Tour France; Exploring the Arles Outdoor Markets

Provence is known for its laissez-faire attitude, excellent food, and vivid, beautiful landscape. And all of this is captured perfectly in the enormous outdoor market of Arles, France!

The Arles Colisseum was built shortly after Rome's- you can see the inspiration!

The Arles Colisseum was built shortly after Rome’s- you can see the inspiration!

Saturday morning, Bliss Travels and our guests made our way over to Arles, a UNESCO World Heritage site best known for its Roman ruins (it was Julius Caesar’s favorite French town!) and stunningly preserved colosseum.

It is also the town where van Gogh famously lopped off his ear and painted one of his most well known pieces, the Cafe Terrace at Night. The cafe is still working to this day- we stopped and had drinks to cool off!

"Cafe Terrace at Night" by Vincent van Gogh, 1888.

“Cafe Terrace at Night” by Vincent van Gogh, 1888.

However, on Saturdays these beautiful ruins and even van Gogh‘s tumultuous history are overshadowed by the sprawling market that runs through the two main streets of town. Locals from around the Luberon region flock to this market, the largest around, to buy all manner of things. Mounds of burgundy cherries are sold next to blocks of homemade nougat and wheels of cheese that can weigh up to 60 pounds. Baskets of clucking chickens were stacked next to vats of black olives and woks of fresh Paella that three or four people could fit on!

After strolling through this gorgeous feast, we picked out our favorite foods–fresh forest strawberries (frais du bois), local goat cheeses, brioches, slabs of ham, spit roasted pork, a few bottles of wine, ‘donut’ peaches….amongst many other things!–and headed to a park surrounded by Roman ruins for the picnic of the decade! What a way to tour France.

Every ingredient is so fresh...it's hard to buy just one of anything.

Every ingredient is so fresh…it’s hard to buy just one of anything.

Under the trees, we shared a beautiful day surrounded by good company, piles of delicious treats and centuries of history. What a day- and what a life! Provence is pure Bliss.

A bientot-

Bliss Travels

Everything is fresh, and everyone is happy!

Everything is fresh, and everyone is happy!

Local cheeses were everywhere. Our mouths were watering from a booth away.

Local cheeses were everywhere. Our mouths were watering from a booth away.

Tour France: Paris & Provence Showers and Flowers

Tour France: Paris and Provence: Showers and FlowersPainted on a wall in the Marais…early spring themes!

X marks the spot of our favorite peaceful Parisian landmark.

Outside the Tuileries and in Provence –blooms!

Capturing iris’s at the farm.Spring gives way to summer.And a little summer picnic to end the post!.

Tour France: Recipes from Locals & Insider Experiences during Vacations in Provence

Tour France: Recipes from Locals & Insider Experiences during Vacations in Provence

I’ve been touring France and leading small custom groups on “insider vacations” for a while now. Some of what we do is haute cuisine and grand chefs with Michelin stars. But, some of the best, most authentic experiences occur in the countryside and about country cooking and local lore. I have been collecting recipes, adapting them and teaching French cuisine for almost as long as I have been leading trips.

Each recipe has a story. This one is very special. The story is as deliciously amusing as this country recipe is tasty.  So for a casual Provencal experience, try this story on for size!

Everybody should meet their local French butcher. He is charming, funny, full of advice and local color. One day several years ago, while attempting to test some new recipes as well as research an area winery, and be very efficient by accomplishing this in one afternoon, a woman who worked for me and I decided to visit the local butcher of Menerbes instead of the one in our nearby town. The weather was quite hot and we needed to order meat, but didn’t want to cart it around with us all day, to roast in the strong provencal sun. In this way, we two American women, entered the Boucherie in Menerbes, requesting, ever so politely, in French, to please have a chicken (and rabbit, if one was available) prepared for us. We asked if he would be so kind as to hold it for us in refrigeration for several hours. This was no problem. He would be glad to help us, but it’s not possible that we are American he says. He is convinced that since we speak French and wish to cook…..well, clearly we must be English or Australian or just simply confused. No, we assure him we are sure of our origins. To make conversation, we inquired politely about several of the prepared foods he has in his case.

In France, it is quite common for Butcher to also sell certain prepared items such as ratatouille, grated carrot salad, stuffed vegetables,  roasted tomatoes/eggplants, and the like. He starts waxing poetic about his ratatouille, which, coincidentally, he is in the process of making at this very moment.

When we mention that we also are planning to make this dish later that day, he insists that we follow him through his shop (which he cavalierly leaves unattended) through his living quarters, and laundry area to his kitchen where he is making the biggest vat of ratatouille known to mankind. As we look around, we see not only the vat of simmering fragrant vegetables, but colanders of cooked vegetables, tilted this way and that,  and a large fry pan still warm and oily from before we entered the shop. Next to the stove was a small metal framed kitchen table, with an ashtray, a water glass ½ full of red wine, and the corked bottle. Clearly this was the perch from which Monsieur le Boucher watched his ratatouille simmer. The Butcher painstakingly describes the secret to his ratatouille, which is that one must first cook each vegetable separately, and then drain them before finally creating the mélange. He thoughtfully stirs the pot. After we thank him, showing our appreciation for his generosity, he guided us through the doors of the now reopened Boucherie, and bellows into the street a hearty  “a bientot”.  When we return several hours later, the butcher is in the shop, but comes to the street with our bird, to chat with us. That we are stopped in the middle of a tiny one lane winding road  (one of only two that exit the entire village) is of no consequence to him. He  chats boisterously with us, asking us about our day, the recipes, whether we’d like to take some ratatouille and nobody seems bothered by the fact that they are held up in ‘traffic’. Nobody other than us, that is. The car behind us is content to wait. After all, this is important. We are discussing dinner!

Ratatouille recipe* It must be stated that Ratatouille is to the Provencale what meatloaf is to the typical American family. Every family has their own recipe with it’s own special ingredients. More often than not it is made with a handful of this and a handful of that. Like meatloaf here, it is the sort of dish that non-cooks, cook. And like meatloaf, it is often best the next day served cold, or even reheated. Sitting overnight allows the flavors to meld nicely. Below is my favorite recipe. It seems to be what works best both in France and the United States, with their different sorts and size s of produce. But that doesn’t mean you can’t alter the proportion of vegetables, or even substitute them….Just make sure to take the butcher’s advice, and cook each one separately before creating the mélange.

1 Red Pepper

10oz Eggplant, cut into ¾ inch cubes

2 lb small green zucchini, cut into ¾ inch cubes

2 lb ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped

1 ib sweet onion, coarsely chopped

12 T olive oil or peanut oil (peanut oil can be heated hotter, but olive oil lends a nice flavor)

1 bay leaf

2-3 sprigs of fresh Thyme

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon sugar

Salt and pepper

6 leaves of basil, chopped.

Heat 2 T of oil, cook peppers for a couple minutes. Drain peppers and transfer peppers to a colander. Wipe pan clean of  excess oil,.Add 3 T of oil to the pan and sauté onions on medium heat for several minutes until lightly browned. Transfer onions to colander, and wipe pan. Add 2 T of oil and reheat pan. Brown zucchini at medium high heat and drain, and add to colander. Last, add 2 more T oil to pan, heat at medium high heat and brown eggplant for several minutes, stirring as needed, and drain and add to colander. Heat  a large pan, one large enough to accommodate all the vegetables. Add the remaining oil and heat. Add garlic and sauté for one minute. Add tomatoes, sprinkle with sugar (if you have very sweet, ripe, flavorful tomatoes, the sugar will be unnecessary) and add herbs, except basil.  Bring the the tomatoes and their liquid to a boil. Add salt and pepper and all the other vegetables, stir, reduce heat and cover. Cook for 30 minutes  or more until very tender. Stir occasionally to avoid burning. When finished,  remove the pot from the heat and remove Thyme sprigs and bay leaf.  Add the fresh basil. This dish is best the longer you let it sit, so the flavors of the vegetables can meld properly. Let the ratatouille sit in the pot off of the heat at least another 30 minutes, or better yet, cool the pot down and refrigerate overnight.

So, if you can’t attend one of our amazing trips to Provence, and experience Bliss with us, then at least visit your local farm and enjoy some freshly made ratatouille!

Summer Vacation in Provence: 5 Tips for Shopping in Provencal Markets

Summer Vacations in Provence: 5 Tips for Shopping the Provencal Market The markets of Provence are world renown.  They are bustling, beautiful and bursting with mouth watering produce, cheeses, meats, breads, olive oils and wines. Just to name a few specialties. And, once your hunger and thirst have been quenched, you will notice flowers, linens, jewelry, artisan  products, gifts, clothing and more. A perfect  vacation day in Provence begins with a market tour. And just wandering the markets can be great. (Though we also like to send clients on a hunt for specific picnic or cooking class ingredients –part of the fun is learning to find and purchase.) How do you decide which of the cheese stands has the best cheese? How do you find the best baguette or artisan breads? Below are some tips for getting the most out of the Provencal markets.

  1. Tips for buying Produce. Buy local! French law requires that all produce be marked not just with its category  I, II, III (rating), but also its origin. I always stress buying and eating seasonally. I also believe local is better. So, first, look for the country. If it doesn’t say France, don’t buy it. Then look for the specific area of France.  Most people think that a sign that says “Provence” is a sign indicating “locally grown”. And, to a degree, it is. But, if you look carefully at the market produce stands, some will not just say Provence –but will say the town’s name. That’s when you’re at a truly local (and probably organic) stand. That’s where you want to look to buy first.  (And, if you know anything about the micro climates/towns, you’ll be able to decide whether you prefer strawberries from Carpentras or Aix-en-Provence –because you’ll know that they each have their own flavor –much the way wine from North Burgundy is different from wine from Southern Burgundy –even if they’re both Pinot Noirs.)
  2. Tips for buying cheeses. There are great cheeses from all over France. And certainly, importing cheese does not impact the quality the way it does for produce. Still, there are small local producers whose products are high quality, specially made, and cannot be found elsewhere. In Provence, this means goat cheeses.(There are no cows in Provence –so there are no cows milk cheeses made there..) The fresh goat cheeses  are local.  So try them. Look at what else they carry. If the cheese monger has a wide selection –he is likely to be an expert —  a knowledgeable collector of a wide variety of cheeses. If they carry one thing –just goat cheeses –then they are probably producers, and can provide you with a unique artisan product. You should look for one of these extremes.  They indicate special expertise, in two different ways.
  3. Tips for buying Meat and  Fish. Look and smell. Fish should look glossy and the eyes should look good. There should be no smell. Meat should look moist and fresh and also have no smell. It should be clear they are being kept cold. If you smell something, or it looks “tired”, this is not what you want. (Believe me, you know more than you think.)
  4. Tips for buying oils, jams and other “bottled and canned” products. The same principle applies. Look for a small artisan producer. Find a family business. Focus on small quality production. Look for handwritten labels (but proper canning procedure.) And taste. If you can’t taste, don’t buy. Artisan producers are very proud of their products and as such, offer tastes. They are convinced that you will buy it if you taste it. That’s the culture. So, if they won’t allow you to taste, that’ telling you something.
  5. Wait in line! If there are three vendors selling the same type of product –and there usually are –choose the one with the longest line (of locals). Why? Because these vendors come every week, have the same physical location at the market each time, and become as well known to market regulars as your local grocery is to you at home. If there’s a long line (of locals), there’s a reason.