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Simple Pleasures in Aix-en-Provence

200904-a-pleasures-in-aix

Photo: Max Kim-Bee

We sat with Alex on the terrace eating salade niçoise next to a small olive tree, looking out over the craggy landscape. My grandmother and M.F. had been here in 1970, a moment when the entire American culinary establishment seems to have arrived en masse in the immediate area—in addition to the Childs, James Beard, Bert Greene, Richard Olney, Judith and Evan Jones, all cooking, eating, and writing. They were pioneers of taste, but also of having taste, of cooking and “the art of eating,” bringing European recipes and attitudes to an American audience.

I loved the gravel in Provence: the sound of it under the wheels of the car in the potholed driveway, the expanse of it around our house, on the paths to the guest cottage and herb garden and swimming pool. There’s something pleasantly austere about Provençal gravel—it has a calm, cooling effect, setting off the wild and abundant vegetation and the hot sun. At the restaurant Chez Thomé, tables were placed on gravel underneath the shade of the trees. This casual country place is another family favorite, up there with the Four Dolphins. We walked across the gravel to our table as cicadas chirped in the nearby fields.

When my grandmother and great-aunt lived here in ’59, they both rented houses a few miles from Aix, M.F. along the Route du Tholonet, a winding road heading east out of town toward Le Tholonet, a small village in the shadow of Mont Ste.-Victoire. On the drive here, we’d tried in vain to spot the driveway to L’Harmas, the farmhouse she’d rented. It didn’t matter—the road offered its own stunning dramas, curving through dry green hills and thickets of trees, Ste.-Victoire intimidating and stern in the distance. This is what’s known as the Route Cézanne (he painted these scenes in the 1890’s), and it still looks that way, like a painting.

Coming into the center of town, we passed by the imposing Château du Tholonet, where M.F. had rented an apartment above the stables in the mid 50’s, and my grandmother and her sons had visited. Describing her mealtime routines, M.F. wrote: “There was always that little rich decadent tin of lark pâté in the cupboard if I grew bored, or we could stroll down past the great ponds under the plane trees to the deft, friendly welcome of the Restaurant Thomé and eat a grilled pullet or a trout meunière, and an orange baked à la norvégienne.

As for us, we ordered beautiful green salads with red currants, a bit of foie gras, warm cheese with a red pepper–and-garlic rémoulade, rabbit with a dried-fruit reduction, and risotto aux fruits de mer. I hesitate to write so hyperbolically, but I must say that it was a perfect lunch: perfect. Sitting under the trees in this unspeakably beautiful courtyard, at an informal table with my family and friends, I felt a connection to this place, and to Aix, that went beyond my own immediate experiences. I had come to find Aix, and found it was already in me, or to quote M.F. describing her arrival here all those years ago, “I was once more in my own place, an invader of what was already mine.”

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