Saturday, June 30, 2007

A Michelin 2 Star Extravaganza

The adults of our party headed to Les Baux de Provence for our second group meal at L'Oustau de Baumaniere, an inn and two-star Michelin restaurant. Les Baux is Un Des Plus Beaux Villages de France - a government designation for the most beautiful villages in France. We only saw the main part of the village from the car as we drove past, since you had to park and walk in.

We descended a little further to reach our destination - it was a beautiful evening and the 8 of us were seated at a large round table under the trees on the terrace. The ambiance was wonderful. We all selected L'Evolution - the 7 course Menu Degustation. Funnily enough, none of our menus had any prices on them. There were however, many prices on the wine list - or rather the wine tome. It was huge and extremely heavy - I asked Dave to please refrain from ordering the 9,500 euro bottle of wine!

We started with a few amuses, which I forgot to capture with my camera but take my word for it, they were awfully pretty.

The bread service was incredible - we selected from a choice that included spinach, olive, poppyseed, campagne and of course, baguette.

The first course involved a large prawn in some lovely sauce.

The second course was a large slab of foie gras sitting on a cherry gelee with a single cherry on the side. Served with toasted campagne bread. Mmmmm.

Then we received the Rouge Barbet fish, simply grilled with a melange of different sauces.

That was followed by another fish - Mediterranean sea bass,which was incredibly rich. Again, beautifully presented.

The meat course was the pigeon, which is what the restaurant was known for. The recommended preparation was "pink" but I decided to go for "medium" instead and was very glad I did.

The cheese cart was extremely impressive - I lost track of the selections but we had lots...

The first dessert was a peach sorbet - it was so flavorful.

The second dessert was some sort of lemon mousse over a bed of fresh strawberries and served in an island of dry ice with scattered rose petals. The presentation was phenomenal.

The THIRD dessert was a pannacotta-like item, served in pretty layers that we had to mix up.

The coffee presentation was pretty and there was also a final sweets cart with caramels, chocolates and candied fruits.

Thankfully we restrained from partaking from the humidor, since it was fast approaching 12:30 am and we still had an hour drive to get back to the villa.

After that 4+ hour, once-in-a-lifetime gourmet meal, I didn't eat again until 2 pm the next day!

Pont Du Gard and the Haribo Factory!

Friday was another big day - we all drove about an hour to visit Pont du Gard, one of the best preserved Roman aqueducts in Europe. It was a hot day and a long drive, but well worth it. The entire visitors' complex was impressive and well laid out. We took a long walk out to the bridge and had a nice climb around it - we encountered yet more big groups of French school children who were on field trips. The aqueduct was impressive - over 2000 years old and still very solid. It took 1000 people about 14 years to construct it.

After a quick lunch, we spent some time in the museum that detailed how the aqueduct was built and how it was restored. Then we saw the goofiest movie - we thought the movie would be more about the construction of the bridge but instead it was a love story between an Italian boy and French girl who rode their Vespa out to the aqueduct. There may have been further developments in their relationship, but the theatre was nice and dark with Rachmaninoff playing, and I took a much needed nap instead.

We then drove to Uzès and the highlight of our trip - the Musée du Bonbon, otherwise known as the Haribo factory. It was a fun tour, although no actual gummy bear production - and of course, we got lots of free candy, which made everyone very happy. At the end, there was a huge boutique of Haribo products, so we loaded up on gummy Smurfs, alligators and coke bottles.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Avignon, Eygalières and the 3.5 hour meal

We headed up to Avignon for a day of sightseeing around the Palais des Papes. We wandered around for a while, and visited the lovely gardens (Rocher des Doms) that are part of the whole complex. There were a number of grottoes there and great views over all of Avignon. It was a great place for kids and there seemed to be a number of French school children who were on field trips that day.

We traversed some steep stairs to get down to the road that runs alongside the Rhone, and headed to the Pont St. Benézet - the famous Avignon bridge that ends halfway in the Rhone. The bridge had been built in the 12th century and apparently there was a big flood in the 17th century that swept half the bridge away. Due to political and monetary reasons, it was never rebuilt. An audio guide was supplied as part of the entrance fees and the kids really enjoyed pressing the numbered buttons as they walked around. They also found the "half-bridge" quite fascinating.

We met our friends for lunch at the Place de l'Horloge, the main town square in Avignon. It was a long lunch - we have noticed that mealtimes are serious business here. Don't expect to spend less than 90 minutes on any meal, even if you think you're just having a simple lunch! No complaints though - sitting at a shady table in the heart of Avignon, across from the carousel and watching our kids laugh and play is an experience I would wish for everyone.

The kids rode the carousel three times and could have stayed on there all day if we'd let them. I think a daily diet of carousels and ice-cream will ensure happiness for all in our travelling party.

Avignon was on sale - we couldn't quite figure out if they arrange coordinated sale days for each town, but every shop there had the soldes sign in their window. After a profitable hour of shopping (it was all for the kids - really!) and a long ice-cream stop, we headed down to the small town of St. Remy for a quick visit. It seemed like a cute but touristy town with a maze of little streets -we got there rather late in the day, so most things were either closed or just shutting down.

Our dinner reservations were at Chez Bru in Eygalières, a restaurant recommended by Chef Ronald the prior evening, 10 km outside of St. Remy. I've found my new favorite Provençal village! Eygalières was parfait - I would love to rent a villa on the outskirts for our return visit to Provence. It was very small - but with the requisite boulangerie and of course, a place for ice cream and crepes. And a couple of lovely restaurants. The village was just charming. Our restaurant turned out to be an unexpectedly gourmet stop - we were possibly a little underdressed, we had 5 adults, 4 children and were somewhat grimy from a full day's sightseeing. Happily, we sat at a lovely table on the sidewalk, with the town's activity going on all around us.

Chez Bru will probably gain some Michelin attention shortly - the dining room was very elegant and the tasting menu was divine. They also made up special meals for the kids since we didn't think they'd appreciate the pig's feet or sweetbreads on the main menu! Of course, the kids didn't exactly suffer - they had grilled medallions of veal, with some very rich potato puree.

The adult menu was a little more sophisticated - to be honest, it was all very rich but I forget all the specifics. It involved lobster, some foie gras (of course!), a main course selection of either veal or monkfish and a lovely dessert of Creme Bru. Even the monkfish was amazingly rich. And we selected from a lovely cheese cart - I had some excellent Pont-l'Évêque. The whole meal took 3.5 hours - the kids had a good time, after they were done eating, they took little walks and played while the adults finished up their meals. 3.5 hours - see what I mean about leisurely dining?!

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Cooking Class with Ronald

On Wednesday morning, a group of us headed to Aix to meet our private chef, Ronald, who gave us a tour of the daily market. We selected rather a lot of cheeses for our meal that evening, as well as all the produce needed for the recipes we were planning to make.

Our menu:
Swiss chard and cheese souffle
Filet de Boeuf Roti with Roquefort Sauce

Potatoes au Gratin

Tomatoes Provencale

Assortment of Cheese - Cheese
Tarte au Citron Meringue - Lemon Meringue Tart

Ronald arrived at the house around 3:30pm and started his prep work. A little later, a small group of us put on aprons and clustered around the kitchen to watch and assist the meal prep.

The first thing we made was the pastry for the tart - the KitchenAid was indispensable for this. We worked our way through making the souffle, potatoes, and the roquefort sauce for the beef. I succesfully used the mandolin on the potatoes without slicing my fingers, which was a notable achievement! We finished up with the beef itself - a massive 2.8 kg whole fillet that Ronald procured from the farmer and trimmed in the kitchen.

We ate around 8 pm, seated on the terrace at a lovely table that Ronald had set for us. He served us course after course, including a beautiful presentation of all the cheeses we had picked out - it was a lovely experience. I'd highly recommend it - now I have to go home and find four hours to make the full meal ;)

The First Michelin Star of the Trip

On Tuesday night, the adults went out to our first Michelin starred meal of the trip - La Mirande in Avignon. The kids had a lovely meal at the house and stayed with the wonderful Amanda while we were out enjoying an adult evening.

We arrived in Avignon a little early and had a lovely walk around the Palais des Papes - La Mirande was located in a prime spot right next to the Palais. Then we went to dinner at the kitchen table, a special table located in a 17th century kitchen in the basement of the 12th century building.

Our group of 8 sat with 2 other parties at a large communal table and watched our chef, Jean-Claude, prepare a lovely meal on a large antique wood-fired stove.

We started with an amuse that involved sun-dried tomatoes, creme fraiche and a quail's egg. It was lovely. Then we had some perch, tasty duck breast, with zucchini in a mustard sauce and stewed tomatoes. Finally we ended with some apricots in a light sauce with almond sorbet.

The first three courses were excellent and the experience of watching Jean-Claude expertly manipulate the antique stove was quite amazing. We moved into the garden after dinner for our coffee and drinks - the garden was in the shadow of the Palais and we sat there chatting for a little while. It looked like a great place to stay for a future visit.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Market Day in Aix

There is a daily local market in Aix-en-Provence, but an especially big market on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. So on Tuesday morning, off we went to the market.

It took us a little while to find the right square and a bit of an adventure to park, but we finally made it to the market by about 10:30 am. The market was divided into two sides - one for fresh fruits and vegetables and the other for local items such as soaps, fabric and linens, antiques and housewares.

We loved the spice vendor - he had pure spices of all kinds and special blends for seasoning grilled items, fish, potatoes and of course the requisite herbs de Provence blend. We bought strawberries, apricots (which are wonderful - at peak season right now) and more melons. It was a prettier market than Pelissane, but surprisingly, it was actually a little smaller. But it did have a few more touristy items like a huge selection of scented soaps - it was a lot of fun to pick out our favorites.

We also bought olives and some great paella from the vendor who was cooking an enormous pan - when we walked by the first time, the pan was completely full, but when we returned about 45 mins later, he only had about a quarter of the pan left.

Heavily laden with baskets, we stopped for a quick bite to eat at a lovely cafe on Cours Mirabeau (a beautiful tree-lined avenue) before heading back to the house.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Our Medieval Day

We wandered very far on Monday, a 300 km, 2.5 hour drive to Carcasonne, a World Heritage site and reputedly one of the most well-preserved 12th century medieval cities in Europe. I had read a book called Labyrinth by Kate Mosse last year which centered on the Cathars and their persecution, so I really wanted to see this historic city which played such a prominent part in the book. It was a long haul on the motorway - with all the tolls totalling about 18 euros each way. We drove past Nimes, Montpellier, Narbonne and almost to Toulouse.

The weather started out very hot in Provence but was overcast and drizzling (and about 5 degrees colder) when we got to Carcasonne. We parked outside the walls and walked around the city for the afternoon. It reminded me a lot of San Gimigniano in Tuscany, with charming, winding streets, little shops and restaurants and the requisite tourists.

We took some photos, had a nice lunch, met some kitties,
climbed some battlements, had some ice cream and rode yet another carousel.

On our way home, we decided at the last minute to take a detour and visit Aigues-Mortes, yet another Medieval city, on the coast. It is famous as being the port from which Saint Louis (King Louis IX of France) departed for the Crusades, never to return. We had a lovely dinner at a cafe on the town square and listened to street musicians and watched local children treat the statue of Saint Louis as their personal play structure.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Our First Market

We awoke bright and early Sunday morning (or at least 4 of us did) and headed to the local market at Pellissane, about 15 mins away. It turned out to be a much large market that we expected - lots of produce, bread, cheese, meats, rotisserie stands plus lots of clothing and other local items.

We had a great time - the local melons from Cavaillon were incredibly sweet. And there were cherries, apricots, plums, peaches and other beautiful local fruit.

After the local market, we had to stop by the supermarket again, especially since they close at 12:30 on Sundays. Apparently buying 48 beers yesterday was not adequate ;)

In the afternoon, we headed to Isle sur la Sorgue, a pretty town in the Luberon known for its antique market and watermills. A lovely outing topped by ice cream on the banks of the Sorgue river.

A side note on laundry: the washer takes 2 hours to run a cycle and the most effective drying solution is the old fashioned laundry line. Oh well, can't have everything...

Our Villa at Last!

We spent Sat morning touring Marseille, taking a little mini train up to Notre Dame de la Garde, the church that overlooks the whole city. There were wonderful views of the Mediterranean, the coastline and Vieux Port.

We drove to Calanques de Callelongue for lunch at a little place called La Grotte - the village seemed to be in the middle of nowhere on the coast outside of Marseille, but the restaurant was quite full at 2 pm when we arrived.

After a lunch of pizza and pasta, we headed to our villa in Vernegues, via Aix-en-Provence, arriving around 4:30 pm. The others had just arrived so we had a chaotic 30 mins or so learning about the house and figuring out the sleeping arrangements.

Here's the view from our bedroom window - lavender and grapevines.

We went to the supermarket and filled three large carts with food for 18 and had a lovely dinner on the terrace - eating, drinking and talking for hours. It's a great start to the vacation...