Welcome to The Aix-Files

Thanks for checking out The Aix-Files, my
blog postings inspired by my year in and around
Aix-en-Provence. The spot includes travel tips,
discoveries of local food and wine, recipes,
cultural events, interviews and historical
tidbits about Southern France. Enjoy!



Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Le Facteur

Our mailman (facteur)

"Don’t expect any mail to be delivered,” Monique said at her house on the night of our arrival at La Roque-sur-Pernes. But we were expecting important documents pertaining to our long-term visas.

“Even if we have indicated the address, our names and the names of the owners of the house?” I asked.

The next morning I happened to meet the mailman (le facteur) on the square in his little golden truck. I explained our situation, and asked if he wouldn’t mind delivering our mail. “But your house doesn’t actually have a mailbox,” he pointed out. Oh. We then agreed that if the shutters to our front door were open, he would deliver the mail;  if not, he would drop it off at Monique and Jacques' house. He noted our names and all of the pertinent information on a piece of paper on his dashboard.

In the days following, during my morning runs, we played tag, him darting in and out of driveways while I slogged up the big long hill, both of us waving back and forth.

Finally, one morning, when I heard his truck idling outside the window, I looked down and he saw me, waving a letter – our first. I rushed down to receive it. It was a bill (facture) from the hospital in Aix where Jim had had some treatments. As Jacques later said, “C’est toujours le facteur qui distribue les factures” (sounds better in French).

Recently Monique brought over yet another bill. “Yes, the days of receiving love letters in the mail are finished,” she said. We also received my (previously lost) driver’s license, then all of the paperwork for income taxes, which unfortunately don’t take a year’s sabbatical.
TRUFFLE UPDATE:
Yes, I think we have enjoyed our final truffles. The season ends in the middle of March. We found our own personal rabassier (truffle picker) Georges Reymond and his family. We met them on several occasions – the first time under the cover of darkness. We agreed to meet in front of the mairie (town hall) in Mazan at 7 pm -- very suspicious, I know. But it was already dark when we arrived in this new town, so we drove around and around, asking people along the way, then finally found the building at 7:30. They had already gone home.

We tried again the day after and spent an enjoyable, but intense, hour with them in their cozy home as Jim decided whether to buy one huge truffle or three small ones.



M. & Mme. Reymond and their truffles





Waiter at Chez Serge

RECENTLY WE:
-Enjoyed our last truffle meal at Chez Serge.
-Strolled down the back roads with flowering almond trees.
-Sneaked into fields of flowering apricots trees. I even changed my running route in the morning. Why run a distance up a hill, when I could just do “laps” in and around the apricot trees, sniffing and admiring each one along the way?

-NOTE: I have only met one runner on my uphill route in all these months. I guess everyone else knows better. I do encounter cyclists from time to time. As they whiz by me they always call out “Bon courage!”















"My secret place" on my running route



One more hill to climb, back into town



RECIPE OF THE WEEK: SADDLE OF RABBIT STUFFED WITH ALMONDS AND SUN-DRIED TOMATOES
This is an elaboration of a recipe we observed at a cooking demonstration at the truffle festival in Carpentras. The presentation is spectacular. When we tried it at home we didn’t actually have any more truffes, but it was still excellent. So do as you wish.

Almonds don’t actually ripen until August, but you can still do this dish with almond products already available.

You will need one saddle of rabbit (rable de lapin) for two people. Debone it, revealing two large flat pieces (or ask your butcher to do this for you). 

On a small plate, mix about 100 g of almond powder together with some olive oil and herbes de provence. (I had almond flakes, which I crushed to make a rough powder.)  Spread this almond paste over the rabbit. Place a thin slice of jambon cru (or prosciutto), cut to fit, along the thick edge, then a couple of sage leaves to cover the length. Then place two or three sun-dried tomatoes, preserved in oil, on top in a row. Season with salt and pepper. Roll the meat up tightly and wrap very snugly in foil, twisting the ends, like a Christmas cracker. You don’t want it to leak. Bake in the oven at 180 celsius or 375 fahrenheit for 20 – 25 minutes, depending on the size of your meat.

Meanwhile, chop 2 medium onions finely and brown them in a sauté pan in a mixture of butter and olive oil.  If you have the kidyneys or liver, chop them up and add them to the pan. Pour in a splash of wine (white or red, your choice), scraping up any browned bits and reduce it slightly. Mix some cornstarch with a little veal broth (or chicken broth) and stir it into the mixture. Add more veal broth to the pan and simmer until it is reduced somewhat and thickened, but still sauce-y. If you have some truffle butter (butter mashed with chopped up truffles), add a spoonful, off-heat, until incorporated.

Unroll each package of rabbit, cut it in half, arranging it decoratively on the plate. Spoon the sauce on and around. If you wish, add some fresh parsley and toss on a couple of salted, roasted and chopped almonds as garnish. We enjoyed this with warm petite épautre (like wheatberries). It would also be good with grilled polenta or mashed (puréed) potatoes. Enjoy!

Saddle of rabbit preparation


A la prochaine,

Andrea










More sauce, please

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Historian

Danielle and Jacques, start of our hike of the Mur de la Peste


“What did you do with the orange peels?” Danielle asked. We were nibbling on oranges, which we had brought back from Menton, at the end of our picnic with Danielle and Jacques, just before our hike. We were huddled together against some bushes to shelter us from the wind that suddenly blew up. We were on a plateau overlooking the magnificent Luberon mountain range to the south. They brought along a blanket to sit on. Luxury.

“You should have kept them. Maybe you can still rescue them. You could make vin d’orange. After 40 days, it will be ready.”

Danielle’s family has lived in this part of Provence for over 500 years. She now lives in the farmhouse of her grandparents. She is a historian with a deep knowledge of the Vaucluse, where we are. So while we munched on our sandwiches and her home-cured olives, she regaled us with all of the gory details of the plague of the 1720s.

The plague arrived at the port of Marseille when lax officials allowed goods in without the normal period of quarantine. Danielle described how 50 % of the population of Marseille parished, 36% in Avignon, but a mere 16% in the Comtat Venaissin, our district in the Vaucluse. Families had to make the difficult decision of abandoning their sick relatives when they contracted the plague, or caring for them for two or three days, risking infection, and then abandoning them. A stone plaque at the start of our hike depicts the bizarre uniform worn by residents at the time to protect themselves from infection. They kept herbs inside the “beak” of the costume for further protection.

The strange costume with the beak

Mur de la Peste
Our hike took us up along le Mur de la Peste, the wall of the plague. Wise officials at the time decided to erect a long wall of stone to protect the people of the Comtat Venaissin. And speaking in broad terms, it did the trick. But not without a lot of hard work and suffering. First they had to build the thing, with dry stone, no mortar. Local farmers were required to take turns guarding the wall so no one passed through. That meant their wives had to take over the strenuous farming duties.

Today the wall is largely intact, not too high, and gives a poignant picture of the difficulties people faced in the past.

THREE DAYS LATER, we entered Danielle’s kitchen to find a huge vat of vin d’orange (orange wine) on the table, ready for doctoring. We were at her farmhouse for a cozy dinner around her warm fireplace (cheminé). Danielle prefers making simple dishes based around vegetables, all locally produced, which suited us just fine. After more of her home-cured olives, we enjoyed a vegetable soup (potage) drizzled with a very good olive oil and garnished with grilled croutons. “I get very upset when I see people throwing away bread. There is so much you can do with it,” she said. “Yes,” I mumbled sheepishly. That was followed by a puree of winter squash with parsley; long-simmered zucchini with onion; her own tomatoes cooked with olives, garlic and onion; plus some small fish - merlan - gently simmered and served with another drizzle of olive oil. She apologized unnecessarily for the simplicity of the meal. We found it absolutely delicious.



Climbing up to the chateau at La Fontaine de Vaucluse










The Abbey of Sylvacane



RECENTLY WE:
-Attended a fabulous concert in a lovely hall in Le Thor featuring Angelo Debarre group playing Django Rheinhardt-inspired music, tighter than a belt after Christmas dinner.
-Enjoyed very traditional artichauts à la barigoule followed by a velvety fricassée of piglet (porcelet) at Ou Ravi Provencau in the town of Maussane-les-Alpilles in the heart of the Alpilles mountain range, where Jim and I had been maybe a dozen years ago.
-As Mausanne is also a big centre for olive oil, we tasted some of the best from Moulin Jean-Marie Cornille
-Picnicked at the Abbey of Sylvacane along the Durance River.
-Visited the Abbey of Sénanque, a spiritual and peaceful thing to do.



Cloisters of Sénanque
















Cloister detail

















RECIPE OF THE WEEK: TOMATOES WITH OLIVES
This recipe comes from Danielle’s family. It makes a delicious companion dish for fish, such as cod, meat, zucchini and eggplant. As she points out, it can also serve as a base for a vegetable tian (vegetable dish baked in a flat gratin dish, or tian).

First, pick your olives in the fall and cure them for several months with salt. If you don’t happen to have an olive tree, choose tasty olives, such as those from Nyons or those wrinkly Turkish olives.

Slice an onion thinly and sauté it in a large pan in peanut oil until nicely browned (not black! Danielle says). Slice two cloves of garlic and add them to the onions, stirring, for just a minute or two. Add one large can of peeled and chopped tomatoes, (the ones I found were cut in half, so I simply sliced them in long strips with scissors). Add some chopped parsley, two bay leaves, some branches of thyme, a teaspoon of sugar, salt and pepper and 10 –15 olives. Simmer gently, uncovered, until the sauce is well reduced and thick but still juicy. Pull out the bay leaves and thyme branches. If you like, remove the olives, blend the sauce until it is smooth, then add the olives back in; but I rather like a chunky texture. Enjoy!

Olive tree


A la prochaine,

Andrea

Monday, March 7, 2011

Menton Lemon Festival

Welcome to the Menton Lemon Festival


Viking


 
Children participated in the festival, too



Citrus trees line the streets of Menton

It’s rather embarrassing to arrive with a burnt lemon tart. Okay, it was just shy of too-burnt-to-eat. Especially because during the meal Brigitte kept mentioning all of the cooking courses I have been taking. But between international phone calls and not really knowing what all the dials mean on the oven, it was a near disaster, and too late to start over. And pastry has never been my specialty anyway.

We were invited to our French teacher’s house for dinner. Her husband, Palomo, a Chilean artist and musician, built and decorated virtually every inch of the furniture and ornaments in their house. It was hard to take it all in. Wherever you turned, there was a new surprise, be it the hand railing, a mobile, a kitchen cupboard or a chair. It was like stepping into a cozy home in Chile (not that I’ve ever been there). He also cooked el pastel de choclo, a delicious Chilean dish based on corn. A few weeks earlier Brigitte invited us to an apéro-concert at a little café in Pernes les Fontaines where Palomo and his band were playing. It was a wonderful, intimate evening of Latin music and Jim joined in on his accordion for half of the evening. At the dinner mentioned above, Ignacio, the singer of the band, and Jocelyne politely asked for seconds of the lemon tart and even picked at the crusty bits in the pan.

I normally don’t offer to bring dessert, but seeing as how we had just returned from the Fête du Citron, the lemon festival in Menton, with a trunk full of Menton lemons and oranges, it seemed like a good idea.



Café with the Aunties in Menton


Lemon Festival Parade, Menton

Illuminated park in Menton







Menton is the last French city along the Côte d’Azur before reaching the Italian frontier. You hear as much Italian as French being spoken here. Because of the wall of sheltering mountains just behind, it is one of the warmest corners of France, producing the right conditions for citrus trees, palms and other tropical plants. Some of Menton’s prettiest streets are lined with orange trees, groaning with ripening fruit.



This is also the season for mimosas, which perfume a room with the scent of candy.

Mimosas

The lemon festival was a sea of yellow and orange. Ignoring the discarded fruit crates from Spain, evidently used in some of the decorations, we were truly impressed with the enormous structures, created from only lemons and oranges, a Herculean effort. The theme for this year’s lemon festival was “Great Civilisations”, so the vast Jardins Biovès displayed colossal monuments representing the Vikings, the Celts, Egypt, Greece, the Andes, Rome, Persia, Stonehenge, the local god ‘Citrus Limonia’, even cave men. How they were able to reproduce the language of the cavemen, I will never know. At night the garden is illuminated atmospherically, with talented actors animating the display.

Given that Menton is normally blessed with 300 days of sunshine annually, it was too bad it rained during the inaugural parade. That did not stop 23,000 people from attending. The confetti mixed with the raindrops and the lemons and oranges replaced the sunshine. There were smiles on everyone’s faces and we even managed to snap some photos in and around the bobbing umbrellas. The gigantic floats were once again impressive, alternating with marching bands from all over Europe and scantilly-clad dancers braving the cold and rain, jiggling to hot Brazilian rhythms.

Each city and town along the Côte d’Azur has its own particular atmosphere. Menton, where we visited the aunties, is stately and old-worldly with majestic buildings lining the streets. The Promenade du Soleil, or waterfront walkway, runs tight against the sea, so you can hear the waves being sucked up along the rocks, water even splashing up on the sidewalk on windy days. The vista is somewhat sullied at this time of year by the huge grandstands, an unfortunate necessity for the big parades of the festival. Guidebooks describe Menton as a geriatric holiday destination, and while you do see a few more people strolling with canes along with the joggers, really, the spirit is lively and bubbly, due in part to the festival, I’m sure.

Nice

The waterfront of Nice, where we visited Mom, Dad, Peter and Erika, further west down the coast, is vast, sweeping and sprawling. The Promenade des Anglais is thick with runners, skateboarders and strollers who can’t help but stop and gauk at the Hotel Negresco (well okay, speaking for myself). You could run from here to Cannes, as they do in the annual marathon in November.


Hotel Negresco, Nice

Excercising on the Promande des Anglais


Strolling on the Promenade des Anglais

Socca with pepper




Peter and Erika

Cannes, where we strolled for hours with our friends Alexis and Nestor, is chic and sophisticated. There, the boulevard de la Croisette feels more intimate, lined with palms and lush greenery, with fashionable shops and Hotel Majestic crowding the other side of the street. There seem to be fewer joggers here. I guess it’s not that comfortable running in a fur coat. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many furs, even in Winnipeg. On one street corner we saw four women in furs, and it was +12 degrees, although the wind was a bit nippy.


Alexis & Andrea, Cannes




La Croisette, Cannes


Interesting work in Cannes
 



Looking for work in Cannes





Shop in Cannes selling Russian icons and other "objets d'art"

 
ALONG THE CÔTE D’AZUR WE ALSO:
-Sampled an authentic meal at Café Restaurant de la Bourse in the old town of Nice with Mom and Dad. It’s the tiniest little hole-in-the-wall, full of locals enjoying sardine fritters and daube de boeuf with ravioli. The 12-euro menu even includes a kir.
-Enjoyed breakfast on the terrace in Nice overlooking the sea.
-Nibbled on the local specialty, socca, like a chickpea pancake.
-Went out on the town in Nice with Peter and Erika.
-Revisited the incredible indoor-outdoor Fondation Maeght in St. Paul near Nice with incredible works by Miro and Giacchometti.
-Enjoyed a fabulous lunch at Les Bacchanales in Vence where we sampled an inventive dish of artichokes with fish and radicchio de treviso.
-Located one of the few remaining wineries in les Alpes-Maritimes, Domaine des Hautes Collines, le Vignoble de Saint Jeannet, where the vigneron still ferments his wine in glass bonbonnes.
-Were the first to try out the brand new restaurant called VII on ave. Edouard VII in Menton with a very creative menu.
-Took the train to Ventimiglia over the border in Italy where we drank cappuccino, bought raddichio de treviso at the market, ate pizza and climbed up to the old town.
-Sampled loup de mer (sea bass) at La Cantinella in Menton, encrusted with sea salt and chipped open with a very large implement, filleted perfectly by our friendly server.
-Sipped limoncello after dinner at the apartment in Menton.


Menton lemons and oranges


RECIPE OF THE WEEK: WINTER SALAD WITH ORANGES

I will not offer a recipe for lemon tart, as it clearly needs a bit of work. But we have been making variations of this salad every few days and it has served us well through these cold days (ho ho ho) of winter.



Mâche is one of the most popular winter greens around here. The leaves are small but sturdy. They are generally sold with the tiny root still attached. I like just to trim the root and serve the greens with their bouquets still intact. Wash the greens carefully and spin them dry. Make a vinaigrette of lemon juice, Dijon mustard, chopped shallot, a drizzle of honey, salt and pepper and an excellent extra-virgin olive oil. Dress the greens, tossing gently. Separate sections of clementines and add them to the salad. If you use oranges instead, cut the peel off with a sharp knife, cutting away the white pith. Separate the oranges into sections, adding them to the salad.
I have become quite fond of the firm goat cheeses available here, called crottins. They look like hard, mouldy discs, not very attractive, but in fact are delicious when grated on a salad. If you can get your hands on one, grate it onto your salad. Garnish with toasted pine nuts.
VARIATIONS:
Add to or replace the mâche with Belgian endive. Slice it cross-wise into strips.
Add or replace fresh fennel for the mâche. Shave it thinly with a mandoline.
Add a few cured olives for garnish.

Mâche at the farmer's market, Velleron

BONUS RECIPE OF THE WEEK: ORANGE SALAD
Caroline served this simple dish at the end of a meal at her home in Carpentras alongside chocolate mousse, and following a chicken and pear tagine prepared by her husband Bernard. The oranges are so juicy and sweet they stand up on their own.
This is hardly a recipe, just a great, refreshing end to a meal. Simply cut off the peel of several oranges with a sharp knife, ensuring you cut away the white pith. Cut out the sections, leaving the skins behind. Do this over a bowl, squeezing the skins over the fruit to retain all of the juices. Garnish with lime zest and a bit of mint if you have it. Chill before serving.

Lemons, oranges and bubbles
 À la prochaine,

Andrea

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Black Diamond - Part 2

Tuber Melanosporum

The negotiation, Carpentras

Cooking brouillade for the masses, Carpentras

“Hidden in small bags, truffles are awaited like stars, wearing their beautiful ‘Tuber Melanosporum’ black dress, their fragrance flies all over the market.”

Not my words, but an apt description of the Carpentras truffle market, portraying the desire, the enticement, the fear and the excitement. Strange that this foodstuff, once sniffed out by pigs (still in the Périgord), now dogs, in the past was considered peasant food, and at times was the only food available to poor farmers in winter. As I mentioned in the last blog, and as you probably know, the truffle is now one of the most highly prized – and priced – products in the world: this smelly black blob that grows only where the sun never shines. For locals, it is still considered a regular product, not glamorous or fancy. Many people know pickers in the area and buy directly, thus avoiding the pressure and higher prices (and deception and dishonesty) at the market.
Confrérie at the Truffle Festival, Pernes les Fontaines

Festivities getting under way

Waiting for a truffle omelette in the cold
When we attended the truffle festival at nearby Pernes-les-Fontaines, which was held outdoors on the coldest Saturday in January, the mayor made a point of warning potential buyers about the cheap but poor truffles now being brought in from China. That was the only sour note sounded that sunny but blustery day. Festivities there started with a mass, and then a blessing of the truffles by the priest with an olive branch dipped in holy water. A donkey led the way for the Confrérie de la Diamant Noir, their forces bolstered by the purple-clad Confrérie de la Figue from nearby Caromb and the green and melon-coloured Ordre du Melon de Cavaillon. Lineups were long for the crèpes with truffled béchamel sauce, brouillade and truffle-stuffed brie. Jim’s omelette aux truffe was at risk of jumping off his plate as he ate it in the chilly air, hands trembling from the cold.

Chef Michel Phlibert,Gajuléa
 In the warmth of the kitchen, the challenge is to coax out as much flavour as possible from the truffle. As chef Michel Philibert pointed out, when we took his truffle course at his Restaurant du Gajuléa in Le Barroux, it’s really a game you play with the truffle. You mix it with some conduit, whether it be cream, butter, wine or egg, add the slightest bit of heat to bring out the flavour but not enough heat to kill it.

During his course we prepared tiny ratte potatoes stuffed with truffles. We also poached sweetbreads in a court bouillon, then stuffed pieces into a vol-au-vent made of puff pastry that we watched Michel make before our eyes. This puff pastry vessel also included steamed spinach and regular mushrooms which we cooked down and then enriched with cream, topped off with truffles. We even added truffles to our dessert, an apple tart with truffled almond paste. We enjoyed the meal at the table with chef Michel while his wife, Cathy, generously poured Vieux Télégraphe Chateauneuf-du-Pape from a nine-litre bottle. Truly.


Fava beans and asparagus in truffled beurre blanc




Reine Sammut is 2nd from the right







In Reine Sammut's kitchen



We also had a wonderful day preparing truffles with Reine Sammut at Auberge de la Fenière in Lourmarin. We made fava beans and asparagus (the first of the season) in a truffled beurre blanc and a truffled potato tart tatin.


 

Michel's doggy in the kitchen
 RECIPE OF THE WEEK: TRUFFLED RATTE POTATOES

Choose medium or large ratte potatoes. If this is meant to be a first course, choose about two per person (but make extra, just in case some break). Boil them gently until they are cooked and tender, but not mushy. Peel them. Cut them in half, lengthwise, and scrape out the inside with a tiny spoon such as a melon baller, leaving a thick wall. Keep each pair of halves together on your work surface. With a fork mix the potato bits that you have just scraped out with grated truffle, a drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper. Re-fill the potato halves with this mixture, close the potatoes firmly, wrap them in paper-thin slices of bacon and then wrap them individually in tin-foil. Place on a baking sheet and cook at 350 for ten minutes. Remove the foil and serve the potatoes with a little salad. We enjoyed wild dandelion greens dressed with olive oil, salt and pepper and a few more shavings of truffle.
Truffled ratte potatoes with wild dandelion greens



À la prochaine,
Andrea