A Memorable Trip from Paris to Provence

Paris to Provence

By William Widmaier
Event photos by Mark Greenberg

If you are gastronomically inclined you probably know culinary icon Georgeanne Brennan. She’s an award-winning cookbook author and journalist whose expertise ranges from farming and agriculture to history and food lore. Especially Provençal French food lore. She’s authored literally dozens of books, but my two favorite are The Food and Flavors of Haute Provence, for which she won a James Beard award (a dogeared food stained copy proudly sits on my kitchen bookshelf) and my other favorite, her 2007 memoir, A Pig in Provence.

If you’ve read either of those books you’ll know that Georgeanne moved to Haute Provence in the 70s to to raise goats and make goat cheese the traditional Provençal way, and lets just say more than a few adventures ensued. Accompanying Georgeanne on these adventures was her young daughter Ethel.

And that’s where this story begins.

Through her experiences and imbued French sensibilities Ethel Brennan became a member of a select little club made up of American kids who had the wonderful experience of spending a sizable amount of their childhood in France. Members of this small club have all had their lives quietly, deeply and forever changed, as if a piece of the French cultural soul had been planted in their hearts and the soil found to be quite fertile. Not too surprisingly, Ethel became a food writer herself, as well as a food stylist.

And this is where Sara comes in to the story.

Sara Remington is a rather excellent food and travel photographer. While at a shoot she met Ethel, and banter while shooting became deeper conversations which developed into not just a fast friendship but a recognition that they both belonged to the same small club. You see, Sara had spent much of her childhood traveling to France for extended vacations as well. As they talked they realized just how much their memories and sensibilities around their times in France overlapped.

There are a couple lines early in this book that ring so true, and touched me deeply: “As children, we were different because no one else in our schools or on our blocks had traveled to France in the summers and eaten exotic foods such as snails, tiny fried fish, rich cakes, and salted hams. Ours were solitary experiences, ones not really made for sharing in the early days of September back to school but kept to ourselves. Now years later, we are enchanted by our own childhoods, continually folding so much of what we experienced into our contemporary lives.”

Some of Sara Remington's beautiful images which are included in the book. (L-R) Charcuterie Plate on page 118, Boy in car on page 15 and Strawberries in Red Wine on page 66 of the book Paris to Provence.

I have known this solitary experience, but over recent years I have also discovered that I am not alone. We are not alone. I have unmet friends who are sensitive to the same things I am, people who share an aesthetic and sensibility for such simple yet beautiful moments, often created around food, that I do. Those who have not had their soul captured by the magic that exists in la France profonde may have no idea what I’m talking about. Those that do, are probably quietly smiling.

As Sara and Ethel’s friendship grew they realized that in all these wonderful memories of France, French road trips, family gatherings, and not least of the wondrous French foods of their childhood, there was a book that needed to be written. And photographed.

Et voila, Paris to Provence was born.

This large hardback book is really three books in one.

1. Paris to Provence is a memoir of the best of childhood times in France. One that echoes my own childhood spent in Provence, but these are stories that will resonate with anybody whose childhood included family gatherings, good food, travel and adventure.

2. Paris to Provence is a cookbook featuring some of the best of what one might call “vacation foods” in France. Each of the dozens of recipes in this book is directly tied to a pleasant memory. Then again one could say they are often the comfort foods of a French childhood. They include many of my own childhood favorites, like “Petites Fritures avec Aioli” (Fried Smelts with Aioli). I remember the first time I had these as a child while on a road trip with my grandfather. We were in a small town on the coast, right near the border to Italy. My grandfather had ordered them for us and after an initial hesitation we tore into them with unabashed enthusiasm until the large pile in the center of the table was nothing but crumbs.

3. Paris to Provence book is a beautiful ‘coffee table’ book. The photography by Sara Remington is big, beautiful, sensitive, and frankly makes me want to crawl into just about every photograph. Somehow, Sara managed to stop time. Most of these shots could have been from my childhood. The best of my childhood.

To read Paris to Provence is to take a beautiful and wonderfully nostalgic journey to the France of my childhood, the France of sweet dreams. I recommend you book your trip as soon as possible. You don’t want to miss it.

Sara Remington and Ethel Brennan at Left Bank Larkspur.

To celebrate the release of Paris to Provence, on May 16th Book Passage book store teamed up with Left Bank restaurant in Larkspur, California to create a special dinner inspired by the authors and recipes found in Paris to Provence. The evening started with an introduction by Georgeanne Brennan, and then throughout dinner both Ethel Brennan and Sara Remington told stories from their childhood, of how they later met and the creation of the book. Over 100 guests attended, all of whom had their copies of Paris to Provence signed by the authors.

William Widmaier is the author of A Feast at the Beach, an evocative coming of age memoir set in Provence. Read more about him at http://williamwidmaier.com/