Our week here in Provence is flying by. It’s time to start thinking about packing for our departure to Germany on Monday — on the move once again!
I think if pressed, I’d have to say my favorite thing about Aix, and about Paris and the whole of France in general, would have to be the street markets. For starters, the food products are the most beautiful versions I’ve ever seen anywhere, and they taste absolutely as good as they look.
The best meals I’ve had all week have been composed of stuff I’ve bought at the markets. Salads made with picture-perfect produce so fresh, it snaps with every bite. Farm-fresh eggs with creamy bright yellow yolks scrambled with a little cheese and served alongside steaming coffee and a croissant. Yum, yum, yum. Food just doesn’t get simpler or more flavorful than this.
The street markets happen nearly every day in one spot or another around town, and each I walked through was better than the last. Not that the first was any slouch, but the second and third I saw put it to shame. Some markets seem to focus on one specific theme, i.e. flowers, clothing, antiques, food and the like. You might also find booths tucked in here and there selling odd stuff like cosmetics, toiletries, purses, kitchen utensils, those weird little head-scratcher devices, and more.
Obviously, the food markets are the ones I’ve been most taken with. Just imagine gorgeous row after row of the cutest sweet-as-candy tiny strawberries, vats of olives large enough to swim in, all manner of charcuterie, mouthwatering fresh baked Madeline cookies, and fragrant roasting chickens. The most intriguing booth I saw held a huge array of every kind of spice imaginable, all beautifully displayed in little square bowls, plus huge bowls of colorful peppercorns and salts. The vendor scooped out small portions of whatever you wanted, weighing each before packaging in a little plastic sack or little glass jar like some sort of mad scientist amid a chemistry experiment. I could have stood there for an hour just reading the labels on each spice and smelling its wonderful aroma. For foodies like me, it was the best perfume counter in the world.
The food at the local supermarkets isn’t nearly as nice as what you get at the street markets, in my humble opinion, although there is a pretty decent gigantic superstore a ten-minute bus ride away from our hotel (not nearly as nice as the Iper store in Milan). When we originally asked the concierge about where to find a grocery store, she tried to direct us in not-so-comprehensive English and kept mentioning a casino. Naturally, hubby and I assumed she meant the store was located near a casino. It was only after a small level of frustration we realized that the name of the grocery store chain is actually “Casino.” To make matters even more confusing, there IS an authentic casino as well on the bus line downtown. Eventually, we got it all sorted out.
I attempted to attend three ex-pat coffee meetings this week. I actually made it to one. Couldn’t find the café for the first one for the life of me, even with spotty consultation from hubby’s iPhone GPS app. The toddler and I did make it to the second, mostly thanks to having prescouted the location earlier in the week – the adorable restaurant called Croquemitoufle. The crowd hovered around 15, I’d say, and two women there had Indiana connections — one hailed from Elkhart and another was born near Ft. Wayne. It was interesting to chat with some fellow Americans, but we didn’t really have enough time to get into much in-depth discussion. Mainly because I’d forgotten the buses were running on a holiday schedule that day and by the time I actually caught one to go downtown, we’d already missed half the event. Anyway, the women I met were lovely, although the two I really had the most opportunity to chat with both sound like they will be heading back to the states sometime next year. Boo!
The third coffee was this morning, but we missed it because we decided to take a daytrip instead. Hubby, the toddler and I caught the bus to Marseille to take a walk around the Vieux Port (Old Port) and have some lunch. And what do you think we found? More markets! Fish and flowers, to be precise. We arrived late morning and I have a feeling we missed the majority of the action, but there were still plenty of fishermen and women lined up selling their catches, many still wriggling in their water tables. The fish, not the men and women… The fish stands lined one side of the port; another side was full of exquisite (and cheap!) fresh flowers of all shapes, sizes and shades.
Marseille is the oldest city in France, and it shows its age. It’s scrappy in much the same way as outer Milan is scrappy; the buildings are old and many are graffiti-laden and in need of some serious repair. The port itself is pretty and there’s a breathtaking big castle up on the hill overlooking the city, but off the beaten path, things are pretty dirty and dilapidated. The sight of laundry hanging off the balconies galore lent a touch of charm and color.
I had intended to seek out a bowl of the signature Marseillaise dish, bouillabaisse, but we really didn’t come across any cafes or bistros serving the garlicky, brothy fish stew that looked appealing during our very abbreviated visit. I settled for an unsatisfying open-faced bruschetta that was really nothing more than a saucer-sized piece of bread topped with sliced tomatoes and a mountain of cheese, then run under the broiler until not quite toasty. Hubby thinks I’m complaining all the time, but this really was mediocre for seven euros.
We scored much better with this evening’s meal. After a bus ride back to Aix and a long walk through the oldest section of town, we worked up an appetite to shop for some hearty meat and potatoes. Hitting up the specialty stores along Rue D’Italie, we came away with two ruby-red slabs of faux filet (American equivalent = New York strip), potatoes, broccoli, mushrooms, a baguette and wine. Cooking on our miniature two-burner electric stove using one pot and one pan, I somehow managed to transform these items into a Provencal-ish meal that I daresay was as good as you’d find in some of the local bistros. Seared steaks with garlic butter and blue cheese crumbles, mashed potatoes with crème fraiche, steamed broccoli and mushrooms topped with a sprinkling of cheese, slices of fresh crusty baguette — is there anything more fulfilling than eating something that turns out to be EXACTLY what you wanted, and having it be every bit as good as you were hoping it would be? That was tonight’s meal for me.
And on that note, I bid everyone a fond bon soir.