She was a heavy set woman with a short, dirty blond bob and an overbite not corrected in childhood two dozen years past.  She was wrapped in a thin blouse and a pink sweater against the damp chill of the drizzly early morning Tuesday Market in the narrow cobbled streets of Vaison la Romaine, high the Provence region of southern France.  She’d set our her fruits…plump yellow and red apples, spotted brown, golden pears, bright succulent cherries, and firm yellow bananas…early that morning.  As I approached her fruit stall, her toothy grin and twinkling eyes brightened my day and invited me to choose from the bounty displayed.

I bought two yellow apples.  They would be my dinner.  I needed to go light after a major carb load, late in the morning, of freshly squeezed orange juice, flakey croissants, and dark, rich coffee that is so very French and so not on my diet at home.  After a few days of traveling solo in Provence, I was still in the “but I’m on vacation and need to experience the food vs how much damage am I doing and how long will it take to correct it” mode.  The day before, I had probably consumed a weeks worth of calories, paired, of course, with just the right wine, so I was feeling overstuffed.  My apples would be just fine.

A Southern Woman from North Carolina, I’d set off alone to Provence.  A first for me.  I’d wandered through Marseille and Avignon for a few days and then met a group of eight strangers for a travel, food, and wine writing worksop in Vaison.  There was Nick, our instructor and leader, fluent in French, and his wife, Lisa, a plastic surgeon.  They were from Seattle.  Their neighbors, Steve, a dentist, and Paula, photographer extraordinaire, were both taking the workshop.  Chis, another Seattleite, did not claim to be a writer but did claim to be the official wine bottle opener for the group.  Charles, our young philosopher, and Julie an art center director, were both from New York.  Lorelie, a journalist from San Juan, rounded out our group.  Any misgivings I may have had about spending the week with eight strangers, none of whom were Southern, disappeared as we seemed to fall into a comfortable syncopation at our first meeting.

Paula and I had teamed up to explore Vaison’s Tuesday Market together.  As she made her way down the street from my fruit vendor to another stall to buy a bag of olives, I followed, feeling self righteous but deprived as I imagined the feast I could create from the market vendors.  My day dream included a dinner of fat sausages, succulent olives, soaked in oil with a generous sprinkling of fresh local herbs, huge loaves of crusty French bread, and a healthy slab of pungent cheese, paired with a full bodied red with notes of berry and spice.  It didn’t help that Paula and I happened to run into Charles at the olive vendor’s stand where he bought a small bag of olives to go with the sausage, cheese, and bread he’d bought for his own rainy day Provencal picnic.  Oh, to be young with an off-the-charts metabolic rate again!

It was later in the day when Nick led the way into the cheese shop that my resolve began to crumble.  Paula called the aroma that of teenagers’ gym socks.  I called it nirvana.  The third cheese we sampled, a medium strong cow variety, moved me closer to the precipice.  I bought a not-too-large slab to go with my apples and a small jar of pear jam, called confit in France, that Nick said went well with the cheese.  Then the debacle began in earnest.  Lorelei and Julie had shopped heavy…strawberries, cherries, cheeses, sweets, and two bottles of a wine recommended by someone’s nephew.  They suggested that since we did not have a scheduled dinner planned for the evening we pool our resources and meet in our hotel’s second floor foyer shared by their room and mine as well as that of Chris….who at the moment was purchasing an interesting looking bottle of red that the shop owner had declared would compliment my cheese.  C’est parfait!  My two yellow apples would find themselves in very good company.

I bought a bottle of wine to add to the bounty before Paula and I set off in a mad dash to shop for dinner after giving Steve and Chris instructions to find dessert.  Our first stop was a small bakery just around the corner on the main drag in Vaison.  We finally chose two knotty loaves that would easily tear into chunks so we wouldn’t need a bread knife.  The shop owner grinned as we agonized over which bread to choose.  There were large golden crusty loaves and smaller ones as well as buttery croissants and puffy brioche.

“What about dessert?” Paula asked as we left the bakery.  “But I thought the guys were going to get that,” I replied.  She smiled.  “They’re guys,” she said.  “Right.”  So we began our hunt for a suitable dessert.  I suggested a large fruit tart of some kind and my mouth began to water.  Paula concurred.

By now, I was carrying, in separate bags, a bottle of wine, a hunk of cheese, a jar of confit, two apples, two large loaves of bread, plus an umbrella.  It was a welcome relief to find a shop that sold very large, very pretty, plastic shopping totes.  The one I chose was red and yellow with an image on it of a sumptuous feast of fruits, biscuits, and jams, and the words, “Confitures de Tradition”.  Perfect…and the appropriate venue for carrying food for our feast.  I packed my new tote with all my purchases and my umbrella…since the rain had stopped.  Feeling more comfortable…with room in my tote for more goodies…I was ready to move on.  We ducked into two patisseries in search of the perfect tart.  We found small prune filled pastries and more brioche, but not the perfect tart.  We moved on to the next patisserie.  There we found more baguettes and, as the shops began to close, we grew a little worried that all the desserts in Vaison had been claimed for other peoples’ dinners.  We asked the shop proprietor where we might find a suitable tart.  “C’est passé la place et autour du coin vers la gauche,” she said.  Paula and I looked at each other in that deer-in-the-headlights way.  Neither of us had understood, so the shop proprietor repeated her directions, this time with hand signals that indicated, “across the square and down the street to the left.”  With an exuberant “Merci beaucoup, Madame,”  off we went.  

We rounded the corner and there they were…at least a dozen beautiful tarts, shiny with baked-on egg white, displayed in the window of Maison Le Sage.  We ducked in and greeted the owner with our very best, “Bonjour, Madame!”  It was quickly established that she spoke English as she described, in mouth watering detail, the ingredients of each of the sweet offerings in her shop.  There was chocolate with ganache, an apple with creme, and a delicate pear.  We settled on lemon with a nutty base, a tart large enough for ten, she said, as she packed it carefully in a square pink box and tied it with a white ribbon.  As an afterthought, we threw in a dozen plain little cookies, flavored with orange zest, that I added to my shopping bag.  Paula carried the pink ribboned box to keep the tart upright.  

Loaded with our loot, we made a bee line for the bridge that would take us back to the hotel.  The last business establishment before the bridge is a small cafe and bar, and as we approached, we were greeted by Steve and Chris, lounging at a small table on the sidewalk, sipping beer.  They did not have any boxes or bags and looked like they’d been settled in at the cafe for a while.  “Did you get dessert?” I asked.  Steve grinned.  “That’s next on our list,” he said.  Hmmm.  Seems Paula knows her husband pretty well.  She joined the guys for a coffee.  I headed up the hill with my French shopping bag.

Later, I opened my door into the foyer and heard Julie.  Then a reply from Lorelei.  They talked of moving the silk flowers, needing to set out napkins, and Julie could not get Pandora to work on her laptop so she hoped her iTunes Spanish music would suffice.  There was a large oak round table in the center of the room covered with a lace cloth where the women had already laid out a feast of white and yellow cheese, luscious red strawberries, plump cherries, black crinkled olives, a fat sausage, and two bottles of red wine.  They had shopped for paper plates and clear plastic cups…an impromptu replacement for china and crystal.  It would work nicely.  I spied the pink box from Maison La Sage perched on the fireplace mantle so I knew Paula was nearby.  She came around the corner as I was adding the bounty from my shopping bag to the table.  Then Chris appeared with the wine he’d purchased at the cheese shop and a wine opener he’d picked up at the front desk, apparently a staple at any good French hotel. Gotta love that about the French.

Steve arrived with a package of proscuitto, a tub of unsweetened creme, and a small basket of French fries with ketchup.  French fries with ketchup.  Gotta love that about the Americans.  Charles came in with more olives, sausage, cheese, and bread….his scarf looped loosely around the neck of his blue pullover, his cap low on his brow, looking so European.  It was past the appointed dinner hour of 6:30, the wine was breathing and we were eyeing our feast in anticipation as we chatted and waited politely for Nick and Lisa to arrive.  At 7:45, Lorelei said, “I think we should begin in 15 minutes.  Thirty minutes is plenty to wait.”  My stomach grumbled.  At that moment, Nick appeared around the corner, wine and cheese in hand.  Lisa was occupied.  We should begin.  But first, Paula gathered us for a group photo, setting her timer and scooting to Nick’s side as we all struck our best French pose.  “Cheese!” 

Finally, Chris poured the wine, nectar from the gods of the Cotes de Provence that paired beautifully with the strong hams and the pungent cheeses and sweet confit, and herbed olives, and succulent berries and cherries, and nuts and nougats, and gingered fruit pate, and of course, bread, torn in chunks, crusty on the outside, soft and chewy inside.  We poured more wine and nibbled on cookies.  Then we poured more wine and took the tart out of its pink box to predictable oohs and aahs from our little group of literates.  When we were all served, I took a first delectable bite.  It was everything,and more, that I imagined it might be.  Firm and sweet and tangy with the satisfying crunch of a nutty base.  

Spanish music from Julie’s laptop played in the background.  There was laughter and shared experiences of the Tuesday Market.  There was talk of Vaison shops and there was red wine spilled on white lace.  As we sipped and munched and murmured and laughed together, it became clear to me that good food and good wine pairs so very well with new friends and a shared adventure.  The sharing, the enjoyment of the food and that moment far outweighed any worry of calories and carbs.  I took another bite of the tart.