Tales from

the Loir

A Weekly Column

June 6, 2001 - Escapade dans le Berry

The escapade dans le Berry is a one day bus trip organized by the village of Saint Rimay to visit the cathedral in Bourges. Aprille and I were invited to go with a group of campagnards (country folk) from this small village. We live in the neighboring village of Lavardin but we have friends in Saint Rimay and attend many of their parties and festivals. Even though the two villages are only a couple of miles apart they are vastly different. Lavardin with its chateau and thousand year old buildings is classically beautiful and a popular tourist attraction. Saint Rimay on the other hand is truly deep France with the demographics of a typical village in the countryside. It is full of small farms and elderly retired people who have lived their whole lives in this small village.

Bourges is the principal town in region of France known as the Berry. It is a town of about 90,000 residents with a large number of beautifully restored middle age buildings en colombage. This cathedral along with Chartres, Reims and Amiens is a world heritage site and is magnificent to see. However, it does not take long for us to figure out that the real reason for this excursion is not art and history. It is lunch at Le Cygne Restaurant. There are three fish courses, a meat course, cheese bien sur, dessert, wine and coffee. Here is the menu:

Ecrin de fruits de mer
Saumon au beurre d'oseille
Filet mignon, sauce Normade
Haricots verts et Pommes Noisettes
Trio de fromages sur lit de salads
Craquotant au Praliné et sa crème Anglaise
1/4 Vin

We are about forty people on the bus and the average age is about seventy-five years. Everyone can walk but many can't climb steps. Those who do walk are a little stiff in the knees and walk with a side to side motion. We look like a herd of geese wobbling along and Aprille assumes the role of a shepherd by helping the less agile to keep up. Movement is so difficult that I wonder why these trips are so popular, but then I remember dancing with these same campagnards at four o'clock in the morning just a few months ago. Senior citizens live well in France. They eat, drink and make merry every day. This spirit begins to show itself again as we head back to the bus. After suffering two hours of art and culture, we are ready to eat and the noise level on the bus rises as everyone becomes more animated. This is the raison d'être.

The excitement was a little too much for one lady who passed out at the dinner table. Another lady was slapping her so hard, that she may have developed a concussion from the revival attempt. I guess they wanted to give her one last chance to eat but she never regained consciousness and was hauled off to the hospital. The most remarkable thing about this event was the reaction of all the other people. Except for a glance over the shoulder, everyone continued with their aperitifs and conversation. Only the tour operator and the restaurant owner seemed concerned. This army was not to be stopped by the wounded.

Aprille and I found a seat in the corner and were trying to get the P'tit Jules to join us but he disappeared into the bar and arrived too late. A large elderly couple that we had not met before took the seats that we were saving. The lady seemed to have trouble understanding our French but her husband interpreted for us by yelling our words very loud. When the gentleman poured our wine, he told Aprille that wine was good for making the breast larger. His wife demonstrated by cupping her breast and lifting to show the result. Since she was at least seventy-five years old and larger than I, this was hardly coquette but her husband seemed very pleased. I was beginning to understand why the others sitting at the table seemed so displeased with our tablemates.

When the waiter arrived with the first course everyone started eating with the wrong fork. The first course was a seafood pastry which should be eaten with the fish fork and knife. Everyone was using the larger meat fork and knife. When the waiter returned he was thoroughly disgusted and looking in the air in exasperation. Some of the people discerned their mistake and tried to put the clean fish fork on the plate. This made matter worse because today we are having two fish courses and are supposed the keep the fish utensils for the second course. By the time the second fish course arrives the knives and forks of every description are everywhere. To make matters worse everyone is balling up their napkins and putting them on the table where the plate was just taken away. The waiter is pushing napkins out of the way, straightening the array of forks and scolding everybody's grandmother for their table manners. Bourges is not Paris but this waiter is taking on the airs of the big city. He is doomed to frustration because absolutely on one is paying any attention to him.

By the time we get to the filet mignon, those troublesome fish forks and knives have been taken away and everyone can concentrate on the food again. A plateau of filet mignon, green beans, tomatoes provençal, and potatoes is placed between each group of four people for self-service. As I try to present the plateau to the lady next to me, her husband protests a little and suggests that I serve Aprille first. I say no and continue to present the plateau to the lady. She takes close to half the meat, potatoes and green beans before her husband says "arrete, ça c'est pour 4 personnes." She does everything but growl before conceding. Fortunately the other half is plenty for the remaining three people. In fact, I have eaten so much that I can't eat the three wedges of cheese that are served next. I take a taste of one and it is excellent but I leave the other pieces on the plate. Suddenly, I feel that eerie sensation of someone staring at me. I look over at the empty plate of my neighbor who has finished her cheese and see that she is staring at mine. Her husband senses the tension and gives her some of his camembert.

The spoon at the top of the plate is for the dessert and since everything else has been taken away, everyone is back in step and the waiter is happy. The happiness is short lived. When he asks who would like coffee, someone asks if it is included in the price of the meal. He gets huffy again and snidely says yes and you can have a double coffee if you wish. This waiter is easily upset but again no one seems to notice his frustration. Actually, I suspect that everyone notices his frustration but this is French cinema and the scene is played out like this every day. The waiter is surly to his French customers who ignore him because he is a servant. Even though these good country folk may not know all the complex rules of the table, they know how to handle a waiter and they know how to survive.

French restaurants can be intimidating for Americans who are less formal in their approach to eating. Most restaurants in France put an array of glasses, plates and utensils on the table that can baffle the most sophisticated visitors. There is usually an elegant plate with an artistically folded linen napkin in the center. Above the plat are four wine glasses of various shapes and sizes. There are three forks and sometimes a large spoon on the left side, two knives on the right and a spoon and maybe a small fork at the top of the plate. Bread is usually placed on the table but sometimes there is a small plate for it. The largest glass is usually for water and the white wine glass is larger that the red wine glass. If you order a wine from the Burgundy region of France a large bowl shaped glass will be provided. Forks are on the left and knives are on the right. Use the ones on the outside and work your way toward the middle. If fish is being served, there will be a special knife and fork for this course. They are a little shorter and wider than the other utensils. If soup is on the menu, a soup spoon will be on the right. The French use the fork in the left hand and cut with the knife in the right hand. I have never been quite sure what you do with the knife and fork between bites. They have to be placed on the plate, but this is sometimes awkward and I have seen the French do this in so many different ways that I am not sure what is correct. The waiter will come by between courses and scrape up the bread crumbs so don't worry about the tablecloth.

In the homes and small restaurants in the countryside of France, etiquette is much simpler. A fork, a knife, a plate and one glass usually suffices at the family dinner table. The custom is to clean the plate and utensils after each course with bread but a clean plate and fork is usually provided for dessert. Even though the etiquette is simple, the meals are served in courses as in the restaurants and you are expected to finish everything on your plate. In the restaurants as well as the homes, bread should be broken off in small bite size pieces with your hands. It is more common to use the bread to sop up the sauces left on the plate at home rather than in the restaurants but I see the French do it all the time and they are expert a hiding this maneuver. It is probably best not to do it in the very fine restaurants.

It all seems very complicated and the rules change with different menus. There are special instruments for snails and something like bouillabaisse requires a course in physics. Just think about Hank Williams, Jr. singing, "a country boy can survive." He sings about how a country boy can run a trot line, skin a deer and do whatever to survive. He leaves out the part about which is the red wine glass and which is the white wine glass but it is the spirit of the song that is important. Hank's song extols the virtues of the country boy and I see those same virtues in the good folk of Saint Rimay.

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May 30, 2001 - Learning French
May 23, 2001 - Pete and Manny
May 16, 2001 - Les Journees des Aubepines
May 8, 2001 - Armistice Day
May 2, 2001 - May Day
April 25, 2001 - Les Manouches
April 18, 2001 - Trôo
April 11, 2001 - Le P'tit Jules
April 4, 2001 - Men and Their Caves 
March 28, 2001 - Pissenlit
March 21, 2001 - The Egg
March 14, 2001 - Reliquary
March 7, 2001 - The Source of the Loir
February 28, 2001 - La Marseillaise
February 21, 2001 - Still on Wheels
February 14, 2001 - Marcel Proust
February 7, 2001 - La Chandeleur
January 31, 2001 - Winter Comfort Food
January 24, 2001 - Festival of Saint Vincent
January 17, 2001 - Guest Columnist Aprille Glover
January 10, 2001 - Muscadet
January 3, 2001 - Ode to Protein
Archive of Weekly Columns from 2000


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