The night before we moved back to Washington from Provence some years ago, my husband quizzed our young kids about what they would miss the most about our little town. I can barely remember their answers, but their assessment of what I would miss remains forever etched in my brain. “Mommy will miss the pizza man, the chicken man, and the vegetable ladies. Not necessarily in that order.”
They were right, of course. While I’d miss my friends terribly, I knew I’d see them again (right, Shelly?!). But the lifestyle and the food weren’t quite as portable. I loved stopping at “the chicken man” once a week to pick up a perfectly roasted bird for dinner, and having him wink approvingly at my inept attempts to banter in French. The pizza man, Monsieur Gérard, turned out amazing pies from the wood-burning oven in his little truck; and his manner was equally addictive. Within weeks of our arrival, my eight-year-old son decided we should have a party, and M. Gérard was one of the few people on the guest list. The vegetable ladies, though, were my favorites. I stopped by for produce every other day, at least, and the mother/daughter owners always welcomed me as if I were a native of this tiny, mountain village. They picked out fruit for me when I couldn’t juggle baby and basket, always gave my kids a ripe red berry as a treat, and offered advice when I had a bad cold. It was like having a mom away from mom.
In French Roots, former Chez Panisse executive chef Jean-Pierre Moullé and his wife, Denise Lurton Moullé, recount their own journey through France and California, with recipes along the way. A lifestyle primer as much as a memoir, French Roots reminded me what I loved–and miss–so much about living in France: the long, leisurely lunches in the sunshine with friends, actually sitting down for café crème in the mornings (often also with friends and also in the sunshine), and strolling the marché each day in search of that evening’s dinner. The Moullés get that, and so much more. This fig salad recipe perfectly expresses their food philosophy: simple, yet incredible.
“The simplest recipes require the best ingredients,” Jean-Pierre says. “Without flavorful ripe figs and balanced, fresh goat cheese, this salad will be uninteresting. Even the honey must be of the best quality—I keep my own bees, which feed on the blooms from the vineyards and fruit trees that surround our house. The honey they produce is the best on this earth. (Yes, I’m a bit biased in favor of my own hives, but it really is outstanding honey.) This is a good example of what I mean when I say ‘the best’ ingredients. The subtle and not so subtle flavors of every element that goes into this almost childishly simple recipe will determine the end result.’
“Not everyone can keep a fig tree, vegetable garden, or hive, just as few people know a farmer who makes goat cheese on a daily basis. But the point holds: Really stretch yourself to gather the very best ingredients, and set the standard of what is ‘the best’ as high as your imagination allows.”
In my imagination, I’m right back in France, holding my baby with one hand and picking out fresh figs with the other.
- 8 ounces fresh goat cheese
- 5 tablespoons olive oil
- Leaves from 2 sprigs thyme, chopped
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 8 ounces garden lettuces
- 8 ripe figs, halved top to bottom
- 1 tablespoon honey, warm
- Cut the goat cheese into thick wedges if you have a disc or into slices if you have a log. Season the pieces with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, salt, and thyme and set it aside for a few minutes.
- Combine 1 tablespoon of the balsamic vinegar with a pinch of salt in a mixing bowl and then whisk in the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Toss the lettuces with the vinaigrette and arrange on plates or a platter. Place the goat cheese and the figs around the greens. To serve, drizzle the remaining tablespoon of balsamic vinegar over the goat cheese and figs, and finish with the honey.