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!

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,

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