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.