Thursday, April 30, 2009


Ever since that first crocus of the season, the flowers on our hikes have only gotten more beautiful.

In late February in the Calanques the bees were crazy for these globulaire (note the bee in the photo!) as well as all the wild rosemary. This plant grows throughout the Mediterranean region and is one of the flowers that grows in la garrigue, or scrubland. (Actually, you may recall from an earlier post that maquis is another word for scrubland, in particular that found in Corsica. As it turns out, garrigue is used for scrubland that grows on limestone and that maquis grows on siliceous earth.)

This one is a kind of euphorbe:

That last photo was also taken in February. Here's what euphorbe looks like as of mid-April:

In mid-March, (wild) iris nain, or "dwarf iris", started popping up all over the place. As you can see, they're really low to the ground (almost like a crocus). Around here, the "yellow" ones seem to vary from white to pale yellow and the purple ones tend to be paler than garden irises. These photos were taken on a hike between Lac Bimont and Victoire:

On that same hike between Bimont and Victoire, we also saw this flower that our friends said is a romantic wild orchid. No, "romantic" isn't really part of its name, but the photo sure looks romantic (or cheesy) doesn't it? I did that gauzy soft focus so you could better see the flower against the "noisy" background.

The first weekend of April near Saint Cannat, we saw budding oak trees. Who knew their leaves started off pink and fuzzy? Actually, James did, but I had never seen such a thing.

This flower is called ciste. The petals look really dry and papery; however, they feel soft like normal flower petals.

Ciste is all over the place in this region. We'd seen its furry sage colored leaves on every hike but this was the first ciste flower we had seen this season. It was only hours after we saw this flower that we read in our hiking book that it's legerement parfumée, or "delicately scented". Lucky for us, it's now high season in the Calanques for ciste and they do smell really good. They smell "green" like the way a green banana smells green but sweet and light like a flower (and not at all like bananas).

These are called dame d'onze-heures, or "the lady of 11 o'clock". They're in the hyacinth family, and toxic!

We also saw this one, which is a wild pea called gessette:

There are lots of wild daffodils up on Victoire now. These are narcisse d'asso. They're really tiny (not more than 6in high and maybe half a centimeter across the diameter of the trumpet). This picture isn't great because it was windy.

And there were these too:

Any guesses about what those might be?

Last weekend on our hike from Marseille to Cassis we saw more of the pink ciste, and these, another type of ciste, "sage-leafed ciste":

Wild honeysuckle in close-up:

And not so close-up:

This one, the urosperme de daléchamps, is named after the French doctor and naturalist Jacques Daléchamps, who lived in the 16th century.

Right next to the urosperme was this fuzzy, spiky little thing that I have not been able to identify:

And, finally, coronille, of which there are many varieties:

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

La randonnée -- Lac Bimont, Hameau les Bonfillons, St. Marc-Jaumegarde

Our first hike on Victoire was so much fun that we were really gung-ho to get out and go hiking the next weekend. We had bought a book in a series of hiking books recommended to us by Geneviève and our plan was to go to Marseille and go hiking in the Calanques. We'd looked up departure times for all the relevant bus connections, we had our picnic lunch ready to go, our clothes laid out, but then a final check of Météo before bed predicted very questionable weather for Marseille. And a check of the weather the next morning at 6:30am said the same thing.

These days, the sun comes up a bit before 7am and sets around 8:30pm. But back in January, it didn't get light until around 8am, when we would have needed to be on the bus to Marseille to make all of those connections. So at 6:30am, we made the decision to sleep in and to pass on hiking.

And then the sun came up and it was a beautiful Saturday so we decided to try walking out of Aix to where we thought there might be a trail leading to Lac Bimont and Victoire. It sure looked like there was on that map we'd found online.

It turns out, we were right about the trail leading out of Aix (not on the map) and connecting to ones that are on the map. It's one of those things where you just kind of keep walking and eventually you leave Aix proper and enter into the netherworld that isn't Aix (but bears no signage for the settlement you're in) and you keep walking some more and eventually you come to a road that is closed to motor traffic except residents, which leads to the path that leads to the real trail. Technically, you're on a trail the whole time (little yellow balisages appear every so often on electric poles and fences), but for the first 40mn of walking it feels like you're in town.

Anyway, the first site the trail leads to is a tower that might or might not be named la tour du César, or "the tower of Caesar". Apparently there's some disagreement over its name. It's also called la tour de Keyrié (the plateau it sits atop), and la tour du Prévôt, or "marshal" for the marshal who may have built it back in the late 1300s. In any case it's a watchtower that's about 15m high. And much to my dismay, you can't go inside it.

After the tour du César/Keyrié/Prévôt, you end up on the G.R. 98, a major hiking trail around here that goes to Victoire and beyond -- at least as far as Cassis. This part of the trail is a government forest road, so it's wide open and very clear. It's really pretty up there, though, and you get lots of views of Victoire.

After our pique-nique, we thought it might be fun to hike down the hill into Saint-Marc-Jaumegarde and get a coffee and then take the bus back into Aix. So we hiked down to the main road and went the wrong way and ended up in the Hameau les Bonfifllons, a really cute little village (but without a café). So we hiked back to where we went the wrong way and decided to walk to Lac Bimont. Maybe they'd have a sandwich/drink cart or café.

No dice, but it was beautiful!

Panorama from the dam looking south-east (Victoire is the peak on the right):

Us on the dam -- happy, but feeling like we really want a coffee and a bus back to Aix:

Here's the view from the dam to the west:

Here's the dam we were standing on to take those pictures:

The dam was built after WWII, funded by the Marshall Plan. It is 285 feet high. It catches the watershed from Victoire, but the lake is primarily supplied by the man-made Canal de Provence that brings water in from the Verdon river. The reservoir in turn and supplies many towns in the area around Aix and even Marseille, although this isn't Marseille's primary water source.

We never did get that coffee. After our time on the dam, we walked into Saint-Marc-Jaumegard, which turned out not to have a cute little cafe, or any cafe, or an ATM where we'd be able to get money to buy that coffee or money for those bus tickets back to Aix. Instead, we ate the last of our shortbread cookies and chocolate and then walked home.

There are many more hiking trails around Lac Bimont. In fact, if you tune in later, there will be another couple of posts about it.

That sausage tastes like ... a word used for donkeys

Ok, so again, in the spirit of not offending the sensibilities of some people who might read this blog (although, at the same time probably deeply offending any sailors who read it ... are there any?) I have not used that other word for donkey in the title of the post. I do use it later, though. I couldn't resist.

Beyond salami, saucissons secs, or "dry sausages", aren't so widespread in the States. But I love them. So even as someone who can easily live without meat, when market stands have piles of (unrefrigerated) meat in the form of saucisson sec, I think about buying one, or two ... or as I did recently, three (three for the price of two -- what non-vegetarian can pass that up?).

So what makes saucisson sec so great? Well, it's all about the process.

Some friends of ours here have (twice now) bought a pig with some other friends, had it slaughtered, and then used all the meat for various things from pâté to pork chops to saucisson sec. They told us that part of what differentiates saucisson sec from saucisse, or "sausage", which is destined to be eaten cooked, is the cut of meat you use. Saucisse can apparently be anything (hot dogs anyone?) but saucisson sec can only be made with choicer parts of the animal because there has to be the right amount of meat and fat so that it's flavorful and not too dry after the fermentation and curing process.

Yeah, I did say "fermentation". So if you didn't know that salami was fermented, you do now. And you should be glad it was.

Saucisson sec is made by chopping up the meat, adding flavorings of various kinds (e.g., garlic, spices, cheese, fruit), sugar, salt and optional bacterial cultures, and then putting it in its casing. The casing gets tied off and then the fermentation and drying begin. Over the next week or weeks (depending on size), the smell, color, texture and flavor of the saucisson develop thanks to the natural metabolic processes of the bacteria. The bacteria also provide a service: the good stuff proliferates and its lactic acid waste coagulates the meat and makes the saucisson an undesirable environment for bad bacteria. And that's why fermented meat is sometimes better. Also during this time, a coating of natural mold may develop on the outside of the saucisson. Again, this is a good thing because it contributes to the flavor and protects the meat and keeps the fat from turning rancid, as it would if exposed to light. Sometimes the mold gets washed off and the saucisson sec is rolled in flour to the same end.

And here's the final product up close:

From left to right, saucisson sec à la fenouil (fennel), à l'âne (donkey) and aux herbes de provence. The fennel and herbes de provence are made from pork but that one in the middle is made from donkey.

So when I saw all those saucissons secs at the market calling my name, I hadn't intended to buy the donkey. In fact, as I approached the stand, I was trying to decide which kinds I would ask to taste (because I didn't think I should ask to try all 12 or 15 flavors they had) and when I saw the label for the donkey sausages I thought, "well that's one I won't have to be curious about". However, when I asked to taste the blueberry, the sausage lady began cutting little samples of other ones for me to try -- like donkey.

And in this case, tasting like ass is a good thing. It has a really nice flavor, but not one that makes it stands out as a particular kind of meat -- at least not in saucisson sec. Maybe filet de l'âne would be different. It's also really lean. Here's a picture of the saucissons cut open (same order left to right) ...

Note the higher ratio of red (meat) to white (fat) in the donkey sausage as compared to the other two.

So why the photo of saucisson sec on a rock? Well, they're a great food item to take hiking. Because of their curing and drying process, you can keep them for months at room temperature and they hold up really well on a hike -- no getting mashed up or melty like some kinds of cheese. I wouldn't actually recommend keeping them in the sun, but wrapped in butcher paper on the counter works great. And then they can come out for a little while to get their picture taken before you eat them.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


'Tis the season for strawberries!

You can't walk through the markets without smelling strawberries. Really. Saturday morning was a perfect example of the red, fragrant fields of strawberries that are displayed at the market...but I was in a hurry and didn't have my camera so no pictures.

There are basically two kinds: regular and gariguette. Actually, that's a huge lie. It turns out that there are over 600 strawberry cultivars grown around the world. (You can get a look at some of the names of them here.) The "regular" strawberries, so-called because they look pretty much like all the strawberries I've seen before (large, dark-red when ripe, but with way more variation in shape here than at home), stand in stark contrast to these gariguettes.

Gariguettes are early strawberries and have been in the markets since the very end of March. They are somewhat smaller, flatter and paler than the "regular" strawberries. The skin is also a lot thinner and they're softer and juicier. These would never survive shipping from California to Chicago (but then, neither would the "regular" strawberries, which are also noticeably softer than what we are used to), although they're a common varietal here in southern France and represent 20% of France's strawberry production.

They are a bit pricey though. And now that it's late April, they don't look quite as good as they did a month ago. So, we've been eating a lot of those "regular" strawberries that smell as sweet as candy (if only strawberry-flavored candy actually tasted like strawberries).

And since we don't have an oven to make shortcakes, crêpes are a great substitute.

Crêpes (compiled from a million different recipes on-line)
2 c. flour
pinch of salt
0 - 3 Tbs. sugar (sweet or savory?)
3 eggs
1 c. milk
1 c. water
2 Tbs. oil

Whisk the flour, salt and sugar in a bowl and make a well. Crack the eggs into the well and start whisking them into the dry ingredients so the eggs start to get incorporated into the flour (but not fully -- apparently this would result in grainy crêpes and make incorporating the liquid really difficult). Then, whisking constantly, slowly pour in the liquid and whisk until flour is fully incorporated. Mix in the oil. Let sit in the fridge for at least an hour or even overnight.

When it's time to make the crêpes, whisk the batter again. Get the pan good and hot. Grease it with a little oil (or clarified butter if you prefer). Then pour some of the batter into the pan and tilt the pan around to spread the batter evenly. Cook about a minute then flip and cook for another 30 sec. or so.

Top with strawberries or fill with nutella, or both!

You should stand around the kitchen and eat (or fill, or top and then eat) the crêpes immediately when they're still warm, but you can also stack them and cover them with a towel or foil to keep them warm while you make a bunch.

Both the batter and the cooked crêpes will keep a couple of days in the fridge. The crêpes themselves are best when fresh so I usually put the batter in a big jar after making it and then I can just shake it up and make them fresh.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Carnaval d'Aix

Every April, Le Carnaval d'Aix signals the arrival of spring. For anyone who has lived in Chicago, it has seemed somewhat spring-like since mid-February, but if the Carnaval is any indication, spring actually started April 5th.

And what better way to celebrate than with a parade?

Every year the parade has a different theme. Last year it was animals, the year before that it was insects. This year, though, the 50th anniversary of Picasso's move to the Pays d'Aix (he lived just down the road in Vauvenarges), Carnaval was a tribute to Picasso and something of a pre-inauguration of the Picasso - Cezanne exhibition that starts at the end of May.

A Picasso-inspired float by the Rotonde:


Personally, these remind me a lot more of Nikki de Saint Phalle, but what do I know?

In any case, the parade's final act (a float/dance-troupe hybrid) was more obviously Picassoesque than the other floats I managed to get a picture of.

Periodically, as it made its way down the Cours Mirabeau toward the Rotonde, this float shot confetti into the air.

It was followed by a dance troupe of hundreds ranging in age from about 6 to 46, but mostly older teenagers.

At the Rotonde, most of the dancers dispersed, but the best ones got on stage and did a few special numbers that had been choreographed by an artiste (that's him on the left):

Here is a link to some pictures of the day taken by a regional newspaper.