Archive for April 2011

Voyage en Vaucluse

April 30, 2011

We’ve been traveling a lot lately, that and having guests, which kind of go together since our guests have come from other countries just to see our corner of the world. And, atypically for us, a lot of that traveling has been in the Vaucluse, the north-western edge of Provence.

A must for Sunday visitors is a trip to l’Isle sur la Sorgue, which has a huge and astonishingly diverse Sunday market specializing in antiques,

but which also sells clothing,

food, including these rather antique-looking cheeses,

and knick knacks and treasures of every stripe.

You eat well in the Vaucluse, with specialties like calf’s head terrine, and tripe and sheep’s foot stew, although if you have the time and are inclined towards a luxurious lunch

you should go directly to the gorgeous terrace of Le Vivier, where, surrounded by ducks and the gentle plashing of water wheels,

Louise and I dined on cod with lemongrass, calamari, and a vegetable purée,

while Shel had one of the most beautiful dishes ever, a pithiviers of pigeon, each perfectly rare pigeon breast tucked snugly into its pastry nest.

Every dish is gorgeous there, from the cheese plate

to the mignardises, the little treats that come with coffee. I can’t wait to go back there, it’s really a wonderful place.

We walked off our lunch on the breathtaking sentier des ocres, the ochre cliffs of Roussillon, which you can see in more detail here when I wrote about our last trip there,

followed by a visit to the Village des Bories, where we tried to imagine what it must have been like to live on stone, surrounded by stone, without color except the blue sky and the green grass. It’s quite stark, coming from Roussillon, and we wondered whether the people who had lived there so long ago had even known about the splendors of the ochre cliffs that are just a few minutes away, if you have a car, which of course they didn’t.

On another day, with Wolfgang, we went to the town of Sorgues, in and of itself not especially pretty or welcoming, but which is home to the charming little Restaurant Gérard Alonso.

The langoustine welcomed us with open arms,

the veal and asparagus were fresh as Spring,

the cheese trolley was incredibly well-stocked,

and the table was showered with desserts at the end of the meal, this being just the first of three.

We had gone to Sorgues specifically to visit Chateau Gigognan, which sits tranquilly  outside of town

and where we were also welcomed with open arms, this time by Claude Cante, who led us through tasting their exceptional Côtes du Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  These wines are available in the US, and it’s definitely worth looking for them.

Afterwards, we refreshed ourselves in Fontaines-du-Vaucluse, a jewel of a town, if one could only sweep it clear of tourists. That green in the center of the picture, looking like a perfectly groomed lawn? That’s the river, which flows through the town and is heart-stoppingly beautiful everywhere it goes.

There’s a tiny museum/shop, showing how paper was made in a mill by the river, which must have looked much different in those days of water pollution

shops selling every sort of resistable item (yes, even Shel, who has Coca Cola running in his veins, managed to resist these),

as well as those with more tempting wares.

A ruin presides over it all, here dwarfing Wolfgang and Shel,

and the houses have a sun-drenched beauty that makes you want to move there immediately.

So there’s a little tour through some highlights of the Vaucluse, and tomorrow we’re off for a week in Belgium.  We’re very excited, never having been there. We’ll be renting a vacation house in Bruges, and we plan to travel all over the country during the next week. Allons-y! Next stop, la Belgique.

Bonnes Paques

April 23, 2011

Easter is a really big deal here, I think not so much as a religious holiday as because it’s the occasion for a big feast. I was told Bonnes Paques, Happy Easter, at least a dozen times today as I ran all over town, making my way through my grocery list. I tried to do a lot of my shopping yesterday, to avoid the foule pas possible, the crowd that’s just incredible, that I knew would be swamping the food shops and the stalls in today’s market, but no, there I was, along with thousands of other future feasters, stuffing my shopping basket with springtime delicacies.

Yesterday I did manage to get the lamb, which is absolument obligatoire here for Easter dinner, and fortunately I got both a shoulder and a leg, unable to decide between two recipes, plus kilos of asparagus, which although abundant at that moment might have sold out by 10:00 this morning. I’m pretty sure that every table in this part of France will feature lamb and asparagus tomorrow, and so will ours. We’ll be six for dinner, three French friends from here, and a German friend that we haven’t met yet, who’s driving 900 kilometers down from Mannheim to be with us. That would be the most special thing ever, if it weren’t for the fact that’s he’s already saved Shel’s life once, which tops anything that can be said about Easter dinner and how far we’re willing to drive for it.

By a cruel twist of fate I woke up this morning with a killer cold and not much voice, necessitating a lot of croaking and wheezing as I did my shopping, not to mention countless handwashings as I made the asparagus soup, stuffed the squash blossoms, pitted the olives, and all the painstaking tasks that involve touching the food of people I’d rather not infect. I made Mario Batali’s Lamb Shoulder Braised in Milk, which, as I feared, although delicious, is not presentable on such an occasion. No worries, into the freezer it went, and the leg of lamb will save the day.

Wanting some Easter candy to decorate the table, we went first to one supermarket whose shelves were absolutely denuded. “Oh  putain, il n’y a rien!” I heard one guy say to his wife, a vulgar but heartfelt way to say that his kids were going to be out of luck on the candy front. Shel went off to the other supermarket while I cooked, and although he did come back with some colored eggs and even some chocolate ones, he reported a fight between two women over the last chocolate bell in the store, a fight that engendered intervention from the store’s ever-present security officer.  Because, you see, in France it’s not the bunny who brings the candy to kids, it’s bells.  Yes indeed, on Easter Eve the bells leave the church towers and fly off to Rome, from whence they return laden with candy.  Don’t ask me, I’m just reporting this, so you can understand how an Easter without a chocolate bell might be disastrous enough to bring two frazzled women to blows.

So now I’m going to stuff myself full of French cold medicine and hit the hay, hoping that in the morning I’ll be able to taste, and will have all the energy needed to cook and decorate all day. And hoping that it won’t rain tomorrow, as it did today. And wishing bonne route to Wolfgang, and peace and joy to all of you, whether you are feasting tomorrow or not.  To sleep, perchance to dream of bells, winging swiftly south and east, Rome-ward, soon to return and shower us all with chocolate and cheer. Bonnes Paques to all, and to all a good night.

Annecy Walkabout

April 19, 2011

Annecy is so photogenic that I found myself walking around all the time, camera in hand, just like the tourist I was. Taking this picture I stood on a bridge, lined up in the midst of about a dozen Japanese tourists, acting just like Japanese tourists do everywhere, shutterbugs that they famously are. Except this time I couldn’t laugh at them, because I was them.  Taller, blonder, but otherwise just the same.

Whenever I’m in a new place I love to go shopping, even if it’s only window shopping, and I’ll bet you do too. But this adorable guy, in his long scarf, pot of flowers in hand, baby carriage and baby waiting patiently, couldn’t be had for any price, except for free.  Click, and he’s mine!

Now where could you wear these? Only 119 Euros, that’s not too bad, and certainly less than the resulting chiropractor’s bill.

On the other foot we have these baby shoes.  I wish the scale were clear, you’ll just have to believe me when I tell you that these were shoes so small that they were for babies not yet walking, or possibly just taking their first tentative steps. And do you see the prices? 75 Euros  at today’s exchange rate is $107.44. For baby shoes. Not forgetting the tiny sign at the bottom, which says that prices vary according to the size. Which means they could cost even more.

However, this guy with Simply Irresistible stamped on his briefs was priceless.

And as the name of this leather goods store asks, Why Not?

Shel was very taken with this espresso machine, so much more interesting than the one in our French home, so much less so than our American one.

Because we really do feel that we have two homes now, although without Beppo and Zazou here it doesn’t feel quite right. I did a count yesterday and discovered that during the past three and a half years, we’ve spent two thirds of our time in France. No wonder it’s more like home than home itself.

There’s nothing like this where we come from, but then, there’s only one Annecy. We enjoyed the heck out of it, and we’ve already talked about going back, even though the fridge is still half full of that good mountain cheese.

Bells And Whistles

April 15, 2011

The day that we decided to go up to Sevrier was a beauty, hot and clear. Annecy seems like a town that’s very sportif, people are always out walking, cycling, jogging, and even in-line skating. Doing all of that by the side of the lovely Lake Annecy is quite idyllic.

Walking to the lake we pass the Big Chicken, with which Shel is enthralled. Because Atlanta has its own Big Chicken, a landmark that apparently still spins his compass, every time we encounter ant sort of  large chickenoid sculpture, Shel is in heaven.

And speaking of heaven, the hillsides are dotted with fluffy sheep, soaking up the sunshine and the fresh spring grass.

In Sevrier, as in Annecy, the tulip magnolias are in extravagant bloom. Since I’m as much of a tulip magnolia fan as Shel is a big chicken lover, we’re both very happy.

In Sevrier we make a beeline for the Paccard bell museum. We would have loved to tour the foundry itself, but have sadly arrived a few weeks ahead of the season. Paccard makes huge bells, using a complicated lost wax method involving brick molds, a sand and wax layer, molten bronze, clay, and some sort of soggy fiber.

I’m amazed to discover that elaborate decorations are carved into the wax layer, even though most of the bells will hang high in bell towers and probably never be seen.

The process of making the bells hasn’t changed much over hundreds of years, although the raising of a bell has undoubtedly become more mechanized.

Here Shel stands in a representation of the mold of their largest bell, which weighed 25 tons.  Just imagine raising and hanging this baby!

There are lots of beautiful cast objects at the museum, as well as a huge carillon that plays sweetly, on demand. If you go, try to make it in the summer, when you can tour the foundry and see the pouring of the molten bronze, which, based on the film we watched at the museum, I imagine to be a lot like peering into the gates of hell.

Outside the museum, Sevrier basks peacefully, and so do we. I know the whole place is buried in snow for many months of the year, but it’s unimaginable now, so warm is the sun and so sweet the breeze.

Annecy’s Charming Market

April 11, 2011

In Annecy we stayed in this perfect apartment, with a view out over the town.

We were super-comfortable there, as you can see, even though the Internet connection there was temporarily not working. Besides, that gave us an excuse to hang out at the neighborhood bar, drinking coffee and reading our mail.

Three mornings a week, just at the end of the street, Annecy’s excellent market spreads its wares. Sunday is the biggest market, with vendors selling everything imagineable.

Of course there are mountains, of cheese, but I think you already imagined that. But there’s also

men’s clothing,

womens’ underclothing,

piles of bread and pastry,

the freshest of vegetables,

lots of nougat and other sweet treats,

pencils, toys, and other little trinkets made of wood,

and even a stand where you can bring your old chairs to be re-caned and repaired.

The market is Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday, and we managed to go to all three, which is my idea of the right way to live.

Next we’ll have a look at some Annecy shop windows, then a nearby chateau, and finally, we’ll get back to Uzès. There’s a lot to see and do in and around Annecy, so go there if you can, and to make your visit really special, be sure your stay there coincides with a market day.

Eating Well In The Haute Savoie

April 7, 2011

It’s not all about the cheese, amazingly enough: whole meals can be had that do not involve even a molecule of the stuff. Here at the Auberge de Letraz in Sevriers we had a gorgeous meal in an idyllic setting, and just by accident. I’d committed the cardinal sin of not making a reservation for Sunday lunch, but two rejections and our third try led us here, and wow, were we ever glad.

It’s the kind of place where the waiters dress in suit and tie, but the service was kind and ultra-pro. An amuse bouche of mousse de foie de volaille got us in the mood for

my starter of foie gras soup with a cabbage leaf stuffed with sweetbreads

and Shel’s crayfish terrine with a vivid saffron aioli. We both chose a fish from the lake, fèra, as a main course, which was succulent, came with several delicious accompaniments, and was sadly unphotogenic.

And then Shel had molten chocolate cake with spice ice cream

followed by an assortment of pretty little treats. I did actually have some cheese, since I don’t eat dessert, but since it looked and tasted just like cheese, I don’t have anything special to show for it.

But really, the Savoie is a very gastronomic area and you can eat well even if you just shop and cook for yourself.

Shel had several delightful pastries from the shop next door to our apartment,

and I made a lovely market meal of twisty salami, tomato tartare, herb roasted ham, an orange duck paté, and a salad of bitter chicory and l’ail des ours.

We were there for five days and had four restaurant meals, every one of which was very good.  Coming home we really notice how hard it is to eat out well here, in comparison.

However, I still have more to show you about the Haute Savoie, so even though we’re back in Uzès, French Letters will be travelling for a few more mountain days, hurray.

It’s Not What You Think

April 4, 2011

I confess, we went up to Thônes because we couldn’t resist going to Le Farto. I mean, could you? If you knew there was a place called Le Farto just a few kilometers away, and you were American and had grown up with a zillion fart jokes, wouldn’t you be drawn there with a greater than magnetic attraction?

But first, this being France, we got ourselves an excellent lunch and some education. Thônes has a really nice museum of local history, which they need because their past is so complex it’s mind-boggling. Famous now mainly for its Reblochon cheese, in the past it was governed by the Dukes of Savoie, Sicily, Sardinia, Italy, and was finally attached to France in 1860.

King Victor Emmanuel was King of Piedmont, Sardinia, Jerusalem, Cyprus, and Savoy, plus, as the document indicates: etc, etc, etc. He became King of Italy just after the Savoyards voted to become part of France. But when I asked the librarian who keeps the museum if, as a consequence, the Savoyards identify with Italy, she said “Not at all, in fact, most people feel more Sayoyard then French, even.” And I can believe this, because for the first time in France, people in Thônes couldn’t understand my French, as if we were in a different country.  Five or six different people made me repeat, endlessly, whatever I wanted to say. When I mentioned this to the barkeeper here in Annecy whose Internet we’re using, he said “Oh, the Savoyards are just like that. Ils sont très particuliers” They’re just weird like that.

The museum has lots of neat old stuff, like this book from 1636 all about the importance of notaries in France at the time. French real estate law is hideously complex today, and judging from the thickness of the book, it was that way even 400 years ago.

There’s a collection of old guns from their long series of wars,

medals won in battles,

a bust of the patron saint of Thônes,

and old household artifacts like this sausage stuffer, which looks remarkably like our current model,

old tarot cards,

and a demonstration of the processes used in making Reblochon, which has been made in the region since the 14th century.

Which brings us at last to Le Farto. As you can see here, farto is a word for a cheese cave, originally under the house, used for aging cheese in the winter. Despite what you were thinking, it has nothing at all to do with cheese cutting, and everything to do with cheese aging. The cooperative cave of Thônes is called Le Farto, and it’s there that local farmers bring their farm-made Reblochons to be washed and brined and aged to perfection. Of course we bought some, as well as other local cheeses like Abondance, Emmental de Savoie, Tomme de Savoie, and Tamié, this last one made by monks in a nearby Abbey. I’ll be showing them to you as we eat them, but for now, I can scarcely bear to open the fridge, so strongly does it smell like a farto.

And outside Le Farto, wonder of wonders, a raw milk machine. Last time we found one, it mooed loudly as it was dispensing milk,

but this time Shel had to content himself with a silent dispenser of some of the most delicious milk ever, produced by Abondance cows that are just starting to browse on spring grasses and flowers. All that and Le Farto too, quite a day for us, but just another day in the Haute Savoie.

Mountain High

April 2, 2011

Today we went up into the mountains, the Aravis, to get away from the sudden influx of tourists into Annecy, and in search of mountain cheese. It was clear and hot all day, really and truly hot, and although we were only 25 kilometers from Annecy, it was absolutely another world.

We’re only allowed to live where there’s a bakery right next door, so after Shel’s lovely breakfast of the crispest possible croissant and a bowl of coffee, we went in search of our car, which had been parked for the past two days.

I wanted to see the Chateau Menthon Saint-Bernard, even though I knew it was closed.  I’d imagined that we would be able to get closer than this, but I wasn’t at all disappointed, because just nearby we found

this beautiful little waterfall, and just next to it

a splendid patch of l’ail des ours (which translates as bear garlic, but I have no idea what it is in English, or if it even exists.  It’s not ramps, I think, because it’s the leaves you eat, not a bulb). Ever since Shel and I won a cooking contest with our dishes based on l’ail des ours it’s been my totem vegetable, but I’ve never seen it growing wild, since it likes damp and shady spots, and there are precious few of those around Uzès. Tonight we’ll have an omelette à l’ail des ours, and some mountain cheese. I can’t complain.

Next we visited a sabot maker. The sabotier himself wasn’t there, so we had to be content with a video about how these shoes were carved out of a solid block of wood by hand, in the old days.

Happily, today he uses power tools

although the’re still pretty rustic.

Typing this in the neighborhood bar for lack of Internet in our apartment, I’m realizing that we did more today than can realistically fit into one post.  So I’ll tell you a bit more, then continue it tomorrow.

We had an excellent lunch in Thônes, and if you’re ever there, I recommend the restaurant in the Hotel du Commerce. The price was reasonable beyond all expectation, and the food was very good.

Thônes is a pretty little town with a sprawling market on Saturdays

packed with people shopping and eating and soaking up the sun.

It’s also home to a very pretty church

decorated in extravagant detail. You may have noticed that religious imagery figures prominently in this post, and that’s because this region has an incredibly complicated history, including a local religious war. Not able to really grasp it all from tourist brochures, we went next to the local history museum, which the librarian opened up just for us, and gave us a brief introduction to local color. I’ll share all that with you as soon as I can, hopefully tomorrow.  But right now, that l’ail des ours is calling to me, it’s gotten dark out, and we’re heading for home, where our recently acquired stash of cheese awaits us.