Pushing 12:30 today, I was passing through the only nondescript town of the day on my way to heaven, when I realized I might want to think about lunch. Wintertime in Provence, the window of opportunity for essentials like eating, grocery shopping and banking is limited. At this point I have to brag that I have a reputation, at least amongst an audience of two, for having a keen sense about unlikely good places to eat, whether it be on North Hill or some truck stop in southern Brittany.
So back to the nondescript town on Salerne(not SalernO, as in Italy). Paying attention to little but road signs, I was breezing through town watching for destination markers, thinking I’d be having some heavenly feast on the mountaintop, when I passed this incredible work of kitsch…Having passed it, I did what my mother never would have done, TURNED BACK! I thought, “If you don’t, you’ll always wonder what was behind those golden gates”. And I’m embarrassed to say, low these many years after her departure, I’m still rebelling against her rigid, maternal taboos. “Besides”, I thought to myself, “food in those beautiful villages up there will be expensive,anyway”. This, as our friend, Valerie would say, could be the “real deal”. And besides, the sign said “bio”, French for organic. So there.
As I opened the door, a surprised, plain yet pleasant face greeted me in the dark. The fact that there was only one light burning and the puzzled look on the man’s face threw me for a moment, made me stammer-French if I could have lunch. The shocked, diner-deprived patron, led his customer de jour to a table close to the kitchen, and as I sat down, he wheeled one of those oil-filled, portable radiators next to my table. I mean next to my table. All through lunch I wondered if the soles on my shoes were melting.
In this dark, strange room that looked part restaurant, part grandmother’s kitchen, part library and part play room, he rattled out the plat de jour: no written menu and just two choices to be made. Three if you included dessert or no. Salad or soup and fish or some meat I didn’t understand, even after two repetitions. Not wanting meat anyway, I ordered the fish.
Soup arrives. I’m sitting in the dark, glowing in the light of my self-content at a secret find. Spooning my potage of carrots and cauliflower(or was it potato?), I practiced emitting the gastronomic groans of satisfaction which I heard the Italian lady make two nights previously. I gleamed, dreaming about the fish course to come.
When it arrived, my heart went momentarily arrhythmic. It looked almost delicious, but a little too healthy and not at all French. This is coming from a fairly organic kind of guy. But this looked über-rganic. Straight from the source. Here we go from plate back to front: the big roasted bicolor carrots weren’t bad, though not the delicate little ones that the French love to serve, strangely placed in the middle, rather than front of the plate, was the fish smothered in diced onions(a la Waffle House), then downstage of it all was the driest enchilada-rolled, whole wheat looking crêpe-ish sort of thing I’d ever seen(somewhere along the line the Provençal have decided the Bretons are exotic), filled with big green beans and a few red peppers sans sauce. Dirt dry. No haricots vertes? My ooos skipped the aaahs and turned directly into ughs.
I escaped dessert by a close call, settled for coffee and snickered at my lead-stomached self as I mused, “Maybe my mother was right, after all”.