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How to avoid a faux pas in Provence

Posted in Rest and Liesure, Tips, Tourism, Travel by Erineus on May 8, 2009

How to avoid a faux pas in Provence
PURPLE SHADES By Letty Jacinto-Lopez Updated May 03, 2009 12:00 AM

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This is the way you eat: The art of eating (and enjoying) bouillabaisse is done in stages.

To avoid a faux pas while traveling through France, take note of the following:

Q: How is bouillabaisse eaten?

A: In the following order:

• A platter of live and snapping crustaceans is brought in for your approval. I actually saw them fish the lobster out of the huge wall-to-wall tank.

• The soup stock (strong with all the juices of the crustaceans) is served first.

• Slurp it with gusto and savor each taste of fat and roe. (Make a mental note not to report this to your family cardiologist.)

• The cooked crustaceans that have been boiled in their natural juices with herbs and spices are then served with a basket-full of French baguettes and a special thick, creamy sauce in which you can dip the French bread.

Bouillabaisse is not an ordinary seafood soup. It is not like our sinigang or the Thai’s tom yong where the meat and veggies are mixed and can be taken while floating or submerged in the tasty stock. The art of eating (and enjoying) bouillabaisse is done in stages.

Q: How did we give our “identity” as foreigners away?

A: By not ordering wine.

The owner, Pierre, came to our table to ask what wine we would like with our lunch. My husband shook his head and replied, “L’eau minerale, s’il vous plait.” Pierre was horrified. “N’est pas possible!” he declared. “You can’t have bouillabaisse with water. It’s a sacrilege.” “D’accord,” I replied. “Give us one half carafe of your house wine (une demi-pitchet vin pays),” but not before we got my husband’s Perrier and son’s Coca/Orangina.

We were in vin territory where it is de rigueur to have local wine rather than water with meals. Pierre even took us to his underground cellar where you could actually buy generic wine being aged in wood barrels with their own tap. Imagine helping yourself to some fresh and fruity rosé or chardonnay. If you don’t want to go for the generic wines, there was the red Chateauneuf-du-Pape grown in southern Rhone, the dry white wines of seaside Cassis and the Provencale rosé grown in Bandol or Cotes (rocky hillsides) de Provence. When in France, it’s a crime to be a teetotaler.

Avoid sidewalk cafés during the festival months. Dine indoors during odd hours and choose restaurants where the chef is also the owner/operator; the food is guaranteed to taste good and special. Don’t be taken by the glossy photos posted outside sidewalk cafés; the actual dish served is guaranteed to be blah and lousy.

Q: Where are the drug kingpins to be found in Marseilles (like the ones in the cop thriller The French Connection filmed in Marseilles in 1971 with a young Gene Hackman)?

A: Nowhere.

They have beautiful museums of Marseilles’ history, the Roman docks, the Palais Longchamps and the Golden Madonna on a 150-foot bell tower at the Basilique de Notre Dame dela Garde plus the old commercial docks and the old town rebuilt. Marseilles has enough attractions without investigating its dark side.

Q: When and where are truffles to be found?

A: Wait until November (autumn) or December (winter). The richly flavored fungi is a close cousin of the mushroom, harvested in the woods or forests of Haute Provence and sold in the market stalls. What makes them unique? Trained pigs sniff them out from underground, near the roots of oak trees. (Lately, I am told, they substitute dogs to do the sniffing because the pigs tend to sniff and eat the truffles).

The golfball-sized truffles are collected in winter when they are at their most fragrant. Local markets specialize in truffles when they are in season but because of their rarity, they always tend to be expensive to horde.

If you see “truffes” on the menu, make sure your host is truly your bosom friend who would willingly spend a ransom for you or your worst competitor who would spare nothing to impress you.

Q: What are santons?

A: Gaily painted traditional or religious figures in terra cotta garbed in rural attire depicting the different lifestyles of rural France. Some are reasonably priced but because of their weight, it is difficult to smuggle many into my luggage without husband “detecting” them.

Q: What is le mistral?

A: It’s the wind blowing from the northwest of Europe.

Life and living conditions in Provence are influenced by the weather and I’ve often heard them talk about le mistral. Described as strong, fierce, icy and relentless, this thick Herculean white mass of “goodwill” blows the clouds away in spring and cools down the heat in summer. But sometimes, they say it can be a cruel, “ill” wind. I find it captivating that the French could give a name and a personality to the wind.

Q: How do you greet someone or say goodbye in Provence?

A: With two or three kisses, usually one on each cheek.

The usual greeting among friends of either sex is generally two or three kisses on the cheek. Our beso-beso must have been patterned after this ritual of camaraderie and politeness, though in Provence it seems to look more sincere and spontaneous.

And on a high note:

Q: Why do the lavender fields and the color purple have a romantic appeal?

A: The color purple speaks of wanting to be loved.

Oui, c’est l’amour, ma chère, ‘tis love.

View previous articles of this column.


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