“Alors, we are having our picnic now,” announced Denise.
She unfurled a table cloth over some wet logs in the middle of a meadow in the foothills of the French Pyrenees. Jean-Pierre pulled bread, charcuterie, cheese and fruit from a wicker basket. The Americans, kids and adults in sweat shirts and jackets, actually thought it was raining. The French, in shirt sleeves and shorts, sipped wine from tumblers and admired the scenery. We picque-niqued for exactly forty-five minutes and damply piled back into the van which headed straight up the mountain to an encampment of Basque shepherds in their early summer stage of vertical transhumance.
The mountain pastures dotted with tiny yellow wild flowers looked like psychedelic green velvet. Misty bare peaks and forested slopes enveloped us. Our French-American contingent set up tents amidst out crops of rock. We shared the meadow with wooly white sheep with impossibly skinny legs and monolithic dun cows in leather necklaces strung with tin bells. The ruddy shepherds in serge jackets and black berets lived in a crumbling stone building with a tiny stove where Jean-Pierre heated up his garbure–a thick soup of ham, cabbage and vegetables enriched with stale bread and mountain cheese–our dinner.
I had never been any place as profoundly beautiful as this and I have never spent a more miserable night. At dawn we watched the sheep dogs corral ewes for milking, guiding them one by one into the hull of a gutted car, its open doors creating a stall. The cheese maker, in white coat and hat, heated an aluminum pot of sheeps milk over a burner on the stone floor of the house, measured in rennet, and gently stirred it with his hands until he was able pull out a soft, pouffy basketball of curd, the birth of a wheel of tome de pyrenees. Draining the whey, he gave us the warm solids, sheep milk fromage frais, to eat with wild berry preserves, cooling the rest in a pail anchored in the icy stream that meandered through the pasture. I have never tasted anything more delicious, or more intimate with nature. Jean-Pierre and Denise had taken us Americans by the hand and dragged us to experience the wonder of the traditional food they grew up eating. We would never be the same.
This happened twenty years ago. As I read French Roots, the memories of being with them there and then, and over the years here in Berkeley and Healdsburg, and at Peyraud and Arcachon in France, flooded back. Jean-Pierre and Denise taught a whole generation of us northern Californians how to live, eat, cook and drink, through friendship. From the moment I entered their world, I wanted to stay, to be immersed in their gracious, relaxed, sensual life grounded by sustainable values.
I didn’t know after all these years what great story tellers they are. They have written a joint autobiography that explains the evolution of their unique multi-cultural sensibility, a coming of age story with benefits: an inside look into the Chez Panisse kitchen; a personal collection of recipes, some so simple and homey I started cooking them for dinner, others that I aspire to serve; and a life-style primer. What this book really is, is a love story between the two of them, rooted in provincial France and nurtured by the social freedom of America.
I didn’t want this book to end.