6 years ago today I was in La Rochelle, France. Probably on my way down to the shore–taking in the hot, salty Atlantic Ocean air and looking for new vantage points out into the harbor. Or I might have been in a cafe drinking beer and watching Coupe du Monde on TV. Whatever I was doing, it definitely involved something boozy, something edible, and the family I was traveling with. My own family, of course–just a very limited number of them.
6 years ago I graduated from pastry school and then had no idea what to do next. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to work in a restaurant or a hotel or somewhere else. Originally, I had thoughts of maybe joining on with a cruise line as a way to meet people and get some good stories while doing a bit of traveling, In the meantime, I went to France with my Grandmother.
In Paris we met a cousin who had travelled on her own from the East Coast. Our plan was to hang out in Paris for a few days with a rented apartment as our home base, before taking a train to meet my uncle. Uncle Rob was living in a tiny town called Saint-Simeux, in prime cognac country, working on a photography project and just generally living an enviable life.
Our couple of days in Paris were of course, a hoot. We drank a lot of cheap champagne (some of it from water bottles), ate a lot of delicious food, and walked everywhere. Then we took a train to a town whose name I cannot for the life of me remember. My uncle met us at the train station and we left immediately for La Rochelle where he had rented an apartment within walking distance of the sea. It also had a pool, which was spectacular. Never mind that the one toilet stopped working halfway through our stay, which made it very difficult to live comfortably (we had to use another tenant’s restroom for a day or so while we waited for a plumber to fix ours).
We hung out in La Rochelle for about a week, as I recall. It was some of the best times I’ve even had travelling. While we were there we went to a huge festival of some sort and were out till 3 in the morning. This might not sound like much, but when you are travelling with an 80 year old woman, you don’t often stay out until 3 in the morning. After La Rochelle we spent time in Saint-Simeux, taking day trips to tiny towns along the coast, and to places like Cognac and Bordeaux.
It’s hard now, recalling all the details of our trip. Towards the end of our journey–while in Royan clambering through German Pill Boxes from WWII–our car was broken into and my bag was stolen. Among other things, it contained my little snapshot camera and my travel journal. I was completely heartbroken and it made the rest of the trip–thankfully only another 3 or 4 days at that point–sort of bittersweet.
I lost the list of town names I had recorded–all the towns we visited while driving through the country side in search of excellent food and cognac from small distilleries. I lost most of the pictures of us as a family in Paris, where I didn’t want to carry my huge borrowed Fuji around with me night and day. I lost the tangible form of all the little thoughts and feelings from my experiences.
Mostly though, I kept it all intact. I remember the feel of the sand on the beaches. I remember giggling maniacally with my Grandma as we knelt down in an ancient church in Saintes, pagans to the core.
I can taste the flaky, almost bitter caramel crust of a well made baguette. I can smell the pungent tang of a cheese shop in the heat of a June afternoon; the salty, fleshy whiff of a fish market stocked with huge foreign fish and glorious langoustines to grace your plateau de fruits de mer. I can recall watching the bubbles rise on the side of a glass of Kronenbourg 1664–or a glass of champagne. I can’t count the number of vineyards, sunflowers or towns ending in -gnac that I saw, but I can tell you that the number of glasses of cognac and coke combined with the number of glasses of pastis reach into the dozens.
There are of course, things that stand out. I’m going to highlight some of these for the next couple of weeks.
I’m dying to travel right now. I mean really travel. We’ve been here and there and everywhere in the last couple of months, and we’ll be going to Israel for my sister-in-law’s wedding in August, but I miss being in a foreign place with no schedule, no constraints–no children.
I’m going to content myself with reliving some of the more memorable meals from that trip, every last one eaten in the heat of summer: perhaps alongside a river, or in a quiet restaurant somewhere in the countryside. Now that summer is (hopefully) finally making it’s way to Seattle, I am ramping up by picnicking like a pro and nobody does it better than the French.
First up is a beverage to whet your appetite. It’s not a recipe, per say. More like a suggestion.
It’s very simple. Take a glass and fill it with a cool–but not cold–wine. It doesn’t need to be expensive, and it can be any varietal that is refreshing chilled.
Ok, Ok. It can be a beer if you want.
The second step is to take it outside, and the third is to drink it. You can repeat steps 1, 2, and 3 in any combination as often as you like for the rest of the summer. The 4th step is very important though–when you drink this glass of wine, be aware of how it makes you feel and try to think of another time you felt that way.
Think about the friends you sat with, the conversations you had, the food you ate. Then, make plans–for this summer–to do something that will make you feel that good all over again.