Monday, August 31, 2009

It's the Food, Stupid

When we talked about leaving to come to France, everyone said, "Wow. The food. You'll eat so well." I wish I could say something more complicated than this, but it's just true. We are eating so well.

Jessica, my lovely singing French teacher friend of the very cute dogs, is also a serious foodie. After she, Nick and Bill came back from the market in Salernes, she whipped up a raspberry tart with no apparent effort. She can work an iphone just as well as she wields a wire whisk, and so was able to download recipes from as she walked through the market and picked out the most perfectly ripe raspberries that were then available on this planet. I really admire the girl's skills.

While I pulled lunch together, Jess and Nick whipped up the two-level tart (regular old tart batter on the bottom, and super-delicious crème freche tart batter floating on the top.) Grace carefully set the raspberries into place in a swirly pattern, and Jess popped it into the oven to become perfection. Ever the tech goddess, she even set her iphone as a timer. This amazed me, as I have so much learn about baking. And iphones. And French, for that matter, but you already know that.

While the tart baked, we sat out on the picnic table on the lawn and ate salad, cheese, bread, twisty pesto pasta, and sausage that Nick found that combined the magic of meat with the sorcery that is Gorgonzola. I served my new favorite lemony white wine, and Nick, the uber-wine guy (though never, ever, the wine snob) brought us a bottle of Beaujolais to have afterwards. Nick has a blog, too, which you can get through to here

After lunch, Bill spent nearly the whole afternoon cleaning up, while the rest of us all threw ourselves, stuffed, on our various beds. Eating cheese and tarts while drinking wine at noon in the sun can make a girl pretty tired. I can only use the word "sinful" to describe just how good it was to eat like that in the middle of a Sunday afternoon in such a beautiful place.

When I was a kid, Sunday lunch was the one meal of the week that my sister and I foraged for and prepared on our own. We would come home from church, and Dad would instantly put on his work clothes and go outside to do some sort of fascinating manual labor. Mom would get right down to the same indoors. Gaela and I would heat up a can of ravioli or cook a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and watch Soul Train. It was a great ritual, as we loved both things -- the rare opportunity to eat processed food, and the even rarer opportunity to watch somebody be funky. When I was growing up, we ate the most delicious food -- nearly all of it grown on our farm or on the farms within five or six miles from our house. I wasn't fully aware that you might even want to buy meat in a store until I was about twelve. At the time, I had no idea how rare that was, or how lucky we were. Many citified hipsters would give their left arm and all their Keen sandals to eat as locally now as we did then.

Since this whole trip so far has had a back to the 70's theme, it's only appropriate that I get to eat similarly fresh, unprocessed, and beautiful food here. Tomatoes. Zucchini. Peaches. Beans. Raspberries. Heaven.

But our day of food was by no means done after lunch. Before our mid-day meal was even over, before the food coma, using the magic of iphones, Nick and Jess looked for restaurants nearby for dinner. Several were full, or closed, even when Jessica called back in her best real-French-person accent and asked for une table.

Les Chenes Vertes ("The Green Oaks," according to Google Translate) was, happily upon happily, open, with a table for six at seven. We drove up the twisty road to Tourtour, the bells tolling in Villecroze just as we drove through the center of town. We sat at a huge table on a veranda overlooking the valley below. Each of the three sections of the table could have seated six at a restaurant in Brooklyn. We joked to one another in our best arch pooh-dee-dooh highbrow voices, "Please pass the salt!"

The Menu de Degustation ("Tasting Menu") involved the combination of dozens, likely hundreds of specific ingredients combined in exacting proportions, using precise techniques, and resulting in life-altering flavors. I suppose that people who eat fancy all the time might have found it just OK (only one star, as opposed to three) but as a former Kraft-Mac-and-Cheese girl who has since honed her palate in the multi-culti eateries of early 21st century Brooklyn, it was a revelation.

(Warning: what follows is a shameful episode of explicit food pornography. Cue the cheesy music, lower the lights, and sit back for some prose to get your gall bladder racing. This passage is not for the faint of heart, for self-righteous vegetarians, or for anybody who is serious about their Marxism or prone to angry fits of bitter jealousy, although non-self-righteous vegetarians should be OK. And kids, if your mom is reading you this blog aloud, you should know that "pornography" is a very fancy and complicated form of Victorian poetry that you will have to go to college to understand. Don't worry; your Aunt Launa is an English teacher, and some day I will tell you more about it, along with Villanelles, Haiku, and Sesinas. When you're a lot older.)

First, the chef came out to ask us all what we might like to eat, including the girls. We adults would taste ourselves into oblivion with eight teeny little courses. (Eight!) The girls could elect a little simply prepared chicken, some fish or beef. Jessica nicely stepped in as the girls' translator and restaurant godmother, asking for more water peqillante or apple juice when they needed it, but they did all their own "Merci-s."

Course #1. The waiter brought us double-size glass shot glasses filled with a rainbow of layered fruit purees. He set the glasses in front of each of us, then stood proudly at the head of the table to announce the name and ingredients of the dish, as though he were introducing visiting titled European dignitaries at a ball. Puree of Watermelon. Kiwi. Canteloupe. Tomato. On the top was a little frothy white meringue (froth of various kinds would figure prominently in the entire meal) and a sprig of mint. This little surprise totally baffled the girls -- cold layered soup? Weird! -- but delighted the rest of us. I was torn between wanting somehow to taste every fruit separately and wanting to mix it together into a sort of off-green sludgy looking best smoothie ever. I tried it, and loved it, both ways.

Course #2. "Fleur de Courgette en Beignet." I translate this literally as "Zucchini Flower Donuts," each just one blossom dipped in batter and fried into a three-petaled little fritter. With my translation, these could really catch on back home at County Fairs in Upstate New York, but they would have to be served in multiples rather than one at a time. Big grey salt crystals clung to the fried batter. Rather than stress out over the appropriate way to eat it, I picked it up in my fingers and chewed on the petals. While I learned everything I needed to know about fried stuff on the Midway next to the Tilt-A-Whirl, Brooklyn has taught me a thing or two about not being overwhelmingly anxious about how your manners may appear to others.

In case you're wondering, salty fried flowers go over big with little girls.

Course #3 was the appetizer that we got to choose. Jessica and I each had a very carefully composed salad topped with a perky little cooked crayfish with its head split down the middle, tail and little grabby claws intact. The salad was crab and tomato shaped into a circle in the middle of the plate, acting as a stand on which the crayfish could vogue. At the bottom of the plate was a hard boiled quail egg, an arrangement of several perfectly cooked asparagus spears, and two tiny raw white almonds that someone had actually taken the time to peel. At the very top of the dish was a little savory stacked snowman: a (peeled) cherry tomato, an anchovy wrapped into a little scarf around that layer, then as a head the most amazing salty black olive I have ever had. At first I thought that the anchovy might mean that I should forego the snowman food stack, but when Jessica bravely decided to eat it, I did too. I shared the little bits of crayfish with the girls, who believed the little guy to be the world's most adorable lobster.

At the same time that Jess and I were unraveling the mysteries of the crabmeat appetizer, Nick was eating a sort of escargot pot pie, puff pastry covering snails suspended in an eggy, garlicky soufflé. Bill had ordered tete de veau, a dish that should properly be spelled with several accents I still don't know how to produce on my computer. It disappeared before any of us could even ask how he was enjoying it. He later described the dish as tasting "like meat butter," and looking "very anatomical." It looked like a dissected slice of the little calf's neck, and he could see where the vertebrae would have been. Surrounded in a horseradishy mayo, this dish could have been a total ethical and gustatorial gross-out. But for my Food Crusader Bill, it was bliss.

It's important at meals like this not to think too hard about what PETA might think, or exactly what part of what animal is being served. Better to keep asking one another, as you crack up, "Please pass the salt," and wait eagerly for the next little treat that comes your way.

I can't promise you that I have not mixed up the order of the next two courses, but I believe that Course #4 was a few lovely ounces of sea bass floating in artichoke foam along with a little piece of roasted fennel and a tomato that had been prepared in a way I have never before encountered. This was the same fish that Grace ordered and described as "the best fish I've ever had," although she was spared the foam and the fennel. Thanks, wise Mr. Chef, for keeping it simple.

Course #5 brought us face to face with even more little crayfish attitude, as each plate arrived with the top half of a little orange crustacean staring us down. This was crayfish flan (I know! Flan!) sitting on a bed of about 35 carefully counted then spiraled spaghetti noodles covered in green zucchini sauce. There was also an orange something over the top called "jus de carcasse." Unfortunately, we could not come up with any way to translate this other than "Carcass Juice." You would not necessarily think that something made of crayfish foam, mushed up cooked zucchini and carcass would be my favorite moment of the day, but it really was transcendent. I do so love my starchy sides.

Course #6 was actual dinner, our second choice of the evening. I had grilled gigot d'agneau, in honor of the two little romping lambs we saw on the road just before reaching the restaurant. It was served in two tiny little pieces, each hugely flavorful. On the top of the plate was a tomato crusted in a melted blue cheese. On either side were two swoops of sauce, a yin and yang made with one side horseradish, the other side mint. Jessica and Nick each had "Bresse" chicken with foie gras, piled on top of a dark, rich sauce and a little bundle of risotto wrapped in a leaf that none of us could identify or translate.

Bill, as is his wont, had the duck, this time in a honey sauce. Once again, he offered nobody any bites from his plate, and only a two word review in a perfect Jon Stewart minor-third singsong tone: "Nailed it."

Course #7 involved more honey. As though to bring us down safely from the flavor-high of the main dish and ease us towards the "Grand Dessert," this course offered a little bland circle of panna cotta topped with honey and another unidentifiable treatment of tomato. When the waiter announced this one, he sounded a little bit like he felt that the Ex-Sub-Arch Countess of a very small Dutchy had arrived at the party, rather than the flashier Princesses from Monaco and Flanders who had come earlier. I believe that Aspic was involved. None of us was able accurately to identify what Aspic is, but let's still not call PETA, OK?

You'd think that by now we all would be wholly gorged. Impossible to tempt with dessert, no matter how wafer thin. Sure, each of the courses was just a few luscious bites. But there were so damn many of them. I assumed that dessert would be a little piece of chocolate cake, perhaps, or some flowery fruit made into yet another boulle of mega-flavored glace. To tell you the truth, I usually am not a huge dessert fan, and rarely get quite as excited about the sweet part of the meal as I do about the starchy sides.

I was not prepared for what was to come.

Each of us, all six of us, received a plate with individual bites of FIVE different kinds of dessert. Plus a little separate dish of a three-tablespoon portion of chocolate mousse on the side. For those of you who prefer to have someone else do your math, that was a total of thirty-six desserts served to our table. Bill called this the "Dessert Gatling Gun," created to mow down any part of your palate still standing. Top left hand corner of each plate was an almond macaroon. Top right was sliced poached pears with chocolate on the top and some lovely mushy sweet white stuff underneath. Bottom right was a thin cookie shaped into a basket full of arranged cut fruits and a vaguely cinnamonny cream filling. Bottom left was a caramelized apple plus whipped cream. And dead center was the world's tiniest and most intense melty chocolate cake, cooked around a slice of banana. I generally find bananas in dessert to be a wholly mistaken idea, but in this case the three bites nearly made me cry.

Just after he set down our plates (and the wholly unnecessary additional plates of semisweet chocolate mousse, garnished by a sugar-glazed mint leaf) the world's most gracious watier also brought two little towers of additional cookies and a basket of fruit. "Just in case," he joked. On the tower, Grace found the new meaning of her life in the form of cream puffs, each about the size of a big marble. She put one in her mouth, and immediately exclaimed, "Why didn't I taste one of these when I was younger?" as though the first decade of her life was time wasted, so far from the delights of cream and puff.

We rolled back into our two cars, and slithered back down the hill from Tourtour. By the time we got home, there was no reason even to continue to converse. Eight courses worth of dinner had had the last word.

As a good friend wrote to me over email today, we will on our trip no doubt run headlong into a moment "when you realize that there is more to life than drinking wine and wondering whether to buy figs or melon for dessert." Yes, that day will come, and stay stay tuned for gory details of my upcoming existential crisis. But, to paraphrase Aragon from The Lord of The Rings, that day was not yesterday.

Before yesterday, I had no idea that there was, anywhere in this world, an alternate reality where there would not even be a reason to choose figs vs. melon for dessert. I could have tastes of seven of the most delicious courses imaginable, followed by six desserts -- plus cookies and yes, even figs. Yesterday was day-long, full-on food hedonism, and I am forever indebted to Jessica and Nick for making it all happen. I appreciated every sliver of every taste offered up for me to try.


  1. My, my, my, my, my. Yum, yum, yum. Wow. Wow.

  2. Well I am rolling off to bed to dream sweet dreams after reading today's post.
    Sound amazing!!!
    Hey, how about adding Food Critic to your list of future employment possibilities!

  3. What a tale! what a feast! Nice to see you're having a hard time acculturating.

    Makes my blog seem downright dull. Which it probably is if you have little or no interest in pointing dogs.

    best to Bill + the girls