Archive for the ‘French food’ Category

On the voie romaine: Nîmes, Arles, and the Pont du Gard

May 26, 2010

On one of the many lanes across the farmland around Latour is a path marked with a guidepost for hikers: Voie Romaine (Roman road). Though not mapped on any of the general maps of the Roman Empire I’ve discovered thus far, this path is probably one of many in this area, just south of Toulouse (Tolosa), just east of Auch (Elimberris), and just west of the Garonne River, known in Roman times as the Garumuni. In the Roman era, this was Western Gaul, dotted with outposts, farms and extensive villas among the conquered barbarians. The Romans built more than 13,000 miles of roads in Gaul, now France, including, in this area, the Via Aquitania from what is now Narbonne on the Mediterranean Sea through Toulouse to Bordeaux on the Atlantic. From Narbonne, the Aurelian Way ran east to Italy and the Via Domitia south to Spain. In villages and cities along the way, parts of the original stones of the road have been uncovered, including in places the ruts worn by chariots 2000 years ago. Here in the Haute Garonne, smaller unpaved routes followed the river valleys or cut across the hills to connect Roman settlers and villages. Indeed, the site of Latour des Feuillants, built on the tallest point for miles around, was probably used in Roman times as a camp, or lookout, or way station. The voie Romaine probably passed through the valley just below the chateau, and a small spring in the hillside of the property was likely used by Roman travelers.

For the children’s two-week April vacances, we take off for a few days, following the A62 east along the old route of the Via Aquitania to Narbonne and the Mediterranean Sea, then on along the old Via Domitia—marked on the expressway with roadsigns showing a Roman in a chariot—toward Nimes and Arles in the department of the Gard.

Our first stop is the spectacular Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct built over the River Gard between the villages of Uzes and Remoulins about 20 kilometers north of Nimes. The day is gorgeous and green, and after we park the car on the west side of the river, we follow the trail upstream to where the huge bridge-like structure—more than two thousand years old, fifty meters high and 275 meters long—spans the beautiful river. A World Heritage Site, the Pont du Gard provided water to the city of Nimes, which the Emperor Augustus made the capital of Narbonne province around 28 BC. We walk across the lower part of the bridge under the arches, and explore the museum and Ludo, an interactive kids’ exhibition. We experiment with the model system of canals, dams, and aqueducts; the kids dig and map their “finds” like archeologists; and we learn about life in Roman times in model classrooms, market stalls, and baths. In the museum we talk about the lives of the slaves used to build these huge structures, and the machines invented for construction, transport and warfare. The whole 50-kilometer aqueduct system—and the lives of the people who made it—are explained in models and videos and dioramas. We end with ice creams and a climb to the top to see the view before returning to the car.

The water ran through the top part in a covered trough.

We drive back to Nimes and find our hotel, check in and change, and drive into the center of the small city to eat. The old town is lovely, centered around the elliptical Arena of Nimes, dating from the end of the 2nd century AD (another World Heritage site). This amphitheater, modeled on the Colosseum in Rome (built at about the same time) is the best preserved in the world and is still used for bullfights, concerts and other events. We wander the quiet narrow cobblestoned alleys of the old town, stopping for a look at the Maison Carrée, a Roman temple from 16 BC, which has also served as an early Christian church, a meeting house, a stable and a storehouse. On the tiny Rue de Grand Couvent, we found Au Flan Coco, a wonderful restaurant housed in a former abbey with high arched and vaulted ceilings. The specialty of the house was stuffed tart-like puffed pastries; Susan had one with onion and I tried the fish. Both were excellent and both came with huge fresh salads. The kids shared a steak, and finished with sorbet. All, including wine, for less than €60. Exhausted and happily sated, we returned to our hotel on the outskirts of town for a good night’s sleep.

Amphitheatre in Arles

The following day, we drove the half hour to Arles, where we breakfasted in a small café, visited the tourist information center, then walked through the lovely streets to the Romanesque Church of St. Trophimus to see the Last Judgment sculpture on its portal and the columns in the cloister. Susan’s new series of drawings here in France is about human misperceptions of animals and incorporates imagery from gargoyles and sculptures, so we wandered around looking for lions and monkeys and donkeys and the like in the facades. On up the hill, we circled the ruins of the Roman theater on our way to the arena, in which we imagined ourselves turning thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the gladiators in the ring below. The view from the top of the river and valley was stunning, and it was easy to understand how this town—so close to the Mediterranean that the Romans built a canal to it—became an important Roman city. As we strolled the streets back down to the Roman Theater (both the theater and arena of Arles are World Heritage Sites), we watched for the sign-post reproductions of paintings by Vincent Van Gogh in front of the actual places he painted. At the theater, James and Izzy “performed” songs from the repertoire they have memorized at school this year on the remains of the stage before the semi-circular seating area. We ended our day with a stop at the Musée de l’Arles Antiques, which contains a wonderful collection of Roman sarcophagi and full reconstructions of mosaic tile floors so intricate and colorful that they seem like carpets.

Roman columns just lying around in Arles...

With some sandwiches for a late lunch, we loaded up in the car and headed east on the A8 to visit our friends in Nice, following the ancient path of Romans returning home to Italy, almost in the ruts of the chariots some 2000 years ago, along the voie Romaine.

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Daily Bread

May 18, 2010

When I was a child, I memorized the Lord’s Prayer, Christ’s response to his disciples when they asked him to teach them to pray. The only request for a tangible thing in the entire prayer is “give us this day our daily bread.” Not for tomorrow, just for today, because we must remember to let the future take care of itself. We must eat today. And it’s not a six-course dinner we need, or even a full meal or meat or vegetables. Just bread. Just for today. Simple, plain, everything one really needs.
The French understand the centrality of bread to life. Remember that one of the causes of the French revolution was rising bread prices. When Marie Antionette cavalierly said, “Let them eat cake,” she not only dismissed the plight of the common people, she forgot that here, bread is an essential. Bread is life. According to de l’Institut national de la boulangerie-pâtisserie, in 2004, there were more than 34,000 artisan boulangers in France, accounting for more than 70% of bread production in the country. A “boulanger” (baker) and “boulangerie” (bakery) must adhere to strict regulations, including the choosing of the raw materials, kneading the paste, controlling the fermentation, and cooking the bread in its place of sale. None of the products used or produced may ever be frozen. This is by law, the “décret pain,” or “bread decree” of 1993. Bread is serious business here.

Bread in France is also ubiquitous and simple and delicious. Even when everything is closed for one or another of the many holidays, you can almost always find a boulangerie open for an hour or two with loaves still warm from the ovens. At any time of almost any day, we pass Frenchmen on the street with a loaf or two—no bag or wrapping—tucked under their arms. Most buy it daily. Even the shops in the aires (rest-areas) on the expressways sell baguettes, and I’ve often seen travelers grab a loaf and a package of ham to dine at a picnic table outside. Rip the baguette open, stuff in the ham, eat. Absolute satisfaction. Indeed, the bread is often a meal in itself. The truth is that a good bread really is all you need.

In Saint Araille, Monseiur Marty Chantal, boulanger, arrives at about noon every Monday, Wednesday and Friday—not daily—but to my door, which is even better. We can hear the beeping of his little white delivery van across the hills, the dogs barking hysterically as he starts up the driveway to the château. He came during the snow-storms; he brings special cakes on holidays; he has chocolate croissants to lure the children clamoring down the stairs on cold mornings. If we’re not home or don’t happen to come when he beeps, he leaves the bread, au natural, tucked into the front door handle, in a bag only if it happens to be raining. If we’re in the mood for something special, he has a variety of extra treats in his packed van, baked fresh by his own hand during the night. When we arrived in October, we placed a standing order with M. Chantal for two baguettes (literally, “sticks”) every delivery day, and we often supplemented by baking in the bread machine in the tower apartment or stopping at the boulangerie on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. In mid-winter, we changed our order from baguettes to pain aux céréales (cereal bread), which is so good that we often lurk around at the window and delay lunchtime, waiting for the sound of M. Chantal’s horn. I’ve been known to eat a third of a loaf for my lunch.

M. Chantal himself has retired during our year here, turning deliveries at least over to his daughter, Mademoiselle Chantal, a lovely smiling young woman in her twenties. In one of our early chats with M. Chantal, we learned that he hoped to travel to the United States in retirement—to see the Rocky Mountains, he said—and we’ve been wondering if he’s on his way to Colorado now. This, as we gaze at the Pyrénées white-caps an hour to the south. Like these mountains, bread, too, has its cousins across the sea. And we discover that this desire—to go, to see, to adventure in the world where the unfamiliar becomes familiar—is a shared desire. A simple bread, different and sometimes better.

In the nearby villages, the bread baking is often an event, a community gathering with lines out the doors of the boulangeries. When we visit La Couvertoirade, a beautifully preserved bastide village in a remote corner of the Aveyron, we see the communal ovens such as once existed in every town. In the Middle Ages, citizens paid a tax for which everyone gained the right to bake their daily loaves. As we wait with the others for Sunday loaves to emerge from the heat, the community of the event—the sharing and visiting of the people—seems as important as the sustenance of the bread itself. Is not that too a kind of daily bread?

As a treat, I buy “American” bread for James and Isabelle at the Intermarché supermarket. The brand is “Sam’s,” but, despite the name, it’s actually French cereal bread baked in the regulation rectangle and pre-sliced. True “American bread” tastes like paste compared to this bread, rich and nutty and fresh. With a little Nutella and fresh kiwi jam from the abbey, this sandwich makes more than a complete meal. Even plain, Sam’s surpasses Uncle Sam’s. Why is this bread so much better?

I read the label. Seven kinds of farine (flour), plus fiber, water, grains, and some of the usual suspects, including ascorbic acid, diglycerides, and sirop de glutcose-fructose. In my research, however, I find these differences. Bread flour in France is rarely bleached. Flour used in the U.S. has a higher gluten level. Potassium bromate, which U.S. bakers use to strengthen bread, is banned in the European Union. French bread is legally controlled and may not contain anything but flour, water, yeast and salt. Traditionally, it should be baked on a hearth. It doesn’t keep for more than a day. Sam’s, I suspect, is not cooked on a hearth, certainly not in an official boulangerie, so maybe it is the flour or the water that make it so good. I used to know a very old New York bagel shop owner who swore that New York bagels get their wonderful flavor from New York City water. “You can’t get New York bagels anywhere but New York!” he’d shout. Maybe you can’t get French bread anywhere but France because of the wheat grown here on the hillsides all around us in the Haute Garonne. Maybe it’s the soil or the air. Maybe it’s just that Frenchmen have appreciated bread for a very long time.

At the Grottes de Gargas, we see hundreds of images of hands printed on the walls from the Stone Age, and it comes as no surprise to learn that these same hands might have worked the first breads. Neolithic peoples baked bread in this same part of the world before 10,000 BC. Bread—the stuff of life, the symbol of our only real necessity this day—was born here, raised on the very yeasts in the air, and has been perfected and become essential to everyday life over the 12,000 years since. Every culture has a bread that is born of its own history and land, and the bread in a contemporary culture reflects not only that history, but some of the modern values of that culture.

When I think about the relationship of Americans to bread, what seems different is that we have forgotten to appreciate bread. We have neglected the simplicity of this one essential need. We want more and more and more. We live in excess, like the bread shelf at the Safeway supermarket. We do not have time to stop for daily bread, much less bake it ourselves. Can you imagine Americans lined up and waiting for a loaf of bread fresh from the oven? We do not want to wait for our bread to be baked, but we expect our bread to wait—preserved with whatever additives are available—for us. We have valued the new, the next thing, that which might make life more efficient, faster, or better, and in our rush and cry and looking always so far ahead, we have lost something very simple and essential to a healthy life. This day, this bread.

It is not that the French are a simple people—far from it. This a land that values complexity, theory, thought and philosophy. Consider Sartre, Montagne, Irigaray and de Beauvoir. Nor is the difference that the French are not busy, hurrying from home to work and school just as contemporary Americans do. The difference, it seems to me, is one of priorities. And bread is a good example of this.

Daily bread is a priority in my life here in Saint Araille. Fresh, simple, a reminder of the only thing a human really needs. It provides a place of community and of intercultural exchange. Bread is a creation of earth and air and fire and water, worked by human hands, as straightforward and innovative as the stone wheel on a log axle. We make bread from the materials at hand, the materials of this Earth. We might pray for this one essential sustenance, but for what do we truly ask? To be able to create sustenance from the materials at hand, the things of the earth. To share with a community of people. To value this day, fresh and warm and simple. All we really need. The breadboard on our table in the tower here in France is carved with these words by which to live: Donnez-nous ce jour notre pain quotidian. This day. This bread. Enough.

Bonne Anniversaire

December 15, 2009

On a Friday in November while in France, I celebrate my 51st birthday, the youth of old age, according to a French proverb. The children, who will be in school all day, tease me about being over fifty, but I cavalierly assert that fifty is only halfway to 100. “And I fully intend to live to 100,” I tell them as we drop them at school. Their sixth birthday comes one week after my birthday, so November usually becomes focused on the kids, as it should be. But there is something about a birthday, no matter one’s age, that wants celebrating somehow. It’s a marker, that moment that the sun returns to the same place it inhabited on the day you were born.

Back at the chateau, Susan’s mother, Sandra, and her friend, Eric, are visiting. Susan asks what I want, and, as always, I say that I’d like a nice meal in a restaurant. It’s the ultimate luxury for me—good food with friends, fellowship with other humans, and no dishes to do at the end of it all. So we review the list of recommendations that our hosts have left for us. At the top of Rosie and Pete’s favorites is Bistro de Pays (translated, plain and simple, “Country Bar”) in St. André, traditional French fare in a small village in the middle of nowhere. Rosie’s note about it reads: Phone ahead to reserve, show up, eat what you’re served! I know that Susan—a notoriously picky eater—will never make this place her first choice, so I play the birthday-me-first card: Bistro de Pays il est! We reserve a table for “dejeuner,” lock up the house and stable, get in the car and go.

It’s a gorgeous day, my birthday. Sunny and warm, probably about 70˚ F. The road to St. Andre from Saint Araille is curvy and narrow, up one hill and down the next, the snow-capped Pyrenees appearing at the crest of each rise. We zip in and out of villages, pass old women on old bicycles headed for somewhere, and slow for sheep and cows crossing. I think about the Haute Garonne region, the way the glaciers must have pushed up earth into these hills as they advanced and receded back to the mountains, the way the Mediterranean Sea must have swamped this area for awhile, and then the more recent history of Romans and Spaniards, knights and Crusaders, invaders and monks and pilgrims, traders and explorers and farmers—always farmers here—crossing and settling these fertile hills and valleys. It must have been a pleasant journey. The climate is perfect. The scenery changes with each mile. Something like aging, I think. I like this place, the youth of old age rather than the old age of youth, which, according to the proverb, is forty. I don’t feel old; I can still make the climb up the hill, and the view both behind and ahead is splendid.

About an hour later we arrive in St. André, one more small village in a chain of small villages. A Mairie. Maybe a maternelle or l’ecole. A church with a bell wall. A few houses. A farm with a cavernous stone barn. Perhaps a garage or small store. All of the towns we pass through are mostly deserted. In St. André, however, a half-dozen white delivery vans line the street next to and across from the church, a veritable traffic jam. A good sign, Rosie has said: Look for the delivery vans. Those guys always know the best places to eat. Is this the place? We don’t see a sign. Eric parks next to the church. I can see into the building behind us, a very small kitchen, steam rising from huge metal pots on a stove, two women wearing white aprons. It could be my own kitchen; it’s that small. On the street-side, a sign: Bistro de Pays.

We enter the screen door as the church bells begin to strike twelve. Halfway through the day, halfway through this life. I hope. On the left side of a small center hallway a windowed door reveals a tiny store. We open the door to the right. A well-stocked bar. Fifteen or so tables—six arranged in a row together, family-style—all set with cloths, old unmatched china and heavy silverware, wine bottles, and water pitchers. The only diners in the room are a group of delivery men at the first table, who all look up at us—the Americans—as we enter. Conversation stops. The four of us mumble to each other, begin to walk toward an empty table. A smiling woman in white apron comes from the back, takes our name, and gestures to a table. We sit.

Vous aiment un apéritif? she asks. An aperitif? Why not? It’s my birthday. I’m in the youth of old age. Susan’s mother and I nod. Oui! She serves us an amber liqueur in petit crystal glasses from the bar, Paloumbas de _?_. It’s sweet and strong, flavored with peach or plum, I think. A local favorite, she says. As we drink, another group arrives—two couples, one English-speaking—and they are seated at the table next to ours. One of the women passes her astrological birth chart to her friends. She is celebrating her birthday too. Her friends toast her: Bon aniversaire! It is as if a strange twin has appeared, and I can’t help but look closely at her. Are we alike for sharing the same day of birth? She looks about my age. Do her stars predict a similar path? What did bring us both to Bistro de Pays in the tiny village of St. André from some distant place on this particular day?

More truck drivers—male and female—arrive and are seated, some at the long table, though they do not seem to know one another. The woman in the apron brings bread. We pour the wine, a local red, and break the bread. I am a little fuzzy from the drink and warmth of the room. Another couple arrives. The restaurant is full within the hour. Only the woman in the apron waits tables, but she serves the same things to each table, one after another, in some cases moving the same plate of one dish from one table to the next.

I am not a restaurant critic, neither a chef nor food connoisseur, but I know that this food is wonderful. The soup arrives in a huge tureen just for our table, and we all serve ourselves. Pale brown, potatoes and carrots and big pale beans; it fills the belly and heart, and steams the windows. I am happy. The whole restaurant is happy. People laugh. I watch the delivery drivers share bottles of wine from table to table. The woman in the white apron brings the next course: a white mayonnaise-like sauce over thinly sliced celery root, oily black olives on the side. Then the patê, rich and smooth, arrives, and we cut thick slabs to eat with our bread—more bread—before the loaf is whisked off to the next table. I watch my birthday twin cut herself a slab from the loaf. The meal and the day stretch on.

Just before 2, the main course arrives. We’re in luck, because today’s meal includes cassoulet, the specialty of this region of France. Named for the pot in which it is prepared, the cassole, cassoulet is a very slow-cooked bean stew that has a particular mix of meats depending on the individual (or regional) recipe used by the cook. In ours there are sausages and chunks of duck and goose, as well as some roast beef, I think. Originally a peasant dish from medieval times, I’ve been told that a proper cassoulet is cooked sometimes for days, with more and more water added as it reduces, hence the thickness. It is also traditional to use the base from one cassoulet to start the next, leading to legends that some cassoulets are hundreds of years old in origin. The perfect dish for a fifty-first birthday. Even older than me!

As we scoop up seconds from the pot of cassoulet on our table, the woman in the white apron returns with a platter and serves us slices of pale tender pork roast, a hint of apple in the flavor. We eat. We eat. Everyone eats. Virginia Woolf once wrote, “One of the signs of passing youth is the birth of a sense of fellowship with other human beings as we take our place among them.” For me, in this moment at the Bistro de Pays in St. André, I feel at one with all humanity. When we eat good food, though we are strangers, we return to some kind of essential common existence. And there will be no dishes to wash at the end!

At last, we sit back. Sated. Satisfied. The woman in the white apron returns. Dessert? Of course. It’s my birthday, after all. There are choices: Chocolate mousse; flan; yogurt and fresh fruit; ice cream. We choose one each, and all are delicious. The chocolate mousse—my choice—is like eating chocolate clouds, a satiny richness that is perfect with the rich coffee that ends every French lunch. The truck drivers depart, and then my birthday twin with her friends from the next table. We decide that we have just enough time to drive over to see a little church we’ve heard about, and stand to pay our bill at the bar. The tab for this luxury, this long afternoon of life lived fully in gustatory glory? €12 each. About $15.

We walk out into sunshine, church bells ringing again, stretching and yawning. This is the youth of old age, that hour of the early afternoon when life feels rich and full of promise, when the view stretches to white-capped mountains in the distance and back across the hills toward home. We visit the little church painted with intricate stories, and the little well outside that is known for miracles, and we return to fetch the children from school under a painted sunset sky. C’est un bon anniversaire, indeed.