Sunday, March 22, 2015

Cheez-it-ish crackers, a wonderful tasty addition to your nibbles at apéritif

Many of you are aware that we closed Bistro Des Copains, the French country bistro we co-owned in Occidental, CA in January. We miss our staff and many friends who dined there on a nightly basis. However, with the Bistro closed, I now have some time and freedom to try new recipes, entertain friends, or dine at the many wonderful restaurants we have in Sonoma County.

One of our favorite times to entertain is to invite friends for nibbles and drinks at the end of the day for one of our favorite French traditions called apéritif. For the uninformed, apéritif is both a beverage and a social occasion, and a wonderful part of daily life in France. It is a national custom where time is set aside at the end of the day to share a drink and maybe a bite or two with family, friends, and colleagues, all the while engaged in conversation.

An apéritif by definition (it's a French word derived from the Latin verb aperire, which means “to open.”) is a prelude to dinner, so the "bites" of food that accompany drinks should be tantalizers to the taste buds, preparing them for the meal to come. Generally, the accompaniments are bite-sized finger foods that can be eaten with your hands.

Traditional apéritif drinks can be roughly divided into three groups. The wine group includes still and sparkling wines, fortified wines and wine based mixtures. A second group consists of herb and spiced-based alcohols, Pastis and Compari, for example, that are usually diluted with water. The third is fruit based and may or may not contain alcohol.

Salty foods are popular - olives, nuts, cornichons and radishes with butter and salt. Spreads made from olives, eggplants, pâté or salt cod and served on toasts or in puff pastry are common. We have also been served saucisson (dry sausages), apero-sized goat cheese marinated in herb-infused olive oil, and tiny clams, known as tellines which are eaten one by one - finger licking good.

I like to try new recipes every time I cook. One night last week, I tried 4 new recipes; grated carrot salad, cheez-it-ish crackers, and spaghetti with creamy Walnut-Gorgonzola sauce which are shown in the next two pictures. I also made a lentil salad that I have made before and socca, a chick pea flour pancake from Provence (and neighboring Liguria, where it’s called farinata).

Cheez-it-ish crackers, grated carrot salad and lentil salad

We have tried quite a few grated carrot recipes, a popular dish in French bistros and cafés. The recipe this night came from "Around my French Table" by Dorie Greenspan and is our personal favorite so far. I envisioned the socca from the same book as a future offering at an apéritif with friends. Unfortunately, it didn't turn out the way I expected.

The recipe for the Salsa di Noci e Gorgonzola or Spaghetti with Walnut-Gorgonzola Sauce was a new one for me from Biba Caggiano, an award winning cookbook author and restaurateur from Sacramento, California. The dish was delicious, but very rich.

Spaghetti with creamy Walnut-Gorgonzola Sauce

The Cheez-it-ish crackers from "Around my French Table" authored by Dorie Greenspan were an unexpected hit with Shirley and I. They are super tasty and remained crunchy until they were gone after three days stored in plastic bag. Future guests can look forward to enjoying these with us.

Cheez-it-ish crackers

I have had Dorie Greenspan's book "Around my French Table" since it was released in 2010. Unfortunately for us, I had not really opened it till this past week. What a mistake! The grated carrot salad and the cheez-it-ish crackers recipes were easy and wonderful. Below, I share the recipe and I strongly encourage you to try it for yourselves. They will be wonderful at your next aperitif.

"Around my French Table" cookbook

Cheez-it-ish Crackers
Makes about 50 crackers


8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 16 pieces
1/4 pound Gruyère, Comté, or Emmenthal, grated (about 1 cup)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour


1. Put the butter, cheese, salt, white pepper, and cayenne pepper in a food processor and pulse until the butter is broken up into uneven bits and the mixture forms small curds.

2. Add the flour and pulse until the dough forms moist curds again - these will be larger. The cookbook author says that there are times, though, when you pulse and pulse and never gets curds - in that case, just process for a minute or so, so that everything is as moist as possible.

3. Turn the dough out onto a work surface and knead it gently until it comes together. Divide the dough in half, pat each half into a disk, and wrap the disks in plastic. Chill for at least an hour, or for up to 3 days.

4. Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper.

5. Working with 1 disk at a time, roll the dough out between sheets of plastic wrap or wax paper to a scant 1/4 inch thick. Using a small cookie cutter, one with a diameter of about 11/4 inches - cut the dough into crackers.

6. Gather the scraps together, so you can combine them with the scraps from the second disk, chill, and roll them out to make more crackers. Place the rounds on the baking sheet, leaving a scant inch between the rounds.

7. Bake for 14 to 17 minutes or until the crackers are lightly golden and firm to the touch; transfer the crackers to a rack to cool. Repeat with the second disk of dough (and scraps), making certain that your baking sheet is cool. You can serve these a little warm or you can wait until they reach room temperature.

I hope you will invite your friends to join you for aperitif, it is such a civilized way to transition from your work day to personal time. The Cheez-it-ish crackers will be perfect to nibble on and enjoy with a glass of sparkling wine or white wine.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A visit to the spectacular gardens of the Palace of Versailles.

If you are regular readers of "Our House in Provence," you know we love Bruno Bordeaux, the charming proprietor of Café des Sports in Sablet. One day last spring, shortly before we were leaving for a sojourn in Sablet, we got an email from Sylvie, Bruno's sweet wife, saying they had something important to discuss with us.

A few days later we were sitting outside Café des Sports with Bruno and Sylvie and they told us their niece Mathilde, who was an engineering student, needed to spend 30 days doing volunteer work in an English speaking country. They wondered if we might be able to help her find a position and host her at our home.

Flash forward to October and we were back in Sablet. Mathilde spent the month of July with us doing volunteer work in the activities department including teaching a French class to the residents of Chancellor Place of Windsor, an assisted living community located a short distance from our home.

Since we were planning to return to California by way of Paris. Mathilde's parents graciously invited us to visit them at their home just outside of Paris in Versailles. As we were planning our rendezvous, they asked if we had any interest in visiting the Palace of Versailles. So as agreed, they picked us up at our hotel and headed out to their home and to the Palace of Versailles and gardens.

The Palace of Versailles is a royal château in Versailles in the Île-de-France region of France. When the palace was built, Versailles was a country village; today, however, it is a wealthy suburb of Paris, some 20 kilometers southwest of the French capital.

The court of Versailles was the center of political power in France from 1682, when Louis XIV moved from Paris, until the royal family was forced to return to the capital in October 1789 after the beginning of the French Revolution.

View of the Palace of Versailles from the City of Versailles

The Royal Stables were reopened as the Academy of Equestrian Arts in 2003. The huge stables were once home to 600 of the king’s horses. This equestrian school combines instruction of equestrian knowledge and practice of other disciplines such as fencing, dance, singing and Kyudo (traditional Japanese archery).

Academy of Equestrian Arts

In 1816 Louis XVIII commissioned an equestrian statue of Louis XV for Place de la Concord in Paris. The horse was sculpted by Pierre Cartellier. In the end Louis XIV was seated on the horse, sculpted by Louis Petitot, Cartellier’s son-in-law, and set in front of the Palace of Versailles. The proportions of the statues of horse and the king are slightly different.

Equestrian statue of Louis XIV in front of the Palace of Versailles

The Versailles palace and surrounding gardens were commissioned by King Louis XIV and took almost 50 years to construct. At one time, almost 2200 men were employed on the project. By 1682, construction was finished and Louis XIV moved the royal court to Versailles, where all French monarchs lived until the revolution, and the city of Versailles became the unofficial capital of the Kingdom of France.

Visitor entrance to Palace of Versailles

The Grand Canal is the most original creation of André Le Nôtre who transformed the east-west perspective into a long light-filled sheet of water. The work took eleven years, from 1668 to 1679. The Grand Canal which is 5479 feet long, was the setting for numerous nautical spectacles and many types of craft were sailed on it.

In 1669, Louis XIV ordered rowing boats and reduced models of ships. In 1674, the Republic of Venice sent the King two gondolas and four gondoliers who lodged in a suite of buildings at the head of the Canal, since then known as Little Venice. In the summer the King’s fleet sailed along it, while skates and sleighs whizzed over the frozen water of the Grand Canal in winter.

The Grand Canal

The Pièce d’Eau des Suisses is named for the Swiss Guard who excavated the lake in 1678 in an area filled with marshes and ponds, some of which had been used to supply water for the fountains in the garden. This water feature, with a surface area of more than 37 acres, is the second largest, after the Grand Canal, at Versailles.

The Orangerie in the gardens of the Palace of Versailles with the Pièce d’Eau des Suisses in the background

The Orangerie was built by Jules Hardouin-Mansart between 1684 and 1686 to replace the small orangerie built by Le Vau in 1663, it consists of a central vaulted gallery 150 meters long, prolonged by two side galleries located under the stairways of the Cent-Marches. The building is lit by large windows.

The Orangerie and Parterre

The Orangerie Parterre covers more than 7 acres. In the reign of Louis XIV it was decorated with sculptures now housed in the Louvre Museum. Consisting of six sections of lawn and a circular pool, in the summer it features 1,055 trees in boxes, including palm trees, oleanders, pomegranate trees, eugenias and orange trees that spend the winter inside the building.

The Orangerie and Parterre

The arch and the Palace of Versailles

As you can see below, you can rent golf carts to visit the gardens if you don't wish to walk. We didn't think we needed the carts but as you will see later, we changed our minds.

Palace of Versailles

The Queen's Grove replaced the Labyrinth with illustrations of thirty-nine Aesop fables with lead animals in fountains painted in natural colors. Built in 1669 after an idea of the tale-teller Charles Perrault, it was destroyed during the replanting of the gardens in 1775-1776, and replaced by the Queen’s Grove. The present sculpted plantings was installed in the late 19th century.

The Queen's Grove

The Temple of Love, which the queen could see from her room in Petit Trianon, was erected by Richard Mique in 1778 in neo-classical style. Built entirely out of marble, this building is especially notable for the quality of the sculptures by Deschamps which adorn its Corinthian capitals, its friezes and the inside of its dome.

"Temple of Love" in the garden of the Petit Trianon

This exceptional quality is due to the fact that it was supposed to house a recognized masterpiece of French sculpture, Cupid cutting his bow from the Club of Hercules by Bouchardon whose original, now on display at the Louvre, was replaced by a replica by Mouchy, another 18th century sculptor.

Shirley and I at the Temple of Love

Although Madame de Pompadour, who wished to “relieve the king’s boredom”, was the instigator of this small palace that Gabriel built in the 1760s, it is the memory of Marie-Antoinette that hangs over Petit Trianon. In 1774, Louis XVI offered the Trianon estate to the Queen who was able to live away – too far away for some – from the Court.

Petit Trianon

Marie-Antoinette, seeking to flee the Court of Versailles, ordered the construction of her hamlet in 1783. There, she regularly found the charms of country life, surrounded by her lady's companions. It became a veritable farm, directed by a farmer, whose products supplied the kitchens of the Palace.

No sooner had the garden around Petit Trianon been finished than Marie-Antoinette began thinking about creating another, as an extension towards Saint-Anthony’s gate. Between 1783 and 1787, the Hamlet was created in the spirit of a true Norman village, with eleven houses spread out around the Big lake. Five of them were reserved for the use of the Queen and her guests: the Queen’s House, Billiard Room, Boudoir, Mill and Refreshments Dairy.

Hamlet of Marie-Antoinette

The Queen's House is the most important building of the Hamlet. In fact, it is composed of two separate buildings joined by a wooden gallery, decorated with white and blue earthenware flowerpots with Marie-Antoinette’s monogram. On the right, the Queen’s House itself, the ground floor comprised of a dining room and a games room, while the first floor was made up of a large living room, a small living room and a Chinese room.

On the left, the Billiard Room, the ground floor comprised of a billiard room, and a private apartment on the first floor. From the top of the gallery, the lady of Trianon, wearing a simple white muslin dress and a straw hat, could oversee the work being done in the fields.

The Queen's House

Built at the edge of the lake and on a forebay, the Mill and its wheel were used to grind the grain, and also had a washing-place. It was intended for the use of the village.

The Mill

With its roof of reeds, dormer window, its lean-to and old stone staircase, the Queen’s Small House, known as the boudoir, is made up of a living room and a wardrobe and is surrounded by a closed garden.

The Boudoir

The Grand Canal

A fountain was built here in 1636, under the reign of Louis XIII, which Louis XIV decorated with an impressive and celebrated group in gilded lead representing Apollo on his chariot. The work of Tuby, after a drawing by Le Brun, it is inspired by the legend of Apollo, the Sun God and emblem of the king. Tuby produced this monumental group between 1668 and 1670 at tapestry factory in Paris, and it was then transported to Versailles and installed and gilded the following year.

The Apollo Fountain with the Palace of Versailles in the background

King Louis XIV of France used fountains in the Gardens of Versailles to illustrate his power over nature. There were so many fountains at Versailles that it was impossible to have them all running at once; when Louis XIV made his promenades, his fountain-tenders turned on the fountains ahead of him and turned off those behind him.

Louis built an enormous pumping station, the Machine de Marly, with fourteen water wheels and 253 pumps to raise the water three hundred feet from the River Seine, and even attempted to divert the River Eure to provide water for his fountains, but the water supply was never enough.

The royal golden gate of the Palace of Versailles was finally restored in 2008, after being demolished during the French Revolution in 1789. It took over two years to replicate the original 260-ft. long gilded wrought iron fence and gate. 100,000 sheets of gold leaf were crafted onto fleur-de-lys designs, crowns, masks of Apollo, cornucopias and the crossed capital Ls representing the Sun King, Louis XIV.

The Royal Fence in front of the Palace of Versailles

We will have to return to Versailles some day to visit the interior of the palace. We spent the entire afternoon walking around the gardens. By the end of the day, we were exhausted from walking and Mathilde's father spotted a golf cart sitting unattended so we hijacked it and rode back to the palace and returned it to keepers of the golf carts.

Have a great week. Chat soon.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Saturday in Marseille and a BIG hike up to Notre-Dame de la Garde

I've had mixed feelings about Marseille since my rental car was cambriolé, or that's what the police called it, and three suitcases were 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, and two cell phones while I enjoyed some of the best Bouillabaisse to be found in Marseille at Fonfon Restaurant in Vallon des Auffes off the Corniche du President-John-Fitzgerald-Kennedy.

Marseille has a complex history. It was founded by the Phoceans (from the Greek city of Phocaea, now Foça, in modern Turkey) in 600 BC and is one of the oldest cities in Europe. The town is a far cry from the Cézanne paintings and Provençal clichés of sleepy villages, "pétanque" players and Marcel Pagnol novels.

Marseille is France's second largest city, after Paris, with a population of 850,636, and largest in land area. The people of Marseille have varying ethnic backgrounds, with a lot of Italians and Spanish having immigrated to the area after the second world war. Currently, over one third of the population of Marseille can trace their roots back to Italy.

My father Daniel and his family lived in an apartment on Boulevard Longchamp in Marseille when he was growing up and my cousins lived there with their families too at various times. My cousins Ginette and Josiane live there now and speak in poetic terms about Marseille's charms. Slowly after several visits with my cousins, I am growing fond of Marseille too.

So when cousin Jean Marc called a few months back to suggest we meet the next day in Marseille for lunch and a little visit, we accepted his invitation without hesitation. We set a time to meet at the Vieux Port and go to lunch at Le Grain de Sel Restaurant, a well regarded restaurant on the south side of the Vieux Port. We found a place to park in an underground parking garage and walked out and saw Saint-Victor Abbey seen below.

Saint-Victor Abbey is one of the oldest places of Christian worship in Europe. Its 5th-century crypt and catacombs occupy the site of a Hellenic burial ground, later used for Christian martyrs. Continuing a medieval tradition, every year at Candlemas, a Black Madonna from the crypt is carried in procession along Rue Sainte for a blessing from the archbishop, followed by a mass and the distribution of "navettes" and green votive candles.

Abbaye de Saint Victor (Saint Victor Abbey)

As we strolled along the Vieux Port, we looked across and saw the Panier District. Built on the site of the ancient Greek Massalia, the Panier District, panier means basket in French, but in Marseille it is the name of the oldest area of the town. In the middle of this area is the Vieille Charité, a wonderful old monument, now hosting museums and exhibitions. It is a typically Mediterranean district with color-washed facades, the historic refuge of seafarers and generations of immigrants.

View across the Vieux Port towards the Panier District

The Vieux Port, or Old Port, is the center of the city. It was the natural harbor of Marseille since antiquity; the Greeks landed here in 600 BC and set up a small town for trading. The town grew and in the middle ages became one of the world's largest trader of hemp baskets and ropes as the area around the Old Port were originally cannabis, or hemp fields. Hence the name of Marseille's main street Canebière, which leads down to the old port.

Vieux Port

Today the Old Port, just 20 feet deep, is unable to accommodate commercial marine traffic, which now sails in and out of the nearby port of Joliette. Instead it's the largest of the city's 14 marinas, with 3,500 berths for which pointus, the traditional fishing boats of the Mediterranean Sea, vie alongside yachts, a handful of tall ships and common sail and motor boats.

Vieux Port

The Old Port is lined by restaurants and cafés. We were headed to Le Grain de Sel Restaurant, which is on a side street just a few steps from the Vieux Port.

A square lined with cafés alongside the Vieux Port

We enjoyed our time together and lunch at Le Grain de Sel Restaurant, although to be truthful, we enjoyed our conversation more than the food. By the time we finished dessert, we had decided that we were going to walk up to Notre-Dame de la Garde Church which we had seen in the distance high above Marseille.

Jean Marc and I at Le Grain de Sel Restaurant

One of the streets we followed up to Notre-Dame de la Garde 

Notre-Dame de la Garde church seen below stands on the summit of Marseille, its most important landmark, visible from afar. The site was an observation point in ancient times and during the Middle Ages, was the location of a pilgrimage chapel. Today, the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde with its gilded Madonna crowning the belfry is a beacon for the faithful.

Notre-Dame de la Garde Church

Let me tell you that hiking up to Notre-Dame de la Garde Church is quite the ordeal. Thankfully, the sidewalks along the streets that lead up to summit where Notre-Dame de la Garde sits have steps cut into the sidewalks. 1800 steps later, we got to the top and were greeted with great views over Marseille.

View to Le Panier District and Sainte-Marie-Majeure Cathedral

View to the Vieux Port and Le Panier District

The entry to the Vieux Port is guarded by two forts, Fort Saint-Nicolas and Fort Saint-Jean.

Fort Saint-Nicolas and Fort Saint-Jean guard the entrance to the Vieux Port

Another view from Notre-Dame de la Garde is 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.

View out toward Château d'If

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) statue of the Madonna and child made of copper gilded with gold leaf 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.

Belfry, bell tower and statue of the Virgin with child

Notre-Dame de la Garde is considered by the Marseille population as its guardian and protectress of the city, hence its nickname of "the Good Mother".

View of the south side of Notre-Dame de la Garde Church

View of the north side of Notre-Dame de la Garde Church

Statue depicting the passion of Christ in front of Notre-Dame de la Garde

Belfry, bell tower and statue of the Virgin with child and stairs

Statue depicting Christ on the cross in front of Notre-Dame de la Garde

Back down to the level, I can say it is a lot easier coming down than going up.

Built in the 17th century, Fort Saint-Nicolas served not only to guard the port, but also to ensure that there were no uprisings against the king. Many of the guns pointed toward the town, rather than out to sea.

Restored in the 19th century, Fort Saint-Nicolas is a fun place to walk, with lovely views of the Vieux Port and the Mediterranean beyond the harbor.

Fort Saint-Nicolas

I love the santons of Provence, more so than Shirley, or we would have more of them in our home. I immediately recognized the name "Marcel Carbonel" as we happened upon this shop, as one of the best known craftsman of Santons. Bright, colorful and carved by hand, the little baked clay figurines are the work of a real artisan. The selection is exhaustive with over 600 figurines in six different sizes.

Marcel Carbonel Santons Shop

We got our car from the parking garage and headed to the other side of the Vieux Port to drop cousin Jean Marc off at his car and take a couple more pictures on our way out of town.

View from the Panier side of the Vieux-Port towards Notre-Dame de la Garde

The Cathedral of Sainte-Marie-Majeure or La Major, founded in the 4th century, enlarged in the 11th century and completely rebuilt in the second half of the 19th century by the architects Léon Vaudoyer and Henri-Jacques Espérandieu.

The present day cathedral is a gigantic edifice in Romano-Byzantine style. A Romanesque transept, choir and altar survive from the older medieval cathedral, spared from complete destruction only as a result of public protests at the time.

Sainte-Marie-Majeure Cathedral

I must say that Marseille continues to grow on me and I see why my cousins love living there so much. Don't be surprised if you see us exploring more of this town on future trips to Provence. Have a great week. Chat soon.