Food Glorious Food

Our five months in France inevitably revolved around food, eating in the local restaurants and enjoying the laid-back lunches and dinners that are rare to find in the USA, and visiting the local markets where we could find seasonal produce to cook for ourselves and guests.  With great anticipation of livery coarse country pates, rich saucy main courses and decadent desserts, we started off on the right foot at the very first meal and continued for 5 months to savor the very best of what France had to offer.

Our first meal was in the small village where we were staying for the first night before collecting the car. The restaurant was called the Le Jument Verte http://www.aubergelajumentverte.fr/ Chef Vincent created a magnificent meal of country pate with cornichon sorbet, which was a fantastic alternative to crunchy sour cornichons, followed by farmers chicken, which was rich and tender, served with arborio rice, baby courgettes, baby beets, carrots and mushrooms in a beef jus. That was Marcel’s choice. I chose an entrée of mushroom souffle, which was mushroom with bacon wrapped in cheese with beef and onion jus, then to follow, scallops with fresh spinach, creamed parsnips drizzled with passion fruit and forest mushrooms. It was delicious, along with a bottle of cold fresh rose wine. After all our traveling we were tired and unfortunately could not make it through a dessert, but there would be time. Instead, we walked out to the foyer to pay our bill and came upon a lovely display of cheeses, all under their own glass dome, with a lightshow that reminded me of the Tina Turner concert we attended in Singapore! It was a sight to behold! And so, our first meal was one to be remembered, and one that we thought was the meal that every meal to come would be judged against – how wrong we were!

Throughout our journey down to our destination in Gers, Southwest France, we stopped at auberges and logis where there was usually a gourmet restaurant. The accommodations were always clean and comfortable, although basic, but the food… that was our main focus. From the flaky buttery croissants and café au lait for breakfast to the humble Jambon Beurre baguette for lunch, to meals with fresh asparagus and lemon butter foam, local lamb and wild garlic, and delicate macaroons for dessert we were treated to deep fresh flavors and pungent aromas at every meal. No plastic, slippery smoked salmon on this trip. It was smoky, dry and had a deep fishy flavor served with home made aioli and delicately perfumed lemon mousse. The country sausages that were a favorite of Marcel’s were tender, rich and meaty and accompanied by various mustard and gravies. One memorable meal was at Aubeterre  sur Dronne, at the Hostellerie Du Perigord where the contemporary restaurant was both stylish and comfortable. I had a terrine of haddock with a lovely deviled egg and Marcel savored a delicate entrée of trout done three ways. With soft mashed potatoes and again the farmers chicken for him and sea bass and a dainty souffle of cauliflower and lemon butter for me, we did finish off with a dessert of my favorite crème brulee and Marcel’s all-time favorite, lemon tart.  Desserts did not feature too greatly in our meals, as by the time we had savored our two courses we were usually full. But then coffee would arrive with either a cookie, chocolate or a sweet pastry, so dessert was not missed at all.

Gers is a renowned gastronomic area, with many great chefs training in this location. Fois gras is one of the main products of the area, along with yellow chicken, black pork, and duck in as many guises as you can imagine. The dried duck breast was akin to eating dark, creamy chocolate and was featured on many salads, along with duck breast and fois gras. Warm goat’s cheese salad was another staple of the region, each restaurant adding their own twist, whether placed on triangle toasts or deep fried into balls, all versions were delicious. All fries were cooked in duck fat and were served in small portions, concentrating on taste rather than quantity – which is a good thing, because I could have eaten buckets of them!  

One of our favorite places to sit and have a long lunch, usually about 3 hours long, was the Central Café in Bassouse. A very popular bar/restaurant which, on Sundays, took over the town square. The food was simple, tasty and a set meal. Usually a choice of meats for the main course, but always a soup, salad, main course and dessert with a large carafe of wine included. Served family style, the lunch was a relaxing, enjoyable experience, with a large dose of people watching. All for a meagre sum of $13 each! The wait staff were amazing; usually just two or three servers for countless tables stretching all the way along the street, and it was the type of place where, if you saw the servers were stretched, then the locals would clear their own tables, find their own silverware and generally help out, rather than sit and complain.

Another place was at Isle de Noe, where the chateaux had been turned into an exhibition center but there was a lovely restaurant with a large pavilion in the grounds. All the food was cooked on a large BBQ and once again the food was simple, but very tasty. Gazpacho, couscous and chacuterie, BBQ chicken, more of those lovely duck fries, brioche with caramel and ice cream, which I couldn’t finish! The very thing I love about these restaurants are the set menus, usually three, all varying in price. Thus, as we are sitting eating our three courses, plus bread, wine and coffee, the restaurant is filled with families, young couples, older retirees and daily workers on their lunch break, all able to find a menu that fits their budget and timetable. All taking time to chat, discuss the ways of the world, interact with the children and of course all enjoying the delicious food. Hardly a cell phone in sight, except to take pictures of the gourmet dishes of course.

On the afternoon of the hottest day ever recorded in this part of the country, we decided to take advantage of the air conditioning in the car and headed out to St Mont for lunch. We had visited the town and winery before but knew that the monastery, now turned boutique spa hotel, had a restaurant. This was set on a hill with the parking lot at the bottom of the drive, so a slow, sweaty walk up brought us to the main entrance. There were many high-ceilinged rooms and we looked in each one trying to find the restaurant. There were kitchens and dining rooms all laid out with tables set for lunch or dinner and finally we were advised that the restaurant, which used these rooms, but was primarily outside in the courtyard, was today, located down a set of stone step in the wine cellar. We carefully made our way down, only to find the chairs and table set up on the gravel floor alongside the wine racks. As we sat in our seats the chairs sunk into the gravel and we were quite low to the table. However, the room was cool, and we enjoyed a delicious meal of Quinoa salad, brochette of beef with creamy mushroom sauce and fried potatoes. Wine of course, no better way to beat the heat.

For my birthday we trundled off to Air Sur L’Adour, a place we had driven through on our way to Lourdes and promised to go back. We couldn’t find a restaurant that we liked and as we were just about to take off to another location, we saw the Bistrot des Platanes. With outside seating and a great menu, we decided to stay. As we liked everything on the menu, two choices of entrée, two for main, and two for dessert we chose one of everything. Creamy eggs topped with jambon cru and piquant peppers, mixed vegetables and potatoes with buttery cream sauce, followed by crispy, succulent pork accompanied by smashed potatoes, gingered cod atop a bed of roasted carrots, finally ending with a fresh strawberry soup with peppermint and orange salad, and apple tart with Armagnac. Wine, water and coffee – superb!

I must mention the Buffalo farm, where we savored, for the first time, Asian water buffalo. Skeptical at first, as we are not usually red meat eaters, we decided to give it a try. The contemporary restaurant with a jazz pianist playing, had a city atmosphere, yet was in a farmhouse surrounded by green fields of grazing dairy cows, flocks of sheep and the Asian water buffalo. The host was very welcoming and entertaining wielding a very large pepper grinder at every opportunity. We were pleasantly surprised when the terrine of buffalo arrived, looking very delicate and amazingly rich and creamy. Another surprise.. Marcel ordered a burger, a buffalo burger which he thoroughly enjoyed. I chose the buffalo steak which, while denser than a regular beef steak, was rich in flavor, and more tender thank I expected. With a sorbets and lemon meringue pie for dessert, along with coffee and wine, and the jazz pianist, it was a very pleasant lunch overlooking the Gers countryside.

One of our assignments was to cook lunches for the owners and their guests on occasion and we thoroughly enjoyed planning and cooking five, three-course lunches for 8-14 guests. Menus of shrimp and mango salad, stuffed mushrooms, salmon with creamy lemon sauce, chicken paillard, lemon tarts, mini pavlovas, crepes and fruit, all went down well with the guests, with plates wiped clean at every lunch. With side meals of Thai curry, chicken with cream and mushroom sauce, sweet and savory tarts, we were often very busy in the kitchen.

Of course, our very favorite thing to do was to cook all the lovely produce we bought ourselves at the local markets and during the five months, Marcel and I cooked some amazingly simple, tasty meals at the cottage. Always with bread, wine and coffee, and as much as possible, eaten outside on the patio or under the very large oak tree. Our spot for breakfast was at the front of the house under a little porch, sitting at the small yellow table watching the sun come up. Lunch was either at the same spot or we would take a picnic down to the boathouse by the pond for some rest and relaxation. Enjoying the long, light evenings with good food, good wine and a loaf of deliciously crispy bread, we were in paradise.

From early morning to late in the day, our lives revolved around food. Whether we were shopping, preparing, cooking, experimenting, or eating in chateaus, monasteries, in the street, on the patio, on a picnic, at auberges with their gourmet restaurants, or at the local Moules Frites night, food was prominent throughout our stay. From a simple jambon beurre lunch, to the velvety, cheesy Tartiflette of the Pyrenees, from rich creamy fois gras, to deep earthy flavored meats, and decadent desserts and bottles and carafes of wine, food brought us closer to nature with all the locally grown produce at our doorstep. It enabled us to communicate with the local community at local events, and restaurants and we were fortunate to be able to relish in the real flavors of France over an extended period and over a few different regions.

 Unfortunately our waistlines did not fare so well…..   

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