Secrets of St.-Rémy: Best Fruits and Vegetables

One of the glories of Provence is the fresh produce. And in St.-Rémy, the best place to get it is at the Wednesday market. Every week, dozens of vendors set up shop throughout the charming town center, selling fruits, vegetables, olives, cheeses, lavender – you name it. It is one of the best markets in Provence and a lot of fun.

But what about the other six days of the week? Where do the St.-Rémois shop?

Here’s their secret – Le Jardin des Alpilles at 8 Avenue Frédéric Mistral. It’s an unassuming place but the produce can’t be beat, with much of it coming from local farmers. And it’s open seven days a week!

We went there today and here’s some of what we found.

If you are staying in a place where you can cook, or if you just want some succulent fruit to enjoy during the day, it’s a great place to stock up.

And what’s better than a picnic in Provence? You can get everything you need here – breads, cheeses, olives, snacks and a nice selection of local wines.

Bon appetit!

For more information: http://tinyurl.com/m6bdech

Meet Provence Artist Christian Detaux

Christian Detaux always wanted to be an artist. For as long as he can remember, he’s been drawing and painting and shaping forms.

At the age of 16, Detaux applied to the prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, ready to embark on a career as an artist. But then he read a biography of the great Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani, who lived a life of poverty.

It made Detaux realize that most artists, and even some famous ones, have a hard time making a living. So, wanting to someday support a family, he reluctantly set aside his brushes and pens and embarked on a new path.

Read the rest of the article here

Classic French Dinner Party – The Easy French Way

Before I moved to France, I thought that French dinner parties were formal affairs with too many forks.  I imagined elegantly dressed people sipping Champagne and discussing Molière.  And with all those complicated courses, I figured it must take days to prepare the food. Then I met actual French people and learned that it’s not like that at all.  In fact, it’s easy to put on a dinner party the French way.

Let’s see how it’s done.

The Ritual

A typical French dinner party follows a standard formula:

Aperitif
Entrée (starter)
Plat principal (main course)
Cheese and salad
Dessert
Coffee

Let’s take these one at a time.

Aperitif

This is where everyone relaxes and starts the evening, usually in the living room or on the patio. Wine is served – often a simple white or rosé – along with some munchies. These can be something like a bowl of olives, some peanuts, maybe tapenade spread on little toasts. It’s nothing complicated – the focus is on conviviality, not haute cuisine.

Find some fabulous French aperitif recipes here.

Entrée

This is usually a simple dish like soup, a quiche, or a shrimp cocktail. And many hosts make their lives easier by buying it at the store. There are so many delicious prepared foods in France, why not take advantage of them?  And in the US, lots of stores have deli sections with tasty dishes that will do the trick. Recipe for a delicious French onion soup here.

Plat Principal

This might be roast lamb with potatoes (great recipe in the spring issue of The Good Life France magazine – it’s free to read online/download/subscribe), a baked fish, or a stew of some kind. Plus a vegetable.  Ok, it takes some work.  But it may be the only course that is cooked by the hosts.

And don’t forget the bread. A few crispy French baguettes and everyone is happy.

Cheese and Salad

This could hardly be easier – go to your local cheese shop or deli, pick out a few favorites and put them on a plate. Make a green salad with vinaigrette, cut up a baguette and voilà.

Dessert

This is usually bought from the local baker. French bakeries are so wonderful, how can you resist? Fruit tarts are especially good in summer and fall. Also popular is getting a selection of individually-sized desserts and letting everyone pick their own. If you’re not in France, you’re bound to have a favourite cake shop where you can get something to delight your guests. Let the baker do the work!

Coffee

This is the time to get up, stretch your legs and move to the living room.  And all you have to do is put on a pot of coffee or tea.  If you want to fancy it up a bit you can open a box of chocolates, but it’s not necessary.

And Don’t Forget the Wine

No French dinner party would be complete without wine, and France has an incredible selection of delicious, moderately priced bottles.  So get a few of those.  If you are in the US, go to your favorite wine shop and get something good and reasonably priced.  Sure, you can serve a grand cru on a special occasion, but there’s no need to break the bank.  As the French say, the best bottle of wine is one that you enjoy with friends.

So there you have it – a classic, six-course French meal with only one course that takes much work.  If you have plenty of time and like to cook, you can prepare everything yourself.  But take it from the French, buy most of the courses, keep it simple and spend more time with your friends.

Book Review: My Good Life in France by Janine Marsh

On a cold, wet day about ten years ago, Londoner Janine Marsh went with her husband and father on a day trip to France. They didn’t have big plans – it was just a quick jaunt to have lunch and buy some wine.

But sometimes life has other plans, and she ended up not only buying wine but also…a house. How that happened is the beginning of Marsh’s charming and funny memoir.

Nestled in a tiny town in France’s Seven Valleys area, near Calais, the house was a bit of a fixer-upper. No, it was more than that – it was a total wreck. And as you can imagine. everything went wrong, including an overflowing septic tank that earned Marsh the nickname Madame Merde. As she says, you have to be “a bit mad” to buy a house like this.

For the next few years, Marsh and her husband visited the house on weekends, beginning the monumental task of making it livable. But this split life proved unsatisfactory and eventually the big question had to be faced: do we move to France? Marsh, who had worked for years to rise from secretary to bank vice president – with another promotion imminent – agonized over the decision.

The couple decided to seize the day, and off to France they went. The more they repaired the house, the more they discovered problems, but their energy and optimism eventually carried them through.

Not only do they build a comfortable home, they build a wonderful new life for themselves in France. Marsh does a brilliant job of sharing with us what makes life in the Seven Valleys so charming. This isn’t Paris or Provence, but la France profonde, an area that tourists seldom visit.

We learn how neighbors help one another, like the time the Marshes nearly ran out of firewood in the middle of winter. With disaster looming, a neighbor showed up with his tractor, carrying several tons of firewood – and no payment expected.

We learn about the nearby town that is normally silent as a tomb, but that comes to life when Madame Magniez decides to bake some of her famous bread to sell. People see smoke coming out of her chimney, word spreads, and soon there is a traffic jam in the tiny downtown.

Marsh shares with us the local legends and the local celebrations. She describes the ins and outs of the French bureaucracy, French driving customs, and the proper way to kiss a person in greeting.   And she tells us about the food, one of the glories of France.

My favorite line in the book is when Marsh writes about the huge meals to celebrate Christmas and New Years. As she says, “At this time of year in France, you can quite easily eat yourself to a standstill.”

If you’ve ever dreamed of discovering “the real France,” you won’t want to miss this delightful book.

Janine Marsh is the creator of The Good Life France, an excellent website with information on all things French.

You can buy the book at Amazon:

Women of the French Resistance

Simone Segouin

There was a very interesting talk in St.-Rémy-de-Provence the other night, about women in the French Resistance. It focused particular attention on St.-Rémy, where I live part of the year.

The talk was organized by the local historical society and featured two historians who specialize in the subject. The event was held at the town’s movie theater and was surprisingly full.

Interest may be strong here because the great Resistance leader Jean Moulin had a home in nearby St.-Andiol.   He was a member of Charles de Gaulle’s government-in-exile in London. In 1942 he parachuted into the nearby Alpilles mountains, in the dead of night, to organize competing factions into what we now call the Resistance.

Read the rest of this article on Perfectly Provence, a great site with information on all things Provençal:  http://tinyurl.com/lzlsjf5

Hold on to Your Hat!

There’s a mistral raging here right now, that powerful wind that blows from the north. How strong is it? Let’s put it this way – if Julius Caesar had invaded France during a mistral, a lot of centurions would have ended up in the Mediterranean Sea.

A mistral usually blows for several days, getting stronger and stronger. Today is the third day and it’s fierce. We weren’t sure we wanted to go outside, but there were chores to be done so off we went.

We went to the phone store in Cavaillon and decided to have lunch in town. A favorite restaurant of ours looked like it was closed because the heavy outdoor furniture was all pushed together. But when we got closer we saw people eating inside and went in. We were lucky to get a table by the window.

As we ate, I watched a big plastic garbage can across the street. First the wind blew the lid off, then a few minutes later it knocked the can over. Then a big gust blew it into the middle of the street, where it disrupted traffic for a while. Finally another gust blew it back across the street and into an alley.

As we were finishing our meal I saw one of the heavy chairs from our restaurant’s terrace go skittering down the street. The two waitresses dropped what they were doing and ran out the door. After all, it just wouldn’t do to have the restaurant’s furniture injure one of the good citizens of Cavaillon. That would be a tragedy. And bad for business.

After a long chase, the waitresses captured the wayward chair and wrestled it back onto the terrace. As they came back into the restaurant, I happened to catch the eye of one. I raised my eyebrows as if to say, “Wow, that was something!”

She replied with one of those classic Gallic shrugs. “C’est le mistral, monsieur,” she said. “C’est normal.”

Biking in Provence: Maussane-les-Alpilles to Eygalières

Val and I are back in France for the spring, in St-Rémy-de-Provence.

One of the things we enjoy most about this area is the biking. St-Rémy is right next to the Alpilles, a low mountain range with rocky outcroppings. Well, to call the Alpilles “mountains” is a bit of a stretch, they are more like big hills. But they rise up dramatically and look taller than they actually are, kind of like the Scottish Highlands.

There are lots of quiet roads over and through the Alpilles that are perfect for biking. One of our favorite routes is from Maussane-les-Alpilles to Eygalières and back, a 20-mile round trip that takes us over the Alpilles twice.

The ascents are gentle, nothing that low gears can’t handle. Or occasionally walking the bike. And there are always electric bikes for those who aren’t feeling too energetic.

It’s a beautiful ride that takes us past olive groves and vineyards and the occasional flock of sheep. We usually stop partway through the ride for a nice lunch because, well, why not? One has to restore one’s strength, after all.   And what is more delicious than lunch in Provence?

Directions: If you are starting in Maussane, take the D17 a short ways out of town towards Mouriès, and then take a left turn onto the D5. You’ll pass some stone barns (hard to miss the smell). If you continue straight, the D5 turns into the D78. You follow this until it intersects the D24, which is about the halfway point between Maussane and Eygalières. Turn left here, towards Eygalières, and follow the signs for Eygalières.

Yesterday we did half the ride, from Maussane out to the halfway point and back. This winter has been so rainy in California that we didn’t ride as much as usual and aren’t in good biking shape. Or at least that’s our excuse.

Here are some more pictures from the ride. We’ll go the rest of the way next time!

Food Fight!

The French Presidential Debate

France will hold its presidential election in just over two weeks and last night was the big debate. These usually only pit the leading candidates against each other.   This tends to weed out the extremists and make for a more reasonable debate.

Not this time. And it sure was fun to watch.

I guess the folks at BFM TV decided that since there were already extremists among the leading candidates, what’s a few more? So for the first time, every presidential candidate was on stage together, all 11 of them, ranging from the extreme left to the extreme right.

Want a Trotskyist? No problem, there were two – the candidates from the Worker’s Fight and New Anti-Capitalist parties. Plus there was Jean-Luc Mélenchon of France Undefeated, who had nice things to say about Karl Marx.

Want a proto-fascist? Ok, we’ve only got one, Marine Le Pen of the National Front, but she comes by it honestly – her dad is one, too. I guess it’s the family profession.

And what’s an election without a man of the people? My favorite was the guy whose main qualification was, “I’m the son of a shepherd and the brother of a shepherd.” He’s definitely got the shepherd vote locked up.

Eleven candidates on stage together reminded me of the early Republican primaries in the US. But unlike those debates, in France no single candidate can dominate the debate because each gets the same amount of time to speak. It’s a nice way to let the minor party candidates show their stuff. Except when some of them are crazy.

The winner was Emmanuel Macron, who currently leads in the polls. He didn’t say anything remarkable but he didn’t make any mistakes, either, which was the most important thing. He came across as smart, centrist and ready for the big leagues.

The loser was François Fillon, the once-leading candidate who has been laid low by a corruption scandal. He has the most experience and has some excellent ideas about the French economy. He may still make a comeback. But last night he tried to look calm and above the fray and instead came across apathetic.

Plus he had to deal with the itchy hands guy.

The candidates stood at podiums at the bottom of an amphitheater full of their supporters. It was so steep that when a candidate spoke, you could see just a few of the people sitting behind them – the faces of people in the first row and the laps of people in the second row.

Unfortunately for Fillon, when he gave his opening remarks some guy in the second row decided to scratch an itch on his hand. And scratch. And scratch. So while Fillon spoke, you saw this pair of hands just to the side of his head, scratching and scratching. It was mesmerizing – you couldn’t look away. I thought maybe we should call a doctor for this poor guy.

The Trotskyists were the most animated candidates. The woman from Worker’s Fight had only one volume level – shouting – and blamed everything on capitalists who exploit workers “because it’s in their DNA.” The man from New Anti-Capitalists spoke so fast it was unbelievable. And he never seemed to take a breath. I’m pretty sure he had twelve espressos right before coming on stage.

The debate was less than edifying, with lots of finger pointing. Everyone and everything you can imagine was blamed for France’s ills. Except for the French themselves, of course.

It was the fault of capitalism, immigrants, big bosses, Romanians, “the system,” the European Union, globalization, Muslims, and bankers. There were so many scapegoats milling around on stage that at one point they had to shoo some off to make room for more.

A few solutions were proposed and some were, um, interesting. One was to reduce the workweek even further, from its current 35 hours down to 32. Another was to make layoffs illegal. A third was to “temporarily” nationalize some businesses.

And we wonder why the French economy suffers.

The high point came when the New Anti-Capitalist guy went after Le Pen. She’s a populist and presents herself as the “anti-system” candidate. She’s also caught in a corruption scandal of her own, accused of taking public money for fake jobs. But she can’t be personally prosecuted because she is a member of the European Parliament and has immunity.

Pointing his finger and talking even faster than usual, the Anti-Capitalist guy said, “You steal from the till. And then you, who are anti-system, protect yourself with Parliamentary immunity. But when we, the workers, are summoned by the police, we don’t have worker’s immunity – we have to go.”

“You’re anti-system? That’s bullsh*t!”

For once, Le Pen was at a loss for words. Which was nice.

Silicon Valley vs France: Corporate Culture

Photo by davidpwhelan at morguefile.com

“Don’t be evil” or “Wine with lunch”?

My wife Val and I were living in France and got a call from our friend Viviane, a teacher at a local high school. She sounded desperate.

Viviane explained that she and a group of fellow business teachers would be working in England during the summer. This would allow them to learn how companies there operate. But first they wanted to have some idea of what they were getting into.

Viviane had arranged to have one of her neighbors, a Brit working in France, come and talk to the teachers about what it was like to work for an English company. But he had dropped out at the last minute. The meeting was in three days and Viviane needed us to substitute.

We gently explained that while we shared a common language, we had never worked in England. No matter, she said, you know about Anglo-Saxon companies and that’s what’s important.

Anglo-Saxon?

It turns out that the French use this term to describe American-style business practices. It is shorthand for what we might call free-market capitalism. In France, this is definitely not a compliment.

It is true that Val and I understand American capitalism. Coming from the wild west of the Silicon Valley, we understand it in one of its more extreme forms.

So we agreed to make a presentation, explaining some of the differences between working for a French company and an American one. Luckily, all of the teachers taught at International Baccalaureate schools so we would be able to do it in English.

Then we did what anyone does to become an expert on short notice – we used Google. And we called some French friends in California who gave us a quick tutorial. Then we boiled our research down to a few key points.

Most were not surprising. For example, French companies are more formal than American ones, especially in terms of dress code and hierarchy. Business suits may be fading away on our side of the Atlantic (I can’t remember the last time I wore one) but they are still common in France. And while you might greet the president of an American company with a casual, “Hi, Bob,” that would be shocking in France. No, in France it is always, “Bonjour, Monsieur le President.”

We learned that Americans are generally more risk-taking. We change jobs more often and it is not a scary thing to join a startup company (well, not too scary). By contrast, it would be a major risk to join one in France. If it failed, as startups often do, it would be a black mark that could follow you for the rest of your career.

Similarly, American companies are more risk-taking. If a company sees an attractive business opportunity, it is more likely to invest and hire and go for it. If things work out, the company grows and new jobs are created. And if things don’t work out, the company can cut its losses by downsizing, as painful as that is.

In France, by contrast, it is extremely difficult and expensive to downsize. So companies are less likely to hire in the first place.

The most surprising thing we learned was that there is much more mixing of professional and personal lives in France. In the US, we might have lunch with our colleagues or the occasional drink after work, but that would be about it. Mostly we keep our home and work lives separate.

By contrast, when you arrive at work in France you shake hands and say hello to each person in the office. You spend a half hour chatting at the coffee machine before starting your workday. You see your colleagues socially on the weekends and even go on vacation together!

When I think about some of the people I’ve worked with, then imagine us vacationing together, my head hurts.

The big day arrived and we met Viviane in a conference room at her school. She introduced us to her colleagues, who seemed nervous at the prospect of taking a trip all the way across the English Channel.

We began by giving some background on ourselves and our careers. We talked about having worked in different companies, in a variety of industries. We described our jobs in areas like finance, marketing, and human resources.

This turned out to be a showstopper. Apparently, it is uncommon in France to move around as much as we have. This led to a long discussion of why and how we had done this and whether it would even be possible in France.

Then we gave our presentation and the teachers asked questions. The discussion got heated on the subject of companies pursuing growth but taking the risk of having to downsize. No one likes layoffs and the French have a history of violent action opposing them.

One teacher asked us, pointedly, how the Anglo-Saxon system could possibly be superior to the French one. We didn’t think it was a good idea to start an international incident so we fell back on our experience of living in Switzerland. In other words, we stayed neutral. We pointed out that each system has its advantages and disadvantages and then quickly moved on to another subject.

In the end, the teachers appreciated our presentation and felt better prepared for their summer abroad. And we felt like we had gained a little insight into the role of work in French people’s lives.

Best of all, after the meeting Viviane rewarded us with lunch at a restaurant that had a nice long wine list.

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Many of us have heard of Lascaux, the cave in France with its prehistoric paintings of pot-bellied horses and other strange animals.  But did you know that even older prehistoric paintings were discovered in 1994, in a cave just north of Avignon?

The Grotte Chauvet was made famous by Werner Herzog’s documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and has recently been opened to the public.  Well, not the real one, but an almost perfect re-creation.  Like Lascaux, the real cave is closed to the public to prevent damage to its delicate artwork.

I recently wrote an article about it for the excellent website The Good Life France and you can find it here.