A Summer Celebration to Remember!

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Sue and I are all about a celebration with great food and wine so, Provence was an ideal destination.  My dream was to  rent a villa near Aix en Provence.  Not just any villa … I had the exact villa picked out years ago and would go on-line to fantasize about staying there.  So, finally in June of this year a gang of us got together and headed for France!  Check out our Provence adventure in pictures.  (Click on a photo in each set to start a slide show.)

Paris to Provence via the TGV … superfast!!!!  We slept the entire time having flown overnight from NYC.  The whole trip down it was drizzling or overcast.  I thought:  “only you could plan your dream vacation to the south of France and it rains.”  By the time we reached Aix there were blue skies, sun and it was 80 degrees.

LA BASTIDE DES ETOILES

Hey, you know when you are staying in a house that has a name, it’s something pretty special!!  After a day of exploring, we’d gather here for wine, cheese and lots of stories!

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How often have Sue and I told you:  “don’t skimp on extra virgin olive oil, buy the best”.  When your villa overlooks its own working olive grove it’s not a problem.  We cooked with the olive oil they produce — can you believe it?

 OUR FIRST ADVENTURE:  SHOPPING IN THE AIX MARKET

We were simply stunned at how beautiful everything was in the Aix market.  From the moment we found the market square, we were snapping photos left and right.

We meandered around trying to decide what food to buy.  Eventually, Jeff my stepson insisted that we “come up with a plan”.  He assigned to each of us an item to purchase and gave us one half hour to complete our mission.  Had he not taken the bull by the horns who knows how long we would have wandered around.

Our first wine and cheese under the stars was a blast!  We had four different types of tapenade, goat cheese, a blue cheese, comte cheese, wild boar sausage and sardines (Jeff loves them).  We also had a wonderful dinner provided by the villa host, Nancy Walden-Lemaire (who knows everything about everything when it comes to Provence!):  lasagna and mixed green salad.  Nancy helped make our first dinner and the visit carefree. Anyway,  what a feast we enjoyed that night.  Even after a long day of travel and touring, the party went on until well after midnight.

Each morning we came downstairs to a breakfast table laden with enticing pastries, french press coffee, yogurt, fresh fruit, juice and cereal.   The housekeeper went out of her way to make it special for us.  Trying to describe the perfect croissant just doesn’t do it justice and the pain au chocolat was particularly irresistible.

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After indulging ourselves with french coffee and pastries , it was off to Aix to explore and visit the Sunday market.

While everyone else spent the afternoon in Aix, my husband and I popped into Villa Gallici for a glass of wine.  Villa Gallici is a spectacular Relais Chateaux property in the center of town.  We then headed out to St. Cannat for a wine tasting at Chateau Beaupré and bought some bottles of rosé and red for the evening’s wine and cheese.  Our Dinner was poulet ferme rôti from the market and tossed salad;  simple and delicious but not “photo-worthy”.  Here’s a picture of Chateau Beaupré and some of the sites of Aix.

MONDAY’S ADVENTURE — CASSIS

Cassis is south of Aix so, using my “ace” navigational skills,  I got us on the highway heading north of Aix.  I pictured us driving endlessly on the highway with no exits to turn around  and I was a heartbeat away from a major meltdown.  Sue saved the day when she yelled out I saw a sign “To Marseille”!  Marseille is right next to Cassis.   We turned around and were on our way.

Lunch was an episode with waiters who spoke no English and my limited French.  They showed a great deal of patience. We had no idea what we ordered and told them to just put the plates anywhere.  The food was awesome and for dessert, because it was a 90 degree day, most of us had sorbet.  Sue and I had the best sorbet citron ever — lots of lemon zest!  My husband’s peach sorbet was like eating fresh fruit.   We were too busy indulging to take photos.

Our villa host recommended that we take a scenic drive on la Route des Crêtes from Cassis to La Ciotat.  The drive was a “white knuckle” experience with Sue and me hanging on the edge of our seats as the car climbed the ridges overlooking spectacular Mediterranean vistas.  My husband did a great job of driving.  There are few guard rails and plenty of blind hairpin turns.  I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw motorcycles racing up and down these roads!

Sue and I hadn’t given dinner that night a single thought.  She told me: “Don’t worry about it, there are plenty of leftovers, I’m sure we can come up with something delicious”.   So, when we got back to the villa we just started pulling stuff out of the refrigerator to see what we could throw together.  Clearly this was a night to “nosh”.  Honestly, when you are noshing and drinking the fabulous Perrier Jouet champagne that Sue and her husband bought — what’s to complain about?  Just look at what we created!

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Goat cheese basil crostini and sliced figs, sun-dried tomato and olive crostini, ham and melted cheese baguettes with fresh tomatoes, sausage and comte cheese … olives, sardines, tapenade and cherries.

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Plentiful nibbles, champagne to savor and the evening sky to relax under … heavenly.

A Day in Chateauneuf de Pape

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I really needed an expert’s guidance on planning our wine tasting experiences;  the amount of information is overwhelming. Abercrombie & Kent who handled our villa rental introduced me to Pierre and sent along a brief article about him that Condé Nast Travel Magazine published.  We don’t like to feel like we are in a “wine factory”;  we prefer small, family owned vineyards.  Pierre advised me that a “must” is to visit “CDP”.  I ended up booking two days of wine touring  with him.  I must say he exceeded every expectation that we had.  He delivered the experience we desired and entertained us the entire day with his vast knowledge of the  history of wine and  Provence.

After an exhausting day of wine tasting (HA!!) some of us fell sound asleep on the hour ride back to the villa.  Dinner was an afterthought so all the gals jumped in the car and headed off to Intermarché, the local supermarket, to get some ideas for the evening.  Of course, we restocked our bread and cheese supply.  The men were doing the heaving lifting that night.  They grilled up pork tenderloin for everyone and we served it with a salad.  For dessert we had strawberries and a chocolate bar broken into pieces.  Delicious, simple food.

Wednesday is Market Day in St. Remy

When I told Pierre we were going to the market in St. Remy he replied:  “good luck getting parking”.  Every guidebook claims this is the very best market in Provence.  We got an early start, 7:30AM to make sure we could park our cars.  If you like markets with pottery, linens, clothing, housewares and other paraphernalia in addition to food, St. Remy is definitely the place to go.  Sue and I are more about the food so, honestly, my preference was the market in Aix.  Here’s a few photos.

On the way to the market Sue looks at me and says:  “I’m thinking pasta tonight”.  It was so funny because I was thinking exactly the same thing.  Wednesday night is spaghetti night!  Our friend Elaine found the homemade pasta stand where we bought tagliatelle and parmigiano reggiano (of course).  Then we circled back to the vegetable stand that had beautiful heirloom tomatoes, basil and heads of escarole the size of a basketball (I’m not exaggerating).  Elaine was fixated on the strawberries so she went in search of those.  And no shopping spree in Provence is complete without buying more … you guessed it …  cheese!!!

Our entourage split up after the market.  We were trying to find the Saint-Paul Asylum where Vincent Van Gogh was a patient.  Half of us followed the directions given to us by a security person in the parking lot and ended up walking on a busy road in completely the wrong direction.  The rest successfully found the asylum. Here’s a few photos from their visit.

Our original plan was to head south to Les Baux and beyond at some point in the day anyway.  So that’s what the rest of us did.  Les Baux was fascinating.  It’s an ancient village clinging to the side of a mountain (with many steep steps to reach it).  After Les Baux we took a picturesque drive through a national forest to the lovely village of Fontvielle for lunch and then to  Chateau L’Oustaban for an olive oil tasting.  Here’s a few pictures of our afternoon.

The moment we returned to the villa we hopped in the car and headed to Intermarché for a little something to accompany the pasta.  Elaine selected enough sausage to feed about 20 people.  I started the prep work for dinner.  Jeff was in charge of grilling up the sausage and nearly set the place on fire with the merguez sausage — lots of fat.  With all the flames and excitement — I forgot to take pictures.  We had tagliatelle with tomato, basil and garlic sauce, grilled sausages, escarole salad, strawberries and lots of red wine!  Again, just a really fun night together.

If it’s Thursday, it’s time for a Gigondas wine tasting …

Eight thirty in the morning, Pierre and his colleague Jean Baptiste  (“JB”) were back at the villa for our wine tasting in Gigondas.  I had read about an extraordinary restaurant called L’Oustalet where I hoped to  have lunch.  When Pierre and I were emailing he recommended the restaurant as a “gastronomique” experience so, our day was set.  Once again Pierre created a fabulous day for us and even shared stories about his many life experiences.   He is one interesting fellow.   Here’s our day in pictures.

Sue and her husband skipped the Gigondas jaunt and spent the day in Aix soaking in the history of the town and the life of Cezanne.  Here’s a few snaps from their day.

On the way back from Gigondas I asked Pierre if it we could stop in Carpentras.  He had mentioned Fromagerie du Comtat where the maître fromager (master cheese maker) was named best cheese specialist in France in 2009.  This store was awesome with an unbelievable selection of cheese.  Look at all these milk cans.  As a child on her grandparents’ farm the maître fromager collected milk in them and they now hang from the ceiling of her store.

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Back at the villa, after a nice long nap, we cooked up a peasant’s meal of sausage tossed with boiled potatoes (and every seasoning we could think of:  garlic, basil, lemon, lemon zest, even harissa).  Sue is definitely no fan of harissa … she tasted it the entire next day.  In a slight nod to health, we also had a green salad.  We started this simple meal with our nightly ritual of wine and a selection of cheese from Fromagerie du Comat.  I will let the pictures speak for themselves.

The meal ended with a bottle of Beaume de Venise and cheese.  My husband, stepson and I have a real fondness for dessert wines.  Then, at the fromagerie we found a dessert cheese made with Beaume de Venise.  Everyone loved the cheese, the sweet dessert wine, not so much.  As Sue and I  say about wine (and everything else):  “to each his own”.

On our Final Day we are off to Marseille

I was on the fence about going to Marseille.  When I mentioned this to Pierre he said it was his favorite place and that we had to visit.  At this point if Pierre said go, we were going!  Our villa host urged us to walk around Le Panier to experience the “old Marseille” feel.  Everyone was thrilled that we took their advice.  We were surprised to find the fish market in the vieux port that morning as well.  Here’s our morning in pictures.

It was off to lunch at L’Epuisette which TripAdvisor said is the place to have authentic bouillabaisse in Marseille.  The ritual of serving the bouillabaisse is interesting.  First we had the broth with 2 types of rouille, grated cheese and crostini.  Then the waiter presented 6 different types of grilled fish, took them away and filleted and served them with more of the broth.  He told us this was a large meal and he wasn’t kidding!!  Too large for dessert?  Heck no, not with this crowd.  Everyone but me had the house specialty made with apricots.  I opted for the chocolate dessert.  Look at the view we enjoyed during lunch and the desserts we polished off.

The View from Notre-Dame de la Garde

It was a hair-raising drive up to the cathedral with steep, narrow streets and many twists and turns.  Our villa host told me it was impossible to walk it and she was correct.  The drive was worth the view!

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It was back to the villa for our final evening together.   Traffic was a nightmare!  What should have taken us 30 minutes ended up being an hour and a half  bumper to bumper drive.   Elaine had taken over the kitchen the day before and asked the housekeeper to purchase all of the ingredients for beef daube.   (And thank goodness for that. I was just sick and tired of trying to figure out what to make and running to Intermarché every night.)  The daube cooked all day.  We served it with egg noodles and salad.  But first, we enjoyed a final champagne toast compliments of Sue and her husband.  The evening was absolutely perfect.  That weekend was a “super moon” when the moon is its closest to earth so we sat out for hours under brilliant skies.

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