Tuesday, 29 July 2008

The black and white side of Provence

I am now, firmly and properly, in Provence. Aix-en-Provence is everything what one might expect the land of Van Gogh and Cezanne to be - sun baked, with shabby but so elegant and airy buildings of ochre, yellow and light brown. And the shutters and the little breezy balconies and unexpected fountains that create such dreamy views when you walk down the shady narrow streets..

I am on my own now, and for the first time in my life am actually travelling completely independently and with no one to accompany me (J is back to 40B to continue holding the fort). This means that I am constantly getting lost (does anyone know of short intensive courses on map reading for especially geographically challenged??), and that I can think about food even more frequently and for longerJ

Yesterday I had a day I'd like to savour the memory of for years to come. I arrived from Montpellier in Aix early in the morning. Unlike the rest of the week when I've arranged to stay with various couchsurfing people (on that later), I decided to book a cheap hotel room in the centre of Aix, which very fortunately for me I managed to do fairly easily. After a couple of hours of ciesta , now such an everyday habit for me, I went wondering the streets of the town...

The place was buzzing with people - it is the beginning of the French holiday season after all - but it was also a Monday; and so many places were closed, which meant I could explore the area without seeing it through crowds. I then had an aperitif of kir (I got manically used to having various pre-dinner drinks whilst in France, as well as acquired a waist-thickening habit of having cheese after meal! Only having lived in this country for a few weeks I understood this tradition; which had puzzled me so much before. Two factors differ from what I saw in Britain: 1. you have the cheese course after a fairly lengthy and relatively light meal, 2. you have small quantities, sometimes just a slice, of beautiful and often regional cheese) in one of the cafes in one of the numerous squares, easily imagining myself a wealthy 'ahead of her time' lady at the turn of the century, alongside poor but very promising painters and writers..

I then abandoned the comfort of the Lonely Planet and traced back to a little, stuffy corner restaurant that I had spotted during my circles around the town. In spite of it being Monday evening, it was absolutely packed with people - both foreigners and locals - and the owner didn't even have a place for my lonely persona, so I sat next to a middle-aged, very eccentric looking, lady.

The next 2 hours I spent slowly going through the 4 course meal - unimpressive, but cheap and soulful, and talking to this fascinating woman opposite me, well mainly listening and asking questing in broken French. She was called Marie-France, she was 65, she wore bright blue eye shadows, laughed gingerly, covering her half-empty mouth, and she has been coming to the Restaurant le Garillon every day for the last 10 years...

She looked quite properly drunk to me at first, but then I realised that unlike many of the customers, including myself, who were drinking cheap caraffes of rosé, she was sipping very slowly some good local red, which she buys in a bottle and leaves behind the counter during the week.

In the usual British manner I asked her what she does, she giggled nervously, looked at me almost in a surprise and said 'rien' (nothing). She then mumbled something about doing pottery and told me her life story..

She came from a very well-off family that had a beautiful grande maison near to the restaurant. She was a child of the 60s (I also told her about my parents, who would have been the same age as her now; their travels through Crimea and the rest of the USSR), and traveled autostop from France all the way to Sweden with her cousin once. She has also spent a lot of time in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. I think she never got married, but her family (she has 5 sisters!) was sufficient for her for many years. Some 10 years ago her parents died, the beautiful big house was sold off ('to some Americans who turned the place into an American centre') and all that Marie-France was left with was a tiny (she circled her thumb and her index finger to emphasise its smallness) studio '8 kms from the town'. There is no really kitchen in the flat (and no one to talk to you either I guess), so she has been spending 7 evenings a week, every week of her life sipping wine and slowly devouring meals at le Garillon. This is my home, she said sadly. There are no more places like this in Aix - I knew immediately what she meant about the place. Even though the food was nothing special, it was served in such an honest and real way by the couple who has been running the place for the last 50 (!) years that people keep coming back (a little later I realised that many customers were in fact middle of the road habitants of the town, who knew the owners and Marie-France of course. There were also some young Americans, speaking quickly in French, so probably students, living in the city for some town). The menu was extremely simple - you pay 11 euro for such delicacies as crudites de saison (which included canned green beans and tough tomatoes), aubergines au gratin (which was more like a pureed vegetable with sprinkled cheese) and out of the can peches au sirop. But the food was good and the service by the owner - a white haired guy in his 60s - was what I'd imagine French houses were like some 40 years ago..

The restaurant is to be closed down in December, Marie-France told me melancholy; the owners are to retire and their children what to do different things. What are you going to do?? I asked..she's been looking for a replacement, and she thought she may have found it and was going to try it in August whilst le Garillon is going to be closed down for the annual holiday (isn't it amazing that some places in FRance still close down in August, even though they could have made more money in that one month than in the whole year?!). I sincerely hoped she would find a new home..

Marie-France also told me about doing psychoanalysis for 30 days (4 days a week until she run out of money), and how she used to spend weeks in the 'Living theatre' in Morocco, in Essaoura..There were many other half words and sentences that I could have probably understand but I didn't. At the end she told me proudly that she is planning to open an email account and asked me for my 'internet telephone':) I gave her my address and made her promise to write to me as soon as she manages to open hers (never, most likely). She smiled at me, half-toothly and so kindly. But I had to run out of the restaurant as I was being late for a film.

The end to my evening was very different, although bore a similar melancholic and old-fashioned light. I went to see a 1988 'Let's get lost' - a black a white film about Chet Baker ('the best trumpet jazz player in the world'). A beautiful piece starring Chet himself, as old, lonely, with life behind – full of talent and waste…At midnight I slowly wondered off, thinking about life, age, talents, hopes...the morning would bring colours and smells of the markets, it would be young, lively and full of promise, but for a couple of hours, the warm street of the town, empty and lit by long bodies of yellow lamps, had the shadows of lives already gone..

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

And then there was a tomato...(or a little bio market in Toulouse, number four)

I am living my dream: it is lucious and juicy, with the best perfume and colour in the wolrd. I am surrounded by this simultaneously exotic and common fruit (although still a vegetable to me) - a beautiful, ever-changing and omnipresent Tomato.

The history of the Tomato is akin to a modern day celebrity: it started off being an unknown creature, considered not just inedible, but also sinful and generally really bad for you; it then acquired quite a considerable amount of fame, stretching to all sorts of different corners of the world, and finally became a necessity.

I feel I ought to admit it now - my secret reason for coming to France (to wwoof and otherwise) was in fact to encounter this multicoloured creature and enjoy its abundance in fullness. As my closest and dearest know, Tomato is my most favorite fruit and vegetable in the whole wide world!

I was very fortunate in that my first wwoof hosts grew something like 10 or even 15 different types of tomatoes in their little mountain garden...I was less fortunate in that it was a bit too earlier in the season and most of the tomatoes were not ripen yet. However, my lovely hosts, Odile and Jacque, made my stay that bit more special by presenting me with a little gift on the eve of my departure...a plate of just off the vine tomatoes, laced with little leaves of basil and sprinkled with a little olive oil and bazilic vinegar. This was such a wonderful gesture that showed how they understood my real tomatoy core:); but it said even more about themselves as people - so kind, sensitive, attentive. I helped to grow these little orange tomatoes (yes, they were the little bright golden variety), nursing them, watering them..I did feel a bit like a proper little farmer that night:)

My most recent wwoof hosts have been of a different kind (which, by the way, explains my disappearance from the blog for a while) - a family of real working farmers with two little kids, a house and business to run. So I have been working for the last week, no such nonsense as leasury long lunches with rosé or going for walks in the morning when weeds need to be weeded. However, I have been allowed (pure paradise!) to pick as many tomatoes as my soul and belly desired off the ground of the glasshouse. To my surprise, even the French folk can be just as choosy these days as your average English gent - they want pretty and firm tomatoes of roughly the same size, not some big monstrosities with juice sprinting out of them! Well, the latter was more than agreeable with me, so viva la tomato! I took this picture below on my return from the glasshouse. I didn't have anything to carry them with, so I just juse my shirt as a sack. I put them by the window, to keep them warm and sunny, and then ate, 1-2-3 at the time, as snacks, as dessert or as an appetiser.

One fine morning, when I was off my farming duties and inspite of the claustrophobic ruralness of my then habitat I managed to get to Toulouse for a day. The main reason was - you guessed it - to visit a market. In fact, on that day there were two markets in town: a tiny organic market in the main square and the most famous covered market Les Halles. I got stuck in the former though since the very first stall that I came across was this buzzying little place selling almost nothing else but tomatoes, and so many different ones too: Rose de Berne (large and pinky), Green Zebra (just as the name suggests..), Tomates des Andes (heavy and pointy), Tomates Ananas (huge and fluorescent yellow), Purple Colabash (really weird little dark ones), Beauté Blanches (elegent and pale) etc etc. The whole scene made me so sunny and warm inside, that my heart started bouncing! I was stupidly smiling and walking around the stall in circles. Ok, maybe the fact that the seller of this tomato glory was a wholesome, tanned fellar, with a kind smile and sturdy hands (a kind of farmer very late night television is fond of..;) helped the matters (sorry muz:)), but just that, he added to the atmosphere, the Tomatoes were the stars.

I bought a few of course: Le Voyage (a really cute and funny looking one - it is shaped almost like a garlic bulb, each individual section is joined to the whole); Ancienne (it was the best tasting in the end, multicoloured and long, sweet and thinnly skinned), and (!!) Noir de Crimea, yes, the Crimean Dark ones (small and almost black). I had all of them at lunch later on, with a nice chunk of white crusty bread and beautiful oily sardines. Heaven..Tome will show if i can satisfy my tomato-cravings enough to actually get tired of them, but now I am still as addicted.

p.s. I am writting this now that my wwoofing is over and I am enjoying a well earned break with Mr Catherall before going to a wedding of a friend in Carcassonne tomorrow and then enjoying the last few days in Provence, on my own, before taking a train back to London. The plan is to go to all the market gems: Montpellier, Aix-en-Provence, Marseille..I will do my best to write as much as possible.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Lamalou-les-bains, number three

This was certainly a bigger set up, in fact a lot bigger than the recent markets in Languedoc, but the place was still a surprise. Yet again it was not a market that I had expected to see. If you ask me what kind of markets I had in fact anticipated I would probably have to confess that something very pretty, orderly, lots of colourful stalls and big-bellied men enticing me to try yet another slice of sausisson or fromage - so a cute stereotype.

Well, it was all of that too:) but in fact half of this market was devoted to 'unexpensive' cloths, khmkhm, or you could call it Chinese tack. Maybe it was something about the setting. The town of Lamalou is basically a thermal resort. You know it's a kind of old-fashioned Les Bains that one would imagine encountering at the turn of the century, visited by fragile ladies, needing to care for their resperatory deseased, and all sorts of other creatures, many of whom with missing limbs and discoloured faces (one can only wonder what magic this termal waters can do to an amputated leg...).

I was, however, very quickly summoned by a cheerful and yes, rather big-bellied charmer, to try his Paella. The latter was enormous, with huge chunks of chicken and squid. I asked him, looking very naively, why paella, monsieur? Both of Pépé's parents (can't believe such a big man can have such a childish name!) were Spanish and so it was a natural thing for him to do to open a paella restaurant. He then gave me his card, with his number and made me promise that I'll send him this photo. Remind me, will ya??
I then spotted something that I'd been dreaming of for quite some time in London...fresh oysters! Loads, cheap, with an obligatory glass of white wine! I had 6 of them in one go, helping the process with the wine which did feel very behemian at 11 o'clock in the morning, but hey;).

The oysters were very plump and beautifully coloured - dark black with milky white. They were also incredibly salty. In fact, they had lots of sea water still in their shells which I at first gulped together with the animal, but quickly saw that the natives were using small folks to fish out the oyster. Just thinking about that plate of silver, quivering beauties make me drall right now...gosh, this sounds a bit like a trashy lesbian novel:). Moving on..

The fish stall was beautiful full stop, with this very impressive monster right in front of it. I am so much looking forward to my after wwoofing trip to Marseille and near-by places: oysters, bouillabaisse, fish, more fish, nyam!

I then came across the items I'd been missing so much in London ( and at times, very curious about) - the innings! Ie offal, of a pig in this case: pig trotters (where were you when I wanted to make my mum's kholodets??), tongues, liver, langues, and something I'd never come across before - a pig's heart. I asked the seller how do you make it?? From what I understood you have to boil it for good couple of hours, then cut in half and fry with some garlic and olive oil. Sounds delish to me!

Towards to end of the market I saw something even more unusual - for me anyway, although I can imagine many now screaming, common, everyone knows about theeese. Little brow, scrunchy..things in a plastic bag.

They were in fact washing nuts; or nuts for washing; or noix de lavage. These nuts come from the Latin America and are a natural, completely allergen-free (or so they claim at least) washing detergent. You only need a handful of these, and you can even re-use them several times. I would have definitely bought a bag for my habushka's delicate skin, but the package was too big for my backpacking existence.

I then went for a strall around the town, had a coffee with a funny-looking apple cake (well, it is actually called Le cake!). I felt very much the lady of the 1930's - thinking of myself as very independent and well-travelled!

The last two days have seen amazing thunderstorms here, in fact right now I'm sitting in a sellar of my hosts' house (don't ask why) and the sounds of the rain outside are very comforting and soothing...Tomorrow is my last day in Julio, with Jaque and Odile. We are going to celebrate the eve of the Day of Bastille with a bottle of Rosé, both of which are very popular here. I'm then on my own for a day in Carcassonne, watching the breath-taking fireworks of the 14th of July. Let's see what the next place brings..

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

I am a hero

This is a slight move away from the overall theme of food. Three hours ago I came back from the longest hike - and the highest, as far as I can make out - in my life.

At 8 o'clock this morning I was picked up by a very sweet and very talkative (read, most of the time I couldn't understand what he was saying) guide who took me back to the beginning of the Gorge d'Heric. A few days earlier this very kind friend of my hosts offered to take me to the mountains - for free - so, of course, I said yes (especially now, being my post-Corsican me). He said it would take about four hours all in all...

Well, we came back some seven hours later. With only a couple of small breaks of about 10 minutes each we went up to the beauty of the Gorge - le Mont Caroux, height 1059m....

I was actually very proud of myself on the way up (3,5 hours..) - I made it quite easily, without having to stop, in good tempo. Jean-Luc, the guide, gave me a good tip - not to stop, but to slow down, better to walk very slowly than to stop. I will definitely remember this for future too - it really worked.

Well, I am generally proud of myself for making it - the last 3 kms, already on the flat ground along the Gorge were the hardest somehow. Probably the heat was not helping - I went completely quiet for about 45 minutes..

Jean-Luc actually told me at some point, with a quiet surprise in his eyes, that 'You are a good walker, that was fast'. Geeee, Zyuzya will be proud I thought, bring on the Alpes!

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Le marché numéro deux - Mons la Trivalle, Languedoc-Roussillon, France

Not counting the beautiful, but very touristic Marché de la Rue Mouffetard in Paris three years ago, this was my first experience of a French market.

You are unimpressed??

:) It was lovely!

This was the first market of the season, in a small, largely unremarkable village of Mons la Trivalle - in the southern departement of Languedoc-Roussillon; not far from Beziers (a centre of the region that produces 70 percent of table wine in France) and Carcassonne. I was visiting it with my wwoofing host - Odile - who was attempting to sell her unplentiful, but very cute, for that week produce (she told me with a little smirk in her eyes that her customers often remark 'c'est tres jolie, donc c'est plus cher!):

3 courgettes: one, the classic long and green; second; sweet and golden; third; round and stripey.

3 types of potatoes; with Cherie being most pretty and delicate (no resemblence to other Cheries..;).

200 grammes of petit pois.

A tiny little box of raspberries which some customers found irrestible.

Lots of different jams, mainly with figs: white fig, fig and apple, fig culie and many others. Needless to say, everything that Odile sells comes from her own garden - the same one I'm currently burning my back in:).

The only exception is perhaps some of her Indian spice: cardamom; cumin, black pepper..Odile and her husband Jacque love travelling and spent 3 months in India last year. More on my hosts later..

Odile's stall was one of three on that day: a man selling local Rosé and a sweet little Nigerian woman called Cecilia selling African snacks were the other two. Cecilia gave me to try freshly fried small balls of cod pate mixed with her 'secret' spices and covered in flour - really light and unexpectedly yummy; as well as a taster of some exotic juice. Well, I figured out that the most exotic in that drink was that she added a big glug of rum to a bottle of fruit juice, but it was very tasty; especially since it was a bizarly cold day.

Most of the customers at the market were holiday-makers visiting the village. The place's main draw is a magnificent Gorge d'Heric. Apparrently the area is flooded by all sorts of 'foreigners': Americans, Germans, English, Flemish, and the French from others parts of France; many dont just visit the region, but stay here quite permanently. I met an example of that - a character all wrinkled and unmistakenly tanned under the French sun, wearing a garish t-shirt saying 'Glastonbury 2005'. His name was David, he's lived in the village for something like 13 years (prior to that he was actually originally from around Glastonbury), spoke incredible French with just as impressive English accent (later that evening I met David during the outing with my hosts in a local hung-out, where he taught me such useful expressions as 'prendre son pied', ie take your leg, which means 'really enjoying yourself' - the discovery was followed by a lenghty discussion of other Anglo-French origins. I remember explaining the difference between 'I am pissed' and 'I need to pee' to a daughter of my hosts..).

That's how ended my first day at the French market. Oh, and I managed to sell a tub of fig jam in French to a reluctant French couple who grow figs themselves!

Right now I'm sitting on the first floor of the house of my hosts (I have the whole floor for myself!). I keep getting up at 8-9 o'clock in the morning and feeling very guitly; but then I try to pay back by scorching myself in the garden - bliss:)) Tomorrow we are moving to an 'ecological camp site', built by Odile and Jacque in the shady area next to their garden: no electricity; bio-toilet; fire for making dinners..