Marseilles (c) Kristin Espinasse
View from my mother-in-law's apartment, in Marseilles.



noun, feminine

olive paste

When my mother-in-law, Michèle-France, looks out the window of her two-room apartment, she can just about see the paquebots leaving Marseilles's Old Port, for Casablanca. That is when the memories of childhood in her beloved Maroc come flowing back.

One floor below, Janine is also staring out to sea from behind her tiny kitchen table, where she sits with her crippled little dog and waits for the telephone to ring.

At times like these, when nostalgia and solitude weigh on their hearts, Michèle-France's 4th floor apartment turns into a spicy olive-paste factory as my mother-in-law puts her petite voisine to work; her neighbor's job is to remove the noyaux from the olives.

Great bowls of hollow black fruit are soon delivered by 3rd Floor Janine up to 4th Floor Michèle-France, who mixes the olives with a couple of bay leaves, some anchovies, capers... and a few top-secret ingredients. The mixture is then marinated overnight. The next morning the mélange is poured into a food processor for grinding.

All that pitting and pulverizing plucks the loneliness right out of the women's souls, and the resulting pots de tapenade have the women on the train in no time, delivering the latest batch of bonheur to family and friends.

On Wednesday, Michèle-France brought over six mustard jars full of tapenade—three flavored with fresh basil leaf, three with red bell pepper—for Max's birthday celebration. As we sat at the table chatting, I spread spoonfuls of the dark olive paste over a sliced baguette before sinking my teeth in... Crunch!

"Janine doesn't always get the pits out of the olives," Michèle-France confided. "She can't see that well. I always know when she's left a noyau behind because my mixer goes CRACK CRACK!"

"Je vois..." I sympathized with my belle-mère as we held our sore jaws in our hands while our own teeth went crack-crack over yet another missed pit. But that didn't stop us from savoring the latest bocal de bonheur, and raising a toast to la petite voisine Janine.

French Vocabulary

le paquebot = liner, steamship
le Maroc = Morocco
la petite voisine, le petit voisin = term of endearment for "little neighbor"
le pot = jar
le mélange = mixture
la tapenade = olive paste made from crushed olives, capers, anchovies, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil
le bonheur = happiness
le noyau = pit
je vois = I see
la belle-mère = mother-in-law
le bocal de bonheur = jar of happiness


This story may need a name change ("noyau" or "pit" doesn't capture the theme, which is on helping another, or sharing. "Solidaire" might be good, but it's so similar to the English "solidarity". How about "Tapenade"? or would "Bonheur" be the most fitting, for happiness can be as simple as sharing a simple culinary chore). Any suggestions welcome. Thanks for pointing out any typos, in French or in English, and any other rough spots or inconsistencies! Click here to comment.


Listen: hear the word noyau pronounced: Download noyau2.wav

le noyau familial = the family unit
cracher un noyau = to spit out a pit.
des fruits à noyaux = stone-fruit
électrons autour du noyau = electrons around the nucleus

La vie est une cerise. La mort est un noyau. L'amour un cerisier.
Life is a cherry. Death is a pit. Love is a cherry tree.
 --Jacques Prévert

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