Today, I’d rather be travelling, anticipating another day of surprise and wonder, hearing the world in another language, pondering the beauty of architecture or the evolution of a city, wandering down lanes at random and getting lost, buying cheese at a weekly village market then picnicking by a river, walking and walking and never tiring, taking a ferry on a lake, a train through a tunnel or a tram across a city, driving over a vertiginous bridge, ordering a lunch, a dinner or a wine. It hasn’t taken long for my wanderlust to return. Below are views of Menton, a large sprawling town on the border of France and Italy. It is a place where you can hear French and Italian spoken at the same table, inspiring a drive in either direction, the French Riviera one way, or Northern Italy the other.
It was a hot September, more than 30 years ago, in that little village in Languedoc- Roussillon in southern France, where I first made this soup. We had rented a 17th century stone house in the centre St Michel d’Euzet, a tiny rural commune surrounded by acres of vineyards. The town consisted of around 500 residents, a basic épicerie, one bar, a boulangerie, the source of our daily baguette supplies, and a wine co- operative. It was the season of the vendanges or wine harvest: little beaten up orange and red coloured apé trucks would arrive all day at the co-op, loaded with red grapes, ready to be machine crushed into the local cheap wine, the vin de pays that kept the locals ( and us) very happy. The narrow streets were stained magenta as lazy wasps buzzed about in the heat and the heady smell of diesel mixed with grape juice filled the air.
The old stone house included a generous cave, a mezzanine level with a small kitchen, living room and main bedroom, and an upper level with two tiny bedrooms and a small balcony. Along with our family of five, we squeezed in many other travelling Australians during our month there. They slept in the cave, or ground floor cellar/ bike storage area on a mattress on the floor, or in one of the little rooms on the top story.
The house faced the place de ville and was opposite the town bar, a meeting place for young and old and popular with the local teenagers. Our kids would spend the late afternoon hours there playing football jeu de machine, with the French kids, on a noisy metal soccer machine table. Sometimes, later in the evening, we would hear young French romeos calling out to Rachael from below, ‘Come down Rachael, I lerv you’ as young lads with heavily accented English would practice their courting skills on our 14-year-old daughter.
Cooking for nine or more during that idyllic Autumn was based on fresh supplies gathered twice weekly from the nearby markets at Pont Saint Esprit or Bagnols Sur Ceze. At those markets, the elderly farm women taught me about the Coco Rouge ( fresh borlotti beans) and the Coco Blanc ( fresh white haricot beans), often sold a little rotten as the beans were really ripe and faster to cook. Another local village woman sold me mountains of basil each week. I think we lived on Soupe Au Pistou for a month, along with baguette, jam and brie.
Soupe Au Pistou, Provençal vegetable Soup with Basil Pesto ( Serves 4)
- EV Olive oil
- 2 leeks, washed well, and sliced
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 large potato, peeled and diced.
- 2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
Heat some oil in a heavy based soup pot, then sauté these vegetables until tender, then add,
- fresh borlotti beans (coco rouge), already shelled and cooked till soft
- 2 small zucchini, diced
- chopped autumn tomatoes, such as cherry tomatoes, or a can of diced tomatoes, drained.
- a hand full of green beans, sliced or fresh white beans, coco blanc, if you can get them.
- 2 litres of home-made vegetable stock.
- some small pasta, a couple of small handfuls, of shapes such as digitali ( small macaroni) or broken pasta.
Cook until the pasta is al dente, or around 10 minutes.
Season the soup, then add a tablespoon or so of home-made pesto, and stir it through. Serve soup with a dollop of pesto on top and some shaved parmesan cheese.
The house photos were taken in 2011 when we returned to San Michel d’Euzet. It hadn’t changed at all.
For Andrew, Rachael, Jack, Sunshine, and Poppy- the kids who had a wild time on bikes exploring the Gard region in 1985.