"L'hiver", he said to me. "Il fait froid". I had a working understanding of French, I understood more than I could speak. Winter, he'd said, it's cold. And it was bitter, Belgium was snowed in. The flakes had fallen, thick and hard for the past few days, it was Friday afternoon. Our first snow day. I think we almost died when we heard school was cancelled. Our bedroom was the loft room so the sloped windows were blacked out and the garden had become - just white, like Jack Frost had been visiting. The skeletal ribs of trees were lightly dusted, the whole garden looked soft and downy, it was magic. There was a sweet hush, a feeling of coziness, that the neighborhood was under a soft quilt.
Our house was on top of a small hill, the driveway was at least 250m long and very steep. Since school was cancelled anyway, we persuaded our dad not to start shovelling - we were going sledding. We didn't have those nice wooden sleds, rather these plastic things, almost like saucers, that you just sat on, pushed off, curled your legs under and hoped for the best. They made for a pretty exhilarating ride and pretty wet clothes. So we spent the next few hours happily running up the driveway, finding new and more perilous ways to 'ride' those sleds.
Our neighbors were an elderly couple who lived at the bottom of that hill. Number 6 was a charming white cottage, mint green shutters, a small wooden deck, a row of tidy trees. They kept two sheep in their hilly garden, a few greenhouses and all winter I'd watch the smoke rise from their chimney, smell the veggie soup. They often spoke in Dutch with my dad, I knew they were nice people, but I was a shy 12 year old who didn't speak much of the language, I'd offer a wave and a smile when we passed them. The man's name was Frans and he'd come out along his snowy driveway to check his mailbox, which is where my sister and I crash landed every time our sleds brought us down. I knew he spoke both French and Dutch and under pressure to say something, I think I mumbled 'bonjour', he'd said hello, big smiles, weather talk for the 2 kids who enlivened the neighborhood. I think he was happy, to see us scrambling around in the snow, the town was aging, we brought with us the shrieks of laughter and spontaneous joy that add something to a white Christmas. After that he'd often wave, and we started to bring Therese and Frans muffins. Nothing fancy, maybe banana, blueberry if we were feeling creative, just a friendly neighbor thing.
In their garden they grew beautiful fruits and vegetables in weathered glasshouses. the vines were heavy with purple grapes, green stalks slumped under the weight of tomatoes and zucchini in summer, when they'd bring the overflow of their produce. Quiet, hardworking people who'd toiled away for years, actually living for a while in what became our house while they worked to build their own. They'd made something out of that small, hilly patch of land.
I grew up fast in those years. Snow went from being a fun novelty to an added chore, 4am we'd be out in -15 degrees darkness, listening to the tune of a Siberian wind that ate through our ski jackets. The charm quickly faded, and so did Frans. Dementia gets the best of them. It was fast, sudden, bitter, like a cold snap. My first funeral, gray February, dark spirits, black clothes, stone village church. He'd written us a letter, probably one of the last he wrote, he thanked us for the muffins, said he remembered us. Therese would visit him at the care home often, and we'd go down to the cottage, with muffins. To share with Frans, we'd say. And he remembered us as the two girls with the snow and the hill, the sleds. That winter had been years ago, I was way too cool to play in the snow, I preferred to clear it, salt it, watch it melt. I wondered what Frans would think, the melting snow made me think of childhood, giving way under the grit that life throws at it.
Till the day we left Belgium we went to see Therese. We branched out from muffins to tea - Therese loved tea, we'd buy it whenever we went anywhere new. Peppermint tea from Tanzania, earl grey from England, Darjeeling from India all passed through the doorway of that stone cottage. We'd talk about frans sometimes (my Dutch had improved to monosyllables at this point. It's not so hard to say 'ja' is it?) and she'd always say, whenever she brought the muffins and said it was from the snow girls, his face would light up, like that weak winter sun.
I have a little folder in my desk drawer. A few birthday cards from my sister, some from my grandparents and my dad. The rest are letters from Therese. She writes in her spidery script, I write back in my broken Dutch. If there was one person who I wish could see this blog, it's her. It doesn't snow much here, but when it does, I think of that house, when they were both there, the smell of a wood fire and the small figure of Frans, fetching logs, him raising a pale hand in greeting. Bittersweet, just like the winter.
And if there was one person who'd love these muffins it would be Frans. A gluten and dairy free, honey-ish muffin with a walnut streusel is sort of a far cry from those muffs but hey, proof of my improvement as a baker. This recipe makes quite a few muffs, but it's that giving season. You could give some away - maybe you know an elderly neighbor who's spending their first Christmas alone? Or there's the Amazon delivery guy who brings you a parcel at 9pm on a freezing Friday night when you're sitting in front of a fire feeling smug/snug. Or you could freeze some, or just eat them, they're mostly fruit, if you need persuasion. If you don't want/need them gluten free, I've added a spelt flour variation in the notes under the recipe. Chocolate, pears and substitutions? I spoil you. The crazy starts now, you ready? Wishing you a warm + cozy festive season, give a lot if you can, stock up on salt. Jeez I'm a cynic. Go string up your lights, this grinch did plans to do sothis weekend! Hugs guys xo
[kindred-recipe id="1763" title="pear-cocoa muffins with a walnut crumb"]
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