06 September 2008

A country-style lunch, part one

If you search this blog for occurrences of Gisèle (or Gisele without the accent — I think that works fine) you'll find several stories I've told about her. Those include a big party she had with a spit-roasted lamb a few summers ago, a Thanksgiving dinner she and we were involved in, and the story about the lambs she had had slaughtered and butchered and that she shared with us. Here are links to "The Mutton Caper, part 1 and part 2, including this picture of Gisèle herself.

And then there was the Brush with Death story, and that was Gisèle too. She's 79 years old now.

The Touraine vineyards, under rainy September skies

A lot of people reading this may never have had a chance to experience the full French meal with a group of French people, and especially a group of people in their 70s who are locals and have never lived, or even really traveled, anywhere else. Their customs are pretty traditional, I believe, and they enjoy getting together and making good food.

These particular people also don't go overboard with either the food or the drink nowadays. I don't know if they ever did go overboard in their younger years, but I know they often had big parties with groups of friends and neighbors back in the 1970s and 1980s — I've seen the pictures. Men in drag. Women in their best finery, or in next to nothing. Dancing. Singing. PUtting on their own shows on a stage with makeup and lights and musical instruments. Much singing. Those must have been great days.

Everything is much more sedate now. On Thursday, Gisèle greeted us at about 12:15. We were the first to arrive. She was proud of herself because she was decked out in a long dress with a shawl. She looked great. She has come through a two- or three-year period during which both physical and emotional difficulties had really slowed her down.

It's nice to have a lively group, good food, and a colorful
and warm décor
when the weather outside is like this.

We took a tour of Gisèle's garden, which is always full of flowers. Walt asked to see the vegetable garden, and it was obviously well maintained. Some of the plantings were in the ripening and harvesting stages, but others had just been put in — spinach for the fall, and mâche (lamb's lettuce), for example.

A few minutes later, just after we had gone into the house, Monsieur and Madame M. arrived. They are our neighbors, the ones who still were having big parties 3, 4, and 5 years ago, but who have slowed down now. He also is 79; she is 5 or 6 years younger. Mme M. brought a gift, which was two table runners — those long strips of cloth you put across your table when there's no tablecloth on it. Gisèle had set a nice, colorful table for our lunch.

We sat in the sitting area of the room, which is not very large and doesn't have a high ceiling. What it does have is a large fireplace, which at this season Gisèle had filled with flowers from her garden and yard. The house, a low stone farm cottage, fairly small, belonged to Gisèle's grandparents, she has told me.

In front of the fireplace we were seated around a coffee table where Gisèle had put a bottle of scotch (Johnny Walker Red), a bottle of Pastis (or was it Pernod?), and a bottle of port. Those were our pre-lunch drinks.

Gisèle had bought the scotch because she knows Mme. M. likes a glass of whiskey before a meal, and the Pastis because Mr. M. likes that. Walt had port, and I had scotch with a little Perrier water in it. There were bowls of different kinds of chips on the table. Then Gisèle brought out a tray of warm galettes de pommes de terre that she gets at the little grocery store/butcher shop down in the village.

The potato galettes are not even what I would normally call galettes, which are usually pancakes or cookies. They are puff-pastry dough cooked with mashed potato mixed into it and baked in the oven, not pan-fried. Everybody here really enjoys them, especially the ones from our village. They are buttery and tasty. I can't find a recipe on the web. All the shops here sell them.

Late-summer sedum

After that, Mme. C. arrived, fashionably late. She said she was busy with one of her daughters, and then she got lost on the little country lanes trying to find Gisèle's house again. She must be about 70 years old, and she is very active in local politics. Or at least she says she is, and that's all she talks about. Mme. M. has been active in local politics too, in Saint-Aignan a little but mostly in Blois. Both women are staunch members of the UMP, which grew out of Gaullism and is the party of former president Jacques Chirac and current president Nicolas Sarkozy. They have little positive to say about the opposition Socialists, and nothing nice to say about the Communists.

Mme. C. drinks only red wine — no port, scotch, or Pastis for her. Before dinner, she drinks her glass of red with a shot of liqueur de cassis in it. That's the liqueur most people put in white wine to make a kir, or sparkling white to make a kir royal, two pre-dinner drinks that are served throughout France. Mme. C. makes hers with red wine. I've seen that before, but not often. One web site says it's called a kir cardinal in some regions. For lunch, I had brought a bottle of what I hoped would be a nice Bordeaux.

Then Gisèle brought out a platter of sliced saucisson. Saucisson is the French word for what we call salami, using the Italian word. It's a big, fat dried pork sausage, sliced thin. You almost always see it on the table at people's houses around here when the apéritif is being served. You eat it with your fingers.

Some people peel the casing, or skin, off the saucisson before they slice and serve it; others, including Gisèle, don't bother. When it's not peeled, you have to decide whether you just want to eat the slices skin and all, or whether you want to peel each individual slice as you eat it. It's kind of messy if you do. A lot of people do. It's nice because doing that messy work makes the occasion seem less formal.

It feels like fall for sure.

The talk was, as I said, all about local events and politics. That makes it hard to follow when you don't know the names of the players. A lot of the talk is about the personal foibles of so-and-so who is a big force in getting things done in the département — things the talkers think are positive changes and others they disapprove of. It's very parochial. This département, the Loir-et-Cher, is the center of the world for these people, of course, as is the place we live in for just about all of us.

Blois, by the way, has a new Socialist mayor this year. And Saint-Aignan voted out a Socialist mayor and replaced him with a candidate supported by a rightist, pro-business coalition.

As I said, these people have always lived here and haven't traveled much at all. Gisèle went to New York City once, many moons ago, but she says the man she was traveling with didn't want to do anything but stay in the hotel room and wouldn't let her go out on the streets by herself. He told her it was too dangerous. Gisèle also spent some weeks or months in Paris at one stage of her life. Mr. and Mme. M. know Paris a little, but they have never flown on an airplane.

We each had a drink or two and then Gisèle started trying to get us to move to the dinner table. That took a few minutes. Then she directed us to our places — man, woman, man, woman, man, woman around the round table. I ended up between Mme. C. and Mme. M., the two biggest talkers in the group. On the table was a large platter of shrimp and smoked salmon, studded with black olives. There was a basket of bread — not what we call French bread, the baguette, but a sliced boule made with, I think, whole wheat flour. It was heavy bread. There was also a big chunk of softened butter. Shrimp and smoked salmon are usually eaten with buttered bread...

To be continued.


  1. Hey! My French family introduced me to the kir cardinal, and it's one of the few things I like to drink :)) The red they liked was St. Emilion, as I recall.


  2. I am loving the details of the lunch and the guests, thank you!


  3. I didn't know the good "chanoine" had been promoted to cardinal!

  4. Ken, j'ai l'impression de lire Balzac. La scène est animée de détails fascinants qui nous conduisent au coeur même des activités. Les personnages deviennent attachants.

    I wish you would tell me where I can find the Thanksgiving Dinner and the Roasted Lamb sharing. The posts you sent us to (Mutton Caper and Brush with Death) are riveting. It's wonderful to see Gisèle so well after what happened. You're a good friend to have.

    In his books, Balzac could be cruel when depicting human nature. But your voice always remains gentle. You see the best in everyone and everything. That's why I love your writing. Thank you!

  5. Ken,
    Thanks for the wonderful description of the lunch and guests. Did they ever determine what caused Gisele's problem? I was wondering if she'd had an adverse reaction to a medication.

  6. Emm, they never did determine what happened. She recently had another battery of tests, including another MRI brain scan, and they found nothing out of the ordinary. I personally think her "attack" was emotional more than anything. But that's just my opinion, and I don't say it to criticize G. or make light of it.

  7. What a delightful afternoon. I don't know if you remember, but you took me to Gisele's house for pre-lunch drinks one day. I could follow perhaps 10% of the conversation (okay, 5% if I'm being generous), until Gisele's daughter took great pains to explain how to make the same sour cream and onion soup dip my mom made all through the 50s and 60s. It was the latest thing, according to Gisele's daughter. Of all the foods to make a successful Atlantic transit, onion soup dip wouldn't have been my first guess. Glad to read that Gisele is doing so much better.

  8. Hi Susan, I had forgotten about the onion-soup dip. It's funny how these things cross the oceans at unexpected times. Guacamole is all the rage here too. Not to mention tuna salad, called rillettes de thon. Most of these American specialties were unknown 20 years ago.


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