Thursday, February 25, 2010

My Vinisud

Day 0:

Christian Dalbavie, a guy I've known since he worked at the French Music Office, who were among the first Europeans to send bands to SXSW, is now a wine-importer based in New York. A couple of months ago, he found me on Facebook and noted with pleasure that he'd soon be visiting Montpellier to attend Vinisud, the huge wine exposition held each February. It is, apparently, a huge deal in the world of wine, and although I missed last year's, I was determined to go this time. I'd pitched the story to several newspapers and magazines, most of whom just ignored me, the others of whom turned me down. Just as well; the latest round of drugs hasn't done a thing to bring back my sense of taste and smell, and I was afraid I'd be utterly useless.

Christian called when he got to town on Sunday, and suggested we meet up for a glass of wine. He also invited his friend Michel Abood, who also imports wine through his company Vinotas in New York. We found ourselves at a place I'd walked past a number of times, Mesdames Messieurs, an all-organic wine bar with a Sunday brunch. I was pessimistic; I'd already blown a breakfast I was looking forward to because I couldn't smell the cornbread I was baking and took it out too early; after some batter gushed from inside when I cut it (yes, I know: next time use a toothpick), I had to put it back in the oven. The two Frenchmen ordered glasses of champagne to sip while they looked at the list (and the menu: some cheese and charcuterie was called for). I passed because even at the best of times I'm not much of a champagne fan. Eventually, after a lengthy discussion with the waiter, a bottle of red was ordered, something the waiter was really excited about called Velvet from a winery with the odd name Zélige-Caravent, over in Pic St. Loup. (Being an utter pro, I forgot to note both the year and the composition, although as the website says, it's mostly Syrah).

It was frustrating. I was allergic to wine for many years, and one of the goals of my moving to France was to learn more about it, to catch up on my education. Now I had two experts, both highly articulate, sitting right across the table from me and I couldn't taste the wine we were discussing. I could, however, detect an undercurrent -- not the whole taste by any means, but enough to see where the name came from. I was particularly peeved when Christian called out "It's changing! There's a...what's that Chinese...5-spice! That's it...or..." Here's where I could have helped out, I was sure. But at least I could detect some of the change myself.

Still, listening to them was educational, especially when the talk turned to what Americans are buying -- the subject of some interest in France after the big Gallo scandal that broke last week. The picture I got was that after some years of stagnation, interest in French wine is starting up again, especially if it can be put on the shelves at an affordable price-point. Much of the price of a bottle of French wine has to do with punitive duties imposed during the Bush administration, and they still stand. But that's where this part of France comes in handy: if you're paying over €10 for a bottle of wine here, it had better be real, real good. And in fact €6 seems to be where the masterpieces start.

At any rate, we sat and ate and drank and talked until it got dark, and then walked down to the Esplanade and split up in different directions. I went home, heated up some minestrone I'd made earlier in the week, couldn't taste that, either, and made sure I had my badge for the show the next day.

Day 1

To show the out-of-towners a good time, the skies got cold and rainy Monday morning. I hiked down to the Ibis hotel to catch the free shuttle out to the exposition center, which turns out to be in the suburb of Pérols, not Montpellier proper. It's actually fairly close to the airport. After getting my badge, my first stop was Domaine O' Vineyards, an operation outside of Carcasonne owned by the O'Connell family from Tampa Bay, Florida, whose son, Ryan, runs an entertaining video blog. Having read so much about it, and being intrigued by their slogan "New World wines from Old World vines," I was anxious to taste some. Ryan greeted me, pulled out a glass, poured something in it, and I told him I was still, I think, having tasting problems. "If you can taste anything, you can taste this," he said. "It's our pepper bomb." luck. I sniffed and I sniffed, but to no avail. I wished Ryan luck, and walked on.

The expo center is huge. Not as big as, say, the Deutz Messe in Cologne, but easily the same size as Berlin's ICC and bigger than the Austin Convention Center where SXSW takes place. Nearly every inch of the place was in use, too. Something like 2500 exhibitors, most with very small stands crammed with bottles, were arranged by geographical area and type of wine. Languedoc and Roussillon predominated, of course, with Spain, Portugal, and Italy having small spaces, as well as Tunisia and Lebanon. Huge banners announced a group of producers from a region.

Everywhere I went, people pushed bottles at me, asking me if I wanted a taste, and I had to keep explaining that I wanted to taste, but I couldn't. I got many looks of pained sympathy.

Eventually, I realized that I had figured out the lay of the expo, and yet nothing would be worth my while if I couldn't taste anything. After 90 minutes, I went home.

Day 2

Right after breakfast, I took a glass and put a half-inch of red wine into it and set it on my desk. From time to time, as I sat reading the news and so on, I'd pick it up, swirl it around and sniff. Nothing. I was ready to jump up and catch a shuttle at the first sign of reawakening taste-buds, since this often happens in the afternoon. Nothing. It got to be 4 o'clock, the hour when the taste-buds start closing up. Nothing. I stayed home all day. Crap.

Day 3

I did, however, want to interview people for this blog, so I caught the 11:30 shuttle, which arrived just as it began to pour. I was its only occupant. With weather like this, no way my taste was going to work, but I had my camera and notebook, so I'd at least get the story.

Since they were right by the front door, I hit O'Vineyards first. Ryan was gone, but his mother Liz and his father Joe were there. Joe reflexively poured a glass and I sniffed. Nothing. He poured it out. I asked him what had gotten him into this weird business, and he said that there had just come a time when he realized he wasn't going to live forever and started thinking about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. (According to an article in Tampa Life magazine, he'd been a successful builder of high-end homes). He'd always loved France, his wife was from Paris, and the food and climate in this part of the country really appealed to him. I asked him how he'd gotten into wine. "Drinking!" was the immediate answer. Well, yeah, but how'd he learn winemaking? "Books. The Internet. There's nothing you can't learn that way." So in 2004 the family relocated and started making wine. And as he was telling me this, I noticed something: I could smell the spit-jar! He pulled out the bottle of Reserve again, and I stuck my nose in the proffered glass. Eureka! This was the first wine I'd smelled since...oh, the end of last summer, at least. I was so overwhelmed, it was so much like the sensation of walking out of a dark room in to bright sunlight, that I can't even begin to describe it, except that it's excellent. Elated that I could taste again, I bid him farewell and wandered into the expo.

The exhibitors, though, were less forthcoming than previously, and I was determined to find one or two winemakers I was curious about while this window was open. Naturally, I got lost. I was trying to find Mas de la Seranne, one of my favorites, not to taste, but to take a picture of the couple who run it, and wound up in a hall I'd missed on Monday, where St. Georges d'Orques was occupying a small corner. It's a suburb of Montpellier, reachable on the bus, and has a couple of my favorites, Domaine de la Prose and Domaine Guizard. I'd even talked to Benoit Guizard, one of the five brothers who've been running their winery to keep it in the family, on the phone. What I didn't expect, though, was for him to see me and cry out "Ed!" as I wandered past his stand. "You have to try this," he said, grabbing a bottle. I told him I hoped I could taste it, and luck was with me. I closed my eyes and saw a gigantic red fruit of a sort which doesn't exist in nature, but one I'd really like to find. What was this? "It's our new wine," he said. "It's a Grès de Montpellier, from some specially selected locations." I could see why he was excited; it's a remarkable wine, huge and filled with fruit, with a very nice smooth finish. I guess I shouldn't be too surprised, since they've only been making wine since 1580.

We chatted for a while about this and that as I savored the pour. He told me he's headed to the U.S. in June because he's a Lafayette-o-phile, and there's a Lafayette society which meets in Virginia each year, so he's off to their meeting. And I asked him what the deal was with old vines making such good wine -- the Grès vines are some 70 years old -- and he said "It's like men! They get better at what they're doing as they get older." Gotta say, I like his attitude. At any rate, I'm eventually going to take the bus out to their sales point and grab some of this unless it shows up at one of their wine shops, one of which is in the mall down the street from me. Before I left, I snapped his picture. He doesn't really look much like this, in fact, since he does tend to smile, but it's him.

By now it was just after noon, and the Mas de la Seranne folks were deep in negotiation with some buyers, so I noted that the sun was beaming down and maybe it was time to taste some lunch. There were a bunch of little booths outside selling various sandwiches, and I rightly figured that at a fair like this they'd be pretty good. When I found one that was not selling just baguettes, I got a ham and cheese sandwich. I like baguettes as much as the next guy, but I keep seeing other kinds of bread around, and I'm curious about them. This was a square sandwich, with three crusts and one open side. The crust was really thick, and the whole thing was amazingly chewy. The cheese was sharp, the ham as bland as French ham usually is (I do not get this French approach to ham, although I'm trying), and the whole thing was immensely satisfying. The memory of the wine I'd just had, too, was still with me. And the sun felt really good.

Back inside, the Mas de la Seranne booth wasn't busy, so I asked if I could take a picture. I'd talked with Isabelle and Jean-Pierre Venture on Monday, telling them that theirs was (as it is) my favorite wine from this part of the world. During the week I'd been able to taste this past summer, I'd tried their rosé, which just confirmed their reputation. It's amazing stuff. Isabelle wasn't up for a photo, though, so I just snapped Jean-Pierre.

I'm happy to report that he really does look like this. And I'm also happy to discover that the piece of the world where this winery exists is called, as you can see Terrasses du Larzac, which gives me yet another clue of what to look for in a wine shop.

I had one more place to hit. Domaine Treloar is way south of me, not far from Perpignan, which is one of my must-see destinations in the near future as soon as the finances are available. Until then, though, the idea that I would visit Jonathan Hesford and Rachel Treloar, the British-Kiwi couple who run the place, isn't going to become reality, but now I had a chance to taste their wines, which, I'm told, are different from what's grown around here. I'll have to take their word for it; Rachel was at the stand, concluding a deal with a big Canadian importer, and by the time she was free, the window had closed. Once again, their story is one of mid-life change: Jonathan was a banker, working for Merrill-Lynch, and they were living a block away from the World Trade Center in New York when it was destroyed. This wound up shaking up their world more than they'd anticipated, and eventually Jonathan was, in that lovely British phrase, "made redundant." One thing led to another and he found himself in New Zealand, studying winemaking at Lincoln University, as well as teaching chemistry there. He might have wound up staying to make wine down there, but for family pleas to move a bit closer, so they found their current acreage, and at the start of 2006, moved in and started growing. Another inspiring part of their story is that, like me, Jonathan had sinus polyps, and has been cured of them by surgery. I hope it doesn't go that far with me, but I no longer feel like I've been singled out for this curse.

I spent the next couple of hours wandering the Côtes du Rhône area near the Rousillon area, then over to the Chateauneuf du Papes exhibit, here and there checking out wine gear (pourers are made from paper-thin circles of mylar, which you roll up and stick in the neck of an open bottle, and the advertising potential of that was on full display, as well as some really lovely corkscrews and knives), a small exhibit of Languedoc food (for export, obviously), and the astonishing Salle Mediterranean, where the pros were tasting, tasting, tasting.

This scene was so huge, I only managed to get a little bit into the frame, but if you click to enlarge it you'll begin to understand the dimensions of this, which was only the largest of the tasting halls. When I say there was literally enough wine at this event to float a battleship, I'm not exaggerating.

My feet were beginning to hurt, there was little I hadn't seen, and I wasn't going to be tasting again, apparently, so it was time to go home. I wanted to take a picture of the O'Connell family, but they were busy, and I doubt I'd do better than the picture on their website, so I went outside to catch the shuttle. Somehow I'd gotten the time wrong, or they'd decided not to adhere to the schedule or something, so I hung out in the sun, watching some flying ants appear out of nowhere and hang out at the base of a plant, and eventually fell into conversation with an American guy named Terence Shiple, who has another import business in Virginia and gave me a great hotel tip for visitors coming here.

All in all, I think I learned a bit, and am beginning to get a bit clearer on the wines produced here. I have a doctor's appointment Monday to deal with the taste problem again, and maybe now there'll be some progress. The weather's clearing up, and with any luck at all, the education will continue and I can report on it here. I'll be looking for signs of spring at the market on Saturday, at any rate.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

February Miettes

Today was the first really nice day in some time, so naturally, after trying to work a bit on my book, the call of the great outdoors was just too much, and I put on my coat and headed outdoors, where it was warmish and the sun was beating down hard. Naturally, I had a destination in mind: a dark room.

The Médiathèque Émile Zola is making up for its disappointing seminary-library show of some months back with its current exhibit of sacred Hebraic writings. It's kind of a strange show on some levels, in that it doesn't have a whole lot to do with Montpellier, although among the organizers are the city archives, the Maimondes Euro-Mediterranean University Institute, and the city's cultural and historical directors. This is due to the star of the show, a rather plain-looking, hand-written book called the Montpellier Mahzor, a collection of ritual and liturgical texts (prayers and ritual responses, as at the seder), which was used by the cantor at the synagogue, and is the key to understanding how Montpellier's extensive medieval Jewish community worshipped. Its unique liturgical cycle was spread after the city kicked its Jews out in 1394, whereupon they scattered to Avignon and Venice. During the centuries they were here, documented as far back as 1165, when a famed rabbi passed through, their medical schools were an important adjunct to the University, and they enjoyed the protection of the local rulers. The Mahzor, which was compiled shortly after the expulsion, is currently visiting from its usual home at Paris' Museum of the Art and History of Judaism.

The rest of the show is a mixed bag. I'm not sure what Jacob Soffer (1857-1930) has to do with all of this, but the numerous examples of his calligraphy and particularly his microscopic writing, found on hand-written texts to be included in mezuzahs and as portraits of famous Jews made out of tiny letters is amazing. There are other decorations, several text-based amulets, and other books which I guess are either from the city archives or the local libraries, and explanations of Jewish numerology and its connection to mysticism.

I didn't stay long, because the exhibition isn't very large and it was, after all, a nice day out there, but my guess is we'll get more rain between now and Mar. 19, when this closes, so if your interest in the local Jewish heritage goes beyond the texts posted in the windows of the building on rue Barralerie where they found a mikvah in the basement, wander down to the Zola and check this out.

* * *

I'm afraid I've fed my readers a bit of misinformation, but in so doing, I seem to have opened a window on a scrap of the past that's almost disappeared. Some time ago, I mentioned that there were people with big wooden boxes on wheels selling kittens and puppies on the streets. As it turns out, the truth is something else: they might or might not be willing to part with one of the critters they use, but what these people are selling is candy. I was at the market on Tuesday, in a light rain (there was almost nothing worth buying), and they were there. A woman walked up to me and thrust an open box of little pastilles my way, and I was so surprised that I turned her down. The design on the boxes is quite archaic -- 1920s, I'd say -- and the baby animals (I snapped to the fact that they weren't for sale when I saw a pygmy goat on one of the carts) are just bait to get your kids to drag you over to where they'll try to sell you the pastilles. If anyone has any further details about what this is and who these people are, please let me know.

* * *

According to an article in the Independent newspaper in Britain, this past Monday Montpellier started selling thumb drives for €5 which can be used for a number of things, including tram and bus fares. Sounds good, but I have yet to see anything on this except the newspaper article. Anyone out there know where you can get these?

* * *

I've been wanting to get a real nice sunset shot of the Place de la Comédie to stick at the top of this blog for over a year, and I keep forgetting to go out there and wait for the sunset and shoot it. Now I'll have to wait a bit longer: the city has sealed off a huge hunk of the square to replace the polished limestone which covers it, which means that the folks who like to hang out in the sun in front of the cafes there are getting a nice view of white-painted plywood and the sounds of construction equipment. The reconstruction is supposed to last three months, and it's a good thing it's as noisy as it is because otherwise you'd hear the sound of the cafe owners grinding their teeth in frustration.

* * *

And in the impeccable timing department, a huge wine scandal erupted today when it was revealed that Gallo got sold 3.57 million gallons -- enough to fill 460 oil tankers -- of counterfeit Pinot Noir, which it marketed under the name Red Bicyclette, by a canny quartet of Languedoc winesellers. The sheer volume of the wine involved makes this one of the largest wine-crimes of recent memory. And I say impeccable timing because on Monday, Vinisud, the huge gathering of Mediterranean wine, happens out at the Parc des Expositions here. Languedoc wine has long had an undeserved bad reputation as sub-standard (as apparently the plonk sold to Gallo was), and this won't help. I'll be at Vinisud, thanks to the good folks at Cathar Sun (whose wine I haven't tried, but whose Brian Bolger came to my talk the other night), so watch for a blog-post about all of this next week when my head clears. Let's just hope my nose stays clear so I can taste something!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Talk Is Cheap, But I Got Paid

A big thanks to the 80-plus people who turned out for my talk last night. We had to switch to a much bigger room due to the turnout, and everything went pretty well for a first time. As noted in the comments to the last post, I'm thinking of taking this talk and another one and talking to a speaker's agent who could organize a tour of colleges once or twice a year in the U.S., maybe working up a couple of other talks if that works. I'm certainly not making money writing anymore, and this may be one of the secrets to survival in the decades looming ahead.

But the reason for this post is what happened afterwards. My sponsor, Prof. Claude Chastagner, took me to dinner at the Trinque Fougasse, a restaurant I've been curious about since I got here, as a way of compensating for the fact that there was no payment for the talk. It compensated, all right.

I'd been getting weekly announcements of the lunch menu at this place from the local Slow Food chapter for some time, but this turned out to have set up wrong expectations. The chef who does lunch isn't on for dinner, and the restaurant falls back on a set seasonal menu. This has its good points and its not-so-good (although not bad) points. Whereas the lunch menu is an exploration of local ingredients, with a single chef as architect, the dinner menu is actually lighter and more aimed at pairing with wine. I tend to eat my heaviest meal last in the day, as I suspect most Americans do, and so I had a bit of trouble choosing something from the menu. The two "la planche" combos included dessert, which I don't eat, and the "Automnale" included goat-cheese as well, to which I'm rather violently allergic most of the time.

I went with "Les 3 Jambons," tastings of three different kinds of Spanish ham, including the rare Pata Negra. What you get is just that: ham and bread. We also ordered fries (unexceptional, but at least they didn't seem frozen) and salad (which was, um, salad), and Claude had the seafood combo, which looked good enough, but, again, light.

When you sit down, there's a paperweight-like thing with your table number on it, and you're invited to go over to the wine-bar area and taste some wines. This led to the discovery that the restaurant is also a retail store: along the wall was a very, very impressive selection of local wines, including every one of my greatest hits and many more I'd heard of but not tried. None of them were involved with the tasting, which features six or so bottles of a range of stuff, from simple to very complex. Each bottle in the wall display has three prices: a bottle to go, a bottle to consume with your meal, and a per-glass price, all of which were very reasonable. Unfortunately, as I discovered when the guy poured a taste of a Pic St. Loup I'd never heard of, my nose had gone to sleep, as usual for the evening, so I could only very barely taste what was there. This didn't mean that Claude, who admitted that he wasn't as familiar with the local wines as I was, had to suffer, though, so I picked out a Clos des Immortelles from Mas de la Seranne, which is right up there with my favorites, easily the best wine I've discovered here so far. He was impressed, as people tend to be.

I was able to tell a bit about the hams, with the Pata Negra having a granular consistency and a higher degree of salt than the other two. In fact the jambon de la vallée des Aldudes had hardly any salt at all, but was clearly well-cured, from its dark color. The intensity made for leisurely eating, although I did wish for a bit more stuff to fill me up; I'd had to walk to the University for lack of tram fare in a driving cold wind (although apparently most of France got slammed with snow last night and only this tiny pocket was spared, so that's something) and, on my current economically determined one-meal-per-day regime, I could have used more calories.

Since we were in a car, I'm not 100% sure where this place was and how one gets there via public transportation, but I'm quite interested in going back when the weather warms up and the outdoor section is viable, both because that's nice and because it might be further away from the live music, which I certainly don't need with my food. The setup is nice: wandering to the bar, the informal vibe, the possibility of taking a bottle of something you liked home with you. So thanks for the dinner and the chance to do a try-out of the talk, Claude!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Stupid And Immoral

I meant to do this yesterday, but just in case someone's around town on Thursday evening, I'm giving a talk up at the University Paul Valéry entitled "Rock & Roll Will Make You Stupid and Immoral," which, as you can plainly see above, it's done to me. There is actually a serious message at the center of it, or a couple of them, although I'll be sugar coating them with humor and anecdotes. Music will be played, visuals will be shown.

Thursday, Feb. 11, 6:15 pm, University Paul Valéry 3, Building B, room 202. (Unless we have to move it across the way, in which case there'll be a notice on the door). Here's a map, Building B has a B on it, which I failed to notice yesterday when I went up there to look at the place. Be there or be square!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Stroll and Fail

It finally got to me the other day: I'm spending way too much time in my apartment. I wake up, read the news, check the doings at the Save the Library site (big excitement: someone posted a malware spam!), then get back to work on my book. That's usually wound down by around 2, at which point I make some lunch. Back to checking the news and various URLs that people have sent and before I know it, the sun's going down. I walk a block or two to the supermarket, then come home. And the next day I repeat it.

The exceptions, of course, are market days, Tuesday and Saturday, when I trudge about a mile over to the Arceaux market. But even that's been taking a hit recently. Either the weather is crappy, or I don't actually need anything. But I did it again this morning. There was no excuse; the sun was bright (I was actually glad I'd remembered sunglasses), and although it was crisp out there, it wasn't too bad.

So let's recreate the walk. I came out of the apartment and as soon as I cleared the carousel in the corner of the Comédie, I put on the sunglasses. Stop to let a tram take off, and then across the Com to the Rue de la Loge, the big street lined with luxury stores (Bang & Olufsen, Godiva, some women's clothing shops and a couple of high-end jewelers) that, almost at the top, has the Place Jean Jaurès where the students hang out and drink at night. Yesterday, there was a big roundup of what I believe are currently called "travellers," kids with huge dogs who hang out and drink 8.6% beer out of cans and beg when they can remember to. The police were all over them there, possibly because, from the evidence, some of the dogs are quite ill. I never thought I'd see a town that could compete with Berlin for dogshit in the streets, but Montpellier's running a good race.

The street flattens out at the top of the hill, where the Halles Castellanes (the indoor market hall) and the Virgin Megastore share a building. I actually was in the Halles yesterday, which is how I noticed the police/travellers contretemps. The idea of going to the supermarket just to buy something vegetable to go with my dinner seemed stupid, so I went to one of the stalls and bought a broccoli. It cost me 75 cents instead of €1.00 or more at the Inno. And it wasn't swathed in plastic, either.

Once past the Halles, though, I was faced with a choice. Walking straight into the large space called the Plaza of the Martyrs of the Resistance, where I'd walk left onto the Rue Foch, has recently been made more difficult because the branch of some bank is doing renovations and the construction crew has built an extension of the building out onto what was already a very narrow sidewalk. I've taken to going down a side-street and rejoining Foch a block or two down, which is longer, but pleasanter -- and darker. I was enjoying the sun, and there didn't seem to be many people out, so I kept going. Rue Foch is what they call a Hausmannesque addition to the city, modelled after the changes Baron Hausmann made in Paris in the 19th Century. All the buldings along it are 19th Century, and I'm told that the reason the street was cut was to divide the two main parishes of the city. To the left as I head towards the Peyrou Arch, the yellow Arc de Triomphe monument to Louis XIV, is the St. Anne district, which is where, theoretically, anyway, I'd like my next apartment to be. Me and, I suspect, thousands of others.

Rue Foch is again lined with luxury clothing stores, and today, the two pharmacies, a couple of doors away from each other, were flashing that it was 11.5°C (53°F) and 6°C (43°F). I decided to believe the former. At the end of the street is the Arch, after which I crossed a street into the park which is part of the Peyrou complex, with an equestrian statue of Louis that's tall enough that there was a law for many years that no secular building (churches were of course excepted) could stand any taller than the King. Recently, someone lashed a huge cardboard sword to his hand, a New Year's prank, I guess.

(This picture's from last April, incidentally)

The other big monument in the Peyroux is the Château d'Eau, the water tower which has the pumps that supply water to the many fountains in the central city, and it's been covered with scaffolding for the better part of a year. The Peyrou has trees on either side of this bare expanse, and needless to say in high summer this isn't the route I choose. To the right (actually to the left in this picture) you can gaze out into the mountains, and on the left is urban sprawl and a couple of hills and, I think, the Mediterranean. Today, the mountains behind Pic St. Loup seemed to have a dusting of snow on them, and there was a crew in the park who were trimming the trees, a sure sign that spring is coming. On either side of the Château d'Eau, there are staircases which go to the lower level of the park, which surrounds the main part on either side and meets below the Château. Extending from the rear of the Château are Les Arceaux, a faux-Roman aqueduct which runs for about a mile, where it hooks up with an older aqueduct which runs to the spring from which the Lez River originates. It's kind of a fake version of the region's big tourist attraction, the Pont du Gard, the Roman aqueduct near Nîmes.

Attached to one of the arches is a photo, allegedly the only verified one in existence of Jean Moulin, the famed Resistance figure. which was taken there. Stairs at the end of the park lead to a small street, across from which are more stairs, which take you to ground level in a parking lot, where more tree work was going on. From there, it's just a couple of blocks to the long lot where the market stretches out.

Having taken you this far, I have to admit that, except for the wonderful odor the chicken truck was making (a truck with a portable rotisserie on which a dozen chickens roast before a fire, their fat dripping onto some sliced potatoes below), there wasn't much at the market today. My shopping list was modest, as was my budget, but it was essential: garlic and eggs. Oh, and of course anything else that looked good that I could afford. The egg guy is always there on Tuesdays, a friendly chap who serves as an agent for his neighbors who raise chickens. He's got four kinds of eggs: "bio" large and extra-large, and non-bio in the same sizes. Prices range from €2.50 for six extra-large bio to €1.90 for six small non-bio. He loves to talk, and today he wanted to talk English. This is because I taught him the phrase "free-range" the first time I bought eggs from him, and he's been accumulating phrases since then. "'Ello! 'Ow har you?" I admitted to being good. "You wan' six freh randzhe?" Indeed I did. "Two Euro! Sank you. 'Ave a nahze deh!" It's not only his gregariousness that keeps me coming back to this guy, as I've said: I practically have to put on sunglasses when I scramble the eggs, their yolks are so yellow.

In a nice surprise, the cheese guy from Aveyron was there today, too. A few weeks ago, he'd offered me a slice of his Conté, and it was very good: nutty and smooth. We got to talking, and he discovered I was American, so he made another slice out of a very funky two-year-old Conté with a gnarly, worm-eaten (I think) crust. I thanked him and admitted I wasn't really in the market for cheese at the moment. With the piece of old cheese still dissolving in my mouth, I walked away, got about five feet, and a bulb went off in my head. I should get some of this stuff. So I did a U-turn and did just that. As he was cutting it, he said "My British customers think this is like Cheddar." Which is exactly what I'd thought: a nice sharp Cheddar. This guy is in his 40s, third generation cheesemaker, and is, he told me today (when I really wasn't in the market for any) that he's usually there on Tuesdays.

I poked around at several other stands until I found one with exceptional garlic, and bought three heads. Really, there was almost nothing on offer today: a few winter squashes, lots of potatoes and onions, black radishes, and a few turnips. Oh, sure, there were stands that were fully-equipped fruit-and-vegetable stands, but the stuff was all from Morocco and so on. I can get that at the Inno. A new stand offered Corsican charcuterie, coppa and saussicon sec in donkey, boar, and beef varieties, as well as a black sausage called figatelli, which appears to be made from liver and blood. People tell me that the Corsicans make great sausages, so I'll have to check these people out when I have a little extra to spend on exploring the huge range of stuff they were offering.

Wow: six eggs and three heads of garlic. What a haul! Four whole Euros spent, too, less than the ten I allow myself even during hard times in the summer. But the extra six can wind up with me hauling back enough melons, tomatoes, and peaches, as well as other stuff, to wear me out. In the summer stuff is cheap because it goes bad if they don't sell it. That time is coming, but I'm still going back twice a week, if possible, because last year I ignored the market during the months, like now, when it wasn't as colorful, and only started going back in May. As it is, I'll be missing most of March, which I'll be spending in Texas, but I've promised myself to be more observant this time.

* * *

Some weeks back, I mentioned I was going to be writing up a photography show which was running at the Pavillion Populaire by a famous French photographer, Raymond Depardon. Actually, it was four shows, three of which were at the Pavillion, but the most interesting one to me, his photos of the Languedoc region, were at the old St. Anne church, and opened later than the other three at the Pavillion. Two of those I found rather icily intellectual and theory-driven, "Wandering" and "Cities," both of which were photos shot with a set of rules he gave himself. (I have nothing against this per se: the preceding entry was written as an exercise for stuff I have to do with this book I'm writing). In "Cities," I believe the idea was to spend 48 hours in a city and try to do a portrait of it, and, at least for the cities I was familiar with, he seemed confused. Neither portraits of familiar landmarks nor of situations which define the urban life, they were more like snapshots than anything. "Farmers," though, which took up the entire second floor of the Pavilion, was quite wonderful. Depardon himself grew up on a farm, and admits that it's informed his view of everything since. The sympathy and emotional connection shows up in his portraits of people who are still working their small farms. You can see the toll it's taken on them in their faces.

But I missed the show at St. Anne. Just plain forgot it was there, and yesterday I kicked myself. What an idiot. Even worse, though, was that I didn't know that the other show I was going to write about also closed on Sunday. This one I went to because the artist was the wife of a friend of mine, but once I saw the pieces, I really flipped.

Florence Causeur-Chastagner works in collage, cutting pieces out of colored paper and fitting them together. She told me she's never trained in it, just started doing it one day because it made her feel good. There were two main sections of the show. The first were blank-faced sets showing people posing or grouped together as if in snapshots. Marie got one of them on her blog, but it doesn't really register the skill and color. The way these images are framed and arranged in sets implies a kind of narrative because they recall comic books, but in fact there's no narrative at all, which makes narrative-driven people like me stare at them all the longer, waiting for a connection which never comes. It sounds frustrating, but it's not.

But the pieces which made me jump up and down with happiness (I exaggerate, but they really did thrill me) were her reinterpretation of the Mexican Day of the Dead art, in which skeletons do this and that, just like living people. They're called calaveras (which, duh, means skeletons), and what Mme. Causeur-Chastagner has done has been to make her own version, using Bible stories and other religious imagery, which the Mexican tradition would never do. There's a Stations of the Cross, for instance, and some illustrating Old Testament scenes. I scanned a detail of one which she uses on her business card above. This little guy is deciding on whether to wear good or evil (the good being the wings on the coat-hanger). She and her husband spent time in Austin a couple of years ago, which is what triggered this series, and I hope to talk to a couple of gallerists there in March to see if, when they're back at the University of Texas in 2011, she might get a show there. The cultural confrontation might well ignite some worthy discussion. At the very least, it would be a revelation.

The show, incidentally, was at the Galerie Saint Ravy, an old building deep in the old town which is owned by the city and used to show the works of local visual artists, which I think is a very good use of public funds. Almost as good as helping to re-house the collection of the Anglophone Library would be, but that's another story for another day.
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