Sunday, July 17, 2011

Rockets Red Glare

Cindy and I took a day off, one that was planned a month ago, to attend a brunch at a local vineyard with a couple who are our neighbors. Brunch de Domaine de Coutancie, now you know the secret place. Our friends only speak French, so it was an opportunity for us to yet again immerse in the language. As it was Bastille Day we had also planned to go to Bergerac that evening, with the kids, to watch the fireworks along the banks of the Dordogne. We met up with our neighbors and followed them, down rural roads dotted with wineries and stupid cute ancient farms, the 20 kilometers to the winery. We arrive and park in the adjacent field and proceed to walk up the approach to the event. The winery looked as though it was designed by some movie set builder, I was trying to place it in my mind, was it in French Kiss, at Kevin Klein’s family get together scene, or from Under the Tuscan sun, the final scene when Dianne Lane has the wedding for her young friends, and she meets the travelling writer. We enter the grounds and check in, Cindy had prepaid by cheque, the main reason we went, so we waited while our friends paid. This was by reservation only, and it turns out our friends had been attending for the past 12 years, we felt as if we were let in on a pretty special secret. We walk around enjoying the relaxed atmosphere, and marvel at the sweeping valley views, the requisite rows upon rows of vines, surreal lighting, and mercifully an unrelenting cool breeze. We seat ourselves at this collection of long tables where most of our party is seated in the shade of a large oak tree. Once seated we acclimate ourselves to our neighbors, enjoyable lot, and it is somehow discovered that we’re not locals? We handle ourselves well, conversing in our basic French the entire brunch. As the whole affair is buffet style the guys amble over to the serving station to pick up the aperitif and it is wet, cold, and a slightly sweet white wine, who’s going to argue with that. I would point out that we have finally found our French gears and we enjoy the glass for 20 minutes or so idly chatting about pleasant things. Knowing limited French we don’t follow the local politics, and vise versa with them and American politics. Up next on the gastronomic tour a plate with foie gras, melon, and thin cuts of magret seche' et coppa maison (thinly sliced dried duck breast by them) with those small delicate pickles which paired well with the richness of the goose liver. We accompanied this course with a cool rose’ that was one of their products. I believe at this point our friends returned with another helping of the goose liver plate. We sort of realized that this was going to be one of those "we'll have to eat our way out of this" kind of affair, and we also acknowledged to each other that this had the possibility of being one of those “pinch me, is this real” moments in life that you enjoy strictly in the moment. Either that or she pinched me because of a Jerry Lewis joke they didn’t seem to get. Then the aroma of bar-be-que hits us and the first wave of hungry guests weave over to the serving station, we are still in bliss with the foie gras and rose so we make it over when the line is at its smallest. We amble past the chef tending the entrecote fillets on the barbeque, I have to admit for a country that doesn’t sell great barbeques, they make up for it in other ways. The coals are from old vines that were yanked for one reason or another, they are cut up into smallish sizes and lit in the traditional manner and built upon with smaller stalks as the coals burn down. This imparts a flavor to the meat as it is cooked, sounds easy right, not so, as Gary and I discovered in the five weeks he and Susan visited ( see: worked gulag style) . Gary and I managed a small success initially and missed a couple times later then got real analytical in our approach and found a few helpful tips about the requirements for vine barbeque-ing. The taste is discernable and mellow in its smokiness, but combined with something else, not a hint of grape, but a subtle sweet tint. We are served frites and a slab of the entrecote, rare-ish. An English definition of Entrecote, from P&F meat market website defines it as. “Entrecote is a French word for the popular ribeye steak. This cut of meat is special because it comes from the middle muscle. It has both attributes, flavor and tenderness….found in a high end steakhouse” Well anyway combine the steak, the grilling methodology, and the red wine (theirs) we were served and it was then that Cindy and I knew this was a cinematic moment that we shared. I will mention that our friends managed to have three servings and I had two, god it was great. That entire course lasted twenty years,,, at least an hour and a half, slowly peacefully relaxed conversation, I rearranged the forty or so French words I know in different order and must have started ten different conversations,….on correct usage of French vocabulary. The steak was followed by the cheese course, fromage it was a delicate goat cheese or Cabecou. "One of the smallest French cheeses. The name 'Cabecou' comes from the language of 'Oc', the ancient language of South West of France and means small goat. This delicious farm cheese gets its flavour from the richness of the milk. The goats graze in pastures full of luxurious vegetation (hawthorn, mulberry-tree, juniper-tree, etc) of the Midi-Pyrenees, a region of France.( thank you Or as my maternal grandmother would say "it was fukin' great", no she didn't say that, but it was.
The dessert finally made its way over to our table, local strawberries injected with an abundance of strawberry flavor, soft and perfect in color, shape and taste, on a bed of Chantilly with white wine. Should be illegal, well there goes my diet I think as I go over for seconds. As the brunch winded down I realized that it was 5:30, and we arrived at 12:30, yep anything worth doing is worth doing right.
We returned home to pick up the kids, for our trip to Bergerac, a half an hour away, but 800 years in the past, the old part of Bergerac hasn’t been ruined, but protected form modernization. We ( Cindy ) packed a bunch of snacks and picnic stuff for the fireworks show, and loaded up the car and left by 8:30. Cindy and I were still in lounge mode after the food orgy, but for the kids, we rallied to get us all to Bergerac. Our plan was to set up a spot on the banks of the Dordogne that the kids would use as a home base, allowing them the freedom enjoyed by young adults. We parked by the new bridge, a couple kilometers down from the old part of town and the old bridge, less people and better view. We couldn’t have picked a better spot, we set up our blankets and refreshments and waited, and while we waited the young adults roamed old Bergerac. We were blessed to have Elsa here with us for a month, Caleigh’s best friend from the States. So did I mention we waited, and waited the fireworks then started at 10:30 – 11:00 ish. Oooof! It gets dark here so late. The fireworks here are surreal; they started with two French national anthem songs, the one we all know and another French anthem-y sounding song. As we are identifying the music, we’re thinking these guys have nothing on Disney land, they start out very reservedly, and build the magnitude of the fireworks gradually. It starts to dawn on us that they are playing only national anthems, we hear God save the Queen, then Rue Brittiana, and work their way around Europe, then we hear ours, the fireworks change as soon as ours starts, there are white cannonades of light from the bank across the river, as though a shore battery is opening up on the British frigates at Fort Sumner, and when “and the rockets red glare” is sung three giant red flares light up the French country side, and I feel tears at the corner of my face and I’m choked up like you would not believe. I lived in Boston for ten years and my friends and I would join the annual pilgrimage to the Charles River to listen to Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops perform the 1812 overture to the synchronized fireworks, I gotta tell you, this blew them out of the water. The fireworks continued accompanied by the different nations anthems, the Russian anthem I think should always be accompanied by fireworks, imagery and history, and the German national was not familiar to me, better than hearing “Deutschland uber alles” I guess. The finale was spectacular, we now know we will return each year with a larger and larger group of friends. It was an incredible day all told, one Cindy and I will never forget, glad we could share it.