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, January 19, 2011

We thought we were going wine tasting . . .

Vines at Chateau Saint Ser
View from Chateau Saint Ser

Tasting Room at Chateau Richeaume

Excavating at Chateau Richeaume

Domaine de la Crillonne

Vincent de Dianous selling his wine
We arrived at Chateau Richeaume after following a long and winding road out of Puyloubier, at the foot of Montagne Sainte-Victoire.  The views were absolutely stunning.  But that’s not the reason we missed the entrance, it’s that the winery is signposted – modestly - from the opposite direction only.  When we finally pulled in, Madame approached us and asked if we were there for “the tour”.  “What tour?” we asked.  It turns out, their property happens to be right on top of a Roman settlement from the 2nd century and a team was in the process of excavating.  They were about to conduct a tour for interested outsiders right at that moment, so we thought, why not? And joined in.  It was fascinating to see them in the process of uncovering all sorts of walls, rooms, even a sarcophagus with bones, still intact, of what is presumed to be a two-year-old child.  It was slow and painstaking work, under the beating sun.  They worked with little shovels, chipping off bits of earth inch by inch. The team seemed to be comprised of students, many of whom gave presentations about various aspects of the dig.

Once back at the winery, which is functional rather than fancy, we stood around a barrel with two bankers from Aix.  They were nicely suited, wearing identical loafers, one in a pink shirt.  They were there to buy some magnums, presumably as gifts for special clients (how did they get that job?). While we sampled and sipped together we discussed the importance of lunch.
One of our favourite things to do is to sample a new wine at a restaurant, then seek out the winery.    The other day, we tasted a delicious wine at l’Auberge du Beaucet, in a tiny hamlet in the Vaucluse near where we are living for the winter. We had the business card of the winery in hand (with GPS coordinates), which indicated we could visit by appointment only.  Vincent de Dianous phoned me back and we made arrangements to meet in the neighbouring village, in front of the bakery.  He needed to take us there himself, because his winery is on a tiny road and is not signposted.  We met successfully, then followed him to Domaine de la Crillonne  - a dilapidated old farmhouse formerly owned by his uncle.  He has 4 1/2 hectares of grapes, most of which he planted himself, which means he makes only 12-15,000 bottles a year.  He does absolutely everything himself, including acquiring new tractors and equipment for vinification, harvesting the grapes, making the wine.  He is also in the process of restoring the farmhouse so that he can eventually live in it and make the wine right there.  This has not been easy.  For example, he told us sadly about masons who are unreliable, do what they feel like rather than what they are asked to do, who mock you, and even insult you, before you pay them. He sold us the wine out of the back of his truck.  He was eager to give us a tour of the property and explain the history of the place.  He pointed out the impressive Alpilles mountain range in the distance. His smile was so warm and generous and he was genuinely grateful that we wanted to meet him and visit his vineyard.  He said that it helped encourage him.  He told us stories about growing up right there, running around in the fields as a kid – his childhood home is just across the way – and he was almost wistful as he admitted how much he loved the land, the countryside, the wine, and was determined to pursue his dream because of that attachment.  Now there’s a wine with heart.

-The view of Montagne Sainte-Victoire from the terrace of Chateau Saint Ser.
-The warm welcome at Vanniers, from Madame herself,  proprietor of this long-established family estate in the Bandol region, who descended the grand staircase in a snazzy pink leather jacket and sat down with us to chat and tell stories and urged us to return in the spring.  She hand-wrote the bill for us on the back of a wine label.
-Chateau de Beaupré, which just happened to be open late on Jim’s birthday as we were passing by.  It was actually their annual Christmas party.  They welcomed us warmly and we nibbled on foie gras while tasting their unusual and rare bottles, opened for the occasion.  When they found out it was Jim’s birthday, they gave him a bottle on the house.
-Revisiting our favourite Chateau du Seuil, which we went to in the late 90s on our first visit to Aix.

Eggs poached in red wine sauce sounds rather decadent, but it is actually very simple - and delicious - and a handy way to use up some red wine that happens to be open. The recipe is inspired by Patricia Wells.

This could be a lovely romantic Sunday brunch for two, or increased to accommodate a crowd for a simple supper.  Count on two eggs per person.  Here’s the version for two people:
Begin by preparing the garnishes (not essential, but a tasty addition):  crisp some bacon bits (lardons) and sauté a couple of mushrooms, thinly sliced.  Set aside.
Chop half an onion, half a carrot and crush a clove of garlic.  Place them in a medium saucepan.  Add  one cup of fruity red wine, a bay leaf, a healthy branch of thyme and/or rosemary, a few peppercorns and salt.  Bring it to a boil, then reduce by approximately half.  Strain the sauce into a bowl, pressing the vegetables to get out all of the juices, then pour it back into the saucepan.
Meanwhile, blend 2 teaspoons each of flour and butter together on a plate with a fork (a beurre manié).  Gradually whisk the mixture in, little by little, until the sauce is silky and thickened (you may not need all of it).

In a separate shallow saucepan, poach the eggs carefully in simmering water with a bit of vinegar until the whites are set and the yolks are still soft. 

Have some toast ready on warm plates.  Carefully lift out the eggs and drain, patting with paper towel if necessary, and place one egg on each piece of toast.  Surround with the sauce. 

Garnish with lardons and sautéed mushrooms, if desired.   Enjoy.

À la prochaine,
Vincent de Dianous, winemaker

Thursday, January 6, 2011

French Freebies

Cloisters of Cathedrale Saint-Sauveur

Door of Saint Sauveur

Capturing Montagne Sainte-Victoire

Learning about Cézanne at Les Lauves


Inside Le Grillon
Aix-en-Provence is one of the most desirable places in France, for its location near mountains and sea, its medium size, its food, its culture and its sunshine.  For that reason, it is also one of the most expensive cities in the country.  Real estate prices come very close to those of Paris and some of my friends have been looking in vain for a house or apartment for a very long time.  Prices in the shops and in the market are generally higher than elsewhere, too.  So in this month of January, the month of austerity, of cutting back, I thought I would reflect on all of the things (or extras) that are free in Aix.  Here goes:

-A decent café will serve a little chocolate or biscuit with your coffee.
-A decent bar will serve some olives or nuts with your aperitif.
-In fact, Le Grillon and Café du Verdun (maybe others!) bring out gorgeous platters of nibbles to go with your drinks around 6 pm, gratuit.
-The chicken man at the rotisserie in the market will fill your bag with delicious potatoes that have been roasting in the chicken fat – how good is that?
-The vegetable vendors in the market will throw in a handful of parsley, if they feel it would go with the other veggies you’ve purchased.  And they always know better than you.
-If you only need a branch or 2 of celery (who ever needs more?) they will just give it to you.
-The poissonier will throw in a lemon if requested.
-The attendants at the pharmacy will often give you a sample product of something similar to what you’ve just purchased.
-Likewise at the cosmetics shop.
-At little stores where you are a regular, they will often round down the price.
-Playing pétanque, provided you can borrow some balls.
-Some rehearsals of the Ballet Preljocaj at the Pavillon Noir
-Evening vespers at the Église Saint-Jean-de-Malte
-Visiting the Oppidum, the original Celto-Ligurian settlement just north of town.
-Visiting the Lauves district nearby where Cézanne did so much of his painting.
-Visiting the cathedral, with a guided tour of the cloisters.
-Visiting the interesting Musée du Vieil Aix.
-Wild thyme, fennel and rosemary, by the armload, in the countryside just out of town.
It’s good to know I can find wild rosemary in the nearby countryside, because it spares me the need of sneaking downtown under the cover of darkness to steal it from the well-trimmed hedges in front of the bank. 
-The views of Montagne Sainte-Victoire.

Egg dishes are very much appreciated in France.  And not just for breakfast.  A simple omelette makes an elegant first course, simple supper or a fine lunch dish.  If you fill your omelette with something like wild mushrooms, you’re guests will be swooning, and if you scramble your eggs gently over a double boiler with truffles - a brouillard, in other words - as Jim has been doing lately, you’ll have people pounding down your door.  However, as pricey truffles do not fit in with today’s theme, we’ll get back to basics.

We often serve a variation of this flat omelette for Sunday brunch, using leftover vegetables from the night before, such as spinach or potatoes, thus making it a very economical meal.  You can be creative with ingredients, but do keep it simple.  You don’t want to use everything-but-the-kitchen sink.  It can be thicker or thinner, depending on the size of pan and the number of eggs you use.  I like it both ways.  So think of this as a variation on an Italian frittata or a Spanish tortilla.

I’m using rosemary here, but other herbs may be substituted, such as thyme or dill.  These milder herbs do not need to be pre-cooked with the onion and can go directly into the egg mixture.

Start with a small handful of spinach per person.  Wash it well in a basin of water, lift it out carefully and drain it in a salad spinner.  Put the spinach in a hot, dry pan to wilt, tossing with tongs.  Transfer it to a sieve and, when it is cool enough to handle, squeeze out any extra moisture. Chop.

Dry the pan, heat a bit of olive oil, and sweat some sliced onion, sprinkled with salt, covered. Strip the leaves from a healthy branch of rosemary, chop them, then add them to the pan.  When the onion is softened, add a clove of garlic, minced.  If you think of it, sprinkle on a pinch of nutmeg and a pinch of hot pepper or pepper flakes.  Add the spinach back to the pan and stir to blend the flavours. 

Meanwhile, break the eggs into a large bowl, two per person, and beat them gently with a fork.  Scrape the spinach mixture into the eggs, stirring with a fork to blend, season with salt and pepper.

Add enough olive oil to just coat the pan and heat to medium.  Pour in the egg mixture, turn it down to medium-low, then cover.  After about a minute or so, lift the sides of the omelette to let the uncooked egg flow under the edges.  Cover and continue to cook until it is firm on the bottom, but moist and still a bit creamy on top (or to your taste).  Personally, I prefer to cook it over low to medium-low heat to avoid too much browning.  If the omelette is on the thick side, run it under the broiler, watching carefully, until it is done to your liking.

The omelette can sit for a few minutes, or longer, to serve at room temperature.  Carefully loosen the bottom with a spatula, shaking it, and slide it onto a pretty platter.  Serve it in wedges, with a tangle of lightly-dressed baby greens on the side, mixed with halved cherry tomatoes and toasted pine nuts.  Enjoy your meal while feeling virtuous about the savings to your pocketbook!

A la prochaine,