Thursday, May 31, 2012

Kitchen Decorations??

I usually write about pretty villages, historical monuments and food and wine on Our House in Provence. This morning I want to show you some of the "decorations" in our kitchen at our house in Sablet. Now if you are a regular reader of this blog you know that I love food and like to cook and entertain so it won't come as any surprise that the kitchen is my favorite place in the house.

Although we rent our house by the week to visitors when we are not there, we have furnished and decorated our house as if we lived there full time. We love everything from Provence so we have lots of pottery and artwork from local artists throughout the house and we add to our collection everytime we are there.

I love santons, the hand-made clay figurines that depict the colorful people, traditional trades, activities and costumes of Provence. Shirley is not so enamored with them as me but she is a good sport and we have some pretty santons on display in the kitchen. Now I know that santons are normally put out at Christmas as part of a traditional Provençal crèche (nativity scene) but ours are on display all year long.

A close up of some of our santons.

A maker of santons is called a santonnier and the creation of santons is essentially a family craft, handed down from parents to children. Santons are fashioned in two halves, pressed together, and fused. When the figure is completely dry, it is given a gelatin bath to harden the figure further and to provide a surface for painting. Faces are painted first, then hair, clothing and accessories such as hats and baskets are applied with an adhesive.

Shirley has taken a liking to pintade guinea hens and we have added a small flock to our collection of santons. Handmade in Provence of clay by Heidi Caillard, these guinea hens have round bodies and tiny heads and come in a variety of colors.

A close up of more of our santons.

We also have one painted parrot made of wood perched on top of a utility closet in the kitchen. I know nothing about how this parrot was made or where. It came into our possession by way of a dumpster diving friend by the name of Allison. Allison is one of our servers at Bistro Des Copains and while she was visiting Sablet a while back, she found this parrot in a dumpster and thought it would be the perfect "decoration" for our kitchen.

Like I said, we keep adding decorations and more santons, pintades and other pretty hand-made items from Provence will find their way into our house. I doubt that we will ever have a flock of parrots.

Bonne journée mes amis et à bientôt. Have a great day, chat soon!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Visit to Marseille and Le Panier

Shirley and I make a conscious effort to visit new towns or villages so we learn more about Provence and get new material for the blog. Cousin Annick who lives near Aix-en-Provence is usually very happy to join us on these outings. She knows her way around Provence, she is a great tour guide and is fearless about parking.

A few weeks back I called Annick to see if she wanted to go touring with us to Sanary-sur-Mer and Bandol, two towns on my list of places I want to visit. She replied yes but that we should go instead to visit Marseille and then drive along the Côte Bleue, the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, between Marseilles and Étang de Berre.

I have wanted to visit Marseille but held back because on my only visit, my rental car was broken into and three suitcases removed. I had arrived at Marseille Provence Airport a few hours earlier and a thief cleaned out my car and took my clothes, a lap top computer, two cell phones and stuff for the house while I was in a restaurant.

I quickly agreed with Annick's suggestion as I thought it would be perfect to visit Marseille with someone who has lived there and knows their way around the town. To top it off, Annick offered to drive so I wouldn't have to worry about getting around Marseille or having our car stolen or dinged up while we were parked in Marseille. Perfect, so off we went.

Marseille is the oldest city in France, founded 2600 years ago when the Phocaeans (Greeks from Asia Minor) came ashore in 600 B.C. and set up a trading post called Massalia on the site of today's old port. Marseille is France's second most populated city.

Our first stop was the Seventh-day Adventist church on Boulevard Longchamp. This is not a must-see historical monument for most visitors to Marseille but it is an important part of our family history. My father Daniel and his family lived in one of the apartments above the church during the time his father was pastor of the church. Later my uncle Paul who is Annick's grandfather, and uncles Elie and Ivan were pastors of this church as well. Yes, we come from a family of preachers.

I wanted to see where my father lived for a few years and Annick found the church and a place to park without any problem. I thought we were just doing a drive-by but Annick said we should go into the church. It was Saturday morning and services were underway. The current pastor greeted us and after introducing ourselves, he offered to show us the apartment where my father lived. It was very nice of him to do that but we declined and went on our way to Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde.

Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde is an ornate Neo-Byzantine church situated at the highest natural point in Marseille, a 532 foot (162 meters) limestone outcrop on the south side of the Old Port. Designed by Henri-Jacques Espérandieu, the church was built between 1853 and 1864 on the site of a 1214 chapel.

It is topped by a 33-foot-high (10 meters) gilded bronze statue of the Madonna and child who keeps a watchful eye over the fishermen headed out to sea. There is a walkway which encircles the entire building and provides a 360-degree panorama overlooking Marseille, the hills behind and the islands offshore.

A statue depicting the passion of Christ in front of the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde.

A statue of Christ along the walkway which encircles the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde.

A statue depicting Christ on the cross in front of the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde.

One of the views from the walkway which surrounds the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde.

Another view from Notre-Dame de la Garde out toward the Château d'If located on the island of If, the smallest island in the Frioul Archipelago about a mile offshore in the Bay of Marseille. The Château was built between 1524 and 1531 on the orders of King Francis I as a defense against attacks from the sea.

The isolated location and dangerous offshore currents made Château d'If an ideal escape-proof prison, much like the island of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay in more modern times. Its use as a dumping ground for political and religious detainees soon made it one of the most feared and notorious jails in France. Over 3,500 Huguenots (French Protestants) were sent to If.

Alexandre Dumas brought fame to the prison in his 1844 novel, the Count of Monte Cristo. In the book, Edmond Dantès (a commoner who later purchases the noble title of Count) and his mentor, Abbé Faria, are both imprisoned at Château d'If. After fourteen years, Dantès escapes from the castle, becoming the first person ever to do so and survive. In reality, no one is known to have done this.

A view from the walkway which surrounds the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde. The church in the middle of the picture is Cathédrale de la Major, a Catholic cathedral built between 1852 and 1893 on the site of an earlier cathedral and ruins of a Temple of Diana.

This is one of the largest cathedrals (450 feet/137 meters long and the main dome rises 210 feet/64 meters high) built in France since the middle ages complete with domes and cupolas that look more Turkish than French.

Another view from the walkway around the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde.

From the the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde we headed to Le Panier quarter - the bread basket. One of Marseille's oldest sections, Le Panier is only a small part of what used to exist before the Germans dynamited it during World War II to flush out the Jews and Resistance fighters hiding there.

Up until the 1970s, the Le Panier quarter was the center for purification of heroin that passed through Marseille to Europe and the United States, hence the "French Connection" depicted in the 1971 movie starring Gene Hackman. Today ancient buildings line narrow back streets - kids playing, laundry flapping and people chatting in the squares.

Annick knows that I love food and I like to try locally produced products so we headed off to find La Chocolatière du Panier, a tiny renown shop that draws long lines during the holidays. This chocolatière is owned by the Le Ray family.

The house specialty is called La Barre Marseillaise, and consists of dark chocolate melted in large plaques, and stuffed with dried fruits, candied fruit or nuts. They are made daily, broken into roughly triangular chunks, and sold by the weight.

Shirley loves dark chocolate with orange so we bought several pieces of chocolates to share including a chunk of chocolat aux écorces d'orange (chocolate with candied orange rind), which was as delicious as Annick had promised.

A colorful billboard on a wall we came across as we wandered through the streets of Le Panier.

A café on a Le Panier square full of people enjoying the sun on that spring day.

A view of Cathédrale de la Major through the trees from Le Panier.

When I think of Marseille, I think of Bouillabaisse. But that day for lunch we decided to eat at Pizzaria Etienne, a Le Panier hole-in-the-wall. The restaurant was once famous for announcing the price of the meal only after they'd had the chance to look you over. Remarkably little has changed over the years, except there is now a posted menu (with prices).

Pizzaria Etienne is owned by the Cassaro family who originates from Sicily. Opened in 1943, the restaurant does not have a telephone nor do they accept credit cards. The pizza was excellent and we would happily return on a future visit to Marseille.

Colorful laundry hanging outside an upper window in Le Panier.

A shop selling souvenirs from Provence in Le Panier.

A small hotel in Le Panier quarter.

Colorful door and shutters on a home in Le Panier quarter.

I like the pretty shutters and the flowers around the windows on the upper floor.

A view towards Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde across the old port.

From Le Panier we headed out along the Côte Bleue. We didn't take many pictures except for this one of Shirley and me along the Mediterranean Sea.

We were very happy we went to Marseille with Annick and we will return. I encourage you to go, but be smart and don't leave valuables in your car or trunk you don't want to lose.

Bonne journée et a très bientôt.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Sunshine Blogger Award

Guess what? My friend Ashley over at BACKYARDPROVENCE has nominated me for The Sunshine Award. Thank you Ashley, that is very sweet of you. I am very honored!

Ashley is from Southern California and living her dream with husband Dude and daughter Tinki in Provence not too from the Mediterranean in a house which they are renovating. I really felt bad for them this past winter as they struggled to stay warm in their house without heat while they waited for pipes to thaw and dry while they waited for the man to come and fix their roof.

When we started our search for a house in Provence, Shirley stipulated that she did not want to experience what Peter Mayle and his wife went through as described in "A Year in Provence" about fixing up an old house; so no fixer uppers. I think she would have felt even stronger about this decree if she had read some of Ashley's posts about fixing up their house.

In addition to writing about fixing up her house (somehow she sees humor in tragic situations), Ashley also writes and posts pictures about her exploratory visits along the Mediterranean and to nearby towns and villages. I hope we will have a chance to meet up with Ashley and her family during one of our future sojourns in Sablet.

Like most awards, there are rules that come with winning the prestigious Sunshine Award. Here they are:

1. Thank the person who gave this award and write a post about it.

2. Answer the questions about your favorites below.

3. Pass on the award to 10 fabulous bloggers, link their blogs, and let them know you awarded them.

Here are a list of my favorite things:

Favorite Color – I don't think there is any question that blue is my favorite color, like the beautiful blue sky in Provence or Mediterranean Sea. The vast majority of my dress and leisure shirts are blue as well.

Favorite Animal – Sheep. I have loved sheep since I was a kid going to visit my family in the Tarn. That's me below with Mémé's sheep.

Favorite Number – 7, lucky 7 like my birth date.

Favorite Drink – Red wine from the Southern Côtes du Rhône, especially wines from Gigondas.

Facebook or Twitter – I have accounts on both but I really only understand Facebook. I don't really understand Twitter so I rarely tweet.

Your Passion – Besides my wonderful family and especially 4 darling grandkids, I would say Provence and food. I love being in Sablet and really all of Provence. I am a different person when I am there; much more relaxed! I don't think anyone who knows me would be surprised that food, eating, cooking or reading about it are things I love to do.

Giving or Getting Presents – Giving, no question.

Favorite Day – Saturdays. The start of the weekend, enough said.

Favorite Flowers – Roses. Something I got from my dad. He planted a huge number of roses at their home in Michigan, he also planted quite a few at our house here in California. I take roses to our Bistro Des Copains every week. Shirley thinks I should mix it up as she gets bored with the roses. Oh well.

Here is the hard part, selecting bloggers to nominate for the Sunshine Award. I don't get a chance to follow lots of blogs and generally limit myself to those who write about France and especially Provence. Ashley nominated a couple of bloggers who I would nominate and others I know ask that they not be nominated for awards.

So what I am trying to say or justify the reasons that I can't nominate 10 bloggers. It is quite posible, that some of the bloggers I nominate may have already been nominated previously. So here goes. Please check out these wonderful blogs.

1. Cuisine de Provence

2. A Seasonal Cook in Turkey

3. Talking Story in Provence

4. Sara in Le Petit Village

5. Farmhouse in France

6. Conjugating Irregular Verbs

7. French Girl in Seattle

8. An American in Provence

Thanks again Ashley for nominating me for the Sunshine Award. Bonne journée et à bientôt.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Sous Les Micocouliers Restaurant, Eygalières

Eygalières is a small village located a few kms southeast of Saint Rémy de Provence about 1 hour south of Sablet. The village is in the heart of the Alpilles, an extension of the larger Luberon mountain range surrounded by olive groves, green valleys with grazing sheep and vineyards punctuated here and there by restored residences including one supposedly owned by actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

As you approach, you can see Eygalières perched on a hill topped by an ancient castle tower. As you get closer, you can see the small houses which make up the village. I had been to Eygalières once before and had wandered the streets ducking in and out of shops and walked up to the castle ruins to see the view from the top of the hill before dining at nearby Maison Bru Restaurant.

After tasting wine at Domaine Valdition (more about that in a future post), we were headed with our friends to dine at Sous Les Micocouliers Restaurant in Eygalières. This restaurant has been selected by the Michelin inspectors as "Les Meilleures Adresses à Petit Prix", meaning you can eat well for a good price, something I like to do.

Sous Les Micocouliers is in a restored house built in the 17th century with a large fenced courtyard for dining when the weather is nice, just a few steps from the center of the village. The restaurant is owned by the chef Pierre-Louis Poize who apprenticed with Alain Assaud, Joël Robuchon, Alain Ducasse, and Alain Senderens, all renown names in the French restaurant world.

Friends John and Lorelei and wife Shirley pause for a picture while waiting for menus to be brought to our courtyard table. While it was a beautiful sunny day, it was still quite cool being March and everyone was happy to have an extra layer of clothes on.

Along with the menus came two platters of amuse bouche with olives, hummus and anchovy crackers to nibble while we looked over the menu.

Having just come from tasting wine at Domaine de Valdition, I was happy to find a bottle of their 2011 Vallon Des Anges Rosé, from AOC Coteaux d'Aix en Provence on the wine list. The wine is quite pale in color, but a really tasty blend of Grenache and Cinsault grapes.

Our starters included Petits Farçis aux Herbes, Ricotta et Épeautre servis en vinaigrette tiède (little vegetables stuffed with herbs, ricotta cheese and spelt, served with a warm vinaigrette). This is one of the tastiest and prettiest plates of food I have had in a long time.

Others chose Mesclun et Salades du Moment à l huile de sésame (Mesclun greens and other lettuces with sesame oil).

Several chose Conchiglionis stuffed with cheese and greens for their main courses, Shirley for one is always happy to find pasta on a menu.

One of our group ordered the Pintade (roast Guinea Fowl).

I chose l'Agneau (lamb) roasted with vegetables figuring that with lots of sheep in the surrounding area, the lamb would probably be very good; I was not disappointed.

We often see dogs sitting by tables waiting patiently for scraps to come their way; here there was a very cute cat waiting table side.

For dessert, we tried Entremet (a multi-layered mousse-based cake comprised of different flavors) served with fruit sorbet; delicious!

We also had filled Macarons.

Sous Les Micocouliers is one of several very good restaurants in Eygalières and the surrounding area. So if you come the area to enjoy the beauty of the Alpilles mountains, try the olive or wine produced in the area, don't hesitate to try to Sous Les Micocouliers. I am very sure that reservations are a must during tourist season.

Sous Les Micocouliers
Traverse de Montfort
Tel: 04 90 95 94 53

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Avignon, City of Popes and l'Essentiel Restaurant

California friends John and Lorelei arrived at Avignon TGV train station before noon, giving us time to make it to Restaurant l'Essentiel in Avignon for déjeuner (lunch). Long time friends and frequent diners at our Bistro Des Copains, we wanted to make sure their first meal in Provence was a good experience.

Besides, a visit to Avignon is always a good way to start a séjour (visit) to Provence. For any of you who don't know, Avignon sits inside its ramparts on the left bank of the Rhône river a few kilometers above where the Rhône meets up with the Durance river about 40 kms southwest from our house in Sablet.

Although we go to Avignon most often to shop and hang out on Place de l'Horloge, a long square in front of the Hôtel de Ville, with terrace cafés along both sides and a "Belle Epoque" carousel at the top end, Avignon is best known for the Palace of the Popes and the Bridge of Avignon.

Avignon is also well known for its Festival d'Avignon, the annual festival of dance, music and theater founded in 1947. There are really two festivals that take place: the more formal "Festival In", which presents plays inside the Palace of the Popes and the more bohemian "Festival Off", known for its presentation of largely undiscovered plays and street performances. This year's festival will take place from July 7 to July 28.

Across the Rhône river, the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) sits next to the Notre Dame des Doms Cathedral. The palace was begun in 1316 by Pope John XXII and continued by succeeding popes through the 14th century, until 1370 when it was finished.

Many of you know the French children's song, "Sur le pont d'Avignon" (On the bridge of Avignon), which describes folk dancing. The bridge of the song is the Saint Bénézet bridge over the Rhône River of which only four arches remain. The bridge was initially built between 1171 and 1185 with an original length of 900 m (2950 ft) but it collapsed during floods and had to be rebuilt several times.

Notre Dame des Doms Cathedral is a Romanesque building, mainly built during the 12th century, the most prominent feature of the cathedral is the gilded statue of the Virgin which surmounts the western tower. The mausoleum of Pope John XXII is one of the most beautiful works within the cathedral, it is said to be a great example of 14th century Gothic carving.

One of the many narrow streets you can explore; this one leads to an arched gateway through the rampart walls. The ramparts were built by the popes in the 14th century to encircle Avignon. The walls are very thick and topped by slot shaped openings, flanked at intervals by thirty-nine massive towers and pierced by several gateways, three of which date from the fourteenth century.

Restaurant l'Essentiel is located a short distance from the Pope's Palace and Place de l'Horloge underneath Saint-Agricol's church. The Gothic church was built by Pope John XXII on the site of a very old church. The name of the church comes from a seventh-century bishop who is one of the patron saints of Avignon.

As those of you who have read my blog for a long time know, I like to go to restaurant's that have either been well reviewed by Michelin or Gault or have good ratings from diners on sites like Yelp and Zagat. Deciding where to eat is something I don't like to leave to chance.

We almost always have very good meals at restaurants in Provence that have been awarded a Bib Gourmand by Michelin and included in the guide to Les Meilleures Adresses à Petit Prix, meaning you can eat well for a good price. Restaurant l'Essentiel is the only restaurant in Avignon that is so designated.

Restaurant l'Essentiel is owned by chef Laurent Chouviat who is from Limousin and learned his craft with Alain Senderens at Lucas-Carton in Paris, Alain Ducasse at Louis XV in Monte Carlo and Jean Bardet in Tour. His wife runs the front of the house.

We were seated in the pretty dining room, the restaurant also has an inner courtyard for dinning al fresco on warm days. Almost as soon as we sat down, we were brought a platter of amuse bouche with olives and cheese biscuits to get our taste buds going while we contemplated the choices on the three-course menu for 29,00 Euros.

Our friends John and Lorelei.

To accompany our meal, we followed the suggestion of the owner's wife and chose a bottle of the 2008 Domaine des Tours, Vin de Pays Vaucluse, a very nice blend of grenache, counoise, syrah, cinsault, merlot, and dious, the latter a varietal I had never heard of before. Domaine des Tours is owned by the same people who own Château Rayas of Chateauneuf-du-Pape fame.

By the way, the glass below is not a wine glass but rather a wine decanter; I have never seen one like that before.

For our entrée (starter/appetizer), we all chose the Velouté de Butternut "Ile Flottante" Truffe-Châtaigne, Poireaux et Lentins de Chêne (Butternut squash soup) which was poured from a pitcher over the Ile Flottante topped by truffled chestnut slices in each bowl.

For our plats (main course), several chose Suprême de Volaille aux Pleurotes, Sauce Suprême, Pommes de Terre Écrasées à l'Huile d'Olive (chicken breast sauteed in butter and served with a cream sauce generously loaded with oyster mushrooms, perched on olive oil crushed potatoes).

The rest chose Filet de Daurade, Juste Raidi, Fini dans une nage, Gingembre - Feuille de Citronnier, Salade de Jeuness Poussses et Artichauts (fillet of Sea Bream, just stiffened, finished in a ginger citrus sauce and served with a salad of baby greens and artichokes).

Finally for dessert, we all chose Biscuit Coulant au Chocolat Noit, Un Sorbet à la Mandarine (molten chocolate cake with mandarin sorbet).

This was a very good meal. If you are visiting Avignon and looking for a place to eat, I suggest you try Restaurant l'Essentiel. The restaurant is open daily for lunch and dinner except Sunday and Wednesday.

Restaurant l'Essentiel
2, rue Petite Fusterie
84000 Avignon
Tél: 04 90 85 87 12