In Rome I waited to board an hour long flight to Bari, waiting in a huddle of hand gestures and fidgeting that the Italians call a line. Once on the plane, I saw a petite woman I recognized as Dominique Loiseau sitting in the front row of first class. We were both headed to the same place (though not in the same class): the Parabere Forum.
I didn't realize how much I needed women in my life before I moved to Pouillé. I took for granted the fact that my social circle was made up exclusively of ladies, gays, and honorary ladies (a small group of straight men who were partners of my lady friends and deemed worthy of the status). It never occurred to me that would change. Then I moved to the countryside in a region where the main professions- winemaking, agriculture, etc.- have always been and remain totally male dominated.
In response to this new environment, I sought out women everywhere. There was Noëlla, of course, and Juliette whose partner had just started making wine in the region. Lisanne, a sommelière in Antwerp would often make visits to the vines, and Corinne who makes wine with her husband Paul, was also an example of a strong, independent woman.
Another source of comfort came from books. I read food memoirs and cookbooks written by defiant and talented women. I devoured Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones, and Butter. I relished the witty commentary and critiques of MFK Fisher and Elizabeth David. I learned from Barbara Kingsolver's adventures in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I spent time cooking vicariously with Judy Rodgers using The Café Zuni Cookbook. I pickled red onions just like Tamar Adler told me to. I read Tender at the Bone and loved Ruth Reichl's out of control adventures. I brought these women into my life by reading about their lives. And I listened to a lot of Beyoncé, Bikini Kill, and Sleater Kinney.
But passive consumption doesn't create community. That's why, pretty much directly after I interviewed Parabere Forum's president Maria Canabal for the Paris Paysanne Podcast, I asked her if I could come to the forum, which included chefs and culinary entrepreneurs giving presentations and sharing their experiences. Maria put me on the press list and I bought tickets to Bari right away, without even trying to get my Paris lady friends on board first. I wasn't particularly excited about going alone, but I knew I wanted to go and hoped I wouldn't be too shy to make friends while there.
The fact that I made numerous friends the first night is truly a testament to how friendly and welcoming Parabere Women are. From the start, a ray of sunshine named Flavia grabbed a seat next to me during an ice breaker activity and we ended up talked about everything but the given topic. I was excited to have made a friend and looked forward to what was to come as I headed to the restaurant where I had made a reservation for one that night. I opened the door to the small bistro and realized that almost everyone from the forum was at that very restaurant. My sunshiny Flavia waved to me from the back of the restaurant where I joined her, pulling up a chair to a group of Italians, Turks, and Swedes.
Everything about Parabere Forum was this way. It was a lady universe, a world of our own. Successful women presented the projects and were met with support and standing ovations. We mingled and shared stories- women switched seamlessly from talking about raising their kids to managing a team in the kitchen.
They talked about a sense of duty towards future generations, about being “eco chefs” and not “ego chefs”. One presenter told us that when she found out she couldn't have children she “realized there had to be another way to influence the next generation” so she set out to help incarcerated women design clothes and generate their own income. The theme was entrepreneurship, but the aim was empowerment. “Great women empower other women to be great,” Maria told us on opening day of the forum, something that clearly all participants agreed on- in both principals and actions.
“What's it going to be like when we leave?” I asked one of my new Swedish friends on the last day of the forum, as we toured the barrio vecchio of Bari, where women invited us into their homes to teach us to make the local pasta specialty, orecchiette. Somewhere in the world, a critically acclaimed male chef was surely serving this pasta, using a recipe passed on to him by his grandmother, and getting credit for being innovative. This reality is the one we'd all be going back to the next day when the bubble burst. “It's going to be different,” my friend responded and we tried to muster up a smile.
Looking back I realize that this was a unique moment, one in which-just for a few days- the world we were going back to felt like it was the different reality, and the world we had created by being together and sharing our stories felt real and unchallenged.
Luckily I was not headed back to the real world after Parabere Forum, but rather to another alternate universe: Brittany. After Bari, I met up with Ben in Nantes to join him as he opened for the Belgian singer Arno for a few dates. The tour would take us from Nantes to Brest and then Rennes, with some smaller shows Ben had organized through friends along the way. This would be the last tour Ben would do before dedicating himself to working in the vines and, eventually, starting an organic winemaking courses. I had never been on tour and was along for the ride.
We arrived in Douarnenez, a small port town South of Brest, just in time for l'heure de l'apéro. I would soon find out that in Brittany it very rarely isn't apéro time. Ben had been contacted by Emilie, the owner of Chez Mathurin, a restaurant in the village that served natural wine. The cozy bistro had just enough space for Ben to set up and play a set in exchange for food, wine, and good company.
Ben's music is beautiful, loopy, and sonorous. It's him and his guitar playing the space around him like an instrument. Ben takes his time making music. He lets notes linger and lyrics create worlds. He can turn a rowdy wine bar into the world's smallest symphony hall and a drafty concert hall into a cosy house show. With few exceptions, I'm always impressed by French audiences. The crowd that gathered that night lived up to their reputation of being receptive and engaged, interested and encouraging. They watched as Ben played his set, enjoying the freedom to play whatever he wanted for however long he wanted to- a change from the strict instructions given to him by Arno's tour manager.
Bottles of Marc Pesnot, a local winemaker who works with the native varietal Melon de Bourgogne, kicked off the apéro and opened our appetites with their ocean air salinity and refreshing acidity. Oysters were busily opened behind the bar and accompanied with corks being pulled from Alsatian whites by Christian Binner. The evening became a blur, I have a hazy memory of a tray of shot glasses filled with cognac awaiting us outside a café on our way to one of the patrons apartments for an after party. It was that very café where we would resurface at some point the next day, ostensibly for the market, but actually to see how everyone had made it through the night.
Up until that following morning, I had seen this part of Brittany from the point of view of a car or bar (or drunken midnight stroll). As we groggily made our way to the market the next day, I had my first glimpse of the streets and sounds of this little port town. A main street led to the market and surrounding commerce, where locals flocked to do their weekend shopping. I pulled Ben into a crêperie and we watched as a team of six prepared crêpe upon crêpe on a rotating mechanism of a dozen griddles.
The simplicity and mastery of their gestures- making what has been eaten here in the way its been made for years- touched me. The combination of the quality of the work and the pride in doing something well, as well as the commitment to not wavering or changing a time tested recipe, summed up everything I love about long established food cultures- where food and culture come together in edible perfection. The opportunity to be witness to a thriving local food culture, I realized, is the reason I feel compelled to leave my house and explore the world.
As much as I don't like leaning on one filter through which to see the world, I have to say if I had to choose I'd want to see the world through food. Not because I'm exclusively pleasure seeking, but because it's provided a platform for me to experience and enjoy culture in general. Eating my crêpe under the Bretagne sun, savoring the simplicity of an egg folded into an airy flour envelope, I thought about how I went from making pasta with Italian women in Bari to discovering hangover cures in Brittany in the span of only a few days. Reflecting on this, I started giving thanks; to Maria, to feminists everywhere, to my guitar playing boyfriend and the aging Belgian rocker who inspired the trip, to Emilie who welcomed us into her home, and to the people we had met along the way.
A few months ago I didn't know Maria or Bari, Emilie or Douarnenez and now, thanks to a magical mixture of feminism and folk rock, I had been invited to crowded tables of people eager to share food. This is why food is important, it's what brings people to the table.
The sprawling terrace of the Café des Halles (whose staff had so kindly provided us with cognac the night before) was full of families and friends, recovering from the night before. Easing into the day with a late morning cider it was only a matter of time before bottles of wine were brought out. Villagers played musical chairs, hopping from table to table to share a drink and catch up. At one point our table was served a plate whose contents I was unable to distinguish. “They're pouce-pieds” Emilie explained to me, as if that clarified the situation.
Pouce-pieds look like dragon's claws. I can't think of anything in our world to compare them to. The dragon toenail is actually a shell and the leathery phalanges house an edible creature, which is rubbery and similar to whelks in taste. These barnacles are harvested manually and grow in hard-to-get-to places, which explains why you most likely have never had a plate of them magically show up on your table. But this was Britanny, the land of spontaneously appearing cognac shots and edible dragon claws. Unsurprisingly, pouce-pieds pair perfectly with white wine and cider, and thus another apéro begins in the tiny port town of Douarnenez.