Sunday, June 29, 2014

France 2014: Life in Bargemon - Part 1 (Eating)

It was so nice being able to stay in our Bargemon home swap for over 5 weeks, using it as a home base from which to take day trips or longer road trips without having to lug our suitcases around from location to location.  Staying in the same place for such a long time while on vacation was a new experience for us.  In addition to allowing us to take a slower pace, it also provided us with greater flexibility in terms of itinerary and schedule.  Although we had a long list of road trips that we wanted to take, we could decide on a daily basis where and how far we wanted to travel, if at all, based on our mood, the weather and how tired we were feeling.

Since we arrived in France in mid May, I had been checking the weather forecast website on a daily basis.  What I noticed was that the forecast was usually pessimistic.  Almost every day through May, it predicted that there would be rain when in fact, we either experienced no rain or just a really quick drizzle in the afternoon.  It got to the point where we assumed the weather was wrong, like when we went to Nice under a forecast of "cloudy all day", but found bright blue skies.  Just in case, we front-loaded our scheduled road trips in rapid succession on any non-rainy days, to make sure we got to all the places we wanted to visit and would not run out of days due to inclement weather.  Driving in a rainstorm on the Var region's steep, twisty roads that had no highway lights would not have been fun and was not something we wanted to experience.

Luckily, we had just finished our last long road trip to the Gorge du Verdon (the ultimate example of steep, cliffside roads with no guardrails) and were ready to relax at home for our last few days in Bargemon when the weather turned wicked for real.  This time, the forecasters were not crying wolf, as we sat through several days of severe thunderstorms and torrential rains. The skies darkened and clouded over so much that we could no longer see the neighbouring town of Claviers.  It was crazy watching the geysers of water flowing out of the drain pipes.  We had to turn off the WIFI to prevent power outages during the electrical storm, so we sat on the covered terrace and watched the streaks of lightening blaze across the countryside.  Rich tried fruitlessly to capture the lightening in a photo.  If only the thunder could come before the lightening so we could have some warning.

Once the storms blew past, the skies would brighten up quickly as if the squall had never happened.  We would see some picturesque natural phenomenons, like the trail of low rolling clouds over the hills that looked like white smoke, or the brilliant rainbow that formed a complete arch across the horizon.  On past shorter vacations where we had to pack activities into every spare moment, the bad weather would have severely impacted our trip.  Instead, we enjoyed our relaxing time at home, waking up later in the morning, doing laundry, having an afternoon snack of hot chocolate and cookies, reading, blogging and knitting. On this France trip, I made quite a bit of progress on my sweater, especially since I would knit quite a bit while traveling in our rental car, so as not to have to constantly watch the scary, windy roads flash by.

Taking full advantage of having a place with a kitchen and dining area where we could eat some of our meals, we ate most of our breakfasts and many dinners at home.  When the weather warmed up in June, we were able to dine out on the terrace while admiring the amazing view.  Many times, a meal consisted of some fresh bread from the bakery, cheese and patés from the local grocery store, and veggies from the farmers market.  The fresh "loaves" of bread came in such interesting shapes and cost a mere 1-2 Euros while the cheese was incredibly inexpensive compared to prices in Canada.

Two patisseries in the village provided us with an endless supply of delicious desserts.  There was no shortage chocolate tarts, cakes and, eclairs, as well as the Paris Brest, which is made of choux pastry and praline or chestnut cream, and the tarte Tropezienne, which was a rich cream-filled brioche topped with icing sugar.  We also loaded up on sweet snacks from the local grocery store, including unusual Lindt chocolate flavours such as crème brûlée, and the best, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate mousse cookies.

In fact, we found that French food was so good that even the pre-packaged or frozen foods from the tiny little grocery store in Bargemon were more interesting and of higher quality than what we could have found back home in Toronto.  We loved the light and fluffy salmon puffs that were bursting with salmon flavour, the packaged roquefort, mushroom and peppercorn cream sauces that were so convenient to prepare, the frozen dauphine potato puffs and the tiramisu ice cream that had a strong coffee taste and pieces of actual cake inside.  Our favourite cheese was the ultra creamy and fragrant Domaine Bresse which has made all other blue cheeses pale in comparison. 

Whenever we wanted more groceries or supplies than were offered at the local store, we visited the larger town of Draguignan (about half an hour south of Bargemon), which had multiple supermarkets including our favourite one called Carrefour Salamandar.  It was there that we found the packages of Van Houten Bistro Hot Chocolate, which produced a richer, more chocolatey flavour than any North American powered hot chocolate we've ever tried.  We ended up bringing a few boxes of hot chocolate home with us in our suitcases, along with a few boxes of cookies and some salmon puffs.  Good thing there were no chocolate-sniffing dogs at the airport.

In addition to being a larger town with more shopping opportunities, Draguignan also had a historic attraction that was even older than the 10th Century structures and ruins that we were now used to seeing in the little villages.  Just on the outskirts of downtown Draguignan was a prehistoric dolmen, a megalithic tomb made of three huge vertical slabs of stone holding up a giant cap (top) stone, dating back to the Chalcolithic period (1000 to 2000 BC. AD).

On the days when we chose to spend a relaxing day at home in Bargemon instead of rushing off in the morning on a road trip, we would start the morning with coffee and pastries in the main square.  The outdoor patios were usually occupied by both locals than tourists.

We quickly learned that while the restaurants and bars offered coffee (served black in a tiny little cup) or café crème (closer to a latté in a slightly larger cup at 3 times the price of the tiny coffee), what they did not serve was any type of danish, pastry or other breakfast fare.  Instead, we were advised by the owner to visit the patisserie down the street, buy our treats and then bring them back to eat with our coffee.  This was a very odd experience for us, as it would be totally unacceptable in Canada to sit in an establishment and eat outside food.   We also could not completely adapt to the concept of sitting leisurely at a table for hours and simply enjoying the day.  While we were able to sit and people-watch for a while, once our food and drink had been consumed and some time had passed, we started feeling guilty about holding the table, and antsy to "get on with the day".  I guess you can't undo a life-time of "hurry up and go" mentality in just a few weeks.

For such a tiny village, Bargemon had more than its share of restaurants (we counted 8 or more?) and we tried a few of them during our stay.

Our favourite place was Estranco, where we ate at multiple times since the food was so good.  We loved the pizzas which had thin, crispy crusts and fresh, flavourful ingredients. One particularly interesting and delicious combination contained fresh cream, escargot, bacon, olives, cheese, parsley and garlic.  The only thing to beware of was that the olives were not pitted so biting into one might chip your tooth.  The other highlight on Estranco's menu was their filet of kangaroo with pepper cream sauce, served with roasted potato, greens, asparagus wrapped in bacon, and what seemed like a savoury crust-less quiche.

La Compana specialized in wood-fired cuisine with all the courses prepared in a wood burning stove.  This made for a warm, cozy environment to dine on a cool evening.  We took a seat close to the oven so that we could watch the preparation and cooking processes.

For appetizers, we selected the smoked salmon, avocado salad with grilled langostino and mussels baked in a cheese, tomato and basil sauce.  For mains, we had grilled lamb and zucchini with squash and grilled chicken on greens with tomato and onion.  Cooking on the wood-burning fire gave the meats and vegetables a nice smokey taste.

Bargemon even had a restaurant, La Pescalune, that was run by one of the contestants featured on the reality show "Top Chef France 2013".  With such a pedigree, we had to try this restaurant, but went in with very high expectations.   The menu was handwritten on a chalkboard and changed daily.  Chef Viriginie Martinetti was visible from the semi-open kitchen.  We had fun watching her slice and dice, stir-fry and torch our food.  Yet when we proceeded to watch her prepare one single dish at a time, then wash what seemed to be her single pot and pan repeatedly, and our meal stretched on and on for over three hours, it started to be a bit much.  If the food had been exceptional, it might have been worth it, but given our sky-high expectations, we found that the meal was merely good.

We started with a profiterole stuffed with house fois gras, topped with pinenuts, served on a plate of greens and endive, and perch-stuffed ravioli in a mussel broth, topped with a cheese crisp and an edible flower.  The starters were the best part of the meal since they were innovative and interesting.  But the lamb and turbot mains were fairly standard, as was the molten chocolate cake with ice cream.  Everything tasted good, but given the price we were paying (much more than the other restaurants) and the "Top Chef" connection, we had been hoping for something a bit more exciting.

Our home swap hosts kindly allowed us to invite our friends to stay with us for a few days, which made for a very nice change of pace.  We enjoyed the company and it was really great to be able to carry on a prolonged conversation in English with people other than ourselves.  We brought them to our favourite restaurant, Estranco, where we ordered a very interesting dessert.  It was a coffee/mocha semifreddo, with a syringe filled with Grand Marnier which we were told to inject into the ice cream cake.  We also had fun cooking at home with our friends, making Beef Bourguignon with potatoes.

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