Buongiorno, bonjour and “g’day”! (don't you like how they're all the same thing? ~ who knew Australian vernacular was so cosmopolitan???).

Also, "a good day to you, sir/maam" for our American pals, "Ni Hao" to China, and "Здравствуй" to our Russian comrades, "etcetera etcetera and so forth"... (for Yul Brynner).

It’s your old pal Kit (Christof) Fennessy here. I've been writing this blog with your help for ten years, and there's over a hundred and fifty recipes, restaurant reviews of Australia and around the world, and general gourmet articles in these pages for you to fritter away your idle hours on.

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Monday, November 28, 2011

Eau d’Arles? Oh, Darls!

In our last installment, we were in Alghero, in the north of Sardinia. From that Mediterranean island jewel we travel now, on Ryan Air bizness class (innit? – five knicker extra!), to Francaise, the home of “haute”, “nouvelle”, and “lean” cuisine. We landed in the famous port of Marseilles, drug importation capital of France… and then quickly clicked up the train line a few kilometers to the west to find ourselves in Arles.

“Bonjour! Ca va? C’est bon! Et moi? Tres bien, merci!”

At last we’d arrived, en Francaise. Did I ever tell you I’m a Francophile, particularly when it comes to food? Mais non? Bien sur, certainment!

France. Home of “viva” and “la”. Birthplace of Asterix and Gerard Depardiou. Repository of baguettes, and inspiration for great songs like “Fou de Fa Fa”. I was rapt.

Unfortunately, my year ten French was indecipherable to most native French people. I’d say “Bonjour” and nearly everyone would reply “How can I help you, M’sieur?” or just do the traditional lip spurt while holding their hands up, elbows “akimbo” (def: touching their hips - take note Age journalists).

Our first stop was Arles, en Provence. Picasso was a fan of Arles, probably because of the strong Catalan influence (an influence we spotted in Sardinia). There are Catalan colours in the Provence shield. They also have a strong bull fighting culture with bull fighting bars - showing bull fights on screen – and in the old town the ancient forum is used today for bull fighting.

Arles bullfighting is different from the Spanish style; they don’t kill the bull in the arena but pluck rosettes from its shoulders with pitchforks instead. After THAT they go out the back, kill it and have a steak dinner.

Speaking of famous artists and Arles, there’s a museum to Van Gogh in a former lunatic asylum where he was locked up. I’m not sure how much a mental sanatorium contributed to the career of a painter who ate lead based paints, but years after he was dead and famous, they built a temple to him (just like Jesus and the Romans!).

As a centre for famous artists, there’s a strong arts tradition in Arles, with art shops, art museums and a stack of arty graffiti that would make Banksy proud. But a strong art history also means something else. Retired Americans!

Flocks and flocks of people in their retirement years are lead around ancient sites by people waving hankies in the air, a daytime tourist crowd that disappears at night. There’s a reason older people are drawn to these destinations. They’re sick of doing it tough and just want the highlights. Well, if that’s your taste, you’ll love Arles as it has it all; luxury, taste and ease.

Our Hotel – Le Calandal

Jane did an excellent job as tour guide operator, and booked us into Le Calandal, un hotel connected to a day spa which was based on an ancient Roman bath with modern facilities (wet sauna, massages, giant spa pool, etc.). It was located smack dab in the centre of the old town, and the giant spa looks out on the forum. The pool is just like a James Bond set.

The hotel itself was old with incredibly thick walls; we had a three-foot deep windowsill. It’s a real rabbit warren, a kind of amalgam of different buildings. The corridors are windy, and we had to go up two flights of stairs, round a corner, and down another flight to get to our room, a bit like the University of Melbourne Club (hello Melbs!).

Like the rest of Arles old town, the clientele were predominantly in their seventies, and there for the lymphatic drainage and some wine.

I sat making these notes in our yellow room, the Provencal style window open, listening to children play at a local school (it sounded like a riot going on at the zoo), replaced by somebody very competently busking with a saxophone.

The Calandal has a good restaurant which serves lunch. The menu positioned itself as a macro-biotic-organic restaurant. In the courtyard garden I had the lamb salad (meat too tough, but tasty), a bottle of red, finished with a coffee, Calvados, and a “gourmet café” dessert which included a coffee ice cream, and some various other cakes including a macaroon (a dessert which is WAY to trendy these days by half, a treatise for another entry).

The lunch? A five and a half tentacles out of eight.

Want to see more? Visit:


There are hundreds of restaurants in Arles. But not THAT many good ones; I recall seeing the word Pizzeria a few too many times for comfort.

Arles is famous for its salt; it’s in close proximity to giant salt farms on marshy land to the west where French cowboys roam (assumedly rustling salt). Gourmet salts are sold profligately everywhere. I wanted some as gifts, but decided to wait till I got to Lyon or Paris. Don’t make the same mistake. It’s most easily found at the source.

So, where else did we eat?

A matador themed restaurant, so I chose the steak. The meat was too tough (again); it had been machined, not enough, but was still wonderfully tasty. It came with potato gratin (fantastic), mediterranean veg, and a simple green salad. Jane had a creamy chicken dish, and commented:
‘I should start my own journal and write: “Today I finally got to eat chicken”.’ (…which was all she wrote in her journal on our back packing trip in our twenties).

I couldn’t eat it all, but insisted on a coffee, a pastis (Ricard), and some lovely mini desserts that came as a selection.

Five tentacles out of eight.


Lou Caleu
We had dinner at Lou Caleau, the most authentic restaurant among a clutch of bistros in an old town back street near a convent, where we talked to two retired Edinburgh teachers for an hour who lolly gagged around after they’d finished dinner to have someone else to talk to.

You get a bit fatigued only having the same person to talk to in your own language, so it must have come as a relief for them to have someone else to talk to (I, of course, always had you, dear reader). They were a nice couple, but again this demonstrates the kind of feel of the whole place.

I had the tourist menu, choosing the bouillabaisse style soup (blended, i.e. without any “chunks” of fish), into which you immersed small pieces of toast with an orange sauce and cheese. This was followed by the best rabbit I ever ate, the usual gratin and mediterranean veg, chased down by a bottle of white wine, then a “Baba” desert swimming in a pool of Grand Marnier with coffee.

A strong six and a half tentacles out of eight.


Petite Dejeuner?
A last note. We went to a creperie as we had a while till the train came to take us to Lyon. The guy behind the counter, when I asked him “ca va?”, shrugged and pointed around him, as if to say, “well, I’m still here”.

I asked him for petite dejeneur.
He was sorry, they didn’t have any croissants.
I asked him if they did crepes?
He asked his wife, who was having a conversation beside the counter to another woman, and she snapped “non”. He replied “in about fifteen minutes”.
How about some coffees then?
He thought about that for a while, and then decided that should be OK.

Phew! They managed to turn away another four tourists while we were there - they have a creperie that doesn’t make crepes opposite the forum. Basille Faughlty? One tentacle out of eight… with a view of the forum.

But hang up your hassles with you hair, my friends, we were heading off to the gastronomic capital of France, if not the planet.

Next episode: Lyon… Maintenant nous parlons, baby!