Aug 31, 2011

A Feast For Many Reasons

St. Tropez is synonymous with star sightings and champagne days spent on Pampelonne Beach, but what you might not know is that when the yachts sail way and the fancy hotels shutter their doors, St. Tropez, the sherbet colored village on the French Riviera, about 70 miles (109 kilometers) west of Nice, is still a small fishing village at heart, and it’s hear where author William Widmaier lures us in his book, A Feast At The Beach. This book is not just a guide to the regional food and cooking (recipes included), but also an illumination of St. Tropez, its history and traditions, through the eyes of a child visiting his beloved grandparents, mémé and pépé.

Widmaier and I have something in common.  No, I don’t have grandparents from St. Tropez who lived adjacent to a " chapel made famous my Matisse " as Widmaier does, but I do return each summer to a home nearby and this book, for me, was an aide-mémoire to the places, the dishes, the smells and sounds, and the reasons that I too love Provence. Throughout his book I caught myself smiling and ‘ah yes-ing' at the various traditions, places, and food that I have come to associate with my own ongoing love affair with France. It also had me recalling cherished childhood memories shared with my own grandparents (though in a much different wine region, in a much different country).

I had to smile when I read about the typical summer drinks, like my preferred Monaco, a mix of beer, a small amount of lemon lime soda, and a splash of Grenadine. This very popular warm weather libation is ideal if you don't want to drink the elixir of choice (rosé),  and is equally as quintessentially southern French.  I love them, yet never think to drink them in San Francisco, though they are easy enought to make.  Widmaier aptly explains, “These drinks are best served while out on the terrace, basking in the Mediterranean sun, or while at a café off the town square when you are taking a break from some intense mid-afternoon games of Pétanque.” 

Certain things only go with la vie Provençal.

Pétanque is popular all over France.
In A Feast At The Beach, readers will learn about other Provencal fixtures, such as the enduring game of Pétanque, also known as boules, bocce ball, or, God forbid we call it Lawn Bowling. It is to the Provençal man what shooting hoops is to a group of American urban males---a place to gather and bond, tell stories, and engage in intense competition and swagger.  Travel through any village in Provence and you’ll find a gaggle of plaid shirted men gathered on a pétanque court, a gravelly rectangle where metal balls are tossed around with unceasing enthusiasm. Widmaier recalls playing with his uncle Jacques, After meals the men would play Pétanque, rolling the steel balls across the hard-packed ground at the top of the driveway…Jacques, an exceptional player rivaled only by Pépé, would gladly take me, the youngest and worst player, as his teammate.

Widmaier’s scenes emote a strong sense of  French family life and invite readers to discover various locations around St. Tropez, from the main square, the Place des Lices, where heated games of pétanque are still played today, and where a twice weekly market unveils the scents and savors of the regional bounty, to nearby beaches, like Cap Taillat and La Plage de la Bouillabaisse, both far removed from the ones that make the cover of People Magazine.  Whether he's romping around the nearby Cote de Provence vineyards (where half the Rosé wine of France is made) behind the chapel, or helping Mémé snap peas in the kitchen, Widmaier’s recollections often center around food. No surprise since in France, meals and the kitchen table are the epicenter of family life. Widmaier includes dozens of easy to follow recipes that flavored his childhood, such as fresh fish soup from the old port. 

“… on a Sunday night Pépé and Mémé would take us down the hill into town, often with family and friends, for dinner. We would go to a restaurant, not on the tourist-packed, nightclub-filled new harbor but rather at the Vieux Port, the small 2,000-year-old harbor where locals preferred to gather.”  He continues,  “I would invariably have what to this day is probably my favorite Provençal dish, … a Mediterranean fish soup with grated Gruyère cheese, croutons and a strong, garlicky saffron pepper condiment called rouille served on the side.”

The Port of St. Tropez
But what I really love about this book is the steadfast voice of a grandson who clearly adored his grandparents.  Something else Widmaier and I have in common. Like Widmaier, my fondest childhood memories are linked to my grandparents---my grandma's chocolate chip cookies hot out of the oven and the stories told by my grandfather from his black leather chair.  Widmaier’s loving depiction of Mémé and Pépé could be my own, minus the French accent and sea view of course, and they add seasoning to an already flavor infused book.

Mémé was the rock we orbited around, our fountain of wisdom, our caretaker, our teacher, and the deepest well of love on Earth a child could have. Mémé was often occupied with the various chores related to the preparation of meals.”    And about Pépé?

Pépé was French to the core. …He loved his wine and believed a glass with your meal was every Frenchman’s right. …He ate his meal using his Opi­nel pocketknife while we all used the standard silverware…He could swear a blue streak, which usually resulted in my brother and me bursting out laugh­ing...”

I just returned from St. Tropez a month ago where I climbed to the Citadel, a fortress built between 1590 and 1607 above the town and sea to defend against invaders. According to Widmaier, a torpedo Pépé helped design and build still sits in the maritime museum located on the site.  I went in search of Pépé’s torpedo but I had arrived too late and the museum was closed.  Instead I saw a few peacocks roaming the property, and found a weathered corner of the fortified wall to gaze out over. St. Tropez has likely grown and expanded, its face changed since a young William romped here, but I imagined that the view from above the pines over looking the church, the pink and orange painted town, and the cobalt sea had not altered much.  I could almost hear Mémé ringing the dinner bell and Pépé cutting the baguette crust with his Opinel (the Frenchest of French knives).  Widmaier summed it up best:

“I realized something else; that people we love in childhood, we love forever….they are different people now, sometimes unrecognizable to us; but…we will always love who they were then; what they meant to us then. That time, that place, that little universe lives forever in our hearts...”

View from the Citadel

Missing my own grandparents, and hungry, I scurried down to the Place des Lices and grabbed a chair at one of the surrounding cafés.  Of course I ordered a Monaco, and of course a few groups of men had gathered to play Pétanque. In trendy St. Tropez, yachts and millionaires come and go, but some things never leave us.

For a trip to St. Tropez of yesterday, pick up this book. You'll not only be tempted to book a plane ticket, but you'll also be forced to recall simpler times and places, where memories of people you love are peppered with laughter and good food.

Narrow street in St. Tropez                   
A quiet day on Place des Lices


Anonymous said...

OMG I got emotional reading this. Such a beautiful post. I have to get this book. I have to go to St Tropez!

Unknown said...

Thank you Anonymous. I'm glad you enjoyed it and I certainly encourage a trip to St. Tropez!