‘My French life’ in Provence with Karen Stride.

Armchair travel back to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence – the birthplace of Nostradamus!

My friend and colleague in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Karen Stride, established her Gourmet Escapades in Saint-Rémy, last year, and is living ‘My French life’ as described by Vicki Archer in her book of that name!

January is my reading time and I treasure every moment. One of the books I have just finished is a book I read years ago, given to me by my gorgeous son, written by Australian Vicki Archer and with sensational photographs by her friend, Carla Coulson, also an Australian, entitled ‘My French Life’. It is Vicki’s story of re-locating to France and the restoration her home in Saint- Remy-de-Provence.

I did not intend to read this again; however, I had forgotten Vicki’s home was on the famous Ancienne Voie Aurélia, in beautiful Saint-Rémy, where I had recently spent some time with my friend Karen Stride. Engrossed, I read on and re-visited some of the fabulous places Karen had taken us during our time there.

Karen collected me from the TGV station in Avignon, a short 30 minute drive away from Saint-Rémy; driving through the countryside, Karen talked of how she fell in love with Saint-Rémy, in just the same way as Vicki Archer. As I read, I heard Karen describing her first site of Les Alpilles, the ‘Little Alps’ which are south east from her home in Saint-Rémy. Each day driving along plane tree lined roads, these ancient, rugged, imposing, limestone mountains tower over the country-side and accompany our route. Their beauty is mystical, romantic and captivating as they change colour with movement of the sun and hence the time of day.

Les Alpilles were visible, in the distance, on my early morning walks along the Vincent Van Gogh route towards Saint-Paul de Mausole, the clinic where Van Gogh spent the last year of his life. Olive trees grow in the foothills of Les Alpilles and are everywhere along my walk; so too are roses and irises, as well as pencil pines, the Provençal cypresses.

Stops along this route I called the ‘Vincent Way’, are ‘stations’ with historical summaries, which show where Van Gogh painted such works as Irises and Wheat fields with Cypresses, with photos of the paintings to illustrate you are standing almost where he must have stood! All this is in the foreground with Les Alpilles in the distance.

A few minutes past Van Gogh’s clinic, I continue on the Roman Way to the historical Les Antiques, two famous monuments, one the Mausoleum from 30BC and The Triumphal Arch from 10BC, built to celebrate Caesar’s conquest of the Greeks and Gauls. These impressive classical sites provide an impressive gateway to St Rémy and also mark the original entrance to Glanum, an ancient Greek-Roman city.

Our stay at Karen’s Maison des Cœurs, the House of Hearts, her charming 19th Century village house was a ‘dry-run’ for her culinary tour business, Gourmet Escapades, and so each day was packed with interesting ‘visites’.

Wednesday is market day in Saint-Rémy and of course this was on our agenda. Saint-Rémy is famous for this market and so always attracts tourists as well as locals. We walked the five minutes into the centre of this quintessential Provençal town to find it bustling, full of vibe and excitement. Stalls are set up in the main square and up and down the tiny streets, making it unrecognisable as buildings and the imposing church are hidden and enveloped by the stalls, mobile rotisseries, charcuteries and boucheries.

Local produce always features in these village markets, with discerning buyers taking time to select the best quality and the freshest. I bought some napkin rings, a white linen jacket and a tiny painting by a local artist of Provençal cypresses to add to my collection of French art which continue to give me so much joy at home.

The joys of French life for Vicki Archer are the very same as for most Francophiles, such as Karen and for me too. Vicki describes how the French do take the time in all aspects of their lives. They take the time at the market to choose fruits and vegetables, always those in season, and as Vicki says, the French are ‘…patient and respect the natural harmony of life’.

The French take time to talk about the small things of mutual interest; I have often waited in a boulangerie for the shop-keeper to have quite long conversations with regular customers, unconcerned by the long queue. The French always take time for the greeting, ‘Bonjour’ or ‘Bonsoir’ before launching into their conversation or request. Ask a Frenchwoman the secret to her delicious cooking and she will tell you to take the time and enjoy the cooking process.

The French take the time to set a beautiful table. I love this dining ritual of savouring and enjoying the food, presented beautifully and at a beautifully set table. I love ‘setting the table’, often with flowers and candles, even for our regular evening dinner and we always enjoy setting the table for our guests. The beauty of the table sets the scene for what is to follow.

The breakfast table at Karen’s Maison des Cœurs always looked fabulous and hence is a perfect way to start the day with your Gourmet Escapades! Delicious fruit yoghurt verrine, of fresh kiwi fruit, melon and strawberries, blood orange flavoured iced water and freshly baked baguettes.

Karen, an interior designer in her former days in Sydney, has embraced this French sense of style and created her own. She offers accommodation in either L’Appartement des Anges, the Apartment of Angels, her beautifully restored and decorated 14th century apartment in the historic centre of town and La Maison des Cœurs, the House of Hearts, her charming 19th Century village house.

Karen’s Gourmet Escapades take you to a variety of local, hidden and special, off the tourist track, places.

You will climb the tiny staircase to her apartment rooftop terrace, and sip champagne overlooking Saint-Rémy, and looking out towards the Papal Palace at Avignon, Les Alpilles to the south, the Luberon to the east, and north to Mt Ventoux; you enjoy two wine tastings with her vigneron friends nearby Saint-Rémy as well as a couple in Châteauneuf du Pape.

During our visit to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, literally translated as “the Pope’s new house”, we made the steep climb up the windy streets to the ancient castle of the popes’ ruins perched high on the very top of the hill.is actually true. The Popes of Avignon built this summertime château here to get away from the hustle-bustle of the Palais in Avignon and stayed here during the time the plague was in Avignon. Apart from the foundations of the château, only two walls, possibly towers, remain of the château; they face the village, and are still high and imposing, giving a good feeling of what it was like here centuries ago. From the castle there are wondrous views across to Avignon, and the surrounding countryside with countless vineyards.

Walking down into the Châteauneuf-du-Pape village, there are some interesting caves; the one Karen takes us to has a beautifully restored cellar, a dining room looking out towards Avignon, and a large kitchen, where her private chef hosts cooking classes with wine tastings for her clients.

Being in Provence, of course there is the olive oil tasting at the ancient olive oil maison, where I purchased some exceptionally good extra virgin olive oil. Markets feature as they do anywhere in France; Karen guided us on morning tours of the famous markets in her area, meeting and chatting with the local providores. We dined in a few remarkable quintessential French restaurants, one tiny bistro, in a quiet, tucked away village, was owned by an elderly couple who greeted us warmly. Monsieur waited on the table; Madame cooked our food, and we enjoyed one of the best dinners on the trip. We picnicked near a tiny stream, in a remote, hidden picnic spot, surrounded by olive trees, at the base of Les Alpilles. We travelled into the Camargue to a vineyard, for a wonderful lunch enjoyed on the terrace under the grape vines and overlooking the garden and vineyard.

One last stop, on our way to Marseilles for our flight to Marrakesh, was the early morning visit to one of the most beautiful villages near Saint-Rémy, Eygalières. It was market day and so vibrant with the hustle of locals and tourists. A marked difference to Vicki’s description of Eygalières with its old time Provençals, les vrais provençaux, in Eygalières, enjoying their late afternoon boules with aperitif in hand of the Provençal pastis 51!

For you to enjoy a Gourmet Escapade experience with Karen at her Maison des Cœurs, email Karen – karen.stride@yahoo.com.au and she will tailor a programme to precisely suit your desire.

By | 2016-12-07T19:32:26+11:00 January 12th, 2016|Books and reading, Culinary Travel, France, French food, French wine, Provence, Travel, Uncategorized|Comments Off on ‘My French life’ in Provence with Karen Stride.

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