Destinations / JOURNEY
gras. Once my teeth broke through the chewy fruit, the fill-
ing burst into my mouth like meat whipped cream. I was
beginning to understand why this was not a place where
one rushes through lunch.
Looking for a lunch treat for my husband, we stopped at
a display of long saucissons secs, dried sausages. I translated
their labels as best I could for my husband, but I got stuck on
the word cèpes.
The vendor leaned forward and said, in English, “Cèpes
Lessons From Milo
are a kind of mushroom.”
We left the market fortified not only with our stuffed figs,
dry sausage, cheese and a loaf of dense brown bread, but also
with the sense that the locals were happy to share the secrets
of their earthy cuisine, if only we put down our guidebooks
and listened. No matter how many customers jostled at the
market tables, no vendor had allowed himself to be rushed as
he answered our questions and proffered samples. This was
not a slow food movement; for the people who laid their tables
from this market, slow food was the only food.
During the rest of the trip we passed up museum tours for
market days any chance we got. Our food lessons weren’t
limited to markets: Outside Lascaux II, the impressive replica of the closed-to-the-public Neolithic painted cave, we
noticed French visitors picking things up off the path and
stashing them in plastic grocery bags.
“What are those?” I asked, and learned that people were
gathering chestnuts to take home and roast.
Later we got to taste that treat ourselves. We arrived at
our trip’s main destination, an ancient limestone farmhouse
where an American friend had settled with her French husband, their two small sons, and the boys’ grand-mère and
grand-père. After dinner, Grand-mère brought out a warm,
fragrant paper bag of chestnuts and showed us how to peel.
“Milo collected these outside his school,” she told us,
nodding with pride at her 5-year-old grandson, who was
born in San Jose but was quickly putting down roots here
on his grandparents’ property outside Villefranche-de-Rouergue, in the Aveyron department.
“He comes home with so many chestnuts in his pockets,
his pants are hanging low,” Milo’s mother said with a laugh.
As I peeled and tasted the chewy nuts, I wondered what I
would say if my own children picked up things off the ground
to eat. Probably, “Don’t touch!” Would my kids be willing to
try the nuts that Milo was popping into his mouth? Despite
living just a few miles from Alice Waters and her efforts to
teach children where their food comes from, we were not
giving our kids anything like the food education that Milo
was getting through everyday life in the French countryside.
Our hosts had asked us to bring a fresh fattened duck liver
from one of the Périgord Noir’s farm shops. Now it sat in the
refrigerator in the old farmhouse’s modern kitchen, while
Grand-mère and Grand-père debated how best to prepare it.
The fate of the foie gras entier had not been settled when
we all drove into the village to dine at l’Univers, a hotel-
restaurant run by Quentin Bourdy. Bourdy was one of the
most popular contestants on the 2013 season of Top Chef
France, but was eliminated half way through the competi-
tion. Now he had returned to Villefranche to renovate and
run his family restaurant.
After an unforgettable meal of mussels in butter sauce and
duck breast edged with sumptuous fat, we saw France’s would-
be top chef pass the table. Grand-mère seized her chance.
“What is the best way to prepare a foie gras entier?” she
asked, pen poised to transcribe his instructions.
That night, we ate the slowly roasted foie gras with sau-teed apples from our hosts’ orchard, and Grand-père pulled
a special bottle of red Gaillac wine out of his cave on the
farmhouse’s ground floor. We finished with tiny glasses of eau
de vie, distilled from the property’s plums, toasting the last
night of our visit and the success of the famous chef’s recipe.
It cheered me to think that it wasn’t just us Americans who
were still learning how to enjoy food. After living in France
all her life, our hostess was still learning too.
Five-year-old Milo would not let us leave without giving us a tour of the property. In the morning, we opened the
farmhouse’s double wooden doors and followed him down
the broad stone steps. Milo showed us a heavy cluster of
grapes, but then held up his hand.
“Those aren’t ripe,” he warned. “I’ll show you where the
ripe ones are.”
Milo’s 2-year-old brother Liam hurried behind us, rain
boots protecting his pajama-clad legs from the dewy grass.
We passed through the perfume of the flower garden,
then the dank barn cellar, to the main garden, where Milo
plucked and distributed fat grapes that stained the boys’
faces purple. They spat out the seeds and grabbed more,
while my husband and I admired the garden and looked out
over the rolling fields of neighbors’ farms, dotted by grazing
cows. We could hear the family’s chickens clucking softly as
they picked through the grass nearby.
Milo led us to the bee box and asked us to lift some heavy
stones off the top so he could open the lid and
show us the furry undulating sheet of bees.
Then I spotted something I didn’t
need Milo’s help to identify.
“Oh, a figuier!” I said, pointing to
a squat fig tree.
Milo grabbed a leathery bulb
and pulled off one end, squirting the
pulp into his mouth. I did the same,
savoring the coolness from the
night air preserved in the fruit. M