Monday, February 2, 2009

Telling it slant

It has been brought to my attention that I may have made some uncharitable comments about Jules last week. Uncharitable, maybe; true, nevertheless. However, truth is a complicated creature, and so is Jules.

Friday Jules and Madame invited us to dinner. Don't come too early, he told me in the afternoon. He had stopped by the house to apologize for the power being out. But it's not out, I said, showing him the digital clock on the oven. You must have turned it back on, he said. Let me look at the fuse box.

It was futile to explain that I had not touched the fuse box and that the power had not so much as blinked. He was already kneeling on the floor in the electrical closet, flipping switches on and off. When he was satisfied that the power was in fact on, he stood up and backed out the back door, trying not to leave too much dirt (he had been out in the mud that surrounds the replanted olivier) on the floor. Don't come too early tonight, he said. We're not terribly organized.

We had been up to the big house for drinks after Epiphany, just before Jules and Madame went back to Paris. Jules is a different person as a host: warm, funny, expansive, gracious. It is bad form to talk dirt about the workers over a drink, so he tells stories about his grandparents, his trips to America when he was a young man, his daughters and grandchildren. And he tells us how remarkable we are and the girls are, which is always easy to listen to. When you came, you could not speak a word, pas un seut mot, of French, and now, look at you! Incroyable!

Then Madame chimes in with, And they know more about the area than people who have lived here for years. The way they have adjusted to living in a foreign country, and especially how they put up with living with the French, c'est vraiment formidable.

Leaving aside the decades of our lives that we have both devoted to studying French, it is nonetheless flattering. That night we talked about truffles--the truffle season is upon us--where to find them, how to buy them. C and I were planning to go to the marché aux truffes in the next village on the weekend. Jules and Madame asked us to buy them a truffle if we found any. And then we came back down the terraces, and Jules and Madame left for Paris early the next morning.

Friday night we sat down to dinner at 9.30 with Jules and Madame and another set of neighbors. The first course, served at room temperature, was a bowl of what looked like green beans tossed with canned tuna. Tuna and haricots verts are a familiar combination from salade niçoise, so, though I'd never thought to have the two on their own without the rest of the salade, I was happy to take a serving.

An aside: the risk, when dining en famille with a French person, is that something will end up on your plate that, while it is well within the parameters of the ordinary French diet, will require an American, even a fairly broad-dieted American, to move the goalposts back a bit. I was once served a whole barracuda which still sported its eyes and, more alarmingly, its teeth. Also, a pâté made out of cod liver.

So green beans tossed with tuna fish seemed pretty tame. Even though the tuna looked, well, it looked like cat food. The canned tuna spectrum is significantly wider in France than it is in the States. There is canned tuna that comes marinated in extra-virgin olive oil in a beautiful yellow tin with green belle-époque script and an etching of Marseilles, and then there is tuna that comes in a plain white and blue tin and looks, when you open the tin, like cat food.

But it didn't have teeth and wasn't known for its DocosaHexaenoic Acid content, so I took a bite.

It wasn't tuna. It was foie gras.

At that moment there was enough rapid French happening at the table that C could lean over to me--his place was across from mine--and say, What is this?

It's foie gras, I replied.

He took another bite. These, he said, are the best green beans I've ever tasted.

I did suggest to him shortly after midnight, when we had come home and were reviewing the evening, that you could mix foie gras with chex mix and that would taste pretty good, too. Or, for that matter, with cat food.

The rest of the evening passed in a blur of poulet à l'estragon, rice, cheeses, chocolate cake, funny stories, and Bordeaux. At one point, after the cheese but before the dessert, Jules put on his 1950 Rock-ola juke box, choosing first a French song from the 1960s, Capri c'est fini, then a Elvis singing Blue Suede Shoes, the Rolling Stones Satisfaction, and, to top it off, Janis Joplin singing The Rose. Jules and Madame took the plates to the kitchen, where Madame stayed, assembling the next course. Jules came back and forth, though, doing a few dance steps on each trip. C helped them while I talked over Mick Jagger to the other neighbors.

All three came back and sat down for dessert, and C threw me a look that said, More to come.

There was. After dessert we had tisanes and coffee in the sitting room and then, at a quarter to midnight, we stood to go. Jules disappeared into the kitchen and came back carrying a small, heavily used, paper bag. He passed it off to C with a studied, mischievous nonchalance. We all kissed goodbye, and the neighbors walked back up the hill while we walked down.

We had gone only a few feet from the door when I made C tell me what was in the bag.

It's a truffle, he said. They found a dealer.

And so, let it be said that Jules is a complicated creature. This truffle set them back a few dozen euros, not a lot compared to the cost of rerouting the drainage away from the dead olive tree, but a lot for something that a pig noses out of the ground. We'd talked about how we wanted to get one, try it, figure out what it was about truffles that made food people so excited. So when Jules and Madame bought truffles for themselves, they bought one for us, too.

C was up early Saturday morning to write a thank you note. I came down and proofread the French before handing it over to the real experts in the house, who corrected errors that neither of us had recognized. Then we mailed the letter up to Paris, where Jules and Madame had gone even earlier Saturday morning. And this week, in between wiping the mud off the dogs' paws and trying to find a place to park between the ouvriers' camionettes and brouettes méchaniques and tarps and piles of stone and the concrete mixer--in between all that, I'll be studying truffle recipes. I know we'll have an omelette scented with truffles, and I'm thinking about a risotto, maybe some pasta, maybe just a fresh baguette, toasted a little, with some of our olive oil and a few shavings of truffe. All courtesy of Jules. La vérité, she is so complicated.

1 comment:

  1. I've eaten some odd stuff on Italian family tables too- d'asino (donkey), lardo (just like it sounds, slices of pig fat on crostini) spleen sandwiches...I could go on. Foie gras on green beans sounds wonderful.