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.