You say toe-may-toe, I say toe-mah-toe

I am still here in the south of France, enjoying sun filled days that last until 10:30 at night. What a pleasure to have those extra hours of sun. The day strolls by leisurely progressing from morning to afternoon to late afternoon to evening. We eat dinner about nine pm and there is still time for an ice cream at the beach before the sun sets.
Early yesterday morning I went to the farmer’s market and returned with a plethora of local tomatoes. Provencal cooks are so fond of tomatoes that they refer to them as pommes d’amour, apples of love. Italians call them pomodori, golden apples. No matter what you call them or how you pronounce the name, there is nothing that says summer like luscious ripe tomatoes. Save the slowly simmered tomato sauce and the sun dried tomatoes for winter to enjoy in a hearty meal around a warm fire. When tomatoes are in season, I love to use them fresh for every meal possible.
I am fortunate to live in two places where tomatoes thrive, Charleston, SC and the South of France. John’s Island, a South Carolina sea island community in Charlestson, has long been recognized for the superior quality of its immense bounty of vegetables and fruits. The loamy soil provides ideal growing conditions. Before I had even moved to Charleston, a Chicago cab driver on a 4:30 am ride to O’Hare Airport informed me, “Charleston? Best tomatoes in the world from John’s Island!” For the remainder of the drive he expounded on the array of Southern vegetables , but also warned me that “we eat critters down there”. I asked what he meant by critters and he said, “Oh, rabbit, possum, squirrel, armadillo…..” I decided then and there to stick to tomatoes.
The Provencal climate produces tomatoes that when freshly picked from the vine still have a bit of crunch, low acidity, and a slight grassy aroma. Some juicy tomatoes, a bit of garlic, a splash of golden green olive oil, and voila dinner in minutes. Recipe possibilities are endless but my favorites still remain tomato tart with mustard, Provencal Pistou, stuffed tomatoes with basil,garlic, and chevre, and a delicious layered crepe cake with smoked salmon, tomatoes, and mint.
This week’s recipe is Provencal Pistou. The traditional pistou is more of a pesto without pine nuts, but often with the addition of tomatoes. It is added to a typical bean and vegetable soup.  My version is more of a fresh tomato sauce but with some unexpected flavors. Basil, parsley and oregano are the herbs we commonly associate with tomatoes. Here the addition of tarragon, often called the prince of the aromatic herbs, replaces the oregano and parsley and adds a bright note of acidity. Tarragon originated in central Russia and is indeed one of the main herbs in a traditional tartar sauce. Sherry vinegar, vinagre de Jerez in Spanish, adds another sparkle. It is produced in the Spanish province of Cádiz. To be called vinagre de Jerez, by law the vinegar must be aged in oak barrels for a minimum of six months, can only be aged within the “sherry triangle” and must have a minimum of 7 degrees acidity.
It is best not to refrigerate Provencal Pistou before serving to allow all of the fresh flavors to mellow and blend. I like to serve it over penne pasta or as a sauce for grilled fish or chicken.

Provencal Pistou

Provencal Pistou

                                                                                                             Yield: 4 cups                                                                                      1 quart/1 litre

5 medium (2 ½ # / 1k) tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped
2 shallots, minced
2 TBS. sherry vinegar
2 TBS. olive oil
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. freshly ground pepper
pinch of cayenne pepper
½ C. chopped basil leaves
2 TBS. chopped fresh tarragon
1 TBS. snipped chives
1 tsp. lemon zest

Place chopped tomatoes in a colander and let drain while preparing recipe.

Combine shallots, vinegar, olive oil, salt, pepper, and cayenne in a bowl. Stir inherbs and lemon zest. Gently fold in tomatoes.

Let rest at room temperature 30 minutes before serving to develop flavors. Serve at room temperature.

To serve:
Use as a sauce for freshly cooked pasta or a sauce for grilled fish or chicken.


Finally! My first BLOG. If only this were as natural to me as cooking. Before I go any further I want to thank my daughter, Alessandra Jacques, and my dear friend, Megan Elger, for their expertise and patience in helping me with this.

Three days ago, I arrived at my home away from home in the south of France. After living here for seven years, it warms my heart and all of my senses each time I return and smell the salty, earthy breezes, see the nuances of green spanning the olive groves and vineyards, and take my first plunge into the crystal clear, blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. It is always a bit saltier than I remember, but the salt makes me float effortlessly!

My husband keeps a small apartment in the historic village of Hyères which is about thirty miles west of St. Tropez. Hyères is an ancient Greek city dating from the fourth century B.C. It is often referred to as Hyères les Palmiers due to the 7000 palm trees in the village. It is the oldest village in the region called La Côte d’Azur. Stephen Liégeard, a politician and writer, coined the term in 1887 because of the  brilliant blue color of the Mediterranean Sea The name was an instant hit and immediately caught on in the rest of France and in England.
A “coast of light, warm breezes, and mysterious balmy forests…from Genoa to Hyères , the route is short but delicious.” was how Liégeard described the area. A note of interest for my fellow Charlestonians…. Lord Albemarle, one of the original Lord Proprietors of Charles Towne, stayed in Hyères during the winter 1767-1768.
In 1883, Robert Louis Stevenson came to Hyères and wrote: “That spot, our garden and our view are sub-celestial. I sing daily with Bunian, that great bard. I dwell next door to Heaven!”. In later years he wrote, “Happy (said I); I was only happy once; that was at Hyères.” The British presence culminated in the winter of 1892 when Queen Victoria came for  three weeks. At that time, the British influence was so strong that shop signs were in both French and English.

In the early part of the 20th century many famous artists, musicians, and authors gathered at Villa Noailles the avant-garde home of Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles. These notables included Mondrian, Giocametti, Dali, Cocteau, Man Ray and Edith Wharton.

I spend endless hours wandering the winding streets in the hills of the old village, sampling the produce and spices at the outdoor markets, admiring the beauty of the orange trees and palm lined avenues, or sipping a chilled glass of rosé and watching the insouciant fashion which is so natural to the French.
If I arrive in the summer as I did this year, the first thing I make is a salad of melon and prosciutto. Although there are only three main ingredients in the recipe, each of them enjoys special status in the European Union. Certain items such as wine, hams, cheese, olive oils and vinegar are designated as AOC, DOC and DO in France, Italy and Spain respectively. These labels indicate that the product has a protected designation of origin, a protected geographical indication, and is a guaranteed traditional specialty.
The south of France is famous for its melons, especially those from the city of Cavaillon. There is even a melon festival from July 7 to 9. Visit the out door markets and any vendor will be happy to tell you how to chose the perfect melon de Cavaillon. First, make sure that the melon you select has 10 (not 9 or 11) sections if you desire optimum flavor. When the stem begins to soften and starts to detach easily from the fruit, the melon is at its peak. The seller will want to know exactly when you plan to eat the melon so that s/he can be certain that it will be at the peak of perfection. These melons are sometimes available in Farmer’s Markets in the U.S. If you use them in the following recipe in place of cantaloupe, you will need two because they are not as big as melons in the U.S.
The true connoisseur of prosciutto (or any of the hams from France of Spain such as jambon de Bayonne from the Southwest of France or jamón serrano found throughout Spain) appreciates the balance of fat and meat which yields sweetness and salt in each bite. However, in this recipe, because the ham is diced, I cut off the fat.

Use a good quality balsamic vinegar. True balsamic vinegar comes from Modena, Italy and goes through a special aging process in three or four different types of wooden barrels. I spent two weeks studying cooking in Modena and had the opportunity to taste balsamic vinegar that had been aged 100 years. It was amazingly sweet and thick and was best enjoyed with a piece of Parmeggiano Reggiano cheese. Balsamic vinegar, Parmegiano Reggiano, and prosciutto di Parma, all come from the same small area near Modena.

Melon and Prosciutto Cocktail makes a delicious light lunch served with a cheese plate and crusty baguette, a refreshing first course before some grilled fish or chicken, or an elegant warm weather hors d’oeuvre for a cocktail party. When served this way, I use a small melon baller to cut the melon in tiny balls and serve the salad in martini glasses or shot glasses. When I am in the states and feeling very nostalgic for France I add some crumbled Roquefort cheese. When I am in France, I eat so much cheese that I usually prefer the simple version!

Melon and Prosciutto Cocktail

Yield: 8 servings

One large cantaloupe
One slice of prosciutto, cut ¾” (2cm) thick, about 3.5 ou. (100g)
½ small sweet red onion, cut in small dice
generous ½ tsp. freshly ground pepper
2-3 TBS Balsamic vinegar
4 large leaves basil
4 large leaves mint
4 chives

Cut melon in 1” (2.5cm) pieces. Trim excess fat from prosciutto. Cut meat in ¼” (1cm) dice. In a mixing bowl, combine melon, prosciutto and onion. Add pepper.* One half hour before serving, add vinegar. Cut basil and mint in chiffonade and snip chives and add to mixture. Stir gently and refrigerate 3o mn. before serving.