Welcome to The Aix-Files

Thanks for checking out The Aix-Files, my
blog postings inspired by my year in and around
Aix-en-Provence. The spot includes travel tips,
discoveries of local food and wine, recipes,
cultural events, interviews and historical
tidbits about Southern France. Enjoy!



Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Soupe au pistou




We have now been in Aix-en-Provence for two weeks. In some ways it feels like a eternity, as so much has already happened. At the same time, I feel I need to take a deep breath and say, we’re going to be here for a year – I don’t need to accomplish everything today.

For example, we have still not done anything actual cultural in Aix, unless our oenology (wine tasting) class counts. We had a tour of the city on our first day of French class at IS, which was excellent. But we have not yet walked into the cathedral, have not visited the Musée Granet, have not ventured up to the Atelier Cézanne. But I’m trying to remain calm. We will have time for all of that.

Here’s what I have done:


Completed two weeks of French class at IS, where I met some amazing people
Picked up our car (which we bought from my friend Sandy and was waiting for us in her town of Montpeyroux), which was an odyssey I will recount another day
Experienced our first mistral, the nasty wind that blows through Provence from time to time
Experienced our first national strike, or grève
Experienced our first rain storm
Shopped at the market every day – which I am now an expert at doing during our 30-minute break during French class
Learned how to play pétanque properly
Climbed Mont Ste.-Victoire (see photo) where I picked handfuls of wild rosemary and thyme
Peddled down the Gorge du Verdon
Swam in the ocean at La Ciotat
Made espresso in our machine successfully, finally. Next step, to steam the milk.

Our first Saturday at the market was surely the most exciting. There is a market in the Place Richelme seven days a week, which I find so impressive, and on Saturdays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, the market triples in size and spills into several squares in the old town of Aix, plus all of the streets that connect them. The fruit and vegetable displays are overwhelming. But then, if one has time, there are the clothes stalls (not bad fashions, actually), household items, linens (Provençal, of course), antiques, and then the other food items like tapenades, cheese and roasted chickens (which smell fantastic as you walk by).

One of my first stops was to buy a panier, a market basket. I chose one that was way too large (I bumped into everyone along the narrow paths after that) but nevertheless filled it quickly to the brim.




INGREDIENT OF THE WEEK: Coco beans

So what went into my first market basket? My very first purchase was a healthy bunch of plump pink garlic. Then an enormous bouquet of basil. Also coco beans, which are not normally found chez nous: they are long beans with a colourful mottled red and white pod which one must shell, then cook gently in water for awhile, say for soup (see below). We were also enticed by the array of vividly-coloured tomatoes – red, green, black, pink, large, small. Also the delicate haricots verts, which I find quintessentially French and are perfectly in season. Then zucchini and fresh farm eggs. Of course we couldn’t resist the goat cheese displayed by a local producer, who offered a variety of styles, from absolutely fresh, sold in a slender cup (brousse), to pungent week-old cheese with a golden crust. We also searched out some peaches, both the white and yellow variety, which need a couple of days to ripen, plus the most succulent figs imaginable. We also needed to stop at the olive stall for wrinkly olives from Nyons, a black olive tapenade (made from crushed olives mixed with a little garlic, anchovies, and a drop of brandy) seasoned in this case with basil, caviar d’aubergine (a fancy name for purée of eggpant), pistou (more on that below), a one-year supply of sun-dried tomatoes (why?) and a handful of salt-cured anchovies.

RECIPE OF THE WEEK: SOUPE AU PISTOU

This was the first meal we made after arriving in our apartment. We were scrambling to unpack our suitcases, load up the fridge, un-muddle the instructions for all of these new French appliances and enjoy the last rays of sunlight. Nevertheless we managed to put together a satisfying soup that just sang with the flavours and scents of the market.

I didn’t quite measure the ingredients, but threw in about a handful of each vegetable (which served two generously). First I chopped an onion and cooked it in some olive oil. I added a bay leaf and a few sprigs of thyme, then garlic. When they were soft I added the shelled coco beans and about 4 and a half cups of water and simmered them while I chopped the other vegetables. In they went, in order: carrots, beans, zucchini, tomato and then, because I forgot to buy potatoes, a handful of penne pasta that happened to be in the pantry. Cooking time was about 50 minutes total (according some of my recipe books it often takes a couple of hours, but not in my case).

Then for serving, I borrowed a tip from Patricia Wells and floated a large basil leaf in each bowl into which I spooned a blob of pistou, which is meant to be stirred into the soup. Pistou is the French equivalent of pesto. It’s made with basil, garlic and oil, but is missing the pine nuts and cheese that you usually find in pesto. At home I enjoy making a fresh pistou, but here, all you need to do is ask for it at the market, and you have a little barquette of the freshly-made stuff.

A note, pistou is pronounced like pee-stoo. When we had friends around one time and I served this soup, Ann kept asking me where the peas were. She thought I had said “pea stew”.




YOU KNOW YOU’RE IN FRANCE WHEN:

You hear someone say “Ooh-la-la-la-la-la-la”

The extra “la-las” are reserved for an extraordinary event. This was our taxi driver’s response to observing another car drive up the wrong way on a one-way street, heading towards the pedestrian zone.

A bientôt,
Andrea

1 comment:

Cynthia said...

WOW! I can hardly believe all you've done in two weeks. I've lived here 20 years (and counting) and I have yet to climb Mt. Ste. Victoire! Brava! You're in for a year of accomplishments and sweet memories. Or, maybe like some of us, you'll just stay. Cyn