Welcome to The Aix-Files

Thanks for checking out The Aix-Files, my

blog postings inspired by my time in and around

Aix-en-Provence and the Vaucluse. The spot includes travel tips,

discoveries of local food and wine, recipes,

cultural events, interviews and historical

tidbits about Southern France. Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Good King René

The famous Les Deux Garçons on the cours Mirabeau
The cours Mirabeau all decked out

Hotel des Augustins decorated for the holidays

Mime taking a smoke break
Bagpiper in the street

The famous calissons of Aix

Good King René
 Good King René has a disco ball above his head.  Nevertheless, his statue is regal, standing at the end of the cours Mirabeau. Next to him there is a big Christmas tree spray-painted white, and next to it is a colourful merry-go-round blaring songs by Edith Piaf on a loud-speaker.

When it is not Christmas season he is much more austere.  Since we have been living on the boulevard du Roi René for these past few months, I thought I should really find out more about him.  He is called Roi René le bon – The Good.  This 15th Century monarch was the son of Louis II, Duke of Anjou, who founded the University in Aix.  René retired to Aix-en-Provence where he was appreciated for improving the city’s administration.  He also wrote poetry and novels and supported and encouraged artistic life in the city, which puts him pretty high in my books. He is responsible for annexing Provence to the republic of France, although the town refused to accept the centralist policies of the French Monarchy for two centuries.

Historical treasures are hidden in the most unlikely places in Aix. If you walk into the Sephora makeup shop in a little alleyway near the Place des Prêcheurs, for example, you can climb up past the rows of lipstick and nailpolish to see some of the arches of King René's chapel, well-preserved, if oddly displayed.

St. Sauveur Cathedral contains a beautiful triptych by Nicolas Froment, commissioned by King René in 1476, which has recently been restored and is now visible behind a glass wall.   In the centre panel is an image of the burning bush.  On the left is King René, praying, on the right is his bride, Jeanne.  She has a noticeably severe expression on her face, perhaps unsure about her marriage to this rather corpulent aging man.  But in fact, Queen Jeanne was known for her lack of levity.  That is, until someone served her a calisson, the favourite confection of Aix-en-Provence.  Apparently after taking her first bite, she burst into a smile and the calisson is now made in the shape of it.  Hopefully that was the first of many pleasures she experienced as queen.

It has been such a wonderful experience watching the market change through the season.  The peaches of August turned into persimmons, then turned into clementines.  Eggplants have been replaced by pumpkins and hunks of squash.  Old-fashioned root vegetables, like tompinambours, or Jerusalem artichokes (or sun chokes) now fill the baskets.

Here is a lovely first course - salty, sweet and juicy. First, look for extremely ripe persimmons, on the verge of exploding.  Carefully transport them home (otherwise, buy firmer ones and let them ripen at home, even for a week or more). Again very carefully, cut through the flesh, bottom to top, then cut out the thick stem.

For each serving you will need a half a persimmon and a paper-thin slice of jambon cru or prosciutto.  Wrap the persimmon in the cloak of jambon, trimming to make it look elegant.  Decorate it with a leaf of basil or parsley.  Drizzle a fragrant honey on and around it and sprinkle a bit of piment d’Espelette for added pizzazz.  Bon appétit.
And a Happy New Year to all!

A la prochaine,
Persimmon in a regal cloak

Friday, December 24, 2010

Les Treize Desserts

Yes, that’s thirteen desserts. Dessert is not normally a big deal in Provence. But Christmas Eve is the exception, when the thirteen desserts are presented after midnight mass. The number is important because it represents Jesus and the twelve apostles.

The desserts in fact are very simple: clementines and pears; dates; prunes; black nougatv(pictured here); white nougat; pompe a l’huile (olive oil cake - pictured above); calissons; candied fruit; also the four beggars, or mendiants, representing the various religions: the figs representing the grey robes of the Fransicans; the dried raisins representing the dark robes of the Augustinians; the almonds representing the Dominicans or the Carmelites; also walnuts or hazelnuts.

All of these are on display presently at the local marché de treize desserts – a huge tent offering these desserts, and much more, such as vin cuit (‘cooked wine’) into which the pompe should be dipped; as well as other specialities, such as boudin blanc aux truffes (white sausage with truffle) and écrivisses, or crayfish, live or cooked.

Last Sunday, as part of the Christmas festivities, we rushed to the afternoon concert in the cours Mirabeau featuring a traditional group from Arles (see photos) playing the typical drums and whistles, also guitars, bagpipes, trumpets and violins. It was exhilarating. They processed formally down the street, stopping every once in awhile to play for 15 minutes or so, then processed back again.

There were literally hundreds of people out on the street, taking it all in. We are loving the spirit of the season with the lights and the little chalets, the festive crowds and the santon market.

E-mails are currently flying back and forth across the pond: Mom sending me her perogy recipe, Peter asking for Jim’s wild mushroom recipe, Mom asking for my fruit compote recipe, Corinne sending me her borscht recipe. We are all figuring out how to do our traditional meal without actually being together.

In Provence, “le gros souper” is served before midnight mass. Even though it is called “gros”, it was traditionally a meal of seven meagre dishes based around an anchoiade (anchovy purée) with some vegetables like cauliflower, cardoons, celery root and artichokes. Also some cod. Today the tradition has become very elaborate, with lots of “coquillage” (seafood). Laurent, my poissonier, has a splendid display of oysters, clams, mussels, scallops, crab, and lobster and – much to our joy – razor clams.

We are planning a kind of mish-mash of traditional Ukrainian dishes and Provençal dishes. For example, we don’t have smoked goldeye or my mother’s fish balls. However we have ready to go the said razor clams, also some oursins (sea urchins) and some quenelles of sandre (something like pike) that we purchased at the market. That means we are combining the twelve meatless dishes from our tradition with thirteen Provençal desserts. Wish us luck.

-Picked up a fresh foie gras that I ordered from “the bird man” in the market – actually the bird couple - who are wonderful people. But now my job is to de-nerve it. I’m very nervous.
-Bought the fresh beets for borscht from Celine, my favourite vegetable vendor at the market (fresh ones are actually hard to come by, as they are often sold already cooked).
-Ordered my pintade, or guinea fowl, for Christmas Day, also from the bird man. We plan to stuff it with chestnuts and place slices of truffle under the skin.
-Climbed Montagne Sainte-Victoire again with a French group, this time from the Bimont Dam.
-Attended a fantastic concert featuring the Corsican group Barbara Fortuna (no, Barbara is not a woman, this is another all-male band).
-Spent some pleasant evenings with new friends.
-Added a handsome fisherman to our collection of santons.
-Decided not to buy our calissons at Bechard on Christmas Eve (see photo).
-Strolled through the busy streets, soaking it all in.

Best wishes to all for a happy and peaceful Christmas.

Joyeux noel tout le monde!

Andrea & Jim

Christmas Santons

Michael couldn’t have been less interested in the santons. When the family was visiting, Mom suggested we make an excursion to Aubagne, a town about a half an hour from Aix, near Marseille, where they make these cute little clay figurines that decorate the Provençal crèches at Christmastime. She thought 11-year-old Michael would be excited to see them. Well at least Mom and I enjoyed the elaborate display at La Petite Monde de Marcel Pagnol. Aubagne, it turns out, is also the home of Marcel Pagnol, author of those wonderfully evocative stories like Jean de Florette et Manon des Sources. All of his stories and movies are set in the Garlaban, the hills behind Aubagne dotted with rosemary, thyme and scrubby oak. In the spring I will look forward to hiking in his footsteps. On this particular excursion, we appreciated the amazing craftsmanship of the artisans who built vast landscapes and set them with santons to recreate the various scenes from Pagnol stories. Among them were a humpbacked Gerard Dépardieu, and Yves Montand in a vest and hat (like Jim's, above), just as they appeared in the movie Jean de Florette.

The tradition of santons dates back to the time of the Revolution, when the custom of presenting pastoral plays was banned. An artist from Marseille cleverly decided to recreate the story with clay figurines. The tradition spread and now santons are a treasured part of every Provençal household.

Here in Aix there is a whole market devoted to the santons, with literally thousands on display. In these days just before Christmas, it’s hard to nudge your way in for a close look, as all of the Aixois are busy adding to their collections. The tradition is to build a crèche tableau little by little every year. It’s still fun to push your way through the crowd, as it’s so festive and it is simply impossible to wipe the smile off your face. I received my first tiny santon, a woman selling calissons (the favourite confection of Aix) at our first Christmas party.

Jim and I decided to exchange santons for Christmas. He now has a tambourinaire named Guillaume. He is well-dressed, à la mode arlésienne. He plays the galoubet (provençal flute with three holes), and the tambourin (long field drum with snare). He is the master of the farandole of the santons and of provençal folklore. He is happy and caring and generous with his talents. He performs morning and night and encourages others to promenade along with him.

I have a santon of a woman selling lavender. She is dressed in blue – with a bonnet – with a bunch of lavender in her arm. And my newest gift is a santon of la femme au berceau, a peasant woman, carved and painted in amazing detail, including beautiful eyelashes and a flowing apron with tiny decorations. She had heard about the birth of a baby in the straw and was one of the first to arrive on the scene. She had been so moved she brought as a gift the most useful and the most precious object that she owned: a cradle, her son's cradle, which she offered with her memories and the love of a mother.

“WHERE CAN I FIND CARNATION EVAPORATED MILK IN AIX-EN-PROVENCE?” - my recent entry on google. No luck. Since we’re in France, I generally seek out local Provençal recipes. But for that particular party from my French class that I mentioned above, we were each asked to bring a gift and a dish from our home country. Our offering was my Mom’s famous perogies requiring Carnation milk. I made do with French cream mixed with some milk and it worked out just fine.

On the appointed evening, we all met at the apartment of a friend of one of the teachers, who is a midwife. So the rooms were decorated with interesting anatomical posters. The meal started with toasts with tapenade, caviar d'aubergine,and gougères, all presented by our teachers, Chantal and Fabienne. Then they passed around a shrimp ring (Holland) and potato latkes (US). I asked when the main course would be served, and, it turned out, the perogies were the main course. Which everyone loved. They were followed by cookies (Germany) and Irish Coffee (Ireland). We even attempted a sing-along with some French Noels.

We also attended two other Christmas parties with our new French friends. I brought perogies again, and now everyone is demanding “la recette des raviolis”.

RECIPE OF THE WEEK: MOM’S FAMOUS PEROGIESMom developed and perfected this recipe when we were very young. As Fridays were traditionally meatless, she always made perogies stuffed with potato and cheese. They are still one of our favourite dishes on Christmas Eve. Her dough is amazingly supple. Her trick – now revealed to all – is to double-roll the dough. This means, you roll out the dough, cut out circles with a small juice cup, then roll the circles out again to make them extra-thin. So in the end, you have lots of delicious filling without a heavy dough.

I made a full recipe recently and it made around 13 dozen or so (I didn’t actually count), but it should be enough for 25 for Christmas Eve dinner.

You could halve the recipe if you have fewer than 25 guests.

It is good to have at least one helper for this project, or preferably a team: someone to grate the cheese while you mash the potatoes (or push them through a food mill, as I did, since we don’t have a potato masher), and someone to stuff and pinch the perogies while you roll out and roll the dough again.

One of my favourite memories is our Sunday before Christmas making the perogies – Mom, Corinne and me. Normally Mom makes the filling a day in advance, so it has a chance to chill. Then on Sunday we listen to Euro-Radio Christmas all day on CBC Radio and roll, double roll, stuff and pinch. The other helper is Dad, who transports trays of the perogies to the freezer. When they are solid they can be bagged and held in the freezer for the big day. Jim arrives later to do the wushky, the tiny mushroom-filled ones, that get dropped into the borscht.

5 lbs potatoes (2.2 kg)
Two large onions, chopped finely and fried in a bit of butter
1&1/2 lbs of grated cheese, like old cheddar [here in France I used 1&1/4 lb of cantal mixed with some comté]
Boil, drain and mash potatoes. Add onions and cheese while the potatoes are hot.
S & P as needed.
Taste – it should be very flavourful.

This mixture must cool in the fridge before filling.

6 Cups flour
2 tsp salt
1/2 Cup butter
2 1/2 Cups Carnation Evaporated Milk

Mix flour and salt in large bowl.
Add butter, cut into small pieces, and work in with your fingertips,
as you would for pie dough, until it is grainy.
Add milk and work into flour with a wooden spoon,
and then by hand, just to bring it together in a ball.
Cover and let rest for about 20 minutes.

Then make the perogies in batches. Cut off a manageable pieces of dough, roll it out on a floured surface. Cut out small circles with a juice glass. Then re-roll them to make them extra thin.

To fill the perogies: hold a circle in one hand, put a rounded spoonful of filling in with the other hand, then pinch it closed, very carefully, very tightly, being sure not to rip the dough and being careful that there are no air-holes, dusting your fingers with flour as you go (this helps the seal). Lay the perogies on baking sheets lined with a dish cloth dusted with flour. Cook immediately or freeze.

TO COOK: Bring a huge pot of water to boil. Add salt. Carefully drop in the perogies, 1 or 2 dozen at a time. Wait for them to come to a boil. Reduce heat so they simmer gently. When they rise to the surface, wait three minutes, then remove them with a slotted spoon – carefully – to a casserole waiting with a bit of melted butter in it.
Meanwhile, cook lots of chopped green onion gently in a small sauté pan with some butter. As you transfer the perogies to the casserole, spoon in some onion and butter. This is not a diet dish, so be sure you add enough butter to prevent the perogies from sticking to each other. Continue this process, using enough casserole dishes (you don’t want the perogies to be loaded in too thickly). You can keep the casseroles in a warm oven or wrapped in towels or blankets, shaking vigorously occasionally to keep them loose. Serve with sour cream, or crème fraîche if you are in France.


What we have been doing lately:
- Attended an English carol service at St. Sauveur Cathedral, probably the only English event we will seek out this year. The church was jammed to the rafters and it was very beautiful. We were all given candles when we arrived and at the end, while we sang Silent Night, they turned out all of the lights and some people walked through the church, lighting one candle in each row. Then everyone passed the light on to a neighbour, and by the time the carol ended, the church was fully lit.
-Went to our first truffle festival of the season in Rognes, about 20 km away. It was an extraordinary event with hundreds of vendors selling mountains of truffles.
-Visited the Aix Christmas Market every day, at all times of the day. While it is disappointingly commercial (aromatherapy and Venetian masks are among the offerings), it is still very atmospheric and enchanting, especially once it turns dark and the little wooden shacks are all lit up.

A la prochain,

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Jim and his Mushrooms

Some people have been wondering what Jim has been up to, aside from taking some of the photos for the blog. Well mostly, he’s been busy writing music. What does that mean? Well it is a long process involving several steps. He generally begins each piece by pacing around the apartment and the garden for several days, or even weeks. Fortunately the surroundings here are both beautiful and stimulating. The he sits down and starts writing, then rejecting, writing, rejecting. Fortunately, now that he composes on computer, rather than manuscript paper, the recycle bin fills up less quickly. Finally some ideas stick and he really gets down to work. And then it is hard to peel him away. Unless, of course, it’s market day. Well every day is market day here, but on certain days he knows he is sure to find the large stall of wild mushrooms, his biggest passion after music. He’ll happily spend the better part of an hour chatting with the vendor and examining the specimens before buying.

Otherwise, we take excursions out of town a few days a week, even for just an hour or two, to discover something big or small. The other day, for example, as part of Jim’s birthday celebration, we went to the Camargue to watch the thousands of amazing pink flamingos as they get ready for mating season. And lately Jim’s been letting me drag him to all of the adorable Christmas markets in the neighbouring towns. (He draws the line, however, at attending events with people wearing bonnets and costumes.) The other day, the Christmas market in Lourmarin was tiny but not too shabby, as they were offering the first truffles of the season. Jim left with visions of truffled scrambled eggs dancing in his head.

He also chose the restaurant to celebrate his birthday, La Petite Maison in Cucuron, on the southern slope of the Luberon. The town itself is a delight, with a pretty church, a creative display of crèches through the old town (some rather avant garde) and an elegant pond, or étang, in the town centre, surrounded by tall plane trees. This is where the restaurant is located. It is unpretentious from the outside – I wandered around the whole square twice before finding it. But inside it is cozy and warm, with a very limited menu focusing on – guess what – wild mushrooms. In fact, at least three of the courses featured the first of the winter truffles. Jim declared it to be possibly his best meal of the year.

Chef Eric Sapet wisely offers just two menus, so you know everything is absolutely fresh and made-to-order. We started with a pumpkin soup with crayfish from the Camargue garnished with truffles. That was followed by a fillet of rouget (red mullet) on a bed of girolles (what we call chanterelles at home), with walnuts and croutons. Then lièvre royale, which is hare stuffed with foie gras dotted with truffles, served in a red-wine sauce and garnished with more truffles. It was over-the-top melt-in-your-mouth and glorious.

Your waiter clears your plate and asks “Ça a été?” That means “It was?” which doesn’t mean anything. But it stands for “Was it good/satisfying/delicious?” Hopefully the response is “Oui”.

One of the offerings in the market this time of year is pumpkin or squash sold by the chunk. How ingenious! Because you’d never know what to do with a whole pumpkin, but sold in manageable pieces like this makes it so inviting.

This is a very simple soup, so it’s important to have an interesting garnish, otherwise it could be rather boring.

Start with about 800 g. of pumpkin or squash, in one piece or in smaller pieces. My favourite variety around here is the vividly-coloured courge musquée. Place it on a baking tray, rub it with a little olive oil and cook it in a hot oven until it is soft enough that the peel comes away easily from the flesh. Remove it from the oven, peel it (that’s Jim’s job) and cut it into smaller chunks.

Meanwhile, in a medium soup pot, cook some chopped bacon, or lardons, until the fat has been rendered. (Another convenience here is lardons already chopped and ready to go in a packet; otherwise the butcher will gladly do it for you). Then chop an onion and add it to the bacon. If there is not enough fat in the pan, add a bit of olive oil. Cook it gently until the onion is tender. Add the pumpkin, some sea salt and about four cups of chicken broth. You could grate in some ginger at this point, too, for a bit of punch. Bring it to a simmer, cover, and cook around ten minutes, or until everything is very soft.
The next step is to blend it to a smooth consistency. If you have a hand-held immersion blender, you can blend it right in the pot, which is very handy. Stir in around two tablespoons of crème fraîche or heavy cream (I used to eschew the addition of cream, but now I find it helps round out the flavours). If the soup seems too thick at this point, add a little water or broth. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
To serve, spoon it into bowls and place the garnish carefully in the centre of each bowl. Jim’s favourite is a dollop of crème fraîche topped with sautéed trompettes de la mort (black trumpet mushrooms) because of the striking contrast of colours and a happy marriage of flavours. Mousserons (fairy ring mushrooms) are also lovely. I’m rather partial to crème fraîche, bacon bits, snipped chives and chopped roasted chestnuts, sold by the nice man at the top of the road. But then, if you happen to have access to some crayfish from the Camargue and fresh black truffles, definitely go for it.

-Invited our Canadian neighbours from upstairs, Elizabeth and Andrew, down for aperitifs. Turns out they are also on a year sabbatical, doing the same thing as us, except that they are planning to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in January.
-Joined a Corsican choir (well sort of – I audited from the back wall, as it is still largely a male tradition).
-Visited the lovely Bandol wine region with view of the coast from all of the pretty hilltop villages.
-Attended several concerts, both in Aix and in Marseille, featuring various singers: Arianna Savall with Ensemble La Fenice in Marseille; Angelika Kirschlager with the Orchestre de Chambre de Bâle and Paul McCreesh in Aix, new music concerts with Musicatreize and Ensemble Télémaque in Marseille.

PICTURED ABOVE: Bandol region; Andrea enjoying lunch in Le Petit Jardin at the Hostellerie Bérard at La Cadière-dAzur near Bandol; Flamingos in the Camargue; Jim cleaning mushrooms; pumpkin soup with crayfish and truffles at La Petite Maison

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Poissonier with lipstick on his cheek

Apparently my butcher in Winnipeg, Felice, misses me, which I find strangely comforting. I used to say in order to be happy one needs to have a good butcher, a good hairdresser and a good seamstress. Here in France, I could also have a good poissonier for fish, a good boulanger for bread and a good caviste for wine. I found my poissonier, Laurent Quaranta, practically the day we arrived, at his shop just down from the daily market. When I met him he proudly told me that he is the best fishmonger in Provence. I told him that if that were the case, he’d better remember me, because he’d be seeing a lot of me over the coming year. As we chatted, I couldn’t help noticing the lipstick on his cheek. Yes, he’s popular indeed!

I promptly made a new resolution: to try preparing a different fish at least once a week. Which is easy with the variety and quality available at my poissonnerie. Recently we have tried monkfish, tuna, haddock, loup de mer (sea bass) trout and sole (until now, I have never actually cooked fresh sole - I only have memories of the flavourless fillets of my youth, from the frozen section of the grocery store). I’m not sure I’ll ever be friendly enough with Laurent to “faire la bise” (the French habit of kissing on both cheeks), but I am at his shop often. And even when I’m just passing by, he waves hello and I often stop in for a chat.

Scallops come in two sizes, the large Saint-Jacques and the smaller petoncles. I’m partial to the Saint-Jacques which are plump and gorgeous. When you find them in the market still in their shells, you know they are so fresh. They’re festive and plentiful here at this time of year.

I’ve been noticing a lot of tartares on menus around here: raw beef or raw salmon, for example. But as I was walking through the market the other day, I started thinking of the possibilities of scallops combined with the newest arrivals on the scene: clementines. They are prolific in the market now and are so inviting when they are set out in huge piles, so vividly orange, with their leaves still attached.

So I decided to try putting together scallops and clementines in a tartare of my own.

This would make a lovely first course for a festive holiday dinner. For presentation you can do one of two things: chop all of the ingredients finely, like a ceviche, and marinate them. At serving time, drain the mixture (saving the marinade) and pack it into plastic-lined ramekins. Invert the ramekins onto individual serving dishes, then carefully remove the ramekins and the plastic. Another option is to slice everything into thin rounds, more carpaccio-style, which makes a very pretty picture with rounds of scallop, rings of shallot and little circles of radish all mingled together.

Start with the freshest possible scallops you can find, with the corals attached if available (I know, not possible in Winnipeg). Depending on the size, you need only about two per person. Juice a whole clementine and a whole lime into a bowl. Season with pepper and some piment d’Espelette (or other mild chilli powder or even cayenne) to give it a little kick. Finely chop (or thinly slice) the scallops and add them to the juice. The juice should barely cover the fish, so add more clementine and lime juice if there is not enough. Finely chop (or slice) a shallot, then a few radishes and stir them into the bowl as well. Some finely shaved fennel is also very nice. Marinate the mixture in the fridge for around 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. The scallops will have turned a bit white, meaning the acids have “cooked” the flesh. Stir in a handful of chopped parsley or arugula and season with salt and pepper.

To serve, drain the scallop mixture, saving the juices. Fan out some very thin slices of avocado on each serving plate (optional), then top them with the drained scallop mixture (see above for ideas). Decorate the plate with clementine segments and drizzle some of the marinating juices around. Top with fleur de sel and sprinkle more piment d’Espelette around the plate. Serve immediately. Enjoy!

A bientôt,

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Bouillabaisse, or Lights, Camera, Action!

The serious cooking lesson

Old Port of Marseille

 Marseille fish market (conger eel)

”Noble” fish ready for simmering

Rockfish ready for the broth (I like the cute little green ones);

Runaway crab along with the other cooked fish

The result – the second yummy course

I was just hanging my laundry out to dry in the garden when a photographer appeared. He claimed to be with a film company and was taking some shots in advance of the shoot. (He promised to avoid taking pictures of my lingerie.)

In fact, they were planning to film some scenes for a police comedy in madame’s apartment upstairs. And they wanted to use our apartment as a makeup room. As they needed it from noon until 2 am (in the end they were here until 5 am) they offered to put us up in a hotel room for the night. Fine. We checked in to our hotel at noon, and then went about our daily activities.

When we returned to our room before dinner, we noticed something strange. The lights were all on, for one thing. Then we looked around and found the room full of clothes and duffle bags. Were we meant to share our room with the actors? We went around to the reception desk and saw that the crew was actually filming a scene right there and then, outside the front entrance of the hotel. When they were finished the concierge introduced us to the producer to clarify the situation. Without apology, he simply said we shouldn’t worry, they were just using our room as a change-room for the actors and to store their costumes. Hmm. I guess TV producer operate differently in France.

BOUILLABAISSEFor 58 euros you can get possibly the best version of bouillabaisse in Marseille at Restaurant Miramar. But for 120 euors, you can spend the day with the chef learning how to make it yourself. Of course we chose the latter.

This was one day before the big film shoot at our apartment. As it happened, a different film crew arrived just after us at the restaurant in Marseille. They were planning to make a TV show, the subject being, I believe, the fragility of the heritage of French cooking. As has been my experience elsewhere and in Aix, when a TV crew shows up, they kind of take over, which is what happened. But that’s okay, it added to the excitement of the day.

First a bit of food history: Originally, bouillabaisse was a humble fish stew made by fishermen for themselves and their families using the fish that wasn’t sold at the market that day. The fish was simply boiled in seawater in a cauldron by the docks. The other basic ingredients were old crusts of bread rubbed with garlic to float in the soup, along with a sauce -- aioli or rouille. Gradually the soup became a famous local dish and chefs started adding luxury ingredients, like lobster, turning this poor-man’s soup into something really over-the-top. To rein in the abuses, a charter was formed in 1980, outlining a basic recipe, the types of fish that should be used and the special service for the dish. You can see a little sign with the charter posted in many restaurants today, proving they are following the rules.

The important thing about a bouillabaisse today is that it is a complete meal, served in two courses. The first course is the fish broth on its own, which is made from olive oil, onion, garlic, fennel (fresh, dried branches and seeds), tomatoes, pastis, saffron and pepper and a mixture of small rockfish. These fish are sold in the markets here and are identified especially for fish soup. The ingredients are cooked for around 20 minutes, then chopped up, for example with an immersion blender, then forced through a chinois, or fine sieve. This thick fish broth is then served as is, with crusts of bread on the side. You rub each crouton with garlic, then top it with sauce rouille, which is a garlicky mayonnaise made rusty (rouille) with saffron and powdered red pepper (piment doux, which is milder than cayenne).

The second course consists of six “noble” fish, which have been simmered in the broth, starting with the firmest and biggest, ending with the smallest and most delicate. These fish are meant to be brought to the table and presented formally before being divvied up and served in soup bowls with boiled potatoes and a little more broth. The rouille and croutes stay on the table for you to add as you wish.

If you happen to be in this part of the world, your noble fish should contain rascasse (scorpion fish), rouget grondin (a type of red mullet), vive (weever), Saint Pierre (John Dory), lotte (monkfish) and conger eel. When they are piled on the platter, ready for cooking, they are a tangle of wild colours and shapes, bright and shiny, cute, and truly grotesque.
Our own experience began with a visit to the fish market in the old port on the Quai de Belges, surrounded by hundreds of fishing boats and pleasure boats glistening in the sunlight. We met the fishermen themselves, plying their catch of the day - very different from the fancy fish shops with lovely fillets. The pickings were rather slim that day, as it had been windy the day before, so many fishermen were not able to go out.

We then moved into the restaurant where we sipped some café while waiting for chef to arrive. Finally, he bounded in, with a sack of various other fish on his back, having had to pick it up himself, due to the gas and transportation strikes. Chef Christian Buffa is still young, but already commands a huge reputation for his version of fish soup. He boldly calls it the “vraie (real) bouillabaisse”. And he runs a tight ship. We were installed in one part of the kitchen, watching a whole battery of cooks bustling around elsewhere. He divided his time between us, the needs of the TV crew and bossing around all of his staff.

He walked us through all of the steps. Normally I prefer more of a hands-on experience, but in this case, I was happy to let Christian heave the cleaver and hack our conger eel into big chunks. We were full participants, however, in the making of the sauce rouille. We started with an insane amount of minced garlic, three egg yolks, a few spoonfuls of water, salt, pepper, saffron and piment doux, as noted, a mild chilli pepper powder. We then whisked in a full litre of oil - half olive oil, half peanut oil. The taste is unbelievably rich and unctuous, with a bite, and you would also not believe how much of it you can eat during the course of the meal.

I once swore I would never eat eel, but revelled in the flavour, mixed with all of the other tender fish, gently cooked, bathed in the smooth broth. To experience it there in Marseille, its birthplace, outdoors on a hot sunny day, watching the boats bobbing in the bay, was truly a memorable experience.

The TV show airs on France 2 on Thursday, Nov. 25.

A la prochaine,

Sunday, November 21, 2010

La Coiffure

I chuckled when Shelley, my hairdresser at home, expressed concern. “What will you do about a hairdresser in France?” she wondered. What she didn’t realize is that in France you find a hairdresser on practically every street corner. Even the smallest village that barely supports a church or bar will have a hairdresser. So I was not worried. Plus I had a good recommendation from Madame upstairs for a place just around the corner. My first French coiffure.

I was a bit concerned, though, when I met Nicolas. He is bald. I always figure you can tell something about a hairdresser by his or her own hairstyle. So in this case I had no way of knowing. It turns out I had nothing to worry about. It was a truly glorious experience. I swear he washed my hair for a full fifteen minutes, with massage, the works. I happily passed the time leafing through the latest edition of Paris Match while sipping a cup of tea. I even learned a few new words in French (une mèche is a lock of hair). After two and a half hours of pampering, as I unloaded my wallet, I caught another glimpse of my new look in the mirror and couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. Then I stepped into the street, into the fierce mistral.

-Cafés and bars

-Boulangeries (bakeries)
-Lingerie shops
-Crèpe stalls
-Real Estate Agents (apparently everyone, including everyone in France, wants to move to Aix)

-Men with buzz cuts
-Men with really bushy hair, blown from the back (imagine riding on a motorcycle backwards)
-Men with pink shirts. And pink ties.
-Men and women in striped shirts (think sailors)
-Women in mumus (in summer)-Women in skimpy floor-length sundresses
-Women with underwear hanging out all over the place – all women, not just young girls
-Big belts
-Big purses
-Big scarves, now that it’s getting a bit colder
-Anything gray
-Leggings with crazy designs

‘Tis the season. Anyone who knows Jim knows his passion for wild mushrooms, of any kind. He loves coming to the market with me on Saturday mornings because that is when the mushroom man has his best selection. There are literally heaps and heaps of them. He’ll happily pass an hour going from a pile of cèpes to chanterelles (golden or grey), trompettes de la mort (black ones), girolles, mousserons or lactaires, examining them carefully, chatting with the vender.

The day of my hair appointment, I was away so long Jim was waiting for me on the front step, thinking I had maybe been locked out. This was a good day for him to take charge in the kitchen and prepare the mushrooms. This recipe is adapted from the Atelier des Chefs, where I have now had several courses. You can serve it on a bed of baby spinach with a soft-boiled egg on top, as we did, as a first course, or serve it alongside some beef, duck or chicken.

Start with a bunch of wild mushrooms of the season (or one choice variety). We used many of the ones listed above, but be sure to choose the freshest possible. Personally, I would say, if you have cèpes, I would use them alone, rather than mix them with the rest. Clean them carefully with a brush and a tiny knife to knock out the little bits of earth and grass (if you insist on washing them, do it as briefly as possible. Jim never washes his). If they are large, cut or tear them into bite-size piece. Sear the mushrooms very quickly in a very hot pan with olive oil (Jim prefers butter to olive oil, but then you have to watch that the butter doesn’t burn. So you can also use a combination of butter and oil). The mushrooms will give off some water. In our class we simply poured the water off, but at home we keep these juices for another purpose or reduce them to be part of the finished product.

Meanwhile, boil some eggs, one per person. Let them simmer for around 4 and a half minutes after they come to a boil. Cool them a bit under cold water, then peel.

To your warm mushroom pan, add some lardons (chopped-up bacon) and let them soften, then add in some chopped shallots. Add back the mushrooms and cook again over high heat, seasoning with salt and pepper. You want them to brown a bit, not get soft and mushy. Just at the end of cooking, add some chopped chives and a small knob of butter. Set the mushrooms aside. To the pan add some sherry vinegar and stir, scraping, to dissolve the brown bits. Reduce it to the consistency of a sauce.

When you are ready to serve, spread some tiny spinach leaves onto each plate (if you are doing this as a first course). Top with the mushrooms. At the Atelier des Chefs we used those fancy metal moulds, so we could pack the mushrooms into a neat circle, then remove the mould. Then place an egg, cut in half, on top; and finally, nap the plate with more chives and the vinegar pan juices. You can also make a dramatic design using one of those new balsamic vinegar squeegee bottles. Have fun.

A la prochaine,


French Class

I seem to have pulled one over on them. Not intentionally, but I have been placed in a French class that’s too advanced for my level. And I’m not sure if they know it yet. The other day, I was having lunch with Ruth, a psychiatrist from Switzerland, who had just given her presentation in class. Her topic was the relativity of time, or actually the acceleration of time in society today, how the rhythm of life is changing, how technology is transforming our behaviour and how our social life is being affected.

Then she made a point of asking my age, because she had no clue. Of course I am now fifty, but it was funny, because just at that moment, as I was trying to have a meaningful conversation with her, I felt like a child, because there was so much I wanted to say, but I struggled with the means to express it. And so I continue, plugging away at my vocabulary, and wondering when they’re going to find me out.

-Finally learned what to do with a fresh foie gras, including how to poach an eggshell filled with mousse of foie gras.
-Baked a swiss chard tarte and brought it to a lunch with some people who live here.
-Visited the Oppidum, the original Celto-Ligurian settlement north of Aix, as well as the Lauves district, from where Cézanne painted Montagne Sainte-Victoire.
-Went on a day-long mountain hike in the Verdon with some actual French people, then another one in the Alpilles. This makes me a two-time imposter: pretending that I can speak French and pretending that I am a mountain climber.
-Tried to pretend I was a local by sitting at a café, reading a French newspaper. Then I looked over at the man next to me who was reading Nietzsche.

Autumn lasts a very long time here. We’ve watched the leaves change so gradually. Now the Cours Mirabeau is filling up with piles and piles of large leaves from the plane trees. The mornings and evenings are cool, but afternoons, if sunny, are still warm enough for lunch in the garden. Our apartment is called Sous le Tilleul. And the tilleul, or linden tree is still full and green.

I went by this place several times before I realized what it’s called, because the name, Le Brun’ch, is just scrawled on the window. It’s a really cute little hole-in-the wall, or “bouiboui”, not far from our French school, where I ate with Ruth. It’s jam-packed at lunch, so people rush to get there in time. The attraction is the array of home-made tartes, both savoury and sweet, that are displayed in the window. Savoury choices might include spinach with goat cheese; artichoke; or lardons (bacon) with crème fraîche. The list changes daily. And at 2.10 euros per slice, it’s got to be the best deal in town. Add a large green salad for another euro and you have the perfect lunch. There is also a daily plat du jour for a mere 7.50 euros.

What I like about this place is that it’s a family affair, with various family members both preparing and serving. Unfortunately, madame broke her leg recently, so is unable to stand behind the counter. I’m not certain who’s doing the actual baking at the moment, but I do know that she is maintaining quality control. Because she is still on hand every day, monitoring the proceedings, occupying a choice table by the counter, despite the long queue out the door.

Pictured above:
The flower maket in front of the Hôtel de Ville; Montagne Ste-Victoire from Cézanne's viewpoint at Les Lauves; Mom and Dad in Saignon, in the Luberon, one of our favourite memories;
the linden tree (tilleul) in our garden; foie gras mousse poached in an eggshell with a crisp caramel with pepper.

A la prochaine,


Monday, November 15, 2010


Exploring Aix with new people can be a relevation. We have our “route” now when people come to visit, taking in all of the major sights. But when Steve and Louise came to visit from Paris, it was a different story. Steve is an architect and has an eye for the most minute details of a building. He can say, with a fair degree of accuracy, when a structure was built and at which point the style started to change. For example, he absolutely adored the Place d’Albertas. Dropped right in the middle of a maze of shopping streets, this square retains an enchanting, otherworldly atmosphere. It was built for the marquis Jean Baptiste d’Albertas, president of the audit office, in 1745, and he lived in the mansion with his family in regal glory. He even had the buildings across the street demolished and insisted that whoever bought the property had to construct the new buildings in a homogeneous style. Steve marvelled at how one corner of the square is rounded, while the other is at a sharp angle. He strolled around, appreciating every blade of grass and bit of moss that grew between the old cobblestones. And he admired the elegant fountain in the middle. The square looks almost like a theatre stage. And in fact it was, the day we arrived. It was the setting for the music in the streets festival, so a stage was set up in the middle with a grand piano.

As we strolled down the Cours Mirabeau, admiring the majestic hôtels particuliers on the south side, Steve also laughed at the two strong Atlases (muscle-men), supporting the balcony of the baroque Hôtel Maurel de Pontevès, built for Pierre Maurel, a cloth merchant who became Lord de Pontevès, a high-ranking finance administrator. As you can see in the photo above, of the Pavillon Vendôme, the fellows seem to have wopping head-aches.

We also ventured into modern Aix, whose buildings seem shockingly contemporary after spending so much time in the old town. Steve was anxious to see the new Grand Théatre de Provence and the striking Pavillon Noir - yes, it is constructed of black concrete with lots of glass - and houses the local ballet company. He also filled us in on the controversial architect, Rudy Ricciotti, who has a somewhat anti-establishment persona. I have yet to check out a public rehearsal there (free) and apéro-danses, where you can meet and chat with the performers.

At the market Louise and Steve ran around like kids in a candy shop, buying metres of fabric for tablecloths, objects made of olive wood, a beautiful scarf, as well as fruits and vegetables. It was a joy to see them so excited, as they have all of Paris available to them.

We finished our visit at the legendary Brasserie des Deux Garçons at the end of the Cours Mirabeau. ‘Les 2G’ is named after the two waiters who bought the café in 1840. It had already been going strong since 1792. The inside is grand and elegant, if a bit faded, in shades of deep green and gold, with tall mirrors and chandeliers.

One Monday morning - the slimmest of the market days, as the fish stalls and most of the meat stores are closed, -I perused the aisles, wondering what to make, when I came upon some perfectly gorgeous striped eggplants. All sorts of ideas popped into my head: a layered eggplant tian with tomato; grilled eggplant to serve with bread, pistou, tapenade and goat cheese; or pasta with roasted eggplant.

This is not a typical preparation, as it involves grilling the vegetables rather than frying or roasting, which to my way of thinking, makes it lighter and tastier. It’s really handy to do in our summer kitchen outdoors because I have a sink next to the grill, next to a couple of hot burners.
Ratatouille is so versatile. You can eat it warm right away, at room temperature later on, or even better, re-warmed the next day. Serve it as a side dish with fish or lamb; serve it as a vegetarian main course; or serve it for lunch in a wide bowl with a poached egg on top, as I did with Louise and Steve. Louise dubbed it Ratatuski, so that’s how it shall remain.

With some preparation and coordination, you can get everything going at the same time and very quickly. Start with around 500 grams or so of each vegetable: onion, eggplant, zucchini and tomato. And a few cloves of garlic. Get a large wide pan heating with some olive oil while you chop your onions. Throw them in the pan to soften them. While the grill is heating, wash and slice the eggplant and zucchini lengthwise, not too thin. Brush them with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and lay them on the grill, in batches if necessary. Turn them over part way through. You want them to be nicely charred and tender. Pull them off as they are done and chop them into bite-sized pieces, then set aside. Chop your tomatoes. Mince the garlic and add it to the onion, stirring, for one minute, then add the tomatoes to the onion and garlic. Toss in a couple of bay leaves and some sprigs of thyme and rosemary (or a couple of teaspoons of herbes de provence). Simmer the mixture, allowing the tomatoes to release their juices. Then add the chopped eggplant and zucchini to the pan, stir, and simmer the mixture for awhile, around 15 minutes or so. You want it to be juicy and the vegetables to be nice and tender, but still holding their shape. Don’t let it all turn to mush. If it seems watery, turn up the heat and reduce some of the liquid. If it seems dry, add some water. Towards the end of cooking time, pull out the bay leaves and herb sprigs and add a big handful of chopped or ripped basil. Season well with salt and pepper. At serving time, feel free to drizzle on some superb olive oil.

A waiter rushes past your table, saying ‘J’arrive!’ (I’m coming!). What he really means is ‘Je part!’ (I’m leaving!) because it will be a long time before you see him again.
Pictured above: Steve in the Place d'Albertas; Pavillon Vendôme; Steve pointing out all of the Cézanne signs; cooking in the summer kitchen; gorgeous striped eggplants from the market.

A la prochaine,

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Runnig in Aix

They must have been inspired by Winnipeg’s Portage Avenue. The Cours Mirabeau, the beautiful promenade that is the heart of Aix-en-Provence, is wide and gracious, built originally for horse-drawn carriages. One difference is, the Cours Mirabeau is lined with majestic plane trees, with their colourful, mottled trunks, and is highlighted by four lovely fountains. Many people call it the Champs Elysées of Aix – just don’t say that to any Aixois.

It is the obvious choice for my early morning runs, as it’s just two minutes from our apartment. It ranks up there, but still not quite as high as the Promenade des Anglais along the Côte d’Azur in Nice, the Riva degli Schiavoni, along the lagoon in Venice at sunrise, or the waterfront route to the Sydney opera house. Nevertheless, it works. Except for the fact that I can run the entire length of it, from la Rotonde to the fountain of Roi René, in just five minutes. Unless there is a market on the street, where I can be distracted by any number of artisan or clothing displays. To lengthen my run I must then do a zig-zag along the tiny streets just south of the cours. These streets are mercifully on a straight grid pattern; so I don’t get lost, as I still seem to do in the mediaeval old town. This district is known as the Quartier Mazarin, named for the Archbishop Mazarin, brother of the cardinal. The area is comprised of stately ‘hôtels particuliers’, which are not really hotels, but stately mansions built by members of parliament and the bourgeoisie during the golden age of Aix, starting in the 17th Century. It’s a very pleasant area with little traffic. Today the buildings have been turned into schools, including a music school, businesses, and smaller apartments. Our apartment, in fact, is in a hôtel particulier.

So as I run along one of these tranquil streets I pass by the slender gothic church of Saint-Jean-de-Malte, which used to contain the graves of the Counts of Provence; the Musée Granet, housed in the former Palais de Malte, built in 1676; the Collège Mignet where Cézanne studied and where he met the writer Emile Zola; and then my favourite little Fountain of the Four Dolphins.

If I do my run after 9 am, the nearby Parc Jourdan is at my disposal. One half of the park is devoted to pétanque (boules) courts, very busy (mostly with men) on Friday evenings. The upper level is green space with a playground and home to the Centre d’Oralité de la Langue d’Oc. That is the language that was spoken in mediaeval times in the Midi (southern France) and is obviously being preserved at this institute. I should also mention, while Aix is not mountainous like Corsica, it is built on a slope, so there are always many ups and downs involved in any run.

There is actually a large park where locals run regularly, but it is not that handy to us. One day I set out to find it. I was taking French class in the morning and ‘Discovering Provençale Cuisine’ in the afternoons and evenings. So in between the afternoon cheese tasting course (20 cheeses with wine) and the evening cooking class (fricassée of wild mushrooms and beef with olive & red wine sauce), I had a bit of time. I put on my runners, which I had brought along in my backpack, and set out for the Promenade de La Torse. Very soon I found the river La Torse, but kept running into dead ends. When I asked people, they kept telling me to continue on further south.

I never did find the park that day, as I ran out of time. However, I did find a fig tree that didn’t seem to belong to any particular property. I made note of it. Now I know I can steal a few leaves to make the dessert I learned at Auberge la Fenière from the renowned female chef, Reine Sammut.

I have been buying fresh figs at the market nearly every day since we arrived and they still seem to be going strong, although there are now fewer varieties. Figs seem to work at any point in the meal. On little toasts with Roquefort, a bit of thyme and a drizzle of honey, warmed, they make an elegant hors d’oeuvre. You can add them to a saucepan with wine and shallot to make a lovely sauce for duck or pork. You can incorporate them into a veal stew. You can present them simply for dessert with a bit of brousse, which is the local fresh cheese (like ricotta) and a drizzle of honey. Or you can just nibble on them as you make your way home from the market.

This can be your cheese and fruit course all in one. You will need one fig leaf and three figs per person. Place the fig leaf (or big square of foil) face down. Trim the thick stem of the leaf so it lies flat (you have to fold it up, so you don’t want it to break as you fold). Slice your figs, but not all the way through, so they look like lovely blossoms, and place them in the centre of the fig leaf. Break up some goat cheese and slip the bits in and around the figs. Be generous. Season them with salt and pepper (yes). Drizzle on a big spoonful of flavourful honey. Carefully fold the leaves up and around the figs, enclosing them completely. Tie them with string (if you are using foil, simply fold it up and crimp it at the top so that it looks pretty.) Place the packets in a steamer or double boiler (our apartment actually has a vapeur, or steamer, built into the counter, just perfect for these cute little packets). Steam them for 7 or 8 minutes. Check one part way through – you don’t want the cheese to melt totally - the concoction should be warm and soft. Serve them on individual plates, cutting the string and allowing the guests to open up his or her own packet. Drizzle on a bit of superb olive oil. Yes, trust me, it’s delicious that way.

-Arriving late at the market is not always a bad thing. One day, as they were starting to close up, we came to a stall and asked the price of a barquette of figs. She placed one in front of us and said “One barquette, three euros.” She placed another in front of us. “Two barquettes, three euros.”
-They are constantly cleaning the streets here.
-The streets are constantly littered with cigarette butts. And dog doo-doo.

The Cours Mirabeau from two different angles; our friends Louise and Steve with the Four Dolphins; the Fontaine de la Rue des Bagniers with a bronze medallion of Cézanne above; lunch ready to go in our garden, consisting of salad with figs, walnuts and lonzo (Corsican charcuterie).

A la prochaine,