When reviving my blog I considered how I might communicate the main source of my addiction to France and specifically Provence and most certainly Les Arcs sur Argens, my adopted village. Scrolling through some old files I came across ten chapters of a book I had begun in 2012-13. These chapters tell the story of how it mostly began for me and how it became my “other country”. While these chapters are certainly to much copy for one post I have decided to post a chapter once per week between other more current information, recipes, your ideas, and new happenings both here and abroad. So here we begin with chapter ONE.
Do I sound Stressed?
In the medieval portion of the village of Les Arcs sur Argens, in southern France, there are probably fifty cats of every description. Now I am a dedicated cat lover but when the most homely cat in the village adopted me I was just a bit insulted. “Mooch”, as I call him showed up the first day I moved in and returns daily for his self established entitlement of sustenance. This is a cat that was definitely at the end of the litter when looks were being distributed, and he simply got leftovers: basically a white cat that has a splotch of grey here, a dab of tan there and some washed out yellow in the cracks and crevices. Nothing symmetrical and certainly nothing that would bring a soft heart to exclaim “how darling”! Just butt ugly with a very tenacious personality. But hey, when you are by yourself, with no TV and no Internet, even a butt ugly cat is better than nothing. “Tenacious” can become company, at worse, and even begin to grow on you after awhile, driving you to actually purchase cat food to assure his daily return.
The one thing I am absolutely sure of about this cat is that he is far and away less stressful than 18 employees in a Bistro, Winery, Patisserie and B&B. That’s what I am running away from and what drove me to this charming southern French village in the Var.
Back in Missouri USA, in the small river town of Louisiana, just north of St. Louis I owned and ran a mini destination business that caused me to gain in the neighborhood of 80 pounds over 11 years and to maintain a stroke mode blood pressure level for about 10 of those 11 years. The message I want to impart here is no good deed goes unpunished. The second, and as critical, message is do not go into business with relatives. I will avoid the gory details because no one wants to hear me groan and moan Just suffice it to say that I woke up on opening day as the sole manager, chef and bottle washer for the business, knowing that I had to make it work or lose our home.
Employing the Indiana Jones method of management I quickly fell into making it up as I go. Somehow eleven years later I was still opening the doors daily to a nice clientele and serving delicious fare, maintaining a class act B&B, offering our six award winning wines in the winery and opening a patisserie creating superb pastries daily. The obstacles were huge and numerous from dealing with the Justice Department, the ADA division, who felt a toilet needed moved three fourths of an inch to the right and the double front doors needed to be opened 3 inches wider to accommodate at least five wheel chairs abreast in a mass exit. The historical folks were just waiting for me to choose the wrong tint of paint or add a non approved light to deny me any tax credits. The bank always wanted the mortgage payment and the electric company was pretty insistent on getting their chunk of flesh each month and the list of taxes, licenses and permits constantly due is a book unto itself. And then of course there were the daily issues. If some piece of equipment didn’t go on the blitz each and every day I knew the restaurant demon had fallen asleep on the job. He seldom fell asleep. If the demon was asleep then the employees would step in and do his job for him, finding a way to break something or cause an upheaval in the day’s occupation. You would think in a country with almost 8% unemployment most people would treasure a job and actually show up prepared to work as scheduled. I only regret I did not keep a log of excuses why staff couldn’t make it in to work. It would have been a tome to rival the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Do I sound stressed? I love it when the doctor says “you have to get out of that business, it’s killing you”. I asked for a prescription for a buyer but our local pharmacy was completely out of that drug. As the blood pressure and the weight climbed (eating was my personal drug when stressed) I could feel myself slipping down a very dark hole, and my doctors became firm about an immediate exit plan.
Where to go, what to do? It was a real problem deciding to stay and shortly kick the bucket or get out of Dodge and try to reverse the physical damage. Gee, what choices; hot fudge sundae or moldy bread pudding? I chose the hot fudge sundae!
This sundae came in the form of turning the daily management of the business over to a here-to-fore part time office assistant (who, by the way, had the credentials to run the business from a management position, not a culinary perspective), a young but accomplished chef, a long time reliable day cook and some loyal and dedicated staff managers. As I write they have been stepping up to the plate for about six weeks and as far as I know the doors are still open. Once I left the rule is no communication of issues or problems. Don’t even write and ask where I left the stapler. Just make it work daily until I return in six or seven months. (And they really believe I am coming back!)
Now to the French part of the story. For about 14 years my husband John and I have taken two or three weeks off in April to travel to Provence France. We have rented various vacation houses across southern France from the Languedoc to Menton. We love the wine, the region, the wine, the people, the intense blue sky, and the wine and food. Did I mention the wine? (To be perfectly honest I am the wino and John just likes to sip a semi sweet gag-you-in-the-throat wine.) I love the markets and I love to cook meals in my rented kitchens using the wonderful fresh produce available in the region. John, a professional artist, loves to paint when visiting here and has created a complete body of work we fondly refer to as “The Provence Collection”. Thus we have discovered our Shangri La in southern France.
Somewhere here I failed to mention I do have a culinary background and spent a chunk of my life working as the Culinary Consultant for Le Creuset and Cousance, the famously heavy cast iron and enameled French cookware. I have written food columns for a number of publications and taught cooking from Bloomingdales Main Course in NYC to Macys basement in LA. I even did a few food shows in Florida in the 70’s before food shows were hip. I studied cooking in Italy, France, Asia and in the good old USA. And eleven years in the kitchen at The Eagle’s Nest hasn’t detracted from my culinary ability. So I kinda know my way around the whisk.
Back to the French story. About 5 or 6 years ago one of the places we rented was here in les Arcs sur Argens. Les Arcs is just west of Nice by about 70 miles, just off the A8 motorway. At the very top of this village on the Argens river is the Parage or the Medieval portion of the village, dating to the 11th century. My house is a small castle in the medieval portion of the village. Small as in four floors accessed by a very old wooden spiral stair case with one room on each floor and an attached WC/ laundry room/shower. A lovely terrace on the ground level has old stone steps up to another smaller terrace off the guest room on the second floor. The third floor is the master bedroom with a full bathroom next to a separate water closet (toilet room) and the fourth floor is the salon or living room with a balcony offering a stellar view of the village and the countryside. The kitchen is conveniently located on the ground level off the terrace.
About the kitchen. It is a long and well equipped room offering a big trussle table with benches on each side. The sink is a chiseled stone contraption with hot and cold running water. The granite counter top extends over to the fireplace hearth situated above a fireplace bread oven. The almost full sized fridge is concealed behind a door in a niche that looks like the broom closet and which in fact is also the pantry. The fact that one has to be a contortionist to reach supplies is irrelevant. The cook top is wonderful state of the art five burner gas (Propane) stove with an exhaust hood and the oven, installed perpendicular to the counter, is relatively modern albeit totally inaccessible to the average woman of average height (5’4”). Burn scars on my right arm can attest to this poor design. Yet as I access the situation I see no where else a wall stove could possibly be installed unless the dishwasher, concealed behind a wooden door under the cook top, were sacrificed. I’ve never been into sacrifice as a first choice.
On the far side of the kitchen is a charming window with a stone flower pot on a stone ledge. (From here on out just assume everything is stone unless otherwise indicated.) Leaded glass window doors open in and allow a nice breeze to enter. Next to the window is a floor to ceiling wooden cabinet that houses the CD player, the microwave, the wine, linens and the shopping bags. (You have to take your own bags or pay for their bags at the super markets.) I share this detail of the kitchen so you, dear reader, can mentally visualize kitchen activities when they pop up in this book, which I suspect will be frequently.
So how did I end up here for my exile from the stress of The Eagle’s Nest in Louisiana, Missouri?
Having made friends in this village over the years of visits, we had returned a number of times, especially to visit our British friends Jacqui and Tony and my special friend Tina at the Tourism Office. When I was looking for a suitable location to run away to I remembered that the house might still be vacant and contacted the owner. He was in the process of moving from Tampa Florida to Malaysia. He was delighted to latch onto a tenant for the winter months. Location set, I proceeded to fill in the other necessary details to relocate here for six or seven months.
If I have whetted your interest, come back next week for chapter two. Looking forward to your comments and also your travel experiences to Provence.