Cultures of Contentment by Cathy Fiorello
I have often heard it said that Provence is France’s Tuscany or, depending on the leanings of the speaker, Tuscany is Italy’s Provence. There is some truth in both these claims, but as I recall my experiences in each, distinct Tuscan and Provencal characteristics begin to emerge.
Let’s start with the people. I’ve never indulged in that great American pastime, French-bashing. Even in 2003 when the U. S. House of Representatives re-named French fries as Freedom fries on its cafeteria menus because France refused to join the war in Iraq, my fries were always French. I take away from my experiences with the French what I bring to them, respect and acceptance of our differences, always rendered with that basic Gallic requirement–courtesy. The Golden Rule truly rules here. Is there a lack of exuberance in encounters with the French? Yes. Are the Tuscan hills alive with exuberant Italians? Yes. But this is what we expect from Italians and our defenses are down, our arms are open to their embrace. Is one approach better than the other? No. It’s just the way it is, and always will be and there are rewards in each scenario.
While Italians, in general, are more laid-back, easier to live with and to love, the French have the edge on elegance. The lush landscapes in both Tuscany and Provence are breathtaking. Driving through fragrant fields of lavender planted with precision in the French countryside, or through acres of wildflowers that grow when and where they please along Tuscan back roads, is equally delightful. They point to another cultural difference: The French leave little to chance; the Italians are more likely to let Mother Nature do her thing. A visit to a Provencal or Tuscan marketplace verifies that both these philosophies produce wonders.
I had visited the market at San Remy in Provence where tubs of olives in infinite variety stretch the length of the marketplace and baskets of spices in muted tones of ochre, umber and sienna reflect the earth that produced them. I had tasted charcuterie from bins of lusty sausages with flour-dusted skins and patés in mosaic designs. This is where I was introduced to chevre, spread on a crust of country bread, offered by a vendor who insisted I try it. Eaten under the Provencal sun with the cheese man waiting my reaction, how could I not love it? Would goat cheese ever taste this good again?
I entered the famous San Lorenzo market in Florence with comparison of the two markets in mind. While St. Remy is laid out in an orderly fashion, the initial impression of San Lorenzo is one of culinary chaos. One’s senses go on full alert; the sights, sounds and smells are riveting. On the first floor, butchers proudly display skinned rabbits and cinghiali, the wild-boar heads encountered eye-to-intimidating-eye at every turn. The stench of freshly butchered carcasses
assaults in one area, while the tantalizing aroma of chickens spinning on massive rotisseries makes one’s taste buds tingle in another. Vendors hawk the luscious tastes of their provisions,
encouraging shoppers to sample: “Senora, assaggiare questo formaggio!” And I did taste, everything that was offered—a shaving of pecorino cheese with truffles, a paper-thin cut of prosciutto.
The scene changes dramatically upstairs, where the extraordinary produce of this country’s farmland is displayed like a work of art. Pyramids of glistening tomatoes and peppers rise above plump bundles of asparagus; tiny, crisp cucumbers are yours for the tasting, their skin crackles as you bite into them; piles of purple plums exude the warmth of the Tuscan sun. I was sure I had never seen anything quite like the abundance spread before me. Then I remembered St. Remy.
The shoppers who ply the market stalls in both Provence and Tuscany are as discerning as patrons of the arts. Keith Floyd, British food and travel writer, put it this way: “Watch a French housewife as she makes her way slowly along the loaded stalls searching for the peak of ripeness and flavor. What you are seeing is a true artist at work, patiently assembling the materials of her craft.” Make that an Italian housewife, and the same observation applies. There is one major difference between marketplace behavior in Italy and in France. It’s okay to pick and pack the produce of your choice in Tuscany, not so in Provence. A stinging “Madame, ne touché pas!” will freeze your arm in midair as you reach for that perfect peach.
Cooking tours in both Provence and Tuscany further enhanced my understanding and appreciation of their cuisines. The highlight of the Tuscan tour was a lesson in farmhouse
Fiorello, Provence and Tuscany
cooking. We left Florence early in the day and drove deep into the country. Castello della Panaretta, our destination, sits high in the hills with sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. Earthen pots spilling out the first blooms of spring decorated the courtyard and the stone staircase leading to the kitchen. A fire was burning in the hearth when we arrived; bunches of dried herbs hung from wooden beams. The dining room table was set with pottery plates in hues of sienna and ochre, and bottles of wine from the villa’s vineyard. With the long drive and the brisk hilltop air, we were ready for lunch. But first, we would have to cook it.
We gathered around a wooden table in a no-frills country kitchen and performed our tasks under the watchful eye of a demanding chef. Linda and Gary diced red, green and yellow peppers. “Make the dice small and even!” the chef ordered. My husband Phil shaved pecorino cheese, “Shave, do not dice!” which, along with the peppers, garlic and olive oil would be the simple sauce for a memorable pasta. Gale and Bill prepared a “true” bruschetta of toasted bread rubbed with garlic and brushed with oil. I chopped a mound of cherry tomatoes, “Smaller pieces!” for the more familiar tomato and herb bruschetta.
We were rewarded for our labors with slices of pecorino cheese and bread dipped in the farmhouse’s own extra-virgin olive oil. All the while, tantalizing smells drifted our way as potatoes sizzled on the stovetop and pigeons roasted in the oven. The chef joined us for lunch and, relaxed by the free-flowing wine, we found him less intimidating. We sat around the table for hours enjoying the food and our fellow travelers. Nothing makes friends of strangers more easily than cooking and eating a meal together.
Carla, our tour guide, left us with a mantra to help maintain the momentum of the lesson in our own kitchens:
Remember! The olive oil is always EXTRA VIRGIN!
The salt is always LOTS!
The appetite is always BUONO!
We had met the people, absorbed their culture and tasted the delights of their table. I was sure nothing could compare with our cooking tour of Tuscany. Until I booked a cooking tour of Provence. The highlight of this tour was to be a lesson in the hotel kitchen of a renowned chef, but the day our lesson was scheduled was declared a national holiday and the lesson was cancelled. Holidays, it seems, are sacrosanct for the French. Services shut down, workers abandon their posts and picnic in the parks, including our renowned chef who doffed his toque and took off. This created a dilemma for our tour guide, Henriette. However, she saved the day. She knew a couple who had recently purchased a rundown chateau and were in the process of turning it into a cooking school for the wife and a vineyard for the husband. Henriette convinced them to open sooner than planned and prepare a cooking lesson for our abandoned group of six.
When we drove up to the impressive iron gates at the entrance to Chateau Talaud, Conny and Hein, the owners, were there to welcome us. We spent the morning in the well-equipped kitchen and, with Conny’s guidance, prepared an elegant French lunch. We carried the results of our labor to the dining room table, set with china and crystal. Hein joined us, pouring wine from his own vineyard. We toasted Conny for coming to our rescue and raised a glass to the renowned hotel chef who had jilted us and made this memorable day possible.
If the love of food and cooking is a blessing, I believe the Provencals and the Tuscans are equally blessed. They are rooted in the earth and its bounty and devoted to gathering family and friends and sharing that bounty, locally grown and cooked at home. They never outgrow the family circle. This culture of contentment has been carefully preserved and handed down, family to family, generation to generation. It continues to call a family home to celebrate an occasion, and each other.
BIO: Cathy Fiorello has been published in The New York Times, Still Point Arts Quarterly, was a columnist for online newsletter Bonjour Paris.
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