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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Transhumance


Back in March, I posted about an event that was surely to become a part of France's past--private distilling of fermented fruit into spirits.

While in les Alpes de Haute Provence, I witnessed an even more ancient, traditional event: transhumance. For those who are unfamiliar with the term as I was, it refers to the transfer of herds from low-lying areas to higher pastures or vice versa, depending on the season.

We'd had an enjoyable morning, stopping first in  Moustieres Santa Marie for some window shopping and coffee in a charming café.

We drove on through the region, pausing at any charming village that caught our eye until we came to Riez. There was a large market taking place with a reasonable-sized crowd so we parked. As we reached the market, we were assailed by the blare of horns. Dozens of hounds swarmed past us on the sidewalk and into the square beyond, herded by uniformed horsemen. Tilly, looking particularly tiny, hid behind me and peeked out from between my ankles.

Innis clapped her hands in delight.  "It's the annual fête de la transhumance. I've heard of this!" I looked at her, baffled. I hadn't a clue what she was on about.

"The local farmers bring their sheep through the village on their way to the summer pastures," Innis explained. "It's a real tourist attraction. Volunteers come from all over to accompany the sheep. I think it takes about a week to get there. We must stay for this!"

Good Lord, I can't believe she's forcing me to pause and have yet another aperitif in yet another village! Such a hardship.

However, I'm a team player so we grabbed a nearby table and ordered sparkling kirs while we did some people-watching. It would be at least 90 minutes before the sheep arrived. I was particularly entranced with a pushcart vendor selling handmade whistles for bird calls. He was very entertaining but the whistles themselves were unbelievably realistic, with their sweet, complex calls.

When the main event began, we hurried to grab a good vantage point. Tourists spread out in advance of the approaching mass of sheep, until officials herded them out of the way. The sheep were clearly comfortable with the routine.

Everywhere, cameras clicked and video cameras whirred. What an unexpected treat to have stumbled upon this without realizing. And how easily we could have just passed Riez by without a backward glance while doing our own transhumance!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Summer in Provence

We left Italy for lavender-laced Provence on the Friday with mixed feelings--regret but feeling very much like we might benefit from a two-day fast. What gorgeous gluttony it was! The guilt from the gluttony did nothing to dissuade us from stocking up what teensy space we had to spare in the car, what with two sets of duvets and pillows, books, kitchen condiments and utensils, suitcases and various dog paraphernalia, with a shocking amount of predominantly nonperishable foodstuffs. We bought dried porcini mushrooms, dried oregano (that our host assured us was top-notch), various vinegars and specialty oils and easily 20 liters of olive oil between us, not to mention huge chunks of Parmesan cheese, numerous jars of specialty spreads and sauces and, yes, loads of dried pasta. My only regret about our upcoming week in Provence was that I could not then stock up on fresh pasta which I could have then frozen. Yes, despite our gluttony, we were still focused on food!

We drove along the coastal road abutting the Mediterranean as the signs for Monaco, Cannes and other well known spots on the Cote d'Azur beckoned, exiting at St. Tropez for the northbound road that would take us to Haute-Provence, up in the hills along the gorges.

Once we'd left the motorway and joined the local roads, our jaws dropped. What on earth? Everywhere we looked, trees were uprooted, cars were nose down in ravines and everywhere had a strange, almost barren appearance. We tried to stop at a shopping center to pick up some perishables before we reached our gite but even the huge hypermarkets were closed. The military swarmed through parking lots, trying to re-establish order. We were baffled. Clearly some major storm had come through--a tornado perhaps?--and ravaged the area. We couldn't help but wonder what awaited us at our gite (vacation cottage rental), and prayed it was still intact.

We stopped briefly at a farm stand further north, where the woman behind the trestle table shared with us the details of the storm. It had been a deluge of rain that swept more than 100 houses right off their foundations and, she confessed, nearly a dozen people so far had been reported killed, most of whom were in their cars at the time. (That accounted for why we saw all those abandoned cars that looked like they'd run off the roads and crashed. They'd apparently been lifted by the water, their drivers powerless to prevent it, and washed into the ravines.)

We continued our journey northward into Haute Provence, relaxing slightly when we left behind the damaged terrain. Sure enough, the house and adjoining gites were untouched. But as we entered ours and looked around, we could not help but think the place would have been improved by such a tempest. What a dump! A clear example of how photographs can be very deceiving! There were even clumps of soil and dead leaves in the bathtub--left, our caretaker sheepishly replied, by him when he'd opened the windows to air the place and then proceeded to use a weed whacker to strim the grounds just outside the bath window. It was dingy and damp and furnished with the oddest assortment of furnishings. And not so much as a single bottle of cleaning fluid or a toilet brush, despite the fact that we were expected to leave it clean for the next guests or pay a cleaning fee.

However, there was naught to do but make the best of it, and make the best of it we were determined to do. Trekking all the gear and kitchen accoutrements that we'd been teased about finally paid off. And, after all, we agreed, we had a shower, and a toilet with a door. That's something!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Wrapping Up Italy

The five days we spent in northern Italy proved to be one gastronomic delight after another, bordering on the gluttonous. Whereas France also will serve multiple courses in a meal, Italy does it in far greater proportions and at a much faster rate of speed. We viewed each ensuing dish with a mixture of delight and trepidation. Ken and Anna took us to no fewer than three of their favorite restaurants over four days.

One, Madonna della Neve in Cessole, I had visited in 2007 on Anna's recommendation, and I remembered it well. It's a family-owned and operated restaurant, famed for their delectable, handmade agnolotti, so tender and delicate that they serve it on a napkin without any sauce. We sampled it that way, followed by a second serving, this time on a plate with a butter and sage sauce. Delicious! The host, Massimo, who seated us, was the very same who'd greeted me when I showed up alone three years earlier, just days into my very first visit to Italy.

I had entered the restaurant a bit shyly and was relieved to see it was almost empty; just two parties sat in the dining room--three suited gentleman obviously on a business lunch, and a middle-aged couple, none of whom paid me any mind. I was acutely aware of my complete lack of Italian language skills and hoped I could blunder through. I realized at that moment that I'd failed to find out if tipping was expected. It had not been in France. I felt even more nervous.

Massimo seemed to pick up on my hesitancy and, before I could say a word, greeted me in English. (Admittedly, I'm a bit fair to pass as Italian. Still, it sort of bothers me to be recognized as a tourist.) Massimo's voice was filled with regret.

"I'm terribly sorry, but we do not serve parties of one."

I froze. In all my years I'd never once been refused a table simply because I was on my own. Massimo saw the stunned look on my face and quickly suppressed a smile. The twinkle in his eye, however, gave the game away. Luckily I'm fairly quick on my feet. I donned an exaggerated look of deep disappointment.

"What? Is it not tragic enough that I have been denied the pleasure of a gentleman's company, that I must also be denied the simple pleasure of a meal in your ristorante? Indeed, this is too much to bear!"

Massimo stifled his laughter and swept low in a gallant bow.

"I would be most pleased to make an exception in your case, signorina."
Phew, that was a close one. I thought I was going to have to miss out on those fabled agnolotti for a minute.

Madonna della Neve was a delight then and it was a delight this time as well. However, no modest meal for me this time. We began with an antipasti which I foolishly assumed would be a single platter with a variety of meats, cheeses, vegetables and olives. Instead, dish after dish was served, including paper-thin slices of pancetta, followed by a divine carpaccio, then, peppers with a tonnato (tuna) sauce, a courgette (zucchini) flan with cheese, asparagus wrapped in proscuitto topped with a cheese sauce.... I was beginning to fear each appearance of our server.

It was so rich, with one course following on the heels of the preceding one, that my friend Innis got up and stepped outside the restaurant for a brief walk just to give herself a respite before facing the lamb-filled agnolotti. I was afraid she'd decline it but she tried a tiny bit and pronounced it delicious. And it was--even better than I'd remembered.

It's after a meal like this that it becomes clear why the Europeans drink digestifs. A sip or two of a fiery brandy really does settle the stomach. Ken and I decided to go the distance and make ours a local grappa. To our surprise, Massimo brought several bottles for us to sample. I liked one in particular. Upon closer inspection, I saw it bore the restaurant's label with a notation that it was in honor of the festival for Sant' Antone, which had been held earlier that same day. On impulse, I purchased a bottle to bring back to France as a memento.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Idyllic Italy

We left Lake Annecy in the French Alps bound for Cessole, Italy, in Piedmont country, home to Barolos, Barberas and Barbarescos, white truffles, porcini mushrooms, to name just a few treasures.  Upon arriving at Casa Forcellini (www.casaforcellini.com), we were greeted with a glass of frizzante white wine and a lunch of epic proportions. Casa Forcellini was to be our home for five golden days.

My first visit to Casa Forcellini was during the summer of 2007, where I spent a heady three weeks housesitting for the owners, Ken and Anna. It had been a last minute, whirlwind post and slotted perfectly in the two weeks that I had to kill between the time I was due to leave Spain and arrive in Austria. Although it left me with just three frantic days to pack up and arrive instead of the thirteen leisurely ones I'd thought I'd have, it was worth every panic-stricken, jam-all-my-worldly-goods-into-whatever-corners-of-the-car-I-can moment.

The first moment I walked onto the terrazzo, overlooking a valley laden with hazelnut trees and manicured row upon row of grapevine, I felt as if I'd stepped onto a film set, a stereotype of every movie I'd ever seen of Italy. (Although, moments later, the charm took a backseat to my dismay when I realized I locked myself out while simultaneously locking the dogs, my purse, cellphone, laptop and owner contact information inside, but that story is best related in my upcoming book (whenever that will be).

It had been quite a weekend, what with, two days earlier, my sleepless, espresso-fueled Spain departure where a tractor-trailer jackknifed about 50 feet in front of me at 5am on the motorway south of Barcelona, just two hours into my trip, as I looked on bleary-eyed in disbelief.  Followed the next morning by me desperately to outpace the Tour de France which, to my horror, I discovered was just behind me as I raced to reach Italy. (That would explain the empty motorway!) Add to that getting hopelessly lost on local roads not far from Cessole because the Italians don't believe in street signs, and you get an idea of how thrilled I was to find myself locked out!

Anyway, that was then and this is now. I had only met Ken and Anna for the first time last year, en route back from Tuscany to the Loire Valley here in France, spending an impromptu night there after yet another lovely lunch served in true Italian style.

This time, because the clouds looked a bit ominous, we decided to forego eating on the terrazzo in favor of shelter so we ate instead in the dining room. We ate, drank, and laughed for hours. Melon with parma ham was soon followed by the local Toma cheese with red pepper flakes and drizzled in olive oil, eggplant, breaded chicken cutlets with almonds accompanied by sauteed carrots, zucchini and potato in butter, salad, a cheese course and then gelato. That meal, it turned out, was just a warm-up for what was to greet us over the course of the next few days.

There was one challenge—the one bathroom was in mid-renovation, leaving us neither shower nor toilet. Luckily, by the time my friend and I had arrived, the contractor was at least able to connect the toilet each night before leaving—no rocking, please, as it wasn't bolted down—but he didn't go as far as to hang the door! It didn't matter, however. We could not have enjoyed ourselves more. Good company, good food, good wine, good weather and, let's not forget, this was Italy after all.  Ciao!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Reblochon Country

No trip to the Alps would be complete without a sojourn to Reblochon country. Here is where they make the award-winning Reblochon cheeses (as well as others), from the same day's milking. Trust me, it's sublime.

We ventured up into the mountains while staying on Lake Annecy to visit several farms where they not only happily sold us their cheese but took the time to take us on a personal tour of their cheese-making facilities. Many of these farmers, we were told, spend eight or more hours a day, each day, every day, making these cheeses, without a single day off. One farm we stopped at said they sell 20% of their cheeses just to those of us who make a point of personally stopping by the farm; the rest are sold in local supermarkets or shipped further afield.

We saw not only the cheeses in their various stages of formation but also met the 'manufacturers' of the milk. (One not so subtly reminded me they have the right of way on the road, bumping my car hard enough to fold the rearview mirror against my door.)

I purchased several bars of homemade raw milk butter but with my plans to move on to Italy and Provence, I could not stock up as I would have otherwise liked to do. Still, the few I bought would last me well to the end of the nearly five-week vacation. It's just the thing spread thickly on a warm, crusty baguette for breakfast alongside a steaming cup of café au lait!