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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

French Travel Tales: Train from Montpellier to Florence. Part Three.

As we left the adventure in Part Two the quite unassuming group of travelers had quickly gotten off the train because of a bomb at the next station and had taken a taxi to Nice in order to connect with further travel.

Write to me ( or leave a comment about a defining moment in a trip. Have you ever made a bad decision, one you regretted? I'll post the best stories in a future post. 

And so my day continued from Nice, too, and as I traveled on I also traveled far from the luxurious jubilance  and exhilaration I had so firmly grasped when just beginning the trip, or even the day.  I was experiencing that closing up and transporting back to what I had been dreading. And just on time the real world greeted me as the train arrived into my final French destination. Montpellier. It was late. 9 pm. But if I was just heading out on my first day this would have been cause for celebration, an adventure. A proverbial lark. I would have laughed into the night. But now, outside the train station it seemed lonelier than ever. I was lonely and tired. There was no group to figure it out with. I could make all the decisions, but they were real, and would have real consequences. I was no longer accompanied by a group of merry pilgrims or familiar faces and even fewer taxis. The taxis that were lined up were very expensive. As taxis are – even in the beginning of a trip - but somehow at the end of a trip these same fares laughed at my plummeting imagination and soared into the heavens above.

What there was though was free bus service to the airport. This was before international cell phones, I-Phones, or You-phones either. So, I took the bus directly to the airport, (why prolong my suffering, I would just get on with it) and walked into the only hotel there. It was a very nice hotel, and very close to the airport. I put my bags, overflowing with vino and risi and nocci and farro and funghi down and waited patiently in line. Silly moi! Rooms were completely booked due to some convention. The concierge lady (was she wearing J’adore?) kindly called a few neighboring hotels. A nice man, well-dressed and suitably debonair overheard my dilemma and offered to share his bed with me for half the night. He glanced at my bags and said I could sleep in his bed (he made sure I knew who owned it) while he was out, but he wouldn’t be back until at least 3 or 4 in the morning.

And then?? I asked.
He smiled. 
I merci’d him, but that was all.

Did I mention it was late?

Now it was later.

The concierge found a hotel for me over by the Golfe du Lion in Palavas. 
Wouldn’t I like to spend my last night in France by the sea?
And then I heard a familiar refrain from earlier in the day.

Bien sur. Je suis perdue et fatigue. (of course, I'm just a little lost and tired.)
Bien sur, Madame. (Of course, Madame.)
Je voudrais un croissant, peutetre doux. Avec un grand café crème. (I would like a croissant or two, and a cup of coffee)
Oui! D’accor! D’accor! (Yes, Yes. OK)
Enfin. Enfin. (At Last.)
Bisous. (kisses)
Au revoir.(good-bye)

Bringing in the Catch

As I arrived in Palavas the wind circled my hotel – I ate no croissants and had no cafe au lait. What I had was a very late dinner, and a bad one to boot, alone in the dining room. Well, not entirely alone. The staff was laughing and drinking at a table in an adjoining room with some friends. Perhaps my mood conveyed that I wanted quiet and solitude and as such they allowed my late night repast, which I soon would wish had already past, to be exactly that. I probably should have passed it back to them and walked out, but I couldn’t go to bed without dinner on my last night in France, especially after such a long day.

Dreamy Huitres, Oysters

The Fruits de Mer made me mutter Mer de Diu – Mother of God how could they serve this? Cooked squid and scallops that were like the tires on my soon to be here again, taxi.  

 Moules, How I Wished For You

Had I pushed her too far or disappointed the Sacred Lady Saint of Travel? Where had I made a wrong turn? Stayed in Nice? Missed my plane? Walked into Montpelier for a room? Maybe I could have trusted the man in the hotel at the airport. I would be sleeping now. Maybe. But the Traveling Saint Lady was clearly spent. No more contemplations.

And I too, as it turned out, was too tired to send my squid platter back – even as my bed was calling to me. Was it my bed – or was it the wind as it severely throttled the vinyl banners outside the hotel? I had only a scant few hours until my taxi (arranged by the concierge at the other hotel) would pull up in front of my room to take me to the Montpelier airport and on to Paris.

I made another pillow, a better one out of the sacks of nocci and risi and funghi, and Merci’d the world that this bed was all mine and only mine, and whatever dreams I had of alternate lives I could dream uninterrupted, and as many as I wanted for these last few hours in La Belle France. And I knew I would, I hoped  I would, see the Sacred Lady Saint of Travel, refreshed and ready to roll, in the morning.

Please feel free write to me ( or share in a comment your travel experiences and defining moments. Are you a planner or more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants traveler?   

Mussels of the Sea, Provencal Style ~ Moules Marinières Provençales

Though this recipe has its roots in the Mediterranean near Arles, a good deal further up and around the coastline from where I was in Palavas I couldn't help but think of it while dining that night. This delicious dish was one taught in Madeleine and Erick Vedel's beautiful bed and breakfast and cooking school entitled Association Cuisine et Tradition in Arles. Madeleine writes that Erick's “recipe for mussels is to my mind one of the most flavorful and pleasant to eat.  It is a dish to be eaten on your knees it is so good.  I found it in a book by Morard of the 19th century (1870) in which he presented two mussels’ recipes, this he remarks, is the ancient one. However, we can date it to after the discovery of the Americas (late 16th century, early 17th century) as it includes a tomato.”

With Madeleine (in the hat) and Erick (pouring olive oil) in Arles at Cuisine et Tradition

For 4 persons as a main course; 6-8 as an appetizer

Cooking time : 10-15 minutes for the mussels to steam open ; 30-45 minutes for the sauce.

Two kg (4.5 lbs) mussels (in arles we use the bouzigues variety, from the Mediterranean Sea – these are saltier than mussels from either the atlantic or pacific oceans and as such we do not add any extra salt when in provence)

One cup water

For the sauce:
one onion, minced
3 tbsp olive oil
one tomato diced
a cup of dry white wine (we always use a costières de nîmes, but a simple sauvignon blanc would be fine)
4 bay leaves
2 garlic cloves crushed and chopped

Set the mussels to steam in a tall covered pot with a cup of water.  this will take 10-15 minutes.  once all the shells are open, remove from the flame and set aside.  do not throw away the mussel juice in the pot.

In a quart/liter size sauce pan, pour the olive oil and add the minced onions.  simmer on a low flame till the onions have sweated and become simply translucent.  watch carefully and be careful that the onions do not brown.  add the chopped tomato and stir a moment, add the wine, the crushed garlic, the bay leaves, and the mussel juice from the steaming pot.  bring to a boil and let simmer and reduce for 20-30 minutes.

To serve : take a large rimmed platter and place the opened mussels in the half-shell (you can toss the other half) in one layer throughout the platter.  extra mussels can be taken from their shells and added to the shells in the platter.  leave a few whole to be used as pinchers to eat the mussels.  if you are making the mussels ahead of time, put them in the refrigerator until you are ready to serve, then take them out and gently reheat the serving dish, ladle the sauce over the mussels and serve.  by ladling the piping hot sauce over the mussels, you reheat them without drying them out in the oven!).

*Left-over mussel juice is wonderful for a seafood risotto the next day, or as the base of a delectable fish chowder.  use it within a day or two at the most, or freeze it for later use.

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