A Great Dinner
Sometime during December of 1974, on my way home from Switzerland to Toulouse, France, I was driving through a northern Provence with a college friend from Chile. Wanting to show him the area, I offered to take him to a small Country Inn that was located in the mountains that I was familiar with. Yvette, the owner, and a former “concierge” from Paris, had set up shop in a charming, old stone farm house, where she served meals to visitors and local lumberjacks.
When horseback riding in the area, I used to stop by the Country Inn with friends for lunch. The food was always simple, delicious and based on the resources of neighboring farms. These lunches were superbly interpreted, while served with humor and genuine warmth. Yvette’s omelets were made with eggs from her hens and freshly picked herbs, while her hams, pates, and goat cheeses were made on site and were legendary.
As we walked into the courtyard, she recognized me. I asked if we could have something to eat and was promptly dismissed with “I am not cooking today, I don’t have anything.” Not taking no for an answer, and knowing that a little cajoling might help her remember secret resources, I insisted. Asking for a simple goat cheese or “une assiette de charcuterie?”
“Do you like roasted pheasant,” she asked. “Bien sur” was the quick answer. “Alright, go take a walk and come back in an hour and a half,” she said.
We left, and walked along a ridge overlooking a deep valley, where we saw the sunset lighting up the high cliffs on the other side. The cold winter wind and the walk whetted our appetite.
Once we returned to the Country Inn, we were seated in the main room of the house. In the main house, the fireplace was ablaze and hanging in it was a large cast iron kettle, from which a delicious aroma emanated. We sat down at a massive, thick wooden table, well worn by thousands of guests over several centuries.
Yvette greeted us and set the tone for the evening. After the long walk, she rightfully decided that we needed something hot. Dipping a ladle into the cauldron, she served us a bowl of the most delicious, rich beef broth, from a “pot au feu.” The broth was served with a piece of bone marrow over a slice of her homemade bread.
Following this restorative appetizer, we were served warm leeks cooked in the broth. They were dressed simply with a little lemon juice and a fruity olive oil from nearby Nyons, which is known for some of the best olive groves in France.
“This will clear your palate,” she said.
It was time for the bird, which was shot by a neighbor. The bird was a roasted pheasant, which was generously wrapped in bacon to keep it moist. And since roasted pheasant cannot be served alone, it was accompanied with a mound of porcinis, sautéed in garlic.
Yvette had gathered the mushrooms in the fall and preserved them. To this day, I have never seen or enjoyed such a profusion of porcinis. Chestnuts from the surrounding woods, cooked in a frying pan and tossed in butter, completed the main dish.
No meal in France can be complete without cheese. Yvette put on the table an earthenware crock, filled with pungent goat cheeses. Since the animals in winter eat mostly hay, the milk tends to be richer. Storing the cheeses in a crock, allows them to mature in a moist environment, where they become softer and stronger.
We enjoyed the cheeses and washed them down with a robust, red wine from a friend’s vineyard. The wine was dark, rough, and winey, which was a perfect complement to the food and rustic atmosphere.
To our surprise, Yvette pulled out of the oven a beautiful, golden galette for dessert. Galette is a local specialty, made up of a crispy, buttery, puff pastry, filled with a rich almond paste and eggs. During our walk, she had gone to the nearby town Bourdeau, which was three miles away, and where she bought this wonderful dessert.
Having done her job, and seeing how much we had enjoyed her impromptu meal, she sat down with us and pulled out an array of rare, homemade liquors. While she poured them, she explained that they came from relatives in her native land, the Jura Mountains.
I remember one being made with young pine tree shoots, and several others being made with exotic mountain herbs. All produced outside the rigid, French liquor legal framework.
I asked for the bill, which was ridiculously low. Her reward was that she had done what she truly enjoyed and so did we.
The key ingredients of a memorable dinner are pleasure and surprise, bound in human warmth after a long walk.