Finding the Heart of France

After years of visiting my family home in Southern France, this has become my favorite sight:

A closed gate. This gate means the afternoon is winding down and you are home to stay. This gate means that the day's excursions are done - everyone has returned to the nest and nothing else is needed. 

This is my second favorite sight: 

From the edge of the terrace you can look over the pool, the mountains as they change color in the setting sun, and the barbecue - usually tended by a small group of people, all with their glasses of wine. 

This is what you see when you turn around: 

People bustling in and out of the kitchen, listening to music, setting the table, and putting the final touches on dinner.

Food has always been my way of connecting with France. This may not come as a surprise to you - I mean, it is me after all. You already know that I really love food. And then, of course it is France, the land of baguettes, cheese (more than 365 different types!), and wine.

It goes deeper than that however. Everywhere you look, you can see people folding the rituals of food, food making, and eating into their lives. 

You can see it in how an elderly neighbor and long-time family friend stops by to present us with a bottle of his homemade Cartagen, a sweet regional liquor made from freshly pressed grapes.

Or how his wife still keeps my Grandmother's old books on identifying mushrooms, and knows all the right places to forage.

You can see it in the bee keeper, a friend from church, who takes his bee hives "up to pasture" to the aromatic hilltops of the Ardeche so his bees produce a richer honey.

Or how the little old man at the weekly market in Uzes sets up a small card table displaying two plastic boxes filled with goat cheese. He only has two kinds: Less dry and more dry, and it is the most complex and flavorful goat cheese you could ever hope to try. 

One of our favorite days came as a tip from my cousin - a talented wine maker with a thriving business. He told us of a wine festival taking place in nearby Anduze, a picturesque town situated along a river on the edge of the mountains. The festival would feature over 25 local, independent wine-makers - my cousin being one of them. 

The next day Jacob and I drove over to Anduze, and walked into the festival. The park was pleasantly busy - not crowded, but bustling with people tasting wine, having picnics, children riding mini horses, and buskers playing old-fashioned French vaudeville music. 

We paid the 4 Euro entry fee that granted us a wine glass and booklet for taking notes, and the tasting began. The vintners were set up in a semi-circle, each with 2-3 wines on display. All you had to do was approach a winemaker, let them know which wine you would like to try (we chose to stick with the reds - there were a lot of wines to try and we weren't planning on getting wasted), make small talk and take notes as desired, then thank them and move on. If you decided to purchase a bottle that would be handled at another tent separate from the tasting area. 

As someone who loves samples, but always feels guilty taking one without buying anything...I'm not alone in this, am I? Anyways, having an entire wine festival dedicated to pressure-free sampling made me giddy with joy (the wine helped too). Why don't more festivals do it this way? You could have easily spent the entire day there, drinking over 60 wines, for a grand total of 4 Euros - and you get to keep the glass.

In all these things I saw a common thread: a love for a life that finds pleasure in community, beauty in the simple things, and refuses to be hurried or pressured along. You could see it in the fact that the festival's entry fee was €4, as opposed to $50.00 as it could have easily been elsewhere. I realized it with a jolt when trying to run errands and finding all of the department stores closed for lunch between noon and 2 pm.  

It is difficult, as a visitor, to enter into the same slow stream that characterizes the south of France. It takes time for your heart to start beating slower, for your mind to stop racing, to let yourself relax into the beauty of simply being

So Jacob and I (and the rest of my family as well - we were in good company), hit the brakes and forced ourselves to wind down the fastest way we knew how: through cooking.

This year in France was a special one. It had been 12 years since this much of my family had been together in France at once. It was also the first time that we all really cooked together. My brother taught me recipes he created for the restaurant he is opening in Sydney. I taught him how to make green beans taste better than he thought possible. We brainstormed dishes to challenge each other and show off our skills, then had 6 sets of willing hands ready to act as sous-chefs.  

Over a week and a half we made lemon-stuffed trout, lavender-smoked artichokes, fried chicken and collard-style green beans, flank steak with chimichurri sauce, ricotta and olive stuffed peppers, American-style ribs and truffle macaroni and cheese, and much more. Not every experiment was a blazing success, but everything tasted amazing.

This is the beating heart of what I love about France. "My France" is slow mornings, lazy hot days, afternoon naps, and long, long evenings spent around the dinner table. My France is food shopping, wine tasting, bursts of activity before dinner, and star-gazing late into the night. 

I have always found the romance of France to be an elusive one to capture. In some places, you can find a city's pulse by simply strolling its streets and feeling its vibrancy. But walking France's markets and cobblestoned villages only left me skimming the surface of what I've always known to be a deeper pool. Finding that connection this year (in food, what else?) filled me with enough ideas and thoughts to fill a book - and so, I am starting to write one. It may take years to finish, but it will be full of stories of the people, the food, and the stories that cut straight to the heart of southern France.

But while you wait, I will give you some recipes. Stay tuned. :) 

 

 

Sardinia and Dreams of Food

My earliest food memories are not of eating but of cooking. My mother made nearly everything she cooked from scratch, spoiling us kids with French delicacies while we complained about having to eat mushroom and red wine infused Boeuf Bourguignon “again”. She also had to deal (quite frequently) with my brothers and I staring into a half empty fridge, whining “there is nothing to eat!”. “Yes there is,” she would always reply, “you just have to make it”.

So I did – and haven’t stopped.

Sitting on the breathtaking beaches of Sardinia kick-started some deep personal reflection. I find that whenever I am on holiday, with time to slow down, breathe, and dream about the future, I end up wandering back over to the same subject: food and cooking.

I realized how much my mother’s approach to cooking shaped my own perspective on food (thank you, Mom!). She taught me how to cook by instinct, to know by taste which layers of flavor are missing and which ingredients a finished dish contains. She coached me, through years of cooking failures and successes, to understand what techniques produce what results. She taught me the value that comes from cooking your own food: how it gives you freedom, control, and teaches you balance.

While in Sardinia, Jacob and I had two exceptional meals, both of which left a lasting impression for something other than the food.

The first was on a day-long boat trip we took to visit some of the coves that were only accessible via boat. We chose to book with a company that used smaller boats and limited their passengers to around 30. The trip offered lunch and aperitifs along with several stops at gorgeous pristine white coves with crystalline water. In the morning the atmosphere on the boat was slightly strained. All of the guests were jockeying for a prime spot to enjoy the trip, perhaps secretly wishing (as I was), that they could have had the boat to themselves.

People relaxed slowly as the morning wore on, but at lunch there was a transformation. Guests were seated at bench tables that accommodated six. A crisp white wine stood waiting on each table alongside a basket of bread. Stilted introductions were made, and the same old small talk questions as always were exchanged: “where do you come from? How do you like Sardinia?”. The first course was served: a typical Sardinian dish made with small Fregola pasta, a thin wine and tomato based sauce, and lots of seafood. Amidst the mounds of Fregola were crab legs, langoustine in their shell, calamari, and mussels. Things started to get messy, cracking into crab legs and peeling shrimp. Wine was poured. The dish had the ephemeral sweet taste of the sea. People began to relax, and talk. Real questions, and real answers. The room became louder with chatter and laughter.

The second course was served: whole shrimp, head still attached, sautéed in butter, herbs, and a local liquor, served in a large dish to share. More wine was poured. By this time the whole table was laughing, slurping at shrimp shells and accepting heaping second helpings. Our table re-filled our dish three times. I had never tasted such sweet shrimp.

Next came dessert – lemon sorbet served with coffee and tea. Finally, the captain came around with two bottles of ice cold liquor in hand, both homemade. One was a Sardinian style grappa that burned as it went down, the other, a thick and sweet liquor made of the myrtle berries that grow thick on the island.

By the time lunch was over everyone on the boat was friends, smiling benevolently at each other and sharing their previously coveted space. It struck me how effectively food can bring people together. It can break down walls, and build trust. A shared meal is a powerful thing.


Our second exceptional meal in Sardinia was at an unusual seafood restaurant tucked down at the end of a dirt road. Seafood in Sardinia is not especially cheap, but Jacob and I knew we wanted to have one glorious meal where we indulged in all the fresh seafood we could not find in Vienna. My research turned up a restaurant that was reviewed as having exceptionally fresh seafood for the price. We made our reservations and gave ourselves extra time to drive out to the coast and find the restaurant. Our directions took us through the industrial port, down a quiet dirt road along the water that ended in a fishing co-op. We parked and looked around, but there was no sign of the restaurant. The fishing co-op was surrounded by water on both sides – the sea to one side and a bay on the other. Walking over to a bridge, we saw a flaking and sun-faded wooden sign for the restaurant. It pointed across the bridge, and down a further dirt road. Crossing the bridge, we stopped to look at ropes full of cultivating mussels, and large tanks whose water roiled the movement of fish. This was clearly where our dinner would come from.

We walked down the empty dirt road for about ten minutes before we came to a small building on the edge of the bay, isolated and surrounded by pines. The restaurant did not open until 7:30, so we waited as other guests arrived on foot for their reservations. We were seated and brought a pitcher of house wine.  No menus were provided – we had simply told them how many courses we wanted when making the reservation. Now, they would bring us what they had prepared for the evening.

First came a cold salad of perfectly tender squid, octopus, cuttlefish and potatoes. The salad was dressed in only the barest of lemon and olive oil, letting the delicate flavor of the seafood shine through.

Our second course was a massive bowl of fresh mussels steamed in white wine and butter. The sauce was light and pleasantly briny, once again allowing the sweet mussels to be the star of the dish.

Our third course was another seafood Fregola, like the one eaten on the boat, studded with large pieces of lobster, crab, squid, and clams.

Next a plate arrived with two full grilled sea bream, adorned only with a slice of lemon. As I informed Jacob with every course, I had never had such fresh or perfectly cooked fish. It was a revelation of how incredible a white fish could be.

Finally, the meal ended with hefty slices of sweet watermelon, as Jacob and I discussed how glad we were that we had only taken the smallest of the two fixed price menus - €25 each for 5 courses and a bottle of wine.

Being so close to the source of our food that evening reminded me of how my own fascinations were reflected in the cooking choices I made when I was young. As a child I would go through phases of food obsession. I had a deviled egg phase: For several weeks, I made deviled eggs whenever I had the chance. I also had a garlic bread stage. That ended the day my mother leaned over to me in church, sniffed once, and stated “you smell like garlic”. Another phase revolved around melted cheddar cheese – particularly how the oil would separate out and fry the remaining curd, leaving a lacy and crisp cheese cracker behind.

4 years ago, Jacob and I spent a month in Sweden and found ourselves immersed in a world that I have since come to deeply appreciate. At the time it was a shock. We were newly married, fresh off the plane from San Diego, embarking on a disorienting 6-month trip around Europe. That trip was life changing in many ways (it brought us to Vienna!), but that month in Sweden continues to impact me. Our host family folded us into their slow, peaceful pace of life, teaching us how to bake bread, harvest vegetables, and forage for edible herbs, berries, and mushrooms from the forest. We only scratched the surface of all there was to learn. I will never forget the day I first found summer chanterelle mushrooms on my own, and came home with pockets full of golden treasure.

Since then, my fascination with the fundamental crafts of cooking has grown exponentially. I want to learn everything. I want to understand where my food comes from. I want to spend a year on a vineyard tending vines and making wine. I want to learn how to butcher meat and clean a fish. I want to make sourdough bread with my own yeast starter, and learn to forage and identify edible plants by their leaves and smell. These fascinations are, in my mind, a grown up, rounded-out expression of the same interest that drove my “deviled egg phase”, and I am sure, will continue to shape the future I dream of.