March 11, 2015

Road Trip

Gorges d'Ardèche
French people love to brag about their country. Their favorite claim is that France has everything that America has, just in a much smaller area: mountains (Alps, Pyrenees, etc.), sea and ocean (Cote d'Azur, Biarritz, Normandy, etc.), rivers (Seine, Rhône, Dordogne, etc.), a world capital (check). But dig past these obvious ones, and one does discover amazing variety. In our recent 10-day vacation, we saw the chateaux forts perched on the rocks of Périgord, the deep gorges in Southern Ardèche, and the crowded Rhône river valley at Vienne, a town I had never heard of before arriving. 

In addition to memorable sightseeing, nice walks, and a big-time bike race that leapt up out of nowhere to surprise us in the hills around Vallon Pont d'Arc, we learned a lot about food and our children's ability to handle life on the road. 

Our French adventure started in December 2013 in Sarlat. We stayed with the family that hosted me in Paris in 1995-96. They closely monitored the way we fed our children -- aged 3 and 8 months at the time, who had just left the only home they had ever known, all their routines, all their extended family, their native language -- and found it woefully lacking. Our hosts deemed an innocent chicken sandwich as backwards as broccoli for breakfast. "Why are they eating dinner at 5:30pm? Children eat at 7:00pm." You get the idea. 

Now, back at the scene, our boys had mastered the schedule and were happy with their breakfast of cereal and chocolate milk, family lunch at noon, the nationally-mandated afternoon goûter at 4:00 or 4:30, and dinner before their parents. I confess I was a little proud of them.

As to the adults, we enjoyed a break from the ubiquitous jambon persillé, beef bourguignon, and Époisses on every Burgundy menu. We braved the rain to visit a foie gras farm where the farmers force feed their geese several times a day before slaughter. The boys wofled samples of goose rillettes, smoked duck breast, and, of course, foie gras. Clearly, we weren't in California. Back at the house, we enjoyed perfectly cooked duck, roast chicken, soups, quiches, and enchaud, a regional specialty made from pork roast that is confit-ed in duck or goose fat and served cold. I brought some of that home with me.

In the Ardèche, we discovered caillette. I kind of wish I hadn't. This stout meatball made from fatty pork bits, spices, a little green leafy vegetable, and wrapped in caul fat was a first for me. It combined exclusively ingredients I adore, but mish-mashed together, I was underwhelmed. I mean, I finished it, but it was work. Luckily, I had a crique to accompany it, another spécilaité Aréchoise. This little devil had the family excited. Finely shredded raw potatoes are mixed with spiced, herbs, and perhaps some eggs and fried into a most wonderful potato pancake. Somehow, our chef managed to fold them in half around other ingredients (ham, goat cheese, spinach) without breaking them. Worth a try back in the home kitchen.

We ate in restaurants during the day and at home in our gîte during the evenings. Just because we were on vacation, I didn't think we should stop cooking, so braised rabbit with mustard sauce, homemade potato leek soup, and other treats got us through.

Once in Vienne, we ventured into new territory: a hotel. We had never braved this with two boys before, but they handled themselves beautifully, only screaming and hopscotching in the corridors after 8am and before 7:30pm. When they sleep 12 hours a day, it does make it easier. We found a babysitter and enjoyed a meal in a local restaurant where we had quenelles de brochet, a cylinder made from flour, butter, milk, and eggs to which is added shredded freshwater pike. The proprietor took a liking to us and gave us some chestnut cream with which to regale the children, plus a little taste of a local Pear William digestif. He had us pegged accurately as a bottle of that made it into the impossibly overcrowded car for the journey home.  

It was a great trip, but I missed Burgundy. A lot. So, naturally, as we wrapped up the boys' two week break from school, we invited a family of four over for Sunday lunch and a separate couple over for evening cocktails. 

It was a bold bit of planning. The family arrived at noon on the dot and left at 6:15pm, after helping us with carrot soup, homemade lasagna, cheese, and apple tart. I was just about out of booze, and, since it was Sunday, there was no chance of provisioning ourselves before our next guests arrived at 7:30. Happily, "cocktails" only lasted until 11:30pm, leaving us plenty of time to prepare for the week ahead.

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