Sunday, April 01, 2007

from small villages tucked into the hills and forests of the Perigord Noir in France

Plazac, my home base, has:
- a café-bar
- a restaurant
- a bakery
- a church
- an organic grocer (“bio coop”)

and that’s it.

I take that back.
Alo, est-ce-que je peux faire une reservation pour diner ce soir?
Non, sorry madame. I stopped serving food this winter.

So, Plazac only has:
- a café-bar
- a bakery
- a church
- and organic grocer (“bio coop”)

But, according to the village website, you can also hire:
- a carpenter (my landlord)
- an architect
- a painter

All other goods and services are to be acquired elsewhere, many kilometers down winding, forested roads.

In the very first hours in the village, I make the rounds.
At the bakery, I note that they also sell wine. If all other food procurement fails, I shall have wine and bread in the house (which, itself, is a kilometer or so outside the village).


I study the bottles.

Madame would like wine?
I’m looking for a white
(there are two dozen reds, one white; she lifts out the white for me).
You will want cassis for it.

So it’s true: kir (white wine mixed with currant liqueur) is a French way of dealing with indifferent white wine.

She places a large bottle of cassis on the counter. I am about to object, but in the meanwhile, her great hunk of a dog has entered the store. For me, he has a low growl. Instinctively my hand goes out so he can have his sniff and go bother someone else.

Attendez! Do not do that! He bites hands.
I pull back, pay for the bread, the wine and cassis and retreat.

I sit down at the counter of the café-bar.


Une noisette, please. (Funny how in France, I am happy with an espresso with just a splash of milk.)

I drink it, pay the Euro and leave. Linger at a café table all you want. But at a bar counter – drink and run. Especially if you are alone.

I pass the church...


...on my way to the bio-cop, where the shelves are filled with stuff you’ll likely find at a low key co-op back home: lots of potions and alternative this and that’s and a few hardy vegetables that made it through the winter, but just barely. I buy an organic rosé to take back to the States and a few cookies that promise to be so good for me that I wont be tempted to eat them much.

Sunday morning is market day at the village of Rouffignac. It is a wet and blustery morning – the last of the cooler days here, they say. I don’t really want to cook in my imperfect kitchen of my little house on the Plazac hill. I watch people with baskets, ready for the new asparagus and old potatoes. I buy a goat cheese and head for the bakery.


Do you suppose a baguette, a boule and a chocolate croissant are enough bread product for a day?


The clock passes the noon hour.

If you want to dine among the French on a Sunday, head for a good farm restaurant in the country shortly after noon. Somehow, through impossible to reproduce now Net searches, I found Le Croquant in Fanlac, a mere 8 kilometers down a narrow, narrow strip of a road.


I drive up at 1 pm after phoning in a reservation a few days back. It’s packed. As ever, I am greeted with smiles and fusses. No country in the world looks after single women travelers as well as France does. I sit at a table that looks out at both ends of the L shaped room.


I pick the set menu, the middle one, with only seven courses: a huge tureen of soup, a home made pate (and sausage thrown in), an omelet with maybe half a dozen eggs and chanterelle mushrooms, a duck confit (and a duck filet in rabbit sauce thrown in), vegetables, salad, fresh cheese with home jams and a tart with plums. Add to it a pitcher of wine and an espresso. All that for 22 Euros, taxes and service included. All excellent. Fresh. And so very honest.

It takes me three and a half hours to eat this:









During the meal I occasionally read a passage or two in my book about Paleolithic caves. Southwest France has two thirds of all the decorated prehistoric caves known to the world. I am heady from these descriptions, read just a handful of kilometers from the sites, while sitting in this room full of French men and women soaking up all traces of sauce with country bread. Wind gusts throw down occasional rain. Inside, it is warm, full of the fragrance of comfort food.

By the time the final dishes come, I begin to wonder if this is how the goose feels --- stuffed to capacity, giddy from the experience, the sauces, the enormity of it all. And for the millionth time I contemplate how the French can eat all this and stay fit. Why aren't they addicted to sedentary days spent in front of computer screens? No wonder their WiFi is imperfect. Most likely they hardly notice. Too busy spending Sundays in village restaurants soaking up sauces and the words of their loved ones.

Still, unlike the fattened goose who has no say in the matter, I am determined to live beyond this day and so I begin to leave a portion of the food on the plate. The owner takes it in stride. Woman eats alone. Woman hasn't the appetite of the French. Woman isn't French. Understood.

This meal stands out for me as the one about which a movie could be made.

Around the tables, life unfolds.

An older woman, significantly older than me, is putting on lipstick. No mirror. Bright red. I, as usual, forgot to put on any. But she is careful that way. And now she is looking into the distant space, thinking what? That her children and grandchildren are grown and away from the village?

Her husband has his arm on her chair, sometimes around her shoulders. He studies a piece of paper, she is still gazing. But then she smiles at him as his arm moves around her again. Love. You want to know what love is? Here, in Fanlac, at Le Croquant, I am witnessing love.


She unfolds a rain hat. Remember those? Clear and plastic, fanning out over your head, tying under the chin? She gets up and puts on her coat. Oh! She is almost blind! She walks the wrong way. He smiles, leans on his two canes and guides her to the door.



I tear up. A chick flick could not bring out the wealth of feeling that little scene demonstrates. Or maybe it’s the duck medallions in rabbit stew that are rubbing my sentimental corners. Potent foods.

And there are other scenes, equally telling. Just on the other side of my enormous bouquet, two older couples and a woman maybe in her thirties are eating together. The “younger” one has been through these meals countless times, you can tell, but today she is withdrawn. For her, there is no joy in being here. Surreptitiously, under the table, she flicks on her cell. Nothing. She puts it away. She listens to her companions (parents?) but says absolutely nothing. Her life is elsewhere. Or, she wishes it were so.


One of the older women begins to sing. Boisterously, emphasizing the last word of each phrase. She must be doing it for the younger one, she is looking at her. “Rien de rien, je ne regrette rien.” The young woman ignores her.

Such a French song. One doesn’t associate Edith Piaf (who sings this beautifully) with the Perigord, but Josephine Baker, on the other hand, was all over this place. Ignored in the States, beloved here. A fighter. Singing while dressed in banana peels. Died broke, but put a lot of oomph into her life. Bet she had no regrets.

The one thing I do not regret is being right here, in this place, at this time.

The meal ends slowly. People linger. A girl moves to her mother’s lap, conversations are quieter.


Four-thirty? Really? My first full day in the Perigord and it is whiled away at a little table with a large bouquet of spring flowers on it.