By Shane Cubis
“Obviously I am not paying for you to go to France on a food study,” wrote Nicholas, in my second disappointment of the day.* The third disappointment quickly followed on its heels, when another email popped in from Nick that wasn’t a change of heart accompanied by a first-class ticket to Provence. “I want you to explore the services of Jean-Marie Liere from Our French Impressions.”
Still, all wasn’t lost. My local pub was doing a $15 sardine nicoise with a complimentary house white that might have had some sauvignon blanc in the mix, getting me in the Gallic spirit for a chat with Jean-Marie Liere, who takes people on tours of France to soak up the culinary scene, cultural and historical surrounds, and excellent company.
In Australia, we are blessed with a frankly ridiculous range of cuisines, especially if you live in a rapidly gentrifying, former working class suburb where pubs that used to house hulking men covered with the filth of their day’s labours can offer reasonably priced sardine nicoises with a straight face. From my place, on the seven-minute walk to the Northcote Social Club (formerly the Commercial Hotel, whose carpets would have had an entirely different aroma, I suspect), my path passes eateries offering the following international options: Israeli, Vietnamese, Thai, Ethiopian, Irish, Japanese, Macedonian, Italian, Indonesian, Malaysian, Turkish, Indian, Modern Australian and French. There was also Egyptian, but it closed down.**
But, of course, there’s nothing like actually eating a nation’s food within that nation’s borders. Especially when you’re being guided about by someone like Jean-Marie, whose life experience seems to have been custom-designed to lead hungry travellers on bespoke tours through the “real” Provence, showing off authentic cuisine, local wines and expert craftmanship that winds up in your belly.
“One day my wife said, ‘You’re not doing anything with your French-ness’,” he explains. “The next morning, I went and researched how I could build a website for no money and start blogging. So, basically, Our French Impressions was born that day as a website, and it grew up from there. That's why we are ex-wife and ex-husband – we have very different ways of going about things. My wife is a perfectionist, which means she doesn't do anything until it's perfect, where I stop and I fine-tune it all the way.
“So, these trips didn't really happen until we were separated because I said, ‘Even if I have only two clients, I’m going to run the tour, and then the next year will be better, and the next year we'll have more people.’ Now, I'm at this stage where I have done three trips. One professional with Pepe Saya – a research trip on butter in France that was entirely financed by him, and we did a book about it. Then I had two private tours with clients who I knew through somebody else. I mean, it's word of mouth, really. Now we have two trips planned for next year. I think we will fill them up because there's a lot of interest.
“But it’s also very personal, too. The best testimonial I've got was in September. It touched me very deeply, because the lady said, ‘Where we were expecting a tour guide, we ended up with a friend.’ It's not necessarily that I want to be friends with everybody, but I want people to feel that they have taken care of very privately.”
Pained, I turned the conversation back to Australia’s culinary scene, which has changed significantly in the time our man has been here. And he has a theory as to why that is.
“I think a big change has occurred because of MasterChef,” he says. “MasterChef has brought into everybody’s home an interest for better cooking, and also has driven people to buy better ingredients, fresher things, paddock-to-plate kind of things. That has forced the chefs and the restaurateurs to actually up their games, as well. So, it's been a win-win situation, I suppose. And then they also involved children, so those children are now young adults and they want to cook properly and have a nice feeling.”
It’s no revelation to say that for a lot of us, food is a major component in our upbringing. Whether you were a fussy eater who would only tolerate peas, mashed potato and sausages, or a Dora the Explorer type who wanted everything in their mouth and make it snappy, there’s hardly a person you’ll meet who won’t be able to wax lyrical on the meals they necked in short pants. Or, you know, pinafores.
“My mum was at home,” explains Jean-Marie, “so her duty was to take care of us as children and keep the household running while Dad was away working. Her mum was the same and her grandmother was the same. So, basically, she had the same training as I had, which is just watching people you love doing the things that are going to feed you.
“Over in France at the time, kids didn’t go to school on Wednesday. And I vividly remember that was the day where we would go to the market and then maybe to the butcher or do all the food shopping with her. And the butcher would always give you a slice of saucisson, or whatever. He was doing a loss, basically, saying, ‘Well, that piece of saucisson that I’m giving away today will bring back business.’”
Any Aussie in a romantic relationship with someone of certain European heritages knows that almost everything is food (and what’s left over is sex). It has to be discussed, planned, anticipated, dissected and judged. You can’t just off-handedly tell your Italian father-in-law that the place on the corner does a great Lebanese pizza. And you can’t tell Nonna you had Macca’s before visiting, unless you want to cop the wooden spoon.
“My family lived a very nomadic life because my dad was posted regularly elsewhere,” Jean-Marie explains. “So I think I have moved 45 times in my life. I lived in France and Mexico and Scotland and Holland and in Australia. I visited, I don't know, over 40 countries for sure, or not far from 50. So, I have also an appreciation of different cultures and different foods, and now even the language and the food are related. A lot of the jokes in France or the expression are food related, and it’s really weird because this is a big, big part of French life. I mean, I know when I'm with my mum and my sister, who live on the west coast now, it’s going to be, ‘Oh, where are we going for lunch tomorrow?’
“It’s very funny – you can be at a two-Michelin-star restaurant for lunch and then the conversation will go on to, ‘What are we going to have for dinner?’ Even if it’s just a piece of saucisson and some red wine, you never miss a meal. That doesn’t happen.”
I tell him it’s actually a bit of a shock for me to spend time with some unreformed Aussie-Aussie mates, who enjoy endless cups of tea and sunny-side-up eggs on dry toast. Who’ll order the beef and black bean, and look suspiciously at any beer that doesn’t come in a marone and gold can. It’s actually a bit of a palate cleanser, or a nostalgia trip that takes me back to dunking Milk Arrowroots in sweet milky tea while Nana Jean played tennis with her gossipy friends on the Russell Vale court.
(Actually, I didn’t tell him a single word of this, but you can imagine me as a far better interviewer, forging spontaneous connections between cultures and praising rather than burying my own family’s relationship with food. No? Okay, let’s move on to when I asked him about how things are different for diners in 2019 as opposed to the late ’90s.)
“When I first came here,” he replies, “about 22 years ago now, there was not much table manners. Kids would run around freely in restaurants, screaming their heads off. A lot of people would go to a fancy restaurant, and not know how to use the cutlery. And then the waiters were backpackers that didn't know anything about waitressing.
“I remember my first boss, we've been very busy, we have done very well, and one night she said to me, ‘Oh, here is a couple of hundred dollars, go and take your wife to a good restaurant on us.’ So we decided to go to Café Sydney – and we didn't get our wine until the middle of the main course. That's the sort of thing that has changed tremendously.
“In Sydney, anyway. It was slightly different in Melbourne because of the influence of the Italians and the Greeks. There was a culture of waitressing being a job, where in Sydney, it's very recent that people are actually employed to that job or at least trained to be properly.”
I threw in some words like sommelier to let him know I knew my cuisine, that I’d be something of an asset on his overseas tours, but upon reading the transcript of our conversation, I realise I’m probably too gauche. But at least I crossed out the questions I had about Gabriel Gaté and Manu Feildel.
Last word belongs, as it should, to Jean-Marie: “It is a very, very personal trip. Most tours that are run in Provence, or elsewhere in France, are usually by expats – people that are English or Australian or American who settled in Provence years ago, they bought a property or whatever. And in many ways they know Provence today better than me. But they don't have the anchor in the terroir, if you will. My roots are there.
“And actually, this last trip there was really, really strong as a feeling. Aborigines here talk about country, and I really felt for the first time, in my bones, it was not intellectual at all. It was really a deep connection, a physical connection, really, with the land in Provence, which I have never had happen before. I suppose it was just too much noise in my head about it. All these things happen to you in curious ways.”
*My first disappointment of the day, of course, was spotting myself in the mirror and realising I hadn’t spontaneously dropped 15-odd kilos overnight.
**And now you know why.