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A Fete in Provence

At their annual Gemini birthday bash, neighbors celebrate the twin pleasures of food and family
The mistral had been blowing forcefully for days, bringing a brisk and unseasonable chill to the late Provençal spring, but the wind died down in mid-June, just in time for the annual Gemini olive feast. The feast itself was late this year, mostly because Mort Rosenblum was still in Uganda. And without Mort, the Romana family insisted, the Gemini fête des olives simply couldn't take place.

Mort is an American journalist who, when he's not in Uganda, Bosnia, Beirut or some other equally far-flung place, spends his time growing olives in the idyllic landscape of eastern Provence, where the June air is scented with wild thyme, lavender and the haunting fragrance of a yellow-flowering broom called genêt. He is also--like several of the Romanas, the large family of olive farmers who are his neighbors and closest friends here in the little village of Ampus--a Gemini, born under the sign of the Twins. It is a sign that nourishes elusive, mysterious, moody personalities. Or so says Mort's companion, Jeannette Hermann, an astrologer with whom he shares a stone cottage perched on a terraced hillside amid olive groves. 

It is also, Jeannette adds, the sign that governs the hands. What better way, then, to celebrate a bundle of Gemini birthdays than with a grand aioli, with fish and snails, vegetables and hard-cooked eggs and plenty of aioli to dip them all in--lots of things to eat by hand and lots of hands reaching and passing up and down the table? As Lucie Romana Martin informs me, here in the Haut-Var region of Provence a fête isn't truly a fête unless it includes copious quantities of aioli, that thick, unctuous and alarmingly garlicky mayonnaise that is sometimes called le beurre provençal. 

Fortunately, by June 21, the last day before Gemini would merge into Cancer, everything had fallen into place. Mort was home safe from African wars, the gas-fired camp stoves were set up in the farmhouse kitchen, and the stone mortars for blending the aioli had been taken down from their high shelves and dusted off. I was lucky to be here, Lucie told me, because the twin ingredients of aioli--garlic and olive oil--are better, richer, sweeter and more authentic in the Haut-Var than anywhere else in the world. Everyone knows that. 

The Haut-Var is France's foremost olive oil region, a place where the maritime traditions of the coast meet the vegetable dishes of the interior and everything gets bathed in the sweet, lightly fruity local unguent, on its own or mixed into the rich emulsion of aioli. The Romanas have been growing olives since Lucie's parents emigrated to Provence from Piedmont, across the border, back in the 1930s. When Mort and Jeannette decided to cultivate olives, it was naturally to the Romanas that they turned for advice. 

The feast of the Geminis takes place at an old farmhouse belonging to Lucie's husband, Roger Martin. No one has actually lived there for years. Its severe lines softened by the honey color of the local stone, its blue shutters faded by the southern sun, the farmhouse is an antique, never modernized or done up by holiday-home buyers and still looking like a subject for a Cézanne landscape. 

But there is work to be done, food to prepare, no time to admire the view. The stoves have been laden with vats of water for steaming. There are jars of home-cured olives, pickled wild mushrooms and thick Tapenade to be laid on the table beneath the spreading lime tree. There are crusts of bread to be toasted for dipping in Anchoïade, a sauce of pounded anchovies, garlic and olive oil. There are fruit croustades and a clafoutis of plums to be unpacked for dessert, and a robust and tannic local red wine to be poured. And there is the aioli, without which a feast is not a feast, to be made. 

Lucie's sister, Marie Romana Bousquet, starts off by pounding garlic and salt in a heavy stone mortar; once they have formed an oozy paste, she stirs in two dark orangey yellow egg yolks. "Then you leave it to rest for five minutes," Marie explains, "so the garlic cooks the eggs a little." After that it's time to add the oil, and here Marie departs from tradition: olive oil, she feels, is too heavy on its own, so she mixes olive oil and vegetable oil. There are other modern touches, too, like the electric Moulinex hand mixer Marie uses to beat the oil, little by little, into the garlic-and-egg paste. 

Miraculously (but it always happens this way), at the moment the big bowls of creamy aioli are set at each end of the long table in the welcome shade of the lime tree, the rest of the feast is also ready--hard-cooked eggs, potatoes in their skins, fat artichokes and crimson beets, a great platter of brown-and-white snails. And the fish: many years ago in the hill country it was salt cod, but nowadays fresh fish is readily available. The sides of cod were purchased some time earlier; to give them a more traditional flavor, they have been lightly salted and set on racks in a cool pantry to dry slightly and absorb the briny taste of the salt. 

The feast goes on for all the long afternoon, until the sun starts to slide down the western sky. Plates are filled, then emptied and filled again. Those who tire of aioli go back for another scoop of the Anchoïade or just a bit more pissaladière, a pizza-like Provençal tart. Desserts are brought out--the fruit croustades, the sumptuous clafoutis, a cheese tart from the local patisserie and a plate of hard almond cookies to dip in homemade apricot liqueur. 

Late in the afternoon Lucie brings out a tape of her father--who is in the hospital for a minor operation--playing the waltzes of his old Piedmont home on his beloved accordion. His daughters perform a lively, hopping folk dance. Finally, Mort begins to read, freely translating into French a description of a previous Gemini feast from his prize-winning book Olives (North Point Press), which was published in the States two years ago. His audience listens quietly, laughing a little at apt descriptions, and when he is done they applaud. Like the feast just ending, his words are a testament to friendship, to hard work rewarded and to the rare pleasures of being a Gemini.

Published June 1998
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