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, August 30, 2011

Closing Time

Closed Tuesdays and Rainy Days

Since the day we arrived in Provence I have been trying to figure out when places are open and when they are closed. There are no consistent rules, nor, seemingly, any rhyme or reason for opening and closing on a particular day or a particular time. Many places still close for lunch, which I am accustomed to, sometimes opening as late as 4 pm, but then staying open until 7 or 7:30, presumably to accomodate the after-work customers. Some places are open on a Sunday morning, but almost everything is closed on Monday. Some places close for the winter. Our favourite butcher in Aix, Boucherie du Palais, is open Monday, Wednesday and Saturday from 7 am to 1pm; Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 7 to 1, then 4 pm to 7:30 and they are closed all day Sunday. Try remembering that. And don’t forget those hard-working souls who toil outdoors in the heat. When I phoned our winemaking friend, Vincent de Dianous, one afternoon at 2:30, I felt very badly when I heard his groggy voice, realizing I had disturbed his afternoon siesta. I made a mental note for the future. And I got into the habit of asking hours of business in shops on my way out.

Here are some typical exchanges:
“What are your hours?” “We’re open all day.” “Even during lunch?” “No, we’re closed at lunch.
“Which days are you open during the week?” “Every day.” “Even Sunday?” “No, not on Sunday.
At a bakery in St. Antoine: “Are you always open on Sundays?” “Yes, every Sunday.” The following Sunday afternoon I arrived to find the shop shut up tight as a drum. So apparently they are only open Sunday mornings.
At a hotel in Corsica: “Are you open all year?” “Yes, all year.” “Even during the winter?” “No, we’re closed during the winter.” “What about at Easter?” “We might be open at Easter.”

Our narrow road in La Roque sur Pernes

Watch out for wild boars

Strike notice written on a sheet at the hospital

No dog doo-doo, please

Truffle lovers

The Truffle Brotherhood

No digging for truffles here

Olive oil mill, Nyons

Vinegar shop, Nyons

The origins of the name of the region Vaucluse

Bakery, Fontaine de Vaucluse

The connection between Aix-en-Provence and Canada

Our classy planter

This is the perfect solution for those who, like me, wish to serve a pretty dessert but are afraid of making a pastry dough. It comes together very quickly and you can even make it a day in advance. Jacques prepared this for us for lunch one day at La Roque sur Pernes with the ripest local cherries imaginable (this area of the Vaucluse is celebrated for its cherries). You can change the fruit through the season, but you may need to adjust the amount of sugar according to the type and the ripeness of the fruit. My own variation is to add a couple of crushed lavender blossoms for a certain floral je-ne-sais-quoi.

In a medium bowl mix 100 grams of flour with 80 grams of sugar and a pinch of salt. Add 3 eggs, one at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon just until you obtain a smooth dough. Add 200 ml of milk, 80 ml of heavy cream, and a couple of tablespoons of kirsch or whatever other fruity alcohol you like. Crush a couple of fresh or dried lavender blossoms, if available in your back yard, and stir them in. Mix well, then place in the fridge for at least an hour.

Preheat the oven to 200°C or 400°F. Generously butter a gratin dish or other pretty tart pan. Fill the pan with around 750 grams of cherries, stemmed but left whole with the pits, in one level. Fit them in very tightly (the amount of cherries will depend on the size of pan you use.) Pour on the prepared mixture to just cover the cherries.

Bake in the oven for 20 minutes. Sprinkle on more sugar and continue baking in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes. (If your cherries are super-ripe, you can eliminate the extra addition of sugar and bake the clafoutis for 35 – 40 minutes.) Do warn your guests that the cherries contain pits.

If you use other fruit, again choose very ripe ones. Apricots can be pitted and sliced in half, peaches and plums can be pitted and sliced into four or eight pieces. Bon appétit!

A la prochaine,

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Driving and Parking in Aix

Now that we are back in Aix, but this time on the outskirts of town, we have a new challenge: actually driving IN Aix. While it’s only a 25 minute walk to the centre of town, it is not that fun to hike back home with a basket (panier) full to the brim with market produce, and especially up that last steep hill. Or arriving at someone’s house for dinner sweating buckets. So we are forced to drive in town more often than we ever did before. Which then leads to major issues of dealing with traffic, especially around the ring road (periferique). And parking. We are now behaving more like locals (riverains), actually driving ON the Cours Mirabeau, instead of just dodging traffic as pedestrians; double parking on a narrow road and leaving the blinkers on while running into a shop for one little thing; parking with two wheels on the curb.

Being Winnipeggers, we are also constantly looking for free parking, which is almost non-existent in Aix. However, we have learned that:  parking on the street is free from noon to 2 pm (after all, traffic cops need to take lunch, too); street parking is free on a Sunday, which means there is never an available spot; if you pull into a big indoor parking lot and then finish your business within 30 minutes (not likely, but we always hope), it’s free.
This blog posting features photos of driving and parking in Aix (and elsewhere in Provence).

Parking on the Cours Mirabeau

A tight squeeze

Normally a pedestrian street . . ..

His trunk up front was full of wine when he parked here in Marseille

Troglomobile parked in front of the troglodite dwellings

A unique place to park your butt

Boats parked in the harbour in Cassis

The port of Marseille

Gravlax has nothing to do with parking or driving, but I wanted to include it in the blog as it’s one of my signature dishes, perfect as an hors d’oeuvre for a small dinner party or the main event at a big cocktail party.

Gravlax is very popular in France around Christmas and New Year’s, when people pull out all the stops, but I like to make it in mid-summer when huge bunches of fresh dill and vividly-coloured wild salmon are readily available. While you can make gravlax using just one fillet, I prefer using two whole sides. It takes just as long to make a large amount and when it’s ready, I like to chop it into pieces and freeze it. Also it is easier to slice when it is still a bit icy. Bear in mind you will need two to three days from start to finish.

Start with two large sides of salmon, filleted but with skin on. Line a large rimmed baking sheet generously with sheets of plastic wrap. Lay the salmon on top, skin side down. In a bowl, mix 1/3 cup of salt (I like kosher salt or fine sea salt) with ¼ cup of sugar. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the salmon flesh, pressing so it adheres. Lay two very large handfuls of dill (big branches removed) on top of both fillets. Drizzle two tablespoons of vodka or brandy on top. Lay one fillet on top of the other, skin side out. Wrap the salmon tightly in the plastic. Lay another baking sheet on top and weight it down with something heavy (I like to use two or three bricks wrapped in tin foil).

Place the tray in the fridge for 24 – 36 hours, turning the salmon once a day. When it is ready, the salmon will have given off a lot of liquid and the flesh will be firm to the touch. At this point it is ready to serve, or you can cut it into smaller portions and freeze it for down the road.
To serve, scrape off the dill and carefully wipe off the salt and sugar. Slice it very thinly on the diagonal with a very sharp knife. This is easer to do when the fish is still a bit icy. Lay the slices decoratively on a serving platter and garnish with tiny dill sprigs.

I like to serve the gravlax with cocktail rye or crackers and honey mustard sauce to drizzle on top. To make the sauce, just mix some liquid honey into Dijon mustard until it’s to your liking. Enjoy!

A la prochaine,

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Passionate People in Aix

Fromagerie Savelli

Monsieur Savelli

AS WE ENTERED THE FROMAGERIE, the thick smell of cheese nearly knocked us over. We became even more delirious as we scanned the mountains of goat cheese, the deeply-veined Roquefort and a Cantal so well-aged it looked positively prehistoric. “Shut the door behind you!” ordered Monsieur Savelli sternly. We were so overwhelmed by the heady aromas we didn’t notice how careless we had been, leaving the door ajar, disturbing his perfectly calibrated temperature-controlled shop. The aromas were evidently arousing, too, because two couples in line were kissing ardently. As I twirled around the little shop, trying to make a decision, M. Savelli brushed past the large branch of lemon verbena sticking out of my basket. “Oh, that smells good!” he exclaimed. I smiled. I guess I was forgiven.

I am constantly impressed by the professionalism, care and deep passion displayed by vendors in the marketplace and in the shops. If I specify, for example, M. Savelli will personally select a banon cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves that will be ripe enough to eat with a spoon in two days. Out in the market, vendors have it down to perfection. "The Bird People," as we affectionately call them, sell all manner of fowl and will lovingly twist the head off of a pigeon (no longer living) before your very eyes, clean it out carefully, trim the giblets, then place them back inside, all of this to demonstrate its freshness. When there is a long line-up, as there usually is, this process can take a long time. But everyone waits patiently.

The Bird People

Dulce in the Place Richelme market

Dulce's offerings in the market
Dulce is one of my favourite vegetable ladies who sells mostly produce from her own garden. One day, when I arrived at the market very late after French class, she cheerfully climbed into her truck to get me some zucchini which she had already loaded up. Another day she chased after me through the marketplace, leaving a long line-up of customers behind, to give me the bag of cherries I had accidentally left behind.

Céline and Hocine are a handsome couple who practice sustainable and responsible farming, and the quality of their produce, whether it’s ancient heirloom tomatoes, baby eggplant or arugula, is always top. Once when Hocine was wrapping up a little carton (barquette) of local strawberries for me he advised me that we should eat them that day.  As he handed over the bag, he added "...for lunch."

Céline and Hocine in the market

Cavistes François Barré and Vincent Stagetti co-own Félibrige, one of the best wine cellars in Aix. They can describe in detail every bottle on the shelf and frequently direct me to a less expensive bottle than the one I was looking at, a quality I admire. One time, though, when I arrived at the shop carrying an empty wine sack from a ubiquitous wine chain-store rival to carry home my purchase, Vincent nearly refused to serve me, he was so insulted. He held his nose and reluctantly placed the bottles in the bag. Next time, he presented me with a beautiful woven wine bag so I would never be tempted to do something so egregious again.

Even the pharmacist, who dresses and behaves like a brain surgeon, will spend 15 minutes explaining the benefits of one multivitamin over another. And frankly, for 33 euros a bottle, she had a lot of explaining to do!

This cheesemonger makes fresh cheese called brousse the ancient way

His little crottins are excellent grated on salad

Laurent, my poissonier

RECENTLY, we tried to pack in as many activities as possible which we hadn’t already done and that we couldn’t do in Winnipeg. We:
- Hiked along the magnificent calanques near Cassis and swam in the ocean in one of the prettiest inlets, Port Pic, where I shared the waters with three jellyfish (méduses).
- Frolicked through fields of lavender, more impressive than any postcard we’ve seen, where we watched in amazement the hoards of tourists risking their lives by parking dangerously ON the highway and sauntering across the road to take pictures while speeding cars dodged them. I guess the claims of the soporific quality of the smell of lavender are really true.
- Babysat an adorable kitten, Pépite, for five days - okay, not a specifically French thing to do, but definitely a new experience for me, an inveterate cat-hater (I am now a convert).
- Visited the charming and tiny Sunday market in the town of Jouques with Adeline and Cédric.
- Attended a day-long music party at the bastide of Christophe and Cécile where everyone took a turn either singing or playing an instrument (even us).
- Jim had the memorable experience of singing for inmates at a prison with his Corsican singing atélier.
- Attended one of the most brilliant dance productions of my life– a stunning and sexy work set to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, presented by Ballet Preljocaj and held in their own performing venue, the controversial Pavillon Noir.
- Helped friends Nan and Martin file a French police report at the Hôtel de Police after they were victims of a hit and run (un accident avec délit de fuite), unfortunately on their brand spanking new rented car! That entailed a long wait in the foyer where we enjoyed watching all of the police officers kiss each other as they arrived and left. Martin wondered if we should kiss the interrogator when it was our turn. Once in his office, however, we noticed Miss June on his desk calendar leering at him suggestively over her shoulder wearing a red bikini. So it didn’t seem he needed a kiss from us.
Hiking the Calanques near Cassis

Lavender fields near Valensole

Frolicking Jim

Christoph who leads the Corsican singing workshop

Cécile on her 50th birthday with her 3 year old son, Basil

Paule, our amazing French teacher at ELan'com

Fanny, our glamorous femme de ménage

Hiking with Marie
Cédric and Adeline with Jim near Le Beaucet


Martin enjoys fresh sardines as much as, if not more, than I do. So I finally had a victim for my cured sardines, which I had only ever made when Jim was away. But on this occasion, even Jim and Nan had a taste and enjoyed them with apéritifs.  And you can bet Pépite looked on with interest as I prepared them.

Curing sardines is fast and easy. Laurent, my poissonier, supplies super-fresh ones, which is what you need to start. Hold the sardines one by one under cold running water, gently rubbing off the scales. Carefully twist off the head of each sardine, pulling out the guts with it. Alternatively, cut off the head with a knife, then clean out the guts under running water with your fingers. To fillet a sardine, lay it on a cutting board and carefully start cutting along the back side as close to the bone as possible, working from tail to head, releasing one fillet. Then gently lift off the bone, taking the tail with it, leaving the second fillet. Continue until they are all filleted.  
Cured sardines

Choose a shallow dish that will hold all of the sardines in one layer. Sprinkle a thin layer of coarse sea salt on the bottom of the dish. Lay the fillets side by side in the pan, skin side down, top with some minced fennel fronds (or dill), then more coarse salt to cover. Wrap the dish with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge for anywhere from two to eight hours. In this way the dish is very flexible. You know they are ready to eat when they feel firm.

Before serving, rinse the fillets well under cold running water, then pat dry.

To serve, cut rather thin slices of baguette on the diagonal, around the size of a fillet. Toast the bread or grill on a barbecue. Brush the toast with olive oil. Top the toasts with tiny bits of tomato (optional), then a fillet of sardine, some more minced fennel fronds (optional) and a good grinding of pepper. (If you were in Brittany, you would use butter instead of oil.)

If you make more than you need you can keep the sardines in the fridge for several days covered with a thin layer of oil. You can also freeze them this way, too.

One of life's simple pleasures: sheets drying amidst the lavender

This hors d’oeuvre is Cédric’s specialty and it’s a cinch to make. Slice some slim cured chorizo sausages into bite-size pieces. Sauté the slices gently in a pan until they are warm. Generously spoon over some honey and continue to stir over low heat until the whole mixture is warm. Serve right away in a small bowl with toothpicks.

A la prochaine,