Friday, October 22, 2004

Les Ardennes en Automne, Part II: A Restaurant Review

autumn, originally uploaded by azurenath.

The jam-making was over around noon, but I’d driven such a distance that I was reluctant to return to Brussels so quickly. I had errands to run, but fuck ‘em, I decided. The best thing about my life right now is my uninhibited access to self-determination and autonomy. Plus, for once, the sun was actually out and the weather warm. I wasn’t about to guilt myself into heading home yet.
I started driving, crossed woodsy thickets and shorn praries, green fields freshly mucked. Sun speckled the road and silver leaves of alden trees. Horses danced gaily, manes and tails whipped by the wind. The only spoiler was Amélie’s car. It was like a great honking pig that had crashed into a fairy tale, snuffling and drooling on its pages.

Still, nothing could ruin my mood. I reveled in the floating red and yellow foliage, pulled over to watch a pair of wild boar—my first up close—root around, snouts aground. I motored on. After awhile I stopped and took a walk through a pasture, next to a brook, by a cow, and found myself at the bottom of a ladder propped upon a tree. Someone had built a treehouse! I climbed up, sat and watched the colors of the countryside change as the clouds sailed before the sun. Later I passed a war memorial on the side of the road that interpellated me with the words

Whether you are in joy or in pain
You have the good fortune to admire this beautiful country.
Remember: here, on the 9th of September, 1944, fell, assassinated by retreating S.S. troops,
Belgians without weaponry.

Soon I got hungry. Back in the car, I drove until I found a sign in front of a house advertising homemade apple juice. The toothless old lady who answered the door sold me a bottle, and I stared at it, dismayed. The label was way professional, plasticized, vacuum-sealed on, with a logo and everything; homemade, my foot. Plus, it said ‘peach juice.’ “I wanted apple juice,” I said. “It is apple,” said the old lady. “We buy peach juice at the supermarket for ourselves but fill the bottles with apple once we’ve drunk it.”

When I got back into the car it obstinately refused to start, the motor whinnying and coughing. The old lady came out again, peering over her bifocals. “It’s the third time this week,” I fumed. She wrung her hands gleefully. “But you’re in luck, young lady,” she said. “There’s a garage two hundred meters away.” It was lucky—this territory was serious BFE. When I came back with the garagiste a man was peering curiously into the Mazda. Hé, Clément! said the garagiste. This young lady was buying apple juice from your mother and her car broke. Ah, Vincent, said the man. Good to see you. I wondered what this strange car was doing here.

Vincent gave my battery a jump, clanged shut the hood, and refused compensation. It has been my pleasure to discuss with you, young lady, he said. It is for my country that I wish to be hospitable. By the way, my son spent a year in the Montana—do you know it?
I drove on, looking for the little breweries with which the country is spotted. Vincent had pointed the way to one, but before reaching it, I stopped to look at sign for the Parc thématique de la vie campagnarde, or a ‘theme park of rural life’ set inside an old farm-chateau. “After visiting ‘Le Pays de Ny,’” the sign trumpeted, “Ninety percent of youngsters express the desire to become farmers.” What a realistic portrayal of farm life that must be.

Before I reached the brewery I passed a sign for a chocolaterie and changed course. Then another indicated horse rides, so I followed that one. I bought eggs at a farm, then stopped at a war cemetery in which were buried a few hundred Brits and Americans that had died at a massacre in ’44, all in somber perfect lines, the grass an eerie plastic green, like a suburban lawn. A few of the graves bore wreaths that had been recently laid. One said “We miss you Dad, love Tony and David—7/04.” The land had been dedicated by Belgium to the Allied countries who’d lost soldiers there, so everything was marked in English. The leaves of the six trees lining the center aisle were a shocking yellow, but red-tipped. Everything else was still green. The space was at once extremely disquieting and also luminous and peaceful, breezy and light. At the same time alive and dead.

I drove on, enjoying the ride and its caprices. But I was still hungry, so when I passed a roadside restaurant that had a rabbit warren, chicken coop, and several sheep munching thoughtfully in the back, I went no further.

There was no one inside, but tables decked gaily with used red cotton tablecloths and topped with vases of fake pansies and heavy crystal ashtrays. A log smoldered in the fireplace. A young boy, sixteen or so, poked his head around a corner. Hello, he said. Do you desire to dine?
Yes, I said. What’s on the menu?
There’s trout, he said, caught today, but I would suggest the roe-deer, which my father has hunted. And an excellent pâté.
Très bien, I said. Bring it on, my friend.
He brought me a Ciney blonde and left me to it. I studied the room. Stuffed foxes and pheasants, glass eyes glinting, and big boar heads with their waxed wooden tongues hung about the room. The skulls of unfortunate and ancient quarry dangled off of nails pounded into their eye sockets, and lone antlers of every size drooped from the walls, the larger ones jagged and fierce, the smaller, pointy and insolent. Amid the bones and corpses of the victims were a multitude of paintings depicting their tragic demise, all signed by a certain P. César, and all equally abysmal in their execution. Boar fighting heroically, a carriage pulling a dead stag through the snowy forest, and so on, all rendered in oil on canvas. My Swiss grandfather hunted, and the hallway of my grandmother’s apartment in Gossau has the same lugubrious decor: foxfurs and antlers, old rifles and an iron lantern.

But it was too sunny out for the room to feel somber. French songs blasted tinnily from a radio in the back, and the young waiter sung enthusiastically along. There were herbs in window boxes and a potager growing the vegetables I would’ve eaten had I ordered a salad. Menu suggestions were written in the stately-but-generic brand of cursive that marks its author as European, it’s something about the lower-case p’s and r’s and upper-case A’s. The place made me remember a little diner in a trailer in Scituate called Cindy’s that I reviewed for the Indy last year. The two have little in common but both emanate something archaic, of another age. Mostly forgotten, but still able to self-sustain, emulsified in time.

Anyway, the food came. First the pâté, with homemade bread and farm butter in an egg cup. On the side were cranberry and apple preserves, also homemade, and oddly, slices of orange and kiwi. I didn’t know whether to eat the bread with the butter, the bread with the preserves, the pâté with the preserves, the pâté with the bread, or everything piled together—each of the different combinations gave off such a different taste, and all so good. The pâté was studded with cloves and dried herbs and tasted husky, unashamed of its heartiness and unsophistication, like an unpretty girl who's engaging because she’s so comfortable with herself.

I watched a Flemish couple prop their bikes up against the door and come in for a cup of coffee, tugging at their Spandex. The waiter brought me the roe-deer ribs and a bowl of French fries, hand-cut and lightly salted. The ribs were napped with a cream sauce that I dipped the French fries in and finished off with what was left of the bread. Also, tiny red-currant preserves, the little globes bursting on my tongue like caviar, and again, the peculiar slice of orange. I felt a little like M.F.K. Fisher, one of my favorite food writers from the ‘40s (and after), who loved to drive into the French countryside to eat, sometimes alone, but always fabulously. (I kind of wanted some glam sunglasses and a cigarette holder.)

A Jeep painted in camouflage pulled up to the house, and a man—ostensibly P. César, the artist who’d painted the scenes on the walls and killed the animals that flanked them—went into the kitchen to join his family. I could hear the waiter teasing his younger sister and the lady who’d cooked my meal going over invoices.
The boy brought me a chocolate charlotte, lady fingers doused in rum and chocolate and powdered with sugar. It’s embarrassing to admit this, but I accidentally drooled on the rim of my plate (so much for glamour). I charmingly strong-armed his mother into giving me the recipe, which is copied down below.
God, was I stuffed. I waddled out of the restaurant and made it about four kilometers before pulling over to take a nap in the car. When I woke up, the sun was extending long orange fingers over the trees, and the wind was sinister, whistling not songs but sighs. I drove back to Brussels but didn’t eat again until past midnight.

Gateau au chocolat de Mme César-Keleman
• 200 g beurre non salé
• 200 g chocolat noir
• 70 g sucre semoule
• 5 oeufs
Preparer une mousse au chocolat avec ses ingredients.
Tremper des Boudoirs dans de l’eau avec un peu de liqueur (rum ou porto). Garnisser le moule. Verser une couche de mousse, puis des boudoirs, etc. Laisser 24 h au frigo.

Mrs. César-Keleman’s chocolate cake
• 200 g unsalted butter
• 200 g dark chocolate
• 70 g sugar
• 5 eggs
Prepare a chocolate mousse with its ingredients. Soak lady fingers with a little liquor (rum or port). Line the mold with lady fingers. Pour a layer of mousse, then add more lady fingers. Let set 24 hours in the fridge.


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