Week Forty-Four in France: Lavender ice cream and tellines (Vacances d'été)
18/07/2020: Several more hours of driving, and we were on to the next destination – Avignon! This lively town in Provence would be our home base for the next six days while we explored the rest of the region. Again, the 2 p.m. problem presented itself, and we just barely squeezed in to a nice, tree-laden restaurant terrace in the historic centre ville. Starving, I scarfed down my random choice of lasagna, and we set off again to get our first taste of the town (I've been here once before, for a couple of hours in 2017, so I was excited to discover more). Even though the famous Festival de Théâtre has been more or less cancelled this year due to the coronavirus, the city was still alive and well. And hot.
After strolling around the Jardin des doms and doing a bit of shopping, we stopped at a glacier, where I decided to me lancer un défi (challenge myself) to taste as many different lavender ice creams as I could during this trip. This scoop was refreshing, floral and pale purple. I'd give it a 8/10 – the lavender flavor could have been stronger. For dinner, J. and I speed-walked to make our reservation at Le Cul de Poule (The Chicken's Butt!), a wonderful discovery with a bustling terrace in another verdant town square. Despite devastating blisters from my new pair of platform sandals, we were nonetheless able to enjoy our meal – my rich squid-ink risotto with saffron gambas would prove to be a highlight from our trip.
19/07/2020: J. refused to believe me when I informed him that the breakfast buffet at our quaint (air-conditioned!) hotel just outside the Avignon ramparts cost over 9 euros each, but we decided to splurge anyway. The crusty baguette, butter, jam, grapefruit juice and café crème was tasty and classically French, but expensive for what it was. We continued our city tour with a photo walk before ending up at Les Halles d'Avignon, an enormous covered market with over 40 vendors, for an impromptu lunch. People-watching while downing a glass of icy rosé, plus green olive tapenade, crostini, pasta salad and batons of dried saucissons – now this is vacation. Again withering under the unrelenting heat, we stopped at a shaded terrace across from the impressive Palais des Papes for a Perrier and another scoop of lavender ice cream, this time even purpler and sweeter. A touch too sweet, though – I'll give this version a 7/10.
The best thing to do when the heat becomes too much to bear? Hop on a boat. Our bateau tour of the Rhône was stunning, with gorgeous views of the Palais, cathedral and Pont d'Avignon. To finish off our busy day, we stopped for sushi at Côté Sushi, a trendy spot on the main drag. Crispy tuna to start, followed by one of the best rolls I've had in France, with mango, cucumber and seared maki. Because the service was a bit slow, we enjoyed some free mango mochi ice cream before a final nightcap in the Place de l'Horloge (9+ euros for a gin and tonic! obscene!).
20/07/2020: Finally, one of the days I'd been most looking forward to during our vacation – a trip through les Alpilles, a small mountain range in Provence dotted with olive groves and vineyards as far as the eye can see. I have a special place in my heart for all the sights in this region. Before we headed out, we stopped for some take-away pizza in Avignon (2 euros for a slice) because we'd barely been in the south of France for a week and we were already going broke. Our first destination was the picturesque town of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where we wandered the narrow, colorful streets taking countless pictures and window shopping. Nearby was another special spot – the Maison de Santé Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, where Vincent Van Gogh spent a year in the late 1800s after cutting off part of his own ear. The still-functional psychiatric hospital had beautiful grounds, rich in history and lavender fields – we even got to see the room where the famous artist stayed and painted feverishly over 100 years ago.
Next up, one of my favorite places that I've ever been: les Baux-de-Provence and its Carrières-des-Lumières, a rocky town and its medieval castle nestled in the mountains. I last took in this amazing view in November 2017 with my lovely host family from my study abroad program in Arles that summer. As for the Carrières-des-Lumières, it's hard to explain. At its simplest, it's an old stone quarry that doubles as an art gallery, with images projected on the towering walls. But the experience of walking through an unassuming door into the vast, cool, dark space and having the show begin (the current exhibit is Dalí and Gaudí), the music rush into your ears and the mesmerizing projections swirl all around you – it's surreal. When we finally sat down on a cliffside terrace for dinner after a day of strolling in 90+ degree heat, my glass of rosé and the sun-soaked view was a dream. The restaurant was borderline a tourist trap, but my 16 euro roasted veggie plancha with plenty of bread was tasty enough that I forgot to care. I love artichokes! Goodnight.
21/07/2020: J. and I continued our daily routine of languishing in the Avignon heat – and finding expensive refuge in air-conditioned clothing stores – until we found ourselves at a Corsican restaurant for lunch. I downed a regional Pietra beer, along with a salad perfectly overwhelmed with milky, top-quality burrata, tomatoes and what was likely an entire head of garlic. (J.'s charcuterie board and warm goat cheese was equally decadent.) A lesson in spontaneity, we recalled a poster that we'd seen in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence the day before and decided to spent the evening at the courses Camarguaises. This spectacle is a long-standing regional tradition, much more humane for the bulls than corridas – young men in white, called raseteurs, dart around the arena attempting to capture small tassels tied daintily in between the bull's horns. We stayed in the dusty arènes as the sun set against the stunning mountain backdrop, watching the agile boys and petites vachettes dance around each other as elegantly as ballerina dancers.
Starving, we found an adorable restaurant called L'Olivade in Saint-Remy and scarfed down insane planchettes for dinner – mine, called La Marine, featured fish soup with croutons and cheese, gambas and rice pilaf, a mini salmon tartare with avocado and lime cream, and a squid and cherry tomato brochette. (And pale pink rosé with ice, of course.) One of the best and most inventive vacation meals to date, and in such a dreamy setting. The night was soured just a bit when I had to navigate an administrative deadline 600 kilometers away from my computer – but I'm trying not to think about all of the stressful things waiting for me at home in preparation for the rentrée. It can wait... right now, I'm in Provence!
22/07/2020: Yet another day trip awaited us today, this time to a small town we'd seen on TV months before that had sparked our thirst for Provence. Roussillon, a unique village in the Luberon region of France, is one of the most colorful places I've seen in the country, and that's saying something. It's perched at the edge of the Sentier des Ochres, a forested trail winding through ochre canyons looming overhead in varying shades of red, orange and yellow. We completed the loop, dripping with sweat and dusted a light rust color, but happy. Happier still when I downed a sucre crêpe and scoops of lavender and basil ice cream. The lavender flavor unfortunately tasted almost soapy (5/10), and the basil tasted more like grass than my favorite herb.
We set off then for the Abbaye de Sénanque, a 12th century abbey near the striking town of Gordes, also in the Luberon. The intoxicating scent of lavender fields greeted us as we toured the grounds, spent many a euro in the gift shop and snapped plenty of pictures. Back at home base, we succumbed to cravings and returned to Côté Sushi, where I downed a delicious salmon and tuna poké bowl, followed by bright blue tequila drinks, chips and guac at a festive Cuban bar. Exhausted and giddy, we stumbled into a trippy light show projected onto a nearby church before finally crawling into bed for our last sleep in Avignon.
23/07/2020: Off to Arles! I couldn't be happier to be back in the town that I haven't stopped talking about for three years. It's time to make new memories in my favorite place in France. We touched down and unloaded our bags at my former host mom, K.'s house, exchanging big hugs and reminiscing after three years apart. Overflowing with excitement, I all but dragged J. to my favorite sandwich spot, Fad'oli, for garlic-rubbed sandwiches stuffed with tender mozzarella, tomatoes and fresh basil. Itching to hit the beach, we drove through the Camargue national park to Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer, an animated seaside town and biannual pilgrimage destination for Romani people from all over the world. Sadly, after just a few minutes on the sand, it started to rain cats and dogs. We shoved our stuff under some rocks and toughed out the storm, frolicking in the water when the sun peeped its head out again.
Later, we wandered for a while, deciding which of the many enticing restaurants to choose, before landing on a charming outdoor terrace with plenty of local specialties. I barely had the chance to sip my rosé and start in on my tellines (tiny local clams with bright purple shells – delicious with plenty of parsley, garlic and butter) before the skies reopened and we were forced to relocate to a table indoors. J. and I sat, bemused, as the downpour continued, practically flooding the place. Luckily, no water got into my impossibly tender gardienne de taureau (bull stew with rice). I finished the evening with a killer stomachache, which dampened my mood. But we still had the rest of the weekend to profiter!
24/07/2020: Laundry time meant loitering in the parking lot of the local supermarket. Vacation isn't always glamorous! But lunch lifted our spirits – K. works very hard as a nurse, so J. and I decided to surprise her with a homemade meal during her lunch break. We sipped on beer brewed from Camarguaise rice and I cooked up my luscious carbonara, which we all enjoyed together while continuing to catch up. The beach was calling out to us again, this time tempting us with nicer weather, so we drove to Piémanson, a wilder, untouched stretch of sandy dunes. The road took us again through the abundant Camargue, and we slowed to gaze at the rosy salt marshes, flamingoes and classic white horses. J. and I snacked on watermelon and smiled stupidly at each other as we floated in the cool blue water before driving back, salty and suntanned.
Thanks to K., we had very special plans that night. We put on our best clothes – and masks – and settled into open air seats at the impressive Roman-era Théâtre Antique, where three years ago I had seen the age-defying Calypso Rose. For the next hour, we were regaled by an extremely talented baritone singing a medley of famous opera arias. A concert that would probably have cost a couple hundred dollars in New York was free here, and the rich, deep notes and piano echoed throughout all of Arles. The light faded, and we sat, transfixed, until our hunger got the best of us. We migrated to Bodeguita, one of my favorite old haunts, where my friends and I downed plenty of mojito pitchers back in the day. This time around, J. and I sat outside, and I couldn't stop smiling as my sangria and tapas arrived: artichokes in a creamy sauce and garlicky, briny razor clams. And, of course, lots of bread to sop up every bite. The ambiance, the company, the food – it was a perfect night.
You've just finished a monster blog post, so here's some more reading material. Yes, it's 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. Don't forget – I welcome suggestions in the comments!
THIS WEEK'S READ:
A very well-written Grub Street profile of food and wine journalist Tammie Teclemariam, who's been "airing [food media's] dirty laundry" and working towards meaningful change in the industry: 'Drinking With Food Media's Flamethrower'