BARBARA SANTICH Wild Asparagus, Wild Strawberries: Two years in France. Reviewed by Jeannette Delamoir
A charming gastronomic memoir of two years in France from Barbara Santich, Wild Asparagus also creates a multi-dimensional portrait of a country on the cusp of political and social change.
On New Year’s Day, 1977, Barbara Santich and her husband John jetted from Sydney with their year-old twins and four tea-chests of belongings. Their destination was France, their tickets were one-way, and their plans ‘vague in the extreme’. Santich – now a professor at the University of Adelaide, founder of its graduate studies in gastronomy and author of several books on Australian food culture – has written a charming memoir about this particularly influential 21-month French sojourn.
While telling Santich’s personal story, the book also creates a multi-dimensional portrait of a country on the cusp of political and social change. These changes are reflected in the author’s observations on food, its production and producers, and its cultural relevance. This perspective distinguishes this volume from other ex-pat-living-in-France memoirs, and provides substance for readers less focussed on food.
The motivation for the 1977 trip lay in Santich’s earlier studies in French language and culture at the Sorbonne. Returning from that trip, she established a writing career in Margaret Fulton’s food section of Woman’s Day.
Then, after marriage, Santich wanted to introduce her husband to the country that had formed her. She also hoped revisiting France ‘would inspire [her] to follow in the footsteps of Elizabeth David’ – that highly influential British writer whose books introduced post-war Britons to vibrant Mediterranean flavours. Tucked away in Santich’s tea-chests were ‘all’ David’s books, as well as an old typewriter, the aspiring author’s essential tool.
The tone of the memoir is open, accepting, curious and warm. Rather than writing about ‘quaint’ local customs, Santich strives to understand and honour unwritten social rules. Perhaps this is why the writing maintains an air of polite reserve appropriate to French contexts. For example, she writes of the residents of the tiny village of Nizas in Languedoc, the first place the family settles:
The men and women we meet in Nizas rarely introduce themselves or volunteer a name … Monsieur and Madame are perfectly adequate to cover the whole village …
The village is ‘primitive’ in having few amenities. The general store sells only two cheeses, both local, because that’s what the residents prefer. Santich notes:
The inhabitants still live by the rhythm of the seasons and follow customs inherited from earlier generations.
An encounter with a roving shepherd illustrates the cultural gulf between the newcomers and residents. When Santich tells the shepherd that Australian sheep farmers have thousands of sheep, he finds it hard to believe:
But how, he asks tremulously and incredulously, how can the farmer remember their names?
To maximise their French experiences, the family then moves to Caromb in Provence, a ‘modern metropolis’ compared to Nizas. Subsequent residences include Compiène, near Paris, where John accepts a job.
Santich draws economical word pictures of each location. On walks with the twins in Nizas, she notices details:
… a weed I recognise, the pattern of lichen on a stone wall, a view of [their house] l’Escoute from a different angle, an ancient iron cross by the roadside.
Caromb, lush with market gardens, is dominated by bare Mont Ventoux, ‘sometimes scowling and malevolent, sometimes beaming its blessings on all below’. Compiène has a ‘flamboyantly gothic hôtel de ville’.
Her food knowledge intertwines with emerging relationships in each place. Locals teach her how to find wild leeks and asparagus in Nizas, and wild strawberries, raspberries and cherries in Compiène. A butcher educates her about French cuts of meat and their proper treatment. He insists that she cooks veal in white wine, not red as she intended. Her Caromb landlady tutors her in preparing snails; she learns about cherry varieties by observing the landlady’s orchard harvest. She grows discerning about the differences between Normandy and Brittany butter, and learns that butter from any origin is used infrequently in Nizas, where oil is preferred for cooking.
This new knowledge has an impact: ‘Our table at Caromb reflects the subtleties of the season.’
At the same time, Santich’s food education somewhat devalues her role-model, as she discovers Elizabeth David’s cookbooks don’t actually reflect French cooking as practised. Santich embarks on a quest to ‘Frenchify’ her cooking, seeking out recipes from friends and French sources. She articulates her insights:
All recipes, all dishes, have a story, an ever-evolving story; and that story depends on the climate and geography of a region and the foods it produces; on its trading relations in the past as well as in the present; on the origins and histories of its people, their beliefs and values and religions …
Much of what she discovers becomes the basis for articles published in Australian Gourmet and – under a pen-name – Epicurean. Recipes included in the memoir were often first published in those magazines.
As it turns out, the Nizas shepherd has a long-lasting influence on Santich’s research. One day, she overhears him speaking a tongue she can’t understand – a medieval language, ‘a version of the Occitan spoken … throughout the south of France and into Catalonia’. Its existence is almost miraculous; after all, French became the nation’s official language centuries earlier. The discovery inspires Santich to study Ancien Provençal, which in turn leads to her 1995 book, The Original Mediterranean Cuisine: Medieval recipes for today.
Santich’s Epilogue reveals that this local language has become more valued and visible in recent years:
In the Midi … a new pride in its lost heritage is now evident, and throughout the south of France the sign at the entrance to every town and village displays its names in both Occitan and French.
For the most part, however, the Epilogue conveys a sense of loss:
… the France I used to know and understand has vanished. Progress, like creeping sand in the desert, has carelessly covered the France of the 1970s.
The poignancy here is a tribute to the author’s skill in convincing readers of the value and beauty of what has now disappeared.
Barbara Santich Wild Asparagus, Wild Strawberries: Two years in France Wakefield Press 2018 PB 296pp $34.95
Jeannette Delamoir is a Queenslander and former academic who is passionate about writing, reading, culture and food.
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