On my first visit to France so long ago in 1977, I was invited to dine in a 200 year old country house of hand-cut stone in a truffle-oak orchard south of Albi. I had just left Paris in August, the month Paris is virtually empty with the natives all
abroad or in the country to escape the heat. I spent the day at the Louvre meditating before the life size paintings of Napoleon (almost slipping in the rain on the dangerously wet marble stairs leading up to the museum on the way out), then dashing around I. M. Pei’s glass pyramid, which was new so quite the showpiece for both tourists and locals at the time. Then I crossed the Louvre’s Cour Napoleon to get a good spot to stand on one of the old stone bridges over the Siene to watch the VE-Day fireworks. These are set off over the palatial Hotel de Ville (City Hall) that looked like it was built during the Napoleonic era it is so imposing. The streets and bridges were jammed. VE-Day, commemorating the liberation of France during WW2, still means a lot in France. People were even crying with joy like it was yesterday that DeGaulle paraded under Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe (The modern-day Arc de Triomphe is a nightmare to drive as you are surrounded by a circling vortex of madcap speeding French drivers going this way and that spilling in and out the 12 radiating avenues. I got caught there for what seemed like hours not being able to get off on my proper street. Oh Paris.). The next day I motored straight south into the heart of rural France.
If you really want to experience the villages of France, you have to go by car (or bicycle, but please….). Many villages are so small you have driven through before you know you were there and you can never find them on a map. The sign would say “entering so and so” and about 500 feet and 3 buildings later, the next sign would say “leaving so and so.” I could never get over it. Even if you don’t speak the language, you can have an out-of-the-ordinary visit to the French countryside replete with fortified towns and castles, incredible outdoor markets, narrow canals, and of course, really great little restaurants and bakeries no one is ever going to write about, filled with excellent food and country charm. I even loved the little epiceries, the grocery stores, where the stacks of fresh crepes are next to the register. I would shop there in every town to get the little French yogurt cups, never big enough, with the best yogurt you have ever tasted.
Nestled halfway between the west part of Languedoc (Pronounced “Lanhng-dawk”–the name flows once you know how to say it), the Pyrenees to the south, and eastern Gascony border, this is the land of fois gras, the Toulouse-Lautrec museum, Tarn river gorges, Cathar medieval castles, and Perrier mineral water. The drive was often shady tree lined two-lane roads through late summer flowering fields of tobacco, maize, and lavender once we left the main autoroute. I was fascinated by the oversized wine barrel structures that lined the road every few miles offering glasses of local wine and Armagnac, just like our old fashioned root beer stands of my childhood. Just the thought of hopping from one barrel to the next, wine tasting, and then driving on those two lane roads, well, it still kinda makes me stop and take a deep breath (remember the episode of the Absolutely Fabulous comic relief gals on holiday in France driving ridiculously intoxicated after an afternoon at one of the local wineries and they couldn’t find the steering wheel for the cars drive on the opposite side than in Britain. Yippee.).
I was heading to the out-of-the city family weekend destination where brothers, sisters, their children, and grand aunties would meet to get away from the hot summer temperatures and city bustle of Toulouse. It was incredibly rustic and kinda run down, situated in a scrubby woodland meadow, built of a soft white stone which is locally excavated on the Quercy Limestone Plateau. It was the original home of their late parents and grandparents who were truffle farmers, that potent black fungus which grows elusively on the roots of the oak trees. It was an incredibly restful area, and very quiet, still in the 70s very agricultural, nothing luxurious in sight.
Steep external stairs led to a small landing then directly into a main room with the large open fireplace and rectangular dining table set in front of it (the architecture with a high pitched stone tile roof and cave on the ground level is typical of the area). The room was quite dark, as there were no electric lights. This quite small main room was the hub of the farmhouse; there were some small bedrooms, but no living room. I was seated at the end of a long, rough-hewn plank table for a hearty family-style Sunday midday meal. I sat in outright amazement at the makings of a true country feast and certainly one of the most memorable meals I have ever eaten.
A gigantic rump of Auvergne beef encrusted with coarse sea salt and Dijon mustard was roasting over an open hearth fire in an even more gigantic lidded cast-iron kettle. Certainly the largest Dutch oven I had ever seen or have seen since, about 14-inches in diameter and almost just as deep. In the far corner stood a small four-burner gas range with two ancient oversized pitch-black cast-iron frying pans pushed to the rear of the stove; both contained vegetables waiting to be sautéed in sweet butter. One was heaped with the ubiquitous French-cut green beans, and the other held a mound of sliced fresh brown mushrooms known as cèpes, a member of the Boletus family and the fresh porcini, gathered locally in the oak forest. My mind’s eye can still see the handles of these huge black pans with their handles at offset parallel angles in the dark corner with the sloping pyramid of vegetables rising up out of each of them.
In the center of the table was coarse homemade duck pâté de campagne in a glass spring top jar with crisp sticks of crust-shatteringly fresh baguette to start, and a salad glistening with a pungent Dijon mustard and le midi golden olive oil vinaigrette to follow the roast. Unlabeled dark wine bottles were filled with the fresh wonderful Langued’oc red wine, decanted by hand from large bulk drums kept in the cave; we always drank the wine out of squat tumblers not stemware. An immense cut-crystal bowl was filled to the rim with the legendary tiny fraises des bois to accompany the cheese course of a Roquefort (which aged in the local limestone caves) and a young Brie, of which I was hopelessly addicted to. Pastries from the town bake shop were last, along with small, acrid cups of strong coffee the French hold so dear to finishing their meal. Strangely enough, that crystal bowl of berries is the main visual element that sparkles in my memory of that afternoon. The hinged wooden shutters opened to let in the only light, which reflected the bountiful sunlight through the crystal and sent fragments of rainbows onto the clay walls while we ate. That, and the conversation, was the entertainment.
Later in the afternoon we filled an ancient perambulator with baguettes, cheese, apples, and cold cassoulet (basically a dried haricot bean stew with any sort of sausage and meat in it) and headed off for a picnic on blankets under the oak trees. Envision little more than a dirt path leading to an open field spotted with the truffle oaks, rather dry since it is the end of summer, and almost two dozen laughing and noisy chattering people of all ages trampling down the road pushing a baby carriage. If you have ever sat in a field of fallen oak leaves, you will remember their spiny leaf borders, which can prickle you right through the blanket and stick to the bottom of your shoes. No babies were going barefoot in that. The French truly know the art of the family picnic that is one of the rites and rhythm of country life…enjoying being together.
The next day I set off for the coast and port of Sete. But that is another story…
Text copyright Beth Hensperger 2015
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