Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The comfort of a long lunch à la française - Nimes



We are most certainly in the heart of winter here in Provence. 

Today, it even snowed! Well, actually, five flakes drifted down languorously and evaporated before touching ground but it made me giddy with delight.

Everything has slowed down to a muffled shoestring shuffle. We are striding the polar opposite of those days when friends would pop over for a glass of rosé at 6pm and take their leave with the coucher de soleil at 10. But they will return, those moments in the sun.


And the friends are still around, although admittedly no one much wants to move beyond the earth of their well-stoked fires. So it was with not a little joy that we voyaged beyond our comfort zone to see our dear friends M and B in Nimes. 


They had invited us for brunch. Now, while M and B are always gracious hosts, it was an offer that I was sniffingly suspicious of as my experience of that preferred repas in France amounted to a dingly croissant, an egg and two slices of iffy ham, all for the price of a Michelin-starred meal. 


That is not exactly what this ex-New Yorker prefers. How I miss my brunches replete with spicy Bloody Mary's, eggs florentine and crunchy rosemary potatoes while the disco in the background would ramp up my spirits after a night when sleep had been at a minimum. Dancing on the table has been known to happen at such joints as The Vynl in Hell's Kitchen, yes, even on a Sunday morning.


And while our friends didn't exactly have that in mind, I certainly needn't have worried (or snobbified to be more accurate!). Remi and I were welcomed warmly into M & B's Haussmannian style apartment, where sunlight dappled across a white linen dressed table heaving with platters of charcuterie. A bit of Bach flowed in from the next room. M was in the kitchen pressing blood oranges into fresh juice and a samovar was lit on the table to keep the water warm for tea. I chose a thé beurre au caramel salé and sipped it as we settled in.


We were six at table and the conversation bubbled around me, happily, unselfconsciously. As I always seem to write about my time with them, I feel comfortable enough in their company that I can partake in the luxury of listening, having nothing to prove. And that kind of calm is not something to ever take for granted in an expat life.


B prepared ouefs cocotte in a timed steamer that she had inherited from her Grandmother. I love that gesture of tapping the eggshell with the knife and then lifting off its tiny roof as the warm perfume of the yoke rises. An earthy baguette aux céréales was perfect for dipping as well as being smeared with butter to accompany radishes dipped in hibiscus salt. Remi's quiche lorraine was warmed in the oven and slices quickly disappeared once it was brought to the table.


Up to now, it had been a brunch "détox" but I couldn't help but smile as M brought out a chilled Chardonnay (so different from our big oaky California whites as to make it hard to believe it is the same grape) for the cheese course. M is a definite oenophile and wines served at his home are never by accident. We toasted and then, I hesitated. While not self-conscious about some things, I am of others in France, even after all of these years. The plateau du fromages had been placed right in front of me as I was seated at the head of the table. All of those perfectly formed morsels just waiting and there certainly is an etiquette of how much to take and at what angle when starting the rounds. I gestured as casually as I could to J on my left who took up the knives and even eventually asked Remi to cut a piece of chèvre for me, as children do. Not even fear of foolishness will keep me from a good cheese.


Now, usually, this is where I start to say, "Non, merci" during a meal. My friends know that I do not have a sweet tooth and so never take offense. But the other guests had stopped by Maison Villaret, a bakery that was founded in 1775 (!) to buy a mille-feuille, a favorite of nearly all at the table. When it was lifted from its gilt-lettered box, I let out a quiet, "Oh my." Several of the "thousand layers" of flaky puff pastry are separated by a rich and unctuous custard with a crown of hardened sugar icing and this particular one was topped with two gold-dusted macarons. It was wonderful.


But afterwards, a stroll was most certainly in order. I love the Sunday ritual of the post-meal walk and we will often see entire families, several generations deep, meandering through country lanes. Our friends live in the historic center of Nimes and as always, there were many details to take in. I lifted my old iphone heavenwards from time to time as the conversation continued while we passed the Arena and on to the iconic Maison Carrée, one of the most complete remaining temples of the former Roman Empire. The light was gorgeous and as glowing as our bellies. But eventually, I had to dance on my toes to stay warm. Friendship or no, winter is with us still. With reluctance and gratitude, we gave les bises to M and B, content in the knowledge that we would see them again soon. 


28 comments:

Jackie and Joel Smith said...

Sounds like a perfect brunch - good food, good friends, good conversation and a stunning location. Carpe Diem!

Judi of Little House said...

Oh my, I just traveled to Nimes! Thank you for the beautiful day!

Karena Albert said...

A beautiful story of a brunch with good friends Heather. (I Also loved your account of bygone breakfasts in Hell's Kitchen!)

xoxo
Karena
The Arts by Karena New Feature

Rowan said...

How full of a sense of satisfied contentment this post has. Good food, good friends and a companionable stroll!
Cheers,
Deborah

RebeccaNYC said...

oh I love Nimes. And an apartment we always pretend is "where we are moving to next year" is right down the street from the Maison Carre. Granted, we have never been inside, but in our imaginations and from the look of the outside, it will be perfect for us!

I had to laugh at the trepidation about "cutting the cheese". My first scolding from a very picky French guy was all about how I had cut the cheese all wrong. I was mortified. Fortunately, none of my friends care less about how the cheese is cut (or how the bread is placed on the table..or any of the one million unspoken rules about food)...they just care that we eat well and have fun.

Stephen Andrew said...

Oooooh I want to visit and be the other bad American at the table with you! This brunch sounds heavenly and the luxury of time and deliciousness is evident in this story. I hate travel (as in the actual journey part) but reading your blog and Ellie's has me seriously considering getting to Europe again. The flight almost killed me when I did it last, and I'm not sure I can do it again! So I'll either have to be tranquilized like a zoo animal or sail transatlantic. Which I think may be fun. I haven't found anyone who has done a round trip transatlantic, but the thought of Titanicing scares me a lot less than being in a little pill for 12 hours breathing dirty air! So if you look to the western shore and see a cruise ship and big hair and a black dog, open the rosé! and yes I intend to bring my dog :) I have no interest in doing anything other than wandering around, shopping the markets, and cooking! can you imagine how much this trip would cost?! Yikes. I'll have to turn tricks in my countryside villa to pay for the trip home! At this point it's more of a fantasy than a reality...but you never know!

Sandy said...

Heavenly day. I would never dare to serve that lunch in LA. Eggs, quiche ( more eggs and cream), cheese course, mille-feuille with custard ( more eggs). Everyone would beg off and say to much cholesterol. Makes me crazy. But sounds divine and I'd eat every bite. Who knew about the proper way to slice a piece of cheese. Will you please inform this ignorant lady on the tricks of a cheese board. Lovely post.
Sandra Sallin

Lorrie said...

My mouth watered as I read this post and the scent of eggs and quiche and cheese and charcuterie wafted across the continents. What a delightful description.

Suze said...

'How I miss my brunches replete with spicy Bloody Mary's, eggs florentine and crunchy rosemary potatoes while the disco in the background would ramp up my spirits after a night when sleep had been at a minimum.'

Ha! I guess we can fall in love with a sentence, after all.

Heather Robinson said...

Something that you both know a thing or two about! ;)

Heather Robinson said...

Oh, you are so welcome Judy - I am delighted to have saved you the plane fare. =)

Heather Robinson said...

Merci, Karena. I will hop over to see your black and white photography feature in a bit...

Heather Robinson said...

Voila. Nothing fancy but a lot of good.

Heather Robinson said...

There you go, that is how it should be! Our friends aren't fussy either but as I was sitting next to someone that I had just met I didn't want to be the "ridiculous American". In the beginning when I would make mistakes I would always blurt out something like: "Well, I am sorry but I didn't grow up with a cheese course!" hehehe

And of course, now I am completely curious about where "your apartment" is. There is a lot of really great buildings in the center of town.

Heather Robinson said...

You never do know! And oh my, you would love it here. Because honestly? Wandering around, shopping the markets and cooking (with glasses of rosé, meaning siesta afterwards) is the best of Provence, it really is. I always tell visitors "don't plan too much, take time to just enjoy" but do they listen to me? Nope. So there you go. You are secretly Provençal at heart. And to meet Ellie? I am still saving up my pennies for that one and I live in the same country! But hopefully one day...

And yes, the boat would definitely be the way to go. My Honey photographed the Queen Mary 2. You can see photos here:
http://www.lightmediation.net/blog/index.php/2010/07/17/bubbles-bangles-and-beads-onboard-the-queen-mary-2/

...including a delightful one of a passenger and her dalmation. They have spacious kennels onboard (alas not allowed in the cabins) and the pups are walked and have playtime several times a day. The only question would be how long would they keep Barbie in quarantine? Ooh! I just looked it up. As long as her papers are in order, she can stroll right off the ship.

Ben would be in love with her. We would have to keep Kipling away however as sadly, he is more than a little craycray. :(

Think about it!

Heather Robinson said...

Oh, dear. It would take me forever to explain it too you, so luckily someone else already has!
http://aladyinfrance.com/who-cut-the-cheese/
And it actually looks like quite an interesting expat blog to boot. There certainly are a lot of us out there...

And of course that made me giggle, trying to imagine the looks on your guests faces if you served such a brunch in LA. Why the bread alone...! ;)

Heather Robinson said...

They are calling you..."Lorrie....Lorrie...Come to France..." hehehe

Heather Robinson said...

Whooeee! Now, that is a mighty fine compliment coming from you, Word Chef.
With Love,
Word Sous-Chef

simpleimages2 said...

The elegant simplicity of dining with friends in picnics and at home is one of the refinements of living.

You wrote your narration with affection.

Thank you also for the photos.

Sandy said...

I read the blog about how one eats cheese in France and decided that we are savages out here in Tinsletown Los Angeles. Ha! What a revelation. Loved it. Another world.

Bill Facker said...

Excellent .. a joy to read. Mahalo et Merci, Heather.

How wonderful it is to enjoy your writings, and those of others, from half way 'round the world. Oh, the power of thoughts expressed by "wielders of pens" .. by those brave enough to bare themselves for the enrichment and enjoyment of others. Merci, Heather, for being one of "those" .. Merci Beaucoup.

Aloha,
Bill
www.kaua-to-paris.com

La Contessa said...

BRING ON The EGGS and cheese and bread........
A gorgeous day......RECOUNTED with even MORE GORGEOUS PHOTOS!
XOXO

Loree said...

Sounds like a perfect Sunday xxx

I Dream Of said...

How utterly delicious, Heather. Nothing is every so sweet as a slow time passed with delightful friends and yummy things to eat. Your words and pictures make it even more scrumptious and make me feel as if I am there cracking open those eggs and savoring every bite - and I don't even really like eggs! And the cheese. I can so relate to that. One of the terrors of having a French boyfriend was that darn cheese plate and his mother's critical eye. That and the fact that his parents preferred the nude beach during summers on Ile d'Yeu and didn't understand why we didn't want to spend the days with them. Oh my.

Hope your weekend is lovely - I'm actually fond of this hibernating time of year - it makes the time spent with friends seem even more special. We are seeing Heidi and Angel tonight and I will give them a big hug from you :-) XOXO

Jessica Pasa said...

This is what I miss most about living in France Heather!
Here in California it seems we are going through life at such a frenetic pace, it doesn't feel as if we are really living. Taking the time to enjoy thoughtfully prepared food and drink with friends and family over an indeterminate period of time is one of the greatest pleasures in life. I just published a post on this theme as well: http://www.jessicasfranglais.com/?p=222
Thank you for helping us all slow down and enjoy!

Silke Bauer said...

Killing me softly with sunsets, palmtrees ans purple skies...

Well the "cheese cutting" is something rmostly unknown in Germany. But some time ago I saw a really funny episode on ARTEs "Karambolage" (this may only exist in Germany I don't know..) Something like a course on how to cut the cheese. Well it makes sense but no need to feel embarrassed if one does not know ( at least from a certain distance (;

I don't know if you know or are into it but I am really exited that D'Angelo will come to Europe for some concerts next week with the Vanguard to perform his new album "The Charade". I saw his perfomance on SNL last Saturday.
And he will perfom in the Apollo in New York tomorrow.
I'll see his concert next tuesday, his first in Europe...

Bisous , Silke

Stephen Andrew said...

I have tried to get that link to load and can't get it! I tried to copy and paste it and couldn't get it as well. When you have a moment, would you mind emailing it to me salonstephen@gmail.com ? Thanks! I am so glad to know that there is someone else who travels like I do! Do you know what I remember about the vacations of my childhood? Driving. Funny that now my vacations involve very little activity. I like to get to a place, and experience it. I'd rather truly experience a place than see everything and experience nothing on a trip! So one afternoon in a market is worth 1000x more than seeing EVERY city in Provence. To me.

Lisa Southard said...

My table manners are rudimentary but the love of food (and table dancing) goes deep- so glad I ate before I read this or I would be terribly hungry now :-)