Read At Home in France Online

Authors: Ann Barry

At Home in France (7 page)

C
ooking may not be everyone’s ideal way to spend a vacation, but it is mine. A gourmand’s passion originates either from being brought up by a good cook or from deprivation. In my case, it was the latter. Not that my family was poor—far from it. I grew up in an upper-middle-class Midwestern suburb. But my mother had cooked her way through my two older brothers’ lives and, during my childhood, had had to adjust to the restricted diet my father required after a serious heart attack. On holidays—dreaded holidays, in an atmosphere fraught with family friction—she would put on the requisite festive show, but our normal fare was, say, broiled chicken, a Bird’s Eye frozen vegetable, and a salad, often eaten in the stony silence imposed by my father’s mood. Friday-night specials, adhering to the Catholic Church’s strictures, were frozen fish sticks—or a dish I remember with some fondness but would never cook—a casserole of
canned tuna mixed with cream-of-mushroom soup and topped with crushed cornflakes.

This was a time when my idea of heaven was what in the Midwest was called a brown cow, a tall glass of foamy root beer with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I had this every night before bed in summertime, sitting at the Formica-top table in the kitchen near the open window to the backyard, slurping to the tune of katydids and hypnotized by the blinking of lightning bugs (whose sticky golden corrugated “lights” Christine and I would amputate and try to wear as rings).
Katydid, katydidn’t
, the insects chanted naughtily. And I would long for my grandmother Kate (my mother’s mother and my only surviving grandparent), who lived in the rambling old house in Jerseyville, Illinois, where my mother was born. She always had a batch of warm cookies waiting for me in the pantry, where I could look out the window onto a vista of endless cornfields. When I visited her, I was content to do nothing but sit in a prickly green upholstered chair in the living room, shaking a glass paperweight to make snow fall on the tiny figures of a bride and groom. It was just us three in that house: my mother, my grandmother, and me, and there I was safe.

When I moved to New York two years after college, its culinary riches overwhelmed me. I’d never even heard of lox and bagels. My first deli lunch consisted of chopped chicken liver on rye. It looked dry, so I asked the counterman for ketchup. He looked as if I’d broken his heart. Missouri, Mars. On my first blind date—with a preppy Wall Street type—I ordered my first stuffed artichoke at the intimate Upper East Side French restaurant where he’d taken me to dinner. Logic said to eat it leaf by leaf, that is,
entire
leaf by entire leaf. I stopped when one caught in my windpipe. You learn.

Thereafter, I plunged into my food education unreservedly, even taking cooking courses during vacations: in France (at Le Cordon Bleu, during a two-month leave of absence from my job), Italy, and Mexico.

Now, with the luxury of a house in France, food has become paramount. No sooner have I finished breakfast than I’m thinking of the possibilities for lunch. Lunch hardly digested, I’m pondering dinner. Breakfast usually consists of toast made from a robust
pain de campagne
, with country butter and the fig or prune jam that is a specialty of the region. And coffee, of course. On some mornings I take a little ten-minute spin by car to the Counoud bakery in Bétaille, a village near Carennac, for one of its meltingly tender
pains aux raisins
, fresh out of the oven. Madame Counoud, a fresh-faced young woman, is always ready with a cheery greeting (I have spied her husband in his baker’s outfit, and a young boy, in the back room). She picks up the roll, and with that deft gesture every bakery attendant has mastered, spins it in a fragile square of tissue, leaving two little twisted tufts to lock it in. On the way home, the tissue picks up smudges of butteriness and the car is filled with the mouthwatering scents of yeast, butter, and sweet warm raisins.

Occasionally, I’ll even drive to St-Céré, a twenty-minute trip, for a croissant. One of the bakeries doubles as a little
salon de thé
, with a few tables and chairs in the rear. The young baker and his wife, along with their small son, live in the back. They serve a wonderful
café au lait
—the hiss of the coffee machine, which steams the milk, assures a
vrai café au lait
. Saturday and Sunday mornings are reserved for a late, big breakfast at the house, with toast and farm eggs. The eggs are remarkable, with golden-orange yolks, in contrast
to the pale yellow of American store-bought eggs. The shells are so sturdy that once, when I had some left over at the end of a trip, I carried them back in my knapsack on the plane. The eggs are best in their purest form: soft-boiled.

On weekdays I make a steady round of the various
jours du marché
(in the cabinet, along with “Points on the Obvious and Obscure,” is a list of village market days, covering an approximately sixty-kilometer radius). These vary in size, some consisting of only a half-dozen farmers gathered in the village square, offering fruits and vegetables, others including those with chickens and rabbits (some live, some dressed). St-Céré has a sizable market on the second Wednesday of each month, which features not only clothes and cutlery but a cattle sale. Once, I approached the roped-off area near the bridge over the river, curious about how much a cow might cost. Soon enough, I realized that this was a world that a single female, not to mention an American, could never penetrate. Rugged, weathered-looking farmers, with muddied boots and clothes, sun-bronzed faces, and dirt-encrusted, thick yellow fingernails, bargained and bartered—and, it appeared, chewed the fat—among themselves. They wrestled with the recalcitrant animals to examine them (lifting tails to assess hindquarters, prying open jaws), and slapped and tugged at the witless creatures as they led them away. Some of the beasts had blinders of old burlap sacks. This was a rough business; I drifted off.

The nonpareil market is held on Saturdays in Brive. I’m on the road by eight
A.M
., to be there in time for the best selection (village markets shut down by noon). By nine
A.M
., Brive—whose old town is situated like the hub of a wheel—is a beehive of activity. On the northern fringe
of town, the market starts at a lot about the size of a football field, with stall after stall covered with canvas awnings in case of inclement weather, offering clothing and kitchen supplies. I move swiftly past shoppers for these goods to what makes my heart beat faster—the food. A group of trucks and stands leads to the indoor market, a great hall with long tables laden with produce—not only fresh fruits and vegetables, but bottled and tinned regional products reminding you that this is goose and duck country. This in turn spills out into another vast outdoor area in the rear, where, in addition to a field of more food stands, are purveyors of live birds and rabbits, flowers and plants. It is the most colorful, lively part of the market, so I usually do most of my shopping there.

The farmers are a friendly, cheery lot, patient and chatty with customers, yet swift when tallying prices. Weighing is done in time-honored fashion, on metal scales, which look so wobbly and wiggly that I’m baffled by their precision. The farmer holds the scale—a bar with two saucers attached by chains on each side—with one arm. He then balances the produce placed in one metal plate with metal weights in the opposite plate—this accomplished without a third arm. The whole operation strikes me as fussy and awkward.

I am often the butt of gentle—and sometimes not-so-gentle—teasing, since being single, I purchase relatively insignificant amounts. I often buy more than I need in order to meet a minimum. Sometimes I’m not charged for a few potatoes, a small bunch of parsley.

I first focus my efforts on the main course of what has become my traditional Saturday dinner: roast chicken. Chickens are not an inexpensive item. There are any
number of rather upscale farmers who advertise an advanced feed formula for their chickens, but I seek out one of the elderly women (already scarce, and increasingly rare), weathered and garbed in black, who have brought their few chickens to market and posted a little handwritten cardboard sign,
NOURRITURE EN GRAIN
, on their table. Their birds are yellow and thick-skinned, not quite as plump and pale as the others. These are the most extraordinary chickens I’ve ever tasted, moist and flavorful (I imagine them pecking on fallen apples and crushed walnuts along with corn). This bird has become the
spécialité chez moi
—Jean had been treated to it—stuffed with a whole head of aromatic lavender garlic, slices of lemon, and sprigs of pungent fresh rosemary that perfume my fingers for hours. Basted with country butter and olive oil, its thick skin becomes golden and crackling. The
queue
in France is reserved for the guest of honor—usually me. It is gelatinous, chewy, fatty—in other words, as delicious as it is sinfully cholesterol-laden.

Having secured the main course, I then concentrate on the pick of seasonal vegetables. In the spring, there are mounds after mounds of fat white asparagus; rows of lettuce in various hues of green, some fringed with red; early tomatoes from the Midi. The fall features
cèpes
, wonderful meaty mushrooms; cream-and-lavender turnips; pencil-thin green beans called
haricots verts
. At that time of year the hands of the farm women are stained mahogany from gathering walnuts, a specialty of the region that goes into oil, cakes and candies, and liqueurs. There are always varieties of potatoes, but best are the tiny, thumb-size ones which, sautéed, become creamy within their wilted skins.

Eggs often still have a bit of barnyard muck and even
an occasional feather adhering to the shell. Once, one of the farmers, in an act of great generosity, parted with a plastic container for a half-dozen eggs; this is a treasure (cartons are never provided with the sale of eggs) and I save it for carrying to market each time I go. Unpasteurized milk, measured out from big stainless-steel buckets, makes the creamiest scrambled eggs. Thick
crème fraîche
, which is unpourable heavy cream, cries out for strawberries. Many of the farmers offer their own
rillettes
, which are scraps of preserved duck or goose meat packed in the natural fat—delicious on hot toast that dissolves the fat (a sometime item on the hearty-breakfast menu). Small pots or tins of this are arranged beside fresh duck breasts. I sauté duck breasts in the skillet and finish them with a sauce of orange juice and port wine. Then the fruits: grapefruit and oranges, and in the spring wonderful blood oranges, and apples and pears, which make a good marriage with
cahecou
. The ubiquitous goat cheese of the region,
cahecou
is offered in various stages of aging: the youngest bitter, the oldest crustier and saltier. I prefer
cahecou crémeau
, which is midway between the two.

Normally, I depend on a neighbor for
cahecou
. One spring morning, not long after I’d bought the house, I was running my usual route in the valley to the village of Puybrun, where the
notaire
lives. At one juncture, where the road goes practically by the doorstep of a farmhouse and barn, a distinct lactic smell struck my nostrils. I came to a dead halt. Cheese. Then I spotted black-and-white goats grazing in a field by the house.
Cahecou
. I sprinted up the steps and rang the bell. A young woman, wiping her hands on her apron, opened the door and gave me a look of surprise. My outfit—a T-shirt and jogging shorts—is somewhat startling attire in these parts.
I explained that I was American and owned the little house on the hill. Her road, I said with a flattening gesture, was a good one for jogging. She nodded with a hesitant smile. I got to the point. Had I smelled cheese?

She laughed, patting her palms on her stomach as if that’s where the cheese resided. Yes, she said, I had smelled
cahecou
. The cheese, however, was not sold here, but rather at a relative’s house. She gave me directions to the place.

I showered and changed before I drove back to the valley. The rather drab two-story house was located at the end of a pitted, muddy drive. As I stepped from the car a wiry gray-and-white dog came tearing around the side of the house, skidding to an abrupt halt at my heels, barking madly. He sprang back and forth, like a windup toy, snapping at the air around me, his bark growing hoarse.
“Bon chien,”
I said, in the gentlest, most lyrical tone I could muster.
“Bon chien. Bon chien.”
This only enraged him more. I stood my ground, motionless except for my rapid breathing. Minutes passed. Finally, from the house across the way, a woman emerged and toddled along a roundabout walkway.

“Jules, Jules, shoosh, shoosh,”
she called out sweetly as she approached.

I offered a staccato explanation above the still-shrilling beast: American, house on the hill, the run, the request for
cahecou
.

She smiled broadly.
“Allez,”
she said, motioning me to follow her in the direction of a small shack. Jules was still leaping and yapping furiously. I didn’t budge.

“Il n’est pas méchant?”
I called out to her retreating back.

“Jules, Jules, assez.”
She waved me forward. I took a
tentative step and the dog desisted, following his mistress begrudgingly, with a backward look at me as if to say, “
You
, watch your p’s and q’s.”

She opened the door to the shack, leaving Jules to stand guard outside. It was as cool and fresh as the inside of a refrigerator. The aroma was yeasty and pungent. She asked at what stage of aging I preferred my
cabecou
. Then she went to a small back room and returned with a tray of the tiny disks of cheese, which, by regulation, have to be about two inches in diameter and about a half inch thick. These had a pristine look about them—like solidified milk with a tender skin—unlike the slightly firmer version I’d bought at market. I asked for four. She wrapped them carefully in white paper and escorted me to the car, past a sulking Jules.

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