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Friday, May 27, 2011

French Travel Tales: La Belle Gasconne, 2006: A Story, Part 1

In 2006 my family and I returned to our friend's Chateau in the Loire. We came to hang a plaque for their son, Miles, who was like a son to us, and best friend of our oldest son Erick’s, and older brother figure and dear friend to our youngest son, Jaryd. Miles had died suddenly and tragically only a few weeks before. Words were inadequate to express our grief. Our arms tried to wrap each other and keep us a safe distance from the gaping hole we all sensed would permanently inhabit our new and distant universe.

Chateau du Pin in the Loire

But, really, I was in so much shock, I'm not sure I was much help to anyone.

The visit generated many thoughts and emotions appeared like rings ebbing out from the huge stone tossed into the virtual pond of our lives. Slowing them down was futile. All I could do was sit at the edge of the pond and wonder what was next. I watched the overlaps and recalled images of times we had all spent together.

Erick, Miles, and Jaryd circa 1996 or so

And so it was that after the Chateau visit that were also returned to a 14th-century mill-house in the tiny village of Poudenas, France, now rent-able as a vacation retreat. To sleep in those rooms by the Gelise River was soft and magical, everything I remembered.

The little mill-house is also the site of the famous auberge, La Belle Gasconne, run by Marie-Claude Gracia. I arranged for our group to take a master cooking class with her. She prepared a traditional Gasconne menu directly from her famous (but unfortunately unavailable and out of print) cookbook, Le Cuisine de la Passion. In preparing the meal, we made visits to the area's wonders with her and her new husband. The layers got peeled back; aren't those layers always among us, but we just don’t always notice them?

La Belle Gasconne in Poudenas

One of the layers was seeing my oldest son Erick and Samantha, his then girlfriend, working in the kitchen with Marie-Claude. I felt a huge circle closing. Ten years before, his brother Jaryd, my husband and I were treated to a 10th-birthday dinner in the mill-house as payment for a few days of my being an apprentice in Marie-Claude's kitchen. Our menu included foie gras, duck, the new harvest wine--a fizzy and sweet -- croustades bursting with pomme, and the possibility of Becasse, the illusive bird hunted in the fall.

The Mill-House aka La Belle Gasconne

For the 2006 meal, we were heading back to Nerac, where we had eaten the evening before at one of the inns along the Baise River. I noticed then that though the Baise appears to be a river, a simple river, in the fading light the water was also a mirror and reflected the people and the dishes being served at the tables.

So back to shopping trip for the cooking class. Part of our group decided to go to Nerac, while others stayed behind (you know who you are!) to loll about at the millhouse. As we planned our jaunt to Nerac to shop side by side with Marie-Claude Gracia for ingredients for the master cooking class, it felt as though we were transported back in time to visit ancienne Nerac. There were so many obstacles to overcome. Epiceries and houses of duck are not open at whim, shops close for lunch, and all the ingredients we need cannot be found at any one place. There is no one-stop-shop in France and in the word of Marie-Claude: there is only perfection!

And within the space of a few moments I was reminded of the giant circle in which we all live and how tender and short, each moment.
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