Feeling a goose in France
Season’s eatings go awry for a stranger at the table
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