Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Cocktail Drinkers' Guide to Gardening: February

Born in Hampshire, England, my smart (brainy) and smart (elegant) friend James Clay is an artist and sculptor who settled down (somewhat) in St. Remy close to 20 years ago. Over the years, he lovingly created a gorgeous one-hectare garden, filled with fruit, palm, pine, and olive trees (he has 60 olive trees, all of them transplanted), plus many varieties of bamboo, flowering plants and shrubs. James knows pretty much everything about gardening in Provence. Plus, he likes to drink. Plus, he likes to write. So each month here on, James serves up some essential gardening secrets...with appropriate drink suggestions. But it's February, and our intrepid garden columnist is traveling--not toiling in the soil. So this month he shares one of his favorite getaways...

February tends to be the dreariest of months and there is little to do in the garden except ponder what you might do once spring bursts through. The best thing for a dose of the February blues is to seek inspiration elsewhere.

If you haven't already--and really you have no excuse--you simply must give yourself a break and take a trip. There's no better time of year to visit the Cote d' Azur than right now. It was the northern Europeans that made the area fashionable toward the end of the 19th century, during la Belle Epoque, seeking a haven from the harsh winters. Set off to explore the beautiful coast with its many little harbours and bigger towns. Perhaps I'm a romantic but I love coastal towns out of season when one really experiences these places for oneself without the hoards that invade from May on. There's sense of melancholy in the air, a world of closed shutters and forlorn window boxes, empty bars… and yet the locals repainting and repairing for the coming season gives life to this gentler time of year. Better still, it gives one the chance of finding 'that perfect' restaurant, impossible in season.

Now is the time to take your seat at the table in the window overlooking the water, to enjoy some of the best seafood in the world and to kick off your holiday break with a Mimosa as a delicious start to lunch!

You can serve this favourite as a milder cocktail (or with breakfast the next morning). A touch of orange-flavored liqueur makes the drink extra special.


* 4 ounces chilled Champagne or sparkling wine
* 2 ounces chilled freshly squeezed orange juice
* 1 tablespoon Grand Marnier or other orange-flavored liqueur (Triple sec)
* Fresh mint sprig for garnish (optional)

Pour the Champagne, orange juice, and Grand Marnier into a chilled Champagne flute. Gently stir, serve immediately, garnished with mint if you wish.

If you haven't got the whole month free to meander and enjoy this stunning part of the world then here's an idea for a day trip you might like to take. Starting off as early as you can, head straight for the wonderful Villa Ephrussi (above), built as a home for the Rothschilds, and now opening its gates and doors once again to welcome visitors into its fantasy world. I remember the first time I visited this pink pile built on its own isthmus--I was astonished by the beauty and grandeur of the place. The villa sits as if it were the bridge of an ocean going liner with the decks created into the many terraced gardens laid out in front and to the sides; one truly has the impression of being at sea. The villa is a composite of shopping on a grand scale rarely, if ever, seen these days.

The Rothschilds sent their 'personal shoppers ' throughout Europe in search of whatever delights could be incorporated into their new home, including entire rooms, buildings and many fascinating architectural elements. The local railway track was even extended and a small depot built so that they could take delivery of their purchases. One amusing item I must mention is that the couple could not visualize the house completed so the architect had a mock-up of the facade painted and erected on scaffolding so they could get an impression of their future abode. Having done that, a mistral promptly blew it down.

Above all, it's the gardens and setting that make this a truly remarkable place to visit. The villa itself, albeit a wedding cake of a mansion, is an eclectic mess, with evidence of too much money and not enough taste! Dubious though the taste may be, it's fascinating in the way all the elements have been incorporated to create it.

On arrival, get some coffee in the restaurant within the villa before setting off on your tour (guided or not as you wish). It's time to get inspired and if the Rothchilds little extravaganza doesn't set you dreaming then I would be amazed.

Should you have any time left after the visit and lunch then I would suggest a visit to the Villa Kerylos. Although there are no gardens as such, the villa is truly amazing and a very different experience from that of the Villa Ephussi. I won't write about Villa Kerylos as I wouldn't like to ruin a delightful surprise!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Wine's French Foreign Legion

My friend Jim Gullo is a journalist and author based in McMinnville, Oregon, in the heart of the Oregon wine country. Jim's new blog on wine, food and travel is called b/t/w and he is about to re-launch the OregonWine website as editor and publisher. One day Jim was telling me about four French women he knows who are making amazing wines in Oregon. I thought, what the heck? It has nothing to do with Provence but it's a great story--and I asked him to tell us about it. I’ve always felt fairly strongly that if a place claimed to be “the France of…” (take your pick: New Zealand, Hoboken, northwest Wisconsin), it should at least have a few French women living there. French women just add an irresistible…Frenchness…to a destination that can not be faked, not even by French men. And that is why I’m pleased to report that in a recent story that I wrote for Portland, Oregon-based MIX Magazine, I managed to find four Frenchwomen who are making wine professionally in Oregon, most of whom reside or work in the Willamette Valley (i.e. “The Burgundy of the U.S.”). Two other women who make wine in the area – and very good wine at that – are so elegant in their manners and bearing that everyone thinks they’re French, which is almost as good as the real thing. I put them into the story anyway. [As a professional aside here, a free tip for student journalists, the way that one finds French women working in Oregon wineries is to hang out in cheese shops until one ambles by, or call several wineries and announce, “Hello? I’m looking for a French woman. Got any there?” and get past many stunned silences until someone says, “I think you need to talk with Isabelle.”] These women, all Burgundians, were drawn to Oregon by pinot noir. Alexandrine Roy, for example, now splits her time between Domaine Marc Roy, her family’s winery in Gevrey-Chambertin, and Phelps Creek Vineyards in Hood River, Oregon, where she makes a special pinot noir cuvee every year that bears her name. Veronique Drouhin-Boss is the fourth-generation of Drouhins in the wine business; she also splits her time between Maison Joseph Drouhin in Beaune and little Dundee, Oregon, where Domaine Drouhin Oregon was the first Burgundian house to stake a claim in Oregon when father Robert Drouhin bought property here in 1988. Just down the street from DDO is DePonte Cellars, which lured longtime Drouhin associate Isabelle Dutartre to become its head winemaker in 2001. She liked it so much that she moved her three children to McMinnville, Oregon, and recently began her own label, 1789 Wines, to commemorate her personal revolution. And not far from DDO, Delphine Gladhart, who was born in Lyons and fell for wine while attending boarding school in Beaujolais, handles the winemaking duties at family-owned Winter's Hill Vineyards while husband Russell mans the tasting room. Now we all sleep more soundly, knowing that there are French women in our midst. We hope they can say the same in the Burgundy of northwest Wisconsin. Photos top to bottom: Veronique Drouhin-Boss, Alexandrine Roy in Burgundy (photo by Jean-Luc Petit) and Isabelle Dutartre. To reach Jim Gullo:

Monday, February 15, 2010

Screamin' Ski Deals in the Southern Alps

The Provence Alpes Cote d'Azur Regional Tourist Office has published a terrific list of 10 ski resorts in the Southern French Alps where a lift ticket costs less €20 a day. To compile the list they chose smaller, traditional ski resorts where you'll find charming, authentic and reasonably priced places to stay. You can see the list by clicking HERE or just read on: I've pasted it below.

So how do you get there? Unless you're local, you fly to Marseille, Grenoble or Turin. From Marseille, on Saturdays until 17th April 2010, there are Navettes Blanches shuttle buses to the Southern Alps ski resorts (35€ roundtrip for an adult, 17€ roundtrip for a child).

Or, you can take a train: Book your ticket to any of the train stations mentioned above (there will be a change in Paris or Lille and a second change in Marseille). The two nearest TGV stations (high speed train) are Aix-en-Provence TGV station (the Navettes Blanches are also available from there), and Oulx TGV station in Italy. There's also a night train from Paris to Briançon, calling at most of the stations mentioned above.

Ok, here's the list. Off you go!

€16 /day (or €12.70/day with a 6-day ski-pass)
17 km of slopes
Nearest airport: Marseille
Nearest train station: Embrun
This very typical mountain village offers a friendly atmosphere. The pistes are ideal for beginners or children. Stop off at l’Auberge for lunch, where you can taste a range of delicious pork and cheese specialties. The nearby town of Embrun offers shops, restaurants and a train station (with direct shuttle to Crevoux). The larger resort of "Les Orres", featuring 88 km of slopes, is within 30 minutes' drive (5 minutes as the crow flies). Where to stay?
Le Moulin Ollivier Guesthouse. This amazing mountain chalet-guesthouse, situated 10 minutes from Crevoux, is set right in the middle of the forest! Le Moulin Ollivier offers bed and breakfast from €70 per room and a dinner menu at €19 (including drinks). Added extras include a shuttle service to Crevoux.

€15.50/day(€13.30/ day with a 6-day ski-pass)
26 km of slopes
Nearest airports: Grenoble or Marseille
Nearest train station: Gap
Ancelle boasts a very sunny exposure, and has a wide "snow front” parents will appreciate as they can sunbathe while their children are sledging or skiing! Other activities include snowshoeing, dog-sledging and ice-skating. Ancelle is situated a few kilometres from Napoleon's Road, and is linked to Gap via a regular bus service. You can also try 5 other small ski resorts in the area thanks to the “Stations Villages” ski-pass (€80 for 6 days).

Where to stay? The three-star Hôtel Les Autanes. Set in the very heart of the village, this charming hotel offers a spa with an indoor swimming pool and jaccuzzi, massage rooms, and a lovely gastronomic restaurant in addition to very comfortable rooms. From €85 per night.

€17.50/day (or €15,30/day with a 6-day ski-pass)
30 km of slopes
Nearest airports: Grenobleor Marseille
Nearest train stations: Chorges, Gap, Embrun.
Reallon offers panoramic views over the whole valley and Serre-Ponçon, Europe's biggest mountain lake. Its north-east orientation means the resort enjoys quality snow cover from December through to April.

Where to eat and stay?
A la Croisée des Chemins ("At the Crossroads") is a delightful new bed and breakfast where Anaïs welcomes her guests at the house her grandfather built. Not-to-be-missed: the restaurant situated in a yurt! From €45 including breakfast

€18.30/day with a 6-day ski-pass
45 km of slopes.
Nearest airport: Marseille
Nearest train station: Digne-les-Bains (TGV: Aix-en-Provence)
Essentially a family ski resort, St-Jean Montclar pulls out at all the stops for the kids, with amenities including a day care nursery, special rates for children at many establishments, reindeer-sledge tours (especially popular at Christmas) and ice-rink next to the tourist office. And if you purchase two 6-day ski-passes for adults (2x€110), you get a child’s ski-pass for free(except Feb 6 to Feb 21).

€19/day (or €16.75/day with a 6-day ski-pass)
40 kms of slopes.
Nearest airport: Marseille
Nearest train station: Digne-les-Bains (TGV :Aix-en-Provence)
Adapted to all levels, the slopes of Chabanon are even lit at night so you can make the most of the winter landscapes! (5 to 10pm).

Where to Stay? New this season is Les Blanches Provençales apartment hotel with a choice of accommodation ranging from studios to 2-bedroom flats to rent.

€20.30/day for the late-risers (or €18.60/day with a 6-day ski-pass)
50 km of slopes.
Nearest airport : Marseille or Nice
Nearest train stations : Digne or Thorame

Val d’Allos 1500 is part of the larger “Espace Lumière” ski area linking Praloup, Allos 1800 (La Foux) and Allos 1500 (Le Seignus) and totalling 230 km of pistes. It is located in Seignus, where Provence's first ski lift was installed in 1936. The village's traditional architecture reminds us that Allos is not just a ski resort but also a typical mountain village, home to a 13th-century church, called Notre Dame de Valvert.

Where to stay? The new
L’Attrapeur de Rêves (The Dream Catcher) Bed & Breakfast. This restored farm in the village of Allos offers two rooms decorated in mountain-style, with B&B from €70 per room, plus a gorgeous gîte available for weekly rental.


€16.50/day(or €13.10 with a 6-day ski-pass)
34 kms of slopes
Nearest airports: Turin or Marseille.
Nearest train station: l’Argentière-les-Ecrins
The Pelvoux-Vallouise ski resort is first and foremost a village resort, offering a huge "snow front" ideal for children and beginners. Situated inside the “Ecrins” national park, it is a perfect venue for amateur or confirmed mountaineers. Get more information at the
Mountain Guides’ Office. Good to know: a day ski-pass at the nearby Puy-St-Vincent ski resort (75 km of pistes) is offered free of charge if you buy a 6-day ski-pass at Pelvoux!

Where to stay? Zoe and Francis (both mountain guides) own a great chalet in Pelvoux if you are here to mountaineer! The Chalet Soureillado offers bed and breakfast from €45 per night (€90 for the weekend), plus a gite available for weekly rental.

€19/day in low season (or €16.90 with a 6-day ski-pass)
33 km of slopes
Nearest airport: Marseille.
Nearest train station: Montdauphin-Guillestre.
This is Europe's highest municipality (2042 metres), with architecture very typical of the valley.

Where to stay? A popular three-star, the
Hotel Astragale, hotel, situated in the village, offers all-inclusive packages based on different themes such as "snow-shoe 2010," astronomy, wellbeing (they have a spa) and mountain hiking with climbing skins. Rooms from €51 /night.

€16/day (or €12.60 with a 6-day ski-pass)
31 km of slopes
Nearest airport: Grenoble
Nearest train station: Gap
Set a few kilometres above St-Michel de Chaillol (the ancient village), Chaillol is a modern ski-resort located in the Champsaur valley. It's particularly reputed for its cuisine and local specialities (such as potato tourtons, ravioles, cured ham and ‘oreilles d’âne’, which are not donkey’s ears as the name suggests, but actually spinach lasagna). Like at Ancelle, you can try 5 other village ski resorts in the valley thanks to the “Stations Villages” ski-pass (€80 for 6 days).

Villar d’Arène: €8/day, 3 ski lists
Le Chazelet: €14/day, 5 ski lifts.
Both are within easy reach of "La Meije" glacier--a free-rider’s paradise located in the distinctive ski resort of La Grave. La Grave is also ranked as "one of France's most beautiful villages."

Where to stay? Rent a chalet at
Les Chalets de la Meije featuring 18 chalets hosting from 3 to 10 people each.

Photo via Flickr

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Google Scores on Super Bowl Sunday

Google broke with its longstanding tradition of not advertising its search engine on national television when it ran this attention-grabbing and yet understated 60-second spot during the Super Bowl on Sunday Feb 7th. The Super Bowl is the most-watched TV event of the year (stats for this year put the number at 106.5 million viewers) with 30-second commercials selling for upwards of $3 million. This was Google's first-ever Super Bowl ad buy. Called "Parisian Love," the commercial was based on a series of YouTube videos called Search Stories that Google has posted over the past three months. "We didn't set out to do a Super Bowl ad, or even a TV ad for search," Google chief executive Eric Schmidt told CNN. "We liked this video so much, and it's had such a positive reaction on YouTube, that we decided to share it with a wider audience." Predictably, the ad has inspired all sort of parodies including one with a pro-life message called Parisian Oops and another making fun of Tiger Woods. To see the ad, click the arrow above. And if you're older than 12 and need to watch it more than once to catch it completely, don't worry--you're not alone.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Candy Land

With Valentines Day just around the corner, I've been thinking of chocolate, of course. And I remembered my chef friend Andy Floyd telling me about a chocolate maker he loved near Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Andy has a superb palate so when he likes something, I know it's gonna be good. Based near Boulder, Colorado, he's been a culinary instructor for 12 years. For ten years, he brought students to the Vaucluse each summer for a complete immersion into the regional food and wine culture. Andy knows the landscape intimately and loves to share its treasures. And when I rang him up for the info, it turned out the chocolatier he had mentioned does much more than make and sell excellent bonbons. Here's what Andy had to say. 

Why not get your chocolate bisous in Chateauneuf-du-Pape? The Castelain family moved to the area from the north of France (near the border of Belgium) and brought their chocolate expertise to the southern slopes of Chateauneuf-du-Pape when they built their first factory in 1994. Today, Laurence Castelain, a tall feisty woman with wild curly red hair, is the face of the family business. In 2007, Laurence completely gutted the original Chocolatier Bernard Castelain factory and created Vin Chocolat et Compagnie, devoted not just to chocolates but also to the wines of the region. Today Laurence runs a very modern boutique and wine shop but what really sets this delicious place apart is the various chocolate classes and tours she arranges for the public. Once a month you can join a VIP tour of the chocolate production area with their chocolate master and then learn the art of pairing chocolates with regional wines under the expert guidance of a master sommelier. Or, maybe you'd like to learn how to make chocolates yourself and even get your kids in on the action. Bonus: you get to take home your chef d’oeuvres. Of course the chocolates alone are worth a visit. Make sure to try.... Le Palet des Papes, which are made of a ganache that is unmistakably flavored with a Marc (a type of grappa) of Chateauaeuf. Le Bouchon de Châteauneuf-du-Pape: The same ganache as above but fashioned into a cork shape. Le Galet de Châteauneuf-du-Pape: Local almonds coated in dark chocolate and covered in a white chocolate crust made to look like the famous river rock that blankets the terroir outside the door. La Picholine: a similar concotion as the galet, but this time made to look like the olives that perfume so much of the olive oil of the area. Take a different path on your next visit to Chateauneuf-du-Pape and say hello to my friend Laurence. Your wine and chocolate dreams just might come true.... Wine, Chocolate & Co. Route d'Avignon 84230 Châteauneuf du Pape (At the entrance to the village) 04-90-83-54-71 (For online ordering) Photo: Dipped chocolates at Castelain in Chateauneuf.

To reach Andy Floyd:

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Michelin: Best Meal Deals for 2010

Yesterday Michelin released Bonnes Petites Tables du Guide Michelin 2010, listing all the restaurants in the newest Michelin Guide France 2010 with the Bib Gourmand label.

The Bib Gourmand signifies "the best affordably priced restaurants" chosen by Michelin's inspectors, where diners will find excellent value for money.

The new Michelin Guide France 2010, known as the Guide Rouge, will be published next month.

Bib is short for Bibendum, the widely recognized character created in 1898 by the Michelin brothers André and Edouard. The Bib Gourmand label and symbol was created in 1997.

Bonnes Petites Tables contains all the Bib Gourmand restaurants for 2010. There are 555 restaurants (including 105 new entries) that meet the criteria: a three-course menu for less than €29 euros on weekdays and €33 euros on weekends (outside the Paris area) and less than €35 euros (in Paris).

Restaurants in Bonnes Petites Tables are organized by region, with cities listed in alphabetical order within each region. Each description presents the style of cooking, typical dishes, décor and practical information. The book, in French only, went on sale yesterday priced at €15.90 euros.

And since I live only to please you, gentle reader, I asked the kind folks at Michelin to provide me with a list of all the Bonnes Petites Tables in the Provence Alpes Cote d'Azur (PACA) region this year--and it appears below. A star means the restaurant is new to the Bib Gourmand this year. Bon App!

Alpes de Haute-Provence (04)
Castellane/La Garde Auberge du Teillon
Moustiers-Sainte-Marie/Treille Muscate*

Les Hautes-Alpes (05)
Briançon/Le Péché Gourmand
Puy-Saint-Vincent/La Pendine
Saint-Crépin/Les Tables de Gaspard*
Saint-Disdier/La Neyrette
Saint-Julien-en-Champsaur/Les Chenets
Serre-Chevalier/Le Monêtier-les-Bains La Table de Chazal

Les Alpes-Maritimes (06)
La Colle-sur-Loup/Le Blanc Manger *
Gilette / Vescous La Capeline
Mandelieu / La Napoule Les Bartavelles*
Menton / Monti Pierrot-Pierrette*
Nice/Au Rendez-vous des Amis
Nice/Les Pêcheurs*
La Roquette-sur-Siagne/La Terrasse*
La Turbie/Café de la Fontaine
Vence/Le Vieux Couvent

Les Bouches-du-Rhône (13)
Aix-en-Provence / Le Canet L'Auberge Provençale
Eygalières/Sous Les Micocouliers
Fontvieille/Le Patio
Fontvieille/La Table du Meunier
Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer/Hostellerie du Pont de Gau

Le Var (83)
Bandol/Le Clocher
Draguignan/Flayosc L'Oustaou
Fayence/La Table d'Yves
Gassin/Auberge la Verdoyante
Le Luc/Le Gourmandin
Rians/La Roquette

Le Vaucluse (84)
Carpentras /Beaumes-de-Venise Dolium*
Gigondas/Les Florets
L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue/L'Oustau de l'Isle
Orange/Au Petit Patio*
Orange/Le Parvis
Sainte-Cécile-les-Vignes/Campagne, Vignes et Gourmandises
Uchaux/Côté Sud
Uchaux/Le Temps de Vivre
Vaison-La-Romaine/Le Brin d'Olivier*
Vaison-la-Romaine, Séguret/Le Mesclun
Villars/La Table de Pablo