As we walk in and out of our little house, we are constantly reminded that everything here is planted, cultivated, and endlessly growing. It is the season for fresh figs, and we can't walk from our car to our door without stepping in a fresh one. There is fig stuck to everyone's shoes, and we have regular fights over the question: who tracked this damn fruit into the house?
In the U.S., it is nearly impossible to go through a full day without eating processed food. Here, the fresh local food is so abundant that you can't help but walk in it.
Last winter, back in the U.S., I read Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma. It made me just queasy enough to want to completely change my family's diet, and just tired enough from all that reading to make me want to wander over to the pantry and find another bag of corn chips. It was so clear that the disaster that is the American diet is a problem, but it just seemed so much bigger than little old lazy old me could solve.
Because I am a Park Slope Yuppie (say it loud, say it proud) I was not often a passive victim to the ills of overly processed food, unless I consciously chose to be on a given day. I had already read Fast Food Nation and seen Super Size Me and knew what all that processed mushy corn, wheat, and junk beef would do to my liver. So I stayed away. I knew how to eat healthy. I had grown up taking great farm-raised food for granted, since my parents took Country Style Do It Yourself to a whole new level. We only went to the supermarket once a month, and pulled everything else out of the ground or out of the freezer, where we had put it a few months before.
In the main I gave my own little urban family pretty decent stuff: green and orange vegetables at dinner; whole grains three times a day; yogurt and milk; dietary fiber from multiple sources, lots of protein; fruit; cookies and chocolate and popsickles when we wanted them. Bill, who likes his calories to come in larger numbers than I could in good conscience provide, was forced to supplement this with a daily donut transfusion or two, or his favorite egg-and-sausage-on-a-roll-with-hot-sauce. Although the food was rarely gourmet, I generally I kept us all healthy.
But after reading Pollan, the challenge became even more intense. Not only was I supposed to eat healthy, I was also supposed to eat ethically. Yes, I could work really hard to find a local chicken-pork-dairy-spinach-cabbage-pumpkin farmer who works the land in a perfect series of crop rotations to produce maximum food and use minimum fossil fuels. But that would certainly require me to do a lot of research. Or even join that ghastly Park Slope Food Co-op, and that ain't happening in this lifetime.
Sure, I could also have sworn off my daily gustatory tour through products grown thousands of miles from my home: early morning African coffee with Caribbean sugar, mid-day South American fruit salad and green vegetables, with tuna salad plucked from our rapidly depleting seas. Afternoon Luna Bar, made of who-knows-where-knows-what. Evening dinner of takeout sushi (Japanese rice; yellowtail from the Pacific. Glass of wine from a bottle flown from Australia for Bill and a Belgian beer for me.) Since the fuel to fly then cart all this stuff from the world to my house always came from the Middle East, and it was shipped in boxes made from trees from Northern Canada, it was a truly global feast on a daily basis. Just not the kind that makes the planet happy.
Pollan's book explained very clearly how I should and could be eating and feeding my family to avoid all this environmental damage. When I was a kid, we ate as he described all the time. It was a ton of extremely rewarding work for my parents to feed us this bounty, but then again, I didn't have to do most of it. Thinking about eating right as well as eating right in Brooklyn just made me feel sort of tired.
Because of the luck visited on me in this life, (don't start with me on the Marxism) I can afford to eat healthy food that makes me happy, and I do so with great relish. And extra relish on my hot dogs. But I'm not such a brat as to be a food zealot. If I'm going to eat truly great food, it has to nearly lay itself in my lap and begged to be cooked.
France makes Pollan's dream infinitely achievable. It's like they never forgot that food comes from farms near your house, and that it comes from lots of different plants and animals, and that you can enjoy the sharp smells and strong tastes of all of it. To prove this point, here are the contents of our refrigerator and rather small larder, on a particularly average day:
- Five yellow peaches, purchased at the Aups market and grown about an hour away
- One lonely plum, purchased at supermarket, grown in the Var, our region of France
- 1/2 lemon of uncertain provenance
- Small round canteloupe that smells better than you could imagine. Purchased at Aups market
- Frozen chopped spinach (origin: France)
- Big bag of fresh spinach, purchased from the farmer at the Aups market
- Red sweet peppers, purchased from the farmer at Aups
- Bunch of carrots, also purchased from the farmer
- Lavender Honey, bought at the Aups market, and gathered within 30 minutes of here
- Olive Oil purchased directly from Patrick Gillet, the olive farmer, in Quinson
- Peanut Butter ground in Cotignac and bought at the Aups market. The four ingredients are peanuts, vegetable oil, sugar, and salt.
- Strawberry Jam, also from Cotignac: Strawberries, sugar, lemon, vanilla
- Olive tapenade made in Entrecasteaux (within 30 minutes) from green olives, olive oil, capers.
- Two heads of bitter, dark lettuce bought from the farmer at Aups market. Even if you try, you can't buy iceberg.
- Leftover mashed potatoes, made for Tuesday's dinner. Potatoes from Aups market
- Five pears, Aups marketg
- Eight juice oranges from Spain
- Two different kinds of olives, Aups market
- Six tomatoes: ugly and extremely tasty
- Head head of purple cabbage, from the supermarket
- 1/2 of a baguette (one of three purchased today.) Baked and sold in Aups.
We also have fairly significant amounts of wine in the house. To be fair and honest in my reporting, I will actually list on every bottle we have. However, for the Puritans in the crowd, please know that today was a special day for buying fancy cheap wine at the supermarket. We learned from our friend and Intermarche-owner Laurent that once a year, the local supermarkets have specials on wines that are not local. The rest of the time, they specialize in delicious stuff made for about $12.00 within fewer than 100 miles. In the interest of science, we of course wished to taste several of these nearly-near varietals. Ideally these bottles will last awhile.
- One-third bottle of L'Offidum white one, our new house white. (From Taradeau, less than 20 minutes away)
- 2006 Merlin Viré Clessé White Burgundy
- 2007 Mercurey Burgundy
- 2007 Chateau de Camensac Haut-Medoc
- 2008 Cotes Du Rhone Red
- 2007 7$ bottle of Gros Noré Bandol Rosé
- Vin Mousseu "de Qualité" Rose sparkling wine from Corsica, a gift when we bought the sheep cheese and donkey sausage from the Corsican vendor in Aups.
(OK, while I was writing, the L'Offidum somehow disappeared. Scratch that 1/3 bottle from the list.)
- Bottle of Italian Cinque Terre Sciaccherra dessert wine, gift from most recent and much-loved house guests. Suggestions for wine pairings welcome in "Comments," below.
- Banyuls vin doux, which I used yesterday to deglaze the drippings from the duck breasts I made for dinner. This resulted in four distinct dramatic but non-fatal huge duck fat and wine explosions in our kitchen. The first was a surprise. The second made me think that perhaps I should remove the pan from the stove. The third hit mainly on the wall and my one favorite purple t-shirt from Skinny Legs in St. John. By the fourth, I had gotten the pan outside into the courtyard, but the entire kitchen was covered in greasy wine splatters.
I don't know whether any of them are particularly good, as we picked most of these randomly because they had pretty labels. Still, we haven't gone wrong yet, and I have not spent more than about eight euros on any given bottle. If you'd like to come and visit, please know that these bottles, and more, will be stocked for your arrival. And also that I will not deglaze the pan with exploding wine.
We also have a certain amount of processed and imported food in the house. I mean, we're not monks. If I could find more in the store, I'd probably buy it.
- 2 slices of Casino brand Pain de mie complet sandwich bread (store-bought, from an original package of 21.) Girls ate the other 19 as grilled-cheese sandwiches, or covered in local honey. The loaf strangely includes no end slices.
- 1 package of Almonds from Intermarché. Grown in the U.S.
- 6 of an original 8 Chabrior Tartelette cookies (chocolate and hazelnut flavor.)
- Two bottles of PAGO, Orange-Carrot-Lemon Juice, Bill's new favorite juice drink. Provenance unclear; bottle lists ingredients in Spanish, German, French, English, Hungarian, Russian, Czech, and three other languages I could not identify. Processed food; Provenance unknown.
- Little tiny bottles of Stella Artois (that Belgian girl just keeps following me, man.)
- Ethiopian coffee, (I would guess this is from Ethiopia. Not sure how else to get around this one, as it it's not like I'm going to give up coffee before I give up breathing.)
- Casino Ondilege whole wheat, rice, and strawberry cereal . Processed food, but with a total of six ingredients on the label.
- 6 1.5 litre plastic bottles of Lactel "Lait Bio." Somehow they are able to make organic milk shelf-stabilized so that it does not have to be refrigerated. Very convenient, but I have no idea whether or not this is healthy. In the absence of other options, this is what I buy.
- Granulated sugar, but it seems to come from somewhere in Spain.
- Bars of dark chocolate made in Belgium.
The title of Pollan's book seems to implicitly advocate eating many things, (or at least worrying really hard while you eat all those things) which I took to also include many animals. In France, you can eat a whole lot of things from a whole lot of animals, again without shopping too aggressively or even adventurously. Aside from the donkey sausage, which Bill bought on a dare, we didn't consciously make any attempt to buy a variety of animals. Still, in my refrigerator, when I looked, I found a dozen eggs that were hatched one town over in Pontévres. These were the ones at the front of the egg display, the cheapest and most obvious ones to buy, not a specialty product at a special store. There was also cheese made from:
- Buffalo milk (mozzarella)
- Sheep milk (from Corsica)
- Goat milk (Intermarché supermarket brand, although I prefer "Little Billy.")
- Cow's milk (Fancy Parmesan; something so strongly-flavored I can't actually eat it; wrapped slices of cheddar from the supermarket; Packaged Feta from the supermarket)
- President butter (OK, this is butter, not cheese, and it's probably not made from the milk of real Presidents.)
As well as meat and sausage from:
- Pigs (8 thick slices of cured ham)
- Wild Boar (home-made Corsican sausage)
- Donkey (yeah, I know. I grossed you out when I mentioned it above. Eating donkey sausage sounds completely nuts. But you should taste this stuff. Incredibly lean.)
- Leftover breast of duck, and duck fat from last night's dinner.
- Most of one big free-range chicken roasted and purchased at the Aups market
Many readers, particularly the squeamish vegetarians, will be pleased to notice that horses, dogs, and feral cats are not on this list. Yet.
Beef in the form of steak was there just yesterday, before the girls and the feral cats finished it off. I should probably get some turkey, just to round out the Noah's ark of dead animals and tempt the vultures that circle our fields all day long.
I will never be a food snob; I will always eat whatever I can find that looks good, and enjoy what it brings me. But this year, I can't help but eat like country-bumpkin royalty. In Brooklyn, we ate some sort of global miracle, where every night we could choose from German, Burgers, Thai, Ethiopian, tapas, Tex-Mex, or Kiwi New Zealander. Here, the miracle is totally French. I can't but give this nation the Nobel prize for breakfast, lunch and dinner for what it has achieved, not only in cuisine, but also in varied, thriving agriculture, impressive local distribution routes, and the sheer joy of food that tastes good and makes everyone who eats it just a little happier.