medium brown. Not light, not dark, but medium.
Remove the pan with the finished tart to a rack, or just put it on top of an unlit burner on the stove, just so air can circulate underneath. After at least a half-hour, but more like an hour, take one of those really big plates and put it upside down on the top of the pan. Turn the whole shebang over. Don’t be nervous. Lift the tart pan from the tart. Place the other dish upside down on the tart’s bottom, and turn the whole shebang one more time. You’re done. You can eat it hot, but it’s better warm, and it’s great at room temperature.
Serve with a very fresh salad of lettuce, tomato, and sweet onion sliced very thin, with a home-made vinaigrette.
I was born and raised for a while in New York City. Not quite to the age of consent, but long enough still to remember. I pride myself with a perverse pride in that I have yet to visit in almost 62 years any of the iconic attractions—dare I say tourist in proximity to that last noun?—of that city. The only destination of note I ever did visit was the World Trade Center, and indeed traveled to the roof of which tower they permitted such a thing. The rest is silence.
Pretty much the same pattern manifests itself in me here in France. Dodging the greatest attractions of Paris is easy. So far, no Eiffel Tower, not Pantheon, no Montmartre, no Montparnasse, etc. Why play with the destiny of these august destinations. Here in Provence, it’s a little more difficult.
You drive around, even aimlessly, and the next thing you know, you’re smack dab next to some ruin or some well-preserved monument that’s been there for a couple thousand years and untold millions have gaped at after traveling kilometers untold out of their way just to see it. My own little village continually surprises me, embarrasses me with its unknown treasures. Indeed, hidden in the very word "embarrass" is the source of one major surprise. In this tiny out-of-the-way unpronounceable village was born the guy, Count Barras, who, essentially, arranged for Napoleon to be Emperor. Thanks a lot Count.
But even I will allow myself a grudging pride in every lichen covered stone that probably graced a wall several millennia ago, built to defend a Roman encampment. I’ll even allow myself the fantasy of seeing well-muscled centurions, having spent a refreshing day beating a bunch of Gauls into submission, doffing their leather armor, watering their horses, kicking back for a well deserved snooze and a snootful from that skin of wine.
But what I won’t allow myself is a visit, especially now that I can entertain the more sustaining and satisfying fantasy of being a genuine tax-paying, mortgage-holding French landowner, to any of the myriad sites and sights for which the French themselves scrupulously, if not sedulously, plan for months prior to the skimpy four weeks (out of a total of six, not to mention all the three-day weekends, and other jours feriés (bank holidays) of summer they get to go anywhere they please. They are hardly to be blamed that the whole damn country is chockablock full of tourist attractions. They’ve been collecting them, hoarding them, building more, year after year for centuries, millennia.
But you won’t catch me going. No sirree. No Mont St. Michel for this homey. No Carcassone. OK, OK, so I and the wife did go to this ridiculous pile, restored to an inch of its life, with only about two or three million anachronistic errors by a narcissist with the laughable name of Violette LeDuc (and this is a guy we’re talking about), but I plead "tourist;" I was a tourist, honest. Owning a house here wasn’t even a fantasy at the time. Same with a few other medieval rattletraps, mammoth stones picturesquely strewn about, the now eternally silent cloisters of a clutch of monasteries, now bereft of monastics. But I swear, I’ve never set my baby blues on one field of lavender. Never haunted a trail in the Luberon. Never dipped a pinkie, or a baby toe, in the miraculous fonts of Lourdes.
Most important of all, though it’s practically right up the road a piece, never ogled the vaunted Gorges du Verdon, the so-called "Grand Canyon of France." Ha! I say. I say it to your face. Never ogled, boggled, or blanched at the (testimony abounds) splendors of the natural marvels of what, after all, I ask you, is anything more than some river meandering, do-se-doing its way like some whacked out switch-back mountain road, wearing the rocks away for what, like, thousands, maybe it’s millions, of years? I mean it’s nature doing its thing.
I do my thing. And my thing is not natural wonders.
But then there’s the problem of house guests. Essentially a special variety of tourist, on whom I lavish affection, love, and not even grudging them gobbets of time, driving, shopping, cooking, whatever, and all for their pleasure. And all I need do is silently chew the insides of my cheeks to raw flesh in mortal anxiety that they might take it into their heads to go and see. Yup. The freakin’ Gorges du Verdon.
Incidentally, let me disabuse you right now, should you ever head this way and are thinking, Verdon? Wasn’t that some really famous battlefield qua slaughtering ground of the First World War? Like did they throw themselves over the cliffs or something. But no, that was Verdun, which is way away that way (gesturing north). The Verdon is a river. Just another river down here. Like the Tarn and the Loup (which also have gorges—almost accidentally saw some of them a few years ago, I think it was the Loup, but I barely escaped, taking that fortuitous left turn out of a rond point to Vence), but mightier and more majestic and God knows more famous. In the summer the roads are literally clogged here, people can’t crawl slow enough to get to the Gorges du Verdon.
I’ll admit to seeing the Verdon, at the very very end of it, because I’ve been many times to a little town called Moustiers Sainte Marie, a truly god-forsaken place, which I visited regularly before I wised up. I have a fondness and hence a weakness for my wife, and she likes it there, for the there. She certainly doesn’t like it any more than I do for what’s most famous about the place (aside from a chapel built halfway up a mountainside, which you access via steep stone steps cut into the same mountainside, the climbing of which is very much akin to being given a stress test by a sadistic cardiologist, or the strange ten pointed star—similar to a regulation normal five pointed star, except for some reason it has tiny little points between the usual large points—that some maniac prince in the famous medieval bygone era ordered strung across a, well there’s no other word for it, gorge that runs smack through the center of this essentially kitschy little burg, and there’s a legend about how the chain that holds up the star broke, so they had to string the damn thing back across the gorge, because the prince was sentimental and made a pledge—it’s still there so you can tell I’m not making this up; I’d show you a picture, but it would be too shameful and embarrassing for a serious photographer like myself, even though I have a very nice snap that takes care of the whole nauseating touristic thing: the chapel, the star, even the chain, and the gorge of course). But what Moustiers Sainte Marie is famous for is its faience, which is a fancy French word for dinnerware. Which is all like white with tiny hand-painted figurines wearing cute Fragonard type outfits from the eighteenth century doing quaint homey eighteenth century type stuff, like hanging out, or hunting grouse or pheasants, or butchering pigs. Stuff like that. Anyway, it’s the kind of stuff my mother, may her soul be at peace in heaven—next year is her centennial by the way—would like. They still make it the same way. Big euros. And the old stuff looks exactly like the new stuff, only it’s even bigger euros because it’s old.
But the town is nice, in a patently cute, old-fashioned kind of way, and you can manage to squeeze off a few good shots along the way, what with all the rocks and rills, and little runlets and rapids, and really tall stone walls, which are about as troublesome and puzzling as that star on a chain—like, why did they build them?
And I do have house guests, and, it being past the winter solstice, the days do grow longer, and you gotta’ find things for people to do. We had a reprieve for a couple days, because we had a friend of theirs, guest of a guest, which may mean something, but in this case, what it meant was good, because he was and is a good guy, and we had to piss away a whole two days just picking Jean up and eating big time in Aix-en-Provence when we did, and shopping, and doing good solid American stuff like that. So the Gorges du Verdon went way to the back of my mind. But all good diversions must end. And Jean had to go back to Paris, and I’m sorry to say, Bob and Naomi didn’t forget the Gorges. Not for one second as it turned out.
Then the weather bailed me out. It rained for three days, which it almost never does, certainly not in January. But all bad things must end, and soft-hearted basically masochistic fool that I am, the next thing I knew, sun playing tag with clouds in the legendary blue skies of Provence, I was driving north toward Moustiers. And then en route, Bob being Bob, and me being me who can refuse my friends nothing, Bob, Gee How, if you don’t mind (I hear this particular combination of words and my brains turn to a frigid gel), maybe we could take this road and take a look directly at the [loud minor chord] Gorges du Verdon.
So I took the right with the sign to a town I never noticed before and had my own stars been set right, and had I lived a more righteous existence, I would never have had to notice, Aiguine. But we plowed right on through that sucker and kept going. Gorges du Verdon, and destiny, right this way. There was one more precipitous turn onto the corniche above Aiguine and a road sign smiled at me, a sign I had never seen before. It was entirely pictorial, as no words were needed. It showed a tire with chains on it. I don’t know the French for tire chains anyway. But with a song in my heart, and knowing I had remembered to take my anxiety meds that morning, we plunged ahead. I shouldn’t use the word "plunge" of course, because I know what a corniche is (Alfred Hitchcock made good use of them in several films, including "To Catch a Thief," because driving along a corniche is like instant cinematic suspense and terror). And we drove and drove and switched back and forth, with increasingly more thrilling views, until it was clear we need not actually drive up as high as the clouds, which were, in fact, literally enveloping the tops of the cliffs overlooking the Gorges. So we stopped at a turn-out, facing a sign that said 967 meters, referring to the elevation.
And, well, what’s the use? It’s time for the words to stop, because they do, indeed, literally fail.
But here’s what we saw, along with a few glimpses of Aiguine (and its charming castle, semi-charming soccer field, and views of the town perched high above the Lac de Sainte Croix, into which the Verdon River now debouches (the very very end of the river that I referred to above), easily visible, as are the high walls of the Gorge, as you cross the bridge that separates the Var, the département my house is in, from the Alpes de Haute Provence, the département that Moustiers is in, because, try as I might to avoid it, we ended up there for lunch. So there’s a few of the more palatable pictures I shot in Moustiers to end this little Web gallery.
I will say in closing that I’m not sure of which I am more proud, losing at last my Gorges du Verdon virginity, or taking these pretty interesting shots with a tiny little Canon camera that costs less than two hundred bucks, is much smaller than a pack of cigarettes, and really hardly deserves to be called a camera at all.
On January 3, 2008 a friend forwarded a bit of Internet fodder, with the Subject header line supplication, "Please Read." I did. It was a bit of correspondence/essay attributed to a Dr. Vernon Chong, a USAF Major General (Retired). It turns out it has been kicking around since 2004. It is not uncommon for these things to spring up from time to time, sometimes redundantly, if not repeatedly, among the small motley circle of my friends who exchange items of interest. Or at least they are of ostensible interest. We are motley for our wide spectrum of political views, which range from Libertarian to Liberal (if not quasi-anarchistic) to those of one of us—an eternal trickster, if not provocateur, who gets a clearly perverse, if benign, delight in offering up bits of casuistry such as Dr. Chong’s. This last is simply to stir up the pot, and see what happens, especially if one of us makes the mistake of taking seriously the intent of the sender (or his credulity). This last go round for the maundering of the alleged Dr. Chong was passed along by one among us, who espouses a strange mix of middling liberality and staunch chauvinism (he is one of the few, if not the only one, among us, who served in the armed forces, albeit in the Medical Corps—during the late unfortunate hostilities known by our enemy at the time as The American War.
I won’t dignify or substantiate Dr. Chong’s remarks either by repeating them here (never mind the absorption of bandwidth) or even by providing a URL of the various sites on which they might be found on the World Wide Web. If you must waste your time by first reading them, I’d suggest entering some combination of Dr. Vernon Chong (or even include his rank) in Google, or your favorite search engine.
I do think it’s remarkably telling that, in the midst of what has become a surprising, if not exciting start out of the gate of the 2008 Presidential Nomination Follies, with newspaper headlines trumpeting the decreasing lack of importance of the war in Iraq that this should appear among a group of us comfortable, late middle-aged (some of us are, in fact, still working actively for a living) bourgeois Northeasterners of various political stripes. For some, indeed, the continuing bellicosity of various Muslim factions in Iraq, and the continued presence of well over 100,000 American troopers in that nation is not only an issue, front and center, but even if it settles somewhere into the middle or rearward reaches of our consciousness, we are well aware that the more pertinent, or seemingly more salient issues—and in particular the economy, which worsens by the moment—are intimately tied to the effects (and costs) of the five years and counting that our military forces continue to be deployed in the former biblical kingdom of Assyria.
What follows is my response to this innocent attempt to evoke some interesting intellectual discourse among our stalwart little group of citizens, bound more by affection and friendship if truth be told than by any real desire to debate (which seems only to get us into trouble, especially as we each of us seem to lapse into emotional conflict rather than the desired dispassionate reasoned debate). I’ve cleaned up and edited a bit the spontaneous effusion I sent immediately back to the entire list of recipients.
Whether or not you read Dr. Chong’s "essay" is not important. Its argument, if it can be elevated so precipitously as to be called that, is contingent on one quasi patriotic, hyper-emotional assertion, about which the author goes on at such length as to permit saying that it is attenuated to the point of etiolation, if not beyond.
There is only one fault with this argument. However, it is a fault that is fundamental, if not elemental, and hence makes the rest of this argument, which I’m loathe to call it, as it is so badly articulated, built as it is on a false premise, not only dubious, but time ill spent in the reading. Perhaps this rhetoric is deliberate, blatantly bent on appearing persuasive, as opposed to expressing a truth, any truth.
The fault is the unsubstantiated assertion that we are at war.
We are, I would assert, not at war, not at the moment. And no more so than we were at the time of this essay of Dr. Chong’s, that is, some time in 2004.
However, we are at this time (January 2008) policing an insurgency among a people who only half want us to be there for any purpose whatsoever.
In precipately, and pre-emptively, engaging in war with a sovereign nation, however disreputable and odious its government and leaders, and irrespective of the relevancy, applicabicability, or the verifiable condition of the stated causes we had for engaging this enemy at the time, we did unleash all the pernicious forces disposed throughout the unfortunate country known as Iraq.We removed the government and nominally disarmed, and certainly disbanded, the military forces of that nation, along with the entire organizational structure of those armed forces and all bodies of police and other keepers of the peace. As a consequence of our ill-considered (if they were thought about at all) policies as victors, the forces we unleashed have been free to wage terrorist acts upon one another, enter into internecine deadly conflict with one another, not to mention the repeated assaults on the U.S. troops we stubbornly keep in place on the proviso that were we to withdraw, just as precipately (and we now hope rapidly, so as to minimize further losses to our own forces), we would leave the countervailing factions to enter what is likely to be catastrophically bloody and chaotic civil war amongst themselves.
Whatever actual war we began and fought ended very soon after we started it, certainly within a month or two, or perhaps three.
Since then all acts of violence perpetrated on our troops, as well as on the opposing elements of the internecine forces that have always been resident in Iraq, plus those elements that have entered the fray from third party nations—with or without the sanction and support of those nations—since we neutralized the legitimate military and police organizations of Iraq immediately after defeating them in war, I would suggest are not acts of war. They are acts of violence that, in any other "civilized" nation, operating under any reasonable body of laws, whatever their basis: British Common Law, Napoleonic Code, or even laws formulated and legitimized by political bodies in governments adhering to certain religious codes, like the Koran), would be considered criminal acts. The perpetrators of these acts, these criminals, would be sought, neutralized, imprisoned, indicted and tried under those laws.
I would submit further that the litany of acts proffered as acts of war by this alleged Maj. General Chong (retired) against the United States since 1979 are, in the main criminal acts. Furthermore, one may go back, to earlier dates than these, if one must, as I would include other acts of terrorism — some political, some strictly criminal — performed mainly against military U.S. forces deployed in foreign countries, or U.S. citizens both at home or abroad.
Even acts, like the attack on the U.S. Panay, readily put at the feet of the military forces then under the government of the Emperor of Japan, that were meant to provoke our country, if not precipate engagement, were not sufficient to escalate our diplomatic or military posture such that we would, as a matter of policy, engage in war with an enemy that had a recognizable and coherent body of government formulating and implementing military engagement as an intentional act of war. Otherwise, the preponderance, if not the entirety, of these acts remain as they so patently and clearly are, as I said, criminal acts. All of which should have been, if they were not, prosecuted as such.
Every sovereign nation, whatever the prevailing religious beliefs of its citizenry, embraces a code of conduct and a body of laws that is meant to deal with criminal behavior. The maintaining of the social fabric demands of humans that they formulate codes for such a purpose. Crimes against individuals, or against a people, against institutions or corporations, are disruptive and potentially threaten the stability of any political entity, even a whole nation.
I submit that were all nations, in the interests of peace, and the maintenance of domestic tranquility (as I believe the phrase goes) were to concentrate on containing such acts of criminality, and indeed were to cooperate on whatever necessary basis to act in concert and to share intelligence, mainly of a forensic or probative nature, all such acts of criminality, widespread, and with the great frequency we have experienced them over whatever arbitrary span of time Maj. General Chong (or whomever) cares to define, would ultimately be contained to the point of manageability.
Terrorist acts are criminal acts pure and simple, and they should be dealt with as such, even if the dealing requires extensive applications of force and the resources to apply them. Widespread rioting, looting, and hooliganism in the modern history of all countries, including our own, have sometimes required to mobilization of national defense forces. These circumstances have never defined a state of war, even internally. And arguments prevail for calling our great Civil War as being, in actuality, a War Between the States.
We should be loathe to find wars where they do not exist. Even to a rhetorical abhorrence for application of the soubriquet of war (so enamored by our government, with various "wars" on poverty, drugs, even crime itself). War may be, Clausewitz cleverly defined it, a continuation of diplomacy (or politics) "by other means," but it is tantamount to mass murder, and the surest unequivocal sign of the failure of civilization, per se. It is, in short, not some manifestation of civilization, but its denial.
I don’t swallow a word this semi-literate, manipulative individual has offered up for purposes that can only be called inflammatory and ill-considered, never mind poorly reasoned and poorly argued.
Incidentally, Chong is, indeed, a real person, though he did not, apparently, write this letter, but passed it along to an email correspondent. The original letter, with a different original opening set of paragraphs, was allegedly written by an attorney and sent to his sons.
When, Oh!, when will we stop sending this crap to one another? It’s not worthy of lengthy discourse, never mind intelligent debate, if such were to be what it inspired.
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