bonne lecture (bown-leh-ktewr)
: happy reading, enjoy the story or article or paper
A Day in a French Life... by Kristin Espinasse
While putting together today's guest post, I suddenly realized the story column did not have a title. Normally this wouldn't be a problem--except today's missive was not written by me. Que faire? What to do? No time to contact Ann Mah, the author of the essay.
Then it dawned on me: I'm the editor of this blog. It's my job to title the articles, you nincompoop, or espèce d'andouille!
Speaking of andouille (also a topic in Ann's book), I was suddenly weak-stomached by my newfound authority as namer-of-another's-opus. What if I blew it? Ended up dishonoring my writer with a cheesy or flippant title? I mean, it's one thing to slap a title above your own essay, but quite another to sum up the thoughtful words of another.
I reread Ann's tender remembrance, below, about her vacation in Provence, when something came to mind: "Ode to an Endearing Stone Cottage in Provence..."
....Only, when I looked up the word "ode," I learned it means "poem." Ah, dommage! Too bad! Unless... Could an essay be a poem?
I paused to consider how Ann's story reminded me of the chapters in her douce, or sweet-hearted memoir. "Ode" is exactly how Ann's writing comes across to me. After all, an ode, according to Merriam-Webster, is "a poem in which a person expresses a strong feeling of love or respect for someone or something."
Ann's book is bubbling over with tenderness for a country she has always dreamed of living in. One day when her husband, a diplomat, is assigned to Paris, she gets the chance to move to the City of Light... only, Ann's dream-come-true has a bittersweet twist--one that will render her stay in France that much richer, that much more meaningful and memorable. As virtual travelers alongside Ann, we reap the very same rewards reading her memoir, and we are left with mouths watering for France and its culinary treasures.
What a treat to have Ann with us here today! More than an excerpt from her book, she has written an extra for us. Wishing you bonne lecture as you read Ann's offering, below.
Ode to an Endearing Stone Cottage in Provence--and to La Soupe au Pistou!
by Ann Mah
The first time I saw the house, I was delirious with jet lag. I had arrived in Paris from Boston at dawn and taken the high-speed train from the airport, my head bobbing heavily as I struggled against sleep. At Avignon, the hot wind hit me like the blast of a hair dryer, sweeping along the quai, billowing against my wrinkled clothes. In the station, I found my friends – newly arrived from London – and a rental car, and we sped along country roads, squinting against the blazing sun, past olive groves and apricot orchards. We climbed a hill towards a pretty, pink, proud village, circled a roundabout, crept past shops shut against the heat of the afternoon, parked the car next to a fig tree. The house was covered in ivy, an unassuming stone cottage at the edge of town. But when the door creaked open, I smelled lavender and I knew I was in Provence.
The house was filled with charming nooks, soft couches where I longed to tuck myself away with a good book, a stone basin filled with dried lavender blossoms, rough sisal carpets on the floors, linen curtains softening the windows, the occasional scorpion scuttling across thickly plastered walls. But the true magic lay beyond the kitchen door, in the garden. When I stepped outside, I fell – that is, I tumbled under a spell of fig trees and umbrella pines, wild mint and thyme sprouting from rocky corners, lavender plants clipped into balls, terraces tamed into polished wilderness, the scent of savage herbs, and sun-warmed pine needles, and a hint of wood smoke.
When I think back to that vacation, I can’t remember exactly how we spent the languid days. Eventually my husband arrived, and I do recall late-afternoon swims in the pool, ice cubes in rosé, toasts spread with olive tapenade. And trips to the open market, of course, wicker basket in hand. The produce was so bright, so soft-skinned and bursting with flavor. I bought speckled shell beans, fragrant pots of tiny-leafed basil, a liter of golden olive oil. But even as I cooked these things, I wondered how a real Provençal housewife would prepare them.
We went back to the house the next year, and the next, and the next – for six years in a row – and each time I fell a little more in love with the garden, the market, the village, the soft air of Provence. By the second year, I learned about soupe au pistou – a summer soup filled with shell beans and courgettes, laced with olive oil and a fragrant basil pesto – but tasting it eluded me. Soupe au pistou, someone told me, was eaten at home, not in restaurants, a recipe prepared by Granny’s loving, patient hands.
I thought I would never learn how to make authentic soupe au pistou. But then, I started researching a book about French cuisine, diving into the history of regional specialties. On my annual trip to Provence, a group of local ladies invited me to help cook soupe au pistou for the village fête – for a crowd of 200 – and I eagerly joined them at 5am, with my chopping board and vegetable peeler in hand. My adventures with these formidable women – excellent cooks all of them – are recounted in my book, Mastering the Art of French Eating – but I will say here that it was a wonderful experience, albeit mildly terrifying.
What I didn’t know then was that the summer I finally discovered soupe au pistou would be my last in the house with the magical garden. A few months after our vacation, the owner put it on the market and the next summer we planned a holiday somewhere else. But I still think of the proud, pink village on the hill, the hot breezes and umbrella pines, the feeling of peach juice dripping down my chin. I still miss the long, lazy afternoons, the sound of the neighbor’s lawnmower punctuating a nap, the smell of lavender tumbling in on a breeze. But the truth is, I’m hesitant to go back to Provence, to stay in another house, for fear the spell will be broken. Instead, I buy big bunches of basil in my local farmer’s market, and I cook soupe au pistou again and again, and I dream.
* * *Ann Mah is a journalist and the author of the novel, Kitchen Chinese. Ann was awarded a James Beard Foundation culinary scholarship in 2005 and her articles about food, travel, fashion, style, and the arts have appeared in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, The Huffington Post, the International Herald Tribune, Washingtonian magazine, and the South China Morning Post, among other publications.
The wife of a U.S. diplomat, Mah lives in New York City. For more information, please visit www.annmah.net.
You can order your copy here, too:
"Whether you’re French or Francophile, a long-time connoisseur of French food or someone who’s just figuring out the difference between frites and frangipane, feasting through France with Ann Mah is a delicious adventure. Ann’s writing is lovely, her curiosity boundless and her good taste assured. Spending time with her in Mastering the Art of French Eating is a treat."
—Dorie Greenspan, author of Around My French Table and owner of Beurre & Sel Cookies
"Ann Mah dishes up a welcoming concoction, a good dose of French history, a personal, vibrant, enthusiastic picture of life in a country she adores, without apology. I am hungry already!"
—Patricia Wells, author of The Food Lover's Guide to Paris and Simply Truffles
"Excellent ingredients, carefully prepared and very elegantly served. A really tasty book."
—Peter Mayle, author of The Marseille Caper and A Year in Provence
* * *
Determined to improve your French so that you may travel to France and taste the different regions? Check out these helpful language-learning tips submitted by our generous community at French Word-A-Day:
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