Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Happy New Year - Bonne Année

I have not yet spent New Year's Eve in Les Arcs-sur-Argens.
Fireworks at Les Arcs-sur-Argens.
The year I was about to, was also the year when it was Very Cheap to fly home over New Year.
So we caught a flight and landed at Tullamarine during a lightning storm where the plane made a slightly scary swerve down the runway in the wet.

Everyone started cheering as we emerged from customs and it was several seconds before I realised that it had just turned midnight and rather than welcoming us home, they were welcoming the New Year.

Le Nouvel An (New Year) in France takes on almost as much importance as Christmas. Most of the cards at this time carry good wishes for the New Year.

January 1 is also le jour de Saint-Sylvestre  (St Sylvester’s day) – he was a very early pope, dating back to around 335AD.

Food is important – foie gras, oysters, smoked salmon, crayfish (not unlike an Aussie Christmas).

And should you go out for the evening, you will enjoy a large meal accompanied by singing, dancing and even an orchestra.

The midnight embracing and celebrations are just as enthusiastic as they are in Australia, with people wishing each other health, happiness, love, success and the fulfilment of dreams.
So I wish everyone a very Happy New Year and may 2016 be the best yet.
Bonne Année !

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Christmas in the Var

Looking down over the centre of Les Arcs-sur-Argens on Christmas Eve.
We have only spent one Christmas in Provence.

As an Aussie, I prefer the traditions we have carved out in the southern hemisphere. But having also lived in the UK, and putting aside the cold, I can appreciate the spectacle starting late afternoon as the lights come on illuminating the towns and streets and houses with sparkling decorations to cheer the darkness.
The snowfall was 'pretend'; it is actually sunny.
It wasn’t particularly cold for our Christmas in Les Arcs-sur-Argens, so the town got together and manufactured some snow that floated through the central square during the annual Christmas market.

The forecourt of the Mairie (Town Hall) was filled with tiny Christmas trees and Père Noël (Father Christmas) was set up to welcome delighted young children who each received a present.

Meanwhile the town’s band, all dressed in Father Christmas suits, played recognisable carols and others that I didn’t know, but have since learned are either distinctly French or Provenҫal.
Rue de la Republique with decorations.
The plane trees that grace the square with their leafy shade in the summer had all been pollarded and looked like fingers reaching to the sky.

The streets were illuminated and the donjon (castle keep) that towers above the town bore the words ‘Joyeuses Fêtes’ for the holiday season.  

Le gros souper or big supper (which is followed in Provence by the traditional 13 desserts) is still a strong provenҫal tradition on Christmas Eve and is a huge family affair before midnight mass.

The 13 desserts represent Jesus and the apostles (who actually were not around at the time of his birth!) and comprise dried fruit and nuts, quince paste, biscotti, nougat, bûche de Noël (Christmas log), pain d’épices (spiced bread), and other small delicacies.
Christmas wishes light the medieval tower.
Sadly the year we stayed for Christmas, we turned up at the church just before midnight – along with a Norwegian couple who also have a house in the town – to find it had taken place at 6pm! We still don’t know why.

Tradition has it that after the gros souper, the tablecloth is not entirely cleared of crumbs or leftovers following the meal.

It is left overnight and on Christmas Day, the four corners of the tablecloth are brought together and it is picked up (a bit like a sack) and the crumbs of the gros souper are then shaken out into the field to ensure a good harvest the following year.

Mind you, I didn’t see anyone do this – it’s more a rural tradition than a town one, I think!

Joyeux Noël à tous !  Happy Christmas to all.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Exploring further afield

The view from Villefranche across to St Jean-Cap Ferrat.
For this post, I am travelling outside Var - just a short trip from Les Arcs-sur-Argens, as my computer is undergoing repairs and it has taken all my recent photos with it.
Rue Obscrue,Villefranche.

Take a train from the Les Arcs-Draguignan station and you will travel through Cannes and Nice to Villefranche-sur-Mer.

I had always wanted to go to Villefranche for three reasons.

1. My cousin stayed there for an extended period and waxed lyrical about it.

2. Then a writer friend opened the first chapter of her book with the protagonist walking through a street called Rue Obscure. The way she described the street and its history - and of course the story she was writing - drew me in so not only did I want to visit Villefranche, but I wanted to walk the Rue Obscure.

View from the Villa Ephrussi
3. I read The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, and became fascinated by the story of the Ephrussi family.

One of the family members, Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild, put together a fascinating house, now known as the Villa Ephrussi, surrounded by four acres of gardens.

It is located on the summit of St Jean-Cap Ferrat, the peninsula that can be seen along the eastern edge of the Villefranche bay.

The train from Les Arcs takes around 80 minutes to reach Villefranche-sur-Mer, and you can walk into the town from the station.

The French-style gardens that lead from the villa.
We found Rue Obscure by accident and it is every bit as mysterious as my friend described.

There was a market in town and we enjoyed lunch in the gardens above the port.

Then we walked around the semi-circle of blue Mediterranean to Cap Ferrat.

We even passed the house Keith Richards rented in the early 70s when the Rolling Stones were in 'exile', before finding signs directing us to the Villa Ephrussi.

It is fascinating and I really recommend a visit if anyone is visiting the Cote d'Azur.

The galleried entrance of the Villa Ephrussi.
The nine separate gardens are laid out in discrete areas (French, Spanish, Florentine, Japanese, Provencal etc) and feature a wide variety of plants and many sculptures with steps that lead up to the 'temple of love' at the far end of the French garden.

The long water feature in front of the villa has fountains that erupt at various times of day.

Just walking through the fabulously over-decorated house is mind-boggling.

The clothes, the artefacts, the furniture, carpets from the Palace of Versailles, the inlaid mosaic floors, the arched mezzanine, the rooms - and of course, the views from the huge windows - along the coast towards Monaco and back across the bay to Villefranche.

There is a small and elegant café (Restaurant Ephrussi) where you can look across to Villefranche.

You can spend a whole day wandering the house and gardens at your leisure or take a guided tour.

I know I will certainly go back - both to the mansion (now owned by France's heritage council) and Villefranche-sur-Mer.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Summer weddings

French village weddings are always delightful.

A wedding party and guests on their way to a photo shoot in Les Arcs-sur-Argens.
Often on an otherwise lazy Saturday afternoon, we are roused by the blaring of car horns as a wedding party weaves through the streets gaining maximum exposure.
Wedding couple and guests in Les Arcs.

Several cars filled with bride, groom, bridesmaids and best men, drive around making the most of car horns, cheering and waving to passers-by - and of course, we all wave back and offer 'Felicitations' - congratulations - to the newly-wed couple.

It's especially great fun to be by the Mairie  for the civil services, as quite often they are unusual and totally unlike the formal affairs I would have expected.

French couples marry in a civil service at the Town Hall or Mairie, to 'seal the deal' so to speak. They may then choose to marry in a more formal religious service, if they wish to have the union blessed by their church.

Often the wedding party will troop past our place on their way through the medieval village to the restaurant at the top of the town. There is no vehicular access from the square below which means the entire party, from grandparents to toddlers and all in between, will have to make the steep climb up to the celebration.

I took this picture from our balcony as the couple returned and just as they passed, the groom scooped his bride into his arms and carried her down the street. She was carrying her high-heeled sandals, so it may not have been entirely the romantic gesture I imagined!
Wedding party in Frejus.
Then walking around the neighbouring town of Frejus, we were startled by the roll-up of giant black motor bikes that revved through shoppers in the main square - one of which was carrying the bride - a complete with tulle veil - on the pillion.

The men took off their helmets and shrugged out of their leather jackets to reveal neat white shirts or T-shirts beneath, and the party with cheering guests, went into the Mairie for the civil ceremony.
The photographer (far left) poses a photo high above Nice.

After reassembling outside for photos, they roared off for several circuits of the narrow streets of the old Roman town - with bemused Saturday shoppers stopping to wave and cheer.

Outside of Var, up in the old Cimiez area of Nice, we were strolling through the gardens and found a photographer posing his bride and groom - the groom using the tourist viewer to angle in on his bride!

Back in Les Arcs, the bride took over the photo session at the amphitheatre just across the car park from the Mairie.

I watched from above as she gathered her skirts and climbed down the steps to take up position beside the photographer and issue loud instructions to the wedding party and all her guests about where to stand. He stepped aside and let her!

The bride hurries down the steps of Les Arcs' amphitheatre to organise her own wedding photos.

Eventually, after rearranging her hair and adding some lipstick, she took her place beside her husband for the camera. I'm sure the photos would have been memorable.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Cooking in Les Arcs - Part 2

A meal from the cookery class. Photo: Curt Dennison
Last month I wrote about my friend, Karen, who will be running cooking classes in Les Arcs-sur-Argens in March and April next year.

Karen is a qualified chef who runs her own restaurant, The Eagle’s Nest, in Missouri, USA.

Her Scandinavian grandfather, Axel Blumensaadt, trained with one of France’s leading chefs, Auguste Escoffier, in the late 1800s.

For her classes in Les Arcs, Karen combines her grandfather’s recipes with modern French cuisine and although I've not done a class, I have enjoyed Karen’s delicious food. One of our most memorable luncheons began at midday and didn’t end until after 8pm!
The Guard House next to the clock tower.

Karen has let me know that she has a couple of places still available in April.

Her classes are intimate affairs – just two people at a time – and run from a Saturday to Saturday. Karen will collect you from Nice or Les Arcs' station and you will stay with her at the Guard House beside Les Arcs’ medieval clock tower.

Mornings are spent shopping and cooking and on free afternoons, Karen will take you sightseeing, to markets, local wineries and an olive mill. It also includes lunch at La Terrasse restaurant and a final meal at the award-winning Logis du Guetteur restaurant in the château high above the town.

‘The classes are tailored to the couple and so is the sight-seeing,’ Karen says.

Just the second and fourth weeks of April are still available, so if anyone is interested, please contact me and I will pass on Karen’s details.
Tarte au Citron. Photo: Curt Dennison

One of Karen's favourite desserts - and mine too - is the Tarte au Citron. As she says, ‘It is light and refreshing any time of the year and settles the stomach after a heavy meal or hits the spot after a light meal of salad and cheese’.

This recipe is from her book, A Culinary Legacy: from Escoffier to Today, written with Max Callegari, executive chef at the Logis du Guetteur.

Tarte au Citron
A prepared sweet pastry crust
4 eggs
1 cup superfine sugar
½ cup soft unsalted butter
5 tablespoons heavy cream (I used plain yogurt and it was delicious)
Juice of 4 lemons
Zest of 3 lemons and zest strips from the other for garnish
Pre-heat oven to 190’C.
Roll out pastry and line tart pan, pressing into the crimps around the edges. Cover with baking paper and fill with baking beads or dried beans and bake blind for 15 minutes. Remove beads, lower temperature to 160'C and bake a further 5 minutes to dry crust base.
Mix butter and sugar together, add cream and blend well. Add eggs one at a time, and again blend well.
Add juice and lemon zest, blend together, then pour mixture into the tart crust.
Bake for 40 minutes or until the centre is set and looks slightly bumpy. Cool completely before cutting or refrigerate for 2-3 hours.
Place lemon zest strips in iced water to gently curl and drain on paper towels before garnishing the top of the cooled tart.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Walk the Var coastline

Agay - the coastal path begins just this side of the columns.
The Var has a long, extensive coastline that reaches all the way from just past the departmental capital of Toulon in the west, almost to Cannes in the east.

It winds past salt plains and rocky calanques - or inlets - and the exquisite bays south of Les Maures to the wide beaches like the Pampelonne south of St Tropez.

Driving along the coast road from Ste Maxime through Les Issambres and St Aygulf to Frejus, I feel like a 1950s movie star - except my car is a little Fiat instead of a sleek cabriolet.

But at the eastern end of the Var, bordering the spectacular red earth Estérel hills, is a perfect little coastal pathway that is a treat to walk.
Bathers shelter beneath beach umbrellas as they hug morsel of sand between the rocks.

This coastline - between Cannes and St Raphael - is one of the highlights of the train journey from Nice to Les Arcs-sur-Argens.

But to walk the coastal path, you need to take a train from Les Arcs to Agay.

Don't forget to take bathers and a towel, so you can cool off during your walk in one of the perfect little bays that highlight the pathway. You will need plenty of water, sunscreen - and your camera!

Once you step off the train at Agay, cross the railway line to the line of columns above the foreshore and you will find signs leading you down to the walking track.

Here you come across lots of red earth, rocks and driftwood.

Following the path, you can choose to walk all the way back to St Raphael - about 10 kilometres - or you can choose to break your walk and cut across to the railway stop at Le Dramont or Boulouris.

The semaphore at Le Dramont.
There are snack bars or a couple of good fish restaurants along the way and plenty of chances to catch your breath - or the sun - with a laze in a sandy cove or a dip in the turquoise waters.

At Le Dramont, there is a high, conical hill to skirt around - or if you are feeling energetic, you can climb to the top for spectacular views.

This is where the GIs landed in August 1944 to begin their liberation of Provence during World war Two. There is still a semaphore on the top of the hill.

As you round the corner of the hill, turning back into the stony beach, you get a close-up view of the Ile d'Or just off the coast.

It is a long trek across the pebbly beach down to Santa Lucia, but once there, you are almost in St Raphael, where the beach becomes sandy and it is flanked by a wide boardwalk and some terrific restaurants just across the road.
The fort on the Ile d'Or with St Aygulf just visible in the distance across the bay.
The station is only two blocks back from the sea, and it's a 20-minute journey back to Les Arcs.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Never forget - N'oubliez jamais

Poppies growing wild along the roadside to Taradeau.
There was an illustrated child's book on the counter at the Maison de la Presse in Les Arcs-sur-Argens this year. It recounted the experience of World War One - La Grande Guerre - in the Var.

I meant to buy it, but then it skipped my mind and I didn't. I hope it will still be available next year.

This week I am remembering World War One - and particularly the Armistice, signed at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month.

My father, L/Cpl Tom Durbridge.
It has particular significance for me, as on that date, my father, Lance Corporal Thomas Durbridge, was incarcerated in a German Prison of War camp somewhere near Hamburg.

He was just 21 years old and at 45 kilograms, had lost almost half his body weight in less than a year.

He was taken prisoner, together with a number of others from the 48th Battalion, near Dernancourt in early April 1918.

Five months later, his older brother, Levi, who was involved in the battle against the German Army's last push towards Amiens, sustained a head wound and died. He is now buried at the Australian War Cemetery at Villers Bretonneux.

I write this not to glorify war, but to the remember the sacrifices made by these two young farm lads from South Australia who travelled to the other side of the world and gave so much for freedom.

There are hundreds of thousands of stories from that war - on both sides - that show how much it cost emotionally and physically, not only to the soldiers themselves, but their families and future lives.
Poppies by the old railway lines at Les Arcs.

It affected the people in the Var - a long way from the front line - as their men left the fields to go and fight.

It affected my husband's French family, where Marcel never knew his father, who was killed at the Front not long after his birth.

I think about my father-in-law, Leslie, one of only a few to survive after his destroyer, the SS Martin was torpedoed by a U-boat during the North Africa landings in World War Two. He was in the oily water throughout the night as rescue ships didn't dare to stop for fear of more U-boat attacks.

I think of my brother-in-law, Peter, who served in Vietnam and the great distress of that war.

I wear my Flanders Poppy proudly, and remember the French wear the blue cornflower at this time.

But it is the Poppies I see along the roadsides and railway tracks when I visit Les Arcs - or the tiny red petals that peep from fields of wheat as I walk the road from Villers Bretonneux to the war cemetery - that remind me that the tragedy of the 'war to end all wars' was that it didn't succeed in doing just that.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Traditional costumes

This ensemble dates back to 1780.
I have always loved fabrics, sewing and needlecraft - and the idea of countries having a national costume.

I remember at primary school trying to design a 'wattle' costume - something like Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (without the bare bottoms) as an Australian national costume.

So I was delighted to find, when I visited Grasse this year, that the Musee Provencale du Costume et Bijou was exhibiting a collection of  'costumes provencaux'.

The clothes and jewellery are part of a collection of Arlesienne costumes by Magali and Odile Pascal and show the incredibly detailed and beautifully sewn and embroidered clothes once worn by the women who lived in the Arles region of the Midi.

These distinctly southern women were frequently painted by Vincent van Gogh.
The large circular straw hat accompanies this display.

The costumes across the south of France are similar in style, with colours, embroidery patterns and materials varying from region to region and from the peasants to the artisans to the well-off.

I have inherited a beautiful, traditionally-dressed doll in Mentonnais costume from my belle-mere - mother-in-law - who was born in Menton.

The doll's skirt is striped in red and white, her black shawl is beautifully embroidered, as is her apron and she wears the wide-brimmed hat of most Provencale women of the time.

These hats could be clipped to the women's waistbands after work finished for the day and the sun went down.

The skirts were often heavy and quilted - nice for winter - but I don't know how the women managed in summertime.

The blouse would be topped by a shawl or a shawl-like collar, and a long apron tied around their waist.

Interestingly, the Arlesienne women often wore elaborately tied ribbons in their hair, winding the wide, embroidered or patterned material around their hair to protect and decorate it.
The hair is drawn up into a knot and the ribbon secured with a pin.

Headwear was always worn and the hair pinned up. Not only did it keep the hair clean and tidy (there was no washing it every day), but it also was part of the woman's modesty.

I regret not buying some of the beautiful ribbons I saw on display during the Medieval Festival in Les Arcs.

The exhibition was fascinating.

The late Helene Costa - of Fragonard fame - had a passion for collecting traditional costumes and jewellery of Provence and her collection is generally the one on view at the museum.

I would encourage anyone visiting Grasse to take the time to enjoy whatever exhibition is on.

It is a fascinating insight into the past, while helping to preserve the distinctive heritage of the region's national dress.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Walking to Taradeau

I have this belief that you can never really know a place until you have walked it.

The panoramic view back towards Les Arcs with vineyards in the foreground.

It is why I prefer to explore cities - and the countryside - on foot. With the right shoes and enough water, I can walk all day.

So when we were told that you could walk to Taradeau from Les Arcs-sur-Argens, we decided to give it a go.

There are various routes, but the most interesting is along access tracks through vineyards, which in turn become fire tracks and later stony footpaths used by randonneurs - bushwalkers - or mountain bike riders.

An unmade road leads off the Chemin de Beauveser at the western edge of Les Arcs. There are boom gates here which can be lowered in times of high fire danger or forest fires.

About halfway along the walk en route to Taradeau.
The road meanders around the side of the hill with its steep cuttings and houses tucked away in the bush, but it soon gives way to the region's vineyards.

Being a long walk with a tough, rocky climb at the end, I prefer to go in the milder autumn weather.

The blue shapes of the Maures mountains make up the southern horizon across the Argens Valley and in the distance you can see the pointed sugarloaf hill - with the Sainte Brigitte Chapelle on top - that marks the location of the town of Vidauban.
Vidauban with Ste Brigitte's Chapelle crowning the distinctive sugarloaf hill.

Further along the walk, you strike the high, limestone hills that shelter the village of Taradeau and this is where you need solid soles on your shoes to counter the stony track that winds steeply upwards.

My reward for the climb is taking a number of pauses 'for the view' - and it is a stunning view - well worth the walk just for that.

In autumn you not only have the changing colours of the vines, but their beautifully ordered rows which pattern the fields below in stripes of ochre red and pale green.

The tower and chapel at Taradeau.
The soil reminds me of the fabled 'terra rossa' of the Coonawarra region in South Australia. But here they grow Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Mourvèdre varieties for their excellent dry Cotes de Provence rosé wines - many of which are an incredibly pale pink.

Part way up the hill, the path divides and you have to choose whether you will take the left-hand fork that continues to wind around the hill to the distinctive tower and tiny chapel that can be seen for miles in silhouette and dominates the village below.

Unfortunately the tower, which has been privately owned, is in disrepair and sealed to the public, but the chapel is beautiful in its simplicity.

A panoramic view over the Argens valley from the summit.
From here, an extraordinarily steep sealed road hurtles you down into the village, where you can enjoy a coffee or lunch or a very welcome glass of something cold.

Of course you may prefer the right-hand fork in the road that will take you even higher, to an orientation table and cairn on the top of the highest peak.

From here you can sit back, relax, catch your breath and enjoy a panoramic view across the lush Argens plain, before either retracing your steps to Taradeau (where you can catch a bus back to Les Arcs) or, if you're up to it, retrace your steps  through the vineyards and bushland. At least from here, it's downhill all the way!

Friday, 16 October 2015

Street Art in Var

La Femme au Chapeau by Paul Nebac.

It's probably obvious that I love street art.

By this I mean the eye-catching art on public display.

But I also love casual artistry, where someone has effortlessly decorated a window or where I have glimpsed something simple yet stunning in the street, whether it be the way the light strikes an object or a perfect splash of colour or just an arrangement of goods at a market stall.

Here I have selected a few more traditionally - and sometimes quirky - artful things that have caught my eye while wandering around Var.

I came upon this statue sunning herself in Sainte Maxime. It is La Femme au Chapeau - Woman with a hat - created by sculptor Paul Nebac and installed on the main sea front in April 2015.

Does the hat mean she's 'sun smart'?

Woven and painted basketry at the Abbaye de Thoronet.
These 'basket sculpures' as I call them, were arranged on a bench at the gracious Abbaye de Thoronet, near Lorgues, the day we visited.
The abbey has perfect acoustics and is often used for classical concerts during summer.

I am not sure if these heads represent medieval knights, but they were unusual and unexpected - with no notification as to who made them or why they were there.

Eclectic guitarist.

This guitarist made me laugh.

It reminded me of a couple of musicians I know - one of whom was with us when we discovered it.

We found it outside a gallery space in Les Arcs - now sadly no longer there.

He was part of an entire band, fashioned in the same style, and designed to lure passers-by into the gallery to view the weirdly wonderful works inside.

Today, the Espace d'Art - art space - is an immobilière - real estate agent!

The port at St Tropez is filled with the sleek yachts of the rich and famous as international celebrities browse the galleries and haute couture shops during the summer months.

The port is also surrounded by artists - like a mini-Montmartre - where you can buy something more reasonably-priced or have your portrait sketched.

I particularly enjoy the annual outdoor sculpture exhibitions they have each year.

You can sit at an outdoor café with a kir or pastis and people watch or appraise sculptures like this one of three acrobats.

At the other end of the scale are the unselfconsciously brilliant colours of children's art in Frejus.

It was a summer school holiday activity and we watched the children drawing and painting on tables in the square.

When we returned, their works were pinned up in a colourful outdoor 'exhibition'.

Night-time in Les Arcs-sur-Argens with its illuminated art.
And finally night-time in Les Arcs-sur-Argens.

The tower of the donjon - castle - is illuminated with a chevalier - knight - as part of the town's medieval history.

This represents the knight, Helion de Villeneuve, who grew up in Les Arcs.

He not only fought in the crusades, but ended up founding the Hospital of St John on the Greek island of Rhodes.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Cooking in Les Arcs

I love stories about people who manage to achieve their dreams and in 2012-13, I was privileged to witness a woman who did just that, publishing a book that combined good food, a 'taste' of Les Arcs-sur-Argens and a fascinating family history.

A Culinary Legacy - from Escoffier to Today is the story of my friend, Karen, who I met by chance in 2012, when she arrived in Les Arcs at the same time as me to spend six months writing a book and regaining her health.
Karen is American of Danish descent, she is curious about and interested in everything – kind, good fun to be with and unafraid of obstacles in her path. She had visited Les Arcs before and knew it would be an ideal place to write her very special book.
The story began many years ago when Karen, then 18 years old, was rifling through an old chest in the attic of her maternal grandparents’ garage. The chest had once belonged to her paternal grandfather who had arrived in the US from Denmark, via France.

While in France, the young Axel Blumensaadt trained as a chef with the renowned Auguste Escoffier and in 1904, he began writing a book of his recipes – all in French.

Karen decided that one day she would not only translate those recipes, but write a book about her grandfather’s life.

She carried his yellowed recipe book and journal around the world with her for many years, but it wasn’t until 2012 that she found a place in her frantically busy life to take a sabbatical and fulfil a dream which she had held dear to her for almost 50 years.
By now Karen herself was a chef, running a major business in Missouri, Louisiana, called The Eagle’s Nest, which includes not only a winery, but an Inn for tourist accommodation and an artisan bakery, cheekily called Josephine’s.

So she rented a four-storey stone house within the walls of Le Parage in Les Arcs-sur-Argens. And it was there by chance, that we met. Karen would walk past our house each day on the way to the boulangerie or town square. I would climb the steps into Le Parage to sit in the Jardin d’Oliviers – olive garden – which overlooked her house.

When we met, we ‘clicked’ straight away. She loved cooking, I loved eating; we were both writers, interested in whatever was going on around us; our husbands were both artists and we were all Francophiles.
Chef Max Callegari.
Karen teamed up with the renowned chef, Max Callegari, now executive chef of the town’s most prominent restaurant, the Logis du Guetteur (located in the château above the town), to help translate her grandfather’s recipes into English and then turn them into 21st century dishes.
I am so proud (and also a little envious) that Karen has seen her long-term dream come true with the publication of her book. It is rich in the culinary heritage passed down by her grandfather and we also meet many of the people in the town – restaurateurs, the bakery, local wineries.

Pictures of Les Arcs-sur-Argens and surrounds, the town square, the weekly produce market – are all beautifully shot by photographer Curt Dennison, together with the original pages and early photographs from her grandfather’s journal.

Salade Terre et Mer.
I love the explanations that go with many of the recipes, re-meeting people whose faces I know in the town, salivating over the photographs and knowing that even though the recipes are ultra perfect, I can still tweak them according to what is in my pantry, and they will turn out almost as good.
Karen has become an inspiration to me, knowing that she set a goal – even if it was 50 years ago! – and in a concentrated effort over the winter of 2012-13, saw it through. I know her grandfather would have been delighted – and what’s even better, we can all share it.

Karen now runs cooking classes each year in our little village. I will detail them in a later blog. She only takes a few people at one time, so you can live with her in the medieval stone house in the Parage and soak up the flavours of Provence and the delightful surrounds of the town.

Karen in the herb garden.
On our last day in Les Arcs-sur-Argens in 2012, Karen made us the most delicious breakfast imaginable – fresh seasonal fruit, tartes, croissants and crusty bread, home-made jam and freshly-brewed coffee. Eaten at the long refectory table in her baronial kitchen, with great conversation and sad goodbyes, it has become my most memorable petit-déjeuner.
Photos: Courtesy 'A Culinary Legacy - From Escoffier to Today' by Karen Blumensaadt-Stoeckley and Max Callegari. Photography by Curt Dennison.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

The quinces of Cotignac

About 35 kilometres north-west of Les Arcs-sur-Argens, nestling against a high rocky outcrop in the hills of central Var, lies the beautiful little town of Cotignac.
A delightful place to dine - the long central square in Cotignac framed with restaurants.

The town has an attractive centre, surrounded as usual by shops and restaurants and edged with shady trees.  Its weekly market is well known and a ‘must visit’ for tourists in the area.
The name Cotignac – a corruption of the old Provençal ‘Coutignac’ – gives us a clue as to the town’s specialty. In English the word ‘cotignac’ translates as ‘quince paste’ – and for all those gourmets among us, that is a reason enough to visit Cotignac.

Quinces and Ceramic Bottle by Alan Leishman.

If Aix en Provence can set aside the first Sunday in September honour the sweet ‘calissons’ (see post 'Blessed Calissons' September 12), then Cotignac can surely mark the first Sunday in October as a day to honour the humble quince, known in France as ‘un coing’.
The town centre with the high cliff face behind.
The town and surrounds boast a variety of quince trees – cognassiers – and a committee of townsfolk has organised an event in honour of the trees, the fruit and the products produced from the fruit.
And so the ‘Fete des Coings’ was launched as recently as 2002. Not only does it honour the town’s famous quince jam – confiture des coings – but also other products such as preserves, savoury and sweet dishes produced with the quinces and of course, quince paste.

One of the sweet delights produced for the children is the pain-coing – literally, ‘bread quince’.

Traditionally children in the village would gather quinces to bring to school on the first day after the long summer holidays. The quinces would be given to the local baker, who would wrap them in pastry, bake them, and return them to the school the following day. What a treat!
But Cotignac’s fame dates way back to the Middle Ages when the town’s church, Notre-Dame des Graces, became known for its miracles.

From Secrets d'histoire - Stéphane Bern.
At that time King Louis XIII and his wife, Anne of Austria, had been married for 23 years without a son and heir.

A monk told the Queen that he had been given a revelation, to make a novena at the chapel in the sure hope of her success in bearing a son.

His series of prayers ended on December 5, 1637 and nine months later, on September 5, 1638, the future Louis XIV was born.

As a child, Louis XIV was known as 'Louis Dieudonné' - Louis, the God-given.
In appreciation, King Louis XIII and Queen Anne visited Cotignac in 1660 to thank the Virgin Mary and lay a commemorative stone at the church. That stone is still there today.
On their visit they were presented with 24 pots of ‘confiture de Cotignac’, which was already a local specialty, but now carried the imprint of royalty.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Le Puits Aerien - an elegant failure

Whenever I travel from Les Arcs-sur-Argens to Trans-en-Provence, I am struck by the appearance of a giant stone beehive on the hill opposite my descent into the town.

Achille Knapen's puits aerien at Trans-en-Provence
I always thought it was some kind of ancient well, but instead of it being centuries old, it was actually constructed in 1930-31.

It was a sort-of 'folly' created by a Belgian engineer, called Achille Knapen.

A 'folly' is generally thought of as something useless but beautiful, yet that was not how Monsieur Knapen saw his work - even if it turned out that way.

I learned it actually was a well, but it was one that collected the moisture in the air by condensation, rather than water itself, hence the name 'puits aerien' - literally 'air wells'.

Monsieur Knapen had attended a conference in Algeria in 1928, on drought and had put forward his idea to develop these puits aeriens in Africa for countries suffering drought.

Simply, they work as cold night air enters a metallic tube that runs down the centre of the well, while during the day, warm air enters the building through the hundreds of orifices on the sides of the well.
Inside the puits, showing the central tube.

When the warm air hits the cold central tube, it condenses, forming droplets of water which are collected in a reservoir underneath.

The African project did not go ahead and M. Knapen brought his ideas to France. He decided on a site at Trans-en-Provence as the most suitable place for his first experiment with le puits aerien.

The town was elevated enough and it was not only exposed to cool night winds from the mountains to the north, but also to the warm, moist winds from the sea.

When the dome-shaped structure was finished in 1931 it measured 12 metres across and 12m high, like a giant upturned stone bell.

However after 18 months of use, his efforts had not borne fruit. On the best nights, M. Knapen only collected about a bucket of water - certainly insufficient for the residents of Trans-en-Provence.
The archway through to the inner workings.

So why did his experiment go so wrong?

Somehow the engineer had forgotten to take into account the night temperatures in the Var. He needed it to be between 4'C and 11'C at night for the condenser to work, as it is in desert regions. The area is just too warm!

The other tragedy for M. Knapen, was that Trans-en-Provence is already well served by the Nartuby River which flows all year round through the centre of the town supplying water to residents and businesses alike.

Le puits areien remains - its elegant silhouette graces the hillside opposite the entrance to the town. It is fascinating to visit and walk around and see the amount of work that went into it.

But despite never having served its original purpose, the redoubtable 'air well' has carved out a new one - that of a tourist attraction and I am sure M Knapen would be pleased to know that is now listed as part of the town's heritage.