Friday, January 16, 2015


Back at the truffle market at Carpentras, the oldest market of truffles in France (or the world no doubt - I was told the date of 1155), located in the region where the best and the most truffles traditionally have been found. This being France, and most particularly Provence, anyone who has read a bit of Alphonse Daudet's Tartarin de Tarascon will recognize the extreme dimensions of all things of this most beautiful place in the world (is there another? Many Provençaux never range more than 50 kilometers from their birth place).

 From the annals of History:

Man has known & relished the truffle since High Antiquity; she used to be celebrated for her aphrodisiac virtues. However, during the Middle Ages, the truffle lost its luster and was associated with evil and the devil. At that time it was food for pigs (sound familiar? - see the story I was told yesterday of how to make the best blood sausages...), pigs being considered the most un-pure of animals by the Catholic Church. It isn't until the end of the Middle Ages, early Renaissance that the truffle was rehabilitated by the Popes, then based in Avignon, who brought it back to his banquet tables.  

 We were three today to visit the market, myself, Erick (my former husband) and Eric (my colleague chef from Traverse City). As we arrived, the wafting scent of truffles began to invade our nostrils. Happily, none of us were suffering a sinus attack. 

This is very masculine world, though the rare woman rabbasier (truffle hunter/grower) and courtier (official purchaser) mixed amongst them. Elegance is a rare trait (though a few of the courtiers sport their elegant leather jackets and snappy felt fedoras). Much as I try to avoid the clichés made so famous by Peter Mayle (and more honestly Jean Giono and Marcel Pagnol before him), we had entered into a group of relatively diminuitive, gray-haired men, in non-descript jackets, work boots and closed expressions. Small groups of them clustered about the square, slyly opening up their sacs, meeting with colleagues, making small deals before the official market began. 

I found myself beside an elderly man, (or did I sidle up to his elbow?) with a slight shake to his hand and a bushy white mustache. Putting timidity to the side, I asked him how his harvest was this week? And compared to the week before? And what is the going rate? How's it been this season? Where abouts did he hunt his? Oh, the Mt Ventoux? Hm, and might I take a look at his? Ahhh and how much are in that sac? I felt them carefully for firmness, noted that the dirt had been rubbed off, and made my own little deal.  


Officially, you cannot sell or purchase less than a kilo of truffles if you participate in the official market. Thus, if your sac is a bit on the light side, making a discreet deal before (or after) makes good sense. And, if you catch someone who's eager, foreign, a bit out of the loop (ahem), you can make a bit more. i.e. We purchased 280grams for 80Euros before the market based on a range of 300Euros to the kilo. In the end, the truffles sold today for between 190 - 240Euros/kilo. So, we were far from ripped off. But, had we waited, we might have had more for less. (There's always next week). 

At 8:50AM all move to the interior courtyard of the Mairie, the official heads of the market arrives, parking his car in the reserved spots. The police are there, blocking all further traffic. Barriers are put up around the square of tables. All the sellers enter and prepare their bags. At the sound of the whistle, 9AM sharp, the courtiers enter and the market begins.

Today's market went quietly and slowly. Even here we feel the effects of a poor economy, ruffled feathers, minor fears. I addressed on of the official market men (a colleague Erick remembered we'd been presented to years before by a colleague from Châteauneuf), and opened my eyes wide, nodded my head in encouragement, and got a wonderful earful of history and tales. Many's the time, he said, that had he turned his back on the market, there'd be nothing left 10 minutes later. But, today, more than a half hour passed, and still, there were a couple sacs on the table. It wasn't a great day for the sellers. The courtiers, however, had their pick.

As we departed, my new friend gave me some good addresses, private phone numbers and suggestions for the weeks to come. And next week, I'll bring my better camera :-) Now that he knows me, in I'll go, and respecting the unspoken rules not to take portraits (darn!) I'll be permitted to snap a few up close.

There are still spots left in my Winter Truffle Tour in 8-15 February

And note that with the dollar getting stronger and stronger, I've adjusted the prices down on the web site to reflect the shifting value.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Climbing a steep hill with goats

What a day! The French have a great saying "resourcer" meaning going back to your source, back to the source of your knowledge, learning, roots, family, nourishment, inspiration... And that's what it's like when I'm back here.

Today was a trip to meet with a handful of sheep and goat herders, some for meat, some for cheese, out in the Lubéron, up in the hills above Lauris. We were in the home and pasture lands of a young goat herder. His wife makes the cheese, he cares for the goats. There were but 40 or so, all with horns, raised biodynamically, and pastured on and over and in the rough and steep grounds of the Luberon park land, aka, Garrigue, rich in herbs such as rosemary and thyme, covered in short little oak trees, and speckled with prickly juniper, majenta rockroses, and more (depending the season).

As we presented ourselves to each other we sipped freshly infused thyme and rosemary (no coffee here). When the presentations got to me, after learning of the man who has 100 Rove goats and 20 years handling them, the young man who has 300 sheep all kept out of doors, the neighbor who has 50 sheep, and looks towards more, and my friend Catherine with her handful of black belly meat sheep, I shared my Franco-American background. François, with his 100 Rove goats looked at me and said, "hey, I've heard about you! From Laure, the "commercialle" at Maison Mons, and oh yes, I know Claudine Malbosc, I did my internship with her and Yves 20 years ago, and of course I know Jacky, and Hélène, annd Christian... " And so it goes. The world of goats is quite small. And tales of my project creation in Michigan have traveled far.

As we headed out to walk the goats, we first visited the bucks, calmly kept in a field (all the time, their only shelter the trees) with a donkey. The donkey acts as a social buffer, both protecting, but also quieting the bucks.

I couldn't help but gravitate towards a marvelous older man who was telling tales of dining upon his truffles. I listened closely as he regaled us with how to make the most amazingly flavored blood sausage (boudin noir) possible. Well, the week before you slaughter your pig, you give her a bucket of truffles (these are apparently low-cost when you can find them in your backyard, i.e. the Lubéron hills) daily. When at last you slit her throat, the blood that spills will be scented with truffles. Catch it in your frying pan, stir it up, and fill your casings.

I must say, that's a new one for me :-)

Truffles being his primary income source, he has his methods. Leaving the village with your dog early morning is simply too suspect. Someone's going to follow you. And, well, the truffle fly method is something you do between 12 & 2pm, again a very suspicious time to be out and about (normal humans lunch and nap at these hours). So, to out-wit any sneaky, some-time friends who might wish to suss out truffle hot-spots, you must adopt a different tactic. Jeannot goes out for his primary investigative walks in August and September. When he spots what are called white truffle mushrooms, spikes that come up, perhaps split and crackled on the cap, he marks the spot with a few barley grains (after harvesting these white mushrooms to take back home for his mid-day omelette). When he returns to the hills late fall/winter, the barley has grown, and the truffle beneath it will have burned it golden. He can spot these even by the light of the moon. And so, he collects his truffles, takes them home and sells them, no one the wiser.

Our goat-herder took us up into the hills along a portion of his daily three hour tour. Steeply we climbed, slipping in the shale, trying not to pull on the rough oak scrub brush to pull us up to the next level. Breathing hard, we huffed and puffed to where the goats were happily nibbling the oak leaves and the rosemary buds in a fresh stand of greenery.

Our herder/host explained that his goats do not have issues with parasites, and are in excellent health. There are, however, the occasional "mechanical" problem. I.e. we spotted a very happy and active 3 legged goat (he did not divulge how she became 3 legged.. so the mystery remains), goats get tears on their teats, and ear tags get lost in the branches. But, all in all, it's a small price to pay for healthy goats. He likes the quality of his milk as well. Back by the milking stand he has a manger full of hay, so they can eat to their hearts' delight before and after milking - should they need to.

Certain stands of prairie down by his barn are planted in alfalfa and a mix of prairie grasses. The latter a mix so delicious and varied that his goats barely reject any of the 1st cutting. OK, I'm speaking goat breeder talk here. But if you knew goats, you'd realize that this is important news. I'm going to learn about this mix! Rejection of a goodly portion of their hay, tossing it on the ground, etc., by goats is a classic woe of many a goat herder. And, in general, the saying goes, give your first cutting to the horses, the 2nd and 3rd cuttings to the goats. So delicious and much appreciated 1st cutting? I'm in!

As we head back down from the hill top, we discussed when you move your goats from one area to another (when a 1/3 has been eaten, no more), and which plants suffer more or less from the passage of the goats. My colleague with the Roves mentioned a recent class in pasturing where they'd discussed whether it is a good or bad thing when goats get up on their hind legs to nibble in the trees (a sign that there is no longer sufficient nourishment at their head level).
One participant had his copy of today's Liberation paper, upon which every known vulgar and rude curse word had been printed in yellow. With the title in bold red. This, stated the man holding the paper, is what Liberty means to us in France. Completely and total free expression, even if it is rude, vulgar or in poor taste. It is following the example of Charlie Hebdo, and the recent marches all over France. Journalistic freedom & individual freedom of expression are ferociously in the forefront of everyone's mind. France is adamantly a Republic, where the separation of Church and State have been forcibly chosen and enforced. 

Vive La France - for all its virtues, vices, joys & sorrows, traditions and contradictions.

 A view of the Luberon Hills.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Back in Avignon - Winter ? 2015

I'm back for an extended visit in my home in Avignon. And oh how lovely it is to be here, to be in my own home (rather than camping out or renting....). I'm doing what you do when you come back to your home after an extended trip. I'm cleaning, I'm renovating, I'm painting, I'm fixing, I'm purchasing some lovely things on sale to spruce it up. I'm giving it love and attention. I'm re-appropriating it after leaving it in the hands of many (much appreciated) renters.

It's just myself and Jonas here, with a guest or two stopping through. No Filou (he's with Mom in NY), no Leo (he's back in Michigan) and no extra kids from the Steiner school. It feels rather empty, I must say. I'd also forgotten how large each room is. It is a very spacious house (this I observe after being in many homes in the Midwest). My bedroom is vast - the bed taking up but a small piece of it. I've space to do my yoga, work at my desk, pile books and knitting on the floor by my bed, and still it feels large. The house is simply laid out - 2 rooms per floor and the central stairwell - which belies its size. There is the new addition that adds to its comfort now - the glassed in terrace out back by the garden. A cozy, lovely, luminous space that I can at last enjoy. (pictures will follow in future posts)

Jonas is back in his bed room -- full of books, a spare couple beds for when friends want to spend the night, and the huge new sky-light in his ceiling (I had the roof re-done the summer I departed for the States). Having light stream in throughout the day has definitely helped him adjust to the time shift.

In fact, we're both pretty much on schedule now. Getting up at 7:15 in the dark, heading out to school as the sun rises, admiring the sky as it lightens into all shades of rose and purple, grays and blue, over the Pope's palace.

The weather is unseasonably warm - not ideal for this agricultural world, but a dream when you're eager to be out walking or working in the garden.

I've been out to the Arles' market already - and it is as glorious as I remember. I saw many many known faces, vegetable sellers, Sophie the beekeeper, my favorite bread guy, the pain d'epices guy. The only person missing this past Saturday was the sheep cheese stand. Hopefully they'll be here this weekend. I didn't do many major purchases. I'm awaiting the arrival of clients and friends to truly do the market justice, and fill my bag!

I'll not see Guy from Châteauneuf this trip, but I did get to enjoy an afternoon walk by the Rhône on the tree-covered dirt path by my house with his wife Myriam. I'll be heading out to an organic goat farm tomorrow afternoon with friends (photos to come). And over to the Truffle market on Friday, then perhaps lunch at one of our favorite farm restaurants. (Table d'hôte).

Next week I'll be off to see all my artisans and check in with them. It's such a joy seeing friends at the Steiner school, investigating everyone's new projects. I have the impression that half of the people at the school are new to me, and the other half have long beanstalks planted beneath their newly chiseled facial features. What a change a couple years can make!

Oh it's good to be back in Provence! What can you say to a brilliantly sunny day that begins with a dear friend over breakfast, goes through a market filled with terribly tempting and gorgeous food, then moves onto a little cafe on an open terrace in town, and proceeds to an intimate lunch of freshly prepared goodies?

Perhaps that it's time to reinstate the sieste? Yawn..... Good food and warmth. Ahhhh.