Monday, April 30, 2012

Ben's favorite word in the world

*Oh la la! Talk about a gray Monday! I don't know how the weather is fairing in your part of the world but here it is just trop triste! And I am not talking about a "Ooh, the flowers are going to be so happy" kind of spring rain but rather a "Charlotte Brontë-ey oppression on the moors" kind of drizzle. Time to pull out the big guns because if this doesn't make you smile, I give up!*

Those of you that have read Ben's Guide to Getting What You Want (which I will admit with some embarrassment is probably my favorite post that I have ever written), will know that our beloved "dog" (I use the term loosely as he doesn't seem to be entirely convinced that he is one) lives to eat. He is simply doing his duty as a Golden Retriever. His breakfast is a given--his sleepy, coffee-deprived human keepers barely need any prodding to do his bidding then. But dinner, aka code word "Lunchtime" is an entirely different matter and he will spend hours plotting and scheming about what precise steps need to be taken to hear that magic word. Since that territory has already been covered, voici le résultat. For the record, this is a relatively calm victory dance but it does show many of his favorite moves such as the twirl, bunny hops and a bark of joy! 

Have a wonderful week everyone! 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Chapel in the olive grove

Do you know how there are moments when it all comes together? As if you had somehow slid into the best kind of dream?

Remi, Ben and I had such a moment and we pulled it like taffy to make it last. 

We couldn't immediately find the Chapelle Saint Romain on the outskirts of Villecroze. We had to ask several locals in the village for directions beyond head scratching and wide-mouthed gapes.

In back-tracking, we realized that we had simply sprinted past, as always too much in a hurry to already be at the point of arrival.

I don't know what it was exactly. The chapel in itself, while lovely in its weather-worn simplicity was nothing truly exceptional. 

It most likely was the olive grove, filled with trees far more ancient than those that we can find here in the Alpilles. So solid the trunks, twisted and split but rising up to bloom into a fan dance of gray leaves rustling in the breeze. I felt so safe amidst such living things that had stood the test of time.

Best then to lay back in the soft spring grass and search for animals in the clouds overhead. 

To let the thistles whistle against our cheeks and tickle our noses. 

We lingered, knowing that even if we returned a hundred times, never again would the sun be so warm nor the sky so helplessly blue. We all know that there is no such thing as perfection and searching for it is a fool's game. How lucky then, to be able to feel something so close, something just this side of wonderful.

Bon weekend!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Cooking for yourself

*This is  repost of the original from April 25, 2012 that was taken offline in a flurry of spam frustration. Oops. Here it is again.*

As Remi has been away for the past day and a half, I have been thinking about what it is that I like to cook when I am cooking for one = me! Admittedly, most of the time when he is away from home, I put the kitchen in shut down mode. We cook in this house and because we both work from home that means two meals a day. Now lunch is usually of the salad variety but that can still require a lot of preparations, so it can do me a bit of good to just subsist on casse-croute, picking at bits of this and that.

The first evening I eyed the (albeit home-made) leftover pizza. Certainly that was the obvious option. But it just wasn't ringing the tummy bell. What about that bunch of broccoli that was languishing in the veggie bin? The one that I had bought even though Remi doesn't like it? Allez-hop! Now or never time. So I decided to make a pasta, arrabbiata-style. Why? Because, with the addition of a couple squirts of smoky harissa paste, I could make it as spicy as I wanted! As some of you might know, the French by and large (excuse the generalization) are not into culinary heat. Not so for this girl who used to go the East Village Indian guys so that she could gleefully cry into her curry. Another bonus? As the smoochee was nowhere to be seen I could spike my tomato sauce with as much garlic as I could see fit. And not just any garlic but le nouveau ail, the fresh variety, which frankly, I am addicted to. I can eat it raw like bonbons, just like some of the local old-timers do. A sauté of le bacon (think Canadian), yellow onions, fresh flowering thyme (a luxury in itself), herbs de Provence, red wine (I just happened to have some in hand, quelle surprise) and it all came together into just exactly the taste that I wanted. No photos because, even if I did think about it, it was in my belly too fast.

Not so the next day when I redid the same adventure for lunch. What do I want? Two other banned ingredients came to mind: red cabbage and raw pois chiches or chick peas. I added a little extra laitue that was on its last leaves, tuna, roasted peppers, shredded carrots, Trader Joe's salt-free 21 Season Salute (why oh why aren't there TJ's here? Why?) plus a simple vinaigrette. It took me back to when I was a young 'un living in NYC and I ate this salad all the time so I had the added contentment of memories à la Proust with each munch.  

Not that Remi is a food dictator, not in the least and he is more than patient with my no goes of beef, les abats and frog's legs (I have done it but no they don't really taste like chicken). True, he is the real chef in the family and is not afraid of attempting anything. Petits paquets de coquille St. Jacques au foie gras et bacon avec une reduction d'homard? Bring it on! I am just the comfort food girl, as you can well see. But it was really lovely to be a little selfish in my preparation and it got me wondering, what are your favorite tastes? The ones that you go to time and again for a little boost? That are "yours"?

Monday, April 23, 2012

One of the most beautiful villages in France?

I am a bit of a spoiled traveller. Having had the Taj Mahal to myself at dawn, the Bayon Temple in Angkor the same at sunset, I don't like to feel as if I am, well, a tourist even if that is exactly what I am these days when out visiting. 

So there was a slight tingle, that vaguely uncomfortable nibble at my fingertips while we walked around the village of Grimaud. 

Is it charming? Why yes. But it is also teeny to the point of whiffing of "wee" while being packed to the gills with other folks just like myself with their cameras out and at the ready. 

True, as I have already written about Oppede-le-Vieux and Vaison-la-Romaine, girlfriend is begging for her closeup at every corner. But something about this lovely lieu made me wonder if I opened a door I would find that it was only a stage set!

But I am being a snot--I warned you I am spoiled! Because really the sight of lavender springing out of an ancient wall, side-swiped by the afternoon light, was worth weeding through the groups lead by bull-horned earnest guides.

The wind picked up, giving us a little "how do?" as we crested the ruins of the chateau. St. Tropez glimmered like the unattainable jewel that she is as the land exhaled into the sea below.

And so we too, descended and found...utter authenticity. At the bottom of a series of cresting waterfalls, we were lead by burbling to the Pont des Fées, or the fairy bridge. 

One thousand years old and still standing--although I did hold my breath while I crossed it! Who knows what kind of magic had inspired its name but to be spell-bound by it was exactly the sentiment for which I had been searching. And yes, here, we were alone.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Saturday treasures

I don't usually like to write about our market. Even though it is the largest in Provence, the subject somehow seems trop facile and a bit cliché. But, today my haul just made me so happy that I had to share it! My panier or basket was so heavy on the way home as it was filled to the brim with goodies.

The perfume of the tiny Gariguette strawberries was matched by the Herbs de Provence mixture on top of the super fresh goat cheese. When I saw the sprinkles of lavender, c'etait vendu!  Similarly, I couldn't stop inhaling the warmth of the bread stuffed with green olives and pistou. Tiens, I think I need to go rip off a hunk of that right now!

Over the past two years, I have become increasingly attached to the lovely woman who sells her freshly made Vietnamese delectables. Spicy samosas, crackly shrimp nems, bouncy shrimp bouchons and the not to be missed crab farci. She grew up in Saigon during the war and Remi thinks that might be the reason why she is especially kind to me, her American client, often putting a little something extra in my bag. Today it was the crunchy shrimp and peanut salad. 

And she wasn't the only one that was generous! Yes, the flower vendor sneaked in a small bouquet of peonies, again without saying a word. They are on my desk and the roses, bought for my honey because I was a brat last night, are on the dining room table. 

The oysters and a bottle of white Côte du Rhone are chilling in the fridge. We will have a late lunch, a feast of Saturday treasures! 

Simple pleasures but nonetheless real and to be cherished...

Friday, April 20, 2012

La Mer, deux

Ooh, I haven't even been home for a week yet and already I am yearning to go back! Just look at the light, the color of the Mediterranean--can you hear the sweet splash of the waves? Le sigh.

True, I posted a video about this lovely spot at the time but felt that we could all use a bit of beach this Friday. A little reminder that it is now officially time to exhale.

I shudder to think what le Plage de L'Estagnol could be like in say late July. Radios! Empty Pringle cans used as bongos! But in April, ahh, serenity and solitude. The very few people that we passed greeted us with the tight smiles of the smart set. Those in the know.

As I am not much of a swimmer, I can't say that I minded that the water was too cold even for toe-dipping. 

The wind was brusk but the swing of sand softened my cheeks...

...and the waves were pushed into cyclical Hallelujah chorus. 

For the curious, the L'Estagnol beach is south of Bormes-Les-Mimosas. This is a stretch of sea that has little in common with the overbuilt, Ferrarified coast further up the road. The only touch of "le show" are some phenomenal wineries, whose expansive estates run right down to the shore line. The rolling road of the 42A is one of my favorites to be found anywhere.

We even had a bit of luck on our side. As we pulled into the lane leading towards the beach, we noticed that the gatekeeper had left for the day, meaning that we didn't have to pay the 8€ entry fee. And if ten smackeroonies sounds like a lot to pay for a bit of paradise, you need to shake the spiderwebs out of your noggin'. Still, who doesn't love a free ride?

Just don't make the vital mistake that we did: be sure to bring along a bottle of chilled rosé, a corkscrew and two glasses! 

At the end of our long walk, I held Remi's hand as we looked out over the ochre cliffs towards the lolling horizon. "This will be my favorite moment of this week," I pronounced. And it was. 

Bon weekend! 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Risen from the ashes

"You should have seen it twenty years ago," says our fellow visitor as we all gaze across the hills to the Chartreuse de la Verne. "It was in ruins." It is hard to imagine now and yet the history of this monastery has been heavily marked by destruction. Having been consecrated in 1174, it was burned to the ground twice in the 13th century, but also in 1318 and in 1721. It was pillaged by the Lords of Bormes in 1421 as well as by the Protestants during the religious wars. In 1790, it was sequestered under the Revolution. Thieving began at that time and didn't stop until 1959 when a guardian was finally installed, this despite its having been granted Historical Monument status in 1921. It is no surprise that so little was left. 

In 1983, the Order of Bethlehem took up residence in the monastery and a foundation has slowly pulled the stones back into place. Rising out of the Massif des Maures, the chain of mountains that make a final push before falling into the sea, this chartreuse or charter-house is perfectly situated for contemplation, despite being only 30 kilometres away from the bling of St. Tropez.

To arrive at the entryway, we climbed down then up a path lined with chênes liéges, or cork oaks, whose spongy bark is used to stop up our wine bottles. The forest seemed to be listening to our approach.

As we had Ben with us, we took turns exploring the monastery. I roamed the grounds, following the footsteps of a nun who had given me a broad smile. Chestnut trees twisted ahead, their forms a tortured symbol of the lands former state. Fallen treasures from the previous winter strewed the ground like earthy urchins. Ben sniffed happily.

When it was my turn to walk within the quiet walls, I felt a joy wash over me as I watched several nuns decorate the main chapel for Easter. Their heads nodded together and they worked without speaking. We were told that the nunnery welcomes women from all over the world and it is not surprising. What a wonderful place to proclaim faith. Hopefully, this chartreuse will know nothing but solidity in the future.

And as a little ps., one of the last of the videos. My apologies for having to turn your head to watch it. This is of Ben showing off a bit of what I call his "Picasso" move on the path to the monastery. He has done it ever since he was a puppy and sometimes his drawings are rather nice. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

Bucolic charm in the Var

Fluffy sheep munched happily on tender green grass. A creek burbled with melted snows and cherry blossoms shook their show overhead. It was just such a pinch your cheeks kind of moment when we arrived in Collobrières. 

For just over a week, Remi and I sliced across the roads of the Var region with Ben, our Golden Retriever in tow. Although it is fairly close to our home in Arles, it is a land that we knew only in highway passing blurs. And what a fine discovery it was. Enchanted is a word that is completely appropriate.

Some smarty in a tourism office had come up with the idea that the Var is the "Provence Verte" or green Provence and I can tell you, they earned their pay that day. Gone is the rushed brush of Olé chants and prickly rosemary, of site-lines cut only by a stone block mas and cypresses straining upwards. No, softness is to be found everywhere with the tickle of new buds and the sweetness of a village life that seemed to be much more from the antan, the olden times. 

My ankles wobbled on the uneven paths as my eye zoomed from detail to panorama and back again. Petered out patina, a wash of fallen blossoms...

...hanging gardens to be reclaimed as the sun went down...

...ruins that have forgotten and been forgotten...

...and kittens playing on a lace background. Who appreciates these kinds of things anymore?

Clearly the folks in Collobrières do. Their village radiates a well-kept pride.

But I knew that we had chance on our side. We roamed completely alone and this on a holiday weekend. There was room to see.

We chose a cheery terrace for lunch. And then, ladies and gentlemen, on the day before Easter...

...I ate the Easter Bunny. And he was good. 

The sun was a balm and our shoulders fell with a whoosh. How delighted we were to stumble upon a village that was dream-worthy of the "maybe we could live here" kind. Little did we know how many more we would discover in the days ahead...