Review: Wild Asparagus. Wild Strawberries

Barbara Santich

Wakefield Press South Australia

First published 2018


‘My typewriter sits forlorn, and my puny attempts to describe the idiosyncrasies of life in rural France go nowhere near capturing its complexities’. Santich is recalling her frustration, sitting in sitting in her room in Caromb in the Midi, France, in 1978. With the publication of this book, she has more than compensated. Drawing on memory, letters written to her mother in Adelaide, articles she wrote for Australian Gourmet and Epicurean at the time and subsequent visits to France  there is a liveliness and immediacy to the writing that erases the intervening forty years since the sojourn the book describes.

In 1974, Santich spent ‘Six glorious, carefree weeks in Paris, studying French language and culture at the Sorbonne, visiting museums on free Wednesday afternoons, walking barefoot in the gutters after summer storms’ all of which ‘confirmed a conviction that in France I’d found a new home, a place to belong.’ She returned in 1977 with her husband, John, and young twin children, Stephanie and Dylan, ‘an impulsive decision…we would live in France for a year, two years, indefinitely.’ In the event it was twenty-one months spent half in the Midi in the towns of Nizas, Claret and Caromb, and half in the town of Compiègne, and hour north of Paris on the Oise river, the idyll cut short when John got work in Chicago.

The immediate attractions of the book are her recounting of the food and wine she harvests, buys, cooks and is cooked for her. Two examples. The first, a description of watching an older woman teaching a younger one, which captures both the process and the character of the teacher:

‘Until recently Fifine cooked at a hotel in the mountains nearby and seems to be recognised as something of a local authority: a competent, instinctive cook. Tiny, stooped, with darting black eyes and crooked teeth, Fifine is teaching Vivette to make pacquets, a tripe dish, and civet de lapin, rabbit cooked in red wine in a similar way to coq au vin. The civet is almost finished when Fifine takes the rabbit liver, tosses it in oil in a blackened pan then mashes it to a kind of purée, adding this to the simmering sauce. I ask Fifine about the recipe but her way of talking out of the side of her mouth, together with her thick accent, is an obstacle to my understanding. It’s for the sauce, Vivette explains.’

What I love about this is the way Santich captures Fifine’s character with the barest of description, something she does often through the book and equally the economy with which the method or preparing the dish is described. It’s this avoidance of the clichéd adjective and similes of food memoir that gives the book the sense of freshness and drive: nothing is over-thought or affected.

Here is another: ‘Outside one of the Compiègne charcuteries I see a sanglier, a wild pig from the forest, all black and hairy, hanging in the chill air, a fine rivulet of blood from his mouth congealing across the footpath’. The confidence in writing as simple as this is a long way from the young woman, her typewriter and her ‘puny attempts’ at description.

And this is the second narrative in the book that is also one of its pleasure for me. ‘The experience of living in France,’ she writes, ‘leaves an indelible imprint. It has encouraged a different awareness, a different understanding, a differently directed curiosity. Without the opportunity to explore libraries in Paris and Compiègne I might never have realised the fascination of old cookbooks, never envisaged a career as a food writer and culinary historian.’ Throughout the book she charts this development. Her chance encounter with a shepherd who speaks Occitan will lead her to study Ancien Provençal which leads her to researching culinary history resulting in her in her 1995 book The Original Mediterranean Cuisine: Medieval Recipes for Today. She continues to write her features for Australian food magazines which ‘More and more [ ] reflect my life in France, what is happening around me, and because I delight in all the little moments that make up the days and the weeks, the words flow more easily’.

Cooking French dishes from Elizabeth David and Julia Child she learns that ‘Translating a recipe from one culture to another is not as simple as it might appear. …Were I not living in France, observing and listening and tasting the foods around me, I would accept Julia Child and Elizabeth David as perfect translators in the culinary sphere. Now I recognise the limitations of their recipes and look around me for French ones’. She finds them in market brochures and French women’s magazines and in pages of the Midi-Libre where she discovers Tante Marthe, Aunt Martha, ‘the Betty Crocker of the Midi’.

Here is the third pleasure of the book: a generous collection of recipes from her feature stories during that time. I am much taken with this one from Tante Marthe.

Boeuf aux carottes

Beef with carrots

I am dubious when I read Tante Marthe’s recipe, with its equal quantities of beef and carrots, but my first taste evokes an apology.

Serves 4–6

500 g stewing beef, cut into reasonably big cubes

olive oil

½ to 1 tablespoon flour

1 cup white wine

salt and freshly ground pepper

bouquet garni (if desired, include a couple of cloves of garlic)

500 g carrots

2 onions, chopped

In a large heavy casserole, brown beef all over in oil, sprinkle with flour and toss meat to seal. Add wine and ¾ cup water, season, add bouquet garni. Cover and simmer over low heat for about 1 hour. Peel and slice carrots, add with onions to the casserole and cook for a further hour or more, until the beef is very tender. Serve with mashed potatoes, purée de pommes de terre in French, or more simply, purée.

In the intervening years, Santich has returned often to France, ‘But the France I used to know and understand has vanished. Progress, like creeping sand in the desert, has carelessly covered the France of the 1970s’. In her speech at the book’s launching she said, ‘The more I reflected on the profound changes I saw, the more I wanted to write about the villages we knew, the France that had disappeared…When we were there it was a time before computers, before internet, before mobile phones; we had no choice but to immerse ourselves into a francophone world and absorb its values. This, then, was the impetus to write about a lost France.’

Paul van Reyk

May 2018


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