From the Preface
The house that we exchanged for our beach house was in the southernmost part of France, in the Roussillon wine region, but an easy trip into Spain and not too far from Italy. Our primary interest was Spain, since Mike already had a working knowledge of Spanish and our stay in Mexico had left me with a good base. Italy had lots of appeal as a travel destination, but the currency risks and government corruption at the time made it less attractive as an investment. After weeks of two- and three-day road trips across the border into Spain, through the mountains and down the coast, we concluded that years of Franco had broken the spirit and infrastructure of the country and left the people stooped and suspicious of strangers.
And the weather, specifically the wind, was driving us out of the extreme south of France. The tramontane wind that blows out of the Pyrenees across the broad, flat valleys in the Languedoc-Roussillon are as bad as the infamous mistral in the Rhone River valley, blowing up to sixty miles per hour, twenty-four hours a day, sometimes for weeks on end, leaving it impossible to bike or even walk at times. (After all, we were partially trying to get out of the summer wind and fog of the San Francisco Bay Area.) And we found the Languedoc-Roussillon people to be as bent over against foreigners as they were against the wind. To avoid them both, we found ourselves going farther and farther north, across the Black Mountains into the Haut Languedoc with its lush green hills and water flowing everywhere, a complete contrast to the wind-dried valleys in the south. We hadn’t really spent much time in rural France, but by staying in small auberges, exploring the gentle hills and villages during the day, and eating rustic country food in friendly surroundings, we met many people, even with our limited French. And the people seemed as warm and generous as the hills were green. We followed the Tarn River farther north and east, moving from gentle rolling hills to steep terraced cliffs dotted with dramatic chartreuse valleys. The people were friendly and curious, and petit à petit, we started to feel we might be home. Then, one day, near the end of our stay, while driving through Roquefort cheese country near Millau in the the Tarn Valley, Mike suddenly veered off to the right onto a smaller country road marked by an arrow that said Saint-Rome-de-Tarn.
“I don’t know why, I just want to go there,” he said…
May 28, 1993
La Pilande Basse
Water sounds fill the air, rushing, slapping against the broad flat rocks, swirling under the stone bridge that seems almost too picturesque, a cliché. Somehow the sound is too loud for the size of the babbling brook slipping under the bridge. The large, flat stones, twenty feet below, could hold lawn chairs and comic books if children were to come.
The lilac branches pushed aside, the door slightly lifted—both Dutch doors together, that is—and a solid bump on the bottom as the bottom door grinds open across the dirt floor of the smallest structure below the main building on the riverside. After one human width, it stops, stuck against a pile of metal detritus: worn-out bits of gears and pulleys piled to the low ceiling. White spider skins hang on abandoned webs, hung with dust instead of prey. Water lisps at the base of the little building, and bats, rudely awakened, circle, searching for a safe exit. On the back of the door is a nail, a nail with a cross, a cross meant to warn potential trespassers that someone is watching. And hanging under that cross, a set of keys. Five keys. The agent had said everyone knew the keys were there, but nothing had ever been taken.
There are two large arches on the base of the river side of the big, long building, dark passages into unknown spaces too dark and musky to be welcoming. Closer to the water, the hush becomes more a rush. A crumbling set of stone stairs, made from larger rocks poking out of a stone wall, form a precarious descent to the river, protected by stinging nettles and blackberry bushes. Near the entrance to the main building is a large, round stone, leaning against the base of a structure with an odd metal screw device protruding from the center. The stone is at least twelve inches thick, with odd symmetrical grooves radiating from the large center hole. Ferns, moss and wildfowers poke their heads out of every dirt-catching crack…
From “The Chairs and Duck Confit”
April 21, 1995
Mike is off to see his new grandson and I’m here alone holding down the fort. Well, me, Germain, and Martou. (Martou is a diminutive of Marthe, as I think I told you, so our relationship has gone from madame to Marthe to Martou.)
They decided that I needed to learn to make my own duck confit, and now that I’m on the other side of that experience, I can tell you, buying it at twice the normal price is more intelligent. I had seen large hunks of duck in every butcher shop in Albi, sometimes encased in plastic, always covered with a thick layer of fat, and finally asked Martou what it was. First, she made me taste some, hot from the oven, the skin crisp and the meat dry but delicious, like duck carnitas, not at all greasy like I had imagined. Then she explained that, autrefois, in the old days, before refrigeration, in order to preserve their ducks they would salt and cook the meat in its own fat and then put the confit in large ceramic crocks, pouring the fat over the pieces and storing the covered jars in their caves. To eat it, they simply pushed back the congealed fat, took what they wanted, and then spread the fat back over the rest. Because it was salty, sterile, and covered with a protective coat of grease, the meat would last for months.
Confit is basically any meat cooked slowly in its own fat, and duck confit is not sweet little baby duckling confit, but a fully mature, twenty-pound, three-foot duck (as big as a goose), which we don’t see in the States. You buy, or raise and force-feed the ducks as Germain and Martou do, slaughter and pluck them, cut them up, and salt them for a few days, then you cover them in six quarts of duck fat, then cook them for forever, then can them in mason jars, or bocaux. The process takes about four days.
But I didn’t know that, so I speedily agreed to their tutelage. Martou told me where to go to find the best ducks, Monsieur Bonnafe at Frayssines, just on the other side of Plaisance. I called to order them, tout prêt à faire cuire—all ready to cook—per Martou’s instructions, which I now know basically means “dead.” I arrived at the farm, driving through the inevitable mud mixed with straw, animal feed, and chickens, all protected by mean dogs. There’s something unnerving about arriving at a farm. Everything is big—the tractors, the barns, the hands of the farmer, and especially his wife—and everything is dirty, but honestly dirty, soiled in the name of food. I hadn’t worn my rubber sabots, so as I tiptoed through the goop I was concerned in a citified way about the conditions under which my precious (read expensive) ducks may have been slaughtered.
Giving up on my shoes, I slogged after Madame Bonnafe in her rubber boots to the back of the barn and stepped through a door that led into a bright room, surreal in its contrast to the entry. Everything, the floor, the ceiling, the walls, was in white tile, scrubbed with eau de javel, or bleach, and hanging from hooks along the wall was an array of big naked dead ducks. They were slightly obscene, their bellies swollen with the fattened livers that would soon be my own fresh foie gras. She unhooked two large specimens and slapped their bottoms as she plopped them into large plastic sacks, saying, “Ne les laissez pas dans le plastique, madame.” Leaving meat in plastic is a no-no in France, where most meat is air-dried, or wrapped loosely in parchment paper. I staggered back to the car with over forty pounds of duck slamming into my legs while I tried to nod and wave with as brave a smile as I could muster.
Back at the mill, Martou and Germain had arrived with a large white linen roll (the same that had come out for the slaughter of the lambs), with pockets for cleavers, knives, and bone-cracking scissors and were lining them up on the new terrace by the bridge. I naively rolled up my sleeves and said, “On y va!” Germain wagged his finger in front of my nose saying, without words, “Not yet, my dear.” Martou held each duck as he carefully cut out the backbone and separated the fattened liver from its various attachments, especially the veins that run from the bile sack, a process that took over a half an hour. One false move and the entire liver, at fifty dollars a pound, has to be tossed. The foie gras, each weighing at least four pounds, was divided into lobes, wiped, wrapped in waxed paper, and popped into the freezer for later processing into either pâté or utterly delicious raw slices quickly sautéed in a pan with a slightly sweet wine reduction and light dusting of crunchy fleur de sel at the table. (Apparently, freezing the liver actually improves its texture.)
Once that was achieved, the gross-motor cutting started. Germain placed the duck on a large wooden block, pulled out an Alfred Hitchcock–sized clever, and with a few swift whacks cut the duck into manageable sections, while tiny Martou, with her severely twisted arthritic hands, deftly disconnected joints, cracked large bones, and cut the duck into serving pieces. I was actually helping by the end of the second duck. Martou had brought a huge, shallow pan in which she spread a layer of coarse salt, then arranged the duck pieces on top and sprinkled another ample layer of salt on top of them, and told me to put it in a cool, dry place until the next afternoon. She said she’d be back with the duck fat and spices for the next stage. She looked around at my new kitchen sink and my new Godin stove, sucked her teeth and asked me, “Va-t-on le faire ici?” But I didn’t understand why she wondered where we were going to cook the ducks. . . .