As children we experience the world around us with wonder and amazement, using all of our senses. For Sara and me, France embodies the visual, tactile, and romantic personal histories we have carefully and thoughtfully carried into adulthood. Our memories are filled with images of old, faded, and peeling advertisements painted on the crumbling plaster walls of buildings, hand-shaped brass door knockers, saggy beds in slightly suspect hotels, crisp vintage linens with hand-stitched monograms, tiny Paris elevators with polished nickel doors, and the pale, pink light of summer evenings settling over vineyards and fields of wheat.
The Road Trip
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.
My younger brother Oliver and I filled the backseat with toys, books, drawing pads, and snacks, an imaginary line drawn down the centre 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. 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.
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. 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. One year, 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. 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. —Ethel
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 of 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.
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, 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. —Sara
GRILLED HAM AND CHEESE SANDWICH WITH FRIED EGG
MY FIRST EXPERIENCE WITH A CROQUE MADAME WAS AT GENÈVE-PLAGE, A WATER PARK IN GENEVA, RIGHT ON THE BORDER OF FRANCE
AND SWITZERLAND. ONE OF OUR FRIENDS ASKED IN BROKEN ENGLISH IF I HAD EVER TRIED ONE, AND I SHOOK MY HEAD CURIOUSLY. SHE TOOK MY HAND AND LED ME TO THE LITTLE SNACK BODEGA NEXT TO THE POOL. WE ORDERED, AND I MARVELED AT THE CUTE EGG ON TOP – A VERY FEMININE SANDWICH. —SARA
MAKES 2 SANDWICHES
2 TABLESPOONS UNSALTED BUTTER
2 TABLESPOONS ALL-PURPOSE FLOUR 11?2 CUPS MILK
1?4 TEASPOON SALT
1?4 TEASPOON FRESHLY GRATED NUTMEG
2 TABLESPOONS BUTTER
4 SLICES PAIN DE MIE, CHALLAH OR OTHER SOFT WHITE BREAD
1 TABLESPOON DIJON-STYLE MUSTARD
4 THIN SLICES BOILED HAM
2 THIN SLICES GRUYÈRE CHEESE
PREHEAT A BROILER
- FOR THE SAUCE, MELT THE BUTTER IN A SAUCEPAN OVER MEDIUM HEAT. WHEN IT HAS MELTED, REMOVE IT FROM THE HEAT AND STIR IN THE FLOUR TO MAKE A ROUX, OR PASTE. RETURN TO THE HEAT AND SLOWLY WHISK IN THE MILK UNTIL SMOOTH AND BLENDED, ABOUT 2 MINUTES. ADD THE SALT AND NUTMEG. CONTINUE TO COOK UNTIL IT HAS THICKENED AND THE TASTE OF FLOUR IS GONE, ABOUT 15 MINUTES. INCREASE THE HEAT IF NECESSARY TO THICKEN. SET ASIDE.
- TO MAKE THE SANDWICHES, BUTTER ONE SIDE OF EACH PIECE OF BREAD USING 1 TABLESPOON OF BUTTER. SPREAD THE MUSTARD ON THE UNBUTTERED SIDES OF 2 OF THE SLICES. LAYER THE HAM AND CHEESE, THEN TOP WITH THE REMAINING SLICES, BUTTER SIDE UP.
- WARM A SKILLET OVER MEDIUM-LOW HEAT, THEN COOK THE SANDWICHES FOR 3 MINUTES, UNTIL THE BREAD IS GOLDEN; TURN AND REPEAT ON THE OTHER SIDE. PLACE THE COOKED SANDWICHES ON A BAKING SHEET, SPOON OVER ABOUT 1?2 CUP OF THE SAUCE, AND PLACE UNDER THE BROILER UNTIL THE SAUCE IS BUBBLING AND GOLDEN, ABOUT 5 MINUTES. IF YOU HAVE EXTRA SAUCE, YOU CAN FREEZE IT FOR NEXT TIME. WHILE THE SANDWICHES ARE IN THE OVEN QUICKLY FRY THE EGGS IN THE REMAINING 1 TABLESPOON OF BUTTER. REMOVE THE SANDWICHES TO TWO PLATES AND TOP EACH WITH A FRIED EGG.
THIS SIMPLE COMFORT DISH REMINDS ME OF THE DARK BROWN METAL STOVE AND PALE YELLOW WALLS IN OUR HOUSE IN THE 1980S IN UPSTATE NEW YORK. I HEAR AND SMELL THE JUICES BUBBLING AND SIZZLING AROUND THE WRINKLY TOMATOES, TAKING OVER THE ENTIRE HOUSE. I SEE MY CUTE MOM PULLING THE TOMATOES OUT OF THE OVEN, PROBABLY WEARING SOMETHING SIMILAR TO A FORM-FITTING WHITE TURTLENECK WITH HIGH-WAISTED PANTS (BUT IN AN ADORABLE, FASHIONABLE WAY), CIRCA 1984. THE DISH WAS EASILY PREPARED, ALWAYS ENJOYED BY MY FAMILY IN THE LATE SUMMER/EARLY FALL WHEN WE RETURNED FROM OUR BIG FRENCH SUMMER ROAD TRIP. I LOVED THE MIX OF TEXTURES – SALTY, CRUNCHY TOASTED BREAD CRUMBS WITH WARM, SOFT, JUICY TOMATO. I FORCED MYSELF TO NOT EAT ALL OF THE BREAD CRUMBS FIRST SO THAT I WOULD HAVE SOME LEFT OVER TO PAIR WITH THE TOMATO JUICE. –SARA
SERVES 5 TO 6
10 TO 12 MEDIUM RED TOMATOES
1 TABLESPOON FINELY CHOPPED FRESH ROSEMARY
1 TABLESPOON FINELY CHOPPED FRESH THYME
2 CLOVES GARLIC, PEELED AND FINELY CHOPPED
1?2 CUP FINE DRIED BREADCRUMBS
1?2 TEASPOON COARSE SEA SALT
1?4 CUP EXTRA-VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
PREHEAT THE OVEN TO 400°F
- CUT THE STEMS AND CORES FROM THE TOPS OF THE TOMATOES AND PLACE THEM, STEM ENDS UP, IN A SHALLOW BAKING DISH.
- IN A SMALL BOWL, MIX TOGETHER THE ROSEMARY, THYME, AND GARLIC, AND SPRINKLE EVENLY OVER THE TOPS OF THE TOMATOES; REPEAT WITH THE BREAD CRUMBS AND SALT. DRIZZLE THE OLIVE OIL OVER THE TOPS, LETTING SOME FALL INTO THE PAN.
3. ROAST FOR 20 TO 25 MINUTES, UNTIL THE TOPS ARE GOLDEN AND THE TOMATOES HAVE STARTED TO SOFTEN. SERVE HOT, WARM, OR AT ROOM TEMPERATURE AS A SIDE DISH.
Every other year in May, before my sister and I finished school, my parents would map out a different route through France, snaking our way through big cities and small towns. Some routes were determined by the availability of friends for our visit, others were determined by adventure, but no two routes were the same. A typical summertime journey would start in Paris, then swing over to the west to Rennes, include a little jaunt up to Saint Malo, then wind down to Bordeaux, then over to Lyon where my Father went to medical school (and where my Mom drove every weekend from Paris to visit him before they were married), on to Geneva, and would always end up in Provence. This is the reason why Paris and Provence memories are the strongest for me: our constant starting point and ending point.
We began these adventures in the early 1980s when I was three years old and my sister was four. What originally brought my parents to France wasn’t a change of pace or lifestyle, but because my Dad had attended medical school in Lyon years earlier. They had always shared a connection to the people, the wine, the food and French culture, and in turn, wanted my sister and me to experience some of the same adventures they had had in their late twenties and early thirties. Now that I am that same age at what I’m sure seemed to them a time of “endless possibilities of love, life, and travel,” I too am experiencing the pangs of French wanderlust. When I visit France today, I feel like I’ve arrived at my second home, and I want to eat and drink my way through Paris, the wineries of Bordeaux, and the markets of Provence.
Paris to Provence documents the sounds, smells, textures and tastes of my childhood summertime – picnics on the Seine with cheese and wine; late family hours-long dinners with course after delicious course (even though my sister and I were impatient and so badly wanted to get up from the table); white ham or jambon cru with butter on a cream-coloured, soft and crispy baguette; goûter (a simple snack of baguette and chocolate) after swimming in the Mediterranean for hours; roasted chestnuts and crêpes with butter and sugar on a Paris street corner; picking blackberries in green fields with French friends (then eating them in secret tree houses!).
Memories like these are some of the reasons why I am a photographer to this day. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Ethel experienced a very similar way of life during her childhood summers as well, and with these words, recipes, images, and journals, we reminisce what a luscious childhood our parents created for us.
The recipes in Paris to Provence are the outline of the natural progression of our summer holidays, which began with the first steps off the plane, tumbled into long road travels to the south of France, stopped at open-air marchés, and followed by picnics, wanderings through ancient villages, and swims in the tepid Mediterranean Sea. As the days went on and we settled with friends and families, meals and drinks were shared in cafés, afternoon goûter with local children, and last, but possibly most cherished, long lazy meals with family and friends. The recipes were selected as bookmarks for our memories.
The age difference between me and Sara at certain times seems like a generation and at other times insignificant. Sara and I grew up on opposite sides of the country, me in northern California and she in upstate New York, but strangely enough, we have a shared past, not a physical one, but an overlapping one. Our parents are not friends or even acquaintances, but were inspired travellers. They were drawn to France, where consequently, Sara and I spent many of our childhood summers, though not together or even in the same decade. After our first time working together as photographer and stylist, Sara and I quickly realized we had both spent our childhood summers piled into the backseats of tiny French cars, she with her older sister and I with my younger brother, traveling the small, winding country roads through terraced vineyards, lavender fields, and cherry orchards.
My French life began in 1971, when my parents, graduate students in California, packed up their bohemian student life in La Jolla, California, along with me and our dog, and moved to France to raise goats and make cheese. Dreams of another life, a bucolic life very removed from the American residue of the staid and stifled 1950s and the trauma of the Vietnam War, are partly what brought my parents to France. They bought a farmhouse in the inner Var, a remote region of Provence once called “le pays perdu” (the lost country) because of its inaccessibility by train, airport, or highway.
I know their story, and even though I am not sure if the memories are mine or if they are family stories told over the years, they have become interwoven and inseparable from my own memories. However, my story begins at age three with roasted chestnuts and ultimately winds through my childhood and early teens, which I spent between Provence and northern California. The mix was unusual to say the least. I had my American life and I had my French life, and they seemed more often than not to collide with the subject of food.
The fall I turned two years old, shortly before we moved to France, my Mother and I had travelled to New York, staying with Sondra Leftoff, a lifelong friend of my Mother and now of mine. On that trip we bought roasted chestnuts wrapped in newspaper cones from street vendors in Manhattan. Our next stop was Paris, where we again had roasted chestnuts bought on the street. Once my family moved back to California, I don’t believe I ever had roasted chestnuts again until I graduated from college and made them myself. They exploded in the oven during a dinner party because I did not know to score the thick woody skins to allow the built-up steam to escape.
Although my family only lived a little more than two years in Provence with the goats and making cheese before returning to California where my parents became high school teachers, we returned every summer to our old stone farmhouse, leaving as soon as school got out, traveling there by various routes, and once settled in, exploring our world with day trips to the sea, to lakes and to neighboring villages and castles. It was there, during those long, lazy summers with my family, that I learned the smells of the forest as we gathered wild herbs, the taste of truly fresh fish and vegetables, and the pleasure of lingering over the table.
Excerpted with permission from Andrews McMeel Publishing 2013. Paris to Provence: Childhood Memories of Food & France by Ethel Brennan and Sara Remington. Excerpt published in the February-March 2014 issue of France Today
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