"God bless the French lunch hour." Elizabeth David
A lucky dip. Elizabeth David's book of essays and writings from here and there, An Omelette and a Glass of Wine - a phrase in itself that has come to epitomise the pleasure derived from simple things. The piece in question is theoretically about the fish market in Martigues west of Marseilles and on the edge of the Camargue, and indeed the latter part of the essay, originally published in Vogue, is about that. However, I opened it at a page describing the Camargue and an unexpectedly delicious meal. It is a beautifully written piece in itself, but it also brought back memories of the Camargue, and a holiday in Beaucaire on the banks of the Rhône, which led to other memories, and ponderings on the unexpected. And I will come back to that ferry boat, for it all begins with the ferry.
I shall probably quote her at length, because it is such good writing, displaying simultaneously her warm appreciation of the humble and the beautiful, and her scorn for the modern world. But I make no apologies. Heaven knows what she would have thought of today, although, food wise I think she would as always be simultaneously appalled and perhaps delighted too. And although this was written back in 1960 - over 60 years ago, so much of what she says is still relevant today.
To begin at the beginning. After a bad night:
"spent in a highly unlikely establishment disguised as a cluster of Camarge guardian huts, we left before breakfast and spent a healing morning lost in the remaining lonely stretches of this once, completely wild, mysterious, melancholy, half-land, half-water, Rhône estuary country."
Healing because of the evening before's "pretentious dinner and bad night", we are then presented with the dilemma that we all come across so often in life - the fundamental problem of sustaining human life without destroying the planet. Even more pertinent today. Here she is talking about how the French have tamed this wilderness in part with rice fields - now a massive industry:
"It has been a great triumph for France's construction and agricultural engineers, a dazzling testimony to the industry and enterprise of a people who so often appear, to those who do not know them, to be in a perpetual state of political and economic chaos. One cannot but rejoice for France, and wholeheartedly admire the determination and ingenuity which has turned an almost totally waste land into a productive and prosperous one."
Beautiful too, and in it's way so exactly the 'half-land, half-water' that she was so enchanted by. The problem, however, is:
"Alas, though, for the animals and the wild birds, for the legendary beasts which frequented the Camargue, for the shimmering lonely stretches of water, for the still heart of this mournful mistral-torn and mosquito-ridden country. The harpies from Paris running the road houses which must inevitably multiply will be a worse scourge than the mosquitoes. Owners of souvenir shops selling china Camargue bulls and plastic flamingoes and scarves printed with Provençal recipes will be more implacable than the mistral."
She is half right of course, as these two pictures above demonstrate. David in front of a gaudy bra stand in the market - amusing to us but somewhat crass, and some rather cute souvenirs in a shop window - a bit better than the standard china bulls and so on, although, of course they exist too. In the Camargue these days you see tourism at its best and its worst. As everywhere probably. There is an informative museum and flamingo park, and major parts of the Camargue are still wild and unvisited because of the difficulties of access, as well as being official reserves. There are not a lot of roads, and not a lot of habitation. The tourism is generally concentrated in a few spots, like Les Saintes-Maries and Aigues-Mortes, but even they have their unspoilt and must see parts. And tourism, somewhat paradoxically can be the saviour of those wild beasts and bird and the landscape too.
But here is the ferry and the unexpected delight. The ferry crosses the Rhône at a tiny spot called Salin-de-Giraud. Interestingly she does not mention the other massive industry of the Camargue - well not counting tourism of course - salt - some of the most prestigious salt you will find - and the salt pans are also stunningly beautiful in a strange way. The photograph on the left is one I found and is of the salt pans at Salon-de-Giraud - the other is I think near Aigues-Mortes.
Many years ago now we also made the journey across the Rhône and we too, had to wait for ages for the ferry. Not as long as Elizabeth David and friend(s) however. She had just missed the 11.30 ferry and there was not another until 2.30. So 'forlornly we made our way to the local restaurant.'
She says the restaurant was called La Camarguaise which is a name that does not exist today. However there is La Camargue, and I suspect that it is probably the same place. Although whether it still serves 'a well-chosen and properly cooked and comforting meal' I have no idea.
For Elizabeth David, however it was that unexpected delight which we are all sometimes presented with. For her:
"it reminded me of what Provençal restaurants used to be like in the days before even the most ordinary of Provençal dishes became a 'specialty' listed on the menu as a supplément at 750 francs."
I have no idea what 750 francs is in today's money, but her meal that day cost 600 francs. A modest price I am guessing. And she is so right about those specialties - cassoulet being a prime example and one that often requires 24 hours notice.
She then describes the meal culminating in the perfection of beef Gardiane - a rich beef stew:
"The boeuf Gardiane which followed brought tears to our eyes; we had been overwrought and dropping with fatigue, and while the food we had already eaten had cheered and comforted us, it wasn't until the cover was taken off the dish of beef stew and we smelt the wine and the garlic, and the rich juices and saw the little black olives and the branches of wild thyme which had scented the stew laid in a little network over the meat, that the tension vanished. We ordered more supplies of the cheap red wine and decided that the 2.30 ferry would have to go without us."
The photograph accompanying that wonderful paragraph was taken on our last night in Beaucaire, in the restaurant in one of the town's hotels - in a former monastery I seem to remember. A beautiful old building anyway, and a stunning courtyard. I don't know if the beef stew shown there was the same but it was certainly delicious, as was the whole meal - another unexpected delight, because until that point the food we had eaten in town, although pretty wonderful, did not quite reach the heights of this last meal.
I think I would classify that week - or rather the town of Beaucaire - as one of my greatest and most unexpected delights in France. Beaucaire is situated on the River Rhône, across the bridge from the town of Tarascon and a little south of Avignon. Indeed I spent most of the week musing on why it was not more well-known and full of tourists. There were some of course, but not many.
It began with the house. Down a narrow street lined with tall but marginally forbidding looking houses we came to the garage. We had to back into the equally narrow street opposite the door in order to be able to enter. I should also say that the front entrance of the house which fronted a small but charming square, was equally plain, but inside was paradise. This was just part of the oasis that was the garden/courtyard, complete with two pools for swimming or simply basking in, and a myriad of peaceful spots in which to relax. Inside the house was huge - our rooms were huge, but with every modern convenience.
The next day we wandered down to the banks of the Rhône where we found the locals of the yacht club enjoying a home-made raft competition. It wasn't a race, I think they just had to make the journey over a prescribed course. Some of the rafts sank they were so flimsy, but huge fun was had by all and there were always rescuers on hand. So we sat in the afternoon sun with the locals and drank it all in.
Of course not every moment of that week was full of surprise or even delight, but overall my feeling was that this was a hidden gem in plain sight. Over the river in Tarascon, which is slightly more well-known, although heaven knows why, we discovered a truly wonderful castle, where David sang his gregorian chants in the chapel, and we encountered a young Australian couple touring on bikes to which were attached carriages for their two children. And there was a beautiful garden too. I think there might have been just three or four sets of tourists there on the day we visited.
Beaucaire itself had a castle, a canal lined with barges, as well as the Rhône, other squares, other beautiful walks, a market ... And if you wanted to do the hotspots, Arles is not far, neither is Avignon - and, of course, the Camargue which we visited one day.
If you ramble through the countryside aimlessly in your car, you might suddenly come across a piece of ancient Rome - an aqueduct we assume for there was no information or sign. It was just there. yet another unexpected delight.
So here's to Elizabeth David for her writing and for stimulating me to think of this so surprising week in beautiful Beaucaire whose name means beautiful aspect - which it has in spades. Caire also means the corner of a polygon or a polyhedron - a corner anyway, so I suppose you could also translate it as beautiful corner. She also made me think of all the unexpected delights that have come my way in my very fortunate life, and hopefully yours too.
Today has also brought an unexpected delight. A visit from son and grandsons to consume the meatballs that have been clogging up my freezer. What more could you want?