I never thought I’d live in a stone house. In California, tradition (and earthquake codes) requires supple wood, whether it was used to build a Reconstruction era Victorian house in Haight-Ashbury, a rustic cabin in Big Sur, or a McMansion in Orange County. Many were built en masse, tract homes covering entire neighborhoods that over decades gained new wings, stories, and windows that today engulf the original. But here in rural France as I drive through any given road I pass by stone houses with crooked walls and slanted roofs.
A large red truck can be seen at the entrance of a barn, chickens and ducks roam freely and I have to slow the car down to a crawl. The earth is anything but flat; bumps and slopes abound, and yet human dwellings and farms are well adapted to this tumultuous landscape. Not all stone houses are equal, but it takes a while to tell them apart. Gradually, I develop a preference for stones of certain colors and sizes, old wooden blinds painted to match the front door, and a montée de grange or barn ramp that is so typical of houses in this part of Auvergne.
In the Loire Valley further up north, the very light pierre calcaire reigns and paints the charming local hue. Conservationists scratch their heads to find ways to preserve the buildings as this material easily erodes and has become difficult to replace. Two weeks ago we saw something completely different and equally impressive when we drove to Clermont-Ferrand, the capital of the Auvergne region, a city whose buildings were made using pitch-black volcanic stones.
I will never forget parking in front of the Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption cathedral and facing the stare of this imposing gothic building. Even more impressive is the inside: the dark stone produces a contrasted relationship with light, which in turn reflects ethereally on stained-glass windows, engulfed by silence.
In the area near our home, stones come in shades ranging from light beige to dark gray, with a reddish-brown type thrown in once in a while. Some of the older walls combine small and large stones to produce a heterogenous but sturdy whole. On our walks we notice how some houses were altered by tearing a wall down and replacing it with a large glass panel window, juxtaposing transparent and solid. Once in a while, usually in the higher altitude areas close to the ski lodges, a Swiss-style wooden chalet appears and surprises us.
I spend so much time in these thick stone walls, safe from the cold air and in a way cut off from the rest of the world. I’m certainly not the first to say that food is intimately connected with memory, but the process of cooking is an excellent vehicle for mental time travel.
I first had a pintade (Guineafowl) for lunch at a brasserie on Rue du Bac, back when we were living in Paris. (This vein of the 7th arrondissement begins by the Bon Marché department store and flows down to the Seine, bringing with it the choicest of papeteries or stationary stores, conceptual pastry shops, boutiques full of delicate objects for the aesthetically sensitive and of good fortune).
At the time we walked to work together almost every morning, weather permitting. We started by Hotel de Ville, passing through the lock-laden Pont des Arts where this symbol of love carried so much weight that it threatened to bring a centuries-old bridge down. Dropping off Adélaïde by her office in a publishing house I would then reach my final destination in the 8th arrondissement. I was certainly aware of how lucky we were; I made sure to walk as much as possible even though it took me about an hour, avoiding at all costs the convenient but crowded metro commute on Line 1, reeking of Chanel nº5 on the way to La Défense.
Time permitting, I would hop across the Seine at lunchtime and meet up with Adélaïde on rue du Bac. While I was usually happy ordering a steak frites, the menu proposed a suprême de pintade with mustard and potatoes.
“Suprême” sounded intriguing, like some special sauce that is only rarely served because it is so good people don’t want to spoil it. It turns out that it just means the “upper” or superior part of the bird, that is, thigh and breast. But the guinea fowl was a succulent discovery, and I think any festive occasion is a good excuse to try something special like this, in a warm place with four walls, be it wood or stone.
Festive roasted guineafowl + chestnuts, savory pears & glazed winter carrots
| Serves 4-6
Continue reading “A Love Suprême”