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Bacchus: the Greek god of wine and drunkenness. His spirit has visited Toulon at the beginning of every spring, and for the last three years (since I’ve moved to France) it has become part of our tradition as well.
The Fête de Bacchus is a wine event that the husband and I look forward to in order to replenish our stock of good wines for the spring and summer months, while patiently waiting for the foire aux vins that happens all over France in September. For three days, Friday to Sunday the big white tent is erected in Place d’Arms in the center of the city, and the wine makers, sellers, and connoisseurs come rolling in every morning from all over France to peddle their noble fare. They open their stands at 10am and the place is packed by 10:30.
Bottles are uncorked and lined up. Let the tasting begin.
We had a list of what we wanted this year. Chateauneuf Domaine du Rempart had returned and we made our usual purchase of their 2005 and 2001, both excellent years with very different characters. The 2005 we’ll be drinking this summer with something humble but heavy on a stormy day. The 2001, a deeper wine that needs to be aired, enjoyed, sipped along side something like boar will be saved for December.
Alsace wines are always a big purchase for us at any foire aux vins. Sure, you can buy Rieslings and Pinot Gris in the supermarkets here, but the wines from the smaller producers that come to Bacchus have much more flavor, as complex as they are subtle. We bought one of each – the Riesling, the Pinot Gris and a Gewurztraminer each with a different undertone and melody. The Riesling is dry and lemony, the Pinot Gris a bit spicy and the Gewurztraminer is soft and peachy.
There were two discoveries this year. As I’m looking to continue my studies in gastronomy at a school in the Anjou region, I insisted that we take a taste of the Angevin wines. Our first taste was of an older variety of grape the Grolleau noir which neither the husband nor I had ever heard of, let alone tasted. The producer told us it was a grape that was “out of fashion” at the moment having been replaced by the Cabernet.
A interesting scent hit our noses when we took a sniff. “It smells like a light, creamy cheese,” the husband said. I was relieved, I thought my nose was playing tricks. The taste was oddly the same. A very fruity flavor, but with a creamy taste that reminded us of, yes, a creamy cheese spread with some sort of berry sauce. According to some wine experts, all the Grolleau vines should be ripped up and replaced with something with more potential, but I am interested in opening this bottle and tasting the strange flavor again to make my final decision. Maybe it doesn’t have aging potential, but neither do I.
By this point we were hungry and a bit tipsy and our tongues were incapable of tasting further. It was time for a snack.
At any wine tasting event, there are always produit du terroir, because you can’t buy wine without being inspired by the food. Or vice versa. Mushrooms, macaroons, cheeses, foie gras, sausages; they were all out in force.
On our way through the meat and cheese section we came upon a lone wine stand. It was odd to see this one separate from the others of its kind until we looked closer. It wasn’t just wine- it was hypocras.
I was excited. Ever since I first tasted this medieval beverage at Château Trigance a few years ago, I’ve loved having it as an aperitif, but it’s not something that’s easy to find. La Cuvée des Elfes had many varieties, hypocras flavored with rose, raspberries, even pepper. It was the last one that we purchased and promised the producer that we’d check out his website in case we wanted to order some more at a future date.
There was more tasting. Many of the vendors themselves were nipping at their own glasses between lulls of customers and curious tasters.
There was a lull for us too, as we had lunch at the local Japanese restaurant – and I continued my tasting with one of the biggest glasses of a local red I’ve never needed.
When we got home I rounded up the bottles and looked them over. Three whites, an Angevin rosé with a flavor completely different from that of their Provencal cousins, one hypocras, two Chateuneuf, our Anjou red and a nice Saint Emilion 2007 – a red Bordeaux that is fast becoming my favorite of the region. We won’t be going thirsty this season.
All in all, it was a festive morning and afternoon devoted to the grape. Confrères were wearing their ceremonial robes and medals in honor of the occasion – this is the twenty year anniversary after all – and we humble consumers were mostly drunk by noon. Just at Bacchus intended.
If you were going to move to another country where you couldn’t speak the language that well, what is the one non-obvious but absolutely essential thing you need to know?
For me it was having my hair cut and dyed for the first time. It was a comic-tragedy with that rare happy-ending with me, the husband, and the hair dresser trying to figure out what I wanted and how to say it in French. The end result was perfect and I love my new hair-dresser, but it was a nerve wracking hour hoping she wasn’t going to dye my hair that horrible shade of purple-red so loved by the old women here.
These are the types of things no one thinks about. You move to another country and say to yourself “I can buy bread and order wine, what more do I need?” Then you come down with a skin rash and have to open a savings account and jolt up in bed one night at 3am thinking “I don’t know the word for savings account in <insert language here>.”
I’m talking about past experiences of course, but as I prepare one of my own students for a future move to England, I am wracking my brain trying to think of things she NEEDS to know or there will be somewhat tragic consequences.
The word for laundry detergent vs the word for fabric softener. Yeah, for a month our clothes were super soft, but no cleaner until the husband looked at the bottle and saw the mistake I’d made on my last purchase
It will be summer soon. All of Europe and some of the US will be descending on Provence. If I could give you some advice before you depart for your vacation, I’d probably scare you away. But today, I’d like to warn you, or at least give you a preview of the trains.
Once, I have no doubt that traveling by train was a pleasant experience, possibly easy and comfortable, and in reality, it’s not actually a bad experience today. But romantic? Not so much. The glamor is gone.
Trains are few and far between, and that’s when SNCF is NOT on strike which happens about once a month. The trains themselves are cold, dirty and covered in graffiti inside and out. They do their jobs well enough, and I have no complaints, but be careful of wet marker if you lean against a wall.
The above is one of the few trains I saw on my sojourn Monday and the only one not covered in graffiti – through there is a little on the top you can see.
There’s the train stations themselves. In the small towns of Provence on route between Toulon and Marseille the stations are quaint, abandoned, quiet. When it’s warm out, it’s a pleasant place to eat lunch while you wait for your train.
Looks cute huh?
Until you realize you have a two hour wait because SNCF is on strike and the trains are all delayed and there’s not a toilet for miles.
Some people go in the bushes. I do the potty-dance.
Now, I don’t want to discourage people from taking the local trains (Don’t get it confused with the TGV). The view is often enjoyable and when the trains are on time they are a relaxing way to travel. But I suggest traveling with a cat in your bag to be safe. Go to the bathroom before you leave and drink water sparingly. And that weird old fridge smell on the train is just the air conditioning, I promise.
In Nice there are three local street foods you should sample:
- Légumes farcis
- Beignet de Cébettes
Socca is a niçoise classic, outdoing the salade niçoise or bouillabaisse which actually comes from Marseille. Made of chickpea flour mixed with water and olive oil and cooked in a wood burning oven like pizza dough, then portioned out on small paper plates to waiting customers. It’s total street food. Salty, a little greasy, fabulous. If you’re in the Var it’s called cade.
Légumes farci is something you’ve seen: simply stuffed vegetables. Usually they are stuffed with beef and bread crumbs and broiled in an oven. You can use onion, zucchini, pepper – all featured in this photo – or eggplant and tomatoes.
Fried scallion lumps. Honestly, I don’t know what else to call them. In French they are called beignet des cébettes. They are scallions chopped and mixed with a thick bread batter then deep fried. I guess some people would called them tempura scallions. Beignet are very common for all vegetables, but the onion are a classic. Onion rings, anyone?
But if you want something a bit sweet, a bit more upscale. Go to Amorino near Place Massena for chocolat chaud or better yet, ice cream.
All natural, all simple, all subtle, creamy and wonderful with a chantilly that is more cream than sugar and so worth it.
Visit the Modern Art Museum. Even if you don’t like modern art there are some cool exhibits. One of a dress made entirely of bottles. I will wear it at my first book signing.
If you’re like the husband and can’t stand the art, race through it to get to the top floor, where you’re rewarded with an excellent view:
Then there’s Carnival. Which takes place every year at the end of February going into March. Parade with devil floats included.
There is always more. There is shopping – of which I did in abundance – I can’t help it, they have a Fossil store. There are plenty of museums, archaeological sites, and landmarks. Nice is one of the oldest cities in Europe and the oldest in France and has a rich history which I will not repeat here so as not to bore you to death.
So in this short overview, I say, “Visit Nice.”
I make the same stupid joke every time I visit this city. Nice is nice. I can’t help it.
More than being nice, Nice is a wonderful city. All white and bright colors, bustling people, twisty streets and deadly drivers. Everything you might think of when you think of continental western Europe in general. Maybe that’s why I like it so much.
Carnival is in full swing here. The husband and I had no idea when we made plans to visit with my family. If we had, we probably would have planned for that – but as it is, we got a glimpse of the end of the nightly parade.
In Nice, like much of costal Provence, the local flavor is all about the seafood. However, I’m terrified of ordering seafood at restaurants because of my allergy and my sister wasn’t in the mood for it. Nonetheless, we found ourselves at Restaurant les Pecheurs to at least SEE the seafood if not eat it.
The inside of the restaurant is set up to lightly remind you of the sea and the fishing boats that sail it. But it’s understated. There is a small fish tank in one wall, two portholes, slatted wood ceilings, blue walls. There’s no tacky netting hanging from anywhere nor any ugly mounted fish – fake or otherwise – you’re just reminded this is a fish restaurant.
I ordered a creameaux de courge, or winter squash cream cooked with girolles mushrooms and set with one croquant de foie gras and volaille. This was a subtle dish. Very soft in texture and flavor and consequently, very comforting.
The husband was the only one of our party to have a fish based meal. His entrée was scallops on a bed of lentils with a spicy carrot ice cream on the side. I have a husband who loves to help me with my restaurant reviews and he described these scallops as very tender and soft but full of flavor being cooking in port as they were. The lentils were well spiced and the dish was complimented perfectly by the carrot ice cream.
For my main course, I ordered a duo de volaille – which is just two cuts of poultry – cooked with seasonal vegetables tandoori style. Served with coconut rice and a little cappucino de courgette (zucchini).
This again was a subtle and soft dish. For me, it lacked a bit of flavor. I enjoyed it – the vegetables were well cooked being both crunchy and soft, the poultry tender, but the tandoori lacked spice. Not that I wanted something to burn my face off like I would at an Indian restaurant, but the dish lacked oomf and instead was a bit too creamy and soft for me. The rice on the other hand was incredibly flavorful, the coconut very present and really an excellent side to dip into the tandoori sauce.
The husband had prawns served with the same coconut rice as well as the courgette cappucino and a crumble of sweet potato. His assessment of the two sides were that they were a bit strange for the main part of the plat, but for all that, pretty tasty. I agree about the cappucino.
His prawns were light and well seasoned but after the first course, which had been a wow moment for him, that it too was lacking in just a touch of flavor. Satisfying, but missing an extra zest.
The sister made up for our lack of restraint by ordering only a main course (and dessert) and had risotto cooked in a creamy chorizo sauce served with wild mushrooms and margret de canard. She felt that she couldn’t taste the chorizo, she could smell it, which added a mouthwatering pre-taste element. The duck was well-cooked, tender and tasty and the risotto with a perfect creaminess.
A moment to appreciate the plating. Everything was wonderfully presented, a bit on the modern side but again, like the decor, not overblown. The service was much the same, with a friendly, welcoming staff and a waitress trained to explain every aspect of the dish.
We also saw –courtesy of the other patrons in the restaurant – that if you order a fancy fish – such as sole – for two, they bring the raw, pre-cooked, whole fish to your table to present it to you, in order that you can approve of it’s freshness and quality.
For dessert, I chose a French classic : an apple tart, cooked upside down and flipped over when plated served with vanilla ice cream and a dab of caramel sauce. This was wonderful, again warm and soft, but what I loved was that it wasn’t too sweet. The plate let the sweet and tartness of the apples do most of the work and the pastry crust underneath was almost savory, it was such a nice buttery contrast to the fruit.
The husband and sister, who both have a thing for litchi, chose the same dessert. Charlotte de litchi served with a verine of litchi and red fruit. As I couldn’t resist tasting a bit of the litchi cream, I can safely say that this was a well done dessert. The lady fingers that make up the bones of the charlotte were very sweet, the cream light and full of the fruit. You knew you were eating litchi. The verine was served in a fruit vinegar sauce, which was acidic but contrasted well with the sweetness of the fresh fruit and the sweetness of the cake.
At times, we did find les Pecheurs lacking in a bit of flavor, but this is a gem of a restaurant in a city that boasts about it’s cuisine while at the same time catering to tourists. Let’s face it, in a tourist town, you’re never quite sure of what you’re going to get. Here we found ourselves satisfied. The prices are correct and the portions are good, even for the seafood which can often be quite expensive, we had nothing to complain about. My menu – for instance – was 29 Euros.
All in all, though it’s slightly out of the way- about a 30 minute walk from the Promenade des Anglais and Vieux Nice, it was worth it. And there’s something for everyone – even for those people who like to go to seafood restaurants to order everything but fish.
Let’s face it. St. Valentine’s Day is not the most aesthetic of holidays. Pink, red, AND purple? Unnecessary.
It is interesting to note that there are several Saint Valentine’s, most of whom were martyrs for the Catholic faith. The one who’s considered the original – who supposedly died on February 14th – well we know nothing about him except his name and the day he was torn to bits by lions or whatever.
It wasn’t until the tradition of courtly love appeared on the scene of the late middle ages, originating in southwestern France, that people began to associate St. Valentine with romance; for reasons completely unknown to me. I do however know a little bit about the troubadours of medieval France. They’re music is and was entirely enchanting. At least for medieval buffs like me. Here’s a taste:
I’m doing my medieval music professor proud.
Somehow, these lovely songs and the idea of striving for unattainable perfection in love got lost in perfume, candlelight dinners, and Hallmark. And being groped by greasy men. This could be a past-time for me here in France, if I wasn’t already married. Thank god for the husband.
But, all is forgiven. All is forgiven because of the chocolate.
And the best chocolate I’ve ever tasted is from la Chocolaterie de Puyricard.
Named after the tiny village where it is made, these beauties are hand-crafted, artisan chocolates. Puyricard (pronounced pu-ree-car) is located just northwest of Aix-en-Provence, one of my favorite cities in Provence. The factory, if you can call it that, is a tiny organization, made up 40 people, many of them family where chocolate is tradition and life.
They are recognizable in France by their elegant yellow facades, which despite being bright yellow with brown lettering, really are – as I said – elegant. Inside is an atmosphere dedicated to the beauty of the chocolate. Lavenders, browns, yellows, colors that accents the dark and milk chocolates (Puyricard very rarely works with white) that are placed like works of art around the shop.
And I happen to pass by one everyday on my way to work.
The women inside are smartly dressed and know every flavor in the store. They know the essences, the subtleties, the liquors. They will give you a taste if you can’t make up your mind and need a bit of persuasion. And they wrap everything into a beautiful package that always matches the season.
Even if it is Valentine’s themed – I can’t hate this.
Their most famous, and one of my favorites is their palet d’or and palet d’argent. Two truffles of dark chocolate with a ganache of dark chocolate and Tahitian vanilla bean inside. On the outside, hand placed are small leaves of silver and gold. For show, of course, but there is something beautiful and so inviting about the glint of the metal on the silky chocolate surface.
This year, I have a new love, that I sampled in their store. A dark chocolate square truffle with a simple, unadorned smooth outer shell. Inside is dark chocolate ganache peppered literally with black pepper and a hint of mint. It is a very understated taste, discernible only if you take the time to taste it slowly and let the flavors melt on your tongue. But if you do – every millimeter of this tiny square is worth it.
Puyricard isn’t cheap. A box of 250 grams – about 20-25 chocolates is 21Euros. Keep in mind however that these are hand-made chocolates, I’ve seen it with my own eyes – you can visit the factory. They use only the finest ingredients, the purest cacao, and there are NO PRESERVATIVES. So if you happen to be in the United States and decide to splurge and order some, they will Fed-Ex your chocolates to you in order that they arrive as fresh as possible.
Or you can come to Provence and visit the factory yourself. This is the only photo I have of my visit. I don’t know why I only have half the building. It’s a pretty half.
Another beauty to their truffle collection is their lichee ganache. Dark chocolate outside, milk chocolate interior infused with a strong lichee liquor. Graceful and so smooth, a perfect fruity taste mixed with the most delicate of milk chocolates. I was impressed as I wasn’t sure how lichee would go with the taste of chocolate, but I had to try their new flavor.
A truly amazing chocolaterie, the three others that are on the same street as the Puyricard in Toulon, simply can’t hold a candle to the perfect caress of this soft, flavorful chocolate as it melts on the tongue.
Next time you want to treat yourself, check out their website. Even if you don’t order anything, their chocolates are a feast for the eyes alone.
In order to re-educate my brain’s attitude toward food, there was something else I needed to do besides eat mostly soup for the weekend. That was clean my kitchen. Any good cook from amateur to three star knows the importance of keeping the workspace clean. I’m pretty good at these things, my kitchen is usually pretty clean, the surfaces wiped and to the eye that isn’t looking hard enough, things seem to be in order. Until you open a drawer:
Or rather a box.
We live out of boxes. They’re nice boxes. Meant to be lived out of. But they are boxes nonetheless and they can get messy. It’s not just my spice box that was a wreck, but my pasta box, my baking box, my canned goods box. Now don’t get confused. I can tell you what’s in all these boxes. I know everything we have in the apartment food-wise. I can name the six different types of flour I have. Nothing is forgotten, it’s just strewn about.
I’ve been continuing to work with mindful eating. It’s only been what – 36 hours? – but I find it to be a very pleasant experience. It reminds me of the way a sommelier would taste that perfect wine she’s been dreaming of all her life. In my case, a nice 1999 Chateauneuf. I’ve been sticking to my soup theme with a few rice cakes or a bit of bread. I do find that I appreciate the color of soup, the aroma of soup more.
Another important factor, I’m finding is taking more pleasure and giving more mindfulness in preparing the food. Usually reheated from a big batch I made earlier. Even that can be pleasurable experience.
But tonight I’m going to try it with a real meal that I have planned. Nothing too spectacular. Just a pasta with lots of green veggies and a bit of tuna.
And then I will have a brownie. But these brownies aren’t just any brownies. There’s no flour, very little sugar, no milk, butter or cream. Each one has 120 calories (or less if you cut them smaller like I did – rather by accident)
They are made with beans.
You heard me. Beans. The recipe comes from Baker on the Rise and who doesn’t love healthy sweets? I couldn’t wait to try them.
Only one problem. I cannot find black beans ANYWHERE in Provence.
So I used red beans.
And olive oil because I didn’t have canola.
I like to hand chop my chocolate. Once you get the hang of it, there is something incredibly satisfying about chopping chocolate. I don’t know what it is, but it’s the crunch underneath the knife and the weight of your hands. Maybe it’s the tiniest miniscule pieces of chocolate that are wafting up my nose and into my mouth without me ever knowing…
Who can say if these would be good or not? I put them in the oven with apprehension and waited. I Skyped with my mom. It’s her birthday. Happy birthday Mom!
I even waited for the brownies to cool before slicing one and eating it. Mindfully of course.
It was fabulous. So moist and soft. Chocolatey and even the texture was perfect. There is no way to know that there is no flour in this recipe. If people don’t know they’ll just think you’re a master at soft brownies. The only drawback is that the brownies don’t really puff up when baking but had I used a smaller pan and had a thicker layer of brownie it wouldn’t have been a problem. To the eye, if you concentrated on the thickness, they were a bit lacking. In taste they were dark, bitter chocolate with sweet nibs of the chocolate that melted in your mouth. They were amazing.
Wish me luck for tomorrow. I’m preparing my soups and breads for the day and planning my pauses throughout the day to sit down and enjoy a meal.
And I really do have six different types of flour: buckwheat, whole wheat, all purpose, multi-grain/cereal, fluide flour, and corn flour.
It’s snowing again. And again, I’m not pleased. In fact, it’s freezing all over France. Only here in the Var has it risen above freezing and only then by 4 degrees. It would be an ideal day to spend time with a mug of homemade hot chocolate in my hands, gazing out the window with a wistful expression, remembering my childhood of snow days, snow angels, snowball fights, snow igloos and massive snow suits.
But that’s not happening this weekend. Not the hot chocolate part anyway. This weekend it’s all about the soup.
I’m into week 4 of quitting smoking. It’s not going so well. I hate everyone and have a lot of time on my hands to do it. I know that seems odd. I smoke and run. A cigarette for every kilometer.
I have another confession to make. And it’s pretty serious. Sometimes I go a little nuts on the sweets. And by a little nuts I mean a binge. And by a binge I mean a real binge. The one where you eat 24 cookies in 5 minutes without ever tasting anything. After that I eat a pint of ice cream and then a bar of chocolate. Time Elapsed: 12 minutes. It’s a bad food relationship and it’s been happening a little too much lately.
These two things combined create one very upset digestive system and a very unhealthy mentality towards food. Did you see the Mindful Eating article in the NY Times on Thursday? Though I do consider myself a Buddhist, I’ve never been a very good one. My mindfulness and meditation practices are pretty awful.
But since quitting smoking, I’ve found a need to snatch any moments of meditation where ever I can. See: Be Here Now from NPR for some tips on short meditation. It’s not perfect, but anytime you can take the time to “quiet your mind and open your heart” as Jack Kornfield says, you’re helping yourself in all sorts of positive ways.
What better way to renew a healthy and enjoyable relationship with food and cooking by practicing mindfulness while I eat?
Mindful eating is not a diet, or about giving up anything at all. It’s about experiencing food more intensely — especially the pleasure of it. You can eat a cheeseburger mindfully, if you wish. You might enjoy it a lot more. Or you might decide, halfway through, that your body has had enough. Or that it really needs some salad. ~Jeff Gordinier; NY Times
When I binge, I don’t actually taste anything. I couldn’t tell you if those almond butter cookies I made yesterday were good or not. If they tasted different than peanut butter cookies or if the white chocolate I put inside added anything in texture, taste, pleasure. The same with the handful of Brazil nuts I ate after. I still don’t know if they were salted.
This weekend, then, it’s about two things. 1) A bit of a liquid diet to go easy on my digestion. 2) Learning to slow down and re-focus my brain and do things more mindfully – in small chunks of course because these things take lifetimes – but especially to be more mindful of my eating and my food.
This is where the soup comes in. When was the last time you tasted soup? Really tasted soup? All the textures, the tastes, the way it slides around your tongue, your mouth and then down your throat. It’s an intense experience if you have a good soup. It could be something as simple as leek soup with a twist of ground pepper. The bite-burn of the pepper, over the leek’s soft twang. When the leeks are puréed they are mushy – as all purée is – but there’s an interesting consistency, not thick, not thin. Almost like a thin oatmeal. Comforting.
There are lots of soups on the menu. Some homemade, some store-bought. Leek soup, Carrot and sweet potato soup, roasted vegetable soup with tahini (recipe below), tomato soup, lentil soup, zucchini soup. I’m stocked on soups.
And lemons. Got to clean out that liver.
Don’t get worried here. I’m not trying to starve myself. Though almost all of my soups are under 150 calories, I’m eating a bowl every 2 hours and keeping myself up around 1200 calories. I am allowing myself a bit of homemade focaccia bread or rice cakes as the mood strikes me.
Spiced Roasted Vegetable Soup with Tahini
based off of Babaganoush Soup by Sprint 2 the Table.
- 1 red pepper, seeded and sliced
- 100 g Eggplant sliced
- 100 g Zucchini sliced
- 3 garlic cloves
- 100 g red onion
- 1 tomato
- 2 tblspn EVOO, divided
- 1 tblspn Sesame Tahini
- 1 lemon slice
- 500mL Organic vegetable broth
And a whole lot of spices. But we’ll get to those.
First preheat your oven to 200°C. On a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper put all your veggies except the tomato. Keep the garlic in their skins. Drizzle with the olive oil. Bake for 20 minutes, turning everything halfway through. Take out of the oven when fully roasted, let cool and remove any blackened skins.
In the meantime boil your vegetable broth in a large pot, slice your tomato and add to the pot. Reduce to simmer. Add the roasted vegetables and cook for 10 minutes at a simmer so that the flavors have a chance to blend together. Add the other tablespoon of EVOO.
Then add your spices. Here are the ones I used all in ¼ or 1/8 teaspoons:
- ground cumin
- ground cinnamon
- ground ginger
- cayenne pepper
- ground nutmeg
- ground cloves
- ground black pepper
And add your tahini and lemon. Let simmer for another 5 or 10 minutes. Pour into a blender and blend until smooth. Enjoy with a bit of homemade bread. Enjoy it with mindfulness – every last drop.
Spend the day relaxing, reading, catching up on sleep. Like I’m doing with the cats. We’re all on the couch staying warm together.
I’ll be updating on my journey in Mindful Eating later on in the week. Try the experience with me. For dinner, lunch, or breakfast – or even during a snack – tomorrow turn off the TV, sit down comfortably and spend a good 20 minutes concentrating on what you’re eating. The texture, taste, smell, look. Enjoy it from all sides and experience your food.
There is something completely unacceptable happening in Provence this weekend. It’s worse than chilling a 20 year old Château de la Tour. Worse than mixing a good Epoisse with tomatoes and onions. Worse than clam ice cream.
No, really. It’s snowing. Big wet flakes coming down from the sky covering trees and cars.
I grew up in New England, so you’d think I’d be okay with this. But I’m not. At all. After living in Phoenix for four years I got used to the happy times of heat and bright sun all year round and never wanted to leave. I thought I’d have something similar in Provence. It is, after all, a Mediterranean climate.
Nevertheless, there it is. I got up this morning, made my morning coffee and oatmeal and opened up the blinds. I was bringing my oatmeal to the couch, when I saw it. My expression was horrified, a terrified, disgusted gasp escaped from the deepest parts of my belly. The cats sat up on their hind-legs and pressed their paws to the glass. Snow.
The husband and I had plans to go to the market and buy some items for the weekend and cat food for the cats – who eat like horses – and so we bundled ourselves up at 10am and set out.
On the way back we were discussing what to have with the lamb and red wine we had purchased and I suddenly remembered: “We still have a can of Cassoulet in the house from L’Esprit du Vin.” Lamb was forgotten. Red wine wasn’t. Cassoulet was on the menu.
Cassoulet. White beans, goose or duck, sausage from Toulouse, slow cooked in duck or goose fat.
It’s direct from the producer. I added tomatoes and onion, to which the husband said “you know there are no tomatoes in cassoulet.”
“So, I’m adapting it. I’m using a small dice.”
“Ok, I just wanted to be sure.”
There are also carrots in cassoulet, but I omitted those because I knew the husband would complain about my vegetable obsession.
Anyway. Into the pan it went over low low heat. The fat melts and heats up quickly becoming such a thick, wonderful sauce. With a glass of red wine it is truly winter-stick-to-your-ribs food. Comfort food. Perfect for watching the snow out the window and Iron Chef on the computer alternately.
We drank a Crozes Hermitage, 2007 made of only syrah grapes. It was a simple purchase from the supermarket. A light wine but with a full-bodied fruity flavor that worked well with the soft, subtly of the white beans without anything being over powering. Not a complex flavor, no oaken-tones or rosemary and herbs like you find in many Côtes du Rhone, but it was a delightful taste.
And ice cream. Vanilla and Nutella ice cream with fresh strawberries. I found these at the market, coming from Spain, and while I try to only buy French produce, Spain – as I’ve reminded the husband – is not that far away – and I couldn’t resist this touch of summer in the midst of winter. Ice cream might not have been the warmest option in the middle of snow, but I can never resist ice cream. And warm coffee with a piece of chocolate soon followed.
Curling up on the couch with a belly full of cassoulet and red wine and cheese is the way to spend a snowy Saturday. The emergency of this sudden and horrific change in climate has been averted and I have dealt with it admirably, if I may say so myself.
Toulon is not an international city. It’s French. Very French. And in poor condition. About fifteen years ago the mayor was ineffective, the police corrupt, the red light district booming and you did NOT walk around the city at night. Period. Unless you wanted drugs. Which you might. That’s alright.
Today, Toulon is under the leadership of Falco, a man born and raised in Toulon, a man who is admittedly running the city like a minor king, but also doing a good job of it. So who am I to complain?
Toulon is an up and coming city, but it’s still highly traditional. The shops and cafés close at 7pm, the restaurants don’t open until 8pm, and in between you have a small collection of strange bars and the American influence – you know what I mean – fast food joints, which I avoid at all costs. The food is French and sometimes Italian. There are a few Indian places, only two of them good. One Thai place WAAAAAAAAAAAAAY up in le Farons and some random sushi joints. However, I cannot eat sushi, being allergic (or at least believing I’m allergic) to shellfish and in the mean time strange bars are not my thing.
So what do I do on a Wednesday night, when the new movies come out and the husband and I plan a little date?
First there are drinks at Gaetano Café. When I first came to Toulon 7 years ago, the Gaetano was simply a family run pizza joint that sold relatively good pizza and had a huge open area seating near Galarie Lafayette and Place d’Arms. Since then the family has expanded a bit, buying the small place next to them and opening up not so much a café but a nice bar with a fresh, youthful look and the best of all COCKTAILS.
Cosmopolitans and margaritas! The French outside of the big cities are new to cocktails, so finding a place in Toulon that make a proper margarita or cosmo is huge. It’s not in the right glass, but the taste was there. We were pleased. The music is good, the bartender is friendly and the price is pretty correct – 7Euro50. They also serve little appetizers, which is unusual for a bar in France. Nothing great, but if you’re looking for some baked Camembert with fresh bread, nice sliced ham, an olive plate, small pizza, you can find it here and it makes a nice snack or shared starter before dinner.
We headed to Teppanyaki Roll just a few blocks away from Place Liberté and cinema for dinner. If you want Japanese in American-sized portions this place is for you. It’s a small place with black and red decor, a slightly more relaxed décor than Sushi Roll, it’s sister restaurant located right next door.
Inside there’s a lot of red light. It was a very nice for ambiance, but made for bad photography. The restaurant is tiny and it’s possible to see everything from where I was sitting. There was an electric fire appliance to keep us warm. The husband tried to get out of the way of my shot, but he didn’t try too hard.
I was a little worried about sitting in that type of indoor/outdoor greenhouse style seating during the night. While the days have been warm here in Toulon, the nights are very cold and I didn’t want to be freezing. But it was well heated and very comfortable, no drafts at all. Maybe it was the wine and saki we order.
Remember when I said I don’t eat sushi? That’s not entirely true. If the restaurant chef is willing to prepare me a vegetarian option, I’ll go for it. Remember when I said Toulon is a traditional city? That means anything vegetarian is viewed with suspicion. But not here. They were happy to make me nori, rice rolls with only avocado. It was even on their menu.
While we munched we watched our chef prepare our meals. This is what teppanyaki is all about, of course. Or at least that’s how they interpret it in Toulon.
In a small restaurant such as this one, it was impossible to put the chef anywhere other than where he was. But he is visible no matter where you are in the restaurant and entertaining to watch. I had been here before Wednesday, and he was more playful the first time, but we all have our days.
I ordered chicken with mushrooms and leeks in a sweet sauce.
It was a MASSIVE plate. I’m not sure how I finished it all, but the bathroom scale is confirming that I did. The chicken, mushroom, and leeks were very tasty and though the sauce was sweet it had a savory flavor behind it. The vegetables were well prepared, not too oily and still had a bit of crunch to them – the way I like to eat my cooked veggies. I did however, find the dish too salty. I grew up in a household that abhorred salt and consequently I don’t like foods that have a lot of salt in them – pretzels, fries, chips, popcorn – if there’s a little salt that’s one thing, if they are covered in it, it’s inedible for me. There was enough flavor here to make the dish enjoyable – otherwise I wouldn’t have finished it – but I do think the chef could have cut back on the salt a bit and created something just as flavorful.
The husband had beef teriyaki and egg fried rice.
He claims to have never had teriyaki before. I’m not sure if that’s true, I must have taken him somewhere in the States where we had a teriyaki dish, but whatever. He really wanted to try this sweet dish and enjoyed it, saying that the beef was perfectly cooked, very tender and moist. For the record, he did not find the food too salty at all.
Even though I was stuffed we had to order something for dessert. Mostly because we had plenty of time to kill before our movie at ten. And there’s one thing that Teppanyaki Roll serves that I’d been talking about since the first time I went there. Maybe it’s not authentic Japanese, but if you’re looking for the most wonderful, most unhealthful dessert, most amazing creation in the world and can’t find it in France- you’ve found it now.
Fried Ice Cream. Oh baby.
It’s not something for everyday – it can’t be. But on those rare occasions when I’m feeling naughty, I can’t resist it. Deep frying combined with ice cream. Amazing. Served with just a touch of caramel and I was in heaven. Despite being totally bad for you, there is something so pleasing about the contrast of warm, fried dough and the cool, soft texture of the ice cream. I love it.
There are much better cities in France to visit. There are more authentic Japanese restaurants out there. But I’m in Toulon and I like to eat out. When I don’t want classic French cuisine, Teppanyaki Roll is a fine option. A friendly ambiance, good food, huge portions and plenty of variety on the menu from sushi to tempura to stir-fry to kobe beef, all for a fair price. I’d like them to go easier on the salt, but otherwise Teppanyaki Roll is a fine choice for a Wednesday out on a dinner and movie date.
In France, there are two meals traditionally served during the Christmas holiday. The first is dinner on Christmas Eve, the second it Christmas lunch. They are long meals starting with mis-en-bouche and foie gras and sweet wine, going on to appetizers, main courses, cheeses, desserts, coffee and then chocolate. If you really love your sweets and live in Provence, at the traditional Provençal table thirteen desserts are served representing Jesus Christ and his apostles. They’re actually not all terrifying creams and sugars. Many are simple fruits and nuts, light cookies, small slices of pain d’épice, but it’s still a daunting task to get through a four or five course meal twice in less than 24 hours.
And then at the end when you wake up on the 26th, you realized in horror that the whole thing is going to be repeated on the 31st December and 1st January.
This holiday week, I am not stuffing myself beyond capacity, thankfully. We, the husband and I, had one slow and indulgent holiday dinner on the 24th that was more than enough.
It started with cleaning the apartment. Like most Europeans, we have a small living space, the beauty of which is that it’s quick to clean. The ugly side is that it’s just a quick to make a mess of. No matter, once we cleaned, the husband decorated. Then we set down to the five hour task of preparing our dinner. Make yourself comfortable folks, because this is going to be a long, photo-filled meal.
Our menu was both traditional and non-traditional. Of course, there was foie gras. There are hundreds of various ways to serve foie gras, most of them involving some sort of sweet sauce or jelly. But we kept it simple with homemade bread and a glass of sweet and spicy hypocras.
I’ve mentioned hypocras before. It’s been around for longer than the medieval era, I believe, but it’s often branded as a medieval aperitif. As I’ve been in a medieval frame of mind lately, it was the perfect opener to dinner, and it’s complex flavors blend well with the foie gras au naturel.
Next up was the appetizer – very non-traditional. I wanted something, one course, where vegetable was the main ingredient. So I came up with roasted pumpkin, roasted shallots, roasted garlic, topped with dried cranberries and gorgonzola.
There was a pause while we waited for the main course to finish cooking and heating. Bread and butter cleaned our pallets.
A wine with a very round, acidic taste, with hints of berry. It’s strong, but not overwhelming like many of the older Bordeaux. We might have been able to let it mature for another few years, but it was good as is and went very well with our main course…
To many people, I’ve been talking about this main course all week. It was something the husband and I dreamed of since the autumn arrived and our butcher told us he’d have this particular game in stock. A dish I first tasted at Table du Vigneron, and despite always preferring vegetables to meat, I instantly fell in love.
Daube de sanglier – or boar stew.
For those of you not familiar with a daube, it’s very close to beef bourguignon. Marinated in red wine and herbs and vegetable for 24 hours then slow cooked over a low fire for at least five hours until the boar inside is close to melting.
Boar is an extremely dark meat that turns almost black after being cooked for so long in a strong red wine, but don’t let that stop you. The sheer wildness of the taste, the depth of the flavor, it has a nutty taste to it, a woodsy taste to it, that quite frankly is like nothing else I’ve ever tasted.
We served our daube de sanglier with potato gnocchi – not homemade. I was going to make fresh taglietelle but after all the baking, roasting, mixing and cleaning, I was wiped and the pre-prepared gnocchi was too tempting to pass on as a short cut.
Warm, comforting, perfect for the windy day that had descended on the Var. At the end of cooking your boar add a touch of flour to create the most perfect gravy to drizzle on top of the gnocchi. We wiped our plates clean with more bread, and then took a break, waddling over to the couch to digest a bit and relax in the evening.
Cheese followed. Langres on the left. A very strong, but soft cheese that is similar to Epoisse. Any strong cheese, as smelly as they may be is a lovely way to enjoy the last sips of a find red, and I can never resist on any occasion.
On the right is a blue cheese that I have no idea of the name of. However, when I went to the Fromagerie in Toulon and asked the man behind the counter what he had in a blue he dragged out the whole wheel of this cheese from the shelf behind him and started singing it’s praises. Made in Alsace, exclusively by women, it’s the only naturally blued cheese left in the world, according to the fromager. Most blue cheese are done naturally, but given a little bit of – help you could say – to encourage them to mold faster, therefore they are available for sale to the public faster. This cheese however, is apparently not, and you can actually see it in the color of the mold culture and the way it has grown on the slice. It’s a bit darker and in a clump rather than all over the place in long, wildly grown veins. After listening to his monologue, I couldn’t resist and this was our second cheese for the end of the evening.
This was the only semi-failure of the evening. I think I added too much water to the sorbet mixture and it tasted more like frozen apple sauce than sorbet. However along side the hardened caramel and cinnamon cookies, it was a refreshing way to finish the meal.
The next day was spent sleeping late (for me), a fabulous run where the sky was clear and the sea completely calm, the Mistral having blown itself out the night before, and of course writing. The novel has quite a ways to go yet, and I’m determined to get as much done as possible on my vacation next week.
But that’s not all. I woke up on Christmas day and my first thought was “I need to make cup cakes.” That’s a story for another day.
Hope your holiday was as filled with warmth, good cooking and fine wine as was ours!