Provence or Tuscany

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Provence or Tuscany
Recently, I was asked by a friend who was planning a vacation in either Provence or Tuscany which I thought she would enjoy more. I have such fond memories of both places that I couldn’t answer that question without much reflection. “I’ll get back to you,” I said. This task put me in a pleasant backward spin as I re-lived experiences I’ve had in both these enchanting places. I had often heard it said that Provence is France’s Tuscany, or, depending on the leanings of the speaker, Tuscany is Italy’s Provence. There’s some truth in both these claims, but as I delved deeper into my photo albums and my memory, distinct Tuscan and Provencal characteristics began to emerge that decried their being compared in such a cavalier manner.   Let’s start with the people. I’ve never indulged in French-bashing. I take away from my experiences with the French what I bring to them: respect and acceptance of our differences, always rendered with the basic Gallic requirement—courtesy. The Golden Rule truly rules here. Is there a lack of exuberance in our relationship? Yes. Are the Tuscan hills alive with exuberant Italians? Yes. But this is what we expect from Italians and our defenses are down, our arms are open to their embrace. Is one approach better than the other? No. It’s just the way it is, and always will be and there are rewards in each scenario. One of the fascinations of travel is observing, accepting and enjoying other people’s differences. Remember, this works both ways. Our idiosyncrasies are also being observed.   While Italians, in general, are more laid-back than the French, the French have the edge on elegance. The lush landscapes in both Tuscany and Provence are breathtaking. Driving through fragrant fields of lavender, planted with precision, in the French countryside, and acres of wildflowers that grow when and where they want to along Tuscan back roads, are equally delightful experiences. They point to another cultural difference: the French leave little to chance; the Italians are more likely to put their trust in Mother Nature. A visit to a Provencal or Tuscan marketplace is proof that both these methods are remarkably successful.   Entering the famous San Lorenzo market in Florence puts one’s senses on full alert. The sights, sounds, tastes and smells are riveting. The extraordinary bounty of this land is displayed like a work of art, with pyramids of glistening tomatoes and peppers rising above bundles of tender asparagus; trays of tiny, crisp cucumbers whose skin crackles as you bite into them (yes, you are allowed to sample!); piles of purple plums still warm from the sun. You are sure you have never seen anything quite like the abundance spread before you. Then you remember the market at St. Remy. And what a market it is! Tubs of olives in infinite variety stretch the length of the marketplace; baskets of spices in muted earth tones entice you with their exotic aromas; jambon, saucisson and chevre to be paired with freshly baked baguettes and boules and eaten now, on the way back to your car; dark, firm cherries that never make it home.   The shoppers who ply the market stalls in both Provence and Tuscany, are as discerning as patrons of the arts. Keith Floyd, a fellow market-observer, put it this way: “Watch a French housewife as she makes her way slowly along the loaded stalls, searching for the peak of ripeness and flavor. What you are seeing is a true artist at work, patiently assembling the materials of her craft.” Make that a Tuscan housewife, and the same observation applies. There is one major difference between marketplace behavior in Italy and France: it’s okay to pick and pack the produce of your choice in Tuscany. Not so in Provence. You will be sternly censured with a stinging “Madame, ne touchez pas!” the second you reach for a plump, inviting peach.   If the love of food and cooking is a blessing, I believe the Provencals and Tuscans are among the most blessed of all. They are obsessed with the joys of gathering family and friends around a table laden with food grown locally and cooked at home. Their cuisine is the heart of family life and, in Italy even more so than in France, is the magnet that pulls the extended family home. These traditions are as strong today as they were in past generations.   Even carb-conscious American visitors stop counting and plunge, guilt-free, into the glorious food and wine scene. In fact, for some of us, it’s the reason we’re there. I’ve had cooking lessons in both Provence and Tuscany. One was planned, the other came about because of a serendipitous snafu. Given all that’s come before in this article, you’re betting the snafu was Italian. Read on.   On tour in Provence, we were scheduled for a cooking lesson in our hotel kitchen, but our trip coincided with a three-day French holiday and our chef dropped his whisk and his toque and took off. Holidays and vacations are untouchable entitlements in France. Pity the politician who tampers with either. However, all was not lost. Our guide, Henriette, had a friend who was restoring a chateau in the Vaucluse, part of which would be a cooking school. Henriette persuaded her friend to open the school sooner than planned. That’s how we discovered Chateau Talaud, the unrivaled highlight of our trip.   The size of a small hotel, the chateau sits on grounds with an aura of history. In true French fashion, they had been nurtured back to grandeur through painstaking restoration. Beyond the wall where the gardens end, a vineyard begins. Conny, our hostess, stood in the doorway looking like she had been expecting us for weeks—French efficiency was back in place. We followed her to a large, professionally-equipped kitchen where some of our menu’s ingredients had been prepped and laid out for us. She guided us through several courses, all of us around the table chopping, stirring,…
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Cathy lives in San Francisco, CA. Her passions are food, Paris, and writing. A morning at a farmer's market is her idea of excitement. Visiting Paris is her idea of heaven. And much of her writing is about food and Paris. She worked in book and magazine publishing in New York before she moved to San Francisco. She has two children, one on each coast, and four grandchildren, two on each coast. Her mission is to make foodies and Francophiles of them all.