Holiday Travelogue – Part I: Camargue & Food

Happy Sunday! I thought we’d take a relaxing break from serious subjects with a little travelogue. Specifically, a detour into some of the culinary aspects of my recent holiday, with photos of the locale thrown in. I had originally planned to do this at the end of my article series on different Paris perfume houses and boutiques, but it seems that that is going to take quite a while, especially if I toss in mini-perfume reviews in some of them. So, I thought I would stagger out those articles, intersperse them with more traditional perfume reviews, and take an occasional detour in-between.

Since some of you think I’m torturing you with delayed, dangled promises of French food porn, I thought I should get straight to it with photos of the first part of my trip in Camargue, the region near the South of France and Provence. (If you missed that post and an outline of my trip, you can find the details here.) In a nutshell, however, I went to Camargue as part of a reunion hosted by two friends who were at university with me and who later married. Their guests were friends on both sides, many of whom they’d known going back to their respective childhood or high school years. All of us are sprawled out around the world, so it was a rare chance to catch up and reconnect. I spent time with a few people I’ve known since I was 12 years old! A few others I hadn’t seen in more than two decades, while others were completely new to me, and were a lot of fun to get to know. The main thing was for us just to spend time with each other, but my hosts are also serious foodies, so we were treated and spoiled with a few gastronomic delights. 

Some of the following photos are merely scenic, encompassing such things as the famous Camargue horses, the French cafés in that small town of Aigues-Mortes, as well as some of the shops, menus, the Provence lavender that always tortures me so, Savon de Marseilles, or various other things that caught my eye. The vast majority of the photos, however, show the actual food, with the main focus being on a big feast held on the beach one Sunday afternoon. 

A Garra Rufa fish pedicure. Photo: lovelincoln.co.uk

A Garra Ruffa fish pedicure. Photo: lovelincoln.co.uk

Then, there is something that I couldn’t resist taking photos of, namely, a fish pedicure I saw a husband and wife experiencing. Some of my friends later forced me into getting one with them, despite my screams at the horrific visuals involved. (I shudder all over again when I see my photos.) I admit it eventually became almost meditative and soothing; then again, I might have been in a slight fugue state at the thought of minuscule things eating at one’s flesh. Still, if you can imagine three guys and three girls basically shrieking their heads off at first, you’ll have a good sense of how that experience began. (Okay, I lie. One guy wasn’t shrieking at all, but that’s because it was his nutty idea to begin with!) If the photos below don’t put you off, there is a French blog post with pictures showing the exact place I went to in Aigues-Mortes, and showing the big smile on one chap’s face as he sticks his feet into the mini tank. You can also read up on the Garra Ruffa fish from Turkey (also called Doctor Fish), and why they’re the choice for this completely unusual way to get a pedicure. 

So, first up in terms of photos is the medieval town of Aigues-Mortes which dates back to Gallo-Roman times, and which later became significant during the Crusades. It is a tiny place fortified by a huge wall and with a tower at one end that served as a state prison, first for the Knights Templars when their star fell, and then as a prison for the protestant Huguenots. There is even a sign commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Huguenots’ liberation. Aigues-Mortes has charming cobbled stones and numerous quaint cafés, but it was the Camargue horsemen who really caught my eye. Some of the flavour of Aigue-Mortes in thumbnails that you can click to expand in a slideshow:

On the Saturday of my visit, there was an outdoor lunch at a café with a buffet selection of various things, including the best pizza I’ve had in eons. Everyone else agreed, too; it was unbelievable! There are no pictures of it simply because every time I tried to get near the damn platters, it was gobbled up by someone. There certainly was no time for something like a photo. This was dog-eat-dog by some seriously starved people in a wild frenzy! The pizza was wafer thin, with lots of cheese, and possibly a hint of basil. I can’t remember much else of what was on it simply because I barely got to eat it; the one small sliver I finally managed to get my hands on, I had to practically inhale lest someone grab it from my hands! There were also huge platters of roasted pork, beef, deliciously roasted potatoes with garlic, and assorted Mediterranean vegetable dishes.

Dalida.

Dalida.

I ignored much of the food that afternoon, perhaps because I became fascinated by the wild, crazy accordionist whose energy levels would have stunned — stunned! — the Energizer Bunny. His almost frenzied performance (which went up, and up, and UP in intensity, and which lasted for over 2 hours almost without a break) became the subject of intense discussion with some my friends. Several were convinced that he had to be on drugs because no human being could possibly be that way normally. All I know is that the man knew every Edith Piaf song every made and, more importantly for me, Dalida, whose music I grew up to and whom I still adore. (She was a huge global star, a sultry sexpot, the iconic equivalent of Maria Callas with the approachable warmth of Judy Garland, and someone with a very tragic life who died young. As a side note, I was overjoyed to hear that they’re now making a movie of her life!)

The famous black bulls and white horses of Camargue. Source: horsebackridingvacations.eu

The famous black bulls and white horses of Camargue. Source: horsebackridingvacations.eu

While the food that day was a blur, I definitely remember the time I was served “toro” with a very complicated crudité salad. I kept digging into it, looking for the tuna sashimi, and being utterly bewildered by what I was tasting. It took me a while to realise they didn’t mean “toro” as in sushi, but as in “taureau” or bull. The Camargue region is famous for its black bulls, so it was featured on the menu of a lot of places. One evening, a big haunch of it was carved up for the group and I must say, I wasn’t very enthused. It’s not only that I have a weird protective feeling about bulls stemming from my undoubtedly illogical perceptions of Spanish bull-fighting, but also, the texture was tough as hell. Perhaps it was some smoked version, I don’t know. You can see the photo, and take a guess. All I know is that Bull is not my cup of tea. I was much more impressed by the lamb we had one evening which was smoked under a giant glass dome.

Once the storm clouds blew in.

Once the storm clouds blew in.

The real pièce de resistance was the amazing feast we had on a secluded, hidden beach at St. Maries de la Mer, the capital of the Camargue region and a bus trip away from Aigues-Mortes. It began as a lovely sunny day, though as you may remember from photos in my prior post on Camargue, it didn’t quite end that way. But the food was spectacular. From a gigantic, whole tuna, and rough-style pork paté presented in a really eye-catching manner, to various sundry seafood delicacies, a variety of cold salads, another whole fish whose type I do not recall (but it was a white fish this time), an enormous bowl of Riz de Camargue (the special red rice which the region is known for), and some amazing desserts. If there is one regret I have from this trip is that I did not eat the mousse au chocolat, despite it being one of my favorite desserts, simply because I had eaten too much of the tuna. But when you see the photos, you will probably understand why.

Later that night, at a very casual dinner held elsewhere, there was more delicious food, this time primarily Italian in nature. Honestly, I was too overcome to do anything but take two half-hearted photographs of some of the desserts (shown at the end of the series up above). I couldn’t manage a single bite of anything! Generally, I don’t eat much to begin with, and I’d probably consumed more at that lunch on the beach than I normally do in a few days while at home. So I merely ordered a series of double expressos, and collapsed in an utterly bedraggled heap on a sofa in the corner. Most of my friends were similarly sleep-deprived and, in a few cases, continued to suffer a hang-over from the night before. (One just gave up and slept on his wife’s lap throughout the whole evening.) Four double expressos later, I finally managed to drag myself back to the hotel, where I packed for the departure the next day for Paris.

There, cheese markets and chocolate shops awaited me, along with the city’s glorious architecture, the sight of lovers kissing near museums, romantic cafés, bridges festooned with locks in a symbolic gesture of committed love, the elegant gardens of the Tuileries and the Louvre, and so much more. Many of those things are featured in Part II of this series, which is an ode to Paris and is already up. Part III will be devoted solely to the food, and should be posted in a few days.

I’m Back! Vacation Round-Up: Camargue & Paris

La Tour Eiffel

Photo: my own.

The best holidays are often the ones that transport you, emotionally more than just physically. Such was the case with my vacation which I ended up extending because…. well, it was Paris, and that pretty much explains everything, no?

As some of you may remember, my trip began with a mystery destination which ended up being the Camargue region in France. It’s somewhat near the Provence area and the South of France, though it is north of St. Tropez, south of Arles, and near Nimes. The Camargue has Western Europe’s largest river delta, filled with marshes, and is famous for its wild-life (which includes flamingos), nature reserves, black bulls, and, especially, its all-white Camargue horses.

Camargue riders in traditional costume. Photo: my own.

Camargue riders in traditional costume. Photo: my own.

Aigues-Mortes city walls and rampart. We stayed in a little hotel down to  the right of the photo, past the greenery and café. Photo: Wikicommons

Aigues-Mortes city walls and rampart. We stayed in a little hotel down to the right of the photo, past the greenery and café. Photo: Wikicommons

We stayed in a town called Aigues-Mortes, a fortified, walled, medieval city dating back to the 1200s but even referred to in Roman times. It is a town whose military significance made it the starting point for King Louis IX of France to launch the Seventh Crusades in 1248. Our group descended upon the town like a horde of ravaging crusaders, though we were hell-bent on having fun and reconnecting with each other, rather than engaging in religious conquest. It was wonderful to see some of my childhood and university friends again, as most are sprawled out all over the world, and a few I hadn’t seen in over 25 years! We got to explore the region a little, from the beaches about 45 minutes away to other parts closer to Aigues-Mortes, ate fantastic food, got very little sleep, and, in my case, essentially survived on double expressos. (No, seriously, I started each day with 5 double expressos, and continued to drink them throughout the day, which should tell you a little about how sleep-deprived I was throughout my trip.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There was a costume party one night, where the theme was “Pairs.” You and a partner had to dress as a “pair” of something. I had one of the most boring costumes around, as I went with a concept costume of being the opposite of my partner. In contrast, some people really went all out, and the results were absolutely fantastic despite being almost entirely created from scratch: Salvador Dali and his muse/wife, Gala (sometimes called Gaia) in very surreal, Dali-esque attire with frogs, lobsters, and insects; Agatha Christie (such an unbelievably accurate, detailed Agatha Christie!!) and Hercule Poirot; the team of Clockwork Orange; “a pair of tits” (don’t ask how that was done!); and even “a deer in the headlights,” with actual headlights on the costume that turned on and off when pressed.

Photo: my own.

Part of the feast on the beach in Camargue. Photo: my own.

When our somewhat bedraggled, exhausted, hung-over group finally arrived back in Paris, I made my way to my high school friend’s house where I was greeted with a huge hug and platters of cheese. I had told you before I left of my plan to eat my body weight in cheese — and I think I came close. Judging by some of the photos on my camera, I may have more of an obsession with French cheese than even I had suspected. I certainly seemed quite insane to my friend’s young children who couldn’t understand why I was photographing the dairy products, and making guttural sounds of joy. Another friend definitely thought I was off my rocker with my obsession, but, really, there is absolutely nothing comparable in the United States, even at places like Whole Foods and Central Market. Oddly enough, my camera seems to share my appreciation for cheese and food because the many (many!!!) photos I took of food on the trip all came out crystal clear, while a significant portion of my shots of perfume stores, boutiques and bottles came out quite blurred. (Happily, shots of the Louvre pyramid in early evening came out perfectly, though the lighting accidentally verged on the “artistic” more than on the useful or accurate….)

Photo: my own.

Photo: my own.

All of this talk about my camera dying and its occasionally wonky, blurred photos is really a warning for when I start posting said photos in an upcoming series I plan to do on both Paris perfume shopping and the food I had on my trip in general. The cheese photos amount to what a friend of mine called “cheese porn,” (they are!), but I also managed to get some lovely shots of: an outdoor Paris market; Ladurée and Pierre Hermé macaron/chocolate shops; pictures of the menus from the French god and “Chef of the Century,” Joel Robuchon, at his Michelin-starred Atelier (which I did not have the fortune (metaphorically or financially) to go to, but which I admired from afar); some tasty Lebanese food at a restaurant with the perfumer, Neela Vermeire; and the incredible feast one Sunday at the beach in Camargue on the first part of my trip. There is also a photo of the giant cheese and ham quiche that my friend made from scratch with the fluffiest, highest, golden, buttery crust, and which turns out to be the best quiche I’ve ever had. (I still dream a little of that quiche!) But, again, my tiny, pocket camera seems to be dying, and it was always obstinate to begin with in terms of lighting issues, so I hope you will forgive some poor photos on occasion.

I didn’t just eat while in Paris, though I know it sounds that way. I had the good fortune to meet with three perfumers, and I was even invited to one’s perfume studio where I saw the large “organ” of essential oils and concentrates. All of that will be the focus of an upcoming post. I also visited a large number of perfume shops and individual houses. Serge Lutens, naturally, was my first stop and warranted a second pilgrimage as well because, Good God, it’s impossible to decide what to do when faced with an array of bell jars! (No, seriously, it’s not possible in one session!)

In addition, I went to JAR which was a fabulously cool experience, IUNX at the Hotel Costes, Oriza L. Legrand, Frederick Malle, Arabian OudReminiscence, Esteban, Parfums de Nicolai, Etat Libre d’Orange, Guerlain, Sephora, Annick Goutal, and more. I visited niche perfume boutiques like Colette, Nose, Marie-Antoinette (which I loved!), Sens Unique, and Jovoy — and between the lot, managed to sniff perfumes from the well-known and accessible, to less famous or accessible brands like Nu_Be, Lys Epona, Parfums de Marly (except for the ISO E Super-filled Herod which I intentionally avoided), Alexandre J., PhaedonJovoy, and Memo Paris. I didn’t find the time to test all that I wanted to, particularly with skin being so limited, but I sniffed well over 50 perfumes in one day alone. (Thank God for coffee beans!) I took photos whenever possible or permitted of the store interiors and their bottles (and, on one occasion, surreptitiously), but I think my rush to avoid imposing on people or being a nuisance is an additional reason why some of the photos are a bit blurry. (Yes, I’m frustrated over that!)

Perfume shopping in Paris is an utterly unreal experience. Paris itself can be a sensory overload, especially if you are a hedonist or lover of aesthetic beauty. When you throw nostalgic memories of all the years that I lived in Paris — then add in the sheer excess of amazing perfumes from every nook and cranny you can behold — into that mix, you can imagine the result. My senses were inflamed to the point that I think they almost imploded from a surfeit of beauty and joy. It’s a lovely problem to have, but it also means that I’m not sure I can do the whole Paris experience justice. I don’t have a single photo, nor even a series of words, that can convey what it was really like. I will try, though, with a series of posts about the various perfume boutiques I visited, and what the shopping experience is like in such places as, for example, Jovoy, JAR, Marie-Antoinette, or Guerlain (which was consistently my worst time in Paris). I will also have a post on the three perfumers I met. And, finally, I will have a very photo-heavy food post, unless you’d be more interested in reading that first. The post may not involve a lot of textual explanation, and perhaps it may not make total sense beyond just a plethora of “food porn” photos, but I hope it will let you visually live vicariously through some of the things I saw and/or tasted while on my trip. (I’m warning you, though, there are well over 25 photos of cheese alone!)

I didn’t get the opportunity to visit any museums, though one of the reasons why I had extended my trip was to do precisely that. In the end, events with friends really dominated the schedule, and I was glad for that because I had the chance to spend a lot amount of time with some people who matter very dearly to me. I did, however, end up at the Louvre at closing time one day, and it was a sight to see. Even at the late hour, the palace’s enormous square was filled with people. The four pyramids (three being quite small) were beautiful in the late afternoon light. (Some thumbnail photos are below which you can click upon to expand to full size on a separate page.)

One of my very favorite memories of Paris will remain an almost private concert I stumbled upon at the Louvre. While walking around one of the furthest pavilions of the palace, I heard the strains of some exquisite music, and I followed the sound to a wild-haired musician playing the cello in one of the passage ways. He was incredibly talented, and I just closed my eyes to listen to the sounds of Bach (and other composers) that floated over me. Whenever I opened them, I could see the baroque majesty and grandeur of the Louvre in front of me. The musician was a funny chap who was eccentric as hell, didn’t take kindly to requests (no Saint-Saens or Pachelbel), and extremely opinionated on various parts of the United States. Having brief conversations about Tucson, Arizona and Wichita, Kansas (??!) in the middle of a passageway of the Louvre built by Catherine de Medici while someone is tuning their cello is…. unexpected, to put it mildly. But it was incredibly enjoyable and memorable, from start to finish. In fact, I ended up staying for almost an hour, joined occasionally by a few, passing people who eventually moved on, but also one Scottish chap who stayed throughout and, like me, finally moved forward to sit at the base of one of the big columns in the passage. It was really just a concert for the two of us — and the Louvre herself. (I have a small 30-second video that I took with my cellphone, but I decided not to include it here as it’s only the end part of one piece and really doesn’t do the whole experience justice.) I had a few other “concerts” in Paris — like a performance by a classical, 7-string ensemble in the metro station — but nothing quite compared to that eccentric, grey-haired, opinionated cellist in the Louvre.

Photo: my own.

Photo: my own.

While friends, Paris, and perfumes took up my days, my nights were varied. It was always spent with friends, but sometimes it was quiet, and sometimes it was not. One evening was spent watching Les Saveurs du Palais (or “Haute Cuisine“), a film about the female, personal chef of French President, François Mitterrand. One night it was dinner at the hipster Hotel du Nord (which is not an actual hotel) on the canals of St. Martin, one night it was me cooking for my hosts. Another night was dinner at the Fish Club which entailed different sorts of fish tapas, followed by a visit to the private, uber-exclusive, members-only club, Silencio, designed by David Lynch. The first part of my visit to Paris coincided with the end of Paris Fashion Week, so for a day or so, some portions of the city were filled with tall, sylph-like, haughty fashionistas and Silencio was no exception. It was quite a sight, though less so than at the painfully stylish “it” spot, the Hotel Costes, where I met one perfumer for tea. (More on that in an upcoming blog post.)

My favorite evening excursion, however, was a motorcycle ride through Paris near midnight, ending up at the base of the Eiffel Tower. It’s a beautiful structure by day, but, somehow, the full enormity of the technical details and artistry shows even more at night. I’ll leave you with one, very large photo I took, and hope that it can convey just a microscopic millimeter of the magic of Paris at night.

Photo: my own.

Photo: my own.