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!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

So What is Aix Like?

Evidently, Enzo Enzo has a problem remembering her umbrella. It’s the subject of one of her famous songs, which I’m not sure I completely understand. Nevertheless, we loved her concert, which took place as part of the festival of French Chansons. She obviously trained as a dancer, too, because her show felt almost choreographed, complete with stretching out on the piano to emphasize a particularly intimate sentiment. It was a polished and elegant performance.

Me, I love my big red umbrella. But Aix is known for its endless sunshine, so I have not had the need for it until a few days ago. We had a big storm (nothing like the “bomb” that hit Manitoba), which didn’t prevent us from trooping around the old town with Laura, visiting from Winnipeg via Paris, for the day. The next day was November 1st, All Saints’ Day, which is a big holiday in France. (Aix is blissfully a Hallowe’en-free zone.) And despite the drizzle, we ventured out for coffee and found the streets still teeming with people. I guess bakeries and cafes are considered essential services, because even on a big holiday such as this, many of them remained open.

One of my friends has been wondering about what it’s actually like here, where we’re living.

So maybe it’s best just to start with a general overview. Aside from all the sunshine,
Aix is a city of water. The Romans settled here in 122 BC because of this rich thermal resource and called it Aquae Sextiae, or the waters of Sextius. The spa is still going strong today, for those in need of pampering and relaxation and who are willing to lighten their pocketbooks a little. Aix has the nickname City of a Thousand Fountains, but really there are just 100 to explore, from the grandest, the black and white marble Fontaine de la Rotonde (see photo), to the most adorable, the fountain of the four dolphins.

Aix is a city of universities. Despite a population of only 146,000, the city supports several universities, which means 40,000 students. That makes for a lively, young community and a vibrant nightlife. Among the educational institutions are a number of language schools, of which I have been a happy but struggling participant.

Aix is a city of music and art and culture. We’re looking forward to the world-renowned Lyric Arts Festival in July, an opera celebration that is a major draw for music-lovers. During the year, the classical music offerings are slimmer. But we did enjoy the Modigliani String Quartet in the gorgeous new concert hall, the Grand Théâtre de Provence. We also took in a few great concerts in the festival of French Chanson -Enzo Enzo mentioned above, and Yves Jamait - which is music we really love, plus a huge concert – well over a thousand in attendance - featuring the Coriscan group I Muvrini (yes, we can’t get Corsican music out of our blood), which took place at the big modern Pasino (Casino).

Paul Cézanne is the most celebrated artist from Aix, and I still have much more to explore as I trace his steps: his favourite haunts, his various homes, the schools attended, etc.

We checked out a stimulating photography exhibit at the new Cité du Livre, featuring pictures by photojournalists in war-torn regions around the world. We still have yet to attend a dance performance at the very modern (and controversial) Pavillon Noir.

Aix is a market town. Local producers ply their produce seven mornings a week in the Place Richelme. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, the market spills into the lower Place de Précheurs and all the little streets in between. It’s a veritable explosion of colours, smells, shapes and tastes, again, nothing like the bomb that hit Manitoba, but stimulating nonetheless.

Okay, tomatoes don’t need much of an explanation. But as far as I’m concerned, if I’m looking for a piece of heaven in Provence, I can find it in a single tomato, sliced on a plate with a sprinkle of fleur de sel (that’s salt) from the Camargue. And I’ll take it outside to enjoy under the sun in the courtyard garden of our apartment (see photo).

At the market I can choose a big lumpy beef-steak (coeur de boeuf), elongated tear-drop, yellow, green or a striped zebra-variety tomato. I could improve on my tomato slightly by adding a morsel of local goat cheese, choosing between a fresh and mild one, an oozing creamy one, or a firm one that has been aged for three days or up to a week. I could also possibly enhance it with a slice of fresh baguette, maybe a leaf of basil. Oh, and a drizzle of local fruity olive oil. Some of the best olive oils come from near here, at La Fare-les Oliviers, Mausanne-les-Alpilles and Les Baux de Provence.

The best tomatoes of all, I must say, can be found at the farm of Jean-Luc Danneyrolles, whose farm, La Molière, is situated about an hour north of here, just south of Apt. I’ll tell you more about him another day. We bought the last of M. Danneyrolles’ tomatoes the other day, so I know we’re at the end of the season and I’m starting to feel a bit wistful.

All the fixings

Pan bagnat, which means “bathed bread”, is ubiquitous around here. It’s basically a salade niçoise in sandwich form. It’s meant to be quite juicy, so look for a sturdy bread to contain it, with a firm crust, either one large bun per person, or a baguette sliced into two or three portions. My version isn’t the most traditional, but it’s awfully tasty. First, slice a small red onion thinly and soak in cold water with a bit of vinegar to soften its bite. Then make a vinaigrette with a little bit of red wine vinegar, lots of olive oil and lots and lots of minced garlic. Drizzle or brush some of it on both sides of the cut bread. Don’t be shy. Then start layering. I like to start with a big smear of tapenade (mushed-up olives), then tuna (canned – and don’t worry about draining off all of the water, because this will add to the “bathed” quality). Then slices of tomato, some slices of red onion (drained) slices of boiled egg, salt and pepper, a couple of anchovies, and a handful of ripped basil or arugula leaves. Close the sandwich, press down on it firmly, and if you have time, wrap it tightly and let it sit somewhere cool for a few hours, or overnight. The flavour will improve. Bon appétit!

Assembling Pan Bagnat

-The many cobbled streets in the old town (and the women in high heels who try to negotiate them).
-The old-fashioned merry-go-round at the top of our street.
-The truck that rolls slowly down the Cours Mirabeau with a loud-speaker, inviting us to the circus.

A la prochaine,

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