LA BELLE PROVENCE
by Louise T. Gantress
As a college student I never had the opportunity to study abroad. Now was my chance. I booked two weeks at a language school in Aix En Provence. Madame met me at the depot in Aix. As per arrangement with the language school, I had a home stay. Under instructions from the school not one word of English was to be spoken. In fact, she knew only a few words of English.
Her apartment was tastefully appointed and was only ten minutes’ walk from the school. After I settled into my room, Madame invited me to tour Vieil Aix, only a block from her door. The limits of Old Town are defined by the ancient ramparts, upon which the town was built. Originally a Greek trading post it became a Roman settlement in 123 BC, and designated a province. The name stuck, as Provence.
Aix is the old capital of Provence. It is graced by elegant mansions, charming squares and fountains. Many fountains. Madame pointed out Fontaine de la Rotonde in Place du Général de Gaulle, which marks not only entry to Aix, but also to Cours Mirabeau, the main street of Old Town. Fountains in Aix decorate small squares or pop up on a side street, but la Rotonde is the most magnificent of them all. It rises twelve meters high, spreads thirty two meters wide and contains twelve bronze lions and the three marble “graces” named Justice, Agriculture and Fine Arts.
On Cours Mirabeau itself an ordinary fountain holds middle position while a statue of Good King René guards the far end and entry to Old Town. In addition to being a man of letters who was a patron of the arts, he also instituted public health laws and encouraged commerce, all of which justifies his reputation as “good king René.” He was duke of Anjou and count of Provence as well as king of Sicily and Naples. An Italian influence is supposedly evident today in the more relaxed “Mediterranean” atmosphere of Provence. In Aix, city planners followed da Vinci’s rule that a “street be as wide as the height of the houses” to make Cours Mirabeau a generous space, pedestrian safe due to the three fountains, although vehicles slowly ply it.
Aix has long been a college town, since Louis II of Anjou founded the university in 1409. Many students, French and foreign, continue to study here. It was like going back in time, just older. Paul Cezanne was born in Aix. Emile Zola moved there as a child. They were childhood friends and attended the same college. The painter and writer hung out at the Café Les Deux Garçons on the sunny side of Cours Mirabeau. Cezanne is regarded as the father of modern art for his influence on Fauvism, Cubism and Expressionism because of his use of color, line and form with sculptural attributes. Zola, a leader in the naturalist literary tradition. Their friendship went well until Zola used it as material in his novel, The Masterpiece in 1886, which caused a rupture.
City fathers have laid metal coins in the streets to mark the path Cezanne took around Old Town. His home is closed to visitors, but his atelier is open. On another day I stopped at the Café to enjoy the ambience and people watch. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall then!
Walking along the charming small streets, I was pleased no urban renewal had despoiled the quaint charm of this village within a modern city. Madame stopped at a shop and began a conversation with an older woman who was holding a tray. Turning to me she pointed out calissons, the distinctive pastry of Provence. These cookies have a “Marquise” shape. Ingredients call for almonds (ground to meal), orange blossom water, candied Cavaillon melon, lavender honey, eggs, and sugar set upon a wafer. The almonds used are local, and not bitter. Melons are also local, but from another town. Cavaillon melons have a fragrant, succulent, orange color flesh, and are themselves the subject of a July festival and an aperitif. The shop woman offered a calisson to me; it was sweet, slightly chewy.
Tradition explains the origin of les calissons as having been made for the second marriage, in 1454, of Good King René. The texture of these delights, reportedly made for the couple by monks, is similar to marzipan but not quite. Classic calissons are vanilla colored with a white sugar glaze. Contemporary variations are inventive, using figs, persimmons, apricots, dates or prunes for flavor and color.
Madame led me to the location of an open air market in Place des Prêcheurs. We strolled the aisles, looking now at flowers, then at fish and seafood like clams and mussels, eels, meats, both cured and fresh, fruits, vegetables, cheese and bread. She introduced me to her favorite pâtisserie. Two or so streets away were regular shops, including a vendor of fine pâté and a modern two-floor grocery. When I noticed a kiosk, Madame explained that souvenir stands typically sold sachet of a lavender cousin, less fragrant but cheaper. The genuine article is available, but at a dear price. Lavender is a member of the mint family, native to Europe. There are at least twenty different types of lavender, distinguished by use, color and scent. Lavandin is used primarily for oil, its scent being closer to camphor. Lavender oil has both antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. Aromatherapy uses lavender for relaxation and to induce sleep. Lavender is also used in cooking and as a condiment, for example as a compliment to meats such as lamb. Of course, lavender honey is an ingredient in calissons.
It was a good orientation, as much as I could comprehend parce que c’etait tout en francais.
Over the next two weeks I would traverse the route and explore away from it often, using the open air market or pastry shop as a navigation buoy. I discovered an Iranian restaurant in a small square near the school, adjacent to the café where I took my mid-morning break of pastry and express coffee. For lunch I ordered an omelet with dill yoghurt and a glass of rosé. Rosé is the wine of Provence. After years of neglect in America, it has recently become en vogue. Reference books on wine tend to ignore rosé, defining it as “French for pink and applied to wines lightly colored.” Worse, some guides refer to wines from Provence as “simple” and focus on Bordeaux. I myself held this view, based on trips to Margaux or Saint-Emilion. Rosé is an acquired taste, in my opinion, but I was in Provence.
On the first day to report to school we were tested, both written and oral, for placement. I was put into an intermediate level class. There I was pleased to note I was not the oldest, that honor taken by a woman in her seventies. The class was already polyglot: a German, an Italian, a Filipina and two Swiss plus a three Americans, including me. Everyone spoke English, which was forbidden.
We were to make an oral presentation on any topic of our choice, and to answer questions about it, in French. I decided on the chauvinism of French cuisine. One always hears that French cuisine is one of the “great” cuisines of the world, unlike English or American. At Madame’s apartment I chanced upon a magazine, LIRE, and read an article about Alfred Suzanne and his book, which I loosely translated as “English and American Cooking and Pastry.”
Apparently, in the nineteenth century, many French chefs went to England and America to impart knowledge of the best cuisine in the world. Published in 1894, it is a practical, theoretical and anecdotal guide to his fellow French ex-patriots. In it Suzanne testifies to the superiority of French cuisine. His book was a descriptive vademecum to his chums based on his forty years experience.
Of course, I was in thrall to French pastry, delighted to find gateau de violette, or glacée de lavande, not to mention everything else. French regulation extends even here: a shop must employ a maître pâtisser to be called a pâtisserie. Nevertheless, even the article admitted that, to paraphrase, such an incontestable sense of superiority is supported only by a ridiculous chauvinism and absurd prejudice that deny another nation can produce good cuisine. I posed a question to the class: is such cultural imperialism merely a long forgotten outrage or is it evident today? The class was in agreement that the French are truly proud of their foodie heritage.
Provence is lush: its fragrant fields of lavender, rich agricultural products and pungent perfumes lend easily to development of colorful art and delicious food. It is a sensual area. Forget your diet and enjoy being overwhelmed.