The Grand Gavage Part 3: Market Picnics

February 24, 2013

Gargoyle keeping watch over Carcassone.

Gargoyle keeping watch over Carcassonne.

Adjacent to our hotel in Carcassonne stood the 12th Century Basilica of St. Nazaire, bristling with gargoyles. We had a few minutes to spare, so Jeff opened the heavy wooden door and we entered. Inside, dwarfed by towering stone columns, a nun with a broom worked quietly, her footsteps echoing faintly in the stillness. We moved up the dim nave, past the burnished pews, into the enormous transept bright with morning sunshine streaming through the tall stained-glass windows of the choir. Now we could hear music, a soft solemn hymn that seemed to emerge from the stone and surround us. Rosettes glowed like colossal jewels in either end of the transept. We stood silent, listening, and I thought again how fortunate we were.

The sunlight was an omen. After a week of near-constant cloud cover, we were headed east to Provence under blue sky. The weather wasn’t warm but, for a nice change, it wasn’t wet. I lit a candle, slipped some euros into the receptacle, and we were off.

Destination: Arles. Distance: 223 kilometers. That meant a few hours of quality Jumpy time, with a stop or two along the way.

We’d become comfortable with our seating arrangement: Zandra and I in back; Bob and Dorothy sharing the middle row with one of the brothers; the other brother co-piloting up front. The van was equipped with a navigation device, but the chirpy female avatar entombed therein had been deemed untrustworthy, so at Dorothy’s suggestion we named her Marilyn. (Dorothy joked that she owned a ditzy gadget of the same name back home in Alabama.)

This is what happens when you travel with a master sommelier.

This is what happens when you travel with a sommelier.

Sitting in the rear gave Zandra and I time to discuss and take notes, which was critical to remembering. We marveled at the over-the-top nature of this adventure, with its unbelievable food and wine, and the astonishing fact that we were traveling with a sommelier. In addition, we had met a host of other memorable specialists and authorities. Some that stood out:

●     Our own private archeologist guided us through the caves of Périgord. Christine Desdemaines-Hugon, an expert in prehistoric cave art in the region, shared her theories on the ancient artists who reverently and skillfully represented themselves and the world around them.

●     The exuberant walnut-mill owner with the grand pot belly and string of one-liners who demonstrated the centuries-old process for pressing oil from the fragrant nuts.

●     The proprietress of an organic foie gras farm who led us on a private tour. Her dedication to and respect for the animals in her charge was evident in the treatment they received.

●     The many local guides who so passionately introduced us to their cities and towns.

●     Numerous winemakers who shared the varied methods of their craft and enticed us to taste the fermented fruits of their labor.

Of all the people we had encountered, not a single one could have been more friendly or hospitable. And we were only halfway through the itinerary.

Chez François – Sète

Two guys and a pile of oysters.

Two guys and a pile of oysters.

The Setup: On the drive to Arles we crested a rise and there lay the Mediterranean Sea with its promise of les fruits de mer, which had come up in conversation during many a meat-heavy meal. (Bob and Dorothy live on the Gulf Coast; they know their way around an oyster.) Immediately we detoured into the the seaside town of Sète.

A wrong-way turn onto a one-way street prompted a honk and a curse or two from competing motorists, but Kelly ignored the commotion long enough to get a recommendation from an amused bystander. We backed out of our traffic predicament and headed to the waterfront, to the acclaimed Chez François, located on one of the quais.

After wedging the Jumpy into a tight underground parking space we ascended into the misty seaside sunshine. At Chez François, we pulled a few tables together on the tented sidewalk, inhaled the sea air and looked over the brief, fish-focused menu.

Sea escargot with side of potatoes.

Sea escargot with side of potatoes.

The Feast: We started, of course, with wine. Kelly suggested a light, crisp Picpoul to complement the briny freshness of the oysters. Jeff ordered pastis, which arrived with a carafe of water. A mixture of the two produced the cloudy, anise-spiced milk of Provence, cure-all for whatever ails — hangover, malaise, gray skies, sweltering days. Soon our seafood binge appeared: platters of plump oysters, bowls of pleasantly chewy sea escargot, pots brimming with mussels, and a tomato-rich fish soup, all of which contrasted delightfully with the duck-centric menus we’d grown accustomed to.

Most Memorable: Crisp sea air, sunshine and beautiful, briny oysters. What more need be said?

The Market Picnic – Arles

Market lettuce in Arles.

Market lettuce in Arles.

The Setup: Mention Arles, in France or elsewhere, and people rave about the market. “Not to be missed,” they say. If you’re anywhere near Arles on a Wednesday or a Saturday, it’s impossible to miss. It’s enormous and unavoidable, lining both sides of the Boulevard des Lices for several blocks and spilling into the side streets.

We made the five-minute walk from our hotel, the enchanting L’Hôtel Particulier, past tables piled with clothing and other dry goods, into the teeming, chaotic gantlet of food stands. Fish of every stripe lay bright-eyed and glistening in cases of crushed ice, and shiny squid shared stall space with pyramids of mussels and oysters. Yard-wide paella pans cradled steaming saffron-tinted shrimp and rice. Shoppers jostled one another to sample morsels of cheese, while tiny grandmothers weaved through the throng, their shopping bags bulging, little dogs trailing with noses to the ground.

Olives of every color.

Olives of every color.

Just-roasted chickens.

Just-roasted chickens.

There were fat sausages, and salami with powdery rinds; head and haunch and every other cut of lamb and pork; skinned splayed rabbits; vats of olives, green and brown and black, displayed alongside tubs of cornichon and pickled garlic cloves; bushel baskets of beautiful lettuces, tomatoes, onions, fennel; knobby carrots with soil clinging to them.

Bread stands smelled of warm yeast. There were nuts and fruit and pizza and smoked fish and a food cart selling egg rolls and noodles. Tall multi-rotisserie glass-cased ovens churned with succulent golden chickens, a dozen at a time, their drippings seasoning potatoes and tomatoes roasting below. The aroma was intoxicating. Would it be odd, I wondered, if I loitered here next to the poulet rôti for the next 30 minutes?

A pair of live piglets in a pushcart snuffled the hands of cooing admirers — not for sale, these two. Their owner was peddling hard candy to bankroll a long, healthy life for what apparently were pets. A scam? Perhaps. But it was worth the euros to feel those little suction-cup snouts on the palm of my hand.

Bunches of fresh garlic.

Bunches of fresh garlic.

We wandered, chatted with vendors, snapped photos, and bought delicious treats until our next appointment: a walkabout of Arles hosted by a willowy  Arlesienne — yet another expert! In the course of the tour, she led us to the hospital where Van Gogh convalesced after the unfortunate disagreement with his ear, to the cafe that was the subject of one of his famous paintings, and to the ancient Roman amphitheater. Afterward, we returned to the hotel and met up with some new arrivals. Zandra’s brother Brett and his family, Amy and Aiden, had flown in from England for the second half of the trip. Also joining us was Jack Dancy, co-founder of Trufflepig, the company responsible for orchestrating our awesome adventure. Jack and Dorothy had planned the itinerary, and when it became clear our growing group would need a second vehicle, he volunteered to accompany us at the midpoint. An energetic young Brit with a knack for conversation and a whip-smart sense of humor, Jack was a delightful addition.

Fromage.

The nearly liquid Mont D’Or Fromage.

The Feast: In a small rustic overflow dining room just off the hotel courtyard, we made a banquet of our market haul — fresh bread, salami, green and black olive tapenade, delectable rotisserie chicken, several cheeses, smoked fish, olives, pickled garlic, a few desserts and of course wine, some of it from Kelly’s personal cellar.

Most Memorable: That chicken haunts me to this day, but the pickled garlic was a clear winner too. Compared to the pickled garlic we’ve found in the States, the Provençal version has a milder bite and a mouthwatering savory acidity. Slightly crunchy and highly addictive, these exquisite morsels have obsessed us since we arrived home. Half the battle may be the garlic itself — the grocery-store bulbs here tend to yield too pungent a garlic flavor after pickling, but we keep trying. The meal was a reminder that often the simplest ingredients make the most memorable occasions.

La Chassagnette – Arles

Passionfruit souffle at La Chassagnette.

Passionfruit souffle at La Chassagnette.

The Setup: Our final night in Arles. We drove into the countryside to a lovely restaurant owned by friends of Kelly’s. Reminiscent of a French country home, La Chassagnette features a spacious dining room furnished with sturdy wooden tables and sideboards and brightly painted murals. One grand table was arranged for our large family-and-friends gathering.

The Feast: Chef Armand Arnal welcomed us and explained the restaurant’s concept: everything local and seasonal, vegetables and herbs from the surrounding gardens, no butter or cream. Zandra and I exchanged a doubtful wink. No butter? Not possible. The vegetables we’d encountered on the trip had been slathered in it. But when the beautiful family-style dishes appeared, it was clear our skepticism was premature. This was fresh, clean food prepared simply so the flavors of the products shone. Among the first courses, bright herbal soup that was the very definition of green both in color and flavor; a frisee salad with crispy fried pumpkin seeds; beet and eel salad with wilted greens. For the main courses, a few at the table had lamb while the majority ordered sea bass baked in a salt crust, uncaked and served tableside. For dessert: airy souffle with passionfruit ice cream.

Most Memorable: A delicious meal made even more memorable by the hospitality of the house and the cooking of Chef Arnal. Coincidentally, this Nov. 10 dinner fell on the 20th anniversary of my first date with Jeff. A nice way to celebrate.

Picnic at Anthony’s house – L’Isle-sur-la-Sourge

Sidewalk cafe tables at L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.

Sidewalk cafe tables at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.

The Setup: The day dawned bright and sunny as we packed our vehicles and headed east to L’Isle-sur-la-Sourge, a charming village characterized by its canals and its location on the Sourge river. It was Sunday, market day. Kelly and Jack offered to forage for lunch while the rest of us explored. The plan was to picnic in a park, but when we reunited later we learned that Kelly had bumped into a buddy who happened to live nearby (not surprising given that Kelly seems to have friends everywhere). Anthony, also in the wine industry and apparently sympathetic to our lack of stemware, had invited us to have lunch at his home. Perfect! The 11 of us unloaded our supplies and made introductions as Anthony pulled tables together and set out plates, silver and, most important, wine glasses. We met his friend Ani, a petite Frenchwoman with a robust laugh, and staged our picnic on his sunny patio.

Picnic fare at Anthony's house.

Picnic fare at Anthony’s house.

The Feast: The fare was similar to the previous day’s lunch: garlic, olives, chicken, bread, cheese, salami. Pizza for young Aiden. Ani contributed little crocks of pork rillettes, creamy in texture and almost floral in flavor and aroma. I detected Provençal lavender in each bite. We sipped Tavel, faces tipped toward the sunlight, and feasted, one delicious bite after another, with our hosts.

Most Memorable: The warmth and generosity of strangers. On short notice, Anthony invited nearly a dozen visitors into his home as if we were old friends. His and Ani’s hospitality made this one of the most memorable meals of the trip, and the best picnic of my life.

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3 Responses to “The Grand Gavage Part 3: Market Picnics”

  1. julia said

    Lunch at Anthony’s sounds fabulous, what a great way to dive into the depths of French cooking- than to eat at a local’s house. Also, your addiction to pickled garlic, I want to try some of yours, I’ll bet you’re almost there.

    Show more pics of you all dining! Loved the one of Jaime with the oysters.
    xo

  2. Isabella said

    That is an excellent recount of your day in Arles. What a delight! It brought back memories of the day (a few years ago) that I was fortunate to have spent in that hilly Provence town. I love you descriptions, keep it up.

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