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!

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,

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Anchovies for Breakfast

Baguette in the basket (panier), flowering rosemary stolen from nearby

"Nuages" bread from Farinoman Fou

A popular bakery in Paris

Those were the days – when girls were girls and men were men and baguettes were baguettes. Nowadays, in French bakeries, you find all manner of breads, including the slim ficelle, the baguépi, the restaurant, the banette (referring to the type of flour), then fancier concoctions like à l’ancienne, rustique, fantaisie, you name it. Also, it goes without saying, croissants, pain au raisin and pain au chocolat. Upon arrival in Provence, one of my goals was to learn about and try out various new breads. But it’s important to ask the right question. One morning, in a bakery in Calvi, Corsica, I perused the vast range of loaves on display. I ordered one, and then, ignoring all my training as an interviewer, asked her if the bread next to it was the same as the one I had asked for. She curtly replied “Non!”, plunked my bread down on the counter, then moved on to the next customer. I left the bakery none the wiser.

Anchovy Pizza (okay, really a Pissaladière)

Most bakeries will also offer savoury treats, like a version of pizza prepared on their own bread dough. Being more attached to savoury (salé) than sweet (sucré), there are times when I arrive hungry at a bakery in the morning and find a slice of anchovy pizza too much to resist.

Scallops with apple rémoulade and apple ice cream

Carrot popsicle served with frozen crème caramel mixed with foie gras

Another creative touch at Pierre Reboul

One of the many restaurant trends we’ve observed is ice cream or sorbet served as part of a first course. At A Vista in Bastia, Corsica, we were served a tomato mozzarella salad deconstructed and re-imagined. It included fried mozzarella sticks with a melted mozzarella “dipping sauce”, a ball of mozzarella covered with herbs, plus a peeled and hollowed out tomato “gobelet” filled with tomato and basil sorbet. At U Fanale in Calvi, Jim enjoyed scallops, both raw and smoked, served with apple ice cream. At Le Formal in Aix-en-Provence, we marvelled at our foie gras “sandwich” served with fig and ginger ice cream. And at Pierre Reboul, a bastion of molecular gastronomy, one of our (many) starters was a carrot popsicle served with frozen crème caramel mixed with foie gras. Another appetizer included both celery sorbet and arugula sorbet served with smoked and raw fish.

Cake, pronounced “kek”, is a popular hors d’oeuvre in Provence. I’m talking about a savoury version. It can be served in slices or in cubes with toothpicks. A typical version is made with olives. Here is a variation of a cake that our friend Marie made for a dinner party recently. This version involves olives, zucchini, goat cheese and almonds. But feel free to vary the ingredients according to your taste or what’s on hand.

Yummy, even without a proper loaf pan

The challenge in making a savoury cake is to keep it moist. Here, the key is the addition of yogurt. The zucchini and goat cheese help, too. The olives add a bit of zing and the almonds give a crunch. The cake keeps well for a couple of days wrapped in plastic and it’s also delicious for breakfast.

Slice a medium zucchini into thin rounds and sauté it in a bit of olive oil until it is tender and just starting to brown. Cut about 150 grams of goat cheese into pieces. Grate 50 grams of emmental cheese (or gruyère). Pit and chop 12 black olives. Chop a handful of salted almonds, not too fine.

In a medium bowl, mix three eggs, 150 grams of flour, one packet of baking powder (about a tablespoon), salt and pepper. Stir in a tablespoon of Dijon mustard, 120 ml of plain yogurt, 2 tablespoons of sunflower oil, a teaspoon or so of fresh thyme (or herbes de provence). Then stir in the olives, the two cheeses, almonds and the zucchini. Add some chopped parsley or green onion if you wish.

Turn the mixture into a greased loaf pan and bake in a 350 degree oven for around 45 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the centre comes out clean.

- Tartare – usually of beef, but also salmon or scallops or other fish. (Tartare means it is raw.) I’m still surprised by the number of restaurants that offer beef tartare. What is particularly funny is to stroll past a simple café, where everyone orders the plat du jour for lunch, and if it’s beef tartare, to see hordes of people eating mountains of raw beef. But Jim ordered it the other day at “Entre Midi et Deux”, a simple hole-in-the-wall restaurant on the Rue d’Italie in Aix, and it was truly delicious.
- Carpaccio – same – raw stuff, but sliced paper-thin.
- Wok – of chicken, lamb, vegetables, you name it – obviously indicates a Chinese preparation.
- Crumble, pronounced “crom-bull” – both savoury and sweet versions.
- Verrine – well, this trend is maybe getting a bit passé now, but basically it is a small something served in a glass (think tapas).
- Tapas.
- Cocottes - individual ceramic pots with lids filled with something delicious.
- Food that comes with instructions. For example, you may be served a plate with three items on it and the server insists you take a bit of each on your fork and eat them together. Or, you get a plate with three things on it and the server explains in which order to eat them.

A recent hike on the Calanques (rocky inlets) near Cassis

The Port-Miou calanque

The chilly water at the Calanque Port Pin

A la prochaine,