December 2010 Archives

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The 23rd was a long day of painting for the painter on which he completed a canvas of a blue tin we found in Isle sur La Sorgue, an old hand whittled wooden spoon inherited from our old landlady in Crillon le Brave, Madame Bellon, and one of Madame Bellon’s daughter’s chicken’s brown eggs.

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Then, on the 24th, after our traditional visit to Les Halles in Avignon, here’s how the feasting began:

Six Utah Beach oysters (shells conserved in case inspiration hits) with shallots and red wine vinegar, rye bread with very sea-salty butter.

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Grilled bumper prawns will garlic (shells conserved for the fish stock)

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John Dory with wild mushrooms, saffron sauce based on fish stock, pommes fondants served with a my cello student’s Condrieu

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chocolate covered figs.

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Christmas day started with some celtic carols, champagne and the egg (from Madame Bellon’s chickens) in the painting plus another three in scrambled eggs, smoked salmon and bucks fizz. Then came a mammoth afternoon of book design, grappling with baseline grids that refused to shift and fonts that mysteriously ran away from our computer screens, followed by:

Scallops Proven�al accompanied by a glass of Apostoles pale cortado viejo sherry brought back from my teaching trip to Andalucia

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Roast partridge with (more I’m afraid, at the tail end of the season we can’t get enough of them) trompettes de mort, chanterelles and pieds du mouton mushrooms, a delectable sauce made from all sorts of bones and Mireille’s apricot jam, potato gratin and buttered cabbage. Accompanied by a St Cosme 1999 Gigondas

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panettone bread pudding with prunes and armagnac

Is there time for a quick diet before New Year when we have eight to lunch? Oh dear, no, there is still foie gras in the fridge and that cheese platter we were too full to eat……***

Chocolate covered figs

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Away from jingles , tinned carols and the pressure to buy the latest gadget, Christmas in Provence is about long walks, sharing seasonal things, a bonne bouteille and laughter in front of the fire.

Determined not to become 'one of those expats' that only hangs out with other expats, last night we hosted an ap�ro for our friends in the village. Our builder, our masseuse, a local artist, the lady who runs the local music festival, our ex-neighbours. In the afternoon I walked on the Grand Randonn�e at the foot of the Ventoux picking wintry skeletons of thistles and curry flower, twigs, oak leaves and berries with which I made a wreath and several bouquets. Later people arrived with bottles of their own olive oil and fig jams, and 6-8 turned into 6-12 without us even noticing.

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On Christmas eve we, along with many families, gather at Les Halles in Avignon to prepare for our feast, but also to share in a plate of oysters at the bar and exchange seasonal greetings. The game butcher, originally from our village, in her Father Christmas hat, wishes us Bonnes F�tes when we buy our venison and partridge. At the bakers I ask for half a seigle half a panaissan and the woman next to me says 'I'll take the other half of each. Joyeux Noel!''. We all get complimentary brioche. At the fishmonger we buy our St Pierre, oysters, coquilles St Jacques for the traditional French seafood Christmas eve dinner and plonk ourselves down for a glass of Picpul, six fines de claires d'Oleron and six Utah Beach at the market caf�.

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The highlight, however, has to be the box of chocolate covered figs I made and that my beloved fig - painting husband extraordinaire has just unwrapped in-between courses and is now enjoying with a glass of whiskey before turning in for an early night.

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Happy Christmas!!!! Bonnes F�tes!!!!

A Christmas market

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Today is market day in Bedoin. Today, as I do every Monday, I have to send off books and prints, and I have to find things for Julian to paint. It is also the last market day before Christmas. Having browsed the p�lardons and picodons, the walnuts, the roasting fowl on spits, the African drums, Italian hand made pasta and Antillian samosas, having mourned the disappearance of the goat lady who resembled her flock and was banned because of EU regulations concerning her fridge, and having celebrated the seasonal absence of all-things-lavender, having said ‘Bonnes f�tes’ to many neighbours and invited others round for a festive ap�ro on Thursday, I find it is almost midday and I am running out of time so I resort - for daily painting purposes - to the trusty clementine.

I say ‘Careful of the leav…..’

‘Yes’ says Olivier, the vegetable seller. ‘I know, they are for a painting.’

The citrus fruit, all puffed up in their festive orange skins, go in a lovely red bowl made by our potter friend in the village, Louis Brueder, and sit on the farmhouse table. At the end of the day Julian comes down from the studio with last week's clementines painted, in a Turkish bowl made by Galip.

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I think about Oxford Street and canned carols and gift wrapping in Dixons and Next and The Tie Rack, and the pressure to buy buy buy….and I am so glad we live here where nature and good fayre are all that count on a cold winter’s morn at Christmas time.

The Truffle Orchard

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For many years we have been asking the people who own land around us if they would rent or sell us what is here known as a 'petit bout'. This, we hastily added, was not for a swimming pool or a gite but for our potager and, eventually, a safe place for our child to play. Answers have ranged from 'I am in the cherries' to 'I do not sell'. Advice from friends locally has ranged from 'Asking a peasant to sell you land is like asking them to cut off their arm' to 'Keep asking! People die, folks go broke....'.

Two years ago we had a break through as O, son of L who had recently died, offered to lend us a corner on which to start our vegetable garden. I don't know if it was seeing me dump carload after carload of horsepoo on the land in order to enrich the soil, or the curvaceous Sicilian courgette we grew, or (more likely) Julian's paintings of the surrounding countryside of which he had become an avid fan, but about a month ago O offered to sell us some land, including a 3800 square metre truffle orchard.

The place is lovely. Yards from the red ochre cliffs of the 'Demoiselles Coiffées', hidden from the road, it consists of several oak trees, a couple of fig trees, some cane and a nearby 'bassin' of natural spring water. The local folk music is that of the woodpecker. There are signs of wild boar, fox, badger and...critically, the truffle fly.

This morning our friend Sebastian came to have a look.

'How many hours I spent playing in this field when I was a kid...!' he said, tapping his stick at the base of an oak tree. Tap tap he went over the strange grassless circle covered in dead leaves. 'Only this spring I was finding morilles here....'. Sebastian looked closely at the ground, tapped some more, looked up, to the left and back again, and planted a slim twig. Then he looked sharply right, up, down again, and planted a second twig. When I asked him what he was doing he explained that the truffle fly was the key to finding the black diamonds of Provence. With his stick Sebastian was disturbing the fallen oak leaves and therefore La Mouche. 'It is a job that demands much patience' he said 'but the fly has laid its eggs on the truffle and by observing the place to which it continually returns you can locate the truffle. Each time I see the fly I plant a stick, and gradually, day after day, I can narrow down the search.'

We walked around some more, examining the footprints of various local beasts. At each oak tree Sebastian stopped, checking to see if the grass around the base of a tree was sparse. Another good sign, he explained, as the tuber melanosporum killed grass. He stopped to take a round ball from a branch, explaining that these galls grew where the same fungus lived....

'We used to play marbles with these!' he said, rolling the ball between thumb and forefinger. 'You know, my father, who was a shepherd on the Ventoux, used to plant a seed of wheat wherever he saw the truffle fly in the spring. Then, when he came back to the garrigue' ( the scrubby woodland of the mountain) 'with his flock in the autumn, he would see that seed grown up into a bright blade of wheat and he would know where to look.'

This evening, as I drove back from Gigondas through Bedoin, there was my favourite kind of roadblock. A sheep roadblock. It is the time of year when life slows down to the pace of the autumn lamb at the back of the pack. I remembered Sebastian's words about his father, about the marker blade of wheat that would now be fully grown and remarkable. I thought about a magical truffle orchard that could be ours....

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Gesso brushes

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Julian, having worked on a larger painting all day, went upstairs to the studio at about 4 o' clock, with an adorable hand crafted wooden spoon inherited from his previous apartment in Crillon le Brave, a jar of raisins (used to make our organic granola), some cinnamon, an orange and a bottle of vanilla essence I bought back from the Antilles. He came down with this.

The Potager

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The Potager du Peintre under its first ever snow.It's so cold I'm resorting to using my cat as a pillow to warm my ears.

Christmas decs

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Just as malls and city streets lure buyers with twinkly lights and lots of electricity, our Christmas decs are already on show: The naturally gilded artichoke flowers (seen here behind Manon in a Provencal confit pot) and snow on the mountain behind morning fairy clouds which bodes well for skiing....

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That said, we would kill for a shopping day in Paris!