A Winter Fairytale, With Kings
It was the first time I’d ever seen anything like it.
It had been snowing all night, and the ground was covered in a thick blanket of white. The roads were slippery and dangerous, impassable but for the grippiest of cars, and the air was heavy with cold and silence, all sounds of nature and man muffled by the thick, white fluff. My boots crunched through the powder as I walked the white wonderland, while Polly jumped around in glee, her face covered in flakes, her old eyes shining with delight.
Who would ever have imagined we would experience such a thing in SW France?
I’ve never had much experience with snow, given that I grew up in Asia and spent most of my adult years in sunny California. So I can count on my hands the number of the times that I’ve seen it IRL.
Our last viewing actually dates back to Spring of 2015, when we traveled through the Sierra Nevada Mountains along 395 with our friends Todd & Russ. It was cold and beautiful, and the high mountains were sprinkled with white stuff and nary a soul in sight. But that was the remnants of winter. The last time we actually saw snow fall was in 2013 in in Catalina State Park, AZ, another gorgeous spot that we shared with good friends Alex & Ellen. Both moments seem like many lifetimes and multiple adventures ago, yet the wonder of them is so strong that I remember them as sharply as if they happened yesterday.
Today we’re in the SW of France, in another time and another life, and now one more count is etched into my mind.
Flakes of snow are falling, inches of it covering the ground and I am overwhelmed with childish delight. We are surrounded in a blanket of powder, the day of the Kings has come and gone, and the world is standing perfectly quiet and still again.
I’m in my very own fairytale, and this week I share that experience with you.
A Story Of Kings
The first week of January is actually a rather special time in France, with a sweet tradition that dates back to the 14th century.
It’s the story of the Three Kings (the Magi) and their visit to the manger where Jesus was born. Known as the Epiphany, it’s traditionally celebrated on the 6th of January in France with a cake rather aptly known as the Galette Des Rois (The cake of the Kings), usually accompanied by a drink of Cidre and a circle of family or friends.
The two most traditional versions of the cake are a puff-pasty base stuffed with almond-paste frangipane, typically eaten in the North, and a brioche-style cake covered with candied fruit, more commonly consumed in the South. These days there are also all kinds of specialty versions, stuffed with things such as pear, Nutella and more. All of them however share the common element of a feve, a small figurine (or sometimes just a fava bean) hidden inside the cake. And the person that finds the feve gets to be the King or Queen for the day and wear a golden crown.
It’s a wonderful, festive occasion and a lovely way to end the celebrations of Christmas, and this year we decided to embrace the idea completely.
Of course we could have just bought the cake ready-made. Bakeries, markets, supermarkets all have them for sale this week, and there’s many delicious versions easily available everywhere you go.
Just for fun however, I decided to take the challenge to heart by attempting my very first French-style puff pasty (I followed THIS recipe), culminating with a frangipane-version of the cake using a Marmiton recipe. 100% home-made, 100% mine. The quest took several days, and my puff didn’t turn out quite as “light and fluffy” as I’d hoped, but I did get a good flakiness, and the cake itself was absolutely delish. All-in-all a very decent success.
A few days later we were graciously invited to share the tradition with some close neighbors (on another night, with a cake that they made) and it was truly a lovely evening. I enjoyed it tremendously and I think the day of the Kings will become part of our yearly tradition from now on.
A Story Of Snow
It started on Monday, the first day of complete white where snow fell throughout the land.
We woke up to it, like Snow White awaking from her princely kiss, and we both just stared in love and awe. Everything had come to a complete standstill, the roads deserted, the sounds of nature gone, with nothing but the fall of flakes and the white ground blending into a grey sky.
Like a Broadway show, the ballet of winter had come alive.
The dancers were our trees, their branches heavy with snow, intertwined in a winter waltz reaching into the sky. The stage set was our house gates, their hard metal forms rounded and soft, creating sculptures and patterns to frame the whole. It was beautiful and all-absorbing.
Apparently it used to snow like this with regularity in France, at least according to dad and our neighbor friends.
The Don once told me that he remembers huge banks of snow from his childhood, all along the road here, He bemoaned their loss too, since without a proper winter none of the nasty beasties that invade his crops every summer are properly controlled. Even the local town has stories of yearly snow, mostly forgotten in recent times. And the biggest recent occurrence according to dad was in 2010, where snow and a 10-day frost gripped our whole area. A fair while ago and a rare event that has not been matched since.
This particular bout changes all that.
It’s been snowing for days now, on and off, with a bit of melt in-between. Just yesterday we had a handful (around 4 inches), and barely made it up the driveway into our garage with the car. This morning, we’re completely snowed in and won’t be going anywhere until it melts again. Thankfully my pandemic-stocking skills have been finely honed over the past year, so we’re not lacking in anything and will easily make it through, even if the snow ends up lasting several weeks.
Just across the border, our neighbors in Spain have seen unprecedented quantities too. Up to 20 inches have fallen in Madrid, which was reportedly followed by general mayhem and pics of folks skiing through the Capital. Then a mind-boggling temp of -35.8°C (!!!) was recorded at the Vega de Liordes weather station in the NW province of Leon. All record-breaking numbers, in a league all their own.
This has been a helluva snow week, and one to remember.
We Weren’t Really Equipped (“Stuff”-Wise)
Personally, I have to admit we were not really prepared equipment-wise for this week.
Polly is OK thankfully. She has her Ultra Paws Durable Dog Boots (the ones we bought for the stickies at Albuquerque Balloon Festival several years ago), and I’m happy to say they do really well in the snow too. Plus I recently had the foresight to buy Mushers Secret Paw Wax which absolutely works as advertised (I’m totally impressed by it)! Plus of course she’s got her natural thick black fur coat. She’s set, and just loving these temps.
Paul and I, on the other hand, don’t really have the right “stuff”.
I’ve got one pair of boots with reasonable grip, but no proper snow boots. And although we both have all-weather puff jackets, none are really adapted for hard winter weather and lots of wet snow. Plus of course we didn’t think ahead to put snow tires on our car, nor do we have any snow chains (we’ve never needed either up until now!). No doubt we’ll be making some purchases, if/when we ever make it out of our driveway again, even if we won’t use them again for several years.
After all, if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s good to be prepared, no?
I’ve Got A Lot To Learn (Camera-Wise)
Camera-wise, I’m happy to say my Nikon D750 is still doing just fine, although I’ve had to learn a bit more about settings for all this snow business.
Photographing snow you see, is not as easy as it might initially seem.
In-camera I’ve had to up my exposure several stops to get the brightness right, as well as correcting the white balance to try to get the whites truly white. Then I’ve had to adjust in Photoshop afterwards to get rid of the latent blue overtones that always seem to creep in no matter what I do. For the latter, if you’ve been struggling like me with this, I highly recommend this quick snow-post-processing tutorial I found at fstoppers.com. I still can’t say I get it picture perfect every time now, but the tutorial has certainly helped me improve the color balance in my snow pics overall.
Lastly, I still haven’t mastered a good macro pic of a snowflake (like THIS guy!!), and that is one challenge I would really LOVE to achieve before all this white stuff disappears. I’m using my trusty old Zeikos Extension Tubes, and I’m getting closer, but I still haven’t quite got “the one”, at least not one I’m willing to share on the blog yet. I’ll keep working on it though and will let you know when/if I get it.
Either way, photographing snow is a fantastically fun experiment.
The Fairytale Was Wonderful
I guess part of the wonder of snow, is not having seen too much of it?
If you get it every year, and it lasts for months I can imagine you don’t really get that excited about it. The novelty wears off quickly (I can totally see that) and after a few weeks you are probably well and truly over it. Snow and cold are after all, not really that much fun in the long run.
But perhaps our experience this week reflects the key to all that, and in turn…rather interestingly…to the joys of life itself. If you don’t over-do the good stuff, if you cherish it, and deliberately enjoy it sparingly, in the way that the “heart grows fonder” kind of thing, then perhaps that is the best balance of all?
I thought a lot about that this week, as we went through our fairytale of white and Kings.
With everything happening in the news…COVID, vaccines, hospital overloads, political craziness and so on….it’s been really nice to have this momentary distraction and to pretend that we’re far, far away from it all, if only for a while. I know it won’t last and I guess that makes it all the more special. This week felt true, and normal, and adventurous, like life used to be before it all. A fiction perhaps, but a very pleasant one indeed, and that is something I can carry with me for a long, long time.
How do YOU feel about snow my friends? Perhaps those of you who grew up with it are well and truly over it, but perhaps others feel the awe like I do? Either way I’d love to hear your thoughts. DO share and comment below!