Thursday, November 27, 2014

Marché a Vaison-la-Romaine

October 15

That’s “Mar-shay ah Veh-sohn la Ro-mehn.” Well, almost. 

That’s where we started the day, at the weekly market in Vaison-la-Romaine, a fantastic small town that used to be an even bigger Roman municipality, maybe 2000 years ago. 

We got up around 7:30 and were out of the house by 8 or so. That’s because, although the market’s open until half-past twelve, the parking spaces aren’t. We got into Vaison a little after 9, and Larry pulled into one of the few spaces left in the municipal lot. Parking on the street was already filled up.

We bought vegetables first at an extensive table filled with all kinds of produce and old ladies. Of course, they could be hiring the ladies to hang around the place. Think of it: You see them and say, “This has to be where the good stuff is. Look at the old ladies. They have to know,” etc.

We also stopped at the butcher’s stall, where they know Larry. He bought several cuts for meals this week. Joanna and I also heard him ask for meat for the dogs.

Claude and Sophie keep two dogs that are just a little smaller than the ponies in the Luxembourg Gardens. Very friendly, very affectionate, very playful. One of them, the mother, comes up and smacks me with her paw whenever she wants attention. 

So, OK, big slabs of beef seem a little generous for dogs, but I can see somebody going overboard for fun now and then.

Larry’s getting recommendations from the lady standing next to him. Is she a dog lover too?

But no. He didn’t say “dog.” He said “daube,” a kind of Provençal beef stew. The lady suggested a different cut from the butcher’s choice and was adding some tips on how to cook it.

During Larry’s exchange with the lady, the butcher had to ask a question. So he called Larry: “Chef. Chef.” Talk about making Larry’s day, right?

Larry picked out a dourade sauvage (a type of wild bass) for dinner. It was whole, which is the best way to cook and serve fish. Joanna and Larry especially like the meat from the head.

Several stalls sold rotisserie chicken. This cooks slowly on a spit as the fat drips onto vegetables in the bottom of the rack. Joanna has wanted to try it ever since we first saw it cooking that way on the sidewalks in Paris a year ago. So we got half a chicken to take home for lunch.

The lady at the stall lifted a spit with four chickens off the fire and let the birds slide off. The sight was almost Chaucerian for its earthiness.

Then she picked one up and cut it in half for us. She put it and some of the potatoes into a bag, and we were ready to go.

Actually, we put the stuff into the car.  Back at the lot some drivers had to improvise to park.

Then we walked back into town to see the excavated (and perhaps partly reconstructed) Roman ruins. There’s a complete arch, several standing columns and the extensive outlines of the stone walls of buildings. There are even a couple of statues that are largely intact.

We met a couple from the States. They heard us talking and seemed surprised to run into Americans. Larry chatted with them while I made a video of the ruins. He said he hadbrought us along to view the sights. I think it was to help lug the groceries.


 The remains of the foundations are far more extensive than those at Rome. This was all uncovered in an archeological dig. Maybe the archeologists found rubble and replaced the stones, or maybe this is what they found when they dug into this place sometime in the last century. I don’t know.

You pass the ruins, which are several feet below the current street level, on the way up the hill to the street with cafes and bars. We had coffee and a croissant, my first food of the day. Joanna’s, too, I think.

I don’t think we bought many herbs because you get thyme, rosemary, and fennel too when they’re in season by foraging on the roadside here. We went thyme-picking, for instance, the other day.

The bank by the side of the road was covered with grass that had tiny white flowers.

But the flowers disappear when you get up close.

Flowers? No. Snails. Not even big enough to eat.

Claude was at the house, so he joined us for lunch, something he doesn’t often make time for, Larry said. Maybe he smelled the chicken. We had it with a little wine, of course, and with a couple of side dishes we bought at Vaison. One was a zucchini filled with a puree of squash, and the other a sweet red pepper with sausage.

After lunch we went to Gigondas, for wine tasting. First stop was Domaine de St. Gayan. This is where it got confusing for a while. The domaine is in Gigondas, which is a protected appellation of its own. Christian, who met us in the yard, led us into the caveau, or tasting room, and among the selections we tried was a white called Sablet.

Sablet is not part of the Gigondas appellation, but instead is the name of a village that is part of the appellation called Côtes du Rhone Villages (which, I think, is a different designation from straight Côtes du Rhone). 

It turns out that the domaine has vineyards in Sablet as well as in Gigondas. The two places are side by side, or just about, so for all I know, the farm may straddle the border between the two places. 

In any event, the Sablet is a white from the Rhone Valley, so we picked up a couple of bottles. We also bought a Gigondas red.

The white has a kind of mineral flavor and lots of it, which is what I enjoy in Rhone whites and is what makes them exceptional mates with flavorful food. There’s no losing the wine.

I forget which cave had this sign.

We stopped at Domaine Mavette, which had a tiny tasting room, where a lady was pouring. In the adjacent room, I could see an old arch with some of the plaster removed to show the brick work under it. I stepped inside for a better look. I heard the lady call out, and Larry translated. I wasn’t supposed to go wandering in the building.

I felt like a gauche Yankee.

At a tasting, you get an ounce or less in the bottom of a glass. You’re supposed to swirl it to release the aroma, sip a bit and roll it in your mouth, and then spit it out. Sometimes you dump out the last little bit from your glass to get ready for the next sample. I have a hard time bringing myself to do that. It’s just too good, and on top of that, I keep remembering how much work and experience go into wine. 

By the time we got through the second tasting, I had a little bit of a buzz on.

We also visited the caveau at a wine maker called Notre Dame de Pellieres. When we got there, a sheep dog came up to us and dropped a tennis ball at our feet, so I started tossing the ball. The dog was good. Half the time he caught the ball dropping out of its arc or at least after the first bounce.

We stood among the barrels and tasted wine. The dog came up behind me and dropped the ball again. I told him, “Sorry. I can’t throw the ball in here. I’ll break a bottle.”

He looked so disappointed that Joanna picked up the ball and took the dog outside.

We sampled a red wine from an appellation called Restau. Larry told me that Sophie loves the stuff. We bought two bottles.

Sometime during our travels we stopped at a store in Gigondas representing dozens—hell, hundreds. No, at least thousands. Yeah, that’s it—thousands of local wine makers. We may have tried something there, but I’m not sure. I was pretty dull-witted by then. 

But we did come home with a bottle of Gigondas red from a domaine called Moulin de la Gardette. We may drink that with the daube or a lamb shoulder later this week.

Dinner was the dourade roasted whole in the oven and served with rice pilaf. We had the St. Gayan Sablet with the fish and then switched to the Rasteau for the cheese course.

After several wine tastings, and wine with both lunch and dinner, I stood up around 10 and realized I had had it. 

I got to bed somehow and stayed there till 8 or 9 Wednesday morning.

I hope you sleep well, too, whether it’s with or without chemical assistance.


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Crypts, Boas, Trains, and Grapes

    Downtown Beaumes de Venise

October 14

According to Joanna, we’ve been bar-hopping.

You probably haven’t noticed, but I’ve been too busy to write. Also asleep part of the time.

We made the 10 o’clock service Sunday morning at Notre Dame de Paris. Well, the mass was in progress, and then there was the crazy lady who shoved me from behind, and the line we were able to cut. Lots of fun.

We left the hotel at maybe twenty to ten. It was all downhill from there. I’m not sure. We were in a hurry.

We first saw the crazy lady on the corner at the Petit Pont, the bridge that connects the Left Bank to the Île de la Cité, where Notre Dame is. She was intent on kicking broken glass on the sidewalk. A few moments later, as we were walking across the bridge, somebody came up behind me and started shoving to get past me. It was the crazy lady in a hurry. And since she was crazy, I backed off my initial intention of throwing some son of a bitch into the river.

We got to the island and queued up in a long line. Then we noticed the sign that said “messe.” No line there, so that’s where we went. It must have been on the honor system because it immediately merged with the tourist line at the door.

The congregation for the mass was fenced off, so we started to go down a side aisle to find an entrance. Then we tried the back of the nave and found a way in. Joanna, having a knack for this sort of thing, led me forward till we found two seats together about midway through the congregation.

All right. So far, so good.

The ushers handed us programs on the way in, with the liturgy in French and Latin. Also English, German, and Spanish on other pages, we found later. So some of the time, we were able to sing along.

The Roman liturgy is the basis for the Episcopal service, which I know, so I wasn’t completely lost, just mostly.

The homily ran overlong and so did the announcements. We had to press our way out against the incoming tide for the 11:30 service.

After the service, we visited the crypt, which was an excavation of medieval remains of the Île de la Cité from the Middle Ages—maybe Quasimodo’s time. 

The river in those days came closer to the middle of where the island is today. There is an animated film of the old wharf that shows a boat coming in to what are now white rocks under ground. When that’s done, a projection shows where the water used to be—under our feet. Life changes and so do cities.

There are supposed to be the burials of several titled guys who died in a fight against Vikings at the Petit Pont. But we didn’t find them.

At my urging, Joanna had packed a feather boa, a prop from her days as an exotic dancer. No, not really. It was a prop for dancing, though—for a recital when she was taking tango lessons. Feather boa in Paris. That’s got to be a natural, right?

I think it was a hit with the locals. Every once in a while Joanna drew a surreptitious glance from someone passing by. It's pale purple and I think it's fantastic.

Joanna’s idea was to wear it to Pigalle and have her photo taken in front of the Moulin Rouge. We didn’t get to Pigalle this trip, so she had her photo taken in the crypt by Notre Dame.

We had a quick breakfast (i.e. petit dejeuner) and then went back to the hotel and conked out.

When we woke up in the afternoon, we went to a Chinese restaurant next to the hotel for dinner. We had duck and choi sum (a green vegetable). Duck is often a touchstone for authenticity, especially in the States. If you go into a Chinese or a French restaurant and you see duck on the menu, you know it’s likely to be a legitimate Chinese or French restaurant.

In Paris, however, it’s confusing. It could be a French restaurant pretending to be Chinese. I wouldn’t know, but Joanna does. She was happy, so I know the place was indeed Cantonese.

We had a half bottle of Bourdeaux with dinner, and then stopped at a place around the corner for dessert and another glass of Bordeaux. Wow, it was time to call it a night, and so we did.

After about nine or ten hours’ sleep we got up and made it to the train for Avignon.

Train travel in Europe is very cool, much more so than in the U.S. The trains work, for instance. Also, unlike Amtrak, if you take a sandwich and bottle of wine onto the train, nobody gives you a hard time. The conductor, having a little joke, may make like he’s going to take your bottle for himself. No lectures, no threats, no fool telling you that you are competing with the concessions a couple of cars ahead. This is Europe, where free enterprise is respected.

Larry met us at the Avignon Tren a Grand Vitesse station and drove us to the house where we would be staying. It is the 400-year-old wing of a stone place set among an ocean of vineyards. This is where Larry stays with a family in Provence. The family invited us to stay in a wing of their house, the old wing, which is spectacular.

When we got to the house we met Claude, the householder. He grows grapes in vineyards behind the house and also grows them in other fields in the area. He is president of the local wine cooperative in Beaumes-de-Venise.

Once we were settled in, sometime late in the afternoon, after a quick lunch at the house, Larry started our wine-tasting tour of the region.

We went to Domaine la Garrigue in Vacqueyras. Vacqueyras (or Vacqueiras in Provençal) is an appellation. Let’s see if I have this right. Appellation is a government-controlled classification for the wines of a region, town, or whatever.

Vacqueyras is an appellation d’origine protegée (protected name of origin). You make a wine from grapes raised somewhere else and call it Vacqueyras, you’re cheating.

That would be like American champagne, burgundy, or chianti. No, it ain’t.

They are all great wines here. Highlights included a special cuvée called Cantarelle from 2010.

We had dinner outside the house with Claude and his wife, Sophie, who came home around 8:30 or 9 after an exercise class. Larry had put together a veal meal and reheated it, along with a mix of couscous and herbs. After that course came a selection of cheese, some of it really runny and just perfect with bread.

Lots of bread and wine were consumed. Cheese too. This is a good way to live.

I’m writing this now on Tuesday, a day and even more wine later. I’ll tell you about today’s tasting tomorrow. Or whenever I get to it.

As you can guess, I am doing well. Very well. So is Joanna.

I’m loving this, gang.

I hope everybody’s well and, even more important, happy.

Love to all.


Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Old Neighborhood

October 11

I’m starting to write this on Saturday, back in Cafe le Duc, where I’m having
wine and coffee. Euro coffee comes in short cups and is generally light on the caffeine, so I can drink it several times a day and still not stick to the ceiling. Unlike coffee at home, four or five cups of it doesn’t raise the pitch of my voice by half an octave. 

We got another late start and had breakfast between noon and one in Cafe Luxembourg on Blvd. St. Michel. I had a huge crepe wrapped around melted Emmenthaler; also a glass of Chablis. I was told long ago in Quebec that it’s not good form to drink red wine with breakfast. So remembering that advice, I ordered white.

This was better than American Chablis, and drier. It was a good breakfast wine. 

Joanna, being a great fan of baguettes, had a ham and cheese sandwich.

The cafe sits across the street from the Luxembourg Palace and its gardens, which make a large park with everything from statuary and potted citrus trees to tennis courts and pony rides. There were lots of plane trees pruned square, a look the French seem to admire a lot. 

Les jardins de Luxembourg continue along the Rue de la Observatoire. We came to the Jardins de les Grands Explorateurs—specifically, Marco Polo, who went to Asia, and la Salle who went to North America. Joanna recognized the fountain (today’s’ photo),  which shows the four parts of the world holding up the globe. We had seen a study for this group at the Musee D’Orsay. I like the projectile vomiting turtles.

The four parts are personified as women. The Americas wears a feathered bonnet. Africa wears a leg iron and chain.

This route brought us to a familiar comer. I felt like such sophisticated Euro trash. Here I was on a familiar corner in Paris, of all places. It’s where Observatoire crosses Blvd. Montparnasse. The cab came this way the other day.

To the right is the way to Gare Montparnasse, the Dome, a short block with sex shops, a branch of Galeries Lafayette, lots of cool stuff. Wow, I know my way around Paris. Well, a little, anyway.

We turned left and took Montparnasse for a few blocks. This, too, was familiar because we had walked it last year on the way to the Dome. 

We went into a grocery store (forget the name) which sold only frozen food. Ice cream and cake, yes, but also stuff like veal patties and escargot. 

We came to Rue St. Jacques, and Joanna said she knew the way back to the hotel. And so we took it.

On the way we stopped at a church dedicated to St. James. The historical marker outside far exceeded my knowledge of French grammar and vocabulary. But it was great stuff, talking about the Order of Hospitallers, St. Jacques de Haut Pas (don’t ask; I don’t know), and pilgrims to the shrine of St. James of Compostella. For all I know, this was a stop on a pilgrim route, but understand, I’m making that up because it almost sounds right.

The building dates to the early 1600s, but there was a church on the spot for longer than that. It’s all white inside. Very interesting and in sharp contrast to the dark stone interiors that I’ve come to expect.

We stopped for a Bordeaux and salade de fruits at a corner bistro near the Pantheon. All right. I learned another French term. Now we’re set to order fruit salad anywhere in France.

Before we walked to the hotel, Joanna wanted to show me what she had discovered when she was out for a morning walk the other day. And it was a real treasure.

At the end of Rue Cujas and past the Place du Pantheon is Place de Ste. Geneviéve. I think the saint’s name is pronounced “Zhan-vee-ev.” As in the old song, “Geneviéve, douce Geneviéve.”

Anyhow, Joanna took me to a church dedicated to St. Stephen, the first martyr. The history was in English in there. Here goes:

Clovis, the Frankish king who died in 511, established a church on the hilltop here, where the Pantheon is now. He was to be buried there, and so was his wife, St. Clotilde, who died more than 30 years after Clovis. Ste. Geneviéve, the heroine (and later patron saint) of Paris, died in 512 and was buried there too.

Here's the origingal. Somebody who knows French, please let me know how close I came:

The original church was eventually dedicated to Ste. Geneviéve.

The peons were relegated to attending services in the cellar of the church, but there being lots more of them than gentry or anybody else, the congregation outgrew the space, and so St. Etienne du Mont was put up for them, next door. 

So I guess, comes the Revolution, and Ste. Geneviéve’s is no longer a church. Voila, le Pantheon.

So St. Etienne’s church has a shrine to Ste. Geneviéve —a glass coffin holding the stone from her original tomb. Two other people who are now saints stopped in to see it. 

According to a sign only in French, John XXIII in 1962 declared Geneviéve patron of the “Gendarmerie Française” (French police force?) and of the public order. Appropriate enough, I guess. I saw those murals the other day in the Pantheon that show her calming the people of Paris when they were under siege by the Huns.

There’s also a photo of John Paul II praying at the shrine when he visited the church in ’97. 

Thinking about this much tradition makes my head hurt: Three saints, about a millennium and a half apart, all in one place. You can believe all, some, or none of it, but that doesn’t make it less beautiful in some strange way.

A couple of other things. The pigeons here are very tame, or else they’re high. Maybe they drink the wine, too. I almost tripped over a couple of them this afternoon. 

And that reminded me of something I forgot to mention yesterday.

While Joanna and I were waiting to get into the Louvre on Friday, a young couple was standing at a fountain where they were having a photo taken. Each one was holding a live pigeon. Somebody, maybe the guy with the camera, had managed to scoop them up from the ground. Even in New York, the pigeons aren’t that stoned.

Children, do not try this at home, or anywhere. You don’t even leave this to professionals. These kids were amateurs.

From all I’ve heard, handling a city pigeon is about as good for your health as keeping a rat with fleas in your pocket. You may not die, but you could come close. 

Joanna’s nephew, Thomas, joined us for dinner. He has been working in Paris for more than a year on assignment for his U.S.-based company. We went to the Perigord on Rue St. Jacques. Everybody had the snails this time. Thomas and I had different versions of steak frites, along with the house wine, and Joanna had a wonderful piece of roast chicken.

After dinner, we walked with Thomas to his metro station near the Luxembourg Gardens.

Then it was time to call it quits. We have a 7:45 wake-up call because we hope to get to the Gregorian service at Notre Dame in the morning.

Have fun, everyone.