Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Eating & Cooking in Avignon

One thing I certainly enjoy about traveling is discovering restaurants and local specialties. Of course Provence is well known as a food mecca. We did eat out a few times, but most of our experiences in this realm were not particularly memorable. With so many tourists in town, the restaurants were doing such a lively business that we found the normal amount of care that goes into serving customers did not seem to be possible. Our meals came out of the kitchen long after we'd ordered them, the plates were hastily put together and the prices seemed very high. Eating in cafes and restaurants was not a relaxing and gratifying experience during the festival. No worries. Emily had her apartment with a nicely supplied brand-new kitchen, a small terrace for eating and while she was at work and Zinnie was asleep, I had a lot of fun cooking up meals for us.

Our place was located just down the street from Les Halles, the Avignon market, which is open 6 mornings a week. We went there almost every day. The exterior is much like the museum at the Quai Branly in Paris, with a beautiful vertical garden decorating its walls.

On the inside are small stands where local producers sell their wares. It reminded me a little of the Nantes covered market, though not quite as big. Still, anything a person could want can be found here.

The produce was inspirational. So beautiful to look at. Emily is a vegetarian, so the favorite vegetable market stand was always our first stop and our meals revolved around these daily purchases. I love the multi-colored carrots available in the south. They are just as sweet and delicious to taste as they are to look at. If you are as charmed by these, as I am, you can purchase the seeds to grow your own from one of my favorite Etsy shops, Cubits. I have some of these colorful carrots from this source growing in our garden now, but they haven't come out of the ground yet. We shall see if they like the more temperate northern climate.

Emily eats fish, so I became a pescetarian for the week. This was an unlikely turn of events. Rick knows me as a person who avoids fish, much to his disappointment. But the truth is that I have always wanted to enjoy eating fish and this gave me a wonderful opportunity. For one thing, the fish is absolutely as fresh as it can be, and for another Emily is a sort of expert on the subject. The first night we had these beautiful little rougets (red mullet), which the fish monger fileted for us. They were really out of this world delicious. Emily and Jos recently gave me three Nigel Slater cookbooks and in one of them he gives information on how to identify the freshest fish on offer. He says that if the fish is very fresh, it will not smell "fishy." These little critters were of course Mediterranean.

After our first morning at the market, this was our haul. The charming small artichokes are available almost everywhere now. They make a nice salad. The peaches and nectarines were flat and incredibly tasty. The tomatoes came in three colors, several shapes and solid or striped. I don't think I've ever had a tomato so delicious, with the possible exception of the ones my grandfather used to grow in his vegetable garden when I was growing up. I had never met a white or rose colored eggplant before. Aren't they pretty? I like their petite size. The beans are the type that dried white beans come from, but these were fresh. I decided to make soup, as I think of these white beans as being quintessentially Provencal.

I looked for a recipe but couldn't really find one, so I made something up. It involved browning and then steaming some onions, egg plants, carrots, fennel and a touch of garlic, then adding some tomatoes, the beans and a bit of chicken broth. I threw in some fresh basil and salt and pepper. For good measure, I garnished it with Italian parsley and pieces of chopped sun-dried tomato. It turned out very well indeed!

Tomatoes are a bit like strawberries or corn, I think. The moment you pick them, they begin to lose their taste. These beautiful varieties were all from local sources, so they were as fresh as they could be without having your own garden out back. We loved how simple meal preparation became. Just cut up the vegetables, sprinkle some herbs on top, drizzle with good olive oil and voila! What a feast.

The carrots are even prettier once they're cooked and mixed up together with a drop of butter and salt and pepper. It's all that's needed.

Cold vegetable plates, simply prepared make a fabulous easy meal.

Emily taught me how to eat a sole and avoid the bones by scraping the meat away from the spine in the middle of the fish. She also encouraged me to try some seaweed vegetables. Here it is called passe-pierre or salicorne in other parts of France. This was my first taste and I was pleasantly surprised by how delicious it is. It's not particularly salty. I would characterize it as slightly sweet.

The restaurants in Avignon did a very brisk business while the festival was going on. In general, however, we stayed home, and I think we probably ate better than most.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Eight Days in Avignon

The Avignon theater festival is the oldest and biggest in France. This is its 66th year. It is a world famous event attracting theater lovers from around the world, both as performers and as spectators. This year 7000 artists from France and 25 other countries are participating in the festival. The little walled town, with a normal population of about 12,000 people, welcomes another 100,000 onto its streets to view the shows and sit in its cafes. Over 1000 performances are on offer.

Each year the festival organizers invite an internationally celebrated theater artist to be the artistic inspiration of the festival. This year it was Jos and Emily's friend, Simon McBurney. He offered Emily a job working with a Swedish couple who have an installation/show here. It was a wonderfully fun opportunity for her, but of course she needed her live-in child care and since Jos was busy in Paris, that job fell to me. So I left Rick home to do all the work of entertaining our clients, packed my bag with sun dresses and shorts and hopped the TGV to the south of France. Nice work if you can get it.

Here's a post about my adventures with lots of photos of Avignon, The City of Popes. I had only visited here once before, and then just for an afternoon to meet with friends. By the end of a week here, where we were put up in our own private apartment, I feel as if I've gotten to know it quite well. Of course, Avignon during festival time is consumed by festivities. There are a huge number of people on every street in town, hawking their shows or wandering from one event to the other. There is practically no public space that is not transformed into a temporary theater for the three weeks in July when the festival is under way.

It was quite remarkable walking down the street with Emily. There was hardly a time we went out when we didn't bump into one of her theater friends, as everyone who is anyone in theater comes to Avignon in July. My first day in town we saw Bernie Collins who is performing his hilarious show BP Zoom. He is a wonderful clown and a very great guy.

Suffice it to say that the festival takes over the entire city. There are really two festivals, the In, and the Off. Emily's show was part of the In, which basically means the show is sponsored by the festival and the artists are paid and housed. Their shows are advertised for them. The greater part of the festival, however, is the Off. It's more like a fringe festival and anyone who wants to rent a theater and try to attract an audience to his/her show, is free to do so, but they receive no support from the main festival. Lots of people come to perform and every square inch of free wall, pole, fence, wire, is covered in posters. Walking down the street are actors in costume, playing instruments, doing magic, yelling out the times of their shows. Flyers are handed out over-generously. A lot of trees are sacrificed to support these events!

The nice thing for actors who come to perform here is that 4000 producers and promoters are also in the audience. They are actively looking for new talent. In France one can sell a show and find support much more easily than in the US. Bernie, who is an American, went to school with Jos but has lived in France for 30 years. It's so much more probable to find work here.

Apparently a lot of off shows are quite successful. Tickets are not inexpensive, on average costing about 20€ a seat. But if you're good, you're often sold out.

Performances go on all day long and into the night and the lines are quite impressive. I only went to two shows, one In and one Off, but both of them were packed. Frankly I preferred the Off one!

The restaurants and hotels must make a year's income in this one month. What a jumping scene.

The logo for the festival was created by William Kentridge, the South African artist who works a lot with animation and video. He also had an exhibition in town. This is a shadow on the wall of a pretty little chapel, cast by one of his sculptures.

Avignon is called the city of popes because the papacy moved its seat from Rome to Avignon in 1309 during the Catholic schism. 5 genuine popes and 2 anti-popes worked from Avignon during the 14th and 15th centuries. The papacy owned Avignon until 1791 when it finally became a part of France. Even as late as 1815, the Catholic church tried to again lay claim to it.

The gothic pope's palace is the grandest edifice in town. It has a very fortified appearance, as it certainly was. The walls are 17' thick! I think the popes who built this structure were expecting trouble.

It's a rather massive structure set upon a large place. What it lacks in charm, it makes up for in the impression of power.

The old town of Avignon, is almost completely enclosed in its original walls. This is very rare in France as it certainly restrains the growth of the city. Of course a new town has sprung up outside the walls, but within the walled part of town, everything is much as it has been for hundreds of years. And the new town may as well be an entirely different city as one sees nothing of it from inside the old town.

Apparently the walls were never meant to be terribly secure. They were a statement rather than a deterrent, as there are no watch towers from which to shoot arrows at the enemy. Once inside the thick walls of their palace, the popes were completely secure. The city walls are very beautiful.

The second most famous monument in Avignon is its bridge. Sur le Pont d'Avignon (on the Avignon bridge) is a song every French student learns. As you can see, most of the bridge has been washed away. Built in the late 1100s, it was often destroyed when the Rhône river flooded. It hasn't been used as a bridge for hundreds of years and it slowly collapsed. Only 4 of the original 22 arches remain today.

When I first saw the Cafe In & Off, I thought it was a mistake and had meant to be the In & Out, but that was before Emily explained to me about the two festivals. This café is just across the place from the pope's palace.

The city of Avignon itself seemed a bit shabby to me. There is some wonderful architecture yet the sense I had was that it has seen better days. The buildings are rather dirty with years of pollution and paint is often peeling off from the doors and shutters. Perhaps this is how they like it here.

Being a religious town for so long means that there are lots of churches, cloisters and monasteries. In July all these spaces become theaters.

The grandest buildings are all clustered around the pope's palace. Our neighborhood was east of there and much more residential.

Every square in town has cafes with numerous chairs, waiting to serve meals to the multitudes. During the rest of the year, one wonders what becomes of all these places.

We found we enjoyed cooking at home rather than eating out every meal. Luckily the festival had provided Emily with a very nice little place with a reasonably equipped kitchen. I think half the inhabitants must leave town and rent their places to the incoming actors.

I like the way towns are designed in southern France and Spain, where the weather is often so hot. Of course cities were built long before we had our big vehicles and getting around by car is tricky. But the narrow lanes and alleyways which open on to large squares are so practical, providing shade for walking.

Often these buildings have inner courtyards which aren't visible from the street.

I got familiar with the little passageways which, despite the ubiquitous posters, I found very charming.

Generally, when finding my way from one spot to another, I picked out the smallest passageways on my map.

Some of the dwellings are really very grand, although they also seem a bit neglected. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, when many of these houses were built, Avignon was a banker's town. (Money changers naturally followed the power.)

I found there to be lots of photo opportunities. I am restraining myself mightily in this post. I took loads of shots of the city.

I particularly liked walking around in the morning hours. The revelers stay up to the wee hours of the night and don't get up early, so I had a more leisurely time walking before noon. All the cafes and restaurants were busy setting up for another busy day.

Besides the enormous numbers of posters, there is a great deal of graffiti, as, I suppose, in most cities of any size.

Even in some of the most elegant neighborhoods, the graffiti artists make their nightly rounds. We saw one man repainting his gate. He had a large can of paint. I suspect he makes frequent use of it.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Some of the Pleasures of Summer

A walk along an ancient track under a lush canopy. Sun filtering through where it finds an opening.

Gathering berries at the side of a trail.

Deep green shade.

Protective tree tunnels.

Paths worn hollow from centuries of foot and cart traffic. Trees old enough to remember the passing.

Messing about in dirt.

Generous baskets full of flowers for arranging. The house gaily transformed into a summer celebration.

A cool stone house that looks out on warm landscapes.

Farmers busy in their fields. Crops changing the landscape with cycling colors.

Picnics with puffy clouds and expansive views.

Long days with a dramatic dusk, late in the evening.