The Inner Frenchman
The early part of my life was spent in the gastronomic wilderness of postwar England, when delicacies of the table were in extremely short supply. I suppose I must have possessed taste buds in my youth, but they were left undisturbed. Food was fuel, and in many cases not very appetizing fuel. I still have vivid memories of boarding school cuisine, which seemed to have been carefully color-coordinated--gray meat, gray potatoes, gray vegetables, gray flavor. At the time, I thought it was perfectly normal.
I was in for a pleasant shock. Not long after I became the lowliest trainee in an enormous multinational corporation, I was instructed to accompany my first boss, Mr. Jenkins, on a trip to Paris as his junior appendage. This was the way, so I was told, to start learning the ropes of big business. I should count myself lucky to have such an opportunity at the tender age of nineteen.
Jenkins was English and proud of it, English to the point of caricature, a role I think he took some pleasure in cultivating. When going abroad, he announced his nationality and armed himself against the elements with a bowler hat and a strictly furled umbrella. On this occasion, I was his personal bearer, and I had been given the important task of carrying his briefcase.
Before we left for the great unknown on the other side of the English Channel, Jenkins had been kind enough to give me some tips on dealing with the natives. One piece of advice was a model of clarity: I should never attempt to get involved with what he referred to as "their lingo." Speak English forcefully enough, he said, and they will eventually understand you. When in doubt, shout. It was a simple formula that Jenkins claimed had worked in outposts of the British Empire for hundreds of years, and he saw no reason for changing it now.
Like many of his generation, he had very little good to say about the French--an odd lot who couldn't even understand cricket. But he did admit that they knew their way around a kitchen, and one day he was graciously pleased to accept an invitation from two of his Parisian colleagues to have lunch; or, as Jenkins said, a spot of grub. It was the first memorable meal of my life.
We were taken to a suitably English address, the avenue Georges V, where there was (and still is) a restaurant called Marius and Janette. Even before sitting down, I could tell I was in a serious establishment, unlike anywhere I'd been before. It smelled different: exotic and tantalizing. There was the scent of the sea as we passed the display of oysters on their bed of crushed ice, the rich whiff of butter warming in a pan, and, coming through the air every time the kitchen door swung open, the pervasive--and to my untraveled nose, infinitely foreign--hum of garlic.
Jenkins surrendered his hat and umbrella as we sat down, and I looked with bewilderment at the crystal forest of glasses and the armory of knives and forks laid out in front of me. The trick was to start on the outside and work inward, I was told. But the correct choice of cutlery was a minor problem compared to making sense of the elaborate mysteries described on the pages of the menu. What was a bar grillé? What was a loup à l'écaille? And what in heaven's name was aioli? All I had to help me was schoolboy French, and I hadn't been a particularly gifted schoolboy. I dithered over these puzzling choices in a fog of almost complete ignorance, too timid to ask for help.
Jenkins, quite unconsciously, came to my rescue. "Personally," he said, "I never eat anything I can't pronounce." He closed his menu with a decisive snap. "Fish and chips for me. They do a very decent fish and chips in France. Not quite like ours, of course."
With a sense of relief, I said I'd have the same. Our two French colleagues raised four surprised eyebrows. No oysters to start with? No soupe de poissons? The company was paying; there was no need to hold back. But Jenkins was adamant. He couldn't abide the texture of oysters--"slippery little blighters" was how he described them--and he didn't care for the way soup had a tendency to cling to his mustache. Fish and chips would suit him very nicely, thank you.
By this time, I was already enjoying a minor revelation, which was the bread. It was light and crusty and slightly chewy, and I spread on to it some of the pale, almost white butter from the slab on a saucer in front of me. A slab. English butter in those days was highly salted and a lurid shade of yellow, and it was doled out in small, grudging pats. At the first mouthful of French bread and French butter, my taste buds, dormant until then, went into spasm.
The fish, a majestic creature that I think was sea bass, was ceremoniously presented, filleted in seconds with a spoon and fork, and arranged with great care on my plate. My previous experience of fish had been limited to either cod or plaice, heavily disguised, in accordance with the English preference, under a thick shroud of batter. In contrast, the sea bass, white and fragrant with what I now know was fennel, looked curiously naked. It was all very strange.
Even the chips, the pommes frites, didn't resemble the sturdy English variety. These chips, a golden pyramid of them served on a separate dish, were pencil-slim, crisp between the teeth, tender to chew, a perfect foil for the delicate flesh of the fish. It was lucky for me that I wasn't required to contribute to the conversation of my elders and betters; I was too busy discovering real food.
Then there was cheese. Or rather, there were a dozen or more cheeses, another source of confusion after years of having only the simple choice of Cheddar or Gorgonzola. I thought I recognized a vaguely familiar shape, safe and Cheddar-like, and pointed to it. The waiter insisted on giving me two other cheeses as well, so that I could compare the textural delights of hard, medium, and creamy. More of that bread. More signals of joy from the taste buds, which were making up for lost time.
Tarte aux pommes. Even I knew what that was; even Jenkins knew. "Excellent," he said. "Apple pie. I wonder if they have any proper cream." Unlike the apple pies of my youth, with a thick crust top and bottom, the tart on my plate was topless, displaying the fruit--wafers of apple, beautifully arranged in overlapping layers, glistening with glaze on a sliver of buttery pastry.
Too young to be offered an expense-account cigar and a balloon of brandy, I sat in a daze of repletion while my companions puffed away and considered a return to the cares of office. I was slightly tipsy after my two permitted glasses of wine, and I completely forgot that I was responsible for the all-important Jenkins briefcase. When we left the restaurant I left it under the table, which demonstrated to him that I was not executive material, and which marked the beginning of the end of my career in that particular company. But, much more important, lunch had been a personal turning point, the loss of my gastronomic virginity.
It wasn't only because of what I had eaten, although that had been incomparably better than anything I'd eaten before. It was the total experience: the elegance of the table setting, the ritual of opening and tasting the wine, the unobtrusive efficiency of the waiters and their attention to detail, arranging the plates just so, whisking up bread crumbs from the tablecloth. For me, it had been a special occasion. I couldn't imagine people eating like this every day; and yet, in France, they did. It was the start of an enduring fascination with the French and their love affair with food.
It is, of course, the most whiskery old cliché, but clichés usually have their basis in fact, and this one certainly does: Historically, the French have paid extraordinary--some would say excessive--attention to what they eat and how they eat it. And they put their money where their mouth is, spending a greater proportion of their income on food and drink than any other nation in the world. This is true not only of the affluent bourgeois gourmet; where food is concerned, interest, enjoyment, and knowledge extend throughout all levels of society, from the president to the peasant.
Nature must take some of the credit for this. If you were to make a list of the ideal conditions for agriculture, livestock and game, seafood and wine, you would find that most of them exist in one part or another of France. Fertile soil, varied climate, the fishing grounds of the Channel, the Atlantic, and the Mediterranean--every natural advantage is here except for a tropical region. (Although, such is the luck of the French, they have Guadeloupe and Martinique to provide them with rum and coconuts.) Living in the middle of such abundance, it's not surprising that the Frenchman makes the most of it.
The other major national gastronomic asset is an army of outstanding chefs, and for this the French have to give some credit to one of the more grisly periods in their history. Before their Revolution, the best cooking was not available to the general public. The most talented chefs sweated over their hot stoves in private for their aristocratic masters, creating multicourse banquets in the kitchens of mansions and palaces. And then, in 1789, the guillotine struck. The aristocracy more or less disappeared, and so did their private kitchens. Faced with the prospect of having nobody to cook for and nowhere to cook, many of the unemployed chefs did the intelligent and democratic thing: They opened restaurants and began to cook for their fellow citizens. The common man could now enjoy the food of kings, prepared by the finest chefs in France. Liberté, égalité, gastronomie.
More than two hundred years later, the common man still does pretty well, despite what pessimists will tell you about times changing for the worse. It's true that traditions are under attack from several directions. For a start, more than 50 percent of all food bought in France is now provided by supermarkets rather than small specialty stores (a statistic that doesn't seem to apply to those faithful Parisians who line up every day outside the Poilâne bakery in the rue du Cherche-Midi; I've bought bread there several times, and the wait has never been less than ten minutes). Then there is television, eating into mealtimes and often competing successfully with a proper dinner. And le fast food is working its insidiously convenient spell, with Big Macs on the Champs-Elysées and pizza stands in every town market. All in all, the future of traditional French cuisine, with its hours of shopping, preparing, and cooking, followed by further hours of eating, doesn't look too promising--not, at least, if you believe some of the gloomy predictions made by those wise men who claim to see the writing on the kitchen wall.
I am more optimistic, perhaps because I tend to compare France with other countries instead of comparing the France of today with the France of yesterday, with all the rosy distortions of nostalgia. At any rate, I see encouraging signs that some traditions are healthier than ever, and that gastronomy is holding its own against what Régis, my friend the glutton in chief, calls "industrial food." Here are just a few examples.
The star chefs, men like Ducasse and Guérard and Bras and Troisgros, enjoy a level of celebrity and popular prestige reserved in other countries for the gods of sport and television. If any of them were to open a new restaurant, it would be national news. If, God forbid, their standards should ever slip, it would be a national catastrophe, a tremblement de terre, an earthquake, probably marked by sorrowful editorials in Le Monde and Le Figaro. And the clients of these top chefs are not all millionaires, cabinet ministers, or expense-account cowboys. Monsieur Dupont, the average Frenchman, is prepared to invest in his stomach, saving up to eat at the best restaurants, often traveling considerable distances to do so. But, to borrow a phrase from the Michelin guide, ça vaut le voyage. It's worth the trip.
One can say the same about more modest restaurants with lesser-known chefs. Some of them can be found in the back streets of provincial towns, like l'Isle Sonnante in Avignon: small, charming, and delicious. Others are buried so deeply in the countryside that you might think their only clients would be the local postman and his wife, or travelers who had lost their way, something that happened to me one summer's day a couple of years ago.
I had taken a shortcut--always a bad idea for a geographically challenged person like myself with a severely limited sense of direction--and found myself lost. Even worse, it was lunchtime. It was hot. The back roads into which I'd strayed were deserted. The signposts bore unfamiliar names. I was irritated with myself for not staying in Aix for lunch.
Fate intervened. I had stopped at a fork in the road. Chance made me turn right instead of left, and two minutes later I arrived in the miniature village of Saint Martin de la Brasque. It was a sight to restore one's faith in shortcuts. There was a tiny square; the houses on it had their windows shuttered against the heat. Tables and chairs were set out in the shade cast by a line of plane trees, and lunch was being served. The air was so still I could hear the splash of the village fountain, one of the best of all summer sounds. I was delighted that I hadn't stayed in Aix.
I don't remember exactly what I ate that first time under the trees at the Restaurant de la Fontaine, but I do remember thinking that the food was like the most satisfying kind of home cooking: simple, generous, and tasty. I was given a table next to the fountain, an arm's length from the wine keeping cool in the water. Madame Girand, the young proprietor, told me that her husband was the chef, and that the restaurant stayed open throughout the year.
Since then, I've been back many times. The food has always been good and the restaurant has nearly always been well attended, even in winter. Word has spread. People come from as far away as Aix, or from the other side of the Luberon, an hour or more by car. Ça vaut le voyage.
If Madame Girand and her husband have the stamina to keep at it for the next thirty or forty years, La Fontaine might join those other restaurants, large and small, that have become institutions. You find them all over France, places like Chez l'Ami Louis in Paris or the Auberge in La Mole. They are not always the most fashionable of restaurants, nor are they the most eulogized by the guidebooks. But they have something about them that I--not to mention a few hundred thousand French customers--find irresistible. A very distinct character, the comforting feeling that you and your appetite couldn't possibly be in better hands.