Thursday, April 24, 2014

Trip to Southern France - Aix-en-Provence

After spending 4 days in Marseille, Bobby and I took the train 30 km/19 m north to Aix-en-Provence, where we spent two days. Founded in 123 BCE by the Romans, Aix has had a surprisingly violent history: according to Wikipedia, it was 'occupied by the Visigoths in 477, repeatedly plundered by the Franks and Lombards, and was occupied by the Saracens in 731, followed by Charles Martin in 737'.However, from the 12th century onwards, it became a artistic center, a reputation which lasts to this day.

Aix's most famous son is Paul Cézanne, the mid- to late-19th century post-Impressionist painter. During his lifetime, Cézanne's works were greatly disliked by the artistic elite in Aix. So even though he was born in Aix, lived much of his life in the area, and used many local scenes in his works, there aren't that many Cézanne originals in the local museum. Such a shame.
Aix is also home to the composer Darius Milhaud. You can see Bobby standing in front of the home where Milhaud was raised. Milhaud was born to a Jewish family, so he was forced to leave France during the German occupation during World War II. He lived in Oakland, California, teaching at Mills College and the Aspen Music Festival during the summer. Burt Bacharach studied under Milhaud, where he received the advice that would make him a very successful composer, "Don't be afraid of writing something people can remember and whistle. Don't ever feel discomfited by a melody".
One of the nights in Aix was spent in the wonderful restaurant Le Formal, where we had the 7 course truffle menu. We started with the 64 degree egg (an egg poached for an hour or so at 64 degrees Celsius). Served with smoked salmon, crème fraîche with sturgeon caviar, potato, and truffle oil and a dried chip of truffle, it was a divine introduction to the following tuffle-heavy courses.
Next was a slider of tuna sashimi and a tartine of vegetables: potato, caper berries, asparagus, truffle, and a cauliflower cream. Accompanied with sturgeon caviar in crème fraîche (a re-occuring theme, along with the truffles).
Next was one of the best courses: a scallop cooked in truffle-infused pastry, accompanied by raw scallop, dried truffles, and (you guessed it) sturgeon caviar in crème fraîche.
For the main, I choose a slow cooked beef roast, served with the most delicious and light mustard sauce (it's the whipped looking stuff  in the separate white dish), truffle mashed potatoes, and roasted carrots. The meat just fell apart and was absolutely delicious. Bobby had beef Wellington, was was also amazing and delicious.
For the cheese course, there was a little puffed pasty filled with brie de Meaux and truffle with truffle oil.
Dessert number one was an apple crumble of sorts.
And dessert number two, which was a wildly over-the-top creation of really dark chocolate, macaron, gelato, yuzu-infused olive oil, and all sorts of goodness. What a fantastic meal! 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Trip to Southern France - Marseille

In late March, Bobby took a research trip to Marseille. At the end of his week there, I flew down to spend 8 lovely days in the area with him. We started our trip with 4 days in Marseille. Since this was the first trip we had taken since the Christmas holidays, we decided to focus on relaxing. We didn't have too many set plans, which was a nice change from our usual frantic touring pace. Instead, we woke up late, took leisurely strolls around the city, and drank lots of caffeine (and, of course, a bit of wine). Of course, you can't take the touring out of holidays completely; we did still manage to visit historical sites and museums, like the church you can see on top of the hill. The church, Notre-Dame de la Garde, was built in the 1860s and is topped with an 11.2 m/27 ft gold-leafed statue of Mary and baby Jesus. The art inside of the basilica is a bit... bizarre. Many of the paintings depict different ways of dying: apartment building fires, car accidents, boating accidents, being struck by a falling tree. Like I said, bizarre. But back to the historical stuff!
The second largest city in France, Marseille has been inhabited for over 30,000 years. The Greeks created a large port here in 600 BCE, called Marsallia, and it was one of the major trading ports in the ancient world. As the 5th largest commercial port in Europe, Marseille is a major port. Behind these sail boats, which are docked in the Old Harbor, you can see Fort Saint-Nicolas, which was built in 1660 by King Louis XIV.
Directly across from Fort Saint-Nicolas is Fort Saint-Jean, built at the same time as Fort Saint-Nicolas. The two forts were built not to protect the town from invaders, but rather as a way for the king to show his dominance over the city. The cannons in the forts pointed towards the town!
The forts remained in use and were kept in good condition until World War II. Occupied by German forces, a munitions deport was purposely detonated by the German army during the liberation of Marseille (in other words, the retreat of the German army). The explosion destroyed much of the historical battlements and buildings in Fort Saint-Jean. It lay in ruins until the 1960s, when the French government classified the forts as historical monuments and started to reconstruct them. Fort Saint-Jean now houses the National Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations.
There are many islands dotting the coastline around Marseille, including the island you see here, Île d'If. On Île d'If is the infamous Château d'If, built in the 1520s. The 'château' was actually a prison, and similar to Alcatraz, it was considered inescapable due to its isolation and strong off-shore currents. The prison was made famous by the novel The Count of Monte Cristo. In the book, Alexandre Dumas has the central character imprisoned at Château d'If for 14 years before finally escaping. In reality, no one every successfully escaped the prison.
 The Marseille Cathedral (or Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure de Marseille or Cathédrale de la Major) was built between 1860s-1890s on the site used for cathedrals in Marseille since the 5th century. The Byzantine-Roman styled cathedral is huge; it can hold a service for 3,000 people.
Aside from fortresses, prison islands, and churches, Marseille is also home to bouillabaisse. A traditional fish stew, there are normally at least the three following fish in the stew: red rascasse (scorpion fish), sea robin (gurnard), and European conger (don't worry, I don't know them either). The soup was tasty, but I didn't really think it was worth the money. Oh well, at least I can cross it off my food bucket list!