Happy Holidays

Twinkling lights on trees, houses and buildings are as much a part of Christmas as Santa and reindeer.  In a tiny hameau in the hills of Provence there’s an illumination extravaganza this holiday season that is a wonder to behold.cars4

Cars – French classics – gleam under the lights of magnificent chandeliers, most of which are antique.   The exhibition brings together his two passions, “cars and chandeliers,” says chandelier designer Regis Mathieu.  His company, Mathieu Lustrerie, creates high-end lights, as well as restores and replicates antique chandeliers.

At their showroom  numerous  glittering antique treasures, as well as some contemporary versions,  cast their lights on priceless automobiles – most of which you have probably never heard of:  1937 Delage, 1938 Delahaye, 1926 Hispano-Suiza…  There’s also a dazzling 2012 Bugati.cars7

It’s a delightfully different – and fascinating – take on holiday lights.

The nighttime exhibit runs daily, except on holidays, until Jan. 13,  from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m.  (Hameau des Sauvans, Gargas)  www.mathieulustrerie.com

Wishing all a very Merry Christmas, Joyeux Noel, Frohe Weihnachten.cars16

For more on French Christmas, see my guest blog, “Christmas Feasting in France,” posted on Rantings of an Amateur Chef,  http://rantingchef.com  Special thanks to Lynne for the perfect accompanying food photos. 

See slideshow below for more cars and chandeliers. Blog subscribers also welcome. Don’t miss future posts. Click on Email Subscription at top right

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All about Life in France

The Germans have a saying, Leben wie Gott in Frankreich, (Live like God in France). After living and working in Germany for more than 25 years, I moved to southern France eight years ago to see just how God lived.  Not too shabby.  Life is good, very good, but not quite paradise.  Read on for my observations.

Topping off the list of pluses is Health Care.  Americans can criticize socialized medicine all they want, but I’m thrilled with the French system, universal care, which even covers home visits, taxi trips to doctors for those unable to drive, weeks in a rehab facility after some surgeries and much more.  For details, see my previous blog post,  “My New French Knee, “ all about my recent experience with knee replacement surgery.

Filing Taxes. My husband does ours.  Since our retirement income comes from the U.S., we file and pay U.S. taxes.  There is a reciprocal agreement between the U.S. and France, so we pay no income tax here. Nonetheless, as residents in France, we must fill out French tax forms.  My husband spent many long days on the computer, fighting with form after form, to file the U.S. taxes.   The French form, even for citizens, is short and simple.  I did it in minutes.

Elections.  During the French presidential campaign this spring, there were televised debates among candidates, as well as spot commercials.  But, each candidate was given the same amount of air time.  No matter how much money a candidate had, he/she could not buy extra television time.    The issues, the candidates’ positions and record, determined the outcome – not their wallet.

Food/Wine.   Both hard to beat.  Crusty baguettes, flaky croissants, sinful pastries… and, my downfall, all the fabulous cheeses.   Restaurant meals are generally excellent, and the wine is reasonable and good.  A glass of wine at our neighborhood café, 3 Euros, ($3.65).   As my husband and I like to imbibe with dinner at home, we buy table wine in five-liter boxes (almost seven bottles), from 13 Euros or $16 per box.  And, we love to visit the numerous wineries in these parts for tasting and purchasing.

Tips Included.  No need to get out your calculator and figure out what 15 or 20 percent of the total is for your tip.  Service is included in French restaurants.  If you are happy with the meal and service, you can leave a few extra Euros.

Politeness.  The French, including children, are extremely polite and courteous.  When entering a shop, a doctor’s waiting room, an office… they greet everyone with a “Bonjour Mesdames, Monsieurs.”   They also kiss a lot, but more on that to follow.

Laissez-Faire.   Life here is not over regulated.  If you visit a tourist site at the edge of a high cliff, for example, there will be no fences or walls at the edge obstructing your view and keeping you from falling. It’s up to you to use caution and control your children.

Leisurely meals. The French appreciate good food and conversation.  Meals, which consist of several courses, are not eat and run affairs. They can go on for hours.  It’s enjoyable and relaxing.

There’s more I love about life here: the beautiful view of the Luberon hills from our balcony, the bounteous markets, colorful local festivals in the summer, poppies in the spring, lavender and sunflowers in the summer, the sunshine, the pool…

But, not all is perfect.  At the top of my list of pet peeves are Business Hours  which drive me crazy.  Every shop, office, restaurant… has its own schedule.  You need a spread sheet to keep track of it all, but be prepared for changes.

Here in southern France, almost everything closes for a long lunch hour, but how long? The bakery and grocery store in my small village are closed every afternoon between 12:30 and 4 p.m. The post office only closes between noon and 1:30 p.m. The pharmacy is closed from 12:30 to 3 p.m., plus Saturday afternoon and Monday morning.  Restaurants are usually closed one or two days a week, but that varies with seasons.  How to remember which one is closed which day during which season.?

What really gets me is “Fermeture Exceptionelle” (exceptional closing). Too often  I have  made a special trip to the bank in a nearby town only to see this sign at the door.  No explanation. Go home and come back another day.

Driving Expenses.   Gasoline is very expensive here – about 1.6 Euros per liter (about $7.80 per gallon). Tolls on the autoroute are also expensive.  But this can be an advantage.  Only during peak travel seasons (certain summer weekends for example) are there traffic jams on these super highways.  You can usually sail along at a maximum speed of 130 km per hour, just over 80 mph.

Hunting Dogs.  As an animal lover, it grieves me to see how these dogs are neglected and abused.  Hunting is a popular sport in these parts, and most dedicated hunters keep several hunting dogs penned up year round. They are not treated as pets and are only released for the hunt.  Many get lost and end up homeless.  We once found a lost, friendly hunting dog wandering along a country road. We put him in the car and called the number on the collar it was wearing, then  met the owner in a nearby town.  Instead of being happy to see the animal, he grabbed it by the collar and tossed it into the back of his pick-up with several other sorry beasts.  I was devastated,  and regretted returning the poor dog to a miserable existence.

Punctuality.  This is strange.  If you invite French to your home, they generally show up on time.  But, go to an event, be it a concert, a performance, or a community dinner, and be prepared to sit and wait at least a half hour, and more often up to an hour, before the show gets on the road.   If it’s a performance, you may need to stay an extra half an hour for curtain calls.  The French are overly enthusiastic and reward performers with endless clapping and cheering.

Much about the French lifestyle is neither bad nor good, but  curious to an American.  I’ll start with la bise (the kiss).  It’s known that the French greet one another with an air kiss on the check, usually both cheeks, and sometimes more depending on which region of France they live in.  I live in the department of Les Alpes de Haute Provence,  just 20 minutes from the border of the department of Vaucluse. On our turf, it’s one kiss on each cheek.  But, in Vaucluse, it’s three kisses, both cheeks, then back to the starting point for a final kiss.  I invariably forget when I visit friends in Vaucluse and pull away after two kisses, only to have the friend, cheek turned, waiting for number three.  Then there’s dilemma of which side first.  How many times have I knocked heads with someone as we both turned in the same direction and crashed?  The good ole American hug is easier.

August This is a mystery to me, but it seems everyone, and not just folks with school aged children, takes a vacance  (vacation) in this hot summer month. Doctors’ offices are often closed for the month.  Many businesses and offices, including the electric company, close during August.  For those of us in the sunny south, August, as well as July, means an invasion:  Parisians, Dutch, Belgians.  Too many drive huge campers which clog the two-lane roads in this hilly region. Parking places in towns are at a premium. Lines at the bakery snake out the door and  down the sidewalk.  We’re happy when these tourists go home and life settles back to quiet normalcy.

Apero,  short  for aperitif and the French preferred way of entertaining.   They often invite guests for apero, which can be potato chips, peanuts, and several glasses of wine or pastis (the favored anise drink of Provence) or an array of elaborate snacks which can be a meal.   In general, dinner parties are for close friends and family.

I could ramble on, but suffice it to say that God could do worse, much worse.

If you’d like to read more of my tales and adventures, click on “Email Subscription” at top right of post.  Comments are welcome.  Click “Leave a Reply” 

What to do with all that summer produce?  Check out my recipe for Great Gazpacho, my summer favorite.  Scroll down the recipe column at far right.

Table of Happiness

The name is perfect:  La Table du Bonheur (Table of Happiness).   The culinary creations prepared by chef Hans would make anyone happy. 

“The main reason I cook is to make people feel good, to feel happy. I like to give them something nice to remember,” says Hans, who sports a perfect

Photo by Gail Polack

handlebar mustache and speaks five languages.  With his wife Tiny assisting, this chef extraordinaire creates over-the-top meals for guests at his Bed and Breakfast home, where he also rents a vacation apartment.  And, sometimes he cooks for lucky friends. 

Thanks to Ben, a Dutchman who was in my French class, I heard about Hans and Tiny, who are also Dutch.  Ben wrangled an invitation for me and Bob.  We’ve been back many times since, and I’ve  even gotten up enough courage to invite them to dinner. 

A recent dinner chez Hans and Tiny began with smoked wild salmon (he smokes the salmon himself) and  wild salmon tartare. This was followed by cepe bouillon, then an incredible main course,  a trio of succulent lamb: filet,   brochette and a lamb burger with tomato sauce accompanied by ratatouille and a gratin of potatoes  For décor: an edible nasturtium blossom.  Then a beautiful cheese course, a blanched apricot split and filled with layers of fresh goat cheese all smothered with warm lavender honey. Dessert: lemon custard pie with homemade raspberry sherbet and whipped cream.   We were indeed happy. 

 Table du Bonheur is high in the hinterlands of Provence, up a narrow windy road, then down a rutted dirt road to a cluster of no more than six buildings. Remote.  Off-the-beaten-track. At the end of the world. 

Which is just the way Hans and Tiny like it.  “The only way you’ll get me out of here is in a coffin,” says Hans. 

For 18 years, he ran a Michelin two-star restaurant in Belgium. “It was very difficult.  Twenty-six people on the payroll.  One hundred forty places.  I felt like a slave,” he recalls. 

His restaurant career started when he was 22 and went to work as a waiter.  He knew he wanted to move up, so he earned a wine diploma.  “I wanted to be creative,” he says, so he began working as an apprentice with restaurant chefs, including Les Freres Troisgros who have a Michelin three-star restaurant in Roanne,France.  

At the age of 27 he started his own restaurant which, after 18 years,  he was happy to give up and move back to Holland and embark on something  smaller.  “Most people want their career to get bigger and bigger.  I want smaller and smaller….I said at the age of 55 I would give this up.”  For years, he and Tiny and two of their sons (they have three children) ran a small but very popular restaurant with an open kitchen in Holland. “It was great to have people around me,” he says. 

They loved France and spent every vacation touring the country by motorcycle.  They knew they wanted to end up settling here.  One summer when they were looking for a vacation  apartment to rent, he told the real estate agent he wanted someplace so isolated that he could cook naked.  The agent took him to a nudist colony — not what he had in mind. 

However, he could no doubt cook naked at Table du Bonheur. They discovered their home in the boondocks on a trip in 2000.  They rented the house which dates back to the 1500s. The isolated location was ideal, and the house had all the room they needed. The owner, however, would not sell.  They came back every year for seven years before they succeeded in purchasing the home.  Hans was 56, one year past his age 55 deadline. 

They’ve done major renovation, but the kitchen has kept plenty of old world charm.  So much so you wonder how Hans can turn out such fabulous food in a simple, relatively small, space – the antithesis of a modern kitchen.  The dining room/living room, with beams, exposed stone walls and a fireplace, is cozy  — the perfect ambiance on a cold winter’s day.  In summer a small terrace area with worn wooden tables and lots of potted flowers all around is an ideal setting for savoring fine cuisine.

 Hans has local sources for all his supplies – one farmer for pork, another for lamb, yet another for beef, and one for poultry. Cheese from a local producer.  Fish from the market in Carpentras. In the fall he puts on dinners for the local hunting club whose members provide him with tasty game. 

“Everyday is an adventure.” he says, with a twinkle in his vivid blue eyes.   “I love to cook.  I love the creativity of it.” 

And, we’re happy to devour his creations!

Check out the recipe in the column at right , Goat Cheese Mousse with Mint Pesto — a winning appetizer.

Fort Buoux: A Discovery in the Hinterlands

This post comes with a new look, the beautiful header across the top.  Friend and photographer David Regan (A Fishy Tale)  created it using my photos.  As you click on different parts of the blog, you’ll see other examples of his skill and creativity.  And, recipes are back, now listed alphabetically on the right below “Recent Posts.” For the latest treat, try “Watermelon Salad” at the end of the list.

There’s no shortage of interesting places to visit in these parts. Even though I’ve lived in Provence for seven years, I’m still discovering new attractions.  This spring I visited two for the first time: Fort Buoux and the archeological site of Glanum (see future blog post for Glanum).

Buoux was thanks to our friends Lynne and Larry from Germany who rented our guest apartment (www.les-rosiers.com) in April.  Lynne found Fort Buoux in a Rick Steves guidebook.  Off they went and returned ecstatic with the discovery.

I’d been to a restaurant in Buoux, a tiny place of no more than a few houses, but I knew nothing about the fort.  When my cousin Stewart’s son Tom and wife Melissa came to visit, I decided it was time to explore this place.

Tom and Melissa had GPS, but even with this high tech gadget, it was not easy to find. After a few wrong turns and backtracking, we arrived at the parking lot, then followed   signs for a long walk down a shady road, under a “baume,” (a  natural cave beneath overhanging cliffs), then a climb up a rocky path to the entrance. Fort Buoux is definitely “off the beaten track.”

There were warning signs:  Visit at your own risk.  Watch children.

What kind of place was this?  After paying admission, we set out up a set of treacherous  steps carved in the rock.  Up and Up.  We climbed past piles of ruins, deep trenches,  cisterns, all numbered with their identification provided in a pamphlet we had been given at the entrance. The views of the surroundings –ravines, rock outcrops, cliffs and distant hills — are splendid.  We even saw rock climbers attempting to conquer a rock face.

The brochure explained that caves in this area, the AiguebrunValley, have been occupied since earliest antiquity. The fort is of the 12th century, built on the site of a Roman settlement. It  was obviously built for defense and was important during the Middle Ages.  During the religious wars (1562-98), the fort served as a refuge for the persecuted ProtestantWaldensians,  members of a Christian movement of the late Middle Ages who were considered heretical.  Later, Protestant families settled in the region. In 1660, Louis XIV, who feared rising religious independence, ordered the fort destroyed.

The brochure identifies  37 different sets of ruins.  Following the path which leads to them can be challenging.  The terrain is stoney.  The trail climbs. You need sturdy shoes – and no fear of heights.  Sheer drop offs plunge from the edge of the cliffs.  As this is France, there are no ropes or barriers.  While children enjoy scrambling amid the ruins, they need a tight rein lest they run too far.

One place, the “Hidden Stairs” had an extra warning: “Not advisable for elderly people, pregnant women and little children.”   Melissa and I stayed back, but Tom  charged down the crumbling stairs for more discovery.

Among the ruins are those of a 13th century church, houses, a cistern, towers and defense walls. Exploring them all is an exhilarating adventure.

Fort Buoux is located on a winding minor road,  D113, 8 km from Apt.  The fort is not in the town of Buoux (population 125), but in the surrounding hinterlands.

Gourmet Escapade in the Vineyards

 It was a bit of paradise, a perfect combination: trekking  though spring vineyards with stops en route to sip wine and savor gourmet delicacies.  I could not pass this one up – the 12th Escapade des Gourmets in the vine covered slopes surrounding Rasteau, a town well known for its fine Côtes-du-Rhône wines.

Hiking in the vineyards

This jolly and tasty event was attended by some 2,500 participants who, with dogs and children in tow, hiked up and down the picturesque hillsides.  The scenery and views were splendid. But, the star attractions were wine and food – and entertainment.

The six-kilometer (four hours with stops) jaunt featured six stops along the route, each offering a different culinary treat and numerous wines to sample that best accompanied the food offered.

After paying 36 euros , each participant was given a bib with a glass, and a card marked with the six different stops and the list of wines offered at each.  Participants were also given numbers which assigned them to groups for departure purposes lest all set out at once creating chaos on the hillsides.  Our group was initially accompanied by a farmer in vintage attire who was followed by an obedient flock of geese, two goats, and a dog pulling a baby goat attached to a leash. A jovial entourage.

As you entered each stop, your card was checked.  Then you could proceed to the food and wines – several wines at each stop which you could rate in case you wanted to make purchases later.

First stop, mise en bouche,  hearty snacks,  where three different vintages of Côtes-du Rhône blanc could be sampled. We moved on to my favorite, foie gras.  Here three sweet wines, Vin doux naturel doré, were offered.

Best not go overboard on the wine – many kilometers ahead.  And, the terrain became more demanding with short climbs up a hill into the woods. Along the way were views of the distant peak of Mt.Ventoux, and vineyards stretching mile after mile.  Lots of photo opps.

 At the Feuilleté stop, yummy pastry treats filled with cheese awaited, as well as three different Côtes-du-Rhône rosés.  At this stop and many, a guitarist played.  Some featured singers. Many in the crowd joined in singing folk songs, cabaret tunes, pop… At one stop a male choir performed in a vineyard chapel.  By the last stop, gateaux chocolat,  (chocolate cake) many were so moved by the wine and music, they danced.


The main course of this progressive meal was Daube Provencale (beef stew)  –— served hot in the hinterlands buffet style. Hats off to the Rasteau volunteers, some 120 dedicated souls who manned the stands, served the food and wine, and overcame many an obstacle to transport both cuisine and drink to these remote locales.  Portable toilets with sawdust had even been constructed.

Wine aficionados had a field day at the Daube stop where no less than 10 Rasteau Côtes-du Rhône Villages rouge wines were offered.  What’s a French meal without cheese?  That was next where another five Côtes-du Rhône Villages reds could be tasted.

The finale, Gateaux chocolat, was   paired with two different sweet wines, Vin doux naturel rouge.


This is one not to miss.  Next year’s Escapade will take place on May 13.  Details at www.terres-de-lumiere.com

More to come on Tales and Travels, including new recipes and more photos in the photo gallery. You’re welcome to subscribe to future posts, and comments are also welcome.