Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Nice Lait!

News of this great invention comes courtesy of Jeff Steiner, an American living in La Roche sur Foron (near Geneva). Steiner works as an English teacher and real estate agent but he also publishes numerous blogs, newsletters and websites including one called Americans in France (www.americansinfrance.net), which he started in 2001. Check it out, there's lots of great info there: some 4000 pages about various aspects of living and traveling in France. Jeff writes: "The photos were taken in Annecy-le-Vieux, where a machine dispenses fresh unpasteurized milk direct from a local dairy farm. I had heard about machines like this before, but never saw one in action. The idea is that the dairy farmer can go directly to the consumer and the consumer can buy fresh milk that's only filtered, thus 'drinking directly from the cow.' The cost is 1€ for a liter of milk, advertised to last up to three days."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Arles Photo Workshops

The 40th annual Rencontres d’Arles (www.rencontres-arles.com, info@rencontres-arles.com), a major international photography expo, runs from July 7th to September 13th, 2009. And, as in years past, the Rencontres has organized a series of open-to-the-public photo workshops, led by top photographers, to be held in Arles in conjunction with the festival. The first group of workshops will take place April 9 to 25, 2009; the others will be in July and August. Lasting four to six days, the workshops are designed for amateurs and professionals, working digitally or with film, in color and black-and-white. For info: www.stagephoto-arles.com, stage@rencontres-arles.com, 04-90-96-76-06. (Photo by Caroline Feyt, who leads a workshop April 14 to 18.)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Life in the Slow Lane

Hazel Young, the owner of two luxury French canal barges, is offering a substantial discount on a private Burgundy Canal charter for four people on Fandango. Normally she gets $19,980 for an all-inclusive six-night charter; she’s now asking $15,000 for the same package throughout the 2009 season. The price includes all meals, either on shore or on board. (Hazel shops en route and serves exquisite regional cuisine with fine Burgundy wines. I know the meals are amazing because a foodie friend of mine has barged with her.) Fandango has an open bar, an English-speaking crew and lots more, which you can see on the website. Not interested in a charter? Hazel is offering a discount on single cabins as well: $8000 (two people, one week) vs. the normal price of $10,000. For more info: www.canalsoffrance.com, hazel@canalsoffrance.com, 06-75-24-11-47 or, in the US: 866-550-3447.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Calling All Foodies

To celebrate the 100th edition of their Red Guide to France, Michelin's “Mois Gourmand” runs until April 5th. More than 900 restaurants throughout France are featuring special offers including special menus, market visits, cellar tours, kitchen dinners, wine deals, cooking classes and more. To take advantage of these offers, simply show the pass that’s inserted into the Michelin Guide 2009 (that’s the catch--you have to buy the book.) The pass is valid for two people and can be used and reused in all restaurants taking part in Le Mois Gourmand. A list of participating restaurants and their special offers, organized by region, can be seen at www.guide-michelin-centieme.com

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Bird Nerd’s Guide to Provence

Hugh Harrop is a professional naturalist, author and photographer who owns and runs Shetland Wildlife, an award-winning eco-tourism business based in the Shetland Islands. Just like the crimson-winged Wallcreeper, Hugh appears in Provence each winter… leading his popular February birding trips. We asked him to share some field notes from his most recent trip and this is what he sent.

With those crimson wings and its subtle dove-grey back, the Wallcreeper has to be one of Europe’s most handsome and sought-after birds. Breeding in remote rocky canyons in the mountains--from the Spanish Picos de Europa to the European Alps-- his high-altitude denizen can be extremely elusive in its summer quarters. During the non-breeding season, however, Wallcreepers move to lower elevations and the beautiful citadel of Les Baux de Provence is where we had excellent views of this 'Holy Grail' of a bird.

This was my eighth visit to the region and I’ve always found the limestone cliffs on which the citadel and extensive Roman ruins sit to be the best place to see them. Les Baux also gave us great views of another high-altitude species: Alpine Accentor. We found small parties of these gregarious ‘giant Dunnocks’ in the castle but they can also usually be seen along the cobbled streets in and around the town, looking for crumbs dropped from outside dining tables. But with a stiff mistral blowing last month, nobody was dining outside--so the birds were a little harder to locate. Other species you might encounter around the citadel of Les Baux include Blue Rock Thrush, Black Redstart, Crag Martin, Sardinian Warbler, Crested Tit, Serin, Firecrest and Cirl Bunting. Nearby we had amazing views of the rare Bonelli's Eagle.

One thing I love about Provence is the diversity of habitats and the proximity of great birding destinations. One such place, one that every birdwatcher will have heard of, is the Camargue. Thousands of waterfowl spend the winter here and among the masses of Shelduck, Teal, Gadwall, Shoveler, Pintail, Pochard and
Tufted Duck we’ve also found Black-Necked Grebes, Red-Crested Pochard, Bewick's Swans and Cranes. It goes without saying that such large numbers of waterfowl attract predators and every year a few eagles come to winter in the region. Very small numbers of Spotted Eagles can usually be found, while both Marsh and Hen Harriers, Merlin and Peregrine are also present in good numbers. The reed beds are home to delightful Penduline Tits, Bearded Tits and noisy Cetti’s Warbler and, with patience and luck, we sometimes catch sight of Moustached Warblers and Bitterns.

The region’s industrial saltpans hold large numbers of the famous Greater Flamingos but, to be honest, I find it hard to take pink birds seriously! As a true bird nerd, I find seagulls far more interesting and we’re always on the lookout for delightful slender-billed or white-winged Mediterranean Gulls.

La Crau, the “stony desert” region south of St. Martin de Crau, is also as famous in bird-watching circles and it never ceases to amaze me that such a barren looking environment can be so good for birds. The region is actually an ancient delta of the Durance River and now shelters a community of important 'steppe' birds that are pretty much unique in France. Indeed, this is the only site in France where we can find Pin-Tailed Sandgrouse and other specialities like Little Bustards and Stone Curlews. The Bustards form huge flocks prior to pairing up for the breeding season and flock sizes in excess of 500 birds are not unknown!

Southern Grey Shrikes and Dartford Warblers were birds we were also keen to see, as were the giant Calandra Larks. This rare bird is seen by very few people during winter but we managed to find a flock of 150. To cap it all off, we spent a super day on Mont Ventoux . At 1900 metres above sea-level, the mountain sits between the Alpine massif to the north and the Mediterranean massifs to the south. This year, the mountain was covered in snow with big concentrations of birds around the Chalet Reynard area. Here we saw the delightful European endemic--Citril Finch-- while the Beech, Juniper and Scots Pine forests produced Crossbills, Marsh and Crested Tits, Short-toed Treecreepers and stunning views of the crow-sized Black Woodpecker. I've also seen Golden Eagles from the mountain. And the cafe has the best hot chocolate for miles around!

 For more info on Hugh’s birding holidays and other eco trips: www.shetlandwildlife.co.uk. To see more of Hugh's photographic work, go to: www.hughharrop.com and to http://hughharropwildlifephotography.blogspot.com. To contact Hugh directly: hugh@hughharrop.com.

(Pictured: Hugh's photos of the Citril Finch, Black Woodpecker, Wallcreeper.)

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Michelin Guide 2009

The 100th edition of Michelin's Guide Rouge France was released this week and, as usual, there were cheers and tears.

The Hotel Bristol in Paris and its chef, Eric Fréchon, earned three stars, the only new restaurant to join that elite rank this year, bringing the total number of three-stars to 26. Apparently the Bristol is one of President Sarkozy’s favorite haunts.

Down here in Provence, three local chefs are celebrating, having been promoted from one to two stars: Jean-Luc Rabanel (of L’Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel, Arles, who is pictured above), Jérôme Nutile (of Hostellerie Le Castellas in Collias, near the Pont du Gard) and Philippe Jourdin at Faventia, the gorgeous restaurant at the Four Seasons Resort Provence at Terre Blanche in Tourrettes (also pictured above).

I’ve been to Jean-Luc Rabanel and Faventia and I absolutely loved both. Go if you can. I haven't eaten at Le Castellas and would love to. Feel free to invite me.

Among the guide’s 449 one stars, 63 are new. In our ‘hood, these new one-stars include La Chassagnette outside Arles, Le Saule Pleureur in Monteux, Marc de Passorio at Hotel Vallon de Valrugues (St. Remy), La Petite Maison (Cucuron), Mandarine (Monte Carlo), La Table du Cap (Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat), Les Bacchanales (Vence) and La Table de Ventabren (Ventabren).

It feels a bit mean to tell you who among us lost stars this year...so I won't. But you can see the Michelin ratings for the six departments of the Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur region by clicking the link at the end of this post.

Elsewhere in the new guide, London-based chef Gordon Ramsay earned two stars for his first formal foray into the French restaurant business—he opened Le Trianon in Versailles in March 2008. To earn two stars your first year is extremely rare and Ramsay, a Scot, calls it a "triumph" over the Paris food elite.

"It’s a great honor to be awarded two Michelin stars in our first year…” he said. “It’s particularly satisfying after the rather hostile reception we had on opening and this is a real career high for me."

The launch of Le Trianon was soured for Ramsay when critic Francois Simon of Le Figaro slammed it as "Gordon Ramsayland." According to Agence France Presse, he accused Ramsay of spreading himself too thinly across his restaurant empire and leaving sous chefs in charge of the kitchens much of the year (the sous at Le Trianon, by the way, is 32-year-old Simone Zanoni). The critic also sniffed at Ramsay's out-of-the-way Versailles location, suggesting he would woo rich foreign tourists but not real Parisians. He called the cuisine at Le Trianon “photocopier food.”

Ramsay, who trained under Joël Robuchon, is the first British chef to earn two stars in France. Robuchon, meanwhile, holds more Michelin stars than anyone else: 25, compared to Alain Ducasse’s 19 and Gordon Ramsay’s 12.

Several chefs have opted out of Michelin's system in recent years, saying the personal and financial investment needed to maintain its standards didn’t pay off.

If you've had experiences good or bad at Michelin-starred restaurants in Provence, I'd love to hear about them. You can post your comments below.

An English-language version of the France Guide and the Paris Guide will be released on March 18th.

To see all the PACA (Provence Alpes Côte d'Azur) Michelin rankings, go here:


Monday, March 2, 2009

Graffiti Grown Up

Antibes-born painter Olivier Clavel, born in 1972, began doing graffiti at age 14; today his work retains that same splashy and vibrant energy. Olivier just hung a new show at Le Passage in Aix and his vernissage is Wed. Mar. 4th from 6:30 to 9 p.m. The show runs until April 30th. Le Passage, a restaurant/gallery/performance space/cooking school, is at 10, rue Villars. For info on the artist: www.olivierclavel.com, contact@olivierclavel.com. For info on Le Passage: www.le-passage.fr, 04-42-37-09-00. (Pictured: Antenna, 2008)

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Happy Birthday Balthus

My friend Peter Gillespie tells me that the gallery of La Fondation Ecureuil (Marseille) has a unique retrospective for the 100th anniversary of the birth of the French modern painter Balthus, running until April 2nd. Peter says: “The artist’s fame is largely built around his star status as the son of Polish émigré intelligentsia, who were major players in the Surrealist social scene in Paris in the '20s and '30s, and his limited production--approximately 300 works--of carefully composed paintings. While the exhibit is not a 'major' one, it’s an easy add-on if you’re in Marseille.” Espace Ecureuil, #26 rue Montgrand, 6ème arrondissement, Marseille. Guided tours available Monday and Wednesday afternoons, or by pre-arrangement. For info: www.fondation-ecureuil.fr, 04-91-57-26-49. (Pictured: La Patience, 1943.)