(because really, if you spend six months in France, that's going to be the general focus of each day).
For much of our time here in France, we have been living with Vincent’s parents in their home in a town in Les Cevennes, an area of France that is sparsely populated and that is largely national park. It’s in the south east, about an hour’s drive inland from the coast. Food wise, it’s known for chestnuts, honey, small round goats cheese known as pelardon, sweet onions… not so much dishes, but rather produce.
Vincent’s father René is retired and now spends most of his days working on his several huge gardens. He grows the majority of the food that they eat and in summer each day brings back baskets full of produce that his wife Francoise then cooks up for meals and also preserves for the leaner months ahead. In Autumn, he harvests apples and pears from his orchard, and chestnuts from the copious trees on his land and all around. They forage for mushrooms (an amazing variety called cep) and continue harvesting from the gardens. He also keeps bees and produces and sells honey. It’s a busy life.
But an enjoyable one and one that is governed by the seasons. Late summer/ early Autumn is the busiest time… most days Francoise is chopping, cooking, bottling, preserving. Jars of tomatoes and beans are put in the huge pot to bubble away in the garden fireplace. Berries, apricots and plums are made into jams and tomatoes, zucchinis and eggplants are made into ratatouille and bottled.
Of course, this is normal practice for rural families the world over and one that is also gaining momentum again in cities like Melbourne. While I love this deep connection to the seasons and the land, what’s also really interesting for me here is the style of meals that we eat. When I’m home in Melbourne and in charge of our kitchen, we usually eat a simple lunch - sandwiches, salads, soups - and then I will cook a “dish” for the evening meal. Pastas, curries, stews etc.
Here, the main meal is usually lunch. Like many other mediterranean areas, it’s an important and savoured time. In summer, we usually eat outside, beginning with a salad of just lettuce leaves, often picked that morning and tossed with a quick oil/mustard dressing. It’s followed by several dishes made from what’s been recently picked from the gardens. Or one main dish that focuses on one key ingredient. Like a zucchini gratin, or stuffed tomatoes. Small dishes might be carrot salad (grated and mixed with parsley, garlic and olive oil), potatoes fried up and served with a steak, tomatoes chopped and dressed with a simple vinaigrette, whole leeks cooked in a pressure cooker and then dipped in mayonnaise, eggplant or zucchini beignet (sliced and coated in a thin salty batter and shallow fried). Some plain rice or plain pasta (always with butter mixed through mais bien sur) may be served too.
Dinners are usually left overs, the same dishes rolled out again until they’re finished. A bit of this with a bit of that.
It’s simple and uncomplicated and dictated by whatever has been dug out of the garden that day. In winter, they benefit from the hard work of summer and open jars of beans, ratatouille, tomatoes, jams and purees. It makes sense. Even without the magnificent gardens that we have here, it makes sense to eat this way, to buy from local producers whatever’s in season and to cook it simply. With butter. and follow it with cheese and wine. ;)