A Lunch Made By Angels

by Brenda Athanus

ImageLast week, when Saveur Magazine arrived, I immediately started reading the many articles on "greatest meals ever" with great curiosity, all the while thinking what would be my greatest meal? A meal of a life time. What makes a great meal different from all the other wonderful meals that you have eaten? I decided that a great meal is about all the minutes of your experience that are saturated with tastes, smells, the room and the people lovingly cooking it with only you in mind. My memory flashed back to a dinner that I had almost fifty years ago in Madrid that had shaped my life as an eater and a cook by being jolted by the intense smell of food cooking, but that wasn't the meal of all meals. That meal took 30 more years to happen...

The meal of all meals was lunch in a tiny little town in the mountains of the South of France, a village that is nameless, but that seems unimportant as I am sure that it could never be relived. It just wouldn't happen that the restaurant would be empty and the same women Chef and son would cook it all in the same way again. It's is best preserved in the past.

We arrived at around 12:30, a little early in France for such an elegant meal. We gave ourselves enough time to park the car outside the village – as it was a car free zone – and wandered around the steep hillside streets trying to find the small tiny restaurant with its miniscule sign that Patricia Wells had written so lovingly about. After 15 or 20 minutes of hiking up and down many stone stairs I could sense that we were getting close. It was just a feeling as there were no signs to help. And then it happened, a beautiful middle age women was opening up the windows of her kitchen, she smiled at us and at that moment I knew this was the place I was looking for.

The outside of the restaurant was made of stone with a red tile roof, red geranium filled flower boxes, and a thick Chestnut wood door. Inside the small dining room, the floor was covered with large terracotta tiles, simple rustic wooden tables and chairs and a large fireplace that took up one whole wall. No lights were on, no other dining companions, just the chef's twenty-year-old son who greeted us. We said that we had no reservations but this was the place that we wanted to eat and could they accomadate our wish.

With a smile he seated us at a large table in front of the unlit fireplace returning with an aperitif. The Chef peeked around the door at us, our eyes met, I smiled back at her and I could feel that we were in for a very special meal, but I had no idea how special. I asked them to just serve us what ever they wanted with the suggestion that at some point we would get to eat the famous anchovies of the area and that snails would be on the menu.

ImageThe candles were lit and the young man came with an armload of very dry oak to start a fire to warm the damp chilled room and make the heavy rain outside a distant memory. As we sipped our local Rosé the kitchen started to come to life, the sounds of a heavy, large knife on a thick cutting board, the refrigerator opening and closing filled the darkened room and competed with the crackling of a now roaring fire. It was a blissful, timeless moment as we waited in anticipation.

The kitchen door opened and our waiter carried out our salad. The air suddenly became perfumed with the scent of mustard, garlic and olive oil. Just the tender inner leaves of Bibb lettuce so carefully removed from its spine with a vinaigrette made with olive oil from the village, her own homemade vinegar no doubt made with unfinished wine from previous diners and a coarse sea salt harvested just miles away. Perched on top were the coveted rosy colored anchovies that sparkled like sequins in the light of the fire in front of us.

The young man had slipped out to get a hot baggette from the stone oven bakery, cutting it into pieces and placing it on our table to enjoy with the salad. We slowly ate the salad leaf by leaf. It was perfect all the way to the last bite. I noticed the young man opening the door to the outside patio with a woven basket of vineyard clippings. I followed behind curiously. Once outside on the stone patio the view was stunning, it overlooked the village, the single mountain road that curled its way to the town, and hint of a view of the Mediterranean partially obscured by fog after the last downpour. Oh how the air smelled!

The combination of sea air, fresh wet herbs from the hillside below and the smell of the wood fire was amazing. The young man started piling grape clippings onto the open stone hearth, carefully making two separate round piles, interlocking each clipping as he carefully piled them higher and higher. When he finished the large clipping piles he made a small pile off to the side. He smiled at my curiousity and disappeared while I sipped my Rose taking in the magnificent backdrop.

The young assistant returned holding two well used woven wire platters each covered with over one hundred herb and butter stuffed tiny local petit gris snails. He carefully placed each wire platter on the round two foot high pile of clippings, the fit was exact. With a wooden match he lit the pile methodically lighting it all around, slowly igniting the very dry grape clippings. Off to the side he then ignited the two small piles where he had placed two very large perfect red peppers that look freshly plucked from a Renaissance painting. The smell was intoxicating. As the sweet smoke fill the air, I was overwhelmed with hunger and anticipation.

ImageThe piles quickly burned down leaving nothing but white ash. The young man then carefully lifted up the platters. I followed behind him as he placed them at our table. When I sat down to our feast the Chef came from the kitchen to hand us each a 3-inch clipping of Locust with a 2-inch long thorn to ease in the extraction of the snails. The snails were incredible! The balance of fresh thyme, rosemary, parsley and garlic in the butter still echo in my mind! We silently ate the hot snails, mopping up the warm butter with our bread and sipping a fine local red wine, just the two of us with only the roaring fire illuminating the room as the rain howled and the Mistral blew outside again.

The young man then brought the platter of freshly peeled roasted red peppers topped with an anchovy puree and lightly finished with only a drizzle of fragrant olive oil. Lunch was timeless, this could easily have been a hundred years ago or more. The chef again returned to see if we had enjoyed our lunch, all she needed was to look at our contented faces as our plates were emptied and polished. Not even a drop of butter had escaped our bread.

She told us she had a special dessert for us and I felt like she had read my mind - my favorite-Crema Catalana! Her flan was an intense yellow color. Perhaps those were her chickens that we met on the stone stairs on our hike here. Ah, the texture was something to behold! The unrefined sugar that was melted to a hard crackle on top finally cracked on my third attempt with the back of my oversized European spoon only to reveal the creamiest custard of my life infused with lemon peel and fresh herbs from the hillside. The texture was so delicate, the flavor sublime, it could only have been made by Angels....


Brenda Athanus runs a small gourmet food shop in Belgrade Lakes, Maine with her sister Tanya called the Green Spot.

The Green Spot
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