We recently took a weekend trip to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Actually it was for business, which is just icing on the cake–such a hardship!
A three-hour drive from Carcassonne, Provence is just far enough that we don’t tend to go there much and close enough that we really ought to get out and explore it more. We’ll share our discoveries in a few posts.
The town is relentlessly quaint. Everything has been restored to just the right amount of neatness with patina, neither too rustic and falling apart nor too new and shiny. The small nut of the historic center is mostly car-free, and it’s remarkably calming to sit at a café terrace and hear the swish of leaves in the breeze and not a low hum of engines.
St. Rémy has only about 10,000 inhabitants, and probably even more tourists. And why not–such a cute town, with beautiful boutiques and chic restaurants nestled in stately Renaissance buildings. It’s very upscale–everybody is dressed just so, and Sotheby’s and Christies real estate offices face off across the boulevard encircling the center.
We only scratched the surface and hope to get back. September was a good time to visit–it was bustling but not as crowded as it would get at the height of summer. We had a hard time finding an apartment and ended up in a very nice, basic hotel (l’Amandière) despite booking three weeks before.
The vendange, or grape harvest, is in full swing. Well before dawn, I hear the big harvesters rumble down the road to the vineyards. As I write, the hum of a harvester drifts through my open window.
The hot, dry summer means this year’s harvest is small but good. When rain threatens at vendange time, the winemakers work around the clock to bring in the grapes before the precipitation dilutes their sugar content, or makes the vineyards too muddy to traverse, or, worst of all, brings hail that ruins the crop. This year’s clear blue skies have spared the vines of such problems.
Life around here still revolves around the vendange even though it no longer requires all hands on deck. For example, the village gym classes don’t begin until late September because traditionally too many participants had to work all day in the vineyards, harvesting grapes. These days, much of the harvest is done by giant machines that, when they roll through a little village, seem like contraptions out of horror movies, with their rows of teeth.
Hand harvesting is back-breaking work. The grapes are just at a level where you have to bend over constantly. It was women’s work, while men collected the buckets of grapes and carried them to a wagon. It was a time for the locals without vineyards to earn a little extra money, though often they were paid in wine. I looked at help-wanted ads to see what seasonal workers earn now; it seems to be €9.67 an hour, which is minimum wage. With many easier ways for the French to earn the SMIC, it isn’t surprising that the seasonal workers are mostly from Eastern Europe, Spain or Portugal. The New York Times had an article last week about volunteer tourists helping the harvest.
The Domaine Fontaine Grande on the outskirts of Carcassonne is one that harvests by hand. A dozen workers quickly filled bucket after bucket, their secateurs, or clippers, snipping the generous bunches neatly. As fast as they went (most of my photos were blurs), they barely seemed to make headway in the vast vineyard.
It’s hard to miss the vendange. Traces of grapes on the roads. The heady scent of already-fermenting fruit drifting out from the cuves.
Before the vendange, taking grapes is theft, but after, the left-behind fruit is fair game. (Beware of the vendange tardive, or late harvest–those aren’t for taking either! The grapes are left on the vine until they start to dry out, to make dessert wine. It’s pretty easy to tell when a vineyard has been harvested–no big bunches are left). Though it’s mostly the sangliers, or wild boars, that snarf up the last grapes.
Soon the 2016 millesime will be developing in the giant wine vats, and the leaves on the vines will change to brilliant hues of red, orange and yellow before falling off for winter.
September is when the market is full of big, ugly tomatoes. The best kind. The inside is solid flesh. They have flavors, each variety contributing a different perfume.
September is also when the weather cools down so that indoor cooking again becomes possible. We don’t have air conditioning nor do we want it. But when it’s 95 degrees outside and 75 inside because of careful juggling of shutters and opening of windows at night, you don’t want to mess up your hard-won coolness. With day temperatures in the upper 70s and nights in the 60s, the stove can be used again.
The abundance of tomatoes at the season’s lowest prices (about €1 per kilo) coincides with ideal conditions for cooking. We have a number of gardens where fresh produce is sold out of a barn or hangar daily—no need to wait for the market. This is sometimes a good option, but then, we don’t go to the market just for vegetables but also for the social aspect.
However, the market involves a long walk back to the car, dragging the shopping cart. If 10 kg of tomatoes were in the cart, they’d be sauce before arriving at the car. So for the large quantities we head to the garden source.
Once you have homemade tomato sauce, the industrial version tastes strangely…industrial. I haven’t canned—you need to maintain a certain level of acidity to prevent botulism, and my resistance to following instructions makes me leery of risking food poisoning. Instead, I put the sauce in zipper bags and freeze them.
Also, I put a lot more than tomatoes in my sauce. It’s an opportunity to toss in extra nutrients from other vegetables. So besides lots of onions and garlic, I add carrots, red peppers, beets, butternut squash—whatever’s on offer at the garden. Squash and beets make the sauce sweet without added sugar.
An aside here about stoves. We had gas but a few years ago got rid of our propane tank and switched to induction. What a dream! The first time we used it, to make pasta, we turned it on and off like kids, amazed at how it went from not boiling to a rolling boil to not boiling in a second.
I raved about it to French friends, who informed me they had induction for years. Count on the French to be on top of the best cooking technology. Induction is as quick and versatile as gas, but with advantages: it works via magnets, so anything nonmagnetic on the stovetop doesn’t heat up, even if the stove is turned on.
I did have to replace my nonmagnetic copper pans with new ones. They are Cristel, a French brand, whose ads say “buy once for life.” There’s a removable handle so they stack very compactly, yet the lips for the handle are big enough that I often don’t even need the longer handle. An excellent investment.
Here’s a recipe of sorts:
10 kg of tomatoes (about 22 pounds). Go for real ones: UGLY. Not the perfect, tasteless hybrids that are raised on chemicals.
10 cloves of garlic
A nice handful of fresh herbs (I cut some from my garden: mostly thyme that I rip off the stems, but also parsley, basil and oregano).
4 red peppers
1 butternut squash
1-2 big beets
Cut out the core of the tomatoes and chop them roughly. Some people peel them but that is just too much work!
Chop up everything else into about half-inch pieces. You want them to cook through.
Brown the onion and garlic in a tiny big of olive oil. Then dump everything else into a gigantic pot (I have to use two), cover and bring to a boil. I don’t add water—the tomatoes will let out plenty of liquid.
Reduce the heat to a simmer. This is where induction shines. You can put a pot on at the lowest temperature to simmer and it won’t burn on the bottom. Love it. Stir a few times per hour.
Let it cook for several hours, until the volume has reduced by at least half. Cook longer if you like thicker sauce.
Use an immersion blender to purée it, or else let it cool completely before running it in batches through the blender or food processor. Anyway, you need the sauce to be cool before it goes into the freezer.
To put it in bags: put your bag in a plastic container that’s about the right size. This will keep the bag from flopping over as you’re trying to fill it. Use a measuring cup to ladle the sauce so you have an idea of how much is in each bag. Ideally, enough for a dinner.
If you ever are in France in mid-September, be sure to take advantage of les Journées du Patrimoine, or Heritage Days. Museums offer free entry, but even better are the government and private buildings that open their doors for these days only.
I used to go regularly in Paris, and found it’s good to go with a guide to get the backstory on the history of the place, with amazing details pointed out. It’s also fun to hear the French argue over the dates of various kings–as an American, I cannot imagine having to learn the names and dates for rulers going back to 486. My school spent about a week on everything up to 1776, then the rest of the year it was all pioneers all the time, until a week or two before summer break, when we caught up to World Wars I and II. I longed to know about kings and pharoahs, but all we got was covered wagons, year after year.
On one visit, I saw gorgeously painted ceilings, I think it was at the Hôtel de Marle, in the Marais. The Hôtel de la Marine houses the boudoir of Marie-Antoinette, overlooking Place de la Concorde, where the guillotine was situated during the Revolution. The building was turned into a museum in 2014, so now you can visit any time.
And there was the home of Marie Touchet, the mistress of King Charles IV, whose house in the Marais doesn’t face a street; you have to enter through another building’s courtyard, which is private. But it opens for the Journées du Patrimoine.
It was hilarious to see very prim, perfectly dressed Parisiens get down on their hands and knees to examine the underside of the antiques in the Banque de France. One gentleman even thought to bring a flashlight. No better way to educate oneself!
This year, we went to a château in a small village near Carcassonne where there also was a food and craft fair (yes, all fairs in France include food and wine). The château hosts large meetings of the Conseil Général, or the department’s council. Apologies for the photo quality–the lighting wasn’t ideal and it wasn’t possible to set up a tripod.
The first two floors have been restored, but the top floor and attic haven’t. I don’t think anybody went through without dreaming of how it could be fixed up into a gorgeous hotel. In fact, I overheard one couple discussing as much.
Have you visited during the Journées du Patrimoine? What was your favorite discovery?
The animals we encounter in France are different from those I’ve dealt with in the U.S.
My parents lived in a mid-size city of about half a million people. With a wooded park nearby, deer often ambled onto a vacant lot one house over. Even some very big bucks. Raccoons were a constant challenge. And the opossums! Squirrels were taken for granted.
Here, on the edge of a little village that’s on the outskirts of a little city of 50,000, I see far less wildlife. Occasionally a fox or pheasant or quail. The hunting club gathers at the community center on Sunday mornings, with wild boars strapped to the hoods of their vehicles. We got all excited recently with a sighting of a single squirrel in the park. And a nest of hatchlings, below left, and a poor injured bird, right, had us cooing.
Around the house, the birds that woke us early in the spring seem to have fled the drought; with rain this week, we’re hoping they come back. In winter, we crumble up any leftover bread to sprinkle on the grass. In the mornings when I open the shutters, they are lined up atop the wall, looking at me, as if to say, “So? What’s taking you so long? How about some crumbs?”
A family of mésanges, or titmouse/chickadees, had nested amid the rafters of our entry for years and were none too pleased when we enclosed it. They would click and cluck at us, keeping a distance of about a meter wherever we went in the yard, simultaneously fearless and wary.
Bats come out in the evenings. Sometimes when closing the west shutters against the approaching afternoon sun, I would disturb bats that had taken refuge against the cool wall behind the shutters. They are such little balls of fur when they sleep.
Mostly, though, have lizards galore. They occasionally get inside the house and panic. We try to get them back out without hurting them. Our kid has a knack for picking them up, which is amazing because they are so skittish and lightning fast.
For a while we had a huge lizard–at least a foot long–in a pile of rocks. It was great entertainment to watch the lizard peek out, then tear across the grass into the oleander along the wall, then reappear, twig in mouth, to streak back to the rock pile. We haven’t seen this lizard for some time, which is too bad. We’ve been told that a lizard like that in a garden ensures no vipers will take up residence.
Just as the appearance of the geckos is a sign of spring, we’ll know it’s winter when they stay hidden away.
There are so many things I love about the apartments we’re renovating.
Obviously the fabulous high-relief carvings are at the top of the list. But many little details make me smile. Like the design of the balcony railings, now painted in regulation gray.
Or the door knobs. Husband scoured all of France to find matching antique knobs.
He also scoured the hardware stores and online to find feet for a couple of radiators. During the demolition, somebody threw them out!
There are a few weird doors to nowhere. A door jamb on one side of a wall and smooth plaster on the other. Though when we discovered the door to the harnais, we decided to keep it. I wonder how they used to get up there? A ladder?
I love the wavy glass in the old interior windows. We had to give it up on the exterior windows, because we aren’t as clever as Daniel of Manhattan Nest, who fixes everything, including making new windows out of old ones, by himself. We had all the exterior windows replaced (by a professional) with double-pane glass, albeit according to strict design rules of the Bâtiments de France.
I love the little interior room that gives onto the light well of the stairway. The view of the stairs is so typically French to me. And talk about a quiet room!
I love that got my way and have black paint on the inside of the window frames in the black and white bathroom. And I got at least a little bit of floor with cabochon tiles.
I love that a friend managed to salvage the Art Deco bed and transform it so artfully from a double to a queen, while improving the frame.
I love the weird things about the place. Like what was the point of the niche below? It isn’t even symmetrical. I can’t wait to scout something to put in it.
I love the furniture we bought with the place. The stories that must have gone with them. Perhaps one day I’ll find out. The previous owner is still around.
The floors have all been treated, the appliances installed (except for the sauna, which is en route), the kitchen cupboards built. We began moving furniture to the right places. It is taking shape.
We are a little too well-acquainted with the emergency rooms. The most recent visit comes after much time spent in U.S. hospitals last year (as visitor). The differences are striking.
U.S.: imposing marble lobby, with a volunteer playing a grand piano. Food court. Gourmet coffee stand emitting good smells. Carpeted halls. Rooms that look a bit like hotels if not for the high-tech control panels and machinery. Heated blankets. A sofa in the room that turns into a kind of bed for a family member keeping watch. Another hospital went for an earthy, natural décor, with lots of warm wood, and tiles and wallpaper that had grass or leaf designs. Very zen.
France: sun-filled linoleum lobby. Linoleum, in fact, is the most prevalent material. Wall-to-wall carpet is considered a germ trap in Europe. Plastic seats–no upholstery. No attempt at décor (white walls with a green accent wall, pale gray floors) except in the pediatric wing, which had animal decals on yellow walls. The emergency room at one private hospital did, however, have as decoration framed x-rays of unusual objects, which provided a distraction. It also had wood paneling. In the patient’s room: a small table, a rigid plastic chair, a very ugly lump of an armless chair that unfolded into a surprisingly comfortable bed for a family member keeping watch. A sheet but no blanket (certainly not heated) nor pillow for said family member. No food court, and the lobby vending machines are locked up after hours (i.e., after 6 p.m.).
So far, it sounds like the U.S. is better, BUT marble lobbies don’t make a person well. And they might make one sick when the bill arrives.
On the other hand, the bill for an x-ray of a possibly (but thank goodness not) broken shoulder? Zero.
And the bill for an overnight after our kid passed out on a school outing (why breakfast shouldn’t be skipped…lesson learned)? Minors who lose consciousness are required to be kept for 24 hours of observation. Zero.
And the latest–meningitis, which turned out to be the viral kind, not the deadly bacterial kind? Until the blood test confirmed that, our kid was treated with a speed that was amazing. And kept overnight for observation. Again zero.
This isn’t to say that we don’t pay for health care. There are mandatory social charges in the form of a 6.5% tax on income of self-employed workers; salaried workers pay 0.75% and their employers 12.8% of their wages, for a total of 13.55%.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average cost of health insurance benefits to employers was 7.6% of total compensation, but that ranged from 12.6% for union workers to 6.9% for nonunion workers. On average, employers of higher-paid workers cover a bigger share; lower-paid workers get less.
It’s hard to get an average percentage for the employee contribution in the U.S. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that average annual family coverage premium is $17,545, with employees paying $4,955 of it. And the average deductible for a single (they didn’t give family figures) is $1,077.
There are no deductibles in France.
There are co-pays, however. The full price of a doctor’s visit in France is €23, of which the government reimburses 2/3, or about €15. I suspect it’s set up that way–patients have to fork over the €23 and wait for reimbursement–to set the bar just a little higher for whether one really needs to see the doctor. You can buy supplemental insurance to cover the co-pays.
In the U.S., the average copayment is $24 for primary care and $37 for specialty care, for in-network providers, according to the Kaiser report.
In France, all providers are in-network. You get to pick your doctor, from any of the doctors in France, not from a list provided by your insurer. And no surprises coming out of anesthesia to discover a bill bigger than your annual salary because most of the doctors who touched you were out of network. Obamacare has put a cap on out-of-pocket expenses (the sky used to be the limit): $6,850 for an individual and $13,700 for a family. However, medical bills are still causing personal bankruptcies in the U.S.
Two people I know in France have hereditary kidney diseases. One just got a transplant; the other has been hospitalized a lot but isn’t yet at the transplant stage. One thing they don’t worry about is the cost of treatment. Ditto with friends who have cancer. One quit her job–but she didn’t lose health coverage because that has nothing to do with where or whether one works.
It seems logical to separate health care from employment. And to pay for it with a tax so that those with more money pay more and so that your health expenses aren’t at the mercy of your job or the genetic lottery. For those unfamiliar with the U.S. system, the New York Times a couple of years ago ran an excellent series titled “Paying Till It Hurts.”
There’s a charming little gallery on rue de Verdun, the main drag of la Bastide in Carcassonne. Formerly a church, it hosts a diverse range of exhibits.
The doors were open, so we popped in.
The paintings made me think a little of Chagall, but also of Cézanne, but then another was a little more Pissarro, and a few had hints of Picasso. But I’m no an art expert. Just a museum nut.
There were quite a few dedicated to the Carnival of Limoux, a town just south of Carcassonne. And several around tauromachie, or bull-fighting, which happens in Carcassonne and several other towns around the south of France.
We were delighted to discover that the man tending the desk was the painter himself. He explained that he indeed admired all those artists, and learned how to paint, as many artists do, by copying their great works before establishing his own style.
But he can explain himself:
For the love of painting
Because the hand of the painter is the eye of his heart, the extension of his soul, because the hairs of his brush are the thread that connects the spirit to the material, Hugues Tisseyre paints, he paints his Carnival and all the things he loves.
The Carnival of Limoux, mystical and lyrical, which goes farther than anecdote, farther than the figurative, is the instant magnified by the play of the human comedy deliberately consenting and not submissive to the truth of the mask and its possibilities of transformation of the obvious fatality.
Painting in fact must not progress except in the mind of the senses.
He said he was from Limoux and always loved its Carnival, the world’s longest. Here are his thoughts on that:
The carnival festival has behind it a long history, which we perceive through texts.
Often a drawing, a painting, an engraving suffices to explain all that to us.
Modern history since 1945 to today marks its limits. Carnival thus ferments, resists, transforms itself according to society’s solicitations. It shows all its capacity for dialogue, renewal, ironic rejection, refual, to reserve the identity which defines a common man’s living culture.
This festival which fascinates and questions is indeed the place that holds the imaginary, memory and writing.
I asked about a huge painting on the ground. “The city of Minerve,” he said. Minerve is one of the most beautiful villages of France–an official designation!–about 45 kilometers northeast of Carcassonne.
I almost fainted when he walked right onto the painting.
“Oh, it’s very tough,” he said. “If you only knew how many layers of paint there are.”
He explained that one day he got hold of a big roll of moquette, or carpet, and thought the nap would make an interesting base for painting. And the price was right. Though that very nap ate up his brushes, which in turn cost a fortune, he added.
Unfortunately, Minerve was out of our budget. Perhaps one day.
Just before school started, we went to the beach. Our first trip this year, though it’s just 45 minutes away.
We aren’t sun worshippers. And that grit of sand in one’s hair and mouth, sand that sticks to everything, even to dry skin, even to dry clothes that were put into a zippered plastic bag at home–well, meh.
Then there are the crowds. The drive is 45 minutes in winter. In summer it can be two hours. Bumper to bumper. And then, you have to park.
We usually head out around 4 p.m., when most people are leaving. This is a good policy in general in France. The French love their schedules. Pretty much everybody does the same things at the same time. By being out of step, you get the place to yourself.
For example, the supermarkets have 20 checkout lanes but operate a maximum of eight. I often have spent more time waiting in line to pay than shopping. If you go to the supermarket at noon (supermarkets being among the few businesses open between 12 and 2), there are only two or three checkout lanes open, but nobody in line. On the autoroute, the time not to stop for lunch is at noon, when the rest stops are packed, lines for the restroom are miles long and the sandwich selection is depleted by 12:30. No, lunch time is the time to enjoy the unencumbered highway before all the French get back in their cars and cause traffic jams.
Back to the beach. We drive smoothly past one 80-kilometer-long traffic jam in the opposite direction, then arrive at the beach to find the empty parking spot of one of the cars now stuck in that traffic jam. We get our fill of sun and sand in an hour or two, then look for refreshments. Ice cream is always a good idea. Sometimes, if it’s still crowded, we’ll stick around for dinner (fresh fish!) rather than join the throngs on the highway.
The two nearest beaches are Narbonne and Gruissan. Narbonne is a little more built-up, with a few apartment high-rises on the beach front. A parking strip runs the length of the boardwalk (which isn’t boards here, but you know what I mean). But the shops and restaurants are right there, too, which is nice.
Gruissan has a bigger beach, and little chalets on stilts line the edge. The parking lot is very small but close by and hidden from view. More charming by far. We’ll take you to the pretty port and the adorable town, which are away from the beach, another time.
On the day before the new school year, the beach was mellow. Only half had a lifeguard on duty, and the side without was nearly deserted. Walking the length of the beach, I thought a gentleman emerging from the water looked familiar. Indeed, it was a neighbor! Lots of Carcassonnais have beach chalets at Gruissan or Narbonne.
I didn’t see any burkinis, but I did see lots of kids wearing a high-SPF version, left. A good idea–better than a wrestling match to apply sun lotion, which then immediately gets washed off. There also were a frightening number of naked and badly sunburned kids.
We’ll be back. Our favorite time to visit the beach is winter. The sun is bright but not burning, the beach is empty, and a few restaurants stay open. We only need one.