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A cure for there-sickness
October 13, 2004

I got there-sick.  That’s the opposite of homesick.  I stood in the produce department at the supermarket looking at a fennel bulb, and all of a sudden I wanted to be in France.  I wanted to be in our little rocky house built into the side of a sun-drenched hill, and I wanted my friend Linda Munroe Williams to be slapping that fennel into a pan of sizzling olive oil.

            The only thing I could do was buy the fennel.  Matter of fact, I bought two. When I got home I realized I didn’t know what to do with it, but I knew I wanted it to taste like Linda’s.  

            A few summers ago, our Tallahassee friends Linda and John Williams invited us to pack up and on the spur of the moment head to the South of France and spend a week in the small village of Masmolene, just across the Rhone River from Avignon. I was in the attic digging out suitcases twenty seconds after I hung up.

            It’s always fun to have an adventure with John and Linda.  Maybe that’s because in spite of the Tallahassee address, Linda has Bainbridge roots.  Her mother was Sara Wilkinson Munroe. Sara’s  father, William, was a doctor and a founder of  Riverside Hospital.  Linda grew up in Quincy but spent lots of time in Bainbridge; she even attended school here for a year or two. So we always have lots to talk about.

            But on this trip, we mostly talked about history and food—oh, and grapes and wine.  We managed to show up in the Rhone vineyard country right in the heart of harvest season.

            On the way from the Marseilles airport where the Williams fetched us, we stopped at the ruins of Les Baux castle.  This rocky ruin that rises high above a plain is said to have been the inspiration for Dante’s vision of the Inferno.  It’s easy to believe as you climb from level to level—and going down is as hard as going up. 

            Our most memorable historical outing was to the massive Pont du Gard bridge and the nearby town of Castillon.  For history buffs, the French defeated the English in Castillon on October 19, 1453 bring the Hundred Years War to a close.  But this is not what we came to see.

            We came to walk across the ancient aqueduct built during the reign of Augustus Caesar (yes, that Augustus Caesar, the one who sent Joseph and Mary to be taxed).  Nîmes, not far to the south, was an important Roman city.  Today they still hold bullfights in the Roman amphitheater.  But in those long ago days, just as cities do today, there were water problems.  Too many people; not enough water.  

            About 30 miles to the north near the city of Uzčs, there was a fine spring with plenty of water, so the Romans rolled up their sleeves, or togas, and built this impressive structure.  It’s more than an aqueduct, more than a bridge.  The water ran on the top level, below was a highway for chariots and pedestrians.

            We walked out on the bridge  in  awe not only of the Romans and their skills, but also of the incredible view of most of the south of  France.  It made us hungry, so we headed home by way of Pouzilhac where we assembled at Auberge Manoir—“expected little, got much,” I rave in my journal.  We called Madame-la-chef out for our accolades.

            We quickly made a discovery about French food.  One reason it is great, is it is fresh.  The chefs usually hit the local markets for vegetables and fruits just in from the field.  We also realized that we could do the same thing.  Different towns have markets on different days, so with some planning we could hit a market early in the day, fill up a cooler, have an adventure, a fine lunch (naturally) and still get home in time to cook.

            At the market in near-by Banion, Bob and John went olive shopping while Linda and I cased the vegetables and meat.  Oh! The lamb!  Turns out olive shopping involves lots of tasting, and then the shoppers don’t want to hurt the merchant’s feelings, so it also involves buying many different kinds of olives.  We nibbled all day long.

            Our house in Masmolene is owned by Tallahasseans  Pierre and Rainey Vivier, founders of Chez Pierre and now associated with Vivier Chocolates and Mon Pere et Moi, so you know the kitchen was out of sight. And the courtyard.  The best place in all of France to eat.  That’s where Linda served the fennel.

            I figured this recipe out on my own after I couldn’t find a one that sounded right in any of my cookbooks.

Fennel Linda

1 sliced onion

2 bulbs fennel, sliced

fresh rosemary leaves

fennel top sprigs

butter

olive oil

            Sautč the onion in a mix of half butter, half olive oil.  When the onions become translucent add the fennel and continue to cook until the fennel has a golden tone.  Add a splash of white wine (or water) and cover for a few minutes.  Remove the lid, sprinkle with rosemary leaves and stir.  Put on a platter and garnish with more rosemary (it grew on the wall outside of the house) and the fennel sprigs.

            There are fresher vegetables than those found in the market.  For several days, John had eyed a tomato field down our lane.  Those tomatoes clamored to be picked.  We came home one afternoon and they had been.  The field was picked clean.  Well, almost picked clean—a few glistening fruit remained; they begged for a home.  Minutes after we unloaded the car, John’s eyes began to gleam.

            “Grab a basket,” he told Bob as he headed out the door.  “We’ve got a job to do.”       I’m sure they asked the farmer first, because while Linda braised the fennel and I put together a salad, John and Bob did a bit of tomato gleaning. 

            There’s nothing like a really fresh tomato!

Tomatoes Masmolene

6 very ripe; very, very fresh tomatoes

3 minced garlic cloves

6 anchovy fillets, rinsed and finely chopped

3 cups bread crumbs

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

2 teaspoons herbes de Provence, or fresh herbs from the garden or market

1/2 cup minced fresh flat leaf parsley or cilantro

Olive oil

            Heat the oven to 350 degrees.  Cut the tops off the tomatoes, turn them upside down  and remove the seeds and pulp with your fingers.

            Lightly salt the insides and place the tomatoes cut side down on a rack to drain.

            Meanwhile, mix together the remaining ingredients and moisten with one tablespoon of olive oil.  Press the mixture into each of the tomatoes and place in a shallow baking pan, drizzle with olive oil.  Bake for about 30 minutes or until the tomatoes are tender and the tops are brown.

            Serve with lots of olives!

            Naturally, the amounts in these recipes can vary depending on how much the cook brings home from the market or the field.

            Someday, I’ll share our wine adventures in Tavel and Chateauneuf du Pape.  A good time was had by all!


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Trilla Pando is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance & the Story Circle Network