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Authors: Peter Mayle

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BOOK: Toujours Provence
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It starts, he said, at babyhood. The English baby is fed on bland mush, the kind of pabulum one would give to an un-discriminating chicken,
sans caractère, sans goût
. The French infant, however, even before he has teeth, is treated as a human being with taste buds. As evidence, Régis described the menu offered by Gallia, one of the leading baby food manufacturers. It included brains, fillet of sole,
poulet au riz
, tuna, lamb, liver, veal, Gruyère, soups, fruits, vegetables, puddings of quince and bilberry,
creme caramel
, and
fromage blanc
. All of that and more, said Régis, before the child is 18 months old. You see? The palate is being educated. He paused to lower his head over the chicken in tarragon that had just been put in front of him, inhaled, and adjusted the napkin tucked in the collar of his tracksuit.

He then moved on a few years to the point where the budding gourmet goes to school. Did I remember, he asked me, the food I ate at school? I did indeed, with horror, and he nodded understandingly. English school food, he said, is famously horrible. It is grey and
triste
and mysterious, because you never know what it is you’re trying to force yourself to eat. But at the village school attended by his five-year-old daughter, the menu for the week is posted on the notice board, so that meals won’t be duplicated at home, and each day there
is a three-course lunch. Yesterday, for instance, little Mathilde had eaten a celery salad with a slice of ham and cheese
quiche
,
riz aux saucisses
, and baked bananas.
Voilà!
The palate continues its education. And so it is inevitable that the French adult has a better appreciation of food, and higher expectations, than the English adult.

Régis sliced a fat pear to eat with his cheese, and pointed his knife at me as if I had been responsible for the badly educated English palate. We now come, he said, to restaurants. He shook his head sorrowfully, and placed his hands wide apart on the table, palms upward, fingers bunched together. Here—the left hand was raised a couple of inches—you have
le pub
. Picturesque, but with food only as a sponge for beer. And here—the other hand was raised higher—you have expensive restaurants for
hommes d’affaires
whose companies pay for what they eat.

And in the middle? Régis looked at the space between his two hands, the corners of his mouth turned down, an expression of despair on his plump face. In the middle is a desert,
rien
. Where are your
bistrots?
Where are your honest
bourgeois
restaurants? Where are your
relais routiers?
Who but a rich man can afford to go out and eat well in England?

I would have liked to argue with him, but I didn’t have the ammunition. He was asking questions that we had asked ourselves many times when we were living in the country in England, where the choice was limited to pubs or tarted-up restaurants with delusions of adequacy and London-sized bills. In the end, we had given up, defeated by microwaved specialities and table wine served in ceremonial baskets by charming but incompetent people called Justin or Emma.

Régis stirred his coffee and hesitated for a moment between Calvados and the tall, frosted bottle of
eau de vie de poires
from Manguin in Avignon. I asked him about his favorite restaurants.

“There is always Les Baux,” he said. “But the bill is spectacular.” He shook his hand from the wrist as if he had burnt his fingers. “It is not for every day. In any case, I prefer places more modest, less international.”

In other words, I said, more French.

“Voilà!”
said Régis. “More French, and where one finds a
rapport qualité-prix
, a value for money. That still exists here, you know, at every level. I have made a study of it.” I was sure he had, but he still hadn’t given me any names apart from Les Baux, which we were saving until we won the national lottery. How about something a little less grand?

“If you like,” said Régis, “it would be amusing to have lunch at two restaurants, very different, but both of a high standard.” He poured another nip of Calvados—“for the digestion”—and leaned back in his chair. “Yes,” he said, “it will be my contribution to the education of
les Anglais
. Your wife will come,
naturellement.
” Of course she would come. The wife of Régis, unfortunately, would not be with us. She would be at home, preparing dinner.

He told us to meet him in Avignon, at one of the cafés in the Place de l’Horloge, when he would reveal the first of his two chosen restaurants. He kissed his fingers noisily over the phone, and advised us not to make any arrangements for the afternoon. After a lunch such as the one he planned, nothing more energetic than a
digestif
would be possible.

We watched him as he billowed toward us across the
place
, moving lightly for such a big man in his black basketball boots and what must have been his most formal tracksuit, also
black, with UCLA in pink letters on one meaty thigh. He was carrying a shopping basket and a zip-striped handbag of the kind that French executives use for their personal documents and emergency bottles of
eau de cologne
.

He ordered a glass of champagne and showed us some baby melons, no bigger than apples, that he had just bought in the market. They were to be scooped clean, dosed with a ratafia of grape juice and brandy, and left for 24 hours in the refrigerator. They would taste, so Régis assured us, like a young girl’s lips. I had never thought of melons in quite that way before, but I put that down to the shortcomings of my English education.

With a final fond squeeze of their tiny green bottoms, Régis put the melons back in the basket and addressed himself to the business of the day.

“We are going,” he said, “to Hiély, just over there in the Rue de la République. Pierre Hiély is a prince of the kitchen. He has been at the ovens for twenty, twenty-five years, and he is a prodigy. Never a disappointing meal.” Régis wagged his finger at us.
“Jamais!”

Apart from a small framed menu at the entrance, Hiély makes no attempt to entice the passerby. The narrow door opens into a narrow corridor, and the restaurant is up a flight of stairs. It’s a big room with a handsome herringbone parquet floor, decorated in sober colors, tables spaced comfortably far apart. Here, as in most good French restaurants, the solitary client is treated as well as a party of half a dozen. Tables for one are not wedged into a dead corner as an afterthought, but in windowed alcoves overlooking the street. These were already occupied by men in suits, presumably local businessmen who had to snatch their lunch in a mere two hours
before going back to the office. The other clients, all French except for us, were less formally dressed.

I remembered being turned away from a restaurant with airs and graces in Somerset because I wasn’t wearing a tie, something that has never happened to me in France. And here was Régis, resembling a refugee from the weight watchers’ gym in his tracksuit, being welcomed like a king by Madame as he checked in his shopping basket and asked if Monsieur Hiély was on form. Madame allowed herself a smile.
“Oui, comme toujours.”

Régis beamed and rubbed his hands together as we were shown to our table, sniffing the air to see if he could pick up any hints of what was to come. In another of his favorite restaurants, he said, the chef allowed him into the kitchen, and he would close his eyes and select his meal by nose.

He tucked his napkin under his chin and murmured to the waiter.
“Un grand?”
said the waiter.
“Un grand,”
said Régis, and sixty seconds later a large glass pitcher, opaque with cold, was placed in front of us. Régis became professorial; our lesson was about to commence. “In a serious restaurant,” he said, “one can always have confidence in the house wines. This is a Côtes-du-Rhône.
Santé
.” He took a gargantuan sip and chewed on it for a few seconds before expressing his satisfaction with a sigh.

“Bon
. Now, you will permit some advice on the menu? As you see, there is a
dégustation
which is delicious, but possibly a little long for a simple lunch. There is a fine choice
à la carte
. But we must remember why we are here.” He looked at us over the top of his wine glass. “It is so that you can experience the
rapport qualité-prix
. Any good chef can feed you well for 500 francs a head. The test is how well you can
eat for less than half that, and so I propose the short menu.
D’accord?

We were
d’accord
. The short menu was enough to make a Michelin inspector salivate, let alone two English amateurs like us. With some difficulty, we made our decisions while Régis hummed quietly over the wine list. He beckoned over the waiter for another reverent exchange of murmurs.

“I break my own rule,” said Régis. “The red house wine is, of course, faultless. But here,” he tapped the page in front of him, “here is a little treasure,
pas cher
, from the Domaine de Trévallon, north of Aix. Not too heavy, but with the character of a big wine. You will see.”

As one waiter departed for the cellar, another arrived with a snack to keep us going until the first course was ready—small ramekins, each filled with a creamy
brandade
of cod, topped with a tiny, perfectly fried quail’s egg and garnished with black olives. Régis was silent with concentration, and I could hear the moist creak of corks being eased from bottles, the low voices of the waiters, and the subdued chink of knives and forks against thin china plates.

Régis wiped his ramekin clean with a scrap of bread—he used bread like an implement to guide food to his fork—and poured some more wine.
“Ça commence bien, eh?”

And lunch continued as it had begun,
bien
. A flan of
foie gras
in a thick but delicate sauce of wild mushrooms and asparagus was followed by homemade sausages of Sisteron lamb and sage with a
confiture
of sweet red onions and, in a separate flat dish, a gratin of potato that was no thicker than my napkin, a single crisp layer that dissolved on the tongue.

Now that the edge was off his appetite, Régis was able to resume conversation, and he told us about a literary project that he was considering. He had read in the paper that an
international center for Marquis de Sade studies was to be opened during the Avignon arts festival. There would also be an opera performed in honor of
le divin marquis
, and a champagne named after him. These events indicated a renewal of public interest in the old monster and, as Régis pointed out, even sadists have to eat. His idea was to give them their very own recipes.

“I shall call it
Cuisine Sadique: The Marquis de Sade’s Cookbook,
” he said, “and all the ingredients will be beaten, whipped, trussed, crushed, or seared. There will be many painful words used in the descriptions and so I am sure it will be a
succès fou
in Germany. But you must advise me about England.” He leaned forward and his voice became confidential. “Is it true that all men who have been to English public schools are fond of … 
comment dirais-je
 … a little punishment?” He sipped his wine and raised his eyebrows.
“Le spanking, non?”

I said that he should try to find a publisher who had been to Eton, and to devise a recipe that included flogging.


Qu’est-ce que ça veut dire
, flogging?”

I explained as best I could, and Régis nodded. “
Ah, oui
. Maybe with a breast of chicken one could do flogging, with a very sharp sauce of
citron. Très bien
.” He made notes in a small, neat hand on the back of his checkbook.
“Un bestseller, c’est certain.”

The bestseller was put aside while Régis took us on a tour of the cheese trolley, stopping frequently en route to instruct us and the waiter on the correct balance between hard and soft,
piquant
and
doux
, fresh and aged. He chose five out of the twenty or more cheeses on offer, and congratulated himself on having had the foresight to predict that we would need a second bottle of Trévallon.

I bit into a peppery goat’s cheese, and felt a prickle of perspiration on the bridge of my nose under my glasses. The wine slipped down like silk. It had been a wonderful meal, completely satisfying, served with easy efficiency by highly professional waiters. I told Régis how much I had enjoyed it, and he looked at me with surprise.

“But we haven’t finished. There is more.” A plate of tiny meringues was put on the table. “Ah,” he said, “these are to help us prepare for the desserts. They taste like clouds.” He ate two in quick succession, and looked around to make sure the dessert waiter hadn’t forgotten us.

A second vehicle, larger and more loaded than the cheese trolley, was wheeled carefully up to the table and parked in front of us. It would have caused deep distress to anyone with a weight problem: bowls of fresh cream and
fromage blanc
, truffled chocolate cake covered in more chocolate, pastries,
vacherins
, rum-soaked
babas
, tarts, sorbets,
fraises des bois
, fruits bathed in syrup—it was all too much for Régis to take in while sitting down, and so he got up and prowled around to make sure that nothing was hiding behind the fresh raspberries.

My wife chose ice cream made with local honey, and the waiter took a spoon from its pot of hot water, scooping the ice cream from the bowl with a graceful roll of the wrist. He stood with plate and spoon, poised for further instructions.

“Avec ça?”

“C’est tout, merci.”

Régis made up for my wife’s restraint with what he called a selection of textures—chocolate, pastry, fruit, and cream—and pushed the sleeves of his tracksuit up above his elbows. Even on him, the pace was beginning to tell.

I ordered coffee. There was a moment of shocked silence while Régis and the waiter looked at me.

“Pas de dessert?”
said the waiter.

BOOK: Toujours Provence
2.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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