Tuesday, June 15, 2010

bread and water

So, which of the two village bakeries do you like better? - we ask our landlord. Why waste time on the lesser baguette, if there's a better one to be had. The bigger place – he tells us. We shop there on Sunday. It’s good.

But on Monday, it’s closed and the other (the lesser?) is open, having, instead, a Wednesday closing date. A chance, then, to compare and contrast.

Ah, Monday mornings in France. They never really burst forward with gusto. Stores open slowly. Some don’t get going 'til the afternoon. But we can’t be slow on this day. The big front that has been in the weather forecast since last week is due here by noon. We have a few hours of good weather. We need to hustle.

But the first stop for us is not the bakery. We’ve been waiting for the Tourist Office to open (it’s closed on week-ends; surely not a good idea from the standpoint of the tourist, but a fine idea if you want time off, like the rest of your country men and women). I need maps. I need information. I need schedules.

And now onto the bakery. There the needs are more basic: pain au chocolat and baguette.

And here are three lessons to be learnt from this brief stop at the bakery.

First of all, even if bread may be good elsewhere, pain au chocolat may be a different story. (This one was superb; the other one was merely excellent.)

Secondly, there are many varieties of baguette these days. It’s sort of like pasta types. They multiply. You have to compare a spaghetti noodle to another spaghetti noodle and not, say, to a tagliatelle. Our baguette is less chewy, but maybe we asked for the wrong baguette?

Third – there’s the matter of madame behind the counter. In the smaller bakery, madame has a sense of humor as spirited as Ed’s and when you put the two together, it can be like watching a good tennis game.


Okay, baked goods in bag, we cross the river, back to our apartment. On the way, we note
that our neighbor has a sign out: cherries and apricots for sale. The garage isn’t really a garage, but a place to sort their harvest of fruits.


We buy what have to be the tastiest cherries anywhere – firm, juicy – they are fantastic! We eat too many – somewhat fearing the consequences, yet incapable of not reaching for one more, and another... Oh, and the apricots! Freshly picked – we’re offered firm ones for later or ready to eat for now. Ready to eat, of course. We eat those too.

Breakfast is on the patio. I miss a good espresso, but one must make do.


And now we’re off. We want to explore the coastline to the north of us. The beaches vary and I want to find the stretches away from the holiday towns. Quiet places that, at this time of the year should be quite empty (the beach season here is very short: July and August – the traditional French vacation months).

We drive up to Saitn Cyprien – a small town with the second largest marina on the French Mediterranean. I’m keeping an eye on the clouds. They’re dense around the mountains to the south, but so far, the coastal lands are dry.


As we get closer to the town port, you can almost feel Ed's pulse quicken. Put him among sailboats and the usually quiet guy churns out stories and facts sheets without pause.


We come to a sailing school. EFV (Ecole Francaise de Voile) – we’ve seen these on the Brittany coast: places where small and big people learn to sail. On this day, several school groups are out for a sailing class. It’s part of the curriculum. You live on the coast, you learn water sports.

I love watching these little kids in their little sailboats. Like in a storybook where a young child finds a mast and sticks it onto a small tub and gets going, these kids, too, perform nimble magic in these simple vessels.



One group is out already – towed toward the open seas by the instructor...


...then another.... Oh, oops, one boat gets tangled in there and ends up drifting backwards. Shrieks and peels of laughter. An instructor to the rescue. Slowly they untangle. More laughter.


The waters are calm here, but I am impressed by the fact that they’re heading out to sea. The skies are dark and the winds are kicking up the typically gentle Mediterranean. Ed tells me anyone can learn to sail in several lessons. Having watched kids do this up on the northern coast, I know they can already right tipped boats and get themselves out of tricky situations. I’m thinking how cool it is to get kids excited about the outdoors. We watch for a little while longer and then head back to the car. It’s not raining yet, but the clouds are voluptuous and their reach now is beyond the mountains. We can’t have more than a few minutes left.

Just a little further north, we find the strip of undeveloped beachfront. Vacation homes along the Languedoc coast are deliberately built in clusters, leaving long stretches of unencumbered land. You can park the car anywhere along the road and take a path to the sandy beach. We do this now, in search of a spot for a quick lunch. It’s completely empty here – no doubt because of the uncertain weather.

We settle in, take out the baguette, the cheese, the apricots and watch the wind ripple the waters as they come ashore.


It appears that we are on the brink of rain, and yet we seem to be moving always just ahead of the front.


We are windblown, but dry. And still we continue north, as if fleeing the weather, but really just taking a further look up the coast, all the way to the Etang (Lagoon) de Leucate – some forty kilometers (25 mi.) north of where we’re staying.

The lagoon is long and the wind here is just terrific for a windsurfer. And we see not a small handful of them, racing like demons against the backdrop of oyster beds and wind generators.



So beautiful to watch. And funny, too, since the lagoon is surprisingly shallow. When the sails flip over, the men (they appear to be all men here) are only waist deep in water.

We turn around and head home.


And now, finally, the rain trickles in. It never quite pours. It remains gentle enough for me to get out and admire an apricot grove.



And gentle enough that when we reach home, we can go out without an umbrella. To the bakery, again, where Madame is out of baguettes (not an issue for us as we have fragments of ours still, even as others are deeply shocked and disappointed), but there remain the palmiers and apple pockets.


Ask her for the big one, Ed nudges.
Monsieur, I’m going to give you the smaller one – she says it in brisk French and she points to the smaller palmier.
Ed appears chastised.
Madame’s face eases into a peel of laughter as she reaches for his coveted big one.

In the evening, we walk through the light drizzle up to the square. It’s quiet now, not at all as busy as it was on Sunday. Yesterday, the waiter at Chez Patou was setting out extra tables. Today, people are choosing to stay home.

There is a set menu for 12.50 Euros (nearly $15, tax and tip included). Three courses. I choose the charcuterie plate because I know that Catalan sausages are like no other. My dish is loaded with pat├ęs, hams, sausages, pickles and onions, slices of raw fennel, and sweet melon on the side.


We drink sangria tonight. It’s ever-present here and deliciously fresh. For a second course, I hesitate. Is the pasta and seafood good? The waiter grins – well, my mother is cooking it, so yes, it’s good. He glances over his shoulder.


It’s also abundant!

We stumble out after our meal, not noticing anymore if it’s drizzling.