Monday, October 31, 2011

My Big Expat Gardening Gaffe

All of a sudden, the stores were filled with mums. Every market, every roadside stand, every InterMarche parking lot--overflowing with mums. Fat, healthy, brilliant mums, just 35 francs per pot. It was late October, 1999, and my little garden was calling out for color.
Having left Manhattan (and my one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side) for Provence, just four months before, I was ecstatic about having a house. A real house! With thick stone walls, heavy shutters, a traditional tile roof and wooden beams. I had colorful neighbors who left homegrown grapes on my table and tomatoes dangling from my front door, just like in the movies. I had an olive tree! 
And for the first time in my life, I had a garden. But it was definitely looking drab.
So I called the family's guru of greenery, my dad in Wisconsin, to talk about mums. Though not a mum fan himself, Dad got behind my plan in a big way. "If that's what the stores are selling," he said, "then it's a good plant for the season. They're cheap. Put a bunch in and see how they do."
Just to be sure, I called my friend Carol, another American here in St. Remy. Was this the right time to plant mums? Would they make it through the winter? How deep should I plant them, how long would they bloom, how much water did they need?
Off we went to the garden center, and after much deliberation--such beautiful colors, such variety!--Carol and I settled on three rosy pinks and three brilliant whites.
And into the ground they went. My neighbors smiled as they strolled past and I basked in their approval, pawing around in the dirt, lovingly planting my mums. Some people paused to chat but moved on quickly when they realized I spoke no French. Didn't matter: I was happy. I had a house--and a garden--in Provence!
The next day, my friend Philippe stood in my yard and stared, grinning. I'd grown accustomed to his teasing about my American-in-France faux pas, but for the life of me, I couldn't figure out what was so frigging funny about mums.
"Did you notice that the stores had mums for just three days?" he asked, "and that they disappeared as quickly as they'd arrived?" I confirmed that I had found that odd, and that I was thrilled to have slithered through that narrow window of horticultural opportunity just in the nick of time.
"Yesterday was Toussaint," he explained. "It's like your Memorial Day."
Mums, it seems, are the traditional flower for graves. The reason they'd all disappeard overnight from the stores was that they were now in cemeteries all over Provence. Save for the six in my yard, of course. 
"You've made a nice little graveyard in your garden!" Philippe giggled.
So I decided that my mums would be a memorial to the people I'd loved and lost, including three grandparents and a brother. All of them are buried at home in Milwaukee, 5,000 miles away. And my mums thrived. Then the famous mistral blew down from the mountains and caught St. Remy in its grip. My mums were buried under a mountain of branches and crunchy, golden leaves. Then it snowed, and I left the country for a time, and that was pretty much the end of the mums.
When I returned in spring, I planted lavender, rosemary and other things more conducive to the climate and culture. And now my garden looks pretty much like everyone else's: lush vines, hardy perennials and hardly any color left as we head into November.  But tomorrow is Toussaint and the sun is shining and the shops are full of mums. They're cheerful and so fresh looking and just 7€ or 9€ per pot...

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Another Fine French Book Giveaway!

Claude Monet (1840-1926) spent the last 43 years of his life at Giverny, an hour northwest of Paris, creating the paintings for which he is most revered. He had rented the house in 1883 and by 1890, was successful enough to buy it. With two acres of land, Monet composed his famous gardens with an impressionist’s care for color and form. He had his large family and seven gardeners to help him, but always remained the visionary choreographer, providing precise designs and layouts for plantings.

Drawing upon the words of Monet and his contemporaries, the just-released Monet at Giverny (Garden Art Press) is a celebration of this unique artistic mind…and offers a wealth of horticultural detail. With more than 150 illustrations (photos, engravings, garden views, etc.), this gorgeous 192-page hardcover will delight any art or garden lover….and every Francophile.

Monet at Giverny was released in the UK early this month and is just now hitting bookstores in the US

Author Caroline Holmes is a garden historian, lecturer, author and designer. Her other books include Victorian Gardens, Follies of Europe—Architectural Extravaganzas and A Zest for Herbs. She lives in Suffolk and lectures regularly at the Institute of Continuing Education at the University of Cambridge and the Royal Horticultural Society.

Because getting free stuff for you, dear reader, is one of my biggest pleasures, I rang up the publisher and finagled a few books to give away. To enter, simply click COMMENTS below and say something nice…three lucky readers will win a copy. Please be sure to leave your email address--signing in with your Google account is not enough. (Hint: Be creative and you stand a better chance of winning.) 

To read more about this beautiful book, click here. To order it from Amazon US, click here. To order from Amazon UK, click here. To see what other lovely books the same company distributes, check their website here.

Bonne Chance!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Paris & Chocolate. What's Not To Like?

Forget raindrops on roses: Paris and chocolate are two of my favorite things. If you feel the same way, check out the SALON DU CHOCOLAT (October 20 to 24) at the Porte de Versaille. You'll find top pastry chefs and chocolatiers doing demos, a workshop for kids, a chocolate fashion show, all the best chocolate books--and of course aisle after aisle of irresistible sweets to taste and buy. Admission is €12.50. If you miss it, you can catch the same show December 9 to 11 in Lyon. All the info is HERE. [Photo by RACHEL BEEN.]

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A New Château Hotel in the Languedoc


I was delighted to find out recently that my old pal Anne de Ravel is the chef at the fabulous  Château Les Carrasses, a 19th-century wine domaine near Beziers, in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of the South of France. It’s midway between Montpellier and Perpignan. The property has just been extensively restored and converted to a boutique winery and luxury hotel estate; it opened officially in late July.

Anne was a consultant for the New York Times Magazine, Part II, Entertaining (from 1984 to 1992) and a producer at Food Network in New York from 1992 to 2001. She returned to her native France in 2007 to open a cooking school called Saveur Languedoc, which she still operates.

At Château Les Carrasses Anne is using local ingredients to create classic Mediterranean dishes and tapas, which are served in a bistro or on the roof terrace with spectacular estate views.

“This is not a gastronomic restaurant,” she tells me. “I prepare simple dishes I would do at home for my friends using fresh seasonal ingredients I pick up at the market. The menu changes all the time.”

Also on the property are eight acres of gardens, an infinity pool, floodlit clay tennis courts, a boules court, an orchard and a vegetable garden. Olive trees are being planted. 

Château Les Carrasses has 28 apartments and villas, many with panoramic views, all fashioned from the estate’s original 19th-century buildings. (Rather than traditional hotel services, the property offers what's known as "self-catering," which means there is no room service and no daily maid service.)  The château itself, like a fairy-tale castle, was built in 1886, on the foundations of a rest stop along the pilgrim Route de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle. Around two main courtyards are all the buildings traditionally found on a wine domain: the château, winery and cellars; a blacksmith’s house, stables, forge, granary and the estate cottages, which have been transformed into guest accommodations. The largest can sleep eight. All have fully equipped kitchens, air conditioning, free WiFi, flat screens, DVDs and fully loaded iPods. Most have sunny private gardens and terraces with BBQ, outdoor dining areas and sun loungers. Many have private heated pools. The amenities are by Fragonard. Rooms begin at 200€ per night in high season and 114€ from November to March.

Owner Karl O'Hanlon wants Château Les Carrasses to be a destination for wine lovers and he has already begun producing a number of Les Carrasses vintages. On Sunday September 25, he staged his first wine class: a one-day outing to a local domaine where the harvest was underway. The group learned about various varietals and how they’re picked and when; the differences between pressing and macerating; how oak barrels affect the wine-ageing process and much more. They also tasted and compared a number of wine grapes–Mourvedre, Macabeu, Carignan, etc.--and sampled juice from the vats at various levels of fermentation.

A gourmet picnic among the vines was followed by an afternoon session on wine blending, back at the château. The group then set out to blend their own wine from Syrah, Grenache and Carignan grapes. The wines were judged in a blind tasting by all participants.

The next wine class, with a focus on ageing and blending, will be the weekend of November 26. In December, the château will host a WSET II course, run by wine director Matthew Stubbs. Stubbs has 24 years experience in the wine trade and is one of only 300 Masters of Wine in the world. After years of buying and selling wine in the UK he decided to live the dream and move to the Languedoc-Roussillon, which he calls “the most exciting and spectacular place to make wine on Earth.”

Other courses are being added and will be posted on the Les Carrasses website when details are confirmed. Special food-and-wine weekends are also being planned.

LesCarrasses.com
Reservations from France: 04-67-00-00-67
Reservations from US: 011-33-4-67-00-00-67
Reservations from UK: 08-45-686-8067

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Million Dollar Fender Bender in Monaco

Only in Monaco would you find a Bentley Azure T that’s managed to plow into a Ferrari F430, damaging an Aston Martin Rapide, a Porsche 911 Carrera S and a Mercedes S-Class in the process. (Don't you hate when that happens?) Thanks to Autogespot.com for the photos and to Jalopnik.com for letting me steal this post.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Le Kindle Français Est Arrivé


Yesterday Amazon launched its French Kindle Store with 35,000 French-language book titles to choose from. At the same time, Amazon unveiled the first French-language Kindle, calling it the smallest, lightest and most affordable Kindle ever. Priced at just 99€, the newest Kindle will be released on October 14 but you can pre-order it now by clicking hereThe Kindle store now offers more than 825,000 books--including thousands of global best sellers--in English and other languages as well as Kindle versions of major French newspapapers such as Le Monde, Le Figaro, Liberation and others. For all the details, see the Amazon press release here and a full story on Wired.com here.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Easy Rider: Electric Bikes in Provence


Here in Provence, winemakers are deep into the vendange (grape harvest) but great stretches of countryside are still blanketed with row after row of beautiful green-golden vines, dripping with fat clusters of grenache, syrah, cinsault, mourvedre and viognier grapes. It’s one of the most beautiful times of the year. So last weekend my friend and I went up to Villes-sur-Auzon and took a spin through the vineyards on electric bikes (vélos électriques). After a little time to acclimate—neither of us had been on a bike for years--we were off and running, at a pace that topped out around 40 kilometers per hour.  It’s really a wonderful sensation: you pedal as usual and then the motor kicks in and gives you a little extra push. Then a little more pedaling…and another push. The bikes are like a cross between a traditional bike and a moped or scooter…and they’re a perfect way to ramble up and down winding roads and gentle hills without any major effort. It’s like cheating and getting away with it—a kinder, gentler Tour de France. The only time I felt a wee bit foolish was when “real” bikers blew past us, all sweaty and Spandexy and serious looking. But I got over it quickly.

You can rent the bikes year round but this is a perfect time, as the weather has cooled, the leaves are turning and there’s far less traffic on the roads.

At Vélo Relax du Ventoux, your electric bike comes equipped with a saddle bag, mileage counter and helmet; for longer rentals you’ll want an extra battery as well. The shop has traditional bikes as well--plus all the accoutrements such as bike trailers for kids, bike racks for the car and more. 

The electric bikes are surprisingly cheap: 22€ for a half day or 35€ for a full day. (If all you want is an hour or two, that’s fine too.) Owners Michel and Francoise Guieysse will help you out with maps and suggested routes--Michel particularly recommends the Gorges de la Nesque—and a guided tour can be arranged.

The shop is located between Carpentras and Sault, in the foothills of Mont Ventoux, in the A.O.C Ventoux winegrowing region. Complete contact info is below.

Just down the road from Vélo Relax is a wine co-operative called TerraVentoux. They offer a wide range of “Wine and Vineyard Discoveries,” including a guided vineyard tour on electric bikes, usually led by a local winegrower. You’ll enjoy tasting along the way and more tasting—with snacks--at the journey’s end.  Unfortunately, Terra Ventoux only offers the tours from late April through late September but Gabriel Valverde, who oversees wine tourism there, says he’ll be happy to arrange a bike tour for your group, weather permitting, until the end of October. (During their regular season, TerraVentoux also offers twilight walks, truffle tastings, moped tours, harvest workshops, winegrower walks and vineyard visits in a horse-drawn carriage.) See the TerraVentoux website here and the wine tourism section hereYou can also upload the complete wine tourism program here
Velorelaxduventoux.com
04-90-11-72-65
TerraVentoux.com
Route de Carpentras
84570 Villes sur Auzon
04-90-61-79-45
04-90-61-79-47
To contact Gabriel directly: oenotourisme@cave-terraventoux.com 


*Update: Since this story was written, I've been looking around for other places to rent electric bikes in Provence.  Lo and behold, they rent them at the Marseille St-Charles Rail station, along with scooters and other fun things. All the info is here. There are also two places to rent them in Aix en Provence: Cycloplanet and Electric Cycles. And Luberon Biking biking has them for rent as well, with pick up and drop off in a number of villages.  But wait, there's more! My friends at Vaucluse Tourism have just emailed with some exciting news: A new service called Sun-E-Bike has just been set up in the Luberon. They have more than 200 electric bikes for rent, with battery points for recharging all over the Luberon. Pick up and drop off is at three locations...and delivery is available as well. Get all the info by calling 04 90 74 09 96 or clicking here. Bike Tours Direct currently offers eight bike tours in France with e-bikes as an alternative to traditional bikes, including 5 in Provence. See all their e-bike tours here

*Update: Sun-E-Bikes has opened another base, this one in St. Remy de Provence, on January 7, 2013. Ask for Maxime and tell him I sent you! Tel: (+33) 4.90.74.09.96, Cell: (+33) 7.86.13.62.98, www.sun-e-bike.com, bonnieux@sun-e-bike.com

*Update April 15, 2013: Up in Vaison la Romaine, my friend Sharon DeRham (tour guide extraordinaire!) writes: "This morning I spoke with Cycles Chave in Vaison to confirm that they have electric bikes. They also have folding electric bikes as well (velos pliants.) They also seem to be the nicest of the bike rental companies here. You should definitely reserve, as Vaison attracts many cyclists and this year will be bigger than ever, since the Tour de France starts in Vaison on Tuesday, July 16, 2013, for the Mont Ventoux climb.  Cycles Chave is located at the entrance to Vaison on the road coming from Avignon, just before the Pont Neuf; here's a map. Their email is: cycleschave@gmail.com and their website is here."

Sharon also tells us that you can get a guided tour on an electric bike through the local tourist office (located across from the post office " La Poste.") For info, click here. The company that provides these tours is a bit cheaper than Chave, with e bike rentals around 25€ per day. For info on them, click here

*Update May 2013: I just learned (from Sheila at marvellous-provence.info) thatyou can take e-bike tours in Marseille through, yep, E-bike Tours Marseille, which runs small-group or private guided tours on electric bikes. Several routes are available, and the guides will take you down backstreets away from the traffic and talk about Marseille's colourful history when you stop for breaks. The tours last between 2.5 and 4 hours and are offered in English as well as French. The price (from 35 €uros a head) includes the bike hire and use of a helmet and fluorescent jacket. Baby seats and fun child trailers are available too at a small extra charge. Sheila also tells me that electric bikes and scooters can also be hired (without a guide) from the Wattmobile kiosk on the lower level of Saint Charles station, by the entrance to the metro: take the down escalator opposite Platform F. Click here for the Wattmobile website (in French only) where vehicles can be reserved online.

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