The History of Jewish Provence

France has the largest Jewish population in Europe and the third largest in the world after Israel and the United States. Half of French Jews live in and around Paris, in neighborhoods like the Marais, Belleville and Le Sentier. The city is home to more than a dozen synagogues, including the magnificent Grand Synagogue.

While Paris is the center of Jewish life in France today, this wasn’t always the case. For centuries, that center was Provence. And the Jews there had a surprising and powerful protector: the Pope.

Read all about the history of Jewish Provence in France Today!

Heartwarming Tales from France

Have you ever dreamed of chucking it all, leaving the big city behind, and moving to a charming little village in France? That’s exactly what Janine Marsh and her husband Mark have done, but the path they took was anything but straightforward.

One day some years ago, while on a booze-buying trip from London, they somehow bought an old wreck of a house in France’s Seven Valleys region. It’s a hilarious story, and Janine tells it brilliantly in her book My Good Life in France. Over the years, she and Mark have fixed up the house, adopted a shocking number of animals (including 72 chickens at last count), and settled into their village in “middle-of-nowhere France.”

Janine continued their story in My Four Seasons in France and now she’s back with more heartwarming tales in her latest terrific book, the soon-to-be-published Toujours la France!

If you’d like to know what life is really like in a rural French village, this is the book for you. There’s not a lot of entertainment, unless you count the snail races, but there is a strong sense of community, with neighbors always willing to lend a hand to one other. And there are, of course, endless cups of coffee to share the latest gossip.

The book is full of funny stories, like the dinner party where a neighbor tries to get Janine and Mark to taste his special holiday rum. Another neighbor warns them off. “For heaven’s sake don’t drink it,” she says. “You will miss Christmas if you do and most likely have to go to the doctor.” Mark foolishly takes the tiniest of sips and is rendered mute, his mouth so numb he can’t taste his food.

Janine and Mark are often a source of amusement for the village, as on the bitterly cold day when their water stopped running. They determined that an uninsulated pipe in the roof had frozen, so Mark got up on a ladder and removed a few tiles, while Janine plugged in a hair dryer so he could heat up the frozen section. One villager after another came by to see what was happening, and soon the whole village was abuzz about les anglais “who are blow drying their house.”

The book is packed with fun facts about France, like the reason why people clink their glasses before drinking (it has to do with fear of poisoning back in medieval times.) And that it is considered unlucky to have a dinner with 13 people—if you do, the waiter might put an egg on the table to represent a 14th. And that France invented the online sex chat!

As the book ends, Janine reflects on how she and Mark have become perhaps not natives, but awfully darned close. And how lucky they are to have settled in the part of France “where people have sunshine in their hearts.”

Highly recommended.

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

I still remember walking into that cave.  There wasn’t much light and I could barely make out the stalactites, one of them twisting its way all the way down to the floor. As I walked further in, I could see bones scattered about—not human, I hoped. Then I saw bear skulls, arranged in a semi-circle. Spooky!

I kept going, stepping carefully, and suddenly there they were, straight ahead of me: paintings, beautiful paintings. I could see horses and buffalo and rhinos that almost seemed alive. It was mesmerizing.

I was in the Grotte Chauvet 2, a nearly-perfect recreation of a nearby cave. It’s like the famous cave at Lascaux, only the paintings are older–the oldest ever found. How old? Let’s just say Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals were still duking out for control of Europe (spoiler alert: we win.)

A trip to the Grotte is a must-do if you are in the area. Read more about this fascinating place in Frenchly!

 

To the Barricades! The French Academy Battles an English Invasion

The Académie française was founded long ago to regulate French grammar and spelling. It still does that, but often finds itself pulled into arguments over what words should be allowed in French. English words that find their way into common usage are a particular sore point.

Should “computer” be allowed? No, let’s coin the word ordinateur.

How about “software”? Mais non ! We must use logiciel.

“Weekend”? Well, ok, but let’s add a hyphen so it’s not really English.

The latest battle is over French national identity cards. European regulations require that the words “Identity Card” be included, but the French government has gone further, much further. All the terms are shown in French and in English, so there’s “SEXE / Sex,” “LIEU DE NAISSANCE / Place of birth,” and on and on.

Cue the gasps.

The Académie is up in arms (they all have ceremonial swords, after all) and are threatening to sue the government to have all that nasty English removed. This would be a unique case, and a treat for legal scholars.

Will the government back down? Will the Académie? No one knows…but watch out for those swords.

Read all about it in My French Life!

18 Curious Facts about Provence

Did you know that a sardine once blocked the port of Marseille?

Or that seven different popes once lived in Avignon? (not counting Pope Joan)

Or that a Provençal town once passed a law banning UFOs…and none have landed since?

These are just a few of the fun facts that are in my new book, An Insider’s Guide to Provence. Read all about it in Frenchly!

State Dinners and French Power

Powerful rulers have hosted lavish dinners since time immemorial, as a way to demonstrate their power and to forge alliances. But does anyone do it as well as the French, with their state dinners in the glittering Elysée Palace?

A Bit of History

King Louis XIV set the tone when he made eating a public spectacle. Every day, crowds would gather to watch the royal family enjoy a sumptuous meal, the Grand Couvert. It was a way for the Sun King, Europe’s top dog, to make a daily demonstration of his wealth and power. His descendants continued the tradition until it, like they, died out.

A century later, the “art of the table” is credited with maintaining French power after the defeat of Napoleon. When the victors met at the Congress of Vienna to carve up Europe, French representative Tallyrand hosted lavish meals for the delegates, night after night. Many believe that these led to France’s remarkably lenient treatment.

Official French state dinners—dîners d’État—began in the 1870s under the presidents of the Third Republic. What better way to seduce a potential ally than by plying them with fine French food and wine? Unfortunately, considerable stamina was required, as those 19th century meals could last for hours and include up to 20 different courses.

By the time of World War I, reason had prevailed and the number of courses had dropped to seven. They dropped further in the 1950s when the austere Charles de Gaulle became president, as he cut them to five courses and limited the meal to an hour and 15 minutes.

De Gaulle was followed by Pompidou, who was a bon vivant and loved fancy dinners. Not only did he host state dinners at the Elysée Palace, he also took fine French dining with him when he traveled. He would load his plane with chefs and elegant tableware, then host dinners at the French embassies of the countries he visited.

Despite Pompidou’s enthusiasm, dîners d’État have continued to get shorter, with President Hollande cutting them to their current length of one hour, and four courses. And they have become less frequent.  While presidents in the 1960s and 1970s hosted state dinners nearly six times a year, recent presidents have averaged less than two.

A Strict Protocol

Dîners d’État are part of what the French call gastrodiplomie (gastronomic diplomacy), a kind of French soft power, and must display the glories of France.

Held in the Salles des Fêtes of the Elysée Palace (or occasionally at the Grand Trianon of Versailles), they use dishes and silverware from the finest French artisans. Dishes are made by Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres, France’s top porcelain maker, with some elegant pieces from the 19th century still in use.  Chrystal is provided by Saint-Louis and, of course, Baccarat. Silverware is made by Chrisofle and Puiforcat, and stamped with the Republique Française coat of arms. And the Elysée kitchen still uses some of the fine copper cookware made over 200 years ago.

The guest list is chosen with great care. Two thirds of the guests are selected by the French president and the rest by the guest of honor. The French selections are carefully balanced, with half coming from politics and business, and the others coming from the worlds of science, the arts, academia, and sports.

Music is provided by the Garde Républicain’s chamber orchestra, with pieces chosen from the guest of honor’s country, though Mozart is also a popular choice.

Planning a State Dinner

Planning a dîner d’État is a high-stakes game, with lots of rules and protocol to follow. And things are even tougher when the guest of honor is none other than Queen Elizabeth II. Has anyone on earth been to more state dinners than the Queen? She was the guest of honor in 2014, on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, at a state dinner attended by multiple monarchs and presidents.

Planners went into overdrive. What dishes should be served? What wines? And what about the music?

After long contemplation, the Elysée’s head chef, Guillaume Gomez, took the safe route. He designed a menu full of classics—the Queen is rather big on tradition, after all. There was foie gras to start, then lamb from Sisteron with vegetables, a cheese course, and a selection of summer desserts.

What about wine? Gomez conferred with the Elysée’s sommelier in the palace’s 12,000-bottle cellar. Again, they went with classics—Sauternes and first-growth Bordeaux. There are occasions when an “edgy” Jurançon from a hip young producer might be appropriate, but this was definitely not one of them.

The cheeses were an interesting choice—Gomez wanted fine cheeses but also those that were easily identifiable, like Rochefort and Reblochon. When there are hundreds of guests to serve in a short period of time, it’s not possible to explain the cheeses to everyone.

As for the music, what could be more, um, interesting than the Beatle’s Yellow Submarine played by a chamber orchestra? Let’s just say that Mozart also made an appearance.

If you’d like an entertaining look at the preparations that went into this dinner, here’s a video for you (in French).

From French monarchs to French presidents, grand dinners have been a tool of the country’s soft power. And with a menu that showcases the glories of French food and wine, who wouldn’t want to be a guest, even vicariously? Bon appétit!

The French Village That Saved Thousands of Jews

Many of us have heard of Oskar Schindler, of Schindler’s List fame. This German industrialist saved thousands of Jews during World War II, through a combination of bravery and guile. Less well-known, but equally remarkable, is the story of a small French village that saved thousands more.

Le Chambon-sur-Lignon sits in a remote part of south-central France, and was settled long ago by French Huguenots fleeing religious persecution.

This history of persecution and distrust of authority led the villagers to oppose the wartime Vichy government. They refused to cooperate with the regime, refused to take an oath of allegiance to leader Marshall Pétain, and refused to ring church bells in his honor. Villagers also opposed the government’s anti-Jewish policies, seeing the Jews as a fellow persecuted religious minority.

Led by a charismatic pastor, they banded to together to save thousands of Jews, despite the enormous risk. It is a remarkable tale of bravery.

Read all about it in France Today!

Canned Meat for Thanksgiving??

 

Last year, Val served canned meat for Thanksgiving dinner. You might think this horrified our guests, but in fact it was a big hit. That’s because the canned meat was French confit de canard (duck leg confit) and it was delicious.

We have always loved confit de canard but Val pooh-poohed the idea of getting it out of a can. We would see it at our weekly market in St-Rémy-de-Provence and she would turn up her nose and say it was better at our local butcher.

But then one day we had French friends visit us in California and they brought a can as a gift. We had it for dinner (so easy!) and it was a revelation, as good as in a top French restaurant. And don’t tell our St-Rémy butcher, but it was better than his.

Read all about delicious French canned meats in The Good Life France!

How to Drink Like a Roman

Near the town of Beaucaire is something unique in the world. Built on the site of a Roman villa, it is a faithful reconstruction of a Roman winery. Visitors learn how winemaking was done back in the days when Rome ruled the world, and sample wines made using ancient recipes—fenugreek, anyone?

Fine wine has been made on the site of Mas des Tourelles for millennia. They have been praised by Rabelais and served by French kings. Such fine wines are still made at the Mas des Tourelles, but one day owner Hervé Durand decided to try something new.

Working with archaeologists, he recreated a Roman vineyard and wine cellar and decided to try Roman winemaking. Today the Mas showcases Roman winemaking techniques, along with those “interesting” samples. There are Roman games to play and grape juice for the kids, so it’s a place the whole family can enjoy.

Learn more about it at Perfectly Provence!

Cold Case Solved!

Jean-Paul Marat was a leader of the French Revolution, along with other famous names  like Danton and Robespierre. In 1793, he was assassinated while soaking in a bath—one of the most famous murders in French history. While there is no question about who killed him, the reason he was in the bath has confounded historians for centuries. And this mystery may have just been solved.

Marat started out as a scientist, but as France entered into political crisis in the 1780’s, he joined the radical forces calling for the downfall of the monarchy, and later emerged as one of the leaders of the revolution. But he was a divisive figure, who bitterly denounced his enemies and called for heads to roll. He battled the revolutionary group the Girondins, and it was the Girondin sympathizer Charlotte Corday who fatally stabbed him.

But what was he doing in a bath? It’s known that he frequently soaked because of a painful skin condition, but no one knew what it was…until now. French scientist-sleuths (CSI Paris?) think they have figured it out. It’s a fascinating tale.

Read all about it at The Good Life France!