The Pull of Provincial France
What Do You Want to Remember?
The poet William Stafford asks the following in his poem, “You Reading This, Be Ready”:
Starting here, what do you want to remember? How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened sound from outside fills the air?
What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around? [William Stafford]
This call to action, sounding boldly through his words, begs us to be in and acknowledge the present moments of our lives. I fear that the information and technology overload of our current culture numbs us from being present and fully awake to our days. All around us we see
people staring at screens, walking with their heads down while squinting at small devices, scrolling mindlessly, and abandoning the depth and wholeness of face to face conversation by allowing phones to buffer their discourse.
One of the best things about my year of sabbatical traveling was the complete abandonment of my phone as a communication device. Yes, I still used it for photography, to remember the moments of transcendent beauty surrounding me in Alaska, Ecuador, Sweden, Denmark, Lithuania, and France, but when I rode on a trolley bus in Vilnius, I looked out the window at the people and places previously foreign to me. When I sat around the campfire in Kotzebue, I played backgammon and talked to my friends about what it means to be content. When my friend and I drove through the French Alps, I marveled at the stark beauty of the peaks and valleys and stopped to stare at lambs and cobblestone streets and distant villages.
I want to remember the moments worthy of repeating. I want to savor the experiences of life that leave me thinking, “How can I remember this feeling, this instant forever?” In a conversation with a former co-worker and friend, while talking at length about the idea of story and its fading prominence in daily life, I expressed grief that we seem to be living less interesting lives. We are happier, perhaps, but not as focused on pushing boundaries, experiencing life in new ways, getting out of our comfort zone, or embracing the bold spirit of adventure. We cling to what is easy and normal and regular. This is all well and good, but is it enough? What will we remember?
While in the French Alps visiting my dear friend and cheesemaker, I joined in a hike up l’alpage du Distroit with two local farmers in pursuit of finding and retrieving their calf-bearing cows.
Wooden walking sticks in hand, we drove up the mountain as far as we could then trekked the last part on foot. For those of you who did not grow up in the Alps, beware when anyone tells you, “It’s just an hour. It will be easy.” Easy it was not. I didn’t get the first few hours up the slope on foot to acclimate to the altitude and find my rhythm as I normally would, so the one hour of vertical ascent was hard. After many breaks and many deep breaths, I managed to trail behind the group, significantly, but within visible distance so as not to lose them. Along the way I couldn’t believe the narrative of my life and the series of choices that took me to that day.
There I was, climbing a mountain in borrowed hiking boots and a rust-orange raincoat with two strangers and my dear friend in the vast beauty of the Alps as fog swirled in around the deep green of the trees and the golden yellow of the grass and the fresh smells of the Earth, the sounds of far-off cowbells chiming in the distance. This, this moment was a story: this human experience of physical pain and mental struggle and incomprehensible beauty.
At the top of the mountain lived a shepherd, a young man who spent the spring and summer in a small hut tending to the hundred cows that graze in this alpage. We feasted at his table from paper-wrapped parcels of food found in the farmers’ backpacks: homemade cheeses and pig’s head and sausages dusted in flour and pig’s shoulder and truffles and hard-boiled eggs and tins of sardines and fresh baguettes and biscuits and chocolate bars and swigs of an unnamed liquor from a communal flask. They conversed in French as I consumed everything in sight, considering it a celebratory feast for both reaching the top of the mountain and being alive to experience this moment.
The six pregnant cows plus one calf were herded into a pen, the group formed a line, and we proceeded down the mountain path the way we came: four humans, six cows, one calf, lighter backpacks, drizzling rain, more fog. We could barely see the path in front of us, but that didn’t stop the cows from carrying on boldly. I suppose they had climbed up the path during springtime, so they were familiar with its curves, but their obedience and order still struck me as miraculous. One after the other they slowly climbed down, carefully placing their hooves in stable places and avoiding the thousand-foot drop-off that was ever present on one side of the path. Over waterfalls and under cliffs and between canyons we walked, all the while a sight to behold, all the while attentive and ready for any small misstep that would most certainly be fatal.
Back at the farmer’s house, over tea and a prune tartlet while the fire crackled and warmed the cozy kitchen, contentment found new meaning for me. This is life, my dear friends. This is how I want to live: ever wide-eyed, always ready, never stuck, constantly seeking, surrounded by wonder. May my days be continually filled with moments worthy of retelling.
Julia Child, the celebrated American chef and leader of the French home cooking renaissance, never forgot the sensual delight and vivid indulgence of her first meal in France. Though I was not served oysters and sole meunière like Julia, I, too, will never forget my first meal in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region of France.
After a long flight, a reunion with my dear friend at the Côte d'Azur airport and a short jaunt to Monaco in her hay-filled Peugeot, we arrived in Saint-Martin-d’Entraunes in the dwindling light. The mountain peaks around Haute Berarde shone a bright white in the sky’s final glow.
But before settling in for the night at the 300-year-old farmhouse, there were chores to be done. This was a working farm after all, and my friend Lindsay was tending it on her own. The dairy cows that were grazing in a pasture at the foothills of the Alps needed their evening milking. This was done by hand into metal pails. I learned quickly and soon assisted with the twice daily milking, finding satisfaction in the process and visible sense of completion as the milk level rose to the brim of the pail. Our evening milk collection went into a cooled water basin in the milk room, the pigs were checked on, the pails washed in the ancient-looking water trough, and the chickens fed.
At last we could relax. It being a warm evening and already rather late, dinner was a simple but extraordinary affair. Lindsay went outside to the cheesery and grabbed a freshly-pressed wheel of cheese from the cave where the others sat aging in neat rows. Since this cheese was made just a few days before, it had a consistency and flavor closer to fresh mozzarella than the more musky, ripe profile of a fully-developed camembert or reblochon.
A quick dash to the garden brought back a handful of oblong, juicy tomatoes and sprigs of fresh basil. Grapes were picked and placed in a bowl. Red wine was poured. A crispy baguette, acquired earlier that day at a boulangerie along our mountainous route from Nice, joined the offering. With the addition of olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic, our feast was complete.
As we sat in that basement kitchen carved into the side of a mountain, with an old stove, a pantry filled with home preserves and hunks of cured meat hanging from the ceiling, a scrubbed wooden table, bags of freshly-picked green beans, crates of fruit, and aged copper pots, I felt myself drifting slowly and unreservedly into the mesmerizing pull of provincial France.
I sunk deeper into provincial France’s pull the next morning as we ate a post-chore breakfast of cheese from the farm, hunks of baguette, soft-boiled eggs, local rose petal jelly, a pitcher of milk still warm from the morning milking, herb-marinated olives, and Italian-style espresso. We ate on the terrace with a vase of wildflowers picked from the mountainside and the sound of cowbells in the distance taking me further into this other realm.
It may not have been sole meunière, but it was just as memorable.
I was once invited to a garden party in Entraunes, France. My friends and I arrived to tables set under the shade of leafy trees in the mid-afternoon heat of August in the Alpine valley. We were handed glasses of white wine mixed with crème de Cassis that never seemed to run out. The tablecloths were mismatched, the cutlery and dishes haphazard, the guests chain smoking between their storytelling and drinks of white wine and crème de Cassis.
Antoine, the host, brought platter after platter to the table in increasing volume and richness. First came giant bowls of fat shrimp accompanied by a salad of fresh, sliced tomatoes. Next came skewers of juicy, Provencal-spiced chicken stacked four layers high. A course of frog legs followed the skewers of chicken, quintessentially French and cooked to perfection. Then he presented a platter of marinated pork. I forgot to mention the champagne. At this point, I began to wonder if this parade of dishes would ever end. Perhaps we would stay here, in this garden, for all eternity – not a bad deal, if you ask me.
We finished off the meal with lush peaches, ripe melon quarters, baguettes, crackers, and five wheels of cheese, each made by a different guest at the party. Only in France can one attend a garden party with a Bring-Your-Own-Cheese suggestion – and it actually happens.
I didn’t understand more than a word or two of the conversation that day, but it didn’t matter. For as long as I live, I will never forget that afternoon – the taste of the food, the provincial French lifestyle, the chain smoking all around me, the lively French filling the air, that platter of handcrafted cheeses, and the exotic feeling of a garden party in the Entraunes valley.
Is there anything more visually pleasing and gastronomically enticing than wandering around a market in a foreign city looking at foods of all kinds arranged in piles, buckets, stacks, and single- file lines?
Meat vendor booths, captivating in the intensity of their offering, full of braided sausage links, cow tongues, lamb heads, suspended hogs, thick pancetta with ribbons of fat, whole chickens, and any number of otherwise unidentifiable cuts of pork and beef, breathtaking in their abundance.
Fish stands showcasing the latest catch: small herring lined up in neat rows, red snapper on ice with bulging eyes, smoked trout, heaping piles of shrimp, tiny fish stacked tail-up in baskets, mammoth turbot, orange langoustines, mussels closed up in their dark shells, all smelling of the sea and peddled by a friendly fishmonger in a bright kerchief and turquoise apron.
Spice barrels full of the regular and irregular selection: cumin, ras el hanout, caraway, star anise, rose petals, nigella seeds, pink peppercorns. Salt boxes bursting with every color imaginable: rosy pinks, vibrant oranges, jet black.
Fruit stands covered with small baskets of eggplant-colored figs, fresh baby strawberries, plump apricots, champagne grapes, towers of apples, stunning in their jewel tones but even more stunning in their scent, wafting through the air, full and true.
Then there are the cheeses: cheeses floating in brine, wheels of brie and reblochon and camembert encased in powdery white, aged rinds, wedges of Roquefort and gruyere, spreadable cheeses, artisanal cheeses wrapped in craft paper and tied with string.
Casks of olives, marinated peppers, preserved lemons, artichokes, pickled cauliflower, any number of other vegetables swimming in herb brines, their colors forming a tempting rainbow on the shelf.
Tables full of honey: honey in mismatched jars selling for prices so low, beeswax candles perfectly cylindrical in hues of daffodil and hazel wood, hunks of honeycomb arranged on silver trays, heaping bags of bee pollen, all sold by a woman with kind eyes who is smiling despite a lack of common language.
And the bread. Imagine the bread.
I dream about these markets. Living in rural Minnesota, six miles from a small grocery store and 30 miles from a bigger grocer, I fantasize over the accessibility and ease of wandering such a market. In another life, I’d be a nomad, going from village to village, borrowing other people’s kitchens to cook my daily market haul as I roamed along.
While visiting a friend in the French Alps, we spent a morning wandering the Cours Saleya market in Nice, taking in the striped awnings and vibrant baskets of fruit and tables of fresh flowers stretching in all directions. I was airport bound, which prevented the purchase of flowers, but luckily there was time for a picnic by the sea. One should always make time for a picnic.
We loaded our bags with a sampling of cheeses, a crusty baguette, fresh figs, one whole roasted chicken, and bottles of chilled wine in the true spirit of Hemingway. Basking in the late September sun at a beach of topless sunbathers and fist-sized rocks, we devoured our morning acquisitions with sheer pleasure, finishing it all with a quick dip in the Mediterranean Sea. In these moments of food-inspired bliss, we live fully.