Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Hospitality Borgogne Style

28/06/11 There's been a lot said about French indifference or even rudeness to tourists in the past, but personally we've found that this is rare these days, and probably no more than in any other country.  Certainly in rural France we've been impressed by the kindness, courtesy and helpfulness of locals wherever we've stayed.  We did suspect that basing ourselves in one place would be a different experience than, as we've done in the past, staying for a week then moving on, and this is proving to be the case. We're at the end of our third week here now, and greetings from the locals are really warm instead of merely polite, Madame at the boulangerie cheerfully anticipates what we want, and was delighted when I extravagantly - and genuinely- praised her cakes and pastries.

One highlight has been an invitation from our landlords to a shared village meal at the park. This happens once a year, and originally was a celebration of survival and salute to solidarity after a devastating flood some years ago. It's a tradition that's remained - everyone is invited and brings something to eat and drink, tables and chairs are set out, and lights are strung up. It's still daylight  until 11 pm here at the moment, but this particular night has the reputation of carrying on til the wee small hours.

We had a great night; all the locals made a point of introducing themselves and made sure we didn't feel left out. Those who had learnt some English at school struggled valiantly to make conversation and we struggled valiantly back, with our very terrible French pronunciation. But over the course of the evening, communication became easier, we started to 'hear' the words and are sure that as the evening progressed, our new friends were understanding us a lot better - even English words, as long as we pronounced them with a French accent! I do hope that wasn't just imagination and the wine(?) Actually there's probably some truth in it, as there are so many common root words in the two languages, but pronunciation is vital. I don't know how many times I've known the right word, but it's getting those rrr's up from the back of the throat that really counts - then the puzzled looks disappear.

A little shy to start with , but the end of the evening was much more jovial
We left at midnight after a wonderful night and much talk and laughter, shortly after some fabulous home made raspberry liqueur appeared. Feeling a little seedy the next morning was a small price to pay. 
Most French women seem to be good cooks, and proud of it. There was a lot of interest in my being a food writer, and several women insisted I try their dishes during the course of the evening - more walking required!  One of them, Francoise, is acknowledged as one of the best cooks in the area, and has offered to show me how to make a traditional Burgundian specialty, gougere - despite not speaking any English. She brought them along as a delicious contribution to the starters, and at the end of the evening, she also produced the best tiramisu I've ever tasted. I'm so looking forward to her cooking lesson, and Claire has offered to come along and translate.

On top of all this, we met a local man on our early morning walk who spoke virtually no English, but was really keen to 'talk', and before long insisted we come for an aperitif at his house a couple of days later. Claudine, his wife, speaks a little English from learning at school. Louis served up a local specialty, cassis (blackcurrant liqueur) with Aligote, a locally produced white wine, and we managed to learn quite a lot about each other despite the language difficulty.  Over the course of the conversation the subject of food came up of course, and they were delighted when I assured them I enjoyed French food very much. By the time we said 'au voir',  we'd been invited back the following night when their daughters would be at home, and Claudine said she would cook traditional Burgundian food for us. Louis gave us a big, proud grin.

Between that aperitif and the dinner, we'd biked the ten minutes  to Escolives, a neighbouring village, where a very good cremant (a champagne style white wine) is produced.

Entrance to the cave (cellar) at Escolives
Almost every village has a cave, and this one is part of a collective that supplies a larger local one at Bailly, which is very interesting. It's huge, cut into the limestone cliffs above the village, and was used to hide planes during the war. Originally, limestone blocks from it were used to help build Paris.

I can't help myself, I've got to explain about this meal. . .

Louis had said not to bring anything to the dinner, but we thought a bottle of good cremant would be appreciated, and we started with that and Claudine's gougeres. Their delightful daughters, Celine and Marie, are both students in Paris and speak English quite confidently.

Claudine with daughter Marie
We weren't quite sure, however, if we'd misunderstood; possibly we'd been invited to a drink and something to eat pre- dinner, not dinner, as there was a large plateful of gougere (choux pastry balls with cheese) and of course we had several each. But, we were then each presented with a plate of young leeks which included the green leaves, chopped, sauteed and served at room temperature; the two halves of a hard boiled egg sat on top of the leeks, accompanied by a  lovely herbed vinaigrette, and a long slim slice of meat completed the visual balance of the plate. This turned out to be slow cooked tongue, I think casseroled, and slices of bread were passed around (as always). Ah, we thought, this is the main course - light but delicious, and quite adequate after the gougere. All the vegetables came from their home garden, we were told proudly, and Claudine strongly believes in eating organic produce as much as possible. Like most of the villagers, they grow most of what they eat.

Well, we were wrong about the leeks being the main course - that turned out to be the most deliciously tender slices of meat, covered and roasted at a low temperature for four - five hours with a little white wine and subtley flavoured with herbs. Now you know I prefer not to eat meat, but in this situation I try, and I have to say this was beautifully cooked and delicious - goat, they told us, a bit worried that we would be disturbed by this, served with a light gravy and whole small potatoes, peeled and boiled.

By this time we wishing we hadn't had so many gougere. . .

Suddenly, Louis jumped up, announcing it was time to milk the goat, Dali (after Salvatore I presume), a very pretty girl who provides the family with at least a litre of milk at each milking, all they need to drink as well as make cheeses and desserts.

Louis milking Dali


Milking Dali in the middle of the meal was not only an interesting surprise, but very timely, as it gave a little time for some of the food to settle!

When we sat down again, voila! Three cheeses to choose from, two of them home made goat's cheese and a superb Normandy camembert, with organic bread  - all great, but we're struggling now, big time. Did I say that each course was served with either chardonnay or pinot noir from the vineyards of either Louis's brother or nephew?

Celine and Marie then tell us that Claudine has made not one, non, but two! desserts, and we must try a slice of each.Ohhhh. . . .

They were both superb

Creme caramel

Creme caramel, made with goat's milk (which, by the way, when fresh is not strongly flavoured at all), flavoured with vanilla and

Custard tart, with cream and raspberries from the garden
We had no room for coffee or tea at this point and were thinking about staggering home across the bridge to our gite when Louis, bless him, brought out his home-made brandied cherries!  I had to try them - I just had to - but Russ decided that any more food or drink would be a danger to his health.

We had been hoping to find a good ferme auberge (a farm restaurant that has a set menu and you have to book), as we had in Provence last time we were in France; but there doesn't seem to be any around here. We've stopped looking, though, as the meal with Louis and Claudine would make any meal from a ferme auberge or most restaurants, for that matter, seem a poor second.

Oh my goodness, we've invited them to us for dinner - what am I going to give them????

Most of all, we're overwhelmed by their generosity and hospitality -a chance meeting that turned out to be one of those experiences you never forget.

Claudine, chef cuisiniere, and co-host Louis

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