French Borderlands – Reflections on community and food
An obscure area of France bordering Italy, about 50 miles north of Nice, has been in the news because refugees arriving in Italy, wanting to get to France and beyond, have taken to a difficult inland route — north, then crossing over the mountains south into France near the Col de Tende and into the Roya Valley. Years ago I lived in that valley, in Saorge, a perched village above the Roya River, and know the area reasonably well. When I was back there recently, on a trip with my husband, I was surprised to see armed gendarmes on the barely traveled roads deep in the mountains. It wasn’t until I talked to some of my French friends that I learned the area is heavily patrolled with gendarmes not only seeking to apprehend illegal refugees but anyone who is seen to be helping them.
During WWII, the locals of the area were known for helping people escape from the Nazis and from Vichy France, and for their Resistance work in fighting the Axis powers. So perhaps it is not surprising that with what many consider a humanitarian crisis on a scale not seen since WWII, many of the mountain inhabitants have decided to obey their moral compass rather than the law, and continue to assist the refugees.
As I read in the newspapers when I came home and learned from friends living near the area, some of the mountain people were temporarily housing some of the refugees, collecting clothes and money and helping them on their way, I reflected on my time as a young foreigner living in Saorge in 1969, while working at piece rate for an American accessory designer who had fled the United States during the Mc McCarthy era, a political refugee. It was a strange period of my life, predating a later move to France with my husband and daughter, far from my usual life in southern California.
I shared a furnished, walk up flat with an American friend on the far south side of the village overlooking the olive groves that dropped down to the edge of the Roya River far below. The village itself had only about 100 inhabitants; over half of them with Italian surnames, and life still resonated to the rhythms of bygone eras. Milk came into the village at dawn in milk cans strapped on either side of a donkey, led by an elderly man. A town crier called out the news. And every Saturday morning, women walked to the bakery carrying large round boards on their head, laden with a thin round of dough to be baked in the communal oven. These, we learned were pizza-like flatbreads, torta or tourtas, that were traditional in the village.
Fascinated, we asked our neighbor about the tourtas. She immediately invited us into her kitchen and showed us her round board, explained how to make the dough, how to prepare the toppings, and asked if we would like to make it with her the coming Saturday. She told us to look in the kitchen of our flat and we’d probably find a round board. “Everyone has one,” she explained. Sure enough, we found a round, slightly worm-holed board in the kitchen cupboard, tucked behind the smattering of pots and pans.
The following Saturday saw us joining the village women, waiting our turn to have our tourta go into the oven. We all chatted together in broken French, Italian, and English, finding a way to communicate around food, and we were invited by several of the women to join the community Christmas Eve polenta dinner the following week, to be held at a small restaurant.
I’d never had polenta and it had to be explained to me. Part of the explanation involved the fact that it was Italian. Several of the villages along the frontier between France and Italy, borderlands, had been part of Italy until 1947, and the distinctions remained blurred. It was a festive meal that Christmas Eve, with creamy polenta coming to the tables on the selfsame round boards used for the tourtas, a meat and tomato sauce, and lots of red wine.
Years later, on my recent visit to Saorge with my husband, we had lunch in that same restaurant where I had eaten my first polenta, as part of the small community, that in spite of my foreignness, welcomed me into the village and helped me to feel a part of life there.
The recent menu, like the village, was a mix of Italian and French. We chose the Italian cheese and charcuterie dish, followed by an Italian pasta dish. We could equally have opted for French dishes or a mix.
Our hotel’s restaurant in La Brigue, a village north of Saorge, had a Slow Food seal of approval on its window. For dinner, we ate a traditional Italian dish from just over the border in the Piedmont region of Italy, ravioli filled with borage. The borage was growing along the edge of the river, and we could see the garden from the hotel window.
Food crosses the political borders in this mountain area, as it does in many other parts of the world. As we look to ways to think about immigrants and immigration, I think we can look toward food and foodways as a means of understanding one another in the universal language of food, reaching out to each another with kindness and help where needed.