Friday, December 26, 2008

Le gros souper de Noël

The Christmas Eve dinner was quite an affair. Dinner started around 8:00 with some drinks and snacks and then progressed into a multi-course dinner that lasted until after midnight. All the while accompanied by a warm fire in the fireplace.

I don't have pictures of everything, but I do have pictures of a couple of F-M family/French traditions. The first is the main course: gîte de chevreuil, or leg of roe deer, a kind of deer that's only found in Europe and Asia. The French are very clear about distinguishing it from other deer and someone at dinner even tried to tell me it was a goat. However, it's not. It is a relatively small, squatty deer, which I guess makes it more goat-like, but I think the real reason I was told it was a goat is because chevreuil sounds a lot like chèvre (goat). There definitely is something a little funny looking about the animal, though, as you can see in this picture originally uploaded by Sylvain HAYE to the Wikipedia entry. Interestingly, the distinction between biche (doe) and cerf (stag) is also relevant even to non-hunters, who find it odd that doe, stag and chevreuil are all grouped under the category "venison" in the US. Whatever you call it, it was tasty and absorbed the flavors of the garlic and herbs it was roasted in.

The second traditional item was the bûche de Noël. There seems to be some question about the origins of the bûche and its ties to celebration of the winter solstice, but eating a rolled cake that is decorated to look like a log has been a Christmas tradition for just about as long as anyone at the table could remember. On this night, we had two: the one in the photo that was made by the hosts and a more abstract ice cream "bûche" that with its pale color and squared-off corners bore no resemblence to a log, whatsoever. It was, however, also very good.

We had a wonderful time and felt right at home with some very kind new friends.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas in Aix

La Fête de Saint Nicholas on December 6th officially starts the holiday season in Aix. You can tell things are about to start in the week leading up to St. Nicholas' day because, well, besides the buzz in the air, the extra bustle on the streets and in the shops, there's a mise-en-place of metal traffic barricades and little wooden huts on the Cours Mirabeau.

The Cours Mirabeau goes right through the center of town dividing the Vielle Ville to the north from the Quartier Mazarin to the south. (Incidentally, many of the hôtel particulier in the newer Quartier Mazarin were built in the mid 1700s, which shows how relative "new" can be.) The Cours, which didn't get its current name until the 19th century, was first opened in 1651 as a carriage road where the old, crumbled ramparts of Aix had been. Today it's a famous thoroughfare that I've read is called the Champs Elysées of the south. That could be wishful marketing on the part of the Office de Tourisme, but it is indeed a very attractive street lined with sycamore trees, nice shops and cafés. And it's punctuated by some nice fountains, which seem to run all year long because it's significantly warmer here than in Chicago. It's also the center of town, so it's the perfect place for a Christmas market.

The wooden huts eventually turn into stalls selling wares ranging from weird fluffy pink things...

to lavender...

to mulled wine, pretzels and doughnuts...

Actually, food is over-represented in the stalls: chocolate, cookies, truffles (the tuber variety), jams, honeys, churros (yes, churros, and they're really popular) and barbe à papa ("grandpa's beard") or cotton candy, with a choice of flavors. That last one, especially, is a surprise to me. It doesn't really say winter or Christmas to me, but I've never seen more people (adults included) partaking of cotton candy. Not anywhere.

On the weekends, everyone is out strolling through the Christmas market (the wooden huts are the illuminated stalls over James' left shoulder). There are two amazing things about this photo. The first is that James is not wearing a coat -- it was cold enough that I was wearing a coat, but with a few layers, the sweater was enough. The second amazing thing is that no one in this photo is eating any cotton candy.

There's a separate area of the market for santons, which are Provençal nativity figurines.

The tradition apparently dates back to after the French revolution when live, public nativity scenes were no longer allowed. People started setting up their own scenes at home with santoun, or little saints (in Provençal). Nowadays, santons are made from fired clay (the red, terra-cotta kind) and then hand-painted by a santonnier, or santon artist; however, they went through a phase of being made of unfired clay, which was already an improvement over the original santons which were supposedly molded from the soft (non-crust) part of bread. In the photo on the left you can see the work of one santonnier in Aix whose figurines, which are also considerably larger than most (barbie doll size), are dressed in clothing rather than being painted.

What's different about these crêche is that there are lots of figurines that play a role in the scene. You should click on the above photo and see it in a separate window to see all of them. Basically, all the people in the village are there: the butcher, the baker, the fisherman, the fishmonger, the washerwoman, the basket maker, the miller, the olive seller, the knife sharpener and there are others that aren't professions, but which are still traditionally part of the nativity scene, like the village idiot and the old man and the old woman.

For our Christmas, we're going over to the home of one of James' colleagues in the lab for a big Christmas Eve dinner. And since they live in Marseille, we'll be spending the night and going for a nice walk in the hills on Christmas morning.

Merry Christmase Eve!

Path of the painters

While it sort of seems like it, this blog is not only about the food we eat. It's also about the things we do here, so for friends and family who aren't as enamored of cuisine as I am, I'm going to take a short break from pictures of food and cheese.

I mentioned in one of the earlier posts that Aix is the childhood home of Paul Cezanne and Emile Zola. They were even friends, although their relationship later became strained after Zola wrote some things that made Cezanne a little angry. Something about a thinly-veiled, and unflattering portrayal. In any case, there are lots of sites around here honoring them both, but the more obvious ones seem to be following in the steps of Cezanne and, in fact, as of 2006 he has held the title of the most famous artist of Aix-en-Provence.

A really nice thing to do on a sunny day is go on a long walk toward one of the borders of Aix proper. To be honest the northern, eastern and southern borders seem more scenic than anything westward, but I'm still exploring. One walk that I really like, which was so nice that I did it a second time with James (on a freezing cold day -- if you look closely at the picture, you may see that my eyes are watering and my nose is running it was so cold), is to take the rather steeply sloping Avenue Philippe Solari north to Avenue Léo Lagrange. Up to this point, it's just a pretty walk. If you look back down the hill you've come up, you can see some pretty views of Aix's rooftops and the Chaîne de L'Etoile range between Aix and Marseille. But when you get to Léo Lagrange and head east, you get a really great view of Mont Sainte Victoire, one of Cezanne's most famous subjects, off in the distance.

Behind me, to my right, you can see one of the Pillars of the Gate -- and as much of a mystery as they are to me, I only know their name. They're in the center of a roundabout at the intersection of Léo Lagrange and Avenue Paul Cezanne. I'm not sure what they were the gates of, or when. There are no special markings on them and there's no plaque that I can see commemorating anything, but clearly they were gates into and out of something. So I'm going to have to ask at the office of tourism about these. Anyway, they're not really the point of this post.

If you head farther north on Avenue Paul Cezanne, you get many other pretty views of the countryside around Aix (left) and views of Mont Sainte Victoire (right, below). Eventually, you'll pass the Résidence Paul Cezanne, which I thought was a residence he had lived in but which I discovered, when I approached the gate and tried (unsuccessfully) to get in, is actually a gated retirement community. It's on the same street as the Atelier Cezanne. Hey, it could be his house -- except that upon peeking through the gate that you can't enter, you can see it looks like an apartment building. Anyway, right across from the retirement home is a little pedestrian walking path that takes you to the end of the Terrain des Peintres, or Painters' Territory, and beyond. I think "Painters' territory" sounds weird, hence the revised title of this post.

You can take the path out of Aix, all the way to the Oppidum d'Entremont a Celto-Ligurian settlement dating from the second century BCE. I tried to go there on my first walk, but it was Tuesday, November 11th and the cite is closed on Tuesdays, and on certain national holidays like November 11th (and December 25th, January 1st and May 1st). So it was doubly closed.

Right before you get to the Oppidum d'Entremont, there's a little interpretive center with information on the surrounding countryside. The only thing is, the view from the interpretive center of said countryside is quite obscured (by trees). So you can't exactly tell where you're looking, which is a little frustrating. From further down the path back toward Aix, you get an unobscured view of the Plaine de L'Etang de Berre, the Chaîne de l'Etoile (where there are lots of indigenous species, including some rare orchids, and where as recently as the time of Cezanne there were 326 more species than there are now) and the Roquefavour aqueduct. I'm not sure where the first two begin and end, but you can see the aqueduct with the naked eye -- although not with the camera, which reveals it to be a long, pale, barely visible smudge. According to the interpretive center, it's the largest in the world and it looks impressively large even from a distance. It was built in the 1840s as part of a project to bring fresh water from the Durance river to Marseille and is still in use today.

The countryside around Aix really is beautiful and the pictures don't do it justice -- and this is already fall/winter when a lot of things are brown. It's also really agricultural, and you see some examples of that in unexpected places. For instance, on my way to the Oppidum d'Entremont, I passed by what looked like a public green space/small olive grove. On my way back down to Aix, I learned, from a man who was harvesting the olives, that it was actually a functioning olive grove. Actually, of all the agricultural surprises I could have found, this should probably be the least surprising. According to the tourist office website, there are over 2000 olive growers and around 300,000 olive trees in Aix. I'm not sure who counts as an olive grower, but that's a lot of olive trees.

As you can see, he has a bright green tarp spread out under the tree he's harvesting from. He seemed to be picking the olives by hand rather than shaking the tree, but I guess he puts the tarp down to catch any that fall by accident. He had a basket full of mostly green and some purple and green olives that he had already harvested. He said he was going to take them to a local cooperative and get them pressed into oil. I haven't seen him selling at any of the markets but maybe he uses the oil himself.

(From the tourist perspective, it's really too bad that you can't zoom in on this picture more because he was wearing one of those French striped sailor shirts that I didn't think French people actually wore. Maybe they only wear them when harvesting olives.)

Monday, December 15, 2008

Market fare

The markets still haven't ceased to be exciting. There's still so much produce, and it still looks better than what you can get at the grocery store. One thing that's interesting (at least for us as Americans) is that both at the markets and at the grocery store, the produce is still predominantly from this part of France, (except citrus, which comes mainly from Spain and Corsica). Being a "locavore" isn't that difficult here, and you have a much better idea of what's in season.

Obviously the markets are dominated by root vegetables, cabbage relatives and citrus these days, but there are still lots of lettuces. I like this vendor a lot because they have a lot of different kinds of root vegetables, and lots of different lettuces. In the foreground of the picture on the left, you can see black radishes in a bin with carottes rouge (which, despite their misleading name are not carrots, but chioggia beets), golden turnips, and then in the next bin, topinambour or sunchokes/ Jerusalem artichokes. It reminds me of Green Acres. And, despite the fact that we don't have an oven, we've been able to take advantage of these root vegetables through pan roasting.

There has also been something of a resurgence in mushrooms, although it's still not like when we first got here. Here are a couple that we got a while ago when things were at their peak. This first kind is called lactaire délicieux, or saffron milk cap. I prefer the English name because I really didn't think they were all that delicious. The ones here are pretty young and very fresh. They actually turn green when bruised, and the last time I saw them at the market, they were mostly green. (You can see a little green on the cap of the one on the right in the front, but like I said, these were in really good shape.) People were still buying the green ones, though, so I guess that bruising doesn't change the flavor. I, however, won't be buying them again. They have a nice texture and stay pretty firm when cooked, but they have a strange mildly sweet flavor that seems out of place -- maybe it's piny? What's kind of interesting about these is that when you cut them, they release a milky-orange liquid. It's not a lot, but it's enough to coat the knife and to collect on your fingertips. And there's something about the coloring that does not get broken down by the human digestive system and even seems to intensify in the body. I won't go any further than that.

A mushroom that we did like a lot were these chanterelles grises. These had a good earthy, mushroomy flavor and they were nice in a wilted escarole salad with fresh croutons (courtesy of our France-aquired non-stick pan) alongside some squash soup. It was a really nice fall meal. Not that you'd be able to tell from the pictures. We're still working on the food photography. And our weird octagonal black glass plates don't help the situation.

One thing that's not in season anymore that we just caught the end of when we first got here were currants. A couple of vendors had them approximately twice, and then they were gone. These beautiful little red jewels were really tart so James had the great idea to mash them up with honey. Then we served them over faisselle, which is a fresh cheese that actually tastes more like greek yogurt than cheese. On a day like today, when it rained really hard all day long and only stopped raining about an hour ago, it's nice to remember summery things.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The beginning of better days in France

Once we found the apartment, it was a huge relief. We moved in on a Tuesday, which is one of the market days for the Place des Prêcheurs (along with Thursday and Saturday), which is right around the corner. It's an even bigger market than the one in the Place Richelme.

One thing that I now regret is that I didn't take tons of pictures of all the delicious produce that I found at the market as the seasons were changing. It seemed like there were enough tourists there with cameras and I didn't want to annoy the people I'd be buying my vegetables from for a year or's better to get on their good sides. As a result, we don't have a record of the perfect figs that were everywhere for our first month, or the beautiful tomatoes, or the sweet tart plums that we really enjoyed eating. I do have some pictures though, and I'm going to try to take more.

Our first day in the apartment we took advantage of the delicious wares of one of the rotisserie trucks at the market. The one I went to roasts (among other things that I'm forgetting) whole chickens, chicken legs, guinea fowl, rabbits, lamb shank, sausages, corn-on-the-cob, pork loin, jambonneau (pork knuckle, or the rear leg) and what I got, jambonette de volaille.

Literally, this translates as "little ham of poultry", which didn't make a lot of sense to me or James. In fact, we thought we were eating ham because it was savory and smoky just like ham; however, jambonette de volaille really is poultry. It's a gigantic turkey thigh that has been smoked and roasted. It's called a jambonette because it's the analogous cut of meat on a turkey that a ham comes from on a pig. (Let that be a lesson to us about not knowing where the meat comes from!) When you get anything at the rotisserie stand, it's accompanied by fabulous sliced, herbed potatoes that get roasted in all the chicken drippings (which might sound disgusting, but it's not -- they're not oily and grease-soaked, they have a really nice, waxy texture and are rich and more flavorful than any potatoes I've ever tasted). It's a perfect meal. We decided to be French and have some wine with our lunch. You may recognize said wine from the picture with the ravioli, but it was a much better pairing with the jambonette de volaille. And this time, we really did have something to celebrate.

The celebration continued with dinner that night because it was high mushroom season and at the market in the Place des Prêcheurs there is a mushroom vendor (who also, oddly, also sells avocados as you can see in the picture). They have several kinds of dried mushrooms and they have an excellent selection of fresh mushrooms too. The fresh mushrooms were a little picked over by the time I got there with the camera, so no great picture. (And probably no great picture until next year because the fresh mushrooms are really limited these days.)

In particular, the girolles, or chanterelles, looked great. (You can see some cèpes, or boletes in the foreground.) So to clarify what might seem like a naming oddity since "chanterelle" sounds like a French word, here, what you probably think of as a chanterelle is called a girolle, but chanterelle is used in the names of other mushrooms in the same family like chanterelles grises or chanterelles jaunes (gray or yellow chanterelles, respectively).

I've never been sure about the best technique for cleaning mushrooms, so I asked and was told that I should just rinse them in a colander and sauté them in a pan with some parsley (I ended up adding some shallots too). And then the vendor actually pinched his fingers together and kissed them and said "c'est super!" It turns out most of the people at the mushroom stand are kind of grouchy, but on this day, this guy was pretty excited.

The celebration of finding an apartment also required more cheese. This time we got a half of a fleur du maquis, another Corsican cheese, whose name literally translates to "flower of the scrubland", the scrubland being a major part of Corsica's landscape. It's a raw ewe's milk cheese covered with dried savory and rosemary and topped with chili peppers (and sometimes juniper berries, although this one didn't have any). The cheese itself is a little sour tasting, which is actually really nice with the herbs and chili peppers. It has a soft, creamy texture that's completely unlike the soft, creamy (but slippery?) texture of, say, a brie (even though they have the same fat content). It's drier, somehow, but not like an aged cheese, either. In any case, it's great and you should try it.

The best part of the meal, was that we got to eat it outside, on our terrace.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving dinner this year, was somewhat lesser than in years past. For one thing, we missed good friends in Chicago, who we usually celebrate with. Besides that, James had to go to Paris for a meeting with the Paris lab. However, we celebrated the night before with a traditional Hungarian-Provençal Thanksgiving dish called goulash avec sa garniture de panisse. Didn't know about the Hungary - Provence connection? Well, when I say "traditional" I really mean that the tradition started on Wednesday night.

Panisse is a mixture of chickpea flour, water, olive oil and salt. You cook it, whisking constantly, until it has the consistency of a thick batter, or polenta, and then you pour it into a mold or onto a cookie sheet with sides. Around here, it usually seems to have been poured into a mold that's about the shape of a 14oz. canned-vegetable can. (Sometimes it actually has the rings like the cranberry sauce in a can.) After it cools and solidifies, you unmold it and slice it into rounds (or if you've put it on the cookie sheet, you slice it into french-fry size strips) and fry it in some olive oil until it gets golden brown and crisp on the outside, still creamy on the inside. (Incidentally, there's a similar recipe in the Thanksgiving issue of a cooking magazine from a few years ago that involved cooking the chickpea flour in milk, with a clove of garlic, minced. Milk's not used around here, but it was good like that and the garlic gave it had a really nice flavor.)

As far as tradition is concerned, I can say that the panisse was prepared in the traditional style because I have asked both the lady with the fresh pasta cart at the market and the butcher-charcutier who sell panisse how it's usually prepared. On the other hand, I can't claim that the goulash was a traditional Hungarian goulash that I learned to make when I was in Tab because, in fact, all the gulyás I had in Hungary (and there are many variations) were gulyásleves (gulyas soup), not the thicker stew variety that I made. What I made was more like a bogrács gulyás (kettle gulyas), but I think probably still thicker than any real bogrács gulyás. At least it had real beef shin in it and not ground beef, that would be heresy.

Since we we have no oven, there would be no baking of pies at the Mas de Bonheur. Pie would have to be purchased. But what? A fruit tarte didn't seem exactly right, because I didn't see any that were made from apples or pears -- all berries and tropical fruits. A "pecan pie" or the closest thing, a tarte aux mendiants (dried fruits and mixed nuts), was too risky. Pumpkin pie was nowhere to be seen in the pâtisseries of Aix. In the end, I didn't buy any for our Wednesday night Thanksgiving. We had chocolate.

Still, no Thanksgiving is complete without a slice (or several) of pie, so I bought one for my own Thanksgiving on Thursday (and I ate it the right way: crust to tip). I got a slice of a Corsican tarte called fiadone from the little café around the corner. I really want to work there because it's the kind of café I would want to own with a certain pie-making friend. It's owned and operated by this older lady who makes a lot of savory and a couple of sweet tartes and just a few other dishes. She's open for lunch and through the early evening Monday through Saturday. And she's nice. But back to the fiadone.

I don't have a picture because James had the camera in Paris, but this fiadone was sort of like a cheesecake and a tarte in one. The filling is traditionally made with brocciu (a fresh ewe's milk cheese from Corsica that's kind of like ricotta in texture) or brousse (the Provençal equivalent of brocciu, which can be made from cow, ewe or goat milk), but as the tarte-lady told me, it's too expensive to use on a café scale, so she "does what she can", which means she probably uses ricotta. The filling also has citrus zest (this one had some citron, and that's not French intruding on my English, I mean cédrat) and eau de vie. However she does it, and whether or not it's like a traditional fiadone, it was delicious: the ricotta was sweet and creamy, the bits of citrus and eau de vie gave it depth, and there was the lightest touch of salt from the crust.

Goulash with panisse and fiadone may be my new favorite Thanksgiving traditions. Better when shared with friends, of course.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Apartment search, the finale

I know you've all been on the edge of your seats wondering where we've been living since the end of September. Taking a page out of Aleppo's old playbook and living on the road? Camping? Squatting in an abandoned apartment? None of these!

When I called Madame P. the morning after our day in Aix, I got a surprise: she had rented the apartment for the first week of October. It seems that she thought that since we hadn't called back the night before, we didn't want it. I guess that telling her we'd call that night or the next day really meant that we'd call that night and when we didn't, and she got a request through one of the websites she's on, she rented it to someone else.

In hindsight, it's unlikely that the hotel had already rented out all the rooms for the next few nights, so it's probably the case that I could have gone back downstairs and told them that we needed to stay. Or, we could have taxied our 200 pounds of luggage to another hotel in Marseille. But at that moment, I really didn't know what we were going to do.

Lucky for us, Madame P., as opportunistic as she was about renting that apartment, was also extremely kind. She offered to furnish the downstairs apartment (the one that would be remodeled) enough that we could stay there for the first week of October, because, as she said, she would eventually have to buy things anyway. Then, after the first week we could move upstairs for the rest of the month. We could move in on Monday.

We said yes.

On Monday we checked out of the hotel, went to Aix and moved in on Rue Matheron. The apartment was kind of cold, dark and damp, which wasn't going to help James' cold but Madame P. had bought a bed, sheets, pillows, a duvet and even hangers. She had brought in an oven with two electric burners on its top, a small refrigerator, a table, chairs, pots, pans, glasses, etc. It was more than fine for a week. And because Madame P. knew we were having so much trouble finding a place, she had even asked one of her friends if she had or knew of any available apartments (she didn't). This was much better than being in the hotel and we could cook a warm meal at home -- our first home-cooked meal in France! I had imagined that that first meal would involve fresh things from the market, but instead it involved a trip to the Petit-Casino grocery-store-ified mini-mart for store-bought ravioli and a jar of tomato sauce, salad with olive oil (no salt or pepper) and a local rosé. Still, it was much better than a sandwich with cured meat and cheese that had been sitting out for a day. And besides, the meal was at least a little celebratory ... or wasn't, but turns out that it could have been.

As soon as we had moved in, James went into the lab and I went to the tourist office to get their weekly posting of apartments for rent and then back to Agence ComeIn!. The agency had a couple of apartments that were north of the city and would have required a bus trip in everyday for James. I said no to these. And then, the agent (a different one, not S.) found one right in the Vieille Ville (within the "loop" on the map). I'm going to give agent S. the benefit of the doubt on this and assume that she chose the three completely inappropriate apartments that she had sent us to over this one because this one was close to our upper limit rent-wise, but this apartment was nice.

It was on the third, and top floor of a well cared for historic building. When you walk into the apartment you're in a little entry way. There's a closet on the left (the door you see on the far left of this picture is the door to the apartment) and opposite the closet is the kitchen, which is enclosed with this bar here in the picture on the left in the collage. The bar/countertop is a really pretty piece of wood that, unfortunately, a previous tenant used as a cutting board. Anyway, you can see that the countertop runs along the wall too. Under that part, there are the shelves that you see next. Then, there's a full-size refrigerator with a freezer and a microwave oven with a "grill" setting that sort of browns things. And opposite that is the sink and four-burner gas stove. There's no oven, but as we had learned from our search up to this point, the oven proves to be rather elusive in rented apartments in Aix/Marseille. And besides, when I studied abroad in Paris, I only had a camping stove, so this was already a major improvement.

If you're standing between the closet and the kitchen, you can look into the main room and see this view. That's the single-bed/couch on the left and that's a working fireplace on the right.
You can see the night table in the right front of the picture. Here's a view of the bed (next to the night table) and back toward the entry way. The white panels on the wall are where the hot water heater is. (The bathroom is on the other side of that wall and that first door on the left goes to the bathroom.) The white doors above the doorway are our storage.

From looking at these pictures, you may wonder if the ceiling is slanted or if this is an optical illusion due to my handiwork with the camera. It actually is slanted though. Where the ceiling meets the windows it's less than 6ft. tall. On the other side, above the bed, it's like 12ft. and there are two rough-hewn beams that run across the length of the room (you can see one in the picture here below.

As you look back toward the entry, you can see the kitchen bar on the left and a spiral staircase on the right. A spiral staircase, huh? That leads up to the terrace.
So this seemed like a pretty great apartment. But of course, there was a hitch. Madame S. wanted to rent the apartment as soon as possible (i.e. October 1st) and we had just committed ourselves to the month of October at Madame P.'s. We hadn't signed anything or given Madame P. any money, but we'd told her we wanted it and she had gone out and bought stuff to accommodate us for the first week of October.

Over that gourmet dinner, we decided that we did want the apartment if Madame P. would let us get out of our verbal commitment. As it turned out, she had no problem with it. She said she had been getting lots of calls and that for some reason this year seemed like a tougher year to find an apartment, and then she didn't even charge us for the night we spent in her apartment.

The next day, we moved into the Mas de Bonheur!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Apartment search, act 2

If we were having so much trouble finding a place in Marseille, you might ask, why not live in Aix? James' job is in Aix, no commute, beautiful historic city, the stomping grounds of Cezanne and Zola -- who wouldn't want to live here? Well, we really liked Marseille, as you can probably tell from the previous posts, and we had also heard that it was a lot less expensive than Aix. However, we came to the conclusion that we should consider it and decided to give Aix a try.

After a lunch with James' colleagues during which they all sang the praises of Aix and Marseille equally (though were quick to point out how different the two cities are), we went for a walk to get a feel for the city. And the feeling we got was that we did not like it. It was like walking around in an outdoor shopping mall for really rich people.The collage photo doesn't exactly do justice to my last comment, but I can tell you that the Dolce & Gabbana shirts in the upper left are a relative bargain at 180€ compared to the jeans on the mannequin in the Hermès window, which go for 565€. The winner of the "wow, that's fancy" award (but only because the employees were lingering around the window when I walked by Escada and I couldn't take a close-up of the 3060€ coat) is the 1690€, white bag you can see in the Lancel window (on the left side, just below the Christmas tree decoration). It is made from Orylag, which is the "technically ideal and ethically acceptable" trademarked fur from a crossed, selected and perfected breed of rabbit. It still requires killing the rabbits as far as I can tell -- it's just ethically better because it doesn't kill wild animals? (But who am I to judge? I eat meat, wear leather and I have worn one of Grandma's fur coats.) Now, it's fun to window-shop and it's fun to see the luxury items that I will never buy, but in the day-to-day, Aix really didn't seem like a good fit.

So back to Marseille.

Living in the hotel was really starting to wear on us. We were living out of our suitcases (literally, because the room was so small there was no room for a bureau). We couldn't cook and since we didn't have a refrigerator, we were limited to things that we could eat in one sitting or that wouldn't go bad overnight on the window ledge. The wi-fi still was only sort of working, which made the revisions hard, it also made getting in touch with people in the States -- family and dissertation committee members -- really hard because Skype calls would just cut out or wouldn't connect at all. Normally, not a single one of these things would have been a big deal, but all of them together were getting pretty difficult. There were no furnished apartments to be rented, or they were only slightly larger than our hotel room, which was too small for two people to dwell in.

Then, we finally had a bit of luck. Two things, actually. First, the owners of an unfurnished one-bedroom apartment in the Vieux Port area called me back. It turned out that this unfurnished apartment at least had a sink, two electric burners and a large toaster oven (which some of the furnished apartments we'd seen didn't even have -- and you should forget about getting a full-size oven unless you plan to buy one yourself). There was no fridge, but the owners said there was a place in the kitchenette to put a small one. The couple lives in Aix so they wanted us to check out the building and see if we liked the exact location. If we did they'd come show it to us.

Well, the building was this one, which I had already noticed and thought was pretty cool. The apartment was one on the first floor, facing the Vieux Port. Obviously, we liked it, and it's about a 7-minute walk to the shuttle to Aix, so it was convenient too.

There were other people in the running, both people who had looked at the apartment already and some people who had made an appointment for the following week, but I had a pretty lengthy conversation with the wife, Madame V., and she really seemed to want to help us out. Her daughter lives in the States now and had a lot of trouble finding a place when she and her husband moved there. Not only that, but Madame and Monsieur V. had lived in Chicago when he went to grad school and after for a year or two when he worked there.

So we went to see the apartment. Madame and Monsieur V. were very nice and the apartment was great. There was a living room that opened onto a post-card view of the Vieux Port, then in the middle of the apartment were the kitchenette and bathroom and then the bedroom was on the back side of the building.

We loved the apartment and wanted it, but there was the issue of furnishing it and the expense that commuting to Aix effectively added to our monthly rent. Besides, we realized we might have been a little unfair in our original assessment of Aix because there were definite advantages to Aix over Marseille: James would be able to walk to work, it would be easier to run/bike (if we had brought our bikes with us)/hike and most importantly because there are tons of students (including study-abroad students) the renter's market is different and finding a furnished apartment was almost guaranteed to be easier.

The second piece of good luck, which happened about the time I made the appointment to see the Vieux Port apartment, was that we found a couple of furnished apartments that were listed in Aix with Agence Come In! (yes, it has that exclamation point as part of its name, it's in English, but the name really doesn't sound like English or French when they say it on the phone), which advertised being a different kind of agency. Ok, we'll bite. How different are you, Agence Come In!?

So we called Come In! and it is indeed a slightly different kind of agency. They charge you a non-refundable fee up front and they charge you if they place you, but what they charge (total) ends up being less than 1/2 of a month of rent and they show you apartments or make appointments for you to meet the owner. We made an appointment at the agency for Friday, the day after we would see the apartment in the Vieux Port. When we got there, S. (the agent) got us five appointments to see apartments for that day.

This time, Aix was different. On our way to where we'd be seeing our first apartment, we happened to walk down Rue d'Italie, a street filled with food stores -- pastry shops, butchers, a natural foods store, wine stores, a health-food store, an Italian market that makes its own fresh pasta and gnocchi, some cafés. There were a couple of hardware stores and even a few clothing stores, but they weren't so fancy. It got better still. By chance, we chose a path toward the first apartment on streets that were not completely filled with luxury shops. Instead, we got to see the charming centuries-old buildings, cafés situated on picturesque squares and cobblestone streets that, on a sunny day when you're already feeling pretty optimistic because you know that you're actually going to see five apartments (all on one day!), can actually put Aix in competition with an unfurnished apartment on the Vieux Port.

And then we entered the Place Richelme.

Shaded by sycamore trees, the Place Richelme is a very scenic spot. One side of the square is occupied by the back of the 18th century grain market that is now the post office and on the other three sides there are cafés that spread out into the square in the afternoon and evenings, as well as some shops. But on this Friday morning, it was the center of the square where the magic was happening -- a market, which I now know happens every day of the week. There were two fishmongers (and these seem to be fishmongers, not the fishermen themselves like in the Vieux Port) selling fish and seafood (even sea urchins) from the Mediterranean and North Atlantic.

There were tons of vegetables from the region, like these romanesco broccoli. The sign says "from our garden", but usually it says the town or region if it's from France (country if it's from Spain, Italy or Corsica).

And there were eggs, chickens, rotisserie trucks, tapenades and spreads, cookies, honeys, bread, cured meats and cheese. Delicious cheese. Right in front of us as we walked into the square were some Corsican cheese vendors selling Tomme de Brébis (Tomme made from ewe's milk) ranging in age from a few months (creamy, bright) to almost two years (sharp, drier, zesty). Of course they had samples. Of course I had some.

We wanted to stay at the market and buy some of the beautiful eggplants, tomatoes and zucchini and make a gratin to eat with crusty bread, cheese and a nice, dry rosé. Sitting outside, of course, with a beautiful view. But we didn't have an oven, or an apartment, so we had to move on. We ended up getting to our appointment a little early so we went and had a coffee at La Fournée de Joseph, which is a local bakery (two locations in Aix, one in Marseille), and looked across the street at a pretty fountain and Le Chado Café (say it like "Shadow"), a swanky club popular with young Aixois, that were our landmarks for the first appointment.

Well, the apartments were mixed. They were all furnished, and all potentially had potential. However, in their current states, three of them were appropriate only for students and of those three, two of them had places in the living space that were too short for James. One of the other apartments was fine, but not great. One apartment was perfect, as in we probably would have taken it on the spot, except that it was only sort of available.

Apparently, the night before we went to see the apartment, Madame P. had rented it out from the beginning of November through the end of January (on a vacation rentals website). She does a lot of short-term rentals so when the agency said "October 1st or as soon as possible," she didn't necessarily think we'd be looking for long-term. Another issue with this apartment was that Madame P. likes to rent it out for the month-long opera festival that takes place in Aix every summer because she can charge a lot more, so we would have had to leave for July. This apartment was so great, though, that we were considering unconventional rental arrangements. It was on the third floor, the living space included a bed, plenty of closet space, a futon couch, TV and wi-fi. The kitchen had four induction burners, a washing machine, a dishwasher, the large toaster-oven, microwave, was fully stocked with pots, pans, china, etc.

Madame P. also had an apartment on the first floor that she was going to renovate and there was a chance that that could be done for November, but it wasn't available right away and besides it was dark and kind of gross. We really liked the third-floor apartment so we proposed that we rent it for Oct., move downstairs (or elsewhere) in Nov. and then back upstairs at the end of January. Since we still had three more places to see, we told her we'd call her later that night or the next day. She couldn't commit to November - January in the downstairs apartment, but she said that the plan to let her know sounded good.

James and I talked about our options throughout the day. In fact, during the hour and a half before our final appointment, in which we watched the rain pour down and hoped that it would let up before we had to go out into it ... without an umbrella, we made a list of expenses and pros and cons, both monetary and lifestyle-related, of Aix and Madame P.'s temporary apartment and Marseille and the unfurnished Vieux Port apartment. It was really hard to decide. In one resepct we were happy to have to make this decision, because it meant we were getting out of the hotel, but there were significant advantages and significant disadvantages to each option.

After the last (and disappointing) apartment, made worse by getting caught in the cold rainstorm and getting soaked by a car that drove through a pothole, we waited in line for 45 minutes for the bus back to Marseille. We were tired and needed warm food to help us make our decision. So instead of eating sandwiches in the hotel room, we splurged and went to the Cours Julien for Provençal food: Daube and a delicious slice of fig tarte (with fresh and dried figs). As we ate our dinners and watched the 18-top across the restaurant -- 18 normal-looking people in their late-20s to mid-40s, who looked like people we'd know -- we decided that it was probably smarter to take the apartment in Aix, even if it was just for a month.


So we told the hotel we'd be leaving, but since it was kind of late at this point, we decided to call Madame P. in the morning.

Huge mistake.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!

It's Beaujolais Nouveau Day!

Every third Thursday of November, the Beaujolais Nouveau is rolled out. Overnight, all the wine stores (or at least the two that are right by the outdoor markets I go to) have been transformed into celebrations of gamay. Really. I went to the markets yesterday morning too, and there wasn't even a hint of today's official release in the wine stores. The cafés were advertising too.
Why the third Thursday of November? Well, it's interesting. And I'll tell you what I learned from the helpful woman at the wine store on the corner, La Cave d'Yves, and a little internet search on the history of Beaujolais Nouveau. In November of 1951, a law appeared in the Journal Officiel (a published list of recently passed legislative items), decreeing that any wine from an official appelation could not be sold until December 15th of its year of vintage. This was a big problem for Beaujolais Nouveau because it had always been released just a few weeks after the harvest and it's not crafted to be kept around for a long time. So the winemakers' unions got together and lobbied for the vins de primeurs, or early wines, to be exceptions to this law. They were successful and Beaujolais vintners (along with the vintners of a number of other appelations that aren't so famous world-wide for their early releases) were allowed to release their nouveaux prior to December 15th.

Until 1967, the actual date of release apparently varied between the very end of October and mid-November. That year, November 15th was decreed the official day, effectively Beaujolais Nouveau Day (although it was the same date for the other vins de primeur). However, this date too, was relatively short-lived, at least in terms of French winemaking tradition, because it fell too close to Armistice Day (Veteran's Day in the US) and because as the volume of product increased, it was harder to get it all out by early November. In 1985, the third Thursday in November was chosen.

So that's today!

It doesn't seem like there any parties in the street, at least not here, 3 hours south of the AOC. It may be more of a marketing holiday in many respects. All the same, I can tell you that by 11:40am the wine made for popular small talk at the markets, where I overheard several sellers asking customers if they had tasted it yet, and wine stores had already started their tastings of the vins de primeur. In fact, judging from the empty bottles and the used tasting glasses at La Cave d'Yves, they had done a lot of tastings since their 10am opening.

In general, I'm not a huge fan of the Beaujolais Nouveau. In fact, I actually don't like it. It always smells like a banana-flavored headache-in-a-bottle ... to me. (Sorry to any devotees out there.) However, in the spirit of the day, I figured I would participate in the tasting at La Cave d'Yves, and two of the three I tasted were good: Pierre Dupond unfiltered and Joseph Drouhin Primeur, which comes from the same Drouhin family that also has a vineyard in the Wilamette Valley (they were in Burgundy first). They tasted good enough, in fact, that James and I decided to go out for an apéro after work. French style. Outside under the space heaters. We thought we had chosen a café that was featuring the Drouhin, but the sign was deceptively placed between two cafés and we picked the wrong one. It was still very fun, even if we ended up quite chilly and had to hurry home for warm soup.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bright spots in Marseille -- Le Panier

Despite the difficulties of the apartment search, trying to finish dissertation revisions in the hotel room, and the frustrations of getting misinformation about our cartes de séjour from people who should have known better, there were bright spots. In fact, there were actually a lot of them because Marseille was just so great.

I spent a lot of time walking around the city while James was working on his revisions, so I got to see a lot of cool things. One area that's really great to walk around in, and where we had found a couple of promising apartments before we came to France, was Le Panier. It's just north of the Vieux Port, so depending on where you are, you might catch a glimpse of the water through a couple of cool arched stairways that go under buildings on Rue Casserie down toward the port.

Le Panier is where the Greeks settled in 600 BC, calling it Massalia, but there don't seem to be any remnants of the Greek settlement now. It is, however, very picturesque all the same. It's full of tiny, winding streets, some of which are barely wide enough for a person and a motorcycle and lots of little stairways leading to and from different squares. Really, it's a bit like a warren, which is probably why, as we would learn from Madame V., it provided cover for La Résistance in World War II and why part of it was subsequently blown up and many of its inhabitants of that time were sent to concentration camps.

There are several new buildings right on the water that were built after the war. One was built by a famous French architect, Fernand Pouillon, and is a registered historical building and the others are knock-offs. This picture really doesn't do it justice, but it's a very striking apartment building (and there are beautiful views from the inside, but that's for another post). That's the real sky by the way. No filters. Just a palm-sized Canon Powershot.

Le Panier sort of has a bad rep. Our guidebook said that it's the kind of place that locals will tell you to avoid living because for a while things got pretty seedy before the more recent renovations (which people seem to call "renewal" rather than "gentrification"). And the guidebook was pretty much right about that. Most of the locals we talked to said that it's kind of a marginal neighborhood to live in. A lot of the things that make it charming, like the quiet, almost deserted little streets make it less safe at night. This is too bad, because there are still some inexpensive housing options there.

There are also a lot of galleries and pottery shops and as a tourist, it's really fun to walk along the streets and look at the brightly painted houses and cool doorways, like these two on Rue des Cordelles. Note that at #17 the box for letters is not the slot in the middle of the door, but above the door and to the right upper right hand side.

One other really great thing about Le Panier is Pizzeria Étienne. This is just about the worst picture I could have of it, but it's closed on Sundays. We've eaten there twice and I think we will have trouble not eating there again the next time we're in Marseille, although I have no pictures to prove it. It's a real neighborhood institution. The walls are covered with photos of Étienne with his family and customers, including (in one shot) someone who looks a whole lot like 1970s Michael Caine. It seems like most of the customers are neighborhood regulars and the regulars get better service than the tourists, but everybody gets good food.

The menu is really limited -- pizza (anchovy or cheese), a grilled meat dish, eggplant gratin, soupions en persillade (little squids in garlic and parsley), and maybe two other things? That's it. The grilled meats smell really good and seeing the people next to you order a plate of the squid is enough to make you want to order some yourself, even though you've already eaten too much. Both times, we've had the pizza, which they'll do half-and-half anchovy and cheese (the anchovy has no cheese, just tomato sauce and a few whole dry-cured olives) and the eggplant gratin. The pizza has a really thin crust that's chewy at the edges. You could fold the slice in half, but everybody eats it with a fork and knife in the restaurant. And the eggplant gratin is tangy, garlicky, slightly charred and good enough to get rid of whatever ails you -- really. Mmmmm!

After you've eaten your fill, there are still some worthwhile historic things to see in Le Panier. For instance, there's the Maison Diamantée, named for the diamond-shaped bricks on its exterior (close-up on the right). It was built in the 16th century and now houses the Museum of Old Marseille.

You can also see the Hotel Dieu from the outside. According to a couple of 70-something Marseillaises that I met while I was walking around, a hospital has been there, in some form, since the 1600s. It's where they sent plague victims when the plague came to Marseille and then some 40 years ago, the sister of one of the women had surgery there. Sometime in the past several years it was closed down and is to be made into a 5-star hotel. At least that's what the ladies told me.

And there's also Notre Dame de la Major, the cathedral of Marseille. It's in the same Roman-Byzantine style as Notre Dame de la Garde and it's really striking. Again, that's the real sky in Marseille.