Champagne grapes near Reims, France, November 2008
This is my article which appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on December 3, 2008.
On November 2, I headed north on the TGV, France's train à grande vitesse. My friend Ghislaine invited me to her home in Montépilloy and to visit her classes at the middle school in Senlis where she teaches English. I have traveled to Senlis many times. Ghislaine and I have an exchange program for our eighth graders. Her students have not been to Durham Academy since the events of 9/11 changed our world. However, we are now in the process of planning for 2010 when we will resume our exchange and she will return to North Carolina.
Merci mille fois to Delta Airlines. I have just learned that they will begin non-stop service from RDU to Charles de Gaulle in June 2009. (note- this is not happening... the economy is to blame, of course)
We spent two days tasting champagne in the only region in France that has the right to call the sparkling wine by that name. Neither of us have much of a sense of direction so we got lost the first afternoon. We were out of the city of Reims and into the countryside before we knew it. We came over a hill and, low and behold, the vineyards appeared, shining golden in the afternoon sun.
We toured Canard-Duchêne, Taittinger and Veuve Clicquot. Underneath Reims and the vineyards, there are miles and miles of tunnels and caves, storing millions of bottles of champagne awaiting the right celebration. After hearing about the process at three different cellars and tasting three very different wines, I can tell you all about the process. Don't ask unless you really want to know!
Ghislaine calls herself a very simple cook. She is very concerned about the use of pesticides and uses as many organic products as possible. Her recipes may indeed be simple, but they are truly delicious. She makes soups from fresh vegetables, often steaming them, then pureeing them and adding just the right herbs and spices. The French use the expression se marier bien (to marry well) to express flavors that go well together. I like that!
On my first Sunday afternoon here, Ghislaine made reservations at Auberge des 3 Canards (3 Ducks Inn) in nearby Ognon, a very small village five kilometers from Senlis. This is the best meal I have eaten since not only my arrival in June, but perhaps in my life. The restaurant can seat about 50 people is simply but elegantly furnished, the staff very professional.
We started off with an apératif of kir royale, crème de cassis liqueur in champagne, served with two very small appetizers called amuse-bouches, bite-sized treats to amuse your mouth.
I chose an entrée or appetizer of baby shrimp served on thin strips of steamed zucchini with grapefruit and beets surrounding it. (Yes, I do indeed have pictures!) note: the photos did not appear in the newspaper.
My main course was souris d'agneau, lamb so tender that it melted in my mouth. It was served with stuffed vegetables.
We couldn't decide whether to have a white (Ghislaine's preference) or a red (mine) wine, so we settled on a half bottle of Sancerre rosé. A wonderful choice, crisp and dry.
When the cheese cart came our direction, I chose three- cow, sheep and goat. The choices on the cart were overwhelming.
I very discreetly took a video with my camera of a man across the room later eyeing the cart and making his decision. He looked like a little boy staring at a mound of gifts under the Christmas tree.
We asked the sommelier or wine steward to choose a glass of red wine to go with our cheeses. He chose very well. For dessert, I had a tower of white chocolate mousse surrounded by a dark chocolate curl under a scoop of caramel ice cream on top of a crunchy, nutty cookie. Pure heaven.
We both ordered coffee, served in a small cup, with two very small sweets, a meringue and a tart.
Our meal lasted three hours. We took our time, talked about all the happenings in our lives since the last time we'd seen each other nearly two years ago, watched our fellow diners, including a woman seated next to us having lunch with her parents accompanied by her very well-behaved pug-nosed dog. I did not even realize he was there until the end of the meal.
Dogs are allowed most everywhere in France. They do not eat scraps from the table, nor do they even ask for them.
Our meal was the main focus of our day, as it was for everyone else in the restaurant that day. For us, it was a celebration of our friendship and my incredible luck. My six-month stay in France has been the adventure of a lifetime. I am deeply grateful to Durham Academy for giving me this opportunity and to my family and friends for understanding why I am here. I now look forward to my return to Durham in mid-December and the chance to show off my new cooking (and eating!) skills.
I will leave you with Ghislaine's recipe for tomato soup. I hope I've successfully recreated it.
(Update: As of this writing, I am planning to return to France with 14 students in March. Unfortunately, it will not be for a homestay and exchange with Ghislaine's school. The French government continues to be concerned about the spread of the H1N1 virus and we do not know if we will be allowed to even visit the school for the day. Ghislaine is meeting with the head of her school next week to ask permission to come visit us. On verra... We'll see.)
Ghislaine's Tomato Soup
3 tomatoes, seeded and cut into slices
1 red pepper, seeded and cut into slices
2 small shallots
2 cloves of garlic, diced
Salt, pepper, Italian spices, basil, curcuma, to taste
Water, 1-2 cups, as needed
1 boiled potato, diced
Cook the tomato, pepper, and shallots in olive oil for about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and spices, cover with water, bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for about 30 minutes. Watch the water level and add more if needed.
Remove from heat. Add the potato. Puree. (an immersion blender is perfect) Serve hot.
You can add grated cheese, if you wish, at the table.
Bon appétit, Ghislaine!
To our friendship...