It’s said that travel broadens the mind, but it also enriches the palate and stimulates culinary adventures. A week in Portugal inspired me to cook polvo assado no forno (oven-baked octopus); and after a visit to Uzbekistan, I immediately sought out a recipe for non, the local flatbread, so I could stamp the centre of the round with my personal chekich, chosen from dozens displayed in one of the market squares of Bukhara.
But the country that has most influenced my tastes and cooking is France, now almost a second home. I studied at the Sorbonne in the early 1970s (the classes were really an excuse to spend six weeks in Paris), then lived in both southern and northern France for a few years at the end of the decade. In 1991, my research gave me another opportunity to spend six months in Paris, and last year, a home exchange took me to Lectoure, in the foie gras realm of the south-west.
Why France? I’d been somehow familiarised through my grandfather’s travels in Europe and by the Paris Match magazines he sometimes bought for me. But it was the scent in the air one warm April evening as I stepped off the train in Nice, that sealed the relationship. It might have been jasmine, or perhaps orange blossom, but it was sweet and seductive and all-enveloping. I was totally entranced. Neither Greece, where I could at least read the street signs, nor Italy, where basic conversation was possible, produced the same effect.
The late author Waverley Root is also to thank. It was his book, The Food of France, that first suggested to me that there was more to food than recipes, and more to recipes than a list of ingredients and instructions. With warmth, humour and a background of research and personal experience, Waverley describes the traditional products and dishes of each French region, grouped as belonging to one of four domains: butter, fat, oil, or a combination of all three, and shows how food is 'intimately and inextricably involved with the geography and the climate and the history and the habits and the culture – in short, with the entire environment".
Understanding the language was a huge advantage. Yet feeling relaxed and comfortable in another country is not simply a function of being able to communicate with words; it also depends on the relationships you develop, however fleeting. Whether it was the elderly landlady pressing upon us packets of biscuits for the children when we moved to another géte (holiday home); the vigneron in Bordeaux offering a bottle of Graves when we were too poor to buy any; or Léon in Caromb inviting us in for a pastis on our way back from the boulangerie and passing on his recipes for vin d’orange (orange wine) and other homemade liqueurs, we found extraordinary generosity in France.
In 1977, our small family of me, husband and one-year-old twins spent two months in Nizas, a tiny village in the Languedoc. It was plenty of time to get to know many of its 391 inhabitants: the women at the general store; the old ladies who took their afternoon stroll along the lane to collect fresh greens for the rabbits they bred and fattened in their garages; and the old men whose morning constitutional led them past our house. They would also offer surprises – a bunch of wild leeks, a tip as to where to find the wild asparagus, advice about the days the various travelling merchants arrived (the vegetable man on Mondays; the charcutier on Wednesdays; and on Friday, the fisherman from Agde) and what to buy from them.
I realise now my accidental good fortune in experiencing France at the end of an era; when the locals, mostly elderly, had hardly caught up with cars, let alone telephones. Having lived through two World Wars and a Depression, they knew the value of thrift; not for them a fresh baguette if some of yesterday’s loaf remained. The thick, greenish olive oil pressed from their own olives was seen as too valuable for everyday use and was always diluted with bland grapeseed oil. And they continued the customs and practices they had always followed, still cooking a pot of soup for the evening’s supper, still cultivating tall poppies for their homemade remedies for toothache.
In Nizas, you always knew when the butcher had made a stop in the small square opposite the mairie (town hall). Women bought chops, côtelettes de mouton (mutton chops) rather than côtelettes d’agneau (lamb chops), since it was January and lamb was a speciality of spring. You could smell them cooking on small, makeshift grills on the edge of the footpath – though in reality, there was no footpath, just a narrow lane that allowed pedestrians and bicycles but not cars.
The fuel was often dried vine prunings, which burned quickly and gave a good, if short-lived, heat. In Australia, I had been used to grilling loin chops under the gas or electric grill; that was what everyone did. Once again, aroma won me over, and never since have I cooked chops beneath savage red-hot elements that leave them dry and disappointing.
I learned many other things from these supremely practical women. There was Fifine, a highly respected cook from Saint-Affrique in the south of France, who showed me how to make civet de lapin (rabbit stew). She was a friend of a family we met by following a 'vin de pays’ (country wine) sign by the roadside, and it was one of the family’s rabbits that was sacrificed for the lesson.
Tiny, wizened, with a mouthful of crooked teeth, Fifine began by deftly jointing the rabbit using just a small paring knife. Then, she browned it in oil, added plenty of coarsely chopped garlic, branches of dried thyme and wine, and let it cook slowly for an hour or so; so far, fairly standard techniques. But thickening the sauce involved a process I hadn’t heard of. She used the liver of the rabbit, ground to a kind of paste, and added it at the end. Many years later, I discovered that this practice was characteristic of medieval Catalonia. That Catalan influence, extending at least as far as Toulouse, would likely also have touched Saint-Affrique.
At the same time, I learned in other ways. Sampling a variety of pâtés, from the cheapest to the most expensive, made me realise the direct relationship between quality and price in France. I learned that shopping took time, particularly at the market, where engaging in conversation was almost unavoidable, especially if free tastings were being handed out. Even at the butcher you patiently waited your turn, having greeted the other customers on entering. Eventually the butcher would ask what mademoiselle would like today; almost always it was cut to order, using freshly sharpened knives and heavy old-fashioned choppers. It was the same at the cheese shop, and then at the charcuterie. The implicit message was clear: food is to be enjoyed, so pay attention to what and how you choose.
I better understood the French respect for food when, at a dinner party, I unthinkingly asked for le bleu, the blue-vein cheese, only to be peremptorily corrected; this is not 'un bleu’, this is le Roquefort. I discovered the deep and abiding links that the French have with the country. This respect extended to meals and mealtimes. When the gas and electricity utilities decided to hold a 24-hour strike, they made an exception for the hour before midday and for half an hour in the evening, so there was no inconvenience to family meals. There was no eating between meals, although young children enjoyed a goûter (afternoon tea), often bread and chocolate. In Compiègne the pâtisseries would have fresh, warm pains au chocolat in their windows by four o’clock, ready for the school day’s end.
In the 21st century, some of the old customs are fading as new dishes and practices enter into fashion. On my last visit, I returned with a book of regional recipes from the south west, and the inspiration for salmon tartare (cubes of raw salmon dressed with lemon juice, olive oil and dill or chervil), as offered by many Parisian restaurants. Yet despite the march of time, the French have maintained deep and abiding links with the land, especially their ancestors’ birthplaces, and their eating traditions have remained remarkably constant.