Writer and cook Peta Mathias is constantly inspired by her home in the South of France. Amy Shanks discovers how it’s shaped her philosophy on food and life.
They say home is where the heart is. By that token, Peta Mathias is walking the cobble-stoned streets of Uzès, in the south of France.
A basket overflowing with fresh produce from the market in one arm, surrounded by excited chatter of students from one of her half-day cooking classes.
“I usually start out at the market, where I introduce them to local stallholders and eye the fresh ingredients,” Peta says.
“Southern French food is made to be seen, felt – food is romance, it involves all of the senses.”
It’s here Peta spends six months of the year, completely immersed in culture, community and cuisine of a town, renowned for its renaissance architecture.
In this sun-soaked corner of the world, covered in vineyards and olive groves, eating is an experience … and ‘romance’ is present in the every day.
Lazy Sunday lunches are spent sipping Pastis [an anise liqueur], surrounded by generations of family. Every mouthful, every conversation is thoroughly devoured.
Food is modest, but the flavours strong – think pissaladière, rabbit with artichokes, brandade de morue salt cod, pélardon goat cheese.
“My taste buds are French-Italian – those are the flavours I like, so those are the foods I love to make,” says Peta.
“A professional cook will shop all day – they will get their bread from a certain place, meat from their favourite butcher, fresh produce from a market – then put it all together to make something exceptional. It all starts with quality ingredients.”
Among her list of ‘must see’ sights in Uzès – a little-known Medieval Garden where medieval plants, flowers, grains, medicinal plants and vegetables are grown.
Its streets hold a treasure trove of provençal textiles, ceramics, chic clothing shops and of course, the only Michelin-star restaurant in town – La Table d’Uzès.
Peta’s love affair with France began in her 20s, but it was a romance with French food that prompted a swift and permanent change of career in her 30s.
A trained nurse, working as a drug and alcohol councillor in London, Peta moved to Paris in 1980, with a feeling that destiny was pointing her in entirely different direction.
“I walked into a restaurant in Paris and said, ‘I want to work here’. They said, ‘Are you any good at washing dishes?’ I said, ‘No, I want to cook’. I was 30, in a strange city, but that’s how I got started.”
These days the insatiable chef, author and broadcaster is rarely still – if not hosting cooking classes she’s taking culinary adventure tours, attending speaking engagements or furiously working on a new book.
Chasing the sunshine, Peta made her annual six-month return home to write, on the breeze of a New Zealand summer in 2020.
Little did she know, it would be a far longer stay than anticipated, and there was plenty of time to work on her new title – Shed Couture – set for release in October.
For now, her dual life, split between Uzès and Auckland, has been put on hold.
“I have a fantastic life by anyone’s standards, it’s been very shocking to lose it …When COVID hit I was in New Zealand, I just got back from New York, where I was doing a research tour for my new book on fashion,” Peta says.
“It’s been a massive adjustment, I [usually] spend half of my time in Uzès, I used to rent a place every year, but I decided to buy; last time I was in that house was September 2019.”
Waking in the romantic medieval French town wasn’t possible last year, and Peta’s not sure when she’ll tread its cobbled streets again.
COVID has also kept her from hosting lively gastronomic tours through France, Morocco, Vietnam, Spain, Italy and India.
“I miss the variety, the French, I’m a nomad, I love to travel – I love adventure, the excitement, the romance of it all. I miss all of the foods in those countries – I miss my old life.”
While travel may be dear to her heart, Peta knows all too well, she couldn’t be in a better place as we sail through the uncertainty of a global pandemic.
“I enjoy being home. I have had a beautiful summer – I’ve been to some amazing local restaurants; even though I’m here six months of the year – it’s superficially home. This time has been different.
“We are living a free life – no one else is. France is doing really badly, it’s just awful, there must be a huge amount of emotional distress, they have lost so much.”
Instead of burying her head in the sand over this enforced staycation, Peta put out feelers to friends throughout New Zealand to fill her 2021 schedule.
Cooking classes are of course on the list, speaking engagements and even her second ever Kiwi Culinary Tour, held at Cape Kidnappers in Hawke’s Bay.
An event that proved so successful, she’s considering adding more to the calendar, although perhaps a little closer to her Auckland home next time.
A nomad life may not be possible in the current climate, but Peta’s passion for food and culture will never cease. And slowing down? It’s not an option.
“I can’t imagine retiring. I would love to die on a kitchen table with a glass of cognac in my hand. For now, I’ll keep on doing what I love.”
* This is the second in a four-part online series (Part 1: Chef Peta Mathias hosts Hawke’s Bay ‘Staycation’). Next we share some tips from Peta’s kitchen, and a recipe so good she promises there will be no leftovers.
Photos: Florence Charvin