Meet Master Chocolate-Maker Joël Durand

“As a young boy in Brittany,” says Joël Durand, “I had three dreams—to be a chef, a pastry-maker, or a race car driver.” A smile crosses his face. “My parents made it clear that driving race cars was not in the cards, so I started cooking when I was six.”

Durand quit school at 14 and apprenticed as a pastry maker. His talent quickly became apparent because within three years he had professional certifications not only as a pastry maker, but also as a confectioner, chocolatier, and ice-cream maker. And that was just the beginning.

At the age of 17, Durand was hired by not one but two restaurants simultaneously, managing dozens of makers. And these were not just any restaurants, but top destinations—one had a Michelin star!

Durand eventually moved to Provence, where today he focuses on chocolates, infusing them with dozens of flavors. His reputation has expanded across France and he is considered the best chocolate maker in the region. A visit to his chocolaterie is a highlight of any visit to St-Rémy.

Learn more about this master chocolate maker in Perfectly Provence!

A Fun Quiz About Provence

So you think you know Provence? Let’s find out!

I’ve written a series of articles called Only in Provence for the marvelous publication My French Life, and now I’ve created a short quiz about them. All of the answers can be found in the articles, or you can just go ahead and try your luck.

There are 14 questions in all and here are two of them.

Why did the ochre quarries of Roussillon go out of business?

    1. The quarries were depleted of their ochre
    2. French labor laws made the quarries uncompetitive
    3. New synthetic dyes were cheaper
    4. Earth tones didn’t go with groovy 1960s fashion

A transhumance is:

    1. When an alchemist turns lead into gold
    2. What Nostradamus predicted as the future of humanity
    3. The movement of sheep to higher pastures for the summer
    4. What you experience if you drink too much pastis

You can find a link to the answers at the bottom of the article. And if you add a comment, you’ll be eligible to win a free copy of my new book, An Insider’s Guide to Provence! 

Here’s the quiz. Good luck!

 

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!

Beyond Champagne: French Sparkling Wine for the Holidays

The holiday season is upon us, and what better way to celebrate than with Champagne?

Champagne has long been the go-to wine for celebrations, but it can be pricey. Luckily, there are other French sparkling wines to consider, called crémants, that are also delicious … and easier on the budget.

What is a crémant and what are the different kinds? Learn more in France Today!

An Insider’s Guide to Provence

I am thrilled that my new book has just been published! It’s a guide to all the “insider secrets” that Val and I have discovered during our years of living in Provence.

An Insider’s Guide to Provence has our favorite restaurants, wineries, outdoor markets, picnic spots, hiking and biking trails, you name it. There is dining advice for the gluten-intolerant, vegans, and vegetarians, and special sections on Roman Provence and Jewish Provence. And with hundreds of links to maps and websites, it is perfect for the on-the-go traveler.

Here’s what others have to say…

A must-have for every visitor looking for local advice”–Carolyne Kauser-Abbott, Perfectly Provence 

A super add on to any general guidebook of the area”–Janine Marsh, The Good Life France.

“You will not be disappointed with this modern guidebook—it is a bottomless treasure!”–Judy MacMahon, MyFrenchLife 

“If you’re looking for an expert guide to show you the ins and outs of beautiful Provence, look no further”–Tuula Rampont, Belle Provence Travels

“I’ll be using this guide every time I go back to France”–Janice Chung, France Travel Tips

“A must-read for anyone planning a trip to Provence”–Annette Charlton, A French Collection

An Insider’s Guide to Provence is the perfect gift for the Provence lover in your life, and is available from Amazon as a paperback or e-book.

I hope you enjoy it!

Who Will be the Next President of France?

France will vote for its next president in the spring, and it’s an especially important election. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has dominated European politics for years, and her upcoming retirement leaves a leadership gap just waiting to be filled. The next French president might well take over as leader of Europe

A new poll shows President Macron leading the field, but there are three other candidates with a real chance of winning. One is a mainstream Républicain, one leads France’s anti-immigrant party, and one is called “the French Trump.” The result of the election could have a big impact on France, Europe, and the world.

Who are these candidates and what might happen? Read all about it in Frenchly!

 

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!

The World’s Best Melon is From Provence

There are lots of different melons, from the ubiquitous cantaloupe to the fabulously expensive Yubari King. And the best of them all comes from a small town in Provence called Cavaillon.

Melon de Cavaillon has a history that goes back centuries, to the days of the Avignon Papacy. The popes needed good melons to eat, so seeds were brought from Italy to Provence, and the magic began.

The good people of Cavaillon love this melon so much that they’ve a built a giant statue in its honor. They have an annual melon festival where a hundred white Camargue horses race through the streets. And Alexandre Dumas was such a fan that he practically made the melon a fourth musketeer.

What is so great about the melon de Cavaillon? Find out in Perfectly Provence!

Favorite Biking Routes in the Alpilles

Val and I live part of the year in St-Rémy-de-Provence, a charming town that sits at the foot of the Alpilles mountains. We love to bike in and around the Alpilles on routes that range from easy to moderately difficult.

If you stay off the busy main roads, biking in the Alpilles is easy and safe. The availability of electric bikes has exploded in the past few years, so even those who haven’t been on a bike in years can enjoy riding through the area. There are some new bikes-only routes being built that will make it even easier to ride without worrying about cars.

I’ve written an article with some of our favorite routes, from flat ones to others that go in and through the mountains. I even describe how to bike to hell and back! (ok, it’s the route to the Val d’Enfer, a beautiful, rocky area that translates as Hell Valley.)

If you might like to bike in the Alpilles, or just want to see some nice photos, check out this article in Perfectly Provence!