There is no question that the highlight of our Uniworld S.S. Catherine river cruise was our cooking class in Avignon. It was billed as part of the Masterpiece Collection, which meant we had to pay for this excursion, but it was worth every penny. It took place at the hotel La Mirande just across the way from the famous Palais des Papes or Pope’s Palace. Charles and I and 10 others gathered at Les Halles or the fresh market in the center of town, and met the chef.
Chef, his assistant, the baskets and the bounty
One of my very favorite things to do is go through markets, but going through with a chef is even greater fun, particularly because he knows most of the proprietors. So at the fishmongers he would be assured of getting the freshest and best fish; similarly at the vegetable, poultry and olive stands. We were able to sample different tapenade before he purchased them. One, with sun dried tomatoes, one with anchovies, and another with garlic. The fresh olives were delicious as well, not salty the way we get them when they are exported in brine. We were served these tasty treats on thin slices of baguette, so good in the morning.
at the fishmongers
Chef Jeff Mauroux was accompanied by a young woman who was an assistant and translator for those who did not understand French, even for those of us who did, she made things clearer. They chose long stemmed artichokes, tiny turnips with greenery still attached, celeriac, carrots, lettuce, strawberries and asparagus, just in season, fresh clams and small duck breasts. Nothing was more than a day old. The cod, which would be the star of the meal as the first course, or Entrée, as it is called in France, had clear eyes and a very bouncy body. We were each given a straw basket to carry the food back to the hotel restaurant.
tapenades for later consumption
olives and artichokes
The hotel was stunning, but we didn’t go into the main kitchen of the restaurant, but to a cellar one that had been used in the late 1800’s. A winding staircase descended to the basement. What a basement! We first saw the dining room where we would be eating. A long wooden table was set with garden roses in old vases, some adorned with fresh artichokes and little hand made chickens, all terribly appealing and inviting.
in the kitchen
The kitchen was huge and at one end there was a large wood-burning stove. A long worktable, also of wood was set with cooking implements and individual places ready for each of us. We were all given wonderful aprons, large bottles of water, and our tasks. I must have looked very ready to cook because I had many crucial prep jobs. The first was to take the long pieces of cod (two) and cover them with a handful of sugar, a handful of salt, and some coriander seeds and paprika, and then place them in the refrigerator for 10 minutes. Meanwhile Charles and I were set to trim the fat from the duck breasts.
trimming duck and the sauté
These little breasts had quite a story. Chef kept saying they were white ducks and therefore very tender. I had never heard of white ducks and questioned him. Turns out he said ‘wild’ ducks. In fact they were the result of mating wild with domestic ducks, as the rules in France only allow wild ones at certain times of the year. I don’t tell the story very well, but when Charles reads the finished blog he can use the comment space and enlighten us. At any rate we trimmed and scored the breasts a little bit so that the fat didn’t hang over. Charles got a bit carried away and gave his duck a bikini trim. He also took pictures of us working away.
the kitchen and a table decoration
We rubbed the breasts with nutmeg, salt and pepper and rolled them in olive oil and seared them quickly in a hot pan, then set them aside. By this time 10 minutes had passed, and I removed the fish from the refrigerator, washed all the salt and sugar off, and then dried the fillets. It was suggested that I test how fresh the fish was and slice a tiny piece off the raw fish and eat it. It was delicious. Then I cut the fish into 3 to 4 inch square pieces, sautéd them in olive oil and pepper, turning them once, just lightly cooking, and set them aside.
Then we took the clams, about two or three per person, and put them in a pan with shallots that had been cooked in olive oil, and one half a cup of white wine. We boiled them at a high temperature until the clams opened, then removed them from the wine and added about a half cup of cream, reduced the liquid until the odour of wine had disappeared. We then put the clams back in the sauce and set aside. The name of this dish is baked cod with green asparagus and clam sauce. So the asparagus, which are trimmed and washed, were put in a pot of salted water for 5 minutes, after cooled in ice water, and drained.
in the cellar for wine and tasty goodies
The dish was prepped and ready to be prepared. The cod was cooked for only 8 min at 350F, the asparagus sautéed in a hot pan with thyme and rosemary and some garlic if wanted, and some sea salt, and when we trimmed the asparagus we kept a small portion of the ends and chopped them very finely and used them as well. About three clams were put on the plate with the cod, the the sauce also supported the fish, and was sprinkled with toasted pistachios.
yum cod and clams note the pistachios
Before we prepared this for serving we finished prepping our trimmed duck breasts. I was really involved with the fish dish and the duck, but others were readying the vegetables; baby carrots, mange touts peas, the artichokes for garnish with baby turnips, which Charles cut brilliantly into six tiny pieces, and the celeriac. When we trimmed the duck we kept the trimmings to fry to make the stock for the sauce, which also had a glass of red wine, carrots, onions, leeks, garlic and celery, water, tomato paste. All the vegetables were chopped very thin. We added some flour and cooked for 5 minutes. Then we added more red wine and cooked for an hour. Basically this was a red wine sauce that could be used for anything.
The duck breasts, rubbed in nutmeg, salt and pepper previously, were pan fried in oil, cooked in the oven at 350F for 5 minutes and left until they were warmed again before serving. Others prepared the celeriac. It was well cooked until soft using some sautéed garlic and onions for flavor, then made into a purée in a blender. The vegetables were prepared by panfrying them with olive oil and herbs. Then the plate was dressed with the celeriac purée under the duck, with the vegetables surrounding and the sauce on top.
We also made a strawberry salad for dessert with citrus, sugar and vanilla, which was kept at room temperature to meld. Then we left the kitchen and went down yet one more level to the wine cellar where we sampled the tapinades from the market, and drank some local white and red wines. After that we removed our aprons, quickly cooked the cod in the oven, and carried our plates into the dining area and ate. More wine and water were served. The fish was incredible, simply delicious. We had the duck dish after that which was also extremely fine, and then dessert. The noise level rose as the afternoon wore on, and eventually sated, we departed.
wonderful buildings in Avignon
Charles and I were so elated after that experience it was difficult to tour the Palais des Papes, but we made an effort, and then we waddled back to the ship in time for our nap. I have already made the fish dish back in Toronto for guests, and I did make a few tiny changes, but it was basically as taught and it was a winner. Tonight I will do the duck again just for the two of us.
The next day we went on a tour of Arles with our favorite guide, Jeannette. It was very hot, but she was so good that we were captivated by the history of the area, Van Gogh’s time there, a typical Camargue wedding complete with horse, and a wonderful small Christian Lacroix boutique (he was born in Arles) where we bought some beautiful purchases, a scarf for my sister, and blouse for me. Once again back to the ship for a final dinner, an apology from the ship for the ‘loudness of the group’ onboard. This was in reference to the naval folks that I mentioned in my earlier blog: https://suddenly70.ca/2018/05/26/our-first-river-cruise-part-2/ and an invitation to a private dinner.
more views of Arles in the Camargue
beginning of a wedding procession
Obviously someone aboard had complained. In fact we really enjoyed the folks from Annapolis. The private dinner for a few of us was delicious, if extremely boring. So we left to join the others in the main dining room before dessert, and to say our good byes. Charles made a delightful speech to the gathered throng and we enjoyed our last evening to the fullest.
The next day we picked up our rental car, and although we had used Aeroplan points for this, we were charged an exorbitant fee for drop off. After much discussion, we headed off to a charming small town called L’ille sur La Sourque for a nice walk by the river and lunch. There were many antique stores and market stalls and the day was sunny and bright. We ate at a bar/café outside on the street and enjoyed seafood brochettes, squid, shrimp and some chilled Rosé.
market day in L’ille sur la Sourque
After lunch with the help of google maps we went to find our hotel in Les Baux. All was going splendidly until we came to an impasse. A rock had fallen from the hillside and the road was closed. A policeman explained to us how to go around the mountain and we managed to understand his local French. The Domaine de Manville which was a former farming estate, turned out to be stunning. Our room seemed massive after the tiny perfect room on the ship and the bath was quite wonderful. A small terrace with a view of the pool that I was anxious to try, completed the room. It was Sunday and the hotel was very busy, but we wandered in the lovely gardens and had a glass of wine.
at Domaine de Manville
I had booked dinner in the gastronomic restaurant call L’Aupiho which had attained one star. The service was very attentive and the food exquisite, which included fish four ways, soup in a tiny glass, lamb with potato slices and dessert of chocolate something, and strawberries with olive tapenade, sounds weird, but was wonderful.
asparagus with lobster powder
below an herb in a wafer
fish different ways, and strawberries with tapinade
Some flying creature greeted us in the room on our return, but went still after I had called for someone to retrieve it. I slept soundly nevertheless, and in the morning went for a swim in the outdoor pool because the indoor one had noisy children in it. The water was frigid, but I persevered. Only the French will advertise a heated pool when it means heated by the sun, and the temperature is colder than an Ontario Lake. After all the food I needed the exercise or so I thought. Charles wisely read by the pool while I did my laps.
wines on the hillside
Lunch outside the bar was served on a plank filled with cheese, smoked salmon and artisanal bread. We decided to go for a late afternoon walk and asked for directions to a nice route. We were sent across the road and found the hike markers on the trees. Before we knew it we were ascending up a mountain trail and at the top the view was lovely and worth the breathless exercise. We did manage to get lost going down. The path was not smooth and it required a lot of concentration on my part to avoid slipping on lose stones. Fortunately, we made it a few hours later, but at a different entry spot. Another adventure!
Dinner was in the hotel Bistrot outside, and we met a pleasant couple that heard our Canadian voices and joined us in conversation. The food was very good, and we retired to our room to pack and get ready for our trip the next day to Nice for our last night in France. I had booked the Palais de la Méditerranée, on the Promenades des Anglais, the sort of hotel that has everything, but is modern and very American, almost like an airport hotel. Our flight to Toronto was early the following morning, so it was perfect, only about 15 minutes from the airport.
memorable view from the cruise
The highlight of our short time in Nice was meeting Olivier for dinner at one of his fave places in Nice, called le Safari on the Cours Saleya, a short walk from the hotel. Olivier had lived with us for two summers in Toronto, when he was a teenager, and we had kept in touch, attended his wedding, met his young son, and sadly heard of his divorce. However, he looked great, was in fine form and very happy. The restaurant, a local place with many families gathered, had delicious southern French food. I had calamari with artichokes as did Olivier, and we had the winner. After dinner, much catching up, laughter and joy, he walked us back to our hotel. We embraced him, and went to bed very content.
Riki and Olivier in Nice
Early flight and our river cruise vacation was now just a delightful memory with a lot of scribbled notes, and a few extra pounds.
Now we are in the midst of a warm sunny summer, and soon to go to visit our kids in Vancouver.
Hope you will join me on my next journey and please leave comments.