I first met Molloy O’Neill at the True Cost of American Food Conference last April. We attended the same communications workshop, and I immediately relished her verve and inquisitive spirit. I was intrigued when I learned that she had been the food editor at the New York Times and was now teaching food writing classes to aspiring authors and bloggers. Could I be considered eloquent enough in my short blogging career to indulge myself in such a league?
When she invited me to a week-long writing retreat at La Pitchoune, Julia Child’s summer home, I knew the answer was yes!
This is not a selfish excursion I undertake, but I do this for you dear reader in the hopes that my time is well spent and you are rewarded with a literary tidbit or two. I hope that this gastronomic journey will make you hungry for more as I serve it forth.
The first days are spent in the old city of Nice, an excuse to recover from my eternal jet lag. The hills above this ancient Mediterranean port have been the home to hominids (those who came before us and dared to stand upright) for over 400,000. Indeed the first evidence of our ancestors dabbling with fire occurred right here some 200,000 years ago. It is fitting then that I have come to this primeval estate where we first put fire to bone and discovered cookery. It is the perfect place to refine my writing skills in the comfort of Julia’s kitchen situated in those hills of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.
We nestle into the small three bedroom cottage where Julia and Paul nested, wrote, cooked and feted the likes of James Beard and MFK Fisher. I regard her instruments of gastronomic manipulation dangling from the walls. I cut up fine-pointed baguettes from the local baker beneath the aura of her legend. I feel blessed and hungry for many things, some delicious and others inspirational. This hunger runs deep and slow and long within me. Will it ever be sated?
The second day takes on a stroke of wild abandon as we decide to head back to Nice, out of these olive dotted hills for a lark. We are a jumble of women negotiating the roundabouts with an insatiable hunger for adventure, food and antiques. The sun shines on the azure coast, inflaming our passion for a new experience, something old, a novel treasure.
I sense an initial caution that I am entering a flea market and there is nothing really here for me. But as I wander, I realize that treasures come in many shapes and manifestations. We run amok and scattered onto the winding street festooned with antiquities. This bevy of women hunts and circles for salt cellars and textiles, goblets and garlands. We weave through the market with many strands of different colored perspectives. Similarities are discovered and friendships formed, some again fostered.
After a thorough session of haggling, tinkering with treasures and tying on garlands we declare ourselves thirsty, exhausted and hungry for something to appease our gastronomic yearnings.
We all somehow manage to assemble ourselves for an outdoor lunch at the same restaurant perched at end of the square. Suddenly a simple lunch of omelet aux truffles, salad Nicose accompanied by a basket of golden pommes frites (French Fries) is set before us. We dive in with the gusto only a cluster of well-shopped women can ignite.
Our hunger has preceded us and is gently left behind with the rhubarb crumble and pear galette. We are finally sated.
It is now time to explore the eternal hunger that is always bubbling within me. This hunger to express myself and my appetite for more organic food on more tables, does this hunger spur my wanderlust? Is it the reason I travel to foreign lands, merely to reflect on its cuisine?
When Julia Child set forth to casserole and scramble, braise and broil in this kitchen, there was no such thing as conventional agriculture. The local agrarians were still plowing, sowing and fertilizing as they had been for hundreds maybe thousands of years. The chemicals of war had not yet marched through to ravage the fields. Super-weeds did not exist, seeds were saved for next year’s harvest and animals contributed their deposit to the fecundity of the soil.
We spent ten thousand years practicing organic agriculture and it served us well.
Something has gone awry in our foodscape. How is it that corporations now control what food is grown, how it is produced and what shows up on my plate? Here in Provence, they are still very much eating from the banquet of the local terroir, since time out of mind when fire first ignited flesh.
I am here to experience the plucky flavor of the chicken raised honestly in the field down the road. I see the lemon glisten, its skin flecked with knobby seeds waiting to be squeezed, a dollop of mustard, smattered surreptitiously on the plate seeking to envelop a meaty partner, and the sprig of rosemary, shorn of its leaves that will throw a garland of flavor around the lot.
Simple local organic fare is the tastiest and most satisfying way one can feed the hunger of the body and soul. Indeed it is the way one eats that can help restore the balance of the planet.
This second evening is spent devouring crusty bread daubed with a profound brie. A glass of rustic rosé luxuriates the palette. The succulent rosemary-lemon thighs braised with mustard sauce inspired by Julia Child’s “Poulets Grilles a la Diable” (broiled chicken) bring the ingredients home.
I settle into the flavors of Provence and leave you with her recipe to consider this connection of good food and organic agriculture.
Thank you Julia, and bon appétit! This hunger serves me well.