Possibly the World’s Greatest Culinary Value

Approximate Reading Time: 22 minutes

Down on the plain of our village, right at the crossroads, with a road north to Manosque on the verge of the Alps, the road east to Aups and beyond to the Gorges de Verdon, and the road south to Barjols and Tavernes, stand several small buildings. At the very crux of these is the home and the establishment of Jean and Chantal, owners of Chez Jean. It’s a small bar-tabac, which shares the building with their living quarters, plus a tiny alimentation, or grocery store, more accurately a bodega I suppose. Or perhaps, it’s an épicerie, but smaller. This is Chez Jo, run by the sister-in-law (of which of the couple I cannot say) where you can pick up very fresh chèvre or local farm eggs, butter, milk, various canned goods, a tiny selection of wines, the local paper, and a limited selection of produce that, depending on the time of day, looks often like it is on the point of expiration, whether a pear or a peach, a squash or an eggplant. But sometimes, you run out of something, and it’s good to know Chez Jo is there.

Across the way is the post office, which was almost closed by the authorities for lack of justification. We share a postal code with at least four other towns, and as our town has a permanent population of no more than 380 people on the rolls, the powers that be figured we could do without the convenience of having a local branch, which was only open at whimsical hours anyway. The whimsy being that of the local postmistress (a woman spoken of with awe, wonder, and not a small touch of fear, if not horror).

The mayor, who exerts himself mightily on behalf of the village in many ways, apparently lobbied strenuously to keep this branch of La Poste open. Not the least of the reasons being that there is apparently some familial connection between the mayor and the post mistress, or somehow, in some convoluted way between members of each of their respective families. I say "apparently," because it is one of those stories explained to me in rapid French, and I can never be sure of what I have construed properly, and what I have filled in with my own subconscious prejudices and assumptions.

On the other side of the crossroads, facing the post office, is the hulking shell of the former local wine cooperative. When we first began coming here, in the late 80s, the cooperative was active and in operation, pressing grapes, and doing what vintners do to make the juice of pressed grapes into wine. You could buy the local plonk (which is unfair, it was better than that, perhaps of vin de table grade—though to be fair, linguistically and strictly speaking, "plonk" is merely "cheap wine") at the co-op at appointed hours for very reasonable prices. Certainly it was certifiably a decent, cheap vin ordinaire and it served the local folk, farmers, gentry, bourgeoisie, and tourists well, especially at about $1.50 a bottle (this back in the days when the local currency was still the franc).

In the interim, the cooperative has devolved. First the pressed juices were merely shipped by common carrier to a local repository (pumped through thick pipes from the bowels of the co-op into waiting tanker trucks) to be collected with the must of of several other small towns, to be sent from that collection point to an actual domain, which produced the wine all under one label, bottled, or in casks, to be tapped into a customer’s own containers, once transported back to the contributory cooperatives. This transformation of the basic business has ceased altogether, and the cooperative does not even open any longer for brief hours on a Saturday morning—the last regular mercantile trade associated directly with the products of the local grape farmers. Some of the vineyards hereabouts apparently qualify for the A.O.C. designation of Côteaux Varois or Côtes-de-Provence, and some do not. The remnants that fall short, which seem to cluster very near the center of town, have been allowed to go fallow, and instead of vines of various stages of robustness, depending on the diligence of the farmer, there are now weeds and vast fields of disheveled useless flora.

Behind the cooperative, which is the size of a large barn, is an open area, whose expanse is blocked from view of the road by the vast building. This space is used for outings, weddings, and other sorts of colloquies involving large aggregations of the village residents and their guests and relatives, that is, when it is not raining (which is seldom in any event). The open area is surrounded by official buildings, belonging to the village: the small primary school, the library, a salle polyvalent (a utility hall, where gatherings take place, dances are danced, movies are shown, and so forth), and, of course, the mairie, or mayor’s offices, where all official business is conducted, and where the mayor’s council meets on a regular basis, and issues policy, dicta, rules, etc. These all are posted in regular locations, within well-known bulletin boards, maintained by the village, and covered in framed glass protective enclosures.

Having set the immediate scene, I shall return your attention and my own to the focus of culinary matters in the village. I am sorry to say, as I may have suggested in the past, that it is not the Inn just opposite our little house in the medieval village perched on top of the hill overlooking the scene just described about 100 meters below us and away at a distance of about 3/4 to a full kilometer (but easily visible from several vantages, including the Inn). The Inn has a menu which is good enough with a bill of fare, and a number of choices, of some varied dishes featuring more or less the local cuisine, and including the usual suspects, such as steak, because so much of the Inn’s business derives from tourists, who expect meat, but the locals, who are always glad to know there is a local venue for this perennial favorite, if not a number of others. However, it is not plain fare, but aspires to a status somewhat more soigné. Certainly it is fare that must justify a menu price of 32 euros for a three course meal. The food is good, very good at times, and I am not doing our friends, the innkeepers, a disservice, by saying this, and not very much more. The ingredients are always fresh, well-cooked, and in abundance on the plate.

Rather the focus of gastronomic attention belongs down below, at le carrefour, the crossroads, in that humble establishment called Chez Jean. The road signs leading to the village, directing travelers to the café, say "casse-croûte," which is  French for "snack." But the literal meaning of the word is, of course, "break crust" or as we say in English, "break bread."

The "casse-croûte" is an unintentional misdirection. It’s true they have snacks, including home made sandwiches of the usual suspects in France: boiled ham, with and without cheese, and charcuterie, and perhaps even a pan bagnat, more or less a salade niçoise squeezed between halves of a baguette, but I am not sure of that. There are also the usual ice cream novelties, featured in a colorful poster provided by the manufacturer of cones pre-packed and covered with lurid-colored glop, and ice cream rockets and bars, and the like.

Also, this is, strictly speaking, a bar-tabac, as the ancient rusting wrought iron lettering on the facade tells you, barely visible against the ochre stucco of the walls, partially covered by vines of some sort. The most regular trade, though hardly the most lucrative, comes from regulars (and peregrinating stragglers) who come from practically dawn until close, which is more or less at sunset, for, ahem, liquid refreshment.

The farmers of the region, stop here early of a morning on their way to the remaining vineyards, the greater amount of acreage in wheat, the declining acreage in sunflowers, plus a range of other crops, including olives, and a variety of produce that you can buy on market day in various towns as Patrick, the most enterprising and amiable of the local producers, makes his rounds with his sons and helpers of the circuit of five or six towns that occupy his week. He also has a store-front in Aups—the market town we have always preferred—that he keeps open on weekday mornings, and is always a sure bet for the freshest produce, especially in summer when it is all local… starting with the very local tomatoes, artichokes, zucchini, lettuce of various varieties, plus some stone fruits, like peaches and nectarines, which sell on market day at least until the end of September, and sometimes into October. After these dates the venues for sourcing produce spread in ever widening circles to all of Provence, moving southward with the sun, as the season wanes and even the weather goes south, so to speak.

When they stop at Chez Jean, the farmers imbibe perhaps a ballon de rouge, a fat round brandy snifter of a glass of red wine, or a beer, or perhaps a truly fortifying marc de Provence. Marc (the "c" at the end, properly, is not a hard "k" sound, but the sound of the French "r" disappearing completely down your throat, without a stop, not even a glottal stop, to signify the consonantal presence of this last letter) is an eau de vie, fiery and instantly warming, invigorating—perhaps even a natural energy drink in a tiny amount, which is what they are served—and certainly fortifying. It’s what I would drink if about to haul my ass onto a tractor for several hours of hard work in the fields.

There is a regular flow of bar customers, many of whom stop to kibitz for extended periods with Jean, the patron and chief barkeeper. He is a man of the slightly diminutive stature of Frenchmen of a certain generation, bespectacled and what remains of his hair, of a significant if diminished quantity, straight long hair, still quite dark in color, is slicked back from his hairline still well forward on his brow, to the back of his head. One’s first impression, as a stranger, is that he is perhaps a tad grumpy and uncooperative, but he is a mild fellow, friendly, slightly harassed, I think, by the unceasing flow of business throughout the day, which finds its apogee or apex in the middle of the day, when the only full meal is served.

I have finally brought this narrative to the most important business at hand. Lunch at Chez Jean, in the tiny, almost imperceptible village of Fox-Amphoux, at the crossroads of the roads from nowhere to somewhere or other. So popular has this meal become, and so widespread the reputation of this homely repast, a masterpiece of country cooking—let the magazines speak of food of the terroir; this is all mainly editorial bullshit, foisted on them by the flacks of major league chefs, with international reputations, indeed, who are brands, and who have "rediscovered their roots" and opened restaurants somewhere or other among the hilly landscape that is the Haut Var. This part of France is more appropriately the domain of the people who work this land, and the animals that still populate it. You are reminded of this at least once or twice of every two- or three-week sojourn, when you must stop on the country road on your way to market, to allow a local herd of sheep, with a mystical leading squadron of beautifully horned goats, and hectored by a small band of beautifully trained, earnest, honest scruffy dogs, to proceed across a road from their pasturage to their overnight accommodations in a bergerie well up in the hills above the plain.

We are intruders, and we are privileged to sit indeed to break bread, but only if we have made a reservation. In the summer, which is high season, reservations are often not to be had at all. This is, I mean, high season for hordes of tourists and high season for the likelihood of the canicule, the dog days, when temperatures rise in to the 100s, and the natives disappear entirely behind their shutters. And all you see are mad dogs and Englishmen, and occasionally us as well, on our perpetual quest for decent brocante (used furniture and stuff). We don’t do this often enough for some members of the household, dog days or no, but a man can stand only so much tooling around to misbegotten little towns that happen to be having an expo de brocante or, worse, an expo des antiquités, which means the merchandise are genuine, authentically old, no more attractive and significantly more expensive.

This, our modest little bar-tabac, with its stalwart patron, his doughty wife and boon companion Chantal, who helps run the place and is chief cook of the miracles of country dishes that come out of her kitchen, offers one meal a day for as many people as are lucky to have made a reservation before Jean and Chantal have computed there is not enough food to serve.

The menu is a menu fixe, four set courses, with few, if any, variant choices in any single course. The first of the miracles wrought in this unassuming establishment is that the menu is served at a very unassuming price. Currently, it is 12 euros 50 cents. At the current confiscatory American bank rates, this is about 18 bucks. However for proper perspective you should think of those euros as dollars, as the buying power is probably about the same for the locals as it is for us, if not worse… The Bush dollar may be in the toilet, but in the U.S. there’s pretty well loads to go around for the gentry and even for the middle class. In short, you can’t judge the cost of a meal here in France by the value according to an inflated exchange rate.

For $12.50 in the states you can get a "gourmet sandwich," an individual portion of artisanal chips, and bottled spring water. For 18 bucks, you can get an 8-ounce Black Angus Burger and fries, a non-alcoholic beverage, and the tax thrown in, but not the tip.

For 12 euros, fifty cents, here, in Chez Jean, in Godot-ville, where there is a very pleasant, luxe, calme, et tranquille wait for the mythical fellow, you get a four-course meal, a carafe of clear cold local water, all the bread you want (fresh French baguettes, of indisputable authenticity), the attentive service of your host or hostess, who serve you themselves, with a dose of bonhomie and cheeriness thrown in among the bustle, with tax (which is a 19+% value added tax) and service included… Beverages are extra. A pastis or kir, as an aperitif, are 1.50 euros apiece. A beer is 2.50, and a carafe of wine (25 centiliters — or about 3.5 ounces) enough for the meal, or refilling your glass a couple of times—small glasses—is a mere 2.50 euros as well.

We had lunch there the other day, came to 33 euros for the two of us (plus a small pourboire, a few pieces of change—my current rule of thumb is about 3%). Here’s what we had.

Things started off with a choice of appetizer of the omnipresent plate of charcuterie—an ample serving of slices of local cured hams, and various kinds of saucisson (the literal translation of which is "sausage," but which is, at best, a hard sausage, and really much closer to what we and the Italians call salami). The local saucisson is invariably pure pork, with various flavorings, starting with garlic, and including such varieties of flavoring as the local herbs (thyme, sage, etc.), wine, perhaps a bit of cheese, tidbits of what are called variety meats—that is, your garden-variety organ meats. However, the saucisson may also include or predominantly consist of other animal flesh: cow or steer meats, lapin (rabbit), venison, sanglier (wild boar) and, despite the rumors, rarely these days the traditional horse. The famous and fabled saucisson of Arles, commonly understood to be manufactured of the flesh of the lowly, if still noble, little âne (ass or donkey, particularly well suited for making one’s way in the hills of Provence, and Provence is hilly if nothing), is in fact fabricated in a ratio of about 6:1 of beef and pork, plus various seasonings, spices, herbs, etc. Maybe they used to make it of donkey meat, but no longer. Rather the designation d’Arles refers to a specific flavor of saucisson.

In all events, we skipped the charcuterie (which I have had in the past, and I can vouch for as meeting any expectation for flavor and is especially recommended on those days when you simply have a jones for eating a lot of savory, fatty, highly salinated food that is bad for your heart). Instead we both opted for the tarte aux ratatouille. Speaking of savory. This turned out to be two generous wedges of home-made tarte, on a crust of pâte brisée, it consisted of a ratatouille spread in a thin layer of mainly eggplant and courgettes, with just enough tomato and tomato paste to impart a ruddy, almost terra cotta hue (something like the color of the native soil in this terroir). It was lovely, bursting with flavor in just the right portion, with a nice unctuous texture, broken by the still substantive bits of vegetable in this characteristic Provençal ragout (see my attempt at the canonical recipe for the ratatouille itself: http://perdiem.bertha.com/2006/08/2006august02_th.html —you will note please the date of my recipe, well in advance of the ridiculously successful Disney/Pixar full-length cartoon eponymously titled after this now world-famous dish; I haven’t seen the movie, despite the urging of many… I am a little afraid lest I see some pilferage of my ideas; I know no check from Disney or Pixar has appeared as yet in my mailbox).

The main dish was a veal roast, served in thick slices on a platter, with its own mushroom sauce. That is, the sauce, of pan juices, fortified with wine and, I’d guess, the fluid version of crême fraîche that is the alternative to the thicker version with which we are all familiar in the ‘States. The thinner version is a preferred substitute for heavy cream, which is, in fact, hard to come by. Though it does seem to be appearing slowly and surely in the supermarkets (the heavy cream that is; crême fraîche is always available in a variety of weights, measures, and from at least a half-dozen different sources).

This is a boneless roast I speak of, likely a rump roast, though it may have been what we call eye of round. Bits of the twine that had bound up the roast after boning were on the serving platter. I’m of the school that sees this as a good thing, and we are certainly too far into the country to imagine that the strings were added, cynically, to add some sort of air of authenticity. Jean had made too much of a fuss when I showed up at 11:40 that morning in person to make the reservation. He fussed a bit, and looked at what was, indeed, a long list of parties already with reservations. The two hangers-on at the bar good-naturedly gave him a raft of shit, both before and after he disappeared into the kitchen. No doubt he was simply checking to see if there would be enough food. He finally appeared and asked if I wanted to sit inside or out. And I told him, oh in the shade outside, for sure. So he dragged out a paper tablecloth to clip to one of the tables out there, presumably to be our table. He asked what time we wanted to eat, and I said 12:30, and he said "and not a minute later…" Somehow I knew he was kidding. Just wanted the last word.

Anyway, the veal roast was ample, and heavenly. I ate my portion, and Linda hers, sopping up the sauce with bread, and then she had no room for the last slice, but I did. It was served with what they called "sautée de pommes de terre" cuboids of potato, done to a turn, that looked, and tasted more like they had been somehow both pan roasted and fried. The French verb, rissoler [meaning to brown, as in a poêle, or frying pan] is a favorite way to cook potatoes here, and usually in the shape they were brought to the table. It’s only a technical point, as they were delicious, and nice counterpoint to the lamb so tender it didn’t need a knife. But if it was pommes de terre rissolées, why didn’t they just call them that. You ask Jean. I didn’t and I won’t.

Then, the cheese course. A medium-sized plate of four significant portions of cheese: a local chèvre, two cow cheeses, one of them possibly a cousin to reblochon, and cheese with mold, all delicious, even in the delicate samples we allowed ourselves. The platter was more than generous and clearly intended not to be consumed by us (way too much cheese), though I’ve seen some Americans do exactly that in other restaurants, with similar sized portions. And we wonder how the French stay slim.

Dessert was a choice of flan (which we’ve had in the past, and we know is home-made), a tarte à poire, and ice cream. No contest. We both had the tarte. Again, homemade, though it sat in the fridge a bit too long, I fear, and was very very slightly desiccated, especially the custard (or the crême n’importe quoi [whatever] holding the fruit in place, and the crust had gotten a little too biscuity (crumbly, rather than flaky, and a little on the harder vs. softer side), but a good finish to the meal. If the dessert had been perfect, we would just have to cancel our return tickets and stay here. It would a lot cheaper eating one meal a day down at Chez Jean, than to return home and go back to that boring three squares a day routine.

 

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