What a few weeks! Trump is finally gone and it seems like we have woken up from a bad dream! Add to this, Paul had a health scare, but thankfully all is well. The trails are icy and hard to navigate and it is really cold out there, so long walks will be curtailed for a while! We both are feeling a bit of cabin fever and impatience as we wait for the vaccine and financial relief for so many people that are suffering. It seemed like the perfect opportunity for a little escape to a happier and warmer time; with memories from a trip to Provence that I took in 2017. This was part of a Professional Development Grant from Hofstra University titled: “The Search for Ellusive Oboe Cane.”
First, a bit of context:
One of the challenges of being an oboist is that in addition to playing an aerobic and difficult instrument is that one must also carve their own reeds. It is a precise skill learned over many years; at times the process can be Zen like, but it can also be a major source of frustration. Reeds are notorious for playing beautifully and then, with a small change in the weather they can become unresponsive and difficult to play.
We oboists have earned a reputation for being slightly eccentric, also thinking we are under appreciated because of what we have to deal with daily. This short and very humorous YouTube video perfectly illustrates a typical oboist!
Oboe, Clarinet, Saxophone and Bassoon reeds are made from a species of cane called Arundo Donax. Sorry for the pun, but Paul calls it donax don’t tell! It thrives in hot humid climates with some of the best cane grown in Southern France. When I was thinking about ideas for possible Professional Development Grants, the thought of visiting the source of reed cane intrigued me and of course, it did not hurt that this was in Provence! When I mentioned my idea about the trip to oboists, their eyes would light up and they would say,” What a brilliant idea!” When I brought up my plans to anyone else, the comment was, “You are going to Provence and will spend your days in hot and humid cane fields?” Then, they would politely smile. I was delighted and honored when I was awarded the grant and here begins the adventure:
First, I needed a knowledgeable tour guide. I was very fortunate to be connected with Jean-Francois Rico who lives in Nice, by Rob Pollan, the husband of the wonderful repair person Kristen Bertrand. For several years, Rob worked for D’Addario Woodwinds and knows many of the cane growers in France. Jean-Francois was the perfect guide. His grandfather was the founder of Rico Reeds. In addition to owning Rico Reeds, he has also worked as a professional photographer. He knows all of the cane growers in the area, is fluent in both French and English and loved having the chance to visit old friends and acquaintances. He was also a wine and food connoisseur; a match made in heaven! Each night during our trip, Jean-Francois would suggest a restaurant and also made suggestions about which Rose wine to sample. One night at dinner, as he was describing regional dishes and cooking techniques, my travel companion Amanda and I nodded our heads eagerly in recognition. He seemed a bit surprised and then said: “for Americans, you two seem to know an awful lot about food”!
Along with my intrepid travel partner and good friend Amanda, we spent three days traveling around and meeting many of the different cane growers in the Var Region of Provence. Not only did Amanda think of good questions to ask the various cane growers, she was also an excellent driver and in our standard six speed Peugot, she expertly navigated the myriad difficult rotaries and hairpin curves on the windy mountain roads! Under the backdrop of the sparkling Mediterranean Sea in Hyeres France, we visited the cane fields and learned a great deal about how the cane is grown and then dried for a year before it is ready to be used to make reeds. Hyeres is in a beautiful and un-touristy section of Provence; on the Mediterranean, not far from Marseille.
When we settled into our first hotel, Hotel Mercure, in Hyere, I knew I was in cane country; the walls were decorated with reed cane!
On the first morning of the trip, before our meetings started, we drove around the village of Hyeres and enjoyed the exquisite scenery.
As we rounded a corner, there it was there was-right in front of me- wild Arundo Donax growing on the side of the road! I asked Amanda to stop the car and I jumped out to get a photo!
Arundo Donax is a plant in the grass family and is not directly related to bamboo. Ancient reed instruments used the same material. It is also cultivated for woodwind reeds in Spain, Turkey, China, Argentina and Mexico. Perhaps I also need to travel there!
Our first visit was to the MARCA FRANCE cane plantation and the knowledgeable and cordial manager Nicolas Righi explained the process of harvesting, curing and then processing the cane to us.
The stalks are harvested only after 2 years of growth. Harvest time is mid-December through March and is said to take place on the new moon. I came to understand that most of the cane cultivated on the plantations is processed to make clarinet and saxophone reeds. Oboe cane is usually harvested in the wild and the sources are a closely guarded secret! I gently pried a bit to learn about some of the locations and was also gently rebuffed!
The wild cane is not coddled with fertilizers and irrigation, so the resulting diameter of the cane will be smaller; perfect for oboe reeds! I also noticed that cane was often grown next to or close by vineyards; cane and wine seem to like the same soil. The area around Hyeres is also known for excellent rose wines- more on the wine later!
An important but tedious job is sorting the cane by the size of the diameter; a painstaking and precise job.
We next visited Rigotti Cane in nearby Cogolin. I was excited to meet owner Daniel Rigotti, as I have used his cane for many years. The company was managed by his father Franco until 2012. Daniel was very gracious and even though it was the middle of a busy work day, he took us to meet his parents. They invited us into their lovely home for tea and cookies and then treated us to lunch at a delightful small cafe. Cogolin is just 15 miles from Saint Tropez, but it is a small un-touristy Provencal village. It was a very hot day; the restaurant was outside under a covered patio. I remember that I was sweating so much I could hardly enjoy my salad of mixed greens with goat cheese toasts. Our gracious hosts offered us glasses of chilled rose; it was a perfect day that I will always remember. I felt that we were truly experiencing and sharing another culture.
We also had the wonderful opportunity to visit the D’Addario Woodwind cane plantation in Hyeres and to meet Philippe Weibel an expert horticulturist.
Coming out of the hot blazing sun, I entered a lush and verdant grove of Arundo Donax plants. Surrounded by the giant stalks, it felt as if I was in a humid tropical forest. Philippe jokingly greeted the plants and lovingly described some of the techniques he used to encourage the optimal growth of his charges. He picked up a clump of soil and crumbled it in his hands. He knew by feel exactly what the soil needed. I observed that under his stewardship, the plants grew to be strong and healthy; large in circumference, perfect for clarinet and saxophone reeds, but this would not be used for oboe cane!
Along with bags of tube cane, I had purchased a rather large number of bottles of rose wine and olive oil to take back home as gifts. Before we left the D’Addario Plantation, Philippe made sure to give me expert packing advise to make sure my treasures made it safely back!
The next three days were spent traveling around Provence, including visits to Aix in Provence and Marseille. The main theme for this part of the trip was to visit museums and historic sites including a wonderful visit to the Notre-Dame Senanque Abbey where the monks tend acres of fragrant lavender. This will be part of the next Provence installment: Provence Revisted- Part Two!
Back to the cold snowy winter!
I think a recipe that invokes memories of summer and plenty of sunshine is in order; with a dish that has evolved over a number of years. When our daughter was small, each summer we would travel to Deer Isle, Maine where we rented a house with our dear friends Carol & Hal Ober and their son Matthew. After a day of swimming and hiking on the island, we always made dinner together. This would also sometimes involve a Blueberry Pie that we got from one of our favorite restaurants, The Fisherman’s Friend in Stonington, Maine. With the freshest ingredients purchased from roadside stands, we often put together a casserole that included eggplant, tomatoes, plenty of garlic and maybe also some zucchini and parsley. Topped with some bread crumbs and a bit of feta cheese, it was delicious! I believe it was Hal who first coined the phrase, “Here is a little dish I like to call Eggplant Provencal”!
The other day, I got firm fresh eggplant and a bunch of organic parsley in my coop order. I cut the eggplant into thick slices, placed it in a strainer and sprinkled it with salt to remove any bitterness.
Good tomatoes are nowhere to be found now, but a large can of whole peeled tomatoes cut into chunks, substituted nicely! After I rinsed and patted the eggplant slices dry, I added just a bit of olive oil to lightly coat the pieces and broiled the eggplant until it was golden brown and crispy. I layered the eggplant and tomato sprinkled with chopped garlic and parsley. I topped the dish with breadcrumbs and olive oil and baked the casserole covered with foil wrap for about 40 minutes until the eggplant was soft. I removed the foil and baked the dish a bit more until the top was nicely browned and the juices were bubbly.
This is a perfect dish for the middle of the winter- served with a crusty baguette and a glass of rose; we can dream of warmer, safer days!!
“A Little Dish I Like to Call: Eggplant Provencal”
1 firm large eggplant
1 large can whole tomatoes
3 cloves garlic finely chopped
2 tablespoons parsley finely chopped
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
* If you have capers or pitted black olives on had, this might be nice to add.
To Make Eggplant:
Slice eggplant into thick slices and place in a colander. Sprinkle with salt. Let sit for 10 minutes. Rinse and lay on a few sheets of paper towel and pat dry.
Place eggplant on a baking sheet and lightly coat with olive oil.
Broil each side until browned and slight softened.
Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.
Place half of tomatoes on bottom of a medium sized casserole dish.
Layer eggplant on top and sprinkle with the garlic.
Season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
Add remaining tomatoes with their juice on top and sprinkle on the parsley.
Sprinkle top with bread crumbs and pour about 2 tablespoons of olive oil on top.
Cover tightly with foil and bake about 40 minutes until the eggplant is very soft.
Remove cover and bake about 10 minutes more until top is nicely browned.
Let the dish sit for about 10 minutes and ENJOY!!
This is also great the next day!
As I write this, the wind is howling outside and our latest Nor’easter is almost finished.
STAY SAFE AND WARM!!