Last spring, while visiting the south of France, I had a sudden pang of homesickness after stumbling upon this adorable little square. You see, my mom has that tablecloth. One of the first pieces of advice I received about living overseas was to take at least a few familiar things with you so that your house always feels like “home.” I took this tablecloth. Macedonia. Washington. Kazakhstan. I keep packing it up and shipping it on to the next place, and every time I sit down for dinner I think of my mom. (If you want to think of my mom at dinner, I found this tablecloth for you too!)
This is me and my beautiful mom. Today is her birthday (I won’t say how old she is, but I will tell you it’s one of the “important ones”). Happy Birthday Mom! My mom is a pretty amazing lady, and someone I have always looked up to (as you can see from the picture). Besides being a fun, kind person and an amazing mom, she truly has the gift of hospitality. She has the ability to talk to almost anyone. Seriously, I can’t count the number of times I have introduced a friend to my mom and within minutes they are revealing things I never even came close to knowing during the entire time I’d known them. You used to live where? You studied what in college? Your grandma was a famous actress in how many films? She’s like a conversational wizard! (Friends reference anyone?)
I definitely got my love of travel from my mom. Wanting to spend this monumental (or mom-umental) birthday in style, she spent months deliberating whether she would celebrate with a trip to Italy, or to Sri Lanka, or somewhere else. The whole time, I was
yelling at her dropping subtle hints that she might want to consider the south of France. She opted for Italy, but in honor of my mom, here are a few of my favorite things from a recent trip to the south of France, plus a few thoughts on what I want to do next time!
1. The food. Does it really even need to be said? If you can’t find something to eat in the south of France…well, we can’t be friends anymore. Unfortunately, I was so busy sampling everything the region had to offer, that I hardly had time to snap any food pics. The only treats that made it onto my camera were this socca (chickpea crepe) and a friendly mug of hot chocolate. We had more delicious meals than I could count, but there were two that really stuck out. The first was at Oliviera in Nice. In addition to selling some of the best handpicked olive oils, Olivera offers a lunch and dinner seating at their small restaurant in the old part of the city. If you decide to pop in (reservations recommended), you will be warmly greeted by the owner who will bring you a few types of olive oil to sample, and explain to you in detail the differences between them. With every course, he will return with an olive oil pairing, even for the desert! This is the French dining experience you dream about, ingredients bought fresh daily at the local market, a perfectly paired (but not too pricy) bottle of wine. We tried a salad with avocado and sour apple, steak tartare, pumpkin lasagna, homemade sausages, and pasta with pesto. We also sampled the tiramisu, and a light panna cotta with marmalade. I’d go back to Nice just for this restaurant, but luckily, Nice is full of fun things to do and other great places to eat as well!
The second most memorable meal was at the hotel-restaurant Les Florets in the village of Gigondas. We stopped here for a several-course lunch as part of a wine tasting tour. Of course the lunch–mushrooms with tomato and coriander seed, morels with crisped bread and poached egg, fresh asparagus, cornish hens, and a variety of delicious deserts–paired perfectly with wines from the owner’s winery. On our way out, we stopped by the reception to inquire about the rooms, and I promise that the next time I return to Gigondas, I will definitely be staying the night!
2. Wine. Before you close the window thinking this list is far to cliche: scores of people go to France every year for the food and wine, let me offer you this: an amazing wine tasting tour in the Cote du Rhone region, with a French and English speaking guide. Oliver of Wine Uncovered is the same guide who led us to one of the best meals of our trip (above), and his knowledge of and passion for local wine makes for a fun and educational afternoon. He will pick you and your traveling companions up at your accommodations, and brings a selection of French cheese to pair with the wines.
3. These views. There is nothing more pleasant than meandering through the small medieval villages of Provence. Several small towns stuck with me, but none so much as the hilltop town of Gordes. If I was feeling fancy (rich) I would stay at La Bastide de Gordes, which had a view to die for and a tempting spa.
4. Cooking Classes. The only thing better that sampling all of the delightful treats the south of France has to offer is learning to make them yourself, so you can continue to enjoy long after your vacation is over. Whenever we travel together, my friends and I always seek out a local cooking class. We shy away from anything that hints of intense discussions of knife technique, or classical sauce making, and go for something that sounds like a fun way to experience the local culture with someone who knows food! Last spring, we took a cooking class with Erick Vedel at Provence Cooks in Arles. Erick’s space was absolutely charming, and the recipes he shared were just what we were looking for–fresh asparagus with orange oil, eggplant soaked in olive oil, with parsley and garlic, steamed squid with freshly made aioli, puff pastry stuffed with spinach, raisins, and pine nuts, roman style chicken, and a hazelnut chocolate tart with a hint of violet extract.
5. This view. A sea that changes color with its mood. What could be more compelling? Whether you plan on swimming (probably not the time of year when we were there), strolling, or simply relaxing over a cup of coffee and a croissant, you can’t go wrong if you are sitting here.