I'm hiding in the front hallway of a large country house in east-central France, near Chablis. Around the corner are sharp knives and stressed-out cooks. Cigarette smoke blows in through a window: the winds of anxious preparation carrying groans of rage, things like “Ah merde!” and “Mais non!” Through a crack in a doorway I spot an enormous boeuf bourguignon, pastries stuffed with blood sausage and apples, platters of gougères—tiny cheese puffs, a local specialty—as well as one or two dozen other delicious little French things that, to get just right, require of their makers the concentration, stamina, and rote drudgery of tax accountants. A stereo blasts Nina Simone, her pained moans echoing the chefs’.
Outside, it’s the French countryside in August. The sun is low. Yellow fields roll to the horizon like dunes. Closer by, dogs run around, tomatoes ripen in the heat, boys play soccer. Gravel paths lead to an old barn, to a narrow road beyond, then to the petite village of Vosnon, with a population of less than 200 unless a passing tourist bus gets a flat tire.
“Bread, cheese, and wine are important, yes—but so much better when they're made around the corner.”
“You know this idea doesn’t make a lot of sense, the ‘French dinner party,’” Zoé told me, as we drove to the Chablis market. “Our family is not representative of an entire country.”
“I know,” I said. “But you are very French.”
“We’re French, fine.” She exhaled, pouting. “But so are lots of people.”
I wanted to point out she was saying this while wearing tight black jeans, a striped blue-and-white shirt, big sunglasses, smoking an e-cigarette, and arguing with me over an intellectual concept—but I held my tongue.
Chablis is handsome and well preserved. The first chardonnay grapes, it’s believed, were planted there in the 12th century. Nowadays, signs shoot up at every intersection to steer tourists to vineyards and tasting rooms.
“So who comes to these markets?” I asked. “Why don’t they shop at the supermarkets?”
We’d passed a behemoth on our way, a grocery the size of an airport hangar.
“No, impossible,” Zoé said impatiently, grabbing her empty shopping bags from the car. “It’s tradition. This is still France.”
The market stretched for blocks and blocks. It ascended the hilly old town, passing cafés, shops specializing in charcuterie, in andouillettes, pork sausages that perfumed the market with a sweet funk unique to well-preserved intestine. We bought cheese, we bought headcheese. We didn’t buy any horsemeat, but we could have. We bought bunches of radishes and armfuls of lettuce while Zoé chatted up vendors to get the best stuff.
Near the top of the market slope she found a man and woman selling homemade sausage. At the moment we arrived, the woman, in a purple apron, was dumping out a metal bucket of dark gummy liquid. “What is it?” I whispered. “It’s blood,” Zoé said, laughing. Then she worked out with the man how much blood sausage we’d need. When we had everything on our list, we headed back to the house, driving through tiny villages, all ossified walls and ramshackle churches—their dignity intact, but not much else.
But surely this held true for Italians, I said, or Indians, or Iranians? What about people eating their cheeseburgers alone at night in Paris—was their feeding not sufficiently français?
“If you’re talking about McDonald’s, then no,” said Fred with a laugh.
By the time we all went to bed, it was decided that a dinner in France could mean all sorts of things, but it probably wouldn’t be considered classically French unless it included three basic ingredients: bread, wine, cheese. Without them, it was just a meal, maybe less.
“Tomorrow you should ask my father about this,” Fred said. “He’ll have an opinion.”
My most indelible memory of Jean-Paul, Fred’s dad, was from that country weekend years ago, when I woke up with a five-alarm hangover and found Jean-Paul standing in the kitchen. He was showered, silver-maned, operating a large espresso machine like a collector driving his favorite car. Only a few hours earlier, he’d been pouring me whiskey.
"The important thing is to sit at the table with friends—and take your time."
Hot summer air blew through the car. Jean-Paul drove us to a distant farm where a boulangerie operated at the end of a driveway—and the only way you’d know it was a tiny handwritten sign next to the mailbox that read PAIN (bread). After that, our final errand was to a hardware store, one that sold farming equipment and camouflage hunting jackets and also cases of Crémant de Bourgogne, a sparking wine unique to Burgundy. (The scene reminded me that, in Paris, you can often buy chilled champagne at gas stations.) On the ride back to his house, the smell of manure floated through the car. Jean-Paul talked about the weather, the harvest. Ultimately, he pointed out, food and wine are basically agriculture: work, science, weather, and lots of luck. So naturally a store dealing in shovels would stock bubbly. “I’m a manual guy,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed it. Cooking, gardening, carpentry.”
I asked him my question: What makes a meal quintessentially French? He said the soil. “We’re in Burgundy. It’s very special. You have the wine, the cheeses. The cows and chickens raised in fresh air—not like what you buy in the supermarket. These actually have flavor.”
The idea, Jean-Paul suggested, isn’t just about eating local. Farm-to-table cuisine is old news. It’s about knowing what the location means, from ancient history to last week’s rainstorms. It’s about the stories of families who have come and gone. Bread, cheese, and wine are important, yes—but so much better when they’re made around the corner. And how they’re made and why they’re made becomes something you can taste.
Several hours later, I’m there, lurking in that hallway while Jean-Paul and Zoé cook in the other room. The kitchen’s been turned upside-down. The dining room is transformed into a meringue station.
Soon guests appear, friends who live nearby, including a photographer and her husband. A young couple arrives. The guy is a vigneron, a winemaker in Chablis, at Domaine Roland Lavantureux. In his arms, he carries several bottles, including a magnum he chills in the last available refrigerator space. He pours Crémant while everyone snacks—first more charcuterie, then Zoé’s delicate gougères strewn with rosemary, Madame Roy’s pâté, and radishes spread with fresh butter and sea salt. We drink a white wine that’s so saline it could be made from crab fossils. Next we’re off to a large table outside the dining room, and . . . does it feel yet like pornography? A French meal always seems more sensual to me than other cuisines, all the organ meats, all that wine.
We move on to croustillant de boudin noir, blood sausage and apples wrapped and fried in a dough called feuille de brick, a North African phyllo pastry. The conversation is all over the place: movies, family gossip. Mostly people talk about food. The photographer sits down next to me. “You see,” she whispers gravely, as if it’s headline news, “French people simply love to eat.” But it’s not that straightforward, I point out; as the saying goes, Americans eat, but French people dine.
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