Celebrate the solstice with a Provencal-style seasonal feast
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
It's two days before the summer solstice, and my friends in Provence are getting ready for their annual summer solstice party, participating in the age-old ritual marking the longest day of the year.
I can just picture it: Thick lamb chops and spicy merguez sausages sizzle on the grill as they're brushed with branches of wild rosemary dipped in olive oil. Long, brightly covered tables are set out on the grass terrace overlooking the fields. Pastis and rosé are poured liberally, and platters of tapenade toasts and bowls of olives are passed around the crowd.
At 10 p.m., when it's time to sit down to dinner, the sky is still lavender with the waning light. The traditional bonfire is stacked waist high with wood gathered from the nearby forest and will be lit at midnight, with much fanfare and dancing. In the old days, the village boys would jump over the fire, showing off for admiring girls.
I won't be there this time, so I'm having a solstice celebration here, where I'll raise a glass of my husband's rosé to our friends in the Old World, toasting the long days of summer.
In Provence, the summer solstice is called the Feast of St. Jean, and is celebrated all over the region with special meals and with pilgrimages to local churches and holy spots. Oily firewood and dried shrubs that will burn most brilliantly - juniper, olive and rosemary - are stacked in town squares. The bonfires offer the same sense of community as our fireworks displays do on the Fourth of July. The food on this occasion varies from a dramatic centerpiece, like a roasted wild boar or lamb stuffed with rice, herbs and vegetables to more simple fare like grilled sausages and chops, the French equivalent of hot dogs and hamburgers.
The open markets and gardens are full of zucchini, eggplant and basil, which are turned into appetizers, salads and side dishes. It's the beginning of the summer vegetable season, which means there are tomatoes for salads, appetizers and sauces. Dessert will be something with the season's fresh fruit - peaches, nectarines, apricots or cherries.
For my own summer solstice party - one that anyone can easily do - I'm keeping things simple. Eschewing my natural inclination to roast a whole beast, I'll offer skewers of grilled halibut - equally good and far less work to prepare. Cherry tomatoes from the garden, stuffed with herbed goat cheese, make an easy appetizer, and can be made a day ahead. Tender golden beets, sliced and topped with fresh mozzarella and basil, are also easy to prepare, and the beets can be cooked in advance.
For a first course, I decided on new potatoes, since I have lots of those, freshly dug from the garden, mixed with some young arugula. To accompany the halibut, a luscious romesco sauce and some baby zucchini, all served with crusty loaves of bread.
My dessert is a departure from my usual fruit tart - a fresh peach tiramisu, with ladyfingers well-drenched in hazelnut liqueur, made a day in advance. A simple summer meal like this one can be served any time in the next few months, during the long warm days and evenings, cooking outside, and celebrating the abundance of the season's fruits and vegetables.
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Thursday, June 19, 2008
Back in San Francisco
But we brought some of the flavor of France back with us. Unfiltered olive oil and a selections of tapenades from Provence, foie gras and a recommended companion wine from a small shop in Paris. This should help us adjust. Also helpful was this article in the food section from the San Francisco Chronicle synchronistically waiting by the door when we arrived home late last night:
Finally, if this "taste" of France is not enough, I am playing travel "tag team" with my brother HW, who just arrived in Paris with his family blogging team. Check it out.