You are here

American Food Writer Starves To Death In France, Pt. 2: No Goose In Toulouse

We Encountered A Cruel Lampoon Of Nouvelle CuisineToulouse, FranceBretenoux Main Square

The first part of this story told of the Paris stopover of a trip my wife Diana and I took to our friend’s wedding in the South of France. Due to a tragic set of circumstances, the only food we managed to put in our stomach during this 16-hour stopover was a single falafel for each of us. Part One concludes with catching a train to Toulouse and assuaging our hunger with visions of all the great French cuisine we would soon be sharing.

The groom’s cousin Pierre, a chipper young man, greeted us at the Toulouse station. No sooner had we gotten into the car than he excitedly declared: “You would not believe the lunch you have just missed!”

I could feel my blood simmer, my stomach rumble and my brain go into shock simultaneously, as though my body parts were performing an impromptu opera. Pierre went on to describe the truffled foie gras terrine on crusty loaves of bread; open-fire roasted pouisson brushed with French butter and more truffles; baby potatoes freshly plucked from the garden and briskly sautéed with herbs freshly plucked from the garden; a salad composed of more garden pluckings…”

Diana and I sat in stunned silence as he continued.

“Quite frankly, I’m a little lightheaded from all that food. Well, plus the wine probably has something to do with it,” the obnoxious kid said with a wide grin. Of course wine was served! No doubt a rare, long-cellared label exclusive to the region. I wasn’t going to ask about it, but Pierre couldn’t help but volunteer. 

“It wasn’t anything special,” he announced nonchalantly, as though this could serve as consolation for the crushing news he’d delivered. “The bottle of Sauternes paired beautifully with the foie gras, but the Chardonnay with the chicken was a little too oaky. “

“I don’t suppose they’re waiting for us before eating dessert?” I asked, at this point grasping for any potential good news.

“Afraid not. There was a fruit and custard tart with a brilliantly crusty pate brisee, profiterolles with hand-cranked ice cream flavored with strawberries from the backyard, and a Tarte Tatín. Turns out Juliette’s mom is as magical with pastry as she is with patés!”

Diana has more of a sweet tooth than I, so I turned to her with an assurance that there would be leftovers. “Sûrement pas!,” said Pierre in his pretentious French accent, adding that this meant “hell no!” “Almost everyone took seconds, and I personally had three slices of the fruit tart.”

“A hungry man is an angry man,” Bob Marley once wrote: If Pierre wasn’t behind the wheel I would have strangled him. I even remember thinking that if I was going to strangle him I should do so right away, thus not only murdering the smug bastard but killing his sugar high as well.

Toulouse, France

As soon as we arrived at the house – it actually looked more like a museum than a home, with ancient stone walls and rolling gardens – the Sergeant put us to work at getting the grounds set for the wedding the next day. After an hour of toiling in the hot sun, it was mentioned that we hadn’t yet gone to our hotel and checked in. The hotel, another ancient chateaux, was some ten kilometers distance.

Before heading to France, our plan was to rent a car to get around, but the groom assured me there would be no need. “There’ll be plenty of cars,” he said. “If anything, we could probably use you as a driver on the wedding day”(which they did). But on this occasion, Pierre chauffeured us to the hotel. The idea was for us to have a nice dinner in the hotel restaurant and then kick back after a long travel day. Pierre would pick us up in the morning. The scenario might’ve succeeded had we not been one of only two couples staying at the musty castle relic of a hotel; because of this lack of customers, the restaurant shut down early. There was not a smidgeon of food to be eaten, and we were in the middle of nowhere with no transportation.

The following morning we descended into the empty dining room, which featured lovely table settings for the two of us along with a pot of coffee, a pot of hot water with teas, and three modestly-sized croissants with some butter and jam. There was no one around – no waiter, no front desk clerk, nobody – as though ghosts were running the place and considerately left us a nibble to eat. I’d guess it was about halfway through our first croissant when I glanced up at my wife and saw in her expression an exact reflection of what I was thinking. In a flash, the two of us lunged for that third croissant. It was an intense tussle but lasted only a few seconds, or until we saw that we were each holding a piece of crushed, flattened croissant with the shiny, buttery topping flaked off into powdery crumbs on the linen tablecloth. We agreed to split the pummeled pastry amicably, licked the remaining jam left in the little jars, and waited for Pierre.

It is really just too aggravating for me to rehash the details of how Pierre had come by early, decided not to wake us, and then was unavailable to pick us up. We hitchhiked, and at times just hiked, with formal wear for the wedding neatly folded into our backpacks, in uncomfortable July heat, until we arrived at the house. Everyone was piling into cars as soon as we got there. The Sergeant informed us that we were going to some obscure museum in a neighboring village. Hours before the wedding? I think this guy may have taken a few too many rifle butts to the head.

When we got to the museum, Diana and I espied a charcuterie store up the block. We informed everyone that we’d be skipping the exhibition in order to check out the food scene, me being a food writer and all. Did I care that the group looked at us as though we were embarrassingly uncultured Americans? No! My heart was dancing as soon as they marched away from us and we started heading for the quaint looking shop with a black wrought-iron pig-shaped sign out front.

Within seconds of entering, I grabbed a beautifully long, dark, crusty, thin baguette and was in the process of ordering a number of items: Jambon de Bayonne, Pâté de Campagne, saucisson, and a perfectly ripe-looking Camembert for starters – when a member of the wedding party rushed into the shop. “The museum is closed!” he announced to us breathlessly. “And the mister wants to get back to the house right away!” Diana went out to stall while I managed to purchase the bread and pâté; a honking car horn precluded me from waiting for anything else. The automobile was crowded, so the Sergeant insisted we put our packs, with the pâté and bread within, inside the trunk.

We arrived back at the house with little time to change into formal attire for the wedding, so I reluctantly placed the pâté in the fridge and the baguette on the kitchen table. Within minutes we were driven to the site of the vows: An abandoned old monastery in the countryside. It was a beautiful ceremony, although I could barely hear the vows over the rumbling of my stomach. To the house once again, where the bar and food tables were being set up. Joy! The bar was open first, so we hurried over. Diana drank three successive glasses of fruit juice, as did I, although I had mine mixed with alcohol; I figured I could use the extra calories.

I won’t exaggerate and tell you I knocked over fourteen Frenchmen to grab hors d’oeuvres from a passing waiter. I may have brushed one elderly gentleman a bit, but in no way was I responsible for his beret falling to the ground. As I rapidly explained at the time, he simply spun his head too brusquely in a dramatic overreaction to being mildly nudged. Truth is, I was attempting to make my way to the waiter in as cool a manner as possible, disguising my desperation like a master actor.

From a distance I espied the food on his tray: some sort of pâté on cracker with sliver of cornichon on top. I took two and made my way to Diana, holding the snacks aloft as though they were winning lottery tickets. We each took turns going on search-and-grab missions, though the precious few bites being circulated were quickly seized by the ravenous French masses. Rumor had it that many more guests had come than anticipated – like, for instance, the whole town.

Unfortunately, the rumor was true. As a result, the buffet went from the planned “take your own food” to having servers dish out the items. They should have used tweezers as serving tools. Main course was a microscopic “escalope” of salmon with two “pomme rissole” (melon-ball scoops of sautéed potato) and a smidgeon of spinach that looked as though it had been previously stuck between two front teeth. A small wedge of baguette, with single butter pat, was the finishing touch.

We Encountered A Cruel Lampoon Of Nouvelle Cuisine

The plate of food, a cruel lampoon of Nouvelle Cuisine, gave me only enough strength to dream of getting back to the hotel for what would certainly be the most satisfying baguette-and-pâté sandwich ever eaten. As the affair started winding down, we convinced a departing guest to give us a lift. I ran upstairs to grab our packs along with the pâté from the fridge. I initially panicked when the pâté and bread weren’t to be found, but then I saw that my wife had already taken her bag and no doubt the food as well.

As soon as we got back to the room, while still in my suit, I placed Diana’s pack on the floor and opened it up to take out the goods. Before doing so, I noticed that there wasn’t a baguette sticking out the top, but figured she’d cut it to fit in.

“What are you looking through my bag for?” Diana asked, and as I answered “the food – I thought you’d taken it,” I noticed it wasn’t there.  Turns out she thought I’d taken it, but what we were both sure of is that we’d each searched carefully through the fridge and on the table in the kitchen and there was no sight of baguette or pâté. At that moment we both experienced flashbacks of the wedding -- from the pâté hors d’oeuvres to the slices of baguette, both of which seemed vaguely familiar to us at the time but only in a subconscious manner-- and we grasped exactly what had occurred: These people not only starved us, but in order to feed the extra guests THEY STOLE OUR FOOD! The notion was so preposterous, our disappointment so deep, the whole situation so comically dire that we started laughing – and continued to do so until tears rolled down our cheeks.

“All is not lost, my love,” Diana finally said with a sly smile upon her face. From her purse she pulled something wrapped in a paper napkin, slowly unfolding the package and holding up the contents: A small chunk of our crusty French baguette, left uneaten and unattended by the guest seated next to her. We sat on the floor, me in suit and she in gown, and savored that unadorned bread along with a bottle of water: A sad parody of a chic picnic.

“I can see the headline now,” I said while picking up a few crumbs that had fallen to my lap and placing them on my tongue. ‘American Food Writer Starves To Death In France’.”

Bretenoux Main Square

After a peaceful splitting of the third croissant the next morning, we were driven to the train station by Pierre, who I swear looked noticeably plumper than two days earlier. We departed for Bretenoux, where we spent a week bicycling the countryside, riding horses, and kayaking on the Dordognes River. But the first thing we did upon arrival was to sit at one of the two main restaurants in Bretenoux’s town square and indulge in the ample pre fixe lunch of traditional French country fare -- as well as lick clean a number of side plates. Our hearty appetites didn’t go unnoticed by the establishments’ owner, who approached the table.

Never have I seen such small people eat such large amounts of food!” she declared with delight. Then we told her the story I’ve just told you, and she made sure to feed us abundantly during our many subsequent visits.