Sunday, October 31, 2010

Make Your Village A Star!

RendezVous Films  is producing a romantic comedy feature film called Kiss the Frog  in which an American businesswoman falls in love with a French farmer. Most of the story takes place in a tiny and remote village in the South of France and production will begin in April. Now they just need to find the village.

Writer/director Kevin Dole describes Kiss the Frog as “my love letter to France.” He and his family have been here many times and their experiences inspired the story.  Kevin believes there are hundreds—maybe thousands--of villages which would work but since he can only choose one, it has to be perfect. So he’s spreading the word and asking for help.

The ideal village will be small and historic with a remote, isolated feel.  It needs to have a small square for a farmers’ market and a village festival. Its houses should be mostly stone and be maison mitoyennes, sharing common walls.  It can be anywhere in the south: from the Italian border down through Languedoc-Roussillon to the foothills of the Pyrénées.

But Kevin and the producers are looking for more than just a pretty face.  They’ll ultimately choose the village based not just on what’s best for the film but on how the production might benefit the community as well.

“I want to find a village with a compelling story so that the project, the making of the film, takes on even more meaning,”  he says.  “I know there were villages devastated by terrible windstorms a couple years ago; others which have suffered from declines in the wine industry.  I know some have lost so many of their young people to the city that they’re almost ghost towns.  I want to find one which is both ideal for the film AND which, by being chosen, might be revitalized--which is exactly what happens in our story.  A location scout rarely has the time to learn the story of the places they photograph.  Only the residents can tell us this.”

Kevin tells me that the production pledges to:

* Hire as many local services as possible.
* Hire as many local workers as possible.
* Credit and promote the village as the film's location, if desired.
* Care for the village and leave it in the same or better condition.

Logistical requirements are: roads accessible by trucks and buses, accommodations nearby for a cast and crew of up to 100 people and residents who’ll welcome the disruption and excitement of production for 8-10 weeks.

“The village of my dreams should have character and charm which inspires the devotion of its residents but may not be apparent to casual visitors,” Kevin adds.  “The level of restoration is unimportant.  We’re not making a superficial ‘postcard’ of France, but rather offering a glimpse of its heart, disguised within a comédie romantique.”

If you live in or know of the perfect village, please click here 
and fill out the research form in French, if possible.  (The page includes directions for sending photos and you can click the link “Retour” for a descriptive page, also in French.)  Or you can email Kevin directly: village@kissthefrogmovie.com.  Or, simply leave a comment by clicking COMMENT below. RendezVous Films is seeking village nominations until January 1, 2011. If you’d like to learn more about the movie, you can watch a video here and visit the main website here

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Jon and Kelly's Excellent Wine & Truffle Adventure

When I have Provençale food or restaurant questions, I go to Jon Chiri, an American chef (from New Orleans) who has lived and worked in Provence for years. When I first met Jon he was the director of the Petit Marmiton cooking school at Hotel La Mirande in Avignon…and if you’ve been there you know that that’s kind of a big deal. These days, Jon is sort of a free-range chef, teaching cooking, leading gourmet cycling tours and heading up the kitchen at the luxurious Domaine de La Verrierea vineyard and hotel in an ancient priory, not far from Avignon.  Lucky for me, he’s my gracious go-to guy for anything French-food related.

Similarly, when I have a question about the wines of the region—actually any wine question at all—I ring up Kelly McAuliffe. Born and raised in Nevada, Kelly worked as a sommelier for chef Alain Ducasse for many years, in Monaco, Paris and, most recently, in Las Vegas. Kelly’s wife Fabienne is from Avignon and the couple now lives there, with their three adorable girls. Kelly consults, leads wine tours and represents the wines of the Côtes du RhoneHe’s super knowledgeable and serious about wine but loves to make it approachable and fun.

Now Jon and Kelly—great old friends—have teamed up to celebrate local truffles and wine with a one-day extravaganza open to the public. It will be offered on two Saturdays in December, the 4th and the 11th. Sign up and I guarantee that you’ll eat well, drink well, learn a ton and have tons of fun. Or, consider giving this special day as a gift to a favorite foodie. The famous black truffles of Provence are at their very best from late November through January and Jon has access to la crème de la crème.

The day will begin with a visit to Richerenches, considered the most important truffle market in Europe. Then it’s off to La Verriere  for a Provençale Christmas cooking class. There will also be a truffle tasting and, finally, a seven-course truffle dinner. In between, Kelly will lead a tasting in the cave, taking you through the wines of La Verriere and Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Dinner will be served in La Verriere’s 14th century vaulted dining room.

The cost of the day is 250€ per person, which includes transportation to and from Avignon.  Wines with dinner are not included.  For those who would like to stay over, La Verriere is offering a special rate of 250€ for a standard room (normally 300€) and 300€ for superior (down from 350€).

Vive les truffes et les vins de Provence!

For more info or to reserve, call or email Jon: US # (504) 931-2197, France # +33 (0)6-46-89-85-33, jon@gourmetcyclingtravel.com


Photos: Jon (top) and Kelly

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Provence and the British Imagination

On Nov 19 and 20, the Universite de Provence in Aix will co-host "Provence and the British Imagination," a conference (in English) exploring the role of Provence in the British literary and aesthetic imagination, from the 18th century to the present. Speakers will include artist Julian Merrow-Smith and writer Anthony Penrose, who will discus Provence in the work of his father Roland, the surrealist painter and poet. The weekend kicks off Thursday Nov 18 at 5:30 p.m., with a reception celebrating Merrow Smith's book Postcard from Provence, at Book in Bar, 4 rue Joseph Cabassol, Aix. The conference, to be held on the Universite campus, is free and open to the public. For more info and to see the full program, click here or email Claire at: davisonpegon@gmail.com


Above: "Autumn Vineyards, Sablet" by Julian Merrow Smith is available as a limited-edition print. It's 17cm x 12cm , in an edition of 90, price $50. To order, click here

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Antoine Godard: Sept. 6, 1967 - Oct. 11, 2010

I wept yesterday when I received the email from Valentin Godard, the 17-year-old son of my friends Antoine and Nathalie. Valentin’s words? “My father past this night.” It took me just an instant to figure out what he meant—and still, I didn’t believe it. The Godards had been in Barcelona when strong, beautiful Antoine suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 43.

I’ve known Antoine since before I moved to St. Remy. In fact, he was my very first friend in France.

In 1996, I was living in New York and I signed up to take a photo class in Provence. It was a two-week trip, with shooting and touring during the day and darkroom work at night. Our group came from all over the U.S. and ranged in age from 16 to 70-ish. We had a fabulous time. Our lead instructor was Craig Stevens, a professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. Craig took a group to Provence every summer and, for a number of years, had hired Antoine to assist.

Born in Corbeil Essonnes, near Paris, Antoine was living in Marseille with Nathalie and their two boys. Nathalie joined our group for a few meals (with baby Simon, now 15) and we all fell crazy in love with them too.

A talented photographer and passionate teacher, Antoine worked so hard those two weeks, sharing his beloved Provence with us. I can only imagine how tired he was at the end of every day, after solving a thousand problems, answering a million questions, translating, navigating--and doing everything he could to make our trip rewarding and fun.

Craig remembers: “One morning at the hotel, the croissants were quite stale and probably had been frozen. Antoine rose in disgust and said ‘Theez croissants sont insupportable!’ He left the hotel, went into town and returned with the most beautiful flaky croissants you can imagine. He so shamed the hotel owner that the croissants were never less than wonderful after that.  I also remember one student was having a particularly bad day. It turned Midnight and Antoine uttered: ‘She was having zee bad day but it is now tomorrow so she should be ok!’”

After class ended, Antoine, Nathalie and I stayed in touch.  And then, after years of helping Craig set up makeshift darkrooms in old hotel caves, Antoine hit on an idea. Why not create a hotel specifically for photographers and other artsy types? The hotel would welcome those who brought their own students to St. Remy and host workshops of its own.  It would have a full darkroom for processing and printing, which would be open to guests and the public as well.  It would have gallery and performance space, museum-quality prints on the walls, interesting events, live music.

 So Ant and Nat left their lives in Marseille and settled in St. Remy, where they bought a crumbling 100-year-old building and hired Nat’s architect brother to do the renovation.  

The look of the hotel would be modern in a village where nothing was modern. And of course everyone said they were nuts.

The Godards opened phase one of Hotel Les Ateliers de l’Image in June 1998 and it turned out “everyone” was wrong, of course. It quickly became the inn of choice for art and antique dealers, film industry types, journalists and photographers, architects and musicians—anyone who simply loved the quiet joys of Provence. There was a stage, a piano and a large screen, where movies would be shown in the evening. It was much more than a hotel and that’s exactly what the Godards envisioned.  

I was there the week the hotel opened. I remember frantic last-minute runs to IKEA for wine glasses, votives, wall hooks and light bulbs.  I remember perching high on a ladder, scraping price tags and installation info off brand-new skylights. I remember the little passageway to Café Varietes, which provided food before the hotel had its own restaurant.

I remember Antoine and Nathalie’s excitement and exhaustion as they pulled a million tiny pieces together, day after day after day.

Carol Stroll and I met in photo class and she was there opening week as well.  I called her tonight in Massachusetts and asked what she remembers from that time.

“The hotel had been opened for just a few days,” Carol recalls. “A few of us were hanging around reception when a man in his 30's arrived and spoke rapidly in French to Antoine. ‘Bien sûr!’ replied Antoine, grinning with enthusiasm. The man ran out, returning a few minutes later with a lovely young woman. Antoine took them to their room and came down, still grinning. He was proud and happy because, he said, ‘There are lovers in the hotel!’" 

Shortly after Les Ateliers opened I decided to rent a house and move to St. Remy…and the Godards were wonderful.  They let me swim, work in the darkroom, lurk around with my book…whatever. I remember lingering poolside well into the evening, content just to hear the cigalles chirping and smell the jasmine and honeysuckle. Truth is, I was desperately lonely that first year I lived in Provence. But there was always something cool happening at the hotel and the Godards always welcomed me.

Later, Antoine and Nathalie took over the adjacent Grand Hotel de Provence, renovated it completely and joined the two properties with a spectacular garden. They added a second pool, a fine-dining restaurant, a sushi bar, library, conference room and more. Today, the four-star Les Ateliers is one of the top hotels in town, a testament to Antoine’s vision and tenacity. But also to Nathalie’s love for her husband and willingness to work with him towards his dream.

Antoine’s energy and enthusiasm were boundless. Whether it was Les Ateliers—or any of the projects that came before or after--he attacked it full on. He was burning with creative energy; he loved art, architecture, music, travel, cooking, reading, the theater, the outdoors and learning of any kind. Antoine had a light in his eyes, an infectious smile, an amazing laugh and a capacity for deep emotion. But his goal of being a great husband and father superseded all the others.  Anyone who knew him could see that was his most-cherished role of all.

A few years ago, Antoine and Nathalie decided they were ready for a new life. So with heavy hearts—and a great party—they sold the hotel, bid farewell to St. Remy and took off for Narbonne, where they bought an old peniche (hotel barge) on the Canal du Midi. Nathalie wanted to study nursing; Antoine psychology. And once again, they had pulled it off.  Nat was working as a nurse, Ant was doing counseling and they had started HotelQueJaime.com, a booking engine for boutique hotels.  The last time I heard from him, on October 4th, everyone was busy and good and they were heading for Barcelona.

And then this.

Shortly after Valentin’s message yesterday, Nathalie sent me one of her own.  “We were so happy together,” she wrote.

And then she added a line that I know I’ll remember forever:  “Antoine made the life so beautiful.”

Rest in peace, my amazing friend. My corner of Provence is a better place because of you. 

Saturday, October 9, 2010

From a Star Chef: Where to Go in Bordeaux



When I'm about to travel, I check in with industry friends to get advice. When it comes to food, for example, who better than a local chef to recommend the best markets, bistros, wine bars and restaurants in town? Often, these are places I'd never find on my own. So planning a little jaunt to Bordeaux (where the 2009 vintages are being called some of the best in the region's history),  I rang up chef Pascal Nibaudeau, exec chef of the five-star Regent Grand Hotel Bordeaux. His restaurant, the Pressoir d'Argent, has 16/20 in the Gault Millau Guide and earned a shiny new Michelin star this year. (About the star, Pascal says: "It's been a great challenge to build a fish restaurant in a district that's famous for its red wine!") Here, Pascal serves up some of his favorite local spots. 
RESTAURANTS

I love Le Café du Port because of the wonderful view over the Garonne River and the famous Stone Bridge. Most of all, the kitchen is real. You'll experience not pretentious but effective service (tel 05 56 77 81 18). 

One Michelin-starred restaurant I would definitely recommend is Le Saint James at Bouliac. The chef is very friendly and the food is remarkable! The restaurant has a splendid view over Bordeaux (tel 05 57 97 06 00). 

To finish with an unusual place, I really enjoy going to a  high-quality Chinese restaurant called Au Bonheur du Palais in the heart of the city (tel 05 56 94 38 63).

SHOPS

I like Eurasie, which is the second largest Asian culinary shop in France. You can find very fresh products at a very approachable price. He're you'll find the specific products needed for a gourmet restaurant or home cook, such as Tempura Flour, Kafir lemon, Peking Duck, etc. (tel 05 56 50 24 65).

MARKET 

Bassens is my favorite because it has products from all over the world (olives, spices, candied fruits...) People come from all over the city to shop there. And there's a very nice fishmonger who comes from where I come from: Les Charentes! Sunday mornings only, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

PLACE TO TASTE WINE

I suggest you visit the Centre Interprofessionel des Vins de Bordeaux (tel 05 56 00 22 66), situated in the heart of the city, where you can enjoy some very nice wine tastings from a wide range of vineyards and wineries.

I also like La Winery (tel 05 56 39 04 90), located in the Medoc. It's about 30 minutes away from Bordeaux city center and close to many vineyards. Unique in Europe, La Winery invites visitors to explore their own palates and find corresponding wines that will suit them.

FOR MORE INFO

For more info on Pascal, the restaurant Le Pressoir d'Argent or the Regent Grand Hotel Bordeaux, click here or call 05 57 30 44 44. Le Pressoir d'Argent is currently offering a two-course lunch menu for 34€.  The hotel offers a number of wine and food lovers' packages including wine-estate tours, chateaux tastings, special meals and private receptions, taking advantage of its intimate connections with the best vineyards in Bordeaux.  

Photos: The Regent Grand Hotel Bordeaux (perched just opposite the Opera National) and its Michelin-starred chef Pascal Nibaudeau.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Provence in Focus






Lee Warren is a U.K.-based landscape and "natural world" photographer who shoots for magazines, books and ad campaigns. I came across some photos he took in the South of France late this summer and just had to share. Lee tells me: "The shots were taken August just gone. This was our first visit to Provence but we're already planning to return next year. It really is a stunning part of the world!"  Click each photo to see it larger and in much better detail. For more of Lee's work, visit his website here. To reach Lee directly, email: fdiskformat@sky.com

Top two photos: Lac Saint Croix. Center: Castellane. Bottom two photos: Vaison-la-Romaine.

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