Choosing an Artisan Life: Generations in the making

Growing up, one of my most vivid food memories was the annual smelt fry: my parents and neighbors crammed into our kitchen cleaning countless tiny fish, while music, laughter and a volatile smell permeated the entire house.

Although I hate the taste of smelt, even at a young age, I recognized that this was a rare and special event. I grew up during the ’70s when convenience foods like Hamburger Helper and TV dinners were all the rage. Packed with preservatives, you could eat them any time of the year, but the smelt run was a local, seasonal event. Over the years it became even more evident that local, seasonal dishes were something to be cherished.

Perhaps that is why I am enamored with the regional specialties of France. The long tradition of respecting the terroir is so deeply entrenched in the cultural thread that you feel ashamed to eat a crêpe outside of Brittany, and you will be hard-pressed to find a peach in October. To everything there is a season, and to every region, a smorgasbord of sumptuous specialties.

When I began seeking out these specialties, I discovered a world of artisanal, family-owned businesses, each with its unique, beautiful story.

I was hooked.

Choosing an Artisan Life

I wanted to share these stories of dedication and savoir-faire with others, so I set off to film interviews with artisans.

Catherine and Jean-Benoît Hugues: Moulin Castelas in Provence


My first stop, Moulin Castelas, at Les Baux-de-Provence in Provence.

Catherine and Jean-Benoît Hugues had lived in the US for 15 years but returned to France to raise their family. They fell in love with the olive groves in Les Baux-de-Provence (it is easy to see why) and decided to craft their olive oils. Catherine explains that as the daughter of a wine-maker, they constructed their mill using the design of a winery since both oils and wine are made by crushing and blending fruit.

Harvest is in full swing when I arrive, and the air is full of excitement as large pallets of olives arrive at the mill. Catherine shows me the route each olive will take, and at the end, collects a sample of pure juice that has just been extracted. It is smooth, fresh, and delicious! These exceptional oils have been winning awards for over 20 years, and I am delighted to witness the magic. They have traded in corporate agendas for the rhythm of the seasons, and the deep satisfaction of co-creating with Mother Nature is as evident as the sunshine on their faces. They are passing their savoir-faire to daughter Emilie who studied business, then decided to return and continue the family legacy.

I am confident my great-grandchildren and their children will enjoy these exceptional oils.

Jean-François Otter:  petit bonheur in a bakery in Normandy

Jean-François Otter also left the corporate world, where he worked with frozen foods. He wanted more of a connection to the land and the people he served and found his petit bonheur in a bakery in Normandy.

The simple butter cookie or sablé au beurre, has a long tradition in Normandy, as the rich butter from the beautiful tricolor vache normande is a treasure.

Parking the car in the village of Asnelles, a stone’s throw from the famous Arromanches-les-Bains, I could smell the intoxicating aroma of freshly baked cookies as I stepped out across the street. A line had formed outside the tiny bakery. I walked in to find a small but cheerful staff, crafting these cut-out cookies by hand. Energy and lightness were evident in the work, especially when one man broke out in song!

The joy was palpable, and I returned whenever I was in Normandy.

Jean-François and his team have kept the tradition alive, using the same basic recipe with only butter, sugar, flour, and eggs. All from local sources, packaged in pretty metal boxes recalling the charm of yesteryear. He has also modernized, creating a larger café where you can sit and savor his new recipes such as the “Carasnelles with Isigny salted butter caramel chips. His daily life has changed dramatically since he wore a suit in Paris, but his smile evidences that this was the right choice.

Generations in the making

Some people choose an artisan life and others who are born into it. Either way, the journey is special plus the connection to the terroir is as important to them as the air they breathe.

Traveling to Dijon I expected to taste mustard but was surprised to find that pain d’épices, or gingerbread, has been a regional specialty since 1796.

Catherine Petitjean: Mulot Petitjean boutique, Dijon


Curious, I wandered into the beautiful Mulot Petitjean boutique in the historic center of Dijon.

The selection ranged from savory loaves to sweeter breads to nonnettes, a donut-like creation coated with sugar and filled with jam.

I sampled with great delight, then booked a tour at the factory on the other side of town to discover more.

This family business is the last survivor of the original 12 gingerbread houses. Once again I was entranced by the ancestral heritage that lived on in the walls of the factory and museum. I never even knew my great-grandparents. What must it be like for Catherine Petitjean, the ninth generation, and her daughter, the tenth generation, to come to work here every day, their ancestors surveilling the daily activity?

I had the great fortune to interview Catherine Petitjean, and she so eloquently shared her pride and dedication to preserving this regional specialty with her family.

Julie Leflaive, 19th generation: Olivier Leflaive winery in Puligny-Montrachet

Still marveling at this sacred bond between family, land, and gastronomy, I ventured south to the winery Olivier Leflaive in Puligny-Montrachet to meet Julie Leflaive, the 19th generation to run this family business. (Yes, 19th!)

This tiny village of less than 400 inhabitants produces some of the best wine in the world, and the Leflaive family has been at the heart of it all since the 1600s. I cannot take in all of the changes this family has seen over the centuries. The family tree is proudly displayed on the wall of the new four-star hotel, but I find it still difficult to grasp.

Julie showed me some hotel rooms, each of which was dedicated to a family member, complete with a biography and décor suited to their personality.

I feel like an old family friend.

…And although I am not the wine connoisseur I feel I should be, I am comfortable in her presence, as there is no display of elitism, just the pure pleasure of sharing family and excellent wine. Her father and uncle still come in daily to share stories and laughter with all who gather at the restaurant, bistrot or winery tours.

There is a heart and soul to a family business that draws me in and lingers after I leave. I continuously return to these familiar places, seek out their products, and search for new artisanal, family businesses as I explore the hexagon.

Perhaps you have felt that distinctive, “je ne sais quoi …” that makes these places seem so warm and inviting.

I love sharing my artisan interviews with others, and would love to hear your stories!


About the Contributor

Traci Parent

Former French teacher and boutique owner, my love for the language, gastronomy, culture, and shopping lure me to each corner of France, even though we have a home base in Nice (when not in the US). I share French hidden gems & authentic experiences at

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