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Monday, 29 June 2009

Eating and Drinking My Way Through Avignon

What Would Have A.J. Liebling Thought
By Andrew Hamilton
Avignon, France.
Last night, here in Avignon, I went back of the main visitors' area and found mostly Vietnamese restaurants and Arab kebab joints, so I went Viet, and got the €7.00 platter. Lead off with nems, which they have in all French Vietnamese restaurants -- they're like an egg-roll that you wrap in lettuce with some mint and dip in the sauce provided. And then I had chicken in the manner of Thailand, which was inoffensive lumps of chicken meat. Alongside, there was some pretty good salad, a pork pastry that tasted a little off, and a deep-fried vegetable, Vietnam turnip maybe.

The rotten fish sauce bottle wasn't at my table, and I didn't bother to get up and get it. Wasn't too hungry anyway. Had orange juice instead of wine; didn't know you could order that in a restaurant and get it. The place turned out to be a wise selection, because it filled up with locals as I was trying to work the pile of Thai chicken down to where I could leave without insulting the cook.

So it turns out if you walk three or four streets past its touristic center, Avignon is a more or less an average French town. I came up here to take a break from Marseille, which on a four-day glance seems to be more an emerdement than a town you'd want to live in, and because I couldn't find an apartment to rent until the end of the month. I was planning to go to Sisteron from here to cool down even more, but it turns out the only way is back through Marseille, so I may drop by Cavaillon and Arles first, or one or another of those other Provençal towns on the train line.

It's been raining all over south France enough to blow out one umbrella, but today the sun came out and I broke out the superfino Montechristi wide-brim Panama (see my other Junto tale about this) and the Beretta jungle jacket from Harrod's, and a pair of genuine Perry Ellis black polyester trousers from Ross Dress For Less in Redding, California, and some tassel-loafers from the remainder bin at Penny's. I was effectively pulled to the four pins, as the French used to say and maybe still do, although being pulled to the four pins isn't what it was in our day. The high mode in France seems to be a business suit with pressed shirt-tails hanging out. Although there is always the Giant Dive Watch, which I will tell you about some time. Looking in the watchmaker's window is like looking through the Elvis plates in the Franklin Mint catalog.

Now, for lunch today I dropped by the covered market near the Vietnamese restaurants and got 100 grams of stuffed olives and about 150 grams of a cheese called Tomme, which is a sharp white solid cheese that must come from around here because all the fromagiers have it. For downtown Marseilles, you can read fromagier as the cheese counter at Monoprix. Tomme is made from either cow's milk or ewe's milk, after the butter has been drawn off, the ewe's milk producing a stronger flavour. I opted for the mélange, half cow and half sheep.

On the way home I bought a baguette at a bakery and a liter of orange juice at the grocery store. One of those chain small super grocery stores and the checkout girl asked me if I'd got the bread there, because I'd had madame would have cut it in half at the bakery and both halves would be sticking out of my pockets. The supermarket sales assistant was just making sure. She couldn't see the olives and the cheese in my other pocket, or she would have probably interrogated me about them as well.

This morning I walked across the Petit Rhône on the highway bridge and took the free boat back. The only passengers were me and five loud teen-age punks until just before the boat sailed when 40 to 50 toddlers from the Motherly School got on. Two classes worth. They were all about two feet tall and were tagged like Christmas presents with their names and the école maternelle address and phone number.

One class was organized by holding onto a red rope with a teacher at each end; the other class, just buddying up and holding hands. These kids couldn't have been older than 3-years-old. Some of them were sucking their thumbs, and they all looked baffled. I gave up my seat and stood on the open stern where I would have chosen to be anyway except, you know, the superfino Montechristi and a fairly strong Mistral on the river. The five teen-age punks moved to to the back too and became calm and well-mannered.

I'm not sure how or why, but I have a feeling there was a lesson in this about what makes a Frenchman a Frenchman.

Another reason I came up to Avignon was to get a Provençal tablecloth to brighten up my unabomber cabin. (As some regular readers know, my permanent home is in a wilderness area in northern California). So I stopped by the souvenir shops on the way back and bought a Scotchgard-treated cotton table-cloth,160 by 200 centimeters, the striped model, yellow and red printed cotton, with pictures of olives. It all happened so quick that the shopkeeper couldn't start his sales pitch until he was already wrapping it up.

I think what I'll do now, I'll go back behind the square of the Schismatic Popes and find a place that sells fries, and buy a platter with some sort of meat to drip juice into them. Might stop and get a glass of Tavel, which is a the Rhône rosé that was A.J. Liebling's favourite on the Boul' Miche in the '20's. They have it for €6.50 a glass at the wine bar at the top of the Place de l'Horloge.

Liebling, a food reviewer and critic for The New Yorker, claimed Tavel was a rosé not like your auntie's rosé, but a manned-up rosé, and I've always intended to see what he meant, and in fact have been frequenting the finest wine cellars of backwoods California to develop the expertise that might be necessary to judge it. The grocery store up the street has an AOC Tavel for €7.80, but I doubt I could reasonably kill a whole bottle in the hotel room, so I'll try the wine bar.

Out on the street just now having an express at the café that I chose because it had a lot of old guys in it, I see a couple of well-turned-out local women order a big platter of french-fries, rosé all around, a basket of bread, and a big plastic squeeze-bottle of ketchup.

A day later, I've already tried the Tavel. Got a glass at the wine bar, and it tasted a lot like the last rosé I had, which was Italian Swiss Colony Grenache back in the '60's, if you don't count all the Algerian Gris de Boulouane, which you probably don't because they bill that as gray instead of rosé, and it comes to town in tanker trucks.

I think what happened here is the Liebling was a healthy young kid getting laid a lot and eating well and enjoying life and he let the Tavel get ahead of itself in his own mind. But there's nothing wrong with that' it's the way wine works for those of us who can't can't convince ourselves we taste differences among the vintages or strawberries and almonds in the glass, and I forgive him.

Just to prove it I had a half bottle with dinner, which was dorade in pistou -- that's a small fish with a high forehead so it looks like a runt dolphinfish, or what they call mahi-mahi in West Coast restaurants. I had gone to the fish market and tried to memorize the names of the fish. Wasn't all that successful but I did learn to skip the seiche, which turns out to be giant squid that looks like what Kirk Douglas would be battling it with a harpoon in Twenty Thousand Leahues Under the Sea.

Down in Sète they cut it up and mix it with octopus and make little pies out of and call it the local delicacy. In the market seiche looks like somebody dumped a half a dozen tubs of Crisco on a platter, unless they have one with the scary tentacles still attached.

Got a haircut at the coiffure shop, and learned that they won't cut your hair in this country without washing it first.I'm told by my editor it's the same in Philadelphia.

Barber was a nice young kid with full tatouage up both arms like a circus freak. When he found out I was American, he asked me if I knew a famous clothes designer in America, but I'd never heard of him. Turns out that whoever the famous guy is, he was born and raised in Avignon. I asked the boss lady whether it was normal to dosh the kid something, and she said yes, but it's not obligatoire, so I left him the extra euro out of 20.