Ca y est. Saturday, Bastille Day (14/7/07) marked 6 years that I have lived in France and was also the day I got back from a 2-week break to the furthest south I've ever been in France since I arrived - Arles, home to some breathtaking UNESCO World Heritage sites and beneficiary of some serious lovely weather!
Although Vincent van Gogh only lived there for a year (1888- 1889) and a long long time ago, much has been touted in his name for the tourist dollar. Oh alright, so most of his better-known paintings were inspired by the Arlesian landscape (for very good reason!) and he lost an ear there, but if you didn't know better, some of the van Gogh "attractions" and souvenirs were clear-cut rip-offs!
My irreverence was short-lived, however, the moment I patronised the local markets! Take for example the biggest, baddest cherries money can buy, the tenderest of figs and up until now, what remained the stuff of cookbook legend to me - zucchini blossoms!
The violet-tinged Ail de Garonne (a delicate garlic variety cultivated in the region around the Garonne river), though seasonally available in the North, was something I felt the need to stock up on, and eventually abuse (if you must know what garlic abuse is, it's the violent exfoliation of all mucous membranes in my oral cavity, tastebuds included) before its possible extinction. Woe woe!!
Olives were abound as far as the eye could see - preserved, in tapenades (a spread), as a motif on tablecloths and napkins... I wasn't really looking to buy any, but was fascinated by the choice!
Tomatoes were a close second in omnipresence. These freaky-looking ones are called coeur de boeuf, meaning "ox heart". One is enough for 2 persons, so I took a yellow and a red one. It's a pity my hands were too full to take pictures of some other equally spectacular dwarf varieties!
There were many other fruits and vegetables in my basket, but let me backtrack a bit and deliver a micro geography lesson. I live in Lille (50.38N, 03.03E) and Arles (43.41N, 04.40E), without traffic jams and pee breaks, is at least 10 solid hours away by car at an average speed of 90 km southward all the way. That translates to a constant upward difference of 10°C on average in the afternoons, a main factor in the difference between wan and tan! In lingua culinaria, that also meant redder, juicier tomatoes and just-plucked fruit at a steal as well as greens too fragile to make that 10-hour trip.
Different weather, different vegetation, different accent but same language, and even different species of mosquito (their stings were baldly more vicious and insidious) - I was almost sure I'd landed in a different country! Why, even the strangers were chattier and the pigeons less meek!
Sigh... in the shade of the majestic Roman-era arena - the view from the house where we'd stayed not far from here - a mustachioed serenader with a wee little violin would not have been out of place... :)
Forgive me for not cutting to the chase (ie, ready-to-eat stuff), but I'm getting there!! When I left Lille in a hurry and after a harrowing week at work, I took with me all my perishables and a few cans of preserves. With that, I'd drafted a couple of my lists to give me an idea of what to cook while in Arles, but the lists proved to be sorely inappropriate given that they were adapted for Lille's cold weather!
So here is the array of finger food I ended up improvising throughout my 2 weeks there, using local ingredients where I could:
Tartines with green olive & garlic tapenade with carpaccio of baby zucchinis and cherry halves, ribboned with stalks of chives.
I prepared some of these bites when we had company one evening, and served them with glasses of rosé. I had to hint to my guests that I had nothing else lined up for dinner (these were largely enough for me), so they had to eat the rest of their dinner elsewhere, haha... :)
There are so many other lovely pictures I took and much much more to babble about, but I shall keep them for the next post...
Coming up next: a brush with Nostradamus, an enjoyable day meeting up with a terribly sweet gal I got to know through this blog, the astounding Baux de Provence valley and what happens to food when you have time on your hands!