“All I have is a voice." (W.H. Auden)

Food Divine

When gourmet cuisine comes to mind, France comes top of mind.  True, there are many exquisite, renowned, and highly publicized restaurants from Sweden to Tokyo but it all started here... in Gallic country.  Legend has it that the revolution resulted in the layoff or firing of chefs and cooks from many royal and noble households.  These experts ended up serving regular people through brasseries, auberges, bistros, and just the normal village or town cafes.  Then the Michelin guide was invented, encouraging a serious competition to attain the highest marks of grand cuisine. 

 

But in this country, Michelin star or not, food is a religious experience.  Where else would a two hour lunch be revered? Where else would street markets have a place of honor in peoples shopping -- whether in Paris or in Olonzac?   And where else, would a chef come out to greet his guests as a thank you and welcome for patronizing his cooking?  I know only of France.

 

My first encounter with French gourmet cooking was in Alsace in the early 1990s to celebrate husband’s birthday.  To compensate for my choice of a two star lodging, I promised my husband a gourmet lunch at a Michelin 1-star restaurant.  We arrived, greeted formally, and seated in a table for two overlooking the vineyards of Alsace.  (Notice how vineyards keep cropping up in my life?).  Though we had a French language guidebook, we barely knew how to say bonjour.  So we used both guide and dictionary to help us with the French menu.  We were unsure about our order but determined to make the most of it.  My entrée (appetizer) arrived and it was a thick portion of homemade foie gras served with cornichons.  I never had either dish before but, after the first taste, I became a fan!    This was followed by some game – roasted quail, I think -- served with two small fried eggs on its breast.  I cannot even remember the dessert as the entire meal was overwhelming to someone who used to be content only with grilled steak and Chinese food.   We were very satisfied – physically and emotionally.   Actually, we thought we discovered heaven except for the fact that, at the next table, an elderly well-coiffed woman sat with her poodle.  The poodle was served with his own china bowl of cool water.  It was, then, a culture shock! 

 

Contrast this gourmet meal with a simple but remarkable meal we had in Normandy a few years ago.  When someone near and dear kept filling the diesel gas tank with unleaded fuel, our car mishap led us to the closest village with a mechanic.   Since it was near lunch time, he urged us to eat first then return after our meal.  He had to have his lunch as well before inspecting our rental car.  We wandered around and found a small, homely place and seated ourselves.  The hostess, presumably the owner and cook, came over and gave us a small two page menu listing a few items on each page.  The only thing I could understand was poulet (chicken), so I ordered three with one for the girls to share.  Big mistake.  The plat (meal) was made up of crispy but non-greasy fried chicken with fries that were freshly cut.  It was a wonderful meal and the one plate to share between the girls was not sufficient.  I had to share/give up mine as I was uncertain about the protocol of ordering another dish.  When the woman came out to check on us, she inquired, “"Ça a été ?  “Very good,” I replied.  We all looked so grateful!

 

During my real estate visits, a friend and I stumbled upon a café-bar in a village called Murvil-les-Bezier.   Walking in, we saw a few men drinking at the bar but nothing else.  So we walked out only to be followed by the bartender asking us if we wanted to eat.  Actually, he asked a question that we both didn’t understand so he did the pantomime version of eating.  He walked us back to the place and showed us a small door located at the side of the bar.  Inside, there were about 8 tables of four.  We sat down and he took our order.  Rather, I think he told us what we were having for our meal.   The bread came with the water then the green salad and, finally, the main course.  It was a roasted herbed ½ chicken complemented by ratatouille and plain buttered pasta.  We wiped those plates clean.  And for the 10 euro meal each, a pichet of wine was included.  My friend turned to me as we walked out and said, “No wonder they have two hour lunches here... that was incredible!”

 

Most recently, and only to please the gastronomic fan in the family, we have frequented Michelin star restaurants in our corner of France.  One New Year’s day, we found ourselves in La Table Saint Crescent (Michelin 1-star).   The New Year’s Day special was a nine-course menu.   By the time I had the sixth exquisite course, I turned to my husband and pleaded help.  He said, “You can do it.  You love good food and this is it.”  Fortunately, first daughter had begun to acquire her father’s taste for gourmet cuisine and was only eager to share my courses.  I vowed that, in preparation for the next Michelin star meal, I would abstain the night before and exercise to build a healthy and starving appetite.

 

This philosophy came in good use when, last Easter, we made the journey to Fontjoncouse, site of one of only 26 Michelin 3-star restaurants in France, to a place named Restaurant Gilles Goujoun.  After a challenging road trip, we discovered that the stellar reputation of the place was the primary and only reason that people all over the world would visit this village.  The restaurant, not the village, was the destination.  The place was intimate but not intimidating.  Service was gracious and welcoming.  And fortunately, one of the staff spoke English.  There was a children’s menu, although not advertised, so the staff recommended the fish for the girls.  For the adults, we started with a selection of amuses bouche to tickle the palate followed by escargot (snails) wrapped in pasta.  The staff asked first daughter if she would like this and she bravely acquiesced.  I am so proud of her.  “Mom,” she said, “it does not taste like snails.  It’s actually good.”  (I hasten to note that she has never had escargot so I wonder how she would know the taste of snails).  Our entrée was a huge oyster served with spun sugar ball that, when cracked by the small hammer presented by the staff, released a savory vapor that one is required to inhale before sampling the fresh oyster.     

 

My plat or main course was roasted and delicately flavored guinea fowl breast with a special roux sauce.  Dessert was an architectural display of chocolate decadence.  But that was not all.  As we were enjoying our café, the staff returned with a box.  I thought it was a selection of teas.  He opened this and pulled out several trays, each containing cookies, small rhum cakes, macaroons, and truffles.  “Oh my God,” I blurted out.  “No madame, my name is Julian,“ he replied.   Well, Julian did not stop me from trying each and every temptation.   The entire experience was intense and marvelous.    

 

We also enjoy, on a more frequent basis, several eating places around the village which serve locally sourced, traditional and delightful French cuisine.  Whether this was simply steak frites or tagliatelle pasta with salmon or salad chevre (broiled or fried goat cheese so good that even McDonald’s serves it) or omelets.  First daughter is so enamored with food here that she refuses to name a favorite, saying that it would be too long a list.  Second daughter, however, claims moules frites as her beloved dish while husband is on the constant hunt for cassoulet.  As for me, my heart throbs at the sight of confit de canard.   Once, at Narbonne les halles (indoor market), I saw a few vendors selling these precious duck legs lathered with lard just waiting for a deep fryer to turn them into golden brown, crispy skin but tender meat dishes complemented by medallions of roasted potatoes.  I started to salivate at 09:30 in the morning.

 

Today, after a round of shopping to take advantage of the last days of the January sale (which now goes into Feb 10), we were in need of food.  But the restaurants do not open until 12 noon so we deliberated between having a snack and ruining our appetites or going for a sandwich.  The decision was unanimous; we needed to eat right away.  We went to one of the patisserie/boulangerie/sandwich places and gave our order.  Mine was a long brown bread topped with goat cheese, grated emmental, tomatoes and mushrooms, toasted and served warm.  This was accompanied by a green salad, bottled water and a chocolat éclair.  All for 9 euros.  The entire repas (meal) hit the right spots.  It was simple.  And it was divine.

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Judy | Reply 12.03.2013 15.26

First daughter is very Wise, (as is second) but I love her post. The food here is that which dreams are made of. My list of favorites is in volumes not numbers.

Marion | Reply 16.02.2013 15.24

You are so lucky to have the wonderful experiences you are now having. Nelda and I are jealous. You must need to ride a bike 20 miles a day to balance intake.

First Daughter | Reply 09.02.2013 14.55

I love it! :) I still can't believe how fortunate i am to have such wonderful parents providing me with such amazing opportunities that will never be forgotten!

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Latest comments

14.07 | 08:01

Beautiful! Vive la France!

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17.02 | 01:57

France is awaiting your return, Betty!

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16.02 | 10:07

Such a wonderful experience for all! Truly a beautiful region filled with lovely people, excellent food, and soothing wine! Am looking forward to returning.

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07.09 | 14:44

What a joy for this to be shared. I am reading several times, soaking it in and making my own movie in my mind of this adventure. So excited for you three!

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