Author Archives: Rich Steck

Life Lesson from a French Brioche

In Jodi Picoult’s latest book, “The Storyteller,” Sage Singer, baker and the novel’s heroine, turns to her kitchen for comfort. And in so doing reveals the power of baking to teach us all a lesson about ourselves and coping when events seem to unhinge our emotional stability.

“I decide to bake something that requires my undivided attention: brioche.

brioche, baking. bread

“It’s a bread that is an anomaly—50 percent of it is butter, yet instead of being a brick of a loaf, it is melt-in-your-mouth, sweet, airy. To make it on a hot, humid day like this is an added challenge, because it requires all ingredients to be cold. I even refrigerate the mixing bowl and the dough hook.

“I begin by beating the butter with a rolling pin while the dough is mixing. Then I add it, in small portions, to the mixer. This is my favorite part about brioche. The dough doesn’t quite know what to do with all that butter, and begins to come apart. But with enough time, it manages to bring itself back to center, to a satin consistency.

“I turn off the mixer and rip off a hunk of dough the size of a plum. Holding it between my hands, I pull it slowly to see if it sheets—growing transparent as it stretches. I set the dough into a container and cover it tightly with plastic wrap, then place it on my counter and begin to clean up the kitchen.”

Read that middle paragraph again – and join me in saying “Vive la France, la brioche, Mlle Singer et spécialement Mme Picoult!” 


Petanque: The French National Pastime

There’s a game played in France that might almost be dubbed the nation’s national sport.

They call it Petanque. OK, some people call it “boules” but that’s really the name of the balls used in Petanque.

petanque courtIt began in Greece in 6 BC, moved to Rome whose soldiers and sailors introduced it to Provence and by the Middle Ages it was being played all over Europe. Until England’s King Henry III banned his archers from playing it and in the 14th  century France’s kings Charles IV and Charles V forbade commoners from playing the sport. Only in the 17th century was the ban lifted.

Our friends at European Waterways (barge trips on canals throughout Europe) sent us a note recently describing the sport:

“The game of Petanque holds a special place in French life. It is virtually impossible to travel through France without coming across a group of men in a local village square relaxing and socializing over a game of petanque. Yet it is far from just a trivial pastime. In France there is an official association to whom you have to apply for a permit before you can even consider competing seriously!

“The form of Petanque played today originated in 1907 in Provence and consists of throwing a hollow metal ball, from a designated, standing position, to land as close as possible to another smaller wooden ball, known as the jack.

Petanque player“Apparently there are various strategies which define your style as a petanque player. The more competitive player trains hard, applying the unfriendly strategy of aiming to bomb the opposition’s ball out of the way. He is known as a ‘tireur’ – meaning shooter, quickly and skillfully shooting his way to a winning position. The less serious player is called a ‘pointeur’ – meaning timekeeper. He takes a more relaxed approach, enjoying the friendly ambience of the game and taking his time over each throw. His strategy is to use subtlety and guile to get his boules as close to the jack as possible and if he knocks the opposition out of the way in the process, well then that’s just good luck!”

Each of European Waterways’ hotel barges in France has a petanque set on board, so there’s always an opportunity for you to have your own game on the banks of a canal and decide on your strategy! I suspect their number one rule is: “Don’t toss your boule in the canal!”

Gorge du Verdon, the French Grand Canyon

gorge du verdon cliffLocated in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence area of France, not far from the Cote d’Azur, this canyon, called the Gorges du Verdon, is one of Europe’s most spectacular natural wonders. It’s also one of France’s best-kept secrets. Perhaps because seeing the beauty of the gorge comes at a price: you have to drive on one of the scariest roads in Europe. But it’s also one of the most beautiful as the road follows the meandering river, zigging and zagging up, down and around mountains carpeted with yellow flowers, going through windowed tunnels and over a single span bridge.

Gorges du Verdon, Provence, South France, view from north rimAlthough affording spectacular views of the canyon and river below, be aware that at times only a white line, a couple of little rocks and some wildflowers separate the road from a sheer drop to the bottom of the gorge.

Roll Out the Barrel

Many factors combine to make a great wine: the grapes, the soil and environment where they grow, the skill of the winemaker and even the very barrels in which the wine comes of age before bottling.

Oak barrels at CHATEAU LUSSAC

– There are actually three kinds of wood barrels that are used: oak, pine and chestnut. Oak is used primarily. Most of it comes from France and the U.S. (particularly Michigan and Minnesota).

– Typically barrels hold about 59 gallons. French oak barrels are the “gold standard” of the trade and cost about $600 each. American oak barrels are about $300 each.

– Oak can be used either in the fermentation or aging process.

– The porous nature of an oak barrel allows some degree of evaporation and oxygenation to take place in wine but typically not so much that it spoils the wine.

French oak tree

The best barrels are made from French oak trees.

– When the barrels are made, the oak staves are heated over a wood fire, so they can be bent and shaped. The charring that occurs is retained on the inside of the barrel during construction and is called “toasting.” Wineries ordering the barrels will ask for a certain degree of toasting. The more it’s toasted the more the tannin level and wood flavor will be in the wine. It also imparts that “vanilla” taste in a wine that you hear mentioned so often.

– Oak barrels have become so expensive that a number of U.S. wine producers have taken some short cuts to give their wines an “oak” flavor without spending so much money. These methods include floating oaks staves or oak saw dust in the juice to give it the oak taste, or even buying and using liquid oak extract and powders. In France, where wine production is highly regulated, only oak barrels can be used.

– California wines tend to be more “oakie” because that’s where the American palette is right now. In France and other parts of the world the wine has less oak and more mineral taste.

– Pinot Noirs, which are lighter in tannins, pass through the oak quickly. Heavier Cabernet Sauvignons stay longer.

The Madness That Made Lacoste

remains of de Sade's castle in LacosteYears ago, in the middle of a surly storm, we were scouting villages for our Provence Escapes tours. We were checking out Lacoste, site of one of the most infamous castles in Provence – the family home of the Marquis de Sade. Rough gusts of rain pelted us as we climbed up crumbling stone steps leading to the castle doorway high above the village. Heavy storm clouds turned late afternoon sunlight into murky twilight, creating  gloomy images in our minds of villagers marching up the cobblestone alleys below us, shouting and waving torches and pitchforks in angry denunciation of the sadistic life on the other side of the castle’s door, like a scene from an early Frankenstein movie.

The castle was in ruins back then, two great walls jutting skyward, the rest in various stages of reckless neglect, with only a suggestion of where Sade committed his erotic dramas of human licentiousness and unrestrained pleasure.

de sade's castle, Lacoste valleyAll that’s changed today, thanks to designer Pierre Cardin’s purchase of the de Sade ruins. In philanthropic largesse, he’s restored parts of the castle, turning it into a performance venue for his Festival de Lacoste, a month of ballet, theater, concerts, recitals and opera staged in his partially restored de Sade castle. It’s an event that annually attracts thousands to this small village of less than 500 inhabitants.

But when we returned recently, we found the Marquis’ restored castle ruins lacking the nostalgic impact of those pre-Cardin days. It’s now fenced and sealed away from the rambling explorations that made it such a curious adventure. Sad for us, but what a boon to Lacoste to become a center of haute culture, raising it, on a sophistication scale, several notches above its sister hillside village of Bonnieux nine kilometers across the valley.

Doggie escort on path between Bonieux and LacosteOn our last visit, we made the pleasant jaunt from Bonnieux to Lacoste. Enroute, a little terrier in front of her owner’s cottage gave us a furious territorial warning – then joined us for the stroll to the famous village. We named her Bijou and enjoyed her doggy Joie de vivre. Alas, with typical French independence, she abandoned us as soon as we reached the cobblestone streets of Lacoste.

Nowadays, Lacoste’s beautifully restored buildings house the Savannah College of Art and Design’s French campus. The clock tower’s still there, along with artists’, weavers’ and potters’ studios, galleries, shops, cafes, the bakery, the sweets shop, the butcher – all the accoutrements that make village life so appealingly fascinating to foreign visitors. Today, Lacoste is many things: a walkable medieval remnant of the middle ages, a reminder of a later madness that gave us the word sadism, a contemporary center for English-speaking students studying art and design, a world-class stage for the performance of live art.

But perhaps best of all, Lacoste is a state of mind, adaptable to the satisfaction of any who visit with the open expectations of a child and the maturity to benefit from the experience.

Dining Protocol In France

Eat Like a French Native …

plate with silverware

As hosts of our Provence Escapes tours, we’re often asked about what cultural differences Americans should be aware of when traveling in France. No one wants to make an embarrassing “faux pas” in a foreign country.

Well, in a country where food is king it’s good to have courtly manners, especially while dining. So here are a few cultural differences between eating styles in America and France that we’ve picked up over our years traveling in France.

– You’ll notice that most Europeans use the fork in their left hand, the knife in their right. It makes sense, especially if you’re cutting something – why keep switching hands every time? Try it; you’ll quickly feel comfortable with the new arrangement.

– Don’t cut your salad with a knife or fork. Instead, fold your salad on your fork (in your left hand) using your knife. (This will take a bit of finesse, so practice at home to get the hang of it.)

– Never cut bread. Break it with your fingers. And because there usually aren’t bread/butter plates, it’s OK to place your bread on the table above your dinner plate on the left.

– Good news: it’s OK to sop up your plate with a small piece of bread!

– Cut cheese long ways, not across. (For example, don’t cut off the point.)

– Never eat fruit whole – always peel and slice it before eating.

– When you’re finished eating, place knife and fork side by side on the plate at the 5:20 position. The fork should be on the left and the knife should be on the right with the blade of the knife facing the fork a la the photo above.

silverware message on a plate– To signify that you would like more food, cross your knife and fork across your plate.

Bon appétit.

Provence Escapes Goes Underground For Art

There’s a fascinating place in Provence, France, that’s unknown to most Americans. It’s an underground quarry deep beneath Les Baux-de-Provence, one of the most-visited villages in France.

Carrieres de Lumieres entrance

The massive entry welcomes visitors to the underground light and sound spectacle.

Deep within the caverns that gave their stone to build the medieval castle, fortress and walls on Les Baux’s mountain plateau high overhead, is the spectacular Carrieres de Lumieres (“Quarries of Light”). It’s an apt name for one of the most unusual light and sound spectacles in all of France. It’s one of the places we take our Provence Escapes tour guests. 

Carrieres de Lumieres interior

Art and sound surrounds visitors in the quarry’s cavernous chambers.

Through a combination of high-tech imagery and surround-sound music, visitors are immersed  among over 2,000 super-sized projections from paintings by Monet, Renoir, Matisse, Chagall and others as images sweep across 40-foot walls, floors and ceilings in the quarry’s cavernous chambers.

But underground galleries aren’t the only art highlights of the tour this year. included is a visit to Aix-en-Provence where Cezanne lived, with a tour of his home, his

studio (filled with original items he included in some of his paintings) and the quarry where he painted. Plus a day in St. Remy, where Van Gogh, committed to its asylum, painted his provocative Starry Night and many of his best known pieces.