Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Le Puits Aerien - an elegant failure

Whenever I travel from Les Arcs-sur-Argens to Trans-en-Provence, I am struck by the appearance of a giant stone beehive on the hill opposite my descent into the town.

Achille Knapen's puits aerien at Trans-en-Provence
I always thought it was some kind of ancient well, but instead of it being centuries old, it was actually constructed in 1930-31.

It was a sort-of 'folly' created by a Belgian engineer, called Achille Knapen.

A 'folly' is generally thought of as something useless but beautiful, yet that was not how Monsieur Knapen saw his work - even if it turned out that way.

I learned it actually was a well, but it was one that collected the moisture in the air by condensation, rather than water itself, hence the name 'puits aerien' - literally 'air wells'.

Monsieur Knapen had attended a conference in Algeria in 1928, on drought and had put forward his idea to develop these puits aeriens in Africa for countries suffering drought.

Simply, they work as cold night air enters a metallic tube that runs down the centre of the well, while during the day, warm air enters the building through the hundreds of orifices on the sides of the well.
Inside the puits, showing the central tube.

When the warm air hits the cold central tube, it condenses, forming droplets of water which are collected in a reservoir underneath.

The African project did not go ahead and M. Knapen brought his ideas to France. He decided on a site at Trans-en-Provence as the most suitable place for his first experiment with le puits aerien.

The town was elevated enough and it was not only exposed to cool night winds from the mountains to the north, but also to the warm, moist winds from the sea.

When the dome-shaped structure was finished in 1931 it measured 12 metres across and 12m high, like a giant upturned stone bell.

However after 18 months of use, his efforts had not borne fruit. On the best nights, M. Knapen only collected about a bucket of water - certainly insufficient for the residents of Trans-en-Provence.
The archway through to the inner workings.

So why did his experiment go so wrong?

Somehow the engineer had forgotten to take into account the night temperatures in the Var. He needed it to be between 4'C and 11'C at night for the condenser to work, as it is in desert regions. The area is just too warm!

The other tragedy for M. Knapen, was that Trans-en-Provence is already well served by the Nartuby River which flows all year round through the centre of the town supplying water to residents and businesses alike.

Le puits areien remains - its elegant silhouette graces the hillside opposite the entrance to the town. It is fascinating to visit and walk around and see the amount of work that went into it.

But despite never having served its original purpose, the redoubtable 'air well' has carved out a new one - that of a tourist attraction and I am sure M Knapen would be pleased to know that is now listed as part of the town's heritage.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Tarting it up in Saint-Tropez

Saint-Tropez from the Citadelle.
Alexandre Micka has a lot to answer for – and it’s a deliciously wicked mixture of cake, cream and sugar.
Sixty years ago – in 1955 – he opened a bakery in St Tropez.

At that time St Tropez was becoming more than just a sleepy Mediterranean fishing village inhabited by artists.

It was the setting for the latest Roger Vadim film, Et Dieu créa la femme – And God Created Woman – which catapaulted its leading lady, Brigitte Bardot, aka BéBé, to international stardom.

Meanwhile, Alexandre Micka was in his kitchen in the Place de la Mairie, creating a cream-filled brioche sprinkled with sugar.

But it was Brigitte Bardot - who tasted and adored Alexandre's new brioche - who catapaulted it to stardom when she suggested he name it ‘La tarte de Saint-Tropez’.

Now universally known as ‘La Tarte Tropezienne’, the secret recipe remains just that – a secret - handed down from Alexandre’s grandmother. Others have created versions of the tarte, but all we know about Alexandre's version is that two different creams are blended together for the filling and the sugar is always cooked in copper cauldrons.

La Tarte Tropezienne.
Alexandre Micka later teamed up with Albert Dufrêne and the tart has since been marketed throughout France under a registered trademark.

This year - 2015 - celebrates 60 years of La Tarte Tropezienne, which has become a traditional French delicacy not only in St Tropez, but throughout France.

The mixture of cream and sugar might look formidable, but like all perfect French pastries, it is light and delicate. However, more than a mere slice, really is too much - (and I have to admit to scraping the granulated sugar off the top).





Thursday, 17 September 2015

The silk industry in the Var

Whenever I take a walk along the Ancienne Route de Trans – a quiet, shady road through the hills behind Les Arcs-sur-Argens – I see a high, narrow building with three storeys of arched windows at the top of the Sainte Cecile valley.

The former magnanerie at Les Arcs.
This elegant building has always seemed deserted. I wondered if it was connected with the wine industry, but dismissed that thought – too high, too open. Wine likes darker, cooler places, preferably underground.

The building appeared to be more a type of factory than a house. Large windows are not generally the style for this part of France – smaller windows keep the stone houses cooler in summer and warmer in winter.

It wasn’t until I visited the Musée d’Arts et Traditions Populaires in Draguignan, that the mystery was finally solved. It was once a Magnanerie. Of course!

Women grade the cocoons at the turn of the last century.
Les magnaneries were tall, narrow buildings created specifically for the hatching of silkworm eggs after the revival of France’s silk industry during the 19th century – and particularly during La Belle Epoque.

They were named magnaneries after the ancient Provençal name for silk worms – ‘magnan’.

The grainage – or raising of silkworm eggs – was a specific industry and vital for the management of the silk worms as they grew and produced their cocoons for silken threads.

The eggs of the butterfly, Bombyx Mori, were used for silk production, having been introduced from China to Byzantium in the sixth century and over the ensuing centuries to Greece, Sicily, Spain and France.

The Var farmer would buy the eggs – about 1500 to 1 gram – when the mulberry trees were in bud to time their hatching with the arrival of leaves.

Cocoons which had been attached to the woven broom branches.
The silk worms were kept on racks in the magnaneries while they munched their way through kilograms of mulberry leaves and expanded from 3mm to 8cm. Then they crawled up structures made of broom branches to spin their cocoons.

Before the magnaneries, women would tie the precious silkworm eggs in knots of material, which they wore draped across their bodies – an early form of incubation.

As the industry developed, large magnaneries were built, including the one I regularly walk past at Les Arcs.

Often four storeys high, their many windows allowed free circulation of air over the eggs which enabled the producers to maintain a regular temperature.
Cocoons were weighed to determine the best for egg production.
There was a rigorous selection method for the eggs and the Var region acquired a certain notoriety for its quality and consistency of eggs. The department was represented at both national and international silk exhibitions. Eggs from this region were labelled as from the ‘Montagnes de Haut Var’ – Mountains of the High Var.
In 1840 there were 28 silk spinning mills across the Var – including Les Arcs. The last mill – at Trans-en-Provence – the town at the end of my walk along the Ancienne Route de Trans, closed in 1950.


Saturday, 12 September 2015

Blessed Calissons

I always love to visit Aix en Provence. A stately old university town with an arty edge, home of Paul Cézanne and the Musée Granet, the gracious tree-lined Cours Mirabeau, and small winding streets in the centre ville where you come across unexpected squares filled with restaurants, students and musicians.
But most unusual of all is Aix's own confectionary, known as 'calissons' or more formally 'Calissons d'Aix-en-Provence'.

The sweets have an amazing history, having first been dreamt up for the wedding of King Réné of Anjou to Princess Jeanne of Laval in 1545.

Of course there are many versions of the sweet's history, each one a little different, though they run along similar themes.

One event seems to have been agreed on - and that is what happened during 'La Peste' or the Great Plague in 1629-30.

It seems the parliamentarians and magistrates left town as soon as they realised there was a plague (nothing changes!) but many brave citizens stayed behind.

One of them, Monsieur Martelly, vowed that each day they would perform an Act of Grace for the Virgin of the Seds (the Patron Saint of Aix-en-Provence), if she would protect them from the plague.

Apparently the town's sweet-makers got in on the act as well and began to distribute the tiny friands among the townspeople, suggesting that by eating one calisson a day, they would be saved.

These petits friands were made from a base of almond meal mixed with fruit confit - generally melons and oranges - and topped by royal icing.

Whether it was their patron saint or the calisson that actually saved them, we are never told. The idea that it was the cats who ate the rats that carried the plague, may have been more to the point. There was no great fire as in London, but the townspeople ended up being saved from the worst effects of 'la peste'.

Today, the people of Aix-en-Provence still give thanks to their saint for protecting them from the plague - with the 'Bénédiction des Calissons' - which is celebrated each year on the first Sunday in September.
They renew Martelly's vow at the town's main cathedral, then move to the Eglise Saint-Jean-de Malte to bless the sweet.

I must admit that to my mind, it's a bit like having a bet each way!

But what a great excuse for another party.

They flock to the Cours Mirabeau where the festival takes place.

People dress in traditional Provençal costumes, dance traditional dances in the street, eat their traditional sweet - the calisson - and drink their traditional Coupo Santo (Cup of Good Health).

The Provencal chant goes: 'Venes toutei per les Calissoun''; in French: 'Venez tous au calisson' and in English: 'All come to the calisson'.

I brought some home to share with friends in my French class, but to tell the truth, they are not my favourite French sweet.

They are a little bland when you first bite into them, but are resurrected as the fruit, almond and  icing blend in the mouth. I am happy with just one - which is why there are so many still left in the box.

I think I would prefer a macaron, or a Tarte au Framboises (Raspberry tart) from our local patisserie in Les Arcs.

Do you have a favourite French sweet?

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

In Victoria, missing Var

Arriving home, we are greeted by a cold but sunny Victoria - familiar but different - its summer lifestyle still in chrysalis form, not yet quite ready to emerge.

Lying awake as my body tries to tell me it's mid-afternoon - but the clock says it's 2am - I began to think of the things I miss about being in the Var, and particularly Les Arcs.

Apero time in the square.
 They include:

1. The inverted seasons, where I can escape Victoria's winter and enjoy a second summer. Of course it has its downsides. This year it was the prolonged heatwave. Few houses have air conditioning, including ours, and as a result all the fans sold out across Var. You had to go all the way to Alpes-Maritimes to fine one. Luckily, we have three.
The wrought iron bell canopy above the clock tower.

2. The bells. Life in Les Arcs is ruled by bells. They start at 6am and sound every hour and half-hour until 10pm. It makes life so easy and uncomplicated; you don't have to wear a watch or carry your phone. Just wait for half an hour and you'll know the time. The only difficult area is the single chime for 12.30, 1pm and 1.30 - but that's lunchtime anyway.

3. Being a familiar face at the boulangerie, where Madame says, 'Un florentin ?'* when I arrive, knowing that is my usual choice of bread. The bakery, just 60 metres from our front door, lures me every morning with its freshly-baked-bread aroma.

4. Greeting my neighbour with a kiss when she calls out to me across the hypermarket for a chat - in French - and pinching myself that this is actually happening.

5. Cigales. The constant drilling sound of the cicadas wherever you go in the town or country - and the French writing the sound down as 'Kss Kss Kss'.

'Colourful Parrot at Home' 2007 by Jim Dine
Sculpture exhibition at Chateau Ste Roseline 2011
6. The scent of fig trees under a hot midday sun. Everywhere you walk, the air is perfumed with the sweetly pungent smell of fig trees laden with ripening fruit.

7. Evening perfumes as the heady flowers of the Belle de Nuit unfold themselves when the sun goes down, their scent taking over from the fig trees with a softer, after-dark perfume.

8. Summer music in the main town square three or four night a week, when bands set up at apero (aperitif) time and people open windows to cool their homes, then emerge to sit out under umbrellas, talk - and smoke - and enjoy the warm summer evenings. Bands playing manouche jazz, rock classics, the blues, French chansons, the tango argentin.

9. Dancing in the street - that follows apero and dinner - when the music entices you to get out of your chair and join the rest of the townsfolk on the tarmac dance floor. The town's main thoroughfare is blocked off - and traffic re-routed by the Police municipal - so that tables can be pushed out into the road and people have a room under the stars to dance along the Boulevard Gambetta.

10. Two-hour lunchtimes - when everything closes as the town's bell chimes 12 o'clock - and nothing moves again until 2pm, or sometimes 4pm, or even later. Then it's time to emerge from your siesta and find a table, ready for another long summer evening in the square.

* Un florentin is similar to a baguette, but thicker in the middle. I'm not sure if it is known throughout the rest of France or if it is our bakery's special.

Friday, 4 September 2015


Goodbye Les Arcs-sur-Argens
Les Arcs-sur-Argens from Boulevard de la Liberte. Summer 31'C.
Bienvenue Ballarat

Sturt Street, Ballarat from Bridge Mall. Winter 9'C.