October 4, 2000 Provence: All Good Things
When most people think of France they think of Paris or Provence. I have been to Paris many times but I prefer my cave in the Loir and Cher to anything Paris has to offer. If I had to make a choice between my sweet little valley and Provence, then the decision is much more difficult. Provence offers so many obvious pleasures like its warm, sunny weather. Its mountains offer skiing within 20 minutes of the beach. Like every region in France, it has amazing regional cuisine. It has boules, pastis and olive trees. It has chateaux, fortresses, grottos and the ancient remains of the Roman Empire. But for me, the one quality that makes my loyalty waver when I think of Provence, is its rosé wines.
We have rosé in the Touraine that
is as good, but it is markedly different. Rosés of our
region are fruity wines that reflect the terroir and personality
of the Touraine. They are sweet and mild like life in our valley.
The rosés of Provence reflect their terroir as
well. They are dry, edgy wines that taste of lavender, cedar
and rosemary. Just breathing the air from the terrace of our
room reminds me of rosé. There is a strong smell
of lavender in the air, but it is much more complex than just
one aroma. It is the smell of lavender with the accompanying
scents of herbs, cedar and pine.
The red tiled roofs paint the hillsides the length of the Provençal coast. Despite the crowds who infect this ancient culture, Provence has a charm and ambiance like no where else in the world. It has a depth of history and culture that no tourist trap can destroy. I have been to Provence on other occasions but those trips where more as a tourist passing through. This trip is definitely different. We will be here two weeks and we have a purpose. As you may have already guessed I am using the royal we, which means Aprille has a purpose and I'm along for the ride. But it is giving me an opportunity to learn a little more about the region. We were invited to stay at the villa of our friends, Scott and Nancy McLucas in Cagnes-sur-Mer.
Cagnes means "an inhabited place on a rounded hill" and is a name of Ligurian origin. If you live near the Alps, you might consider the steep ridges which finger down to the sea in Cagnes to be hills. But it is hard for me to consider these things hills. The ridges drop off in gorges that swallow up errant vehicles that test the narrow switch back roads. These roads would be condemned as too dangerous in the States but here they are just amusement ride for the French.
Scott's villa sits on the top of a ridge with a view of the sea to the south and a view of the Alps to the north. To the southwest, you can see Cagnes' XIVth century chateau. The villa is at the end of a beautifully landscaped, tree lined path about three hundred meters long. As one enters the gate, tall, stately cedar trees line the left side of the path while terraced flower beds line the right side. The villa itself is "U" shaped with a courtyard full of flowers and a fountain in the center. A red tile roof covers the open veranda where you enjoy the sea view from morning until late at night. This is a perfect venue for sipping a 1964 Chateau La Tour but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Scott also has a passion for France and
its wines. Fortunately for us, he has been collecting wine for
quite sometime. When Scott asked me if I wanted to see his cellar,
I didn't expect a room in the basement to be anything new. After
all, I live in a cave and my neighbors have caves that contain
thousands of bottles. Even I have about five hundred bottles
in my cellar. A man's cave says a lot about who he is and quality
is the word for Scott's cave. As we walk into an air-conditioned
room in the basement, I see bottles of Chateau Margaux, Chateau
La Tour and some of the great houses of Burgundy. These bottle
are labeled from 60's, 70's and 80's. This is a completely new
experience for me. In my little corner of France, we are always
looking for the wines in bulk that you can buy for seven francs
(90 cents) per liter. A bottle is three quarters of a liter.
We are generally pushing the envelope to find a wine for less
than 75 cents a bottle. Of course my neighbor, Maurice Cheron,
will sometimes pull out his foot long brass key to unlock his
secret chamber and disappear in the depths of our mountain to
pull out a prized bottle but even Maurice can not match Scott's
Aprille and Scott have a passion for the arts and can talk for hours about things that few people can follow. I am not one of the few who can follow those conversations but that is no problem. Nancy and I have our own animated conversations but the subject is different. We talk about la vie en rose. All I have to do is bring up a topic like wine or food to get Nancy started. She is like a sunflower at noon. She stands up squarely and her face lifts like a soprano delivering her music. Her eyes sparkle and she sways slightly from side to side as she rushes to express her enthusiasm. It is mesmerizing to watch but I understand her clearly.
Except for the chateau, the Musée Renoir is probably to most important attraction in Cagnes-sur-Mer. The museum was the home and studio of Auguste Renoir up until his death. The most striking feature of the museum is the garden with its magnificent olive trees some of which are hundreds of years old. It is in these gardens that the museum has a biannual sculpture exhibition. Aprille was invited to install a sculpture this year and we are here to complete the installation. She actually has two pieces and their installation is somewhat complicated. It is easier to understand by looking at the photographs. The photographs can be seen at her web site (www.Aprille.net).
It takes the whole day to install the sculptures, but Aprille has enlisted help so there is little for me to do but admire the art and wander around the grounds. I go to the gift shop to buy some post cards. As I approach the counter to pay, I am told by a very nice lady that the shop is closed and I will have to leave. I look at my watch and notice that it is noon. I put the cards back and leave because I have seen this phenomena before. When a shop closes at noon, the clerk closes the cash register exactly at 12:00 p.m. and asks everybody to leave. If it were some disgruntled employee, it would be easier to understand. But I have seen owners of the shops do the same. Even if you are standing with money in hand, you are ask to leave. Lunch is sacred in France.
Shortly after arriving we are introduced to Michel Natale and his son Frédèric. Michel is in his early sixties and has worked for Scott for over thirty years. He built most to the villa himself. Between Michel and Fred, there is nothing that can't be done. The Natale family moved here from Italy generations ago. Many of the natives of this area have an Italian heritage. The Italian border is close and the people here speak with a strong pleasing Italian accent. Around 1800 a strong wind from the east drove a large number of Italian fishing boats onto the shores of Cagnes. The fishing was so good that they decided to stay and brought their families.
True Provençal bouillabaisse is
three or four different types of Mediterranean fish, a fish soup
and a garlic sauce that you eat on toast. It is not a soup filled
with seafood as one often sees in the States. Bouillabaisse originally
came from Marseilles where fishermen in the old fishing port
developed the dish as a way of using up the less desirable part
of their catch. The least tender of these fish are used to make
the soup. The fish with the more tender flesh are served whole
or filleted and served separately. Saffron is the soul of bouillabaisse
and is used in the soup. Saffron is said to calm coughs and exciter
à l'amour. If saffron is the soul, la rouille
is the heart of this dish. This strong garlic sauce is served
separately and is eaten on toast points.
We had bouillabaisse this summer at Relais d'Antan. Chef Paul Van Gessel obtained two Michelin stars for the Petit Nice restaurant in Marseilles in 1979 and knows the subject well. The big difference in Paul's presentation is that he fillets the fish before serving it. There is something lost in the spectacle of the meal but it is well worth it for me. I really enjoyed bouillabaisse for the first time.
When Scott said that he was taking us to Cros de Cagnes for bouillabaisse, I was ready. When we entered the restaurant, I can tell the atmosphere is different. French waiters are usually formal and maybe a little stiff. This restaurant reflects the area's Italian influence. The waiters are animated with waving arms and theatrical gestures. As we are seated, the owner arrives to greet Scott who is well known here and insists that we have aperitifs and an entrée. Scott says yes to the aperitifs but since we are having bouillabaisse maybe we will skip the entrées. When you give "suggestions" and use words like "maybe" in an Italian restaurant, the waiters take this as a coquettish way of saying "feed me everything you have". Our waiters bring out one of every appetizer on the menu. We share these delights along with a bottle of white Cassis. When the bouillabaisse is ready, the waiters bring out the whole fish to show us. Then the fish are taken back to the kitchen to be filleted by the chef. Next, the filleted fish are served with the soup, the rouille and toast. Of course everything is done with great fanfare. It maybe just the atmosphere but I believe that this is the best presentation of bouillabaisse that I have seen. It was certainly the most fun.
As we are leaving, Aprille spots an article from an English newspaper with a review of the restaurant. It has a picture of the reviewer and the Actor Roger Moore. The article says Roger Moore had recommended this restaurant to the reviewer because of its food and authentic atmosphere. It complained that the high-priced restaurants in Nice lacked this authentic quality. As we leave, the two brothers who own the restaurant are thanking Scott for his patronage. Scott mentions taxes, one brother starts a practiced speel: "When I go to city hall to pay my taxes every Thursday, I don't see any Communists, Catholics or Fascists, I don't see any Arabs, African or immigrants. It is just people like me." Walking out, I recall a quote from the menu of the two star restaurant Jacques Maximin:
plus qu'à ce qui est vrai,
sincère, pur, large,
en un seul mot,
I also am interested in what is authentic but you never know where you will find it. Like all good things, it is the search and the discovery that is most important.