As I’ve said before, I try not to write gratuitous travel posts without a direct wine connection. But after returning Monday night from France and – unplanned – the Netherlands (two days later than we had intended because of an airline strike), it’s kind of frantic around here. Frankly, my jet lag recovery skills aren’t what they used to be. Plus it’s November and things always get busy, so I hope you’ll forgive this bit of travel bragging.
Cy and I went over to visit wine producers as part of the trip. But that was only the middle third of our time in France. My father lived in southwestern France not far from Montpellier for a couple of years during the war and he came with us to visit the area, his first time back in that region since 1943. After Montpellier we spent three days in the southern Rhône valley visiting producers and tasting wine. Then we saw my father off and for the last part of the trip Cy and I went to Salon de Provence and Marseille, places we’d never been before. I’ll write more about the first two parts of the trip in other posts, but this time it’s all about being a tourist in southern France.
Just before we dropped my father off at the Marseille airport, we took a drive up to the top of Mont Ventoux. If you’ve watched the Tour de France on TV, you’ve seen it – it’s on one of the routes used for the race. It’s a big imposing rock, the tallest thing between the Massif Central to the west and the Alps to the east. The summit is over 1,900 meters above sea level, and the climb from surrounding villages is more than 1,500 meters over a distance of about 22 km, which makes for a pretty steep ascent (average grade over 7%). The “Giant of Provence” also gives its name to the Côtes du Ventoux wine region, part of the Côtes du Rhône. On a clear day you can [practically] see forever.
Early that evening Cy and I were off to Salon de Provence. We had a really fun morning the next day visiting Sophie Urbanski, who was Cy’s favorite teacher at Alliance Française here in DC. Sophie is French and returned to France a couple of years ago. She has opened her own language school, Le Salon de Sophie. Sophie is also a trained tour guide and took us on an excellent walk around the city. It’s small enough to have a friendly feeling, but large enough to have the things I’d want in a place to live. And charming, too. While the city is known for being the last home of Nostradamus, here are a few less apocalyptic tour facts:
1) The railroad made Salon prosperous because the soap manufactured in the city could be shipped out all over the world. Merchants built themselves grand houses with fabulous architectural detail in the 1870s – 1890s imitating homes on the boulevards of Paris. They also contributed to the city’s cultural life by founding the Circle of Arts and Trades in 1886, the first such organization in France.
2) An earthquake destroyed much of the very old city center in 1909. But the earthquake was the first natural disaster in France for which the aftermath was captured on film. People throughout France saw the city in ruins and donated money for relief and rebuilding. This was the first time that people far from the actual site could see the extent of the devastation relatively soon after it happened.
3) The official hero of Salon is an engineer, Adam de Crapone, who brought water to the city in the 16th century. The area had been relatively desert-like, but the canal and pumping system Crapone built changed all that and made Salon an agricultural powerhouse, and later, an commercial center as well.
From Salon, on to Marseille. Cy and I fly in and out of the Marseille airport when we visit southern France, but we’d never seen the city. It’s the second largest in France and a major port. Being right on the Mediterranean makes for spectacular views, and the heart of the city is a rectangular-shaped inlet called Vieux Port. It’s gorgeous, filled with pleasure boats and is also the site of the almost daily fish markets where everything is, literally, fresh off the boat. (Seriously, the boats are docked right there behind the fisherman selling their wares.) The buildings surrounding the Vieux Port are lovely too, and have been there a long time. So much so that Cy was able to find the building where Julia Child lived just by comparing an old photo of her on her balcony with the iron railings on balconies of the various buildings.
For views of the city, we climbed up the steep streets and steps to Notre Dame de la Garde, a church and shrine to mariners and firefighters who lost their lives. You really can see everything from up there. Other great places for views are the forts that sit at the entrance to the Vieux Port. And there’s also the cliff/shore road, La Corniche, that winds along and opens up to a spectacular scene every half kilometer or so. One of these is the Frioul archipelago, a group of islands just off the coast, and the site of Château d’If, the infamous prison best known from The Count of Monte Cristo. We turned back before we got to the area of the villas of the rich and famous, but we have to save something for another visit…
We also decided to resist the temptation to try Bouillabaisse, which is pretty much the signature dish in the city. Not because we don’t like it, but when you see tourist restaurant after tourist restaurant serving it you get a little leery. (Come taste our fantastic Bouillabaisse! … The only “real” Bouillabaisse in Marseille! … Makes strong men weep! …) Next time we’ll ask around first for a recommendation. Instead, we ate amazing Moroccan comfort food and a dinner of local fish.
We were supposed to travel back to DC on Saturday afternoon, October 29. But the night before we got an e-mail saying that our flight from Paris to DC was cancelled. When we called to find out why, we were told there were strikes at DeGaulle preventing flights to and from other countries. The next available flight that would get us from somewhere in Europe to DC was Monday afternoon, October 31, from Amsterdam. But the only flight available to Amsterdam from Marseille was on Saturday night, which meant staying in Amsterdam for two nights.
I know, Poor Us, right? What can I say? We’re both at an age when if we’re ready to go home, we’re definitely ready to go home. Still, Amsterdam was a lot of fun. First and foremost because Cy has family there and we got to see them (and had a place to stay). Air France handed us a bag of lemons, and our Dutch family turned it into lemonade! A thoroughly enjoyable visit. But also fun because Amsterdam is a great city. Beautiful canal homes, lively plazas, lots of green space, and the Concertgebouw, the concert hall where we were lucky enough to snag tickets for a Sunday morning concert. The acoustics are astonishingly good, something you don’t realize you’ve been missing until you hear it.
You also get a feeling for what a less carbon-intensive life could be like. A lot of European cities have enviable public transportation, but the Dutch also revel in getting around under their own power. It’s disconcerting having to look both ways crossing the streets AND the separated bike paths, but they allow people to go everywhere on bikes. Two of the people we had dinner with on Sunday night biked 20 km home at 11:30 pm without giving it a thought – and they’re not youngsters, either.
Inspiring for us all. I guess that’s why traditional Dutch food has always been the stick-to-your-ribs kind. Like this stew of beef and beer, Vlaamse Karbonades. The Belgians and French have their own way of making what they call Boeuf à la Carbonnade, but most Dutch versions are pretty straightforward, using just beer and a little mustard to cook the stew and onions as the only vegetable (sometimes with a little garlic). I think beef stock is a nice addition, and I wouldn’t say no to bacon in there, either. So here’s my version. You can decide if you want the cream in at the end, but mustard and cream show up in a lot of Dutch recipes. Why fight it?
One key to this recipe is choosing the right sized pot. There isn’t much liquid for cooking, so you want the meat in a single layer with the onions on top while it cooks. Make sure your stove can deliver a low heat setting, or use a flame tamer/spacer to let it simmer nice and slowly.
Believe it or not, even though the stew is cooked with beer it goes beautifully with red wine. We got a shipment about six weeks ago with a new wine, Domaine la Croix des Marchands Vieilles Vignes ($15). It’s 50% Syrah and 50% Braucol, a local grape, and it’s lightly aged in oak. Perfect with the stew. The only problem will be that you won’t want to get on your bike after you eat it.
2 slices thick smoked bacon, cut into ½-inch pieces
2 pounds boneless beef chuck, cut into two-inch pieces
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
¼ cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon sugar
4 onions, cut in half, peeled, and then cut into thin slices
1 12-ounce bottle dark beer
3 cups low-sodium beef stock, boiled down to 2 cups
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, divided (or more to taste)
¼ cup heavy cream
You’re going to need a large, heavy pot (at least 12 inches in diameter) that has a lid that fits tightly. Before you start, use the pot as a template to cut a circle of parchment paper the size of the top of the pot. Set the parchment aside. Then heat the bacon pieces in the pot over medium heat until they just start to brown. Remove the bacon pieces with a slotted spoon and let the cooked bacon drain on a paper towel.
Take half the beef cubes and blot them dry with additional paper towels. Put them in a bowl and toss with ½ teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon pepper, and 2 tablespoons of flour until everything is nicely coated. Brown the beef in the hot bacon fat until it’s nicely browned. Remove the beef cubes and set aside, then repeat with the rest of the beef, adding some vegetable oil if the pot looks dry.
If there’s any fat left in the pot, pour it out and heat the butter and 1 tablespoon of oil in the pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions and the sugar, plus a little salt and pepper. When it all starts to sizzle nicely, turn the heat to low, cover the pot, and let it cook for 10 minutes. Then take the lid off, turn the heat back up and cook the onions until they just start to brown. Remove the onions from the pan.
While the onions are cooking, pour 3/4 cup of beer into a measuring cup and whisk in 2 teaspoons of the mustard. After the onions come out of the pot, pour the rest of the beer in the pot, and scrape up the bottom to remove any browned bits. Add the meat back in, it should fit in a single layer in the pot. Then put the onions on top, and pour the beer/mustard mixture over. Add just enough beef stock to barely cover everything in the pot. Bring it to a simmer, and put the circle of parchment right on top of everything. Put the lid on. If the lid doesn’t look tight, put a large piece of foil over the pot and then put the lid on that.
Turn the heat down to very low, or use a simmer plate/flame tamer to regulate the heat. Simmer it slowly for an hour and a half. Remove the lid (and foil) and take the parchment out with tongs. Mix the remaining teaspoon of mustard with the cream and add it to the pot, simmering for a minute. Taste for salt, pepper, and mustard, and then sprinkle the reserved bacon over the top and serve.