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!

King’s Cakes in Paris Tuesday, Jan 6 2015 

Move over les bûches de Noël (yule log cakes), it’s time for les galettes des rois (king’s cakes). In France, the holiday sweets keep coming even after Christmas with Epiphanie, also known as la Fête des rois (Three Kings Day, or Feast of the Epiphany), and its signature galette des rois. You can’t miss Epiphany in Paris as just about every Parisian pâtisserie sports loads of these round, golden disks in its windows from December until January.

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It’s proof that the sacred continues to infuse French life and cuisine even if fewer people actually observe this holy day. According to the Bible, three kings or Magi came to pay homage to the baby Jesus and brought him gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Christmas carol “We Three Kings of Orient Are” recounts this journey. Today, the arrival of the Magi and the news of the birth of Jesus to the Gentiles is celebrated by Christians twelve days after Christmas on January 6. This beautiful panel of stained glass from the Basilica of St. Denis just north of Paris illustrates the Epiphany events…

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So what exactly is a galette des rois? In most parts of France, the galette is made of puff pastry filled with a delicious almond pastry cream called frangipane. The Provence version, however, is more like brioche, a rich egg bread, and is studded with candied fruits. What makes the cake and the religious feast eternally festive in France is the tradition of hiding a lucky charm, or fève (literally a “bean”) inside the cake. Even though many pastry chefs today use small porcelain figurines instead of a bean, family and friends still gather around the table as the cake is cut. And whoever receives the piece with the fève inside is king or queen for the day (or year) and wears the gold paper crown that accompanies the galette.

A few years ago, a friend and I went on a girls’ shopping trip to Paris in January. We decided to prepare our own Sunday-night dinner and so shopped at the nearby Boulevard Raspail morning market for provisions. As it was a casual supper, we bought soup that was prête à manger (ready to eat), une quiche aux poireaux (leek quiche), de la salade (lettuce) for a beautiful green salad with homemade vinaigrette, and some stunning brie au lait cru (raw milk brie) for our cheese course. And since it was fête des rois time, we noticed the bread and pastry vendor was selling les galettes des rois, both whole cakes and quarter portions. Perfect! We bought a quarter and took our market loot back to the Paris apartment where I was staying. After a thoroughly simple and satisfying meal, we cut the kings’ cake and in my one-eighth piece was an adorable porcelain magi kneeling with his gift for the infant Christ. What are the odds, I thought. And I was reine (queen) for the day in Paris!

Interestingly, les fèves have become quite collectible in recent years. I keep seeing flea market vendors all over France with huge tables of the porcelain charms for sale. Here are selections from some marchands de fèves (lucky charm vendors – what a job!) at the Aix-en-Provence and Isle-sur-la-Sorgue antique markets.

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If you’ve shopped around lately in Paris for a king’s cake, you have probably come across ‘mod’ versions at some hip Paris pastry shops. Ultra-cool French pastry chefs always like to put their particular take on traditional pastry offerings and galettes des rois are no exception. Citrus, pistachio, chocolate, pineapple, coconut and other exotic flavors are showing up in king’s cakes at fancy pâtisseries such as Fauchon, Pierre Hermé and others. Click here for a quick article from the French newspaper Le Figaro on this phenomenon.

Many of the big pastry shop names also offer a special collection or coffret de fèves each year that fans can collect. This year’s set from from Hugo & Victor features four monuments of Paris for 30 euros. And Fauchon has a limited edition of seven fèves 2015 for 60 euros – only 250 sets will be sold. (Be sure and click on the links for photos.) While these shiny new sets are tempting, it might be more fun – and memorable – to put together one’s own set by rummaging through the colorful piles of figures at the French flea markets.

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Bonne fête!

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

On the other hand, you can go fève-less for the fète des rois in America. If you’re looking to buy a French-style king’s cake in the U.S. this year, be aware that many pastry shops now are making the king’s cakes without the prize – see this article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. It seems that some American pastry shops are leaving out the fève or giving it to customers on the side in order to avoid any potential lawsuit due to choking on the charm. Sans blague (no joke). All the more reason then to celebrate Epiphanie in France!

French New Year’s Wishes Sunday, Dec 28 2014 

In France, the holidays, or les fêtes de fin d’année and also known as la période des fêtes (note that the expression “le temps des fêtes” is used in French-speaking Canada), are about family, friends and feasting – especially the feasting. This applies to le Réveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre (New Year’s Eve) in particular. French revelers commonly celebrate with un dîner de réveillon (New Year’s Eve dinner) complete with oysters, smoked salmon, foie gras, chestnuts, truffles, mushrooms, duck, capon and all manner of other French delicacies. (Click here for a previous posting on wonderful French holiday tastes.)

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A beautiful French table set for “un dîner de réveillon”

Of course, no dîner de réveillon would be complete without toasts and good wishes for le Nouvel An (the New Year). The most basic is “Bonne année!” (pronounced buh nah-nay), i.e. “Happy New Year!” Or one can get more elaborate with the following: “Que cette nouvelle année vous apporte bonheur, santé et réussite,” meaning “May this new year bring you happiness, health and success.” Quite nice, don’t you think? And with these good wishes comes lots of bisous – air-kissing family and friends on the cheek.

If you are in Paris for New Year’s, you could follow your dinner and toasts by going out on the town. You could join the crowds thronging the Champs-Elysées. Or you could head to the Eiffel Tower to watch the light show going off at midnight. Or you could enjoy a more laid-back street celebration up by Sacré Coeur in Montmartre. If you are out and about in Paris on New Year’s Eve, you’ll love that Paris transport – Métro, buses, RER – are free to the public again this year from 5pm on December 31st until noon on January 1st, with most of the transport network running full force until 2:15am. Or you could stay home and watch the French President François Hollande on television sending his meilleurs voeux 2015 (best wishes for 2015) to the citizens of France.

On the subject of French New Year’s wishes, it is interesting to note that the French typically send New Year’s cards rather than Christmas cards to their loved ones. Greetings for the New Year in this format are often a little more formal. Here are a few examples:

- Meilleurs voeux pour l’année 2015! (Best wishes for 2015!)

- Nous vous souhaitons une très bonne année 2015! (We wish you a very happy 2015!)

- Nous vous souhaitons une bonne et heureuse nouvelle année. (We wish you a good and happy new year.)

- Recevez nos meilleurs vœux de bonheur pour la nouvelle année. (Please accept our best wishes for a happy new year.)

- Je vous présente mes meilleurs vœux pour 2015. (I send you my best wishes for 2015.)

- Nous vous adressons nos meilleurs vœux pour 2015. (We send you our best wishes for 2015.)

- Que la nouvelle année vous apporte paix, santé et bonheur. (May the New Year bring you peace, health and happiness.)

- Paix, santé et bonheur pour vous et les vôtres! (Peace, health and happiness to you and yours!)

- Paix, amour, joie, prospérité, santé, bonheur… Que cette nouvelle année soit exceptionnelle! (Peace, love, joy, prosperity, health, happiness…May this New Year be exceptional!)

And then there is this lovely New Year’s wish I once received from a good French friend:

“Que cette nouvelle année déborde de bonheur, de paix et de prosperité.” (May this New Year overflow with happiness, peace and prosperity.)

On that note, I’d like to thank you for your support of French Affaires and wish you a wonderful 2015 full of all good things—and mais oui, full of things French!

Bonne année à toutes et à tous! (Happy New Year to all!)

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A previous version of this article appeared in December, 2011.

A French Winter Garden Sunday, Dec 8 2013 

With the winter storm currently blanketing the U.S., I was reminded of an extraordinary cold and misty December day my husband and I spent at the gardens of Eyrignac in southwest France four years ago. For this week’s post, I pulled the following article from the French Affaires’ archives describing this magical, though chilly winter adventure. Enjoy – and stay warm!

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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 on many levels.

The Sunday after Christmas, my husband and 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 renowned 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 we 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. We decided the 9,50 euros per person to get in was worth it to have the 4 hectare (10 acre) gardens to ourselves, cold or no cold.

The exquisite jardin français lies in front of the 17th century 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 old 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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Two pavillons flank the courtyard in front of the manor house. There is the romanesque chapel which is still consecrated and where all the family members have been baptized…

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And the former dovecote was a sign of nobility in olden times…

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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, the bases 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, we loved our ‘private visit’ to the jardins d’Eyrignac. We found it hauntingly beautiful on this winter’s day…and I think we will be spoiled when we 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.

This post originally appeared on January 8, 2010.