Image via WikipediaThroughout my time in rural France croissants have haunted me....not that I wanted to eat them, you understand - one bite of greasy dough which leaves industrial fat coating the inside of the mouth is enough to have the hand reaching for the oatcakes, and that goes for 'pain chocolat' too.
And if anyone mentions 'macarons' I'll be tempted to stuff one of the pastel coloured monstrosities where it won't see the light of day.
Your choice which end.
From this you will immediately be aware that I did not frequent elegant 'salons du the' in Paris - indeed, I am not sure I would have beeen tolerated in same, not being given to spending two hours in the morning applying make up with a trowel only to spend a further two hours in the evening taking it off with a chipping hammer.
Rather, my experience was in la France Profonde, where the local baker...or 'artisan boulanger' as he prefers to be known....fabricates razor edged bricks from ready mix dough while his croissants...if he bothers to make any...use more palm oil than the populace of a West African country undertaking the obligatory spontaneous celebrations on the re-election of their democratically elected dictator.
And as for macarons....
Guests saw it differently.
To guests, France equalled croissants.
So, at the start of the visiting season, I would hunt around for a source of semi-acceptable croissants and freeze a load as a back up, but inevitably, guests had been getting genned up on life in France and would insist on buying them at their (my) local ready mix merchant with the result that the kitchen smelt of industrial fat as they reheated the morning haul.
Over the period of this blog I think I have managed to disgust and repel most of the 'living the dream' fraternity but just in case one or two are still lurking out there I should say that of course there are bakers who can make decent croissants.....that a decent croissant can be pleasant from time to time and that I'm sure the living the dreamers all have one of these wonderful bakers in their village......but I didn't.
After my first baker in my first village, who was still using a wooden trough to knead his dough and refused to make croissants, the rest were all ready mix men, hand in glove with the pharmacy for a cut of the sales of healing gel for the gums scarred and bleeding from the razor wire crusts of their bread.
So why, all those years ago when I was about to buy my first house in France, would I have given anything for a croissant?
Because I was starving, that's why.
I had arrived to sign the acte de vente only to find that the hotel I had planned to use was shut for the winter and that I was thus forced to spend the night in the car on the town square with the local police circling my car like indians round the wagon train..
Worse, although I had found a loo...of sorts...the town offered nothing to eat.
The town, in fact, was closed for the night, shutters bolted across, doors locked and lighting at a minimum.
I had had lunch on the way, but all that remained of my travel supplies was a cheese sandwich and a cup of coffee in the thermos and the only effect of devouring these was to make me feel ravenously hungry, so, having spent a night trying to haul the car rug over differing extremities in turn, the dawn could not have come early enough.
The car had that frowsty smell of human occupation so the cold damp morning air was welcome as I got out to stretch my legs and look for a cafe.
The sight of my reflection in a shop window was enough to send me straight back to the car for a comb while the moist chill reminded me that I needed a loo...and not the one of the night before.
I had a feeling that it had been better to have experienced that one under cover of darkness rather than be obliged to recognise the full horror of it in the dim light of morning.
The railway station, of course.
All stations have loos and a number of stations have cafes nearby.
I could answer the call of nature, clean myself up, change into clothes fit for meeting estate agents and lawyers and...get something to eat.
Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.
The station's amenities had declined sadly from the days when it formed part of the main line from Paris to Bordeaux, a status it had lost some fifty years back when the then minister responsible for transport was considering an alternative route and made an official visit of enquiry.
It is thought that being greeted by an angry crowd of railwaymen pelting him with ordure may have had some influence on the minister's decision, but, be that as it may, the station building was rather shabby and..more to the point...firmly shut.
Luckily, these were the days before the war on terror when it was unofficially recognised that one might need access to sites of use and interest...rubbish dumps, etc....out of office hours, so there was, as I expected, a section of the wire fence lying open and I gained access to the platform.
Equally, in those days, doors to public toilets were not thought necessary...there being nothing worth stealing within...so I could walk through the open doorway to reach the facilities.
Armed with soap, towel ,toothbrush and toothpaste you would be surprised how quickly you can wash and change your clothes on a chilly February morning with no door between you and the elements, so I was back at the car in short order, looking for food.
Up the road, the grille in front of the Cafe de la Gare was slowly being raised in rythm with my hopes and I headed that way.
The man with the broom motioned me away.
Open? Now? What did I think?
He'd be at least half an hour. There were no customers at this time of day....
His customer went back to the car and drove slowly into the town centre looking and sniffing for somewhere serving at least a coffee.
One might have been, in the words of Para Handy 'Chust wan of Brutain's hardy sons' (or dochters), but a warm drink on a cold morning would have relieved the misery of being one of said hardy sons in the middle of rural France on a winter's day.
I stopped again on the town square, left the car and sniffed the air. Nothing.
I walked down into the shopping area. Nothing.
I walked back and found a faint whiff of something acrid on the air. I followed it to the far end of the car park.
There was a small cafe with lights on behind the firmly closed door. I pushed...and it opened!
I ordered my coffee and sat at a wooden table by the window, tired to death and wondering how I was to get through the day.
The acrid whiff came across in full force as the barman reached for a thick white cup, filled it with boiling water from his machine and ladled into it a good spoonful of something from a tin.
Something infinitely worse whose acquaintance would be renewed over the years when visiting elderly friends.
A blend of coffee and chicory root with the latter leading by several lengths.
Bitter. Coarse. Infinitely foul...but as Edith was later to tell me, much better than chicory root on its own.
I'll just bet.
It hit my empty stomach like a vial of vitriol.
Have you anything I could eat? A sandwich?
Well, the bakers aren't open yet.....but I've got a croissant from yesterday.....
Reader, I ate it.