Provence Revisited: Part Two

Cassis Calangues, Cassis France

Even for a person who enjoys the cold, I can now say enough! I am more then ready for spring! There are promising signs, the days are getting visibly longer and the dirt roads have turned to mud! This week most of the snow melted. So, this is an excellent time for Part Two of Provence Revisited.

In my blog entry from February 7th, Provence Revisited, I talked about my trip to Provence in 2017, made possible by a Professional Development grant from Hofstra University. The main goal of the grant was to learn about the cultivation of oboe cane (the species of cane is called arundo donax) that grows in southern France. For the trip, I was accompanied by my good friend Amanda. The plan was to spend three days visiting cane plantations and interviewing the growers in Hyeres and the surrounding area near the Mediterranean Sea. No hardship there!!

Arundo Donax Cane

After that, we would have another three days to travel around Provence, with visits to Aix en Provence and Marseille. The main theme for this part of the trip was to visit museums and historic sites, including a visit to the Notre-Dame Senanque Abbey where the monks tend acres of fragrant lavender. AND, of course food played a major part of the planned itinerary!

Our trip started in Cassis, east of Marseille in the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region. Cassis is a quaint Provencal fishing village that is famous for the stunning and majestic Cassis Calangues; white limestone cliffs formed over 120 million years ago. We took a boat ride through crystalline blue water where we were treated to views of the magnificent and regal Calangues cliffs, that have inspired so many painters and artists; a wonderful way to start our adventure.

Cassis Calangues

Cassis, France

There were so many places that we would have liked to visit, but an excellent decision was to visit Aix en Provence; a small charming university town with beautiful architecture and bustling with energy! We checked into our hotel, Hotel en Ville; chosen partly because it was in walking distance of our lunch reservation at Chez Feraud! For this trip, I was looking for restaurants that were charming, unpretentious and most importantly offered great food. Chez Feraud did not disappoint!!

The food was excellent- I ordered a vegetable terrine that looked liked a beautifully arranged mosaic and a fish entree; grilled red mullet with black olive tapenade and roasted potatoes- but it was the dessert that I still remember clearly, simple poached figs served over homemade vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce! The only problem was that it was now time to walk to our next destination; Musee Granet. The only desire I had at the moment was to sit in an outdoor cafe and people watch; so this is just what we did!!

Chez Feraud- Aix en Provence

After we finally recovered from lunch- icy lemonade with fresh mint helped- we slowly walked to the museum. Originally started in 1766 as a free drawing school, the museum has grown to it’s present size to include over 12,000 works and masterpieces. The day we visited, there was a special exhibition of contemporary works of art that were edgy and boldly colorful.

The next morning we drove to a leafy neighborhood in the Lauves Hill section of Aix to visit Atelier Paul Cezanne. In 1901, Cezanne bought a plot of land that at the time was open countryside. He built a simple two story house and from 1902 until his death in 1906, he worked here daily in his studio. After viewing the studio, I walked outside to the garden in the back of the house; surrounded by the lush greenery, I sat quietly enjoying the sense of history.

Atelier de la Paul Cezanne

Atelier Paul Cezanne

The next day we headed up into the hills towards Apt. Our hotel was in the town of Gargas about an hour from Aix. Picking hotels sight unseen can sometimes result in not perfect outcomes. But in this case, I was delighted that the clientele in the charming Mas de la tour, was not touristy, and included a French motorcycle group and a group of handicapped youths on a field trip. The rooms were charming and very reasonable priced. Housed in a 12th century structure that once was an abbey, it was not far from the beautiful hills towns of  Roussillon, Gordes and Bonnieux.

We checked into the hotel and then it was time for our lunch reservation in the medieval village of Bonnieux at L’Arome, across the street from a breathtaking view of the hills.

Bonnieux, France

Usually my recollection of memorable past meals is on the mark, but here I only remember that the food was delicious. Perhaps the stunning scenery distracted me and the fact that I was sitting on a terrace in the middle of Provence in a medieval hill town! My only regret is that I did not obsessively take pictures of the beautifully plated food. Here is one picture of my appetizer, almost too beautiful to devour, which I do remember that I happily did!

L’Arome- Bonnieux, France

That night, overly full from lunch, we had dinner in our hotel’s cozy outdoor courtyard restaurant. I remember that the food was good, but the best part was observing the other guests and the hotel’s friendly dogs that eagerly visited the tables. Amanda snuck a bit of her beef daube, that was a bit gristly, to one of the dogs!

The next morning we drove to the charming small city of Apt, famous for it’s bustling open air market place held every Saturday at the Place des Martyrs de la Resistance. The streets are filled with small stalls that sell everything from fruits, vegetables, cheese, bread and pastries to colorful fabrics, pottery and antiques.

Marketplace, Apt
Marketplace, Apt

I purchased a small tart made from puff pastry, filled with figs and almond paste. I placed it in my bag for later in the day when a snack was called for. And, this is one of my favorite parts of the trip: our next stop was the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque in Gordes. Started in 1148, the monastery still has an active religious community of monks that gather together seven times a day for prayer. The monks are famous for their cultivation of lavender. As my friend Amanda navigated our rental car around the steep and narrow roads, I took out my fig tart and as I took a bite, the fragrant scent of lavender wafted into the car! Heaven on earth!!

Abbey de Senanque Monastery
Abbey de Senanque Monatery

The monks have very generously structured their daily life to allow the public to tour the monastery. The tours were in French only, and I could only pick out a few words or phrases, but it was lovely to listen to the fluid and musical language as we walked through the chapels and cloister areas.

When I am traveling, I sometimes find that the unplanned discoveries are often very rewarding. Driving along a back road, we saw a sign that said La Boutique du Molin and we pulled off the road to investigate. It turned out to be an artisanal olive oil cooperative where the growers from the area bring their crops to be processed into olive oil. The friendly and helpful owners offered to give us a tour of the facility and they talked about the process of making olive oil. Then, we had an olive oil tasting where we sampled many different flavors of olive oil. It was fascinating to discover the different character and taste of each oil. And, of course we ended up purchasing a good number of bottles for friends and family.

We flew into Marseille and our original plan was to drive back to Marseille and spend our last day in France touring around Marseille before we returned home. We got to Marseille late in the afternoon- the steep and narrow streets of Marseille were very difficult to navigate our car through and by the time we found our hotel, New Hotel Bompard, a small nap was in order. We did not get to visit some of the places on our itinerary: the Basilica Notre Dame de la Garde, Parc Borely, and the Chateau Borley (museum of decorative art)- this will have to be for another trip!

Then it was time for our dinner reservation at Chez FonFon. We walked down the steep and crowded streets to the restaurant, located in the old fishing port. Across the street from the restaurant was a crowded open air night club- it looked like a movie set from a Fellini movie. Chez FonFon is known for it’s excellent Bouillabasisse specialties, but after a few days of indulgence, I was not that hungry. I ordered a small appetizer of grilled fish and this was perfect along with some bread and a glass of wine! Afterwards we walked around the port and then very slowly back up the long hill to our hotel and very welcome beds!!

Chez Fonfon- Marseille

So, back to reality! Every day it seems as if we are getting closer to our new normal and if all goes well, more freedom. Writing this blog has awakened my desire to travel again! The other day, a simple dish of roasted red and yellow peppers brought back memories for some of the bright flavors that I tasted in Provence. The peppers can be served over pasta, grilled fish or chicken and with some crusty French bread and a glass of Rose wine, you can imagine that you are sitting on a terrace in Provence!

Roasted Red and Yellow Peppers

Ingredients:

2 red peppers

2 yellow peppers

olive oil

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

To make peppers:

Pre- heat oven to 450 degrees

Cut peppers in half and remove seeds and ribs. Slice into medium size strips.

Place on a large baking sheet and pour a few tablespoons of olive oil over peppers. Mix together with your hands.

Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Roast peppers for about 20-30 minutes, stirring about every 5-10 minutes with a spatula.

Roast until peppers are soft and start to caramelize.

Serve over pasta, grilled fish or grilled chicken.

Enjoy!

arundo donax- wild oboe cane

As we drove down the hills back towards the Mediterranean, Amanda noticed that the vegetation had dramatically changed and she said, “There it is, on the side of the road- wild oboe cane!”

My over packed suitcase made it safely back home with Rosé, a huge bag of oboe cane from Daniel Rigotti and of course olive oil! AND, I can happily report that I checked out several of the restaurants and hotels that we visited and they seem to all have survived the pandemic! Perhaps a return trip may happen in the not too distant future!!

Stay Safe!

Provence Revisited: The Search For Illusive Oboe Cane!

Photo: Jean-Francois Rico D’Addario Cane Plantation- Hyeres, France 2017

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.

photo: Jean-Francois Rico

 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.

photo: Jean-Francois Rico

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.

In the cane fields with Daniel Rigotti and Jean-Francois Rico.

We also had the wonderful opportunity to visit the D’Addario Woodwind cane plantation in Hyeres and to meet Philippe Weibel an expert horticulturist.

photo: Jean-Frqncois Rico; with Philippe Weibel, D’Addario Cane Plantation

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”

Ingredients:

1 firm large eggplant

1 large can whole tomatoes

3 cloves garlic finely chopped

2 tablespoons parsley finely chopped

olive oil

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:

Pre-heat Broiler

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!!