Saturday, January 28, 2012

Raymond Blanc: A Very Hungry Frenchman

Raymond Blanc may be Britain’s most-famous French chef, yet he has never cooked professionally in France. (Born in Besançon, the popular television chef, cookbook author and hotelier has held two Michelin stars for 28 years at his Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Oxfordshire and operates a number of other restaurants as well.) In Raymond Blanc: The Very Hungry Frenchman, a five-part series beginning Thursday, Feb 2 on BBC2, Blanc has the opportunity to show us the country he loves and the French recipes that inspire him. In each episode, the chef explores the distinctive produce and cuisine of a different region of France, from world- famous Burgundy to his less well-known but much-loved home region of Franche Comte, where his 90-year-old mother still lives. We also explore Lyon, German-influenced Alsace and of course, our favorite: Provence

In each hour-long episode, Blanc sources the freshest ingredients, shows us how to make the dishes, and then together with his young British protégés, Katie and Kush, cooks a menu of traditional dishes at a local restaurant for one night only.

The Very Hungry Frenchman will be broadcast on BBC2 at 8 p.m U.K. time. The current airing schedule is as follows:

Thursday February 2 - Franche Comte
Thursday February 9- Burgundy
Thursday February 16 - Lyon
Thursday February 23 - Alsace
Thursday March 1 – Provence

There's no word yet on where else or when else the series might be shown but BBC2 often makes its programs available online once they've been broadcast. For more info, click here and here.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

New Photo Workshops in Provence

My very first trip to Provence was in 1997, when I took a two-week photo workshop sponsored by the Maine Photo Workshop (Rockport, Maine). Based in a hotel in Fontvieille, we set up a makeshift darkroom and spent two glorious weeks exploring the history, culture, architecture and light of Provence, with two fine photographers (Craig Stevens and Antoine Godard), as our guides. It was, as they say, a life-changing experience, which led to my quitting my magazine-editor job in New York and moving to St. Remy a year or so later. Photo workshops rock!

And while I make my living as a writer, I'm still crazy passionate about photography...and I try to keep up with what’s going on in the photo world here in France. (Some recent stories are here, here, here and here.)  So I was delighted to learn last week about a new series of photo workshops launching here in Provence this spring. I think they’re going to be great and I definitely plan to take one.

Kenneth Hope is a British photographer and filmmaker who has been living in central France for seven years. He has worked for high-profile clients such as Revlon, Johnny Walker, Manpower, Nestlé, Czech Telecom, EMI, General Motors and Rayban, while his editorial work has appeared in Vogue, Esquire, Elle and The Mail on Sunday.  Kenneth has lectured in photography at the Royal Academy for Fine Arts in the Hague and had shows in Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris. A selection of his images are above.

This month, Kenneth and his wife, Ingrid, will move to Lorgues (in the Var region of Provence, about halfway between Aix and Nice), and team up with Kenneth’s friend Martin Poole to offer two- and three-day digital photo workshops between May and October. (Martin is an photographer, art director, designer, animator and computer-graphics expert.) Some workshops happen over the weekend; others are mid week. They’ll all include location shooting in RAW and high-res jpeg formats, exercises and image review, work with digital enhancement and archiving and, it’s safe to say, lots of food, wine, laughter and bonhomie.  If you’re traveling to Provence specifically for a workshop, you may want to time your trip to take in some of the Rencontres d’Arles as well. It’s a large, international photo festival in Arles that kicks off on July 2, 2012.

If the pre-set workshop dates don’t work for you, private classes for small groups can be arranged. Beyond that, everything you need to know is on the Raw Digital site here. You can also email Kenneth directly ( or call him at: +33 (06) 01-84-37-84. 

All photos copyright by Kenneth Hope.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Saatchi's Online Art Mart

The famous Saatchi Gallery has created, to sell reasonably priced paintings, prints, photos and multi-media art from all over the world. I searched "France" and an amazing number of sensational works popped up, such as the photo Oyster Point, above, by Nick Shepherd (London). What a fabulous way to browse for art...and how great for the artists, who can simply upload their images and begin selling. Below are just a few of my favorites, all of which came up (with many, many others) in my "France" search. Meanwhile, with my birthday just around the corner (July), any of these would be an ideal gift. Just sayin'.

From the Denon Wing of The Louvre by Ti-An DeMartines (Toronto)
Petit déjeuner à Paris by Stephanie Köhl (Holving, France)

Chanel, Route du Cubzak, France by Crouzel Olivier (Bordeaux)

Sunset, Carlton, Cannes by Ruurd Dankloff (Netherlands)

Seaside #10 (taken in Dieppe) by Ruurd Dankloff (Netherlands)

Pont Neuf by Asbjorn Lonvig (Hedensted, Denmark)

Grocer, Montpellier, France by Mark York (London).

Le Canard by Götz Friedewald (Munich)
A Newlywed Couple, Paris by Yanice Idir (London)

Eiffel Tower by Ryan Nore (Vienna)
French Confections by Barbara Andolsek (Los Angeles)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Another Fine French Book Giveaway!

In the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, as Alfred Lord Tennyson said. But in winter in Provence, those thoughts definitely turn to truffles. And it’s possible that no man, old or young, has thought more about truffles than Auguste Escoffier.

Escoffier is, of course, the famed French chef (1846–1935) credited with pioneering modern French cuisine and the French dining experience, especially through the meals he prepared at his legendary restaurants at The Savoy (London) and The Ritz (London and Paris). He also created the brigade system used in most French kitchens today. Escoffier was a man of striking contradictions—kind yet imperious, food-obsessed yet rarely hungry, professionally successful but financially unlucky. His married the acclaimed, reserved, and fiercely independent poet and writer Delphine Daffis, whom he won in a billiards game from Delphine’s cash-strapped father, or so the story goes.

And now the haunting story of Auguste, Delphine, and their marriage is imagined in a new 352-page novel called White Truffles in Winter (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011), by American author N.M. Kelby. White Truffles transports us into Escoffier’s world, opening our eyes to his revolutionary contributions to French cuisine as well as his convictions about the power and emotional resonance of a perfectly crafted dish.

The book spans the 1880s to the 1930s and opens with World War II on the horizon. After spending most of their marriage apart, Escoffier and Delphine are once again living together, scraping by in their villa in Monte Carlo, surrounded by an extensive brood of visiting family members. Escoffier spends his days struggling to finish his latest book, while Delphine is quickly declining. She is mostly confined to a wheelchair, dependent on morphine, and obsessed with one thought—to make sure her husband creates a dish in her honor before she dies. Escoffier, it seems, has made dishes in honor of everyone from Queen Victoria to Sarah Bernhardt, but never one for his wife.

Delphine enlists the aid of the villa’s new cook—a young, irritable girl named Sabine—to help in her quest.

Escoffier attempts a memoir of his life, told through the wonderful dishes he has prepared, in order to stave off the growing pile of bills. He teaches Sabine how to cook for them, and she learns that the name “Escoffier” --if wielded with a liberal seasoning of chicanery—can still fill the kitchen with extravagant gifts of foods, even during wartime. Sabine does her best to push Escoffier into making a dish for Delphine, but his mind wanders backward in time with reminiscences of the many exquisite meals he has made along the way. As Escoffier notes, “When you reach a certain age, all you see are ghosts.”

For Escoffier, even the ghosts are extraordinary: Estes, the American chef and former slave, who showed him how to prepare fried chicken; Sarah Bernhardt, for whom he made special birthday meals of scrambled eggs and champagne; and Kaiser Wilhelm, who asked Escoffier to prepare a special dinner onboard his ship and made him privy to deadly state secrets.

All the while, the dish he cannot seem to create for Delphine looms over his head. As the brilliant chef laments, “it is an art that combines the telling of impossible truths and the chemistry of memory that only cuisine can provide. He worries that “some dishes fall short of the profound love that a chef feels and that is insulting.” How is he to distill their long, passionate, exasperating, and bewitched love into a single work that can mimic the complex flavors of their marriage?

In order to explore these themes and bring to life the world of Escoffier, author N. M. Kelby plunged deeply into research about Escoffier, as well as into Escoffier’s own cookbooks, letters and memoir. But, as Kelby discovered, many of the works contradict one another. She found that “the list of facts, and alleged facts, go on and on but what is left unsaid is often the most interesting part of any life.” Did Escoffier have an affair with Sarah Bernhardt as rumored? What was the truth of his marriage with Delphine? We will never know. Kelby believes the more important truth about Escoffier is what he can tell us about ourselves. “We all know that I did not write about the real man,” Kelby says. “The elegant savage found in these pages is who we all are when we address the plate. The magician, the priest, the dreamer, the artist—it is our most hungry self.”

From what she calls “the bones of fact,” the author--who lives in Minneapolis and has published three previous books--has spun an intriguing and romantic story of the brilliant man who made cooking a respectable career. As the Escoffier of this novel wisely tells us, “Food is a thing of enchantment and to believe in enchantment, and to weave its spell, is a radical and necessary act. And so. Silently. Cook.”

But before you do….

The publisher has generously offered me two free copies of this recently published book to give away here. To enter, click “comments” just below this post and leave one. If your comment is about French food…or about food and love…so much the better! Make sure to also leave your email address in the body of your comment or we won’t be able to reach you if you win. Meanwhile if you want to order the book, you can do that on Amazon US here or Amazon UK hereBon Chance and Bon Appetit!

Friday, January 13, 2012

A Star-Spangled Banner in St. Remy

Walking home from town a couple weeks ago, I spied this wall-size installation from a full block away and my heart skipped a beat. It's at La Maison de  Cédric, a quirky and elegant furniture, antiques, decor and design shop in my neighborhood in St. Remy. Owner Cédric Schmitté has given the sculpture pride of place; it fills a full wall of the glass-enclosed satellite space he has in front of his main shop. And it's brightly lit most evenings for all the world to see. Cédric tells me the piece, entitled Drapeau Américain, was created by 35-year-old artist Aurélien Grudzien, who was born in Montelimar (in the Drome Provencale), and currently lives and works in Puyjiron. The hands are made of concrete and should you want to order a similar piece, they could be rendered in any color. 

So what inspired the flag? Aurélien says it was his work with concrete that triggered the idea; he says he is "inexplicably attracted" to New York, to the art he sees in the architecture on every corner, and that this material and symbol seemed a perfect way to describe his feelings for that "upright" and very-cosmopolitan city. The sculpture is 4.6  by 2.6 meters (15 by 8.5 feet) and priced at 5000€. To reach Aurélien directly, you can email him: But La Maison de Cédric is his sole gallery and representative and Cedric would be delighted to answer all inquiries. Either way, you should definitely pop by the shop as there are many very-special pieces (furniture, lighting, accessories, etc.) on view and some of Aurélien's paintings as well. As for me, the flag remains a very moving sight and I often find myself singing a few lines of "America the Beautiful" as I pass by...the Ray Charles version, of course, which you can hear here.

La Maison de Cedric
2, rue Camille Pelletan
13210 St. Remy de Provence
Tel/fax  in France: 04-32-60-12-83
From the US: 011-33-4-32-60-12-83
From the UK: 00-33-4-32-60-12-83

Monday, January 9, 2012

Cheeseburger in Paradise

Finding a great burger in Provence isn't so easy. I know, I know, I know...burgers aren't French and they're not good for you (or the cow). Then again, neither is drinking 14 bottles of red wine at dinner...but do I say anything when you do that? Jamais! So I'm here to report that I've found what seems to be the perfect burger in Provence. It's at Cafe Mirabeau in St. Remy, where they have seven different versions to choose from. My favorite is the Cheeseburger Sauce au Roquefort, which comes topped with caramelized onion, bacon and tomato.  For some reason, chef David Cabrol likes to put the Roquefort sauce on top of the bun, so this one you eat with a knife and fork. Meanwhile other burgers are topped with bacon, goat cheese, sliced Parmesan, egg--and there's even one with foie gras and Port wine sauce. The top of the line is the Super Maxi Cheese-Burger Royal, a whopping 360-gram egg-topped double burger.  (Anyone care to do a calorie and fat count on that? I don't.) All the burgers at Mirabeau are served with a small green salad and wonderful thick-cut fries that always come out at the perfect temperature. If you ask, they're happy to bring you ketchup.

Ok, so that's the good news. The bad news is that the burgers range in price from €14 to €22, roughly $18 to $30. Add a glass of wine, Coke Zero or beer--and a cup of coffee at the end--and you're looking at a fairly substational chunk of change...for a burger. On the other hand, I could send you to any number of restaurants around here where you'll pay two or three times that for a very-mediocre meal. And the the burgers are definitely whoppers so you can easily take half home (and yet somehow, that never happens). Life is short. Eat the burger.

Or don't. Mirabeau has a full menu, offering 12 large, lovely main-course salads, ten pastas, and an extensive grill menu of beef, pork, lamb, duck and sausage. Salads range from €10 to €14, pastas from €7 to €11, grilled dishes from €11 to €25 (but most are in the €13 to €15 range). Portions are large. They also have a weekday lunch special (€10.50), a charcuterie platter to nibble with drinks (€8), daily and  weekend specials and a plat du jour. The wine list is small (four rosés, three reds, two whites, one Champagne) and their house wine (by the pitcher or glass) is just fine.

Another thing I love about Mirabeau is the atmosphere. It's owned and run by Pascal and Remy Muller, a local father-and-son team, and they clearly set the festive tone. Remy is often working the terrace, flirting with women from age eight to 80, making puns in Franglais, offering to take photos of families, singing Beatles or sitcom songs and of course, waiting tables as well. Manager Sebastien Borromeo and servers Olivier and Cedric are equally charming. But they're all serious restaurant people who make sure you get hot food hot and cold food cold and like what you get. You want to chat? They'll chat. You want to be left alone? Pas de probleme. Everyone here speaks at least some English and they seem to enjoy doing it.

Mirabeau is the kind of place where you can eat alone and feel totally at ease. Or you can show up with a group of 12 and they'll shove tables around to accomodate you. You can reserve but you don't have to. I never go in the morning but they serve a nice breakfast, I'm told--and I often see people lingering over coffee on the terrace, reading the paper, enjoying the late-morning sun and free WiFi. They have a loyal, local clientele but they treat strangers just as warmly.

My friend Olivier, who always orders dessert, recommends the chocolate lava cake with chantilly and ice cream or the Cafe Gourmand: a small dark coffee served with a sampling of little sweets.

The restaurant is on winter hours until March, which means dinner is served weekends only. Meanwhile breakfast (eggs, bacon, omelettes, waffles, bakery) and lunch are served daily, year round. If you go, please tell them Julie from Provence Post sent you. Thanks!

3 blvd. Mirabeau
St. Remy de Provence

Photos: The Roquefort burger in all its saucy glory; Remy, his dad Pascal and the manager, Sabastien.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Insiders' Guide to Beaucaire

Born in Tunbridge Wells (Kent, England), and raised in a village in Sussex, Angela Billows  and her husband, artist Jake Paltenghi, have had a home in the medieval town of Tarascon for eight years and lived there full time for four. Angela works as a costume designer for film and television…and blogs about her life in Provence at Provence Calling. Like its sister city Beaucaire, just over the Rhône, Tarascon is close to Arles, Avignon and St. Remy, but remains undiscovered by many Provençale travelers. Anyone who knows Angela knows how much she loves these two towns, so I asked her to tell us why…and to share some of her favorite addresses. This guest post looks at Beaucaire; Angela will do Tarascon next.

Many people think Beaucaire and Tarascon are one town, with the river running through it--but never suggest this to a local because there has been enmity between them for centuries! They don’t even belong to the same department: Beaucaire is in the Gard (Languedoc-Roussillon) and Tarascon in the Bouches-du-Rhône (Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur). The bridge that links them was once part of the Via Domitia, the Roman road that traversed Gaul (as France was then known), providing the gateway from Italy to Spain via Southern France. Everyone going that way, including Hannibal and his elephants, had to pass over the bridge. This strategic position gave power to both towns in medieval times, and each built their own fortified castle to defend themselves against marauders...and one another! (Today both castles are open to the public but check the hours first.)

Coming into Beaucaire over the bridge from Tarascon, you see in front of you the marina, where many people live on their boats year round. Most come down the Canal du Midi, a 240-kilometer waterway running from Toulouse to the Etang de Thau on the Mediterranean Coast. Now designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the canal was first opened in 1681.

All alongside the quay (quai in French) are restaurants specialising in moules frites (mussels and chips served with various sauces), and there’s always a menu of the day as well. My favourite is Le Bar Restaurant Le Soleil (30, quai du Général de Gaulle, 04 66 59 28 52), mainly because of the ambiance created by the handsome waiter Olivier Mercier, who's always friendly no matter how busy he is. The daily menu is around €11 for three courses and a large bowl of moules frites costs just €12. But beware: Le Soleil is popular and gets packed on a sunny Sunday lunchtime.

Further down the street is Le Gambetta (13 Cours Gambetta, 06 14 58 68 09), where you can share an enormous platter of seafood starting at €15 per person. Choose from a selection of oysters, mussels, sea snails, crab, urchin and prawns.  Or, buy a platter to take home from the stall outside the restaurant. I often buy a few dozen oysters when I have a party or dinner chez moi.

At the end of the quay is L’Hotel des Doctrinaires (6, quai du Général de Gaulle, 04 66 59 23 70). Once a college for religious studies, it has a beautiful courtyard for outside dining and a dining room set in a grand hall, under vaulted stone ceilings dating to the 17th century. The cuisine is regional Provençale, with a menu starting at €19 for three courses. If you want to stay the night, rooms are just €55 and €90. If you prefer historical surroundings to luxury fixtures and fittings, this is a perfect place…but be warned that a bit of renovation is overdue. Rooms are adequate rather than chic.

Away from the quay and into the town’s interior, you'll see all the grand town houses built in the 18th century, when Beaucaire enjoyed immense wealth due to its huge market, the Foire de la Madeleine, held once a year on the banks of the Rhône. Barges sailed up from Marseille with goods from around the world and people came from all over Europe to trade at the eight- or ten-day event. (I’ve heard that this one market took in as much money during that short time as Marseille did in a whole year’s trading.) In the 19th century, with the advent of the railway, the market became obsolete, Beaucaire lost the means for its wealth and the houses gradually fell into disrepair as people left to seek their fortunes elsewhere. This, of course, has presented a great opportunity for people looking for affordable housing in the middle of Provence. If you’re willing to do them up, properties here are about one third the price of those in neighbouring towns and villages. As they say in real estate: "follow the artists!” 

Today, in the large, tree-lined park where the market once stood, there's a lively brocante (flea market) every Wednesday from 7 am to noon (although if it's quiet, vendors may start packing up at 11 am). For me, this is one of the best brocantes in the area as it has everything: doorknobs, plastic dolls, books, electrical fittings, clothing and antiques. You could furnish a whole house from this market alone, and I pretty much have! 

Meanwhile, Beaucaire’s other outdoor markets are on Thursday and Sunday mornings (household items, clothing, plants, etc., on the Cours Gambetta, along the quai Géneral de Gaulle) and Sunday mornings in the Place Georges Clemenceau in front of the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), just up from the Cours Gambetta (vegetables, fruit, bread, olives, etc.). 

In the centre of old town Beaucaire is the Place de la Republique, otherwise known as Place Vieille (Old Square). A lovely place to eat here is L'Epicerie de Cecile (06 80 04 09 04), where you can enjoy lunch outside in the shade of the plane trees. Cecille Guillo does all the cooking and there's only one dish offered each day, but she gets so much onto one plate that there’s bound to be something you like. Inside, she sells local foods, produce, oil and flavoured vinegars and some lovely homewares. In summer, there's often a jazz band playing in the square, which serves as a meeting place for locals and artists. Beaucaire, in fact, encourages artists by offering affordable studio rentals. If you see the letter A on the front of a building, it means that there is an artist’s studio inside and you may enter to peruse their wares.

In July and August, Beaucaire has what's called Les Beaux Quais every Friday from 6 pm to midnight. All traffic is diverted from the quayside and stalls selling local arts and crafts are set up along the water. The restaurants extend their seating area to the waterfront and many have live music. For more info on Beaucaire and a calendar of events, the Office de Tourisme is at 24 Cours Gambetta, phone 04 66 59 26 57. 

Photos: The Beaucaire marina attracts boats from all over Europe...and people who love to eat by the water. Birdcages for sale at the Wednesday morning brocante. Quail with goats cheese and tarragon honey sauce at Chez Cecille. Olivier the waiter that everyone loves, at Le Soleil. Cecile Guillo makes just one dish a day but locals and tourists love the simple formula and high-quality food. The austere exterior of the Hotel Les Doctrinaires, a former seminary. A typical starter at Le Soleil. Menu du jour at Le Soleil. No medieval town should be without a castle and Beaucaire's is not bad, as castles go. All photos by Angela Billows except top (courtesy of TripWow) and bottom (from Beaucaire Tourisme).

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Another New French Book Giveaway!

Kristin Espinasse is a rock star in the Francophile blogging world; her site and its corresponding newsletter, French Word a Day, has an astounding 33,882 subscribers. The site, now updated three times weekly, introduces new words and phrases in French and then illustrates their meaning through charming stories drawn from Kristin's daily life: she's an American married to a French winemaker, raising two very-French children in Provence. A number of these short, autobiographical vignettes became Kristin's first book: Words in a French Life: Lessons in Love and Language from the South of France

And now Kristin has published her second book, this one called Blossoming in Provence. Here Kristin recounts more of her French adventures with her trademark honesty and humor, things such as meeting her husband's ex at a wedding, taking the French drivers exam and being humbled and enlightened daily as her children try to teach her, in their native tongue, the finer points of the language and culture she loves.

To celebrate the publication of the new book, Kristin has generously offered to give away four copies to my readers. To enter this giveaway, simply leave a comment at the end of this post and we'll pick four winners  in the next couple weeks. Unfortunately this giveaway is open only to readers with U.S. adresses...but feel free to enter and, if you win, have the book sent to a U.S.-based friend. Don't forget to leave us your email address in the body of your comment or we won't be able to reach you. Go on then...enter now!

In the meantime, you can buy both of Kristin's books on Amazon, the first one here and the second one here.

And to learn more about Kristin or to subscribe to French Word a Day, click here.