Thursday, January 29, 2009

New M-Aix-ican food

We miss New Mexican food. If anyone wins the lottery and wants to overnight us some frozen chile, we'll be sure to be home to meet the delivery. Or some sopapillas? A few #9 breakfast burritos from Golden Pride? Any takers?

Well, the next best thing came to us in a Christmas care package from James' dad -- canned green chile, dried red chile, jalapenos, taco shells, flour tortillas and the most delicious refried beans we've ever tasted. So, over the past few weeks we've made green chile chicken burritos, green chile eggs, and beef tacos with a side of refried beans. It's a little different from what James usually makes so we're calling it "New M-Aix-ican food" in the spirit of a popular naming convention for businesses in this city.

Aix has the same pronunciation (/Eks/) as the sequence "ex" in French (and English) so (as if it follows naturally -- it doesn't for me, but seems to for a lot of people around here) it's extremely (or should I say "aixtremely") popular to switch in "Aix" for "ex" in the name of your shop.

So there's Aix-presso (it's expresso in French, not espresso) ...

Aix & Terra (and remember & = et in French, so say it with me: Aix et Terra = mispronunciation of et cetera) ...

L'Aixtra for extra modern coffee and snacks ...

Institut Aixtrême for all your extreme beauty needs ...

L'Aixquis for exquisite food ...

Aix Elan, a curiously named clothing boutique that doesn't seem to have anything to do with élan in the sense of "moose" suggested by the moose on the sign (like being an outdoors store) ...

And the homophonous L'Aixcelent, a restaurant that probably doesn't serve moose, so don't get these last two confused!

And there are more. This is just the beginning.

A walk around Aix

There are a lot of interesting things to see while wandering around Aix.

Any guesses about what this is?

I'll give you a hint: that black circle in the middle was a wheel.

Any guesses?

The green stuff is plastic.

Any guesses?

The answer:

Either someone was careless with their trash, or marauding youths were trying to liven things up. Am I prejudiced against the youths?

One thing I really like about Aix, and France in general, is that you can still see the remnants of a lot of old ads and signs that were painted on buildings back in the day. Like this one that's for shoe polish ...

I think it looks like an ad for mustache wax, but the product says otherwise.

There are also plenty of beautiful historical structures like this clock tower in the Place de l'Hôtel de Ville, which was built in 1510. There's an astronomical clock on/in it that was built in 1661, which includes four wooden statues that represent the four seasons. They supposedly change with the seasons, but I'm going to have to verify this. The statue shown in this picture, holding grapes from the harvest is probably (correctly) fall. However, that arm pointing at "14" seems to always point at the "14".

There are also houses that are so old, they lean like the one in this over-exposed shot. But check out that sky!

And Aix has its fair share of cool door-knockers too.

If this were a CSI franchise, you'd be able to zoom in above the middle finger of the knocker and refine the image to see who that is taking the photo -- me, or James.

There are also pretty plants and nice landscaping.

Does anyone know what this plant is?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Les Rois Mages

In France, the three wise men are called les Rois Mages (or "the sorcerer kings" ... more like "magi") and their arrival in Jerusalem on Epiphany is celebrated throughout the month of January with galette or gâteau des Rois.

A galette des Rois is puff pastry (that looks a little like a tasty, tasty Pac Man) ...

filled with frangipani ...

and a gâteau des Rois is a ring-shaped brioche topped with candied fruit, pearl sugar and, if you're lucky, there's orange flower water in the brioche or in the glaze.

These can also be filled with almond paste (not to be confused with the frangipani) like this one, seen here floating in the blackness of outer space that is what we call a bowl ...

(This is the version of King Cake that seems to have been exported to New Orleans, except rather than the candied fruit and glaze, there you get the Mardi Gras themed sprinkles in gold, green and purple on top of icing.)

Both the galette and the filled version of the gâteau have a santon and a dried fava bean hiding in them.

Tradition says that you're supposed to cut the galette or gâteau into one more piece than there are guests at the table, and that the entire cake is to be eaten in one sitting. So in other words, if you're six, you cut it into seven slices. The youngest person at the table decides who gets which slice, and you save the extra slice to give to the first beggar who comes to your door. Whoever gets the santon gets to be king and whoever gets the bean is responsible for buying next year's cake.

Since there were just two of us, we didn't follow the tradition of cutting and eating the cake all in one sitting with either of our cakes -- it would have been too much to eat in one sitting. Both times, though, James managed to pick the piece with the santon (and thus got to wear the little gold cardboard crown provided by the pâtisserie), and he would have gotten the bean both times except that on the second cake he had an idea where the bean might be and gave me that slice.

Friday, January 23, 2009

La Grasse fin de semaine

Faire la grasse matinée is a French expression meaning "to sleep in". It translates literally as "to do the fatty/greasy morning"; however, if you're being a little more generous with your translation of grasse, those extra hours of sleep could instead make that morning "generous", "rich" or "abundant". It's a great expression because you can either feel guilty or rewarded ... you choose!

For us, our so-called grasse fin de semaine, or "long weekend", in Grasse and Nice did not feel at all guilty. (Ok, so I admit it, grasse fin de semaine isn't actually an expression in French -- we just wanted to use it since we went to Grasse.) We, and by we, I mean James, who hasn't really had a break from work for over a year, got to do some much-needed relaxing and sleeping in.

We started off in Nice, where it was surprisingly snowy and alpine.

No, actually, that was a backdrop of fake pine trees sprayed with fake snow at the Nice Christmas market. It was really cold and windy that day, so if we look cold, that's real.

But then it got sunny and instead, Nice looked like this.

Some people thought the sun made it warm enough to swim, but we kept on our winter coats.

Nikaïa was founded around 350 BCE by the same Greeks who founded Marseille. Despite its modern-day status as part of France, from the 7th century until the mid-19th century (although not continuously -- Saracen and Barbarian invaders intervened!) Nice had some strong ties to Italy and was even part of it, which influenced the culture and architectural style of the city today. So you see brightly painted buildings that are reminiscent of the Italian riviera.

This stands in stark contrast to Antibes, just across the bay, which always sided with France (against Nice and Italy). Despite their divergent political views, however, they certainly seemed to share the weather.

You can actually see Nice, way in the background, over my right shoulder, and better in this shot with the crashing waves.

While we're on things Italian: food!

We had a delicious dinner at a vegetarian Italian restaurant called La Zucca Magica, or The Magic Pumpkin. As you can see from the pictures on the website, the Italian owners have a thing for pumpkins. And, in fact, we ate some pumpkin that night.

And James discovered the virtues of Nutella (it's peanut-oil free here ... and, as I've just learned, it now is in the States too -- yippee!) ...

We also took a train ride on the Train des Pignes, a little two-car diesel train that makes four round-trips between Nice and Digne-les-Bains up in the Var valley. The website about the train is in French, but even if you can't read about the history of the line, which has been in service in some form since 1911, it's still worth looking at for the pictures.

The idea for a train along this route was proposed in 1861 (the year after Nice was finally annexed to France) in order to connect Nice to Grenoble by a more direct route; however, it took twenty years before authoriziation for the line was given, and another ten before any of it was built and another twenty before the line was completed. That's 50 years in the making.

Part of the initial delay seems to have been about rail technology. Because the train passes through some extremely mountainous territory and has to make some sharp turns on its 150km route, they had to develop a narrower guage for the rails. Then there was also the building of 25 tunnels, 16 viaducts and 15 metal bridges to get the train from Nice to Dignes-les-Bains. So maybe 50 years isn't that long after all.

The longest tunnel is la Colle-Saint-Michel, which measures 3457m (2.15mi) long and also includes (well almost, it's actually just past the tunnel on the Digne side in Peyresq, which is close to Thorame-Haute on the map) the highest point on the line at 3356ft. The tunnel seems to be totally straight (no curves) because as you go through it, you can look backwards and watch the other opening get more and more dim -- and sort of reddish through the diesel exhaust.

The views were unbelievable -- but as with lots of natural beauty, the photos (taken through a train window with an automatic camera) don't capture all of it. It's really some rough looking country.

Right outside of Nice, it's already dry, rough, cragy mountains. The craziest part is that there are medieval villages perched up on top of the cliffs and when you see them, you really wonder how they could have been built.

Then it gets really cold. For a good portion of the ride, all the trees, bushes, houses, etc. were covered in thick frost. It looked almost like an ice storm. I took one really horrible picture (including glare from the train window), and it turned out so poorly I gave up. You'll have to take my word for it. But look how cold the water looks -- when water looks blue-green like the Var did on this day, you know it's cold. Or that it has a certain mineral content.

Then, the distances between towns get farther, and many of the stops become "optional" -- as in you have to flag down the train. And there's no conductor or operator at these stations, it would just be you. Having been on the train I can say that it's never going that fast, so maybe this isn't an issue. Still, it's not exactly like hailing a taxi.

We took the train most of the way, to St-André-les-Alpes, and got out and walked around a bit and then turned around to take the train back down. There are lots of hiking trails that leave from all the towns up high in the Var valley, and St-André-les-Alpes has a really nice lake, but we'll have to come back for that.

And to ride the train à vapeur, or steam train. On Sundays from mid-May to mid-October, a 1925 steam train makes a short portion of the trip (so if you were coming from Nice, you'd have to take the train we did and then get out and take the steam train and then get back on the other train for the rest of the trip). The train website I linked to there actually belongs to (according to the welcome page) a militant group dedicated to the protection and promotion of the train line. I don't know if the train really needs a militant group defending it anymore, but the association was started in 1975 after there were, apparently, some serious threats to close down the line. They had some cool posters in Provençal though.

Another highlight of our trip (although we have no original photos of it) involved Niçois street food: socca. Socca is made from chickpea flour, water and olive oil (like panisse, but in different quantities, so it has a completely different texture). I don't know what the batter looks like when it's raw, but it gets baked in a hot, hot oven (think pizza) in a gigantic cast iron pan like the one in this photo (originally uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by P. Downey) from Chez René Socca, where we got ours.

Chez René is really just an open kitchen that makes socca, pissaladière and a couple of other pizzas, spicy conch fritters, vegetable fritters, french fries and fried sardines. Here's a picture of it, originally uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by P. Semeria. I have no idea when this photo was taken, but it was not 2005 because the prices on the board are clearly in Francs -- a portion of socca was only 2€ (not 10) and our whole dinner including pissaladière and conch fritters was only 7€.

I walked by Chez René a few different times and I never saw it without a line about twenty-deep. It always filed around the corner. You can get your food to go (in which case they wrap it up in paper for you), or to take across the alley to the tables and benches that comprise the restaurant (in which case they pile it on a paper plate, as in this photo originally uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by P. Techamuamvivit).

Now, I thought we'd be able to try socca when we got to Marseille, but no dice. And when we finally got the socca and the rest of our food, it was hot and delicious looking, and we were hungry, and we'd been waiting since mid-September to try it so we dove in before we remembered to take photos. Sorry. But at least none of these photos involves our weird black plates. You should all be happy we were on vacation.

Here's a picture of the Place Massena at night. Those white arcs are part of the holiday lighting, but the sitting/kneeling humanoids on top of the poles are always there. They change colors if you watch them long enough.

After Nice, we went on to Grasse: the center of French perfume-making since the late 1700s! However, its fame as a town of flowers has a more complicated origin. Back in the Middle Ages, Grasse was famous for its tanneries, which are well known to be a stinky (and back in the day, dangerous) business. According to the tour we went on at Fragonard (named for Grasse's native son, the famous painter J-H Fragonard), it was because the nobility demanded less stinky leather goods, especially gloves, that the perfumeries started to take off -- they could perfume the leather.

And so Grasse, with its very special microclimate that allowed it to grow hundreds of tons (and yes, I really mean hundreds of thousands of pounds) of jasmine and other precious flowers every year became known for its perfumes rather than its stinky leather. Just think of how many flowers it would take to make a ton. The tour guide said a jasmine-picker can harvest 3-5 pounds a day and it takes tons and tons of flowers to yield enough essence to make a perfume.

We also learned about fragrance extraction over the years. Enfleurage was a common technique developed in the early days of the Grasse perfume industry because it allowed the perfumers to extract the volatile compounds from flowers, which would be damaged or destroyed by methods that involved heat, like distillation. So, the essences of flowers like jasmine and tuberose were captured by placing them "face" down into some beef tallow that had been slathered on a metal screen. There are new techniques now.

And at the Musée International de la Parfumerie not only did we learn more about the creation of perfumes, but also about the history of perfumes (and cosmetics, which were often perfumed) since the times of the Egyptians. It was absolutely fascinating. If I knew in 1992 what I know now, I would have paid more attention in organic chemistry and then gone to school to become un nez, literally "a nose", or perfumer. After three years of formal training, you do 5-7 years internship. To become a master perfumer, well that takes some skill, but still. Linguistics, schminguistics I say.

Here's a panorama from the B&B we stayed in which was up on the hillside overlooking Grasse. That bay you see in the center-right of the collage is Cannes.

The B&B is only a few years old, but apparently it's on property that was formerly part of the gardens of Austrian baroness Alice de Rothschild. She spent a lot of time in Grasse at the family chateau and planted gardens over a huge portion of the hillside. The current owners are very apologetic that their gardens are not as pristine as in the days of the baroness, but it's still a really beautiful garden with citron trees ...


other exotic plants...

and a secret passageway that the baroness liked to use to leave the gardens and walk into the town of Grasse. I feel like a baroness in this shot (Elsa Schräder, of course, not Alice de Rothschild).

We walked around the very picturesque town dodging surly youths with too much time on their hands over the winter break, toured the perfume factories and did our best to avoid peanut oil, which seems to be ubiquitous in Grasse.

We had a quiet new year's eve in our B&B with a crémant (it wasn't from the Champagne AOC) ...

Into which we put candied rose and violet petals ...

And we got to go on a hike in the hills on New Year's Day. Here's a picture of James above Magagnosc, a neighboring town.

It was a good start to the new year and a nice end to our grasse fin de semaine.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Marshmallows only taste good over a campfire, and whatever anyone says about toasting them gently until you get a nice taper from a dark toffee color on one side to their original whiter-than-snow state on the other, they're wrong. And I can say that since this is my post. As far as I'm concerned, they only taste good when you burn them, pull off the charred outer layer and pop that in your mouth as you return the remaining marshmallow to the fire to be re-toasted (read: burnt). That way, they're delicious.

To me, raw marshmallows are the stuff that lives on a high shelf in your parents' kitchen, hardening to the point that you really couldn't eat one if you wanted to. Or they're the stuff that freezes in the cold Ann Arbor football season and gets thrown on the field ... until one puts someone's eye out and they're banned. For me, they're really not to be eaten. Nor is Fluff, or any chocolate covered candy that contains marshmallow (except, possibly, Le Vrai Petit Ourson, which I've been told is the pièce de résistance of chocolate-covered marshmallow candy ... I just can't bring myself to buy a whole package of them in order to find out).

At least that's what I thought until a couple of years ago when I learned that my great, great grandfather was a confectioner who made marshmallows in his candy shop in Plattsmouth, Neb. It's kind of silly I guess, given my general opinion of marshmallows, but for the past few years I've been more than a little wistful for the days when marshmallows were made somewhere other than a big factory, and were hand-sliced rather than extruded. And more than that, I've been really curious about how they tasted. (I'm convinced that at least one of the three jars with very blurry white things in them are evidence of said hand-cut marshmallows, but it's hard to say. And what was Photoshopped out of the left side of the photo way back in 1915 anyway?)

I'm sure that there's a candy shop somewhere in the US that makes marshmallows on a small scale, and as I learned from a quick google search, technically, you could make them yourself; however until I came to Aix, I had never seen hand-cut marshmallows. At Pâtisserie Weibel (or Au Pêché Mignon -- I'm a little confused about what the name of this place actually is), the marshmallows come in lemon, licorice, mint, orange, orange flower, strawberry and violet flavors, so I got some for James.

Here are (from top to bottom) the violet, lemon and orange flower guimauve.

So where these marshmallows are concerned, I take back what I said about toasting. I think toasting of any kind is a bad idea for these marshmallows because I really doubt they'd hold up. These are light, billowy, tender and very pleasantly flavored. They also have kind of a funny sour smell which may come from the gelatin -- despite my hopes for old-fashioned marshmallows, there is no extract of the real marshmallow plant in these -- but it didn't seem to interfere with the taste, which I know because James was kind enough to share. We liked them well enough and to be honest, I would actually consider buying them again in order to taste the other flavors (and to taste the orange flower again). However, I haven't been converted into a marshmallow lover yet.

And besides, there are so many other sweets ...

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Il neige!

It snowed here today. And I mean it really snowed. I can't find the info online anywhere, but it looks like 8 in or more. If James didn't have the camera with him in Berlin (he's at a conference), I would take some pictures because it's beautiful, and from what I hear, we may not get to see this again. People say that most winters it snows a little here (with relatively little accumulation) but there's been nothing like this for ten years (or 20 if you read the article I posted below).

I've never lived anywhere that people were quite so unequipped to deal with snow. I tried going into the lab, but the way I usually go was closed off and there were university students milling about playing in the snow and not going to class. I figured the university, like many businesses in Aix, was just closed today. The market in the Place Richelme didn't even happen. I learned later on that as early as 8h30 this morning, with 4 in of snow, they closed down the regional airport and that the mayor of Marseille advised everyone to stay home and not drive. What's a bit scarier is that this huge amount of snow has led to a major problem with power -- over 17000 residences in the département lost their electricity this afternoon. If that happens here, that would include our heat.

On the brighter side, I've also never lived anywhere that people were so delighted by snow. After nine years in Chicago, where this kind of weather is expected, this is pretty fun to watch. I don't know if the mayor of Aix weighed in on the weather situation, but here, people didn't stay home. Instead, they went shopping at the stores that were open (it's sale season) and took pictures and video of the snow as if they'd never seen the likes of it before. Their dogs ran around and played in the snow (although none of the dogs tried to eat as much of it as Aleppo does), they pulled each other in makeshift sleds down the Cours Mirabeau, threw snowballs at each other and then sat outside at cafés under heat lamps to warm up.

For those of you who speak/read French, click on this link to a piece about the 7h36 train between Marseille and Aix (a 20-mile trip) that got stuck part way through the trip and returned to Marseille eight hours later.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


It seems, from what I've overheard at the markets, that Corsican clementines are prized over both Spanish and Italian varietals. I ought to do a side-by-side taste test, but I have to say that all have been good and all have been disappointing -- around here, the vendor seems to matter more than the fruit's provenance.

This batch was particularly delicious and juicy (for clementines, which are obviously pretty small so not always so juicy) ...

so I made some clementine-coriander pudding ...

To be honest, the ground coriander didn't add much -- except a darker color that I wish it wouldn't have. As James said, it was just a slightly different version of clementine and could be what clementines taste like on their own.