From Here, You Can't See Paris: Seasons of a French Village and Its Restaurant

From Here, You Can't See Paris: Seasons of a French Village and Its Restaurant

by Michael S. Sanders

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From Here,You Can't See Paris is a sweet, leisurely exploration of the life of Les Arques (population 159), a hilltop village in a remote corner of France untouched by the modern era. It is a story of a dying village's struggle to survive, of a dead artist whose legacy began its rebirth, and of chef Jacques Ratier and his wife, Noëlle, whose bustling


From Here,You Can't See Paris is a sweet, leisurely exploration of the life of Les Arques (population 159), a hilltop village in a remote corner of France untouched by the modern era. It is a story of a dying village's struggle to survive, of a dead artist whose legacy began its rebirth, and of chef Jacques Ratier and his wife, Noëlle, whose bustling restaurant — the village's sole business — has helped ensure Les Arques's future.

Sanders set out to explore the inner workings of a French restaurant kitchen but ended up stumbling into a much richer world. Through the eyes of the Sanders family, one discovers the vibrant traditions of food, cooking, and rural living, and comes to know the village's history. Whether uncovering the darker secrets of making foie gras, hearing a chef confess his doubts about the Michelin star system, or absorbing the lore of the land around a farmhouse kitchen table after a boar hunt, life in Les Arques turns out to be anything but sleepy.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
With his wife and young daughter, Sanders spent a year in southwestern France, in the village of Les Arques, tracing the rhythm of rural life and the restaurant at the town's heart. As in his first book, The Yard: Building a Destroyer at the Bath Iron Works (which followed the construction of the USS Donald Cook at a shipyard struggling against modernization), Sanders explores a threatened way of life: before 1988 (the year citizens founded the Zadkine Museum), Les Arques struggled to barely survive. Inspired by Ossip Zadkine, the Russian sculptor who summered in the town until his death in 1967, the museum attracts resident students and tourists year-round. Now, the local restaurant, La R cr ation, not only feeds the locals, it draws an international clientele. Chef Jacques Ratier and his wife, Noelle, established what is locally called La R cr (French for "recess") in the town's abandoned schoolhouse in 1993 and this is Les Arques' sole business. Sanders affectionately observes the restaurant in action, from morning prep to full swing service. As he contemplates a bid for star status in the Michelin guide, Mr. Ratier personifies Les Arques' struggle to stay in the game. Sanders also investigates French country ways, devoting entire chapters to foie gras and truffles and explaining the history of a region where every house has a name and children grow up on four-course school lunches. He unveils a culture wholly at odds with fast-food America. The book's back matter offers advice for travelers, but Sanders's account is so lovely, and Les Arques so sensuous and ripe with magic, to visit seems vaguely sacrilegious. (Nov.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A French village, a good restaurant, and a year’s worth of time to spend in both add stock to the lives of Sanders and his family. You’ll find Les Arques on Michelin map #79, tucked away in the chaotic limestone landscape of southwest France, where one-lane roads, crumbling hilltop towns, and 12th-century Romanesque churches give medieval rhythms to the days. Les Arques, where Sanders (The Yard, 1999) spent his year, has 50 houses, 169 people (including those in the village and its surrounding lands), and one business. As agriculture becomes more tenuous economically and the population drops, Les Arques survives, Sanders figures, thanks to the French love of cultural heritage, first, and of good eating, second. As for heritage, not only are there Lascaux and a picaresque history, but also a museum and attendant art community honoring a celebrated local, Ossip Zadkine, France’s most famous sculptor in the years after WWII (though "I certainly had no idea who he was when I arrived," admits Sanders, adding that he finds Zadkine’s work "bad Picasso"). As for food, though the area may be poor, its graces include foie gras, lamb, saffron, truffles, and the vin de Cahors, and it’s a test to find a bad restaurant. Sanders has no wish to make the village sound precious: the apocalyptic stink of duck poop, the politics of foie gras, and the stony exterior of the local population (Sanders finds his six-year-old daughter and the friendly family dog to be good ice-breakers) overcome any suggestion of quaint, selective neglect. The author renders the restaurant’s workday as cannily as he does the village’s moments of abrupt dislocation from the present, when the air suddenly seems to hold a thousandyears of history in it. A good and leathery year abroad, an honest and deeply enjoyed experience that avoids skimming off only the fruity bonbons while neglecting the ruck of daily life. Author tour

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Read an Excerpt

From Here, You Can't See Paris
Seasons of a French Village and Its Restaurant

Chapter One

One Morning in August

By eight o'clock on a late summer day what passes for the morning bustle in Les Arques is well under way. Elise Ségol, the widow who owns the little house across the street from the restaurant, has thrown open her windows and doors for the fresh air. Wearing a voluminous flowered apron over her dress, she leans on her broom, chatting with Max, the gruff village gardener and jack-of-all-trades, who is watering the flower beds around the statue of the Virgin and the war memorial that mark the entrance to the village.

The door of the restaurant opens, and Nougat, Jacques and Noëlle Ratier's rather dim yellow Lab, bounds out and through the gate for his morning rounds. A moment later, an upstairs window opens and Noëlle drapes a quilt over the sill for airing. Inside, the espresso machine whirs and wheezes, and Jacques appears in the doorway, still clad in a tattered blue bathrobe and with plaid slippers on his feet. He has a cup of espresso in one hand, and the first cigarette of the day in the other. He strolls out into the walled courtyard and looks at the clear blue sky, at the white plastic tables on the gravel, then into the restaurant kitchen through the tall windows. His face is contemplative, as if he's measuring the contents of the restaurant's walk-in refrigerator against the hungry crowds who will soon descend for lunch and again at dinner in such lovely weather.

Next door, Bernard Bousquet and his wife, Jeannine, have been up for hours. Their day started at six, when they went down to the farmstead, La Brugue, to feed and water the ducks and pigs and their daughter's horses. The ducks are not a hobby: there are a thousand of them, delivered young to his farm three times a year for fattening before they go to a gaveur for force-feeding on their way to becoming foie gras. An hour later, he was home again, out in the back garden. As he does every morning from June through October, he was cutting the brilliant orange squash blossoms that appear, stuffed with scallop or chanterelle mousse and then steamed, as a side dish accompanying every main course at Jacques' restaurant.

Bernard and his wife are sitting around the kitchen table, having a casse-croûte, a crust of bread and cheese and dry sausage washed down with a glass of red wine out of a barrel in his cellar. Soon he'll be off on his tractor, back to the fields. At this time of year he has a fortnight's lull; the hay he cut and rolled in July, and the barley and wheat ripen in September. Today he's off to cut the cordwood, mostly scrub oak and second-growth chestnut, which he sells to his neighbors, many of whose houses are still heated by stoves or fireplaces.

Climbing the main street toward the church there are a few signs of life, a cat sunning itself on a balcony, the smell of someone's lunchtime soup simmering on the back of the stove, curtains fluttering at an open window. Many of these houses are unoccupied, or occupied only sporadically by renters or grown sons and daughters spread far and wide who return to the homestead for a few weeks in the summer. Monsieur Mesmains, a railroad worker who retired to Les Arques a few years ago, is hard at work doing up yet another corner of his yard for a flower bed. He has taken to creating elaborate floral displays, like the huge overturned kettle in one corner (probably once the bottom half of an alembic still used to brew plum eau-de-vie) from whose mouth spills out a wave of bright impatiens across the green of the lawn.

A hundred yards farther along, the narrow main street opens up into a square, the town hall on the left, the twelfth-century Église St. Laurent on the far side, and the Zadkine Museum on the right. The town hall, a modest, one-story, rectangular stone building, is closed, its shutters pulled tight, the single bit of color a white sign transected by the bold splashes of red and blue of the French national flag. "Honor to our elected officials!" it reads in bold black type, listing underneath the names of the mayor and his ten municipal councilors.

As if mocking the presence of the state, the church rises spectacularly across the square, its belltower soaring above the roofs of the town and its thick walls of dressed stone dwarfing in their massive solidity the more modest houses around it. Its form is unusually coarse even for a Romanesque church (it was begun at the end of the eleventh century), roughly square with twenty-foot-tall carved wooden doors giving on to the nave at one end and the three semicircular protuberances of the chevet at the other.

In four hours, Madame Jeannine Pierasco will take a five-minute break from her job as a docent at the museum, cross the gravel court to slip inside the church, and prepare to take up her ancestral duty. Like her father and mother before her, she is the unofficial bellringer, using every pound of her frame, hauling down on the rope and then releasing it, to set the bell to rocking and, finally, to ringing out the noon hour. It is a comforting, if somewhat forlorn reminder of a time just a generation or two ago, when village churches like this one had an important place in the daily lives of the inhabitants, when the bells rang out morning, noon, and night to send the men off into the fields, signal their supper, and then ring them home at the end of the day. One perhaps apocryphal bit of folklore has it that villages close to one another would stagger their ringing so as not to confuse the schedules of the locals.

From Here, You Can't See Paris
Seasons of a French Village and Its Restaurant
. Copyright © by Michael Sanders. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Michael S. Sanders, a former book editor and author of The Yard, lives in midcoast Maine with his wife and daughter.

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