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Our Tour de France

Goat cheeses

The French often say, “There’s no need to leave France – we have everything here!” While it’s easy to brush it off as chauvinism, it’s true — for a country that could fit inside of Texas, there is a huge diversity of climates and terrains in one, single country. You can find everything in l’hexagone, from the windy shores of Brittany (where we’ve huddled around the fireplace, wearing sweaters in Augusts of yore), to the sunny south, where beaches are clogged with tourists and the few locals that choose to stay in town, to bask in the abundant sun of the Mediterranean.

The Lot

After living in France for a while, I sometimes get the feeling that the country never gets a break on the summer weather. While it can be gorgeous, we were told that the day after we left Paris, the weather turned grey and cool. And while we had some nice days during our two weeks of travel, we hit quite a bit of uncooperative weather ourselves, that always seemed to be creeping up on us.

France

Being from San Francisco, I never look at forecasts and simply plan for everything. And anything. (And you’ll see that in spite of my best efforts with photo editing software, I was unable to add in sunshine to the shots.)

gazpacho

Since we were mostly éponging (sponging) off friends, by staying with them as we traveled, I had to brush up on my morning small-talk skills. I’m hopelessly terrible at responding to enthusiastic greetings of “Good morning!!” or “Hi! How did you sleep?” first thing in the morning.

Boucherie

It doesn’t help that Romain is so talkative first thing in the morning that I often check his back, to see if I can take the batteries out. I need at least thirty minutes, minimum, to adjust to the new day – preferably without any commentary.

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Corsica

Corsica

I finally got to Corsica. I’d heard so much about it. But somehow, I’d never made it there. Corsica is a large island off the Mediterranean coast of France, which has had a rather back-and-forth relationship with France. But the short story is that it was back under French rule in 1796, where it’s firmly (although to some, precariously) remained.

Corsica

Its most famous resident was – and still is – Napoléon Bonaparte. And the airport in Ajaccio, where we flew into from Paris is named after him. since he was born there.

Corsica

Our friend who we were rendez-vous-ing with was arriving in the early evening, so we had some time to stroll around the city. We started at the excellent Musée Fesch, named for the uncle of Napoléon, who was a collector of Italian art. The current exhibition featured classic paintings, paired with recent work by Andres Serrano, an artist most famous for submerging a crucifix in pipi.

Corsica

The photograph of that was the only work in the museum that was protected by Plexiglas and there was an interesting few paragraphs that accompanied it, offering a little explanation, ending with “typical American culture….politically correct.”

When I arrived in France, my second French teacher asked me, “Why are Americans so politically correct?” It’s been over a decade and I’m still not sure I have an answer. (Or, being from San Francisco, know why that is even a question.) But a reader noted that there was an attack on the photo in France as well. So even if it’s not typique, I guess I should be glad to know we share the title, at times, for being PC. Or whatever you want to call it when it comes to religious icons. However perhaps in this case, it’s best to leave the “P” out of it.

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Le Servan

Le Servan Paris chocolate caramel tart

I’m not always in agreement with those that say dining out in Paris is expensive. For example, last week I found myself with a rare moment of free time at lunch, and I pinged a neighbor, who unfortunately replied that he was out of town, like the rest of Paris in the summer. So I decided to go to Le Servan by myself, a restaurant I’d been hearing a lot about. And since it’s “hot”, I figured lunch would be the perfect time to go. And I was right. Although it filled after I got there, I managed to get there during the “sweet spot”, and grab a stool at the counter, where I had a terrific lunch for €23, all by my lonesome.

If you think about it, that’s three courses of food made with fresh ingredients, prepared by a highly competent staff. The price includes tax and tip, which in the states, would mean that about one-third of that total would be earmarked for those extras, and the meal itself would cost roughly €15. Yikes. Of course, one often adds a glass of wine – I had a nice Vouvray for €6 – so my meal deal clocked in at €29. But either way, I can’t imagine getting a meal like I had in, say…New York, London, or San Francisco. Because I liked it so much, I went back the next day with Romain.

aargh

Unfortunately the next day didn’t start off very well. Like, at all. But as Gloria Gaynor famously said — or sang — “I will survive.” (Although she didn’t sing it in French.) But good food, and wine, heals a lot – although not all – and it was nice to get a particularly bad taste from the morning affairs out of our mouths.

Two glasses of surprisingly inky rosé from the Loire did the trick. They were deeply colored, with the slightly maderized (sherry-like) taste that one often finds in natural wines, which have been left to their own devices.

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Hyères, Provence

Hyères, Provence (France)

I had no sooner returned from Sicily, then I unpacked my suitcase, re-packed my suitcase, and headed back out, to Provence. Even though I’d just returned from a ten-day trip, my other half was doing a project in the city I went along for the ride because, 1) Who wants to be sitting in a hot apartment, alone, in the summer, when you could be by the sea? And 2) The icy rosé of the south was calling. (And drinking alone raises other issues.) So I went.

Our hotel was very basic, but I loved the bathroom colors, holdovers from France in the 70s, or perhaps the 80s? Or someone was exceptionally good at recreating vintage French bathroom fixtures and colors. As I was happily lathering myself up after the humid train ride, I kept thinking that I’ve finally mastered the French curtainless hotel shower, and gotten it down.

Hyères, Provence (France)

Except when it was time to stop soaping up one side, and move to the other. And I realized that it’s that switch that I’ve yet to master; the moment when you need to swap the soap-holding hand with the hand holding the pommeau de douche (nozzle head), and a fountain-like spray of water breaks loose all over the bathroom. I’m not sure how one does it, especially when there is no holder for the shower nozzle. But I guess that’s why they load hotel rooms up with towels.

Hyères, Provence (France)

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Pantelleria

Pantelleria, Sicily (Italy)

Well, what can I say? After everyone telling me so much about Pantelleria. I didn’t quite get it when I arrived. But when it was time to leave, it was hard to go.

Pantelleria, Sicily (Italy)

Pantelleria, Sicily (Italy)

On the day after I landed, by the time afternoon rolled around, I had curled myself up on a cushioned chair with a book I’d been looking forward to delving into. Then suddenly, I found myself waking up a few hours later, realizing that I had collapsed into a deep, profound sleep.

Pantelleria, Sicily (Italy)

It was the combination of silence that’s nearly impossible to find nowadays, and soft sunshine with a lazy breeze, which were no match for my hyperactive nature. It was one of the soundest slumbers I’ve had in the last few years.

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Capers in Pantelleria

Pantelleria Capers, in Sicily

There were two things I heard repeatedly about Pantelleria before I got there. First: every person in Sicily told me I would love it; second: I had to try the capers, which wasn’t difficult, considering they were everywhere.

Pantelleria Capers, in Sicily

And I don’t mean in shops or on restaurant menus. I mean, they’re growing everywhere on Pantelleria; on the sides of roads, around stores and buildings, on craggy pathways, and next to the stone walls that run up and down the hills of the island.

Pantelleria Capers, in Sicily

A long time ago, an uncle in New England told me a pretty funny story. He was making a recipe that called for “pickled capers.” But he decided that he’d improve the recipe by using fresh. He looked in shops and grocers for fresh capers all over town, and couldn’t find any.

Pantelleria Capers, in Sicily

While capers grow in several countries around the world, and there may indeed be a plant tucked away in some greenhouse in Connecticut, I don’t think you’ll have much luck finding them fresh, as you so easily can, in Pantelleria.

Pantelleria Capers, in Sicily

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Making Cassata alla Siciliana, in Sicily

Cassata alla Siciliana

I didn’t want to cause a ruckus by sharing pictures of such a spectacular cake without a recipe. But on the other hand, it’s quite a chore to make a Cassata alla Siciliana and although Fabrizia Lanza sailed through it without breaking a sweat, between using the right pan, mixing up your own almond paste, finding ricotta as good as the ricotta in Sicily, and getting the candied fruit (including the squash, which is the translucent white brick on the platter), it might be classified as one of those things that’s better left to the Sicilians.

(Nevertheless, if you want to give it a go, Saveur printed her Cassata recipe, and it’s also in her book, Coming Home to Sicily. I linked to additional recipes at the end of the post.)

Cassata alla Siciliana

According to Italian food specialist Clifford A. Wright, the word Cassata is derived from the Arabic word quas’at, or qas’at, which refers to a wide bowl. There is actually a special pan to make the cake; it’s a mold with sloped sides and a groove around the bottom so that when Cassata mold is lined with strips of almond paste, and overturned, there’s a rim to create a neat guard against the icing from running down the sides.

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Konza Kiffi: Sicilian Agricultural Estate

cucunci capers

Well, that was quite a day! After a much-delayed plane ride to Pantelleria, an island off the coast of Sicily (it’s technically Sicily, but — let’s hold off on that discussion for another day…), I was told to be prepared to be seduced by the place. But it didn’t hit me until day #4.

harvesting oregano

We’d spent yesterday morning watching people harvest capers (…more on that in a later post), and tasting wine. Then had a below-average lunch, which was barely mitigated by the restaurant’s setting, just on the edge of the ocean. After a heaping plate of wan pasta, all I wanted to do was head back at the home where I’m staying, where there was a hammock waiting for me.

oregano

But my friend Giovanni said to me, “Daveed – it’s going to be very special.” And when a Sicilian talks with such gravity it’s best to listen.

pantelleria

So we found ourselves after lunch, driving on a winding street, high above a spectacular blue lake with the ocean in the background, with rows of grapes and oregano baking in the hot Sicilian (or Pantellerian) sun.

oregano in sicily

The welcome we had from Giancarlo and Cristian Lo Pinto, the two brothers who own the farm, was as warm as the sun.

oregano harvest

With the wind in our hair — well, in one of my traveling companion’s hair —

anissa

— we found ourselves in a field surrounded by massive bunches of oregano, offering an aroma as strong as the fields of za’atar in Lebanon: a powerful, astringent scent that bordered on medicinal. Although lots of oregano grows in Sicily, locals tend to use it dried. And here was where the best of it came from.

oregano field

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