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.
My wife and I lived in France for two years, beginning in 2007. At the time, I worked at the Paris headquarters of a large advertising agency. My boss, Frédéric, invited us one weekend to his parents’ house in the country, a big party for his sister’s birthday. Lots of dancing, guitar playing, brandy toasts at 3 a.m. There were endless platters of food, cheeses that required spoons. Neighbors wandered in from the dark and grabbed a glass. I don’t quite remember sleeping, only that we arrived knowing nobody, and went home three days later prepared to apply for dual citizenship.
That weekend is preserved in amber in my memory. There is simply no dinner party like a French dinner party. And I realize how cliché and pompous that sounds, like something Martha Stewart would use for a transcendental mantra, but I really just mean that this group of people pretty much had it figured out: how to have a good time, in a way I believe is distinctly French. Eight years later, I’m still not sure how they pulled it off. We’ve stayed close to Frédéric, or Fred, and his family. They’ve moved to Brooklyn, where Fred’s wife, Zoé Deleu, runs her namesake catering company. As luck would have it, they’ve also bought their own cottage back in Burgundy. The whole family was going in August. Of course, they said, if I happened to be in the neighborhood, I would be welcome to stop by—to once again experience the perfect French dinner party. And perhaps to learn its secrets.
Chablis is a two-hour drive from Paris, south and east. Once upon a time, it was a prehistoric sea, which may account for the mineral flavors of its famous wines. These days, as one of Burgundy’s five vignobles, or winemaking regions, the town is best known for its characteristically acidic chardonnays, austere and flinty. But, like most any place in France, Chablis is ripe with culinary idiosyncrasy, not just with wine but with cheeses, meats, and dishes that are done slightly differently here than anywhere else.
If the perfect French dinner begins somewhere, it’s at le marché, what Americans would call a farmers’ market. Fred and Zoé explained this the morning after my arrival while we double-checked the shopping list for the next day’s big dinner at Fred’s parents’ home. Most every town or region in France has regular markets, where, at least one day a week, vendors line a main street with tables of cauliflower, apples, oranges, leeks, crates of artichokes, cases of fragile cheeses. Men and women wait to swap velveteen knobs of foie gras for euros.
“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.
That night, Zoé made what she considered a simple meal to whet our appetites for tomorrow’s feast: a gigot d’agneau (lamb roast), some haricots verts (green beans), pommes sautées (potatoes sautéed in butter). Her brother, Arthur, arrived with his family to stay the night, arms loaded with wine and snacks, including charcuterie from a recent trip to the Loire Valley. I’d never had tripe sausage before. It was delicious, slightly sweet, earthy and ringed with fat. The party went late. At some point I decided to pose a question that I’d been asking myself: Other than the food, what exactly does it take to consider a meal French and not Chinese, not Spanish?
The debate lasted an hour. After all, dining had evolved since Escoffier, the chef who elevated French cooking to “cuisine” around the turn of the 20th century. The sway of different influences was debated. Wine flowed. All the smoke became clouds. Finally, we reached a consensus on what constituted a French meal. First, any ingredients needed to come from some part of France, ideally the local area. For example, a choice might be made in the north to cook with butter, in the south to use oil, or, in the west and east, to stick with cream. Next, no matter what was cooked, the meal must be savored, not just shoveled into your mouth. Last, the meal shouldn’t be eaten alone.
“The French love to eat,” said Arthur’s wife.
“It’s important to us,” Fred insisted.
“If you get enough French people together,” Arthur said, “at some point, they’re going to prepare a meal.”
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.
In eight years, he hadn’t changed a bit. When I met him at his house, 20 minutes from Fred’s, he clapped me on the shoulder. We hopped in his old Saab to finish the shopping. First stop: Madame Roy, a short drive through the countryside. “I’ve known her for years,” he said in his honeyed baritone. “You want pâté? Hers is the best. The best.” The shop, Le Paysan Bourguignon, was tucked away in the woods. Quickly, Jean-Paul was out and bickering with Madame Roy herself, a small woman in a butcher’s coat who gave as good as she got, half flirting, half brawling. Soon she disappeared into the back and returned with a block of foie gras for him to inspect.
“I couldn’t find the right container for it,” she said to me. “You see, when you work in France, something always goes wrong.”
“But madame,” said Jean-Paul haughtily, “we are in France.”
“Yes, and we’re always in the shit.”
He let out a high-pitched giggle and placed his order, adding some magret de canard séché (cured filet of duck breast). On the way to the next stop—each thing Jean-Paul wanted seemed to require a trip to a different village, here for baguettes, there for cheese—I brought up the subject of foie gras, the fact that the French staple has been banned in parts of the States, due to animal cruelty concerns. Jean-Paul was instantly irate, switching to English: “Okay, you want to talk about food in the United States? Look how you treat your cows. Look how you treat your chickens. It’s the worst, the absolute worst. How you treat your animals? Don’t talk to me about foie gras.”
As the saying goes, Americans eat, but French people dine.
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.
It’s around then that Jean-Paul emerges from the kitchen with a vat in his arms: a Dutch oven full of boeuf bourguignon that the children whistle over. Carrots and mushrooms surround a dark cut of meat. There’s more bread, a steaming dish of buttered potatoes, many bowls of vegetables. In 90 minutes it’s all gone. People sing in the dark, laughing. Unlike most American children I know, Fred and Zoé’s boys haven’t complained about being stuck with grown-ups for so long. “Yes, all the clichés are true,” Jean-Paul says, and the photographer laughs. “The most important thing is to really sit at the table,” she says. “With friends or family. Make it a meal. Take your time.” Jean-Paul nods in agreement. He gestures to his wife and her friends. “Watch, they’re going to start singing Françoise Hardy next.” (Five minutes later, this prophecy comes true.)
Soon, dessert appears, a peach compote served with meringues and basil-infused cream. Hours later in the dark, late at night or early in the morning, the wine is gone, a massive cheese course has been devoured—a soft Chaource, a buttery Époisses, countless others—followed by coffees, teas, and digestifs. Then the winemaker shouts, “We should have a ban bourguignon!”
No one knows what he’s talking about. “None of you know a ban bourguignon?” He’s shocked. His girlfriend explains that it’s a traditional way to give thanks in Burgundy, a remercie. It is basically a high-spirited, wordless drinking song that involves waving and clapping to a simple tune. We do it five or six times. By then, the children are fast asleep. A chilly wind begins to blow across the fields. The plates are cleared, the pots scrubbed clean. People kiss one another good-bye and walk into what’s been just another ordinary night of routine country pleasures, or so I’m led to believe. Even if many of us, myself included, are still whistling our new song.