(For a Friday, a little change from the usual – a post about traveling, history, and an insufficient command of French … but an appreciation for good food and small country inns. This is included my ebook “Travels With Blondie.”)
I have been flipping over the pages of my battered Hallwag Euro-Guide, attempting to reconstruct my hopscotch itinerary on little back roads across France, at the wheel of the VEV in the early autumn of 1985. I avoided the big cities, before and after Paris, and the major highways. For a foreign driver, Paris was a nerve-wracking, impenetrable urban jungle, a tangle of streets and roundabouts, and the major highways were toll-roads and expensive; much less fraught to follow the little-trafficked country roads from town to town to town. We ghosted along those two-lane country roads as much as a bright orange Volvo sedan can be said to ghost, the trunk and the back seat packed with mine and my daughter’s luggage, a basket of books, a large bottle of Metaxa brandy (a departing gift from Kyria Paniyioti, our Athens landlord) and two boxes of china and kitchen gadgets purchased from that holiest of holies of French kitchenware shops, Dehillerin in the Rue Coquilliere.
From Chartres and the wondrous cathedral, I went more or less south towards the Loire; the most direct way would been a secondary road to Chateaudun, and an even more secondary road directly from there to Blois, through a green countryside lightly touched with autumn gold, where the fields of wheat and silage had been already mown down to stubble. The road wound through gentle ranges of hills, and stands of enormous trees. Here at a turn of the road was a dainty and Disney-perfect chateau, with a wall and a terrace and a steep-sloped blue-slate roof trimmed with pepper-pot turrets, an enchanting dollhouse of a chateau, set among its’ own shady green grove. There was no historic marker, no sign of habitation, nothing to welcome the sightseer, and then the road went around a bend and it was out of sight, as fleeting as a vision.
Blois was set on hills, a charming small town of antique buildings, none more than two or three stories tall, and I seemed to come into it very abruptly late in the afternoon. Suddenly there were buildings replacing the fields on either side. At the first corner, I turned left, followed the signpost pointing to the town center; might as well find a place to spend the night. As soon as I turned the corner and thought this, I spotted the little hotel, fronting right on the narrow sidewalk. It had two Michelin stars, which was good enough for me (plain, clean, comfortable and cheap) and was called the Golden… well, the golden something or other. I didn’t recognise the French word; truth to tell, I didn’t recognize most of them, just the words for foods and cooking, mostly, and could pronounce rather fewer.
The lobby was tiny; floored in mellow rose tiles that had a gentle roll to them, like the sea on a calm day, from wear and subsidence. Blondie looked around with interest: inside it was quite obvious this was a very, very old building: ancient timbers broke the expanse of cream-colored plaster at odd intervals. The manager appeared from another room, an elderly lady in an overall and apron who cooed over Blondie, graciously ignored the hash I made of asking for a room for two for two nights, handed me a room key and said,
“Les auto?” and indicated I should drive around the side of the building. “Marie!” she called, and a teenage girl appeared out of the back, wiping her hands on a towel. The manager rattled off some instructions to Marie, and made some shooing motions to me. Obviously, there was some parking in back, which suited me. I was wary of parking the VEV on the street, always better to take advantage of a secure place on the premises. I reversed the VEV, and drove slowly back around the corner, looking for the turn-in to the hotel parking lot. Halfway down the block I spotted Marie, pulling open a heavy door on tracks, revealing a low arched opening— a short tunnel into a tiny interior courtyard, just big enough to park six cars, three abreast. We had best not want to leave before the last vehicle in tonight, which would suit me fine; I had planned to explore Blois on foot the next day. In medieval times, this would have been the inn-yard, horses would have been stabled here, carts and coaches would have come in through that arched doorway and travelers accommodated in the second-story rooms. Traveling theatrical companies would have performed here, while the audience watched from the windows and galleries above. Now it was just a pocket parking lot, roofed over with fiberglass, and the galleries walled in to make larger rooms.
Marie waited while I got our bags out of the car, and then bustled us down a rambling corridor to a small staircase. The second floor corridor rambled also, and occasionally went up or down a step or two. Clearly the Golden Something or Other was not only very old, but had been added on to frequently and with slapdash gusto on the part of the builders. Our room was very tiny, framed with heavy, ancient beams and almost entirely filled up by the double bed. We had a window with not much of a view that I remember, and a shallow niche framed in more antique beams which contained an incongruously modern bathroom sink, but nothing else. The WC was away down the hall— I left Blondie with some of her comic books, and went looking for it. It was a good distance away. (In the middle of the night, I would boost Blondie up so she could pee into the sink, rather than wander that dark and uneven corridor, looking for it again.)
At a jog in the corridor, two room doors were open, and the sound of English floated out: two English couples and a fifth of fine Scotch circulating between them. It had been a good few weeks since I had run into any other native speakers of my mother tongue, so I said “hullo” and was welcomed rapturously with a dash of Scotch,
“Isn’t just the most marvelous little place?” The two couples were old friends, and doing the Loire Chateau-country motor tour together. “We didn’t have reservations; we got the last two rooms, wasn’t that the most astonishing piece of luck?”
“I didn’t have reservations, “ I said, “I almost never do. It’s not luck, it’s just that I start to look for a place in the early afternoon, when I get tired of driving.”
They marveled at my sense of adventure, and I finished my dash of Scotch, and wondered how it was that I had only met a bare handful of Americans in the course of this trip, wandering around on their own, driving their own car and setting their own itinerary, instead of being stuck thirty or fifty in a group on an immense tour bus with a guide. It wasn’t like Europe was this immense howling wilderness, after all.
The tiny dining room on the ground floor of the Golden Something of Other was as unpretentious, and as ancient as the rest of the place, scrupulously clean and un-memorably decorated— kind of like Grannie Jessie’s house, come to think on it. Breakfast the next morning was not served there, but at a couple of tables set up in what would have been a loggia overlooking the courtyard, with a fine view of the six cars packed in like so many metal sardines. The tables were very plainly set, with the same kind of thin plastic sheet over faded checked cloths that I had been accustomed to in Greece, laden with baskets of croissants and miniature brioche. Guests came and went as they pleased, helping themselves to bread, and butter and jam, and café au lait, while the staff constantly replenished the supply from the nearby kitchen. The staff appeared to consist of two grandmotherly ladies in similar overalls and aprons, and half a dozen teenaged girls. Were there anyone else, I never laid eyes on them. My notion of traveler’s nirvana was established right then and there; the most perfect place to stay in all the world would be a simple two-star hotel in a small town in France, run by women.
After breakfast, I took my daughters’ hand, and we went exploring. Either Blois was an extraordinarily small place, or we had driven into the historic part of by chance, arriving as we did on the old road from the north. We walked down the main street in front of the inn; after about a block, it dipped into a shallow defile, curved up on the other side, around a low hill— and there was the fabled chateau.
At the end of the tourist season, and fairly off the beaten track, it was pleasantly un-crowded, empty stone rooms filled with little but thin autumn sunshine spilling in through the eastern-facing windows. Perhaps it had never had much in the way of furniture anyway; up until the 18th century princes and great nobles had many houses and estates, and moved from one to another, taking the furniture, tapestries and small possessions with them, moving on as the privies overflowed, and the pantries emptied.(A house was essentially an established and permanent camping-place, and the good and great traveled with wagonloads of gear.) Only certain of the wings and galleries were open to the public, we had to show our little blue pasteboard tickets several times to the keepers of various sections. I let Blondie hold her own ticket, and at the last stop, I discovered that she had put it in her mouth, and all there was of it was a little wad of chewed blue pulp. Fortunately the doorkeepers were another set of grandmotherly ladies in overalls (Was this entire town run by grandmothers?), and they laughed, enormously amused when I showed it to them, and let us in.
In the dining room that night, there was an English family with two children about her age; they were passing through on their way home from Provence. The children hit it off, being able to chatter for once in a more-or-less common language. This time, Blondie did not astonish them by naming it: Being a logical and observant child she had worked out that Greeks spoke Greek, Italians spoke Italian, Germans spoke German… and being Americans, of course the term for our native language must follow the same logic. She had very much startled a couple of stuffy Britons, in a hotel in Italy, when she overheard them talking, and announced, with much delight, “You’re ‘peaking American!” We sat at the same table for dinner, comparing notes on the advantages and adventures of traveling with children. The main disadvantage was of course, being fussy about mealtimes. I had just about given up ordering a seperate meal for my daughter in the course of this trip, and so had the English couple. We took full advantage of the European custom of asking for another plate, and feeding ones’ children from whatever main course you had ordered for yourself. Whatever it was, we agreed gloomily, the children were just going to pick at it anyway.
Only it turned out a little different at the Inn of the Golden Something or Other. One of the grandmotherly managers took our orders, and a teenage waitress brought around baskets of bread, and the soup course. The soup had a clear, rich meat broth, and lots of vegetables in it; a delicious foretaste of things to come, and all of us spooned and sipped eagerly. The waitress came to clear the soup plates away, but to our astonishment, all three children chorused for more soup. No, they didn’t want any of the main courses the adults had ordered, they just wanted more soup. The eventually each tucked away three generous bowls of it, while the manager beamed fond matronly approval down on the three small heads over the soup plates.
“That, “remarked the mother of the two English children, “Is the most I have seen them eat willingly this whole holiday.”
It was truely a marvelous dish; I have gone into some of my cookbooks, and this recipe is probably a close approximation to what the children ate so eagerly. It’s a vegetable soup, or Soupe Minestra from The Cuisine of Paul Bocuse.
In a heavy saucepan, render 2 oz finely diced bacon or fresh pork fat. Add 2 medium onions, chopped, 2 leeks, the white part only, finely chopped, and sauté until golden. Add 1 carrot, 1 turnip, 1 celery stick, all finely diced, and the core of a small head of cabbage, also finely diced. Cover and let sweat for 15 minutes. Season with salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar. Pour in 6 cups rich stock (or water), bring to a boil and let simmer for 30 minutes. Add 2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced, a handful of green beans, stemmed and cut in 1-inch lengths, 1 cup fresh peas, one large potato, peeled and diced and 4 oz broken spaghetti or small pasta. Let simmer for another hour. Just before serving, add another 2 oz. diced bacon or pork fat, mashed and mixed with one minced clove of garlic, basil and chervil to taste. (Probably best to simmer for another minute or two, or use butter instead of pork-fat.)
In one of my books— a history book I had along on the trip for reference— I found the bill for our stay there, many years later, and it had the name of the hotel on it, and the address in Blois… but now I have forgotten the name of the book!