A Taste of Provence: St. Vincent and other celebrations

In late January, we celebrate the Fête de St. Vincent in Coudoux, a village about a half hour’s drive from Aix-en-Provence. This is the annual homage to Saint Vincent, patron saint of the winegrowers, who — legend has it — stopped one day with his donkey in a vineyard to chat with the field workers. When he returned to his donkey a few moments later, the animal had chewed a number of vine shoots. During the next harvest, these “eaten” plants turned out to be more heavily laden with grapes than the others. The donkey had introduced the pruning of the vines and Saint Vincent became the vintners’ patron saint! After the local priest has blessed the good saint’s statue and thanked him for another bountiful harvest, the statue is carried around the village by folkloric groups, accompanied by a fyfe-and-drum band that plays the Coupo Santo, the national hymn of Provence. Once St. Vincent has been returned to his perch in the church, the festivities begin and the wine starts flowing. No homage without wine — not in Provence. Another product they celebrate in Coudoux that day is olive oil, the wonderful thick green oil that is pressed by a small local mill through coco-like mats called “scourtins” -– à l’ancienne. This age-old pressing method is in danger because “Brussels” has decreed that all olive oil shall henceforth be produced in steel vats and tiled germ-free spaces. No more wooden presses and coco mats. The result will no doubt be more homogeneous but less fragrant, and many small producers will not be able to afford to “upgrade” their mills and will go out of business. It will be a loss, not only of one of life’s small pleasures but also of the artisanal way of producing things. Of course, Oscar and I are supporting the old ways as much as we can -– bitching about Brussels with the rest of them while drinking wine and eating bread dipped in olive oil -– but I am afraid the technocrats are going to win in the end. Say January, say Mimosa. Soon after New Year’s, the first mimosa appears at our flower stalls in Aix, and Nice, the mimosa capital, celebrates with a festival complete with chars overflowing with the cheery yellow flower, like so many rays of sun. On the third Sunday of January, the town of Richerenches in the Vaucluse honors the truffle with a mass said in Provençal where one can give a truffle to the collection rather than money. The collected truffles are then sold at a public auction in front of town hall, with the proceeds going to the church. And on two successive Sundays in February, the little port of Carry-le-Rouet, just outside Marseille, celebrates the sea urchin (“oursin”) at its Oursinade, where stalls along the port offer the freshly-caught spiky delicacy which is cut in half before your eyes so you can scoop out the tiny pink treasure it holds. Better than caviar, according to some. By mid February, get ready for Carnival in Nice or the lemon festival in nearby Menton. While many towns in different parts of France celebrate Carnival, Nice stands out for its extravagant parade, often under blue skies and always well attended by large crowds seeking a break from winter. No better place, however, for a winter break than Menton with its microclimate that practically guarantees you sun. There, within a stone’s throw from Carnival-mad Nice, this climactically blessed enclave holds its lemon festival with impressive floats entirely made up of the citrus fruits for which it is famous. Watching those fragrant floats roll down the palm-tree lined boulevards, it is indeed hard to believe that this is February and winter has another month to run. And what’s new in the franglais department? The verb “coacher” slipped in, as in “George Bush est coaché par Dick Cheney.” A new bakery announced that it bakes “direct live” i.e., in full view of its customers. And gastronomy was given a boost at the “Semaine du Fooding” in Paris where you were invited to “manger avec feeling” what some great chefs had prepared. For details, they referred to their website www.lefooding.com. After a bit of “footing” (jogging) and a drop-off at “le pressing” (drycleaners), you could stop at the hairdresser’s for a “brushing” (blow-dry) before meeting le grand chef Marc Veyrat at “le fooding.” Sounds good in any language.   — Anne-Marie Simons has had a long career as a sometime secretary, translator, teacher, journalist, sportswriter (covering Formula One races), realtor, and Director of Corporate Communications, which included writing an international newsletter. Now happily retired, Anne-Marie and her Argentine husband Oscar live in the South of France where she writes and Oscar cooks. TAKING ROOT IN PROVENCE by Anne-Marie Simons is available on Amazon.com. If you’re coming to France (or for that matter anywhere) you can reserve your hotel here. To rent a car, Bonjour Paris recommends Auto Europe.
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