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Making French food speak flawless 'Americaine'

(post, Robert Reynolds)

It takes an enormous focus to live in a foreign country; at the end of the day you can be exhausted. At the end of a week you really want to sleep in. We drifted through the day today. The fact that we went to the market at Nerac had nothing to do with ‘work.’ Nerac is the site of one of Henri IV’s chateaux. Henri, famous for his dictum of a chicken in every pot, has become our favorite king. He’s ours. Signs note that Henri once rode his horses on these roads we follow to market on the small streets of Nerac and in the shadow of what remains of his chateau and stables.

We wander through the town and discover the traveling department store that has unraveled on the streets and sells everything from old ladies housecoats; (‘schmatas,’ I say to Andrea, who finds comfort in hearing the Yiddish word, and thinks of her Grandmother); to anything else you could need in a small town in rural France, from housewares and hand made furniture to thread.  Pots and pans, yard goods, clothing, and on and on until we arrive at the far end of the square where the food vendors sell their goods.

The first sign of the food world are the Armagnac vendors. We encounter an old man standing by his table with a simple display of Armagnac. I stop and look closer to learn it is not that expensive to buy an Armagnac from 1970.  “You must look carefully,” my friend Kate advised, “because these guys have this stuff stored away in their cellars, and when a daughter gets married, or if they need a new roof, they bring the Armagnac to sell at the market. It represents a financial reserve, their way of keeping money in a sock. If you’re observant, you may come across something exceptional.”

This is not cheese country the way Niort, in the region of the Deux Sevres is. That's the France I know best. When I discussed cheese with the woman at the market here she said, “No, this is a country of vines and prunes. No cheese. If you want cheese you go towards Cahors.” The dairy industry in America can move cows to the swamps in Florida, situate them next to the alligators, feed them Purina cat chow, extract liquid and call it ‘milk.’ The French tend to play to the high ground, as we do in Oregon, allowing healthy animals good pasturage. The resulting products you taste here are a Grand Canyon away from industrialized ‘cheese food.’ and ‘cheese flavor.’

Penetrate the market deeper, and you find a long succession of food vendors. Each time we come here, even in this early part of the season, more and more local produce appears. We find garriguettes,  a famous flat strawberry from this region. It is almost without a core, and has a wonderful perfume. I smell them before I see them, but resist buying them just yet. I make a mental note to buy them last, so they wind up on the top of my market basket, not at the bottom. Three packets cost 5 euros.

I like the cheese lady in Nerac. From our first encounter she told me I should have confidence in her decisions. “I am in your hands,” I assured her publicly. Now when I buy cheese she announces in a public voice that “Monsieur est un connoisseur,” he knows what he’s talking about. I miss the excellent goat cheeses from Niort and tell her I’m in a mood for chevre. “Tres bien,” she says, and starts recommending things. I want my goat cheeses runny, and say to her, "There is a little cheese down there, sitting by itself. It seems to have an air completely creamy.” She gives me a smile as though I have won the jackpot by clever observation. “You are absolutely right,” she says, and from among the hundred or so cheeses she has on display, she heads for the one cheese I identified.

I ask the students if today is a good day for a grilled cheese sandwich. The idea thrills them. I know Cantal is like cheddar, and if you use if for melting it behaves beautifully. I also know that here they will mix Cantal with Roquefort for a magical taste effect. The reason Roquefort is used with Cantal, according to one school of thought is that Roquefort, being sheep’s milk, needs cream to complete it. There are other schools for whom that idea is pure heresy. I have discovered the pleasure of stickiing with my own beliefs.

“I want a Cantal that is a little fruity,” meaning that I like them young. I put myself in her hands and ask, “But would you let me taste the middle one, and the aged one?” “You are right to ask,” she says, “because you’ll find the others have much more taste." Everyone waiting in line is very attentive to the unfolding of this story, watching the American (me), exercise his ability to swim in French. Waiting in line in France is a little like listening to an interview on National Public Radio. People are curious and entertained, but not impatient and I learned long ago that they will wait. We taste the Cantals and the French watch our expressions. I pick the middle one based on a vote of the students. We conduct our business and move on with perfect cheeses.

We wandering through the market for an hour taking in the inventory of vegetables, pork and duck and chicken products. The students find potted meats appealing. For a couple of euros they choose a jar of duck rillettes from the woman who made them. Rillettes are convenience food, made from duck, duck fat, Armagnac and salt. They are ready to use whenever we want, and perfect on a piece of toast with a glass of Floc, the local aperitif made from Armagnac and grape juice or wine.

We’ve tasted a lot of bread and few really please us. A baker near the train station in Agen makes good bread if you eat it right away. Bread is a reason we came to the market in Nerac. We discovered it tucked at a stand selling sells charcuterie and deli. It is almost out of sight, so you’ve got to look closely. We like this bread best of all we’ve tasted. I eyed a flat loaf of walnut bread, knew it would be good. I hoped someone ahead in line wouldn’t pre-empt me. As soon as the vendor gave me his attention, I asked for the last loaf.  Once it was set aside I bought half a loaf of a second bread. He makes it by rolling out a piece of dough as wide as his hand and about three feet long. He folds the dough back in half and creates a flat, layered loaf about 18 inches long. It has some heft from moisture, a good crust and chew, as well as good flavor.

When I asked where I might find his bread during the week, he answers, “at the market at Fleurance. on Tuesday.” “Where is that,” I ask. “Fleurence,” he repeats. “But that is in Italy,” I say with a smile. “Isn’t that a bit far to go for a loaf of bread?” He likes that I joke with him, and carefully explains where the village is. We leave happy, knowing that if we accomplish nothing else, we have the makings of really good grilled cheese sandwiches. If we need a good dose of Americanism, McDonald’s will never show up on our radar. We know how to find satisfaction taking an excellent French product and making it speak flawless American.


Serves 1

2 slices or artisan French bread, sliced finger thick

½ tablespoon excellent butter from the Charente and Poitou

1/4 inch thick slices of aged Cantal cheese

1-2 tablespoon sized slices of excellent Roquefort, ‘Papillon’ brand

Lay the slices of bread side by side. Set the slices of Cantal on one slice of bread. Top the cheese with thin slices of Roquefort, equivalent to 1 or 2 tablespoons of cheese. Top the cheese with the second slice of cheese.

Butter the top of the sandwich with a thin layer of butter. Melt the remainder of the butter in a skillet and heat it until it melts. Set the sandwich, non buttered side down, into the skillet. Adjust the flame so that the bread toasts in about 2 minutes. Lift the sandwich with the point of a knife and look at the underside of the bread; it should be toasted golden. Turn the bread and toast the other side in the same manner. Turn the heat down and allow the sandwich to continue to cook without over browning, until the cheese in the center melts, and runs together.

Remove from the skillet, slice and serve.