A few weeks ago when I went on my 12-hour solo adventure through the streets of Paris, I stumbled upon the cutest tourist trap on the planet. There’s a bookshop called the Librarie du jardin tucked under an archway in the Jardin des Tuileries, and because of its Secret Garden-esque entrance, I had to take a look. Yes, a bookstore about gardens located inside one of the most famous gardens on the planet actually exists, and it sells…drum roll…any information you could possibly want to know about gardening. The bookstore, it turns out, deserves a lot more credit than its prime touristy location affords. Inside, I was greeted not by tourist crap, but actual real-life books about gardening, mostly in French, and a girl about my age who seemed way too young to be in charge of a shop in prime Parisian real estate. Though the shop is tiny and seemed frequented only by the local baker and postman, who both had fresh deliveries for the shop attendant and who both stayed to chat with her as though they did so every morning, I spent upwards of an hour perusing its various offerings. I can’t imagine that the Librarie du jardin does much business with tourists, as most of its books are in French and about subjects such as how to start your own compost, vegetarianism for beginners and a guide to native Parisian produce. There is even an entire kids’ section devoted to teaching children about gardening and getting them to enjoy vegetables, filled with plush toys and brightly-colored illustrations.
My favorite part about the Librarie du jardin was the planner selection—you heard me, as in daily planners. I am an intense planner—down to the hour, every day—and have been writing my notes on scratch paper after having decided I would not need my Moleskine in France. Wrong. I miss my Moleskine very much, and until stumbling into my new plant haven, I hadn’t yet found a planner with just the right amount of weekly, monthly and daily calendars that my OCD requires. The Librarie du jardin has an entire table devoted to planning—harvesting, growing, recipe-organizing, grocery shopping—and, in the midst of it all, a planning gem called L’Agenda 2014 des jardins de cocagne: 52 recettes de chefs étoilés. Essentially, I found a beautifully illustrated planner that includes ample space to plan every day out from 8AM to 8PM, BUT ALSO WITH WEEKLY SUSTAINABLE RECIPES FROM FAMOUS FRENCH CHEFS. The first page of the planner lists the seasonal produce harvested in France by month, and the last page explains the Réseau cocagne, a system of gardens, chefs and restaurants that are attempting to revolutionize the way France harvests and produces its food. There’s an entire group of people, quickly growing, that attempts to employ workers in difficulty, grow organically and distribute locally, putting money back into the economy rather than abroad (Spain is famously more rich in produce, and a large supplier to many French grocery stores) and return to the origins of French cuisine. If I can find the same planner online for future years, or an American version, I will never go back to my Moleskin again.
My trip to the Jardin des Tuileries was actually quite awhile ago, and I had forgotten about my excitement upon finding the Librarie du jardin until last night, when I stumbled upon the film Les Saveurs du Palais (Haute Cuisine in its English version) on Netflix (shout out to Hola better internet for allowing me to watch Netflix here!) Written by Etienne Comar, the master behind Des hommes et des dieux (Of Gods and Men), the film chronicles the career of Danièle Delpeuch from master of traditional French cuisine, to local farmowner, to private chef to the French president François Mitterrand (the screenplay notably ignores his politics), to dining hall cook on an Antarctic scientific base and finally to her dream of retirement on a self-established truffle farm in New Zealand. The film is rather lackluster in historical or social significance, but oh, does the food shine! Mouthwatering food is all you really need for a plot line, right?
Mitterrand reportedly requested Delpeuch as his personal chef for her in-depth knowledge of traditional French cooking (to quote the film, “the kind my grandma made”) Her art (and it’s an art) is hands-on, made of locally and personally selected produce and based on the regional flavors of France. She seems to base a meal around one single region—from appetizer, to main dish, to homemade cheese (we’re talking curdled on bamboo rods), to salad, to dessert. Eventually, Delpeuch becomes so overrun by the politics of running the president’s private kitchen (competition with the main kitchen, which is entirely male, misogynistic and petty; the cost of sourcing her products from small sustainable growers who still capture a taste that has long disappeared in conventional grocery stores; the president’s doctor-mandated diet; French bureaucracy—hehe—etc.) that she develops stress fractures (I now know that these are called “fatigue fractures” in French.) Long story short, watch the film to find out what happens next and to get your taste buds churning, but don’t be surprised if you suddenly want to attend French culinary school, language skills aside.
So, I no longer need any hobbies. Personal training, to the backburner. German? GRE? I’ll just study here in France. I have 52 new recipes to try, and counting, seeing as there are Réseau cocagne affiliated restaurants all over France. Perhaps I will be able to find a local gardening branch and pick up a tip or two? I also have plenty of new books to read: Danièle Malzet-Delpeuch’s memoir, to start, and then maybe Éloges de la cuisine française, a book referenced throughout Les Saveurs du palais as Mitterrand’s favorite home-style French cookbook. It’s good to feel passionate about something once more; cooking is a love that comes and goes for me, and my routine has gotten pretty stale. I’ve been living on applesauce, spinach, rice and eggs—partially to save money, partially because of some digestive troubles—but I’m hoping that my renewed excitement for flavor will inspire me to do some delving into the local markets and perhaps get my stomach working again. First on the menu? Truffe à la croque au sel à la Danièle Delpeuch, a strong woman who trusted herself enough to dive into a man’s world and stir up trouble. Her time at the Palais de l’Elysée gave her a different kind of strength as living in the Antarctic would have done: self-affirmation in the face of adversity—the strength to trust what she’d known all along.
Terroir, an important word for Danièle Delpeuch, can be translated as “land”, but is specifically local, unchanged land, reminiscent of a past epoch. Her food calls to terroirs, to flavors and lifestyles that barely exist anymore, to grandma’s kitchen. Appropriately, an écrivain du terroir is a local author, usually referring to an author native to a country region, an author who can describe that region in the only true way it can be described, because she (or he!) knows it right down to its roots. I will never know the terroir of the Champagne-Ardenne; I cannot recall a past, simpler time here. Perhaps the best way to learn about this region will be to taste it—to let the écrivains and chefs recall the territory for me. Delpeuch felt at home facing the intimidating French president with the simple trust that her passion for the past could create commonality, just as she felt at home in the middle of the Antarctic with nothing but strangers and her duty to cook. And so I go on planning my garden for the New Year in a new city: focusing on my new home with a fresh look that goes right back to what I find truly important: the taste of the unfamiliar, and writing as a tool to make it familiar. We can all find terroirs in the middle of new environments; we can all be authors of our own lands. Terroir is, after all, just grandma’s laugh, her scent, a tiny bookshop in a large city, a warm plate on the table; sometimes, terroir is the garden unplanned.