Welcome to The Aix-Files

Thanks for checking out The Aix-Files, my
blog postings inspired by my year in and around
Aix-en-Provence. The spot includes travel tips,
discoveries of local food and wine, recipes,
cultural events, interviews and historical
tidbits about Southern France. Enjoy!



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.

RESTAURANT: LA PETITE MAISON
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.

YOU KNOW YOU’RE IN FRANCE WHEN:
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”.

RECIPE OF THE WEEK: PUMPKIN SOUP WITH WILD MUSHROOMS
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.

WHAT WE’VE BEEN DOING LATELY:
-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

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