Monday, December 24, 2012

Joyeux Noël! Happy Christmas!

It’s Christmas Eve on the Côte d’Azur.  This week we’ve been enjoying the sights and sounds of Christmas on the streets, in the post office, at the market, by the seaside, in the restaurants.  Christmas is big in Catholic France.  The patisseries are decorated with their bûches de Noël (Christmas cakes) creatively and lovingly fashioned to look as simple as a Yule log or as fancy as a wedding cake.  And people are buying them up tout de suite (quickly) in order to ensure the perfect dessert for le Réveillon (translated as the waking up or reviving)--their Christmas Eve feast. 

Dinners might include foie gras (duck or goose liver), escargots (snails), saumon (salmon), rôti de boeuf (roast beef) or oie (goose), frommage (cheese), and bûches de Noël.  And in many homes, des huitres (oysters) are king.  Oysters are ubiquitous in the markets.  Arranged on flats in plywood boxes, they occupy the large spaces between the aisles near the fish section; and it’s been the odd day in December when we go through the supermarket line without a box in someone’s arms near us. 

To get into the Christmas spirit, we drove down to the port of Frejus and along the sea toward St. Raphael.  The roads were much more crowded than expected considering it was close to six on Christmas Eve.  There were lots of last-minute Christmas shoppers and gawkers, but we were not deterred. 

Au contraire, we were enchanted with lights—twinkling and still, white and brilliant colors, in recognizable shapes and graceful sparkling fountains.  The boat in the roundabout was emblematic of Frejus’ history as an ancient Roman port.  Still a welcoming harbor, there were plenty of boats in the calm sea.

Santa greeted all comers in his glory sitting atop the light show theatre.  We were drawn to the sound of music coming from the cathedral in St. Raphael and hurried in that direction.  We arrived in time to see a spectacular sound and light show with accompanying music.  We stood stunned with all others in the little square watching as the façade of the church was animated with clocks, elves, birds, and finally, Mary and Jesus. 
We meandered through the Christmas market that was still busy with people drinking mulled wine and buying santons (little saints)--hand-crafted Provençal figurines.  Children delighted in the decorated trees and lighted reindeer.  We walked back to our car as the crowds began to thin, and on the drive back found that the roads were nearly empty, which warmed my heart imagining all those frenetic shoppers finally in their homes surrounded by family enjoying leur Réveillon.  Notre Réveillon (our feast) was enjoyed in the hotel room to include wine, bread, cheese, fruit and chocolate.  As we do every Christmas Eve at home while wrapping gifts, we watched Christmas mass from the Vatican--this time on Italian t.v. 

My three children are over 6,000 miles away, making this the first Christmas that I’ve not been with at least two of them.  It’s an odd and lonely feeling as we near the end of our three months in France; but our Christmas Eve in the streets of Frejus and St. Raphael and our own “feast” has made me feel quite festive.  I hold you all in my heart and wish you a happy Christmas.

Le Canal du Midi

Much like the Pont du Gard (built about 2,000 years ago), The Canal du Midi is a miracle of human ingenuity constructed between 1667 and 1694, which incorporated the need to afford easy transport of people and goods and to honor and appreciate the beauty of the countryside through which it meanders. 

On our way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, we stopped in Narbonne, the largest Roman province in Gaul around the turn of the century—the first century, that is.  Narbonne is now a bustling town that benefits from the vast wine production and tourism.   We chose Narbonne in part to break up the trip and in part to get closer to the Canal du Midi.  The drive from Lagnes to Moliets in the beginning of November had us edging near enough to see it but not close enough to stop to get up close and personal.  So we planned to stop on the way back, especially since it broke up the trip into two reasonable chunks, which made the drive much more palatable. 

The canal was created by Pierre-Paul Riquet whose design blended the 328 locks, aqueducts, bridges and tunnels with the vineyards, hills, fields and hills by framing the entire length of the canal with trees and other landscaping.  The 360-kilometer canal connected the Atlantic with the Mediterranean and was used originally for trade.  It empties into the Atlantic north of Bordeaux at the mouth of the Garonne and into the Mediterranean at Sête.  Today it is used primarily for tourist barges.     

It’s easy to appreciate the care with which Riquet executed his plan for the Canal over 300 years ago.  It is peaceful, bucolic and unspoiled. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

La Route Vert (The Green Road)

Today (December 18) was our last day for a road trip in Aquitaine.  We entered the A63 going south toward Bayonne and found ourselves smack dab in the middle of un buchon, kindly announced by a truck with an illuminated sign on top saying “Buchon.  Soyez vigilant.”  (Traffic jam.  Be careful.)  We needed the sign before we paid our toll and entered the péage, not after.  Nonetheless, we took our place sandwiched between trucks and other cars lining the road—all at a complete stop.  People got out of their cars to smoke, walk the dog, talk on the telephone.  Emergency vehicles zipped along the shoulder as we tuned into 107.7 FM to hear the latest buchon news.  The announcer reported an accident and thanked us for our patience.  

One thing the French are good at is waiting patiently behind a vehicle that is stopped.  We have many times been stopped behind a truck making a delivery on a street with only one lane.  There’s nothing to do but wait, and frankly, it never takes all that long.  Two lanes finally opened and we passed on through as if nothing had happened. 

It’s easy to understand the appeal of Basque country.  It’s not far from the big city of Bayonne, the formerly-glitzy vacation spot of Biarritz, or St. Sebastian in Spain.  The countryside is quiet and pastoral, green and breathtakingly beautiful.  The hills are dotted with Basque homes, sheep, Pottock horses, and vineyards.  

We drove to a view offered at Pilota Plaza.  The route was extremely remote, and we often wondered if we were traveling on someone's private driveway.  But we kept on through green hills and bad roads.  The view was as promised.  We stood in the almost silence listening to geese migrating, sheep and cow bells echoing through the valleys gazing into the smokey distance at the snow-covered Pyrenees and La Rhune.   

Frankly, le buchon is but a distant memory. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

La Cuisine Française

French food has been the subject of many a book, article, movie, conversation.  When we think of haute cuisine, we think of French cooking—cream, fresh vegetables, fresh fish, farm-raised veal, rabbit, cassoulet, escargots, cuisse de grenouille (frog’s legs), innards of all kinds, fragrant and crunchy bread, fine wine, delicate herbs and spices, an unimaginable array of cheeses, and desserts that send the common man into fits of ecstasy and doctors of the common man into just plain fits. Cooking schools even use French words for much of their instruction, including cuts of vegetables and meat, tools, cooking methods; and even the word “chef is French.  Imagine our anticipation before arriving in France knowing what we would find in the way of nourishment. 

France does not disappoint.  We’ve had some memorable meals while here.  Several occurred in the southeast France.  In Nîmes, located in Languedoc-Roussillon, our entrée (first course) was a velouté de courgette (squash)—a thick and creamy soup made of winter squash, which was in season and very popular in the markets and on sale in the countryside, and cream, of course.  The rest of the meal was good, but the velouté was, as I said, memorable.  In Les Baux, in Provençe, we had another velouté, this time velouté des champignons (mushrooms)—always, it seems, in season.  Also in Les Baux, we were seated outside on the terrace with a view overlooking the valley below Les Baux, which sits atop a mountain of bauxite.  (Bauxite takes its name from the town.)  That made everything just a little more delectable.

In the Provençal town of Cereste, we had a wonderful lunch above street level in a restaurant called La Pastoral.  We sat at a table next to a window, the sill upon which slept a sweet cat we couldn’t resist petting.  Our entrées were lovely to look at and delicious on the palate.  One was chèvre (goat cheese) wrapped in paper thin strips of zucchini with the same paper thin strips threaded through the cheese.  Another was salade de caille (quail) with an always-lovely and creamy vinaigrette.  It was here that we first had physalis, a member of the deadly nightshade family, and sometimes called cape gooseberries or groundcherries.  It adds a lovely citrus-y flavor to both sweet and savory food and a certain stylish presentation with its beautiful orange-yellow color.  It’s the same size and shape as a cherry tomato and always comes accompanied by its leafy wrapping—much like a tomatillo husk. 

We stopped for lunch in Ascain, a Basque village between St. Jean de Luz (on the Atlantic coast) and La Rhune (the mountain that can be seen from as far away as Hossegor and that has a tram in the warmer months that takes you to the top sitting right on the border with Spain.  La Terrace was just that—a terrace.  The only part of the restaurant that was behind solid walls was the kitchen (a large galley kitchen) and the bathroom.   It was cold and windy outside, so we were grateful for the serious plastic covering that hung down on all sides and zipped up at the entrance along with the propane heater.  La formule (special menu for the day) offered two things:  l’agneau (lamb) and le merlu (barricuda).  Though I’m not much of a red meat eater, and don’t much like lamb anyway, when in France, I eat food that the French enjoy as I figure there’s a reason they eat it.  The entrée for this meal was salade de chevre and it did not disappoint.  This is a green salad, lightly dressed with vinaigrette topped with thin slices of toasted baguette topped with melted goat cheese.  An auspicious beginning, it was delicious.  The salad was followed by the lamb, which was cooked to perfection; and while I won’t make a habit of it, I’m glad I had it. 

In Cogolin, a small town between St. Tropez and the hilltop town of Grimaud, we stopped to look for a restaurant that had been recommended in one of the guide books only to find that the prices were far beyond our expectations.  We went in search of another and stumbled across a crowded restaurant facing the central plaza where the weekly market was being dismantled.  As we entered the restaurant, I had a hankering for pizza.  While waiting to order, we watched the wait staff pass by our table with plates of paella, which were difficult to ignore.  So when the waitress asked us what we wanted, it was a chorus of paella.  As it turned out, the paella was stupendous.  Lovely fat moules (mussels), huge crevettes (shrimp), perfectly cooked chicken and saffron-flavored rice with just the right consistency.  Lip smacking.

In the last few weeks, menus have offered brochettes de canard (duck kebabs), which include duck heart and liver and sometimes a piece of duck breast.  Another item I wouldn’t usually order, I applied the same rule as described above (If it’s offered, there must be something to it.).  And once again, in the Landes town of Capbreton, I was glad I did.  My only regret is that the farm raising geese and ducks that we pass daily has had a markedly dwindling supply of live critters and I hope one of them wasn’t threaded onto my skewer.  

And finally, on the savory side, I’ve enjoyed moules frites (mussels with fries) in at least three corners of France.  Mussels are standard on most menus for a reason—they’re wonderful—cooked in white wine with shallots and parsley.  I still remember my first moules frites in Arromanche on the Normandy coast many years ago.  I highly recommend it.

Un Paris-Brest
As to desserts, I can’t do them justice as there are so many and they are so varied according to the whims of each patissier (pastry chef).  My personal favorites are the humble tartalette aux framboises (raspberry tart), le tarte au citron (lemon tart) and le Paris-Brest named for the bicycle race whose route goes from Paris to Brest and return.  The raspberry tart needs little explanation but to say that the raspberries are always full of flavor and sitting atop a lovely crème patissière (pastry cream) and nestled in a round of delicious and simple pastry.  In France they are ubiquitous and I’m grateful for that.  I am of the opinion that anything made of lemon is tops, and le tarte au citron is right up there.  The Paris-Brest is a circle of pâte à choux (puff pastry) in the shape of a bicycle wheel cut in half and filled with crème mousseline pralinée that is garnished with almonds.  

I could go on, but I’ll spare you.  Now go eat your spinach.