French Flavor of the Month: Provence Garlic in Bloom Friday, Aug 23 2013 

Summer is the season for everything in Provence – fruits, vegetables, flowers explode in a riot of colors, smells and tastes. It’s also garlic season, and I am in heaven when it arrives. Putting aside garlic’s dining pleasures for a moment, the huge purple blooms make incredible floral bouquets. At the Friday market in Eygalières a couple of weeks ago, I was mesmerized by the largest garlic flowers I had ever seen.

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One of the flower vendors was selling urns full of the gorgeous purple blooms. The violet globes were so big as to fit into two hands. They married well with the hydrangeas also for sale. Both looked lovely in the early morning light.

Just steps away, piles of fresh garlic bunches were on display just waiting to go into some great Provençal recipe such as pistou, aioli and ratatouille to name a few. Every summer, I can’t wait to get my hands on the purple and white bulbs from Cavaillon. They are sold by la tresse or la grappe or by the single head.

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If one is in any doubt about the quantity of garlic that infuses southern French cooking, market vendors sell out tables full of the stuff in the space of a few hours. And at the market in Maussane last summer, I spied this vendor’s stash in an enormous crate that was literally half the size of his truck.

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Now, on to the eating. When first picked, the purple garlic is so fresh as to be fragrant but not overpowering. I like to cook with it of course. But one of my favorite things is to chop up a clove or two and spread it as is on fresh bread that’s been drizzled with French extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with a bit of salt. Add a nice summer salad and a glass of rosé wine and you have the perfect Provence lunch!

At the recent Eygalières market, one of the ready-made food vendors was busy preparing the day’s offering of roasted chicken with garlic, onions and peppers. Here he is peeling the pungent cloves. He tossed handful after handful of garlic into the popping skillet. The smell of it cooking in the massive iron pan was incredible – even at 8:30 in the morning.

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Just across the way from the chicken and peppers guy, another vendor was selling a different sort of garlic – what could be called the ‘garlic of chefs.’ The ail rose du Tarn, or the pink garlic from the Tarn region near Toulouse is celebrated for its subtle and delicate flavor. Chefs in the best kitchens of France prefer to use this garlic as it doesn’t overwhelm the palate and can enhance a variety of dishes and sauces. It also stores extremely well in a cool, dry place and will last until next summer’s harvest. I couldn’t resist buying one of the super-sized grappes which weighed over a kilo!

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Those into the French language might be wondering what the word ‘Aulx’ on the sign above refers to. It is in fact the old French spelling of ail in the plural. Aulx is pronounced roughly "oh." And just to clear up any confusion about the colors of garlic in France, "purple" and "pink" refer to the color of the papery skins covering the cloves. Once you peel the garlic, it’s all white. 

It might sound funny to look forward to something like garlic on the seasonal food calendar. After all, there are bigger stars in the culinary firmament. But once you’ve used and tasted fresh French garlic, it might become a summer favorite of yours too.

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

This month, I’ve been reading the thick biograpahy of Julia Child called Dearie (a great read despite the jarringly ‘colloquial’ prose). Tales about her TV series The French Chef and  her stays in Provence made me think of including in this week’s "French Take-Out" her recipe for aioli, the quintessential Provence dish with a garlic mayonnaise. She demonstrated how to make this great dish in The French Chef season 6, episode 11. If you don’t already have a copy of the series, you can order a video of this episode on Amazon by clicking here. Or you can see everything about The French Chef online at PBS. And below is an authentic aioli from the restaurant Alain Assaud located in St. Rémy de Provence. Bon appétit!

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Trees in Southern France Friday, Aug 16 2013 

One of the best things about getting out of Paris and into the French countryside is the chance to visit small, regional museums. These jewels of art and culture spotlight aspects of France that otherwise might go unnoticed or unexplored. A case in point is the local museum in St. Rémy-de-Provence. Housed in a restored Renaissance mansion in the heart of town, the Musée des Alpilles – the Alpilles are the small ‘mountains’ located in this part of Provence – is currently hosting a special exhibition on trees in southern France as part of the Marseille Provence 2013 festival. A couple of weeks ago, I made a beeline to see “Arbres, aux Racines de la Provence” (Trees, Roots of Provence) and I was not disappointed.

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In life as in art – think Van Gogh, Signac, Cézanne, Derain – trees are symbols of the Provençal countryside. Olive trees, cypresses, pines, platanes, fig trees, almond trees, and more have played essential roles in southern French life for centuries and are deeply ‘rooted’ in the local culture. The exhibition is divided into several themes demonstrating the practical, economic, scientific and artistic contributions les arbres have made to Provence. Some of the highlights include ‘trees as protection,’ ‘trees in daily life’ and ’trees as sustenance.’

Pines and platanes (a relative of the sycamore tree) have offered shade from the intense Mediterranean sun whether on country roads or village squares. Towering cypresses have provided protection from the fierce mistral winds which roar down the Rhône Valley. Interestingly, residents in Provence never plant large evergreens next to their homes and farmhouses. In the cold but sunny Provence winters, they prefer to let the sunlight and warmth come through bare trees which lost their leaves in the fall.

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From the exhibition: Provence countryside with pines painted by André Derain, 1921-1924

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My photo of Mediterranean pines on the way to Château d’Estoublon near Les Baux

Daily life in southern France was also enriched by practical tools and implements made out of various woods such as the olive. This battoir de mariage from the exhibition was carved by a shepherd around 1850 and given as a wedding gift. Often, hearts and the names of the spouses were engraved on the pieces. Battoirs were used to clean clothes and floor coverings by beating dust and stains out of them.

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Today, olive wood is still used to make all kinds of kitchen tools as it wears well over time. Most Provençal open-air markets have several vendors who sell various culinary utensils made out of solid olive wood. When buying the handcrafted pieces, I look for beautiful patterns and features in the grain of the wood.

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Many southern French trees also have played a role in agriculture and the local diet. Given Provence’s superb climate, fruit trees such as fig, apricot, peach and plum abound. Olive trees have been cultivated in the region for millennia for their oil and for eating. These days, some of the best olive oil in the world comes from southern France.

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 A life-sized olive tree in the main exhibition room at the Musée des Alpilles

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From the exhibition: A botanical treatise on the olive tree dating from the 18th century

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Exhibition photo of ‘La Cueillette’ (olive harvesting) in the early 1900’s

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My photo of olives for sale at the weekly St. Rémy market

Olive trees captured Van Gogh’s artistic imagination as well. While not in the museum exhibition, below is a reproduction of one of his works featuring les oliviers which he painted during his stay at the asylum outside St. Rémy. You can still visit the asylum of St. Paul de Mausole today. Copies of Van Gogh’s works from that period in his life line the garden paths near the chapel.

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Most wonderful about this exhibition is that when you are finished, you can walk outside and experience the distinct presences of these southern French trees firsthand. From the magnificent alleys of platanes framing the roads coming into St. Rémy to the tall hedges of cypresses protecting fields of fruit trees to the silvery green of the olive orchards in the countryside, you can see, smell and touch these gorgeous wonders of nature in person. And you can taste their fruits at any Provençal restaurant. As the exhibition so aptly demonstrates, the appearance and character of these trees seem to say "Yes, this is Provence!" 

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 Alleys of platanes that line the roads headed toward St. Rémy

The "Arbres, aux racines de la Provence" exhibition is on view until December 31, 2013. The museum is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10am to 6pm until ‘French Heritage Days’ in mid-September. After that weekend, opening hours are 1pm to 5:30pm. Entrance fees are 3,10 euros for adults and 2,10 euros for students and children.

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French Take-Out ~ La France à Emporter

To experience the fruits of southern France olive trees in the U.S., you might try the exquisite olive oil from this part of the world. French olive oil producer Castelas makes divine oils year after year. They export their products from Les Baux to the U.S. on a regular basis. You can find their oils at gourmet stores and upscale supermarkets across the country including at Dean & Deluca, Central Market and Olivier & Co.

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The Castelas boutique at the foot of Les Baux in Provence

Driving in France Friday, Aug 9 2013 

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Les Baux-de-Provence is a popular summer destination in France

It’s the time of les grandes vacances (big summer vacations) in France. Consequently, planes and trains are crowded with travelers headed to French holiday locales. And automobiles are packing the highways and byways all over the country.

This past Saturday was particularly crazy for drivers headed south on the autoroute (French super highway) towards Provence and the Mediterranean coast. As my husband and I drove north from Avignon towards Lyon after some nice time off in la Provence, we saw that the southbound traffic was bumper to bumper for more than 200 kilometers. That’s right, the A7 highway was virtually a parking lot for over 120 miles. For these poor motorists, a journey that would have normally taken two hours ended up being an all-day affair.

Truth be told, this is not an unusual occurrence. The first weekend in August is always insane on French roadways, so much so that the French traffic authority forbids heavy trucks from using the autoroutes that Saturday in an effort to alleviate traffic congestion. In addition, many holiday rental properties schedule their weekly changeover on Saturdays. And last but not least, it seems that the French accept these infernal driving conditions in their haste to go on vacation. Years ago, I made a decision never to drive on the heaviest French travel days – at least not in the same direction as everyone else!

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Summer holiday traffic & precarious parking at the top of Mont Ventoux in Provence

Normally, however, driving in France is a breeze and even a pleasure. While trains are great for going longer distances, a car is the best way to see France’s beautiful countryside and charming villages up close. It also gives you the freedom to stop and see anything that looks interesting. And there is plenty of ‘interesting’ in France. So in the spirit of a great French driving experience, here are some things to keep in mind when venturing forth on French roads:

Cars: As in the U.S., driving is on the right side of the road. Car rental agencies offer everything from tiny compact cars to vans to luxury vehicles so you have your choice of transport. Manual or standard cars are the norm in Europe – if you need an automatic, do specify this feature when reserving and be prepared to pay a bit more for it. You’ll want to reserve your car in advance as hot destinations often run out of options – and cars! – during peak times of the year. You can often get better rental rates in advance as well. Do check the opening hours of your car rental agency as some offices close for lunch and/or on Sundays. Seatbelts are mandatory for everyone in vehicles, and car seats or booster seats are required for children under the age of 10. And it is illegal for drivers to use cell phones while driving.

Drivers License: If you’re visiting France (versus living there), your U.S. driver’s license will work fine. Some rental agencies do say they require an International Drivers Permit but in my experience, this has not been the case. Still, the international permits are easy to obtain from AAA or similar agencies in the U.S. They cost about $10 and require proof of a U.S. driver’s license.

Gas: Fuel is extremely expensive in France, about the equivalent of $8 a gallon. Cars run on unleaded – sans plomb – or diesel – gazole. When renting a car, I always pick a diesel-powered engine as diesel is cheaper than unleaded and cars get more mileage on it. Just be sure and have the rental agency write down which essence (gas) your car needs so that you don’t accidently put the wrong type in it. Fuel in France is sold by the liter at gas stations in towns as well as along the autoroutes. The least expensive places to faire le plein (fill up) in France are city supermarket gas stations so keep your eyes peeled for a nice Carrefour or Intermarché along your route. Worth noting is that while French gas stations often do take credit cards at the pump, pump transactions require cards with a microchip which most U.S. cards do not have. So you can fill up and then pay the attendant in cash or with your regular credit card at the booth. But in this situation, you’ll want to avoid needing gas at night or on Sundays when no attendants are on duty.

Speed: Speed limits in France are 130 kilometers per hour (kph) on the highway (a little over 80 miles per hour), 90 kph on other roads not in built-up areas and 50 kph in towns and built-up areas, unless otherwise marked. Speed signs are round with a red border and have the speed limit number prominently displayed in the middle. Often the speed signs will be accompanied by "Rappel," meaning ‘reminder.’ If it is raining, the speed limit on highways automatically decreases to 110 kph. With regard to speeding, you can probably get away with going up to 10 kph over the posted limit. Beyond that, you are likely to be stopped by the police, or more probably, you will get your photo snapped by a speed camera. Contrary to popular belief, French speeding tickets can follow you back to the U.S. And it used to be that signs would warn drivers in France that a speed camera was nearby, but this is not always the case anymore.

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Roads: French highways, or autoroutes, crisscross France and are generally well maintained. Autoroutes are designated by blue signs with the letter A plus a number or numbers. For example, you have the A6 through Burgundy towards Lyon, also nicknamed the "Autoroute du Soleil" since it’s headed to the sunny south of France. French autoroutes are mostly tollroads which are indicated by signs saying "Péage." As you enter the tollroad, you’ll take a ticket. When you get ready to exit the tollroad or when that toll section ends, you’ll come to a toll booth and need to pay for your use of the road. Approaching a toll booth can be tricky; be sure to stay right (away from the tolltag lanes). These are the cash booths which will have either a machine or an attendant. If it’s a machine, you’ll put your ticket in according to the direction of the arrow and wait for the required euro amount to appear on the screen. Next you will put in coins or bills.  The machines make change. Do have a fair amount of money on hand if you are going a long distance – I just paid about 60 euros total to go from Cavaillon in southern France up to Mulhouse on the French/German border. If you want a receipt, push the button that says "Reçu" and a paper receipt will appear. There will also be booths that take credit cards but as with gas station pumps, these machines mostly take credit cards with microchips only. You don’t want to enter a credit card line only to find out your credit card doesn’t work – and then have all those (angry) French drivers piled up behind you! 

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There are two other rules to keep in mind on autoroutes: The far left lane is the ‘fast lane.’ It is used mainly for passing so don’t hang out there or you will for sure have some speedy drivers sounding their klaxons (horns) to have you move out of the way. Also, since the tollroads are limited access, you can go up to 30 kilometers before being able to take a sortie (exit). Therefore, make sure you are headed where you want to go when you get on the autoroute - or it will be a while before you can turn around and go the other way.

Roundabouts: France has loads of ronds-points, i.e. roundabouts or traffic circles, all over the country. The most famous one of course is the Place de l’Etoile in Paris with the Arc de Triomphe in the center. (If you’ve never done this, it is loads of fun – just be prepared for one crazy ride!) The great thing about ronds-points is that you don’t have to stop at a traffic light but you do have to play by the rond-point rules. Anyone already in the roundabout has the right of way so you’ll want to get out in the circle as fast as you can. Just wait for a space and then jump in. The other good thing about them is that if you are not sure which direction to take, you can keep going around the rond-point until you figure out which exit is yours.

Traffic lights: French traffic lights use generally the same signalization as in the U.S. A red light – feu rouge – means stop and a green light – feu vert – means go. In France, however, the yellow light blinks after the red light finishes its turn to indicate that the green light is about to come on, the opposite pattern of American traffic lights. Do note that turning right on a red light is not the practice in France.

Road Signs: French road signs are fairly self explanatory. After all, the illustrations do most of the communicating. Interestingly, stop signs in France say "STOP" so U.S. drivers will feel especially at home with that one. A couple that are worth making sure you know are "Do Not Enter" which is a red circle with a white horizontal line across the middle (see the fifth column, third row down below). Also important is "No Parking" which is a red circle around a dark blue center with a red diagonal line through it (see the third column, fifth row down below).

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Parking: Speaking of parking, space is at a premium in France so most often you will have to pay to park. On public streets or in parking lots and garages in towns and cities (although Paris is a whole other story), you will likely see signs that say "Stationnement payant" or on the ground in the parking spaces it will say "Payant." This means you need to look for a parking meter – the French don’t put a meter at each parking place – somewhere nearby. If in doubt, look on the dashboard of cars near you to see if they have a paper ticket sitting there. When you find the parking meter machine, or horodateur in French, you can decide how much time you need and put the right amount of cash in accordingly. Then you take the ticket and put it on your dashboard with the time and amount displayed clearly. Often, there will be times that are free depending on the location – for example, lunchtime from 12 to 2pm in Arles is free. Or Sundays and holidays are free and so on. The further you get out of towns or villages, the more likely parking is to be free. One thing to note about parking in towns: Parking can be free or payant all week except when it comes to market day. Then all of a sudden, it’s interdit (forbidden) for the duration of the open-air market. And finally, you will always need to make sure not to park in front of someone’s driveway in France. Since French garage doors can blend in or look pretty picturesque, driveways can be easy to overlook. If anything says "Ne pas stationner," you’ll want to avoid that spot.

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Emergencies: If you have an emergency or accident on the road in France, the French police, fire and ambulance services can be reached at 112 (U.S. equivalent of 911). If there is any injury even if it is not your fault, you must remain at the scene until the police arrive. When you car is stalled due to an accident or mechanical problem, you must alert other drivers by putting the warning triangle (provided in your car) on the road some distance behind your vehicle. You can also put on the fluorescent jacket that comes with your car. For any mechanical issues with your rental car, you’ll want to keep the rental agency’s emergency number handy. In my experience, they are usually very responsive and help get your problems resolved fairly quickly. For a case in point, click here to read a previous article about a car break-down I had in France a few summers ago.

Maps and GPS: I always take a load of Michelin maps with me when driving in France. They are very straightforward, often detailed and help navigate everything from winding back roads to medieval streets in small towns. You can also get a GPS with your rental car these days and usually a GPS can help you find even hard-to-locate destinations. If you have your cell phone with you, Google maps can be handy for finding your location. Do study your route ahead of time and take any route advice from Google with a grain of salt, however, as it does not always provide the most direct or logical path to one’s destination.

Again, driving in France is usually a wonderfully pleasurable experience, especially the further out you get from large cities. With a good destination, a good rental agreement, a good map/GPS and hopefully good weather, you will be all set for a great travel adventure. So cheers to driving in France – and bonne route!