Land of Olives and Lavender

Restaurants, Shops, Travel

I’m sitting in our flat watching the rain fall again, just grateful that the temperature might edge above 60 degrees.  We’ve had a big week here in London with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee but as you may have seen in the endless TV coverage, the weather never let up for the many well-wishers lining the streets, and as a matter of self-preservation my daydreams have repeatedly led me back to our holiday in the South of France just over a week ago.

I’ve decided I should have been born French.  I know it’s a tired refrain, but everything about visiting France, be it Paris or the countryside, appeals to each one of my senses.  We flew into Marseille and then zipped from one gorgeous nook and cranny filled village to the next.  In between stops were fields of red poppies and lavender, the air filled with a heady aroma of roses and cyprus trees.  Stone chateaus and monasteries and aqueducts rose suddenly from the landscape, telling the story of a people long gone.  The landscape alternated quickly between marshy rice fields and craggy foothills and row after row of grapevines.

Mas Antonine

The people here seem more laid back than their big city counterparts, gathering in the town squares at the local cafe to drink Pastis in the long evening hours and then grab a baguette and head home to a tiny flat in the maze of cobblestone streets.  Hardly any local changed our conversation into English upon hearing my elementary school French (it drives me nuts when they do that – I’m trying aren’t I?).  They all seem to still smoke and enjoy food and wine with a gusto last seen in the US during my grandparents’ generation. I imagine I can almost hear the tinkling of Zelda Fitzgerald’s laugh in the wind here, an ode to the first generation of expats to settle here in the Roaring 20s.  And no wonder.

This was our anniversary trip – a honeymoon really as we didn’t get one last year after the big party in Jordan.  Our base was a 16th century farmhouse in the Camarague National Park just ten minutes from Arles.  My chef friend’s parents live there and rent out 4 holiday apartments that have been converted in the old barn section of the building.  We arrived late at night to a symphony of bullfrogs partying in the rice marshes and early the next morning I ran to the large door to look out and found lawn surrounding a pool just steps from our small terrace.  The fridge in the apartment was stocked with just enough food to get us by for breakfast and then we were off to explore.

My first food find of the trip called out to me from the window of a side street patisserie in Arles ( a little snack to get me through until lunch).  Pine nuts are in everything in this region of France as they are indigenous, pried out of large pine cones. This tart had a very sweet custard filling that was nicely balanced by the toasted nuts that were very nearly caramelized in the hot oven.  This is a recipe I’ll play around with and get back to you soon with my results.

The Allard Family a la cuisine
My red snapper starter

Lunch was a La Gueule du Loup run by the charming Allard family.  It’s a tiny bistro featuring sophisticated provencal cooking.  We sat near the kitchen and ordered the set menu of the day.  For me the highlight was a starter of red snapper slathered in black olive tapenade with a goat cheese mousse. Bull is a staple on many a menu here, a nod to the not so distant Spaniards and the bullfighting which is still de rigueur in the ancient arenas of the towns.  Ghazi plunged right in and tried the bull filet in a red wine jus – meh, sort of like tough beef, honestly.  Dessert was diabolical – a strawberry mousse cake for me and Ghazi’s first ever Ille Flottante with a salted caramel ribbon running through the creme anglaise (he ordered many more times on the trip but never bettered this first experience).  We were off to a flying start!

Our amuse bouche – mixed vegetable
latkes with fresh sardines

After two full days of puttering around the Chateauneuf du Pape wineries, the ruins of Les Baux, St. Remy’s chi chi shops full of tapenades, olive oils, salts – just my paradise – and narrowly avoiding the wild crowds at a bullfight in Nimes, it was time for our anniversary dinner. We tried the recommendation of our hosts, L’Hotel Particulier in Arles.  At 9pm it still wasn’t dark as we knocked on the giant unmarked wooden door.  A woman in all white greeted us and led us past the reception and Roman style swimming pool to the restaurant terrace.  The hotel is a majestic 19th century mansion that’s been converted into a stylish and serene space hidden behind the high stone walls to the town center. We nabbed a secluded, candlelit table (hence the lack of decent photos) and enjoyed four courses of decadent service and inventive food.  A couple of stand outs to me were the amuse bouche of shredded mixed vegetables fried much like a potato latke and topped with a fresh, shiny sardine.  Pure genius and something I will pull out for cocktail parties.  I also loved what they called a salmon souffle, but really it was more like a delicate pink broth that was the very essence of salmon flavor with a little saffron thrown in.  Large chunks of country bread were floating in the broth, soaking up the juice perfectly, thus creating the souffle effect.  The sole main course was perfectly fine, but nothing to write home about, but my peach soup dessert with vanilla ice cream was divine.  Peaches not overcooked, just a magnificent blend of peach sweetness, honey and cream.

Early morning inspection at the Arles Market

As if it couldn’t get any better, the next morning at 7:30am we were up and at the Saturday market back in Arles (again).  My chef friend had warned me to arrive early to get the best look at what was on sale and a chance to banter with the vendors.  This was almost more exciting to me than anything else we had on the agenda (weird, I know).  The entire main thoroughfare of the town was blocked to traffic, ladies in their sensible heels, knee length skirts and short sleeved sweaters (a uniform, it seemed, for a woman of a certain age) rolled shopping carts in their wake.  On one side of the road there was all manner of tat – I don’t know who buys this stuff but clearly someone does because every market I’ve ever been to has some of it: fake designer handbags, packages of men’s white undershirts and briefs, toys made in Taiwan, mattresses, makeup and knock-off perfume.  You know what I mean.  Mixed in were some gems like a man selling kitchen utensils – I bought a speed peeler that is much sought after by foodie tourists – and lots of the famous Provencal printed tablecloths and quilts.

Mini clams persilade
Just a sampling of the region’s salts
We bought some green olives marinated in mint,
garlic and lemon that may be the best I’ve ever had

I don’t know really where to begin with the food half of the market.  Think I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking (all credit for them goes to Ghazi).  It began with live ducks and rabbits and chickens in boxes waiting to be sold (I tried not to think too much about it), then through vast tubs of spices, fresh fish gallore, asparagus, berries, tomatoes, artichokes, herbs, lettuces and on and on and on – oh! and don’t even get me started on the varieties of cheese and chacuterie.  I saw a fishmonger with his bottle of red wine on ice in among his catch of the day – and a half full glass next to it.  A little old lady sat knitting a scarf – the ones she’d finished on sale on a clothesline hanging above her. A hard looking woman shook a two foot wide pan full of tiny clams dotted with garlic and parsley and lemon.  A man with a Poirot moustache gestured wildly at his friends about something or another.  I was so overwhelmed I didn’t know where to start, but we did get away with some strawberries, a slice of lavender cured ham, some tomme de savoie cheese, olives, and a market basket for me.

Senses completely overwhelmed, we decided to enjoy the hot sun and spend the afternoon at the nearby beach at Saints Maries de la Mer, a mere 40 kilometres from Arles.  My mother now tells me that this is the same beach I played on when I was six years old and we visited the South of France for the first time. This is the land of the French cowboy – truly a ridiculous concept if ever I’ve heard one, but low and behold, I saw them with my very eyes.  Decked out in brightly patterned shirts, leather vests and stylish cowboy boots, these men (and their women in outfits that look more suited to Little House on the Prairie) do brave the traffic on horseback.  Apparently the wild white horses from this swampy part of the South are famous. Hence the need for cowboys. Oh, and they raise bulls for meat as well.

Warm chevre on a toasted baguette to
accompany my beach-side salad.

Charmed by the sandy beach, frolicking dogs, topless women of all ages and sizes, and rose-drinking bronzed couples, we ended up spending a full two days on the lounge chairs at Tahiti Plage.  For 20 Euros we rented a lounge chair for the day and our “Plageist” Bryan tirelessly brought us water, beer, lunch, ice cream.  Where I think of beach food being bought at a hut’s window – hot dogs, sandwiches, popsicles, bags of chips – this place offered steak tartare, fruit des mere salad, ille flottante, moules frites.  All was served on proper china plates with real silverware. It was incredibly civilized and chic.  I thought of Fitzgerald’s “Tender is the Night” again, when the young heroine Nicole Diver wears a strand of pearls with her bathing suit.  Impractical perhaps, but when in France…..

Morel and Asparagus Salad

A return to London loomed ahead of us the next day but we weren’t willing to go quietly.  Straight from the beach we returned to our favorite town of the trip, Arles.  The Place du Forum is bordered by a variety of bars and restaurants who all set up tables in the square’s center during fine weather.  The corner Tabac is a terrific spot for people watching and quaffing a couple of beers to help combat the sting of sunburn.  Holding hands, we wandered past the 12th century facade of the Cathedrale St. Trophime and just happened upon A Cote, the affordable tapas bistro that is sister to next door’s Michelin starred L’Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel.  A final splurge was in order so we sat outside drinking a delicious chilled red (our swimsuits not that well hidden under our sandy clothes), reminiscing about our trip and this magical part of the world.

Mini Rosemary Panna Cottas

Again, the menu was in order. Four courses of local produce on a plate.  The most memorable dish for me was a salad of asparagus, morel mushrooms, croutons and arugula dressed in a sharp sherry vinaigrette.  Heavenly.  For a main I ordered the salt cod which came in a small gratin pan, crunchy breadcrumbs on top and a little pot of pesto to add as I chose and again arugula on the side to break up the heavy nature of the dish.  My favorite desert of the week was here. Rosemary panacotta with raspberry coulis served on top of crushed chocolate biscuits. Another dish I will be trying at home. I can only imagine what the seven course tapas lunch at the pricier starred restaurant would be like, but for me, this was an inventive and delicious take on the local food.  This meal combined all of the scenery and food we had seen and smelled through the week and magically put them all on a plate (if that makes sense).

At 6am the next day we were on the road to Marseille’s airport, prepared to turn into pumpkins and get back to work and real life.  Boxes still needed unpacking at our new flat and a litany of small tasks to get our life in order were on the agenda.  The empty highway that carried us through the Provencal hills littered with lavender and poppies and fir trees was gorgeous in the early morning mist.  I inhaled deeply trying to stow away some of the magic and grabbed my dear husband’s hand on the gear shift, knowing I would remember this trip he had planned for us and the meals and sight and drinks and laughter forever.

 

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