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!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Les Randonneurs

Following the blue marker to the top of Montagne Ste-Victoire

Hiking around the Gorges du Verdon

“WHERE ARE YOUR HIKING BOOTS?” asked Jean-François. We were in a parking lot on the edge of town at 7:45 a.m. on a Sunday morning. I was wearing my trusty runners that have served me well for all of the hikes I have ever done. “I don’t have hiking boots, “ I replied. “Well, those will be okay for today’s hike in the Gorges du Verdon, but they will not be good enough for Les Alpilles next week.”

This was back in November, my first day-long hike with my AVF group, all French people, all very sportif and fit-looking. “When will Andrea be back?” Jim asked (he couldn’t join us because of his bad knee). “Around 8 p.m.,” Jean- François replied. “Oh,” I gulped.

Just as we began our hike, Jean-François started pointing out various bushes and shrubs and flowers. I recognized the juniper bush. He furiously noted everything in his notebook. But had I misunderstood? Were we ever going to start hiking? We did. And Jean-François, a font of knowledge concerning flora and fauna, didn’t hesitate to point out every plant and bird along the way. It was truly impressive. He even carried a bird book under his arm. At one point he discovered a large mushroom. “In order to identify it, I have to sacrifice it,” he declared, sadly. He cut it off at the base, examined the gills, took a photo, made notes, then carefully placed the cap back where it belonged, so that a mushroom would grow there again next year. I then decided this was perhaps not the right company in which to hack off and fill my knapsack with loads of rosemary and thyme that was growing profusely all around us.

The hike was challenging. We capped it off with a little tour of the pretty village of Moustiers-Ste Marie, where they make lovely faience pottery, and I enjoyed my first panaché (beer mixed with lemonade). During the long car-ride home, I tried to keep up the banter and practice my French by asking interesting questions like “Do you live in the centre of town?”

Les Antiques

Les Alpilles

Les Alpilles

Mom, don't look

I opted out of this extra leg of the journey

THE FOLLOWING SUNDAY we met early in the same parking lot. I proudly showed off my new hiking boots. Claudie said “No, they are not high enough. They will be okay for Les Alpilles today, but they won’t do for a hike along the Calanques.” Sigh.

Our hike, led by Claudie’s husband Jo, began innocently enough with a tour of Les Antiques and Glanum, a Roman mausoleum and arch, as well as an area of Celtic, Greek and Roman remains. We also walked past the asylum where Van Gogh stayed. Copies of his “Olive Groves” and “Starry Night” are displayed along the walkway.
After our picnic lunch, however, the hike got really serious. I announced I would perhaps opt out of the ascent up the ladder along the precipitous cliff, but, as, it turned out, it was a circle route and we would not be coming back via the same route, so the ladder was “obligatoire”. The hike was topped off by one more very steep ladder placed inside a tunnel on top of a pool of water which made everything very wet. My legs were rather wobbly by this time, but I survived.

Manon's Grotto, Garlaban, in Pagnol Country
where Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources were filmed

Picnic time on the summit of Garlaban

A visit to the monastery of Ganagobie topped off another day-long hike

The beautiful cloisters at Ganagobie

Annie organizes some afternoon AVF hikes

A Roman Bridge along the Caramy River

Les Nanas de Lundi on Mont Ventoux

“EVERYONE WANTS TO KNOW HOW OLD YOU ARE.” I was with Danielle and her women’s group who go hiking each Monday. They call themselves “Les Nanas de lundi.” People frequently ask me this question and my answer is always “I am older than seven.” Because my level of French is that of a seven-year-old. So I feel I have to verify that I am indeed older than seven.

We were on a 10 km hike half-way up Mont Ventoux, the biggest mountain in the Vaucluse. The Nanas are a very friendly group of women who love getting together to chat and catch up on things, get some exercise, but don’t take it too seriously. But the conversations get intense. After a few minutes, their arms start flailing, they slow down, and then, when they have something important to say, they stop dead in their tracks to make their point. They also stop frequently to pick wild rosemary, thyme, even wild baby daffodils. Yes, this is my kind of hiking group.
Climbing Mont Ventoux, Les Dentelles in the distance

Le Barroux

Danielle, receiving energy from a tree

THEY CALL HIM "LE CHEVRE," THE GOAT.  That's because every time Jacques and Monique  took us for a hike,  at the foot of a steep hill , Jacques would charge up from behind and say, "Race you to the top."  He always won.  “Where are you leading us?” Monique would ask Jacques, uncertain about the direction we were taking. Our neighbours in La Roque sur Pernes took us for interesting hikes several times a week during the winter. Jacques always carried a detailed map, but it’s still not always easy to find the way. Our goal one day was to do a circle tour, passing through the hilltop village of Saumane. They disagreed the whole way, one suggesting we go up, the other suggesting we go down. But all the while, they regaled us with stories about the region and about their fascinating lives. We never did get to Saumane that day, but we never really got totally lost, either, and we didn’t get eaten by wolves. And we’re all the richer for it.

Monique didn't mind wearing a pretty dress
while we hiked through the lavender  around the Abbey of Sénanque,
but you can be sure she wore proper hiking boots (not shown)
I always think a typical picnic in France consists of bread and cheese, plus other accompaniments, like a roasted chicken, perhaps, a tomato, some olives. I was surprised to notice that my hiking buddies rarely do that. Their typical picnic consists of a container of something they have prepared, like couscous, lentils, chickpeas or a pasta salad. Only those who are pressed for time bring a sandwich.

Also, most people bring something to share with the crowd, for example, dried apricots or dates, thin slices of salami, cherries from the tree in the back yard, chocolate, even coffee (yes, people actually bring coffee on a hike!). On my first hike I duly noticed this tradition for the next time.
Visitors Martin and Nan, on they way up Ste-Victoire. 
In order to reach the top from the Bimont dam (the lake down below)
you must walk along the ridge.

Proof that Jim made it to the top of  Ste-Victoire, his year-long goal. 
Pictured with Martin.

Yes, we just climbed that.
Now, where is that nice tap with cold water?

This salad is perfect for a picnic on a hike or a pot-luck dinner.  You can make a little or make a lot, as it keeps well for several days.
Petite épeautre is an ancient grain from northern Provence which is making a big comeback. It has a very pleasing chewy texture. Our equivalent in Canada is either spelt or wheatberries.
Begin by rinsing a cup of either spelt or wheatberries under cold running water. Then simmer it in about three cups of chicken broth until tender but not mushy, around 20 – 30 minutes. Add salt part way through. Check frequently to be sure there is always some liquid, adding hot water if necessary. When it is ready, drain it if there is still some liquid remaining.
Put it in a medium bowl. Add a couple of chopped green onions, a large tomato, chopped (or some halved cherry tomatoes), a handful of sliced mint, and a dressing of lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. Stir well. Keep in the fridge until serving time.

You can add any number of other ingredients to vary it a bit. For example, black olives, marinated artichokes, chopped red bell pepper, basil, parsley or chives.

Petite épeautre salad

Bon appétit,

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Pilgrimage to St. Bonnet le Froid

Landscape around St. Bonnet le Froid

The town is aptly named. St. Bonnet le Froid was very cold, indeed. Or more accurately, very windy. And I had packed just an overnight knapsack with a lovely dress for dinner and nothing more. Had I known this would be a three-hour drive on the autoroute, practically to Lyons, for heaven’s sake, followed by twisty, curvy roads, landing us up in a hurricane, I might have reconsidered. However, we were there.

It was so windy that, upon arrival, we were forced to have a Scottish picnic. This is a term we coined one summer when we spent five weeks in Scotland. Every morning we were optimistic and packed a picnic, but every day it rained, so we had to eat it in the car. Thus, a Scottish picnic. But this time, it was because of the wind. Plus I really don’t like it when Jim pours the wine and the wind blows it everywhere but into the glass. So we sat in our car, which jiggled in a wind so fierce I thought it would blow us over the cliff. It made the mistral look like – well – a picnic. Once inside the car and cozy, we attempted without great success to slice the crustiest and crumbliest bread imaginable, and some charcuterie, but enjoyed it nevertheless because we had before us one of the most spectacular views we have ever seen, onto the magnificent valley below.

But the picnic was not our goal for this excursion. It was just meant to hold us over until dinner at the shrine of Régis and Jacques Marcon, our only Michelin three-star restaurant of the year, a place that sings of wild mushrooms.

The village borders the regions of Haute-Loire, the Ardèche and the Auvergne, nothing like our familiar Provence. The terrain is dramatic and wild and mountainous. Judging by the number of gites d’étapes (rustic bed and breakfasts), it is clearly a region for serious hikers.

The town bills itself as a ‘Village Gourmand.’ Which is strange, given its remoteness. There is nothing nearby of interest to a gourmand. So why would anyone want to open a restaurant here, I wondered?

Turns out the Marcon family has roots here. And they have a passion for wild mushrooms, which are prolific in the area. So when you approach the restaurant, impressively perched on a hill just outside of town, you are greeted with large wooden images of cèpes, chanterelles and more.

And the family seems to own everything here, from the gastronomic restaurant on the hill, with a hotel in troglodyte caves; to the more modest but still luxurious Hotel des Cimes, where we stayed – the sort of place where they turn down your bed at night and leave you chocolates on your pillows as well as fluffy robes and slippers; to the cave (wine store) and the boulangerie, named Le Chanterelle, of course.

Frogs legs and wild garlic soup

Wild mushroom "tea"

The fish course

A meal at Régis and Jacques Marcon is an event. Starting with the ride up to the restaurant with a chauffeur in a big, fancy car. Everything about this place says “mushrooms”. After the statues outside, we were greeted by waiters sporting ties dotted with mushrooms as well as cute plump cèpe tie pins (which reminded us of nerdy mushroom events we have attended elsewhere, where people wear tie clips shaped like every mushroom you could think of). There are mushrooms in almost every dish, for example mousserons with asparagus and veal with morels. And many other confections are shaped like mushrooms, too. Imagine mushroom “tea”, where you are given a teabag filled with dried mushrooms, onto which they pour a mushroom consommé. Or a cèpe-shaped cookie for dessert. Even the brown sugar to go with your coffee is shaped like a mushroom, accompanied by cèpe-flavoured chocolates. Yes, this chef is one fun-guy.

Strangely, when he approached our table to say hello, he seemed very shy and modest.


The last of many desserts, with cepe sugar cubes

Régis Marcon would never dream of serving something as mundane as a pizza, but this is a good opportunity to share with you one of OUR favourite recipes, inspired by Alice Waters, involving fresh morels, which I imagine are in season about now in Canada. (FYI, the impressive mushroom displays at the markets here in Aix feature dried morels from British Columbia – aren’t we all proud of that?)

Pre-heat a pizza stone in the oven to 450 degrees for at least a half an hour.
Carefully clean your fresh morels with a mushroom brush, tapping and blowing as you go. (You can run them under water briefly if they seem very sandy, but then dry them immediately). Slice them in two or four, depending on the size. Sauté them slowly with shallot in some butter until they are tender. Start with a lid on the pan to keep in the moisture, and add small amounts of chicken stock or water as they cook to keep them
moist and help them release their own water. Remove the lid and continue cooking until the juices have reduced to a glaze. Morels do need to be well-cooked. You can add some fresh chopped thyme if you have some.
On a floured surface, roll out, or spread out with your fingers, a ball of pizza dough that you have either made yourself our bought at DeLucas. Sprinkle it generously with grated fontina cheese, keeping aside a bit for the end. Then top with the morels, salt and pepper, and finally a very thin covering of fontina to protect the mushrooms from drying out.
Bake for 8 – 10 minutes in the lowest part of the oven. Watch carefully so that the crust doesn’t get too brown. Remove it to a serving plate and garnish with chopped parsley. Serve immediately. Cut it into regular-size slices for dinner or in small squares as an hors d’oeuvre. Enjoy!

Entrance to the restaurant, Régis and  Jacques Marcon

Jim, Aisha and Denise at Sainte Victoire

-showed off Montaigne Sainte-Victoire to Denise and Aisha from Toronto, then to Tom and Lynn, also from Toronto.
-enjoyed a day-long hike with  our AVF group around the picturesque monastery of Ganagobie, overlooking the Durance River, where the lavender was just starting to bloom.
-played Pétanque with some friends in beautiful Le Tholonet, where we shared a pizza from the wood-fired oven supplied by the local camionette (little truck) - really, a wood-fired oven INSIDE the truck.
-discovered an amazing French teacher, Paule, at Elan.com.
-mopped up after two simultaneous floods:  a huge storm, unheard-of, especially at this time of year, inundated the region.  Water filled our upper balcony, which overflowed [débordé]   into Jim's studio.  Fortunately, I was on hand to pick the accordion and computer plugs up off the floor just minutes in advance.  The chimney also sprung a leak and water spewed out, flooding the main floor.  All of this to the delight of Samuel, the adorable son of Hervé, the caretaker.   We can swim IN the house!  I can skate! (He has never skated in his life, as he lives in here in Aix-en-Provence).
-trooped around Aix with friends Tom and Lynn from Toronto.  Tom's mission was to visit every patisserie in Aix, a daunting task.
-filled out my first French police report after Tom's debit card was stolen in the pretty seaside village of Cassis.  Which was okay, because I was able to expand my French vocabulary  [opposition = cancelling your bank card]. And anyway, the mistral wind made it too chilly to relax on the beach, as planned. 
(And fyi, Tom had a satisfactory resolution from his bank, all things considered).
-thoroughly enjoyed the most amazing views along the Route des Crètes, the cliffside road, which runs east from Cassis to La Ciotat.
Lynn and Tom, overlooking Cassis, happy to have cancelled their stolen bank card

View from the Route des Crètes

Mr.Vertigo, needing to take in the view from a cliff

Friday, June 3, 2011

Overcoming my Fear of Artichokes

It’s not that I have never prepared them before. I even took a course with a trained professional in Florence. It’s just that each time I face a beautiful bouquet of these prickly thistles, I recoil.

Let’s be honest. Artichokes require a bit of work. Plus a good deal of confidence and some know-how. They are also one of those funny things where, once you’ve done your prep, you discard way more than you consume. Which is one of my issues. It’s my Ukrainian upbringing. I hate being wasteful. But on the other hand, I don’t want my guests chewing on fibrous, indigestible leaves. After some unfortunate experiences like that, my general rule of thumb now is to go way further than I think I should. So, I strip and I strip. But am I going too far? When should I stop? Or should I just say “no”?
I have been experimenting regularly for months now with the gorgeous baby artichokes in the markets. I think I’ve finally conquered them.

Artichauts à la Barigoule with fava beans and peas

Artichauts à la Barigoule is a classic entrée, or first course, in France. But personally, I figure, after going to all that work, peeling, trimming, rubbing, sautéing and simmering, I’m happy to make this the main event for a lunch. Just add some chewy bread from Farinoman Fou or your favourite boulanger and maybe a bit of cheese to follow. On the other hand, this dish can easily be prepared a day in advance and re-warmed just before serving.

Choose a lovely bouquet of baby artichokes, firm and tight. Here, they are usually sold in bunches of 5-6, or choose 12 tiny ones. The violet ones are particularly appealing.
Squeeze half a lemon into a medium bowl, then add enough cold water to hold the trimmed artichokes. The lemon helps to keep them from turning dark.

Trim the stem of the artichoke, but leave a few centimetres, because it makes for a beautiful presentation. Peel the stems down to the tender interior. Then start to peel the outer leaves off the bulb, and peel and peel, until you arrive at the light green, tender interior. Then cut off the top 1/3.  As you trim and cut, rub the artichoke with what’s left of the lemon half. Trim around the base of the artichoke to make it smooth-ish. Cut them in half, lengthwise, or in quarters if they are larger. If there is any fuzzy choke inside, scoop it out, but that is not usually a problem with smaller artichokes. As soon as each artichoke is cut, drop it into the acidulated water.
Chop one hefty slice of bacon into bits (lardons) and brown them in a saucepan with high sides that will eventually hold all of the ingredients. Meanwhile, chop an onion and add it to the pan. Then chop a big carrot and add it as well. Then one or two cloves of garlic, chopped. Add a healthy sprig of thyme (or a sprinkling of herbes de provence) and a bay leaf.

Drain the artichokes and add them. Toss and brown them a bit if you wish (not necessary – it just makes for a slightly different texture in the end). Then splash in some wine, let it bubble a bit, then add some chicken broth (or water) to just cover the ingredients. When it comes to a boil, reduce the heat, cover the pot and let it simmer for ten to twenty minutes, depending on the size of the artichokes. Remove the cover, stir, and let the liquid boil down until you are left with a deliciously saucy consistency – juicy but not soupy. Prick an artichoke with a knife to be sure it is tender. 

Pick out the sprigs of thyme and bay leaf. Scoop the mixture into wide soup bowls. You can serve it hot or warm. Be sure each bowl contains some of the juices. If you’re feeling extravagant, drizzle some gorgeous extra-virgin olive oil on and sprinkle with some fleur de sel and pepper. Garnish with a fresh sprig of thyme. Serve with a spoon and fork.

Three stages of fava beans

You can eliminate the bacon entirely and it will still be delicious.
You can also add fava beans and freshly shelled peas, making it a real celebration of spring. This is my favourite version and it is actually possible to do here in Provence, as artichokes, favas and peas come into the market together (as opposed to home, where they come from weird parts of the world at strange times of the year).
Preparing fava beans is another labour of love. But it’s worth it. And it’s another one of those vegetables that yields very little after all the prep. It’s a two-step process. First you shell the fava beans. Simmer the beans in a little just-boiling water for about a minute to soften them a bit and loosen the skin. Drain and rinse them under cold water. Then with your fingernail, cut an opening in the top of each bean and squirt the bright green interior out onto a plate. Discard the skins.
As for the peas, you just need to shell them. Add both the shelled fava beans and the shelled peas around five minutes before the barigoule is ready.

It’s hard to get around the fact that there are certain ingredients that just take time and effort to prepare. However, it is also good to know that in France, the markets and shops are full of items already prepared and ready to go. For example:
-Beets, already boiled and peeled, or sometimes even roasted over a wood fire.
-Chickpeas, boiled and available at the market stalls by the cupful.
-Lardons, or bacon bits, already chopped up in a package. Or better yet, a good butcher will do it for you on the spot.
-Quails wrapped and tied prettily in thin strips of bacon.
-The best spit-roasted chicken you will ever eat.
-Same goes for the ‘jambonneau’, a succulent piece of pork.
-Roasted potatoes with the chicken, cooked in the chicken drippings!
-Delicious and potent aioli (garlic mayonaise), freshly prepared by the traiteur.
-A good traiteur offers a vast array of prepared foods, from delicate quenelles to meats in sauces, to vegetable gratins to salads. French people have their favourite traiteur and are not shy about indulging in such conveniences.
-Need I mention the cakes and desserts available at patisseries??

Small artichokes left whole are also very attractive

Bread at Le Farinoman Fou

Farinoman Fou hard at work

Entrance to Le Farinoman Fou
A la prochaine,