A culinary escape to the south of France

It’s early morning. I’m sitting in the kitchen with a ginormous mug of coffee which is doing nothing to warm my toes. I’m trying to keep them off the freezing tiles, but they’re at that awkward height just centimetres off the ground and keep touching down to jerk me awake. Looking outside I’m half greeted with the sun I’ve come to expect, but it’s only visible through the film of rain splattered over the windows from last night’s storm. Slowly, it’s breaking through. We both know how this is going to end up: sun beats rain in Provence.

From my kitchen stool I’ve got a perfect angle on the local quarry, perched on a hill just past a sprawl of vineyards. It gives me the feeling I’m being stared down, asserting its dominance over the valley and judging my lazy start to the day when it knows firsthand a lifetime of hard labour. The region has a reputation for lazy lunches and long weekends, but few stop to consider the story behind them. The 'good life' lived here is in contrast to its surroundings, perhaps born from a need to regain energy. Pounding sun and harsh landscape are a reality of daily life in Provence. The locals (and die-hard vacationers), however, have flicked a switch in attitude that lets them thrive here.

Attitude adjustment #1:

The day after arriving in France, when jet-lag had had a chance to embed itself in my very core and take hold of every thought, I volunteered for the most important task of the day: get up early and bike into Coustellet to the best (read: only acceptable) bakery for croissants. This had to be accomplished before the crowds bought the place out and mutiny overtook the Gustavson household. I slept in. Groggy and confused, I searched for my assigned partner/ sister-in-law, who apparently had given up hope that I would ever rouse and had made a literal run for town with a backpack to load up with goodies.

Knowing that I would never live down a complete abandonment of my duties, I threw on some half-acceptable clothing and made a break for the shed which housed my trusty 'red bike with basket' from school commutes in Italy. With bike in hand, I had only made it a few steps back across the grass when a veritable bellow was emitted from my mom: "give up on the bike and go rescue Morg". Things hadn't gone according to plan.

A run which would have normally constituted a pleasant warm up had left her beaten and parched in a grocery store parking lot. Dry earth flicked up by erratic gusts of wind coupled with a sun which leaches moisture from every pore ushered away any prior inclination to make the return trip. Or at least this is how it was told. I took off on the rescue mission expecting to peel a broken woman from the side of the road; I arrived to find quite the opposite. Standing with the glow and poise of a victor, she proudly displayed her bag of baguettes, croissants and pains au chocolat. One who is tried by earth can equally be saved by butter.

Attitude adjustment #2:

Weeds and wine go hand in hand. It would be an understatement to claim that we've consumed our fair share of wine so far this week. Whites, reds, roses, we've been fairly indiscriminate other than insisting they be a) delicious and b) French. Amidst family dinners the intricacies and terroir of wine are often lost. Laughter balances tannins while witty banter pulls out minerality... or something to that effect. The growing conditions are most definitely ignored.

But in sober daylight I have had time to reflect (under duress as I didn't make this trip with the knowledge that there would be days of garden work involved). Weeding here is exceptionally hard. Put aside the heat, wind, and hangover/ jetlag to hone in on my nemesis: hard packed earth. Weeds snap gingerly at the base, leaving malicious roots safely enrobed in a protective barrier until they sprout forth again.

It’s hard earth that should and would suffocate a normal plant. Only hearty varieties like rosemary and lavender push through to claim their rightful place in every yard and even then they covet their spots along the irrigation line. And yet vines grow with abandon, untended by meticulous irrigation fanatics. They grow strong a lean, bursting with fruit from every branch. Avoiding the masochistic interpretation, they enjoy the beating.

The result? Fruity, bold wines that had to fight for their place on the table. Just like the weeds fought (and eventually lost) the battle for supreme dominance of the garden. I think somewhere in there there's a correlation that leads those who weeded (me) to deserve more wine. Let's see how people react to that theory.

All around there are people and plants that are struggling to survive, and yet thriving. Maybe it's that laissez-faire attitude people are always talking about. Or maybe it's the wine... or the butter. Whatever it is, it's working out for the French people and making me want to stay as long as possible.