My grandfather was born in a small village in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, a quiet, rural region in southeastern France known mostly for its fields of lavender.
Earlier this month, I went back to the village for a family reunion, and to celebrate my grandmother’s eightieth birthday. It’s rare that the entire family, which is dispersed all over France – and the world – gets together. The last time was in 1999, a year before my grandfather passed away.
I have strong memories of this strange, though deeply familial, ancestral land. The characteristic tile roofs, beautiful, but rugged and practical; the fields set against the lower Alps; the weekly markets, or marchés; and, perhaps more than anything else, the smell of lavender.
Most of the lavender, la lavande, is harvested around mid-July, so I missed seeing it this time, but the fields impart the arid landscape with the fragrance year-round. It’s especially pronounced after the harvest, but as fierce and perpetual a presence as the Mistral, the sweeping wind that dominates the climate.
Provence is not gentle. Like other robust landscapes, it demands a great deal of you. If you linger here too long, it has a way of inserting itself into your consciousness, making any departure a permanent betrayal. I only stay for a week or two at a time.
This trip, we rented a house in a neighboring village, on a plateau overlooking a valley and, further in the distance, limestone cliffs marking the opening of the Gorges du Verdon.
Although the days in the summer get quite hot, the mornings are cool. I found it a wonderful, reflective time to take pictures – and eat a croissant, of course – before heading to my grandmother’s. Many of my pictures were invariably of food.
So much of French culture can be understood in terms of food. Everything that’s most delightful and maddening about the French is summed up in their relationship with food. All things associated, however remotely, with la gastronomie are imbued with tradition and cultural import. From the outside, this obsession can be seen as verging on the absurd; but, in France, it’s taken extremely seriously.
Cheese, for example, is, in my opinion, one of the most impenetrable aspects of French culture. Each type of cheese has associated with it a particular cutting technique, and it’s seen as a social affront to cut cheese incorrectly.
Family gatherings are generally organized around a meal, and entire days are spent agonizing over and preparing the menu. Christmas and New Year’s Eve dinners are marathon events, with course after course of dishes, cheeses, and deserts. One year, I spent Christmas Eve with my extended family; dinner was a 7-8 hour affair.
This party was no exception. In the days leading up to it, an itinerary was carefully planned, centering around when we would eat, and what. The succession of wines – table rosé, main course Côtes de Bordeaux, dessert Vouvray – that would be served had been a point of discussion for the past six months.
My grandmother, never one to shy away from a break with tradition, decided it would be memorable to bring in someone to make paella for the main course.
Guests started arriving in the days leading up to the event. As more people joined us for meals, the outdoor table grew longer, and the pots and dishes deeper. On Monday, the night before the party, my grandmother served her signature ratatouille. We welcomed two couples who had met my grandparents in Morocco in the 1960s.
The night of the party, la fête, we were more than sixty around one long table, set outside under the stars.
– Claire Peeters
All text and images © 2016 Claire Peeters.