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!



Friday, May 20, 2011

L'Aixoise


Come run the Aixoise!





I'm the one in pink



After the first hill  . . .
French women don’t like to exercise. So says Mireille Guiliano, author of “French Women Don’t Get Fat”. Yes, I realize, these last two statements don’t add up. But it’s true, in the eight months I’ve been in France I’ve encountered very few female runners on my routes.

Therefore, I was more than a little surprised to see the announcement of a 7 km run for women in Aix-en-Provence. Would anyone even sign up, I wondered? I did.

On race day, as I walked down to the Cours Mirabeau, dressed in my requisite pink tee-shirt (we were all asked to wear these pink shirts in support of breast cancer), I was again surprised to encounter so many other women wearing pink tee-shirts gradually emerging from streets and alleys, left and right. I noticed a trio of women descending from a street near mine, so I eventually sauntered over to introduce myself.
Elise, Christine and Natalie are tall, sveldt, and very fit. As soon as the race began, they took off like bats out of hell.

So much for ‘French women don’t like to exercise’. Forty-four minutes and 36 seconds later, Christine, already relaxed and rejuvenated, leaned on the railing and cheered me on as I made my way to the finish line.

The race itself was invigorating, euphoric, challenging (hills!) and deeply satisfying. And they did not play Chariots of Fire as we set off.

One funny incident was that a wind blew up (the mistral) and sent clouds of pollen into the air, so everyone started sneezing uncontrollably before the race, including me (and I have no allergies), and continued to do so after the race while we milled about drinking water and nibbling on bananas.





La Torse




LA PROMENADE DE LA TORSE
This park was part of the route of our big race. It’s a five minute walk down from the house we have just moved into, and is my destination for my morning runs (therefore a steep hike back up at the end of my run!) so I am now familiar with all of the dangerous bumps and roots sticking up. It is a beautiful oasis running along the Torse river, definitely the training park for serious runners, but also the place where friends walk together pushing baby strollers; where fathers teach their young sons to pee on trees; where people walk their dogs; where older people get their exercise hobbling with canes; where families spread picnics on the grass; where couples stroll romantically.


OTHER RACES IN SOUTHERN FRANCE:
-The Luberon, Oct. 2, 2011 http://www.marathon-luberon.com/
-Marathon des Alpes-Maritimes, Nov. 20, 2011. This is a one-way marathon along the Côte d’Azur from Nice to Cannes. What you do when you get to Cannes, I don’t know. Stay forever? www.marathon06.com


Book launch with Reine Sammut

Farinoman Fou



Yes, I climbed to the top of this mountain!

Traditional music festival, Cours Mirabeau


LATELY WE ALSO:
-attended the very swishy book launch of Reine Sammut’s new cookbook at L’Auberge la Fenière in Lourmarin (there’s a picture of me in it!)
-interviewed Farinoman Fou, a baker in Aix-en-Provence, for the Montreal Gazette (June 1)
-climbed the knobby Garlaban in Pagnol country (where Jean de Florette is set)
-stumbled upon a traditional music festival in the street
-decorated our salads with wild borage flowers
-dropped wild pansies into our apéritifs
-found my first wild stalk of asparagus in the woods, and prompty ate it (I shared it with Danielle)
-sampled my first (good) strawberry from Carpentras
-admired the poppies, irises and valerian in front of our new house in Aix
-picked fresh wild fennel fronds in front of our house to cook with our fish



Wild Borage - delicious


Irises in front of our house




Poppies in front of our house






RECIPE OF THE WEEK: PENNE WITH ASPARAGUS AND BROUSSE

I am always trying to do the “right” thing here in France, in terms of following the market and buying only what’s in season. I was so excited when I saw the first asparagus, back in early March, I bought some and decided to make this recipe for Danielle and Jacques. But then, while hiking with Monique, she said “Oh no, it’s far to early to buy asparagus. Those things have been growing under plastic.” Later Danielle and Jacques confirmed, “The first asparagus – that’s for the Parisians. Here in Provence, we wait for the price to go down, for the taste to improve.” Same goes for strawberries and cherries.

So now that’s it’s “safe”, feel free to make this dish.

If I were in Corsica I would use brocciu cheese. Here in Provence I use brousse, elsewhere in France I would use fromage frais and at home, ricotta. This one-pot pasta dish comes together in minutes and would make a delicious night-before-the-race meal.





Bring a large pot of water to boil, salt it and add the penne (75 g per person).

While the pasta cooks, put a cup-full for two people of your fresh cheese (brousse or ricotta) into a large serving bowl. Mix in a minced clove of garlic (optional). Add the zest of about half a lemon, then squeeze the juice into the cheese. Season generously with salt and pepper. Keep it in a warm place, such as in an oven preheated to 170 degrees or just beside the stove.
Trim off the woody ends of the asparagus and cut the stalks into lengths the size of the penne, keeping the tips separate. Depending on the thickness of the asparagus, when the pasta is 3 or 4 minutes from being done, add the asparagus stalks to the water. One minute later, add the tips. When they are all tender, scoop out some of the cooking water and set it aside, then drain the rest into a colander. Add the pasta and asparagus to the bowl with the cheese, stirring in enough cooking water to make it creamy. Stir in some minced chives (and mint if you’re in a Corsican mood) and serve with parmesan cheese to on the side. Enjoy!



A la prochaine,

Andrea

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Easter in Corsica



Palm Sunday in Agacco, Corsica
  



Wild lavender, Corsica


Foamy fish lunch at Ajaccio


Dramatic hike around Piana, Corsica


The famous heart-shaped hole, near Piana, Corisca




Driving around Piana, Corsica!







Thursday evening ceremony, Patrimonio




Office of the Tenebre - the book



The men entered on their knees, wearing grey cloaks and head-scarves. Inside, the church was lit only by candles. There was still enough light outside at 8:30 pm to illuminate the church further. Not that there was much to see, as earlier in the day, all of the statues in the church had been covered with veils, which is how they would remain until Easter Sunday. Through the open door we could see some of the most stunning countryside the world has to offer.



We were in the tiny village of Patrimonio, in the northeastern part of the island of Corsica. It was the Thursday before Easter. Christophe, the director of the Corsican vocal workshop that Jim has been attending, is a member of the confrérie (brotherhood) providing the striking vocal music for the event: the Office of the the Tènebre. Fifteen candles were lit on a candelabra. The men gathered in a circle around a very large ledger holding the book with the words for the ceremony. After each singer recited his designated phrase, the whole group would respond together in rich harmony, and a candle would be snuffed out. The ceremony ended in silence and in darkness. It is one of the most solemn moments leading up to Easter.
Earlier in the evening we attended mass in the church. The confrérie also provided music, alternating with singing by the congregation. At one point, several of the confrérie removed one shoe, and took a seat around the altar. Then their feet were washed ceremonially by the priest. This was not a service to which we were accustomed.
Some nourishment was required to sustain all this solemnity, so in between the mass and the office of the tènebre we joined the conférie in the sacristy for slices of pissaladière (onion and anchovy pizza garnished with olives) and bottles of delicious red wine from Antoine Arena, one of the best winemakers of the island. Patrimonio, it turns out, is home to a glorious concentration of excellent wineries.





Good Friday morning, Erbalunga


Meeting another conferie near Erbaunga



Procession, Cap Corse



Procession, Cap Corse





Village Procession, Good Friday, Cap Corse

Good Friday morning we crossed the peninsula of Cap Corse to the seaside village of Erbalunga, where we hoped to hear various other confréries as they made a circuit of mountain villages, singing all the way. But we did the wrong thing. Instead of waiting for each confrérie to arrive, one after the other, we mistakenly followed the first confrérie, dressed in red and white, from tiny chapel to chapel, from village to village, climbing further and further up the mountain and further and further away from our starting point. Not that weren’t enjoying it – the singing was very moving. At one point we finally met another confrérie, dressed in blue, who lined up in two rows outside the little church while we processed through grandly. And of course there was a break part way so everyone could nibble on Easter bread, tasty cakes, coke and wine.


Break-time during the proccession (a steep mountain still to climb)





Easter bread with an egg baked in it
 As beautiful as these tiny hamlets are, it’s hard to believe people still live there, so far from civilization. But along the (long) route we made the acquaintance of young Cedric and his father who works for France Telecom, commuting to nearby Bastia and Paris when required. He has resisted his boss’s constant urging to move to Paris. He says he will never leave.

Erbalunga, Corsica

Anyway, four hours later, with no end in site, we realized we’d bitten off more than we could chew. Plus, we had more processions to catch in Calvi that evening! So Cedric walked us part way down the mountain (you can tutoyer a boy if he’s wearing braces, right?). All the while he proudly regaled us with stories of the history of the island and about his desire to move to Canada, which he once visited.


Preparations for Good Friday Procession




The night-time procession in Calvi started on the citadel in the old church where we had heard so many fabulous concerts back in the fall (see blogs October 12 and 23). The name for this special Good Friday ceremony is ”Granitula”. It refers to the manner of processing in two circles, going in opposite directions, and making a formation like an escargot, the circle tightening closer and closer, then reversing and opening up again. There are various explanations for the Granitula. Christophe maintains it represents Christ’s descent into hell, then his ascent into heaven. Others insist the shapes represent the sun and growing wheat.



Granitula procession
 




Good Friday Procession, Calvi



Granitula procession, Calvi


The Calvi confrérie started in the old church and processed solemnly through the town, singing all the way, and stopping five times to make their spiral formations. They also carried huge crosses decorated with palms, a statue of Mary, dressed in black, and Jesus, on his death bed. Then they made their way back up to the church, and finally to their own meeting hall where they lined up in formation one last time to sing, then carefully hung the crosses on the wall.


Some days later, as we were eating lunch at an outdoor café, we chuckled as we observed city workers lugging the crosses from their municipal trucks, unceremoniously, down into a storage room until next year.



City workers doing their sacred duty




Easter Monday, Calvi




Easter Monday Procession, Calvi



Easter Monday Procession, Calvi






Locals prefer the Corsican spelling of Lavatoggio





Don't even THINK about moving to Corsica


RECENTLY WE ALSO:

-Attended a fabulous concert on Easter Sunday evening at the cathedral in Calvi featuring the Corsican group Alba. They mixed very traditional and dramatic vocal singing – chants polyphoniques – with contemporary arrangements highlighted by instruments such as clarinet, harmonium, stand-up bass, guitar and mandolin. Memorable.
-Easter Monday we attended mass (with a baptism) followed by a procession with the confrérie again. This time they carried the image of Jesus on a cross facing backwards. They processed slowly around the church. The statue of Mary was now wearing vibrant colours. At one point they turned her statue, ceremoniously, in four directions, with accompanying song.
-Enjoyed a rustic dinner at Chez Edgard, a country auberge, where I sampled civet de sanglier ( wild boar stew).
-spent three days on the island of Porquerolles where we:
- hiked 26 km (even Jim with his bad knee!)
- picnicked on the seaside.
- enjoyed a fancy meal at le Mas de Langoustier, the sort of place where, earlier in the day while we nibbled on our lunchtime picnic of charcuterie, we observed someone arrive by helicopter for a 1 pm reservation, then depart again at 2:10, presumably to attend a business meeting in St. Tropez at 2:30.
-appreciated the eco-atmosphere of the island: garbage bins are scattered throughout and one is not allowed to smoke on the beaches or in the parks, in other words, anywhere, except for outside bars and restaurants!



Charcuterie, Ajaccio market


Sheep's milk cheese (brebis), Ajaccio market




CHARCUTERIE IN CORSICA:

Slices of charcuterie are the most popular starter course at restaurants. Corsicans developed their love of charcuterie long before it became the biggest trend in Toronto and they are justifiably proud of it. Highlights are coppa, lonzo and the black, thin figatelli. Another specialty is brocchiu, (pronounced “brooch”) which is fresh cheese, like ricotta. It is often added to omelettes with mint, or baked into lasagne, also with mint. Or it’s added to fruit for dessert, probably with mint, but I didn’t try it. They are big on meat. Sanglier, or wild boar, is a specialty. What I found strange is that despite being on an island, and very often in a seaside town, I could not find locally-caught fish to buy. I asked in Calvi, and I was told to go down to the marina to meet the fisherman, early. I did that, but then read his sign saying he would be there between 10 am and 1 pm, depending on the wind and the weather. I returned at 10:30, with no sign of him. I tried again another day, later, still no luck. Fortunately, nearby restaurant Le Callelu, right on the marina, served his St. Pierre, simply grilled and delicious.



RECIPE OF THE WEEK: Omelette au brocciu et à la menthe

I know, another egg recipe. But this is really special. And I know you can’t possibly find the same kind of eggs, the same fresh cheese or the same mint in Canada. But I am sure you can re-create something reasonably similar, something perfect for a Sunday brunch, perhaps for Mother’s Day. [Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!].
Start with the freshest eggs possible, four for two (or five if Jim is invited). Crack them into a bowl and mix with a fork. Add in big dollops of fresh cheese. In Corsica one would use Brocciu (pronounced “brooch”). In Aix we can find brousse, the equivalent. Otherwise consider fromage frais or ricotta. Add a good handful of chopped mint, which they adore in Corsica, some salt and pepper.
Heat a sauté pan over medium heat and add enough olive oil to slick the pan (with or without a touch of butter). Pour in the egg mixture and immediately lower the heat to very low. Cover it with a lid. After a minute or two, pull in the sides a bit with a wooden spatula to allow the liquid on top to hit the pan. Cover again and cook until set. This is a flat omelette, not meant to be folded over. If necessary, pass under the broiler for a couple of minutes to finish cooking. Please let it remain moist on top – you don’t want it to be rubbery.
Enjoy with a little salad or serve in squares as an apéro.


Figatelli




A la prochaine,

Andrea