Week Forty-Five in France: Thyme ice cream and 40-year-old wine (Vacances d'été)
25/07/2020: It's been so, so amazing visiting all of my favorite old haunts from my study abroad program in Arles three years ago – especially with J. We started out the day with a croissant and café in the charming Place de la Roquette, which was even more cheerful and busy than the last time I was here. Saturdays are market days, my absolute favorite day in Arles, and I couldn't wait to show J. one of the biggest outdoor markets in the south of France. We perused the stalls filled with food and other trinkets, bought a baguette and some cheese and ham, and ogled at a group of naked performance artists wearing only in colorful paint wandering around town. Next up, a delicious lunch of K.'s homemade eggplant parmesan and some some window shopping at a very cool, trendy (and expensive!) new shop called Bisou. My favorite photography festival, Les Rencontres, has been cancelled this year because of COVID, but J. and I still got to stop by a free photography exhibit at the colorful Espace Van Gogh, featuring one-of-a-kind, otherworldly photo montages and a hilarious confinement cartoon series. After getting cultured, we got ice cream from my favorite spot in Arles, Soleileïs. My cone with scoops and fig sorbet and thyme ice cream was original and absolutely exquisite.
J. and I decided to invite K. out tonight to thank her for hosting us these past few days. Our first stop, yet another one of my favorites: Le Buste et L'Oreille, a wine bar housed in an old bookstore in centre-ville. While sitting outside sipping rosé and enjoying ourselves, a familiar face passed by on her way to dinner – the boss of my 2017 IES study abroad program! During this astonishingly fortuitous run-in, she congratulated me on my strides with French and laughingly told us that the program had donated its classroom chairs to this very bar. I was literally sitting in the same chairs I'd sat in three years ago during my immigration and photography classes. Talk about full circle! Shaking our heads in amused shock, we headed back to one of the first restaurants I'd tried in Arles, where K. and I had celebrated her birthday together many years ago. Jardin des Arts is a beautiful local spot with a stunning garden and amazing pasta. We sipped on red wine and spilled our secrets to each other over fresh raviolis stuffed with spinach and ricotta in a delectable cream sauce with peas and ham. You can't not order their signature fondant au chocolat, so K. and I split the luxurious dessert to celebrate such a joyous retrouvailles. J. and I wished our host good night and headed to Paddy Mullin's, the bar I spent almost every waking moment at during my last trip. My gin & tonic was cheap and refreshing, but the pub didn't feel quite the same as it used to. I guess I should have expected that, though...
26/07/2020: Some quick goodbyes and see-you-soons to K. and other friendly faces (her friends who I'd met years ago), and J. and I were off to our next destination. Wanting to squeeze as much as we could out of the Camargue before heading to Languedoc-Roussillon, we took a detour to visit Aigues-Mortes, a medieval walled city amid the salt marshes of the region. Exhausted, we decided to forgo the pricy walking tour of the ramparts and instead did what we do best – we ate. Tempted by a small Indian restaurant with an extremely kind owner, we sat down to enormous portions of flavorful biryani and naan, which fueled us for our final few hours of driving. J. had told me so much about these towns he used to visit during his childhood summers, and I feel so lucky that we were able to share our favorite places with each other during this trip. However, as we passed through Cessenon-sur-Orb, I could barely think about how meaningful it was, because I was practically dying of thirst. One life-saving pineapple juice later, and we were finally settled in J.'s family friends' house in Prades-sur-Vernazobre! We shared an amazing apéro and barbecue dinner with people who already made the place feel like home – the rosé helped too, especially with the cooling ice cubes that they serve it with in the south of France.
27/07/2020: After a week and a half of nonstop movement, J. and I made the executive decision to be lazy today, especially with the burning temperatures outside. So, we stayed inside and enjoyed the air conditioning almost all day, and it was glorious. It feels amazing to finally really relax. We have plenty of time to explore for the rest of the week! To make ourselves seem useful, we did some grocery shopping and cooked amazing homemade pizzas for dinner. If you've all forgotten, up until recently, J. worked as a pizzaiolo at a food truck called Miss Pizza, so obviously he's very talented in this department. But my creation with goat cheese, black olives, artichokes and chorizo was a hit, too. Long live laid-back outdoor dinners that last all night!
28/07/2020: Well-rested enough to hop in the car again, J. and I visited a town called Minerve this afternoon. While it was stunning, basically perched on a cliff stranded in a valley, the drive was not quite as pleasant. Google Maps decided to take us on a "shortcut" that ended up being a rocky, steep drive through the vineyards where no cars should ever be allowed. After U-turning and reversing and worrying, we finally arrived and decided to explore. There were great views at this special town, but unfortunately, the restaurant we chose was mediocre. I've never seen mozzarella so pathetic and rubbery as it was in my caprese salad, and my brandade de morue left a lot to be desired as compared to J.'s dad's version. The caramel flan and the cheap prices helped soften the blow a little, and so did the walk through the charming streets afterwards. That night, J. and I visited a night market in Saint-Chinian, the bigger town a few kilometers from Prades, our home base. My plastic cup of rosé was thirst-quenching, but there were only a few vendors by the time we got there, and the live music hadn't started yet. Still, a nice outing, where I bought a cute drawing of the town from an English artist selling his wares.
29/07/2020: The rivers that snake through this region (the Orb and the Vernazobre) offer plenty of opportunities for swimming, so to beat the heat, we set off for a small nearby town called Roquebrun. The cold water of the river felt perfect against our hot skin, and the hillside maze of colorful southern French houses provided a gorgeous backdrop. After our swim, we laid on the rocks and sunbathed for a while before getting up in search of food. Not wanting to walk too far, we stopped at a small bar for some random (extremely cheesy!) pizza. Luckily, dinner was a bit more special. I'm ashamed to admit this, but I had seen a TikTok featuring a recipe for a ratatouille galette, so I decided to put my own spin on it for dinner for the household. I marinated purple and white striped eggplant, juicy yellow tomatoes, zucchini and red peppers in plenty of garlic, olive oil and herbes de Provence, then tucked the mixture into a pâte brisée, brushed the pie dough with egg wash and stuck it in the oven. Despite the dough on the bottom getting a bit soggy, the flavors were delicious, and the photogenic galette was a hit, as was J.'s chicken and vegetable wok that we all scarfed down as our main dish. It's been nice to cook again after so much time in hotels, and it's the least we can do for our generous hosts! After dinner, some cuddles for Cookie the enormous cat, and bedtime.
30/07/2020: The day J. has been waiting impatiently for has finally arrived – market day in Saint-Chinian! He's been reminiscing about this market almost as much as I did about the Marché d'Arles. While this market was much smaller than what we saw last Saturday, the vibes were immaculate. Fresh produce, paëlla, honeyed Middle Eastern sweets, oysters and shellfish caught that morning – everything looked delicious, and, I won't lie, the tree-shaded stretch of vendors was much less overwhelming than in Arles. Back at the house, we dined on saucy shakshuka that our hosts' daughter had kindly made. She lives in Dubai and is here on vacation with her two kids, who are sweet, if not a bit loud!
Later that afternoon, J. and I walked across the street in Prades (it's so small, they don't even have a town bar!) to visit somewhere very special. The Domaine des Jougla, a family of vignerons who have been friends with J.'s dad for many years! J. and I sat in the cave, sipped generous tasting portions and learned about the particularities of Saint-Chinian AOC wines from the peppy mamie who used to babysit J. when he was a kid. Once sufficiently buzzed, and six family-priced bottles of wine heavier, the patriarch of the family invited us to visit the chapelle. We were unprepared for what this meant. At first glace, it was simply an old chapel filled with equally old oak barrels. Then, Monsieur Jougla brought out his pipette. Plunging it into these reserves from 1980, he served us mouthfuls of bracingly acidic, deeply fermented wines that jolted the palate and the mind. It was an incredibly special experience that I'll remember, somewhat fuzzily, for a long time. When J. and I giddily returned to the house, we sat down for a delicious fresh dinner of tomatoes with olive oil, flaky salt and meaty anchovies, plus flavorful foie gras and rillettes on crusty baguette.
31/07/2020: In a shameful turn of events, J. and I drove over 45 minutes to the nearest McDonald's to satisfy a craving today. I'm begging you, don't judge us. You can only eat so many beautiful Provençal tomatoes before your body craves junk food! After our disgraceful outing, we went swimming in the river at Vieussan, another beautiful town tucked into the mountainside. The twists and turns of the ride back were a bit less relaxing, however, but my mood lifted when J. and I headed to Cessenon-sur-Orb for dinner and live music. We sat and sipped on sangria and local beer as we listened to the energetic band oscillate between the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and some French pop-rock artists that I have yet to recognize. The atmosphere was convivial, and the food ended up being much better than expected – my squid in a rouille (a sauce often served with fish) was tender and relevé. Then, after two weeks in the south of France I finally ordered a pastis, and J. and I closed out the night with a walk along the pitch-black river, with a beautiful view of the moon and the town glowing golden. Not bad for my last day of being 22! I'm so grateful to be able to share these experiences with J. and enjoy a vacation, even in the time of COVID. Masks on, people!
Back again with my weekly series where I link to an important article about food that I believe everyone should read. Getting educated is the first step (again, of many!) to making the food world a more equitable place. I welcome suggestions in the comments!
THIS WEEK'S READ:
Often called the "Oscars" of the food world, the James Beard Awards are facing many of the same backlash the #OscarsSoWhite event was criticized for. This piece by Pete Wells delves into why the 30-year-old awards ceremony was cancelled this year: 'Behind the cancellation of the James Beard Awards: Worries about chefs’ behavior and no Black winners'