Monday, June 05, 2006

from Pierrerue: red is the color of my true love’s tablecloth

Someone said this to me recently: your passion is food. Look at Ocean! You end each post with photos of dishes that delight you, you are enamored with the whole eating thing.

I think it was intended as a compliment, but I’m not sure.

But I think, at the very least, it is a simplification of things, as I come in contact with a lot of wonderful food and it leaves me cold.

It is the entirety that matters. Sure, the trees have to be beautiful but it is the forest that makes it or breaks it. And the forest is composed of the food, the setting, the mood – the terroir of eating!

An example: I love my morning croissant and cafĂ©, eaten in the warm sun on the step outside my door at Pierrerue. It is a yoga-like experience for me (I mean, I imagine it is thus, since I don’t much do yoga; too much stretching and too little movement for restless me). And I equally adored the breakfasts at Dubrovnik where we would linger for hours out there on the patio, engaged in so much more than just the food.

Here, in the south of France, I have blogged variously about eating. St Chinian (the closest town with places to eat) has one pretty good dining spot. I was a little put off last time, because Madame brought me a glass of Muscat with dessert and I found later that the little sucker cost me almost as much as the entire meal, but still, I like the food just fine. But bliss requires more.

Yesterday, I found bliss. And I refer here not to the food (though the food was quite magnificent) but to the entire two and a half hour lunch experience.

It happened on a red tablecloth, hence the post title.

But let me not just write about the food. Indeed, let me put the food away for this post. You have been confused into thinking that this is the thing that matters and I intend to prove you wrong.

It started with an outing toward the mountain village of Mons la Trivalle. I am bordered by rocky hills and summits to the north and I have been waiting for a day to explore these. I had an excuse this Sunday. My market cheese man had told me he would be at Mons la Trivalle on this day for their annual cherry festival. Naturally, I saw this as an opportunity.

Cherry festival in the south of France. I don’t know what I thought. People coming out into the streets, adorned in crisp blouses with cherries embroidered on them? Cherry cakes, cherry everything sold, sampled, presented, to the tune of cherry melodies wafting over the village square?

My images were a little off. I can say this much: it was better than the Traverse City Michigan cherry festival which, in my time, I also attended. There, I literally saw not a single edible cherry. It was all about rides in those portable amusement parks and booths where you could win junk. Awful junk, awful festival.

In Mons la Trivalle they did put up an inflatable slide for kiddies. That is because in France they do not appear to believe in exorbitantly expensive playground equipment in every park and backyard and so that one inflatable slide was quite the novelty.

Apart from this, there were stands put up by locals with old family junk for sale – chipped plates that grandmere had, that kind of stuff.

And then there were, well, cherries. Lots and lots of cherries. At 2 – 3 Euro a kilo. Many varieties of cherries. And an occasional baked good with cherries.

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lots and lots of cherries

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cherries here as well

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occasionally, something other than cherries

That is because, you guessed it, against the backdrop of these lovely rugged peaks they grow vines, of course, and cherries.

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I had my fill of red sweet cherry fruit after a brief while. I was not even a fan of the village as it was the only place during my entire trip thus far, where I got a frown for my photo taking – from the baker!And after I had purchased my baguette, no less. He asked what on earth I was doing, I explained and he did say okay, but the damage was done. I hate him and his lousy bread. (In truth, he made some of the best baguettes I’ve tasted thus far and the competition is stiffer than stiff.)

So I slowly ambled back toward Berlou, a village just two down from Pierrerue (translates into a ten minute drive from where I live). There is where I booked a table for my Sunday afternoon dejeuner. The French eat big meals in the afternoon on this day and so shall I!

I did make several stops, having plenty of time on my hands and one notable stop was at Roquebrun – the only village in the vicinity that competes with Pierrerue as a place where I may want to hang out for an extended period of time, though it ultimately loses as it is on the summer tourist route and Pierrerue is on no one’s tourist route, nor will it ever be because there is nothing here to see.

Roquebrun is on the river Orb and it is stunning.

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a river runs through it

Like Pierrerue, it has a microclimate that is pretty near Mediterranean by name and nature. It translates into constant sunshine, lesser winds and beautiful vegetation. More on that on a return visit. For now, just pause for a while and watch the families bring their children to the river on a Sunday afternoon, so that they can throw pebbles and step gingerly across the rocks.

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Okay, I am back on the road now, careening wildly to get to Berlou, as suddenly I am late. Too much idling away will do that to you.

I arrive at Faitout Restaurant. It is brand new. The proprietors, Frederic and Nathalie Revilla opened it just at the end of April. And to me, it is stunning.

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I mean, it has what I look for in a restaurant: it’ll be off somewhere, in its own quiet corner. It will have a casual air, a crispness, a vibrant feel. A clientele that loves food but also loves being there. A chef with charisma, a partner who knows when to ask you how things are and who answers your smile with her own.

It helps that the food is splendid, yes it does. But as I look at my notes from the lunch, they are not just about the food. Here are some:

Suddenly, chef Frederic flies out, hops onto his motorbike and whizzes away. The French table looks in the direction where he left. What has he forgotten? We hope he comes back! Suddenly, the entire terrace is laughing. He comes back. With fanfare.

The British table: a family with several adults and a toddler. I smile at the toddler, she smiles back. On the way out they come over and each say good bye to me. The mother is wearing Mephistos. A black bra strap is hanging down, a bobby pin is holding her hair back. She has been constantly rubbing sun screen on the delicate white skin of her girl. She speaks French haltingly, but she does try.

[My French neighbors at Pierrerue said this about the British here, around St. Chinian: they are different than those who have bought up great chunks of Provence. And I agree. This is not a moneyed crowd. There are no swimming pools, no villas, and no expensive stores or pretentious eateries that cater to them. The French here say that they like it this way. I do as well.]

The family of the proprietors arrives. The boy runs over, kisses his dad, his mom. The grandparents are here. I am thinking they will be eating as soon as the last guest leaves. A table is set, waiting. Still, Frederic is there, welcoming stragglers who come at 3:30 and ask only for a cup of coffee.

And so on.

Yes, I can end with a photo run of the food. But I wont. Instead, see if you can get a feel for the experience by these random shots of the red table cloth and the fleeting appearances of Frederic. Because really, these were the best hours of the day and stuffing food into my mouth occupied just a few minutes of that time.

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