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.

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