Read At Home in France Online

Authors: Ann Barry

At Home in France (8 page)

It was nearly noon. I decided that for lunch with my
cabecou
, I would buy a crusty loaf of bread and some ripe tomatoes. I poured a glass of red wine, toasted the bread, and placed a slab of
cabecou
on top. I pressed it gently with a knife to spread it a bit. It oozed, a smooth, creamy river, to the edge of the toast. I quickly took a bite. I had had fine
cabecou
many, many times. But this was unlike any I’d ever tasted: a little tart because of the freshness of the goat’s milk, slightly piquant from the grasses on which the goats fed. I was addicted. Thereafter, going for
cabecou
was one of my first errands upon arriving at the house.

Jules, however, never accepted me as a regular and I never warmed to him either. He put on the same show each time. And each time I waited for his mistress to give me the go-ahead.

Since the Brive market offers seasonal produce, there is seemingly endless repetition among the sellers. Yet I always
cover the territory before making purchases, often discovering variables: a different variety of pear, a fatter bunch of asparagus. And from time to time surprises pop up, such as, once, a single basket of exotically speckled quail eggs. One year there was a delicious raisin
confiture
, but the farm woman who made it never reappeared. One late November I encountered a truffle man, who sold me a walnut-sized piece at a bargain price. I sliced it as thin as possible (lacking a truffle shaver) and slipped it under the skin of my chicken before roasting, emulating a mode of preparation called
en demi-deuil
(in half mourning). What must be the most earthy version of
demi-deuil
was a specialty of Fernand Point (1897–1955), whose Pyramide restaurant, in Vienne, was considered a bastion of twentieth-century French cuisine. His
poulet de Bresse truffé en vessie
became one of his signature dishes and is still on the menu today. The entire chicken is larded with truffles and baked inside a cow’s bladder. In my humble kitchen I could honor a hallowed tradition. That night I opened a special bottle of white Burgundy.

Finally, I can never resist a bouquet of flowers, which I’m reduced to locking under an armpit, my shopping basket by then overflowing. The trip back to the car is a lame-gaited walk.

By car, I would make a final stop at Monsieur Barrique’s, the best wine merchant in town until his recent demise, and one of the
pâtissiers
(each with a
spécialité de la maison)
for dessert, my favorite being miniature tarts made from freshly ground walnuts. Then I’m on my way, with a big appetite. On the drive back, I do a mental to-do list: store things in the refrigerator, grind the coffee beans, light the oven (I want warm bread), squeeze the oranges, dust the chicken livers with flour.…

The size of my kitchen approximates that of a New York studio apartment, which is to say, suitable for one person with just enough room to turn around in. It has, as I’ve said, a half refrigerator, a small counter with overhead cabinets, a tiny sink with shelves beneath, and a two-burner oven. There is a bitty window over the oven for ventilation and an average-size window overlooking the side yard; I gaze directly outdoors when I wash the dishes. In the spring, with the window wide-open, insects of every stripe light on the ledge or counter; as long as they don’t interfere, I let them be. Except spiders, which I gently herd out the window with a paper towel. When a daddy longlegs appears, with its pinhead body and absurdly ill-proportioned high arched legs, it’s as if I’m visited by a miniature carnival carousel. How can these creatures go through life on such fragile supports? Once, I turned on the faucet, unaware that one was crouched in the sink. It wilted to a heartbreaking bundle of legs.

Kitchen here is galley. The advantage is that everything is within arm’s reach. And I can state unabashedly that some of the best meals of my life came out of that pint-size room.

As well as, once, a disaster, when I had a bout of food poisoning after eating an over-the-hill sausage called
merguez
. It was then that I learned, however, that one does not get sick from French food. When I reported my problem (
intoxication alimentaire;
I had looked it up) to the pharmacist, he nodded appreciatively and said,
“Ah, oui, la crise de foie.”

The French are known for their fixation on the liver;
la crise de foie
is as familiar as our common cold. A lesson in one of my French exercise books depicts a scene similar to mine in the pharmacy. Only there is no mention of
food poisoning. Food poisoning? Despite the fact that it’s in the dictionary, it does not exist in France.

T
he multitude of village food festivals is testimony to the average Frenchman’s culinary appreciation. A couple of years ago, for example, there was a
fête de la noix
, held on a Sunday afternoon in October. It took place in nearby Saillac, a small circle of a village with an especially charming little church. The festival promised—I came upon flyers in a local shop—an
omelette géante
. When I arrived, I discovered that
tout le monde
was there—the only spot for the car was down a country lane some distance away.

On this sunny, warm day, the single restaurant was bursting at its seams, with midday diners spilling onto tables set up outdoors. Under a little tent in the center of the village, merchants were also selling anything and everything made from walnuts:
pâtés
, cookies, cakes, oils, liqueurs, and so on. A complete sucker for festival takeouts, I typically load up with more than I can possibly consume. As a child of parents who had lived through the Depression, perhaps I caught something of their stocking-up instincts. Or something of my father’s fetish for mail-order goods, a habit that far outpaced our small family’s consumption.

The preparation of the
omelette géante
was announced for four o’clock. It was to take place on a stretch of roadway on the far side of a stone wall by the tent. As the hour approached, the crowds began migrating in that direction, jockeying for prized positions on top of the stone wall.

The
omelette géante
, I learned, would consist of four
thousand eggs. I couldn’t get my mind around this numbing figure. What would four thousand eggs look like? How were they amassed? Had every chicken house in the Lot been cleaned out?

In the center of the road was a narrow waist-high metal trough, perhaps sixty feet long, affixed with gas jets. Perhaps a dozen men and women involved in the preparation were gathered alongside. At the appointed hour they began unloading cardboard cartons of eggs, each containing three hundred and fifty eggs. It was a hailstorm of eggs. Standing over or seated by enormous plastic buckets and pails—some the size of New York City garbage cans—they began cracking the eggs. One gentleman, who was particularly dexterous, could crack two eggs in each hand at the same time. The scene of people and eggs was something out of a fairy tale or, even more bizarrely, out of a Bosch painting. This went on for nearly an hour. As the buckets filled up, members of the crew began beating them with giant hand whisks or electric beaters. Finally, bushels of chopped walnuts—which were, after all, the point of the festival—were stirred in. The gas jets were lit. As the trough heated up, oil was poured in. When the agreed-upon moment for cooking the omelette arrived, a small brass band, smartly decked out in white uniforms with gold-braided caps, struck up a rousing oompah-pah. This had the effect of a start button: kids began scampering about, dogs started yapping, cameras began flashing. The
omelette géante
went on the fire. A half-dozen men, stationed alongside the trough, stirred it with great paddles—like cooking with shovels—over gas jets that had to be constantly adjusted.

There was plenty to go around. It was delicious: creamy, with the slight crunch of walnuts. Plus, an omelette
eaten while leaning against an old stone wall in the sunshine is never bad.

When I reported on the festival to the Hirondes, they were duly impressed, and seemed a little disappointed to have missed it. They’d spent the afternoon at a strawberry festival and had found the
tartes aux fraises
substandard.

5
THE STAFF OF LIFE

M
y part of France, the Lot, is superb bread country. Privately, I conduct an ongoing Best Bread Contest. For a while the Bétaille bakery headed the list. Its
pain de campagne
is a slightly domed loaf with a crisp crust that shatters when you slice into it and a dense interior. Then I advanced a bakery in St-Céré into first place, when, one noon, I picked up half of a fat saucer of warm
pain de campagne
. It had a moist yeastiness that Bétaille’s lacked.

Though it was somewhat beyond the realm of my survey, on a trip to the neighboring
département
of the Dordogne in the early spring of 1987, I went out of my way to visit the village of Meyrals, having read some travel piece claiming its bakery had “the best bread in the region.” I was the first through the door when the tiny
boulangerie
opened—a cold, gray, foggy morning that called out for a comforting
café au lait
. I chose a
pain de campagne
the size of an automobile tire’s hub, stashed it
in the backseat, and set off for Pech Farguet. On the way back, reason set in—I’d bought more than I could possibly eat before it went stale.

I stopped at the Hirondes. After reviewing my trip to the Dordogne, I mentioned my purchase of what I’d heard was a superior bread. Would they care to try some?

They looked at me rather blankly and politely declined.

I asked which bread they regarded as The Best.

Bétaille’s, they agreed without hesitation.

I then explained that I’d probably bought too much of the Dordogne bread. Did they by chance have a freezer, where I might store a portion? Then I could take it back to the States when I left at the end of the week.

They stared at me, barely masking their incredulity. The notion of freezing bread—in a country where you went daily for your noon and evening
baguette
—was apparently a novel one. They didn’t have a freezer, but the Servais did.

The Servais had no real interest in sampling another
département
’s bread either. I interviewed them on their opinion of The Best Bread.

They paused gravely before answering. St-Céré’s
boulangerie
near the Coq Arlequin restaurant had probably the best, in their opinion. Yes, no question about it.

Madame agreed cheerily to freeze my bread.

“YOO ’AVE NO BREAD IN YUR COUNTREE?” Monsieur asked.

A
few years ago, at one of the Wednesday markets in St-Céré, I sampled an enormous (of basketball dimensions) loaf I purchased from one of the traveling salesmen and had to further refine my list. It was the tops, with a
rugged crust and a nutty, moist interior with big holes, as if the dough had belched and stretched in the oven.

The young man grinned proudly when I said it was the best bread I’d tasted. Was there a way to purchase it on a more regular basis? I asked. He replied that his father made the bread and that his bakery, with its wood-burning oven, was located near Martel. On Fridays, I could purchase it there. The name was Rauley.

“Près de Martel!”
I exploded joyfully. Martel was a mere half-hour drive from my house.

“À Cabriole, près de Quatres Routes,”
he said more precisely, and wrote the name on a slip of paper.

I was leaving before the following Friday, so I had to put off the excursion until the following fall. Then—a penetratingly cold Friday morning when the mist in the valley refused to budge—I studied my map and set out for Rauley’s bakery. I relish a mission; I love a find. At Quatres Routes, I passed a sign for Cabriole and took the winding road uphill. This took me past a small cluster of houses and farms. There was no bakery in sight—nothing of a commercial nature. It seemed that Cabriole was not a village but a little hamlet. I circled back. Not a soul was outdoors, so I started back to Quatres Routes to inquire. Along the way I spotted some men repairing the road.

I tooted my horn.
“Je cherche la boulangerie à Cabriole,”
I shouted to the group, hanging my head out the rolled-down window. The toot, and my accented French, momentarily stunned them. Then one of the men came forward.

“La boulangerie?”
he said, doffing his cap.

“Oui, Monsieur Rauley, pour son pain,”
I said, hopes dimmed but undashed.

“Eh, beang, Rauley! Le garage, à droit.”

Garage? Why garage? Could this be right?

“Le pain, c’est bon!”
He waved. This was encouraging, but confusing. I circled back in the direction he’d pointed, which was simply retracing my route. Once again in Cabriole, I saw on the right what could be taken for a garage—a graveyard of run-down, antiquated cars. I turned in. There was a ramshackle farmhouse and a small barn. Chickens and ducks scurried crazily in the car’s path. A peacock was perched incongruously on a retired tractor. When I slammed the car door, it fanned its glorious tail.

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