Travelogue 1: Provence
As mentioned on previous posts, we spent August 16th to the 28th abroad, sampling foreign cuisines, cultures and lifestyles in France and Italy. By “we” I mean my immediate family (father, mother, brother, sister) and my siblings’ partners (as well as my lovely ladyfriend, Anuja); in a stroke of pure generosity and possibly insanity, my parents decided to finance flights for all of us, as well as the rental of a relatively large villa in Cairanne, a village in Provence.
In case you’ve never heard of Provence, it’s the south-eastern region of France, on the Mediterranean. We weren’t on the sea, however – Cairanne sits just north of Avignon and is firmly in farm country. Or, rather, wine country, as this part of France, like a few others, is highly dependent on their local wine economy. With a population under 1000, I was amazed at how many varieties of wine were offered under the Cairanne label. Plus, they were all, in their way, fantastic wines. I’m not much of a wine-taster, but I can tell the difference between a rich, complex red and a pitcher of grape juice – these were good wines. I will spare you too much wine chatter, though – suffice to say that if you love wines (as my parents do, as well as my sister, since her favourite wines in the world – the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape – were a mere 20 minutes away by car) then this region is where you want to be.
Myself, I like wine when it accompanies a great meal. As it so happened, we had some of these great meals in Provence. At our disposal was a full French country kitchen, and several local village stores (bakery, butcher shop, etc) as well as a fully stocked pantry and shelf of Provencal cookbooks and notes. Not bad. We arrived on the 16th, and the 17th, as it so happened, was my birthday. For my birthday, I did absolutely nothing in the kitchen or otherwise (beyond floating on an inflatable mat in the pool). Instead, my parents hired the villa caretaker to cater our dinner (an Englishwoman and fabulous cook named Judy) and she provided excellent food to match our great wines. A 5-course Provencal menu, in fact.
Before the meal proper began, we sat on the large terrace overlooking the countryside, sipping kir (an aperitif of 4 parts white wine to 1 part crème de cassis – a blackcurrant liqueur) and munching on fresh-baked bread, locally-cured sausage, the freshest and sweetest melon I’ve ever had in my life and mixed olive tapenades while the sun was beginning to set. Sounds nice, eh? It was. Except that I don’t really like olives very much. I’ll talk more about that later. On to the meal!
First course was a cold courgette soup (courgette to Judy, zucchini to me) that Anuja was initially skeptical about. You see, she generally detests foods that are cold (or sour, but that’s another story entirely, as well) and I’ll admit that “cold soup” doesn’t appeal to me very much either. But we’re in Provence, and when in Provence… right? This was the first small step in our food adventures in France – so we put spoon to lips and ate this cold zucchini soup. It was delicious. Creamy, delicately-spiced with a crisp and refreshing flavour – we were both instant converts.
Next up was melon, halved and seeded, then plated and filled with lavender-infused red wine. Given that I was already in love with these sweet-like-candy French melons, I enjoyed this very much. It tasted very much like it sounds – very sweet, fresh melon, full-bodied red wine, with a gentle scenting of lavender (another Provencal product). The main course followed these two light warm-ups: roast veal with Herbes de Provence and fig chutney, roasted potatoes and steamed beans and carrot.
The veal was glorious. Juicy and tender, with a perfect amount of herbs to flavour and scent it. When combined with the fig chutney and a bit of veal jus, it was an amazing taste experience. It was, as it seems most Provencal specialties are: simple, pure and prepared with expertise. The herbs themselves literally grow in the fields (rosemary bushes lined parts of the villa grounds, verging on wild growth), and the only vegetables available are, of course, from the surrounding farms.
That reminds me of the one dominating contrast – the markets in the region, even the supermarkets, almost exclusively stocked local products, except for certain jarred and canned imports from Spain and similar, relatively nearby, locations. This results in an obvious scarcity of many types of exotic ingredients (the kind I like) but also results in higher average quality (since everything is brought to market ripe and ready). Whatever was on the shelves was usually fresh, ripe and in season; even the simplest tomato was bursting with flavour. While diversity was lacking severely, quality was abundant. Compare to our supermarkets in Toronto where some will stock every kind of produce they can find, and stock it year-round. If it’s not in season locally, they’ll ship it in from somewhere else. This means there’s often a lot of flavourless or unripe produce. I’ve read many places that you should buy canned tomatoes, for example, because they’re canned when they’re ripe, and most fresh tomatoes are shipped to the store before they’re fully vine-ripened, resulting in less flavour (or are terrible “hot-house” tomatoes, which are very red, but made almost entirely of water, and practically useless in the kitchen; they make better displays than food). The French seem to have not bothered trying to stock everything they possibly can, and instead only stock what is good. This is somewhat remarkable (and a concept that is very strong in Paris as well). It’s another reminder to start looking into local produce, and learning how to pick only the best from your market.
The meal finished off with poached peaches, and tiny individual chocolate cakes so moist and tender they almost fell apart when you picked them up. Locally baked, of course. I can’t speak to them too much, since i was still mentally digesting the veal. Also, I may have been on my 3rd or 4th glass of wine by that point. Who knows? There was also a cheese course. I mean, sweet mother.
The entire family spent the rest of the evening finishing off a few more bottles of wine, and sharing our plans for the first week of the vacation. Our plan was to accompany my parents as they traveled north. They were leaving us in Paris and then continuing onward to see the Juno Beach memorials and other similar things on the northern coast. So, it would be Paris for a few days. The possibilities were endless.
We made several of these smaller trips away from the villa in Cairanne, but we always returned to the villa to regroup and recharge. I will add more “Provence” notes in the next sections, including my Disney-inspired attempt at ratatouille. Onwards, to Paris!