… TROIS …

We drove through uncharted territory. I’d never been to this part of France … and its rugged, rocky beauty was more reminiscent of the American Southwest than the pastoral rolling hills I had imagined. We ate leftover lamb … from last night’s delightful and delicious dinner at DRÔLE D’ENDROIT in Aix-en-Provence … in a little place in a charming town along the way.

I knew Paris, I’d been to the mountains and the mer … but not southern France.

We got to our B&B-cum-hotel in Albi … ATELIER AUTAN DES COULEURS … where Silvie is the lovely hostess. (But be sure to call in advance so she’s there when you arrive.) Set in a charming old maison, the strangest thing about the accommodation was that our bathroom had the loudest toilet in the world. By the third flush, we started saying “fire in the hole” before we pushed the button.

We were here to hear Toto … they were performing at closing night of a music festival … and the reason for our trip to France.

Albi has … as do all such historic towns … a pont vieux (crossing the Tarn River, it dates back to 1040), and a medieval cathedral, Sainte Cécile (now a World Heritage Site).

The hotel, by happy accident, was walking distance to the concert venue. We simply followed the crowd … a few blocks to the city center, across the river, then turn left and walk along residential streets toward the location.

Set in an expansive park, there was a large area for people to stand, with stadium seating on one side and at the back. There were all kinds of food trucks and drink stands behind the seating area. Lots of people lingering and mingling. Tempting food fragrances filled the air and the area.

We sat on the ground, cushioned by pine needles, and ate our French-cheese-on-French-bread sandwiches. I had to get my daily fix of bread … and made sure to eat a chunk sans fromage to be sure I savored the wheaty, bubbly, soft, crisp perfection that makes this bread, well, this bread.

We showed our tickets, got wristbands, and found seats center stage, mercifully in a bit of shade from some evergreens … albeit far back. From our vantage, we saw tall trees to our left and the cathedral on the right. This was not the Hollywood Bowl.

The music was starting … its magic uniting thousands of strangers to become temporary friends.

The opening act was Procol Harum (better than I expected). David said some of the original members were still with the band. Then Toto performed … a shortened set of only one hour … and it was all we expected. Great songs, energetic and enveloping … we sang along at the top of our lungs … cheering, clapping, woo-hooing, wanting more more more. Please … another encore. Bis! The headliner was German metal band Scorpions (louder than I expected … my body vibrated, and you still heard the music clearly half-a-mile away, as we walked back to town).

Out of the stands and back in the food forest, the most popular choice seemed to be baked pommes de terre topped with … one looked like salmon, another like pancetta …

It was a Sunday night, now dark, and we didn’t know how many restaurants would be open. Google showed only one. We decided to get potatoes … and if we found a restaurant, good, but if not, then we won’t be hungry. And we can always have biscotti in our room.

As we stood in line, I walked to the front to see what the options actually were. I came back to report that it was, in fact, baked potatoes with three choices of toppings. Salmon and crab … cheese … something called gesiers.

Back with David, I said, “The server holds the potato with topping in one hand, and then picks up a container of cream” [my eyes widen … I paused, and then using a seductive tone that said ‘you cannot resist’], and asks ‘would you like cream?’ … then pours it s l o w l y onto the potato.”

Everyone standing near me paused and listened.

A French girl in front of us said “wow, that sounds irresistible.” We began to chat, about the concert, about France. Her name is Justine, and she’s an English teacher. I told her that my French was coming back … but the words hadn’t yet moved from brain to mouth. I said I started telling people (en français) to speak in French because I’d understand … but then stood there, tongue-tied, as I tried to fumble, mumble a reply … with me thinking that they’re thinking I barely speak high school French. She nodded in agreement, and said oui oui oui … she has the same problem with German.

We exchanged contact information.

We got to the front of the queue … only to find out we need a special prepaid card (not cash) as payment. Justine said she had enough credit on her card for one potato. Her treat. Merci beaucoup!

Gésiers confits is duck, stewed and cut into big, juicy, tender pieces. Ma bien sûr, we had c r e a m. It was amazing … succulent and indulgent … but not heavy. Food trucks around the world should take note.

The one restaurant that Google said was open … was closed. Scorpions played on. We heard them as we crossed the river and headed back to our hotel. Bon nuit.

The next morning, we had a perfect French breakfast, sitting outside on the flower-filled patio, talking with Silvie and a Belgian couple. Cafe au lait, of course … flaky croissant … a fabulous vol-au-vent filled with marzipan … (mandatory) bread and butter … homemade prune preserves … fresh apricots and Saturn peaches. Did I mention the vol-au-vent …?

We set out … on our long drive across France toward the Alps. We stopped at a charming café, but lunch was over, so all we could have was a coffee. Dommage. In a small spot like that, you know the meal would have been so very good.

But the mountains, the Alps, awaited us …

… to be continued …

“RICCIARELLI”

These are a Christmas cookie from Siena … but under the covering of powdered sugar, you will find a moist almond macaroons. THESE ARE MUCH LESS SWEET THAN STORE-BOUGHT ONES.

2–⅓ cups almonds, finely ground
½ cup sugar
1 Tbl. almond extract
Grated rind from 1 orange
2 egg whites
Pinch of cream of tartar
Optional … melted dark chocolate, for dipping

- Preheat oven to 325° F (160° C). Line a cookie sheet with a silpat.
- In a medium bowl, combine the ground almonds, sugar, extract and orange peel.
- In a large bowl, beat the egg whites with cream of tartar until they form stiff peaks. Gently fold the almond mixture into the whites to form a sticky dough.
- Using two teaspoons teaspoons, shape into ovals … think quenelle. [Classically they are rolled in powdered sugar, but it makes makes these far too sweet.]
- Place onto cookie sheet.
- Let the cookies dry for an hour or so. Using your thumb and index finger, lightly pinch each cookie at the ends … this will cause the top to slightly crack, making the baked cookie even prettier.
- Bake for 18–20 minutes until slightly firm.
- When cool, dip one end of each cookie into the melted chocolate. Let the chocolate.
Makes about 38–40 cookies.
Enjoy!

Life … and cooking … in the Tuscan countryside.