Monthly Archives: August 2013

Taking Refuge in Arles

Summer (and come to think of it, fall, winter, and spring) escapes are always wonderful. One summer trip that I took was to the south of France. I travelled with a long-time girlfriend. We’ve been friends for over 30 years (time goes by all too quickly) and this was the first time we had ever travelled together.

It was a leisurely vacation, taken at the start of the holiday season in Europe. Ignoring all the common sense warnings about booking hotels in advance, we made our travel plans daily. With only a few must-see places on our wish lists, we followed our whims and the recommendations of the very friendly locals and travellers from France whom we met here and there.

Our first overnight stay was in Annecy (the one and only pre-booked hotel). On the second night, we took refuge in Arles.

Arles Rue du Refuge L: Mine  R:Andrea Shaffer

Arles Rue du Refuge Photos L: Mine R:Andrea Shaffer

Below, is the view along Rue du Refuge, so very Arles-like. It’s a narrow cobblestone street, lined with row-houses having pale stucco walls and brightly painted shutters. Pots of bougainvillea greeted us with fragrant bursts of colour.Rue du Refuge faces the Amphitheatre.  Built in 90 AD by the Romans, the Amphitheatre’s design is similar to the Colosseum in Rome, a little smaller, with room for ONLY 20,000 spectators. When the Roman empire fell in the 5th century, the site became a shelter. Later, it contained houses and chapels. In the early 1800’s, they were torn down and the Amphitheatre was restored. More here.Arles France Ampitheatre We meandered through the streets, finding wonderful vistas around every corner. No events were going on at the Ampitheatre while we were in Arles. Since we weren’t dodging crowds (or bulls), our relatively slow pace allowed us time to catch up on each other’s lives.

Arles France Reattu

Arles Twisted Columns

Arles Street and Street Art

Photos: L:Katherine Hala, R: Mine

Arles Shutters Paired

While walking through the city, in search of a restaurant on our second night, we passed the Thermes de Constantine. Originally Roman public baths, now a Unesco World Heritage site, they date from the 4th century.

Roman Public Bath Ruins, ca 4th Century. Arles, France.

Roman Public Bath Ruins, ca 4th Century. Arles, France.

Arles has a vibrant arts culture. One of the annual highlights is The Rencontres d’Arles, a summer-long international photography festival. The works, including still photography and film, are exhibited in beautiful historic venues throughout the city, many of which are only accessible to the public during the festival. If you do have the opportunity to attend the photography exhibit, allow at least 2 days to take it in.

Also not to be missed, are the street art installations. While strolling the side-streets and alleyways we came across many gems. We met the adorable gentleman below by the Rhône. He was looking slightly lost, as he made his way to the doorway that led nowhere.

Arles Street Art Ruins Losing the Ice Cream

Actually, the door to nowhere led to a shaded courtyard. The shade compliments of a majestic plane tree. I liked how the tree was admiring its reflection in the window.Arles Plantain My girlfriend and I spent two days in Arles before carrying on with our travels. Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin spent nine weeks together in Arles

Van Gogh moved to Arles in early 1888. Later that year, in the studio that he named “The Yellow House,” Van Gogh took steps to set up his long hoped for artists’ colony. He envisioned a collaborative environment. In a letter to his brother Theo, dated May 1, 1888, Vincent lightly mentions Gauguin as a potential artist to join him at the studio. Six months later, after receiving many invitations from Van Gogh, Gauguin arrived at the studio. Below are images of the self-portraits which Van Gogh and Gauguin exchanged shortly before Gauguin’s arrival in Arles.  Arle Vincent Van Gogh Paul Gauguin - Self-portraitTheir studio “collaboration” ended abruptly with the infamous “ear” incident. There are two theories about what happened. The original one, suggests Van Gogh sliced off a piece of his ear in a fit. According to another, yet inconclusive theory, during a violent argument between Van Gogh and Gauguin, Gauguin sliced Van Gogh’s ear with his sword after being attached by Van Gogh. This alternative is based on 10 years of research undertaken by the German academics Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans. They dug through police records, letters written by the two artists and other documents, eventually writing the book “Van Goghs Ohr: Paul Gauguin und der Pakt des Schweigens” (title translates to “Van Gogh’s Ear: Paul Gauguin and the Pact of Silence”).

While Van Gogh and Gauguin’s weeks together in Arles were disagreeable (appropriately called a “Clash of the Titans” by writer Lyn Bolen Rushton in this article) and ended tumultuously, I am happy my friend and I did not meet the same fate. Our ears are intact and we are still friends. I hope to travel with her again in the future.


Additional Reading and Sources:

1. Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South, Douglas W. Druick and Peter Kort Zegers
2. Van Gogh’s Ear, Adam Gopnik for The New Yorker
3. Van Goghs Ohr: Paul Gauguin und der Pakt des Schweigens, Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans (in German only)

Photographs: All by Sara Lynne Moffatt, with two exceptions. Right-hand photo of Rue du Refuge is by Andrea Schaffer.  Photo of the mother and child (left of the Bulls mural) is by Katherine Hala. Images of the paintings per the links.

Spicing up Dinner

Researching and putting together a menu of Moorish-influenced cuisine (refer to my earlier post here) was great fun. It was also a learning experience on how to photograph food.


Andalusian Gazpacho
Aubergine and Chick Pea Salad
Fig Saffron Almond Cake

Plan A: stage a romantic dinner on the terrace, photograph at sunset. Shoot with candlelight, without candlelight, with light bounced from the flash, without a flash …, delete, delete,… eat the props.

Plan B: try again in the morning. Key learning: when photographing dinner, plan on having dinner for breakfast.

While the first set of photos didn’t turn out as intended, both dinner and breakfast were delicious. I hope you try out a recipe or three.

Andalusian Gazpacho

Spain Andalusian Gazpacho A velvety-smooth and fragrantly spiced gazpacho. Adapted from an Epicurious recipe found here.


  • 5 cm (2 inch) long piece baguette, crust discarded
  • 1 – 2 garlic cloves (adjust to your taste)
  • 10 ml (2 teaspoons) salt
  • 30 ml (2 tablespoons) Sherry vinegar (preferably “reserva”)
  • 5 ml (1 teaspoon) sugar
  • 2.5 ml (1/2 teaspoon) cumin seeds
  • 1.3 kg (2 1/2 lb) ripe tomatoes
  • 120 ml (1/2 cup) cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil
  • for garnish: a drizzle of Sherry vinegar, 1 each small yellow, orange and green bell peppers, seeded, pith removed, finely chopped,


To bring out the flavour of the cumin, heat a pan over medium heat, add the cumin seeds and toss gently until they give off a warm, rich aroma. Allow the toasted seeds to cool, then grind using a mortar and pestle.

Soak bread in 120 ml (1/2 cup) water for 1 minute, then squeeze dry, discard water.

Blanch, then peel the tomatoes. Cut them into quarters and core, discard the core. Remove and discard the seeds.

Mash garlic to a paste with salt using a mortar and pestle (or mince garlic and mash together with salt using the flat-side of a large knife). Blend garlic paste, bread, vinegar, sugar, toasted ground-cumin, and half of tomatoes in a food processor until tomatoes are very finely chopped (about a minute or so). Add remaining tomatoes and blend until smooth. Then, with the motor running, add olive oil in a slow stream, blending until as smooth as possible.

Transfer to a glass container and chill, covered, until cold, about 3 hours. May be chilled up to 2 days.

To serve, ladle into bowls, season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste, add a drizzle of sherry vinegar and garnish with the mixed chopped bell peppers,

Serves 4.  Preparation time: 30 minutes   Total time: 3 1/2 hours

Aubergine and Chick Pea SaladSpain Aubergine and Spinach Salad

Slightly adapted from Donna Hay’s recipe in “The New Cook” cookbook. The mint-honey-cumin yoghurt dressing is a perfect accompaniment to the spiced aubergine and chick pea mixture. Courgettes (zucchini) would work well in place of the aubergines, just reduce the sauté time.


  • 2 medium-sized aubergine (eggplants), sliced 6 mm (1/4 inch) thick, then cut into bite-sized pieces
  • salt
  • 45 ml (3 tablespoons) olive oil, plus more as needed
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 10 ml (2 teaspoons) ground coriander (cilantro)
  • 5 ml (1 teaspoon) cardamom seeds
  • 5 ml (1 teaspoon) ground cinnamon
  • 350 g (2 cups) cooked chick peas
  • 1 small bunch flat-leaf (Italian) parsley, chopped
  • 200 g (6 1/2 oz) baby spinach leaves


  • 120 ml (1/2 cup) plain yoghurt
  • 30 ml (2 tablespoons) finely chopped mint
  • 10 ml (2 teaspoons) plain honey
  • 10 ml (2 teaspoons) ground cumin (slightly toast before grinding, refer to gazpacho recipe above)


Place aubergine (eggplant) slices in a colander, sprinkle with salt and allow to sit for 20 minutes to draw out the bitter juices. Under cold running water, thoroughly rinse eggplant (aubergine), then gently pat dry.

Heat oil in sauté pan over high heat. Add garlic, coriander, cardamom and cinnamon to pan. Reduce heat to medium and cook until aromatic (about 1 minute).

Add aubergines (eggplant) to pan and sauté, stirring occasionally, for 5 – 10 minutes until golden, adding extra olive oil to the pan as needed. Add chick peas to pan and cook for 3 minutes or until heated through. Stir in chopped parsley and remove from heat.

To make dressing, combine yoghurt, mint, honey and cumin.

To serve, place baby spinach leaves on serving plates. Top with the warm aubergine (eggplant) and chick pea mixture. Serve the yoghurt dressing on the side.

Serves 4   Preparation time: 20 minutes  Total time: 40 minutes

Fig Saffron Almond CakeSpain Fig and Saffron Cake

This was my first time baking with saffron. The saffron gives the cake a wonderful flavour, a bit like…ummm…saffron. After adding the saffron to the batter, I found the threads stuck to the beater, so make sure that you scrape the beater well.  The recipe from Saveur uses sliced peaches and plums instead of figs. I think the recipe would work with many seasonal combinations, perhaps even just topped with slivered almonds and served up with fresh fruit slices.


  • 270 g (1 1/2 cups) all-purpose flour (note: weight is per 1 1/2 cups of Swiss-milled flour)
  • 30 g (1/4 cup) 1/4 cup finely ground almonds
  • 7.5 ml (1 1/2 teaspoons) baking powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 150 g (1.5 sticks, 3/4 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 225 g (1 cup) granulated sugar
  • 3 large eggs, room temperature
  • 60 ml (1/4 cup) whole milk
  • 5 ml (1 teaspoon) saffron threads (loosely piled)
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 5 ml (1 teaspoon) pure vanilla extract
  • 6 ripe Black Mission figs, stems removed, cut in quarters, then sliced 6 mm (1/4 inch) thick
  • 30 ml (2 tablespoons) turbinado sugar


Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees C (350 degrees F). Butter and flour a 24 cm (9-inch) springform pan. Sift together flour, almond meal, baking powder and salt in a small bowl.

Using an electric mixer and a large mixing bowl, beat the softened butter and one cup of granulated sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, incorporating completely before adding the next.

In a small saucepan, combine the milk and saffron threads and heat until it boils then immediately remove from heat. Let steep for a minute or two, until the milk takes on a rich yellow hue. Allow to cool slightly and then pour into the batter along with the lemon zest and vanilla extract. Incorporate well. Don’t worry if the zest causes the batter to curdle, all will be fine once you add the flour.

With the mixer on the lowest speed, add the flour mixture in 3 parts and mix until well blended. Spread the prepared batter into the springform pan, gently shake the pan from side-to-side to even out the batter.

Arrange the fig slices in concentric circles on top of the batter, overlapping slightly. Sprinkle with the 30 ml (2 tablespoons) of turbinado sugar.

Bake in oven for 1 hour, or until a tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

Let cool completely before serving.

Makes one 24 cm (9 inch) cake   Preparation time: 40 minutes    Total time: 1 hour 40 minutes

Buen apetito!


In the Moors’ Kitchen

The Nasrid sultans offered their guests an exotic menu. Dishes of rice, eggplant, artichokes, spinach and sweet peppers filled bellies. Aromas of cumin, caraway, nutmeg, sesame, coriander, cinnamon and mint perfumed the air. Figs, dates, oranges and almonds tickled taste-buds. Cooks whipped up sweets of sherbet and marzipan using newly introduced sugar.

While Andalusia’s semi-arid climate create harsh farming conditions, the Moors found the region ideal for producing the many delectable fruits, vegetables and spices which they introduced to Spain.

Arid Landscape, Spain | (C) 2013  Bringing Beauty Home

Arid Landscape, December. Near Granada, Spain.

Spain Landscape Vineyard Photo:  Maximo Lopez | Flickr

Spain Landscape Photo: R Bolance | FlikrThe Moors also brought alcohol distillation technology to Spain. Knowledge they used to produce medicines and perfumes was later adapted by the Spaniards to distil alcoholic beverages.

Spain Orange Tree Leszek Kozlowski | Flikr.jpg

Spain Vineyared Wine Barrels Sherry

Spain Arichoke Photo jennycatpink | Flikr

Spain Almond Tree in Bloom Photo: Dorte | Flickr

Saffron Crocus Sativus PDK | Flickr

According to this link, the Moors popularized the use of saffron in Spain. After reading this Saveur article about the saffron harvest, written by food journalist and former chef, Sally Schneider, and accompanied by wonderful photos from Owen Franken, I have a new appreciation for the spice.

From field to bottle, saffron production is incredibly labour intensive. The contents of the tiny, one-half gram bottle of saffron in my cupboard came from 80 hand-picked flowers. After harvesting the flowers, workers carefully pulled the stigma from the flowers. The stigma are then dried. During the drying process, 5 kilograms of stigmas shrink to only 1 kilogram of saffron. One hectare of land yields only 3 – 5 kilograms of saffron. To put it into perspective, one hectare yields about 8,000 kilograms of fresh parsley, which results in roughly 1,000 kilograms of dried parsley. So, the same land area results in 200x more dried parsley than saffron. Given the low yields and high-degree of hand labour required, it now seems quite reasonable to me that saffron is the world’s costliest spice.

Gourmands say that Saffron from the La Mancha area of Spain is the best in the world. Husband and wife, Juan Antonio Ortiz and Maria Ángeles Serranone, are La Mancha artisanal saffron producers. They offer both saffron, under the label Molineta de Minaya, and crocus bulbs for DIYers.

I will carefully source my next saffron purchase (not ready to go the DIY saffron route just yet), most likely seeking out an artisanal producer. The growing supply of counterfeit and additive-laced saffron, which I read about while researching this post, is disconcerting.

Stay tuned for my next post. It will be a seasonal menu influenced by the cuisine of the Moors (and yes, saffron is one of the ingredients).

Photo Credits: Bringing Beauty Home, RBolance, Maximo Lopez, Leszek KozlowskiRob Winton, Robert McKintosh, jennycatpink, Dorte, OutdoorPDK