Welcome to ‘France et Moi’ where this week I’m talking to author William Widmaier about what France means to him.
William is author of A Feast at the Beach, a book inspired by his childhood holidays spent with his Grandparents in the South of France.
First question, I think France is a special place and it is famed for many things including its cheese, wine and diverse holiday locations plus, dare I say it strikes and dog poo littered streets. What do you think makes France so very unique and ‘French’?
William: In France, especially the older or more classic France, there is a sense that life is to be lived and enjoyed. I think this comes from the strong undercurrent of art that runs deep in the French culture. Of course you can find it in the classic French arts of fashion, painting, sculpture, architecture, cuisine, wine and such, but possibly more important is the endless pursuit of la joie de vivre that fills the very molecules of the air you breathe throughout France. This expresses itself into less regard for the scramble for material gain, and more in an interest in the pursuit of the art of the moment in everyday life. I mean, the French have made an art of simply sitting in a café.
2) What is your fondest memory of time spent in France?
William: Time spent at my grandparents’ home in Saint-Tropez as a child, and the frequent day trips we would take with my grandfather, exploring the far corners of Provence are some of the best memories I have.
3) Imagine you are sitting outside a French café at 10.00am on a sunny morning watching the world go by, what do you order from the waiter?
William: Un café crème et un pain aux chocolat svp.
4) What is your favourite thing to buy in a Boulangerie/Patisserie?
William: This is impossible to answer! So much depends on my mood, but on my top 5 list would be Napoleon, Palmier, Eclaire, Paris-Brest and of course Tarte Tropezienne.
5) What is your favorite regional French dish?
William: Soup de poisson avec ca rouille is a favorite of mine from my childhood days when I would go down to the vieux port of Saint-Tropez with my grandparents on special occasions and order it at the restaurant there. In the winter I’m also quite fond of a properly made casoulet and choucroute d’Alsace. And I’m a sucker for any good terrine or paté!
6) France has many different cheeses, a silly question, but which French cheese are you? A hard and mature Tome, a soft, fresh and lively goat cheese, the creamy and rich Camembert or maybe the salty and serious Roquefort?
William: I grew up absolutely loving the fresh Petit Suisse cheeses, but as for what cheese am I? Today, I would probably go with the Tome de Provence – complex yet very down to earth, un-pretentious, traditional, esoteric, an acquired taste.
7) Do you prefer French or New World wine?
William: French, no if ands or buts.
8) How important do you think it is to match your French wine with your food?
William: Unless you are having a very high-end multi-course gourmand’s meal, I personally believe that it is not critically important to pair every course with a wine. For every day purposes my recommendation is to drink what you like, while giving a nod to the type of dish the main course is, and also maybe the weather – chilled rosé for lunch on a hot summer’s day for example. I will say this, while travelling around France I have a habit of ordering whatever the local specialty dish is and then ordering the local wine to go with it. Not only do you discover new dishes and wines this way, you often end up earning the approval of the restaurant staff, which can lead to extra special treats and new friendships.
9) How would you explain that very unique French concept of ‘terroir’?
William: I wrote about this in the wine section of my book A Feast at the Beach – so I’m going to cheat and give you an excerpt:
“In France, wine is less about specifically which grape or combination of grapes it is made from, though that does play a significant role especially if you are the wine maker, but for the drinker rather it is more about where it is made. Wines are named by region, the appellation usually being the name of the place, defining exactly where the grapes must be grown to be considered, but often leaving to the individual winery the exact proportions of the varieties to be blended. Some wine appellation regions are tiny, nothing more than a few dozen acres. Place is incredibly significant. It is the soil, the sun, the wind, and the history of the place. The terroir. After that it gets personal.
Here is the thing: A huge part of the joy of wine, at least in my view, is having a sense of place that goes with the wine. Wine is more than the taste on the palate; it is place, and memories, and art. This is why with wine, taste is such a personal thing --it includes ones romantic notions.”
10) France has some beautiful cities and there are a few that constantly battle to be my favourite, what is your favourite French city and why?
William: As far as city, well it has to be Paris, there is no other city like it in the world. Having said that, I am very partial to villages, especially the villages of Provence and the Provence hinterlands. I also have some favorites in Brittany.
Finally tell us about your book ‘A Feast at the Beach’ and the inspiration behind it.
William: I was born in the States, child of a very French mother. I spent much of my childhood being shipped off to my Grandparents in Saint-Tropez for long vacations. These long vacations, and at time partial school years, was the inspiration for my book A Feast at the Beach. The writing process proved to be a journey into self-discovery – of just how much France, Provence, my grandparents, my French cousins and friends, and the food and culture of the region had shaped me into who I am today. It also turned into an unexpected lesson for all of us in la joie de vivre.
Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about France and you.
You can follow William on his Facebook page here.