A Caper on the Road in the Dordogne
August 25, 2015
I didn’t know exactly where I was, somewhere between Agen and Perigueux and I was enjoying not knowing. I was meandering the little roads back and forth between Dordogne and Cahors, avoiding the “N” roads staying on “D” roads, passing fields of sunflowers bending in union away from the hot sun as if in prayer.
I had begun in March to plan this trip to Southwest France and Corsica and in my fantasy planning I would go into the Aquitaine, Dorgogne, to Garonne and Gascony, and just drive, knowing where I would end each day but not knowing how I would get there.
Following my plan, I was hungry; it was 1:30 pm.
I passed a handwritten sign: “Dejuner, 30E. 100 mètres à la droite.” I faintly saw it, drove on, and then I said to myself, “What am I doing? That’s just what I want to do.”
And so I turned around and drove off onto a dirt road and after a hundred yards I arrived at a dirt parking lot with deep ruts. Just up a hill I saw an unprepossessing building and an improbable number of occupied plastic tables and chairs.
I was greeted warmly (in the French way) and led to a table. The menu of the day was appealing enough but I saw a display of fois gras around the counter in the rear and that’s what I wanted.
Pretty soon I was served a salad that reminded me of every good salad I have ever eaten in France.
Just good greens, three wedges of ripe tomato, sweet onions, red pepper, olives, herbs of Provence, cubes of feta, and capers all very lightly dressed. It was perfect.
The feta cubes were small and uniform. The red pepper nicely roasted and onions carefully minced. And the capers were fat, begging to be noticed.
My little carafe of rosé arrived.
I looked at it and the farmland below, the scenery and the others on the terrace. I was on vacation.
People who spend most of their waking moments thinking about food ought to savor it, not snort it. I eat too quickly. I am an oxymoron, a food lover who eats far too fast, and most people in the food business eat too fast. I don’t admire them for that; I don’t admire myself for it.
I go to dinner frequently with my friends David, Michael, and Saied. We find cheap restaurants, usually in the suburbs, the kind much valued by some food critics who far more frequently than I find food virtues in the suburbs of Washington.
A few months ago, we went to dinner at the Panda Gourmet, a truly seedy restaurant, not suburban, at the seedy intersection of New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road. (It could have been suburban.)
As usual, we ordered a large number of dishes so that we could try a lot; and in spite of our entreats to the contrary, all the dishes were brought to us at the same time – six or seven different foods – soup, noodles, vegetables, pork, this and that.
In the large and frenetic dining room we ploughed through the dinner like horses and the dinner was so unrewarding that in the parking lot I told my friends that I wouldn’t do that again.
I was reminded of that evening as I started to eat my little salad, one caper at a time, with bread from the green plastic basket with a paper napkin liner.
There I was with no appointments, nowhere to go surrounded by people who had no appointments, nowhere to go.
I felt on vacation and I fletcherized every little bite of the salad before moving on to the foie gras and eating that very slowly too. I put the fork on the plate after taking each bite. I sliced the foie gras into ever smaller cubes. I kept thinking: Why can’t I slow down at home too?
A few tables away from me were two women who were already seated there when I arrived. A waitress put in front of them a dessert, a slice of cake I think, covered with cotton candy, a child’s dessert, a plate both modern and old-fashioned.
Both women squealed softly.
I decided to practice being on vacation. The experience was great and I decided I would do it again the next day. I spent that night in Toulouse in an old and beautifully modernized hotel just off the Place du Capitole.
Again driving aimlessly the following day, again hungry at 1:30 I found myself near Renneville in the Midi-Pyrénées on my route to Carcassonne, the medieval fortified city.
I saw a lunch sign on the road again: “Cassoulet.”
Cassoulet! I was just outside Toulouse. Could I pass up that opportunity even in the summer heat? When will I ever again be able to eat cassoulet in Toulouse?
Again a little salad, this time with a few slices of preserved duck. And then cassoulet.
And so I practiced eating slowly – “mindful eating” as people like to call it – giving up my self-imposed and irrational deadline to arrive at Carcassonne. And I stayed with my cassoulet until the dining room had nearly emptied – before driving to join the 60,000 or so others who also decided to go to Carcassonne late in that hot summer afternoon.