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Armchair Uzès

la Vie Quotidienne

le 22 janvier 2001
Uzès, France

The annual truffle market
La journée des Truffes

A bright sunny Sunday brought visitors by the thousands to the Place aux Herbes in Uzès for the 8th annual Truffle Festival. This festival is one of the biggest in the region, and was featured on the national news over this past weekend. What goes on at a Truffle Festival?
     There were dozens of stands set up where individual cultivators were selling their wares, those black mushroom-ish truffles that are so prized and so expensive – averaging 400 francs per 100 grams, or $20 per ounce! The tables were piled high with little black nodules, and the air in the plaza was filled with the pungent smell of truffles. In a truffle-hunting pen, set up complete with small trees for animal demonstrations, wily dogs and pigs came out to show the crowd their talents, snuffling here, there and everywhere, and coming up with the goods! Applause all around for these beasts.
     Truffles, often called black diamonds, have been prized since the days of the Egyptians, but despite hundreds of years of research and observation, the mysteries and caprices of these tubers melanospora continue to confound cultivators and gourmands alike. More than 70% of the truffles from France come from the Southwestern region, which has the soil, the climate and the flora that make for successful truffle cultivation.


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You can lead a pig to truffles...

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The truffle man explains his trade...

    Late in the afternoon, we settled in front of a stand under one of the darker archways, and began our negotiations for the truffle that would grace our Sunday supper omelette. The seller asked when we would be eating the truffle, and when we indicated that very evening, he turned away from his pile of black diamonds, pulled out a handkerchief, unfolded it, and showed us his very “special” truffles, those that were most “ripe.” As he cut into one of them and checked its smell, several other customers pushed up with us to sample the goods. We all leaned in to take a whiff, and rewarded the proper funky scent with all sorts of oohs and aahs. The truffle became ours, a 60 franc investment that was later brushed, cleaned, then shaved into the eggs. The truffle is no longer, but the taste remains…and will for several days. But we wonder about the handkerchief trick…did he do that for every new customer that came up? Doesn’t matter, because we “did” the 2001 truffle festival and got the whole show!
For more truffle market photos...

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This is NOT a truffle dog...

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*Happy Birthday to: Maura, Kathy, Dan, Dinny, Sandy, Cansie, Eccie, Suzanne, David, Kevin, Lisa, Sarah, Laurie, Renata, Elvis, Wolfgang, Karen & Joe


Let the good times roll!
Laissez le bon temps rouler!
As part of our general celebration of so many January birthdays* and in anticipation of upcoming Carnavale and Mardi Gras, we gathered a small group together to dine à la créole on rue St.-Théodorit here in Uzès. The event occurred at the same time as the inauguration of our newest Bubba, so we added a bit of Texas to the mix (special thanks to Dianne in Austin), et voilà!
     Chef Joseph, with his trusty sous chef Karen, presented the dinner; Greta, a schoolmate from Germany, provided hors d’oeuvres, and the other guests presented champagne and a fabulous chocolate cake. Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Louis Armstrong, and more provided the music for us. In honor of the chef, we decided to serve an appropriate Côtes du Rhône, a Saint-Joseph from the northernmost reaches of the Rhone Valley. Délicieux...
     Although only the Americans (3 of us) were familiar with the New Orleans motto, laissez le bon temps rouler, the rest of the group had no trouble making the connection, and so the good times did roll. Oui, le bon temps roulait! For photos of the event in the gallery, click here.


A quick trip to Lyon via Saint-Joseph
Une petite excursion via les vignobles de Saint-Joseph

     We set out on a little road trip recently (direction: Lyon, France's other "second" city) and decided, on our way there, to check out the northern Côtes du Rhône wine region. We snaked our way up the Rhône valley, and wandered around in the area of the town of Tain l’Hermitage, home to the justly famous vineyards producing the luscious cru, Hermitage. Judging from the huge billboards atop the hillside vineyards identifying the growers or négociants of this lovely wine, we wouldn’t recommend being there in August or September! But we had a specific purpose in mind, so we crossed the Rhône at Tain l’Hermitage, heading east to west. North on the N-86 to Sarras, and we’d found our region.
     Among the 13 estimable cru wines of the Côtes du Rhône, none has been more surprisingly delicious to us than the wonderful red wine of Saint-Joseph. After having received a few bottles as a Christmas gift, we decided that we should visit that region, and so stopped in the little river town of Saint-Désirat at the appropriately-named Cave de Saint-Désirat, producers of all that is wonderful in Saint-Joseph wines. We tasted an admirable white wine of their production, but it was a couple of their reds we really wanted a crack at. While we were tasting the 1997 red Côte Diane, we noticed it had recently received a citation from Hachette’s Guide to French Wine as an outstanding product. And it was:  fruity, smooth, a lovely thing. The young woman behind the tasting bar told us that the wine was made from quite young vines, and it tasted so:  lovely, but…"Can we try the other?" “Bien sûr!” 
      Heaven! The 1998 red Cuvée des Mariniers, produced from vines nearly 50 years old, won a gold medal in Macon (Burgundy country, no less) this past year and it is well-deserved. We bought six bottles at about eight dollars each. We had a small test in mind:  We were to host a small dinner party of about a dozen, most of them French. We’d see what they had to say about it. Result? Home run. Délicieux, they said, wonderful wine. We agree! But we were headed for Lyon, and so continued to travel further north another hour, stopping for a quick oh la la at the Roman and medieval ruins in Vienne.

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The steep vineyards along the northern slopes of the Rhone valley, home to Saint-Joseph wine

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Louis XIV still reigns as a statue in the Place Bellecoeur in the heart of Lyon ... notice the replica of the Tour Eiffel along the skyline in the background

 By early evening we were in Lyon, ready for our gastronomic day-and-a-half extravaganza. An evening at the grand table Léon de Lyon, in the heart of the city, was wonderful (and 8 courses, of course...we had to walk/crawl back to the hotel). But the best surprise was the beauty and grace of Lyon itself, situated at the junction of the Rhône and Saône rivers, with an old medieval quarter, beautifully laid out streets and squares, and plenty of good shopping and eating.
     A French writer once said: “I have found the Paris of the 1930s. It is in Lyon.” Amen...

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The Tourelle Rose (pink tower) in Old Lyon


A championship horse race? Right here in Uzes? Yes,but…
Une course championnat? Ici a Uzès? Oui, mais...

When we moved to Uzès we knew there was a regional branch of le Haras National here on the outskirts of town. Le Haras National, which translates as “the National Stud,” is an organization charged with improving the breeding of France’s equine population. The really big show is le Haras National at Chantilly, where thoroughbreds are the focus. Here in Provence the work centers largely on pleasure animals and working beasts. We found out one recent early winter weekend that the local Haras was hosting the finals of the French National Championships…for long-distance riding horses. No chance for a bet we realized, one of us nearly paralyzed with sobs. Nonetheless, on a cold, sparkling Sunday, we showed up to see what was going on. There were actually three championships:  one for four-year-olds at 40 kilometers (27 miles), one for five-year-olds at 60 kilometers (40 miles), and the feature race, the French Breeders’ Cup equivalent, six-year-olds at 90 kilometers, or 60 miles.
     This is definitely not the most exciting two minutes in sport. Each horse starts out individually, followed a few minutes later by the next competitor. Time decides it all, not a multi-horse sprint to the finish line. The horses are mostly Arabians or something called “the French pleasure horse,” or mixtures thereof, precisely identified by percentage. The courses wind all around the neighboring towns. The winning time in the feature was something just over six hours. Veterinarians examine each animal at various checkpoints and “scratch” any horse whose heart-rate or blood pressure is too high.
     In spite of the lack of flash finish, this was really a good show. Competitors were truly in to it. Judges and officials of the Haras National were suitably officious. The shaggy-coated horses were…well, they ain’t thoroughbreds, but they’re try-ers.
     So we went to a French national championship horse race right here in Uzès. Had a fine time. Lost nary a sou on the outcome, a refreshing experience. And just to cover that gap in information, the result you didn’t get from your American Daily Racing Form, the winner of the feature event was Burzet du Moulon, a six-year-old Arabian horse ridden by Gaëtan Calvier, owned by the same individual. And, yes, he’s for sale!

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Lots of prep for the start and finish...

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