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Durham, NC 27701
USA

Writing Workshops & Retreats - France, Italy, North Carolina

Blogaways

Buon Appetito!

Mimi Herman

Why travel beyond your villa, when you can have an adventure in your own kitchen? At our Writeaway in Italy in the beautiful Villa Cini  (between Arezzo and Siena), we explored the language of la cucina as Gabriella and Margareta showed us how to cook the perfect Italian meal:

Primo piatto: Lasagne alle zucchine e fiori
Secondo piatto: Agnello arrosto
And of course, il dolce: Cantuccini, un biscotto Toscana

We began by baking the cantuccini, then prepared the lamb and finished up with the lasagna, as Gabriella, queen of our kitchen, directed.

Cook along with us, below. And remember, the measurements are approximate. Like our nonnas, Gabriella cooks by sight, smell, touch and taste.

PRIMO PIATTO
Lasagne alle zucchine e fiori

Serves 6, with leftovers

Fiori di zucchine

Fiori di zucchine

Ingredients
1/2 c. olio (olive oil)
2+ aglio (garlic)
handful of basilica (basil)
10-15 fiore di zucchine (zucchini flowers)
14 small zucchine (zucchini)
sale (salt) to taste
pepe (pepper) to taste
120 g. farina (flour)
120 g. burro (butter)
about ¼ - ½ tsp noce moscata (nutmeg)
4-6 sheets uncooked fresh pasta
¾ - 1 cup freshly grated parmigiana reggiano

Candy and Gabriella slice the zucchini into perfect half coins - with a glass of prosecco at the ready.

Candy and Gabriella slice the zucchini into perfect half coins - with a glass of prosecco at the ready.

1.     Remove bottoms of zucchini flowers.
2.     Slice zucchini into thin half-coins.
3.     In large pan, place olive oil, garlic, basil, zucchini flowers, zucchini, and salt and pepper. Sauté, stirring occasionally. (Note: You can also add mushrooms, artichokes and/or asparagus to the vegetables)

Sauté the vegetables as you begin the Béchamel Sauce.

Sauté the vegetables as you begin the Béchamel Sauce.

Béchamel Sauce
4.     Melt butter in pot.
5.     Stir in flour until mixture bubbles without browning. This should take a couple of minutes. Add milk slowly and bring to boil.
6.     Add salt, pepper and nutmeg.
7.     Lower heat and stir for 2-3 minutes as sauce thickens.

Lasagne Construction
8.     Combine vegetables with béchamel sauce.
9.     Spread some of the béchamel-vegetable mixture on bottom of pan. Place one sheet of pasta on top of the mixture. Repeat. On third layer add some of the grated parmigiano reggiano. (Note: You can also add buffalo mozzarella at this point if desired.) Continue to layer béchamel-vegetable mixture, pasta sheets and most of the cheese until done.
10.  Tuck in any visible noodle edges. Top with remaining parmesan.
11.  With a knife or fork, slice through all layers in 5-6 places to allow ingredients to meld.
12.  Cover with foil and bake at 180° C (about 350° F) for 35-40 minutes.
13.  Remove foil and bake for an additional 30 minutes.

 

SECONDO PIATTO
Agnello Arrosto di Gabriella
Gabriella’s Roast Lamb with Rosemary

Serves 6

 Ingredients
½ - ¾ c. sale (salt)
¾ tsp. pepe (black pepper)
5 large cloves aglio (garlic), peeled
3-4 pounds agnello (lamb)
4-6 stems rosmarino (rosemary)
1-2 c. extra virgin olive oil

Gabriella prepares the lamb.

Gabriella prepares the lamb.

1.     Preheat oven to 200° C (about 400° F).
2.     Mix salt and pepper together in bowl.
3.     Rub garlic onto and into lamb. Sprinkle about ¾ of the salt and pepper mixture over the lamb and rub it in.
4.     Remove rosemary leaves from stems and tuck them into the lamb.
5.     Place lamb in pan and cover liberally with olive oil until lamb is entirely coated. Sprinkle with remaining sale and pepper mixture. Pour olive oil around the edges of the lamb to coat the bottom of the pan.
6.     Cover pan with aluminum foil and place lamb in oven.
7.     Cook for about 1 hour 45 minutes until tender.

 

DOLCE
Cantuccini di Gabriella, un Biscotto Toscana

This bowl full of cantuccini barely saw us through the next breakfast!

This bowl full of cantuccini barely saw us through the next breakfast!

Ingredients
300 g. farina (flour)
200 g. zucchero (sugar)
3 uova (eggs)
8 g. bicarbonate di sodio (baking soda)
50 g. burro (butter), melted and slightly cooled
150 g raw whole mandorle (almonds)

Tools
Large wooden board
Scale
Fork
Small bowl
Scraper
Cookie sheet covered with parchment paper

Margareta brushes the cantuccini with beaten egg.

Margareta brushes the cantuccini with beaten egg.

1.     Pour flour on board. Spread flour in circle and make a well in the center.
2.     Crack two of the eggs in the well. Pour sugar over the eggs. With a fork, beat the eggs and sugar together.
3.     Sprinkle baking soda around the edges of the flour ring. Using fork, mix flour and soda into the sugar and egg mixture in the center of the well.
4.     Mix in melted butter a little at a time.
5.     Use scraper to fold in the rest of the flour. Knead lightly. Add more flour as needed, keeping dough light and loose.
6.     In a small bowl, beat a third egg with a fork.
7.     Add almonds to dough. Continue kneading until all flour and almonds are incorporated. Add a little more flour if necessary.
8.     Divide dough into quarters. Roll each quarter into log, about 1” x 12”. Lay quarters on cookie sheet covered with parchment paper.
9.     Brush dough with beaten egg, covering tops and sides of each log completely.
10.  Bake at 180° C (about 350° F) 25-30 minutes until golden brown.
11.  Place each cantuccini log on board and cut diagonally into ¾” slices.
12.  Placed sliced cantuccini on pan and return to oven for 25-30 minutes.
13.  Enjoy with Vin Santo, cappuccino or hot chocolate!

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Join us next year when we learn to make pasta from scratch and prepare our own tiramisu!

Writing in a French Chateau

Mimi Herman

As the 2017 Piedmont Laureate, I get to write a blog post every week. This is my most recent post, from our Writeaway in France at Chateau du Pin.

- Mimi

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This week I’m leading la vie dure: living in a fifteenth-century French chateau surrounded by topiary, eating four-course dinners prepared by a French chef (Did I mention the three local cheeses each night?) and drinking fabulous wines.

Every year, I get to spend a week with my partner John at Chateau du Pin in the Loire Valley, teaching writers from British Columbia, Texas, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and other exotic places. Some of our students are brand new writers, while others have been writing for years and have MFAs and a long list of publications.

We begin the week with conferences with each of our students to help them design the writing projects of their dreams. Some write poetry, some memoir, some fiction. In the five years we’ve been doing this, we’ve had a book about how money works; a charming children’s story about a vain French mouse with his own exercise equipment and a mirror where he can admire his muscles, a collection of poems written from the point of view of the poet’s grandmother, and an outrageous bodice-ripper set in our very own chateau, to describe a few.

Each morning, we begin with fresh croissants (always an inspiration) and coffee (definitely an necessity), plus an assortment of yogurts that make American yogurts taste like Elmer’s glue. We spend our mornings in the petit salon, sharing what each person has written the day before, and discussing what’s working and how that person’s writing can become even more effective. Afternoons are for writing, relaxing, visiting nearby wineries and touring the Cointreau distillery, a surprisingly small place from which Cointreau flows throughout the world.

At the end of this week, we’ll bid a fond adieu to the chateau, and travel to Italy by overnight train, sharing a sleeping compartment with two of our students, for what we call The Grand Tour: a week in France followed by a week in Italy. We’ll spend a night in Florence, gather up more students (including one from Singapore), and drive to our villa, where we’ll spend a similar week (fabulous breakfasts, writing projects, afternoon adventures, and four-course dinners)–only in Italian.

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We also do something similar in North Carolina. I know: France, Italy…North Carolina? Trust me. It’s lovely, and has the added bonus of having a river in the backyard, and kayaks in which to explore that river. So we never feel particularly deprived.

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These are our Writeaways, adventures we invented to help writers discover themselves far from the responsibilities that so often get in the way of writing. We wanted people to be able to come to irresistibly beautiful places they didn’t have to maintain, to eat fabulous food they didn’t have to cook, where we could offer them the guidance that would help them leap forward as writers.

When we started Writeaways, I thought I was doing this for other people–sort of a big, fabulous writing party that would give people a vacation to become the writers they always wanted to be. But over the past five years, I’ve discovered that these Writeaways are a gift to me, too. I teach writing year-round, to elementary, middle and high school students, as well as teachers and administrators. Though I love what I do, much of it seems to fall in the category of persuading people to do something they’ve always hated, to find that spoonful of sugar that helps the poetry go down.

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But on a Writeaway, I get to teach at the highest level I know. Our workshops and one-on-one conferences force me to think about how writing works. The process of pondering my students’ challenges helps me to figure out how to make my own writing better. For these weeks, I get to stretch myself to understand the craft of writing in ways I’ve never considered before, in the company of strangers who become friends, and friends who become family.

And the fresh croissants and wine don’t hurt either.

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Bienvenue à Chateau du Pin!

Mimi Herman

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Welcome home, whether you've been here or not.

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Climb the stairs...

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to your new bedroom.

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From your window...

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you can see the topiary.

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Discover a secret room,

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visit the vineyards, 

or find a tasty treat at the patisserie.

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Then return home,

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choose your favorite seat at the table, and...

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bon appetit!

Scouting for a Santa Fe Writeaway

Mimi Herman

We thought we were heading to Santa Fe for our very own personal writing retreat, a chance to catch up on our own fiction and poetry. But as soon as we saw the back porch of our cottage after a snowfall, we started considering how soon we could hold a Writeaway here.

Tempting, very tempting.

Our friendly neighborhood bartender, at the Tesuque Village Market, with his version of the Chimayo Cocktail:

  • 2 ounces Jimador Tequila
  • 1.5 ounces fresh squeezed apple juice
  • 1 ounce creme de cassis
  • 1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice

Shaken, not stirred. Cinnamon sugar rim and apple slice garnish

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Our friendly neighbors,

who left their laundry on the line.

Our former neighbors from the Tsankawi Village were artists, so we felt right at home, though they moved out about 600 years ago.

We climbed to the top of the mesa,

where we found this view and the remains of the Tsankawi Village,

much like this village nearby (though not reconstructed like this one, in accordance of the wishes of the descendants of the villagers).

Can you tell we're in love with New Mexico?

 If you can't find us, try looking here.

 

Or, better yet, join us.

First Writeaway by the River

Mimi Herman

Break out the champagne--or at least the chilled peach champagne soup- for the latest in the Writeaways line-up. From September 2nd-11th, we wrote, workshopped, paddled the Pasquotank, and wined (but never whined) and dined on fabulous food at our brand new Writeaway by the River at the Whitehall. With a fabulous sun parlor for our workshops, comfortable nooks throughout the house,  and the river in our backyard, we had plenty of room for writing, reading and chatting with our fellow writers.

We also launched a new format: the Weekend Workshop by the River followed by the weeklong Writing Retreat by the River. Six fabulous writers joined us for the workshop, and most of them stayed into the week, using the inspiration from the weekend and the freedom of the retreat to take their writing to the next level. Two other writers, both beginning new projects, joined us during the retreat.

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Dinners ran the gamut from the aforementioned chilled peach champagne soup with artichoke lemon risotto, salad and pot de creme for dessert to burgers on the grill and corn on the cob for our Labor Day cookout. With homemade apple pie for dessert, of course. And to work off that fabulous food, we took to the water, wandering the open water, the creeks and the canals of the Pasquotank in brightly colored kayaks.

We'll be back this spring: April 21-23 for the workshop and April 23-30 for the retreat. If there's enough interest, we might even consider two workshops that week, one the first weekend and one the second!

A Day in Paris

Mimi Herman

In Paris, we celebrated the wonderful Writeaway week we'd enjoyed at Chateau du Pin with our friends Ginny, Joyce, Judy and Tobias.

The rest of the city might have been celebrating with us, though they were also experiencing an extraordinary phenomenon: 

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a day without cars in central Paris. Everyone was on foot or on bikes, with the rare tour bus trying to find a way through the two-wheeled traffic.

We wandered the mostly automobile-free streets of Paris for hours, finding a brass band busking on the Seine, playing a familiar song.

We passed delightful shop windows,

and eerie streets,

until we ended up at Harry's New York Bar, birthplace of the Bloody Mary and the Sidecar, and hangout of Ernest Hemingway, Humphrey Bogart, Rita Hayworth, George Gershwin, Coco Chanel, James Bond, the Duke of Windsor and now...

John Yewell and Mimi Herman. We drank Kir Royales to celebrate our wonderful week with our friends at Chateau du Pin, and began looking forward to next year, then ambled home along the Seine,

with the Eiffel Tower in one direction...

and the full moon, on the eve of the lunar eclipse, in the other.

A Toast to the Writers of Chateau du Pin

Mimi Herman

Our final evening at the chateau began with champagne. 

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A toast from Tobias heralded the delights to come: a reading of everyone's creative work by the fire.

We gathered by the fire to begin.

Then we held our collective breath as Tobias read the new beginning he'd created for his fantasy novel: a scene filled with drama and decision, as a newly captured slave prepared for another escape attempt.

In Joyce's carefully crafted poem, we contemplated why perfection might not be ideal.

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Ginny took us on a romp from France to Texas with the indomitable Manfred the Mouse, in her newly completed children's book.

And Judy captivated us with invented scripture of an invented faith, and a look inside the mind of a young girl.

We sipped and read, read and listened, listened and applauded, until the time came to climb the stone stairs of the chateau, to dream of the great poetry and prose we'd write next.

à Table

Mimi Herman

We're hard at work on the scratch-and-sniff technology, because we want you to experience the food at Chateau du Pin the way we do, by walking down the spiral stone steps to the scent of chef Anne Villedey's boeuf bourguignon or the delicate taste of her beurre blanc (which took her 30 days to master) over filet de sandre, a fish found only in a small section of the Loire River. In the meantime, the pictures below will have to suffice.

Each morning, we begin with coffee, French yogurt in pale blue pots, fruits and juices and of course, fresh croissants.

Look in the middle for the almond croissant, so soft with almond paste that you have to eat it with both hands. You won't see any pain au chocolate in this picture, because we couldn't wait to eat them.

Each evening, Anne calls us to dinner with the phrase that makes us swoon: "à table."

We may begin with a tarte aux champignons

   

or a salad with fresh salmon, smoked duck and Anne's homemade fois gras.

   

Our second course might be the boeuf bourguignon

or tender broccoli and mushrooms with noodles for the vegetarians among us, with flavors that would tempt even those of us who never finished our vegetables.

I could tell you how good the sandre with beurre blanc tastes -

or I could just show you.

Even after all this, who can resist the cheese course, with three or four astounding cheeses each evening?

It's a good thing we have a separate dessert stomach, so we have room for mousse au chocolate with crème Anglaise

or Anne's perfectly blended tiramisu, which she mastered while working in Italy,

or her tarte au poivre, which is, as she says, a nice change from the usual apples.

Look soon for a video of Anne caramelizing her crème brûlée, but in the meantime, look below for Anne herself, with John and Mimi.

Photos by Tobias and Mimi.  

For more about our week, visit Tobias at www.toby-tobiascnow.blogspot.com.

An Ordinary Day in Champtocé-sur-Loire

Mimi Herman

We wake each morning in our chateau. Of course, some days the sky isn't quite this blue, but when it's raining, we hear the gurgle of water through the gargoyles.

Of course, we're writing.

often in our grand salon,

but there's still time to explore the boulangeries,

and visit the vineyards,

where we're often mistaken for French supermodels,

and begged by the paparazzi to pose again,

and again,

and again,

before relaxing at home,

amid a bevy of cyclamen beauties.

 

Photos courtesy of Tobias, John and Mimi. 

For more on our week at Chateau du Pin, visit Tobias at www.toby-tobiascnow.blogspot.com.

Writeaways goes to Market

Mimi Herman

A morning at the French market of Chalonnes, near Chateau du Pin:

John in his new beret with his new friend, the hat purveyor

John in his new beret with his new friend, the hat purveyor.

With so many cheeses, how do you choose?

Our fresh-faced Tobias with the freshest of veg.

Joyce (in her chapeau nouveau) and Ginny, chicken paparazzi.

Bouquets of bonbons.

Judy and John, separated at birth, reunited in France.

Les fleurs.

The Loire.

Hidden Treasures in Angers, France

Mimi Herman

From camels tucked behind the big top of the "sublime" Amar Circus...

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to an impromptu vocal concert in Latin at the Cathédrale St. Maurice...

to 200 years of the history of bronze casting, pottery, painting, electrical manufacturing and invention at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d'Arts et Métiers...

to a street fair featuring historic cars...

what a a day of discovering the treasures hidden in the city of Angers!

 

Writeaways Takes to the High Sierra

Mimi Herman

In an unofficial Writeaway trip, John and Mimi took to the mountains with writer friend Michael Beadle, each of us carrying 50-60 pound backpacks over 58 miles of rocky terrain, alpine meadows and five 12,000 foot mountain passes through four and a half days of sunshine and one afternoon of hail.  

Anyone up for a Sierra Writeaway?

Yosemite December

Mimi Herman

An idyllic weekend in Yosemite - the view from Inspiration Point, an evening by the wood stove in a fairy tale cabin, a doe and her fawns (We named the one on the right Grumpy. You'll see why), a four-hour hike to the snow line at Clark Point and back to the valley, and Sunday brunch at the Ahwahnee Hotel (oysters! blintzes! prime rib! omelettes to order! chocolate mousse! gallons of coffee and the New York Times!).  

Anyone up for a Writeaway in Yosemite?

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A Day in Certaldo

Mimi Herman

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Rainy cobbled streets, an almost-saint, a mysterious fresco, terra cotta books hanging in a doorway, and a passionate art historian digging up basements in search of Etruscan artifacts,

Allison writes - "Ugly Dinner Never Tasted So Good"

Mimi Herman

Ugly Dinner Never Tasted So Good

Allison B.

Listening to Manul singing from the kitchen, I realize the distinct difference between when she is doing what she loves and when she is teaching what she loves. The low melody strikes a peaceful chord. I don't know if she is baking dessert or preparing dinner for later, but the sounds she makes come from deep within her body and, I have no doubt, fill the food she prepares.

 

Manul seems to float about the kitchen when teaching. Her assistant deftly keeps track of oven temperatures, dirty utensils, and needed ingredients. Without a word, Manul converses with the food and her assistant. We are merely there to glean a bit of Manul's theory on food and actual cooking style. Her explanation of where the recipes come from adds intrigue to the experience and balance to the menu in front of us. We have only the ingredients listed, with space for us to interpret the steps for creating the final dish.

 

Manul shares her techniques along the way, but you can tell, her hope is that we will take away from the lesson an appreciation for creating a meal from within, not just using our hands to hold knives and our eyes to test size and our noses to calculate freshness.

 

Aside from Manul as chef, she shared brief insight into her personal philosophy on time and what we do in our time. She fascinates me, not only because she has a pure heart and pure understanding for food, but also because her way of being is calming and something I find attracted to in an existential way - I want to learn more about how life can be simple and choices intentional. Having met her and worked in her kitchen, dined at her table, slept in her house, the seed is planted and my mind will explore more after I leave. With full faith in Manul's relationship with food, I chopped and prepared foods I'd never encountered before. The gnocchi, I thought would be pasta wrapped around a filling, looked quite earthy and unedible, but tasted sweet and delightful and was NOT even close to being pasta wrapped around filling... uh, that's raviolli!

 

Fennel salad? Who'da thunk I'd actually like it. And, the true icing on the cake, the puffy egg and sugar and hazelnut goodies for dessert, the perfect end to a lovely experience. I left dinner satisfied that I may not be able to make what we did, but I appreciate it and the experience and will certainly take it with me in my steps outside this peaceful retreat.

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