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,