Tuesday, October 9, 2012
"One Can Dine Very Well on Potatoes"
You travel to France to see the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, to sip an espresso at a sidewalk café and munch on tangy saucisson sec while you quaff a glass of Beaujolais in view of the vineyard from which it sprung. You travel for the expected sights and pleasures, but of course it's the unexpected encounters that make a trip truly memorable.
I think of our visit to a tourist office in the town of Villefranche, in Beaujolais. We came in speaking French, Mary in the lead--or perhaps I went first, to make Mary look good by comparison. The petite, dark-haired woman working there listened to our request for info on restaurants and wineries in the area, and scurried about the office amassing a pile of brochures and pamphlets. She and Mary chatted while the woman reached into cabinets and leafed through stacks of materials. The woman seemed distracted, and was becoming more animated, even agitated, all the time.
When finally it appeared that she might burst with excitement, she overcame that deep-seated Gallic reserve which makes it nearly impossible to ask a direct question of a stranger, and dared to ask us where we were from. We said we were American. Not French at all? Not a bit. Alors. What had the woman flustered was that she couldn't place Mary's form of French; her accent was so good, she thought she must be French, but.... The implication was that her grammar didn't quite match the accent. What she finally concluded, she told us, was that Mary must have been a French woman who had moved to America, and forgotten how to speak French! It was probably the most endearingly backhanded compliment the woman could have offered. And after that dish of quenelles de brochet has faded in memory, and the Delacroix and David and Géricault we admired in the Louvre start to blur together, that's the sort of landmark of a trip that stays with you for years and years.
The title of today's post comes from another such encounter, during our first trip to France in 2001. We went in early October, less than a month after the September 11 attacks, and shortly after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. This was in that honeymoon phase when much of the world drew together in sympathy with America over the shock and horror of those events. I can't recall how many French people spontaneously mentioned the 9-11 attacks, and expressed their condolences, and incidentally thanked us, retrospectively, for America's role in saving France during World War II. The French have a longer historical memory than we have (who doesn't?), and it was remarkable to be the recipients of this kind of outpouring of emotion, simply because we were American.
Well, the Frenchman who inspired today's post wasn't quite so sentimental. We met him about a week into our trip, which started in Brittany and took us down the Atlantic coast to the mouth of the Loire, then up that splendid river into the Touraine, the area around the city of Tours. We wound up staying a few days near Chaumont sur Loire, home to a lesser chateau, which at any rate we were only able to view from behind the locked gates, à cause de la grève--"because of the strike," the public workers' rolling strike over...I don't recall what. A cause de la grève we couldn't visit the chateaux, à cause de la grève we couldn't get into the Rodin museum. etc. It became the tagline to our trip, not that we were much put out.
But with the chateau in Chaumont closed, we were looking for amusement, so we went to the tourist office in town--which also served as baguette depot on days when the boulangerie was closed. There we met M. Guérand, in his early 30s I'd guess, longish dirty blonde hair and a three-day beard, cowl-neck sweater--so very French looking. If he didn't have a Gauloise perched on his lower lip at all times, he should have. Typical he was, in appearance at least, but not your typical tourist office worker in almost every other respect. He wasn't from the area and didn't really know it very well. He was from Paris, a graphic designer, unemployed, and they'd shipped him out here to the boondocks to fill a vacancy at the tourism office. Waving at the rack of brochures was about as helpful as he could be in helping us find lodging for the night. And as for sights worth seeing, well, in his view, one thing was as good as another. Merci, bien.
But we got to talking, about...just about everything. He was pretty bored, so little tourist traffic in the area, since it was the off season, and à cause de la grève. And probably Mary and I were just a wee bit sick of each other's exclusive company after many days on the road. We spoke mostly in French, as his English was poor, and we covered 9-11 and its immediate aftermath, the Afghanistan invasion, the American media and its lack of intellectual depth (when we got home I sent him a package of the "better" U.S. current affairs magazines, to show him there was some intelligent life in America, and never got a reply). It got philosophical at some point, as we pondered together why so many people spent their lives chasing after money, and never stopping to realize that money is just a medium, not an end in itself, and if you thought it was an end in itself, you could never have enough to be satisfied. Deep stuff. He also confided to us that he really could see no point to existence itself. Shrug. Fire up a Gauloise....
Eventually we came back around to our immediate needs: a place to sleep that night, somewhere to eat. By sheer luck we pulled a brochure that led us to a very odd but perfectly wonderful auberge, Chateau de la Haute Borde. As for dinner, well, there were some restaurants in town, but this was Monday, and most were closed. Furthermore, he wasn't really supposed to recommend specific restaurants, and anyway, he didn't eat out much. He didn't care about food, himself, and seemed slightly exasperated with his countrymen and -women for their obsession with this trivial chore, feeding oneself. To top it off, here in the land of charcuterie, in a sea of rillettes and rillons and foie gras, he was a vegetarian. It was a healthier and more humane sort of existence.
"I find that one can dine very well on potatoes."
He must have said it in French, but I have no idea how to construct that sentence. We understood, we nodded. We thanked him and said how much we had enjoyed our conversation, and made our way out into a gorgeous October afternoon in the storied Val de la Loire. After checking in to La Haute Borde and confirming that their restaurant was closed, we drove into the city of Amboise and enjoyed a splendid dinner at a restaurant called La Comédie, where local young people came for pizza, and we ate sausage, duck, rabbit, as well as gratin dauphinoise--so yes, we dined very well on potatoes, among other regional delights.
Another thing you learn from travel, a cliché perhaps, but not a dreary one, is that sometimes it's the destination that delights, but often it's more about the journey. An old verity appropriate to this shaggy dog story (histoire drôle sans queue ni tête!) about a dinner inspired by pommes de terre, though not composed exclusively of them.
I dug our potato bed this week, and I knew we must dine on them. I plucked the first brussels sprouts from the garden, too. Those things, along with some beautiful cippolini-type onions from the market we wrapped up in foil--a little salt and oil in the sprouts and potatoes--and into the coals of a fading fire they went.
Foraging in the fridge I found a piece of pork belly that I had brined as for bacon, but roasted in the oven instead of smoking. To add variety to the plate, and for the hell of it, I put a couple of eggs in the coals for ten minutes at the very end. I've never done eggs this way before, and they came out beautifully--yolk sunny yellow and set, white silky, not a hint of sulfurishness about them.
Then cheese, since we are in Dairyland--Marieke gouda both aged and smoked, Roth-Kase gruyère-style. Hope butter, a sort of creme fraiche ersatz made by combining Cedar Summit cream and goat yogurt, some minced shallot added to that. Pickles, since this was a sort of faux raclette meal.
This is how we dine on potatoes around here, and we dined very well, indeed. Happy travels to all.
Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw