"Nothing but beauty and douceur" -- Mireille Guiliano, all photos taken by the author in and around her home, les Alpilles, Provence
I have often said that one of the very best perks of compiling the books in my Collected Traveler series is that I sometimes am fortunate to meet some of the writers whose work I highlight. This is always an honor and a pleasure for me, and a few months ago I had to pinch myself when Mireille Guiliano invited me to lunch here in New York! Mireille, of course, is the author of French Women Don't Get Fat, French Women for All Seasons, Women, Work and the Art of Savoir Faire and The French Women Don't Get Fat Cookbook (as well as former president and CEO of Veuve Clicquot champagne, a division of LVMH). I invited her to share some of her Paris favorites for my book (these appear on page 195) as well as the Champagne region (pages 588-589).
I've been a big fan of Guiliano's books, especially the earlier two, and I admit I gave myself a small pat on the back when I discovered that my eating habits almost mirrored those Guiliano endorses (though, okay, I should drink less wine, but I am very slow in coming around to that one!). When her cookbook was published last year, it seemed like a logical next step, but I wasn't sure there would be many recipes I would find unique. As it turns out, I was wrong -- there are some recipes that don't differ too much from those you'll find in other French or Mediterranean cookbooks, but there are plenty that are new, and Mireille shares still others from her family. I extolled the virtues of The 'Magical Breakfast Cream' recipe to anyone who would listen, and it alone is a reason to peruse the book (the recipe doesn't sound very exciting, including as it does, flax, an ingredient I have long felt tasted like sawdust; but you'll have to believe me that it's a truly yummy yogurt concoction).
What Mireille espouses is not rocket science, even though to some North Americans it might seem like it is; rather, it's really just common sense, paying attention to your eating habits and how much exercise you get, and remembering how important the phrase 'joie de vivre' (joy of living) is! And I very much believe that much of her advice is also applicable to men.
Mireille proposed we meet at a restaurant I'd walked by a few times but never tried, La Silhouette [362 West 53rd Street / (212) 581.2400 / http://www.la-silhouettenyc.com/], and our meal was really quite delicious. We each had champagne, small poached eggs with asparagus, and a mixed seafood acqua pazza and everything was superb. The service was also very warm and efficient. La Silhouette is a bit deceiving -- when you walk into the entry, you can't quite tell that the space stretches all the way back, but when you walk through a somewhat narrow room you end up in a bright, airy, large room that's very pleasant. I'm looking forward to returning.
Early on at La Silhouette, Mireille mentioned she was leaving in a few weeks for her house in Provence -- the beautiful photos above were taken in and around her property. I enviously sighed as Provence is one of my most favorite places on earth (my very first visit there as a student in 1979 remains one of the most memorable experiences of my life) and we spent most of our lunch talking about how much she loves this region. She recently wrote me and said that a quote from Voltaire, that translates as "I've decided to be happy because it's good for one's health," has become her motto in Provence, where happiness comes naturally, perhaps because Provence is her little paradis terrestre (earthly paradise).
I thought other Francophiles would be as interested as me in learning about Mireille's Provence (as well as some general thoughts about her books and about life), so I've shared them below. And don't miss Mireille's 'Table Hopping in Provence,' found under 'French Finds' on her French Women Don't Get Fat website:
Q: Did you have a sense, when you wrote French Women Don’t Get Fat and then French Women for All Seasons, how successful the books would be here in the U.S. (and indeed the world)? Were you surprised at the books’ reception?
A: I knew they would have an interest and an impact but certainly not as huge and/or long-lasting…7 years later I still get lots of email daily from women who are discovering or rereading, and some of the readers' stories are amazing. So, it makes me feel good to be making a little difference in some people's lives. The book seems timeless, and the reception still amazes me. Daily mentions in the press is also telling, and the phrase "French women don't get fat" has become iconic, a point of reference.
Q: Did you and your husband consider buying a house in another region of France or did you have your hearts set on Provence?
A: We've been going to Provence since we got married and half of my family lives/lived there in Aix, Avignon, and Beaucaire/Tarascon. My husband Edward fell in love with it from the very first visit. To us it's the light, the sky, the history, the architecture, the climate, the vegetation, the smells, the cigales (cicadas), the views of les Alpilles [the area in the western edge of Provence between Avignon and Arles that’s named after a small mountain range], the food, the wines, the art, and much more. After Paris, it's the part of France that has the most culture and on top it has a quality of life one can't just get in a big city.
Q: Once you were looking for a house in Provence, did you have a particular area in mind, and did it take you a long time to find it?
A: Yes, very specific and only in the village where we stayed in every summer. We also wanted an old house, not too big, no need for tennis court, etc., and we found this 1780's bergerie (sheepfold), just perfect for us. It's a bit outside the village, isolated, but also close enough to walk there and we have a great view on the village and the Alpilles. Total silence (the greatest luxury in my book) rules most of the year except when farmers work in their olive groves. We are far from the main road so no car noise.
Q: Without revealing the exact area of Provence where you are right now, what are some of the things you’re looking forward to doing there this summer?
A: The beauty of Provence is that you can stay at the house, enjoy the lavender, the pool, the terrace, the view, do nothing… but you can also be very busy with what is around: Avignon, St Rémy de Provence, Arles, Les Baux but also lots of small villages, and in the summer an amazing choice of concerts with music festivals all over as well as les Chorégies d'Orange which always amazes our guests and is a unique experience [les Chorégies – the name is derived from the Greek “choreos” -- is the oldest festival in France and dates from 1860; the remaining 2012 summer schedule, which runs through 30 July, includes works by Rossini, Mozart and a Lyric Concert featuring Michel Plasson, Diana Damrau, and Béatrice Uria-Monzon]. We've been a few times but last year's ‘Rigoletto,’ with a first-rate Italian cast and the Paris orchestra, will forever stay with as one of the greatest musical evenings of our life. There are also plenty of lovely markets, restaurants, and artisans in Provence. The sky is the limit.
Q: You have a number of houseguests throughout the summer months. What are some typical meals you like to serve Chez Guiliano, and what cookbooks other than your own do you use?
A: I don't use cookbooks. I do simple meals because the ingredients are so great one does not need to do much. I have a wonderful cheese monger who makes fresh goat cheese and faisselle (sort-of a cottage cheese that’s made in both goat and cow varieties) and who delivers, which is a treat. A few farmers also bring me what they have so what I cook is a function of what I get. Tomatoes are probably what we eat the most often as there are so many types. We eat them plain, in salads, with ricotta on tartines (open-faced sandwiches), grilled and stuffed with meat. Meals are easy in the summer. I do a few batches of ratatouille every week (guests love it warm, cold, with fish or white meat or on top of pizza dough). We have a very good fisherman so I have fresh fish and once in a while lamb or bull on the grill. Desserts are fruit from cherries to strawberries to apricots to melons to figs…
Q: You’ve said in other interviews that you are very fond of champagne, but are there Provençal wines you drink that you recommend?
A: We rarely drink champagne though when I offer it nobody says no. There are lots of wonderful rosés and local white and red wines we love, from Château Romanin (our favorite) to Domaine Henri Milan and Mas de la Dame to wines from Draguignan [wine growing area in the neighboring département of Var] to Château La Verrerie and many others we buy when we tour with guests.
Q: What’s on your ‘To Read’ list this summer, and what are you reading right now?
A: With the iPad I reread Proust or the classics and contemporary French literature, but I also like books on art. I am currently reading a French translation of Dora Maar (the house Picasso "gave" her is in Ménerbes, a village in the Lubéron not far from us) and Prisonnière du Regard, written by Dujovne Ortiz. Friends bring me books (my favorite present) on Bonnard as a museum opened in Le Cannet near Cannes, and he is one of my favorite painters. And, of course, I always like to read about Matisse or Cézanne or Van Gogh. After seeing the exhibition on artist Gerhard Richter in Paris I am also reading about him.
Q: And what’s on your iPod or stereo that you’re particularly enjoying?
A: Some jazz, lots of Chopin, French songs by Brassens, Ferrat and Reggiani (sheer poetry). Right now, I am totally addicted to Musica Nuda. The singer, an Italian, Petra Magoni, has this amazing voice and sings not only in Italian but English and French…from Bach to the Beatles (she's a trained opera singer) and Ferruccio Spinetti is incredible at the bass. Amazing talent. We discovered them recently at a concert in Ravello.
Q: You have proven that one can adopt many French ways of living in the States. In New York, what are some of your tips for keeping France in your life, and what are some of your favorite purveyors for the kinds of items -- good quality produce, flowers, home décor finds, books, butchers, clothing, skin care, scent, etc. – that define your joie de vivre?
A: I have to admit I would have a hard time living here without the Union Square Greenmarket. I buy fruit, veggies, eggs, milk, butter, fish and the little meat we eat there. For books, I go to the various small independent bookstores in the Village but there is really nothing equivalent to what is available in Paris from the great Galignani on rue de Rivoli to Librairie des Femmes on rue Jacob or La Hune on place St.- Germain and many small ones (without going too much into stereotype, reading is on top of the list to many French much like music to Germans and painting to Italians). Clothing I rarely buy here. I am not much of a shopper and like about a dozen stores in the world where I go over and over as I visit and if/when I see a piece I like I get it if I feel, "hmm…I could wear this tonight." Here not much really ever fits me well with my small French frame, and I've long been a fan of Italian and Japanese clothing because of the style, quality and no alteration ever. I don't really have a big wardrobe just a few nice mostly timeless pieces to go out and comfortable ones for home, cotton pants and a white or pastel shirt for the summer and black or navy leggings with light green or blue cashmere sweater in winter. C'est tout.
But of course she makes it seem so simple....! When Mireille returns from Provence at the end of the summer she has a busy autumn ahead of her, one that includes more writing, so stay tuned.