Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Fog Soup



There was truly nothing spectacular about this morning. Just a walk in the drizzle with Ben to la Poste and la Presse but something made me feel deep contentment about our little town. Not only that I am welcome to take my dog along to the post office and the newspaper stand. Perhaps a little beep about its beauty even while dressed in grey. And of course there is nothing better to do when in a good mood than to make soup (I have also made it while at the end of my rope but that is another pot of veggies altogether).




One of the many wonderful things about having two excellent markets to go to each week in Arles is that there are always fresh things laying about, there is no excuse not to have them actually. Today I felt like scraping and chopping sweet potato (which to me charmingly translates to something suggesting "gentle potato"), the regular variety, shallots, onions, not to mention ginger and a fistful of garlic to boost our sagging immune systems. All of this in the quiet, looking out onto our sleeping garden under the high church walls.




Now, I am not the natural cook that Remi and my Mom are but I am not bad at those instinctively comforting things like soups. I just want something to ease the day and our Le Creuset pot is my secret weapon, sautéing the ingredients without burning them, keeping all of the good things in. Normally I am off on some sort of fusion experiment but today was a day to leave the curry on the shelf. I tried to imagine what an old-fashioned grandmotherly kind of soup Remi would have been served when he was young. To the chicken bouillon I added the last bit of red wine from last night, herbes de Provence, salt from the Camargue. Into the blender with a bit of cream and cooked lentils added at the last minute to thicken things up. Topped with croutons and freshly shredded emmenthal cheese and there you have it, something to keep us all in good health--body and spirit! Bon Appétit! 


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Rest


I love this hiccup of a week between Christmas and New Years in France. Whereas in the States, all too many of my loved ones are already back at work, here hardly anyone is. It is truly a time for taking stock of the last twelve months, being with family, wandering through town aimlessly thinking. A time of rest. And sometimes, life gives you that little extra push if you are refusing to pay attention. 

There seems to be a wicked virus flying around that hit first me, then my dear friend Frederique, her cousin and now Remi. By some gift from above, I was well enough to thoroughly enjoy the Christmas Day luncheon with our friends in the country--yes, champagne, foie gras, the usual suspects--but little else save for a small serving of my honey's absolutely exceptional stuffed pheasant a few nights later. So much phenomenally tempting food in the refrigerator--escargots! oysters! the buche!--and yet no one to eat it. 

And yet, as I learned after my surgery gone awry at the beginning of 2010, sometimes being ill can be a blessing if taken correctly. I realize that sounds odd and of course I am not talking about any serious disease. But being forced to not move from my couch for all of the 24th, too jumbled up to even read, I was able to let the whirlwind in my mind come to, if not a standstill (it never does) then at least a quiet dance-like shuffle. 

Here is wishing you all non-stomach flu inflicted peace for the upcoming year. Thank you so much for coming and staying, your support. I would love to hear more about you!

Un grand merci à mes lecteurs francophones! C'est sincèrement une belle surprise pour moi... je vous souhaite à tous une année 2011 pleine de Bonheur et de Paix.


Friday, December 24, 2010

A Christmas outing





Well, I have been a bit lapsing the past few days, I imagine that you will understand. But what better way to celebrate Christmas Eve with some photos of one of my very favorite small towns in Provence, Uzes. Originally a Roman settlement whose springs and sources provided water to nearby Nimes (including the stunning crossing of the Pont du Gard), the town grew as a center for weaving fabric. The wealthy business owners invested heavily in their homes, especially in the 16th century, creating architecture that writes the book on quiet elegance. Uzes is also home to one of the first Dukes of France. His family has lived in the castle for one thousand years--that might also be a reason that everything has been so beautifully preserved. A rarity and an utter bijoux or jewel.





A group of us piled in the Range Rover for the afternoon visit and to do a bit of holiday shopping at some very chic boutiques. Success! Which warranted a stop at Chez Cerise to warm up over either hot spiced wine or hot chocolate served by the wonderfully wacky owner. Just after sunset, we gathered together for the ride down to Nimes for a special apero at a friends house only to find that the ever so finicky Range Rover had cut off the engine completely after an electrical problem and we were stranded. I don't know why but this just knocked the wind out of me. It was just one of those days were I had wanted everything to be how it used to, surrounded by our funny and delightful friends. Luckily they remained so, even as the night turned colder and colder, taking the situation in hand. Let's hear it for insurance! Soon enough all five of us plus two dogs and mountains of packages were packed into a taxi and on our way for a wonderful evening. I am still a bit embarrassed by my lack of fortitude, after all, when things go wrong when Remi and I are doing a story who knows where I stay calm, but it showed me all the more how lovely my friends are. 


And so Remi and I returned again to charming Uzes to put the Range Rover safely on a tow away truck that blocked all traffic. We waved goodbye as it went (back to) the garage for repairs and took advantage of the situation to further explore.  On one of the tiniest hidden back streets we came across a sign "Tourists and visitors, please enjoy and have a wonderful holiday season"!


I love the decor on this doorway though am not sure what the turtle and cat are meant to represent. Uzes is a patina lovers dream town. Not everything has yet been renovated though there are busy teams working on nearly every street. We were told that thirty years ago, the streets were a little dangerous with many houses abandoned or shoddily kept up. 




I'll just let you take in the rest without too much explication. Hoping that you enjoy and are having a wonderful holiday season!







Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Tuning into Christmas

A dose of calm amidst the frenzy? Or have things started to settle down? Here in France, the snow has paralysed the North, leaving Paris and its airports in disarray. I truly feel for those that are waiting and hoping for their loved ones to join them. Time to get a bit weepy while singing "I'll be home for Christmas" after having tucked into a bit too much of the Grand Marnier. In Arles, we have been spared but the sky is a solid sheet of steel and letting in as little light. If we are lucky, things might shift just enough so that we get to see the stars on Christmas Eve on our way to the midnight mass...

The last bit of bustle in our house is of course, food-oriented. The buche has been ordered--oh my do the French take the idea of a "Christmas Log" to a whole new level. And there will certainly be none of the famous Provençal Thirteen Desserts at our table as we are going for a rather richer option than dried fruits and nuts. We have again this year put all ideas of being reasonable aside and are going for what we love, "The Three Chocolates". Is this supposed to be an illusion to the the three wise men? Entirely possible. The description roughly translates as: chocolate biscuit, creamy mousse that is a half bitter, half sweet with a bit of "ivory" (elegantly said) with a profiterole icing. And though we are only two this year, we ordered a portion for four. You never know who may turn up at the door. 

The butcher shop, Mere-grand, is reserved only for special occasions but as this is one, I plucked up my best dog voice and somehow managed to get a drooling Ben to "stay" outside the door, an act which made a pair of elderly ladies giggle with delight. The owner put in a quick phone call to his distributor and managed to locate a small pheasant that we will pick up tomorrow so that it can sit for a day before being cooked. Remi will make his own sausage and chopped liver stuffing. I asked for chestnuts as a side dish and it seems like we will be starting with escargot. All of this is for Christmas Eve, which takes precedence over the 25th here in importance. It is a day for family and yes, as I have mentioned, I am missing the rest of mine though I am well aware how blessed I am to have Remi and Ben. 

A little gift for those of you who love holiday music but feel that you are going to pull your hair out if your hear George Michael sob "Last Christmas" one more time. Turn into Christmas Lounge radio by Soma FM either on iTunes or on their website to enjoy such laid back tunes as Julie London swinging "I've got my love to keep me warm" or Peggy Lee whispering a very behind the beat "Jingle Bells". You'll thank me that you did.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Daily dose of Christmas

Tired of the twinkly lights yet? Really? A few more then as I gather up the goods for a post on our outing(s) to the oh so lovely town of Uzes...


Five more days until Christmas!!! Heading into the annual "Will the gifts arrive?" mode (a challenge when you are an ocean away from the rest of your family) and am really wishing that my Mom and Sister were here to share all of this with us. Remi is starting to warm up his cooking chops (though how he could ever top last year I'll never know, it was madness! Insane!) with a rabbit that he cooked in champagne yesterday for three hours. Trust me, you forget the bunny references.


Sadly, I have another bit of random news. The impossible has happened--I found a cheese that actually is too stinky, horrifically so, for me to eat. Now, you could see how casual I was about the rabbit so give me a bit of credit! But munster is NOT the same thing as muenster. I knew this and should have paid attention when my trusted cheese lady tried to warn me "you know that it smells really bad, right?" but did I listen? No. It is going to take me a bit of time to get over it but with a little help from my super chef of a honey, I will try...

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Lights 2!


Lucky you! Because my sister asked, here are even more (blurry) photos of the lovely Christmas lights around Arles, taken just this evening. I went for a walk by myself and realized that it had been so long since I had done so. A stroll, alone, without Ben or Remi nor purpose. It does me good from time to time to see my town as our many tourists do, especially at this time of year when it shines so brightly, literally and figuratively.

Today is one of the few Sundays a year when stores are open. France's labor laws still honor things like a day off, a day of rest. I can't help but think of my Mom who is working so hard this week as is my Sister. So for all of you that are exhausted in the States (or here in France as well), know that there is someone wishing you well, saying hang in there a few more days--Christmas is less than a week away!


There were truly a surprising number of people out, lots of families and holding of little hands. I followed the crowd up the rue Hotel de Ville and was delighted to find what had drawn them--another showing of  Groupe F's projection on the Town Hall minus the fireworks. I had forgotten how haunting the cello music was and how lovely the "journey" up the Rhone, following a Tinkerbellish spark until we arrived at the very Town Hall that the film was being shown on. As before, polite applause followed this effect. It was especially fun to have arrived in the middle of the projection as an onlooker, so that I could just make out the expressions of those watching it in the spidery light on those of all ages, all sizes. Only the Grinch doesn't love this time of year in these parts and families of all religious preferences are welcome. Here we speak of "les fêtes" or the holidays, more than Christmas though the celebrations for that very special day are wonderful too. With a Communist mayor and a large population with North African roots that are Muslim such an open attitude keeps Arles in balance.




I have a little circle of a walk, actually I have several but tonight I did the loop that usually takes me to Soulier, the bakery with the chatty sales girls and back along the rue de Republique, dotted with boutiques like L'Occitane and Christian Lacroix (an Arles native) past the Place du Forum to home.


Speaking of Mr. Lacroix, the city workers, being thrifty, brought out all of the magenta film gels to cover the street lights that he had ordered installed for the length of his incredible exhibition at the Musee Reattu last year. Why not? And why not several disco balls too? It is after all, les fêtes!

Lights!


Friday evening we went to the opening ceremony for the Droles de Noel (yep, drole as in funny) at the Place de la Republique here in Arles. You might have already gleaned that Christmas here is less about the mad rush of shopping than it is about slowing down, taking time to properly see out the end of the year. And I could definitely feel that collective sigh of relief at the festivities. We arrived early to get a good spot for our lovely friend Maya, a perennially sparkling eyed three year old who was accompanied by her grandparents. The delightful aroma of spiced hot wine wafted by occasionally to keep us warm, along with much mitten crunching and feet tapping until the lights dimmed and the music swelled.


It is just one of those quirky circumstances that makes our little town so interesting but Arles is home to the Groupe F, whose mind-blowing pyrotechnics have lit up the opening ceremonies of several Olympic games and many international celebrations. Luckily for us, they love their home town and share their artistry with us a few times a year. Truly, our Bastille Day celebration is not to be beat. The Droles de Noel was on a smaller scale than say, the ceremony celebrating the 120 years of the Eiffel Tower but still was delightful enough to leave little Maya gasping. My tired old camera (I curse you! I can't wait until you are replaced at Christmas!) could NOT keep up, so I will sparingly share the many wobbly beyond meaning photos that I took. After jets of sparks and a symphony of flames, human literally lit up like Christmas trees and a glowing man made out of fire, the town hall was transformed into a giant "cadeaux"--a fitting symbol for the gift that Groupe F gave to us.


To get a far, far better idea of why this evening was special, take a peek at  Groupe F!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Nipping at your heels


The cold has come on in a way that I don't think anyone foresaw. This morning the market was nearly empty with many of the sellers knowing that it was just not worth it to unpack their wares. Fortified by my mink-lined coat and Max Mara snood, I searched for my favorite stands in vain. No oysters for lunch today then, no 50 cent Christmas decorations either. Just a kilo of clementines, several scoops of walnuts (kept in a bowl by the door so that Remi can take a handful on his walks) and two perfectly rich slices of paté en croute sold to me by a wonderful man who actually called me "young lady". I said that there was no need for him to exaggerate but was delighted. All around me, I could hear folks muttering to themselves--at best exhaling an extended brrr, at worst shouting out unprintable French swear words accompanied by shaking a fist at the sky. As the skin on my face started to freeze, I turned towards home, stepping gingerly over a tiny magenta fish left behind when the fishmonger packed up early.

The mistral wind, which usually clings to the Rhone, was running rampant. No alley, no matter how narrow, provided a respite. How lovely to find Ben wagging his tail at the front door and to pull the club chair up in front of the fire. Here I am happy to stay while listening to the wind whip through the chimney high, high above. Safe inside on a winter's night.

Ah yes, except I still have to take the dog out, no matter how cold. So I snapped a few, um, "artistic" (aka blurry) photos to give a preview of the Christmas lights, lanterns and trees that the town has put up for the holiday season. Tomorrow is the opening ceremony of the official Christmas festival...to be continued...

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Oh! Christmas tree!


Finally, it is starting to feel like Christmas here! It is cuttingly cold outside but warm and cozy in. The fireplace is working overtime and we boosted our already considerable candle budget. Even though I can't admit that I find them terribly attractive, I bought a Poinsettia for traditions sake. And yes, after take two, the tree is decorated. A glass or two of red with my favorite holiday music bumped up a touch on the loud side (this being the ONLY time of year when it is even remotely permitted to sing along to anything by Mariah Carey) and it was done.  Perhaps because of my more somber mood this year, I wanted to just keep it as simple as possible with a palette of silver and cream. That means that the carved wooden animal ornaments bought on safari in Kenya are still sleeping in their box as is the painted blue moon from Bali. All the better to rediscover them next year. Isn't it wonderful how attached we get to our ornaments over time? I think that my sister still has the half-eaten rice crispy treat that we stuck on her tree oh so long ago...


But the exuberance of the season calls for a tiny bit of bling all the same. I have been sorely missing the chandeliers from our old house (sadly, the sole condition of the sale) and so decided to make one for the holidays. A branch painted white cut into three parts made a solid base and then all I had to do was dig into my magic collection of chandelier crystals (bought at one of my favorite antique shops in Eygalieres) et voila! I wish that I was able to photograph it better. It brings out just a bit of wonder in me every time that I look at it.

 All of the leftover bulbs found their home in the stone fountain in the hall stairway along with a few extra branches from the tree.


Bring on the white lights! Stock the bar! Because I really have to run--we are having friends over for drinks in an hour. Foie gras on cumin spice bread anyone?




Friday, December 10, 2010

Brightness

Pardon the pun but in "light" of my recently melancholy entries, I give you a bight of brightness because the sky really was this blue today. It is enough to sweep your heart clean.




O Christmas tree

"O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree..." well, I don't know the rest of the words to the song but it didn't stop me from humming the tune the entire way back to the house from the market yesterday as I carried one in my arms--not at easy feat as it is far taller than I am. I had bought it, as I always do, from the gentle giant that drives down from the mountains in the Ardeche region each year with a truck full of freshly chopped trees. He has pointy teeth and stutters if I look him directly in the eye but seems genuinely delighted each time someone chooses his wares over those of the other sellers. I joked with him that I feared that Remi would be furious with me--I always get ambitious and chose the biggest tree possible and this year was no exception. I figured that who knows where we will be next year or if we will have such high ceilings, so why not?


Remi had the rather brilliant idea of securing the trunk in the base for the outdoor umbrella. But it just wasn't the evening to do more. I was up on the ladder, ready to go when Luciano Pavarotti singing "Ave Maria" on the stereo took me by surprise. My Dad was a huge "Luch" fan (as he called him) and would drive us all crazy by turning the song up to full volume as we were trimming the tree. "Listen to this! Listen to this!" he would say with delight, even though we had all heard it so many times during so many holiday seasons. My Dad didn't even enjoy decorating and would usually disappear after ten minutes only to later pout that we had done it all without him. So I don't know why I started to cry so hard but I did. It isn't the first Christmas since loosing my Dad but it was just one of those moments when it still seems so recent.

So tonight will be take two. Time to light all of the candles and continue the tradition with joy and gratitude in my heart because that is what the spirit of the holiday season is all about.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The biggest compliment...

...is sometimes just to stay. A gift of being so relaxed and ready to keep spending time together, most especially as we all swing into the dance of the holiday season.

On Saturday, we invited a small group of friends to join us for an "After the Market" buffet-style lunch. This our new favorite way of receiving folks as it is like tapas on steroids, you can serve as much as you wish without breaking the bank and everyone finds something that they enjoy. Here is the table as it was at 12:30ish, with most of the group arriving at right before 1pm.


Blinis topped with either lobster or scallop purée, toasts with tapenade or sun-dried tomato "caviar", two kinds of olives (including a rather slimy version with anchovy paste), a jumbled pile of crudités, mini-red peppers stuffed with goat cheese, sliced Andouillette (if you don't know what it is, you probably don't want to), a pepper and zucchini Provençal tart, a salmon quiche, two dozen oysters, a charcuterie plate of smoked ham and paté, another of chorizo and saucisson...Oh, and don't forget the cheese plate! All of this served with the amazing cremant from Bourgogne that our dear friends Sonny and Michael convinced us is far better than cheap champagne and an earthy red from the Luberon.

Now, this is a group that we don't get to see as often as we would like. It turns out that everyone has a lot going on, major changes in the air, so there was much to discuss. I mean really. A lot. We just kept talking and picking at the food and sipping and listening and talking some more. Until it was 5pm, which meant that we could somehow qualify it as time for the "Apero", the Frenchified version of cocktail hour. Remi showed some of his most recent photography, dogs were walked and the fire was kept well-stoked. In the blink of an eye it was 8:30pm when everyone became peckish again, here is what the table resembled at that point:



There were lovely moments of unforced quiet, which made me think of Chekhov's line that "an angel had just passed." The mini-desserts that we had ordered from Soulier were gone over a second time. 


And at 10:21pm, they all banded together, buttoned up to brace the cold. And left, not with regrets because for once, we all had enough of a good thing. I have heard of such get-togethers, where day passes seamlessly into night but had never experienced one. I must say it was such a gift, a very flattering one. For there is nothing as generous as the giving of fine company.