All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

So much for the croissants....

Croissant, of unknown origin, associated with ...Image via Wikipedia
Throughout 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 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.

Instant coffee?
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.
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  1. Needs must as they say. I have to admit to being partial to the occasional croissant but now you come to mention it, they do vary a lot.

  2. Blogger is misbehaving and leaving my comments as Anonymous...

    I'm sorry you had the experience of being hungry and having no respite...

    It strikes me that here, we've the opposite problem: cheap, fattening, low nutrition or empty calorie foods that make us sick, available at all hours.


  3. Msrk, they do indeed! I used to make my own but my production line was in no way adequate to the demands of the visitors.

    e, I can cope with being France?
    With all the propaganda of sipping coffee at tables on the pavement?
    Just don't try it early or late!

    And the foods you mention are easily available in France - just check the trolley ahead of you in the queue at the supermarket checkout.
    And see the popularity of McDonalds!

  4. Train stations, of course. To be honest when I think of quiossants I think of train stations not France. And I think of the cheap plastic containers they are contained in and how they never repay taste-wise the promise they make on your eye. The containers might be a different matter, however.

  5. I feel for you! I've had that horror of needing food at the wrong time of day when everywhere is shut, and wished longingly to be in a country that doesn't close up at 9pm wherever I happen to be.

  6. Steve, if only it had come in a plastic box...I could have eaten that instead...

    Sarah, it was a real shock (delighted one, I must say) to find that I can now get a coffee and a snack...usually even a meal...from early in the morning to late at night.
    No more of the
    'But it's ten to two, we can't serve you'.

  7. "how they never repay taste-wise the promise they make on your eye."

    This applies to most French patisserie IMO.

    And I just don't understand the fuss about macarons. I smell a whiff of Dutch tulip scandal with them - all hype, no substance.

  8. Sarah, I agree...too many artifical ingredients and too sickly.
    The macaroon thing gets me puzzled too - they even have franchises at airports selling the ghastly things.

  9. Another cracking post to read Fly. Paints such a vivid and colourful picture of how all those La France Profonde villages and towns really do look and feel when they’re all shuttered up and battened down for the night. I really enjoyed this.

    Never heard of ‘Ricore’ before. I’ll add that to my radars ‘threat’ list.

    Talking French station cafes of good note for a moment – the ‘Agen Station Buffet’ (in Agen) on the Garonne River, has been receiving consistently good reviews for some years now. Rick Stein also added his praise of it, when he visited during his French Odyssey Tv series. I targeted it as an essential oasis stop on a journey from Spains Rioja to the Perigord Noir a few years back, but I arrived too late in the evening and it was sadly ‘shuttered up’ for the night! A merde moment. So I humped on up to my pre booked barn rental on the Dordogne instead, rather than curl up in the car for the night like you did. Just a mere wimp see. No help to you now of course though.

    A while back I went on a really enjoyable bakery course at Richard Bertinet’s cookery school in Bath. He politely declined, when asked to show us how to make proper croissants from scratch, saying there simply wasn’t enough course time in the day to show us how to make them as he had originally been taught in Brittany a couple of decades earlier, and he wouldn’t be able to do them the justice they richly deserved.

    Loved your line at the end!

  10. Bish Bosh Bash, beware of the Ricore...there's an acute accent on the e, but i don't know how to do that on this keyboard.
    I bet no 'living the dreamer' has ever tasted it!

    I have happy memories of the Nimes station buffet....from many years ago.... for its citron presse...another missing accent....and the presence of the most handsome man I had or have ever seen.

    I can see why the chap wouldn't add croissants to his class...he'd probably got himself all set up and the ins and outs of making croissants would probably have mucked up his schedule.
    Pity though.

  11. Once again I am swept along on a tide of well written and extremely entertaining fluffiness.

  12. Jimmy, nothing could have been less fluffy than that croissant...

  13. After that experience I am sure that you would either love or hate croissants. Btw do the French do shades of grey?

  14. cheshire wife...shades of grey? No, 'c'est comme ca'
    Cedilla missing thanks to keyboard.

    I've never shared the passion for croissants...nice once in a way if made with butter and fresh but otherwise...the gallic shrug.

  15. Nimes. Hmmm? The city that gave birth to the manufacture of the sturdy serge fabric made by the silk weaving Andre family, which first became known as ‘serge de Nimes’, until it was shortened sometime later to simply ‘denim’.

    The modern day word "jeans", actually originates from the word ‘Genes’, which in turn is the French word for Genoa, in Italy, where in fact the first lightweight blue denim trousers were manufactured from Nimes’s precious serge, and thence purchased by a certain Bavarian born San Franciscan resident, going by the name of ‘Levi Strauss’.

    All of which for you Fly, is possibly and thus quite understandably, just a load of old trivial ‘dross’ when compared to the real significance of you being in…”the presence of the most handsome man I had or have ever seen”, by the citron pressé on Nimes Station that day.

    Any chance this was in actuality, the inception of a not so ‘brief encounter’, so to speak? Or have I merely bitten off way more than I should have ‘chewn’ ? (!) In which case I owe you yet another ten and half hundred million points – again.

  16. Bish Bosh Bash, the bit about Levi Strauss was new to me...
    And as for the gentleman concerned, being British I just looked.
    But I can still bring up the picture in my mind.
    And taste the citron presse.

  17. Fly, we're just back from France and I mentioned in my post how two local boulangeries have now become franchises of the ready-mixed dough variety. The only croissants I liked were from the boulanger who used to come to our village market so bright and early on Sunday morningI walked to the market. No boulanger. Following week, the same. No boulanger. It's gone. I had some other croissants but they were tasteless and chewy.I also blogged about the toilet I experience in Agen as mentioned by.....

    Bish Bosh Bash, I've been to the Station Buffet in Agen, in fact I nearly went there the other week when The Husband and I were wandering round Agen on a Monday night trying to find a restaurant.... any restaurant... that was open. I think RS must have been on mind altering drugs. It's average at best and at night is where you go to pick up a hooker. Really seedy!

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  19. So, what your saying is...yes Phil, vous ave definitely chewn off more than vous could bite. Again.

    Okay, I'll wire off the ten and half hundred million points to your usual account then.


  20. Wylye girl, I deleted the copy of your comment...goodness only knows how I managed to put it up twice!

    It was always something that irritated me...that I was only allowed to eat during certain hours.
    Arrive outside those times and you could sling your hook.

    I used to like a decent fouasse far better than a blasted croissant.

  21. Bish Bosh Bash, if that's what I had thought, that's what I would have fact thank you for reviving a happy memory.
    Lucky I didn't go to Agen by the sound of things...

  22. To Wylye Girl (No, not you Fly. Go feed a parrot or something)

    Thank you for that clarification. Truly. Maybe I was lucky then, not to have made it in time to have eaten there that night a few years ago. I first read about it across a number of different foodie and French traveller sites about four or five years ago. Then, The Times ran an article about it, closely followed by RS being filmed eating there one sunny lunchtime, and seemingly, really enjoying his meal there (?)

    It did look pretty much like an ordinary, busy provincial railway station café/restaurant, although the food served, did look impressive and in theory ‘tasty’ on the old telly at the very least. I therefore targeted the place, mainly due to my passion for finding unusual, off piste and totally unpretentious eateries, who in turn know how to serve ‘really good’ fresh and tasty food in a lively atmosphere. Michelin starred chef shrines, not being my thing at all anymore, nowadays.

    Understand what you meant about it looking a bit seedyish long after dark, which is partly why I punched on up to the Dordogne through the night. So sorry it doesn’t stack up to its much vaunted publicity now. Maybe it’s either lost its way or perhaps a key manager or partner in recent times. Happens often enough. Sad though nevertheless. Thanks for giving me the fresh word on the place though. Tis much appreciated!

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  24. I still have wonderful dreams about the croissants we consumed when in France. One of our local bakers produces very 'nice' ones, but they aren't the same experience as what we experienced there. A boulangerie would be my first stop when I go back to France.

  25. of course, you ate it! I'll drink instant coffee and peanut butter out of the jar (well, okay..I consider that a perfect food) if it's the only thing around. The question is, Fly, why did you move there? Were there no signals here? No signs? FLY!!!!

    I'm still on a hunt for the perfect croissant. I've come close...but only close. The rubbery thing with nary a crumb will not suffice!

  26. mrwriteon, I was never a great fan of croissants, though I have eaten a few which were absolutely superb...but mostly in cities where there is competition between bakers.

    Delana, I wanted to live in the have a garden...not to have neighbours - and from what I'd seen of rural France in my years of holiday making and months of house hunting it was all much of a muchness with this place....but, of course, when on holiday and house hunting I had only been out and about in 'normal' hours...the full horror of la France Profonde between seven in the evening and ten in the morning came as a profound shock!