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A Slice of Old France

My trip to Washington D.C. was exhausting. Having to wheedle, cajole, and use political influence to push career bureaucrats into doing what they should have done without being told is immensely tiring, and that's how I spent my time the entire trip. So I looked forward to getting back to the tranquility of my French village and writing the Letter that Max and Robert had suggested before I left.

Moreover, I was depressed by being a witness once again to the rape of the Washington suburbs. Our offices of Pythia Press are located in Reston, Virginia, twenty minutes from Dulles Airport. Reston was one of the first planned communities in the United States. People sat down in 1962 and actually swore that they would never let Reston fall into the black pit of urban sprawl. Shady lanes were carefully laid out, a town center was designed with exquisite detail. Everything was integrated into surrounding housing and recreational areas, all linked by bike paths. Beautiful, very beautiful--Reston would show America how it should be done.

Of course you can guess what happened. The feverish land-rush of the 1990s came along, and the music of chain saws and bulldozers became Reston's anthem, the dollar sign its flag. Down came trees, up went concrete. Ugly buildings grew like toadstools after an acid rain. I keep thinking it can't get any worse. But it does, each trip brings an unwelcome surprise.

My associate at Pythia Press, Janice Terry, being taken to the hospital. She was slammed by a young woman who ran a red-light at least 11 seconds after it had turned red. Janice is lucky to be alive. Her BMW was totaled. She was up the next day, but will probably suffer permanent neck injury.

The Fairfax (VA) Rescue Squad was fast and efficient. But they ought to be--they sure get enough practice.

(Photo by Zalin Grant—June 22, 2001— 3:20 p.m.)

I think the people of Reston realize that for a few pieces of silver they have betrayed what they once held holy. As a consequence, they seem to have flipped. Many of them drive like fools, going sixty miles an hour (100 km) through dangerous intersections. The Washington area has twice the national average of traffic accidents.

I was nervous the whole time I was there. And I had good reason to be. My associate at Pythia Press, Janice Terry, on her way to pick up me for an appointment three days after I arrived, was almost killed by a young woman who ran a red-light at least 11 seconds after it had changed to red. She was spun back across the intersection, her car totaled. She came out of it okay except for maybe a permanent neck injury. It was the second time in six months that Janice was hit through absolutely no fault of her own. Not a day went by that I didn't see a traffic accident when I was on the road.

So I could hardly wait to get back to the French countryside. On my flight to Paris there was only one empty seat, a last-minute cancellation by the person next to me. I considered that an auspicious sign. I thought about how Max and Robert had assured me that they would show me a slice of old France on my return, which was guaranteed to be the ultimate relaxer.

"You won't believe it," they said. "La Creuse is like France used to be 50 years ago."

To go from writing about American bureaucrats to writing about a beautiful part of France--what a delight! I could hardly wait.

Max is a man for all seasons. Like catching this fish and cooking it to perfection. He told me he even performs his own dentistry, pulling a tooth if necessary.

But wait I did.

At first it didn't much matter. We had Claude's July 14th party (chilly and rainy, held inside) immediately upon my return, and then a run of houseguests. But after a couple of weeks, I began to wonder what was holding up Max.

Ah, could it be the sewage-line fiasco?

Our village recently laid down a sewage line in our neighborhood for the first time in its thousand-year history. When I mentioned to Max that we were going buy the pipes and hire somebody to hook us up, he reacted in a very Maxian manner.

"I'll do it myself," he said. "Save you a lot of money."

Now my wife Claude and I have had several vigorous discussions about Max's claims to expertise in everything from cooking to archeology.

As I recall, Claude introduced the term mythomanie into the discussion. Claude is never a snobinarde, but she is a bit of purist. She's a purist for cooking (good), a purist for language (good), a purist for wanting people always to be truthful (not so good). I've been a journalist since I was a kid and have interviewed thousands of people, so I can usually tell when someone is exaggerating or playing with the facts. But what a boring place the world would be without a little mythomania to brighten it up.

Besides, Max can do a remarkable number of different things. So I was for him doing the sewage line, Claude was against.

Guess who was right?

Max and his dog Horace chewing up our barnyard. He hit the remains of an 11th century building. So now I can say that our barnyard may be a disaster area--but at least it has historical value.

It wasn't entirely Max's fault. He thought he had a straight shot across the barnyard to the hookup point on the road. He didn't count on hitting the remains of an eleventh century building. As Max saw it, this was about sewage, not archeology, so he went about his work scattering stones hither and yon. Our grass mower can't tell whether a stone is historic or not--it just reacts by breaking its blade. You can almost get the circumference of the plastic sewage pipe by making a circle with the fingertips of both hands--not very big. But Max wound up with an excavation that looked like the trenches of Verdun.

I didn't hold it against Max. I figured it was my error in judgment. But I heard from several mutual friends that he was very dismayed by the fiasco. And I believed that might have been the reason he was reluctant to launch me on another adventure by showing me La Creuse, as he said he would. So when Max invited us to a barbecue one evening, I jumped at the chance to talk to him about it.

But that turned out to be a disaster, too. Max is wonderful at barbecuing; he's especially good at doing things like wild boar and chevreuil, a kind of small deer, which he hunts, of course. So all of us gulped when we saw what he had chosen for this occasion--andouillette and merguez, two types of sausages. We believe there is no use falling prey to the semi-hysteria surrounding Europe's current animal diseases. But we also believe there is no reason not to act prudently. And for the moment we have edited sausages out of our menu. I like the spicy, North Africa merguez, but Claude decided to drop it from her Moroccan couscous. There was no problem canceling andouillette, since neither one of us like this fat, white sausage, which is made from pig large intestines and other things you might not want to let your mind linger on. Many of the French adore andouillettes, but it is definitely an acquired taste. As it turned out, nobody at the barbecue liked it, except Max, which made for an uncomfortable evening.

Moreover, the conversation went nowhere. Earlier in the day I had told Henry, an old Paris friend and our houseguest, about the nibble I'd received from a Hollywood producer who wanted to buy the rights to my book on Vietnam POWs, called Survivors (Da Capo Press). I said, sure, it was available, but only under the condition that director Oliver Stone not be involved with my work. I'd heard that Stone was thinking about doing another Vietnam movie. I said earlier in this letter that I liked a little mythomania. But not that much!

Henry told me that, in his considered opinion, I was as crazy as a loon. He said he would have taken the money in a second. That's one of the perks of being a writer--everybody thinks you are crazy. Anyway, Henry started talking about my "principled" stand and went on and on, until one of the guests objected and I had to explain that he was really just kidding me, if a bit heavy-handedly. That brought the evening to a clanging close.

The French in all their glory--table heaped with food, fork in transit.

At our home July 22, 2001 (Left to Right) Annie, Claude, Jean-Marie, Dorine.

Meanwhile, I was impatiently waiting on Max to show me La Creuse, so I could write this letter.

Claude decided to try again by inviting Max to lunch. He said he'd planned to come over anyway, because he had to do some more work on the sewage line. Claude revamped and served a couscous we'd had several days before with our houseguests. Pointedly, it included no merguez. If Max noticed, he didn't say anything.

I headed upstairs to my office as they were finishing coffee, and Claude called out sweetly to me: "Zalin, did you know Max was once pronounced dead when the ambulance arrived?"

Max as Lazarus?

"No, I didn't," I replied. "But I can believe it. Max is a man of miracles."

At least Claude was learning. She didn't challenge the point.

A few minutes later, I heard Max yelling in the barnyard: "Bon Dieu! Bon Dieu!"

I went down to find out what was wrong. A piece on his tractor had broken, setting back work on the sewage line. Several weeks before, one of the big tires on his tractor had suddenly exploded. "What's the matter, Max?" I asked.

"It seems like everything I've touched lately has turned to merde," Max said.

I felt a deep sympathy for him. Who hasn't gone through a period like that? I have. And I bet you have too. I decided not to push him on the trip to La Creuse.

Finally one day, four months after he dug up the barnyard, Max arrived with our neighbor, Monsieur Pierre. I was busy and did not pay any attention to what they were doing. At noon Max knocked on the door, smiling broadly, and said, C'est fait."

"What's done?" I asked.

"The sewage line. We hooked it up and tested it. Works perfectly."

Max (left) advising two farmers during our trip to La Creuse on how to handle a highly-agitated cow which had got separated from the herd. They took his advice, naturally.

The next day Max came to lunch. He spoke glowingly of his plans to put the barnyard in rehab. He would level it out with a bulldozer, plant grass.

"You'll see," he said, "It will be green and beautiful once again."

"Why don't we go to La Creuse tomorrow, Max," I said.

He was taken slightly aback by the abruptness of my decision but he agreed, and we set off the next morning. It was just as he and Robert had said: La Creuse was beautiful--simple and authentic. It is one of the two least inhabited departments in France. You can drive for miles and see nothing but rolling countryside untouched by human hands. As we visited small villages, Claude remarked that she had seldom seen average homes made of such lovely old stones. We drove to a village with 500 people called Crocq, and from there toured the surrounding area. As Max said, the only ugly thing in view was the road itself, which of course wasn't ugly, just a normal two-lane, route D996. But there were few restaurants and fewer gas stations in the area.

The people of La Creuse have accepted modern technology, but they haven't been overwhelmed by it. Walk into a farmhouse and you are liable to see a woodburning stove where all the cooking is done. The people work hard and grow or raise much of what they eat. But they seem to go about it in a relaxed way. There is definitely a feel to the place different from other parts of France. And what is the result?

Walk into a farmhouse in La Creuse and you're liable to find a woodburning kitchen stove. This one dates back to the 1950s. If modern technology is the answer, why do the people of La Creuse live longer than anybody in France?

The people of La Creuse live longer than anybody in France.

Max the philosopher had an explanation.

"Two reasons," he said. "First, it is their lifestyle. They haven't let modernity drive them into never-ending stress. Second, they benefit from the evolution of medical care."

What I saw was a place I would like to have settled for a few years when I was younger. Not now. It's a little too isolated from conveniences we find necessary--or at least, desirable. And at 600 meters in elevation, it is significantly colder in winter than where we live. It would make a great vacation place, though, for anyone who wanted to get away from anything suggesting city life. And already French artists and writers are buying second homes in the area, a sign that the rush will be on among the business class and moneymakers in a few years.

So it worked out well in the end. Now we are awaiting Max's rehabilitation of the barnyard--and the next new thing.

Recipe Seven

Claude in Spain at the time she was running a popular French restaurant.

"Why did you stop including recipes with your Letters from a French Village?" asked Henry, my old Paris friend and high-tech adviser, when he was visiting us.

"I didn't really stop," I said. "It has been more like a postponement. Doing a recipe takes me almost as long as writing a letter, and I've been traveling quite a bit lately and just haven't had the time."

"Well, I think you should do it," Henry said. "It adds something to your Letters."

I was considering what Henry said a few days later, when it suddenly hit me: I already had some recipes that Claude had worked on years ago. She did them in the late 1970s when we were in southern Spain, a few miles up in the mountains from the Costa del Sol.

A friend of ours, Christine Goffin, had created a charming French restaurant in the former stables of a Spanish farmhouse. La Chicharra had a big fireplace in the main dining room and an outdoor patio overhung with flowers. Christine's husband was transferred to Morocco for his work, and she asked Claude if she would take over the restaurant for a couple of years while she was gone.

Claude had always wanted to run a restaurant, and she jumped at the chance. She turned La Chicharra into the most popular French restaurant in the area. People drove their Rolls-Royces and Mercedes up from Marbella to enjoy her wonder of a terrine, her steak au poivre, the best frites in Spain.

During this period I had what I thought was a great idea. Claude would do a cooking book but of a different kind than those being published. I would ask her best friend in Spain, Mary Kennedy, an American freelance journalist for the International Herald Tribune, to question Claude as they went over the recipes, and I would tape-record their conversation. Mary Kennedy was one of the most truly decent and generous persons we'd ever known. (She later died--much too young--of a heart attack, and Claude was there to make the arrangements for the family.) Mary was a connoisseur of French cheese and had certain specialties she did well. But in fact Mary wasn't a very good cook. As I saw it, that worked in her favor. She could ask Claude the kind of questions that many American women would like to ask a successful French cook.

What a marvelous idea!

Claude didn't think so. She thought she was being asked to do the ABC's of cooking. Instead, she wanted to do a book of recipes based on famous meals in literature. This was a good idea too and later one done by somebody else. But I knew if I got involved in that project, she would have me trying to correct Moncrieff's translation of Proust, and I would have no time to do my own work. So we hit an impasse. But I did get her to do a few sample recipes while being interviewed by Mary Kennedy. They've never been published before, so I decided why not?

French cooking basically breaks down into three elements. First, there is a national core of dishes which practically every cook in the country knows how to do. Then comes regional dishes, something maybe served in Normandy but not in Provence, for example. Finally there is haute cuisine, more likely to be found in restaurants than in private homes.

From my observations over the years, I had noted that a cook who didn't do the national core of dishes very well was unlikely to succeed with the regional dishes and certainly not with haute cuisine. To put it another way, if she couldn't make a good salad or an omelette cooked to perfection, I suspected that she wouldn't be able to handle a dish that called for sea urchins and foie gras. So I wanted Claude to demonstrate how the national core dishes should be made, starting with the simplest and moving progressively to the more complicated.

Making a salad sounds simple. But I can assure you, I've nibbled at quite a few only out of politeness to my host. Ironically, the idea of having the cook questioned by a straight man became the standard some years later for most cooking programs on TV.

Sauce Vinaigrette

Claude: The sauce vinaigrette is our national salad dressing. The ingredients are simple--salt, vinegar, oil, and pepper. But many cooks seem to develop a mental block when they try to make it. The quality of the vinegar and the oil is important. Pick up a supply of French wine vinegar, enough to fill a quart bottle. After decanting into a clean bottle, add five small tarragon branches, to give the wine vinegar a delicate perfume. Let it marinate for two weeks and then pour though a filter into another bottle.

1 small pinch of salt
1 tablespoon of vinegar
1 pinch of pepper
3 tablespoons of oil

Dissolve a small pinch of salt into a tablespoon of wine vinegar by stirring with a fork or a spoon. Add three tablespoons of oil and a large pinch of pepper (or two complete turns of a pepper mill). Mix well. This is enough dressing for four persons. Double the ratio for eight. Be careful to maintain the exact proportions.

This is how Mary Kennedy, a freelance journalist originally from upstate New York, did with a sauce vinaigrette:

Mary You said we can use any kind of oil and vinegar that is of good quality. Does it have to be wine vinegar?

Claude Yes, it should be wine vinegar. The best comes from our city of Orléans. It is imported to the United States. One should not have any trouble finding it, particularly if you live near a city. The bottle should read Procédé d'Orléans--made by the Orleans method.

Mary What kind of salad oil?

Claude Peanut and olive oil are the best. Peanut oil has no flavor and should be used when you really want to taste the flavor of the vegetable you are eating--the first spring lettuce, beets, rice, or potato salads. Olive oil--and you should use a high-quality olive oil from Italy or Spain--is excellent when you are preparing something such as a tomato salad, and it's especially good when you use garlic. Two Mediterranean plants, we say, make a good wedding.

Mary Okay, I'm ready to try.

Claude Let's make the sauce vinaigrette directly in the salad bowl. This is a trick my mother taught me, and it is solely for convenience. You can make the vinaigrette in a separate container, if you wish, and pour it over the salad at the last minute. One warning: Do not use a silver fork or spoon to stir, because vinegar attacks silver.

Let's tilt the salad bowl a little and prepare the vinaigrette on one side. First put in a pinch of salt, then a tablespoon of vinegar. Stir well with your fork or spoon. Do this in the order I'm telling you, because salt doesn't dissolve well in oil.

Mary I see.

Claude Now add three tablespoons of oil. Then put in a big pinch of pepper. If you have a pepper mill, give it two complete turns.

Mary I keep stirring. Then what happens?

Claude Put some on your finger and taste it.

Mary But if I don't know how a good sauce vinaigrette is supposed to taste, how do I know what I'm tasting for?

Claude You have a point. It's better that you follow my recipe for the first couple of times. Then improvise to suit your taste. It should appeal to your special palate. But be careful. We're dealing with small quantities. A little added or taken away makes a subtle difference.

Mary It tastes strongly of pepper. The oil and vinegar are nicely blended. Neither one seems to be dominant.

Claude The importance of the proportions cannot be emphasized enough. You certainly don't want the vinegar to overwhelm your dressing. We have an old proverb in France that says it takes four men to make a good salad dressing: a miser for the salt, a wise man for the vinegar, a lunatic for the pepper, and a profligate for the oil.

If you are serving fewer than three persons, simply take away a little of the sauce after it is prepared. You want each leaf of your salad lightly coated with dressing--but no more. Your salad should not be dripping.

Mary Kennedy in Spain at the time she and Claude were working on the idea of doing a cookbook. (Right) Noël Kennedy, one of Mary's three daughters (along with Kate and Elliot), visiting us on July 14, 2001.


Noël said to me at lunch one day, "You ought to get down on your knees and kiss Claude's feet in appreciation for her being such a good cook."

Noël is an American who teaches French to Spanish kids. We've got some rather weird friends.

Preparing Your Salad

Mary The sauce vinaigrettes I've done before tasted about like yours. But they didn't come out that way when I served the salad. In fact, my salads were sort of mushy and slick and unappetizing.

Claude Wait a minute, Mary. Tell me exactly how you make your salad.

Mary I wash the salad and dry it in paper towels.

Claude Oh, no. Don't dry your salads in paper towels. Use a clean kitchen cloth if you don't have a salad basket. I use a salad dryer, which can easily be found in the United States. It's a covered plastic bowl with a pull-string. Put the salad in the bowl and pull the string a number of times. This spins the salad, removing the water by centrifugal force.

Of course, you can easily find a wire salad basket if you prefer. Shake your salad and leave it hanging for several hours until completely dry. Probably half of all Frenchwomen still dry their salads the old-fashioned way--by putting it in a clean kitchen towel, folding it like a knapsack, grasping the four corners, and shaking vigorously till all water is removed. It's very important that the salad be completely dry.

Mary Why?

Claude Because water on the salad dilutes the strength of the sauce vinaigrette. As I said before, we are working with subtle flavors. Okay, then what do you do?

Mary I cut my salad into the usual small pieces.

Claude Cut? Oh, Mary, never cut the lettuce or the leaves of any salad. Break the leaves with your fingers. In France, we break the lettuce into pieces four fingers in width and length. It doesn't matter if some leaves are larger or smaller.

Mary After I prepare the salad dressing, I pour it over the top of the salad, which I toss and place on the table for serving.

Claude I see the problem, Mary. Your procedure is wrong. Salads are fragile, especially lettuce. The salad quickly begins to deteriorate in taste after you pour the salad dressing over it. Above all, you want your salad to be crisp and fresh when you eat it--not soggy and mushy. Here are the steps you should follow:

Break and dry the leaves after washing. This can be done a few hours in advance and the salad kept in a plastic bag. Then make the sauce vinaigrette--but not more than an hour in advance of eating. Prepare the vinaigrette directly in the salad bowl in which you will serve the salad. Then put the salad fork and spoon face down and crossed like rifles over the vinaigrette. Now pour the salad gently into the bowl and place it on the table.

Mary I don't toss it?

Claude Absolutely not. You'll do that at the table, at the moment you are ready to serve it. In our best restaurants, the maître d'hôtel brings the salad to the table at the last moment and prepares it in front of you. Or as it used to be done in the nineteenth century, the elegant society ladies would take off their diamond rings and toss it with their hands at the table. I realize that most Americans eat their salad at the beginning of the meal, but we usually eat ours after the main course, and I wish you would try it this way while you are making French meals.

Mary Why do the French eat it in that order?

Claude It is said that it clears the palate. But I suspect that it is simply a matter of custom. Why do Americans eat theirs first?

Mary Beats me.

Claude Anyway, put the salad near your plate at the table. When your guests are ready for salad, then toss it. Many people, especially men, seem to fumble with the salad fork and spoon. The important thing is to get them to eat it quickly after you've mixed it with the sauce vinaigrette.

Mary What is the game French girls play when they toss the salad?

Claude Each leaf that falls from the bowl while they are tossing means one year longer before they get married. If three leaves touch the table, they won't get married for three years. It tends to make them careful when they are tossing.

Mary I'll bet.

Claude By the way, in English you say "tossing." In French we say "turning" or "moving." Either way, it is an important procedure and something you should practice if you aren't adept at it. Take a fork in one hand a spoon in the other and reach under the salad. Gently turn it up and towards yourself in a flowing motion. Repeat this perhaps ten times to make sure the sauce is well distributed.


I've given you the basic sauce vinaigrette. Here are a few variations:

Onion. When I buy the first lettuce of spring, I often add a few spring onions to the vinaigrette. Finely chop the onions, including the green part, and put it in the dressing. If you happen to like onions and can find the sweet Spanish type or Vidalia, add an amount of onion to the vinaigrette any time you wish.

Mustard. Add one half of a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, which is imported from France, to the vinegar of the sauce vinaigrette. Mix well. This is particular good with winter salads, such as endives.

Garlic. Garlic and frizzy chicory have a love affair. Finely chop a small clove of garlic and mash it well with a fork in the sauce vinaigrette. If you don't want a strong taste of garlic, simply rub the sides of the salad bowl with a clove of garlic and discard. A garlic vinaigrette goes well with a beet salad. Dice the beets. Then mix the garlic vinaigrette and the beets an hour before serving. Beets absorb vinegar, so you may have to add a little more before serving. Also adjust for pepper and salt.

Lemon Substitute 

Lemon juice can be substituted for vinegar in the sauce vinaigrette. If you happen not to like vinegar, use lemon juice in the same proportion as I've listed for vinegar, and adjust to taste.


Zalin After Claude read this, she and I had a little conversation.

Claude It's too long and boring.

Zalin We still disagree after all these years. I think some people will read this and recognize their mistakes.

Claude Well, you should emphasize that Mary Kennedy and I were just having a little fun.

Zalin So now it's you who wants to state the obvious. I think they can figure that out.

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