Saturday, 23 January 2016

France - All About Food

I love food.  Who doesn’t, right?  But when I say I love food, I mean I really love food!  All aspects of it.  I love to cook.  I love eating a delicious meal at a restaurant or visiting family or friend’s homes and enjoying the fruits of their labor.  And I really love knowing where my food comes from.  In fact, I hold a very deep reverence for food that is grown naturally, sustainably, and locally.  Eric would probably say it’s a bit of an obsession - or maybe just a straight up obsession.  Two of my favorite places in the whole world are vegetable gardens and farmer's market.  I grew up on a small farm in Wisconsin watching cows grazing in the green pasture and whose milk I drank for breakfast, lunch and dinner, picking fresh green beans and cucumbers out of the huge vegetable garden behind our house, filling my mouth with fresh strawberries from the field every summer, visiting the apple orchard in the fall, taking trips to the local creamery to stock up on delicious cheeses – these are some of my fondest memories of childhood.  So is it any wonder that now as an adult I love growing my own vegetables, and that every Saturday morning from May until October you will find me filling my basket at the local farmer’s market and having to make two and sometimes three trips back and forth to the car to unload my goods so I can buy more fresh food, or that I travel out of my way a few times a year to get meat from a local farmer who raises the animals on pastures that have been in his family since 1828.  I know how to get my hands on good food, healthy food, sustainable food, but what does this all have to do with visiting France?

It sounds a bit cliché to say the food in France was great.  I expected it to be and perhaps food was the thing I was most excited about experiencing in France.  But, it was so much better than I had even dreamed it could be.  And I’m not taking about prepared food, the French cooking style that Julia Child made so famous in America.  We only ate one, yes you read that correctly, one French meal in a proper French restaurant that was absolutely, mouthwateringly delicious, but there was a good reason we didn’t eat out much in France – and that reason was the big, bountiful farmer’s markets.

The first morning we were in southern France we woke to rain.  Eric donned his raincoat and headed out into the misty morning for a short trip to the local bakery, or boulangerie as it is called in French.   

He would make the delightful short trip through this little town every morning before the girls and I had opened our eyes for the day and by the end of the week, the lady behind the counter recognized him.  One day, he had already made his daily trek, but I wanted to experience it myself, to see what it looked like and felt like to walk the narrow streets and alleys of this beautiful French village every morning to get fresh bread and croissants for the day.  

The cobblestone path we followed took us past stone buildings and under archways whose age I cannot even begin to guess.

We past adorable little cottages with built in birdhouses...

And followed a narrow alley where vines in red and green clung to the old stone walls.  Oh, to live in a place where I could make this lovely walk everyday to collect the food my family would need to sustain us for the day!  Just like most small villages in France, Robion has everything you need right within it's borders.  It has not one, but two bakeries, a butcher that carries locally raised meats, cheeses and eggs, a huge vegetable and fruit market that was open every day save Sunday, a few small mom and pop type restaurants where you could get a fresh meal made with local ingredients, and that is on top of having a small grocery store which incidentally was open in the morning, closed during the middle of the day, and then open again in the late afternoon and evening.  That is just the way they roll in France. 

And on our first morning in southern France, we drank our morning coffee while enjoying some pain au chocolat and croissants so heavenly they needed no butter or jam or anything else to embellish them.  And then, we headed out into the rainy morning to the quaint Provence town of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue to visit their Sunday market.   

Now this wasn’t solely a farmer’s market.  There were lots of other goods for sale too – soaps (lavender scented of course as many fields in this area are filled with row after row of the small shrub-like plant), handmade pottery, jewelry, scarves.  The girls and I had fun perusing the tables for trinkets we could take home to remind us our trip to France, and I bought a bright colorful handmade bowl to add to my growing collection of dishware.   But the crème de la crème of this market was without a doubt the beautiful, bountiful, fresh food.  The market started out on the main street through town but quickly disappeared into the narrow winding alleys lined with tiny shops and cafes.  It rained the entire time, but that did not take away one bit from this experience of a true French market.  We walked and walked and walked through the narrow streets following the flow of the market, sure it was going to end around the next bend, but it just went on and on and on.  We saw the usually suspects, fruits and veggies of course...

and bread.  You would expect to find great bread at a farmer’s market in France.   

But there were also tables bursting with every variety of olives you could imagine...

and bags full of fragrant herbs and spices.   

Cheese - beautiful round blocks of French fromage in all varieties.  

If you wanted some, you just pointed out the size of the wedge of cheese you would like and the cheese seller would hack it off with a machete like knife, wrap it in paper and you were on your way.   

Or you could just get a small round of goat’s cheese tied up and wrapped in fig leaves.   

There was plenty of meat and fish, and we even saw snails being sold out of a giant bucket.   

And dry-cured sausages in such a variety I didn't even know existed.  There was your typical pork and beef, but also goat, stag, duck and if you look closely at the labels in the photo above, you’ll even see donkey sausage.  

If you got hungry along the way and couldn't bare to wait until you got home to prepare a lovely French meal with your purchases, there were plenty of vendors selling prepared food made from scratch to fill you belly.  We bought the most amazing hummus that I could have eaten right out of the container with a spoon from a man who gave Leah a bag full of roasted chickpeas for free that she was more than happy to munch on as we strolled through the market.  And several times we passed an enormous colorful and fragrant pan of paella, filled with prawns and mussels and who knows what other goodies.

In the end, this is the feast we took home from the market in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue:   

a roasted chicken, a couple wedges of cheese, some sausage of the beef variety I assure you (no donkey for this family), a fresh baguette, lettuce and carrots, some grapes, a variety of olives, some dried fruit, and let’s not forget that freshly made hummus that still makes me cry to think I may never taste it’s likes again.   Along with the bottle of local red wine our hosts gave to us as a gift, this was enough to feed us for the first few days in southern France.  It was simple and delicious and fresh food.  What more could you want?
Small town, big town – it doesn’t matter the size.  Good food, unprocessed food, homegrown food is abundant in France, and as you drive around the countryside you will quickly come to understand why these small towns offer everything you need to make a delicious home cooked meal from scratch everyday.  The fields are full of fresh fruits and vegetables in a variety of which I’ve never seen grown in one place before.  Cows, sheep and goats graze on fresh green grass.   Chickens peck away at whatever they can find in the yards and fields.  Even as we walked the street of our little town, we passed trees whose branches hung heavy with olives that would soon be picked and taken to the local oil mill to extra the olive oil that would supply the family for the year.  

And let’s not forget the grapevines – rows and rows of trellised vines, bare of fruit by mid October because the fermented grapes were well on their way to becoming one of the wide variety of delectable wines produced in Provence.  Now I understand why Julia Child was so drawn to learn how to cook during her years in France.  With fresh ingredients like this at your fingertips, how can you resist?

Hmm...Are you beginning to see why Eric might call my interest in finding good food an obsession? While we thoroughly enjoyed eating and looking at food in France, we did actually do a lot of other sightseeing as well - nonfood related.  And despite the fact that our first full day in southern France was threatening to be a washout, after feasting on a lunch of our farmer's market finds, we grabbed the umbrellas and raincoats and headed back out to explore the walled city of Avignon.  And it is with a few eerily beautiful photos of Avignon that I leave you today, such as this...

The Palace of the Popes.  From 1309 through 1377, Avignon, rather than Rome, served as the seat of the Papacy, and it was during this time that this stunning Avignon skyline came to be.  It's now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with this... 

The famous bridged Pont d'Avignon.  Apparently, back in the 1300s when this version of the bridge was constructed, they had a difficult time keeping the great stone arches from collapsing every time the Rhone flooded.  Eventually, they stopped trying to rebuilt it and left it as is with only four of the original arches standing.  The bridge only spans halfway across the Rhone river.  Not very useful, but it is now a famous landmark of Avignon, even inspiring a melodias song called Sur la pont d'Avignon that even my girls can sing as they learned this beautiful little ditty from their French teacher at school.  

It was Sunday afternoon and a steady rain was falling, and as a result, we had the streets of Avignon to ourselves.  The many shops we past were all locked up, but the window displays told the story of what we would find inside if we came back on another day when they were open.  Anyone fancy a dress shirt covered in light bulbs?  Polka dot pigs or brown stags?

If you are really brave, you can even get a shirt covered in cuts of beef, labeled in French of course. 

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