Provence Blooms Thursday, Feb 26 2015 

Move over lavender, poppies and sunflowers, it’s mimosa season in Provence. Walk by a bucket of mimosa flowers (pronounced ‘mee-moh-zah’) at a Provençal market right now, and you would swear it was the height of summer. The sprays of bright yellow blooms and heady, honey-like scent seem to advertise sunny days and warm nights. The sun part is a given – Provence boasts approximately 300 days of sunshine a year – but warm nights are a ways off yet. The French mimosa tree flowers in February and March, bringing a riot of jaune (yellow) and printemps (spring) to an otherwise wintry southern France landscape.

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This past week, the cheerful yellow pompoms were on display in Mandelieu-La Napoule, la capitale du mimosa – the mimosa capital of France. Situated on la Côte d’Azur (the French Riviera) just west of Cannes, Mandelieu hosts a yearly festival celebrating the mimosa tree complete with a reine du mimosa (Mimosa Queen), parades, processions, mimosa walks, dancing and a carnival.

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I am a fan of the scheduled “Walks Around Mimosa Country” which are organized as part of the festival. They take you on the trails of the Tanneron massif, home to the largest mimosa forest in Europe. Though they are guided and commented only in French, the two-hour randonnées in the Provence hills among the fragrant mimosa trees under the azure blue sky of the Mediterranean winter are not to be missed. During mimosa season, you can also drive la route du mimosa (the mimosa road), a winding route that begins in Bormes-les-Mimosas east of Toulon, wends its way through Mandelieu-la Napoule, and ends in the perfume town of Grasse.

Originally from Australia, the mimosa was brought back to Europe by Captain Cook and eventually found its way to the gardens of English aristrocrats wintering at their sumptuous villas along the French Riviera. The welcoming climate facilitated the spread of the mimosa which is part of the acacia family. Today, the Cavatore nursery near Bormes-les-Mimosas specializes in the plants. And note to plant lovers, they welcome visits to their garden center!

Just driving around anywhere in Provence right now, you can have your own route du mimosa. The brilliant sun highlights the yellow splashes of color covering the hillsides. One mimosa season, I captured the pretty flowers at the St. Paul de Mausole monastery near St. Rémy where Van Gogh spent a year before his untimely death. The blooming mimosas contrasted starkly with the solemn chapel and neighboring dormant trees.

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Fortunately for everyone in France needing a mid-winter pick-me-up, mimosa bouquets are not just available in Provence. They are also sold all around the country in season. Here is a flower vendor at a market in Normandy with the perfumed yellow flowers for sale. Also as part of the Mandelieu festival, one can order four bouquets sent directly to one’s home in France for only 26 euros, shipping included. So next time you are in France in February or March, be sure and pick up a bouquet or order some for your hotel room or apartment. It’s a breath of spring perfect for chasing away those winter blues!

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For more information on the 2015 French Mimosa festival, click here. This year’s festivities ran from February 18 to 25. Flower and garden lovers may want to make plans to attend next year’s festival that will be held about the same time!

Provence Comfort Food Monday, Feb 16 2015 

Those who have spent time out and about in France know that French food is not all super fancy. Some of the best eats in the country are rustic, home-cooked, traditional dishes – no artistic plate arrangements, mod foam concoctions or colorful sauce squiggles in sight. Every French region has its signature ‘comfort food’ such as Burgundy with its hearty boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin, Southwest France with its robust cassoulet and also Provence with its rich bouillabaisse and daube (the southern France version of beef bourguignon), to name a few.

Another favorite comfort food in Provence – and all around the Mediterranean really – is les petits farcis. Literally meaning “little stuffed things,” les petits farcis de Provence is a wonderful dish of roasted, stuffed vegetables.

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This easy and satisfying meal makes the most of the abundance of colorful vegetables that grow so well in France’s garden of Eden – tomates, courgettes, oignons, artichauts, poivrons, choux, et aubergines (tomatoes, zucchini, onions, artichokes, peppers, cabbage and eggplant). Some ground beef and/or pork sausage, breadcrumbs soaked in milk, an egg or two, garlic, herbs, olive oil, salt and pepper compose the stuffing that is placed in the hollowed out vegetables. Traditionally, this dish also allowed thrifty home cooks to maximize their larder by incorporating leftovers such as stale bread, various herbs, bits of meat and so on.

A few months ago, some of our Provence immersion trip group and I took a dinner cooking class from a local chef in Aix-en-Provence. I was happy to see the Provençal menu included les farcis so our group got to experience this robust dish up close. We scooped out the vegetables, mixed the fragrant stuffing, roasted tomatoes for the sauce and then put it all together in large casserole pans. Good tips included par-boiling the thicker vegetables prior to stuffing them. Also recommended was using medium-sized tomatoes so that the meat filling would cook all the way through without overcooking the tomato shell. And we made a point to keep the little courgette caps for a nice touch on the finished plate.

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In France, home cooks will make their own petits farcis or if short on time, they can pick up some at the local open-air market. Sometimes even the neighborhood butcher shop will have them. Here in Carpentras, this market vendor had a variety of stuffed vegetables already prepared – along with some corn on the cob, a rarity in France!

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You’ll also see les petits farcis occasionally on menus at Provence restaurants. The now-closed, very gourmet restaurant Le Clos de la Violette in Aix-en-Provence was well known for its gorgeously-presented, high-end dish of les farcis. So note to the home chef, this recipe can be dressed up or dressed down as you wish.

Which wine to have with this delicious Provence comfort food? If you’re having the meat version of the dish (alternative versions come stuffed with fish or vegetables), a spicy local red wine such as a Côte du Rhône Villages, Rasteau or Vacqueyras would make a great pairing. Or even a hearty Provençal rosé for a more summery touch.

Finally, where to find a good recette (recipe)? Whenever I make les petits farcis, I go straight to a good Provence source – a French cookbook called “Tians et petits farcis” by Andrée Maureau and published by Edisud. Sure enough, it’s an entire cookbook filled with marvelous recipes for Provence-styled gratins and stuffed dishes! She also did an English-version cookbook of Provence recipes, “Recipes from Provence,”  which has all the star southern French dishes including roasted, stuffed vegetables. I also adore another Edisud treasure I found at a French flea market called “La Tomate au Menu.” It has some great variations on the petits farcis theme.

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Despite its sometimes homely appearance, les farcis is one of my favorite French dishes winter or summer. It’s easy and reassuring from kitchen to table. And it brings a touch of Provence chez moi, wherever I am.

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In Provence kitchens, gratins and farcis are often cooked in colorful French pottery or stoneware casseroles for a festive touch. This vendor at the Aix-en-Provence outdoor market regularly has all sizes and colors for sale. The fluted, wavy edges are a signature feature of these fun earthenware pieces.

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To pick up a fluted Provence-style casserole closer to home for U.S. based French Affaires’ readers, BIA Cordon Bleu has these great red bakers on offer. The large rectangle version or the pair of smaller squares would make for good roasting and good presenting of les petits farcis. And for good gifts as well. Bon appétit!

 

Insider Paris Trip This October! Friday, Feb 6 2015 

“Paris Then & Now: An Insider Tour of the City of Light”

October 3 to 10, 2015

Join Dr. Elizabeth New Seitz of French Affaires for a stunning insider week in Paris. We’ll experience the City of Light as you’ve never done it before – taking in both old and new Paris with the help of several top experts, engaging local guides and charming Paris residents. We’ll enjoy special private tours and deeper visits to museums and cultural icons including the Louvre, the Orsay, the Marmottan, the Carnavalet, the Quai Branly, Versailles and more. We’ll see the spectacular new Fondation Louis Vuitton with its signature modern architecture by Frank Gehry. Noted Paris gardens and walks are part of our rich itinerary. And we’ll taste and dine our way around Paris with a special Marais food tour, great restaurants and expert presentation on current French culinary trends. Afternoon tea and a champagne cocktail party at private Paris homes will top off our fabulous French Affaires’ Paris sojourn. All in all, it will be an unforgettable week of French life, culture, history, art, architecture, cuisine, people and fun in Paris!

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A few highlights from our Paris Then & Now” trip…

Six nights at our beautiful Left Bank hotel including breakfast

Special guided tour of ancient and modern Paris with local expert

Deeper visits into key cultural icons including the Louvre, Orsay, Marmottan, Carnavalet & Quai Branly Museums

Versailles-Like-You’ve-Never-Seen-It with our amazing expert

Tour of the brand-new, ultra-contemporary Fondation Louis Vuitton

Afternoon tea and art talk with a current Parisian artist at her Paris home

Wonderful French lunches and dinners with wine at noted Paris restaurants

Special foodie tour of the Marais and French food trends talk by Paris culinary experts

Champagne cocktail party at the private home of Paris residents

Personal hosting and guiding by France expert Dr. Elizabeth New Seitz

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 A special note from Elizabeth: “Our wonderful week in Paris will be completely authentic and personal, as if we’re visiting French friends and family rather than making the typical tourist visit. This insider trip is so unique that it’s perfect for seasoned Paris visitors as well as first-timers to the City of Light. We have so many incredible activities lined up – and our group will be small (just 12 participants) to make the most of this marvelous opportunity to experience Paris in a whole new way!”

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Part of our trip includes a visit to the spectacular new Fondation Louis Vuitton which is the talk of Paris. We’ll see famous architect Frank Gehry’s fantastic architecture up close and get a feel for the best of very modern Paris…A big merci to French Affaires’ friend and reader Bill Carr for these fabulous Louis Vuitton Foundation photos!

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For the complete ”Paris Then & Now” itinerary and details, please email us at info.french@frenchaffaires.com.  We have a few signed up for this wonderful trip already and there are a few spots remaining. Merci et à bientôt!

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