Archive for June 2008

La Beauté Estivale

June 30, 2008

Summer beauty.  It’s all around us, and all we have to do is wipe the salty drips from our eyes, pry open our sun-puffed lids, and gaze.  There’s a reason that Lord Byron said “she walks in beauty like the night” and not “she walks in beauty like the summer,” because summer walking here involves slatherings of sunscreen, the lightest clothes one can wear without getting arrested, and a perpetual dampness that defies good manners.  Surrender to sweating, that’s my new summer mantra.

I have to laugh every time I read a French magazine article reminding people to eat their five daily fruits and vegetables.  We scarcely eat anything else these days.  It’s only the beginning of the summer vegetables, but already I’m seduced by

produce so exceptional that even the throwaway parts are beautiful.

Every morning we wake up and read the Midi Libre, our local paper, to find out how hot it’s going to be.  As usual, today it’s really, really hot and tomorrow is supposed to be really, really hot.  Have you ever seen a hotter-looking cat?  Even though he normally doesn’t pay much attention to the Midi Libre, except for lying on it, Beppo copes with the heat by sleeping stretched out like a person, trying to catch any tiny breeze that might ruffle his fur.  Imagine wearing a fur coat when it’s 95°.

Imagine being pregnant when it’s 95°.  I love it that in France pregnant women don’t cover themselves up as if they had something to hide.   But still, there’s no hiding the fact that this beauty is hot.

Right now it’s all about keeping as cool as possible, and that of course means staying near or in the water whenever possible.  This is a living fountain, made of moss that’s dripping constantly.  We first saw this fountain eight summers ago, and it’s still as green and drippy as ever.  I find that very reassuring, that the drip goes on, an inexorable beat of comfort and serenity.

And at least three times a day we’re in the pool.  I’m sure there’s a way to live in the south of France without a pool, but that’s not the life for me.  I’m a total wuss when it comes to heat, and the pool is where you’ll find me at almost any time of day.  Even Shel is getting with the program.  For a guy with a tracheostomy and a hole in his neck that goes straight into his lungs, he looks happy as a clam in the water, don’t you think?  This is the first time in seven years that he’s dared to swim, and it’s all thanks to the foam noodles that keep him safely afloat.

And speaking of noodles, thanks to this lovely Mark Bittman recipe, summer produce and noodles blend in true summer beauty in my dinner bowl.  Eggplant, mint, garlic, tomatoes, basil.  Ten syllables that speak the language of summer. 

The garden is also very happy.  The flowers can depend on me to water them every day, sometimes twice.  The herbs grow so fast they practically jump into my dinner pasta, and the tomatoes are giving it a good try, even though they’re confined to pots and not as free-ranging as a tomato wants to be.

This is just to say that all is as it should be in the sweetness of early summer.  And now please excuse me, I need to have another jump in the pool, followed by a glass of something icy.  I’ll leave you here to imagine being hot, really, really hot, and very happy.

What Should One Michelin Star Get You?

June 28, 2008

We very seldom eat in Michelin starred restaurants.  Never before have we eaten in one as part of a group of 18 Americans, 8 of whom were teenagers.  And double never for a starred restaurant with an under-table canine finger licker.  Don’t get me wrong – the dog was one of the highlights of the meal.

It was gorgeous at our chosen spot near Avignon, beautiful grounds, huge old trees, trickling fountains, and the best bathrooms I’ve ever seen in France.

It was also a day hot enough to melt the butter on your plate.  And when butter melts, so do I, so perhaps I was feeling a touch snarky.  Our helpful server, himself as melted as the rest of the staff, said that it was at least 35° C, which is 95°F.  So there you have it: hotter than hell, a giant group of foreigners including a sizeable youth contingent, and a reservation made too late to allow the kitchen enough time to prepare for us.

My meal started with this melon and ham salad.  It was a decent melon, with some crispy ham that might have been crisped on another day, since it had a very faintly rancid flavor and aroma.  I see from the picture that there was some sort of dressing on the salad, but I don’t remember tasting it.

Others in our group started with the soup.  I think there’s a law that says starred restaurants have to serve something featuring foam, and so here’s a carrot soup with some shellfish swimming under the froth.  The best thing about this soup was the beautiful spoon.  I mean, the soup was okay too, in a carrot-watery way, but the spoon was really nice.  Actually all of their silverware was quite beautiful.

This main course of tuna was a deconstructed Niçoise, and it too was okay.  Nothing you wouldn’t whip up for yourself on a hot day, but nothing to complain about.  Some of us got a delicious pork chop, but the kitchen didn’t have enough pork available, so most of us had the tuna.  A pork chop like that doesn’t come from the neighborhood supermarché, so I’m sure that had we reserved earlier they would have stocked up so that more of us would have been able to choose the chop.  It was probably our fault for not reserving well in advance, although we were practically the only customers for lunch, but still a lot of disappointed glances were cast by the tuna eaters in the direction of the porkers. 

Some pretty raspberry ravioli in mint water, a far better choice than the underripe apricots in a tough pastry purse,

and the post-prandial mignardises brought the meal to a picturesque end.  But I do have to say that they, like all the food, looked better than they tasted. 

I’d be the first to agree that beauty in food is very important, and no doubt it counts toward getting a star.  And I’ve already said that the circumstances of the day were somewhat sub-optimal.  And it’s true that we chose the lunch menu at “only” 45 Euros a person, plus wine and coffee.  Just for a little reality check, at today’s rate that’s $70.93 a person for lunch.  Although with wine and coffee it really came to 55 Euros a person, or $86.69.  Which, for a starred restaurant, is admittedly low.  And the food was very photogenic.  It’s also true that the restaurant was apparently more prepared for, and did suggest, that we all choose the menu at 78 Euros.  Not to lean too hard on this point, but that’s $122.94 per person before drinks, which, alas, we ourselves were not prepared for, especially those of us with teenage mouths to feed.

But let it be said that the restaurant has a lovely lotus pond.  And that we really enjoyed each other’s company, and the prettiness of the food and the grounds.

And that the resident dog thought the meal was peachy.

Me, I think it was a triumph of form over substance.  All was correctly and prettily made, but nothing was exciting or even very interesting.  There were no flavor surprises, and one day later I’m left with no clear flavor memories.  It’s almost as if the food were created to be photographed rather than eaten.  Not that it was all about the form.  The servers, although there were only two choices for each course, arrived with trays full of dishes and had to ask each time who had ordered what, which I think is less than good form in a starred place.

But afterwards the kids, who had actually behaved better than the adults throughout the 3 1/2 hour meal, finally acted their age and were caught truly enjoying themselves for the first time that afternoon. 

And I found myself feeling lucky not to be a Michelin inspector, wondering whether this restaurant really still deserves its star.

On The Ochre Trail

June 25, 2008

It’s only iron oxide, so why get all excited?  Just a big pile of dirt, but one that’s spawned a whole industry of mining and refining color, as well as one of the most famous tourist attractions in the south of France.

How big a pile of dirt?


Consider those little spots of color at the top of the picture: those are people.  And this is just one cliff along the famous Sentier des Ocres, the trail of ochre, where you can spend a splendid hour or two dawdling along, mouth open in amazement, running down your camera batteries. 

Where in the south of France?  In the improbably colorful town of Rousillon, which sits on the world’s largest ochre deposit.  A town where everything is either red, gold, or some shade in between.

Even the birds’ nests.  It’s breathtaking and overwhelming, and for once I didn’t envy the chic Parisiens getting out of their cars wearing impeccably white pants.

When you get tired of gawking at the cliffs you can go to the Conservatoire des Ocres, where there’s a museum of color and the old ochre factory.  A student guide, as sweetly long-legged as a colt, explains how the ochre was mined, washed, and baked, all by hand.  Or by hand to mouth, since at the time the most reliable method for assuring the fineness of the ochre powder was for the worker to put a bit in his mouth to be sure no grit crunched between his teeth.

At the conservatoire they display color in all its glory and in many forms.  They also specialize in training people to work with ochre, and you can take workshops in ochre technique for your home’s plaster or whitewash.

Or you can, as we did, bring home small packets of ochre to paint with, or copy into latex house paint using modern technology.  I’m betting that no computer-assisted paint mixer could capture the depth and richness of the real stuff, but we bought some anyway, just in case.  Only the bright blue isn’t an ochre color, the rest are all courtesy of Mother Earth.

And of course, after such a colorful day, what would you eat but

duck in a bright red wine sauce and

a russet-glowing cheese platter.  The dinner, at Les Remparts in Venasque, perfectly matched the mood of the day, and afterwards we climbed up to their very highest little room, ducked our heads to get in,

looked out at yet more red, and fell asleep wishing, just for a change, that we knew how to dream in black and white.



La Fête De La Musique

June 22, 2008

There’s just one day of the year in France when anyone can make music anywhere, on any street corner, without a permit. It coincides with the summer solstice, and it’s called La Fête de la Musique, the celebration of music.  And sometimes it happens that you practice all year for the event, get a great gig on a stage near the water, start playing, break a string, and have to change it in the dark by the light of a key ring flashlight.  And still you’re happy, because you’re making music and the audience is loving it.  But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Because of course the first thing you do is show up with several carloads of gear.

And then, even though you’re not getting any younger, you have to crawl around under the stage on a truly hot day, hiding cables where dancers won’t trip over them and generally plugging things in.

There’s a lot of setup needed for a roving band, made just a little more complicated when it’s a band where not everybody speaks the same language.  Lights have to be placed,

microphones have to be checked,

you have to be sure that the drums aren’t going to drown everybody out,

and, most important of all, you have to make sure that everyone’s having fun.

And then, if you’re in the band Art Bracamme, night begins to fall and you’re in the spotlight at last.

Some of your audience is aboard boats,

and some of your fans have to get out of their strollers in order to dance to the music.

I’m not saying that Art Bracamme stopped traffic, but they did attract the attention of stuck motorists,

music-loving families,

and dancers of all ages.  They provided a platform and backup for

a young musician’s first-ever public performance

and were so good that fireworks were set off in their honor.  Well, maybe I’m exaggerating a little, but you know what I mean.

And you know what?  They do it for free, for the love of making music, for the pleasure of watching people dance, clap, and even sing along, for the glory of finding themselves well after midnight rewinding all of those cables, restuffing all the gear into cars, and maybe popping the cork on a bottle of Champagne.  But honest, it’s not about the Champagne.


Feed The Hungry With Free Rice

June 20, 2008

Help end world hunger

Are you troubled by the idea of world hunger?  Do images of starving children haunt your dreams?  Then you’re just like me.  But since I found the remarkable Free Rice program I’m sleeping better, someone somewhere is eating better, and my vocabulary is increasing at the same time.

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Dieulefit, High in the Drôme

June 16, 2008

You might think that Dieulefit is a town that time forgot, unless you’ve seen the town clock.  Reminding us all gently, it’s inscribed in Provencal: Time passes, pass it well.

And so we did.  The day and night we spent in Dieulefit were charming.

Someone in town is a great muralist

with a really cute sense of humor.  The town is full of steep and twisty little streets where surprises lurk, waiting for the unsuspecting visitor.

Hopping across a stream and poking our noses up an alley led us to this pottery sculpture garden.  If you think this looks eccentric, let me tell you that this particular bit of the clay fantasy world was one of the most normal things we saw as we peered through the fence, before dropping a Euro in a cup tied to the gate asking for donations in support of the arts.

Later we spotted a poster advertising an Expo of, believe it or not, Beehives of the World.  Doesn’t that sound irresistible?  We drove about 12 kilometres on a goat path to what seemed the end of the earth in order to find this barn in an alpine meadow.  As advertised, the place was absolutely packed with beehives from all over the world, including a couple of transparent ones so that visitors could watch the bees in action.  Since we were the only visitors, we got all the attention of the hive-keepers, and learned much more about beehives than we’d ever imagined knowing.

We also bought this jar of honey, a golden creamy mass that holds a spoon upright, should one be inclined to sample it straight from the jar.  It’s a blend of garden-variety thyme, wild mountain thyme, dandelion, and the mysterious dorychnie, whatever that is, since even Google doesn’t know about it.  It tastes remarkably normal, like a good butterscotch, without a hint of mystery.  I offered some to Beppo, who has a sore throat again.  He took a couple of meditative licks, but if he recognized the flavor he didn’t let on.

And at night we stayed, and ate, at the Auberge de l’ Escargot d’Or, the Golden Snail Inn, where snails were in fact on the menu along with other delicious mountain treats.  Our room was at the highest point of the little hotel, and looked out on this meadow and the mountains beyond.  I don’t think we were meant to ride the bike, but it was there, morning and night, tempting me to pass the time well before it passed me by.

Father’s Day in France

June 15, 2008

It’s La Fête des Pères in France today, so here’s a little glimpse into what French guys like to do.  And number one on the hit parade, of older French guys at least, is: play boules!  Almost every village has a boules court, if not a whole boulodrome, and you can always find guys there arguing, smoking, and tossing their balls with greater and lesser degrees of finesse.

Number two has got to be: riding motorcycles.  I know what you’re thinking, and it’s one of two things.  One is that no self-respecting guy parks his motorcycle amidst the lavender.  But remember, this is France we’re talking about.  The other is that I should have mentioned sex as number one or two, about which you might be right but I just don’t happen to have any suitable pictures for that.  Or wait, how about this?

I’m sure that a lot of French guys are admiring feminine pulchritude today, in whatever form.  But then, is that really so different from every other day?

Probably every French guy is having a glass or two of wine today, and as you can see, a lot of it will not be a grand cru dusted off from a well-tended cellar.

I’m pretty sure there are guys out there who are wondering whether, as a Father’s Day gift to themselves, they should trade in the dear old cult vehicle for one of those trendy road hogs you’re starting to see everywhere.

And then, somewhere near the top of the list, but something that goes without saying, is that French guys love good food.  Something beautiful like this salad of mixed seafood would be just the thing.

So happy Father’s Day to all you fathers of whatever nationality, may your day be filled with wine, women, and song.  Oh, and motorcycles.

Minette Le Minou

June 13, 2008

Because we’ve been away for a week and missing Beppo, of course everywhere we looked we saw cats.  And we weren’t just seeing things, since at least in this part of France cats are ubiquitous.  Instead of “here kitty” you can call French cats by saying “minou minou” or “minou minette” and they’ll come to you if they’re so inclined.  This beauty was high up in a sculpture garden and not too interested in us.

Similarly, a cat soaking up the sun in the south of France doesn’t really need to get involved with people, even people who crave feline attention.

But just about every cafe has at least one cat, and if they don’t get served in a timely manner

they’re liable to come and fend for themselves.  I confess to having given this guy a little piece of my fish, which he took a surprisingly long time to eat, perhaps protesting against the lemony sauce.  He was said to be the pharmacy’s cat, but he looked right at home in the cafe, and especially plump.

Later we came upon these cats being served at their own impromptu buffet, a meal delightfully al fresco and with no offending sauces.

And for an after dinner drink there’s almost always fresh running water.  All fountains are labeled, either eau potable or eau non potable, but I don’t think the cats are very concerned about whether or not the water is approved for human consumption.

Cats can also be employed to guard the Deux Chevaux

or even the house.  And since one of those defenders of home and hearth looks kind of familiar, you know I have to sneak a picture of Beppo in here, if only to show where our loyalties lie.

Have I mentioned that we’re thinking again about getting him a kitten? A little French cutie, maybe called Minette.

How To Celebrate Your 13th Anniversary

June 11, 2008

Forget what they say about lace being the right gift after thirteen years of marriage.  I say: take a trip to Provence, it’s much more of a thrill than the laciest of lace.  Just pack it up and go a place where love is in the air, in this case, an abandoned water tower atop a hillside near Roussillon.  Love’s like that, found in the most surprising places, even amidst the rubble and graffiti.

If you can manage it, wake up somewhere enchanted.  A 600 year old room facing Bonnieux is a good choice, but the main thing is to start the day well.  A day that begins with watching your beloved pick his or her nose can be the best day of your life.  Not that I’d know anything about that myself, of course not. 

Seek out pampering.  You can’t do better than Maison Gonzagues in Cotignac, where Stéphane and Martine Le Flammanc will wine and dine you like a dream come true.  Submit to being well taken care of and made to feel thoroughly special, it’s what you need to do on such a momentous day.  If you tell them it’s your anniversary you might get a passionately red sheet on your bed and a special smile in the morning.

Eat something beautiful.  If we are what we eat, make sure that as well as being beautiful it’s tantalizing, clever, satisfying, rich, and full of life.  Try to be all that yourself.

Look at that person who’s given you 13 years and be grateful.  Remember you could have spent those 13 years in misery, crankiness, loneliness, dire straits and desperate conditions.  Instead there’s someone who loves you just the way you are and has the cookie to prove it.  Eat half the cookie and give the rest to the one you love.  Say thank you.

Biodynamic France

June 4, 2008

Recently we went up to the pretty little town of St. Jean du Gard for an interesting exposition of French biodynamie – biodynamic agriculture, heritage plants, composting demonstrations, and rare farm animals.

At least, that’s one version of the story.  Here’s the other.  Recently we had a chance to take

the little steam train up into the Cevennes where we wandered around a bit, had a nice lunch, looked at some plants and animals, and hopped right back on the train.  Both versions are true, of course, it’s just a matter of perspective and which of the travelers is telling the story.

We started out, along with a few hundred other people, in the town of Anduze.  At least half of the group looked to be under the age of 12, and whoever said that French children are always quiet and polite has obviously never ridden a steam train with a whole gaggle of them, where they behaved exactly as you’d expect kids to behave

when going over high trestles and through long tunnels cut into the mountains.  I had to shut my eyes to the air pollution implications of this train.  It’s only a 40 minute ride, but I was ready for the peace and quiet and general lack of sootiness of the exposition by the time we arrived.

Some of my favorites were this especially noble rooster,

the giant pigeons,

the beautiful and oh so soft chocolate bunnies,

and this little guy who hadn’t yet had a chance to grow into his ears.

We also saw ingenious solar hot water heaters,

seed-saving demonstrations, and

dozens of farmers selling plants.  I wanted to bring them all home with me, especially this cute guy, but since there was no way to get it all on the train full of rambunctious kids I settled for a piment d’Espelette plant and some lovage.

The French are pretty serious about saving the Earth, vanquishing Monsanto and GMOs, eating local food, and preserving the landscape.  As in the rest of the developed world it’s an uphill battle, but I say bravo and bon courage!  It’s a beautiful country, well worth saving.