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!

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Historian

Danielle and Jacques, start of our hike of the Mur de la Peste

“What did you do with the orange peels?” Danielle asked. We were nibbling on oranges, which we had brought back from Menton, at the end of our picnic with Danielle and Jacques, just before our hike. We were huddled together against some bushes to shelter us from the wind that suddenly blew up. We were on a plateau overlooking the magnificent Luberon mountain range to the south. They brought along a blanket to sit on. Luxury.

“You should have kept them. Maybe you can still rescue them. You could make vin d’orange. After 40 days, it will be ready.”

Danielle’s family has lived in this part of Provence for over 500 years. She now lives in the farmhouse of her grandparents. She is a historian with a deep knowledge of the Vaucluse, where we are. So while we munched on our sandwiches and her home-cured olives, she regaled us with all of the gory details of the plague of the 1720s.

The plague arrived at the port of Marseille when lax officials allowed goods in without the normal period of quarantine. Danielle described how 50 % of the population of Marseille parished, 36% in Avignon, but a mere 16% in the Comtat Venaissin, our district in the Vaucluse. Families had to make the difficult decision of abandoning their sick relatives when they contracted the plague, or caring for them for two or three days, risking infection, and then abandoning them. A stone plaque at the start of our hike depicts the bizarre uniform worn by residents at the time to protect themselves from infection. They kept herbs inside the “beak” of the costume for further protection.

The strange costume with the beak

Mur de la Peste
Our hike took us up along le Mur de la Peste, the wall of the plague. Wise officials at the time decided to erect a long wall of stone to protect the people of the Comtat Venaissin. And speaking in broad terms, it did the trick. But not without a lot of hard work and suffering. First they had to build the thing, with dry stone, no mortar. Local farmers were required to take turns guarding the wall so no one passed through. That meant their wives had to take over the strenuous farming duties.

Today the wall is largely intact, not too high, and gives a poignant picture of the difficulties people faced in the past.

THREE DAYS LATER, we entered Danielle’s kitchen to find a huge vat of vin d’orange (orange wine) on the table, ready for doctoring. We were at her farmhouse for a cozy dinner around her warm fireplace (cheminé). Danielle prefers making simple dishes based around vegetables, all locally produced, which suited us just fine. After more of her home-cured olives, we enjoyed a vegetable soup (potage) drizzled with a very good olive oil and garnished with grilled croutons. “I get very upset when I see people throwing away bread. There is so much you can do with it,” she said. “Yes,” I mumbled sheepishly. That was followed by a puree of winter squash with parsley; long-simmered zucchini with onion; her own tomatoes cooked with olives, garlic and onion; plus some small fish - merlan - gently simmered and served with another drizzle of olive oil. She apologized unnecessarily for the simplicity of the meal. We found it absolutely delicious.

Climbing up to the chateau at La Fontaine de Vaucluse

The Abbey of Sylvacane

-Attended a fabulous concert in a lovely hall in Le Thor featuring Angelo Debarre group playing Django Rheinhardt-inspired music, tighter than a belt after Christmas dinner.
-Enjoyed very traditional artichauts à la barigoule followed by a velvety fricassée of piglet (porcelet) at Ou Ravi Provencau in the town of Maussane-les-Alpilles in the heart of the Alpilles mountain range, where Jim and I had been maybe a dozen years ago.
-As Mausanne is also a big centre for olive oil, we tasted some of the best from Moulin Jean-Marie Cornille
-Picnicked at the Abbey of Sylvacane along the Durance River.
-Visited the Abbey of Sénanque, a spiritual and peaceful thing to do.

Cloisters of Sénanque

Cloister detail

This recipe comes from Danielle’s family. It makes a delicious companion dish for fish, such as cod, meat, zucchini and eggplant. As she points out, it can also serve as a base for a vegetable tian (vegetable dish baked in a flat gratin dish, or tian).

First, pick your olives in the fall and cure them for several months with salt. If you don’t happen to have an olive tree, choose tasty olives, such as those from Nyons or those wrinkly Turkish olives.

Slice an onion thinly and sauté it in a large pan in peanut oil until nicely browned (not black! Danielle says). Slice two cloves of garlic and add them to the onions, stirring, for just a minute or two. Add one large can of peeled and chopped tomatoes, (the ones I found were cut in half, so I simply sliced them in long strips with scissors). Add some chopped parsley, two bay leaves, some branches of thyme, a teaspoon of sugar, salt and pepper and 10 –15 olives. Simmer gently, uncovered, until the sauce is well reduced and thick but still juicy. Pull out the bay leaves and thyme branches. If you like, remove the olives, blend the sauce until it is smooth, then add the olives back in; but I rather like a chunky texture. Enjoy!

Olive tree

A la prochaine,


1 comment:

Gaetano said...

Very enjoyable to read about life there. Thanks for the info and lovely photo's