Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Provencal charm at the Domaine de Valdition, part deux

I have to say that it is beyond amazing to me that I am now at the point, four and a half years in with Lost in Arles, that I need to update posts! But there is something of the "I am still here!" Happy Birthday tune to be sung about it as well, isn't there?

When out with Remi in the pups roaming the Alpilles, I reminded Mr. Photographer that we were close to the Domaine de Valdition and why not stop by and pick up a little something to parch our dry throats? *hint, hint*

It was only after I stepped into the cool of the boutique (kept purposefully darkened during the blare of our summer, so I hope you will excuse the grain in the photos, I tried, sans trépied) that something seemed a bit off...

...despite the really gorgeous elegance around me that I had remembered from my last visit...full of pretty much everything that you could wish for to make a Provençal kitchen homey...

...from sets de table proclaiming that tomatoes have been harvested "since always"...

...ceramic hens and delicate candle holders to light up the terrace at night...

...to a range of local honey both sucré and a bit salé...

...and not to mention the absolutely quintessential tablecloth so that all of your meals are comme il faut!

It was all intensely familiar and yet..."Is this the same bou..." I started to ask a young woman whose face I recognized as she served a tasting from behind the counter. "Ah, non," she quickly cut me off to end my confusion, "we moved the boutique two kilometers up the road from where it was before." Oh, thank goodness, I haven't completely lost my mind...yet. 

The new boutique and tasting room is just as wonderful as before - truly one of the prettiest in this corner of Provence - but that doesn't change what we were really there for, the wine. I am happy to report that the Domaine is continuing to bloom, winning a bronze medal at the prestigious Concours Général Agricole de Paris for their 2014 rosé Tradition (yes, we bought a few bottles of this). 

The estate is huge, covering 90 hectares with a highly unusual amount of varietals for these parts - especially when you consider that Valdition's wines are nearly all bio or organic. Here is a list of what is grown on the property:
  1. Cabernet-sauvignon, Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache Noir, Marselan, Mourvèdre, Petit Verdot and Syrah for the reds.
  2. Bourboulenc, Chardonnay, Chasan, Clairette Blanche, Grenache Blanc, Macabeu, Muscat Petit grain, Roussane, Vermentino,  Viognier and Pinot Grisfor the whites.

If you would like to find out more, then by all means please read my initial post about the Domaine by clicking here.

I definitely stand by what I wrote in 2012: "There is something so timeless and beyond time about this special place." And I most certainly recommend that you stop by when you favor our fair corner of the world with a visit.

Domaine de Valdition
Route d'Eygalières
13660 - Orgon
Tel.: +(0)4 90 73 08 12

* As always, this is not a sponsored post - my goodness, I wish! - Just my hoping that you discover all the best that Provence has to offer...Salut! 

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Encore une fois, merci

The worn stones were cool on my bare feet as I skipped down the circular stair, hand on the iron rail. Bump, bump. Bump, bump. Ben and Kipling were lying close together on the black and white tiles at the bottom. Both looked up at me expectantly so instead of turning into the kitchen to get that glass of water, I sat down in between them and buried my head in Ben's neck while petting both of them. Having two dogs makes one ambidextrous.

At some non-verbal cue, the agreement had been made and they both started to demand their dinner by dancing around me, Ben crying out his woeful "Woowoo"'s and doing the slow tail wag. Kipling kept slipping his head under the crook of my elbow to flip it up then tickling the back of my neck with his whiskers. I squealed into giggles and finally gave in.

When they heard the magic word, "Ok" we all scooted out into the courtyard - Ben clearing the three steps down in one joyful leap and then twirling, twirling while I gathered up their plastic food bowls. I sat back on the front steps after feeding them and looked up at the sky. Blue, soft with whispered clouds. Within a minute, they were finished and Kipling, our rescue dog, had come over to say his thank you as he always does. Clearly, he doesn't take being fed as a given. Ben sat down next to me, upright proud and again I was surrounded with a simple solid love.

All was quiet. One of the neighbor kids whizzed past our gate on a trotinette, just as the breeze kicked up and flirted with the tumbles of grapes that we are going to need to harvest soon. In the distance, I could hear one of the village's pair of doves calling to the other patiently.

And then I remembered that today should not have been this idyllic Saturday but rather could have been a day of unending tears, of international mourning, of families desiccated and the asking of bitter "why?"s.  Just as it was last January here in France and has been all too often everywhere as of late. Our world is so precarious and often we are wrapped tight in one fear or the next. Not so for the brave young Americans - US Air Force member Spencer Stone, National Guardsmen Alex Skarlatos and student Anthony Sadler on his first trip to Europe - as well as 62 year old British consultant Chris Norman and the as yet unidentified French Rail employee who was the first to try and subdue the terrorist on yesterday's TGV to Paris.

Gentlemen, you are heros. And while you have already been lauded and thanked by fellow survivors on the train to Presidents Hollande and Obama, I won't take this moment of peace for granted but will say encore une fois merci, this time from me. I thank you with all of my heart.

This was not at all the post that was planned for today but I couldn't quite write about some fun address here in Provence. Thank you for understanding and have a wonderful rest of your weekend...

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Summer's Zenith in the Alpilles

"Can you feel it?" Remi asked. We were standing in our courtyard with glasses of wine in hand at the end of the day and faces turned upwards. Because we can often read each others thoughts, I knew what he meant. "Um-hmm," I responded. The shift had already started to occur. 

August 15th is a holiday for the L'Assomption de Marie in France, just as in Italy it is the Ferragosto. In Provence, the date holds a more practical meaning - the end of the big vacation period when the highways are declared a "journée noir" with traffic jams that can stretch out over hundreds of kilometers, an event which is usually accompanied by a change in temperature. Often it is then that the big storms will roll in as if to thunder-clap proclaim, "L'été est bientôt fini! It is time for you all to go back to your workaday lives!"

But these photos were taken before, right when the season was at its zenith. 

Remi wanted to retrace some of our favorite spots here in the Alpilles for a project that he is working on (that I will tell you about soon) and asked if I wanted to come along. Especially as it was predicted to be yet another day when the temperatures were expected to reach 100°F, the prospect of seeing beautiful scenery while ensconced in the only air-conditioning available (our car), I responded with a cheerful, "Yes, but let's take the boys too." I think that by that point, we all were a little tired of being closed up, literally, in our shuttered home in retreat from the spindly heat, a little outing would do us good.

I was right. I love our Provence.

The light was slicing bright and the air so dry that it seemed to hover slightly over the parched yellow grasses. The sky was too blue, also just out of reach and we all felt the need to retreat into patches of shade from time to time. A deserved break from the zig-zag lines of a brash summer day. 

I was shooting blind, unable to see my camera's reflections, aided by Remi's estimates about what my settings should be. And so these photos all look too stark to me - slightly unreal - and just as I have been longing for relief from the heat, so too am I ready for a little kindness on the eyes.

Happily, it is here. Or the promise of it is. August 15th did not let us down this year and that shift that we sensed is upon us, leaving us scrambling to bring in the cushions during a surprise evening rain yesterday and shifting our timing so as to get back from the garden before nightfall falling faster. Sunsets have returned. I feel like I can think again but have loved these languorous last days. 

Instead of the song of the cigales, I can now just barely discern a quiet ticking of time numbered.

It is quite something, our connections to the seasons, isn't it? Apparently, our clocks are not so internal after all.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes - updated

Why, hello there! I know that I have been a bit absent as of late. Oh gosh, it is Summeritis and I have it bad. Plus, I also took an extra day or two off to celebrate the fact that I made it another year and can now wear the ripe ol' age (or young, depending on how you look at it) of 46 on my shoulder. Yes, I had a lovely day because I know that you will ask. And I am sending out a sincere thank you as well to those of you that sent me such kind and thoughtful wishes via the internet(s). 

But what was that I was saying about ripe? Because if you are talking about tomatoes we have a whole lot of that around here. As in oodles...

...of different sizes shapes and textures.

Now. I tried to tell Remi that planting 22 pieds for just the two of us was a bit ridiculous but of course he just looked at me and nodded, then planted them anyway!

But amazingly, we haven't yet reached the "take my tomatoes please" level of overload where we are handing them out to all and sundry (save for certain of our neighbors ;) despite the numbers that have been rolling in steadily. 

And the reason behind that is simply because we love eating them so much! Breakfast, lunch and dinner, it's all good.

Exhibit A: I think that we have well established that while a foodie, I am even more of a Food-E. If you don't know what I am talking about well then click: http://lostinarles.blogspot.fr/2013/10/food-e.html. I love that post if I may say so myself. What I am not so proud to admit, is that laziness can slide into obsessiveness mighty quickly. If something is delicious and of the smack your forehead "why didn't I think of that before variety" I won't be able to stop making it. Case in point? See above. You are looking grilled baguette topped with whipped feta (feta, cream cheese, maybe a splash of crème fraiche, a pinch of garlic powder and herbs de Provence), those 'matoes and a pinch of salt. Try and you will be addicted too. I'm sorry/not sorry.

Looking for something more old-school? How about this uber (no, not Uber) traditional Provençal tart? I had forgotten about its existence until the lovely Madame L in the village told me that she was serving it for a luncheon. Well, if it is elegant enough for her...you know the rest. Let's get started shall we? As I have said before, I buy ready-made pastry crust because a) I live in France and b) as we have already established, I am lazy. I like this best with a pâte brisèe or short pastry crust. Butter up your dish (yes, butter) roll out your dough and pre-bake for a few minutes at 200°C or 400°F. Remove and nap a goodly layer of Dijon mustard. I use Maille Fin Gourmets because it is fabulous and has a bit of whole grains in it which helps give the tart bite (or you could just make up your own combo of regular/whole grain Dijon but I am sorry kids, that bright yellow stuff just won't cut it here). Then shred a fair amount of emmenthal over the mustard, keeping in mind that this is a tart and not a pizza, which can be very hard for me to do. Then top with the star of the show, your hopefully ready to burst sunshine on a plate tomatoes, add a bit of black olives and maybe a crushed garlic clove in the center - top with some herbs de Provence and cook until the tomatoes get a touch brown which doesn't take long, say twenty minutes or so. 

Is the above description too rambly for you? Would you like to make your own crust based on a Dorie Greenspan recipe? Then by all means please go visit my friend, the lovely Ann Mah, who recently did her own take on this exact same recipe which makes me look like a copy-cat plus as a bonus on the there is an excellent recipe for "Ratatouillaise" on the home page by our mutual friend, the gorgeous Kristin Espinasse!

Now, I hope you will forgive me if that sounds a little name-droppy. Come on, you know I am not like that! Geez. Ok, just for today because it is going to continue: next up, on the "how to use up crates of tomatoes" menu is an obvious one, tomato sauce! And I first realized the difference in roasting my tomatoes after making this super easy soup from the truly gorgeous and very funny Sharon Santoni. It rolls out kinda like this: Cover a roasting pan in two tablespoons or cuilière à soupe of olive oil. Sprinkle on top of the oil, a generous shake of herbs de Provence, coarse sea salt, a bit of sugar (half of a teaspoon) and four or so crushed and chopped garlic cloves. Warm up the oven to 200°C or 400°F (I honestly seem to cook everything at this temperature, do you?). Core and cut in two your tomatoes. Place them cut side down and roast them until the skin starts to peel away, say forty minutes. Let them cool and remove the skins (as I am impatient, I never wait long enough and so burn my fingertips). Put the tomatoes in a food processor with a steel blade and pulse, throw the garlic in and add the juicy olive oil in by batch to get it to the right consistency and voila. It really is that easy and is of course, better the next day. If I can actually stop eating all of the tomatoes in sight, I hope to freeze this as winter is right around the corner, my friends! (Please oh please oh please let this heatwave end.) 

So, that just leaves gazpacho, right? Right. But. You see I gave my "recipe" - that is as equally long-winded and vague as the others here - to my divinely beautiful friend Ellie (last name drop ever, I swear!) at Have Some Decorum for her scheduled post on the subject but she up and decided to write a very moving tribute for her daughter's 20th birthday instead. The nerve! So I will just have to update the link when she posts. * Because I am pretty proud of my gazpacho. And apparently, Remi is pretty proud of his. You see, in our house I make all of the soups, pizzas, pastas, hummus/spreads, apéro tastiness and Remi cooks....everything else. It isn't so confusing that, is it? And yet, Mr. "Anything you can do I can do Better" has decided to step in on my gazpacho game, upping the ante. Then of course, I have to do the same in riposte. Welcome to the Gazpacho Wars. 

Well, it may not be pretty but I will admit one thing, it is a mighty great way of using up the ultimate cure of Summeritis: tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes. 

*Done! You can find it and some truly phenomenal other gazapachos (cucumber wasabi anyone?) by clicking Here. 

And speaking of udpates...I know that a lot of you were interested in my friend Anthony's incredibly charming house that was for sale? Well, as I am superstitious I wanted to wait until it was a done deal but I am happy to say that it has been sold. Remi and I visited to say, "au revoir" to it the other day and it wasn't without sadness for I really do adore that house. But I can't wait to share with you his newest project, hopefully next month. But's lets just say as a teaser that onwards and upwards most certainly applies...

And since you have been kind enough to come back for this update (a new post tomorrow!), I wanted to thank you by sharing one of the great all time classics, played on repeat at our house during warm summer evenings or anytime of year:

I had a lot of fun putting this post together for you. 
As always, thank you SO much for being here and for the insightful comments on my previous post.
Bon appetite! 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Contrasts in Provence, Part 3

I had something else entirely planned for today but thought it appropriate to share something with you instead. One of the things that I have always tried to do consciously here was to share the good along with the "bad"about my life in Provence. This post will be leaning towards the latter, possibly, so if that is not your cup of tea I understand and will look forward to seeing you at the beginning of next week...

To say that I have a temper, well...it isn't an understatement but it isn't something that defines me either. Not these days...although when I was younger I used to point to the color of my hair in explanation. Such a redhead. But if you do push me over a certain line on certain subjects, I will explode.

When you live in a big city such as Paris or New York, there is always a cushion of anonymity in your daily interactions. Even in Arles, there is such an enormous influx of tourists that it took years for folks in our neighborhood to really pin us down. Not so here, in this tiny village that is very proud of being "off the map."

I have never lived before in such an environment, having grown up either in the country or smallish towns or big cities but a village is an entirely different animal, one where I will call out "Bless you" thinking that Remi has sneezed only for him to call up, "It wasn't me!" Oops. "It takes a village..." Yes, it can, when everyone sees eye to eye. But when things devolve into petty differences, they can quickly escalate into disproportional arguments. Especially when you are the new kids in town.

We are extremely fortunate in that the neighbors en face or across from us are discreet. Mr. M, the retired coiffeur, is barely at home and is delightful when he is. The other house that overlooks our courtyard is lived in by an elderly man and his son, who, since they don't have a landline, talks on his cell phone outside in order for the signal to pass. It echoes like a rocket chamber and we hear every word. We have been patient - save for on one of our first nights at this house when he sat on our front steps to talk - but it is tiresome.

Yesterday evening, after a nearly two hour long phone call spoken at high volume, Remi stuck his head out of our gate and politely asked if he could keep it down a bit. Fifteen minutes later, our bell rings and the young neighbor is back with his visiting twin brother. Remi is a Libra and a champion diplomat. I sensed already that the brothers were looking for trouble and so, confident in Remi and less so in my temper, I receded into the house as it was time to open up the shutters and windows after a long, hot day.

My instinct was right and I heard the brothers voices rising despite Remi's insistently calm tone. He would later tell me that threats were involved, directly and indirectly, all because we had asked him to speak more quietly! But no, it wasn't about that finally, not really. It was about the fact that we aren't from here. For as I reached the top floor windows I heard one of them declare that they were pur race or pure blood of long date from this village, implying that they could do what they wanted.

Am I proud that I came downstairs at a run and shouting? No, I am not. But I can't abide by such language, especially in a country which was controlled by Hitler not so very long ago. I made my point that while a foreigner I had every right to live here despite that the village had voted Front National in the past elections. "Je suis FN!" the twin brother responded, "I belong to the Front National!" I told him that I didn't doubt it and then finally respected Remi's heed for my swift return indoors. Amazingly to me, Remi was able to forge a verbal bridge and the brothers left him with a handshake. But I was still shaking with rage.

And yes, as Remi would later wisely say, a confrontation between us has been long in coming. The tension started on that night a year ago. Their family has never returned our "Bonjour" so I have stopped trying. There are others in the village that are cold to us, making it clear that we are unwelcome - and my strong reaction undoubtedly came off a recent series of rebuttals - but happily, there are many, many more that are kind - the amazing folks at our local garden being just one example. But still, last night's interaction made me well aware that there is an undercurrent to keep in mind and a balance to be found. I doubt we will have any other such interlocutions with the twins as in the South people explode once and since we didn't retreat, it will be dropped and we will politely ignore each other.

So, all of this is to express as I have said before, it isn't always La Vie en Rose when one lives overseas as an expat, even in such a gloriously beautiful region as Provence. It is a learning process. And while I don't regret sticking up for my (very American) ideals, I still have much to learn.

I have written a few other posts in this series, some having to do with the FN, some not.

If interested you can find them at:

Have a wonderful weekend...

...and may the light shine bright for you wherever you are.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Avignon, misc.

"In Paris one quarrels, in Avignon one kills."
Victor Hugo

The essence of Avignon has remained somewhat illusive to me. It can be quite stunning, magnifique even and yet, after many visits, I am still searching to define so much of its personality. There is a rigidity in the architecture that is so different from the Italian softness of Aix or the olé rondeur of Arles. And the energy can be sharp and static. It's intention is not set out to charm as those other two A-named cities that close le triangle doré do but rather to impress. And that is deeply imbedded in its history.

The major shift for Avignon came in 1303 when, amidst chaos and confusion in Rome,  a Frenchman - Clement V - was named pope (there is a question of bribery having been involved), one that included transferring the seat of the Papacy to a safer place. The Angevin Counts of Provence, who were papal allies, were quick to welcome the new pope to the city of Avignon. When Clement V died, he was immediately replaced by the vote of French cardinals, who continued the tradition of embracing a French pope and distancing the power of Rome. These successive popes built palaces upon palaces as the strength of their power took hold to create the Palais des Papes, a residence which was confirmed in 1348 when the Papacy bought the town of Avignon outright from Jeanne I of Naples, an Angevin Countess of Provence who was given 80,000 florins for the sale along with an absolution for her possible involvement in the murder of her husband.

So was Avignon built on blood? You could say that and certainly the years of the Avignon Papacy were considered a dark time. With the residency came money and with the money, especially in the hands of extremely lenient popes, came quite a lot of trouble. As the great poet Petrarch declared, "Avignon is the hell of living people, the thoroughfare of vice, the sewers of the earth...Prostitutes swarm on the papal beds." Under papal tolerance it was known as a ville ouvert or "open town" that would welcome outcasts such as criminals and heretics. That stance formally remains today and one can come across some fairly shady characters while strolling the rue de la Republique.

In 1377, Italy was finally able to bring about the return of the Papacy to Rome and as the seventh Avignon pope died while there, he was replaced by an Italian one. This created an enormous rift, called the Western or Second Great Schism, as the French cardinals immediately elected an antipope to rule in Avignon as well. This feud continued until 1403 when the French people sided with Rome and sent an army to send the antipope packing. Cardinal legates from Rome guided the city - still with a very lax hand - for the next three and a half centuries until the French Revolution, which was, unsurprisingly, especially brutal in Avignon.

But of course, that is just one side of the story. The Avignon popes also brought the finest Medieval artists over from Siena to paint the palaces and the remaining masterworks can now be seen at the Musée du Petit Palais. Many great businesses were established under its financial blessings, such as some of the earliest printing houses in the South of France and the city remains a boon to that industry. In 1946, French actor Jean Villar formed the Avignon Festival of Theatre and Film, the greatest in all of Provence which attracts visitors from all over the world. It was named the European City of Culture in 2000 and it is home to several UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Add to all of that gorgeous southern sun breaking over the ancient stones, an active café society topped off with the kick of the mistral winds rolling down the bordering Rhone and you have something...a little mysterious and more than enough to give a feeling of je ne sais quoi, to add the miscellaneous chasing on the heels of Avignon.