5 August 2008

I am watching a Hallmark movie, Summer Villa, supposedly set in the south of France (really set in Montréal, Canada). The opening views of lavender, the market scenes, someone with a (I hope) legit French accent take me back to ten years ago I was living in Arles, on the Rhône River, working as a chef’s assistant (lest you have romantic notions of my eight months, my days consisted of fetching kitchen utensils whose name in French I did not know when I arrived, translating, cleaning the rooms in his B&B, hand washing every single dish, glass, fork, and pot, hanging sheets and towels out to dry on five lines by leaning out the upstairs window). The Sabbatical Chef was born. I also went to the Wednesday and Saturday markets in Arles where I became very loyal to a flower seller who told me I had a charming accent, a couple who sold the best jarred pesto, and a beekeeper whose lavender honey is divine, walked in Vincent Van Gogh’s steps (the exact spot where he painted Starry Night Over the Rhône was a 3 minute walk from where I lived), sipped a glass (or two) of rosé at my favorite café during quiet afternoons, writing postcards to family and friends, and eating the best food of my life, which I helped prepare.

So, due to my nostalgia, I went back to my original blog to see what I was writing about ten years ago. I will share it with you. An evening spent in the Camargue, watching pink flamingos. Big sigh… Grand soupir… Enjoy my trip back in time with me. I have been back to the Camargue several times since 2008 and back to Néné’s restaurant with a group of friends in 2012. I just googled it and am happy to see that it is still open. Néné was having health issues the last time I was there. Getting there and back that day was an adventure in and of itself! The tuna, rice and chick pea recipe is still one of my favorites.

Pink Flamingos and Sunday Picnics

Last Saturday night, as part of Dorette’s research for her novel, we headed to the Camargue, a regional park and bird refuge, to have dinner at the restaurant of Chef Érick’s cousin, Néné, and his wife, Hélène. Oh, the sacrifices I must make. Dorette wanted to ask some questions about the Camargue and they were the perfect candidates. The restaurant is right on the edge of the Camargue, therefore the view is spectacular. We ate as the flamingos were feeding and we watched the sunset change the color of the sky and water from blue to pink to beige before dark fell. The expression for dusk in French is entre chien et loup. To be between a dog and a wolf.

The only choice you have to make at Le Mazet du Vaccarès is which wine you would like to have with dinner. They are open only Thursday-Sunday evenings and the menu is at the chef’s pleasure. We had drinks- apéritifs – in the kitchen with Néné (nickname for Réné) and Hélène and little appetizers of toast and tapenade. Dorette and I had kir, a wonderful drink made with white wine and crème de cassis, a liqueur made with black currants.

After moving to our window table, the waiter brought out a large tureen of cold seafood gazpacho. Delicious and refreshing on a hot evening. The main course was grilled fish – daurade– served with the head on and deboned at the table by the waiter. Again, delicious. It was served with roasted potatoes. We had chosen a Picpoul de Pinet white wine. Dessert was a chilled vanilla cream concoction. This may sound strange, but it was almost the consistency of a thick milkshake. Then it was time for a digéstif, an after dinner drink. The waiter brought a thimbleful of a very strong drink of a light green color. I am not really sure what it was made of or what it tasted like, to tell the truth. I took one sip and decided I had had enough. After dinner coffee was served and Hélène had a chance to come sit with Érick so that they could catch up on family gossip. After taking a few minutes to look at all the cool bullfighting memorabilia on the walls of the restaurant, we headed back to Arles around 11 pm.

Watching pink flamingos feed in the wild is wonderful dinner entertainment. They are so graceful and seem so calm. I have seen them fly, but all they really seem to do is walk around in the water and feed all day. They eat the small shrimp and brine found in the Camargue and that is what gives them their pink color. Most of them migrate to Africa during the winter, but a few stay put. There have been sightings of an orange one, a lost Brazilian flamingo, here in the Camargue. I feel kind of like that orange flamingo. I could never pass as a French woman, but I have found a home away from home in a foreign land. Do Brazilian flamingos speak with a “charming accent,” I wonder?

Sunday is my favorite day of the week. I was born on a Sunday while my dad and grandfather were fishing on Lake James. My mom had had false labor pains and my grandfather convinced my dad that I was not coming, so they headed off to the lake, or so the story goes.

In France, there are really no stores open, so no shopping or running errands. Bakeries are open in the morning so that you can get your daily supply of baguettes, croissants or a decadent dessert to have with lunch. Cafés and restaurants are open, too, of course, for eating, people watching or meeting friends for a drink.

Sundays here begin like any other day, breakfast for the guests, clean up afterwards, cleaning rooms, if necessary. This past Sunday, however, was a slow day here at the B&B. No guests were checking in or out. We decided to go for a drive. We went to the Côte Bleue, the Blue Coast as it is called because of the color of the water. We ended up first in the town of La Couronne, famous for its ruins of the oldest known village in France. We then drove to the beach, got out and walked for a ways along the sand and then on the rocks to just look at the water. We passed by a few couples sunbathing and several families setting up their picnic lunch. This involved taking out a table, a large umbrella for shade, enough chairs for everyone, a tablecloth, plates, glasses, silverware and napkins. It was fascinating to watch people making what seemed to be quite a production out of eating lunch at the beach, covered in sand and dressed in swimsuits. I commented on this to Érick only to be told that his umbrella had broken last summer and he hadn’t replaced it yet. My surprise at the spectacle of such a civilized picnic was received much the same way as my surprise at most of the life here in France is received. C’est comme ça, Teresa. That’s the way it is.

We then got back in the car and headed to Sausset Les Pins, a small port town, for lunch. The service was not great, the mussels were good, but the sauce was not, the french fries were overcooked, but the view was worth it. Watching a couple get their boat ready to take out for the afternoon and just watching people walk by was a treat for me. We spent a couple of hours there and then decided to head back to Arles for the evening, once again already thinking ahead to what we would have for dinner.

I’ve often wondered if the French take their scenery for granted. Every town and village seems to have the ruins of a castle and a medieval (or older) church. I have asked several of my French friends if they even notice their surroundings. They all answer oui and then proceed to give a short (or sometimes long) history lesson about the local ruins. My surprise at it puzzles them, however. I then have to remind them that the United States is still a very young country. One of the walls in the dining room here at the house is older than the English language…

Dorette asked Hélène if she still appreciates the beauty of the Camargue. Her answer was just the one I had hoped for. She said that waking up every morning and looking out at the water is a marvel. What birds are there feeding? Ducks? What species of duck? And every sunset is just as wonderous. Different because of weather conditions and the time of year, but always a thrill. There is such comfort in knowing that she doesn’t take her view of the Camargue for granted!

Before I enjoy my afternoon siesta, I will leave you with a great picnic recipe. I am assisting Dorette later this afternoon as she makes a flour-less chocolate cake for dinner. We have been invited to have dinner at Gilles’ house this evening and we want to take dessert. I promise to try to remember to take pictures before it is devoured!

Érick’s Rice Salad

400 grams (2 cups) rice, cooked and drained

2 cans of tuna

1 cup chick peas or garbanzo beans

1 jar (about a cup) of green or black olives, pitted

1 Tbsp capers (or more to taste)

Chopped green and/or red pepper, optional

the juice of 1 1/2 lemons

1/2 cup olive oil

2 Tbsp Dijon-style mustard

1 Tbsp red wine vinegar


Mix together the cooked rice, tuna, chick peas, capers and pepper. In a separate bowl, blend lemon juice, olive oil, vinegar and mustard. Pour over the rice mixture and sprinkle in salt, to taste.

Bon appétit!

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