Friday, 25 March 2016

A Very Happy Accident.


                               

During the Easter holidays of 1972 (I was teaching in Sussex at the time), we drove down through France, in my beloved VW Beetle, to stay at a cottage loaned to us by one of my late father-in-law's foreign office chums. The small cottage was on the outskirts of Manaurie; the tiny Périgordian village above.

Within a short walk of our rustic lodgings was an ancient farmhouse set back from the road, outside of which was the word 'Restaurant' written on a piece of wood.

We were a little wary before our first visit, but this wasn't warranted.

It was by pure accident that we found ourselves in this renowned gastronomic region of France, and enormous luck to have our introduction to its delights at the hands of an elderly peasant woman who had no doubt learned her art at the apron strings of several previous generations. The local cuisine was unwritten; simply passed from person to person. A cuisine that had evolved from times of extreme hardship.

Elizabeth David (RIP) tells us of the Levantine cooks of Alexandria who, during the difficult times of WW2, would still produce wonderful multi-course meals with just a very few ingredients. Each course being prepared spiced and presented differently in order to disguise the fact that the ingredients were exactly the same. Their skills were similar in many ways to those of the Périgord peasant housewife.

Of the several times we dined at this eaterie (which was situated in the woman's front room), we were invariably the sole diners. I shan't describe the exact menus because I can't remember them, but what I will do is tell you that everything was totally delicious, prepared on the spot, and a new gastronomic experience at every turn. There was no choice; you ate what you were given, and we were extremely pleased to do so.

There was always a soup, a charcuterie entrée, a main course, desert, and cheese. As much wine as we wanted was included in the price, as well as a small coffee that was served with Armagnac.

I suppose the most amazing part of these meals was on receiving the bill. It usually worked out at around 9 or 10 (old) Francs per person; less than ONE POUND.

After each meal, we would walk home wondering how on earth the woman could offer such wonderful fare for the price. No doubt she had all her own hens, ducks, pigs, sheep, and cattle, and no doubt all the vegetables also came from her garden. The wine (which was not Pétrus, but highly drinkable) was no doubt also from a family vineyard.

It was probably partly due to this dining experience that after looking in an estate agent's window, in nearby Le Bugue, I ended up buying my first farmhouse about 100 kms further to the south. We celebrated the purchase with a visit to Prince Charles's favourite restaurant in Les Eyzies; the fabulous gastronomic Hotel des Glycines, situated in the shadow of the original Cro Magnon's home. A very different dining experience to that in Manaurie; and at a very different price.

I was 25, with a wife and 2 children when we moved here later that September; I remember arriving at my new home and thinking 'What the fuck have I done'.





32 comments:

  1. I wish we had restaurants like that here. That is the first one.

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    Replies
    1. I wish we still had them here too; not many of that type left these days.

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  2. I am a firm believer in destiny and there is nothing like good food to guide you down that path

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  3. That is a beautiful story, Cro! It was a stomach choice but I do not think you've ever regretted it, your heart is happy for it. Greetings Maria x

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  4. WTF did you do...?
    Made the best decision of your life...
    Your kids are bilingual....
    You are now younger than them...
    because you have stayed at twenty-five...
    You are, without doubt, healthier than if you'd stayed conventional!
    A wise decision, guided by food and what you saw around you....but, that is being able to look back with 20/20 vision!!

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    Replies
    1. When you put it like that; who am I to argue. It's been a wonderful trip.

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  5. I can so imagine that thought. Brave but seems to have turned out well. The children had the advantage of becoming bilingual. Fab opportunity you gave them.

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    1. All turned out fine, and is still so.

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  6. Where would you be now if you hadn't gone?

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    Replies
    1. I might have bought a farm in N Wales, or moved back to London, or even gone to some Greek Island. Difficult to know.

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    2. or Italy..? Good food here as well x

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    3. I tried to learn Italian, but it wouldn't stick.

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  7. We had a similar experience at a village auberge outside Sarlat. Our son was weaned on their asparagus and strawberries, and we vowed to change our complicated lives for something simpler, which we did. I still sigh and wonder whose silly it was to come to France, but only in moments of red-taped frustration!

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    Replies
    1. My motto is 'Never Join' (re the red tape).

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  8. A lovely post. Re: Middle Eastern Cookery, I'm thinking of the Meggadarra that I make from a Claudia Roden book. The ingredients are just lentils, rice, oil, onions and seasoning but the flavour is miraculously out of this world! x

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    1. I shall go and look that up; sounds just up my street.

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  9. How courageous you were to have come to France so young, and with a family to support as well. As for us, France came at the right time, so we have no regrets about not having come here sooner. France must have done the same for you....the opportunity to come here arrived in your life, so you took it.

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    Replies
    1. I was a rash fool, but now't wrong with that!

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  10. I've always liked stories with happy endings, but stories with happy continue-ings are even better!

    Best wishes.

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  11. My husband's grandmother was a very poor single mother to four on a hardscrabble plot. His father said she could make sausage with only bread - no meat - that tasted just like the real thing. She was very frugal throughout her life. Saved rubber band balls, tin foil and bread bags and even in her eighties, would be out hunched over her rake in her vegetable garden. Strong woman.

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    Replies
    1. It's a dying race. Hard work used to be revered here, but now it's seen as weakness.

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  12. I am an ardent Elizabeth David fan and absolutely love her description of how to make an omelette.

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    1. My mother discovered ED in the 50's, and as a result we ate very well. It was down to her.

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  13. Sometimes, the simplest-looking places to eat are the most delightful finds when it comes to good food. Nowadays, with all of the rules and regulations, I don't suppose you'll find too many place... if any... like what you found in 1972.

    I'm pretty sure what you DID was make a brilliant life-changing leap of faith. And it was a huge success. (SEE how smart you were?)

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    1. In France, watch where the "white vans" eat at lunchtime...the more white vans outside, the better the food!!

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    2. Even that is less reliable than it used to be. A 'relais' could usually be guaranteed to feed you well, but these days they serve a captive audience, and often serve 'motorway food'.

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  14. What a gastronomic delight the first restaurant was. I could "taste" the food. Have a wonderful weekend. Jo

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    Replies
    1. Oh it was Jo. I think our Easter weekend may be DAMP.

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  15. Well it sounds overall as if 'you done good' as is sometimes said. If you have achieved happiness then you really have achieved a great deal more than many strive a lifetime to achieve.

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