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, 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

No comments: