Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Weekend in Provence

  Not far from the city of Toulon, about an hour west of Nice,  a group of French ladies meets up every week to improve their English. Long story short, some of us here in Léran had them and, in some cases, their husbands here to stay with us for a weekend in March. Entente cordiale in action. A terrific opportunity for all of us to get to grips with the others' language.
   Now it was our turn.
    Setting off around 9:30 a.m., three carloads of us English speakers met up for a seafood lunch in Sète, a port town famed for its moules and oysters.
   My entrée--soupe de poissons with its classic accompaniments of toasted baguette, rouille (a fiery mayonnaise) and grated cheese. Perfumed with anis, the soup is made from tiny fish cooked together and pushed through a sieve. I've never been sure if there's a right way and wrong way to eat it but what I do is smear rouille on the toasts, sprinkle with cheese and float these little "boats" on the soup. Moules frites for the main course of course...
    Our meeting-place was an ancient olive grove..
 ...where our French hosts were waiting ready to pour tea or rosé and hand us small bouquets of lavender.
    Serious eating began a couple of hours later. Those two platters of fresh vegetables are for dipping in anchoïade--a Provençal spread that's heaven for serious anchovy-lovers.
    A pot-luck dinner out on the terrace...
  Here's Annick who, with her husband Jean-Claude, hosted us for the weekend.
    And here they are dancing under an olive tree.
Mandolin, accordion and guitar music took us into the wee hours.
 The view we woke up to the following morning. Only five hours from where we live but a dramatically different landscape. Olives, almonds and pomegranates all flourish locally.
 Off we set for a picnic at the beach. October, and our group had it to themselves.
 It was warm enough to sunbathe or swim. A perfect place for snoozing, skipping stones across the water, paddling...
    That evening we got together for dinner at a little restaurant called Le Pagnol, named I imagine after Marcel Pagnol (who wrote Jean de Florette, Manon des Sources, and practically every other book you've heard of that's set in Provence).
    Jean-Claude gave me his recipe for aioli--the garlicky "butter" of Provence. "How many cloves do you use?" I asked him. "Le maximum," he replied.
    We'd said our goodbyes to Jean-Claude the night before. He was off hiking early on Sunday morning. Annick drove us down the hill for un petit tour of their little village of Solliès-Toucas.
    Judging from this old postcard, it hasn't changed much over the years. Here's how it was back in the day...
   And here's what it looks like now.
   Off into the hills to fill our pockets with wild thyme (much stronger than any I'd smelled before) and these juniper berries. Annick says she adds them to her daubes. I'll do that this winter, their fragrance bringing back memories of that bright Sunday morning in Provence.

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