I left Cap d’Adge 15th March homeward bound. I arrived on Lopez Island in bright sunshine. Despite having being away for 20 days the cold March temperatures meant little had changed. The daffodils and wood hyacinth were still hiding but spring was in the air and a myriad of chores beckoned. Before leaving for France we had increased the vegetable garden by the addition of 4 raised beds. These still required filling with soil, normally a herculean task with a wheelbarrow. Well I thought, “I have 70 days before Christina returns from France…more than enough time to get the farm sorted”. Our neighbor Ken brought in three loads of topsoil with his enormous John Deere and very quickly the vegetable beds were groomed into submission. Taking advantage of the sunshine I planted out 250 onions 50 leeks, 50 fennel bulbs, numerous lettuce, beetroot, spinach, swiss chard and snap pea’s. Last year the bastard robins in their never ending search for earthworms, got the better of us and pulled out more than half of our onions. This year I made light movable netted covers for each bed, which will hopefully ensure Christina has all the onions and spring onions that her kitchen requires. A trip was taken to the mainland to buy a boot load of culinary herb and edible flower starts. Culinary herbs and edible flowers have always been be a focal point in our garden but this year we also have the addition of a cut flower garden. All the new herbs plus sweet peas, stocks, dianthus, violas and nasturtiums were planted before I got the call: Come back to France! There’s an opening on a French Pastry Course. Was I interested? 60 days of learning how to make breads and breakfast pastries, chocolate confectionary, ice-creams and sorbets, French cakes and tarts, chocolate, sugar sculpture and decoration. . . On the coast of sunny Southern France. With wine and my lover. Close to a nudist colony? Tough decision.
I left in a hurry.
Things started swimmingly when Delta gave me an upgrade to Business class, even without a winky winky. Then the train station ticket booths in Charles De Gaul airport refused to print my train ticket nor would it recognize my credit card. Each attempt failed and my departure was getting closer and closer. Repeating the mantra: please speak English, I stood in line to obtain the ticket from a real live person. The mantra worked and this made communication easier for the both of us. Soon I was aboard the high-speed train heading for the sunny Cote d’Azur . Where it was raining cats and dogs. It was in fact just like Lopez Island in March but with more wind.
I crawled into bed and slept for a week.
Christina has a break until Monday 8th. I start class on Monday too. We plan to visit the walled city of Avignon that is situated on the left bank of the Rhone River and more importantly, located just South of Chateauneuf-du-pape. Which to any oenophile means wine country! Increasing, therefore, the probability of finding one or two very good restaurants.
Christina’s online search indicated that the restaurant to target was Christian Etienne, known as the pope of Avignon cooking. It seemed like a good place to start our Provençale gastronomic adventure. We checked into a small Masion et table d’hotes (B &B) just off the enormous cobbled square of the Palais des Papes (Popes Palace), a fourteenth century fortress castle where one of the previous Popes is buried. Not the most appetizing location for a restaurant in my opinion, but what the hell. To our left was the bridge over the Rhone that all English children sang about (Sur le Pont d’Avignon on y dase tous en rond). In elementary school I was a Union Jack waving wild colonial boy and clearly remember singing this French ditty.
The short walk to the restaurant is decidedly chilly. The restaurant is in a 12th century building attached to the Palais des Papes. It is charmingly simple with a great terrace overlooking the main square. It’s early (7.30p) but there is already a table of eight seated so we are not entirely alone. There are 3 set price menus to choose from- we select the chef’s suggested spring menu. This is definitely nouveau-cuisine. There are no heaps of gold fries, mounds of mashed potatoes or slabs of steak here. Instead the waiter delivers a constant stream of exquisitely arranged food in tiny dishes. The first to arrive are three small tastes of what is to come. A cucumber jelly topped with salmon roe, a popsicle of steak tartar with a dusting of parmesan, a tiny glass of parmesan mousse topped with baked flakes of parmesan cheese. The sommelier suggests a bottle of the Chateauneuf-du-pape 2010 “ La Crau”, a white. It would be rude to disagree, and really, what do we know about French wine? Nothing, I assure you. The next to arrive is a small glass of pureed baby spinach topped with toasted buckwheat seeds and tiny slivers of pancetta. Next is a black slate bearing asparagus done three ways: Julienned with lemon and olive oil, blanched with pastry chips, in a mousse with very tender chunks. The sommelier is attentive so our glasses are kept filled. A white plate arrives – a small roll of Flounder with Thai spices resting on a bed of tender snap peas and foamed spring pea accompanied by a parmesan cheese straw. Then artichokes in a light garlic foam with a herbed bread soldier. The chef /owner calls at our table and asks if we are satisfied with the meal so far. The stupefied look on our faces gives the answer and he moves on. No language barrier there.
Our waiter places a plate containing a 2 inch chunk of succulent Lamb filet on a bed of very young broad bean and spring carrots, a meatball of ground lamb roasted garlic and onion. The sommelier suggests a red, this time. A grenache from the Luberon? Oui! He pours and soon all memories of being cold earlier fade as our internal furnaces kick in. ‘Cannelloni’ pastry stuffed with ricotta on a chickpea base with tiny golden oil caviar pearls on the side. The sweet dishes start: orange ice-cream with a twist of orange meringue and little cream caramel on the side and tiny squares of sweet jellied celery topped with candied celery leaves. Perhaps Monsieur and Madame would enjoy a wine that more compliments the desert? Like this little Syrah from Domaine des Masques? Fromage? A trolley containing 20 or 30 handpicked cheeses is wheeled to the table and we choose blindly. Seriously how can you choose wisely out of 30 unknown cheeses, some stinky but all delicious? Christina’s internal furnace is now super efficient, so much so that she walks out bare shouldered onto the open terrace into the freezing cold and suggests I do the same.
Perhaps it was the jolt of fresh air, the barrage of excellent food or possibly an effect of the muscular red wines of the Luberon. All of a sudden we felt very sleepy. Christina suggested strongly that unless I intended to carry her home we should leave. Quickly! I called for the check. Our waiter was desolate, No Chocolate? No Coffee with treats No digestive. No Marc…
God no, just bed please. Perhaps the loan of a wheelbarrow? We staggered home oblivious to the cold and incapable of speech. Christina staggered more than I because of her 4 inch heels and the cobblestones. Or so she says.
The 4 inch heels: Christina is a practical person, the ideal partner for a life of living on a small farm, on a small island on the rugged North-west coast. She is happy splitting wood, mucking out chickens, collecting eggs, planting and harvesting her beloved vegetable garden. Although she grumbles about it she will also pick up (very large) rocks, roots, plant fruit trees, mow the farmyard and drive our John Deere Tractor. We seldom dress for dinner on Lopez, but we do, on very rare occasion, don finery when eating out in Seattle. Christina transforms herself from farm girl to lady, rapidly. Little black dress, black slutty 4 inch heels, a little shawl, a lick of make up which she never wears and Voila… Madame delicious! Now we are back in our chef jackets ready for action…. we’ll keep ya posted!