That was certainly a grander and more formal meal than the one we had last Thursday at Gisèle's cottage. That day, we were finishing our shrimp — cooked whole, and surely purchased already cooked, because that's the way they are sold here. The little shrimps, like the saucisson slices, are a food you really have to eat with your fingers, and everyone did. You have to break off the head and then peel each shrimp to take off the legs, the tail, and the shell. That again makes for a less formal atmosphere, and you need a fingerbowl afterward. Gisèle provided little wet-wipes in foil envelopes, like the ones you might get on an airplane.
Two things about French shrimp can surprise Americans. First, they are served with the heads on. One California friend said she couldn't bring herself to eat them because she saw those little shrimp eyes looking back at her as a reproach. The other thing is that the shrimp are not deveined since they are cooked with the shell on.
That can make them a little gritty to eat, since the vein can have sand in it. Some of the ones I ate at Gisèle's were gritty. Some people don't relish eating the vein, which is the gut, along with the shrimp. As Jacques Pépin says, the black stuff inside is just digested protein, and there's no reason not to eat it!
The conversation, which was mostly between Mesdames M. and C., stayed focused on local politics. Gisèle tried to change the subject several times, but in vain. There were stories about an enormously fat man of questionable personal hygiene who until a few years ago lorded it over nearly everybody in the département in political meetings.
He gave the Paris-appointed prefect fits on numerous occasions. He ate like a horse whenever there was a reception that included refreshments. And when he was running a meeting, he would introduce a subject or proposal and then go around the table or room asking each attendee to give an opinion or some information about it. A lot of people hated being put on the spot that way, they said.
The enormous, heavy-handed man died or retired and was replaced by one of the ugliest women our friends said they had ever known. She had no charm, and no sense of style, but she knew local politics like nobody else and had rapidly climbed the ladder to take over the role of Loir-et-Cher gadfly and big wheel. She also ate like a horse and didn't have much of a life outside of politics.
That was the tone of it. Gisèle's attempts to change the subject went on being unheeded. She was worried about the next lunch course. "I think I've ruined the osso bucco," she said at one point. It had scorched in the pan, she thought, and she hoped it would still be edible. And besides, she had forgotten to buy lettuce so there would be no salad. I think Gisèle was just setting expectations so that we would "ooh" and "ah" about the veal, and I think nobody really wanted salad anyway.
Gisèle brought out the osso bucco on fresh plates and set one in front of each of us. It was appetizing — completely cooked in a dark sauce and nearly falling off the bone — if you got a bone with your serving, and I didn't. It didn't matter. The meat was tender and tasty, having cooked for a long time in a dark tomato sauce with lemon and orange zest in it. It smelled nicely of citrus. The only identifiable vegetables in the sauce were some well-cooked carrots, but I'm sure that onion, garlic, and herbs, along with tomato and wine, had gone into the sauce.
The people who got one of the big, round, marrow-filled shank bones with the meat busily pulled out the marrow to enjoy with sauce and bread. I was a little jealous, but the meat itself was so good that I couldn't complain, and I had an enormous medallion of it on my plate.
Gisèle said she had bought the veal at the butcher shop over in Thésée, and made a comment about what it cost. I didn't hear her clearly — she was all the way across the table from me — and I thought she was saying it was very expensive. Veal generally is. I said yes, veal is not inexpensive, and she said yes, this was. That butcher in Thésée has high quality meats at very reasonable prices. That's why I bought so much of it.
Now I need to go to Thésée, which is only about 5 miles from us, to see about that butcher shop.
I remember that once or twice the subject of conversation, after local politics had been thoroughly dealt with, turned to what are called sujets qui fâchent — subjects that might upset one or more of the participants. National politics, for example, where people who are long-time members of the UMP party might not want to say what they really think of Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni. The conversation moved on quickly.
Socalists are useless creatures, everyone agreed (Walt and I were just polite about it). The Socialist leaders talk about making life better for the little people, the disadvantaged, and the poor, but just look at how they themselves live. Beaches, big houses, swimming pools, champagne, caviar, luxury cars — it's disgusting. Maybe the leaders on the left just want to live the way the UMP leaders get to live, Walt said. No, no, no, Mme C. said. Look at us, she added, nodding in the direction of Mme. M. We are right-wingers, and we don't even play golf! Or tennis!
At one point, Mme. C. looked from Walt to me and offered the opinion that things were not going all that well in the United States, economically and politically. We had to agree. Do you think Mr. Obama will be elected? she asked. I told her I wasn't sure what the outcome of the election would be, but I would personally prefer to see the Democrats and Obama take over from the Bush administration and repair some of the damage done over the past eight years.
"I don't think a black man can be elected president of the United States," Mme. C. said, categorically. Americans just won't vote for him. And now Mr. McCain has nominated a woman to be his vice-president. At that point, Walt took us all by surprise by saying something about the pétasse from Alaska, and there were great peals of laughter around the table. The French-English dictionary gives "slut" as a translation, and the French dictionary says it is a « terme injurieux à l'adresse d'une femme (sans connotation sexuelle) ».
I said I had originally hoped that Mme. Clinton would be the Democratic candidate in the U.S. Mme. C. said in her opinion Hillary Clinton was pas drôle and très dure — or something to that effect. All agreed that Mr. McCain is just too old to be president. He is younger than any of the people who offered that opinion, by the way.
Meanwhile, the cheese platter appeared. It held three huge slabs of cheese including some tomme des Pyrénées, a piece of comté or gruyère, and a round goat cheese covered in black wood ash. The goat cheese was very fresh — in other words, not yet aged until hard and dry — and was made by a farmer over in Selles-sur-Cher, 10 miles up the river from our village. It was especially good, and Gisèle said she had bought it at SuperU in Saint-Aignan.
We were out of bread — at least the sliced whole-wheat loaf. Gisèle had some more bread in the kitchen. "But it's the boulanger's bread," she said, almost apologetically. I'm not sure why. I think plain baguettes are seen as ordinary, and they say that white bread is constipating! So it's more elegant and healthful to serve rustic whole-wheat and multi-grain breads.
When she brought the cheese out, Gisèle realized that we were out of red wine. Mmes. M. and C. don't drink white wine, and they had had good-sized glasses of red even with the shrimp and salmon course. I had taken wine to the lunch, at Gisèle's request. Actually, what she said when she invited us the week before was something like "come to lunch on Thursday, and bring wine if you want to drink some. I don't have any." That wasn't exactly the prelude to such a nice meal.
I had gone to SuperU that morning and bought a nice bottle of Bordeaux (a 2005 Médoc) and a nice bottle of Sauvignon Blanc (a 2006 Quincy). As we finished the Bordeaux, Mme. M., never one to mince words, looked at me and said, you know, I really don't like Bordeaux wines. Other reds are much better. She didn't know that I was the one who had chosen the Médoc — because I thought it would be a nice change from the local reds. Zut alors ! Foiled again.
Meanwhile, Gisèle disappeared into the kitchen and reappeared a few minutes later with a bottle of red Saumur-Champigny wine. That's an area about 60 miles down the Loire from us. And I thought she didn't have any wine in the house (except what she cooked with). She said she had gone next door and asked Kiki (Christian, her neighbor that we have met several times) if he could give her a good bottle of red wine, and this is what he had. He has a very nice cellar, she said. Mmes. M. and C. were eager to taste this other red wine. Oh well, the 2005 Médoc had only cost five euros.
The Quincy white was one I really wanted to taste, but with the shrimp and salmon Gisèle had brought out an open, half-empty bottle of a local Touraine Sauvignon, a wine that would cost about two euros at the supermarket and that she had surely used to make her osso bucco sauce. Walt and I drank that with the salmon and shrimp, and it had run out too. I said I wouldn't mind another glass of white wine with my goat cheese. Walt looked at me, nodding toward the empty bottle. There isn't any more Quincy, he said.
Inspired by Gisèle's apple tart with a pâte sablée
or shortbread crust, Walt made this one a day
or two later using apples from our trees.
or shortbread crust, Walt made this one a day
or two later using apples from our trees.
But that's not the Quincy, I told him, in English I believe. "Oh, I thought it was. Well, Gisèle, maybe it's not worth opening the other bottle of white wine at this point," W. said to her in French. Fact was, I had seen Mr. M. open the Quincy, at Gisèle's request, at the beginning of the meal, and I wanted to taste it. So did Walt, but he thought it hadn't yet been uncorked. Gisèle brought it back out from the kitchen, and we both thought it was excellent — fruity and minerally at the same time — with the mild goat cheese. It had cost six euros at SuperU.
Now it was time for dessert. Gisèle presented a fairly rustic-looking but nice apple tart, which she had made with a shortbread crust. We all had a piece and some more wine. The conversation was fading under the weight of the food and drink. After the tart, Gisèle brought out a big bowl of fresh raspberries, framboises, and a liter of vanilla ice cream. We all had some of that as a second dessert course. Then we had coffee, or at least some of us did. Gisèle said she had bought a new coffeepot for the occasion.
The subject of politics had come up again, and Gisèle was getting irritated. I looked at my watch and it was 5:00. "Let's go out for a walk in the woods," she said. "The path has just been mowed and the sun is shining now." Mme. C. remarked that that was what old folks did, after a big meal — take a walk. But she was a good sport about it. Once we were out in the woods, Mme. C. made a comment about what a riche propriétaire terrienne — a large landowner — Gisèle must be. G. doesn't appear to be wealthy — far from it — but I have the impression that she does own a extensive piece of land, most of it wooded.
We told Gisèle that we enjoyed the walk in her woods but that we had to go home and make sure Callie was OK. She needed an afternoon walk too. We all kissed each other on the cheeks and the afternoon was over.