Monday, January 14, 2013
“Seating themselves on the greensward, they eat while the corks fly. There is talk, laughter, merriment, perfect freedom. The universe is their drawing room, the sun their lamp.” - Jean Anthelme Brillat Savarin, French Gastronome, 1755-1826. - Cavaillon, Provence, FRANCE
On a sunny Sunday morning in Provence I’m happily lost.
Today is Cavaillon’s outdoor market, where elegantly dressed housewives shop for fresh oysters, spicy olives, golden mushrooms, and flaky croissants. Curious kids peer into a giant wok of bouillabaisse resplendent with pink prawns and saffron rice. Sweet melons, petite lime trees and fragrant rosemary bushes perfume the air. Where is Matisse? Where is Monet? I wish they were here, painting emerald green beans, purple artichokes, and ivory wheels of goat cheese.
“Haven’t met a French cheese I don’t adore,” says Pat Baker, one of the women on our culinary tour. She bites into a rosemary crusted wedge. “Ummm, heaven.”
Warren and I are on a week long gastronomic stroll through Provence with The Wayfayers, a company specializing in walking tours. We’ll shop farmer’s markets in centuries old stone villages. Hike forest trails alongside Roman ruins and imposing castles.
We’ll study French history and culture while ambling through vineyards and fields of wild rosemary. Best of all, we’re invited into the kitchens of Provence’s most creative chefs, to cook and feast on legendary French cuisine.
Eric Bonal, our tour leader, exudes French charm. Having served 27 years in the French Army, 17 years as a helicopter pilot, he tells us, “When I retired, I yearned to be working outside, not at a desk.
Now I show my country to new friends. It is perfect, yes? I love talking about French art, culture, food, women. Our women delight in life, you know? They are.... how you say? Well that, my dear Madam, is private!”
French food festivals
Every July, Cavaillon hosts a “Melon Festival,” in honor of the fragrant fruit growing so abundantly here. Chef Jean Jacques Prevot hosts lucky guests in his award winning restaurant, and offers his unique cookbook, “Le Melon: A Small Anthology of Provence Gastronomy,” featuring recipes for melon soup, melon salads, melon entrees, even a melon aperitif called, “Melanesia.”
In fall, villages surrounding the town of Vaison-la-Romanine host The Soup Festival: 12 evenings where a different soup is served, followed by a five-day festival, “Les Journees Gourmandes, - The Delicious Days.”
In January, truffles are celebrated in Retrenches village at the feast of St. Anthony, patron saint of truffles. (Who knew there was a Saint of Truffles?)
During Mass, devout parishioners place their prized truffles in the collection basket as a special offering. Truffles are served throughout the festival in stews and with foie gras.
French health secrets
“In France, we enjoy so many varieties of bread,” explains Gerard Auzet, owner of La Banette, a boulangerie in Cavaillon . “Garlic, olive, pine nut, whole wheat, apricot.... how can you choose?”
We taste a bite of each. Sweet apricot is a delight. Warren loves the soft pungent garlic bread. Monsieur Auzet puts us to work baking navettes: crispy cookies made with sugar, butter, eggs, vanilla and lemon zest.
The bakery logo attests to the family’s devotion to bread and pastries: “20 Ans de Passion”- 20 Years of Passion. At lunch, hungry locals devour the fresh mushroom quiche, raisin brioche, peach tart, chocolate eclairs, and baguettes stuffed with meat and goat cheese.
Over a salad with warm goat cheese and toasted walnut bread, I ask Eric how the French stay so slim. “Walking, Madam.” After lunch, we will enjoy a beautiful walk. “Smell this wild rosemary,” Eric calls. “I love what Chef Alain Ducasse says about Mediterrean food: Chefs must be humble because we take second place behind the produce of this region.
We must be alchemists, giving back to the sun and the wind what they have given to us.”
Who knew a French army helicopter pilot had the soul of a poet?
By midweek, laughter, long country walks, and sumptuous French meals have transformed us from exhausted Americans to exuberant gourmands. One happy hiker says, “My legs are walking, but I forget where I am. I’m in some other wonderful place.”
On a leisurely walk through Bonnieux, we admire stone lions adorning ancient houses in the shadow of purple Luberon mountains.
The village cat escorts us to La Coste, where Chef Lillian Segura teaches us her legendary “La Soup au Pesto.” Chef Segura demonstrates how to shell giant bean pods, chop massive carrots, slice crunchy zucchini.
We pound garlic cloves with fresh basil, grated Parmesan, tomatoes and olive oil into an intoxicating paste.
“This is a country soup,” Chef smiles, “you eat it with your eyes. When you taste La Soupe au Pestou, think of Provence.
I hope all of you will make this soup at home- please send me a postcard if your soup is a success.”
We savor our beautiful soup in silence. We raise our wine glasses to Madame Segura and our guide, Eric. We toast French garlic, rosemary, cheese and truffles. We toast the sun and the wind of Provence. We toast Life.