Remember what it is like to be a footloose student or a young, newly married couple? When life was simpler and cheaper, but it was often a struggle to make ends meet? Remember that time, and then remove yourself from the security of your home town to a foreign country, where job prospects are few and far between and anything you can earn is mere pocket money.
Many books have been written about living abroad, and the literal and personal odysseys such experiences become. There’s Peter Mayle’s ‘A Year in Provence,’ Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, and my own favourite, ‘The Bottlebrush Tree: A Village in Andalusia’ by Hugh Seymour-Davies. Not one of these has rung as many bells and reawakened so many memories of those impulsive, intrepid years when no daydream seemed impossible, as ‘Wild Asparagus and Wild Strawberries,’ by Australian writer and food historian Barbara Santich.
Published in South Australia by Wakefield Press, this memoir is not just a travel log but a journey back in time to the days when having two pennies to rub together was a rare luxury. It is an autobiographical account of two years in France, in the late 1970s, with tiny twins in tow; a nostalgic reminiscence of the adventures and anxieties of one family who dared to make the leap from a well-established and comfortable lifestyle into the never never, with all that youthful optimism for making dreams come true. A dream to live in France? Une, deux, trois, c’est accompli!
Knowing the north of France a little, and Le Midi a little better, I find Santich’s descriptions endearingly familiar: the rural villages in the Languedoc; the quirky characters; an aging population where ‘children are as rare as diamonds,’ and centuries of history are writ large on every stone. Then, reluctantly, the move to Compiègne, of the sombre and shuttered north, where she finds a different but equally enticing world of foie gras and dark forests, pommes de terre and Paris.
I loved reading about her joy at returning to France, and her gentle observations of the characters she meets there. The ancient shepherd who has names for every sheep in his flock, the nanny-cum-cook with crooked teeth, the landlady with ‘scarecrow hair,’ and the old men gathering in la place every day to watch the world go by. And the endless attraction for les jumeaux faux (the ‘false’ or fraternal twins).
Santich and her family moved regularly during their sojourn in France, keen to know different regions: from the Languedoc to Provence; a brief summer in Spain, then onto ‘the cold, dark north.’ I became thoroughly engrossed in the many contrasts between north and south, most notably the culture and the food. Together, we discovered the way each season was marked by the appearance of wild leeks or wild raspberries, partridges or grape pickers. And the intermittent inclusion of a favourite recipe adds a tasty aside de temps en temps. Even as I read about lapin à la provençale or soupe de poissons à la marseillaise, my mouth was watering, and my feet itched to race to the butcher for a rabbit or dash to the sea for poissons de roche.
As always, Santich is in her element when it comes to food. And it was intriguing to see where her fascination with food history began, as her French adventures led her deeper and deeper into the traditions of rural life in France and the simple, wholesome cuisines of the various regions. Without this two-year interlude, she confesses, ‘I might never have realised the fascination of old cookbooks, never envisaged a career as a food writer and culinary historian.’
Santich has written many books about food history, both Australian and French, but none has been as personal as this one. We are introduced to a younger version of this eminent academic, absorbing her glee at revisiting her beloved France with her family, her joy in gleaning wild herbs and vegetables from the verges, castoff clothes for the children and discarded fruits from orchards laden with cherries. We, too, hear the siren call of the local markets and merrily join the treasure hunt for local wine. And we find ourselves equally enamoured of her new friends, overawed by the unexpected strength of the mistral, or frustrated by inscrutable banks and bureaucracy.
Santich faces each new chapter with the overt enthusiasm of a true gourmand, keen to try un petit peu of everything on offer, from bullfights to la vendange (the grape harvest), from Spanish omelette to ‘pot-au-feu.’ And I am reminded that there is an innocent joy to experiencing the world even – or perhaps especially – when you are living on the smell of an oily rag.
In many ways, it’s a nostalgic period piece, a cameo of a world that has sadly vanished. And yet, to a certain extent, we recognize little has changed. How quickly a new world becomes home, the unfamiliar growing familiar and reassuring as we become familiar with the daily routines and rituals of the neighbourhood. How an interest in local dialects, politics and food helps to immerse us in the local community. How children will inevitably attract new friends. That Santich writes in the present tense gives her tale an alluring immediacy – if only the epilogue didn’t dash our hopes that a remnant of this old-world France might still survive!
By the end of her tale, I am as reluctant to leave France as Barbara herself. Her epilogue is a sad nod to progress, but at the same time I am incredibly grateful to have been introduced to ‘a time when the 19th century almost touched hands with the 21st.’ And after all, to travel in the south of France today is still to see a glimmer of this antediluvian, yet alluring way of life.