Summer Holidays in France

You know that old expression “getting there is half the fun”? Well, if you’ve traveled in France, you know that’s the whole truth!

Every summer, like many Parisians, we head to the south of France, le midi. Swimming in the azure waters of the Mediterranean is always refreshing, and we just love the selection of olives at provençal markets. And even though we don’t eat fish at every meal, we definitely take advantage of the sea’s edible gifts as often as we can, along with fresh shell beans and homemade aioli, which is basically a garlic mayonnaise (whisper it if you’re hanging around a provençal cook!).

Traveling with kids….

Our Mediterranean destination isn’t everything, though. The drive down from Paris could theoretically take about 8 hours, but only if we leave in the middle of the night, in the middle of the week… in January! Seriously, traffic is a big, long (as in long lines of cars on the highway) problem, and this year, it took us about 12 hours to make the trip. We’ve vowed to take the train next year, as we used to do before we had kids.
But whether it takes 8 or 12 hours, we split the trip up into two days. (Anyone who travels with kids knows how it is, right?) So we make it into a real voyage, stopping at a hotel about halfway down, and we have a nice meal somewhere that evening. When we arrive in the south the next afternoon, we’re slightly fresher – and definitely in a better mood – than if we tried to do the trip in one go.

Kid’s menu

This year, we stopped in the Rhone Valley, in Condrieu, a beautiful vine-filled area with – you guessed it – great wines. The friendly staff at Le Beau Rivage hotel welcomed us, as did the staff of their restaurant, whose terrace is perched right along the Rhone River. Even our cat was welcome!
We delighted in dining outdoors, and our “terror twins” could run in le jardin while we peacefully enjoyed our 3-course meal. Even the kid’s meal looked like a gastronomic wonder. A far cry from the nuggets and French fries you find on most menus for kids.

Figs everywhere!

One thing that was definitely different about traveling this year was the “Pass Sanitaire” that was required of us everywhere we went, even in rest stops along the road.

Fortunately, some things never change: in the countryside, or in small towns and in cities, there were figs. Our walk through Condrieu yielded some visual gems, including gorgeous fig trees. And upon our arrival in Roquebrune sur Argens, we were greeted with our favorite view over the Massif des Maures.

Now, as we dive head first into the back-to-school period here in Paris, eating fresh figs or using them in recipes reminds me a little of being back in the south of France. Au revoir, les vacances ! A l’année prochaine….

Figs with Chèvre and Vanilla

Fig season is upon us! The thin skin of the purple fig, when ripe, yields pleasantly gritty and mushy insides, and their fragrant smokey flavor wins out over the texture every time. But I’ll admit, figs are strange!

The recipe below was given to me by the former owner of La Graineterie du Marché on the Place d’Aligre in Paris. Sophie Monti ran this family-owned shop – which opened in 1895! – before passing it on to her cousin, José. The store is a treasure trove, or what the French would call une caverne d’Ali Baba, and it features all sorts of culinary delights.

Among the specialty items you’ll find here are old-fashioned violet or poppy-flavored candies (ah, les bonbons!), bulk ingredients like pastas, nuts, and grains, and plenty of herbal teas, known as tisanes or pisse-mémé in French for their diuretic properties – they literally make grandma (and us) run to the toilettes!

Gingerbread from Dijon, seeds to grow flowers and vegetables, red rice from the Camargue, fancy tinned fish from La Belle Iloise cannery, rose water, or decorative shopping bags are just a few of the items you can ogle and/or buy when you hit up the Graineterie.

Sophie and her husband have moved on to greener pastures, so to speak: they now run an olive farm in Croatia! But many years ago, Sophie shared with me her favorite fig recipe, and this makes a delectable first course in late summer.

  • 1 whole vanilla pod, split in half lengthwise and opened like a book
  • ¼ cup (60 ml) extra virgin olive oil
  • ½ pound (225 g or about 6 small) fresh ripe figs, stems cuts off, cut horizontally into ¼-inch (6 mm) slices
  • 3 ounces (85 g), or about 5 cups loosely packed, arugula, washed and spun dry
  • 3½ ounces (100 g) very fresh (not aged) goat cheese (Sophie uses “Petit Billy” from the supermarket)
  • 8 small bread rounds, lightly toasted
  • fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper
how to make it:

  1. The day before you want to serve this dish, make the vanilla-infused olive oil: scrape the two halves of the vanilla pod with the back of a paring knife and place the beans (a paste, really) into the olive oil. Cover tightly and reserve.
  2. The next day, stir the infused oil, dredging the vanilla beans settled at the bottom. Heat 3 tablespoons of the vanilla oil in a medium non-stick pan over medium-high heat until the oil shimmers. Add the fig slices and cook for 2-3 minutes, tossing and turning very gently. The more ripe figs will break apart, but some slices should remain whole. Turn the figs onto a platter, and let cool.
  3. Divide the arugula evenly between 4 small plates, and drizzle with the remaining olive oil (about 1 teaspoon per serving). Spread the goat cheese onto the toast rounds and set aside. Divide the cooked figs between the four plates, placing them on the arugula.
  4. Place the chèvre toast round along one side of the plate, and drizzle the figs with any remaining olive oil from the pan. Serve immediately. Bon app’!

serves 4 as a first course