Week Forty-Three in France: Cannolis and pavlova (Vacances d'été)
Mid-July in France? For many French people, that means les vacances. J. and I had planned – many, many moons ago – to try to get to the States to visit my family. Thanks to COVID-19, those plans went out the window, of course, but we were lucky enough to still pack up for a road trip to the south of France this summer. It was an absolute (and very sweaty) dream. Thank you to France's mostly competent handling of the coronavirus for the opportunity. Read on for all the vacation details, starting this week!
11/07/2020: After discovering a pack of mini cannoli shells yesterday at the Super U, I knew exactly what to bring to our friend S.'s baby shower this afternoon. (Shoutout to Termini Bros. in Philly!) They'll never be as good as back home, but after making the sweet ricotta filling, stuffing the shells, decorating them with pistachios and mini chocolate chips and making a giant mess, I couldn't help but feel proud. The feeling intensified when I handed them out at the garden party and the guests gobbled them up (almost as fast as I devoured the grilled merguez with my fingers that evening). You can't have a barbecue in France without spicy lamb merguez sausages. Also, if you were wondering – it's a girl! I called it.
12/07/2020: For our standing Sunday lunch, you'll never guess what we ate this week! Oh, right, a barbecue. Business as usual. It may be a popular option, but it never disappoints, especially the sides (accompagnements). Before the meat was even ready, I'd filled my plate up with grated carrot salad seasoned with fresh mint, perfect potato salad, green beans with plenty of garlic, and tomatoes with basil from the backyard (I swear, the leaves in J.'s dad's garden are the size of my hand). I barely had room left over for the delicious beef brochettes. Then, you know the drill – nap-time soon followed, until I woke up with a start for a video chat with my prof référent, C., and three of the former Fulbrighters at Lycée Schweitzer in Mulhouse. We had a wonderful time catching up and relishing the sense of community we've so easily formed, thanks to this program.
13/07/2020: Last-minute vacation prep led us to Germany, where we stocked up on gas and some other essentials for our road-trip (everything is cheaper there, and the border is only a half-hour from home). We stopped at a cute terrasse for lunch on our way back into France, and I got a somewhat disappointing and extremely salty pesto pasta with veggies, while J. got an amazing-looking pizza. Regret. But redemption came not long after, when T. and E. decided to give me my birthday gift early, since I wouldn't see them on the day of. Tears nearly came to my eyes when I opened the box – they had gifted me the baby pink Le Creuset cocotte that we had joked about together months earlier (it costs more than a year of a Masters in France!). I say this every week, but I feel so grateful and lucky to have fallen into this family that cares so much for one another. I can't wait to cook with it! And build a stunning collection of pink cookware.
14/07/2020: Dinner today consisted of absolutely fire homemade bolognese pasta at J.'s dad's house, complete with the final chats about our vacation before we finally go on it! It's been a long time coming, and J. and I couldn't be more excited – or more saturated with fervent advice and suggestions from the whole family. Time to set off on our own! After I pack my suitcase at 11 p.m. (J. says we'll leave by 9:00 a.m. tomorrow. I know this could not be farther from the truth.)
15/07/2020: Let the road trip begin! We left around 10:30 a.m., as I knew we would. It's a shame that I – and many Americans – can only drive automatic, because that means J. is relegated to designated driver for all 2,500 kilometers we are about to do this vacation. (Not that he would let me drive his beloved BM, even if I did know how.) Despite an unintended detour that forced us to go back and forth through a péage (toll-booth), things went pretty well. Finally, that afternoon, after a lot of highway and a stop for road sandwiches with tomatoes, mozzarella and prosciutto, we arrived at our first stop: the Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval in the Drôme (between Lyon and Valence). An almost Taj Mahal-looking structure, the unique – kinda macabre – palace was built in the late 1800s, early 1900s by, get this, a postman (a facteur). He spent over 30 years building the structure for his daughter out of stones, mud, shells and more, all while inscribing it with his own poetry. Fascinating!
A few more hours on the road and a Google Maps mix-up later, we finally pulled into the driveway of J.'s extended family, who hosted us for the night in the tiny town of Mirabel-sur-Blacons. We settled in for a night of wonderful conversation and food – chicken on the plancha, delicious tabbouleh and, the grand finale, a stunning pavlova by J.'s dad's cousin, a cheesemonger. The succulent combination of fresh melon, raspberries, chantilly and crushed meringue (store-bought, no need to go crazy), had me coming back for seconds. A few sips of sweet, herbal liqueur de vulnéraire as a digestif, and I fell asleep in no time.
16/07/2020: Breakfast was simply, effortlessly French – fresh croissants and pain aux chocolats paired with homemade rhubarb and apricot jams. The family must have thought I was insane as I stood there, my espresso getting cold, snapping photos of the viennoiseries artfully arranged on the colorful table. The carbs were great fuel for another five hours of driving, although we did get to see some beautiful sights in the Drôme and the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence as we drove. By the time we finally arrived in Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, a dramatically gorgeous town built in the mountainside at the edge of the Lac de Sainte-Croix, we were starving. (A peril of vacation in France – aching with hunger and arriving after 2 p.m., when lunch service comes to a close.) We stopped at the first place we saw and inhaled plates of hummus and local charcuterie with crusty bread before heading down to a nearby beach and taking a dip. I'll be saying this a lot, but summer in the south of France is... very hot.
Finally, a winding drive around the stunning lake, through the Gorges du Verdon, led us to our hotel in Baudinard, which we promptly left to head to dinner in Bauduen, a town with amazing views peering over the impossibly turquoise water. I couldn't believe this magical spot was really in France. Our restaurant was perched on the very edge of the water, and I sprung for a Thai-inspired beef tartare, with nicely acidic lime juice, sweet kernels of corn and crunchy peanuts. A first for me, and it was absolutely delicious. The last rays of sun illuminated our meal, and as I sipped rosé and studied the sun setting in shades of pink behind J.'s head, I silently toasted to the start of this amazing vacation.
17/07/2020: Hotel breakfasts can certainly be hit or miss, but at the minuscule Auberge du Baudinard in its tiny, one-lane town, it was a great experience. Outside on the terrasse, J. and I gorged on coffee and tea, croissants and baguette with butter and jam, fresh orange juice, and fromage blanc with honey. We needed all the food we could get, because on this afternoon's agenda? Kayaking in les Gorges du Verdon. Our two-hour excursion was incredible. Cliffs rose loftily from either side of the brilliant blue water, which slowly became thinner and thinner as it snaked into the verdant canyons, and even though I had to do most of the arm work because J. wouldn't stop taking photos, it was all worth it to beach the kayak mid-way and leap into the lake for a quick swim. We returned our oars with chagrin and headed back to Bauduen for lunch at a charming spot with a bright patio. I ordered moules frites, and J.'s pizza got cold as he helped an older man who fainted in the relentless sunshine. After a dip in town's tiny (wasp-ridden) beach, we headed home to rest, explore the village and get ready for dinner. The most important parts of vacation are the meals, right?
Le Chardon, the only other restaurant in Baudinard (besides our hotel) boasted a beautiful view of the scenery and some interesting menu options. We opted for the tapas plate, which came overloaded with a bevy of fried food – samosas, fried shrimp, chicken wings, mozzarella sticks, and what we could only identify as triangles of fried queso? Either way, it was tasty, despite the sheen of grease it left on our palates. I chose fish and chips as my main, while J. went for the pad Thai (I appreciate a chef in the middle of bumblefuck France putting pad Thai on the menu), but due to J.'s ~very French~ intolerance for spice, we switched our plates halfway through. Not a bad meal, but not the best either. Luckily, we ended the evening with a stroll and a beer in Sainte-Croix-du-Verdon, another town looking out over the lake. As the sunlight began to fade, the vast body of water disappeared from view, until we were simply staring into darkness, a few twinkles from Bauduen the only lights we could see. It was all awe, gratitude and love tonight.
More vacation posts to come! In the meantime, this week's read is less of a read and more of an action item. Remember: getting educated is the first step to making the food & travel world a more equitable place, and donating is another!
THIS WEEK'S READ:
So, I posted a while back about Little Africa Travel, a company "dedicated to elevating all things Afro and African in Paris and beyond." Some exciting news I discovered on their Instagram – they're raising money for A Parisian Village, a new concept / event space, shop & more in the Goutte d'Or to help further their mission.
Donate to help make their vision come true: 'Little Africa 2.0: A Parisian Village'