From Paris to Provence

Provence Karen in lavender

I’m leaving for another foodie trip to Europe soon. Think Salon du Chocolat and white truffle hunting. And swoon. You can follow some of my adventures on my Facebook page.

This last year I celebrated a milestone birthday. When my daughters were born, birthday parties became their domain. As three-dimensional, kiddified and edible versions of   Venice, Moscow and the Moulin Rouge were brought to life in our garden, the notion of an actual adult party has come to feel a rather boring option for me. But for my birthdays, it has become important to spend precious time with my beloved family and to visit the places in the world that feed my soul. Joseph Campbell, the famous writer says our souls are connected to certain places. There is nothing like the transcendent beauty of an African sunset and I treasure South Africa, its history, its people and our roots here. And yet as I have had the privilege of travel, I have found other pockets of this planet which feed my soul. Like a kind of knowledge–peddler, I go to parts of the world, imbibe their values, traditions and cultures and then bring them back with me to my life in South Africa and to Ooh La La. I learned from my dad that one of the most important things one can do in life, is get to know and learn about the different peoples of the world, their ways and their wonders. I have passed this value onto my children, Saffron and Scarlett. As you know, it feels as if something about the cells of my being are connected to France and to the region of Provence specifically. For this particular milestone, I knew I wanted nothing more than to be with David and my daughters in the picturesque south east countryside of Provence.

Karen Paris 2.1
Provence… It’s just a train ride away from Paris

This blog (and come to think of it,  all I do) is about this knowledge-peddling part of myself. So indulge me as I share with you some of why I adore my dear Provence. Provence…it’s just a train ride from Paris. But, once you climb off the train, the cells of your body just know you are in another world. The light that patters down, the gentle warmth and the strums of the cigalles fall on your ears like rain. It is no wonder that Cezanne and Van Gogh were inspired to take out their paint brushes here. This combination of gentle warmth, healing light and redolent sound is oxygen for my soul. Provence…what is there not to love? It’s the people, friendly, generous, steeped in their family traditions, it’s the food, seasonal and wonderfully regional, even the bees love to make honey in Provence, it’s the signature Provençal style from the traditional farmhouse Mas to the country Chateau, from Indienne fabrics to olivewood wares, it’s the array of weekly markets, around which their rich communal life is centred and where you buy everything local, nourishing and fresh. To top it all off, in one of my favourite little villages lies the most wonderful antique market running along the L’isle sur La Sorgue river, selling the most precious of countryside antiques.

As a child, I recall holidays in this part of the world with my family, our family friends and their teenage daughter Katya. Every morning, I would go with Katya to the local boulangerie to bring home a basket of fresh croissants for breakfast. This was the beginning of my initiation to French culture – for as I quickly learned, which person with an inch of French breeding would ever deign to eat yesterday’s croissant – it has to be freshly baked!  In my mind’s eye I can see Katya. A poised and self-possessed teen, she could command a rapport with the adults in the bakery. She was my definition of ‘cool’, simply at ease in this world of ‘the French way’. I aspired to be just like her! Since then, I have always had two great loves, I am on the one hand a Parisian city-girl, but I am in equal measure a lass of the Provençal countryside.

As an adult, I would take an overnight train from Paris to Provence (this was before the days of the fast train TGV). I remember once bringing a roasted Parisian chicken and a Burgundy wine aboard for dinner consumption, for me and my girlfriends, Sharise and Lauren. An elegantly dressed, slim businessman opened the door to our train compartment to find three women lasciviously unwrapping and accosting the bird. With perfect French delicacy he said he was sure he could find a spare seat in the cabin next door and left us to our fowl preoccupations.

Fast forward to this current milestone and a few months ago I found myself with David and our girls in our cute little rented Renault driving through the Provençal countryside. We are all just a little excited; David is driving and my girls are hanging out the window, their hair streaming in the wind. Everything was already closed for the day and we felt the quiet rhythm of night approaching. We were back in Provence and there was some suspense. You see, I had kept our holiday abode a surprise…

Fifteen years ago, while absorbed in decorating our French farm-style home in Johannesburg, I owned a collection of every single French décor book ever published. Just a little obsessed, each night I took one to bed with me. In one of these books, I discovered a feature about a Mas, the signature style  farmhouse of  Provence. This one was located just outside L’isle sur la Sorgue. I inhaled the images of this Mas, deciphering that the owner of this house was, like me, a lover of the antique market places. The house was covered in a dusty, dirty pink clay. But there was something else that caught my eye. It was none other than a six poster antique bed. Being somewhat of an antique bed girl myself, I knew well the rarity of such a thing. I dreamt that one day, I might find this house and have the chance to stay there. I even made photocopies of the pictures and kept them in my personal design book. Talk about a vision board! And so a few months ago, when we planned this trip to Provence, I searched for this house.  I managed to track down the owner and on approaching her and telling her my connection to her Mas, I found she was happy to share. The stars were aligned. We were coming home.

And so, as our Renault speeds towards the Mas, through a long line of abundant lavender and Cyprus trees, you can understand why I am just a little excited. I could see its dusky pink façade rising from the earth, and in the garden a wrought iron gate which would take us in the days to come on wonderful walking garden adventures. Once inside, I walked through every room, taking it in. Each room told a story about the beautiful objects that the owner had selected so carefully. I could picture myself alongside her, cooking in her magnificent kitchen, shopping at the markets much like Katya had been my sister shopper as a child. And for our two week stay, I slept in that antique six poster bed, the windows wide open and the sounds of the cigalles richly entering the room. I felt like I was in a Monet, a dream world painting.

Provence kitchen
The magnificent kitchen
Provence front view of Mas
Front view of Mas with sundial
Provence family lavender

Let me share with you just a few of the Mas’s more delightful features. I have to start with the dusty pink clay exterior. Each Mas in Provence is coated in the clay particular to that region, colours vary from saffron yellow to red ochre to dusty clay pink. The pink gives the effect of the home almost rising up, out of the earth. The walls of the home are met with a ridge or eave at the roof top for owls to rest upon and the roof is covered with handmade, carefully wrought terracotta roof tiles. The shutters and doors are painted in the subtle shades of surrounding vegetation be it, cistus, thyme, lavender, olive tree or the delicate velvet of almonds. Our Mas had a beautiful outside table on the one side of the garden, and then just outside the kitchen, in an arbor- shaded terrace, there was another table under a wrought iron pergola which allowed us to enjoy lazy breakfasts and early romantic dinners. One of our favourite activities was to wander through the huge gates to the outside gardens, which were bursting with lavender. We’d pass by old stone exposed walls, jutting out from the ground and see the beautiful sundial, a symbol in itself of our time slowing down, and then dance into those fields of lavender.

Me, David, Saffron and Scarlett,  in a beautiful Provençal lavender field

I could have gone to Provence and been happy staying at home the whole time. But the villages beckoned too, with their cultural quirks and perfect produce. The antique capital of the south, L’isle sur la sorgue hosts a large permanent antique market which has my antique haunt for year. In addition, every village has its own markets with products specific to the region. In some there are regional fabrics or wood, in Cavaillon you find melon vendors and of course in Aix-en-Provence the calisson is the star of the show. The markets open early in the morning and wind down by one pm for lunch. As you wander through the markets, the fragrance-rich honeys rise up to greet your nose, each one grown from flavorful soils. There’s lavender honey, chestnut honey, acacia and almond…

Provence, melons
Melons in the Market
Provence, approaching a food market with excitement and trepidation
Approaching the market with excitement and trepidation

At these markets, shopping isn’t a chore…it’s a privilege!!!!! I didn’t plan our dinners, I went to the market, befriended the vendors, sampled the local artichoke tapenade or the plump olives, and let the fresh farm pickings determine what we would eat that day. In July, it was the season of the violet garlic cloves. Just saying those words makes my skin tingle.   The place was also swelling with melons and there was lavender everywhere. I loved watching people with freshly bought fruit in their baskets, feeling their vegetables before selecting them. We are so alienated from our produce in the supermarkets, looking at them through their plastic wrappings. Just being able to know one’s tomato is a rare gift and here there were so many tomatoes to choose from, in shape, size and colour! Many a day I would also visit the market for my most beloved of birds, the chicken. So fresh are these chickens, they are sold with their neck on and the vendors use a blow torch to pluck any remaining, fine hairs.

Provence Karen garlic
Me and my purple garlic
Provence chicken
Me buying my daily chicken

On the way into town, we would see the older French men playing patanque under the Plane trees in the centre of the village on the gravel while sipping pastisse. Traditions and rituals run through these villages like a comforting communal river.

On Sunday we went for a walk by L’isle Sur La Sorgue around the market and along the river, marveling at the fountains.  I picked up some of my favourite beautiful red and white antique linen tablecloths, and some monogrammed cloths. I also bought olivewood boards and an antique vegetable chopper and then for the rest, I exercised incredible restraint. The restraint was aided by the wonderful distraction of the soccer world cup finals, France vs. Croatia. This was a long awaited moment for me and David. For David it was the privilege of being in the country whose team was in the finals and the eventual winner of the world cup. For me the long awaited moment was because I have always wanted to stand and sing the French anthem for an actual reason. We found a little pub where everyone was decked in red, white and blue with flags blowing in the breeze. When France won, I stood up with my hand on my heart, a tear or two in my eye and sang the anthem. David was also happy and I might have glimpsed a slight sheen in his eyes too.

Provence World Cup Karen
Dressed for the World Cup
Provence market cloths
Signature monogrammed Provençal cloth

Feeling this connected to land and nature and food and tradition makes me feel more connected to life itself. Now that I think about it, that’s why going to Provence for this milestone birthday couldn’t have been more fitting – it was my way of saying ‘yes’ to the life I love, to the values I cherish and to my beloved family. I am so grateful to them for coming along for the ride starting with that little Renault. And it was the best family time, the  best garlic, the best chicken and the best sleep I have had…..ever!

Provence bed
No caption needed!

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