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.