Food, not language, is eater's mode of knowing French

HAPPY EATER

August 22, 1993|By ROB KASPER

SOUTH OF FRANCE — South of France--The first food I ate on my first visit to France was a loaf of bread, a bottle of wine and a hunk of cheese.

The bread was a long, thin sourdough baguette with a crust that wouldn't quit. The wine was a simple $5 Beaujolais primeur, bottled by the man who grew the grapes, Maurice Protheau. The cheese was Camembert, made from unpasteurized milk, a style of cheesemaking common in France but rare in the United States.

The bread was yeasty ecstasy. The wine was delightfully quenching. The cheese, with its distinctive aroma and full flavor, seemed very French.

It was a good start on an eating journey that I have schemed and dreamed about since I started writing about food some 13 years ago. Muslims want to go to Mecca. Christians and Jews travel to the Holy Land. Eaters want to go to France.

Even in the bleary-eyed first hours of arrival in this country, when contrasts to America seemed sharp, and simple acts like finding the correct coins to buy a loaf of bread were daunting, I felt a sense of kinship with the French. They don't just eat food. They savor it.

Take, for example, the French cheese shop. Like a schoolteacher watching over young pupils, the proprietor of the French cheese shop ages the young cheeses, releasing them only when the proprietor feels confident that the cheeses are mature enough to face the outside world. And the baker sells only what he has baked that day, when the bread is at its best.

When you combine years of the French cooking tradition with the food makers' fierce sense of pride in their work, you often end up with outstanding eats.

Getting the good stuff, however, was not always easy for me. This was my first visit to France. Moreover, my command of the language was far from impressive.

So when I ventured out to buy bread, wine and cheese, I had to put the French language on the rack and squeeze out a few phrases. These phrases, accompanied by some vivid gestures, eventually persuaded the shopkeepers to give me what I wanted.

Armed with an address of a nearby bakery, I set out from my hotel in Cannes to find fresh bread. I had been told if I showed up at La Paline bakery at about 4 in the afternoon, I would find a large loaf of bread there, coming out of the wood-fired oven. The bread was sold by the slice.

I got to the bakery a little late, because I got a little lost. I learned that the streets in the old sections of French cities are narrow but not straight. They snake around, changing names at the drop of an intersection.

Coming from Baltimore, where one street is called Maryland, then Cathedral, then Liberty, I thought I wouldn't have any trouble breaking the "rue" riddle of French streets. I was wrong. Eventually, I found the bakery, but it took a while.

During my long walk to the bakery, I had practiced saying the French words for "slice." But when I arrived at the bakery and said "la tranche," the woman behind the counter looked puzzled. So I gestured, doing my best imitation of a slicing motion. This prompted the clerk to grab a large knife. Quickly I remembered one of the bits of French history I know. Namely, during the French Revolution, Frenchmen used to slice off the heads of troublemakers. But instead of going for my neck, the knife-wielding bakery clerk attacked a loaf of bread. She cut off a slice. It turned out to be a sweet dessert bread. I ate it after %% finishing off the baguette, which I also purchased by pointing.

A few doors up the street, at the cheese shop, I bought the Camembert and the Beaujolais. Again I was flustered, this time by beauty. The young woman who waited on me in the cheese shop was gorgeous. Dark hair, almond skin, liquid black eyes. When she asked me what I wanted, I was momentarily struck dumb. I just looked at her, eventually blurting out the name of the cheese. She handed it to me, and I stumbled out to the street. I had forgotten to buy the wine, which the cheese store sold.

I returned for the wine, but when I got back to my hotel room, I realized I did not have "le tire-bouchon," a corkscrew. I chased down a bellman in the hotel hallway, showed him my corked bottle, and he rescued me.

When he uncorked the wine, he also pulled out his knife and cut the cheese for me. What a country!

My plans are to spend a few days eating in the South of France, then mosey up to Paris and "manger." I am told I must try the "pigeon a la polente." So I have been practicing my French, trying to say "Pass the pigeon, please."

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