One of the best things about blogging has been meeting others from all over the world, especially those who are as passionate about food, travel, Italy and France. Although much of this "meeting" is of the virtual type, I've been fortunate to meet in person many great food & travel bloggers in Italy and France. Last Fall, after much virtual "chatting," Tuula of Belle Provence Travels and I finally met in person! Tuula is as sweet and enthusiastic about France as her writing portrays. What I especially love about her blog is how she writes about the tiny tucked-away villages that many guidebooks miss. And she always seems to find the best food festivals in Provence!
Last October, Tuula and her very sweet, French, food-loving husband welcomed me into their home. It was such a treat to see Provence with these two food-loving locals. Besides visting tiny seaside and hilltop villages, we had days filled with market visits, food fairs, long leisurely lunches, sauccison sampling, pastry nibbling, and we washed it all down with French wine. As Tuula pointed out, this was all in the name of research, of course! We cooked toghether. At cafes under a mild Autumn sun or in cozy wine bars, we laughed together (a lot of time at my awful French pronunciation). And those Provençal views weren't bad either.
Aix-en-Provence is far from one of those undiscovered villages. Very well-known as Cezanne's birthplace, you can even follow in his steps, Aix is a city of art. Thermal waters have flowed through the city since Roman times, so Aix is also a popular spa destination. There are many reasons one might visit the city, but this a food lover's blog. So we opted to wander through one of the many colorful markets of Aix, and enjoy a famous two-hour French lunch. Afterwards, under the guise of walking off our lunch, we found a few sweet treats of Provence.
The Cours Mirabeau is one of the most beautiful boulevards in all of France. The trees line each side of the street and their leaves arch up and meet in the middle to create an arbor. Always bustling, the boulevard is the social center of the city. An outdoor seat at one of the restaurants along Cours Mirabeau, the Bastide du Cours, was our spot for lunch. The menu formule, various combinations of starter/main dish/dessert or all three, is always a good value. With it you'll get good, not spectacular, bistrot and regional fare. Of the restaurant's three menu formulas offered, we chose the "Gandolphe," a three-course meal for 19,50 euros.
Our starter was a religeuse of tomatoes and mozzarella. As it was the end of tomato season, this twist on the French pastry, was pretty but a bit bland. Howerver, the braised jarret de porc (pork shank) with lentils from Puy was flavorful, falling-off-the-bone tender and belly warming. We ended with a simple and classic, crème brûlée. The large dish of custard with a vane of burnt sugar on top gave the perfect textual contrast to the creamy custard. Quite the opposite of a light lunch, we savored it slowly along with the surroundings and much girl-talk. The two-hour lunch, one of the best treats when traveling to France, actually flew by.
Our "foodie" day didn't end with the meal, either. Walking through the streets that splinter off from Cours Mirabeau, we did a little wandering and found more! Three sweets that popped up all day in Aix, and during my stay in Provece were calissons, navettes, and Tartes Tropéziennes. So popular are they, that each has at least one interesting legend of its birth.
Calissons d'Aix - Made with equal parts blanched & ground almonds, sugar and candied fruit of orange peel & melons, they have a paper thin wafer at the bottom and are topped with royal icing. Legend has it that these almond shaped sweets were first introduced in 1454 at King Rene's second wedding in order to sweeten up his much younger, and possibly reluctant, bride Jeanne for their marriage. They are the specialty of the city and in every pastry window, candy shop, street market, everywhere.
Navettes - A crunchy, barely sweet cookie, they are shaped like a boat to commemorate the arrival by boat of St. Lazarus, Mary Magdalene and Saint Martha to Provence over 2000 years ago. A specialty of Marseille, they come in three traditional forms. The navette traditionnel uses fleur d'oranger; the navette Marseillaise leaves out the orange flower water, and the navette Provençale has the fleur d'oranger and is also a little softer. Nowadays you can find them with a variety of additions, like cinnamon, lavender, figs, etc.
Tarte Tropézienne - Actually a dessert of St. Tropez along the Côte d'Azur. I think I saw more of this pastry in Provence than anywhere else outside of St. Tropez. As the story goes, the first Tarte Tropézienne was created by a Polish man, Alexandre Micka, who had a shop in St. Tropez. He made this dessert along with pizzas and sandwiches for the crew filming, "And God Created Woman," starring Bridgitte Bardot. Bridgitte liked the dessert so much that she urged Alexandre to name it. He did, the film was a success and is credited for making St. Tropez the popular resort town.
The tart is not really a tart but a big brioche bun. As Alexandre Micka's filling is a big secret, each pastry shop varies its version in an attempt to recreate his. Pastry cream and Kirsch liqueur are at the base of the filling. Some combination of butter, butter cream, meringue or whipped cream is added to the pastry cream and Kirsch. The top can vary, too. I saw a dusting of powdered sugar with berries, a crumble, and also a pearl sugar on top.
There was also chocolate! Puyricard chocolates, named after the village in Provence where a Belgian couple began their French chocolate making. Known as the chocolate company of Provence, Puyricard has 17 swanky shops - 13 in southern France and 4 in Paris. Believe me it's hard to resist spending all your euros in the store. We got out of there quite cheaply, a 250-gram box of assorted (we picked them) chocolates were a mere 23 euros. Along with delicious chocolates and calissons, they offer guided visits to their chocolate making facility in Puyricard and chocolate classes.
An MOF Patissier in Aix! For those of you who've seen Kings of Pastry, you know the MOF, short for Meilleur Ouvrier de France (Best Worker in France) for pastry award isn't given out lightly. Riederer's pastry chef, Phillipe Segond has the MOF title, and his pristine pastries are evidence of it. The pastry shop is right on the Cours Mirabeau and full of so many pretty sweet things, I need to go back to try them all.
The oldest pastry shop in Aix. Patisserie Bechard, opened since 1870, was our first and last stop in Aix. Both times, it was packed with locals ordering their daily dose of French pastries. They had a huge selection of classic French and regional pastries and the place had a homey vibe. I could have spent all day in the shop. Their Tarte Tropézienne, a house specialty, was very good.
Join me in Provence for a French Pastry Culinary Vacation and learn how to create classic French pastries! I'm sure Tuula will make a guest appearance during the tour. Details here: Pastry-Making Vacation in Provence
Bastide du Cours
43/45/47 Cours Mirabeau
Phone: +33 (0)4 42 26 10 06
67 Cours Mirabeau
Phone: +33 (0)4 42 38 19 69
7-9, rue Rifle-Rafle
Phone: +33 (0)4 42 21 13 26
12 Cours Mirabeau
Phone: +33 (0)4 42 26 06 78
For information on dates and times of all the markets in Aix: Markets in Aix-en-Provence
The Sweet Life in Aix-en-Provence (Belle Provence Travels)