To peruse Georgeanne Brennan’s new book, “Windows on Provence,” is to wander through the south of France, with a guide whose decades of experience in the region unfolds secrets on every page.
Brennan first discovered Provence as a student, and later bought a farm there, as it became genesis for her evolution as an author, journalist, farmer, cook, and Francophile.
Her books include the charming “Pig in Provence,” “The Food and Flavors of Haute Provence (a James Beard Award winner), “Aperitif: Recipes for Simple Pleasures in the French Style (an IACP Cookbook Award winner), “My Culinary Journey, Food and Fêtes,” and the memorable “Green Eggs and Ham Cookbook.” The latter is possibly the only one that draws more on American than French inspiration.
Richly illustrated with photos,”Windows on Provence” is subtitled, “Musings on the Food, Wine, and Culture of the South of France” and both photos and text explore the many aspects that make the region so alluring.
Interspersed with her reflections on the essential food and wine, Brennan writes about other diverse aspects of Provence: the scents, the seasons, the designs, the fabrics and textures, and as she does, she evokes the land that, it is clear, continues to enchant her, along with multitudes of other visitors.
“The floor tiles in the bedroom of my house are about 200 years old,” she writes, “squares of ochre, peach, red and rose,” she writes. “The floor itself is uneven but I resist every suggestion to redo it, because, even with the most careful handling, many of the tiles could not be used again. The patina and pattern of these old tiles give me too much pleasure to trade them up for a level of new tiles without a history.”
An entire chapter is devoted to the “hub of social life,” the café.
“Each café is a revolving show, and the players change with the times of day, the seasons, and the weather. Regardless of age, gender, or walk of life, everyone finds something to bring them to a café at least once a day. Maybe it’s just to get an espresso or a pastis, but it might also be to play cards, meet friends, catch up on local gossip, discuss politics or simple relax and watch the world go by. The drinks provide the raison d’être.”
As the book is structured, an essay on a topic, like textiles, also includes a second piece on specific places; some are an insider’s looks at well known places like Avignon, Nice, or Marseille, and others villages one could easily miss, like Saint-Rémy-de-Provence “one of those villages that feels like ‘old Provence,’ authentic in its tranquility, seemingly untouched by the 21st century, friendly and welcoming” with a weekly market that sells “everything from potted olive trees to local honey.” Or Moustiers-Sainte-Marie “officially listed as one of the most beautiful villages of France and understandably so.”
But life always seems to circle back to that inescapable pleasure: food.
“Part of the charm of Proven is the huge variation among the villages, towns, and cities, each with its own character and special occasions, and yet all are linked by shared enthusiasm for their seasonal activities and foods. In fall, anywhere in Provence, people readily discuss the mushrooms; in summer, the quality of the melons or the best aïoli. Come winter, the talk in the cafés and at the village post office or pharmacy is about truffles; and in spring it turns to wild asparagus and greens.”
Brennan adds to these pleasures with some of her own favorite recipes, like Artichoke and Fava Bean Barrigoule. She devotes an entire chapter to “The Fish Soups of Provence”: bourride, bouillabaisse, soupe de poissons and soupe de moule.
“Along the coast from Marseille to Nice, each city, village, and hamlet has its own version of each of the soups and more often than not, locals assert that their version is the true and correct one,” Brennan writes. “I have seen men nearly come to fistfights over the right way to make a bouillabaisse or a soupe de poissons.”
One of my favorite chapters examines the French take on sightseeing by foot, explaining the difference between les prominades and les randonnées. The former are short casual walks (or in some cases, short pleasure trips by car, horse or other means). The latter are journeys undertaken over a more extended time “most of a day and often, more.”
Brennan makes this important distinction, however, “even though the randonneurs might be traveling every day for several days, that is not to say they have to walk all day long. Remember: this is France and leisurely mealtimes and café sitting are an essential part of life.”
For those who have journeyed through Provence, Brennan’s book is sure to bring back memories of food and wine and conversations at a café. For those, with a trip ahead of them, here is inspiration, page after page.
“Windows On Provence” ($29.95) is published by Yellow Pear Press. For more information, visit yellowpearpress.com. For more information about Georgeanne Brennan and her other books, visit georgeannebrennan.com.