France’s commitment to local, high quality produce during the pandemic will get you emotional.
From Burgundy to Lyon to tiny towns along the Côte Vermeille, jobless and living as a nomad while adhering to regimented excursion hours, I begin to wonder if this isn’t an echo of wartime. But rather than feeling desperate, somehow it’s still possible to get by. They’ve been through it before, and they know the secret foundation of nourishment is sensory pleasure. Not only is everything rich in flavor, it’s beautiful to look at and invigorating to smell. I find myself gravitating towards these redefined necessities: baguette, eggs, cheese, butter, pate, saucisson, poulet rotie with roasted potatoes, citrus, figs, and the glorious seasonal vegetables: radish, tomatoes, lettuces, eggplant, cauliflower, leeks, mushrooms, and my favorite, 1 euro for a pound of green beans. Not to mention croissants, tartes, gateaux, confitures, and honey. Food and wine culture are such an intrinsic part of the lifestyle that even during lockdown access to these creations is unquestioned; they are in fact essential.
It’s easy to develop rapports with the farmers at stands you frequent, showing appreciation and curiosity and in turn they offer their best, sometimes revealing a secret stash. One fromageur in Banyuls who specializes in brebis and chèvre, opened up a box behind him of a super fresh brebis in tiny cups which usually is reserved for the grands-mères and sells out immediately. He explains it is still sweet with natural sugars so best to enjoy as a dessert with a little confiture or honey. Nevertheless I make sure to try it first without anything. The texture is similar to a panna cotta but disappears on tongue contact leaving a lingering taste of sweet cream on the exhale. The next time I see him I remark on the pleasure of it, and he is happy.
Because of the way our commercial agricultural system is structured, Americans tend to view paisan products as luxe, artisinal and inaccessible, a splurge for special occasions, but here most of these pleasures are the backbone of a basic diet at a fraction of the exported price. To say the least, it’s a disparaging feeling when you see the difference; that in the US eating fresh, bio and/or local ends up becoming a class issue whereas here that seems like an inhumane concept.
While I work for local winemakers in exchange for food, lodging and access to their cellar, I learn the balance between long days of labor, a glass of heard earned wine, good conversation and sleep. Through delicate but nurturing exchanges, one can easily understand the sentiment and build friendships based on mutual respect and curiosity rather than a buy and sell mentality, often resulting in the exchange of much local knowledge including recipes with a few quality ingredients to stay satiated and content. Not only is it a reminder that the simple things really are the most rewarding, they are not things at all.