A Taste of Provence Monday, Jan 25 2010 

I woke up this morning thinking about Provence…the bright sun, rich colors, intense flavors. As I am not sur place (there in person)and also as an antidote to winter– I decided to give myself a taste of this special region of France and pull together a short visit via favorite images. Je vous invite à m’accompagner (come join me)…

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In St. Rémy de Provence, these colorful baskets are just waiting for owners to nab them and go shopping at the lively Wednesday market…

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Every market day, this berry vendor makes an art out of arranging her framboises (raspberries), mûres (blackberries), fraises (strawberries), and more. Though she was none too pleased when I took a photo of her wares and did not make a purchase. I told her the next time I was there with a kitchen available, I would make a tart with her fruits!

In the meantime, I can pick up a ready-made tarte aux framboises (raspberry tart) at Béchard in Aix-en-Provence. Béchard is a top-notch pâtisserie (pastry shop) in Aix and one of the primary purveyors of calissons (a regional specialty made with almonds and candied fruits).

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The climate in Provence is so blessed that everything grows well, from all sorts of fruits to vegetables to flowers. And the olive–really a fruit–is a major player in this agricultural bonanza. I think this is my favorite olive vendor in all of Provence. There every Wednesday in St. Rémy, she has an amazing selection of cured olives and takes great care with her presentation…

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When I pass by the vendor selling des oliviers (olive trees), I am tempted to buy a dozen and start an orchard. But olive trees are slow growing. It would take decades for them to mature and bear fruit.

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But you can go to a pépinière (nursery) in the south of France and purchase 100-year old olive trees, no problem. In the village of Maussane near St. Rémy, I once saw a gardening team install a “decades old” olive orchard in one morning. C’était très impressionant (It was quite impressive)!

In addition to olives and olive oils, garlic and herbes de Provence are staples in Provençal cuisine. In fact, garlic is sometimems known as the “truffle of the South.”

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Garlic, herbs and olive oil show up in all sorts of dishes including this luscious pizza from Chez Serge in Carpentras. (Pizza is not just for Italians!)

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And one of my preferred dishes that combines the best of regional products is the salade Niçoise. Originally from Nice, you can find this lovely lunch option at many cafés. Les Deux Garçons in Aix-en-Provence has a version I particularly like…along with the requisite rosé wine.

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For a tasty–and transportable–small Provence dessert, I drop by Joël Durand’s chocolate shop in St. Rémy and pick up a small box of his ‘alphabet chocolates.’ This talented chocolatier (chocolate chef), pictured here, has specialized in making artisan chocolates infused with local flavors, and each chocolate is known by a letter of the alphabet. My current choice is “L”…dark chocolate ganache with lavender essence. In the summer, he also has a lavender caramel enrobed in dark chocolate…hmmm…how to choose. The best part is that when you go in the shop, Monsieur Durand or one of his aimable associates will let you taste before you buy. Bonne dégustation (happy tasting)!

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French Take-Out ~ La France  à emporter

When it comes to all there is to see, smell and taste in Provence, this post is just an “appetizer.” Come join us for more at our upcoming event “The Best of Provence / Gourmet Provence” on Sunday, February 7, at The Cultured Cup in Dallas, Texas. We’ll take a visual and tasting tour of the south of France and talk about what makes this region’s cuisine and culture special and unique. As an added treat, we’ll also enjoy a tasting of rare olive oils from the hills near Aix-en-Provence and Avignon. To register, contact us at 214-232-5344 or visit our web site.

A Winter Garden Friday, Jan 8 2010 

Wherever I am in France, I never pass up the chance to visit a garden. Even in winter, I find French landscapes and gardenscapes enchanting and intriguing on many levels.

The Sunday after Christmas, I set out to experience the gardens of the Manoir d’Eyrignac (Eyrignac Manor) which boasts of le plus beau jardin du Périgord, or the most beautiful garden in Périgord. Located in southwest France, Périgord is the land of truffles, foie gras, walnuts, prehistoric sites, medieval villages, cliff-top castles, and the Dordogne and Lot rivers. Although the privately held manor and its 18th century gardens are located on a back country road, numerous signs point the way to this verdant extravaganza near the picturesque town of Sarlat.

I had the Eyrignac gardens on my agenda as they are reknowned for some of the finest topiary art in Europe. Various shades of green are highlighted throughout the four seasons with the artfully trimmed bushes and trees. It takes a team five full time gardeners to maintain the various ‘outdoor rooms’ on the grounds.

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Not a soul was at the Manoir d’Eyrignac when I arrived. Even the woman selling entrance tickets had to hike over from the business office to open up as she didn’t expect any visitors on this frosty, misty morning. I decided the 9,50 euros to get in was worth it to have the 4 hectare (10 acre) gardens to myself, cold or no cold.

The exquisite Jardin français lies in front of the manor house. It was originally designed to be best seen from the second floor of the dwelling. Since I don’t know the owners and couldn’t see it from the house (!), my view is from the gardens back towards manor. Still, I think this was my favorite ‘room’ of the gardens.

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The gardens are accented by other buildings on the property. The anciennes écuries (former stables) are situated next to the spring fed pond which provided water for the horses once upon a time…

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There is also the romanesque chapel which is still consecrated and where all the family members have been baptized… 

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Another ‘outdoor room’ is the Allée des vases which is named for the Italian ceramic vases that line the grassy “path.” At this time of year, they are wrapped in black plastic to protect them and the plant roots from the cold. The tall evergreens lining the allée give a secret air to this part of the gardens.  

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Next to the Allée des vases is a wide lawn with topiary bushes and fancy arabesques. I wonder if creating these shapes is a bit like painting or embroidering with plants??

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In other parts of the gardens, Asian-inspired elements complement the classical French garden designs. Several red lacquer archways provide eye-catching perspective points in the rose garden…

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And the red lacquer pagoda at the end of this trimmed garden path gives a touch of the exotic to les jardins. But the winter mist has toned down the red this particular morning…

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Even though the weather was a bit nippy and damp, I loved my ‘private visit’ to the jardins d’Eyrignac. I found it hauntingly beautiful on this winter’s day…and I think I will be spoiled when I go back in warm weather and have to share it with other garden lovers. But of course, there is more than enough beauty to go around in this lovely spot in France. Just to be sure to mind the signs to stay off the grass!

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The Jardins du manoir d’Eyrignac are open every day of the year. You can visit the web site for specific hours and directions: www.eyrignac.com.

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

For a taste of 18th century French culture and garden aesthetics here in the States, plan to attend the upcoming lecture by professor Eric Haskell on January 13th in Dallas, Texas. Dr. Haskell will speak at SMU’s Meadows Museum of Art on “The Era of Elegance: French Culture in the 18th Century.” The lecture will begin at 6pm followed by a reception at 7pm. Tickets are $60 per person. This event is sponsored by the French Heritage Society’s Dallas Chapter. For reservations, patrons can call 214-363-9568.