Part 5: SOUTHERN FRENCH CONNECTION: ART, FOOD and WINE
In Part 4, we saw how Vincent Van Gogh’s art was impacted by his mental issues, how mountaintop former castles and fortresses continue to “live,” and how the idyllic beauty of Southern France country landscapes inspire paintings.
It was a reality jolt to spend days roaming gentle villages of country folk living high in ancient fortresses and then to find oneself in the thriving urban city of Aix-en-Provence. We strolled along Cours Mirabeau, a wide, tree-lined thoroughfare, explored the Old Town, and took in the artistic drumbeat left by Artist Paul Cezanne, born here in 1839 and who reportedly hung out at a restaurant that turned out to be the favorite of both Russ and me: Les Deux Garçons.
What we saw:
Hôtel de Caumont – Centre d’Art now contains the Guggenheim art exhibit, but besides the collection of art by Pablo Picasso, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Cezanne and many others, just walking through this elegantly restored structure built in 1715 is a treasure. The mansion is considered one of the finest in Aix-en-Provence, remarkable for the preservation of the period furniture, furnishings and architectural design. French-styled gardens are in the back, a rarity inside the city center.
We thought about taking the train to Marseilles, about 20 to 30 minutes away, but the day was gray and drizzling. Marseilles is a city meant to be seen from water first and then explored at leisure. We opted instead to grab umbrellas and just amble through the streets of Aix-en-Provence.At one point we got disoriented and ended up by the French Immersion school, a destination for many Americans and others who want to become proficient in French.
We stumbled across mini-art shows in cozy street plazas, a farmer market that went on most of Saturday, an antiques market that hugged Cours Mirabeau on a Sunday, and a pen store. Russ collects fountain pens, especially ones not easily obtained in the United States or by corporate manufacturers, so Waterman, Parker or Mont Blanc were not on his shopping list. He’s quite choosy about the color, styling, and prefers a broad nib.
We searched for a pen store that turned out to be more of a stationery store, but when we later made a few too many turns on the twisting streets, we found ourselves facing a “real” pen store named Makaire.
Unfortunately, it was only 1:15 and the shop wouldn’t open until 2, just as most shops not catering strictly to tourists close from noon to 2 pm. Once it opened, the owner (?) clerk (?) spoke little English, which was more French than Russ spoke, but the language of fountain pens had them animatedly gesturing and “conversing.” Happily, he bought a pen named Winston for Winston Churchill because it looks like a chubby cigar. It’s handmade by a small French designer. Oh happy days!
What we didn’t see, but expected to, also took us by surpise. No one wore a beret. (I saw many worn in Paris.) Past the first couple of villages, we never saw French onion soup on the menu. For that matter, I didn’t see chateaubriand or duck a l’orange.
What we learned:
Aix-en-Provence was founded by Romans in 123 BCE. Today it is an expensive city that appeals to the upper class for the museums, restaurants, and shopping.
Paul Cezanne’s father rose through the ranks of owning a hat shop to becoming a banker, not an easy task in those days when one was to “know their station.” He wanted Cezanne to take advantage of this social position and wealth to become a lawyer. Cezanne met Emile Zola when they both attended the Lycee Mignet in Aix-en-Provence. Their mutual philosophy of searching for love and beauty bound them together for more than 40 years until Zola defended a Jewish man he thought innocent of spying for Germany. The public did not agree. Zola’s book, J’Accuse, became the catalyst for divided loyalties among their countrymen and in the process, the friendship between Zola and Cezanne ended about 10 years before Cezanne died.
There are two types of mansions found in Aix-en-Provence. The first, Parisian, has a courtyard in front of the house and gardens in the back to protect the privacy of guests visiting and the family in residence. The second is Italian Baroque, where the dwelling abuts the street line.
Nearly every single village or town we visited has a retro small carousel in the middle of a commons.
Public toilets can be boxes in the middle of a plaza or street. The entire toilet room washes completely through after each use when the guest departs. Don’t put your coins in before that cycle is complete, indicated by a green light, or you’ll be putting money in again. When you enter, the door automatically shuts. Do not hit the red light to leave until completely ready. When it turns green, the door opens for you to exit.
On the side street of Le Grand Hotel Roi Rene (left if facing the hotel) is a small grocery market with fresh fruits, wine and much less expensive bottles of water than anywhere else. Next to it is a patisserie/boulangerie with scrumptious looking breads, glazed fruited tarts, Napoleans etc. The place was always packed from early morning.
Where we ate and drank:
Our final tour group dinner is usually a fun affair and the host restaurant generally goes all out. Can’t say that was true at Grand Hotel du Roi Rene, where we stayed for the final days of the tour and for the extension. As each dish appeared, I had to remind myself that this is supposedly an upscale French hotel restaurant. If nothing else, the appearance of the dishes should be picture-worthy. For the appetizer, Russ chose the green salad and I took the tabbouleh. His salad greens appeared “old” and my tabbouleh was bland. I used to cater Middle Eastern food and have since eaten many variations of tabbouleh. Never have I had one devoid of spice and missing key ingredients. If the dish was called something else, I might not have been as disappointed and simply would have thought it blandly uninteresting. For the entrée, we both chose the faux beef, which translates to a boneless steak with peppercorn sauce. It didn’t taste bad, but lacked finesse and plating. The accompanying French fries came in a cone-shaped basket. For dessert, Russ wisely chose the dark chocolate grenache on top of chocolate cake. I had a floating island, which was described to me as meringue floating on crème anglaise. Mine looked like ice cream melted under a heat lamp until there was just a thumb-full left. You may understand why my one hesitant teaspoonful was more than enough.
During one of our “enjoy the moment and see where this street takes us” we found ourselves running into a mini-art show next to the Tapestry Museum. Too hungry to look at art first, we sat at an outside table at L’Archevine to both people and art-watch. We have discovered there are as many pizzerias as French restaurants, and even most French restaurants offer pizza. We shared a mozzarella, tomato and black olive pizza. The sauce was infused with strong notes of oregano. Our Caesar salad was dressed with fried chicken strips, black olives, tomatoes and thin slices of cheese. Nearly every Caesar salad on every French menu came automatically with fried chicken slices. The dressing on this one had a horseradish bite. The chicken was more pan fried than deep fried, and boasted a tangy flavor. We have found that in France house wines were typically better than brand names, and were certainly less money. The white house wine here was cool and crisp, perfect for the meal and the warm weather.
Our stomachs were already rumbling when we discovered Makaire, the pen store Russ wanted to visit wouldn’t open until 2 pm. Fortunately for us, we spotted Café L’Astoria directly across the street. All the outdoor tables were occupied by cigarette smokers. The manager (?) overheard me tell Russ my allergy to cigarette smoke made that a no-go and immediately beckoned us to follow him inside. Within seconds, he and a waiter had laid down a table, chair, cold jug of water, and place settings right next to the counter, literally in the center of the action of this tiny restaurant. There was no question this was where locals hung out. The atmosphere was convivial, the food quite tasty, if simply prepared. The inexpensive carafe of rose complimented our food selections. Russ had his second-ever Croque Monsieur, with the expected pile of French fries and side salad. I feasted on a smoked salmon salad, which was a mound of thin-sliced lox atop fresh greens and other salad veggies, laced with a light balsamic dressing. When we were finished, the waiter came by with shots of limoncello as a thank you for coming in.
Our absolutely favorite restaurant in Aix-en-Provence was Les Deux Garçons (The Two Boys). We had such a wonderful meal the first night that we returned for our final meal. Actually, as a quick side note: we tried to eat twice at Brasserie Leopold. Both times it took them ages to acknowledge us, tell us they were busy, and without so much as inquiring if we wanted to reserve a later time, literally shooed us away. The reception at Les Deux Garçons (consistently topping “best area restaurants lists) was welcoming both times, and hey, this is where Cezanne used to hang out, right?
Russ had a grilled filet, much larger and juicier than is typical for a filet. He said anyone who wants a master class in making Béarnaise sauce needs to study from their chef. To Russ, steak (unless we’re grilling at home and I have marinated and seasoned the meat for at least 24 hours), is meant to be eaten with Béarnaise sauce. Peppercorn sauce would be a second choice. His filet was served with a mound of crisp French fries and grilled veggies. I ordered the duck breast, which was as large as his filet and was a solid breast delicately sautéed and baked in honey. I have never had a duck breast with the texture similar to a steak, yet succulently juicy sans greasy fat. It was accompanied by a brie-sized pan of Dauphin potatoes. Both of us feasted on the potatoes and still couldn’t finish them. Russ had his eye on a bottle of higher-end red wine, but our young waiter Henri pointed to a bottle of Un Ete en Provence 2016 for half the price, saying it would be better with our selections. The choice was perfect, emphasizing the flavors of our food without overpowering them.
Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries. She is an active member of ILEA and MPI and is now serving on the 2019 – 2020 MPI Global Advisory Board for The Meeting Professional Magazine for the fourth consecutive year. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. Karen writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, she has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ThePsychicLady.com; @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady. Food photos for this series by Karen Kuzsel.
All other Photos by Russ Wagner, a retired government planner/builder who has a passion for trains, travel and taking photographs.
Café L’Astoria has no website but is at 3 Rue Emeric David
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