Friday, July 30, 2010

A Taste of Garlic

I got up this morning just after 5:00 as I do most days: Abbi isn't too keen on sleeping in. As I have told you before, Abbi is a 150 pound Newfoundland. She is as sweet and loving as she can be; but she can be quite persistent when she decides it is time to get me out of bed in the morning.

When I get down stairs, the first thing I do is switch on the lap top and catch up on emails and blogs. One of my favorite's is A Taste of Garlic written by Keith Eckstein. Keith is a Brit who now lives in Brittany and writes a number of blogs including Welcome to BretonDiary and the aforementioned A Taste of Garlic.

In A Taste of Garlic, he writes that prior to moving to France, he read blogs about living in France and continues to read these blogs. A prolific blogger, he has now taken up writing reviews about other people's blogs about life in France on A Taste of Garlic.

Well this morning when I switched on the lap top and checked in on A Taste of Garlic, I was thrilled to see that Keith has reviewed Our House in Provence on his blog. In the review he states "The author not only loves food but it’s also clear that he loves Provence as well."

How true Keith! I do love food and I love Provence and all things Provençal. In my blog, I just try to share with readers, known and unknown, the things about Provence that I think make it such a magical place, not the least of which is great food. Thanks Keith for your nice review.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Domaine du Paternel, Cassis

We drive past the entrance to Domaine Du Paternel after we exit the A 50 autoroute and are winding our way down the D 559 connecting road to Cassis. Each time I see the Domaine's sign, I think to myself that I should stop in to déguster - taste the Domaine du Paternel wines where the grapes are grown and crafted into wine.

You see, we have had very good rosé wines from Domaine du Paternel on the wine list for our Bistro Des Copains and I have enjoyed wonderful white wine from Cassis at home and with cousin Jean Marc from this Domaine on several occasions. So I have been wanting to stop in for several years.

Some weeks back, I thought it would be a good opportunity to educate our staff about the wines of Cassis after our visit to the picture-perfect village along the Mediterranean Sea. It was too cold to lay on the beach which runs along the Cassis harbor, so all agreed to go wine tasting.

Domaine du Paternel is a family-owned winery. Established by Pierre Cathinaud in 1951, the winery was taken over by his nephew Jean-Pierre Santini in 1962 and today his three children Jean-Christophe, Olivier and Laetitia work along side with him.

Domaine du Paternel is situated in an area of breathtaking scenic beauty with the majority of the vineyards planted on terraces built on the flank of the Massif de la Couronne de Charlemagne. The soil in the vineyards is clay and limestone.

The Cassis appellation is limited to the seaside commune of Cassis and covers 180 hectares. Twelve wineries make wine from the hand-picked grapes grown in the AOC. Domaine du Paternel covers 37 hectares or a little over 91 acres.

Domaine du Paternel produces white, red and rosé wines, the majority of which is Cassis Blanc (white) as is the case throughout the Cassis Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC).

Since 2000, Domaine du Paternel has been working to convert their vineyards to organic production by discontinuing the use of insecticides and herbicides.

We went into the cave - tasting room and were offered tastes of the 2009 Cassis Rosé. Unfortunately, the Domaine did not have any Cassis Blanc available for tasting that day. The 2009 Cassis Rosé is made of Grenache (62%), Cinsault (26%), and Mourvèdre (12%) grapes.

I thought this was a wonderful example of Cassis Rosé wine; I had to have a case to enjoy at our Sablet home. In France, wine is sold in cases that generally contain 6 750 ml bottles rather than the 12 we normally get from Northern California wineries.

Back on the road and headed home to Sablet after a wonderful day in Cassis.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Les Deux Garçons, Aix-en-Provence

Cours Mirabeau is the main boulevard of Aix-en-Provence. Created in 1650 for carriages, today it is a busy street with locals and tourists walking, shopping and enjoying the sights. With its double row of plane trees and succession of fountains along the boulevard, Cours Mirabeau is one of the most beautiful streets I have seen in the South of France.

It is a very popular place for locals and tourists to sit in cafés that line the boulevard from beautiful Fontaine de la Rotonde at one end of the boulevard to Fontaine du Roi René at the other. The oldest and most famous of these is Brasserie Les Deux Garçons. Established in 1792, it was a hang out for Paul Cézanne and Émile Zola.

I have wanted to eat at Les Deux Garçons for a long time despite reading on Chowhound and other foodie sites that Les Deux Garçons is full of tourists so food and service are supposedly not very good. It just never worked out as we generally arrive after déjeuner - lunch time or we eat at cousin Annick's house just outside of Aix.

I always get amused when I read inquiries on foodie sites from people who will be traveling to a region or city of France, i.e. a tourist asking for recommendations for good places to eat "not frequented by tourists". I guess the fact that they (tourist themselves) will be there is OK but no other tourists. It makes me shake my head. Anyway, I digress.

A few weeks back, I had to go Aix-en-Provence to pick up the place mats and table cloths I had ordered to take back with me for our Bistro Des Copains. It was just before noon when I walked out of the store so I decided to head over to Cours Mirabeau and eat at Les Deux Garçons. It was a sunny day after 10 days in a row of gray skies so I asked for a seat on the terrace.

I was seated at a small table set with a white linen table cloth, nice utensils and good stem ware. Being Friday, Aïoli Provençal was the special of the day. I have never had Aïoli Provençal so that is what I ordered. My request was noted and a copy of the order slip was left on the table.

While I waited for my Aïoli, I watched as the maître d seated businessmen, students and tourists till the terrace was full of hungry diners. As I watched platters being delivered by servers to tables, it was evident that most diners had ordered the Aïoli. Given the large number of obviously regular diners, I figured the Aïoli must be good.

Aïoli Provençal is a typical dish of Provence. The Aïoli served by Les Deux Garçons consisted of steamed potatoes, bulots - sea snails, cauliflower, carrots, beets, haricots vert and boiled egg accompanied by cabillaud - cod, all artfully arranged around a glass of pungent aïoli. Aïoli is a smooth mixture of lemon, eggs, garlic, and olive oil that resembles mayonnaise.

For dessert, I chose the vanilla crème brulée.

Despite the generally negative reports about Les Deux Garçons on foodie sites, I thought the food was very good. While service was not warm or overly friendly by any means, I certainly got good service, which is all I ever expect in a French restaurant. I am sure I will eat again at Les Deux Garçons if only to get a chance to sit and watch the activity on beautiful Cours Mirabeau.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


My first visit to Vaison-la-Romaine occurred some years before we bought our home in Sablet. I was visiting cousins Jean Marc and Christine in Montpellier and we had gone together to Chateauneuf-du-Pape to see the vineyards and déguster - taste wines.

Late that afternoon, Jean Marc asked me if I had been to Vaison-la-Romaine. I admit, I had never heard the name. He said "we must go", there is a wonderful Roman bridge that you must see. So off we went. We arrived at dusk and parked at Place Montfort in the center of the lower town. That was my introduction to Vaison-la- Romaine.

Shirley and I have returned to Vaison-la-Romaine many times since. The wonderful Tuesday morning market is the biggest attraction for us but we also come to shop for staples at Intermarché, for cheese at Lou Canesteou on Rue Raspail and fish at Poissonnerie des Voconces on Rue du Maquis.

Despite the fact that Vaison la Romaine is a quick 10 km drive along a winding road from our home in Sablet, we had never explored the Haute-Ville - upper town. So one Tuesday morning after the market, with our friends from Bistro Des Copains in tow, we set off to hike up to the castle at the top of the Haute-Ville.

Vaison-la-Romaine is divided into two parts by the Ouvèze River and connected by the aforementioned single arch Roman Bridge which has been in daily use for more than 2000 years.

On the left side of the rivcr, the lower town - Ville-Basse, the modern side of Vaison-la-Romaine, has two large archeological sites where exceptional ruins of the Roman period have been uncovered. On the other side of bridge, the medieval quarter stands high on the hill in the Haute-Ville.

The entrance to the traffic-free Haute-Ville is through a 14th century fortified gateway with its belfrey tower.

It is said that the fortifications for the Haute-Ville were built partially of stones from the Roman town acrosss the river.

Wife Shirley sitting on a fountain in the Haute-Ville with our friends Kari, Allison, Adam, Lisi and Julia from our Bistro Des Copains.

Narrow cobbled streets wander through the Haut-Ville.

Beautiful fountains can be spotted throughout the Haut-Ville.

Another fountain in the Haut-Ville.

There are ancient doorways.

Pretty facades.

Another enchanting fountain.

A cobbled lane leads up to the castle.

Wife Shirley and friend Julia at the castle ruins.

There is a steep narrow path that goes up to the castle. The castle is closed but the hike up is rewarded by wonderful views out over Vaison-la-Romaine's Ville-Basse.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Pizzas A Emporter, Sablet

While you can find pizza all over France, pizza in Provence seems to taste better, i.e. better ingredients and crust. You can eat very good pizza in the most unlikely of spots, be they modest bistros in villages like Villedieu (see previous posts about Maison Bleue) or from brick-oven-equipped pizza trucks.

I think it is because the people of Provence are raised on a Mediterranean diet: they understand and get wonderful tomatoes, basil, olive oil and anchovies. Second, the region's proximity to Italy and its influx of Italian immigrants, vacationers and retirees has, over the decades, provided a steady supply of pizza cognoscenti, people who know a lot about pizza.

While we love to go to pretty Villedieu for pizza at Maison Bleue, especially in nice weather so we can sit on the plane tree-shaded town square, there is good pizza available in Sablet for a quick meal or emporter - take out.

The pizzeria in Sablet is owned by Bruno who also owns Café des Sports next door. He took over the pizzeria from Loïc and his wife this past May when they relocated to Southwest France. We first met Loïc during a visit to Sablet one evening when the fuse blew on the hot water heater and daughter Stephanie wanted to give son Dylan a bath.

It was about 8:00 at night and a Sunday as I recall. I knew that not much was open, but being desperate (unhappy Stephanie makes one desperate), I walked to the pizzeria and introduced myself to Loïc who was standing outside chatting with one of the locals.

I told him about the fusible - fuse. He told me to wait there and went inside the pizzeria and came out with a box of assorted fuses which he searched through till he found one that matched. He refused to take any money for the fuse, a very kind gesture.

That was my introduction to the pizzeria. After that night, whenever Loïc would see me, he would call out "bonjour Californie". I am not sure if he couldn't remember my name or just liked saying Californie.

One evening, wife Shirley and I were walking by and Loïc invited us to join his family and some friends for a little get together at the pizzeria. By the time the evening was over, we were doing la bise - exchanging kisses on alternating cheeks with everyone there.

We miss seeing our friend Loïc standing outside the pizzeria. Bruno has renovated the interior of the pizzeria and upgraded the kitchen. To be truthful, the pizza while good when Loïc was the owner, is probably better now under Bruno. What lacks without Loïc is his charm and loud humor that seemed to fill the pizzeria inside and out.

This is the current pizza chef at the pizzeria.

One of the advantages to having both the pizzeria and Café des Sports owned by Bruno and next to each other is you can go into the Café des Sports and get a pastis, beer or glass of wine. The pizzeria has quite a large variety of pizzas to propose for eating on the terrace or for take out, but they have a very limited selection of beverages.

Our friend Adam enjoying a beer from Café des Sports while waiting for a pizza on the terrace outside the pizzeria.

Friday, July 16, 2010

La Charrette Bleue, 7 kms east of Nyon

One gray Tuesday morning we were walking through the market in Vaison la Romaine with our five friends in tow from Bistro Des Copains in Occidental California.

Despite the drizzle, the market was full of shoppers checking out the artfully arranged tables of fresh fruits and vegetables along with the honey, olive oil, linens, soaps and other items from Provence which the merchants had set out for sale.

After wandering around for a while, I was happy to spot our friend Bruce who lives in Villedieu where wonderful Maison Bleue is located, chatting with our favorite poissonnier - fishmonger, Edmond Lafont of Maree du Comtat Venaison.

Monsieur Lafont always has an amazing assortment of the freshest fish and seafood on display over a bed of ice. I should mention that he parks his truck and sets up shop every Thursday morning in Sablet.

After catching up and chatting about the awful weather and being told "ce n'est pas normal" - this is not normal weather, I told them I was looking for a restaurant to take our friends to for lunch.

I told them I wanted to go to a restaurant that serves la bonne cuisine régionale - good regional food, for a petit prix - moderate price. Monsieur Lafont and Bruce threw names back and forth, questioning each other if some were closed on Tuesdays or weren't that good.

Monsieur Lafont asked me "tu connais" - do you know, restaurant La Charrette Bleue on the road to Gap? I did not. He emphasized that he had not been there but had heard they "fait du bon travail" - do a nice job. Bruce said he had not been there either but he had heard the same thing.

After getting directions in normal Provençal fashion, meaning not clear at all, I figured out that to get to La Charrette Bleue, we needed to head out of Vaison la Romaine towards Nyon and then follow the Route de Gap till we got to Les Pilles.

After finishing our walk through the market and hiking up to the fortress that sits above Vaison la Romaine (I will write about that in a future post), we headed out to find La Charrette Bleue. By the time we drove the 23 kms to the restaurant, the morning's drizzle had turned into a down pour.

We parked our car and everyone made a mad dash into the restaurant to avoid getting totally soaked.

Upon entering the restaurant, we found ourselves in a very pretty, warm, dining room with wood beams on the ceiling, just perfect for a rainy day. Just looking around and seeing the attention to the little details, I was sure we were going to enjoy a nice lunch.

After being seated and looking over the menu, most of us chose the 3-course Menu Découverte for 25,50 Euros. We ordered a bottle of rosé from Domaine Alary, a producer of wonderful wines located in Cairanne, to enjoy while we waited for our first courses to be brought out.

Our first courses included warm goat cheese encrusted with angel hair pasta, some greens, a white balsamic reduction sauce and finely diced zucchini and bell peppers.

Others had a split pea soup with croutons.

I had a wonderful dish of moules gratinées - mussels with a rich sauce of garlic and butter. Yummy!

A dish of potatoes Dauphinoise was brought out for the table to share.

Some of our party chose the pan sautéed Dorade - a Mediterranean sea bream, served over a fennel carrot sauté.

Adam chose the pork tenderloin with boudin noir sausage. He said it was delicious.

I had the pan sautéed skate served over a cabbage brussel sprout braise with a beurre blanc sauce. It was wonderful.

For dessert, some chose the orange brûlée tart served with dark chocolate mousse.

Someone else chose a terrine with layers of blackberry, raspberry, chocolate and white chocolate mousse.

One member of our party chose the banana apple galette with rum raisin ice cream and sweetened lentils. This was the one dish we ordered that was not really successful in our opinion. It was weird.

I chose the îles flottantes with crème anglaise, puffy clouds of softly poached meringue floating on a vanilla custard sauce. It was topped with something wonderfully crunchy.

Our group would say that La Charrette Bleue is a charming country restaurant which serves excellent food for a reasonable price and should not be missed if you are in the area. We will definitely return many times I am sure.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Café des Sports, Sablet

All over France, people are celebrating Bastille Day today. Also known as La Fête Nationale - National Celebration, Bastille Day commemorates the storming of the Bastille fortress-prison on July 14, 1789. The storming of the Bastille was seen as a symbol of the uprising of the modern nation.

Activities include parades, fireworks and other festivities. I wish I was in Sablet to celebrate with our friends and neighbors there. Café des Sports will be hopping with activity, all presided over by congenial host and patron - owner, Bruno.

A stop by Café des Sports in the morning for a petit café is almost always my first activity of the day. I love to see who comes in for a petit café or glass of wine before heading off to work. Sometimes the wine gets diluted with water depending upon who the wine is for.

Everyone who comes in is greeted with a smile and a warm "bonjour", many greet each other with la bise - a kiss on alternating cheeks upon meeting. Bruno seems to know exactly what drink every body wants the minute they walk through the door.

Newspapers, generally La Provence are read, the television on the wall drones in the background, news and gossip is exchanged, and the usual complaints about the weather are voiced. Everyone is welcomed. Bonne journée and happy Bastille Day.

Friday, July 9, 2010


We drive past the outskirts of Nîmes often; generally we are headed to Montpellier to visit cousins Jean Marc and Christine, or towards the Metairie Neuve, the family farm in the Tarn or returning home to Sablet on the A 9 autoroute.

My cousin Gerard and his wife Louisette live on the northern outskirts of Nîmes in a town called Marguerittes and we have bought beautiful pottery from Poterie d'Aigues-Vives in a village of the same name to the south, but we have never exited the freeway to visit Nîmes.

That is we had never visited Nîmes until our friend Adam came to visit us in Sablet. One of the places he wanted to visit after reading Rick Steve's infamous blue guide book about Provence was Nîmes. So off we went on a gray overcast day.

Nîmes is about one hour's drive southwest from Sablet off the A 9 autoroute, also known as the La Languedocienne Highway. We didn't exactly know where to go but figured that if we followed the signs for the Arènes - the Roman amphitheater, we would be close to where we wanted to be.

This well preserved amphitheater is a twin to the one in Arles and probably dates from the late 1st century or early 2nd century. It is considered to be the best preserved Roman amphitheater in France.

From the outside of the amphitheater, you see two stories. Under the amphitheater, there are two vast subterranean galleries which served as a back stage. If you enter and climb the steps to the top, you have great views out over Nîmes.

There was seating for 24,000 spectators. In addition to multi-day bull fighting festivals, two have been announced for 2010, the amphitheater also hosts rock and pop concerts, fairs and conventions.

I love the juxtaposition of the old amphitheater and the new Nîmes. This is one of my favorite pictures.

From the amphitheater, we started to stroll toward the Maison Carrée, the temple known as the Square House. Unfortunately for us, there is some restoration work going on, so we couldn't get a real good look at it. It is said to be the best preserved of the Roman temples still standing.

We walked along Quai de la Fontaine which is bordered by beautiful private residences to get to the Jardin de la Fontaine.

Typical of so many towns and villages of the South of France, we encountered several groups of older men playing pétanque as we entered the Jardin de la Fontaine.

If you don't know, you play Pétanque by standing with feet together in a small circle, to throw metal balls as close as possible to a small wooden ball called a cochonnet (literally "piglet").

This garden was created during the 18th century. Spring water was collected in a mirror-like pool surrounded by walks before flowing through pools to the canal.

During antiquity, this district included the spring, a theater, temple and baths.

More of the Jardin de la Fontaine.

Me with a statue of Bacchus, the Greek god of wine and intoxication in the Jardin de la Fontaine.

The Temple of Diana dates from the first half of the 2nd century. Its true function is unknown but was probably part of a larger development.

More of the Jardin de la Fontaine.

Rue de la Madeleine, the main shopping street of Nîmes.

The Cathédrale Notre-Dame-et-Saint-Castor of Nîmes.

The interior of the cathedral.

The emblem of Nîmes, a crocodile tied to a palm tree, is a reminder that Nîmes was thought to have been a favorite retirement home for the Roman officers who conquered Egypt. The crocodile is Egypt and the palm tree symbolizes victory. All over town, little bronze crocodile-palm tree medallions shine on the sidewalks.

We had a nice lunch which I will write about in a future post.