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French women “get” fat

Kudos to Mireille Giuliano for writing a global best selling book based mainly on her opinion and personal experience. French Women Don’t Get Fat is a clever representation of how a French woman’s philosophy of food and eating keeps her trim.  It amuses me because Giuliano is french opinion personified, but I agree with her that above all, the pleasure of eating and tasting food is the most important thing.

This book and my time in France so far, has convinced me that French women “get” fat.  They understand it.  They get plenty of natural fats in their diet from the likes of duck meat, foie gras, cheese, nuts and fish.  They eat in moderation the bad fats in their glorious pastries.  When I first arrived, I couldn’t understand how they could resist the incredible displays they undoubtedly walk past everyday.  It’s very hard to avoid a peek in the windows in our local town’s four patisseries – let alone the many other boulangeries!  But after three months, I have arrived at a place where “too much ice cream” keeps me from over indulging.  Don’t get me wrong, when we entertain, we make sure we show off our local “specialties of the region” (a favourite marketing term over here) but day to day, feeling strong, healthy and bien dans ma peau (good in my skin) is more important.

I am here to tell you that the myth that “all french women are skinny and gorgeous” is simply not true.  What is true, is that I could count on one hand the number of obese people I have seen in France.  I’ve travelled to many cities in France including Lyon, Bordeaux, Grenoble, Paris, Montpellier, Nice and Narbonne, and I definitely noticed the lack of very overweight people that I had become accustomed to seeing back home in Australia.  Weird huh?

Another truth: you can sit in the main square of any town and several stunning, slim, typically french young things will walk past and you’ll marvel at their perfect red lipstick, the way their scarf matches effortlessly with their tailored look and their shoes and handbag … and their little dog.  Yes it’s mind boggling sometimes, but I simply put that down to sheer population.  France can fit inside Queensland itself and has triple the population of Australia, so of course there will be a concentration of these coquettes, right?

But let’s get back on topic … the point is that overall, French people are healthier than we are and I think Guiliano hints at the main reason why: they have a much healthier relationship with real food.  They avoid fast foods because they have so many other wonderful options.  Their rich history of gastronomie has left them with a plethora of cafes and restaurants in every city (even our local village has over eight places in which to dine, just in the main square) and a bounty of fresh fruits, vegetables and proteins are available at local farmers markets every week.  And here’s the thing: it’s all very affordable.  The French social welfare system even provides “lunch cheques” for some low income earners which is literally a voucher they can redeem for a meal at a cafe.

So I shall join Guiliano and the general French population in enjoying my healthy fats in the magret du canard and Roquefort cheese.  But I will keep my head about savouring their fresh fruit and vegetables everyday and occasionally relishing a sweet pastry.
Here’s a few pics of the food and sights we’ve been enjoying lately …
A day out in Carcassonne … markets followed by a picnic with the castle as the backdrop and the river as the view in front of us.
carcassonne markets picnic 3
carcassonne bridge canal du midi
Charcuterie platters in Limoux and Bordeaux … all in the name of research 😉
charcuterie bordeaux charcuterie jambon
Plenty of home cooked goodness at the Villa …
villa home dinner oysters
A recent trip to Bordeaux left us drooling … and not only for their beautiful red wines …
winery raspberry tartsbrunch
Castelnaudry is the best place to enjoy Cassoulet, a specialty dish of the region … duck, pork sausage and beans. Done right, it’s lovely.
cassoulet
A sublime lunch enjoyed at La Domaine Gayda, one of our many local wineries.  Foie gras three ways, snapper cooked to perfection, Apple Profiteroles and coffee with madeleines by the fire …
snapper gayda coffee fire
Bon appetit!
With grace and gusto, kpx


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French Lessons

Oh how I wish the title for this post was original … but I couldn’t resist borrowing it from Peter Mayle, author of A Year In Provence.  He wrote French Lessons in 2001 to share stories from his time visiting small villages across France during their local food festivals.  He’s been privy to the inner workings of truffle hunting, the craziness of vineyard marathons that include regular stops for a glass of wine and many other food fantasies and celebrations.  I was glued to every page as you can imagine (on a side note, Mayle has written dozens of books on topics you wouldn’t expect … I’ll leave the research to you if you’re interested).

I’ve been keeping a record of the curious little lessons I have picked up over the last five weeks since we left Australia. Some are no surprise but still get me thinking … others are lessons I didn’t expect to pick up.

Here’s a (not so) quick summary:

* French people are not house proud the way we are.  They don’t spend a lot of money on decorative items or fancy furniture, and they’re not particularly worried about their gardens either.  They don’t often entertain friends at home – they’re more likely to go out to a restaurant or cafe.  And an “appo” or drink after work is more common than a full meal out with friends.

* The cafe culture we know and love in Australia is surprisingly not as entrenched in the French culture as you might expect.  It’s not easy to find a really good coffee – trust me I have tried – and not once have I seen anyone doing their work commute with a takeaway coffee in their hands.  The coffee is often filtered, not ground fresh and extracted, and I hate to say that on occasion, we have been served a café crème (flat white) that was microwaved to heat the milk!!!  A super quick summary of my usual coffees in France: un café is our equivalent of a short black (although often not as strong); une noisettte is a short black with a dollop of frothed milk – similar to our macchiato; lattes and flat whites both fall under the category of un café crème; and every time you order one of these is like playing Russian roulette.  Those who make coffee at home do so with a filtration machine.

* The French love their systems and paperwork.  They all agree it can be painful but “it’s good for the economy” – it creates jobs.  The social welfare here is very visible – plenty of offices in the main street that claim to be able to offer government assistance to anyone who needs it.  The mentality in general, is also that the community and, above all, the government should look after it’s people – it’s their responsibility.  One hilarious example of their love of systems for us, was when I enthusiastically volunteered my husband to help with school swimming lessons in May.  Thinking it would be as straight forward as it is in Australia, he agreed happily.  Then we received a note from the Directrice of the school explaining that he would need to drive half an hour one Monday night in February (still very cold weather in case you’re wondering) to a village pool nearby to take a test to ensure he was in fact a capable swimmer.  The external examiner would asses his swimming skills before reporting back to the Directrice on his verdict.  I’m glad my hubby can’t speak French very well at this stage – you can imagine his reaction.  It went something like this …. “I’m Strayan, I can swim!!”.

* An “Artisan” is someone to be respected for their trade.  It doesn’t matter if they are butchers, bakers, artists, jewellers or pottery experts, they are well respected for dedicating a big chunk of their productive life to one skill set or trade.  When you ask about a certain product or service and you hear the word “Artisan”, you should respond with the appropriate “oohs” and “ahhs” and sound suitably impressed.  Of course they deserve their accolades – this commitment to one trade is not something we see often in Australia.  And given the history France can boast, they often have generations of dedication to a trade to support their reputation.

* Une vie cachée est une vie heureuse.  I found this saying quite fascinating … told to me by a french person.  “A life hidden, is a happy life”.  This sums up a philosophy I am beginning to suspect is fairly typical around here.  People are not exactly transparent about their struggles or challenges.  They’re quite happy to talk about society in general in terms of what’s difficult, but vulnerability is not something that comes naturally to them.  It’s true this is probably also the case in Australia, and certainly I am a foreigner so I’m not going to be someone they open up to quickly.  But the people I have met have shared enough with me to help me understand that people keep their business private unless it’s absolutely necessary to share.  Food and politics are the most common topics of conversation, and everyone is encouraged to share their opinion on these.  Get them talking about food and you have a great conversation starter!

* To find the gold, you need to go looking for it!  The cold weather, coupled with the ancient buildings that almost always look “closed” means it’s difficult to see what’s really happening in a village unless you’re brave enough to peek in windows and open doors without knowing what you’ll find.  The most memorable encounters so far have been when, despite being outside my comfort zone, I dared to open doors to cafes, shops and wineries that looked closed up, only to find the heating is on, the lights are burning and there is a hive of activity inside!  I thought I would walk into a room where people stop and stare at the obvious foreigner who has stumbled into somewhere she shouldn’t be.  But it’s all been in my over active imagination.  Walk in like you own the place, or admit up front you’re an Australian tourist, and they’ll happily share their passions and pass on referrals to other places to explore.

* I was surprised by the number of English people in our part of the South of France – many of them have come here to retire.  I wondered if the French were sick of them “taking over” or if they all kept to themselves.  I have been pleasantly surprised to learn that many (but not all) English people who live here do speak the language quite well and have deliberately integrated amicably.   Historically, the French are grateful for the English who came in and bought up properties and kept village economies alive when the French couldn’t do it alone.  We have been so warmly welcomed – we could easily feel at home here.

And finally, this may sound overly simple, but a very wise woman once said that “people are people”.  And I’ve thought this more than once since being here these last five weeks.  A smile goes a long way, as it does anywhere in the world. Knowing the basic pleasantries of “Bonjour Madame”, “Merci Monsieur”, “S’il vous plait” and “Au Revoir Mesieurs Dames” is greatly appreciated by the French.  They delight in foreigners who speak their language well and are quick to compliment them.  I have bravely (perhaps a little naively) stepped out and extended an invitation to lunch at our villa, not knowing if a Sunday was the right day to do it, not knowing if the town Mayor would think me weird for inviting him despite having just met him and having never met his wife.  But I believe that when your heart is right and you express yourself through your true passion, there is no language barrier.  I am pleased to say that I received a very warm acceptance to my invitation (from the Mayor and another four families!) and I have thoroughly enjoyed preparing to receive our first lunch guests.  I have done a little research to make sure my menu is in line with the French culture but I also know that if I do something a little different or if everything doesn’t go quite according to plan, people are people, and my new friends will be patient with me and appreciate the sentiment more than the details.

I will finish with some pics from my morning at the Carcassonne markets … this is still my absolute favourite thing to do in France … wander through the markets, try the amazing produce that these passionate people grow, and practice my sing-song-y French pleasantries so that I can get to a point that they don’t even suspect I’m not a local :).

kalecheesecabbage flowers

Green Cabbages                               Artisan Fromageurs                                            Les Fleurs

applesmarkets_coldmarkets

Les pommes                                       Mad foodie in 2 degrees             Even the crates are gorgeous

oliveswitlofolives2

Les olives                                             Witlof is in season                        Markets are a way of life

A bientot mes amis,

kpx


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My Obsession with French Flour

This post is unlike my usual snappy story with a recipe chaser … best to grab a cuppa and a comfy chair before you start reading. This is a post I have been promising for some time and one I am very passionate about … my research will forever continue on this topic. But for now, here’s what I’ve learnt about French flour …

french bread

I’ve had seven wonderful filles au pair work for us since my twin daughters were born nearly five years ago.  All French, and very deliberately so.  At the time they were an absolute necessity and most certainly saved me from checking myself into a sleep clinic! On reflection, almost a year since we’ve had any live-in help, those girls were not just a convenient way for me to keep up my French and have the kids immersed in it, but that time with them living in our home and eating our meals really shaped my curiosity about French food and culture.

Nearly all of them, very politely, turned up their nose to our Australian bread – and rightly so.  I now know that some of the flour produced in Australia, by comparison, is absolute rubbish.

I’ve always been someone who loves her bread and pastries … but I had to really limit it because I suffered bloating as a result. Sound familiar?  There’s no denying us Australians are amidst a “gluten-intolerant” epidemic.  So why is this so common in my generation? Twenty years ago it was barely heard of.

About eighteen months ago on my quest for answers to my twin daughters’ constant tummy troubles, I came across a naturopath whose wife is gluten intolerant.  He shared with me that when they traveled through France, she found she could eat bread without any nasty side effects.  He now sells French flour through his clinic and since that day it’s all you’ll find in my pantry.

My passion for this product has led me to have many conversations (in French and English!) with anyone who knows anything about French flour.  I’ve tracked down bakers in Brisbane and as far as Perth who use the flour, and I’ve scoured pages of the internet in search of more information about the quality of French flour.  I really feel like it’s important to be educated about the food we eat and hopefully once you’ve finished reading this article, you’ll not only be keen to try your own homemade bread using French flour, but you’ll be much more aware of Australian wheat and flour practices.

There are three main points to cover in understanding the differences … how the wheat is grown, how it’s processed and how the bread is made.

There are several factors that come into play when you start asking about how wheat varieties are grown in this country – our weather conditions are drastically different to France and the nutrients in the soil are far richer in France due to common practice of complementary planting.  This means that crops are rotated so as not to deplete the soil of the same nutrients every time a crop is harvested.  I visited a regional area of the South of France earlier this year and noted that my backyard was a rye field but that six months before that I would have looked out my bedroom window to a crop of sunflowers.

In my opinion, the most significant difference is how Australians “over-process” wheat.  In our supermarkets, we find our basic plain flour and self-raising flour as almost our only options.  Self-raising is only so because of the additives and it doesn’t even exist in France.  I’m still learning about this, but for some reason, Australian mills take out some really crucial enzymes that exist in a certain part of the wheat head that enables our bodies to digest the gluten more effectively.  The French leave these all in the product and as a result, they produce breads that are naturally lower in gluten as a percentage but that still provide all the enzymes nature intended us to have to aid in digestion.  Makes sense right? I suspect it must cost far less to mill the way us Aussies do.

There are over six types of flour that are used daily in French boulangeries.  Traditional baguettes use T55 or T65.  T45 or T80 will be used for pastries, cakes or brioche (you may also be familiar with the Italian type 00 flour which is similar). T130 is a rye, T150 is similar to what we know as whole wheat and T110 is a flour that offers colouring half way between white and brown.  These numbers refer to the ash content per 10mg of flour.  The gluten content as a percentage is lower (9-11%)  in the softer wheats (T45) and higher (11-13%) in the harder wheats (particularly wheat harvested in Spring) like T65.

For me, all these confusing numbers come down to one thing: I buy T55 flour from Basic Ingredients to make my family’s bread four times a week.  It takes me two minutes to prepare, I leave it for an hour to prove and I cook it for 40 minutes. I do two loaves at a time and freeze what we’re not eating straight away.  And the bottom line is that we have noticed drastic changes in our tummy health throughout the family.  It tastes better, costs no more than spelt flour, my house smells amazing and the kids notice the difference when they eat commercial bread elsewhere.

My next test was to ask a friend who is highly gluten-intolerant to try the bread.  I really had to twist her arm.  She had avoided gluten for years and was not excited about the possibility of gut ache again.  I am very excited to tell you that she too now buys the flour to bake her own bread and she can once again enjoy a wheat product without the angst of side effects.

France Gourmet imports the flour into Australia, and there are French-trained artisan bakers in Australia who won’t use anything else.  Rob Howard of Harvest Boulangerie in Perth, is one such boulanger.  He was on the Australian Baking Team with Brett Noy in 2010 (Italy) and 2011 (China) and came third both times in the Coup du Monde.  Pretty impressive considering the tough European competition.

He explained to me that most bakers will use 1-2% yeast and often a bread improver to oxidise the dough.  This is a chemical additive to speed up the process and sell bread faster.  He prefers to engage in long, slow fermentation stages using no chemicals at all – just salt.  This is what he was taught in Paris.  Fermentation is a natural process that breaks down the starches and even the gluten to a point, and this can take up to twenty-four hours. The results speaks for itself: Rob sells between sixty and eighty baguettes a day in his Scarborough bakery.

He also highlights that the flour industry in Australia is not regulated the way it used to be.  Wholemeal flours for example used to require a minimum of 90% whole wheat but these days, no one checks!  It’s pretty easy to see why there are myriad reasons why our tummies are suffering at the hand of inferior flour produced in Australia.

In Brisbane, Sebastien Pisasale of Crust and Co Artisan Baking, uses a mixture of Australian and French wheat for consistency.  And what he says is so true – unless the customer demands a superior product, it’s just not commercially viable for bakers to import all their flours.  So once again folks, it’s up to us to take responsibility for our own health, get educated and seek better options.

I’m going to go and live in the country that produces healthier, tastier breads, but if that option is a little drastic for you, I really encourage you to try making the bread yourself using French flour.  I have no commercial ties to Basic Ingredients (wish I did!) but so far it’s the only retailer I have found who supplies it in small enough quantities for household use (I buy 5kg bags at a time).

Give it a try, your tummy – and taste buds – will thank you!

homemade bread and soup_logo

Homemade French Bread

This quantity will make 2 baguettes or 1 loaf of bread.  I use the Thermomix to knead the bread, but you could use a bread maker, KitchenAid or get some exercise and use those arms!

Ingredients

500gms Imported French Flour
300gms warm filtered water
1 packet dry yeast
1-2 tsp sea salt
20gms extra virgin olive oil

Method

Mix your warm water with the yeast, salt and olive oil.  Add the flour and combine on speed 6 for 8 seconds.  Knead on interval speed for two minutes.

Rest on a bread mat in a warm spot for at least 30 minutes.  I have left dough for up to 24 hours to encourage further fermentation. Just depends how much time you have before the kids demand toast for breaky.

Shape the dough into baguettes or a free form loaf (or you can even place in a large loaf tin) and bake on a large baking tray lined with baking paper.  Mark the top of your bread with a sharp knife as per the picture below.  Spray the top with water for a golden crust. You may wish to repeat this half way through the cooking time.

Place in a cold oven and cook at 220 degrees for 30 minutes.  Check the crust is hard and golden.  Depending on the size of your loaf, it may need an extra 5 or 10 minutes.  If you’ve baked it in a tin, I recommend removing it from the tin and baking for a final 5 minutes out of it’s tin.

Now if you’ve made two like I do, allow one to cool completely, slice and freeze in a plastic bag.  The other loaf must be tested whilst still warm with lashings of butter!

With grace and gusto,

kpx


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Porridge and Fennel …

… not together, I promise!  These two favourites in our household are perfect for winter (if we ever get a winter that is!).   We’ve always been big fans of oats for breakfast, but because we have it regularly I am always experimenting with different variations.  My latest is Spiced Coconut Porridge which incorporates some anti-inflammatory spices into the mix, and replaces the milk or water with coconut milk and coconut water.  You need very little sweetener as the coconut water is quite sweet on its own.  The result was yum!

Spiced Coconut Porridge – serves 4

Ingredients

200gms traditional rolled oats
1 x 440gm can organic coconut milk
1 cup organic coconut water
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp tumeric
1/4 tsp ground cloves
2 tbsp pure maple syrup or raw honey

Method (I use a Thermomix but you can easily cook on the stovetop, ensuring you stir regularly)

1. Add all the ingredients to the TM bowl and cook at 90 degrees for 11 minutes on speed 2.
2. Watch the porridge for the last two minutes – you may need to add a little more coconut water if its too thick.
3. Serve with walnuts, macadamia nuts, shredded coconut and almond milk.

spiced coconut porridge

I love fennel in salads during summer, but I think it’s a new favourite winter vegetable.  It’s super easy to prepare and really offers a nice change from your usuals.  I’m all for getting as much variety as possible in our fruit and vegetable repetoire, so add this one in and tell me what you think!  Fennel is an excellent source of vitamin C and contains phytonutrients that are anti-inflammatory, antioxidants and anti-cancer.  Apart from all this great stuff, it tastes amazing!

Baked Fennel – serves 4-6 as a side

Ingredients

1 fennel bulb
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
1/2 cup pure full fat cream
salt and pepper to taste

Method

1. Cut the base of the fennel off by about 1cm and trim the tips.  Cut into 2-3cms slices, lengthways.
2. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil and add the slices of fennel for 10 mins or until they’ve softened.
3. Drain well and lay the fennel across the bottom of a baking dish.  Top with the cream, cheese and salt and pepper and bake for 15mins at 180 degrees fan forced or until golden brown.  Serve immediately.

 

 


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They say I’m nuts …

It’s true I have been called “nuts” by a few … but that’s a story for another day!  Instead, today I will share one of my signature recipes and one I love to serve up with drinks, or as a lavish garnish to a salad.  These nuts make a beautiful gift too instead of fudge or other overly-sweet treats.  I served these as “favours” at a baby shower I hosted recently.  It’s nice to serve them on the day and then send them home with more to share with their families.  These Sweet and Salty Nuts have even made an appearance on the Christmas Day table, and are perfect for entertaining because they can be made well in advance to save you time on the day.

nuts_logo

Sweet and Salty Nuts

Ingredients

500gms nuts of your choice (I prefer blanched almonds and pecans but macadamia nuts are decadent too)
1/4 cup sugar (rapadura or coconut sugar is best)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
pinch ground cloves
1/4 tsp curry powder
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp cumin

Method

1. Roast the nuts in a moderate (180 degrees) oven for 10mins or until fragrant.

2. Mix the sugar and spices together in a bowl.

3. Heat a large frypan to medium-high heat and pour in the roasted nuts.

4. Immediately add the sugar and spice mix and stir continuously for 10 mins or until the sugar has melted.  The sugar and spices should stick to the nuts.

5. Remove from the heat to cool completely – store in an airtight container for up to a week.

Enjoy!

With grace and gusto,
kpx

Market Days

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What a privileged world we live in when I can sit in the middle of Brisbane’s largest farmers market on a sunny Saturday morning, drinking Black Sheep Coffee and listening to pipe music from Walisuma, a group of musicians who hail from South America, while my kids chew on buttery croissants from the French baker!  All this while I whip out my phone and start writing as I feel the inspiration come to me …

I’m looking around me and the first thing I notice is that people are literally stopping to smell the flowers.  They’re stopping to talk to friends, stopping to enjoy the music, the coffee, their kids, the fact that they have some time on their hands.

Markets are truly a melting pot of cultures where we are offered such an extensive array of goods.  From where I’m sitting I can see a local coffee roaster, a German smallgoods stall, a French baker, a Greek olive providore, a Maleny cheese maker, a Chinese fishmonger, and I’ve only just finished having an animated conversation with a Russian girl in the queue next to me about her year in Italy!  Such a small world we live in.

I’ve kept it simple today … I came home with these gorgeous late-season figs (best season in Australia is February-April). They are so divine on their own, that they need very little fussing over.  My favourite way to serve these is with a soft goats cheese and a drizzle of honey. Perfect for brunches, lunch or dessert.

figs_text

So being here got me thinking … in a future post, I will run my own little experiment. Have you ever wondered if shopping at the markets is really cheaper?  There’s no doubt the quality is better and produce is cheaper (I bought four figs for five dollars – you’d pay more like seven dollars retail), but can you avoid the supermarkets and still serve up creative meals on a budget?  I will do the hard work for you.  I’ll plan a menu for a week that includes 7 dinners, weekend lunches, kids school lunch boxes for during the week and I’ll compare the costs – markets vs supermarkets.  I hope you’re as curious as I am!

With grace and gusto,
kpx


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On commence! Let’s get started …

“We write to taste life twice … in the moment and in retrospect.”  I really wish this was an original quote but alas, I must pay credence to Anais Nin.  Of course, she is a French woman – a writer who was celebrated for her accounts of self-discovery that fortified women challenging gender roles in the 1960s and 70s.

I believe it tastes sweeter when you relive an experience for the second time, and so I have decided to muster all my courage, cast away any doubts, and begin to share my love affair with food.

As some of you know, I flirt outrageously with the notion that I have a little French blood in me.  I don’t actually, despite my best efforts in researching the family tree.  But I do really really love that country and I can’t put my finger on why exactly.  Perhaps it’s their sophistication with food and their passion for fresh produce?  Perhaps it’s their many country scenes and ancient cityscapes that capture my imagination.  It must have something to do with the language I can use well enough to impress my Australian friends?  I guess it’s the noxious combination of all these things and more that have me planning our “year to unplug”.  Only a crazy dream like mine would cause someone to uproot their family entirely and move to the other side of the world for an unknown, exhilarating adventure!  Stay tuned for more about this as we near closer to Christmas.

See how easily I’m distracted by France?  Back to food …

Over the coming weeks, my hope is that somewhere out there, the words I put down here will connect with someone to the point that I can inspire them … to cook, to create, to do whatever it is that they love.  I intend to share my learnings of home cooking – some posts will be family favourites, some will delve deeper into the origin or nutrition of certain produce and other posts will profile other companies, cooks, businesses, projects or products I have come across and am impressed by.

Ultimately, this blog is selfishly designed to help me grow and hopefully designed to inspire others.  I hope you enjoy my “second taste” of life as you scan through the pages of Grace and Gusto. kpx

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