Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Lavender 27 June 2012

Lavender  Haute ProvenceLavender La Rochegiron Haute ProvenceLavender La Rochegiron Haute ProvenceBanon - Lavender  Haute ProvenceBanon - Lavender  Haute ProvenceLavender Honey being prepared
Banon - Lavender  Haute ProvenceLavender in La Haute ProvenceLavender in La Haute ProvenceLavender in La Haute ProvenceWell & Lavender  Haute ProvenceSimiane La Rotonde - Lavender  Haute Provence
Lavender in La Haute ProvenceBanon - Lavender  Haute ProvenceLavender  Haute ProvenceBanon - Lavender  Haute ProvenceBanon - Lavender  Haute Provence

Lavender 27 June 2012, a set on Flickr.
The latest series of photos taken after lunch today on the way to the office. (Bit of a detour!) Someone with a really good camera could do wonders with a subject as magnificent as this one. But my little bridge has produced a quite acceptable result I think...
The photos can be used freely, but please add the credit "Unique Provence" and tell me where they are featured.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Provence by phone - Apps made for Travel

Provence by mobile phone, applications to help your travel experience

Mobile phone applications have become part of our lives, you can find answers to existential questions using Google as you walk down the street, check to see if a picture is hanging straight using Spirit level plus, take a photo of someone falling off their bike and send it via Twitter or Facebook for the entire planet to enjoy and laugh at another's misfortune. You can get your children off your back by downloading a mindless game for free, or even help them do their homework with an educational app. You can browse the internet, gaze at the stars, find a restaurant, a hotel, store your personal files, watch a film, find a recipe,  find a person or even  find your mobile phone if you lose it using built in mobile gps technology. Yes, there is indeed an application for nearly everything, as the advertisement says.

Now comes the problem with this plethora of useful technology.  Finding the one for you. You can of course find an application, look at similar applications and applications seen by those who liked the one you are looking at, and eventually you may find the one you are after, and so if you REALLY need an application to get on with your life, or you are bored sitting in a doctors waiting room you will go through the aforementioned process.
So what do you download when travelling? Tripadvisor is a good one without a doubt, Google maps is very handy, a weather app of course and there are many other mainstream applications which will help, but recently the development of very specific theme based apps have started to reveal themselves to those who know where to look.
So to save you the hassle of spending hours searching here are a few of the essential travel applications when coming to Provence.

Provence Gallery

Provence Gallery, an application allowing you to to see La Provence through the eyes of the masters
This free application was created by Zevisit for the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur Regional Tourist Board. Wherever you find yourself in Provence, this application will find the nearest landscape that provided inspiration for one of it's great artists. You may well be familiar with the works of Cezanne, Van Gogh, Dufy, Gaugin and many more besides, and using this application you can see and even take a picture and upload it to an on-line gallery to share with other Provence Gallery users. Obviously when you are in Arles or near the Montagne St Victoire in Aix your phone will be telling you non stop that you are near the site of a painting (the Painting alert function can be dis-activated ). You can search by artist, by painting or by place and when you have chosen your masterpiece, you have a short but very informative audio text telling you about the history behind  the painting.
Provence Gallery mobile phone application flash code
click to enlarge and
scan with your phone

It's a simple app and is a great way to discover the artistic side of Provence as you travel, a recommended download  before you leave. 

Edible Heritage

Edible Heritage your personal guide to Aix en Provence
This application is like having your own personal guide of the city of Aix en Provence. Open up the application and you will start with an introduction to the town of Aix en Provence. The Edible Heritage tour takes you through the city with very detailed audio descriptions including historical, architectural and also indicating surrounding restaurants, shops as well as what you can buy in them, from traditional Boutis to Callisons. You don't have to follow the tour, if you prefer you can wander the streets and click on any place of interest and listen to the audio guide. If it is around lunch time you can click on the knife and fork and see which restaurants can be found nearby, with a description of each when clicked on. The application was created by two Canadians who wanted to share their love of Aix en Provence and also their in depth knowledge in the history and traditions to be found there. Although the database is quite extensive, the application does not contain every restaurant in Aix since the creators have only included ones that are tried tested and approved by them, but I would imagine that updates will be forthcoming, and maybe via the contact page on their site you can give your own comments on any discoveries you make on your voyage. I recommend downloading it a while before you leave and you can start your voyage of discovery and begin to whet your appetite back home. 
For 2.30€  you will not find a guide as informative and always at the ready anywhere else, you can of course opt for a real flesh and blood guide, but move the decimal along a couple of notches...and some, and that's for one day only!

Provençal Roaming. A Travel Guide

Created by Francophile Paul Shawcross here is an app that will guide you through Provence and beyond as far as Aigues Mortes and as far North as the Ardeche neither of which is strictly speaking in Provence. But I can see why they are there, I wouldn't be able to contain myself to strict geographical limits if I was creating such an app and I would imagine that if you are visiting the region you wouldn't either! However the Eastern limits are Aix en Provence and Cassis, and he recommends other apps (Riviera Roaming App by Kimberly Lovato) and a forthcoming app called Nice and Easy Nice to cover the missing department of Les Alpes Maritimes. I would have liked to have seen the Provence Verte included, (around Brignoles) as here there are a myriad of secrets to reveal and it is often left out. I hope that this will figure in later editions.

The informative text for each entry is written with authority and I would even say affection as he is not just mindlessly listing places but is sharing his vision as well as that of other people mentioned in the app and I suspect using their personal recommendations for some of the addresses, but this is hardly surprising as Paul Shawcross is a travel writer who is no stranger to Provence and that is why this is a must have guide.

It may not have every place listed, but it has the most important sites as well as some lesser known ones like the Tom Simpson Memorial on the top of the Mont Ventoux. It has a list of restaurants recommended by the author, some hotels, camp sites and even an address for camper-van hire. There is plenty of historical background about Provence and even a section on the Troubadours.  Another aspect of this app that I like is the fact that you can leave comments and Paul will get back to you with a pertinent answer, an unlikely event with major tourist guides.

It is an app that I will recommend to my self-drive clients (along with a few others mentioned in this post) for its good accurate information from someone who is talking from personal experience. Like Edible Heritage it is worth downloading this before you leave so as to whet your appetite for your journey to come! The App is available for I-Phone & I-Pad as well as Android platforms for a mere $2.99.

Moto Paca

Application for Provence bikers
This is an application for the bikers, that is motor bikers. Only available on iPhone at the moment and in French but definately worth the detour. This is another application created for the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur Regional Tourist Board this time by Azur Consulting. It comprises pre-established itineraries for biking around the region, giving you information on restaurants, petrol stations, museums and other useful points of interest on the way. You have information on the distance, and difficulty as well as the time required to complete the itinerary. You can also create your own itinerary and upload it.
This is a free application which I'm sure could also be used by motorists, but be careful of the bikers please!

Visite 04

Discover Les Alpes de Haute Provence, the lesser known ProvenceA free application only available in French for the time being. The QR code on the picture (click for a bigger version) will take you to the app on iPhone and to a mobile site for Android.
Showcasing a favourite destination of mine the department of Les Alpes de Haute Provence, which stretches from the Montagne de Lure, via Forcalquier (where I am sitting writing this article) over the Durance valley to the Valensole plateau and its endlesss lavender, the Verdon river and the Gorges of the same name an all of that neatly packaged by the Alps to the north and east. Sounds good doesn't it! If you want to know more contact us here.  An article on this amazing destination is coming soon.

Travel applications that help you discover towns, and regions are becoming more and more popular, and help to enrich your travel experience enourmously at very little cost. In Provence the other apps of note are:

Provence and French Riviera by MobileReference Travel, which comes in  free and paying versions  and is a much lighter way of keeping a guide book of the entire region at your fingertips. Find top attractions,  restaurants etc along with phrasebooks and gps maps showing your location.

Coteaux Varois en Provence is an app that allows you to discover the wines of the aforementioned region, and believe me there are some real gems to be discovered!  You will find the vignerons, along with their contact details, events taking place and much on information on the Appelation itself.  See our gourmet wine and food tour here 

If you know of any good apps to enhance your visit to Provence, leave a comment or contact us and don't hesitate to give your opinions of the above applications.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Forcalquier market 18/06/2012

Music and protesting donkeys - Forcalquier marketLavender, chestnut, acacia, rosemary and more. An amazing selection of local honey - Forcalquier marketOne of the dried fruit and olive stands - Forcalquier market- Forcalquier marketGarlic galore - Forcalquier marketForcalquier market
Organic produce - Forcalquier marketOne of the biggest markets in Provence - Forcalquier market- Forcalquier marketLocaly made nougat for sale - Forcalquier market

The markets of Provence are definitely part of the experiences to be fulfilled when in this sunny part of France, full of vibrant colours smells and fantastic produce. Forcalquier, which is one of the biggest of the region, is not to be missed and could be the perfect place to buy the makings of a picnic and then continue on a discovery of La Haute Provence...

Of goats and men and Banon cheese.

A Provençale goat producer of milk for the famous Banon cheese
La Chèvre Provençale

When in Provence, you will undoubtedly meet goats in some shape or form, whether it be in a field on a walk or at the end of your meal in the form of cheese. 

The predominant race of goats is unsurprisingly La Chèvre Provençale especially in the region of La Haute Provence at the foot of the Montagne de Lure. 
Here nestled in the end of a valley is the hilltop village of Banon, who's name for many is mainly associated with the cheese of the same name. Banon cheese is made from unpasteurised goats milk. It is a small round cheese who's particularity is the chestnut leaves used to wrap it. 

The village of Banon in Haute Provence
The village of Banon with a field of Sauge Sclarée
or Clary sage in the foreground
Like most cheeses across France and indeed around the world, a technique had to be discovered to preserve the cheese throughout the winter months Most cheeses are stored in "caves" or cellars where they are protected from heat and light to mature. This maturation is now a commercial selling point, whereas before when cheese, potatoes, onions and dried or salted meats where staples throughout the winter months, (raclette, fondue, tartiflette, truffade, aligot are just a few of the many winter dishes using just the afore mentioned ingredients)  cheese rarely made it past the winter, and long maturation for the capitals delicatessens had yet to be invented. 

Banon cheese for sale in Forcalquier market
Banon cheese for sale in Forcalquier market
So back to our Banon.
The Banon cheese is wrapped in chestnut leaves which serve as a protective barrier from parasites, and allow the storage and maturation of the cheese throughout the harsh winter months. (yes, in Haute Provence the winters are short but cold with temperatures regularly descending below -12°C) This protection accorded by the leaves also prevents it from drying out, and when unwrapped it is best served with a spoon! The skin of the cheese is the strong part, but the creamy, runny centre is surprisingly mild. Eaten with some fresh Pain de Campagne, or whole wheat bread and accompanied by a green salad and a glass of cold local white wine, it is the perfect  ending to any meal, or it can be the meal itself. 
One of the privileges of living in this remarkable region is that I have become good friends with many farmers, and these friendships have allowed me to  create unique travel experiences, visiting the farms, trying your hand at wrapping your own Banon cheese, or even going on a trek with the farmer and his goats.
Thierry, in his farm at St Michel l'Observatoire
One of the farmers I work with is Thierry Yernaux, a Belgian installed in the region. I first met Thierry when I was sent to Paris to represent the local tourist board (as vice-president) on TF1, the first French TV channel, he was there for the Banon cheese makers (as President). The fact that an Englishman and a Belgian where on national TV selling Provence caused much amusement locally. Our common passion for our adoptive region became the base of our friendship, and also Thierry makes fantastic cheese! He has been a recipient of the coveted Banon d'Or (the Golden Banon Award), and also has a whole variety of other goats cheeses on offer. His farm is all organic, and like most of the farmers in the region, he knows all his goats by name! A morning visit to his farm, with in depth explanations perhaps and a picnic on site to follow is a great way to immerse yourself in the local culture of the Provençale goat and the wonderful cheese that results.
If you would like to know more about Banon cheese, La Haute Provence and our travel experiences you can contact us here. .
A bientôt!

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Vegetable Gourmet Heaven - La Chassagnette

 A recurrent comment when eating out in France that I often hear from English and American visitors is the lack of vegetables accompanying their meal. I agree wholeheartedly. Rice, potatoes and pasta is NOT a vegetable garnish. I might add that this somewhat sweeping comment above does not apply to the entire food industry of La Belle France, and the situation is improving, but dining out for a vegetarian will still be a problem for some time. But there is always an exception...

So here I am at La Chassagnette, renowned restaurant in the Camargue, famed for its 4 acres of vegetable gardens, all under the watchful eye of Chef Armand Arnal. And it is here that I found my vegetable Niravna. Now strictly speaking I have strayed from Provence, and will continue to do so but will always remain within reach so for the purists out there, fear not, I have not forsaken you.

The sign at the entrance to La Chassagnette, with the addition of the bigger easier to see one!
The sign that reveals itself at the last second.
To begin; coming from Arles follow the signs to Le Sambuc. Approach slowly, the sign to the restaurant is visible at the last minute, so if you have a large 4x4 on your tail as I did, a sudden left turn can be fatal, for the back end of your car at least! Once you have parked head on towards the restaurant, (the word RESTAURANT is written on a post, you can't miss it). As you approach, and if like me you enjoy a well kept vegetable garden, then you will have probably already left the official path and will be wandering amongst the rows of beans, peas, basil, arthichokes and the list goes on.

A small part of the gardens at La Chassagnette
The organic garden of La Chassagnette
The garden is immaculate, and all organic as the encroaching, but always held at bay weeds can certify. As I was on an official visit I got to meet the head gardener with whom I talked tomatoes, quinces and basil, and found that he and only three others managed this immense vegetable plot. He was the first person I met and for me first impressions are essential, and I liked this one. First of all he had time for idle chat from a garden idiot like myself. Second, he was clearly passionate about what he did, not just the part about growing nice veg, but you immediately got the sense that he was part of what happened in the kitchen. He explained that the choice of what was grown was the Chef's and then he found new and interesting varieties as well. I told him of a friend of mine that he should meet who was specialised in tomatoes and had nearly 20 different varieties. He politely said that he would love to meet him, and then added that he grew over 30 varieties himself.
I admire diplomats.

My next encounter was Armand Arnal in person. The fact that he is available is something that I appreciate. and he took the time to listen to my "I am honoured to meet you" and "I have heard so much and have always dreamed of eating here" as well as the standard name drop "xxxx told me about your restaurant and so here I am" with a smile ( a real one) and showed us to the reastaurant area. I could have visited the kitchens, but having worked for long enough in the business I know that in mid service having to stop to acknowledge "the visitor" is rarely welcome, but I am sure they were lovely, clean and full of vegetables awaiting their fate.

The view across the gardens of La Chassagnette from our table
The view from our table
Before I continue, the rest of this article will be lacking in my photos. For some reason, maybe a childhood trauma, or not, I hate taking pictures of my food in restaurants, also I am not a professionnal food photographer. Pictures will follow and will be those of the restaurant...

So now to the serious bit, the food. Well nearly, before the food we were served the house cocktail. It was a fresh fruit juice (strawberries for sure but I confess to having forgotten the rest) with Champagne. Refreshing, not overly alchoholic and quite delicious.

La Chassagnette © C.Moirenc
Nasturtium leaves, rocket, pine nuts...
a garden in your plate! 
So now the food. The menu was simple in its length and complex and fascinating in its content. 80% of the food served comes from the gardens, all the other produce is sourced locally, the fish from the Grau du Roi, directly from the boats as they come in, the lamb from nearby St Gilles and the duck from the neigbouring rice fields.
The vegetables are the stars here, and the meat or fish is always at the end of the course description, as if it was just an accompaniment, which in a way it is.
My dining partner Julie and I made the standard pact of choosing different dishes, and then dipping in to each others plate. If there are four of you, you could order the entire menu. We started with an amuse bouche of beetroot gaspachio with coriander oil and and redcurrents. The cold garnet red soup dotted with the bright green oil, and a borage or star flower in the centre was, like all the dishes to follow admired in length. When I find myself faced with interesting foods such as these I often try to imagine the taste before trying them. Here a sort of cold borscht with a Thai influence was forming in my mind's taste buds. I wasn't miles off, the soup was lighter and more refined than it's Eastern European counterpart, with small cubes of beetroot adding texture and redcurrents providing the occasional pop of acidity setting off the discreet sweetness of the soup. The coriander oil gave it a soupçon of eastern promise, without overpowering the dish as coriander can so often do.

The Asian influence continued with my starter. Green beans and sweet and sour pomelo with a gravlax of duck (the one from the local rice fields) which I think had the salt replaced with a light soy sauce for the marinade. Julie chose the cherries marinated in ginger and sesame with grilled filets of red mullet. Both dishes were garnished with a variety of leaves and flowers from the garden.
We followed this with me going for the fennel and cuttlefish, and herb garnish with a perfectly poached filet of "Denti" which is Common Dentex in English, a name that inspires toothpaste, so I would stick to "a member of the Sea Bream familly" which is what it is. All of the above was served with a rock fish bouillon. Julie chose the all vegetarian course of courgette cannelloni, accompanied by mixed green vegetables and a mint pesto.
There were two meat dishes to choose from, beetroot and chard with red sage and roast pigeon, or an okonomiaki (a type of Japanese pancake usually made with cabbage leaves as the main ingrediant) of black cabage, charlotte potatoes and spring onions and nuggets of sautéed local lamb in theur own jus.

Just a quick word on the drinks to accompany all this wonderful gourmet vegetableness. An extensive wine list is of course available, with a good supply of local offerings as one would expect. Armand Arnal's fascination with Japan provides a somewhat original touch with a selection of Sakés to accompany your meal if you choose. If like myself you are not an afficianado of the Saké world, he has a option for a different Saké for each course chosen for you. If water is all you require, then enjoy the house's own water from their spring, avec ou sans gaz.

The art of Armand Arnal 
Now to the desserts. Four were on offer, pan fried cherries with honey suckle and sorrel creme brulée, a light cake made from rhubarb and Mara des bois (a French variety of strawberry combining the taste of woodland strawberries and the body of its cultivated cousins) served with an elderberry sorbet, a confit of fennel with citrus fruit and a cream cheese sorbet and a pea soufflé with a "hierba buena" sorbet. I went for the soufflé and Julie for the fennel. We purposly chose what seemed to be the least classic options, and I must admit I was intrigued by the magnificent apparition of my green soufflé. With the first spoonful I tasted only meringue, and then slowly at first and gradually becoming more and more apparent the taste of peas, reminicent of my chidhood pilferings in the family garden, came through. It seemed that the pea flavour got stronger as you approached the centre of the soufflé, and since I started on the side it worked beautifully. This was set off with the "hierba buena" sorbet. Hierba Buena or litterally Good Herb is a name given to a wide variety of mint plants found in the Americas. This particular one was a minty citric combo. Julie's confit of fennel reminded me a little of licourice and together with the citrus fruit it offered a delightful fresh finish to this culinary voyage of discovery through Chef Armand Arnal's organic vegetable garden and his seemingly unending imagination.

If you would like to know more about La Chassagnette visit their website here you can also contact us if you have any questions concerning this article or the restaurant or if you would like to reserve a table along with a hotel on your next trip to the South of France.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Latest pics from our Flickr page

Stone Cabanon & LavenderLavender field in La RochegironClose up of the weedy lavenderA weedy but very pretty lavender fieldLavender La RochegironLavender La Rochegiron
Lavender La RochegironLavender La RochegironLavender La RochegironLavender La RochegironLavender La RochegironLavneder & stone cabanon
Sage and LavenderLavender nr BanonLavender BanonAlmond tree & LavenderLavender La RochegironAlambic still in Forcalquier, Haute Provence
Detail of the kitchen at L'Oustaou d'OuliviéSculpture Chateau La Coste, Puy St ReparadeAdam & Eve in the gardens of SalagonThe famous (and very rare) corner window of the Prieuré of SalagonA duckAlambic Still for lavender - Salagon museum
Galerie de UniqueProvence sur Flickr.
Not long now until the lavender is in full flower, but I have a soft spot for the fields just before that time. The unopened flowers take on a velvety texture, and as you can see in the photos I took this morning, an almost unreal aspect can be felt, as if someone has been having fun with Photoshop... I haven't I promise! Another thing you can see are the unfortunate results of a disease spread by a very small insect (host to a very potent bacteria) which is doing a lot of damage as you can see by the patchy fields in some of the photos. The insect (Hyalesthes obsoletus) is related to the Cicada and likes to live in nettles and bindweed, and lays its eggs in the lavender where the parasitic larvae burrow into the woody stems and spread the deadly bacteria. The situation is slowly improving, and a lot of fields have been replanted.
Next Sunday I will go out and do another album, but this time the flowers will be open, for the most-part.
Remember, if you would like to use any of my pictures, feel free but... Credits to "Unique Provence - PH" and tell me where you have used them, thank-you! to discover the lavender first hand.