Spain 2015: Del Corazón

February 29, 2016

SoupJamon

Jamon Iberico is central to Spanish cuisine and was at the heart of nearly every meal we enjoyed.

Paris was a disappointment.

We’ve spent many happy days in the French capital, most of them unforgettable in fact. But this day was a letdown. Why? Because this day we expected to be not in Paris but in Madrid. This day we hoped to be touring the Prado, awakening our travel-weary senses to the delights of Velázquez and Goya, lunching on olives and croquetas, enjoying our first day in Spain with our friends the Weises. Not slumped on a bench in Charles De Gaulle Terminal 2F, unable to sleep.

Six of us had departed from Portland. But a faulty aircraft component had delayed our flight to Amsterdam, where we missed our connection to Madrid. Hence, the rebooking of four of our party through Paris and two through Barcelona. And a five-hour wait.

***

In 2012, Jeff and I were fortunate to have been invited along on a Weis family vacation to France. Dorothy engaged Trufflepig Travel to help organize that tour, which went down in family history as The Trip of a Lifetime.

Three years later, she re-enlisted Trufflepig to plan a 10-day adventure in Iberia over the Thanksgiving holiday. Sebastian Lapostol, an American living in Jerez whose interest in Flamenco guitar brought him to Spain, is Trufflepig’s expert. He helped craft an itinerary that would include Madrid and Toledo, Sevilla and Jerez, Barcelona and the Costa Brava.

LaFamiliaWeis

On the plaza in front of the Royal Palace

We were a cast of nine, comprising Weis family members primarily: Bob, Dorothy and their daughter, Kati; Zandra and James; Kyle and Roxanne; Jeff and I.

Our 120-page Piglet guide outlined our itinerary in detail. Much of the focus would be food and wine, but there also would be splendid hotels, opulent palaces, breathtaking vistas and knowledgeable people — aficionados — to guide our way.

Reflecting now, the cuisine features prominently, of course. But the greatest impression I carry is of the people we met and the passion they exuded — for their culture, tradition, food, music, art, architecture. For their country. It was clearly del corazón — from the heart.

We arrive, finally

StaircaseDay1Hotel

AC Palacio del Retiro’s enchanting spiral staircase

Bob, Dorothy and Kati landed on schedule and enjoyed the first day’s activities, which included the Prado and lunch. Those of us coming from Portland, not so much. But by evening we and our belongings had arrived — most of them, anyway. Kyle and Roxanne’s luggage was a no-show.

We late-comers checked in at our hotel, the AC Palacio del Retiro, formerly part of the Spanish Royalty’s secondary palace complex. Then we all met at the foot of the building’s elegant winding staircase for dinner.

The travel delay had blown our restaurant booking. Complicating a last-minute reservation for nine was the horde of soccer fans who had flocked to the city for a weekend match between rivals Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. Though reluctant to recommend it, the hotel concierge directed us to a nearby Italian restaurant. “You won’t have trouble getting a table,” he said.

True enough. Fortunately, Trattoria Sant Arcangelo served precisely what was needed after a too-long travel day: translucent beef carpaccio, rich tagliatelle Bolognese, risotto fragrant with truffle, pizza al prosciutto e funghi, and silky gnocchi Gorgonzola. It wasn’t Spanish, but no one complained. That long-ago trip to France was a memory and our recent detour through Paris was over, thankfully. After several bottles of wine and a brisk stroll back to the hotel, we were ready for sleep, ready to recharge.

Our current Trip of a Lifetime was under way.

The Royal Palace of Madrid

The next morning we assembled in the lobby and met our guide, Gerardo (“Please call me Gerry”) Rappazzo. We shook hands all around, filed into our minibus and
departed for the Royal Palace of Madrid.

MeetingGerryDay1

“Please call me Gerry.”

Gerry switched on the mic and went into tour mode, his voice booming. “The road we are on, it’s called the Ronda,” he said. “Ronda means circle in Spanish, and this Ronda follows the footprint of Madrid’s ancient wall.” Looking north, we saw the narrow, ancient streets of old Madrid. To the south, wider, newer streets radiated into the distance. “Maybe you noticed the arch near your hotel; it’s called Puerta de Alcala, and was one of the original gates to the city.” He was clearly enjoying himself, but, as we would learn, he was just getting warmed up.

At the Royal Palace, Gerry ushered us past lines of tourists awaiting entry, over the vast parade ground and into the 3,000-room palace, whose design was inspired by drawings made for construction of the Louvre. Inside, we marveled at the grand staircase and gilded moldings, the painted vault ceilings and intricate, symbol-rich wall coverings, the assemblage of clocks.

Gerry was in his element, an unstanchable font of history, art appreciation, commentary, and trivia.

Did we know that in the 18th Century the king was dressed and undressed in public? That an audience watched him eat? That a royal marriage was consummated in view of the court? But of course, according to Gerry, it had to be so.

BigNoseDay1

King Charles III  (AKA Big Nose)

“You might ask me,” he said, one of his signature phrases, “Gerry, why is each room in the palace smaller than the previous?” And he would answer his own question: “Because the audiences witnessing the royal activities were smaller as the activities became more and more personal.”

Onward: The priceless Stradivarius collection; the Golden Fleece, symbol of the Monarchy; the magnificent velvet-walled throne room with its fresco ceiling; the near-ubiquitous presence, in stone, on canvas and in spirit, of 18th Century reformer King Charles III, known as Big Nose. All of which Gerry described in loving detail. Would we like to glimpse the king’s commode?

Bystanders would hear Gerry’s discourse and attach themselves to our group. Some asked questions. Gerry would gently disinvite them.

We learned much that day, but lesson No. 1 was this: A self-directed tour is generally a feeble substitute for one led by a knowledgeable guide who loves his or her subject.

Guernica

Case in point: Guernica, Pablo Picasso’s renowned anti-war statement housed in the Museo Reina Sofia, to which we paid a short visit after the palace tour.

Gerry, who has a background in art history, enlivened the painting with his interpretation. He described the political landscape that led to the German air bombardment of the Basque town of Guernica and its market, recounting how most of the village’s men were away at work or fighting the Nationalists when the attack occurred. Victims were predominantly women and children. He noted the symbolism of the bull, the aggressor (the Nazis or fascism in general), and that of the horse (the people of Guernica), screaming in pain; how the harsh angularity of the painting’s lines echoed the anguish of the human figures; the broken dove; the flower, a tiny emblem of hope. Though Jeff and I viewed the painting in 2011, we didn’t truly experience it until that day.

We wished for more time in the museum, but our mission was focused and we had a lunch reservation. So it was into the bus and off to Iroco.

Lunch

FoieIroco

Foie terrine with tangy mango chutney

Located in the posh Salamanca neighborhood, Iroco boasts a bright interior and crisp white tablecloths. The leafy terrace would have been first choice for seating, but the chill sealed our decision to eat inside. We took a large banquette table near the French doors to the terrace and ordered a couple of bottles of Albariño while we perused the Italianesque menu.

To start: sirloin carpaccio, sliced so thin it practically melted on your knife; chilled foie gras terrine, served with a mango chutney to cut the fatty richness; golden, crispy croquetas of Iberian ham and mushroom; and soft pillows of burrata alongside sweet tomato confit.

Entrées included cannelloni stuffed with meltingly tender veal cheek, gratineed with a punch of Gorgonzola; lightly sautéed baby squid punctuated by tangy citrus dressing; cod confit, artfully arranged with creamy white garlic sauce and a dotted arc of black garlic sauce. Mindful that dinner would be upon us soon, most of us leaned toward the lighter side, like a special of layered pato (duck) and vegetable lasagna; cubes of corvina ceviche with sautéed vegetables and cauliflower puree; and a green salad topped with crispy fried chicken and pomegranate seeds. After a morning of touring, lunch was restorative.

We departed into the brisk afternoon, strolling to the hotel through the northern margin of sun-dappled Parque del Buen Retiro. Dorothy and Kati then went in search of gifts for our next-day visit to Toledo. Still awaiting luggage, Kyle and Roxanne shopped for clothes. James, Zandra, Jeff and I resisted the urge to nap and walked to Plaza Mayor and the Mercado de San Miguel where, in the din of the crowded market, we enjoyed wine and a plate of jámon Ibérico.

We then set course for the hotel, keeping an eye out for a pub where we could stop in and watch the soccer match. Unfortunately, every establishment with a television was overflowing. As we heard later, it was not Real Madrid’s night. Barcelona won 4-0.

It was just as well that we couldn’t find seats. Watching the match would have involved more food and drink. We were just as happy to preserve our appetites for what would turn out to be a highlight of the trip: dinner that evening at El Club Allard.

Advertisements

Lettuce - cropped
Brussles SproutsIf it’s true that you are what you eat, Jeff and I have dual identities. During the work week, I’m known as Salad (my friends call me Sal), and this is my husband, Veg. Mondays through Thursdays, our dinner routine is for the most part just that: routine. I fix a chopped salad for me and Jeff stir-fries veggies for himself. Not that the routine isn’t tasty and satisfying and, in its own way, essential — it just doesn’t vary much.

Weekends are a different story — we cook bold dishes. We eat out. Our identities revel in spice and richness; they relish the perfect dumpling or plate of pasta dressed in butter and cheese and cream; they savor the crisp rind of roast pork; they quench the thirst for wine. Weekends are delicious.

In food, as in most of life, balance is key. But traveling through France, our weekday identities were continually tested. On day one, Jeff was already craving vegetables, and by day four, after a steady diet of duck and goose liver, we came to terms with the idea that veggies and salad may not find a prominent place on the menu for another 10 days. Strange, too, since the markets we visited overflowed with tantalizingly beautiful produce.

Salade Lyonnaise.

Salade Lyonnaise.

And then, a miracle happened: salade Lyonnaise. The perfect balance of weekday and weekend identities. A mound of lovely torn bitter greens, usually frisee or curly endive, dressed in Dijon vinaigrette; a generous strewing of chewy, salty, thick-cut lardon; crispy, butter-toasted croutons; all topped by a soft poached egg. A tap of the fork opens the yolk, spilling yellow richness onto the ingredients below. Technically a salad, but so much more. James decided it would make a beautiful breakfast. Why not? Suddenly Tuesday is best friends with Saturday, dinner is breakfast, and all is right with the world.

 L’ Essential Restaurant – Avignon

The grand dining room at the Palais des Papes.

The grand dining room at the Palais des Papes.

The Setup: Our final day with Kelly, and he was eager to introduce us to Avignon, his stomping grounds. We piled into our vehicles and headed into the city for a day of sightseeing. We started with a walk around the grounds of the Palais des Papes, then took a tour of the palace, where our group unraveled into smaller bunches. Afterward, pooped and hungry, Kelly, Jeff and I met up with Brett, Amy and Aiden and the hometown guy steered us through the streets to a nearby restaurant, L’Essential. Small, bright, modern and quite upscale, the dining room was still nearly filled with fancy lunch patrons finishing their meals. We took a table near the back and contemplated the menu. As at many restaurants we’d visited, L’Essential’s menu of the day was less expensive than choosing a la carte. Yesterday’s stuffing still fresh in my memory, I briefly considered ordering just one item, but in the end it didn’t make sense from a dollars-and-cents standpoint. Onward I went into another delicious three-course midday meal.

Raspberry parfait with cotton candy.

Raspberry parfait with cotton candy.

Prawns over crispy polenta.

Prawns over crispy polenta.

The Feast: Up first, butternut squash soup, poured at the table into a deep wide bowl containing a creamy cannelle topped with thinly sliced mushrooms. The main course brought a lovely little tower of crispy polenta and flaky cod crowned by a giant prawn, served in an herbed tomato sauce. Then the dessert I could have done without appeared: a fancifully garish highball glass half-filled with yogurt, half with raspberry sauce. Across the rim of the glass rested a puff of pink cotton candy. It was mocking me, I was sure of it. The yogurt and raspberries were cool, creamy and bright, and thankfully Aiden was more than willing to take one for the team and eat my cotton candy — in addition to his mother’s.

Most Memorable:  Another beautiful restaurant, another lovely meal. But I’ll remember the sight of well-coiffed French patrons swirling pink wisps of cotton candy around their tongues.

La Beaugravière – Mondragon

La Beaugravière's handwritten wine list.

La Beaugravière’s handwritten wine list.

The Setup: Our final night in Provence also marked Kelly’s last night with us, and a celebration was in order. La Beaugravière in Mondragon is known for showcasing the region’s truffles in traditional dishes. To get there, we had to drive through the Provencal countryside for about an hour. When we arrived at nearly 9 pm, the spacious dining room was still humming, a few large tables hosting what looked like family gatherings. Our large group took seats at a vast table next to the crackling fire and marveled at the wine list, a voluminous tome entirely handwritten in perfect curly script.

Scallops and spinach puree.

Scallops and spinach puree.

The Feast: Most of us went for the deluxe truffle tasting menu, regularly priced at 120€, but this night, for us, they offered it at 100€, a relative bargain. Jeff, Zandra and I, unable to bear the thought of another gut-busting binge, decided on a more moderate menu with fewer courses. Our meal started with beautifully plump seared sea scallops and a dollop of spinach puree in a buttery cream sauce. Simple, light-ish, off to a good start. According to the menu we were not supposed to have a second course, but the concept of the Empty Plate was apparently not practiced here and we were served a familiar and always satisfying butternut squash veloute. The main course of the “light” menu featured the region’s famous, plump-and-pampered Poulet de Bresse, ours roasted and served with mushrooms and a spoonful of custard-like cake filled squash and other vegetables. The others in our party were treated to the same roasted poulet with truffles tucked under the skin. A restrained cheese course followed (only two pieces), and then dessert: orange laden crepes Suzette for me and a raveable apple tarte for Jeff and Zandra. Two, sometimes three wines with each course was now standard, and tonight was no different.

Kelly shows us one of the cellar's finest.

Kelly shows us one of the cellar’s finest.

After dinner, Kelly treated us to a brief tour of the restaurant’s basement wine cellar. A creaky narrow wooden stairway descended to a musty low-ceilinged labyrinth of shelves and  stacked crates, filled with wine bottles sporting faded labels and vintages spanning the 20th Century. Just another evening with Kelly. Quite a treat.

Most Memorable: The meal itself was rich and remarkable, but this night is remembered bittersweetly as our last with Kelly.  After dinner, in the parking lot, we said goodbye to our friend with three alternating cheek kisses as is tradition in the region. Bise, bise, bise … multiplied by 11.

Restaurant Aux 3 Maries- Lyon

The Setup: The high-speed rail made short work of the kilometers between Avignon and Lyon, and we arrived with enough time for a quick lunch before our afternoon appointment.  Jack discussed nearby options with the hotel’s front desk, and we headed a couple of streets over to a little bouchon, Restaurant Aux 3 Maries. Upstairs, in an area quieter than the bustling dining room below, we sat at a large table by the window.

Egg, lardons, crouton. Oh, and greens.

Egg, lardons, crouton. Oh, and greens.

The Feast: Compared to the truffle banquent of the previous night, this meal was relatively light and casual, with each of us ordering just two small courses. I started with salade Lyonnaise, as did a few others at the table. My second course: a few wedges of salty, creamy cheese with baguette. Lovely and light.  Jeff, James and Amy were tempted by the andouille sausage listed on the menu, but when it arrived it was not the familiar, spicy encased meat we’re accustomed to in the States. This andouille was a looser sausage with a pungent, gamey aroma and flavor. It was only after lunch that we learned the sausages’ primary ingredient was tripe. Well, that would explain things.

Most Memorable: That splendid moment when the egg yolk ruptures, cascading over the salade Lyonnaise. Heaven.

Le Merciere Lyonnais Bouchon – Lyon

Comforting gratineed onion soup made richer by egg yolk in Sherry.

Comforting gratineed onion soup made richer by egg yolk in sherry.

The Setup: Our final day in France. We spent the morning trying to keep up with our fast-walking guide, who took us on a circuitous tour through traboules and markets, past the old cathedral whose detailed carved facade comprised a multitude of ancient stories and characters, to a silk atelier, and eventually over the Rhone into the more modern part of town, where we ended at Les Halles de Lyon, the enormous marketplace of food purveyors and cafes. (I envy the U.S. cities that support these Euro-style markets and feel fortunate that Portland may soon be home to one.) We wandered for a bit, tasting a few samples, then said goodbye to our guide. Then back to old town, where we found a cute, casual two-story bouchon tucked in an alleyway. Up the impossibly narrow spiral staircase we went, to the lengthy, narrow second-floor dining room, much of whose space was consumed by our large table. It was here that we parted ways with our friend Jack (many hugs and handshakes) and here that we met yet another good-natured waitress, who traversed the tight ringlet of a staircase a dozen times carrying plates of food and bottles of wine, feigning fatigue and mock exasperation.

The Feast: The menu was filled with traditional Lyonnaise dishes, each one so tempting it was difficult to choose. Having fallen for it the day before, I started with salade Lyonnaise.  After that, French onion soup gooey with melted cheese and soft caramelized onions. But this version had a kicker: On the side was a ramekin with a raw egg yolk and a bit of sherry meant to be stirred into the soup for even more delicious richness. An unbelievably wonderful idea. Other dishes at our grand table included a hearty, sweet-tinged chestnut soup and incredibly rich pasta in a dense cream sauce. With Kelly not there to guide our wine choices, we ordered one at the suggestion of the waitress and proceeded to drink a total of five bottles. Heathens.

Most Memorable: The addition of the egg yolk in sherry added a luscious richness to an already-rich soup. But even more memorable was our server, whose sweetness and good sense of humor shone despite having to make several trips carrying dishes up and down those narrow, winding stairs. Great way to cap off our most memorable of vacations.

****

Post Script

When people ask, I gush about about our trip to France, but my words fail to do it justice. Gradually I’ve arrived at a quick, digestible version that most people can relate to: the food, the wine, the people, the countryside, it was all amazing.

Fifteen glorious, fast-paced days. Eleven great people. Eight versions of butternut squash soup. There is so much that we did and saw that I didn’t even begin to touch on here. All the chateaux and wineries; the many medieval villages and castles; pizza in Sarlat; pho in Lyon; the private tour of the caves in Dordogne; more foie gras than we could begin to quantify. I am so grateful to our travel companions, a wonderful family who so generously invited us into their fold. It was an adventure we’ll never forget.

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.

Local Color

April 26, 2011

Fruit stall

Fruit stall at Mercado de San Miguel

Amid the grays, buffs, rusts and other muted tones of old Madrid, cherry red tends to catch the eye. Exiting Plaza Mayor through the northwest gate, cherry red is what you encounter — actual cherries, truth be told, and plump, gorgeous ones — beckoning from behind the glass walls of always-mobbed Mercado de San Miguel.

The market, a sleek food and drink bazaar, occupies an airy iron-and-glass structure that dates to 1916. Everything tempts — fruits and vegetables, fresh bread and pasta, meats, seafood, wine and beer, cheese, olives, pastries, tapas, flowers — all lovingly displayed. If the tumbler of piquant gazpacho and glasses of crisp white wine we devoured are an indication, they’re all delicious too. We’re hoping to eat a full meal here before we leave.

Mercado de San Miguel — one more delightful surprise.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.