Excerpt from

Cave Life in France

 Excerpt from Chapter X I Think I'm Losing Weight

"...It was a very satisfying afternoon but we still have another dinner to attend at seven o'clock. We spend a couple of hours relaxing and trying to decide if we will appear too anxious if we show up at seven o'clock. A lot of our French friends seem to always be late and we have heard advice that you should never be on time. We are going to try to be a little late but when seven o'clock arrives we are too nervous about being late so we start down the hill. As we reach the bottom of the hill there is Maurice, Monsieur Jean and Christine on their way to come get us because it is quarter after seven and we had not arrived yet. I think that we will just try to be on time all the time now. The pressure of being cool is too much for us.

We are escorted to the door of Maurice's home. We enter through the kitchen but take an immediate left into a large cavern that Maurice has carved into the mountain. This large room which is attached to his kitchen is a passage way to one of his other caves where an old pressoir like ours is hanging from the ceiling. Maurice says that he is planning to make a bar from these caves. He has a good start with the alcohol. There are two large ten gallon canisters sitting at the makeshift bar. Maurice invites us to sniff. It is eau-de-vie that he has made from apples. To the left are two large fifty gallon drums that are filled with fermenting apples for the next batch. Maurice unlatches one of the barrels and a gush of air escapes from the pressurized container. The smell of apples is strong. The barrels are full of fermenting apples that have turned brown and commenced to change into the firewater called eau-de-vie.

There is a large fireplace toward the front of the cavern that Maurice carved out of the wall. Hanging from the mantel of the fireplace by strings are two large haunches of meat. They are spinning slowly to evenly cook the meat. Once the string completely tightens in one direction, it automatically starts to spin in the other direction. Occasionally the string runs out of energy and has to be pushed a little to start the spinning again. The meat is leg of lamb and is called ficelle gigot de Lavardin. It is the town specialty. We have seen it cooking in the fireplace at Le Caveau but we have never tasted it.

As we watch the meat spin over the fire we are offered an apéritif. One of our choices is pousse d'épine. We accept the offer to try this new apéritif. We learn that this spicy, sweet red liqueur was fabricated by Maurice. Here is the formula if you decided to mix up some at home. You put three liters of red wine and one liter of eau-de-vie in a barrel. Around the first of May you go into the woods and pick the leaves from the épine saplings that are pushing out of the ground. You add the épine leaves and sugar to the barrel of liquid and allow it to ferment. The result is this potent little red devil.

As we are standing around discussing nose, legs and bouquets, Maurice is showing Aprille how he carved out this cavern. Some parts of the cave walls are wet and chalky. Maurice points out that when digging caves, you occasionally hit sections that are not tuffeau. Part of this cave was cut through a chalky limestone type rock which does not harden when exposed to air like the tuffeau does.

As usual everyone is good-naturedly teasing Maurice, verbally and physically. Teasing Maurice is the specialty of Monsieur Jean who is constantly setting up the next joke. By the time we all sit down at the large banquet table set up in the middle of the cavern, everyone is grinning from ear to ear from the wine and the humor, mostly at Maurice's expense. It is time for Maurice to get his revenge. Maurice walks up behind Monsieur Jean who is sitting at the table. Maurice places his left hand over Monsieur Jean's mouth, bends him over backwards and gives the back of his hand a long wet kiss. It looks like he is really kissing him because you can't see his hand over his mouth. The room erupts in laughter and a ruffled looking Monsieur Jean is beet red with embarrassment. Maurice always comes back in the bottom of the ninth.

Maurice and Simone return to the fire where fresh trout is baking in butter, onions and spices over the fire. Each plate is served with this entrée. An entrée in the U. S. is the main course but in France the entrée is a preliminary dish. The trout is perfect. A white wine is served with the trout. It is a vin doux blanc from the region next to Vouvray. The wine and fish are a perfect match. We could stop here and claim a food memory but we are just beginning. The second course is the gigot ficelle served with white beans. Maurice unties the haunches of meat and takes them to the end of the table where he begins carving off slices onto a plate. The plate is passed around and everyone takes a slice. I see that there is something in the meat and I ask Christine what it is. She tells me that whole petals of garlic are inserted into the meat before it is cooked. Here I go again. This is one of the best tasting meats that I have ever had. The garlic, French oak and lamb dance on the palate. I ask Maurice how to cook the gigot ficelle. Maurice says to cut into the meat with a knife and insert the garlic. Then use salt and pepper and oil on the meat to make it brown. It has to cook for about an hour or an hour and one-half. Monsieur Jean who has recovered from his kiss pours us a Chinon with the gigot ficelle. I take my time and savor the combinations of tastes and the wine. To make sure that I really like it, I accept seconds. Monsieur Jean pours a cabernet franc from the Cher river region with the cheese and salad course. More and more we see cheese and salad served together. It is an excellent combination. For dessert we have a choice of tarte aux pommes or tarte aux poires. I try each for purposes of comparison. The apple pie was outstanding but the pear pie was the best that I have ever had. We had a vin doux blanc with dessert. When I asked the name of the vin doux blanc, I was told that is was from the Anjou region and that it was called Layon. I believe that this is the same wine that Gilbert stocks in his cellar. I would dearly love to find the source and put some in my cellar. With my second piece of pie, Maurice poured a vin pétillant from Vouvray. By this time everybody is getting unsober. Aprille is leading the group singing La Marseillaise. She doesn't really know the words but the melody is enough to get it started. Marchons, Marchons. It doesn't have the same effect as Victor Lazlo leading the band in Casablanca, but, nevertheless, I have la chair de poule. Aprille rarely drinks alcohol and it doesn't take much for her to start grinning. I am a little surprised at how much she drank tonight. As we walked home Aprille is singing Row, Row, Row Your Boat and helicoptering her arms like a paddle wheel on the Mississippi. I have no idea what time it is. "



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