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!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Discovering Cézanne with the Family

It’s strange that you can find only a small handful of works by Cézanne in Aix-en-Provence, where he lived and worked for so much of his life. Only seven small works are displayed at the Musée Granet. Many of his masterpieces were rescued by American and English collectors and can be seen in Philadelphia and London, for example. So to experience his works in Aix you need some imagination. And a good pair of walking shoes.
First, we decided to discover the object of his greatest passion, Montagne Ste-Victoire. He painted it 87 times. To best appreciate it, we decided to climb it, or at least to do a big hike in the vicinity, after a convivial picnic at its base. So there we were: Mom, who’s afraid of heights, 11-year-old Michael, who imagined we’d be scaling the mountain on hands and knees, Dad, Brad, Corinne and me. Michael did do his mountain-scaling business, to his great delight. Some of us actually completed the 8 km trek, which was one of the most satisfying hikes we’ve ever done, with breathtaking views at every turn. Next time, we’ll try to remember a hat, sunscreen, water, sunglasses and a camera.
The Atelier Cézanne, his workshop, involves another walk up the hill, this one just north of the old town of Aix-en-Provence. This was his last workplace, which he had especially built for himself in 1902 with floor-to-ceiling windows on the north and south sides. At the time, it was in the countryside, surrounded by olive trees and nature. He couldn’t actually see the mountain from there - that involved a hike further up the hill, with 20 kg of equipment on his back. The atelier is basically a snapshot of where and how he worked during his last four years. There are no actual works of art there, just some examples on a video screen. But all of his implements are on view, just as he left them, including his easels, his cloaks, hats, brush boxes, as well as some old tables holding an olive pot, a ginger pot, some skulls, a statue of cupid and lots of fruit. These were the original objects he painted as he explored colour, shapes and perspective. He worked there until his death in 1906.

When Michael stepped into the room, he asked, “Is this all there is? Just a room?” But there happened to be an English-speaking guide on hand who told stories and brought it all to life for him. I think he left with a real appreciation for Cézanne, his passion, his struggles and his creativity. He returned to the atelier the next day to choose two prints-- one of the Montagne Ste-Victoire, the other the famous portrait of two card players-- to take home as souvenirs.

But it’s possible Michael most appreciated his own role as tour guide in Aix-en-Provence. In very short order he familiarized himself with one of the cutest modes of transportation here, the Diabline, the Little Devil, which is kind of a little bubble on wheels that takes a handful of people at a time around the old town on three different routes. It’s not really a tourist thing, as locals use it frequently, especially when they’re laden down with kids or groceries. One of the stops is at the north edge of town, which eased our uphill hike to the atelier. It costs a mere 50 centimes for a whole tour, and if the drivers know your plan, you can make a transfer for free. Michael has taken all three routes several times now and has chosen his favourite. He will happily guide us, but ultimately knows his goal. As we rolled down Rue d’Italie he called out “arrête” in the middle of nowhere. We descended, and he marched directly into the candy store.
So what did Mme. Cézanne do at the end of the day with all of that fruit that Paul painted?
It’s possible she might have sautéed it simply for dessert. She probably needed something to do to get her muscles moving again. During the day she proved to be his best model. She managed to sit, without budging, for hours on end while he painted her.

The market is full of local apples at this time, including some fine organic russet apples from nearby Venelles. I learned how to make a variation of this dish at L’atelier des Chefs in Aix.

Start by making the nougat: Heat a half a cup of sugar in a saucepan until it has melted and turned a lovely toasty colour. Do not stir, just swirl it a bit. Dump in a handful of sliced almonds. Immediately spread the mixture onto a sheet of cooking paper with the help of a spatula, fold the paper over top, then pound it to a thin and flat consistency with a heavy pan. Let it rest to cool.

Peel and slice some apples, one per person. Again, dissolve some sugar in a frying pan along with a spoonful of water. When it is liquid and not too brown, add a knob of butter, then add the sliced apples. Sprinkle on a bit of cinnamon if you like. Turn the apples around in the pan until they are tender, around five minutes. You can do this in advance and re-warm them just before serving.

Divide the apples among the serving dishes. Break up the nougat into chunks and place them in and around the apples decoratively. Add a small dollop of crème fraîche or whipped cream if you wish.

A la prochaine,

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Thanksgiving Duck

Here’s a quick update on what’s happening, as my blog is a bit behind:
The demonstrations and strikes (manifestations et grèves) are rampant at this moment, in reaction to the proposed reforms of retirement age in France. Even high school students near my French class have been burning huge garbage bins on the road to block traffic and have been racing through the street screaming in protest. Last night they burned two big garbage containers in front of our apartment. Our friend David spent hours trying to make his way from Paris on what is normally a quick train trip, and Dad and I drove around forever looking for gas the other day.

The family has been visiting for a couple of weeks: Mom, Dad, Corinne, Brad and Michael. Also Steve and Louise from Paris.

We have:
-Celebrated Mom’s & Dad’s 52nd anniversary several times.
-I completed another series of French classes, with extra afternoon and evening sessions on the topic of Provençal cuisine, with lots of hands-on cooking and tasting.
-Visited the Musée Granet and the special Alechinsky exhibit twice, the second time enlightened by our companions, Louise and Steve, who once owned a special Alechinsky print
-Visited the winery, Domaine Milan, near Saint Remy, also with Louise and Steve
-Bought my first French outfit (thank you Jim – my birthday present)
-Enjoyed (really enjoyed) my first French coiffure
-Toured Cézanne’s atelier (studio)
-Picnicked and hiked at Montagne Ste-Victoire with the family
-Drove the corniche road at the Gorge du Verdon (Grand Canyon)

THANKSIVING DUCK is a tradition that started thirteen years ago. I remember precisely, because it was our 10th anniversary. Corinne and Brad (no Michael yet) decided to rent Mas Marti near Uzès in Provence for their holiday and invited the whole family. Little did they know we’d all show up. Jim and I had planned to stop in Burgundy first for a couple of days to spend our anniversary at a hotel-restaurant that specialized in wild mushrooms. However, as events transpired, we ended up spending our anniversary in lovely Thunder Bay, at the airport waiting for the next flight… and the next flight, and the next flight. Our visit to Burgundy was cut short, but we did make it to Provence. And it was the start of our family’s fall adventures in France (and sometimes in Italy and Portugal).

Turkey is not a big food item in France, and one certainly never finds a whole one. So when we started coming to France, we developed the tradition of cooking magret de canard (duck breast) for Thanksgiving. We give it a Canadian touch by including a wild rice casserole from my family’s collection of recipes. It’s a team effort and over the years Dad and I have taken on and perfected the duck recipe. What’s funny is that the basic recipe is one I finally wrote down and sent the family by fax one time when they were in France and we were pining for them in Winnipeg. It’s now something of an antique and we take the fading, fat-spotted page with us whenever we travel. Here goes:
Duck breasts are generally quite large in France, so one will serve two, sometimes three people. At home they seem to be smaller, so you might choose one per person.

Score the fat in a crosshatch pattern, being careful not to cut into the meat. If you have time, sprinkle the duck breasts with salt and let them rest for a few hours or overnight. Wipe off, then pat dry. Brown them in a hot pan, fat side down, until nicely browned and crisp, 5 – 7 minutes or so. Add no fat, do not turn. The duck will give off a lot of fat. Place the duck breasts fat-side up on a baking sheet and finish cooking in a 350-degree oven, checking after about 6 minutes. They should be nicely pink – not gray! If you have a broiler, you may want to zap them just at the end to really crisp the skin.

Meanwhile, pour off most of the fat from the pan (keep it to sauté potatoes!), add one or two chopped shallots and sauté until soft. Add some fresh thyme if you have it. Add a splash of white wine or crème de cassis, then some chicken broth. Reduce. Just before serving, stir in a big teaspoon or so of Dijon mustard and a couple of big tablespoons of delicious berry preserve, such as cassis. Salt and pepper to taste. Slice the duck and serve with the sauce. Voila!

STRANGE CUSTOMS:- Bars often serve rosé with an ice cube in it (I love their relaxed approach to wine service)
- Cognac is often served with a couple of sugar cubes and a small spoon. What you do is put the sugar cube on the spoon, dip it into the cognac for a few seconds, then eat it (not recommended by dentists).
- They eat a lot of Nutella here.

A la prochaine,

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Calanches in Corsica



The problem is, the island of Corsica is basically one big mountain. Or actually, it’s a series of mountains. Fifty of them are higher than 2000 metres. This makes running a big challenge. One of the most revered and punishing hikes in France is the GR20. GR stands for Grande Randonnée, which is a series of hiking routes that crisscrosses the entire country. To hike the GR20 from the north to the south end of the island, you need 14 days plus enough gear to overnight in the many refuges (huts) along the way.

Me, I just wanted a good morning run. Splendid beaches surround the island, but as we all know, it’s hard running on sand. So in Calvi, on the west coast of the island where the music festival took place, we checked into the hotel you-get-what-you-pay-for. But what it lacked in the way of shower curtains, ice and wifi, it made up for in its magnificent view over the ocean. And it was the perfect starting point for a cliff-top run down the coast. The only distraction was the profusion of wild fennel by the road, as high as me, begging to be picked and stuffed into fish for the grill (see recipe below).

The cliffs are most dramatic south of Calvi, in the Scandola Nature Reserve. The only way to see them is by boat. We hoped to also see rare fish eagles, dolphins and seals. We did see three goats and an eagle’s nest. Plus some of the most incredible rock formations imaginable, in brilliant shades of red and ochre. Erosion has shaped them into strange dog’s heads, witches and devils. These rocky inlets are called Calanches. Our captain steered the boat in and out of the narrow crevices to give us a good look. Here the cobalt blue water is so clear that grass grows 35 metres below on the sea floor, nurtured by the sunlight.

We also stopped at Girolata, a remote fishing village accessible only by boat, or by a very long hike in. It’s set magnificently against a wall of red cliffs. We picnicked on the beach with a dozen or so friendly wasps, and then swam in the pristine water.

IN CORSICA, aside from attending the music festival previously described, we also:
-Negotiated the corniche road along the north coast
-Visited wineries in Patrimonio, renowned in France but not known elsewhere
-Bought a beautiful paring knife with a wooden handle (brand name: Vendetta) that folds over into a carrying case, perfect for cutting herbs in the wild
-Ran along the sea wall and the old port of the city of Bastia, with all of the cute fishing boats bobbing in the sunlight
-Re-visited the hill-top artist village of Pigna, brimming with artisans, musicians, an excellent concert hall and great mountain food
-Sampled restaurants, both rustic and wildly creative


E.A.T. stands for Epicurean Avant Tout. The restaurant is now closed, but we hope to find it in its new location at Easter when we return. It was perfectly situated at the foot of the Citadel in Calvi so that we could have a quick and beautiful dinner before the late-night concerts. Among their inventive dishes, we sampled a green-tomato gazpacho served in a pop bottle with a straw, gnocchi with magret de canard (duck breast) and a beautifully steamed fillet of St. Pierre with crunchy vegetables and lemon verbenam one of my favourite herbs.

U Fanale refers to the phare, or lighthouse, that you can see from their garden terrace. This is a casual, family-run place on the edge of town with some of the most creative cuisine I’ve ever tasted and presented in gravity-defying splendour. Jim’s monkfish was served with a crisp shrimp toast on black rice with an emulsion of red curry, surrounded by braised cockles and clams and coconut milk sauce (see photo). I tried an unusual aiglebar fish from local waters with a caramel sauce infused with ginger accompanied by crisp dumplings filled with langoustines and served with a spicy tomato dipping sauce. Incredible.

Fennel is plentiful and comes in all forms here. The fat bulbs are shaved into salads or braised with wine until tender. The seeds are added to fish broth, such as bouillabaisse. The wild fennel stalks grow profusely in Corsica and Provence. They’re gathered, very happily by me, and cut up to use on the grill with fish.

It doesn’t get much simpler than this, at least with the produce found here in the mountains and at the poissonnerie. This recipe is best with the fennel stalks found in the wild, which are also sold in the market here, if you don’t happen to actually find them by the roadside yourself. You don’t actually eat the fennel, as it’s dried. It simply perfumes the fish and acts as a protective base on the grill. So I’m not talking about the plump fennel bulbs, but the skinny sticks that are literally as tall as me (okay, I’m not that tall).

Cut the stalks into manageable pieces, soak them in water for awhile so they don’t burn right away. Choose your fish: loup de mer, or sea bass, is very traditional. Another option is daurade royale, or sea bream (pictured). One of my favourites is rouget, or red mullet, a very small red fish, not found in my neck of the woods in Canada, (small red snapper would be a good substitute). Ask the fish monger to clean the fish, then season it with salt and pepper and rub it all over with olive oil. Stick some of the smaller fennel branches inside the fish, arrange some thicker branches on your hot grill, then lay the fish on top. Cover with a few more fennel branches. Grill not too long, until done to your liking, turning once. Rougets take a mere 6 - 8 minutes total, the others longer, depending on their thickness. Serve with lemon wedges, a drizzle of excellent olive oil (we’re exploring local producers) and perhaps a dollop of tapenade or pistou, served in a basil leaf on the side.


A la prochaine,

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


There’s a standing ovation. . . we must be in Winnipeg.

In fact, we’re on the island of Corsica. It’s the opening night of a music festival, Rencontres de Chants Polyphoniques de Calvi. This is a festival of (mostly) vocal music hosted by one of our favourite Corsican groups, A Filetta, whose recordings we discovered many years ago. When I started presenting the show Northern Lights, I played them often, and each time I did, I was overwhelmed by the response from listeners. Their music has a power and intensity that just gets under your skin, in the very best sense. We’ve known about this festival for some time and finally had a chance to attend it.

Getting to Corsica involves an overnight ferry ride from Marseille. Leaving the harbour at sunset
is quite a sight to behold. As we set out, we admired the vast old port full of boats, the mountains behind, the lonely Chateau d’If just off the coast. For some reason, everyone else on the boat seemed to find the upper deck too cool. So we hardy Canadians enjoyed the breeze, our picnic of chicken-salad sandwiches, views of the impressive coastline and the gorgeous sunset all to ourselves – how romantic.

Now for the music: in a concert setting, performers of Corsican polyphonic music usually stand in a tight semicircle so that they can hear each other clearly. They often cup their hands behind their ears to verify their pitch and sing with eyes pinched shut and a facial expression that is a cross between anguish and ecstasy. Frequently they demonstrate their camaraderie by draping an arm over a neighbour’s shoulder. Clearly, this is an intimate affair. We, as auditors, feel privileged to participate. We heard A Filetta perform over five nights. And they always dressed in black.

We were surprised to find a Taiko drumming group from Japan as part of this vocal festival. The Kodo Ensemble, which has been around for many years, is one of the best groups in
the genre. I must admit I can find an extended evening of Taiko drumming a bit tiresome, although the big bass drum solo performed by a drummer in a g-string was most impressive. I don’t think I have ever seen a pair of such well-developed muscles working so hard on a pair of shoulder blades. His performance was magnificent.

I was sceptical about a collaboration between A Filetta and Kodo. Would they perform together?
What would they possibly have in common? As it happens, A Filetta has been working with
Kodo for a few years now and they have developed a repertoire together with them, finding a
common ground. A Filetta are harmonically-oriented, melodic and intimate. Kodo are loud,
dramatic and intense. And it was the intensity that united them. A Filetta incorporated more
rhythm in their sound, Kodo added some melodic instruments, such as flute, almost Indonesian in nature. All in all, it was very satisfying.

The concerts in this festival took place high up within the walls of the old citadel of the city of Calvi. They say Christopher Columbus was born here. Looking over the ramparts, we were treated to a splendid view over the harbour, with yachts filling the marina, the palm tree-lined coast sweeping around gracefully, with pastel-coloured houses and awesome rugged mountains behind. The concerts were held either in the beautiful old Cathédrale St-Jean Baptiste or outside on the square where people in the know brought pillows and blankets for comfort.

The festival included an astonishing variety of music. On other evenings we were treated to some very traditional village vocal music from Puglia, Italy, as well as accordionist Ricardo Tesi, also from Italy, accompanying a fine singer, Francesca Breschi. There was also a Balkan trio and a band from Georgia, The Shin, with a jazzy feel. A group from Mongolia really blew us away. The woman, Baadma, sang in a very high, nasal voice. She changed costumes three times (I don’t know how she managed to wear such elaborate head-gear and all those layers in that un-air-conditioned church!) and her two partners, Naranbaatar Purevdorj and Nasanjargal Ganbold, were true masters of their instruments, the morin khuur, or square-shaped horse-head violin. They also sang in that incredibly deep, gravelly fashion that you hear in that part of the world, incorporating harmonics, which gives the music an unearthly character. Some of their repertoire was surprisingly bouncy and melodic, other pieces, called “long songs”, were more improvisatory.

I was intrigued to see a Canadian singer-songwriter on the bill. Even more surprising, just this
past year I actually had the pleasure of helping out on the creation of a musical project with
Kyrie Kristmanson with Manitoba composer T. Patrick Carrabré, but we had never actually met
in person. So here was my chance not only to meet Kyrie, but also to hear her perform - live in
Calvi, Corsica. It was all a bit surreal. And she did Canada proud. Dressed in a furry white hat
(again, in that un-air-conditioned church) with her guitar and a co-musician, she charmed the
audience with her original material. Interestingly, she has recently been spending some time in
southern France looking into the songs of the medieval troubadours. Also, I notice she’s continuing to tour in our area of Provence, so I hope to catch her again in concert!

We definitely got our money’s worth at the festival in Calvi. Over the course of the five days we heard 12 concerts in all. The last concert of each evening lasted more than two hours, usually taking us to midnight. A plus was that the musicians hung out in the old town, so we often had a chance to chat with them.

When we weren’t attending concerts we took in the splendour and beauty of the island. Because
of Jim’s bad knee, we had to forgo the big hikes that were on our list, and were forced to lie on
the beach and sample food at the nearby fish restaurants.

One of my new goals now is to discover the best soupe de poisson (fish soup) in southern
France and Corsica. I shall not offer a recipe, as the dish is so ubiquitous-- it’s available at all of the restaurants in this part of the world-- that I haven’t bothered to try to make it myself. But I can describe it. It’s made with small rockfish, which have been cooked with enough tomato, paprika and saffron to turn it a rich ochre colour. The mixture is put through a food mill to make it smooth and thick. At the table you are given an empty soup bowl, a terrine of the rich reddish-brown soup, and a platter that includes crisp croutes, fresh garlic cut in half, and a sauce rouille. Rouille is basically a garlic mayonnaise made red with cayenne or other red pepper and saffron.
Here’s how the soup works: you take a little croute (small toasted slice of baguette), rub it with
garlic, smear on some rouille, and then lay it in your bowl. You do this two or three times. Then
you ladle in some soup. You stir it a bit and wait for the bread to soften, and then dig in: one of the original DIY dishes. By the way, the soup is always served with a little bowl of grated gruyère cheese, but purists refuse to add it. Cheese and fish do not match, is the rule. I know, because when we sat at the Poissonnerie restaurant in Cassis, I pointed out to monsieur next to me, Cassis-born, that he had forgotten his cheese (he actually hid it behind the bottle of water), he assured me that it was not a mistake, that he never mixes cheese and fish. As a local, he was also very proud of his wines of Cassis. He and his family enjoyed a Fontcreuse, but spoke highly of the Paternel that we were sipping.

Part two of Corsica to follow.

A bientôt,