Tales from
the Loir

A Weekly Column

March 5, 2003 - Undercover in France

Why would a decorated Vietnam war veteran live in France during these days of conflict? The fact is that I have been working undercover for the last five years. It is because of my language skills and acute understanding of these clever devils that I was selected for this mission. But I also know all the dangers. They offer you a little Bordeaux, a bit of confit de canard, some Camembert and all resistance breaks down. Before you know it, you are revealing the secrets of the flux capacitor. Here is an example of a week of torture more insidious than sodium pentathal and sleep deprivation.

It is cold on our first day back in Lavardin. Ice is crunching under our shoes as we climb the steep goat path to our cave. The climb seems harder than I remember and our panting is visible in the cold air. The door is frozen shut and I have to ram it with my shoulder to force it open. The rush of warm air is a pleasant surprise. I panic a little at the thought that I left the heat on for the last three months but the power is off at the junction box. I quickly realize that the air is not warm but just a lot warmer than the below freezing weather outside. Caves stay at about sixty degrees if they are well sealed and sixty degrees feels warmer in comparison to twenty.

Within an hour, the phone is ringing. Monsieur Jean saw our car in the parking lot and called to invite us to dinner. So the insidious torture begins. We arrive at the home of the Jean and Eliane Montambaux at seven o'clock where we are warmly greeted with kisses and cheer. We are joined later by their daughter Christine and her little white dog named P'tit Loup (pronounced T Loo).

Jean directs us to our goldfish that he has been guarding the last three months. The fish has obviously been eating like the French. He is huge and no long fits in his little bowl. Jean calls the fish Aprille and taps on the new fish tank. This sends P'tit Loup into hysterics who dances on two legs and squeals like a gay coyote when he sees the fish move. The dog has fallen in love with the fish so we agree to leave it with Jean for a while.

Jean opens a bottle of petillant from a local vineyard to make kirs but it is good enough to drink au naturel. Adding something sweet to a very dry wine started as a way of making a bad wine drinkable, but it is now a common aperitif made with a variety of liqueurs and good wine. We sip our aperitifs and talk about the three months we missed in the bas vendomois.

The first course is a salad made with chicken livers and magret de canard sauteed in their own fat. The chicken livers and duck are tossed into the salad and served while they are still warm. Jean pours Christine and I a Vouvray while everyone else drinks a cabernet sauvignon. The second course is saucisse bearnaise, which is sausage, cooked with a slice of Gruyere cheese in the middle and placed over a bed of pasta. The third course is a selection of cheeses. Dessert is a puree of red peaches and cookies. It is midnight and Christine has to work tomorrw so we decide to leave early. It seems strange to talk about a four-hour meal as being truncated.

The next morning we receive a telephone call from our friends Zoulika and Emmanuel who invite us to lunch at their home in Villavard. It has only been nine hours since I topped off at the Montambaux estate, but for some reason, I am hungry again. Zoulika and Emmanuel are renting an old restored Templar commanderie while renovating a house in Lavardin. Little is left of the original twelfth century fort but the old stone tower and walls give this place a special ambiance. The sole mission of the Knights Templar was to help pilgrims get to the Holy Land. They built these commanderies about a days walk apart so pilgrims could find a safe place to spend each night. Many were dismantled in search of the vaunted Templar treasure that is believed to buried somewhere on old Templar property.

Zoulika was born in Paris but her family is originally from Morocco so her cooking usually reflects her North African heritage. But today we are having cuisine of the region. The kitchen has one of those stand-up-inside old fireplaces and a large, heavy oak table in the center. It is a middle ages setting but the Templars who were vegetarians would be turning over in their graves at today's menu of pork and beef. We start with a red Bordeaux and a local goat cheese spiced with garlic. Zoulika puts old grape vines on the roaring fire to make coals for grilling the steaks. While waiting for the fire to burn down, we begin the first course of rillets, cornichons and mustard. Rillets are pork cut from the fatty sides of the pig and cooked in a large pot until the meat is separated from the fat. They are specialty of this region of France and are usually served cold as an entree.

We stick with the Bordeaux and I ask Zoulika where she got it. She only drinks very good red wine and she is especially proud of this one because it only costs $2.50 a bottle. Everyone competes here to find the best bargain in wine. I have bottled Vouvray for 75 cents a bottle but a good red wine is hard to find for less than $4.00. I shouldn't be complaining. On our recent book tour, we paid $18.00 for a glass of French table wine at a restaurant in Florida.

When the fire burns down, we put the steaks on the coals and listen to them sizzle. Generally, American beef is better than the French cuts, but beef from the Limousin and Charolais regions of France is as good as any place in the world. The secret is to go to the small butcher shops and ask the butcher for his best cuts. Supermarkets often sell beef from old milk cows that can sometimes be tough. The steaks are excellent with homefries and Dijon mustard. After cheese, cake and expresso coffee, we are quite satisfied. Our second day back in Lavardin has been a success.

As night falls, the phone rings again. Can you come to dinner tomorrow night? Why not? Dinner with our friends, Pierre and Claude Chene, at Moulin de Beaume is always special. Claude buys volaille biologique at a special farm that only sells to certain approved customers. The farm requires an interview and acceptance before being allowed to buy their special chickens, ducks, turkeys and other exotic fowl. Claude promises to introduce us but there is no guarantee of acceptance.

We start the evening with an aperitif of Vouvray petillant in the salon while sitting next to the old millstone. We move to the dining room on the other side of the grinding equipment and start with a homemade tomato and vermicilli soup. Claude makes soup every day in the winter. The plat principal is magret de canard (duck filet) from the special farm that requires membership. It is very tender and it takes me a while to recognize it as duck. Served with fried potatoes, a vegetable and a good Bordeaux, it is hard to refuse seconds. After a selection of cheeses and clafoutis for dessert, we move back to the salon for coffee. When I agree to a digestif, I hand Aprille the keys to the car. It is a perfect evening and I don't have to drive home.

The next day we get a call from our friends Marc and Monique Petit. They are hosting some Australian friends and would like to bring them by to look at our cave home. Laurence and Carolyn Pearl rent an apartment in Paris and make the long flight once a year to spend several months in France. After a bottle of Coteaux du Layon and a little Chablis, Monique invites us to dinner at their home in Thore la Rochette. Monique's family has been making wine in Thore for several generations and her grandfather was the first to make the legendary pousse d'epine aperitif. In her honor we start with this spicy sweet liqueur and enjoy speaking English with Laurence and Carolyn. We start dinner with smoked salmon and an Australian wine that is famous for its quality but I have forgotten the name. This rarely happens to me and it shows that I am weakening a bit. The main course is blanquette de veau and is excellent. After cheese and another bottle of wine we are served Monique's Tarte Tatin. What were you asking about that flux capacitor? Another typical week in the Loir Valley.

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February 19, 2003 - Return to France

November 6, 2002 - Impressions of America
October 9, 2002 - William of Orange

October 2, 2002 - Catacombs of Paris

September 25, 2002 - Suburbs of Paris
September 18, 2002 - Saint James

September 11, 2002 - Le Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle

July 10, 2002 - Flintstones, meet the Flintstones

July 3, 2002 - Bugs

June 26, 2002 - Summer

June 19, 2002 - French Property News

June 5, 2002 - Emmanuel de Broglie

April 24, 2002 - Election Day in Saint Rimay

April 17, 2002 -Surprise Review

April 3, 2002 - Spring in Lavardin
March 20, 2002 - Guest Columnist /Furman Magazine/ John Roberts
March 13, 2002 - Tête de Veau
March 6, 2002 - Table Etiquette
February 27, 2002 - A Country Boy Can Survive
February 20, 2002 - Driving in France
February 13, 2002 - The Circus
February 6, 2002 - History of France
January 30, 2002 - THE BEST I EVER HAD
January 23, 2002 - Miranda This
January 16, 2002 - Charlotte Observer Interview
January 9, 2002 - Walnut Wine
January 2, 2002 - Sloe Gin
December 26, 2001 - Winter Solstice
Archive of Weekly Columns from 2001
Archive of Weekly Columns from 2000


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