FRANCE EN FETE

Festivals abound in Provence in the summer months. I've been to many, community celebrations in honor of lavender, cheese, pumpkins, hunting dogs, truffle dogs, melons, lemons, gardens…plus many focusing on music and meals.

On Bastille Day, July 14, I head to a neighboring village, Vacheres, for their celebration  which commemorates the storming of the Bastille fortress-prison on July 14, 1789, and the beginning of the French Revolution.

The Vacheres fete is mainly about food, an obsession with the French.  A school yard is transformed Festival 6 into a huge picnic grounds with long tables under an open-sided tent.  There's music, camaraderie, and lots of kissing as everyone seems to know most everyone and air kisses on each side of the cheek are the de rigueur greeting.  But the reason for the gathering is to eat.  This year it was an aioli festival.

Aioli, garlic mayonnaise, is a favorite in Provence, but also refers to a Provencal dish: boiled vegetables (green beans, carrots, potatoes, cauliflower), hard-boiled eggs and boiled fish (usually  desalted salt cod) — all accompanied with the garlic-mayo.  It's not my favorite, but at Vacheres it was preceded by an aperitif, a type of cherry punch served with lots of tasty snacks, then followed by cheese and melon, plus all the wine (red or rose) you cared to drink.   You could have seconds, even thirds, of the aioli. Not bad for 15 euros ($21).

Marie Terese and  her companion on the keyboard provided the entertainment.  She does a passable Festival 2 imitation of Piaf and sings other old French favorites.  The crowd loved it — lots of clapping and cheering.  After her performance, locals took to the stage, an Italian singing opera, a young girl, a group of teens.  It was all quite jolly. 

Past Bastille Day meals in Vacheres have included paella and a Sardinade (grilled sardines) — my favorite. Another Provencal dish, soupe au pistou, was the focus of a festival in the village of Viens  several years ago. Pistou is the Provence version of pesto, but made without pine nuts.  The hearty green soup is rich in vegetables — heavy on green beans — and all flavored with pistou.

At that festival  you were expected to bring your own dishes and silverware. I showed up without, but was quickly supplied. It seemed strange to be feasting on soup on a hot summer's night, but it was delicious, although after waiting for more than two hours, maybe anything would have been delicious.  The fete was supposed to begin at 8 p.m. Hundreds of people, a melange of children, newborn babies, their parents, senior citizens and teens,  sat at long, long tables in a park.  At 10 p.m. they started banging on the tables.  Where's the food?  At 10:15 huge cauldrons of the soup, each carried by two men, arrived. I had three bowls, my husband had four, plus lots of wine, a cheese course and ice cream with apple cake.  Worth the wait.

The Frenchman next to me explained that each bowl of soup would taste differently depending on who IMG_0157 made it (all had been prepared by locals) and how long it cooked.  In addition to eating, the French love to talk about food. "It's one of their favorite topics," a French chef once told me.

A meal based on truffles was the star attraction of a festival in honor of truffle dogs.  This was a winter festival in a tiny village where there were stands selling truffles, sausages, cheese etc., and truffle dogs who were led to a field where the prized fungi had been buried.  They went crazy digging the dirt which covered the truffles.  The pricey meal (35 euros/$49), each course enhanced by truffles, was a disappointment.  I couldn't detect any special, fantastic tastes.

The only food to be had at the Festival of St. Jean in nearby Mane was grilled sausage.  The festival, however, was a winner. The feast of St. Jean the Baptist on June 24 is traditionally celebrated with huge fires. The Mane fete was a pyromaniac's dream.

It began with music, more precisely, the pounding and banging of large drums by a "band" of mainly teenage girls.  Their dynamic male leader directed them in different rhythms.  The crowd — all ages, all sizes– followed the band up a path of cobblestones, then dirt, to the castle atop a hill.  Darkness was aproaching.  Lights below began to twinkle.  The views of the surrounding Luberon hills were spectacular.

The pounding never stopped.  It was hypnotic. Then the torch-distributors arrived.  Everyone was given a torch — a type of candle on a long stick.  Even small children got torches. The fires were passed from torch to torch so that everyone's torch was burning  for the parade back down to the village.  The crowd was dense.  There were precarious, stony steps to navigate.  The path was narrow. Some torches blazed out of control. It was exciting, but scary.   No way U.S. fire regulations would have permitted this flaming scenario.

Back at the market place, a gigantic tower of wooden crates had been erected.  More drum pounding. Some started dancing.  Then the signal was given and the torches were thrown onto the crates.  Soon it was a roaring blaze with flames dancing high into the night sky.  The crowd moved back to escape the heat. Not a fire truck in sight, but a man stood by holding a hose.

The drums took a rest and a rock band took over.  Everyone — well almost everyone — started dancing. First there was a chain dance, with revelers linking hands and dancing around the  flames. Then random dancing. Parents with children, children with children, young lovers, teenage girls, old folks. This was a party.  And, there was nary an accident.

 The Oriental fete in Reillanne, my town, several years ago featured a belly dancer and a mid-Eastern meal of tagine.  A regular dance followed the meal, although there were some Oriental sounds which prompted many of the female festival goers to try belly dancing. Very amusing.

I sat with Kenneth and Marjorie, a British couple who were vacationing at the nudist camp outside of town and entertained me with stories of life without clothes.  "You never have to worry about what to wear," Marjorie said.

Last year I went to Avignon for the theatre festival which takes place in the town every July, an entire month of theatrical and musical performances at venues throughout the city. Festival 7 I did not attend an actual theatrical event, but enjoyed the pre-festivities in the streets.  Costumed thespians, musicians and dancers wander through the narrow streets of the old city, passing out flyers with the hopes of  enticing members of the crowd to attend their particular performance.  Some actually stop in squares and stage mini-performances. They interact with the crowd. It's wonderful entertainment.  I'll go back again soon.

Just a few weeks ago I ventured to Cruis for its annual music festival.  A different band plays at each of the small city's squares.  There are also strolling bands and a church concert.  It's crowded, lively and fun and goes on until the wee hours.  But, unfortunately there was little food.

There's no reason to be bored in Provence in summer.   For more photos of fetes, click on the photo in the center column.

 

 

To Market, To Market

Markets are the essence of Provence.  Most towns have a market  at least one day each week — morning events where you can find the luscious products and produce of Provence. Plump green and black olives, cheese, sausage, clothes, ceramics, baskets, products made from olive wood, tools and gadgets, jewelry, Provencal souvenirs and colorful fabrics, plus fruits and vegetables and more.  All outdoors in the glorious sunshine. Shopping has never been so much fun.

Market17   Our town, Reillanne, has a wonderful Sunday market that is especially bustling in the summer when tourists join local shoppers.  I go almost every week, year round, and have my favorite vendors.

Reynard Bouchard specializes in "products of Provence that are grown with lots of love." He stands behind his picture-perfect display  of tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, beans, nectarines, raspberries .. and offers customers an "apricot for breakfast,"  then proceeds to recommend making a sauce for duck with the succulent fruit. (I did — excellent)  One of his patrons offers another suggestion– an apricot tart with lavender.

"I adore coming here," he says.  "I can speak with everyone, give advice, explain my products… I speak of love."  His truffle dog, Cerise, sleeps under the stand, ignoring other dogs who come by. (Many shoppers bring their dogs to the market, and many dogs belonging to locals wander among the stands in Reillanne. ) 

For cheese, I visit Daniel Nigro who sells between 200 –250 kinds of cheese from his large truck with a side-panel that opens up to a display.  Nigro has a regular clientele, many of whom he knows by first name and greets with the obligatory air kiss on both sides of the cheek.  He chats, he jokes, he recommends, he offers tastes.  That's how I discovered my favorites — aged Beaufort and Brie de Meaux.

Like most market merchants, Nigro follows a circuit, traveling to a different town every morning to sell his products.  He's in Manosque on Saturday, Forcalquier on Monday….but Reillanne on Sunday is his favorite.  "The people here are very nice.  It's Sunday.  People are relaxed," he says.

Nigro sells goat cheese (chevre), but for that I visit Pierre Maulet, a young farmer who has 45 goats.  His cremeux chevre is exquisite. Maulet, 27, said working the markets, especially Reillanne on Sunday, can be demanding.  "I only had 1 1/2 hour of sleep last night," he says, explaining that he was out late at a festival.

"People think it's not trying to work the market, but it's difficult," explained a pretty woman who sells jewelry from India.  She preferred to remain anonymous, but did say that she has to get up at 6 a.m. to get to the market and set up her stand.  She travels to India where she spends a month every year to buy her products  — silver jewelry, some with stones such as lapis lazuli, turquoise and onyx.

Clothes from India are the specialty of Sylvie and her daughter.  Like the jewelry seller, she spends  a month in India every year where she has the clothes made following her designs.  I always admire her fashions, very trendy and chic, but out of my price range.

I like the bargains offered by Carmen Soustre, a jolly woman with a range of moderately priced tops, pants, skirts and dresses hanging from racks under a tarp.  Like most market vendors, Soustre likes "meeting people."

"This is what we want to do.  We meet lots of people," Market5 says Martine Caron, who, with her husband, Didier, sells products from their farm — "four hectares with lots of animals" — plus some 20 different kinds of confiture that she makes.  The flavors are innovative:  poires au caramel (pears with caramel), bananes a la vanille, and my favorite, tomates au romarin et vinagre balsamique  (tomatoes with rosemary and balsamic vinegar).  She suggested I serve the latter with cheese.  She's right.  It's very tasty. 

Sylvaine Contour also sells confiture, 15 sweet varieties, plus 15 "salty."  In the latter category are vegetable pates.  She gave me a taste of  Delices de Carottes au Carvi  (Carrots with caraway). Delicious –I had to buy a jar, plus a jar of Aubergine au Curry (curried eggplant).

Olives — the taste of Provence — are always on my list.  Jasmine Lubineau sells 13 different kinds, mostly Provencal olives, but some from Spain, plus the jumbo Kalamata olives from Greece.  I usually buy some of the Kalamata, plus her Provencal melange, a mixture of different kinds of both black and green olives, with bits of onion and other tasty tidbits.

For bread, it's Pascal Boffa with 17 different kinds of bread all baked in ovens fired by wood and made without yeast.  "These are products of the region made with local flours," he says. His most popular bread is demi-complet made with three different grains and rich in fiber.   I prefer his nut and olive breads.

Market10 For flowers, it's Francois Bonnet, although in summer I don't buy flowers as we have an ample supply in our yard. But it's a treat to buy from Bonnet who touts the merits of special blooms, gives specific instructions on care, and painstakingly arranges gorgeous bouquets.  He often adds an extra stem at no extra cost.

"He's delightful," says one of his regulars. "The quality of his flowers is the best… his bouquets last for 15 days. He's passionate about flowers."

As for Bonnet, "It's always a pleasure to sell flowers," he says. He enjoys working at the market which he calls "a happy event."

Nazmi Uzunca, A Turk and vendor of Turkish jewelry, most of which he makes, also likes the joyous ambience of the markets.  For some 30 years he's been selling at between five and six markets each week. "I'm very happy in France," he says. "Turkey is beautiful, but it's changing a lot, becoming too religious.  I hate religion.  I believe in God, but not religion."

Viviane Angelvin is the placiere regisseuse (traveling agent) at the Reillanne market.  It's her job to collect fees from the vendors who pay 1,10 euros per linear meter for their space.  In summer there are about 53 stands in Reillanne, although in winter the number drops to 20.  "The market has really grown in the past 20 years.  It's very varied with all kinds of products for all tastes," she says  "Reillanne is noted for its Sunday market. People know we have it and they come."

After shoppinig I often meet friends on the terrace of the Cafe du Cour overlooking the market.  It's a delightful ritual. We sip pink wine and catch up on news.

GERMANY: A few of my favorite things

Bicycle Bob and I recently returned from our annual trek to Germany, a country where we had both lived for many, many years. We chose to move to southern France several years ago when Bob retired.  We don't regret our decision.  We love the climate here.  The food and wine aren't bad either. Yet it's always a delight to trek back over the Alps to Deutschland and savor our favorite things.

BayWald-4 Beer.  Yes, the French make beer, but it's a poor substitute for a frothy Pils vom Fass or an Export served in a large glass mug. One of life's delightful pleasures is getting off your bicycle at a German beer garden on a warm summer's day to sit under an umbrella of green branches and quench your thirst with a cold beer.  Speaking of bicycles — Germany is one of the best countries in Europe for pedaling pleasure.  Civilized trails abound, through fields, woods and villages. 

The beer is even better accompanied with a Brezel. I crave those giant, doughy, salty German pretzels.  They are to die for if they are warm and smeared with butter — the way they are sold at many street snack stands or Imbisses.

Another Imbiss favorite not to be found in France is the curry wurst, chunks of succulent wurst smothered in a tangy ketchup curry sauce.  With a plate of frites, it's no doubt a sinful indulgence, but soo good.  Of course, Germany is the mother land of the wurst. Thueringer.  Nuernberger. Weisswurst — three of my favorites that I search out on our return trips.

Move on to the bakery or Baeckerei. Berliners and Broetchen (breakfast rolls).  I can't knock French bread, but those crusty, crunchy breakfast rolls are the best way to start a day.  Yes, I even like them better than croissants.  And Berliners, the ultimate jelly donut.  The French have a go at them, but I've learned they're not worth wasting calories on.

Then the pastry shop or Konditorei.  Those with an adjoining cafe are the best.Odenwald-valentine 1   Check out the gorgeous cakes, multi-layered creations that beg for a taste.  Select one and sit down to savor it with a Kaennchen Kaffee — not a single cup, but a whole pot of the rich brew.  This is a uniquely German experience.  There are plenty of cafes in France, and tempting pastry shops — but rarely under one roof.

Germans love ice cream, especially Italian Eis.  It seems almost every town, even tiny burgs, has an Italian Eiscafe offering a multitude of flavors.  Not so in France. French ice cream is OK, but in our parts you don't find that many shops or street stands where you can buy a cone.

You won't find many Italian restaurants either. When we lived in Germany, we had several favorite Italian restaurants near our home — great for an inexpensive pasta meal.  Here we usually eat our pasta at home.  Other ethnic restaurants also abound in Gemany:  Greek, Turkish, Spanish, Thai, Indian.  In the Luberon where we live, it's French restaurants and more French restaurants.  Good, but we miss the variety we found in Germany.

In the sping I miss Spargel.  In Germany, stalks of white asparagus are exquisite, inspiring a cult-like adoration with fans standing in line to purchase the seasonal speciality at outdoor stands. You can find white asparagus in France, but it bears little resemblance to those fat, tender spears grown in German fields.  In the summer and fall, I miss all those fabulous German festivals — wine fests, beer fests, church fairs, community celebrations, onion fests, flower fests, street fests — you name it and they have a fest for it.  The food, the gemuetlichkeit, the oom-pah music — only in Germany.  And in December, I miss the Christmas markets.  Yes, the French now have their versions.  But if you have been to a genuine German holiday market with Gluehwein (mulled wine), grilled wurst, spice cookies, marzipan, Christmas carols and nativity scenes, you won't settle for poor imitations.

Fat down comforters, autobahns without toll booths, hotels that include breakfast in the room price — just a few more of my favorite German things.

In praise of France I must add that the acceptance of credit cards almost everywhere here is a wonderful thing.  Not so in Germany.  If you don't have a German bank card, too often you must pay cash.

France is fabulous. The sun in the south is splendid.  If only the French beer were better, the festivals more frequent and more fun, the restaurants more diversified….

Cooking with Marie

We wrapped oysters in the lining of a cow's stomach.  We made grapefruit salt.  We learned the technique for mastering pate feuilletee inversee (inverted pate feuillettee).  We used a nifty gadget that peels, cores and slices an apple, and another that cores a pineapple. We prepared six different recipes, all entitled Millefeuillle  (literally "a thousand leaves" but used to mean numerous layers).  We used pineapple as a base in five different dishes.  And, we ate very, very well.

I've been to three cooking classes with Marie Lecoanet and planCook.3 to attend many more.  A cook extraordinare, Marie gives cooking lessons in her home in Forcalquier in northern Provence. She recently built an addition on to her home for a new kitchen with plenty of space for cooking classes. She also has a catering business. For anyone who likes to cook, the cooking sessions are fun, informative and delicious as we always eat the meals we prepare.

The students, between five and ten women and one male (Bernard), all know their way around the kitchen and attack each task with years of chopping and dicing experience behind them. These are serious cooks. No Hamburger Helper or Minute Rice in their pantries. Most are dedicated followers who have been chez Marie numerous times. They know where to find the utensils and pots and pans demanded by the different preparations.  They give one another advice. They discuss dishes they have tried at home. They share tips — the best place to buy fish, where to find the dry butter required for the inverted pate preparation, what kind of oil to use when making mayonnaise (peanut — not olive).

Helene was the mayonnaise master during a recent class — patiently adding drops of oil to egg yolks and whisking and whisking after each addition — a tedious procedure. "It's very fragile.  You have to be patient…I love it.  I love the color," she said as she concentrated on the yellow glob.  "She does it with a lot of love," added Marie.

Marie started giving lessons in cuisine about four years ago when her husband retired and the family (she has two teenage children)  moved from northeastern France to Provence. In her earlier life, she was a math teacher.  She spent 10 years teaching at a French high school in Los Angeles.  "I learned from Americans that you can change your profession.  Americans do it a lot, but not the French,"  she says.  She speaks with fondness of her years in California.  "I admire the enthusiasm and confidence of Americans." 

She gave up teaching and started taking cooking lessons.  "I always liked to cook," she says, "and I like to eat."   She took cooking courses for five years, mastering many of the preparations she now teaches her students.  Her cooking is basically French, but she does like to experiment with Asiatic cuisine and other ethnic specialties from time to time.  A future course will focus on Cuban recipes.

Cook.6  Among my favorite dishes is scallops with apples and grapefruit salt — exquisite.  The salt is made by blanching grapefruit zest, plunging the zest in cold water, then blanching it again in grapefruit juice, then drying the zest in the oven for 30 to 35 minutes, then mixing it with thyme and salt. It adds a distinctive and delectable flavor, and can be used in many creations.

Another winner was one of the millefeuille concoctions, this with smoked duck breast and duck foie gras.  Layers of sauteed apples are interspersed with slices of the duck in a ramequin, all doused with calvados then baked for five minutes, and finally topped with a round of spice bread/cake and foie gras.  To die for.

The after-cooking meals are a delight, beginning with the de rigueur aperitif (something alcoholic to drink accompanied by goodies we have prepared).  Marie's husband Michel joins us and serves the wine during the numerous courses.  Now that the weather has warmed, we dine outside on a deck overlooking a picturesque ravine.

While I love eating all these delicacies, and enjoy cooking with others, many of the labor-intensive, multi-step recipes are beyond me — and I am not a bad cook. I am not about to drive to Marseille (1 1/2 hours away) to buy the dry butter required to make the inverted pate dough. And why does it have to be inverted?  According to Marie, this procedure involving the butter enveloping the flour instead of the flour enveloping the butter results in a much lighter pastry. Never mind.  I'm quite happy with the wonderful millefeuille pastries you can find in any French bakery.

But cooking with Marie is an enjoyable experience and a delicious slice of life in Provence.  For more, see Marie's web site:  www.lesamisdelucullus.fr

Arles: Roman ruins and bullfights

The weekend supplement to La Provence newspaper recently advertised a special for readers: an overnight, breakfast and dinner for two offered at 24 different "hotels de charme" in France for 118 euros (about $155). A deal too good to pass up.  One of the hotels was in Arles, a delightful city I had been to several years ago.  This was a wonderful opportunity to return and introduce Bicycle Bob to Arles as he had not been with me on the previous trip.

We arrived a few days before Easter as the town was gearing up for its big festival or Feria — namely bullfights on Easter weekend. I made the mistake of attending a bullfight on my first trip, but more about that later. The city of 50,000 stretches between the arms of the Rhone River and is the gateway to the Camargue, a large area of flat, marshy lands where rice and wheat are grown, and horses and bulls are raised.  Flamingoes like to hang out in the swamps.

Arles was founded by Julius Caesar in 46 BC and is said to have the greatest number of Roman ruins after Rome.  We visited them all:  the Roman arena which can seat 12,000, who come to watch Arles1the bloody bullfights much as the Romans came to watch a bloodbath of Christians; the Roman theatre; the Constantine Baths, the Cryptoporticos of the Forum.  The latter are spooky underground galleries which formed the substructure of the Forum. We also took in the town's church of note, the Romanesque St. Trophime with an impressive cloister, and the outstanding  Arles Archeological Museum.  The latter has more than 1,300 pieces of antiquity — statues, sarcophagi, pottery, jewelry, etc. — all from the Arles area.  There are also 11 scale models recalling the town in its Roman heyday. Another museum we liked is the Museum Arlaten founded by the famous Provence poet, Frederic Mistral, with a collection of Provencal objects, costumes and a recreation of scenes of daily life, including the "great supper" on Christmas Eve.

My favorite Arles attraction is the Alyscamps, a long, leafy lane lined with the ruins of ancient sarcophagi.  The cemetery gained importance in the early Christian period with the burial of the martyr Saint Genest.  At the end of the lane is a 12th century Romanesque church.

It's easy to see why Van Gogh was inspired to paint the serenely melancholic Alyscamps.  That's not all the Dutch artist painted in Arles.  He came to the city in 1888 at the age of 35.  Here he discovered the light that had a profound impact on him and his work.  Within just a few months in Arles, he turned out some 200 paintings. Many of the Arles scenes he painted are commemorated with easels set up on the spot showing his depiction. It was also in Arles that Van Gogh cut off his ear.

As this was bullfight season, we took in an art exhibit devoted to the bull– colorful renditions of bull heads by a contemporary artist. Outside the arena we watched groups of school children being indoctrinated to the brutal bullfight culture.  Bull's heads made of cloth were mounted on the ends of bicycle wheels with long handles.  The "bulls" charged the children who waved red cloth mimicking bullfighters. And, we went to the Corrales, where some 30 creatures waited in large pens for a torturous death.

Arles2On my previous visit I felt I should see a bullfight. The night before the big event I had witnessed a pre-fight tradition — running of the bulls Arles style.  Huge trucks arrived on the main street with a cargo of young bulls.  The doors of the trucks were opened and the petrified animals were prodded down a ramp with long rods, then chased by "cowboys"' on horseback. The crowd, lots of teenagers, went wild, chasing the animals, grabbing their tails and trying to wrestle them to the ground. I took pity on the frightened, tormented animals, — beautiful, sleek, black specimens who should have been spared this sick form of entertainment.

The bullfight was far worse. I didn't last long, fleeing the horrific scene in tears.  The first poor beast was the victim of a very inept fighter who failed to end the creature's life.  The torture went on and on, the bull falling to the ground, then struggling to stand, then falling again. I was close enough to see the blood flowing from its wounds and mouth. The crowd jeered the bullfighter out of the ring, and someone came to put the bull out of its misery.  As upsetting as the gory scene were the reactions of the blood thirsty crowd. I had to escape.  Where is Brigitte Bardot?  She needs to get her troops to Arles.

As one would expect, restaurants in Arles feature taureau (bull) on the menu — steaks, stews. Our best meal, however, was not bull.  We enjoyed lunch at La Peniche (the barge), a restaurant I tracked down through Internet research.  One of the restaurant reviewers said you needed GPS to find it.  Even that would not have helped us.  We knew we were close as we walked along the river quay.   We even saw the restaurant mailbox, but no restaurant.  Finally a jogger pointed us to a boat tied up on the other side of a bridge.  When we arrived, the owner told us they had to move the boat the previous day due to reconstruction of the quay.

It was worth the extra steps.  I had pheasant with a porcini mushroom sauce while Bob chose salmon croustillant, pieces of salmon enveloped in won ton wrappers and deep fried.  Both delicious with high marks for presentation on trendy rectangular plates with artistic flourishes.  Bob's dessert — apple also enfolded in won ton wrappers and served with a to-die-for caramel mousse and homemade ice cream — was outstanding.  And, it was pleasant and soothing  to dine on a boat on the river.

Out hotel, Mas de la Chapelle, was another challenge to find, hidden in the hinterlands on a one-lane dirt road.  We loved it — a delightfully quirky place with several buildings surrounded by gardens, ponds, a swimming pool, statues and Grecian urn type flower pots.  The main building includes a chapel built by the knights of Malta, now the setting for a bizarre type of living room with seating groups of antique furniture, giant candelabra, a strange statue of the Virgin, religious paintings, even a grand piano.  Our room, Blanche (white), was spacious with a dramatic painting and drapery treatment over the  bed.  The window overlooked a pond full of happy, croaking frogs.   

If we go back to the area, we'd be sure to stay there again.