A Caper on the Road in the Dordogne

I didn’t know exactly where I was, somewhere between Agen and Perigueux  and I was enjoying not knowing. I was meandering the little roads back and forth between Dordogne and Cahors, avoiding the “N” roads staying on “D” roads, passing fields of sunflowers bending in union away from the hot sun as if in prayer.

Sunflowers

I had begun in March to plan this trip to Southwest France and Corsica and in my fantasy planning I would go into the Aquitaine, Dorgogne, to Garonne and Gascony, and just drive, knowing where I would end each day but not knowing how I would get there.

Following my plan, I was hungry; it was 1:30 pm.

I passed a handwritten sign: “Dejuner, 30E. 100 mètres à la droite.” I faintly saw it, drove on, and then I said to myself, “What am I doing? That’s just what I want to do.”

And so I turned around and drove off onto a dirt road and after a hundred yards I arrived at a dirt parking lot with deep ruts. Just up a hill I saw an unprepossessing building and an improbable number of occupied plastic tables and chairs.

I was greeted warmly (in the French way) and led to a table. The menu of the day was appealing enough but I saw a display of fois gras around the counter in the rear and that’s what I wanted.

Pretty soon I was served a salad that reminded me of every good salad I have ever eaten in France.

L1000237

Just good greens, three wedges of ripe tomato, sweet onions, red pepper, olives, herbs of Provence, cubes of feta, and capers all very lightly dressed.   It was perfect.

The feta cubes were small and uniform.   The red pepper nicely roasted and onions carefully minced. And the capers were fat, begging to be noticed.

My little carafe of rosé arrived.

I looked at it and the farmland below, the scenery and the others on the terrace. I was on vacation.

People who spend most of their waking moments thinking about food ought to savor it, not snort it. I eat too quickly. I am an oxymoron, a food lover who eats far too fast, and most people in the food business eat too fast. I don’t admire them for that; I don’t admire myself for it.

I go to dinner frequently with my friends David, Michael, and Saied. We find cheap restaurants, usually in the suburbs, the kind much valued by some food critics who far more frequently than I find food virtues in the suburbs of Washington.

A few months ago, we went to dinner at the Panda Gourmet, a truly seedy restaurant, not suburban, at the seedy intersection of New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road. (It could have been suburban.)

pandagourmet_550

As usual, we ordered a large number of dishes so that we could try a lot; and in spite of our entreats to the contrary, all the dishes were brought to us at the same time – six or seven different foods – soup, noodles, vegetables, pork, this and that.

In the large and frenetic dining room we ploughed through the dinner like horses and the dinner was so unrewarding that in the parking lot I told my friends that I wouldn’t do that again.

I was reminded of that evening as I started to eat my little salad, one caper at a time, with bread from the green plastic basket with a paper napkin liner.

There I was with no appointments, nowhere to go surrounded by people who had no appointments, nowhere to go.

I felt on vacation and I fletcherized every little bite of the salad before moving on to the foie gras and eating that very slowly too. I put the fork on the plate after taking each bite. I sliced the foie gras into ever smaller cubes. I kept thinking: Why can’t I slow down at home too?

A few tables away from me were two women who were already seated there when I arrived.   A waitress put in front of them a dessert, a slice of cake I think, covered with cotton candy, a child’s dessert, a plate both modern and old-fashioned.

Both women squealed softly.

I decided to practice being on vacation. The experience was great and I decided I would do it again the next day. I spent that night in Toulouse in an old and beautifully modernized hotel just off the Place du Capitole.

Again driving aimlessly the following day, again hungry at 1:30 I found myself near Renneville in the Midi-Pyrénées on my route to Carcassonne, the medieval fortified city.

I saw a lunch sign on the road again:  “Cassoulet.”

Cassoulet! I was just outside Toulouse. Could I pass up that opportunity even in the summer heat? When will I ever again be able to eat cassoulet in Toulouse?

Cassoulet restaurant

Again a little salad, this time with a few slices of preserved duck. And then cassoulet.

Cassoulet

And so I practiced eating slowly – “mindful eating” as people like to call it – giving up my self-imposed and irrational deadline to arrive at Carcassonne. And I stayed with my cassoulet until the dining room had nearly emptied – before driving to join the 60,000 or so others who also decided to go to Carcassonne late in that hot summer afternoon.

 

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13 thoughts on “A Caper on the Road in the Dordogne

  1. both times now, that picture of that cassoulet has made laugh out loud.  First, as the closing shot in the blog about eating & art, then second at the end of this blog about eating in the Dordogne.  Merveilleux.

  2. I wanted to hear much more about your trip to France. It is the way I traveled with my late husband- what wonderful scenery, food, people, history. Maybe you will get back to it. The date of this trip. BTW- I have lived in France- a foodie- and a cook.

  3. Lovely, Mark. On ‘vacation,’ Ellen Goodman has written that she knows she’s on vacation when she wakes in the morning and begins thinking about what she’ll have for dinner. Michael

  4. mark, relieved to see that you corrected all those hick misspellings by using the words again within the essay. a man of your caliber… — dejuner? fois? Province? you are such a crabpot to tell your (doubtless) sweet friends that you weren’t going to take chances on serendipity anymore just because, well, just because you’re such a cranky old geezer. i mean, sheesh. you are so predictable. by the way, you should cast a gimlet eye at all those fields of sunflowers rather than kvell at the bucolicity of them. those GMO freaks have shouldered out and run off yields of real artichokes and various other real farm gardener vegetables in favor of profit. those idiot sunflowers are bought by the most venal of food producers, even non-food manufacture. french sunflowers are a testament to futurism, to the ever-fading notion of la belle france. nonetheless, you have toured, in my mind, paradise. the great chevres and fromages de chevre of le perigord vert, the gorgeous oaks and the walnut trees of le perigord noir from which i import both AOC walnuts and walnut oil, and of course the cheeses. and gascony/aquitaine. ah, such a land this and dordogne (perigord) i cannot compare to any other, the food scholars’ most hallowed source for all that gives flush to the cheek of the gourmand. i wish you had made me be your co-pilot and navigator, having so many times visited these areas myself, alone, as were you, the difference being every 100 kliks i would smoke a pre-rolled joint having painstakingly rolled a half-dozen fatsos in my tacky-wonderful boonies hotel room the night before, in the wee hours, as i quaffed bas-armagnac from a bottle i bought at a gas station earlier on, whilst poring over yellow (finely detailed) michelin road maps, charting directions for the imminent morn. paradise comes with a fly rod and a yearning for new cheeses.

    >

  5. How I wish I had more time to reply to your msg Mark! You discovered that memorable out-of-the-way meal in my paternal ancestral home area in SW France – Gascogne! – roughly midway between Bordeaux and Toulouse, in the village of Verdun-sue-Garonne from whence my first New France ancestor, Antoine Terroux, a soldier, 18, arrived in Quebec in 1675. I’ve visited there, and marveled not only at the superb “plain” local cooking, but also at the French regulations that protect those beautiful, unspoiled SW France agricultural areas against the kind of “development” that have allowed farm areas of my home Loudoun County VA to be “Fairfaxed.” Thanks so much for your report! Gene Theroux

    Sent from my iPhone

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