Thursday, April 16, 2015

A trip to Carpentras for the market and lunch at Chez Serge

It is not unusual to find us headed to Carpentras on Friday morning's for the market or shopping for kid's clothes (If you are thinking about shopping for kid's or grandkid's clothes, Shirley's favorite boutiques are in Carpentras.). Carpentras is a short 25 minute ride down the D-7 from Sablet. As we get near, we see Notre-Dame de l'Observance Church towering over Carpentras.

Notre-Dame de l'Observance Church was built at the middle of the sixteenth century. It was established as a parish church in 1792. The church was restored at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Steeple of Notre Dame de l'Observance Church

This morning I dropped Shirley off near the 14th-century Porte d'Orange, a massive fortified arch, and went to find parking. After a little disagreement with an unpleasant lady about a parking place, I got myself installed and headed for the center of Carpentras which is concentrated inside a ring of boulevards that circle the old town.

Carpentras house

Market day in Carpentras is Friday, a good day to visit and see the town at its liveliest. The market is held in the Place de l'Hôtel de Ville, which was the center of the old Jewish community until the 19th century, when the houses were cleared away to make way for this large open square.

Market stalls in front of the Town Hall

As I was walking to meet Shirley, I came upon this attractive fromagerie (cheese shop). I knew I shouldn't do it, but I couldn't help myself and entered the shop to see what tasty cheeses were on display.

Cheese and wine shop

Carpentras has a historic Synagogue (at the Place de la Mairie), built in 1367, it's one of the oldest synagogues in existence in France and still in use today. This building is testimony to the town's ancient Jewish community, which was protected by the Papacy during an era of persecution in France.

Carpentras Synagogue

The 28 foot Roman arch in Carpentras is the only remaining testimony of the Roman period. It was built in the 1st century AD under Emperor Augustus to commemorate the Roman victory over the Barbarians.

The Roman Arch next to the 17th century Episcopal Palace at Place d'Inguimbert

The arch sits next to the 17th century Episcopal Palace (which became the Palais de Justice after Carpentras was incorporated into France at the end of the 18th century). This structure has only one arch decorated with sculpted figures representing chained prisoners on its lateral sides.

Roman Arch

In the center of Carpentras is Saint-Siffrein Cathedral which was built on the ruins of a Roman church. The cathedral was constructed in Gothic style by order of Pope Benedict XIII. The work lasted for more then a century, from 1404 to 1519. One of the cathedral's most unusual features is the south doorway known as the Porte Juive (Jews' Gate). This ornate Gothic doorway was designed as an entrance for Jews who wished to be baptized.

Saint-Siffrein Cathedral

Faded house

In existence since 1155, the Carpentras market has two special claims to fame. Sweet, juicy local strawberries (fraises de Carpentras) begin to appear in spring. At the other end of the year, winter truffles perfume the air around the Café de l’Univers from late November to March.

Market street

As you can see below, I found Shirley sitting on a the edge of a fountain.

The memorial seen below commemorates the residents of Carpentras who were killed or went missing in the Great War (World War I).

War Memorial

Carpentras house

Founded in 1585, the Brotherhood of White Penitents installed themselves near Saint-Jean-du-Bourg Church. Their chapel seen below was consecrated in 1661. The chapel was rebuilt in 1705 and 1779.

Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs

Our go to restaurant for lunch in Carpentras is Chez Serge Restaurant which is located on the ring road near Allée des Platanes. The Restaurant has been owned by Serge Ghoukassian since 1987.

Chez Serge Restaurant

Serge is a passionate man, especially about wine and truffles, he was named the Best Sommelier of the year in 2008 and truffles are on the menu most of the time. We usually order off the 3-course l’Ardoise du Jour (daily slate special) for 17 Euros.

This day the Amuse Bouche was fall truffles in olive oil and sea salt.

Fall truffles (Italy, not Alba) in olive oil and sea salt

Domaine de Fondreche Côtes du Ventoux Rosé

For starter, I chose the softly boiled egg with chickpea puree and Shirley chose the eggplant soufflé (Papeton) with tomato sauce and greens.

Soft boiled egg with chickpea puree

Eggplant soufflé (Papeton) with tomato sauce and greens

For main course, Shirley chose the brochette of salmon with mashed potatoes, grilled eggplant and finished with a beurre blanc sauce and I chose the brochette of lamb with mash potatoes, grilled eggplant and mushrooms.

Brochette of salmon with mashed potatoes, grilled eggplant and a beurre blanc sauce

Brochettes of lamb with mashed potatoes, grilled eggplant, and mushrooms

To finish we chose the Faisselle with red fruit sauce. Originally the word "faisselle" referred to a container made of wicker and pierced with holes to drain the cheese. Over time, it came to mean the actual cheese. Made from cow, goat or lamb's milk, faisselle is characterized by a very high humidity ratio (up to 85%) and no rind.

Faisselle with red fruit sauce

We also ordered a lemon tart with lemon sorbet.

Lemon tart with lemon sorbet

We enjoyed our tasty lunch, the Restaurant was very busy, and service was a little slow and uneven. But it didn't bother us, the market was over and shops were closed until 2 or 3. Don't let it bother you.

Chez Serge Restaurant
90 Rue Cottier
84200 Carpentras
Tel: 04 90 63 21 24

Have a great weekend. Chat soon.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Visit to the Camargue and we see a bull fight in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

On a whim a few months back, I suggested that we drive through the Camargue and see where the sea salt we buy is produced. We could also look for the red rice which is produced in the same area. We love this rice, it was a regular feature on our Bistro Des Copains menu.

The Camargue is a triangle shaped area on the coast between Languedoc-Roussillon and Provence. It's a river delta where the Rhône River meets the sea - a marshy island bordered by two branches of the Rhône River and the Mediterranean Sea.

With over 360 square miles, the Camargue is western Europe's largest river delta, with exceptional biological diversity, and home to unique breeds of Camargue horses and bulls, more than 400 species of birds including Pink Flamingoes, rice paddies and salt which has been harvested here since the Middle Ages.

The Camargue

The Camargue lies within the Department of Bouches du Rhône ("Mouths of the Rhône"). At Arles, the Rhône River divides into two branches, the Petit Rhône (Little Rhône) to the west and the Grand Rhône (Great Rhône) to the east seen below.

Rhône River

Much of the area is under water - inland salt water lakes, called étangs. Approximately a third of the Camargue is either lakes or marshland.

The Camargue is the only place in France (and one of the few anywhere around the Mediterranean) where pink flamingos nest. The flamingo population can reach 20,000 couples grouped into flocks. The flamingo is the emblem of Camargue.

A Camargue wetland with pink flamingos

We headed first to Salin-de-Giraud in the southeast corner of the Camargue where the nearby salt marshes are famous for their salt production, producing up to 15,000 tons a day in the summer. Salt is produced along the final stretch of the Grand Rhône, an industry that dates back to Romans times.

Salt salins

This is one of the biggest salt works anywhere in the world. Some is used as table salt. Fleur De Sel de Camargue ("flowers of salt") is hand raked and harvested. Only the premium, top layer of the salt bed is used for this. The name Fleur De Sel comes from the aroma of flowers - violets in particular - that develops as the salt dries. Each signature container is sealed with a cork top and signed by the Salt Raker who harvested it.

A salt dune

After lunch, we headed toward Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a fishing village and tourist resort on the Mediterranean Sea close to the mouth of the Petit Rhône. The town lies about 38 km to the southwest of Arles.

The Camargue in general and Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in particular are associated with the Roma (Gypsies). Beginning in Medieval times, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer was the destination for a Roma (gypsy) pilgrimage each year to venerate St. Sara (or Sarah).

Some very focused Pétanque players

According to Provençal legend, a boat was launched from Jerusalem around 40 AD without sail, oars or supplies, and drifted across the Mediterranean sea until it reached shore at this site. The refugees in the boat were: Mary Jacobe, the mother of James and the sister of the Virgin; Mary Salome, the mother of the apostles James Major and John; Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary Magdalene and Martha; St Maximinus; Cedonius, born blind and cured and Sarah, the servant of the two Marys.

After landing safely, the group built a small chapel to the Virgin. The disciples wandered off their separate ways, Mary Magdalene went to Sainte-Baume, and Martha went to Tarascon. Marie Salome, Marie Jacobe and Sarah remained in the Camargue, and were later buried in the oratory. The tomb of these three saints became a cult object, and has attracted pilgrims for the past nineteen centuries.

Statue of guardian and bull in a roundabout in the center of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

The Baroncelli Museum seen below is the 19th-century town hall. It presents the zoology and the agro-pastoral ways of the Camargue region, and the history of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

Baroncelli Museum

The Church of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer towers over the village and is visible from as far as 10 km inland. The church was built from the 9th to the 12th century, as a fortress and a refuge. It has a fresh water well inside, for when the villagers had to take shelter from raiders.

Notre Dame de la Mer Church

We climbed the very narrow steps up to the observatory area on the roof of the fortified Church of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

View from the roof of the Fortified Church of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer out to Sea

View from the roof of the Fortified Church of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer over the town

Statue of white Camargue horse in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

As we walked around Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, we heard repeated loud cheering from a crowd, and headed in the direction of the sound to see what was going on. We came upon an arena, at the edge of the beach, for bullfights, and one was taking place. We soon discovered that these bullfights vary greatly from their Spanish cousins. Most notably, the bull is never killed.

Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer bullfighting ring

The bull is the king of the Camargue. The Camargue breed, in Provençal: Raço di bioù, is a cattle native to the Camargue marshlands where they live semi-wild, tended by the mounted herders called gardians who ride the famous Camargue horses which live in the same area. The large herds are called “manades” (this word is also used to refer to the farms that breeds the bulls) and are bred solely for the “course camarguaise (Camargue style of bull-fighting).

Camargue bull

In the arena, the bull is confronted with a dozen raseteurs (Camargue bullfighters) who try to remove the ribbon that has been attached between its horns with strings. Ferocity, bravery, and skill during combat will make him a God of the Provencal and Languedocian arenas.

Camargue bull and 3 razeteurs

The bulls aren't killed or injured, but it's extremely dangerous for the men trying to get that ribbon. The dozen or so raseteurs, all dressed in white, crisscross the arena, calling out to the bull to attract him. They constantly have to leap up into the bleachers to escape the charging bull.

Each “fight” lasts 15 minutes, after which he returns to the herd and won't participate in another “fight” for 2 or 3 weeks. The “cocardiers” (the name for star bulls) “fight” around 6 or 7 times per year.

A bull destined for the Spanish corrida (bullfight) has one fight of his life, a good Camargue bull can fight for a decade. That's because Camargue bulls aren't killed in the rings. Camargue bulls get better and tougher as the years go on, because allegedly they're extremely smart.

It's not the bullfighters, but the bulls that are the celebrities here. The great fighting bulls are buried in the marshes, and villages erect statues to them. Every self-respecting Camargue village has its bull statue.

In the picture below, a raseteur tries to remove the ribbon that has been attached to the bull between its horns.

A rasateur tries to remove the ribbon attached to the bulls horns

Camargue cowboys are known as guardians, and like their American counterparts they herd cattle. They are the guardian angels of the bull herds. They ride all day long to catch calves for branding, take bulls from the pastures to the paddock and to the arènes or bullfighting rings.

A guardian on his white Camargue horse

The Camargue horse is the traditional mount of the guardians, who herd the bulls. The Camargue horse is an ancient breed of horse indigenous to the Camargue. Its origins remain relatively unknown, although it is generally considered one of the oldest breeds of horses in the world. They are small horses, but despite their small size, they have the strength to carry grown adults.

A guardian on his white Camargue horse

We waited with the crowd for the guardians to pass by as they escorted the bulls back to their paddocks. The bulls run through the street surrounded by guardians on their white horses.

The guardians escort the bulls back to the paddocks

The bulls and their guardians pass by our vantage point

From Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, we headed to Aigues-Mortes, a striking, walled Medieval town sitting on the flat marshes of the Petite Camargue. At the foot of the Aigues-Mortes walls, stretch nearly 25,000 acres of salt marshes. Since it was late in the day, we didn't spend a lot of time so we will have to go again.

Have a great rest of your week. Chat soon.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Cheez-it-ish crackers, a wonderful tasty addition to your nibbles at apéritif

Many of you are aware that we closed Bistro Des Copains, the French country bistro we co-owned in Occidental, CA in January. We miss our staff and many friends who dined there on a nightly basis. However, with the Bistro closed, I now have some time and freedom to try new recipes, entertain friends, or dine at the many wonderful restaurants we have in Sonoma County.

One of our favorite times to entertain is to invite friends for nibbles and drinks at the end of the day for one of our favorite French traditions called apéritif. For the uninformed, apéritif is both a beverage and a social occasion, and a wonderful part of daily life in France. It is a national custom where time is set aside at the end of the day to share a drink and maybe a bite or two with family, friends, and colleagues, all the while engaged in conversation.

An apéritif by definition (it's a French word derived from the Latin verb aperire, which means “to open.”) is a prelude to dinner, so the "bites" of food that accompany drinks should be tantalizers to the taste buds, preparing them for the meal to come. Generally, the accompaniments are bite-sized finger foods that can be eaten with your hands.

Traditional apéritif drinks can be roughly divided into three groups. The wine group includes still and sparkling wines, fortified wines and wine based mixtures. A second group consists of herb and spiced-based alcohols, Pastis and Compari, for example, that are usually diluted with water. The third is fruit based and may or may not contain alcohol.

Salty foods are popular - olives, nuts, cornichons and radishes with butter and salt. Spreads made from olives, eggplants, pâté or salt cod and served on toasts or in puff pastry are common. We have also been served saucisson (dry sausages), apero-sized goat cheese marinated in herb-infused olive oil, and tiny clams, known as tellines which are eaten one by one - finger licking good.

I like to try new recipes every time I cook. One night last week, I tried 4 new recipes; grated carrot salad, cheez-it-ish crackers, and spaghetti with creamy Walnut-Gorgonzola sauce which are shown in the next two pictures. I also made a lentil salad that I have made before and socca, a chick pea flour pancake from Provence (and neighboring Liguria, where it’s called farinata).

Cheez-it-ish crackers, grated carrot salad and lentil salad

We have tried quite a few grated carrot recipes, a popular dish in French bistros and cafés. The recipe this night came from "Around my French Table" by Dorie Greenspan and is our personal favorite so far. I envisioned the socca from the same book as a future offering at an apéritif with friends. Unfortunately, it didn't turn out the way I expected.

The recipe for the Salsa di Noci e Gorgonzola or Spaghetti with Walnut-Gorgonzola Sauce was a new one for me from Biba Caggiano, an award winning cookbook author and restaurateur from Sacramento, California. The dish was delicious, but very rich.

Spaghetti with creamy Walnut-Gorgonzola Sauce

The Cheez-it-ish crackers from "Around my French Table" authored by Dorie Greenspan were an unexpected hit with Shirley and I. They are super tasty and remained crunchy until they were gone after three days stored in plastic bag. Future guests can look forward to enjoying these with us.

Cheez-it-ish crackers

I have had Dorie Greenspan's book "Around my French Table" since it was released in 2010. Unfortunately for us, I had not really opened it till this past week. What a mistake! The grated carrot salad and the cheez-it-ish crackers recipes were easy and wonderful. Below, I share the recipe and I strongly encourage you to try it for yourselves. They will be wonderful at your next aperitif.

"Around my French Table" cookbook

Cheez-it-ish Crackers
Makes about 50 crackers


8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 16 pieces
1/4 pound Gruyère, Comté, or Emmenthal, grated (about 1 cup)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour


1. Put the butter, cheese, salt, white pepper, and cayenne pepper in a food processor and pulse until the butter is broken up into uneven bits and the mixture forms small curds.

2. Add the flour and pulse until the dough forms moist curds again - these will be larger. The cookbook author says that there are times, though, when you pulse and pulse and never gets curds - in that case, just process for a minute or so, so that everything is as moist as possible.

3. Turn the dough out onto a work surface and knead it gently until it comes together. Divide the dough in half, pat each half into a disk, and wrap the disks in plastic. Chill for at least an hour, or for up to 3 days.

4. Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper.

5. Working with 1 disk at a time, roll the dough out between sheets of plastic wrap or wax paper to a scant 1/4 inch thick. Using a small cookie cutter, one with a diameter of about 11/4 inches - cut the dough into crackers.

6. Gather the scraps together, so you can combine them with the scraps from the second disk, chill, and roll them out to make more crackers. Place the rounds on the baking sheet, leaving a scant inch between the rounds.

7. Bake for 14 to 17 minutes or until the crackers are lightly golden and firm to the touch; transfer the crackers to a rack to cool. Repeat with the second disk of dough (and scraps), making certain that your baking sheet is cool. You can serve these a little warm or you can wait until they reach room temperature.

I hope you will invite your friends to join you for aperitif, it is such a civilized way to transition from your work day to personal time. The Cheez-it-ish crackers will be perfect to nibble on and enjoy with a glass of sparkling wine or white wine.