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!



Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Bouillabaisse, or Lights, Camera, Action!

The serious cooking lesson













Old Port of Marseille


 Marseille fish market (conger eel)



 
 
”Noble” fish ready for simmering




Rockfish ready for the broth (I like the cute little green ones);

Runaway crab along with the other cooked fish




Presentation
 
The result – the second yummy course














I was just hanging my laundry out to dry in the garden when a photographer appeared. He claimed to be with a film company and was taking some shots in advance of the shoot. (He promised to avoid taking pictures of my lingerie.)

In fact, they were planning to film some scenes for a police comedy in madame’s apartment upstairs. And they wanted to use our apartment as a makeup room. As they needed it from noon until 2 am (in the end they were here until 5 am) they offered to put us up in a hotel room for the night. Fine. We checked in to our hotel at noon, and then went about our daily activities.

When we returned to our room before dinner, we noticed something strange. The lights were all on, for one thing. Then we looked around and found the room full of clothes and duffle bags. Were we meant to share our room with the actors? We went around to the reception desk and saw that the crew was actually filming a scene right there and then, outside the front entrance of the hotel. When they were finished the concierge introduced us to the producer to clarify the situation. Without apology, he simply said we shouldn’t worry, they were just using our room as a change-room for the actors and to store their costumes. Hmm. I guess TV producer operate differently in France.

BOUILLABAISSEFor 58 euros you can get possibly the best version of bouillabaisse in Marseille at Restaurant Miramar. But for 120 euors, you can spend the day with the chef learning how to make it yourself. Of course we chose the latter.

This was one day before the big film shoot at our apartment. As it happened, a different film crew arrived just after us at the restaurant in Marseille. They were planning to make a TV show, the subject being, I believe, the fragility of the heritage of French cooking. As has been my experience elsewhere and in Aix, when a TV crew shows up, they kind of take over, which is what happened. But that’s okay, it added to the excitement of the day.

First a bit of food history: Originally, bouillabaisse was a humble fish stew made by fishermen for themselves and their families using the fish that wasn’t sold at the market that day. The fish was simply boiled in seawater in a cauldron by the docks. The other basic ingredients were old crusts of bread rubbed with garlic to float in the soup, along with a sauce -- aioli or rouille. Gradually the soup became a famous local dish and chefs started adding luxury ingredients, like lobster, turning this poor-man’s soup into something really over-the-top. To rein in the abuses, a charter was formed in 1980, outlining a basic recipe, the types of fish that should be used and the special service for the dish. You can see a little sign with the charter posted in many restaurants today, proving they are following the rules.

The important thing about a bouillabaisse today is that it is a complete meal, served in two courses. The first course is the fish broth on its own, which is made from olive oil, onion, garlic, fennel (fresh, dried branches and seeds), tomatoes, pastis, saffron and pepper and a mixture of small rockfish. These fish are sold in the markets here and are identified especially for fish soup. The ingredients are cooked for around 20 minutes, then chopped up, for example with an immersion blender, then forced through a chinois, or fine sieve. This thick fish broth is then served as is, with crusts of bread on the side. You rub each crouton with garlic, then top it with sauce rouille, which is a garlicky mayonnaise made rusty (rouille) with saffron and powdered red pepper (piment doux, which is milder than cayenne).

The second course consists of six “noble” fish, which have been simmered in the broth, starting with the firmest and biggest, ending with the smallest and most delicate. These fish are meant to be brought to the table and presented formally before being divvied up and served in soup bowls with boiled potatoes and a little more broth. The rouille and croutes stay on the table for you to add as you wish.

If you happen to be in this part of the world, your noble fish should contain rascasse (scorpion fish), rouget grondin (a type of red mullet), vive (weever), Saint Pierre (John Dory), lotte (monkfish) and conger eel. When they are piled on the platter, ready for cooking, they are a tangle of wild colours and shapes, bright and shiny, cute, and truly grotesque.
--
Our own experience began with a visit to the fish market in the old port on the Quai de Belges, surrounded by hundreds of fishing boats and pleasure boats glistening in the sunlight. We met the fishermen themselves, plying their catch of the day - very different from the fancy fish shops with lovely fillets. The pickings were rather slim that day, as it had been windy the day before, so many fishermen were not able to go out.

We then moved into the restaurant where we sipped some café while waiting for chef to arrive. Finally, he bounded in, with a sack of various other fish on his back, having had to pick it up himself, due to the gas and transportation strikes. Chef Christian Buffa is still young, but already commands a huge reputation for his version of fish soup. He boldly calls it the “vraie (real) bouillabaisse”. And he runs a tight ship. We were installed in one part of the kitchen, watching a whole battery of cooks bustling around elsewhere. He divided his time between us, the needs of the TV crew and bossing around all of his staff.

He walked us through all of the steps. Normally I prefer more of a hands-on experience, but in this case, I was happy to let Christian heave the cleaver and hack our conger eel into big chunks. We were full participants, however, in the making of the sauce rouille. We started with an insane amount of minced garlic, three egg yolks, a few spoonfuls of water, salt, pepper, saffron and piment doux, as noted, a mild chilli pepper powder. We then whisked in a full litre of oil - half olive oil, half peanut oil. The taste is unbelievably rich and unctuous, with a bite, and you would also not believe how much of it you can eat during the course of the meal.

I once swore I would never eat eel, but revelled in the flavour, mixed with all of the other tender fish, gently cooked, bathed in the smooth broth. To experience it there in Marseille, its birthplace, outdoors on a hot sunny day, watching the boats bobbing in the bay, was truly a memorable experience.

The TV show airs on France 2 on Thursday, Nov. 25.


A la prochaine,
Andrea

Sunday, November 21, 2010

La Coiffure




I chuckled when Shelley, my hairdresser at home, expressed concern. “What will you do about a hairdresser in France?” she wondered. What she didn’t realize is that in France you find a hairdresser on practically every street corner. Even the smallest village that barely supports a church or bar will have a hairdresser. So I was not worried. Plus I had a good recommendation from Madame upstairs for a place just around the corner. My first French coiffure.

I was a bit concerned, though, when I met Nicolas. He is bald. I always figure you can tell something about a hairdresser by his or her own hairstyle. So in this case I had no way of knowing. It turns out I had nothing to worry about. It was a truly glorious experience. I swear he washed my hair for a full fifteen minutes, with massage, the works. I happily passed the time leafing through the latest edition of Paris Match while sipping a cup of tea. I even learned a few new words in French (une mèche is a lock of hair). After two and a half hours of pampering, as I unloaded my wallet, I caught another glimpse of my new look in the mirror and couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. Then I stepped into the street, into the fierce mistral.

OTHER THINGS YOU FIND ON EVERY STREET CORNER:
-Cafés and bars

-Boulangeries (bakeries)
-Parfumeries
-Lingerie shops
-Crèpe stalls
-Pharmacies
-Real Estate Agents (apparently everyone, including everyone in France, wants to move to Aix)


FASHION TRENDS, AS I’VE OBSERVED:
-Men with buzz cuts
-Men with really bushy hair, blown from the back (imagine riding on a motorcycle backwards)
-Men with pink shirts. And pink ties.
-Men and women in striped shirts (think sailors)
-Women in mumus (in summer)-Women in skimpy floor-length sundresses
-Women with underwear hanging out all over the place – all women, not just young girls
-Big belts
-Big purses
-Big scarves, now that it’s getting a bit colder
-Anything gray
-Leggings with crazy designs
-Crinolines

INGREDIENT OF THE WEEK: WILD MUSHROOMS
‘Tis the season. Anyone who knows Jim knows his passion for wild mushrooms, of any kind. He loves coming to the market with me on Saturday mornings because that is when the mushroom man has his best selection. There are literally heaps and heaps of them. He’ll happily pass an hour going from a pile of cèpes to chanterelles (golden or grey), trompettes de la mort (black ones), girolles, mousserons or lactaires, examining them carefully, chatting with the vender.

RECIPE: FRICASSÉE OF WILD MUSHROOMS
The day of my hair appointment, I was away so long Jim was waiting for me on the front step, thinking I had maybe been locked out. This was a good day for him to take charge in the kitchen and prepare the mushrooms. This recipe is adapted from the Atelier des Chefs, where I have now had several courses. You can serve it on a bed of baby spinach with a soft-boiled egg on top, as we did, as a first course, or serve it alongside some beef, duck or chicken.

Start with a bunch of wild mushrooms of the season (or one choice variety). We used many of the ones listed above, but be sure to choose the freshest possible. Personally, I would say, if you have cèpes, I would use them alone, rather than mix them with the rest. Clean them carefully with a brush and a tiny knife to knock out the little bits of earth and grass (if you insist on washing them, do it as briefly as possible. Jim never washes his). If they are large, cut or tear them into bite-size piece. Sear the mushrooms very quickly in a very hot pan with olive oil (Jim prefers butter to olive oil, but then you have to watch that the butter doesn’t burn. So you can also use a combination of butter and oil). The mushrooms will give off some water. In our class we simply poured the water off, but at home we keep these juices for another purpose or reduce them to be part of the finished product.

Meanwhile, boil some eggs, one per person. Let them simmer for around 4 and a half minutes after they come to a boil. Cool them a bit under cold water, then peel.

To your warm mushroom pan, add some lardons (chopped-up bacon) and let them soften, then add in some chopped shallots. Add back the mushrooms and cook again over high heat, seasoning with salt and pepper. You want them to brown a bit, not get soft and mushy. Just at the end of cooking, add some chopped chives and a small knob of butter. Set the mushrooms aside. To the pan add some sherry vinegar and stir, scraping, to dissolve the brown bits. Reduce it to the consistency of a sauce.

When you are ready to serve, spread some tiny spinach leaves onto each plate (if you are doing this as a first course). Top with the mushrooms. At the Atelier des Chefs we used those fancy metal moulds, so we could pack the mushrooms into a neat circle, then remove the mould. Then place an egg, cut in half, on top; and finally, nap the plate with more chives and the vinegar pan juices. You can also make a dramatic design using one of those new balsamic vinegar squeegee bottles. Have fun.

A la prochaine,
Andrea

.

French Class












I seem to have pulled one over on them. Not intentionally, but I have been placed in a French class that’s too advanced for my level. And I’m not sure if they know it yet. The other day, I was having lunch with Ruth, a psychiatrist from Switzerland, who had just given her presentation in class. Her topic was the relativity of time, or actually the acceleration of time in society today, how the rhythm of life is changing, how technology is transforming our behaviour and how our social life is being affected.

Then she made a point of asking my age, because she had no clue. Of course I am now fifty, but it was funny, because just at that moment, as I was trying to have a meaningful conversation with her, I felt like a child, because there was so much I wanted to say, but I struggled with the means to express it. And so I continue, plugging away at my vocabulary, and wondering when they’re going to find me out.

WHAT I’VE BEEN DOING:
-Finally learned what to do with a fresh foie gras, including how to poach an eggshell filled with mousse of foie gras.
-Baked a swiss chard tarte and brought it to a lunch with some people who live here.
-Visited the Oppidum, the original Celto-Ligurian settlement north of Aix, as well as the Lauves district, from where Cézanne painted Montagne Sainte-Victoire.
-Went on a day-long mountain hike in the Verdon with some actual French people, then another one in the Alpilles. This makes me a two-time imposter: pretending that I can speak French and pretending that I am a mountain climber.
-Tried to pretend I was a local by sitting at a café, reading a French newspaper. Then I looked over at the man next to me who was reading Nietzsche.

OBSERVATIONS:
Autumn lasts a very long time here. We’ve watched the leaves change so gradually. Now the Cours Mirabeau is filling up with piles and piles of large leaves from the plane trees. The mornings and evenings are cool, but afternoons, if sunny, are still warm enough for lunch in the garden. Our apartment is called Sous le Tilleul. And the tilleul, or linden tree is still full and green.

RESTAURANT: LE BRUN’CH
I went by this place several times before I realized what it’s called, because the name, Le Brun’ch, is just scrawled on the window. It’s a really cute little hole-in-the wall, or “bouiboui”, not far from our French school, where I ate with Ruth. It’s jam-packed at lunch, so people rush to get there in time. The attraction is the array of home-made tartes, both savoury and sweet, that are displayed in the window. Savoury choices might include spinach with goat cheese; artichoke; or lardons (bacon) with crème fraîche. The list changes daily. And at 2.10 euros per slice, it’s got to be the best deal in town. Add a large green salad for another euro and you have the perfect lunch. There is also a daily plat du jour for a mere 7.50 euros.

What I like about this place is that it’s a family affair, with various family members both preparing and serving. Unfortunately, madame broke her leg recently, so is unable to stand behind the counter. I’m not certain who’s doing the actual baking at the moment, but I do know that she is maintaining quality control. Because she is still on hand every day, monitoring the proceedings, occupying a choice table by the counter, despite the long queue out the door.

Pictured above:
The flower maket in front of the Hôtel de Ville; Montagne Ste-Victoire from Cézanne's viewpoint at Les Lauves; Mom and Dad in Saignon, in the Luberon, one of our favourite memories;
the linden tree (tilleul) in our garden; foie gras mousse poached in an eggshell with a crisp caramel with pepper.


A la prochaine,




Andrea

Monday, November 15, 2010

Ratatuski





















Exploring Aix with new people can be a relevation. We have our “route” now when people come to visit, taking in all of the major sights. But when Steve and Louise came to visit from Paris, it was a different story. Steve is an architect and has an eye for the most minute details of a building. He can say, with a fair degree of accuracy, when a structure was built and at which point the style started to change. For example, he absolutely adored the Place d’Albertas. Dropped right in the middle of a maze of shopping streets, this square retains an enchanting, otherworldly atmosphere. It was built for the marquis Jean Baptiste d’Albertas, president of the audit office, in 1745, and he lived in the mansion with his family in regal glory. He even had the buildings across the street demolished and insisted that whoever bought the property had to construct the new buildings in a homogeneous style. Steve marvelled at how one corner of the square is rounded, while the other is at a sharp angle. He strolled around, appreciating every blade of grass and bit of moss that grew between the old cobblestones. And he admired the elegant fountain in the middle. The square looks almost like a theatre stage. And in fact it was, the day we arrived. It was the setting for the music in the streets festival, so a stage was set up in the middle with a grand piano.

As we strolled down the Cours Mirabeau, admiring the majestic hôtels particuliers on the south side, Steve also laughed at the two strong Atlases (muscle-men), supporting the balcony of the baroque Hôtel Maurel de Pontevès, built for Pierre Maurel, a cloth merchant who became Lord de Pontevès, a high-ranking finance administrator. As you can see in the photo above, of the Pavillon Vendôme, the fellows seem to have wopping head-aches.

We also ventured into modern Aix, whose buildings seem shockingly contemporary after spending so much time in the old town. Steve was anxious to see the new Grand Théatre de Provence and the striking Pavillon Noir - yes, it is constructed of black concrete with lots of glass - and houses the local ballet company. He also filled us in on the controversial architect, Rudy Ricciotti, who has a somewhat anti-establishment persona. I have yet to check out a public rehearsal there (free) and apéro-danses, where you can meet and chat with the performers.

At the market Louise and Steve ran around like kids in a candy shop, buying metres of fabric for tablecloths, objects made of olive wood, a beautiful scarf, as well as fruits and vegetables. It was a joy to see them so excited, as they have all of Paris available to them.

We finished our visit at the legendary Brasserie des Deux Garçons at the end of the Cours Mirabeau. ‘Les 2G’ is named after the two waiters who bought the café in 1840. It had already been going strong since 1792. The inside is grand and elegant, if a bit faded, in shades of deep green and gold, with tall mirrors and chandeliers.

INGREDIENT: EGGPLANT
One Monday morning - the slimmest of the market days, as the fish stalls and most of the meat stores are closed, -I perused the aisles, wondering what to make, when I came upon some perfectly gorgeous striped eggplants. All sorts of ideas popped into my head: a layered eggplant tian with tomato; grilled eggplant to serve with bread, pistou, tapenade and goat cheese; or pasta with roasted eggplant.

RECIPE OF THE WEEK: RATATUSKI
This is not a typical preparation, as it involves grilling the vegetables rather than frying or roasting, which to my way of thinking, makes it lighter and tastier. It’s really handy to do in our summer kitchen outdoors because I have a sink next to the grill, next to a couple of hot burners.
Ratatouille is so versatile. You can eat it warm right away, at room temperature later on, or even better, re-warmed the next day. Serve it as a side dish with fish or lamb; serve it as a vegetarian main course; or serve it for lunch in a wide bowl with a poached egg on top, as I did with Louise and Steve. Louise dubbed it Ratatuski, so that’s how it shall remain.

With some preparation and coordination, you can get everything going at the same time and very quickly. Start with around 500 grams or so of each vegetable: onion, eggplant, zucchini and tomato. And a few cloves of garlic. Get a large wide pan heating with some olive oil while you chop your onions. Throw them in the pan to soften them. While the grill is heating, wash and slice the eggplant and zucchini lengthwise, not too thin. Brush them with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and lay them on the grill, in batches if necessary. Turn them over part way through. You want them to be nicely charred and tender. Pull them off as they are done and chop them into bite-sized pieces, then set aside. Chop your tomatoes. Mince the garlic and add it to the onion, stirring, for one minute, then add the tomatoes to the onion and garlic. Toss in a couple of bay leaves and some sprigs of thyme and rosemary (or a couple of teaspoons of herbes de provence). Simmer the mixture, allowing the tomatoes to release their juices. Then add the chopped eggplant and zucchini to the pan, stir, and simmer the mixture for awhile, around 15 minutes or so. You want it to be juicy and the vegetables to be nice and tender, but still holding their shape. Don’t let it all turn to mush. If it seems watery, turn up the heat and reduce some of the liquid. If it seems dry, add some water. Towards the end of cooking time, pull out the bay leaves and herb sprigs and add a big handful of chopped or ripped basil. Season well with salt and pepper. At serving time, feel free to drizzle on some superb olive oil.

YOU KNOW YOU’RE IN FRANCE WHEN:
A waiter rushes past your table, saying ‘J’arrive!’ (I’m coming!). What he really means is ‘Je part!’ (I’m leaving!) because it will be a long time before you see him again.
Pictured above: Steve in the Place d'Albertas; Pavillon Vendôme; Steve pointing out all of the Cézanne signs; cooking in the summer kitchen; gorgeous striped eggplants from the market.

A la prochaine,
Andrea

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Runnig in Aix











They must have been inspired by Winnipeg’s Portage Avenue. The Cours Mirabeau, the beautiful promenade that is the heart of Aix-en-Provence, is wide and gracious, built originally for horse-drawn carriages. One difference is, the Cours Mirabeau is lined with majestic plane trees, with their colourful, mottled trunks, and is highlighted by four lovely fountains. Many people call it the Champs Elysées of Aix – just don’t say that to any Aixois.

It is the obvious choice for my early morning runs, as it’s just two minutes from our apartment. It ranks up there, but still not quite as high as the Promenade des Anglais along the Côte d’Azur in Nice, the Riva degli Schiavoni, along the lagoon in Venice at sunrise, or the waterfront route to the Sydney opera house. Nevertheless, it works. Except for the fact that I can run the entire length of it, from la Rotonde to the fountain of Roi René, in just five minutes. Unless there is a market on the street, where I can be distracted by any number of artisan or clothing displays. To lengthen my run I must then do a zig-zag along the tiny streets just south of the cours. These streets are mercifully on a straight grid pattern; so I don’t get lost, as I still seem to do in the mediaeval old town. This district is known as the Quartier Mazarin, named for the Archbishop Mazarin, brother of the cardinal. The area is comprised of stately ‘hôtels particuliers’, which are not really hotels, but stately mansions built by members of parliament and the bourgeoisie during the golden age of Aix, starting in the 17th Century. It’s a very pleasant area with little traffic. Today the buildings have been turned into schools, including a music school, businesses, and smaller apartments. Our apartment, in fact, is in a hôtel particulier.

So as I run along one of these tranquil streets I pass by the slender gothic church of Saint-Jean-de-Malte, which used to contain the graves of the Counts of Provence; the Musée Granet, housed in the former Palais de Malte, built in 1676; the Collège Mignet where Cézanne studied and where he met the writer Emile Zola; and then my favourite little Fountain of the Four Dolphins.

If I do my run after 9 am, the nearby Parc Jourdan is at my disposal. One half of the park is devoted to pétanque (boules) courts, very busy (mostly with men) on Friday evenings. The upper level is green space with a playground and home to the Centre d’Oralité de la Langue d’Oc. That is the language that was spoken in mediaeval times in the Midi (southern France) and is obviously being preserved at this institute. I should also mention, while Aix is not mountainous like Corsica, it is built on a slope, so there are always many ups and downs involved in any run.

There is actually a large park where locals run regularly, but it is not that handy to us. One day I set out to find it. I was taking French class in the morning and ‘Discovering Provençale Cuisine’ in the afternoons and evenings. So in between the afternoon cheese tasting course (20 cheeses with wine) and the evening cooking class (fricassée of wild mushrooms and beef with olive & red wine sauce), I had a bit of time. I put on my runners, which I had brought along in my backpack, and set out for the Promenade de La Torse. Very soon I found the river La Torse, but kept running into dead ends. When I asked people, they kept telling me to continue on further south.

I never did find the park that day, as I ran out of time. However, I did find a fig tree that didn’t seem to belong to any particular property. I made note of it. Now I know I can steal a few leaves to make the dessert I learned at Auberge la Fenière from the renowned female chef, Reine Sammut.

INGREDIENT: FIGS
I have been buying fresh figs at the market nearly every day since we arrived and they still seem to be going strong, although there are now fewer varieties. Figs seem to work at any point in the meal. On little toasts with Roquefort, a bit of thyme and a drizzle of honey, warmed, they make an elegant hors d’oeuvre. You can add them to a saucepan with wine and shallot to make a lovely sauce for duck or pork. You can incorporate them into a veal stew. You can present them simply for dessert with a bit of brousse, which is the local fresh cheese (like ricotta) and a drizzle of honey. Or you can just nibble on them as you make your way home from the market.

RECIPE OF THE WEEK: FIGS WITH GOAT CHEESE STEAMED IN FIG LEAVES
This can be your cheese and fruit course all in one. You will need one fig leaf and three figs per person. Place the fig leaf (or big square of foil) face down. Trim the thick stem of the leaf so it lies flat (you have to fold it up, so you don’t want it to break as you fold). Slice your figs, but not all the way through, so they look like lovely blossoms, and place them in the centre of the fig leaf. Break up some goat cheese and slip the bits in and around the figs. Be generous. Season them with salt and pepper (yes). Drizzle on a big spoonful of flavourful honey. Carefully fold the leaves up and around the figs, enclosing them completely. Tie them with string (if you are using foil, simply fold it up and crimp it at the top so that it looks pretty.) Place the packets in a steamer or double boiler (our apartment actually has a vapeur, or steamer, built into the counter, just perfect for these cute little packets). Steam them for 7 or 8 minutes. Check one part way through – you don’t want the cheese to melt totally - the concoction should be warm and soft. Serve them on individual plates, cutting the string and allowing the guests to open up his or her own packet. Drizzle on a bit of superb olive oil. Yes, trust me, it’s delicious that way.

OBSERVATIONS:
-Arriving late at the market is not always a bad thing. One day, as they were starting to close up, we came to a stall and asked the price of a barquette of figs. She placed one in front of us and said “One barquette, three euros.” She placed another in front of us. “Two barquettes, three euros.”
-They are constantly cleaning the streets here.
-The streets are constantly littered with cigarette butts. And dog doo-doo.

PICTURED ABOVE:
The Cours Mirabeau from two different angles; our friends Louise and Steve with the Four Dolphins; the Fontaine de la Rue des Bagniers with a bronze medallion of Cézanne above; lunch ready to go in our garden, consisting of salad with figs, walnuts and lonzo (Corsican charcuterie).

A la prochaine,
Andrea

Saturday, November 6, 2010

So What is Aix Like?
















Evidently, Enzo Enzo has a problem remembering her umbrella. It’s the subject of one of her famous songs, which I’m not sure I completely understand. Nevertheless, we loved her concert, which took place as part of the festival of French Chansons. She obviously trained as a dancer, too, because her show felt almost choreographed, complete with stretching out on the piano to emphasize a particularly intimate sentiment. It was a polished and elegant performance.

Me, I love my big red umbrella. But Aix is known for its endless sunshine, so I have not had the need for it until a few days ago. We had a big storm (nothing like the “bomb” that hit Manitoba), which didn’t prevent us from trooping around the old town with Laura, visiting from Winnipeg via Paris, for the day. The next day was November 1st, All Saints’ Day, which is a big holiday in France. (Aix is blissfully a Hallowe’en-free zone.) And despite the drizzle, we ventured out for coffee and found the streets still teeming with people. I guess bakeries and cafes are considered essential services, because even on a big holiday such as this, many of them remained open.

One of my friends has been wondering about what it’s actually like here, where we’re living.

So maybe it’s best just to start with a general overview. Aside from all the sunshine,
Aix is a city of water. The Romans settled here in 122 BC because of this rich thermal resource and called it Aquae Sextiae, or the waters of Sextius. The spa is still going strong today, for those in need of pampering and relaxation and who are willing to lighten their pocketbooks a little. Aix has the nickname City of a Thousand Fountains, but really there are just 100 to explore, from the grandest, the black and white marble Fontaine de la Rotonde (see photo), to the most adorable, the fountain of the four dolphins.

Aix is a city of universities. Despite a population of only 146,000, the city supports several universities, which means 40,000 students. That makes for a lively, young community and a vibrant nightlife. Among the educational institutions are a number of language schools, of which I have been a happy but struggling participant.

Aix is a city of music and art and culture. We’re looking forward to the world-renowned Lyric Arts Festival in July, an opera celebration that is a major draw for music-lovers. During the year, the classical music offerings are slimmer. But we did enjoy the Modigliani String Quartet in the gorgeous new concert hall, the Grand Théâtre de Provence. We also took in a few great concerts in the festival of French Chanson -Enzo Enzo mentioned above, and Yves Jamait - which is music we really love, plus a huge concert – well over a thousand in attendance - featuring the Coriscan group I Muvrini (yes, we can’t get Corsican music out of our blood), which took place at the big modern Pasino (Casino).

Paul Cézanne is the most celebrated artist from Aix, and I still have much more to explore as I trace his steps: his favourite haunts, his various homes, the schools attended, etc.

We checked out a stimulating photography exhibit at the new Cité du Livre, featuring pictures by photojournalists in war-torn regions around the world. We still have yet to attend a dance performance at the very modern (and controversial) Pavillon Noir.

Aix is a market town. Local producers ply their produce seven mornings a week in the Place Richelme. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, the market spills into the lower Place de Précheurs and all the little streets in between. It’s a veritable explosion of colours, smells, shapes and tastes, again, nothing like the bomb that hit Manitoba, but stimulating nonetheless.

INGREDIENT OF THE WEEK: TOMATOES
Okay, tomatoes don’t need much of an explanation. But as far as I’m concerned, if I’m looking for a piece of heaven in Provence, I can find it in a single tomato, sliced on a plate with a sprinkle of fleur de sel (that’s salt) from the Camargue. And I’ll take it outside to enjoy under the sun in the courtyard garden of our apartment (see photo).

At the market I can choose a big lumpy beef-steak (coeur de boeuf), elongated tear-drop, yellow, green or a striped zebra-variety tomato. I could improve on my tomato slightly by adding a morsel of local goat cheese, choosing between a fresh and mild one, an oozing creamy one, or a firm one that has been aged for three days or up to a week. I could also possibly enhance it with a slice of fresh baguette, maybe a leaf of basil. Oh, and a drizzle of local fruity olive oil. Some of the best olive oils come from near here, at La Fare-les Oliviers, Mausanne-les-Alpilles and Les Baux de Provence.

The best tomatoes of all, I must say, can be found at the farm of Jean-Luc Danneyrolles, whose farm, La Molière, is situated about an hour north of here, just south of Apt. I’ll tell you more about him another day. We bought the last of M. Danneyrolles’ tomatoes the other day, so I know we’re at the end of the season and I’m starting to feel a bit wistful.


All the fixings

RECIPE OF THE WEEK: PAN BAGNAT
Pan bagnat, which means “bathed bread”, is ubiquitous around here. It’s basically a salade niçoise in sandwich form. It’s meant to be quite juicy, so look for a sturdy bread to contain it, with a firm crust, either one large bun per person, or a baguette sliced into two or three portions. My version isn’t the most traditional, but it’s awfully tasty. First, slice a small red onion thinly and soak in cold water with a bit of vinegar to soften its bite. Then make a vinaigrette with a little bit of red wine vinegar, lots of olive oil and lots and lots of minced garlic. Drizzle or brush some of it on both sides of the cut bread. Don’t be shy. Then start layering. I like to start with a big smear of tapenade (mushed-up olives), then tuna (canned – and don’t worry about draining off all of the water, because this will add to the “bathed” quality). Then slices of tomato, some slices of red onion (drained) slices of boiled egg, salt and pepper, a couple of anchovies, and a handful of ripped basil or arugula leaves. Close the sandwich, press down on it firmly, and if you have time, wrap it tightly and let it sit somewhere cool for a few hours, or overnight. The flavour will improve. Bon appétit!

Assembling Pan Bagnat


QUAINT THINGS ABOUT AIX:
-The many cobbled streets in the old town (and the women in high heels who try to negotiate them).
-The old-fashioned merry-go-round at the top of our street.
-The truck that rolls slowly down the Cours Mirabeau with a loud-speaker, inviting us to the circus.

A la prochaine,
Andrea