I love it when my French aunt comes over on a Sunday with her homemade chestnut cake, a smile on her face, and stories of Provence which she will creatively illustrate. I learn even more when Uncle Jean-Claude assists in the storytelling with his musical accent – a mixture of Africa, Toulouse and Provençal sing-song.
Recently, after a lazy lunch we were thinking about dessert: should we go for a walk or dive right into the gâteau à la crème de marron? As we considered our options Aunt Marie-Françoise noticed the roof tile resting on our kitchen counter. The antique terracotta tuile was set upright on display near the wall and, hidden behind the deep curve of its back, a less attractive jam jar held fresh-picked daisies and beautiful leafy euphorbia known as ‘snow on the mountain’, or neige des montagnes.
I noticed my aunt’s questioning gaze and smiled, remembering what a great conversation piece that old tile has proved to be, thanks to its many uses. (Turn it on its back and it is an attractive dish for apéritifs – a handful of radishes look simply lovely in the hollow bowl.)
“Next, I plan to use it as a light fixture…” I hinted to my aunt. Only… so far, I haven’t figured out how to attach a wire behind the ancient clay tile without breaking it in the process. “C’est très ancien,” my husband pointed out, before offering a brief a history of the tile, an artefact that our builder had uncovered while renovating the roof of our vineyard’s farmhouse.
Uncle Jean-Claude picked up the tile and held it before the light. He noticed the neat French cursive etched across the front and tried to make out the words: ‘a fait… 30 juin...’
“It looks like a name,” he noted, offering: “André a fait le 30 juin. Made by André on the 30th of June – too bad the year wasn’t noted.” Uncle Jean-Claude shrugged his shoulders and carefully passed the signed tile to his wife.
“Say…” my aunt began, “…do you know the history behind these tuiles? They were handmade here in Provence… par les femmes! Yes, shaped with the help of a woman’s thighs!” Aunt Marie-Françoise pointed out the tile’s pretty curve. And what a curve!
It was hard to believe that once upon a time French women used their delicate legs to fashion roof tiles, the clay being moulded right over their thighs! But then, as Jean-Claude pointed out, cigars were made with the help of a woman’s cuisse too, weren’t they?
Myth or reality, it certainly was another colourful Provençal story and we all had fun taking turns placing the old tile over our own cuisses, impressed by the Rubenesque dimension of the artefact, which slipped right off our shapeless thighs….
This brought us back to our ‘walk or dessert?’ conundrum. Maybe we had better opt for the exercise?
Originally published in the June-July 2013 issue of France Today