Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A week and a day in Provence II

Market days in Provence are very much like everywhere in France with purveyors gathering on a designated street, square or park once or twice a week. In preparation for this, we got hold of a few books, "The Markets of Provence," by Patricia Wells and "Provence and the French Riviera" by Rick Steves. Wells' book provided a daily guide of Market days in each of 7 towns in Provence - Monday in Cadenet, Tuesday in La Tour d'Aigues, Wednesday in Saint Remy, Thursday in Aix en Provence, Friday in Bonnieux, Saturday in Apt and Sunday in Isle Sur la Sorgue. Rick Steves provided a more in-depth guide of the famous as well as the out of the way places to visit in Provence.

Driving from town to town, in and around the Luberon valley and the surrounding hills was a pleasure. Well paved, with ample signage that made it easy to get around and, best of all, no traffic. It's not a surprise to me that Ducati chooses the South of France when it releases new models for test drives. What I would give to ride a Ducati along these plane tree-lined roads...well, someday. But I digress.

We arrived on a Saturday and between settling in, stocking up with Super U supplies and our first home -cooked meal (we had just spent a week in Paris), we didn't get to our first market until Sunday - at the village of Isle sur La Sorgue, in the last few hours of market day.

Merchants were packing up but we did meet Johann, an artisan (and you'll hear that word a lot in Provence) nougat maker. He had huge blocks of handmade nougat - lavender, chocolate, vanille, which he sold by weight and cut with a huge 2-handled knife. The nougat was excellent - chewy, sweet but not to sweet, the main flavor lingering in the back of your mouth instead of greeting you full-on.

The next stop was Provencal linens....jacquard table clothes and napkins in Provencal colors and designs. After an excited purchase, we continued exploring....crafted leather, some white asparagus and other vegetables, purple garlic until we found a place to stop for a late lunch - braised rabbit and linguine for Camille, a seafood salad for myself, Croque Monsieur for Lucas and Iya and, upon the suggestion of our charming waiter, a sausage andouilette for Isca.

The rabbit was tender, flavorful, braised in a red wine and thyme-based sauce....a new experience for Camille, who had (perhaps understandably) never had rabbit. I told her what to expect- a combination of veal and chicken and I was glad when she validated this with her first bite. My seafood salad was, with the exception of the generous and fresh portion of mussels, octopus and prawns, OK but not exceptional. The 'surprising' discovery was the waiter-suggested sausage andouilette. 'Surprising' can be taken many ways, mind you. This was one of those 'HELLO GUESS WHAT I'M MADE FROM' dishes that is not shy about its ingredients and their unique taste. The sausage is made from tripe and maybe other cow parts, seasoned lightly with garlic and herbs and, I suppose, cured before being pan-fried. I could not help thinking of a less-seasoned and 'tripe-ier' tasting callos madrilena in sausage form. Certainly not a winner in our books, but memorable nevertheless.

The next few days, we went to the other markets in St. Remy, Lourmalin, Gourdes, Aix en Provence, Le Beaux as well as visits to Rousillon, Le Beaux, Avignon and Nimes.

The markets were similar and, as I mentioned, we saw many of the same merchants selling their wares, moving from town to town. The produce was amazing! Huge cherries, heirloom tomatoes, purple garlic, white asparagus. There were artisan bakers, cheesemakers, charcuteries, a stall that sold nothing but foie gras products; fresh and cooked. There was a chicken rotisserie on wheels, olives and other preserves. It was a wonderful, appetizing and totally confusing place to be...what to taste, will it keep, can we finish it - all questions asked in quick succession.

It was also in St. Remy where we visited the sanitorium that Van Gogh was confined and, strangely enough, inspired to do a lot of his finest work....many of his now famous paintings were actually painted based on scenes around the estate. What a sad story of a brilliant artist...the kids recognized reproductions and the inspiration of the originals we had seen just a week before at Musee D'Orsay in Paris. The hospice was actually a very pretty albeit gloomy place, perhaps not helped by the life and tragic death of its most famous patient.

For most of our first few days, we had spring rains and when we had our first day of sun, we immediately planned for a dinner on the patio with a view of the pool, the forest and the valley. With a well-stocked larder and an equally well-equipped kitchen, we whipped up an excellent dinner of barbecued ribs, cheese pasta, Coke, baguettes, white wine and ice cream. The weather was great, the company, incomparable and the food, satisfying.

The visits to Provence's big cities and other sites were also exciting. Having spent the past few days in little towns, it was a sort of country mouse feeling, walking the more crowded sidewalks of a city. A bit overwhelming to have longer, wider streets, buildings, higher than 3 floors and traffic lights on every corner.

In Nimes, we saw a Roman Coliseum; a remnant from the days when Provence was an extension of the Roman empire. Today the colosseum is still used for bull fights. Nimes is also the place where denims originated - the cloth from Nimes or 'de Nimes." Unfortunately for Nimes, it was an American, Levi Strauss who cashed in on this fabric during the gold rush in San Francisco.

There was an excellent food find in Aix en Provence - this extremely good, extremely rich, nice and chewy and apparently very popular cookie made from almonds and sugar...calisson...wonderful. We chanced upon a cart selling this confection..surrounded at this time, by a hoard of japanese tourists - I guess it was in their guidebook...not in ours, this one.

In Marseilles, sampling onion and meat pastries from the Arab quarter served to sate our hunger in preparation for dinner's main event. While in Marseilles, we couldn't refuse the opportunity to have a taste of bouillabaisse.....which we did. It was good, yes, but not entirely memorable. The broth is served up first, with toasted baguette slices and cloves of whole garlic, to be rubbed on the bread. These were then topped with a dollop of rouille and set afloat on the broth, to add texture and an additional layer of flavor to the already complex flavors of the soup. The fish and shellfish were served next...flavorful but frankly, I've had better. It was all about the experience, I suppose...if one could choose a place to have bouillabaisse, where else to have it but in Marseilles, naturellement.

On our final night, we figured we needed to clean up our pantry purchases. We invited M. Peuch, the local realtor's representative, who ran the office that took care of summer properties of the out of towners. He seemed hesitant and reluctantly agreed to come. We prepared osso bucco, grilled pork chops, butter-fried potatoes, baguettes and salad. To start, we had foie gras and a headcheese terrine and we finished with cheese, ice cream, coffee and fromage blanc. We had beer before dinner, a Chateneuf de Papes red with dinner and M. Peuch brought a bottle of champagne to have with dessert. So while our guest, who arrived at 6:30pm on the dot, started out the evening a bit formal and reserved, as the night wore on and the bottles were killed one by one, he warmed up, smiled, ate (and ate everything, by the way), laughed and had a good did we. The night ended at 12:30am, a fitting end to a lovely week and a day in Provence.

All in all, our stay in Provence was one of the best trips we've had. We dream excitedly of our next visit and hope it won't be too long before we can go again.

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.