Thursday, October 12, 2006

Ancient Roman Ruins with Newlyweds

No, no, no...that is not the recipe for this week, my friends. But it would seem that I have recently been living a real-life version of The Newlywed Game. For the second time in a handful of weeks, I found myself in the company of another newly paired ensemble. Spending just a squeak over a week in Aix at an apartment offered to them by a mutual friend of ours, they landed into the sunshine of our lovely region from the damp and cooler climes of London. It was clear to me upon meeting them that they were looking forward with great enthusiasm to spending their “lune de miel” – or honeymoon – in Aix en Provence and exploring as much as they could in their first trip to France. Since the aforementioned “apartment” of our mutual friend is just around the corner from me, I had offered to be a built-in tour guide,
translator and "Welcome Wagon". I stepped into the role of “big sister” with pleasure. (Although, in a realization that was ever so humbling: I am old enough to be mother to either of them!) They were quite charming – together and individually.

It was delightful to watch their responses as they discovered the nooks and crannies of Provence. Seeing familiar places and things through their eyes reminded me of what it was like to feel my heart tugged for the first time by this place.

So it was with delightful anticipation that I shared with them one of my favorite “mini-tours” of a nearby area: St. Rémy de Provence. Our newlyweds were definitely up for the adventure and the drive from Aix to St. Rémy on this Saturday morning was just cool enough to hint that autumn is really on its way, but splashed with enough golden sunshine to remind me how special it is to be in this land that seduced countless artists and soulful dreamers for centuries.

Taking a left turn just upon approaching the ancient Roman ruins of Glanum, we passed through the grounds of the asylum in which Van Gogh spent the final year of his life. Following the road past the olive groves, we arrived at our first destination: Le Mas de la Pyramide.

Le Mas de la Pyramide is an ancient Provençal farm with a troglodyte dwelling built into the side of a mountain that has served as the farmhouse for the estate for centuries. Originally, the farm was as an ancient Roman quarry, from which the stones were cut and carried to construct the nearby Roman structures in Glanum and on to what is now Arles and Avignon and some of the other surrounding towns and villages.

Cutting into the stone in such a way as to leave a 20-meter high limestone monolith in the middle of the field, the quarrymen called this “La Pyramide”. It was left as a way of measuring the depth and breadth of stone that had been excavated from the quarry. Standing in the field, I could just imagine the activity that had passed over this ground in the centuries that had come before. The ancient well, mid-way between the farmhouse and the edge of the quarry, must have served workers and dwellers alike. Today, the last remaining heir of the family who has owned this farm and cave-like dwelling for generations and generations (it is rumored that there is a document signed by Louis XIV in a drawer in the dining room), “Lolo”, as he is affectionately called, manages the estate and its agricultural museum. He also offers an extraordinary slice of “the real Provence” as he whips up a luncheon daily for visitors. An important local personality, he is a force to be reckoned with. At 80+ years young, he is a gracious host, chef, and, if he’s had a bit of wine with lunch (and likes the crowd), he may even break into an operatic selection for a bit of entertainment as the afternoon wanes.

I often take guests here for the experience as it is one of those “typically Provençal” kinds of things that are not easy to come by when you are visiting just around the edges with limited time.

Intrigued by the short walk down a narrow wooded path, our couple caught their collective breath (I suppose that breath really is rather “collective” in those early days of marriage!) as the path opened into a brilliant field of cherry trees and lavender to the left. A few steps further brought into view the troglodyte farmhouse under a canopy of ancient leafy trees shading solid stone tables on the terrace. Indeed, no matter how many times I have visited this spot, I experience a sense of wonder at stepping into a bygone time. Nothing fancy, this. And perhaps that is part of the magic. From the potato chips to accompany the aperitifs to the cartoon glasses used for wine and water at the lunch tables, the simplicity of the presentation allows one to really take in the “gestalt” of the experience. And on this lovely afternoon, we all took a metaphorical “dive into the deep end” of Provence.

After aperitifs of our local pastis and wandering around the ancient Roman quarry and farmhouse, we sat down at a table, gently warmed by the mid-day sunshine, which danced off the cave wall that curved around us, to share a rustic provençal aïoli. A garlicky mayonnaise served with salt cod, steamed vegetables and hard-boiled eggs, this was special fare for the occasion. (Monsieur Mauron often pulls out platters of roasted lamb, accompanied by ratatouille or provençal white beans and an herbed or olive-filled omelet as the main course.) But today we would be joining a small group of friends he was entertaining and he included us in the day’s meal.

Before we tucked into the aïoli, we were served caillette (a rustic pâté made of pork, greens and herbs) and slices of andouillette (which is not sausage – I would quickly learn!) as a first course.

When the aïoli arrived, we plated up (family style) fragrant steamed potatoes, cauliflower, carrots and salt cod to dip into the creamy, garlicky sauce. A basket of hard-boiled eggs rounded out what is the standard combination for this dish, which is a typical representation of the bounty and style of cuisine that is Provence.

As usual, this was followed by a selection of cheeses and bread, topped off with a basket of ripe, juicy pears – a sure sign of autumn.

I was reminded over and over of my own delight and enchantment when I first visited La Pyramide as I watched the newlyweds explore the experience with all of their senses. And what a special pleasure to be seeing it through their eyes – it was all new, it was all a source of wonder to them.

As we wrapped up our day here and headed onto explore St. Rémy, we made the round of goodbyes to our lunch-mates, and for the first time in all of my trips to this special place, as I extended my hand to “Lolo” for a parting American hand-shake to express my thanks, he shook his head and promptly gave me the familiar “three kisses” (when I pulled back at two, he admonished me that in Provence it was always three...the appropriate number is still a mystery to me!) cheek to cheek to cheek. I must say, it’s really starting to feel like “home” around here.

We made the short trip from the edges of St. Rémy de Provence into the village to make a stop at O & Co. for a bit of olive oil and vinegar tasting and then on to Joel Durand, chocolatier (see the link to the right) before heading back out on the road.

As we took our seats at the tasting counter at O & Co., our charming tasting guide (who had been speaking French up to this point) clapped her hands together as she reviewed the line up of olive oils and began our tasting with a playful, “Okey-dokey!” in very clear American English. (Things like this still take me by surprise and I would later learn that her father is a restaurateur in Los fact, Santa Monica...not far from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and she has spent a fair amount of time in my old stomping ground of Southern California!)

We tasted grassy to earthy olive oils (and a truffle oil that had my name all over it...and came home with me, in fact!) and rich fruity artisanal vinegars that were dessert all by themselves.

It was on to Joel Durand for a bit of a chocolate “fix” (and for me, to see if Monsieur Durand was anywhere to be handsome, that man!) Even when he is nowhere to be found, as was the case on this day, his extraordinary chocolates, lettered in gold corresponding to any one of a number of eclectic fillings, are a real treat. For example, E: “Earl Gray” with Earl Gray white tips, G: “Guyana” with nutmeg, cinnamon, sun-dried Bourbon vanilla and fresh lemon get the idea! Our Monsieur Durand is way more than just another pretty face! This man gets chocolate!

Back on the road to Aix after a day of adventure, we managed to squeeze in a couple of stops for a bit of wine-tasting to round out the trip and returned to town as the final rays of sunshine were washing the old tile roofs in shades of apricot.

A good time was had by all, I must say...and each of us carried from that experience something special. For me, it was the experience of being touched by the wonder that these two souls brought into their exploration. I would wish for them, at the beginning of their life together, (I suspect they are reading this because they want the recipe for Aioli!) that they continue to stay in touch with that sense of wonder as they grow together through the years. And I wish them many, many happy years...of wonder.

Felicitations, A. and B. - it was truly a pleasure.

(The following recipe for preparing the vegetables is adapted from Williams-Sonoma Savoring Provence. The recipe for the aioli is from Patricia Wells’ At Home in Provence.)

Bon Appétit!


Le Grand Aïoli

2lb. Salt cod fillet

8 cups water
1 large carrot, peeled and sliced
1 leek, including green top, split lengthwise
1 yellow onion, studded with 2 cloves
2 cloves garlic
1 small celery stalk
1 small fennel stalk
bouquet garni

20 small boiling potatoes, preferably yellow fleshed
2 bunches baby carrots, peeled
8 small zucchini, trimmed and quartered lengthwise
1 lb. baby green beans, trimmed
1 large cauliflower, cut into florets
8-10 hard-boiled eggs, peeled

Begin preparing the salt cod at least 2 days in advance of serving. (To skip the salt cod prep, I have had this on separate occasions with a fresh white fish, one time poached, another grilled.) Place in a large bowl, add water to cover generously, cover, and refrigerate for at least 24 hours or preferably 48 hours, changing the water at least 5 times during that period.

The day of serving, make the stock: In a large saucepan, combine the water, carrot, leek, onion, garlic, and bouquet garni. Bring slowly to a boil over medium-high heat. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer gently for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat, strain through a fine-mesh sieve, and return to the saucepan. Set aside to cool.

The potatoes, carrots, zucchini, green beans and cauliflower must be cooked separately in boiling salted water. Place in the salted water, bring to a boil, and cook, uncovered, just until tender, according to the following timings: potatoes, 20-25 minutes; carrots, about 12 minutes; zucchini, about 5 minutes; green beans, 4-5 minutes; and cauliflower, 3-4 minutes. Drain the vegetables. Peel the skins off the beets. Put all the vegetables on 1 or more platters and set aside.

Drain the salt cod (if using), transfer to a saucepan, add cold water to cover, and place over medium heat. Bring slowly to just under a boil and simmer, uncovered, until tender, 8-10 minutes. Drain and keep warm.

While you are cooking the cod, reheat all the vegetables, in the stock, heating only one type at a time. Each batch should take just 3-4 minutes.

Arrange the cod, vegetables and eggs in separate piles on large platters and serve immediately with the aioli*.

Serves 6-8

6 plump, fresh cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
1/2 teaspoon of fine sea salt
2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
1 cup of extra-virgin olive oil

Pour boiling water into a large mortar to warm it; discard the water and dry the mortar. Place the garlic and salt in the mortar and mash together with a pestle to form as smooth a paste as possible. The fresher the garlic, the easier it will be to crush.

Add the egg yolks. Stir, pressing slowly and evenly with the pestle, always in the same direction, to thoroughly blend the garlic and yolks. Continue stirring and gradually add just a few drops of the oil. Whisk until thoroughly incorporated. Do not add too much oil in the beginning, or the mixture will not emulsify. As soon as the mixture begins to thicken, add the remaining oil in a slow, steady stream, whisking constantly. Taste for seasoning. Transfer to a bowl and serve immediately. The sauce can be refrigerated, well sealed, for up to 2 days. To serve, bring to room temperature and stir once again.

About 1 cup of sauce


A&B Boski said...

We will never forget that visit - thanks to YOU!!!
Thank you for the recipe for Aioli, we will try it this weekend as we have friends visiting us here in London.
A & B

la fourchette said...

Mr. and Mrs. Boski, it was a pleasure. I have a feeling you'll be back...this place can really take hold of one's soul...and besides, there are many more secret little places around here to share with you!

(How was the aïoli?!)


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