Read At Home in France Online

Authors: Ann Barry

At Home in France (9 page)

The crisp autumn air carried aromas of baking bread. Could this be the place after all? I followed the scent to a small barn—the
boulangerie?
Rapping on the door, I waited, but there was no response. I could hear movement from within, so I tried the latch. A giant of a man stood with his back to me, shoveling bread with a long paddle from the open oven and stacking the loaves on open wooden shelves. Due to a severely shortened leg, he careened as he moved back and forth, his body skewed like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. He was oblivious to my presence.

“Monsieur?”
I said hesitantly, but he didn’t respond. Apparently he was hard of hearing. How could I approach him without startling him? I made a wide circle and came up alongside his stooped figure by the oven.

“Monsieur Rauley?”
I repeated in a loud voice.

He righted himself and stared fixedly at the apparition that had invaded his premises.

“Je viens acheter votre pain,”
I explained, pointing emphatically to the bread.
“Le meilleur pain du monde.”
I smiled winningly, hoping to get us past the awkward moment.

With the barest flicker of an expression, he opened the
oven door, to show me the grand glowing-brick interior. The smell was as good as smells get, like new-mown grass, the air before rain.

“Grand ou petit!”
he boomed.

“Petit,”
I replied
(petit
being about the size of a large dinner plate).

“Froid ou chaud?”
he then asked.

This threw me for a minute. Warm was inherently more appealing, but what would be the point, since it would cool off on the drive home?

“Froid,”
I said.

He chose a loaf from the shelf and weighed it on a small scale. In paying, I accidentally handed him a quarter instead of a franc. Seeing my mistake, I quickly explained the error.

“C’est le même?”
he asked.

“À
peu près,”
I said, with a wavy motion of the hand.

He preferred the American quarter. He polished it on the sleeve of his jacket as he opened the door for me.

Rauley’s bread took the blue ribbon that year,
vaut le voyage
(worth the trip), in Michelin terms. It was immensely satisfying to know it was never far away.

T
he quest, nonetheless, is never ending. As I approached the covered market in Brive on a sunny morning the following May, I passed a dairy truck whose owner was gazing off into space with a look of contentment on his face, evidently savoring his
petit déjeuner:
a hefty
tranche
of bread and slices of
saucisson
impaled on the point of a sharp knife, which he deskewered with his teeth. I reached up—a gesture that summons up a childhood sensation of diminutiveness, paying for candy in the drug
store—to place the change for a purchase of
comté
cheese in his outstretched palm. I asked who he thought had the best bread in the market.

He pointed to a small truck across the way.

“Le meilleur,”
he pronounced unhesitatingly.
“Même dans leur forme bizarre,”
he added.

Most bread sellers in the market offer other items, such as cakes and rolls, laid out on long wooden tables. This purveyor sold nothing but bread, which I took as a positive sign of singular devotion. In the open trunk of the small van were stacks of bread, but the line was long and they were going fast. Monsieur was right. I had never seen bread in such a variety of shapes, as if the dough had been tossed and slapped around—clearly the work of the hand—and shoveled into the oven in whatever shape it landed. They had the look of old leather shoes, misshapen and craggy, with shiny, smooth “soles” in an ashen-gray color.

When my turn came, I quickly asked the robust woman in a blue smock if all the bread was the same. Did I hear titters from the line?

“Ben, oui.”
She nodded.
“Épais ou mince?”
A choice of thick or thin—a question, really, of more dough or more crust. It was a heated moment, with the press of the waiting customers at my heels.
“Mince,”
the woman behind me prodded.

“Épais,”
I found myself saying.
“Mais plus petit?”
I pleaded as she picked up a loaf the size of a garbage-pail lid.

“La moitié?”
she asked, knife poised.

At the first bite, I judged it the best bread on the face of the earth. It combined all the qualities of the other great
pains de campagne:
moist, yeasty, wheaty, with a
pocked interior and rugged crust. The “sole” of this bread gave it extra character and chewiness.

When the next Saturday rolled around, I headed for Brive. My last stop was the bread truck. And there, big as life, was Monsieur Rauley serving the steady line of customers. I waited my turn.

“C’est vous!”
I exclaimed.

He looked nonplussed.

I reminded him of my visit to his place.

“Peut-être.”
He shrugged—as if to say, maybe I had been there, maybe not.

Little did Rauley realize that he had beat himself in the Best Bread Contest. That’s when I more or less abandoned the whole idea of a competition—where had painstaking objectivity got me? The real winner, I decided, was the
département
of the Lot, where the great bread of France is found. Despite France’s reputation as a shrine to superb bread, I’ve tasted plenty of thin-crusted, cottony examples in other regions, even the neighboring Dordogne, also notable for its gastronomic riches. I’d even go so far as to say that Poilane, the renowned baker in Paris, can’t match Rauley’s. Just one former judge’s opinion.

6
HOUSE IMPROVEMENTS

O
wning a house,
c’est toujours quelque chose
, as they say. Often, I feel, my days are spent running from plumber, to bank, to carpenter, to bank, to the
épicerie
because I’m out of coffee, and so on. Trips are a combination of household business—from which I nonetheless derive a certain satisfaction since it is performed on foreign turf—and pleasure. I do read—or at least I sit with a book from time to time. Yet my degree of concentration is different in France. When I read on the subway to and from work in New York, I can burrow into a book and block out the world around me, including the crackling incomprehensible public addresses and vociferous panhandlers and preachers. At Pech Farguet, if I sit on the patio, my eyes will drift from the page to the view of the valley, or my ears will perk up at an unusual birdsong; if I sit in the chair by the fireplace, my thoughts wander to the next meal or are interrupted by the mysterious patter
of feet on the roof. My eyes have traveled the words but not read.

There is one book, however, that held me rapt for a long spell:
Animal Treasure
, by Ivan T. Sanderson, published in 1937, with thirty-two illustrations by its British author. I stumbled on it—the cover slightly warped and the pages a parchmentlike color—in an antiques shop in Bretenoux. Inside, its former owner had written,
This book belongs to H. P. Mussell
. From its opening sentence I was hooked: “The animals that crowd their little faces into the following pages lived, or are still living, in the deep virgin forests of West Africa, around a place called Mamfe, a place known to but a handful of the earth’s inhabitants.” The author then clearly states his viewpoint: to study both the true geneological classification of animals and the natural (or ecological) classifications. While this may seem to be purely scientific interest, it is, in fact, a highly personal account, by turns witty and poignant, of the author’s adventures with both beasts and fellow explorers.

Here is a passage—Sanderson’s reaction to a dead gorilla—that has to be among the most moving in all of such literature:

I had always been taught to think of the gorilla as the very essence of savagery and terror, and now there lay this hoary old vegetarian, his immense arms folded over his great pot belly, all the fire gone from his wrinkled black face, his soft brown eyes wide open beneath their long straight lashes and filled with an infinite sorrow. Into his whole demeanor I could not help but read the tragedy of his race, driven from the plains up into the mountains countless centuries ago by more active
ape-like creatures—perhaps even our own forebears; chevied hither and thither by the ever-encroaching hordes of hairless shouting little men, his young ones snatched by leopards, his feeding grounds restricted by farms and paths and native huntsmen. All around him was a changing world against which he bellowed his defiance to the end, rushing forward to eject the bits of lead and gravel blasted at him by his puny rival.

At last the Munchis came and the sad old man was lashed to two young trees and borne away by thirty staggering, chanting humans; away from the silence of the mists, away from his last tangled stronghold; and yet not quite the last of the giants and not quite unmourned.

I would often put the book down to absorb what I’d just read. It was
too
good; I wanted it to stick with me. I savored the book over two years (I leave it at the house), tasting it in small doses.

G
enerally, I read at the end of the day, around sundown, when I’m winding down, or at bedtime when it will put me to sleep. Otherwise, there is always something that takes up a day. A day can seem short, a day can seem endless. When I return to New York, I feel I’ve been gone a long time, which, I think, has to do with the way I spend my vacation, living an everyday existence in another country rather than bustling about sightseeing.

In May of 1988, there was added “business” to attend to. I had invited my cousin Marilyn (Munsterman, on my mother’s side) and her husband, Charles Berberich, to visit the house. They live in Denver and are real Francophiles,
Charles especially, who speaks fluent French and whose aunt and uncle lived in France for years. I wanted the house to look its best. I washed the windows, brought curtains and bedspread to the
blanchisserie
, replaced a missing coffee cup. Then I decided to purchase some heavy-duty oilcloth to cover two wine racks in the
cave
.

I drove into the kitchen-and-household-supply store in St-Céré, an expansive two-story affair carrying everything from hibachis to double boilers. I approached the female cashier on the first level. I had unfortunately neglected to arm myself with the word for oilcloth, which was not part of my standard vocabulary. I suspected that
huile
, the word for oil, would be vastly misleading, so I put together a broad description of what I was seeking: thick, shiny, plastic-coated paper. Something like that. She understood instantly. That would be on the second floor. There I approached the service counter and repeated my request to Madame. She, too, understood immediately what I was after. She pointed to the rear of the floor.
“Choisissez votre dessin,”
she instructed me cheerily. At the rear of the shop, sure enough, there was an entire rack of more than a dozen oilcloths, one above the other, each slightly unrolled to display the various patterns. I mulled over the selection and eventually settled on one that I felt would show the least soiling. I returned to the service desk.

“J’ai choisi le dessin,”
I announced.

“Bon,”
she said.
“Portez-le ici, s’il vous plaît.”

This was rather puzzling, but I took her at her word—to bring the roll—and returned to the rack. The rolls, perhaps four feet long, were anchored one on top of the other with steel rods that were attached to heavy metal hooks at each end. I grasped the one I’d chosen and
hoisted it off the rack, releasing it from the mean-looking hooks. It was tremendously heavy. I had to let one end drop to the floor and dragged the fat monster, the metal rod whining, under my arm toward the service counter. As I approached it, stooped and limping with my burden, I sensed a sudden stillness in the room. A pair of customers in one aisle, a small group around the service desk, and Madame herself were all standing motionless, their eyes trained on me. They looked as if they were holding still for me to take a photograph of them. Something was terribly wrong. Madame rushed to assist me for the final lap.

“Oh, madame,”
she said, oddly mournful. Then she explained. She thought I’d wanted
shelving
paper. A thousand apologies. Of course, I’d used the word
papier
, which had misled everyone.

Mortification. And then, deepening my humiliation, she said, with a well of pity,
“Pauvre madame.”
It was one of those moments when you come smack up against your foreignness. When I got home, I looked up the word for oilcloth:
toile cirée
. It is now firmly fixed in memory.

A
fter that, I focused on the floor in the main room. It had been stained a deep mahogany (the old-world English look) and was sorely scuffed. What an improvement it would be to have it stripped and varnished in a soft, lighter finish (the Early American natural look). It would brighten and freshen up the whole room.

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