Friday, April 30, 2010

Back in Provence

After an early morning flight from San Francisco to Chicago then overnight to Frankfurt Germany, and lastly a short flight to Marseille, we are back in Provence. We arrived about 9:45 am at the Marseille Provence Airport.

Unfortunately, rather than bright sunshine and blue sky, we were greeted by dark overcast skies which foretold of the rain that would fall on and off during the day. We picked up our car from Avis, an Opel with 7 seats, enough to accomodate we and our friends on day trips around the Vaucluse and other nearby areas.

As we have guests at our house through Saturday, May 1, we headed to Jean Marc's (my cousin) house in Clapiers to drop off our luggage. We came loaded with stuff including curtains for the living room, small rugs for the bedrooms, dvds, some cook books and kitchen stuff.

I didn't want to take a chance on a having a repeat (see earlier post) of my visit to Marseille, especially since much of the stuff we were bringing was bought to replace what was lost when my car was broken into back in February. I learned my lesson.

Since it was about 12:15 pm when we finished unloading our car in Clapiers, a full 24 hours after leaving our house at 3:15 am for the drive to San Francisco airport, we decided to go somewhere for dejeuner, lunch before we commenced shopping.

I wasn't suffering too much from the 9 hour time difference or limited sleep on the overnight flight, except for a headache. Although Shirley slept most of the trip while I watched Its Complicated, Crazy Heart, and The Blind Side, she immediately fell asleep as we took off in the car.

I headed to Castries to L'Art du Feu, a small charming restaurant we have eaten at several times, since it's on the road back to the A 9 autoroute, highway, we needed to take to go to Metro and IKEA, our shopping destinations. More about L'Art du Feu in a later post.

I try to check with our guests in Sablet to find out what they found lacking at the house. Uniformly people are happy but they do sometimes have suggestions about kitchen items they would appreciate for future visits.

Being a foodie, our kitchen is large, especially for France and quite well equipped. However, we had a small list including a request for a small saute pan for making individual omelettes and small pan for making hollandaise sauce. Many of our guests are fellow foodies, but not all; we had a request for a microwave oven.

Since I don't use the microwave we have in California except for the timer and to melt butter, we didn't think it was necessary. However, as I wanted to be responsive to guest feedback, we bought a small microwave and the other kitchen items on our list at Metro.

Metro is a large membership-only warehouse type store for restaurant and hotel professionals. They carry a large assortment of high quality merchandise at very good prices.

You have to be in the restaurant or hotel business to shop there but in an unexplainable exception that seems to be common in France, physicans are allowed to be members. Since Jean Marc is a cardiologist, he is a member, and we shop at Metro whenever we are in Clapiers.

We struck out at IKEA on our effort to buy a paravent, a wood folding screen which Shirley wants for the house. We were informed that the store was en rupture de stock, sold out of the only model that IKEA sells till the end of May. We will have to look elsewhere.

We finished off the evening with a wonderful simple dinner prepared by Christine. Washed down with several different white wine from the Languedoc, we enjoyed a green salad, a salmon crumble (more about that in another post), an assortment of cheeses and finished with fresh fruit. Délicieux!

Off to bed; I can stop fighting to keep my eyes open. Bonne nuit.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Return to Sablet

We return to Provence this week and to our beloved house in Sablet. Despite the chaos at our house in California and maybe somewhat because of it and the escape it will provide, I can't wait to get there.

I am particularly excited because we will (as usual) have guests with us for part of the time. As faithful readers of this blog know, I am a co-owner of a little French bistro in Occidental California called Bistro Des Copains.

In addition to the usual visits from our beloved cousins, we will also have three of our front of the house staff visit. I look forward to visiting new places and to showing them some of the treasures of Provence.

Allison Schermerhorn (pictured on the left below) and her husband Adam left this morning from San Francisco. Before they get to Provence, they are going to Venice, Florence and the Cinque Terre.

Julia Kintzi (pictured on the right below) leaves tomorrow. Her daughter Lisi, also a part time front of the house employee at Bistro Des Copains is spending 6 months in Copenhagen Denmark. Before Julia gets to Provence, she is going to visit her daughter in Copenhagen and friends in Germany.

Kari Sante (pictured below) is already in Switzerland visiting friends. She will be the first to arrive in Provence.

I can't wait to say to them "bienvenue", welcome to our home in Provence. It will be a wonderful two weeks.

Getting Ready to Leave

Shirley (the wife) doesn't think she should be going to Sablet. She thinks she should stay in California and try to restore order to our house which is in total chaos.

For some reason, we chose to have our home in California repainted top to bottom including insides of cupboards and closets and refinishing hardwood floors just before we go to France.

We have had to box up or move everything so the painter could paint. To give you an idea of the chaos, we have had to sleep with no curtains or blinds for more than one month. It is a big mess.

The truth is it shouldn't have been a big deal but our painter has taken forever to get the job done and there is no way he will be finished before we leave despite many assurances to the contrary.

As I have said before, one of the big reasons we didn't buy a fixer-upper in Provence was that we didn't want a Peter Mayle like "A Year In Provence" experience. Well, we avoided that in Provence, but we are living the experience now with this paint job.

The big problem is our "little" Abbi doesn't like to be by herself so we always arrange for someone to come and stay nights with her and take her out for walks and shower her with love during our absence.

Abbi is a 150 pound Newfoundland. She is as sweet and loving as she can be; yes she does drool some especially after she eats, drinks or runs. Abbi thinks she is human and never likes to be more than a few steps away from us even when we sleep.

Shirley doesn't want anyone to come and sleep or live among this chaos. It is causing her to lose sleep. She was tossing and turning all night. I can't stand living out of boxes either.

In the end, I know Shirley will come as she won't want to miss out on all of the good times in Sablet. The painter is supposed to show up to work today; I sure hope he makes it.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Tulips in Provence

When I think about flowers in Provence, some of the visual images that immediately come to mind include lavender, sunflowers, coquelicots and cherry blossoms in the orchards below Venasque.

One morning last spring as I was driving along the D977 heading toward Sablet from the Marseille airport, I came upon this field of tulips near Violes.

I was surprised because tulips in Provence were a new sight for me. This was our first visit to Sablet during this time of the year so I guess I should have expected to see sights I had not seen before.

I grew up in Southwestern Michigan about one hour south of Holland Michigan. I recall that an annual event during my elementary school years was a field trip every spring to see the tulips in Holland Michigan; so fields of tulips were not new for me. Just new for me in Provence.

As I looked at this field of tulips that day, I assumed, wrongly I found out later, that these tulips were being grown to be sold as cut flowers by village flower shops and vendors at the various markets that occur on a daily basis throughout France.

A few days later when I drove by the same field, the tulips were being cut by a lawn mower type of machine. It was obvious that these flowers were not destined for a vase on any one's kitchen table.

I asked around and found out that these tulips were being grown for export of the bulbs to Netherlands. I wonder despite European rules otherwise whether markets in the Netherlands will put a sign "grown in Provence France" when they are sold there.

We will be back in Sablet very soon. I wonder what new things we will see this time.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Happy Birthday Tricia

Today, April 15, 2010 is tax filing day in the United States. There is probably no day that is more dreaded by anyone including me. In fact it is so dreaded by me that I am filing for an extension.

Lucky for Shirley and me, April 15 is also our eldest daughter Tricia's birthday. She is a wonderful loving daughter, sweet sister, great mother to her children Avery almost 4 years old and Caedon 21 months old and a very supportive wife to her husband Alvin.

She is without a doubt the best thing that ever happened to Shirley and me on tax day.

We bought tickets a few weeks ago for Tricia and her family to fly to France after Christmas so we can be together for nouvel an, new years in Sablet. This will be a first for our family.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


If you have been reading Our House in Provence, you know that we toured many houses in person and through the Internet for several years before we bought in Sablet.

As we had no plans for moving to France, or at least not in the near future, and the condition of the house and commercial services available in the village were higher on our list of criteria then a specific region, we had the liberty of looking for houses in several areas.

My wife, who I don't think really thought we would buy a French house had stipulations, I had my criteria too. Although, we never put them on paper, this was Shirley and my list:

1. Stone house in good condition with at least 2 bedrooms (she didn't want a fixer-upper as she did not want to have a Peter Mayle type "A Year in Provence Experience");

2. A pretty village with services such as a boulangerie, boucherie, and café. No hameau or isolated group of houses without any commercial services;

3. Old house, preferably at least 100 years old. No modern villas like you see on the outskirts of many villages.

4. Guaranteed, or at least as close as you can get to guaranteed good weather for seven or eight months a year;

5. Relatively easy and quick to get to in France. We didn't want to have to drive 3 or 4 hours after we landed at the airport;

6. Near family. We have relatives living near Aix-en-Provence, Marseille, Avignon, Montpellier, Viane, Clermont Ferrand, Moroges, Collonges s/Saleve, Anduze and Nimes.

7. A house we could rent when we were not there.

8. Oh yes, we had to be able to afford the house.

Some of the areas we visited besides where we bought in the Vaucluse were in the Alpes-Maritime, Var, Bouches-du-Rhône, Gard, Pic Saint-Loup area north of Montpellier, and along the Mediterranean Sea between Montpellier and Bezier.

In November 2007, Shirley and I embarked on a trip with friends that would include a week in the Côte d'Azur; we were going to be based in Gassin in the Department of Var, just a few kilometers from St. Tropez. From there, we would make day trips throughout the area.

Prior to leaving for France, we arranged to meet friends for lunch at L'Ane Rouge, a wonderful restaurant in Nice, near where they live in Le Rouret. Besides teaching and working on a doctorate, Jonathon Scriven is the author of a very interesting blog called French for a While.

After a delicious and long lunch, we followed them up to their house in Le Rouret. While there, we got to talking about the fact that we (really me) wanted to buy a house in France and that we both liked the Côte d'Azur, French Riviera and would love to find a village house in the area.

They told us their children went to the local school with the children of a realtor and that we should call her. They gave us her contact information and we made plans to contact her. We were not able to meet with her before leaving but did speak and gave her our house criteria.

Several months passed and after exchange of multiple emails, she reported that she had found two houses in our price range that she thought would fit our criteria. We couldn't go then but Kerri's parents Les and Joni Pitton were visiting Le Rouret and they said they would tour the houses and report back.

So shortly afterwards they drove over to visit Tourrettes-sur-Loup and toured the two houses. As soon as they got back home, they sent us an email with information about the two houses along with lots of pictures. They thought it would be worthwhile for us to see the houses.

So in March, I decided to fly over. Shirley was not able to come so we decided I would take my daughter Tricia and 20 month old granddaughter Avery and go to the Côte d'Azur.

Tourrettes-sur-Loup is a pretty medieval village with 3,449 inhabitants located about 26 kms from Nice. Tourrettes is perched on a narrow spur of land extending from very rocky hills with the gorge of a small stream far below one high wall of buildings.

Tourrettes-sur-Loup was a fortified village and there are arched passageways through the wall of houses into the center of the "vieux", old village.

The main "Place" in the center of the village is a parking lot. The "petanque" court is at the end of the parking lot next to the road.

At the back of the parking lot, the "Grand Rue" loops through the vieux village, with one entrance through the arched "porte" at the left and the other entrance at the right, through the arched porte beneath the tall clock-bell tower.

For the most part, Tourrettes-sur-Loup is restricted to only pedestrians in the vieux village.

The houses are all made of stone.

One of the many pretty side streets that you can find in Tourrettes-sur-Loup.

One of the arched passages into the vieux village. My daughter Tricia and granddaughter Avery wait for me.

One of the houses we came to see; the door is partially obscured by the tree on the left.

At the end, Tricia and I decided not to make an offer on either house. Neither house had any private outdoor space such as a courtyard or terrace where you could enjoy the beautiful Mediterranean weather and we decided that Tourrettes-sur-Loup was not as easy to get to as we wanted.

Tourrettes-sur-Loup is a beautiful village and it is well worthwhile visiting when you are in the Côte d'Azur visiting the hill towns near Nice.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Visit to La Metairie Neuve

In early February, I was in the South of France for a few days. My cousin Jean Marc suggested that we drive to La Metairie Neuve, the small family farm near Viane in the Tarn region in Southern France to say "bonjour", hello to the aunts and uncles.

During the winter months, the aunts and uncles don't venture out of their houses very much because of the snow and cold and slippery roads. So visits from family members are always welcomed and its great way for the nieces and nephews to check on the aging family members.

Saturday morning, we set off early so we would arrive at La Metairie Neuve by lunch time. It was not a very nice day; it was very overcast and we heard wet snow was falling at the higher elevations.

We made a small detour enroute to see the Millau Viaduct up close. The Millau Viaduct is a cable bridge which spans the Tarn River; it is the tallest vehicular structure in the world. I had seen the Viaduct off in the distance on previous trips to Viane but never seen it close up or driven across it.

We made it to La Metairie Neuve without any problems; Jean Marc is a fearless driver. As we drove up the drive, really a dirt path into the courtyard, I was struck by the fact that although there are modern structures not far away like the Millau Viaduct, time seems to stand still at the Metairie Neuve.

The walkway down to tonton René's and tata Ida's house. It used to also be the access for the sheep to get to their barn.

The walkway up close. If you look around the stables, you can find harnesses, cattle yolks, and old tools that were used in an earlier era.

After "la bise", kisses on both cheeks all around, we followed the mouth-watering aromas into tata Alice's kitchen. We got the updates about everyone's pains and associated ailments, surprisingly few for people of their ages and watched tata Alice and tata Ida finish cooking "déjeuner", lunch for us. We are always happy to see the aunts.

We gathered around the table in the kitchen for a delicious lunch consisting of a simple green salad, oven roasted lamb chops, lentils, and a pumpkin gratin. We finish with several cheeses from the region and a cake. Our aunts and uncles don't drink wine so we had apple juice pressed from apples on the farm in October.

Everything was absolutely wonderful, made more so by the company and our cozy surroundings. The highlight for me was a gratin de potiron, a pumpkin or squash gratin. I guess it was unusual for me because I have only had pumpkin or squash in soups, ravioli, or mashed like potatoes.

Since pumpkin or squash prepared in almost any way is a favorite of our family, especially my youngest daughter Stephanie, I told tata Alice I had to have "la recette", the recipe so I could make it at home.

I don't know if you have tried to get a recipe that is not written down from someone who has been making it for many of their nearly 80 years. Well if you haven't, it is really quite amusing.

After lots of back and forth and pulling pots and other containers out of the cupboards to illustrate measurements for ingredients, I thought I had a recipe that I could replicate at home.

I tried to make the gratin about a month ago and while it was very good and close to the one prepared by tata Alice, I thought I could improve it on a second go around. I think chefs and foodies always think they can improve someone else's dish or recipe. Is it our egos, who knows?

Here is the gratin de potiron I made yesterday for Easter lunch. It was delicious. Recipe follows.


4 cups cubed (3/4 inch) Butternut squash or Sugar Pie pumpkin
1/2 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced.
2 1/2 cups Béchamel sauce (recipe follows)
1 cup grated Comté cheese
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt, pepper and freshly grated nutmeg to taste


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix the cubed Butternut squash or Sugar Pie pumpkin together with the sliced yellow onion, olive oil and salt.

Spread mixture on roasting pan or cookie sheet and roast in oven for 30 minutes until fork tender. Should be starting to carmelize.

Mix together roasted Butternut squash or Sugar Pie pumpkin and sliced onions mixture, Béchamel sauce, Comté cheese, salt, pepper and grated nutmeg.

Pour into buttered baking dish. Bake for 20 minutes or until starts to bubble. Serve immediately.

Béchamel Sauce

Warm 2 1/2 cups whole milk

Make a roux:

Melt 4 tablespoons butter over medium heat in a medium size sauce pan, add 1/4 cup flour, stir together until flour is totally incorporated and smooth. Continue stirring for about 2 minutes until roux is light brown; flour needs to be cooked.

Make Bechamel sauce:

When roux is finished, start adding 3/4 to 1 cup of warm milk at a time to medium sauce pan containing roux. Stir until milk is fully incorporated and sauce is smooth. Continue adding milk and stirring until smooth until all the milk has been added. Cook for about two minutes until it bubbles lightly.

Sunday, April 4, 2010


Here in California, my dear wife rarely wears scarves, maybe its the weather, but when we are in Sablet, it seems she wears a different scarf or ties the knot differently every day.

I think for her, scarves are the perfect fashion accessory for France, whether she is looking for warmth or style or a little bit of both.

She has scarves in many sizes and shapes.

She also has a wide variety of colors.

There are many symbols of France for me but one of my favorites are the scarves that she wears. We will be back in Sablet soon. I can't wait to see the scarves come out again.