Let's Eat

Vive la cuisine française!

A move to Provence led to Elizabeth Bard’s love affair with French food but a lack of Yiddishkeit


From Manhattan to rural Provence where she is "chief tasting officer" at one of France's top ice-cream parlours, life has taken some interesting turns for bestselling author Elizabeth Bard.

Bard grew up in New York with family Seders packing 35 round the table, but found things very different in France.

"I went from a society where I was surrounded by Jewishness to one where religion is so private, you don't even discuss it with your friends," she says.

With no job, friends or family, and subsumed by loneliness, the self-taught cook started to write stories punctuated with recipes about her life in France and love affair with the cuisine.

Her first book, Lunch In Paris, was a New York Times bestseller, telling the story of how she adapted to the strangeness of French life and what she cooked while she was doing it: "I realised that pretty well everything I picked up had been learnt 'autour de la table' - around the table."

Now Bard has published a sequel - Picnic in Provence - rich not only in anecdotes about rural living but also the ingredients you associate with holiday eating in the south of France. Tomatoes of every size, shape and colour, peaches she describes as "little balls of sunshine" and plenty of thyme, rosemary and lavender, which characterise this most fragrant of French regional cuisines.

There's pissaladière - the Provençal take on pizza - cherry clafoutis and many dishes incorporating Bard's favourite figs, from the gloriously simple - roasted whole and served with honey and Roquefort cheese - to the more complicated fig and frangipane tart.

Unlike mere recipe books, this is a fascinating memoir of the kind of life change many dream of, but few put to the test, which she describes as "the inevitable roller coaster of international living and inter-cultural marriage".

Arriving in London in 1999 to study for a master's degree in art history at the Courtauld Institute, Bard met Gwendal Auffret at a conference, and agreed to travel with him to Paris in 2002, where they later married. She was heavily pregnant with son, Alexandre, when they bought the house in Cereste, which had been the home of poet and French Resistance leader René Char - who was a personal hero of Auffret's.

Their adventure looked like it might be cut short by a move to LA to pursue her husband's consulting career, but instead they decided to put down roots by choosing to open an ice-cream parlour in France.

"There wasn't a decent one on our side of the Luberon, so we jumped to fill the gap in the market, reproducing the local flavours we enjoy, like melons dripping juice and figs with their kaleidoscope of seeds inside."

Their bold vision proved a sound one: "Last year at the end of our second season we were voted by TripAdvisor one of the top 10 places to get ice cream in France. We tied for fifth place," she says with satisfaction.

Although Bard loves dreaming up unusual flavours harnessing the produce of the region - fig sorbet was her first inspiration, and quince, hazelnut and a special breed of local strawberry have also made their way onto the list - she insists her role in the business, whimsically named Scaramouche, is strictly "taster-in-chief".

"It was Gwendal who went to school to learn all the chemistry and hygiene. I just dream up new ideas for him to try."

Bard explains that moving to a community where she was the only Jew in the village was fine, until becoming a mother forced her to re-evaluate her Jewish identity.

"Now my son is five, perpetuating the traditions I grew up with feels important. I threw my first real Chanucah party last year and my first proper Seder, with a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish guests, this spring."

There may not be any specifically Jewish dishes in the book, although Bard does say "the tagines with sweet potato and carrots I make saluting my husband's North African heritage remind me a lot of my grandmother's tzimmes".

The shock of rural life, where shops close for hours in the middle of the day and everyone wants to talk to you in the street was almost greater than the culture shock of life in Europe, explains the woman who confesses that the market traders who sold her food were her first friends in Paris, and "sometimes the only people I spoke to for days".

Less jarring was the winter wind, which sweeps through Provence. "I had already experienced cold and draughts in London," she explains. "And the downside of a house less warm than I grew up in is balanced by the beauty of our surroundings, the warmth of the people and all the lovely things to eat.

"Now, when I visit home my parents' house feels over-heated and it makes me crazy, even if the shops are open at midnight. Life in France feels quite sane; there is a proper work-life balance and life is less stressful."

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