Luxury is Sauce Béarnaise

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If anyone asked me what was the best thing I did in the last few months I’d probably forgotten the answer. Memories of a million culinary escapes tend to get buried and lost in ice storms and mental fuzz that February brings. However if you asked about the last day or so I’m still dreaming of the luxury of Béarnaise sauce on my tongue with teasings of moist salmon washed down with cheap Portuguese vinho verde. The wine’s memories of sweet summer now a long dead dream I swear will never be recovered.

Just as Julia said you need to master the art of French cooking. Not to show off nor to waste on the unworthy. Making a fine sauce is its own reward and it’s slightly dangerous, this one. It’s a bit like tightrope walking because ideally it’s made by hand and there should be no machinery involved. A large bowl over a pan of simmering hot water is where the sauce is conceived, gelled and born.

If your whipping hand is too slow or the simmering steam is too hot you end up making scrambled eggs, I am told. On the other hand if it’s not hot enough you’ll be whipping a good while and consequently learn to adjust the amount of heat to allow just the right rate of slow thickening when the whip leaves ephemeral ski trails of it’s tracks on the surface. Pure joy.

I refuse to serve salmon without this sauce to accompany it. All you need is a cup of melted unsalted butter, some white wine vinegar, Dijon, an egg or two, shallots and tarragon – all of which are staples in even the poorest home around here one would hope. Feel free to bash me if I sound a bit like Marie Antoinette who I cannot stand. Yes I know that shallots are more expensive than regular onions. If you must then use onions but shallots will bring you an entire other world which regular cooking onions cannot. If I may coax you get yourself a small bag of shallots in Chinatown for $1.99 just for this recipe. Scrimp save make do and find a way. Or if you are like me ask your greengrocer to just sell you one and if he wants your patronage he will let you. Tip: Your relationship with the local greengrocer should never be taken lightly. It must be carefully nurtured. Indeed with every greengrocer you have dealings with.

True that food prices have gone up but if you look around there are still ways around it. Why only yesterday I saw unsalted butter at one of the posh groceries around here for $3.99. I’ve yet to taste it, but I doubt if it could be particularly bad for cooking purposes. Not sure how it would work on toast though.

As to the sauce in issue. Though I have never held in my arms a beautiful woman dressed in only a thin layer of luscious beautiful silk I swear this sauce has to be its culinary equivalence. I can eat it with a spoon like ice cream. I am told this is also excellent with steak.

First get yourself a sauce pan large enough (usually a medium sized) on which you can easily nestle a medium sized stainless steel bowl. If the bowl is too small it’s too close to the hot water in the pan, if it’s too big the bowl will fall off the pan without nestling and you will lose your sauce. Then get your favourite balloon whip. The point in the bowl is that it’s perfect for whipping which is the basis of the sauce’s creation.

If you are serving salmon, I usually broil it with skin side facing up having lightly seasoned the fleshy surfaces with salt and pepper and a quick dab of butter. All it takes is about five minutes under the broiler. Also have prepped your vegetables and take that timing into consideration. Usually you can whip up this sauce in about ten minutes (not including prep time) as the veg cooks. It’s much like making a big breakfast. Some orchestration is at play so everything is ready at the same time. On the other hand make the sauce and you can reheat it over simmering water in the same bowl if you prefer to get it out of the way first. Though I do enjoy the theatrics of living dangerously while the salmon broils with the risk of overcooked vegetables hanging over my head.

Three yolks instead of one whole egg will make this sauce even richer and thicker. Melt the butter beforehand slowly on low heat in a pot. I don’t have a microwave and don’t like them. Make sure you have a cup of multed butter and make sure it’s just a touch warm when you start adding it to make the sauce.

Learn about the thread pour. As in pouring the melted butter into the vinegar mixture very slowly and the pace of it is in the size of the stream of oil/fat. As thin as a thread so you don’t crowd it. This is the same standard for just about any emulsified sauce or dressing I make around here including vinaigrette. A basic skill you already have or mandatory to master through practice.

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Equipment: Saucepan, bowl and my favourite balloon whisk. Saucepan diameter of 9″ and depth of 2.5″. Bowl diameter of 7.5″ with depth of about 3.5″. Essentially a substitute for a double-boiler or bain-marie.

Sauce Béarnaise  For 1 to 1 1/2 cups of sauce.

Ingredients:

One whole egg or three egg yolks

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

2 tablespoon white wine vinegar separated into 1 tablespoon each

1/2 teaspoon tarragon leaves (fresh). If dry use 1/4 or to taste but roughly pulverized

1 tablespoon minced shallots (or onion if in a bind)

1 cup gently melted unsalted butter (melted over low heat so it does not cook) cooled to tepid

Method:

Bring to simmer some water in a covered saucepan filled a third of the way up. While the water is heating whip together in a bowl (this bowl should nestle comfortably on top of saucepan with simmering water later when combining the butter) one egg (or three egg yolks) with the Dijon mustard and one tablespoon of white wine vinegar. At this stage this is done off the heat.

Place 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar in a small saucepan with tarragon and minced shallots. Bring to simmer over low to medium heat and keep it at simmer. Watch closely while stirring occasionally until the liquid evaporates but the shallots are still moist. This takes only a few minutes or maximum four or five.

Make sure the melted butter is slightly warm but not hot and in a saucepan or cup with an easily pourable spout. Here comes the fun part. You will be pouring the butter in a very thin stream as you whip the eggs in the bowl set over the gently steaming saucepan of water. A bit like jugglery.

The aim is to combine the butter with the egg, mustard, vinegar mixture and bring it to the consistency of something a little thicker than pouring cream; and if you are using yolks then it should be even thicker and closer to whipped cream though not that thick. You achieve this by slowly cooking the eggs and emulsification which is a result of the whipping. The whipping also keeps the eggs from over cooking and turning into scrambled eggs. If you are too slow it will curdle and ruin the sauce.

Start slow. Make sure the water is simmering sufficiently to allow steam to build up under the bowl and if need be have someone pour the butter while you whip the contents of the bowl. Place the bowl over the simmering pot and start whipping fast using balloon whip while pouring the butter in a stream as thin as a few hair strands. Whip in the butter as the oil is poured in. Do not stop whipping.

When about 1/3rd of butter is used up make sure the sauce has thickened. This will happen if there is sufficient heat from the steam. If not increase the heat so there is more steam. Once the sauce thickens you may add the rest of the butter slightly faster but until you are comfortable with the process stick to the thin stream. Also from time to time stir the butter so the milk in the bottom gets mixed in. Keep adding and whipping until all the butter is used up.

Keep whipping over gentle steam until the sauce thickens. The single egg will render a double cream consistency whereas the three yolks will make it far thicker and even more luxurious.

The above recipe is a breakdown of that described in the Sunset French Cook Book* at page 70 in its section on Emulsion sauces. The book might no longer be in print but look online for secondhand copies. While Julia Child taught me a lot this book made French cooking profoundly accessible and a walk in the park when I was a new homemaker. It has a great recipe for brioche and also baguettes. A favourite of mine for sure.

Renuka Mendis, Toronto, February 2, 2017.

*Ed. Di Vecchio, Jerry Anne; Gaulke, Judith A. Sunset French Cook Book. Menlo Park: Lane Publishing Co., 1976. Print.

Photos: Renuka Mendis.

Talking about Halo Halo on the TTC a.k.a. how Kamal Al-Solaylee’s Brown* came home to roost on my way home on Friday

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I rarely see men with exhausted babies or children on the bus or the subway after work. It’s pretty much a rule. Tired mom and exhausted baby, toddler or child. Mostly black women or women of colour on the route I’ve been taking of late. I don’t know why but it holds a certain poignancy observing them especially on this route when there is little light at five. Still there is joy here under the weariness at day’s end. Bonds of love, care and concern sometimes blurting out in mini-tantrums on the child’s part and flashes of desperate impatience from the mother. Yet tied together in reliability and dependence.

Occasionally I play peekaboo or secret hand-eye-signal games across the aisle with the little ones to cheer them up but mostly to pass the time; some days it works on others they are inconsolable or too exhausted to respond to my efforts. But mostly they are joyful creatures these tykes, angels and little professors. Perhaps as the days grow longer their lighter sides will become more evident.

But the bus on Friday, this past week turned out to be unusual. A little girl of nine or ten of angelic yet intelligent face and her harried mom. The bus was crowded. Everyone utterly exhausted. The conversation between the mother and daughter about having been to the doctor. The little girl found a seat between two passengers and mom stood next to her seesawing between concern and making sure she was stable on a moving bus. A few stops in a big hunk of a man with a piece of luggage the size of a carry-on-bag got on and rushed right past her. He rammed his body at the woman as he did this, pushing her aside. Yet he kept marching right on to the back. I glowered at him in anger as he settled into his seat entirely self-absorbed.

More bonds were formed. Invisible. Me, the little girl and her mom across the aisle of a bus. I was mightily exhausted myself and loaded down with groceries when the two seats by me became vacant. Mom rushed to grab them and won the race. Up close the similarities in their features were striking. The little girl’s still childish-angelic but the mother’s a wearier version of the tender and pretty flower she too must once have been. I blurted out that the little girl looked just like her, a carbon copy! She smiled back but mom declared she looked a lot like her father but was pleased to hear my observation.  “She probably has both your features but the similarity is striking” I said. Visions of friendly love-tiffs between loving parents in a Toronto apartment over how their little girl looks more like him or her happily flashed across my mind.

It looked like the little girl had eczema and was scratching away at an itch and despite the mom’s pleadings she could not stop herself. Norma’s concern and worry was weighing her down. To distract her from her itch we started chatting.

Let us call her Norma and the daughter Ena. Ena had been sick with flu and it has been very difficult with her. How she had long ago left Ena with her grandmother in the Philippines when she was an infant to come work as a nanny in Toronto. She looked pained and guilt-stricken explaining they had been reunited only since about a year ago and Ena was seven when she arrived in Canada. How it was a very difficult adaptation for both of them and her deep frustration and helplessness resounded. How Ena constantly reminded her that her family is back home in the Philippines and that Norma is not her family; despite her being Ena’s mom. Norma hoped things would improve when her husband arrived from the Philippines and that she was having his papers processed. That is when I realized how my fantasy view of a nuclear family in a Toronto apartment was only a fiction of my imagination. Perhaps it was the older child and older mother scenario which led me to believe the relationship was also as old and that any time as a nanny was way behind her. It wasn’t. Ena and her father too had been separated from each other while mom was away in Canada.

It was hard to comprehend though I knew the stories. Known them for a very long time. The havoc it wreaks. A little lost girl who was plucked from loving surroundings. A mother trying to assuage her guilt for having left her baby behind in ways that are desperately impractical. An exploitative system which keeps live-in caregivers like Norma forever desperate and dependent on their employers, for themselves and their families with few success stories. An inhumane economy and state, both here and in the Philippines, which perpetuates the break up of families without recompense.

I tried to explain to Norma that she was not alone and that her decision was sound and made for good reasons. How change is not always what we expect but that with care and commitment she could make things work and mentioned some organizations, including Kababayan. Ena recognized the word and was very open and started talking to Norma in Tagalog. Ena was comforted that I knew words from her home. When I asked which Grade she was in and told her that she must be doing very well in school because she is a very smart young girl; Ena was adamant to say she did not know English well and that she was not doing well in school here. Norma explained how Ena had been doing really well in school back home before she left and that everything was not working too well right now. Norma felt Ena’s English wasn’t very good, though it was evident Ena spoke well and with confidence. Although some theorize that working as domestics far from home gave women independence my observation in Canada has been this. These jobs of virtual servitude chip away at a worker’s self-esteem and keep racking up the guilt account.

Norma seemed entirely overwhelmed by her situation and was worried she would make matters worse when her husband arrived when they find out that they were no longer compatible. She had been away from him for the same time as she had been in Canada except perhaps for two trip she had made back home for  a few weeks at a time. Which was all she could afford. Just like on the bus seesawing between survival and the need to keep her family together. For Norma that was her child, herself and the child’s father vs. the reality that what she left behind was no longer there; except for the individuals. In this case a hostile and confused child and a complete stranger for a husband. And possibly Ena’s motherhood robbed by both systems.

The more we spoke the more Ena and Norma opened up. Norma speaking of difficulties and Ena warming at every mention of home. Ena is very smart and had clearly been well looked after by her grandmother for all I could tell. A confident, lovely, intelligent young girl fully able to speak her mind. When we started talking more about Ena’s home, the Philippines, and also because of my love for Halo Halo I decided to lighten up the conversation from difficulties to sweet drinks. Ena’s face lit up when I asked if she had yet had Halo Halo in Toronto. Ena blurted out that her mom had told her there was no Halo Halo in Toronto. I played along for a little while and Ena was waxing poetic about Halo Halo and I followed suit. She said she loved Halo Halo with ice cream and I quibbled back that proper Halo Halo did not have ice cream. We giggled in recognition and formed more bonds and any barriers we had fell down. We talked even more about Halo Halo about the purple yam ice cream-like ingredient on top. How I felt that Halo Halo was to me a combination of all the best birthday cakes you’ve had (on your birthdays) mixed with all the best ice cream you’ve ever had. Ena was delighted and wanted to know more of what I knew about her people, and of course, Halo Halo. She was keen to know if I had Filipino friends.

As we chatted up a  storm as the bus progressed towards our destination I had already made plans in my head to exchange phone numbers so I could see if there was anything I could do to help Ena feel more at home and to lighten Norma’s load in her transition from a single Nanny living alone in Toronto to parenting and being a spouse. She had her hands full, evidently. Ena was such a vivacious intelligent young child that I would have welcomed the opportunity to act as an aunty or an elder sister to her if it was useful.

I’d heard numerous stories through several organizations that help Filipina nannies or former nannies in their transition when their children arrive in Canada after separations as long as a decade or more. It is rarely easy. How could it be?

We talked about school in positive terms as the bus trundled on and more conversation ensued about Halo Halo. I had to break the news to Ena that there was Halo Halo, and very good Halo Halo in Toronto. How I had it as a treat on hot summer days at the Filipino food place at Dundas and Bathurst at Kanto and how it transports one to an entirely other place. Norma confessed she had kept the news away from Ena because she kept getting colds and did not want her to get sick. How there is good Halo Halo near Bathurst and Wilson at a Filipino place. In my head I couldn’t wait for summer so we could all go for Halo Halo and see Ena’s delight. But it was still February and freezing cold.

I have seen how Toronto nannies leave that work but still are stuck in low-paying low-skilled jobs. But at least when they leave nanny work they are not constantly under the thumb of a sole employer often working alone. But in Norma’s case she is still a nanny and supplements her income with part-time work in schools to cover for absences. She was not happy about this situation but hoped things would get better. Her immediate concern was making sure Ena was not sick, thus the visit to the doctor asking for antibiotics. Why? So she did not have to take time away from work being the sole breadwinner.

My hope that we might be living in the same area in proximity too was dashed when Norma said she did not live in this area but was on her way to an event which her employer wanted her and Ena to attend. Although Ena was sick and preferred to stay at home tonight Norma did not want to disappoint or to say no to her employers. So here she was making sure her daughter’s illness was manageable to make sure she did not have to say no to her employer.

I was pretty confused as to what to think and why and before we knew it the bus had arrived at the station and we started to disembark. I was overwhelmed with different thoughts. Why wasn’t her employer understanding of the fact that her daughter was not well? Why does Norma believe she could not say no to her employer simply because her employer had bought tickets for Norma and Ena? Does the employer understand that they too are implicated in this separation between a mother and a daughter and its inevitable fallout? Are they trying to pacify their guilt by buying tickets for events for Norma and Ena and do nothing more? Is this a never-ending cycle of deceit in an exchange of survival and servitude in the service of the wealthy or well to do professionals?

Norma’s life in Canada as a nanny or otherwise had also robbed her of her existence as a sexual being and also her motherhood. Both as Ena’s mother and the wife of the husband she left behind so long ago. Kamal Al-Solaylee in Brown talks in depth about this and the plight of domestics and nannies. He discusses how this exchange is akin to a form of modern day slavery which is destructive to individuals, family units and entire societies for the benefit of certain privileged classes. He also explains how money sent back benefits entire communities; but I question if these benefits are worth the price of dehumanization persons like Norma endure for decades and the heartbreak of children.

Before I could sift through my thoughts and as they whirled around in my head we had parted. In minutes I sorely regretted not having taken Norma’s contact information so we could meet again and become friends – and perhaps create an extended family of sorts. Although I have no Gods I pray, perhaps to the TTC, that I meet Norma and Ena again on the bus so we can all go for Halo Halo when the dog days of summer are here. Ena hates the winter. Who doesn’t when it is their first or second time and when you are heartbroken and homesick for your family back home. When I asked Ena if she doesn’t remember summer it seems she only remembers how awful winters are.  May be she might hate winter less with more activity and more friends and a support system to supplement everything that her mother clearly provides with great love. May be Ena’s teachers aren’t doing enough for her. May be someone can take her skating. May be I am talking complete nonsense. I came home and played that song by Paul Simon about a mother and child. I felt completely helpless at how invisible Ena’s and Norma’s suffering was.

by Renuka Mendis, Toronto, February 5, 2017.

Disclaimer: Any resemblance to actual persons or events is purely coincidental.

*Al-Solaylee, Kamal. Brown : what being brown means in the world today (to everyone). New York : HarperCollins, 2016. Print.

Photo credit for Halo Halo – Renuka Mendis (Halo Halo by Kanto)

Photo Credit for TTC Logo : TTC.ca

snow poems – 1

when snow puts down its blanket
you sleep babied, infantile
slow to awaken like the winter’s maple
or the stubborn magnolia
forgetting sugared light
why scream incongruous

but wait
even stiffened limbs awaken
crawl out from under cold blankets
cheap pots of tea made in red rose
in many a gloomed kitchen
though it’s true
if you’ll ever brave the streets again

and slowly the greying wool
unravels
sugared tea warmeth in old pots in rounded comfort
pain slowly melts like lard on heating pans
the neck appears fingers move
and crawling on knees we find our feet

renuka mendis, toronto, december 15, 2016

There’s a trick with Sichuan peppers I know how to do. As in how to remove that gritty seed in Sichuan peppers

Sichuan peppercorns are neither peppers nor corns. They are tiny berries which grow on the Chinese Prickly Ash tree. They belong to the citrus family and is a crucial ingredient in Ma Po Tofu and a myriad other Chinese specialties. Its use is not limited to China.

The onyx black seed is removed as it is gritty. Only the dry husk of the berry is used. When it hits your tongue Sichuan pepper gives it a small electric shock type of sensation and equally importantly it’s fragrance in cooking is spectacular. It has become one of my favourite spices.

Imagine my horror recently when I sat down to a dish of Ma Po Tofu I had made to find it full of grit. I knew it had to be the new batch of Sichuan pepper. I had powdered some for the recipe. What did I do wrong? Where did this sand come from? Wracked by guilt after all the chopping and prepping that goes into the dish I still ate it while carefully avoiding the gritty bits. Otherwise the grit would have won. Fortunately there were no guests who would have been shocked and it would have been a disaster. I survived.

This was may be five or six months ago and I have been hesitant to make any more Ma Po Tofu until the grit issue got resolved. This week I had some silken tofu glaring at me in the fridge for a week and it was time. A quick search online and I find it is the seeds that make Sichuan peppers gritty. The peppers I purchased in Chinatown were more than the husk. It contained the seeds which are as tough as stones. I did not encounter this problem with the first batch of Sichuan peppers.

So the rule is: Only the husk, not the seed. The seed is jet black, hard and onyx shiny. It could well be a gem or a bead in jewellery. However it does not belong in your Ma Po Tofu. I searched and searched to eke out a solution and there were many which I will not get into. They involved washing, drying in the sun and myriad others. Nothing however seemed to state the obvious. Which was to physically remove the seed.

I am sure there are many ways to deseed a Sichuan berry but here is one of them. I wasn’t going to go looking for them late evening in Chinatown and probably I might well have ended up with the same product with seeds in tact.

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Sichuan peppers – some with seeds in them. The seeds are gritty and should not be used.

How to: Using the tip of a small paring knife open the husk. The seed will fall out. Carefully pick out the husk and set aside the seed. Its the husk that you use. The seeds are beautiful and I hate to throw them away until I find out if they have any use. However someone from China told me that the most potent part of a Sichuan peppers is in the seed. I am not yet sure I would want to try it again. May be more research is called for on the gritty seeds. Until then use only the husk.

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Seeds extracted. Some of the berries were too tight to open. They too were discarded. Yet I was stunned by their Onyx-like beauty. I wonder if they are used as beads.

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The rule is: Only the husk, not the seed.

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There are many uses for Sichuan pepper. Here it releases a unique citrus-like fragrance in oil over medium heat, to start off Ma Po Tofu which appears below. My absolutely favourite recipe for this is here: http://thewoksoflife.com/2014/03/ma-po-tofu-real-deal/

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Credits: Title is a nod to Michael Ondaatje’s poetry collection entitledThere’s a trick with a knife I’m learning to do.

Renuka Mendis, Toronto, October 17, 2016

Gazpacho Impromptu

 

 

Tomatoes are lush and ripe around now and those winter nightmares of plastic red orbs are a distant bad dream. And at ninety-nine cents a pound nothing to thumb your nose at.  And why sweat over a hot stove when a cold soup will do for lunch. Not quite the authentic version or process involving mortars and pestles, but still quick and easy and tastes divine. Makes sure your ingredients are good and fresh.

 

 

Ingredients:

2 to 3 large ripe regular tomatoes (juicy) roughly cut up (with juice and skin and all)

Peeled large English cucumber cut in large pieces

1/4 to 1/2 a large green bell pepper, seeded, ribbed and rough chopped

Half a bunch of fresh Italian parsley thoroughly rinsed

Fresh mint to taste (entirely optional) thoroughly rinsed

Half a small red onion peeled and cut up

Two large cloves of fresh garlic or to taste

About 5-15 walnuts or whole almonds or cashew nuts

1 whole dried chili (arbol or similar type)

A few glugs of half decent olive oil (about 1/4 cup or less)

Sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar to taste (two tablespoons more or less)

A dash of hot sauce (Grace Hot Pepper sauce works perfectly. Or Tabasco will do)

About 1/8th teaspoon of smoked paprika  (use a good brand like La Dalia)

Salt to taste

 

This is a raw dish. It is imperative your ingredients are well rinsed. Anyway it’s a rule around here even if things get cooked.

 

First make sure to always thoroughly rinse all vegetables and herbs before prepping (and in case of onions and garlic after peeling) them. Once prepped place all vegetables in a high speed high powered blender along with the rest of the ingredients.  Go easy on the salt, vinegar and hot sauce.  (If you don’t have a high wattage blender, then get one.)  Cover and blend on low and increase speed so everything is a rough smooth liquid. If you are using a high powered blender it will take a minute or less.

Check for seasoning and consistency. The vinegar should lend a slight tang, not a salad dressing tartness. You’ll barely taste the chili and hot sauce. They’re only meant to lift up the soup and not to make it hot. If it is too thick add more cucumber and/or tomato. I like it in a milk shake consistency so you can watch football while sipping it off a straw. Or you may add just cold water if too thick. Make it good and thick. Then it’s fun to plop some ice cubes in it too. Refreshing!

You may also add a slice of day old bread (good bread, and not wonderbread please) to the vegetables when blending. Idea is the vegetables give it body and taste while the olive oil blends with the tart tomato giving it a touch of emulsification. The nuts and the bread add a fleshy ceraminess and rounds it off.

Make it as liquid or thick as you like.  This is an entire lunch in a glass with ice in it. On a hot day it’s perfect.  Or chill the soup overnight and  you may serve it in a nice bowl with or without ice. If you want to look posh drizzle some olive oil on it and sprinkle some fresh chopped flat leaf parsley. Just a little.

From the first seconds in blender to the consistency of milkshake. You don’t need to completely blend it to oblivion either.

 

So there you have it.  How you get to lazily enjoy all those ninety nine cents a pound tomatoes that are at the greengrocers and markets this summer. And no hot stoves either.

 

Renuka Mendis

Toronto, June 26, 2016

Hanami at High Park

That hussy. The brash magnolia overdressed from head to toe. Flowers on steroids. Mocking the flowerless sakura at High Park’s sakura grove. A wasteland where by now we should be able to anticipate an ocean, an universe in constellations of sakura.  That demure poetic blessing from the sky which should be evident by now in the form of pink buds all over the approximately 2,000 trees that reside there.

Toronto’s annual Hanami at High Park where non-Japanese people turn up in kimonos with wine or sake in tea flasks to picnic under magic trees to be blessed,may or may not happen. Usually a certainty but this year only a dream riven with torment. The numerous false springs that were sprung on the trees this year seem to have left the sakura throwing up their hands to say — enough! We are not flowering but will give you leaves instead.

Thus delaying or possibly cutting back greatly the numbers of the large community of sakura devotees who congregate at High Park’s sakura grove making its annual pilgrimage.  Only those who attend know its joy, its sweet pleasure where all cares are left behind in a bundle somewhere between home and long before arriving near the grove at High Park. A place where everyone is happy. Smiling. Light of heart. A kind of paradise which seems unreal.

A recent Toronto publication sacrilegiously referred to High Park’s Hanami tradition as “a gong show” which is entirely out of line. It was an ignorant insult to the participants as well as to the blossoms and their history. Each year there are many who turn up for a few hours for a very special kind of happiness. It is there for the taking like free cake on a counter. Delighted little children, lovers, old women in saris, and yes as I said, a few in kimonos and parasols. But not this year unless there is a sweet surprise waiting for us.

When I went to check on Friday evening instead of blooms the trees had mostly sprouted leaves. There were only about ten flowers and that only on one tree. One of the older trees, a favourite. Except for that there were none to be found and the pink buds which are the harbingers of sakura were nowhere to be seen except for about three or four with the blossoms which I was fortunate to find.  There were white buds on a younger tree but likely they are fooling us, they will be popping out as leaves. Not sakura.

 

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One of the two clusters of flowers that were spotted at High Park on May 6, 2016.

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And the only buds that could be found on May 6, 2016.

 

The contrast of an empty sakura grove and the magnolia in full bloom was hard to bear. I turned my back to the imposing and obvious magnolia tree. The delicate and demure sakura, that sweet wind from heaven, that joy-giver was nowhere to be seen.  May be they still might bloom in a day or two. May be not. I will return in a few days in search of blooms. And those white buds will prove they are really blooms or spread more heartbreak sprouting greenery leaving sakura devotees distraught.

I made my way home with the few blooms I saw locked away in my heart. Not the usual millions of blossoms but a number that could be counted on my two hands. I wasn’t distraught indeed I was happy to have seen just those few in perfect bloom. It is quite possible that these were the first and the last for the year give or take a few more blossoms scattered here and there and over the last few days and the days to come.

I arrived home tired and in darkness feeling rather strange. And when I opened the door there I saw a roomful of an entire ocean of sakura. My heart and my mind compensating for something that might not be, reliving the Hanami of previous years.

I brought sakura home with me to stay here where they can never leave and where they will never fade. Until I forget them after a few days and move on to some other flower or some other sweetness or loss or horror. To remembering that in the end flowers tell you about the transience of life and living things. Why it is never wise to cling to things but to always be ready to let go. And then you just might get rewarded with an apartment full of sakrua that only you can see making your heart as light as a delicate flower petal.

 

 

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Sakura in bloom at High Park last year. May 9, 2015 a few days after its prime. You will see that there are hardly any leaves.

 

 

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On May 6, 2016 the trees had no flowers but leaves. And only about ten or so flowers were seen on one tree.

 

Renuka Mendis, Toronto, May 6, 2016.

what the moon made her do

she knotted her greying hair
way high
away, far away from the pool water
blue like oceans in travel brochures
safely dry
without the bother of muddled wet
after the swim

she comes home
a bag of milk in tow for tea in the morning
forgotten about the knot up top
held down by a plastic clip
gnawing at her skull
forgotten another headache of life

hidden under a song on the radio
the promise of summer in open windows
and people fearless to come outside in fewer clothes
what is that song?
what is that thing gnawing away at my skull
she remembers
this needs dealing with

no burying under the rug
where so many bodies lie unburied under dust
that gnawing clip – unclipped
and soft hair tumbles
soft moonlight
and a thousand kisses
down her neck

Renuka Mendis, Toronto, April 20, 2016

Zuze’s debut today at Cameron House

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At 8.40p.m. we had given up hope of getting in. The room was full and we had to hope some would leave.

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Raha Javanfar is a jinn with her fiddle, quietly setting the house on fire. Fast.

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Us lucky ones. An entirely happy, spellbound and bedazzled audience.

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Say after me. Raha Javanfar.

People had been arriving since from before 8:00p.m. was what the chap at the door said and that the room was filled to capacity when I arrived to line up at 8:30p.m. While there were many yet lined up outside on Cameron Street hoping to get in with only minutes to show time; Zuze was right on time. Nine p.m. as promised. Sharp.  The room was chock full with nary a space to stand. Warm. The music began like one coming upon a gushing beautiful river in the Iranian countryside of a Mohsen Makhmalbaf film but written in afrobeat and a good shot of funk.

According to the bill the songs were popular and folk melodies of Iran and Azerbaijan. Some set to a lovely waltz tempo and when Raha Javanfar with her violin reminding one of Esperanza Spalding opened her mouth to sing as the afrobeat grabbed the room she threw an invisible ball of flame, threw it into the crowd and lit the entire audience on fire. The expectations were real and in that first half second everyone knew instinctively that this was the real deal. Music that was poetry, the words of which many in the room did not understand but which touched each and everyone in it.

The first second most on their feet started to dance and Javanfar’s violin was straight out of a Tony Gatlif film. Gypsylike yet something more. Something urbane. Though warm and robust and insistent there was a depth of feeling to the music which was never overbearing. The crowd wanted more and Zuze went on giving. It was love at first sight on a two way street. All inhibitions put aside.  Halfway through the concert it was evident a few had some joints going to supplement the beer and cocktails.

Waltzes and lullabies and more in great big strands. Beautiful coloured strands amassed and woven together morphing into a river which we’d never seen or heard of but had always known. No one feared anyone and the whole room was love for about an hour.  No inhibitions. Just joy and the music as Zuze set the room on fire. Not a hot burning kind but a grand intimate familial human connection.  People were kissing with joy, dancing, bobbing up and down just being in the music. It was so pure. I’ve been in many rooms where live music is played but never felt this sense of freedom and absolute sense of oneness with everyone around me.

I used to come close to it sometimes with certain musicians at WOMAD when it used to come to Harbourfront many many ages ago. But this was different and more original. Not from somewhere else but made right here in Toronto with Iran, Azerbaijan and its poetry threads weaving a tapestry of humanity.  The whole front room of Cameron House was one last night. Freedom.

Renuka Mendis, Toronto, April 15, 2016