It’s easy to understand why artists, film stars, royalty, politicians, Russian oligarchs – and plain old folks like us –are enamored of the French Riviera. The scenery, that seductive combination of mountains and sea, is the stuff of glamorous coffee table books. Add to that plenty of sunshine, good food and happy faces.
VR and I would like to join those happy faces someday, downsize and move closer to the sea. With that long range goal in mind, we set off to Menton last week. It is the last city in France on the coast before the Italian border. At times, you’d think you were in Italy. Lots of Italian spoken, restaurants featuring Italian specials, more joie de vivre. Even though that’s a French term, the Italians seem to have lots more of it than the too-often dour French – in my opinion.
Menton has a lovely stretch of beach (stones not sand) bordered by many turn of the century mansions, not unlike Nice, just smaller. Skinny streets in the Old Town, as well as long sets of pebbled steps, climb to an imposing Italian Baroque church, then onwards to a chapel and even higher to a cemetery. There’s a busy pedestrian shopping street, an old covered market hall, and a well known museum dedicated to the works of artist Jean Cocteau. The city is also known for its gardens which we will visit next time.
We found many restaurants closed for the season in January, but thanks to the advice of a woman at the tourist office, we had a wonderful fish dinner (Branzino sotto sale). Sea bass baked under a mound of salt which locks in all the moisture. Owners of the Coquille d’Or restaurant, the chef and his wife, are Italian. Our waiter was Italian. The fish – maybe it came from the Italian Med.
Ventimiglia, the town just across the border in Italy, has an enormous Friday market, a source of fashion bargains and more. Parking is always a nightmare, but our Menton hotel desk clerk suggested we take the train. Perfect and only 11.20 euros round trip for both of us. This time the market was a disappointment, perhaps because it’s too early for spring fashion, too late for winter?? I did find a few cheap treasures.
Then, a return to a waterfront restaurant we had found on a previous visit for another amazing meal. VR went for grilled fish. I chose spaghetti frutti di mare, chuck full of mussels, clams, a few shrimp and some unknown critters.
Before heading back to our abode in the hinterlands, we joined members of the American Club of the Riviera for an outing in Nice. A guided visit of the Musée Masséna preceded a gourmet lunch at the Hotel Negresco. The museum, a sumptuous Belle Époque villa on the Promenade des Anglais, was built between 1898 and 1901 by Victor Masséna, grandson of one of Napoleon’s marshals, and a collector of precious objets d’art.
More opulence next door at the Hotel Negresco, another Belle Époque gem (1912). According to a guidebook, it is “one of the great surviving European palace-hotels.” I was delighted to see a gigantic Niki de Saint Phalle Nana adding a whimsical touch under the Baccarat chandelier hanging from the dome in the Salon Royale which was built by Gustav Eiffel’s workshops.
By the time our excellent lunch (gazpacho, lamb and apple crumble) ended, clouds put an end to the sun’s rays. No chance for good photos of Nice’s new addition, the Promenade du Paillon, a strip of parkland between the city center and Vieux Nice (Old Town). We did saunter down the Promenade des Anglais, along the sea, then crossed over for a walk to the giant Ferris wheel at the end of the new reflecting pool.
We’ll be back in Menton at the end of February for its Lemon Festival (14 Feb.-4 March) www.fete-du-citron.com
American Club of the Riviera: americanclubriviera.com
Restaurant Coquille d’Or: xx 33 (0) 4 93 35 80 67
More on Nice www.nicetourisme.com Nice’s Carnaval celebration, lots of fabulous flowers on parade and more, takes place from 13 Feb. – 1 March. See my previous posts: “Nice Carnaval,” Feb. 23, 2009 and “Nice- Enchantment on the Riviera,” Jan. 12, 2012
Since I am in an Italian mood, and since a hearty soup is perfect for these cold winter days, Today’s Taste features one of my favorites, Minestrone. See Recipe column at top right.
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With its gorgeous landscapes and numerous attractions, Provence is a Mecca for tourists. French. British. Dutch. Belgians. Asians. Russians, and many more.
Friends and relatives who come to visit us in the Luberon hills also enjoy the allure of Provence. Carol and Noel, friends from Germany who have retired to northern Italy, arrived in early October. Soon after came John and Mickey, VR’s (husband Vino Roberto’s) brother and sister-in-law from northern Ohio.
We kept on the move and had fun showing off our Provence favorites. A hit with all was Carrières de Lumières in Les-Baux-de-Provence. Words fail to describe this amazing place –vast caverns, formerly quarries, where a unique multimedia presentation enthralls all. The show changes every winter.
“Klimt and Vienna” is this year’s show, ending Jan. 4, which features the works of turn-of-the-century artists Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, plus Fritz Hundertwasser, projected on the walls and floors. Wander through the immense space, engulfed by the gigantique tableaux. Enjoy the mesmerizing musical background.
“Klimt is now one of my favorites. The show is awesome. I could have just sat there all day looking at the images,” said Carol. We, too, are overwhelmed with the production and return every year to see the new show.
The ancient town, Les-Baux-de-Provence, with its medieval château, spectacular views and boutique lined cobblestone streets, is also captivating. ”I’ve been to a million of those cutesy towns that have become little more than amusement parks. Les Baux seemed, to me, to have retained some of its soul,” commented Noel.
Mickey was especially intrigued with the site where the ruins of an 11th century citadel dominate a plateau perched on a rocky spur. She listened to the explanations on an audio headset at each numbered stop throughout the historic site. “I love castles,” she said.
Carol and Noel were also impressed with Roussillon, a touristy town whose attraction is its Sentier des ocres (ochre footpath). A trail descends into a gorge of orange/yellow walls, then winds through the woods bordered by these exotic, colorful cliffs. The area was also formerly a working quarry.
Noel had made a special request . He remembers a scene in the movie, “In Like Flint” with James Coburn, during which Coburn savors Bouillabaisse, Marseilles’ signature dish. He had to eat this legendary fish soup in Marseille. I did some
restaurant research to find a place serving authentic Bouillabaisse. Many restaurants have a version for tourists. My find, Le Ruhl, has a perfect setting on a hillside just adjacent to the Mediterranean. Great views – but the food? OK, but not great. Next time I’ll try another restaurant for Bouillabaisse
Before lunch we had hoped to take a boat ride of the calanques (dramatic fjord like inlets in the limestone cliffs between Marseille and Cassis), but due to the fierce Mistral which blows too frequently in these parts, the boats were not running. We braved the winds and took a long walk through the Vieux Port, then on to the J4 Esplanade, Marseille’s swanky new addition for 2013 when the city was the European Capital of Culture. I never tire of admiring the dazzling architecture of the new Villa Méditerranée and MuCem ( museum of Mediterranean and European culture).
Mickey and John did get to see the calanques. On a delightfully calm day we boarded the sightseeing boat in the enchanting port town, Cassis, for the excursion through parts of this dramatic coastline. It was market day in Cassis with vendors selling clothing, food, purses and all manner of souvenirs.
Markets are a major Provence attraction. Mickey accompanied me to Forcalquier, a town near our home known for its big Monday market. “I loved the shopping you did at the outdoor market,” she later said. “ I really liked that you were able to purchase fresh fruit, vegetables, produce, eggs, fish and sausages direct from the farmers the same morning they were picked. I enjoyed listening to you get a better price for the shawl/cape you purchased, especially after the seller informed you this would be the last time he was going to be at the market with his items.” (It was a coat I could have done without. But when my bargaining was successful, I could not resist.)
VR and I recently joined the American Club of the Riviera. Their October agenda included an event during Mickey and John’s visit I knew we should not miss – a tour of the Henri Matisse Rosary chapel in hillside Vence above the Riviera. A documentary, basically an interview by American Barbara Freed with the late Sister Jacques Marie, the nun who played a major role in the realization of this unique structure, preceded the tour. Freed has translated the nun’s book about her relationship with Matisse into English and served as director of the documentary. She was on hand with more fascinating commentary. It’s an unbelievable story – the deep friendship between this renowned artist who was not religious and the Dominican nun, and how she influenced, inspired and encouraged him on the chapel project.
An overnight stop in Nice, my Riviera favorite, preceded our trek to Vence. We strolled along the seaside Promenade des Anglais and wandered through Old Nice.
Then back into the hills to Sospel, a town VR and I had visited many times. We had even considered moving there. We became friends with Marie Mayer who
runs a chambre d’hote (bread and breakfast), Domaine du Paraïs, where we always stayed. Her late father, Marcel Mayer, was a well known sculptor. She invited us for an aperitif in her living room filled with some of her father’s remarkable art works.
Noel and Carol are foodies like VR and I. ”Food, of course, is always high on our list,” Noel said. “The afternoon at the Dutch guy’s place was unforgettable… everything about that afternoon was wonderful – the intimate setting, the company and the food, which really was excellent.”
He was referring to Table du Bonheur, a special eatery in the hinterlands where we had an excellent lunch. (See previous post, Table of Happiness, Sept. 2, 2011)
Our food extravaganza with John and Mickey was an over-the-top meal in Italy – a lunch of multi courses at an agriturismo (farm inn), La Locanda degli Ulivi, hidden up a very long, very narrow, very windy road in the hills above Dolceacqua, a small, picturesque town just north of Ventimiglia. This was a first for me and VR. We will return, but VR said I can drive up that taxing hill next time. We must have had at least six different antipasti before two different types of pasta followed by the main course, rabbit, and the dessert. Not gourmet cuisine, but a fun experience in a livey, cozy – and very Italian — ambiance .
Throughout our drives, Mickey, who is very interested in vegetation, often asked me the names of different trees. I failed . All the lavender fields fascinated her. She’d like to come back to see them in bloom (usually July). Olive trees were another favorite. ”The olive orchards were amazing to see. It might be interesting to see the trees when in bloom or when the farmers are harvesting the olives. I noticed olives were served at all the meals.”
I asked her what was most memorable about her visit. “The view of the mountains was unbelievable, and the winding roads took our breath away. What a wonderful trip and fantastic weather! The sight reminded me of what heaven must be like. Not a lot of noise, heavy traffic, or trucks unloading but just a peaceful, restful vacation place.”
Not quite heaven, but Provence has its charms.
Like my blog? Tell your friends. If you are not a Tales and Travel follower, please sign up with your email address at upper right. Your address is kept private and never shared. Please comment, Leave a Reply below. I love feedback. Coming next: Incredible Iceland Part II –horses, fish, food, adventure. And, for a taste of fall, try my recipe for Spaghetti Squash Gratin — above right.
It’s officially over. It makes me sad, even though summer 2014 was not a normal Provence summer. Thanks to climate change, we had thunderstorms and cool, cloudy days. Too much wind and rain. The latter had a plus. July and August days are usually hot and sunny with almost no rain. This year we saved both money and time on watering all our flowers and trees. Still, I would have preferred a real summer.
Gone are those long summer nights when we could dine on the balcony by daylight up until 10 p.m. Soon many restaurants will close or drastically shorten their opening times. I am still swimming, but that too will come to an end before long. Tomatoes — those tasty gems I buy from farmers at the markets, will soon disappear and we will left with those tasteless Dutch hothouse tomatoes at supermarkets. Fall and winter are for cosying up with the cats by the fireplace — not as exciting as summer, but not so bad.
In spite of the less-than-perfect weather, we enjoyed some fun times and outings during summer 2014. The following photos are souvenirs of those good times.
Again I tried for the perfect lavender shot. Now that I have had photo lessons from friend and fab photographer George, there’s hope for improvement next year.
We joined fellow Americans for a Fourth of July party sponsored by Democrats Abroad in Avignon.
Then we joined the French for a Bastille Day fete in neighboring Vacheres. The July 14th sardinade (grilled sardines) is an annual event with plenty of wine, music and song – in addition to those petite fish.
On the cultural side, we joined a group from our town for a bus excursion to an outdoor piano concert in La Roque d’Antheron, also an annual event — preceded by a picnic in the park.
And, we went to Avignon for a day at the Festival d’Avignon which features almost 1,000 theatrical performances. The festivities in the streets are more than jolly.
And north to Sisteron for an outdoor concert under the Citadele.
I longed for the mountains, so we drove to a winter ski town that draws hikers and mountain bikers in summer. We rode a chair lift to the heights for an easy trek. Alas, riding a chair lift in summer minus snow and skis is not easy. Getting off I did not jump aside fast enough and was whacked in the back with the chair and knocked to the ground. Painful. We canceled the hike, but enjoyed beautiful scenery on the way home.
Another community meal – paella in our town, Reillanne. We love these events, good food and socializing.
Again this summer we tried our luck at a Vide Grenier (Empty Attic). It’s a flea market, but our hopes of making money on our no-longer-used possessions were dashed. We could not even give things away. There were still treasures in the box labeled “Gratuit” (Free) after the last customers had gone home.
Cannes on the Riviera was our destination for an event sponsored by the American Club of the Riviera – mind-boggling fireworks shot from boats in the harbor. We spent the night in Cannes and enjoyed a visit to the off shore island, Sainte Marquerite, the following day. Gorgeous. On the way home, a quick dip in the Med at Theoule-sur-Mer
Friends Mollie and David put summer to bed with a fabulous garden party.
Summertime is also for enjoying our pool and yard and flowers — and the SPPS (State Park Picnic Shelter). See previous post “Pergola — Or State Park Picnic Shelter?” Aug. 22, 2013. It’s looking better, thanks to the decorative elements painstakingly installed by Bob, and Ben’s suggestion that we we lighten the posts and beams. That made a huge difference. Thank you, Ben. You saved it– and our marriage.
Don’t miss the next post featuring our summer renters. We meet fun and interesting people who rent the guest apartment at Les Rosiers for vacation. And then… a post on Incredible Iceland. If you are not a Tales and Travel follower, sign up now at top right so you don’t miss future tales.
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Summer may be over, but grilling is not. One of my favorites which is always a hit with guests is grilled lamb. See column at top right for recipe.
I recently had the good fortune to accompany other American journalists on a press trip to the Midi-Pyrénées region (southwestern France). Art and gastronomy were the focus of the voyage, and the gastronomy was extraordinaire with four and five course meals for both lunch and dinner on most days.
We savored cuisine at restaurants whose chefs are famous, restaurants with Michelin stars, as well as a few restaurants that were ordinary at best. We visited colorful markets and tasted the area’s wine. Following are highlights of our culinary experiences.
The week-long journey got off to a smashing start with dinner at Michel Sarran in Toulouse, France’s fourth largest city and the capital of the Midi-Pyrénées. The ambience in this two-Michelin star establishment named after its renowned chef is classy, elegant, modern. The food definitely wins stars for appearance and presentation. Each course (we had four) was a painstaking work of art with numerous bites of exotic creations, such as sea urchin mousse and hay ice cream.
As in most fancy French restaurants, the food descriptions are daunting. First course: La volaille de Monsieur Duplantier en crème onctueuse aux écrevisses, suprême poché au citron confit et raz el hanout, peau croustillante. Basically tiny pieces of chicken in a crayfish sauce with a delicious citrus flavor surrounded by delicate tidbits of other edibles. The main course was the overall favorite: Pigeon du Mont Royal (pigeon filet). The succulent bird was served with a tiny nest-like creation: Suprêmes frits en kadaïf et jus à l’encre – (a middle eastern cheese pastry with octopus ink), plus other petit delicacies.
For dessert, a wild strawberry melange with a lemon basil sauce, lime crumble and the hay ice cream (lait glacé au foin).
All very, very good. But we wondered if all that labor intensive preparation of so many different tiny bites wasn’t a bit much. Was the chef trying too hard to win a third Michelin star? I would have preferred fewer items served in slightly larger portions. http://www.michel-sarran.com
Lunch the following day at the outdoor terrace of Emile, a Toulouse favorite in the bustling Place Saint George, was a winner. Chef Christophe Fazan is known for both creative cuisine and local favorites.
Foie Gras, the controversial fattened liver from force-fed geese and ducks, is a regional specialty. Several of my traveling companions ordered this served with mango chutney as their first course, while I chose ravioles de foie gras, crème aux cèpes. This was my all time favorite dish of the entire trip – ravioli filled with foie gras smothered in a cepe( bolet/porcini) sauce. Each bite was bursting with flavor. Elaine, our affable tour leader, went for Cassoulet, the signature Toulouse dish, a stew of meats, sausages and beans. Former French president Jacques Chirac is said to have especially enjoyed Emile’s Cassoulet. http://www.restaurant-emile.com
While Michel Sarran’s food was good, most of us preferred that of Christian Constant, another renowned French chef. His restaurant, Le Bibent, features glamorous baroque/art nouveau décor and great food. My first course, a tartare of several kinds of fish and oysters with a hint of ginger served in oyster shells, was excellent, and better than my main course, a confit of lamb. Confit or preserved meat is yet another regional favorite with duck confit the most popular.
An incredible dessert followed: a gigantic mille feuille. This pasty whose name translates as “a thousand leaves” is layers of thin, flaky pastry with custard in between. Constant’s version is enormous, yet light and yummy.
I was tempted to buy Constant’s cookbook in English. But, my shelves are already overloaded with cookbooks and my suitcase was already too heavy. http://www.maisonconstant.com/bibent/
We were ready for a simple and light lunch the following day. Le Capucin, supposedly a gourmet fast-food eatery established by yet another famous chef, Michel Bras who has several restaurants which together have earned three Michelin stars, was the place. Sandwich type ingredients, albeit with some creative concoctions, fill edible cones which you eat like ice cream cones while sitting on high stools. A clever idea, but short on taste. A basic ham and cheese on rye would have been better. http://www.capucinbras.fr
We sampled more of Michel Bras’ cuisine and met the star chef at Café Bras, his newest restaurant in the new and stunning Soulages Museum, dedicated to the works of contemporary artist Pierrre Soulages, in the town of Rodez. Mixed reviews on the food here, although all were in awe of the first
course, a light and creamy type of cheese soufflé. We requested – and were given – the recipe. The main courses were standard fare — a choice of veal, fish or beef — none of which excited the palate. But, ah…the dessert. As a chocolate lover, this got my vote as best dessert of the trip: le petit pot de crème praliné/chocolat croquant sésame. (a decadent chocolate praline cream). http://www.cafebras.fr
Most of us were not overly impressed with yet another star diner just outside of Rodez at Chez Isabelle (one Michelin star), but by this time perhaps we had
reached the saturation point with gourmet cuisine. I ordered Pressé de joues de boeuf et de foie gras au vin rouge, gratin de macaronis. (cheeks of beef with foie gras, red wine sauce and macaroni). Disappointing, and even without a star I can do a better job on macaroni. Chef Isabelle Auguy is one of the growing number of female chefs who have earned the coveted Michelin star. http://www.restaurantisabellesuguy.fr
There were a few other disappointments. The main course at a hotel meal sounded and looked exquisite: scallops (one of my favorites) atop a mound of risotto. Alas, the scallops were overcooked and the risotto was mushy. I am not
shy about trying unknown foods – all part of the taste experience. For lunch in the town of Conques, I bravely ordered the first course: gateau aux oreilles et pieds de cochon, vinaigrette à la moutarde (cake of pig ears and feet). The French let no part of an animal go to waste, but in this case, they should have. The cake was tasteless.
Not so the boudin noir (blood sausage) served with apples, onions and potatoes and rich in flavor at Le Clos Sainte Cécile, a lovely restaurant in the town of Albi where we sat in the garden under plane trees.
Dinner at the Hervé Busset restaurant won hands down as the favorite meal of this epicurean voyage. This was the trip finale with both an overnight and dinner at the one star chef’s hotel and eatery in a renovated ancient mill in a wooded setting on the banks of the Dourdou River just outside of our favorite town, Conques.
Busset has a passion for nature reflected in his cuisine. Wild edible plants are used in the preparation of his food which is innovative, unusual, delicious. http://www.moulindecambelong.com
After a week of extravagant eating, I was ready for a Big Mac, but the zipper on my jeans told me it was time for starvation.
Comments welcome and appreciated. Today’s Taste features a recipe for Chilled Avocado Soup topped with Crab. My guests loved it!. See “Today’s Taste” at the top of this post. While you are up there, sign up to become a Tales and Travel follower.
Joyeux Noel! In France, the main holiday event is the Réveillon, “un grand festin,” the big feast on Christmas Eve.
I invited British friends Mollie and David with their daughter Jenny and her partner Chris who had arrived from England at 3 a.m. on Christmas Eve after a long and harrowing drive.
The house is appropriately festive, decorated with some of my favorite treasures. David and Chris took these outstanding photos. I had to concentrate on cooking.
Food – a bit of a challenge as David and Jenny are vegetarians and Mollie, recovering from recent surgery, has certain dietary restrictions. I scoured the Web for some new recipes, and also relied on some old favorites.
Our meal, with a few exceptions, was more like an American Thanksgiving, BB’s favorite. Since I was in the hospital this Thanksgiving (nothing serious), he missed out. So, turkey it was with plenty of trimmings.
In France oysters and shell fish are the standard first course of this repast. Instead, we had smoked salmon and smoked eel, both ordered from a fishery in Denmark. The eel (cute fellow) had to be skinned and sliced. I delegated that task to BB. According to the instructions that came with the Scandinavian delicacy it is best consumed with a shot of icy akavavit. None in our liquor supply, so we drank champagne supplied by our guests. The vegetarians had baked camembert with pears. All were happy.
The next course would most likely be foie gras in France. I love it and usually prepare my own rather than buying the ready- to- eat version. It can be a culinary challenge. I took the easy road and served Harvest Bisque, a Christmassy butternut squash soup served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It is usually a hit. The recipe is listed under recipes in column on right.
Next the bird. No Butterballs in France. My friend Lynne, cook extraordinaire, turned me on to brining the turkey several years ago. The result: a moist turkey.
We had numerous (perhaps too many) side dishes:
Creamed Spinach and Parsnips (recipe from Food & Wine web site)
Broccoli and Cheddar Casserole with Leeks (another Food & Wine recipe)
Red Cabbage with Ginger (combination of a German recipe and the recipe of my friend food writer Sharon Hudgins, www.sharonhudgins.com). Germans serve this with Christmas goose. David tells me the British also serve it with goose. It’s not found on the French table, but I like it and it goes well with turkey, too.
Mashed Potatoes with Horseradish (an old Bon Appetit recipe – but his time the potatoes came out too runny)
Helen’s Brandied Sweet Potatoes (my mother’s recipe – a family tradition). This is also listed under Recipes in the column on right.
Classic Sage and Onion Stuffing (Web recipe from The Kitchen). I usually make stuffing with dried fruit and/or sausage. Those would not do this year. This concoction did not send me.
Preiselbeeren (German/Austrian berry, like a tiny cranberry). Austrians Klaus and Eva who rent our guest apartment for a month every summer, always bring us a jar of this treat. They gather the berries in the forest and then preserve them.
David and Mollie brought a magnum of an excellent red wine, Gigondas 2011, La Font Boissière, and a white, Laure, Côtes du Rhône 2012, Domaine Rabasse Charavin. BB added an American vintage, Gnarly Head Old Vine Zinfandel 2006.
Desserts: Tiramisu au Pain D’Epices (spice bread). I frequently watch a French morning show, Télé Matin. The recipe was given during a food segment last week. Tiramisu is always a winner. With the spice bread, I thought it would be perfect for Noel. A disaster. It was tiramisu soup. The taste was not bad, but texture, a miserable failure. I should have relied on Sharon Hudgins’ excellent recipe, my tiramisu favorite.
Pumpkin Pie. I know. It’s usually a Thanksgiving dessert, but BB craves it. It was interesting to see the British reaction to this all American favorite. Irish friend Martine once said she “just did not get it.’ Chris said it was not sweet enough. David liked it. Jenny – not sure.
Cookies – Five different kinds I baked the week before Christmas.
Not only did they bring the champagne and wine, but our guests came with Christmas crackers (not edible). For the British, a Christmas meal is not Christmas without the crackers, paper gizmos with two ends. You pull one end and the person next to you pulls the other. Pop! It explodes and a small Christmas present falls out.
For those of you who still have a holiday meal to savor, Bon Appetit. And, Happy New Year to all. Tales and Travel will take a break until February. We’re off on an exciting adventure to Myanmar soon, followed by a return to the paradise we discovered in Bali two years ago. See previous post, A Dentist and his Jungle
Haven, Feb. 14, 2012.
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