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|
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|
|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|
RECIPE OF THE WEEK: CURED SARDINES
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.
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|
A la prochaine,