With the author Elizabeth Bard, outside her artisan glacier Scaramouche
One of my most memorable days in Provence was visiting the charming little town of Cereste, where I got to interview Elizabeth Bard, the New York Times bestselling author of Lunch in Paris and Picnic in Provence. I first discovered Elizabeth’s books last summer and have been a huge fan of hers ever since. Lunch in Paris describes Elizabeth’s journey as a New York girl falling in love with both Paris and a handsome Frenchman, and is a must-read for any lover of the City of Light and French food. In Picnic in Provence, she writes about her family’s move from Paris to Cereste, experiences of motherhood and setting up the artisan glacier, Scaramouche. Their award winning ice-cream now attracts visitors from all over France and the rest of the world, and Scaramouche has just opened a branch in Paris as well. The flavours and food of France have always been an important part of Elizabeth’s fascinating story: both her books are littered with fantastic recipes straight from the kitchen table, making them even more appealing to my food-loving soul.
You can imagine my delight when Elizabeth agreed to meet me for an interview in Cereste (scroll down if you’d like to skip straight to the interview – she’s fantastic!), and my Dad very kindly agreed to drive all of us to the town, where we booked a table for lunch before heading to Scaramouche for my interview and to sample their delicious ice-creams and sorbets.
Our drive to Cereste took us through the mountains, twisting along nerve-wrackingly narrow roads with incredible views. When we arrived in the town, we were pleased to see that we’d serendipitously timed our visit with Cereste’s annual summer fair, and we wandered through the market set up in the square, admiring the food stalls (there was even a little Scaramouche stand!) and handmade ceramics as we went.
Cereste is a beautiful town; I loved its graceful old buildings, brightly painted shutters and inviting alleyways that are so typical of Provence. I could see why Elizabeth and Gwendal decided to stay!
We’d booked a table at La Pastorale, a charming little restaurant with the most perfect balcony where we could sit out and admire the town.
To start, I went for one of my very favourite dishes: steak tartare. It was delicious! The seasoning was just right, and the fried quail’s eggs on top added an agreeable touch.
Next up: quail stuffed with foie gras (I was not dieting on this trip!!). I loved this dish; even with its luxurious ingredients it didn’t taste too rich, and the purple potatoes added a great depth of flavour and were a real treat.
We decided ice-cream at Scaramouche would be our dessert, and it was time for the interview so I hurried along as the rest of my family stayed on for coffee.
Isn’t Scaramouche completely charming? I’ve rarely seen such a pretty setting for ice-cream!
Elizabeth came over when she knew I was there, and it was such a treat to meet her in person. If you’ve read the books, then I can confirm that she is just as delightful in person as you can imagine from reading her stories. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did!
MN: What made you decide to write memoirs? Have you always kept a journal, and the memoirs became a natural extension from those?
EB: I’ve never kept a journal. I’m a terrible, terrible journal writer. I think I kept a journal for about 10 minutes when I was 13 and had a crush on someone; that was the extent of my journal writing! When I moved abroad, and when I came to France to be with Gwendal [Elizabeth’s husband], I knew that I wanted to write about the rollercoaster of international relationships and the discovery of international romance and international living and all the ups and downs of that. When I sat down to think about how I really discovered my adopted country, everything was done as the French would say autour de la table – “around the table.” Every single real moment of discovery happened at a market, or at a restaurant or at a family meal, and so I started to structure the book around the recipes, and that’s how it came together.
MN: Was it the recipes that came first then, before the story?
EB: I think it was a mix! Writing about a memoir of adjusting to France without the food aspect soon becomes pretty dark. It would be a tale of administrative woes and language barriers and getting your driver’s licence! The recipes helped balance out the pleasure, and I’ve always used food to explore other cultures. Even though I’m trained as an art historian, I’ve always been that person who figures out where they’re going for lunch before heading to a museum! [Same here! – MN]. Food, then, has always been an important part of my discovery of a new culture, and I wanted to bring that to the book.
MN: How would you describe your own personal history in terms of food? Are there particular meals that sum up your childhood and your 20s, as well as your life now?
EB: From my childhood, the plat principal of my family gatherings was my Grandmother’s spaghetti sauce. My Grandfather was posted in Utica in upstate New York during WW2. Both my grandparents came from a Jewish neighbourhood in Brooklyn, and my Grandmother was a young married woman who didn’t really know how to cook. She hadn’t been taught by her mother, and so she learned how to cook standing in line at the butcher in Utica from these Italian ladies. They taught her a recipe for spaghetti bolognese that has two different kinds of meat in it, and there’s always pork! So my nice Jewish Grandmother’s recipe for spaghetti sauce always included these huge pork ribs, which I always thought shows you how life can lead you to strange places, and we all learn something along the way [you can find this fantastic recipe in Lunch in Paris – MN].
There was one restaurant that was emblematic of my arrival in Paris and falling in love with Gwendal and falling in love with the city, and that was the Bistro Sainte Marthe (I don’t think it’s run by the same people now though!). We used to go and get things like swordfish tartare and moelleux au chocolat; dishes that were so simple and used very few ingredients, but they were combined in ways that were fresh to me. I have real memories of those first meals as an important part of my early adulthood.
With moving to Provence and becoming a mother, food has become a lot about family cooking. The French eat a lot of soup, and I’ve become a big soup person! It’s a great way to introduce children to the taste of lots of different vegetables. When we first arrived here, our neighbour left a basket of vegetables on our front doorstep – we didn’t even have the boxes unpacked – and he said ‘you must make soup for the baby!’
MN: How did you set about writing about personal topics such as motherhood?
EB: I think writing about motherhood is a very fraught subject, because you feel very guilty and riddled with uncertainty just mentioning anything about it. Motherhood wasn’t as easy a transition for me as it is for some people; I think people live that transition very individually – for some people it’s easy and natural, and for me it was harder. I had to live through that transition, and I had to decide how to describe it. I wanted to have worked through it enough so that I could write it down in a clear and honest way. I find in writing memoirs, you have to come out the other side of whatever it is that you’re living through, in order to then be able to look back and decide how to structure the experience. And also, I know my son could read the book one day, and I feel responsible to him to express something in a true way and to have thought through how I wrote about it. It was by far the hardest and scariest part to write! I have had a very positive response for the honesty of it, though, so I’m pleased about it.
MN: Do you write from memory, or do you record significant happenings as they occur? How does your creative process work?
EB: I don’t have an excellent ear for dialogue – it’s my weakness as a writer – so if there’s a conversation that I hear and I think, ‘that’s such a culturally distinct conversation; I must write that down somewhere,’ then I will make a record of it right away. Generally though it’s about living through a certain period of your life and then going back and finding the narrative arc within that. Not every experience is worth setting down on paper, and although you’re telling a true story, you’re still telling a story: one that has a beginning, a middle and an end and that takes the reader on a journey.
When I’m writing a book, I try to write a little everyday. I usually write for 3 or 4 hours in the mornings (I’m better in the morning!), and then I either edit or recipe test in the afternoons. It’s a craft, though, like anything else: if I just sat in front of a blank page and waited for inspiration to strike, then I’d still be sitting here, many many years later, waiting for something to happen!
MN: Do you have any tips for people starting out with writing?
EB: As much as I admire people who have a whole fictional universe in their heads, I think most people start by writing about what they know and what they feel closest to and strongly about. Don’t be afraid to have an editor. I am somebody who comes from the world of journalism, and my writing has never gotten worse by having someone read it and edit it. Nobody writes in a vacuum. If things are getting difficult, then pick one person that you trust (too many opinions isn’t good either) who can give you feedback. When I’m really stuck, usually what I have to do is get rid of something – like a beautiful sentence that I love but just doesn’t belong there – and once I get rid of it that tends to unblock the process for me.
MN: What would be your top tips for people moving to a new country and adjusting to a different culture?
EB: When I first moved to France, my language skills weren’t great, and I saw that with such a level of frustration and such a level of anger because I couldn’t express myself, and I felt my personality was only half there. I felt half intelligent and half funny. I only realised afterwards that what that forced me to do was just shut up and listen a lot more to the culture around me and to the people around me. It can be exhausting and uncomfortable and even a little sad sometimes to be forced to listen and feel like you’re in the background all the time. In hindsight, though, I think it gave me valuable time to figure out what was going on around me and for other people to approach me slowly, rather than barging in like an American bull in the china stop. I also think that having a job or having hobbies – the French in particular love their hobbies! – that’s how you meet people, so it’s good to get involved in something.
MN: And what about your next book? Is it solely a cookbook, or will it continue your story of your life in Provence?
EB: It’s less of a narrative book, it’s going to be more tips and tricks on how to make your kitchen more French. It’s called Dinner Chez Moi: 50 French Secrets to Joyful Eating and Entertaining [That sounds absolutely marvellous; I can’t wait for it to come out next Spring! – MN]. There will be ingredients that I use in my French kitchen that North American audiences might not be as used to – things like lentils and almond flour and vanilla beans and others that people in France use all the time but were more of a discovery for me when I first came here. I’ve written about what I always have to hand in the fridge and ingredients I’ve discovered in Provence as well [you can preorder Elizabeth’s next book here – MN].
MN: Which cookbook writers do you especially admire?
EB: I love to read cookbooks, and the dirty little secret of writing French cookbooks is that after you’re done you don’t want to eat French food for 6 months! I’ve been testing creme brulee and yoghurt cake recipes, and don’t want to see another one for a while! At the moment, I’m obsessed with Ottolenghi, as everybody is. I was just in California and staying with a friend who is of Persian origin, and I love Persian food; eating at her mother’s table is one of the greatest memories of my life! I bought a Persian cookbook whilst I was there, as I love to cook that style of food in the summer [I recently got this great Persian cookbook – MN].
MN: Finally, who have been the most influential women in your life?
EB: My mother has been my biggest cheerleader and my biggest support throughout my life. She never told me anything was too crazy or too badly paid! She’s really given me the support that allowed me to take risks and to live a life that is full of leaps to not feel so scary.
After our fabulous chat, I joined my family outside at the one of the pretty little tables, and we set about the serious business of ordering ice-cream. Elizabeth was kind enough to bring out many samples for us to try, and we also ordered a selection of sorbets and ice-creams. They were all incredible!! I am very hoping that one day a Scaramouche branch opens in London because I really need a regular supply of that apricot sorbet and strawberries & cream ice-cream! As we were thoroughly enjoying our ices, we were introduced to Scaramouchette, a stray cat who Elizabeth told us turned up at the ice-cream cafe a few months ago and never left (clearly the clever thing knows where the best supply of cream is to be had!).
Adorable! And Scaramouchette definitely agrees the ice-cream is lip-smackingly good:
If you’d like to keep up-to-date with Elizabeth (and why wouldn’t you?!), then you can follow her blog, facebook and twitter. And if you haven’t read her books yet, I suggest they become your next treat to yourself; they’re the perfect choice to extend that summer feeling a little longer as we head into autumn.
Have you read Elizabeth’s books? Are you tempted to give them a go if not? What did you enjoy most about the interview?