Thursday, March 19, 2009

In the Beginning...

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

I came to Provence to work at the international photography festival, the annual Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles, the summer of 1995. I was attending graduate school in Paris at the Institute Supérieur de Management Culturel, learning the ins and outs of arts management, and this was my second internship through the school, in a field I loved. I had been director of one of the oldest photography galleries in Seattle before coming to Paris, and was hoping to further my ambitions in the world of photography. Little did I know that this city and a man deeply rooted here would re-arrange my future, as a large rock tumbling from a cliff can re-orient the direction of a stream.

I arrived with little more in mind than to do my internship, enjoy the sun, and perhaps go to the beach. Paris had been the rainy capitol of the world that spring, and I could think of little but to enjoy the balmy warmth that had greeted me as I descended onto the train platform of this little city in the South.

Within a few days, I had met Erick, my soon to be husband, borrowed his bike, been to the beach, and eaten quite a few marvelous, simply home-cooked meals in his kitchen. I moved in the next week. Though not love at first sight, the romance was whirlwind. Briefly returning home to Seattle, I divested myself of my most bulky possessions, reduced my belongings to a one meter crate, and came back to Provence, ready to start a new life. A few years later I was running a cooking school, renovating a bed and breakfast, and raising two raucous little boys of two nationalities and two mother tongues. Although my marriage has run its term, I am still here, living in Provence, in my own home in Avignon with my two boys and our dog.

Life is not always easy for an ex-patriot, particularly in a small town in the South. Neighbors find you strange, customs and social signals differ, and finding your place takes time. Finding people with whom you can form friendships and enjoy special moments is particularly challenging. New to the region, I grafted myself onto Erick’s deep roots, and sought a bit of sunlight to encourage my own growth.

This sunlight came in the form of our cooking school. Erick is the chef, but, I too have always cooked. I come from a family in which we are all quite competent in the kitchen, and I’ve orchestrated Thanksgiving feasts for 20 or more as far away as Kobe, Japan, from an early age. My friends back home considered it quite unfair, and rather amusing that I, who was not destined to starve from lack of culinary skills, should marry a chef. Ah well. That’s fate, right? Shared values make for a marriage.

In the beginning, we hosted individuals, visited the outdoor farmer’s market, and cooked, and ate. This was the basic formula of the school. The central pillar was Erick and his personal research into the history of Provençale cuisine, coupled with his passionate alchemical sense of discovery.

How best to cook a tomato? When working with garlic, how do we retain all of its flavor and yet render it more easily digested? And traditional meat dishes-- seared or cooked slowly in wine? What is traditional to the region? (olive oil, lard) What is a recent interloper (butter). And on and on, a never ending, rich research into culinary secrets and mysteries.

As the business grew, we expanded our programs and offered our cooking clients visits to the local artisans. We met Sophie, the beekeeper, at our local market who shares Erick’s passion for historical recipes. Then we met Jean-Marie Fassy, the baker, at a conference on Mediterranean cuisine. Later we sought out local wine makers and went to taste and learn and purchase. At the yearly pottery fair, we met Véronique, our favorite potter.

Wandering down from the Château atop Châteauneuf-du-Pape, we stumbled into the newly opened Cave Verger des Papes and met Guy, our chef-sommelier. A colleague from afar introduced us to the exquisite chocolates of Joel Durand in St. Rémy de Provence. And just down the street from our home in Arles is our maître-patissier Guy Le Blanc. Sophie introduced us to Claudine and Isabelle, our goat cheese producers; and through another friendly connection we met René and Jean-Baptiste at the olive oil mill. Our connections with Guy Brémond led us to our truffle-meister. And so on and so on.

After polite and tentative social overtures, we arranged clear and defined business visits to our artisans. With little hesitation, we invited them to the house to enjoy a five course meal of the cooking school, alongside the students they’d met that week. For us, we wanted to say thank you in the best way we knew how. Our world is food, feeding people comes as second nature to us: please, join us around our table. In France, food is king, a meal shared in a home is sacred. The artisans became our friends.

After my various stumbling and often failed attempts to connect with neighbors, librarians, shop-keepers, and such, it took just a short while to realize that amongst these artisans I had found my ‘friends of a feather’. As bees to honey, I was attracted by their passion, their generosity, their expertise, their patience, their extraordinary welcome to us and our students. They became my teachers. In many cases, we were their only visitors (though this is changing slowly), and my students and myself were given preferential treatment, encouraged to ask any and all questions, and proffered detailed and lengthy explanations on every element of the particular artisan’s area of expertise.

Alongside my clients I learned about wine making: from the pruning, to the selection of grapes, to the harvest, to the crushing and removal or not, of stems. Onwards to the 2-4 weeks of alcoholic fermentation, to the ‘bleeding’ and/or pressing. From there to the malo-lactic fermentation to the decanting, to the aging, to the blending, and finally, to the bottling and which corks are best. Phew! I’d drunk tasted a bit of good Bordeaux and Burgundy as a child, but that was it for my oenological knowledge up to my arrival in Provence.

Be it olive oil, goat cheese, organic wine, chocolate, fougasse dough or pottery, all these marvelous products and the much appreciated creations of our dear friends became essential to my life, and also to the business.

As a foreigner in their world, it is not a little thing that these individuals receive me with open hearts and light in their eyes. They appreciate my sincere interest, and give back a hundred fold. Never am I berated by them with discussions of the invasion of American cinema into French culture, nor challenged on other American behaviors or policies Europeans occasionally find questionable or troubling (i.e. how Americans historically treated the American Indians, international politics, the role of religion in America).

Much more concerned with making a living in a world of flux and periodic confusion; much more concerned with doing well and being proud of their chosen profession, these men and women have chosen the route of personal creativity and hard work. They opened their hearts to me, and made my life here enriched with their experience and friendship. I can truly say that through them, I truly live here, in Provence, in the terroir of the Bouches du Rhône, amidst the olive trees and the seasonal market. I’ve put down my own roots. As a result, I’ve come to understand the apprehension with which many French view moving from their home-town. Here, I know my market vendors. Here, I can drive to any of a number of wineries within 30 minutes of the house, and purchase my favorite wines. Here, I can stock up on fresh olive oil right from the press. Here, I can run down the street to collect my favorite pastries. And here, I am known by name, and greeted with kisses. The cliché says home is where the heart is, add the stomach to that and oh how true.

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