I wouldn’t usually combine two books into a single review, but I read Picnic in Provence immediately after Lunch in Paris, and they’re so closely paired – and moreishly devourable – that it felt right to combine their reviews. These enthralling memoirs are intelligent and charming, honest and disarming … and they’re both liberally sprinkled with deliciously tempting recipes.
memoir | romance | foodie | cultural | non-fiction
back cover blurb
Lunch in Paris
Part love story, part wine-splattered cookbook, Lunch in Paris is a deliciously tart, forthright and funny story of falling in love with a Frenchman and moving to the world’s most romantic city – not the Hollywood version, but the real Paris, a heady mix of blood sausage, pains aux chocolats and irregular verbs. From gutting her first fish (with a little help from Jane Austen) to discovering the French version of Death by Chocolate, Elizabeth Bard finds that learning to cook and building a new life have a lot in common. Peppered with recipes, this mouth-watering love story is the perfect treat for anyone who has ever suspected that lunch in Paris could change their life.
Picnic in Provence
What if you went on a picnic in Provence… and never came back? When Elizabeth Bard followed a handsome Frenchman up the spiral staircase to a love nest in the heart of Paris, they thought they had found their perfect home. But life had other ideas. On a last romantic jaunt before the birth of their first child, Elizabeth and Gwendal decide to move to the French countryside; a land of blue skies, lavender fields and peaches that taste like sunshine. Part memoir, part chocolate-smudged family cookbook, Picnic in Provence reminds us that life, in and out of the kitchen, is a rendezvous with the unexpected.
I stumbled across Lunch In Paris when scouring Amazon for something to fill a Joanne Harris-shaped void in my book life … something foodie, something distinctly French, and something with an engaging story. I was slow to cotton-on to the fact it’s non-fiction (an uncommon feature of my bookish repertoire), but by the time I did I was already totally absorbed. The book is absolutely stuffed with passages that make Paris pop out of the page, grab you by the heart strings, and draw you right on in. Whether or not you’ve been to Paris, you’ll be yearning to go (back) there before the end of the first chapter.
“I love the way the rain melts the colours together, like a chalk drawing on the sidewalk. There is a moment, just after sunset, when the shops turn on their lights and steam starts to fog up the windows of the cafés. In French, this twilight time implies a hint of danger. It’s called entre chien et loup: between the dog and the wolf.”
Lunch In Paris is a rather frank, often witty, window into Elizabeth Bard’s transition from go-getting American perfectionist to accomplished Parisian savant. Don’t let the cover imagery fool you – this isn’t a clichéd romance, although the whole reason the book came into being is because Elizabeth enjoyed a thoroughly French affair during a weekend jaunt. The affair blossoms into a relationship … Elizabeth moves to France … and there’s a wedding; it’s a girl-meets-boy relationship with a happy ending (which incidentally occurs quite early in the book) told with a distinctive lack of fuss and frills. It’s confided, woman-to-woman.
“I’m not the girl who swings from the chandeliers and screws men because she can, fixing her lipstick in the rear view mirror of a cab hailed at dawn. I’m the girl you call Wednesday for Saturday. The girl who reads Milton for fun and knows a fish fork when she sees one. A flirt maybe, but in that harmless, nineteenth-century, kiss-my-hand-and-ask-me-to-waltz kind of way. Mostly, I’m a thinker, a worrier. Since I’m a New Yorker, you can take that last bit up a notch. It’s not that there’s no free spirit in me. But it’s a free spirit with a five-year plan.”
Whilst Elizabeth and Gwendal’s relationship is the reason the book was born, it actually isn’t the reason for the book (if you get me?). The book is more of a memoir documenting the culture shift from brash American convenience to stylish French ambivalence. It’s an intelligently-written account of an alien, sometimes unwelcoming city, and one woman’s determination to carve her niche in it, albeit a niche with an American slant. As the city’s new girl, there’s nothing Elizabeth doesn’t reflect upon; from the way Parisians eat, dress, and interact, to the systems and customs of the country.
Food was what I was hunting for when I found this book, so it’s the foodie adventure that resonated most strongly for me. It’s a great leveller, and yet we all go about it so incredibly differently. Coming from America, Elizabeth is used to an abundance of food, but Paris has a lot to teach her about the importance of good ingredients, about shopping habits, about the joie de vivre of cooking sans-recipe, and the conviviality of eating together.
“Most of what was important to the French was around this table: close family, old friend, and fabulous food.”
This is not the book to read on an empty stomach. You’ll need a petit cup of quality coffee (yeuch! to the gigantic vats of milky froth chugged out by highstreet coffee chains), and a fabulous croissant to stave off the cravings. Something as simple as the description of a vegetable stall at the market will have you re-thinking your forthcoming supermarket shop. And I defy you not to feel the urge to lick the page when Elizabeth learns how to cook scallops with Mayur (requisite glass of wine in hand at all times) … or when she orders a smoked salmon salad … or the picnic basket to die for … or the cheese selection (an extremely important choice) for their wedding. Mouth watering; luscious; exquisite. On reflection, however, she writes candidly about body image, and how she perceives her own curviness in a brutally judgemental city where slim is an expectation, and yet cream is on every menu.
“A French portion is half of an American portion, and a French meal takes twice as long to eat. You do the math.”
Each chapter of Lunch in Paris ends with a small collection of recipes – some for the dishes Elizabeth has tantalised us with in the preceding pages, and others from her own imagination. By the end of the book I guarantee you’ll have at least a dozen page corners turned down, and a very French spring in your step as you head towards the kitchen.
… with an indecently brief interlude I hopped from Paris to Provence faster than a high-speed TGV …
In Picnic In Provence Elizabeth and Gwendal are on the verge of meeting their very own plus one; baby Alexander is on the way. They set off for a short break before the baby arrives to the tiny Provençal village of Céreste … and here begins a whole new love affair. This time the object of affection is the location. You can’t fail to feel the warmth radiating from the honey coloured bricks, the scent of the sun-warmed lavender fields, and be swept up in agreement that the cluttered clamour of Paris isn’t the best place to raise a young child.
“We’ve been here dozen of times since we met, but this precious month before the baby is born feels like a last first date. There’s a different kind of romance beginning. We will never again be entirely alone in the world”
Their relocation to the area is recounted with Elizabeth’s signature alacrity and honesty; nothing is romanticised, and yet it’s totally bewitching. All too soon the blissful Provençal sunshine gives way to scorching aridity during the summer, tempestuous and destructive mistral winds, and bitter cold winters. And like the weather, Elizabeth’s dreams of motherhood shift and change to a starkly different reality.
By turns, her reflections on motherhood are uncomfortable and tender to read. The bond she had anticipated with her son doesn’t come easily, something she blames herself for, and at times resents others for. Conversely, Gwendal’s relationship with his son blossoms naturally, and Elizabeth begins to feel herself an outsider. At times she appears to embrace this, channeling her attentions into their new business venture, or seeking solace in the comfort she discovered during her lonely first months in Paris: food. I found these recollections troubling to read – at times I wanted to hug Elizabeth and encourage her to be kinder to herself, and at others I wanted to shake her and urge her to get a grip. However you react to this thread of the story, it’s testament to the honesty of Elizabeth’s writing that she’s been so open about this inherently sensitive reality. She made herself very vulnerable to the judgement of her readers, and I applaud her integrity in sharing this imperfect aspect of her life.
“A baby is a wishing well. Everyone puts their hopes, their fears, their pasts, their two cents in.”
Akin to Lunch in Paris, however, this second instalment was – for me – all about the food. If Lunch in Paris was le plat principal, then Picnic in Provence is le dessert … an abundance of mouth-watering recipes and foodie chronicles, this time with a decidedly sweet bias. Because Elizabeth and Gwendal have set their sights on starting their own ice cream shop. With warmth and wit, Elizabeth recounts the couple’s triumphs and disasters as they strive to whip up the perfect ice cream (whilst juggling life with a new baby, and a house in need of repairs) under the intense watchfulness of their inquisitive and opinionated village neighbours.
Whilst there is a decidedly sweet-flavour to Picnic in Provence, it would be negligent of me not to mention Elizabeth’s trips to the market. Now an aficionado of French shopping habits, her daily forays for fresh produce punctuate the book with vivid images of ripe figs, abundant crisp salad leaves, primary-red bright heirloom tomatoes, peaches fit to burst with sunshine, cheeses fit to burst with ripe earthiness. And in a manner befitting such wonderful ingredients, the book treats us to yet more enticing recipes: stuffed zucchini flowers, chicken salad, fig tart, mulled wine-roasted plums, rosemary, olive and parmesan sables, white beans with tomatoes and herbs – sautéed, casseroled and caramelised sunshine by the plateful.
“There’s something a little greedy about roasted tomatoes. Slick with olive oil and mellowed with garlic, pulpy like a supermarket romance novel, they are my attempt at pleasure hoarding. I want to be able to peek into the freezer in December and know I can use this spark of sunshine to light up a winter pasta sauce or guarantee a sensational base for braised veal shank or white beans.”
There’s one dessert in this book that I’ll never forget: Les Treize Desserts de Noël, or the thirteen desserts of Christmas. I now have absolutely every intention of travelling the 791 miles (yes, I’ve mapped it) to Provence to indulge in this festive Provençal tradition. It’s as lavish as it sounds – thirteen different sweets to end a Christmas meal with. If ever there was an argument in favour of the elasticated waistband, this is it! They can vary a little from village to village, but delicacies include nougats, dates stuffed with marzipan, olive oil flatbread eaten with grape jam, candied fruits, thin waffles … it’s as if Willy Wonka wrote the Christmas menu one year and the locals decided it was too good not to embrace as an ongoing event.
“Every day I feel like I’m living a life I almost missed, and it makes me grateful.”
I think it’s safe to say that I found what I was looking for when I first went in search of a French foodie book. Ok so I was seeking a fiction novel, but instead I stumbled upon my first autobiography, and found myself falling in love with Paris and Provence through Elizabeth Bard’s words. Her warmth, humour and candour capture the highs and lows of her own love affair with France’s capital and countryside, its culture, its people, and their unique ability to say so much with just a shrug. The recipes were an unexpected bonus, and both paperbacks now live in my kitchen amongst my recipe books, not on my bookshelf. They’re well read, much splattered, and hugely recommended.