24 April 2016

Bon Appétit en France!

Early evening on the terrasse

When we're in France, no matter how much we have on our daily schedule, there is never any question that taking time out to eat well is de rigueur. In fact, it is one of the things we love most about the French - they know how to relax over a good meal, and eating-on-the-run is not even in their vocabulary.

Most of the meals we've eaten on this trip have been at home because, hey, it's OUR house!! We have breakfast every morning in our kitchen on the rez-de-chaussez (called the first floor in America) and lunch and dinner most days on our terrasse tropezienne, (open terrace on the top floor of the house - third floor in France; fourth floor in America). We have a summer kitchen on the terrasse, so other than carrying food up, there is no inconvenience. Outdoor kitchens are quite common here. The French love to eat out of doors whenever weather permits.

An April sunset in Montagnac, at round 8:45 PM

The weather here has been fabulous. The sun stays up much later here than in Massachusetts, which I have never been able to figure out. It's early Spring and still light out at 9:00 PM (21:00 European time). Our terrasse faces southwest, so we get afternoon sun, and by evening it is quite warm, with a gentle breeze keeping the air fresh.

Jack grilling fresh sardines for lunch

Lunch with freshly grilled sardines and green zebra tomatoes

Bringing a bottle of Pastis up, so Jack can use it to flambé the pork cheeks for dinner

After the addition of Pastis

Incredibly tender and divinely flavorful pork cheeks

Chopping garlic for salad dressing

So simple and absolutely delicious - fresh tomatoes and avocados, drizzled with a little walnut oil, salt & pepper - a perfect accompaniment for dried ham, sausage with walnuts and cheese

23 April 2016

Medieval to Comfortable with a Coat of Paint

The kitchen as it looked when we first saw it

It's always the same - you buy a new house thinking it's "perfect", then move in and find out that it doesn't feel perfect at all, if fact it's a bit depressing. We had planned on doing a lot of decorating to update our new house in Montagnac, but hadn't really noticed in our love-at-first-sight state, that she really needed a major facelift, as well.

It took us about two days in our new kitchen to realize that our slight malaise was not wholly attributable to jet lag, and that it would need to be lifted by a coat of white paint on all of the kitchen walls that were not made of stone. To preserve the medieval charm of the kitchen/living space, we wanted to show off the gorgeous vaulted stone ceiling, and the four columns that luckily still exist in the four corners of the room. The plaster walls, however, could only be described as dingy.

I think we've now made at least 25 trips to numerous hardware stores in various towns, but our first trip to the closest one was to buy white paint for old stone walls. Within the first few hours of painting, we realized that we should probably ask if there is a special mixture for crumbling medieval stone/plaster, so back to the store we went and learned the first of so many new French words that had never been necessary in our francophone lives before: rebouchage (filling for holes in the walls), premiere couche (first coat of paint), forets pour béton (drill bits for concrete), vises (screws), etc.

While it has not been all vocabulary fun and games, we have been amazed at how quickly the kitchen has been transformed from dark and somber to light and bright.
While I had packed painting pants, I had overlooked a painting shirt, so Jack kindly sacrificed one of his "Picasso" t-shirts for me.

What a breath of fresh air the kitchen now is - a joy to come down to in the morning, for a couple bowls of café au lait!

Jack hanging antique plates we bought in nearby Pézenas, over new curtains I had just made

More on the kitchen renovations (and our orgy of antique buying!!!) tomorrow...

Bonne journée, Kate

22 April 2016

Just do it!

A magnificent home for sale in France - just the kind we had always dreamed of, with enough rooms for visitors, a bit of land for eating al fresco and gardening, a swimming pool...

Sometimes we have dreams for years and years, but don't know if we'll ever realize those dreams...it is hope and faith that keeps us dreaming. Jack and I have had a dream of owning a charming house (a maison de charactere) in France for as long as we've been together (and for me, since I lived in Nice in 1977-8). A couple of years ago, I came to the realization that the dream itself was so much fun, it might be okay if we never actually got the house, but just kept thinking about it, about how we would live there, decorate, cook, entertain family and friends...

A shaded terrace in Provence, on another realtor's site - the perfect place for a leisurely lunch

Through it all, though, we (especially Jack) kept looking at real estate in France, via the internet. And every time we have visited France, our semi-joking catchphrase has been, "C'est a vendre?" ("Is that for sale?") While Jack found so many amazing places for sale - old water mills, barns that would be perfect as renovated art studios, gardens and swimming pools overlooking hilly vistas, outdoor and indoor stone bread/pizza ovens to bake in...so many incredible choices - these all still seemed to be just dreams.

One day last Fall, we decided to go to a basic French real estate site (not one with glamorous properties for foreigners) and start at the bottom of the price scale. Working my way up from completely rundown places with no possibility of water and electricity, to abodes that seemed to offer a few possibilities, I finally got to some places with real potential (although Jack had his doubts about most of them...)

Then one day, it appeared - newly listed, a house that was absolutely charming, in Montagnac (in the Languedoc, just west of Provence), the area of France we wanted to live...and at a nice price. I just happened to be going to Marseille for several days to meet a needlepoint customer from the States, so we booked a ticket for Jack to come too, and made an appointment with the realtor to look at the house the following week.

Everything that happened in the next two weeks flew by like we were in fast forward, but yet it all seemed to be happening just as it should. I don't believe in fate, but I do believe in opportunity, and when an opportunity that feels so right presents itself, one has to be able to jump right in and "just do it". That's what we did.

A combination of luck, passion and "just-do-it" mentality led us to this house and to our new, dear friends in Montagnac. Having made our appointment to see the house, we had to change course for the week I had planned in Provence (turns out my Texas customer was unable to make it to Marseille, anyway), and so we ended up booking a single night at the Domaine des Augustins, a bed & breakfast in the Montagnac that we found on Booking.com. Our thinking was that we would like to get to the town, explore a bit and find the house on our own before meeting with the realtor the following morning. Little did we know that we would fall in love with the wonderful proprietors of the Domaine - Muriel & Olivier Fury - and that they would so happily help us with all of the events that quickly took place in the week to come.

Muriel et Olivier Fury, at the Domaine des Augustins, Montagnac

Magnificent entrance to La Domaine des Augustins

At breakfast the next morning, Olivier, who has done lots of renovations on several old homes they have owned (including their current home, an 18th c. former Augustinian wine-making monastery and its attached church dating to the 15th c. - more on that gem in another post), generously suggested he would be happy to come with us to see the house, since as Americans, we know very little about stone buildings from the Middle Ages (!)

It was love a first sight. We felt that the house was meant for us, as soon as we walked through the front door.
Looking at our front door from the Rue des Amours (Street of Loves)

The events that followed literally happened within three days, while we continued to stay at the Domaine des Augustins, enjoying dinner every night and breakfast each morning with our lovely new friends. We made an offer on the house; our offer was accepted; Muriel called her friend, Marie-Juliette, who is manager of the local branch of a French bank, and immediately we had an appointment to meet her and open our own French bank account; Olivier called their local notaire (similar to a lawyer in France, for handling transactions like buying a house) and made an appointment for us to go there; we met with the notaire, Anne-Catherine, and she drew up a purchase & sale agreement, which we later signed; we discussed renovation ideas with Olivier and spoke with our realtor, a friendly Dutch man named Reinier, about local insurance providers, etc.; we had a couple of follow-up inspections to double-check some questions we had, and found that all had gone well.
Reinier, our realtor - Midi Languedoc Propriétés

I cannot stress enough how friendly and efficient everyone was!!! The process happened so quickly, and yet we were totally confident that everything was moving along just as it should, and with less red tape than one would normally encounter in the United States. Our trust in the people and institutions we were dealing with was not misplaced. Everything did work out just as it should, with no problems other than the former owners of the house stalling for several months (no, they were not French).

Our street - the Rue du Commerce, so-named because many of the houses on it were built and owned by the merchants who lived and sold their wares here in the 15th century

That all was last November and the house literally became ours, officially, the day before we were planning to leave for France again, to spend the next five weeks in our new house - March 28, 2016.

We have named the house "Le Bijou", meaning the little gem. While this house, situated as it is right in the middle of a small town, is not the house we had always dreamed of (in the countryside, but near a town) it somehow felt like the perfect French house for us right now. Follow our adventures in my next posts, as we have been making this old house our own.

30 April 2015

Wonderful French Words and Phrases

Kristin Espinasse and her golden retriever, Smokey

My blogger "friend" Kristin Espinasse has this subject well-covered, so I am posting today, mostly to direct my readers to her blogsite, French Word-A-Day, which is both chouette and interessant. Today, she posted another of her favorite French words, and she included a link to a past post where readers were invited to add their own favorite French words and phrases to a growing list. I've been reading through the list with reader comments and have rediscovered some of my personal old favorites in the process.

If you are a francophile and don't follow Kristin's blog, you should check it out. She is an American woman who fell in love with and married a French man, and writes about raising two kids together (and a sweet dog) in the South of France. Her stories are about everyday life experiences, always with the slant of being seen through the eyes of an American/French woman. Her posts are full of charm and joie de vivre - I truly look forward to reading them.

Here are the two words I added to Kristin's readers' list today:

"I love "vachement", meaning hugely, as in as much as a whole cow! My friends and I used it a lot when I was there in the late 70's for school, and now when I use it, French people laugh and say "Wow - you really do know the language!"
I also love "chouette" which is just so fun (i.e., "chouette"!!) I used to call my painting business "La Palette Chouette" (which I still love) but most Americans were baffled by both the name and pronunciation, so I changed it.
I am having the best time reading all of the other favorites. Many of them tickle my fancy, as well. Great list."
                                                  ~ Kate Dickerson

You can add your own favorites, too. I hope you enjoy this list as much as I did!

28 July 2014

Creating a New "OLD" Kitchen - Part 3A - a New Sink & Backsplash

We had been looking at various old sink options for a few years, but my husband found this one completely by accident, when he was out driving one day. It's an old soapstone sink, in nearly perfect condition except for a piece missing along the top left side. The sink is exactly like the one my family had in our laundry room in Minneapolis, where I grew up, although that was a triple bay and this is a double bay - much more practical for us.

The sink was sitting outside an old barn about two miles from our house, so Jack pulled into the driveway and left a note for the homeowner, asking if the sink was for sale. After quite a bit of negotiation with the husband, the wife finally said that if we paid her and got it out of her yard within a couple of days, we could have it at a great price. She was tired of looking at it!

Jack went over to pick up the sink two days later, with the help of my brother, Dick, and our friend, David. NO LUCK! The sink was ridiculously heavy and they couldn't even get it into Dick's truck. It apparently weighed about 450 lbs.

Luckily, Plan "B" did work. The following weekend, Dick borrowed a hydraulic lift hand truck from a buddy of his and the guys got the sink to our house (without rupturing any discs, I might add!) The thing was so heavy they had to place big pieces of plywood on the ground to prevent the sink from literally sinking into the ground, or cracking all the Italian tiles we have leading to the front door. My "big" contribution was that I ran along and grabbed pieces of plywood that had been crossed, placing them in the front of the line, as the guys slowly moved the sink forward.
 Dick, Jack & David, after finally manoeuvering the sink into our kitchen.

Once we had the sink in the kitchen, it was time to figure out what kind of tiles we wanted to put behind and around it. All the tiles we liked best were either unavailable antiques or astronomically priced new ones which would take months to get from Europe. The solution just popped into my head that I could paint trompe l'oeil tiles and have the perfect backsplash for just the cost of plywood and paint.

So, while Jack set about demolishing the old sink and cabinetry, I began researching exactly which styles and colors of tiles we wanted. We ended up with a combination of Portuguese style border tiles (similar to the ones we had dragged home from Portugal on our honeymoon, years before) and Italian style tiles - both modern and antique designs. I took borders from some tiles and combined them with center patterns from other tiles. Some designs I completely made up, but most were doctored versions of tiles I found online.
 Jack cut top-quality, heavy plywood to the exact size for me, and after double priming both sides of the wood (to protect from water damage), I laid out my grid and started designing.
  My work area was in our living room, since the kitchen was a messy demolition site.
Some of the soup plates we bought years ago in San Gimignano, Italy.

I used colors from the various pieces of French, Italian and Portuguese dishes we own, plus put in some Latin words and phrases for fun. In one of the designs I made up, the sun has the word "LUX", meaning light. It's a word that very much describes the area around the Mediterranean where are hearts are generally playing hooky on vacation.
The right side, painted and ready to install.
While I was busy painting the backsplash, Jack removed the old sink as well as the cabinetry that had been below it. The new sink is much wider than the old one, plus it's deeper and way too heavy for ordinary kitchen cabinetry to support, so Jack built a new base out of 4 x 4's, dovetailed together for stability. We didn't have any tiles that matched the ones on the floor, so Jack found some very similar ones and cut them to the right size, to go under the sink, where the floor had been unfinished concrete.

In the meantime, our plumber had come over and converted the single faucet set-up to a double wall mount scheme to fit the holes in the new sink back.
After I triple coated the finished backsplash with top quality satin polyurethane, Jack and I fit it into place, adhering it to the wall with Liquid Nails and wallboard screws.
 Detail view of the edges. I painted them to look like real terra cotta tiles, and the edges have flat - not satin - polyurethane on them.
All of the faux grout is shaded with shadows where they would fall, based on the light streaming in through windows near the backsplash. I also painted in lots of little dings to the corners and edges of the faux tiles, to give them a realistic aged look. Where the glaze has been "damaged", terra cotta shows through to imitate real unglazed tile.
 I put in this Latin phrase, meaning "Love conquers all".
 One of my favorite tiles is this adaptation of an Italian tile I discovered online. I have always loved how Europeans have names for the different winds. I imagine that the "maestro" wind is the same as the provençal "mistral", which famously comes down from the arctic, crossing the Alps and bringing frigid air with it to the South of France.

Stay tuned for Part 3B - The Sink Installed!

14 October 2013

Coming soon to the Wine Spectator!

Since I wrote in this recent post about my trompe l'oeil painting, I have gotten several inquiries about the wine labels. This was one I did for our family, incorporating wine labels we had saved over the years - mostly with special memories attached. I have also been asked to do special orders of friends' own labels and corks, as well as cheese labels, and other personal memory-laden items.

I am currently accepting commissions on custom versions of this wine painting - incorporating specific labels and corks of the client's choosing. I will paint each label exactly as it is sent to me, including wine spills, rips, handwriting, etc., unless I receive instructions to "clean it up" (but I personally think the wine spills and other imperfections give the painting much more character).

This is the perfect gift for wine aficionados who already have all the oenophile's accoutrements. In a way, it's a very personal portrait of a wine lover's best memories!

Here are some of the specific details:
  • Hand painted in highest quality artists oils on board (museum quality), signed
  • Size: 24" x 16", unframed
  • Price: $2100 (unframed)
  • Price with gold leaf style frame: $2100 + 250 = $2350 (framed)
  • Lead time: 6-8 weeks from the time I receive complete package of materials from customer
  • Shipping: FedEx standard fee
  • Cash, check and all credit cards accepted
Here's what I need from the customer to get started:
  • Either actual labels and corks (preferable) or good photocopies & photos
  • Signed contract and 50% downpayment
Balance, plus shipping, and sales tax within Massachusetts, will be due upon completion.

Here are some close-up shots of my own painting, showing my attention to even the tiniest details:

 It's a bit hard to capture on film, but I use real gold, silver and copper paints.

Contact: kate@katedickerson.com

If you are interested in special ordering one of these paintings for the upcoming December holidays, please respond ASAP. 
Thank you!

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