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Armchair Uzès

la Vie Quotidienne

le 6 fèvrier 2001
Uzès, France

On the road again...
Encore sur la route!

Another little day trip, no particular plan in mind, produced an excursion to remember. At 8AM one Friday morning, we were sipping our coffee and realized that it was going to be beautiful, sunny day. Il faut en profiter! A study of the local Michelin map, along with a check of a trusty source for good, reasonably priced restaurants (le Guide Routard - The Rough Guide to French Hotels & Restaurants), and we pinpointed the Ardèche region, no more than two hours away. After a call to the chosen restaurant, Lou Recati in Pont-St-Esprit, to confirm a lunch reservation, we gathered our goods (camera, maps, and lunettes de soleil) and headed north to our destination. One of us has long been a fan of


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Le Pont at Pont-St-Esprit, a marvel of a bridge

Ardèche white wine, which we can get in the States, so we also tossed in our 5-liter cubie in case we happened upon a cave selling wine out of a spigot
    Our first stop was for lunch, of course. After crossing the Rhône river as we headed north, we hit a thick wall of fog just outside of Orange. Fortunately, as we turned off the autoroute toward Pont-St-Esprit, the fog began clearing. We crossed back over the Rhône, traveling over the bridge (pont) that gives the name to this town. And what a bridge it is…more than half a mile long, supported by 20 stone arches, built in the late 1200s at the behest of an abbot prompted by the Holy Spirit (le Saint Esprit), it was bombed during WWII by the Americans, but is back in service and doing quite well today.


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The gorges of the Ardeche river...

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and the natural bridge, the Pont d'Arc.

 

After our delicious lunch, quite a bargain, we headed further north and back inland into the gorges of the Ardèche, one of the most imposing natural sites in the south of France. The Ardèche river flows steeply and swiftly from the mountains of the Massif Central, eventually emptying into the Rhône, and has cut through the area’s limestone cliffs in miraculous ways. You can follow the gorges by car, and you can also run them by canoe or kayak during the warmer months. Toward the end of our winding drive, we came upon a magnificent natural bridge, le Pont d’Arc, carved over centuries by the swift current of the river. What gorgeous gorges…well worth the drive.
     Our return circuit took us through the town of Barjac, which, by the way, hosts an annual top-rate collectibles market in mid April.  We stopped to fill our jug with Ardèche white and chat with the vigneron, who it turns out was born in Uzés and is a big sports fan. As the sun set in the west (yes, the cliché) we chugged back in to Uzés, tired, windblown, road-weary, but thrilled with our glorious day.

Cakes of the Kings
Les Galettes des Rois
The Feast of the Kings (Epiphany, January 6) is celebrated with gusto during the entire month of January here in France. After New Year’s Eve (le Reveillon) and New Year’s Day (le Jour de l’An), the bakeries turn from Christmas things and begin to fill up with galettes des rois, cakes for the Kings. These traditional concoctions each hold a small surprise, baked right into the cake. In olden days, the "prize" was a fève, a large, flat bean well loved here in France. Nowadays, the surprise is usually a ceramic figurine, more to please the children. The person who discovers the prize in their piece of cake is crowned King, le roi, or Queen, la reine, and gets to wear the paper crown that comes with each cake.
     The traditional French galette du roi is a very fine pastry (mille-feuilles) filled with almond cream paste (frangipane), but here in the south of France les galettes can also be filled with fruit paste and crowned with confits of various fruits to represent the jewels in the crown of the King. These fruits confits are a specialty of Provence.
    Why a gift? Why a cake? In addition to the religious representation of the gifts that the Kings brought to the infant Jesus (the story of the Magi), this feast, which continues all through January, also celebrates the new year with the fertile ground (the cake) and the seed within (the prize) which will bring good fortune and good planting for the spring to come. The month of February is called fèvrier in French; maybe it's derived from the bean, the fève.
    
We were fortunate enough to be invited to share several galettes with an amiable group, an event that was actually a combo working session followed by a fête de Galette du Roi. Three different versions were served, one a traditional Parisian-style frangipane, one from the Cévennes with a fruit paste, and one a traditional Provençal brioche crowned with fruited “jewels”. All were delicious, and the roi, Gwen Lequeux - an Uzètien studying theatre at the university at Aix-en-Provence - was gracious enough to share his crown with Joe, and then play vassal to King Joe and Queen Greta. By the way, we also had a small galette, chez nous, traditional frangipane, and this year the “queen” was fortunate enough to find a small ceramic Droopy Dog figurine. And the crown fit too!

 

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Two of three different galettes...

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Vive le roi!

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King Joe and his court.

The only good cow is a stone cow...
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...on the rue du Boeuf in Lyon.


Where's the beef? Who cares?

Cherchez le boeuf? Mais non!

La Vache Folle
– Mad Cow Disease – has reared its ugly head in France over the past several months. The crisis heated up here in early October when a half a dozen cases were confirmed, and people started asking questions. Since then, public schools have banned beef from cafeteria menus; beef industry workers have staged lively demonstrations to protest proposed government solutions (slaughter of the herds); Lionel Jospin, the Socialist Prime Minister, poses frequently eating beef with “the people,” and beef sales here in France are down by 40 percent. However on our visits to the boucherie (for chicken, turkey, lamb, pork) we see plenty of beef displayed and sold. Local butchers claim “trace-ability” of their beef and therefore no problems for their customers. We’re not even thinking about steaks, much less eating them. The French fries here are so good, they don’t need a burger or une entrecôte to go with them.

 

Short takes...

Faits divers...
 

It's a bird, it's a UFO...
C'est un oiseau, c'est un OVU

Driving through the countryside the other day, we spotted an odd looking, triangular-shaped flying object doing touch-and-go’s at an airport outside of Orange and suddenly realized that it was the Concorde. Air France has been testing the jet’s readiness for re-entry to the market after the disaster six months ago. This weekend’s newspaper reported that the tests were “conclusive” (no hint of what that means). Next British Airways will test their planes, after which, if all goes well, the dozen SST Concordes will be put back into service. Gee, can’t wait…

The gods of rugby
Les dieux du stade...

Not to be missed…a 2001 calendar featuring the French National Rugby team. Les Dieux du Stade showcases gorgeous black and white photography, buff subjects, the male form in all its glory and... nakedness. All tastefully done, of course. Get ‘em while the year is young…

Vive l'entreprise!  
Our prof de français will officially launch her school starting April 1. L’Institut de Langue Française de l’Uzège will feature quasi-traditional classroom instruction at various levels, from beginner (débutant) to super advanced.  She's also offering a series of balades, discovery tours of the region for foreigners who want to get out for a walk that combines French conversation and local culture, products, and countryside. Examples:  visits to a local vineyard; a nature walk in the garrigue; trufficulture; discovering the Eure valley, source of the water that flowed to the Pont du Gard from Roman times until the 16th century. As April approaches, Anne-Marie is polishing up her English and her German to handle the volumes of calls she’ll be receiving once her promotions hit the streets!  Bonne chance et félicitations pour l’entreprise, which promises to change the face of learning French…from that scary French class to a series of fun and challenging get-togethers guaranteed to improve your French along with your appreciation for this wonderful region.

Signs of spring?
Le printemps, arrive-t-il?

Yes…the mimosas are in full and fragrant bloom, the quince is coming along, and the almond trees are not far behind. Best news is that they say it’s just two weeks until the asparagus (les asperges) show up in the markets. Meantime, the market is full of beautiful leeks, shallots, fennel, the last of the incredible mushrooms (what great prices – très bon marché!), truffles, fruits (kiwis, clementines, tangerines, apples), and always a wide variety of fresh lettuces. Salad greens haven’t suffered in the last over the winter, and a good soup is just a few aromatics away! 

 

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