Feel­ing a goose in France

Sea­son’s eat­ings go awry for a stranger at the ta­ble

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - JOHN BAX­TER

A CHRIST­MAS din­ner was the first event I at­tended in France as a mem­ber of what would shortly be my French family. It was the win­ter of 1989 and I’d been in Europe for only two weeks.

Struck down by that help­less love which the French call un coup de foudre — a thun­der­clap — I’d aban­doned a com­fort­able life in Los An­ge­les and, on the spur of the mo­ment, moved to Paris to be with the woman I loved. That I should re­lo­cate so sud­denly and com­pletely seemed lu­natic to my Cal­i­for­nian friends — even more so since I knew al­most no more French than one can pick up from movie sub­ti­tles.

As I brooded in MarieDo­minique’s tiny stu­dio apart­ment on the Ile de la Cite in the heart of Paris, star­ing out at this grey Euro­pean city swept by a freez­ing wind straight off the steppes of Rus­sia, I could al­most agree with them. Was I out of my mind?

What kept me from get­ting the next plane back was my lack of a good over­coat.

If my cul­tural and lin­guis­tic skills were un­equal to France, my wardrobe was worse. In Los An­ge­les, I’d adapted to win­ter by switch­ing from short-sleeved shirts to long and, on re­ally cold nights when the tem­per­a­ture dropped to the 80s Fahren­heit (around 30C), say, per­haps drap­ing a scarf around my neck.

On my first Sunday in Paris, I made the mis­take of ac­com­pa­ny­ing Marie-Do on a walk with no more in­su­la­tion than a sweater un­der my jacket. After I’d turned an ominous shade of blue, we took refuge in a cafe thick with cig­a­rette smoke — mixed, I was later to dis­cover, with the mi­crobes of that vir­u­lent bug the French call la grippe. It put me in bed for a week. By the time I felt well enough to flee back to Cal­i­for­nia, it was too late. Christ­mas had ar­rived.

That Christ­mas Eve, in the late af­ter­noon, we drove west out of Paris, fol­low­ing a sun that at 4pm was al­ready sink­ing be­low the horizon. Speed­ing through the leaf­less for­est of the Bois de Boulogne, we fol­lowed the pe­riph­erique along the Seine, then swung across the river at St Cloud and headed for Versailles. About 50km be­yond was the vil­lage of Richebourg, and Christ­mas din­ner in the coun­try home of Marie-Do’s for­mi­da­ble mother, a re­tired univer­sity pro­fes­sor, long-wid­owed, whom I thought of only as Madame.

Once we turned off the au­toroute into a maze of coun­try B-roads, the France through which we drove was one in which the Three Mus­ke­teers would have felt at home. Farm­houses of brick, hulk­ing and two-storeyed, squat­ted amid vast un­fenced fields. Ev­ery few kilo­me­tres, a high stone wall and a care­fully tended wood be­hind it an­nounced the pres­ence of a chateau.

The coun­try home of Madame — she also kept an apart­ment in Paris’s 6th ar­rondisse­ment, over­look­ing the Lux­em­bourg Gar­dens — proved less daunt­ing than these stately homes, but only j ust. I stared in awe at the stone fire­place, large enough to roast a pig. The gnarled, tof­fee-coloured ch­est­nut beams, held to­gether with wooden pegs rather than nails, still bore the marks of the adzes with which the car­pen­ters, now more than two cen­turies dead, had shaped them.

Through the floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows, the gar­den, dot­ted with old peach and cherry trees, sloped away un­der a sky pricked with stars. In my state of mind, no land­scape could have looked more des­o­late.

I loi­tered around the liv­ing room, clutch­ing a glass of some­thing sweet and al­co­holic that might have been sherry but wasn’t. Around me bus­tled the prep- ara­tions for a French Christ­mas din­ner — ac­tiv­i­ties in which I was supremely use­less.

I stared at pic­tures or watched flames de­vour the logs in the open fire. Oc­ca­sion­ally I cir­cled the din­ner ta­ble clus­tered with crys­tal, porce­lain and sil­ver, and counted again the 14 chairs, won­der­ing which would be my hot seat.

Pe­ri­od­i­cally a car drew up and cries from the kitchen an­nounced the ar­rival of more rel­a­tives. Du­ti­fully, Marie-Do brought them to meet me.

The first, her tante Fran­coise, a com­mand­ing woman who was also her mar­raine — god­mother — re­garded me from over her spec­ta­cles and po­litely wished me Bonne fete. Each new ar­rival brought some­thing for the feast; Fran­coise’s con­tri­bu­tion was cho­co­late mousse thick and dark as the soil we’d seen in the ploughed fields on our way here.

‘‘ Riche,’’ I sug­gested. Fran­coise raised her eye­brows and turned down the corners of her mouth. ‘‘Ce nest pas . . .’’ Re­mem­ber­ing I was a for­eigner, she shifted into her lim­ited English. I was to get to know this ef­fect — rather like a marathon run­ner who’s been pelt- ing along on con­crete sud­denly slog­ging through deep sand.

‘‘It is hmph hmph . . . not so rich, I think. Just . . . rph hmph . . . the cream, the cho­co­lat, some . . . er, co­gnac, and . . . hmph . . . com­ment ce se dit’’ — she mut­tered through num­bers, one of the hard­est things to learn in any lan­guage — ‘‘ Un, deux, trois . . . vingt-cinq . . . umph, twenty-five eggs?’’

Jean-Marie, Marie-Do’s brother-in-law, could hardly have been more dif­fer­ent in style. He ar­rived on a Har­ley with MarieDo’s sis­ter Caro­line on the pil­lion.

Jean-Marie of­fered a hand as thick and rough as an oven mitt. ‘‘ Bonne fete’’.

‘‘Er bonne fete . . . um . He peered into my drink.

‘‘ Ah, le pineau de Char­ente.’’ He sorted through his lim­ited English vo­cab­u­lary. ‘‘You like?’’

‘‘It’s OK. I was won­der­ing what it’s made of.’’

He looked blank. I fell back, as I was in­creas­ingly forced to do, on sign lan­guage, dip­ping a fin­ger, tast­ing, mim­ing a query. I had to but­ton­hole Marie-Do to trans­late his mo­tions of squeez­ing, crush­ing. ‘‘It’s brandy,’’ she ex­plained, ‘‘mixed with fer­mented grape juice

.

. aussi.’’ crushed from the skins and seeds after they’ve made the wine. You like it?’’

Like Fran­coise, Jean-Marie had brought some­thing for the din­ner. Wan­der­ing into the kitchen, I watched him re­move it from the pan­nier of his bike. Un­wrap­ping half an is­sue of France Soir, he re­vealed a large glass pre­serv­ing jar. In­side, im­mersed in golden fat and look­ing like the or­gan of a very ill al­co­holic, was an en­tire goose liver. As care­fully as a sur­geon han­dling a beat­ing heart, he slid it from the jar on to a board.

‘‘ Cuillere,’’ he de­manded. Some- one handed him a spoon. He scraped off the fat — to be re­served for the cre­ation of baked pota­toes, crunchy golden out­side, melt­ingly ten­der within. ‘‘ Tor­chon.’’ A cloth com­pleted the clean­ing. ‘‘ Couteau.’’ Ju­di­ciously, Jean­Marie sliced the liver into slightly more gen­er­ous por­tions than one would re­ceive in even the best restau­rant — a demon­stra­tion that this was family.

He’d j ust fin­ished and the women were ar­rang­ing the slices ar­tis­ti­cally on a dish, flanked by the small, crunchy pick­led cu­cum­bers called cor­ni­chons, when Fran­coise re­turned.

Fol­low­ing her was an im­pos­ing white-haired man in his early 70s, dressed in a dou­ble-breasted blue suit, silk tie and white shirt — her hus­band and, as I’d been warned by Marie-Do, the fa­mously ret­i­cent and moody al­pha male of the family, Jean-Paul.

An em­i­nent scholar and sci­en­tist, Jean-Paul had re­tired from a highly prof­itable ca­reer as an an­a­lyt­i­cal chemist to be­come a painter, at which he achieved even greater suc­cess. Fran­cois Mit­ter­rand, pres­i­dent of the repub­lic, twice chose one of his paint­ings for his per­sonal Christ­mas card — the sort of ac­co­lade that re­ally counts with the sta­tus-con­scious French.

To me he ac­corded a gloomy ‘‘ Bon soir, Mon­sieur’’ and a limp hand­shake, be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing into the din­ing room. From the door­way I watched him put on his glasses to ex­am­ine the la­bels on the night’s bot­tles of wine, lined up to breathe on the stone man­tel above the open fire.

With Jean-Paul present, the meal could be­gin. A few min­utes later he took his place at the head of the ta­ble and the other dozen guests ar­ranged them­selves, with me at the foot. The marathon of Christ­mas din­ner be­gan. This is an edited ex­tract from Cook­ing For Clau­dine by John Bax­ter (Allen & Un­win, $22.99). FOOD DE­TEC­TIVE’S NEW HOME IS IN THE WEEK­END A PLUS SECTION, IN­SIDE YOUR PROP­ERTY LIFT-OUT

IGOR SAKTOR

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