Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Seafood Feast in Sete

"Do you want to go to Sete? He says we will have the best bouillabaisse of our lives...""Done!" I shouted out immediately from the next room. Now truly, who on earth would say no to such an offer? Who would even need to think twice? Not me. I will go an-y-where for good food. 

It turned out to be the stuff of dreams. The little family run restaurant that is so off the map that even locals get lost trying to find it. A gorgeous room filled with an eclectic art collection and low lighting. No music but the sound of the gulls bobbing on the waves just beyond the front door. Yes, please.

Our ami had called ahead to reserve bouillabaisse for four people. He knows the father, who is the owner, the son is the host and the other son the chef. We met them all. They treated us very kindly. Parce que je suis gourmande or because I am piggy, I wanted to start with oysters. We were after all sitting  at 15 yards from the place where some of my very favorites come from. Our friends shot each other a glance and then looked quickly down at their menus but said nothing. The oysters! How they were divine! So creamy. I couldn't get over it. And so perfect with the white Clairette that had a fair whiff of sea salt in its golden  bouquet. As the host/brother/son approached, hefting a silver platter, I started shaking my head in disbelief. Mais non! C'est pas possible! Mais si, it is possible. We each had our own dorade, plus enough rascasses, crevettes, encornets, rougets and some other extremely special (although alien-esque) fish that this was no mere bouillabaisse but a bouillabaisse royale. My hands trembled with excitement before...

...and were folded into a prayer of "Please, no more, I beg you" an hour later. Now kids, I can eat. I really can. I can put away enough sushi for a family of four and relish every bite. When I was invited to partake of the incredible, mind-blowing menu degustation at L'Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel in Arles, I was the last person partaking, even when my charming French honey was clutching the table. But here alas, I cried defeat.

Ooh la la, c'etait beaucoup. The crispy little toasts with aoïli, the saffron-perfumed gravy to dribble...all just phenomenal. A second bottle of wine washed the whole lot down and no, we did not get dessert.

Needless to say we were feeling rather...pleased with the end of such a meal. Certain members of the party even felt the necessity to pose "like fishhhermen!" Yep, that's right. While we finished our desperately needed coffee the chef took our Golden Retriever, Ben, for a walk on the beach, blithely ignoring the sign stating "No Dogs Allowed." The sun finally pushed the clouds out of the way. And our visit to Sete? Oh yes, it wasn't half bad either...

Le Galinette
2 Place des Mouettes, 
34140 Mèze

Tel.: 04 67 51 16 77

Open only in the evenings in the summer, a good idea to reserve and folks, Google Map it!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Sunday in Sete

Now, I do love the Côte d'Azur, I do. Or I have come to love it after my dives for the rare pearls of peace and the past. They can be hard to come by. Not so on the wide-open other side of France's Mediterranean coast. If authenticity is what you seek, Sète, a half hour south of Montpellier, is ready for her close-up. But only if you are shooting a documentary because this girl has a day job. A polar anti-thesis to Cannes, it is the second largest port on the French Mediterranean after Marseille, one instigated by Louis XIVths own Colbert. Materials of all sorts are launched across the world and the fish is as fresh as you can dream of (more of that very soon). The Grand Canal winds its way between the Bassin de Thau and the shimmering sea and yet the ambiance entirely lacks the frothy romance to deserve its nickname as "The Venice of Southern France." Locals, of whom I was lucky enough to have one show me the ropes, call it an island but it isn't quite one. Sète is of the in-between in several senses. Prosperous times have been followed by rough economies and then back again. And it shows. This is not a place to come looking for a dream but to wake up (hopefully not in one of the sailor's bars) and realize that you just might love it somehow, despite or because of the rusty iron balconies, the grated plaster, the glint-eyed sea captains that will threaten a punch if you take their photo. But there are also hipster hotels, a contemporary art museum staffed by pouting young folk draped in black, a burgeoning photo festival and one of the world's most beautiful concert venues in a Vauban fort positioned for sunset over the waves. I just want to take my hankie and polish the corners a bit. But Sète might prefer to be left just as it is, to follow the ups and downs of its own tide.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Antiques in Wine Country

Now, that title got your attention didn't it? I thought it would. And yet, I have to admit to a slight exaggeration, a bit of tricherie. Let me explain.

Yesterday found Remi and I, along with our faithful Golden, Ben, bumping over the cobble-stone streets of Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux... 

...when the sight a giant octopus of a Murano chandelier stopped us in our tracks. We turned to look at each other with an eye-brow raising "Are you seeing what I am seeing?" expression as we are used to seeing rusty bedpans on offer for 500€, not such exquisite creatures as this.

My internal radar started beeping. It is the one that leads me to fine eats and good bargains. I love that radar, I can tell you and it makes my heart flutter. 

As soon as we stepped in to À la Chine d'Antan, I knew that we had, as the name suggested, stepped into a store that was antiquing as it used to be. Upon spying several items that caught my interest with my first glance, I knew that it was time to put on my Poker Face. Especially when I saw the prices. I immediately started making imaginary purchases in my head. 22€ for a gold embossed Limoges porcelain perfect for a vanity table. 37€ and 28€ respectively for two very fine 18th-19th century prayer books (although one might have been in ivory, so nix that). 

38€ for a gorgeous heavy gold-tassled Art Deco mirror. You can't even find Art Deco in the South!

Only 30€ for this miniscule brocade covered seat, not ancient but perfect for a coiffeuse. If I had absolutely any use or space for this, it would have come home with me.

This well-framed lithograph of a sneaky spy-looking fellow redhead caught my eye at 68€.

And this sweet lavender evening bag with its row of pearls for only 38€? Change that brass clasp for an upside down triangle and hello, Prada. N'est ce pas? 

By now, I knew that I had to calm down as we weren't at all in the area to be shopping (we were there for one of Remi's photography projects) and that I had better hurry up for the same reason. Alas, it wasn't about me! 

The space is gorgeous--all vaulted stone--and the owner, Samuel, clearly enjoys creating his vignettes. Incense wafted gently and jazz tooted. We struck up a good conversation and would have stayed much longer if only time had permitted.

I was a bit on overload. There is so much that I didn't even take in until I got home and saw the photos again. The perfect Napoleon III mirror and the Thonet style dressing glass, for example.

Remi and I both left with several items on our minds. I know that monsieur would have walked out with the fantastic maquette de bateau under his arm if only he could. And me? Thump thump thump (that is my ticker going again)...le lustre! Regarde...cet...lustre. Why oh, why is it that I always find exactly what I have been searching for (and many of you know how very long I have been looking for it) right when I can't afford it? Le Sigh Douloureux.

Time to fess up. Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux is not exactly in wine country, per se. But at an easy as can be, under an hour drive from Chateauneuf-du-Pape (and only a half hour from Cairanne), it is as the over-used saying goes, worth the detour. Not to mention the surrounding countryside is sublime. More about that another day.

And as for the lustre? Hmm...shh...I am still dreaming so please don't wake me! And you will notice, I did not mention the price. That, my friends, is a secret that I am keeping to myself.

À la Chine d'Antan
Rue de l'Esplan 
26130 Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux.

Unfortunately, they do not ship, internationally or within France, but I did ask...

Wishing you all a wonderful weekend full of moments that make your heart beat happily!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The sound of joy

Some days are quite simple. Others no, of course not. Life is messy, even in Provence! And certainly a mix-tape of thinking, music, memories and imagined discussions plays on a loop in my head pretty much from the moment I open my eyes to see the day to finally surrendering to les bras de Morphée. But then there are moments when something so wonderful shocks me and everything falls into place. That is why for me, the sound of joy is silence. Not the brass-band fanfare that it is often portrayed to be.

This morning, I woke with my arms above my head, hands firmly in the Namaste mudra. I wondered at the oddity but felt as tangled from my dreams. So imagine my delight when I opened up my email to find news from my Sister, Robin: she is coming to visit in the beginning of July! Any lingering spider-webs immediately vanished like sun hitting the dew. My Sister! Coming here! I shouted out to Remi and he immediately came to join me, his smile mirroring my own. 

I am often asked "Does your family come to visit often?" and I always respond "When they can." Airplane fares are only increasing and as both my Mom and Sister work full-time, they have tight schedules to wrestle with. So when either of them mention the possibility of a visit I hold my breath internally and try not to show too much outward excitement. Until the ticket is bought. As it was today!

As Robin has her own business (she has her own branch of the wonderful Music Together and is a brilliant teacher), we have always had an especially difficult challenge of finding the right time for her to visit. And so...she has never met Ben. Oh my, can you imagine? He loves the beautiful ladies (my Sister is a looker) and I know that he is going to be her shadow while she is here, pulling out all of his most suave moves to win her over utterly. I cannot wait to for them to meet.

And if that weren't an exciting enough prospect for my Sister, Robin has only been in Provence at Christmas time. Those of you that have been with me for a while know that those Mistral winds rip and roar all winter long. We have shivered together while I tried to show her some glimpse of the beauty that I know. How I hope to take my Sister for a picnic in an olive grove in the Alpilles and walk with her among the lavender fields. All I know is that I will spoil her rotten. And Chef Remi will too. It's his speciality.

For those of you that have never lived abroad, it is worth considering what it means to be so far from the rest of your family, something that I have written about often. Leaving your home country is like throwing a net out to sea--and you are the net! Fortunately, I have a wonderful partner in Remi. But he knows as well as I that I will revel in "Sister Time." July, come quickly please!

Ah, speaking of joy, I would also like to extend my deepest, most heart-felt "Hooray!" to our dear, dear friends Sonny and Michael, who have just remarried. Sonny is a beaming 75 year old bride and as gorgeous as her name would suggest. Michael, ever the suave gentleman, must have been one dignified groom. If only we could have been there to sabrage the champagne. But our friends are forever close in our hearts. Many thanks to you both for showing us that the long path of life is winding but that is nothing to be afraid of.

Let Love Rule...

Monday, May 21, 2012

On a warm September evening...

I will tell you a little story. Some of you may know it already but I find that the best stories bear repeating often. Especially if you have a muddle of a memory like I do, it keeps them alive and in a row, like counting beads on a rosary or a mala. 

Sometimes good does indeed come from bad, light follows the dark. So it was that we discovered Arles. Remi, my incredible professional photographer companion and I had made the long grumbly drive down from Paris, where we had been living together in very cramped quarters for two years. We didn't dream of the South like others did, didn't fantasize about Provence or the Luberon. No. We headed to Perpignan for Visa Pour L'Image, widely heralded as the world's most important photojournalism festival. But somehow the sadness of the photographs that we saw overwhelmed us that year, the peacock strutting of competing photographers clashed as utterly inappropriate. So we left. Before the final ceremony, before the last pop of a champagne cork. 

We drove towards the Camargue with the windows of our old Saab rolled down. Waves of hot wind slapped our cheeks, flamingos flapped off into the distance and white horses stomped through a bleached out landscape like galloping ghosts. It cleared our minds. "Why don't we stop in Arles?" Remi suggested, breaking a silence that seemed heavier than air. All I knew of Arles was Van Gogh. But that is enough, isn't it? "All right." 

The doors opened for us. Literally. We found a charming room available at the Hotel de L'Amphitheatre, one that we could afford, on a busy Saturday night, the first of September. Already as we ran our hands over the cool, cream stone walls and gazed out at the whistling leaves of the platane trees dotting the tiny square below, something was stirring. We got our first glimpse of the Roman Arena as we stepped out into the late afternoon. We let ourselves get swept up in the crowds rolling down the hillside towards the remaining exhibitions of the Rencontres d'Arles, another photography festival and yet a world away. A warm, golden light wrapped around us as did the notes from a jazz quartet that had set up camp on the cobbled street. Inside an abandoned church, we looked at the work of Harry Gruyaert's "Rivages". We turned ourselves towards beauty and that stirring surged up into tears. We knew. This was where we were ready to be.

It took us over two years to make the move. At the time, we were travelling nearly non-stop as a photographer/journalist team for different magazines in the French press. But it was worth the wait. In 2005, we packed up a truck, arriving in the dark at 1am with a Mistral wind roaring off the Rhone River to welcome us. Eventually, we welcomed an incredible Golden Retriever, Ben, into our family of two. I am as charmed by those old stones, by that light that is like a friend (albeit a moody one) as I was on the first day. And although I don't know if I will be here forever as Remi and I are nomads in our hearts, for now I am happy to be Lost in Arles.

I want to thank the lovely Vicki Archer at the exceptional blog French Essence for having mentioned me, this blog and Arles today. I thought it only polite to introduce myself with a little curtsy to those of you that might be visiting for the first time. Bonjour et bienvenue!