Today, our fourth in France, was another full day of tooling around the countryside. It was market day in La Bégude de Mazenc, so we went there first and bought bread and two wedges of these cheeses, pictured above, for more baguette sandwiches. The cheese vendor was very friendly and when she found out we were from Canada, naturally the conversation turned to the weather. In this part of France, she said, it snows very rarely and mostly in the mountains, and the temperature never really gets colder than minus five. Reason number 8394 why I love Provence.
We also bought some beautiful Teflon-coated tablecloth fabric in purple, olive and yellow, which will look great under the French dinners we'll be cooking for our friends soon. Provence is famous for its bright and colourful fabrics.
In the afternoon we set off for Grignan, one of the many fortified villages perched above valleys in Provence. It has a well-preserved Renaissance château, built in the mid 1500s. The château owes its celebrity to the French writer Madame de Sévigné, who visited and died here in 1696.
Along the footpaths were huge bushes of lavender and rosemary like the one pictured above. I couldn't believe how big they were, in fact, almost as big as me! It was so nice to see them in their native habitat growing to their full potential. I kept running my hands through them and sticking my nose in them. I thought of my own little rosemary plant, entrusted to Squeaky's dubious care while we were away, and I wished it were like this one. (The last plant that I had entrusted to Squeaky, a lavender plant, was put on her roof and forgotten about. But I'm happy to say that she took great care of my rosemary and African violet, albeit to the detriment of her other houseplants that I noticed were wilting when I went to pick mine up.)
This next picture on the right really shows how neat these fortified villages are. The ramparts, wash houses and earthworks surrounding the castle are so well preserved that they have become people's homes with the addition of openings for doors and windows. You can see that this is someone's backyard and in their garden the lovely rosemary and lavender plants are flourishing :)
Sunday, September 28, 2008
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Our first night in the kitchen! I was so excited :) Our teacher was Hermann Jenny, in the middle in the photo below. He and his wife Susan own Les Tuillères. He is a trained professional chef who has managed several luxury restaurants in Europe and Asia. I knew that S and I were going to learn a lot, and over the next week we did — not just about cooking and eating, but also techniques, the agricultural roots of Provence, and the philosophical side of food and wine appreciation.
Finding out that we were going to make magret de canard in our first class was a very nice surprise. We had only been in Provence two nights and had already seen this dish on two different menus, stuffed with chèvre at La Fontaine Minérale, and with honey, peaches and pears at Les Voyageurs.
Hermann's is a tender, pan-roasted version marinated in red wine, soy sauce and Dijon mustard. He showed us how to trim the excess duck fat and score what remained. We also learned that if you double a quantity of meat, you only need to increase the marinade by 50 per cent. The final dish is served with a creamy mashed potato and drizzled over with a rich, flavoursome sauce that looks like purple velvet. So beautifully unctuous, as Nigella Lawson might say ;)
There were four people taking cooking classes, S and I and two French people. We were all raised our eyebrows when Hermann told us we would be cooking for 18 that night — I thought we'd just cook for ourselves, but no, you cook for every guest paying for the table d'hôte!
We made a five-course meal, and ate it outside on a big, long table in Les Tuillères' beautiful courtyard. On the menu was aioli, a garlicky mayonnaise that the Provençales use as a dipping sauce with blanched vegetables, an eggplant risotto as an entrée (the first course), magret de canard and mashed potato, a plate full of local cheeses, and dessert, a fig and apple crumble that we made with fresh fruit from the garden.
Hermann and Susan are kindly letting me publish a few recipes to share with beFOODled readers, so without further ado, here is how to make magret de canard à la Les Tuillières (already taste-tested and heartily approved of by some discerning girlfriends in Ottawa).
Duck breast (magret de canard) with herbs
2 duck breasts, 12 oz. each
1/2 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp butter
salt and pepper
2/3 cup red wine
3 Tbsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
1 shallot, roughly sliced
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, roughly sliced
1 Tbsp herbes de Provence
freshly ground pepper
Prepare the marinade and trim the duck breasts of excess fat. Marinate the duck for one to two hours in the fridge.
Set the duck aside and reduce the marinade by half in a saucepan. Brown the duck breasts in a separate sauce pan — about seven minutes with the fat side down, and three on the meat side.
Remove the duck and keep it warm on a covered plate.
Return the pan to the heat and add the reduced and strained marinade. Simmer for a couple of minutes. Season, take of the heat and add the butter cubes.
Serve alongside mashed potatoes with sauce drizzled over. You will love this!
Sunday, September 21, 2008
S and I roamed the countryside on our third day in Provence, stopping in random towns and wild corners, wherever looked interesting or like it had secrets to give up. We had rented a car in Valence for the week, so the world of Provence was ours for the exploration. We started what was to become a habit during our free time: Pack a lunch, look at the map, plot a random winding course and go.
My favourite part of this particular ramble was our discovery of the little vieux village of Soyans. As we were rounding one of the scary blind corners that seem more common in Provence that straight roads, I saw an old crumbling château on top of a small mountain in the distance. "Let's go there," I shouted. Yippee — I had found a castle, one of my favourite things!
We parked as close as we could, and walked through an ancient little village — can you imagine owning the view from this little backyard on the right? Then we walked past a sign that we couldn't completely translate but which was some official notice from the mayor saying Interdit (forbidden), and up an ancient-looking, sunken stone staircase already half reclaimed by the soil.
Many stairs later, we came across this crumbling church, and just behind it to the north, some castle ruins where men were busy doing restoration work (hence the interdit signage). There was a sign identifying the church as Église St. Marcel. It was built in the 12th century and is dedicated to St. Marcellus, the 5th century bishop of a nearby town called Die.
The church dominates the valley of the River Roubion to the east and the village to the west. The view, as you can see from my photo, is breathtaking.
We ate lunch here while enjoying the scenery. We had done some grocery shopping the previous day, so I had packed baguettes. Here's the recipe for our French lunch at the château:
Take one-half of a baguette from the boulangerie, generously slather on some Dijon mustard, fill with strips of local picodon goats' cheese and prosciutto slices, and enjoy on top of a French mountain with eroding medieval ruins in the background!
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
On our second night in Provence, after a full day in Avignon, S and I went to Les Voyageurs, a little restaurant in Charols attached to a hotel. I loved the fun-loving decor. The owner Alexandre decorated it, and both him and the other server, his mother, were both really nice to us. They gave us the blue wine bottle that held our drinking water, and I'm happy that it made it home in one piece! Alexandre's sister also runs a museum dedicated to the locally famous Montélimar nougat, also in the same decor his mother told us, but unfortunately we were not able to make it this time (I'm saving a few things for the next trip :).
In the restaurants in this area, the menus are always on a blackboard, which the servers move around from table to table, so you can make your selection at leisure. All of the restaurants encourage a "formule" for ordering, where if you combine an entrée and a plat principale with or without fromage and/or dessert, you get a discount.
My entree was Carpaccio de boeuf au parmesan, which was very nice, like a pâté.
S tried Millefeuille de tomate et mozza, which had layers of incredible tasting tomatoes, both fresh and sundried. I think you have to have lots of sunshine on your tomatoes for them to taste this fantastic. (Reason number 7645 why I love Provence!)
For my plat principale, I ordered Filet de rouget sauce vierge. Sauce vierge (virgin sauce) is a popular French sauce made with tomato, basil, olive oil and lemon juice, and rouget is a red Mediterranean fish also known as red mullet.
S was an adventurer and ordered Tartare de boeuf a votre façon, and ate the whole thing :)
Monday, September 15, 2008
On our second day in Provence, we went to Avignon to see the Palace of the popes. This is where the popes and papal legates lived for over 400 years, starting with Pope Clement V. He moved to papacy to Avignon in 1309 to escape political unrest in Rome.
They didn't allow us to take photos inside, so instead I've posted some of my favourites from outside the palace and in the courtyard.
One of my favourite rooms is called La Grand Tinel, an enormous hall once adorned with frescoes and where banquets were held on feast days. The pope would sit and eat on a raised platform at one end of the room. There was even a heirarchy in the cutlery; the best flatware was reserved for the pope.
At the other end of the room, a partition hid a preparation area with a massive fireplace. This was where food brought from the kitchen was plated and kept warm.
Inventories at the time record that thousands of sheep, eggs, chickens, geese, pigs and cows were consumed in one sitting. These popes really knew how to throw a dinner party!
They also knew their wine, and this is where the Popes and I have something - perhaps our only thing - in common. We both love Chateauneuf-du-Pape :)
Chateauneuf du Pape, literally translated as "the new house of the pope," is a village just north of Avignon. The chateau here was once a summer retreat for the popes, who were among the first wine producers in the village. The wine they cultivated here regularly made it to the tables in their palace in Avignon. How I wish my house wine could be Chateauneuf-du-Pape!
Saturday, September 13, 2008
Our first night in Provence, S and I ate at La Fontaine Minérale, formerly an old mineral water spring where people used to go to "take the waters" in the late 1800s. You can still sample the water from the spring — it's fizzy and slightly sweet. We ate outside in a long, pebbled courtyard flanked by mountains and a big stone wall, and sheltered under a row of plane trees. It was in the tiny village of Pont-de-Barret, which is very close to Les Tuillères, the B&B where we stayed and took cooking classes.
We thought the food was fantastic. This was my favourite restaurant during our time in the south of France. The above photo shows my chèvre (goat cheese) salad, which had the best olive tapenade that I have ever had. S ordered the magret de canard, pictured below, a very common Provençale dish as we discovered. Magret is the breast meat of a duck that has been fattened for the production of foie gras. There are many variations of magret de canard; La Fontaine Minérale's was stuffed with chèvre.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Oh la la. Provence is so beautiful. I'll try to find the words to describe how picturesque it is with the help of some of our photos. I can only say that S and I finally found the summer that we had been waiting for. Everything is infused with sunshine, from the people to the landscape to the food.
The Provençales are a warm-hearted people. Susan and Hermann, our hosts at Les Tuillières, the bed-and-breakfast where we stayed and took cooking classes, were especially welcoming and were very generous. Their classes were incredible and I will tell you more about them soon.
We were lucky in weather during our first few days because the whole landscape was drenched in hot summer sunshine. When you drive from village to village there's field upon field of sunflowers, grape vines, corn and herbs. The country air smells of lavender and rosemary, both of which feature prominently in Provençale cooking.
The villages are so charming and quaint, and the buildings are in some of my favourite architectural styles — stone and stucco, sun-bleached shades of peach, yellow and white, and cerulean blue, that classic Provencale blue that is the most preferred colour for shutters and doors.
The pottery is also the most cheerful and bright that I have ever seen. Suffice it to say that everywhere I looked, I wanted to take a photograph to capture the moment. In fact, S and I took hundreds during the seven days we were in Provence, and these are some of my favourites.