Sunday, December 1st, 2013
PROVENCE AND BEYOND
Truffle season is advancing in Provence – and it involves more than the earthily aromatic, scarily expensive, savoury fungi that are unearthed by clever dogs. Chocolate truffles, also in high demand around Christmas time, cost much less and are infinitely easier to come by. Make your own and youâ€™ll have something special to produce at the end of Christmas dinner. Extra rations may come in useful for last-minute presents, too. Just donâ€™t leave them sitting anywhere warm.
This recipe comes from camcookandco.blogspot.fr, an entertaining blog run by a chatty, cookaholic French student called Camilla.
For about 40 truffles
250g dark chocolate (70% cocoa)
150g liquid crÃ¨me fraÃ®che
20g icing sugar
100g unsweetened cocoa powder
1 Dice butter and leave in a warm place until soft but not runny. Beat briefly.
2 Chop chocolate finely and place in a large bowl. In a saucepan, bring cream and sugar to the boil, stirring well. Pour, a third at a time, over the chopped chocolate, mixing each time to achieve an even consistency. Then incorporate the softened butter.
3 Pour the chocolate mixture into a gratin dish, cover with clingfilm and leave in the fridge for an hour until well chilled. Roll a small teaspoonful at a time between your palms to form a ball the size of a small walnut.
4 Put the truffles on a plate a refrigerate for half an hour, then roll them in cocoa powder.
5 Store in an airtight plastic container in the fridge until ready to serve.
Tuesday, November 26th, 2013
Three years in Provence
Our Australian friendsÂ MICHAEL and SHERYL RYAN recently posted this article on their blog Luberon Life.Â Read it at your peril. It may make you down tools and come here too!
â€˜Today marks three years living in the Luberon… Three happy and fascinating years. There is so much to like about Provence that it is hard to know where to start. Here are some reasons why we love it here:
Everyone we meet here in the Luberon is warm, welcoming, kind and courteous. It takes time to know them well, but these gently-spoken country people are always friendly and open. There is a strong sense of community, people support one another and there are groups to serve every interest, such as a choir, art classes or dog-training. We have been fortunate to make many wonderful new friends and to join a helpful and caring network.
The Luberon possesses timeless beauty that constantly changes with the seasons. Appealing ancient stone villages, attractive ProvenÃ§al farmhouses, fields of vines, olives, melons, cherry trees and asparagus all sit comfortably next to rugged limestone hills covered in scrub-oak garrigue. Every turn in the road brings stunning new views. Walking the dog is a daily delight of new discoveries.
The French are justifiably proud of their history and heritage. Much effort is devoted to protecting valued areas and buildings. Within a few kilometres we have a 2000 year old Roman bridge, an 11th century church crypt, a village of 49 fountains and several medieval castles. There is always something interesting to see.
What can I say? Food is the first language of France. It dominates most conversations. Everyone earnestly discusses the merits of the butcher in the next village or the nearby farmersâ€™ market. People proudly trade knowledge of their latest find â€“ a new baker, where to buy the best caillettes, who makes good CÃ´tes du RhÃ´ne wine. Village markets are generally excellent and always a pleasure to visit. Emphasis is placed on seasonal and local produce, so our meals are healthy, fresh and varied. Many restaurants offer a lunch formule of three courses of such superior quality at such an affordable price that no other country comes close. The baguette ordinaire, a thousand different cheeses, Sisteron lamb and so many good local wines all deserve mention. It is a true garden of delights.
Greetings are always exchanged when meeting strangers in villages or the countryside. Everyone entering a shop orÂ restaurant says bonjour to customers and staff alike. People stop to kiss, shake hands and enquire after one another. Drivers allow you to cross, pedestrians wave acknowledgement. Children spend more time with wider family and friends and are taught to be polite from a very early age. There is a strong sense of community and a smile for all.
Many foreigners scorn Franceâ€™s work conditions, mysteriously convinced of the superiority of their own daily grind. But the French really have got it right. They retire early, enjoy decent annual holidays and festival days off, take proper lunch breaks and value the time they spend with family and friends.
Pride in your work
Artisans are recognised, well-regarded and highly skilled. They take pride in their work and it is generally a pleasure to do business with them. The mason may not always be punctual, but when he does arrive the standard of work and attention to detail are first-rate. And so it goes with market stallholders, local shopkeepers and other businesses. Every day our post lady brings her small yellow van along the 800 metres of unmade road to our post box. She offers to keep our parcels at her house for collection if we are away.
In our part of Provence we enjoy four distinct seasons, each bringing sunshine and blue skies and all equally enjoyable. Summers are hot and dry, followed by the beautiful colours and cool of autumn. Winters generally bring some snow, frosty mornings, short days and snug log fires, but the air is fresh and invigorating. Spring bursts with green growth and increasing warmth.
Marseille Airport and Avignon TGV station are both one hour away, so we are well connected. From Marseille we can fly direct to Istanbul, London, Copenhagen, Seville, Prague, Marrakesh, Lisbon and many other places. From Avignon the magnificent TGV service takes us to Paris, London, Brussels or Nice. French motorways are excellent and well maintained â€“ we can drive to Spain, Italy or Switzerland in four hours.
So there you have it. Not everything is perfect here, but itâ€™s close enough. The French do seem to live better than most.â€™
Read more about the Ryansâ€™ adventures on Luberon Life.
Thursday, November 21st, 2013
Avenue FranÃ§ois Boissel
04 75 39 66 70
â€˜Happiness biscuits? How come?â€™ said my not-yet-entirely-francophone husband, spotting this bright yellow box of macarons de Joyeuse on the table and thinking Joyeuse was a state of ecstasy rather than an ArdÃ¨che town. But he wasnâ€™t entirely wrong. Whereas some macaroons can be hard as nails and others almost as mushy as their fashionably colourful, creamy fillings, these delicious little items taste just right.
PÃ¢tissiers in the town of Joyeuse have had plenty of practice, keeping their particular recipe going since the late 16th century when Catherine de Medici had biscuits like these brought from Italy for the wedding feast of the Duke of Joyeuse and Marguerite of Lorraine.
Pierre Gaubert of Maison Charaix, the best-known bakery making them today, isnâ€™t prepared to reveal much more than the fact that true macarons de Joyeuse should be crunchy – apparently somewhat resembling Nancy macaroons in style. His are made from egg whites, sugar, almonds from the DrÃ´me and hazelnuts from Italy, in proportions that he canâ€™t discuss.
Youâ€™ll find them in about a hundred Ã©piceries fines throughout France including Galeries Lafayette, HÃ©diard and Le Bon MarchÃ© – or order some online. Stored in a dry place, they should keep for up to six months. Our box lasted only three days, mind you – but the eaters and not the biscuits were to blame.
Saturday, November 16th, 2013
2056 Route des VignÃ¨res
84250 Le Thor
06 30 00 62 04
PRICE RANGE – MODERATE
Keen to escape from stressful lives in Geneva, Jacqueline and Axel Renaud dreamt of moving to a place in the Swiss countryside with enough space for hens and a vegetable patch. In 2009 they ended up here instead – in a 100-year-old farmhouse in dire need of renovation. But yes, the extensive grounds encompass 13 hens, a ravishing potager and herb garden and an orchard planted with old apple varieties – as well as a boulodrome, croquet lawn and chlorine-free swimming pool.
Theyâ€™ve clearly had fun creating four spacious rooms with distinct identities ranging from cool 70s to more traditional ProvenÃ§al. (â€˜Le Loftâ€™, with mezzanine and private terrace, not to mention a groovy corrugated iron headboard, is the most popular.) Thereâ€™s also a cosy little library, well stocked with English and French books, where guests can snuggle into armchairs.
Breakfast is an impressive buffet with fresh juices, eggs from the hens, home-made yoghurt and home-made jams as well as cheese, ham, seasonal fruits and local honey. Add to that complimentary cake and dried fruits for afternoon snacking, complimentary aperitifs plus the possibility of a simple table dâ€™hÃ´te and you have the kind of place youâ€™ll remember for going the extra mile. The Renauds will even help you map out a wine tour itinerary if you ask nicely.
Monday, November 11th, 2013
Domaine Cros de la MÃ»re
04 90 30 12 40
So publicity-shy is Eric Michel that it took sustained persuasion, first to be allowed to snap and then to be allowed to use this photo taken quickly during a tasting in his home. Thank goodness he agreed. Itâ€™s high time the word got out about this fastidious man who quietly fashions some of the most exquisite wines in the CÃ´tes du RhÃ´ne.
Although his 20-hectare domaine includes a couple of tiny plots in Gigondas and ChÃ¢teauneuf-du-Pape, its main base is the Massif dâ€™Uchaux, an area near Orange which gained appellation status in 2005. â€˜We have marvellous terroirs here which are among the very oldest in the RhÃ´ne valley,â€™ Michel explains. â€˜Sandstone and limestone with red soil or reddish sand beneath.â€™ With patches of untamed forest to provide a natural ecosystem and a hundred days a year of the vicious mistral wind to keep the vines healthy, he believes he is in the perfect spot.
But it is Eric Michelâ€™s approach which is especially fascinating. Like Proust with his madeleine, he is anxious to hang on to old-style, artisan wines whose distinctive aromas and flavours linger in the memory – wines like those made by his grandfather and great-grandfather. â€˜Modern wines are all too similar. I want to make wines with soul.â€™
Organic viticulture, scrupulously low yields, the avoidance of oak and an unhurried pace help him to achieve that objective. Although his heady wines are rich – even powerful – they dance on the palate with lightfooted ease, leaving behind a trail of fine-grained tannins with the texture of velvet lined with silk.
While the layered CÃ´tes du RhÃ´ne is a cut above most others, the Massif dâ€™Uchaux is even more impressive, stamped with finesse, freshness and remarkable length. Iâ€™d mention minerality too, except that I darenâ€™t. â€˜Iâ€™m tired of hearing journalists talk about acidity and minerality,â€™ groans Michel. â€˜Itâ€™s just not that simple.â€™
Wednesday, November 6th, 2013
WINE BAR / RESTAURANT
46 Rue de la Balance
04 90 85 24 83
PRICE RANGE – MODERATE
Avignon is so chock-full of touristy restaurants that youâ€™d be forgiven for thinking Le 46 is another, sandwiched between souvenir shops a street away from the Palais des Papes. Except that most touristy restaurants dish up careless food to customers theyâ€™ll never see again – whereas Nicolas Martin and VÃ©ronique Bonnemer have built up a loyal clientÃ¨le since taking this place over seven months ago.
Their recipe is simple. Food that looks and tastes good without costing the earth – like this plat du jour of fat, juicy scallops on a bed of petits pois and shelled broad beans with stuffed courgettes and a little glass of tasty lentil purÃ©e on the side. It cost me â‚¬12; a cafÃ© gourmand with enough sweet things for two would have bumped up the bill to â‚¬16.
Equally impressive is the selection of wines on offer: any list with champagnes Billecart-Salmon, Ruinart and Krug at the top is off to a good start and here a clatter of tip-top Southern RhÃ´ne domaines fulfils that early promise. Plenty of wines are available by the glass and all come with sound food-matching advice, should you need it. Nicolas Martin has a wine background and it shows.
Perhaps because the new proprietors travelled widely (as far afield as New Zealand) before settling here, Le 46 offers all the flexibility you might expect of a modern wine bar. You can drop in morning, afternoon or evening for a drink, a light snack or a full meal – and those tempting wines are also on sale to take away.
Friday, November 1st, 2013
Chicken with 40 cloves of garlic
PROVENCE AND BEYOND
This classic recipe is greatly enjoyed by fans of Provencal food since garlic grown in Provence is so intensely flavoured. Although the quantity of garlic used may sound overpowering (or downright anti-social), it isn’t: the roasting process makes the it taste mellow, sweet and irresistible.
1 free-range chicken (about 1.5kg)
3 heads garlic, separated into cloves
30g softened butter
450g potatoes cut into chunks (you can leave the skin on)
drizzle of olive oil
150ml dry white wine
sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
1 Preheat oven to 200ÂºC/400ÂºF.
2 Prepare the chicken, wiping inside and out with kitchen paper. Season cavity with salt and pepper and place half of garlic cloves inside it. Smear butter over breast and legs and season with salt and pepper also.
3 Toss potato pieces in a little olive oil, season with salt and pepper and spread on a roasting tin. Pour over the wine. Place chicken in the centre.
4 Roast breast-side down for 30 minutes. Turn breast side up and roast for another 15 minutes. Scatter remaining garlic cloves around potatoes, coating them in the oil as you do so, and continue to roast until chicken is fully cooked (another 30-45 minutes). The skin should be golden; if it begins to darken too much, cover with a rectangle of loose foil.
5 Remove roasting tin from oven, cover to keep warm and allow chicken to rest for about 10 minutes. (This will help to firm up the flesh and concentrate the flavours.)
6 Remove garlic cloves from cavity. Carve chicken into pieces and arrange in centre of a warm serving dish surrounded by potatoes and roast garlic. The soft flesh inside the garlic skins is delicious.
Saturday, October 26th, 2013
L’Or Rouge des 3 RiviÃ¨res
Le Jas NÃ¨gre
06 15 81 21 01
Earlier in October I missed the exquisite sight of this field of flowering saffron by a couple of days. Never mind. A visit to Lâ€™Or Rouge des 3 RiviÃ¨res opened my eyes to the precarious business of producing one of the worldâ€™s most precious spices, besides awakening saffron-wary tastebuds to a whole array of products, savoury and sweet, enhanced by its intense flavour.
If youâ€™re intrigued by love-at-first-sight stories (isnâ€™t everybody?), thereâ€™s one of those to be unearthed here too. Feeling stuck in a rut in his native Belgium in 2002, computer programmer Pascal Arvicus decided to come and help with the grape harvest in Rasteau. The wife of his wine producer friend there had a potager where, one day, he spotted a tiny patch of saffron bulbs coming into flower. Woomph – that was it. â€˜I just fell for the whole thing.â€™ Although he has continued to do vineyard work around Rasteau ever since, saffron has been Arvicusâ€™s first love since 2010 when he planted 12,500 corms of crocus sativus near Entrechaux.
His approach is not just organic but entirely quality-focused, bringing Lâ€™Or Rouge saffron grade one certification. During the short flowering period, the still-closed flowers are picked early every morning. Later the same day, the stigmas are removed and only the red parts retained. (Lower-grade saffron may include orange and yellow elements.) These are dried in a low oven, then kept in closed jars in the dark for two months so that the flavour develops fully before they are put on sale. If stored in a dry, dark place, saffron threads should keep well for another three years.
Expensive? â€˜Of course! It works out at around â‚¬30,000 per kilo – but bear in mind that a single gram flavours enough food to serve at least 60 people,â€™ Arvicus explains. â€˜The best technique to extract the flavour is to infuse it in a liquid – water, cream, stock or wine but not oil. Then add the liquid to the recipe during the last five to ten minutes of cooking.â€™
You can order saffron threads via his exceptionally handsome, informative website, as well as other intriguing products including delicious saffron syrup to drizzle on ice cream and surprisingly moreish saffron-dusted meringues. Anybody who fancies falling in love with a whole new life can order bulbs here, too.
Monday, October 21st, 2013
Le Soleil Levain
SAVOILLANS – NEAR MONT VENTOUX
04 75 28 85 04
Not every day would I suggest jumping into a car and driving around hairpin bends in the wild country north of Mont Ventoux merely to buy a loaf of bread. But for anybody near Vaison-la-Romaine or Sault with time to spare in the early morning and enough gastro-curiosity to want to discover outstanding bread, this bakery with its wood-fired oven is worth a trip.
Its name is an apt pun – a fusion of the term levain (sourdough) and â€˜the rising sunâ€™ (le soleil levant). Thatâ€™s because the owners of this tiny village boulangerie are a Franco-Japanese couple, Emmanuel and Chisato Delalande. When they met at bakery school in Rouen a dozen years ago, Chisato had already trained as a baker in Tokyo. As she had learnt French in Avignon and had friends there, it was natural for the pair eventually to gravitate south. In 2001 they struck lucky, taking over this place in Savoillans – a bakery with an established reputation.
They are best known for their nutty, organic bread made from petit Ã©peautre - but, arriving here and admiring many different loaves with crunchy, golden aromatic crusts, youâ€™d actually be hard pressed to know which to buy. It probably doesnâ€™t matter. They all taste good. (The feather-light croissants and petits pains au chocolat are terrific, too.) A chat with Chisato and Emmanuel and a stroll around an exceptionally pretty village will also make your unusual bread-buying expedition worthwhile.
Wednesday, October 16th, 2013
Unexpectedly exotic flavours
VAISON-LA-ROMAINE AND BEYOND
Barden Gale, enthusiastic part-time resident in Provence, spots some foods that visitors may missâ€¦
We remember wistfully our visits to local markets in the far-flung corners of the world: Â la Boqueria in Barcelona, the wet markets in Hong Kong, the night markets in Taipei and so on. Â But right under our noses here in Vaison-la-Romaine, the local IntermarchÃ© provides the exotic stimuli of a gastronomic trip around the world (minus smells, alas – thanks to plastic packaging). Â Where else can you find in the same aisle Duff Beer, arroz negro, Marmite, golden syrup, Thai cocktail nuts, turrÃ³n, and, of course, Oreos?
During a whirlwind (worldwide) tour, certain anomalies pop out. One might expect the Oreos to be housed next to the â€˜all-American hot dogsâ€™ in a can (unseen and untasted by any all-American I know – and actually manufactured in the UK). But no. They are located bang in the middle of the Comidas EspaÃ±olas shelves, right next to the pudim dorado (flan) and the aforementioned turrÃ³n.
Suppressing an impulse to collar the IntermarchÃ© manager and advise him of his international faux pas, I scrutinised the box. The Oreos – in a nuevo formato – were indeed manufactured in Spain. Â More troubling were the questions this raised. Â In the culture wars, are the Americans losing (their icons)? Â Do Spaniards now believe Oreos are a DOC/AOC galleta? Â Do Spaniards crave, above all else when travelling, that familiar taste of home, the Oreo? Who told the IntermarchÃ© manager that, if he wanted to sell to the South of the Border crowd, heâ€™d better feature Oreos prominently?
I could go on. Of all the brownie mixes in the world, how did they wind up with Betty Crocker (UK)? Â Duff Beer surely isnâ€™t a real beerâ€¦unless Homer is a real person. And, to really confuse things, Weetabix is in the main cereal section. Weetabix – mainstream in Vaison! Donâ€™t ask the manager to explain. He has enough on his hands with the Oreos.
Friday, October 11th, 2013
10 Avenue Louis Pasteur
04 90 39 32 32
A typical ChÃ¢teauneuf-du-Pape vineyard carpeted in stones, I bet youâ€™re thinking. Well, yes and no. The stones most frequently associated with ChÃ¢teauneuf are galets - round, smooth, brownish and as big as outsize potatoes. While there are some in this photo, what you mainly see are limestone fragments – also an important element in the terroir of the Southern RhÃ´neâ€™s most famous wine appellation. Grapes grown here produce wine that is totally different in style from the blockbuster reds emerging from vines cultivated on galets.
Just how different I discovered recently at Ogier, a sizeable company based in the centre of town. While many producers allow visitors to taste batches of wine from different terroirs while still in barrel (before blending them together), Ogier goes one fascinating step further, creatingÂ finished wines from four distinctive terroirs – limestone fragments, the sandy soil known as safres, red sandstone and galets.
As all are made from the same grape varieties (mainly Grenache with a smattering of others), picked on the same day and vinified in the same way, only the land itself can account for the striking differences in texture and flavour. For wine shoppers, the obvious advantage is that you can buy the style you like best (my vote goes to the fabulously juicy, pure-fruited Safres) – but the tasting is an education in itself.
Established as a nÃ©gociant in the Northern RhÃ´ne in 1859 but only active as a producer in the south since 2000, Ogier has become ambitious and well-resourced, first under the umbrella of the powerful Jeanjean group and more recently as part of Advini. Domaine Notre Dame de Cousignac, an estate which I admire in the ArdÃ¨che, comes under its wing.
Today Ogier claims to have the largest ageing cellar in the Southern RhÃ´ne – but, unlike some big-volume outfits, it takes a serious, quality-oriented, organic approach. It is also visitor-friendly. Drop into its HQ and youâ€™ll grasp the essentials of ChÃ¢teauneuf-du-Papeâ€™s strangely different soil types, not just at a glance but in the glass.