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A Feast at the Beach

(article, William Widmaier)

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h3. From "Le Vieux Port" (The Old Harbor)

My favorite breakfast was a big bowl of Tonimalt, hot milk mixed with several heaping teaspoons of France’s answer to Ovaltine, served with a hot, fresh-baked baguette liberally coated in creamy Normandy butter. The only difference between my breakfast and the average working Frenchman’s was that I had Tonimalt instead of coffee. 

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h1. About the book and author

A Feast at the Beach is a collection of stories (complete with recipes) about the author's childhood visits to his grandparents' place in Provence in the late 1960s. 

William Widmaier has worked as a magazine columnist, as the editor in chief of The Memoirs Project, as a short-story writer, and as a screenwriter. 

Reprinted with permission of the author (2011).

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On occasion Mémé would make us soft-boiled eggs. She would serve these in little egg stands that held the egg upright so we could tap around the top with our spoon until we could remove the pointed tip like we were removing a hat. Then we’d scoop out a bit of the egg white, hitting the top of the liquid yolk, and fill the space we’d made with butter, sprinkle some salt, wait till the butter melted, and then stir it all up. Once this was ready, we’d take thin strips of baguette and dip it in, covering the bread with the thick egg-and-butter mixture. 

Most of the time we spent in St. Tropez it was summer, or close enough that we didn’t go to school. If it was Tuesday or Saturday, we would accompany Mémé to the marché to do the grocery shopping. Often, when we were shopping, Mémé would stop at the patisserie to pick up a baguette or two, a custard-filled tarte Tropezienne if we had guests coming, a hard meringue for my brother, and a petit pain au chocolat for me.

The pain au chocolat was made by wrapping the buttery multi-layered dough of a croissant around a row of bittersweet chocolate squares broken off a large bar. This would be baked, the bar of chocolate inside would melt partially, the dough would puff up, and the whole pastry would be a delicious, buttery, chocolate slice of heaven. 

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At the Saturday market, the boucherie chevaline, the horsemeat butcher, would display his wares out of his traveling butcher shop — and we would sometimes pick up some steaks similar to a flank steak. The horsemeat came from horses specifically bred for their meat, having never been ridden or put to work pulling a cart. Mémé would slow-cook these steaks in butter, garlic, and fresh-chopped parsley. 

I grew to love horsemeat beyond beef, but not more than my love for the French boudin noir sausage Mémé would grill for us, along with slow-cooked apples and onions that would caramelize in the pan, and served with mashed potatoes and butter. She always thought it cute that I liked boudin noir, as it was considered health food, something like liver in the States, not a meal children usually liked. 

For lunch at the end of our shopping, we would sometimes pick up a pissaladière, the cold tomato paste and onion pizzas that also have anchovies and olives niçoises on them. The first time I had one of these, I protested loudly that it was definitely not a pizza. It was cold and didn’t even have melted cheese on it, only to have the vendor inform me that “this is a pissaladière” and it came before the pizza as I knew it, and anyway pizza still didn’t have to have melted cheese or even be hot, and he should know because he was Provençal, and pizza was invented in Provence, and that the Italians had stolen the idea to claim it as their own. 

Any Italian, of course, will tell you that the French are insane on this subject and should be ignored. What I do know was that scholars claim that before there was a France or an Italy, there was Rome, and that Rome’s first settled province was the area that is now called Provence, thus the name. And that the first French wine made from grapes (versus honey wine, also known as mead) was produced in Provence. So for the people of Provence, who are among other things a mix of French and Italian, to also claim the pizza just may not be that big a stretch.


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