- The French experience was a sensory symphony. Where the aroma of lavender, the taste of flaky pastries, and the warmth of morning greetings converged to elevate our consciousness.
I spent the fortnight of Pitrupaksh in France. I get very homesick in this sacred period before the Navratri when Hindus honor their ancestors, so when my friends invited me to share a home in a scenic Broguiere’s vineyard, I gladly accepted the offer, because this vacation would afford me cordial company of happy companions interspersed with pockets of alone time to relax, reconnect, and rejuvenate.
It was magical. The wines were wonderful but as I don’t drink much, I indulged in the simple pleasure of freshly baked bread. Consuming baguettes and pastries became more than a daily routine during my stay in the vineyards of Sablet. The journey into French culture began each morning with a warm “bonjour” exchanged with local residents. In the French countryside, with rolling lavender fields and medieval villages, my friends and I embarked on a gastronomic adventure. A visit to the local boulangerie or bakery, with room for only two customers at a time, became our daily life-enhancing ritual. The scent of freshly baked bread hung in the air, creating an irresistible allure that transported me to my mother’s kitchen.
As we entered the boulangerie, we were greeted not just by the mouth-watering treats but by the vibrant colors of the baker’s dress: cheerful pinks, tangerines, and blues. The array of golden baguettes, flaky croissants, and a mind-boggling assortment of breakfast pastries or viennoiseries, behind the glass display was a visual feast. A symphony of shapes and sizes that fueled our anticipation. We quickly embraced the Provencal custom of waking up at dawn and making a beeline to the bakery. It was wonderful watching the locals carry baguettes tucked under their arms ever so nonchalantly. I tried to emulate them and that simple gesture nudged me into the unhurried pace of life.
The baker, Muriel, was not an ordinary person. She was in our eyes a guardian of French culinary heritage and a knowledgeable guide in our exploration. With phrases like “Une baguette, s’il vous plaît,” we engaged in a delightful dance of language, embracing not just the bread but the nuances of communication because of the lovely lady with an angelic disposition.
But while the busy Muriel managed her boulangerie with bustling energy, she refused to communicate in English. So, after recovering from our jetlag, we pooled our linguistic abilities, patiently relearning grade school French, meting out exact change vingt-et-un (21), once (11), demi pain (half-loaf) quatre pieces (4 pieces), and so on. Muriel patiently waited after the initial “Comment allez vous? ( how are you?), we struggled with other permutations and pronunciations of French verbs. A lot of smiles, hand gestures, mercis, c’est bons and au revoirs were exchanged regularly.
Each day, we bought, arranged, photographed, and shared an array of delicacies – white baguettes ordinaires, baguettes rustic, multigrain loaves of pain Campagna which were tranched/sliced at request to the delicious d’Épi to an oversized loaf of white Pain Levain with Sablet cleverly embossed into the facade.
My friend Alan proudly held this sacred loaf like a baby. We all gathered and took pictures around it. I loved the taste and texture of this pain beyond comparison! It was just fantastic dipped in local olive oil and splattered in herbed goat cheese. I cut myself two slices for a picnic sandwich and that was the last morsel I ate before boarding the plane back to the United States. My taste buds tingling with stories rooted in regional flavors and ancient techniques.
On the flight home, I thought of the butter croissants, chocolate croissants, glazed chocolate éclairs, cookies avec lavande et citron, fruit tarts with apples, William pears, pecans and honey, sweet brioches dusted with powdered sugar and filled with vanilla custard that I refused to share with anyone and just sat down on the steps of the bakery and ate it by myself remembering my father who loved it with equal gastronomic pleasure.
Our favorite viennoiseries were the local favorite sacristains (not to be confused with the sacristain, who is a parish sexton). The long twirled golden layered pastry encrusted with almond flakes and smothered in caramelized sugar echoed the sweetness of the golden wheat fields, This crusty, flaky, buttery culinary concoction, reminded me of the layered paratha my mother made stuffed with raw sugar and slathered in homemade butter. I am sure she would have smiled her sweet smile as she saw all of us disappear into our corners to relish our sacristans with cups of freshly ground and brewed coffee.
In the tapestry of Provencal boulangeries, the atmosphere was markedly different from urban supermarkets which we also frequented to buy groceries. The small size of the bakery and the welcome air fostered connections and a sense of community. Our viennoiseries: buttery croissants, crusty baguettes slathered with butter, pain aux raisins, and brioches became morning companions. The dedication to preserving time-honored techniques and the use of high-quality local ingredients were the alchemy that made the Provencal experience unique.
In reminiscing about the delightful sacristains discovered by chance and the savory Croque Monsieur with ham, and savory olive bread that was great with wine, we all realized that the boulangerie had become a vessel for memories. As the two-week sojourn drew to a close, bidding farewell to the boulangerie felt like parting with newfound friends. The daily routine had become a celebration of life, an immersion in French culture that transcended mere consumption.
Back in Huntsville, Alabama, I bought a baguette in Publix on an impulse but the taste couldn’t replicate the essence of Provence. The French experience was a sensory symphony. Where the aroma of lavender, the taste of flaky pastries, and the warmth of morning greetings converged to elevate our consciousness. As I reflect on those mornings in Provence, I yearn to return, not just for the delectable treats but to greet Madame Muriel at the boulangerie and relive the simple joys that made each day a celebration of life.
(Top photo and insets, courtesy sablethouse.com. Photos of bakery products by Monita Soni.)
With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India, and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. She has published hundreds of poems, movie reviews, book critiques, and essays and contributed to combined literary works. Her two books are My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.