A House in Provence Chapter 16

Exploring Provence

Provence is known for its many villages, vineyards and lavander. We have been doing a lot of exploring here, never out of places to visit. In the winter I find the whole area to be a little depressing as most of the villages are shut up tight, streets bare, shutters closed and just a few hardy souls out and about. The mistral is really cold and miserable when it blows in the winter and when I looked out the window and see the trees bending and swaying in it, I would rather stay home and putter around than get out in the wind chill. I don’t necessarily like towns crowded with tourists but there is a lot to be said for cheery villages basking in the sun with the streets lively with people looking around and tables full in front of every cafe and restaurant.
The nearest village to us is called Grambois. It, along with the little school in our village, was used for a delightful French film done some years ago. It is really fun to watch and see the changes that have occurred since its making. Grambois is on top of a hill, as many are here, and at the top can be found a little square where the mairie, a little church and a tabac. That’s about it but it does offer more than our own little village which has exactly nothing unless you count the mayor’s mother who sometimes sells the bounty of her son’s crops such as white asparagus or cherries. There is an type of gite, dormitory style for all of the hikers and bikers who come up this way which is something, I guess. We stayed there once when our house was being built and it is on the rustic side.
And there is a wonderful building in fading periwinkle and pink which was once an Auberge as a sign barely discernible attests slowly fading away on the side of the building. I saw a photo of it when it was open with ladies in long dresses sitting in front. I would love to see inside sometime. I’ve been told that someone does live there.
The next closest town is la Tour d’Aigues (aigues being provencal for water). Tour is tower in French and there was one here centuries ago but it is long gone replaced by a chateau. It is a beautiful thing, though ruined, built of glowing golden stone by an Italian architect who put lovely features such as little stars pressed into parts of the walls, graceful towers and windows, just a delightful surprise as you turn the corner into town and it awaits you. It is a hollow shell now due to a fire set during the revolution which reached all corners of France, even quiet little towns such as this. Inside, in the office to buy tickets for a tour, there is a print of the chateau in the 17th century and it was incredible with a curved roof on the central tower looking rather oriental to me. It was much larger than in now appears. It is amazing to me that all of these little kingdoms existed at one time with chateaux and rulers running them like small countries. And then they sank into decline which saved many of the villages from being developed in the horrible ways in the following years leaving narrow roads and various buildings on top of a hill giving Provence that special look that it has. I see wonderful doorways around the narrow streets here using pieces from the chateau to make interesting and historic entries. Concerts are done in the interior of the chateau in the summers where a little stage and seating has been set up. It was just such an occasion when we attended a jazz concert at night. The music was great but sitting there in the dark with the chateau silhouetted against the sky and then great lighting being done, lighting up various parts of the wall in red, lavender or gold, made it truly memorable occasion.
Ansouis is not too far from la Tour d’Aigues although you must drive through la Motte d’Aigues and Pepin d’Aigues to get there. A regal castle is at the top of this village with a royal flag flying if the owners are at home. The owners are actual decendants of a long past royal family, many of whom I assume were beheaded, as this is one village in France which does not celebrate Bastille Day on July 14th. There is a rather splendid little chapel behind the church, small and ancient with a colorful statue of Joan of Arc inside. Once I entered to find a little old man banging on a drum, his version of a hymn to God, I thought.
Cucuron lies not much further up the road. Maurice says this is a very strange name for a village as it is a name similar to an American calling someone “Dummy” or the like. The reason for the naming is lost somewhere is the distant past as far as I have been able to discover. We hadn’t actually gone into this village at first as the road just circled the base but one day we parked the car and started walking around the narrow village streets for a Christmas brocante and found it to be a really charming town. A very unique rectangle shaped pond from the 17th century sits in the town surrounded by ancient plane trees a wonderful site for markets and such with the shade provided. We discovered a little restaurant called l’Arbor du Mai and found that on the 3rd Saturday of May, a little procession is done in town to celebrate the deliverance from a plague (this sure seemed to happen a lot of ancient times). A large tree is cut down, carried on the shoulders of 20 or so young men with a little boy riding on top. The tree is then secured against the side of the church and a smaller tree is also tied to the side of the little cafe. It is really great when old traditions and beliefs are still celebrated. There are so many here that still surprise me being an old Protestant. I knew there were a lot of Saint’s days in the States but they seem to have many more here that are actually celebrated.
Everyone seems to have heard about Gordes, once a center for olive oil the production of which was lost when a severe winter destroyed all the trees, now it has become an art colony. Every single building there is built of stones and the streets are all covered in them. They must be on top of a bumper crop of rocks. It is fun to roam up and down the streets and there is an interesting underground portion to the city as well. The Germans once bombed the place during WWII as it was used by the Resistance to watch the movement of German troops. You see why when you are high up on a vantage point and can see for miles.
Just a few miles away lies Roussillon where Ochre was once mined, the dirt and hills in the surrounding area running from golden, to ochre, to rust in color. You can buy bags of the various colors to mix with paint or a special substance to paint your walls in tints to bring Roussillon to mind whenever you catch a glimpse of your wall later. The town itself is very picturesque and interesting to explore, full of fun tourists shops such as a wine shop with a deep cool cellar downstairs, an artist selling her wonderful paintings in a shop located in the same building she lives in. I love her little pocket garden glimpsed in the back of her shop and saw a painting of that same garden on her wall.
To the north of us, in the area of France called Haute Provence, is where the high quality lavender is planted. There aren’t miles and miles of this fragrant herb growing as you see with wheat or the like, but unexpected plots springing up here and there and it is great when the fragrance of it all enters the car as you drive past. Some plots are well tended as the lavender grows in rows with no weeds seen and gravel lying between each row. Some have all run together and weeds are everywhere. When I stopped once to take a photo I saw that a couple of plants had been totally denuded of their flowers and there were several holes in the ground where someone had helped themselves to a few plants. Big fat furry bees abound, along with colorful butterflies, in the fields where this herb grows. About the middle of July the stems holding the flowers are cut, usually by machine, but some by hand for tourists to take photos of. A few festivals are held with many lavender products being sold-soap, lotion, oil, dried bouquets and even several types of foods. We have some lavender growing in our yard and I ventured out amongst the bees and butterflies to cut my own bouquets. It is such a clean smell, a delight to the senses when you pass a group of those lavender stalks in vase on a table.
Another village, once a powerful kingdom, and a great surprise when we first visited it, is Forcalquier. As you approach it you see an impressive building on top of the hill, once a fortress, now a chapel. On Mondays, not the usual day ever in France, is a fabulous huge market, the largest I have ever seen. Lots of food can be found but mostly clothing, table clothes with place mats and napkins, and lots of soaps and other types of Provencal items. One couple selling olive oil products had a soap shaped into squares from somewhere in the Middle East. When I heard her mention, as she told us about it, eczema, I bought some for my son seeing if it would help him. Up the hill from the market are some nice streets and places to eat. Just a really nice village to visit.

How We Travel

It has been cold in Paris this week with snow. They locked up Palais Royal tighter than a drum as it was too icy and unsafe to walk in.

A closer look at Palais Royal park through the locked gate.

How We Travel

It is interesting to me to read various travel boards on the Internet and get a glimpse into the thinking of those who travel. There are those, even members of my family, who travel as little as possible and have no desire to see the world. It is almost like a recessive gene to have urge to see parts of the world you have only read or heard about. If you don’t have that travel gene, you don’t get it. I have had people say to me, “You are going traveling again? Don’t you get tired of it?” I never have, not even when the victim of Montezuma’s revenge in Mexico, getting a close up view of the inside of a toilet. I’ve even been back to Mexico many more times. I like the culture there and the warmth of the people.
There seem to be two sorts of travelers: those who want to see it all and who want to cram as much as possible into one short period of time and those who think that is a ridiculous way to travel. Americans, especially, seem to be accused of the “If this is Tuesday, it must be Belgium” mentality. Part of this is because, unlike many Europeans, Americans only have a limited vacation time. Two weeks for a vacation is a real luxury and Europeans with their six weeks or more of vacation time are looked at with envy. If you only have a week of time to travel and you have paid a large sum to get airline tickets with hotel reservations and happen to be in a place overseas that you feel is a once in a life-time event, such as France or Italy, you want to see as much as you can. You may never again get the chance to see Rome, Florence, Venice, Tuscany and Naples even if it is all in one seven day period.
More and more travelers have discovered, especially if traveling with children, that staying in apartments rather than hotels can be a real benefit in traveling, especially when the kids get up in the morning wanting their ceral, not a croissant and coffee. It can be great to come back to an apartment for a nap, cooking your own meals after shopping in a neighborhood street like a native. Of course, there isn’t anyone to wash the dishes or make the beds, and no room service. There is also the possibility that the apartment doesn’t look like the photo you saw on the website renting it and that two of you will be sleeping on a lumpy fold out couch bed and you may never figure out how to run the washing machine there. Apartment renting, never the less, is becoming more and more the norm for tourists.
There is a travel board that I read call Slow Travel. This is a different philosophy of travel. You don’t see how much you can pack into your time in a city or country but you stay in one place and really get to know it. You might make forays into the area but you savor your time there, slowly explore, let the country soak into your memory like a slowly developing photo.
I’ve done it both ways and, if I have the time, like the slow travel way of visiting a country. But, when I’m in a new place and only have one week there, I find myself feeling a little stressed, wildly reading the Internet, pouring over travel books, wanting to find out all that I can about where I am going. I don’t want to miss anything. I hate to get back, know I am proably never returning there, and then hearing about something fabulous that I missed. I know I will return not really “knowing” a place in the world, new to me, but I will still be happy that I got to see it.
There are traveler’s clubs whose goal is to see as many countries in the world as they can. By seeing a country, it doesn’t mean exploring it. Just landing in the airport or getting off in a port counts. And that is what you do, count. Everyone wants to have the longest list. I used to get this mentality about seeing as many States in the US that I could, going miles out of my way to cross the border so I could say that I had “been” there. I did this once when in Kentucky, ending up in a rather depressing corner of Indiana so I could say I had been there. There are many States I haven’t visited unlike my French husband who has visited every State but North and South Dakota. He traveled across America often camping out and getting more of a feel for each State than I’m sure I do when I blitz Europe.

Favorite French Recipes

Before I give you a recipe I have discovered in France, here are a few photos I recently took around Paris, most of the Christmas variety.

Christmas lights in one of the most beautiful passages in Paris, Galerie Vivienne.

I liked the reflection of these silver birds into a silver dish that I saw in the window of a florist in the Marais.

This Christmas window was in a hotel near the Odeon metro stop. I love the red cardinals.

One recipe that I discovered here in France is Farci. I don’t think its orgin is French but rather middle-eastern. There are many dishes around the world including in France, that arrived along with immigrants-farci is one. I tried to do a google search to find the source of this meal but the closest I came was that the word farci means stuffed. My mother used to make stuffed peppers that I wasn’t that fond of which consisted of hamburger meat mixed with rice, put into a green bell pepper and topped with a tomato sauce. Here in France I see farci offered often on menus and sold in street markets-either just the meat or already all done ready for cooking. Vegetables used for cooking are bell pepper, zuchinni-they these cute little round varieties that are good for this-tomatoes and sometimes mushrooms or onions. This recipe is from the book, On Rue Tatin by Susan Loomis. Two friends who do alot of French cooking looked at the recipe and said, “Hmm, milk and bread?” Maybe this is an Americanization of the usual Farci recipe, I’m not sure, but I know many Americans add that to their meatloaf recipes. I tried to make this recipe from memory once and, my memory being what it is, forgot the milk and bread and it still tasted great.

Stuffed Tomatoes (Tomatoes Farcies)

2 slices fresh bread
1/2 cup milk
2 pounds juicy tomatoes
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
8 oz button mushrooms, diced
1 3/4 lb. lean minced pork (sometimes I use half pork with hamburger meat or veal)
1/4 c. fresh tarragon leaves (I used 2 Tb. dried)
1 cup lightly packed flat-leaf parsley
2 large eggs

Preheat oven to 425 F (220 c )
Tear the bread into small pieces, put in bowl, cover with milk, let sit about 30 minutes.
Slice the top off each tomato and remove the seeds and most of the inner pith. Lightly season with salt and pepper and place in oven proof dish.
Heat oil with the onions and garlic over medium heat. Cook, stirring, until the onions are translucent, about 8 minutes, transfer to bowl. Add the mushrooms to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are tender, 5 to 6 minutes. Transfer to bowl with onions and garlic.
Add the bread and milk to the bowl along with the pork. Chop the tarragon and parsley and add along with the eggs. Blend the mixuture thoroughtly-you will probably have to use your hands..
Evenly divide the stuffing among the tomatoes (or zucchini). Place the tops of the tomatoes on top. Bake until deep golden color, about 1 hour. Drizzle the tomatoes with the cooking juices in the pan.

Christmas Eve Menu

There are a few differences here in France as to what is eaten at Christmas. The French, naturally, don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, so their big family meal is Christmas Eve. On the menu is foie gros, raw oysters, turkey or capon, and Buche de Noel. My family isn’t here, Christmas being the time when I get a little blue because of this, so Maurice and I had our own Christmas Eve celebration. We had some really good foie gros, the goose liver of an over-fed goose. I didn’t think I would like this when I first moved to France, but it is really good stuff. Maurice also had oysters. I will have one, but that’s about it. I had some shrimp instead.

Maurice’s oysters. Note the little bowl-it contains vinegar with chopped up shallots. Maurice likes these on his oysters. It does give it a great taste.

On Christmas Day we had a great turkey from Picard, a place selling really good frozen gourmet food and also a ice cream Buche de Noel, really seriously good stuff.

Another food often seen during the winter is Chacroutte, which is a variety of sausages and ham with sauerkraut, potatoes and carrots.

This is very good, but very filling. What I would call comfort food. I don’t know why but about twice a year I crave sauerkraut. We bought the items for this meal at a local market. They had cooked the sauerkraut in champagne which made it really good.

An unusual pair of Christmas trees that I rather liked. At least you wouldn’t have to clean up pine needles afterwards. I didn’t have a Christmas tree this year, just some candles. Feeling a little “Scrooge-ie”

Sticker Shock

We have a small apartment in Paris. When we did a bit of remodeling and made our kitchen into what is called an “American kitchen”, we added a new stove and over that stove, a ventilater that is supposed to wisp all of the smoke and grease up through a filter and outside somewhere. However, I’m starting to think the vent leads right back into our apartment as whenever I take down a painting or plate from the wall I see the shape of whatever was on the wall. Then I get a sponge and spray the area with my trusty 409, a cleaning product I bring back with me from the States for its cleaning power with grease, and when I clean a small area, I end up having to clean the whole wall which, it turns out, has a thin film of greasy dirt. One wall in our living room I have not been able to get clean for some reason and it started to irritate me whenever I sat on the couch and saw a sort of black cloudy area. I finally decided to paint the irritating wall. It has been over three years since our apartment was painted, so maybe it is time in any case.
I make a trek to Castorama in Nation near our apartment. This is a French Home Depot. When I got to the paint center I had my sticker shock when I found a gallon can of paint costs over 50 Euros. I know gas is more expensive here in France and that paint is petroleum based but I couldn’t believe the price. I finally found a brand of paint by Castorama, one of those generic type of things, and bought it for 24 Euros which still seems high to me. A new paint roller was over eight euros. I do miss my forays into my Home Depot of old where repainting, and other household do it yourself projects always seemed affordable. I must say my wall looks so much better now. I may even extend my project into our bedroom but I don’t think I have enough paint.

Buches de Noel

There are several dessets that are a custom to serve in France during the Christmas season. After Christmas, for instance, there is a cake called a Gateau de Roi, into which a small little prize is baked, usually a small figurine, and the person getting this in their slice of cake gets to wear a crown and be “the king”. The cakes can be bought in every place in town and come complete with the crown.
A dessert seen right now as we approach Christmas is the Buche de Noel, a pastry that I will never attempt. It is just too much work for me. I can tell just by reading the recipe that there are too many things to mess up, starting with rolling up a thin sheet cake into a roll. I see disaster right there. And, really, why make one when they look like this in every window of every patissere in town?

They are usually filled with a flavored, creamy interior, chocolate or grand marnier flavor, and then iced and decorated sweetly.

For those feeling brave, here is a recipe I found on the internet:


4 eggs, separated
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
pinch of cream of tartar
3/4 cup cake flour, sifted
For the frosting:
1 cup whipping cream
10 oz. chopped bittersweet chocolate
2 Tablespoons rum


Preheat oven to 375°F. with rack in the center of the oven. Grease the bottom of a 15 x 10-inch jelly roll pan and line with parchment paper.

1. Put the eggs yolks into a large bowl.
Remove 2 tablespoons of the sugar from the 3/4 cup measure and set aside. Beat the remaining sugar and eggs together until pale.

2. Beat in the vanilla.

3. In another greasefree, clean bowl, beat the egg whites with a pinch of the cream of tartar until they hold soft peaks.

4. Add the reserved sugar and continue beating until the whites are glossy and hold stiff peaks.

5. Divide the flour in half and gently fold it into the egg mixture in 2 batches.

6. Add one-quarter of the egg whites into the batter to lighten the mixture. Fold in the remaining whites.

7. Pour the batter into the pan and spread it evenly into the corners with a metal off-set spatula. Bake 15 minutes.

8. While the cake is baking, spread a dishtowel flat and lay a piece of parchment paper, the size of the cake, on top of the towel. Sprinkle the paper with some sugar.

9. Invert the cake onto the paper and carefully peel off the lining paper. Slowly, roll up the cake with the paper inside, and starting from a short side. Wrap the towel around the cake, place on a rack and allow to cool.

Prepare the filling & frosting:
1. Put the chopped chocolate in a bowl. Bring the cream to a boil and pour it over the chocolate. Stir until it has melted.

2. With an electric mixer, beat the chocolate until it is fluffy and has thickened to a spreading consistency.

3. Spoon one-third of the chocolate into another bowl and stir in the rum.

4. When the cake is cooled, unroll it. Spread the rum-flavored chocolate evenly over the surface. Roll the cake up again, using the paper to help move it forward.

5. Cut off about one-quarter of the cake at an angle. Place it against the side of the larger piece of cake, to resemble a branch from a tree trunk.

6. Spread the remaining chocolate mixture over the rest of the cake. Using a fork, press the back side of the tines against the chocolate and lightly drag through to resemble bark.