I thought I had finally had my fill of “expat in Provence” memoirs but last night I snuggled in with A Feast at the Beach and am so glad I did. It takes less than two hours to read…maybe three if you savor all the recipes…and it’s a delight.
A Feast at the Beach (3L Publishing, Sacramento, CA) is William Widmaier’s loving narrative about the glorious vacations (summer, mostly, but also Christmas) he spent at his grandparents’ home in St. Tropez. Today William, 48, lives in the San Francisco Bay area and works in marketing. But the book is set in the 1960s, when he and his brother, Stephan, stayed with “Mémé and Pépé” in their 17th-century stone house about two kilometers from town.
Cobbled together in stages over time, the house had a large yard and vineyards out back; views of the village and the gulf in front. The house was attached to a small church, the church that appears in Henri Matisse’s 1904 painting La Chapelle St. Joseph. William remembers it smelling deliciously of furniture wax, lavender, Savon de Marseilles and, very subtly, frankincense. When the windows were open, the salty Mediterranean breeze wafted through, tinged with the smell of machine oil from Pépé’s garage. The house, William says, “dripped with history and secret lore.”
The book is filled with powerful flavors, scents, images and traditions…things you’ll recognize immediately if you’ve spent time in Provence or on the Cote d’Azur. I loved visualizing the locations William describes: the Vieux Port and the new; dense wooded pathways down to deserted beaches; late-night petanque games on the Places des Lices.
The book begins, poignantly, with a disappointment: William arrives at his grandparents’ home for the very first time, aged four, believing, for whatever reason, that his Christmas gift will be a “big magical gift…something vaguely to do with trains or cars.” He’s presented with a red scarf instead. The scarf turns out to be just one of his gifts but of course it’s the one he remembers. Ironically, the scarf becomes a treasured keepsake that he cherishes for many years, long after it’s too tattered to wear.
A Feast at the Beach goes on to provide, through anecdotes and memories, a wonderful glimpse of life in St. Tropez before it became St. Tropez.
Of five-gallon glass wine jugs wrapped in woven straw.
Of being woken at 2 a.m. to see snow falling on the village.
Of Pépé biking 1,000 kilometers more than once, to deliver food money to his family and the families of his co-workers, all of them hiding safely from the Germans in central France.
Of Pépé eating every meal not with cutlery but with only an Opinel pocketknife.
Of baguettes packed for a day at the beach, filled with chocolate or brie or Caprice des Dieux cheese.
Of being invited by a tight group of fishermen and their wives to share a marvelous bouillabaisse feast on the beach with seafood just pulled from the nets.
Of the four-times-a-day sirens at the French naval research facility where Pépé worked as an engineer. (Locals called it simply l’usine or the factory). The sirens told workers when to start, break for lunch, get back to work and go home. Locals set their clocks by the blasts.
Of Mémé burying Pépé in his bicycling outfit.
And because food is such a huge part of French country life, every chapter of A Feast at the Beach ends with a recipe or two: all of them simple, very Provençal and delivered in a sweet, chatty style. The instructions for Lemon and Olive Chicken with French Green Beans, Uncle Jacques' Favorite Grilled Shrimp, “The Magic of Eggs and Olive Oil” and Mémé’s Sleeping Potion are almost as enjoyable as the chapters they conclude.
You know a book has grabbed you when it leaves you wanting to know more. I wondered, for example, how William came to have these charming French grandparents in the first place. He doesn’t tell us whose side they’re on, or how his parents met, or what happened to the house. So I rang him up to find out.
Mémé and Pépé are the parents of William’s mother, he told me. She was studying in England; his father was stationed there with the U.S. Air Force. They married in the U.K. and returned to the U.S. together.
And the house? Turns out that Mémé is 94 and still living in it. She hasn’t read the book—she’s almost blind and can’t read English—but cousins have told William she’s thrilled with it nonetheless. The book is currently being translated into French.
Now when William returns to St. Tropez he’s accompanied by his wife Tiaré. If they had children, he says, he’d definitely send them off to their cousins in France. “Despite all the new developments, condos and plowed-under vineyards,” he reports, “St. Tropez is still a very beautiful place.”
To order A Feast at the Beach, click here.