February 12, 2016

41 Minutes

Time for an update of my post about the butcher shop from summer 2014. Here is what the same butcher shop is like in early 2016.

I went, as I too frequently do, on a Saturday morning. This is colossally dumb, as everyone does their shopping on this day in Saulieu: it's the weekend, there is a market, everything is open. Everything except the hotels and restaurants, which are in the midst of their fermeture annuelles, when they shut down from December 24 through mid-February. The pre-holidays must have been particularly exhausting this year. (On a side note, we are heading into school vacation starting this afternoon, and the café, two of the three bakeries, a hair salon, and the wine shop will all be closed in our town for at least a week. As Trump might tweet, "Sad!") I got to the shop slightly after 11. The inside was pretty packed and I had a few seconds of self-doubt...did I really want to wait in this line? 

Apparently, I did.

Initially, I stood outside, waiting for someone to exit and yield a little space for me. This plan was abruptly ruined by an eager woman who arrived right behind me and who clearly had no intention of standing outside whilst she waited. So in we went, greeting the assembled crowd with a quiet "bonjour, messieurs, 'dames," ready to wait.

Unlike in previous visits, the crowd was chatty this time, a strange departure from the normal staid, reverential silence in shops in rural Burgundy. I am always surprised when two people encounter each other in line at the bakery or at the market and give each other les bises and then fall immediately back into silence. "I know you well enough to kiss each of your cheeks every time I see you; but I have nothing to say."

At any rate, this morning in Saulieu was a regular chat-a-thon. Among the 12 people in front of me in line, the star of the show was a man in his 60s or 70s, hard of hearing (to give you an idea of how much he was in a sharing mood, I learned that he had left his hearing aids at home, where he normally took them out so as to avoid Madame), who had plenty of commentary for everything he was witnessing. He said to his friend several times that he was going to "read the newspaper right now in this line," to which the butcher finally replied, "You will have plenty of time." I was going to be here a while.

Throughout, the butcher -- same little flip in his hair -- worked his way steadily through a slew of orders. He boned and tied a lamb leg (just like in 2014...this is a laborious process.) He cut beef steaks for old women. He snagged pigeons, poules ("with everything still inside?" a woman asked. "Oui, the gizzards, the kidneys, the liver...everything."), and pork roasts from the walk-in. For one customer, he took out a 25 pound piece of beef (the largest boneless piece I have ever seen, I think), cut it in half with his saber-like knife, and wrapped up the 10 pound piece in plastic wrap (the largest piece I have ever seen an individual order...10 pounds of beef! A meal for 35-40 people!), all the while asking his customer what he intended to do with such a huge hunk of meat. (Red wine and herb marinade overnight; the rest was garbled.)

At one point, someone knocked over an entire tray of mini onion quiches. (It was tough to tell if it was the butcher's assistant or the customer at fault.) It was a silly little moment, but also one of those that perfectly encapsulates the difference between French and American cultures. In a US shop, the accident would have generated considerable discussion among staff and customers alike; there would have been "sorrys" or "excuse mes" or "oh, that is a shame! They looked delicious!" or "Oh, the poor chef! All that work!" or any other number of small, off-handed comments. Cleaning them up would have been very public and laborious, with a broom, dustpan, and a very obvious disposal of the quiches into the trash, eliminating any doubt. 

Here, silence reigned. No one issued any apology. The assistant picked them up off the ground and placed them back on the tray, then slid the tray onto a shelf behind the counter out of sight...but definitely not in the trash. One had to wonder what their fate was...were they going to go out with the refuse, or were they going to re-appear in the afternoon? Personally, I would have been fine with the latter; the floor was immaculate, and they fell where no one was walking.

Two men opened the door, took a look at the line, and told their wives they were "going to have a coup de blanc," a quick glass of white wine. The crowd -- except for the wives -- found this a wise decision, and offered several words of encouragement to the men, amid general laughter. One woman looked at me in that very French way where I am never certain if she is toying with me or if she is being stone serious and said, "On ne rit pas monsieur." One does not laugh, sir. 

Eventually, Mr. Almost Deaf placed his order, asking for jambon persillé, ballotine de volaille, terrine forestière, a tied roast beef, and several other odds and ends. It took a while to assure him that he indeed had all the items from the list his wife had made for him, and then he was gone, shuffling off towards home where his beloved would turn these ingredients into memorable meals over the week ahead.

At last, I stepped up and got rillettes, jambon persillé, slices of cold roast pork, nearly two pounds of beef for bourguignon, some merguez sausages maison, a slice of creamy mousse de canard au cognac, and a grillade de porc, a slice of pork that resembles a steak, I suppose. It's a cut one never sees in the U.S., so I don't really know how to translate it, but seared on both sides and served with a sauce enlivened by chicken stock and crème fraîche, it is wonderful and simple.

I said my goodbyes, grabbed my weighty bag, and walked into the last of the morning's sun, 41 minutes after I entered. My next stop, obviously, was the cafe, where I saw the two men enjoying a glass of cold white wine. Since it was now noon, Chardonnay seemed like the perfect end to a morning of food shopping in rural Burgundy.


  1. Bravo ! On s'y croirait...
    Jean-Claude HALLEY

    1. Alors Monsieur comprend parfaitement l'anglais...thank you for reading.

  2. When you write about jambon persillé, every french become good at english! :-D As myself !

    1. Quel plaisir de l'entendre. Merci, mon ami. Et bon app!