Saturday, May 29, 2010

Boulangerie Pradier, Sablet

We are lucky to have two very good boulangeries - bakeries - in Sablet that are open year around, that is except for their congés annuels et jours de fermeture - annual vacations and days they are closed each week.

The two boulangeries conveniently close on different days so villagers are never without baguettes, croissants, pain au chocolat or the other breads and pastries that are baked fresh each day.

Boulangerie Pradier is located a short walk from our house in the direction of the boucherie. This boulangerie is closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Boulangerie Pradier makes the most wonderful pain complet, a whole wheat type bread they shape like a large baguette. Unfortunately, they only bake this bread on Tuesdays and Fridays.

One Tuesday morning I walked into Boulangerie Pradier to get our daily bread and an apple tart Shirley had seen displayed the day before. Unfortunately, there was no apple tart in the display case.

When I asked Madame about the apple tart, she replied "je suis désolé mais non monsieur", I am sorry but no sir. She continued on to say, that she would be happy to bake one and it would be ready by noon.

As promised, the apple tart was ready when I walked into the boulangerie at noon. I can tell you that Madame's apple tart tastes even better than it looks.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Sunday afternoon at Place de l'Horloge, Avignon

Avignon is about 40 km southwest of Sablet, snuggled inside ancient walls along the Rhône River. The largest town in the Vaucluse, Avignon is best known for its Palais des Papes (Popes’ Palace) and Pont St. Bénezet (the bridge made famous in the ditty “Sur le Pont d’Avignon, on y danse, on y danse…”).

Avignon is very old; full of history, art, music and activity. You can literally spend hours wandering the narrow streets inside the fortified walls without getting bored. We have been to Avignon quite a few times but feel like we have barely scratched the surface of this town.

Avignon has many pedestrian only streets and shops of all kinds. On Sunday, most shops are closed, so we come to Avignon and go to Place de l'Horloge and grab seats at one of the many cafés.

Place de l'Horloge is a long square in front of the Hôtel de Ville with terrace cafés lining both sides. Streets at the top end of the Place de l'Horloge lead to the Place du Palais and the Palace of the Popes.

Sitting at a café is a great place to watch people.

Shirley relaxing on a sunny day under a big umbrella in front of the Hôtel de Ville.

Young and old love the "Belle Epoque" carousel that can be found at the top end of the Place de l'Horloge.

Random street graffiti on a wall on the Place de l'Horloge.

I am not sure we will ever get tired of coming to Place de l'Horloge.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Sans Plomb or Gazole

I can't imagine going to Provence and not having a car so that in addition to the larger towns where you can walk around or hop on a bus or tram. you can also go visit the wine villages of the Côtes du Rhône, the hill top villages of the Luberon, drive along the Mediterranean Sea or visit remote historical sites like the Pont du Gard.

I think you ought to rent a car even if you intend to ride bikes every day. I think that having a car will give you flexibility to go places that wouldn't be practical without a car to get you and your bikes there. Then there is the fact that most restaurants don't start dinner service till 19 30 (7:30 PM) and you will be leaving the restaurant after dark.

If you are going to take my advice and rent a car (most major US car rental companies have offices at TGV stations and airports), you will inevitably be faced with buying gas if you want to keep going. I will admit that I find buying gas in France to be a confusing experience.

First off, you should know that in my experience, most cars rented by major US car rental companies use diesel. This is a good thing for you as diesel is less expensive in France and you will get better gas mileage. Make sure you know what type of fuel your rental car uses before you leave the rental car lot.

Unlike the United States, you will not find gas stations on each corner of intersections (a very good thing in my opinion). This is obviously due to the fact there are very few intersections and automobile fuel is sold in 3 general locations: gas stations, supermarchés and at aires, rest stops along the autoroute.

For first time travelers to France, you will find few intersections because the French road planners are big fans of the rond-point, the roundabout or traffic circle. Some of these are beautifully landscaped, adorned with sculptures or circumvent monuments like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Navigating these can be confusing itself but that is a topic for another post.

You will generally find that gas is least expensive at supermarchés like Intermarché or Super U and most expensive at the aires along the autoroute. Away from larger towns, supermarchés and gas stations are spread out. Look for road signs that say "Centre Commercial;" they will lead to shopping areas where you are likely to find a supermarché or gas station.

Gas pumps are similar to those in the United States except that gas is sold by the liter. There are 3.78 liters to a US gallon. Pumps are labled sans plomb (unleaded) in either 95 or 98 octane, super (super unleaded) or gazole (diesel).

You can pay for gas with cash or a credit card when an attendant is on duty. Except for on the autoroute, most gas stations do not have attendants on duty 24 hours a day although some stations do have automated pumps that allow you to buy gas with credit cards with a chip which works with a pin number.

One final note, even when you are going to pay with cash, you pump first and then you pay, except if you are riding a motorcycle. I guess French gas station operators have less concern about drive offs except for motorcycle riders.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sunday Lunch at Le Brin d'Olivier, Vaison-la-Romaine

We go to Vaison la Romaine quite often. It's only 10 kms from Sablet and the location for our favorite weekly marché paysan, farmer's market, in the Vaucluse. It is also the closest town with larger grocery stores where we shop for staples like flour, sugar, coffee, yogurt and milk; Intermarché is the one we like best. We also fuel up our car at the Intermarché.

Last fall, we dined for the first time at Le Brin d'Olivier near the Roman bridge in Vaison la Romaine. We enjoyed that meal so much that we decided to go there for lunch after stocking up on the staples we needed at the Intermarché on Sunday morning upon our return to Sablet.

Upon arriving at the entrance to Le Brin d'Olivier, I noticed one change immediately; a bright red notice saying the restaurant was now in the Michelin Guide as a "meilleures adresses à petit prix", essentially one of the better places for a moderate price.

At the top of the business card for Le Brin d'Olivier is written "Restaurant de charme", restaurant with charm; we would agree. The restaurant has dining rooms on two levels. On our previous visit, we were seated in the smaller upstairs dining room. This time we were seated in the lower level dining room off the terrace.

After looking over the menu and wine list, we chose a 50 cl bottle of 2009 Chateau Paradis, Terre des Anges, Rosé, Les Coteaux d'Aix en Provence, to share. It was a pale salmon color, chilled, crisp and delicious.

We gave our order to our server; Shirley decided to order from the A La Carte menu and I chose the 3-course Balade en Provence menu for 29,00 Euros.

Shortly afterwards, our pretty server brought an amuse bouche from the chef to get our appetites going; chilled cream of green asparagus soup and a basket of bread.

For her starter, Shirley enjoyed a terrine of tomato confit and eggplant fondant with a basil emulsion and caramelized balsamic.

I started with a yummy warm cream of brocolli soup topped with a poached egg and roasted prawn. The dish would have been marvelous with one or the other, both made the dish a little complicated.

For my plat, main course, I had a wonderful plate of duck breast roasted pink with coriander, served with roasted yukon gold type potatoes and green peppercorn sauce.

Shirley's plat was filet of salmon dusted with sea salt served over cucumbers marinated with balsamic.

To finish, we shared the fresh orange and mint nage, a sweet aromatic broth, accompanied by an almond tuile.

As we walked out, Shirley paused in the patio for a picture. We look forward to returning to dine on the patio on a sunny warm Provençal day.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Prettiest Table in Provence

We love Aix-en-Provence; a beautiful town, vibrant with activity, narrow streets with pretty squares all surrounded by cafés and lots of shops to explore.

We always go to La Victoire, a store for tissus, fabric, that has been in business since 1918. We have purchased typical material from Provence for curtains, place mats and had table cloths made to order for Bistro Des Copains.

On Monday, we headed to Aix-en-Provence for a visit to La Victoire with an interim stop for dejeuner, lunch with my first cousin, once-removed (I Googled to figure out the difference between a second cousin and a first cousin-once removed) Annick.

Annick lives northwest of Aix-en-Provence on the outskirts of a small village called Rognes. We decided to travel the tourist route through the Luberon to get to her house. On the way, we drove past Lacoste and through Bonnieux and Lourmarin before we got to Rognes.

We arrived at her beautiful country house and were happy to see not only Annick but my first cousin Ginette there too. They had set the table with flowers and sprigs of fresh thyme were at every place setting. It looked and smelled of Provence. It was the prettiest table I have ever seen.

Together, they had prepared a wonderful array of appetizers to spread on thin slices of baguette including Roquefort cream, anchovy cream, tomato tapenade, black olive tapenade and green olive tapenade. Really yummy!

For our main course, they had roasted potatoes with gigot d'agneau. The dripping fat of the lamb turned the potatoes golden brown. To accompany the lamb, we had mushrooms in a cream sauce and tasty cucumber salad.

To finish we had home-made fresh strawberry tart with a strawberry coulis sauce. I wrote down the recipes for the various appetizers and strawberry coulis the best I could.

In response to questions about how much of something, I got "au pif", use your best guess. I'll let you know how they turn out.

Afterwards, we headed to Aix-en-Provence for shopping and drinks in one of the many cafés. The highlight of the day was that pretty table.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Labor Day

Today is May 1 and Labor Day in France. It is a Jour Férié, or national holiday in France. Most businesses except for boucheries (butcher shops), poissoneries (fish mongers), boulangeries (bakeries) and marchand de fruits et légumes (green grocers) are closed.

As we drove around Clapiers today, buying what we wanted for lunch, we spotted people selling lilies of the valley all around town. Tradition says that On May 1, 1561, King Charles IX of France received a lily of the valley as a lucky charm. Supposedly, he decided to offer a lily of the valley each year thereafter to the ladies of his court.

At the beginning of the 20th century, it became custom on the 1st of May, to give a sprig of lily of the valley, a symbol of springtime. The French government permits individuals and workers' organisations to set up stands and sell them free of taxation on May 1.

L'Art du Feu, Castries

Our plan for our first day in France was simple, go shopping, primarily for kitchen items for the house that have been suggested by guests.

We try to be practical, especially when it comes to food, which is always a high priority for us; eat first as we were hungry. It was 12 00, and time for dejeuner, lunch.

Since we were shopping primarily for kitchen items, we headed towards Metro, a membership-only store for restaurant and hotel professionals located south of Montpellier off the A 9.

The area north of Montpellier between Clapier where cousin Jean Marc lives and the entrance to the A 9 highway is primarily garrigue, scrublands or planted in vineyards. Dotted here and there are small towns such as Castries.

Castries is a small town northeast of Montpellier which dates back to Roman times. The town was built on a hill in concentric circles around its chateau near the Via Domitia, the road built by the Romans.

In the center of town is L'Art du Feu, a small charming restaurant where we have dined a number of times over the years.

The restaurant was originally a black smith shop, hence the name L'Art du Feu, fire art. It is small, divided into two dining rooms. The walls are stone and wood beams cross the ceiling.

We had not réservé, made a reservation but luckily there was still one table available when we arrived. We were seated in the back dining room where other's were already enjoying their aperitifs.

We ordered a bottle of red wine from the region, a 2007 Chateau La Roque, Pic St. Loup, a winery which has been represented on the Bistro Des Copains wine list. Like most red wines from this region, it is big, with plenty of aromas from the garrigue.

Shirley ordered a La Carte rather than a menu. She started with a mozzarella zucchini croustade which was accompanied by a salad.

I ordered the menu for 19,50 Euros. I selected for my first course, moules gratinees. Really delicious.

Shirley ordered for main course, eggplant lasagna with provolone cheese. It was very similar to what we know as eggplant parmigana. This dish was in the entrée, appetizer section of the menu so it was accompanied by a salad.

For my main course, I chose boeuf en brochette, beef on a skewer. It was accompanied by polenta and very good ratatouille.

To finish, we shared 2 scoops of house-made ice cream; lavendar and coffee. As usual, service was attentive, the dining room was noisy as it was filled with noisy hungry diners.
As I heard someone say at the neighboring table as they got up to leave, c'est pas mauvais, not bad in a very good way. A good choice for lunch if you are exploring the wine country north of Montpellier.