Parlez-vous Francais?

Something about being in Africa has made me think of France – Strongly. It probably is this French looking chameleon that I’m tempted to call Pierre or Didier or something typically French like that. Or maybe it’s how seeing that Asterix blanket in Shukuru’s bed made me think of how close to reality those comic strips are. It probably is just the smell of fresh bread wafting from this kitchen! I made my first loaf of bread and all I can think of are the baguettes of France. Aah the Gauls – they know how to feast!

By France, I don’t mean Paris (Pronounced without the ‘S’). I mean those little hamlets that are the heart of this country – Burgundy, Provence. Towns and villages as endearing as their names – Lacoste, Lubéron, Aix, Cluny, Avignon. Every Sunday, we would walk to a different town. That’s one thing I miss about Europe – the long stretches and the fresh air. You could walk all day and not tire. The thing about France is the weather – it’s warm, almost Mediterranean. Farming is the main occupation – vineyards stretch for miles and miles and miles, village markets that boast of wares according to season – Christmas, harvest, hunting seasons.

And France’s favourite ritual is eating. There’s summer food and winter food. My trip began with lunch in a family owned restaurant. It was stone walled and full. The owner was a man of considerable size who perfected the art of teleportation – he was at every table making sure everyone was alright. It was a meal I shall never forget – if there is such a thing as gastronomic frontiers, this meal broke all records! It started with home-made pizza, 3 of them: Anchovy, mushroom and cheese (In France, you HAVE to have a slice of each). We would then wipe our plates with pieces of bread torn from loaves of bread that are complementary and placed in the middle of the table. Each loaf was at least 2 foot long.

By that time, the second course arrived – pâtés of rabbit, boar and thrush. There was a chunky, pork-based terrine laced with marc. There were saucissons spotted with peppercorns. There were tiny sweet onions marinated in fresh tomato sauce. Plates were wiped once more and duck was brought in. The highly decorated and over priced slivers that they serve you in these fancy restaurants were nowhere to be seen. There were full pieces covered in dark, savoury gravy and surrounded by wild mushrooms.

I was thankful that I was able to finish so much food and I was just about to sit back and relax when I felt something close to panic as I saw people around me wipe their plates with bread again. A huge, steaming casserole (Rabbit rivet of the richest, deepest brown) was placed on the table and was the speciality of Madame, the hostess, wife of whom I now called Obelix. And all this, by the way are wiped down with bottles and bottles of wine – The whites of Côtes du Rhône, the reds from local farmers who I had the delight of meeting and the lightest, tastiest and most delightful bottle of pink champagne I’ve ever had the pleasure of drinking (It was on the house for an Indian guest who appreciated good food)

Aah to eat like a peasant.

When I was there, the breadmaker would arrive at 6 in an old box of a car that was at least 30 years old struggling up the little hill. I grew fond of the man. He would tell me stories in rapid French that I didn’t understand a word of but nodded my head anyway as we cut baguettes and baguettes for breakfast for 50 odd volunteers. One weekend, I decided to humor him and visit him in his bakery. He handed me a brown bag of goodies and I decided to open them only when I went to my favourite spot in the town – a vantage point up the hill of Cluny where I could see the World War II ruins, the old abbey, and the entire expanse of Burgundy covered in the first rays of sunlight that morning.

I opened the bag to find fresh bread, goat cheese, figs from his farm that he always talked about and cool flavoured milk – and just like that under my favourite walnut tree, I had the best breakfast of my life so far!

Something in Africa’s air today has made me miss France!

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