Archive for February, 2009

2/24: I’m no frog’s toadie.

p1040155Lest you think me some kind of crazy francophile employed by the French government to usher food-obsessed tourists across their borders, let this post reinstate some credibility.

#1 I had pretty mediocre food here in 2005. Same route (Provence, Cote d’Azur), same budget (not very large). In fact, if it hadn’t been for the lure of free lodging…and lovely friends…I’d have laid bets on not returning to the South of France for a good long while. So what made the difference? I have a few theories:

       a) Frigid temps and no tourists, so the chefs have nothing better to do than stir sauces on/by the fire. Whereas in Fall 05 the air was balmy, the grape crush underway, and speaking of crushes, the recently departed hordes had probably trampled the spirit of the locals.

       b) I have a weakness for winter foods: salty, meaty, stewy, braisy, more comforting than finessed. But the food of Provence isn’t what you’d call sophisticated, so ratatouille, frites and green peppercorn sauce are pretty much a year-round thing. And would I complain about a spring lamb stuffed with spring onions on a bed of spring peas? Never mind, I just talked myself out of theory b.

       c) This set of travel companions wanted to eat one large meal midday, vs the 05 gang who wanted breakfast and then weren’t hungry til dinner. Biologically I prefer the latter, but intellectually I know the former is the way to go when traveling on a budget. Midday eating allows you to take advantage of more courses for a lower price, better prix fixe menus, and frankly, better company in the dining room. There’s something convivial about sharing a buzzing room (or is that sharing a room with a buzz?) with a bunch of daytime frenchies having their midday meal, rather than a hushed night-time restaurant sparsely peopled with other tourists.

       d) Though I don’t travel with picky eaters, it’s still a treat to dive headfirst into platters of the smoked, pickled, raw, internal and bizarre. And no one loves the nasty bits more than b1 and b2. So the compromises were more akin to, “tripe again?”, rather than what to have on the pizza.

#2 reason not to love the south of France? I’ve got two words for you: turkish toilet. Am planning a trip to Turkey next to see if they’re as prevalent there; suspect the Turks are getting a bad rap with what should be named a french toilet.

#3: Telephone showers. Let me get this straight. This is the birthplace of Coco Chanel, Catherine Deneuve and Jaques Pepin (well he’s glamorous to ME). 80-year-old women still don stockings and heels to go to lunch. The women under 65 all seem to sport long hair, skinny jeans tucked into boots, and an endless variety of Christian’s (project runway) conquistador chic jacket. But to bathe, they crouch in a cold porcelain bowl in an underheated room, using just one hand to lather, scrub and squeeze, while the other hand futily tries to direct a spray of water to the soapy bits and not outside the imaginary boundary of the tub.

Perhaps THAT’s the incentive for staying so thin? After my 5 minutes of bathing bliss my knees are bruised, the toilet paper across the room is soaked, and my bits are still soapy. Get a shower curtain and hang the damn sprayer up, people.

#4 Thinking of the trail of soggy rolls of tp I’ve left behind, not to be all ugly American, but how has Charmin not made inroads in France? Appreciate your enormous rolls of cushiness, because across the pond millions are making do with tiny rolls of pink industrial grade bond paper.

#5 Since it’s too late to reclaim my dignity let’s talk about the language. Do I feel ashamed for coming to their country, accepting their hospitality, and making them speak MY language? Absolutely. And it’s not as if English doesn’t have its share of silent letters (‘neighbor’ and ‘though’), multiple meanings (doe, dough and doh!) and the always pesky ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ distinction. But I slipped back further than ever this trip. Being with so many French speakers wiped away the foggy sense that I had a clue and replaced that with the realization that every “rule” I’d ever learned about French pronunciation has 166 exceptions…and those are the ones you’ll encounter the most frequently. In my shame, I realize I either need to learn the damn language or get moving on that trip to Turkey where expectations are nil. (Plus, having had a Turkish roommate in college, I already have a leg up, knowing that the ‘c’ is pronounced ‘j’. Her favorite movie star growing up? Rojk Hudson.)

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2/7: Quien es mas macho? Battle of the “perfect” French meals.

Marseille brought us La Garbure, “les richesses gastronomiques du Sud-Ouest”…aka duck heaven. But the hills above Nice gave my eyes, nose and stomach the Auberge de Caussols. Adorable? Check! Mouthwatering menu? Check! Bucket of butter? Check! But I’m getting ahead of myself. p1040388

After four hours on the autoroute from Crest we arrive at Mas St. Anne, jump out of our Yaris and into the backseat of an equally tiny car to be driven up (by a former rally car driver) impossibly steep, windy, narrow (“this is for two-way traffic? really are you sure?”) country roads above Grasse, above St. Paul de Vence, and well above the perched village (“I spit on your meager elevation!”) of Gourdon, above the clouds and fog, into the snow and blazing blue skies, past the sledders, the skating rink, the farmhouses, to the wide spot in the road known as Caussols. p1040334An inauspicious building was nested into the snowbank, through whose icicle-hung doors lay a fairyland of food…a warren of warmth…a tempting temple of tastes.

Apparently on Sundays the lines are out the door with families out for a drive, cold and hungry from sledding, skiing, hiking, snowshoeing, or like us, uh, from sitting on their butts in a car. But our party of seven was happy to be ushered directly into a cozy room with a blazing fire, an old wooden bar and a few other occupied tables. (CSK: it reminded me slightly of Il Maladroit in the hills above Ravenna.) p1040335

There’s a set menu with three courses of choices for 30 euro, add a fourth course for 45, and possibly even a fifth for another 10…but I can’t remember for sure as the range of choices was too distracting. You know those menus where you can find two apps that sound great but then you struggle with a main dish that calls to you? Or the desserts sound wan and uninspiring? Not so much the case here.

Would it be brandade in a cold mint and olive sauce? pigs feet gribiche (a sauce of chopped capers, cornichons, garlic, olive oil…yum, yum, omg, yum!), a charcuterie platter (jambon cru, mortadella, multiple types of salami…)? Confit du canard, beef cheeks, lamb shank, whole local trout, salmon with sorrel…I’m kicking myself for not retaining the other choices (many) but the seduction started immediately as plates of wood-fire-toasted bread p1040339 with tapenade, vats of home-made pate, and buckets of fresh, sweet butter started covering the table. What? Who ordered these? No one? They’re just part of the fairyland magic? Alrighty then, bring it on!

If more than one person orders a dish it’s served family style, but what you can’t know ahead of time is that whether two, three or four order a dish, such as the roasted, milk-fed lamb, charcuterie, and pork gribiche in our case, they give you enough of each for a party of 12. So in addition to a Christmas-dinner-sized platter of roasted lamb, we had enough cassoulet so laden with duck confit you could barely find the beans, lamb shank in a wine reduced to black syrup, and beef cheek stew (Guy’s cheeks in my shank sauce would have been the penultimate braised dish against which I’d measure all others for eternity, so it’s probably best they were separated) to pass around (much to the bewilderment of our French friends who were by turns amused, disturbed and overwhelmed by the flying plates, forks and camera). And did I mention that, like the pate, they dropped platters of home-made ravioli, roasted potatoes, and transcendent ratatouille on the table for our “side dishes”? Would I be kicked out of the pork club if I admitted that while I succeeded in limiting myself to just one hunk of pate, a half slice of cured meats, and one ravioli, I had seconds (okay perhaps thirds) on ratatouille? (Note to self, get into the kitchen and work on your rendition. Make sure there’s plenty of olive oil on hand.)

Pieds du porc gribiche...for 3.

Pieds du porc gribiche...for 3.

And while the generous servings were cause for hilarity, there was nothing funny about the food. Intense flavors, complex sauces, glowing country-casual presentation…no square, spare, white plates here…and succulent meats (though to b2’s disappointment, the lamb was in the fall-apart-tender roast style, rather than the bright pink of a Sunday gigot d’agneau).

Enough, you say? Cry uncle for god’s sake? To my delight, we didn’t have to make the painful choice between dessert OR cheese. Though I love cheese beyond all reason, at the end of a meal such as this I usually opt out in an effort to stem the flow of salt. But at the Auberge, bless its heart, one doesn’t have to even think about doing the “right thing”, for what’s a French meal without the cheese course? Out comes the cheese, a sensible and wondrous mix of blue, brebis, soft and smelly / hard and tangy, not too much but just what was needed to accompany the remains of our 14 euro bottles of local (really, really local, called “Auberge de Caussols”) red wine.

And then dessert. It was part of the three set courses (remember? this was a three course lunch? Someone in the kitchen has to work on their counting skills). Now let’s be honest. We all know that even in France, dessert on a prix fixe menu can sometimes be uninspiring: a runny creme caramel, a gluey eclair, a soggy tart du pomme (strike that, I only had awesome apple tarts on this trip). Plus, I’ll pick salt over sugar any day of the week, and though this may surprise you? I was pretty much full. But in honor of my p1040363beloved K, at home struggling with single parenthood with le beast-o-wicz, I ordered a simple creme brulee. Like won-ton soup at a chinese restaurant, creme brulee is often my litmus test of a decent french restaurant at home. To me, it’s a pretty clear line between, “this is good” and “yuck”.

But now a new line has been added beyond “good”. WHAT makes it transcendent? Once you’ve hit creamy and delicious with a burnt sugar crust, where else can you go? But on this day, at this place, this little flat bowl (practically crema catalan depth) had the perfect proportions of vanilla that your brain knew was there but your tastebuds couldn’t single out, egg that coated your tongue / mouth / throat / brain but managed not to taste eggy, cream that kept the consistency soft and supple (I know some prefer a firmer custard, but this is MY perfect creme brulee and it was supple, I tell you!). Oh, and b1’s lemon tart, which she ordered after much negotiation with Roxanne and me so we could get a perfect dessert triumvirate was freaking awesome as well. Tart! Bursts of fresh lemon! Another vat of butter…one for the shortbread crust and another for the lemon curd! And Roxanne’s chocolate fondant was perfect as well, though it didn’t set a new bar for any other perfect flourless chocolate cake encased in a thin sheet of bittersweet ganache. (Well, perhaps the fact that it was insanely rich without being very sweet did set a new bar…let me think about that.)

p1040374What more is there to say? We stumbled out into the blinding blue light…wtf? it’s still light out?…stuffed ourselves back into the tiny car which now felt microscopic, wound back down the mountain, and fell about the house in various inelegant angles of repose. Curiously, no one spoke of dinner that night.

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2/5: Toe jam and innards…it’s a good thing.

Went for a country drive through the Drome (with two blind people stuffed into the backseat of our rented Toyota Yaris), the dramatic landscape accented by fast-moving clouds. Fifteen shades of beige, rocky fields with small bunches of new lavender starting to bush out above the furrows, wheat, a few vineyards for Clairette, then fruit trees in the higher plateau, backed by striated cliffs with flat tops, backed further by craggy snow-capped mountains.

p10402631It looked bleak and freezing out and the wind was blowing, but it was strangely warm, having switched from a frigid north wind to something blowing up from Algiers.

As we’ve done throughout most of the trip we had our main meal midday, today in the shadow of the cathedral in Die (pronounced Dee, thankfully). It was a warm and charming place where we’d hoped to meet up with Manouche’s brother, an old hippie, ex-chef/restauranteer, and apparent all-around character.

B2 and Manouche had sweetbreads in a creme fraiche sauce, M. with a side of ubiquitous frites and dad with a beautiful (and massive) plate of veggies: endive, ratatouille, zuke, string beans…. The French don’t share bites and pass plates around, more on that later, and Dad, guarding his personal space like a longtime resident of San Quentin apologized between bites that no one was getting a taste of his (though he was strangely generous with his greens). I was torn between outrage and pleasure that he was enjoying it that much. I love sweetbreads, but like foie gras, I want a taste, or an appetizer, not a full plate. And it’s a sad fact of life in the US that you’re only going to find sweetbreads on the menus of fancy restaurants, not some casual lunchtime place in the shadow of a 16th century church.

A light midday repast of rognons in phyllo and mustard cream.

A light midday repast of rognons in phyllo and mustard cream.

B1 had kidneys (sorry to the faint of heart for our penchant for odd cuts of meat) in a crisp phyllo drenched with an ambrosial mustard cream sauce, and I the full menu for a mere 13 euro: dressed frisee topped with a poached egg wrapped in an eggy crepe (I’ve decided everything is better with a poached egg); chicken leg and thigh in a half french (creme fraiche and butter) half morrocan (bitter lemon and cumin) sauce that was utterly unique to my tastebuds, overcooked but tasty zucchini, so-so apple / pear tart, and a personal pitcher (two glasses) of ridiculously good vin rouge du maison.

I swear most days we only eat one meal a day…though I’m still managing to feel sausaged into my baggy jeans. With my heart out so much and the b’s inability to walk much, this has definitely been a most sedentary trip. Even by my standards.

Afterwards, for a bit of exercise (heh) we went to a caveau to taste and buy their local specialty, Clairette du Die. By chance, the caveau we selected had a petite musee complete with 70’s store mannequins dressed in peasant garb attending to the various stages of growing, bottling and consuming the local sparkling wine. Usually fairly sweet (my preference) from being mixed with Muscat grapes, the Clairette Brut alone was surprisingly good…toe jammy and just how b2 likes his champagne.

Blasting from the motion-detection speakers, in what Manouche cackled was a heavy local accent, long-sideburned, lifesized Malibu Ken #1 bellows: “Beh…I am the bottler. Without me there would BE no wine!” “But without me,” says the pinafored peasant woman, “no one would get any work done!” So true, but so hard to take seriously with her bright blue eyeshadow and Farrah Fawcett hair.

As in Vacqueyras, tasting was free and copious, and the bottles were all under 7.50 e.

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2/4: “When I play zee flute I open zee eyes very vide to ear the full music bien!”

She’s got chimes in the halls between the bedroom and kitchen, bathroom and office, that tinkle as she brushes past. Though blind for the past 30 years, brilliant paintings cover the white walls, books are stacked on the tables and every surface in Manouche’s (born Louisette, dubbed Countess Manouch by fellow students at the Paris blind rehab center where b1 met her) home holds treasures and oddities. 

Quite the contrast to Mireille, our angry OCD “hostess” in Marseille! But you take what life hands you, including your genetic disposition.

So what if, after two years in the hospital you come home (without any eyes) to find your husband has moved his mistress into your house, with your three young kids…and won’t move her out? Or if he then takes you to court to contest the insurance settlement because he “obviously” suffered more than she from the effects of the accident? Well look who’s gone and who’s still living life to the fullest.

Puffin' the hooch.

Puffin' the hooch.

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1/30: What? Enough of family observations? Get back to the food, you say?

p1030783Scrumptious dinner with Pierre et Baby pronounced “Bahbee” so not quite as obnoxious as it appears in print), b2’s second cousin on Grandma’s side, after an exhausting day of sightseeing. SW french food from the Toulouse region, so specializing in all things duck: confit du canard, magret du canard, smoked proscuitto-like cured canard, gizzard of canard and of course, the liver of canard, the king of the innards, foie gras. (Balfour, stop reading right here, though I choose to believe these are gently and humanely raised giant-livered happy geese.) We climbed down a steep spiral staircase into a whitewashed cave with a very low stone ceiling (note to Bruce, Skip and other tall persons…duck! ar ar ar) lit unfortunately with 100 watt bulbs.

The gratis glasses of chilled, late-harvest muscat (gorgeously floral and syrupy with enough acid to keep it clean in the back of your throat) helped to mellow the wattage and illuminate instead how cozy and charming the two small rooms were. The women were handed menus without prices…whaaaa?! Is this cave a magical world that just transported me five decades into the past? Disturbing. Bizarre.

Peering over b2’s shoulder I received another shock…at the reasonable prices. (Hmm, maybe we have been transported to a few years past.)

Our hosts, who have a combined weight of 120 dripping wet, each ordered an entree and plat, whereas b, b2 & I split their special app of the day, brouillade: eggs whipped with truffle. A gray color with the consistency of gluey oatmeal and little truffle flavor that I could detect—though studded generously with flecks and shavings—it was strangely delicious. Though I was a wee bit jealous of Baby’s dinner-sized plate of dressed frisee, loaded with thin slices of cured duck and four large rolls of chevre fried till crisp, then drizzled with honey while hot, creating a chewy, sweet crust. Oh la la. I’ll be trying that one at home, though recreating that texture isn’t going to be possible. Pierre’s gizzard salad really was delicious…but it too was generous to a fault, which is perhaps a tiny bit of a fault when one is talking gizzard salad.

The tasty bowl of truffle goup was followed, por moi, with fresh pasta dressed simply in butter, topped with a couple of slices of light-as-air fried foie gras and ringed by prime-rib-rare and tender slices of duck…heaven on earth in every bite.  



b1 made it through half of her duck rolled in pate in turn rolled in a French phyllo, lightly sauced with a rich cream and jus reduction. You could have replaced the center duck with a napkin and it would have been delicious. b2 ducked the trend and had veal kidneys…with foie gras…and like the gizzards it was delicious but a bit too kidney-esque for my tastes. Baby continued the duck fest with a duck scallopini topped with morels in cream sauce (I believe there was a slice or three of foie gras tucked in amongst the bounty), and Pierre had their special of the day, magret with curry and pears. Curry seems to have taken southern France by storm – Jill take note. 

Dessert ended with b1 and me splitting an apple crepe “purse” in caramel sauce, pear sorbet floating in a glass of poire william for Baby, and b2 and Pierre quickly regretted the insane decadence of their preneaux glace (whoever heard of a too-creamy ice cream, but there you have it) drenched in Armagnac, poured over the ice cream at the table from a magnum, yes a magnum, of aged Armagnac.

Armagnac action shot.

Armagnac action shot.

With a bottle of 05 St. Emillon, out the door for $45 per person? Ridiculous. And happy. Oh, and the day in Marseille? Fantastic. But more on that in another post…maybe…..

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1/29 continued, La Bagatelle Baggage: “Ecoutez moi bien!”

La Bagatelle, the ancestral Marseille home well-loved by great great Uncle Louis and Aunt Marie.

La Bagatelle, the ancestral Marseille home well-loved by great great Uncle Louis and Aunt Marie.

So we find freeload pad #2 without much trouble…it’s on the edge of Marseille (huge! sprawling! dramatic!) that we’re entering, and we’re pretty mellow from our morning in Cassis and the sea urchin find. We park on the street, awaiting 3rd cousin Mireille, whom I’ve been forewarned is, um…how to put it…a bit high strung. 10 minutes later up zips a new bug and out jumps an attractive 50-something, and b2 goes out to greet her, arms outstretched for the customary 4-kiss reserved for family. The woman immediately launches into an impassioned diatribe, arms waving, voice rising and b2’s expression changes from a big smile…to a chuckle…to chagrin…to bewilderment, as he gives up trying to give her a kiss / hug / handshake / back pat. He puts up with 10 minutes of finger wagging before I get out of the car to see if my presence will break the monologue; it doesn’t even slow it down. Five minutes more and b1 gets out of the car. She doesn’t wait, but instead (in French) says, “Hey! How come we’re standing out in the street? Are you going to let us in or what?” Twenty minutes of rapid-fire and impassioned French pass before we even make it through the gate, up the driveway, and another 10 to get through the front door.

Apparently the vitriol has to do with sibling, parental and life resentments triggered by the channels by which b2 had asked for use of the house. Fortunately only a little of it directly involved us, (“N’est pas provoke moi, Bernard!”) but our appearance caused their unfortunate and unsettling exposure to daylight. The first 30 minutes were intriguing to piece together (understanding every seventh word), the second 30 minutes were like a scene from a movie. I kept thinking, “someone should be getting this woman on film.” Her gestures and repetitive tics (flick hair, pull up bra strap, pick at collar, pull down sweater in the back, repeat, repeat, repeat) made for a fascinating and disturbing study.

The third 30 minutes I was ready to get a hotel.

It would be a mistake to say she ever simmered down, but somehow we managed to get her out the door. Thankfully she was too distraught to join us for dinner as originally planned, but they made a date for lunch the next day. Hmmm, my datebook looks AWFULLY full.

Though the b’s have been here many times it’s usually family-oriented, so I was happy to lead them into a hopping maze of streets called the Noailles, populated by an eclectic ethnic mix.

Noailles daily market.

Noailles daily market.

Dusk was settling and the streets were teeming with produce sellers, doner kebab stands, patisseries, middle eastern bakeries and a 3-block long outdoor market that ended in a jam-packed market square. The gloriously grimy cobbled streets pulsed with energy and life. Beach towns and medieval villages are nice, but THIS is 7th heaven! (She says, til the next painfully cute harbor or impossibly narrow alleyway framing a lacy bell tower.) p10307622

Feeling smug with my success as a tour-guide, I played King Solomon and solved the dining dispute with a progressive dinner, starting with a shared platter of raw seafood (6 oysters, 6 clams, 6 mussels, 6 limpits, 3 shrimp and 3 large, round, flat, fluted somethings..cockles? my hands-down favorite), carafe of wine, bread, butter and 3 dipping sauces for 24 euro (insane!). Then after a political discussion with a fishmonger on the corner just outside of Toinou Coquillages, it was around the corner for a wood-fired pizza, salad and a wee bit more vin.

Nearly every day someone asks where we’re from, and when we say the U.S. they either shout “Yes we can!” or ask us how we feel about Obama. This fish monger not only knew about Obama but he had an opinion of Cheney, theories on our economic crisis, and updated us on Tom Daschle’s scandal. It’s astounding.

Jesus. This was the longest day of my life.

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1/29: Moving Day. “Where’s the pastis? Didn’t you pack the pastis? Oh my god we left the pastis.”

After days where the simple act of showering or getting gas filled us with a sense of accomplishment, we were ill prepared to hit the road. But by 11 b1 was stuffed into the back seat of our rented Yaris , along with the half of the luggage that didn’t fit in the hatchback, and off we chugged along the coast west to Marseille. Stopped in Cassis for an early lunch: jambon cru, cheese and a baguette from the open market. After a week of seaside towns, some cute (Bandol) some ugly (Six Fours) and some bustling (Toulon) I thought myself immune, or at least hardened, but nope. A-d-o-r-a-b-l-e little port…like the Mini Coupe of seaside towns.

The sun was warm so we had a pick-me-up coffee quay-side along all the French vacationers having their pre-lunch pastis or chilled bottle of rose. The man from our neighboring table deserted his companion for at least ten minutes, returning with a platter of glistening something…but what? As he set it on a tall wire stand I counted 15 raw sea urchins on the half shell. So THAT’s what those guys are selling from that table by that boat! Recently back in rhythm I wanted to limit my salt, but what kind of loser traveler would let that experience pass me by? So we had one apiece, scooping the insides out with our remaining baguette and tossing the spent shell into the water.

Spiny, briny bounty.

Spiny, briny bounty.

Then on to the big city and La Bagatelle, the now empty family home of my third cousin. The “cottage” sits just off the Corniche, a spectacular batch of coast (in the Guinness book of world records as the world’s longest beach, apprently) that changes from deserted cliffs to mansions and on into teeming, sprawling Marseille. Four blocks from the beach, one block off a major thoroughfare lined with grand houses, behind a large HSBC bank, and behind a low wall with a crotchety security gate sits a rustic country home. It’s a disconcerting juxtaposition and amazing location, though not without its price in family drama. Oooo…fodder for the next post

Mansions along the Marseille Corniche.

Mansions along the Marseille Corniche.

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1/28: Consider What Can be Gathered in a Glance

Had a breakfast of Jambon de Bayonne (French prosciutto) and bread outside in the hot sun of the veranda and read guidebooks about Marseille. It will be nice to have Dad at the wheel in that big, confusing city. Heart’s out, so I guess the salt / fat / caffeine diet isn’t so miraculous after all…had hoped I was on to something.

Took an afternoon drive to the intriguingly named Olliouilles, which we drive by daily on our errands, and after driving through that adorable town, a wrong turn wound us up a different gorge than planned. Ended up in a seeming ghost village Evenos, one of those gray, lichen- stone-covered (streets, buildings, walls, terracing) villages with stunning views, a dilapidated fortress, and our own spaniel guide dog. He’d run to us panting, dash off down an alley and come back five minutes later to see if we were still following. Through the streets, around a narrow path along the sheer cliff face, through the ruins, back into “town” where the only other living thing we saw was a restaurant patio full of chickens and geese. They seemed to be on good terms with each other…maybe they run the town? Like an Orwell story come to life. (Adorable photos either lost or locked in K’s camera, whose batteries have given up the ghost.

The sea is beautiful but honestly if you’ve seen one port you’ve seen most all, and we’re nothing if not port rich here. Give me a perched village any day.

Us, driving through a tunnel. No a culvert. No, maybe a tunnel...
Us, driving through a tunnel.
No a culvert.
No, maybe a tunnel…

A Parental Vignette

B1: Run the dishwasher.
B2: Okay.
B1: Is the dishwasher running?
B2: Yeah.
B1: It’s so quiet, are you sure it’s running?
D: Yeah, it’s running.

3 hours later…

B2: Oh my god, I never ran the dishwasher.
D: Yes you did.
B2: I think I set it up but never pushed the button.
B1: I knew it was too quiet!
B2: I’ll run it now.

Runs dishwasher. Very quiet. Exactly like the first time it got run.

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1/24: Letting the Frog Legs get the Better of Us

Cancelled our visit to “the big city” of Toulon (pop 170,000) to await the electrician after blowing up the stove while boiling eggs. Have I mentioned the technological black hole in which we live? It’s pouring rain with gale force winds outside so no one minds, but we’re becoming shut-ins. Looked for a local internet cafe or “le wee-fee,” and read The Tipping Point. Can’t stand that Giuliani’s team was right and that washing the graffiti off the subways in the 90s dramatically helped NY’s crime. But political affiliation aside, what an amazing thing.

Also couldn’t identify my “type”…neither a: maven, trendsetter, connector, nor may I be salesman. (Yes, it’s all about me.) As a job seeker in search of an identity was seriously hoping for some career-defining inspiration.

The rain-drenched view

For sustenance we raided the pantry and opened a bag of 70 individually frozen and wrapped miniature frog’s legs, garlicked, dredged and fried them up. Eh. A little weird, like eating fillet of sole.

With a pelvis.

And flippers. (Yes, I have a photo but I’m sparing you.)

Thank heavens for the marinated string bean salad (with stove-breaking boiled eggs…quelle forte!) and the cheese, toujours le cheese.

Decent movie library here so we’re working our way though Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, Gosford Park, Bagdad Cafe, etc. I’ve seen them all before but since I have to describe them to b1, it’s just as well. Have you SEEN Gosford Park? “Okay now it’s the servant Parks who goes by the name of Stockbridge downstairs because that’s his master’s name, who’s really the bastard son of the lord and the housekeeper, who’s sister to the cook. And that’s the mean guy married to the poor woman who always wears the same dress but I have no idea how they’re related to anyone or why they’re there. With me so far?”

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1/23: A Gambol to Bandol


Had the worst croissant ever today and a below average coffee after the waterfront market in our village, but the place had character at least. Should have followed my instinct and ordered a plate of coucroute (sauerkraut, sausage, ham, hocks, more sausage, etc.) from one of the TWO market carts. At 9 a.m.  In a market with fewer than 20 stalls. (note the bay and bobbing boats behind them. painfully picturesque!)

After going out of rhythm in the middle of the night I’m hoping a steady diet of espresso and pork fat will get my heart back on track.

We met French friends back in Bandol for lunch at a waterfront restaurant (decor: Jetsons meets the America’s Cup). This time the moules were excellent (though I had the risotto, also excellent.), and served in the cutest pots with deep lids for the cast-off shells. I’ll bet I could find them at Carrefour, but schlepping them home…oy. Tarte tatin with caramel on a puff crust, and orange tart on a shortbread crust were included for 15e. And another bottle of excellent Bandol Rose. Then a promenade and an espresso, and a few wrong turns home for a nap.

Dinner was a snack of charcuterie and pastis at home, followed by a crepe-off: banana and chocolate by b1 (eh…try again with home-made chocolate sauce…) and lemon, butter and sugar from me. We each think we won………

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1/22: A Technological Canard


“Our” villa in Brusc is about a kilometer from the sea, and the open floorplan, well-stocked kitchen, giant pool (covered now), cat, lemon tree heavy with fruit, and outdoor built-in bbq fireplace makes me wish it was summer and that the cooking gang was here. It’s pretty perfect as long as you’re not trying to get any sort of internet connection. Or change the channel on the TV. We’re all having our separate tech issues: b1 with her hand-held “Brailleberry” that’s supposed to connect her to the internet, read her books, and be a notebook and calendar. b2 with the house computer, which he needs to consult with Rinpoche in Indiana and the editor in New York for their book that’s on deadline. Literally 12 minutes to boot up. About 7 minutes to connect. 45% of the time this crashes everything and you have to start over. b2’s gotten good about walking away while it does its thing (good buddhist practice), but if he gets wrapped up in a TV program in the meantime (oops, just blew the image of him meditating), he has to start the whole dance over again because after about an hour everything jams up and needs to be rebooted.

And me, trying to get connected to French internet so I can use my own laptop and avoid the horror….quelle disastre! Fuggedaboudit. I think I’ve managed to purge the 37 MB of French CDs I loaded fruitlessly and I’m praying our host doesn’t return to exhorbitant internet bills. Well, clicking on the thing that kind of sounded like, “are you willing to enjoy payments by the minutes?” was the only way to keep me moving forward, at one point…Who knows what I agreed to? As tech incompetent as I am in English, following instructions in French was quite the adventure.

So I’m working to change my expectation and “goals” of these first ten days. I’m tapping Havi!


We set aside our frustrations and jaunted to the top of “our” mountain to check out one of the six fortresses which gives Six Fours les Plages its name, then on to the supermarket to stock up on headcheese, wine and other staples, including a huge-ass can of cassoulet (vs the big-ass tin of confit du canard), to which we’d add to our own beans. That all punctuated by a long and loud debate about the relative merits of different brands: how big will the chunks of duck be? How much will we get? Remember the time we got that brand and the meat was microscopic? Oh but then the last time, what brand was that? It had tons of duck. I think it was from ___________. The best comes from ________. Let’s get the one from __________. But do we want cassoulet or just the confit?

The French canned food aisle has me mesmerized. Instead of Chef Boyardee and Dennisons, there are rows and rows of tinned foie gras, confit (of course), and tripe stew. Six different brands of that at last count.

Up til now b1 & b2 have been working their way through the prepared foods the stores have to offer. Instead of General Tsao’s Chicken and mac ‘n cheese it’s been Boullabaise, poulet au provencal and tripe. But tonight I cooked a bourguignon with mushrooms so I could use the host’s glorious blaze orange le Crueset.

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Tuesday 1/20: “Get me gunpowder, and all the empty champagne bottles you can find!”*

Long but easy day flying. PDX to Minneapolis was packed, cramped and miserable, but a quick jaunt to a faraway gate landed me in a spacious seat to Amsterdam. A trashy novel, plenty of snacks and a good movie (The Duchess…Ralph Fiennes in a supporting role with a large dose of his usual grimness but this time with some beautifully underplayed humor) made short work of a ten-hour flight. 

Three long hours in a cold Amsterdam airport, where the sun didn’t rise until after 9, then a short hop (and my first nap) through the clouds to a chilly but blue Marseille. Customs was nonexistent, and 15 minutes after landing we were in b & b’s awaiting car getting lost (not) navigating the roundabouts through Marseille. But an hour later we tucked into a weirdly floury moules frites and an excellent Bandol Rosé in, where else? Bandol, about 20 minutes from “our town.”

The Boules players on the waterfront court outside our heated pavilion window.

As I downed my third glass of wine I realized, “hey! my heart’s back in rhythm for the first time in 3 days!” 

Home sweet home for the next week.

There seems to be a to-do all over tv over some new leader of the free world. B2’s been flipping between BBC and CNN for the past few hours which have covered it live, moment by moment. I’m thinking bed sounds better than watching the parade, but can I sleep with such a recent vision of Cheney in that wheelchair with his black leather gloves? “Mwa ha ha ha!” echoes through my brain.

*Overheard on a western, as b1 was flipping channels.

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