Thursday, May 29, 2008

Provençal Cuisine

Provençal cuisine is very different than that of the rest of France. It is more Mediterranean, using tomatoes, garlic, seafood, olives, and olive oil (rather than the usual French preference for butter). We tasted some classic examples: Niçoise salad (I did not ask for ranch dressing, for those who have seen the movie a Good Year), olives marinated in garlic and herbes de Provence, tapenade, and aïoli provencal. The latter dish intrigued me. I knew aïoli was a garlic mayonnaise, but it was listed on menus as a main dish rather than a side dish. So, I gave it a try. I was presented with a plate of boiled fish, potatoes, and carrots, and grilled fennel, zucchini, eggplant, and shrimp. The homemade aïoli was served in a dish to be eaten with the various items. What appeared to be a bland and strange plate proved to be incredibly tasty. But they certainly did not spare on the garlic when making the aïoli. I am not sure how my companions could stand to be in the car with me the rest of the day!

We sampled plenty of the region’s olive oil and wine. After driving through endless olive groves, we stopped at an olive oil shop in St Remy. There, we learned about what gives olive oil its flavour. Regulated much like France’s other beloved food products, olive oil from the Provence region is made using any combination of five different types of olives. The combination of olives selected, and whether they were harvested will ripe or still a little unripe, gives each olive oil a distinct flavour that ranges from mild and sweet to fresh and sharp. After sampling many types, we loaded up with several bottles of olive oil from orchards we had driven by.

We spent one day exclusively dedicated to wine. The most famous Provençal wine region is Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but there are several other, more reasonably priced regions such as Gigondas, Côtes-du-Rhône, Lirac, and more. We started by visiting individual wineries, but unlike other wine-making regions we have visited (Okanagan, Sicily, St. Emilion), they were not equipped to give tours of their fields and manufacturing areas; they only offered samples. Not that we could complain about the samples, but we were interested in learning more about what makes a Gigondas a Gigondas. So for some better education, we ventured over to a tasting cave in Chateauneuf-du-Pape that represents several of the region’s vintners. They aim to educate their clients while doing a tasting. One feature unique to the the vines in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape region is how the soil is prepared. The ground surrounding the vines is covered with rocks that help seal in the heat, and protect the soil from the strong mistral winds that blow in the region.

We also enjoyed the quaint little wine town of Gigondas. In this tiny village, possibly too small for a school, we figured that every family has at least one member working in the wine business. At one winery, we were greeted by a lady, surely in her seventies, who gladly let us sample the wine from her sons’ vineyards. She ran around like a woman half her age, and found a way into all our hearts.

Provence Roadtrip

We recently said good-bye to our fifth set of Canadian visitors this year. Amy and Steve Duncan started their French roadtrip in Normandy. They slowly wandered down our way, stopping to visit D-Day sights and museums, castles, and ancient cave paintings along the way. They spent three nights with us in Pau, getting a taste of our French lives.

While here, we took the Duncans on our favourite day-trip from Pau: a visit to St Jean de Luz for a beach picnic, then to San Sebastian in Spain for a walk through the old town and a sample of their famous (and our favourite) tapas.

After a few relaxing days, we packed up our car and headed off for Provence, new territory for all of us. I headed to this region with pre-conceived images in mind. Provence seems to be this mythical place that people fall in love with and choose to settle down in. I had visions of wonderful smells (this is where many sources for perfume extracts are grown), lavender fields, and bright, sunny colours. Thankfully, I was not disappointed. Provence is French countryside at its greatest. The prominent harvests are olive trees and grape vines. Both types of fields stretch on for as far as the eye can see. It always amazes me how much wine France produces. The amount of vineyards dwarfs those that I have seen in Canada (not surprisingly) and Italy. The next blog entry will detail our wine and olive oil sampling.

It was a little too early for the lavender fields to be in bloom, but we were lucky to see and smell a beautiful yellow bush that littered the countryside called ginestre, or scottish broom. Every time we stepped out of the car, we were greeted by a wonderful sweet and floral smell that ginestre largely contributed to. We wanted to bottle the scent and take it home with us.

We spent two nights in Arles, and three nights in Vaison la Romaine. Between these two towns, we stopped in many other villages and towns, and enjoyed some particularly scenic drives. The Romans inhabited this area 2,000 years ago, and we toured several of their remaining structures, including the Pont du Gard (aqueduct), the amphitheatre in Arles, and the theatre in Orange. We sang and danced (well, Amy and I danced) on the Pont d’Avignon, just as the song tells us to. We snuck into a poppy field to have our photo taken. We retraced Van Gogh’s footsteps in Arles, seeking the inspiration for some of his most famous paintings. And we laughed…a lot. Overall, we had a wonderful time.

Monday, May 5, 2008


After a great two days in Barcelona, the Jupps and LeBlancs hopped on a flight to Granada, in southern Spain. We were scheduled to land around 9:30 PM, so decided to wait until we reached Granada to have supper. Spaniards eat supper notoriously late, often starting after 10 PM, so we would be right on schedule. Unfortunately, we were delayed on the plane in Barcelona for over an hour before departing. We landed in Granada late and famished. We hit the pavement at midnight in search of a drink and tapas. It soon became obvious that the restaurants and bars were closing up. We ran frantically from bar to bar, asking “do have tapas?”. Finally, we found a lively late-night bar still serving food. We randomly ordered a couple of dishes, and laughed when we saw what was presented. The first dish was a plate of fries, covered with cheese, cooked jamon (cured ham), and topped with nearly raw eggs. The second dish was tiny deep-fried squid. They were about 1-2 inches long, and included everything, even the little black eyes. We were so hungry it didn’t matter what we were served; we tucked in with fervor and finished off everything.

The next day, fueled by late night fried food, we packed in a full day of sightseeing. Granada was the last Spanish Islamic town to fall to the Catholics in 1492. As a result, there are great Moorish sights in Granada, including the old silk markets and the beautiful Alhambra (Moorish palace). The Alhambra is one of the greatest sights we have seen. There are lush, fragrant gardens that surround the buildings. The palace sits atop a hill overlooking the town of Granada, and is surrounded by the Sierra Nevada mountans.

That night we stepped down into a cave to watch flamenco dancing. Flamenco is a form of dance that originates from southern Spain. It was a very intimate show: about 20 onlookers, 7 dancers, 2 singers, and 3 musicians. It is a dance accompanied by clapping, guitars, and occasional singing. Each dancer performs individually, and his or her routine is mostly spontaneous. We watched the lively and loud show for close to two hours. It was a wonderful local experience, accompanied appropriately with sangria.

The next day we parted ways. The Jupps continued on their tour of southern Spain, and we returned home. We had a great time with our friends, and were very sad to say good-bye to them. Thanks for a great trip!

Friday, May 2, 2008


We just returned from a trip to Spain with our latest Canadian visitors. Jen and Dave Jupp arrived in Pau last Friday after an exhausting two days of travel. They landed here on a hot and sunny spring morning and were thrilled to see the lush greenery after departing Calgary amidst spring snow. They were only here for 24 hours before we ventured further south, but we squeezed in as much of France during their short stay: steak tartare, escargots, stinky cheese, baguettes, and l’apéro.

Saturday morning, we packed up the Baby Benz and headed toward Barcelona. Thankfully, Dave was the co-pilot as I would never have succeeded in getting us through the three-tiered traffic circle that took us all by surprise. After some more stressful driving moments, we safely parked the car in a parking garage and were ready to explore the city by foot.

I have heard only good things about Barcelona. Everybody seems to love that city. But now that I have seen it for myself, I must say I was a bit disappointed, yet also pleasantly surprised. First, some of the downsides. The city was incredibly expensive; pricier than anywhere else we have visited. Every time we left a restaurant or bar, we felt robbed. The hotel and parking lots were ridiculously expensive. We were relieved to leave the city just to have some control over our money again.

Barcelona is an exhausting city. It is packed with people all hours of the day. Unlike other busy cities we have visited, we could not find anywhere to get reprieve from the crowds. These crowds were certainly packed with tourists, but the city itself is huge, and not as ‘pretty’ as most other European cities. I often felt as though I was in a large South American city rather than a European city.

Now for the good stuff. Spain has produced many great modern artists, and some of their work is on display in Barcelona. We really enjoyed the Picasso museum. But the best surprise was Gaudi’s work. If you are not familiar with him, look up a picture of the Sagrada Familia, the unfinished church that he started in 1882 and will not be completed for many, many years to come. From a distance and on photos, the church appears to have a melting, ugly façade. But a close-up view of the church reveals stunning detail carved into the odd-looking façade. It is a truly great piece of art and a wonder to see in production. I would love to see it completed, but I have a feeling I will be a very old woman when that day arrives. Our next favourite Gaudi sight is his Park Guell. This public park is situated on a hill overlooking the city of Barcelona. It is a wondrous mix of green space and colourful architecture.

Barcelona has a tireless vibrancy to it, and there is no better place to experience this than on the famous street Las Ramblas. Some of its sights include outdoor pet shops selling everything from rabbits to roosters, street mimes wearing the most amazing costumes I have ever seen, art vendors, pickpockets, and clever salesmen trying to sell single cans of beer from six-packs.

More on the second leg of our trip to come.