Paris to Provence: Childhood Memories of Food and France by Ethel Brennan & Sara Remington

The Book

Paris to Provence is a culinary travelogue of separate summers spent in France, interweaving a collection of simple recipes with evocative memories and stories of those years. The recipes are simple and accessible to readers, but reflect France’s culinary sophistication and traditions Ethel and Sara discovered during their childhood summers.

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TARTE AUX POMMES

Apple- Custard tart with Apricot Jam Glaze

TOMATES À LA PROVENÇAL

Oven Roasted Tomatoes with Garlic and Bread Crumbs

GÂTEAU AU FROMAGE DE CHÈVRE ET CITRON

Lemon Cheesecake

MERGUEZ

Spicy Grilled Lamb Sausage Patties

POULET FRITES

Chicken and French Fries

RÔTI DE PORC ET SAUCE AUX CÈPES

Roast Pork Loin with Rosemaryand Porcini Mushrooms

ÎLES FLOTTANTES

Soft Meringues in Crème Anglais

Each chapter of Paris to Provence is representative of a specific part of Sara and Ethel’s summer travels: Road Trips, Farmers Markets, Street Food, Cafes and Bistros, Afternoon Snacks and Meals with Family and Friends. The recipes are drawn from memory of places, foods and ingredients experienced while traveling with their families.

With more than 50 recipes to draw from, the book gives readers a range of desserts, side dishes, main dishes and snacks that can be paired together and/or enjoyed individually.

Visually, the book is a collection of location photography, ingredients and finished dishes. Sara Remington has captured the wonder and discovery from a child’s perspective through her lush, evocative images.

Photo of Ethel
photo: Jen Hale

Ethel W. Brennan is a freelance writer and prop stylist. She is the coauthor of At the Farmers’ Market with Kids, Citrus, and Goat Cheese, and the author of Baby Gifts and Herbes de Provence. Her work as a prop stylist can be seen in such books as Vintage Cakes, SPQR, Princess Tea Parties, The Wild Table, Kokkari, Mixt Salads, The Cook and the Butcher, and The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook, which was nominated in 2011 for a James Beard Award for best photography. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and twin boys.

Sara Remington is a photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area, and travels the world for editing, publishing, and advertising. She was raised in upstate New York and studied photography and cinematography at Syracuse University and FAMU in the Czech Republic. Sara has provided photography for over thirty books, and was nominated for a James Beard Award for her photography in The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook.
See more of Sara’s work at sararemington.com.

Photo of Sara
photo: Anna Kuperberg

Events

 
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Chapter 1
PARIS TO PROVENCE:
THE ROAD TRIP

The drive from Paris to Provence marks the beginning of our story. It is on this stretch of the vacation that we muddled through jet lag and headed to the bakeries, cafés, shops, and markets to rediscover our beloved candies, pastries, sandwiches, and drinks. For this reason, many of the recipes are interchangeable within various chapters, but decisions had to be made, and for us, the following foods, such as tiny cornichon pickles, salty squares of black olive and anchovy pizza, truck-stop prix fixe menus of steak au poivre, cheese, decadent cream-filled pâtisseries, and sandwiches filled with ham, butter, salt-cured meats, and liver-rich pâté mark the beginning of summers spent in France.

The journey from Paris to the South now can be done in three hours by TGV, but during the 1970s and 1980s the fast trains were not yet a fixture in the European commute, and long, slow car trips were the way we traveled. The standard car rental was the now classic Renault 4, small and boxy with scratchy, ruglike upholstery, a tight fit for our family of four, luggage for two months, and often a small dog. My younger brother Oliver and I filled the backseat with toys, books, drawing pads, and snacks, an imaginary line drawn down the center of the blue and red woven seat in an effort to keep the bickering to a minimum. Usually the trip would take several days, beginning with a short stay in a borrowed Paris apartment, often a seven-floor walk-up, the twisting stairwell filled with the lingering smells of waxed tiles, musty wood, and sautéed onions. Once at the top, settled in for the night, the city sounds of sirens, people, and honking horns, mixed with a dose of jet lag, would keep me awake, my sleeplessness fueled by the excitement of the coming weeks. Days in Paris were spent wandering the streets, exploring the creepy catacombs and ancient cemeteries, a must-do every year, visiting any museums or churches missed in previous years, and, of course, eating.
Leaving Paris was a predawn tradition, with my father frantically trying to get out of the city before the chaos of traffic would leave us trapped in the roundabout circling the Arc de Triomphe. Each summer, although the start and end points were the same, the map took us through the winding landscapes of France, my forehead leaning against the car window as I daydreamed of what life might have been like hundreds of years earlier in the endless stream of castles perched on hillsides and cliffs we passed. Each truck stop held the promise of shops filled with magical European toys and unheard-of regional delicacies like jarred pied-paquet (lamb’s feet and tripe), cans of snails topped with a cylinder of shells to stuff them into, and condiments of every kind, packaged in toothpaste-style tubes: mayonnaise, harissa, mustard, chestnut cream, and sweetened condensed milk. Next stop, a walk over the autoroute, or freeway, in elevated passageways to the cafeteria, comparable to a three-star restaurant back in the States. A not-so-quick, sit-down lunch of braised endive in cream sauce, grilled steak au poivre, and wine for the grown-ups, sweet, caramel-drenched flan, and then strong espresso-style coffees, also for grown-ups. During coffee time, my brother and I would escape the table and wind our way back to the shops and plan our pitch for a new toy or candy, preferably both.
Once on the road, each night guaranteed a different hotel, but all seemed to have saggy mattresses and chenille bedspreads. In the mornings, without fail, we would be served a glorious breakfast of fresh, warm croissants, jam, and rich, creamy hot chocolate before heading out for new adventures, some more memorable than others. One such was the time we arrived after dark in the village of Mont-Saint-Michel, an ancient, Gothic abbey built on a rocky island, which rises from the low tides practically in the middle of the ocean. Required to park outside the walls, we set off into the village to find a hotel, and when we returned several hours later for our luggage, after a yummy dinner finished with three scoops of ice cream, topped with a mountain of crème Chantilly, the car had been broken into and our backpacks of toys stolen. Although sad, all was quickly forgotten by assurances of new toys to be found in the next village or truck stop.
Another year, all the way at the other end of France, a trip over the Alps was lengthened by what might have been hours or days by the transhumance, a now nearly extinct practice of walking herds of sheep and goats from the hot dry hills of Provence to the cooler, grassy mountains of the Alps, an arduous trek for the shepherd and his herd and a road hazard for car travelers such as us. I remember very clearly hanging out the window as hundreds of very smelly goats and sheep surrounded our car, which was stopped in the middle of the road, on one side the high mountain wall, the other a very long and steep cliff. Thankfully we had plenty of snacks, bottles of Evian, dry salami, a bag of fresh baked madeleines, bread, and, most likely, several fresh goat cheeses.
 

As a kid, I thought if I flapped my arms really hard, I would be able to fly, just barely floating above the ground. I envisioned this as my own little dream road trip sans car, slow and methodical, experiencing sights and colors from an angle that no one else would be able to touch. I continued to have this daydream summer after summer in France, from the backseat of a tiny cheap rental car. Looking out the backseat car window was almost as good as the idea of being a human bird—I had my imagination as my silent playground as I tried to follow each blade of grass flying by, my fingers touching the green tips in the endless fields.

The weeks and days leading up to the road trip were so fun. My parents, for the most part, would have the same routine, visit the same friends, with slight differences in course. There was comfort in familiarity, comfort in routine and tradition, knowing what was going to happen next in a general sense, but the details would fill themselves out later. As kids, we were oblivious to the conversations about mapping our route. The trips just magically happened.

 
 

Strangely enough, the smell of diesel fuel that always struck my nostrils so abruptly as we entered smoggy Paris was a comfort. The smell reminded me of movement, progress, and adventure. We would arrive at the one-star hotel where we always stayed, Hôtel de la Paix (now out of business), and knew what we were getting into. After about the fourth visit, the little old lady who owned the hotel would stand up from behind the counter with excitement, a huge smile taking over her wrinkles with more wrinkles, speaking mumbled French where I would catch every other word at most. Much of the banter was “Oh la la les filles, elles sont trés belles et grandes! Oh la la la la!” and this was always followed by a giant, wet kiss that left me smiling but cringing, running to the other room to wipe my cheek without her seeing. I still remember that noise of the old woman at the hotel kissing my cheek: much like the sound of a cork being slowly pulled out of a wine bottle, ending with a pop!

We always had a room on one of the top floors with no elevator, but my dad would gladly haul all of our suitcases up the narrow winding staircase. The sag of the hotel bed and the sound of the old bedsprings as we plopped our suitcases on top of the mattresses felt like old friends. The bathroom down the hall, window knobs that squeaked as you opened them to let the sounds of Paris into our tiny rooms, the peeling paint on the ceiling: all were there to remind us that we’d begun our adventure.

 
Chapter 2
LES MARCHÉS

French marchés are defined by seasonality, and while grocery stores may stock produce from around the world at any given time of year, the markets reflect the time-honored French traditions of terroir—the progression of seasonal, regional produce as it is cultivated by small, land-connected farmers. No matter how fleeting the season for any given culinary treasures, they are offered up in French markets: delicate squash blossoms, two-day-old fresh goat cheeses wrapped in paper, fresh shelling beans of all colors and varieties, fruit picked that morning and meant to be eaten by dinnertime. Fresh fish, locally caught, specialty cuts of meat, and charcuterie are all displayed behind the glass of traveling vans.

Joanne and Guild, longtime family friends and fellow Americans, also moved to Provence in the 1970s, then eventually settled in Paris, but kept their Provence farmhouse. One summer I didn’t return to the States with my parents, but stayed on in Provence with other family friends, Adèle and Pascal, for a memorable several months of homeschooling. I was twelve or thirteen, the perfect age to not have to go to school. Joanne and Guild, who lived nearby and were on hiatus from Paris, had taken on the task of growing corn, American super sweet varieties with hopes of selling it in the farmers’ markets. In France, maïs, or corn, is considered animal feed, edible for people only if it comes from a
can. That summer and into the fall I tagged along with Joanne and Guild to farmers’ markets all over the Var, the department of the Provence where we lived. We sold corn out of a vintage baby carriage, with, in precise French script, MAMA MAÏS painted on the side. Our look was certainly out of place among the French farmers’ tented stalls laden with tomatoes, melons, peaches, lettuce, cheese, and salamis. We looked like a ragtag trio of carnival workers. The carriage was rickety, with a black cover and huge metal wheels, and Guild always wore wire-rimmed glasses and a waistcoat-vest with a flowing shirt underneath, and Joanne a huge black sun hat and a vintage undergarment skirt.
We even had a small charcoal grill set up so we could lure people with slices of sweet grilled, buttered corn. We were sure this was going to be a hit because who doesn’t love corn? Well, frankly, the French don’t. The following summer, we were all together again and eating corn, but the baby carriage was now available as a shopping cart or plaything, and Provence had not become the new mecca for sweet corn.
“Sara, hold my hand…” The comfort of my parents’ voices is what I remember about the farmers’ markets. Completely packed with little old ladies, children, and chefs, if I separated my hand for even a moment from my mom or dad, I felt I would be forever lost in a sea of pig heads and pantyhose. Everything was in view from an adult waist down, so what I experienced was the scene from 2½ to 3 feet high: other little kids staring at me wide-eyed as we passed each other in the stalls, butchers yelling prices as whole baby pigs stared back at me from their cases, and the sag of old women’s pantyhose at their ankles, women with wheeled wire baskets in hand. The old ladies always seemed rushed and in a foul mood until you did something cute or complimented them; then they would mumble a semicoherent French sentence: “… mon petit chouchou, oh la la, elle est gentille, elle est très très mignonne…!” followed by plenty of unwelcomed cheek pinching.
I always found it fascinating that there was such a hubbub surrounding the freshest vegetables, meat, cheese, and fruit direct from the farmers and producers. We never did anything like that at home when I was little; it was always right there for you, neatly packaged on the shelf with a price tag. Seasonality was foreign, and often at home in upstate New York I was eating a tomato in December, wondering why it tasted like cardboard.
Provence has the most wonderful farmers’ markets, a thriving tradition full of color, life, and the slower pace of a small town. It’s not only a necessity to make a trip to the markets in the bigger cities near the tiny towns but also a social thing—you get to know your favorite vendors and develop a mutual love and respect. Not only are there farmers to hand you the freshest of the fresh tasty delights, there were butchers with meat that still had the animal’s head attached, bakers with bread still warm to the touch, beekeepers with the thickest honey you could sculpt, cheese makers with the stinkiest rounds to make you cringe with delight.
Chapter 3
STREET FOOD

Although France is not particularly known for street food cuisine, what is available is delectable and uniquely regional, such as the buttery chickpea flour crepes historically cooked in three-foot-diameter pans on charcoal ovens in Nice, spicy grilled merguez sausage served on a baguette and doused with fragrant red harissa sauce, while sweet and savory crepes, salty sugared pralines, and powdered sugar–covered beignets, or French-style donuts, seem prevalent everywhere. Whenever we were out and about, visiting ancient castle ruins, hiking down the arid cliffs of the Mediterranean coast to get to the perfect beach, or wandering city streets, street food seemed common fare. As our families settled in for the summer, the long trek to the south behind us, the next weeks promised an itinerary of day trips to historic sites, favorite villages, and visits with friends. This life on the go was meant for street food, and we intended to try it all.

Meals are not had on the run in France, so street food is limited mostly to snacks or treats. Hot pralines are sold in markets and festivals year-round, and in winter, chestnuts. The smell of charred chestnut shells mingled with the unctuous smell of butter melted in sugar is too tempting to pass by. In Paris and Provence, spicy grilled merguez sausages are cooked in stands found throughout parks and market entrances. And ice cream, the quintessential street food, can be found everywhere in every possible flavor, uncluttered with chunks and the saccharine sweet additives found in American ice cream. As we were often on the go—tourists and unconstrained by the cultural traditions of long meals—we tried any street food we could find: chickpea crepes and pan bagnat in Nice, beignets at the beach and carnivals, pizzas from wood-fired ovens on trucks, and ice cream.
The Gorges du Verdon is a deep river canyon that runs through the craggy, sparse hills of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, once known as the Basses-Alpes. The water of the Verdon River is icy cold and deep turquoise in color. In 1974, when I was six, the massive dam built to trap the river became operational. The rising water swallowed up the village of Les-Salles-Sur-Verdon, which now lies beneath the deep waters of the lake created by the dam. This underwater ghost town captivated my imagination, and I dreamed of diving down and swimming through the ancient stone buildings, in and out of windows, seeing what people might have left behind. A new, higher village was built, but its 1970s architecture is strikingly out of place in a landscape of centuries-old stone villages. The summer the dam was built we began going to the lake. In theory we were not very many kilometers away, but the reality of the single lane and
switchback mountain roads made the day trip nearly two hours either way, at least to the part of the lake we loved the most, the town of Bauduen. Bauduen had a smooth pebble beach, just like Nice, a poor man’s Côte d’Azur. The days were long and sun-drenched, filled with beach towels, umbrellas, books, watercolors for painting landscapes on flat river rocks, and picnics. I always loved the areas of the lake that were walking distance to a café, which allowed for double ice cream cones and other treats. At the end of the day, we might be lucky enough to catch a pizza truck with a wood-fired oven parked along the edge of the water, and pizza would be dinner. La Reine, a pizza with a cracker-thin crust, oregano-infused tomato sauce, white ham, cheese, and thinly sliced mushrooms from a can was my favorite. The pizzas were small and shared nothing in common with thick-crust American pizzas that come in super sizes. I ordered my own pizza, only needing to share if someone had something I wanted to try.
Down the mountain and across the low rolling hillsides and valley vineyards was the Mediterranean, also a day’s trip from our home. Here the air was sticky and salty, and the water buoyant and shallow for miles, or at least it seemed. We mostly had picnics but always were allowed treats from the beach vendors. My favorite story, and I tell this with sadness as the practice is all but extinct now, is of the vendors that used to walk back and forth along the beach carrying large shallow baskets piled with cream-filled beignets. Bakery fresh, or so I believed, and wrapped in sheets of parchment, the beignets were always piping hot and dusted with sugar, and each bite forced a thick ooze of a pastry cream, custard, or cherry jelly to drip from the opposite end. They are now replaced by industrially baked versions and sold from rolling carts fitted with freezers for ice cream, so the handcrafted French donuts of my childhood are seemingly gone, at least from the beaches.
We were so fortunate to be able to travel throughout France for such a long time during the summer months. To make this work financially, we ate on the cheap: lots of picnics and street food instead of restaurants and cafés. When the dollar was bad, my dad would sometimes secretly swipe an espresso cup from a café, putting it in my mom’s purse and justifying this by confidently stating that since the coffees cost twice as much as they did back home, it was like he was “buying” the cup from the place. This somehow made sense to me, but as I got older I realized you were not only paying for the coffee but the experience of the café—the street was your television, a Parisian reality show in real time.
Street food seemed abundant; just like the hot dog vendor is to New York City, the crepe vendor is to Paris. I distinctly remember the smells of gamey merguez sizzling on the grill on the street—it reminded me of backyard BBQ at home. I had my go-to street favorites, one of which was the crêpe au sucre, a beautiful thin pancake with a layer of white sugar, neatly folded into a triangle, placed in a parchment cone, steaming hot. The sugar slowly melted in the crepe in the tightly packed triangle, and I was nearly salivating uncontrollably before it even reached my hands.
Mediterranean beach days were a similar food experience—gather as many inexpensive items as possible and munch throughout the afternoon and early evening. There was always a baguette, some pâté, jambon, dry saucisson, maybe a bit of cheese wrapped up from the previous night’s dinner, yogurt, granola bars, apricots, and a token candy bar (most likely a Lion bar—the equivalent of a Kit Kat and 100 Grand bar rolled into one). We never sat longer than five minutes to eat, rejecting the “wait forty minutes” rule before you jump back into the sea. Hike down to the water, run over the hot stones or hot sand (hopping the entire way, Ow! Ow! Ow!), jump in the water, start to get a little chilly, run back for the towel, stuff your face with a piece of baguette and ham, run back to
the water, and repeat until almost dusk. I was a skinny little kid with birdlike legs, but I always had a giant appetite and could eat at least four or five sandwiches in one beach session. The best part about this whole experience was the ice cream boat—it would arrive at the edge of the shore, bells ringing, ready to sell me my favorite cone. I always chomped at the bottom of the cone first because there was a piece of chocolate at the tip. While finishing the ice cream, the vanilla would leak through the hole in the cone all over my hands, on to my feet and bathing suit. Jumping in the Mediterranean one more time would always take care of those messy drips.
Chapter 4
CAFÉS AND BISTROS

Any café or bistro, in the tiniest country village to the bustling streets of any city, provided us with glimpses into the lives of locals: the postman stopping by for a quick coffee at the bar while on his morning route, traveling salesmen eating alone, workers having a drink at the bar at the end of their day. At the bistros, changing menus sported regional and local specialties for lunch, and sometimes the cafés had hot sandwiches. Savory salads with poached eggs and tender boiled potatoes or baked goat cheese with bitter salad greens and bacon are the salads we looked forward to, hopefully served with a charcuterie plate of pâté, jambon cru, and saucisson. For kids, of course, any version of a grilled cheese sandwich would do, and the French one, a croque madame, is laden with rich béchamel sauce and a fried egg. Drinks, ice creams, and tarts often finished the meal.

As a child I spent idle hours in cafés all across France people watching, and cafés are everywhere. The second we stepped off the plane into the sprawling corridors of Charles de Gaulle Airport, a brief stop at a café was in order—ham and butter sandwiches on baguettes, two Oranginas, and two coffees. The cigarette smoke hung in the air, the smell of perfume wafted from the duty-free shops, and the food and drinks were a stamp of arrival. As I munched my sandwich, slipping it from the cellophane wrapper, I watched people from every corner of the world coming and going. There were African women in flowing batik-printed gowns with luggage carts piled high with things to take home to families far away, and smart Parisian businessmen in tidy suits with briefcases. I could always tell the French stewardesses because they were elegantly dressed, little caps perched on top of their heads and Air France neck scarves perfectly knotted to the side.
My deepest memories of Paris are from days spent in the Jardin du Luxembourg and the rickety carousel that is still there, the iconic metal chairs out for anyone to enjoy, the crepe stand, the infinitely tall, leafy trees that line every pathway, a royal canopy shading a never-ending stream of people, tourists and residents, all sitting, drinking, reading, and watching one another. The café I loved the most was nestled under the trees, tables set out in the dusty, decomposed granite grounds, the bathroom down some stairs around the back, and at the bottom of the stairs a little old woman in a gray housecoat dusted with tiny pink and red flowers, her wispy white hair pulled back in a tight white bun. She was there to collect centimes (French pennies) from us. She wiped down the counters, offered us cloth towels to dry our hands, and smiled sweetly as I spoke to her in imperfect French, mumbling “Merci, Madame.” She seemed so old, older than my grandmothers.
As we left Paris and headed south, the cities became smaller and the cafés were more in the center of town, where moss-covered fountains gurgled up from stone ponds and the cool mist sprayed off the surface, giving relief from the heat. On early evening visits, my parents lingered at the table, sipping wine, with small dishes of peanuts or pistachios that were constantly refilled as my brother and I relished in the menu choices. More often than not I would have thick, syrupy grenadine au limonade, a pure sugar concoction of alleged pomegranate syrup (a good quarter cup worth and a cold bottle of clear lemon soda). My brother preferred the bright green mint flavor, a bit too much like toothpaste for my taste. These café visits or stops were never short, and we never protested, because we always had pockets full of new plastic soldiers or animal figurines, coloring books, and refills of whatever we were drinking.
Sometimes, at cafés that were bistros as well, the visit would last so long it was time for dinner, so paper place mats were set, and cutlery and little glass cruets of oil, vinegar, and mustard appeared. Entrecôte de boeuf, salade Niçoise, and poulet frites were among the choices, and inevitably one of my parents would order something along the lines of kidneys in cream sauce or gras-double (tripe in tomato sauce). My brother, normally a very picky eater in California and a fan of white bread and bologna sandwiches, hot dogs, and American cheese, had no fear of the French menu, but he stuck to steak and French fries most days, followed by crème caramel.
The café experience was a must—you couldn’t walk down any street in France without stumbling over the typical wicker café chairs and tables with silver-lined edges on every block. The little épiceries next to the cafés were a quick answer to the larger grocery chains if you needed a few extra necessities for dinner. I saw some amazing things—there were giant baskets of perfect porcini right on the sidewalk, like it was nothing! I consistently heard that Paris was an “assault on all the senses,” which I think describes the café/bistro experience perfectly. Hearing orders shouted through the kitchen, people conversing in quick intonations, sugary and salty delights, the smell of delicious street food when we sat outside, and the smell of butter, chicken, meats, and cheeses when you sit inside, and most important, the comfort of having my mom or dad’s arm around me when I sat close to them in the big bistro booths, all part of the experience.
I loved how the café/bistro was such a part of life, such a social thing, and at any time of day, especially during mealtime, each café seemed completely packed as if no one worked or time stood still. My sister and I would always order grenadine au limonade because nothing is more exciting than a bright red drink fizzing with sugary madness. Inside the cafés the small tile floors were often cracked and warped from decades of feet shuffling in and out of the social scene, and usually there were mirrors on the walls that showed years of wear and water stains. I was always scared to go to the restroom in cafés—it was a gamble to see if there was a “regular” toilet or a hole in porcelain on the ground between two footpads. Strangely enough, this was one of the things I remember so clearly about the cafés—the fear of the bathroom with a hole in the ground.
There was no need to rush when you were there—you often had to ask for the bill several times before the waiter in the perfectly pressed starched white apron brought it to you. It was like we entered a bubble where time slowed so significantly that you were forced to enjoy a few of the simple things in life—a good glass of wine and a good dose of people watching. As each man and woman passed by our table, I always tried to imagine what kind of life they experienced, what kind of stories they’d pass on, and even what they ate for breakfast. It was a dance of informal meetings every few seconds, again and again, with strangers. I was happy to be a part of these non-meetings, sipping my red drink, staining my white shirt.
Chapter 5
AFTERNOON SNACKS
(GOÛTER)

Late afternoon, with dinner still hours away, was the peak of playtime for us, our energy fueled by our goûter, the French word for late afternoon snacks, a treat reserved for children, not always healthy, often a version of bread and chocolate. As we spent ample time with family and friends, most with children of varying ages, we also jumped in on the fun and were fed, alongside our friends, tomato and olive oil sandwiches, chocolate hazelnut spread on open-faced baguette sandwiches, moist vanilla-scented madeleine cakes, and more.

A mix of sweet and savory snacks midday were sure to carry us to the aperitif hour in the early evening, when the drinks, olives, and salted nuts would segue into a long multicourse dinner with the grown-ups, including some lush dessert, but until then, goûter was the meal and we were refueled and sent back out to play.

Hot lazy summers were familiar to me in both California and Provence. By four in the afternoon the sun would still hang high and pesky little flies would relentlessly land on our arms and legs, attracted by our salted skin. Regardless of whether we were in France or California, most of my summer days were spent seeking relief from the dry heat through shade or water. France was special, though, because we lived in the country, not in town like at home. The fields, vineyards, and hillsides were our playgrounds. We had such freedom—out the door in the morning, down tractor roads, making bows and arrows from mulberry branches and baling twine, and excavating Roman tiles and even dinosaur bones.

Around noon, we all headed home for lunch and a nap, and then at three we were back out the door. On days when no body of water was at hand, my friend Aileen, my brother, and I pitched beach umbrellas in the overgrown grassy meadows, laid out soft French quilts, and prayed for a thunderstorm to break the heat that hummed with the sounds of crickets and cicadas. Somebody’s mother would eventually track us down and bring us goûter. Dinner wouldn’t be served until at least eight or nine in the evening, so afternoon sustenance was essential. The snacks varied from day to day, but usually were served in the form of tomato and olive oil sandwiches, yogurts, sweet baguette and chocolate bar sandwiches, sometimes spread with butter. My very favorites, however, were dense little madeleine cakes, baked in the shape of small boats, all washed down with Orangina, a light orange soda made with fruit juice.

Everything about snack time reminds me of swimming: running barefoot from the pool sans towel with my sister, water still dripping down my legs, tufts of thick crabgrass itching the bottom of my feet, to the wood table on the right side of the stone house. By the time I would arrive, the treats would be neatly laid out for us kids—slices of bread with Nutella and honey, jam, cheese, and a possible bonus candy bar. When we were done, my bathing suit would be mostly dry from the August heat. Not knowing the language perfectly, I always felt like a bit of an outsider with the other French kids. However, I would communicate my humor by smearing chocolate spread all over my mouth and face, trying to extend my tongue so far to lick off every bit from the tip of my nose to underneath my chin; sticking my hands in the jar of honey and trying to wipe the sticky sweetness all over my sister’s arms; shoving as many pieces of chocolate in my mouth as I could while trying to speak a sentence without the chocolate falling out—all hilarious and annoying.

Chapter 6
MEALS WITH FAMILY
AND FRIENDS

At the end of each day and certainly following on the heels of the earlier days of the holiday, the long road trip behind us, mornings we strolled through the marché, lunch and afternoons we spent sampling street food, or in cafés and bistros, and we recharged our energy with late afternoon goûter chocolate-filled treats. The days subsided into the lingering and food-centered evenings, often spent outside under a canopy of mulberry trees or the stunning star-filled skies of Provence. Those evenings we sampled snails in garlic sauce, fresh grilled sardines, and bite-sized lamb chops. Other evenings, if a chill hit the air, meals were moved inside and were richer collections of warming beef daube, baked bouchée à la reine pastry shells filled with chicken and mushrooms, bowls of rich Provençal fish stew, and always a dessert, preferably something along the lines of îles flottantes, clouds of meringue served in bowls of crème anglaise custard.

Anyone who has ever been to France and had the pleasure of being invited to someone’s home for a meal, lunch or dinner, knows well how long this epic process can take, unless it’s in the middle of a workday, in which case just budget for 2½ hours. I loved such meals: a party every time, on arrival an aperitif table, the best invention ever!Drink choices were from collections of bottles, some homemade sweet wines; thyme, quince, cherry, and walnut were not for me, though. I was offered grenadine, sometimes sickeningly sweet orange Fanta soda, a bowl of ice, and snacks—salami, peanuts, pistachios, olives, cornichons, and bite-sized pizza crackers (I still bring boxes of these home to the States). The aperitifs take at least an hour, an hour of playtime for the kids and a moment of adult connection for parents; next, le repas, dinner! I was fascinated by the world of adults, and as I was usually the oldest child at most dinners, I relished sitting with the adults, showing off my adventurous eating, hanging on every word and story, trying to follow incomprehensible discussions in French about local politics, but mostly interested in any gossipy tidbits that slipped out.
The younger children, my brother, and any others collected for the evening slowly slipped from their chairs as evenings carried on, eventually ending up under the table playing with whatever toys were handy. I, however, stayed and was often privy to lengthy and unbelievable stories about World War II: tales of midnight escapes from trains bound for Germany, or of Nazi soldiers that supposedly lived in our house during the occupation and of women who worked the fields while the men fought in the resistance. I was in awe of such vivid stories of generations past and couldn’t believe I was allowed to sit up late under the summer night stars listening and having my questions answered.Dessert always showed up around this time, custard and fruit tarts, ice cream, and, if we were really lucky, an amazing French creation, îles flottantes. Just as the name implies, it was soft billowy mounds of poached meringue floating in delicate vanilla-infused crème anglaise, which of course, in France you can buy in the dairy section of any grocery store! And yes, as the name implies, it really does float and can be nudged from one side of the dish to the other. Testing the credulity of the name cannot be considered playing with your food.
My sister and I hid in the tall grass, bugs flying in our ears, as we tried to avoid them by shutting our eyes and waving our hands next to our heads. We heard the expected “À table!” from one of the adults in the house up the hill, echoing throughout the field we played in. Dinner—eating, drinking with family, rosé on a cool summer evening. It was okay to drink a little wine with your parents at the table—it was accepted as a sort of rite of passage for French kids. It was a part of life.
Days were organized around mealtime. Each day was a simple culinary adventure, easy, light, and happy: salad, melon, cheese, meats, yogurt, and wine. Then, after swimming, hiking, or goûter, dinner was ready (never before 8:00 pm) and we got down with the heavy stuff. I loved the sound of the crickets as we ate, and if we were so lucky, we were graced with fireflies at dusk—my nighttime friends.
I couldn’t stand sitting still—I thought adults were boring and had no idea why anyone would sit and talk at a table for hours. I had better things to do and just wanted to skip to dessert. Usually there were other children at the table who were equally antsy to run and play, so I had partners in crime: We had to leave the table NOW. With our bellies full of the last course, which was usually cheese or yogurt, we ran to play in one of the kid’s rooms. They taught my sister and
me naughty French words; we taught them equally bad English words. We dressed up, put on plays, read Tintin in French and in English, and worked off the pent-up energy accumulated from two hours at the table. All that said, the table, regardless of how stagnant and boring it was to a child, was and always will be the heart and life of the home and our collective memories.