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, August 30, 2011

Closing Time

Closed Tuesdays and Rainy Days

Since the day we arrived in Provence I have been trying to figure out when places are open and when they are closed. There are no consistent rules, nor, seemingly, any rhyme or reason for opening and closing on a particular day or a particular time. Many places still close for lunch, which I am accustomed to, sometimes opening as late as 4 pm, but then staying open until 7 or 7:30, presumably to accomodate the after-work customers. Some places are open on a Sunday morning, but almost everything is closed on Monday. Some places close for the winter. Our favourite butcher in Aix, Boucherie du Palais, is open Monday, Wednesday and Saturday from 7 am to 1pm; Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 7 to 1, then 4 pm to 7:30 and they are closed all day Sunday. Try remembering that. And don’t forget those hard-working souls who toil outdoors in the heat. When I phoned our winemaking friend, Vincent de Dianous, one afternoon at 2:30, I felt very badly when I heard his groggy voice, realizing I had disturbed his afternoon siesta. I made a mental note for the future. And I got into the habit of asking hours of business in shops on my way out.

Here are some typical exchanges:
“What are your hours?” “We’re open all day.” “Even during lunch?” “No, we’re closed at lunch.
“Which days are you open during the week?” “Every day.” “Even Sunday?” “No, not on Sunday.
At a bakery in St. Antoine: “Are you always open on Sundays?” “Yes, every Sunday.” The following Sunday afternoon I arrived to find the shop shut up tight as a drum. So apparently they are only open Sunday mornings.
At a hotel in Corsica: “Are you open all year?” “Yes, all year.” “Even during the winter?” “No, we’re closed during the winter.” “What about at Easter?” “We might be open at Easter.”

Our narrow road in La Roque sur Pernes

Watch out for wild boars

Strike notice written on a sheet at the hospital

No dog doo-doo, please

Truffle lovers

The Truffle Brotherhood

No digging for truffles here

Olive oil mill, Nyons

Vinegar shop, Nyons

The origins of the name of the region Vaucluse

Bakery, Fontaine de Vaucluse

The connection between Aix-en-Provence and Canada

Our classy planter

This is the perfect solution for those who, like me, wish to serve a pretty dessert but are afraid of making a pastry dough. It comes together very quickly and you can even make it a day in advance. Jacques prepared this for us for lunch one day at La Roque sur Pernes with the ripest local cherries imaginable (this area of the Vaucluse is celebrated for its cherries). You can change the fruit through the season, but you may need to adjust the amount of sugar according to the type and the ripeness of the fruit. My own variation is to add a couple of crushed lavender blossoms for a certain floral je-ne-sais-quoi.

In a medium bowl mix 100 grams of flour with 80 grams of sugar and a pinch of salt. Add 3 eggs, one at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon just until you obtain a smooth dough. Add 200 ml of milk, 80 ml of heavy cream, and a couple of tablespoons of kirsch or whatever other fruity alcohol you like. Crush a couple of fresh or dried lavender blossoms, if available in your back yard, and stir them in. Mix well, then place in the fridge for at least an hour.

Preheat the oven to 200°C or 400°F. Generously butter a gratin dish or other pretty tart pan. Fill the pan with around 750 grams of cherries, stemmed but left whole with the pits, in one level. Fit them in very tightly (the amount of cherries will depend on the size of pan you use.) Pour on the prepared mixture to just cover the cherries.

Bake in the oven for 20 minutes. Sprinkle on more sugar and continue baking in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes. (If your cherries are super-ripe, you can eliminate the extra addition of sugar and bake the clafoutis for 35 – 40 minutes.) Do warn your guests that the cherries contain pits.

If you use other fruit, again choose very ripe ones. Apricots can be pitted and sliced in half, peaches and plums can be pitted and sliced into four or eight pieces. Bon appétit!

A la prochaine,

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Driving and Parking in Aix

Now that we are back in Aix, but this time on the outskirts of town, we have a new challenge: actually driving IN Aix. While it’s only a 25 minute walk to the centre of town, it is not that fun to hike back home with a basket (panier) full to the brim with market produce, and especially up that last steep hill. Or arriving at someone’s house for dinner sweating buckets. So we are forced to drive in town more often than we ever did before. Which then leads to major issues of dealing with traffic, especially around the ring road (periferique). And parking. We are now behaving more like locals (riverains), actually driving ON the Cours Mirabeau, instead of just dodging traffic as pedestrians; double parking on a narrow road and leaving the blinkers on while running into a shop for one little thing; parking with two wheels on the curb.

Being Winnipeggers, we are also constantly looking for free parking, which is almost non-existent in Aix. However, we have learned that:  parking on the street is free from noon to 2 pm (after all, traffic cops need to take lunch, too); street parking is free on a Sunday, which means there is never an available spot; if you pull into a big indoor parking lot and then finish your business within 30 minutes (not likely, but we always hope), it’s free.
This blog posting features photos of driving and parking in Aix (and elsewhere in Provence).

Parking on the Cours Mirabeau

A tight squeeze

Normally a pedestrian street . . ..

His trunk up front was full of wine when he parked here in Marseille

Troglomobile parked in front of the troglodite dwellings

A unique place to park your butt

Boats parked in the harbour in Cassis

The port of Marseille

Gravlax has nothing to do with parking or driving, but I wanted to include it in the blog as it’s one of my signature dishes, perfect as an hors d’oeuvre for a small dinner party or the main event at a big cocktail party.

Gravlax is very popular in France around Christmas and New Year’s, when people pull out all the stops, but I like to make it in mid-summer when huge bunches of fresh dill and vividly-coloured wild salmon are readily available. While you can make gravlax using just one fillet, I prefer using two whole sides. It takes just as long to make a large amount and when it’s ready, I like to chop it into pieces and freeze it. Also it is easier to slice when it is still a bit icy. Bear in mind you will need two to three days from start to finish.

Start with two large sides of salmon, filleted but with skin on. Line a large rimmed baking sheet generously with sheets of plastic wrap. Lay the salmon on top, skin side down. In a bowl, mix 1/3 cup of salt (I like kosher salt or fine sea salt) with ¼ cup of sugar. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the salmon flesh, pressing so it adheres. Lay two very large handfuls of dill (big branches removed) on top of both fillets. Drizzle two tablespoons of vodka or brandy on top. Lay one fillet on top of the other, skin side out. Wrap the salmon tightly in the plastic. Lay another baking sheet on top and weight it down with something heavy (I like to use two or three bricks wrapped in tin foil).

Place the tray in the fridge for 24 – 36 hours, turning the salmon once a day. When it is ready, the salmon will have given off a lot of liquid and the flesh will be firm to the touch. At this point it is ready to serve, or you can cut it into smaller portions and freeze it for down the road.
To serve, scrape off the dill and carefully wipe off the salt and sugar. Slice it very thinly on the diagonal with a very sharp knife. This is easer to do when the fish is still a bit icy. Lay the slices decoratively on a serving platter and garnish with tiny dill sprigs.

I like to serve the gravlax with cocktail rye or crackers and honey mustard sauce to drizzle on top. To make the sauce, just mix some liquid honey into Dijon mustard until it’s to your liking. Enjoy!

A la prochaine,