Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Sister Sarah O'Neil

One of my mothers best friends died decades ago in the early 1980's.  I wasn't living at home when she finally left this world.  I was in California going through the final months of a really rotten marriage and wasn't anywhere near my family.

When the phone call came, I was very sad.  I hated to be so far away from what had just happened.  Sister Sarah had been a very large part of my mother's life and my childhood for as long as I can remember.  My mother and Sister Sarah had been friends since college days.

I don't know or remember the details, but they met when they were both in the novitiate (convent).  Sarah went on to become a fully fledged nun and my mother left the convent to marry my father. 

Their friendship remained.  Sister Sarah used to visit us when we lived in North Dakota.  I even remember Sister Sarah's parents visiting us.   She was a bigger part of our lives when we moved to Minnesota.  Sarah's convent was in St Paul and she was able to visit us regularly.  We also visited the convent.  I actually liked visiting Sister Sarah in the convent.  It had a huge pool table in the basement and we would play for hours.  I also liked talking to the other nuns and novices. 

Sister Sarah was a gentle and loving friend to my mother and to us kids as we appeared in the world. When my first child was born, Sister Sarah sent handmade pajamas for him.  She made a white nightgown type garment that tied at the bottom. It was perfect for an infant whose bottom needed changing often.  My son Ian wore it to bed almost every night.  Later when he got taller, I pulled the bottom cord out and he just wore it as a nightgown.

I wish I had at least one photo of Sister Sarah.  I can't believe I don't have a single one.  I have been thinking about Sister Sarah a lot today.  Of all things, it was the death of Shirley Temple Black that brings Sister Sarah's memory to the front of my mind.
When Sarah O'Neill was a little girl, she wrote a fan letter to Shirley Temple, then a big movie star that was charming the United States with her dimples, and curls.  Here was the lovely thing, Shirley Temple wrote back!  Sister Sarah had a hand written reply to her letter. It was a bit bland and may not have been written by the child star but it was a kindness that Sarah never forgot.  I don't know how long she kept the letter.  I suspect she kept it with her things up until she left home. 

Isn't it funny how the memory works and what will be a trigger to a deeper memory?

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Belgian Chocolates

A few years ago, a dear friend of mine, Robyn and her partner Deidre started a chocolate shop in Minnesota.  They've been working so hard to produce beautiful, and delicious quality chocolates.  They travel all over the US to learn new techniques.  They stay on top of the latest trends, try to use local and organic ingredients when that is possible. . . .so mostly, they're pretty groovy.  I've had their stuff sent to me here in the UK and the chocolates they produce rival fine European chocolates.

I told Robyn that I was headed to Belgium.  As they will not be over here anytime soon, I said I'd take photos for her and investigate trends. I also picked up some brochures, but the bag with the brochures (and gourmet chocolate) was surgically lifted from my shopping bag in London by somebody who wanted it more than me.
Some chocolate shops were just that.  Chocolate shops.  They were part of a chain and there was corporate uniformity.  As pretty as it is, it seemed to lose something.  For one, there wasn't the overpowering chocolate smell that is present in the other shops.  These other shops were shops in front of the production.  The chocolates were made on site.  It was also telling that these shops had a lot more foot traffic.

If there was a window so that the customer could see the production, there was always somebody having a look.
One thing I noticed was that the bargain chocolate shops were less busy than the good ones.  Nobody wanted to buy less expensive and novelty items as the perception was that they might not be as nice to eat as the other delights on offer.

I believe that Bruges has over fifty chocolate shops.  There seems to be enough custom for them all to survive.  I am sure that those who have a reputation for excellence and a good location will do better than others.  This means, that if you don't know what you're doing or your chocolate is not good, you will not survive in Belgium.

One of the things that will pull customers (and me) off the beautiful streets of Bruges and into the shop is this:
Abundant chocolates piled up and just WAITING to be purchased and eaten immediately.  I mean look at that!
In the above photo you can see my reflection as I take a snap of the orange slices dipped in chocolate.  Seville oranges are in season right now.  The bitter oranges are best for marmalade AND the partially dried slices are perfect for dipping in super luxurious Belgian chocolate.  We bought those every day.  One slice for me and one slice for The Man of the Place.  If we buy more than one slice each, . . we'll eat more than once slice each.
Chocolates bought loose and kept in bags and the bag is in the pocket of your winter coat will not keep.  As you walk around magical and historic Bruges, you'll remember they are in your pocket. Before you know it, they have evaporated.

Even though it was January when we were there, February and Valentine's Day looms.  Some love hearts were already appearing.

There isn't a bit of hot chocolate powder in the city.  If you order hot chocolate (chocolate chaud) then this is what you will get:

A chunk of rich Belgian chocolate that is melted into steamed milk.  It isn't cheap, but it is warm and very decadent. They really do make a great effort with the service of hot chocolate, making the entire experience one of pleasure.

We didn't go there for the chocolates but it was fun to be diverted by them.