The light on Provence is quite different to that of other parts of France. Warmer, stronger and harsher, everything seems to glow. Scenes from Cassis by the sea. Today I’ll let my pictures to the talking.
Four years ago, almost to the day, I began ‘Almost Italian’ in an attempt to document my obsession with food along with some of the cultural aspects of Italy that inform my life, my cooking and gardening. Since then, I’ve drifted away from my main theme, especially when travelling, and so I hope, dear reader, that these little indulgent travel stories are a pleasant distraction from whatever you are doing. Once I step back into my home and garden, the recipes will flow once again.
I’ve enjoyed the food of Dordogne, France, immensely. Everything I’ve eaten, with only two exceptions, has been quite special. Small restaurants and bistros respond enthusiastically to the seasons, and so a trip around a French country market will indicate what you’ll see that week on any menu. This season, cèpes ( porcini mushrooms) are still being hunted in the woods, pears and apples are sold ready to eat, kissed by the Autumn sun, irregular in shape and handsomely mottled. Small yellow fleshed potatoes are good just as they are, or with some salted butter from up Brittany way. Small bunches of parsley are added to your fish purchase, a box of oysters will be laid gently of a bed of seaweed, and vegetable stalls offer bunches of bouquet garni, consisting of thyme and bay laurel, for a small coin. This month, many bistros list omelette aux cèpes, which may seem like a simple enough dish, until you notice that fresh cèpes cost around €22 per kilo at the local market. I bought a small box and the flavour will haunt me forever. Walnuts turn up in every sweet dish imaginable, tarts, macarons, biscuits, as well as fresh walnut oil, which I resisted buying. Organic food is sold in markets, farmer’s roadside stalls and on supermarket shelves: there’s nothing precious about it- it’s a choice that doesn’t involve a huge premium or a special stamp of approval.
What I’ve loved most about French bistro food is the saucing, a technique that the French are famous for. A well executed sauce transforms a simple fish dish. The French are also reasonably adventurous and don’t stick to the formulaic dishes of the region but happily borrow and adapt from modern culinary trends, while maintaining a French slant.
When I return, I plan to work on my saucing and practise a little French technique. French bistro dishes will be trialed and blogged. Thanks for following, dear friends and readers. Bonjour or bonsoir. xx
The three course menu du midi, above, cost €21, which seems like a real bargain to an Australian reader, where restaurant dining and wine pricing is ridiculously expensive. But then, wages are much lower in France, and waiting staff are usually run off their feet.
Privilège du Périgord
58 rue Notre-Dame
I’m writing at the kitchen table, as I usually do, before dawn. The sun rises slowly, though here in the Dordogne region of France, dawn seems to drag on forever, like a long twilight in reverse. Morning is not much fun: fog and mist often continue until lunchtime when the sun finally breaks through and shoos the grey away. Jackets and scarves for the morning: t-shirts and sun hats for the afternoon. No wind spoils Autumn, no leaves quiver: the climbing vines on village stone cottages are turning crimson and pink.
On days like this, an outdoor lunch calls, perhaps a picnic by the Vezere river or a drive to a nearby village, just in time to nab an outside table at a little inn for the menu du midi. For us it will depend on the offerings of the day, which are chalked up on boards at around 11 am. Some days the menu has little appeal: it’s often duck gesiers, magret de canard, salade d’ aiguilllettes, or fois gras – it’s a hard life for ducks and geese around here. As pescatarians ( vegetarians who eat some fish on occasion), we can be hard to please in this region so there’s always a back up plan.
Packed in a little box in the boot of our car is a good goat’s cheese, a few tomatoes, a baguette and a bottle of Bergerac Rosé for our little field trips into the woods, rivers and villages of the lovely Dordogne countryside. If we pass a market on the way, we add a homemade walnut tart, a bag of apples, or perhaps a nice quiche. One way or the other, there’s always a good lunch.
I’ve lost count of the church doors that have drawn me inside during the last few weeks in France. Big or small, grandiose or modest, they all appeal in different ways. The scaled down medieval church in the village of Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère took me to the land of quiet meditation, more than most. The church, built in the 12th century on Gallo- Roman ruins, has been meticulously restored but the interior decor remains minimalist, evocative and artistic. Time to light a candle and reflect inside this glorious small space.
More on the beautiful village of Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère, my favourite village in the Dordogne, next post.
For WordPress photographic prompt this week. Scale
Most village markets in France are orderly, traditional and predictable. Sensibly dressed women arrive with shopping baskets, older men often sport a beret or cap to ward off the morning chill. There will be stalls selling vegetables, a cheese van, a saucisson stall, a pan- Asian fast food van, to which the French flock – vive la différence – and perhaps a cake stall, featuring this season’s walnuts. And so when the knife sharpening man turned up at the weekly market in Monpazier, dressed in colourful clothes and working under the old covered hall, I was instantly drawn to his stall. I asked him if I could take his photo, although the conditional and polite part of this question, the ‘could I or may I’, suddenly escaped my memory. He happily obliged despite these omissions and mentioned that if someone takes his photo without asking first, he would not give his permission. As my mind slowly processed this information, I noticed the roughly painted anarchist sign on his leather apron.
And then it happened. I stupidly inquired, in my primitive French, which is always stuck in the present tense, about why he wore this sign. I may have simply asked, ‘Pourqui’, while pointing.
He replied passionately, rapidly and fairly vocally, why he was proud to wear this sign. I could follow bits of his response: there was mention of the new French President Macron and then he concluded, “But you don’t understand, do you. You can’t respond, can you. Can you speak?” I’m standing there paralysed and the words won’t come. “Je… je… je... ” A crowd is gathering behind me and he continues his anarchist rave. “Je… Je.” And I wanted to say, “Oui, Je comprende ” or something agreeable, like “d’accord”, just so I could run away and save face but I feel like I’ve just left the frontal lobotomy ward.” Je…Je...”. I want to agree that the handsome Macron bloke has turned out to be a huge disappointment, so much for middle ground, but what can you expect from a former investment banker, and do you mind pouring me a glass of wine even though it’s only 10.30 am, because I really need one now. But nothing comes out of my mouth, nothing, until eventually I mumble je suis désolé and I’m feeling like a total fuckwit. I haven’t even had time to get out Mt T’s favourite opening line and gap filler, “Excusez-moi, mon français est très mal” to which I usually add behind his shoulder, “you mean c’est merde”, c’est tres merde.”
The knife sharpening man is laughing now, enjoying his wine, probably not the first for the day, and so we exchange drinking salutations, salut, santé, salute, chin chin, na zdrowie proost, sláinte, cheers ( mate) and so on. It’s an exchange of sorts.
Travellers, like me, who have a smattering of French, tend to stick to simple conversations, which hover around known contexts and commerce such as buying food or goods, and include a working grasp of salutations and courtesies, all limited to the present tense with an occasional flirtation with the simple past tense and with an excellent grasp of nouns but not so many irregular verbs. Is it possible to have a real conversation without a working knowledge of the multi- tiered tenses that we use everyday without thinking, the past perfect and imperfect tenses, the future and historic tenses, all woven together, like a language knitting pattern, with fancy stitches that include the conditional, the imperative, the reflexive and the subjunctive moods used in past tenses, stitched up with the gerund and embroidered with the nuances of language that involve irony, idiom and cultural understandings? I think not. I stand accused, sir. I would love to sit down with you and have a chat and a wine, but I can’t. Well not in French anyway. Cheers.
Ambling through a medieval bastide village at lunchtime, the only sound I hear is the fluttering and soft cooing of pigeons in the belfries and rooftops above. It’s a soothing murmur, and one I always associate with the quiet lunchtime villages of France and Italy. Not a soul in sight. Just as well I’ve packed a picnic lunch. Shuttered windows, some slightly ajar, block out the prying eyes of the street or the harsh glare of Autumn light. Others are fully closed, now that the summer season is over.
Noted for their grid pattern, fortified walls, archways and central market squares, bastide towns were built in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, and alternated between English and French control during the 100 years war. Handsome arched entry ‘ports’ invite the walker to explore within, where il fait bon flâner, wandering about aimlessly, is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. Each village brings new surprises: medieval architecture, fantasy ruins in need of loving restoration, shadowy narrow lanes, or carreyrous, that crisscross the gridded layout, high stone benches overlooking wooded valleys below, framed views through darkened archways, doors, keyholes, miniature windows, mossy tiles, shutters, I can never get enough. After the long postprandial silence, which can last from around 12.30 to around 5pm, life returns to the village: the local bar reopens and chairs spill out once again onto the square as locals meet for a coffee or wine. The boulangerie reopens, there’s more bread to be sold. Strollers take to to the streets.
Monpazier, the village of our current rental house, is considered to be the most well-preserved bastide town in Dordogne. A 13th-century bastide town, it begun in 1285, founded and built by King Edward 1 of England, who was also Duke of Gascony. The town was also home to Eleanor of Aquitane and Richard 11 of England for a time. After the 100 years war, the town returned to the French. Today, the English are back, they love the villages of the Dordogne. They, and expats from other countries, now occupy a significant number of the local houses. The owners of our beautiful rental house, ‘Les Portes de la Bastide’ made this very clear when we arrived. It annoys them to hear English spoken by some vendors at the local markets around the Dordogne. To be able to say ‘Je viens d’Australie’ has its advantages here: we have an excuse for speaking the language so badly, unlike those who live a stone’s throw away across the channel. To be fair, most English expats speak French very well.
There are 18 bastide towns in the Dordogne region as well as all the other small villages that demand a visit: the designated ‘Les Plus Beaux Villages de France‘, small stone hamlets, a sea of ochre coloured stone and carmine creeping vines, towns that rise above the confluence of the Dordogne and Vezere rivers, larger towns like Bergerac, still with medieval hearts, and the occasional chateau. Every day is a feast of discovery. I swear each village is more charming than the last, and then I want to re-visit them all on market day. Two weeks will not be long enough in this region of France.
Bastide towns in Dordogne and neighbouring Lot- et Garonne
Beaumont-du-Périgord, Beauregard-et-Bassac, Bénévent, Domme, Eymet, Fonroque, Lalinde, Molieres, Monestier, Monpazier, Puyguilhem, Roquepine, Saint-Aulaye, Saint-Barthélemy-de-Bellegarde, Saint-Louis-en-l’Isle, Vergt, Villefranche-de-Lonchat, Villefranche-du-Périgord.
With travel now readily available, especially within Europe, many little ports, towns and villages in Brittany have become inundated with visitors and holidaymakers during the Northern Hemisphere summer, from June to August, making travel less appealing. The British fly to Rennes or Dinan in Brittany very cheaply with Ryan Air, Fly Kiss or Easy Jet, take a car on the ferry, or drive through the tunnel via Paris. And so you would expect this area of France to be busy. Those not travelling independently are met by a 16 to 45 seater bus which then tours the area. These buses are out of place in tiny villages, clogging town squares, a reminder of those disgusting towering cruise ships dominating the Venetian canals which the Italian authorities are too cowardly to deal with.
Considering Pont Aven as a microcosm of this phenomena, there’s only one way to avoid these invasions: travel in late September or anytime out of season. The weather won’t be so gloriously sunny, and at times it will be quite moist, but I consider this to be a fair trade-off. You will find a quiet market square and a village getting on with its business in a ‘post seasonal’ way and you will hear French spoken. On some days, a few buses might land in the square- arriving at 11am, most stay for around 30 minutes or so, as the tourists disembark to buy the local buttery biscuits, canned fish products from the conserveries, or stare through the windows of the ateliers, the 40 artist workshops flogging colourful paintings of sea themes. And then the town returns to normal.
Pont Aven has always been popular with travellers. Paul Gauguin spent extended periods in this town in the late 1880s and early 1890s, establishing, with others, the Synthetist style, a break from Impressionism. Their work is often characterised by the bold use of colour, the abandonment of faithful representation and perspective, with flat forms separated by dark contours, and geometrical composition free of any unnecessary detail and trimmings. The modern Pont Aven art school tends to follow this style.
His legacy has left its mark on the town. Some walks follow in his footsteps, with little plaques dotted here and there, depicting Bretagne scenes of the local people or boating scenes. Art workshops dominate the retail scene here, but most are closed after August or only open during the weekend. The result of their presence, as well as the proximity of an Intermarche supermarket less than 1 km away, means the loss of a second boulangerie and a functional epicerie within the town. The town’s commerce is out of balance with a preponderance of outlets catering to the visiting tourist and not the locals. There are two or three good restaurants in the centre, often with reduced opening times, a creperie, one boulangerie, a bar, and a wine cave. A small market operates weekly in the town square. Many shops have closed and will be replaced, most likely, by yet another art gallery.
The district of Finisterre, in which Pont Aven is located, is heavily populated along the coastal area, in contrast to my recollections of the coastal areas in Morbihan. Beautiful farming land, away from the sea fringes, is dotted with smaller hamlets and villages, and larger medieval towns, such as Quimper. On cool days, motoring around the countryside is a pleasant way to spend the day. A visit to Locronan, one of ‘Les Plus Beaux Villages de France‘, is worth the drive, but go early before the buses arrive. Like many a designated belle village, Locronon is on the cusp of becoming too faux. Once the tourist shops move in, the rent goes up and local retail suffers. The up side of this designation means these beautiful medieval buildings are carefully restored.
But then, this is the story of any lovely spot in France. Travel slowly, go outside of the tourist season, and most of all, attempt to speak French, however poorly, and always use your inside voice, even when outside. Intrusiveness, I’ve found, comes down to the volume of voice used by fellow travellers.
If you go down to the ‘bois’ today, you’re in for a big surprise!
The Bois d’Amour, an hour’s walk through a dense and ancient forest, begins right in the heart of Pont Aven’s village. It is surprising, enchanting, mysterious and gentle. You’ll emerge from these woods transformed.
The walk begins just under the one lane bridge near the centre of town. After passing a wild garden of flowers, raspberries and pumpkins, tended by a nearby Merlin, the woods turn deep, dark and mossy, with old cypress, oak, beech and chestnut trees shading the way. Fallen Autumn leaves drift across the moist muddy path.
Unlike in the centre of town where the Avon river races by with enough speed and force to turn mighty water mills, here it runs like a liquid stream of dark molasses, with an occasional skip rover rocks and fallen logs.
Near the Moulin Neuf, the half way point in the walk, a quaint old building appears out of nowhere, probably the remains of that ninth mill. On our return, a quiet older man in a crumpled beige suit, silver hair streaming over his shoulders, magically emerges, his head bowed over a bowl, replenishing some cat food. Bonsoir, bonsoir.
The woods darken in places and become almost frightening, then all is gentle again as a love seat rises in the bend of the river.
Fallen chestnuts litter the ground, opened and devoid of their nuts, like exotic birds or creatures from another time.
The things you find in the woods- ordinary things, like love, nature, beauty and peace.
Included in pedestrian, this weeks photo challenge on WordPress.
It’s hard to say adieu to the sweet little houses that become your home for a week or two. Much more than hotels, B&Bs, agriturismi or apartments, little rental houses minister comfort and care to the weary traveller. The little house in Pont Aven, with its ancient and thick stone walls, stayed an even temperature all day and welcomed us home each afternoon after our wanderings through the Cornouille district of Bretagne.
The following photo collage is a media file for those who enjoy travelling vicariously and who asked to peep inside this little French houses. ‘La Petite Tourte’ was filled with luxurious linens, crisply ironed and sweet-smelling, two modern bathrooms, large leather sofas in the sitting room, a spiral staircase leading to the upper levels, a light filled kitchen, tasteful art and no Ikea. The house is advertised through VRBO, a part of Home Away, which provides holiday rentals by owners, similar in many ways to Air B&B.
At the end of my travels, I intend to summarise the differences between renting through Airb&b, and VRBO and also take a look at the rise of bookings.com, traditional hotels and B&Bs. Each one has its place.
After travelling around Central and Eastern Europe for three weeks, I was really looking forward to our first French rental house. Before unpacking or looking at the other rooms, I checked the kitchen and its equipment, running around like a headless chook, opening cupboards and drawers. The kitchen in Pont Aven, Brittany, did not disappoint. The cupboards were well equipped with decent wine glasses, serving platters, quality frying pans, a set of sharp knives, a pasta pot and some oven proof gratin dishes. This was a cook’s kitchen. These things are often missing from rental houses.
Outside the kitchen, beyond the tiny enclosed stone wall yard, a rapidly running stream provided a soothing background symphony to my kitchen activities. The rapids form part of the watery world which makes up this ancient mill town. Pont Aven’s water courses, the River Aven and it’s creeks, once operated around 14 water wheel grain mills. Many old stone houses are built directly above or next to a rapid. As the weather was damp and fairly cool, winter comfort food dominated my cooking style in this stylish stone house.
The food of Brittany is tempting, with plenty of seafood and fish, apples and cider, the famous creamy butter with fleur de sel, buttery biscuits, tarts and cakes such as Far Breton and Kouign-amann, not to mention the crepes made from Blé Noir, or buckwheat. We occasionally dined out, but in the end, the lure of the kitchen and home cooked meals became too great.
Who can resist cooking with Crème Fraîche ( entiere s’il vous plaît ) when a small carton costs around 0.66€. My new cheat’s white sauce is a winner. Add one finely chopped garlic to a few tablespoons of crème fraîche, let it sit while you cook some pasta. Drain the pasta well, then return to the same pan, stir the sauce through the hot pasta, add some chunky smoked salmon and lots of herbs. Voilà.
I found these cute pot set yoghurts at the market in the nearby village of Tregunc, straight from the dairy farm. Sold in little glass jars for 0.40€ each. I will never eat commercial yoghurt again.
Sometimes when driving about for the day, lunch is simple: a smelly cheese from the market and a baguette from the boulangerie.
I’ve developed a taste for this lovely red wine from the Loire, Chinon.
French cooking is superb but there’s plenty of cheating going on too. Freshly cooked beetroot is available in all the markets. They make a great entrée with some goat cheese.
On market day, the Roti stall is popular, as sensibly dressed older women come to buy their rotisserie chicken, beef or saussison along with a portion of Boulangerie potatoes.
I succumbed to the roast man’s version of Far Breton, a nice little dessert to take back to my kitchen to reheat. I make Far Breton at home, mostly for my D.I.L, who can’t get enough of the stuff. I love the way the prunes are suspended in this version.
The Traou Mad galettes of Pont Aven are irresistible. This tin has been refilled twice!
Also trying to stay away from the real estate office! House for sale in a little village near Pont Aven. Fantasies abound in every village. Dangereux!!!
I’m linking up with Sherry, from Sherry’s Pickings, once again, who hosts In My Kitchen, a monthly series where bloggers share their kitchen inspirations. If you’re new to blogging and love food, this is a great way to join up with other like-minded folk. There are no rules and no obligations. Write about your kitchen and get the post linked by the 10th of each month.