Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A beautiful Provencal garden near Villeneuve-lès-Avignon

We will be returning home to our small Provencal village in a few days. We are looking forward to vacation and spending time with family and friends. We are setting things out to take including some All Clad cookware, heavy duty sheet pans, newly released DVDs and several cookbooks.

In my spare time, I have been collecting ideas for day trips in Provence, the Drôme and Gard. We will do these outings between excursions to favorite Provencal markets, cooking, wine tasting and visits with family and friends. If the weather is bad, we'll just cozy up in front of a roaring fire.

We will visit family members I have known all my life near Aix-en-Provence, Marseille, and Montpellier. I know that may sound strange but let me explain. Two of our favorite relatives are André and Mauricette, a charming elderly couple we only got to know about 5 years ago.

André and Mauricette live in a small house near the railroad tracks on the other side of the Rhône River from Avignon just outside Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, home to Chartreuse de Val de Bénédiction and Fort Saint-André. Through André, I learned that his father Louis and his brother who was my grandfather Ulysses, married sisters.

View down the Rhône River toward Avignon

André worked for many years starting back in 1956 for the SNCF, France's national state-owned railway company. He loves to ride his bike, he has pedaled up the 1910-meter-high mighty Mont Ventoux many times, and he loves to work in his garden. André has a big green thumb.

Mauricette is a sweet lady, always happy for us to visit. Invariably, she offers something to drink and nibble, usually cookies or some type of fruit tart. Both André and Mauricette are artists, the walls of their little house are covered with their paintings. We have several hanging on our walls in Sablet.

Me, André, Matthias, Mauricette, and Shirley

As I mentioned, the cousins live in a small house bought back in 1959. The house is small, but they have a good size lot planted with fruit trees, flowers and vegetables except for a small chicken coop and several compost piles. Unlike here in the US, where most people fill their lots with lawn, André and many other French people use their lots for kitchen gardens.

As you can see from the pictures which follow, André has a kitchen garden or potager as they are called in France which is the envy of foodies like me who wish they had a large assortment of fruits, vegetables and herbs just a few steps from their kitchen.

André grafts eggplants onto tomato stalks because he thinks it increases the production of eggplants.

Eggplant grafted onto a tomato plant


We discovered as we visited Provencal markets that there was no kale for sale. It was hard to believe, given how widely used and available kale is in the United States. Then I read about Kristen Beddard, a 29-year-old American who has made it her mission to make kale as common as lettuce in France.

Shirley decided to help her and sent a package of kale seeds to André. As you can see below, kale grows as easily in France as it does in the United States. Now if only they could figure out what to do with it.

Kale and lettuce

Beets and zucchini


Haricots Verts

Like his cousin André, my father Daniel loved to garden. He was famous for his many rose bushes around the house. I don't think my father grafted vegetable plants or harvested seeds for planting the next year, all routine things for André. Do all French gardeners do this?


Purple artichokes



Olive tree


Peach tree

Purple artichokes

Carrots and lettuces





Fountain André built to camouflage his water pipe and hoses

Shirley doesn't believe me, but I wish we had a garden like André. We have a half a dozen steel water troughs, the kind used for cattle, which Shirley has turned into a kitchen garden where she grows tomatoes, lettuce, kale, zucchini, herbs, and eggplants which we enjoy throughout the summer and fall.

Here in Northern California, daffodils have bloomed, and the vineyards have new carpets of bright yellow mustard. The soil is not warm enough for planting vegetables, probably not in Provence either. But I know that André will be preparing the soil and getting ready for planting soon.

À bientôt André and Mauricette. Thanks for the inspiration for the garden. Have a great day friends. Chat soon.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Saturday lunch with penne pasta and a tomato, basil, eggplant and mozzarella sauce

Last evening, Shirley asked me to cook pasta with a simple sauce for lunch because daughter Stephanie and her two kids and daughter Tricia's two kids would be with us today. I decided to make one of my favorite sauces but one quite frankly, I don't make often enough.

I don't recall that spaghetti was on my family's table very often growing up in Southwestern Michigan. It wasn't until the early 80's when we were living near Washington DC that I remember eating pastas in a restaurant that were so good they made lasting impressions on me.

The pastas I am referring to are "Capellini D'Angelo Napolitan," angel hair pasta with tomato, garlic and fresh basil and "Penne Sorrentina," pasta with tomatoes, basil, eggplant and mozzarella. The restaurant was Tragara Ristorante in downtown Bethesda, Maryland.

I remember prices at Tragara's were high, service was haughty, but the pasta was so good. In those days, servers finished dishes tableside in copper saute pans on chef carts before spooning them onto your plate. And they used fresh basil and San Marzano tomatoes which was not yet common.

I had not been to Tragara's for many years and now they are closed. After watching granddaughter Avery, age 7 eat pasta with relish today, I am sharing my version of "Penne Sorrentina" with you. My recipe is inspired by Tragara's and influenced by recipes from Biba Caggiano and Lidia Bastianich, two of my favorite Italian cookbook authors.

My "mise en place" for penne pasta with tomatoes, basil, eggplant and mozzarella

Penne pasta with tomatoes, basil, eggplant and mozzarella
Makes 4-6 servings


1 firm medium eggplant, trimmed, peeled, and cut into 1/4-inch thick slices crosswise.
5 cups tomato sauce (recipe follows).
2 Tablespoons julienned fresh basil.
1 pound penne pasta.
6 ounces mozzarella cheese, cut into small dice about the size of an olive.


Preheat the oven to 400 Fahrenheit

1. Place the eggplant slices on a baking sheet. Brush both sides with olive oil. Bake until golden on both sides. Cool slightly, then cut the slices into 1/2-inch pieces. Set aside.

2. When the tomato sauce is finished, add the eggplant and fresh basil to the skillet with the tomato sauce and cook for one to two minutes.

3. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add 1 Tablespoon of salt and pasta. Cook, uncovered over high heat until the pasta is tender but still firm to the bite, al dente.

4. Drain the pasta and add it to the skillet with the sauce. Stir in the mozzarella and mix everything over low heat until the mozzarella begins to melt and is completely blended with the pasta and sauce, about 2 minute. Serve at once.

Tomato Sauce
Makes 6 cups


2 28-ounce cans San Marzano tomatoes.
1/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons olive oil.
1 small yellow onion, finely diced.
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped.
Pinch of dried red pepper flakes.
Salt and pepper.


1. Heat two Tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, and cook, stirring until the onion is pale yellow and soft.

2. Clear a spot in the pan and add the garlic and red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring, until the garlic begins to color, less than 1 minute.

3. Add the tomatoes and remaining olive oil, season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, over medium-high heat for 10 minutes. Cool.

4. In a blender, blend the cooked tomato mixture in small batches to a puree. Return 5 cups of tomato sauce to the skillet. Transfer the remaining sauce to a container and keep for another use.


When you blend your tomato mixture, make sure you put the lid on the blender and hold it down with a towel as the residual heat will cause the mixture to rise and can blow the lid off if you overfill or don't hold down the lid. It can make a mess of the kitchen. I know from experience.

My version of penne pasta with tomatoes, basil, eggplant and mozzarella

As I said above, fresh basil and San Marzano tomatoes were not commonly used or easily found ingredients in the early 80s in the US. Certainly not at the large grocery chains. So every time, we wanted to prepare this dish or angel hair pasta with tomato, garlic and fresh basil, we would make a trip to Sutton Place Gourmet, now owned by Balducci's.

This pasta sauce is liked by young and old. Now you can find fresh basil and San Marzano tomatoes in almost every supermarket. It is well suited to this blog about Provence as all of the ingredients are featured in many Provencal dishes. I hope you will try it. If you do, let me know what you think.

Bon Appétit. Have a great week. Chat soon.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Visit to Grignan in the Drôme Provençale and an excellent lunch with friends at Le Poème de Grignan

A few months back, friends Steve and Mary from Michigan traveled to Sablet to hang out with us during our fall sojourn in Provence. This was a return visit for them, as they had been to Sablet twice before.

Although Steve and I grew up in the same small village in Southwest Michigan, we didn't become close friends till some years later in Washington, DC. As fate would have it, we were drafted into the Army the same summer and ended up on the same base in Maryland after our training in Texas.

Steve had graduated from college and was set to start law school when he received his draft notice and was assigned to the base personnel office. I on the other hand, was drafted after freshmen year and assigned to a unit as company clerk; picture Radar O'Reilly for those of you who are Mash fans.

I dreaded spending two years in the army, even though I avoided Vietnam. Shirley and I feel super blessed that Steve and Mary were in Washington DC while we were there. We became fast friends and our time there, or at least after 5:00 PM and on weekends was care free and fun.

It was an interesting time to be in DC. Earlier that summer, there was a break-in at the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee. We car pooled with other draftees and talk during our morning commute was usually about the latest reporting by Woodward and Bernstein of the Washington Post. Less than one month after I finished my 2-year term, Richard Nixon resigned.

Our friendship has continued throughout the ensuing years though separated by miles. Besides our shared Michigan roots and army service, we share a love of good food and wine, kids, travel, and the Detroit Lions and Tigers. We also now have a shared love of Sablet and Provence which pleases us to no end.

So when Steve and Mary said they wanted to come to Sablet last fall, we were over the moon. Steve and Mary like our routine of day trips with lunch at a nice restaurant and then cooking in at night using ingredients we pick up from the various markets we encounter as we travel around Provence.

Shirley and I had been to Grignan in the Drôme Provençale, the area between the Rhône River and the Alps north of the Vaucluse, previously, but had not made it to the Grignan castle or much else in the village. So one day, we took a day trip to Grignan and ate lunch at Le Poème de Grignan.

We drove past olive groves and fields with row after row of lavender which a few months earlier must have been a sea of purple and buzzing honey bees. Grignan sits on a large rocky peak crowned by a huge castle, formerly owned by Adhémar de Monteil. The medieval village is a labyrinth of picturesque, winding cobblestone streets and shaded squares.

A pretty restaurant near the Grignan car park

Le Poème de Grignan is in an old village house on a narrow street in the historic center of Grignan. We originally found the restaurant in the 2012 Michelin Guide to Bonne Petite Tables, a listing of restaurants awarded a "Bib Gourmand" for being a "pleasurable" restaurant.

Le Poème de Grignan

The restaurant is owned by the chef Hervé Dodane and Valérie Chareyre who takes care of the dining room. The dining room is pretty, decorated with Provencal colors. There is a single dining room which can seat 22 diners.

Tapenade feuilletés and cheese sticks

While we nibbled on the tapenade feuilletés and cheese sticks, we studied the menu and Carte des Vins - wine list, before making our selections from the mouth watering choices on the three-course "Promenade Gourmande" menu for 31 EUR. Our excellent meal began with this amuse bouche.

Amuse bouche

Crispy crab and vegetable roll with curry sauce, greens and tomato soup

Tomato tart with olive tapenade and goat cheese from Grignan and tomato soup

Porcini mushroom tart with foie gras and yellow chanterelles

Friend Mary

Parsley crusted Sea bass with tomatoes and mushrooms and a parsley sauce

Saddle of lamb with rosemary juice and cream of garlic and ratatouille

Aberdeen Angus Bavette steak with baby vegetables and red wine sauce

Frozen Vacherin with strawberries, raspberries and Chantilly cream

Plate with different preparations of Valrhona chocolate and cream of Verbena

After coffee, we headed out to explore the village and Grignan castle.

A Grignan courtyard with flowers and plants

Rue St. Louis

Rue St. Louis

Grignan street

The defensive walls of Grignan were built in the 13th century. The circular protective wall included a dozen defensive towers and six gates. The Tricot tower, also known as the belfry, with its arched passageway through the wall was extended upward in 1600 so the first public clock could be installed.

Tricot tower or belfry

The Hotel de Ville or town hall was built in 1857 in neo-classical style on the site of 16th century market halls and butcher shops.

Grignan Town Hall

The lavoir or public wash house was built in 1840. Built in neo-classical style, it was inspired by the Petit Trianon Temple of Love at Versailles.

Grignan lavoir

The fountain seen below was built in 1840 at Place de l'Horloge. The statue of Madame de Sévigné was added in 1857.

Place de l'Horloge

Grignan became renowned in France during the 17th century when Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, the Marquise de Sévigné, a French aristocrat, famous for writing letters, wrote about Grignan and the surrounding area in her letters; Most were written to her daughter Françoise, who was married to François Adhémar de Monteil, Comte (Count) de Grignan.

Madame de Sévigné caught a "fever" and died in April 1696 at Grignan and is buried in the Collégiale Saint-Sauveur Church. She is revered in France as one of the great icons of French literature.

Statue of Madame de Sévigné

Another view of Tricot tower

Grignan cobblestone walkway

A canine resident of Grignan

Grignan street

A Grignan gate through the defensive walls

Gate to church courtyard

The Collégiale Saint-Sauveur Church was constructed between 1535 and 1539 at the request of Louis Adhémar. The Renaissance facade is flanked by two square towers and a beautiful Gothic rose window. In 1680, the terrace of the castle was built on top of the church roof.

Collégiale Saint-Sauveur Church

At the front of the church behind the alter, is a painting done in 1630 called the "Transfiguration." Just to the left of the alter is a marble stone in the floor which marks the tomb of the Marquise de Sévigné.

The alter of Collégiale Saint-Sauveur Church

The interior of Collégiale Saint-Sauveur Church

Cross in front of Collégiale Saint-Sauveur Church

The top of Tricot tower

Grignan cross

Construction of the Grignan castle began in the 12th century, but it wasn't until the 13th century that the Adhémar family expanded it to a huge fortress. In the 17th century, François Adhémar de Monteil transformed the fortress into a luxurious residence.

Tower entrance to Grignan castle

The Grignan castle was ruined in 1793 during the French revolution. It was rebuilt in the early 20th century by Madame Fontaine who spent her entire fortune restoring the castle to its former grandeur. The castle now belongs to the Department of the Drôme.

Grignan castle

Grignan castle

Grignan castle

The village of Grignan had the garden shown below sculpted in 1996 to commemorate the 300 year anniversary of Madame de Sévigné death. It was sculpted by Grignan resident Françoise Vergier. The letters in calligraphy form the name Sévigné.

Marquise de Sévigné's garden

From the terrace of the Grignan castle, you can see the 10th or 11th-century Romanesque Saint Vincent Chapel in the village cemetery.

View toward Saint Vincent Chapel

Grignan castle

The Grignan Castle houses a magnificent collection of paintings, antique furniture and tapestries.

Interior of Grignan castle

Interior of Grignan castle

Interior of Grignan castle

Interior of Grignan castle

Interior of Grignan castle

Interior of Grignan castle

Interior of Grignan castle

Interior of Grignan castle

Interior of Grignan castle

Feline resident of Grignan

Grignan stone village houses

Grignan street

Grignan Castle

Just outside Grignan, there is a miniature Provencal village which we didn't get to see. This is the largest nativity scene in Provence and consists of 80 houses with 60,000 handmade roof tiles, and over 1,000 dressed santon figurines between 27 and 32 cm in height. Being a lover of santons, we will go back to visit.

We really like Le Poème de Grignan and will return again. I was pleased to see that the restaurant was again awarded a Bib Gourmand in the just released 2014 Michelin Guide to Bonne Petites Tables. So we are not the only ones who like it.

Le Poème de Grignan
Rue St. Louis
26230 Grignan
Tel: 04 75 91 10 90

Have a great week my friends. Chat soon!