Man is nostalgia and a search for communion.
~ Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude ~
“We began our lunch with a half-dozen oysters on the half-shell. I was used to bland osiers from Washington and Massachusetts, which I had never cared much for. But this platter of portugaises had a sensational briny flavor and a smooth texture that was entirely new and surprising. The oysters were served with rounds of pain de seigle, a pale rye bread, with a spread of unsalted butter.” ~~Julia Child, on her first meal in France, at the Restaurant La Couronne in Rouen, My Life in France
In St. Jean Pied de Port, the French border guard stood quietly next to our silver-grey Peugeot 505, examining our diplomatic passports. “Come on,” I thought as he leafed through every single page, the round stamps and square stamps of comings and goings highlighted by the bright May sunshine. Listening to his occasional “bien, bien,” I looked around me. It was noon and the sun beat down, reflecting off the patent leather of his pointed shoes.
“Vos papiers de voiture, s’il vous plait!,” the gendarme barked and I dove for the glove compartment. By now, another gendarme sauntered up to the car, wiping his mouth with one of those waxy napkins I first saw in Spain at breakfast the day before. If it really WAS breakfast and not just the previous night’s leftover tapas, the small enormously varied appetizer-like morsels that line up on top of nearly all Spanish bars, even in what we Americans tend to call truck stops.
I handed over the papers and sat still, so as to not attract any extra attention.
As the two gendarmes went over our car with a low-lying mirror, checking for bombs underneath, I thought about the tapas we’d eaten for breakfast, our last “supper” in Spain.
The scenery surrounding us resembled a Hansel and Gretel forest, much like that of the Spanish Pyrenees that we were leaving behind. Rushing clear streams vein the Pyrenees, a mountain chain dividing northern Spain from southwestern France.
As I watched a couple of pilgrims, dressed in tennis shoes and shorts, their scallop shells pinned to their T-shirts, I ate another piece of the dry sausage we’d bought that morning in Valcarlos, just down the road behind us in Spain. My first bite of food in France was actually Spanish. With the lush green foliage around us, we really had wanted to find a picnic spot along the Nive River in Spain. Even with French bicyclists huffing and puffing up and down the roads, we had a hard time finding a decent place to picnic. Finally, we found a spot where the water came close to the bank of the river, but countless pieces of trash of ghostly picnics past surged in the currents lapping near our feet. Perching on mossy rocks, we quickly ate slices of sausage and bread, washing it all down with swigs of red wine and bottled water.
“Au revoir, monsieur et madame. Bon voyage!,” and we drove through the barrier, legally entitled to be in France.
We zoomed past quaint little villages built into the mountains or perched on the sides of the roads, sometimes layered against the deep mountain ravines like so many forest mushrooms careening down a tree trunk. As we went further and further north on the road to Marmande, a town hugging the banks of the Garonne River, the landscape became flatter, gently rolling in places, and much more agricultural. A large producer of tomatoes and strawberries, Marmande turned out to be a ho-hum industrial town, studded with hotels and restaurants of every stripe. Sure that the grass would be greener on the other side of Marmande, so to speak, we decided not to stay in there, instead choosing to look for quaint, which Marmande was most assuredly not. We bought some gas and left.
Choosing usually comes with a price. Being in a state of exhaustion is like being a starving man: just as a starving man will eat anything, a bed of any sorts looks great to the exhausted soul. In Seyches, a few kilometers north of Marmande, we spotted a quaint ivy-covered brick house with words “Chambres à louer, ” rooms for rent,” coarsely scrawled on a piece of plywood tacked to a shutter on the first floor.
When I raised my hand to knock on the door, an old lady with white hair pulled back in a bun opened the door quickly, smiling, nodding that, oui, yes, she had room for the three of us. We could pay in the morning, she said, when I started to pull out the money. The lace curtains on the windows kept out the late afternoon sun and the family portraits on the walls, flanked by a picture of General Petain, spoke volumes about French people like this woman, who probably was a young woman when the Germans marched into Paris in June of 1940. The place felt not unlike a small museum.
“This should be interesting,” I thought. Little did I know just how interesting.
For $15, we had a second-floor room facing the street, with only one small shuttered window, which barely opened because the ivy grew so thickly around it. The minute we shoved the shutters outward, clouds of angry mosquitoes flooded into the room. The bare wooden floors creaked every time we took a step and we wondered how long the two bowl-shaped beds draped with faded pink chenille spreads would keep from falling through the floor. We did have a sink and bidet.
Even though the bidet was technically for washing only, we promptly put it to use as a urinal when my son returned with a report from scouting out the toilet facilities.
“The bathroom is down stairs, Mom. There’s no light on the stairs,” he said in his small child’s voice.
I started down the stairs myself to see for myself. I groped my way down two flights of narrow stairs covered with cracked red linoleum. The toilet stood in a corner, the room lit by a bare light bulb with frayed wire attaching it precariously to the ceiling. The modern washing machine that stood on the other side of the dim room stared at me with its large gleaming eye. I shook myself, forcing away thoughts of ax murderers and the Bates Motel and Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” Just when I thought things couldn’t get much worse, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a rat dart into the wood pile next to the toilet. The toilet, with an oak seat cover, was flushable only with a bucket of water, placed conveniently under the faucet next the washing machine. At least there was toilet paper. Every cloud has a silver lining.
Why this bothered me, I have no idea. I’d used similar such facilities—or worse, far worse— many times in Mexico, Paraguay, and Haiti. What was the problem? I guessed it had to do with the fact that I expected more of rural France. I shouldn’t have.
As I climbed up the steps, my fingernails griping the wall as I turned my feet sideways on the steps to steady myself, the owner of the house met me at the first landing, the doorway into the kitchen. I tried not to jump out of my skin with fright.
“Voulez-vous quelque chose a manger? Je peux cuisiner le diner pour vous,” she offered, in the best tradition of the host, to cook dinner for us.
“Merci, madame. Je demanderé si mon mari et mon enfant le veulent,” I mumbled, knowing that when I asked my husband, he would say “No.”
Back upstairs in the room, I sat down next to my husband on one of the two straight-backed wooden chairs, the only other furniture in the room except for the hideous beds.
“Well, what about dinner? The landlady wants to know if we want her to cook dinner for us?,” I said.
“God, no. He told me about the rats in the wood pile,” my husband said, nodding at our son. “We need to go back to Marmande to eat.”
“Maybe we should just take all our stuff with us and find a place to stay there,” my son suggested hopefully, knowing that his father’s tendency to pinch a penny would eventually win out and we would be coming back to “Granny’s Green,” as we had (shamefully) started calling that sad place.
“No, we’ll just get something to eat at a little bistro I noticed just before we bought the gas in Marmande,” my husband said. “Come on, let’s go.”
My son and I looked longingly at the various French chain hotels on the outskirts of Marmande—Ibis, Novotel—as we sped toward the bistro. For once, the gods smiled on us: an empty parking place beckoned right in front of the bistro.
A little blackboard out front announced the night’s special: Steak Frites with Shallot Butter Sauce. Lettuce Salad with Walnuts, Roquefort, and a Vinaigrette Dressing. Apple Tart with Crème Chantilly. And that is what we ate, sitting close to one of the big windows at the front of the restaurant, watching the headlights of the cars going by, the sun setting slowly, listening to the impeccable French being spoken around us, and just being together.
It made up for the night that was to come: mosquitoes, soft beds that left us with backaches, and our son’s coughing all night because of the mildew at “Granny’s Green.” In the morning we left at dawn, leaving our $15 on the table for the trusting old lady, who probably was a widow and struggling to make ends meet.
Following snaking roads, we took highway D660 out of Bergerac, the center of French Protestantism and depleted of its population after the Edict of Nantes. On our way to Montignac, where the famous caves were. We immediately fell in love with the area as we followed the Dordogne River amidst the picturesque villages. Large chateaux loomed on the hilltops and auberges, or inns, dotted the sides of the roads. Granite cliffs buffeted the river and the green forests covered the bluffs. Although tourists thronged the museum where the caves nestled underground, we sensed the allure of the area for those early humans. Plenty of water, a relatively temperate climate, plenty of game in the forests and fish in the river. Paradise indeed.
So, although my first glimpse of France didn’t happen as romantically as did Julia Child’s, I could have said exactly what she did: “Oh, la belle France — without knowing it, I was already falling in love!”
Steak à la Minute with Shallot Butter Sauce
As we ate happily in the nameless bistro in Marmande, we vaguely knew that the famous prehistoric caves of Lascaux were quite close by. In France, art goes back a long way, back to the time of Cro-Magnon man who left his indelible marks on the dim damp walls of the caves of Lascaux in the Dordogne area of southwestern France.
2 shallots, peeled and minced
4 T. unsalted European-style butter like Plugra
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
½ of a lemon, seeds removed
Freshly ground black pepper
4 medium-sized rib eye steaks
Place all ingredients except the steaks in a small saucepan over medium heat until butter melts. Remove from heat.
Heat a griddle or cast-iron skillet or other heavy skillet over high heat. Cook the steaks until desired doneness.
Pour ¼ of the butter sauce on warm individual serving plates and place steaks on top. Serve with frites.
Pommes Frites (French Fries)
1/2 gallon vegetable oil
8 medium Idaho potatoes, peeled
Pour the oil into a deep fryer or heavy saucepan to reach halfway up the sides and heat to 325 degrees F; use a deep-fry thermometer to determine this. While the oil is heating, peel the skin off the potatoes and cut them into uniform 1/4-inch sticks; feel free to use a knife, mandoline, or French-fry cutter. Dry the potato sticks thoroughly to keep the hot oil from splattering.
Fry the potatoes in batches so the pot isn’t crowded and the oil temperature does not plummet. Cook the French fries for 3 minutes, until soft but not browned. Remove the fries with a long-handled metal strainer and drain on brown paper bags.
Increase the oil temperature to 375 degrees F. Return the par-fried potatoes to the oil and cook a second time for 2 minutes, or until golden and crispy. Drain on fresh brown paper bags then place in a serving bowl. Salt the fries while they’re still hot
Serve this salad after the steak-frites. The French believe that eating salads after heavier foods aids in digestion.
2 hearts romaine lettuce, washed, coarsely chopped
1 head Boston lettuce, washed and dried
1 cup walnut halves, lightly toasted
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon coarse black pepper
1 cup blue cheese, crumbled
Chill salad plates while cooking the steaks.
Be sure lettuces are dry. When the steaks are almost ready to serve, combine lettuces and separate onto 4 chilled salad plates. Scatter toasted walnuts evenly among the salads. Pour vinegar into a small bowl and whisk in extra-virgin olive oil in a slow stream to combine dressing. Season dressing with salt and pepper, then stir in blue cheese crumbles. Ladle dressing evenly over top of chilled salad plates and serve.
Apple Tart with Crème Chantilly
1 recipe pastry dough, recipe follows (Dough can be chilled up to 1 day.)
6 Golden Delicious or Jongold apples, peeled, cored, halved and sliced 1/8-inch thick
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 stick cold butter, sliced thin
1/2 cup apricot jam, heated and strained
Sweetened whipped cream, as an accompaniment
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
On a flat surface roll out dough into a 13-inch round: Roll out the dough between 2 sheets of wax paper for easier handling. Fit it into a 10-inch tart tin with a removable fluted rim, trimming the excess. Arrange the apples decoratively on the pastry shell, overlapping them. Sprinkle the sugar on top of the apples, top with butter slices and bake in the middle of the oven for 45 minutes or until the crust is cooked through and the apples are golden. Brush with the heated apricot jam while the tart is still hot. Serve each portion with a small spoonful of whipped cream.
1 stick cold unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 to 4 tablespoons ice water
Cut butter into 1/2-inch cubes.
To blend by hand: Blend together flour, butter, and salt in a bowl with your fingertips or a pastry blender until most of mixture resembles coarse meal (roughly pea-size lumps). Drizzle 2 tablespoons ice water evenly over and gently stir with a fork until incorporated.
To blend in a food processor: Pulse together flour, butter, and salt in a food processor until most of mixture resembles coarse meal (roughly pea-size lumps). Add 2 tablespoons ice water and pulse 2 or 3 times, or just until incorporated.
Test mixture: Gently squeeze a small handful: it should hold together without crumbling apart. If it doesn’t, add more ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring or pulsing 2 or 3 times after each addition until incorporated (keep testing). If you overwork mixture or add too much water, pastry will be tough.
Form dough: Turn out onto a work surface and divide into 4 portions. With heel of your hand, smear each portion once in a forward motion to help distribute fat. Gather dough together and form it, rotating it on work surface, into a disk. Chill, wrapped in plastic wrap, until firm, at least 1 hour.
*I wrote this post many years ago and published it on my blog in October 2008. As many regular readers know, the focus of “Gherkins & Tomatoes” shifted almost imperceptibly toward France after my trip to France and the Pyrenees in September of 2010. So I now offer my thoughts and findings on France in a world that might no longer feel the draw to a culture and cuisine that some consider “ancien regime.” Nevertheless, bon appétit!
© 2008, 2010 C. Bertelsen