As luck would have it, I am penning these words in France. I arrived in Paris this morning full of bad airplane coffee and a fat slice of spice cake, which passed for breakfast aboard my flight.
So, first things first. Settle into the hotel room then venture out in search of lunch: a good baguette, a round of brie and a bottle of nice (and nicely priced) red wine.
I am reminded of another vacation in France more than 20 years ago. Newly married, my husband John and I spent a month in a tiny village in the south, not too far from Toulouse.
John’s sister had attended an art retreat in this village, where she befriended a family of chair makers by the name of Prom. As a carpenter, John also made chairs. It seemed as good a reason as any for a destination off the beaten track.
We arrived with an introduction to the Proms, who in turn introduced us to a friend who had a furnished flat for rent. It was on the second floor overlooking a cobbled street so old and so narrow that only small cars could pass through — in single file. We threw open the shutters and settled in.
That evening, we were drawn to the window by the sound of conversation and laughter rising from below. We looked down, all said “bonsoir,” and they beckoned us to join them. A group of friends had gathered for a post-dinner drink, sitting on the wide stone windowsills and our front steps. It was a daily ritual.
- More ‘Prairie Palate: Spudnuts — specialty of the Saskatoon summer fair
Among them was Thierry, who owned the cave across the street. Pronounced cav (like rav), it was a tiny wine store at which one could buy a nice bottle of wine for a few francs or, if money was tight, bring your own bottle and fill it from the spigot for the price of a chocolate bar. Since there was no seating in the cave, Thierry and his friends took their socializing into the street. What in Canada would warrant a sanction by police was considered no more than a traffic hazard in rural France — and there was no traffic.
This is because the bakery was closed. Earlier in the day, a line of cars inched down the narrow street, stopping (since there was no parking) just long enough for their drivers to run inside and quickly buy their daily bread. The baker, whose name was Bart, was a young graduate of baking school who had no hope of owning his own bakery except to buy one that had been closed and shuttered in a tiny village off the beaten path. He restored the wood-fired brick oven, made his dough the traditional way from scratch, (many bakeries no longer do that) and churned out the most amazing French breads such as baguettes, boules, croissants and chocolatins.
After a month in the village, our new friends threw a potluck supper to send us on our way, opening up a derelict house and filling it with makeshift tables and borrowed chairs, lights hanging from the rafters thanks to an extension cord running down the street.
My contribution to the dinner was this zucchini loaf, from a recipe I found in a tourist brochure. I’ve been making it every summer since, and always remember that month off the beaten track in southern France.
French Zucchini Loaf
- 1 big zucchini
- 3 eggs lightly beaten 1 clove garlic chopped
- 1/2 c. chopped parsley
- 2 tbsp. chopped basil 1/4 c. flour
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- Pinch of nutmeg
- 150 g grated Gruyere cheese
Peel the zucchini, scoop out the seeds and cut into 1/2-inch-ish chunks. Steam the zucchini until soft to a fork. In a big bowl, lightly beat the eggs. Stir in the remaining ingredients, then gently stir in the cooked zucchini. Spoon the mixture into a buttered loaf pan. Bake at 375 F for 30-40 minutes, until the egg is cooked in the centre of
the loaf. Turn on the broiler and lightly brown the top into a cheesy crust. Remove from the oven and let the loaf set for a
few minutes. Cut into thick slices and serve warm.
(Note: The original French recipe did not include basil but I like it. It called for a “handful” of parsley which I measured out to about 1/2 cup, so don’t worry about being too precise on that.)