A secret I’m bad at keeping is that I live in the south of France. In fact, I own some property there, in the department of the Gard, Provence’s across-the-Rhône (and much less sexy) neighbor. Surrounded by working vineyards, I spend several months every year in the modest house a melon farmer built, whose garden includes some iconic Provençal features: two towering cypresses, four mature olive trees, some tufts of lavender and rosemary.
I try to keep this ridiculous secret because I fear the misconceptions that come along with revealing it: that I’m fabulously wealthy (nope), that I’m perfectly fluent in French (ha), that I’ve got insider travel recs for Paris or Provence (sorry). Or worse, that a snazzy publication like TABLE Magazine will ask me to write about the cuisine of southern France, as if I am another wannabe Julia Child, joyfully banging pots in my farmhouse kitchen.
The truth is I’m a reluctant recipe cook with no innate (or latent) culinary talents. What drew me and my husband to this little corner of the Hexagon is not the art of French cooking. It’s the art of French eating, which has more to do with how you spend your time at the table than how you assemble what’s on it. Simply put, we like the way time passes there, at the table and elsewhere (my husband is a poet and cyclist, two pursuits practiced in particularly French, meandering ways). Twenty-five years ago, when we first started visiting the Gard, we got hooked on French Time, and this addiction led to some crazy ideas, like buying a house in another country (and no one has enough time to hear about that folly).
So to the extent that I am an expert at anything French, I can share with you some of what I’ve learned á table, specifically at tables in and around Laval St. Roman, Gard, population 202 (when we’re in town, according to our mayor).
A meal in southern France is an extremely relaxed affair — for both hosts and guests. Some of this stems from the French two-tiered system of entertaining — l’apéritif and le diner.
If you are merely an acquaintance, you will be invited for an apératif, or, more casually, an apéro, which is a drink (or two), accompanied by a few small bowls of snacks — nuts, olives, chips, a sliced-up salami. That’s it. To save time, your host might prepare one of the savory quick breads they call “cake” in France that have all the apéro snacks baked into them–olives, meat, a little cheese — then slice it into bite-sized morsels.
As a guest at an apéro, you are expected after a decent interval of time, say two or three hours, to go home and make your own dinner. I love the apéro and have hosted many myself because, while convivial, there is zero pressure to impress. Getting further acquainted is the entire point.
If you are an intimate — a family member or a very good friend — you may be invited for dinner. That distinction in itself makes the meal more relaxed; you are, in some way, already known to one another, and the point of the meal is to eat, bien sûr, but mostly to bask in that knowingness, particularly in fine summer weather.
That is not to say that dinner is unregimented. Au contraire. The meal proceeds in a slow but very formulaic way. It will last, at minimum, six hours. There will be five courses, the order of which never varies. But no one will be stressed; the host or hostess, not to mention the guests, will not break a sweat, which is important in summer in one of the warmest regions of a rapidly warming earth.
Your host will tell you to come either at noon (á midi) or in the evening (le soir). If you’re invited at midi, it’s likely Sunday, a weekly repast that coalesces every French family but which actually starts at 12:30. If you’re invited for an evening dinner, say vendredi soir, you will be told if you press (Americans press; we crave a precise start time) to arrive at 7 pm, but if you do, your host will greet you at the door in a towel, perfectly at ease, having just emerged from the shower.
Let’s say it’s a summer Sunday, and you’ve been invited at midi. You and other guests start drifting into the coolest part of your host’s garden between 12:30 and 1 pm, talking of the weather (trop chaud!) while apéro snacks begin to appear around you on shaky tables. Accept a small café wine glass (big balloon glasses are for alcoholics and overpriced restaurants) and a pour from one of the bottles going around, which will be either rosé or white wine.
The famous rosés of southern France were developed for this very occasion. I’m partial to the variety classified as gris, or grey–pale pink and bracing. The white wines of southern France are not so celebrated, but they are de rigueur at an apéro (no one would dare drink red wine before dinner). Again, light and sunny are key, so while you will never be offered a chewy chardonnay on a southern summer Sunday, you might discover a refreshing vermentino, viognier, or Côte du Rhône blanc. A local sparkling wine (champagne that cannot say its name) could also splash in your glass at this hour, even if there is no particular celebration.
Regardless, your host will know or be related to a winemaker, and it is their wine that will be going round. You’ll talk about this, as well as the prospects for the upcoming grape harvest, in the same way one would chat about the Steelers regular season at a summer barbecue in Pittsburgh. If there is a grandfather present, he will demand a pastis, a crude southern French cocktail of anise liqueur like Ricard or Pernod and a generous amount of cold water. It’s reportedly restoring, especially in the heat, but women and young folk don’t drink it.
Stroll around the garden and admire what’s growing, or crowing–many families keep chickens. There’s no rush; things are just getting started, friends still arriving, lawn chairs and garden benches coming together. (None of this happy chaos happens at the dinner table, which has long been set.) A leisurely apéro will also include olive tapenade or brandade de morue (salt cod purée), two savory Provençal staples of very high quality that can be purchased in jars to always have on hand and which the eldest child of the household will be assigned to deftly tartiner on toasts and hand around. There will also be some sort of spreadable meat, like duck or even wild boar paté, which, I kid you not, the kids orbiting the yard will parachute in for.
Cubed cantaloupe on toothpicks, and, my favorite, dainty finger radishes radiating around a tub of flaky Camargue sea salt, are fresh features of every apéro. In addition to being slowly and judiciously nibbled, all of these items must be cheerfully evaluated — the ripeness of the cantaloupe, the organic status of the radishes, whose uncle shot the boar, etc. Conversation never lags because all news is local, and we share what’s vitally important to us with every sip and bite.
If your hosts have really exerted themselves, they might pull from the fridge some chilled verrines (shot-glass appetizers), likely some gazpacho whipped up that morning in the robot, a souped-up food processor like a Thermomix that is a staple of every French kitchen. If you compliment the chef on these often beautifully presented hors d’oeuvres, she will modestly disclaim that the robot made them.
Such languid, purposeful eating and drinking will go on and on, everyone warming up their appetites like elite athletes before a match. No one will look at their watches or phones. No one will ask when’s dinner? Importantly, no one will consume too much; pacing yourself through a day-long meal is an art all French people have mastered by the time they’re out of diapers and can properly be seated at the table.
Finally, the griller of the family (a man, hélas) will head to the barbecue, often just a grate over stones built into the home’s summer kitchen. If there aren’t forest fire warnings (now a sad feature of a southern French summer), he will take the time to build a real blaze with kindling and wood charcoal. If there are fire restrictions, he’ll heat up a plancha, the long electric griddle that is summer’s new appliance.
The meat, cutlets of something, lamb if the host is feeling flush, will have been marinating in oil and garden herbs, unless he’s cooking sausages; often there will be both. In fact, the most extraordinary effort your host will have made in order to pull off this day-long feast is a visit to their favorite boucher, or even two butchers — one for the lamb and another for the sausages (mild Toulouse and spicy Merguez). More likely, he’s made a trip to his own deep freezer in the garage, reliably packed with trustworthy meat. The provenance of this meat will be thoroughly discussed at dinner, unless it’s a supermarket, which would be unmentionable.
When the meat is à point, you’ll be called to the table. By this time, some new potatoes or haricots verts or zucchini, depending on what’s abundant in the garden, will have been steamed, lightly oiled and simply seasoned, then plunked down in a bowl, along with a loaf of bread some cherí is asked to slice. This bread may have also been extracted from the freezer, depending on how far away one’s favorite boulanger happens to be. Indie, organic bakers have been popping up all over the south; most of our neighbors have a weekly standing order with one. Bread is still an obsession for all French people I know, but they’ve long given up the daily baguette tucked under the arm.
It’s now nearly four o’clock. Red wine is poured, Côte du Rhône rouge, a somewhat rough and energetic blend that every vigneron for hundreds of kilometers makes a version of, whether or not they have the official appellation. This is the moment you’ve seen in the movies, when one and all lock eyes and clink glasses, expressing a heartfelt wish for a bon appétit, an appetite we have been carefully nursing since dawn.
There will be plenty to eat and not too much. Everyone will chow down with relish, bread in hand, sopping up the meat juices; no one will take two chops. Children, ravenous from running around while the adults dallied at the apéro, comport themselves at table with the same gusto and restraint; they enjoy what’s on their plate and say so, imitating the adults around them merrily chatting about last summer’s courgettes and their hopes for this year’s aubergines. They’ll clean their plates, even the vegetables, then disappear to play until dessert, which they know is still hours away.
The adults now take a pause, here at the meal’s fulcrum, during which we share a feeling of pleasant satiety, of a warm sacrament taken together. Satisfied silences waft up as we lean back in our chairs, stomachs out, vin rouge in our cheeks; the smokers slip back into the garden. Someone ritually asks the host to wait un petit moment to serve the salad.
Which will come, fear not, but not until the esprit de corps of the table commands it. This salad — one of the glorious green Batavia or frisée or escarole heads that burst year-round from market stalls–will arrive lightly dressed with no adornment and breeze across the table like a second wind, restoring our energy and yes, our appetites. When I worked in a high-end French restaurant in college, I thought ordering salad after dinner was an affectation; it really bothered the line cooks who needed that petit moment to get the entrées out. But now I know the salad’s true function, and I look forward to the cleansing boost it delivers.
Of course, there will be cheese, and now that the heat of the day has crested, a plate is delivered by our hosts, along with a story about every selection on it. Readers of TABLE get lots of advice, I’m sure, on how to assemble a cheese plate — something gooey, something firm, something cow, something sheep, etc. But in the south of France, the formula seems to be: something very local, something from the region of your ancestral family, something you picked up on vacation (in France, naturally), and something your neighbor picked up on her vacation. It’s another conversation everyone can join, as we cut a tiny morsel of each wedge and wheel and taste them from our knife points. We are blessed in our part of the Gard to have two local goat farms run by young agriculture — Chevrerie de Carassoule and Chevrerie de Toulair. Though we each have our favorite, we encourage the chèvre from both.
As the sunlight lengthens and cools, children drift back to the table and pester for un dessert before bedtime. You might think of French desserts as the impossibly beautiful and wildly complicated confections in the window of a pâtisserie. But French home cooks leave such travail to the professionals.* Particularly in the south, where fresh produce is so abundant, dessert is thought of simply as something to put fruit on. This could be a crust or a batter, une tarte or un clafouti. The simplest of cakes, like the delicious Fougasse d’Aigues Mortes I watched a frustrated eight-year-old whip up in one bowl while her parents were idling over cheese, will become a transporting finish to your meal, once piled with the last summer strawberries and dolloped with whipped cream (often from a can), and no one will have suffered for it.
So now you know all my secrets: what I’ve learned from eating over many years with dear friends and neighbors in France. Being á table is not about suffering but sustenance; it’s not haute cuisine but deep connection, to where we are and who we’re with. These habits of mind and body are as natural as breathing to people in the Gard. We once crossed paths with some friends on a walk, followed them home, then watched in amazement as they calmly constructed a five-course dinner from the dregs of their garden and the dusty corners of their pantry.
The marathon Sunday meal I’ve just described, in fact, goes on, but having made my points, I will leave it here, as my husband and I generally do, making our clumsy apologies because we are sleepy and can’t possibly stay for coffee and the bottle of brandy someone is searching for in the buffet. It’s properly night and we left our house at noon. We are, nevertheless, kissed by all and forgiven–for our fading French and for our stubbornly American lack of both chill and stamina. Dormez bien, nos amis. A bientôt.
*An excellent new cookbook, Gâteau by Aleksandra Crapanzo, explores this phenomenon thoroughly and beautifully.
Story by Kristin Kovacic / Photography by Tira Howard
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