It was high noon and the main street of Amou, a picturesque farming town in South West France, was completely deserted. Not a soul to be seen on the two block main street. Even the lovely sky blue wooden shutters on all the windows were buttoned up as if a winter storm were imminent. “Where is everybody?” I asked my delightful sister-in-law-in-law Maureen as she toured us around the entire town including the castle in about 2.5 minutes. “They’ve gone for their lunch.” As simple as that. Lunch is king. Ev-er-y-thing stops from noon to about 2…or so. No shops, no bank, no construction or post office. Don’t try to phone anyone either. You won’t get an answer. Everyone goes home or to a café to have the most wonderful meal of the day likely followed by a refreshing nap. Well deserved after that tough 3 hours of work that started the day. It is actually quite dangerous to be walking across the street at 11:50 as the workers race home with one thing on their minds. Lunch!
Dejeuner in France isn’t just a sandwich or a tupperware of last night’s leftovers at your desk while you catch up on emails. It is a daily delight to be savoured slowly without electronic distraction, unwrapped with anticipation like a gift from your favourite auntie. A petit island of calm civility in a busy workday that often lasts until 7pm. Lunch with our newly acquainted sister-in-law-in-law and her quintessentially French (ie: brusk and totally loveable) husband Jean-Yves elevates the mid-day meal as we know it to an art form. “Maureen, this is so delicious!” we moan over fresh muscles steamed in leek, garlic, fresh tomato and basil cream sauce.“ “Och, this is simple! Just took me a minute” she deadpans in her Scottish brogue (Maureen speaks English with a thick Scottish accent and impeccable French). She is an amazing chef who proved it by dazzling us with her daily creations for the nearly two weeks she and Jean-Yves put up with us at their lovely white farmhouse with the red clay tile roof surrounded by fields and fields and fields of corn. Maureen is a classy woman who always wears dresses and drinks champagne fairly often because she loves champagne and is not going to wait for a special occasion to enjoy it. A philosophy we all can learn from. I loved sharing bubbles with her!
The daily lunch picnics Maureen and Jean-Yves laid out would impress the most passionate Whole Foods shopper. Home made duck pate, fresh ratatouille of eggplant, peppers and zucchini from the garden, several varieties of gorgeous homegrown heirloom tomatoes with fresh basil, olive oil, garlic and sea salt. Sausage and charcuterie from the local boucherie, crisp salads, mouthwatering cheeses, mayonnaise de la maison, chilled wine and of course crusty baguettes fresh from the best boulengerie. One can NOT have a meal in France without bread. Simply impossible. As we gathered under the shelter of the awning one sweltering 36 degree afternoon ready to dig in to a smoked bacon tart, pickled beets, marinated artichokes, a delicious local sheep cheese called Brebis, serrano ham, more tomatoes with olive oil, garlic and sel de mer and pink wine Jean-Yves declared in shock “Lyla (he calls her Leeela) what’s missing?” “Ooooh, le pain!” she gasps as she dashes to the special area in the pantry dedicated to our daily bread to grab the basket and start slicing thick slabs (her new job). Le pain is religious around here. It’s as ubiquitous as oxygen and dog poop on the sidewalk. Forget about a bread plate, just tear off a hunk and set it on the table for eating plain or with cheese and mopping up sauces. Crumbs be damned.
Lunch is slow. Small amounts of food are enjoyed over a stretch of time. Conversation flows with the wine, children dash off to play with the cats or explore the shade of the barn and the warmth of the afternoon sinks into your bones while the robust flavour of the cheese sinks into your palate. I love this custom. Don’t call me anymore between 1:00 and 3:00.
Moving to France for a year means you have to apply for a long-stay visa or they may kick you out after 90 days. Au revoir! To apply for this visa you need an address in France (and a criminal record check, and health and life insurance, and bank statements that prove you can afford 12 months of cheese and wine, and pledge to never work, to educate your children in the elevated French standard and promise to wash behind your ears). To have an address you must have some kind of connection in France willing to sign a ‘statement of hebergement’ meaning that they are basically responsible for you should the shit hit the fan. It’s a big responsibility. Jean-Yves and Maureen generously did this for us. What they didn’t know was they would also be our “go to” for all matters related to settling in. No good deed goes unpunished.
Aside from running their own complicated businesses and lives, finishing a big renovation and packing to move to a new home, these two were our French connection. Not only did they offer us very comfy beds and astonishing food for two weeks, they toured us around to all the dreamy villages and sites, helped up purchase our sweet ride (many documents, negotiations and translations needed), open a bank account (NOT easy without said documents) and generally made us feel like the French system of paperwork was not such a big deal. We would definitely not be having such a smooth start without their kindness and generosity. I will remember that the next time someone comes to me for help who doesn’t speak the language or understand Canadian customs. These two are our French guardian angels and they have welcomed us with charm and grace…and a lot of wine.
They let us test our french driving skills on their back country roads, many only wide enough for just one car. Once when Jean-Yves was racing around a blind corner with10 ft. high corn growing on either side making it impossible to see oncoming traffic I asked him how you can tell if there will be a car coming straight at us from the other side? “There wasn’t one yesterday”. OK, got it. Just don’t hit anything. Signalling seems to be optional and the painted lines on the highway are just rough indicators of where you may…perhaps…feel like driving. Speed limits change very often from 30k in villages to 120k on the autoroute. This is going to be fun!
So how did we repay their vast generosity? We murdered their cat. While we were freeloading off of Maureen and Jean-Yves they went away for a few days to attend a family birthday in Brittany. They left us the house, their second car and the keys to the wine cellar. Kaching!! Our only job was to feed Paddy the bear hunting dog and the two cats Django and Alfie. The first few days went without incident as the menagerie were fed in the morning before we set out to discover the surrounding area and coastal surf resort towns like Biarritz and again on our return each evening. The last morning as Lyla and I were out for a jog through the corn fields we were horrified to discovered the recently deceased body of little Alfie the ginger cat by the side of the road near the farm. He had apparently been hit by a car some time in the night while he was out mousing. It was a terrible shock for us, especially Lyla the animal lover, and not an easy phone call to make to Jean-Yves who clearly loved Alfie. He had been under our watch and we felt simply awful. Upon their return Jean-Yves and Cam took little Alfie to his final resting place at their new farm in Bassercles (we call it Berzerk) where there was a small ceremony for dearly departed Alfie. So much for the tough Frenchman. Rest in Peace Alfie.
The village of Amou is located in the very south and very west of France. Provence gets all the press but The Béarn is luscious too. The Pyrenees in the distance, rolling green hills, forests, rivers and of course farms. This fertile, productive area called Les Landes feeds a great deal of the nation. It is also famous for it’s duck. Canard this, canard that. Pâté, fois gras, sauteed duck gizzards in salad, roasted breast and of course confit. Our Lyla loves duck confit and Amou is ground zero for this delicacy. For the uninitiated, duck confit is the process of rendering the duck fat into a big vat or tray then preserving the roasted pieces in the salty fat until ready to serve. It is then re-roasted to a delightful crispness which melts off all said fat and you are left with the most mouth watering succulent morsels you might ever taste.
The quaint little farm village of Amou just happens to be home to one of the best restaurants in the whole south west of France. I am not exaggerating. It’s called Darracq and people have been known to drive from Bordeaux, almost 3 hours away, just for dinner. It’s THAT good. The foodie in me actually squeaks about this. Weeeeee! Darracq is so amazing we dined there twice! We tried many local specialties including a salad of sauteed duck gésiers (gizzards), fois gras in many forms like as a topping for the local steak, brook trout, white asparagus, fresh local mushrooms called cèpes and pig trotters. After dinner the cheese is served in great slices from a small wooden stool that looks hundreds of years old. The local fromage is served with a compote of black cherries. Drool! Sorry vegetarians, animals are eaten aLOT here. This restaurant has been operating in the local Hotel de Commerce for over 50 years. The mother in law lives in an apartment across the street so when she sees the terrace is full and busy she comes over to help serve. She told me she never wears a bra, it puts one in a bad mood. She was generous with the gossip and the jokes which had to be translated for us. Such a character! She and her husband were the 4th generation to run this astounding restaurant before handing it over to their son and his wife Sylvie a cute little blonde elf. It’s been in the family for 50 years! If you are ever within two hours drive of Amou you need to make a point of stopping for dinner. You will remember it for years I promise.
As we left Amou and the comfort of Maureen and Jean-Yves warm home it was exciting and a little bit scary. They had helped us get our feet firmly on the French ground. They jovially translated everything from restaurant menus to bank documents, advised us on French driving practices and tipping customs. They showed us the ropes and the maps and gave us the generous gift of their time without one word of complaint. I’m sure they had better things to do. This is great example for our daughter Lyla and for all of us on how to have a meaningful life. They may not have realized it but Maureen and Jean-Yves have been the best ‘starter’ ever. They sent us on our way with a bag of fresh eggplants, yellow zucchini and peppers from their garden too. The giving never stops.
I will think of them every time we have lunch…slowly…in the shade
Merci beaucoup from Amou!