Ahhh, the South of France! My wineglass filled with a peachy-pink rosé, chilled to perfection, beads of condensation slowly making their way down the stem to my hand, cooling me from the heat of the afternoon. Forget the Arabian method of drinking hot tea to encourage sweating as a means of cooling oneself; I’ll take an icy-cold Provençal rosé anytime!
Lavender fields, bouillabaisse, tanned bodies lazing on beaches, perhaps even casinos? My recent sojourn to the South held none of these things, yet was redolent with many other sensory delights, including Roman ruins and not-so-ruins; exceptional, inventive food; bushy grapevines; and of course many wonderful wine discoveries.
Provence! Home base for the week was a charmingly appointed rental apartment in Arles, with a most congenial owner. From there, we could wander the town or drive to other, more famous locales such as Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, and Châteauneuf de Pape.
We started with a trip to the local farmers’ market. After negotiating our way past several blocks of schlocky clothing and plastic doodads, we finally reached Foodie Paradise. One of the very first stands held pretty ropes of new garlic, enough to keep away the whole cast of Twilight.
Enticed by enormous bowls of tapenade to our left and huge wheels of cheese to our right, it easily took us an hour to go a couple blocks. That seemed to be the average pace of the hundreds of people who had joined us for the morning. At the far end, I came upon a spice seller with rows of cloth-lined baskets filled with colorful and aromatic spices.
Who knew there were so many different kinds of peppercorns?! Of course, pepper mills were on offer as well, as there is nothing quite like freshly cracked pepper. Notice the jar of herb-infused olive oil?
While I was distracted by the herbs, my companions had struck up a conversation with the vendor of dried exotic fruits. Okay, so apples aren’t very exotic, but when’s the last time you saw dried hibiscus flowers or white mulberries (mûres blanches)? The latter are really sweet and delicious; now I know why silkworms create silk! In addition to a wide range of unusual and tasty fruits, the seller spoke excellent English and turned out to be a baseball fan, both of which pleased my compatriots no end. It turns out that he’s been playing with other French baseball fanatics every Sunday for 20 years!
As we made our way slowly back home, we couldn’t resist The Chicken Man. Clearly working harder than anyone else at the market, he deftly maneuvered hot roasted chickens and small white potatoes into adorable bags for his many fans.
Smiling and chatting in multiple languages, he seemed to have more than the normal two hands as he bustled about in front of the hot vertical rotisserie ovens. Eaten the following evening, the chicken was well-seasoned and juicy, and the potatoes had a silky texture all their own.
We paired them with a bottle of 2011 Mourgues du Gres “Terres d’Argence” Costières de Nîmes (old vine Syrah/Grenache) from a Château not far from Arles.
The market was set up just outside the ancient walls of the town, which were built right on top of the most amazing naturally layered stone. I could only see glimpses of the walls behind the market stands, so I went back another day to take photos.
Cézanne and many other painters have been drawn to Provence because of the light, and the skies are truly impressive. Layers of storm clouds seem to shimmer from within at dusk. It made me wish I could capture it in paint, but I’ll have to settle for photos and words.
As we drove around outside the city, I was struck by the overgrown bushiness of the grapevines. Having spent two years in Champagne, I’m accustomed to the tightly-trained and controlled vines one finds in that region. This exuberance was exciting! The winegrowers protect their vines from the force of the mistral wind by planting cypress wind-breaks, which are a lot prettier than walls or fences.
I quickly acquired a favorite caviste, Jean-Michel Guérin of La Cave du Grand Sud in Arles. Charming, passionate about the wines of Southern France, and exhibiting a wealth of knowledge about anything you might ask in French or English (and did I mention handsome?), he listened closely to our preferences and made a few suggestions about wines to enjoy with our upcoming meals. The 2013 Domaine de Fondrèche “L’Instant” rosé was crisp with minerals and light stonefruit, a perfect aperitif. A blend of Cinsault, Syrah and Grenache, it spent 6 months on the lees which gave it a nice complexity, despite its youth. The nose continued to open as it warmed a bit in my glass. When it was time for dinner, the organically-grown 2011 Domaine d’Eole “Reserve des Gardians,” a Grenache-heavy blend, matched beautifully with paella purchased from a market vendor.
Another evening, we opened our palates with a microbrew from La Barbaude in Nîmes, another great find from Jean-Michel’s shop. A winter beer, its light caramel and spice notes were delicious with a cow’s milk tomme. No, we couldn’t wait for a “proper” cheese course after dinner! Earlier that day I’d visited Aux Délices du Fromager in Arles, indulging in my favorite pastime; shopping for cheese! André the proprietor, a genial fellow who waxed rhapsodic about his cheeses, was apparently smitten and twice asked me out on a date! I’m afraid the temptations provided by dating a fromagier would be just too much for me, and within a few months I wouldn’t be able to fit through the door! Instead I followed his advice and purchased a raw sheep’s milk cheese he described as “divine.” I had to agree with him, La Téoulette du Causse Méjean was astonishingly good. Rolled in fine ash, it was made by Le Fedou-Fromagerie de Hyelzas in the town of Lozère, in the neighboring region of Languedoc-Roussillon.
Did I mention gooey? It oozed on the plate, onto the fresh, seeded baguette, and down our throats. Heaven!
More tales of the South in my next post – see you soon!
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