I’m always amazed at the freshness of food served in the St Barth restaurants. The island’s hilly landscape and volcanic soil isn’t conducive to growing so most food is imported – trust the French to import the best and keep it fresh or not at all.
Last week in St Barth, after another excellent meal, I started thinking about the difference between the French relationship with food and the American. In the US our huge grocery stores are full of produce from around the world, as well as every kind of package food you can imagine. We push our cart through the aisles depositing this and that without thinking much about the food, where it came from, and who grew, picked, and shipped it. We take it for granted that an item will always be available and plan our meals not around what is in season, but what we expect will be in the store. If we thought about it at all we’d be amazed at how long our produce sits between picking and showing up in our grocery stores. Or perhaps best not to think about it!
Last summer I built my stay in Provence largely around market days in the small towns and villages surrounding Avignon. The French markets are sprawling, even in the small towns, the mood social, and the colors and smells heavenly. Neighbors greet one another and chat about children, the weather, local news – but mostly about food. There’s a lot of tasting and seeking out favorite vendors, meanwhile deciding on meals and menus based on what’s available and appealing. Every item is carefully selected and chosen, and standards are high.
My home base for 10 nights was a small apartment in Avignon and the first morning I set out for the market with my pannier basket over my shoulder feeling very French. As soon as I got into the market I realized I had no idea what I was doing. I spent the first hour watching and learning, finally getting up the courage to buy something! Cheese – but what kind and how much? The food is displayed, but you ask for it from the vendor who cuts and wraps it. I couldn’t reach in and grab a package with the weight and price printed in on it as I do in Stop and Shop! I saw people ask for a taste then talk to the vendor about age, flavor, and what it could be paired with. Other patrons listened and waited their turn, and more often than not offered their own opinion and comment to the discussion.
When buying produce vendors carefully chose the fruit to put in the bag as the buyer watches with a critical eye. Fish and meat are beautifully displayed and there’s much discussion about menus and how something should be cooked. I only understood snatches with my not great French but I marveled at the passion with which the buyers spoke of food. In the end I came away with bread (always), cheese, tomatoes, olives, butter, an small assortment of fresh vegetables and fruits, fresh eggs, and of course wine. I was exhausted – oh and in my enthusiasm I forgot I had to carry it all home like a good French woman.
For the next 9 days I chose to visit nearby towns on their market day so I could see the market as well as other sightseeing considerations. Each day as I drove to my destination I past acres of farm land, much of it vineyards and flowers, but also row crops and orchards. Miles of them! I finally realized the reason for this passion for food – the people are surrounded by it, it permeates their lives. Farms are everywhere growing the fresh fruits, vegetables, the grapes for wines, the milk for cheeses, the eggs, and the meats they eat. They watch the food planted, grow, and harvested, as they go about their daily lives. They know if it’s been a good year or if the growers struggled with not enough rain, or too much rain, or disease. They truly appreciate the food on their table because they understand the hardship, and the passion, with which it was grown.
The French don’t consider fat content, carbs, and proteins, they look at food for its color, flavor, freshness, and taste. That day for lunch I made a salad of fresh lettuces and vegetables and ate everything with fresh bread and wine. I took time to arrange the plate beautifully and sat down at the table with the tall windows of my apartment open, the sounds of the pedestrian street and restaurant tables below, and ate. I didn’t have a book open, I didn’t have a television to watch, I savored the meal slowly and it was glorious.
When I returned home I went back to my usual grocery shopping but with a better appreciation of the food we buy. I care more about where it came from and how it was grown and harvested. In summer I try to search out farmer’s markets with locally grown foods. I put on a skirt, bring my pannier basket, and take my time going from stall to stall. Very often I hear the same passion for good food in the vendors voice, the same discussions between the growers and customers over how the season is going, and it takes me back to France. That passion is alive and well in this country – you just have to know where to find it and take the time to seek it out and experience it.