Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Week and a Day in Provence I

After many years of enjoying reading about Provence, I finally had a chance to spend a week and a day there, exploring, eating, cooking in a place I had only enjoyed vicariously, thanks to Peter Mayle. This, I thought, was certainly not a typical family vacation destination but it certainly turned out to be one of the best and most memorable ones. It was, for me, a dream come true after many years of only seeing Provence in my mind's eye. I have to thank my wife for insisting that we go when we did, children and all, while I thought, with apprehension, about the complexity of travel in a non-English speaking country, with 3 children in tow.....looking back, what a treat it was for all of us.

Back in 1994, I didn't even know where Provence was, thinking all along, it was a generic term for a province in France. Thanks to Peter Mayle, the author of 'A Year in Provence,' and his series of other 'Provencal' books , this all changed. I picked up 'A Year' in an airport bookstore in 1994, while on a business trip and was immediately captivated by the idea, the concept, that place called Provence, a region located in the south of France, beginning in the Rhone Valley south of Paris and extending up to the southern Cote d'Azur. Mayle's picture of Provence was a fascinating glimpse of a place with centuries' old villages, castles, farmland, vineyards and recipes. He is well-known for his mouth-watering descriptions of the many dishes he has sampled in Provence. One critic went as far as saying he had introduced a new genre of writing - dinnerotica.

In my mind, I could see olive groves and fruit orchards, cobble stoned villages, festive market days with the freshest of produce, artisan bakers and cheese makers, castles and fountains and good, rustic country food.

We got to Provence by way of TGV train from Paris to Avignon, rented a mini van, loaded up the kids and took the scenic route to Puget sur Durance, a little town (pop. 138) where we stayed in the summer residence of a very good friend, Sarge. The weather, late spring, early summer was damp and cool but we didn't really notice since the 1.5 hour drive through plane tree-lined country roads was scenic and comfortable.

The house in Provence was owned by a dear friend from work, with whom I had coincidentally shared a fondness for Provence through the Peter Mayle books. Many years ago, he intimated his plans of someday owning property in Provence and extended a standing 'future' invitation for me and my family. We've fortunately kept in touch and he has fortunately fulfilled his dream of owning the voila!

The house was on top of a hill, tucked a bit away from the main road of the little town. A very charming and well-decorated house, it had 4 theme-decorated bedrooms, a fully equipped kitchen, a home theater, the requisite barbecue grill, a forest for a backyard, wild rosemary and thyme growing on the fringes of the property and a view of the valley and the hills of Luberon overlooking the wooden swimming pool deck. It was, in a word, perfect....a perfect welcome to Provence and a perfect realization of the mental picture I had in my mind's eye.

We settled in, met by the house's official caretaker, M. Peuch, who gave us the house keys and a quick tour before taking us to the local grocery, Super U (Pronounced..Super Ooh), for provisions.

Super U was oooh...a treat!...we were all fascinated by the produce. I immediately made a beeline to the meat section where I selected a few fresh saucissons (that looked like chorizos or longganizas), I also got a saucisson cru (a cured sausage Provencal farmers would have for breakfast with a baguette and marc, a harsh raw red wine), a slice each of pork and foie gras terrine, a baguette, goat cheese, a block of beurre sale de Britaigne (Brittany butter with fleur de sel flakes) and a bottle of Bandol Rose. Pork belly, eggs, a jar of herbs de Provence, potatoes, ice cream and a tub of fromage blanc and we were on our way.

Getting back home, we immediately began preparations for the evening meal. The saucissons were fried, the wine chilled, the saucisson cru and goat cheese plated. I confess I had an excited curiosity about food I had only read about. One of these curious foods was saucisson cru....the farmer's breakfast.

Saucisson cru is a small, dark, plump and dry sausage, probably just air dried and cured and not given to any smoking or heat treatment. I had read about this sausage many times in the past and was almost relieved I would finally be able to taste it. I excitedly sliced the specimen I bought from Super U and took a bite. tasted....strong...raw...rough. My illusions of and excitement for Provencal food momentarily showed cracks on the edges. The sausage tasted of...pig. No, not pork which is the stuff of grilled pork chops or crisp skinned lechon. It tasted of pig...the four legged, oink, oink, squealing, snorting belching animal. Those of you who have been around the live animals to enjoy their total porcine aura will be able to totally relate. Imagine that aura in a bite..a mouthful of piggy-ness. Then again, I thought back..I shouldn't have been surprised...saucisson cru translates to ' dry or raw sausage.' I guess there's at least one thing I do NOT have in common with Provencal farmers.

This was the only little disaster in the rest of the meal. The other sausages were excellent, one delicately seasoned and the other lightly spiced...sliced into links, pricked lightly and sauteed in a pan, they were wonderful. The terrines and goat cheese were rich, flavorful, fresh and delish. The Rose, slightly chilled went down well with the meal.

One of the winners in the meal (and another of my food dreams) was the 'beurre sale,' the salted Brittany butter. It's churned from the rich cream from brittany cows, which is in itself a 'close your eyes and savor the moment' moment...the clincher is the addition of fleur de sel flakes.

Fleur de sel, "flower of the salt," is salt that 'blooms' on the surface of shallow pools of sea water that evaporate to yield sea salt. As the water evaporates, a thin layer of salt 'blooms' on the surface. This is carefully skimmed from the surface and dried separately from the salt left after the water has completely evaporated. These thin crystals are fleur de sel.....coveted as the salt of choice by chefs around the world.

These delicate flakes are mixed into the rich butter and they do not dissolve but retain their thin, crystal, flaky structure and texture. As your tongue is coated with the rich flavor of the Brittany butter, you encounter this very subtle saltiness that is confirmed by lightly crunchy salt flakes that give in to your teeth..the combination of flavor and mouth feel is sublime. Of course, a fresh baguette is the perfect palette to carry the flavor and texture.

The meal was finished with ice cream and fromage blanc. Fromage blanc with sugar or honey is a great finish to a meal...sweet, rich and only slightly, slightly tart....almost a cross between creme fraiche and really good whipped cream.

A cup of espresso, and the meal is over...Bienvenue a Provence.

More to come.

No comments:

Post a Comment