Published on July 21st, 2010 | by Ann Rickard


Back to St. Maximin – South of France


So sorry, my good mates, but it has been a long time between blogs. Slovenly, I’ve been tres slovenly. Slothful too. Add to that my fear to start writing if I’ve left it alone for a while, and you have the reason for the delay. Each day of this long trip, I have put off starting to write and then put it off for another day and then I get totally terrified I won’t be able to write at all and I can’t bear to look at the laptop.

Every day since we’ve been away in Europe (and it seems forever now, Geoffrey has said to me: “When do you want me to post your new blog?” and that immediately terrifies me ‘cos I haven’t written one, and then I worry that I won’t be able to write something fun and interesting. Crazy, no? But when I finally do put fingers to lap top something unearthly happens and I can’t stop writing. Even crazier, no?

So, I left you in Mykonos at our favourite place, Soula Rooms, right? There we were having a glorious time, sitting on the beach, drinking far to many gin and tonics (at lunch time) and way too many glasses of white wine (for afternoon tea) and then an obscene amount of red wine (at dinner)…well, debauched it was. I’d put on three kilos in three weeks.

When it came time to leave our beloved Soula Rooms at Psarou Beach on Mykonos I was quite distressed. Almost cried…but…

…not quite as we were going to the South of France to the dazzling Amanda’s to host our fourth Provence culinary tour. Once out of Soula Rooms, on the plane to Paris and then on the TGV down to the South of France, I perked up.

We arrived at Maison de Maitresse (Amanda’s property) in the tiny village of St. Maximin on the border of Provence and Gard a few days before our tour started and prepared ourselves for the arrival of our guests.

Well, all I can is, we had another fabulously successful culinary tour. We had eight single women this year (one was married but had an understanding husband who stayed at home to mind the teenagers (saint, or what?)

I always get so nervous when we meet our guests at the Avignon TGV for the first time, I gush all over them in the hope they will like me. I am certain they think I am a big strange burbling woman, but they hide their feelings well. Geoffrey, reliable, patient stalwart that he is, drove us all back to Amanda’s in good form and within half an hour of being in the walled garden of Maison de Maitresse, everyone was good friends. (Thanks mostly to the second round of kir royals Geoffrey brought out in between lugging their bags up to their rooms.) (He really is a fabulous host and steady mini van driver.)

Running with the bulls

Only small bulls, but dangerous just the same

As fortune would have it (what an old fashion expression) there was a weekend fête going on in the village. Called the Fête de Votive, it involved an entire weekend of activities including a DJ party in the park on Saturday night, a paella picnic in the same park on the Sunday and, wait…for it…a running of the bulls on the Saturday afternoon. Well, excited I was. I love to show our guests a slice of local village life and this was the perfect opportunity.

It had been 40 years since the village had staged a running of the bulls. When I asked the local mayor why this was so (he is a friend of Amanda’s), he replied: “Because someone usually dies.”

Now, I’m not going to give you a full account of the fête, because I’ve written about it in my new book (out in October, called Three In A Bed in the Med, and very entertaining it is too), but I will tell you this, a Mistral sprang up over the weekend of the fête (Mistral: annoying bitterly icy wind that roars through Provence usually in the spring and winter, but always manages to arrive in the summer on the very day I do) and we braved the weather for the bull running and the paella picnic (gave the DJ party a miss) and even though we had to rug up and shiver a lot, it was really quite marvellous.

More bulls

The bulls are there, inside the horses

Our guests were all great sports and didn’t blame me for the Mistral and put on extra sweaters and scarves and lined up by the side of the road for the bull running. I won’t tell you that one of the bulls escaped the herd of horses containing them, and ran straight for one of our guests. Well, I just have told you, sorry. Christ, I was terrified. To have a guest gored by a bull of day one of a culinary tour is not the way a good tour guide wants things to pan out.

But fortunately, (thank you God), it didn’t happen and the bull’s horns just scraped her thick anorak and even better, the bull decided not to crush her against the stone wall she was leaning on, but to rush off to join the other bulls. Our guest took it well. When she stopped shaking (and when my heart slowed down to its regular beat) we laughed about it. There were barricades at the side of the road to keep us safe but we got bored waiting for the bulls to come running and slipped through them, so it would have been our fault if one of us had died, but as I said, fate and God were on our side that day and we were all safe.

The paella picnic in the park the next day was actually really very good – even though the Mistral decided to put on an extra fierce show. The locals, having had 40 years to prepare for this event, had organised a paella pan the size of the Nimes amphitheatre; it was set up in the park and brimmed over with rich yellow rice, chicken pieces, mussels and prawns.

The largest Paella I have ever seen

Paella Picnic in the park

We all sat on trestle benches at long tables and shivered and shook and pulled our jackets and scarves around us. We were given our paella on paper plates with plastic knives and forks and it was all we could do to anchor them to the table against the terrible wind.

At one stage, an extra strong gust of wind picked up my paper plate full of rice and chicken and blew it down the table to land in the face of a man 10 seats away. While he pulled prawn heads and bits of rice off his face I had to force myself not to run away. Fortunately, a band started up and the musicians wandering amongst the frozen crowd distracted everyone. It could have been miserable, but Amanda, always reliable to save a dire situation, got up, pulled off her long aqua scarf, put it around the neck of the unfortunate trumpet player, pulled him and his trumpet into her ample flesh and started dancing with him. That made everyone laugh and forget the icy wind and then get up to dance. In a few minutes we were all dancing in the park while plates of paella flew all around us.

A wonderful local fête – bet you wish you were there.

P.S. Running of the bulls is all about showing the skills of the horsemen and women. They have to contain the poor bulls within a triangle of horses, that’s the point of it. I had expected a great herd of bulls to come running down the road with semi-naked young men chasing them. But no, it was just a herd of horses and we could barely see the bulls inside them. But in our case, one of the poor bulls escaped the horses and headed straight for our guests. I don’t think our RSPCA would approve of this bulling running, and in truth, neither did I. But I suppose once every 40 years is not too cruel on the bulls.

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About the Author

is a Noosa (Australia) local and author of six successful books, all humorous travel narratives. In 2005 Ann won the prestigious ASTW’s Australian Travel Writer of the Year and in 2007 she won the ASTW Travel Book of the Year. Ann takes a culinary tour to the South of France in June every year . Ann writes travel, dining and columns for the Sunshine Coast Daily and is the Life editor of the Noosa News. Ann also maintains a well read and popular blog site. Ann’s travels have seen her explore cuisines all over the world.

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