Fools make feasts and wise men eat them.
~Benjamin Franklin

Provence — a poetic, mystical southern land which extends from the French Alps on the upper edge, bordered by the bank of the lower Rhône River on the west, abutting the Italian border on the lower east and finally falling into the Mediterranean Sea to the south.

Where villages-perchés seem to cling to bluffs, where marchés quietly demand that you explore serendipitously, and where the sun kisses you throughout the year. The clarity of light, the luminosity is nearly unsurpassed…not to mention the sprawling vistas, microclimates, cobblestone streets, earth tones tinted in brilliant ochres, sparse yet gentle landscapes, lavender fields, from squat olive to narrow pine and cypress trees, an achingly azure shimmering sea with pristine shores and grottoes. There is a feeling of isolation there. An evocative feast for the senses.

Grande destinations include Nice, Cannes, Antibes, Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, Carcassone, Gordes, Arles, La Camargue, Eze, Grasse, St. Tropez, Cassis, St. Raphael, La Luberon, Vence (to name a few). Remember, the papal capital was in Avignon and seven successive popes were housed in France, not Rome. Provence only joined France in 1860, so think Italy too.

Then again, there are some places like the Marseille ghetto with its infamous high rise slums and notorious drug related violence and gang wars. Best avoid (or repair) those.

POULET PROVENCAL et SALADE DE MESCLUN

6-8 bone in, skin on, chicken leg-thigh quarters
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
All purpose flour
3 T olive oil
3 T unsalted butter

Herbes de Provence (see below)
1-2 lemons, quartered
10 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled
12 Niçoise olives, depending upon size
4-6 medium shallots, peeled and halved
1/2 C chicken stock
1/2 C dry white wine
1/4 C pastis

1-2 T fresh local honey

8 sprigs of thyme, for serving on each plate

Preheat oven to 400 F

Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Put the flour in a shallow bowl, and lightly dredge the chicken, shaking the pieces to remove excess flour.

Heat and swirl the oil and butter in a large roasting pan on the stove, and place the floured chicken in the pan, skin side up. Season the chicken on the skin side with the herbes de Provence. Arrange the lemons, garlic cloves, olives, and shallots around the chicken, and then add the chicken stock, white wine and pastis to the roasting pan.

Put the loaded roaster in the oven, and cook for 25-30 minutes, and baste several times with pan juices. Continue roasting and basting for an additional 25 to 30 minutes, adding the honey scantily during the last 15 minutes in a slow drizzle — until the chicken is quite crisp and the meat shows yellow juices when pricked. Allow to rest for about 8 minutes before serving.

Serve on plates or on a platter with warmed pan juices spooned over the chicken, garnished with thyme sprigs. Present with a mesclun salad with blueberries, French feta cheese, hazelnuts (June 28, 2010) and champagne vinaigrette (see below again).

Herbes de Provence

No doubt you can find herbes de Provence with your spice monger or even at the market. But, you can always and ever easily prepare your own.

3 T dried thyme
2 T dried savory
1 T dried oregano
3 t dried rosemary
2 t dried marjoram
1 T dried lavender flowers

Combine herbs, and store in an airtight container at cool, room temperature.

Champagne Vinaigrette

1 C extra virgin olive oil

1/4 C champagne vinegar
2 T Dijon mustard
2 t local honey
1/2 shallot, peeled and minced
1 t sea salt
1/2 t freshly ground pepper

In a glass bowl, whisk together the mustard, vinegar, honey, shallot, salt and pepper. While whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in the oil in a narrow, steady stream. Cover and chill at least 30 minutes or up to 3 days. Taste for seasoning, not with your finger, but with whatever greens (ideally mesclun) you are serving.

As you may recall, mesclun is a varied amalgam of dainty salad leaves which originated in Provence.

Advertisements

We learn from history that we never learn anything from history.
~Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Such fallible creatures we are, so driven to ignore precedent and repeat our errors. We live forwardly but stubbornly fail to capture retrospect for a greater comprehension of the present. It just seems that grand blunders and miscues tend to abound during times of human conflict as well. Which brings us to the otherwise pastoral Ardennes forest, a land of human flaws, trials and tragedies.

A sparsely populated region, the Ardennes form part of la diagonale du vide (the diagonal of emptiness) a vast swath of land running from the French-Belgian border in the northeast to the Pyrénées in the southwest. Perched on a chalk plateau, the Ardennes are typified by steep valleys carved by swift rivers–the Seine, the Marne, the Asne, and the most prominent, the northward flowing Meuse. A bucolic region of dense verdant forests, rolling hills, deep valleys, ravines and ridges, the Ardennes are located primarily in Belgium and Luxembourg, but they also stretch into northern France.

The Ardennes were thought impenetrable by France’s top brass…unsuitable for grand military operations due to the redoubtable forest, challenging terrain, narrow and winding roads and frequently fragmented communications. Yet, the same Ardennes were the site of several military clashes rife with error.

August, 1914
The Battle of the Ardennes was a brutal conflict fought between German, French and British forces on the Western Front near the outset of World War I. One conflict was centered in the Ardennes forest and the other further north, at the village of Charleroi. The battle was provoked when outnumbered, brightly adorned French troops stumbled into German forces in thick fog in the lower Ardennes.

The French were to be reinforced on the battlefield by the British Expeditionary Force. But, an unexpected delay coupled with poor relations and communications between French and British commanders, caused the British to instead engage elsewhere in the Battle of the Mons while the French continued to fight alone. The combat was ferocious. “If you go into the death trap of the Ardennes, you will never come out,” lamented a French officer. In a single day of battle, some 27,000 French soldiers perished.

At Charleroi, with roads swollen with Belgian refugees, the French army began collapsing along their lines. His army pushed to its limits, the French general Charles Lanrezac ordered a full retreat without having consulted French headquarters. The scale of the French defeat was notable and losses were devastating. Though the command did not denounce Lanrezac’s decision thus tacitly authorizing it, he was later made a scapegoat for the failure of France’s offensive strategy during the Battle of the Ardennes. Many historians suspect this reprimand was likely due to his openly harsh criticism of his superiors’ shoddy field tactics.

The Maginot Line
France had suffered withering losses of life, limb and property in the Great War.
To deter future invasions from Germany, after World War I the French constructed a system of seemingly impregnable underground defensive positions. This almost surreal series of linked forts, vaults and domed turrets meant to protect the eastern frontier was called la Ligne Maginot. The forts were elaborate underground wonders that housed a half million French troops with protected fortresses, casements, electric trains, kitchens, bakeries, cinemas, air conditioning and the like. But they did not stretch the length of the border, stopping well short of the sea. Notably, the Ardennes was left virtually defenseless, manned only by a few poorly trained and weakly equipped divisions. While the French had earlier pioneered the use of armor and aviation in warfare, French military strategy had become shortsighted and devoted to the now obsolete static trench tactics of WW I. Few efforts were made to protect the homeland from concentrated armor, troop or air advances. Their armies had simply become anachronistic.

May, 1940
Europe had been at war some nine months. The armies of Britain and France, despite having declared war on Germany following Hitler’s attack on Poland, had seen little combat. This tense period, which came to be known as the “Phoney War,” met an abrupt end in early May, 1940, when Germany launched an invasion of France and the Low Countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg). Even though reports had earlier poured into the French command that the Wermacht had been amassing troops and equipment just across the border of the Ardennes, they fell on deaf ears.

German armored units crossed the river Meuse and streamed through the Ardennes. They cut off and surrounded Allied units that had advanced into Belgium and The Netherlands. French divisions in the Ardennes were not prepared or equipped to deal with the major armored thrust and were incessantly hammered by the Luftwaffe’s air cover. German forces also outflanked the Maginot Line and advanced deeply across France. By the third week in June, German forces had reached the English Channel.

So, the vaunted Maginot Line was summarily defeated not by a frontal assault but by a massive German flanking maneuver by way of the so-called “impervious” and marginally defended Ardennes. The collapse of the French nation soon ensued.

The panicked French government fled to Bordeaux, refugees streamed out of Paris and the city was occupied. The recently appointed chief of state, Philippe Pétain publicly announced France would request an armistice with Germany. The armistice was signed in Maréchal Ferdinand Foch’s same railway carriage in the Compiègne Forest used for the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War. Pétain would soon become head of the French collaborationist government at Vichy, and after French liberation was brought to trial and condemned to death. His sentence was commuted to solitary confinement for life, and he was imprisoned on the Île d’Yeu off the Atlantic coast, where he died.

December, 1944 – January, 1945
As winter chilled across France, the Battle of the Bulge (aka the Ardennes Offensive or Von Rundstedt Offensive) took place near the close of World War II. Allied forces had rapidly advanced across France which led to a certain sense of complacency. They dicounted any chances that the Germans would seize the initiative to counterpunch and had forgotten those lessons of the 1940 blitzkreig through the Ardennes. So, those same impassable forests were left scantily clad again.

On the German end, the Luftwaffe had been effectively grounded, leaving little battlefield intelligence and no way to interdict Allied supplies. Hitler unrealistically assumed his armies may be able to defend Germany if they could neutralize and divide the Allies. Senior German military officers doubted whether these goals could be attained with this counter-offensive. Their concerns went unheeded by an irrational Führer who desperately wanted to stage a repeat of the 1940 campaign which preceded France’s sudden fall.

So, hidden from air surveillance, a formidable Nazi force assembled in the narrow, mist-shrouded valleys and thick forests of the German Eifel hills on the eastern edge of the Ardennes. There were glaring drawbacks facing them: a somewhat depleted, often elderly reserve troop force and a dramatic shortage of fuel. The Germans planned to remedy the latter by capturing American fuel depots as they advanced.

The attack proceeded apace at night in mid December 1944, along a 70-mile front of the Ardennes. Tactical surprise against this weakly defended sector was achieved during heavy overcast weather, which impeded the Allies’ superior air forces. The cloudy night skies of the dark forest were illuminated by German searchlights, flares, tracers, and the bursts of artillery fire. The noise of artillery shells, tanks and small arms fire was deafening. German fired artillery volleys at the trees which not only dropped molten metal on soldiers, but also sent large wooden splinters and treetops downwards. At first, there was nearly blind panic behind the American lines. Mayhem. Scattered bands of troops wandered about frigid, wintry forests, digging foxholes, and randomly skirmishing with any Germans they encountered. The combat was chaotic, confused and fierce in cold, snowy conditions. A bulge emerged and deepened into the Allied lines.

Dogged resistance though — particularly around Elsenborn Ridge and the pivotal towns of Bastogne and St. Vith — threw the Germans well behind schedule and denied them vital roadways. Many exhausted, young Americans displayed resolute heroism through numerous firefights while almost devoid of food, supplies and ammunition. The 101st Airborne Division, surrounded and besieged in Bastogne, was holding the town precariously. Lacking fuel though, the advancing German armored divisions finally came to a halt in the Ardennes before even reaching the river Meuse and then (when air spaces cleared) were constantly hampered by merciless air attacks. The Allies finally went on the offensive closing the last escape routes and securing victory.

The Battle of the Bulge inflicted horrendous casualties on both sides (some 185,000). In the wake of defeat, German units were left severely depleted as survivors retreated to their final death dance along the Siegfried Line. Shortly after Hitler’s suicide, Germany signed terms of an unconditional surrender.

February, 2012
The Champagne-Ardennes is a part of champagne land–that luscious, nutty, fruity, floral, ample, bright, elegant, flinty, musty, oakey, structured, toasty, woody, yeasty, and supple bubbly we so covet.

Located in France’s northeast, the Champagne-Ardennes is comprised of the départements of Ardennes, Marne, Aube and Haute-Marne. However, the “region” designated for the production of Champagne, also includes parts of the adjoining départements of Yonne, Aisne, Seine-et-Marne and Meuse. The old French province of Champagne roughly comprised this same area.

An amalgam of art and science, méthode champenoise champagnes are tediously crafted from the cuvées of selected vineyards in the Champagne region. Pure varietals such as Chardonnay (blanc de blanc), Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier (blanc de noirs) are created exclusively from those grapes. The slight reddish tint imparted to some champagnes results from using blanc de noir cuvées that acquire some red color from contact with the skins. The longer the juice remains in contact with the skins, the darker the red.

Next, sugar, yeast, and yeast nutrients are added and the entire elixir, called the tirage, is poured into a thick glass bottle and sealed with a secure crown cap. The tirage is placed in a cool cellar and allowed to slowly ferment, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. Since the bottle is sealed, the carbon dioxide cannot escape, producing that cherished effervescence…those “stars” that the monk Dom Pérignon captured and savored centuries ago.

After several months, yeast cells die and the fermentation process is completed. The champagne continues to age in the cool cellar for several more years resulting in those toasted yeasty traits. While aging here, the yeast cells split open and spill into the wine which imparts these complex aromas and flavors.

Then, in a laborious process, the dead yeast cells (lees) are removed through a process known as riddling (le remuage). The bottle is placed partially upside down in a rack at a 75° angle. Each day, the riddler turns the bottle 1/8th of a turn while maintaining its downward angled postion. This forces the dead yeast cells into the narrow neck of the bottle where they are finally removed via disgorging. The bottle is kept angled downward while the neck is frozen in a bath which forms a plug of frozen wine containing those dead yeast cells. The bottle cap is removed and the carbon dioxide pressure forces the frozen plug out leaving behind champagne. At this stage, un dosage of white wine, brandy, and sugar is added to adjust sweetness levels. The bottle is meticulously closed with the cork wired down to secure the internal pressure of the carbon dioxide.

Not surprisingly, the dense Ardennes forest is also magically teeming with champignons (mushrooms) — chanterelles, boletes, morels, hens of the woods (Coquilles En Bouquet, Pieds De Griffon, Polypores)…

MUSHROOM-GRUYERE TOASTS & FRISEE WITH CHAMPAGNE VINAIGRETTE

Wild Mushroom-Gruyère Toasts

3 T unsalted butter
1 1/2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 3/4 lbs mushrooms (chanterelles, porcini, cèpes, morels, oysters), gently cleaned and cut into halves or thirds depending on size
1 medium shallot, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 C fresh thyme leaves, stemmed and chopped
1/4 C fresh chives, chopped
Pince of sea salt and fresh ground black pepper

1 C Gruyère, shredded
Fresh quality artisanal bread, cut into 4″ squares, crusts removed

Heat the butter and olive oil in a large heavy skillet over medium high until the oil is shimmering. The butter should turn just a light golden hue, but not burn. Add the mushrooms and sauté until the liquid has evaporated, about 5-6 minutes. Add the shallots, thyme, chives, salt and pepper and cook about 1 minute more.

Meanwhile, toast the slices of bread strewn with some Gruyère in a broiler. Cook on one side some, then turn over and toast very little before adding the Gruyère. Please resist the temptation to overload the bread with cheese. The mushrooms are the star attraction, the rest play bit roles.

Spoon the mushroom mixture on top of the toasts and serve with the frisée salad.

Frisée & Champagne Vinaigrette

1-2 heads frisée, torn into large bite size pieces

1 C extra virgin olive oil

1/4 C champagne vinegar
2 T Dijon mustard
2 t honey
1/2 shallot, peeled and minced
1 t sea salt
1/2 t freshly ground pepper

In a bowl, whisk together the mustard, vinegar, honey, shallot, salt and pepper. While whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in the oil in a narrow, steady stream. Cover and chill at least 30 minutes or up to 3 days. Taste for seasoning, not with your finger, but with the frisée.

In a large wooden bowl, gently toss greens with champagne vinaigrette.

Mesclun, Berries & Feta

June 28, 2010

My salad days—When I was green in judgment.
~William Shakespeare

Blithe, lithe designer greens.

Mesclun is a diverse blend of young, dainty salad leaves which originated in Provence. The traditional amalgam included precise proportions of wild chervil, arugula, leafy lettuces and endive. Modern iterations may fuse spinach, arugula, Swiss chard, chicory, mustard greens, endive, fennel, dandelion, frisée, mizuna, mâche, purslane, radicchio, sorrel, and even edible flowers. A treat for the eye, mesclun touches upon varied tastes and textures: bitter, sweet, tangy, crunchy and silky. When tart blueberries, brisk feta cheese and nuts are added to the mix, the medley becomes nearly symphonic.

Mesclun derives from the Provençal words mesclom or mesclumo, which are rooted from misculare, a Latin word meaning “to mix.”

MESCLUN, BLUBERRIES, FETA & HAZELNUTS WITH CHAMPAGNE VINAIGRETTE

1/2 C hazelnuts, lightly toasted and chopped
Large bunch of mesclun (about 12 C loosely packed)
1 C fresh blueberries
1 C Greek or French feta cheese, crumbled

Champagne vinaigrette

In a large wooden bowl, gently toss greens with champagne vinaigrette, hazelnuts and blueberries. The vinaigrette is meant to lightly coat, not drench the mesclun. Arrange on plates, and top with crumbled feta.

Champagne Vinaigrette

1 C extra virgin olive oil

1/4 C champagne vinegar
2 T Dijon mustard
2 t honey
1/2 shallot, peeled and minced
1 t sea salt
1/2 t freshly ground pepper

In a bowl, whisk together the mustard, vinegar, honey, shallot, salt and pepper. While whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in the oil in a narrow, steady stream. Cover and chill at least 30 minutes or up to 3 days. Taste for seasoning, not with your finger, but with whatever greens you are serving.

Pourboire: You are the maestro here as always, so freely substitute other toasted nuts such as almonds, pine nuts, walnuts and create any olio of available greens or differing vinaigrettes.

Ripeness is all.
~William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act V, Scene II

Even setting flavors aside, this presents a brilliantly hued palette—reds, yellows, greens, white.

Avocados (Persea americana), also known as palta or aguacate in Spanish, are evergreen trees native to South and Central America which are classified in the flowering plant family Lauraceae, joining cousins cinnamon and bay leaves.

The word “avocado” comes from the Nahuatl word āhuacatl (“testicle”) which is a reference to the shape of the fruit. So, there is little wonder that the avocado has long been said to have aphrodisiacal qualities. The avocado is colloquially known as the Alligator Pear, reflecting its shape and leathery skin.

While there a number of varieties of this fruit, the creamy, rich Hass cultivar, grown in California, makes up over 75% of the nationwide avocado crop. Their edible yellow-green flesh has the consistency of butter, and a subtle, nutty flavor. They are about the size of a pear and have pebbly brown-black-green skin when ripe.

Nutritionally, avocados are a robust source of vitamin K, dietary fiber, vitamin B6, vitamin C, folate copper and potassium. Avocados contain oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat that helps reduce cholesterol levels. They also greatly enhance your body’s ability to absorb those prized carotenoids that vegetables provide.

Lest I forget…tomorrow in the Tour, a deceptively difficult stage in the Vosges from the spa town of Vittel to the Alsatian wine capital of Colmar.

AVOCADO & BEETS WITH CHAMPAGNE VINAIGRETTE

3 medium red beets
3 medium golden beets
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Red wine vinegar
Extra virgin olive oil

1 C extra virgin olive oil
1/3 C champagne vinegar
2 T Dijon mustard
2 t honey
1/2 shallot, peeled and finely minced
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Endive or arugula

2 firm ripe avocados

Good quality fresh goat cheese, crumbled

Preheat oven to 400 F

Trim ends off beets, and rinse. Arrange them in a baking dish, season with salt and pepper, and lightly splash them with red wine vinegar and olive oil, and cover tightly with foil. Roast until cooked through, about 45 minutes to one hour, depending on the size of the beets. Allow beets to cool uncovered, then peel, slice into rounds and then halve the rounds.

In a bowl, whisk together the mustard, vinegar, honey, and shallot. While whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in the oil in a narrow, steady stream. While whisking, season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and chill at least 30 minutes or up to 3 days.

Toss the beets gently with the vinaigrette and arrange them on a plate with some endive or aurugula with the sliced avocado garnish with crumbled goat cheese and drizzle with the vinaigrette. Remember: dress lightly.

Pourboire: Avocados do not ripen on the tree, but only after they have been harvested. Ripen them for a few days before use, by putting them in a brown paper bag at room temperature, until there is some yield to a gentle touch. To hasten ripening, add an apple or tomato to the bag. A ripe, ready to eat avocado is slightly soft but should have no dark sunken spots or cracks.

Never refrigerate unripened avocados because they will not ripen in cold temperatures. Once ripe, keep them in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. But leaving them an extended time in the refrigerator will cause them to darken and lose their flavor.

To cut, grip the avocado on one side with one hand. With a large, sharp chef’s knife, cut the avocado lengthwise around the seed. Gently twist the two halves in opposite directions to expose the pit. Fold up a kitchen towel and use that to hold the avocado half with the pit. Firmly, yet gently tap the pit with a knife with enough force so that the knife edge wedges into the pit, but not so hard as to cut all the way through it. With the edge of the knife, twist the pit out of the avocado and discard.

Now, either scoop out the avocado flesh whole with a spoon and slice, or slice the avocado into segments. Gently make length long slices in the avocado flesh. Then use a spoon to scoop out the sliced avocado segments.

Champagne Vinaigrette

June 4, 2009

Light and crisp…with a vinegar that uses those same luscious Chardonnay or Pinot Noir grapes as found in fine champagnes.

CHAMPAGNE VINAIGRETTE

1 C extra virgin olive oil
1/4 C champagne vinegar
2 T Dijon mustard
2 t honey
1/2 shallot, peeled and minced
1 t sea salt
1/2 t freshly ground pepper

In a bowl, whisk together the mustard, vinegar, honey, and shallot. While whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in the oil in a narrow, steady stream. Cover and chill at least 30 minutes or up to 3 days. Taste for seasoning, not with your finger, but with whatever greens you are serving.