Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Last Time I Saw Richard

A serendipitous click can send you to some interesting places. In this case, my friend, W., ended up here. Immediately he recognized the spot as Richard Olney’s cave in Souliés-Toucas, near Toulon, where he had been sent on numerous occasions to retrieve a bottle of wine for one of the many pleasant meals shared together at Richard’s home. The email in my inbox entitled Wine Never Drunk spoke of an immediate recognition of the cave and a touching reflection on a past connection with someone I had only known through the pages of my Provence: The Beautiful Cookbook. As I read W.’s message, there was a bit of life being breathed into the pages of my cookbook connection. Then he mentioned the extensive wine collection in that cave: two or three cases of Romanée Conti that Richard had received from their estate after he published a book about the legendary wine as well as several cases of Château d’Yquem, part of a tribute he received annually for the book d’Yquem.

So I began reading Mr. Olney’s Romanée Conti. As I sat in a café in Aix sipping hot chocolate, he may as well have been speaking to me from across the table. History was coming alive with precision and humor and my curiosity really began to poke at me. Following my muse, I wanted to learn more about this fellow. I wanted to know this Mr. Olney.

Perhaps I could relate to him because he was a longtime Francophile...or because he left the US and headed to France to pursue creative interests...or because he believed that "food and wine must be an essential aspect of the whole life, in which the sensuous - sensual - spiritual elements are so intimately interwoven that the incomplete exploitation of any one can only result in imperfection." (How’s that for summing up the Holy Grail for a foodie?!) In fact, he was so seduced by French food and wines that he abandoned his painting to take up a career of writing about the stuff, always intending to get back to painting...after the next book...or perhaps the next great meal.

How could I have missed this guy?! He was at the root of California Cuisine. Alice Waters was one of his disciples, for goodness sakes! I wanted to know more. And I knew exactly where to go: Chez N. and W!

W., a Harvard economist, California Boy (Long Beach) bodysurfer and lifelong Francophile who first came to France in the early 50’s working for the Marshall Plan in Paris and his wife, N., a Minnesota Girl, have enthusiastically co-created quite an adventure through their years together. Serious gourmet souls, these two have plenty of delightful stories to illustrate their culinary explorations. (In fact, when I learned that while writing her dissertation in Social Psychology, N. would reward herself for work goals completed with a 30-minute segment of Julia Child’s cooking program, I knew we were going to be friends!)

Theirs is a remarkable story in many ways, for their romance, their travels and their shared love of France brought them here years ago to make a life. They used their innate curiosity to continue their academic research and to make connections with very interesting people along the way. One of them was Richard Olney.

N. had told me of the "Little Red Riding Hood Dinners" that they would deliver with a knock on the door chez Richard Olney in the years before he died. I can only imagine the stories shared over those times together.

That muse of mine had me planning a “Little Red Riding Hood Dinner” of my own to take chez N. and W. to find out more about Mr. Olney...fill in some blanks and do a bit of catching up. I had clearly missed something in simply preparing recipes from his book without reading between the lines...or even reading the lines that are there with more attention.

The wine had to be something close to a Romanée Conti, I had decided. But that being waaaaay outside of my budget, I went with a shared recommendation from a couple of trusted wine consultants and ended up with another Burgundy: a 1998 Vosne Romanée, Premier Cru – Les Gaudichots, which is from a vineyard that is apparently just next to the fabled Romanée Conti...okay...so we were close! And the aforementioned wine consultant that owns my local cave (wine store), whether by simply being a really nice soul or being caught up in the whimsy of my plan for this wine (or due to the fact that my muse could be seen whispering in his ear as he emerged from the cave with the bottle of 1998 instead of the 2003 that he thought he had tucked away), he gave me a very, very good deal on it.

Relaxing over aperitifs, I began to learn more about this Ex-pat/Food Writer/Artist including the fact that he didn’t drive...that after studying painting at the University of Iowa, he trained at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, then headed for Paris to continue his artistic development...and that once in Paris, he counted the American author James Baldwin and the American economist Mary Painter (married to Georges Garin, noted to be one of the best chefs in France) as close friends...in fact, somewhere there are portraits of each of them painted by Olney.

Along with cooking, writing and painting, he raised exotic birds at his small cottage in the village of Souliés-Toucas, not far from here. Rooms were added to his little abode over the years to accommodate visiting family and friends. In fair weather, meals were outdoors under the lavender-blue Provençal skies, surrounded by olive trees...and in summer, the hum of cigales, no doubt.

Known to have a rather “prickly” personality, he warmly welcomed N. and W. and never once said a critical word for any of N.’s cooking. (Although I can safely say that there would be no reason to be critical about her cooking...but imagine: cooking for Richard Olney!)

Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse, the Edible Schoolyard Program and a significant influence in the Slow Food movement, considered Mr. Olney to be one of her mentors and in fact, met another fine artist in his kitchen: Elizabeth David. (It is said that they lingered for hours together over a lunch of truffles.)

According to the New York Times, Mr. Olney once spoke of working toward "a sort of convergence of all the senses, an awareness of food not only through touching but also through smelling, hearing, seeing and tasting." Yup...this was my kind of guy. (I'm thinking 9 1/2 Weeks...or Big Night.) He was onto something here.

And to top it off, his first meal in Paris reminds me of my own: it was all about the potatoes! His was taken at "a glum little dining room" in the Sixth Arrondissement. He recalled years later that the potatoes were the best he had ever eaten, “pushed through a sieve, buttered and moistened with enough of their hot cooking water to bring them to a supple, not quite pour-able consistency -- no milk, no cream, no beating. I had never dreamed of mashing potatoes without milk, and, in Iowa, everyone believed that the more you beat them, the better they were." (New York Times, August 4, 1999) This is someone who spoke my language...(and I'm not talkin' about French!)

He had always hoped to stop writing and get back to his painting. In fact, he had built a studio at his home – an indication of his intent.

And so, it was over a few grilled sausages fresh from the marché, a batch of those Paris Potatoes, (Mouseline au Gratin from Mr. Olney’s Provence the Beautiful) and a mâche salad, we poured that lovely burgundy and I learned about this fellow...this Richard Olney. I would have liked to have known him. Given what I've read about him, we might have actually gotten on well. You never know...I can see the potential.

On a summer evening in 1999 he died in his sleep...dreaming, perhaps, of a painting project...or another book...dreaming, perhaps, of the best potatoes he had ever had...

...or perhaps...something with a bit more spice.

Bon Appétit,

(Many thanks to N. and W. for indulging my curiosity...and my muse! What a lovely evening.)

Mouseline au Gratin (Gratin of Mashed Potatoes and Garlic with Cheese)
Richard Olney in Provence: The Beautiful Cookbook

In his words: A perfect accompaniment to grilled sausages of any kind – andouillettes, blood sausages (black pudding), link sausages.

In my words: I am intrepid when it comes to trying new recipes on company! Sometimes it works...sometimes it needs work. This will be delicious...next time!

It needs a bit more salt than I gave it and I think my idea of “not quite pour-able” and Mr. Olney’s idea of “not quite pour-able” are just a bit different...mine needed some extra baking time...so just a word of caution on the points that tend to call for a bit of your “cook’s intuition”.

2 lb. potatoes, peeled and quartered
8 cloves of garlic
boiling water as needed
4 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
3 eggs
freshly ground pepper
whole nutmeg

Preheat an oven to 400ºF. Combine the potatoes and garlic in a saucepan. Add a pinch of salt and enough boiling water just to cover. Cover and cook at a gentle boil until the potatoes are just done, about 30 minutes.

Drain, saving the cooking water, and pass the potatoes and garlic through a fine-mesh sieve with the help of a wooden pestle. Using a wooden spoon, stir in enough of the cooking water to form a loose, not quite pour-able purée.

Smear a 6 cup gratin dish with olive oil. In a small bowl combine 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, half of the cheese, the eggs and a little of the cooking water. Grind over some pepper, scrape in some nutmeg and whisk together.

Stir the oil mixture into the sieved potatoes. Pour into the gratin dish, sprinkle with the remaining cheese and dribble with the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil.

Place in the oven and bake until swelled and golden, 15 to 20 minutes. Serve hot.

Serves 4-6

Friday, November 23, 2007

Not "Turkey Surprise" Again

You thought it was going to be some clever little “provençal” twist on what to do with turkey leftovers, huh? Surprise! Although I did have a lovely Thanksgiving dinner with friends old and new...American, British and French. We had all of the traditional trimmings for the beautiful turkey that was the star of the table, but I’ll leave it to them (and you) to figure out what to do with the leftovers. Mine will be going into a sandwich (mmmmmm!) In fact, this post is to celebrate another event: Bodhi’s first birthday!

There was to be no romp in the park nor play date with his sister, Biscuit, as rain continued to pound our soggy little corner of France for the third day in a row. Not a lot of complaining is being heard from anyone that I know as we really need this drenching, but it did make for a bit of a quiet birthday celebration this first go-round. No party hats, striped horns, Pin-The-Tail-On-The-Cat, barking contests, obstacle course or leather chew party favors...none of the stuff that might have otherwise been a part of a sun-filled dog birthday party chez La Fourchette. No, aside from a new red collar and the addition of some shredded carrots to his breakfast (he loves carrots), all he received was a stash of homemade dog biscuits. Tasty even for his dog “muther”, he seems even more eager than usual to respond to commands...okay...honestly, he is more eager than usual to respond to some commands...we’re still working on the others...but he’s only 1...or is that 7?!...he’s cute, give him a break!

I’ll spare you the details of his precious antics, his clown-like personality and his remarkable intelligence and simply cut to the chase: those dog biscuits.

These little packages went out to all of his friends: Ginger, Oscar, and Biscuit to name a few...but there are plenty more for when we get back to the park and meet up with Schubert, Maeve and Amarosa when the sun comes out again.

Healthy and tasty, not exactly salty, not exactly sweet...they have a graham cracker-like texture but a bit more dense. Frankly, I thought they were very tasty and I’m walking on two legs! (Well, most of the time!) There is a little fresh “zing” that results from the parsley-mint blend that is surprisingly good. I would never think of pulling a few of his salmon biscuits out of the box to stave off some sort of craving...nor would I think of offering them to guests as an nibble accompanying aperitifs. But these...now that’s a different story...pour quoi pas?! (Why not?)

Got a pup? Give these a try!

Got a small dinner party coming up and looking for something that will be tasty and interesting without spoiling dinner? Again I say: Pour quoi pas?!

I won’t tell if you won’t!

Bon Appétit!

Bodhi’s Birthday Biscuits

Inspired by some recipe or other that I gleaned from some obscure place when looking for recipes for home-cooking for your dog...before my vet told me that trying to feed my dog daily with homemade cuisine would make me a slave to him.(She probably should have said “more of a slave to him”.) So I skipped the daily cuisine thing...and go figure, I became a slave anyway...but I think it’s working for both of us!

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups whole-wheat flour
1 1/4 cups cornmeal
1 1/4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1/2 cup toasted wheat germ
1/2 cup packed raw sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon pieces
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon water
1/2 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
1 large egg

Special equipment: a dog-biscuit cookie cutter, available here. (And they ship internationally!)

In a food processor, pulse flours, cornmeal, oats, wheat germ, brown sugar, baking powder, and salt until combined. Add butter and pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal with pea-size butter lumps. Add 1 cup water and pulse until a coarse, dense dough forms.

Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead in parsley and mint until well distributed. Cut the dough into half. Form each half into a balls and flatten each into a 6-inch disk.

Put oven racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat oven to 350°F. Grease 2 large baking sheets.

Roll out 1 disk of dough into a round (1/3 inch thick) on a well-floured surface with a well-floured rolling pin. (If dough becomes too soft to roll out, wrap in plastic and chill until firm.) Cut out as many biscuits as possible and arrange about 1/4 inch apart on 1 baking sheet.

Gather scraps and reroll, then cut out more biscuits. Repeat with remaining dough, using other baking sheet.

Whisk together egg and 1 tablespoon water. Brush biscuits with egg wash and bake, switching position of sheets halfway through, until tops are golden brown, about 35 minutes total. Turn off oven and dry biscuits in oven overnight.

Note: Layered between sheets of wax paper or parchment, biscuits will keep in an airtight container at room temperature 1 month...unless you happen to need a quick “cracker” for guests one night.

Makes about 5 dozen biscuits.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Errr...Did I Mention...?

...that it snows here in the south of France sometimes?!

After a bitterly cold morning - the kind that makes me say "oumphhh" aloud as I walk around town checking things off of my list of errands - snow began to fall early this afternoon.

Actually, I'm quite proud of myself to have recognized it this time! In my early days here in 2004, after a lovely autumn that had me thinking that I had made a very good decision, winter arrived...one night!

I was new at this idea of "seasons" and had only spent time in snow for playing on ski slopes and suchlike so I simply did not recognize the little white flakes that fell on my black coat as I stepped out the door to go to the post. That is to say, I apparently had no clue that people actually lived regular lives in the stuff! It's so "California Girl" of me (and I do not necessarily mean that in the best of ways) to go into a state of confusion as white stuff is falling out of the sky...and yet I'm not piling on layers of silk and fashionable waterproof clothing and clipping a ski onto each foot!

It doesn't happen often in these parts, but I'm pleased to say that I'm much better at it now. This time, instead of spinning into confusion, I grabbed my camera...and threw a tart in the oven. Yup, I think I'm getting the hang of this "seasons" thing.

Bon Appétit!

Oh! And what timing: the heat/hot water began last night as a result of the heating technician agreeing to come to the building 2 or 3 times a day to flip the switch manually until that pesky little part arrives to make the necessary repairs. Whew!

Spinach Smoked Salmon Tart
(Adapted from Bon Appétit)

1 puff pastry pie shell

1 tablespoon, 1/2 butter and 1/2 olive oil
1 large shallot, chopped
4 big handfuls of fresh spinach, rinsed and drained
3/4 cup of shredded emanthal cheese
1 large slice of smoked salmon

4 eggs
1/2 cup lowfat crème fraiche
salt and pepper to taste
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon dried dillweed

Melt butter and olive oil in heavy medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add shallot and sauté until translucent, about 8 minutes. Add spinach and stir until spinach is dry, about 3 minutes. Cool slightly.

Preheat oven to 375°F. Pre-bake pie shell for 8-10 minutes. Remove and let cool slightly. Sprinkle cheese over bottom of crust. Place salmon (torn into portion-sized pieces) in a layer over the cheese. Top with spinach mixture.

Beat eggs, crème fraiche, salt, pepper, nutmeg and dillweed in large bowl to blend. Pour over spinach. Bake until filling is set, about 40 minutes. Cool slightly. Cut into wedges and serve.

Serves 6.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This…

Part I - Breaking Bread With Friends, Old and New

With a bit of advanced planning, a drive through the Provençal countryside gave my California friends a chance to take in our colors of the season as we traveled together to meet these friends and then over to meet these friends on a crisp autumn day last week.

A walk through the quiet oak woods and sleeping lavender fields that surround the perched village of Grignan gave my visiting friends a chance to experience a bit of “My Private Provence.”

On the way back from exploring the most recent phases of a family farmhouse’s “green” renovation and a peek at some ancient bories on the property, we wandered past the promising truffle beds...

...returning chez Famille F. to take part in a very special lunch.

A winter salad of fresh celery dressed with a salty anchoïade (anchovy dressing) started things off.

A lovely bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape was opened as the lid was lifted off of a delicious pot of Civet du Lièvre or hare stewed in red wine and herbs. (A hunter-friend’s gift, the hare had been offered fresh from the hunt to my friends who shared this special dish with us.) Marinated for a day then cooked slowly for another couple of days, the result is a rich, wine-y stew - the color of a good molé to my southwestern trained eye.

It was paired perfectly with a belly-warming pot of Aligot, a rich potato dish from the southwestern region of France. We happily feasted, not at all shy to dig in for generous second helpings. Having washed down the rest of that Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a selected Côtes du Rhone was opened to accompany the cheese course - which proved to be another lovely match.

A tarte au citron brought our special meal to a close and a shot of espresso sent us off after we had added our warm American hugs to the exchange of three kisses (typical in this region of the Drôme).

In under an hour, we were in the middle of the vineyards of Rouge-Bleu where we tasted a bit of the promise of things to come from this newly launched winery.

The pleasure of tasting out of the barrels and watching the golden light envelope the creative couple at the heart of this farmhouse/vineyard project was just the thing to round out this exceptional day. During the few moments shared with the wine-maker and his author-wife, we enjoyed a few laughs about life as it unfolds when one takes a leap into an unknown, but compelling, dream...something I suspect each of us knows a little bit about. Before we knew it, the afternoon had slid into sunset and the return trip to Aix was made as night fell.

It’s something special to share friends. It’s all the more special when those connections shrink distances between continents. And in the end, it really comes down to the joy of breaking bread together, non?

Part II - ...There’d Be Days Like This, Mama Said...

After a day such as this, there can be a bit of an afterglow. And so it was chez La Fourchette. A couple of hours after returning home, while still enjoying that afterglow, I discovered that I had no hot water...and no heat. Hmmmmm...alrighty then...it was late and couldn’t be dealt with ‘til morning so I tucked myself in and gave it the old Scarlett O’Hara Approach: “I’ll deal with that tomorrow.”

The next morning, bundled in layers of sweaters and scarves, I pried my fingers from around my coffee cup to call “l’agence” (the French rental agency) to see what they knew about the problem. But...there was no dial tone. It was soon all too clear that this was also the moment in time that my old telephone carrier had been terminated to allow for the transition of a new carrier so that I could save money on phone/internet/television connections. I believe this would be called a case of unfortunate timing...in any language.

Once contact was made with l'agence on my portable telephone, I waited for a response. Lacking a timely response, I trusted that it was fairly self-evident that heat and hot water for paying residents would be a top priority so I went about my day. And of all days, this one was packed with patients to make up for the time I had taken to be away on Tuesday.

To illustrate just how ridiculous and circus-like the situation became at one point, there was a moment of critical mass when a new patient arrived a few minutes early in the midst of me using that tiny window of time to try to sic a French friend (with a clear, firm manner and a lovely deep voice that sounds as though he means business when he makes a point) on l’agence to see if I could get some water boiling...figuratively and literally...as it appeared that no one was in any hurry to take care of the problem. At the same moment, a deliveryman appeared with a large box of equipment for the new telephone set up. You’re getting the picture?! I could only laugh...but that was when I still had it in me to laugh. (A side note here: I should have a dial tone sometime on Thursday of this week...and that’s the good news!)

A couple of clients later, the buzzer for the front door of the building sounded again and I grabbed Bodhi in preparation to receive someone coming to my door. When I opened the door, standing on the threshold was the manager from l’agence, my French friend and some guy with a big black dog who was trying to convince these two fellows to let him in to get to me as he is hearing a dog barking for the greater part of each day and he’s had enough. Bodhi, with a fear of big, black dogs, began barking, as the black dog's owner was becoming increasingly aggressive. Over the fray, I tried to explain that it was not my dog that he hears. (And believe me, it’s tough to be convincing about that when the dog you are defending is doing his best imitation of an irritating barking dog!) But in fact, it is the dog upstairs that cries for the better part of the day...which also happens to be the dog whose droppings get swept onto my courtyard (and dining table!) from an owner upstairs who clearly has no sense of the fact that there are others in the world around her. Fortunately, the gentlemen were successful in sending the complaining man and his black dog away before he could find his way any closer to me and the discussions turned to the real problem at hand.

Within a couple of minutes, the fellow from l'agence had made it clear that the several inches of standing water in the cave (the basement of the building in which each apartment has a locked storage unit)...in fact, the same standing water that I had complained about to l’agence a couple of months ago...had risen to the point that it had shut down the heating unit and water heater.

“There's a problem with the pump,” the manager explained, punctuating his declaration with the French Shrug.

“Yes, I know. There was a problem with the pump two months ago,” I said not even trying to fake an American smile. The pump happens to be in the locked storage unit of the woman who has the aforementioned barking dog and the habit of sweeping the unwanted contents of her neglected dog onto my courtyard.

“I work in the restaurant business and I’m not home very much,” she stated when she was asked for entry into her storage unit so the necessary work could be done. When it was suggested that she leave her key with either l’agence or a neighbor, she replied, “But my stuff is in there!” and punctuated it with...a French Shrug.

Wanting to be helpful in any way possible and since I was standing right there, I offered to hold her key and stay with anyone working in her unit if she would feel better that way. No verbal response was necessary as, with lips pursed, she shot me a look that conveyed her determination to immediately end any and all conversation with someone who had clearly lost her mind. With that, she turned her back, climbed the stairs out of the cave, and made it clear that she was finished with all of us. (I can’t wait for that discussion when I ask her to stop tossing her dog’s messes onto my courtyard! Just imagine how well that will go!)

One by one, the residents of the building were informed of the now serious problem and reassured that it would be taken care of "as soon as possible"..."maybe three days” predicted a posted letter on the wall next to the letterboxes.

A few days later, a new letter was placed in everyone’s letterbox which very politely explained that the problem was an unfortunate inconvenience and “what a shame” that this has happened and if there had been anything damaged in our storage units due to the waters rising, we could contact our insurance companies. The letter continued to state that the problem rests with the city and not l'agence and all should be up and functioning sometime on...Saturday.

But Saturday’s sun rose and set...and nothing was functioning.

Then it was Sunday...and the only number available was the closed office of l’agence.

Now Monday, as of this writing, the building is still without heat and hot water and the only thing that seems to be different from last week is that there are now a lot of very cold, very angry (some less showered than others) residents.

You never realize how much you rely on hot water to make a life really livable until you lose it. And I was lucky! I had the chance to walk around the corner to take a hot bath in my old apartment. (Thanks, Guys!) You know you’re up to your neck in challenges when bundling up to walk a couple of blocks in the biting cold wind of a Mistral, stepping into a cold and empty apartment, slipping into a hot bath, re-bundling up and taking that warmth back outside into the biting cold to get home, is the highlight of your day! I was one of the lucky ones and I knew it. Talk about counting your blessings...I can’t always see them steadily as one cold day wears on into the next, but that little blessing is a shining star on my List of Things For Which I Am Grateful. That, and the offer for Bodhi to have a warm bath at his sister’s house! (Merci, C...and for the hot chocolate!) We may not be warm but we’re clean!

(And were it not for N. and W. and their offer for the electric radiator from their own salon, we might otherwise have been found clean but frozen solid early in the adventure! Merci to both of you, too!)

For now, I’ll be drinking plenty of hot chocolate...and making a pot of Aligot to warm me up and be reminded of that lovely time spent with friends. As winter pushes autumn aside, this is a good dish to keep in mind for cold nights...which will hopefully be heating up in my little corner any day now...but then again, who knows?! (Insert my new talent for a French Shrug here.)

On second thought, maybe I’ll just crank up a little bit of The Shirelles and dance myself warm.

Hit it! “...there’d be days like this, my mama saaaid...”

Bon Appétit!

L’Aligot (From French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David)

2 lbs. floury potatoes
10 oz. cheese (preferably a soft white unfermented tomme de Cantal or a mild cheese which melts easily.)
2 oz. butter
4-5 oz. cream

Cook the potatoes in their skins, peel and sieve them to a dry purée, and add seasoning. Heat the butter and cream in a heavy pan, put in the purée, stir until hot and amalgamated, add a very little crushed garlic, then the cheese, cut into small squares, all at once, and stir until it is all melted and quite smooth. Serve quickly before the mixture starts getting grainy.

(I think I can speak for all of the American palates around that hospitable French table, it was good even as it cooled!)

Monday, November 05, 2007

A Tart By Any Other Name

In the film Waitress, Keri Russell’s character, Jenna, names her elaborate pie creations in relation to her current life experiences. I found names like “I-Hate-My-Husband Pie” or “Naughty Pumpkin Pie” (you figure it out!) quite charming.

I’ve been having a love affair with pies that seems to endure the test of time, place and form. I began with the pies of my childhood, which evolved into the quiches of the 80’s (when we were wearing t-shirts with shoulder pads) and I now call the country of tarts “home”...and call my pies “tarts”!

I am often asked how it is that I came to live in Aix en Provence and I always begin, “It was not my intention to be in Aix...I was going to Nice!”

It’s the California Girl in me that wanted to be near the sea. Not to mention that I was more familiar with Nice as it had been my “base camp” when I was traveling here shooting for Façonnable. In an experience that one might liken to nothing short of an harmonic convergence, all of the necessary pieces fell into place at just the right time. What’s more, thanks to the kindness of friends and the unexpected availability of their apartment in a little village outside of Aix, I even had a nest in which to land when I arrived. It was to be just a place to touch down as I made my way to Nice.

Skipping over a few of the details here as they are worthy of another blog (or book!), it will suffice to say that I met a fellow...in Nice. Cool! Not only did I enjoy having someone to share a city that I loved, it didn’t hurt to have someone familiar with French real estate offices and connections as I searched for an apartment. (Not to mention cushioning the inevitable culture shock.)

Together we attended concerts and various soirées with his friends. We strolled along the sea...

...through the marché on cours Saleya...

...walked along the port...

...and explored the shadowy corners of the old part of town.

While were having a great time in that sweet “getting to know you” phase of the early days of dating, he discovered my love of cooking. So one weekend I decided to cook lunch for him. With a carefully planned luncheon fare, I could give him a suitable sample of my talents in the kitchen and keep it simple for transport.

I stepped off of the train in Nice with a basket of essentials, menu in hand, ready to cook for my new friend. In keeping with my long-standing “other affair”, I had decided that it would be a tart with a side salad of fresh baby greens, tossed with a few pine nuts and a balsamic vinaigrette. Simple, tasty. "No over-the-top kind of antics in the kitchen this first time," I told myself. I had nothing to prove...it was just to have a little fun and add a new dimension to this unfolding relationship.

Our walk from the train station to his apartment in the Musician’s Quarter of Nice reflected our growing connection. As we ambled along, arm in arm, we caught up on our week apart and what options lay ahead for the weekend together. After a few minutes of settling in at his lovely apartment, I unloaded the market basket and decided I would get started with my first dejeuner chez Monsieur T. (lunch at Mr. T's house)

In keeping with that typical charming dating behavior that people seem to exhibit at any age, he followed me into the kitchen. He wanted to “watch”. Fair enough. I unpacked the tart pan (packed just in case this bachelor didn’t happen to have one) and thought I’d get the oven cranked up to pre-bake the pâte feuilletée (puff pastry).

A quick scan of my surroundings left me puzzled. As I began peeking behind cupboard doors and pantry closets, anything that looked like it might be hiding an oven, he had taken notice. “What are you looking for?” he inquired sweetly.

“Your oven,” I replied, just as sweetly.

(These would be some of the final moments of that Sweet Phase!)

“I don’t have an oven,” he said...less sweetly.

“Your kidding!” The surprise in my voice revealing my disbelief that this could possibly be true!

“No,” he said flatly. “I don’t have an oven. What do you need an oven for anyway?!”

“Whaaaaat?!?!” I replied, probably losing all the color in my face as images of the Not-To-Be-Realized Tart flashed before my eyes. “You don’t have an oven?!? How can that be?!? You just had your kitchen remodeled!” (Which was beautiful, by the way. Very sleek and user friendly...errrr...except for one little detail!) “Hmmm, that really puts a little kink in my plans as I was planning to bake a tart.” I said, the end of the phrase being squeezed out a few notes higher than the beginning as my tension broke through a glaze of cheer intended to cover the grinding and shifting of gears as I searched for a way to save lunch.

“Well, you’ll just have to do something else because there is no oven,” he stated unapologetically.

Aha! The oven mitt had been tossed down. Was there to be a showdown in this ill-equipped kitchen?!

Since I was fairly certain that spooning bowls full of chevre and pesto topped with caramelized red onions would not have the quite the same effect as those same ingredients artfully arranged in a lovely shell of puff pastry, garnished with fresh basil, I put together a salad. (I must say, Albeit tasty, it was quite the culinary anti-climax.)

We mutually decided on two things over that lunch: to dine out that evening and that all meals cooked at his place would be stovetop from this day forward.

The missing oven was not mentioned again...well, sort of. To be fair, he did not mention it again! On the other hand, I found a number of occasions to tell the story of my shock upon discovering that someone could actually remodel an entire kitchen and not include an oven!

And so, after a few pasta dinners and one lovely batch of coq au vin for his friends, we parted ways. A fine fellow, this Monsieur T. but really...I mean...no oven?!?

With my little French Affair having gone south, I was now making the search for an apartment in Nice on my own.

I quickly discovered that French rentals do not usually include any appliances...no refrigerators, no ovens...for goodness sakes, there are not even light fixtures in unfurnished French apartments. To be oven-less in France is not all that unusual.

My search ended in a great place, just off of Promenade des Anglais, the main drag into Nice that runs along the Mediterranean.

Then, amid a flurry of very fortunate opportunities unfolding in the span of a couple of days, (the Universe is like that sometimes when it’s talkin’ to you!) everything changed and I would remain in Aix en Provence after all was said and done.

In addition to the possibility of working with American university students here, there was a lovely apartment being offered...owned by Anglophones...with an oven!

Those British owners would become good friends and I would find my first French apartment in the same neighborhood.

But that first apartment was one of a number of very fortunate gifts from the universe at a time when I sorely needed some clear direction.

I happily baked many a tart in that fabulous kitchen and even now, when I pop a tart into the tiny above-the-counter oven in my little French apartment around the corner, I think of oven-less Monsieur T. in Nice...and giggle.

Yes, I think I’ll take a page from Jenna’s cookbook in Waitress and begin naming my tarts. I’ll start with this one, and I’ll call it the “I’m-Glad-I-Didn’t-Move-To-Nice Pie”...errrr...make that “Tart”!

Or better yet, given the Romanesca cauliflower used here, what about calling it “Aliens-In-The-Kitchen Tart”? That works, non?

Bon Appétit!



1 prepared puff pastry, for tart shell
4 oz. goat cheese, cut into small pieces
3/4 lb. of Romanesc or regular cauliflower (or broccoli)
4 slices of thick cut bacon, sliced crosswise into 1/4 inch pieces and browned
2 tablespoons crème fraîche (or sour cream)
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Pre-heat oven to 400ºF and pre-bake the tart shell for 5-8 minutes. Set aside.

In a small bowl, mix the crème fraîche and mustard until blended. Set aside.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and drop the Romanesque in to cook for about 8 minutes. Set aside until cool enough to cut apart the flowerets.

Spread the mustard cream over the bottom of the pre-baked tart shell. Place the flowerets in a concentric circle starting from the center with the largest “crown” part of the Romanesca cauliflower and working to the edge of the pan from there with the remaining flowerets.

Sprinkle the cooked bacon pieces evenly over the top of the tart.

Finish by adding the pieces of goat cheese, distributed evenly over the top.

Bake for 20-25 minutes.

Serves 4 (Or 8 if you add a side salad of baby greens with a balsamic vinaigrette!)

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