The Problem with Provence

our 2012 French food trove

our 2012 French food trove

August 2012 – Our final hours in Provence, and we’re spending them at the supermarchet. Having finally made peace with our French supermarket obsession during this, our third trip to France, my husband and I park our dusty car and enter like two giddy children let loose in a very grown-up candy store. No turnoff sign for Templar chapels or Roman ruins will ever entice us so much as a billboard for our favorite chain supermarket, we now realize—the liberating effects of this epiphany discernable in our carefree yet purposeful gait. Just through the turnstiles, we part ways without so much as a glance at one another: he makes straight for the fromage de chèvre; I follow my nose to what is possibly my favorite spot in all of France: the aisles of pâtès, sauces, and espices.

I run my fingers over textured packaging, study labels and inspect seals, getting my bearings before the daunting selection. Really, how does one choose among six brands of black olive tapenade? Most expensive? Fanciest label? Simplicity of ingredients, surely? The wannabe gastronome in me is frustrated, and not for the first time do I sincerely regret my poor French language skills in the face of such crucial decisions. Very close to sweeping entire shelf-fuls of glass jars into my basket, I remember my list. Hastily written on the short drive from our chambre d’hote, it serves not so much to remind me of the items I seek—I could recite them in my sleep, frankly—but to keep me in check.  Without the list, I’d be hugging cheese wheels and fighting wine bottles for leg space the entire six-hour drive home to northeast Tuscany.

An hour later we regroup at our tacit rendezvous, the wall of heady pink temptation that is the vin rosé section. Before choosing wine, however, we must evaluate the contents of our respective baskets, considering our pocket books—we are at the end of an eight-day sojourn in the south of France, after all—as well as sheer volume. A glance at his basket tells me he’s exaggerated the chevrè and skimped on Roquefort. Looking closer, I see he’s not forgotten, bless him, my beloved cancoillotte de Franche-Comté à l’ail, a spreadable cow’s milk cheese made with garlic, silky when warmed and wonderful as a dip for crudités—but only two containers? He reminds me of our ice chest’s limited capacity. I curse our decision to not bring a back-up. ‘Didn’t we see ice chests on display near the entrance?’ I ask. ‘Let’s just buy another.’ Reason is slipping away from me, and only the coaxing reminder ‘Provence will always be here’ restores my self-control. I forfeit a kilo of crème fraîche for three additional tubs of the tangy, viscous, manna-from-cheese-heaven stuff. We can now turn our attention to the wine. Another full hour passes before we get to the checkout line.

Rationing our culinary cache begins as soon as we reach the car, my mental red pen scratching loved-ones’ names off my souvenir list with startling ease. Hasty repacking and a firm shove is needed to force the ice chest closed, while crammed into every spare inch of car space is a tin, sachet, or bottle of some kind. The lot in its entirety—from lavender honey and herbes de Provence to Côte du Rhône wines, Alpine Crème de Violettes and Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, too many pâtès to count—represents a hefty portion of our vacation budget. If we get pulled over, my husband jokes as we head towards the highway, we’ve got plenty of booty for bribing a French policeman. I chuckle with him, but it’s a duplicitous gesture. I’d go to jail before relinquishing a single item.

The problem with Provence is its proximity. It’s always there, just a half-day’s drive from home. Occasionally my thoughts wander in that direction. Noticing my store of French stuffs running down, I take to sulking about my kitchen, begrudging my own backyard herbs their Tuscan extraction. We can just go, I think. Just get in the car and go. Irrational calculations follow—one day of driving, 50 euro in fuel, another 50 in highway tolls, maybe a night in a cheap hotel—and we could be back at the supermarchet come Saturday afternoon! One weekend. A few hundred euro. Doable. Not all extravagant. Not crazy.

Then reality returns with its host of accompaniments. Deadlines and day jobs. Doctor’s appointments. Dishes to wash. The demands of our ever-portlier feline charges. So no Saturday jaunt to the French market, not this weekend at least. I open a jar of moutarde de Dijon and peer inside. As I mull over the possibilities, wondering how best to utilize what little remains,  recipes begin to flicker in my head like strobe lighting. I grab a spoon, carefully scrape the jar’s insides. Perhaps at the bottom I’ll find my muse.