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, April 26, 2011

My Favourite People in the Vaucluse

Monique and Jacques


Danielle and Jacques




Les Nanas de lundi





Caroline and Regine, La Fontaine de Vaucluse

Hugues Marrec, chef, Domaine de la Camarette





Le Facteur



Sommelier Serge, left





Cheese monger, Velleron market







Laurent Brunet, butcher, Pernes-les-Fontaines



Maker of berlingots, famous candies of Carpentras



Mme. Vigier, award-winning cheese monger, Carpentras


Winemaker Vincent de Dianous, Domaine de la Crillonne




Sandi and Ron Mielitz, owners of our house in La Roque



Jim's kinésitherapeute (physio), an expert on everything from
muscles to truffles to where to buy a leather jacket


A la prochaine,
Andrea

Monday, April 25, 2011

Topinambours

Les Deux Freres, Aix-en-Provence



Winter Market


It was really cold. But the outdoor terraces of all the cafés and restaurants were still full of people, day and night. There were heaters hanging in the corners, or fancy heated standing lamps in between the tables. The Swiss students in my French class were incensed at this waste (gaspillage) of energy. I thought it was great that we could continue to enjoy the festive outdoor atmosphere, despite the plummeting temperatures. But then, as I sat out in one of these cafés, I couldn’t get away from the smoke drifting my way from the tables all around. The smoking ban in public places came into effect in February, 2007 and in bars and restaurants in 2008. But people are still allowed to smoke outdoors. So heated terraces, it seems, are very good for business.

YOU KNOW YOU’RE IN FRANCE WHEN:
Someone says “Il ne fait PAS chaud”, or “It is NOT warm”, meaning “It is #^!* freezing.” They like to speak in negatives. Likewise, if something is “pas terrible”, it is good.


Cardoons

“I think it’s important that we try cardoons,” Jim said to me very seriously. I knew what he meant. We are making a point of trying as much local produce as possible when it is in season. So we tried them. Cardoons, in case you don’t know, look like overgrown celery that someone left in the cellar for 100 years. They are not attractive. And they take some preparation, too, peeling away all the fibrous outside bits. Monique suggested simmering them in milk, not water, which is what we did. We made it into a gratin, garnished prettily with anchovies. Even though this dish holds pride of place on the Christmas Eve table, we were not convinced.
Topinambours, on the other hand, were our big winter discovery. When you find them nice and fresh in the market they are bright, with a lovely mottled purple skin. They are one of the “forgotten vegetables” (legumes perdues) making a big comeback these days. They are knobby little things, a pain to peel. But they make an extraordinary, gently flavoured but substantial soup.


In North America they are known as Jerusalem artichokes, or sunchokes. What I find interesting is that they actually came to France from Canada. Samuel de Champlain brought them over in the early 1600s, calling them the “Canada” or “French” potato.



Topinamabours


RECIPE OF THE WEEK: TOPINAMBOUR SOUP
While your husband peels and chops around 500 g. of topinambours, peel an onion and chop it. Heat a bit of oil in a medium soup pot and add the onion. Sauté until softened but not browned. Towards the end, add two garlic cloves, chopped. Cook briefly. Add the peeled and chopped topinambours. Cover generously with chicken broth, about six cups. Add salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer, partially covered, and cook until the topinambours are very tender. This takes a long time, much longer than potatoes. Take the mixture off the heat for a few minutes and then blend it until smooth, either with an immersion blender or in an upright blender, in batches if necessary. Put it back in the pot to heat gently, adding more water if it is too thick.

Like all root-vegetable soups, this one benefits from a bit of oomph in the way of a garnish. Also, the colour is a bit beige – asking for a bit of pizzazz. In January we laid slices of fresh black truffles on top – amazing. At the restaurant Les Deux Frères in Aix-en-Provence they gilded the lily by drizzling truffle oil on as well. We have also topped it with sautéed croutons made from country bread, or bacon bits, or crisped rounds of chorizo, with or without a small dollop of crème fraîche. This serves four generously.



Topinabour soup garnished with truffles

A la prochaine,

Andrea

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Village Life - Part 2

La Roque sur Pernes


There was a commotion up in the village square, so we decided to investigate. It turned out to be the funeral of a former mayor. We mingled with the people assembled: the mayor, Geneviève, our neighbours Edith and Didier. As we chatted with the neighbours, we found out there would be a meeting at the town hall that evening concerning some major construction on the house next door, starting tomorrow!

You can believe we were there with bells on. It was not easy to understand all of the dialogue in that boomy room, especially with those Provençal accents, but we maintained furrowed brows and expressions of grave concern throughout. We even asked some questions, Jim egged on by Didier.

So unfortunately, our peace and tranquility has been replaced by a lot of drilling and hammering. We’re hoping they will go on strike. They do take lunch breaks, however, so at the crack of noon, when everything falls silent, we race up to the terrace to enjoy a quiet déjeuner. However, their lunch breaks last only one hour. How un-French.

The goal is laudable. Every town is required to turn 20% of their buildings into public housing. La Roque sur Pernes overachieves in this area. The building, which has been sitting vacant for some time, is the former town hall (mairie). It will be turned into two apartments with a garden filling the empty space just next to our terrace.



Village flowers
















Mont Ventoux, "our"  mountain








Training horses in the valley


MORE QUAINT THINGS ABOUT VILLAGE LIFE:
-Movie night, advertised on big posters several weeks in advance.
-The village church bell that rings at precisely 7:05 in the morning and 12:05 “noon”.
-Running into someone on the street when you’re pressed for time. Twenty minutes later, after a long spell of good-bying and kissing, you’re on your way.
-“Vide grenier”, or emptying out the grainery – in other words, a garage sale.
-Our neighbour running out into the street in the morning in his housecoat and slippers, arms flailing, excited about something.
-Motorcycle-Man – apparently a poet, who frequents all of the same markets as us, at the same time as us. He always has a vacant gaze and a cigar in his mouth hidden by his long beard.
-On the first Sunday in April everyone pulls out their motorcycles or vespas.
-Cell phones don't work here because of the thick stone walls - a mixed blessing.
-Observing the horses galloping in the valley bellow, accompanied by a donkey, who is completely oblivious to the fact that he is not a horse.
-Opening the shutters of the kitchen window first thing in the morning – my favourite moment of the day.
-Everyone knows everyone here.  Among the people we have met in this area of the Vaucluse - not just in the village, but well beyond – I can tell you that the owner of our apartment in Aix used to live near here, so gave us Danielle’s number. Danielle taught Arnaud, the wine merchant who lives down the road. Arnaud is friends with Vincent, our winemaker friend. Vincent’s mentor, Louis Barruol of Chateau de Saint Cosme, was also a student of Danielle’s. My friend Anne knows our French teacher Brigitte. Brigitte and Palomo’s friend,Ignacio, comes to see Anne Marie up the hill in the village here, as she is one of the best masseuses around. Anne Marie certainly knows Monique, who has lived here for thirty years…

THE WORD “STEW” has never evoked a beautiful image in my head. However, daube de boeuf, blanquette de veau, fricassée de porcelet all bring to mind succulent, juicy preparations of meat simmered slowly until it melts in your mouth. I had been anticipating long, cold nights, a couple of days socked in with snow, icy roads, all the conditions for preparing such dishes. However, aside from a couple of frigid days in January, this never really materialized. So I became determined to devote myself to making at least one long-simmered meat dish each week through the month of March. This is is one of our favourites:


Laurent Brunet, our favourite butcher in Pernes-les-Fontaines

RECIPE OF THE WEEK : JOUES DE BOEUF EN DAUBE (DAUBE OF BEEF CHEEKS)
Start this dish two days ahead. Don’t worry, it doesn’t involve a lot of active work. For four people, you will need 800g. - 1k.of beef cheeks. Find the best butcher you can.  Ask him to cut the meat into large chunks so it doesn’t shrivel and dry up, about sixteen pieces all together. Choose a bowl or casserole dish to hold the ingredients tightly: the meat, two small onions, peeled and quartered; four cloves of garlic, smashed; 2 bay leaves; a few sprigs of thyme; a couple of sprigs of rosemary if you have them (or herbes de provençe), one long strip of orange zest, salt and pepper. Cover the ingredients with red wine, around two cups or more. The meat should be just submerged. Cover the bowl tightly and refrigerate overnight, or for as many hours as available.
The next day, put a small handful of dried cèpes (porcini mushrooms) in a cup of warm water. Then cook some chopped bacon (lardons) or pancetta. When the fat is rendered and the bacon starts to brown, pull it out and transfer to a large plate, leaving the fat in the pan. Meanwhile, chop a medium onion and add it to the fat. Cook until translucent, adding 2 cloves of garlic, chopped, towards the end. Remove them to the plate with the bacon. Pull the beef cheeks out of the marinade (reserving the marinade) and pat dry with paper towel. Brown them in the pan (as best you can, given they have been marinating), adding some oil if there is not enough. Wait for the meat to “lift“ from the pan before turning (in other words, don’t try to move it if it is sticking). Do this in batches, if necessary. Transfer the meat to the plate with the bacon. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of flour into the pan and stir with a wooden spoon, until it browns. Deglaze the pan with ¼ cup red wine vinegar, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to loosen any browned bits. Add the marinade. Return the meat and all the other ingredients to the pan, adding more salt and pepper. Pull the cèpes out of the water and rip them into big pieces, adding them to the pan. Add the soaking water, too, pouring carefully, leaving any sand or dirt behind (or, better, pre-strain it into a cup before adding, through a seive lined with thin tissue paper). Add enough water to just cover the meat.
Bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to a bare simmer and cover the pan tightly. If your lid is not tight, cover the pan securely with aluminum foil then the lid. My historical provençal cookbook even suggests making a dough of flour and water and sticking it along the edges of the pan to hermetically seal it.

Cook the daube for 2 ½ to 3 hours at very low heat, until the meat is very tender. Let it cool, then transfer the mixture still in the pan or moved to a casserole bowl that will fit in the fridge. Let it sit in the fridge overnight again (or as much time as you have). The fat will rise to the surface. Scrape some of the fat off (not all). Return the mixture to the stove, adding two large sliced carrots. Cook uncovered, until the sauce is reduced and gravy-like, but don’t reduce it too much, as you’ll want some sauce for the pasta.
This dish is often served with pasta (macaroni), or even small ravioli. Cook the pasta while the meat finishes warming. You can serve the pasta in a bowl on the side, moistening it with some sauce, garnishing with parsley and passing parmesan separately.

I also like serving the pasta in a gratin dish, drizzled with sauce, then topped with some grated gruyère or parmesan and breadcrumbs, passed under the broiler for a few minutes to brown. Bon appétit!



Borage flowers to garnish the dish
A la prochaine,

Andrea