Mikel and I rented a house in Saint Antoine, a suburb of the antiques center, Isle sur la Sorgue, not far from Avignon. I’ll be writing about the process of renting a villa for the Washington Post next spring, but here’s the rental agency we used. An October 15, 2010, article in TIME magazine warned that officials are cracking down on short-term rentals because many home owners are not licensed to rent their properties; the article also warns of an increase in scams — that, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), claims of vacation rental frauds in the US were up 50% this past summer over 2009. I guess I’ve been lucky, for Mikel and I have rented apartments and houses in Ireland, Mexico, Genoa, Rome, and Sicily — not to mention the dozen beach houses we’ve rented on the southeastern seaboard — without problems. There have been a couple of disappointing bathrooms or beds or kitchens, but, to me, it’s worth it to have a place to cook so that I can shop in the regional markets and prepare the native foods — to immerse myself in the culture and live like a local, so to speak. This was our first foray into Provence, and we were not disappointed. The first week, we were in the house alone, then two other couples (including Tom Sietsema, the restaurant critic for the Washington Post) came to join us the second. It was the height of mushroom/truffle season, and I cooked many meals at home, including several in the outdoor, wood-fired pizza oven (pictured above).
Our m.o. when we go on these trips is to take a collapsible, rolling cooler with us as one of our carry-ons, and to have one of those “blue ices” with us, which we store in the freezer of the home we’re renting, then put in the cooler each morning as we set out on our adventures. In Provence, we would drive to a town where it was market day, buy goodies for supper, then have a long, leisurely lunch, walking off the wine in the afternoon as we visited the local sites — wineries, ruins, museums, hilltop villages, and the stunning natural wonders of the area. We generally avoid fancy restaurants (which we also avoid back home), but our first full day, though we were late to the market on a blustery, mistral-blown day in Avignon, we did wander into the Michelin one-starred La Mirande, which had come highly recommended to us by several folks. When I asked for a table for two (it was nearly time for their last seating), the concierge all but smirked, “It’s brunch.” And, yes, it was indeed a brunch buffet, and the staff of pretty young things was obviously not thrilled to be working on Sunday morning. The service was off, but the food was delicious, and the people-watching was phenomenal.
There was a table of delicious oysters and house-smoked salmon, and several other cold dishes — salmon mousse; a vast array of salads featuring fish, beans, and marinated vegetables; and an embarrassment of pata negra, the luscious Iberian ham in the foreground of the photo below. There was a mound of black truffles sitting by the young chefs at the omelet station. The meal, which was structured the same for all diners, went something like this: first the cold dishes, then an omelet (with perhaps some grilled prawns as well, sir?), then the leg of lamb from Sisteron, world-renowned and about the size of an American lamb shank, with hot vegetables. Then the cheese course. Then a world of desserts.
The restaurant and inn are housed in the former cardinal’s palace which is filled with antiques. It is a quiet respite from the usual crowds (there were none on the day of our visit because of the mistral). It is considered one of the region’s finest hotels. The bar is one of the most elegant I’ve ever seen, but I’ve known teenagers who could make better omelets (see photos).
Mikel and I do not revere the temples of the Catholic church, so we left Avignon afterwards and drove east out to the stunning Roman Pont du Gard. (Yes, that’s the bar on the left, and, no, I did not take a bite out of the omelet before shooting it.) Much better omelets to come.
The Pont du Gard is a Roman-built, three-tiered bridge and aqueduct spanning the Gard River near N?mes. It was built in 19 B.C. of giant stones so precisely cut and positioned that it required no mortar. When I think of all the steel-reinforced concrete bridges built mid-century in America that are now collapsing, I am even more in awe of the engineering brilliance of the ancient Romans. After touring the impressive grounds for a couple of hours, we headed home, stopping by the small Domaine de L’Aqueduc vineyard outside the charming village of Uz?s, to sample (and buy) and some of their Vin de Pays d’Oc — specifically, their newly designated Vin de Pays Duch? d’Uz?s. Their lighter Palombi?re (4 euros/bottle) of syrah and grenache is typical of the wines of the region, perfect with grilled meats and game birds; their top of the line La Garrigue de Born?gre (at 7.50 euros), was to be our house red for the rest of the week. Made mostly of syrah aged for 18 months in oak, the wine is balanced with mourvedre and grenache, all hand-picked at their ripest. Behind their cave, remnants of the N?mes aqueduct cut through the property. The wines were just the sort of unpretentious, quaffable, and inexpensive ones I was expecting to find throughout the region. Ironically, many of the local wines, which are exactly the types of wines, from the same region, that I drink at home on a daily basis, were the real disappointment of the trip. More on that to follow, but every nasty red wine we tasted (and we tasted many) was organic. Many of the winemakers who are hopping on the organic bandwagon are even eschewing stainless steel for concrete! Some of the wines were so astringent and barnyardy (and not in a good way) that we couldn’t even swallow one sip. Don’t get me wrong: we had delicious wines, and every ros? we sampled was delightfully drinkable (and made in stainless steel). But we were recommended and served some truly undrinkable wines in some of the nicest restaurants in the area.
We drove home in a glorious sunset. This shot from our moving car makes it perfectly clear why Van Gogh and Gaugin and C?zanne loved not only the landscapes, but the amazing light of Provence.
Gordes and The C?tes du Luberon
Gordes has been called le plus beau village de France, but with so many gorgeous villages and towns, I hesitate to rate it the highest since it is also one of the best-known, and, hence, long touristed. I don’t think there’s a single house that is not fully restored, and there are swimming pools and movie stars, so to speak, everywhere you look. But it is gorgeous.
Though we were hungry, we didn’t want to eat in one of the fancy restaurants included in all the guidebooks — the Gault-Millau- and Michelin-starred temples of haute cuisine. In France, much more so than in Italy, you really take a chance when you choose a more touristy spot. (How bad can pasta get?) We wanted casual grub and we wanted to eat outdoors. And, in fact, what we had at Le Proven?al on the main square was fine. If only we hadn’t chosen the day’s “menu” that included an appetizer and dessert! The owner was Japanese and we were surrounded by other Americans, devouring the enormous portions served us. My civet de joues de bouef aux champignons (stew made from beef cheeks, with mushrooms) was perfect, but my salad was just too big, as were the desserts. Nevertheless, we enjoyed sitting outside and the red Luberon wine was delicious. More importantly, we learned not to order the all-inclusive menus! Gordes is the gateway to the Luberon, a region of France many of us know through the books of Peter Mayle. It is an area of great geographical and biological diversity, with three mountain ranges and fertile valleys whose soil types seem to change at every bend in the road. Never before have I seen — and tasted — how terroir so dramatically influences how wines taste. A vineyard on one side of the road may have been planted at exactly the same time, with exactly the same grapes, but may, because of an outcropping of clay or limestone, or because it lies in the shadow of a mountain, or closer to a stream, yield much fruitier or more mineral-laden wines than one just yards away. The area is incredibly beautiful and lush, even in late October. This shot of a farm on the hillside going up to Roussillon, where ochre has been mined for centuries, is typical of the area. I even saw one of their rare eagles.
The C?tes du Luberon appellation includes some 3500 acres from Cavaillon, a few miles southeast of Avignon on the Durance River, to Apt, 25 miles to the east at the end of the Coulon Valley that lies between the Luberon mountains and the Vaucluse. There are vineyards at every turn.
Both Cavaillon and Apt are popular market towns, so we visited each on their market days. Unions were striking throughout France — dock workers, school cafeteria employees, garbage collectors, and truck drivers — and the high school (lyc?e) students were joining in the demonstations. In Cavaillon (which was much more of a working class town than any of the others we visited — hence, we liked it even more), I talked to 17-year-olds who were marching in the streets, protesting the then-proposed increase of retirement age from 60 to 62. The broadside they handed me demanded a public discourse on the decision, but their arguments were so deeply felt and brilliantly expressed — that unless older workers retired, there would be no jobs for them — that I left the rally sympathizing with them, even though I told them that most Americans work till we keel over, without health care or a pension, so I found understanding their position difficult. There was something inspiring about seeing young people involved in the politics of their country (can you imagine American youth marching on their own accord, hoping to have a voice in the decision-making processes that will affect their future?), but I was not surprised to find out, upon returning home and doing some research online and reading some in-depth analyses of the strikes, that their arguments, no matter how brilliantly expressed, were b.s.: as it turns out, of all industrialized nations, France has the lowest percentage of workers between the ages of 60 and 65! Which reiterated something about the French that has always bothered me. Yes, they have what some studies say is the highest quality of life in the world — a 35-hour work week, socialized health care and education, and retirement with benefits at 60. I’ve lived in France and can vouch for the incredibly civilized lifestyle (which every French worker pays for, to the tune of 2/3 of their income in taxes). But they also are inordinately proud, and that pride seems to be rooted in an overintellectualization of EVERYTHING. I love France, and will continue to go back, but I prefer the Italian language, Italian food, an the Italian people more. (And, besides, I just can’t eat all those cheeses and sausages and p?t?s every day!)
The market in Cavaillon was our first real taste of the deservedly famous Proven?al markets, and I was ready to cook like a local. The mistral was blowing hard that day, so I bought a Roma-made hat for a Euro (here I am squatting amongst wild fennel, alyssum, and arugula, in a cell-phone photo by Mikel). We would never again in the following two weeks see better prices, even when we would see some of the same vendors in other market towns. The mushrooms were phenomenal — and all from the wild. We saw several varieties of c?pes and chanterelles and girolles as well as many we had never seen before, such as these orange-bleeding lactaires (also known as sanguins). When I asked the vendor how to cook them, he said, “The simpler, the better.” Saut? in a little butter and add to an omelet, I queried? “That’s the best way,” he replied, smiling, and asking me where I was from. When I told him the States, he was dumbfounded: Because I learned to really speak French while living in Italy, I speak it, it seems, with an Italian accent. This always amazes me, because, as any of you who have heard me speak well know, I have a profound southern accent when I speak English.
We were so glad to have all the fresh food (and, needless to say, we bought some of the lactaires*), that we rushed back home to cook. I made an omelet. Surely you don’t need a recipe, do you? (I’ve added one to the November 15, 2010, blog in case you do.) Mikel took photos of me preparing the meal with his cell phone. The pole beans in the basket to the left, called cocos, were delicious; they’re basically Kentucky Wonders. I found some natural bouillon cubes in the owner’s pantry and cooked the beans in bouillon with the leek tops.We began the meal with an eggplant terrine that the owner had made for us, with a little tomato coulis and bruschetta from the previous day’s bread. To drink, we had a white Saint Joseph, 100% marsanne and much bigger than I remembered. I forgot how truly spectacular the white Rh?nes can be.
[*A note on the lactaires/sanguins: The species is Lactarius sanguifluus, from the Latin, "causing blood to flow." A very similar species in North America, long cited as the same, is now considered a different species, Lactarius rubrilacteus. They both bleed a reddish orange, develop greenish blue spots where bruised, and tint the eater's urine reddish. The better-known Lactarius deliciosus, known in America as Orange Milk Mushroom, is, ironically, not nearly as tasty as sanguins.]
We followed the omelet with a salad made with the last of the local tomatoes, local radishes, wild arugula from the yard, the last of the local olive oil (from the owner’s trees on the property, pictured at the top of this blog page), and the delicious salt from the Camargue, which we would visit later in the week. Everything we ate for lunch that day was local, except the black pepper. (Even the wheat in the bread!)
Fontaine de Vaucluse and Opp?de-le-Vieux
Though we were only a stone’s throw from Isle sur la Sorgue, which is the biggest antiques center in Europe outside London and Paris, we spent little time in town. The dealers are generally only open Saturday-Monday, and we really aren’t in the market for anything. The center of the town is indeed an island in the brilliantly clear Sorgue River, which stays 55oF year round. The river’s source is in the center of the nearby, charming village of Fontaine de Vaucluse. A mile beneath the surface, crystal clear water springs up through the rocks and flows at a constant rate. Mosses cover waterwheels and fountains, and the waters teem with underwater grasses, giving the river a permanent emerald glow. We saw lots of trout in the local waters. Petrarch, who has been called the world’s first tourist since he was the first to write about traveling purely for pleasure, wrote many of his love poems to his muse, Laura, while living in Fontaine de Vaucluse. Again, it’s easy to see how inspiring the surroundings could be for either poet or painter.
Our friend Maurice Dumas, who hails from Cabannes, near Noves (home of Petrarch’s Laura), prepared an itinerary of things we shouldn’t miss, so we took his advice and visited most of the very special places he described to us.
Opp?de le Vieux
Most striking, perhaps, was Opp?de, an ancient village that has been abandoned and resettled several times in its rich history. Perched on a northern slope of the Luberon, facing Mont Ventoux, Opp?de is slowly being restored by a community of artists who must have more money than sense.
I’ve visited some of the perched villages of the Western Italian Riviera that have been restored, and while they may be located at higher altitudes with steeper slopes, the towns were more intact than Opp?de.
I can’t imagine what it must cost to restore these houses, but, I must admit, it’s just about the most romantic and charming of all the villages we visited. The approach to Opp?de is through a botanical garden signposted with historical and horticultural markers. You can walk up the steep terraces, or through the winding path through the park. The higher up you go in the village, the older the buildings, and the more they are in ruins. At the summit, a Romanesque church, oddly modern in its simple design, commands an incomparable view. It’s hard to tell if some of the homes have been restored or not. Mail slots give the restorations away. The town square is impossibly precious. The house on the right, below, for example, doesn’t look like much from this shady side, but a closer inspection reveals new glass in all the windows, and the other side drops several floors down, with huge plate glass windows filling in the arched porticoes overlooking Mont Ventoux in the distance.
See what I mean about the town square, wrapped around a shade tree? And check out the view from the church, which is gradually being restored by the community.
All over Provence, the house styles change little. I know that in Opp?de, the houses were given to the squatters if they would restore the houses to their original styles. I willing to bet that building in the traditional style affords tax breaks, because even in the most modern suburbs, the houses all resemble each other, which is to say they resemble these ancient homes in Opp?de. Throughout the region, there are also ancient “bories,” which are the traditional farmer huts, similar to those found in southern Italy. They are made without mortar, as are the retaining walls. They are said to be Ligurian, predating the Etruscans. It’s very interesting to see the austere Romanesque buildings — one of the most famous examples, the Abbaye of S?nanque, is nearby — next to the rustic and yet exuberant prehistoric bories with their intricately walled terraces. The one pictured below was on the property of the house we rented.
A Day in St-R?my-de-Provence and the Alpilles
We finally got on Euro time and got up and drove to St-R?my, best known, perhaps, for Van Gogh’s time spent there, but also home, more recently, to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and, 500 years ago, to Nostradamus. The mistral was blowing hard, but the sun was searingly bright. The iconic plane trees of France (and most of Europe, and much of the world) that line byways and town squares were hybridized early on from American sycamores and an Asian species. (For a fascinating historical look at the evolution of the gardening in Europe and America, I highly recommend Andrea Wulf’s The Brother Gardeners, which details the handful of men who, mostly in the 18th century, transformed not only our gardens, but horticulture in general.) We drove on two-lane roads where the trees were being severely pruned. Traffic was slow going, but we made it to St-R?my in time to peruse their wonderful market at length. The trees in the town square had just been pruned, even though the plane trees still bore leaves. The effect is of going from a summery cityscape to a wintery one overnight.
The markets in Provence are wonderful, better than our best urban farmers markets, with fresh-picked fruits and just-gathered mushrooms, olive trees and embroidered dish towels, hand-knitted sweaters and hand-packed herbes de Provence, homemade jams, condiments, charcuterie, paella and choucroute to go, and preserves of all sorts. We bought several kinds of olives, tapenade, a tomato confit, salted almonds, dried fruits (including insanely scrumptious strawberries), anchovies, duck sausage, several local cheeses, and stuffed grape leaves, as well as homemade chestnut-filled ravioli made with chestnut flour from a colorful Sicilian (see photo, below) with whom I got to speak my “franglaisiano” — my own mix of French, English, and Italian that is popular among many of the folks in southern France. We also bought some of the biggest, most delicious (giga) oysters I’ve ever eaten from Gilles Andreo, who grows both oysters and mussels in Meze, on the coast near Sept. I was surprised at not only how large, meaty, briny, and tasty they were, but also at how inexpensive they were. I asked for a dozen (5 Euros) before I tasted them, and then doubled my order after one bite. He gave us several extra. Even with the dollar bottomed out at $1.40 per Euro, they were still only 50 cents/each.
The markets ramble through the cobblestone streets, radiating out from town squares, the regular town merchants setting up outdoor displays under tents as well. People take breaks and sit in outdoor caf?s, even in the gusty mistral, and everyone waits patiently as a vendor takes his time to remove the pin bones from a side of salmon, or to give detailed recipes to a shopper, to help a possible customer choose a hat, a gift, a scarf. It’s truly a different lifestyle, one centered around a joie de vivre that is rare in America. At one booth, we waited for a good 15 minutes while a child chose an assortment of olives from the dozens of types available. And then there are the bread queues, flowing out of bakeries and baker’s stands, clogging the narrow passageways where shoppers and dogs and children and baby strollers and shopping bags and old and young are sardined together to line up for the best baguette, the flakiest croissant, the healthiest whole-wheat loaf. One elderly woman I saw was choosing sausage according to which her dog liked best!
Our larder filled, we decided to walk back to the car and then find our lunch spot. We wanted to discover something ourselves, off the beaten path, and not in the guidebooks we had stashed in the car. I didn’t want to eat where Peter Mayle had been, no matter how good it was. We began strolling around the perimeter of the city center, and no sooner had we stopped in front of a simple restaurant than the handsome, engaging chef/owner, Jean-Pierre Mroczek, had walked out to greet us as we read over the posted menu. “What’s there to decide?” he asked us, reaching out to shake our hands. He had one of the prettiest smiles I’ve ever seen. “My specialty is a?oli, and you will not be disappointed.” At least I think that’s what he said. He spoke no English. I said, “How can we resist such a good-looking guy as you, the chef, coming out on the street to entice us in to try his food which he promises to be delicious?” It was the best meal we had. We both ordered the most simple of his a?oli dishes — the salt cod. Never in a million years would I have guessed that the perfectly flaky and light white fish had ever been salted. It was perfectly steamed atop a bed of steamed local vegetables (that he had just picked up at the market himself) and garnished with some shellfish. I think we paid 11 euros. And much less for the local ros?, one of the best wines we had on our trip (Ch?teau Dalmeran 2009, an AOC Les Baux-de-Provence, from “3 kilometers up the road,” according to our waiter). Jean-Pierre and his lovely wife Isabelle, who runs the front of the house, had been open only 8 months when we were there last month, and he’s already garnering lots of praise. He may not yet be in the guidebooks, but if you go to St-R?my, do not miss this delightful restaurant. (Restaurant Saveurs de Provence; 8 Boulevard Gambetta; ph 0490953338; email email@example.com.)
The garlicky, mayonnaise-like a?oli was the best I’ve ever had, classically made, with no bite, unctuous and eggy, the perfect complement to the steamed cod, snails, mussels, green beans, fennel, celery, and even a steamed egg. The garnish of fried parsley and orange zest provides a textural counterpoint and the fruity wine balanced the meal with its refreshing drinkability. While the spicy, full-bodied reds of the region are gaining popularity, I cannot resist these ros?s with the food. After lunch, we were pleasantly surprised to see that the town squares had been totally cleaned up after the market, as though it had never happened.
I love how the old and the new are juxtaposed so easily in France. How the old-style houses are filled with modern conveniences, how sausage makers Tweet their upcoming market appearances, how young chefs like Mroczek have no problem preparing classic dishes such as his A?oli Garni according to tradition, even as his hip restaurant features contemporary art. I love the image, below, of the traditional Proven?al corner townhouse being rounded by an elderly gentleman and a youngster on a scooter. That’s Saveurs on the right.
And in spite of the fact that everywhere we went, we found delicious breads and cheeses and sausages (sitting out, unrefrigerated, too!), I am a bit concerned about some of the traditions disappearing, particularly in winemaking.The Baux-de-Provence appellation was granted in 1995, and it was the first AOC to require all vineyards to be biodynamic, largely because sprayed chemicals could be too readily dispersed in the gusty mistral. We found that the ros?s, made in stainless steel, but otherwise traditional blends of mostly cinsault, grenache, and syrah, were stellar wines, but many of the reds, as noted above, were below par. Much to our surprise, the Dalmeran included some cabernet sauvignon, which is being planted throughout the region, changing the character of the wines. We were disappointed that the winery was closed on Wednesdays, but we visited neighboring Mas de la Dame, where we bought a case of their more traditional ros? of 50% grenache, 30% syrah, and 20% cinsault. That became our house ros? for much of our stay.
The region is indescribably beautiful, with the Alpilles rising up majestically above acres and acres of vineyards and olive groves. Alas, the olives in Provence are not picked until the first week of December, so we weren’t able to have any of the fresh, new oils. In the storied village of Les Baux (so named because of the bauxite for aluminum that was mined there for eons), four tour buses of Japanese tourists were ascending the mount, so we drove on. I knew that Eygali?res would be more our speed.
As in Opp?de, the farther up into the hilltop village we climbed, the older the buildings. The 360o view towards Les Baux, the Alpilles, and the valleys that lie between the Rh?ne and the Durance Rivers were stunning. The town was oddly/typically quiet in the afternoon, an older couple reading the news in a town park overlooking Les Baux, but otherwise empty, the townsfolk wisely napping after their midday meal.
We saw a number of houses we fantasized owning. We drove home and drank more ros?, noshing on oysters and goodies from the market.
Arles and the Camargue
We had planned to spend my birthday in Marseille, but the strikes were on and the garbage was piled high and the traffic would have been insane, so we headed instead to Arles, with no real plan for the day. The mistral was blowing hard and it was downright cold, but we were charmed by the city, its remarkable antiquities, its handsome squares, its larger size. Yes, there was the inimitable Proven?al light and the expected yellows, blues, and greens of the late 17th-century buildings, but there was also a vast array of architectural wonders on every street, from the monumental Roman amphitheater, which they are restoring, not just preserving, to the important southern Romanesque Eglise St-Trophime on the Place de la R?publique, featuring some of the “best” — i.e., sickest — medieval carvings in Europe.
This bas relief of the kissing of the feet of the Christ child was enough to keep me out of the building. (Did I mention that Mikel and I both avoid churches?) The square is centered around the 50-foot-tall porphyry obelisk that was moved from the Circus Maximus, just outside the city walls, and now the location of the splendid Mus?e de l’Arles et de la Provence Antiques. The museum is one of the most interesting I’ve visited, with the world’s best collection of Roman sarcophagi. There was a huge exhibition of ancient treasures that had been removed from the Rh?ne at Arles, with intricate models showing how the area looked 2000 years ago.
We spent a couple of hours in the museum while the mistral died down, then headed south to the Camargue, hoping to see flamingos and the famous white horses. You can see in the photo of the amphitheater how it is being restored, matching the local stone. Concerts, plays, bullfights, and lectures are still held in the ancient building. The model, below, shows how it looked 2000 years ago, and how it will look when reconstruction is complete.
To the right, above, Aphrodite holds the apple, showing that she has won the Judgment of Paris.
Though Arles is considered one of the best places to eat in Provence, and we were hungry, I wanted to head south. We’ll definitely go back. A town of 55,000, Arles seems much more sophisticated that its size would imply, and there are Mannerist flourishes, such as this doorway with the spiral columns, as well as ultra-modern designs (such as the antiquities museum and the fancy shops). Mikel spent most of his time photographing the images of two well-known graffiti artists whose works were everywhere in the city. It was the first town we visited where the North African presence was highly visible.
(The window display says “I hate my high heels on cobblestones, walking under a ladder, the rain without an umbrella.)
I have been a bird-watcher all my life, so I have long known about the flamingos of the Camargue, the low, flat marshland that lies between the branches of the Rh?ne where it spills into the Mediterranean, and where flamingos nest. I also knew of the area because of its famous saltworks, its rice, and its white horses and black bulls, lorded over by rustic gardiens (French cowboys). But I knew little of the food of the area, and had read nothing indicating that there would be anywhere to eat other than a few touristy places down on the water at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. I was not prepared for the stunning similarity to the South Carolina lowcountry where I grew up, and as soon as we crossed the Rh?ne and headed south, the mistrals died and we began removing layer after layer of clothing. Immediately the landscape changed to a marshy plain, where upland rice was being harvested in field after field, and where the horses I came to love in the marvelous short film Chin Blanc from 1953 (White Mane by Albert Lamorisse, who became better known for his Red Balloon, 3 years later), were beginning to appear in the fields. The only sign of civilization marked on the map was the Mus?e Camarguais, which was set far off the road and which we easily passed. I was beginning to think that we would have to eat in an ice cream parlor when we finally reached the shore when I saw a building on the road that said “Auberge des Plaines.” Perfect, I thought. A country inn! Just what I want! But as I turned off the main drag onto the dusty road that cut between rice fields, there were a half dozen tractor-trailers lined up. “A truck stop,” Mikel groaned. “Some folks say they’re the best places to eat; some say the worst.” I wasn’t worried. We pulled into the parking lot and it was full of cars from Arles, and while there was a large table of truckers inside, there were also several tables of older couples and businessmen enjoying a leisurely lunch. Everyone was drinking carafes of ros? wine,
which I took as a good sign. The day had warmed considerably and I was looking forward to a glass myself. The place was homey and a bit kitschy inside. Posters of bulls and bullfighters (they do not kill the bulls in Proven?al bullfighting, and, in fact, the bulls go on to become national heroes — before ending up in stews such as the delicious daube that Mikel had) line the walls and shelves.
An aquarium next to our table needed cleaning. The two precious children of our gorgeous young hostess played in the tiled-floor dining room throughout our lunch. The menu of the day featured steak-frites, but we wanted truly local foods. After much prodding, I finally discovered the only two truly regional dishes on the menu — tellines and the daube aux taureaux camarguais. They were both excellent. The tellines, small coquina-like bivalves, were steamed with their version of a?oli, which was mostly just chopped garlic with white wine and olive oil (see Mikel’s cell phone image). Alan Davidson’s seminal Mediterranean Seafood says that this “wedge shell” (Donax trunculus) grows to 3.5cm (1.38 inches), but he gives the French as olive or haricots de mer. The Italian common name is tellina, so it’s not surprisingly that along the Proven?al coast, the name is basically the same. The daube was classic, slowly stewed and redolent of red wine, and served with the delicious local rice (also pictured in one of Mikel’s cell phone photos). Not bad for a truck stop! In the image of the little girl, you can see that we closed the restaurant — that is, we were the last to leave. We seemed to do this everywhere we went, which we took as another good sign — that we were truly relaxing on our honeymoon/vacation.
The ornithological park surrounds several marshy areas and the Espace Naturel Francis C. Fabre. I highly recommend it to anyone vaguely interested in the wildlife of the area. We saw hundreds, if not thousands, of flamingos and other wading and diving birds up close, as well as a beaver. The paths are easy to walk on, and there are excellent educational exhibits.
After walking for a couple of hours, we drove farther south where we saw the horses and the typical thatched roofs of the area, and then down farther to the shore, to see the Mediterranean, and the p?tanque players on the square in Saintes-Maries, then home to a simple birthday dinner of the chestnut-filled chestnut pasta that I had bought the day before in St-R?my, with a simple cream sauce. A perfect birthday!
A day at home, and a day in preparation for friends to arrive
We had driven a lot on my birthday, so we decided to spend Friday at home. We spent some time in the market in town, hoping to find luscious local foods that I would cook in the pizza oven, outdoors, in the full moon light. On Saturday, our friends were arriving to join us for our second week in Provence, and I wanted to have a dinner for them as well when they arrived, so we planned to relax on Friday, then get up early on Saturday and head to Apt, which has one of the best markets in the area.
Friday was a beautiful fall day. I had bought some disappointing p?t? and sausage from one of the local butchers, and we had had a mediocre meal in one of the tourist traps along the water in Isle sur la Sorgue, so when we walked in the giant supermarket on the outskirts of town to get some household goods, I was thrilled with the vast array of gorgeous produce, meats, and seafood, all labeled with provenance and harvest dates.
I couldn’t resist the plump little local poussins — actually coquelets, or baby roosters, the fresh-dug turnips, the leeks, and the tomatoes (still being grown outdoors, but with arched plastic greenhouse-like covers over the fields). We spent the rest of the day lying in the sun, reading. Come nightfall, I started building a fire in the oven, which was cold, and, I figured, hadn’t been used in awhile. Pizza ovens like to be used, to store their warmth.
Normally, I would slowly roast foods in an oven such as this, after the coals have died down, but when I finally got the fire going, I decided to go ahead and roast everything very hot, turning the pan often and removing items such as the leeks which cooked more quickly than the birds or turnips. Mikel took cell phone photos of the process and posted them on his Facebook page. I stole them from him. Local garlic, local salt (from the Camargue), local olive oil, and thyme from the yard rounded out the dish. Once again, the only ingredient that was not local was the black pepper I also used to season the birds.
The oak firewood we gathered from the property. After the fire had died down a bit, I pushed the coals to the rear of the oven. I peeled the turnips and placed everything in the pan and shoved it into the oven, turning it frequently. The turnips caramelized on the outside and I placed the birds over them. At the last minute, I splashed the pan with the delicious red wine we were drinking, and placed a big ripe C?ur de B?uf tomato into the hottest part of the oven to quickly roast while I carved the birds. I served it all over a bed of local greens. It was a wonderful meal.
Market Day in Apt
Apt is a famous market town in the heart of the Luberon, the self-proclaimed “world capital of crystallized fruits.” The town is absolutely charming, even though we arrived an hour before the market was beginning on a chilly, gray day. Its crystallized fruits, however, don’t hold a candle to those of Genoa. The market sprawls through the old city center, meandering through Renaissance squares and medieval alleys, under buttresses and around fountains. We saw hundreds of kinds of sausages, t-shirts (my favorite, which I bought for my mischevious 5-year-old godchild, says ”Enfant terrible” on it), mushrooms (including fresh truffles), oils and vinegars, scarves, tablecloths, tomatoes, cheeses, fruits (both fresh and crystallized), vegetables, breads, wines, and kitchenware.
Chestnuts, apples, pears and a world of beans were in season. We bought roast chickens from the excellent corner butcher, J. C. Malavard; Comt?, Cantal, and Tomme cheeses from a delightful couple from the mountains (pictured in another of Mikel’s cell phone images); and haricots verts, chanterelles, eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, and several kinds of sausages, including the famous donkey sausage from Arles. (Yes, it’s made from donkeys and, yes, it’s delicious. A bit sweet, like horsemeat and venison, but very tasty.)
We bought pears to have with the cheese. We snacked on olive-filled fougasse, a flatbread that changes character in every village. Many versions are no more than pizza dough, but in Apt and in one or two other towns, the fougasse was almost as flaky as a croissant. We bought delicious local wines, including a sparkler that was excellent, made with indigenous grapes. I had never heard of the appellation or the grapes before. I didn’t even bother to write it down (I took no notes on this trip), knowing that the vineyard is probably about 3 acres, max, and the wines are all sold locally. We bought some scarves for girlfriends, even though everywhere we went, it was the men – 15 to 65 — who were wearing elaborate, long scarves, wrapped around their necks several times, against the mistral.
On the way home, we stopped by another ancient Roman bridge, the Pont Julien, and drove on some back roads through beautiful countryside, the Luberon rising up to the south, the Vaucluse, to the north. Though tiny in comparison to the Pont du Gard, the Julien bridge, also built 2000 years ago, was similarly built using precisely hewn stones and no mortar, and, like its larger cousin to the west, it is still standing. When we got home, I began cooking, in preparation for our friends’ arrival.
First, I made some ratatouille, cooking the eggplant separately to toss in at the last minute. I also cooked chanterelles and green beans,separately, but to be tossed together (see photos).
When our friends finally arrived that evening, they were ready for drinks and food. I had a spread of regional goodies on the coffee table for them — sausage and crudit?s and olives and bruschetta, with locally cured anchovies, tapenade, tomato confit, dolmades, and sun-dried tomatoes.
We had a grand reunion, made a half-ass plan for the next day (with full intention of getting to at least one charming market town in time to buy goods for supper), ate roast chicken and salad and ratatouille and green beans, quaffed several bottles of wine, munched on chocolates and candies they had brought from Paris and Lyon, and hit the hay.
Sunday in Isle sur la Sorgue
Sunday is one of the big market days in Isle sur la Sorgue, but we were slow to get up and get going — getting 6 vacationing adults on the same time schedule and wavelength was a task none of us wanted. I even put my camera down for a couple of days, just to relax. (I carried a little video camera with me. See below.) I wrote earlier that I didn’t take notes on this trip, but, in fact, since I’m visually oriented, my photos are my notes. Most of these in this next batch are Mikel’s cell phone images. It was Larry’s (at left) birthday, so we wanted him to be happy. We got to to town as the food stalls were shutting down, called a restaurant that had come highly recommended not only by locals but also by the guidebooks, bought some bread (hot from the oven) and more cheeses and more mushrooms (Larry’s favorites!), some smoked salmon, and some more oysters, and stopped in an overpriced — and not very good — wine bar before walking to lunch at the delightful Le Jardin du Quai, a bistro tucked behind a high-walled garden across from the train station, right in the heart of the flea market capital. It had started to rain, so we were happy to be seated inside, but my heart sank when I saw that all six diners at the table next to us were being served the same thing at the same time. Damn! Another Sunday Brunch with a menu fixe! Oh well, the wines were good and the first course, a calamari salad, was delicious. I could have done without the ordinary chicken tagine with prunes, but, after dessert, I asked if the big jars of marshmallows were house-made, and they assured us they were, and they took some out and cut some pieces for us to enjoy. I’ve never seen THAT in the States before! Here’s a little video. That’s Ann’s laughter in the background.
We strolled through one of the more chichi antique malls, but it bored us all. We decided to head home and have a fun evening at home. We danced and laughed and Ann and Ed made a great meal of mostly leftovers for Larry’s birthday dinner. It was delicious.
The next day, we were very slow to get up, and just barely made it to the market in tiny Saint Didier, north of us, on the other side of the Vaucluse Plateau, which we had to drive over, passing this perched village, La-Roque-sur-Pernes, on the way. The views were stunning, and there were cherry trees, olives, and vineyards planted everywhere. I would love to return to Saint Didier, which has been named one of the best 100 market towns in France. I got in several interesting conversations, including one with a pasta maker who, again, thought I was Italian.
The market was different from others we had visited, with more of a rural craftsmen feel to it, though we were only a few miles away from sophisticated Carpentras, one of the two major truffles markets in France. The vendors were very friendly, perhaps because they were packing up and wanted to make final sales, but they were also giving us free herbs, additional tomatoes, and extra cuts of meat. I got into two conversations because of my bandaged fingers. One farmer insisted that his C?ur de B?uf tomatoes were the finest; he was delightful and funny but his tomatoes were less than perfect.
This man, who was also selling purple garlic, was caning chairs, and he continued to work after everyone else in the market had gone. He never once looked up from his work, even as I took several photos. I guess he was trying to finish up a job before he left town. He had an amazing face, and I wondered if he were Roma.
Tom, who is a restaurant critic (and whose face you won’t see here), grabbed the Pudlo (Gilles Pudlowski’s guidebooks are very well respected in France, though his taste tends to be a little fancy for me) and chose Chez Serge for lunch. Serge Ghoukassian is of Armenian descent and he could not be more welcoming or professional. He began his career as a pizza maker, expanded into his current ancient dwelling that he has restored and tricked out in subtle shades of grays and browns, and is now well-known for his extensive selection of Ventoux vintages, his all-truffles menus, and, naturally, his pizzas. It was another cool day, and pizza sounded great to me, but when we arrived, he had a sign out front apologizing for no pizzas that week. Everything I tasted was delicious, but the service was completely inept. One server didn’t even know that they weren’t serving pizza; another, who professed to know her local wines, suggested a local white that was insipid at best. Truffles were in everything, from the omelets and caillettes (caul-wrapped house-make fresh sausage patties — see photo) to the floating island desserts! They were on everything as well, including the fish dishes. Truffles on scallops, under fish, in tarts and risottos and salads. It was all good, though I ordered my scallops with a shellfish reduction instead and could not bring myself to taste the ?le Flotante. As a matter of course, they brought a big bowl of mashed potatoes, groaning under a heavy dusting of grated truffles, to the table. They were scrumptious!
Everything was perfectly cooked, Tom’s turbot so perfectly so by the time he got to the center of the fish, which was expertly ever-so-slightly undercooked, it had finished cooking in the meantime. That takes a very artful hand in the kitchen. In the photos below: Ann’s omelet, my scallops, and Tom’s mushroom tart..
But, alas, soups didn’t come, the bills were screwed up, and when we asked which local wineries we could visit, Serge, ever the gentleman, told us that there weren’t any that were open. I found that odd, but he then said that he could take us to a nearby winery where the young winemakers were well on their way to becoming famous. Unfortunately, the wines were undrinkable, even though they were using temperature-controlled stainless steel vats. Our Italian winemaker friend Paola, whom we would see later in the week in Toulon, said that it’s the nasty manure they use as fertilizer. I’m tempted to believe her. We got home just as the sun was setting over our neighbors’ vineyards at Domaine de la Gasqui, and they let us in to sample their wines. We had been told by our realtor that the wines were good, but by our landlady, who is a gourmand, that they were ordinary at best. We bought a magnum of their perfectly balanced 2007, but the last of her 2005s that we bought were corked. Does all the good stuff come to America?!
Everyone loves Aix, which has been a college town now for 600 years! There are markets on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays in the delightful Place Verdun, which you can reach through an ancient arched passageway off Cours Mirabeau, the celebrated main street lined with majestic plane trees and moss-covered fountains. I could kick myself for not buying some of the ”hotel silver” priced at 1 Euro/piece, but we were again late to the market, and we were hungry. As soon as I handed the Pudlo to Tom, I knew that we would be having lunch in the Michelin one-starred Le Clos de la Violette, which all the guidebooks rave about. Pudlowski, who normally reviews a restaurant in one or two lines, includes several sentences devoted to Chef/Owner Jean-Marc Banzo’s history before he even mentions the cuisine. He begins, “Artist Banzo is in excellent form.” When I called to see if they could accommodate a table for six, they said no problem, but we would have to be there before the last seating at 1:30. It was 12:45 when I called; the restaurant was a fifteen minute walk away. When we entered the modern villa set in a walled garden atop a hill, Banzo greeted us in chefs’ whites. I asked him if he were the chef de cuisine and he said yes. The menus we were offered named another head cook, but the website, which pictures a younger Banzo, names no other chefs. As we perused the $50 appetizers, a couple without reservations entered the restaurant and asked to be seated “away from the crowds,” although I’m not sure which “crowds” they meant, since the main dining room, which seats 50, was divided by partitions, and there were all of three tables of diners in the restaurant at the time. Banzo led the celebrities to another room, where he joined them at table and where he remained for the rest of our two hour lunch. I now read that he has lost one of his former stars. I’m not surprised. The food was fussy and bland; the service was ordinary. It was just the sort of place I despise, resting on its laurels instead of its craft; more concerned with art and design than with taste and hospitality. The best two dishes were two we didn’t order: the amuse-bouche of the regional artichoke puree (on the left), which any local bistro could turn out as a matter of course, and the jellies, cookies, and nougats that came to the table after the disappointing desserts. My appetizer of mushrooms and ch?vre (left) was poorly conceived and executed, Tom’s lamb chops were uninspired, and they managed to make my poulet de Bresse with artichokes and potatoes (right) taste like industrial American chicken breast. I wonder if they thought that that was a clever pun. As I have written above, the French are inordinately proud, and they have a long history of overintellectualizing everything, food included. Give me Jean-Pierre Mroczek’s a?oli any day over the pretentious fare at Le Clos. The worst thing that happened, though, was that while Tom and I explained to the sommelier that we wanted local, typical wines, what he poured us for red was mostly cabernet sauvignon! There we were, a few miles from Bandol, and we were served an international style, unbalanced wine with too much forward fruit, too much alcohol, and little character. Banzo has opened a new resort on the water at Cassis. I’m sure the nouveau riche will line up and be pampered in their rooms away from the crowds, but I wonder how long he will be able to keep his single star, his stainless steel staircase and ultra-modern powder rooms notwithstanding.
Aix is delightful, both ancient and modern at once, the way many university towns are. The Place d’Albertas, picutred above, is my new favorite of dozens of favored European squares. But I also loved the sleek, massive, fortresss-like new theater (left) that rises up above a modern shopping complex off the Place du G?n?ral de Gaulle, and how they have filled the underground with parking garages (which I advise you to immediately enter if you are driving). The town of 150,000 has more arts and music festivals and better shopping than anywhere else in Provence. I’ll go back. After our $250 lunches, though, all we wanted was to go home to a simple pasta dinner, with a local mourv?dre tamed with a little grenache. And that’s exactly what we did!
La Gr?ve, Marseille, and Toulon
The newspapers were all filled with the headlines: Marseille is ruining France! Millions of euros were lost because of the strikes (la gr?ve). Tom and Ed had to leave a day early since the trains weren’t running on Thursday, when they had dinner plans in Paris. Mikel and I got up early on Wednesday, took the guys to the train station, and headed south to Toulon, where we were meeting our Genoese friends Gianni and Paola for lunch. Gianni was finishing up his installation of a major exhibition of the work of Florence Henri at the H?tel des Arts de Toulon. Since it was a beautiful day, and in spite of the strikes, we decided to drive into Marseille,
which is on the way to Toulon. Having always loved tawdry port cities like Genoa and Naples and Baltimore and New Orleans, I have long wanted to visit Marseille. I figured if I could stand it during its worst traffic problems and with trash on the streets, I’d really love it when it was functioning well. I was not disappointed, and the trash and traffic didn’t even bother me. En route, we drove down to L’Estaque, the little fishing village west of town immortalized in many impressionist paintings. The bridge was being repaired and the road was blocked, but we drove on anyway through the dramatic landscape, unlike any we had yet seen, down to the shore, where, looking out over the vast Marseille harbor, we could see dozens of anchored ships, unable to unload their cargo because of the strikes. I read that the stevedores work 18-hour weeks and are paid 4000 euros/month (as compared to the 1500/month that the average concierge makes, working twice as long).
We didn’t spend long since we knew that our final day would be in Marseille, but we figured out where we wanted to park and some of the things we wanted to see when we returned. Like many cities throughout the world, there is graffiti everywhere. I find it mostly disturbing not only because it shows a lack of respect for others’ property but also because it’s rarely original nor in any way does it enhance its setting or the human experience. I include the photo of the graffiti above, which hovered over a public park that was filled with dog droppings, not because of the work itself, but for the official sign that says that “undesirables are forbidden”!
There was much to like, not the least, the people, who were genuinely courteous. We passed Val?ry’s house (left, with the duvets hanging out the windows, airing) and met the man who owns it (“It belonged to his girlfriend, whose descendants I knew.”) There was the golden Proven?al light we had come to love, the beautiful Mediterranean, and a cosmopolitan vibe we hadn’t yet encountered inland (with more than a million residents, it’s France’s second largest city). There were fancy shops and art galleries right next to junk stores and bars. There were impressive ruins and the old port, whose main street one guidebook described as “the seediest in France.” The city is a quarter North African, and I could smell the spicy stews all along the quays where even the tourist traps are said to serve some of the best food in France.
Toulon, about 40 miles east of Marseille, could not be more different. Though the city of 170,000 headquarters the French Navy, the shipbuilding yards have been closed, and all along the port there are dozens and dozens of bricked up former bars — The Tennessee Bar, The Kentucky Bar, The Iroquois Bar, The Irish Pub, Il Niolo (Corsican). Though the city is immaculately clean and there were designer shops and nice restaurants both along the waterfront and in the old city center, there was something a bit sad about the town, as though it had lost its soul. It just didn’t seem to have a vibe of its own, in spite of its beauty and old-school charm. The Belle Epoque H?tel des Arts, originally an administrative building, is a grand space to hold art exhibitions. It reminded me a bit of the Gibbes Art Gallery in Charleston, built at about the same time.
All of the interior space of the gallery has been painted white, the ceilings are high, and the floors are light-colored marble. We met the director, Gilles Altieri, an accomplished artist himself, and got a private viewing of the just-hung show. Having roomed with Gianni, whose gallery in Genoa owns most of Henri’s work, for two years back in the 80s, just after her death, I have long known and admired her work in several media. But Mikel was not familiar with it, and I had never seen a show in which photos, collages, paintings, and even a quilt were included. It is a masterful exhibition of an unfortunately not-well-known but important artist. Here we are with Gianni and Paola.
While Gianni worked, we walked around the old part of the city, down to the water, where we found the postwar apartment buildings delightful with their original modernist designs and colors (left). But Paola agreed that there just seemed to be a je-ne-sais-quoi lacking in the town. We were so glad to see our friends, whom we last saw last winter when they arrived on the day of the biggest snowstorm in Washington’s history. We were basically trapped indoors with my cooking for a week. In Toulon, we went to a restaurant near the gallery/museum and feasted on bouillabaise-like soup, which was delicious.
A perfect day in Ch?teauneuf-du-Pape
You may have drunk your weight many times over in Rh?ne Valley wines; you may have read, the way I did, a score of guidebooks, memoirs, cookbooks, and novels about the area; you may have studied the impressionists’ paintings of Mont Ventoux; you may well be a scholar of papal history or viticulture; but nothing, I dare say, quite prepares you for the stunning beauty of the town of Ch?teauneuf-du-Pape and its surrounding vineyards, nor the superior quality of its wines compared to the other red and white wines of the region.
We approached the area from the east, and there was no doubt that we were entering sacred ground. Yes, the village was once the country seat of the Avignon popes, but what immediately became clear was that the region had the best tended vineyards we had seen in our entire two weeks. Grown in ground covered with large stones (see photo, left), the grapes absorb the Proven?al sun that is reflected up from the rocks, developing an abundance of sugars, leading to powerful wines of high alcohol content. Those of you who know my wine writing know that I am not a fan of the new international style of winemaking that sees too much fruit, too much oak, and too much alcohol way too far up front in wines,
characteristics that have evolved as grapes are grown in areas that are simply too hot for traditional European varieties. In Ch?teauneuf-du-Pape, however, they have long made robust wines that are so well-balanced, I think, because they blend as many as 13 varieties to get the mix they want. Radishes are planted in the vineyards to ward off insects (white flowers at right). The closer to the actual hilltop village we got, the more dramatic the settings. Domaine Mousset’s storybook Ch?teau des Fines Roches (Castle of the Little Rocks), pictured below, is distinguished by the smaller stones in its vineyards.
There are vineyards in every direction. We were arriving, as usual, late for lunch, so we rushed up into the village and grabbed a table at the first caf? we saw, on the town square. We ordered snails (fresh, not canned, and garlicky and tender, not rubbery at all) for the table, and everyone but me ordered a pizza. I got the Proven?al cold plate and it was just what I was craving.
The 2009 Jean Deydier & Fils Ch?teauneuf-du-Pape Blanc we drank was sublime, a distinctive blend of several indigenous white grapes (35% grenache blanc, 35% bourboulenc, 30% clairette). (The reds can include red or white grapes.) After lunch we began visiting caves, tasting wines, and climbing to the top of the hill where the ruins of the popes’ old castle commands an unparalleled view of the Rh?ne Valley, Mont Ventoux, and the Vaucluse. We bought their top-of-the-line Elisabeth Chamellan Vielles Vignes red from Emilie Boisson (left) of the Domaine du P?re Caboche (about $30). It was lusicous. The white we bought, produced by sisters Catherine (horticulturist) and Sophie (winemaker) Armenier of Domaine de Marcoux, was a revelation of sorts, especially since we hated their reds. The 2009 (about $65) is made mostly from roussane grapes, and is elegant, mineral-laden, floral, peachy, and full-bodied, like a great white burgundy.
I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a day of travel more. Just look at this amazing view of Mont Ventoux, complete with lavender shutters!
Of course the best part was my traveling companions, Mikel, Ann, and Larry. Nothing like sharing great experiences and food and wine with dear friends.
We had picked up fresh local sausages and vegetables — cauliflower and tomatoes and just-dug potatoes from a market, so when we got home, I built a fire while Ann made a salad, then I roasted them all in the oven after the coals died down, with some apples tucked into the side of the oven to have for dessert.
The wines loved the rustic food, and we loved both.
Our final two days in Provence
Schools run throughout the year in France but, in addition to the public or “bank” holidays such as the usual Christian holidays and Bastille Day and Armistice Day, schools are closed five times each year, on a rotating schedule, with the country divided into three holiday zones so that everyone in the country is not vacationing with kids at the same time. The holidays are mimicked in American private academies: the ski holiday of winter, spring break, summer (usually all of July and August), All Saints (last week of October and first week of November), and Christmas/New Year’s. Many shops throughout the region were closed for the holiday our last week in Provence, especially child-friendly places such as pizza parlors. We were all getting up early on Saturday, Ann and Larry to drive to Lyon to catch their flight home, and Mikel and I headed back to Marseille, where we would spend our final day and night before flying home Sunday morning. We really hadn’t given Isle sur la Sorgue a fair chance, and it does have its charm, not the least of which that it actually is an island in the middle of the river, a sort of miniature Venice. It’s also flat, so walking around takes little effort. We spent part of the day there, eating a simple lunch and really not shopping at all. We planned to eat leftovers our final evening in the house. And, boy, did we! Ann had made a rich stock with the bird carcasses from earlier in the week, and we added just about everything else we had in the house to the soup — more of the fire-roasted sausages, tomatoes, cauliflower, potatoes, and eggplant from the night before, the last of the mushroom-filled ravioli — and garnished with heavy gratings of parmesan. And another bottle of both the white and the red Ch?teauneuf-du-Pape! It was an indescribably delicious meal, however bittersweet that it was our last.On our way home that afternoon, we did stop in Saint Antoine at the glassblower’s we had been passing every day for two weeks, and picked up some little bowls for nuts.
That afternoon I walked around the property several times, trying to remember the sights and smells and textures that were decidedly Provence. This new olive grow that our landlady had recently put in made me think of the hope that is written in the wind.
I knew that I would some day return, perhaps even to live, but in the meantime, I still had one more day of adventures forthcoming in Marseille.
Alas, rain, as much as an inch, was predicted for Saturday, so we got on the road as quickly as we could. I wanted to walk around the city all day, wearing myself out, so that the plane ride home wouldn’t be quite so treacherous. In spite of nearly everything we had heard and read about Marseille, it continually surprised and delighted us. There’s something a bit grand about it, but it’s not nearly as overwhelming as Naples or Genoa, and not as seedy as most ports. It was actually somewhat tame, even though the strikes were still on and the garbage was still piled high.
The old port and the major thoroughfares had been cleaned, but none of the side streets — not even in front of the Louis Vuitton store — had been cleared of the refuse. Most of the art galleries simply were not open.
We immediately parked in an underground garage upon arriving in Le Vieux Port and walked first around the waterfront, talking to the fishermen who were selling their catch.
Their fish were beautiful, but their faces and accents were even more captivating. Of course, having been reared on a boat, I have long loved fish cookery, and I was dying to take some fish home and cook it, but that was not to be. Several of the vendors had pulled their fish up in nets and stored them in live holds aboard; they were selling fish that were still swimming. One man had the biggest spiny lobsters I’ve ever seen in the Mediterranean; his wife was on her cell phone trying to sell them to restaurants (photo on the left, below). The man on the far right, above, was proud to announce that all his fish were line-caught. And the youngest fisherman I met, who was astounded when I asked him where he fished (He answered, “L’Etang,” as though I must have lost my marbles — where else would he have fished?!), had most of the now rare ingredients for genuine bouillabaise. The 1979 Charte de la Bouillabaise Marseillaise, drawn up and signed by eleven of the most venerable and well-respected restaurants, demands that at least four of these fish be included: rascasse, chapon, galinette, Saint Pierre, monkfish, and conger eel. The younger fisherman had all of them except the monkfish, which was widely availabe in the market. One vendor was selling only the heads (see photo, below, at far right).
The fish market alone made me want to return.We walked all over the city for several hours before the rain started. Tourist stands and shops offered the famous soap of Marseille in just about every color, shape, and scent you could imagine. Designer clothiers were next door to junk stores. Kebab and couscous take-outs shared the block with elegant restaurants. I liked the democratic feel of the place, even when the wind would carry the stench of the garbage in our direction. There were outdoor art exhibits and museums and young and old in the streets, probably even more families than usual given the school holiday and the fact that it was Saturday. We walked up the hill to the west of the port into the now trendy Panier neighborhood and had lunch in a small husband- and wife-run place whose homemade desserts were stellar. We finally got to taste the incomparable, icy cold local white wine, Cassis, which some have called the best white wine in the world. Simple, dry, fresh, and with enough minerals to balance the delicate fruit, I have to admit that nothing could have better complemented our suppions (baby cuttlefish).
After lunch we decided we better head out to Cap Croisette if we wanted to see one of the little fishing villages before the rains started in earnest. Though we had had our hearts set on exploring the calanques, the little bays accessible only by foot, there was no way we were going to hike in the rain, and driving along the famous cliff-hanging twists and turns of the road to Cassis and La Ciotat, which we all know from James Bond films, would just have to wait until our next visit.
Cap Croisette is a peninsula south of the city that juts into the Mediterranean, ending with a final, rocky exclamation point of an island (see photo, below). In the village of Les Goudes we passed both Le Tibouren de Ma?re and L’Escale, famous eateries that were both closed. Thank goodness we ate in town. It began pouring rain as soon as we got back in the car. It was all we could do to stand up in the wind off the point. It was beautiful, but it was time to get to our hotel room and call it a day. What a wonderful trip it had been.