Sunday, December 13, 2009


Almost as powerful as its visual and gustatory delights, the scents of Provence really kick you in the pants. Most of the smells are so good and so French that you really can't believe your luck to be smelling them. Like the endlessly varied and gorgeous sunsets, and the overwhelming flavors, the smells of the herbs and the flowers turn your sense organs up a notch.

But then there are the equally astonishing funky, off, weird and horrific smells as well, just as pungent and just as much a necessary part of the place. In case you think we've gotten hopelessly hoity-toity, arty-farty and airy-fairy living here in the lap of Provençal luxury: let me break it down for you into first grade potty language: sometimes the airy actually smells neither hoity nor arty, but more toity and farty. Just as bad, and worse, as the bottom of the Brooklyn garbage can after the fourth of July. As rank as the pee smell in the subway. But different, and specific: even the bad smells are somehow specifically French, and feel more rankly personal.

For example, the smell outside of Aix-en-Provence as we were waiting for the train for our most recent trip to Paris. The train station is all open and glassy, with doors everywhere open to the outside. As soon as we drove up, we were overcome by a powerfully awful smell, the likes of which I have never experienced before. I had to assume that it was animal waste being spread as fertilizer on a field somewhere nearby, because it was impossible to imagine any other reasonably wholesome source for a smell as rank, deadly, and bodily as that one was.

When I was standing in line there waiting for our tickets, I couldn't get it out of my head that the man behind us had committed some awful crime against nature and had come to the station without having had the decency to shower. But as we moved away from him and the stench only intensified, I realized I had been unfair to blame this perfectly hygienic young man.

But worse, what if he had thought that awful smell it was coming from me? He could not possibly know that I am actually famous in our house for smelling good. Great even. About the million times that Abigail, Grace, or even Bill have nestled a head into my neck, taken a deep inhale, and breathed out, happy, telling me, "Ahh. You smell so good."

Yet back to the train station. The hundreds of people on the TGV platform just stood there, breathing calmlly it as though it were the most natural thing in the world for one's life to be suddenly coated in stink. It was all Bill and I could do not to gag and make childish faces at one another, but for some reason the French people were a lot more blasé. Perhaps Edith Wharton is right, and the whole French nation is simply more mature. About manure.

Or that smell just outside of Sillans-la-Cascade. During the very short week or so that Bill and I went on sporty little runs together, we would always argue over whether we would take the high road (and nearly be killed by some Italian tourist's speeding Mercedes) or take the low road, and be blasted with foul smelling air as we ran by the sewage treatment plant. When it's hard to decide between an oncoming car and a stink, you know that's some powerful smell going on.

But I know that my faithful readers will appreciate my returning to the sweeter smells of Provence. Like herbs. Abigail and Bill have spent the last two days collecting what they hope will become fairly legal Christmas gifts for our friends back home. They have wandered through somebody's woods with a pair of scissors and some ziplock bags, collecting little snippets of sensory experience to be opened on the other side of the world. In case you are one of the lucky recipients, I will leave the name of the clipped, mailed herb a mystery, but you might just want to get out your Joy of Cooking and look for things that taste best with really fresh herbs. Just in case they actually get there.

We all hope and assume that sending little snipped off branches across national borders is fully legal. And if it's not, well then we'll put that transgression into the pot with the Visa Problem, and let them lock us in the special offshore prison for homeschooling herb smugglers who say they are on sabbatical, but really just up and quit their jobs.

To learn more about why France smells so good, I interviewed Abigail and Bill tonight, again at the kitchen table. You may be seeing a pattern here if you are particularly brilliant: I tend to get out the computer and start typing right after a meal, at least in part because it gets me out of dish duty (despite how much I love the Verbena smell of the dish soap.)

Launa: Abigail and Bill, you guys seem pretty intense about smells. What can you tell me about why France smells so good?

Abigail: Well. Can I tell you something? France is the place with good farming, and for some reason, it's the part of the world that has hundreds of herbs. (She rasped the H in "Hundreds," inexplicably turning it into a French "R" as a nice little flourish. I guess when you can make that great R sound, you put it in whenever possible.)

And, can I tell you something? I bet that all herbs were really invented in Provence.

Launa: Why do you think that?

Abigail: Because it's the number one place for herbs. And herbs are great.

Bill: (unsatisfied) But why?

Abigail: (tiring quickly of the density of her grown-ups) Because it is. Well, anyway, there are just a lot of herbs around here.

Launa: So can you tell me about some of them?

Abigail: Well, there's Herbes de Provence, which smells good.

Bill: You know for the readers back home, we really should demystify Herbes de Provence. When you see them sold in those fancy little burlap packages, you might think that they are this rare substance. But here, it's just about everywhere: Marjoram, Thyme, Rosemary, Sage. It just grows everyplace, all together. Like weeds.

I imagine that the first guy who discovered Herbes de Provence was some sort of klutzy caveman proto-chef who was cooking just outside the cave right at the edge of a hill.

He probably looked away for a minute, kicked the spit by mistake, and the bird he was roasting rolled down the hill, through the grasses. But when he picked it up, along with whatever leaves happened to be there, he probably smelled it and said, "You guys have got to try this. This is awesome."

Bill very recently embarked on a cool new science project with the kids. Having discovered, like his imaginary caveman, that this part of France is literally covered in herbs, he spent the last two days wandering through the nearby woods looking for things that the kids could smell, and that we could eat without dying. He asked Jessica and Gerard for guidance, and they provided him with a guidebook, which he and the girls began to pore over like the Aups Amateur Botany Society. They spent the next day wandering up and down hillsides, becoming connoisseurs of the various kinds of rosemary nearby. It smelled like heaven when he brought it home, and I threw a couple sprigs into the spaghetti sauce with the sausage.

Once, while they were stumbling around stealing other people's herbs, Abigail went stock still all of the sudden. "I smell pizza!" she insisted. "That pizza smell! It's here! We have to find it."

Her nose is in fact quite remarkable. They soon found the oregano, and then a few different varieties of leggy, twiggy, spriggy things that smelled like dill, anise, and fennel all mixed together. They probably were just steps away from making illegal pastis without even knowing it. Add that to the ever-growing list of our crimes against the French.

But not all the smells were so wonderful. At the top of the driveway was a plant that Bill was sure was poison. It smelled like Mr. Clean, and Abigail couldn't get enough of smelling it. Although nobody in their right mind would eat it, she was sniffing it in like her nose was a floor that she wanted washed.

They also found a plant that made both of them instantly nauseated just by sniffing it.

Abigail: It smelled like carsick.

Launa: I don't think that's the name of a real smell.

Bill: No, she's totally right. I didn't think carsick had a smell, either but this was it.

Launa: I'm really glad you didn't bring that one home. Or put it in the pasta sauce.

Bill: You know, I've noticed, Abigail, that whenever there is lavender around, that you like to grab it and smell it.

Abigail: Yeah. I really like the lavender. Well, really I love the lavender. It smells great, and makes me feel great. Well, I mean, not bad. It's not like it's great like America great. Or like Adirondacks great. But I just love the smell.

If we ever trick Abigail into liking it here more than just a little bit, it will certainly be by winning her over through her nose. She loves finding new herbalicious smells, but her first olfactory love will always be lavender.

Once we were driving on this high plain from Riez to Quinson, and the kids were in a full-on riot in the car. In a fit of inspiration/desperation, I pulled over fairly suddenly in a lavender field, got out to steal a few stray flowers off one of the bajillions of plants there, and thrust them towards their noses.

I know, I know: it wasn't my lavender. But you'd steal a loaf of bread if your kids were starving, and you'd steal lavender if you thought it might shut them up for a few minutes, too.

And yes, more reasons to throw us in the clink and throw away the key. But it was worth my descent into petty crime. She spent the rest of the trip home in a sort of beatific silence, just inhaling and grinning. Since then, I try to spritz a little lavender water around when she's getting too cranky. Works every time.

Our path to school, the most prosaic of little country roads, bursts with smell as well. As we come out the door, we are sometimes greeted by the sweet smell of the plant on the terrace that blooms at random times. When it blooms, you might think that the whole world had been doused with a completely overwhelming sort of perfume. It's not altogether pleasant, and not altogether unpleasant, but inevitably reminds me of the teacher at my grade school who perfumed the whole fifth grade corridor with her own floral bouquet. Walking up the path, you then pass the Mr. Clean poison plant, and come out onto the road to be met by the dusty dry smell of the red rock on all the stonewalls.

Further down are two-story high juniper plants, whose fresh, minty, ginny smell is inevitable mingled with the unmistakeable smell of fresh dog doo. It's a cute little road, where everybody seems to like to walk their dogs. I just watch my step, and try to focus on the more junipery moments.

As you continue past the diesel smells of the idling Mercedes schoolbuses, and walk down into town on the medieval ruelles, a damp, moldy ancient smell emerges. By the foundations of the castle where all the dirty feral cats live, it is old and wet. No matter how hot the sun on a summer's day, the narrow streets never really get the light, holding tight to their musty history smell.

Going back even further in time, there is the smell of the caves nearby. They smell, as you might imagine, of moldy rot, of bats, of dank and must. When Buck was visiting, we dared him to walk deep into the one that smelled the most like a horribly dead animal. Because he was Buck, he did it, but the rest of us couldn't quite get past the fear we felt of whatever was so stinkily rotting in that dark and forbidding air.

For all of its really remarkable beauty, the house we are living in is a sort of cave as well. It is built deep into the hillside, so that cars driving past the living room sound as though they are driving just over your head. The entire East wall is a windowless fortress against the tiny juniper-and-dog-doo Chemin. So when you open up the cabinet in the back wall to pull out the 1970's British version of Monopoly, it smells like the friendly musty scent of somebody's grandmother's house. Because it is. Grandma's cave, with its regal broad back to the hill and its grand open face smiling wide to the Western horizon.

Southern France is to caves as New York is to tall buildings: you would think that nobody would like being in a cave, or living a dozen or more floors in the sky, but they do. There are varieties of caves, like there are different kinds of tall buildings in cities. And in each of the vineyards Bill has visited (I have yet to get to one, as enthusiastically as I actually drink the stuff when he brings it back home) there is a wine tasting cave.

The caves smell of old wood and spilled-wine. He described this cave smell to me as a "woodsy oakey, old grape smell." These are not musty caves, but rather smell as though for years people have spilled a lot of wine on oak, and left it there to dry in the sunshine. My wine-expert friend Nick recently got a job as a "caviste" in a very cool winery just outside the Paris Periphique. I have to imagine that his caviste duties are utterly different from those of a caveman. And I bet it smells really good there.

You may have noticed that I sort of dropped the interview format partway through this post. But more accurately, my subject dropped me. She calls spade a spade and a smell a smell, and had no patience for her parents' desire to get at more juicy, smelly details. As I sat and talked to Bill, Abigail skipped off to go and draw, but then a little while later, skipped back in to remind me of something I had clearly forgotten:

Abigail: Hey Mom. Can I tell you something? Let's talk soaps. Well, the soaps… well, France really likes mixing their smells and their flavors. Like they even have OLIVE smelling soap. (And then she skipped back out.)

As usual, Abigail was exactly right. It sounds weird, but France seems to like to mix soapy floral non-foody smelling smells with their food. And vice versa. Like olive soap, and olive oil ice cream, and the violet syrup they put in our champagne that magical first dinner so many months ago at the Hotel Biên- Être. And, more disturbingly, sometimes there are intensely animal -- or even vaguely human - smells in the food or the flowers as well. The floral scents and the food scents and the biological scents seem to get all up in each other's business, with some of the cheeses smelling like feet (and tasting like heaven) and others smelling like cheese, but tasting like pineapple. Soap can be cinnamon just as easily as desserts can be flavored with rose. I have yet to try something that is floral, food-al, and physical all at once, but quite frequently two of the three are mixed together to pretty remarkable effects.

The market is the most obvious place to get all of one's scents thoroughly jumbled just as Abby described. Next to the meat you smell find the sharp citrus of clementines, and little bundles of sage. The olives sit between the soaps and the wooly lanolin smell of the Nepalese sweaters, a few stalls down from the fish, the ewe's milk cheese, and the frying potato pancakes.

But the strongest smell of the town is just outside of the church, in the center square. I can't figure out whether the scent is the residue of some sort of remarkably pungent plant, or the lingering smell of the herb merchant, who usually sets up his dozens of enormous burlap sacks just there. It's powerful and earthy, but floral at the same time. It's one of those sledgehammers smells that you can't ignore unless you've got an awfully bad cold.

When I walk through that part of town, I look up at the entryway to the church. They're not so hung up here on the separation of church and state, so you look up and see the watchwords of the republic rather than "Our Lady of the Miracle of Thus-And-Such."

So now, whenever I smell that strong smell, impossible to define, to me it's the smell of Liberty. Of Equality. Of Fraternity. Of France.

But an equally powerful contender for the Smell of France may be a much more earthy, sexy, homely little entity: the homely black tuber melanosporum fungus that Gerard and Jessica brought to a dinner party so we could all eat it, thinly shaved, on toasted baguette.

Early on in our time here, an acquaintance told us about the place of Aups in the world of Truffles. According to this man, Aups is the Truffle Capital of the Var. And the Var is the Truffle Capital of Provence. And Provence, being what it is, is of course the Truffle Capital of the world. I'm sure that the well-informed gourmets out there will be happy to disagree with me, but there seems to be some objective opinion out there that would support his view. I just know that for now I'm happiest believing that we're living in the center of the universe of fancy fungi.

According to Gerard, there are three ways to find truffles. You can train a pig, and follow the pig around the bases of oak trees, les chenes. In the old days, you would have to be sure to get to the truffles before the pigs did, but now they just put little muzzles on their snouts. You can also find a smart and likely dog and teach him to do the same thing as the pig. This to me seems preferable, as you can also use your dog to do other stuff, like guard your house, make a godawful mess of your garbage can when you forget to put it away, or rest its jaw heavily on your knee. But then again, I'm a dog person, not a pig person, so of course it would occur to me that with a truffle dog, you're likely not only to find truffles, but also to know that you are loved.

But this one, this magical huge one he brought us to sniff and to savor, he found with the most challenging method of all: a la mouche, by following a specific sort of fly. Being a true son of the Provençal soil, he pretty much knows where to look, and when he is near the right kind of chene, he looks for a special fly to alight in just the right place. Once he saw the right fly alight in the right place, he dug down and pulled out the mammoth one he brought our way. Gerard is totally cool.

The truffle's smell, way more than its taste, was magical. It was distinct, and unsubtle and right on the correct side of the border between awesome and way too intensely scented to tolerate. According to Bill, a really great black truffle, sliced thin and set on a homely piece of toast, smells "like making out with your girlfriend. After you've both been running around playing flashlight tag until you're sweaty. On the first day of November. And it's after all the leaves are off the trees, and they're all wet on the ground. Like kissing the girl you really love, in the damp woods, while night is falling."

Like all that, and more.

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