The Art of Eating
without eggs, there is no reason to come to France.²
I spent my thirtieth birthday digging rocks out of a lawn in the south of France. My back ached from bending and my hands were bruised and cut from carrying the sharp rocks to a wheelbarrow. There seemed to be no end to their number. I quickly realized that it would take me days to get them all out.
I had been to France once before, as a child. My father had taken my sister and me for a long, blissful summer of museums and cafes. I recall mornings sitting in the window of our small, Left Bank hotel, listening to children yelling to each other as they ran towards school. The fragrance of freshly-baked baguette would waft through our window, mingled with the smell of strong espresso and milk. We bought food at the outdoor market to take with us on walks through the Bois de Bologne, stopping on benches to feast on sweet oranges, crusty bread and Camembert. My sister and I wandered for hours through the hushed gardens at Versailles, happily chewing on the Middle Eastern pastries my father would spend a whole day searching for in Paris, just to fulfill his lust for the baklava he remembered from his own travels as a young man. Every morning, my sister and I ate pain au chocolat for breakfast at the café, stuffing ourselves with the hot, buttery bread until we could eat no more.
This day, however, was unlike anything I recalled from my childhood experiences in Paris. There¹s nothing quite like spending a day digging rocks to make you forget the cherished madeleines of your past.
Robert and I had arrived late the night before, after traveling for nearly 14 hours from New York to Paris to Rodez to here, this tiny village in the heart of the Aveyron. After driving through the dark, shuttered village, we arrived at the huge stone gates of the chateau, then continued down a gravel drive to the 200-year-old structure. Bright lights shone a warm welcome from the first-floor windows. It was long past midnight, but for us, it was dinnertime. It had been hours since we¹d eaten the processed cheese and crackers on the Air France flight from Paris.
Anne, the chateau's co-owner and chef, was in the kitchen overseeing hot pans. We left our bags in the freezing hallway and settled into the wooden chairs at the farm table next to the fireplace. After welcoming us, Anne brought us each a beautiful white omelette, filled with Cantal cheese and topped with sour cream and shaved black truffles. Anne¹s husband, Ian, poured wine into short, fat glasses. A wicker basket on the table held the last of the day¹s baguette. We mopped up every bit of the creamy omelette and then stumbled off down a dark hallway to bed.
Robert and I had come here to help Anne and Ian with the final work on the chateau, a month before it was to open. The three friends had purchased the stone house three years before and had completely transformed it from its previous incarnation as a girls¹ school. With 10 bedrooms, a swimming pool and extensive gardens, the house offered a charming respite from the fast pace of Paris. Sheep graze on the hillside above the village, and the nearby town of St. Geniez has a lovely greenmarket overlooking the Lot river. The Aveyron region is known primarily for cheese, and for its four-star chef, Michel Bras. The Roquefort cheese caves are an hour away by car, and the local shops and markets provide everything else you need to complete a French meal: charcuteries, boulangeries and patisseries.
None of these things would I see for some time, however. Guests would be arriving tout de suite and we weren't even close to being ready. When Robert had first described the situation, back in New York, I had imagined he and I helping out by arranging vases of freshly-picked flowers in the guest rooms, or rummaging through local antique stores for table lamps or doorknobs. Little did I know I would end up doing back-breaking labor. Rock digging was just the beginning. We also painted the massive wrought-iron stair railing with a rust-defying black paint that smelled horrible and never came off your hands. We spent hours on our backs, forcing the paint into all the metal curlicues. Next, load after load of debris had to be taken to the dump, where I was lucky enough -- on my first day! -- to see the rotting head of a goat perched on top of a pile of garbage. Every day we would snatch a hurried lunch of cheese and bread or pasta, and bolster ourselves with a big slug of local vin du pays, before getting back to the task at hand.
Finally, the month was over. By some miracle, we were ready for guests. Only then did I realize that in between all the hard labor, I had spent quite a bit of time in the kitchen, helping Anne cook. In the three years Anne had been in France, she had mastered many of the Aveyron¹s regional dishes. One was aligot, a heavenly mixture of cantal cheese and mashed potatoes, whipped together until they become creamy and rich. She also made a wonderful version of the most celebrated of Languedoc dishes, cassoulet, a rich, garlicky concoction of haricot beans, pork and other meats which vary according to local tradition. I had picked nuts from the black walnut tree next door and made walnut galette. I learned to make a simple but delicious vinaigrette for our evening salades composees. Fresh oysters, smoked trout, basic roux, onion tart, rabbit pie, marrons glacée and dark chocolate mousse had all become part of my unintentional daily cooking classes. And best of all, I finally realized, (once I began to get enough sleep to pay attention,) we were eating my beloved pain au chocolat for breakfast. France was mine again, and like so many before me, it was there that I had my gastronomic epiphany.
Those three summer months I spent in France helped to make me into the unrepentant food lover I am today. In this column, I hope to take you on more of my travels, while enjoying food in its many incarnations: through restaurant reviews, intimate dinners, trips to the greenmarket, and of particular interest to me, the history of food.
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