Sunday, November 30, 2008

Friends and Thanksgiving

There were no French pilgrims, therefore there is no French Thanksgiving. However, I had my own personal American pilgrims come to visit me for the holiday! Betty Goolsby, formerly of Durham and a member of the Arles 6, arrived on Tuesday with Tom, Alex and David. We spent four wonderful days together exploring some nearby spots, eating and sampling lots of great wine. Betty came to Arles with me in 2006 for a Mini-Gourmand week and we also spent 10 days together this past June in the Dordogne, Bordeaux and Paris. Tom and Alex had been to France before, never to Provence, though, and it was David's first trip to France. I feel fairly certain that it will not be his last! Especially after he enrolls in French lessons in DC and learns how to really say "The heat isn't working" instead of "The shoes have no choice." No kidding. "Les chaussures n'ont pas le choix" came out of his mouth at a bistrot in St. Rémy where we had lunch. Tom and I just looked at each other wondering if we had heard correctly and then we burst out laughing, after asking him to please explain. Tom and Alex speak French very well, having lived for in Belgium and Switzerland as exchange students. David studied it in high school and is fearless about using what he remembers and what he picks up. However, I am getting ahead of myself. I must start at the beginning and tell about our adventures.
They arrived in Arles while Chef Érick and I were exploring Mont St. Victoire near Aix en Provence. They spent the afternoon seeing the Pont du Gard and getting lost and driving on the narrowest streets they could find in Arles. When we returned, we got them settled into the rooms of their choice in the B&B-- Betty chose the green room, her room from 2006, Alex and David choose the yellow room and Tom opted for the top room, the pilot's cabin or wood room, as I call it. We had dinner together and rested up for the next day.
On Wednesday morning we went to the Arles outdoor market to find vegetables for our Thanksgiving feast. I chose a lovely bright orange potimarron or squash for my Tian de potimarron (recipe follows) and Betty and the guys chose root vegetables to roast. After market, we returned to the house to have lunch. Un déjeuner simple which is never really simple here. We had our after lunch coffee and set off for Chateauneuf-du-Pape, in hopes of finding the infamous Jean-Baptiste of roadkill fame behind the tasting bar. We were not disappointed! He first gave us a quick tour of the on-going excavation of the cave where they continue to find ruins dating back to the Romans. Then the fun began. We tasted two whites, five reds and ended with a sweet wine, Esprit d'Henri, named in honor of one of the wine makers who recently passed away (or disparu, disappeared as the French say). Every time I taste wine I learn something new. Jean-Baptiste showed us the difference in color between a "young" wine (brighter red/pink) and one ready to drink (orange/brown tones). Even I could taste the difference. Figuring out the smells and individual tastes in a glass of wine is not my forte, shall we say. We all know now that Tom goes for the wet hay, tobacco, wet baseball glove smells in his glass. To each his own, n'est-ce pas? We returned to Arles after taking photos of Mont Ventoux covered in snow and the Rhône river bathed in muted afternoon sunlight. We made a stop at a chocolate/wine shop on the way out of town. Who could pass by a shop offering both of those treats? No one in that rented Volvo grand camion 4x4. Everyone pitched in to make dinner that evening and we ate around the family table since it was warmer on that side of the house. The mistral wind had arrived and it was quite chilly outside. Alex made margaritas (we found citrons verts or limes at Monoprix finally) and salsa from the fresh tomatoes bought at the market and onions from the Onion Festival in the Cévennes we went to last month. We had couscous, full of vegetables, chickpeas, lamb and sausages. Alex had chosen a red Chateauneuf to accompany it during our visit to Cave du Vergers.
On Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, we strolled around Arles, looking in the windows of the shops, returning home for an early lunch. We decided to head to Mas des Barres in the afternoon to taste olive oil. I figured that the olive oil pressing was over and that I had missed it all. I was so thrilled to find out that I was wrong. Finally I was able to see those nice shiny machines hard at work. This is an amazing year for olives. Mas des Barres has already pressed four times the olives they pressed last year. I learned that they usually press until mid-December, but they stopped this weekend because they are out of space to store any more oil. We watched the olives being washed, pressed, ground into paste, the oil, water and paste being separated and the oil pumped into the containers. The owner grabbed my hand and led me to the small steel vat where the oil was being held until being pumped into the containers. He dipped my finger into the fresh oil and asked me to taste it. Oh my gosh! Their oil is spicy and truly delicious. In 2004 it was voted the best in the world. It is not a cooking oil-- far too good for that. It is for salads, pasta, dipping, and adding to dishes after they have been cooked (before serving pot-au-feu, a beef stew, add a little to the plate, then add the stew). We wandered among the olive trees for a bit, visited the shop to buy oil and olive soaps before bidding good-bye to the owners and getting back into the Volvo. We decided to do a bit more sightseeing in the Alpilles, the name of the mountain range where Mas des Barres is located. The area is also well-known for its bauxite, the mineral used to make aluminum. It gets its name from Les Baux, a medieval town perched high on a nearby mountain. Bauxite is red and, oui, I have a good sized piece of it to bring home. I have always had a thing for rocks. Growing up in Spruce Pine, the Mineral City, and working in a rock shop in the summer while I was in high school, I learned a bit about rocks, gems and minerals. We returned home in time to get our chapon, a 6 pound rooster, in the oven. Betty stuffed him with onions and garlic. The guys arranged the vegetables in a tian, keeping the beets separate in their own little tian in the center of the larger one. I prepared my potimarron. Assisting in the kitchen during the cooking lessons is not at all the same thing as preparing the dishes myself. I need more practice, truthfully, but my tian turned out well. For dessert, Alex and David made fried pastry in the shape of butterflies and Alex meticulously stuffed them with tiny pieces of fruit. We drank champagne, Duval-Leroy, as we cooked and a bottle of white Chateauneuf to accompany our chapon, once again thanks to Alex. We went around the table telling what we were thankful for this year. I have so much that I really did not know where to start. Durham Academy, for giving me these six months to explore the things I am most passionate about, France and food, my family and closest friends for understanding my desire to be here, Érick for his infinite patience with my French and kitchen skills and for sharing his Provence with me, friends who flew across the ocean during my time here to see me (in oder of appearance: Pat, Joan, Yolanda, Rich and Betty (the Arles 6), Coleman, Lilly, Martha, Monette, Steve, Betty (again!), Tom, Alex and David). A wonderful Thanksgiving!
On Friday morning, we all got up early, drank a quick cup of coffee and headed out in the rain to Carpentras, a town about an hour's drive from Arles. Carpentras hosts a truffle market each Friday morning from mid-December to mid-March. No, friends, not the little chocolates, but the dirty, smelly little gems that grow at the base of trees and are hunted with a pig or a dog. I had never even tasted one and had only read about the markets and their mystery. We arrived before the market opened, so we headed to a café across the street to have coffee. The café was filled with men in berets, caps and toboggans carrying bags of various shapes and sizes. A woman was holding court near the door, surrounded by men, scribbling in her notebook. Quite a few small plastic sacks were passing hands. We decided that she was the Queen of Truffles at this market. When the rain subsided, the action moved outside. We drank our coffee, I took a few discreet photos and we left to head across the street to the official market . A chef was setting up a little gas stove in order to prepare scrambled eggs flavored with truffles, for the tourists, as the fellow in charge explained to me. It is so that we can taste them before buying. For 10 euros, I got a cup of the brouillade truffée, a piece of fresh bread and a glass of red Côtes du Ventoux wine. Scrambled eggs at 9:00 am are for tourists only-- the French do not eat eggs in the morning. We watched as a long line assembled in front of steps leading into a room that was guarded by a policeman. A whistle blew a few minutes later and the wholesale portion of the market began. Only permit holders were allowed in that room. Chef Érick's truffle-hunting friend René arrived and he and I were allowed in the room at the end of the sale. It is early in the season and the truffles are not at their best, according to Érick and René. However, they were still fetching between 200-400 euros per kilo (2.2 lbs = 1 kilo, $1.30 = 1 euro, you do the math!). In mid-February when they are at their best, good ones will cost at least 800 euros per kilo. There was a lot of sniffing going on amid the mystery of it all. The transactions taking place outside of the market are all legal, for those who do not want to deal with wholesalers. One reported scandal, however, involves spraying the less than good truffles with something that makes them smell more fragrant. Tricheurs! I promise to report more about truffles later since Érick and I have been invited to René's home on Thursday of next week. I have my fingers crossed, hoping for a hunt! Érick did buy a few truffles from one of the gentlemen. They were in little mustard jars with tops. I got to carry them home in my purse. After truffles, we drove to St. Rémy de Provence for chocolate at Joël Durand's shop and lunch. Betty and I visited Florame for essential oils while Tom got his hair cut. Alex supervised Tom and David supervised them both. A small dog supposedly supervised the whole thing. The guys suspected that le petit chien had highlights in his fur... Lunch was at the Bistrot des Alpilles. Betty and I had la soupe au potimarron, an excellent choice. David was the most adventurous-- he ordered pieds et paquets, feet and intestines wrapped up, tied with a string and served in a little cast iron pot with vegetables. He loved it. I have yet to try that delicacy. After lunch, we went back to Arles because Betty and I wanted to go to the Arles Christmas market. There were 150 different booths set up, selling mostly food products. Chocolates, candied fruits, sausages, wines, olive oils, salt, Camargue rice, hams, cheeses, pastries, cookies and breads, just to a name a few. There were also quilts, jewelry, paintings, books, pottery and clothing offered. We looked at everything then sat down to have a pastry and cup of tea before walking back to the house. By the time we left the sun had set and the Christmas lights of Arles had come on. We took the route through the middle of town so that we could see it all. At home I always get very frustrated when Christmas decorations to up even before Halloween. I do not like to mix my holidays. However, I am grateful that the decorations are up here. I have two weeks to enjoy them before I go home to North Carolina. When Betty and I arrived back at the house, the men were all busy in the kitchen preparing homemade pasta. It had been decided that would go best with the truffles purchased earlier in the day. We had moules marinières, mussels, first, then the pasta. We made a sauce for the pasta out of ground walnuts, garlic and olive oil. Those three ingredients were made into a paste and then water from the cooked pasta was added to it to make a creamy sauce. We spooned the sauce onto our pasta then grated truffles on top. The taste was heavenly, nutty and spicy. I even grated truffles on my brie cheese later. I seriously doubt I will be buying any of them when I return home, so I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to eat as much as I wanted! (I did eat the leftover pasta and sauce for lunch on Saturday with more truffles, I have to confess.) We drank a red Pic St. Loup wine with the pasta and truffles. What a marriage of flavors. Dinner lasted until about 10:30 pm, as we spent plenty of time talking about our adventures together.
Saturday morning, after a breakfast of pain au chocolat from Le Blanc bakery in Arles and fougasse from the Fassy bakery in Maillane, Betty and I strolled around the open air market. Then it was time to get back to give her enough time to pack her bags for their return to Paris and the trip home.
As I sit writing this on Sunday evening, they are already back in Indianapolis, Betty's new home, Alexandria for Alex and David and Durham for Tom. I want them to know that I enjoyed every minute of our time together and hope to see them all again soon. Watch out for elephants, David, since you did not buy the elephant hunting gun... I hope they were able to glimpse the magic of this place and that the food and wine lived up to their expectations. Betty, Yolanda and I will be there as soon as we can! We will need to start planning for the 2010 trip!

Here's my Thanksgiving recipe.
Bon appétit!

Tian de Potimarron (Baked Squash)

The squash, the pumpkin, and all its varieties are an import from the New World. But this fall vegetable has been around Provence for at least 200 years. The most popular preparations are either in soup/potage or as a gratin or tian. In Provence, there are now many different squash available on the market. The most abundant is the potiron which most resembles a pumpkin, but has a slightly more watery flesh. This grows to quite large proportions and the vegetable sellers sell it by the kilo, in large slices. More rare, but much more flavorful with a meatier flesh, is the potimarron. It can be either orange or green skinned, and is 6-10 inches in diameter, and quite dense.


1/2 cup olive oil
3 slices of bacon cut in 1/4 inch (1cm) short strips
2 onions minced
One 1 1/2 kilo (3 pound) squash peeled, sliced and cut into 3/4 inch (4 cm) cubes
2 bay leaves
2 garlic cloves crushed and minced
Nutmeg, freshly grated, if possible
Salt and pepper, as needed
3 tablespoons of honey (you can use a strongly flavored honey like chestnut, or a milder one, depending on availability and your preference)

In a large frying pan, pour in enough olive oil to cover the bottom, reserving the rest for later. Turn your flame up to medium high, and add the bacon bits and onions. Sauté until the onions are sweated and the bacon cooked. Add the squash and the remaining oil, and sauté over a medium flame, allowing them to lightly brown, for 10-15 minutes. They should start to become tender.

Remove the squash from the flame, fold in the bay leaves, the minced garlic, and nutmeg. Salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to a baking dish/tian/gratin dish and place in the oven at 400F or 200C. Let bake for 30 minutes, or till tender. When just about done, drizzle the honey over the top, return to the oven and bake for another 10 minutes or until the honey caramelizes.

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