Provence through an Artist’s Eyes

In case it slipped your mind, today, June 20, is #YellowDay. “How wonderful yellow is. It stands for the sun,” said Vincent Van Gogh. Sunflowers, grainfields, buildings, lights at night. His work dispenses yellow in abundance. Why? The sun-drenched south of France inspired him, and art research has demonstrated how his palette changed dramatically when he moved there.

So many charming vistas on our recent sojourn to the area—fields of poppies, mountains, charming villages set alongside canals or on vertiginous slopes. One of my favorite excursions was our visit to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where our guide had planned a four-hour shopping trip. It was market day, and the streets and squares would be packed with vendors.

One hour of shopping is about fifty-nine minutes too many for me, so since our group was small (five Americans), my husband suggested driving a very short way out of town to visit Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, the mental hospital where Van Gogh spent most of the last year of his life (1889-1890). Thankfully, everyone else was on board with that plan too. The hospital wing where Van Gogh stayed is still used by patients, but the compound’s other portion has been turned into a museum (and gift shop) that includes a recreation of his room and overlooks the garden.

Because he’d admitted himself to the hospital, he had the run of the grounds, and was even given an extra room to use as a painting studio. Reproductions of some of the 150 paintings he made there are on display outdoors against the backdrop of those same scenes as they are today, including precise profiles of distant mountains.

Our guide had an interesting take on one of his most famous paintings, “Starry Night” (pictured). While it’s often cited as evidence of his disordered mental state, she said that, as a resident of Provence, the swirling air and twisted cypresses remind her of the mistral winds, which blow so strongly and even violently at certain seasons.

Viewing Van Gogh’s work is always exhilarating, but tinged with sadness for his life cut short and for the lack of appreciation he received during it. I took heart from the quotation of his and hope it accurately expresses his feeling. It’s a great philosophy for struggling creative people everywhere: “If I am worth anything later, I am worth something also now, for wheat is wheat, even if people think it is grass in the beginning.”

You Are What You Eat

A recent vacation—a Food & Wine tour of Provence—created a hiatus in the blog posts here, but the trip wasn’t without nuggets of interest to people who like to cook and eat!

The trip included two cooking lessons, one out in the country with an entertaining chef named Yvan Cadiou, who has lived in many countries and picked up tastes and tricks from each of them. Quite a showman, with some television programs in his background. His class was fun and demonstrated a fresh and delicious take on familiar recipes—gazpacho with a melon rather than tomato base, for one. Everyone had the chance to do a little something toward the meal and all were rewarded with a memorable dinner.

The second cooking class took place during a morning, in Avignon’s 160-year-old Les Halles market (pictured), and was conducted by an American chef, John, who’s lived in France for decades. John seemed to know everyone working in the market and was constantly interrupted by their warm greetings. It seemed a very French experience. Cheeses, smoked meats, beautiful cuts of meat, sparkling fresh fish, fragrant breads, irresistible pastry, chocolates, the freshest fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices.

Chef John, being from California, felt it incumbent on him to point out shortcomings in the US food regulatory apparatus. For example, he showed us the labels for French fish and seafood. In the Avignon market, the labels provide the common name of the fish in big letters, then the precise species name, since some fish of different species have the same common name. Then exactly where and when it was caught, farm-raised or wild-caught? I can find out some of this by inquiring at my local seafood market, but it isn’t labelled in a consistent way. This cuts down on fraudulent labeling, an occasional scandal in the US. You think you’re buying one thing, but you’re really getting something else (probably less expensive).

He also said our “free-range eggs” aren’t necessarily so. Buried in the US regulations is the definition of what can be called “free-range,” he said—about an hour a day outside confinement—often an 8.5 x 11” cage—that’s right, the dimensions of a sheet of paper. Here’s a handy article. My grocery store carries eggs that are pasture-raised and certified humane. (Yay!) The yolks are several shades deeper than typical store-bought eggs.

What he said about vanilla would curl your hair. McCormick pure vanilla, the company website says, does come from vanilla beans. (Doesn’t the picture of a vanilla orchid on the box prove it?) Although a very small amount of vanilla in the US comes from “nonplant vanilla flavoring,” as Wikipedia delicately puts it (scroll way down), the thought of beaver glands is enough to start you reading labels with care.

Oh, and our innkeeper made fresh croissants every morning!

Bon apétit!

Photo: Avignon’s Les Halles market by Bradley Griffin;