Aix-en-Provence. Every time we come here, it feels like a pilgrimage. After all, this is where I experienced my own culinary awakening many years ago. How could I not, when the fresh produce market at the Place Richelme was a mere step away from my old, drafty apartment, when I was constantly surrounded by freshly-baked bread, or when there was such a fine butcher-charcuterie shop was at the end of my block? It is also the site of a world-renowned opera festival every July, which pleases me doubly, triply so!
This year, I got the idea to rent a studio one street over from my old student haunts. Of course, that didn’t work out at all. As soon as we set foot on the studio’s lovely tomette tiles, we could see it was infested with cockroaches. M. Cheesemonger and I spent a frantic afternoon and evening finding some new lodgings. We succeeded, and by 11pm that first night, were settled into a hotel a bit further away from the town center, this time surrounded by the constant hum of cicadas.
The next day was, marvelously, MARKET DAY. Unfortunately, we were without a kitchen, so we roamed the stalls and dreamt of all we could do with this produce if we had access to one. Some things never change at the market—I saw some of the same soap, linens, and antique merchants I remember from my student days. The traditional cookie maker was at his customary spot. There are still five-foot-wide paella pans steaming with this delicious, saffron- and seafood-infused specialty. Walking the market forces the senses awake. How can you resist the urge to sample that small, perfect mouthful of black tapenade? How can you not succumb to the aromas of fresh fruit, artisan saucisson sec, and fresh breads? It’s impossible, and so you do what you must, and absorb all of it—all the honey, all the spices, all the olives, onions, shallots, peppers and garlic, all the dirt-covered potatoes, all the cheeses.
M. Cheesemonger and I knew we were in for a picnic, we had no kitchen, and that there could be no leftovers. We procured a compact chèvre sec from a cheesemonger, a barquette of small, scarlet gariguette strawberries (My favorites!! I do cross an ocean and a continent for them.), a fougasse aux olives, a baguette, and some pistounade (a combination of basil pistou AND tapenade), then wandered off to find a quiet corner to enjoy it all. We were out on the streets, but there were many fountains and small squares to settle around. We chose the one by the Théâtre de l’Archevêché, where we were going to see an opera that evening. All we had in the way of utensils was a credit card to cut and serve the dry, hard, peppery chèvre, and a bottle of drinking water to rinse our strawberries. However, if you can’t taste some of the treasures of the marché aixois, you’re missing out on about 90% of the Aix-en-Provence experience! The magic is all in the Provençal sun, I’m convinced.
The French have a traditional belief that if a woman craves strawberries, it is a sign that she’s pregnant. If this is true, I’ve been pregnant for about a decade. M. Cheesemonger actually does not care for strawberries, so I had the whole barquette to my gluttonous self! After our mini feast, though, he spoke the magic words, “Do you want ice cream?” We sauntered over toward the Place Richelme to an artisanal glace maker. I tasted a lavender ice cream before settling on the calisson flavor (calissons being a local specialty made from melon confit). M. Cheesemonger chose his old standby, a “rocher,” based on his favorite chocolate/hazelnut childhood candy. It was a simple, easy meal. Little did we know that we would later race through that part of Aix when we discovered our opera was not at the Théâtre de l’Archevêché but at the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume across town.
All of this is maybe to show the variety of ways one can enjoy France. Yes, the world of fine restaurants, five-course meals, and white table linens is wonderful, but the simpler joys of a sunny, impromptu curbside picnic are no less grand, especially in sunny Provence.
As for the opera, we saw Elena by Francesco Cavalli, about Helen of Troy, apparently staged for the first time in 350 years! It was thoroughly enchanting—whimsical, humorous, dramatic, and just beautifully performed. The theatre was small, intimate, and our seats were on the side, just over the stage. We could see the period orchestra perfectly. If I could, I would have gone to see it three more times. Now that I’m looking . . . . I CAN! And you can too! Sorry, there are no subtitles, but it’s flippin’ magical. And there are so many countertenors. If you go to the Aix-en-Provence festival website, you can see video of other operas (a stunning Elektra and kind of racy Rigoletto) as well.