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, 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,

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