O! TO BE IN PROVENCE, NOW THAT MARCH IS HERE!

NJWILDBEAUTY readers know that, although this blog is devoted to beautiful, and all-too-fragile New Jersey, I am always longing for Provence.

Mediterranean with Crimson Esterel Massif at its Edge by Popoff

Mediterranean Sea from Esterel Massif, en route to and from St. Tropez

I lived in Cannes from October of 1987 into August of 1988 – in other words, I saw the seasons ’round.

pine tree by Meditgerranean from Internet

Normal Provencal Drive for me, even in winter

In February and March, along the Riviera, trees bloom.  Driving in closed cars up to the sacred hill towns, the perched villages, the fragrance of blossoms fills the vehicle.  Almond blossoms like snow against gnarled hillsides.  Menton’s lemons, grapefruit, mandarines, clementines, and yes, oranges filling the air, until breathing was like drinking Cointreau.  Mingled with the sweetness of flowering fruit trees was always the pungency of wild herbs in the garrigues: thyme, marjoram, rosemary in tall shrubs, oregano, savory and pebre d’ail, a truly spicy wild flavoring.  Animals who fed in the herblands absorbed those savors into their meat, their milk, therefore infusing Provencal cheeses.

Menton's Citron Festival in February

Menton’s Citron Festival around George Washington’s Birthday

The sense of smell was literally intoxicating during my stay there.  One bitter January day in Biot, I was walking its narrow streets, marveling at flowers in small terra cotta pots even on back stoops of houses, blooming in what we know as winter.  Then, I smelled peaches.  I decided I’d just been in this land of enchantment so long that I’d ‘gone round the bend.’  Instead, I strode ’round the corner to find a small fresh food marche, with some of its produce out on the sidewalk in January sun.  Peaches filled the air, as though someone were baking a peach pie.

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Peaches in an outdoor market in Provence

The sense of hearing was newly called into play, not always pleasantly.  The mistral reared its inescapable head day after day in winter, roaring down the Rhone toward that usually placid Mediterranean Sea.  Some say, and I’d believe it, that Van Gogh cut off his ear because driven to this by the mistral.  It can roar for days, causing pipes in your home and shutters on your windows to whine and twang.  We don’t know anything like this wind.  It’s as though Provence wind came through huge faucets, all turned on at full blast at the same time and the same impossible speed, by day and by night, interminably.

Le Parfum des Garrigues

We don’t know wind like this, not even in hurricanes, which I’ve now lived through.  Our winds rise and fall in intensity and sound.  One of the greatest horrors of Sandy for me was the relentlessness of that howl.  The mistral’s is more infuriating, more intense, –a more ceaseless and inescapable blast.

Cheese of Goats, perfumed by wild herbes des garrigues

Cheese of Goats who Roam the Garrigues/wild herb fields of Provence

One time, my daughters had a good laugh on their romantic mother.  Somewhere in the South of France, high above the sea, I enthused, “Isn’t Provence wonderful?  The air smells like champagne!”  We were at a picnic ground high above the sea.  The mistral was so strong, it had blown over a family’s champagne, literally spilling it all over those ancient rocks.

perched village of Provence

Typical perched village – driving through fragrant collines to reach these treasures

It probably doesn’t make sense even to miss the annoying mistral, but I do.  Afterwards, the Provencaux would say of that wind, “Il balayer le ciel.”  (It sweeps the sky.)  No bluer blue ever existed than post-mistral skies, unless you count the Mediterranean, reflecting that ethereal hue.

typica drive near St. Tropez

Everything’s electrifying in Provence.  Breathing itself is intoxicating.  Around any corner, anything can happen.  In St. Tropez’ s Musee de l’Annonciade, one looks at Fauve masterpieces on the wall, then through the windows at the very scenes those vivid colorists painted so masterfully.

Baie de St. Tropez from Musee Annonciade at Sunset

Fishing Boats of St. Tropez, from window of Musee de l’Annonciade

Typica View from Window of Annociade Musee on Baie de St. Tropez

Baie de St.  Tropez from windows of Musee de l’Annonciade

But the queen of all Provencal sense experiences is the amazing mimosa/  Delicate as these blossoms are, they come from a tree.  One filled my second-floor bedroom window in Cannes.  Tiny puff balls moved in the slightest breeze, wafting a scent of lemon and nutmeg in through those bottle-green wooden shutters.  Nothing surpasses waking and sleeping to the delicate mimosa fragrance.  Another miracle was peering through mimosa branches to discover Napoleon’s Corsica so very far away, but only in early winter months.

Magnificent Mimosa in ad for l'Occitane, Provencal's quintessential fabrics

Magnificent Mimosa Tree in Ad by l’Occitane, house of superb Provencal fabrics

Even with my love of New Jersey’s soul-filling beauty, I miss the many electrifications of Provence, especially as March — the month of flower fragrances in that land – begins, with a nor’easter, no less.  No flower fragrances for us, let alone peaches around the corner.

flowering almond treeFlowering Almond Tree – subject of Pierre Bonnard’s last painting – he lived at Le Cannet, one hill over from ‘mine’, L’Observatoire of Cannes

flowering orange treeIn

In Menton, flowers and Fruit at Same Time, on February Trees

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MISSING PROVENCE

at-cap-d-antibes by Claude Monet.In case anyone wonders why I am always homesick/depaysee for my life in Provence, this is Monet’s answer.

In 1987, I sailed free aboard the good ship QEII because I gave two lectures based on my decade of Transition Consulting: one on Success and one on Change, key topics in the Transition years.  I was also blessed to launch my poetry chapbook, Gatherings, , which had just been published prior to sailing.

The French line didn’t exist any more; and Cunard ships did not deign to dock in Le Havre.  So I tooled around Cornwall in search of King Arthur for a bit, after arriving in unwillingly in Southampton.  I then flew to that adorable casual palm-fringed gull-populated airport, right on the sea, named Nice.  Once, in early February of 1976, my MIchigan friend Bernadette Thibodeau went for the luggage there, and I for the car.  On the autoroute to St. Jean-Ca–Ferrat, we discovered that neither had somehow gone through customs.  Ever since 1964, Nice had been the gateway to paradise for me,.  It has not diminished in importance in all these years.

That view, which you might think Monet embellished, was a normal everyday scene for me, living on Observatoire Hill above Cannes in 1987 and ’88.  The simplest errands also took me past this idyllic spot in Cap d’Antibes.  After the market, I would take in either the Picasso Castle or the Napoleon Museum, if not both.  My neighbors scoffed at my Napoleon-mania:  “O,” they would sniff.  “That Corsican!”

Cap d'Antibes beach FRanceThis scene is but my screen-saver now.  I yearn day and night for the Mediterranean’s beauty and the hearty human interchanges bestowed upon me, year upon year, in that environment.

For example, in 1976, Bernadette Thibodeau and I dined nightly at table, next to Leslie Charteris (author of The Saint televisionseries on television, as well as of priceless gastronomic sagas in Gourmet).  Charteris was there for the winter.  We for around ten February days.  Both exquisite tables tucked into a glass corner of La Voile d’Or, one of the most perfec establishments I have ever encountered, even in France.

The sea wrinkled and twinkled at our feet as we supped.  As night fell, the three Corniche roads glittered, sinuous ruby and diamond necklaces bedecking dark velvet rocks.  The identity of the gems depending upon whether vehicules were hurtling toward nearby Italy or back into blessed France.

On our second night, I dared question our sommelier’s choice of red wine to accompany our legendary lamb of Sisteron.  If a person can twinkle, he did:  “I’ll just bring it, and if you don’t like it, I’ll drink it myself.”  We laughed so very hard.  Of course his choice was perfection with Sisteron lamb, so much more delicate than ours in the States.  My fear had been that his suggestion could not stand up to that entree.  Soon we were laughing,  rather ruefully, in the elevator returning to our rooms, discovering that that our mentor had just been named Le Meilleur (BEST) Sommelier de France. 

Do not forget that it was February in St. Jean-Cap=Ferrat.  Sweaters over our shoulders were enough, sauntering the exquisite shore path from our hotel over to Beaulieu-sur-Mer and back.  Blossoms framed every view out our windows.  Their scents suffused our senses, as we drove through stony garrigues to Provencal hilltowns:  Almonds.  Mimosa, Cirtons, such lusty fragrances penetrating through closed Renault windows.

back streets old antibes

NJWILDBEAUTY readers know I spend my life praising New Jersey.  I do my best.  I mean my enthusiasms.  But sometimes, I just cannot bear not being on the South of France.

Especially as I tuck into interminable layers of gear just to drive to work – from earmuffs to lined gloves to lined hiking pants to fleece-lined tights and thick boots with crampons on for New Jersey’s invisible ice. January and February returns to the South of France, as well as my wanderjahr residency, proved me that it’s not winter in Provence, not EVEN when it snows!

This street scene just above is in old Antibes.  But it could be almost anywhere — Roquebrune, Mentone (although more colorful, because closer to Italy), San Rafael, Biot.  Each a town of magic — Roquebrune for its castle’ Menton(e) for its citrus festival, San Rafael where the Invasion of Provence (Le Debarquement) took place August 16, 1944, Bior of the bubbly glassware and the Leger Musee.  Mougins with its multi-starred temple of gastronomy, Le Moulin de Mougins, found along La Route de la Transhumance — the way that shepherds, goatherds led their flocks to and from winter pastures.

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Sometimes, what I miss most are the olive trees. Renoir bought his property in Cagnes-sur-Mer because he wanted to save the (then) 100-year-old olive trees.  He would paint the late nudes under their leaves.  It is said that the artist did not ask if a new maid could make the beds and serve the meals, or a new cook could cook.  All that mattered was the way the light of the Provence sun bounced off the silvery olive trees and onto their flesh.  We think Renoir was being an Impressionist.  He considered himself a realist.  And this man painted, despite crippling arthritis, with his brushes and palette taped to his two arms, wheeled in a wheelbarrow to his olive trees.

I also am a realist.  I cannot live in Provence now.  I won’t be seeing flame-hot tomatoes at Thanksgiving or pale feisty daisies in January.  I cannot buy an ancient liqueur made of wild thyme by the monks of Isles de Lerin.  I cannot walk the open Cannes Marche, the mistral swirling my scarf hither and yon, as the olive oil man won’t take my francs because I am an American, and he’s pleased that I chose the fruity one.  I won’t be buying lace-delicate ravioli from a costumed young woman who rose at dawn to make and bring and sell it.  I won’t encounter dates so dark and succulent that them seem to melt off the table.  Or try to choose a fish, when all are so near to having been in the sea that some, especially sandre, flip themselves off the oilcloth-over-ice on the fishwife’s table.  I won’t walk past the Provencal woman selling her white chickens, tying their legs, balancing them in jer hand-held scale, sending them home flapping wings.  The apicultrice isn’t bragging to me about the succulence of her lavender honey.  There are no brioches still hot from the wood-fired oven hewn from  ancient rocks of old town/Cannes, otherwise known as Le Suquet.

When I’m this homesick, I have my most courageous friends over for a Provencal Sunday supper.  It’ll be some peasant specialty I encountered there, and cannot find authentically in this country.  (I was once served cassoulet made with KIDNEY beans, in Kingston!.)  At my Lawrenceville table, we’ve shared cassoulet de Toulouse; choucroute garnie such as filled South of France markets abruptly in November, though its newly ready sauerkraut and all those hefty sausages came from Alsace.  On a hot May afternoon, golden aioli took center stage, each friend bringing a different vegetable or hard-boiled egg, I supplying the prepared salt cod.

No, this is New Jersey and this is February, and soon it will be boeuf a la gardiane — otherwise known as le boeef sauvage — which thelegendary cowboys of the mouth of the Rhone concoct with the meat of the wild bulls of the Camargue.  Friends will bring a lighter Rhone wine for the Provencal cheeses and an artichoke melange; a heftier one for the boeuf; and a delicate Muscat de Beaumes de Venise to accompany the dessert tart. This dish I have not tasted, but it’s a question of flavorful real beef (Brick Farm Market of course, my being fresh out of cowboys and bulls ).  It’ll be crafted with fresh herbs, Rhone wine, a swirl of orange peel, a pig’s foot.  No, I haven’t made this before, but the Intrepids weren’t given that name for nothing.

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The gardianes’ stews were cooked long and slow over driftwood fires on Mediterranean shores.  Mine will, of course, depend upon the Crock Pot.

My Provencal specialties will have one ingredient more precious than all the rest, however.  When we savor our boeuf with wild thyme and Rhone wines, the multi-hued South of France vegetables from one friend,  a complex tarte from another — all will be seasoned with Fellowship.

In my year in Provence, I lived alone.  My neighbors in the villa became dear friends.  But somehow, they would not let me cook for them.  We could dine out, and I could lead them to places, like Auberge des Seigneurs in Vence after the Matisse Chapel, which I knew better than they.  But I was not to be in the kitchen for their sake.  Thank heaven, my New Jersey friends have courage, eagerness, and I will even say, Love.  They let me play in the kitchen for them.

My wildest wish, I must admit, is that we could all appreciate Provence together.  Meanwhile, boeuf a la gardiane will have to do!