Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 26, 2018

Wild Asparagus, Wild Strawberries, by Barbara Santich

I’ve enjoyed three other books by food writer Barbara Santich:

But I think I like this one best of all.  Wild Asparagus, Wild Strawberries, is a memoir of her two years in France in the 1970s.  It’s a perfect book for anyone who loves travelling to France, or who yearns to travel to France, or for world-weary tourists who feel nostalgic for France ‘as it used to be,’ or for anyone who loves reading about food!

I first went to France in 2001, for a week in Paris and a week in the Loire Valley.  Things have changed a lot since then, but from this book I can see that changes since the 1970s are even more dramatic.  In her family’s first sojourn at Nizas in southern France, Santich documents a passing way of village life, dominated by elderly people whose children had mostly moved away.  These people were custodians of traditional ways of doing things, from selecting cuts of meat to cooking rabbit to harvesting the grapes for wine and celebrating afterwards.  My guess is that those elderly people who constituted the population of Nizas in this memoir are all gone by now, and the villages that are not in decline have been reinvented as upmarket tourist destinations or as holiday properties with absentee owners for much of the year.  Nevertheless there are places that defy these trends and Wikipedia shows me that Nizas is one of them.  When Santich was there in the late 1970s with her husband and two small children, the population was under 400, and now it is nearer to 600.  Whether that makes it a viable population or not, I do not know.

Historical population
Year Pop. ±%
1962 502
1968 504 +0.4%
1975 391 −22.4%
1982 398 +1.8%
1990 459 +15.3%
1999 525 +14.4%
2008 567 +8.0%
2012 593 +4.6%

(Onzain in the Loire Valley, BTW, which seemed to us to be a dying town in 2001, now has a population of over 3000.)

But when Santich ventured to France in the late 1970s, living with her husband and two small children in the small village of Nizas in Occitanie, village life was still thriving even though most of the young people had moved on to opportunities elsewhere.  There were bustling markets – enough of them for one to be operating somewhere nearby every day of the week, and for most of the residents to bypass the small supermarket and shop instead in the charcuterie or the boulangerie.  Santich writes with great affection about learning to cook the French way, and to differentiate between foodstuffs that at that time* in Australia were homogenous.  By the time they move to Caromb in Provence, she has a deeper understanding and appreciation of practices and customs:

I remember what attracted me to Waverley Root and his book, The Food of France, when I first read it: it was the way he showed that recipes are not created out of thin air, magicked into existence by a culinary fairy’s wand. All recipes, all dishes, have a story, an ever-evolving story, and that story depends on the climate and geography of a region and the foods it produces; on its trading relations in the past as well as in the present; on the origins and histories of its people, with their beliefs and values and religions; and on a whole web of other intangibles. It’s a complex business, what people eat and why, and I have so much more to learn.  (p. 126)

One of the most interesting aspects of this culinary journey is the author’s reappraisal of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  This book, by the American Julia Child and her French co-authors Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, was my bible when I was learning to cook, and although I knew that the recipes had been somewhat adapted for the American market, I considered it an authentic representation of French cuisine.  And so did Santich, at least to start with, but as her knowledge and expertise grew, she began to rely more on the advice of the women who guided her in Nizas, in Caromb and in Rimberlieu, a place too small to merit a Wikipedia presence near Compiègne, in Northern France.  She quite rightly points out that some of the quantities in Mastering the Art are discouraging, to say the least, and Julia Child’s ingredient list for the rustic pot-au-feu are extravagant compared to the prudent and economical French version based on the livestock ordinary French villagers are likely to have.

Santich has a lively unpretentious style, self-deprecating about her own ambitions and misconceptions, and droll about some of the culinary adventures that didn’t turn out as hoped.  There are twenty recipes in the book, many of them published in Australian Gourmet and Epicurean for whom she became a feature writer, and many of these are likely to be trialled chez moi in due course.  But her amusing chapter on snails means that I am unlikely to ever try replicating her efforts, (even though I have fond memories of a romantic interlude with The Spouse in the Parliamentary Dining Room, which took place over a plate of Victorian snails).

‘When you pull a snail out of its shell and pop it piping hot into your mouth,’ writes Waverley Root, ‘you are likely to consider it a simple dish, and to have no idea how much effort has gone into its preparation.’ (p.127)

No indeed.  Now that I know what’s involved, I can understand why they cost so much too.

Wild Asparagus, Wild Strawberries is a lovely book.   IMO it would make a great gift for one of those friends so hard to buy for!

*Although the food, culinary options and dining habits of Australians in the 1970s were not, IMO, as bleak and bland as many commentators make out, it is true that you had to know where to go to get good coffee, adventurous ingredients or cafés and restaurants that sold flavoursome food.  Margaret Fulton was making a huge difference, and supermarkets for all their faults were stocking a much wider range of products than their predecessors. But still, in my experience, there was only one kind of butter, and the range of cheeses was small.  To get anything interesting, you had to go to the markets. And even as recently as five years ago, I had to go to Hampton St for chestnuts for the festive vegetarian pie in Green Feasts by Richard Cawley.

Author: Barbara Santich
Title: Wild Asparagus, Wild Strawberries
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2018
ISBN: 9781743055335
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Available from Fishpond: Wild Asparagus, Wild Strawberries: Two years in France

 


Responses

  1. Another one on my pile I’m looking forward to reading. I haven’t read any of her books before. I agree with you about the 70s, particularly the late 70s. Mr Gums and I had some memorable meals around 77-79. And I still have the little cookbook from an excellent vegetarian restaurant. Not haute cuisine but good interesting food.

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    • I am still using my old Margaret Fulton from the 70s on and off, and the same goes for Charmaine Solomon’s 1978 Complete Asian Cookbook. From her I learned that all you need to do to make your curries taste authentic is to grind your own spices and make sure they are fresh. Her curried dried beans recipe from India is an absolute favourite of mine, and we had it often when we were hard up!

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      • Yes, I have those books too still, and made many curries from scratch back then. The smell of working with your own ground spices is magnificent, isn’t it? I’ve become a bit lazy these days and don’t make curries much. I end up with spices that are too old. The only ones I tend to keep fresh these days are cumin seeds, star anise and cinnamon sticks because I use them regularly.

        Another favourite book from the 70s and 80s that I still use, more than Fulton and Solomon these days, is Claudia Roden’s Middle Eastern food.

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        • I haven’t got that one…
          We’re having a bit of a binge on curries at the moment because we tried Sashi’s (from MasterChef) and he’s from Singapore and they have all been divine!

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          • It’s good, but probably hard to find now.

            I saw you mention making Sashi’s curry on Facebook (or somewhere). Sounded great. He was a good cook, wasn’t he. I sometimes mine Masterchef recipes, particularly for desserts I can cobble together to suit my food intolerances. There are some great ideas there.

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