Thursday, November 24, 2011

Lessons for Dining in France.

Lesson 1.  Too much of a good thing.
We arrived at the Auberge de Noves in Avignon after a long, tiring drive.  Bob’s hit list includes “must see sights as well as must eats meals, and he does not want to miss one of them.  This makes for exacting navigation along tiny “D” roads, and some that are mere thin black lines on our IGN Green maps. 
Truth told, I prefer driving to navigating.  Less pressure to just do as told, rather than figuring out which tiny road to take.  The music helps the long drives:  Bach, Bird, Beethoven keep our spirits up.  In the days before digital music, we travelled with a suitcase full of cassettes, Walkman, small battery operated speakers and about five pounds of AA batteries.  Music was a constant soundtrack to our driving through rural France, and in our hotel rooms morning and night.
The stone wall carried a small brass sign with the name of the Auberge, and offered a narrow gateway into the courtyard.  A beautiful dining terrace was in front of us, offering promise for a pleasant dinner.

As we pulled in, Bob told us that this one star place had been a three star eatery and was on its way back.  He also informed us that soufflé for dessert was one of the mandatory dishes.
The owner, Msr. Lanneman, came out to greet us by name, and called an impossibly small old woman over to unload our bags and carry them up the stairs to our rooms.  She managed to take all of them in one go.
 “You will be dining with is this evening?” he asked.  “Yes, we will,” came the answer.
“We reserved for four.”  “We are serving in the garden this evening.” We were told.
Then, “if you would like soufflé with your meal, I must tell the kitchen now.”  “Oui, soufflé certainment,” I replied in the few words of the language I knew.  “Bonne.”
And up we went to our lovely, antique-filled rooms in the old inn.  We were taken with the charm of the early 20th century furnishings, old porcelain and brass fixtures, and quaint WC with its overhead tank and long pull chain.  A quick wash up and down we went to sit in the garden with a coup de Champagne (another lesson learned in leisure time activity).

Dinner in the gas lit garden was pleasant.  Ample pate and amuse-bouche preceded ecrevisses a la nage, pintadeau, blood-red magret de canard, salad with foie gras, fragrant bread and sweet rich Normandy butter, cheese and two bottles of wine.
Loosening our belts, we sat back in anticipation of the soufflés, only to be puzzled when the waiter came to our table with a huge trolley of desserts.  “Non,” we waved him off. “Nous commander les soufflés,” we told him.
He looked stricken and went quickly back to the kitchen.  The owner emerged and came to our table looking abject.  “I am so sorry,” he said, “but I have forgot to tell the kitchen to make your soufflés.  I was distracted this afternoon, and made a mistake.  Jai desolé.”
Disappointed, there was nothing for it but to order dessert from the trolly, drink the sauterne we had saved and finish with a coffee.  Oh well, not a tragedy.  The meal was very good, and the place was so charming.  We made our way slowly up the stairs, bid each other “bonne nuit,” and collapsed on the fluffy feather bed in sated exhaustion.
My reverie was disturbed by a soft knock at the door.  “I guess Bob wants to tell us something,” I thought as a stood up and said “Yes.”  A muffled voice on the other side said something in French I could not quite make out.  I moved closed and said “Comment?”  Then I heard the voice clearly saying “Ici la soufflé.” 
La souffle? My god, they made the soufflés.
I opened the door to see our waiter, standing there with a large tray, containing four soufflés.  He handed me two of them, turned and went down the hall to repeat the performance at Bob and Barbara’s room.
Looking at these two beautiful specimens, fragrantly perfuming the late night air with fresh baked eggs, cream and fruit, I moaned, “there is no way I can eat this, no way at all.”  Ellen agreed.  It was all I could do to take one spoonful as a taste, and as delicious as it was, eating it would have been a gastric disaster.  What to do?  I could not put these beautiful offerings out in the hall, uneaten.  The only solution was to dispose of them, down the toilet.
This proved harder than I thought, since the light airy soufflés kept popping to the surface, and the weak flow of water from the overhead tank of the ancient toilet lacked the power to push it through the pipe.  Each pull on the chain meant waiting four or five minutes for the tank to refill, and in my state of over-fed, over-wined exhaustion, it was not fun.  Finally, the plates were empty, and I placed the tray in the hall to be collected by the night porter. “I wonder what Barbara and Bob did with theirs?” I asked Ellen.  “Bob probably ate his,” she said.  And off too sleep we went.
We assembled in the garden on a sunny morning for breakfast.  “Bonjour, bonjour,” we greeted each other.  “Sleep well?”  “Yes, very well.” And we sat quietly at table contemplating breakfast choices. 
Then Barbara said quietly, “do you know how hard it is to flush a soufflé down the toilet?”  We dissolved in laughter at the vision of the two of us, standing in our underwear, tearing bits of still warm soufflé apart with our fingers and pulling the ancient chain to dispose of the evidence.
We made it a point in future meals to make sure our request for soufflé was known in the kitchen at the start of the meal.