Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Final Days

With Thanksgiving over and the Goolsby clan on the train back to Paris, November came to an end in Arles. The weather had turned cold before I left Paris and it was snowing the day I left Ghislaine's house in Montépilloy to head back down to Arles on the TGV. I had hoped that the south would be warmer. Not so. I experienced firsthand the mysterious winter mistral wind. I'd read about it for years. Peter Mayle gives bone-chilling descriptions of it in his books, but I must admit that I didn't really believe it could be that cold. I am from the Appalachian Mountains after all and went to college in Boone where the wind blows non-stop from October to March. According to Wikipedia, the mistral is "a fresh or cold, often violent, and usually dry wind, blowing throughout the year but is most frequent in winter and spring. It blows from the northwest or north of Europe through the valley of the Rhône River to the Mediterranean." The article goes on to say that the weather is generally sunny and clear when the mistral arrives and it plays an important part in the weather of Provence. No kidding. We were out driving in it one early December day and I thought the van would literally blow off the road. I caught myself offering up a little prayer, begging to make it back to Arles safe and sound. I even went so far as to promise I would not get back in a motorized vehicle again until time to go to the airport to fly home. Even while I was thinking that, I could imagine God laughing out loud. Sure, He thought, the next time someone suggests going to see a new corner of Provence, she'll be out the door in a flash without thinking twice about that promise. I am so glad that God has a sense of humor. Back to the mistral. I thought it was named for poet Frédéric Mistral (1830-1914), the Nobel Prize winning poet from Provence. A statue of Mistral stands in the Place du Forum in Arles. Gilles says the statue comes to life once a year to faire pi-pi. Therefore, says Gilles, it is important to go to Virgil's café in the square every day for a drink after he closes his book shop so he won't miss the action when it happens. According to Gilles the event takes seven minutes so there is plenty of time to take photos. However, Wikipedia says the name mistral comes the Languedoc dialect of the Provençal language (which I did not master in the least during my six month stay). That makes sense, of course, because the wind was around before M. Mistral started writing poems in his native Provençal. On the autoroute there are electronic signs warning drivers about the wind gusts. In the Rhône Valley, gusts of more than 90 kilometers (50-60 miles) an hour have been recorded. In the summer, I did witness it quickly blow into Place Voltaire and take the café umbrellas up with it. I was still skeptical back in summer, though, just grateful for a breeze. It always seemed to be over almost as soon as it began in July. Let me tell you, in December it sticks around! I was so happy to have my wool coat, scarf and ear warmers.
My final adventures included a trip to Marseille to look at minerals, gems and fossils with Leo and Jonas, Érick's sons. We had a great lunch in a Chinese restaurant that Érick remembered from a previous visit. We celebrated Jonas' seventh birthday in Avignon with a wonderful cake baked by Madeleine, his mom. I think I ate three pieces, but who was counting?
Érick took me to dinner at Au Brin de Thym, a restaurant in Arles that specializes in Provençal cuisine ( I had been there in July with Coleman and Lilly Whittier, friends from Durham, and I was not disappointed the second time around. It was a very quiet evening without many clients venturing out on a cold evening. The owner said that people's wallets must have been as cold as the weather. I had lamb very simply prepared with thyme (photo above). I rarely pass up the chance to have lamb now. It was pink, perfect! The roasted vegetables were excellent, too. We shared a bottle of Mas de Gougonnier 2005 Réserve du Mas from Les Baux de Provence.
I met more of Érick's friends, including three young women hoping to start their own business in Arles. The red-tape was driving them insane at the time. I hope they are having more success. Unfortunately, the recession has hit Arles also. Didier and Monique are selling their brocanterie, or second-hand shop. Their last day for business will be January 23. Where will Érick find his beautiful antique glasses (to replace the ones broken by careless dishwashers such as moi) and paintings? I bought some hand-painted soldiers there for my son, Grant, for his birthday. Didier told me that they would like to open a tea shop in Arles, but would that survive? During tourist season, yes, and hopefully they would make enough to get through the winter months. Gilles' bookshop is going through tough times, too. There is a worldwide tightening of the belt in order to have enough for the necessities now. Restaurants in Arles suffered this summer. There were still vacationers in town, but they were cutting corners and eating more sandwiches from bakeries and less restaurant meals, according to the local newspaper, La Provence.
My final grand adventure was to the medieval walled city of Carcassonne in the Aude département to the west of Arles. I had seen pictures of the city and studied it in French history courses. Needless, to say, I was excited and had my camera ready. One of Érick's very good friends, Jacques, moved to a town nearby five or six years ago. We first stopped in to visit him, his wife, Frédérique and their daughter Élisa at their bed and breakfast in Villeneuve-Minervois ( Jacques is a well-known local chef and truffle expert. He was featured in the December 2008, January-February 2009 edition of Terre de Vins, Saveurs des Terroires du Sud magazine. We then set off for a quick visit to Carcassonne before sundown. Jacques and Frédérique sent us off, telling us that dinner would be ready when we returned.
My first view of the city literally left me breathless and speechless. Nothing in a photo or a history book prepares you for a sight such as an entire walled city sitting majestically on top of a hill. We parked the van and walked up the hill and through the walls, crossing the drawbridge to enter. The moat no longer has water in it. But it is easy to imagine that it once was filled. The city is actually enclosed by two oval-shaped concentric walls. The entire fortress contains 3 kilometers or almost 2 miles of walls, with 52 towers. I quickly realized that I do not know much at all about the Cathars or the Crusades, two important factors in the history of Carcassonne. The Cathars were considered heretics by the Roman Catholic Church, according to the guidebook I bought. They believed in two main principles: God and Satan. The spirit of man is God's creation, but the body and all matter is Satan's creation. The Earth is the empire of Satan, therefore it is a temporary Hell which will be destroyed at the end of time. According to the Cathars, man can save himself by reincarnations leading him gradually to perfection and therefore to eternal life. It amazes me how many wars have been fought in the name of religion. Anyway, inside the walls, Carcassonne is full of shops selling postcards, books and toy knights on horseback. There are cafés, restaurants and hotels. Tourists can visit the Comtal Castle. We did not. We strolled around the city, looking in shop windows and taking photos until time to return to Villeneuve-Minervois for dinner.
Jacques prepared sausages in their fireplace for dinner. I know we also ate salad and cheese, but the sausage was the star of the meal. The Languedoc region of France is very well-known for its wine and we had a very nice red with our meal.
The next day, we decided to return to Carcassonne to look around some more and to have lunch. We ate cassoulet at a café named Le Trouvère. It was a chilly day and the bean stew was just the right dish to take the chill out of my tummy! I vowed then and there that I would attempt to make that at home. I am still searching for the confit duck legs (recipe found in the previous blog entry).
After lunch, we hit the road again. I thought we were heading back to Arles. After such a wonderful lunch, I fell asleep in the van. When I awoke a little while (well, maybe 45 minutes or an hour) later, I saw a sign giving the mileage to Barcelona. I do know that city is found in Spain. I could also see the Pyrénées, beautiful mountains, to one side of the autoroute. To my surprise, Chef Érick had decided we should make a quick trip across the border since I had never been to Spain. I am a child of the '70's so that reminded me of Three Dog Night's song... "I've never been to Spain, but I've been to Oklahoma..." Very true in my case. Spain is way more beautiful than Oklahoma, in my humble opinion, at least the little part I saw. We drove to the town of Figueres where Salvador Dali was born, stopped in a shop that sells pottery, made a couple of purchases and left Spain to head back to France.
We drove up the coast, stopping in the town of Collioure for dinner in a little seafood restaurant. What a beautiful town. It was windy, with palm trees blowing and waves crashing. Christmas lights had been strung in the palms and were twinkling. The restaurant was owned by a woman from Tahiti. She waited on us and we were the only ones there except for a couple of Tahitian friends. She told me she could tell I am American from my posture. That was the first time I've ever been told that! I hope it was a compliment. I ate a spicy seafood stew and we shared a bottle of rosé.
The drive back to Arles was a bit sad for me. I knew that my adventures were coming to an end, as well as my stay in what I had come to consider my French home. I spent the last few days shopping for souvenirs for friends and Christmas presents for my family. I took pictures of the Christmas decorations in town and in the shop windows. I made the rounds to visit my friends and say good-bye.
We did have a bit of work to do during my last two days. Chef Érick had been hired to make lunch and dinner for a group of radio personalities who were in town for a conference. I assisted in the kitchen for the last time and helped serve the meal. I stayed up past midnight, once last time, washing all the dishes used to serve a three-course meal to 17, as well as three glasses per person. While washing, drying and putting those dishes away, I wondered to myself which appliance I would appreciate more upon my return home, a dishwasher or a clothes dryer. The dishwasher won, hands down.
In order to get everything important back to the States with me, I mailed five boxes (prepaid postage, fill them as full as you can heavy-duty cardboard boxes from la poste) home to myself. I filled my two suitcases as full as possible, hoping that they would not exceed the weight limit. I stashed two truffles, two salt-cured duck breasts and two packages of duck pâté in the middle of one of the suitcases. Chef Érick had vacuum-sealed the bags. I could still detect the smell of truffles, but I hoped for the best. I left behind quite a few pieces of summer clothing. When I arrived at the counter at the airport in Marignane, one suitcase weighed 18 kilos and the other 30. The lady checking me in didn't bat an eye, much less give me the evil eye and ask me what I on earth I had in those bags that could weigh so much. I was down to my last few euros so luckily I did not have to spend them paying for over-the-limit baggage. I said my good-byes to Chef Érick and began my journey home after six months and four days in France, with a tian baking dish in my carry-on bag.
My next post will take you with me to Paris and the week I spent there in November with a very special person.
Since I love lamb, I will leave you with Chef Érick's recipe for leg of lamb, gigôt d'agneau.
Bon appétit!!

Gigôt d’Agneau aux Anchois

The marriage of meat and fish is an ancient one in the Mediterranean.

For 6

One leg of lamb approximately 2.5 plus kilos (5-6 lbs)
4 salted anchovies filleted
a head of garlic
olive oil

Heat oven to 200C/400F.

Trim off the excess surface fat from the leg of lamb. Cut 3-4 garlic cloves in slivers. With a knife, make slits in the lamb and insert either an anchovy filet and a garlic sliver. Lay the lamb in a baking dish and surround with the rest of the garlic cloves “in their shirt” unpeeled. Drizzle olive oil over the lamb, pour water in the bottom of the baking dish and place the lamb in the oven, making sure that the oven has reached its temperature.

There are many ways to roast a lamb. One method is as follows: immediately lower the temperature to 280F/140C and cook for 10 minutes per pound or 25 minutes a kilo. Check the lamb by inserting a long knife into its center and then touching the tip. When done, it will be slightly warmer than your body – around 120F/ 70C. This is for rare lamb. Remove the lamb and let sit covered for 10 minutes before carving.

Simple baked or boiled potatoes go well with this dish.